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
Ross Taylor and Luke Rafferty have made the best possible feature documentary about in-home pet euthanasia. Until watching their documentary, I did not know that was even an option, let alone how widely available it has become.
Likely, many people do not know about it. Hopefully, more will learn about in-home pet euthanasia now that the two gentlemen have produced The Hardest Day.
The film covers several families who chose this more compassionate way of saying good bye. We are with these families and their veterinarians as they conduct the procedure at home, with family members participating. Taylor and Rafferty interview a few advocates of in-home euthanasia one of whom is Dr. Dani McVety-Leinen, CEO and Founder of Lap of Love—a nationwide resource that helps individuals and families find and utilize veterinarians to perform this noble service.
According to CNBC journalist Lorie Konish “A new survey from TD Ameritrade finds that 33% of Americans have considered fostering or adopting a furry friend now that social distancing is the norm. Across generations, that rate is highest for millennials, who came in at 50%, versus Gen X, at 33%, and baby boomers, 25%.” And according to The Washington Post, dog adoptions and sales have soared during the pandemic. This is all to say that even more people are going to face saying goodbye to their pet.
Having to put down my suffering cat at a clinic a few years ago, I can say with experience that in-home euthanasia is much, much preferable. I would be very remiss, though, if I did not state the obvious: Losing a pet means tears, many tears. Even the highly experienced Dr. Dani teared up during her interview. Unless you have a heart of glass, you, too, will tear up viewing The Hardest Day. This is a measure of how well the filmmakers have crafted their film, and how much they care for pets and their human companions.
Stay in touch with the film’s Website for information on how you can see the film.
Entangled is a masterfully crafted documentary film directed by David Abel, and edited and co-produced by Andy Laub. Both gentlemen are vastly multi-talented and highly accomplished. Their film covers a classic conflict between environmental values and commercial concerns.
The North Atlantic Right whale is on the verge of extinction. Fishing lines, ropes and ship strikes are the primary culprits. Further exacerbating this environmental tragedy are changes in the whales’ available food sources. As I write, there are approximately 350 Right whales in existence, with about 85 reproductive females left.
Passions flare on both sides. Fishing interests are facing existential economic losses, while the Earth faces the loss of another rare and noble species. The film gives both sides equal time in making their respective cases.
Of the obstacles to saving Right whales, vertical fishing lines cause the most deaths. As I watched the film I thought, ‘there’s gotta be a technological solution, a way to have ropeless commercial fishing.’ Near film’s end it is revealed and demonstrated that a workable solution has been designed and created. It will cost, of course, but, if the Federal government can subsidize very large industries, it could subsidize the implementation of ropeless fishing systems.
Entangled is another crucial environmental film that deserves a very large audience. In addition to seeing the film, I encourage viewers to access the website—especially the link to Right Whale News.
You may find the film Here
Filmed in Kenya, Africa, at the Tsavo East National Park and the Greater Amboseli Tsavo Ecosystem, The Elephant Queen follows a herd of elephants through a season of drought and rain, births and deaths. Athena, the story’s Queen, is the 50-year-old sole leader of the herd.
Directed by the highly accomplished and lauded team of Victoria Stone and Mark Deeble, the film tells Athena’s story with light-hearted humor, yet do not exclude the tragedies embedded in the story. The filmmakers’ 25 years of living in the East African bush prepared the two to film this epic odyssey.
Chiwetel Ejiofor narrates the story, and Alex Heffes provides the music.
An Apple+ TV release, The Elephant Queen is another reminder of humanity’s neglect of the natural world, and of the nobility of the natural world. The film tells a story everyone should see.
The film is available in at least 46 languages, and features AD (Audio Description) for the blind or those with low vision.
Finding Courage is Kay Rubacek’s first feature documentary. Although first, the film is clearly the work of a seasoned professional.
In 1999, the Chinese Communist Party ordered the eradication of a meditation practice called Falun Gong or Falun Dafa. People in China are disallowed to talk about this practice. Since that gag order, the Communist Party has carried out more than 50 persecution campaigns against Falun Gong—detaining, torturing, and killing countless numbers of Chinese citizens. How many deaths attributable to the nation’s actions will never be known, but the death count is likely in the tens of thousands—possibly more. Then, of course, it is also not publicly known how many Chinese citizens have been or are currently imprisoned and/or tortured.
Rubacek’s film covers China’s unending, apparently successful attempts to quash the spiritual practice of Falun Gong (a.k.a. Falun Dafa) in that nation. Rubacek interviews several Chinese expatriate officials, yet the overarching story is told by Yifei Wang, a former journalist for the Chinese Communist Party. Wang tells her personal story, the story of China’s persecutions, and the intimate family tragedy of Wang’s sister, Kefei Wang, who was tortured and killed for refusing to stop her Falun Gong practice and allegiance.
Yifei wanted closure of the tragic loss of her sister. The film covers Yifei’s attempts to at least recover her sister’s body. She and others made a daring attempt to do so—at great peril to all concerned. After many efforts Yifei and her team were at least allowed to see Kefei’s body, and they also snuck in pictures of Kefie.
Yifei’s activism is nonstop, and she eventually brought herself and a large group of Falun Gong practitioners to a rally she presided over at the United States Capitol Grounds on a bright, sunny day.
China has the largest population of people in the world. Its government is an autocracy. The nation’s economic boon is attributed to the United States and many other nations utilizing China’s labor force for manufacturing. That boon has allowed the nation to widely expand its infrastructures, develop a space program, and vastly increase its military—including, of course, nuclear weapons. With respect to China, the word, ‘Communist’ has no significant meaning to yours truly. Their citizens have been hypnotized by the material wealth now available to these citizens. These same citizens are also subject to massive security efforts protecting the government from any citizen activism that threatens the current deeply entrenched regime—which is all to say it would likely take a global catastrophe to shake off this government’s golden stranglehold on its people.
Yet, as Rubacek has demonstrated, there are nonstop efforts to change the status quo in the upper echelons of China’s government. Irrespective of the chances to see significant reform towards citizen rights, this is the definitive ‘good fight.’
Produced and distributed by Swoop Films, Finding Courage is the winner of at least 7 film festivals, and was an ‘Official Selection’ of 20 film festivals. Viewers may find the film at the Swoop Films website.
(Pictured: Yifei Wang)
I just viewed First Run Features 2K HD restoration of the 1983 documentary, Dark Circle—about nuclear power.
This is not a review, rather it is a notice about the restored version and how imperative it is for us to remind ourselves of the non-stop apocalyptic realities of nuclear power.
The film was written and directed by Chris Beaver and Judy Irving, and narrated by Judy Irving.
It will begin streaming March 30, 2021.
Below are notes about the film from First Run Features, a review from the legendary Roger Ebert, filmmakers statement, awards and festivals, and the film’s Wikipedia site.
First Run Features presents the Streaming Premiere of the 1983 Sundance Grand Prize Winner for Documentary, ‘Dark Circle’, beginning March 30, 2021.
It’s been 75 years since the start of the Atomic Age, with the U.S. nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killing hundreds of thousands of civilians, but its trail of destruction has never ended.
‘Dark Circle’ covers both the period’s beginnings and its aftermath, providing a scientific primer on the catastrophic power of nuclear energy while also relating tragic human stories detailing the devastating toll radioactive toxicity has taken on people and livestock – focusing in large part on Rocky Flats, Colorado, whose plutonium trigger facility infamously contaminated the surrounding area.
Academy shortlisted for Best Documentary and a National Emmy winner, ‘Dark Circle’ is no less potent today than it was 40 years ago. The new 2K HD Restoration done at FotoKem was assisted by the Academy Film Archive and supervised by co-director Judy Irving.
‘Dark Circle’ is one of the most horrifying films I’ve seen, and also sometimes one of the funniest (if you can laugh at the same things in real life that you found amusing in Dr. Strangelove). Using powers granted by the Freedom of Information Act, and sleuthing that turned up government film the government didn’t even know it had, the producers of this film have created a mosaic of the Atomic Age. It is a tribute to the power of the material, and to the relentless digging of the filmmakers, that the movie is completely riveting.”
Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
by Co-Director Judy Irving
When I set out to make a personal film about the impact of nuclear weapons and power on ordinary people, I had no idea that the movie would create such a ruckus, or that it would still be so relevant 39 years after its release. My aim was to point the camera away from experts and politicians, and find stories about how plutonium is affecting us, even in the absence of a nuclear war. Those effects are not only physical, but psychological and spiritual as well. Having grown up under this nuclear cloud, I wanted to show how nuclear power and weapons are in fact the same industry, despite government propaganda that urges us to see them as separate.
Part of understanding this industry required that we travel to Japan to film interviews with survivors of the atomic bombings. We were astonished to discover that we were the first American film crew to do so. American writers and still photographers had been to Hiroshima and Nagasaki before us, but no documentary film crew until we arrived in 1979. To me, this spoke volumes about how much guilt and denial we bring to the issue.
After its theatrical release, ‘Dark Circle’ was accepted for a national broadcast on public television, but then PBS gatekeepers broke the contract. Claiming we were not objective, they insisted that we cut a sequence in which we name the corporations that build the hydrogen bomb, such as General Electric, whose slogan is, ironically, “We bring good things to life.” Many of these corporations are PBS underwriters. We refused to cut the Arms Convention sequence and fought the obvious censorship. It took seven years before PBS finally created a new series, “POV,” to showcase films with a strong point of view, and when ‘Dark Circle’ was broadcast it won a National News & Documentary Emmy – for PBS!
Flash forward three decades: with nuclear stockpiles growing, missile accidents in the news, and nine nuclear states including China flexing their powers with threats, ‘Dark Circle’ is suddenly relevant again.
Awards & Festivals
1983 Sundance Grand Prize, Nonfiction Feature
1983 Oscar Shortlist, Best Documentary Feature
1989 National Emmy Award, “Outstanding Individual Achievement in News and Documentary”
U.S. Premiere: New York Film Festival
U.K. Premiere: London Film Festival (followed by regional tour sponsored by the British Film Institute)
Santa Fe Winter Film Expo First Prize, Nonfiction
Houston International Film Festival Gold Medal
Audubon Environmental Film Festival First Prize, Global Issues
American Film Festival Blue Ribbon
“When everything is destroyed, you can’t put a price tag on the history, the family, and the land that is gone.”
In 2006, PT Lapindo Brantas, an Indonesian oil and gas company, was drilling in the sub-district of Porong, Sidoarjo, in East Java, Indonesia. There was a giant explosion of mud.
The non-stop eruption of mud continues to this day, and is expected to continue until at least 2030. Much of the mud is being channeled to a river. Lapindo claims the eruption was caused by natural phenomena, the people believe it was caused by a demonstrable drilling error. Sixteen villages and thousands of homes were covered in mud.
Directed by Cynthia Wade and Sasha Friedlander, GRIT tells the story of the explosion and ongoing mud flow with a focus on its impact on the 60,000 people who were displaced. Aside from the devastation itself, a crucial issue the people struggled with is compensation for their losses. It took ten years for people to receive a measure of compensation, but only those who could provide evidence of land ownership received those funds.
The images of explosions and eruptions are fascinating, of course, but it is the human loss of homes and community that forms this tragedy. Miraculously, only 16 people were lost in this disaster.
Friedlander and Wade cover this human loss and the struggle for any acknowledgement from Lapindo that their drilling caused the disaster. The filmmakers follow Lapindo’s responses to the disaster and the socio-political fight for restitution, leading up to a Trump v. Biden-style Presidential election.
GRIT is well crafted, and thoroughly engaging. The film has garnered at least 14 film festival awards and received an EMMY nomination.
You may find the film via these links:
PBS / POV
(Pictured: Filmmakers Sasha Friedlander and Cynthia Wade standing on an endless sea of dried mud)
“This country is built on the bones of our ancestors. We have our culture, we have our way of life, our language. What we’re trying to do is retain it, retain our right as a people—to be Indian. We want to be what we are, not what you are.”
Madonna Thunder Hawk
Directed by Elizabeth Castle and Christina D. King, Warrior Women is a documentary film that is one of several initiatives of the Warrior Women Project, an innovative collaboration of scholarship, media, and activism that provides a forum for the Warrior Women of the Red Power Movement. They are telling their stories in their own words for the benefit of current and future generations.
The principal characters are Madonna Thunder Hawk and her daughter Marcella (Marcy) Gilbert. Although the story of Native Americans is one of tragedy and horror, mother and daughter tell their stories to groups of children, fostering them with joy and humor to become part of the reclamation of their rights and cultures.
