Don Schwartz Spotlight on Documentaries
Welcome to the Blog of actor/journalist/personal historian Don Schwartz.
Don has been published in a variety of publications since 1977. His book, Telling Their Own Stories: Conversations with Documentary Filmmakers, is available from Amazon in softback or Kindle edition.
Don holds multiple degrees, including a Ph.D. in psychology and counseling from the California Institute of Integral Studies.
Don is a regular guest on our web radio show, The Art of Film Funding, produced by From the Heart Productions, reviewing documentary films with founder Carole Dean—http://www.blogtalkradio.com/the-art-of-film-funding
Don also contributes film reviews and filmmaker profiles to CineSource Magazine online—www.CineSourceMagazine.com
His weekly film review appears in The Marin Post—https://marinpost.org/
Don’s actor resumé, voice samples, and reel may be found at: www.DonSchwartz.com
You can access Don’s Personal Historian services at:
You can find, and Like Don’s official Facebook page athttps://www.facebook.com/OfficialDonSchwartz
Trapped in a narcissistic bubble, I paid little attention to the news about her husband, Daniel. He had made headlines—something about sneaking out confidential information about the Vietnam War, something about ‘The Pentagon Papers.’ I was oblivious of the honor I experienced being in the presence of these two kind, unassuming people.
Had I known the dramatic and horrific details documented in The Most Dangerous Man in America, had I read The Pentagon Papers I would have been anxious, intimidated and humbled in their presence. Perhaps my oblivion made for a more enjoyable luncheon for us four.
Daniel Ellsberg revealed a pattern of United States government lies, cover-ups, and misinformation that supported the establishment and maintenance of a decades-long war in Southeast Asia. And, of course, history repeated itself with the 2003 war in Iraq—a contagious, intractable war that continues today.
Although the history of the United States government’s malfeasance is the primary reason this film is so important, Judith Ehrlich’s and Rick Goldsmith’s The Most Dangerous Man in America is much more than a history lesson. It is a classic story of conversion and redemption.
Ellsberg was a solid patriot, a military man, a government man, a brilliant intellect and strategist, thoroughly dedicated to supporting military solutions to global issues. This film documents Ellsberg’s emotional journey as he realized the malfeasance of which he was an unintentional yet integral part.
The Most Dangerous Man in America is an absolute must-see.
Laura Dekker was thirteen when she decided to be the youngest person ever to sail around the world alone. Her father reluctantly agreed, but the dream odyssey was delayed when The Netherlands’ government did not agree. Said government spent ten months attempting and failing to wrest custody of Laura from her father.
Dekker set out on her boat, ‘Guppy’, at the age of fourteen, took two years, sailed around the world, created a sensation, broke the record, provided most of the footage of this film—and, afterwards… kept on sailing.
Jillian Schlesinger’s Maidentrip starts out with that sensational legal battle, then brings the ‘I-can’t-believe-what-I’m-seeing’ viewer on Dekker’s astounding voyage. As I write these words, I still can’t believe it. Dekker and her odyssey are equally fascinating, jaw-dropping.
And what a gargantuan task Schlesinger and veteran editor Penelope Falk took on and accomplished in making this documentary film—covering a two-year journey in just 82 minutes.
Dekker’s journey and this film confront each of us with our perceived limits of what is humanly possible, and, especially, what potentials our youth carry in their bodies, minds, and spirits.
Adrian Grenier, the lead actor in HBO’s long-running Entourage series, discovers his life, inevitably, imitating his art.
Everything in his wild and woolly world is normal – for a handsome rising star, that is – until one of his ‘sprayings’ (When a paparazzo sets their camera to automatically take several shots in a very short period of time, the verb ‘to spray’ is utilized to describe the phenomenon. ‘I sprayed her,’ or, ‘I got sprayed.’ With the flash on, the sprayee’s eyesight is temporarily diminished or blinded. The metaphor to shooting a machine gun is noted.)
As Grenier’s sight recovered, he noticed that the shooter was a young boy. “How old are you?” Grenier asked. “Thirteen,” the boy answered.
Thus, a great documentary was born. Grenier decided to befriend this boy, Austin Visschedyk, to learn about the world of the paparazzi – and, especially, about how and why it is that a 13-year old prodigy has joined their small celebrity-hounding cult.
While providing a glimpse – as fascinating as it is disturbing – into the paparazzi world, Teenage Paparazzo profiles Visschedyk’s work and character as well as the budding friendship between the teenage ‘pap’ and the risings star. The young boy becomes the star’s teacher.
Because of Grenier’s tenacity in this project, his consistent presence with nomadic groups of paparazzi, he, inevitably yet again, decides to walk a mile in the other side’s shoes. Visschedyk helps him buy a ‘starter camera’, and the two go ‘papping’.
But all this is simply the context for a much-more fascinating story – or stories. We see both Visschedyk and Grenier transformed by their friendship – they influence each other’s view of the world, if not alter their respective destinies.
Grenier sprays his film with interviews of Visschedyk’s parents, celebrities, journalists, magazine editors, paparazzi, psychologists, and academics.
The viewer is left to ponder issues of celebrity, the story of Austin and Adrian, and, especially, what will become of the young shooter.
Singer/songwriter, artist, story teller, world traveler, mystic.
Having viewed Christine Funk’s The Tao of Bluegrass: A Portrait of Peter Rowan, I now add ‘legend’ to the above list.
Utilizing interviews of Rowan and a large handful of his contemporaries, woven with clips of performances over the last five decades, Funk’s mosaic presents a soul of great beauty and countless artistic accomplishments.
Speaking of ‘legend,’ Rowan’s big break in the music business was joining legendary bluegrass originator Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys.
At every juncture in his career after that, Rowan seemed to take a “left-hand turn.” Whether expressing ambivalence about success, or following a path truer and truer to his heart, his choices enriched the man, his art, and our lives.
Funk is self-distributing her film, and you can find it simply by going to the film’s website.
“It’s amazing,” the Archivist asks, “what state of mind were we in, to face extinction, and simply shrug it off?” He sits in a vast room, atop a tall tower—The Global Archive.
It is 2055 AD. The Earth’s ecosphere has been decimated by global warming. Small bands of humans roam the planet. The Archive is humanity’s memory.
The Age of Stupid is a hybrid movie —little fictional story containing a big documentary which, in turn, contains several little true stories.
The Archivist, played by the late British actor Pete Postlethwaite, sits in the bowels of his giant high-tech tower, 800 km north of Norway. Below is the melted Arctic Ocean. He is alone, looking at and through a large transparent computer display. We are on the other side, facing him.
This is his final blog, an obituary for humanity. He is about to send our story into the universe for whoever may find and benefit from it. But first he is reviewing a few human stories, from this time period, our time period, a few years before 2015, the year in which Earth’s rising temperatures must begin to reverse in order to prevent global environmental destruction.
The Archivist views stories about six people. Alvin Duvernay, a New Orleans-based paleontologist who worked 30 years for Shell Oil Company; Piers Guy, a wind-farm developer from the United Kingdom; Jeh Wadia, an Indian entrepreneur starting India’s third low-fare airline; Layeta Malemi, a Nigerian who dreams of becoming a doctor; Jamita Bayyoud, an 8-year old Iraqi refugee living with her brother in Jordan; and Fernand Pareau, an 82 year-old French mountain guide—who, as of the film’s release date, is still working.
