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—

Don also contributes film reviews and filmmaker profiles to CineSource Magazine online—

His weekly film review appears in The Marin Post

Don’s actor resumé, voice samples, and reel may be found at:

You can access Don’s Personal Historian services at:

You can find, and Like Don’s official Facebook page at


Johanna Hamilton’s documentary, 1971, tells the story of the break-in and burglary of a local FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, in… well, you know what year it was in.

CaptureCalling themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, ​a small group of upstanding citizens wanted proof of the FBI’s illegal, widespread surveillance of and interference with American citizens practicing their First Amendment rights.

Their zeitgeist was dominated by the Vietnam war and growing civil rights movements.

The anonymous sharing of the stolen documents damaged the FBI’s reputation, led to congressional investigations and legislation, and was a just humiliation and indictment of J. Edgar Hoover and his reign of fear and terror.

The break-in and then sharing of classified documents was very high risk. Some members of this group had young children. Any or all of the members could have easily wound up spending the prime of their lives in federal prison. With the surreptitious assistance of a lawyer they avoided arrest, lived out the statue of limitation, and now we have this harrowing, riveting story of American heroes.

The release of the First Run Features DVD includes an ‘extra’—a contemporary meeting, in panel format, of the Citizens’ Commission which includes a dialog with Edward Snowden speaking from Moscow. At 85 minutes, the disc is like getting two films in one.

Ah! That makes sense.

pi_rijks_renovation2I did not want Oeke Hoogendijk’s The New Rijkmuseum to end. And when I finished watching this two-hour and eleven-minute documentary about the renovation of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, I went straight to the film’s website and learned it was originally presented as a four-hour piece.

The Rijksmuseum was founded in 1800, and moved to its current location in 1885. The much-needed renovation began in 2003, and completed in 2013.

Hoogendijk captured the multi-dimensional challenges of recreating this massive public structure with its massive collection. She covers the bureaucrats, designers, curators, restorers, bicyclists (yes, bicyclists), public meetings, and one caretaker who lived at the museum during the ten-year project.

Her film draws us into the many inevitable debates and setbacks during the renovation. I became passionate about what colors to paint the galleries’ walls. I much prefer darker colors because they stimulate the eyes to let in more light and see a work of art with more depth and clarity. I was certain I would lose that one, but I won!

I will not, however, reveal the result of the bicyclists’ efforts to maintain their riding path through the museum.

The New Rijkmuseum is a fun and fascinating film. It is thoroughly engaging.

Distributor First Run Features has recently released the film on DVD. Enjoy!

patrick_forbes_colourI’ve seen countless films documenting the failings of our American healthcare system—ones about iatrogenic illness and death, malpractice, the vaporous barriers between government and Big Pharma, the squashing of information about the safety and effectiveness of non-patentable substances, statistics comparing the cost of our health care system to that of other nations (ours is the highest per capita in the world) and our place in the world regarding healthcare effectiveness—26 plus or minus two.

But, never a film like this one—a scandalous story from within the American medical establishment.

Here is my review:




These words, in red block letters, appear in the film’s advertisements in The Hollywood Reporter and Variety magazines.

Forbes tells a few stories: The creation and development of an inexpensive heart scan that can provide quantitative, qualitative, and visual information about the presence or absence of calcium in our coronary arteries the blockages of which cause heart attacks and deaths; the creation and development of ‘stents’ which are devices placed in blocked coronary arteries; several stories of loved ones who died suddenly and without any warning from a heart attack; a story of greed in medical practice and, especially, in policy making.

Between the time the heart scan was developed and the time that it began to receive a measure of acceptance—more than two decades—more than four million Americans died of sudden, unanticipated heart attacks.

The vast majority of these deaths could have been prevented by a heart scan followed by preventive measures. Although it’s not at the bottom of this review, that is the bottom line. My personal bottom line is that I’m planning to get a heart scan.

Narrated by Gillian Anderson, The Widowmaker was released in 2015, and is available from Google Play, Amazon, Netflix, Vudu, and Xbox video.

I’m so moved and touched by this film that I’m including the director’s statement:

“I want people to change their life after seeing this film. Normally as a director you’re concerned to tell a story well, to think about how a film will look, even—if you’re lucky—to win an award or two. And I’d be lying if I said that all those usual thoughts didn’t go through my head when we first talked about this movie.

However, my attitude to making it was changed radically by the death of an acquaintance—a talented, forty something lawyer, with two kids and a loving husband. She came home from work one day, and was standing at the top of the stairs, her young kids at the bottom. And then, without any warning, or outward sign of trouble, she suffered a massive heart attack. The hospital battled to save her—but in vain. She was dead on arrival—and her death has left a massive hole in the lives  of anyone who knew her.

So for once, I’m not looking for a shiny statue or glowing review. Instead, I’m hoping that out of all the people who see this film, just one thinks maybe I should check out how my heart is. I know I don’t feel bad—and I’m fit and healthy. But as we point out, people like you, like my friend, die in their millions all around the world. And it need not, should not happen.”

Patrick Forbes, Director

It is Mr. Forbes who appears in the accompanying photograph.

Good. Fast. and Cheap.

The law says that when making a movie or TV show you can only accomplish two of them—only, of course, if you have the ability. Even our Creator couldn’t get all three—as George Burns said in “Oh, God”, “I made the avocado seed too big.” And, of course, He put too many mean genes in our genetic make-up.

Screen-Shot-2014-11-09-at-10.57.27-PM-300x200But for every law, there are its breakers. And those breakers are called ‘showrunners.’ Their job is to do just that—make their episodic television shows good, fast, and cheap.

As the number of television networks has increased from one to immeasurable—the internet invites everyone to make their own network—the showrunner has evolved in the television business. The runner meets the needs and, as much as possible, the demands of the financier, writers, crew, and producers—all within a tight timeline. Showrunners have a short ‘use-by’ date.

Showrunners is written and directed by Les Doyle—his first feature—and features interviews with,… well…, you know who. Doyle also takes his camera into writers’ conference rooms.

Joss Whedon and J.J. Abrams are two of the approximately 38 interviews. They speak of their time cutting their teeth in television. They are not alone in their showrunner celebrity. The role of showrunner has become so critical that those who run successful shows have joined the ranks of iconic actors. They appear at fan conventions—on panels, giving autographs, and receiving loud rounds of applause.

A thoroughly engaging documentary, Showrunners also features high production quality. Showrunners 2 is scheduled for a 2016 release.

Showrunners is available in iTunes, and Netflix. See the film’s homepage to learn of other viewing options.

Q1iNeyCAwZ44mKc8xn92XwSJzgQaNUJ3uWz2SCYcrg8Prologue: I was working the seven-to-three front desk shift at a Grade ‘C’ motel in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1971. It was my first real job, and brought me into contact with a broad spectrum of human beings. One of them was an elderly woman who made frequent requests for help. She was always dressed in fashionable and/or colorful outfits, she wore much jewelry, her grey hair was always styled, and she wore heavy makeup.

Her name was Hazel Guggenheim McKinley. That name had no meaning to me. She spent many weeks at this motel. Finally, I broached the topic of what is she doing in Atlanta. She was teaching art at a local college. We spoke a bit, a very small bit about art. I had recently purchased a high-quality print of The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, and I had mentioned it to her. On the day she departed, Miss McKinley gave me one of her pieces with a note saying it was the closest thing to Bosch’s style she had painted.

So, you see, I had to view and review this documentary.

I did not know, until seeing the film, that Peggy’s sister lived and died as a suspect in the deaths of her two young children.

Masterfully written and directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict follows art icon Guggenheim from early childhood through her retirement in her adopted home town of Venice, Italy, where one of her four collections is on display.

Vreeland has created a documentary rich in character, story, and imagery. The film follows Guggenheim’s personal relationships, the evolution of her collection, the crucial role she played in rescuing, collecting, and curating era-defining modern art, and her support of now iconic artists who may very well have been unrealized and unknown without her interventions in their lives.

Vreeland’s film gives the impression that Peggy Guggenheim’s name and contributions belongs high up in the history of art. Hopefully, that is the case.

Screeners for review rarely do justice to a film. After the theatrical release, I look forward to seeing the Blu-ray or 4K disc—especially the inevitable extras.

Although the film’s title has a spiritual connotation, Neurons to Nirvana covers a broad spectrum of benefits of what are commonly known as ‘psychedelic drugs’ (I prefer the word ‘substances.’) The film is densely packed with crucial information and ideas.

resize.phpI call this film a ‘hub’ documentary—one which refers to a variety of subjects any one of which us viewers may find documentaries focused on just that subject.

Neurons to Nirvana also covers the massively damaging ‘war on drugs,’ as well as past and current governmental suppression of information about and access to psychedelic substances for clinical research and therapeutic applications.