The film also includes references and coverage of struggles including Ruby Ridge, Standing Rock, Wounded Knee, and the attempts to reclaim what is currently called Alcatraz Island—an initiative that continues to this day.
Warrior Women has received 44 film festival ‘Official Selection’ notices and 14 festival ‘Winner’ acknowledgements.
(Photos Courtesy of ‘Warrior Women’: Marcella (Marcy) Gilbert and Madonna Thunder Hawk)
“The E Street Band is a finely tuned instrument of great flexibility and power. They can float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. Our years of playing together have created a shorthand and efficiency in the studio comparable to a finely tuned racing engine. We are a unit 45 years in the making, decades in the refining—and we bring that power to bear when we engage with you. We perform in service to our audience. The pay is great, but you’re the reason we’re here. It is our commitment that hardens our purpose, our sense of do or die. E Street Band is not a job, it is a vocation, a calling. It is both one of the most important things in your life, and, of course, it’s only rock ‘n’ roll.”
The above text is the beginning of Bruce Springsteen’s narrative of his life in music, with stories and thoughts expressed throughout Thom Zimny’s masterfully produced film Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You.
The documentary includes ten new Springsteen songs from his latest album, ‘Letter to You’ recorded live—that is, there was no layering of instruments and voice tracks one by one. Instead, we are in the studio with Springsteen, his E Street Band musicians and producers, hearing the new songs as they can be heard on the released album. Between songs he tells his stories and expresses his thoughts about life. I humbly disagree, though, with Springsteen’s ‘it’s only rock and roll.’ For decades he has addressed existential issues the common person faces in their life in the United States of America. The film’s black-and-white cinematography is exquisite.
Whether or not you are a fan, or even familiar with Bruce Springsteen’s music, this is a stunning, powerful film that, ironically, leaves viewers in a quiet, contemplative mood.
Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You is an Apple TV+ release.
“Your Honor, under Wisconsin statute 48.133, we are requesting temporary physical custody of the unborn child whose mother is Tamara Loertscher.”—litigator
Tammy Loertscher was living in Wisconsin, she was not aware of the draconian laws the state enacted to gain control of in utero human fetuses. When she simply, innocently asked questions and expressed concerns to her doctor about her first pregnancy, she found herself in a Kafkaesque world. Her unborn human was no longer hers. She didn’t know that Wisconsin was a ‘fetal personhood’ State, and that the State can prosecute women for miscarriages, stillbirths, and using drugs while pregnant. Wisconsin prosecuted Tammy for allegations that she used drugs during her pregnancy. The pregnant mother even experienced a stent in jail. This mother fought back.
In Personhood: Policing Pregnant Women in America filmmaker Jo Ardinger tells Tammy’s epic story of reclaiming her rights as a woman and mother, shares stories of other mothers’ experiences, and interviews two key heroes:
Paltrow’s career began as a fight for the right to choose abortion. Ironically, many of her clients were passionately against abortion, yet she received cases of women who had no intention to abort their pregnancy. Instead, these were women who used illegal drugs, and/or alcohol, or women who decided to delay cesarean surgery, and they knew they were in danger. Making matters worse, these women learned to not tell their doctors about their behavior for fear of prosecution and findings of guilt. Also, some charges against pregnant women were trumped.
The fundamental question the people and government of the United States faces is whether or not women who become pregnant lose their personhood rights. At the moment, 38 States treat fertilized eggs, embryos, and fetuses as ‘persons’—potential victims of a crime. Even women who have not used drugs or alcohol are being targeted. The State prosecutes pregnant women on the faux base of alleged child abuse and similar crimes. How many potential or current pregnant mothers know about what they may be facing?
Ardinger’s very well crafted film shines a light on this hidden world of veritable ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ oppression. Not just mothers and potential mothers, this is a crucial film all Americans to see.
Personhood: Policing Pregnant Women in America is available from Apple TV, iTunes, and Amazon Prime Video
(Pictured: Tammy Loertscher and child—courtesy of ‘Personhood’)
Preamble: On December 7, 2017, I posted my review of ‘Kedi’—a documentary film about the stray cats of Istanbul. I love animals, and am delighted to share my review of Elizabeth Lo’s Stray about the stray dogs of Istanbul. As a lover of our natural world which includes, of course, cats and dogs, I am deeply concerned about animals who are not cared for. Stray however, shines a measure of hope for the dogs of Istanbul.
Turkey has a national policy of no-kill and no-capture towards all its stray animals. The City of Istanbul has approximately 130,000 stray dogs. This was not always the case. For decades Turkey practiced mass killings of strays. However, in June, 2004, the Turkish government passed a law requiring local governments to rehabilitate street animals rather than kill them. It requires the animals be sterilized, vaccinated, tagged, and taken back to the place where they were found.
In Stray, filmmaker Elizabeth Lo follows several of these stray dogs. There is no narration. None is needed. There is occasional text, but the dogs tell the story as we follow their lives on the streets and other places. Zeytin, a large, short-haired tan female is the film’s host.
Zeytin takes viewers on a tour of Istanbul including, of course, many stray dogs—and a few stray people some of whom take care of dogs they find and fancy. The film evokes pathos, hope, concern for the dogs, and fascination with this hybrid dogs/people world.
Composer Ali Helnwein provides the film’s beautiful, elegant music.
A Magnolia Pictures release, Stray is an incredible, noble, and deeply from-the-heart cinematic achievement.
“I honestly don’t know how any artist of any age with this kind of [meteoric] trajectory is doing it without a parent—someone who loves you more than life itself, and would do anything for you…”
Maggie May Baird
Billie Eilish’s mother is reflecting with empathy and concern about the plight of young people who find themselves in the midst of show business success, but lack the experiences of having been raised by mindful and compassionate parents. Thank goodness Billie has those kind of parents.
Prolific filmmaker R.J. Cutler has given us Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry a profile of the pop superstar and the loving family that has so carefully nurtured their daughter. Cutler’s 140-minute documentary follows Billie and family through the singer/songwriter’s 17th year of life. His camera does more than just tell the story. Cutler’s ears, eyes and heart evoke the vulnerable humanity of the members of this family. This is a rare and admirable skill that makes for a thoroughly engaging film irrespective of the viewer’s ignorance—mine, for instance—of our Hero
Eilish has the best music partner a superstar can have—her brother Finneas O’Connell who writes and produces with her, as well as accompanies her on tours working behind the scenes, and on stage performing with his sister. Both Eilish’s father, Patrick O’Connell, and mother Maggie May have mainstream acting resumés. And let’s not forget Eilish’s dog Pepper who appears in shots peppered throughout the film.
Distributed by Apple TV+, Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry is a spectacular documentary film that deserves a huge audience and countless lauds.
“I feel like being a father made me the man I am. My children taught me to be authentic, and be honest with myself. Fatherhood has given me a whole new identity.”
Glen Henry, father
The title says it all. Bryce Dallas Howard’s Dads features dads—some famous, others not so—speaking their thoughts, experiences, and expressing their feelings about fatherhood. Many of these dads break down in happy tears in interview as they speak of their fatherly experiences. The common denominator for all the dads is the radical life and character changes they experienced as dedicated fathers.
Robert Selby’s first child was born with multiple heart problems. The UPS driver did not have his own transportation, so made his way by public transportation to see his baby grow up through multiple heart surgeries and other treatments. His child is now happy and healthy.
Rio de Janeiro’s Tiago Queriroz experience as a new father inspired him to create a successful podcast on fatherhood.
In Tokyo, Shuichi Sakuma was working 150 hours a week when he fell victim to a painful autoimmune disease. Housebound, he spent two years convincing his wife to give him a child. She did just that, saying she did this specifically for her husband. Upon fatherhood the formerly dour workaholic became a joyful, healthy, happy human being raising his son at home, and attending ‘The Secret Society of Friends of House Husbands’ meetings
Rob and Reece Scheer ended up adopting four children, one girl and three boys. The two gentlemen went from no children to four children in six months. Three of them were still in diapers. Rob made the most unusual statement of the whole film. He said when he was six years old he knew he wanted to be a father.
Reece said he wanted to be a stay-at-home dad, so the family became one-income. And, they bought a farm with plenty of critters. The four adoptees came with significant life challenges, which, of course, gave the two parents significant challenges. Yet, Rob states with utter certainty and a smile on his face, “I won the lottery, I literally won the lottery.” This family could have their own documentary.
In ‘Hollywood’ we hear from Kenan Thompson, Judd Apatow, Will Smith, Neil Patrick Harris, Patton Oswalt, Ken Jeong, Conan O’Brian, Jimmy Kimmel, and Hasan Minhaj.
There is just so much love shining through Dads. The film is thoroughly engaging, and unless you have a heart of glass, you will find yourself with your own happy tears as you listen to and see these dads tell their stories.
(Photo of Robert Selby and son courtesy of Apple TV+)
April, 1994, Mobile, Alabama
A 15 year old runaway teenager who went by the street name of ‘Baby Girl’ was given a puppy—a Chow/Husky mix.
Doug James, an adjunct professor of communications arts at Spring Hill College, became the second owner of this puppy. He is telling parts of the story of the dog named Gucci.
Shauna Cooley Busby (Baby Girl) was in a bad crowd of boys who eventually were demanding sexual favors of her, which she refused. In retaliation the boys hung the 12 weeks old puppy from a tree, and were slapping him, and then set the puppy on fire.
James was outside his next-door home when he saw this puppy on fire.
Busby, crying deeply, asked James to take the wounded dog to the vet. At first James brought the puppy to his home, expecting him to die that night. The next morning James brought the puppy to Dr. Ann Branch’s veterinary clinic. She could smell the lighter fluid still on the dog. In interview Branch said “nothing can prepare you for something like that. You think you’ve seen it all—you haven’t.”
Word got out. An anonymous attorney offered to pay for the puppy’s vet bills. The puppy was treated by Branch, had surgery at Auburn University, and became a cause célèbre. The team of Doug James and his ambassador dog Gucci catalyzed the beginning of a healing that would spread throughout the United States of America.
Gorman Bechard’s A Dog Named Gucci tells the puppy’s miraculously long story, and stories of that ilk of many more dogs. His film is about the abuse of dogs, of course, and how this one puppy’s horrific abuse catalyzed a movement for criminal justice consequences for abuse of dogs and cats. Every State now has some version of legislation meant to reduce the abuse.
However, at film’s conclusion is the following text: ‘It is estimated that over 1,000,000 domestic animals are abused every year. Approximately 10% of those abuse cases are reported. Less than 1,000 are prosecuted.’
Bechard’s film is very well crafted, and is successful at making its plea for more protections.
A Personal Note: I found A Dog Named Gucci by accident. I was just scanning Amazon Prime for something about dogs. The film’s title intrigued me. My concerns about animals and plants runs deep, and I grieve for the abuse and destruction of all our flora and fauna. I well understand that this film is hard to take for some people, yet I hope my straight-forward outline of the story will find a few viewers, and that the film will find a few more viewers.
“The thing I needed most from him which was the talking and feeling, was the thing he needed least. He came back from the war, and he’s sitting right beside me, but he’s not really there.”
In 2011 Ken Rodgers and Betty Rodgers gave us their feature documentary ‘Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor’ about a Viet Nam battle called Siege of Khe Sanh. The couple emphasized that this film was neither a pro-war nor an anti-war film—instead, it simply presented just what happened. I had the harrowing pleasure of seeing an early screening of the film at George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch, and the honor of meeting the two filmmakers.
Ten years later, in 2021, they have given us another well-crafted documentary, I Married the War about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and related disorders that military warriors suffer the rest of their post-war lives, and the impact these disorders have on veterans’ wives. Betty Rodgers interviews 11 wives of combat veterans from World War II through present day Middle East wars.
We learn the phrase ‘secondary PTSD’—the trauma wives experience and suffer from the existential loss of their husbands. As I viewed and listened to the wives tell their stories, I came to sense that ‘secondary’ is too small of a descriptor. Yet, as I listened, I also experienced the love, care, and dearness the wives bring to their wounded husbands.
I Married the War reveals another previously hidden fact-of-life about the impacts of war. The film honors these wives who suffer deeply, yet find the love needed for their spouses. The two filmmakers have done more than make a film. They have drawn attention to a heart-breaking problem, and are calling for much more support for spouses of combat veterans.
There are more than 5.5 million ‘military caregivers’ in the United States helping physically and mentally wounded veterans. The film’s website includes a Resource Page for spouses that will expand as new resources are discovered.
“I never contemplated the Me2/orchestras being this vehicle for social change. And Ronald had this wild idea, and now we see it changing people, taking them from this place of darkness into a place of strength and confidence.”
