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
“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
The cover of this film’s DVD case is a photograph of the White House. Standing in front is a decorated military officer whose face is half-human, half-alien. In the sky above the infamous abode hovers a flying saucer.
It doesn’t get much cheesier than that.
But that to which this image refers,… not so cheesy.
This review and its coda are for those whose cups are not already full—although those with full cups may chose to view this film in order to satisfy their sadistic pleasure of mocking people and phenomena that they find consciously or unconsciously threatening. But, be careful, your cup may get spilled.
Written, produced, and directed by James Carman, The Hidden Hand (http://www.hiddenhandthemovie.com/) is an outline of the various phenomena associated with UFO/ET phenomena. It is the first and only comprehensive coverage of these phenomena I’ve heard of or seen.
Although the film’s subtitle refers to ‘Government Cover-up,’ that topic is one of many. However, for those who may wish to learn more about this particular issue, I suggest you read Richard Dolan’s books, UFOs and the National Security State: Chronology of a Cover-Up, 1941-1973 and UFOs and the National Security State: The Cover-Up Exposed, 1973-1991.
You may find those books and others by Dolan at his site: http://www.richarddolanpress.com/
Dolan, of course, appears several times in Carman’s film.
Also, regarding government cover-ups, note the brief appearance of Paul Hellyer in Carman’s film. Hellyer is a Canadian politician and statesman whose service included a stint as Canada’s Minister of Defense and as Senior Member of the Cabinet—a position similar to the current position of Deputy Prime Minister.
James Carman has provided an invaluable service in presenting this material. The information is evocative, provocative, confronting, threatening, and confounding. It is also vital.
Coda: Awhile back, I wrote a personal note about these phenomena which describes how I lost my full cup. Here it is:
It began at grocery store checkout stands. Magazine racks displaying the latest copy of The Inquirer. Occasionally there would be a front page photo of an alien accompanied by some outrageous headline. After so many exposures to tabloid stories and photos it became obvious aliens have really broken bad. They have an unquenchable anal fetish. Of all the possible things ‘in Heaven and Earth’ they would want from us humans! Probing our butts?!
I paid no attention. The existence of alien life and intelligence could not be proved or disproved. Unless one has a direct experience, it’s just someone’s story or evidence. In our cyber era that idea is more pertinent being that we can create all sorts of evidence. I ignored anything and everything about extraterrestrial intelligence. I was, and still am, struggling to find my own.
Then, a few things happened.
First, the repetition of stories of that ilk from various other sources. Movie movies – E.T., Close Encounters. A television movie, Roswell, staring Dwight Yoakam, Martin Sheen, Kyle MacLachlan, and Xander Berkeley. I began to take more seriously the metaphor of the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey as a symbol which intimates alien interventions in our evolution.
Two students in my graduate program spoke of their personal experiences. I knew both, and found them to be serious, reliable sources of information. These were particularly sobering conversations.
I saw Fire in the Sky, a movie based upon a 1975 experience in Arizona. The experiencer, Travis Walton, had his Fifteen Minutes of Fame by sharing his story in his book of the same name. The controversy surrounding the event was not so much the event itself as it was the taking of lie detector tests by several witnesses. The claim is that most of them passed the test two consecutive times. The probability of that result – if the participants were lying – is miniscule.
Around 1980, I learned that the then governor of New Mexico and had filed an FOI request with the United States government for information related to the 1947 ‘Roswell Incident.’ Anyone could request a complimentary copy of the material subsequently shared by our government with the Governor’s office. I requested, and six months later received a thick 9X12 manila envelope. I went through the dozens or more pages of this report. A large number of the paragraphs were redacted. Why?
I watched “Sightings”, a television series about metaphysical phenomena including aliens and UFOs which was on the air during the years 1992-1997. Henry Winkler – Fonzie from “Happy Days” – was one of the show’s producers. What stood out was the large number of distinguished military and law enforcement officials who shared experiences of UFOs.
I watched three seasons of The History Channel’s series, “Ancient Aliens”. These programs included lots of cheesy stories and ideas – but they also featured utterly mystifying evidence that pointed to alien interventions in our past.
In the mid-1980s I met a DJ from a major FM pop station at a party. As we spoke I learned he had been an air traffic controller early in his career. He told a supervisor he saw a UFO, and was told there would be serious repercussions for him if he were to go public with his experience.
I read two books – Abduction and Passport to the Cosmos – by the late John Mack, M.D., a Harvard psychiatrist who found himself treating people suffering from PTSD who vividly recounted alien abductions. Predictably the Harvard establishment attempted to have Mack kicked out. They failed. Mack died tragically and ironically while attending a conference on the after-death state in London. He was hit by a drunk driver.
Where’s the ‘win’ in believing or disbelieving in extraterrestrial intelligence? Your choice is nothing more or less than an aspect of your identity. Some on both sides of the question benefit by advancing their respective positions publicly. Some pay a price for doing so.
If and when there is mass experience of alien intelligence and/or governments of powerful nations acknowledging such intelligence, the identity of our entire species, our world view, will be threatened and altered – to make an understatement.
BTW: It’s utterly obvious to me that they were here before we were.
Written and directed by Kenneth Bowser, Easy Riders / Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood outlines Hollywood’s final transition from a studio-driven industry to a director-driven industry, and then to the mega-corporate industry it is now, dominated by what are called ‘Big Budget B-Movies.’
Based on Peter Biskind’s book of the same name, the film roughly covers the time period from the late 50s to the mid-80s.
Narrated by William H. Macy, the story is told with film clips, archival clips and photographs, and interviews with Cybil Shepherd, Dennis Hopper, Paul Shrader, Ellen Burstyn, John Milius, Polly Platt, Margot Kidder, William Friedkin, Peter Bogdanovitch, Kris Kristofferson, and several others. I was mystified by a lack of references in the film to Stanley Kubrick.
I can’t get enough films about films, about movie making, and movie history. So, it’s no surprise that I had a great time watching Bowser’s film. At the end of it’s almost two-hour running time I thought to myself, ‘I wish this were a four hour movie.’ I then grabbed the DVD case to review credits and notes, and discovered a second disc of another hour and forty minutes of interviews. I was in documentary heaven.
I went to the website of the film’s distributor, SHOUT! Factory, but couldn’t find the film for purchase. I then went to eBay and found plenty of ‘em.
Written and directed by Emiko Omori and Wendy Blair Slick, Passion and Power: The Technology of Orgasm is a brief history of the vibrator and our understanding of the female orgasm. The film is intelligent, engaging, informative, and has a style as humorous as it is aesthetic.
One fascinating bit of information I learned is that as of 2006, it was a felony to sell sexual devices in Texas, Alabama, Georgia, and Kansas—one of countless destructive symptoms of the still-entrenched patriarchal dominance and the consequent fear of female power on planet Earth. Of course, gun and Viagra sales are not illegal—but are, of course, aggressively marketed.
The First Run Features DVD includes: Interview Extras, Behind the Scenes, Trailer: Dancing Vibrators, Filmmaker Notes, Filmmaker Biographies, and Trailer Gallery.
Vibrators appearing in the film were provided by San Francisco’s own Good Vibrations (http://www.goodvibes.com/).
Although Abraham Lincoln’s name appears in the title of this film, he is not the film’s central focus. Instead, Living with Lincoln is about the passion, power, and values of research, preservation, and curating—and a family drama that transcends generations.
“It’s a story that starts on the bloodiest day of the Civil War,” narrates filmmaker Peter Kunhardt, “at a fence where a wounded Union soldier crawled out from among the dead. His name was William Meserve. Lincoln came to the battlefield, and thanked him and his fellow soldiers for their bravery. A generation later, that soldier’s son, Frederick Meserve, began to hunt down all of the photographs of Lincoln and the Civil War. His search turned into a lifelong obsession.”
Kunhardt’s film documents that obsession as it winds its way through his family’s modern genealogy—up to and including this documentary film. In addition to learning more about Abraham Lincoln, we meet many of Kunhardt’s ancestors and family members. The most central member in the film appears to be Kunhardt’s grandmother, Dorothy Kunhardt. Her character is so rich, her life full of so many tragedies and triumphs, she’s the one member for whom I would ‘green-light’ a big budget narrative film. But, I digress.
