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
“I think when you don’t share, that internally, you’re destroying yourself.” Shirley Edgerton
Executive Produced and directed by Pamela Tanner Boll, A Small Good Thing profiles six people who live a grounded and balanced life inspired by values based on a close connection to their bodies and health, to the natural world, and the greater good. Boll includes interviews of professionals who study and promote the concepts, philosophies and lifestyles featured in the film.
The six people featured are:
Tim Durrin, a war veteran who struggled with PTSD and addiction, went through rehabilitation, and discovered yoga and meditation which transformed his life.
Shirley Edgerton, the founder, leader, and den mother of Youth Alive, a performance group which inspires children to live a purposeful life.
Mark Gerow, a military veteran who found meaning, purpose, and health through his practice and teaching of yoga.
Jen and Peter Salinetti, eschewed a conventional income-driven life for life on the farm. Boll and company follow the couple on a journey to Rwanda where they work as volunteers under the aegis of Gardens for Health.
Sean Stanton, a Coast Guard veteran who discovered his values-inspired life via farming and ranching, was elected to his town council, and became a teacher of farming strategies.
Although A Small Good Thing is about the above six, it’s more about us—that we can change our lives, that we have the choice to move into balance, grace, and virtue, and that that choice offers health and happiness for the individual and their community.
This is a documentary that is much more than a film. In addition to seeing A Small Good Thing, I heartily encourage you to go to the film’s website, check out the Resources link at the top—and also check out the Publicity Materials under News and Press.
Boll is an accomplished filmmaker with an impressive filmography. This quietly powerful film is another invaluable addition to her body of work.
A Small Good Thing is a Kino Lorber release.
(Pictured are mother and child in Rwanda.)
Written and directed by Jeffrey C. Bell, Sons of Ben tells the story of how a small group of seemingly ordinary guys calling themselves ‘Sons of Ben’ worked tirelessly for years to secure a Major League Soccer team to the Philadelphia region—the stadium is in Chester, Pennsylvania. (The ‘Ben’ refers to that Franklin dude.)
The 75 minute film is short for the scope of this story which documents something very big from nothing other than a few enthusiastic Philadelphian soccer fans. Bell provides no narration, and lets the story makers tell their stories.
There’s a meta-story here. Chester was a benighted community at the time the stadium deal came through—one of the countless cities and towns across America struck by the loss of manufacturing jobs and related economic forces. It was a bit of a shock to the Sons that their treasured soccer stadium would be located 20 miles south of the City, but they took it in stride—and then some. They took on the care and feeding of Chester which benefits now from both the stadium and the Sons of Ben.
The challenge any filmmaker faces with a story the ending of which is known, is keeping viewers well-engaged. Bell and crew do just that.
Sons of Ben is a Kino Lorber release.
That’s one of the statements made by a Dartmouth student about her experience participating in a unique program created by Dartmouth Professor Pati Hernandez.
The summer program brings female students together with incarcerated females to produce a play based on the experiences of the prisoners. This year’s program—covered by Signe Taylor in It’s Criminal—had 10 prisoners and 14 students. The above statement is indicative of the kind of insight this program intends to cultivate. ‘Nicki,’ of course, is one of the prisoners.
Hernandez’s program—the meeting and melding of socio-economic opposites—is to be fully celebrated, and deserving of this well-produced documentary film. Both program and film address the American tragedy called our system of justice which ideologically and functionally ignores the prima facie fact that there is a direct relationship between poverty and crime—or to put it more accurately, between context and criminal behavior.
At this moment in American history, if we refuse to address the meta-issue of the destruction of our ecosphere, it’s hard to imagine that there is near enough political will to make our System of Justice just.
The ‘crime’ in ‘criminal’ is in our imprisoned hearts and willful ignorance—we ignore the countless millions of victims of American justice. Yet, filmmakers and journalists continue banging the sad drum of the seemingly limitless numbers of people whose lives have been devastated.
Here’s to Taylor and company for banging a really loud, deeply moving drum.
Keep your handkerchiefs handy.
An American Conscience is an hour-long documentary introducing the work and—especially—person of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. The inspiration for this documentary is both the power and impact of Neibuhr’s expressions, and the filmmaker’s intention to expand awareness of this Protestant minister’s influence on 20th Century American history.
In this short one hour, writer/director/narrator Martin Doblmeier provides an outline of Niebuhr’s biography, highlights his impact on the worlds of theology, as well as on the public dialog about American national and international policies in the 20th century.
Hal Holbrook voices Niebuhr, and Doblmeier includes interviews of twelve prominent thinkers including Dr. Cornel West, President Jimmy Carter, Susannah Heshel, and Andrew Young. All speak of Niebuhr’s influence on their thoughts and perspectives on freedom, ethics, morality, and, of course, religion. Heshel is the daughter of theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who was fast friends with Nieburh for many years, and presented the eulogy at Nieburh’s funeral—at Nieburh’s request.
The two theologians, seemingly on opposite sides of the impenetrable theological barrier between Christians and Jews, spent countless hours in dialog. The moment that bit of information was offered by the film, I found myself aching to have transcripts of those dialogs.
Warning: Seeing this film may have serious side effects—including the reading of Niebuhr’s books. I found myself most intrigued by the title, The Irony of American History.
Reinhold Niebuhr is the author of The Serenity Prayer.
An American Conscience is a First Run Features release.
From the film’s website:
“On August 1st, 1966, a sniper rode the elevator to the top floor of the University of Texas Tower and opened fire, holding the campus hostage for 96 minutes. When the gunshots were finally silenced, the toll included 16 dead, three dozen wounded, and a shaken nation left trying to understand.”
Keith Maitland’s Tower tells stories of those who survived, died, and saved. It does so by intricately weaving live action and animation. All aspects of the film’s production are standard bearing. I’m forced to use the critic’s cliché: Maitland’s story grabs the viewer and never lets go. This is as emotional a film experience as the finest fiction dramas evoke.
Although the film concludes with a montage of news reports of recent mass shootings, the film is not a tome about America’s gun/murder culture and all the factors that breed it. Instead, Tower just tells this one story, and makes as much impact as any statistics- and interviews-laden documentary.
It’s more than fifty years later, I know all the factors, yet I still do not understand.
Pictured: Keith Maitland
Moving from Emptiness profiles Alok Hsu Kwang-han who is called a ‘Zen calligraphic painter.’ The phrase is way too small. He is a teacher of Zen Buddhism, an artist, and workshop leader. But those words do not come close to capturing who he really is.
Filmmakers Jerry Hartleben and Shaeri Richards have done the impossible. They have received—the word, ‘capture,’ simply does not apply—his essence, and share that in this feature film. We see and hear the 74 year old Alok teaching, helping people one-on-one, painting, speaking about his life and work, and talking with and about his companion, Raylene Abbott, who deserves her own documentary.
If one is to make a film about a Zen master, that film, to be successful, must mirror the tone and substance of that being presented. Richards and Hartleben do just that in every aspect of their coverage of this man who exudes compassion, peace and wisdom—and who does not fit the stereotype. In speaking about his life, Alok expresses emotion freely.
After just a few minutes I knew I was seeing a special film. At its conclusion I knew I’d just seen a masterpiece of documentary filmmaking. It is so rich in wisdom, story, and image, it deserves multiple viewings.
Moving from Emptiness is a Kino Lorber release.
student-athlete (n): an unrecognized profession where pain and gain are mutually exclusive.
There are a fount of adjectives to describe college sports in the United States of America: Unjust, Immoral, Unethical, Dangerous, Risky, Unhealthy, Tragic—and having just viewed Bob DeMars The Business of Amateurs—add the noun, Travesty.
There has been no want of news reports over the last few years or decades about injustice and danger in college athletics. Yet, in our world beset by massive challenges, this injustice—like so many others—is easy to ignore. That’s where documentary films come in, where Bob DeMars comes in.
In just 90 minutes DeMars, a veteran player of college athletics, covers the dangers of football—with the understanding that any athletic activity harbors the risk of injuries, some devastating.
