John Lewis: Good Trouble

“And I know that if John Lewis as a nineteen, twenty year-old, wasn’t doing what he did, I would not be here today.”
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

After reading, seeing, and hearing about the life and work of John Lewis over the past six decades, when his name comes to mind now, or appears anywhere within sight, I automatically add ‘legend’ to his name. The words, sounds, images and stories that emerge from Dawn Porter’s John Lewis: Good Trouble affirm my view of Lewis’s legendary status.

Porter’s film tells Lewis’s biography, and highlights crucial moments in the unending struggle for civil and human rights in the United States. Her film juxtaposes interviews of people who know Lewis—his work and triumphs—with a contemporary interview of Lewis at 80 years of age. The film’s subtitle, ‘Good Trouble,’ is the adjective Lewis uses to describe political activism—initiatives that make for a better world.

The predominant political issue threaded through the film is voting rights—the struggle to counter initiatives to disenfranchise as many American citizens as possible from being able to vote. As I write these words, the attacks on voters and voting are coming fast and furious.

The stakes are high in Presidential elections, and every four years they get higher. The upcoming Presidential election itself is facing an existential threat. As the days, weeks, and months ahead unwind I will bear in mind Lewis’s life and work.

A Magnolia Pictures release, John Lewis: Good Trouble is made with exemplary production values.

The film opens July 3, in theaters and on-demand.

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Incarcerating US

“From 1920, until 1970, this whole half-century of American history, the rate of incarceration was roughly level, at about 110 per 100,000. This is a broad spam of our history—the Roaring Twenties, prohibition, the Depression and all the social change there, World War II, the post-war economic boon, the Fifties, the explosion of suburbia, the Sixties and all the social turbulence. During this whole period the rate of incarceration is roughly level in the United States, at about 110 per 100,000. And this reflects the policies of police departments, prosecutors, and judges operating all over the country at local and state level.

“And, in 1970, this all changes so that by now the rate of incarceration nation-wide is over 700 per 100,000. The rate for African Americans is over 4,000 per hundred thousand. And so you have to wonder ‘what changed?’ Why did this half-century of stability get upended with this dramatic increase in incarceration in the United States?”
Attorney Eric Sterling, Founder, Executive Director of The Criminal Justice Policy Foundation (1989-2020)

Incarcerating US answers Sterling’s question.

Although we can’t trust reports of numbers from Russia or China, it has been widely reported that the United States has the largest population of incarcerated people in the world. There are currently somewhere between 2.3 and 2.4 million people incarcerated in the United States. Directed by Regan Hines, “Incarcerating US” is an overview of the causes of mass incarceration in the United States of America. The film profiles a few victims of injustice, highlights the causes, and provides resources to promote reform of sentencing policies.

The film covers:

• the war on drugs

• addiction as a crime instead of a disease

• broad-range conspiracy laws—that takes some explaining

• mandatory minimums or even life for non-violent crimes

I would add innocent people without resources choosing incarceration instead of taking a chance on the results of a trial, and the raw power of the well-established prison industrial complex.

Regarding the war on drugs, we learn that in the late 1960s, before the drug war began in earnest, law enforcement made arrests in 90% of homicides and other violent crimes. That figure is now approximately 60 percent. More killers on the street, more Americans needlessly incarcerated.

Naturally, this is one of those documentaries that infuriates, yet the reformers profiled are inspiring. Incarcerating US is another significant documentary that needs to be seen by teenagers and adults.

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Resources provided via the film:

Can-Do

Families Against Mandatory Minimums

The Sentencing Project

Drug Policy Alliance

LEAP

The Messages Project 

The Cordillera of Dreams

A ‘cordillera’ is an extensive chain of mountains or mountain ranges. Mountain ranges of this type have a complex structure, usually the result of folding and faulting accompanied by volcanic activity. In South America the ranges include numerous volcanic peaks.

The definition above is of a generic noun. Legendary writer/director Patricio Guzmán capitalizes the ‘C’ because he is referring to the specific Cordillera in his home country of Chile which he left when Augusto Pinochet became Chile’s dictator in 1973. Pinochet’s military junta slaughtered somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 of the nation’s people during a 17-year reign of terror. The coup d’état was financed by the United States of America. It is this massively tragic event that has been the primary subject of Guzmán’s filmmaking career.

Released in 2019, The Cordillera of Dreams is a cinematic meditation on the stark contrast between the tragic political history of Chile, the socially and economically inequitable nation it has become, and the quiet majesty of the Andes Cordillera adjacent to the nation.

In addition to Guzmán’s own narration, he interviews a variety of people speaking about the Cordillera from a variety of perspectives. The film also features prolific Chilean filmmaker Pablo Salas who has been documenting the political and social life of Chile for four decades, mostly in the capital of Santiago. And, of course, there are a cornucopia of exquisite views of the Cordillerra.

Winner of the Best Documentary award at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, The Cordillera of Dreams is distributed by Icarus Films.