Peter Kunhardt is an accomplished, well-lauded documentary filmmaker. This film is the first I’ve seen from his filmography. It is that rare film that has me struggling for superlatives in describing it. The production, of course, is of top quality, and includes animation, special effects, and perfectly-suited music. Those words, though, do not capture, do not project the quantity and quality of passion and love engendered by this deceptively short, 68 minutes, film. Every superlative that comes to mind is a cliché—I rest, simply, with the word, masterpiece.
Living with Lincoln is directed by Peter Kunhardt and Brian Oakes, and is produced by George Kunhardt, Peter Kunhardt, and Teddy Kunhardt.
It is an HBO film with an HBO release date of April 13, 2015.
Put this disc in the player, sit down and relax as the Silver Belles perform for you and reminisce about their lifelong careers in show business.
These ladies danced for audiences in 1930’s Harlem at the Apollo and the Cotton Club. They danced with Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, and many more legends. Now, they are in their eighties and nineties—and still dancing.
Director, producer, cinematographer, and co-editor Heather Lyn MacDonald’s Been Rich All My Life offers an affectionate and fascinating window into the lives of these veteran performers. With each moment of viewing we join MacDonald in her affection, and respect, and amazement at the beauty, grace, and spirit the dancers share with each other and the world.
The First Run Features DVD has plenty of special features that enrich the film’s stories.
If Martha Hill never existed, or if she had chosen another life to live, where would modern dance be today?
The fact that this is a legitimate question is why you should see director Greg Vandeer Veer’s brilliantly produced cinematic biography of Martha Hill’s life in dance which focuses on her role as a quiet yet powerful force in shaping modern dance and bringing it to the main stage of performing arts in the United States, if not beyond.
Miss Hill: Making Dance Matter tells the previously behind-the-scenes story of Martha Hill’s crucial participation in supporting the early icons of modern dance, teaching countless students, fostering the art form’s emergence into institutes of higher learning, and raising the dance’s status to the level of a fine art.
Editor Elisa Da Prato and music composer Florent Ghys provide essential contributions in making a film with production qualities that mirror the power and grace of modern dance.
Whether or not you are involved with modern dance in any way, Miss Hill: Making Dance Matter will amaze and inspire as you see, hear, and learn of the dedication, tenacity, and perspicacity Martha Hill brought to bear in practically birthing modern dance’s emergence.
Written, produced, and directed by Cass Warner, granddaughter of Harry Warner, The Brothers Warner documents the four Polish-born brothers who came to America and helped found the American film industry. With little or no formal education and starting out from scratch they became exhibitors and grew their nascent business into the media empire called Warner Bros.
Cass Warner tells the stories of Albert, Harry, Jack, and Sam as they struggled with their business, their government, and each other to build their dream world. Although the film is narrated with affection, and is obviously of interest to film historians and buffs, I was struck at film’s end by the Shakespearean tragedy I’d just witnessed.
Warning: Viewers of this documentary may find themselves wanting to know more about this history, these brothers, and the company that became part of Hollywood’s foundation—the company that, in addition to dozens of classic films, has brought to our world the Superman, Batman, Harry Potter, and Peter Jackson’s J.R.R. Tolkien films.
If you were trolling the art house scene back in 1996, you may have caught a charming film from The People’s Republic of China entitled The King of Masks.
The film tells the story of an aging street performer known as the King of Masks for his mastery of Sichuan Change Art—or biàn liǎn in Chinese. A solitary fella, he travels from town-to-town in his small wooden boat performing his special quick-change skill with cloth masks.
He also seeks a young male to whom he may pass on his secret talent, and bemoans the small likelihood of that discovery. But this is a movie, so that likelihood becomes huge—someone offers him a young boy for sale, and after a brief negotiation he purchases this young boy.
Directed by Tian-Ming Wu, the film transports the viewer to a 19th or early 20th century China, and takes us on a dramatic, yet fairytale story of love, discovery, and transformation. The child, portrayed by Renying Zhou, gives an unforgettable astounding performance.
The King of Masks was initially released by Samuel Goldwyn Films, and will be distributed in North America by First Run Features, beginning on April 14, 2015.
Designed by Catalan architect Anton Gaudi (1852–1926), La Sagrada Familia began as a cathedral in the now massive city of Barcelona. It has been under construction since 1882. It’s very big.
In 2010, Pope Benedict the 16th consecrated the church so it is now categorized as a ‘minor basilica’ instead of cathedral.
Sagrada: The Mystery of Creation was written, produced, and directed by the accomplished and celebrated Swiss filmmaker Stefan Haupt who covers the colossal church and its work in progress cinematically, and provides an outline of the church’s meandering, checkered history. Although that history is intriguing, it is Haupt’s stunning visual coverage that captivates the audience.
At film’s end this captive was ready for another documentary—filmed with drones inside and outside the imposing structure, along with a companion website that allows users to explore the church in fine detail.
Sagrada is distributed by First Run Features in the United States. It is currently in theatrical release, and will be released on DVD on May 12th.
Directed and shot by Henry Corra and Reggie Nicholson, the documentary film Farewell to Hollywood tells the story of Reggie Nicholson’s last two years on Earth as she struggles with the horrors of cancer and its treatments, and her parents’ inability to deal with their daughter’s adolescence—let alone her disease.
This is Corra’s formal statement about their film:
“When I met 17-year-old filmmaker Regina Nicholson at a film festival nearly three years ago and heard her sad story, I vowed to help her make a film about her short life. Reggie was an obsessive cinephile who was battling a terminal illness and whose mission in life was to make one feature movie before she died. What developed over nearly two years is a powerful friendship and poignant relationship between Reggie and me. I became her collaborator, friend and defender in her fight to find artistic and personal freedom. The film oscillates between the brutal realities of her daily life and the magical films swirling inside her head, as it chronicles Reggie’s struggles to realize her dream, while her choices—and days—become fewer and fewer. It’s a raw and unexpected story about the commitment of the two of us to art, poetry, care and the potential beauty of every moment together, to the very end.”
Directed, shot, and edited by William Sorensen, co-produced by sound recordist Stella Kwiecinski, and co-produced by Nancy Econome, The Russian River: All Rivers – the Value of an American Watershed uses the story of California’s most iconic river to tell the story, as the title indicates, of all rivers. With more than two hours running time, like the river, the film covers a lot of territory.
We learn of the river’s recorded history beginning with 6,000 years of ecologically-balanced Native American presence. With the arrival of Russian and European settlers we are taken on a chronological tour of the gradual degradation of the river by population growth, resource extraction, development, and mistreatment.
Sorensen interviews authorities, activists, and others who speak of what’s happened to the river, to all the rivers in California, in the American west, in the world. Some speak of our use and misuse of water – including the privatization of this essential resource. As the interviewees speak, as we become privy to information we suspected but didn’t want to face, we are treated to breath-taking exquisite cinematography of rivers and surrounding areas.
We also learn about initiatives to improve the health of our rivers. Europe, in particular, has taken great strides in helping their rivers recover. Their efforts serve as a model for any and all who wish to make a positive difference.
I was deeply touched by this film. So much so that I practically ran to my telephone, took a chance, and called the filmmakers. They answered. After thanking them for the film I asked what prompted them to make this movie. Sorensen responded:
“It really began with a single moment. We were doing a commercial project that included the Russian River as part of the subject matter for the film which was for the wine industry. One day I find myself up to my chest in the river. At that time there were occasional releases of partially treated waste water into the river – increasing the temperature of the water, and it didn’t have the best odor. This was after one of those releases.
“Here I was in the river with my camera, on a tripod, shooting canoes as they were paddling by, and I knew there was something wrong. So we started asking questions. One thing led to another. We started finding out the trouble that the watershed was in. We went through the same process that the film takes people through. It really is one unsettling story after the next. When you look at the history of the river it’s a series of insults over time. We haven’t treated it very well, and again we don’t know anything about it. So our running into the river that way, by literally being in it, was what people really need to do. They need to get closer these resources.”
“The Russian River: All Rivers – the Value of an American Watershed” will be screened at The 38th Annual Wildlife Film Festival in Missoula, Montana, this April.
The covering of the Church of Scientology in documentary film could not have been given to a better director than legendary filmmaker Alex Gibney.