The most surprising information to me was about the successful use of MDMA (ecstasy) in the treatment of military personnel suffering from PTSD.

The proper use of psychedelic substances for therapeutic purposes holds great promise for the relief of suffering and the optimization of life for countless millions of people. Many psychological maladies may be cured—not just ‘managed.’ Of course, that means pharmaceutical companies could lose a lot of customers—and we all know that would make the companies very unhappy. Maybe their CEOs would benefit from psychedelic therapy.

Neurons to Nirvana is available on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Mangu.

Access a complimentary Vimeo file of an extended version of the film here.

Edy at mural on mind enhancedMarlene ‘Mo’ Morris’ documentary, A New Color, reflects the joy, aliveness, and love that pour out of the film’s subject—artist, activist, educator, great grandmother, and muralist Edythe (Edy) Boone. Morris follows Boone through the many facets of her non-stop creative life. In just 57 minutes we are recipients of Boone’s aforementioned joy, aliveness, love—and wisdom.

“You can’t change your beginnings,” Boone says to a struggling young person, “but you sure can put a nice, beautiful ending to the story.”

Using art and her awe-inspiring internal resources, Boone has provided a lifetime of service to under-served populations of young people and seniors, and she’s still at it!

A prolific self-taught artist, Boone left Harlem in 1978, when crack cocaine took hold of her neighborhood. She settled down in the San Francisco Bay Area which has been a fertile field for the blossoming of her many-faceted contributions to this region—and now the world.

The film does not ignore life’s sadness and tragedies. The senseless killing of Eric Garner, Boone’s nephew, by New York police serves as a reminder of continued, deeply entrenched racism in American society.

Multiple viewings of A New Color are inevitable.

Go to the website to learn more about the film, of course. Note that at the home page, below the banner image at the top, are screenshots from the film. These photos are also hotlinks to other parts of the website.

A New Color is that rare documentary film that I simply did not want to end.

When Urs Schnell’s documentary, Bottled Life: Nestle’s Business with Water, was released in 2012, it was a very timely film. Now, near the end of 2018, it is even more timely.

Schnell, in partnership with Swiss journalist Res Gehriger, examines Swiss-based Nestle corporation’s international securing and marketing of clean water.

bl_nigeria_market_1The issue of human beings’ access to clean water is, of course, one that transcends any one company or nation. But every good story needs a good bad guy, and Schnell and Gehriger could not have picked a better bad guy. Nestle is the global leader in bottled water.

The Nestle bad guy incarnate—as of the film’s production—is CEO Peter Brabeck.

Although Nestle avoided contact with the filmmakers, Brabeck appears throughout the film in public presentations. That’s all that was needed. His finely sculpted words justify the company’s exploitation of human beings’ need for water—as well as the concomitant massive injection of toxic plastics into our environment. Yet Brabeck oozes words that paint a heart-warming picture that he and his well-paid team care about human beings and our environment.

When not in Switzerland, Schnell and Gehriger cover water issues in communities in the United States, Nigeria, and Pakistan. These regions are, of course, representative of human populations and water struggles around the globe.


In May of 1948, Israel became a nation—on paper.

Surrounded by five Arab nations poised to prevent the creation of this Jewish state, the people of Israel found themselves fending off an onslaught of multiple well-equipped armies. Israel’s victory, let alone its existence, was far from assured.

productionStills-11In the lead up to the signing of papers, assertions of nationhood, and withdrawal by British forces that May, there were no substantive initiatives by the United Nations nor its members to ensure that the nascent Israel had the resources necessary to defend itself—especially air-based forces.

Directed by Roberta Grossman, and produced by Nancy Spielberg, Above And Beyond tells the story of the international vigilantes who took matters into their own hands to give Israel an air force—beginning with two Piper Cubs. The early missions were flown with ‘junk’ airplanes, the risks were enormous. There was one mission whose failure would have likely led to Israel’s nonexistence.

The story is told with interview and archive. Much of the information is revelatory. I was both entertained and deeply moved by the stories of heroism and tragedy these old guys shared. It is clear their experiences were utterly life-changing.

Above And Beyond immediately went on my ‘best-of’ list of documentary films. I’ve seen it two times—so far.

You can purchase the DVD directly from the film’s website, or stream the film from iTunes, Netflix, or Amazon Prime.

Doug Block is an acclaimed career documentary filmmaker. Like many filmmakers of that ilk, Doug supports his documentary productions by being a wedding videographer.

A talented filmmaker? Creatively produced video from 112 weddings? That is a dream marriage.

112_Weddings_Dogwoof_Documentary_Films_1600_900_85Block tracked down nine of the couples for whom he videoed their weddings. 112 Weddings juxtaposes scenes of those weddings with present-day interviews, and the result is thoroughly engaging.

Although the title refers to weddings, the interviews are about the marriages, and the film explores the challenges, virtues, and tragedies that encumber and enrich this particular legally-sanctioned structure of adult human relationship.

112 Weddings is not Block’s first film on the subject. Released in 2005, 51 Birch Street is an exploration of his parents’ 54-year marriage.

112 Weddings immediately entered my personal documentary hall of fame. Block’s film about marriage is as fun and funny as it is poignant and heart-breaking.

This Ain’t No Mouse Music is a fun and fascinating film for lovers of American roots music—of many genres—and of biographies of fascinating characters.

Chris_DirectsFilmmakers Maureen Gosling and Chris Simon tell the story of Chris Strachwitz who was born in Germany in 1931, immigrated with his family to the United States in 1947, discovered his love of American roots music, and founded the internationally renowned independent Arhoolie Records in Berkeley, California.

With interviews of the man himself, and the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Richard Thompson, Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder, Michael Doucet, and many more we learn the immeasurable impact Strachwitz and his company has had on American music—an impact that reaches far beyond the nation’s borders.

Strachwitz did not record his artists in studios. Instead he went to their homes, or small venues, or anywhere but a studio to capture, save, and share this music. He expresses his passion with exuberance, his tastes and opinions are absolute, and his love of this music is very contagious.

This Ain’t No Mouse Music takes us around the country and through the 20th century to hear and see the artists. The filmmakers also honor the music with the film’s soundtrack which, along with the film, you may find on the film’s website.

Depending on your location, you can stream the film on iTunes, Netflix, and, for Australia, Antidote Films.

If you have any questions about the film you may contact the filmmakers at:

Meet The PatelsRavi Patel is torn. He has a great relationship with his American girlfriend, but his Indian culture calls. His parents want him to not only marry a woman of his ethnicity, she needs to be a ‘Patel’ which is ‘a thing’—that is, there is a very large collection of people in India with that last name who live within a 50 square mile region. Marriage within the…. ‘clan?’ is very important—even if your parents immigrated to the United States and you’ve been raised in our culture as Ravi has.

By the way: Ravi has not told his parents about his American girlfriend, Audrey, and the two have been dating for two years.

Ravi breaks up with her, and begins a journey to India, and throughout North America, seeking a Patel girl. (Turns out the Patels have organized themselves and their marriage mores in our continent, too.)

Sister and filmmaker Geeta grabs a camera and shoots Ravi’s adventures. In addition to the beautiful ex-girlfriend Audrey, we meet a lot of Patels as Ravi struggles to find one to marry—and, especially, to satisfy the cultural expectations of his parents.

Ravi Patel is totally charming, sincere—and very lost. His quest is as painful as it is humorous. Be prepared. “Meet the Patels” is not just about the Patels, it’s about parents and adult children, expectations, culture clashes, and changing times—it’s about us, and it is evocative of our memories, thoughts, and feelings as regards our parents and our parenting.

I would be surprised to find out that Geeta and Ravi have not already written a romantic comedy to be released in 2016.

BPDirected by Michael Barnett, Becoming Bulletproof is a documentary film that follows the production of a western movie entitled ‘Bulletproof’ which features a cast of disabled actors some of whom are severely disabled. The movie’s production is part of the activities of the Vermont-based collective called Zeno Mountain Farm.

Once a year Zeno produces a film in southern California. The cast of disabled actors fly in from around the country—some have performed in several films.

As Barnett follows the production from writing, to wrap party, to premier, we hear from both the production crew and the cast. Our lead character emerges naturally: A. J. Murray. ‘AJ’ is in a wheel chair, has little control of his arms, yet excels at personal insight and expression. AJ speaks of his life with cerebral palsy and his thoughts and feelings about being an actor. As he does so, he’s speaking to a degree for the entire cast.

The film’s message is movingly clear: There is inestimable value in integrating differently-abled people much deeper into our lives, our culture.

Becoming Bulletproof transforms the way we view, treat, and support disabled people. This is an absolute must-see film.

Indiewire reports that Becoming Bulletproof has been picked up for distribution by Virgil Films. Stay in touch with the film’s website to find out ways you can see the film.

I hope to hear a lot about Becoming Bulletproof come Oscar season.