After a brief outline of the history of athletics, we learn the extent to which United States players are exploited and abused by the NCAA and member school policies. Players risk their health, well being, and lives. If injured they lose their four-year scholarship. They don’t receive the health care they need during and after their college career. They are disallowed from exploiting their own success on the field while the schools and coaches take great advantage of same. Those students who want to take their academics seriously don’t have time to do so. Regarding football, the NCAA has dragged its feet in implementing safety procedures adopted by the NFL.
DeMars does what can’t be done in mainstream media. He provides detailed information, gut-wrenching human tragedies, and notes attempts to improve the lot of college athletes.
These are our children. Athletics can provide opportunities for a meaningful rewarding career. They also maim and kill, and leave players destitute.
The Business of Amateurs is distributed by Kino Lorber.
If you’re an extremely talented, massively prolific, and commercially successful artist like Derek Hess, you want your documentarian to do justice to yourself and your work—to mirror the passion and dedication and authenticity you bring to your work, and consequently, to those who view it.
That’s just what director/editor Nick Cavalier has done for Cleveland-based Hess with his film, Forced Perspective.
Of necessity there are two convergent foci to Cavalier’s film: Hess and the personal demons that propel his work, and that make his work connect deeply with his viewers. Consequently, the words ‘depression’ and ‘bipolar’ are heard throughout the film. The psychologist in me is immediately triggered, yet I know better than to pursue the psychological issues proffered in the film, than to entertain reductionist thoughts. You, the lucky viewer, can and will do your own analysis.
Instead, I find myself in awe of, and admiration for Hess’s talent and dedication, and for the countless numbers of people his work and story have profoundly impacted.
Music is another of the film’s virtues that struck me. Cavalier and his producers employed the work of five composers to produce a soundtrack that perfectly reflects the depth and power of Hess’s art.
Speaking of which, Hess is not just prolific in numbers, he is prolific in media. Hess has produced concert flyers and posters, t-shirts, multi-media pieces that incorporate used 8-track cassette cases, CD cases, fine art, and human skin. His fans take prints of his work to the tattoo parlor, and the resident artist burns the piece, or pieces.
There is much more to learn about Derek Hess. I highly recommend you see Cavalier’s portrait of this passionate and inspiring artist to garner that much more for yourself.
Forced Perspective is a Kino Lorber release.
‘In May 2011,’ the film begins, ‘John Casablancas met his friend Hupert Woroniecki in New York City. They spent three days locked in a studio and recorded his life story. What neither knew at the time was that John would die of cancer two years later, in 2013—making this recording a unique posthumous testimony on one of our most glamorous eras.’
Casablancas is an autobiography of John Casablancas who founded the legendary model agency Elite. Although a character study—which is, ideally, intrinsic to autobiography—the theme, physical beauty, is the seemingly polar opposite of a noble human character.
Those of a certain age may remember a 1960 episode of the nascent ‘Twilight Zone’ entitled Eye of the Beholder. A woman is lying in a hospital bed, in a dark hospital room. Her face is covered in a white cloth dressing. In a desperate attempt to look beautiful—or at least normal—she just had her 11th plastic surgery. This is her last chance. The story’s dialog between patient and care-givers focuses on her desperation, the tragedy of the hideous face with which she was born. When the cloth dressing is removed she is grief stricken, the surgery failed. In the requisite Twilight Zone ironic, painful twist, the camera reveals a beautiful woman, and the faces of those ‘normal-looking’ caregivers are hideous, ghoulish.
John Casablancas was born into wealth, and provided a seemingly idyllic education filled with beautiful girls, skiing, soccer, and international travel. His first attempt at any sort of occupation was to join the United States Marines. He was dismissed, of course, at the outset. He then speaks of the sequence of events that led to the founding—and initial floundering of—his company, Elite Model Management.
Casablancas took to that business like the proverbial duck-to-water. He was an effective competitor. So much so that all the U.S. major management agencies united to sue him based on various allegations regarding business practices. The suits—also known as ‘model wars’—took two years to litigate, and gave Elite priceless publicity. On his path to industry dominance, Casablancas became a media darling seen on the cornucopia of television talk shows in North America and Europe.
I was engaged, moved by this character and his story—the exceptional success and pleasures he enjoyed, and the unending conflict he experienced between living the life of family man, and the life of a playboy ensconced in the upper socio-economic strata of Western society. Some may mock the implied pain of this conflict. I do not measure emotional pain.
Stories about womanizers provoke thoughts and passionate discussions of ethics and morals. Whatever your standards, this film leaves the viewer with a few images and stories of a life well-lived without apologies—and that one unavoidable regret.
Casablancas is a First Run Features release.
“No way to live in peace, not under Sadam, not after him.”
A distinguished Iraqi gentleman as he views a collaterally destroyed home.
France-based Iraqi filmmaker Abbas Fahdel has single-handedly produced a monumental documentary film.
Homeland: Iraq Year Zero is his coverage of the Iraqi people before and after the 2003 bombing and invasion. The Kino Lorber version is a two-disc set—Before the Fall, and After the Battle, five and a-half hours of life at those times.
Fahdel’s camera covers his extended family, friends, street scenes, markets, food kiosks, conversations about the minutiae of their lives, conversations about the war to come, and the war that came.
We see Iraqis watching television—seeing propaganda songs about Saddam Hussein, children’s shows, and anti-war protests in other countries. They knew the protests were in vain. Fahdel’s 12-year old nephew Haidar steals every scene, every shot in which he appears. He quickly becomes the embodiment of the film’s story.
The Kino Lorber box set includes a booklet, Lessons of Darkness, by Robert Greene. Disc One includes an ‘Extra’ of Fahdel being interviewed. He speaks French, and his companion interprets in English. His presentation is as powerful as his film.
Brigid Maher’s The Mama Sherpas introduces the practice of nurse-midwives. The film covers their work in four birthing centers. The primary purpose is to promote this work and, in so doing, help reduce the number of unnecessary Cesarean births—and humanize our approach to the birthing process. Psychological pain, side-effects, scaring, and costs are all reduced. Midwives even know techniques to reduce the need of an episiotomy during childbirth. One birthing center reported that over a three-year period 93% of one thousand births were vaginal. The national rate is approximately 68%.
Legendary, pioneering midwife Ina May Gaskin makes a brief appearance. At film’s end we learn that midwives are licensed to practice in five states, but nurse-midwives are able to practice in all fifty states. The point, this integrative approach is accessible.
The film includes several births. Just witnessing a birth on screen has a profound impact. I’ve seen several so far, and it never ceases to evoke powerful emotions.
How many people have witnessed births? It was only in the second-half century of my life that I saw them—via documentary films. Witnessing a human birth should be close to a requirement for adolescents. The Mama Sherpas is an ideal way to raise teenagers’ consciousness of birthing.
The Kino Lorber DVD includes deleted scenes.
The Kino Lorber Sound of Redemption disc was one of a pile of ten recently-received DVDs. I nonchalantly got to the disc, and found myself unexpectedly moved by this story of a troubled master.
Frank Morgan lived a life of crime, addiction, and incarceration peppered by short or long periods of masterful alto jazz playing. N.C. Heiken’s documentary of this life is as emotional a film as I have seen since beginning my odyssey through the documentary film world. This emotion derives from the many friends, fans, and family members who speak with joy and sorrow about their time with Morgan.
Sound of Redemption is structured around a musical tribute by contemporary jazz masters filmed at San Quentin—one of Morgan’s homes-away-from home. Morgan’s narrative along with experiences and perspectives provided by interviewees paint the stark reality of absent and abusive parents, deeply rooted racism, and a magnificent talent that tore through layers of pain and darkness.
That talent, this beautiful music shines throughout the film, evoking the joys and sorrows of a life lost and redeemed.
Hannah Nydahl is a formerly unsung hero of Buddhism—Tibetan flavored. She and partner Ole studied and practiced Tibetan Buddhism intensely and devoted their lives to spreading the principles and practices of this philosophy or religion—depending on your perspective.