Based on Lawrence Wright’s book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, the documentary features eight former Scientologists speaking frankly about their dramatic experiences in this international 3 billion dollar net worth organization, and revealing information about its less-than-compassionate functions. We learn about founder L. Ron Hubbard’s life story as well as the ascent to power of the Church’s current leader, David Miscavige. And, yes, we learn about John Travolta’s and Tom Cruise’s involvements with the Church.
At film’s end, in addition to repairing my dropped jaw, I was left with questions. How will the United States federal government respond to this film? Specifically, will the IRS allow the organization to keep its tax exempt status as a ‘church’? If disallowed what will happen to the Church’s assets? Will any of the Church’s leadership be investigated for criminal activity? How will Cruise and Travolta respond to the many revelations? And how will the Church respond? This film deserves – if not demands – a sequel.
When yours truly first saw Bhutto, the film immediately went into my all-time ten favorite documentary films list. There are two compelling reasons why you should see this moving documentary.
1) Directed by Duane Baughman and Johnny O’Hara, the film tells the life story of assassinated Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto (June 21, 1953 – December 27, 2007) the first woman in history to lead a Muslim-majority nation.
The film also covers key moments in Pakistan’s history—including the United States’ storied involvement with this British-created nation. The production is top quality, and the scope of Bhutto’s life is no less than epic.
2) Bhutto’s personal life and political career would make a sensational large-budget narrative film or, better yet, series. Given the global jihad that shows no signs of dissipating, that film cannot happen. If anyone even dared to start, terrorist threats would stop it in development.
Bhutto is your opportunity to go—in less than two hours—behind the headlines of Benazir Bhutto’s life, to discover a human being whose heart and soul will remain with you a lifetime.
You may find the film at Amazon Prime or ebay.
Directed by Nicholas J. Polizzi, The Sacred Science follows a group of eight people suffering from a variety of maladies – some of which are life-threatening – on a thirty-day odyssey to the Amazon rainforest where they receive shaman-based treatments.
Their journey is to the Indigenous Healing Center of The Paititi Institute located in the upper Amazon basin of Peru. There they are attended to by shamans along with occasional visits from physicians – and a film crew.
Polizzi follows these brave Westerners as they make themselves vulnerable to the very unfamiliar world of shamanistic practices – and the Amazon jungle. Each of the eight journeyers lives the month in an isolated hut, and participates in group meetings and rituals. In addition to the participants, we hear from the center’s staff and learn a bit about shamanistic practices. We also see the shamans walking through the jungle, seeking specific plants, and preparing their remedies.
The Sacred Science is an important film to see whether or not you have seen films and television shows about shamanism. I was deeply moved by the courageous spirit of the participants, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that some remained at the center beyond the formal thirty-day program. Additionally, I’m passionate about natural approaches to healing and health, and this film demonstrates the power of this kind of approach.
Directed by Beth Gage and George Gage, written by Beth, American Outrage joins the ranks of documentary films which cover the United States government’s abuse and destruction of Native American lands and the corresponding mistreatment of Native Americans.
Carrie and Mary Dann are elderly grandmothers, members of the Shoshone Nation, living and ranching on Shoshone land. The film covers their physically demanding work as ranchers. Over a period of years the Bureau of Land Management which has become a tool of resource extraction industries makes moves to support the illegal reclamation of the land from the Dann sisters’ ranch, from the Shoshone Nation’s large swath of beautiful American territory which cradles the ranch.
The film takes us through several physical and legal moves authorities make, and which the sisters make in protecting their land – up to and including the United Nations. We also learn about the use of our hard-earned tax dollars in support of resource extraction industries.
To state the obvious, it is nearly impossible to watch this film without the experience of outrage.
The First Run Features DVD includes many special features. The film is officially endorsed by Human Rights Watch.
Released in 2003, The Corporation is not as relevant to our times as it was 12 years ago. With the passing of Citizens United and the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, the film is much more relevant to our times. It needs to be seen by many more people.
Directed by Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott, and based on the book The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit Of Profit And Power by Joel Bakan, the film’s epic 145 minutes tell the story of the takeover of American democracy by businesses, leaving the name, ‘corporatocracy,’ the most accurate description of the United States’ form of national government.
The film includes the obligatory coverage of individuals fighting the takeover, and a couple stories of people taking back their power – a Bolivian town, for instance, taking back their water supply from Bechtel Corporation, at a cost of six lives and hundreds injured. But, the filmmakers did such a great job of demonstrating the destructive nature of corporate power, it leaves the viewer with the experience of overwhelm as to what can be done.
Again, this is before Citizens United opened the flood gates to money in politics even wider, creating an unimaginably larger flow than was already legally permitted.
I am not writing this review, though, to discourage you from seeing the movie. I’m writing it to urge you to see the film, to share it as much as you can. It will take large numbers of people, obviously, to break the stranglehold corporations have on our government and society. Every viewer counts.
The Zeitgeist Films DVD includes many Special Features, and the case includes a second DVD of extended versions of the interviews.
On May 13, 1985, the political and law enforcement leadership of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania burned down 65 homes in a neighborhood of tightly-spaced row houses. Six adults and five children died. National headlines, of course, were made. The nation’s collective jaw dropped.
Those who see Jason Osder’s Let the Fire Burn will also experience jaw-dropping or re-jaw-dropping.
Using news clips and video coverage of the investigation, Osder tells the story of a large city dealing with a very small cult called “MOVE”, led by an African-American man with a name as self-styled as his group’s politics and life-style, John Africa.
MOVE caused concerns and trouble for its neighbors and beyond. It positioned itself in an adversarial relationship with law enforcement—which was easy to do as law enforcement did the same.
The last straw was a poorly planned siege of MOVE’s small home. After multiple failed attempts to remove MOVE, the city dropped a military grade C-4 bomb on their home. It started a fire, the fire department did not put it out, and a large portion of that neighborhood of lower-middle-class homes burned to the ground.
Osder includes a few screens of text, but no narration. The skillfully edited video coverage tells the story. The Zeitgesit Films DVD includes special features including a lengthy, substantive Q&A with the filmmaker. I’m always grateful when a documentary film DVD includes optional subtitles as Let the Fire Burn does.
With exquisite cinematography Act of God explores the relationship between randomness and meaning through six stories of lightning strikes and one about brainwaves which are an artifact of neural activity, which, in turn, is an analog of lightning.
Viewing the film, hearing stories of tragedy and miracle, and, especially, hearing the film’s subjects speak their thoughts and feelings inevitably catalyzes a healthy self-reflection of one’s belief system.
The Zeitgeist Films DVD contains special features which include an interview with Baichwal. Although I risk her scorn, this is that very rare film that I suggest you watch the filmmaker’s interview prior to seeing the film. It provides a bit of clarity without tainting the poem.
Nearing the end of his life, in his late 80s, Saul Leiter is gracefully suffering a man with a video camera following him around his home and in the streets, asking annoying questions.
Wearing baggy clothes, and laughing frequently, the legendary fine art photographer indulges his interlocutor with thoughts and feelings of himself, photography, people, and his lost love, Soames Bantry, who beat him to the punch.
Leiter is clearly ambivalent – if not confused – about his worth, success and stature in the art world. Perhaps he has a control issue because whatever he thinks and feels about his work and those who regard it, there are Leiter collections in at least 14 museums throughout the United States and Europe.
And, of course, there is “In No Great Hurry” which introduces a prolific, passionate artist who has made an immeasurable contribution to the art of photography.
Director Tomas Leach has painted an affectionate, touching portrait of the artist as an old man. I recommend viewers see both the film and the additional interviews included in the Zeitgeist Films DVD. I consider those additional interviews to be part of the movie.
Saul Leiter passed away on November 26, 2013, at his home in New York. He was 89.
Produced and directed by Amei Wallach, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: ENTER HERE is primarily a profile of Russian-born Ilya Kabakov. I write ‘primarily’ because wife Emilia is both a creative partner and helps with business and other dealings with the outside world. She has much to say. The film also includes portions of a long letter to Ilya from his mother presented via voice-over.
Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: ENTER HERE was shot around the time of Ilya’s return to Russia with a massive exhibition of six walk-through installations peppered throughout Moscow – including the Pushkin Museum. In addition to the raw challenge of creating, transporting, and assembling this exhibition, Ilya is confronting his painful past growing up in Soviet Russia where he was disallowed from exhibiting.