10923710_1550159841908929_822159711370954885_oWritten, produced and directed by Nicolas Rossier, The Other Man tells the story of the end of South Africa’s apartheid government in the early 1990s. Instead of the usual focus on Nelson Mandela, the story is told from F.W. de Klerk’s perspective. He was the last President of South Africa under its apartheid regime.

Rossier tells both a political and personal story. de Klerk’s personal changes during that time mirror the momentous changes the people and government of South Africa underwent. The film explores the role de Klerk played, and leaves the viewer with questions. To what extent was de Klerk leading or following? Did his acts of commission and omission minimize the loss of life during the transition or exacerbate it?

Whatever the answers—which, ultimately, can only be conjecture and subjects of debate—it is clear that de Klerk’s participation was crucial, and that his story deserves telling.

The First Run Features DVD include three ‘Extras’:

• 20 Years After Apartheid: Discussion with Thabo Mbeki, Max Dupree, and F.W. de Klerk.

• The Quantum Leap Speech: About de Klerk’s iconic speech on February 2, 1990.

• Vox Populi: Street interviews about Mandela’s and de Klerk’s legacies.

In historical documentaries, I consider ‘Extras’ to be part and partial of the film itself. The Other Man is no exception.

Ed Artis is talking about his work, Adrian Belec is filming him:

ED__JIM__ADRIAN__GUY__FLAG“We’re not in the God Business. We don’t want to change their politics or their religion. It must be high adventure. It must be humanitarian. And it’s got to be in an area where few would ever go. If it doesn’t hit those criteria, we’re not interested.”

Belic’s film, Beyond the Call follows Artis and his core team—James Laws and Walt Ratter—as they travel to the most dangers places on Earth to help the most desperate people on Earth.

Belic interviews the three men in their respective U.S. homes and follows them on their insane, angelic missions around the globe. The incongruity of the two worlds the three inhabit—the bubble we call the United States of America and the war zones they go to—is befuddling and mystifying. The men speak and live altruism. Their words and deeds make us question our own values and actions.

The clichés abound: stunning, jaw-dropping, incomprehensible. Beyond The Call is documentary filmmaking at its absolute best.

In addition to the film’s website, you can learn more about their work—past and present—by going to the Knightsbridge International website. This is the organization created to support and sponsor their work.

There is more information about the film at this PBS website.

001_STEPHM300dpiIn Women Behind the Camera filmmaker Alexis Krasilovsky covers the emergence and expansion of women cinematographers and Directors of Photography. Through interview and film clips Krasilovsky captures the trials and triumphs of talented women breaking barriers, struggling against heels-dug-in adversaries on the set, in executive offices, in unions and other trade organizations.

Although focused on a particular occupation, the story Krasilovsky tells is emblematic of the overall global feminist struggle for equal rights and opportunity, for respect, for freedom from harassment, abuse, and harm in all aspects of life.

American society, the entire world is still deeply entrenched in a worldview in which females of all ages are subjugated, discriminated against, harmed, and killed. Krasilovsky’s work evokes this global struggle.

And, of course, her film is a celebration of women breaking through gender barriers.

In light of that perspective I cannot over-emphasize that this film is not just for filmmakers and film buffs. Women Behind the Camera is a film for everyone.

Regarding the two-DVD set I viewed:

Disc One is organized into chapters: The Pioneers, The Struggle, Mothers and Cameras, and Vision. There is a separate section of scenes on the main menu indicated as ‘Additional Scenes.’

Disc Two includes ‘Additional Chapters’ and an interview with Krasilovsky.

This set also includes an invaluable 12-page Teachers Guide.

There are many ways to access Krasilovsky’s coverage of women behind the camera. Simply go to her Store and you will find the film, the 2-DVD set, and a 54-minute version of Women Behind the Camera entitled Shooting Women

Note: Krasilovsky has also co-written a book entitled Shooting Women: Behind the Camera, Around the World available at the moment for pre-order from the University of Chicago Press.

The standard environmental documentary film presents evidence and stories of our destruction of our ecosphere. The information is overwhelming, the prospects for the necessary massive changes in our behavior are bleak. But, as a perfunctory nod to the idea of positivity, a few solutions are mentioned at the end. “You see, it’s not all bad.” Well, not according to what I just saw.

3.Robert-Haley-smilingChristopher Beaver’s “Racing To Zero” is a radical departure from that cinematic motif. His film documents nothing but solutions, and having just viewed it, I am overwhelmed by solutions.

The catalyst for this film is the well-publicized announcement by San Francisco to be waste-free by 2020. Nothing goes into a landfill. The “Zero Waste” program is part of a broader San Francisco environmental initiative called San Francisco Climate Action 0 50 100.

Beaver and his producer Diana Fuller—who originated the idea for a film about San Francisco’s initiative—follow four key players as they introduce us to their roles in ending waste in San Francisco. they are:

Robert Haley: Zero Waste Manager for San Francisco’s Department of the Environment.

Mike Biddle: entrepreneur and founder of MBA Polymers, specializes in recycling plastic.

James Kao: Owner of Green Citizen, a San Francisco-based company that specializes in recycling electronics safely and cleanly.

Robert Shaffer: an agronomist and farmer who champions the values of compost.

Racing To Zero” presents a metropolitan city making itself a beacon of light in the attempt to reverse our environmental destruction. It is the feel-good environmental film of the year—perhaps the first ever.

To order a “Racing To Zero” DVD in the United States, go to the film’s website.

The film is distributed internationally by APT Worldwide.

(Pictured above is Robert Haley with the garbage he loves to save. Photo courtesy of “Racing To Zero”.)

Directed by James Redford, Paper Tigers follows a small group of students in Lincoln High School, an alternative school in Walla Walla, Washington that specializes in educating traumatized youth.

PT screencap - Kelsey reflectingRedford’s film introduces the acronym ‘ACES’—Adverse Childhood Experiences. Lincoln High incorporated new information about the impact of childhood trauma and implemented an innovative approach that dramatically improves the experience and life outcomes of these children.

The film brings us into the worlds of these high school students and the school’s teaching staff who are supporting their students’ healing and metamorphosis. Yes, we learn the tragic circumstances of the children—their ACES; but the focus is on how they are supported and growing into healthy adults.

The viewing experience is both heart-wrenching and thoroughly inspiring.

Just as there are glimmers of a movement to redefine drug use and abuse as a medical and social psychological issue rather than a criminal problem, Paper Tigers reveals a movement to change our punitive approach to the destructive and self-destructive behaviors of high school students.

Everybody wins when suffering is addressed with compassion rather than ignorance and attacks. Like so many other social movements, this movement to address childhood trauma in a high school setting needs support. Redford’s film is a major contribution to the garnering of that support. And because of that, I write with passion that Paper Tigers is a must see for everyone—especially for educators, bureaucrats and political leaders.

The film’s homepage has a ‘sign-up’ form at the bottom for any and all who want to learn more about this movement and how to support this much-needed transformation in education.

It was sometime in the mid-eighties. I was visiting my parents. I walked into the den where my father was watching the news on a new-to-me cable channel, Fox News. After watching it for a few minutes, I walked out of the room with my own name for this channel, TRC, The Republican Channel. I am amazed at the many JPGyears it took before there was a widespread public acknowledgment of the propagandist nature of this channel. In my father’s case, it wasn’t Fox News that brainwashed him. He’d become a ‘Reagan Democrat’ in the early eighties and voted Republican forevermore. And he watched Fox News the rest of his life.

Filmmaker Jen Senko has her own much more dramatic story. With her hybrid documentary, The Brainwashing of My Dad she tells the personal story of her father’s journey into Foxnewsland. And tells the history of the Right-Wing media’s emergence as a dominating socio-politco-economic force in the United States.

Senko appends her personal story with those of many others who have lost loved ones to Fox News. She presents the media history through narration—by herself and by co-producer Matthew Modine—and via interviews with several authors some of whom are former right-wing activists. The names of and links to these authors are available through the film’s website. Both the film and its website contain references to organizations working to open up and expand the United States’ media landscape.

The Brainwashing of My Dad is a welcome addition to the library of books and films which have so well documented the dominance of corporate influence in all aspects of life in these-here United States.

P.S. The legendary Bill Plympton does the film’s animation. And, oh yes, that’s Jen’s father up there.



Harper Lee: From Mockingbird to Watchman is Mary McDonagh Murphy’s follow-up to her Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird‘.

This documentary was apparently catalyzed by the surprise discovery and publication of Lee’s lost manuscript entitled Go Set a Watchman which was written before Mockingbird, and which describes events and characters many years after those of Mockingbird.

I’ve not read the ‘new’ book. I learned about ‘Watchman’ via a flurry of headlines about its publication—and, especially, about fans’ disappointment that Mockingbird’s hero, Atticus Finch, is presented as a racist. There were also accusations of fraud—Lee didn’t write the book. (To write my review of this film I did what is now the obvious and commonplace: I consulted Wikipedia. This entry presents context regarding the Finch controversy.)

