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

 

thumbs_Arab-with-ChildJoseph Dorman’s and Oren Rudavsky’s documentary, Colliding Dreams is an objective exploration of the core Middle East conflict between Israel and its neighbors. The filmmakers use the ideas and history of Zionism as their springboard into this seemingly unending and hopeless conflict.

Gush-Emunim-settlersI was reminded of a shot at the end of Otto Preminger’s 1960 epic film of Leon Uris’s Exodus. At twelve years of age, I knew nothing about the conflict there—and next to nothing about Israel. I saw the film’s drama, understood that struggles and battles led to this Jewish nation state called Israel; but it was this one quick shot at story’s end that was a portent of ceaseless tragedies to come: A Jew dangling from a bar of wood, strangled, with the Star of David painted on his exposed chest.

It is an unstated fact of life that current geopolitics contribute to the discord, but the film remains tightly focused on the two primary parties: Palestinians and Israelis, as well as Israel’s creation. Virtually all of the history of Zionism presented in the film was new to me. I was fascinated to learn that 700,000 of the Jewish immigrants to Israel at the time of its creation came from the surrounding Arab nations. Were they oppressed in their homeland? I don’t know. But it was obvious that the establishment of a Jewish state would create an adversarial environment in their homes of origin.

The film’s interviewees include authorities as well as laypeople from both sides of the conflict. The intractable dilemma of virtually two nations sharing the same land is fully clarified. One of the opinion’s expressed is that the two parties are the source to a viable resolution. My immediate reaction was that although it is obviously necessary for their mutual participation, the global powers-that-be must support that resolution if it is to be fully realized.

The glimmer of hope expressed in the film comes from laypeople who want to live in peace.

Distributed by Kino Lorber, Colliding Dreams is amongst the best of the documentaries I’ve seen about Israel and the Middle East. With its 134 minute running time and abundance of information and insight, it practically demands a second viewing.

11196272_868986829831261_1957665495247873697_nDirected by narrative filmmaker Asif Kapadia, Senna is a biography of Brazilian Formula One racing legend Ayrton Senna. There are different approaches to or philosophies of documentary film production. Kapadia chose the track less traveled—he used archival footage exclusively to tell the racer’s jaw-dropping story.

Senna is distributed by Universal Studios. Given the massive number of documentary films produced each year, major studio attention to a documentary film is a rarity. As I viewed the studio’s logo I wondered how this film received such mainstream attention.

The answer came quickly. Senna is a graceful man, and despite—or because of—his passion for racing he is also a warm, thoughtful, and religious man who cares deeply for others.

Kapadia races his audience through the peaks and depths of Senna’s racing career. ‘Purity’ is a central theme. More than once Senna speaks of his early professional go-cart racing in Brazil as pure vis à vis the corruption of the Formula One organization he discovered and confronted.

At film’s end we are stunned by the action we have just experienced as well as the noble character we have discovered.

The commercial DVD’s special features include: Interviews, Senna Family Home Videos, and Filmmakers’ Commentary.

11903868_922765897786687_2790694408869706687_nFacebook: https://www.facebook.com/sennamovie

Website: http://www.sennamovie.com/ (This web address brought up a ‘site under maintenance’ message. It’s an open question if the site will return.)

twc238-243_amaz_repsolprotest_cahuapanas_5149_23258117285_oIt is so easy to become inured to the travails of our world—necessary, some might say, in order to maintain one’s sanity.

Our planet’s human population is rapidly approaching 9 billion. Hundreds of millions—if not more—already live in abject poverty. Economic, political, and social injustice reign supreme around the Earth. War and strife are endemic—as is the ongoing destruction of our ecosphere.

With global media and news outlets controlled by large corporations we—those who can make a difference—are protected from these harsh realities, at least for the time being.

Countless documentary filmmakers are our Obi-Wan, our only hope—for those who intend to be informed, those who choose to ingest the Matrix’s Red Pill.

The expertly produced When Two Worlds Collide is another journey to South America, to the Amazon Rainforest, to the lungs of our planet, to Lima, Peru where critical decisions are made.

The filmmaking team of Heidi Brandenburg, Mathew Orzel, and Taira Akbar cover a confrontation between indigenous peoples of Peru—whose land has already been defiled by oil extraction—and the nation’s decision makers fighting for seemingly unlimited resource extraction. It is business as usual in South America, and around the world.

