A Good American: The Odyssey of William Binney

Buried within the terabytes of data at one or more of Netflix’s server farms is the most incendiary documentary film I’ve seen to date: A Good American—a film about malfeasance, corruption, and ineptitude at our National Security Agency, and above.

Director Friedrich Moser tells the story of a tragically terminated NSA program called ThinThread which was designed to provide national security and protect privacy. The program was shut down a few weeks before the 9/11 attacks. A test to see if the shuttered program would have probably prevented 9/11 proved positive.

Add to that agonizing revelation the self-aggrandizing power politics that led to subsequent massive waste and incompetence at the NSA, and you will understand why almost every reviewer of this film expresses outrage in various and sundry forms.

Bill Binney, the film’s central character, is the originator of ThinThread. His NSA support team were Ed Loomis, Diane Roark, and J. Kirk Wiebe. Jesselyn Radack—National Security and Human Rights Director at ExposeFacts—supported the team when they experienced horrific governmental retaliation. Raddack is also one of the three whistle-blowers featured in the film, Silenced.

A Good American is another absolute must-see documentary film.

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The Farthest: Voyager In Space

Prologue: It is rare that I play a movie at home and not press pause. I did not press pause, nor avert my attention as I watched Emer Reynolds’ The Farthest—his feature documentary about the Voyager missions through our solar system, and the first penetration into interstellar space by human-created objects.
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Launched in 1977, the two Voyager spacecraft explored Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Voyager 1 entered interstellar space on August 25, 2012.

Key participants in the Voyager program tell the story of the building of the vehicles and their controlled wanderings through the solar system. There are several points in the interviews where various interviewees come to tears as they tell their story. The raw fact that human beings and some of our creations have left the Earth is awesome. As The Farthest tells its story with voices and images, that feeling of awe, of overwhelm, of humility deepens.

Near films beginning, one of the interviewees relates that as the Voyager program was initiated, and the craft were being built, the public’s attention was diverted from the craft and their journey to something called The Golden Record —a phonograph record of music, voices and images—placed on each of the craft. The story of that recording is worthy of its own documentary film.

Coda: Soon after the film began flowing on my television screen, I was reminded of The Inner Light—an episode from the Star Trek: The Next Generation series. In it, Enterprise Captain Jean Luc Picard collapses unconscious on the bridge. As his crew attempt to revive him, he lives another lifetime, as another person, on another planet. The planet’s sun is on the verge of going nova. The advanced civilization orchestrated this mental kidnapping of Captain Picard in order to have at least one entity in the multiverse remember their existence, their world.

There are two or three oblique references in The Farthest to the environmental degradation of Earth by human beings. It is clear that our ignorance, greed, and carelessness has done and continues to cause irreversible damage to our ecosphere. The only question is the scale of impact this damage will eventually create. But, we can peacefully rest in the knowledge that somewhere in the multiverse, human-created radio waves and space craft may be found, and that someone, somewhere will acknowledge our existence.

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ACORN and the Firestorm: The Brief Tumultuous History of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now

“I think there’s bigger fish to fry out there than them.” Travis Munnerlyn

In ACORN and the Firestorm, directors Reuben Atlas and Samuel D. Pollard present the history of ACORN focusing on the surreptitious video recording by Hannah Giles and James O’Keefe of a staged attempt to secure support from the organization in the creation of a brothel utilizing underage girls. The American Right jumped on the story, and ACORN was forced to reorganize with severely limited scope.

A political activist organization working on behalf the disenfranchised—the lower socio-economic class of the United States—ACORN grew into a movement of 450,000 members, receiving both private and governmental support.

Internal forces and massive external initiatives assured its demise.

The two stars of this show are the aforementioned Munnerlyn and Bertha Lewis.

Munnerlyn, the ironic star, is an elderly Floridian, a died-in-the-wool Republican, and an ACORN member. His home was on the chopping block during the 2008 financial fiasco, and it was ACORN that saved his home. Brooklyn’s Lewis rose through ACORN’s ranks to the CEO position. Lewis left that position, and founded The Black Institute.

First Run Features release, ACORN and the Firestorm is a classic David and Goliath story, only both combatants are still alive—in various forms—and still fighting over the heart and soul of the United States. Goliath is winning, and, above that, seems to be destroying the game board.

