This is the second (and third) in a series of reviews by our New York correspondent Claire Baiz of entries in this year’s Doc NYC, the Big Apple’s – and one of the world’s – premier documentary festivals, running November 6-15.
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MR. TOILET: THE WORLD’S #2 MAN
“Toilet is a spiritual room.” There’s a man behind an opaque door, going about his business. “Let go,” the voice says. “Connect to the Universe.”
That voice belongs to Jack Sim. When we meet him, suffice it to say … he’s not conserving toilet paper.
Sim, a native of Singapore, is famous. He’s done a TED Talk. He’s won dozens of international awards, including a commendation by Britain’s Queen Elisabeth. Now he’s a movie star.
Sim uses energetic humor to disarm people. Still, Sim knows this shit is serious: sanitation is perhaps the number one cause of death in the undeveloped world. Forty percent of earth’s population doesn’t have access to a toilet. It’s not just the disease, sanitation, and smell that rankle Sim – it’s pollution and crime: rivers are defiled, and girls are raped every day simply because they don’t have a place to go.
Mr. Toilet: The World’s #2 Man, is an intimate portrait of a businessman-turned-activist who has dedicated the last 22 years of his life to something most of us don’t want to talk about.
It’s also the first feature-length documentary by Accelerator Lab grantee Lily Zepeda. The amount of time and resources Zepeda dedicated to defecation is brave – especially for a new filmmaker. Even Sim complains that when it comes to philanthropic priorities, “Shit is on the bottom.”
Sanitation is Sim’s passion. He’s the founder of the WTO – not the World Trade Organization – but the World Toilet Organization, headquartered in a modest, crowded upstairs office in Singapore. “Our job,” one WTO staffer says, “is to keep Jack focused.” Sim is a fountain of ideas, a dangerous thing when it comes to toilets.
When Mr. Toilet starts out, the WTO has nine staffers, lots of decorated toilets and poop-shaped hats. By the end of the movie, some shit has hit the fan.
There’s more to this movie than social ills and cheap jokes.
This is the story of Sim’s difficult journey, a hard lesson in not giving up – and the importance of turning our own lives into performance art.
Sims takes joy in realizing a creative vision, whether it’s paint on canvas, stickers on a public streetlight, or dodging poo piles beside train tracks.
Zepeda follows Sim from Singapore to rural China and India’s Andhra Pradesh province, where he works hard to “make toilets sexy.”
While she doesn’t flinch from shovelfuls of human feces, Zepeda softens the story with effective animation. The most poignant moments in the film are when Zepeda captures the effervescent Sim as his bubbles disappear, and begin to ferment again.
“My job isn’t to build toilets,” Sim says. “My job is to motivate people to build their own toilets.”
Especially in places where the need is urgent, toilets are a hard sell. Sim and his Indian counterpart, Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, work to implement Prime Minister Modi’s promise to build toilets for the people of Andar Pradesh province. Sim and Pathak are given two years to install six million toilets (that’s over 8,200 toilets per day).
It’s a logistical nightmare, notwithstanding India’s bureaucracy – and 5,000 years of cultural tradition that urges Indians to keep their homes clean and go outside. Now the government wants toilets IN the house?
Sim’s successes may be smaller than he hopes, but he always seems to build momentum. In a Q&A after the DOC NYC screening, Sims reported the Chinese government has promised to put toilets in all rural schools.
I appreciate Zepeta’s unflinching portrait – and we’re all better off because Jack Sim gives a shit.
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WE BELIEVE IN DINOSAURS
Why were there were baby dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark? Because adult dinosaurs were too big.
We Believe in Dinosaurs asserts there were dinosaurs on the ark, but doesn’t try to explain what happened to brontosaurus and triceratops after the ark went aground.
“As far as we know,” one creationist shrugs, “they aren’t here anymore.”
