Remember those conversations you used to have about the Bush administration? Where someone would corner you and lecture you about its various evils, their anxiety and anger overwhelming their ability to gauge your basic agreement with them. That is kind of like the experience of watching War Against the Weak.
Director Justin Strawhand’s eugenics docs is adapted from journalist Edwin Black’s 2003 book of the same name. Working directly from the text, Strawhand painstakingly condensed 600 pages of historical detail into a swift, visually dense film. The movie begins with Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s cousin and the man who devised eugenics — the pseudoscientific effort to “purify” the human gene pool by sterilizing or exterminating supposedly undesirable contributors. From there Strawhand traces its growth in popularity in the United States; the research done by Charles Davenport and Harry Laughlin at the Eugenics Records Office was funded largely by robber baron families like the Carnegies, the Harrimans and the Kellogs, and prominent figures like Alexander Graham Bell and Theodore Roosevelt endorsed their efforts. The institutional support for eugenics in the U.S. reached its apogee with the Supreme Court’s decision in the 1927 Buck v. Bell decision, which upheld the constitutionality of Virginia’s forcible sterilization program. Other states followed, and by 1963, more than 60,000 people had been ordered by the state to undergo the procedure. Cheap War Against the Weak Order culminates by exploring the influence American eugenic research had on Nazi thought and the genetic distinctions codified by the Nuremberg Laws.
Strawhand’s feat here is telling this story in considerable detail over the course of a mere 90 minutes. His elaborate research and the cross-reference system he developed to shape Black’s lengthy account into a simpler narrative framework, which he showed off at UnionDocs this weekend, suggests a certain organizational genius. He said his next step was “finding pictures to go with the words”. Strawhand is not untalented. Much of the original footage is thoughtfully composed — a sequence that leads us into Auschwitz via train tracks is particularly effective. His image research brings to life material that is not inherently cinematic, and his conception of the history’s visual texture gives the film a strong aesthetic continuity. But Strawhand’s phrasing suggests another essential problem with War Against the Weak — it is an illustrated abridgment of an existing work. And without using the medium of to expand on the story in ways inaccessible to text, there is basically no reason that someone interested in the history of eugenics would rather watch the film other than a busy schedule or an aversion to reading.
But the film’s major problem is rhetorical. War Against the Weak Pills is mounted as a sort of secret history. Strawhand said he wanted to take eugenics out of the realm of conspiracy theory and into historical fact. But it because the fact isn’t widely disputed, his film’s hysterics do more to undermine it’s credibility than to bolster it. The complicity of American elites in the growth of eugenics, and the discipline’s influence on Nazi thought, do not get enough play in high school history textbooks, but this story is hardly buried. It doesn’t occupy the same tip-of-the-tongue real estate as, say, The Trail of Tears, but it is a subject with which most educated adults are at least passingly acquainted. A quick search of the New York Times archives returns 2130 mentions of the pseudoscience within the newspaper in the last 12 months, compared, for example, to five mentions of COINTELPRO over the same time period.
There is still much to learn from Strawhand’s film. While most people are familiar with the basic trajectory of the eugenics story, they probably do not know its contours. What is trying about Strawhand’s assumption of unfamiliarity is not that you are bored by the information, but that it is being told to you by someone who thinks he’s blowing your mind. The film takes on an outraged, panicked tenor incommensurate with the film’s relationship to the material. Eugenically-motivated legal or medical practice is indeed vile and outrageous, but that feeling is is, to put it mildly, uncontroversial in present-day mainstream America. Outside of radical right wing groups, those familiar with eugenics feel that it is bad, and those first learning about it will figure it out pretty quickly. But Strawhand’s film operates as though it were the lone ship in a storm of pro-eugenics mania. The film is smeared wall-to-wall with rumbling, bass-heavy music, insistently signaling menace at every turn. Many scenes conclude with a dissolve to a blood red screen. The story’s most gruesome anecdotes are underlined in the Australian narrator’s best Batman voice. And the re-enactments are particularly bad in this measure — violent, bloody restagings of sterilizations or Dr. Mengele’s experiments whose force seems ghoulish rather than impassioned.The result is something like the second act trough of horror film — wherein the main character has to convince disbelieving friends and family of an impending danger the audience has already accepted — stretched out to feature length.
It is a shame that War Against the Weak so obviously undershoots the mark here. There is no simple answer to the question of what a documentary filmmaker can expect of his viewers. Of course filmmakers, particularly those who see their film doing important political work, want their doc to reach as wide an audience as possible, but too often this means that instead of sculpting their film to the communicative needs of a particular group of people, documentarians pitch their films at a faceless mass they assume to be dumber than themselves, sanding down the corners so as not to alienate anybody. Filmmakers who take so many risks to produce their films flee from difficult choices in their presentation. But that is the kind of risk-taking that can make a film rewarding enough to compel a person to spend two hours in the dark learning about something horrible. The dreariness that many associate with non-fiction film has more to do with this almost autistic mode of address than it does the seriousness with which these films engage social problems. It is the difference between talking with someone and talking at them. Strawhand’s film is more like a classroom presentation than a conversation. His unwillingness to put faith in his audience obscures his story’s real power and makes it difficult to summon the patience needed to inhabit it. Purchase Cheap