Into The Night: Portraits of Life and Death

Written and directed by Helen Whitney, Into The Night: Portraits of Life and Death is a superlative documentary film about the existential side of things—death, that is.

The film is divided into two parts. Part One features people’s thoughts and feelings about dying. Part Two begins with a small section called ‘Longevity Science’ about ongoing attempts to stave off death—and then continues with interviews with people about life and death.

Sharon Stone narrates the film speaking Whitney’s well-composed thoughts about life and death.

Part One: Nine men and women search for narratives of comfort in the face of death. Their stories are described below in the order of their appearance in the film.

Gabriel Byrne, renowned actor of stage and screen, who opens the film with the famous Dylan Thomas poem, “Do not go gentle into that good night.” This poem poses the central questions of both films that each person will answer differently: How will we go into the night? What is the narrative that will sustain us – or not?

Adam Frank, the astrophysicist and NPR commentator, who finds comfort in the stars after the death of his brother.

Caitlin Doughty, the young mortician and bestselling author with a huge online following, who worked in a crematorium to face her fears of death and is now a spokesperson for the alternative burial and Death Salon movement.

Phyllis Tickle, the religious historian whose near-death experience shaped her life and her fearless attitude towards her impending death.

Max More, the cryonicist and futurist who places his hopes in advanced technology as a way to defeat death.

Maajid Nawaz, a former radical Islamist from the UK, who believed that martyrdom guaranteed an afterlife in paradise until he began doubting the rigidity of his dogma, and has since become an international authority on anti-extremists.

Rev. Vernal Harris, the Baptist minister who, along with his wife Narseary, loses his faith after the death of his sons and struggles to find it again.

Jim Crace, the award-winning British novelist and dedicated environmentalist, who locates his narrative of comfort in the natural world.

Jeffrey Piehler, the Mayo Clinic surgeon who, at the end of his twelve-year battle with prostate cancer, discovers love and friendship, not legacy and accomplishment, is what sustains him in his final days.

Part Two: Presents candid, intimate portraits of men and women who are grappling with the same questions as those in Part 1. But Part 2 is more than a continuation; it explores wholly new territory featuring different lives and perspectives. Their stories are described below in the order of their appearance.

Science: In this section, scientists and scientist wannabes probe how rapidly advancing discoveries in the fields of aging and longevity might be changing our narratives about death. Their voices range from mainstream scientists such as Judith Campisi and Gordon Lithgow, who are focused solely on the connection between aging and chronic disease. Their mission is to increase the healthy years of life.

Mike West, is an outlier and visionary scientist specializing in aging research and regenerative medicine, pushing back against our acceptance of our natural limits. Aubrey De Grey, a British ‘transhumanist’ tackling aging as a challenge of medical engineering who believes humans can be redesigned to live indefinitely. Ray Kurzweil, futurist and author of The Singularity Is Near, posits a near future nanotechnology which helps us exceed the limits of the human mind and body. For both De Grey and Kurzweil, death is the enemy.

Sam Keen, a prolific author, and former editor of Psychology Today, is a life-long seeker who broke away from the fundamentalist certainties of his childhood. He spent much of his life searching for the story that could rescue him from death. He was present at the birth of Esalen Institute, traveled through the wilder shores of the New Age, explored Freudianism, Buddhism, even the art of trapeze, and is now living peacefully in Northern California writing his final book, My Ship of Death.

Tieraona Low Dog, M.D., a physician and alternative medicine practitioner who struggles with her stage-four cancer diagnosis, its impact on her family, and her own spiritual beliefs. In midst of her illness she embarks on another vision quest, drawing on the resilience of her Native American ancestors, to achieve some measure of equanimity.

James Kugel is formerly the Director of the Department of Ancient Texts at Harvard University, and an Orthodox Jew schooled in ancient Hebrew wisdom. He is nonetheless forced by his cancer diagnosis to reconsider their meaning. This tests–and finally deepens–his own relationship to God.

Joel Meyerowitz and Maggie Barrett, a successful photographer and novelist couple, are shocked by the sudden death of their closest friends. They abandon their lives of ambition and distraction in New York City, and come to realize that love, not art, will be their legacy.

The Town of Nucla: a small, dying town in Colorado whose aging citizens come to depend on the selfless wisdom of their faithful pharmacist, Don Colcord, who never takes a vacation, yet yearns for adventures in far-off places. Through his devotion he witnesses the final wishes of countless dying patients, and comes to appreciate the despair of the unlived life and the power of a fully lived one.