Murphy’s film reviews the success and impact of Mockingbird—book and film—and presents more information about Lee. She follows this with the story of Watchman’s discovery and publication. Murphy also explores further the relationship between Lee and Truman Capote.

The film includes interviews with Tom Brokaw, Oprah Winfrey, Lee’s current literary agent, and several writers. The scene stealer is Lee’s sister Alice Lee who died in 2014, at the age of 103.

Harper Lee: From Mockingbird to Watchman provides more information, more context to Harper Lee’s life and works. She does not address the ‘Atticus-is-a-racist’ controversy which is why I’ve provided the Wikipedia link. She does, however, take the ‘Lee-didn’t-write-this-book’ controversy head-on. I’m convinced. She wrote the book.

Confession: I’m always hesitant to reveal this kind of information. Some of Murphy’s interviewees brought me to tears as they spoke with such deep admiration and love for To Kill a Mockingbird. With her two documentaries Murphy has highlighted the rightful place the book and its author have in the still-ongoing history of the American civil rights movement.

The First Run Feature’s DVD includes special features one of which is a ‘Coda’—more contemporary coverage of Harper Lee. This is not the first time I’ve seen a special feature that isn’t ‘special.’ That is, it belongs in the film. So, please don’t skip it.

Produced and directed by Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker, “Welcome to Leith” tells the story of the attempt by a small group of white supremacists to take over a very, very small town in North Dakota. Although racism is the topic of this film, and although the players include organizations and governmental institutions, the focus is on the characters.

swastikasLocated in Grant County, Leith has a total of 24 residents. As of the film’s production, the county has one sheriff and three deputies.

In 2012, career supremacist and publicity hound Craig Cobb moved to Leith. In concert with his amigos he purchased twelve plots of land. The goal was to create an all-white supremacist community. The effect was conflict with the threatened residents.

My immediate question was—and still is—why didn’t he and his simply purchase uninhabited land and much more smoothly and successfully create their dream community? Cobb’s need to feed his publicity addiction?

In true journalistic spirit Walker and Nichols give full voice to both sides of this conflict. They cover the inevitable moves and counter-moves by each side as the probability of violence escalates.

While our mainstream media provides more coverage of societal and institutional racism in the United States, small but highly venomous white supremacist organizations and lone wolves are still very much with us. This film is a haunting and incendiary reminder.

Welcome to Leith” features standard-bearing production quality and a sound track which perfectly mirrors the air of this place and its story. The film was released theatrically in September, 2015, by First Run Features.

Written, produced, and directed by Jeff L. Lieberman, Re-emerging: The Jews of Nigeria introduces a small, growing community of Nigerians of Igbo descent who discovered they have a heritage of Judaism and have identified themselves as Jewish.

RJON-MainImage‘Igbo’ (pronounced eeBo) is an African ethnicity. Lieberman provides a brief outline of Igbo history and focuses on the emergence of Judaism in their Nigerian community. The inciting incident: No surprise, the Internet.

Young people accessing this global connection discovered and became intrigued with their perceived Jewish heritage. With minimal resources they have educated themselves, striving to learn as much as possible about the religion, its practices, rules and rituals, prayers and chants, the Hebrew language, and the Torah.

Naturally, Lieberman interviews many people covering the historical and sociological aspects of this emergence. There is one interviewee, Shmuel, who we see frequently throughout the film. In addition to his dramatic—if not epic—story, there is his charm. Every time Shmuel appears and speaks, his charm and sweetness melt our hearts. His story is far from over. He deeply aspires to being a Rabbi, but the global Jewish community has yet to provide an opportunity to this young man to fulfill his deeply held religious passion. We root for him in his still-unfulfilled quest. This nascent community of Jewish people want more support and a greater connection with the world’s Jewish community. Despite this absence of support, despite the intolerance they face within their homeland, these Igbo people are living their lives as Jews with full commitment.

In just 93 minutes Lieberman tells many stories and introduces issues and conflicts which deserve global attention.

Re-emerging: The Jews of Nigeria has played in theaters in New York and Los Angeles as well as throughout Israel. You may find the film simply by going to its website. I encourage you to do so. Seeing Lieberman’s work is quite thought-provoking.

When Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic was released in 2000, it earned 84 awards including four Oscars. The film and its issue—The War On Drugs—was on the media’s center stage for a bit. Pundits proclaimed ‘a sea change’ in the United States’ insane, massively destructive, highly wasteful approach to recreational drug use and abuse.

96789_1437579611It is now 2015, and there is some talk about reducing ‘mandatory minimums’—highly unreasonable prison sentences for young people (mostly minorities, mostly males) who commit non-violent crimes.

One may not be surprised at my skepticism. Once ‘industry’ gets its hand on a money-maker—such as The Prison Industrial Complex—it’s kinda hard to shut the doors, or, open the doors, in this case. The United States remains the most incarcerated nation in the world.

Adding families, friends, and loved ones, tens of millions of lives have been tragically devastated by our criminal approach to recreational drug use and abuse vis à vis a public health and social-psychological approach.

Missing from our public dialog is the correlation—and its many implications—between poverty and crime.

Although there is a paucity of public dialog on criminal justice in the United States, there is a quieter yet passionate one about our treatment of those who are convicted and imprisoned for crimes. I estimate that two to three percent of the documentary films I view and review are about justice and our prison industrial complex.

Veteran documentarians Alan and Susan Raymond’s Toe Tag Parole focuses on the extreme of the extreme—convicted murderers serving ‘life without the possibility of parole.’ The phrase, ‘toe tag parole,’ refers to the only way these prisoners may be released from prison—on a bier, in a morgue, with an identifying tag on your toe.

Shot at California State Prison, a maximum security prison in the Mojave desert, the Raymonds interviewed prisoners who are in ‘The Progressive Programming Facility’ which houses 600 men seeking ‘self-improvement and spiritual growth through education, art and music therapy, religious services and participation in peer-group sessions.’

These prisoners articulate their thoughts and feelings about the murders they committed as well as reflect on who they have become since being imprisoned.

The core issue: Can human character change?

My answer is a resounding ‘yes.’ American society’s answer is ‘Hell No!’

The men in this film may very well break your heart as they paint pictures of lives lost—including their own to life imprisonment. They share deep and profound insights. Of course, a documentary of prisoners is disturbing, but to see and hear lost opportunities for justice is excruciatingly painful. There are countless ‘lifers’ who deserve to be considered for programs and lives outside of prison. For the moment our approach to justice continues to be vengeance and punishment, rather than justice.

The glimmer of hope here is a movement I learned of from Leslie Neale’s
Unlikely Friends. ‘Restorative justice’ aims to bring justice back to our justice system. That glimmer also includes heroic filmmakers bringing our dark thoughts and behavior to light—our opportunity as a nation to change our character.

You may introduce yourself to the principles of restorative justice by going to Neale’s website, selecting ‘About the Film’ and then selecting ‘Resources’ from the drop-down menu.

imagesDirected by Drew Taylor and Larry Weinstein, Our Man in Tehran tells the story of “Argo”—told in documentary form by those who were rescued as well as their rescuers. Although it is both fascinating and enlightening to hear the story told by those who experienced it, I was left haunted and disturbed by the necessary context the film provides with its brief outline of the United States’ interventions in Iran. That story is emblematic of the United States’ imperial aspirations, the subsequent follies, and the bare naked hypocrisy of disguising control and exploitation with hollow declarations of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy.’

All that is not new to me, although I do believe that tragic history cannot be repeated too much.

What was new to me in watching this film is the crucial role Canada played in the rescue of six Americans. That role deserves to be fully clarified and acknowledged. This film does just that.

Our Man in Tehran features standard-bearing production quality. Given its brief 85 minute running time, I would love to see and hear more details of this harrowing story of rescue. The First Run Features’ DVD includes a Discussion with Co-Directors, a Q&A at the Toronto International Film Festival, and a playable soundtrack of its original score by Asher Lenz and Stephen Skratt.

The tragedies and triumphs regarding the loss and rescue of pets during natural or human-made disasters receive little to no media coverage.

na_img_katrina_introWritten, produced, and directed by Kim Walsh-Borgan, Left Behind Without A Choice introduces the worlds of pet recovery and care during disasters, attempts to reunite pets with their owners, or to find foster or forever homes for the pets.

The inciting incident: Katrina—one of countless examples of the American people’s carelessness for each other.

Hopefully, it was a learning experience.

Well,… it was—at least as regards our treatment of pets in disasters. Victims were forced to leave their loved ones to Katrina’s destruction. The horrors created led to the passing of The Pets Act which requires states seeking FEMA funding to accommodate pets and service animals during and subsequent to disasters.

