Last Breath

In their documentary film, Last Breath, directors Richard da Costa and Alex Parkinson take viewers on a suspenseful journey to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean’s North Sea.

Dave Yuasa, Chris Lemons, and Duncan Allcock are working for a crude oil extraction company. We don’t know specifically what tasks they are performing, we only know that these hard-working, technologically trained men are placing themselves in jeopardy.

The film starts at the top—the raging ocean. As their container is lowered, the three bodies are accommodating to the increasing pressures of the ocean’s depths. At the bottom they are breathing a mixture of oxygen and helium creating humorously sounding voices which are simply a part of the job.

Their equipment is heavy-duty and high tech, with plenty of failsafe mechanisms, but not enough. Lemons, who is engaged with his beloved Morag Martin, is the first to work on this round of tasks.

Workers on the job at the bottom of the ocean use thick multi-functional ‘life lines.’ One of the carriers breaks away, as it drifts, Lemon’s life line tightens and quickly breaks. To make matters worse, there are equipment failures elsewhere. Lemons is adrift in 4 degree centigrade water.

The film follows the three workers as they struggle to save their compadre.

Distributed by Dogwoof, and available on Netflix Last Breath is a captivating, well-crafted film that keeps viewers fully engaged from beginning to end.

The film’s perfectly haunting soundtrack is by Paul Leonard-Morgan. (I am making a point of acknowledging composers and performers of documentary sound tracks.)

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(Photo courtesy of ‘Last Breath’)

Lucy the Human Chimp

Directed by well-lauded veteran filmmaker Alex Parkinson, Lucy the Human Chimp tells the epic story of a young woman’s devotion to the care of a chimpanzee who had been raised by psychologist Maurice Temerlin and his wife Jane as an experiment. Eventually, Lucy became unruly, and the couple made the painful decision to send her to Gambia, in West Africa, where the Abuko Nature Reserve would prepare Lucy for life in the wild.

Months before that decision the Temerlin’s had hired a young woman, Janis Carter, a graduate student, to care-take Lucy. Janis was 25 years old, it was 1976, she was working at the University of Oklahoma’s primate studies group.

Even though Janis was sternly warned not to bond with Lucy, the two bonded very quickly. When Janis finally confessed her misbehavior to Maurice, he was sympathetic, and let Janis know they were going to take Lucy to Africa. They couple invited—‘insisted’ is a better word—that Janis join them.

This was the inciting incident that changed forever the path of Janis Carter’s and Lucy’s lives. Janis remained with Lucy, in Africa, mostly in solitude, for at least six years.

Lucy the Human Chimp is amongst the most sensational, touching, moving documentary films I have viewed. Janis Carter’s journey is nothing less than jaw-dropping—and gratifying—a testimony to love, devotion, caring, and the dignity of non-human animals.

Lucy the Human Chimp is an HBO Max / Channel 4 film.

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(Photo of Janis and Lucy courtesy of HBO Max and Channel 4)

The Road Up

“For the first time in my life I can say I enjoy a job.”
Cara Participant

Directed by Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel, The Road Up is a masterfully produced documentary about a Chicago-based program called ‘Cara’ which supports people who aspire to recreate their shattered lives in a healthy and fruitful manner. Cara’s centerpiece is a month-long ‘boot camp’ called Transformations held in a meeting room. The film profiles four attendees in a Transformations program.

The program’s conductor—and, in my opinion, hero—is Jesse Teverbaugh, a brilliant leader who experienced his own fall into hopelessness, fought his way out, and has changed the lives of a countless number of adults. Teverbaugh’s leadership is as confronting as it is compassionate. I noted with admiration the acceptance of crying in these meetings—including Teverbaugh himself.

On the surface it may seem Transformations to be a jobs program, but Transformations addresses much more. The following information comes directly from the film’s website:
“[Cara’s approach] essentially flips the script on the traditional formula, making the case that the first step on the road up isn’t finding employment, it’s finding hope, connection, and community. What some dismiss as ‘soft skills,’ Cara calls ‘harder skills’—conflict resolution, impulse control, even the ability to express love and accept it in return. To Cara, these are the essential skills that give their students the resilience they need to persist, and ultimately to thrive. By explicitly and emphatically stressing the ‘love’ in ‘tough love,’ Cara’s model pointedly critiques how we approach the entire issue of job training in America, essentially asking the question, “what if we’ve had it wrong all along?”