Produced and directed by Marta György Kessler and Adam Penny, Hannah tells the couple’s epic story—their travels, adventures, and gratifying success in creating Buddhist centers around the world. The focus is on Hannah because of the power of her presence, the compassion and joy she exudes.
There is a tremendous amount of information in this film, and no want of Sanskrit and Tibetan names and words. This is code for turn on your subtitles, and don’t hesitate to rewind if you miss something. Also, I would have remixed the sound with the music a little softer to enhance our hearing of the words. But, that is nowhere near a deal-killer in this film. Hannah and its subject, Hannah, will stay with you the rest of your lives.
There is so much to the story of Hannah and Ole that I heartily suggest you view the Kino Lorber disc’s special features and consult the film’s site to learn more about their accomplishments.
With Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead director/co-writer Douglas Tirola has given us a delightful, fascinating, entertaining story about the rise and fall of the seminal humor magazine “National Lampoon” (1970-1998). There are two foci in this history: The stories and characters involved in the publication, and the immeasurable impact the magazine and its creators had on the evolution of comedy and its biker friend, satire.
We’re talkin’ movies, theater, radio, and recorded media—those were the kinds of productions generated by the magazine under its name. The humor was over-the-top, no holds barred, and hyperbolic. Subsequent humorists and satirists were inspired and influenced by the humor—as well as the magazine’s success. “National Lampoon” is mother to ‘Saturday Night Live.’
Inspired by the nation’s oldest humor magazine, “Harvard Lampoon”, “National Lampoon” was created by Douglas Clark Kenney ’68, and Henry Nicholas Beard ’67. Their personal stories and partnership form the core narrative of the film. Surrounding this core is a dizzying display of imagery and appearances by at least 65 performers, writers, and business people.
Here are a few names: Meatloaf, Harold Ramis, P.J. O’Rourke, Bill Murray, John Landis, Marshall McCluhan, Christopher Guest, John Goodman, Chevy Chase, Kevin Bacon, Judd Apatow, Billy Bob Thornton, and John Updike.
You may find Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead on Netflix.
First Position opens with the following text: Youth America Grand Prix is the world’s largest ballet competition that awards full scholarships and job contracts to dancers age 9-19
Aran, Rebecca, Jules, Michaela, Joan, and Miko are the six dancers producer/director Bess Kargman follows to the completion of a year’s competition—out of the thousands who initially auditioned. Aran, Jules, and Joan are males. (Joan is from Columbia.)
Kargman’s camera flies around the world capturing the stories of the dancers and their families. Michaela’s, 14 at the time, is the most astonishing. She was born into civil war in Sierra Leone, in west Africa, and witnessed the ubiquitous horrors. Her parents were killed. Michaela and her sister Mia were adopted by an American couple.
This thoroughly engaging documentary is Kargman’s first feature. Her film seems the work of a seasoned veteran. The ending has the dramatic tension of a Hollywood thriller, and the dancing, of course, is spectacular.
I found First Position on Netflix. You can also find it on Amazon.
Over the decades legendary auteur, Werner Herzog, has become quite the documentarian. When I spotted his documentary coverage of the internet—Lo and Behold—on Netflix, I was hesitant to press play. The internet is ubiquitous, and is the subject of non-stop media coverage and social dialog. What’s new?
As always, my resistance was met with ‘I am so glad I watched this film.’
Through interview, image, and rumination Herzog escorts the viewer through critical aspects of the cyber takeover of our world. Some of the topics covered are the lethal aspects of trolling and addiction, the internet’s origin, hacking, the internet’s social-psychological impacts, and a ‘Carrington Event’—the name given to very large solar storms. English astronomers Richard C. Carrington and Richard Hodgson observed and recorded such an event on September 1-2, 1859.
Learning about this event I felt Herzog had buried the lead.
Telegraph systems all over Europe and North America failed. The solar flare gave telegraph operators electric shocks. Telegraph pylons threw sparks. Papers close to the wires incinerated. Some telegraph operators were able to send and receive messages despite disconnecting their power supplies. One of the film’s interviewees reported that this kind of event happens occasionally, and that the Earth’s electronic equipment could fail as a result of a Carrington Event. Add this to giant meteor strikes and gamma ray bursts as a few non-human phenomena that would destroy our human world—or turn it into a Mad Max movie. There you go Roland Emmerich, add that to your long list of Projects In Development.
I found every scene in Lo and Behold either emotionally charged and/or fascinating. I am so glad I watched this film.
With interstitial narration written and performed by Barbara Kingsolver, Yarn profiles several yarn artists from several countries. We hear from and see the work of yarn graffiti artists, installation artists, and circus performers. In addition to a great variety of art work, we hear quite a variety of personalities speaking of their lives and art.
In addition to yarn graffiti, we are treated to a yarn-covered train; a yarn-covered mermaid swimming with dolphins, a dog, and two cinematographers; a giant net in and around which children play; and many more yarn-enshrouded objects.
The Kino Lorber documentary is directed by Una Lorenzen, and co-directed Thordur Jonsson and Heather Millard. The film is well crafted, features perfectly fitting music, and has a great little bonus feature of yarn animation.
You have two websites to chose from: http://www.yarnfilm.com/ or http://yarnthemovie.com/
A confluence of factors have induced me to cover this revealing documentary about the pet food industry. The deepest factor is having found myself an unofficial member of the animal rights movement—including the legal initiative to secure personhood rights for non-human animals. Added to that are my friends with pets who speak frequently—and with passion—about the food they provide to their animal companions. Finally, in the midst of my second half-century of life I find myself bonding with my friends’ dogs. My inner Jewish Mother has been evoked.
Like our national media, the pet food industry is dominated by five multi-conglomerate companies—including the ever-evil, water-mongering Nestle corporation. The industry is virtually unregulated. (I don’t view our human food industry regulations all that effective in the first place.)
Kohl Harrington’s Pet Fooled exposes massive malfeasance in the $63 billion dollar a year pet food industry. The bottom line is that we are feeding our canine and feline companions a poor, unhealthy, and sometimes lethal diet. The healthy diet is untainted raw meat from clean, ideally organic sources. Cats’ needs are, of course, slightly different than dogs needs.
Harrington provides a plethora of facts and figures, and interviews heroic, dedicated veterinarians who champion a healthy diet for our non-human companions. For those in the know, this film is old news. But, only a small percentage of us Americans are in the know. If you are one of those Americans I urge you to buy this film to share with as many human animals as you can—and you just might find out some new information for yourself.
If you are not aware of the unhealthy pet foods purchased for that $63 billion each year, Pet Fooled is an absolute must-see.
Pet Fooled is a Sponsored Project of the International Documentary Association, and is distributed by Kino Lorber.
“The bigger the brain, the larger the capacity to lie.”
Murali Doraiswamy, Psychiatrist
Duke Institute for Brain Science
The title says it all in this documentary film about lying. Our host is Dan Ariely who is—and let me take a breath here—James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University. Our hero is also founder of the Center for Advanced Hindsight. His career is devoted to the study of human lying. The goal is to learn ways to improve human society.
Ariely is the perfect host. He shares his researches and findings with charm, humor, and candor. I wasn’t surprised to see his Bachelor of Science and Doctor of Philosophy in Charm from Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the office wall. In-between Ariely’s presentations we hear from a few people who have lied and paid dearly for same.
(Dis)Honesty grabs you immediately and doesn’t let go. Chances are you will want to view the bonus interviews of convicted felon and former CFO of Crazy Eddie, Sam Antar; US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara; CEO of Ashley Madison, Noel Biderman; former NFL Player, Rashod Kent; transgender author and professor, Joy Ladin; filmmaker Albert Maysles; Senator John McCain; and former DC police detective, Jim Trainum.
(Dis)Honesty has enjoyed much-deserved wide press coverage.
To address the proverbial elephant, as this Kino Lorber DVD plays, ruminations about the last two years of our United States’ political history are unavoidable.