Walsh-Borgan interviewed a number of Katrina volunteers, leaders of volunteer organizations, and an attorney for her film about the care-giving of animals during and after the Katrina disaster. She documents the dramatic altruistic response to Katrina’s impact on the region’s pet population—a response that, in addition to saving countless animals’ lives, changed the lives of those who found themselves volunteering for the first time in animal care.

These stories are heart-warming and amazing, and the most dramatic of which is that of a highly-experienced veterinarian, ‘Dr. Charlie,’ describing in non-stop tears his meeting of a particular dog—one which, of course, adopted the vet.

My gratitude to all involved in producing this film!

20th October 1942:  American singer and actor Frank Sinatra (1915-1998) standing in front of a CBS microphone and smiling, in a promotional portrait for his radio show.  (Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

Why should I watch another film about Frank Sinatra?!

That was my very first thought when I saw the title “Sinatra: All Or Nothing At All” on HBO’s documentary schedule. I had no intention to see this film.

But then, independent film icon Carole Dean suggested I see it. I listen to Carole.

And it happened again—almost predictably. After the first two minutes of this revealing and respectful view of Sinatra’s life and character I was hooked. By film’s end I was in that quiet, stunned, overwhelmed mood I get at the end of an epic story about a complex, multi-layered personality.

I wasn’t surprised. Under Sheila Nevins, HBO’s docs have set a high standard. Nor was I surprised when I discovered that Documentary God Alex Gibney is the film’s director. There is no want of many more power players in the film’s credits.

Yes, we know most—if not all—of Sinatra’s plot points, his challenges and debacles, his music and triumphs. But it is the details that reveal whatever biases and myths we may hold about Frank Sinatra that make the film captivating, details that may transform our attitude toward this icon from a bygone era.

I found myself paying attention to his singing. The filmmakers provide a sonic cornucopia of Sinatra’s performances—many from very early in his career. The film elevated my appreciation of his performance abilities, and, of course, I bemoaned his cigarette smoking. Without that damage how much more of his talent would he have experienced and shared?

Even at four hours long, the adage applies—Leave Them Wanting More. It is glaringly obvious, the great number of untold stories within the stories we see in this film.

Thank you Carole Dean for gently suggesting I see this film.

Check out “Sinatra: All Or Nothing At All on HBO!


Produced by Ondřej Beránek and directed by Thomas Hodan, “Film Adventurer Karel Zeman” takes the imaginative, multi-talented, and prolific Czech filmmaker Karel Zeman out of the pages of movie history and into our lives.

zeman_oceneni_brusel_nahlHodan and Beránek tell Zeman’s professional biography and weave his epic story with a contemporary film class recreating scenes from his classic films using Zeman’s techniques and artistry. The filmmakers include plenty of scenes from Zeman’s groundbreaking films.

Interviewees include Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton who express a deep appreciation for Zeman’s imagination and influence on their work.

Film Adventurer Karel Zeman” introduces a pillar of modern film history. Zeman is an utterly fascinating character who will enter your heart and never leave. If money and time were no object, I would cross two continents and one ocean to visit the Karel Zeman museum in Prague.

Check into the rich website devoted to the film and Zeman to learn how you may see this film and to learn more about Karel Zeman.

You may find three of Zeman’s films on Amazon.

This is the documentary I’ve been waiting years for. The headlines about obesity and its related diseases have appeared frequently over the last few decades, but sugar’s role in this never-ending public health crisis has not received the attention it deserves. And when cities make a limp, futile effort to address the problem by reducing the size of soft drink cups, the move receives the well-deserved satirist’s ridicule.

that-sugar-film-leadAustralian Damon Gameau has taken up the cause with his “That Sugar Film”.

Gameau was living with an enviable healthy diet—no sugar, no processed food. His project was simple. He joined the crowd and consumed the average amount of sugar the average Australian consumes daily (40 teaspoons), and did this for two months.

But, there’s a twist. He lived on foods thought of as healthy—low fat yoghurt, muesli bars, juices and cereals. His Australian gastronomical adventure included a visit to the United States. Although it was a bit of a struggle for him to consume the 40 teaspoon equivalency daily in Australia, it was very easy in the U.S. One Jamba Juice practically took care of the entire 40 teaspoon dose.

Gameau assembled a team of professionals to monitor his body and mind before, during, and after his ‘experiment.’

The youthful and charming filmmaker uses his experiment as a means to make the point that we are damaging ourselves daily with our diet, and he does so quite effectively. I imagine the vast majority of viewers will make some measure of change in their diet after seeing his film.

I add that even if you are horrified at your own or society’s diet, it’s much worse than Gameau presents. His focus is on sucrose and fructose—and that includes ‘high fructose corn syrup.’ All carbohydrates contribute to our dietary woes. When we eat more carbs than we burn, they turn into some form of sugar in our bloodstream. Unburned sugar turns into fat—diabetes and cardiovascular disease ensue.

Like so many other documentary films, “That Sugar Film” needs to be seen by everyone—including kids. To find the film, simply go to its website.

This is the magic of documentary filmmaking—to tell so many stories in such a short amount of time, in this case one hour and thirty-five minutes, and with such love.

phpThumb.phpIn this brief moment producer/director Gay Dillingham shares with us stories of Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, their life-long relationship, and a bit of the history of psychedelic drugs in the United States. Robert Redford perfectly performs David Leach’s narrative script.

In addition to Leary, Ram Dass, and their friends and family, Dillingham shares perspectives from luminaries in the worlds of eastern and western spirituality including Roshi Joan Halifax, Ralph Metzner, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil. The multi-talented—including lyricist for The Grateful Dead—John Perry Barlow provides a poignant, emotional moment.

The film’s title, “Dying to Know“, reflects the multidimensional nature of the topics and lives covered. Knowledge, especially knowledge of self, seems foundational to both men. The film follows Leary to and through his passing. Ram Dass has studied, written, and spoken about death and dying for decades. And for us human beings, whatever the phenomenon, issue, want, or need, we are all ‘dying to know’—and concurrently struggling with our knowledge of the chronological limits of our corporal being.

Dillingham’s “Dying to Know” brilliantly and delicately transcends the 1960s zeitgeist most commonly associated with its two subjects. The film’s words and stories address our human condition. And, yes, it is a fun trip to take for those of us who were there—but it is this deeper impact that is the fundamental reason to see and keep this loving film.

Confession: When I picked up this disc about a New York Jewish deli I figured I would cover it simply because of my affection for the cuisine of my east coast upbringing.

SQ-Anne-and-Hattie-interviewWhat I did not expect, and what I celebrate is how much fun this film is in telling the story of four New York generations creating and expanding what has become a Manhattan gastronomical institution of international renown.

Located in the Lower East Side, ‘Russ and Daughters’ was founded in 1914 by Jewish immigrant Joel Russ. He bucked gender-role tradition by putting his three daughters into his smoked fish business.

Starting with interviews of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Morley Safer, filmmaker Julie Cohen tells the story of this family and their store through a unique form of narration—very long-time customers reading the script.

The two featured interviewees are Joel Russ’s two surviving daughters who are retired in Pembroke Pines, Florida—totally entertaining.

The Sturgeon Queens” is an utterly delightful film with a serious subtext about the American immigrant experience.

And, yes, I’m ready for the sitcom or a “Chef”-style ‘dramedy’ from Jon Favreau.

Suggestion: Watch “The Sturgeon Queens” before you dine. Your appetite will be whetted, you may enjoy your repast more intensely, and/or you may go for your favorite smoked fish.

Ah! That makes sense. I did not want Oeke Hoogendijk’s “The New Rijksmuseum” to end. So, after watching this two-hour and eleven-minute documentary about the renovation of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, I went straight to the film’s website and learned it was originally presented as a four-hour piece.

Het Nieuwe RijksmuseumThe Rijksmuseum was founded in 1800, and moved to its current location in 1885. The much-needed renovation began in 2003, and was completed in 2013.

Hoogendijk captured the multidimensional challenges of recreating this massive public structure with its massive collection. She covers the bureaucrats, designers, curators, restorers, bicyclists (yes, bicyclists), public meetings, and one caretaker who lived at the museum during the ten-year project.

Hoogendijk’s film draws us into the many debates and setbacks during the renovation. I became passionate about what colors to paint the galleries’ walls. I much prefer darker colors because they stimulate the eyes to let in more light and see a work of art with more depth and clarity. I was certain I would lose that one, but I won!

I will not, however, reveal the result of the bicyclists’ efforts to maintain their riding path through the museum.

“The New Rijksmuseum” is a fun and fascinating film. I viewed an advance screener which doesn’t have special features. So, if I can’t see that four-hour version, I will see the commercial DVD with more… museum.