Koshin Paley Olsen and Robert Chodo Campbell, two American Buddhist monks who emerged from the AIDS crisis to form their renowned chaplaincy training program in New York—The Zen Center for Contemplative Care. Their mission is to be with people as they die, in their own unique way.

The two-part film features original music by Edward Bilous and Greg Kalember

Additional Music by Adam Neiman, Christopher Rife, and Robert White

Executive Music Producer: Michelle DiBbucci



Into the Night is published by Bull Frog Films:

This film is dedicated to the life and work of Ted Winterburn.

(Portrait of Caitlin Doughty, a licensed American mortician, author, and blogger courtesy of ‘Into The Night’)








Hunting for Hedonia

‘We have entered a new landscape with great promises and tempting horizons. But. we are also in unknown territory. The trail to discovery is open, and scientists with pioneering minds are blazing with high speed. How do we steer our course into the future? What will we find on our journey into the brain? And, are we ready for whatever that may be?’

Directed by Pernille Rose Grønkjær, written by Lane Frank and Pernille Rose Grønkjær, and narrated by Tilda Swinton, “Hunting for Hedonia” is a brief history of deep brain stimulation—DBS.

The pioneer of DBS was neurologist/psychiatrist Robert Galbraith Heath who appears throughout the film. In1950, he was the first to implant electrodes deep in the brain of a human. Heath treated more than 70 patients in his deep brain stimulation program at Tulane University. He was searching for hedonia, in the pleasure centers of the brain. Heath wanted to address maladies such as depression, tremors, Parkinson’s disease, dystonia, and psychiatric conditions, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder. For a period of time he was ‘king of the world.’

The arrival of the 1970s, and the emergence of the counter culture with its emphasis on freedom and openness portended Heath’s downfall. He was called to Washington, D.C. At a hearing he was attacked by his peers, accused of being the devil in a white coat. When Heath treated a homosexual, the doctor found himself in a miasma of attacks to his integrity and work on account of that one particular application of DBS

Grønkjær tells Heath’s story, and the ongoing story of DBS which is now an established part of medicine’s tools. We hear from a few physicians who are providing DBS, and/or expressing their concerns about it. We also follow a Parkinson’s patient at a Gainesville, Florida hospital undergoing DBS, and ‘Thomas’ who eloquently, heart-breakingly speaks of his life-time of depression. We meet a few more people who received DBS. So far, more than 70 million people have been treated with DBS.

“Hunting for Hedonia” is a finely crafted documentary that reveals the growing world of DBS, and leaves us with much more information—and a few questions about the future. I was touched and fascinated by the interstitial photographic images Grønkjær placed throughout the film.

The gorgeous music is by Jonas Struck.

“Hunting for Hedonia” is available in the United States on Amazon, iTunes, Vimeo, and Google Play.



(Photo courtesy of Pernille Rose Grønkjær)



Can Art Stop a Bullet: William Kelly’s Big Picture

“I know art has power, and I am absolutely convinced that although a painting will never stop a bullet, a painting can stop a bullet from being fired.”
William Kelly

Directed by Mark Street, and produced by Fiona Cochrane, Can Art Stop a Bullet: William Kelly’s Big Picture tells the story of Kelly’s creation of his collage-based installation Peace or War/The Big Picture in Australia’s State Library Victoria.

The collage consists of works by a number of artists and others addressing the crucial issue of violence versus peace. The art contains no explicit images of war or violence. Instead, Kelly sought images which contain point and counter point between the idea of the peace that some of us are able to live in generally, and the war and violence which others are suffering—with the aspirations that we will be able to bring a bit more harmony into the world.

Kelly is the host of the film, and in telling the story of this work we hear from a large number of people from many places speaking their thoughts on war, violence, and peace. Below is a list of the people who present on camera.

Can Art Stop a Bullet: William Kelly’s Big Picture is a quietly spectacular film that deserves a massive audience.