We Believe in Dinosaurs co-directors Monica Long Ross (The Believers, This Has Been to Space) and Clayton Brown (The Believers, The Tennessee Waltz) allow people to speak for themselves. “It was never our intention,” Ross says, “to make fun or mock.”
The documentary had its New York City premiere this week at DOC NYC, and will be released November 19 on iTunes. It’s also scheduled to air as an episode of Independent Lens on Apple TV in February.
Ken Ham, the charismatic Australian CEO of Answers in Genesis (the “other AIG”), allowed these filmmakers extended access to the crown jewels of his empire: the Creationist Museum and the Ark Encounter, about 40 miles apart in Kentucky.
While We Believe in Dinosaurs doesn’t look down on creationists, it doesn’t look up either: you won’t find Bill Nye busting a capillary, or Neil deGrasse Tyson patiently explaining carbon dating. Ross and Brown wisely limit passionate discord to locals.
It’s Kentucky: it’s hard to tell creationists and Darwinists apart. Georgia Purdom, PhD, the very picture of prim professorship, decries the term ‘Bible stories.’ “These aren’t stories,” Purdom says, “they’re Biblical accounts.”
After Purdom, at a fast food restaurant, we meet local paleontologist Dan Phelps. In a pleasant Kentucky drawl, Phelps explains his longtime, lonely battle against taxpayer-subsidized creationism.
Phelps does have some company. There’s a minister from Williamsburg, the town that expected – and failed –to benefit from the Ark Encounter, and the Tri-State Freethinkers (who are, frankly, a little easier to pick out of the crowd of creationists).
Spanning the divide is fellow Kentuckian David McMillan, who, after a cosmic enlightenment of sorts, went from teenage creationist to evolution blogger.
We Believe in Dinosaurs riles folks up, but it doesn’t spew wet smoke. If the friction between creationists and scientists is the engine that drives the story, the film’s third rail is the conflict between public interest and personal freedom.
There are lots of creationist heels dug deep in the Kentucky bluegrass. They are not alone.
Thirty-eight percent of Americans believe God created man less than 10,000 years ago. Many believe Adam and Eve were created on the sixth day, the same day God made dinosaurs.
From the racial makeup portrayed in the film, it appears there are very few people of color in the creationist camp.
Creationism, believers say, has to be true, because the Bible says so. “If only part of it is true, how do you know any of it is true?” (This standard, I gather, is not applied to politicians.)
From the time they are children, creationists are offered inspiration and refutation. Ham prompts a grade-school assembly over a PA system, “When people say dinosaurs lived millions of years ago, what do you say?”
The children shout back in unison, “Were you there?”
One undeniable truth is the massive infrastructure that supports creationism. Answers in Genesis owns a distribution center that rivals the warehouse in Raiders of the Lost Ark. AIG sends out hundreds of boxes of educational materials to schools where creationism is taught, either exclusively, or in some public schools, alongside evolution.
After a lengthy court battle, soon-to-be-ex-Kentucky governor Matt Bevin, a creationist, ultimately declared the Ark Encounter a “tourist attraction,” allowing it to collect an $18.2 million tax break. For other purposes, local paleontologist Phelps complains, the group is considered a church.
The only effect the Ark Encounter has had on nearby Williamstown is the fifty-cent fee they’ve been allowed to collect on every admission ticket (general admission is $48), to pay for increased EMT services. Businesses that ramped up for tourism, like Elmer’s General Store, were forced to close.
A testament to the film’s fairness can be found in audience reaction. At a post-screening Q&A in Connecticut, a creationist grilled the filmmakers at length. After some heated banter, the creationist admitted she enjoyed the show. After the New York City screening, one audience member, a science professor, expressed concern the documentary might be used as pro-creationist propaganda.
A mural inside the Ark depicts the horror of the Great Flood and asks, “Does our sin-filled world deserve any less?” If that happens, don’t rush to Kentucky. This Ark doesn’t float.
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Images courtesy of Doc NYC and YouTube.