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
As I’ve written more than once, if a documentary – or a narrative – effectively tells just one story, it is successful. Produced by a San Francisco Bay Area team, The Judge and The General tells many stories. The two primary ones are Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 ascension to power in the South American nation of Chile, through a U.S.-supported coup d’état. This was followed by his brutal reign which also received U.S. support. The second story follows the judge selected by chance to investigate and prosecute Pinochet and his agents. The many other stories are of victims and their survivors.
Juan Guzmán was born into a wealthy family and aspired to be a diplomat. That aspiration was dashed when Salvador Allende was voted into power in 1970, and proceeded to create a “Marxist” government. Guzmán ended up working as a judge for the state. During the early years of the Pinochet regime Guzmán states that, if he was a lieutenant or captain in the army ordered to shoot Chileans, he would have done so. He rose to the rank of appellate judge.
Judges in Chile are assigned to cases on the basis of rotation. When papers were filed against Pinochet, in 1998, Guzmán’s number was up. He was perceived by some as a ‘right-wing’ judge skeptical of the violence described in the filings. However perceived, he took his job seriously, investigating hundreds of murders throughout Chile, accompanied by body guards and sporting protective gear.
Back at the office, his peers attempted to hinder the investigation. Like the Daniel Ellsberg documentary, The Most Dangerous Man in America, we follow a protagonist’s discovery of horror – including his own culpability. By the time he files indictments against Pinochet, Guzmán is a transformed man.
Available through PBS Home Video, The Judge and The General features absolutely top production values – and Guzmán’s telling of his own story adds gravitas to an already moving and powerful film.
MEDECINES SANS FRONTIERES (MSF), Doctors Without Borders, is headquartered in Paris, France. The organization provides emergency medical needs to ‘populations in distress.’ It provides treatment to ten million people annually – out of a global population of more than 2 billion who have no access to essential medical services. There are MSF missions in 70 countries, with over 20,000 locally hired staff working alongside the volunteers.
Few volunteers are accepted into the organization, and of those who go on just one ‘mission,’ few remain after that. It takes a skilled practitioner with a particular constitution to be able to work in these impoverished – an understatement – circumstances. Living in Emergency follows several of these doctors as they work, play and reflect. This film, simply put, is a story of horrors and heroes.
If you view a DVD copy of this film, I consider it critical to have the subtitles turned on – assuming, of course, that the producers have subtitles included in the film’s DVD. (‘Screeners,’ the pre-release DVDs writers view usually do not have subtitles, whilst the commercially-released DVDs often do have them.) The Living in Emergency filmmakers admirably included ambient sounds of the scenes they shot, they added music, and most of the doctors speak in the dialect of their native tongues.
What the doctors – and MSF administrators – have to say is vitally important, it deserves to be easily heard, and if inaudible, easily read. That was not the case with the disc I was sent. To be accurate, there are a few subtitles (mostly for those speaking non-English languages), but they are very small, in white, sometimes set against a white background, and many times appear all too briefly. I’m not sure how easily they’ll be read on a theater screen. I know how hard to read they are on a television or computer. If I was the executive producer of this film, I would have insisted on easily-read subtitles for all of the voice tracks.
I regret that I’m obliged to report this business about inaudible voice tracks and troubles with subtitles or lack thereof — but I’m also obliged to say that this is not a deal-killer. What Living in Emergency covers is crucial, and this film is probably the best we’re going to get on the work of Doctors Without Borders.
The organization’s work is vital (to make another understatement); the doctors are inspiring, and their circumstances heart-breaking. The not-so-sub subtext: We’ve created an over-populated, war-torn, malnourished, famine-ridden, polluted world. That fact that Doctors Without Borders exists is both a testimony to the noble aspects of our humanity as well as a symptom of a world-gone-wrong.
K2: Siren of the Himalayas tells two stories of K2. One is about a 2009 team attempting to ascend what is regarded as the most dangerous mountain to ascend to the summit.
In addition to pursuing their avocation, this group is also celebrating and honoring the hundredth anniversary of the first expedition to attempt the K2 summit lead by the Duke of Abruzzi. This is the film’s second story, and it is told with remarkable stills and some film footage. A voice-over actor reads from a journal written by a member of the expedition. By the end of the film’s 75 minutes, the viewer has seen two films.
This was my second time to cinematically ascend K2. The first was when I viewed The Summit which chronicles the 2008 expedition in which 11 climbers died. One climber from our 2009 film speaks to camera as he sits on the mountain, at a make shift memorial of metal plaques to the many who have lost their lives traversing this mountain.
Director Dave Ohlson’s cinematography, like the mountain, is breathtaking. If only the disc I watched was a Blu-ray or 4K!
My emotional response to these two films is one of awe and wonderment – at the beauty of our world, at the people who take in this beauty in person, and those who choose to film these people.
Chocolate covered scallops; espuma of calf brains and foie gras; and beer and truffle soup are just three of hundreds—if not thousands—of dishes created by celebrity chef Paul Liebrandt over his decades-long career. Inspired by Liebrandt’s avant garde dishes and roller-coaster story, first time feature director Sally Rowe serves up A Matter of Taste, her homage to the Master Chef.
Liebrandt challenges himself to create unique, unexpected combinations of foods and flavors. “It’s true. Almost all the food that he makes, that if you simply describe it with a straight face, it sounds like a put-on,” says former New York Times food critic William Grimes, “but if you’re in the restaurant, and you’re eating it, and you’re thinking about it, and you’re actually seeing the relationship between the flavors, it was often inspired food.
One of the great ‘joke’ dishes for people who wanted to make fun of Paul Liebrandt was his signature [inaudible French language name] which was a little ball of wasabi/apple sorbet with some [inaudible] salt sprinkled over it, and then a waiter would come over with some dainty little teapot thing, and he would pour olive oil over the sorbet. Although it sounds precious and ridiculous, but almost everybody who ate that little morsel thought it was the best thing they ever tasted.” (As shot by Rowe, the preparation of this ‘morsel’ is even more elaborate than Grime’s description.)
A Matter of Taste tells the story of this passionate, leading-edge culinary artist in Manhattan, seeking his perfect studio—in this case, a restaurant—as both a crucible and showcase for his work. By virtue of Liebrandt’s pioneering gastronomical spirit, his search is long and painful, but ultimately rewarding.
With A Matter of Taste Rowe tells the classic story of a hero confronting obstacles—which, in this case, are his genius as well as societal convention—and overcoming them in spectacular fashion.
Alive Inside tells the story of Dan Cohen’s discovery that when people suffering from age-related memory loss – my preferred term for the various kinds of ways we lose memory – are given iPods with headphones playing musics from their past, they come alive.
Cohen’s story arc is one of struggling to make available iPods and headphones for every resident in every nursing home in the United States, to finding multiple funding sources, appearing on CNN, and more importantly, having a short video of a resident listening to music for the first time in many years seen by millions of people via social media.
And now, of course, Cohen’s arc includes this totally inspiring documentary that not only tells his story. but gives an outline history of how the United States has taken care of and not taken care of the elderly.
Writer/director Michael Rossato-Bennett juxtaposes jaw-dropping, heart-warming clips of elderly people finding aliveness and new meaning in their lives with equally powerful interviews of physicians and others who, on the basis of both their experience and authority, provide solid support for Cohen’s observations and mission.
Alive Inside is a must-see.
An Apology to Elephants is yet another demonstration of the visceral power of film. In thirty-nine short minutes we are struck with images and stories of our abuse, torture, and exploitation of elephants. We are also informed – or reminded – about the many virtuous qualities these intelligent beings possess and manifest, virtues that only serve to amplify the horrors of our treatment of them.
Like almost every film which documents human beings’ mean-spirited, destructive behaviors, this film also shows the efforts of some of us to ameliorate the damaging effects of our behavior. We learn of the Oakland Zoo which lost a keeper to an elephant attack in 1981. The tragedy set the zoo on a path to create a six acre sanctuary for elephants, and to use only positive reinforcement in influencing the elephants to cooperate with their veterinary care.
Then there’s PAWS, Performing Animals Welfare Society, founded by former animal trainer Pat Derby in 1984. It began as a 30 acre sanctuary in Galt, California, and has grown to a 2,300 acre ARK 2000 sanctuary in San Andreas, California. Derby’s love for and empathy with elephants softly explodes on the screen as she passionately presents and speaks of the elephants under her care.