Raymond Watson, artist IRA, 12 years imprisoned

Rita Duffy, artist

Maze Prison – County Down, Northern Ireland

Halina Wagowska, Author, Activist, Holocaust Survivor

Mikael Levin, Artist

Sarah Sentilles, Author, ‘Draw Your Weapons

Professor A. C. Grayling, Philosopher

Nick Ut, Photographer

Professor Sasha Grishin AM, Art Historian and Curator

Martin Sheen, Actor/Activist

Professor Ian McLean, Art Historian

Ben McKeowm, Atist

J. D. Mittmann, Curator, Blackmist Burnt Country Exhibition

Rosemary Lester, Anti-Nuclear Activist

Dr. Tilman Ruff AM, Co-Founder, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) Nobel Peace Prize Winners

Yukinori Yanagi, Artist

Don Brown, Film Translator

Emiko Okada, Hiroshima survivor/Peace Activist

Kiyomi Kohno, Hiroshima survivor/Peace Activist

Luis Iriondo, Artist survivor of the bombing of Gernika

Iratxe Momoitio Astorkia, Director, Gernika Peace Museum Foundation

John Keane, Artist

Peter Sparling, Dancer/Choreographer

Denise Navarrete, The Facing History School

Emerald O’Shaughnessy, Artist/Director, ArkT Arts Center, Oxford, UK

Michael Diaz, Teacher, The Facing History School

Wendy Flores, The Facing History School

Jayson Rivera, The Facing History School

Chaz Young, The Facing History School

Rokhayatau Ndiaye, The Facing History School

Emma Gonzales, Parkland High School Student

David Hall, Parkland High School Student

Zakia Bassou, Co-Founder, 1000 Roses, London

Cocovan, Artist

Francesco Pisano, United Nations Library, Geneva

Dr. Rama Mani, Founder, Theater of Transformations

No Fear No Favor: Hope for African Wildlife

“We are the generation that are allowing the African elephant and rhino to go extinct. If you can’t bring economical value to the local people to protect animals, then you will never win this war.”
Interviewee: Remco Dykstra, Technical Advisor, GRI

Written, directed, and shot by Mirra Bank, No Fear No Favor covers African efforts to reduce—and, ideally, eradicate—the $20 billion a year poaching industry and to create environments that support both wildlife and human communities.

Over a period of more than two years Bank filmed in Zambia’s Kafue National Park—one of the largest intact wilderness areas in the world—and in wilderness reserves in Kenya and Namibia.

The film includes a few images of the usual horrific slaughter of noble creatures, yet the primary focus is on conservation efforts of non-African and African citizens. Local people, working with NGOs like Game Rangers International support the establishment of community-led programs to save their wildlife.

We hear from a few of the wildlife protection workers, and see plenty of elephants—along with quite a few pangolins. One of the workers, Kingsley Munsyamba, was a poacher who got caught, and now helps protect orphaned elephants, rescued and nurtured by humans, then released to the wild when ready.

Poaching is very much alive and well, of course. I can only wonder who is winning. Global organized crime is driving the slaughter of precious wildlife with helicopters, night-vision technologies, and sophisticated weapons. The United Nations estimates African countries lose $50 billion annually to corruption—money that could and should be used to benefit both the peoples and wildlife of Africa.

On the side of compassion and wisdom we have non-profit organizations, community organizers, and documentary filmmakers like Mirra Bank fighting the good fight on behalf of wildlife. Who’s winning? I suspect the killers—and would love to be proved wrong. Another concern I have is the impact of the pandemic on African wildlife and human efforts to support it.

From the filmmaker:
My goal, of course, is to greatly expand the number of empowered viewers who—once aware of the problem and the value of grassroots interventions—will step up to make sure that:

1) international cartels DON’T win in the fight against the 20 billion a year black market wildlife trade

2) and that Africa’s rightful/local stakeholders are full participants and sharers in the green profits that derive from protecting wildlife and wild environments. Ecotourism is the fastest growing non-extractive sector of Africa’s economy.
When wildlife and natural resources belong to local people—when sustaining them brings material benefit—they are hugely effective partners in conservation.

No Fear No Favor is distributed by Bullfrog Films.





Awards and Festivals

Filmmakers’ Choice Award, Andrew Sabin Family Foundation Environmental Award, Hamptons DocFest

Outstanding Cinematography, Tallgrass International Film Festival

Outstanding Excellence: Cinematography,

Excellence: Feature, Nature Without Borders

Award of Excellence, Impact Docs

Award of Excellence, Docs Without Borders

Award of Excellence, Accolade Global Film Competition

Award of Merit, IndieFest Film Awards

Annapolis International Film Festival

Woods Hole International Film Festival

Port Townsend Film Festival

Out of Africa International Film Festival(Kenya)

Lighthouse International Film Festival

Friday Harbor Film Festival

March on Washington Film Festival

For the Left Hand: The Story of Norman Malone

Produced by Kartemquin Films, and directed by Gordon Quinn and Leslie Simmer, For the Left Hand tells the story of Chicago native Norman Malone who, at age 5, discovered and began playing the piano. At ten years old Malone’s father attacked him with a hammer to the head. He was left with right-side paralysis, but could still use his left hand—and that he did.

