Personhood: Policing Pregnant Women in America

“Your Honor, under Wisconsin statute 48.133, we are requesting temporary physical custody of the unborn child whose mother is Tamara Loertscher.”—litigator

Tammy Loertscher was living in Wisconsin, she was not aware of the draconian laws the state enacted to gain control of in utero human fetuses. When she simply, innocently asked questions and expressed concerns to her doctor about her first pregnancy, she found herself in a Kafkaesque world. Her unborn human was no longer hers. She didn’t know that Wisconsin was a ‘fetal personhood’ State, and that the State can prosecute women for miscarriages, stillbirths, and using drugs while pregnant. Wisconsin prosecuted Tammy for allegations that she used drugs during her pregnancy. The pregnant mother even experienced a stent in jail. This mother fought back.

In Personhood: Policing Pregnant Women in America filmmaker Jo Ardinger tells Tammy’s epic story of reclaiming her rights as a woman and mother, shares stories of other mothers’ experiences, and interviews two key heroes:

Cherisse Scott of Sister Reach, and Lynn M. Paltrow of National Advocates for Pregnant Women.

Paltrow’s career began as a fight for the right to choose abortion. Ironically, many of her clients were passionately against abortion, yet she received cases of women who had no intention to abort their pregnancy. Instead, these were women who used illegal drugs, and/or alcohol, or women who decided to delay cesarean surgery, and they knew they were in danger. Making matters worse, these women learned to not tell their doctors about their behavior for fear of prosecution and findings of guilt. Also, some charges against pregnant women were trumped.

The fundamental question the people and government of the United States faces is whether or not women who become pregnant lose their personhood rights. At the moment, 38 States treat fertilized eggs, embryos, and fetuses as ‘persons’—potential victims of a crime. Even women who have not used drugs or alcohol are being targeted. The State prosecutes pregnant women on the faux base of alleged child abuse and similar crimes. How many potential or current pregnant mothers know about what they may be facing?

Ardinger’s very well crafted film shines a light on this hidden world of veritable ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ oppression. Not just mothers and potential mothers, this is a crucial film all Americans to see.

Personhood: Policing Pregnant Women in America is available from Apple TV, iTunes, and Amazon Prime Video

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(Pictured: Tammy Loertscher and child—courtesy of ‘Personhood’)

Stray: The Street Dogs of Istanbul

Preamble: On December 7, 2017, I posted my review of ‘Kedi’—a documentary film about the stray cats of Istanbul. I love animals, and am delighted to share my review of Elizabeth Lo’s Stray about the stray dogs of Istanbul. As a lover of our natural world which includes, of course, cats and dogs, I am deeply concerned about animals who are not cared for. Stray however, shines a measure of hope for the dogs of Istanbul.

Turkey has a national policy of no-kill and no-capture towards all its stray animals. The City of Istanbul has approximately 130,000 stray dogs. This was not always the case. For decades Turkey practiced mass killings of strays. However, in June, 2004, the Turkish government passed a law requiring local governments to rehabilitate street animals rather than kill them. It requires the animals be sterilized, vaccinated, tagged, and taken back to the place where they were found.

In Stray, filmmaker Elizabeth Lo follows several of these stray dogs. There is no narration. None is needed. There is occasional text, but the dogs tell the story as we follow their lives on the streets and other places. Zeytin, a large, short-haired tan female is the film’s host.

Zeytin takes viewers on a tour of Istanbul including, of course, many stray dogs—and a few stray people some of whom take care of dogs they find and fancy. The film evokes pathos, hope, concern for the dogs, and fascination with this hybrid dogs/people world.

Composer Ali Helnwein provides the film’s beautiful, elegant music.

A Magnolia Pictures release, Stray is an incredible, noble, and deeply from-the-heart cinematic achievement.

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I encourage readers to visit Elizabeth Lo’s Website to learn about her moving body of work, and to read this Interview of the filmmaker.

Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry

“I honestly don’t know how any artist of any age with this kind of [meteoric] trajectory is doing it without a parent—someone who loves you more than life itself, and would do anything for you…”
Maggie May Baird

Billie Eilish’s mother is reflecting with empathy and concern about the plight of young people who find themselves in the midst of show business success, but lack the experiences of having been raised by mindful and compassionate parents. Thank goodness Billie has those kind of parents.