Caroline Whiddon, Cofounder and Executive Director of Me2/Orchestras
When he was ten years old, Ronald Braunstein’s father took him to see the Pittsburg Symphony Orchestra play Beethoven’s Ninth. Right then and there the young boy decided that conducting orchestras was for him. He did just that, became a well-lauded symphony conductor.
Braunstein attended and graduated from Julliard as a conductor. Amongst many other accomplishments, he won First Prize at the Sixth International Herbert Von Karajan Conducting Competition in Berlin—the most prestigious and competitive conducting competition in the world. He was the first American to receive this honor.
Braunstein’s conducting career was sidelined when his bipolar disease became evident at 30 years of age.
Braunstein met his now wife Caroline Whiddon when he was applying for a job. At the time Whiddon was executive director of an orchestra, and was seeking a new conductor. She hired our hero, who was still being sabotaged by his illness. He lost this job, but Whiddon maintained a friendship with Braunstein—that is, she fell in love with the fallen conductor, they married, and have a beautiful and fruitful relationship.
Braunstein and Whiddon decided to do something about people suffering from mental illness. The idea is simple: Create an orchestra that contains a large portion of suffering victims of mental illness. The film does not reveal the precise origin of the idea of starting an orchestra of and for musicians with mental disorders, but one factor pointing to this emergence was Whiddon’s own suffering with mental illness symptoms. In any case, the two started the Me2/Orchestras. Note the plural. The idea and its execution has been so successful that there are Me2/orchestras popping up in the United States and elsewhere.
In Orchestrating Change filmmakers Margie Friedman and Barbara Multer-Wellin let the loving couple and many of their musicians tell their stories of lost and found, of finding healing in playing orchestral music with their peers. Most documentary films have a music score. This film, of course, has its own built-in score of classical pieces.
Distributed by Bullfrog Films, Orchestrating Change is as inspiring and endearing as a film can be. In addition to seeing the film, I encourage readers to check out the film’s Website as well as its Discussion Guide.
Davy Rothbart’s 17 Blocks follows two decades of a family living in a lower class neighborhood 17 blocks away from the United States Capitol building. Rothbart initiated filming, yet some of the featured characters picked up cameras and have continued documenting their lives.
The community has its fair share of drugs, crime, and occasional murders associated with under-resourced communities. The documentary follows principal characters Cheryl, Smurf, Denice, Emmanuel, and the Justin Sanford-Durant family through the challenges, losses, and gains of two decades of lives lived—all in the shadow of the power brokers 17 blocks away who could eliminate the poverty behind the drugs, violence, and stunted lives.
17 Blocks is a slice of life film that deserves a very large audience. It has been well reviewed, and received 12 festival nominations and 14 wins. Unless you have a heart of glass, your heart will be deeply touched by the film’s people and their journeys.
Kudos to composer Nick Urata who led the film score’s team which perfectly wrapped the story in delicately performed music. In my opinion, if you don’t remember hearing a documentary film’s score, you have heard a perfectly composed and performed score.
Note: Davy Rothbart is also founder of Washington To Washington—an annual hiking adventure bringing city kids from Washington, D.C., Southeast Michigan, and New Orleans on a week-long camping trip to climb mountains and explore some of the country’s most beautiful wilderness areas.
17 Blocks is distributed by MTV Documentary Films.
“I feel like once you’ve survived Maria, you can survive anything else that can happen in this country.”
Hurricane Maria survivor
From Wikipedia: “Hurricane Maria was a deadly Category 5 hurricane that devastated Dominica, St Croix, and Puerto Rico in September 2017. It is regarded as the worst natural disaster in recorded history to affect those islands, and was also the deadliest Atlantic hurricane since Mitch in 1998. Total losses from the hurricane are estimated at upwards of $91.61 billion (2017 USD), mostly in Puerto Rico, ranking it as the third-costliest tropical cyclone on record.”
Professor Cecilia Aldarondo’s Landfall covers the people of Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Maria’s landfall. The film also includes footage of non-resident American citizens exploiting the disaster—much like the carpetbaggers of the post-Civil War American south. Puerto Rico is 1,000 miles southeast of Miami, Florida.
Aldarondo’s film does not contain narration. Instead she simply tells the story via beatific and demoralizing images of the island nation, as well as interviews of storm victims speaking of their losses, fears, and hopes. The nation’s people suffer from internal corruption, governmental incompetence and carelessness, as well as exploitation of the country by the United States government and its people. The film also includes archival footage of Puerto Rico.
The film’s absolutely perfect, haunting music is composed by Angélica Negrón.
Landfall is produced by Blackscrackle Films, and distributed by PBS and Field of Vision.
Film Festival Nominations and Winners
Nominee, Truer than Fiction Award, Film Independent Spirit Awards
Nominee, Cinema Eye Honors Spotlight Award
Grand Jury Award, Viewfinders Competition, DOC NYC Film Festival
Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary, Florida Film Festival
Best Feature Documentary, Guanajuato International Film Festival
Best Documentary, Milwaukee Film Festival
Best Documentary, Boston Latino Film Festival
Jury Honorable Mention, New Orleans Films Festival
(Pictured: Professor Cecilia Aldarondo, courtesy of ‘Landfall’)
The more hidden a problem is, the more urgent it is to solve that problem.
Once in a while my The Marin Post editor discovers a documentary film and informs me about it. This one is about shipping—giant ships bringing products to and fro for us to utilize and consume. ‘What a seemingly dry and obscure topic’ was my immediate reaction.
It took only a few moments watching the film to realize it is as crucial a documentary for us humans to see as any of the many environmental films that keep on coming our way.
Written and directed by Denis Delestrac, Freightened opens with metadata about these giant cargo ships which bring 90% of the products we consume to the West. The rest of the film is…let’s just say concerning.
Shipping is a 500 billion dollar industry. There are sixty thousand giant ships roaming our oceans, polluting our natural world. There are approximately 120 shipwrecks a year. 150 tons of crude oil pollute the oceans annually. Add other substances, 1.8 million tons of toxic substances feed our oceans annually. This is just a sample of the film’s revelations.
The primary culprit is called ‘flags of convenience.’ No matter the actual country of origin of any one ship, it can be registered with any United Nations country, and each country creates its own regulations which can be strict and protective, or not. Many, if not most ships fly flags of countries that provide minimum—if any—protection via their regulations.
Freightened may seem to be a most unlikely documentary you find yourself viewing, yet it is as significant an environmental film as I have ever seen—and I’ve seen a lot.
The film is available in Amazon Prime, and available on disc via Polar Star Films.
Coda: What’s in those cargo containers coming our way? With a few exceptions, the answer is a mystery of the seas.
Every once in awhile I see a documentary film about which I am on fire. M.C. Escher: Journey to Infinity is now one of them.
In telling and showing the epic story of M.C. Escher’s life and art, director Robin Lutz has produced a masterpiece worthy of the artist’s legacy and legend. Lutz has gathered Escher’s words from his diary, lectures, correspondences and more, and charged actor Stephen Fry to perform this narration spoken as the renowned artist.
Lutz provides the requisite large number of Escher’s images as well as archival black and white film, and animations. It also appears that Escher’s work is a portent of the elaborate moving fractal images available to much of the Earth’s population.
Escher’s two sons appear throughout the film, as does singer/songwriter Graham Nash who appears near the beginning and end of the film expressing his admiration for Escher’s work, and how it changed his life.
Yours truly will purchase the film’s disc, if there will be one, as soon as it’s available—preferably on 4K.
M.C. Escher: Journey to Infinity is a Zeitgeist Films release in association with Kino Lorber.
(Photos © The M.C. Escher Company B.V.-Baarn–the Netherlands)
Amy Tan is seated, searching through photograph albums and piles of photos. The acclaimed, prolific author is opening the documentary film about her life and times.
“All right,” she says to herself, “where is her photos? I used to have this all organized. And now… okay, let me see… This is my mother as a young woman, with her friends. This is the back of the mansion where she livedؙ—just out of Shanghai.
Tan continues, “In my office is a time capsule. Seven large, clear plastic bins safeguarding frozen moments in time—the past that began before my birth. During the writing of this book [Where the Past Begins: Memory and Imagination] I delved into the contents [of these bins]—memorabilia, letters, photos and the like. And, what I found had the force of glaciers calving.
“I am not the subject matter of mothers and daughters, or Chinese culture, or immigrant experience that most people cite as my domain. I am a writer, compelled by a subconscious neediness to know, which is different from a need to know. The latter can be satisfied with information. The former is a perpetual state of uncertainty, and a tether to the past.”
Thus begins Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir—directed by the beloved, recently passed James Redford. I have seen all eight of his feature documentary films. This, his last, is Redford’s magnum opus. His film covers Tan’s rich, rewarding life from before birth through 2020.
Tan’s journey to fiction was preceded by her work writing industrial/commercial texts. “I was looking for something more meaningful, and that’s when I started writing fiction. I met somebody who encouraged me to read fiction again. She gave me a reading list. And…, she was a writer. And…, I started to write. The things I discovered about writing at that point were so important to me—it was the notion that you could write and find out what you really believed and felt.
“All these things that had been submerged, they just came out. And it was because of fiction, because it gave you a place of safety. It wasn’t about you, it was about these characters—but it was about you. And at that point I knew I would write the rest of my life, I would write fiction the rest of my life. It was 1985, 33 years old. I never was so egotistical as to think I can make a living doing that.”
Except for 1993’s ‘The Joy Luck Club’ which I consumed—along with the mass audience the film garnered—I knew nothing about Amy Tan. Didn’t even know it was based on a book, possibly didn’t even know the name, ‘Amy Tan,’ was attached to the film. Well… better late than never.
Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir draws viewers into Amy Tan’s worlds, and keeps us thoroughly engaged throughout the film. I will be surprised and very unhappy if the film does not garner many awards and accolades. In any case, as a result of James Redford’s film, I am now aware of Amy Tan, and count myself a member of her international audience of readers and viewers.
Produced by Redford’s long-standing partner Karen Pritzker, Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir will have its World Premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival on Tuesday, February 2, 2021.
Phun Phacts: Amy Tan also became a scuba driver, and sang, quite intensely, in a rock band called The Rock Bottom Remainders which consisted exclusively of writers.
http://rockbottomremainders.com/ and Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rock_Bottom_Remainders
“We get the soil right, we can fix a lot of our issues. Healthy soils lead to a healthy plant, healthy plant, healthy animal, healthy human, healthy water, healthy climate.”
Ray Archuleta, Conservation Agronomist
Directed by Joshua Tickell and Rebecca Harrell Tickell, Kiss The Ground is all about soil—not lifeless dirt, but fertile soil. The film’s fundamental premise is that farming with soil creates a cascade of far-reaching environmentally positive results. The film clearly confirms the accuracy of this premise.
The seemingly ubiquitous Woody Harrelson provides heartfelt narration, but it is the many environmental authorities and activists who make the points and the pleas.
I have viewed and reviewed my fair share of environmental documentaries a few of which specifically cover the many values of healthy soil and farming practices. Kiss The Ground is the most expertly produced and, especially, the most compelling documentary film on the subject of soil, farming, and their relationships to local and global environmental health I’ve had the pleasure to experience.
At the moment only 5% of farming in the United States is soil-based. Increasing that percentage significantly can obviate the need for farm subsidies, and increase farmers’ and ranchers’ incomes. But, it is the numerous global positive environmental and health impacts of soil-based farming that is the call.
Kiss The Ground is a Netflix documentary, but the film will be available on DVD and Blu-ray. I expect an announcement of the disc’s release by the end of January, and will amend this review with that information.
If you are inspired, as I am, go to https://kisstheground.com/find-your-path/
to get started.
Ray Archuleta, Conservation Agronomist
NRCS [Natural Resources Conservation Service]
John Wick, [I Know] Cofounder, Marin Carbon Project
Dr. Kristine Nichols, Chief Scientist, Rodale Institute
Allan Savory, Founder, Holistic Management
Jeff Creque, Rangeland Director, Carbon Cycle Institute
Soil Health Academy
The Nature Conservancy
• Closed Captions (CC)
• Chinese (Simplified)
• Chinese (Traditional)
• French (France)
• Portuguese, Brazilian
• Portuguese, European
• Spanish, Castilian
• Spanish, Latin America
Lance Oppenheim’s Some Kind of Heaven starts out with a ballet of eight golf carts being directed by an elderly woman with a wireless microphone and a loud speaker. Following the ballet is a brief shot of a large rowboat driven by ten elderly rowers with the master rower at the back encouraging his charges, and following that is a very large swimming pool with a water ballet of eight elderly female swimmers also with their own director.