When I saw the title ‘Killswitch’ on Netflix, and noted that it’s about the internet, I immediately assumed the film is just another documentary about that subject, ‘I’ve seen enough of these,’ I thought.
I was wrong.
What sparked me to view the film was remembering the just-occurred, non-violent coup d’état that put Trump in power, and gave the Republican Party control of all three branches of our so-called democracy. Governmental corruption has been given a large dose of methamphetamine, and net neutrality is clearly in jeopardy. Intensified attacks on the internet are imminent.
On the surface this film covers the struggle for internet privacy and open access to information and content. Open the book, however, and we see that Killswitch provides the broader context within which this struggle takes place.
The interviewees in Killswitch are thoughtful, their words are at moments horrifying or inspiring. The works of Aaron Swartz and Edward Snowden form the film’s human core. Snowden’s name is already in our history books, but Swartz’s name and story hasn’t received the exposure the martyred activist deserves. Their stories are told by themselves and by Lawrence Lessig, Tim Wu and Peter Ludlow.
Killswitch is stunning, and a reminder to pay attention to our ‘alternative’ press—which includes documentary films. I put ‘alternative’ in single quotes because that is our real press—the alternative to ‘alternative facts.’
The film’s four core filmmakers are:
Ali Akbarzadeh, Director
Chris Dollar, Writer
Prichard Smith, Editor
Jeff Horn, Producer
All work under the aegis of Akorn production company.
(Pictured are the film’s production team.)
“You can never get enough of what you don’t really want.”
Rick Hanson, Ph.D., Neuropsychologist
Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus—also known as The Minimalists—are partners on a quest: To promote the values of consuming less, owning less.
Minimalism is one of the many tactics they are utilizing to get their points across to as many people as possible. Other tactics include appearances in our mainstream media, publishing books, and setting up their website, The Minimalists.
Back in the day it was called ‘conspicuous consumption.’ That term draws attention to a denigration in character of an individual who is perceived as having unnecessary possessions. The implication of this phrase is that if one is somehow motivated to change by an implied accusation of low character, said individual will reduce. The idea is that our guilted and gilded individual will change their behavior to improve the way they are perceived. This concern with how one is seen is the same kind of motivation that leads to the excess consumption in the first place. It is an external vis à vis internal concern.
Millburn and Nicodemus take the opposite approach in promoting their values: We experience personal, internal gratification from the changes in lifestyle that accompany reducing our material possessions—it’s not how we look, it’s how we feel. In addition to their own words of wisdom, their film includes people speaking about the benefits they’ve experienced by reducing—as well as findings and perspectives on minimalism from researchers and authors.
Minimalism is expertly crafted by Matt D’Avella who directed, shot, and edited. Stay with this film all the way through, you may be compelled to do a thorough examination of your approach to the material world.
Known primarily in jazz circles, Jaco Pastorius revolutionized the playing of the electric bass guitar. He died in 1987 as a result of self-destructive activities. Jaco denied himself and the world an unfathomable amount of beautiful musics of many ilk. Early in his life he had a premonition that he would die at the age of 34. He was off by two years.
This two-hour bio-doc became an instant must-see when I discovered it on Netflix. Although I heard his bass playing on albums by Weather Report, it was Jaco’s playing on Joni Mitchell’s two albums—‘Hejira’ and ‘The Hissing of Summer Lawns’—that sparked my undying admiration for the beauty and power of his music. ‘Hejira’ is my all-time favorite singer/songwriter album. ‘The Hissing of Summer Lawns’ is a close second.
Jaco is directed by Stephen Kijak and Mr. Paul Marchand; and produced and co-written by Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo. Given the documentary’s too-short 110-minute running time, this team has done as powerful a job of telling Jaco’s story as possible. There are plenty of clips of the musician’s performances, of course—but it is this sad, affectionate portrait of the wounded genius that haunts.
I wonder if Metallica’s legion of fans knew their bass hero played a Pastorius composition on one or more of the band’s tours. Here’s an intriguing story about Trujillo’s saving of Jaco’s Bass of Doom.
It’s tough. Probably the reason people don’t see ‘em. Documentaries about unhappy subjects—and most of them are about such.
When it comes to the world-changers I admire and respect, and whose passing was untimely, it’s even harder to break through the resistance to seeing their stories, reliving their public lives, pinning for another story their lives could have written—one in which they live and make even greater contributions to our world…, and my soul.
Janis Joplin’s life story follows the sadly well-worn path: Wounded childhood, talent, success, and the self-destruction demanded by those unhealed wounds.
Hollywood’s had her biopic on a far-back burner for years, if not decades. Perhaps it’s a blessing they’ve failed at getting that seed to sprout—I know, a mixed metaphor. It’s a rare biopic that truly captures its subject’s essence in a graceful manner. The documentary format of telling stories offers a greater potential for grace and respect. Producer Alex Gibney’s imprint on a production practically guarantees such a film.
Directed by Amy J. Berg, and produced by the ubiquitous Gibney, Janis Joplin: Little Girl Blue tells Joplin’s story with the above-mentioned virtues as well as the unavoidable cliché. We follow the wounded singer from birth to death, hear from friends, family, and industry admirers. The film points to abuse from high school peers Joplin suffered as the poisonous implant that slayed our heroine. With my psychologist’s brain and 68 years on Earth, I suspect the poison was injected much earlier. But, the timing is irrelevant—theory doesn’t change fact.
I saw Joplin perform at Georgia Tech’s Alexander Memorial Coliseum. It was near the end of her life. She was obviously drunk, and probably on heroine. I felt bad for her, embarrassed for her, but I did not have the character to understand I was witnessing a symptom of unacknowledged and unhealed PTSD. I felt resentment toward her, not compassion.
Yes, for those who love and admire Janis Joplin, who have empathy for her, this is a painful experience—to journey through the highs and lows of a wounded princess. But this film brings us closer to Janis Joplin’s soul, and enriches our souls. We learn or relearn what we lost, and what we gained by her presence in our lives.
Jesse Moss’s documentary, The Overnighters, has two foci: What happens to the small town of Williston, North Dakota when there is a fracking boon; and a character study of Jay Reinke, Pastor of Williston’s Concordia Lutheran Church.
From an environmental perspective any kind of fossil fuel boon is a tragedy. Absent that perspective, it is a money-maker for many. For Pastor Reinke, it is a challenge to living the ethics and practices promulgated in The New Testament—more specifically, the dictum to ‘love thy neighbor.’
Men from various parts of the United States have come to Williston seeking employment. The town doesn’t have enough accommodations for them; and even if it did, the struggling men would not be able to pay the price. Pastor Reinke offers the church and its parking lot to a limited number of them to sleep overnight whilst they seek employment. His decision to live the above dictum generates predictable controversy within the church’s community and throughout the town.
The film is well-crafted and consistently evocative and provocative of emotionally charged questions and issues. It made a strong showing on the festival circuit, and its virtues were celebrated in the mainstream press—the equivalent of winning the documentary film lottery.
One measure of the power of a story are the thoughts and feelings that reverberate in the viewer’s soul after the story is told. The Overnighters is a powerful film.
A couple guys are loading a large white van with a large amount of large cases full of large musical instruments. One of the two men has a large crop of black wavy hair.
Cut to a large dinner/dance club in a big city. A band is playing. Eleven players all in black tuxedos, performing a very fast tempo old-fashioned song. Sounds like the 1920s or 30s. Sounds like the music from most of Woody Allen’s movies. Sounds like some music I heard on Garrison Keillor’s ‘A Prairie Home Companion’ radio show. Sounds like Dixieland. Sounds like The Little Rascals.
The man with the large crop of black wavy hair is at the back, playing a metal stand-up bass guitar—at lightning speed. He’s singing just as fast. The song ends, he makes an announcement to the audience. He’s the band leader. The arranger. The promoter. The organizer. The businessman. And, of course, one of the roadies.
