Los Angeles from a bird's-eye view. Cars and more cars are pumped through the veins of the city of traffic. Travelling in a bus on Highway number 5 is Brian, Camilla Magid's first protagonist in her documentary Land of the Free. Aged 42, he has just been released out of prison where he served a long sentence of 24 years. In her first feature-length film the Danish director follows Brian into an unknown world of take-away coffee in paper cups with plastic lids up to the world wide web. Magid shows with tenderness the amusing moments of Brian opening an e-Mail account with Gmail, or asking a girl to meet him for tea or a salad.
The story of Brian reentering the world after having been convicted at the age of 18 for committing a murder would carry the film alone, but the director chooses to show a bigger picture of South Central L.A. generations left without perspectives. Magid finds an 18-year old Juan in a support group for reintegrating offenders. He is on probation and despite risking prison time constantly, no horrendous scenario can seemingly keep him off the wrong path.
The film does not tell us anything new about the causes for this cycle: disrupted families, no education, wrong friends and drugs are key factors. The precious moments in Land of the Free are the daily hassles: Juan sitting with his girlfriend and a baby daughter on the bed at home, showing fear when the shots are heard nearby. In this neighbourhood there is no feeling of a safe home. The sense of danger lurking just outside the front door is just as real for the youngest of Magid's protagonists, the 7-year old Gianni. The boy is basically locked up in the house by his mother Cezanne out of fear of him catching a bullet. The relationship is tense between the two, as the boy is becoming more and more aggressive and the mother starts only to realize what it has to do with her absence during a stint in prison.
Magid visits the support group over the span of two years and documents three generations pulled into gangs, drugs and crime in the neighbourhood. Like the opening shot of L.A., Magid's imagery poetically captures the streets of South Central in slow motion. She collects tracking shots of daily life on the streets from inside a car cruising the area. Crime scenes of police and victims lying on the ground seem to blend in almost naturally with the stylized scenery.
The cinematic style seems to fit especially well with Brian’s seeing the world anew. Brian is discovering his surroundings, and the camera expresses it with blurry images and the shifting focus. A reduced soundtrack of minimal guitar riffs supports the atmosphere but remains modestly in the background. Magid manages to stay close to its characters: the camera always sticks with the protagonists even when the conversation takes place in the room next door.
Unfortunately, the structure of the film frays out towards the end and closes with her protagonists planning the future, and a swift (but still long enough to come across as cheesy) image of Brian's wedding.
After starting out strong with an intriguing visual concept and a powerful protagonist in Brian – having everything necessary for the film to work to begin with – Magid’s first feature documentary loses ground by trying to capture the bigger picture.
Name: Sabine Kues
"Land of the Free" by Camilla Magid (DK, FI)
KVIFF 2017 - Karlovy Vary International Film Festival - Documentary Films (Competition)
C. Photo Credit: Land of the Free (2017)