This weekend I have watched three documentaries that --- as documentaries are supposed to do --- collectively throw an extraordinary light on human beings, our capacities, frailties, achievements and failures.
The only thing to do is take them in sequence, beginning with the most hope-inducing, ending with the most despair-inducing:
Olmec Heads: part of the series Secrets of the Ancients
The Olmec culture that flourished in Mexico more than 3,000 years ago, is regarded as the mother culture of the Americas, predating the Mayan and Aztec cultures, and giving rise to one of the most remarkable artistic achievements in the history of man --- the creation of huge stone heads created 500 years before Rome was founded.
In those years the Olmecs were building great cities with pyramids and ball courts, but the mystery of how they created such exquisitely sensitive sculptures when they had available to them only stone carving tools is one that has never been solved by even the sophisticated brains of the modern scientist.
This film records that at a site called La Venta they created huge sculptures, some of them weighing up to 40 tonnes, of which the portraits in stone, supposedly of their leaders, are the most famous.
The mystery is added to by the fact that, although there are thousands of tonnes of stone sculptures at La Venta, there is no rock closer than the Tuxla mountains, more than 160 kilometres away, across land criss-crossed with massive rivers and swamps which would have made the transportation even more difficult. So how did the stones get to La Venta?
The film deals entirely with the efforts of various British experts to duplicate the Olmec success in, first, carving so beautifully in hard stone by using only the technology available to them, and second, by trying to move some of the enormous blocks of stone, using again only the Olmec technology.
A sculptor who has been working in stone for 40 years arrives from Britain with the intention of making the carving, but after the first day of fruitlessly chipping away, he said, “I may as well go home.” He persisted, and in the ten days he was allowed to do his carving he did manage to chip a sort of shallow channel across the face of the stone, but nothing more. It would have taken him, and his many helpers, years and years to have created anything resembling the Olmec heads.
Another team, also British, were divided between those who thought overland would have been the easier route for the Olmecs to move the stones, and others who preferred the idea of transporting them by water.
First, they had to build a platform of wooden tracks that would enable the stones to move across them when pulled by a big team of people. It took them five of their ten days even to get the stone on to the platform, and when they eventually did manage to get it moving forward slowly, their engineering skills let them down as the stone veered to one side and eventually fell off the platform.
The water route was no more successful. The engineers created a platform held up by the carved wooden boats contributed by local Mexicans, carefully insulated with a rubber cover, something that was available to the Olmecs. They did succeed in getting the stone on to this raft, but when they tried to launch it into the river, they discovered that the part that bore the weight had become stuck on the bottom, and refused to move.
The conclusion of this film was that the Olmecs evidently knew more about both carving, and transporting inert stones, than we could summon up in our modern imaginations, using the technology available 3,000 years ago. Is this encouraging, or discouraging about the capacities of human beings? Certainly no one has ever succeeded in creating more wonderful stone statues than these ancient works. That is for sure.
The Fence (La Barda), a film directed by Rory Kennedy.
This film is a critique of the immense project launched by George W. Bush in October 2006, to build a fence along the Mexican border, with three objectives: to defend the nation against terrorism, to control drug smuggling over the border, and to control illegal immigration.
Since it was launched it has not prevented a single terrorist from entering across the border (but of course no terrorists had entered by this route before it was built); the level of drugs entering the United States is exactly what it was before the fence was built, and 93 per cent of cocaine coming into the country still comes from Mexico; and the estimated 500,000 illegal immigrants who entered every year before the fence was built have not diminished by even one.
Meantime, the fence has cost $3 billion, has used up 120,000 tons of metal, employed 7,000 workers, and violated what everybody thought was an American value against, for example, the Berlin Wall.
In places the fence penetrates five to eight feet into the ground, and rises from five to eight feet above the ground, has created in some places a no man’s land that is neither Mexican nor American, and has been penetrated along most of its length by the ingenuity of the migrants, although the route is now less easy than it was before.
At least 150 bodies are picked up in the American deserts every year, and it is now estimated that one or two migrants die every day in their efforts to enter the United States.
The film says the wall was built as a result of an intensive campaign by a handful of radicals known as the Minutemen, who formed themselves into posses to control the border, and who apparently succeeded in shutting down the phones in the United States Senate.
The fence has set back more than 30 years of preservation of wildlife in specially established refuges along the border, and to get it approved, some 36 American laws had to be modified.
Looking forward 25 years, the film says 12,500 more migrants will die, and maintenance of the fence alone will cost the United States Treasury $49 billion.
War Don Don (The War is Over), an HBO film by Rebecca Richman Cohen
This is a film about the trial of Issa Sesay, who, after the capture of Foday Sankoh, became interim leader of the Revolutionary United Front, the extraordinarily brutal movement that created the civil war that devastated Sierra Leone between 1991 and 2002.
This movement was notable for amputating the hands and legs of people who opposed it, and three of its leaders were convicted of a list of offences, including the enlisting of children into a guerrilla army, attacking peacekeepers, mutilation of civilians, raping women, and other crimes against humanity.
The trial by the Special Court for Sierra Leone lasted for five years, and Sesay was given sentences on 16 of the 18 counts against him ranging from 35 to 52 years in jail.
The argument of the defence counsel, Wayne Jordash, a young man from a working class background in England, was that the prosecution had demonized the RUF, and had failed to connect the leaders to any of the specific crimes of which they were accused, Sesay himself had been recruited to the movement by Sankoh, and had been one of the senior commanders of the army before taking over as interim leader, with the intention of bringing the war to an end, and disarming his followers. He had been warned by a supporter not to disarm while some 400 followers of Sankoh were imprisoned, because if he did this he would likely find himself powerless to resist being accused along with the others, which is what, in fact, happened,
Although the court admitted that Sesay had the mitigating circumstance of having brought the war to an end, he was still prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Jordash warned before the sentencing that the court, as it was behaving in this trial, could not do the job it had been set up to do.
But on the other hand, interviews with civilians who had been caught up in the struggle seemed unanimous, or nearly so, that the leaders bore the responsibility and were getting what they deserved.
The brutality of this war, which was led by Sankoh and Charles Taylor, whose forces invaded from Liberia, where he had conducted a similar war, is one of those events that makes one wonder what it is human beings will not do, if asked. Is there anything too terrible not to be done? The prosecutors argue in the film that the Sierra Leone civil war was unusual in that most wars are conducted for some political purpose, but this one was carried out by criminal thugs, for criminal purposes.