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Dateline-Saigon

Written and directed by Thomas D. Herman, and narrated by Sam Waterston, Dateline-Saigon profiles the work of five Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists who, as young, naive men, found themselves in the early 1960s covering the nascent American war in Vietnam. The five are: Peter Arnett, Malcolm Browne, David Halberstam, Horst Faas, and Neil Sheehan.

The film covers the years 1960-1963, as President Kennedy grappled with a war of someone else’s making, based on the unsupported, flimsy idea that if South Vietnam were to be united with the Communist North Vietnam, all of Asia would become a collection of Communist countries. That was a ruse, of course.

Each journalist tells their journey of discovery of the insidious forces at work, pushing an imperialistic, not-so-hidden agenda. As they learned about the deep commitments of the North to wage war, their effective tactics and strategies—and the lack of an authentic, intense commitment of the South Vietnamese soldiers, as well as the distracting internal political conflicts of the South—one-by-one the journalists came to understand the divide between reality and the United States government’s phantasies that they could easily win this war. The journalists found themselves in a micro-war between themselves and the US government. That is, they were seriously risking their lives by revealing the truth.

The bits and pieces of information about the conditions of South Vietnam during those three years foretold the inevitable failure of the United States’ chosen war. The successes of the journalists in revealing the actualities of that war to the world is commendable, yet it also led to an inevitable restrictions in US military policies of journalistic coverage of US-chosen conflicts.

Although Dateline-Saigon tells a seven-decade old story, the issue of journalistic transparency is as vital and urgent and dangerous as ever. These five reporters made a contribution to journalistic freedom in those early sixties, and with this film, they’ve made another contribution by telling their stories for all to hear and learn today.

Rich in character and story, this film is another significant documentary that could birth a narrative film or series.

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(Pictured: Neil Sheehan)

Queen without Land

“When I look out this window which had been chewed by polar bears, both from the outside and inside, I think maybe I belong to the last generation who will see a polar bear walking on the ice outside.”
Asgeir Helgestad

Asgeir Helgestad is a prolific, multi-talented wildlife cameraman from Norway. For more than 20 years his second home—and the location of this film’s production—has been on Svalbard, a group of islands between Norway and the North Pole about which he says, “The amazing lights, the vast landscapes, the silence, and the feeling of being completely alone with nature gives me a feeling of peacefulness I cannot find anywhere else.”

Queen without Land tells the story of his meeting with, and four years following a female polar bear he named Frost. Requisite to a film of this subject Helgestad also tells the story of global warming’s impact on the arctic region’s ecosystem—in more detail than I’ve heard from previous documentaries.

The film’s cinematography is utterly exquisite, virtually demanding multiple viewings. Helgestad’s character is sweet and caring. The story he tells of polar bears and the damages done by global warming is, of course, demoralizing. Yet the many cinematic images of polar bear mother and cubs playing together penetrates the heart and soul.

Stay in touch with the film’s website to learn its release dates.

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Ursula von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own

Directed and shot by Daniel Traub, with music by Simon Taufique, Ursula von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own introduces the artist, her life’s path, and her sensational work—all in under an hour.

The film’s website describes von Rydingsvard as one of the few women in the world working in ‘monumental sculpture’—a new-to-me term. Being an amateur philistine, I am not able to describe her work in any other terms than what I was able to glean from the numerous film clips and photographs presented in the film.

Von Rydingsvard creates with a dizzying variety of media, in a variety of sizes—including very large pieces (the above mentioned monumental sculptures) which have been permanently installed in public places. Three of the media used in the large pieces are: 4-inch by 4-inch blocks of cedar wood, or copper, or bronze.

Her personal story is daunting. She was born in Poland during WWII, her family was forced to work for Nazis. She was raised in a displaced persons camp, and arrived in the United States with her nine-person family. Her father was angry, abusive, and punishing. Her husband was also abusive, and diagnosed with schizophrenia. She escaped her marriage with her daughter, and moved to New York in the seventies to devote herself to art full time—and the rest is art history.

An Icarus Films release Ursula von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own is a thoroughly engaging, sensational film about a massively talented artist.

Note: I am so impressed with the work of director Daniel Traub, and composer Simon Taufique, that I have provided the above links to their websites.

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arrangiarsi: Pizza… and the Art of Living

“Before bringing me to meet her family in Italy, my mother told me, ‘you will find out who you really are.’”
Matteo Troncone

 

Had my mentor David Hakim not shared arrangiarsi: Pizza… and the Art of Living I would have never experienced the joy of Matteo Troncone’s cinematic ode to Naples, pizza, and life.

According to the film’s DVD cover, “arrangiarsi is the process of arranging yourself to make something out of nothing.”

In his autobiographical film Troncone faces three challenges: finding himself, making his peace with money, and learning arrangiarsi. Over the course of the film Troncone triumphantly meets those three challenges.

 

Troncone, of course, is of Italian descent. His film escorts us back and forth between California and Italy, especially southern Italy, especially Naples, especially Neapolitan pizza.

