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Documentary

Finding Noah

In a 1979 episode of In Search Of, host Leonard Nimoy characterized Noah’s ark as “the greatest archeological prize of all.” Most scientists, however, haven’t taken up the challenge since they deny creepers and flyers would load two-by-two onto an ancient carpenter’s two-by-fours. Spurred by trust in biblical inerrancy, a Christian research team climbed Mt. Ararat in 2012 and 2013 to find the ark. A new documentary, Finding Noah: An Adventure in Faith, chronicles the quest.

Finding Noah opens by examining Ice Age geological clues and some of the 200 religious traditions—including Islam and Hinduism—supporting a worldwide flood. Dubious sightings of the ark, the film notes, go back centuries: A Russian prince claimed in 1887 to have walked the ark’s interior, the CIA supposedly took secret photos of the ark from U-2 flyovers, and so on. But the Finding Noah crew doesn’t want to be counted among the hoaxsters. “The important thing,” one team member says, “is finding what the facts are.”

The odds seem stacked against locating any recognizable fragment of the ark. Ararat, “the painful mountain” to locals, juts precariously up from a seismic fault line in eastern Turkey. The volcano blew its nearly 17,000-foot glacier top as recently as 1840. Arguably, the mountain’s millennia of movements have pulverized Noah’s vessel to sawdust. But some believe the subterranean recesses of the high-elevation icebox preserve the ark.

The Finding Noah team doesn’t find Noah or the ark (or evidence of Russell Crowe’s stony Sasquatches). By the time the unrated (but clean), Gary Sinise–narrated documentary ends, the explorers have unearthed from Ararat’s slopes scant evidence for the ark. But the disappointed mountaineers rejoice in the region’s spectacular beauty, friendships they’ve forged with their Kurdish guides, and the “real story—how the search changed our lives.”

For the time being, Noah’s ark will remain biblical archeology’s final frontier.

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Tillman (left) and Smith
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Documentary

In My Father's House

Teenagers on the street in Chicago recognize songwriter Che “Rhymefest” Smith, although he doesn’t have the fame of his Chicago contemporaries like Kanye West. Smith co-wrote West’s hit “Jesus Walks,” for which he won a Grammy, and “Glory” from the 2014 film Selma

Like many young black men on Chicago’s South Side, Smith grew up without a father, an experience that left him with an “emptiness,” he said. Now he has a son himself and has started fatherhood and mentoring initiatives in his neighborhood. In one moment in a new documentary, In My Father’s House, Smith talks to a young man whose brother just died: “You got someone you can talk to?” he asks the boy. “Put my number in your phone.” 

A few years ago Smith moved back into the house where he lived as a child, and where his father abandoned him. Little did Smith know that his father, Brian Tillman, was living homeless in the same neighborhood. The documentary follows their reunion, as Smith warily tries to repair their relationship, and to end his father’s reliance on alcohol. 

During the course of the story, Smith must also admit to his failures as a father. Christianity is not a significant part of the film or Tillman’s recovery, but we catch glimpses of the family praying together before a meal, and of a to-do note that says, “Read Bible (whole thing).” The story is amplified with new music from Smith, which I hope he releases with the film.

Tillman’s struggle sometimes seems impossibly hard, as he regularly runs into his old wheedling friends on the street. “If you could survive on the street and homeless, you could’ve survived with your children,” one caller tells him when Tillman comes as a guest on his son’s radio program. Recovery from addiction is hard, but is relational reconciliation any easier? In My Father’s House comes out in 20 major cities nationwide Oct. 9, a rare feat for a documentary.

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Gina Nemirofsky/Fox Searchlight Pictures


Gina Nemirofsky/Fox Searchlight Pictures

  • Bob Richman/Fox Searchlight Pictures

    Guggenheim and Malala Bob Richman/Fox Searchlight Pictures

Documentary

He Named Me Malala

In 2012 in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, the Taliban shot a 15-year-old Muslim girl in the head over her support for girls’ education. He Named Me Malala is a documentary that recounts the life of that now-famous girl, Malala Yousafzai. Malala survived the attempted execution after a long time in the hospital. The film’s footage of her rehabilitation is moving when you consider her rhetorical power today. At that point, she couldn’t catch a ball. She went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 for her continuing work promoting girls’ education around the world. 

Most of the documentary takes place in England, where Malala currently lives due to ongoing death threats from the Taliban in Pakistan. The documentary covers familiar ground of her story but uses lovely pastel animation to recount her life in Pakistan. It also gives a look into her home life now, where she struggles to keep up with the grades of the other girls at her British school. She has a wall with English vocabulary taped to it, including the phrase “cat burglar,” which makes her laugh. Malala never has a grumpy teenager moment.

The scenes in her home show a not very conservative Muslim family. Her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, makes breakfast for the children, and Malala discusses having a boyfriend. Ziauddin recounts writing Malala’s name on their 300-year-old family tree when she was born, and says she was the first woman on the tree.

“Islam teaches humanity, forgiveness,” Malala insists when asked about Islamic extremists. When the filmmaker asks her father if he knows who shot Malala, Ziauddin responds, “It is not a person. It is an ideology.” The Taliban, he said, “were not about faith, they were about power. … They are the enemies of Islam.” The Yousafzai family is presented as a paragon of moderate Islam: They pray at a mosque, and the women wear headscarves; but they also promote equality of the sexes, surf the internet, and watch cricket.

I recommend The New York Times’ 2009 documentary on Malala, available for free on its website, to see more of her life in Pakistan, and of life under militant Islam. That documentary, recorded before the shooting, gives more of a picture of what women and girls like Malala are living through on a daily basis in these countries. He Named Me Malala, which didn’t even send a film crew to Pakistan, borrows shots from the Times documentary. 

Malala director Davis Guggenheim has a string of documentary hits that include Waiting for “Superman” and An Inconvenient Truth. He obviously knows his craft, but his documentaries can be preachy. This is a failing of Malala, whose compelling story doesn’t need a spelled-out message.

The film closes with the screen going black and text appearing: “When you educate a girl, it changes her world. It changes our world.” Thank you for explaining, Mr. Guggenheim. 

Setting aside the film’s hagiographical moments, it’s worth seeing the girlishness as well as the uncanny self-possession of this 18-year-old. Malala has become an icon of the victims of Islamic extremism. The film shows her emotional meeting with parents of schoolgirls whom Boko Haram kidnapped. Her presence drew dozens of news cameras to the matter. Guggenheim could have told the story of this remarkable girl better.

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