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(Pictured: Travis Munnerlyn)

The Work: Intensive Group Therapy at Folsom Prison

“So, let’s remember Don, he talked about the intent. Right there, next to the wound, right there, next to the pain. When we go deep, when we go down to the bottom, right there next to where we hurt the most is where our medicine is at. Let’s remember that.” Group Therapy Participant at Folsom Prison

Thirty miles north east of Sacramento, California, in an area called Represa, lies the legendary maximum security Folsom State Prison. Inside the prison is another prison called New Folsom Prison where inmates participate in weekly group therapy as part of an overall rehabilitation program. Twice a year, with prison approval, members of the public are invited to join inmates for four days of intensive group therapy.

Directors Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous cover one of these four-day programs in their documentary, The Work. McLeary and Aldous capture gut-wrenching moments of human beings delving into the genesis of their inner wounding.

This is as must-see a movie as a must-see movie can get.

Yes, the movie is about a progressive state-run program that is garnering positive results. It is also about you and me. If you are not deeply moved by experiencing the work done in The Work, you simply haven’t seen the movie.

The Work premiers online on Topic.com on June 5.

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Bird of Prey: Saving the Rarest and Largest Eagle on Earth

Eric Liner’s Bird of Prey covers herculean efforts to save the endangered Philippine eagle. There is very little old forest left in the Philippines. Consequently, the numbers of this magnificent avian creature are estimated between 100 and 800 individuals.

Neil Rettig is the film’s central human character. In 1977, he provided the first moving images of the Philippine eagle. The current film is peppered with shots from that footage. Most of the film covers Rettig and team’s recent return to find and film the eagle again, as well as to cover Philippine-based conservation efforts.

The film’s cinematography is exhilarating, but I’m inured to excellence in nature photography and cinematography. I am, however, in awe of the balance achieved by Bird of Prey. The majority of environmental documentaries provide disturbing, if not horrific, information about and images of our destruction of the Earth’s ecosphere—followed by cold comfort, a little something you can do.

At the moment there is not enough forest to support the numbers of individuals it takes to sustain the Philippine eagle population, and it is not clear what can or will be done. But, efforts are being done, and the filmmakers provide a significant amount of coverage to those Philippine-base initiatives. Let it not go unsaid that this film is also a monumental effort to bring attention to the Philippine eagle.

Adding up the beautiful cinematography, the skill and danger required to capture this very rare footage, and the carefully balanced editing, I do not hesitate to say that Bird of Prey is a masterpiece of documentary filmmaking. I truly hope that the film finds a monumental audience.

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Strangers on the Earth: Walking the Camino

Triston Cook’s first feature documentary—Strangers on this Earth—introduces the uninitiated viewer to El Camino de Santiago, a UNESCO World History Site. This 500 mile walking path—or pilgrimage, depending on one’s beliefs—is located in northern Spain.

The film also introduces cellist Dane Johansen, one of the film’s producers, and one of several walkers featured in the film. Johansen serves as an unofficial host of the documentary, and provides the film’s music—solo cello, of course. Johansen carries his cello in a large white container on his back, providing concert performances along the way.

Johansen and his walking peers share their thoughts about the Camino—especially its meaning and impact on their lives. After hearing so many ideas about the walk, one may conclude completing this trek is a metaphor for an entire life lived.

While hearing all the voices, and listening to Johansen’s music, Cook provides dramatic and beatific visuals of people, and, especially, places throughout northern Spain. I was jealous of all the wind farms Spain has installed, wishing Quixotically that our nation would be so conscientious.

Caution: Many viewers will likely consider walking the Camino, pondering life, death, God, spirit, and blisters.

Strangers on this Earth is a First Run Features release.

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(Photo of Dane Johansen by Kayla Arend—courtesy of ‘Strangers on this Earth’)

Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf

“For me, garden design isn’t just about plants, it is about emotion, atmosphere, a sense of contemplation. You try to move people with what you do. You look at this, and it goes deeper than what you see. It reminds you of something in the genes—nature, or the longing for nature.” – Piet Oudolf”

Five Seasons is a documentary film for people who love flora, and for people who are curious about same.

