The First Kid to Learn English from Mexico
“This is not a dream. This is a nightmare,” says third-grader Pedro Lopez in the first 75 seconds of The First Kid to Learn English from Mexico, contradicting everything we see in the remaining 18 minutes. Made in Stanford’s MFA documentary program, Peter Jordan’s lyrical but unfocused short ostensibly asks whether poor immigrants have a fair shake at the American dream. The answer, surprisingly, seems to be an unambiguous “Hell, yes”—in Pedro’s case anyway. Though his reading skills lag behind his classmates’, Pedro has plenty of advantages other kids don’t: loving parents who paper their home with English words to help him improve, a devoted, bilingual teacher, even healthy recreation. Jordan’s beautifully edited still-life (he also composed its cloying score) evokes much of the vulnerability and whimsy of being a 9-year-old, but its reportage is maddeningly, if perhaps deliberately, vague. The film’s most poetic moments show Pedro’s fascination with animals—though given the cruelty with which he repeatedly launches his terrified cat down a playground slide, you worry he’ll grow up to be a bully, which makes the question of his literacy seem less important. —CK
Adeel Alam is caught between worlds in this documentary about a Muslim American’s controversial decision to adopt a terrorist persona to compete in an independent wrestling circuit. Alam comes across as a game subject when discussing race in post-9/11 America, but Team Taliban locates its dramatic arc by following him on a trip to a Chicago mosque and probing his reluctantly supportive family members. Director Benjamin Kegan has an especially keen eye for capturing the pomp and pageantry of the wrestling ring with sharp angles and astonishing establishment shots. It’s no surprise that the finale of Team Taliban finds Alam climbing the turnbuckles and challenging the world à la Randy “The Ram” Robinson in The Wrestler, a myth-making tableau so nice you won’t mind seeing it for a second time. —NG
Mi Broni Ba (My White Baby)
Akousa Adoma Owusu’s short taking us inside the hair salons of Kumasi, Ghana, is split into two parts. The first half lacks narration save for the ironic repurposed audio of Oprah Winfrey giving away black dolls, and of a white-bread ’50s type sharing hair-care tips. Owusu also uses snippets from a story by author and comedienne Elna Baker that aired on This American Life last year. Baker’s story was already a critical comment on Caucasian-defined ideals of beauty, so its use in this context feels like a cheat. But the editing is lively, and the shots of three and four women all braiding the same woman’s hair at once imply a sense of community. Once the film switches from 16 mm to digital video and gains a narrator, it becomes less pretty but more interesting: A girl recounts her struggle to fit in to an all-white class at her new school, over footage of Ghanan children bathing and braiding the hair of their white baby dolls. Subjugation this subtle is easy to deny until Owusu’s camera has shown it to you. She eschews overt didacticism, and her film is more powerful for it. —CK
At 12 p.m. on Thursday, June 18, at AFI Silver; also on Friday, June 19, at 7 p.m. at Discovery HD Theater. Also showing: Bronx Princess.