Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Russia's mammoth Oscar-shortlisted, LEVIATHAN, and a small American documentary, MENTOR, have a lot in common. Filmmaker Q&A

Normally, TrustMovies wouldn't think of comparing a nearly two-and-one-half-hour shortlist nominee for Best Foreign Language Film from Russia with a tiny little 78-minute American documentary about a high school in the town of Mentor, Ohio. But since both films were caught by me in the same week, and both deal heavily with bullying -- LEVIATHAN by the powers-that-be in a Russian coastal town, MENTOR by the entitled students of an upper-middle-class Ohio high school, abetted by the school's administration and further up the line by the state itself -- I can't help but want to cover these two interesting movies together.

Though Leviathan arrives laden with laurels (and freighted with symbolism) -- from film festivals, Cannes to Munich, Seville to São Paulo -- and is certainly a worthwhile movie, it is Mentor that proves the more important film. Bullying, it seems, is the watchword of our times. And though most folk imagine it has all to do with school kids and their peers, bullying is a behavior which, when rewarded -- as our modern world more and more tends to do -- simply carries right through the bully's entire life, whether he be Barack Obama, going after inconvenient whistle-blowers or Vladimir Putin going after just about anyone who disagrees with him. Strength and numbers create schoolyard bullies, access to power and resources create the adult variety. Once either type is allowed to flourish, the bully grows more difficult  to control. These days -- as both these movies demonstrate -- almost no one even bothers to try.

Or when they do try, as, again, both films show us, they are doomed to fail. If co-writer (with Oleg Negin) and director Andrey Zvyagintsev (shown at right) had decided to make a documentary film rather than the narrative he's created in Leviathan (and I am certain he could have, as more than enough incidents worth documenting exist in today's Russia), he would probably be in prison or dead just now, rather than tub-thumping the Oscar and Golden Globe circuits. So he chose, rather sensibly, to create a fictional tale of some lovely seaside property, coveted by the Mayor of the town, who uses eminent domain and his many lackeys (he seems to be in league with just about everybody we meet, from judges to churchmen to police) to wrest control of said property from its rightful owner, while paying him a pittance rather than market value.

In Mentor, filmmaker Alix Lambert (shown at left) who earlier made the Independent Spirit Award-nominated The Mark of Cain, takes us to the town of Mentor, Ohio, chosen in both 2006 and 2010 as one of America's ten top cities in which to live, and does a superlative job of indicting Mentor High School for failing to stop the bullying that has led, over several years, to the suicide deaths of five students. Ms Lambert concentrates on two of these deaths, as we meet the Vidovic family, whose younger daughter, Sladjana, killed herself in 2008; and the Mohats, Jan and Bill, whose son Eric killed himself the year previous.

What makes this film and its documenting so appalling is that while the bullying was apparent to the student body and to many of the teachers and the administration, nothing -- and I do mean nothing -- was done by those in charge of the school to prevent it. Mentor, by the way, is a much stronger film than the more-talked-about but all-over-the-place Bully.

While the Mowats (pictured above) did not know about the bullying their son was going through because the boy chose to keep it from his family, the Vidovics (below) knew just about everything, as Sladjana would come home day after day with horror stories that drove the parents to visit the school often to plead for help. None was ever given.

There is a section of the film in which Ms Lambert chooses to simply show us, one after another after another, the daily printed records of visits to the school nurse because of physical bullying incidents. This section is shocking and finally devastating. The girl was once pushed down a flight of stairs by one of the school's top football players. The reason given has got to be among the most offensive and stupid I've ever heard.

Mentor, Ohio, evidently wanted to keep secure its reputation as one of America's top cities, which meant sweeping any untoward behavior under the proverbial carpet. The children of its upper middle class bourgeoisie feel entitled, and that entitlement has grown into a kind of class warfare between the entitled and the outsiders. Mentor has a fairly large Croatian population, too, of which the Vidovics are a part, who are considered "lesser" by their wealthier and/or less-speech-accented counterparts.

What happens to the law suits of the two families is indicative of the manner in which these suicides were handled right down the line. As usual, power makes its hold over the individual known, so that nothing can be addressed and no justice achieved. (The Mowats note that they were shunned by former friends, once they pursued their lawsuit.) Also, as usual, in documentaries of this sort, no school official or representative would agree to be interviewed by the filmmaker. If the film ends up one-sided, there was hardly much recourse. The side shown, in any case, is clearly pro-justice. (The photo below is of Eric Mowat.)