Films about art and artists call for – if not demand – to be seen more than once. This film is no exception. Wallach was Ilya Kabakov’s first biographer, and his filmic coverage of the man and his work is both deep and rich. The production quality is superb.
The First Run Features DVD includes extended interviews and outtakes in its Special Features. Kudos to all concerned for the excellent use of subtitles in this film.
Through happenstance Ellie Edwards learned – in great detail – of the dire need for human kidney donors. She decided to donate one of her kidneys – motivated by nothing more or less than altruism. Edwards learned about the system of kidney donors and recipients, and found Kathy who had been receiving dialysis for many years, and began the process.
Accomplished filmmaker Jan Krawitz tells the story of these two women in her perfectly-titled film, Perfect Strangers.
‘Why?’ is the inevitable question Edwards had to suffer from countless confused or opinionated people. She does the best she can, of course, and offers excellent reasons. But, there is no right answer to this question. The angry person, the skeptic, the embittered can always shut the giver down by pointing out that since they are aware they are giving, their motivation cannot be truly altruistic.
The good news is that altruistic behavior is a part of human DNA – anger, bitterness, and narrow-mindedness be damned.
By virtue of her literally life-long experience making documentary films, Krawitz tells this story of giving and receiving with standard-bearing production quality – along with an immeasurable amount of heart.
Rich in imagery, idea, story, character, Russian art, and 20th Century Soviet history, like the masterpieces it covers The Desert of Forbidden Art is a masterpiece of documentary filmmaking.
Written, produced, and directed by Amanda Pope and Tchavdar Georgiev, the film tells the story of Russian artist Igor Savitsky who rescued 40,000 works of art by fellow Russian artists. The artists and their work were victims of 20th century Soviet fascism.
Savitsky founded the Nukus Museum of Art or, officially, The Savitsky Karalkapakstan Art Museum. In short, the Nukus.
Savitsky risked his life over a period of many years of collecting and curating. In the film’s short 80 minutes running time viewers are treated to an exhibition of beautiful, dramatic works of art, along with stories of the artists and the fate of their work.
From the film’s official synopsis: “Described as ‘one of the most remarkable collections of 20th century Russian art’ and located in one of the world’s poorest regions, today these paintings are worth millions, a lucrative target for Islamic fundamentalists, corrupt bureaucrats and art profiteers. The collection remains as endangered as when Savitsky first created it, posing the question whose responsibility is it to preserve this cultural treasure.”
Ben Kingsley, Sally Field and Ed Asner are among the performers who voice the diaries and letters of Savitsky and of the artists.
This is one of those rare films I would love to have seen twice or three times its current total running time.
IMDB does not list a distributor of the film, but the film is available from its website: http://desertofforbiddenart.com/
Here is the museum’s site: http://www.savitskycollection.org/
Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour tells the harrowing story of Edward Snowden’s release of highly classified U.S. government documents to journalists. The release was extensively covered by media in the United States and globally.
Given all this, it would be unusual for any reader of this review to be unfamiliar with the film – let alone its topic.
Citizenfour is a masterpiece of documentary filmmaking. Despite knowing the story, the viewer is kept on the edge of their seat. Those seeing the film at home may find themselves clicking pause to read text on the screen, as well as repeating various segments of the film.
As I watched the story unfold, I was feeling and thinking about the bravery of all concerned in their actions taken on behalf of people who live in democracies which have become ‘democracy’ in name only. I also wondered at the massive amount of U.S. tax dollars spent in monitoring the interested parties, as well as the behind-the-scenes machinations at all levels of our federal government.
I’m becoming self-conscious of and somewhat embarrassed by using this phrase so often: This is a must-see film.
But, I mean it.
There are soooo many great documentary films that should be seen by everybody, and somewhere between is one of them.
Some documentaries include introductory text. Here’s this film’s:
“China’s ‘One Child Policy’ was implemented in 1979. As a result, hundreds of thousands of babies were abandoned, mostly girls.175,000 live in countries worldwide. 80,000 live in the U.S., in all 50 states. It is exceptionally rare to find any information about their pasts.”
Accomplished filmmaker Linda Goldstein Knowlton tells of the genesis of her film:
“My daughter’s name is Ruby Goldstein Knowlton. She’s seven. When my husband and I adopted her from China, we had no idea what lay ahead. We became a family in an instant. But as I began to think about Ruby’s future, I started to wonder how her coming of age would differ from mine. I began talking to older girls who had been adopted from China and brought to the U.S., and plunged into a world not just of identity, but of what it means to be who we are.”
Knowlton follows four teenage adoptees as they struggle with their identity and their past – as well as their American adolescence. As the girls’ lives and characters are revealed, so are the depth and power of Knowlton’s film.
In addition to the United States, we spend quite a bit of time in China, as well as other nations.
The film’s image and sound are of top quality. The story-telling is totally engaging. And you will need a box of tissues to see yourself through the emotional roller coaster that is this film, that is these girls’ lives.
Like many documentary films, somewhere between is a timeless story, and will always be relevant. I reiterate: It is a film for everyone.
The commercial DVD I viewed contained an additional disc, “Beyond Somewhere Between”, a 44-minute ‘bonus’ film.
Has anyone else noticed this irony? That in a nation so magnificently obsessed with breasts, the one women’s disease on which we chose to focus is breast cancer. How many times outside your home and in the media have you seen the phrase, ‘breast cancer’?
Instigated by my mother’s untimely death from easily preventable heart disease, I began to wonder, ‘What about other diseases that injure and kill women? Why breast cancer?’ I made a few inquiries, I don’t remember the numbers, but many, many more women die from heart disease annually than breast cancer.
Rosie O’Donnell gives us the hard-to-forget specific answers in her HBO hour-long stand-up performance, Rosie O’Donnell: A Heartfelt Stand-Up. It’s a bait-and-switch routine. We get 45 minutes of stand-up comedy mined from her family experiences. Although the material is traditional, the performance is perfect. But, that’s not why we’re watching.
O’Donnell fills the last fifteen minutes with her harrowing experience of a heart attack – the sort that is rarely, extremely rarely survivable.
The answer is: 30,000 women die annually from breast cancer; 300,000 from heart disease.
Another answer Rosie provides is how to know you’re having a heart attack – if you’re a woman. That answer is HEPPP: Hot, Exhausted, Pain, Pale, Puke
Feeling Hot, Exhausted, having Pain, looking Pale, and Puking – these are the five warning signs that you are having a heart attack.
(Like so many other things in life, it’s much easier for us guys to know things are not quite right in our chest.)
For those who wish to reduce their heart disease and stroke risks, in addition to diet, exercise and stress reduction, I suggest you avail yourselves of the resources at www.lef.org
When we watch episodic television shows – anything from local news programs through commercial-free 90 minute episodes of European series – the characters become part of our own extended families. The more entertaining and impactful the show, the more we watch it, the deeper our relationship to those characters. When ground-breaking “Hill Street Blues” completed its run I felt both saddened and relieved, I was so connected to the characters and their lives.
I did not feel relieved, however, when the weekly movie review show featuring critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert ended by virtue of Siskel’s cancer, nor when Ebert succumbed to same. Although I’d been viewing movies for almost four decades, the way I view and understand films was deeply altered and enriched by the few drops of perspective and understanding I received from each episode of their show, and, finally, from Roger’s show. The duo are like The Beatles. I doubt there will ever be the media equivalent of their impact on our movie-going behavior and experience.
Their departure from my world left me with deep sadness – and, of course, deep appreciation for how much I learned from them, and how much I was entertained by their verbal wrestling matches.
A very small fish in a very big pond, I struggled and waited many months to secure a screener for review of this documentary of Roger Ebert’s life by acclaimed director Steve James. I knew this film is a must-see, and having seen it, I find ‘must-see’ to be an understatement.
James’ Life itself is a deeply moving, well-deserved tribute to the person of Roger Ebert, to his work, and his legacy. Its production was inspired, in part, by Ebert’s memoire, Life Itself. James tells Ebert’s life story from his humble home life to media legend. The film includes the last months of Ebert’s life as he struggled with cancer and the results of medical interventions.
Life itself opens with a statement by Ebert that is foundational to understanding his relationship to the cinematic form of storytelling:
“We all are born with a certain package. We are who we are—where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We’re kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And, for me the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this dream with us.”
