The Fear of 13

Nick MCU ProfileThe Fear of 13 joins the avalanche of documentary and narrative films about injustice in the United States of America. This film is not the usual socio-political polemic. Instead, it is a character study presented in a powerful and captivating ninety-minute monologue. The protagonist is Nick Yarris who was on death row for more than two decades for a murder he did not commit.

Yarris tells his own story. All the lines are his. Director David Sington honors those lines with evocative, atmospheric images that perfectly cradle Yarris’s narrative and deepen the viewer’s connection to the film and its character. Yarris’s story is classic, his presentation is thoroughly engaging, and his character is deeply inspiring.

Distributed by First Run Features, The Fear of 13 is a standard bearing documentary film that deserves a very wide audience.

Invitation to Dance

DanceInvitation to Dance tells two parallel stories: A biography of disability rights activist Simi Linton and a history of the disability rights movement over the last 4 decades. As Linton became active in this movement she discovered a unique focus on dance—and became known as ‘the instigator of dance’ in her national community.

The film honors its title well, there are many scenes of dancing in various contexts including professional. We are treated to dances produced by AXIS Dance Company.

Because of the many successes of the disability rights movement, we are more aware of those we refer to as ‘disabled.’ However much we may think we have adjusted our world to provide rights and access, there is much more to learn, to incorporate in our relationship with this community.

I was struck with several street scenes of disabled people practicing non-violent civil disobedience to bring attention to and further their attainment of rights. I’d watched these scenes countless times in television coverage of anti-war and civil rights causes, but never imagined this particular struggle.

This is a consciousness raising film. I now know more awareness is needed, more work to be done in securing full civil rights for the disabled.

Invitation to Dance is produced and directed by Christian von Tippelskirch and Simi Linton, and distributed by Kino Lorber.

Samsara

Boy, am I late to the party for this one. Samsara was released more than five years ago.

SamsaraI was watching Issabella Rossellini’s Green Porno Live on Netflix. The film kept freezing. After several tries I gave up, and began searching the site for something else, one that would not freeze.

The title Samsara intrigued me. I love knowing nothing about a film. Instead, I enjoy the process of discovery.

I put on the unknown, and was captured instantly. Like two recent films—The Pearl Button and In Pursuit of Silence—this film became a meditation. At times, a chaotic one.

When released from the film’s grip I ran to IMDBpro and discovered it was directed and shot by Ron Fricke—and co-written, co-produced, and co-edited by Mark Magidson who also worked with Fricke on Chronos and Baraka. I have seen Fricke’s brilliant work beginning with 1982’s Koyaanisqatsi—and then Chronos, Baraka, Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, and Fog City Mavericks.

His meditative films have a bad habit of leaving me speechless. With Samsara I was overwhelmed with the richness and clarity of images from the beatific to the horrific and everything inbetween.

There is one image that appears frequently throughout the film: The human face, looking into camera, piercing our eyes, seemingly our soul.

It would take several viewings to speak in detail about this film to sound anything close to erudite in an analysis. With a single viewing I can only speak from my heart: Samsara is a cinematic masterpiece that has a transformative impact on those who chose to let it in.

Better late than never.

(Pictured: Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson on set.)

Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art

Us humans have been messing with the Earth since we began cultivating the land.

charles_rossJames Crump’s Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art covers and uncovers a no-longer-obscure footnote of art history about a small group of artists who messed with the land for art’s sake.

In the sixties and early seventies this group ventured from New York to the American southwest to create land art—also called earth art. They were looking for much larger canvases. The land was both their subjects and their medium.

In a little more than an hour Crump covers the major players and the interested parties who supported, observed, and commented on their work. Most of the artists have passed on to even larger canvases.

But, the medium and the story continue. See, for instance Star Axis by Charles Ross. And take a gander at First Run Feature’s Levitated Mass about a project by one of the original Troublemakers, Michael Heizer.

Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art is a First Run Features release.