Welcome to Florida’s ‘The Villages’—also known as ‘Disney World for Adults.’ The above activities are just the tip of the very large iceberg of activities for the retirement community’s 130,000 residents. Movies—both documentaries and narratives—take us to places we’ve never seen, or, in this case, never even conceived. For almost all viewers, this is a new place. As I viewed the film I kept wondering: How is such a place managed? However, that question is, understandably, not addressed.
Instead, we spend our movie time going throughout much of The Villages, and spending quality time with four residents: Anne Kincer, husband Reggie Kincer, Barbara Lochiatto, and Dennis Dean. Each has their charms and their life challenges.
The world of The Villages evokes almost immediate socio-politico considerations and criticisms. Yet, being an elder, I had to consider what would it be like to live in this world. Of course, it would not be practical, but, still, I want to interview somebody there about: How do you manage this place?! In any case, Oppenheim and company focus on the personal stories of the above four retirees.
Some Kind of Heaven is distributed by Magnolia Pictures, is currently playing in theaters, and will be available On Demand on January 15.
“Some of my research has been with hunter/gatherer cultures. Children are free, they’re free to play and explore all the time. The adults believe that’s how they learn what they need to know. Children, all over the world, when they’re free they play at the whole range of activities that human beings have to develop skills at. They play at building things, they play with imagination, at logic, they play at language. Play is how children learn to create their own activities, solve their own problems, make friends. It’s how they learn to live life. Not because anybody’s making them do it, not because anybody’s encouraging them to do it. I’ve become convinced this is just what kids do.
“But, more so today, than in times past, we have to continue learning, our whole life, our world changes, which means we have to keep a flexible brain, we have to keep a brain that’s able to think creatively, think of new things, try new things—do all those that are done in play pretty much our whole lives.”
Peter Gray, Professor of Psychology, Boston College
It is with both sadness and gratitude that I write about one of the two documentary films James Redford directed before his untimely passing, Playing for Keeps. Redford passed October 16, 2020. I have had the pleasure of seeing and covering six of his feature documentary films—and to interview him for my book “Telling Their Own Stories: Conversations with Documentary Filmmakers.” He was a beautiful human being, and made countless contributions to our world via his films and his spirit.
And, by the way, he practiced what he preached. James played—including as a member of the band Olive and the Dirty Martinis.
Playing For Keeps is about the value, if not the urgency, that us humans incorporate play into our lifestyles. The film features two authorities on play—Peter Gray, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at Boston College, and Dr. Stuart Brown, Founder of The National Institute for Play.
In the film we hear about and see several adults who have discovered play’s value, and are sharing their work, no, I mean play with the world.
• NBC’s journalist icon Lester Holt found the bass guitar and standup bass, and plays in bands.
• Kara Masciangelo, Information Services Manager, Federal Reserve Bank of New York, found a practically life-saving joy of paddle boarding in the waters of New York, New York.
• Jodi Smith, LCSW, RPT-S, CAAPT-I Canine Therapist, helps people find play through the intrinsic love given us humans by dogs—my favorite form of play.
• Isabella Miller, Program Director at the Berkeley FILM Foundation – a 501(c)(3) that gives financial support to local, independent filmmakers located in San Francisco Bay Area’s East Bay. She enjoys several hobbies, including classic film, writing, historic preservation and swing dancing.
• David Miles, Jr., Founder of the Church of 8 Wheels, discovered and then shared the joy of roller skating with his students.
• Caroline’s work and play have merged. She mastered the hula hoop, and has incorporated it into both her play and her work. She teaches the hula hoop, and is working on, or has already received her Doctorate of Philosophy in Psychology at Meridian University. Her dissertation is on ‘Play and its Effects on Burnout and Compassion Fatigue Among Healthcare Professionals’—a challenging topic at this time.
My main point, though, about Playing For Keeps is all the transmissible joy of adult play Redford has captured in his film.
“You can’t explain to your kid what it’s like to see somebody die or to see somebody so distressed or in agony. To hold somebody’s hand as their heart stops beating is a very hard thing to explain to anybody else.
“What we have been through has been extremely trying. We have seen so much suffering. We have seen so much death. I know I’ve been very distracted, that’s the easiest way to describe it. Distracted by what we’ve seen throughout the day, and my worry about what the next day is going to bring. How much worse can this get? There has to be better solutions.
“We need a little bit of an arching umbrella to guide us through these terrible, terrible and challenging events. I just think that we have to be open to looking outside of what the structure and the framework has been traditionally in this country. Because, it’s not working. And Covid just amplified where it doesn’t work.” Cathyn Robinson, MSN, RN, St. Joseph’s University Medical Center, Paterson, New Jersey
Carolyn Jones’ In Case of Emergency about emergency department nurses begins on the front patio of a home in the early morning. Cathlyn Robinson is sitting on the top of the stair case that leads to the sidewalk. She is taking a moment before she leaves to go to the emergency department for the day. She is wiping away tears as she speaks about the impact of the virus on her and hers. But, this film did not start in the Covid disaster—rather, a year ago. Like the whole world, the filmmakers did not know what they were getting into.
In Case of Emergency features interviews with 16 nurses and 11 other medical personnel. Cathlyn seems to be the central character of the film. She is also a nurse trainer. All of the featured nurses, though, have much to say about their profession, and the nature of our current healthcare system. They speak about the stresses and challenges of their work on our behalf, but their commitment, dedication, and passion stand out and above from those stresses.
The pandemic appears in the film’s last 15 minutes, around May of 2020. The nurses’ demeanor had changed, but not their commitment. As of this typing, the end of December, 2020, there is a surge, upon a surge, upon a surge of the virus. A number of hospitals are on the breaking point. I am grieving for everyone affected including the many who have died. And it is the entire medical staffs that I hold in my heart. My ire at the federal government’s neglect from the start of the pandemic knows no bounds.
In pre-pandemic times I would be encouraging readers to see this lovingly made film. Now, I insist. These nurses deserve all the support, credit, and praise we can muster.
I also draw your attention to the film’s Interviews page where you can see photos of 33 nurses, and hear excerpts of their interviews.
To find the film go to https://www.incaseofemergency.film/contact/
(Pictured: Cathlyn Robinson)
Directed by veteran filmmaker Erika Cohn, The Judge tells the story of Kholoud Al-Faqih, the first woman judge to be appointed to Middle East’s Shari’a (Islamic law) civil courts. Living and working in Palestine, lawyer Kholoud uses her skills, passion, and heart to break a misogynist glass ceiling.
Cohn brings her camera to Palestine, into the offices, courts, homes, and street scenes of this beleaguered yet vital and progressing country. Kholoud’s presence is tough and confident in deliberating cases of divorce, abuse, rape, children’s custody, and polygamy—husbands are legally allowed to have up to four wives. She is clearly taking on the inevitable gender controversies associated with a feminist stance, and pays the inevitable price, yet eventually triumphs.
The Judge is more than a dramatic story, though. After a very few minutes we are in Palestine, seeing, hearing, living vicariously in this time and place of old and new, of culture clashes, salivating at the foods we see—and almost smell—cooking. Omar Fadel’s music perfectly inhabits Cohn’s film.
This is a film that engages its viewers immediately, and sustains that connection throughout. I will see this film again.
Coda: The film’s website provides a link to the film’s press kit. I encourage viewers to download the press kit and read Erika Cohn’s powerful ‘Director’s Statement.’
Agnes ‘Aggie’ Gund was born in 1938, in Cleveland, Ohio. She bore four children one of which, Catherine Gund, has directed this fast-paced documentary about her mother’s life and times.
Aggie’s work was sparked at the age of 15 when she had an art history teacher who “didn’t just give you the artist’s name and the date of the picture, she showed you how to look at artwork.” Her Bachelor’s degree was in history, her Master’s degree was in art history from Harvard’s Fogg Museum, and her honorary doctorate degrees came from seven prestigious schools. Yet, there is much more to Agnes Gund’s life story.
Aggie became a beloved icon of the art world, but her inborn empathetic character could not, would not stop her there. Aggie is internationally recognized for her support of artists—particularly women and people of color—and her commitment to social justice issues. She founded the Art for Justice Fund which makes direct grants to artists, and advocates safely reducing the prison population, and creating art that changes the narrative around mass incarceration.
Aggie is President Emerita and Life Trustee of the Museum of Modern Art, Chairman of its International Council, as well as Chair Emerita board member of MoMA PS1. These positions mark just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Her Wikipedia page presents the breadth and depth of Aggie’s accomplishments.
Daughter/filmmaker Catherine takes viewers on a jaw-dropping ride through Aggie’s life and times, seeing and speaking with and about artists, their works, as well as her deep social justice concerns and activism.
In addition to learning about Aggie, viewers are treated to a dizzying nonstop montage of paintings. Yours truly will view this lovingly made film at least one more time to take in the impacts of the artists’ works.
On October 30, 2015, there was a fire at the ‘Colectiv’ nightclub in Bucharest, Romania. The fire killed 64 young people, and injured 146 more. Of the 64 people killed, 38 died in the hospital—not from their fire wounds, but from massive amounts of hospital-born infections.
There are several heroes in Alexander Nanau’s Collective, I want to focus on three of them: Tedy Ursuleanu, Catalin Tolontan, and Vlad Voiculescu.
Tedy Ursuleanu is a beautiful young woman who brought attention to the fire’s tragedy by displaying her body’s burn injuries photographically at an art exhibition. She appears throughout the film. Vlad Voiculescu was a replacement health minister when the previous one was caught up in systemic corruption. He tried his damndest to reform Romania’s healthcare system. He appears throughout the latter half of the film. Catalin Tolontan is the lead journalist for the Sports Gazette. He, too, appears throughout the film.
All three characters are seeking justice and an end to deeply institutionalized corruption throughout the nation. Much of the film’s focus, though, is the attempt to stop the diluting of sanitizing liquids which caused the deaths of the 38 hospitalized victims. This sanitizing issue is, of course, the tip of this ongoing healthcare iceberg.
In the midst of the reformers’ efforts, I became amused when we hear a loud Jeanine Pirro-like woman on TV expressing a non sequitur concern about lung transplants. I fell into FOX News land with this transparent attempt to distract from the nation’s endemic corruption. And, I was also bemused by the ironic name of Romania’s ruling party: The Social Democratic Party.
As of 2019, Romania is second to last in the Corruption Perceptions Index as reported by Transparency International.
(Photo of journalist Catalin Tolontan courtesy of ‘Collective’)
“Zappa is inarguably one of the most significant, beloved, misunderstood, provocative and controversial artists of the twentieth century.”
Alex Winter, filmmaker
Alex Winter’s Zappa is the documentary about Frank Zappa I have been awaiting for a long time. I first encountered Frank Zappa’s work when I purchased and listened to his debut LP, ‘Freak Out!’ the summer of 1966. I became an instant fan, and that admiration never waned. Zappa is the first documentary film about the musician and entrepreneur that garnered the Zappa family’s blessing and cooperation.
Zappa reveals the raging genius from early childhood through his tragic, untimely passing. We see and hear Zappa in a multitude of contexts—at home, on the road, in classical concert halls, on the streets of the former Czechoslovakia supporting revolution, in the US Congress, on talk shows, writing music, telling his personal story, expressing his opinions about the worlds of music he inhabited and reviled, and his escorts through a very large vault of his life’s work.
We also hear from wife Gail—who passed away in 2015—and many others who knew and/or worked with Zappa, telling their own experiences and thoughts about Frank Zappa.
Yours truly is grateful for this film, and I encourage all readers to see Zappa. I fully endorse Alex Winter’s quote above—especially the word, ‘misunderstood.’
“It begins to kind of destroy any trust that people have. And that destroys the credibility of democracy. That’s what Putin wants.”
John Podesta—political consultant who served as White House Chief of Staff to President Bill Clinton from 1998 to 2001, and Counselor to President Barack Obama from 2014 to 2015
After viewing John Maggio’s The Perfect Weapon I gathered my closest two friends together that same day, and watched the film again with them. Our respective jaws were duly dropped. This is the first time I’ve had such a reaction to a documentary film.
The perfect weapon is cyber warfare—something we know about, but which remains far from our daily concerns. Yes, there’s virtually nothing we can do about it, but it is imperative that we understand the scope of cyberwarfare, and learn how it literally effects our minds, beliefs, and lives—leaving us vulnerable to manipulations of our beliefs and behavior by what, in contemporary parlance, are called ‘bad actors.’
Like the development and initial testing of nuclear weapons, the United States of America was first in using cyber technology as an offensive weapon—when President George Bush signed off on the tactical action to hack and sabotage aspects of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. One of the film’s interviewees proclaimed, “They crossed the Rubicon. The United States had basically legitimized the use of cyber as a weapon against another country against whom you had not declared war. It pushed the world into an entirely new territory.”