Along the film’s way we learn about Naples then and now—its history and culture, the joy of the people, and the only real pizza in the world. We also learn about Troncone and his family, share in his discovering who he really is, and, of course, learning to live life with arrangiarsi.

arrangiarsi: Pizza… and the Art of Living was written, directed, produced, photographed, edited, narrated, and arranged by Our Hero. The Solare Films DVD includes the following supplemental ingredients: Trailer, Deleted Scenes, Extras, and Photo Slideshow.

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Land of Little Rivers

Aaron Weisblatt’s Land of Little Rivers introduces the worlds of trout fly fishing. In a very short 90 minutes the film introduces a growing community of people dedicated to this particular approach to fishing—one which demands hard-earned expertise and infinite patience, along with therapeutic benefits.

From the film’s website: “The Land of Little Rivers, a network of tributaries in the Catskill Mountains of New York, is the birthplace of fly fishing in America, and the mecca for resident and visiting anglers obsessed with the sport.”

The film features a large number of anglers viewing fly fishing from a cornucopia of angles: History / Gender Demographics / Geography / Rivers and Water Politics / Flies and Fly Tiers / Rods / Environment / Politics / Iconic Characters / Guides (those who teach) / Clients (those who are taught) / Museums, Centers, and Exhibitions

As the film flowed on, I became more and more fascinated with this highly evolved sport, and, especially with the people so fully dedicated to it.

The Cinema Libre Studio DVD includes these special features: Angler’s Round Table, A Tour of the Catskill Hatchery, Rob Lewis on Tying Realistic Flies, and Land of Little Rivers Trailer.

Land of Little Rivers streets May 19, 2020, on DVD and streaming on Amazon and Vimeo.

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A Towering Task: The Story of the Peace Corps

“It took me years to understand how deeply the Peace Corps experience affected my ability to be a good journalist. It was in the Peace Corps that I really learned empathy.”
Maureen Orth, Journalist

A Towering Task is exactly what the film’s subtitle suggests, a history of the United States’ Peace Corps. I wonder how many Americans have read or heard the words, ‘Peace Corps.’

The Peace Corps is a volunteer governmental organization authorized by the US Congress on September 21, 1962, based on an executive order by John F. Kennedy in March of 1961. The agency’s unwavering formal mission statement is:

 

 

To promote world peace and friendship by fulfilling three goals:

1. To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
2. To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
3. To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

Since its beginning, more than 235,000 Americans have served in the Peace Corps, in 141 countries.

Directed by Alana DeJoseph and narrated by Annette Bening, A Towering Task covers the agency’s triumphs and existential challenges through six decades of its history. DeJoseph interviews volunteers, administrators, statesmen and politicians who walk viewers through this highly dynamic history.

The topic of this film may seem dry to some, but the stories and events A Towering Task relates are both daunting and inspiring. This dynamic history continues with the agency and volunteers finding their way through the coronavirus pandemic.

As of March, 2020, all volunteers have been evacuated because of the virus. Having seen and heard the passionate dedication volunteers bring to their work, I would not be surprised to learn that some have managed to remain in their region of service.

A Towering Task is a First Run Features release, and opens May 22, 2020, at ‘virtual cinemas.’ Play dates will be available HERE on the weekend of May 16.

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Out of My Head: Migraine

“Frequently, when they come to the office they say, I want my migraine cured. I would look at them and say, If I can cure your migraine, I’m going to get the Nobel Prize. That’s how big that is.”
Dr. Allan Purdy, Prof. of Neurology, Dalhousie University

Written, directed, and narrated by Susanna Styron, Out of My Head is a powerful, provocative cinematic essay about migraine. You may note I did not write ‘migraine headaches.’ I learned from the film that there are multiple components to migraines—including abdominal issues—and that this painful, disturbing condition should be seen as a whole body condition rather than limited to the brain.

Styron became deeply involved with migraines when her daughter Emma developed the condition. The mother used her filmmaking talents to shine much more light on the condition, and, especially the life-changing, debilitating impact it has on the one billion sufferers around the world. Styron also includes stories of celebrated artists who have lived with migraine including Hildegard of Bingen, Lewis Carroll, and Joan Didion.

The film features interviews with sufferers, physicians, and researchers—as well as still and moving images capturing the agony these one billion people endure. Finding a silver lining, Styron also covers the mysterious relationship between art, artists, spirituality and migraine. That relationship could be another feature documentary.

Out of My Head makes it abundantly clear that migraine has not been given the attention needed to find effective treatments for its sufferers. I refer you to the film’s Take Action page which gives us the opportunity to make a small contribution which could make a big difference.

Kino Lorber release, Out of My Head is an expertly produced film which brings vital attention to the subject of migraine, and, especially to the people who suffer its impacts. It is currently available for educational and non-profit institutions, and will be available for commercial sales June, 2020.

What a beautiful, loving gift Susanna Styron has given her daughter—and to all who suffer.

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