A simple statement that identifies the most noble impact film makes on those who chose to see the full range of storytelling filmmakers provide. The statement offers a partial understanding of Ebert’s deep motivation to support filmmakers and their films.
(Having witnessed the ongoing destruction of our ecosphere via, in part, by viewing documentary films, I would simply expand my understanding of ‘empathy’ in the above quote to include the kingdoms of flora and fauna.)
Steve James has done a masterful job of helping us to understand Roger Ebert’s hopes, aspirations, and dreams—and to see how well those aspirations were realized.
Directed and edited by the filmmaking team of Tina Mascara and Guido Santi, Chris and Don: A Love Story documents the epic 30-year love story of Don Bachardy and Christopher Isherwood. Bachardy is a prolific portrait artist, and Isherwood, the legendary writer whose book, Berlin Stories, was the genesis of the Broadway play and subsequent film, Cabaret.
Although the age difference between the two men, thirty years, is dramatic, the deep significance of their relationship – that which justifies this expertly-produced film – is nothing more or less than then the bond of love which the they shared.
‘Touching’ and ‘moving’ are words commonly found in the many reviews of this 2007 Zeitgeist release. I find myself so touched and moved by Santi’s and Mascara’s coverage of the individual and bonded lives of these two gentlemen that I have little to say other than I agree with the avalanche of well-deserved praise the film has received, and I whole-heartedly encourage you to experience this relationship.
That documentary films are a hard-sell is common knowledge. Add films about death and dying, well, you’re in Sisyphus land. That’s where you’ll find filmmakers Amy Browne, Jeremy Kaplan, Tony Hale, and Brian Wilson, the co-directors of A Will for the Woods.
Sex and violence. They’re no longer censored. Death and dying, still is. The problem is that films about death and dying are not just about those topics, they are about the viewer’s demise. The Bell Tolls for Thee.
There are many noble people, however, who ignore the censor, and a few of us humans make ourselves vulnerable to their stories and teachings about death and dying – including the good folks at First Run Features who are distributing this powerful film about Clark Wang’s dying, memorial, and burial.
Clark Wang was a psychiatrist who contracted cancer and struggled mightily to recover. In addition to that struggle he made a decision about his inevitable burial, a decision that was new to me, a decision I want to tell you about in the chance it’s also new to you: Green Burial or Natural Burial.
Instead of being embalmed, cast in a metal casket, and placed in a mostly clear-cut cemetery, one’s body is treated only with natural substances, is placed only in natural, biodegradable containers, buried either in wooded lands or open fields, and allowed to return to the earth. This is a growing movement, and another of its benefits is the conservation of land and trees.
One of Clark Wang’s wishes was to promote this environmentally healthy practice; and he and his loved ones agreed to be on-camera during many of the painful moments associated with his death, dying, memorial, and burial.
Yes, there is much pain and sorrow in this film, but there is much more love.
Ignore the censor, your censor, see this film.
The film’s website includes links to further educate about green burial. The link is above.
Night Will Fall tells the chapter of the Holocaust about what happened when American and British forces discovered the death camps. It also tells the story of attempts to put a massive amount of film footage from that time and place into releasable form.
The primary source material comes from raw footage taken at Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, and Auschwitz camps. The initial title of the attempted film was ‘German Concentration Camps Factual Story’. Seventy years in the making, the Imperial War Museum restored the never-completed film, and released it with the never-before-seen sixth reel.
The film’s title derives from narration recorded for ‘German Concentration Camps Factual Story’: “Unless the world learns the lesson these pictures teach, night will fall. But by God’s Grace we who live will learn.”
Night Will Fall is directed by Andre Singer, narrated by Helena Bonham Carter, and released by Brett Ratner’s RatPac Documentary Films. For more films about the Holocaust, see Moriah Films the link to which is below. I found that their film, Against the Tide, added a bit of insight into the United States’ response to the Holocaust.
Narrator Edward James Olmos introduces the film:
“In the decade following the September eleventh attacks, the United States began a program of mass deportation. Estimates are between four to six million deported. Those hit hardest were Latinos, primarily Mexicans who make up 97% of those deported. Rejected by America, rejected by Mexico, they struggle to survive along the border.”
Directed by Charles Shaw, and based on the work of the late Chris Brava and Jorge Nieto, Exile Nation: The Plastic People takes place in the ‘Zona Norte’ of Tijuana, Mexico. Mexicans deported by the United States to Mexico lose all their papers shortly after arriving. They are not Americans, they are not Mexicans. They are called ‘The Plastic People.’
Using video recordings from flip cameras and smart phones, Shaw documents the conditions in which ‘The Plastic People’ live, suffer and die. He focuses on a few of the victims, and interviews immigration activists. Along with Olmos’s narration, the late Chris Brava provides on- and off-camera narration along with many still photographs of the people living on the border of two great nations, but inhabiting neither. More than a professional photographer, Brava did what he could to help the people of ‘Zona Norte.’
You may find Exile Nation: The Plastic People through its website the link to which is below. When there you may read about director Charles Shaw and the powerful work he does in revealing and responding to the injustices of our world.
Inspired by Deborah Willis’s book Reflections In Black: A History Of Black Photographers 1840 To The Present, Through a Lens Darkly tells the story of two American worlds: the African American and the Caucasian—as represented by photographers and their photographs.
Writer/director/narrator Thomas Allen Harris refers to the ‘legacies’ of these two worlds when he comments, “How was, is, the photograph used in the battle between two legacies: Self-affirmation and negation. Our salvation—as a people, as a culture depends on salving the wounds of this war, a war of images within the American family album.”
In still and moving images, Harris covers close to two centuries of American history, the nation’s horrific treatment of African Americans—a treatment that continues today unabated—and the role of images and their makers that reflect and sculpt the two legacies.
In addition to Harris’ narration we hear from African American photographers and historians, and are whisked through a cornucopia of images. Harris also weaves his personal story into the film’s ongoing narrative. The soundtrack perfectly mirrors and enhances all.
The vast number of images in Through a Lens Darkly along with its abundance of information make multiple viewings desirable.
The soundtrack is by Miles Jay and Vernon Reid.
Note: Viewers of this film may also be interested in The Digital Diaspora Family Reunion Roadshow an interactive project that ties-in with the film
(Photograph ‘Yo Mama’s Pieta’ by Renee Cox is courtesy of ‘Through a Lens Darkly’ and First Run Features.)
Once-in-a-blue-moon I will review a narrative film. Written and directed by Alexandre de La Patellière and Matthieu Delaporte, What’s in a Name is a 2012 French comedy. I make this rare exception because this is one of the funniest films I’ve had to pleasure to view – two times, so far – in many years.
American comedic films have devolved into the hyperbolic, the rude, and the crude. This film’s humor rests in the witty, the absurd, and the poignant. On the surface the story features five characters at a dinner party discussing people’s names. Beneath that verbal facade the five are coming to deeper terms with who they are to each other.
What’s in a Name is a magnificent comedic accomplishment. The script, the production quality, and the performances are all masterful. The film is a perfect amalgam of a 1940’s breezy American romantic comedy, a great Seinfeld episode, and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff”.
The characters speak quickly, and, therefore, the subtitles flash quickly. Us non-French language viewers need to stay alert. Many may do what I do, replay short segments. You do not want to miss a word. Now, I must see the other films by Alexandre de La Patellière and Matthieu Delaporte.
Produced and directed by Nancy D. Kates, and premiered by HBO in December of 2014, Regarding Susan Sontag is a masterpiece of biographical documentary filmmaking. In less than two hours we are introduced to the life and character of Susan Sontag (1933-2004).
With respect and reverence, Kates’ filmmaking style mirrors Sontag’s multi-faceted character, career and personal life. The richness and depth of Sontag’s mind, passions and life are simply overwhelming.
Regarding Susan Sontag instantly leapt into my all-time favorites list of documentary films. A person whose name barely existed in the Antarctic of my brain and about whom I knew absolutely nothing, is now a fond memory.
Born in 1907, in New York City, Altina Schinasi was a sensational woman, a free spirit and a talented, prolific, innovative artist who deserves as much recognition for her contributions and courageous actions as history may spare.
Directed by grandson Peter Sanders, the film tells Tina’s story from beginning through her passing in 1999.
