Deep Web: Freedom and Repression in the Cyber World

alex-winterWritten, produced, and directed by prolific filmmaker Alex Winter, Deep Web is a brief introduction to the Internet’s underground—the deep web and the dark web. The film then focuses on the legal case of Ross William Ulbricht who was arrested, tried, and convicted of a variety of federal laws. 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 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.


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.



The Ghosts in Our Machine: The Work of Photographer Jo-Anne McArthur

“You connect with them because you’re looking in their eyes, and they’re looking in yours.” Jo-Anne McArthur

ronI have never had such trepidation about sharing my review of a documentary film. I know how hard the information and images in this film are to stomach, to let in to our minds and hearts. I know the reluctance to even start this film about animal abuse and slaughter.

For reasons I struggle to understand, it seems people can learn about the myriad kinds of injustice and destruction on our planet, yet it is the image and reality of animals being abused and slaughtered that creates the most emotional, the most visceral reactions—along with a concomitant hopelessness about how to stop the massive abuse.

Written and directed by Liz Marshall, The Ghosts in Our Machine covers the work of photographer Jo-Anne McArthur whose life is devoted to non-human animal rights and welfare. The film presents images from factory farms and slaughter houses, mink and fox farms, places where animals are used for testing, teaching, and research, dairy farms, and marine parks. Both Marshall and McArthur provide the images.

McArthur and Marshall also bring us to rehabilitation and rescue centers where we can see and hear a glimmer of hope—for non-human animals, and especially, for human animals.

The pictures and stories in this documentary are obviously devastating, the global reality they refer to is incomprehensible. Yet, it is crucial that The Ghosts in Our Machine be seen by as many people as possible.

I continue to be impressed by the quality of music in documentary films. The Ghosts in Our Machine is no exception. The delicate soundtrack is by prolific composer Bob Wiseman.

Note that the film continues its story throughout the ending credits.




Pictured: Ron

The Many Sad Fates of Mr. Toledano

Phillip Toledano is a prolific multi-media artist. Very multi-media, very prolific. Here is his CV.

sad-fatesThe Many Sad Fates of Mr. Toledano is filmmaker Joshua Seftel’s faithful coverage of iconic photographer Phillip Toledano’s three-year-long personal exploration of his fears of growing old. Based on DNA tests and consultations with fortunetellers, he acts out several fates that possibly await him in the next 40 to 50 years. (His wife calls it “immersing yourself in your fears.”) Seftel follows Toledano as he creates a set of elaborately produced tableau-like photographs of these possible fates—which include stroke, obesity, homelessness and suicide.

Almost immediately after the film’s beginning, I was thrust decades back to my reading of legendary psychiatrist Fritz Perls, who spoke and wrote of the ‘catastrophic expectation’ and how crippling it can be to live one’s life with haunting ideas and images of the worst that can happen—which is all to say that I was immediately empathetic with Mr. Toledano’s plight since I struggle with the same propensity.

Empathy aside, the extent to which Phillip Toledano pursued this project and the skills he brought to bear are utterly jaw-dropping. Seftel’s 26-minute film introduces the man, his mission, and follows the showbiz axiom ‘leave them wanting more’—of the project, its impacts, and of Toledano’s other work.

The Many Sad Fates of Mr. Toledano may be found in Season Five of the New York Times’ Op Docs Project. It can be viewed here.


The Red Pill: Cassie Jaye’s Fall Down the Rabbit Hole

In my introduction to Telling Their Own Stories: Conversations with Documentary Filmmakers I compared the watching of documentaries to taking The Matrix’s ‘red pill’ the act of which indicates the taker is committed to seeing the world as it is—not as they imagine or wish, just as it is.

captureCassie Jaye’s latest release, The Red Pill, is well-titled. Jaye decided to learn the core issues of something most of us have little to no knowledge about—the Men’s Rights Movement. When I first learned of Jaye’s latest project I was confused and befuddled about why she would tackle this seemingly non sequitur, politically-incorrect subject. But, I’d seen her first two feature docs, Daddy I Do and The Right to Love: An American Family, and understood that’s Jaye’s way. She chooses tough topics.

Jaye saw the Men’s Rights Movement as dominated by hate-filled misogynists promoting misogynistic policies and behaviors. She decided to see if her perception was accurate, and spent a year speaking with leaders and followers of the movement. Jaye emerged from her fall down this rabbit hole with a radically changed view of this movement, and of gender issues.

I confess. I was skeptical that Jaye was going to convince me of the virtues of this movement. I am passionate about women’s rights, and bemoan the many ways men mistreat and discriminate against the female gender—a worldwide phenomenon which seems registered in us males’ genes.

9-cassie-jaye-video-diaryJaye peppers her film with clips from the ‘video diary’ she made during filming. She documents her internal struggles with the information she is receiving. These clips enable us skeptics to be open to her conclusions—they make this red pill more bio-available.