The power of this film to horrify, infuriate, and, hopefully, inspire derives directly from the power of it makers. An Apology to Elephants is executive produced by Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner. Wagner wrote the narration, Tomlin narrated. Prolific, hugely lauded filmmaker Amy Schatz co-produced and directed. It is an HBO production originally cablecast spring of 2013.
Produced, written, and directed by Frieda Mock, Anita: Speaking Truth to Power tells the story of African American Anita Hill who, in the fall of 1991, at a United States Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing on the confirmation of Clarence Thomas as a member of the United States Supreme Court, testified against that confirmation on the basis of her experience of being sexually harassed by him during her employment at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission when Thomas was director of that governmental organization.
The investigating committee consisted of 13 Caucasian men who put Hill on trial, and Thomas’ nomination by President George H.W. Bush was approved. Theodore Kennedy and Joseph Biden were members of this Committee which was driven by unresolved national issues of race, gender, and economic injustice – issues which continue to be unresolved – if not exacerbated since then.
As I watched the scenes of this highly public testimony, I found myself in complete awe of the grace and dignity with which Anita Hill responded to the Committee’s attacking, insulting questions.
Hill became both a national hero and villain. She endured brutal attacks on her integrity and dignity by the committee and many Americans, and lived many years under threats of injury and death.
Mock’s film tells the story of Anita Hill, her trial by fire, and the positive social impact her courage has on the social fabric of the United States.
Hill is Professor of Social Policy, Law, and Women’s Studies at Brandeis University, and a prolific author.
Directed by Jeff Orlowski, Chasing Ice is the best-produced and most important environmental documentary since Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Orlowski tells two stories here: The life and work of celebrated photographer James Balog and the melting of our Earth’s ice caused by massive amounts of man-made carbon dioxide emissions.
Initially a global warming skeptic, Balog brought his finely-honed photographic skills to bear as he created the Extreme Ice Survey, a project which is documenting the melting of ice across our planet.
Balog’s images are as jaw-dropping as are the courage he epitomizes and sacrifices he makes capturing beatific, tragic images of ice and its melting. Orlowski’s cinematic skills mirror Balog’s skills, courage and indomitable spirit, as he covers Balog’s work in treacherous circumstances.
CRUDE is accomplished and prolific filmmaker Joe Berlinger’s coverage of an ongoing, epic struggle for justice of 30,000 Ecuadorians with oil-giant Chevron.
A portion of Ecuador the size of Rhode Island was virtually invaded by Texaco – with complicity of the Ecuadorean government – in 1964.
Decades of environmental destruction of this pristine land ensued. Indigenous people became sick, died, and were forced to abandon their land and culture. Litigation against Texaco (which was subsequently merged into Chevron) began in 1993.
Berlinger’s film covers five years of this struggle for justice. His cameras follow the story across the United States, a brief visit to London, and, of course, Ecuador. Two protagonists emerge: Pablo Fajardo and Steven Donziger. Fajardo grew up in poverty in the Amazon, witnessing the devastation, became a lawyer, and the lead attorney for the 30,000 plaintiffs in their 27 billion dollar suit against Chevron. His personal story is the most dramatic as we follow him from his humble home and grueling work to international environmental stardom.
Donziger is a consulting attorney for the plaintiffs. It is by Donziger’s doing that this film was produced. He approached a skeptical Berlinger, asking him to return to his documentarian roots to make this film. Donziger is the epitome of a street-wise, world-weary altruistic attorney.
Berlinger includes interviews with Chevron spokespeople. In addition to satisfying the fundamental journalistic virtue of presenting two sides to a story, the spokespeople’s utter denial of responsibility heightens the horror and outrage we feel in the light of the Ecuadorians’ suffering and loss.
If this oil giant, awash in hundreds of billions of dollars – or more – of profit is not responsible, who is?
I’m reminded of a verse from The Rolling Stone’s “Sympathy for the Devil”:
“I shouted out,
‘Who killed the Kennedys?’
When after all
It was you and me.”
There is no end to this story. We leave the theater, television, computer, or portable digital device sadder but wiser.
“CRUDE” is the penultimate classic story of people and their environment versus Big Energy.
Initially cablecast by HBO, Earth Made of Glass opens with a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “There is no den in the wide world to hide a rogue. Commit a crime and the earth is made of glass.”
Co-written, co-produced, and directed by Deborah Scranton, the film tells stories of the genocide and its aftermath. The most intimately dramatic is that of Jean Pierre Sagahutu who lost both parents and all seven siblings in the slaughter. He survived by living for more than two months in a septic tank.
The film follows Sagahutu’s deeply committed 15-year search for the murderers, location, and nature of death of his father who was a beloved physician in the region.
Paul Kagame was a high-ranking officer in the forces that eventually triumphed over the on-the-ground perpetrators. He became President of Rwanda, and in 2008 released a report providing evidence of France’s involvement. After that exposé, Rose Kabuye, Kagame’s closest aid, was arrested and detained on a French warrant during a diplomatic mission in Europe – the incident was designed as a distraction from and a recrimination for Kagame’s report.
Kagame presided over a reconciliation between the opposing forces as well as the reinstatement of normal relations between Rwanda and France, under Nicolas Sarkozy’s leadership at the time.
The film concludes with Rwanda in a new balance, and Sagahutu – and the filmmakers – projecting an environment of hope and promise. I’m left concerned about the apparent lack of accountability for France’s involvement – a paucity that permeates the conduct of nations.
But I wonder, what do we do when the whole wide world is a rogue?
Please note that the link below leads to a sales site for the film, but no other information.
It’s happened again, I’ve seen a documentary film that is documentary filmmaking at its finest.
Written, produced, and directed by accomplished documentarian Brad Bernstein, Far Out Isn’t Far Enough presents the life and times of artistic genius Tomi Ungerer. I am as excited by the brilliance of Bernstein’s filmmaking as I am by the raging genius and epic biography of Jean-Thomas “Tomi” Ungerer.
Ungerer tells his story on camera. Bradstein adds interviews along with a lifetime of archival stills and moving images. The fascination is the strife and tragedy Ungerer lived through and was sculpted by in his childhood, the achievements and challenges of his adult life as a prolific artist and writer, and the person he has become as he reflects on his past, lives in his present, and anticipates his future with joy.
The treat, the gratification is the massive amount of Ungerer’s work we see. Additional treats include the Maurice Sendak and Jules Feiffer interviews peppered throughout the film.
Far Out Isn’t Far Enough is beautiful in look, sound, and music. The filmmaker’s heart and soul is clearly infused throughout.
Released in 2012, the First Run Features DVD includes the following special features: Tom Ungerer and Jules Feiffer at The Society of Illustrators, Maurice Sendak Critiques The King’s Speech, Tom Ungerer in Ireland, Deleted Scenes, The Far Out iPad App, and Director’s Commentary.
First of all, I thought the name, ‘Eames,’ in the title referred to some guy who’s really talented and made a name for himself as both an architect and a painter. Note the obvious sexism, of course, in my first thought. Note, also, I never heard or read the name, ‘Eames,’ until I saw the title in an email from First Run Features, the distributor of Eames: The Architect and the Painter. This is why I can’t stop watching documentary films. They keep on saying, ‘Don, where have you been?!’
I learned that Charles and Ray Eames are a legendary couple who created and ran a design studio in Venice, California, for four decades in the mid- to latter-half of the 20th century. Their fame and legend are born of their mutual artesian creativity, the commercial success of their creations, and the global recognition ignited by these creations.
Co-directed by Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey, the film covers both the Eames’s marriage as well as their ascension to design history. Like the Eames’s many works, this documentary is richly crafted. As the film ended I felt like I’d taken a trip to another world, and it took several minutes to come back to mine simply to type these few words.
I’m in awe of Jersey’s and Cohn’s film, and I look forward to learning more about the Eames’s legacy from these websites to links to which are below: Eames Foundation, Eames Office, and Eames Designs.
It was 1954, in Charleston, South Carolina. I was 6 years old. This is the first film I remember seeing at a movie theater.
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’s 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, all as the boat is tossed in the broiling ocean; the whale is swimming as fast as he can to escape the 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.
This animated short was released in 1946, and originally titled “Willie the Operatic Whale”, but is now listed in IMDB.com as “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met”. It was produced by Walt Disney Productions, and distributed by RKO Radio Pictures.