Iran, of course, quickly joined the cyberwarfare club.
The film’s coverage includes:
* North Korea’s massive cyberattack of SONY in response to the producing of, and attempt to distribute ‘The Interview’ a film mocking the ‘Supreme Leader.’
* The far reaching and very successful, ongoing cyberattacks of Russia’s favorite target, the United States’ political, security systems, and culture. A CNN reporter commented that, “The Russians want everyone in this country to mistrust everything.”
* China, too, has gotten into the hacking game. An interviewee shares that, “They stole the technology of some of the aspects of the US F-35 fighter. That’s the tip of the iceberg. China has attacked Google. They spent a year inside the [US] Office of Personnel Management, the most boring bureaucracy in America. They stole 22 million files of highly classified security clearance applications.”
Some, if not many, security experts are concerned about the rollout of the 5G cellular phone standard. Much of the equipment is being built by Chinese companies in the United States, giving that nation possible universal access to the private, public, and business lives of the world.
Expertly produced, HBO’s The Perfect Weapon opens a window of chilling information regarding the birth and growth of cyberwarfare. The film’s soundtrack is haunting, and its elaborate images evoke a complex, highly dangerous, out-of-control cyber world.
I hope that this crucial film will eventually be released on discs and other platforms for non-HBOers.
At some point in the 1930s, German researchers came to California as part of their research into eugenics. They had learned that the State has the most aggressive program of the forced sterilization of female prisoners in the world, and wanted to learn about and apply California’s methods to their own eugenics program.
Erika Cohn’s Belly of the Beast tells the history of this sordid, horrific, institutionalized assault on women’s minds and bodies in California and the nation. The film follows two heroes in the fight to eliminate the forced sterilization of women in California prisons.
At the age of 19 Kelli Dillon was imprisoned 15 years for the ‘crime’ of killing her abusive husband. During her incarceration she was sterilized without her consent, and lost precious opportunities to have children after she completed her time in prison. She has devoted her life to ending the practice of forced sterilization.
Activist attorney Cynthia Chandler filed legal actions on Dillon’s behalf. Chandler is the co-founder of Justice Now which fights to eliminate this practice. In addition to providing coverage of California’s forced sterilization history, the film is a profile of Chandler, and of Dillon.
In the film we learn that California sterilized more than 20,000 women—the government programs targeted women of color, indigenous women, women from Puerto Rico, and Mexican origin women. The program was officially discontinued in 1979, but that did not completely stop the practice. Indeed, Chandler reports that full protections for women prisoners has yet to be in place. The bad guy is the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. By the way, the State of California has the largest female prison—Central California Women’s Facility—in the United States.
The subject of forced sterilization of women in the United States has received little, if any, recent journalistic coverage. A very well produced, emotionally moving film, Belly of the Beast is a giant step towards shining a bright light on this dark practice.
I whole-heartedly encourage readers to see this crucial documentary film.
Director Todd Chandler opens his documentary film, Bulletproof, with sequences of high school students at school, participating in normal activities—band, cheerleaders, ROTC, kids in hallways, sports, acting and media classes. But, the very first normal activity Chandler presents is a very elaborate active shooter/lockdown drill—the new normal in schools of the United States of America, along with school staff monitoring various and sundry threats of violence by students, hi-tech cameras in the hallways, metal detectors, stress reduction classes, and, of course, arms kept in locked safes, with some staff members trained to shoot. But wait, there’s more. We also pay a visit to a commercial exhibition of products designed to prevent and/or respond to student threats and shootings.
Of all this coverage of the new normal horrors of school shootings, the one that got me the most was Vy Tran’s cottage industry of making bulletproof hoodies. The event that fostered her work was the senseless killing of a wife and mother who lived right next door. We first see Tran working in her lower-middle class home.
A San Francisco bay area tech worker, Tran made the first two ‘Wonder Hoodies’ for her mother and brother. When she received her first order, she immediately postponed her Masters degree program, and joined the American Dream club when she sold her business which now manufactures under the name, Wonder Hoodie Bullet-Proof NIJIIIA.
Bulletproof is very well produced, features a beautiful soundtrack, striking images, was an ‘Official Selection’ of at least 15 film festivals, and is the winner of hotDocs’ Emerging International Filmmaker Award, 2020.
‘Bulletproof’ is distributed by Grasshopper Film.
(Photo courtesy of ‘Bulletproof’)
Kimberly Warner is a veteran multi-talented filmmaker from Oregon. Her current project is entitled ‘Unfixed’ which refers to people who have maladies for which there are no cures. By virtue of being unfixed herself, Kimberly is already producing an ‘Unfixed’ podcast, and will be continuing work on a stand-alone documentary film when the pandemic subsides. Being unfixed myself, I became instantly interested in her work.
When did you find yourself working in media?
Media was a path that I hadn’t seen for myself. I grew up in a wellness/medically-based family. My father was a heart surgeon; my mother was a wellness counselor. I did the dutiful daughter thing and followed in their footsteps—read all the self-help books on the bookshelves, and the medical texts that my father would bring home.
I got my BA degree in pre-medicine at Colorado College, and was on-track to go to medical school, but switched over to the naturopathic track. I moved to Portland, Oregon in 2001 to go to the Naturopathic University of Natural Medicine (NUNM. )
I had a nagging feeling at that point that there was another way to heal and inspire and empower that didn’t involve an office and subscription pad. And yet I didn’t have a language for it. I’ve had a creative impulse throughout my life, but it wasn’t something that I pursued actively or thought that I’d have a career in. I ended up ignoring those impulses. It was two and a-half years into my studies at the NUNM before a medical event that was the equivalent of a 2X4 on my head that said, ‘You gotta get out of this and find a different path.’ I didn’t know what I was going to do at that point. I felt as if I was kind of dying following the path that had already been laid out before me. And I floundered for a while.
My husband now—my boyfriend at the time—loaned me his camera and said why don’t you start taking pictures or taking a class at a community college. And I fell in love with photography—composition, color, the ability to tell a story within a single frame—I was just really, really on fire with this new hobby.
It escalated pretty quickly. I ended up winning a major photography contest here in Oregon, and started selling that print to dozens of people within a few months. The photo was of an evocative large surf day out in a little town in Oregon called Depoe Bay. The photo looked like this wave was swelling, taking over the little town. It had sort of a Gregory Crewdson/Edward Hopper kind of feel. I think all of my imagery at the time was leaning towards the storytelling aspect of talking about isolation and loneliness—the human predicament. I noticed early on that my photography wanted to tell stories, and that’s what segued into film—because how do you tell a story better than make a film?
It was a pretty easy leap to take my imagery, and start to imagine those as story boards. That’s exactly what I did for my first short film. I used hundreds of still frames and sequenced them together into what became a storyboard for my first short film. That first film was way more successful than I ever imagined. It screened all over the world. I realized this was something I don’t want to stop doing.
I made a couple more short films, wrote a screenplay for a feature film that never got off the ground. Then I started realizing, ‘oh, there’s a business side to this, it’s not just me getting to play with imagery and story.’ And, of course, once you bring in the business element, things get a little complicated. So, I shifted into some filmmaking that involved brand stories. I worked for organizations—nonprofits as well as large corporations. That became a more viable way to continue this new-found love for film, and also making a living doing it.
Are you still making industrial films?
Not currently. I developed Mal de Débarquement Syndrome or MdDS around five years ago. When that happened I thought I was never going to pick up a camera again.
I was in the midst of a documentary at the time called Music Changes Everything that aimed to develop a deeper understanding of how an intensive discipline in the arts can shape the trajectory of a child’s life, specifically focusing on children living in underserved parts of the city. I was in the middle of that when the MdDS symptoms started. I really thought that my career in filmmaking was over.
After I got my feet underneath me, learning to live with this wobbly sensation that MdDS causes, I did do a ten-episode series for a local organization here that empowers people to do urban gardening. That felt like getting my feet wet again in the industry. I thought it was easy because it was on my own timeline. I was shooting, editing, doing sound. I wasn’t managing larger groups of people.
I do feel like that will come back into my life more and more, but I definitely have had to adapt. Before the MdDS I had a 40-person film crew working 18 hours a day. I am not capable of doing that again. I know that for sure.
Tell me more about MdDS.
It’s a rare condition, not a lot is known about it, but there are thousands of people around the world afflicted with it. Many people get it after a long period of travel. You’ve experienced sea-legs before, like when you get off a boat, and you feel for a while that the ground is moving underneath your feet. That is exactly the sensation, except it doesn’t go away. It’s like the brain adapts in an unusual way. I wasn’t in a prolonged period of travel before mine came on. About 30% of us haven’t been traveling before the onset. I’m in what’s called the ‘spontaneous’ MdDS category, rather than the ‘motion-triggered’ category.
What’s this like?!
Like a large wave underneath your feet, or the floor drops out as I’m walking. Sometimes it feels like you’re on a trampoline, or you’re walking in a bouncy castle. Sitting still or standing still are the absolutely the hardest. I’ve experienced this since March of 2015.
When did you find and use the word, ‘unfixed?’
I was on a pretty strong medical path most of my life. When MdDS started I was on a fix-it plan. I was obsessed with figuring out what was wrong with me and how to cure it— but I was seeing many doctors who shrugged their shoulders and said, ‘I don’t know what’s going on,’ or treated it through their specialty. So, after pursuing many thousands and thousands of dollars of fix-it plans for two years, I had to start looking at what it would be like if I lived with this forever.
In western culture, illness has long been treated, understandably, as an enemy to vanquish. Diseases are a problem to be fixed. This language pervades our health communication strategies. As a result, our culture is obsessed with fixer-upper stories, miracle cures, and pill-popping solutions. Our movies are animated by these stories, our TV medical shows dubbed, tongue-in-cheek, ‘disease of the week,’ and ‘Chasing the Cure.’ For many Americans, though, including myself, our illnesses cannot be wished away. We cannot change the channel. We are, as I say, ‘unfixed.’
‘Unfixed’ felt like a term that could potentially embody a wider spectrum of what it’s like to walk this world in a body that is uncomfortable and challenging, but also full of possibility and purpose. I didn’t have a lot of models or mentors for how to do this. I was tired of trying to find doctors and trying to find solutions. And, by all means this is not me saying I will not try treatments. I am always trying to find something, but my identity isn’t wrapped up in it any more. My sense of purpose isn’t wrapped up in it anymore. I feel a sense of self-worth that can include living in a messy, unpredictable body.
I decided I needed to find people that could teach me these things. Certainly my self-help background wasn’t going to be the place that I could look. So, I turned to people with chronic illness and chronic conditions. I realized that they have something to teach me, to teach the world. I decided to turn my camera on them. And that is how the documentary has started.
It started as the idea of a single film?
Yes. Working with my co-producer/editor Mia Allen, it started as a single film. I interviewed about 50 people. What I didn’t realize was that after these hour-long conversations with human beings who were contending with their own adversity in unique and powerful ways, was that I would fall in love with every single one of them.
In the beginning I saw it as a casting process, but I quickly realized they all had something to teach. I thought obviously I can’t make a film about 50 people, but I can start a video series that includes more of their voices, and then condense that down into maybe three or four subjects that we decide to film in the documentary.
After the interview process I realized I needed to expand my idea of how I wanted to share these stories. And that’s how the Unfixed Community YouTube Channel started. Every month I send them a question, and within a 21 day window, they turn on their smartphones and provide a five to seven minute video and send that back to me. Myself and my editor put those together into short, cohesive videos that discuss unique topics within the chronic conditions community. Their honest, unpolished moments are at the heart of the unfixed state – the highs, the lows and everything in between.
This video-series developed an audience that I never really expected, and now you can see them on Amazon’s The Disorder Channel. I hope we can continue these conversations. We planned to do 12 months all together. We have three months left, so I hope we can continue that. It’s been a great way to film and gather stories during the pandemic, because all of it is in the privacy of their own homes.
This has segued very naturally into a joint venture podcast—a collaboration between myself and Martel Catalano, the executive director of a non-profit called ‘Beyond My Battle,’ whose mission is reducing the stress of serious illness, rare disease, and disability through emotional support and educational resources rooted in mindfulness, awareness, and compassion. Martel and I are very aligned in our vision of wanting to find ways to help people thrive within their conditions, instead of getting into the Chinese finger-trap of trying to find a cure.
There’s a sense of while you are still pursuing the idealism of finding a cure, there needs to be tools, techniques, and sharing that involves acceptance and allowing relaxation around the conditions we have, so that we can mine the gems that are within the hardship.