Prolific filmmaker R.J. Cutler has given us Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry a profile of the pop superstar and the loving family that has so carefully nurtured their daughter. Cutler’s 140-minute documentary follows Billie and family through the singer/songwriter’s 17th year of life. His camera does more than just tell the story. Cutler’s ears, eyes and heart evoke the vulnerable humanity of the members of this family. This is a rare and admirable skill that makes for a thoroughly engaging film irrespective of the viewer’s ignorance—mine, for instance—of our Hero

Eilish has the best music partner a superstar can have—her brother Finneas O’Connell who writes and produces with her, as well as goes with her on tours working behind the scenes, and on stage performing with his sister. Both Eilish’s father, Patrick O’Connell, and mother Maggie May have mainstream acting resumés. And let’s not forget Eilish’s dog Pepper who appears in shots peppered throughout the film.

Distributed by Apple TV+, Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry is a spectacular documentary film that deserves a huge audience and countless lauds.

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Dads: In Celebration of Fatherhood

“I feel like being a father made me the man I am. My children taught me to be authentic, and be honest with myself. Fatherhood has given me a whole new identity.”
Glen Henry, father

The title says it all. Bryce Dallas Howard’s Dads features dads—some famous, others not so—speaking their thoughts, experiences, and expressing their feelings about fatherhood. Many of these dads break down in happy tears in interview as they speak of their fatherly experiences. The common denominator for all the dads is the radical life and character changes they experienced as dedicated fathers.

Robert Selby’s first child was born with multiple heart problems. The UPS driver did not have his own transportation, so made his way by public transportation to see his baby grow up through multiple heart surgeries and other treatments. His child is now happy and healthy.

Rio de Janeiro’s Tiago Queriroz experience as a new father inspired him to create a successful podcast on fatherhood.

In Tokyo, Shuichi Sakuma was working 150 hours a week when he fell victim to a painful autoimmune disease. Housebound, he spent two years convincing his wife to give him a child. She did just that, saying she did this specifically for her husband. Upon fatherhood the formerly dour workaholic became a joyful, healthy, happy human being raising his son at home, and attending ‘The Secret Society of Friends of House Husbands’ meetings

Rob and Reece Scheer ended up adopting four children, one girl and three boys. The two gentlemen went from no children to four children in six months. Three of them were still in diapers. Rob made the most unusual statement of the whole film. He said when he was six years old he knew he wanted to be a father.

Reece said he wanted to be a stay-at-home dad, so the family became one-income. And, they bought a farm with plenty of critters. The four adoptees came with significant life challenges, which, of course, gave the two parents significant challenges. Yet, Rob states with utter certainty and a smile on his face, “I won the lottery, I literally won the lottery.” This family could have their own documentary.

In ‘Hollywood’ we hear from Kenan Thompson, Judd Apatow, Will Smith, Neil Patrick Harris, Patton Oswalt, Ken Jeong, Conan O’Brian, Jimmy Kimmel, and Hasan Minhaj.

There is just so much love shining through Dads. The film is thoroughly engaging, and unless you have a heart of glass, you will find yourself with your own happy tears as you listen to and see these dads tell their stories.

Dads is an Apple TV+ feature documentary

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(Photo of Robert Selby and son courtesy of Apple TV+)

A Dog Named Gucci

April, 1994, Mobile, Alabama

A 15 year old runaway teenager who went by the street name of ‘Baby Girl’ was given a puppy—a Chow/Husky mix.

Doug James, an adjunct professor of communications arts at Spring Hill College, became the second owner of this puppy. He is telling parts of the story of the dog named Gucci.

Shauna Cooley Busby (Baby Girl) was in a bad crowd of boys who eventually were demanding sexual favors of her, which she refused. In retaliation the boys hung the 12 weeks old puppy from a tree, and were slapping him, and then set the puppy on fire.

James was outside his next-door home when he saw this puppy on fire.

Busby, crying deeply, asked James to take the wounded dog to the vet. At first James brought the puppy to his home, expecting him to die that night. The next morning James brought the puppy to Dr. Ann Branch’s veterinary clinic. She could smell the lighter fluid still on the dog. In interview Branch said “nothing can prepare you for something like that. You think you’ve seen it all—you haven’t.”

Word got out. An anonymous attorney offered to pay for the puppy’s vet bills. The puppy was treated by Branch, had surgery at Auburn University, and became a cause célèbre. The team of Doug James and his ambassador dog Gucci catalyzed the beginning of a healing that would spread throughout the United States of America.

Gorman Bechard’s A Dog Named Gucci tells the puppy’s miraculously long story, and stories of that ilk of many more dogs. His film is about the abuse of dogs, of course, and how this one puppy’s horrific abuse catalyzed a movement for criminal justice consequences for abuse of dogs and cats. Every State now has some version of legislation meant to reduce the abuse.

However, at film’s conclusion is the following text: ‘It is estimated that over 1,000,000 domestic animals are abused every year. Approximately 10% of those abuse cases are reported. Less than 1,000 are prosecuted.’