Thus is introduced Vince Giordano, the definitive exemplar of someone who is a legend in their own time. And thus begins Dave Davidson’s and Amber Edwards’s Vince Giordano: There’s a Future in the Past, the definitive documentary about this amazing musician. The film proceeds to tell a thoroughly engaging story about a jaw-dropping talent whose Goddess is Music, and whose instrument is a ‘society band’ featuring players who have been with Giordano for decades.
Giordano has never made it big. But, he’s always made it. He lives in a modest home which is a virtual museum of old-time music. His well-lit basement is stuffed with dozens of file drawers each of which is stuffed with sheet music. He is curating tens of thousands of arrangements each of which holds many sheets of music broken down by instrument.
Music is a language particularly suited to the expression of the broadest possible spectrum of emotions. Giordano’s music expresses pure joy.
Vince Giordano is distributed by First Run Features.
Shot guerilla-style, Hooligan Sparrow follows Chinese political activist Ye Haiyan as she confronts the institutionalization of rape in China—specifically loopholes that allow government workers to have consensual or nonconsensual sex with female minors with little to no consequence for the perpetrators. Haiyan’s nom de plume is ‘Hooligan Sparrow.’
Haiyan is fighting two fronts: prostitution and rape.
Prostitutes face many risks by virtue of working in the context of a pimp culture. One of Haiyan’s acts of protest was to do sex work in a brothel setting without fee. The primary focus of the film, however, is on a specific case of rape: Two government workers kidnapped several young girls from school, right out of their seats, had sex with them over a period of two days, and then released them. The two workers faced no substantial consequences.
Using both hidden and unhidden cameras, filmmaker Nanfu Wang covered the story of Haiyan’s mission of protest of this egregious lack of justice. With every move she makes, Haiyan becomes increasingly vulnerable to governmental surveillance and harassment. Inevitably, Wang, too, becomes a target. Although Wang had some of her footage confiscated and equipment destroyed, she managed to secure enough of her film to tell this harrowing story of a giant nation’s shame.
I am sure many us who have seen Wang’s film thought about a production company adapting the story for a mainstream film. If I was a mogul I’d greenlight it immediately. Hollywood and China, though, have become inextricably attached. The chances of this riveting story being widely available any other way then via Nanfu Wang’s inspiring film are slim. It is on that basis that I urge you to see this film. Although this story is about institutional misogyny in China, it is also emblematic of misogyny’s ubiquitous nature.
Hooligan Sparrow is distributed in North America by Kino Lorber.
Although obviously a contradiction in terms, a ‘mudblood’ is a muggle who happens to possess some kind of metaphysical power.
Mudbloods is a documentary about intercollegiate quidditch. The film follows UCLA’s quidditch team through the 2011 season of play leading to the Annual World Cup competition in Middlebury, Vermont.
Adjusting to terra firma requires each player—or mudblood—to run with a broom stick between her or his thigh, held there by one hand. I presume players have a choice as to which of the two hands are to be utilized. In any case, the elephant in this film’s room are the inevitable groin-related jokes.
Tom Marks, UCLA’s Quidditch team coach and captain, is our central character. His passion for the sport and for his team shines through the entire film. Also appearing throughout the film is Alex Benepe, Intercollegiate Quidditch Commissioner of the International Quidditch Association (IQA) which sanctions the competitions. It is hoped that the game will find its way to the Olympics.
The play is rough, and demands skills and endurance. Benepe describes mudblood quidditch as a cross between rugby and dodge ball. The teams have seven players on the field. Benepe presides the field of World Cup play sporting formal wear with a top hat and scepter. When asked about the broom, he doesn’t want to speak about it because ‘that opens up a can-of-worms.’
Mudblood quidditch emerged in the fall of 2005, at Middlebury College, in Vermont. The first World Cup was held in 2007, at Middlebury which has dominated the league for years. Unlike the other schools, Middlebury has several teams, and out of their intra-collegiate play, the winning team competes in the World Cup.
After the film introduces us to muggles, it then follows the challenge the UCLA team faces to raise funds to support the players in intercollegiate travel and, especially, to fly to the World Cup. Aside from the winning or losing of games, this financial challenge is the over-arching story.
My reaction to Mudbloods—from the moment of learning that there is a film about intercollegiate quidditch, through viewing the film—was one of a mildly dropped jaw. As I write this review, my jaw is still dropped—and my curiosity is peaked. I hope someone at Middlebury College will respond to my request to purchase a team t-shirt.
Phun Phact: In the late 1960s, in Atlanta, we named our close circle of friends ‘The Muggles Family.’
Flash: Someone did respond to my quest for a quidditch t-shirt!
“My hope is that we miraculously produce a generation of young I.F. Stones. We need to stop keeping up with the Kardashians, and start going back and catching up on I.F. Stone.” Jeremy Scahill
“There’s only two types of reporters. There’s those who care, and those who don’t. Most of them don’t care. But, if you care, if you are, as I was, in El Salvador, or Gaza, or Sarajevo, then you are immediately branded as political. Because if you care, you can’t lie to cover up oppression, atrocity, genocide. And, I.F. Stone cared.” Chris Hedges
All Governments Lie is an homage to pioneering independent journalist Isidor Feinstein Stone—a.k.a. I.F. Stone, a.k.a. Izzy—who set a template for generations of independent journalists. Stone shared his groundbreaking work via his I.F. Stone Weekly. All the contemporary journalists who appear in this film are inspired by Stone’s work. Director Fred Peabody and his production team subscribed to his publication in their teens. Albert Einstein was a subscriber. Marilyn Monroe was an early subscriber to I.F. Stone Weekly. She reportedly bought subscriptions for every member of Congress.
Appearing in the film, Stone’s son Jeremy J. Stone states, “My father really believed in the importance of a free press. He once told me, ‘If something goes wrong with the government, a free press will ferret it out, and it will get fixed. But, if something goes wrong with the free press, the country will go straight to hell.’”
Sixteen journalists are profiled in the film. The list includes Matt Taibbi, Desmond Cole, Jeremy Scahill, Carl Bernstein, Michael Moore, Ana Kasparian, Glenn Greenwald, Cenk Uygur, Amy Goodman, and John Carlos Frey. Scenes from “Crossing the Line at the Border: Dying to Get Back”—an episode from the PBS-distributed series, ‘Need to Know’—about migrant deaths at the U.S./Mexican border are woven throughout the film. The episode serves as a prime example of a virtually censored story. Frey worked on this episode, and speaks about it in his interview.
The focus of All Governments Lie, however, is not the massive number of crucial stories and information kept from the public’s view, but the journalists who tirelessly—and many times at great risk—find and report these otherwise censored stories. To state the utterly obvious, this film cannot be more timely.
All Governments Lie has been picked up for distribution by First Run Features. It is as important a documentary film as I have ever seen.
Looking for a film that takes you to a place you’ve never been, presented a world you never conceived? You found it.
With Speed Sisters director Amber Fares and crew take us to Palestine, and introduces the first all-woman car racing team in the Arab world. I can’t speak for you, but I confess my preconceptions were seriously damaged.
The five women racers don’t wear headscarves, or any of the attire associated with women Muslims presented in our media. That is, these women appear and sound quite Western—and they have a visceral passion for racing small automobiles on demanding tracks. Over the years they’ve developed a significant fan-base of males who attend the races.
Having broken through cultural barriers, the five women are still subject to the human frailty of organizational corruption. Their races are sanctioned by the Palestinian Racing Federation which seems to consist of one dude who makes up the rules on the fly—and is not swayed by logic or compassion.
The film follows the courageous women through two seasons of races, and spends time with them at home, on city streets, in stores, and struggling with the challenges of going to and from Israel—watch out for those flying tear gas canisters.
This may be the first time you’ve heard of female race drivers in the Arab world, but it is not your last. The women have already broken into international racing circuits.
A First Run Features release, Speed Sisters is delightful and inspiring. When you find yourself in Palestine, you will find plenty of cultural institutions reminiscent of home. For instance, it seems as if there is a ‘Stars and Bucks’ café on every street.