At first glance one may wonder how this seeming non sequitur set of people figures into the potential destruction or saving of our ecosphere. As we learn about their experiences, thoughts, and actions it becomes clear, yet ethically complex.
Alvin Duvernay, for instance, has no regrets serving Shell Oil for 30 years, the same company that devastated Layeta Malemi’s village and its environment. Duvernay, if he had to do it over again, would work the exact same job. Yet he has become an environmentalist, extolling the virtues of nature, living a minimal carbon foot print. It is Duvernay who inadvertently utters the film’s title.
The richness and challenges of these people’s lives, the complexity of their ethics confront our own ethics and embolden our hearts as we are forced to yet again consider the Zen koan of what possible impact can our minute personal actions to reverse environmental destruction have in light of a massive global context.
In addition to the film’s documentary footage, the Archivist’s comments and some animation providing specific environmental information are peppered throughout the stories—cold comfort in a hot world.
The Age of Stupid was written and directed by Franny Armstrong, and produced over a period of four years. It is almost ten years since the film’s release date of 2009, and since the aforementioned 2015—the year in which we needed to have begun the reversal of global warming.
It is almost 2019. The opposite has occurred. The Republican take-over of the United State’s government has exacerbated global warming. But, we can rest in peace that the Archivist was able to send our story into the universe before The Global Archive’s destruction. Perhaps others will benefit from the lessons of our tragedy.
With Growing Cities, Director Dan Susman and cinematographer Andrew Monbouquette take us on a tour of urban farms in the United States, meeting their creators, and, of course, promoting much-needed urban farming.
The duo’s upbeat and light-hearted approach – along with their excellent cinematography, good sound, and great music – make the journey totally enjoyable and inspiring.
The First Run Features DVD includes special features as well as optional English or Spanish subtitles. Subtitles, especially in documentary films, are always appreciated by yours truly – and are crucial for hearing impaired viewers.
The film’s website includes references to anything and everything we need to become urban farmers.
Directed by Aaron Yeger, released in the United States by First Run Features, and distributed in Canada by KinoSmith, Inc., A People Uncounted is an introduction to the porrajmos—the killing of 500,000 people alternately called Gypsy, Roma, or Sinti during the Holocaust. This figure, 500,000, represents 90% of the then-Roma population in Europe.
A People Uncounted is a brilliant film with standard-bearing production quality and storytelling. I’ve heard vague allusions to something about Gypsies being victimized in the Holocaust. A People Uncounted makes these allusions painfully, horrifyingly clear.
The heart of the film is, of course, survivors speaking on camera. You’ve heard the phrase, ‘the map is not the territory.’ There is simply no way to convey in words the experience of seeing and hearing these deeply wounded, noble people speaking of their experiences.
Yeger wisely places the porrajmos in context by referring to other 20th century genocides – and by including the sad information that Roma people are still being killed in Europe.
Yeger’s film is part of an international effort to acknowledge past and current persecution, oppression, and discrimination of Roma people, and to provide justice to the Roma.
As I’ve previously shared, I wrestle with the question: How do I get people to see documentary films about painful topics? Perhaps the answer lies simply in the asking of the question. Or the question is irrelevant, stupid, a fool’s errand to even ask, let alone answer.
So, I resort to simplicity. A People Uncounted is an important film which should be seen by as many people as possible. It is one of countless cries from some human beings to all human beings: Stop hurting and destroying, start being compassionate.
Take Alan Arkin’s black comedy Little Murders, mix it with Peter Weir’s dark drama The Mosquito Coast, add a large shovel-full of reality, and you’ve got Doug Pray’s documentary, Surfwise—about the life, times, and cult of physician Dorian Paskowitz.
Paskowitz incorporates this marriage into his nomadic surfing lifestyle and proceeds to father eight sons and one daughter.
Like the lead character from The Who’s Tommy, Paskowitz requires all his children to do what he does—in this case, learn and practice surfing, instead of playing pinball.
Transporting and raising his nine children in a 24 foot camper, Paskowitz strictly, sternly imposes his values and practices on his children, forming a micro-cult which garners minor celebrity within the surfing world. He is a dictator—equally malevolent and benevolent. The malevolence, though, never seems to occur to him.
The seeds of the cult’s destruction are sown at the beginning, of course. Children—given enough food, water, and shelter—tend grow up and leave home.
Although the children live through the kind of character arcs and transformations one finds in good stories and life, Dorian Paskowitz magnificently, fascinatingly never changes.
Eighty-four at the time of the film’s production, Paskowitz is quite active, fully lucid, and living the principles of life he espoused for so many decades. Consequently we learn as much about him directly from the source as we do from interviews of and information about his siblings, wife and children. His raw personal power is evident at this late age; his thoughts and passions clearly articulated.
I’d never been so immediately and thoroughly engaged by a documentary as I was by Surfwise. Doug Pray has done a masterful job of telling a truly epic story featuring a daunting number of characters.
Surfwise is a jaw-dropping documentary that immediately entered my best-of list.
Note: When I saw this film, I knew it had to be remade as a narrative. There have been reported attempts to green-light the film—but, not surprisingly, what’s left of the family cannot agree on the terms.
Directed by Suzan Beraza, and released by First Run Features, Uranium Drive-In tells the now classic story of people versus polluting industry—in this instance, the uranium mining and processing industry.
Beraza does a textbook job of covering the human side of the conflict in a small Colorado town whose people believe that their only escape from the years-long economic disaster they are facing is the chronically imminent return of this industry. She gives equal voice to those in favor of the mine’s and mill’s rebirth and those against.
The conflict is clichéd: ‘We need the jobs’ versus ‘Our environment and our health will be damaged.’ But the quietly stated—at least for the camera—passions are not clichéd.
Both sides arguments are compelling—though it seems easier to argue for the industry’s return if you have not been affected by health consequences associated with radiation exposure and other secondary results of mining—and, it’s easier to argue against the industry if you have a righteous, noble motivation to save our ecosphere and benefit all species, including ours.
The film left me pondering about how both sides deal with the other side’s arguments. How do the pro-industry people deal with the well-documented environmental and health impacts? How do the anti-industry people deal with a small community’s years-long depression and possible dissolution?
I found myself with an impulse to pursue an experiment: Put the respective leaders in a room with a clear mandate: Each side must sincerely help the other side address their concerns.
How can we help your community’s economic woes?
How can we help you clean up our environment and prevent further pollution?
For those who wish to pursue the issues presented in this film, its website offers a substantial amount of resources and references.
Caveat emptor: Read this review at your own risk. This symphony’s curse can transfer quickly and easily. I will not be held responsible for any subsequent unhappy experiences you may have if you chose to read on.
The Curse of the Gothic Symphony tells the story of the Brisbane, Australia production of legendary British composer Havergal Brian’s ‘Symphony No. 1’ (The Gothic), composed over a period of eight years.
The Guinness Book of Records reports Brian’s piece as the largest, longest and most challenging symphony ever composed. Wikipedia, though, cautions: “Sorabji‘s unperformed No. 2 and Dimitrie Cuclin‘s unperformed No. 12 are claimed as longer.” But I digress.
Produced by Veronica Fury and directed by Randall Wood, The Curse of the Gothic Symphony tells the story of Brian’s life, his cursed symphony, and those brave Australian souls who attempted to break the curse.