Almost six decades later I am reviewing documentary films many of which are about environmental destruction and efforts to mitigate same. The bad guys are commercial interests, geo-political conflict, apathy, hopelessness, and helplessness. Human over-population as a causal factor is avoided or given lip service. Some day, though, it will get its own documentary, its own ‘Inconvenient Truth’.
In the meantime we have this, Elemental, a well-produced, from-the-heart film documenting the lives and efforts of three environmental activists:
Rajendra Singh champions the clean-up of the massively polluted Ganges River.
Eriel Deranger is a young woman aggressively fighting against Tar Sands oil extraction and the building of pipelines in Canada.
Jay Harmon is a designer and inventor from Australia. He is creating structures which may significantly reduce energy usage – and a device that could quickly address global warming.
Produced and directed by Eriel Deranger and Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee, Elemental deftly weaves the profiles and stories of our three activists throughout the film’s 90-minutes. The production quality – sound, image, music and editing – is very high. Each character, each story is significant enough to merit its own feature documentary. Like most environmental documentaries, the film challenges viewers to examine our responses to environmental devastation, our thoughts and feelings, our responsibilities, our limitations, our helplessness, and our potential to make a difference that we’ve yet to make.
‘Bag it’ refers to the request of someone to put something in a bag. The term also refers to the request of someone to someone else to stop thinking or doing something.
Like most people, but unlike my professed environmental values, I’ve been dragging my feet when it comes to these particular plastic items that so conveniently line my kitchen trash basket, and are so helpful in transporting food items the containers of which may break or leak.
At this same time I’ve discovered director Suzan Beraza’s documentary, bag it. Although the film was released in 2010, four years ago, its information is no less critical – and whatever changes in the statistics about the health and environmental damages of plastics may have occurred in this duration, they are likely exacerbated.
This horrific presence of plastic grocery bags in our world’s environment serves as a springboard to Berzaza’s broader and deeper look at many kinds of plastics in our lives. And, yes, of course, she does reference The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, but (spoiler alert) it’s one of many such patches in our oceans.
But, all is not dark or bleak. Beraza uses the everyman-appeal of folksy Jeb Berrier as he hosts us on a journey around the world telling us the bad news about plastics – as well as the good news of what we can be doing and what we are doing to help solve the problems. Her strategy is effective. Someone knows my resistance to and pain of changing. Okay. Okay. Let me think what I might do.
A festival circuit winner, bag it is still having a strong run, reaching millions of people around the world. The film’s link below lets you know how to see and share it.
On August 12, 2004, New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey appeared on national television, with his wife at his side, and announced he is a ‘gay American’ – and his resignation. This was the death of a political career that had presidential potential.
Directed, produced, and filmed by the prolific Alexandra Pelosi, Fall to Grace tells the deeply moving story of what happened to McGreevey after leaving office and losing that promising career. Pelosi follows him as he studies to become an Episcopal priest, and winds up working on behalf of incarcerated female prisoners.
It is a rare delight to learn of and see such a story, one that deserves the same amount of publicity as the ‘scandal’ that, in effect, perpetrated McGreevey’s personal transformation. Fall to Grace is another one of those films that I want everyone to see and be inspired by.
It’s an emerging documentary genre, Getting Healthy: May I Be Frank, about an overweight unhappy guy, befriended by a small health-conscious team, recreates himself and his life. 9000 Needles, about a remarkably healthy and fit young man who suffers a massive stroke, and who finally finds help at a facility in China.
Joe Cross, our hero in Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead is both overweight and has a serious medical problem to boot – an auto-immune disease that requires 15 milligrams a day of Prednisone. That dosage guarantees long-term adverse side effects.
(Spoiler Alert: I’m giving away plots points in this review – something I rarely do.)
Although his physical challenges are serious, if not dire, Cross is a successful businessman. Facing progressive deterioration of his health, he decides to aggressively address his compromised vitality, and has the financial wherewithal to do so. Cross leaves his Australian home and business for the United States – his “home away from home” – and goes on a physician-supervised 2-month juice fast. He spends 30 days in New York City, and the second 30 days travelling by road from East to West.
Along the way he talks to people everywhere he goes, promoting the virtues of juice fasting. Two of the folks he meets are moved to join him. The first, a woman who suffers from migraines also suffers the juice fast, but finds non-pharmaceutical relief from her debilitating attacks and integrates this change into her life. The second is Phil, a truck driver Cross meets at a truck stop. This is the first person Cross has met in his life who shares his exact diagnosis. Phil, who weighs over 300 pounds, flatly refuses Cross’ help..
About 50 minutes into the film Joe Cross is all better. He’s back home and back at work in Australia, looking fit, living his newly minted lifestyle, off of Prednisone.
Wait! I’m confused. It’s too soon in this movie for our hero to have banished his adversary. Aha! Cross listens to his U.S.-based message service and hears a message from Phil: ‘Help!’
I gotta tell you, this is story-telling at its finest. Life sometimes emulates great screenwriting. Joe Cross immediately flies back to his home away from home, and supports Phil in doing just a 10-day juice fast which quickly leads to a complete life change for Phil Riverstone. He loses a massive amount of weight, becomes active, stops driving trucks, and leads groups at his local health-food store in incorporating juice fasts into their lives.
Joe Cross’ charming personality and Phil Riverstone’s jaw-dropping transformation could not be more inspiring. So, caution, Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead may be good for your health.
Coda: Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead II is on the way.
What a fascinating, intriguing, inspiring character Guy Martin is! He became a master chef at a young age, has maintained his ‘rank’ for many years at France’s Le Grand Véfour, hosts tastings for children at that legendary restaurant to introduce them to fine cuisine, and in spite of all that, he must be somewhat somber at the moment—April, 2011.
The earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster in Japan are haunting him every day. Martin’s been travelling there several times a year to visit Zen gardens, consult with a restaurant in Osaka, and enrich himself in the sensuality and minimalism of Japanese culture. His Japanese associates respect him so much that they published a detailed biography.
At 57 minutes, Lionel Boisseau’s 2008 First Run Features release, Guy Martin: Portrait of a Grand Chef, doesn’t have enough time to provide the quantity of detail typically found in a book. Instead we see and hear our hero at work (in France and Japan), at leisure, reflecting on his life and culinary artistry. And, especially, we see his creations, dishes that beckon the viewer to ravish these gastronomic masterpieces. What the film lacks in published-book quantity, it makes for in terms of information efficiency and visual ecstasy.
Thanks to Martin’s story as told by himself in the film, as well as a narrator supplementing his information, we get a comprehensive outline of Martin’s life. But it is his character, his philosophy, his artist’s nature that is paramount in this profile.
Martin wanted to be a painter. Color is paramount in his aesthetic sense, it drives his culinary creations. One of his closest friends is multi-talented artist Martine Martine; the two dialog about the nature of their respective arts forms. Martin shares how his recipes seem to come to him in a gestalt, all at once—much like a sculpture, painter, or musician may receive their work in a single moment of inspiration.
To state the obvious, it’s best to view this film right before your next meal.
Published on July 11, 1960, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird remains a bestseller. Nearly one million copies sold each year, translated into more than forty languages, Pulitzer Prize, the instant-classic film of the instant-classic book won three Academy Awards. This was Harper Lee’s first and last published book.
For most people of my country and generation To Kill a Mockingbird was one of a handful of books we were required to read in high school English. I was living in the south when I read the book and saw the movie. The civil rights movement was raging, but I only saw faint glimpses of it on television. I was too self-absorbed to pay attention, to respond deeply to the injustices of my world, and, of course, to Harper Lee’s book. However, I did appreciate that the film was that extremely rare movie that was faithful to the book on which is was based.
Mary McDonagh Murphy, the producer, writer, and director of Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird, reminds me a bit of Harper Lee. Like Lee, Murphy’s film is, so far, her only feature documentary.
Murphy utilizes narration, clips of the film, interviews with writers, friends, actors, Lee’s sister, Alice Finch Lee, and many others to tell a story of Harper Lee’s life. Murphy has produced the kind of documentary that is best seen on DVD because the flow of thoughts, stories, and ideas is so rich, one finds oneself pondering on what was just heard whilst the story moves on. Ooops, I missed that. Fast Reverse. Listen again. I missed it again! Can’t stop thinking about it. Fast Reverse again.
Simply put, Hey, Boo is thoroughly engaging from start-to-finish.