She did it. Yes, there are misogynistic members of this movement, but Jaye reveals that the movement’s core issues are valid and deserve much more attention.

This is what the best of issue-based documentary films do. They challenge us with information we don’t want to hear, to accept. Cassie Jaye has become quite adept at creating and dispensing these red pills.


The Best Democracy Money Can Buy: A Tale of Billionaires & Ballot Bandits

greg-palast-3Written, directed, and starring Greg Palast, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy is another look at the usurpation of the United States’ government—and many states’ governments—by the wealthy and powerful. The film is as entertaining as it is infuriating.

Palast portrays an amalgam of journalist and noir film detective as he doggedly seeks the perpetrators of this mega-crime. Like environmental documentaries, we cannot have too many films about the destruction of our democracy and the concomitant abuse and exploitation of the American people—in fact, we need more. The Best Democracy Money Can Buy is a welcome addition.

The film’s central focus is the removal and/or denial of voting rights. Of necessity, Palast reveals the financial shenanigans that funded—and continue to fund—the purchase of our elections.

Every time I see a film of this ilk, I never cease to be amazed and frustrated that our elected leaders of the Lefty persuasion are not screaming bloody murder every day in response to the continued injustice in virtually every aspect of our daily lives—and that us Americans have not had a giant, unprecedented march on Washington.

Palast is new to me. His approach to filmmaking is to place himself in the center of the action. I’ve noted that this cinematic method makes the filmmaker more vulnerable to attacks by iconoclasts. I am not one. I enjoyed Palast’s performance, and especially admire his bravery and tenacity in following the money and seeking the perpetrators.

You can find the film by going directly to its website.

Talent Has Hunger: Seven Students, Seven Years

jackie-plays-at-the-juries_cuJosh Aronson’s Talent Has Hunger follows legendary cello teacher Paul Katz and a group of students over a period of seven years. The film is a rare opportunity and treat to experience the depth and breadth of skills required to master an instrument, and the dedication it takes to stay with the challenges of learning and changing over so many years—let alone making your instrument a life-long occupation and livelihood.

The students are charming and charismatic, Katz’s teaching skills and sensitivity are jaw-dropping. He does not subscribe to the stern school of teaching. Instead, he converses person-to-person, very much like speaking with a friend who’s asked him for some help with this or that challenge.

Of course, there is plenty of music to be enjoyed, and mind-boggling playing to see. But, the hero is Katz, a dedicated teacher with a lifetime of service—and students-turned-masters playing and teaching around the world.

Talent Has Hunger is a First Run Features release.

How to Dance in Ohio: ‘We like to socialize, but we don’t know how.’

Whatever the etiology, the number of children who develop autism has increased dramatically, if not exponentially. This tragic phenomenon has created an inevitable subculture—with micro-cultures within that subculture. One of those sub-subcultures is individuals ‘on the higher functioning end of the autism spectrum.’

htdio-still-5How to Dance in Ohio follows a group of adolescents who receive a variety of services at the Amigo Family Counseling center in Columbus, Ohio. The center was founded by Dr. Emilio Amigo in 1993. Amigo, as far as I can tell, is the source of the film’s inciting incident—a formal dance party at a local club.

Director Alexandra Shiva follows Amigo and his ‘higher functioning’ adolescent charges as they live, learn, and grow through three months of preparations for this high-stakes Amigo Spring Formal.

How to Dance in Ohio immediately went on my personal all-time favorites list. I am in awe of Amigo’s skills, dedication, and the care he provides this challenged and challenging population. I am in equal awe of filmmaker Shiva’s ability to so sensitively cover the lives and stories of these young people.

In addition to the delicate touch this film’s production required and received, I am also impressed with both the quality of sound and image the production crew achieved.

How to Dance in Ohio is distributed by Kino Lorber.

You See Me: Forgiveness Is Relative

stanley-natalie-linda-and-susan-brown-reading-pa-scaledYou See Me is a documentary film about the filmmaker’s family. Veteran documentarian Linda J. Brown tells her family’s story. She is searching for meaning, understanding, and resolution in the lifelong dynamics of this family. Her father, Stanley, is the central character, the central mystery.

Brown uses interview, narration, and a treasure trove of family movies to tell her painful yet touching story. The inciting incident for the film’s production was Stanley’s debilitating stroke at age 79.

Brown wanted to understand why her father seemed disconnected at times? Why was he abusive at times? What happened to him? Did he love his wife, Brown’s mother? The film answers these questions, and along the way we learn about each of the five family members.

When viewing a well-made documentary about a particular family it is inevitable that viewers find themselves reflecting on their family experience. You See Me is no exception. Brown has done an admiral job of digging, investigating, and exploring her family’s history to find her own resolution—and inspiring us viewers to reflect on our family experiences.