“This movie has good music, kinky stuff, a cute cat, romance, drama, and is definitely not normal.” Michelle Smith
Director Garrett Zevgetis has had his first feature picked up for theatrical distribution—a rare accomplishment in the documentary film world.
In Best and Most Beautiful Things Zevgetis follows Michelle Smith for a period of time in her young adulthood. Smith has more than the usual challenges, though—she is legally blind. Now, that term is quite open to interpretation—let’s just say she is very legally blind. Smith has also been diagnosed with Asperber’s Syndrome—one of the more famous forms of something called The Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Zevgetis’ coverage includes Smith’s family: mother, father, three brothers, and, of course, the cute cat. Her parents are divorced, and she lives with her mother.
Slice-of-life stories, fictional or non-fictional, can be challenging to remain engaged with—especially in our cyber age. I found myself fully engaged with Michelle Smith—her presence, her character, her story, and the courage she displays as she struggles with multiple barriers and, most challenging—the world telling her who she is.
Stay in touch with the film’s website and its distributor’s, First Run Features, to find your way to this most gratifying story.
Llyn Foulkes is an LA-based carpenter, musician, composer, singer, yodeler….and artist.
Co-produced and co-directed by first-time feature directors Tamar Halpern and Chris Quilty, Llyn Foulkes One Man Band (the film’s full title) follows the multi-talented, self-absorbed gentleman through seven years of ups and downs. His life and work are driven, in part, by a rebellious nature.
The ‘One Man Band’ reference in the title is both literal and metaphorical. He is a multi-media artist who also writes, sings, and plays songs on his one-man-band for small audiences. The film is peppered with clips of those performances. (He seems to exclusively utilize the 2/4 time signature.) Foulkes’ one-man-band serves both as a music-maker as well as an art installation piece of his own creation which no one—including his family—may touch. One of his dreams is that upon his death this installation ends up in the Smithsonian Institute. (I guess its movers will have the honor of touching the ‘band.’)
In addition to plenty of scenes of Foulkes working and pontificating, we hear from his former wives and his children, a variety of art critics, and an avid collector—the late and legendary Dennis Hopper. In just a short 88 minutes our filmmakers capture Foulkes’ character, and his ambivalent relationship with the art world and his art.
Llyn Foulkes One Man Band is distributed by Kino Lorber.
Eat That Question is an introduction to the professional life and philosophy of legendary composer/musician/filmmaker Frank Zappa.
Director Thorsten Schütte chose the graceful approach to telling Zappa’s story exclusively through clips of interviews.
For those who are not or barely aware of him, Eat That Question reveals Zappa as a prolific musical genius, as well as a free and independent thinker who rails against those who are not thus. The film includes a plethora of video clips of the composer’s on-stage performances as well as orchestral performances of his long-form compositions.
Zappa is smoking a cigarette in some—if not most—of his interviews. As a fan I was devastated to learn of his untimely illness and death. I still am.
Distributed in the United States by Sony Pictures Classics, but not available from the company’s website, Eat That Question is a must-have for Zappa fans, and a quintessential introduction to the man and his work.
Among the Believers is as horrifying and gratifying a documentary as I’ve ever seen. Directors Hemal Trivedi and Mohammed Naqvi were given rare access to Abdul Aziz Ghazi, an Islamic cleric in Pakistan who—as of the time of production—heads a network of madrassahs called the Red Mosque. These are schools where children live and study. They are required to memorize the Quran—and learn no other subjects. Aziz promotes the severest interpretation of Shariah law. His schools cultivate terrorists.
Countering Aziz is nuclear physicist Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy who stands for non-violence and moderation. The film covers seven years of what appears to be an unending civil war in Pakistan—if not the entire Islamic world—over religious practices.
Distributed by First Run Features, Among the Believers is a window on a world we hear about, speculate about, but never see. This is a rare film, and I cannot recommend it enough. It captivates its viewer and never lets go.
Written, produced, and directed by Nailah Jefferson, the double entendre-titled Vanishing Pearls covers the impacts on a small town on the Louisiana coast devastated by the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Pointe a la Hache is a community of African American oystermen beset by decades of racism and economic repression. But, they created livelihoods for their families by oyster fishing.
The documentary chronicles the tepid, heartless responses by BP to the environmental damage the spill caused, as well as the economic devastation to this community. Although Jefferson weaves this story with plenty of information about the spill and the response, it is the human tragedy she reveals that leaves the viewer haunted by these victims who struggled mightily to rise above their victimhood and sought both economic and environmental justice.
Vanishing Pearls is distributed by African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement.
Directed by Yann Arthus-Bertrand and Michael Pitiot, written by Pitiot, Terra is a beatific, passionate, bold documentary about life on Earth. The film is narrated in French, with English subtitles, and available on Netflix.
The narration is spoken in the first person, and that person is the spirit of humanity.
The focus is on the history of life beginning with lichen, and concluding with humanity’s environmental crisis. The images are utterly spectacular—I’d love to see the film on Blu-ray or 4K—and the narration approaches the poetic.
The film inspires the viewer to identify with the beauty and grace of nature, of our planet—as well as to take responsibility for our destruction of its ecosphere. At film’s end there is the requisite, if not perfunctory, hint that we can still change course, stop the destruction, and regain balance. My spiritual and optimistic friends will castigate me for my pessimism—the recent Presidential election makes matters much worse.
One of the many places visited in this journey is Bangladesh, a nation of 160 million in the cross-hairs of global warming. As I received the images and information about this country’s vulnerability I thought of the current refugee crises in the Middle East—lives uprooted, tens of thousands dying. I then thought of the inevitable surge of environmental refugees and deaths. How will the nations of our world handle the displacement of tens of millions of human beings? Hundreds of millions?
Terra is that rare documentary with the courage to address the human overpopulation of Earth. (Meanwhile I impatiently await a well-funded documentary that focuses on human overpopulation as the primary source of environmental destruction.)
I’ve seen way too many documentaries of this ilk to say that Terra is my absolute favorite environmental film. Let’s say it’s in my Top Five. No matter how many environmental documentary films you’ve seen, I cannot overstate the importance of seeing this one. The beauty of the images, the poetry of its narration put Terra in a category of its own.
Written, produced, and directed by prolific filmmaker Alex Winter, Deep Web provides a brief introduction to the Internet’s underground—the deep web and the dark web. After this introduction the film focuses on the legal case of Ross William Ulbricht who was arrested, tried, and convicted of a variety of federal crimes. Ulbricht’s case received wide publicity which appears to have been one of the goals of our federal government.
Ulbricht was identified as someone deeply involved with the ‘Silk Road,’ an online commercial enterprise which hosted the selling and purchasing of illicit products including drugs. Winter tells Ulbricht’s story up to and beyond his initital imprisonment. As presented in this film, Ulbricht’s trial occurred in a kangaroo court—several crucial rulings having to do with evidence and witnesses went against Ulbricht’s defense. The jury heard the prosecution’s case, but not the defense’s.
From beginning to end Deep Web is thought-provoking and emotionally charged. At stake are issues of freedom, democracy, security, public health, justice, oppression, cyber technology, and the massively destructive ‘War On Drugs.’
The Kino Lorber DVD includes four special features entitled Bitcoin, Tor, Surveillance, and an audio commentary by Winter.
Pictured: Alex Winter
Produced, directed, shot, and edited by Austin Peck and Annaliese Vandenberg, Gardeners of Eden is another look at our slaughter of elephants in the wild. The emphasis, though, is on initiatives to save wild elephants and end the slaughter.
The film reports that out of a population of 3.5 million, 300,000 wild elephants remain—and their survival is in question. The total elimination of wild elephants is still a tragic possibility.
Of course, information about and images of the killing of elephants are horrendous—yet it is critical that those images be captured and seen by as many of us humans as possible. But, in this film those images are kept to a minimum. In their place are images and stories of human beings fighting against poachers and for elephants—and other wild species. We see wounded elephants receiving treatment, orphaned elephants being cared for, and learn that those survivors are being successfully released back into the wild. Some of the females bring their babies back to the rehabilitation center for reasons we may only speculate about.
