Male rivalry on display at this year's Vancouver International Film Festival
Does size matter? It’s a question raised by far more men than women; maybe men are just more into measuring things as a method of proving value. Larger, louder, faster, and stronger are verities that appear to explain themselves, with quasi-Darwinian implications. But natural selection actually operates by appropriateness, not by force—a fact lost on those justifying the systematic crushing of competitors.
Modes of masculine rivalry are explored, often in depth, during this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival, running September 26 to October 11. That’s not surprising, since most films are still made by and about men—although this particular edition does offer an unusually high number of titles centring on older women rediscovering themselves and younger ones grieving the loss of children.
A number of titles handle the subject of duditude in fictional form. Sometimes it’s man against the elements, as in Robert Redford’s solo outing in All Is Lost (screening September 27 and 29), or struggling against class restrictions, as in Japan’s semicomic Like Father, Like Son (October 5 and 8). The instability of male friendships is skewered as well, with high wit and fierce compassion, in Spain’s aptly titled A Gun in Each Hand (October 1, 3, and 11), a series of lightly connected two-handers, as it were, with guys testing each other for leverage and connection.
New York City filmmaker Rachel Boynton isn’t so sure that issues relating to power and competition are really all about testosterone. She did, however, go in search of hypermasculine figures in Big Men, a documentary (September 28 and October 3 and 11) that follows a Texas oil-exploration outfit bent on exploiting untapped African fields off the coast of Ghana.
“In the end,” the director says on the line from her office in Brooklyn, “I think the emphasis was more on Big than on Men. When I started, I didn’t know anyone in the oil business, and I didn’t know anyone in Africa.”
A few phone numbers of “random people” led her to Ghana and Nigeria, where the filmmaker—who is scheduled to attend VIFF—witnessed what “successful” oil drilling has done to the land and to local populations.
“What you get is a system that has been empowered strictly by people looking out for themselves. Everyone in the film, from politicians to people on the street, talks about wanting to be big. Power is a question of two things: respect and money. I talked to a woman in Nigeria who said: ‘I want my family to be big,’ and she didn’t mean lots of children! On-screen, a Nigerian king tells me he knows I want to be big or I wouldn’t be making the movie!”
Boynton’s previous documentary feature, Our Brand Is Crisis, looked at the professional shit disturbers in political marketing. That title could have referred to any number of contract companies—from Blackwater to Halliburton—dedicated to profiting from disaster.
“I’ve made two films about white men in suits,” says this daughter of a single mother who was a full-time lawyer. “This one is a thriller about the way the world really works, for better or worse. And I love the fact that the two oil men we follow are named Musselman and Maxted!”
Here’s another valiant moniker for the comic-book set: Erik Prince. This right-wing founder of Blackwater—a “security” firm responsible for so much mayhem in Iraq that it had to change its name repeatedly—is at the centre of another real-life thriller, this one called The Project.
This truly odd doc (screening October 2, 4, and 7), details the sometimes Keystone Kopsish efforts, led by the Oliver North–like Prince and some former apartheid enforcers from South Africa, to track down pirates on the Somali coast (codirector Adam Ciralsky will attend).
An ex–special-ops man from the U.S. military, Roger Carstens, is the on-camera tour guide, and he’s an articulate and well-educated fellow. But he inevitably reduces complex equations to Good Guys versus Bad Guys. The movie hypes the notion of last-stand heroism—or is it just about protecting shipping lanes for the United Arab Emirates, the extradition-free zone where Prince now happens to reside?
For roaring ego, even Prince can’t compete with Lance Armstrong, the living embodiment of “too big to fail”. The troubled cyclist, who lost seven Tour de France titles when he went for an eighth, is profiled in a riveting new documentary (screening October 1 and 3). The Armstrong Lie is the latest from prolific Alex Gibney, who has an outsized reputation for taking on big shots, with The Trials of Henry Kissinger; Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room; and Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson being just three of them.
The bigger they come, the harder they fall, as the saying goes, and no one went downhill harder or faster than the cancer survivor who took too many performance-enhancing cocktails.
“And you can’t make up a name like Lance Armstrong,” Gibney says, likewise calling from New York City. He characterizes his new film is an in-depth study of a man with little awareness of what lies below his own surface.
“More than most people, he sees himself in the third person. He’s all about marching forward, and he had a vision of how that comeback year was supposed to happen. His intention, I really believe, was to race clean, at age 38, and win. It seems he had some ‘insurance’, though.
“You see his whole downfall as inevitable now, but that’s what’s so interesting about the film, which I started in 2007. You go back to the beginning and wonder, ‘What the hell was he thinking?’ Knowing how widespread doping was by 2009, you’d have to figure that it would stir up a hornet’s nest of controversy for him. I asked him if that would happen, and he didn’t say ‘Maybe’; he said, ‘Of course!’ So he knew he was courting danger.”
Oddly, for an athlete who spent his career amassing power and prestige, Armstrong developed few political skills to protect his position in the long run.
“Because he was so deeply competitive,” the director asserts, “he couldn’t bring himself to earn the loyalty of his teammates. And they turned on him when they got the chance. His drive to win at all costs, obviously, was also his undoing.”
The last time the Straight caught up with Gibney, his Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side—about the torture and murder of innocent Afghans in U.S. custody—was being surprisingly well received in Washington. It seemingly had a positive impact on the human-rights policies of a post-Bush military. But armed force carries its own wack-a-mole peculiarities, with violence erupting somewhere whenever it’s repressed.
This was discovered by U.S. infantry Pte. Adam Winfield, who wound up in Afghanistan in 2009 and was bossed around by a Platoon-style sergeant who killed civilians for sport. As documented by The Kill Team (October 2, 5, and 8), Winfield tried to go up the chain of command to stop the horrors and got the rap pinned on him.
“The greatest weakness one can show in the military is to betray your fellow soldier,” explains the doc’s director, Dan Krauss, calling from Berkeley, California. “I wanted to make the counterargument about what it took to summon the courage that the other guys in the platoon weren’t able to muster.
“Adam went into the army somewhat naive, with the whole idea of good guys and bad guys pretty ingrained. Within a matter of months, he discovered that things were much more complicated—difficult for any 20-year-old to face. Sometimes I blame Joseph Campbell, because this whole idea of mythical heroism leads to so much confusion. These kids were trained to kill and then tasked to build wells and meet with tribal elders, something none of them understood.
“With some perspective,” continues Krauss, who will also be in Vancouver, “the soldiers I followed came to see themselves as pawns in the game, with no real winners—only losers.”
As Winfield himself says in the film: “I thought these warriors were immortal patriots, defending freedom forever. But they were just a bunch of guys with guns.”
Clearly, wars and other money-grabbing schemes will keep happening where there’s oil and other increasingly precious resources, with mercenaries, wildcatters, terrorists, and ego freaks of all flavours jumping into the fray, “little” people be damned.
If every era gets the myth it most deserves, allowing for wildly shifting tides of earthly aspiration, the present epoch looks less like Prometheus—a Titan punished for stealing the gods’ fire to share with humans—than it resembles Narcissus, who famously drowned in his own reflection.
Do we have to go out like this, grubbing for personal glory while selling the last cubes of polar ice to some wealthy white guy for his final vodka tonic? Big Men maker Boynton doesn’t think so.
“One of the key lines of my film finds someone saying, ‘It’s basically a question of finding what unites us—of realizing who you consider your own.”
In other words, our only hope—as men, women, and children—probably resides in learning to care about something bigger than ourselves.