Bechard’s film is very well crafted, and is successful at making its plea for more protections.

A Personal Note: I found A Dog Named Gucci by accident. I was just scanning Amazon Prime for something about dogs. The film’s title intrigued me. My concerns about animals and plants runs deep, and I grieve for the abuse and destruction of all our flora and fauna. I well understand that this film is hard to take for some people, yet I hope my straight-forward outline of the story will find a few viewers, and that the film will find a few more viewers.

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I Married the War

“The thing I needed most from him which was the talking and feeling, was the thing he needed least. He came back from the war, and he’s sitting right beside me, but he’s not really there.”
Anne Jackson

In 2011 Ken Rodgers and Betty Rodgers gave us their feature documentary ‘Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor’ about a Viet Nam battle called Siege of Khe Sanh. The couple emphasized that this film was neither a pro-war nor an anti-war film—instead, it simply presented just what happened. I had the harrowing pleasure of seeing an early screening of the film at George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch, and the honor of meeting the two filmmakers.

Ten years later, in 2021, they have given us another well-crafted documentary, I Married the War about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and related disorders that military warriors suffer the rest of their post-war lives, and the impact these disorders have on veterans’ wives. Betty Rodgers interviews 11 wives of combat veterans from World War II through present day Middle East wars.

We learn the phrase ‘secondary PTSD’—the trauma wives experience and suffer from the existential loss of their husbands. As I viewed and listened to the wives tell their stories, I came to sense that ‘secondary’ is too small of a descriptor. Yet, as I listened, I also experienced the love, care, and dearness the wives bring to their wounded husbands.

I Married the War reveals another previously hidden fact-of-life about the impacts of war. The film honors these wives who suffer deeply, yet find the love needed for their spouses. The two filmmakers have done more than make a film. They have drawn attention to a heart-breaking problem, and are calling for much more support for spouses of combat veterans.

There are more than 5.5 million ‘military caregivers’ in the United States helping physically and mentally wounded veterans. The film’s website includes a Resource Page for spouses that will expand as new resources are discovered.

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(Pictured: Betty Rodgers and Ken Rodgers)

Orchestrating Change: The Odysseys of Ronald Braunstein and Caroline Whiddon

“I never contemplated the Me2/orchestras being this vehicle for social change. And Ronald had this wild idea, and now we see it changing people, taking them from this place of darkness into a place of strength and confidence.”
Caroline Whiddon, Cofounder and Executive Director of Me2/Orchestras

When he was ten years old, Ronald Braunstein’s father took him to see the Pittsburg Symphony Orchestra play Beethoven’s Ninth. Right then and there the young boy decided that conducting orchestras was for him. He did just that, became a well-lauded symphony conductor.

Braunstein attended and graduated from Julliard as a conductor. Amongst many other accomplishments, he won First Prize at the Sixth International Herbert Von Karajan Conducting Competition in Berlin—the most prestigious and competitive conducting competition in the world. He was the first American to receive this honor.

Braunstein’s conducting career was sidelined when his bipolar disease became evident at 30 years of age.

Braunstein met his now wife Caroline Whiddon when he was applying for a job. At the time Whiddon was executive director of an orchestra, and was seeking a new conductor. She hired our hero, who was still being sabotaged by his illness. He lost this job, but Whiddon maintained a friendship with Braunstein—that is, she fell in love with the fallen conductor, they married, and have a beautiful and fruitful relationship.

Braunstein and Whiddon decided to do something about people suffering from mental illness. The idea is simple: Create an orchestra that contains a large portion of suffering victims of mental illness. The film does not reveal the precise origin of the idea of starting an orchestra of and for musicians with mental disorders, but one factor pointing to this emergence was Whiddon’s own suffering with mental illness symptoms. In any case, the two started the Me2/Orchestras. Note the plural. The idea and its execution has been so successful that there are Me2/orchestras popping up in the United States and elsewhere.

In Orchestrating Change filmmakers Margie Friedman and Barbara Multer-Wellin let the loving couple and many of their musicians tell their stories of lost and found, of finding healing in playing orchestral music with their peers. Most documentary films have a music score. This film, of course, has its own built-in score of classical pieces.

Distributed by Bullfrog Films, Orchestrating Change is as inspiring and endearing as a film can be. In addition to seeing the film, I encourage readers to check out the film’s Website as well as its Discussion Guide.

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17 Blocks

Davy Rothbart’s 17 Blocks follows two decades of a family living in a lower class neighborhood 17 blocks away from the United States Capitol building. Rothbart initiated filming, yet some of the featured characters picked up cameras and have continued documenting their lives.