Gardeners of Eden is currently available on Netflix. By the way, the film’s world premier took place at the Mill Valley Film Festival, right on my own backyard.
This story transcends geographical boundaries, racial boundaries, socio-economic and cultural boundaries. Although the film’s title denotes completion, this is a film about many beginnings.
Closure is Bryan Tucker’s first feature documentary film. Quickly we see he is a natural-born filmmaker.
Angela was born of African-American parents in 1985, in Tennessee, and diagnosed at birth with plastic quadriplegia—the doctors said she would never walk. Angela was placed in foster care, and a year later adopted by a loving Caucasian couple from Washington state. Angela became part of a large family—her adoptive parents love children, and all but one are adopted.
Angela became a basketball player—so much for doctors’ pronouncements—finished college, and married a handsome young filmmaker named Bryan Tucker.
At a certain point in her young adulthood Angela decided to find her birthmother. This understandable initiative had powerful emotional repercussions for all concerned. We take several trips between Washington state and the Deep South, and experience the creation of many strong cross-continental family bonds. Get out your handkerchiefs.
Tucker tells this story of many twists with the aplomb of a veteran filmmaker.
Closure is a thoroughly engaging, charming, and gratifying story.
The film is easy to find. Just start right here.
“You connect with them because you’re looking in their eyes, and they’re looking in yours.” Jo-Anne McArthur
I have never had such trepidation about sharing my review of a documentary film. I know how hard the information and images in this film are to stomach, to let in to our minds and hearts. I know the reluctance to even start this film about animal abuse and slaughter.
For reasons I struggle to understand, it seems people can learn about the myriad kinds of injustice and destruction on our planet, yet it is the image and reality of animals being abused and slaughtered that creates the most emotional, the most visceral reactions—along with a concomitant hopelessness about how to stop the massive abuse.
Written and directed by Liz Marshall, The Ghosts in Our Machine covers the work of photographer Jo-Anne McArthur whose life is devoted to non-human animal rights and welfare. The film presents images from factory farms and slaughter houses, mink and fox farms, places where animals are used for testing, teaching, and research, dairy farms, and marine parks. Both Marshall and McArthur provide the images.
McArthur and Marshall also bring us to rehabilitation and rescue centers where we can see and hear a glimmer of hope—for non-human animals, and especially, for human animals.
The pictures and stories in this documentary are obviously devastating, the global reality they refer to is incomprehensible. Yet, it is crucial that The Ghosts in Our Machine be seen by as many people as possible.
I continue to be impressed by the quality of music in documentary films. The Ghosts in Our Machine is no exception. The delicate soundtrack is by prolific composer Bob Wiseman.
Note that the film continues its story throughout the ending credits.
Phillip Toledano is a prolific multi-media artist. Very multi-media, very prolific. Here is his CV.
The Many Sad Fates of Mr. Toledano is filmmaker Joshua Seftel’s faithful coverage of iconic photographer Phillip Toledano’s three-year-long personal exploration of his fears of growing old. Based on DNA tests and consultations with fortunetellers, he acts out several fates that possibly await him in the next 40 to 50 years. (His wife calls it “immersing yourself in your fears.”) Seftel follows Toledano as he creates a set of elaborately produced tableau-like photographs of these possible fates—which include stroke, obesity, homelessness and suicide.
Almost immediately after the film’s beginning, I was thrust decades back to my reading of legendary psychiatrist Fritz Perls, who spoke and wrote of the ‘catastrophic expectation’ and how crippling it can be to live one’s life with haunting ideas and images of the worst that can happen—which is all to say that I was immediately empathetic with Mr. Toledano’s plight since I struggle with the same propensity.
Empathy aside, the extent to which Phillip Toledano pursued this project and the skills he brought to bear are utterly jaw-dropping. Seftel’s 26-minute film introduces the man, his mission, and follows the showbiz axiom ‘leave them wanting more’—of the project, its impacts, and of Toledano’s other work.
The Many Sad Fates of Mr. Toledano may be found in Season Five of the New York Times’ Op Docs Project. It can be viewed here.
In my introduction to Telling Their Own Stories: Conversations with Documentary Filmmakers I compared the watching of documentaries to taking The Matrix’s ‘red pill’ the act of which indicates the taker is committed to seeing the world as it is—not as they imagine or wish, just as it is.
Cassie Jaye’s latest release, The Red Pill, is well-titled. Jaye decided to learn the core issues of something most of us have little to no knowledge about—the Men’s Rights Movement. When I first learned of Jaye’s latest project I was confused and befuddled about why she would tackle this seemingly non sequitur, politically-incorrect subject. But, I’d seen her first two feature docs, Daddy I Do and The Right to Love: An American Family, and understood that’s Jaye’s way. She chooses tough topics.
Jaye saw the Men’s Rights Movement as dominated by hate-filled misogynists promoting misogynistic policies and behaviors. She decided to see if her perception was accurate, and spent a year speaking with leaders and followers of the movement. Jaye emerged from her fall down this rabbit hole with a radically changed view of this movement, and of gender issues.
I confess. I was skeptical that Jaye was going to convince me of the virtues of this movement. I am passionate about women’s rights, and bemoan the many ways men mistreat and discriminate against the female gender—a worldwide phenomenon which seems registered in us males’ genes.
Jaye peppers her film with clips from the ‘video diary’ she made during filming. She documents her internal struggles with the information she is receiving. These clips enable us skeptics to be open to her conclusions—they make this red pill more bio-available.
She did it. Yes, there are misogynistic members of this movement, but Jaye reveals that the movement’s core issues are valid and deserve much more attention.
This is what the best of issue-based documentary films do. They challenge us with information we don’t want to hear, to accept. Cassie Jaye has become quite adept at creating and dispensing these red pills.
Written, directed, and starring Greg Palast, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy is another look at the usurpation of the United States’ government—and many states’ governments—by the wealthy and powerful. The film is as entertaining as it is infuriating.
Palast portrays an amalgam of journalist and noir film detective as he doggedly seeks the perpetrators of this mega-crime. Like environmental documentaries, we cannot have too many films about the destruction of our democracy and the concomitant abuse and exploitation of the American people—in fact, we need more. The Best Democracy Money Can Buy is a welcome addition.
The film’s central focus is the removal and/or denial of voting rights. Of necessity, Palast reveals the financial shenanigans that funded—and continue to fund—the purchase of our elections.
Every time I see a film of this ilk, I never cease to be amazed and frustrated that our elected leaders of the Lefty persuasion are not screaming bloody murder every day in response to the continued injustice in virtually every aspect of our daily lives—and that us Americans have not had a giant, unprecedented march on Washington.
Palast is new to me. His approach to filmmaking is to place himself in the center of the action. I’ve noted that this cinematic method makes the filmmaker more vulnerable to attacks by iconoclasts. I am not one. I enjoyed Palast’s performance, and especially admire his bravery and tenacity in following the money and seeking the perpetrators.
You can find the film by going directly to its website.
Josh Aronson’s Talent Has Hunger follows legendary cello teacher Paul Katz and a group of students over a period of seven years. The film is a rare opportunity and treat to experience the depth and breadth of skills required to master an instrument, and the dedication it takes to stay with the challenges of learning and changing over so many years—let alone making your instrument a life-long occupation and livelihood.
The students are charming and charismatic, Katz’s teaching skills and sensitivity are jaw-dropping. He does not subscribe to the stern school of teaching. Instead, he converses person-to-person, very much like speaking with a friend who’s asked him for some help with this or that challenge.
Of course, there is plenty of music to be enjoyed, and mind-boggling playing to see. But, the hero is Katz, a dedicated teacher with a lifetime of service—and students-turned-masters playing and teaching around the world.
Talent Has Hunger is a First Run Features release.
Whatever the etiology, the number of children who develop autism has increased dramatically, if not exponentially. This tragic phenomenon has created an inevitable subculture—with micro-cultures within that subculture. One of those sub-subcultures is individuals ‘on the higher functioning end of the autism spectrum.’
