The Islands and the Whales

Commonly called the Faeroes, the Faroe Islands lie smack-dab between Iceland and Norway. Humans have lived in the Faeroes for about two millennia. Today’s 48,000 humans are self-governing, but do so under the aegis of the Kingdom of Denmark. The people have their own language, Faroese, and Danish is taught in schools. They live in a technologically modern society, and secure foods from the sea for their consumption and economy.

Produced, directed, and shot by Mike Day, The Islands & The Whales explores a dilemma faced by the people of the Faroe Islands. The seas and lands of Earth have been and continue to be polluted with mercury and, of course, many other chemicals. Ubiquitous mercury pollution comes primarily from the mining and burning of coal.

The far-north Faeroes are not suitable for agriculture. The people maintain the millennia-long tradition of hunting pilot whales. They keep their eyes on the ocean, and when a group of whales are spotted there is an island-wide alarm, men sprint to their boats, and if they’re ‘lucky,’ they’ll herd the pod to a cove, and slaughter the creatures. The islands are linked by underground tunnels, and the men communicate now with phones. That is, there is a rapid, country-wide response when a pod is spotted.

There is a broader issue: Bird and fish populations are being decimated by both hunting and environmental toxins.

A distinguished professor who has monitored mercury levels in whales and humans for 25 years has the unhappy, difficult job of informing the Faeroes’ people that they—especially their children—are being poisoned. His life has been threatened for informing the islanders of this sad, predictable fact of life. This is the central dilemma of the film—one which the entire human population of Earth is facing every moment.

Day covers daily life and community events, follows a few islanders on their hunts, listens to a few people share their opinions and experiences. He peppers the film with beatific, utterly stunning images of the islands, as he does with narration by an elder who speaks of the ‘huldufólk’ a kind of nature spirit who supports humans—but have ‘fled the light for the hills.’ They do not approve of man’s destruction and pollution of the land.

The Islands & The Whales is a masterfully crafted documentary film that reveals and explores our human defenses, fears, and ignorance as we approach our destruction of our ecosphere. I will make sure to see all of Mike Day’s films.

Mr. Gaga

Nope. Not the Lady’s husband, brother or father. Gaga is an approach to dance developed by Ohad Naharin, the subject of this masterpiece of documentary filmmaking written and directed by Tomer Heymann.

Heymann tells Naharin’s professional and personal biographies which begin in early childhood—since that is when the dancer began dancing. We follow the charismatic teacher from Israel, to New York, and back again. Naharin tells his own story, and Heymann saturates the film with a cornucopia of dance clips.

By film’s end I found myself stunned by the epic nature of this 100-minute film and the power of Naharin’s presence. The story and Naharin’s character transcends the subject of dance. I have viewed many dance films. Mr. Gaga is the most haunting.

The DVD is available from Icarus Films. I streamed the film via Netflix.


Almost Sunrise: 2,700 Miles to Healing

Almost Sunrise begins with this text:

“’Moral Injury’ is a wound to the soul caused by participation in events that violate one’s deeply held sense of right and wrong.”

Although not a prolific filmmaker, when Michael Collins makes a feature documentary, it is powerful, compelling, and haunting. His first feature, ‘Give Up Tomorrow,’ is unforgettable, as is Almost Sunrise, the story of two deeply wounded veterans of the Iraq war—wounded in heart and soul.

Iraq war veteran Tom Voss was suffering from PTSD, his marriage was on the line, his very life, too. Although a seeming non sequitur, Voss decided to go on a 2,700 mile trek from Wisconsin, to the Pacific shore of southern California. Anthony Anderson, his brother-in-arms also suffering greatly, joined him.

The two became a cause célèbre which was intended, of course—but the focus was on their healing from ‘moral injury.’ In a short 98 minutes, Collins covers the entire journey from before the beginning through after the end. In addition to their secular pilgrimage, the two found healing from unexpected sources.

This is yet another war-related documentary film that needs to be seen by all members of the United States Congress, Senate, the President, his or her Cabinet, and by the leaders and bureaucrats of our Veterans Administration. Many—if not most—veterans, are still not receiving the care and healing they deserve. In that light, I whole-heartedly encourage you to see and share Almost Sunrise.

I also suggest you visit the film’s website and click on Take Action where you can join me in signing the “Pledge to support Almost Sunrise in the movement to promote and expand complementary and alternative wellness programs for veterans and their families.”

The Keepers: Who Murdered Cathy Cesnik?

Ryan White’s The Keepers is a Netflix documentary series focused on the 1969 murder of Sister Catherine Cesnik, a loving, high-spirited, multi-talented young woman approaching the prime of her life. Both her character and personal story are fully worthy of this quality of respectful attention, but it is the perpetrators of her murder who are the de facto subjects of this series.

