Speed Sisters: An All-Woman Racing Team

Looking for a film that takes you to a place you’ve never been, presented a world you never conceived? You found it.

speed-sistersWith Speed Sisters director Amber Fares and crew take us to Palestine, and introduces the first all-woman car racing team in the Arab world. I can’t speak for you, but I confess my preconceptions were seriously damaged.

The five women racers don’t wear headscarves, or any of the attire associated with women Muslims presented in our media. That is, these women appear and sound quite Western—and they have a visceral passion for racing small automobiles on demanding tracks. Over the years they’ve developed a significant fan-base of males who attend the races.

Having broken through cultural barriers, the five women are still subject to the human frailty of organizational corruption. Their races are sanctioned by the Palestinian Racing Federation which seems to consist of one dude who makes up the rules on the fly—and is not swayed by logic or compassion.

The film follows the courageous women through two seasons of races, and spends time with them at home, on city streets, in stores, and struggling with the challenges of going to and from Israel—watch out for those flying tear gas canisters.

This may be the first time you’ve heard of female race drivers in the Arab world, but it is not your last. The women have already broken into international racing circuits.

A First Run Features release, Speed Sisters is delightful and inspiring. When you find yourself in Palestine, you will find plenty of cultural institutions reminiscent of home. For instance, it seems as if there is a ‘Stars and Bucks’ café on every street.

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Best and Most Beautiful Things

“This movie has good music, kinky stuff, a cute cat, romance, drama, and is definitely not normal.” Michelle Smith

michelle-smithDirector Garrett Zevgetis has had his first feature picked up for theatrical distribution—a rare accomplishment in the documentary film world.

In Best and Most Beautiful Things Zevgetis follows Michelle Smith for a period of time in her young adulthood. Smith has more than the usual challenges, though—she is legally blind. Now, that term is quite open to interpretation—let’s just say she is very legally blind. Smith has also been diagnosed with Asperber’s Syndrome—one of the more famous forms of something called The Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Zevgetis’ coverage includes Smith’s family: mother, father, three brothers, and, of course, the cute cat. Her parents are divorced, and she lives with her mother.

Slice-of-life stories, fictional or non-fictional, can be challenging to remain engaged with—especially in our cyber age. I found myself fully engaged with Michelle Smith—her presence, her character, her story, and the courage she displays as she struggles with multiple barriers and, most challenging—the world telling her who she is.

Stay in touch with the film’s website and its distributor’s, First Run Features, to find your way to this most gratifying story.

Llyn Foulkes: The Most Famous Artist You Never Heard Of

Llyn Foulkes is an LA-based carpenter, musician, composer, singer, yodeler….and artist.

foulkesCo-produced and co-directed by first-time feature directors Tamar Halpern and Chris Quilty, Llyn Foulkes One Man Band (the film’s full title) follows the multi-talented, self-absorbed gentleman through seven years of ups and downs. His life and work are driven, in part, by a rebellious nature.

The ‘One Man Band’ reference in the title is both literal and metaphorical. He is a multi-media artist who also writes, sings, and plays songs on his one-man-band for small audiences. The film is peppered with clips of those performances. (He seems to exclusively utilize the 2/4 time signature.) Foulkes’ one-man-band serves both as a music-maker as well as an art installation piece of his own creation which no one—including his family—may touch. One of his dreams is that upon his death this installation ends up in the Smithsonian Institute. (I guess its movers will have the honor of touching the ‘band.’)

In addition to plenty of scenes of Foulkes working and pontificating, we hear from his former wives and his children, a variety of art critics, and an avid collector—the late and legendary Dennis Hopper. In just a short 88 minutes our filmmakers capture Foulkes’ character, and his ambivalent relationship with the art world and his art.

Llyn Foulkes One Man Band is distributed by Kino Lorber.

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Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words

14249923_1818511575034008_7893490969621874714_oEat That Question is an introduction to the professional life and philosophy of legendary composer/musician/filmmaker Frank Zappa.

Director Thorsten Schütte chose the graceful approach to telling Zappa’s story exclusively through clips of interviews.

For those who are not or barely aware of him, Eat That Question reveals Zappa as a prolific musical genius, as well as a free and independent thinker who rails against those who are not thus. The film includes a plethora of video clips of the composer’s on-stage performances as well as orchestral performances of his long-form compositions.

Zappa is smoking a cigarette in some—if not most—of his interviews. As a fan I was devastated to learn of his untimely illness and death. I still am.

Distributed in the United States by Sony Pictures Classics, but not available from the company’s website, Eat That Question is a must-have for Zappa fans, and a quintessential introduction to the man and his work.

Among the Believers: Religious Strife in Pakistan

amongthebelieversAmong the Believers is as horrifying and gratifying a documentary as I’ve ever seen. Directors Hemal Trivedi and Mohammed Naqvi were given rare access to Abdul Aziz Ghazi, an Islamic cleric in Pakistan who—as of the time of production—heads a network of madrassahs called the Red Mosque. These are schools where children live and study. They are required to memorize the Quran—and learn no other subjects. Aziz promotes the severest interpretation of Shariah law. His schools cultivate terrorists.

Countering Aziz is nuclear physicist Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy who stands for non-violence and moderation. The film covers seven years of what appears to be an unending civil war in Pakistan—if not the entire Islamic world—over religious practices.

Distributed by First Run Features, Among the Believers is a window on a world we hear about, speculate about, but never see. This is a rare film, and I cannot recommend it enough. It captivates its viewer and never lets go.

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Vanishing Pearls: The Oystermen of Pointe a la Hache

vanishing-pearlsWritten, produced, and directed by Nailah Jefferson, the double entendre-titled Vanishing Pearls covers the impacts on a small town on the Louisiana coast devastated by the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Pointe a la Hache is a community of African American oystermen beset by decades of racism and economic repression. But, they created livelihoods for their families by oyster fishing.