It turns out there are piano compositions exclusively for the left or right hands. Malone taught himself to play piano with his left hand, and fully mastered his playing. When not performing, Malone became a beloved music and choir instructor and conductor. He taught in public schools for 34 years, and has a very large wall of testimonial plaques.

In For the Left Hand Quinn and Simmer cover Malone’s childhood, his family, his philosophy of life, and, of course, we see him playing pieces throughout the film. The film concludes with Malone presenting his first orchestral piano performance, and continued doing so beyond this first performance.

For the Left Hand is as inspiring a film as I’ve ever seen. It is still running in the festival circuit. However, you can request a screening for up to 50 attendees. As of this writing, Malone is 82 years old.

The film is presented by the United Nations Association Film Festival—UNAFF 2021. This year’s festival runs October 21-31, 2021.





YouTube-Based Trailer

(Photos of Norman Malone courtesy of Kartemquin Films)








The film is presented by the United Nations Association Film Festival—UNAFF 2021. This year’s festival runs October 21-31, 2021. Here is this year’s lineup:


“When society is detached from reality—bad things happen. The 21st century will either be our greatest century, or our worst. That’s going to depend on the choices we make in the next couple of decades.”
Eric Beinhocker, Economist

Introduction: Throughout the ages, each time a new technology has appeared, it has transformed our lives and society—today more than ever. Lead by digitalization, followed by new living and intelligent technologies, our world is being transformed in a way that’s difficult for us to comprehend.

In response, a group of 20 of the world’s leading scientists isolated themselves for 10 days at the renowned Santa Fe Institute, hidden away in the desert of New Mexico. They came from all corners of science representing environment, economy, democracy, social media, education, status of institutions, and artificial technology. Together, they intended to start a revolutionary movement with an ambitious goal: To secure the future of humanity through science by finding the path to a new paradigm.

Note: The meeting took place prior to the Corona pandemic.

Directed by prolific documentary filmmaker Pernille Rose Grønkjær, “Solutions” begins with ‘A Lineup of Humanity’s Most Challenging Problems.’ The film is organized by major categories the first of which is ‘VISIONS: The Mission for the Meeting and Visions for the Future.’

As the film progresses each major category concludes with a few key points. For instance, the first category is ‘SUMMARY’: (I know. Sounds like it should be the last.)


Viewers see and hear the leading scientists presenting to camera individually and in group settings. Their passions, concerns, and hopes for humanity are palpable. This is another crucial film addressing humanity’s urgent practical and existential issues. Yet, it is challenging. I challenge and urge readers to view and talk about this film. A second viewing would be worthwhile—as I have already done.

Solutions” is produced by Danish Documentary Productions, with music by Jonas Struck. The film was presented by the United Nations Association Film Festival—UNAFF 2021.

“Solutions” won the Grand Prize at the Prague Science Film Festival.


(Photo of Pernille Rose Grønkjær courtesy of ‘Solutions’)

Making Films and Closing Deals from Greece to New York: An Interview with Stavroula Toska

Filmmaker Stavroula Toska was born and bred in the small town of Sindos, Greece. She spent her childhood and schooling there. By the time she was 21, she was in drama school pursuing a career in acting. She worked in Greek television, playing in soap operas. Although Toska feels a strong connection with Greece and her family, America called. She was in Manhattan by the age of 23. A few years into her time in New York, Toska met Academy Award and Golden Globe winner Olympia Dukakis at an event. The two connected as friends and soon collaborated on Toska’s award-winning feature documentary ‘Beneath the Olive Tree.”



Toska has directed three films so far:

Switch: a TV series based on true events that takes place in the world of professional domination in New York City.

In The Vice: a glimpse into the world of a high-powered Wall Street woman who resorts to an unorthodox way of enhancing her work performance, while trying to keep up with the challenging demands of the corporate world.