This confrontation could have, should have been covered by our mainstream media both because it is intrinsically important news, and because it is emblematic of environmental strife and conflicts throughout the world.

wtwc_twc238-243_amaz_repsolprotest_cahuapanas_52922_22630139003_oThis is your opportunity to learn and see this story—another noble attempt to preserve both environmental health as well as the dignity of indigenous peoples.

When Two Worlds Collide is a First Run Features release.

If you’ve taken the Red Pill, you can take more action via the film’s website. Click on Take Action at the top of the homepage.

Pelican-Dreams-GigiJudy Irving, the producer/director/cinematographer/editor of the wildly successful The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill has given us another delightful avian-based documentary, Pelican Dreams.

The story’s inciting incident occurs on the Golden Gate Bridge. Traffic is backed up—well, that’s business as usual. But the unusual cause of the blaring horns is one young, lost pelican walking the bridge, unable to fly.

Pelican-Dreams-In-the-AviaryThis event is the springboard to an exploration of the worlds of pelicans—their beauty, grace, intelligence, and the environmental challenges they face. Irving follows Gigi’s recovery through release into the wild. Along the way we meet Morro, another rescue too wounded to be released, but who finds a loving retirement home.

Judy Irving is a talented filmmaker who covers my favorite subject, nature. I hope to see more of her story-based films, and that the world will provide the support she deserves and needs to produce her films.

Pelican-Dreams-Funny-Duo

Fogo Island is a small island, off a larger island, off the coast of Canada’s Newfoundland.

item0.rendition.slideshowHorizontal.-1-Todd Saunders grew up there, as did Zita Cobb.

Saunders is an architect who now lives in Norway. Cobb found success in her professional life, and wanted to benefit the people, community, and Island of Fogo.

The island’s economy was based upon fish. Like many seas around our Earth, the sea around Fogo Island lost its fish. The community was disappearing.

In just 54 minutes, Strange & Familiar tells the story of the saving of Fogo Island. Cobb came up with a plan, shared it with the people. She contracted Saunders to design artist’s homes as well as the Fogo Island Inn. Saunders’ work was lauded internationally—and Fogo Island became an internationally-renown destination.

Filmmakers Marcia Connolly and Katherine Knight have created a thoroughly delightful, visually thrilling film. I was particularly delighted at story’s end to discover these are the same two filmmakers who produced the equally-delightful Spring and Arnaud.

Strange & Familiar is a First Run Features release.

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Director Shalini Kantayya’s Catching the Sun addresses global warming and economic inequities by focusing on the use of solar power to reduce and eventually eliminate fossil fuels—more jobs, less pollution.

Liberal icon Van Jones embodies the film’s thesis with the concept of ‘green jobs’—providing much needed solar energy-based jobs for us humans, and greening the planet’s ecosphere. His thoughts and personal journey are peppered throughout the film.

From the other side of the world we have cocky “Wally” Jiang who takes great joy in his success as an entrepreneur. Jiang is exploiting his Chinese government’s policies to support solar energy. He intends to do business ‘in every country of the world.’ The film’s last shot is of Jiang sporting a classic cowboy’s hat, standing in the middle of a giant flat field in the heart of Texas. He is kvelling over the location of his ‘Solar City’ development. The man has a good sense for satire.

Strange Bedfellows: We hear from Van Jones’ political opposite, Tea Party co-founder Debbie Dooley speaking with clarity and passion about the intrinsic values of solar energy. She founded the Green Tea Party to organize political initiatives in support of environmental health. One of the Party’s sayings is: Make America Green Again.

I encourage everyone to see Kantayya’s well-produced inspiring film. It is easy to find: Netflix, Vimeo, and iTunes.

I repeat my plea for a well-funded documentary film about the human over-population of planet Earth. All the deployed environmental initiatives in the world will be of limited impact without a concomitant reduction of our human population. For more information, go to Population Connection.

SA-Storeyteller-portrait-for-filmsmSpring Hurlbut is a successful artist, as is Arnaud Maggs. The two share the love of a lifetime.

Produced by Marcia Connolly, David Craig, and Katherine Knight, Spring and Arnaud explores their professional biographies, their work, and their love story. Being a card-carrying philistine, I do not fully understand their work; but as a hopeless romantic I love their love story of 25 years, and will be viewing the film several times just for those brief yet deeply endearing scenes.

A First Run Features release, Spring and Arnaud was produced with standard-bearing quality, and is thoroughly engaging—even for us philistines.