We decided to turn Martel’s ‘Beyond My Battle’ podcast into the Unfixed podcast. I’m now producing the first season of episodes. Each episode has two guests who will be sharing conversations around a specific topic. One person has a chronic health condition. The other is a professional working within a relevant field or facing their own, unique battle. Each episode is an invitation to lean into curiosity, compassion, and empathy, while recognizing that we can all live powerful lives despite – or because of – our challenges.
Our ultimate goal with the podcasts is to open it up outside of the chronic illness community, and discuss all different types of adversity. In the chronic conditions community we are often only talking to each other. Our goal for this podcast is to open up that conversation so that we can recognize our shared humanity, no matter the circumstance.
I started this whole Unfixed project as a search for understanding. It was a way to learn to thrive with my own chronic condition. As I came to know these inspiring, brave and creative unfixed humans, it’s clear that Unfixed is so much more than my own discovery — it’s a shared experience. Together, we are learning to find joy, happiness and fulfillment under any circumstance and under any condition — even during a global pandemic.
As we mine the resources within ourselves, gleaning insight from our adversity, it is becoming more and more clear that this segment of the population — those living with chronic conditions — may have a heightened version of uncertainty in their lives. But at the end of the day, every human on this planet is unfixed. Adversity is inescapable. We all can learn from the lives of those who are unable to escape pain and difficulty, who live with it every moment of every day, and are using the pressure of their lives to transform themselves into more virtuous, kind, resilient and compassionate human beings.
What about the eventuality of a stand-alone ‘Unfixed’ documentary?
The feature documentary is the MAIN idea – the original motivation and mission behind the entire Unfixed project. But, because of the pandemic and then funding issues, I’ve had to adapt, it’s all on pause. We already shot about 1/5 of the documentary pre-pandemic.
Once principal photography is up and running again we project 16 more days of filming. Due to the medical needs of certain subjects, we will be unable at times to film full, eight hour days. Post-production is projected to take 28 weeks and distribution another 16 weeks.
Due to the uncertainty of the pandemic, we are unable to give updated definitive dates. Prior to the pandemic we were on schedule to finish principal photography by the end of October 2020 with two more months of b-roll and pick-up shots and post-production beginning January 2021. Obviously this timeline has shifted. Best case scenario we will be twelve to twenty-four months behind the original schedule, but due to the fragile nature of our subjects, our first priority is to ensure their safety. We will not begin filming on location again until it is safe to do so.
Overall, what’s been the response to the Unfixed project?
It’s been overwhelmingly positive. Ten months into production, we’ve been featured in national publications and podcasts. The video-series has won the Invisible Disabilities Association’s Media Impact Award. We filmed three subjects on location prior to the pandemic and are now on pause until it’s safe to resume. We’re actively looking for an executive producer, investors, charitable donations, a post-production team and mentors.
Thank you, Kimberly! I look forward to staying in touch with your work. Perhaps I’ll be in a podcast one of these days.
(Photo courtesy of Kimberly Warner)
From the film’s introduction: “(Political) parties are likely to become potent engines by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.”
George Washington, 1796
Context from Wikipedia: American Legion Boys State and American Legion Auxiliary Girls State are summer leadership and citizenship programs for high school juniors, which focus on exploring the mechanics of American government and politics. The programs are sponsored by the American Legion and the American Legion Auxiliary respectively. Boys and girls are usually nominated by their high school during their junior year. Boys and Girls State programs both began in 1937, and are held in each of the U.S. states (except Hawaii where there is only a Girls State program), usually at a college within that state. There is also a Boys State session held in Washington, D.C. In general, male and female programs are held separately, but at least seven states—Georgia, Nebraska, Oregon, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island—host Boys and Girls State on the same campus on the same week.
Produced and directed by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss, Boys State follows the proceedings of the Austin, Texas-based six-day, 2018 ‘Boys State’ program.
Eleven hundred ‘Statesmen’—male high school juniors—are randomly assigned to competing faux political parties: Federalist and Nationalist. Each party elects their own leadership, forms their own platform, and nominates candidates for municipal officials, for State leadership positions, and Governor to compete in elections.
This year the boys chose gun rights, reproductive rights, racism issues—and, of course, there was plenty of in-fighting within and between the two Parties. The film captures the particular culture formed during this week, and focuses on the competition for leadership positions with the climatic voting for Governor.
The world of Boys State is as hopeful as it is chilling. There is wanton self-serving power juxtaposed with sincere motives to make a positive difference in the lives of American people. In any case, though, the 1,100 students have been introduced to the upside, downside, and challenges of competing for the obligations and privileges of public service in the realms of political power.
Distributed by AppleTV+, Boys State is expertly produced, and will have viewers thinking and talking about the boys we see and hear. The film provokes viewers to consider their own thoughts and feelings regarding the political world we live in now—as well as the hopes and concerns for these young people who will place themselves in the halls of power.
Boys State won at least four 2020 film festival awards including ‘Grand Prize Winner, Documentary’ at the Sundance Film Festival.
(Photo: Robert MacDougall and Steven Garza confronting in Boys State. Courtesy of AppleTV+)
“When I found music, that’s when I found myself”
Tom Sweitzer, Music Therapist
Tom Sweitzer was an only child raised by very dysfunctional parents. As the quote above suggests, music was his savior. He is from Altoona, Pennsylvania, and lives in Middleburg, Virginia. Sweitzer first met Forest Allen when the latter was in kindergarten and when the former was teaching music and drama at a private school.
Forest was multi-talented, adventurous, and freewheeling. He did not heed Sweitzer’s warnings to slow down and consequently shattered his skull while snowboarding. He was in a coma, and wasn’t expected to wake up—but, he did.
EMMY and Peabody award-winning Susan Koch’s Music Got Me Here follows the years of hope and dread as Sweitzer and Allen’s parents did anything and everything they could to save the deeply wounded Allen.
For Sweitzer it was music, of course. He had gone back to school and received the training and certification as a music therapist. Using music, he was the first person to elicit a sound from the wounded student. That was the very beginning of Allen’s recovery, one that involved at least 15 surgeries and a few crises along the way. Music, it turns out, was the healing for both student and teacher.
The very well-reviewed Music Got Me Here is intensely emotional, of course. It is an intimate film about life and death, hope and grief, unadulterated love, the saving of two souls—and a testimony to the power of music. This is storytelling at its best.
Joy Buolamwini, a PhD candidate at MIT Media Lab at the time, created an ‘artificial intelligence’ (AI) app called ‘Aspire Mirror’ which functions like a mirror.
She would look in the ‘mirror’ and view inspiring images projected on her face. She noted immediately that when she put on a white mask it would be detected by the app. However, when she used her own African American face, the image would not be detected. This discovery put Buolamwini on a path of activism devoting herself to the worldwide adverse impacts of built-in bias in ubiquitous computer algorithms.
Two examples of algorithmic failure are: Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak discovered that he automatically received 10 times the credit limit that his wife received despite the fact that they share bank accounts, credit accounts, and assets. A much more dangerous failure occurred when, in 1983, a Soviet algorithm almost brought about a global nuclear catastrophe.
Shalini Kantayya’s Coded Bias is an exploration of the impacts of bias in computer algorithms—also called ‘data centric technology’ or ‘algorithmic determinism.’ Buolamwini is the star of this show. She appears throughout the film telling her story along with a host of experts about the destructive impacts of AI bias.
One of those impacts is ‘Risk assessment,’ a major category of algorithms designed to make decisions regarding college admissions, credit and loan applications, job applications/hiring, and criminal sentencing, recidivism, parole, and probation decisions. Lives can be shattered by faulty or biased algorithms. The film also addresses the dangerous use of facial recognition algorithms which sabotage civil rights.
A Rhodes Scholar and Fulbright Fellow, Buolamwini has addressed Congress, founded the Algorithmic Justice League, and created a personal website called: Poet of Code. She has been on several notable lists, and Fortune magazine named her “the conscience of the AI revolution.”
Coded Bias is a finely crafted documentary that exposes the damage done by biased computer algorithms to the fabric of global society, and points to crucial efforts to bring about social justice by removing built-in algorithmic bias.
“The cult of Cooper started before the plane even landed.”
In November, 1971, a gentleman who goes (or went by) the name ‘DB Cooper’ hijacked a Boeing 727 airliner out of Portland, Oregon. He announced his intention as the plane was taking off, claiming he had a bomb, and then displaying it to a ‘stewardess’ (the old, sexist term for ‘flight attendant’) Tina Mucklow who was the one person Cooper wanted on his hijacking odyssey.
He directed the pilots to land at another city, required that the passengers deplane, and demanded $200,000 which was a lot of money in those days. After he secured his ransom, he directed the plane to take off to another destination, but in the middle of that flight he opened the plane’s rear exit and parachuted out in the middle of a rainy night at 10,000 feet. He was never found, though paper currency has been found and determined to be part of the ransom.
‘DB Cooper’ became an instant folk hero. His was the only hijacking in United States history that was never solved.
Written and directed by John Dower, The Mystery of DB Cooper tells the story of four people who claim they knew Cooper, or were directly related to him. In between their interviews we hear from US government agents, Tina Mucklow, and from members of the ‘cult.’ By film’s end we have four individuals who swear to their dying day that they know and identify who ‘DB Cooper’ is or was.
In addition to its aficionados, the cult of Cooper includes an annual ‘DB Cooper Festival’ at the Ariel, Washington Tavern and Store. And now Dower has contributed to the Cooper cult with this expertly produced, confounding, jaw-dropping HBO documentary.
The Mystery of DB Cooper premiers on HBO and HBO Max on November 25, 2020.
“Do You Want the Submarine with Missiles or Without Missiles?”
In 1997, a federal task force uncovered a plot to sell a Soviet military-style submarine to a Columbian drug cartel for $35 million.
In the style of a fast-paced 1980s caper movie, director Tiller Russell tells the story of how a few gangsters almost got away with this caper. Tiller juxtaposes interviews of the perpetrators with those of former governmental agents.
Russian immigrant Ludwig Fainberg, a.k.a. Tarzan, got his first job in America as an enforcer for the Gambino crime family. He didn’t stay long. He headed right to his beloved Miami, Florida. “Miami is a place where I would love to live,” he pronounced, “and where I would love to die.” Tarzan opened up a strip club called ‘Porky’s’—yes, from the film of the same name.
He hired ‘Fat Tony’ Galeota as Porky’s manager. The club was very successful. Russian mobsters learned about their comrade’s successful venture, and adopted the club as a virtual office. Galeota’s wife Kristy comments “Porky’s was definitely a place you could get killed.”
Like a pack of arctic wolves hunting for muskoxen, agents of the United States government went after this fresh meat. A multiagency task force was organized under the title Operation Odessa.
Meanwhile, this small loosely organized underworld of trafficking in drugs, arms, cars, boats, planes, and Russian helicopters was flourishing—and expanded mightily when the Soviet Union collapsed. After so many deals of big ticket items, times became even more exciting when the boys got in bed with Pablo Escobar and the Medellin cartel. Then, on March 17, 1995, after Tarzan’s meeting with his (undercover) peer, he announced to one of his comrades a plan to purchase a Russian military sub and sell it to Columbian traffickers—and the rest is history which you may now watch.
Operation Odessa is a slick, fascinating, jaw-dropping romp through a criminal world that seemingly knows no bounds. The twists and turns in this film make it one of the more memorable documentaries I’ve seen.
Unless I missed it, I am very surprised a narrative film hasn’t been produced about this small group of bigtime criminals and their outrageous endeavors. In the meantime, though, we have this perfectly produced captivating documentary on Netflix.
Coda: I am also surprised that such a well-produced documentary has little to no social media profile—including the lack of a website for the film. In any case, that potential train has left the station, and we are left with Netflix. That is all well and good, but there is a larger audience for this film. My hope is that once Netflix lets it go, folks will be able to secure the film in one form or another.
(Pictured: Ludwig Fainberg, a.k.a. Tarzan)
Eschewing narration, For They Know Not What They Do features four families speaking about their children’s gender and sexual orientation issues. Each family tells a story of their experience of a child dealing with his or her issue. In between the stories we hear from five ‘experts’ (for want of a better word) sharing their thoughts of and experiences with gender/orientation issues. We also see clips of vicious church-based attacks on the principles of freedom of choice, and freedom from fear, hatred, and physical attacks.
Superbly written and directed by Daniel G. Karslake, the film evokes the gamut of emotions from grief to joy. The Robertson’s son, Ryan, was attracted to males at an early age. Their evangelical church suggested ‘conversion therapy.’ It did not work. Ryan became self-harming and drug addicted. He died young. The two parents were, of course, devastated. Wife Linda, crying many tears in her interview, shares deep, deep pain in the realization that if she knew that homosexuality is normal, their son could have had a fulfilling life.