Beneath the Olive Tree: a documentary covering the hidden atrocities perpetrated on Greek women caught up in the Greek Civil War in 1946-1949. This war was much longer than three years. It went far into the 1970s and was backed by the US and British governments.

Mysterious circumstances brought me to Toska via my simple curiosity about the title. ‘Beneath The Olive Tree’, a film that stunned me to the core.

Stavroula, how were things like for you when you first arrived in the US? 

You’re taking me all the way back, Don. I arrived in New York in September of 2000, with about $400 in my pocket which was the most money I ever had in my life at that point. That was a lot of money back then in Greece and I expected to rent an apartment, sign up for school, start paying my tuition, and then I’d find a job. I quickly learned that $400. won’t take you far in New York. So, I stayed at the American Youth Hostel which was charging about $20. a night, on the upper west side. Within a month or so I started working as a waitress in a diner in Manhattan, and began putting money aside to pay for school.

Looking back now I might not have taken the chance if I knew how hard things would have been. But, I was young, and I thought, oh, whatever, I will go to America, if something doesn’t work out within a year or two, I’ll just go back to Greece, or I’ll go to London, whatever, the world is my oyster—but, I stayed in America and I’m very glad I did.

What part of New York did you settle down in?

Soon after the American Youth Hostel I found a room to rent at an apartment on the upper west side. I got really lucky because I had an amazing roommate, an American girl, who was extremely supportive and understanding of my circumstances. She and I are dear friends to this day, we’re more like sisters, actually. Then I started working and attending acting classes at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, I did a little bit of acting in off-off Broadway plays, and then I got my work papers. I started working for corporate America because I wanted and needed to make some real money. I didn’t want to be a struggling artist. A few years later, when I decided to quit my corporate job and make my first film I moved to Riverdale, a residential neighborhood in the northwest portion of the New York City borough of the Bronx.

Did you always know you wanted to be a filmmaker?

Not at all. I actually started out wanting to pursue a career in acting. I was a little girl, in a small town, watching movies that came to Greek television from America. I remember watching ‘Coming to America’ and thinking ‘I’m going to grow up, go to America, and work at McDonalds!’. This was like a dream of mine, Don (with a big smile). We didn’t even have McDonald’s in Greece at that time. But, it was images of big cities, and the type of people I would see in the movies that called me.

Fast forward to a few years later, I had graduated from school with a degree in Marketing and Public Relations, and then went on to study acting in Athens. I worked on Greek television doing a couple of soap operas and some guest appearances on shows but I quickly decided that I wanted to come to the States and have a career here. I look back now at the things I wanted to do, and the career I was hoping to have 20 years ago—I was a girl with a really heavy accent from Greece, my English wasn’t so good, had no connections, didn’t know anybody in America, let alone trying to find an agent or a talent manager, trying to get auditions and build a career as an actress.

I’d say I was pretty naïve about it all. The truth is it’s been a long journey full of adventures, good and bad experiences, life changing moments and countless lessons. Things started changing for me when I realized that I needed to create my own opportunities and build my career step by step; that was what led me to getting behind the camera to tell my own stories, what brought meaning into my life and what I truly feel more aligned with.

Tell me about your encounter with Olympia Dukakis.

I went to an event where Olympia Dukakis was speaking, and she was talking about how she never really sat around waiting for Hollywood or anybody to knock on her door and give her the opportunities to play the big roles that she wanted to play. So, she started her own theater company in New Jersey, and she decided what were the big productions that they were going to put on. And that really spoke to me, it made me feel like ‘OK, I can totally take control of the stories I want to tell, and make it all happen.’ The woman had so much passion and conviction. She was beyond inspiring and I got high just from hearing her speak! Needless to say that before the event was even over I ran after Olympia to introduce myself and asked her for advice. I had no idea at the time how my life was about to change because of that one encounter.

Tell me how ‘Beneath the Olive Tree’ came about in the first place.

Well, I approached Olympia that night at the event and told her I had started writing, that I was taking writing classes, and that I wanted to find my voice as a storyteller, as a woman, as a Greek woman in particular, as an immigrant. We just hit it off, and that was the beginning of a very special friendship and mentorship.

What led me to my first directing job was Olympia handing me a book one evening as I was leaving her home; the book was called Greek Women in Resistance. This was the first time I was reading about Greek women fighting in the resistance movement during World War II against the Germans. Soon after the war was over these same women were being persecuted and accused of being Communists, enemies of the state.

