Docs Examine Culture Wars From Kansas to Kabul

For anybody still wondering what’s the matter with Kansas, Howard Goldberg’s Being Dorothy offers some insight into the civic life of Liberal (population 20,000), official home of The Wizard of Oz‘s fictional wanderer. Teen “Dorothys” employed as tour guides discuss the Oz story—invoking terrorism and the safety of home, recalling Christ’s journey through temptation. Nobody brings up Grange-populist Oz author L. Frank Baum’s allegorical anti-capitalism, though of course, the book’s famous suspicion of the East and West (read: blue states) remains.

Surreal images of slo-mo Dorothys backdropped by silos and abattoirs are juxtaposed with revelations about culture and changing demographics. Girls explain that when several town boys announced they were gay, “the kids were OK with it, but not the parents.” They discuss teen pregnancies and abstinence training. Black classmates deadpan, “There are no black Dorothys,” though one pretty daughter of Mexican beef workers gets the job, giving tours in Spanish.

Liz Mermin’s The Beauty Academy of Kabul works off the assumption that the pursuit of beauty is a form of feminist resistance, observing a post-Taliban beauty school founded by returning expats. Though dopey declarations like “Lose the burka, ladies. Get a car!” can be absurd, glimpses inside secret home salons reveal their role as an underground railroad for companionship, health care, and prevention of mind rot. Afghanistan Unveiled has a more propagandistic feel (the credits reveal funding participation by the U.S. State Department), but this chronicle of young female journalists given cameras to gather stories of women in remote regions unflinchingly reveals that in the countryside, the shift from brutal Taliban clerics to opium warlords hasn’t changed the lives of poor women.

Taking a look at another country struggling with a gruesome past, Joe Berlinger’s Gray Matter probes the miscarriages of justice that lurk beneath the Austrian government’s attempt to publicly acknowledge the medical murders of hundreds of disabled children during the Nazi years. As Berlinger walks among jarred brains, preserved by a murderous doctor who continued studying them into the ’90s, one can’t help musing on the enduring ability of populations to ignore atrocity, shift blame, and spin convenient myth. A glimpse of that sort of mythmaking in process, Deborah Koons Garcia’s The Future of Food gets to the elemental truths about genetically modified seeds and produce, revealing that for farmers in places like Liberal, Kansas, not to mention anyone who consumes modified vegetables and grains, corporations like Monsanto pose more threat than any witch or wizard.

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