The community has its fair share of drugs, crime, and occasional murders associated with under-resourced communities. The documentary follows principal characters Cheryl, Smurf, Denice, Emmanuel, and the Justin Sanford-Durant family through the challenges, losses, and gains of two decades of lives lived—all in the shadow of the power brokers 17 blocks away who could eliminate the poverty behind the drugs, violence, and stunted lives.

17 Blocks is a slice of life film that deserves a very large audience. It has been well reviewed, and received 12 festival nominations and 14 wins. Unless you have a heart of glass, your heart will be deeply touched by the film’s people and their journeys.

Kudos to composer Nick Urata who led the film score’s team which perfectly wrapped the story in delicately performed music. In my opinion, if you don’t remember hearing a documentary film’s score, you have heard a perfectly composed and performed score.

Note: Davy Rothbart is also founder of Washington To Washington—an annual hiking adventure bringing city kids from Washington, D.C., Southeast Michigan, and New Orleans on a week-long camping trip to climb mountains and explore some of the country’s most beautiful wilderness areas.

17 Blocks is distributed by MTV Documentary Films.

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Landfall

“I feel like once you’ve survived Maria, you can survive anything else that can happen in this country.”
Hurricane Maria survivor

From Wikipedia: “Hurricane Maria was a deadly Category 5 hurricane that devastated Dominica, St Croix, and Puerto Rico in September 2017. It is regarded as the worst natural disaster in recorded history to affect those islands, and was also the deadliest Atlantic hurricane since Mitch in 1998. Total losses from the hurricane are estimated at upwards of $91.61 billion (2017 USD), mostly in Puerto Rico, ranking it as the third-costliest tropical cyclone on record.”

Professor Cecilia Aldarondo’s Landfall covers the people of Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Maria’s landfall. The film also includes footage of non-resident American citizens exploiting the disaster—much like the carpetbaggers of the post-Civil War American south. Puerto Rico is 1,000 miles southeast of Miami, Florida.

Aldarondo’s film does not contain narration. Instead she simply tells the story via beatific and demoralizing images of the island nation, as well as interviews of storm victims speaking of their losses, fears, and hopes. The nation’s people suffer from internal corruption, governmental incompetence and carelessness, as well as exploitation of the country by the United States government and its people. The film also includes archival footage of Puerto Rico.

The film’s absolutely perfect, haunting music is composed by Angélica Negrón.

Landfall is produced by Blackscrackle Films, and distributed by PBS and Field of Vision.

Film Festival Nominations and Winners

Nominee, Truer than Fiction Award, Film Independent Spirit Awards

Nominee, Cinema Eye Honors Spotlight Award

Grand Jury Award, Viewfinders Competition, DOC NYC Film Festival

Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary, Florida Film Festival

Best Feature Documentary, Guanajuato International Film Festival

Best Documentary, Milwaukee Film Festival

Best Documentary, Boston Latino Film Festival

Jury Honorable Mention, New Orleans Films Festival
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(Pictured: Professor Cecilia Aldarondo, courtesy of ‘Landfall’)

Freightened: The Real Price of Shipping

The more hidden a problem is, the more urgent it is to solve that problem.

Once in a while my The Marin Post editor discovers a documentary film and informs me about it. This one is about shipping—giant ships bringing products to and fro for us to utilize and consume. ‘What a seemingly dry and obscure topic’ was my immediate reaction.

It took only a few moments watching the film to realize it is as crucial a documentary for us humans to see as any of the many environmental films that keep on coming our way.

Written and directed by Denis Delestrac, Freightened opens with metadata about these giant cargo ships which bring 90% of the products we consume to the West. The rest of the film is…let’s just say concerning.

Shipping is a 500 billion dollar industry. There are sixty thousand giant ships roaming our oceans, polluting our natural world. There are approximately 120 shipwrecks a year. 150 tons of crude oil pollute the oceans annually. Add other substances, 1.8 million tons of toxic substances feed our oceans annually. This is just a sample of the film’s revelations.

The primary culprit is called ‘flags of convenience.’ No matter the actual country of origin of any one ship, it can be registered with any United Nations country, and each country creates its own regulations which can be strict and protective, or not. Many, if not most ships fly flags of countries that provide minimum—if any—protection via their regulations.

Freightened may seem to be a most unlikely documentary you find yourself viewing, yet it is as significant an environmental film as I have ever seen—and I’ve seen a lot.

The film is available in Amazon Prime, and available on disc via Polar Star Films.

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Coda: What’s in those cargo containers coming our way? With a few exceptions, the answer is a mystery of the seas.