After a very small number of British productions of The Gothic, a curse was attributed to it because of the symphony’s demands.
Brian’s composed work features:
Two hundred orchestral players
Five hundred choristers
Four brass bands
A children’s chorus
Four solo singers
A large concert organ
A thunder machine
A bird scarer
And, finally, The Curse
Aside from Brian, the film’s central character is Gary Thorpe, a Brisbaner who had been pitching a production of The Gothic there for 28 years. Filmed over a five-year period, The Curse of the Gothic Symphony follows Thorpe and a few key players as they struggle with the symphony and its curse to produce the first performance of the symphony outside of the United Kingdom.
Although the symphony’s production team was unable to utilize all of Brian’s musical elements listed above, they followed the ‘spirit of the law,’ if not the letter. And in doing so they produced a one-time musical triumph. It is a testimony to Thorpe’s passion and persistence that the film’s producer, Veronica Fury, ‘crossed the line’ and became an executive producer of the symphony’s performance. Fury, in front the camera now, has the requisite meltdown of frustration and discouragement as the Curse infects her.
Woven throughout this contemporary story is an outline of Brian’s life – an outline that begs its own documentary. Director, co-writer, and cinematographer Randall Wood playfully adds dark, ominous, gothic graphics to his film with music by… well, you can guess who wrote the music.
This is a fun documentary film. I had fun with the playful aspects of its tone, fun learning about this legendary composer, and seeing this epic struggle to get all the kids together and put on an ultimately triumphant show.
I warned you. Now that you’ve read this review, the only way you may be released from the Curse is to see the film.
The official website for HBO’s The Newburgh Sting includes a Resources link which lists several organizations:
Council on American-Islamic Relations, Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, American Civil Liberties Union, Muslim Public Affairs Council, Center for Constitutions Rights, and Human Rights Watch. I’m out of breath.
That’s a lot of powerful resources. Whether or not their collective energies and those of others will be enough to reverse the injustice presented in this incendiary film by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner is an open question.
Their adversaries are various factions of the United States government.
In a very short amount of time, Heilbroner and Davis tell a very long story about our government’s initiatives to put on ‘shows’ that make it seem it is making a difference in ‘the war on terror.’
The victims in this particular show are four poor African American men from the impoverished city of Newburgh, New York.
In this ‘show,’ the FBI pays an ‘informant’ to create a terror plot and almost execute it. The informant manipulates these four men – who, for all intents and purposes, are neither Muslims nor terrorists – into a non-sense plot that includes two terrorist attacks on United States soil.
Much of the conversation between the informant and these gentlemen are recorded – along with videos of their activities. The FBI provides faux devices to the ‘perpetrators,’ and busts the four men one carefully-orchestrated, well-media-covered evening as they are about to carry out their pretend attack.
The informant is obviously much more than an informant. He is an agent provocateur who, unable to find authentic subjects, and desperate to keep his job, secures these patsies.
The bust and subsequent trial are planned and covered like a Hollywood movie. Utterly untrue public statements are made by the likes of New York Senator Charles E. Schumer and then-FBI director Robert Swan Mueller.
The four pawns are sentenced to 25 years, their appeal fails, and the case is now headed to the lop-sided Supreme Court.
We’ll see if those above-mentioned noble organizations can help find justice for the four victims.
The film places this case in the context of an overall national strategy of phony investigations and prosecutions of supposed terrorists – extremely expensive 1984-type propaganda fed to a blinded American audience.
The Newburgh Sting is an example of investigative documentary filmmaking at its utterly finest.
In 2009, Meghan Eckman produced and directed a documentary, The Parking Lot Movie, about the attendants working at Farina’s ‘The Corner Parking Lot.’
Located near the University of Virginia, adjacent to the backs of several bars as well as train tracks, and featuring a wooden shack built in 1986, the attendants have face-to-face contact with customers as they drive by the lot’s shack to – hopefully – pay their parking bill, in cash or check, directly to the attendant.
Farina tends to hire college students, graduates, and musicians – men with higher-than-normal IQs than one would find attending a small-town parking lot. His management style is loose, care-free. Consequently, these young men spend their time between customers playing games and creating contests with the lot’s orange cones.
The attendants print words, phrases, and the names of extremely low Q-list rated celebrities on the vertically-swinging bar customers drive under after taking their automatically-printed, time-stamped ticket. They hang out with friends some of whom also work at the lot – or are alumni of it. They may play music, sing, listen to music, read, and, most critically, deal with rude, narcissistic, and combative customers some of whom simply drive by the shack without paying.
Oh, and one more thing: They reveal their souls to the filmmakers.
The power of both comedy and drama – whether narrative or documentary – rests in conflict. It is this conflictive contact with difficult customers that emerges as foreground for the attendants as well as us viewers of Eckman’s well-done documentary about a seemingly whimsical subject.
Some customers argue with the attendants, trying not to pay, or to pay less than the required amount. One customer argued over a forty cent parking fee. And, as previously mentioned, some simply drive by the attendant.
On top of all that, one of the reasons the attendants have so much fun printing on the vertically-swinging barrier is that said barrier is frequently, willfully destroyed by customers or pedestrians. As many as three barriers a day are broken – affording attendants even more opportunities to exercise their literary creativity on the replacement barriers.
The most intense conflict in The Parking Lot Movie occurs, not surprisingly, when a customer does the drive-by/no pay, followed by furious attendant running after the car, yelling at the customer, pounding on the car, struggling to get the license plate number. Those scenes are the most haunting, but as I contemplated both the humor and drama engendered by them I began to wonder:
Why isn’t there a vertically-swinging barrier at the lot’s exit like there is at the lot’s entrance?
That would surely discourage patrons from leaving without pay, and, indeed, reduce both the monetary loss and the customer/attendant conflicts. Perhaps the exit-way is more than an exit for the parking lot; maybe it’s also an alleyway between the adjacent bars’ rear-ends and the parking lot, and Farina could not legally block the public alleyway.
I contacted Meghan Eckman with this question. She confirmed that it is an alleyway, but that owner Farina could easily set up a movable exit barrier elsewhere; protecting the lot, and, especially, the attendants, from the conflicts and loss caused by miserly parkers.
‘Why doesn’t Farina put up an exit barrier?’ I wondered to myself. Perhaps he sadistically enjoys tempting his customers to betray moral, ethical, and spiritual values – like pet owners who place dog biscuits on top of their dogs’ noses.
Perhaps he delights in infuriating his attendants, or likes a good fight – but, if so, he misses most of them, or he secretly video tapes them. After all, Farina hasn’t replaced the haggard booth in 24 years of doing business, 24 years of Summer rains and Winter freezes.
About that booth, I wondered if he’s simply nostalgic.
I shared these speculations with Eckman, and here is her response:
“I will say this, Chris is very nostalgic – which is the real reason he leaves the booth in place after all these years. He does not have anything up his sleeve, I assure you.”
In one of his interviews Farina spoke about how he used to have a house
by the lake, and from the transcripts, it reads:
“I wanted to take the [parking lot’s] booth out to the lake. If I could sit in the booth out in the rain, it would remind me of some of those nice memories here [at the lot] which is when it’s slow, and no one’s in a hurry, you’re just sitting here and playing music. It’s funny, it’s a parking lot. Who would think you would have those kinds of emotions for it? But, it’s not just a parking lot, it’s the people here and the time for me that has passed in my life.”