The inciting incident for producing this epic film is the unsolicited work of two former students who attended Archbishop Keough High School, in Baltimore, Maryland, in the late sixties—Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub. They wanted to know who killed Sister Cathy, their English teacher at the school, in November of 1969.

Their dogged approach revealed a story of the wholesale sexual abuse of high school students, a years-long crime which was hidden with the support of the police, the Church, and the government’s prosecutor. The story is not over. As I type, the investigation continues—as do attempts, feeble as they may be, to reform the Church’s culture of pedophilia.

The Keepers is a thoroughly engaging film that highlights the most horrific and the most compassionate of us human beings.

Having seen a few documentary and Hollywood films about the Catholic Church and sex crimes, I’ve come to the conclusion that the Church is a centuries-long Boys Sex Club. Yes, the current Pope has a campaign to rid the Church of this scourge, and that is, of course, a noble goal and initiative. I am skeptical, however, of how much reform has been implemented globally, or even how much can be implemented given the Church’s global reach and entrenched culture. For more background on the Church’s history of sex abuse, I suggest Alex Gibney’s HBO documentary Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House of God

I Am Jane Doe: The Fight to Stop Child Sex Trafficking in the United States of America

“We the people are the rightful masters of both Congress and the courts, not to overthrow the Constitution, but to overthrow the men who would pervert the Constitution.” Abraham Lincoln


Directed by Mary Mazzio, and narrated by Jessica Chastain, I Am Jane Doe focuses on three children who were ‘trafficked’—that is, raped countless times—and their families in their fight for justice.

The three, of course, represent the countless number of underage girls who have been and are being trafficked. These three are the lucky ones—returned to their families, now part of an incendiary documentary which reveals another gross negligence perpetrated by our system of justice.

Mazzio outlines many years of litigation to stop a website called ‘Backpage’ from publishing advertisements for sex with trafficked girls. The company’s seemingly unbeatable defense is Section 230 of the ironically titled Communications Decency Act of 1996. This statute indemnifies website owners from liability for third-party content on their sites. The vast majority of advertisements for sex with underage children—mostly girls—are on this international site which has generated hundreds of millions of dollars, probably more than a billion by now, of profit.

Mazzio documents the kind of support Backpage has enjoyed. The Center for Democracy and Technology and the Electronic Frontier Foundation both submitted legal briefs supporting Backpage in its cases against J.S. and Jane Doe—two of the three girls featured in the film. She also provides a Google-generated list of companies who contributed to The Center for Democracy and Technology. Funds from these companies were used to support Backpage in its defensive litigation. Here is that list: AT&T, California Healthcare Foundation, Facebook, Google, Inc., Macarthur Foundation, Markel Foundation, Microsoft, Open Society Institute, and Yahoo!

Mazzio’s film follows years of hope and defeat as parents and lawyers fight to have 230 amended. In an exceedingly rare circumstance for documentary films and their makers, I Am Jane Doe was privately screened in Washington, D.C., for members of Congress. As I type, renewed action is taking place to address this unspeakable state of law allowing for the ease of sex traffickers in plying their horrific trade.

I am fascinated. Would thinly-veiled ads for contract killings be acceptable? Probably not. Why are advertisements for the raping of children acceptable to so many federally elected politicians? to so many judges?

I Am Jane Doe is available from iTunes, Vimeo, Google Play, Amazon, Netflix, and DVD.


Miss Sharon Jones!: Soul Music at Its Finest, Drama at Its Highest

With Miss Sharon Jones! massively prolific filmmaker Barbara Kopple has delivered a joyful, tearful film about the trials and triumph of the formerly unheralded Sharon Jones. With grace, respect, and affection, two time Academy Award-winning Kopple follows the soul singer through a year of treatment for pancreatic cancer—one of the more lethal varieties of this disease.

‘Indomitable’ is the first word that comes to mind after seeing Jones suffer from her illness and its treatment, maintain her golden heart and joyful spirit, survive, and return to the studio and the road.

Jones is surrounded and supported by her band, The Dap-Kings—as well as her manager, steadfast friends, and her doctor who attends her triumphant return to the stage. Along the way Jones visits places of her past. She shares reminiscences—including the horrors of racism she experienced directly.

Coda: Tragedy and dark humor merged when Jones suffered a stroke while watching the 2016 election results on television. She was aware of this irony, and joked about the coincidence. Sharon Jones passed away on November 18, 2016.

Miss Sharon Jones! can be found in iTunes, Netflix, and possibly other on-demand sites.


Command and Control: Our Nuclear Arsenal Is Not Safe

But, we already know that.

One point that can be surmised from Robert Kenner’s Command and Control is yes, be horrified, but, no, don’t be surprised when there is an accidental detonation of a nuclear weapon on U.S. soil. I know, I know, a terrorist attack is also possible, but that’s another story.

