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SXSW 2023: No Ordinary Campaign, The Arc of Oblivion, Join or Die

“No Ordinary Campaign” is about activist Brian Wallach, a 37-year-old rising star in law and politics who was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a degenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. Wallach’s raising of public and government awareness helped lead to the Accelerating Access to Critical Therapies for ALS Act, which set up a private-public partnership for understanding and treatment. 

The film is a primer in ALS as well as a plainspoken movie about how hard it is to make a bad situation better when you’re part of a group that few know about. At the start of Christopher Burke’s film, we hear Wallach musing that it is impossible to truly understand specific kinds of marginalization unless they affect you. The rest of the movie illustrates that proposition, putting audiences who don’t have ALS in the shoes of those who do. 

Like so many ALS patients, Wallach didn’t know what the disease did to the body until he found out that he had it. People diagnosed with ALS tend to die of it within months or years. There currently isn’t much understanding of what causes it or how it might be managed or cured. Wallach’s activism officially began in 2019 when he testified about ALS before a Congressional committee, asking legislators to understand the unique difficulties of being part of a patient support movement that can’t build the power needed to effect widespread change because of swift degeneration and a high fatality rate.

The movie is also a subtle study of the power differentials that make change so difficult. “No Ordinary Campaign” depicts Wallach and his wife Sandra, who co-founded the nonprofit I AM ALS, as people who were born with advantages and accumulated more over the years, then were hit by a personal catastrophe and decided to use their connections and influence (he worked for the Obama administration, she founded two nonprofits) to help others with the same condition. The movie is presented and partly bankrolled by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which was founded by Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, and features Priscilla Chan, Mark Zuckerberg, Barack Obama, and other boldfaced names as interview subjects. But it avoids feeling like an orientation video or marketing tool by spotlighting individual stories of people with ALS, summarizing the effects of the disease with direct language and visuals, highlighting advances in medicine and understanding, and periodically acknowledging that most people with ALS aren’t in a position to do the kinds of things the Wallaches have done.  

The film is most engaging and inspirational when concentrating on the nuts-and-bolts process of educating people. "No Ordinary Campaign" periodically reconnects itself with Brian Wallach’s opening statement, as in a section where Dan Tate, Jr.—a lobbyist, ALS patient, and I AM ALS board member—says he was only dimly aware of the disease until he took part in the Ice Bucket Challenge, a 2014 viral marketing campaign that encouraged people to post videos of themselves having ice buckets dumped on their heads to raise awareness of ALS and inspire donations. “I gave my money to the Ice Bucket Challenge,” Tate admits, “and then kind of forgot about it until I was diagnosed.”  

Here, again, the movie focuses on the process of presenting a problem to an audience in a way that will make them feel emotionally invested in rectifying it: Tate talks about the results of a study that was commissioned to figure out if the Ice Bucket Challenge had a lasting impact on those who took part in it, and says half the respondents didn’t know what ALS was. The other half said, “they didn’t know what they were dumping ice buckets on their heads for.” “No Ordinary Campaign” shows how hard it is to make messages stick.

At the time that this column was filed, “No Ordinary Campaign” did not have a distributor. That needs to be rectified. This is an inspirational and enlightening movie, but also skillfully made and practical-minded. Its purpose is to ease suffering. That can’t happen unless it gets seen by as many people as possible.

Where “No Ordinary Campaign” is about facing life-or-death struggles that are right in front of you, “The Arc of Oblivion”—a documentary about time, memory, and record-keeping—looks simultaneously backward and forward, treating the present as an observation perch for storytellers (amateur as well as professional). Director Ian Cheney poses many questions, both in self-effacing voice-over and striking images (shot by Ezra Wolfinger), as he oversees the construction of an according-to-Noah ark on his family’s woodland property in Maine.

Cheney intends the ark to serve as a vault or time capsule containing all the recorded, written, and photographed ephemera he’s collected since childhood. The collection includes not just audio, video, photos, and written material by and about his family but things that don’t have immediate personal significance but that he decided to keep anyway (such as a framed 8x10 photo of a man he describes as the world’s greatest barber). Objects of mystery, too, like a photo slide box with the words “The Ark” written on the side by his father and then crossed out. But it only contains three slides: a shot of his mother sitting on a rock and two shots of red wine glasses in front of a pumpkin.