His nostalgia is readily apparent in Farina’s interviews. Kudos to Eckman for illuminating this sentiment in this unexpected film, a film that clearly demonstrates the power of documentary to reveal the sublime treasures and intense passions buried in seemingly mundane life.
But enough of that. Back to our beleaguered attendants. These incessantly unhappy customer contacts bring the attendants into a direct experience of the United States population’s economic and cultural stratification and the ever-growing gap between these strata. The interviews of the current and former attendants capture the variety of emotions and attitudes chiseled by years of working the lot, dealing with recalcitrant customers.
One defense some of the attendants mount is to cultivate an inner sense of “Lord of the Flies” – with the customers, of course, playing the role of the flies. The attendants develop and nurture the “I’m Okay/You’re Not Okay” script described in the Transactional Analysis school of human interaction. One attendant, transcending the seemingly petty dramas at the lot concluded poetically, “We had all in a world nothing can offer us.”
But “all” is not dark. One of the attendants met his life partner at the lot, and she ended up being the token, and much appreciated, female in the otherwise all-male cast – excluding, of course, the drunk, high-heeled college girls who didn’t have speaking parts.
The film concludes with an Animal House-like montage of photographs of each attendant with a printed description of Where-They-Are-Now, with many of the former attendants finding impressive high-status positions. Apparently they benefited greatly from Farina’s de facto internship in life.
The DVD contains a massive amount of Special Features – ten of them, to be specific.
Produced and directed by San Francisco filmmaker Jennifer M. Kroot, To Be Takei is both a profile and biography of actor/activist George Takei.
In that short period of time we see and hear Takei and his husband Brad in their day-to-day lives, we learn an outline of Takei’s personal and professional biographies, and we are touched and moved by Takei’s activism. A champion of human rights, Takei advocates for Japanese Americans who were horrifically victimized in World War II by the American government and people – because of nothing more than how they appear.
Amongst the many stories Kroot tells in her film is the creation and production of Allegiance, a semi-autobiographical musical play about the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II.
But don’t get me wrong. Kroot’s film is as fun as it is serious, as reverential as it is whimsical. Takei is totally charming, exudes positivity, has a great sense of humor, and at age 77 continues his performing and public advocacy non-stop. His presence in popular culture has become ubiquitous – has Facebook page has 7,797,636 Likes.
Problem One: Our nation’s treatment of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans is shameful – as evidenced by unemployment, homelessness, suicide, mental illness, and the well-documented inability of the Veterans Administration to respond to disability claims in a timely manner.
Problem Two: Our national and global populations continue to grow out of control, approaching 9 billion this century. The United States is facing a serious farmer shortage. (The world, of course, a devastating shortage of food and drinking water.)
Ellis tells the story of a movement to help Iraq and Afghanistan veterans find training and work as farmers – work that turns out to be both meaningful and healing. She interviews authorities, but it is the veterans themselves who tell the story – of the horrors they experienced, of the state of their health and their lives upon return, and of how farming dramatically improved their well-being and gave them meaningful employment, or even restored a meaningful, purposeful life.
We learn, too – and not surprisingly – that in entering the plant and animal growing business these veterans are discovering the many food issues that have been so well documented by filmmakers within the last couple decades. Issues of food quality, issues of the economics of growing and distribution, and issues of public health.
It appears our veterans will be having a positive impact on these issues.
As the film ended I found myself reflecting on our national awareness of people with disabilities, that it seemed awareness and concern for them expanded during and after the Vietnam War – as a result of the hundreds of thousands wounded young men who returned to an unhappy, unsupportive world. It also seems that this societal evolution peaked with the 1990 signing of the Americans With Disabilities Act.
No doubt it was the activism of veterans that fertilized these societal changes. So, I wax hopeful when I imagine that veterans entering the food growing worlds will have a favorable impact on food quality and distribution issues.
Aya Awakenings is a superbly crafted, highly sophisticated cinematic journey into psychedelic and transcendent consciousness.
Produced and directed by Timothy Parish and Rak Razam, based on Razam’s book, Aya Awakenings: A Shamanic Odyssey, the documentary follows Razam on his personal journey into the Peruvian jungle and onto ayahuasca journeys. Razam skillfully narrates using a script adapted from his book.
Razam’s narration is accompanied by a significant amount of still photography, with occasional moving images including psychedelic animations. Dave Tipper’s music enhances the environments created by Parish and Razam.
Mirroring the excellence of the production, the film’s website provides viewers with a tremendous amount of gracefully designed information about the film and ways to follow up on its inspiring messages—including a link to the film’s Facebook Page.
My neighbor, an experienced ayahuasca journeyer, shared that this is the most accurate representation of the ayahuasca experience he’s ever seen.
This is a film to be seen more than once.
Canadian singer/songwriter Rita Chiarelli wanted to visit the ‘birth of the blues’ which was, as she understood, Angola prison in Louisiana. There she found prisoners serving life sentences who play and sing music with the skills of seasoned professionals.
Chiarelli resolved to put on a show of their music. It took her ten years, but she did it, and that show’s impact expanded way beyond Angola’s walls.
As of the film’s production, in the State of Louisiana ‘life means life.’ There is no parole. The Board can reduce a sentence, but rarely does so. One of the more desirable rooms at Angola holds 50 bunk beds. The prisoners keep their life belongings in a trunk by the bed. Louisiana provides a dark window on an American justice system that is more, much more about punishment and politics than about justice.
McDonald’s camera follows Chiarelli around the prison. A shiny Christian cross embracing her heart, she speaks with the musicians—their faces, their facial expressions, their eyes, and their voices all reveal lifetimes of tragedy, despair, hope, and transcendence. They could not have a better friend than Rita Chiarelli.
Prolific director Bruce McDonald provides a cornucopia of heart-breaking and inspiring stories together with a great concert. He has told a powerful story about the triumph of the human spirit over the inhuman conditions.
Shot in black and white, the film’s images are so rich and clear I felt as if I was viewing a Blu-ray disc instead of a standard DVD. The music is well produced and recorded. I wanted more – to make an understatement. This is one of those documentaries that deserves to be seen by… everyone.
Muscle Shoals is a city in northwest Alabama, along the south side of the Tennessee River, in the United States of America.
Muscle Shoals is a documentary masterpiece which covers the birth and history of the city as an international hub for R&B, pop, and rock singers. In telling and showing Muscle Shoals’ musical story, first time director Greg ‘Freddy’ Camalier also tells the story of Rick Hall whose life appears to have emerged from Greek mythology – an amalgam of Homer’s The Odyssey and the The Phoenix.
Raised in abject poverty, Hall experienced tragedies throughout his life. After a few of them, he opened a sound studio called ‘Fame’ in the late 1950s, and quickly propelled himself, his studio, and Muscle Shoals into American music history.
Although music and musicians comprise the body of this film, Hall and his story is its spine. He planted the seed, nurtured its growth, and now, in addition to taking his place in music history, he is the star of this show.
Camalier’s film is filled with many fine touches the most important of which is his coverage of the land around Muscle Shoals, and the river along it of which native American myth describes an underwater woman who sings songs.