In addition to visiting at length with the two families, Ms Lambert also corrals three very intelligent and knowledgeable experts: Dorothy Espelage, Professor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an expert on the study of Bullying; Kenneth D. Myers, the attorney who represented both families in their suits against the school; and Meghan Barr, a reporter for the Associated Press, who became interested in the story after reading about the Mentor suicides and then exploring further. The information and evidence that these three offer is more than conclusive. It would have been interesting, too, to know more about the other three suicides. But perhaps those families weren't talking. (You can read more about this in the Q&A at the bottom of this post.)

If the last few minutes of the film seems a bit repetitive and overly sentimental, Mentor will still leave you about as angry as a documentary can. You -- and certainly your children -- won't want to get within five hundred miles of this disgusting school and its surrounding community, unless, of course, you're one of those duly entitled who enjoy pushing girls down the stairs or get your jollies from appearing at her funeral and laughing aloud with your friends over the dress she's wearing in her casket. Yes, the bullies did that, too. (The photo above is of Sladjana Vidovic.)

Mentor -- from Garden Thieves Pictures and running 78 minutes -- was released to DVD last week, and can also now be seen via Amazon Instant Video, for sale or rental, and on SnagFilms and iTunes.


Interestingly enough, if Leviathan were set here in the USA, its bullying mayor (acted by Roman Madyanov, shown above) might have played football for and then graduated from Mentor High School, taking with him a slew of his pals and gals to fill various slots on his town's payroll. But Leviathan takes place in a coastal corner of modern Russia, from which we expect little but corruption and drunkenness. The film delivers both --
in spades.

Filmmaker Zvyagintsev (Elena, The Return) understands how to weave corruption, bullying, love, infidelity, parenting, some deep psychological problems and a good dose of metaphor and symbolism into his mix and keep us glued to the screen. He refuses to explain everything, however, or even to allow us to know with any certainty what has happened at some major moments.

We accept all this, I think, because so bleak and unforgiving is what we are viewing that it really doesn't finally matter much what did occur: Might will overcome decency in every case, for this being Russia, it's all just business as usual. And, as good as Leviathan is, this is also its biggest problem: the sense of been there/done that that hovers over the movie in its entirety. Whether it's a throw-away American spin-off like A Good Day to Die Hard, an excellent documentary such as Khodorkovsky, or Leviathan, we've seen it and seen it and seen it all again.

You could hardly ask for better performances from the fine cast assembled here, however. They go a long way toward making the movie so watchable. Aleksey Serebryakov is terrific as our put-upon hero, with so many problems of his own (he's a hot-headed drunk) that he barely needs this additional one. Ditto Elena Lyadova as his spouse, a second wife unloved by the family's problemed son, a sad disturbed boy given unsettling resonance by young actor, Sergueï Pokhodaev.

The fly in the ointment, who initially looks more like the family's savior is Dimitri, Dad's best friend and even more to certain other family members. As played with understated strength and grace by a gorgeous hunk named Vladimir Vdovichenkov, "Dimi" proves a wild card in more ways than one. We meet this family's friends and co-workers, the religious crew, judges, police and more. And by the end of this often wonderful and always wearying movie, you may want to shrug and paraphrase those immortal, final words of the popular Polanski classic:
"Forget it, Jake. It's modern Russia."

Leviathan, from Sony Pictures Classics, in Russian with English subtitles, and running 140 minutes, opens tomorrow, December 25, in New York City at Film Forum and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema.  In the Los Angeles area, look for it on Wednesday, December 31, at Laemmle's Royal, and then on January 9 at the Playhouse 7 and Town Center 5. The movie will eventually play the limited release/arthouse circuit across the country.


TrustMovies had a very quick telephone chat with filmmaker Alix Lambert, shown below, on Christmas Eve, just to ask a few question about her oh-so-necessary documentary, Mentor. My questions/comments appear in boldface, while Ms Lambert's answers are in standard type.

TM: I have to say that I liked your film even better than Bully, about which, only two years later, I can barely remember most of the specifics. Your film sticks so closely to the two families and what happened to them and builds its case against the school very well. 

Alix Lambert: Thank you.

TM: Why hasn’t this film been seen and covered more? 

AL: (she laughs) I would love to know the answer to that. When you make smaller independent films, you have a harder time because of funding. Making it is one thing, but getting it out there can be really frustrating. You finally finish it, you feel proud of it, and then it’s…. You just want to get it out to the world so that it can be used in a way that is educational.

