Catnip Nation

“There are about as many feral cats in the United States as there are pet cats. So that would put them anywhere from 70 to 90 million.”
Kathleen O’Malley, Director of TNR (Trap-Neuter-Return) Education, NYC Feral Cat Initiative

Tina Traster’s Catnip Nation addresses the fates of these millions of feral cats, and the human conflicts that determine those fates. The central conflict is between compassionate people who want to care for the cats by providing food, water, and shelter, and those who want to make these acts of compassion illegal.

A prolific veteran journalist, I found Traster’s statement about her film to be so poignant it needs to be the body of this review:

“I have lived with and loved cats for ages. Cats have it rough. There are too many in shelters who are never adopted, and millions who are euthanized. Those cats that are lucky enough to be found and adopted usually bear the physical and emotional scars of a difficult beginning.

“The idea to make a documentary on cats began as an ode to these enigmatic, graceful creatures, but my journalist’s compass quickly led to a darker place. Little did I know there are an estimated 90 million feral cats living wherever they find a food source. Nor was I aware that so many well-meaning people who are trying to help these animals are oppressed and persecuted by outdated laws or uneducated politicians.

“We trained our cameras on four individuals who have put everything on the line to fight for a voiceless population. Our characters show us what it’s like to be punished for acts of kindness. They are willing to risk arrest and imprisonment. They’ve transformed their own lives in the fight to teach others about humanity and the responsibility we as a human race have to care for creatures who live in a netherworld between pets and wildlife.

“‘Catnip Nation’ is not a pedagogic platform to preach about a movement known as TNR (Trap Neuter Return), in which cats living in groups are overseen by caretakers who fix and vaccinate them and feed them until they die off. But the film is inadvertently designed to enlighten. The goal of TNR, a spreading practice worldwide, is to winnow down cat colonies until the closed-system fades away. TNR is complex because it requires buy-in from government, law enforcement and grassroots citizens, who almost always do the real work.

“In ‘Catnip Nation’ we learn about this national crisis through the adventures of four main characters. I made a conscious decision to let our characters’ lives and the hurdles they face tell the story. It is effortless to get swept up into their stories – seeing firsthand what it’s like to risk jail to feed and water cats. Or to feel the wrenching pain of being separated from a group of animals that you’ve become attached to. Naturally we see these people as trailblazers, as human rights activists because in essence they are fighting for their own rights to help cats. We see these people fight, try to work within the system, and find ways around it in order to elevate their causes.

“Film goers crave inspirational role models. We love Erin Brockovich because she fights the system. We admire outliers who move the needle. We celebrate caped crusaders who perform daring feats of bravery. Our characters do all these things.

“Sometimes a documentary maker, or a journalist, knows the story she wants to tell. I believe it’s more powerful when an artist learns the story as she goes, when the horrific details and inspirational revelations tell you where the story is lurking and its drumbeat leads you to a place of darkness and light. Then you feel the privilege and the responsibility to make that story your own. That is what I hope I’ve done with ‘Catnip Nation’”.

Yes, indeed, Tina Traster has made this very well told story her own, and now it is also our story. Stay in touch with the film’s website to find the film.

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Community First, A Home for the Homeless

Community First! Village is a 27 acre master plan community designed specifically to lift the chronically homeless off the streets of the Austin [Texas] area, into a place they can call home—heal from the ravages of living in the streets, rediscovering a purpose in their life, and then going out, and beginning to care for others in the world.

“I believe that the homeless need to be valued, that the homeless need to be seen, that every human being has two fundamental innate characteristics from the moments we are created—one is to be wholly and fully loved, and secondly, to be wholly and fully known.” Alan Graham, Founder and CEO of Mobile Loaves & Fishes

Layton Blaylock’s Community First, A Home for the Homeless presents a compassionate, sustainable, and comprehensive response to homelessness in the United States—the aforementioned Community First! Village.

Based in Austin, Texas, the Village is organized under a service organization called Mobile Loaves & Fishes which also includes two additional organizations—Truck Ministry and Community Works. As you may read from the website, there are a host of services provided to the formerly homeless by these three organizations.