I watch documentary screeners at home, and usually pause them for any number of reasons. I enjoyed all 111 minutes of this film non-stop – and I will be viewing and listening to it again.
The answer is: Phil Spector and Pamela Smart.
Written and directed by David Mamet, and starring Helen Mirren and Al Pacino, the narrative film, Phil Spector, was first cablecast in 2013.
Directed by veteran filmmaker Jeremiah Zagar, and cablecast in 2014, Captivated reviews the 1990 murder of Greggory Smart, the trial of wife Pamela for the charge of accessory to first degree murder, and her conviction, sentencing, and imprisonment.
The Pamela Smart trial was the first criminal trial to have gavel-to-gavel television coverage. It is considered the Big Bang of ‘reality TV’ — including court-based litigation presented in real time. The phenomenon of this massive amount of media coverage and its impact on the trial is thematically woven throughout Zagar’s film which describes a semi-conscious conspiracy between the media and the prosecution to tell the lurid, money-making tale of a wife who seduces a teenager and convinces him to murder her philandering husband.
In addition to the massive amount of regional and national coverage the crime and the ensuing trial engendered, there was the 1991 TV movie, Murder in New Hampshire: The Pamela Wojas Smart Story starring Helen Hunt; the 1995 Gus Van Sant film, To Die For, starring Nicole Kidman — along with a plethora of cablecast documentaries.
In addition to questioning the extent to which media coverage influenced the guilty verdict against Smart and her life-with-parole sentence, Captivated documents aspects of her trial that bring both verdict and sentence into question — phenomena such as breaking protocol by keeping the four young boys who participated in the murder housed closely together during the pretrial time window, allowing them to develop their defense story; disallowing a full analysis of a recording made via a wire on a prosecution witness; neither relocating the trial, nor sequestering the jury in the full knowledge of the massive publicity generated by this made-for-tabloid story.
A woman, described as the ‘13th juror’ followed instructions. She did not talk about the case; but, instead made an audio tape diary of her daily experience. Portions of her diary are played throughout the film. By the end of this diary, by the end of the film I was left with the distinct impression that although it is not clear that Pamela Smart is innocent, it is very unclear that she is guilty. It is also very clear that she did not receive a fair trial. She didn’t have the money for one.
I’m haunted by a couple pieces of information in the film. One is that the judge wondered out loud who would portray him in the film — he preferred Clint Eastwood. The other is the fact that the boy who shot Greggory Smart and the boy’s associates pled down to and were convicted of second degree murder. They received 25 to life, and were eligible for parole. Two have been released, and the other two may be released as early as 2015.
Pamela Smart, who is serving a life sentence, was charged and convicted of accessory to first degree murder. But that doesn’t match the charge given to the murder’s perpetrators. That simply doesn’t make sense.
No, seriously, she does. With her film, Connected: An Autoblogography About Love, Death, and Technology. Let me explain.
Tiffany Shlain is an internationally renowned multi-media producer/writer/director/speaker/author/innovator, and leader. Just a partial list of her accomplishments is… intimidating. In her short life on this planet Shlain has produced ten short films two of which were screened at the Sundance Film Festival, co-founded the Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, founded The Webbie Awards, and her first feature, Connected, was screened at Sundance.
Eschewing the countless technological dystopias of science fiction literature and Hollywood films, Shlain lives joyfully on the leading edge of technology and media. That life is no more apparent than in her production of and presence in Connected.
The film asks several questions. The first, near the beginning, is a core question. After introducing the phenomenon of technology creating mass connections between peoples of the world – more than two billion online so far – she follows with an environmental example of how the loss of honey bees could lead quickly to mass starvation. Shlain asks, “So, if one change in our over-connected world can have such far-reaching consequences, how do we use the power of all these connections to turn things around?”
The answer lies in human evolution, history, bi-lateral brain functioning, gender, art, politics, the internet, and, especially, in the meanings of the word ‘interdependence.’
Via a well-sequenced cornucopia of concepts and a practically nonstop montage of images, Shlain surmises that the usage of the internet stimulates, in a balanced fashion, both sides of the user’s brain – by virtue of the web’s integration of text and image. “If this rewiring of the brain,” she states, “is happening on an individual level, on each person who uses the web, imagine the cumulative effect of a da Vinci-type brain synthesis (a left/right hemispheres functional integration) on a global scale….
“We’re at the beginning of a participatory revolution where people’s ideas are free to interact, reproduce, and cross-pollinate instantaneously – creating new, hybrid ideas that combine perspectives from all over the world, connecting ideas, data, and cultures from millions of brains into a global thinking structure with infinite possibilities, where each text, hyperlink, or tweet is like a neural synapse firing out to everyone you’re connected to…. The internet is rewiring our brains to think interdependently, changing the way we connect to the world online and off.”
Throughout the film Shlain is building, supporting, and clarifying her vision of a positive human evolution, a vision of a world saved.
Reflecting Shlain’s brilliance, Connected is a multi-layered film, and one of those layers is a ‘making-of’ the film. It is in this layer that we learn about Shlain’s father, Leonard Shlain, a surgeon and best-selling author. His thinking and beingness are foundational to the film. He was to be a co-writer of this film, but was diagnosed with Stage 4 brain cancer early in production. The genius of his mind, the wondrousness of his fatherhood, and the pain of his passing are woven throughout. Like the most powerful of Joni Mitchell’s songs, daughter Shlain deftly, movingly weaves a narrative of the personal and deeply intimate with that of the impersonal and universal. Connected touches the heart as deeply as it provokes the mind.
You can go to the website of May I Be Frank and read much praise for this film – and I add my voice to that chorus. But in addition to being an inspiring story of personal transformation, May I Be Frank is a lesson in money and filmmaking.
Near the beginning of the film we hear one of the three filmmakers express what appears to the eye as quite obvious: “We’ve never made a movie before.” They’re not using a good camera, and they probably don’t know how to work it very well. There are a few professional shots peppered throughout the film, but the overall visual image is amateurish, sometimes like home movies transferred to digital format.
But all that doesn’t matter. May I Be Frank is a great story about a man who is unhappy with his existence, has his fair share of health problems – and with the help of three dedicated ‘coaches’ goes on a 42-day program of eating right, enduring natural therapies, and undergoing psycho-spiritual work.
There’s no way any of us could make and execute such a commitment without struggle, and there’s no want of that in this film. If a low-budget film made by inexperienced filmmakers is the only way we could have gotten Frank’s inspiring story told, then bless these novice filmmakers and their inexpensive camera. A great story opens our hearts however it’s told.
It’s challenging to find a documentary that’s a ‘feel-good movie of the year,’ but here it is. And I’m just as inspired by the filmmakers’ journey as I am by Frank’s.
Unlikely Friends focuses on a few victims of violent crime who have developed strong friendship bonds with their perpetrators.
The immeasurable value of victims and perpetrators bonding, however, is clearly revealed in writer/producer/director Leslie Neale’s powerful documentary.
With narration by Mike Ferrell, and interviews with prisoners and those they’ve harmed, Unlikely Friends addresses issues both emotionally intimate as well as salient to American public policy—issues of psychological health, issues of justice, ethics, and issues of economy, given the massive number of Americans unjustly incarcerated.