This First Run Features release includes additional interviews and a printed interview of the filmmaker. And kudos to Mary McDonagh Murphy for including Closed Captioning—a rare treat for us dedicated viewers of documentary films.
Many documentaries shoot, of necessity, with low budgets, and in cinema vérité – a visual approach used now in countless film and television productions.
And some documentary films are carefully crafted. They may feature distinguished people speaking in distinguished settings with archival material presented in elegant manners. These films are produced with large budgets supporting the fine work of veteran filmmakers.
Herblock is one of these films. But, the look of the film, the quality of its production take a back seat to the vital substance it aims to impart.
Written, produced, and directed by accomplished documentarian Michael Stevens, and presented by HBO, Herblock is a reverential look at the life, times, and character of editorial cartoonist Herbert Block – ‘Herblock’ being a kind of nom de plume he used in each of his cartoons – who drew and wrote for The Washington Post for most of his professional career.
Although I know virtually nothing about the world of editorial cartoons and their creators; and although my exposure to the cartoons has become quite restricted by the shift to electronic displays and away from print media, Stevens’ film has reminded me of what I’m missing, and informed me of the most prolific and influential editorial cartoonist of the twentieth century.
Stevens interviews legendary and contemporary icons of American journalism and broadcasting, historians, editors, publishers, satirists – and a few who knew Block personally. They speak as much about the art and function of editorial cartoons as they do of the man himself.
Stevens’ takes us on a journey through the last seven decades of the twentieth century and Herbert Block’s views of our nation, its people, and, especially, our leaders. Stevens paints a picture of a quietly powerful humanitarian whose life and work deserve all the accolades and attention American society can muster.
As I say repeatedly, I don’t review a film unless I support the film, unless I can recommend it. I passionately recommend this one.
I’m Dangerous with Love accomplishes all that a standard-bearing documentary should. Michel Negroponte‘s film takes us to places we’ve never been, provides information we’ve never known, and tells the Hero’s story of Dimitri Mugianis.
Negroponte takes us to New York and Canada. Yes, I know, plenty of people have been to those places. But have those people been to an illegal ibogaine treatment for a heroin addict? Which addresses my second point: How many people have ever heard of an illegal ibogaine treatment for heroin addiction? My third point deserves a bit more gravity. Dimitri Mugianis.
It’s rare – and serendipitous, for filmmaker and viewer alike – to find a documentary with a narrative which includes an authentic character arc. That’s just what Negroponte captured.
Mugianis: A singer of some kind of rough version of rock. An addict who used heavily for a long time. He found someone who treated his addiction with one treatment with a West African substance called ibogaine. He was liberated from his addiction, but minus the usual heroin withdrawal symptoms.
Mugianis is blessed with the Wounded Healer archetype. By the end of the film our Hero still looks the same, speaks his usual street language, sounds the same, and still sings in his band. But he is truly transformed, and I was truly transfixed.
And, oh yeah, you’re going to Africa.
It is a given that a documentary film that covers the life and work of a legendary, globally-based architect must be produced with quality commensurate with the architect’s work. The filmmakers of How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster have met that criterion in covering the life and accomplishments of Norman Foster.
Foster, the man, is as fascinating as his accomplishments are awesome – in the original sense of that term. He is a cross-country skier, a bicyclist, a pilot of multiple kinds of aircraft, and a survivor of what was predicted to be terminal cancer.
Amongst his many influences is Buckminister Fuller who introduced him to a cornucopia of ideas and approaches. It is Fuller who asked Foster the film’s title question.
I was as utterly entranced by Foster’s designs as I was gratified to see the extent to which he has incorporated environmental values in his life’s work. Near the end of the film he makes a quiet, elegant, passionate call for a much stronger global response to our environmental threats.
“No bad film can be too short,” Roger Ebert pronounced, “and no good film can be too long.” Given Valentin Alvarez’s cinematography, I could have spent hours exploring Foster’s buildings.
His Way opens with a series of quick cuts of famous people sharing observations of legendary Hollywood producer Jerry Weintraub. They sketch a portrait of a man equally noble and ignoble – depending on your perspective and, especially, on which of his two lists you’re on.
Douglas McGrath directs this affectionate look at Weintraub who – with his Jewish background and East Coast dialect – seems to have come right from Central Casting. “Not just as a producer,” George Clooney says, “as a guy, he’s one of the last of his kind.”
It seems like actors of all genders who work with Weintraub, develop the ability to do accurate impressions of the man – as you will hear from Clooney, Damon, and Ellen Barkin. Clooney and Damon tell of the unwritten rule on the set of Ocean’s Eleven that required the A-list cast to provide one practical joke a day on Mr. Weintraub. He took it like a man, they relate.
Utilizing interviews with Weintraub’s brothers and offspring, actors, showbiz professionals, his significant others, as well as the man himself, we learn the story of his life, his massive accomplishments as well as his losses. Weintraub seems to be the embodiment of the phrase ‘indomitable spirit,’ and that’s what we’re left with as the credits roll.
Understanding that Weintraub is a powerful Hollywood guy I imagine he would not approve of, let alone have the vast majority of screen time in a documentary about his life without ‘final cut’. So, my psychologist’s mind is also left wondering ‘what else makes Jerry run?’
In any case, one doesn’t sustain this level of success in Hollywood, have so many A-list actors appear in one’s life story, and project so much authentic happiness without the charm, guts, charisma, business sense, and joie de vivre of Jerry Weintraub.
Winner of the 2000 Oscar for best feature documentary, Into the Arms of Strangers tells of the humanitarian exodus, in 1938-1939, of children from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia to The United Kingdom.
The transport was initiated and supported by the people and government of Great Britain. Ten thousand children were saved by the ‘Kindertransport.’ One million, five hundred thousand children lost their lives in the Holocaust. Most of those saved lost their families.
Written and directed by Mark Jonathan Harris, and produced by Deborah Oppenheimer, the film features interviews of 11 of the saved and several others who participated. Rare archival stills and footage mirror the events as the heroic victims unfold their gut-wrenching stories. The tragedy and triumph of their experiences and the raw courage of those sharing them combine to evoke powerful feelings of sadness, anger, frustration, helplessness, and awe.
The old adage applies: “The map is not the territory.” A film review is not the film. One cannot anticipate how deeply she or he will be touched by Into the Arms of Strangers without sitting down and letting its people, images, and sounds sink in, past our preconceived thoughts and our many defenses.
Produced for television in 2003, A Model for Matisse is a sweet, simple, gratifying story of the friendship between the aging artist and 21-year old nursing student Monique Bourgeois – who eventually became Sister Jacques-Marie.
The two met in Nice, in 1941, when Matisse was recovering from cancer and its treatment, and was in need of “a young and pretty night nurse.” Their friendship lasted the rest of Matisse’s long lifetime.
There’s a fair share of magic to their story. Life circumstances separated them geographically a few times, and providence reunited them. The most dramatic magic is expressed in the creation of Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence (Chapel of the Rosary) which came about through a set of synchronistic events involving the two friends.
The chapel was designed by Matisse who also designed and/or created most – if not all – of its interior and exterior elements. In one way or another each of the barriers to the creation of this chapel were overcome by this aforementioned magic.
This is a film non-French language comprehending viewers will want to view twice. Most of the film’s audio is the voice of Sister Jacques-Marie telling her beautiful story in her beautiful native French. English subtitles appear in white at the bottom of the screen.
They are difficult to follow and, of necessity, distract the viewer’s eye from the visual beauty of the film. This is one of those rare times when I would have preferred an English voice track vis à vis the story-teller’s voice. Given the non-stop beautiful images of southern France, Matisse’s works and workings, and the chapel itself, reading the subtitles is, obviously, quite a sacrifice. A second viewing to appreciate the beautiful images – and, especially, the archival footage of Matisse – is a vital necessity.
Cassie Jaye’s Daddy I Do opens with a close-up of a beautiful young woman sensually painting lipstick on her lips. Stevie Ray Vaughn’s “You Better Leave My Little Girl Alone” smothers the scene with its hot-and-heavy moaning guitar. Cut to a handsome, middle-age, clean shaven man tying his tie. Both are at home, preparing for a ceremony, a Pledge of Purity, to be conducted at a Purity Ball for fathers and daughters. The pledge is hers, of course, a vow of chastity, a promise not to have sex until marriage.
Conceived in 1998, the Purity Ball is a national movement in 48 of these United States, and international in 17 countries. One in six American girls make their pledge of purity, 90% of them break their vow.
