Dirty Wars
Directed by Richard Rowley
Written by Jeremy Scahill & David Riker

Dirty Wars, a documentary based on Jeremy Scahill’s book of the same name, tells a powerful story about the journalist’s years long investigation into the activities of the then-unknown special ops unit JSOC. Scahill, a national security reporter for The Nation, put a human face on the covert war on terror as he meets with families who claim that they were attacked by special forces who had erroneously thought them to be members of the Taliban and terror organizations like Al Qaeda.

The film follows Scahill into Taliban territory in Afghanistan and later Yemen. We see his process as an investigative journalist as he tracks NATO announcements of terrorist kills and slowly pieces together the existence and movements of JSOC, who later became known to the world following the killing of Osama Bin Laden.

The focus on families who lost people to JSOC raids gives the film a powerful emotional core. Scahill and the director Richard Rowley initially featured Scahill as an objective observer but re-edited the film at the urging of feature film director David Riker, who told them to make Scahill a central character within the story.  The wise move took the film from the realm of standard reporting and makes it feel like a feature film.  The only fault in the film is that Scahill doesn’t investigate the faulty intelligence that leads JSOC on raids that resulted in the loss of innocent life. Dirty Wars is a powerful story with the pacing and cinematography of a feature. It’s a must see for liberals, libertarians and conservatives who want to know the side effects of the war on terror.

The Girl
Written and Directed by David Riker
Starring: Abbie Cornish & Will Patton

David Riker’s The Girl is moving tale of redemption and self-enlightenment.  The story focuses on Ashley (Abbie Cornish), a single-mom who’s drinking caused her to lose her son, Georgie, to Child Protective Services. Blaming her low income rather than her behavior, Ashley decides to follow in the footsteps of her trucker father (Will Patton) and smuggle people across the US-Mexico border to earn some cash. Her plan quickly backfires and she finds herself tasked with reuniting a young girl named Rosa with her mother. Their journey takes them from Nuevo Laredo down into the rural villages of southern Mexico.

Cornish’s performance seems a little one-dimensional at first given her bent on seeming so bitter about her place in life; however, she slowly reveals far more depth to the character as the film rolls on. Maritza Santiago Hernández, who plays Rosa, steals the show as she brings innocence, wonder and sadness to her role – quite a feat for a young, unknown actress. Patton maintains the same gritty ethos he’s carried in his previous films like Brooklyn’s Finest, Armageddon and The Spitfire Grille.

Riker borrowed heavily from Walter Salles’ Central Station, which features a similar plot and visual style. The writer/director acknowledges the influence, although his story does take a life of its own. The characters and the situation are different, not to mention Salles’ film borrowed from Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid. So maybe they all just owe a debt to The Tramp.  While I certainly didn’t see every feature at the Little Rock Film Festival, The Girl was one of the best I came across.

The Identity Theft of Mitch Mustain
Written and Directed by Matthew Wolfe

In the Natural State, one team sport rises above all the rest in the consciousness of Arkansans – Razorback football.  In the fall of 2006, Mitch Mustain, the most heavily recruited high school quarterback in the nation, arrived at the University of Arkansas to much fanfare and controversy. Along with his former Springdale High School teammates and coach Gus Malzahn, the group had a different playing style from then-coach Houston Nutt. The odd coupling of the offense quickly lead to a butting of heads and after Mustain lead the Razorbacks with an 8-0 record as a true freshman starter, Nutt benched him for sophomore Casey Dick. Eventually the pressure in the locker room came to a head, and, following Malzhan’s departure, Mustain decided to transfer to the University of Southern California, where he only started for one game during the remainder of his career.

Wolfe became intrigued with Mustain’s rise and fall in The Identity Theft of Mitch Mustain. The resulting documentary is an intriguing look at the value society places on sports and the pressure faced by individuals in leadership positions. Wolfe follows Mustain’s career chronologically and the controversies that surrounded him at UA and USC. The film is well paced and entertaining, a must-see for Razorback fans regardless of their feelings on the star. Wolfe showcases Mustain’s humor and existential crises.  The greater theme of the film – what if your destiny isn’t what you’ve prepared for – helps the film departure from the average documentary on sports figures and wayward celebrities.  The Identity Theft of Mitch Mustain had it’s world premiere at the Little Rock Film Festival, but given that it excels technically and in terms of storytelling, it will certainly achieve longevity on the festival circuit and beyond.