The Road Up is a hopeful film about people finding new paths to living constructive, productive, and loving lives.

The film is currently on the festival circuit. You can stay in touch with the film’s website, Facebook page, or Instagram page for updates on the film’s progress. Anyone interested in hosting a virtual or in-person community/organizational screening may contact the filmmakers at: info@siskeljacobs.com The film’s wide release will be in the first half of 2022.

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(Photo courtesy of ‘The Road Up’)

The Walrus and the Whistleblower

Phil Demers was working as a trainer at Canada’s MarineLand, in Niagara Falls. The park decided to add walruses to their show. The first walrus, a baby, was named ‘Smooshi’—on account of her affectionate way of ‘shmooshing’ her face against Demers’. One day there was a need to draw blood. Demers was taking care of Smooshi as the veterinarian was in the process of preparing the draw when Smooshi’s eyes and Demers’ eyes met. The two instantly bonded. Demers’ life was radically changed forever.

Watching the beginning of Nathalie Bibeau’s The Walrus and the Whistleblower I immediately empathized with Demers’ experience, as I had a similar totally unexpected experience that changed my life. I inadvertently bonded with a dog, but my life was not quite as changed as Demers’

Demers realized the cruelty of keeping marine mammals in captivity. The young man morphed into a whistleblower and animal rights activist, and went on a personal odyssey to obtain legal custody of his beloved Smooshi, to give her a better and safer life.

He spent years in conflict with MarineLand’s founder and leader, John Holer, in this David and Goliath story. Demers’ legal battle lasted at least eight years. The result is gratifying in that the battle was won. The intensely fought-for legislation—S-203: Ending the Captivity of Whales and Dolphins Act—was passed without amendments. Canada is the first country to make the captivity of whales and dolphins a crime of animal cruelty. But, there is a bittersweet ending for Demers who has yet to secure custody of Smooshi.

A vividly told story, The Walrus and the Whistleblower has won at least two film festival awards, and was an Official Selection of 11 film festivals. The film is an excellently produced, heartrending, and inspiring documentary that deserves a very large audience.

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(Photograph above of filmmaker Nathalie Bibeau)

Can You Hear Us Now?: A Season in the Life of Wisconsin Politics

  • Can You Hear Us Now? is another painful reminder of democracy’s frailty, as well as a call for hope and change from inspiring candidates.

Director Jim Cricchi and writer Susan Peters of Twelve Letter Films tell this all-too-common story of the sabotage of American democracy. This time the battlefield is in the State of Wisconsin. Governor Scott Walker is the bad guy, and this guy has plenty of minions—in the State and around the nation. Tony Evers is the good guy seeking the Governorship, fighting for a compassionate and just Wisconsin.

The film finds Walker in his third Gubernatorial race following his previous two consecutive wins, while Trump is seeking his second Presidency. The primary foci of the film, however, are the several women Democratic candidates running for various local and State positions They are struggling mightily to get back their Wisconsin, the one with neither abusive gerrymandering, nor voter suppression, and no ID laws—the one that cares for all its people, and encourages them to vote, to participate in the ongoing political process.

Distributed by bullfrogfilms, and Amazon, Can You Hear Us Now? takes its audience on a rollercoaster ride of nonstop, State-based political battles and machinations. The passionate candidates are thoroughly inspiring. The film is expertly produced, and the soundtrack by Caleb Stine perfectly surrounds this dynamic story.

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(Pictured: Jeni Estrada, a single mother working three to four jobs at any one time, and a candidate for Assembly District 25.)

Five Years North

Five Years North is a deeply moving, expertly produced film taking place in the world of U.S. immigration as seen by a young illegal immigrant (‘Luis’) who ended up in New York City, and as seen by Judy—a Cuban-American ICE Supervisory Detention and Deportation Officer who also lives in Luis’ neighborhood.