Sublimated incestuous impulses aside, Jaye uses this satire-friendly phenomenon as a springboard to her exploration of a variety of topics around adolescent sexual behavior – the core issue being the controversy of comprehensive sex education versus abstinence-only sex education. That controversy, in turn, has several implications the most crucial of which are teen pregnancy, abortion, poverty, and sexual abuse.
For better or for worse, depending on your perspective, Jaye settles that controversy with incontrovertible information that comprehensive sex education – the kind that includes topics of disease and pregnancy prevention – improves a great many parameters of adolescent female health and well-being.
However, more than one billion of tax dollars have been spent on abstinence-only sex education, and – as of the film’s production – we continue to spend tens of millions of dollars annually on this ludicrous, futile attempt at indoctrinating young women and men. Is the motivation behind these spent tax dollars to help teenage girls, or to impose some people’s ideas of religious morality?
Produced by a team of accomplished filmmakers, Kings of Pastry documents, for the first time, the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (MOF) an every-four-years international competition of pastry chefs in Lyon, France.
Although the word ‘competition’ is used, the chefs are not competing with each other. Instead, there are a group of judges who evaluate the chefs’ performances; and all ‘contestants’ who perform up to their high standards are awarded the ultimate prestige of a red, white, and blue collar.
The film follows three of 16 chefs one of whom, Jacquy Pfeiffer, founder of The French Pastry School in Chicago, travels to Lyon for the competition.
The MOF is gruelling, an artificial situation demanding near-super human abilities.
Every aspect of the chefs’ preparation and work is judged. The competition includes the creation of small and large pieces. They vary, of course, in size and qualities, but all are elaborate. There are at least two large pieces –sculptures of sugar and of chocolate. These pieces, by virtue of their size, are much more eleaborate and, especially, delicate. The competition requires the chefs to carry their completed pieces from one place to another. The pieces are so fragile that they may break during this transport; and when they do, we are told, that immediately disqualifies the examinee from the MOF. In addition to everything else the film has to teach, I learned that “humidity is the enemy of sugar.”
Putting 16 people in any kind of pressure cooker makes for drama – high or low, depending on one’s perspective. Imagine an artist given three days to make several paintings with a requirement that the paintings be of specific sizes, content, and media including oil, acrylic, water color, crayon, pencil, air brush, pen, and collage.
Given the strick requirements and high standards of the MOF competition as well as its quadriannual occurance, the filmmakers captured a tremendous amount of the aforementioned drama as well as the fascination of seeing chefs create what to me seemed like nothing less than works of art.
Life According to Sam is an utterly spectacular life-affirming documentary about the ‘aging disease’ called progeria and the life of a child, Sam Berns, who was born with this genetic anomaly.
Produced by the Academy Award- and Emmy Award-winning team of Andrea Nix Fine and Sean Fine, and cablecast by HBO, the film tells two stories – Sam’s story from birth into early adolescence, and the story of his parents, Dr. Leslie Gordon and Dr. Scott Berns, both physicians, who initiated the first clinical trial of the first drug approved to treat progeria.
‘Indomitable’ is too small a word to describe Sam Bern’s spirit which enabled him to fully live every moment of his inspiring life.
At any one time on our planet there are approximately 250 children born dying from progeria. The disease begins to disfigure the afflicted in babyhood, and the average age of death is 13 years old. With a population that small there was virtually no possibility of research funds being spent to find the cause and a treatment – let alone a cure.
Drs. Gordon and Berns changed all that – through an agonizing, unnecessarily slow federally-mandated process.
Sam and his parents are heroes in the true, the literal sense – as are the filmmakers who seemingly became part of the family and part of this years-long story.
This is as much a must-see documentary as I can conceive. Seeing the film just once, Sam Berns lives in my heart.
One more thing: Drs. Berns and Gordon founded the Progeria Research Foundation.
Paper Clips documents the conception and emergence of a Holocaust memorial in Christian-White-Rural-Conservative Tennessee.
The story begins at Whitwell Middle School, in Whitwell, Tennessee – 24 miles northwest of Chattanooga. The film’s central character is Principal Linda Hooper who provides a good portion of the narration. Her on-screen presence is as powerful as any A-list celebrity.
Hooper opens the story by describing the town and its people. Noticing the demographic homogeneity of their small population, Hooper, two faculty members (Assistant Principal David Smith and 8th Grade teacher Sandra Roberts), and the students began, in 1998, an exploration of diversity and tolerance. Smith initially went to a conference, and upon his return suggested studying the Holocaust.
Student Casey Condra, one of a few key figures in the film, relates, “The idea for the paperclips came when a student said, ‘What is six million? I’ve never seen six million.’ Miss Hooper said, ‘Well, neither have I. If you can find something to collect, we’ll try it.’”
The students consulted the Internet and discovered that the paperclip was invented in Norway, and that Norwegians used the paperclip as a symbol during the Holocaust. They wore paperclips on their collars to represent and acknowledge the victims. Any more overt expression of sympathy could lead to jail or execution. The paperclip was their positive analog to the negative requirement of Jews to wear Stars of David.
And so the students and faculty of Whitwell Middle School began to collect paperclips to honor and memorialize Holocaust victims. The project grew, the townspeople became involved, and Whitwell, Tennessee, became the home to the small yet internationally renowned Children’s Holocaust Memorial.
I was raised in the South, experienced my share of anti-Semitism. The idea, the reality that these kids, this community could discover and respond so profoundly to this unspeakably horrific event – light-years from their time and culture – overwhelmed me. Dramatic films and documentaries often times have moments which evoke tears. This is the first film of any kind that had me in tears most of its 84 minutes. You may not respond as I did, but be forewarned!
The film’s website is no longer available, but you can find it from several streaming sites.
Born and raised in New York City, arrested a couple times, maybe more, and with a difficult family background, Matt Weber found meaning and passion with photography – street photography, to be specific – with a film camera rather than digital, and in black and white.
Produced and directed by Dan Wechsler, More Than the Rainbow focuses on Weber’s work as well as that of several of his New York peers including Ralph Gibson, Zoe Strauss, and Eric Kroll, Dave Beckerman, Ben Lifson, and designer Todd Oldham.
A fast-talking, determined photographer, Weber lives a fast-paced life in a fast-paced metropolis.
After going through New York, hearing from the photographers, seeing their work, and learning of Weber’s life, the 80 minute film seems twice that long with so many elements packed into so little time. This is a film to be viewed more than once – especially given the generous amount of still images the viewer may enjoy on their HDTV.
When Louis Malle‘s My Dinner with Andre was released in 1981, the film asked and answered the question: Can two guys talking at dinner make a movie? The answer, of course, was ‘yes.’ I was as surprised as the next guy to find myself enraptured by Wallace Shawn’s and Andre Gregory’s conversation.
Stefan Knüpfer is Steinway and Sons chief technician and ‘Master Tuner’ in Vienna. His work in service to concert pianists approaches the esoteric as the sound of a struck piano key can be broken down into a myriad of dimensions. In this particular world of sound, one man’s metaphysical perception is another man’s ‘Huh?’
As Knüpfer hustles to satisfy the mystifying requirements of his charges, I was reminded of John Cleese’s Basil Fawlty character in the BBC series, “Fawlty Towers”. Knüpfer manages his challenges with a bit more aplomb than Mister Fawlty, but Knüpfer’s ‘you want WHAT?’ is right there, just below the surface.
Directed by Robert Cibis and Lilian Frank, the film’s production quality with its luminous visuals and pure sound mirrors that of Knüpfer’s clients’ performances.
Although I was raised in the American South, I never felt more like what Fran Lebowitz calls a ‘hillbilly’ – her term for New York tourists – until I watched Martin Scorsese’s documentary about this writer/speaker/actor I’d never heard of before seeing this HBO film.
Since Lebowitz was brand new to me, I have no idea if you, dear reader, know her work. In either case, you may thoroughly enjoy spending 75 minutes with Fran Lebowitz as she shares her life and thoughts in intimate conversation, and, of course, as she speaks in public.
In addition to addressing a cornucopia of topics, the film includes a bonus feature: Seeing Lebowitz drive her 1978 Checker Marathon – which she bought new – around town.