The Professor: Tai Chi’s Journey West

chengmanching_lookleftThe ‘Professor’ is what his Tai Chi students called Cheng Man-Ching (1901-1975). He is acknowledged as the master who brought Tai Chi to the west. Tai Chi student and Hollywood writer/director Barry Strugatz has told the Professor’s story in his first feature documentary the Professor: Tai Chi’s Journey West.

Although the black and white footage of Man-Ching’s work is grainy, with his film Strugatz has breathtakingly captured the generous spirit of a master practitioner and teacher. That footage is alternated with interviews of Man-Ching’s students who became teachers. By film’s end it is clear there is no way to measure the depth and profundity of Man-Ching’s contribution to our world. This is a documentary film you will want to share with your friends and family.

I’ve known and wondered about Tai Chi for decades. Seeing this film has inspired me to finally start taking classes.

the Professor is a First Run Features release.

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DREAM/KILLER: The Trials of Ryan Ferguson

DKJust as there cannot be too many documentary films about our environment, so there cannot be too many documentary films about prosecutorial malfeasance. The environmental damage perpetrated by us humans is ubiquitous. Twenty thousand inmates in the United States are innocent of the crimes for which they have been convicted and incarcerated.

Ryan Ferguson was one of them.

Andrew Jenks’s “DREAM/KILLER” is a superbly produced documentary film about a young man falsely accused, convicted, and imprisoned for a brutal murder. His father, Bill Ferguson, passionately pursued justice for his son. After ten years of non-stop activism, Ryan was released.

It is ironic, of course, to call a man who lost ten years of the prime of his life lucky. Irony aside, Ryan was lucky that his father had the ability, resources, and iron-will to sustain his quest for justice. Very few of the incarcerated innocent have that kind of blessing.

Our American justice system is corrupt to the core, each and every news story and documentary film about injustice in the United States testifies to that tragic fact. The more of us Americans who see and respond to these films, the faster we will implement much needed federally-based reforms—most of the malfeasance occurs at the local level. In the meantime, you may support The Innocence Project—and see the slideshow at the top of the home page.

DREAM/KILLER is distributed by Kino Lorber.

In Pursuit of Silence

“Retreating from the cacophony of the world is stepping towards everything that’s essential.” Pico Iyer

SilenceProduced, directed, and shot by Patrick Shen, In Pursuit of Silence is a masterpiece of documentary filmmaking. The film explores the psychological, social, and health impacts of sound, noise, and silence. Lessons learned about the grace, virtue, and power of silence—as well as solitude—inform every aspect of the film.

From the first few moments it becomes clear that In Pursuit of Silence is, in part, a meditation. Peppered throughout we hear from a variety of people speaking with insight and wisdom about our world of sounds and noise, and the critical role silence and solitude play for the individual and our social fabrics.

I felt encouraged when I learned about the work of Quiet Mark which tests and helps design equipment that operates with as little sound as possible. I was both not surprised and somewhat humored to learn of the work of The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy which, as the name suggests, promotes the practice of forest therapy.

Shen’s cinematography is stunning. Alex Lu’s gently captivating music draws viewers into the meditation. By virtue of its visual and aural power, In Pursuit of Silence invites multiple viewings. I imagined watching with sound only, and then watching with vision only. In any case, it will be watched many more times.

Consult the film’s website to find your way to the film.

Indian Point: A Nuclear Energy Flash Point

IndianPoint-IP_VALLEY_2-e1403040552447Written and directed by veteran filmmaker Ivy Meeropol, Indian Point is another look at our use of nuclear energy to power our electrical grids. She follows the antiquated journalistic dictum of giving voice to both sides of an issue.

Indian Point is an aging nuclear facility planted on the Hudson River, 35 miles from New York City. It is preparing for its re-licensing, and the usual pro- and con-forces are out yet again making their well-worn arguments. Fukushima, however, has super-charged the conflict.