Very few films make an indelible impact. Unlikely Friends is one of them. It struck me on two fronts. One is the emotional. The parties involved speak frankly about their behavior and experience, about the processes that brought them together. They tell their stories, and express their feelings of loss. They make it abundantly clear that despite how mystifying it may be to us, they have found great value in these relationships.
The second front is justice—American style. That style is revenge and punishment which is not justice. And now, that style also includes what is accurately-referenced as ‘the prison industrial complex.’ Funds tragically wasted on punishment and revenge; funds that could and should be used in support of the health, welfare, and education of our children which, in turn, would significantly reduce crime and violence.
Unlikely Friends also addresses the nature of the human character and psyche. Once violent, always violent? Can we change—not just are behavior, but our psyche, our character, our heart? Can we radically transform our being? The film answers those questions in the affirmative, and that conclusion impacts our treatment of perpetrators and their victims.
Because it addresses public policy so powerfully, Unlikely Friends should be seen by every elected official in the United States, at every level of government.
The Unlikely Friends website is integral to the film it represents. For a tremendous amount of follow-up information and resources click on About the Film. Then click on Our Partners and Resources.
Kudos to Leslie Neale for including subtitles in her film. The vast majority of documentary films that make it to my eyes have neither subtitles nor closed captioning.
Most of us know there’s a problem with the electro-magnetic radiation emitted by cell phones, and some of us take some measure of caution in our use of them.
If you are one of those cell phone users who is not taking precautions, that state of affairs will end after you watch Kevin Kunze’s film, Mobilize. In its brief 84 minutes we learn about the latest research pointing out the long-term health risks of cell phone use, and the telecommunications industry’s battle against bad PR and bad – for them – legislation.
An extra note of caution is added regarding children who are using cell phones at younger and younger ages – including toys for toddlers that incorporate the phones. There was even one for babies.
Hats off to Kunze for his indomitable spirit in confronting the industry and bringing this information to light. Now, the ball’s in our court
I continue to be amazed at the tens of millions of Americans over the last couple hundred years or so who thought they could smoke every day and believed said smoke would not hurt their lungs. Hopefully it won’t take as long for us to change our cell phone behavior and for the industry to be held accountable for the effects of its products.
Documentary films have the power to bring us into worlds we never heard of, or barely know of—worlds we may have no interest in whatsoever.
Directed by highly accomplished filmmaker Beth Harrington, The Winding Stream tells the story of the Carter family who are considered ‘The Big Bang of Country Music.’ The three family members who started it all were A.P., Sara, and Maybelle, from Maces, Virginia, in the Appalachian foothills.
The story takes us from the late 1800s to present times, with interviews of and performances by a handful of performers paying tribute to the three seminal members who are referred to as ‘the Original Carter Family.’
This is a stunning, expertly crafted film—one yours truly has viewed many times. Each of the three Carter family members could have their own documentary or narrative film. Their personal lives were quietly epic, their contributions to American music, incalculable.
The Horse Boy is about a Texas family—Kristin Neff, a professor of psychology; Rupert Isaacson, a journalist, human rights advocate, and former horse trainer; and their son Rowan Isaacson who was diagnosed with autism at age two.
Director Michael Orion Scott first met Rupert Isaacson at a bookstore talk Isaacson was giving on the Kalahari Bushmen of Botswana. Sharing a passion for human rights and indigenous peoples, the two began discussing a film about the Bushmen.
“A few months into pre-production,” Scott writes, “I was sitting with Rupert in his kitchen. Our conversation paused for a moment, and then he said, ‘Michael, there is something else I would like you to consider.’”
Out of their collaboration came this inspiring story about a couple lovingly raising a six-year old child suffering greatly from autism. Like many families of these children, Neff and Isaacson had tried everything their world offers as possible help—from the allopathic to the naturopathic—with little, if any, benefit.
The healing of Rowan Isaacson began when his father—who had abandoned horseback riding and training to keep Rowan away from the dangers of horses—noticed one day his son break through a neighbor’s fence and approach with abandon a group of horses. Frozen, Isaacson watched the notoriously grumpy old mare name Betsy, the herd’s alpha horse, push the other horses away, bend her head to Rowan, and begin licking and chewing with her lips—an equine sign of submission. Isaacson had never witnessed a horse voluntarily make this obeisance to a human being.
Researching horses and healing, Isaacson discovered that horseback riding first emerged in Mongolia, and that Mongolia’s state religion is shamanism. Kristin and he embarked on a healing journey to Mongolia. The happy chance meeting between director Scott and Isaacson enabled this harrowing—for both family and filmmaker—and this inspiring story to be viewed by the world.
(If you are or know of parents with children diagnosed with autism, please follow this link to the foundation born from this story.)
Prolific filmmaker Doug Pray’s Levitated Mass tells the story of the moving of a rock from one place to another. The rock in question weighs 340 tons. It was moved from a southern California above-ground mining operation to the Los Angeles Museum of Art.
The impetus for this translocation came from Michael Heizer who does ‘land art.’ (Please see his website — link below — to learn what ‘land art’ is.) He is credited as the artist of the rock’s installation at the museum.
In 1968, Heizer conceived a large piece of earth suspended so that people could walk under it. A mine operator who’d been informed of the need for such a rock found just the thing Heizer specified. After much discussion amongst hundreds of people the rock was moved in 2012, from the mine to the museum, by a 294-foot-long, 206-wheeled trailer over a period of ten days, through 22 cities. The service fee was $10 million.
It was positioned outside the museum, above ‘negative space’ – that is, a hole – long enough and wide enough for people to walk underneath it.
That’s it. That’s the story. I loved it! Can’t wait for the commercial Blu-ray disc so I can see much more of this journey the completion of which would make Sisyphus massively envious.
Not being connected to the worlds of pop culture or country music, I’d never heard the name, ‘Chely Wright.’
Sitting in a stack of two dozen documentary screeners all waiting to be viewed and reviewed was this screener with the title, Chely Wright: Wish Me Away; and at the top of the case the words: ‘A Nashville Star Comes Out And Finds Her True Voice’.
My attitude was cavalier, nonchalant—just another gay-related story. But I put the disc in the Blu-ray player and pressed play—simply because I’d seen enough downer docs recently and needed a break.
And I got one.
Wish Me Away is so powerfully produced that the movie transcends its subject matter. Yes, discrimination based on sexual orientation is finally receiving the attention it needs and deserves. And, yes, a country music icon coming out is a big story—one that requires its hero to possess many noble qualities, and subjects [your favorite pronoun] to guaranteed attacks and rejection.
What is most powerful about Wish Me Away, though, is how revealing Chely Wright is about herself and her life, and how respectfully and masterfully filmmakers Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf tell Wright’s story.
Wish Me Away is one of the best documentary films I’ve seen. Unless you have the proverbial ‘heart of glass,’ this movie will touch you fully and deeply—pretty much from beginning to end.
Frank Pavich uses his lengthy interview of filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky as the spine of his documentary, Jodorowsky’s Dune, to tell the story of the filmmaker’s attempt to secure Hollywood’s support in the making of his interpretation of Frank Herbert’s ultra-classic science fiction novel, Dune. Several other interested parties are interviewed for the film the most important of which is Michel Seydoux who was to be the film’s producer and who partnered with Jodorowsky in the film’s development and attempted sale.
Jodorowsky was 84 years old at the time of his interview.