The documentary chronicles the tepid, heartless responses by BP to the environmental damage the spill caused, as well as the economic devastation to this community. Although Jefferson weaves this story with plenty of information about the spill and the response, it is the human tragedy she reveals that leaves the viewer haunted by these victims who struggled mightily to rise above their victimhood and sought both economic and environmental justice.

Vanishing Pearls is distributed by African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement.

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Terra

001-ss1112n-0135Directed by Yann Arthus-Bertrand and Michael Pitiot, written by Pitiot, Terra is a beatific, passionate, bold documentary about life on Earth. The film is narrated in French, with English subtitles, and available on Netflix.

The narration is spoken in the first person, and that person is the spirit of humanity.

The focus is on the history of life beginning with lichen, and concluding with humanity’s environmental crisis. The images are utterly spectacular—I’d love to see the film on Blu-ray or 4K—and the narration approaches the poetic.

The film inspires the viewer to identify with the beauty and grace of nature, of our planet—as well as to take responsibility for our destruction of its ecosphere. At film’s end there is the requisite, if not perfunctory, hint that we can still change course, stop the destruction, and regain balance. My spiritual and optimistic friends will castigate me for my pessimism—the recent Presidential election makes matters much worse.

One of the many places visited in this journey is Bangladesh, a nation of 160 million in the cross-hairs of global warming. As I received the images and information about this country’s vulnerability I thought of the current refugee crises in the Middle East—lives uprooted, tens of thousands dying. I then thought of the inevitable surge of environmental refugees and deaths. How will the nations of our world handle the displacement of tens of millions of human beings? Hundreds of millions?

Terra is that rare documentary with the courage to address the human overpopulation of Earth. (Meanwhile I impatiently await a well-funded documentary that focuses on human overpopulation as the primary source of environmental destruction.)

I’ve seen way too many documentaries of this ilk to say that Terra is my absolute favorite environmental film. Let’s say it’s in my Top Five. No matter how many environmental documentary films you’ve seen, I cannot overstate the importance of seeing this one. The beauty of the images, the poetry of its narration put Terra in a category of its own.

Deep Web: Freedom and Repression in the Cyber World

alex-winterWritten, produced, and directed by prolific filmmaker Alex Winter, Deep Web provides a brief introduction to the Internet’s underground—the deep web and the dark web. After this introduction the film focuses on the legal case of Ross William Ulbricht who was arrested, tried, and convicted of a variety of federal crimes. Ulbricht’s case received wide publicity which appears to have been one of the goals of our federal government.

Ulbricht was identified as someone deeply involved with the ‘Silk Road,’ an online commercial enterprise which hosted the selling and purchasing of illicit products including drugs. Winter tells Ulbricht’s story up to and beyond his initital imprisonment. As presented in this film, Ulbricht’s trial occurred in a kangaroo court—several crucial rulings having to do with evidence and witnesses went against Ulbricht’s defense. The jury heard the prosecution’s case, but not the defense’s.

From beginning to end Deep Web is thought-provoking and emotionally charged. At stake are issues of freedom, democracy, security, public health, justice, oppression, cyber technology, and the massively destructive ‘War On Drugs.’

The Kino Lorber DVD includes four special features entitled Bitcoin, Tor, Surveillance, and an audio commentary by Winter.

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Pictured: Alex Winter

Gardeners of Eden: Saving Elephants in the Wild

gardenersofeden5Produced, directed, shot, and edited by Austin Peck and Annaliese Vandenberg, Gardeners of Eden is another look at our slaughter of elephants in the wild. The emphasis, though, is on initiatives to save wild elephants and end the slaughter.

The film reports that out of a population of 3.5 million, 300,000 wild elephants remain—and their survival is in question. The total elimination of wild elephants is still a tragic possibility.

Of course, information about and images of the killing of elephants are horrendous—yet it is critical that those images be captured and seen by as many of us humans as possible. But, in this film those images are kept to a minimum. In their place are images and stories of human beings fighting against poachers and for elephants—and other wild species. We see wounded elephants receiving treatment, orphaned elephants being cared for, and learn that those survivors are being successfully released back into the wild. Some of the females bring their babies back to the rehabilitation center for reasons we may only speculate about.

Gardeners of Eden is currently available on Netflix. By the way, the film’s world premier took place at the Mill Valley Film Festival, right on my own backyard.

Closure: A Documentary About Adoption

This story transcends geographical boundaries, racial boundaries, socio-economic and cultural boundaries. Although the film’s title denotes completion, this is a film about many beginnings.

screenshotangmeetingdeb300dpicg-jpgClosure is Bryan Tucker’s first feature documentary film. Quickly we see he is a natural-born filmmaker.

Angela was born of African-American parents in 1985, in Tennessee, and diagnosed at birth with plastic quadriplegia—the doctors said she would never walk. Angela was placed in foster care, and a year later adopted by a loving Caucasian couple from Washington state. Angela became part of a large family—her adoptive parents love children, and all but one are adopted.

Angela became a basketball player—so much for doctors’ pronouncements—finished college, and married a handsome young filmmaker named Bryan Tucker.

At a certain point in her young adulthood Angela decided to find her birthmother. This understandable initiative had powerful emotional repercussions for all concerned. We take several trips between Washington state and the Deep South, and experience the creation of many strong cross-continental family bonds. Get out your handkerchiefs.

Tucker tells this story of many twists with the aplomb of a veteran filmmaker.

Closure is a thoroughly engaging, charming, and gratifying story.

The film is easy to find. Just start right here.

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