The inciting incident that led to the film’s making occurred when filmmakers Zach Ingrasci and Chris Temple met the eight-year old Luis in his home town of Peña Blanca, Guatemala, while working on another project. Filming began in New York and in Guatemala when Luis arrived in New York, in late 2017, at 16 years old, alone and without papers. Naturally, Luis faced a deluge of challenges to stay in and thrive in the United States.

The film alternates between New York and Guatemala, and between Judy and Luis. We are introduced to Judy’s home life as well as her work as an ICE agent. She is candid in speaking her thoughts about ICE, yet is grateful for and committed to her agency and its work. And we are introduced to Luis’s life in New York, and his family in Guatemala. The love between Luis and his family, and the pains of separation his immigration has evoked within himself and his family are palpable.

T. Griffin’s original compositions effectively enhances the film’s impacts on us viewers.

Five Years North is thoroughly engaging. I would happily welcome a follow-up documentary film about Luis and company.

“We hope ‘Five Years North’ deepens the immigration conversation and can support the incredible work of activists and organizations helping those crushed by the system.”
The Filmmakers

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Elephant Refugees

The title says it all in Louise Hogarth’s Elephant Refugees.

The film covers a lodge called Elephant Sands located in Africa’s dry, sandy, Kalahari woodlands of eastern Botswana. Created by founders Marie and Ben Moller in 2002, the lodge is dedicated to the care and feeding of wild African elephants under the duress of drought.

Starting in 2014, Botswana became the only southern African nation that disallowed elephant hunting. Elephants quickly learned this was the place to be. This change coupled with the global-warming-caused draught turned Elephant Sands into a challenging—to make an understatement—ongoing project.

As of the film’s making, the most difficult challenge was securing water for the elephants. The problem was exacerbated by the five years of migration to Botswana. As of filming, 60% of Africa’s elephants were in Botswana. I would not be surprised if that figure is higher now. Sadly, though, after five years of freedom from hunters, Botswana reinstituted the legalization of elephant hunting.

In any case, the family and their crew have weathered every difficulty and crisis they have faced in supporting elephants and in growing the lodge. I attempted to learn more about what’s happening now by emailing the lodge, but did not receive a response. In any case, the lodge is doing well as far as I can tell.

Elephant Refugees is a lesson in perseverance, dedication and love. The film won the Best Documentary Jury Award at the 2020 Sonoma Film Festival, and was an Official Selection of at least three other festivals.

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(Photo courtesy of ‘Elephant Refugees.’

All Light, Everywhere

All Light, Everywhere begins with the following narration:

‘At the back of the eye is the optic nerve. It connects the eye to the brain. The optic nerve receives no visual information. It’s a blind spot. At the exact point where the world meets the seeing of the world, we’re blind. We do not perceive this blind spot in our vision. The brain invents a world to fill the hole at the center of it. I am an actor who will give voice to the hole at the center of this film—because every film is, in part, an autobiography, because every image has a frame, and every frame excludes a world beyond its edges. And yet, when we understand something we still say, “I see.”’

Written, directed, and edited by Baltimore-based Theo Anthony, All Light, Everywhere is a meditation, an amalgam of vision, observation, bias, crime, policing technology, weapons, privacy issues, contemporary media, and justice.

Among several other people, Anthony introduces us to Steve Tuttle, spokesperson for Axon International, a large corporation which manufactures state-of-the-art Taser and surveillance equipment. We spend quite a bit of time with Tuttle and company learning the virtues of Axon’s products. In the last third of the film we are with African Americans sharing their thoughts and concerns about the policing technologies covered by the film.

Anthony does not propose answers, conclusions, nor solutions in his film. Instead, he journeys back and forth in time covering 18th century technologies of photography and measurements of several ilks, and 21st century policing and surveillance technologies including body cameras used by police, and measuring human brain activities (though what was being measured is not revealed). Viewers are left with intimations, a call to do their own meditation.

The film’s narrator is prolific voice actor Keaver Brenai. Composer Dan Deacon provides a consistently haunting sound track.

All Light, Everywhere is the winner of the Sundance Film Festival 2021 Special Jury Prize for Nonfiction Experimentation.