Written and directed by Alain Margot, “I Am Femen” introduces the work of feminist activist group, Femen, which arose out of Ukraine in 2008.

imagesMargot follows founders Anna Hutsol, Oksana Shachko, and Alexandra Shevchenko; and covers several of Femen’s protests which include bare-chested women—a tactic called ‘sextremism.’

The film’s dual story-arc includes both the increasing amount of trouble members create for themselves as they persist with protests, as well as the growing attention and support the organization is receiving.

Hutsol is a fascinating character. In addition to her co-founder status, she’s a craftswoman and utilizes those talents in making various aspects of hair, body-painting and related accoutrement for their protests. She also enjoys painting religious iconography.

Having seen this film I happily state, I am Femen!

“I Am Femen” is distributed in North America by First Run Features.

How do you feel, what do you think at the very moment a film is over?

It’s obvious, isn’t it? There’s something important about that moment—I mean in terms of speaking or writing about this film you just saw, or in terms of your own understanding.

OneI felt somber at the conclusion of “One Cut, One Life”. I imagine that is the most common reaction being that the film is about and made by two documentary filmmakers facing death.

Ed Pincus has a life-threatening illness. Lucia Small recently lost two dear friends to violent deaths. The two filmmakers address themselves and the camera as they reveal their thoughts, opinions, experiences, and feelings. We also hear from friends and family, and learn a little about the filmmakers’ previous work.

At film’s end I wondered what do I say about it? “One Cut, One Life” is a powerful experience—seeing and hearing people being vulnerable, facing death is both evocative and provocative. And, like it or not, the film puts you in an introspective mood.

Of course I recommend “One Cut, One Life”. That’s one of my rules; I don’t write about a film unless I do so. But, why this one?

It is a matter of values. I believe it is of great value when human beings share their deepest thoughts and feelings. It is especially important for the sharer. However their sharing is received, it is the sharer’s own response to their sharing that holds the possibility of one’s own insight and transformation.

This value of vulnerability is the gift given us by Small and Pincus.

There’s another reason I recommend “One Cut, One Life”. When viewing screeners at home—with computer, telephone, refrigerator, and bathroom all within a few feet—I usually pause for any number of reasons. I was glued to my screen all 107 minutes of this film. Pincus’ and Small’s characters and journeys pulled me into their stories, their lives.

Produced and directed by Mina T. Son and Sara Newens, and distributed by First Run Features, Top Spin follows three American teenagers in their Olympian quests playing table tennis.

static1.squarespace.comAriel and Lilly are from northern California, and Michael is from New York.

We see and hear from the three competitors and their respective parents. We see and learn about the grueling training all must do to attain and sustain their competitive advantages. And we follow all three in their various tournaments.

What fascinated and bewildered me most was the style of play. I’d seen a few clips of professional table tennis and noted that the players were each very far away from table’s edge. These players were very close. That shorter distance means a much faster play—potentially overwhelming to the eye.

It doesn’t matter the subject—strange or familiar—when a film effectively tells a story, we enter that world. Top Spin is no exception. Quickly, after film’s start, we are rooting for each of these young people.

I’ll be looking for some familiar faces at 2016’s Olympics.

Directed by Jean Carlomusto and released in 2015 by HBO,  Larry Kramer in Love and Anger profiles the single most powerful AIDS activist in the disease’s tragic history. Kramer was there at the beginning, in New York City, when the plague struck.

larry-kramerHe has told his story with several books—and most famously with his play and acclaimed HBO film, The Normal Heart. Carlomusto’s film outlines Kramer’s life and paints a picture the resolution of which is his heroic fight for public attention to and action against the AIDS plague. Kramer’s activism likely saved countless thousands of lives

It is nigh impossible for a narrative or documentary film about AIDS to not be powerful. Larry Kramer in Love and Anger is no exception. The film brings viewers closer to the pain, anger, and love that has motivated Kramer’s decades-long activism.

Much about AIDS history has been well covered. No doubt, there is much more to be revealed. I take advantage of my brief reference to this must-see film to mention a story yet to be told—the origin of the virus.

Edward Hooper’s The River: A Journey to the Source of HIV and AIDS has yet to be covered via high-profile documentary or narrative film. The book was de facto censored by the medical-industrial complex. Additionally, it’s more than a thousand pages in length—a tough read, of course, yet I could not put it down until I read the book ver batim, cover-to-cover.

Don’t take my word for it. Simply read the many 5 Star reviews on its Amazon site.

Produced and directed by prolific filmmaker Dena Seidel, Antarctic Edge: 70° South follows a research team of the Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) project at Palmer Station, in the Antarctic. Based on an ice breaker, the team are on a month-long expedition documenting the effects of global warming on the continent.

l_20150319-film-festival-boat-1200The Antarctic is a geological yellow canary for global warming. The average winter temperature has increased by 11° in the last 50 years—six times faster than the global average. The presence of wintertime ice sheet has been reduced by three months. The melting of the continent’s ice sheet has been declared unstoppable.

The film brings viewers on the expedition, following and hearing from the researchers and crew about their work. The photography is exquisite, the work is fraught with risk, and all involved—including the filmmakers—are motivated by the noble cause of protecting our fragile ecosystem.

I thoroughly enjoyed being on this journey, and would love for it to have been at least twice as long as the film’s 72 minutes.

“Antarctic Edge: 70° South” was produced by Rutgers Film Bureau, and is distributed by First Run Features.

I put myself in your shoes. You may have heard the name, ‘Sophie Tucker,’ you may know a little about her—perhaps no more than she was a celebrated entertainer from a bygone era.

jewishfilm1-1I was one of those who knew only her name when the film’s DVD appeared before my eyes and was then placed in my Blu-ray player’s tray. I thought to myself, ‘Why was this film produced? Why am I going to watch it?’

The film addresses those questions immediately with a few lines of text that highlight Tucker’s accomplishments. Although the lines provide an understandable rationale, it is the film’s presentation of the inspiring Sophie Tucker, of a life long-lived and well-lived that so deeply impressed me—especially her overwhelming spirit of love and generosity.

The Outrageous Sophie Tucker was produced by Susan Ecker and Lloyd Ecker, and directed by William Gazecki .

If budget were no object I’d immediately buy several dozen copies to share with my friends and neighbors.

Opens in theaters on July 24, 2015

Narrated by Avrom Bendavid-Val, Lost Town tells the story of Trochenbrod, a town which was located in an eastern region of Poland—and which is now a western region of present-day Ukraine.

The_Heavens_Are_Empty_NewsBendavid-Val opens the film by expressing regrets for never having gotten to know his always-busy father who was born in Trochenbrod, and who migrated to the United States.

After his father’s death in 1969, Bendavid-Val became obsessed with his father’s place of birth. That obsession led to a cornucopia of minor miracles for the survivors of Trochenbrod and the townspeople’s descendants who discovered each other and re-created a global community of people associated with the lost town.

Trochenbrod was settled in the early 1800s, and with its population of 5,000 people it became the only all-Jewish town—outside of Palestine—to ever exist in the world. With the exception of 33 townspeople, the entire population were murdered during the Holocaust. The town’s structures were subsequently destroyed. All that is left is the knowledge that the town was located along a specific 3-mile stretch of roadway.

The film’s production quality is excellent, and the emotional impact of the many personal stories is deep and profound. This is a film that deserves more than one viewing.

Lost Town was inspired by Bendavid-Val’s book, The Heavens Are Empty. The film was written and edited by Richard Goldgewicht, produced by Jeremy Goldscheider, and directed by the two.

Trochenbrod first came to the world’s attention via Jonathan Safron Fore’s Everything Is Illuminated which was adapted for film by writer/director Liev Schreiber.

Released by Seventh Art, 50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus tells the story of Eleanor and Gilbert Kraus, a Jewish couple with two children, from Philadelphia, who managed to go to Nazi-occupied Vienna and Berlin and rescue fifty Jewish children, bringing them to the United States. The rescue occurred in the Spring of 1939.

ShowImage50 Children was written, produced, and directed by accomplished author and journalist Steven Pressman. Alan Alda provides narration, and Mamie Gummer reads from Eleanor Kraus’s memoir. Together they tell the story—along with interviews of several of the surviving children. Archival footage and still photographs provide the ever-haunting images.

50 Children is Pressman’s first film, and it is—like so many documentary films about the Holocaust—as inspiring as it is disturbing. The 50 children rescued by Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus were the largest known group allowed into the United States. One and a-half million children perished in the Holocaust.

I’ve added this passionately produced film to my growing list of documentary films the stories of which deserve narrative coverage.

Turns out David Letterman didn’t start it—dropping things on the street from high above.

Gene Bernofsky and Clark Richert were dropping works of art onto streets far below in 1962, at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. They coined it ‘Drop Art.’ ‘Drop’ indicated their artistic medium and micro-cult.

dropcityDriven by Utopian visions, the artists’ path led to the creation of a commune near Trinidad, Colorado, with structures based on the design work of Buckminister Fuller, and built from thrown-away items.