Blaylock interviews formerly homeless people at the Village, along with the many service providers who live and work there. As the film’s host, Graham tells his personal story of the inner transformation that inspired his leadership and its many initiatives. We hear directly from the formerly homeless, as well as the people serving the many programs of Mobile Loaves and Fishes. As they speak, a living vision is formed of a vibrant, growing community that is really a community—not just a development—based on care, service, cooperation, and love.

And, it is not just the formerly homeless who benefit. The many people supporting this comprehensive initiative are finding meaning and gratification supporting this thriving community.

As I learned of the workings of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, heard the stories of the people involved, and plans for the continued growth of this community, my jaw dropped, I became amazed, awestruck with the love, intelligence, and skills behind the creation of this community.

This story of human compassion and care Blaylock has cinematically told highlights the urgent need for documentary films. It was by pure chance that I found this film. Mobile Loaves and Fishes should have made the mainstream news—perhaps it may eventually do so. Yet, we do have this expertly shot and edited film to see—and, especially, to share.

Blaylock has also produced what I consider to be a companion piece to Community First, A Home for the Homeless called Art from the Streets about a program that supports formerly homeless people to create art and sell at an annual exhibition.

Community First: A Home for the Homeless is a production of infernoFILMS

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For Sama

For Sama is director Waad al-Kateab’s five years of experience living through war in the Syrian city of Aleppo. Her documentary is ‘a love letter’ to her daughter, Sama, who was born into violence and chaos. Journalist al-Kateab filmed throughout the five years, and narrates the documentary. “Sama,” she voices in her love letter, “I’ve made this film for you. I need you to understand what we were fighting for.”

The Syrian Civil War is one of seemingly countless struggles in the Middle East. Although al-Kateab provides a few basic points about the forces generating this civil war, her focus is on her family’s experience of living under siege—in this case ‘siege’ is code for bombings.

As these bombings begin and continue, we see people of Aleppo exude a spirit of hope and determination, and then that spirit is dissipated in the relentless bombings—the injuries, the traumas, the deaths, the destruction. At film’s end we follow the family through their harrowing ride from Syria to freedom.

The bombings and strife are, of course, horrible. al-Kateab’s story-telling and resolute filming are nothing less than awe inspiring.

For Sama has won at least 35 festival awards, and is one of five feature documentary films nominated for a 2019 Oscar.

Nainita Desai also deserves accolades for her subdued yet haunting soundtrack. You may hear the entire soundtrack by scrolling to the bottom of the homepage and clicking on its link.

The film has generated a movement called Action for Sama, a campaign to end the targeting of health care facilities in Syria. al-Kateab has submitted her archive of film, photographs, and documents as evidence of war crimes.

For Sama is the most striking, searing documentary I have viewed to date. I am grateful to have found the film, grateful that it was produced, and, especially, that it is receiving the recognition it truly deserves.

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The 600: The Soldiers’ Story

“We are alive because God used them to rescue us. And they had the passion to that we would live again. That is the pleasure that we have, and we are thankful for that.” Survivor of Rwandan genocide.

The ‘them’ in this grateful survivor’s statement is a battalion of 600 Rwandan soldiers who saved countless lives and were instrumental in ending the carnage. The soldiers were part of a movement to bring lasting peace to the nation. The military facet of this movement was known as the Rwanda Patriotic Army (R.P.A.).

The context for this story is the long-standing conflict between two tribes: Hutu and Tutsi. There had already been smaller scale genocides of Tutsi prior to the massive 1994 horror.

At the beginning of this genocide in April of 1994, peace talks had broken down, the R.P.A. soldiers were trapped in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. They had been stationed there to support the planned peace talks. Through equally heart rending and inspiring interviews, The 600 tells several stories of how these soldiers defied astronomical odds, saved thousands of lives, and helped to end the intractable enmity between the two tribes.

The 600 is a war film, of course, but it is primarily about the victims and the noble soldiers. The viewing is a visceral experience. We are with the interviewees as they vividly relive the fear, pain, loss, and grief they experienced in the past, and that they may still experience now.