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IMDB: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt13622074/reference

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=luHmSqY0Xsk

Assholes: A Theory

Directed and narrated by well-lauded veteran filmmaker John Walker, the flippantly titled Assholes: A Theory is a serious-as-a-heart-attack documentary film about rampant narcissism. The film is based upon the New York Times bestseller Assholes: A Theory by Aaron James who received his PhD from Harvard University, is a Professor of Philosophy at University of California, Irvine, and an avid surfer.

Walker’s film features at least 22 interviewees—including James—addressing the topic of ‘assholes’ some of whom are unabashedly self-proclaimed assholes.

James defines an ‘asshole’ as: ‘a guy who allows himself special ADVANTAGES in cooperative life / out of an entrenched sense of ENTITLEMENT / that immunizes him against COMPLAINTS of other people.’

We then are taught the large quantity of asshole types via an interviewee montage: boorish, smug, drunk, arrogant, etc.

I was particularly touched, though, by two of the interviewees:

Sherry Lee Benson-Podolchuk secured her life’s dream of being an officer in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police only to confront a nightmare of misogyny. She fought for justice for 20 years—including filing a class action suit with Canada’s federal government. She received over 3,000 women’s signatures. Two years later the federal government appointed Canada’s first female head of the RCMP.

The recently passed Paul E. Purcell was the Chairman of the Board, President, and CEO of BAIRD financial services. In interview, Purcell presented a corporate culture driven by unwavering integrity. He noted that his was the only financial services company to not fire any personnel as a result of the 2008-2009 global financial breakdown.

The legendary John Cleese also appears throughout the film. In one segment he opined, “Bad behaviour is as old as human history, something we all encounter at some point—whether on the playground, in the workplace or in public life. But the phenomenon seems to be amplified in an age of venomous social media and resurgent authoritarian politics.”

And that’s the thing—a seemingly unstoppable virus of narcissistic behavior poisoning many cultures, including, of course, people of the United States. Walker’s film presents possible solutions, but it seems at the moment that ‘assholes’ reign supreme in many parts of American culture. Walker also spends time in and about Italy which has its own forms of narcissism.

Asshole: A Theory is expertly produced by John Walker Productions, this documentary deserves a wide audience.

The film is available in Canada from CBC Gem 

Available in the United States from this LINK

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(Photo of John Walker courtesy of John Walker Productions)

The Divided Brain: The World Iain McGilchrist Wants Us to Live In

Iain McGilchrist is a former Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, an associate Fellow of Green Templeton College, Oxford, a Fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a Consultant Emeritus of the Bethlem and Maudsley Hospital, London, a former research Fellow in Neuroimaging at Johns Hopkins University Medical School, Baltimore, and a former Fellow of the Institute of Advanced Studies in Stellenbosch.

Note: Although this documentary is about the divided human brain—left and right hemispheres—my proposed subtitle above refers to a unified world that our hero very much prefers, as do I.

Directed by Manfred Becker, narrated by Seana McKenna, and hosted by Iain McGiltrist, The Divided Brain takes the viewer through many worlds of thought regarding our brain, our culture, and our destiny as a species. The film’s initial focus is on the overactive logical left hemisphere of the brain, and transitions to the underutilized intuitive, emotive right hemisphere.

Becker and company take us on a journey through worlds of thinkers, scientists, and philosophers sharing their thoughts and experiences regarding our brains left and right hemispheres. McGilchrist eloquently states the problem: “We behave like we have right-brain damage.” His call is to focus on the much-needed care and nurturing of the left brain, and his hope is to see that focus help heal global sociological, psychological, and environmental maladies.

Amongst other places and people, the film’s journey takes us through a young children’s school, a clinic for brain damaged patients, time speaking with the legendary John Cleese, and a visit with iconic brain researcher Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor at her home. We also see a clip from her TED Talk presentation where she speaks of the stroke that changed her life.

Taylor categorically states that upon her recovery she was a completely different person. I was jaw-droopingly impressed by her home with its massive amount of art work Taylor has created and curated at home subsequent to her recovery. This time with her was in and of itself worth the price of admission to viewing this film!

The Divided Brain is distributed by bullfrogfilms.

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(Photo courtesy of bullfrogfilms)