When picking up a ‘biodoc,’ the first question I ask is, ‘Why was this film made?’ Knowing it was directed by her grandson one might conclude the film is a loving tribute (which it is), or a vanity production. Minute-by-minute, as I watched the film unfold I found myself in deep respect and admiration for this courageous woman who clearly followed her heart in her personal and professional lives.
Altina was made because Altina’s life deserves to be known, and her contributions acknowledged. Her heart will touch yours.
The First Run Feature’s DVD includes additional interviews as well as a much needed and much appreciated ‘gallery’ of Tina’s art.
Defying convention, Joe Cross has produced a documentary sequel.
With 2010’s Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead Cross introduced his story-line of a successful Australian businessman who is overweight, suffering from an auto-immune disease and its attendant pharmaceuticals, and cruisin’ for a heart attack. He decides to go on a stint of consuming only freshly-juiced fruits and vegetables, gets better, goes to America, crosses the land juicing and talking to people about same – with a professional documentary crew in tow.
With “2” Cross obeys the unwritten sequel dictum that the follow-up film must be bigger, Cross travels the world on another campaign to extol the virtues of healthy eating.
In addition to covering much more territory, Cross proffers more people who have experienced dramatic improvements in their health via juicing. He also addresses those who saw and responded to his previous film some of whom have fallen off the wagon, or are back-sliding health nuts. For us, he suggests the “Reboot” – simply put, start eating healthy again.
Cross interviews physicians who provide vital information in support of eating healthy. He also covers the social-psychology that impacts our health-related choices. In that light, we learn of and see community initiatives to grow organic foods for local consumption.
Given this larger canvas with more colors and figures, “FSaND2” is a more important, more compelling, more down-to-earth, and more influential film.
All dinning on a Western diet of high-sugar, high-fat, high-salt, high-meat, and processed foods who see this film will, at the very least, take pause.
With InRealLife accomplished filmmaker Beeban Kidron has made a powerful documentary highlighting the dark side of the confluence of the internet, children, and portable digital devices. She interviews teenagers about their use of the internet, and hears from authorities about the nature of this global network. Her journey of discovery takes her to Silicon Valley, and network hub points around the world.
Kidron expresses deep concern about the dehumanizing impact of a 24-hour cyber life. The stories told by these children are equally jaw-dropping and heart-breaking. She makes a compelling argument that our concerns about internet addiction should be as serious as those we have for substance abuse and other self-destructive behaviors.
What do we do about the damaging effects of this unprecedented, ubiquitous technology? That is the question.
InRealLife made such a deep impact on me I was surprised that this is the first time I heard of the film. Thanks to First Run Features, it’s receiving much-needed exposure in the United States.
Filmmaker Lacey Schwartz was raised in a Jewish, white, upper-middle-class home. Her dark skin was attributed to a Sicilian grandfather, but was actually the result of her mother’s affair with an African American. Little White Lie documents her childhood and her search for answers to her racial identity and her father’s identity.
Schwartz weaves together a trove of home movies and photographs with interviews of family and friends to tell her story. In one short hour Schwartz takes us on her deeply emotional journey of discovery and healing. Unless you, reader, have a heart of glass, you, too, may need some tissues nearby as the film unfolds.
Although the issues of parental relationships and racial identity in Schwartz’s story are very specific, the dynamics of family communications, relationships, and love approach the universal. Many interviews evoked thoughts and memories of my life. Several times during the viewing I found myself distracted by those very thoughts, and missed the words I was supposed to be listening to. My remote’s Stop and Reverse buttons were pressed many times as I made sure I did not miss a word of her story.
Monk with a Camera is a delightful, engaging, and fascinating documentary about the life and times of Nicholas Vreeland who is the first westerner to become an Abbott of a Tibetan Buddhist monastery.
The son of an American ambassador and grandson of legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, ‘Nicky’ was raised in a variety of places around the world. He adopted elegant dress from early childhood, and became a professional photographer. After years of living and loving in high society, he began studying Tibetan Buddhism and eventually became a monk and renunciate.
Since that time Vreeland has been in an ambivalent relationship with photography which is something he both enjoys, is highly proficient at, yet believes is not appropriate to his renunciate commitment. Irrespective of that inner conflict, the world and this film is all the better for his photographic creations—including the monastery he helped build and saw through a severe financial crisis in 2008. He returned to photography by taking pictures of the monastery and surroundings, raising $400,000 for its completion.
Whether sporting western or eastern attire, Vreeland’s dress is immaculate. And the documentary about him is produced as such. The filmmakers take us to New York, India, and many places and people between, all in style and grace.
This is the fun of reviewing documentaries. The title is David Wants to Fly. That’s all I know. It could be anything. I’m not even sure it’s a documentary. What do you think it’s going to be?
I’m instantly transported to contemporary Germany. A handsome young man, David Sieveking, and his beautiful girlfriend, Marie Pohl, are in bed. Marie, a writer, has recently moved in with David who is an aspiring filmmaker looking to make his first big splash. Marie is working on her second novel. As the morning sun enlightens the two lovebirds, off-camera-David’s-voice narrates he is “lost after finishing film school.” I’m still not sure this is a documentary.
“I wanted to make dark films,” David says, “like my idol, David Lynch. But I was lacking the darkness. He was my age when he completed his first masterpiece. Then I discovered this ad on the internet—a conference in America where David Lynch himself was supposed to speak about the source of creativity.”
Against Marie’s objections, Sieveking, documenting his angst and his search, decides to attend the conference, seeking, in my words, his muse. Okay. Now I’m feeling like I’m watching a movie about the making of a movie, I’m propelled back to Charlie and Donald Kaufman’s masterpiece, Adaptation.
Sieveking travels to Fairfield, Iowa, wondering why David Lynch lives there instead of ‘Hollywood.’ The answer comes quickly: “‘Transcendental Meditation’ plays an important part in Lynch’s life, but he’d never spoken about it in public.” A U.S. portion of this international organization is based there.
And that’s the setup. David Wants to Fly is, of course, about both Davids, but the primary focus is on our filmmaker, Sieveking, who tells a few stories in this, his first post-film-school film which may not be a ‘masterpiece,’ but which is very well-done, and thoroughly engaging.
Sieveking’s decision to go to this conference propels him on a journey into the worlds of ‘Transcendental Meditation,’ a journey into himself, and to a rocky relationship with the beautiful Marie. Whether or not this is a documentary doesn’t matter any more. It’s a great story. Like Dorothy’s sparkling red slippers, David had his muse all the time, and said muse has done her job.
I’m extremely and unusually tempted to tell you, dear reader, what happens on Sieveking’s journey, what he discovers, what we discover, and, especially, what I think about it all. But, I don’t like to be told what I’m going to see, and I try, as much as I can, to follow the Golden Rule. I’m happy to say, though, that I was touched and inspired by David Sieveking’s filmmaking skills and, especially, his vulnerability.
In 2003, eight tourists hiking the beautiful Columbian mountains became statistics when they joined the countless others who have been kidnapped. Among the eight was British television producer Mark Henderson. One tourist escaped. The rest were held captive for 3 months.
Nine months after his release Henderson received an email from ‘Antonio,’ one of the kidnappers. This was the beginning of five years of communications between the two which, in turn, led to a plan to meet at an undisclosed location.
Co-produced and co-directed by Henderson, My Kidnapper tells two stories – the kidnapping, and the reunion of four of the original eight victims with Antonio and his fiancée who also participated in the kidnapping.
We follow the four as they retrace their movements from the original point of capture, through various locations, to the point of their release – followed by a meeting with the two kidnappers. Along the way the travelers describe their original experience together with their current thoughts and feelings. Henderson incorporates a substantial amount of news reports and other footage from the time of the kidnapping.
From my tenderfoot’s perspective, just the physical journey to revisit their life-threatening experience was harrowing enough – despite the helicopters, the military escort, the planning, the requisite equipment and supplies, and the accompanying film crew. Be that as it may, My Kidnapper movingly conveys the ineffable horrors of the kidnappings that obviously haunted the four travelers on their odyssey in reverse.
Henderson skillfully keeps the story focused on the personal. To attempt addressing the subject of kidnappings in Columbia would be to pull a thread unraveling a multitude of stories and conditions and nations each demanding their own documentary. Instead we experience a deeply personal narrative which acknowledges the seemingly bewildering complexities of our world and ourselves.