Executive Producer and writer Richard Hall, Co-Executive Producer Annette Uwizeye, and Director/Cinematographer Laurent Basset have produced a documentary masterpiece in every respect, telling a story of heroism and sacrifice that transformed a nation.

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The Woman Who Loves Giraffes

“If you’re working on giraffes, she’s the pioneer, and wrote the textbook. Anne was the first person to go to Africa to study the behavior of a wild animal.”
John Doherty, Queens University Belfast, Reticulated Giraffe Project

Anne Innis Dagg defied convention.

At the age of three Dagg was inspired when, on her first visit to Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo, she viewed her first giraffe. The toddler had already expressed much interest in this strange, beautiful, elegant beast before that portentous visit.

In August of 1956, at the age of 23, she made a solo journey to study giraffes in Africa

Our giraffe champion married, had three children, wrote a cornucopia of articles appearing in the most prestigious journals, secured her doctorate—only to become a victim of rampant gender bias.

A professorship was Dagg’s logical next step, it would have given her the ability to continue her research in Africa. The old boys club said ‘no.’ She became an instant feminist.

 

Three decades of family life, writing on various topics, and gender rights activism passed.

In 2010, a group of giraffologists brought Dagg into their fold, and celebrated her seminal work. More than 50 years after Dagg’s first journey to Africa, at the age of 85, the world’s first giraffologist journeyed back to Africa.

In The Woman Who Loves Giraffes director Alison Reid tells Dagg’s life story, and continues the much needed, much deserved celebration of her work with and for giraffes. Of course, the cinematography is sensational.

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Giraffe Support Organizations

Save the Giraffes

Reticulated Giraffe Project

Wild Nature Institute

Shattered Dreams: Sex Trafficking in America

“We’ve seen a trend—I would say within the last five, six, or seven years—where we’ve started to hear the word, ‘trafficking.’ What we thought were prostitutes are actually enslaved human beings who’ve been tricked, and been sold as objects.”
Tina Paulson, Association for the Recovery of Children

Directed by Bill Wisneski, Shattered Dreams is a much-needed documentary about sex trafficking in the United States. The film depicts this tragedy as a national phenomenon shamefully hiding in plain sight. At this moment, the majority of the hundreds of thousands of young American girls who find themselves in virtual slavery will not be able to leave ‘the life.’ Instead, they will commit slow-motion suicide.

Wisneski interviews victims as well as passionate, committed experts and activists—a few of whom are former sex slaves—to paint a grim picture surrounded by glittering rays of hope.

This is a tough subject. Wisneski covers it head-on with aplomb.

Shattered Dreams is a must-see film. Along with everyone else working to end the trafficking of children, as Staca Shehan states below, it won’t happen unless we, too, are part of the solution. The film’s website includes a comprehensive list of Resources for all of us to reference.

“Sex trafficking is not something that can be solved alone by nonprofits, law enforcement, prosecutors, service providers. We all have to play a role in continuing to highlight this issue, the gaps that still exist, and what we can do to make improvements.”
Staca Shehan, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

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(Pictured: Tyesa Harvey, CoFounder of the Sex Crime Awareness Treatment Center)

Violet Is Blue: A Tale of Gibbons and Guardians

Of the 20 gibbon species, 19 are endangered, critically endangered, or near extinction.

Directed by Alex M. Azmi, Violet Is Blue introduces gibbons and the people of the Gibbon Conservation Center in Santa Clarita, California. The ‘GCC’ was created and run by Alan Richard Mootnick (1951-2011). Mootnick’s tragic, untimely passing was preventable, but his passions kept him at his center, and away from doctors. This thriving conservation center is his noble legacy.

Azmi tells GCC’s story from beginnings through film’s production in 2019. The documentary is hosted by staff, Board President Chris Roderick, and GCC Director Gabriella (Gabi) Skollar.