Lebowitz reports she was expelled from school, primarily because she would read novels and non-fiction books instead of her assigned books. Being self-taught is fully congruent with the personality we quickly discover in Scorsese’s film. Lebowitz steadfastly considers herself to be the ultimate arbiter on virtually any topic. So, it makes perfect sense when we suddenly see clips of her performing as a judge in television’s “Law and Order”. Her judgments about art, writing, race, Manhattan, gender, children, society, politics, and any other topic that may come up in discourse are absolute.
Public Speaking includes a hodgepodge of clips and stills relevant to Lebowitz, her life, and her adopted home town of Manhattan. Whether you view Scorsese’s film on HBO or DVD, you may want to turn your Closed Captioning on. Like the film’s director, Lebowitz speaks mighty fast for a Georgia boy to follow.
With exquisite cinematography, Queen of the Sun tells us about and shows us the magnificent virtues of honeybees, our destruction of them, and the attempts by many noble members of our species to save them.
More than once the film refers to the accurate prediction by Rudolf Steiner, in 1923, of what is now known as “Colony Collapse Disorder”. Bee authorities around the world document the human environmental practices that are destroying the colonies, and, in turn, threatening our increasingly fragile mass food production systems. And when there is a failure of anything that is ‘mass,’ the effects, of course, are also mass.
Like virtually every documentary covering food production and distribution, we learn of the domino-style damaging results of monoculture – growing only one crop over very large acreages, over long periods of time.
But all is not lost, of course. There’s a global movement to save honeybees, save the colonies, and save ourselves. Several of the interviewees tell, with utter humility and deep reverence, of their ‘biodynamic’ beekeeping methods. We learn of the growing number of backyard and rooftop beekeepers in cities and suburbs around the world. We observe a successful citizens initiative to legalize beekeeping in New York City.
Viewed via a Blu-ray player, Queen of the Sun is particularly beautiful.
Narrated by Forest Whitaker, Rising from Ashes is a story of reconciliation – the creation of the first Rwandan National Cycling Team. The film follows the team’s six years of training and development concluding with their ‘riders’ competing in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
There’s another story – that of Jock Boyer. His is one of redemption. Boyer is a legendary rider who ran into trouble with the law, did some time, and came out a somewhat humbled man. Perhaps he didn’t know how much he changed until he took on the job of training the Rwandan team.
Boyer became a father figure to these young men who had access only to junk bicycles. Other trainers had come and gone. Their departure was poignantly painful for these riders in light of the lack of father figures in this nation devastated by years of genocide.
Boyer recognize both the passion and the pain his riders brought to their sport. He made the challenging, graceful decision to remain with the team. In doing so he became part of Rwanda’s modern history.
The film’s last shot shows a Rwandan rider crossing a London finish line, and it’s a bit confusing. The team did not win a metal that year, but the value and significance of what they did win simply by making it into the Olympics is immeasurable.
The film’s cardboard case includes the following statement:
“Due to the success of the film, the Rising From Ashes Foundation was formed to support reconciliation and conflict resolution efforts using the bicycle.”
Initially presented by HBO, first-time feature director Matthew Akers’ Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present is a broad biographical outline of the legendary performance artist.
The impetus for the production was a 40-year retrospective of Abramovic’s work at The Museum of Modern Art, in 2010, in New York. The three-month exhibition included a new piece called “The Artist Is Present”. During all open hours of every open day of the museum the artist sits silently still in a chair while museum attendees sit, one at a time, in a chair a few feet across from her.
As is usual with many of the documentary films I see, I never heard of Marina Abramovic, and I know next-to-nothing about the film’s world – performance art – other than a few clips of Laurie Anderson back in the day, and most of these were stylized music videos.
I wouldn’t dare say I now know about performance art, but I can say I know about Abramovic. Her performances, her life, and her thoughts about them evoked a plethora of feelings and conditions in me: Fascination, compassion, gratitude, wonderment, horror, and fear. I was left with a desire to tell the world about this dedicated artist. But of all these feelings, the dominant one is gratitude for Marina Abramovic’s courage and tenacity to express her provocative art, to share her fundamental humanity with the world.
I place this one on my AMS list – absolute must-see.
The film is distributed by http://www.musicboxfilms.com/
ART SY’s Abramović Page: https://www.artsy.net/artist/marina-abramovic-1
Produced by Mick Jagger – who also appears in this HBO documentary – and directed by the well-lauded Alex Gibney, Mr. Dynamite tells James Brown’s story from his birth in South Carolina, through the early loss of his parents, his impoverished childhood, years of imprisonment for stealing clothes out of a car, into his professional career as a performer.
With support from the James Brown estate, the filmmakers have filled the two hours of this documentary with the icon’s intense performances, the evolution of his style, and placed all of that in the context of the history of the civil rights movement beginning in the 1950s. Brown became a powerful activist in that movement. His activism took a right-hand turn when he supported Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign against Hubert Humphrey.
The film is haunted by its own strategy of focusing on the rise. Like “Thelma and Louise” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, we are denied the fall, and, of course, left pondering it.
Expertly produced, “Mr. Dynamite” documents a legendary performer’s professional life as well as his lasting influence on the world’s popular music.
If there was an Academy Award category for best culinary documentary film – which there should be – The Raw and the Cooked would be a winner.
Prolific, if not legendary, documentary filmmaker Monica Treut, tours Taiwan, filming and enjoying a great variety of cuisine – their dishes’ preparation, presentation, and consumption. Her cinematography is utterly sensational. The people she meets – growers, distributors, restaurateurs, chefs, and hosts – charming.
Along the way Treut introduces viewers to several of the nation’s sub-cultures, their histories, and their respective culinary traditions. She briefly explores issues of organic foods, urbanization, pollution, and nuclear waste.
I added Treut’s tour of Taiwan to my ‘bucket list.’
Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel introduced me to this expression: No bad movie can be too short, and no good movie can be too long. Truet’s film is so engaging, I could have taken… twice as much.
Breath Made Visible is a documentary film about dancer Anna Halprin.
I am biased. I have a tangential relationship with this documentary’s subject.
I moved to San Francisco in 1975, right in the middle of the human potential movement’s heyday. There were as many groups and methods of self-improvement and spiritual realization then as there are social networking websites now. Anna’s Dancers Workshop was one of my few groups.
I attended Dancers Workshop small groups and large public offerings – including a dance of several miles starting at Twin Peaks at dawn, through the City, ending at Justin Herman Plaza along The Embarcadero.
Anna also lives in my county, and I’ve met our local and international legend a few times shopping at Woodlands Market in Kentfield.
As much as possible I attempt to view all works of art through my own eyes – separating out what others say or have said about it. And in this case, that includes me. That is, I pretended I didn’t know Anna, and viewed her documentary as such. I breathed a sigh of relief at discovering Breath Made Visible is an excellent portrait of the woman, a comprehensive outline of her rich life, and perfect introduction to her approach to dance.
It seems as if there are two primary phases to Anna’s life with dance – her development and work as a professional dancer followed by her emergence as a dance teacher, philosopher, and leader. Her professional life took Anna around the world, performing dances that could be called avant-garde or experimental – breaking performance conventions. Propelled, in part, by her husband Lawrence Halprin, Anna immigrated west, settling down in Marin County, and doing her work in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Produced and directed by Swiss filmmaker Ruedi Gerber, Breath Made Visible is full of Anna, her life, her thoughts, her family, her work, her passions, and plenty of dance performances – all gracefully woven together by Gerber.
My favorite dialog in the movie is:
Int, Day. Large, bright, open public space. People are moving through it. Anna is directing them. She notices and walks up to a man watching the performance.
We’re giving a performance. This is Anna Halprin’s group. We’re doing this amongst the audience, before they go in.
I’ve heard of Anna Halprin, but I haven’t seen any of her works.
I’m Anna Halprin.
Oh, you are!
(They shake hands.)
You’re… they said she was real old.
I am real old. I’m 86.
Damn, you don’t look 86.
Well, I am.
I guess it shows what dancing does.
I guess so. (She laughs.)
Anna was born in 1920, and she is still very much with us.
Ferlinghetti is a whirlwind romp through the life and times of legend-in-his-lifetime Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Most often connected with the 1950s birth of the ‘beat generation,’ the man rises above and beyond any one biographical reference.
Ferlinghetti is an accomplished poet, painter, writer, publisher, political activist, cultural catalyst, and… with just a few of his written and uttered words presented in this 79 minute documentary, we learn he possesses an uncommon depth of wisdom.
