Wormwood: MKUltra and the Death of Frank Olson

Frank Rudolph Olson died on November 28, 1953, when he fell from the 13th floor of Manhattan’s Hotel Statler. Olson was survived by his wife and three children. Legendary documentarian Errol Morris tells Olson’s tragic story in his six-part, four-hour Netflix film, Wormwood.

Wormwood is two films in one: A narrative about Olson’s participation in the infamous CIA/US Army program known as Project MKUltra, with Peter Sarsgaard in the lead role; and a documentary about the circumstances leading up to, and subsequent to Olson’s untimely death. The central character in the documentary is Olson’s son Eric who spent most of his life researching his father’s untimely passing. The two films are masterfully woven together to tell the story of Frank Olson’s death, of his son’s attempts to determine why and how his father died, and to hold the perpetrators accountable.

For those unfamiliar with MKUltra, it was a program that included dosing subjects with various drugs. While working for this program, Olson was surreptitiously given a dose of LSD. He became increasingly disturbed in the days after. Rather than help him or his family seek private help, Olson’s co-workers took care of him in those last days, keeping him away from his family. In an unbalanced state, he was a security risk. During this time Olson, accompanied by co-workers, was checked into a room at the Statler which had a policy that unbalanced individuals be checked into the lowest floor—this time, unenforced. It is likely the hotel was not informed.

Wormwood is a herculean effort which highlights a federal government out of control, not accountable for its destructive acts of commission and omission. The film’s conclusion regarding the tragic demise of Frank Rudolph Olson is equally murky and clear.

Editor Steven Hathaway deserves kudos for editing two different films into one jaw-dropping, eye-opening story.


The Pulitzer at 100

Produced and directed by Academy Award winner Simon Kirk, The Pulitzer at 100 celebrates The Pulitzer Prizes on the occasion of the hundredth year since its founding by Joseph J. Pulitzer.

The film features three brilliantly interwoven layers: Writers speaking of their work, the Pulitzer awards, and the power of the written word; celebrities reading excerpts of award winners’ works; and an outline of Pulitzer’s professional biography. Having been introduced to him by this documentary film, I would love to see an elegantly produced film or mini-series about Joseph Pulitzer.

The Pulitzer at 100 is thoroughly engaging, ceaselessly thought provoking, and deserves a wide audience. Kirk’s film honors Pulitzer, the Pulitzer Prizes he inaugurated, and, most significantly, writers of many genres.

The Pulitzer at 100 is produced by Simon + Film, and distributed by First Run Features.

(Pictured: Simon Kirk)

Cuba and the Cameraman: Forty-five Years and Two Hours in Cuba

Beginning in the early 1970s, prolific, well-lauded filmmaker Jon Alpert frequented Cuba with one of the earliest versions of a small, professional video camera/recorder. His focus was on the people—and Fidel. For forty-five years, Alpert was given seemingly unfettered access to Castro. The socialist dictator and the American media producer became fast friends.

Alpert also became friends with several salt-of-the-earth Cubans. With each journey south from New York he would visit—or, at least attempt to find—his group of friends.

Alpert and company wove this massive amount of footage into a two-hour documentary diary of the filmmaker and the country. The richness and charm of Alpert’s film are found in the eyes, voices, and stories of the many Cubans the filmmaker befriended—including Fidel.

Cuba and the Cameraman is distributed exclusively by Netflix.

Kedi: The Wild Cats of Istanbul

Ceyda Torun’s Kedi explores the world of feral cats in Istanbul. According to one Istanbulian, Norwegian ships inadvertently deposited the felines there many years ago. There are now hundreds of thousands of cats roaming the metropolis.

Torun’s focus is on the relationship between Istanbul’s cats and homo sapiens. The filmmaker follows several Istanbulians as they speak about and relate with their kedis who are free to roam about, yet faithful to their chosen human. It is the cat who adopts—if not rescues—the human.

One gentleman is very clear that it was one particular cat who rescued and healed him from his 2002 nervous breakdown. He has been devoted to caring for several groups of cats since. Some neighborhoods keep a community-based running tab at the vet, as well as public boxes for anonymous contributions—all to cover the costs of feline health care.

Torun also provides drones-eye views of Istanbul. It’s no surprise that development in the city is reducing the beloved cat population’s access to feral-friendly land. Barring a massive calamity, though, the passionate love the people of Istanbul have for their felines will protect their loved ones in perpetuity.


Extraordinary Ordinary People: Honoring Folk and Traditional Artists

Under the aegis of the Republican-threatened National Endowment for the Arts lives the National Heritage Fellowship—founded in 1982 by Bess Lomax Hawes.

The Fellowship conducts a national awards program that honors ‘our nation’s master folk and traditional artists with the National Heritage Fellowship Award.’ The honors are formally presented at an annual awards ceremony and concert. You may see and hear the latest ceremony here.

In turn, filmmakers Alan Govenar and Jason Johnson-Spinos honor the Fellowship with their richly produced Extraordinary Ordinary People. The two, of course, are honoring the artists, performers, and craftspeople. The number and variety of artists profiled in the film is overwhelming—that’s a good thing. The film and its website provide the uninitiated, such as your truly, all the images, music, and information necessary to follow up on any style, genre, or craft that tickles the fancy.

As of December 2017, the film is still playing in theaters. Stay in touch with the website, of course, to learn about theatrical screenings and the eventual home video release.

Extraordinary Ordinary People is a First Run Features release.