Our interviewees describe the center’s raison d’être, and, especially, talk about the gibbons one of whom, Violet, is the star of the show. In addition to the film’s well done soundtrack, we are entertained by the rich vocalizations of our heroes, the gibbons—and fascinated by a couple of mystic events.

Violet Is Blue is immediately engaging, and makes a powerful, emotional statement about protecting our natural world, and about those who are providing this protection.

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Gibbon Conservation Center

Coda: I’ve attempted to cover a variety of subjects in my choice of documentary films to view and review—including, of course, the subject of our natural world.

You may have already noted I am covering more such documentaries for obvious reasons—our natural world is under a massive attack from numerous destructive human activities.

I feel like ‘the little drummer boy’ of the Christmas carol. I cannot make any kind of significant gesture to alleviate this attack. However, my drum is all these films I share with you.

Mission Wolf: Experiment in Living

“The day that we are successful is the day that we take those cages down, and watch wolves in the wild.”
Kent Weber, Co-Founder and Executive Director

Mission Wolf is a sanctuary in the remote Colorado mountains. The rescue cares for wolves, wolfdogs, and horses.

The film’s primary focus is the people working there at the time of production. Director Gayle Nosal eschews narration and allows the people running Mission Wolf tell their stories. The volunteers tell stories of unhappy pasts, the challenges they face at Mission Wolf, and the inestimable value they have discovered working with each other and their charges. But, don’t get me wrong! We are with plenty of wolves—at the shelter, on tour, walking around packed audiences, serving as ambassadors.

Mission Wolf is both a sanctuary and a self-sustaining commune. Volunteers may be there a short time, or remain there for years. It was co-founded by Kent Weber and Tracy Ane Brooks. Weber speaks of the shelters’ values, activities, and impacts.

Mission Wolf: Experiment in Living is an inspiring film about people who value and support our natural world—and who love, or learn to love canines. Check with the film’s website for information about how to see the film.

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Blue Heart: The Fight for Europe’s Last Wild Rivers

Directed by Britton Caillouette, Blue Heart is a simple, straight forward documentary about people fighting for their land, for their natural world which is threatened by the damming and damning of all their rivers.

The land is the Balkans, several countries nestled together in southeast Europe. The region’s political leadership has declared that every river must be dammed or diverted, either of which will damage—an under statement—the natural worlds surrounding the rivers.

As the subtitle indicates, these are the last wild rivers of Europe. People of many villages across the region are fighting back with passion and fortitude.

Patagonia, the company, is the film’s executive producer, and their website for the film provides a fount of detailed information about the region, the stakes, the activism—and how you can support this noble quest.

Blue Heart is available from Patagonia, Amazon Prime, and YouTube

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(Pictured: The Željeznica River near Fojnica, Bosnia and Herzegovina)

Eva: A-7063

“We often think of infectious diseases, but there’s also infection virtues where somebody’s life actually becomes infectious, and you can’t be with her, or see what she’s about without thinking ‘maybe the human race has more hope for the future than we thought.’”
L. Gregory ‘Greg’ Jones

Masterfully written and directed by Ted Green, Eva: A-7063 tells the epic story of Eva Mozes Kor (January 31, 1934 – July 4, 2019)—a Holocaust survivor who came to national and international prominence by garnering both controversy and eminence through her steadfast Holocaust activism.

The root of her controversy was a seemingly simple personal act: She forgave, for herself, all the Nazis, and then publicly advocated other survivors to do the same.

Although the resentment she faced was inevitable, that controversy is a short chapter in this thoroughly engaging and stunning film. Eva Kor’s act of forgiveness inspired countless survivors of horrendous acts around the world to make choices to forgive, and to heal.

In 1995, Eva Kors created and opened the CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center in her adopted hometown of Terre Haute, Indiana, with the mission ‘to prevent prejudice and hatred through education about the Holocaust.’

I cannot overstate the power and significance of Eva: A-7063. It is an inspiring must-see documentary which can be found streaming on Amazon Prime, Roku, and AppleTV.

“Eva is more than just a story. Eva is a revelation about what’s possible in the human condition.”
Elliott Gould

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