Music Note: Another powerful element is the film’s soundtrack by composers Ohad Benchetrit and Justin Small. Their music is as beautiful and delicate as the two artists and their love. I contacted the composers. I begged and pleaded to purchase the soundtrack, but was unsuccessful in my attempt. It is now my life’s quest to secure their soundtrack. (I hope the producers read this review.)

“The United States has become a national security state whose raisin d’etre is war. We’ve created a terrorist-industrial complex that is self-perpetuating, and now—searching for the reason for this constant state of war—terrorism is the perfect case for us. We can do this forever.”

Col. Lawrence Wilkerson

Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, 2002-2005

static1.squarespace.comWritten and directed by Tonje Hessen Schei, DRONE tells and shows us what many have learned or surmised—that countless innocent civilians have been and are being killed by United States military actions. In addition to the tragic loss of life, Schei expands the film’s scope with interviews of authorities and experts on the military use of drones—including a projected vision of warfare by autonomous devices.

Former drone operator Brandon Bryant (pictured) opens the film speaking of the painful emotions he has experienced subsequent to his service. He is haunted by the cognizance that he participated in the killing of innocent human beings. Bryant’s interview is peppered throughout the film concluding with his testimony at the United Nations.

Schei includes a brief outline of the history of drone deployment for military purposes, but the film’s central focus is the killing of civilians in Pakistan. We see and hear from victims, as well as both domestic and international efforts to hold the United States accountable for its actions, and stop the killings.

Seeing and hearing the ceaseless stream of news about terrorist activities and efforts to stop them has left yours truly with the feeling of the little boy in ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes.’ The mainstream reports focus on Islamic leaders and organizations, and not on the political and economic support of the destruction and killings. By generating more political support for the perpetrators, the ‘whack-a-mole’ strategy exacerbates terroristic activities rather than diminishes them. The Emperor may not have any clothes, but he sure has a lot of weapons.

In an attempt to understand this conflict I have come to the conclusion Col. Wilkerson states at film’s end. We have created the perfect enemy—the perfect justification for non-stop war.

BayadereVeteran filmmaker Nelson George’s A Ballerina’s Tale tells the dramatic story of African American ballerina Misty Copeland who broke multiple barriers in the rarefied world of professional ballet—and found pop stardom along the way. In addition to the racial barrier, she broke morphological barriers with her curvy muscular physique.

In 2013, in the midst of her exciting ascent, Copeland performed the lead role in Stravinsky’s Firebird at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House. Although her performance was a triumph, she confessed to dancing in pain from previous injuries. Copeland spent many months overcoming a debilitating injury to become the first African American prima ballerina for a major ballet company.

George tells Copeland’s story with aplomb—Copeland relates much of the tale, and we are treated to several performances throughout the film. The effect is simple—exciting, thrilling, and heart-warming.

The world of ballet will never be the same.

Superman_Fan PhotoFirst time feature director Michael Valentine’s Comix: Beyond the Comic Book Pages is a thoroughly engaging documentary about the worlds of comic books. Valentine interviews fans, writers, line drawers, colorists, a movie celebrity or two, and industry icons—including the icon of icons, Stan Lee—all talking about the fun, the power, and the history of this uniquely American art form which has conquered the world.

Being that this is a visual art in consideration, viewers are treated to a non-stop exhibition of comic book art along with the amateurishly- and professionally-wardrobed fans and presenters at their Mecca, Comic-Con International: San Diego.

Michael Crane’s soundtrack perfectly captures the sense of drama and adventure associated with the books—their stories, and their fans.

The Kino Lorber DVD contains two discs: The feature along with plenty of bonuses; the second disc includes more interviews. The box also contains a mini-booklet of comic book art.

10525625_312183912290336_3185001029639804208_nOnce in a blue moon I cover a narrative film. For context, here’s a list of the few I’ve covered:

Secretary (2002)

Tell No One (French, 2006)

Stardust (2007)

An Angel at My Table (1990)

Gaby: A True Story (1987)

Mostly Martha (2001)

Rango (2011)

What’s In A Name? (French, 2012)

I discovered John Carney’s Begin Again on Netflix. It stars the ubiquitous James Corden, Keira Knightly, and Mark Ruffalo—with support from Hailee Steinfeld, Catherine Keener, and Adam Levine. Ruffalo plays a way-down-on-his-luck music producer; Knightly, a broken-hearted singer/songwriter; and Corden, her scene-stealing friend.

Begin Again is a sweet story of redemption—lovingly smothered with great music. In addition to the story’s simplicity, I was inspired by the exquisite production quality and the actors’ standard-bearing performances. Carney is a master at exploring and capturing the richness of poignant moments.