I was in quite a shock because I had grown up in Greece, went to school in Greece, and yet I knew nothing about the Greek Civil War and the stories of these women. I had no idea that Greek women who had fought in the Resistance were later persecuted by their own people, their own government. I became fascinated with this story and started doing research. At some point I didn’t go to sleep for three nights in a row, was completely taken by this story and couldn’t get away from the computer, reading everything I could find online about that period in Greece. That led me to go back to Greece to make my first documentary ‘Beneath the Olive Tree’ which Olympia executive produced and narrated.

And then you went on to direct a short fiction film and a series. Tell me about that.

Soon after ‘Beneath the Olive Tree’ was completed I wanted to try my hand at directing fiction. That’s when ‘In The Vice’ came along. I was looking for something to direct, but I didn’t want it to be something that I had written. I wanted to find a story I was interested in, something that another person had written and would trust me to direct, take it from the page and make it come alive on screen. A woman I’d known for a while and I met at the Sundance Film Festival in 2017. We were catching up at an event when she mentioned a script she had written—a short film. She was looking for a director, and I said ‘I’m looking to direct something. Let me read the script, see if I’m a good fit for it.’ I went back to her a few days later with ideas about how I wanted to shoot it. She agreed and that’s how ‘In The Vice’ came about.

What is ‘In The Vice’ about?

‘In The Vice’ is inspired by a true story that has to do with a woman who is very successful in the world of finance, Wall Street, and the stock market. The film is about what she does behind closed doors in order to be able to cope with all the pressures of that world. The film is about addiction, about the face we show to the world, who we really are behind closed doors, and what it takes to survive in New York City when you’re really hungry for money.

And ‘Switch’?

‘Switch’ started out as a documentary project. I had gone out for dinner with a friend, and we started out talking about different projects, and he brought up the word ‘dominatrix.’ We had just gone by a place downtown, and he said, ‘that used to be a BDSM establishment.’ I had no idea what any of that meant. To be honest, I thought he was talking about prostitution. I did not have a clue about the world of professional domination and that it’s all legal because there is no sex involved.

I became fascinated with finding out who are these women who do this work for a living, and what type of men go to them as clients. What is the psychological turn-on, the appeal? What are these men looking for if they are not looking for sex? What is it that draws a woman to become a professional dominatrix, and what is it that makes a man a regular client? I thought this was going to be my next documentary.

I had discussed this with Olympia at some point. She knew nothing about this world, but the idea was fascinating to her as well. Everyone I spoke to about this project was genuinely curious and wanted to know more. I was determined to do some research, find a few professional dominatrices and their clients, put them on camera, and explore the psychology behind all of this. Well, it sounded easier than it was…I wasn’t able at the time to find people who’d allow me to follow them with my camera inside their work environment, and also when they go home, pick up their kids from school, attend a family gathering. So, I decided to sort of go undercover and experience this mysterious and stimulating world for myself.

I began training and then working as a dominatrix for a couple weeks to see where it’d take me. The plan was to make some contacts, build some friendships so that people could trust me, and allow me to put them on camera for the documentary. After my first week of training and working I was completely hooked, and I did this job for about five and a half years. I took those experiences, and turned them into a scripted series called ‘Switch’ which became my third project as director. We got to work with an incredible cast, including Olympia Dukakis, and the series has found an audience around the world and has won 17 awards and honors in the US and abroad.

I want to go back to ‘Beneath the Olive Tree’ which blew me away.

Thank you, Don. That means a lot to me, and I appreciate you taking the time to watch it twice—there’s a lot of information in the film for someone who doesn’t know this part of history at all.

The very first time you learned about the Greek women and the horrors and deaths they suffered. What was that point?

That was when Olympia handed me the book called Greek Women in Resistance. That was early in 2010. By June of 2010, within a few months after Olympia and I were talking about this project, and what we could do with this story, my business partner, Sophia Antonini and I took our first script to Greece to meet with the women, and start filming interviews.

Mind you, these were the same women who as teenagers were sent to concentration camps and accused of committing all sorts of crimes that the government was never able to prove they committed, but that was the excuse for keeping them in the camps; torturing them and teaching them how to love their country again. I don’t want to give too much away, but I really hope that people will watch ‘Beneath the Olive Tree’ so they can understand the propaganda that was used by the Greek, US and British governments in order to keep these women exiled in the camps or even imprisoned in various prisons around Greece.