How to Dance in Ohio follows a group of adolescents who receive a variety of services at the Amigo Family Counseling center in Columbus, Ohio. The center was founded by Dr. Emilio Amigo in 1993. Amigo, as far as I can tell, is the source of the film’s inciting incident—a formal dance party at a local club.
Director Alexandra Shiva follows Amigo and his ‘higher functioning’ adolescent charges as they live, learn, and grow through three months of preparations for this high-stakes Amigo Spring Formal.
How to Dance in Ohio immediately went on my personal all-time favorites list. I am in awe of Amigo’s skills, dedication, and the care he provides this challenged and challenging population. I am in equal awe of filmmaker Shiva’s ability to so sensitively cover the lives and stories of these young people.
In addition to the delicate touch this film’s production required and received, I am also impressed with both the quality of sound and image the production crew achieved.
How to Dance in Ohio is distributed by Kino Lorber.
You See Me is a documentary film about the filmmaker’s family. Veteran documentarian Linda J. Brown tells her family’s story. She is searching for meaning, understanding, and resolution in the lifelong dynamics of this family. Her father, Stanley, is the central character, the central mystery.
Brown uses interview, narration, and a treasure trove of family movies to tell her painful yet touching story. The inciting incident for the film’s production was Stanley’s debilitating stroke at age 79.
Brown wanted to understand why her father seemed disconnected at times? Why was he abusive at times? What happened to him? Did he love his wife, Brown’s mother? The film answers these questions, and along the way we learn about each of the five family members.
When viewing a well-made documentary about a particular family it is inevitable that viewers find themselves reflecting on their family experience. You See Me is no exception. Brown has done an admiral job of digging, investigating, and exploring her family’s history to find her own resolution—and inspiring us viewers to reflect on our family experiences.
Directed by Niles Heckman and hosted by Rak Razam, Shamans of the Global Village covers the resurgence of shamanistic practices in the West. Each episode will cover a shaman and a particular ethnogenic medicine she or he incorporates in their practice. The series’ planned episodes are listed below.
The first episode—premier date is October 1, 2016—features Dr. Octavio Rettig, a medical surgeon from the University of Guadalajara who specializes in addiction treatment. The medicine he uses is safely harvested from the Sonoran Desert toad. It contains 5-MeO-DMT.
The episode includes dramatic coverage of a small group of people undergoing this treatment during a ceremony on a bright, cloudless day in the Sonoran Desert. Rettig appears to be a thoroughly sincere, highly knowledgeable, and humble practitioner fully committed to helping people with his vast array of shamanistic practices.
Shamans of the Global Village brings the viewer up close and personal with both the shaman and the people she or he serve. For yours truly the series is a must-see. This is what the best of documentary films do. They bring us crucial information and images that would be nigh impossible to find for ourselves.
The series is executive produced by publisher/filmmaker/author Michael Wiese.
The series’ creators are Rak Razam and Niles Heckman. Razam hosts, and Heckman directs. Episodes, beginning October 1, are available directly from the series’ website.
The full season plan—in no particular order:
5-MeO-DMT — Sonoran Desert Toad — Mexico
Psilocybin Mushrooms — USA/Mexico
Ayahuasca, the ‘Vine of Souls’ — Peru
San Pedro Cactus — Chavin, Peru
Salvia Divinorum — UK/Mexico
Peyote — USA
Kambo, the ‘Kiss of the Frog’ — Brazil
Iboga — Gabon
Cannabis — USA
Amanita Muscaria — Lapland
Acacias — Australia
Haoma / Syrian Rue — Iran
First Run Features’ Enter the Faun is about two subjects: The creation of a dance piece and the transformation of Gregg Mozgala’s body and mind.
Mozgala is an actor, playwright, artistic director, and has cerebral palsy.
Tamar Rogoff is a prolific choreographer who specializes in breaking boundaries and limits—both artistic and human.
Rogoff discovered Mozgala in a production of Romeo and Juliet that featured players with and without disabilities. Impressed with his performance, she invited him to dance in a production. He was to play ‘The Faun’ from Roman mythology. The performance was entitled Diagnosis of a Faun.
Rogoff had no intention of changing the way Mozgala moved, yet in developing the performance she found herself improvising touch and movements that profoundly expanded Mozgala’s movement abilities, reduced his pain, and transformed his image and sense of himself. This transformation flew in the face of medical expectations that Mozgala’s quality of life would gradually degrade to the point of being wheelchair-bound.
Gregg Mozgala’s life is now anything but. In addition to his work in the arts, he helps children with challenging CP limitations—and now he is the star of an inspiring documentary film that yours truly hopes is seen by many millions of people around the world.
Enter the Faun is produced and directed by Tamar Rogoff and Daisy Wright.
‘the Great Song’ in Michael Stillwater’s beatific In Search of the Great Song is a metaphor, a reference to the sacred, to the spiritual connections with our world, to the grace and dignity of nature, and to the power of music, voice and sound.
Stillwater interviews 50 people from many cultures and traditions speaking about sound, music, song and spirit; speaking about connections. One common denominator in these interviews is the depth of character, the nobility of the speakers. Their thoughts and perspectives are cradled by breath-taking images shot by Stillwater, as well as sacred musics from around the world.
At film’s conclusion I was struck with the beauty of all aspects of this film—the people, their words, the cinematography, and the music.
In Search of the Great Song is produced by Michael Stillwater and Doris Laesser Stillwater, and available from Song Without Borders.
Fimmakers Peter D. Hutchison, Kelly Nyks and Jared P. Scott have taken interviews of legendary author/speaker/activist Noam Chomsky and woven them into a coherent narrative of the corruption of our American socio-economic-political systems. In addition to being a requiem, the film is also a post mortem—descriptions of the strategies and tactics that have transformed the United States of America into an oligarchy.
The Ten Principles are:
Redesign the Economy
Shift the Burden
Run the Regulators
Keep the Rabble in Line
Marginalize the Population
In less than 73 minutes Chomsky articulates these strategies and tactics used by the wealthy and powerful to achieve their goals. The goals have been met. We are a large population of humans supporting the wealth and power of 1% of the country’s population—and suffering the consequences.
This is yet another must-see documentary about socio-political-economic injustice in the United States of America. When confronted with our national shame I often think of two stanzas from The Rolling Stones song, ‘Sympathy for the Devil’:
I watched with glee
While your kings and queens
Fought for ten decades
For the gods they made
I shouted out,
‘Who killed the Kennedys?’
When after all
It was you and me
Yes, documentaries of this ilk can be demoralizing, disheartening. Yet, they are also part of the solution, and as implied by Mick Jagger’s accusation, we are the ones who can revive our democracy.
The film concludes with a sentiment expressed by Chomsky’s close friend, the late Howard Zinn. Chomsky quotes:
‘What matters is the countless small deeds of unknown people who lay the basis for the significant events that enter history. They’re the ones who’ve done things in the past. They’re the ones who will have to do it in the future.’
Requiem for the American Dream is available from Netflix, Vimeo, and iTunes.
When Jon Betz and Taggart Siegel make a film, it is a must-see. They’ve given us The Real Dirt on Farmer John and Queen of the Sun—strong, hard-hitting films about agriculture.
Their latest, Seed: The Untold Story, is both inspiring and demoralizing.
The unhappy yet predictable aspect is the extent to which we have lost seeds. 94% of seed varieties disappeared in the 20th century. The film also covers the tragically successful attempt of corporations to take over life, to release a world-wide Frankenstein experiment via the dissemination and control of genetically modified seeds—which are uncontrollable due to wind, flying critters, and caprice. This monster has been attacking us and our world in one way or another since its creation.
Most of the film, however, is of the inspiring kind. Taggart and Betz profile several seed heroes fighting to save the non-GMO seeds we still have; fighting, too, against the Frankenfoods experiment. Another source of inspiration is the raw beauty of seeds—abstract art at its finest.
Like so many films I’ve seen, this is exemplary issue-based documentary filmmaking.
And, yes, it is a must-see.