Meeropol brings us deep into the Indian Point facility. With slow pans she effects the kind of ominous portent seen at the beginning of a disaster movie. Subtext aside, like most environmental issues, those who already have clear positions on nuclear energy will not be moved. Dogma and talking points reign. A third position emerges, though.

The film reveals our nuclear plants are aging, in need of upgrading or total replacement. The current Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s work is not in the public’s interest, as usual, but in the industry’s.

Nuclear energy is dangerous. Our cavalier treatment of it only heightens its danger. But, if we invest a few billion or trillion, we’ll be a little safer. For unknown reasons, one danger does not appear in Meeropol’s film. Terrorism.

By film’s end, even those who champion nuclear energy may take pause for our massive acts of omission in protecting our environment and our health. The above-mentioned third position requires reformation of our nuclear power regulation policies and procedures as well as a massive re-investment of funds. Those who are entrenched in their anti-nuclear positions, like yours truly, will not be moved by any position other than eliminating our use of nuclear energy to power our lives.

Our news media does not give appropriate coverage of nuclear issues—to make an understatement. No matter your position, Indian Point is your opportunity to consider an environmental issue that is virtually censored.

Over fifty million people live within a 50 mile radius of Indian Point.

Surviving the censor’s knife, Indian Point premiered at 2015’s Tribeca Film Festival. It is produced by Motto Pictures, and distributed by First Run Features.

Unlocking the Cage: Respect for Nonhuman Animals

posterDirected by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, distributed by First Run Features, Unlocking the Cage documents the pioneering work of attorney Steven Wise to establish personhood rights for nonhuman animals. As of the film’s production, Wise’s overarching strategy is to establish rights for chimpanzees, whales, and dolphins. I hope gorillas are next on the list. The film includes an utterly jaw-dropping clip of legendary gorilla Koko watching and responding to her favorite movie.

The film covers Wise’s team seeking the most appropriate nonhuman animals to represent in court, the struggles of that search, as well as courtroom litigation. Wise emerges as a sweet warrior smart enough to surround himself with even smarter women.

Wise works under the aegis of the Nonhuman Rights Project whose mission is “to change the legal status of appropriate nonhuman animals from mere ‘things,’ which lack the capacity to possess any legal right, to ‘persons,’ who possess such fundamental rights as bodily integrity and bodily liberty.”

At the conclusion of the film Wise characterizes his team’s progress as ‘the end of the beginning.’ Given the depth and breadth of our assumptions about who nonhuman animals are and are not, this is obviously a monumental initiative—one necessary, but not sufficient to solve our environmental crises.

The film’s theatrical opening is at the Film Forum in New York, on May 25. See the film’s website for more screenings across the nation. HBO will cablecast the film beginning in July.

The Amazing Nina Simone

Nina-1970FilmoreEast“With her voice, with her presence—whether it was silence, staring at the audience—she was challenging. Anyone who has experienced alienation finds a little bit of comfort in her music, and in her style, and in her courage to say what she wanted to say always—and never back down from it.” Kevin Allred, Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies, Rutgers University

Stunning—the critic’s go-to cliché when a film strikes so deep that the feeling of being changed by a film is impossible to describe. I reluctantly surrender to ‘stunning’ in describing the experience of seeing Jeff L. Lieberman’s The Amazing Nina Simone.

Lieberman tells the story of Simone’s triumphant and troubled life from birth to death. The over-arching tragedy is Simone’s untreated mental illness. Her ultimate triumph was her ability to suppress or transcend the wounds of her upbringing and give our world a lifetime of beauty. In less than two hours, Lieberman powerfully conveys Simone’s pain, raging talent, and complex character.

Lieberman wrote, produced, directed, shot, and edited his film. A filmmaker’s heart and soul is obvious to see in the documentary films I review. The loving connection with a film’s subject is rarer to find, and that connection between filmmaker and subject shines throughout viewing The Amazing Nina Simone.

(I was delighted to see and hear interviewee Eric Burdon in such fine form.)

Please see the film’s website to learn about screenings and the home video release.