So, I found myself reading about these women, and on one hand feeling so proud and inspired by the stories of these young women who dared to speak up for what they believed to be right and fair, for justice, for equality and on the other hand feeling completely heartbroken about how the Greek government punished them, destroyed their lives and took away their best years. I was in disbelief for a while…I honestly could not believe that all this had taken place in my country just a few decades before I was born.

‘Beneath the Olive Tree’ is a very important film and I highly recommend it to anyone who is a lover of history or interested in social and justice issues, women’s issues and history.

Thank you so much, Don. We had a very successful festival run in the United States. For close to four years we had festivals reaching out, asking to set up screenings for the film. It was overwhelming at first, but then it was really incredible to see people who are not of Greek background to come out and watch the film, and then come up to me at the end with tears in their eyes—talking about the women and what they had to endure, how moved they were, and that they knew nothing about this part of Greek history, and how blown-away they were by it all. You can imagine how much it meant to me and the whole team to experience the film through other people’s eyes.

What’s on the horizon for your work?

This is an interesting time for me as I am ready to take my work to the next level. At the end of 2019, and then into 2020, I was going back and forth to LA frequently because I was interested in getting into the networks and the studio system. I no longer want to work as an independent filmmaker. I am ready to get into the studio system and work on bigger productions where I can put my skills and talents to even better use, create projects for the networks, and be able to reach a wider audience. This is the reason why I started my own production company, The Toska Matrix, and have been developing IP (intellectual property) through it, but also producing other people’s works under the company.

Now, as I started to make this transition, Covid hit. I was in LA last in March of 2020 looking at apartments, and they put us into lockdown. It was like, ‘oh my god, what am I going to do now?!’ But, long-story-short, I got back to New York and focused on staying healthy and developing various projects. I have a couple of documentaries I want to produce because I love documentary filmmaking, and I have some scripted and reality shows I’m working on. And, I just optioned a book that I want to adapt into a series; I can’t say more about it at this time, but I’m very excited about this project as well.

Are there any specific projects you wish to mention?

I’m under contract with a well-known production company in Hollywood. We have a development deal for a show that explores human nature, human sexuality, and all that. I can’t say anything more about it until we get the green light, but I will say that this has been a really great experience for me and one that shows me I’m on the right path. I absolutely love creating, developing, producing and I’m blessed to be doing that with a great team of people by my side.

I imagine that a narrative version for ‘Beneath the Olive Tree’ will be high on your list.

Yes! It’s on my to-do list. Olympia, soon after receiving her Oscar for ‘Moonstruck,’ was approached by studios asking what she would like to do next. She wanted to work a narrative about the Greek women, based on true events. They hired a scriptwriter, and it turned out to be very Hollywood. They wanted to leave out the politics, the fact that these women were brutally tortured or killed. Olympia was disappointed, and that was the end of that project. She, Sophia and I agreed, though, that we should produce the narrative film. Olympia is no longer with us, but I am determined to produce this project in her honor and for all the incredible Greek women featured in ‘Beneath the Olive Tree.’

Thank you, Stavroula, for sharing your life and work with me. I’m in awe of your work, and for all that’s coming next in your career.

If you’re interested in learning more and viewing Stavroula’s work you can visit the links below for more information:


Lady Buds: Women, Cannabis, and California

“Right now all we’re doing is trying to just stay alive in the business. We’re just trying to get it done within the regulations, so that we can survive, so that we can go forward.”
One of the Lady Buds

A prolific filmmaker and exhibited fine art photographer, Chris J. Russo has directed her first feature—the documentary film Lady Buds—about women and cannabis in California. Russo spends time with farmer/entrepreneurs Chiah Rodriques, Sue Taylor, Felicia Carbajal, Karyn Wagner, and ‘The Bud Sisters’—also known as Pearl Moon and Dr. Joyce Centofanti.

The primary issue faced by the lady buds is the inevitable expansion of the industrialization of cannabis. Farmers are facing seemingly nonstop State-based bureaucratic challenges to the running of their hitherto bucolic farms, as well as the falling prices of cannabis. The women are doing anything and everything they can to maintain a community of relatively small farms.

Lady Bud Sue Taylor wanted to open an Oakland dispensary geared toward the health care needs of seniors. She did so, but it took a massive amount of effort, patience, and time to realize her dream, and, once realized, she suffered a riot sparked by the killing of George Floyd. Deeply committed to her dream, she weathered the loss gracefully.