The McBrides’ son told his parents he feels female. The family wrestled with the issue, and daughter Sarah McBride became an activist in the LGBTQI community, and became the nation’s first transgender state Senator—in the State of Delaware.
For decades, sexual orientation and gender identity have received plenty of mainstream media coverage. It is easy to become inured to the strife, pain, and loss associated with these struggles. For They Know Not What They Do is a potent reminder that even though much progress has been made, much more progress is sorely needed.
(Photo of Sally, Sarah, and Dave McBride courtesy of ‘For They Know Not What They Do’)
“Through her darkest times my mother’s resilience grew out of her deep connections with people across generations.” Filmmaker Veronica Selver
Irmi Selver was born into a comfortable Jewish family in Germany, in 1906, and passed in 2004, in New York City, at the age of 97. Susan Fanshel and Veronica Selver tell Irmi’s story in their sweet, engaging, and fascinating documentary, IRMI.
Irmi lived in many places starting from Germany, to Holland, England, the United States, and France—learning their respective languages. She lost her first husband and two children in the Holocaust the suffering of which cannot be expressed in words. She went on to have what seems like many other lives and jobs. From country to country, the most consistent work Irmi had was that of certified massage practitioner. Yet, she found herself in other fields including secretarial work which included becoming a master typist.
In her mid-eighties, Irmi wrote a memoir which serves as both the starting point and the thread of the film, guiding us through the pivotal moments of her life. Excerpts from her memoir are read in voice-over by German actress, Hanna Schygulla.
As I followed Irmi’s life, the name and image of ‘The Unsinkable Molly Brown’ came to mind. Upon the loss of her family in Germany she lived a relatively short period of time in unhappy, dark solitude. After that she chose to embrace her life and the many people in her world.
The film’s archival imagery, drawings, and enchanting home movies that appear in IRMI are good enough alone to recommend this documentary, but it is the powerful, unstoppable Irmi Selver who, by film’s end, lives in our hearts.
Watch the film via this link:
Directed by Werner Herzog and Clive Oppenheimer, Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds is seemingly all about rocks and dust that arrive from outer space—meteors, meteorites, micrometeorites, and asteroids. But, that is just the tip of the iceberg. The film addresses the human impacts of all these rocks settling down to Earth—from teeny tiny specks smaller than fleas to asteroid planet killers, and everything in-between.
Herzog wrote the film, provided his patented narration, and cinematography. Oppenheimer, a Professor of Volcanology at the University of Cambridge, is the host, interviewing a wide range of people. The film takes us around the world to Mexico, Australia, France, Maui, Hawaii, India, Russia, Antarctica, Mecca, Saudi Arabia, and a set of islands between Australia and New Guinea.
Although there are interviewees who speak about the science of stones from outer space, the film focuses on the stones’ impacts on religion, culture, history, myths, and legends. The common denominator of the interviewees is the joy, passion, and awe they express about their work. Upon discovering what he considered to be a precious stone, one searcher broke down in tears and sobs.
Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno is emblematic of this spirit. He was a scientist before entering the Church, and now works at the Park of Castel Gandolfo, the summer residence of the Pope, as a ‘planetary scientist’, and directs the facility including its observatory. Seeing no contradictions, Brother Guy exuberantly celebrates both science and his chosen religion. Listening to him made me want to drop everything and become a planetary scientist, too.
Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds deserves any and all the awards and accolades it receives. It is instantly engaging and does not let go. On top of all the information the film provides, we view a cornucopia of fascinating images, and hear gorgeous original music by Ernst Reijseger. The film leaves viewers with much to ponder about our very existence and beingness on planet Earth.
(Photo of Clive Oppenheimer and meteorite on Antarctica courtesy of AppleTV+)
The truth is rarely pure and never simple.
I am as fascinated with the making of Sonia Kennebeck’s documentary Enemies of the State as I am of the story she’s told.
The film’s three primary characters are parents Leann DeHart, Paul DeHart, and their son Matt. Leann and Paul were red–white-and-blue American patriots. They both worked in intelligence. Matt served in the Air National Guard, and received an Honorable Discharge.
The Hitch: Matt was a member of Anonymous, the international activist/hacktivist collective, and he was alleged to be a Wikileaks courier.
The story’s inciting incident occurred on January 25, 2010, when the DeHart’s home was raided by law enforcement officers who seized all electronics. The warrant alleged Matt DeHart solicited child pornography from two boys he met online. Matt adamantly denied those charges claiming the government’s real intention was to secure evidence of Matt’s espionage activities which he also denied. Matt claims he was drugged and tortured for days by officials of the United States government.
The raid set the family of three on a very unhappy odyssey. Matt went off on his own. On April 3, 2013, the family left their home, and went to Canada seeking political asylum. The film follows a dizzying amount of moves and counter moves by the family, and by the US government.
Some scenes include actors portraying characters from the real life drama. A variety of interviewees present their understanding and thoughts about what happened to Matt. Some are supportive of Matt’s claims, some are not, and some are befuddled.
Enemies of the State is an elaborately produced documentary film people will be talking about.
Written, produced, and directed by Dani Menkin andYonatan Nir, Picture of His Life profiles iconic—and very courageous—underwater photographer Amos Nachoum. The aging photographer has at least one more goal to fulfill—to be the first underwater photographer of polar bears.
The film includes interviews of several iconic ocean lovers including Dr. Sylvia Earle and Jean Michel Cousteau, as well as comments by his sisters and his father who suffered from war-based PTSD, and was abusive to his son throughout his life. We also hear from his two sisters Michal Gilboa and Ilana Malchoum speaking about Amos’ life.
Of course, there are stunning still photographs and cinematic shots throughout the film. And, yes, Amos Nachoum did take photographs of polar bears under the water. His first attempt failed on account of a very annoyed male polar bear. Yet this was actually a positive outcome on account of his team’s discovery of a female polar bear with her two cubs swimming in the water. The team followed the three bears onto rugged land.
The film has received at least several film festival awards, and strong reviews from CNN, San Francisco Chronicle, and The Hollywood Reporter.
Picture of His Life is a beautiful film, about a beautiful man, and our beautiful, yet highly endangered natural world. I fully recommend it to everyone. See the film’s website to find the film.
There are 22.5 million refugees worldwide, over half of which are under the age of 18.
From the Filmmaker: Day One follows a group of teens from war zones in the Middle East and Africa, as they are resettled in St. Louis, Missouri, and enrolled at a unique public school for refugees-only. Traumatized upon their arrival—having survived war and years in refugee camps—the kids are guided through an incredible program of healing, PTSD intervention, education and adjustment by the school’s passionate and talented educators, some of whom have chosen to live with their families in the inner-city in order to be closer to their students.
Our featured teens come from Somalia, Afghanistan, the Congo, Iraq, and Syria. Some have lost one or both parents, have been unable to attend school for years on end, and have suffered war traumas. These students and their families are faced with economic, language, psychological and cultural challenges, sometimes dangerous living conditions, and the U.S.’s turbulent anti-immigrant political climate. Filmed over the course of a year, we watch the kids progress through their layers of grief and loss as they attend school, forge new friendships, and prepare to be mainstreamed into “regular” public high-school with the support and mentorship of their unbelievably compassionate teachers and advocates. Their triumphs and tribulations all unfold with St. Louis as the backdrop: a rust-belt city in decline that has taken the bold step of welcoming immigrants as a solution for their growing socio-economic problems.
Nahed Chapman New American Academy is a two-year transitional K-10 public school. The school’s name is in honor of its beloved founder, Nahed Chapman, an Egyptian immigrant. She died prematurely in 2013. Students who complete the program have automatic acceptance to one of several high schools in the St. Louis area. Since the 1990s, St. Louis, Missouri, has resettled thousands of Bosnian, Vietnamese, African, Asian, and Middle Eastern refugees. There are 56 languages represented by these refugee immigrants. Ironically, rather than taking jobs away from St. Louis citizens, it was discovered that this educational program benefits the local economy.
Day One was filmed during a one-year period of time. Donnie Harris was the Principal. Seeing her commitment and dedication to this very challenging job, and how much she was beloved by her students and staff, it seems Harris stepped fully into her predecessor’s shoes.
Two very big events happened during the year of filming: The Trump administration’s implementation of a policy to severely limit the acceptance of middle eastern people into the United States, and Donnie Harris’s announcement that she was moving on in her life. Prior to Trump’s restrictive policy, the United States accepted 150,000 refugees annually. The figure is now 15,000.
All of the above sets the setting of this story of suffering yet grateful children finding a new life, affording them new opportunities. We hear and learn from both the school’s children and the staff. We empathize with the children as they deal with challenges of language, culture, trauma—and hope and success. Of necessity, the students live in an economically challenged area. A measure of the staff’s commitment to these children is the above-mentioned choice of some staff members to relocate their families to this impoverished area with its inevitable inner-city violence.
Kudos to filmmaker Lori Miller on directing her first feature documentary film. Day One is a well produced, thoroughly engaging and inspiring film that highlights the very best of humanity.
The film is making or has made its Bay Area premier at the UNAFF 2020 International Documentary Film Festival, October 15 – 25.
The schedule is now online at: http://www.unaff.org/2020/schedule.html
“The greatest good we can do our country is to heal its party divisions and make them one people.” Thomas Jefferson
Ben Rekhi’s The Reunited States is a very well-produced powerful film covering the political and racial divides that are damaging the very fabric of the United States. The documentary is inspired by Mark Gerzon’s The Reunited States of America: How to Bridge the Partisan Divide. Gerzon is also one of the film’s interviewees.
The film is a revelation to yours truly. It opens doors on a world of people and organizations who are dedicated to mending our divide. I had no knowledge that there was such a movement.
Rekhi lets the interviewees tell their stories.
David Leaverton was a Republican strategist living an upper-middle class lifestyle in Texas, with his wife Erin and their three beautiful children. Responding to the nation’s polarized politics and culture, David and Erin pulled up roots, bought an RV, and travelled through all fifty states, talking to people, getting to know about their lives and concerns. The family ended up putting down roots in Charlottesville, Virginia. Along the way Erin founded an organization called Undivided Nation.
Susan Bro’s daughter Heather D. Heyer, a young woman with a big heart and a passion for equality for all individuals regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender identity or preference, lost her life August 12, 2017 when a car plowed into a crowd of counter-demonstrators who were protesting a rally of neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members and other white nationalists. Susan founded the Heather Heyer Foundation to address the national culture of division.
Steven Olikara was concerned about the lack of younger people in the halls of power at all levels of government. He created a caucus of young members of Congress, and The Millennial Action Project to spur bipartisan legislation.
We also follow Greg Orman in his campaign for Governorship of Kansas as an Independent. He expresses a great passion for breaking the binds of the two party system. Orman is a Board member of Unite America.
At film’s conclusion we are treated with a montage of images of even more people all of whom are working passionately to end our divide with their own actions and organizations.
The Reunited States is an emotionally powerful film that challenges Americans to directly confront our broken status quo in the spirit of making a more perfect Union.
I was so struck by Ben Rekhi’s documentary that I wanted to learn what brought him to the challenging subject of this film.
What inspired you to film the documentary in the first place?
Honestly, it was after the 2016 election that I wanted to move into non-fiction. It was a way to not only process the new reality that we were in, but I saw it as a means to give others hope in a turbulent time.
‘The Reunited States’ was inspired by a talk I saw Susan Bro give in DC, where she talked about the need for difficult conversations to move past our divisions. Susan is the mother of Heather Heyer who was killed during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. I was struck that if she who had suffered such a unimaginable tragedy could talk about reconciliation, then what were the rest of us doing? It was a huge wake-up call, so I approached her after the speech and asked her if I could follow her story.
Looking back, it was crazy to think that we could actually make a film about the most pressing issue of our time – our political divisions – and challenge the fundamental assumptions about where they come from. Thank God I didn’t know how hard it would be because I might never have started!
Why do you think it’s relevant / important right now?
The core idea of the film is that polarization is not only an external problem – it’s an internal one as well that we are all responsible for. It’s been a turbulent several years, exciting for some and terrifying for others, but whether we’re on the left or the right, we all play a role in the divisions in this country. The film is about transformation and self-reflection, looking in the mirror and asking ourselves am I part of the problem? Or part of the solution? Honestly, it’s not something that is easy to articulate because we are all so passionate and partisan these days. But if it’s us vs. them, right vs. wrong, good vs evil, we will all lose in the long run. Life is not black and white. My biggest hope with the film is that it challenges us to look at ourselves and the world around us through a new lens. There’s a lot we need to discuss, but we can’t even begin to talk until we learn to listen again.
