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
“Something’s happening to me. I’m beginning to feel things again. It’s unsettling. This is why and how I got on that plane 55 days into recovery—despite my crippling fear. The wild out here feeds the wild in me, is the wild in me. The wild in me is eternal, that thing untainted, pure. This connection to the wild is the connection to the Source.”
Mark Titus, Director
Alaska’s Bristol Bay is the only fully natural salmon run left on planet Earth. The Bay is under extreme threat from mining corporations. Mark Titus—along with countless numbers of people and organizations—wants to save the Bay. The current political environment of the United States is simple: Dam(n) the natural world.
In The Wild writer/producer/director Titus tells two stories: a deeply personal narrative of loss, addiction, and redemption; and stories about the Bay, its virtues, the people who derive meaningful lives from the Bay, and those who would damage the Bay. Titus tells his stories with a quiet yet deep passion, and as we are watching and hearing the substance of his film unfold, we find ourselves mirroring that passion.
I have seen my fair share of environmental documentaries, and will likely see many more. The Wild is up there with the best, most powerful documentary films. It was selected by 12 film festivals, and received 6 festival awards.
Titus is taking his show on the road. The Wild begins a 50-city road tour on April 22. Stay in touch with the film’s website to find out the tour’s cities and states.
(Pctured: Mark Titus)
Benedetta Barzini became a star fashion model in the 1960s. In the 1970s she identified herself as a Marxist, became a member of the Italian Communist Party, as well as a radical feminist organizer, and taught at Polytechnic University of Milan and New Academy of Fine Arts.
Barzini birthed four children one of whom, Beniamino Barrese, became a photographer and cinematographer. The two enjoyed a positive mother-son relationship—until Barrese’s filming of The Disappearance of My Mother.
At the age of 75, the mother is ready to leave everyone and everything behind—to obliterate all labels and images of who she is, of who people think she is. She wants to ‘disappear.’ Her son is not ready for his mother to disappear. The two make a tenuous compromise: He will make a documentary of his mother’s ‘disappearance’—and, presumably, she would disappear at film’s end.
In ‘The Disappearance of My Mother’ Barrese films and speaks with his mother as she lives her daily life, and goes through what has become the detritus of her sensational life. Their dialogs are spiked with intense conflicts of values and intentions, yet their subtext is filled with love for one another, as well as the son’s implicit fear of loss.
We find ourselves understanding both the bond and the chasm between Barzini and Barrese—and wishing Barzini would quit smoking which is not likely giving that she probably has been smoking her whole adult life.
Aaron Cupples’ gorgeous music elegantly surrounds and inhabits this encounter of wills.
A Kino Lorber release, ‘The Disappearance of My Mother’ is a moving documentary film, one which I enthusiastically suggest you see.
Right now, February 8, 2020, you go to IMDB and look up ‘after parkland’ and you can see the film’s rating, 6.6 on a scale of one to ten—based on 23 raters.
Did they even see this devastating documentary about the February 14, 2018, shooting of 34 students by a lone gunman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, leaving 17 dead and 17 wounded?!
In After Parkland filmmakers Emily Taguchi and Jake Lefferman capture the grief, loss, healing, hope, and actions of students and families of MSD High.
The film focuses on a few people: Parent Andrew Pollack who lost Meadow, his 18-year old daughter to nine bullets. Parents Manuel and Patricia Oliver who lost their son Joaquin, who is also grieved by friends Victoria Gonzalez and Dillon McCooty. We also hear from students Brooke Harrison, Sam Zeif, Lauren Hogg, and David Hogg who became a national activist against gun violence. Even people with ‘hearts of glass’ may find themselves sharing in the grief and loss expressed by the people in this film.
As the film’s closing approaches we learn about the local and national movements to protect students and end gun violence that emerged from the horror called ‘Parkland.’
This film is an absolute must-see. The story is equally gut wrenching and inspiring. I am the film’s 24th IMDB rater, and, of course, I give it a much-deserved 10.
After Parkland is a Kino Lorber release.
(Pictured: Activist David Hogg)
Written, directed, and shot by Michael Dominic, Clean Hands follows an impoverished family in Nicaragua’s capital, Managua—the home of La Chureca, central America’s largest garbage dump. People frequent La Chureca seeking food and any items they deem useful.
The Lopez family—children Chico, Zulema, Toño, and Manual, with their parents, Javier and Blanca, and Javier’s mother Mita—visits La Chureca on a regular basis, and arrive back to their sheet metal home with a large variety of valuables—so to speak. In addition to garbage, La Chureca features smoldering fires, dump trucks coming and going, and earth-moving vehicles roaming the piles.
A slice-of-life documentary, ‘Clean Hands’ tells the story of what happens to the family when a mystery woman, Mary Ellen, appears out of the blue. The benefactor purchases a real home in the country for the family with one caveat: The children must attend school.
This gift of escape from abject poverty becomes a mixed blessing. Their home’s farmland is not providing the family anywhere close to what they need to prosper. Blanca is troubled and unhappy. She leaves her new home frequently for extended visits to Managua. Mary Ellen, though, continues her support. The Lopez family meets their challenges.
Michael Dominic takes us into a real world of pain and struggle, the laughter and joy of children—and both the blessing and challenge of an unexpected escape from poverty. I was moved deeply with this family’s struggles as well as their triumphs—and amazed with the film’s high quality of sound and image.
‘Clean Hands’ was filmed over a period of seven years—between 2011 and 2018. It was an official selection of 29 film festivals, and won 10 well-deserved festival awards.
“I don’t know of any other group of musicians with a story equivalent to the story of The Band.”
“I’ve never been in a band that long. I ran away, usually, and would move on to the next thing that was attractive to me. So, I didn’t have a sense of brotherhood. I was in great awe of their brotherhood—it was the soul of The Band.”
Directed by Daniel Roher, Once Were Brothers tells a story of many stories. The film is one of the finest music-based documentaries I have ever seen. Robbie Robertson, the film’s virtual host, tells his personal story and the behind-the-scenes 17-year history of ‘The Band.’
The likes of Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, Martin Scorsese, Taj Mahal, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel, Van Morrison, and others appear throughout the film sharing their respect and admiration for the five members, the band they formed, and the musical legacy they have given the world.
Robertson’s mother was born and raised in the Six Nation Indian Reserve in Canada. His introduction to the guitar occurred during visits to the Reserve. His musical ‘big bang’ was the explosion of early rockabilly and rock’n’roll. The prodigy was in his first band by the age of 13.
A big fan of Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, Robertson found himself with a connection to Hawkins. When the 15 year old boy heard Hawkins needed a songwriter to write two songs, he wrote those two songs which appeared on Hawkins’ next album. The prolific songwriter was born.
If there was a single force that catalyzed the creation of The Band, that would be Bob Dylan. Seeking a purity of music, circumstances found the future members together in bucolic Woodstock, New York, living, playing, and creating together in a pink house. They were discovering, if not creating, a genre that melded rock, folk, and country. Dylan got wind of something important going on at this home in the country, spent time with the musicians, and ended up using the five as his backup band for the 1966 infamous tour of Dylan’s transition to the rock genre and world. Every stop was mired in boos for what folk music aficionados experienced as a deeply painful betrayal. Dylan expressed no qualms about the boos, but the future band members certainly did.
During the time Dylan and the musicians were working together at this pink house, the community of people around the home would refer to the five musicians collectively as ‘the band.’ When the time came for the guys to form their own group, they adopted those words everyone used when referring to them—“The Band”. Their first album, Music from Big Pink, was a ‘big bang’ in the music world.
For us fans the dissolution of The Band was a painful loss. Yet, the group did not go down in flames. Instead, they gracefully celebrated their ending with a history-making show in San Francisco—The Last Waltz, which became a legendary documentary directed by rocker Martin Scorsese.
Once Were Brothers is masterfully produced—not surprising given the Hollywood heavyweights supporting the film, Martin Scorsese, Brian Grazer, and Ron Howard
The Band was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, by Eric Clapton, a The Band member-wannabe.
As of this writing, ‘Once Were Brothers’ is in its theater run.
There are two stories in Liz Canning’s MOTHERLOAD. The first is Canning’s own narrative about the personal experiences and social forces that brought her to the world of ‘cargo bikes’—bicycles that transport more than just the rider. The second story is about the emergence of cargo bikes as a global phenomenon.
What is quickly apparent as her documentary unfolds is that both stories are equally serious and joyful.