Director Thomas Piper profiles garden designer Piet Oudolf. Through the aforementioned five seasons we see Oudolf drafting illustrations of garden designs, hear him waxing philosophical and telling his story, and view garden creation from the ground up.

Five Seasons is an expertly produced film the quality of which is mirrored by the beauty of Oudolf’s creations—and his character. You may see samples of his work here.

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Morgenthau: Three Men. Three Generations. One Fight

Released in 2015, 7th Art’s Morgenthau is one of a countless number of documentaries that deserve a much wider audience. The film is both a series of history lessons that encompass three centuries, and profiles of three noble human beings: Henry Morgenthau Senior, United States Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire; Henry Morgenthau Junior, United States Secretary of Treasury under Franklin Roosevelt’s administration; and Robert M. Morgenthau, District Attorney of New York County for over 30 years. Their professional lives played out on highly public local, national, and international stages.

In addition to shared DNA, all three found their way to a shared ethos which can be glibly-yet-accurately described as ‘do the right thing.’ In the case of the three gentlemen, they would expand this simplistic ethical principal by prefacing the adage with ‘When in power.’

The not-so-sub subtext of this film is: Look at who and what are in power in the United States now. That contrast is the most important reason to see Morganthau and to bathe in a little inspiration contemplating the possibilities of noble leadership.

Having released hundreds of feature documentaries through his company, Seventh Art Releasing, Jake Bart is one of many unsung heroes in the documentary film world. I’ve seen several 7th Arts titles, and intend to see many more.

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Tribal Justice: An Innovative Approach to Justice for Native Americans

Yours truly brings a bias to the understanding and reviewing of Anne Makepeace’s Tribal Justice. That bias is one of being a champion of ‘restorative justice’—a compassionate approach to justice, one not based on revenge and punishment. There are elements of restorative justice in the stories Makepeace tells in her moving film of lives renewed.

The setting is California, two Native American tribes—the Yurok in the north, and the Quechan in the south. Our heroes are Claudette White, the Quechan judge, and Abby Abinanti, the Yurok judge. We see both judges at work supporting people who are struggling with themselves and their world, helping them avoid our nation’s conventional system of justice with its violence, high recidivism rates, and injustice.

California tribes have the option of coordinating their judicial proceedings with the State’s. You can learn more about the genesis of this tribal/state cooperation here.

Makepeace follows several Native Americans through the tribal judicial process which includes crucial elements of societal support to these individuals. The impact is simple and clear, this judicial system promotes dramatically positive outcomes. Tribal society wins, as does the greater society.

There are no adjectives strong enough to encompass our nation’s treatment of Native Americans. One small but meaningful gesture we all can make is to inform ourselves of this treatment and its horrific impact by simply viewing documentary films on the subject. Tribal Justice is that rare documentary film which highlights an enlightened approach to justice for Native Americans, one which I hope will spread throughout the United States.

Coda: Composers of music for documentary films rarely get acknowledged. The music of Chris Ruggiero perfectly encompasses the beautiful stories told by Makepeace’s film.

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(Pictured: Abby Abinanti)

The Cinema Travellers: Life with an Indian Traveling Movie Theatre

Mohammed runs a travelling movie theater in India. Prakash repairs 35mm film projectors—and has designed and built one of his own. These are the two principals in Shirley Abraham’s and Amit Madheshiya’s The Cinema Travellers. The two filmmakers hang out with Prakash, and follow Mohammed’s theatre around India. They do not provide narration, none is needed.

Sometimes called ‘Akshay Touring Talkies’ or ‘Sumedh Touring Talkies,’ the entire theatre—including a very large tent—fits into a barely drivable truck. Everything in this traveling movie house is all rusted and dusty, worn and torn, crumbling, barely functional. But, it still works with the blessings of vibhuti and incense, turmeric and vermillion.

Loud speaker announcements of the evening’s entertainment are blared throughout the day. After the tent is raised, and there is still plenty of day time, children gather, dance, and play in its abundant shade. The canvas covered theatre cannot protect its audiences from the occasional elements of wind and rain. Prakash’s business, too, is victimized by rain and heat—invaluable 35mm prints are damaged beyond repair.

Prakash steals this entire show, though, as he emanates irresistible charm when speaking of his work and the projector he designed.

The Cinema Travellers is a documentary about people who love movies, for people who love movies.

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