TM: Did Ohio/Mentor try to sink it? 

AL: I don’t know about sinking the film. They certainly have been hostile toward me. I received a lot of threatening messages. But I have no reason to think that they are trying to sink it. On the other hand, I have also gotten a lot of emails from people who are really appreciative of the film but must remain anonymous because of their connections to the school or community.

TM: Your film mentions five suicides but you cover in depth only two of these. Did you try to reach or include the other families in your film? 

AL: I did contact other families but there were things that influenced my final decision to go with only the two. These were the two families that brought a lawsuit, so it was clear that they wanted their stories to be public and to be talked about. I always feel that one must err on the side of caution -- and not put someone through something when they’ve already been through something so horrible.

You want to make sure your people really want to participate. Also, the more you kind of spread things out among a lot of different people, you water them down. It's true that in The Mark of Cain you see many, many people. But in this one I am focusing on just two families. And because these other families were not sure they wanted to go public, I didn’t want to press them.

TM: Anything you want to say that you aren’t usually asked by journalists? 

AL: Hmmm... (She thinks) Well, just to say that what I would really like is to see people treat each other more kindly.
A little empathy can go a long way. 


Nymph33 said...

I'm actually a member/survivor of mentor and just wanted to pop in and give my two-cents. Personally, I think that this film missed a lot of possible data. I've yet to see an actual record showing the number of students we lose before graduation. The suicides mentioned do not include those who died during the summer or over winter breaks. It does not include those who overdosed during the school year (and sometimes on school property).

It doesn't go (and isn't able to, unfortunately), in-depth and look at how hard it is for kids in mentor to simply help their friends. A friend of mine tried to commit suicide and came in with long gashes along both of her arms. Her guidance counselor said that "we should handle it" as her friends, and refused to notify the girls parents. We had to talk to multiple counselors before finding someone who we trusted would contact her parents and ensure that our friend got the mental health treatment she needed. For those curious, this happened during the same school year when Eric "Twiggy" Mohat committed suicide, maybe 3 months prior. This is just one example of how hard it is to protect your friends and loved ones when you're at mentor high.

Also, the mental health agency Crossroads needs to be looked into. I've had many friends leave that place worse than when they entered- suicidal, isolated, and with no hope. A friend of mine was told it was his fault his step-father physically abused him. I was told not to discuss being abused (physically and sexually) with anyone. I was told not to talk because my abused, a family member, would wind up in prison. I was nine, and talking with a social worker at Crossroads. As far as I know Child Protective Services were never informed of my abuse. It's been some time since I went to Crossroads, but I'm concerned that these same practices continue.

I wish I could also see statistics on how many graduates die within their first five years after leaving mentor high. As someone from the community, I feel like the statistics would be startling, and help to show that this bullying problem is one issue within a toxic community that is more concerned with saving face than protecting and raising the next generation.

As a survivor of this community I realize that it is toxic, in many horrifying ways. The bullying is just one example, a symptom of a much bigger problem within the community. I realize how horrifying it is to say. Over a dozen people have died because of how they were treated in mentor high, and this tragedy is just a symptom of a bigger problem which I do not know how to quantify, let alone combat. I hope that someday someone invests the time and effort to figure out all of the ways that mentor has gone wrong, so that we can someday fix it and make it a city where children are again safe to live and grow up.

TrustMovies said...

Thank you so much for taking the time and trouble -- and from the sound of your comments, courage, too -- to post here, Nymph33. What you tell us makes even this very disturbing documentary seems mild by comparison.

I will see to it that the filmmaker, Alix Lambert, reads your comments, too. I hope that they, your life (which led to your making those comments), and the movie itself can somehow rev up the local and greater Ohio society to actually do something about this (rather than keep hiding it) so that this sort of thing does not continue to happen.

I feel we are living more and more in a society that seems so inured to this kind of disgusting and unfair behavior that this is why many of our citizens now see torture on helpless prisoners as a good thing. This is what bullying and the approval of it leads to. And it does not make for a nation, including especially the leaders of that nation, of which we can any longer be proud.

Again, thank you for taking the time to comment, and for doing it so intelligently and well.

TrustMovies said...

Oh, and Nymph33 -- I forgot to mention that I hope someone will investigate Crossroads, as well. From what you say, it sounds as if that organization is designed to further the status quo, rather than help the victims....