Canning recounts her experience riding bikes early in life, the years she lived sans bicycles, and the surprisingly great value of cargo bikes she found for herself, her family, and last but not least, the world.
There is a feminist theme throughout the film starting with the popularization of bicycles in the 1890s when women took to bikes virtually immediately, discovering a newfound sense of liberation. Women are now the dominant demographic buying and riding cargo bikes to make their lives less stressful and more joyful.
The film covers several pioneers in the development and marketing of cargo bikes, the use of cargo bikes around the world, and the positive environmental impacts that the bikes are making now, and will make even more powerfully as their use becomes more widespread.
MOTHERLOAD is a serious, joyful, playful, winning film that deserves a giant audience—one that includes policy makers who share environmental concerns. And it has a beautiful, uplifting soundtrack.
Kudos to Liz Canning for her moving—in many senses of the word—film. She is the writer, director, cinematographer, animator, narrator, and producer of MOTHERLOAD!
“There are about as many feral cats in the United States as there are pet cats. So that would put them anywhere from 70 to 90 million.”
Kathleen O’Malley, Director of TNR (Trap-Neuter-Return) Education, NYC Feral Cat Initiative
Tina Traster’s Catnip Nation addresses the fates of these millions of feral cats, and the human conflicts that determine those fates. The central conflict is between compassionate people who want to care for the cats by providing food, water, and shelter, and those who want to make these acts of compassion illegal.
A prolific veteran journalist, I found Traster’s statement about her film to be so poignant it needs to be the body of this review:
“I have lived with and loved cats for ages. Cats have it rough. There are too many in shelters who are never adopted, and millions who are euthanized. Those cats that are lucky enough to be found and adopted usually bear the physical and emotional scars of a difficult beginning.
“The idea to make a documentary on cats began as an ode to these enigmatic, graceful creatures, but my journalist’s compass quickly led to a darker place. Little did I know there are an estimated 90 million feral cats living wherever they find a food source. Nor was I aware that so many well-meaning people who are trying to help these animals are oppressed and persecuted by outdated laws or uneducated politicians.
“We trained our cameras on four individuals who have put everything on the line to fight for a voiceless population. Our characters show us what it’s like to be punished for acts of kindness. They are willing to risk arrest and imprisonment. They’ve transformed their own lives in the fight to teach others about humanity and the responsibility we as a human race have to care for creatures who live in a netherworld between pets and wildlife.
“‘Catnip Nation’ is not a pedagogic platform to preach about a movement known as TNR (Trap Neuter Return), in which cats living in groups are overseen by caretakers who fix and vaccinate them and feed them until they die off. But the film is inadvertently designed to enlighten. The goal of TNR, a spreading practice worldwide, is to winnow down cat colonies until the closed-system fades away. TNR is complex because it requires buy-in from government, law enforcement and grassroots citizens, who almost always do the real work.
“In ‘Catnip Nation’ we learn about this national crisis through the adventures of four main characters. I made a conscious decision to let our characters’ lives and the hurdles they face tell the story. It is effortless to get swept up into their stories – seeing firsthand what it’s like to risk jail to feed and water cats. Or to feel the wrenching pain of being separated from a group of animals that you’ve become attached to. Naturally we see these people as trailblazers, as human rights activists because in essence they are fighting for their own rights to help cats. We see these people fight, try to work within the system, and find ways around it in order to elevate their causes.
“Film goers crave inspirational role models. We love Erin Brockovich because she fights the system. We admire outliers who move the needle. We celebrate caped crusaders who perform daring feats of bravery. Our characters do all these things.
“Sometimes a documentary maker, or a journalist, knows the story she wants to tell. I believe it’s more powerful when an artist learns the story as she goes, when the horrific details and inspirational revelations tell you where the story is lurking and its drumbeat leads you to a place of darkness and light. Then you feel the privilege and the responsibility to make that story your own. That is what I hope I’ve done with ‘Catnip Nation’”.
Yes, indeed, Tina Traster has made this very well told story her own, and now it is also our story.
“Community First! Village is a 27 acre master plan community designed specifically to lift the chronically homeless off the streets of the Austin [Texas] area, into a place they can call home—heal from the ravages of living in the streets, rediscovering a purpose in their life, and then going out, and beginning to care for others in the world.
“I believe that the homeless need to be valued, that the homeless need to be seen, that every human being has two fundamental innate characteristics from the moments we are created—one is to be wholly and fully loved, and secondly, to be wholly and fully known.” Alan Graham, Founder and CEO of Mobile Loaves & Fishes
Layton Blaylock’s Community First, A Home for the Homeless presents a compassionate, sustainable, and comprehensive response to homelessness in the United States—the aforementioned Community First! Village.
Based in Austin, Texas, the Village is organized under a service organization called Mobile Loaves & Fishes which also includes two additional organizations—Truck Ministry and Community Works. As you may read from the website, there are a host of services provided to the formerly homeless by these three organizations.
Blaylock interviews formerly homeless people at the Village, along with the many service providers who live and work there. As the film’s host, Graham tells his personal story of the inner transformation that inspired his leadership and its many initiatives. We hear directly from the formerly homeless, as well as the people serving the many programs of Mobile Loaves and Fishes. As they speak, a living vision is formed of a vibrant, growing community that is really a community—not just a development—based on care, service, cooperation, and love.
And, it is not just the formerly homeless who benefit. The many people supporting this comprehensive initiative are finding meaning and gratification supporting this thriving community.
As I learned of the workings of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, heard the stories of the people involved, and plans for the continued growth of this community, my jaw dropped, I became amazed, awestruck with the love, intelligence, and skills behind the creation of this community.
This story of human compassion and care Blaylock has cinematically told highlights the urgent need for documentary films. It was by pure chance that I found this film. Mobile Loaves and Fishes should have made the mainstream news—perhaps it may eventually do so. Yet, we do have this expertly shot and edited film to see—and, especially, to share.
Blaylock has also produced what I consider to be a companion piece to Community First, A Home for the Homeless called Art from the Streets about a program that supports formerly homeless people to create and market art at their annual exhibition.
Community First: A Home for the Homeless is a production of infernoFILMS
For Sama is director Waad al-Kateab’s five years of experience living through war in the Syrian city of Aleppo. Her documentary is ‘a love letter’ to her daughter, Sama, who was born into violence and chaos. Journalist al-Kateab filmed throughout the five years, and narrates the documentary. “Sama,” she voices in her love letter, “I’ve made this film for you. I need you to understand what we were fighting for.”
The Syrian Civil War is one of seemingly countless struggles in the Middle East. Although al-Kateab provides a few basic points about the forces generating this civil war, her focus is on her family’s experience of living under siege—in this case ‘siege’ is code for bombings.
As these bombings begin and continue, we see people of Aleppo exude a spirit of hope and determination, and then that spirit is dissipated in the relentless bombings—the injuries, the traumas, the deaths, the destruction. At film’s end we follow the family through their harrowing ride from Syria to freedom.
The bombings and strife are, of course, horrible. al-Kateab’s story-telling and resolute filming are nothing less than awe inspiring.
For Sama has won at least 35 festival awards, and is one of five feature documentary films nominated for a 2019 Oscar.
Nainita Desai also deserves accolades for her subdued yet haunting soundtrack. You may hear the entire soundtrack by scrolling to the bottom of the homepage and clicking on its link.
The film has generated a movement called Action for Sama, a campaign to end the targeting of health care facilities in Syria. al-Kateab has submitted her archive of film, photographs, and documents as evidence of war crimes.
For Sama is the most striking, searing documentary I have viewed to date. I am grateful to have found the film, grateful that it was produced, and, especially, that it is receiving the recognition it truly deserves.
“We are alive because God used them to rescue us. And they had the passion to that we would live again. That is the pleasure that we have, and we are thankful for that.” Survivor of Rwandan genocide.
The ‘them’ in this grateful survivor’s statement is a battalion of 600 Rwandan soldiers who saved countless lives and were instrumental in ending the carnage. The soldiers were part of a movement to bring lasting peace to the nation. The military facet of this movement was known as the Rwanda Patriotic Army (R.P.A.).
The context for this story is the long-standing conflict between two tribes: Hutu and Tutsi. There had already been smaller scale genocides of Tutsi prior to the massive 1994 horror.
At the beginning of this genocide in April of 1994, peace talks had broken down, the R.P.A. soldiers were trapped in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. They had been stationed there to support the planned peace talks. Through equally heart rending and inspiring interviews, The 600 tells several stories of how these soldiers defied astronomical odds, saved thousands of lives, and helped to end the intractable enmity between the two tribes.
The 600 is a war film, of course, but it is primarily about the victims and the noble soldiers. The viewing is a visceral experience. We are with the interviewees as they vividly relive the fear, pain, loss, and grief they experienced in the past, and that they may still experience now.
Executive Producer and writer Richard Hall, Co-Executive Producer Annette Uwizeye, and Director/Cinematographer Laurent Basset have produced a documentary masterpiece in every respect, telling a story of heroism and sacrifice that transformed a nation.
“If you’re working on giraffes, she’s the pioneer, and wrote the textbook. Anne was the first person to go to Africa to study the behavior of a wild animal.”
John Doherty, Queens University Belfast, Reticulated Giraffe Project
Anne Innis Dagg defied convention.
At the age of three Dagg was inspired when, on her first visit to Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo, she viewed her first giraffe. The toddler had already expressed much interest in this strange, beautiful, elegant beast before that portentous visit.
In August of 1956, at the age of 23, Dagg made a solo journey to study giraffes in Africa.
Our giraffe champion married, had three children, wrote a cornucopia of articles appearing in the most prestigious journals, secured her doctorate—only to become a victim of rampant gender bias.
A professorship was Dagg’s logical next step, it would have given her the ability to continue her research in Africa. The old boys club said ‘no.’ She became an instant feminist.
Three decades of family life, writing on various topics—including gender rights issues—passed.
In 2010, a group of giraffologists brought Dagg into their fold, and celebrated her seminal work. More than 50 years after Dagg’s first journey to Africa, at the age of 85, the world’s first giraffologist journeyed back to Africa.
In The Woman Who Loves Giraffes director Alison Reid tells Dagg’s life story, and continues the much needed, much deserved celebration of her work with and for giraffes. Of course, the cinematography is sensational.
The film is distributed by Kino Lorber.
Giraffe Support Organizations
Save the Giraffes
(Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber)
“We’ve seen a trend—I would say within the last five, six, or seven years—where we’ve started to hear the word, ‘trafficking.’ What we thought were prostitutes are actually enslaved human beings who’ve been tricked, and been sold as objects.”
Tina Paulson, Association for the Recovery of Children
Directed by Bill Wisneski, Shattered Dreams is a much-needed documentary about sex trafficking in the United States. The film depicts this tragedy as a national phenomenon shamefully hiding in plain sight. At this moment, the majority of the hundreds of thousands of young American girls who find themselves in virtual slavery will not be able to leave ‘the life.’ Instead, they will commit slow-motion suicide.
Wisneski interviews victims as well as passionate, committed experts and activists—a few of whom are former sex slaves—to paint a grim picture surrounded by glittering rays of hope.
This is a tough subject. Wisneski covers it head-on with aplomb.
Shattered Dreams is a must-see film. Along with everyone else working to end the trafficking of children, as Staca Shehan states below, it won’t happen unless we, too, are part of the solution. The film’s website includes a comprehensive list of Resources for all of us to reference.
“Sex trafficking is not something that can be solved alone by nonprofits, law enforcement, prosecutors, service providers. We all have to play a role in continuing to highlight this issue, the gaps that still exist, and what we can do to make improvements.”
Staca Shehan, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
(Pictured: Tyesa Harvey, CoFounder of the Sex Crime Awareness Treatment Center)
Of the 20 gibbon species, 19 are endangered, critically endangered, or near extinction.
Directed by Alex M. Azmi, Violet Is Blue introduces gibbons and the people of the Gibbon Conservation Center in Santa Clarita, California. The ‘GCC’ was created and run by Alan Richard Mootnick (1951-2011). Mootnick’s tragic, untimely passing was preventable, but his passions kept him at his center, and away from doctors. This thriving conservation center is his noble legacy.
Azmi tells GCC’s story from beginnings through film’s production in 2019. The documentary is hosted by staff, Board President Chris Roderick, and GCC Director Gabriella (Gabi) Skollar.
Our interviewees describe the center’s raison d’être, and, especially, talk about the gibbons one of whom, Violet, is the star of the show. In addition to the film’s well done soundtrack, we are entertained by the rich vocalizations of our heroes, the gibbons—and fascinated by a couple of mystic events.
Violet Is Blue is immediately engaging, and makes a powerful, emotional statement about protecting our natural world, and about those who are providing this protection.
Coda: I’ve attempted to cover a variety of subjects in my choice of documentary films to view and review—including, of course, the subject of our natural world.
You may have already noted I am covering more such documentaries for obvious reasons—our natural world is under a massive attack from numerous destructive human activities.
I feel like ‘the little drummer boy’ of the Christmas carol. I cannot make any kind of significant gesture to alleviate this attack. However, my drum is all these films I share with you.
“The day that we are successful is the day that we take those cages down, and watch wolves in the wild.”
Kent Weber, Co-Founder and Executive Director
Mission Wolf is a sanctuary in the remote Colorado mountains. The rescue cares for wolves, wolfdogs, and horses.
The film’s primary focus is the people working there at the time of production. Director Gayle Nosal eschews narration and allows the people running Mission Wolf tell their stories. The volunteers tell stories of unhappy pasts, the challenges they face at Mission Wolf, and the inestimable value they have discovered working with each other and their charges. But, don’t get me wrong! We are with plenty of wolves—at the shelter, on tour, walking around packed audiences, serving as ambassadors.
Mission Wolf is both a sanctuary and a self-sustaining commune. Volunteers may be there a short time, or remain there for years. It was co-founded by Kent Weber and Tracy Ane Brooks. Weber speaks of the shelters’ values, activities, and impacts.
Mission Wolf: Experiment in Living is an inspiring film about people who value and support our natural world—and who love, or learn to love canines. Check with the film’s website for information about how to see the film.
Directed by Britton Caillouette, Blue Heart is a simple, straight forward documentary about people fighting for their land, for their natural world which is threatened by the damming and damning of all their rivers.
The land is the Balkans, several countries nestled together in southeast Europe. The region’s political leadership has declared that every river must be dammed or diverted, either of which will damage—an under statement—the natural worlds surrounding the rivers.
As the subtitle indicates, these are the last wild rivers of Europe. People of many villages across the region are fighting back with passion and fortitude.
Patagonia, the company, is the film’s executive producer, and their website for the film provides a fount of detailed information about the region, the stakes, the activism—and how you can support this noble quest.
Blue Heart is available from Patagonia, Amazon Prime, and YouTube
(Pictured: The Željeznica River near Fojnica, Bosnia and Herzegovina)
“We often think of infectious diseases, but there’s also infection virtues where somebody’s life actually becomes infectious, and you can’t be with her, or see what she’s about without thinking ‘maybe the human race has more hope for the future than we thought.’”
L. Gregory ‘Greg’ Jones
Masterfully written and directed by Ted Green, Eva: A-7063 tells the epic story of Eva Mozes Kor (January 31, 1934 – July 4, 2019)—a Holocaust survivor who came to national and international prominence by garnering both controversy and eminence through her steadfast Holocaust activism.
The root of her controversy was a seemingly simple personal act: She forgave, for herself, all the Nazis, and then publicly advocated other survivors to do the same.
Although the resentment she faced was inevitable, that controversy is a short chapter in this thoroughly engaging and stunning film. Eva Kor’s act of forgiveness inspired countless survivors of horrendous acts around the world to make choices to forgive, and to heal.
In 1995, Eva Kors created and opened the CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center in her adopted hometown of Terre Haute, Indiana, with the mission ‘to prevent prejudice and hatred through education about the Holocaust.’
I cannot overstate the power and significance of Eva: A-7063. It is an inspiring must-see documentary which can be found streaming on Amazon Prime, Roku, and AppleTV.
“Eva is more than just a story. Eva is a revelation about what’s possible in the human condition.”
Our Bodies Our Doctors is the third in a series of documentaries about abortion in the United States. Directors Jan Haaken and Samantha Praus go to clinics that include abortion in their services. They interview physicians, assistants, and staffs about their current and past experiences. The camera is in the room during a few abortions peppered throughout the film. The care, concern, and understanding the treatment teams provide is emotionally moving. Their bravery goes unheralded.
The film also offers an outline of recent history of the legal and social status of abortions including the passage of Roe v Wade in 1973, through clinic bombings, murders, and harassment. The film concludes with the ‘quiet rebellion’ of the growing number of doctors who publicly assert their practice of providing abortions. The film places abortion in the context of the feminist movements that gained momentum during the 1960s, and have continued to expand.
There is a distinct possibility that with one or more changes of Supreme Court judges, Roe v Wade could be reversed. In the meantime, access to abortions has been severely restricted by hundreds of State-based laws. Yet, this quiet rebellion continues—and with this well-produced documentary, is now not so quiet.
Coda: I write this review of a film about abortion with the understanding of the deep passions and the deep divide of attitudes and beliefs about abortion the people of our United States suffer. I value and support a woman’s right to chose. Yet, as I imagine how I would feel as a woman facing this decision, and having an abortion, I am acutely aware of the internal conflicts and emotional pain I would experience.
(Pictured: Jan Haaken)
Once-in-a-blue-moon a documentary film strikes so deeply that I am at a want for the usual superlatives reviewers use. So, for Love Them First I simply go with the word ‘superlative.’
The film covers a year in the life of an elementary school in north Minneapolis, Minnesota. A part of Lucy Craft Laney at Cleveland Park Community School, Lucy Laney Elementary serves a student population which is 90% Black, and 90% living in impoverished circumstances. The overarching issue this year is how to lift the school’s status which is at the bottom of the state’s list of underperforming schools list for two decades. Having seen this film, Lucy Craft Laney Elementary is anything but underperforming.
Our hero is principal Mauri Melander Friestleben. She passionately cares for her charges and staff, oversees the curriculum, fosters a compassionate spirit in support of her young students, all while facing the challenge to increase the school’s status. Love Them First is as much a profile and character study of Friestleben as it is an introduction to how well a compassionate and effective public school can lift the lives of the children.
Love Them First is one of the most remarkable and memorable documentaries I have ever seen. I hope all who read this review will see and experience the love in this film.
You can stream the film from its website or from Amazon.
The Guardians is an expertly produced film about massive governmental corruption in the guardianship of elders.
Filmmaker Billie Mintz covers middle- and upper-class families in Las Vegas, Nevada, who are victims of a closed-loop governmental system which allows elders to be taken from their homes, and for said government to have direct access to their homes, financial records and resources—including wills and trusts.
The perpetrators, called Public Guardians or Private Guardians, also have access to furniture, valuables—to put it simply, the contents of your parents’ home. Family members have little, if any, recourse. Guardians can walk right into your parents’ home without any notice whatsoever, and whisk your parents away to institutions where they may be heavily drugged.
These ‘guardians’ could not do their dirty work without the crucial help of doctors, lawyers, and courts—an overall governmental structure that supports the legal kidnapping of elders.
Although the focus is on Las Vegas, the film concludes with this cautionary statement: ‘An estimated 1.5 million adults are currently under guardianship across the United States.’
Available from iTunes Store and Amazon Prime, The Guardians is a powerful, infuriating, must-see documentary.
I don’t know about your world, but in my world people were, without solicitation, sharing high praise for this documentary film about Linda Ronstadt. Once in a blue moon I cover a music business celebrity. I surrendered to peer pressure and watched Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice.
I settled down with my notepad and pen, but never made a mark. The film kept me glued to the screen, and to this story of a massively talented singer whose mind and heart matches her talent.
Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman tell Ronstadt’s family story, and cover her epic journey through seemingly unrelated styles of music. The two directors interview legendary singers, musicians, producers and executives all of whom express high praise, with some moved to tears. Peppered throughout the film are clips which, of course, feature her strong evocative voice.
But what stands out in this film is Ronstadt’s determination to buck convention, master multiple styles of music including Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas, Mexican, folk, country, songs from the Great American Songbook, and, of course, pop—and finding success with this cornucopia of styles. By film’s conclusion, we are stunned.
Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice is a Kino Lorber release.
“Then I got to sit on stage, where they bring the dogs to you. None of the dogs took to me at all. I called every dog. Then I called Boothe. Boothe looked up, I looked at him, and he ran to me. And that’s when everything started to get a lot better.” Veteran Marine
Although the idea is simple, it is driven by compassion and empathy, and the film’s impact is powerful—stories of wounded veterans who have the good fortune of receiving a service dog.
Josh Aronson’s To Be of Service follows several veterans as they go through processes of receiving, bonding, living, and most significantly, healing with a service dog. Their wounds are both physical and psychological, and it is the emotional wounding that is so restrictive of living a fulfilling life. The well trained dogs play a crucial role in mitigating the painful impact of their wounds, and in bringing a loving spirit into their world.
Aronson shows the process of veterans finding the service dog that is right for them, covers the bonding process, and follows the pairs. We hear and see veterans speak about, and go about living their new-found emotional freedom. Aronson also interviews authorities who endorse the inestimable values of supporting veterans with service dogs.
Although there is mounting dramatic evidence of the value of service dogs for wounded veterans, the Veterans Administration has yet to cover the securing of service dogs for veterans. Meanwhile, 8,000 veterans a year commit suicide.
Here are a few resources:
• “A Service Dog is More Than a Vest” by Canine Companions for Independence
• “Understanding a Veteran with PTSD” from Maryville University, St. Louis, Missouri
To Be of Service is a First Run Features release.
(Pictured: Sylvia Bowersox and Timothy, on the set of ‘To Be of Service’. Photo by Josh Aronson)
The United States leads the world in incarceration rates. Louisiana leads the States of the United States in those rates.
Produced, written, directed, and narrated by well-lauded, veteran filmmaker Harry Moses, Guilty Until Proven Guilty shines a light on the corrupted culture and politics of criminal justice—New Orleans style.
Moses covers the many laws, rules, regulations, and practices that feed abuse and injustice in the Parish’s criminal justice system, a system that is prima facie highly biased against African Americans.
The film focuses on victim/defendant Tim Conerly who has, as of production, spent half of his life in prison despite no evidence. The good guy is public defender Will Snowden whose case load has been as high as 180 defendants. The bad guy—and he looks and sounds the part—is Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, Jr. who has been in charge since 2008. Louisiana is one of two States in the United States that allows felony convictions with two of the 12 jurors to be dissenting.
Guilty Until Proven Guilty features music by Terence Blanchard, and an introduction by Usher who also provides the film’s coda.
Guilty Until Proven Guilty was to be a 53 minute PBS program, but executives did not accept it.
Here is a statement about the film from distributor First Run Features:
“WHY DID PBS BLACKLIST THIS DOCUMENTARY?
GUILTY UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY spent two years investigating Louisiana’s racially biased criminal justice system.
Why did executives at PBS national headquarters refuse to recommend the film after giving it their “enthusiastic support?”
Why did the PBS affiliate in New Orleans conclude that the film, “does not represent PBS objectives”? Why did they call it “not a proper fit for our audience” when New Orleans is 59% black?
Why did Louisiana Public Broadcasting call it “one-sided” when the hour gave more air time to the New Orleans DA than any other expert?
We think it’s important for a reporter to find out what’s really behind these decisions. Is PBS afraid of offending its southern affiliates? Are they worried that a national release of the documentary would rub its conservative supporters and funders the wrong way?
We would like a journalist to investigate, so we hope you’ll take a look at GUILTY UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY which the LA DOC Film Festival named Best Documentary.”
(Pictured: Harry Moses)
“My faith in the world of art is not irrational. And it’s not naive. Art invites us to take the journey from data, to information, to knowledge, to wisdom. Artists make language, images, sounds to bear witness, to shape beauty, and to comprehend. My faith in their work exceeds my admiration for any other discourse. Such conversation with the public and among various genre of art and scholarship, this conversation is vital to our understanding of what it means to be human.”
Toni Morrison (February 18, 1931 – August 5, 2019)
The Foreigner’s Home is about the disenfranchised, the oppressed, the estranged, and the killed—actions intrinsic to human nature, as are also art and artists who seek and share explicit acknowledgement, meaning and mediation of the lethal, tragic separations humans create.
The film’s title has multiple references, but primarily refers to the Paris 2006 Louvre multi-media exhibition entitled ‘The Foreigner’s Home’ curated by the highly lauded author Toni Morrison.
Filmmakers Rian Brown and Geoff Pingree blend a contemporary interview of Morrison with clips of her earlier presentations, the 2006 exhibition, archival footage of humans’ inhumanity to humans, animations, and a haunting soundtrack by Jay Ashby and Peter V. Swendsen.
The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault was the artistic centerpiece of the 2006 exhibition, and is featured prominently throughout the film.
By film’s end, The Foreigner’s Home evokes quiet contemplation of the nature of us human beings—and that is an invaluable grace.
(Pictured: Toni Morrison)
“Everyone talks about the rage of despots, much worse is the indifference of the fortunate.”
Angela Andersen’s Inviolable begins with a reference to the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was translated in every language and Braille. The declaration was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in Paris, on December 10, 1948, “as a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations.”
This expertly-produced documentary travels around the world, exploring human rights issues, failures, and achievements in Kenya, Guatemala, Greece, China, Germany, Hungary, Turkey and Canada. Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, appears from time-to-time throughout the film.
Yours truly is also concerned about the rights of our natural world’s flora and fauna, and was relieved to see a reference to that concern in the film.
Inviolable is a crucial film that deserves the attention “of all peoples and all nations.”
I was able to view Inviolable thanks to the grace of United Nations Association Film Festival which bestowed the film with the UNAFF Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary. This award is well deserved.
I am happy to report that millions in Europe have seen Inviolable and that it has been nominated for Best Documentary in Germany.
The film has yet to be released commercially in the United States. I will post an announcement on all my outlets when it is released.
[Note: IMDB’s current record for Inviolable brings up its first title ‘In Search of a Perfect World.’]
“The best way to make money is having people work without paying them for their time. The consumer is seen as a workforce that is plentiful, motivated, and free.”
Marie-Anne Dujarier, Sociologist, La Sorbonne, Paris
Having spotted the title ‘Time Thieves’ I was equally intrigued and skeptical. Having seen Cosima Dannoritzer’s Time Thieves, I am without skepticism.
Through interviews with experts and victims who describe in detail how our time is literally stolen, Dannoritzer makes a strong case for all us victims to take a look at our stolen time—and to reclaim that time for our pleasure, our health, our happiness, our dignity, and our society.
I especially appreciated the irony of one resource provided in the film with a winked eye—Spencer Greenberg’s attempt to address our stolen loss of time by offering customers the ‘Value of Your Time Collector.’ In case my sense of irony is not justified, here is his site.
This topic of lost time is dead serious—there have been countless suicides and early deaths of employees who feel hopeless in fulfilling their chosen work in a timely manner. Japan has a name for this tragedy: Karoshi. People who commit suicide due to mental stress are called karojisatsu.
Time Thieves is expertly produced, and definitely deserves our time—taken seriously, this film will save you a lot of time.
“What we’ve done is taken the most ambiguous, subjective, amorphous idea that one can think of—time—and we’ve translated it into the most objective, [and one of] the most tangible entities that I know, and that’s money.”
Robert Levine, Author of ‘A Geography of Time’
The vast majority of feature documentary films I receive are called ‘streamers.’ That is, instead of a DVD or Blu-ray disc, I get a link and a password, and watch the film on my computer. That annoys me, and the filmmakers do not provide much-needed Closed Captioning. But it’s the only way can view and review.
I was pleasantly surprised when I received a sealed commercial Blu-ray disc from Cinema Libre Studio called “At WAR”—about an extended labor dispute in France. As I watched the film I was amazed at the access filmmakers had to all the private meetings between the adversaries.
I watch films cold. I don’t need or want to read or hear about them. All I need is the genre. So, when I received “At WAR” I went right to it. When it came time to write my review I picked up the literature, and the first thing I noticed was that this is not a documentary, it is a narrative drama.
Although I was no longer amazed at the filmmakers’ access to these warring parties, I am thoroughly amazed at the slice-of-life realism created by the filmmakers and their cast.
It is on that basis that I heartily suggest you see acting at its finest in support of a dramatic story of human conflict—a universal war between greed and human values.
“At WAR” is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and On Demand from several platforms.
Suzanne Simard, Ph.D. and German forester Peter Wohlleben are two of the six researchers who reveal the hidden life of trees in Julia Dordel’s and Guido Tölke’s Intelligent Trees.
Earlier this century filmmaker James Cameron let the world know he was already hip to the true nature of trees when he cast Sigourney Weaver as tree researcher Dr. Grace Augustine in his first ‘Avatar’ film. The fictional scientist was arriving at the knowledge that trees communicate with each other.
These six nonfictional researchers are confirming and affirming this understanding with elaborate, challenging and provocative scientific discoveries of the extent to which trees have intelligence and compassion. Summarizing my understanding of what has been demonstrated so far, trees are social, they relate to each other in numerous ways, and they have specific needs that must be met in order to be healthy and happy.
In natural circumstances trees are cooperative and supportive of each other. They have ‘families’ and ‘friends’ and ‘communities’—they also take care of their young and/or ailing neighbors.
Trees have a form of consciousness that deserves respect and care. Our world would be much healthier and happier if we were to incorporate this understanding into our care for trees. The film’s researchers provide clues of how to provide that care.
Available from Amazon and Vimeo, Intelligent Trees is another well-produced environmental documentary that is an absolute must see.
50% of the film’s revenue goes towards Dr. Simard’s ongoing research on the communication between trees. Her work is housed in the Forest and Conservation Science centre at The University of British Columbia.
Please contact Brian Sweet at APL Film for additional information on the film at firstname.lastname@example.org
“What we want to do is force people to evaluate their notions of the United States being a Christian nation. It’s not. We are a secular nation. We’re supposed to be a democratic, pluralistic nation. We are supposed to be a nation that doesn’t allow the government to dictate what is appropriate religious expression.” ‘Lucien Greaves’—Spokesperson, The Satanic Temple
Hail Satan? is an introduction to The Satanic Temple (TST), a religious organization inspired by Mr. Greaves, the central character in director Penny Lane’s bold, fascinating, provocative documentary.
The Satanic Temple has chapters around the world, and the only figure I found in my search for the number of total members was 50,000. Chapter members provide a variety of social and environmental services.
Lane interviews a large number of members, and follows several of TST’s public presentations. The issue of Arkansas’ ‘Ten Commandments Monument’ which is placed on the State’s capital grounds garners the most attention in the film’s coverage. To mock the ignoring of the fundamental Constitutional dictum of the separation of church and state, Greave’s led the creation of a statue of Baphomet, and litigated in Federal court to have that statue placed next to the Monument.
Hail Satan?—like TST itself—is a much-needed passionate call for religious freedom, for honoring the United States’ constitutional dictum.
(Pictured: Baphomet monument in front of the state capitol building for one day during a Satanic Temple rally in Little Rock, Arkansas)
“I want to see science fiction step over the old walls, and head writing over to the next wall, and start to break it down, too.”
Written and directed by Arwen Curry, Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin tells the prolific writer’s life story in an amazingly short 68 minutes. The ‘Worlds’ in the film’s title refers both to the many worlds Le Guin created in her stories, and the world she created for herself and her family.
Although Le Guin (October 21, 1929 – January 22, 2018) is well-noted for her legacy of fantasy novels, the film makes it clear that her lifetime of non-stop writing expanded beyond that genre—as did her worldview. She broke down ‘the old walls’ many times, and brought countless writers along with her. Indeed, it is fair to say Le Guin is literally a legendary writer—in the year 2000, she was pronounced a ‘Living Legend’ by the U.S. Library of Congress.
Beyond her public legacy, I was astounded to learn of Le Guin’s second life as wife and mother. She raised three children, and lived 65 years of stable marriage with husband Charles Le Guin.
Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin was produced with the author’s participation over a ten-year period. It is distributed by American Masters. The film received at least seven festival awards, and was an official selection of several other festivals.
Arwen Curry has brought to vivid life an artist whose name you may not have even heard of, but who you will now know forever.
Ursula K. Le Guin website (see upper right-hand corner of the home page, and click on Dragons Enter Here)
Although I regret not having seen The Wavy Gravy Movie when it was released in 2009, I am grateful and excited to have seen this thoroughly gratifying Kino Lorber 10th Anniversary Edition with its added 2019 interview of Wavy Gravy and wife Johanara Romney—and with over 55 minutes of additional scenes.
This review is for those who have not seen the original film as well as those who would likely be moved by the interview and additional scenes.
For those few who never heard of Wavy Gravy, he was born in 1936, and named Hugh Nanton Romney. Emerging out of the 1960s cultural revolutions, the core of Mr. Gravy’s activities became performing, teaching and organizing. He is beloved for his deeply altruistic character, and honored for founding or co-founding several organizations including Seva Foundation and Camp Winnarainbow.
With The Wavy Gravy Movie director Michelle Esrick has produced the definitive cinematic profile of Wavy Gravy. She covers both the man, his times—and skillfully takes her audience through his transformation from small boy to mystic clown who, at 83, is still going strong—as is his 52 year marriage with Johanara.
Wavy Gravy and this well-reviewed film about him are both deeply inspiring and utterly fascinating.
The film is available from Kino Lorber.
Directed by prolific filmmaker Joseph Hillel, City Dreamers profiles the above mentioned four who, at the time of production, were between the ages of 87 and 97—and still active.
Denise Scott Brown, Phyllis Lambert, Blanche Lemco van Ginkel, and Cornelia Hahn Oberlander are icons—if not legends—in the worlds of architecture and urban planning. With this brilliant documentary their renown is expanding. (See links below to learn more about each of them.)
The women provide a bit about their life stories, but primarily they focus on their professional experiences, passions and values. They were pioneers in incorporating social and environmental concerns into their work, and in confronting the men’s club called architecture.
Hillel accompanies their stories with a dizzying, engaging, onslaught of archival and contemporary images from the early twentieth century to the present.
Jean-Olivier Bégin’s soundtrack perfectly captures the cool jazz of 1950s mise en scène. If the producers release the soundtrack, yours truly will be their first customer.
City Dreamers is a masterpiece of documentary filmmaking which deserves multiple viewings—and an Oscar nomination.
The film premiered October 20, 2019 at the Architecture & Design Film Festival in New York.
City Dreamers is a First Run Features release.
Here is more information about the four women:
Cornelia Hahn Oberlander
“Bellingcat doesn’t have institutional support. They don’t have a big building at The Hague, or Brussels where they do their work. They actually publish very detailed analysis, and many of them are volunteers, living at home. They don’t have security.
“What they do is really risk a great deal to find out the truth in very complex situations that include major global players.”
Professor Claire Wardle, Executive Director, First Draft
Written, directed, and shot by veteran filmmaker Hans Pool, Bellingcat: Truth in a Post-Truth World tells the story of the creation and dramatic evolution of the international citizen-journalist collective called, of course, Bellingcat. Founded by Elliot Higgins, and based in the United Kingdom, Bellingcat has become a major player in the much-needed and dangerous work of citizen investigative journalism.
As examples of their work, Pool covers the organization’s investigation of the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, Syria’s civil war, and the poisoning of Russian spy Sergei Skripal.
Reviewed by no less than Variety, Bellingcat: Truth in a Post-Truth World is an expertly produced, must-see documentary film.
Bellingcat: Truth in a Post-Truth World is a First Run Features film that will be released on DVD on October 13, 2020.
(Pictured: Bellingcat journalist Christiaane Triebert)
Gemma is 18 years old. She smokes cigarettes, and lives in Motherwell, Scotland—a thriving community until Margaret Thatcher’s policies brought down the steel mill. She and her companions are called ‘scheme birds.’
“A scheme,” she says, “is like a non-snobby place to stay.”
Gemma never knew her mother. She was raised, instead, by her grandfather who she calls Papa.
Papa is teaching Gemma boxing. When not teaching, Papa raises and releases large numbers of pigeons. Every Friday Papa hosts a kind of competition regarding which is the finest pigeon that day. Gemma says the birds fly around the world, most return.
Directed by first-time feature documentary directors Ellen Fiske and Ellinor Hallin, Scheme Birds follows Gemma and her friends as they drift into adulthood.
You will not forget Gemma.
Scheme Birds had its world premier at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival where it won Best Documentary Feature and the festival’s ‘Albert Maysles New Documentary Director Award.’
You may access the film here.
(I hope Gemma finds a way to quit smoking.)
In 2002, veteran filmmaker Sarah Feinbloom produced and directed What Do You Believe?—The Religious Lives of American Teenagers. The award-winning film was featured on PBS, and screened internationally. In 2019, she released her follow-up film What Do You Believe Now?—The Spiritual Journeys of American Millennials. The film premiered at 2019’s Mill Valley Film Festival.
In the first film Feinbloom interviews six American teenagers about their religious/spiritual beliefs. In the follow-up film Feinbloom juxtaposes interviews of the same teenagers with their interviews as adults.
The teenager interviews reveal a roughly accepted set of beliefs for each of the teens. Their views are, respectively, Catholic, Pagan, Jewish, Muslim, Lakota and Buddhist. The follow-up interviews reveal changes in their beliefs, aspects that remain, and values that inform their adult religious understandings.
Inevitably, viewers see ourselves in these children and adults as they struggle with—and to a degree, resolve—issues human beings have struggled with since there were human beings. We empathize with the losses, gains, and continued struggles the six have experienced over almost two decades.
Inevitably, too, we ponder our own personal beliefs and values, as well as the religious struggles of humanity with its many and varied religious beliefs, practices and institutions.
In addition to her filmmaking career, Feinbloom is also founder and executive director of GOOD DOCS, an educational distribution company specializing in human rights and social issue documentaries.
September 8, 2019
I had occasion to contact filmmaker Steve Burrows recently with an inconsequential question. After that was laid to rest I asked him what’s next in his professional life, and he gave me an unanticipated dramatic earful about the incredible success of his 2018 film, BLEED OUT—about injuries and deaths caused by medical errors—the 3rd leading cause of death in America.
Made on the proverbial shoestring budget, shot over a ten-year period, and with mostly a smartphone and other very small cameras, BLEED OUT has found distribution via HBO as well as a plethora of web-based platforms. Finding effective distribution is one thing, actually making a difference in the world is quite another—the whole point of placing your film in the world—and that is what BLEED OUT has done, and is doing.
BLEED OUT tells the story of the harm done to Steve’s mother, Judie, from a cascade of medical errors. The film is a powerful clarion call for reform, accountability and transparency in American health care.
Burrows writes, “Our film continues to kick ass across all sectors in America, public and private. It has struck a deep nerve. The sense of urgency is palpable. Doctors, hospitals and medical schools across the country have been screening our film and are on-the-record stating BLEED OUT is literally saving lives!’”
Here is a link to a 3-minute clip of healthcare practitioners advocating enthusiastically for the film’s message
Here is a link to the film’s website
Link to my January, 2019 review
“It had never been more obvious to me how deeply flawed and immoral our national priorities are. I started this film questioning our very definition of ‘disaster,’ and amending it, convinced that if we just enlarge that definition, we could address the underlying conditions that are literally killing people every day.” Judith Helfand
The Chicago 1995 heat wave that killed at least 739 people is the inciting incident in Judth Helfand’s Cooked: Disaster by Zip Code. The prolific filmmaker hosts and narrates her film as she shows and tells the story of that disaster, takes us on her train of thought about social inequities, and suggests a widened concept of ‘disaster.’
Helfand noted that when there is a disaster—earthquake, hurricane, fire, etc.—there is usually an effective rapid response. She notes, though, that Chicago’s response to the heat wave was weighted toward neighborhoods of well-off Caucasians—hence, the 739 deaths. She also notes that 1995’s inequities were typical of United States’ disaster responses.
Contemplating the word and idea ‘disaster,’ Helfand expands the notion to include poverty, under-resourced communities, and discrimination—’disasters in slow motion.’ (I would add species extinctions—though, sadly, that disaster is not so slow.) Helfand’s proposal is simple yet daunting—provide the same type of urgent attention to those social ills as we give to our weather, flood, and fire disasters.
The substance of Cooked is the aforementioned Chicago fire, explorations of her ideas in dialog with authorities, officials, and experts, interviews with victims, and her thoughts as she shares her responses to the information she discovers.
In addition to the information and stories Helfand provides, her charm and empathy impacts viewers as much as the film’s overt substance.
Although there is no want of documentaries, essays, research studies, articles, websites, and books about social inequities in the United States, Cooked is another important, moving contribution to our national dialogs on injustice in its many varieties.
Cooked: Survival by Zip Code is available on iTunes, Amazon, and GooglePlay.
(Pictured: Judith Helfand)
Unraveling Athena tells many stories of the path from little girl to number one world tennis champion.
Produced and directed by Francis Amat, the film traces the journeys of 21 champions from early childhood to post career. Each champion has undergone an extensive interview which editor Pepe Plaza has skillfully woven into a masterly edited montage which also includes tennis coaches, agents, other authorities, and clips of rallies.
By film’s conclusion we are stunned, in awe, and feel as if we have been with these champions throughout their long, arduous, fulfilling journey. One needn’t be a player nor a fan to be moved by the women of Amat’s film.
Unraveling Athena transcends the sport of tennis, and draws us into the realms of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, an ascension into the mythological search for Ithaca, and a realization of the archetype of Athena.
Billie Jean King
(Pictured: Evonne Goolagong)
Prolific documentary filmmaker Jesse Moss has introduced us to ‘The Family’ via his film of the same name.
Available on Netflix, The Family covers this now not-so-secret secret organization’s history and global outreach.
Founded by Abraham Vereide in 1935, in San Francisco, the loosely structured organization expanded and spread around the globe. The key players attempted to keep this non-organization organization secret as long as possible. Yet, now there is this five-part documentary.
The Family is based on two ideas and a tactic: A simplified version of Christianity, a focus on the wealthy and powerful, and a ‘prayer breakfast.’
In 1935, Vereide along with Major J.F. Douglas began hosting ‘prayer breakfasts’ for local leaders. The phenomenon expanded nationally and internationally. The idea is to meld government with The Family’s version of Christianity, and to use that combo to promote a right-wing political agenda—globally.
The United States’ annual ‘National Prayer Breakfast’ in Washington, D.C. has been attended by every US President since Dwight D. Eisenhower. DC-based, our ‘Breakfast’ has morphed over the decades into a week or two orgy of political lobbying.
Moss’s film is informed by the work of author Jeff Sharlet from his two books, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power and C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy. Sharlet appears throughout the film speaking of The Family, sharing his experience as a young ‘Family’ member in a local group.
The Family paints a stunning, harrowing picture of insidious domestic and international proselytizing by the rich and powerful.
Accomplished filmmaker Tom Donahue’s This Changes Everything covers the status quo of gender discrimination in the film industry.
Despite a smattering of women’s names found in film and television credits, the gender gap is still very much with us. The impact is global. The resistance to reform is powerful. Although they were approached, not one Hollywood studio head responded to the call for an interview.
Featuring state-of-the-art production quality, This Changes Everything features both disturbing statistics as well as daunting stories from dozens of high profile women who work—or struggle to work—in the film industry. This status quo is a political, social, and economic injustice—a crime, if federal statutes regarding discrimination were to be considered.
The meta issue, though, is the tragic impact that the lack of gender parity has on global culture. Girls and women are exposed to images and stories of a world dominated by men. The impact truncates their sense of self, their beliefs of what is possible, their potential. It also contributes to the perpetuation of misogyny in all its myriad forms. In turn, our national and global society are adversely impacted—and that it a massive understatement.
This Changes Everything covers, of course, initiatives to address gender discrimination the most high profile of which is the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.
Our world is facing seemingly countless existential threats. It may be challenging to view this film industry gender issue as a crucial inequity to be reformed, yet a world in which women and men share equally in all aspects of the production of filmed entertainment would create an urgently-needed sea change in our global culture. It would change everything.
(Pictured: Geena Davis)
For those unfamiliar, Ram Dass was known as Dr. Richard Alpert, a Harvard-based psychologist. If you are one of those, Becoming Nobody is the best filmic introduction ever to the iconic psychologist turned spiritual teacher.
As of this writing—August, 2019—Ram Dass lives in Maui, Hawaii. He is 88 years old, living with the physical results of a stroke—but otherwise, very much with us.
Becoming Nobody features many Ram Dasses. We hear and see him speaking to large groups of people at various venues, at various times, around the United States—if not the world. And, we are with him in Maui, in dialog with director Jamie Catto.
The film provides a sequence of teachings that form the fundamental messages Ram Dass has shared with our world. For those of us already familiar with his teachings, Becoming Nobody is a review of his life’s teachings, and a thoroughly engaging delight. It is awe-inspiring to see our teacher in his later years, in his wheelchair, and thoroughly present.
For those not familiar with Ram Dass’s teachings, he has found words and expressions about spirit, or Eastern philosophy, or Indian religions that succinctly translate this wisdom for us Western folks. That is, you are in for a treat, a discovery—and a lot of contemplation.
Becoming Nobody opened September 6, in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Stay in touch with the film’s website for more information about seeing the film.
Ram Dass and Love Serve Remember Foundation
Directed by Pita Juarez and Matty Steinkamp, You Racist, Sexist, Bigot is a call for respect for human diversity and human rights. The documentary features several people speaking to camera, speaking to us, telling their stories, sharing their experience, and expressing their opinions.
The film brings intolerance, bias, and violence out of the realms of words, ideas, and news reports, into the viscera of our emotions, into our hearts and minds. The ideal audience for the film would be, of course, entrenched racists, sexists, and bigots. But, at least those of us who value honoring diversity can and will see the film.
My philosophy states that if one, such as yours truly, sees oneself as unbiased, one is anything but. Bias seems to be written into our genetic code. Best we can do is admit our biases, and say, ‘I’m working on it.’
Featuring high production values, You Racist, Sexist, Bigot is a perfect film to help us confront and work on our own biases, and, especially, listen to and support victims of bias and intolerance.
“She was more or less forgotten by the industry that she helped create.”
Abigail Disney, Hugh Hefner, Jodie Foster, and Robert Redford are just a few of the people responsible for the production of Pamela P. Green’s Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché.
They had one intention: Righting a wrong by unearthing the life, times, and contributions of this pioneering filmmaker who is credited with being the first female narrative film director.
Born and raised in France, Guy-Blaché (1873-1968) wrote, produced, directed, edited, and performed in countless films. She founded and ran Solax, a film studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey—the city considered the real birthplace of Hollywood. Over the first few decades of the 20th century, the absolutely crucial role she played in the emergence of filmed entertainment was gradually edited out of film history.
Narrated by Foster, the film follows Guy-Blache’s work, her personal life, her ascent, her apparent disappearance from the filmmaking world, and the rediscovery of her pioneering role in filmmaking history. The film’s title—‘Be Natural’—is the advice Guy-Blaché gave to her nascent actors.
The film is fast-paced, extremely well produced, and leaves viewers with dropped jaws in response both to Guy-Blache’s epic story as well as the high quality of this production honoring her legacy.
Unless one has zero interest in filmed entertainment, Be Natural is an absolute must-see. Yours truly will be viewing it at least one more time.
Be Natural is distributed by Kino Lorber.
“If you look at her from the beginning, it would be a cautionary tale about all of us.”
Dan Ariel, behavioral economist
As of this point in time, Elizabeth Holmes is scheduled to go on trial in federal court on July 28, 2020, for allegedly defrauding investors, doctors and the public.
In The Inventor documentary film god Alex Gibney tells Holmes’ story of a twenty-something woman who cooked up a nine-billion-dollar valued tech company called Theranos—a contraction of the words ‘therapy’ and ‘diagnosis’—only to see the company and her dream crash.
Holmes’ idea was to provide people direct access to potentially life-saving blood tests. She envisioned a small box called ‘Edison’ that could perform more than 200 blood tests. The tests would be purchased by customers at drug stores, and the box—like some sort of dedicated desktop computer—might even be available in homes.
Rather than the conventional blood draw from the arm, customers or users would experience a less painful finger stick, quicker results, and much lower costs than traditional blood labs. The intention was to make it easier for people to get blood tests, and would be more likely to discern potential problems sooner, and receive potential treatments sooner.
Her idea would require, of course, that the medical world relinquish its convention of requiring a physician’s order for blood tests. That sticky problem aside, the main problem was the idea is unworkable.
Utilizing a remarkable amount of access to images, information about Holmes, and and about people—many from the halls of power—caught up in the company’s maelstrom, Gibney escorts viewers through the rise and fall of Theranos and its founder. The result is a stunning, jaw-dropping fairy-tale turned nightmare.
The Inventor is an HBO documentary available via HBOGO, HBONow, Amazon Prime Video, and Play Station Vue.
“I am eternally in a state of bewildered awe as to what they are capable of. I never look at the individual dog and say ‘what a clever dog.’ To me, it’s the dog/shepherd unit that’s most impressive.”
Dr. Nick Cave, Massey University, New Zealand.
New Zealander Paul Sorenson had his fair share of an unhappy childhood, yet he found solace and healing in dogs. Sorenson began training sheepdogs at the age of 14. In adulthood he and wife Honey purchased a large farm, and managed a large flock of sheep with sheepdogs. Sorenson became a teacher, a television celebrity—and amassed a lifetime of awards.
In Old Dog veteran filmmaker Sally Rowe follows Sorenson and company as he does his work with dogs, and passes on his canine wisdom to farmers. Although Sorenson provides countless pointers, compassion and connection are the primary traits he imparts to his students. In retirement he still teaches farmers—without charge.
Seeing dogs shepherd sheep and cows is intrinsically fascinating. With Old Dog Rowe pairs that fascination with the raw beauty of New Zealand vistas.
The title Bathtubs Over Broadway, may, like the film it represents, seem cutesy and quirky, but this documentary has a serious subtext—the profound story arc of Steve Young’s fairy-tale journey through dark humor, into joy and compassion.
A writer on ‘The Late Night with David Letterman’ for 25 years, Young came upon mysterious vinyl LPs of cast albums of Broadway style musicals that promoted the interests of large corporations.
Curious and intrigued, the veteran comedy writer became a passionate—if not obsessed—collector of any and all things industrial musical. By virtue of his high showbiz status Young was able to garner easy access to writers and performers of industrial shows. His story’s fitting climax finds Young co-writing, co-producing, and performing in an industrial musical celebrating, of course, industrial musicals.
Dava Whisenant’s feature length directorial debut quickly pulls viewers into this hitherto unknown world, and one person’s passion so intense he became a high-profile part of that world. A big festival winner, Bathtubs Over Broadway is a thoroughly engaging and delightful film.
(Pictured: A Fully Transformed Steve Young)
‘The Okavango Delta is one of the largest freshwater wetlands in southern Africa, the main source of water for a million people, and one of Africa’s richest places for biodiversity. Since 2015, National Geographic Fellow Dr. Steve Boyes and an interdisciplinary team of scientists and explorers have been surveying the river system and working to protect the Okavango watershed.’
“When I discovered the Okavango Delta—I think I’d been searching for it my entire life. It was this vastness—this incredible unending wilderness. I saw what the world used to be without us. And it is delicate—a delicate thing that we need to protect.” Dr. Steve Boyes
Into the Okavango follows Boyes’ and his expeditionary party of explorers on a grueling four-month, 1,500 mile, life-changing trek as part of National Geographic’s Okavango Wilderness Project to save the river system that feeds the delta—one of Earth’s last wetland wilderness.
Director Neil Gelinas provides captivating nature images and sounds as he and his production team follow the trekkers and their ten long, thin canoes from journey’s start to end. Into the Okavango is one of those documentary films that makes you yearn for a making-of special feature.
“The person I was when I started this expedition is completely different than the person I was when I left it. I learned to let the ghosts of the past stay in the past. The trip changed all of our molecules. It changed how I see everything, including what it means to be an Angolan.” Adjany Costa, expedition biologist
“I don’t know of any playwright more intuitive, more reliant on taking stuff from the unconscious, and letting that create form.” Edward Albee
The Rest I Make Up has three characters.
- Cuban-American Maria Irene Fornes (May 14, 1930 – October 30, 2018), is the legendary off-Broadway playwright who wrote more than 40 plays, won nine Obies, and mentored countless playwrights.
2. Michelle Memran is the journalist and filmmaker who first met and interviewed Fornes in 1999, and produced and directed this portrait of Fornes. Beginning in 2003, Memran spent time filming with Fornes in New York, Cuba, and Miami. The playwright was experiencing memory loss, eventually diagnosed as Alzheimer’s.
3. The third character in The Rest I Make Up is the camera. Memran is concurrently holding the camera and dialoguing with Fornes. Here, the camera becomes a medium of connection rather than a barrier to connection.
Memran’s portrait of Fornes is of a delightful, intelligent, passionate, creative, accomplished woman with a golden heart. Yes, Memran does confront the subject of memory loss, but in doing so it becomes clear that the above-mentioned qualities are still present—as words and time conduct Maria Irene Fornes to her passing.
The Rest I Make Up filled my memory with the feeling of a sparkling bright presence.
“I realized very early, this is the best gig I’m ever going to have.” Adam Gussow
Films—fiction or nonfiction—do not get any more inspiring than Satan & Adam.
Director V. Scott Balcerek tells the story of African American Sterling Magee and Caucasian Adam Gussow who spent 12 years as a duo writing and performing blues songs.
They met on the streets of Harlem. Magee, who had bitterly abandoned conventional music business and taken on the stage name of Mr. Satan, was playing and singing as a one man band.
In October, 1986, while Satan was on the street, performing near the Apollo Theater, Gussow, this white Jewish graduate student who was drifting through a lost period of his young life, boldly started playing harmonica to accompany Satan’s music.
The two musicians first became a street sensation, and with a little inspiration from U2’s The Edge—and many other people—toured the United States and Europe, recorded albums, had agents for a period of time, and eventually drifted apart.
But, that was far from the end of their story.
In addition to making people-pleasing music, the bonding of these two musicians created racial, cultural, and generation gap bridges that fueled audiences’ intrigue and appreciation of their partnership.
The sensation of this story, and the expertise the producing team brought to its cinematic telling make Satan & Adam an absolute must see.
Satan & Adam is available on Netflix, iTunes, and for purchase from the film’s website.
“The only reason I’m on this Earth is to be with dogs. This is all I know. This is all I’ve ever known. This is all I want to know.”
Australia’s Jacob Leezak has had much more than his fair share of trauma. His life’s journey, however, carefully guided this big, strong man to the world of dogs. He founded and runs the Canine Behaviour Expert Dog Psychology Centre on the outskirts of Sydney.
Accomplished actor Eryn Wilson covers Leezak’s life and work with dogs in his directorial feature film debut Dog’s Best Friend. Having viewed this heart-felt documentary, the term ‘best friend’ is not hyperbole. Leezak houses and rehabilitates dogs who likely would have been euthanized or otherwise lived a short, miserable life. His love affair with dogs knows no bounds. The center never has fewer than 30 dogs.
Wilson follows Leezak as he spends time with dogs, speaks about his life experiences, his manner of helping dogs, and as he works with them. Amongst many other approaches, Leezak uses a treadmill, a small water pool, and massage to rehabilitate his charges.
The only other human who shares significant screen time in this film is Jennah who is pregnant with their first child during shooting. She, too, has had a daunting, a very daunting life experience, and has found her way to a healing life experience. And, yes, we get to meet the loving couple’s baby at film’s conclusion.
Dog’s Best Friend is a delightful, moving film about a loving hero and his devoted relationship with dogs.
Check in with any of the links below for the latest news about its release.
“My dad, in the late sixties, brought home a photograph of Earth, as seen from outer space. And I was so impressed by it, but one, it made me realize, in the overall scheme of things, that our planet is quite small and quite finite. The other thing that was very noticeable is, I mean, clearly it’s a blue planet, but of all the water on this Earth, 97% is saline, it’s in the oceans, two percent is locked up in ice. That only leaves us one percent that’s found in lakes and rivers, and a lot of that water is not accessible.
“So, really, when you talk about it, when you really come down to it, we have a very small amount of water, and that’s got to accommodate, not only the needs that humans have, for drinking water, but it’s got to accommodate all of those other needs—agricultural needs, industrial needs, [and the flora and fauna of Earth.] So, I think we have to treat water in a much more respectful way. I think we have to treat rivers in a much more respectful way, than we have in the past.” Mark Angelo, International River Conservationist
Co-directors David McIlvride and Roger Williams have given us RiverBlue about the contamination and literal deaths of rivers around the world. We have had a cornucopia of documentary films and television shows about our oceans, now this well-produced documentary shifts that focus to the primary source of our drinking water, rivers.
Mark Angelo is the film’s unofficial host as he goes around the world, speaking about the massive tragedy—along with a few other interviewees speaking passionately on the tragedy of dying rivers, and of initiatives to bring them back to life.
Williams and McIlvride focus on the textile and tannery industries as one of the most, if not the most culpable sources of pollution. Within that industry they focus on blue jeans the manufacture of which is a huge contributor to river destruction. The directors also interview designers and boutique garment manufacturers who are recreating the design and manufacturing process in a much less destructive manner.
Narrated by Jason Priestly, RiverBlue is a prime example of a film feeding back to us consumers the destruction of the environment, and the loss of life wrought by our careless purchases. Following the film, I heartily suggest you go to the film’s ‘Take Action’ section to act on the daunting information the film provides. Yours truly will seek out his next jeans purchase from one of those reformed manufacturers. And, I have placed the annual World Rivers Day on my calendar.