Directed by Joan Grossman, Drop City ) tells a microcosmic story of a prescient early-60s counter culture community that mirrors the macrocosmic history of the era – the birth, flourishing, and dissolution of an idealized society. The film is equal parts eulogy, tribute, and celebration.

Those who aspire to join or create an ‘intentional’ community would do well to see the individual and social dynamics revealed in Grossman’s unflinching film. Those who lived this era may enjoy this cinematic flashback.

To find Drop City, go to the film’s website and click on Contact.


Written and directed by Andrew Shea, Portrait of Wally tells two stories—the fight over rightful ownership of Austrian painter Egon Scheile’s portrait of Walburga Neuzil, and the impact of that 13-year legal battle on the fate of art stolen from Jews by Nazi’s.

downloadThe Portrait of Wally was taken from Viennese art collector and gallery owner Lea Bondi’s private collection.  She fled Europe in 1939. The painting surfaced at a 1997 exhibition at New York’s MoMA. Bondi’s relatives learned of this and had the painting held by authorities.

As a result of the legal battle, museums in Europe and the United States began restitution—returning stolen art to the descendants of Holocaust victims. (Private collectors, apparently, are not at risk of losing their booty.)

This is another one of those documentary films that practically begs a commercial narrative film—one which jumps back and forth in time between Bondi’s life and the adversaries of the latter day battle with all of its implications.


Patrick Branson’s first feature documentary, America’s Blues will have you singing the… well you know what you’ll be singing.

downloadBranson interviews blues performers, historians, activists, authorities and experts, and blues-influenced artists. They all testify to the power and influence of the blues on the evolution of music and on our lives—nationally and globally. By film’s end you’ll be convinced that the musical genre called ‘blues’ is ubiquitous, that everything comes from and is the blues. I am not being facetious.

With its roots in the African American experience, the blues is at core about loss. And loss is an unavoidable human experience derived from the seeming fact that finitude is intrinsic to our universe. (Caution: This is what this film may do to you.)

And this is my point about Branson’s film. He has fully covered the blues, and in so doing provided an outline of sub-topics the viewer may use to start their own doctoral program in the blues. Keep a portable digital device or pad of paper handy as you watch this movie—not so much for future academic research, but to note the names of many of the film’s performers that are new to you. I amended my Pandora account immediately after seeing and hearing “America’s Blues”.

Southern Rites is a hard-hitting, heart-tugging look at race relations in the American south. Although the film takes place in this region, it is a glimpse of both troubled and changing race relations throughout the United States.

southern-rites-1024Photographer/filmmaker Gillian Laub covers three stories set in Georgia’s Montgomery County and its county seat, Mt. Vernon: The integration of a high school prom, the candidacy of the first African American for sheriff, and the killing of a black teenager by a white man.

With the painfully frequent saturation media coverage of white-on-black killings as well as deep-rooted institutionalized racism in the United States, it may be easy to avoid seeing another film, more stories about racism. And, yes, we’ve seen it all before. But, it is the intimacy, the intricacy of the lives and relations of those who people these stories so well captured by Laub and that are indelibly are etched in the viewer’s memory and heart that make this film highly recommended.

In addition to telling these powerful, moving, and haunting stories, Laub and company do so with superb craftsmanship and a delicate touch. The filmmakers do much more than simply tell stories, they provide a sense of place, of the atmosphere that cradles or traps these characters’ lives.

“Southern Rites” is an HBO documentary.

Directed by the legendary filmmaker Michael Apted, Bending the Light is a documentary film about still photography and cinematography.

lensearth_24The film opens with an interview with Canon lens maker Mitsuharu Umei. Clips of his interview and his lens-making work are peppered throughout the film. After that introduction, the film then profiles the work of photographers Laura El-Tantawy, Richard Barnes, Simon Bruty, Stephen Goldblatt, Greg Gorman.

Lens makers Masatake Kato, Daisuke Oshima, Setsuko Sotome, Mitsuhara Umei, Toru Matsuda also speak of their work.

Although this 4K film is about the making of Canon lenses, the substance of Bending the Light is nothing more or less than a celebration of photography. As is required of a film about photography, both the still and moving images are exquisitely produced.

This film is a joy and inspiration for those who have a passion as a photographer or have joined the hundreds of millions of human beings worldwide who take and share photographs with their portable digital devices every day.

Bending the Light is available from Vimeo.



  1. Schwartz May 25, 2015

I did not have any relationship whatsoever with ballet until First Run Features began sharing ballet documentaries with me for review. I’ve been fascinated and amazed by what I’ve seen and learned. And, of course, I would not have seen Ron Steinman’s The Dance Goodbye about iconic prima ballerina and teacher Merrill Ashley, let alone reviewed the film without the introductions First Run have provided.

Scan-120713-0008-fixed-copyThe Dance Goodbye uses the Ashley’s retirement from dancing as a springboard to provide a brief biography of her career in ballet, her responses to leaving the passion of her life, and her emergence as an internationally renowned teacher of master classes.

Although Ashley’s life and work are in a highly refined artistic discipline and its rarefied world, her thoughts and feelings are common to all who lose their life-long passion to the inevitable circumstances of life. Any and all who have any measure of empathy will respond with their own pain as Ashley shares hers. Ashley’s story remind us of the inevitable loss we all face in our lives, in this realm of the finite.

But, this film is not about loss. It is about a beautiful soul who has made, with great personal sacrifice, an immeasurable contribution of grace and beauty to our world. A hint of Ashley’s impact is found in the many clips of her performances in studio and on stage. They are nothing less than thrilling and inspiring.

A man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest.” Paul Simon

It is hard to fill a cup that is already full.” Moat

There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” The Guy Who Wrote Shakespeare’s Plays

Where do you stand on childhood vaccinations? Are you for them? Are you against them? Either way you’ve missed the point. Neither of the two stances are based in science.

downloadThe Greater Good is a documentary about childhood vaccinations that addresses the mid-point between the two above absolutist approaches. Instead we learn that there is, of course, a strong place and need for vaccinations, and that there are serious problems with them.

The inconvenient conclusion is that parents need to know beforehand what vaccines are to be given to their children and, based on that information, they need to make informed decisions as to whether or not their children are to receive any one particular vaccine—and they need the freedom to do so.

The film’s website provides a cornucopia of resources parents—and health care providers—may use to make those informed decisions.

If you are an absolutist on the pro side, you will probably disregard this film. If you do watch it, you may find yourself softening your epistemological approach to vaccinations.

If you are an absolutist on the anti side, you will find strong opinions and evidence that support your concerns, but may be disappointed to find that the idea of vaccinations is not damned.

If you are in the middle, you may respond like me—horrified at the quantity of vaccines our children are receiving now, the rate at which they are given, and the questionable ways our government determines the safety and effectiveness of childhood and infant vaccinations. You may also discover the extent to which the public dialogue about childhood vaccinations has been stilted, stifled, and manipulated by powerful forces to affect public opinion. And, you will take advantage of the valuable information this film provides.

The Greater Good is the vaccination statement I’ve been waiting for. It is a powerful must-see film which calls for a much more open public conversation about our use and misuse of vaccines. If I was a mogul I’d have this film sent to every Senator, Representative, and cabinet member in Washington, D.C.

Allowing the students, teachers, and alumni to tell the story, Good Morning Mission Hill is an hour spent at Boston’s K-8 public progressive Mission Hill School. Producers/directors Tom and Amy Valens paint a beautiful, inspiring picture of how human, how compassionate, how much fun, and how effective progressive education can be.

maxresdefaultThis urban school’s teachers have more autonomy in what and how they teach. The results are dramatic, pointing a way to quantum leaps in the effectiveness of public education in the United States. My jaw dropped, and my heart soared when I learned that a few students serve on the school’s governance board, and have equal decision-making participation.

Near the end of the film one of the teacher’s shares:

“Our work is based on developing children’s abilities to affect their world, to solve problems, to reflect and take responsibility. You don’t get that from scripted lessons, from simplistic measures of success, from training in passivity and obedience. And so a lot of what you see here is not quiet and still. It’s very active, it’s engaging, it’s human, it’s celebrating the human in all of us—and trying to build on human potential, and not stifle it.”

Valens’ documentary is based on their internet series, “A Year at Mission Hill” which is included in the film’s DVD.

Good Morning Mission Hill is Valens’ follow-up to their 2011 equally-inspiring documentary From August to June which covers a year in the life of a progressive rural school.

Directed by Philip Jones, produced and edited by Ryan Paul, Gaming in Color introduces and explores the fast-growing community of LGBTQ players and developers of video games.

photo-mainShot in part at the GamerX convention in San Francisco, the film features interviews with seven community members speaking about the challenges and opportunities they’ve faced being part of each of the two communities—gaming and LGBTQ. They paint a picture of a rapidly changing gaming community, as well as the virtues of the amalgamation of their seemingly two diverse identities in one community.