The ark is a manufactured unifying device for a movie that is, by definition, probably impossible to make coherent, much less tidy and tight. As Cheney guides the audience through setpieces built around loved ones and expert witnesses, the film becomes an ark of another sort, collating a couple dozen sketches of distinctive real-life characters, including documentarian Kristen Johnson (“Dick Johnson is Dead”), whose own work focuses on time, memory, and mortality; her brother Kirk Johnson, a paleontologist and fossil collector who fantasizes about being interred in at the bottom of the Mississippi River; Erin and Brian Palmer, married photographers who shoot cemeteries memorializing Black Americans from slavery through Jim Crow; poet; potter Yasmin Glinton Poitier, whose childhood home was destroyed in a hurricane; David Hoch, a limestone magnate and devout Christian who stops in to check the quality the concrete Cheney mixed for use in the ark’s foundation, then fetches a magic lantern and explains where the phrase “in the limelight” came from; Bogdan Onac, a speleologist (cave scientist) who has kept nearly every sample that meant something to him, and also collects art depicting hedgehogs and owls; and the director’s brother, musician Colin Cheney, who created the film’s ambient, abstract score by mixing the family’s personal audio and video with recordings of sounds that he produced by striking, scratching, rubbing, and otherwise manipulating objects their father kept in the family barn.

They all have their own thoughts on any subject Cheney raises, from record-keeping, preservation, and physical versus digital archiving to the way in which trees, rocks, minerals, animals, humans, even the land itself make records of their experiences, whether they take the form of limestone layers, the concentric rings of trees, or the hard drives, video and audio cassettes, and other testamentary objects that Cheney has accumulated (some broken and useless). Cheney’s film is executive produced by Werner Herzog and owes a lot to Herzog’s non-fiction work, particularly the more rambling and discursive projects he released during his Guru Emeritus period. “The Arc of Oblivion” travels to the Sahara, Spain, the Arctic, and the Alps but always returns to the farm where the ark is being built. It’s loosely held together by the personalities of the interviewees; by leisurely shots of landscapes, skies, and analog televisions planted in nature; and by Cheney’s earnest, self-deprecating narration, which often threatens to go Full Podcaster, then stops itself by introducing a surprising new location or idea, or by falling silent and letting us watch people talk, work, and think. There are times when the fragmented structure frustrates, seeming to move too slowly or quickly. 

But that’s always a risk with this sort of project, and “The Arc of Oblivion” owns it. Two hours isn’t enough time for all that it wants to do, but the movie knows this and knows that moviemaking is no different from anything else in that respect. There’s never enough time, and in the end, everything and everyone ends up as a tree ring. The “c” in the title is not a typo. 

“Join or Die” could have just as easily been called “Bowling Alone,” after the famous book that gives it a title and main interview subject, author Robert D. Putman. Putman, a political scientist specializing in comparative subjects, thinks it’s possible to quantify the decline in group memberships in America and outlined it in his surprise best-seller that blames the fragmentation of modern society on increased feelings of loneliness and despair. Bill Clinton asked to meet with him at the White House and paraphrased some of his ideas in his 1995 second inaugural address. Barack Obama awarded him the Humanitarian Prize, an honor of great emotional significance to Putnam: Obama was one of his seminar students in the ‘90s, and Putnam and his wife attended John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in the capital fifty years earlier.  

Directors Pete and Rebecca Davis expand on Putnam’s findings and include criticisms of a few of his assertions. In particular, there was pushback from members of certain demographic groups that don’t look back on the 1950s—the period of peak American participation in group activities, according to Putnam—as a golden era that we should all strive to return to. But none of these are dwelled on to such an extent that Putnam’s thesis is called into serious doubt. And viewers might have some questions of their own that the movie doesn’t even briefly entertain (such as: Is participation in groups always a good thing? What if the group is composed of transphobes, racists, or members of a terrorist cell?). 

To be fair to Putnam, he was never saying that every single American was better off in the middle of the 20th century, only that it was the peak for socialization and group activities, and it’s worth studying the matter to figure out correlation and causation. He was looking at things in a more value-neutral way, like an archaeologist studying the ruins of ancient Rome. According to him, America peaked sometime in the middle of the 20th century and has declined since then. He partially blames citizens’ declining interest in joining clubs, societies, volunteer groups, citizen review boards, and the like because he says that it's only by joining groups of like-minded strangers in order to make friends and have conversations that a nation’s development can take off. 

The Davises spend nearly as much time telling the story of Putnam’s life as they do exploring his theories. He’s an affable, sensitive person and a wonderful camera subject who never seems calculated, withholding, or insincere. He gets sentimental often, mainly at the thought that so many people latched onto a book that he never expected anyone but his colleagues to read.

Matt Zoller Seitz

Matt Zoller Seitz is the Editor at Large of RogerEbert.com, TV critic for New York Magazine and Vulture.com, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

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