San Francisco Bay Area filmmaker Christopher Felver does a masterful job presenting an outline of Ferlinghetti’s biography, interviews with peers, and covering the many chapters of 20th century cultural history Ferlinghetti affected – and continues to affect.
The man himself appears speaking to groups of people, performing his poetry, and addressing camera. Felver’s film is so rich in imagery and ideas, history and culture it virtually demands to be seen more than once. But in seeing it just once, Lawrence Ferlinghetti will enter your heart for life.
Released in 2010, Ferlinghetti was picked up for distribution by First Run Features in 2012. The dates don’t matter. This is a timeless story about an unforgettable character whose significant can only grow in the countless years ahead.
The DVD includes a bonus feature of Ferlinghetti reading his poem, “The History of the Airplane”.
Written, directed, and edited by veteran documentary editor Suzanne Rostock, Sing Your Song answers the question: Why is there a documentary about Harry Belafonte? At least that was my question.
All I knew about Harry Belafonte was the Banana Boat song from the early 60s, and that I occasionally saw him on cable news channels commenting on current affairs. I always wondered why he was talking. As I’ve written before, you take your self-esteem into your own hands when you chose to watch documentaries. This one left me wondering, as so many other films have, ‘Where have I been?!’
Sing Your Song is Rostock’s first directorial project, and she’s produced a masterpiece, an instant classic. She tells the stories of Belafonte’s personal, professional, and political activist lives. In doing so she covers iconic events in the human rights movements, covering the last half of the twentieth century into the twenty-first.
Belafonte tells his own story through narration and directly to camera. Rostock includes interviews with family, celebrities, and socio-political leaders. She utilizes a vast amount of archival footage as well as Belafonte’s earliest recorded television and film performances. Minute-by-minute Rostock paints an inspiring portrait of an inspired man who’s made an immeasurable contribution to our world.
It’s not my issue. Hunger. My issue is human over-population. Solve that one – humanely – and a gazillion other human and environmental maladies get solved with it.
But there I was, in a studio, at some pubic access-type television building, in downtown Santa Cruz, California, seeing what is probably the most powerful single cinematic statement on hunger in the history of humankind. Written and directed by Neil Hollander, performed by someone I’d never heard of, Henry Rollins, with writing contributed by Regine Michel, Julian Phelan, and Henry Rollins. Hollander was with us.
H for Hunger is a 90 minute monologue brilliantly performed by Rollins. With images from the worlds of hunger, starvation, eating, engorging, politics, history and farming in the background and foreground, Rollins performs the film’s script as the voice of a starving person who, otherwise, would not be able to speak. Outrage is the operative word here, and the risk Hollander takes is to make his statement monotonous – uninterrupted anger, outrage, and disgust.
I found myself deeply impressed by the number and variety of issues around world hunger Hollander covers; and, as previously stated, awestruck at Rollins’ performance.
I can understand anyone not wanting to expose themselves to this shotgun documentary. If you have a beating heart, chances are you’ll feel pummeled. Although I walked out of the studio feeling beat-up, I was grateful to have seen the movie. And whether or not anyone wants to expose themselves to this nonstop horror show, Neil Hollander’s H for Hunger deserves to be seen. Fact of the matter is our world is a non-stop horror show.
Coda: After the viewing the film I noticed more than one person addressing Hollander, kvetching that his film doesn’t tell the viewer what to do about hunger. First, that’s not entirely true – for Hollander places the dots very close to each other, they’re easy to connect. More importantly, though, to wonder what one is supposed to do about world hunger after seeing this movie signals the viewer as having received Hollander’s statement, but still self-protected by layers defensiveness to simply getting this horrific reality, to getting we’re all responsible, and to getting that this responsibility includes using our own mental, physical, and spiritual resources to answer the question of ‘What-to-do?’ ourselves.
H for Hunger is available for streaming from a variety of online services.
Jane Goodall opens this documentary about herself and her work with this story:
And I would say, ‘Well, you saw that movie?’
‘You remember, the lady was killed?’
‘Well, here I am.'”
Written and directed by Lorenz Knauer, beautifully photographed, and with great sound, Jane’s Journey provides a broad outline of Jane Goodall’s life as well as an introduction to her work—as of the film’s production.
I’m not far from those people who confused Goodall with Sigourney Weaver’s Diane Fossey. Goodall to me was nothing more or less than a famous naturist who studied chimpanzees.
Viewing Knauer’s film, I embarrassingly learned she’s a globally recognized champion of our environment, all wildlife, and even us humans who are in the midst of destroying our ecosphere. As of the film’s production, the 77 year-old-and-going-strong Goodall is a hard-working advocate of hope in the midst of our seemingly ceaseless destructive behavior, with a special focus on children who are our only hope for saving ourselves and our world—from ourselves.
People of the Feather is one of the best reviewed and has received the most accolades of any documentary film I’ve seen in the last few years. Joel Heath’s documentary observes the Inuit people of the Belcher Islands, in Canada’s Hudson Bay, and their gorgeous, endangered environment.
With sensational cinematography, the film observes the land, water, seasons, and the people of this far-north region. Crucial to the people’s lives are eider ducks which sport the warmest down in the world. The ducks and the water ecology of the region are threatened by untimely, controlled fresh water runoffs from damned rivers. Consequently, People of the Feather is more than a nature or anthropological film. It’s also a call to action to save the millennial long relationship these Inuit people have with their land, water and seasons.
Heath provides glimpses of the people’s lives now as well as reenactments of their lives before technology and development. His coverage includes the killing and slaughter of an eider duck and a seal. The seal is slaughtered at the kill site, and its raw liver is shared amongst the men present.
Viewer discretion warning notwithstanding, People of the Feather is a beautiful, touching, haunting film which tells the sadly-classic story of the conflict between indigenous humans and human population growth, technology, and human-generated climate change in a captivating new way.
Every three seconds a human being dies of hunger.
Daniel G. Karslake’s film, Every Three Seconds, addresses that global horror as well as extreme poverty.
1) Charlie Simpson, seven years old at the time, raised US$240,000. for Haitian earthquake relief.
2) Josh Nesbit developed a specialized cell phone texting program for a region of Africa where access to healthcare was previously onerous to impossible.
3) Lisa Shannon initiated an international movement, Run for Congo Women, to address the many years of oppression, assault, rape, torture, maiming and killing of women in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
4) Ingrid Munro took microfinance into higher realms by creating an institution that serves 170,000 members in Kenya. I found this story the most amazing – deserving of its own feature documentary.
5) Gloria Henderson organized a ‘gleaning’ program in North Carolina. Gleaning refers to the searching for and utilization of produce which has been abandoned.
Karslake weaves these five stories throughout Every Three Seconds which was produced with high production values. And, it is that rare documentary film with available subtitles.
It would take a heart of glass to not be deeply moved by any one of these individuals and the positive difference each has made in our world. The synergistic impact of the five interlaced stories is undeniable.
The point, of course, is that most of us humans are ‘ordinary,’ and despite or because of our ordinariness, it’s our call to make a difference.
Like many documentary films of its ilk, the website associated with Every Three Seconds is integral to the experience of the film.
“There are billions and billions of dollars worth of diseases out there!”
It was a couple decades ago, on the NBC Nightly News that I heard the above quote, one of their occasional pieces on the unendingly rising costs of pharmaceuticals. If only I had a recording of it!
My ears and brain struggled with the ‘did-I-just-hear-that?!’ question. I cannot think of any better single high-profile representation of the world-view that human disease is to be economically exploited than this enthusiastic pharmaceutical industry spokesperson’s exclamation.
But little did I know that eventually cancer, cardio-vascular disease, the many auto-immune diseases – including the killers – and all the colds and flues were not enough to feed this apparently infinite greed. The vampire-like industry wanted more. Thus began disease creation – if not in the laboratory, definitely in the health profession’s and public’s minds.
Liz Canner’s Orgasm, Inc. introduces us to the one of the latest composed diseases: Female Sexual Dysfunction (FSD). Canner tells stories of people working hard to create and treat the disease, as well those fighting this dehumanizing and damaging initiative. Hundreds of billions of dollars and the welfare of countless women are at stake in this war between people and the medical-industrial complex.
Aside from Canner herself, the most dramatic hero is Leonore Tiefer, Ph.D., a sex therapist and professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine, who’s created an organization to fight the medicalization of sex via her New View Campaign, and has published a book entitled A New View of Women’s Sexual Problems. Tiefer figures prominently in the climatic scene of an FDA advisory panel hearing on a Procter & Gamble application for an FSD treatment.