“We weren’t trying to get anything our way; we wanted it that way for our descendants, for the rest of the world.” Unidentified Interviewee
Monumental is a biography of environmental pioneer and warrior David Brower as well as an outline of the history of the American environmental movement.
Brower was born in 1912, in Berkeley, California. He became a pioneering rock climber, saw action in World War—the Army wisely taking advantage of his mountaineering abilities in order to train and lead soldiers.
Brower met his wife, Anne Hus Brower, when they were both editors at the University of California Press. Providence brought Ansel Adams and Brower together hiking in the Sierras. Adams became his mentor.
Brower utilized his skills as a writer, photographer, cinematographer, narrator, public speaker and leader in accomplishing his life’s work. Those skills were all in service to his immeasurable passion for protecting the natural world. It is this passion of protection and conservation that stands out clearly in director Kelly Duane’s homage to Mr. Brower and his many heroic accomplishments – including leading the battle to save Arizona’s Grand Canyon.
Monumental features hard-to-find color outdoor footage from the late 1930s through the 70s, interviews with those who worked with Brower (or were affected by his work), news footage from Brower’s life and times, and text providing critical information.
The DVD includes plenty of “Special Features” one of which is a short film produced, shot, and narrated by Brower about the tragic damning of California’s Hetch Hetchey Canyon – also known as ‘The Second Yosemite.’
“Can Bhutan emerge from the process of modernization with its environment and culture intact?”
That’s the primary question posed by Bhutan, the second documentary film I’ve had the pleasure to view from John Wehrheim and Bob Stone. Like their Taylor Camp, Bhutan is a visually ecstatic film which I’d love to see on the big screen, Blu-ray, or 4K.
Directed by Thomas Vendetti, Ph.D., Bhutan utilizes a narrator along with interviews of political and cultural leaders, media agents, bureaucrats, and the Bhutanese people to tell the story of Bhutan then and now. The words globalization, modernization, Westernization, growth, and development are bandied about – used both as opportunities and challenges. I’m not sure, however, what they really mean in this context, and, especially, to the people using those words. That linguistic uncertainty may be another way of asking the question of what will happen to Bhutan.
The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has been receiving a modicum of global publicity by virtue of its many unique qualities – its size, 650,000 people; its Buddhist culture, ideas, practices, and values; and its history – it’s never been conquered or colonized.
Bhutan joined the United Nations in 1971, as of the film’s 2009 release, it’s the least urbanized country in the world — it did not have television until 1999, the internet followed shortly thereafter. Keeping with tragically typical human history, shortly after TV and the internet were deployed, there was a dramatic increase of substance abuse and addiction, violence, burglary, and murder.
And there’s the rub. Bhutan explores Bhutan at this time of inevitable change. The fact that the above question of Bhutan’s fate can even be asked is cause for hope. The massive destructive, homogenizing forces of science, technology, industry, human over-population, and human greed mitigate, of course, that hope.
But there is great power and beauty in the unity of the Bhutanese and their values. If there is a nation on planet Earth that can preserve its soul and spirit, it is Bhutan. And the most exciting possibility is not only that preservation, but the emergence of Bhutan as an inspiring force to the people and nations beyond its borders.
“God help the next Queen of Comedy ‘cause this one’s not abdicating.” Billy Sammeth
In the ever-expanding cosmos of documentaries this is one title I would not have chosen to view. But peer pressure held sway. The simple fact that several people who know my penchant for movies as well as my interest in documentaries drove my ego-dystonic decision to view the screener.
And, of course, they were right – not just for this profile of a powerful character, but also for the excellence of filmmaking that reveals this profile. Add the traditional story of a Hero facing a challenge, and you’ve got all the basic ingredients that make a film engaging.
When Joan Rivers is in a career slump and someone asks her to look at her calendar, she says ‘wait, I have to put on my sunglasses.’ The paucity of black ink on the white pages is glaring to her eyes. Thus begins this story of a year in her life, one that includes her 75th birthday. The secondary story is simply her entire career. There is no want of drama in either of these two stories.
That drama…, well, I’ll let you discover it for yourself when you see the film. But I’m happy to share a couple impressions of Ms. Rivers’ character and life. First I was fascinated to learn that she performed frequently on stage in high school and college in dramatic plays. She considers this foundational to her identity as a performer – and she laments not being recognized as a serious actor. Speaking of which, Rivers reveals a deep, apparently frustrated need to have her talent recognized by both critics and her peers. Perhaps this expression is fueled by our camera beginning its story at a low point in her career.
I found many aspects of directors Ricki Stern’s and Anne Sundberg’s film touching and moving – I was riveted from beginning to end.
Thanks, peers, for pointing me in this direction.
“The worst place where I ever slept in was the bushes.” Rudee, Age 6
Prolific documentary filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi and her crew are hanging out at a motel walking distance from Disneyland. They are observing and speaking with homeless children and their families who live in this semi-urban purgatory set in one of the wealthiest counties in the United States of America.
The children are not allowed to play at the motel. Some, if not most, avoid the local park because of gang activity. Living in one room, a family of 5 also has 4 dogs. One family a week is evicted – either for lack of payment or for causing some kind of trouble. When that happens the family’s belongings are placed in the dumpster which, of course, is then perused for whatever material of value may be found. The police arrive frequently on domestic disturbance calls. For entertainment the children go to the top of a parking structure at night to see the beautiful fireworks culminating a day of rides and food at the Happiest Place on Earth.
There is a school just for these children. Supported by governmental and NGO agencies, the children find what little respite they may at Project Hope, but their teacher – as compassionate a person one could ever find – is, during the film’s production, dismissed due to California education budget cuts. One school room serves three grade levels. Poor Rudee gets a severe stomach ache. There is no nurse. No family member or friend is available to take her home. She must wait until the 5 o’clock bus picks her up.
Pelosi’s subtext here is not very sub. This is the world us Americans have created for ourselves. The implicit questions are: Is this what we want? If not, what do we do? The first step is to acknowledge this world, and that is exactly what Pelosi’s straight-forward film does.
“Jack presented the facts; we chose not to listen to him.” Neal Nicol
Kevorkian, an HBO documentary, covers the later life of right-to-die champion Jack Kevorkian, M.D. Directed by Matthew Galkin, it is a companion piece to the HBO narrative You Don’t Know Jack starring Al Pacino, and directed by Barry Levinson.
Regarding his life, I was horrified to learn that Kevorkian’s mother lost her parents and his father lost every living relative in the Turkish genocide of Armenians. And, I was fascinated to learn that in addition to being a physician and right-to-die advocate, Jack Kevorkian was an artist, musician, composer, author, medical researcher, inventor, painter, and film producer.
Kevorkian willfully set himself up for his arrest and trial on first degree murder charges. Although he had been successful in participating in many physician assisted suicides, he wanted to do much more – to change this nation’s laws, to take the right-do-die issue to the Supreme Court. He arranged his arrest by euthanizing a willing ALS patient – rather than the heretofore usual provision of a mechanism provided to the patient that enables suicide. Kevorkian videotaped this euthanasia – including the communications between himself and the patient as well as the patient’s explicit agreement to the euthanasia.
Kevorkian served eight and a-half years of his sentence. During that time he discovered the 21 words of the ninth amendment: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”
That discovery catalyzed his decision to run for Congress. He was out on parole, 79 years old, in ill health, but carried on his 2008 campaign utilizing the ninth amendment as an argument for the Constitutional support of right-do-die.
When I first learned that Americans don’t have the right-to-die, I was struck with the senselessness of these prohibitive laws. As I gradually discovered the horrors of the American way of dying I became outraged at the cruelty engendered by this unconstitutional restriction.
Learning of Dr. Kevorkian’s work, he became one of my many heroes. I’m now heartened to see that the seeds of Kevorkian’s pioneering initiatives have taken hold. And, I’m grateful for director Galkin’s excellent portrait of a true American hero.
The cultural explosions of the legendary and now mythical sixties were too numerous and varied, too wide and deep to be captured in toto in any one documentary or narrative film. The best that can be done is to cover individual facets of the revolutions – and hopefully a body of work will eventually emerge to form a mosaic of the times.