Kenner’s film is an outline of a 1980 accident at an Arkansas-based Titan II missile complex. (William Jefferson Clinton was Governor at the time.) A worker used the wrong tool during maintenance of a missile, a fuel tank ruptured, and after many hours of confusion and panic which included mistakes made by the Strategic Air Command base thousands of miles away, the leaking fuel combusted. At least one crew member died, many were injured, and many were blamed and victimized by their Air Force leadership.

The film is a reminder. Yes, there have been plenty of nuclear accidents associated with non-military use, but our arsenal is still here—on the ground, in the air, and under the sea. (Are there weapons in orbit?)

In addition to covering this tragic accident, Kenner weaves information about the history of our arsenal into his film which, per usual, is another documentary covering a woefully under-covered issue of life and death which, in turn, is under the command and control of our government.

Like Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, Command and Control tells the story of a barely averted tragedy—the possible detonation of the largest nuclear weapon in our nuclear arsenal—the end of which we know, yet we are captivated by the story, and haunted by the impact it had on its players.

This story deserves the same high-budget treatment by Hollywood as given to Apollo 31. Our obsession with ‘defense’ and its countless and limitless weapons, however, will probably stymie any possible producers from initiating such a much-needed movie.

But, we have Command and Control, and it’s easy to find. You can stream it from its website, iTunes, Amazon, or Netflix.

BTW: Nuclear safety is an oxymoron.


Blood on the Mountain: Coal Mining in West Virginia

“Those mountain people who have been shut out of the world all these years, I know them. If I live…perhaps we can do the justice they deserve.” Abraham Lincoln

You go to the bottom of the website for Mari-Lynn C. Evans’ Blood on the Mountain and you find a section called ‘Partners.’ Beneath that section’s name is a list of 35 environmental, labor, and justice organizations supportive of the film’s production and distribution. This measure of support has helped create a standard bearing documentary about the history of coal’s impact on the people of West Virginia.

The film covers more than a 150 years of economic and environmental exploitation and the subsequent damage to the state’s land and people. Evans describes what appears to be a Balkanization of a State in order to create a single-industry economy and a brainwashed population with mental blinders to the massive forces dominating, controlling, and destroying their lives, land, and environment.

The film’s structure is built on the many accidents that have occurred in the mining of coal, and the tepid responses to those ‘incidents.’ Within that structure we learn about how the people’s lives have been impacted, introduced to a few of the perpetrators, and hear from authorities and experts about the massive tragedy that is West Virginia.

Although the film is not about the global environmental impact of coal extraction and use, it serves as a microcosmic view of how humanity has destroyed and continues to destroy the very sources of its existence.

Blood on the Mountain is a bitter pill—and would not, could not have been a powerful, captivating film if it were not so. It is documentary film at its best, and can make a difference in our future dialogs about coal, politics, and our ecosphere—if we watch it.

Sorry, Abe. Justice has yet to be done.

In addition to iTunes, Blood on the Mountain is currently on Netflix.


A Matter of Time: A Daughter’s Care for Her Mother

Casey Cohen’s A Matter of Time is as heart-wrenching as it is inspiring.

Cohen tells the story of singer/songwriter Kathryn Calder who, in the middle of her rise to indie rock stardom, found herself caring for her mother, Lynn, who was dying from the devastations of ALS—amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Mother and daughter had a deep, loving bond, and daughter didn’t hesitate to interrupt her career to care for her mother. One of the activities Calder included in her care was to entertain and express love to Lynn by writing and producing her first solo album. Calder set up a recording studio in their living room, wrote the songs, sang, played piano. She had members of her former band, Immaculate Machine, and current band, The New Pornographers—sit in on the tracks. Lynn’s room was next to the living room. The album is entitled “Are You My Mother?” and was released in 2010.

Although the film is intrinsically a call for support to find a cure, that call is graciously in background. The primary focus is Calder’s story, and the loving mother-daughter bond.

Casey’s film is deeply touching, the courage of mother and daughter, deeply inspiring.

A Matter of Time is distributed in the United States by First Run Features, and in Canada by Kino Smith in Canada.

Maiko: Dancing Child

At the age of 32, Maiko, a prima ballerina, decided to become pregnant, but did not decide to conclude her career. She kept on dancing several weeks into her pregnancy, suspended her career, delivered her child, and determined to regain her prima ballerina status.

Maiko was given that name at birth. It means ‘dancing child.’ No one knew the name portended two would be dancing.

Aside from seeing many documentaries about ballet, that terpsichorean word denotes a faraway foreign territory to yours truly. My best guess, though, is that for a 32 year old soloist to bear a child, make a triumphant return in one of ballet’s most challenging dances, Swan Lake, is an unprecedented phenomenon. I doubt this jaw-dropping phenomenon will ever be repeated.

My only kvetch about this film is that it is so captivating, so challenging to our credence, and so beautifully shot, I wanted much more of the story.

Directed by Åse Svenheim Drivenes, Maiko: Dancing Child is a First Run Features release.

Japanese Website