Canner also covers the emergence of cosmetic female genital mutilation – with the magnificent euphemistic label of ‘vaginal rejuvenation.’ There are over 300 clinics around the world providing this service – and their clients include teenagers.
If you find it hard to subscribe to the idea that 43% of American women have a disease called Female Sexual Dysfunction and are, therefore, in need of medical treatment, and if you want to make a difference, rent or buy Orgasm, Inc. I’m sure you’ll find yourself sharing it with your friends.
Oh, and by the way, if you thought the Orgasmatron was just a figment of Woody Allen’s imagination we experienced in his classic Sleeper, you’ve got another thing comin’.
Louder Than a Bomb covers the annual Chicago High Schools-based “Poetry Slam” called, of course, Louder Than a Bomb.
Produced and directed by Jon Siskel and Greg Jacobs, the film follows four teams and four individuals—Adam, Lamar, Nate, and Nova—in the eighth year (2008) of the competition in which 46 teams participated.
In one fell swoop we learn about “the world’s largest youth poetry slam,” get to know these four competitors through interviews, hang out in meetings and rehearsals with the competing students, teams and their coaches, and, most dramatically, see and hear a few of the students’ performances in competition.
Except for one gray-area usage involving the last names of the United States’ President and Vice President during the years 2001-2009, there is no profanity used in the competition’s performances. This requirement adds an additional challenge to the writing and performing. Although I have nothing against profanity, this restriction catalyzes more powerful writing and performing. Also note that the students talk fast; and with music and other background sounds complicating matters, I hope you see the film with subtitles or Closed Captioning.
I was brought to tears several times throughout this film as I experienced the featured performers at home, in interview, and in competition.
Louder Than a Bomb is a selection of the “OWN Documentary Club”.
Additional performances are available on the film’s website.
Private Violence is a well-produced documentary about domestic violence in the United States. The statistics on this type of violence – which is primarily perpetrated against women – and the occasional flurry of national news headlines are chronically horrifying.
Produced and directed by Cynthia Hill, and premiering October 20, 2014, on HBO, Private Violence follows the advocacy work of abuse survivor Kit Gruelle as she works with Deanna who is seeking safety from and justice for the violent acts of her ex-husband. Hill effectively captures the intimacy of the deep and wide emotional arc Deanna must traverse in order to realize that safety and justice.
Eschewing a mountain of statistics, Hill makes visceral the nature of domestic abuse, of violence against women. She’s told a story that inscribes itself in our memory, and introduces two compelling characters finding the heroic in their ordinariness.
Directed, edited, and shot by Nicola Bellucci, In the Garden of Sounds tells the story and demonstrates the work of music and sound therapist Wolfgang Fasser who became blind at an early age.
Fasser’s initial professional work was as a traditional psychotherapist. In a crisis of conscience he took a radical departure choosing, instead, to use his experience and understanding of sound and music in service to developmentally challenged children – including those with severe brain damage.
Bellucci’s camera and microphone follow Fasser in his professional work with children and in his personal life. His work with children is inspiring and heart-wrenching.
Fasser is that rare individual with the ability and, especially, the courage to connect with children, allowing them to take the lead in their own healing and growth. Away from his studio Fasser is alone, in the countryside, listening to and recording sounds, enjoying the company of his canine companion. We also follow Fasser in his walks through town and in conversation with townsfolk many of whom ask him for his help with their health challenges. And we spend some time with a music group with whom he performs.
Bellucci’s images and sounds are of high quality, beatific and clear. The character he’s captured reminds us of the kind of giving, caring person we can be if only we chose.
The First Run Feature’s DVD includes: “Travels with Wolfgang”, Bellucci’s biography, and a comprehensive Resource Guide for parents and teachers.
The 90-minute film is in color, the dialog is in Italian and German with English subtitles.
First Reaction to Press Release: ‘Hmm. This is a documentary about a pageant for disabled little girls. A pageant. Pageants highlight the most superficial aspect of our humanity, and ignore character. But this one’s for and about disabled little girls. It won’t be easy to stomach this, but I’ll check it out.’
And then I watched the movie—in tears the whole time.
The pageant was founded in 2004 by Abbey Curran who was diagnosed at the age of two with cerebral palsy. As a young girl, Curran submitted herself to beauty pageants year in and year out; winning the Miss Iowa pageant in 2008. She became with first woman with disabilities to compete in the Miss USA Pageant®.
Davis features Curran, interviews parents and volunteers, and follows eight of the 37 participants. He captures joy and heartbreak and hope and inspiration, telling many stories of love and courage. At the end of this film we are left stunned and moved, compelled to reflect on ourselves and our world. This is documentary filmmaking at its finest.
What’s the deal with string quartets? I’ll be the first one to admit I’m a philistine, but I’m smart enough to know it’d take a book to answer that question.
I ask it, though, because Allan Miller’s Speak the Music is the fourth film I’ve seen in a short period of time about string quartets. I’ll take advice from the film’s subtitle above and just let the answer to my question remain a ‘mystery.’
Robert Mann is a violinist. He was born in 1920. As I watched Miller’s hour-long profile of Mann’s life and times I kept thinking about From Mao to Mozart which is one of those films that impressed me for life.
There are too many ‘Allan Millers’ in IMDB, so I had to search around and finally found his site.
Ah! Miller won an Oscar for From Mao to Mozart, his film of Isaac Stern’s tour of the then just-opened China. Miller has an impressive filmography of documentary films about music.
Robert Mann didn’t practice his violin—he preferred reading science fiction. And when he did perform, he had no idea what he was doing—specifically what impact he was having on his listeners. He learned quickly, though, that he was moving them emotionally, that he was infusing emotion into his playing.
He also knew he didn’t have the talent to be a great solo violinist, and that potentially sad insight birthed the world’s boon. Mann devoted his life to string quartets.
Mann’s focus is on ensuring that players are playing the emotion of, and the story of the music. This point is made frequently throughout the film.
Mann was a founding member of, and first violinist in the Julliard String Quartet for 52 years. He is a legend in that world having influenced the evolution of string quartet performance, having influenced the formation of quartets, and mentoring their development.
Miller interviews Mann, many in the music world speaking of his work, and Mann’s family. He also presents Mann at work coaching string quartets. And, of course, there’s plenty of music.
I surrender, I’m off to listen to some string quartets.
The Act of Killing focuses on the 1965 genocide in Indonesia.
The film’s introductory text states:
“In 1965, the Indonesian government was overthrown by the military. Anybody opposed to the military dictatorship could be accused of being a ‘communist’—union members, landless farmers, intellectuals, and the ethnic Chinese.
“In less than a year and with the direct aid of western governments, over one million ‘communists’ were murdered.
“The army used paramilitaries and gangsters to carry out the killings. These men have been in power—and have persecuted their opponents—ever since. When we met these killers, they proudly told us about what they did.
“To understand why, we asked them to create scenes about the killings in whatever ways they wished.”
What follows this text is two hours of unrepentant mass killers speaking of their past glory, and reenacting their killings—for film, with the documentary filmmakers’ production help.
I confess: I don’t fully understand how or why killers recreating killings provides or enhances our understanding of killers. I do know seeing and hearing these men speak of their actions and acting out the scenes of these murders is an horrific experience, a vision of human beings at their cruelest.
I’ve written in the past of my North Carolina friend telling me of her word for documentary films—‘medicine movies.’ This is one of the hardest-to-swallow medicine movies I’ve seen.
Two of the three principal ‘players’ in the film share the pride and joy of their murderous pasts and current status as feared-and-revered political operatives. The third killer participates fully, but is clearly struggling with guilt.
I highly recommend this film with the not-surprising caveat, ‘buyer beware.’ I’m haunted by a few movies and documentary films. The Act of Killing instantly joined this small group.
I’m in awe of the filmmakers—their courage in making themselves vulnerable to this world of genocide and the dangers they faced in the film’s extensive research and production.
I’m not at all surprised that The Act of Killing made it on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences 2013 ‘short list’ of 15 documentary feature films from which the five nominated films were culled. As I watched the film I found it very hard to imagine seeing it nominated. Concurrently, I found it very hard it to imagine not seeing it nominated.
And let’s not forget the not-so-sub subtext: Western governments supported this genocide. All for the sake of profit.