There’s a missing credit in the film’s IMDB site: The Book. Jodorowsky produced a large book to help sell his film. It contains a complete shot list along with illustrations and drawings of many of the film’s elements: Costumes, landscapes, buildings, and space vehicles. Twenty copies were produced and distributed to major studios.
As a fan I was thoroughly delighted to see Jodorowsky so alert, articulate, alive, and as passionate about film as art as humanly possible. It is because of this vital human presence along with his harrowing story that I whole-heartedly encourage you to see this film.
I will make one qualification, though. The film’s Blu-ray version contains a special feature of deleted scenes—46 minutes of them. Most of that time is more of Jodorowsky’s interview. These minutes belong in the film. So, see the Blu-ray edition of this film.
I cannot overstate that you do not have to be a Jodorowsky fan to be moved by this film. You don’t even need to have ever heard of him. It is his lucid, passionate, human presence that is so inspiring.
Vanessa Gould’s documentary Between the Folds is an exquisite work of art about exquisite works of art—and their creators.
Gould interviews 16 origami artists, and at least one paper maker, presenting their completed works as well as works in progress.
Although less than an hour long, Gould, who also narrates, has filled this brief time with a tremendous amount of information about contemporary origami, its many facets and applications. For those who view origami as nothing more than a few kits and books one can buy for kids at an adventure, toy, or novelty store, this film is revelatory.
The artists are bright, genius, eyes sparkling with enthusiasm and joy, their words filled with clarity and wisdom, their works mystifying.
We learn origami is as serious, meaningful and multidimensional a visual medium as any other. In addition to its intrinsic aesthetic value, origami is being used by scientists, researchers, and academicians to catalyze and fertilize scientific and applied research as well as engineering projects. It has become an educational tool for children learning mathematics and geometry. For some, even the making of paper for folding is a craft, if not an art. Origami—as art and science—is evolving, differentiating into schools.
We also learn of Akira Yoshizawa (1911-2005), the ‘father’ of contemporary origami. He was self-taught, and abandoned his factory job to devote his life to the art of paper folding. Supporting himself with odd jobs, Yoshizawa created over 50,000 pieces, never selling even one. His wish was simple and clear, to see origami recognized as art. His wish has been fulfilled.
The look and sound of Between the Folds is thoroughly professional. Gould honors the art and its artists. She could not have achieved the film’s perfection of style and substance without the excellent craftsmanship of editor Kristi Barlow. Gil Talmi, a prolific composer, provides music that perfectly adorns the images and stories. If the soundtrack was available, I would happily purchase the CD or download. The DVD includes several ‘Outtakes’ as well as a short film, Origametria about the use of origami to teach geometry to school children in Israel.
P.S. The film’s website contains links to several artist websites with images of their creations.
Kumpanìa is Katina Dunn’s exhilarating documentary about the flamenco community in Los Angeles, California. Dunn interviews the dancers, singers, players and cultural historians. She provides astounding performances of music, voice, and dance. Narrator Bruce Bisenz is our host – and a flamenco-loving photographer who has taken thousands of performance stills for the artists many of which are featured in the film.
Kumpanìa is a thoroughly delightful film. If one is going to make a film about as passionate a subject as flamenco, the unspoken requirement is that the film must be produced with that level and quality of passion. Katina Dunn has fulfilled that requirement.
We learn about the founding and work of the Albany Park Theater Company in Chicago. Working with adolescents, David Feiner and Maggie Popadiak produce plays based on the teens’ experiences. Each young person in the theater troupe has a life story; this group of teens share these stories; and then, working with Popadiak and Feiner, choose a story to produce.
We learn about Marlin—pronounced like the name, ‘Marlene’—who tells a harrowing story of rape and sexual abuse in her homeland, Honduras, and in her new home in Chicago.
We’re with Marlin and a group of 22 teens as she shares her story. Following that, we see the creative process with its joy and pain as the acting/writing troupe finds their way to tell Marlin’s story entitled “Remember Me Like This”.
The title derives from Marlin’s preamble to the group when she first tells her story.
Recognizing she is about to share horrors that happened to her—and the painful, destructive ways she dealt with these horrors—Marlin wants the group to know that the person she is now is not the person she is describing. She wants to make sure the group views her as she is: healthy.
Kelly and Yamamoto also provide shots from the produced play—shots that have greater meaning for us since we shared the birth pangs of their origins. The filmmakers also cover the very successful production’s impact on the group—especially, of course, on Marlin. I’ll state the obvious, unless you have a heart of glass, you will need handkerchiefs.
I was so inspired by Trust, and by the work of David Feiner and Maggie Popadiak that I emailed my theater friends sharing my opinion that the Albany Park Theater Company’s model could be and should be re-created in communities around the world. Pass it on!
The Art of the Steal is an elaborate game of Clue, only instead of figuring out who murdered who, with what weapon, in which room; it’s who destroyed one man’s beatific vision, with what tactics, in which jurisdiction?
The film opens with these words: “In 1922 Albert C. Barnes, M.D., created the Barnes Foundation in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, five miles from the center of Philadelphia. The Foundation houses the most important collection of Post Impressionist and Early-Modern art in the world.” Then a direct quote from Barnes: “The Barnes Foundation would attack the enemies of intelligence and imagination in art, whether or not those enemies are protected by financial power or social prestige.” Thus, the stage is set for a tragic culture war.
Barnes, who came from a working class background and supported his college education in the boxing ring, had and manifested a beatific vision – a gracefully, elegantly, and intelligently displayed collection of fine art in a beautiful building, surrounded by beautiful landscaping, and housing a school for artists. Although he used his considerable resources to protect his vision from encroachment and theft, his legal prowess and financial legacies were unable to protect this vision.
The documentary tells several stories: Barnes’ biography focusing on his relationship with art; the history of his 25 billion dollar collection and the Foundation he established to protect and nurture it; his life-long battles with the government, leadership, and elite of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and the final battle to save his Foundation and vision – materially the building, grounds, and school, but just as important, the social, intellectual, and reverent environment of this center.
The Art of the Steal is a rich, expertly produced documentary with high production values which tells a surprisingly harrowing and sometimes agonizing story. It has brought national and international attention to a tragic injustice.
Released theatrically in 2014, Particle Fever documents the search for ‘the God particle’—the Higgs boson, the discovery of which would ‘explain everything’—at the Swiss-based Large Hadron Collider.
Like Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 and every biographical, historical, and biblical movie ever made, we know the end of Particle Fever. And, like Apollo 13, this film is totally engaging as we encounter trials and triumphs on this path to discovery. (But, there is a twist at film’s end.)
The film follows six scientists as they speak about their lives and their thoughts in the run-up to and after the Higgs discovery. For some, there is a distinct possibility that their life’s work in support of this or that theory may become meaningless as a result of the particular discovery.
In any case, ‘A star is born’ in this group of dedicated researchers: Monica Dunford. Her enthusiasm and ‘joie de vivre’ practically steal this magnificent show. In addition to working an infinite number of hours a day, her ‘leisure’ time is spent marathoning, cycling, rowing, and mountain climbing. There is no discovery that could bring this woman down.
Speaking of ‘discovery,’ that word is peppered throughout the film in reference to discovering subatomic particles. Increasingly larger forces and energies are being used to collide protons.