Pictured: Sheila Kay Adams

Nothing Is Forgiven: The Story of France’s Most Protected Woman

Nothing Is Forgiven tells the story of Zineb El Rhazoui, a Moroccan journalist/activist who immigrated to France to escape her country’s oppressive regime. El Rhazoui found Charlie Hebdo, the Paris-based satirical weekly that was attacked on January 7, 2015. Twelve people were killed, 11 were injured—most were El Rhazoui’s colleagues.

Through interview El Rhazoui tells her daunting story, and expresses her deeply-held convictions. As a well-known survivor she became ‘France’s most protected woman.’ In a very short hour, we are deeply impressed with the courage El Rhazoui embodies, her passion for peace, her agony for its lack, and bewilderment at securing said peace.

Nothing Is Forgiven is distributed in the United States and Canada by Icarus Films. The DVD and/or stream is not yet available for consumer purchase, but is available for institutional screenings. I suggest you check in with the film’s website from time-to-time for expanded availability.

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Cameraperson: The Shooter, The Shot, and The Viewer

Cameraperson is a unique documentary film consisting of clips from superstar documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson’s 25 years of work. The multilayered film is carefully crafted, and functions as travelogue, memoir, and philosophical statement on the relationship between filmmaker and subject.

The film takes the viewer around the world, and balances the mundane with the intimate and horrific—the inevitable experiences of a talented and prolific documentarian. Cameraperson deserves the attention and countless lauds it has received. Its images and subjects are unforgettable.

The film is available as a two-disc box set with a booklet which features an essay, ‘Getting Close’ by Michael Almereyda.




Disc two contains these special features:

• Editing “Cameraperson”
• In the Service of the Film
• Festival Talks
• “The Above”—a short documentary film by Johnson

I highly recommend seeing Cameraperson in this two-disc format.

Johnson’s career is far from over. Check out her IMDB profile.



Sick to Death!: Ignoring and Mistreating Our Thyroid Glands

Maggie Hadleigh-West’s Sick to Death! is a highly personal film which tells several health-related stories—her own struggles with thyroid disease, and those of the film’s interviewees. The film provides crucial information about conventional medicine’s seemingly willful ignorance of how to accurately diagnose and successfully treat thyroid dysfunction. It is on this basis alone that I highly recommend this film.

However, Hadleigh-West’s thyroid focus serves as a springboard to get to the inevitable source of conventional medicine’s thyroid negligence—our greed-based medical system which keeps costs astronomical, stifles medical practitioners from utilizing non-allopathic treatments, and makes the United States last among 11 developed nations in quality of healthcare, and first in terms of healthcare costs.

The film’s website provides resources for viewers who wish to follow up on the crucial information Hadleigh-West provides.



(Pictured: Maggie Hadleigh-West)

Rebels on Pointe: Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo

“I love dance. I’m putting my heart on stage. My soul is dancing. It’s not just me. It is like I am living a dream.” Carlos Hopuy, a dancer and a Trock.

Americans’ perspectives on gender identity and sexual behavior are going through a dizzying expansion. Having seen Bobbi Jo Hart’s Rebels on Pointe it is obvious that the more than 4 decades of the ballet company called Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo is one of many forces which has nurtured that opening of minds and hearts.

For the uninitiated, the ‘Trockadero’ is a ballet company which features male dancers in drag—dressed, wigged, and made up as ballerinas. Their performances merge ballet with physical comedy, and their appeal is universal.

Hart introduces the troupe, spends time with a few of the dancers, hears from dance critics, company staff, and offers plenty of performances in her ninety minute documentary.

Trockadero artistic director and former company dancer Tory Dobrin appears frequently throughout the film providing a sense of the company’s history. Dobrin affirmed the sense of Trockadero’s social impact I was picking up when he commented, “In our own way, we’ve exposed millions of people to a gay sensibility. And, we did it with a lot of talent and a lot of good cheer. We have definitely made contributions to opening up society to things that are a little bit different than the straight and narrow.”

I found the film’s heart in hearing from the featured dancers (also known as ‘Trocks’) as they speak of the impact the Trockadero has had on their lives and families—and, much to my amazement—as they apply their own elaborate makeup.

Rebels on Pointe tells the story of a unique ballet company, and also a story about the changing of our world. The film is distributed by Icarus Films.


TWISTED: A Balloonamentary

When viewing documentary films on a regular basis, one must include whimsy and lightness—for one’s mental and spiritual health.

When I discovered Sara Taksler’s and Naomi Greenfield’s TWISTED: A Balloonamentary I took my own advice and consumed it immediately.

Although the film’s topic is whimsical, the countless people around the world who twist balloons to create various and sundry objet d’art for fun and profit are as passionate about their work as they are fascinating—with a soupçon of bewildering.

The film’s stage is the profession’s most prestigious convention called Twist and Shout—one of many such conventions peppered around the Earth. Taksler and Greenfield feature a handful of twisters who share their passions and stories. I noted one twister who makes Christian-related pieces contrasted with another who features adult-oriented balloon art.

The film features people who:

• Twist

• Teach twisting, teach how to teach twisting to twisters and non-twisters, and/or teach how to make a living twisting

• Publish books and related material

• Design and market balloon twisting kits

(I know. The secret is out. The Universe is made of balloons.)

Presiding over all is a ‘Balloon God’ by the name of Marvin L. Hardy who waxes poetic when he recites:

Yes, tis just a tube of latex filled with air, 
yet filled with every possibility,
It has no limit but man’s imagination,
It can become whatever the mind can see.

The countless pieces of balloon art seen in the film fully endorse Mr. Hardy’s verse.

TWISTED is pure fun and fascination—yet, BTW, is not without serious drama. If I was a Hollywood mogul I would greenlight a Christopher Guest-style movie set in this twisted world.

You can find TWISTED here—on the right side of the screen.