'Glamour' and 'Lies' are documentary standouts at Aruba Fest

ScreenerBlog

I had the privilege of serving on the documentary jury at the Aruba International Film Festival, along with producer Steve Stabler and Suzette Zayden, founder and director of the Belize International Film Festival. The field consisted of six features, and there were two standouts among the pack—so much so I wish we had been permitted to pick two winners. Both are by young filmmakers whose assured work signals a very promising future.

Marq Evans’ The Glamour & the Squalor is the story of a significant pop-culture force I’d never heard of. Marco Collins was the star DJ at 107.7 FM “The End” in Seattle, Washington, and the man who gave the first airplay in the nation to Nirvana, Eddie Vedder, Beck and many other artists, ushering in the revolutionary grunge-rock era centered in 1990s Seattle. Before the arrival of Collins and The End, Seattle radio had been stuck in a worn groove of hair-metal bands and middle-of-the-road rockers and balladeers. But Collins had a finely attuned ear for the new and exciting, and broke many a band that went on to dominate the charts.

Collins’ story is also one of battling demons: As a teen he realized he was gay, and he had a particularly fraught relationship with his conservative cop dad. His sexuality was also a liability in the macho, often homophobic world of rock music and media. He lived in the closet for years and was terror-struck when the leader of a grunge band joked about his sexuality onstage one night, now knowing how close to the truth he was.

As Collins became a local radio sensation, he enthusiastically partook of all the opportunities for druggy late-night revels his celebrity afforded. A charismatic on-air talent and unerring tastemaker, he could have had a much bigger career if only he had been able to temper his addictions. (An audition for VH1 that could have gained him a national audience proved disastrous when he turned up following a four-day bender.)

Collins left his Seattle gig when new station owners with a more rigid agenda took over, and he eventually wound up working in foreclosure real estate. The film shows him making a comeback of sorts as an out-and-proud gay man campaigning for same-sex marriage rights in Washington State and befriending hip-hop artists Macklemore & Ryan Lewis as they debut their gay-rights anthem “Same Love,” and later staging a concert with new artists he admires. And movingly, Collins forms a rapprochement with his once-disapproving dad, who now hopes his son will one day meet a man he can settle down with. But Evans makes it clear that Collins’ struggle with addiction is an ongoing challenge.

Director Evans says he only discovered Collins after hearing him on a 20th–anniversary show for The End. But he’s brought a thorough understanding and compassionate approach to the story of this highly influential but troubled and overlooked figure, earning his subject’s trust and weaving his frank revelations with fun animation and grainy reenactments. It’s a very engaging documentary that will appeal to rock fans, gay audiences, and anyone interested in pop culture and journeys of personal discovery.

After leaving The Glamour & the Squalor, I was certain our jury had an obvious winner. But then I saw War of Lies, a documentary very different in subject and tone (though it also includes many artfully done reenactments). The subject here is Rafid Ahmed Alwan (codename “Curveball”), the Iraqi chemical engineer whose false claims about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction helped the George W. Bush administration build its case for the war on that nation in 2003. German director Matthis Bittner sat Alwan down for an extended interview in which this charismatic smooth-talker defends his actions and almost charms the viewer into taking his side.

Alwan had good reason to hate Hussein and wish for his downfall; after all, this was a tyrant who used chemical weapons on his own citizens. So when the American government proved eager to tie Hussein to the 9/11 attacks, Alwan wasn’t going to stand in their way, even if it meant creating deceptions and eliding the truth. From his vantage point, the war was going to happen anyway, and he’s bitter that he’s been made a scapegoat by a much larger gathering of forces that manipulated the media and public opinion so disingenuously. But Bittner presses on with his interrogation and ultimately gets the answer he’s been seeking from Alwan in the final moments of the film.

Our jury gave the prize to War of Lies chiefly because of Bittner’s coup in recording this interview with a key, complex figure in our recent blighted history. The film is truly a valuable document. But The Glamour & the Squalor is equally accomplished on its own turf.

Glamour will be playing on Oct. 25 at New York’s annual LGBT NewFest. It has yet to land an American distributor, but fully deserves one. So, too, does the essential War of Lies.