What do you hope to achieve?
I hope that The Reunited States does play broad and wide, as there’s something for everyone. I think it speaks to our times like nothing else I’ve done before. With all this division, all this despair, all this anxiety that we are all going through, my greatest desire is that the film can give people some hope when it is so badly needed. That it can inspire people and remind us that things will get better, and that we all have a role to play in building a healthier democracy. Because right now, we need all the hope we can get.
(Photo: Susan Bro stopping a potentially violent confrontation. Photo courtesy of ‘The Reunited States’)
“We have very large airplanes, very large helicopters, lots of equipment on the ground, lots of people, fire engines—all of that, and there is no trend that we can see that indicates that we will ever be able to control extreme wildfires.”
Jack Cohen, Research Physical Scientist, (Retired), Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory, US
Cosima Dannoritzer’s MEGAFIRES is about forest fires that are out of control—aka wildfires—burning massive amounts of land, destroying homes and structures, killing and injuring wildlife and humans. Us west-coasters have had our fair share of them of late. Megafires, however, don’t play favorites. They are destroying around the world. America’s blinder-filled news media rarely report fires outside of the country’s borders.
MEGAFIRES takes viewers around the world providing horrific visions and stories of uncontrolled fires, and speaking with those who are battling against these fires, and those doing research to end this global nightmare.
The powers that be in the United States already know how to prevent megafires, but, like global warming, there is miniscule political will to take effective action. In any case, as Smokey the Bear says, us humans are directly responsible for these fires, and, of course, it is up to us to prevent them—through political actions. One interviewee comments, “We have about 20 years to get the needed work done.”
Learning about the factors feeding the emergence of megafires, it seems the most crucial two are lack of proper forestry management and, of course, global warming. The film provides firm evidence of why and how warming is contributing to megafires.
But, hope springs eternal. MEGAFIRES can open up eyes, ears, and minds. It is another very well-produced environmental documentary that deserves a global audience.
The film is making or has made its Bay Area premier at the 23rd UNAFF 2020 International Documentary Film Festival in October 15 -25.
Stay in touch with filmmaker’s work: http://www.facebook.com/cosima.dannoritzer
Information about protection from fires: https://twitter.com/Megafires1
(Photo by Kari Greer)
Preface: epistemology—the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope. Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion.
I have seen my fair share of documentaries about UFOs/aliens. Read a couple books, too, and watched a few seasons of Ancient Aliens. I’ve never seen either a UFO nor an alien, yet I have no doubt that they both exist, and that they have been hanging around Earth since before we littered it. My conviction is based on evidence—that’s my ‘method’. Epistemologically, from an absolute perspective, I would need to have in-person contact in order to say that these folks and their vehicles exist.
James Fox’s The Phenomenon is another bit of evidence in support of my belief. Of all the movies and shows of this ilk I’ve seen, this film is the most powerful, the most compelling, the most provocative. It is expertly produced, and features a seeming cornucopia of very high profiled witnesses who share their thoughts and experiences. I was stunned by film’s end despite having already seen and read so much information about UFOs. The film has the perfect narrator: Peter Coyote.
Some people are non-believers, some are believers, and some open to the possibility that extraterrestrials exists. All should see The Phenomenon.
Here is an incomplete list of names featured in the film:
Senator Harry Reid
President Bill Clinton
President Gerald Ford
John Podesta, White House Chief of Staff for Bill Clinton and advisor to Barack Obama
Bill Richardson, Former Governor of New Mexico
Christopher Mellon, Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Intelligence
Fife Symington, Former Governor of Arizona
Dr. John Mack
George Knapp, Investigative Journalist
Dr. Garry Nolan, Rachford and Carlota A. Harris Professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Stanford University School of Medicine
Dr. Jacques Vallee, who was portrayed by Francois Truffaut in Steven Spielberg’s ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’
NASA Astronauts and more
Coda: For non-believers, below is an essay which provides the aforementioned evidence regarding my becoming a true believer.
“A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”
“It is hard to fill a cup that is already full.”
“There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
The Guy Who Wrote Shakespeare’s Plays
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 of the Third Kind.
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—that is, they contributed to our DNA. We have met the aliens, and they are us.
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. Most of them passed the test two consecutive times. The probability of that result—if the participants were lying—is less than miniscule.
Two students in my graduate program spoke of their experiences. I knew both, and found them to be serious, reliable sources of information. These were particularly sobering conversations.
Around 1980, I learned that the then governor of New Mexico 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 include lots of cheesy stories and ideas—but they also feature utterly mystifying evidence that point 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 one time, 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 London conference on the after-death state. Taking field research to the extreme, he was hit by a drunk driver.
Crop Circles: Over the decades I’ve heard about circles with simple or elaborate designs appearing—many overnight—on Earth. These are epistemologically challenging phenomena. With our Internet, and especially, Facebook, I have been able to keep up with the appearance of new circles. Perhaps it is a limit of my imagination, but I simply cannot conceive how—with the more elaborate designs—a group of humans can create these designs in the dead of one night. If humans do such, why hasn’t the complete act of creation been video recorded?
Where is the ‘win’ in believing or disbelieving in extraterrestrial intelligence? Your choice is nothing more or less than an aspect of your identity, your character. 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. This time period would be called “AD’—‘After Disclosure’, and there are those who believe we already live in humanity’s AD.
(Pictured: James Fox by David E. West)
I rarely cover Netflix documentaries because,… well, they’re Netflix, and the streamer gives documentary films plenty of much-needed exposure. But, I do watch their documentary films, and this one, David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet is one of those films that should be seen by the whole world.
Attenborough is 93 years of age. He has had a magnificent and storied career covering the natural world. I’ve seen most, if not all, of his films. As a matter of course I watched this one, and it left me stunned.
In his introduction Attenborough says, “The natural world is fading. The evidence is all around. It’s happened in my lifetime. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. This film is my witness statement and a vision for the future.”
He then covers human beings’ many ways in which we have damaged our natural world, and the inevitable results of our careless behavior. Sir David Attenborough is telling it like it is like he’s never done before.
The film takes us on Attenborough’s personal journey through the decades of his coverage of the natural world, and concurrently down the unhappy road of the inevitable loss perpetrated by us humans. As with all of his films, we are treated to exquisite images of the natural world, reminding us what a healthy natural world can be, and can do for us human animals and our home. He concludes the film by pointing out what we can reasonably do right now to stem the tide of destruction, and to revive our natural world.
David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet is directed by Alastair Fothergill, Jonathan Hughes, and Keith Scholey, and is produced by Silverback Films and the WWF. It is a documentary everyone must see. The film’s website provides suggestions on how you can help that happen.
[Note: As of October 10, 2020, the film has an IMDB rating of 9.2 by 10,249 raters.]
Preface: I was about ten years of age, living with my parents and older brother in a middle-class neighborhood in Fort Lauderdale. I came upon something in our home that I never saw before—a magazine for teenagers. I was making a very cursory thumbing of pages when I was caught by an article about something bad that happened on a date. It was, of course, about a date-rape, but that term was not in common use at the time. When I finished the short piece I found myself feeling anger for the very first time in my short life. I was burning with internal rage that any man would do such a thing to any woman.
Directed by David Feige and produced by Rebecca Richman Cohen, Untouchable is an examination of America’s approach to sexual crime. The film features interviews of victims of sex crimes, perpetrators of same, and various authorities speaking of the injustice handed out to perpetrators.
The film opens with Ron Book, a high-profile political power broker living in south Florida. He is expressing his concern about sex offenders—throughout the film. I am simpatico with his deeply felt sentiments which amount to ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key.’ I understand, of course. I had similar feelings much of my life.
His daughter, Lauren, was horribly abused by her nanny for six years. She very bravely tells her story throughout the film. We also see her evolve throughout the film, and by film’s end we learn that she has created a national profile for herself in support of the safety and security of children. She is somewhat reticent to confess, however, that she’s not quite the staunch advocate of punitive justice her father is.
The title Untouchable refers to two things: the people who commit sexual crimes, and the draconian laws and regulations that govern how justice is applied to the offenders. Immediately, cognitive dissonance ensues. As several interviewees share their knowledge about our justice system’s current status with respect to sex offenders, we learn that there is much need to reform the system of justice as applied to the offenders.
Nancy Gertner, a retired federal judge, points out that there are virtually no distinctions regarding the nature sex crimes. She notes that, “For judges that have any discretion at all, there’s no question that if you exercise that discretion because you see distinctions in the group of sex offenders, the reaction would be extraordinary. So, you err on the side of punishment, and that’s what we’ve all be doing for 20 or 30 years now. So, we’ve simply created a punishment machine, an endless punishment machine.”
Val Jonas, civil rights attorney notes that, “There is a huge disparity between the public’s perception of sex offenders and the truth, the empirical scientific actuarial truth behind sex offenders.” The empirical truth to which she is referring is that the American public believe that the recidivism rate for first offenders is 80%. The empirical rate is about 3.5%.
Finally, as state and federal laws have evolved, first offenders released from prison find themselves and their lives severely restricted by about 200 requirements for their lifetime. One released offender living an otherwise conscientious life found himself a victim of a late bus arrival. He was eight minutes late for home, back in prison for four more years. That practice is common and frequent.
Untouchable is available now for home video streaming iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play. Institutional streaming available on Kanopy. It is also available for institutional purchase or public screenings.
I still rage at misogyny and any kind of physical or verbal mistreatment of women. I’ve simply added mean-spirited and destructive behaviors by humans on humans.
Coda: I encourage readers to learn about a movement called ‘restorative justice’.
(Pictured: director David Feige and producer Rebecca Richman Cohen)
Yours truly flew Cessna 150s and 172s out of Atlanta’s Fulton County Airport for four years in the 1960s. So, naturally, I must cover this much-needed documentary about women in aeronautics and space.
It was well worth it.
Katie McEntire Wiatt’s Fly Like a Girl opens with Afton Kinkade, a girl about 13 years of age, feeding and caring for her beloved chickens, and speaking about the three things she loves—the aforementioned chickens, Legos, and flying.
Kinkade is one of 13 women in the film speaking about their lives, challenges, hopes, and aspirations in aviation and space flight. Naturally, the women refer to the biases that have been keeping them away from aviation for generations. Yet, the film also mentions a few women from the earliest days who were aviation pioneers. It seems that when the planes got bigger, the women got elbowed out of the aviation world. The men wanted their glory, power, prestige, and, of course, money.
All 13 of Wiatt’s interviewees provide compelling stories about their lives as aviators and astronauts, and we get a few tastes of the iconic aerobatics competitor Patty Wagstaff twisting her plane in the air. The women’s message now is ‘we are here, and our numbers are growing.’
Women in Aviation and the International Society of Women Airline Pilots provide institutional support in championing the many roles women can, do, and should play in aviation and space flight. Women in Aviation also includes an annual ‘Girls in Aviation Day’ for girls 8 to 17.
Fly Like a Girl is a finely crafted, delightful, and compelling documentary that deserves a giant audience. It is available in theaters and on-demand—including the iTunes Store—starting October 9.
BTW: A new-to-me phrase, STEM, can be heard throughout the film. In case it is also new to you, it is an acronym for ‘science, technology, engineering and math.’
(Pictured: Vernice Armour, America’s First African American Female Combat Pilot)
Rodney Stotts was born into a semi-impoverished community in the Maryland/DC region. His early life was on the streets, during a crack epidemic, losing friends and family to drugs and violence. He doesn’t look back or talk about it.
Instead he talks about and demonstrates his work as a licensed master Falconer, as well as his environmental work cleaning up rivers with high school dropouts under the aegis of The Earth Conservation Corps, and the creation of his Oak Hill Raptor Center and sanctuary which includes the participation of at-risk inner-city youth who are learning about raptors, nature and personal responsibility.
Annie Kaempfer’s The Falconer follows Stotts as he and his youthful helpers start the demanding work of refurbishing a hundred-year old dairy barn through to the humble yet deeply sincere opening ceremony. His goal is to protect raptors, heal and release them, take care of the birds who are unreleasable, teach children about caring for the birds, and for a few, how to become a Falconer.
Stotts is his own narrator as he speaks of his background, his philosophy of life, the healing he discovered caring for birds, and the children he teaches and mentors.
The Falconer is a richly textured, thoroughly engaging and inspiring film that I whole-heartedly recommend for us adults as well as children.
P.S. Don’t tell anybody, but Rodney Stotts is a very good singer.