It appears that California’s governmental bureaucracy will continue to push against small farms. And farmers will do what they can to push back. Cannabis, of course, is still a Federal Class 1 Drug. Eventually, though, cannabis will be decriminalized at the Federal level. When that happens there will be much more open business, of course, along with a good measure of chaos.

Lady Buds has received positive attentions from press: Screen Daily, The Hollywood Reporter, Forbes, POV—Documentary Culture, DEADLINE, Candid Cinema, The Film Stage, Film Threat, and SKUNK.

Lady Buds is a very well-produced film that, by the way, features beautiful northern California scenes. I also appreciated the work of Abby Posner and Taylor Rowley who provided the film’s music score.

The film is currently playing at the Mill Valley Film Festival, on October 11 and 12, and will be available virtually on the Mill Valley Festival website for the duration of the festival. Stay in touch with the film’s website to find ways you can see the film.





(Photo courtesy of ‘Lady Buds’)

American Gadfly: High School Students Making Big Differences

“A couple of teenagers with a Twitter account, and a former Senator from Alaska have been able to put ourselves in front of the political establishment—jarringly. We’re in the face of the Democratic electorate, and I think we’re making a difference.”
Henry Magowan—Politically Active Teenager

Mike Gravel (May 13, 1930 – June 26, 2021) was a United States Senator from Alaska. He made a 2008 run for the Presidency. His politics were decidedly liberal. I do not know the precise origin of this story, but here’s what transpired:

A group of high school students—David Oks, Henry Williams, Henry Magowan, Elija Emery, Alex Chang, and Jonathan Suhr—with a strong liberal bent set out to give the then 89 year old politician another run at the Presidency.

Directed by Skye Wallin, American Gadfly follows the students as they work with Gravel and make a run for his place on the debate stage. There were two criteria needed to get on that stage: the number of donors and a polling criterion. The students managed to collect enough donors, 65,032, but missed the polling criterion which takes precedence over the number of donors.

The old adage applies, ‘it’s not the goal, it’s the journey.’ This run was important for, and gratifying for all the participants. The story is not over. Two of the students presented at the Young Democrats of America National Convention. And the group sparked the creation of The Gravel Institute.

Perfectly crafted, American Gadfly is another example of the growing number of young people taking responsibility for themselves and their world.

The film is currently playing at the Mill Valley Film Festival, on October 11 and 12, and will be available virtually on the Mill Valley Festival website for the duration of the festival.






The Gravel Institute


(Photo courtesy of ‘American Gadfly’)

Reflection: A Walk with Water

“Long ago, when the earth was just lava, rock and ocean, something happened in the water. Something flickered to life. It came at first like the mist atop an emerging wave—just the first expression of a building momentum. And in time, a massive wave of life energy lifted from those oceans and covered the planet in a blanket of life forms. Life emerged there in those oceans, and it expresses itself now wherever there is water. It’s almost as if this quality of aliveness is just a glint that shines through the water in all things.”
Emmett Brennan

In Reflection: A Walk with Water director Emmett Brennan joined and covered a group of walkers in the Owens Valley, in the eastern Sierras, in southern California, to walk three weeks next to the Los Angeles aqueduct. The walkers were concerned about our changing climate—concerned, ultimately, about the quality of life on Earth.

Along the aqueduct’s way we hear from a variety of ecologists, indigenous people, and permaculture practitioners sharing their knowledge and wisdom. Water, of course, is the prime focus. Brennan interviews farmers, engineers, grazers, and city planners all to address the health of our planet, our flora and fauna, and ourselves.

Reflection: A Walk with Water is very well crafted. I have viewed and enjoyed the film two times so far. I was also moved by the film’s music put together by a team of musicians and composers: Jacob Collier, Justin Kauflin, Emmett Brennan, Jiordi Rosales, Tammy Ari, and Geir Brillian. Yours truly would love to have the music sound track to enjoy.

Note: Reflection: A Walk with Water will be playing at the Smith Rafael Film Center on October 14 and 15, as part of the Mill Valley Film Festival.


Walking Water:


Occidental Arts and Ecology Center:

Regenerative Design Institute:

East End Eden Farm:

Singing Frogs Farm:

Grass Nomads:





Kudos to Emmett Brennan on directing his first documentary film, and hitting it out of the park.

(Photo courtesy of ‘Reflection: A Walk with Water’)