I wonder: Are these scientists with this massive science-fiction-turned-science-fact machine ‘discovering’ particles or ‘creating’ new ones. I asked a Stanford physicist this question. It was a new one on him. I asked if the world of particle physics had ever even questioned the assumption that everything they discover has existed before, and he wasn’t aware of that questioning.
So, I ask the question: On what basis are we assuming that we are not creating new particles? I’m just sayin’.
I’m not a critic. I don’t criticize films, I review them. And I only review a film if, for any one reason, I recommend it. With rare exception, I review only documentary films. I review them because I hold the conviction that our world will be a better place if and when very large numbers of people see and respond to these films.
A few of the documentary films I see are entertaining… or, intriguing…, or, for some reason or other… fun.
But most of the films I see are about maladies of our world, and when I get a screener DVD in the mail, open it up, see that this is another film about an unhappy condition on Earth, my first reaction is: I don’t want to watch this movie.
So, I know. This is how most of us respond. And I have no magic to make people see a movie. And, I’m sympathetic, even, as to their avoidance of films about unhappy, perhaps hopeless conditions. I have to push myself to see a film that I know is going to confront me, disturb me, and challenge a dearly-held belief or value.
Still I wish. I wish I could write a review, have a gazillion people read it, and a gazillion people go see the movie and do something about the film’s issue. To be blunt, I don’t want to even have to write the review. I wish I could just say, ‘See this film,’ and my will would be done.
This is how I passionately feel about Al Reinert’s masterpiece, An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story, which tells the story of Michael Morton’s false conviction of the murder of his wife and his subsequent 25 years of imprisonment which ended when lawyers with The Innocence Project took on his case, and, after many years, obtained his release.
When the film ended I sat stunned, speechless, and felt there’s no way I can do justice in describing the impact of this story.
So, I say, ‘See This Film’.
But I hope to inspire you by exclaiming that there are three reasons I want you to do so:
1) It is about a vital issue—prosecutorial malfeasance, in this instance.
2) It is masterfully produced.
3) It is about a beautiful soul, Michael Morton.
The secondary focus is on the film’s maker, Ellen Weissbrod who introduces her film by telling of her 30-year career making other people’s ideas, and of her discovery of Artemisia from the reading of a book.
Artemisia’s life-story inspired Weissbrod to make her own ideas, starting with the production of this documentary. Weissbrod wanted to break through her own internal barriers just as Artemisia broke through the deeply-entrenched gender barriers of 17th century Italy.
We follow Weissbrod’s personal odyssey as she explores Artemisia’s life and work starting first in the United States, but spending most of the film’s time in Italy. Taking her cameras to homes, museums, offices, studios, streets, and sidewalks, Weissbrod interviews fans, collectors, and scholars. We receive a rough outline of Artemisia’s life, see much of her available work, and wonder about the possibility of many lost pieces. Weissbrod employs Artemisia’s fans in creating and performing tableaus based on a few of Artemisia’s works. Artemisia’s story is embellished with generous amounts of split-screen images and on-screen text.
In her introduction Weissbrod relates that she wrote a narrative script about Artemisia, but that it was not picked up.
a woman like that makes it clear why Weissbrod was so motivated to pursue a narrative. The triumphs of Artemisia Gentileschi’s life are as high as its tragedies are deep. I hope Weissbrod continues her pursuit of a narrative; for her documentary created another one of my soon-to-be-patented ‘If I Was A Mogul’ moments. In this instance, I’d eagerly greenlight a narrative with a budget worthy of a Merchant/Ivory production.
It is the story of Devin Dearth.
The film’s website introduces Dearth’s life elegantly. “At forty years old, Devin Dearth is a successful businessman, a loving husband, father of three, a devout Christian, and champion bodybuilder. He and his family reside in the small community of Central City, Kentucky, where they live the ideal ‘American Dream’”.
The Dearth’s had purchased 2 acres of lakefront property for their dream house. While working out one day at a gym, Dearth suffers a ‘vascular event’ in his brain leaving him paralyzed on the right side of his body, unable to walk, extreme difficulty speaking, and double vision.
Dearth is covered for only one month of inpatient rehabilitation services. His family does not have the financial resources to pay for the many more months of rehabilitation required to recover a significant amount of physical functions. Health insurance does not cover the services required.
Living at home, his wife providing most of his care, Dearth’s prospects for recovery are bleak. His brother, Doug, proposes a journey to Tianjian, China, where there is an affordable 3-month rehabilitation program integrating Western and Chinese medicine. Doug is the film’s director, editor, and co-producer.
After the very first day of treatment Dearth is able to move his right leg for the first time since the event. His progress over the three months is dramatic, astounding. At the end of the story, back home from China, working out again, Dearth addresses us, for the first time in the film, sharing his hope, courage and determination.
We’re left with a thousand kinds of amazement, an equal number of thoughts about our healthcare system, and wondering how Devin Dearth is doing now.
San Francisco Bay Area filmmaker Mark Kitchell (Berkeley in the Sixties) begins A Fierce Green Fire with this introduction: “The environmental movement is about nature versus humanity. It arose at a time when our industrial civilization has grown so powerful, it threatens the natural world on which we depend for survival. It has become the battle for a living planet.”
A nearly two-hour history of this battle in five ‘Acts’ (Conservation, Pollution, Radical Ecology, Going Global, and Climate Change), A Fierce Green Fire derives its title from the story of Aldo Leopold, a young forest ranger who shot a wolf – for no particular reason. As she lay dying Leopold saw what he called ‘a fierce green fire’ in her eyes. “He had a personal realization,” Paul Hawken states on camera, “of what it means to chew away at the web of life. And so if you look at the manifestation of environmentalism in the world, it’s because people – one by one by one – have had that experience.”
Although some of the film’s information and stories can be found in previous documentary films, Kitchell has woven them into a compelling matrix that deserves to be seen and understood by those familiar with the stories and, of course, those not. Much of the footage, however, was new to me – especially the militant American housewives of the 1960s and 70s fighting passionately for their lives and the lives of their families. As I’ve stated previously, given the dire threat of humankind’s deleterious actions on our ecosphere, there cannot be too many environmental documentaries.
I was sadly delighted to see and hear Kitchell’s coverage of ‘Climate Change’ in Act 5. He covers the last four decades of still-born political efforts to acknowledge global warming and do something to effectively mitigate it – something that can only be done by global human cooperation. The current problem is well articulated by the researches in Kitchell’s film. How solutions will be developed and implemented is, of course, a mystery of the seas.
War Photographer is Christian Frei’s portrait of veteran photojournalist James Natchwey who covers wars, poverty and other places of strife. Frie’s camera follows Natchwey on assignment, at his workshop, and those who speak of Natchwey—especially his editors. Natchwey speaks eloquently—and with keen insight—of his own work.
As I viewed War Photographer, the word ‘extreme’ kept cropping up. The subjects of war and poverty are, of course, extreme; and so is the high quality of this production; and the extreme insight Natchwey has in himself, his work and intentions; the extreme ability he has to articulate his insights; the extreme calmness and quietude he manifests on assignment; the extremely horrible images and stories we, the audience, inevitably must see when taking in his work—and the extremely inspiring nobility of James Nachtwey.
War Photographer is a classic, timeless documentary. I have a slowly growing list of documentary films that stand out, that haunt me, and this is one of them. Natchwey and his story are unforgettable.