The film’s VOD launch is on May 19th. As you will see in the film’s site, it will be available on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, PlayStation, XBox, and Vudu.

Note: When viewing, keep your finger on your keyboard or pointer. There are several points during the film when a text box appears on screen while an interviewee is speaking. You may want to pause the film in order to read the text in the box, and then to hear all the person speaking has to say.

Planetary is a cinematic poem, a visual essay about the relationship between us humans and our planet—especially our ecosphere.

The film was launched in theaters on Earth Day. You can access it now at the film’s website —

screen_shot_2015-03-12_at_11.06.18_amFilmmakers Guy Reid, Steve Watts Kennedy, and Christof Ferstad have created as moving, as compelling an environmental film as I’ve seen. They have woven together ecstatic visions of our world together with 18 writers and leaders each of whom shares pearls of wisdom about our humanity and our Earth.

I’ve been seeing my fair share of masterpiece documentary films lately, and this is one of them.


As I’ve done with my review of The Hidden Hand, I’m including a personal statement as a coda.

I was born in Chicago, in 1948. My memory begins around the age of three, 1951, in Charleston, South Carolina – Steven Colbert’s home state.

I remember noticing cars, and the stinky, smoky fumes blowing out the tail pipes of these early 50s automobiles.

In addition to that stink, my toddler’s mind also made a connection between the feces that emerge from the backs of dogs with the fumes that spew out of the backs of cars. I remember thinking/feeling (translating from my then-toddler’s vague notion) ‘That can’t be good.’

But, before I go on, let’s take a little detour…. into movies – the very first one
I remember seeing, to be specific. I was 6 years old.

A small boat in the ocean, with a captain, one harpoon gun, and a small crew. It’s a whaling boat. The boat comes upon a whale, but this whale is different – he stands up on his tail, supported by the ocean, and sings opera. He sings with joy and a big smile on his whale face. The crew grab chairs, sit down, and thoroughly enjoy the performance. The captain, however, is single-minded. There is no measure of magic or beauty that can distract him from his commercial purpose – the killing of whales. A storm comes up, the captain goes for the harpoon, the crew fights him; the whale is swimming as fast as he can to escape his slaughter. The captain has his way. My child’s heart is broken. The last scene offers cold comfort. The formerly grey whale is now pink, and instead of standing on his tail, on the ocean, he’s standing on a cloud, again singing opera.

What could be a simpler, clearer message? Etched forever in my brain – and heart.

Commercial interests destroy life, beauty, and grace.

Back to the tail pipes. Over a period of years my awareness of our world grew, and I realized I live on a giant globe full of massive cities full of massive numbers of vehicles each with a tail pipe. That feeling of ‘That-can’t-be-good’ continued to grow. Airplanes, trucks, trains, power plants, busses, factories, lawn mowers, motor cycles, tractors, model planes, chain saws, go-carts – there was simply no limit to the number of tail pipes on our planet.

I developed a phobia after seeing some animated footage of rockets and our Earth on our black-and-white TV set (which featured only two channels). I was afraid that if we really shot rockets into outer space the first one would puncture the shell that protects our atmosphere. We’d then lose all our air like a balloon bursting. ‘That-can’t-be-good.’

About 50 years later I learned that each flight of NASA’s space shuttle has a devastating effect on our rapidly diminishing ozone layer. Who knows about all the other space vehicles and the massive number of airplane flights every day.

It was sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s that I began to hear something about ‘the greenhouse effect.’ (I first learned the word, ‘environment’, around 1960, through a publication for school kids called The Weekly Reader.)  This ‘effect’ has something to do with over-heating the Earth’s environment. A few years later I learned the word, ‘ecosphere’ which reinforced the idea of the Earth as a giant terrarium – which also contains a giant aquarium. I then realized more clearly what ‘That-can’t-be-good’ was about. We’re poisoning our terrarium.

After years of childhood and adolescent trauma I was jolted back to reality by something called ‘the Arab oil embargo’ in the early 1970s. No longer was gas 19 cents a gallon – or sometimes ten cents a gallon during ‘gas wars.’ No longer would I stay in the car while an attendant pumped gas, cleaned windows, and checked the oil. Now the prices were climbing, there were lines at filling stations, and everyone was kvetching. I didn’t do or learn anything about this crisis – as I had become a devout narcissist.

But I did take notice. I noticed that beginning sometime in the mid-1970s – after many years of hearing ‘See the USA in your Chevrolet’ sung in television commercials – there were endless commercials about pickup trucks. For many years I casually wondered why.

I then learned that when the United States faces big problems there is a nation-wide gnashing of teeth and beating of breast. Congress writes effective legislation to address the problem; and this legislation is then watered down primarily by short-term profit and growth interests – the same interests embodied by the above-mentioned Captain ‘Ahab.’ So, cars were mandated to be a little bit cleaner and more fuel efficient, but not trucks. Trucks, therefore, are cheaper to make, let’s cram them down the nation’s collective throat.

Also in the early 70s I read The Teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Castaneda – a memoir of the author’s experience as a student of an anonymous shaman in Mexico. I subsequently learned that a portion of the material had been composed rather than experienced. In any case, although the experiences described were incredible, I was truly moved by only one statement – attributed to the shaman: You must love the Earth. Whoever proclaimed this simply-worded moral imperative made a chink in my armor of narcissism, and reminded me of a concern seeded in me as a young child by tail pipes.

Although I didn’t act on my growing altruistic concerns, I kept noticing things – especially these large vehicles that popped up in the mid-1980s. They weren’t trucks, they weren’t station wagons, and it took a few years before I heard and understood the letters, SUV. More trucks, more vehicles exempted from the stricter emissions standards and fuel efficiency of ‘cars’ – and these were much larger than those pick-up trucks of the mid-seventies.

This time I felt even more pain because it was my generation that marketed and purchased these world-destroyers. My generation, the generation of spirit, justice, ecology, nature, creativity, liberation, beauty, peace, and love. My generation.

Of course, the rise of the SUV is simply a symbol of America’s non-stop acts of commission in its destruction of our ecosphere.

It was some time in the early 1990s. I don’t know how. Was it a magazine that came my way, or something off the nascent web? I do know it was an article by Amory Lovins in the Atlantic Monthly. Simply put, we’ve had the technology for many years to have much cleaner and more fuel-efficient engines for all our vehicles. He put into words something I had felt, and, of course, this infuriated me more – the destructiveness, stubbornness, and short-sightedness of the powers-that-be. (Lovins founded the Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass, Colorado, in 1982.)

And all these decades there were – and still are – the warning scientists of, and the well-paid deniers of global warming. And all these decades there were the non-stop reports of environmental change due to both the conduct of human beings and our geometrically expanding human population. And still, we made – and still make – miniscule changes in our technology and habits.

We do have many well-intentioned environmental organizations, but they rarely, if ever, form powerful coalitions. Instead, each organization tries to take care of its own goldfish bowl of focused interest.

I must confess to a simple, naive thought I’ve had for decades. It confuses me that people don’t have the common sense to realize that if you place a massive amount of a substance into a system – carbon gas into our atmosphere in this case – there will be a change, and that change, whatever the impact may be, can be observed and measured.

I hope someday a bright, young investigative journalist with a penchant for history will write and/or film a chronicle of four different topics: warnings about global warming; ignoring of warnings; technological developments that would radically reduce warming; and the ignoring of those developments.

My conclusions are simple: We won’t see effective change in the way we conduct our individual and collective lives until we change – and, especially, until we take to the streets in very large numbers. But we seem so narcissistic that I suspect only a divine intervention in our collective psyche will get us off our ever-expanding butts to make a difference.

My conversion from narcissism to altruism has been slow. I’ve yet to get to the streets. But I have made my humble contribution – I haven’t reproduced, and I’ve driven small four-cylinder cars my whole life.

I hope greater numbers of people will find the courage to change, to create a cleaner, healthier world for all life above, on, and in the Earth and sea.







Directed by Morgan Schmidt-Feng, On Her Own is both a character study and a eulogy. The character is Nancy Prebilich. The eulogy is for the ongoing massive loss of family farms in the United States.

Using primarily cinema verité coverage, Schmidt-Feng follows Prebilich and her family on their 5th generation northern California farm known as the Gleason Ranch.

The family is raising the full spectrum of domesticated farm animals. It is last decade’s ‘Great Recession.’ Their struggles are physical, financial, and emotional. Prebilich, the de facto matriarch, battles heroically with all of these forces.

Although the point about our loss of family farms and ranches is well-made and well-taken, it is Prebilich’s powerful character the keeps our hearts and minds engaged in this film’s narrative. Whether or not you remember details of this story, you will never forget the tenacity and passion of Nancy Prebilich.