Friday, March 29, 2013
2013 Atlanta Film Festival review: SUBMIT: THE DOCUMENTARY
It feels strange to be reviewing a documentary like Submit, which deals frankly with the growing scourge of cyberbullying. It doesn't fit neatly into the documentary slot, as it feels more like an educational film than anything else. That's not a bad thing, mind you; Submit is certainly out to inform. But, with its scare tactics and stern narration (both of which are absolutely called for), it also does so in much the same way that those old driving and drug-abuse films did in the 50s, 60s and 70s, and those sorts of films are rarely reviewed. But that's really meant as a comment on the film's style rather than on its very important substance.
Directed by Muta Ali Muhammad (the grandson of acting legends Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee) and generously produced by Les Ottolenghi (who also serves as the film's impassioned narrator), Submit paints a harrowing and often demoralizing view of present-day internet mores gone horribly wrong. It visits with those families whose lives have been tainted with tragedy after a bullied young family member has ended their life (these are some utterly heartbreaking moments). And the film furthers a crushing sense of hopelessness by illustrating how this obvious crime is difficult to solve by legislation or, really, any form of punishment for its perpetrators. One memorable sequence, for instance, shows how taking such crimes to court can often act as a de facto revictimization of bullied families, as it often results in mounting lawyer bills that go unpaid because of the difficulty of extracting funds from the bullying parties (who, anyway, regularly go unidentified). Just as chilling are the many interviews with teens and pre-teens, who rarely seem to grasp the negative repercussions of their online activities (it's too bad that the film features few, if any, interviews with the bullies themselves; one is left wanting to get inside their nasty little heads). Luckily, the filmmakers leave us with a tentative solution: Submit posits that the only way to fight this wave of lethal unpleasantness is a culture-wide change of thinking that leans more towards empathy and away from cruelty. However, in an increasingly depersonalized world that views online meanness as both funny and a show of strength, this has to be seen as a tall order.
As an educational film, Submit (I prefer to leaves off the words "The Documentary" in its title) does its job with much effect. and with an unexpectedly wide variety of notable interviewees, from legendary Democratic House Representative John Lewis to conservative icon Bill Bennett). It's especially heartening to know that the filmmakers plan on making the documentary available, for free, to schools and institutions nationwide. That has to be seen as a great service. And so, as a suitable kickoff for a national discussion of this wicked problem, Submit bravely stands up to the plate.
Below is my interview with Submit: The Documentary producer Les Ottolenghi, conducted at the 2013 Atlanta Film Festival, with camerawork and editing by Rich Gedney: