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 Posthttps://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

 

Point of No Return tells and shows the story of Solar Impulse, the first solar powered airplane to fly around the world. The environmental demonstration project was created by Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg who took turns piloting the plane through the legs of its 505 day journey at an average speed of 45 MPH. The plane could only hold one pilot at a time.

As a first-of project Solar Impulse was vulnerable to the caprice of weather and wind, sun and shade, to limitations of the plane’s technology, and the challenges each of the pilots faced in staying awake and alert.

Following the project from before the flight’s beginning through after its end, filmmakers Quinn Kanaly and Noel Dockstader take viewers on a harrowing journey that could have easily ended in tragedy—especially considering that the two pilots dared fate by not listening to some of the 120 support staff who recommended ending the flight at certain points before its completion.

Point of No Return tells its story of a bold and dangerous journey with gorgeous cinematography. Like Ron Howard’s ‘Apollo 13,’ despite our foreknowledge of the film’s triumphant conclusion, Kanaly and Dockstader keep us viewers on the edge of our seats.

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Official Trailer

Written and directed by veteran filmmaker Nicolas Brown, The Serengeti Rules tells the story of the discovery of keystone species—species that play a crucial role in the health of their environment. Their presence supports their environment, and absence degrades it.

The film takes viewers around the world, features a handful of distinguished scientists speaking of this discovery, and reenactments of poignant moments in their respective processes of discovery. Bob Paine is credited with the discovery of this dynamic of nature.

Over decades these scientists confirmed and reconfirmed Paine’s discovery. They researched and found examples of ‘the Serengeti rules’ throughout the world. One of those examples was Serengeti National Park, and that particular region gave this process its name.

An Abramorama release The Serengeti Rules is a masterpiece of documentary filmmaking. In addition to telling a compelling story, Brown provides gorgeous images of nature along with a powerful, evocative soundtrack.

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(Pictured: Sean B. Carroll, author of The Serengeti Rules)

“We don’t care if they adopt from us, we just want them to adopt. It’s just saving lives.” Ron Danta

Four million animals a year are euthanized annually in the United States—primarily because of human carelessness and the greed of puppy mill operators.

Companion and partners Ron Danta and Danny Robertshaw are doing anything and everything they possibly can to reduce that number. Their work was initially inspired when they rescued 600 dogs abandoned in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The two men converted their home into a rescue and adoption organization. Their volunteer work is supported, in part, by their day jobs as equestrian trainers. So far they have carefully adopted out more than 11,000 dogs who otherwise would have been part of the above-mentioned four million. And the dogs they have not been able to adopt out, well…, the fortunate canines live out their lives well taken care of at Danny and Ron’s Rescue

Director Ron Davis tells their story in Life in the Doghouse—a perfectly produced documentary about the two deeply compassionate men, their work, and their many, many dogs.

Davis’ film is thoroughly engaging, heartbreaking, fascinating, and inspiring.

Life in the Dog House is a Docutainment Films production, and is available from Microsoft Store, Amazon, Netflix, and iTunes Store—although headlines indicate there will no longer be iTunes, I am sure Apple will find a way to sell the film.

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Written, directed and narrated by Alison McAlpine, Cielo is a contemplation of the sky—night, day and twilight. But, not just any sky, the sky above the Atacama Desert, Chile—one of the driest, clearest places on Earth. By virtue of these qualities, this desert is home to several observatories, their staffs, and a few seemingly indigenous people of the desert.

McAlpine interviews astronomers and a few of the populace of the Atacama desert. Each interviewee evokes a unique worldview. As the film’s cinematic images flow—a few with music, most with silence—and as interviewees share their diverse perspectives, viewers are captivated with awe.

Covering both the etheric and chthonic, McAlpine arrives at existential questions beyond the sensational beauty of the sky and the haunting rain-free desert.

Observatories’ ability to receive light from the cosmos is hampered by human generated light. The enlightening of our world via human light is as much an endarkening of the worlds beyond our atmosphere. We see our world artificially illuminated at night, and lose sight of the multiverse.

In lieu of purchasing a ticket to outer space, or visiting the Atacama Desert, Cielo is your best bet to see the virtually unencumbered night sky.

Cielo has received at least five well-deserved film festival awards.

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“There are two things we can do. We can sing and we can love.” Steve Huffines

On the heels of Trump’s presidential campaign and victory, state-driven pro-discrimination initiatives, and anti-LGBTQ citizen activism, Steve Huffines had a suggestion.

The former Board Chairperson of the San Francisco Gay Chorus proposed an odyssey to the American southeast, singing to the most hard-core conservative, Christian audiences in the United States. Huffine’s audience was Dr. Tim Seelig, the Chorus Artistic Director and conductor.

Joined by the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, the Lavender Pen Tour occurred in October 2017, and in 2019 David Charles Rodrigues’ documentary, Gay Chorus Deep South was released. The film follows the tour beginning a week before departure.

Rodrigues provides beautiful, inspiring music, interviews with several participants, and scenes of people—seemingly of two different planets—meeting and connecting with each other.

Although there is no want for dramatic personal stories in Gay Chorus Deep South, Seelig’s epic story stands out. It was after he married and had two children that he came out, and paid a dear price for his liberation. I cannot speak, of course, for the personal result, yet I can say that our world is much brighter, lighter, and compassionate by virtue of his courage and grace.

Gay Chorus Deep South is currently playing the festival circuit. It will soon find theatrical distribution. Stay in touch with the film’s website for more information about its commercial release. If I was an Academy member I would place the film on the 2019 short list of feature documentary nominees.

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“Hatcheries are pawns in a game of political power. The whole thing is about money. Fishing is a huge industry, and every state is in it for those dollars. It’s not about conserving our resources, it’s perverting our resources on a short-term bet to get tourist dollars in.” Dave Philip, Conservation Geneticist

“I thought of hatcheries as something that actually, kind of helped us as fishermen—that there would be more fish in the river, and we were allowed to kill the hatchery fish, so that meant a meal. I don’t think I ever had one second where I thought about conservation at all. I thought about getting enough money for gas and pizza, so that I could fish all the time. What I didn’t realize was that we’re really at the tail end of a long decline of wild fish [populations].” Dylan Tomine, Author

Directed by Josh “Bones” Murphy, Artifishal is an exposé of the hatchery system of creating fish—salmon and trout. In a very short hour and fifteen minutes we learn that hatcheries—and open water fish farms—are damaging fish, causing genetic devolution, wasting billions of our tax dollars, and leading the way to the extinction of fish species. The film describes the hatchery system as a multi-billion dollar boondoggle. The above expensive salmon reference refers to the cost per salmon of a particular hatchery release.

Artifishal is an expertly produced documentary film. It is currently on the festival circuit. The film had its world premiere at Tribeca Film Festival—and recently screened at Telluride Mountainfilm. The west coast premier is at the Seattle International Film Festival. Click HERE for dates. Go to the bottom of the film’s website to learn of more screenings, stay in touch with that site for more information about screenings and distribution.

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“You’re cut off from the whole world. You can’t go to school. You can’t make a living. So, writing becomes the only recourse to feel a sense of ownership of one’s self.” Interviewee

Within a two-week period I have received, viewed, and now reviewed two documentary films on the Holocaust in Poland. Having seen and learned from both films, I understand why.

The pre-Holocaust population of Polish Jews was 3 million, the largest Jewish community in Europe. The German war machine wiped out this thriving, peaceful community. The statistics regarding the number of survivors vary. Suffice it to say, that amount is small. One wonders what quality of life survivors would have experienced.

Written, produced, and directed by Roberta Grossman, Who Will Write Our History answers the title’s question quickly: Emanuel Ringelblum—along with a team of people.

Grossman’s film tells two stories: The Holocaust in Poland, and Ringelblum’s gathering of a team of people who, prior to the decimation of Warsaw, collected and recorded as many aspects of Jewish life in Poland as possible. The team created three secret archives. Together they are called the Oyneg Shabes Archives. Following the war, a herculean effort unearthed the first two archives. The third is rumored to be buried underneath China’s embassy in Warsaw.

Who Will Write Our History is a stunning, masterfully produced film. Grossman weaves interviews, narration, voice-over readings of Ringelblum’s writings, elaborate reenactments, archival material, and, of course, images to tell this horrific story—and the heroic efforts of a small group of people to memorialize the prewar community of Jews in Poland.

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(Pictured: Emanuel Ringelblum)

‘Drift’ is a geological term for soil and rocks transported and deposited by glaciers.

For a variety of reasons articulated in Jonas Stenstrom’s Decoding the Driftless there is a region in the upper mid-west United States that escaped being overrun by ice during the last ice age. The ice ‘drift’ failed to cover the area known glibly as ‘the Driftless Region.’

In one-hour, Stentrom’s fast-paced, quirky Decoding the Driftless treats viewers with the many unusual charms and fascinations of the Driftless Region—which covers parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois. This driftless land is qualitatively different from drift-covered land.

In addition to the film’s sensational content, I was touched and inspired by the passion and dedication of the filmmakers in making a serious yet upbeat plea for protecting this unique region of America’s land.

Decoding the Driftless is a project of Sustainable Driftless, Inc. which “is dedicated to inspiring resource conservation, vibrant communities, and sustainable growth in the Driftless Region.” (I wish we had one of those in my region.)

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“Until that expiring day comes, I’m not going to stop. Not until we make more people realize that laughing at a disease takes away its power. If you really sit, and actually think about that, it can have some pretty profound effects on how the way you live your life.” Jeremie Saunders

Jeremie Saunders has cystic fibrosis, a terminal disease. He is living way beyond his predicted ‘expiring day.’ Together with friends Brian Stever, and Taylor MacGillivary, Saunders created a podcast called, of course, Sickboy.

In Sickboy director Andrew MacCormack tells Saunders’ personal story, and follows the painful creation and eventual success of their daring enterprise. Saunders is the virtual host of the film.

The Sickboy podcast features guests with various and sundry maladies some of which are terminal. Each podcast consists of the three young men interviewing a guest who has a disease. As the podcasters interview the guest, they tell their story, and how they came to grips with their illness.

Sickboy is fully engaging, inspiring, and—if you don’t have a heart of glass—tear-jerking. Beyond that, the film is something to give all of us with chronic and/or terminal diseases more ways to think about our illness which, as Saunders’ states, “can have some pretty profound effects” on your life.

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Sickboy is available in the United States at: https://fuse.tv/shows/sickboy/full-documentary

This link to the film only works in Canada at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DfGbxO-1cCw

Sickboy is produced by Dream Street Pictures.

(Pictured: Jeremie Saunders)

The portraits being chased are those of Polish Holocaust victim Moshe Rynecki who painted approximately 800 images of Jewish life in Poland.

The chaser is his great granddaughter Elizabeth Rynecki who has the largest collection of Rynecki’s work in the world, and is the producer/director/narrator of Chasing Portraits.

Three million Jews lived in Poland before the Holocaust, 300,000 survived. Three of those 300,000 were Elizabeth’s grandfather and parents who immigrated to the United States.

Elizabeth choose to go on a quest for her family’s story and its legacy, and a search for Moshe’s lost art wherever it may be. The overt inciting incident for her odyssey was the discovery of a few lost images from the artist—and the legal inability to even display them on her great grandfather’s memorial website. Her search took Elizabeth through Poland and Israel.

A search for history, for heritage, a connection with a family’s past, and for personal closure, Chasing Portraits is equally sad and endearing.

Chasing Portraits is a First Run Features release.

Moshe Rynecki Website

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(Pictured: Elizabeth Rynecki)

Kate Brooks’ The Last Animals is about the killing of elephants and rhinoceroses.

Her expertly produced documentary covers the killers, those fighting and dying in the field to stop the killing, those bringing the killers to justice, activists around the world working to stop the slaughter, and working to bring species back via genetic processes.

That’s a tall order for a 90 minute film. Brooks delivers it with grace and aplomb. But, there’s more.

She also covers the global trade in elephant tusks and rhino horns. We learn some of the perpetrators are large criminal organizations now using helicopters, night vision devices, and powerful weapons to add horns and tusks to their menu of drugs, human trafficking, and slaves.

The Last Animals jolts viewers to pay much more attention. Like so many environmental documentary films, this one is an absolute must-see.

Follow-up is crucial. Here is the link to Brooks’ TAKE ACTION site.

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Ten years in the making, Modified is veteran filmmaker Aube Giroux’s inspiring, infuriating plea for the United States and Canada to start labeling food products containing genetically modified ingredients. The film tore up the festival circuit with at least ten wins, and was selected by at least twelve other festivals.

Giroux tells her personal story of an idyllic mother-daughter relationship and the legacy of respect for food, gardening, and farming that mother Jali instilled in her daughter—a legacy that includes this finely produced documentary.

The film covers many aspects of the use of genetic manipulation of food, including the massive amount of money involved, the buying of restrictive governmental policies that hide crucial information about genetic manipulation of foods, the adverse effects GM foods have on agriculture and farmers, and the unknown effects on human health.

Many years ago, when I first learned that one use of GM foods is to make crops able to be treated by pesticides without harm to the plants, I thought the world had gone mad. Life-killing chemicals on top of genetically manipulated crops, what can go wrong? What is going wrong? Although the information is censored, the heroes in this story—citizen activists, journalists, and filmmakers are breaking through the censors’ walls.

You may have read about or seen films about the potential adverse effects of GM foods. Whether or not you have, I urge readers to see this film. In addition to the quality of the film’s production, the personal story is touching, it deepens the film’s impact.

On the film’s website, make sure you scroll all the way through the TAKE ACTION page. As always, be a part of the solution.

Caution: Giroux includes scenes of her creation of various dishes with ingredients from her organic garden and farm. You will want to reach into the screen to dine on these enticing dishes. You can find these recipes HERE.

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“I’ve been river-guiding here on the Rio Grande for the past six years. I want people to know what’s out here. I want the love to be shared. This is wilderness as wild as it gets.” Austin Alvarado

 

Ben Masters’ The River and the Wall is a simple, elegant, well-produced film about the insane wall the United States’ government is building along the Mexican/US border—and a powerful appeal to find much less destructive and much more productive ways to approach that borderline and its iconic river.

On bicycle, horseback, canoe and foot, Masters, Jay Kleberg, Filipe Deandrade, Heather Mackey, and Austin Alvarado trek the Rio Grande. They are taking in the wonders of the watershed, the mountains, the canyons, the wildlife—and bemoaning the destruction being wrought.

Although the idea seems simple—a twelve hundred mile odyssey along the border, from El Paso to the Gulf Mexico—I grimaced throughout the film as the five faced countless dangers on the land, and in the river. By film’s end I breathed a sigh of relief that there were no life-changing injuries to humans and equines.

Master’s and company have made a compelling statement about the river and the wall—and provided gorgeous vistas along the way.

The next step is for people to see this movie. The film’s theatrical release is on May 3—with a one-night showing on May 2 at hundreds of theaters.

Go to the homepage to purchase the film. If you can, I highly recommend you see the film at a theater, and/or to purchase the Blu-ray edition.

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“Music happens in a particular moment in time, and it changes everything going forward.” Jackson Browne

Boy, if there was ever a documentary that screams the showbiz adage ‘leave them wanting more’ it is the utterly delightful Echo in the Canyon.

The film is about a time—the 1960s; a place—southern California’s Laurel Canyon; and the music of a handful of iconic artists that echoed way beyond the Canyon.

This particular time and place birthed an artesian well of young, talented, songwriters, musicians—and music that changed the world.

Producer/director Andrew Slater covers the preparations for, and the presentation of a 2015 concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Laurel Canyon music scene—and includes interviews with several of our icons.

Held at Los Angeles’ Orpheum Theatre, the standing room only concert featured contemporary artists performing both well- and lesser-known songs from this era. The film interspaces clips of rehearsals, recordings, performances, and interviews.

For yours truly, the film’s revelation is Jakob Dylan. I guessed, successfully, that he is, of course, Bob Dylan’s son. I was impressed with his hyper-talent, his dignity and poise—and looks that Central Casting could use for a multitude of roles.

Echo in the Canyon was released in May, 2019.

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Being There / Bound for Glory / Coming Home / Harold and Maude / Shampoo / The Landlord / The Last Detail

 

The 1970s were knighted with the descriptor ‘A Golden Age of Cinema.’ I am not sure if that phrase would have been warranted had it not been for the seven films listed above. Hal Ashby made those brilliant, entertaining, moving, humorous seven films in a short nine-year period of time. Each of these films made a strong point, and did so with deep respect for character and relationship.

Ashby did not receive the level of attention a few of his contemporaries enjoyed, but he certainly deserved it. However, the amount of adoration those filmmakers received may have been too much attention and too many distractions for this passionate rebel.

Amy Scott’s HAL reminds us old folks of Hal Ashby’s unforgettable films, and introduces the filmmaker’s work to subsequent generations to enjoy. Scott interviews those who knew Ashby, and covers the making of the above films.

HAL is a must-see film for anyone and everyone who love movies. I cannot recommend HAL too much. I was engaged from the beginning, and did not want the film to end.

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“The truth, it’s in the eye of the beholder.” Dr. Ahron Bregman

It is the 1970s. Amongst other activities, Egyptian businessman Ashraf Marwan is a spy. He has approached Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, and provides Egyptian intelligence. Marwan is a double agent.

It appears that Tom Meadmore’s The Spy Who Fell to Earth is a story about a spy who died—literally by falling to earth from the back deck of his London flat. The official investigation of Marwan’s death concluded that its cause is ‘Unknown.’ The fall is the inciting incident to writer/journalist/historian Ahron Bregman’s story of his relationship with Ashraf Marwan. Bregman outed Marwan as a spy, and claimed that his true allegiance was to Egypt, not Israel.

Although the question of who was Marwan’s real handlers is the spine of the film, the heart of the film is Bregman’s relationship with this unfortunately celebrated spy. Bregman tells his story over the course of the film, revealing his changing motivations in the progress of their relationship which eventually became a friendship. Bregman suffers greatly with the thought his actions may have been the cause of his friend’s death.

The Spy Who Fell to Earth is a thoroughly engaging, expertly produced documentary film. It is currently available via Netflix. Worldwide distribution is by Kew Media Group.

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(Pictured: Ahron Bregman)

Set in the plain of Thessaly is the farming village of Elias with a total population of 33 elderly people. The young people have left, the economy has tanked.

This is the world filmmaker Marianna Economou inhabits for 72 minutes in her When Tomatoes Met Wagner. Alexander and Christos are our principle characters. They are frequently seen and heard speaking, sometimes in the middle of a field, debating which music to play for the tomatoes through the field’s loudspeakers. The ambitious, college-educated Alexander is their apparent leader.

The village is responding to their dire circumstances by producing and selling food products to an international market. The challenge is how to do so in a radically transformed world.

I am charmed and enchanted by When Tomatoes Met Wagner. I did not want the film to end. Borrowing a phrase from Tevye, if I was a rich man, I would rush to visit Elias.

The current website for the film is its Facebook page. To learn about screenings, see the page’s ‘About’ section.

“We’ve been living so long under the tyranny of the fossil fuel industry, that it’s come to seem normal to us. The abuse that it gives us seems normal because we’ve never experienced life without it.” Sandra Steingraber

Unfractured refers to an area, state, or nation that has decided to disallow the massively damaging process called ‘fracking.’ It is also the title of Chanda Chevannes’ documentary film about the soft-spoken ecologist and author Sandra Steingraber who successfully led an initiative to permanently ban fracking from the State of New York.

The story takes place the year before that political decision was made. Steingraber has a husband, two children, and two dogs. Her husband has had a series of strokes, her two children need parental attention, and, of course, there’s the two dogs. There is no right or wrong in a decision between family and protecting our environment via a state-based initiative, but for Steingraber, either decision is accompanied by pain.

Decision made, Chevannes follows our hero through a year of personal crisis and non-stop political action—including incarceration and pepper spray.

Steingraber’s journey is both harrowing and triumphant. Unfractured is that rare environmental film that testifies to the power of an individual to make an immeasurably positive contribution to our world.

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(Pictured: Sandra Steingraber and Chanda Chevannes)

“One out of every three bites of food we put in our mouths comes from honey bee pollination.” Dave Hackenberg, Beekeeper, Hackenberg Apiaries

 

I have seen my fair share of documentary films about agriculture and agribusiness—including films about bees. Peter Nelson’s The Pollinators is the most well-produced, comprehensive film about bees I have seen to date.

In addition to telling the story of our mass killing of life-giving bees, Nelson covers the hidden world of bee transporters—those who drive hundreds of bee hives across the United States to pollinate crops. These transporters are on the front line, unhappily witnessing this tragic loss.

Nelson interviews transporters, scientists, farmers, chefs, economists and other authorities, putting the pieces of the puzzle together, forming the answer to the question: Why are our bees dying?

The film also focuses on the positive. Nelson’s inspiring interviewees are passionately dedicated to ending the loss of bees. The film does not stop with the subject of bees, though. We hear from a growing number farmers working to transform American agriculture.

The film’s website contains a crucial ‘Take Action’ page with links to more than 40 resources about bees and agriculture.

There are many fronts in humanity’s destruction of the natural world. It seems as if people are not getting this particular message: bees go, we go. The Pollinators gets this message across to any and all who will sit down, look, and listen.

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Grant Baldwin’s This Mountain Life is about people and mountains—specifically those of British Columbia, a province that consists of 75% mountainous lands. Very few people take advantage of the beauty and majesty available to them in their own province. The film follows a few of the few.

This Mountain Life features Martina Halik and her 60 year old mother, Tania, on a 2,300 kilometer ski trek from Canada to Alaska. That treacherous trek had only been completed once before, and never by a female duo. Baldwin intersperses this harrowing journey with profiles of others who also have strong emotional relationships with the mountains.

This Mountain Life is gorgeous, jaw dropping, and exquisitely shot. I would happily watch another 76 minutes beyond the film’s first 76.

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“The Burren is a region of County Clare in the southwest of Ireland. It’s a karst landscape of bedrock incorporating a vast cracked pavement of glacial-era limestone, with cliffs and caves, fossils, rock formations and archaeological sites. On the Atlantic coast, the precipitous Cliffs of Moher are home to thousands of seabirds, including puffins.”

Katrina Costello’s The Silver Branch is a profile of Irish poet-farmer Patrick McCormack, a resident of The Burren. Covering the work and life of a poet requires that the filmmaker shares a poetic aesthetic—that is, somehow or other, the film must also be a poem. Costello has succeeded in weaving that poetic aesthetic into her film.

In addition to being the film’s subject, McCormack, a nature lover, is also the host and narrator. Accompanied by beautiful music and gorgeous, dramatic images of nature, McCormack tells his personal story, shares his philosophy via both prose and verse, and takes us on a tour of The Burren.

Patrick McCormack is a beautiful man with a beautiful spirit.

From film’s beginning McCormack and Costello entrance viewers with the natural beauty of the land, and the love and deep respect for nature McCormack expresses and embodies.

The filmmakers’ website includes information on how to purchase The Silver Branch—north Americans may contact the filmmakers via the website to learn how to see the film.

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(Pictured: Patrick McCormack)

“As with all great classics, it’s a book that changes every time you read it.” Stacy Schiff, author, Saint-Exupéry biographer

Charles Officer’s film about The Little Prince and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry explains how and why this book can change when read more than once. Officer tells many stories—about Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s tragically short life, the author’s philosophy, as well as the writing and reception of his iconic book which seems to be second only to the Bible in global readership—it has been translated into more than 200 languages.

On the surface of it, one may ask, as I did, ‘Why should I bother with this documentary? It’s just another film about another famous book.’ The answer is simple. Officer’s Invisible Essence draws its viewers into the book and the man who wrote it. We learn of Saint-Exupéry’s heroic journey as an exploration of solitude, isolation, disconnection, and connectedness.

The ‘Aviator’ in the book is telling the story. At book’s beginning he says “I do not want my story to be taken lightly.” Yes, The Little Prince is a children’s book, but having seen this film, I understand why it is crucial for us supposed adults to read and understand the book. Saint-Exupéry challenges us adults to consider who we really are, how and why we avoid, lose, and make connections.

There is an additional thread running through Invisible Essence. We follow a little boy, blind from birth, learning Braille, and reading The Little Prince with his teacher. It seems as if this little prince’s story of discovery parallels Saint-Exupéry’s own story.

Although there are several erudite commentators featured in the film, I found Christine Nelson’s to have the most penetrating insights into the author’s psyche.

At film’s conclusion Thomas De Koninck comments, “The heart is the finest register that we have of all. The importance of the heart with respect to love, that’s very important in The Little Prince—an invisible essence.”

At the moment, Invisible Essence is apparently only available on Netflix. If you do not have Netflix, keep your eyes and ears open, it will be available in other manners.

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(Pictured: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry)

How many pages of text about the nature of beingness and existence have human beings written since the dawn of our existence? Considering the countless number of libraries lost to accident or intention, the number is likely in the quadrillions.

With scientists having penetrated deep inside the atom and far out to the edge of the known universe, we seem to be doing a pretty good job of discerning the nature of existence, not so much the nature of beingness.

The elephant-in-the-room irony regarding all those pages of text is that the ultimate nature of transcendence is intrinsically beyond words.

Yet, obviously, that wordlessness has never stopped us humans from coming up with that countless number of pages of text. And, it has certainly not stopped Daniel Schmidt from founding the Samadhi Center, a meditation retreat in Ontario, Canada, and making films about the spiritual, mystical, and transcendental.

Schmidt and co-creator Tanya Mahar have produced an epic 131 minute documentary entitled Samadhi—a powerful, engaging, and inspiring film about existence, beingness, and the ineffable. Schmidt and Mahar merge text, moving images, and music to impart their wisdom and knowledge. I found great value in their text—and was thoroughly fascinated and entertained by their beatific images and ethereal music.

Samadhi is presented in two parts. Part 1 is entitled ‘Maya, the Illusion of the Self.’ It explores our existence—the world we perceive and in which we participate. Part 2, ‘It’s not what you think,’ focuses on the nature of samadhi, also known as enlightenment, and many other terms.

I cannot state it any better than the film’s cover text: “This film is a must-see for anyone who is interested in journeying beyond the world of the limited self, to the realization of our true nature beyond name and form.”

The box set I viewed provides one Blu-ray disc and one DVD disc. Although all of Schmidt’s films are available for viewing via this link, I whole-heartedly encourage viewers to see Samadhi in the Blu-ray format in order to fully appreciate the beauty of the film’s images. The Samadhi Center’s ‘store’ is here.

The film’s subtitles are available in English, French, Spanish, German, Hindi, and Chinese. I did not see a way to access the subtitles via prompts on the screen, but was able to access them simply via my remote control’s Subtitles button.

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“We’ve taken the right to farm to the point where it’s easily called the right to harm.” Gary Nester, Iowa County Resident

Right To Harm is Annie Speicher’s and Matt Wechsler’s coverage of the damaging health and environmental impacts of factory farms—and citizens’ initiatives to protect themselves, protect their environment, and to, ultimately, make our food-growing systems sustainable.

The film’s focus is on farm animals—hogs and chickens—kept in buildings called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). Between 90 and 95 percent of animals raised for our consumption come from these buildings. Speicher and Wechsler provide many aerial photographs of these CAFOs throughout the film. The white buildings look neat, clean, and modern. The filmmakers wisely avoid the inner environs—that horror story has already been well told and shown.

The film features interviews with families who have been harmed by their proximity to factory farms, authorities speaking about the causes of this harm, and citizen activists confronting industry-friendly politicians. There seems to be a consensus that it will take people-based actions to make a significant difference. The filmmakers point out there are approximately 200 community organizations spread across the United States devoted to farm reform.

Right To Harm is an expertly produced documentary which articulately and elegantly makes its points. The film’s website is also well-produced and includes a ‘Take Action’ link.

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End Game is a 2019 Oscar nominated short documentary film about innovative, compassionate approaches to dying. Based in San Francisco, veteran filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman follow five people through their death process.

The film features physicians BJ Miller, Steve Pantilat and Giovanni Elia who appear throughout the film working with patients, and speaking of the philosophy behind their emerging approach. The film highlights a team approach to care including physicians, nurses, social workers, and chaplains. By film’s conclusion we have experienced what compassionate care looks and feels like.

The film’s website includes a valuable resource section. Scrolling to the bottom, viewers can find Dr. Pantilat’s book, life after the diagnosis, Dr. Miller’s Ted Talk, and Your Conversation Starter Kit.

The topics of death and dying should not be, but are seemingly taboo. End Game is another powerful force in bringing death and dying into the light.

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Preface from Wikipedia: “The Camp Fire was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history to date. It is also the deadliest wildfire in the United States since the Cloquet fire in 1918, and is high on the list of the world’s deadliest wildfires; it is the sixth-deadliest U.S. wildfire overall. It was the world’s costliest natural disaster in 2018.

“Named after Camp Creek Road, its place of origin, the fire started on November 8, 2018, in Butte County, in Northern California. After exhibiting extreme fire behavior through the community of Concow, an urban firestorm formed in the densely populated foothill town of Paradise. The fire caused at least 85 civilian fatalities, with 3 persons still missing, and injured 12 civilians, two prison inmate firefighters, and three other firefighters. It covered an area of 153,336 acres (almost 240 square miles), and destroyed 18,804 structures, with most of the damage occurring within the first four hours. Total damage [estimates] was $16.5 billion; one-quarter of the damage, $4 billion, was not insured. The fire reached 100 percent containment after seventeen days on November 25, 2018.”

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“The Camp Fire Documentary” focuses on the human response to the fire and its aftermath. The film has no narration—it does not need a voice-over. Instead, firefighters, survivors and saviors share their noble and harrowing stories of extreme danger, and heroism.

The film includes cinéma vérité scenes of near-miss escapes through miles of roads surrounded by fire. Amongst the many people interviewed, one stands out—Bobby O’Reiley who appears throughout the film, sharing his experience, telling of his service to many who may not have survived without his valor.

Marna and Robert Carli, owner of Alpine Homes, a care facility for profoundly disabled people most of whom are quadriplegic, saved their afflicted clients with the help of fire personnel. Their journey through the fire took three hours. When they arrived at Chico, Inspirations, an adult daycare center, volunteered to house the clients. Filmmaker Nancy Hamilton Myers also covers the rescue of countless domestic animals.

“The Camp Fire Documentary” is a moving testament to the love, courage, sacrifice, and heroism that human beings are capable of in dire circumstances.

You may view the film via YouTube

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“It’s what we are trying to do. We intentionally go to the darkest corners of the Earth, where there is no hope, and find these kids. And what that does, apart from liberating children, is that it provides hope for everybody now.” Tim Ballard

Operation Toussaint is Nick Nanton’s coverage of Tim Ballard’s initiative to address the trafficking of children. Ballard tells his own story of a husband and father with a cushy government job who abandons that security for his mission to rescue trafficked children around the world, and bring the perpetrators to justice. There are more than 40 million slaves world wide—the largest population of slaves ever. More than two million of them are underage sex slaves.

The name ‘Toussaint’ refers to Haitian liberation hero, François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture. The title is inspired by the center piece of the film—a ‘jump team’ bust of a child sex ring in Haiti led by Ballard, in conjunction with local authorities.

Ballard created Operation Underground Railroad as the context for his work which now has a global outreach. Katherine Ballard, Tim’s wife, created an additional service organization, Child Liberation.

Operation Toussaint is the most sensational, profound socio-political documentary film I have seen since ‘The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.’ As I previously commented about the Ellsberg film, Ballard’s story deserves a respectful, big budget Hollywood narrative production.

There are follow-up documentary films available from the film’s site—scroll down for those films.

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(Pictured: Tim Ballard with rescued child)

“I do believe that it’s un-American to say you can make too much money. I mean the Federalist Papers say if I want to work a hundred hours a week, and never see my family, and die at an early age, that’s my prerogative.” Suzanne, Hedge-Fund Executive

In 2008, photographer/filmmaker Lauren Greenfield began a study of the cult of wealth. In 2017, her study generated a museum exhibition, a 504 page hardcover book, and a 106 minute documentary film, Generation Wealth.

Greenfield interviews several students from Crossroads, her high school which nested many students from wealthy southern California families. Now adults, these classmates speak of their experiences of wealth—as do several other interviewees. She also interviews her children and parents. Greenfield narrates the film, and includes much self-reflection as she does so.

I was most intrigued with interviewee Florian Homm, a former hedge-fund manager now living in exile, in Germany. His epic story is the one I would greenlight as a narrative film.

“At the end of a decayed culture, we retreat into our own comforting illusions. We build walls to cope with the reality around us. We are dying in the same way that other empires have died throughout history. The difference is that this time, when we go down, the whole planet’s gonna go with us.” Chris Hedges, Journalist

Generation Wealth is an utterly sensational, riveting film that equally disturbs and fascinates.

Note: Greenfield has recently launched Girl Culture Films, a production company based in Venice, California, that represents A-list female directors.

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Written, directed, and experienced by Steve Burrows, Bleed Out is another scathing indictment of the United States’ greed-driven healthcare system. In his HBO documentary Burrows tells the story of his mother, Judie, a retired school teacher who was living a vital, active senior life.

Judie had a fall, went in for a partial hip replacement, and ended up in a coma, with brain damage, followed by a stroke. Burrows, a Los Angeles-based performer/writer/producer/director, is as caring a son as any mother could have. There were medical mistakes starting from Judie’s very first procedure. The loving son decided to dare the odds, and began a 10 years-long Sisyphus-ian endeavor for accountability, justice, and to have Judie’s medical and care-giving expenses covered.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, medical error is the third leading cause of death in the United States. Bleed Out addresses this non-stop tragedy. Burrows’ passion engages viewers immediately and never lets go.

It will take a whole lot of voters to support enactment of substantive healthcare reform. Find your way to this documentary, share it far and wide, be part of the solution.

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“If some tropical reefs are able to survive, it will only be because we are finally willing to fight for them.” David Baker, Director, Oregon State Productions

Humanity’s attack on the natural world is massive—on a seemingly uncountable number of fronts. We can see the land, the sky, and rivers. But, for all intents and purposes, we see only the surface of our oceans. Just beneath the ocean’s surface live—or used to live—corals.

Narrated by the ubiquitous Peter Coyote, Saving Atlantis delves into the underwater world of corals—a world under assault by human beings. In the past 50 years more than half the ocean’s corals have disappeared. The two primary causes are rising atmospheric temperatures which also raise ocean temperatures, and oceanic acidification caused by excess carbon gas. Yet, corals play a vital role in preserving the health of the Earth’s ecosphere.

Filmmakers Justin Smith and David Baker take us around the world, visiting 17 locations, hearing from researchers, activists, and people whose lives are directly affected by this loss. The clarion call is sounded. We also see and hear hope. The film highlights inspired people-driven initiatives to mitigate this destruction and loss.

An Oregon State University production, Saving Atlantis is expertly crafted, visually gorgeous, and needs to be seen by everyone.

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‘Burkinabé’ is the generic term for the people of Burkina Faso—the land-locked African nation. Iara Lee’s Burkinabé Rising celebrates the story of a people liberated—via their own means—from a brutal dictatorship.

The film’s subtitle, ‘The Art of Resistance in Burkina,’ refers to the crucial, foundational role of the arts in fostering a revolution of liberation. ‘Art’ as used here, is a double entendre—referring to visual arts, music, dance, and performance, as well as a strategy for liberation.

Lee’s approach is unconventional. His film is a non-stop, fast-paced montage of inspired and inspiring artists at work, telling of the role the arts played—and continue to play—in creating a people’s revolution which transcends Burkina Faso’s bounds.

Most of the film’s voices are in French, with English subtitles. I recommend seeing the film two times: The first to read what the Burkinabé have to say, and the second to relish in their visual and audible performances.

Burkinabé Rising is a Cultures of Resistance film. You may find the film here.

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(Pictured: Adonis Nebie in performance. Courtesy of the artist and ‘Burkinabé Rising’)

“It seems that other people’s happiness comes at a much lower cost than mine.” Nathan speaking with Chris, his SSA conversion therapist

Nathan is a tall, thin, intelligent, articulate, talented, handsome, and charismatic young man. He is struggling with a conflict between his attraction to males and his Catholic religious beliefs. Nathan learns about and seeks ‘same-sex attractions conversion therapy’—also called ‘reparative therapy.’

Directed by Richard Yeagley, The Sunday Sessions follows Nathan through two years of conversion therapy. Since Yeagley is telling a story, I do not reveal its outcome. Instead, I offer this quote from the film’s website:

‘The filmmakers had unfettered access to these secretive and controversial therapy sessions, and have crafted an emotional and psychological drama which chronicles two years of Nathan’s struggle.’

That access is the most remarkable aspect of the film. As Nathan struggles, so do we. Intrinsic to this particular story, we do not experience all that transpires which contribute to Nathan’s resolution. Moreover, one is left with the sense of ‘what’s next?’ Nathan is 29, there is much more water to go under his bridge. Perhaps Yeagley will produce a one-person Michael Apted-style ‘Seven Up!’ series following Nathan’s journey every seven (or less) years.

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The Sunday Sessions is a First Run Features release.

Taking Root tells the epic story of Kenya’s Wangari Maathai who led a politico-environmental movement in her homeland—a movement that garnered Maathai global notoriety and the Nobel Prize.

Via their Marlboro Productions, filmmakers Lisa Merton and Alan Dater provide a broad outline of Kenya’s history, then focus on Maathai’s immeasurable impact on that history through her life-long activism. Via the National Council of Women of Kenya Maathai fostered an environmental movement called the green belt movement which is responsible for the planting of more than 51 million trees in Kenya. Her activism expanded beyond environmental issues.

Maathai’s story is told by herself and several interviewees. Hers is an odyssey of discovery, heroic actions, struggle, revolution, and the sparking of social change in Kenya and beyond.

Merton and Dater have included many ‘extras’ in the film’s DVD. I believe most extras on documentary film DVDs should be included within the film, integral to the story. That is to say, when you receive your Taking Root disc—which I heartily encourage you to do—view all the extras.

Memo to Hollywood: Maathai’s story is so moving, harrowing, and gratifying, it is another documentary film that deserves narrative coverage for an international audience. Back in the day, that kind of coverage would be a movie. Now, we can tell Maathai’s epic story through multiple episodes.

It is by accident that I discovered Taking Root and it is another must-see environmental documentary. In her note to me, filmmaker Merton reminded me of the phrase, ‘evergreen’—a journalistic term referring to a story that will always be relevant. In this case, ‘evergreen’ is a double entendre.

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Directed by veteran filmmaker Sylvie Rokab, Love Thy Nature examines humanity’s troubled relationship with nature, and explores ways that relationship can become untroubled.

Narrated by Liam Neeson as the voice of Sapiens (the voice of humanity), the film addresses our relationship with nature from a variety of perspectives—social, psychological, spiritual, health, environmental, and others. In addition to her interviewees’ wisdom, Rokab provides a virtually nonstop montage of beatific images, along with dramatic and evocative music by François-Paul Aïche.

Merging the film’s information, imagery, and music, Love Thy Nature leaves viewers with the sense of having taken a long journey—hopeful we can and are making a difference, and finding the ‘love’ referred to in the film’s title.

Rokab has made it easy for viewers to follow up on the information and inspiration found in Love Thy Nature. For a list of interviewees and their respective websites, go to this page from the film’s website.

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“For the serious scholar, there’s just endless opportunities there to horrify yourself, amaze yourself, wonder why this ever got started.” John Geisheker, JD, LLM, Executive Director, Doctors Opposing Circumcision

Oh, that’s what you can call me, an ‘intactivist’—the urban dictionary definition of which is: ‘Someone who loves, honors, respects and protects the rights of the child to an intact body. Someone who sees genital mutilation—of girls or boys—as a contradiction to that fundamental human right.’ (The urban dictionary folks might want to rethink their description of gender in the above definition.)

Written, produced, directed, and edited by Brendon Marotta, American Circumcision provides compelling rationales for a federally-based prohibition of childhood genital mutilation. Marotta and company speak with those who coldly, blithely argue in favor of genital mutilation, and those who passionately fight for a ban. He also speaks with mothers and a variety of adults who tell of their respective plights—‘botched’ circumcisions, grieving mothers, angry children. The film introduces a new-to-me movement called ‘restoration’—a self-administered procedure to restore, as much as possible, a male’s birthright genitalia.

American Circumcision is a well-crafted, stark invitation to viewers to become intactivists.

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“I like to save things, especially if they’re too far gone.” Michael Zahs

A deceased father reconnecting with his living son is not the only dream that came out of Iowa.

Filmmakers Tommy Haines, John Richard, and Andrew Sherburne tell stories of film pioneer William Frank Brinton and the savior of Brinton’s historic work, Michael Zahs.

For more than seven decades, the pioneering cinematic work of Frank and Indiana Brinton was buried and decaying. Saving Brinton covers Zahs’ 1981 discovery of this treasure trove of cinematic history virtually buried in the basement of an old Iowa farmhouse. Zahs spent decades promoting the preservation and restoration of both the equipment and media created by the Brintons between 1895 and 1909.

Zahs’ passion, perseverance, and accomplishments are as breath-taking as the work he uncovered and shared with the world. After viewing this must-see documentary, it is clear that the overlooking of the Brintons’ work was egregious and potentially tragic. Thanks to Zahs’ initiatives a crucial chapter in the dawning of cinema is saved and available for all to see and study.

Given Michael Zahs’ actions and accomplishments, Saving Brinton deserves to be seen not just by cinephiles, but by anyone and everyone who can be inspired by the depth and breadth of his vision and character.

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The Brinton Library

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(Pictured: Michael Zahs)

“We’re the last line. If we can’t do it, no one can. We haven’t walked away from a rescue yet.” Armando Navarrete

In just 74 minutes filmmaker Justin Zimmerman tells a myriad number of stories about the creation of SMART, the daredevil staff who rescue animals, and their stories of many rescues.

 

Based in Los Angeles, SMART is the first, most highly skilled animal rescue organization of its kind—all thanks to its founder, Armando Navarrete. Although we hear from several team members, the principal characters are Navarrete and Annette Ramirez each of whom make powerful impressions on viewers. Navarrete’s hope, of course, is to spread his team’s model around the world.

SMART: Specialized Mobile Animal Rescue Team is a film by, for, and about animal lovers such as yours truly. It is thoroughly engaging and inspiring.

The film is produced by bricker-down productions, and distributed by Cinema Libre Studio.

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“The more that I have tried to put my hand into it, and tried to control it, the longer I have prolonged him getting help. My big mistake has been trying to circumvent the suffering.” Sandra Luckow

With That Way Madness Lies… filmmaker Sandra Luckow tells the epic, tragic, heart-breaking story of her brother Duanne’s struggle with mental illness. In doing so Luckow has provided another indictment of the United States’ failed healthcare system.

Born into a family of highly talented and skilled people, self-taught Duanne restored classic cars—amongst many other abilities. At some point in his adulthood Duanne began a nonstop descent into delusion and paranoia. By virtue of the Luckow family culture’s inclusion of audio and video recordings of their activities, sister Sandra has produced a moving documentary of brother Duanne’s life and illness—and her attempts to help him. The vast majority of the film’s cinematography are by sister and brother.

We are all psychologists, we each have ideas about how us humans work. It is inevitable, therefore, that Luckow’s viewers will ponder the genesis of Duanne’s mental illness. However compelling it is to ruminate about those possible causes, it is ultimately a distraction and a fool’s errand to seriously seek the answer from a film.

Instead, we have a story of loss, and of a sister’s epic endeavors to find help for her brother, and peace for herself.

First Run Features release, That Way Madness Lies… was selected for showings at 14 film festivals, and won well-deserved prizes from four of them.

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The three pillars of the destruction of American democracy are:

1) Gerrymandering

2) The tactics and strategies that, combined, significantly suppress voter participation

3) Money in politics—especially ‘dark money’

It is, of course, number three that is the subject of Kimberly Reed’s Dark Money.

Reed’s coverage of the influence of untraceable corporate money on corruption, activism and litigation is focused on her home state of Montana.

Our good guy is journalist John Adams who doggedly researches and follows the takeover of the state’s political agenda by elaborately coordinated big money initiatives. He loses his job because of the purchase of his newspaper. Adams turns lemons into lemonade by recovering from his loss, and founding Montana Free Press. Our bad guy is state politician Art Wittich who is eventually brought up on noncompliance with election law charges.

Of course, Montana is more or less representative of our federal government’s commitment to unfettered political corruption—and the forces of opposition at work. The most we can hope for, though, is the chipping away at the fringes of Citizens United by journalists, activists, politicians, and nonprofit organizations.

With the Supreme Court on the verge of a complete takeover by corporate forces, it is hard to imagine any meaningful reform before our nation’s impending environmental catastrophes manifest. But, hope springs eternal, and that is the spirit of this well-reviewed documentary.

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(Pictured: John Adams)

Meagan Murphy’s idea is deceptively simple: a documentary about women’s breasts. Yet, what emerges from the Breast Archives is complex, deep.

By interviewing nine women speaking about their breasts, Murphy’s film addresses a multitude of psycho-social issues regarding women and American culture.

The women share their pain, confusion, discoveries, realizations, and healings. Their words are a doorway to issues of beauty, femininity, self-esteem, sexuality, sensuality, feminism, abuse, cultural oppression, and cancer.

The film is relevant to women, of course, yet the more teenage and adult males who see the the Breast Archives, the greater its social impact. Yours truly would have found more compassion and empathy had I seen this movie as a teenager.

Murphy’s personal story in making the film is also moving. Here is the link to her story.

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“Australia has the worst mammal extinction rate in the world. One out of three mammal extinctions in the last 400 years has occurred in Australia. Government raw survey data shows that wide landscapes are now significantly depleted of kangaroos. It is time to carefully assess what is happening to kangaroo, wallaby, and wallaroo species.” Senator Lee Rhiannon, The Greens Parliament of Australia

Kangaroo: A Love-Hate Story is a hard-hitting, carefully researched, and expertly produced exposé of the 200 years and counting slaughter of Australia’s globally recognized icon, kangaroos.

The film tells the familiar story of the destruction of our natural world by commercial interests—with an added measure of hypocrisy. The cute, cuddly kangaroo your toddler snuggles has been brutally killed, its baby torn from her pouch and pounded until dead—or left to a days-long tortuous death. That is the hate part of the story.

The love part is the many Australian citizens and political leaders who are working tirelessly to end, or at least mitigate the horror of the slaughter. Their initiatives are also global. In addition to pet and human food consumption, these sentient creatures are slaughtered for their leather. Kangaroo ‘byproducts’ are marketed globally—therefore, both domestic and internationally-based activists are working globally to end this horror.

“When humans eat kangaroo meat, they should be aware that the meat is a byproduct of the largest slaughter of land-based mammals anywhere on Earth. Millions of kangaroos are slaughtered every year in Australia, to provide meat for cats, dogs, and humans. Another byproduct of this is, of course, the hundreds of thousands of joeys [baby kangaroos] that are taken from the mother’s pouch and killed every year.” Ken Henry, Chairman, National Australia Bank

I have seen my fair share of documentary films about the slaughter of wild and domestic non-human animals. By virtue of both the content and excellence of its production, the film’s impact on yours truly was particularly devastating. Again, this is not just an Australian story, it is a world-wide story, and we are all accountable.

Knowing the challenges to documentary film viewers of seeing a graphic film, I still state that this is a must-see film. I am not alone. Both Variety and the Los Angeles Times have favorably reviewed Kangaroo: A Love-Hate Story. It is not easy for documentary films to break through that particular media bubble. Additionally, the film qualifies for Oscar consideration. I would love to see it win.

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“Everyone has aspirations. For me, freedom is more precious than anything else.” Sun Yi

 

Several years ago, Julie Keith purchased a Halloween decoration—a plastic tombstone—from Kmart. She did not open the box for two and a-half years. When she did, she discovered a hand-written letter attached to its back.

That discovery is the inciting event for Letter from Masanjia about human rights violations in China. The letter was written in a Chinese labor camp called Masanjia. Sun Yi was one of countless innocent victims of the Chinese government’s human rights restrictions. For his refusal to comply with the government’s thought police, he was tortured for a solid year, and suffered many other repressive consquences.

When Keith discovered the letter, she went public with it. The result was world-wide pressure on the Chinese government to shut down its forced labor camps, which they did.

Yet, there is much more to Yi’s story.

At just one hour and fifteen minutes long, Letter from Masanjia is one of the most powerful, epic documentaries I have seen to date.

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“If you’re human, you have bias. Just like we breathe, we have bias. It’s part of who we are. When it becomes completely unconscious, we have no idea how it’s affecting our behavior.” Howard Ross, author of Everyday Bias

In Bias, Marin County’s Robin Hauser explores the phenomenon of bias, with a focus on racial and gender bias, and an emphasis on unconscious bias—the kind of bias human beings tend to deny.

Hauser interviews authorities, people on the street, and successful business people as she learns the evolutionary source of bias, the damaging impact of unconscious bias on us as individuals and a society, and ways we may liberate ourselves from this impact.

Being a subject of her own film, Hauser learns, to her chagrin, the biases found in her own psyche—an inevitable consequence for a filmmaker serious about her topic. One way she learned about her unconscious biases was through an ‘implicit bias test’ from Harvard University via Project Implicit.

Spoiler Alert: Learning about our biases is just the first step. It requires more learning and training for us to be free from their impacts on our behavior. Hauser covers elaborate simulation trainings—including virtual reality—to reduce the negative effects of unconscious bias. We also see trainings crucial for police officers, as well as those who are in positions of power who do not want their decisions to be driven by unconscious bias.

Bias is a crucial, powerful exposé of ourselves. The film righteously demands our close attention to its topic. For those who comply with this opportunity to learn, it will catalyze shifts of thoughts, minds, and, especially, behaviors.

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(Pictured: Filmmaker Robin Hauser)

“When people remember about Liyana, I want them to remember us, making our own words.” Young African Child

We are in Swaziland, also known as The Kingdom of Eswatini, at an orphanage the children of which lost their parents to AIDS, drugs, and violence. We are in a small classroom, poet/story-teller Gcina Mhlophe is coaching five students in the composing of a story.

Step-by-step the children create a character, her name—Liyana—her appearance, and her story. Directors Amanda Kopp and Aaron Kopp follow the story’s creation, and the children narrate their story—illustrated by moving images of Liyana’s journey.

Philip Miller’s music caresses the children’s story, as artwork by Shofela Coker and Stefan Nadelman blossom the story to visual life.

Liyana is brilliantly and lovingly produced; its impact is heart-rending, inspiring, and fascinating.

 

 

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Netflix’s John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons is the finest work of stand-up comedy I have enjoyed since the days of Pryor and Carlin. Leguizamo tells three stories in one—a brief history of Europe’s destruction of Western native cultures, a story about his relationship with his son, and a story about himself.

Tragedy and hilarity are skillfully woven as Leguizamo speaks, sings, mimes, and dances his way through his epic Broadway show.

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Note: A documentary about the making of John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons is in the works. Here is the Facebook Page.

“You have to get back to the natural systems, and let nature heal the Earth for us. Everyone has a role to play in converting to regenerative agriculture. Consumers could lead that movement.” Steven Ferrell, co-owner, general manager of Finca Luna Nueva, in Costa Rica

With Dirt Rich filmmaker Marcelina Cravat takes us around the world, introducing us to people who are pioneering ways to reduce Co2 from our atmosphere—from 400 ppm to 260 ppm—by making the practices and products of agriculture healthier. They are leading a crucial environmental movement, the question is who is following? It is clear, though, that the more people who see the film, the more followers this movement will have.

Cravat covers such topics as perennial grains, wetlands, beavers, biochar, and rock powders. I know about the first three in that list, but the latter two were all new to me. Her interviewees stress the potential influence of education in supporting this movement—fully integrating its ideas and practices into our educational systems. The ‘everyone’ in Steven Ferrell’s statement above is literal—it includes children.

Dirt Rich features an original soundtrack of songs by singer/songwriter Tom Rhodes. The film will be screened at the Environmental Film Festival in Washington, D.C. in March, 2019.

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“In this beautifully photographed tour de force of original thinking, Academy Award winner Jeff Bridges shares the screen with scientists, profound thinkers and a dazzling array of Earth’s living creatures to reveal eye-opening concepts about ourselves and our past, providing fresh insights into our subconscious motivations and their unintended consequences.

Living in the Future’s Past shows how no one can predict how major changes might emerge from the spontaneous actions of the many. How energy takes many forms as it moves through and animates everything. How, as we come to understand our true connection to all there is, we will need to redefine our expectations, not as what we will lose, but what we might gain by preparing for something different.”

The above quote is the film’s synopsis from its website. Note the lack of the words: environment, climate change, or global warming. But, that is what this film is about. Those three terms, and their horrific implications. Of the many environmental documentary films I’ve seen, this one is the most unique—and, it is a masterpiece of documentary filmmaking.

Director Susan Kucera and producer/host Jeff Bridges address the deeper layers of our human beingness by presenting images, sounds, and ideas that evoke emotions, thoughts, insights, and, perhaps, epiphanies. The cinematography is exquisite, exhilarating. The intention and hope is to shift awareness, to inspire acts of commission and acts of omission that benefit our ecosphere—and, therefore, ourselves and the natural world.

Living in the Future’s Past is a film to watch carefully, smartphones off. If you allow it, the film can leave you in a meditative/contemplative state of mind and heart, with a deeper perspective of who we are, and who we can be. It is another environmental documentary that needs to be experienced by as many human beings as possible.

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“I lost my family, I lost my country, I lost my career, I lost everything.”

From Baghdad to The Bay follows Iraqi Ghazwan Alsharif on a years-long, harrowing journey from his homeland to the San Francisco Bay Area.

Subsequent to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, Alsharif became an interpreter and guide for the US military. Prolific filmmaker Erin Palmquist follows our hero through years of loss, struggle, hopelessness, growth, and change to Bay Area-based celebrity chef.

Alsharif’s journey is a text-book example of Joseph Campbell’s ‘hero’s journey’ with allies, adversaries, barriers, and a heart-rending triumph. It is clear that Palmquist experienced her own hero’s journey in following Alsharif’s.

The hero’s journey is intrinsically noble, but does not necessarily end in triumph. Palmquist’s and Alsharif’s journeys both end in triumph.

From Baghdad to The Bay grips viewers from beginning to end. We are with Alsharif the whole film, rooting for this sweet, loving, joyful man through his losses and gains—and we celebrate the fulfillment of his dreams.

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How Hot Is It Going to Get? is two movies in one: An expertly produced primer on human-caused global warming, and a plea for young people of the United States to vote Democratic every two years. The implicit assumption is a Democratically-driven government would take meaningful, effective steps to reduce the inevitable damage that global warming is causing and will continue to cause.

One point repeated in Michael Allen’s film is about the names we give in measures of temperatures—Fahrenheit versus Celsius. In media reports of climate issues, when predictions of temperature change in Celsius are provided, those numbers are much smaller than equivalent Fahrenheit measures. Another assumption the film makes is that if climate change information were provided in Fahrenheit, more people in the United States would pay more attention to global warming.

At this time, under Republican control, the United States is increasing its burning of fossil fuels. Can this film make a difference? Will young people vote? Will they be denied if they attempt to do so?

As of October 28, 2018, we will see.

In any case, How Hot Is It Going to Get? is another absolute must-see environmental film—for people of all ages.

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A Glimmer of Hope: The Democrats won the house with several history-making wins. The Republicans had gains in the Senate.

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“I just find it absolutely staggering to accept that in this day and age, with the billions of dollars spent on cancer research, that the medicine that we were relying upon is made in somebody’s kitchen.” Mother of Young Cancer Patient

Produced by the filmmaking team of Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein, Weed The People explores the use of cannabis products in the treatment of cancer in children. The film follows a few families as they struggle with the horrors of cancer, and find help via the inclusion of cannabis in their treatment.

The film is an emotionally powerful statement about the therapeutic value of cannabis, the limits of which are still unknown because of the cultural-political stigma of the plant, and the subsequent restrictive, oppressive laws that tragically limit its research and use.

Dylan’s ‘the times, they are a-changing’ aptly describes to the rapidly shifting attitudes about cannabis. Still, as our governments continue to squelch the medicinal use of cannabis, our children are unnecessarily suffering and dying.

Weed The People deserves a very wide audience—especially those in healthcare, and those who work in local, state, and federal government, as well as.

Here is a resource for parents.

Note: I have seen, enjoyed, and benefited from all the films in Lake’s and Epstein’s catalog of documentaries.

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