Covering an individual facet is precisely what director Robert C. Stone and producer John Wehrheim have done with their thoroughly engaging, entertaining, and touching Taylor Camp which covers the 7 year history of a beach encampment on the north shore of Hawaii’s Kauai.
Taylor Camp originated circa 1968. It began as a shoreline tract of land purchased by Howard Taylor – Elizabeth’s brother. He had plans to build a home there, but the state had other plans. Partly in retaliation – or mostly, perhaps – he went to a Kauai jail, picked up 13 homeless young people who had been jailed, and brought them back to his land to live.
The film includes contemporary interviews of the campers who, together with stills and footage of the time, tell a few of the stories of Taylor Camp. The film’s ending credits do as good a job of keeping our attention as they are peppered throughout with stills of each participant past and present – together with a brief description of what they do now.
In addition to its fascinating and moving stories, the film is a Blu-ray or 4K ready documentary with absolutely, utterly gorgeous footage of Kauai. Taylor Camp is a timeless film about a timeless time. I can’t recommend it enough.
Well, I can’t compete. I can’t put the introduction to this film more succinctly than the film’s DVD case: “Winner of 20 festival awards, ‘Bidder 70’ is Tim DeChristopher, the student who monkey-wrenched the 2008 fraudulent Bureau of Land Management Oil and Gas Lease Auction. Bidding 1.8 million to save 22,000 acres of pristine Utah wilderness surrounding Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, with no intention to pay or drill, Tim brought the BLM auction to an abrupt halt. A month later, Barack Obama became President, and on February 4, 2009, new Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar, invalidated the entire BLM auction.”
Produced and directed by Beth and George Gage, Bidder 70 follows the subsequent events beginning with DeChristopher’s indictment on two federal felonies. Those events include the formation of community groups in support of DeChristopher’s actions and values, and, of course, the trial in which the judge denied the jury a substantial amount of exculpatory evidence.
But the main event is our witnessing the birth of a powerful and inspiring environmental activist.
One of the most poignant moments for yours truly was when Stanford Professor and Nobel Prize winner Terry Root appears on screen with DeChristopher discussing a conclusion that, “the IPCC (http://www.ipcc.ch/) couldn’t find any possible scenario in which we avoided all the worst-case consequences of climate change.”
As someone who has been casually and distantly observing ecological destruction, it was cold comfort to have my similar conclusion validated by such an authority.
Thank Goddess, rather than deter him, that information inspired DeChristopher. He responded to a large group of people, “To have a Nobel Prize winner say that it was too late for me to protect my own future, it shook me to the core. I went outside the hotel and I cried. I mourned for my own future. I mourned for the future of all of us. But afterwards, what kept me going was the idea that there was still a chance, and that maybe if none of the political plans on the table, if Barack Obama’s plan is not good enough, then we’ll have to find another way. We’ll have to break out of the political system that we’re in and find a new path forward. And that’s really the task before us. (pause) Sorry. I get a little emotional.”
Kudos to Gage and Gage for making an invaluable contribution to our public dialog on our environment—and for including Closed Captioning in their film!
HBO’s Banksy Does New York is yet another shameless attempt to exploit the phenomenon of ‘Banksy,’ a faux character created by a small group of artisans and their enablers. Given the success of the first major film about this composite character called ‘Banksy’ (Exit Through the Gift Shop), and given the media might of HBO (coincidentally based in New York City), the film is likely to recoup its costs and maybe make a few people a few dollars richer.
Do you want to buy in to this cultural phenomenon that offers fodder to justify the existence of news media, art critics and galleries, self-appointed iconoclasts, and filmmakers? Shall we support an entertainment for them to focus on instead of the grotesque population growth of our human species, most of whom live and die in deplorable conditions (and all of whom are contributing to the specie’s destruction of its own environment)?
Isn’t it time for our creative types to come up with brilliant ways to make the deplorable news more engaging? Can’t we find ways to educate people to the needs of our species in far-flung places without pitiful images and dour predictions? Why can’t these ‘geniuses’ come up with something better than covering the story about the story of a first-world phenomenon?
But, what will they come up with? Another carefully-crafted Banksy ‘documentary’ about the behind-the-scenes shenanigans generated by this ultra-hip orgy of public non sequiturs.
Produced in 1999, and narrated by the ubiquitous Peter Coyote, Emperor of Hemp is a tightly focused portrait and biography of marijuana and hemp crusader Jack Herer whose early life was as a patriotic Vietnam veteran and businessman who deplored the emerging ‘counter culture’ – especially its anti-war/anti-government expressions and use of drugs.
In less than one hour Emperor of Hemp outlines Herer’s story and articulates his passionate objections to marijuana laws and passionate support of hemp’s seemingly unlimited number of uses. Although I’m a culturally clichéd Child of the Sixties, I left most of that behind – especially drug usage – in my search for a career. I’d never heard of Herer, his books, nor the tremendous amount of information about marijuana’s 20th century history and the squashing of hemp cultivation provided in this compact hour.
Consequently, I found Emperor of Hemp thoroughly revelatory. And I was particularly infuriated at the information that hemp could have been embraced by the United States and the world as a sustainable source of paper instead of trees. The tragic facts about hemp’s history come out in the inflammatory centerpiece of this film – Jack Herer’s observations of events that took place in 1937.
Good movies often times leave us wanting more, and good documentaries leave us wanting to know more, to see more. By virtue of this film’s taut focus we learn only an outline of Herer’s life. I wanted to know what happened with his relationship with his three children, and I wanted to learn much more about his deep and broad personal transformation.
In ant case, I was struck by Herer’s dedication and charisma, by his strength of character which enabled him to preserver in his crusade through many barriers, and, especially, by the significance of the information he – and this documentary – present.
My hat’s off to the filmmakers. Writer/producer Jeff Meyers and director Jeff Jones not only packed Herer’s story and worldview into this short hour, they stuffed it with great music, archival footage, and a tremendous amount of information between interviews. On top of all this, the DVD includes a ‘Bonus Feature’ – a 1942 documentary entitled Hemp for Victory produced by the United States government.
“Trumble,” I heard Bette say when I asked if she had any new documentaries. As of this writing Bette is the owner of Larkspur’s Bette’s Flicks, one of an extremely rare species of brick-and-mortar video stores.
“Wasn’t he the guy who did the special effects for ‘2001’?” I queried, excited to see such a film. “No,” she said, “Trumbo – t r u m b o. He was that Hollywood writer who got blacklisted.” ‘Oh,’ I thought, ‘I’m going to take another tour of this dark chapter of American history.’
I was wrong. I’d never really taken a ‘tour’ of The Blacklist. I’d simply seen and heard snippets about it, and I saw that rare Woody Allen film not directed by Woody Allen, The Front, wherein our comedic hero plays the serious role of someone ‘fronting’ for a Blacklisted Hollywood writer. I simply did not have a sense of this decades-long American Inquisition of free thought and free speech until experiencing it through the life and thought of one of its victims, Dalton Trumbo.
Trumbo is written by Christopher Trumbo – Dalton’s son – and is based upon his play, Trumbo: Red, White and Blacklisted. Director Peter Askin utilizes archival footage, contemporary interviews, and distinguished actors performing Trumbo’s letters, on-screen, to tell the story of this prolific, successful, genius writer, an American patriot, a veteran, a loving family man who stood up to the Inquisition and paid almost the full price for doing so.
I say ‘almost’ because I learned from this documentary that several of the Blacklisted writers committed suicide. Dalton Trumbo and his family endured years of loss and oppression. He was one of two writers who were imprisoned for practicing their freedom of thought. He emerged from The Blacklist triumphant with the 1960’s Exodus and Spartacus bearing his name in the writing credits.
After viewing Trumbo a couple of times I realized there is a connection between this seemingly ‘irrelevant’ subject and my ‘relevant’ concern for our ecosphere. Our American government and society, via The Blacklist in the 1950s, squelched the freedoms and democracy it was supposed to nourish and protect, just as the countless scientists who have been warning of environmental catastrophe for more than 60 years have had their work and words distorted, buried, attacked and ignored.
In any case, Trumbo, in addition to its cautionary, if not horrific, tale, is a powerful film about a powerful man who confronts a powerful challenge.
It will take some investment of time and energy to find this film, but it will be well worth it.