You may find the film on Showtime, Netflix, and online sites that sell old-fashioned discs.

P.S. Oscar winner Carney is also the writer/director of Once (2007). His latest film, Sing Street, was released this year.

Nick MCU ProfileThe Fear of 13 joins the avalanche of documentary and narrative films about injustice in the United States of America. This film is not the usual socio-political polemic. Instead, it is a character study presented in a powerful and captivating ninety-minute monologue. The protagonist is Nick Yarris who was on death row for more than two decades for a murder he did not commit.

Yarris tells his own story. All the lines are his. Director David Sington honors those lines with evocative, atmospheric images that perfectly cradle Yarris’s narrative and deepen the viewer’s connection to the film and its character. Yarris’s story is classic, his presentation is thoroughly engaging, and his character is deeply inspiring.

Distributed by First Run Features, The Fear of 13 is a standard bearing documentary film that deserves a very wide audience.

DanceInvitation to Dance tells two parallel stories: A biography of disability rights activist Simi Linton and a history of the disability rights movement over the last 4 decades. As Linton became active in this movement she discovered a unique focus on dance—and became known as ‘the instigator of dance’ in her national community.

The film honors its title well, there are many scenes of dancing in various contexts including professional. We are treated to dances produced by AXIS Dance Company.

Because of the many successes of the disability rights movement, we are more aware of those we refer to as ‘disabled.’ However much we may think we have adjusted our world to provide rights and access, there is much more to learn, to incorporate in our relationship with this community.

I was struck with several street scenes of disabled people practicing non-violent civil disobedience to bring attention to and further their attainment of rights. I’d watched these scenes countless times in television coverage of anti-war and civil rights causes, but never imagined this particular struggle.

This is a consciousness raising film. I now know more awareness is needed, more work to be done in securing full civil rights for the disabled.

Invitation to Dance is produced and directed by Christian von Tippelskirch and Simi Linton, and distributed by Kino Lorber.

Boy, am I late to the party for this one. Samsara was released more than five years ago.

SamsaraI was watching Issabella Rossellini’s Green Porno Live on Netflix. The film kept freezing. After several tries I gave up, and began searching the site for something else, one that would not freeze.

The title Samsara intrigued me. I love knowing nothing about a film. Instead, I enjoy the process of discovery.

I put on the unknown, and was captured instantly. Like two recent films—The Pearl Button and In Pursuit of Silence—this film became a meditation. At times, a chaotic one.

When released from the film’s grip I ran to IMDBpro and discovered it was directed and shot by Ron Fricke—and co-written, co-produced, and co-edited by Mark Magidson who also worked with Fricke on Chronos and Baraka. I have seen Fricke’s brilliant work beginning with 1982’s Koyaanisqatsi—and then Chronos, Baraka, Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, and Fog City Mavericks.

His meditative films have a bad habit of leaving me speechless. With Samsara I was overwhelmed with the richness and clarity of images from the beatific to the horrific and everything inbetween.

There is one image that appears frequently throughout the film: The human face, looking into camera, piercing our eyes, seemingly our soul.

It would take several viewings to speak in detail about this film to sound anything close to erudite in an analysis. With a single viewing I can only speak from my heart: Samsara is a cinematic masterpiece that has a transformative impact on those who chose to let it in.

Better late than never.

(Pictured: Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson on set.)

Us humans have been messing with the Earth since we began cultivating the land.

charles_rossJames Crump’s Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art covers and uncovers a no-longer-obscure footnote of art history about a small group of artists who messed with the land for art’s sake.

In the sixties and early seventies this group ventured from New York to the American southwest to create land art—also called earth art. They were looking for much larger canvases. The land was both their subjects and their medium.

In a little more than an hour Crump covers the major players and the interested parties who supported, observed, and commented on their work. Most of the artists have passed on to even larger canvases.

But, the medium and the story continue. See, for instance Star Axis by Charles Ross. And take a gander at First Run Feature’s Levitated Mass about a project by one of the original Troublemakers, Michael Heizer.

Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art is a First Run Features release.

chengmanching_lookleftThe ‘Professor’ is what his Tai Chi students called Cheng Man-Ching (1901-1975). He is acknowledged as the master who brought Tai Chi to the west. Tai Chi student and Hollywood writer/director Barry Strugatz has told the Professor’s story in his first feature documentary the Professor: Tai Chi’s Journey West.

Although the black and white footage of Man-Ching’s work is grainy, with his film Strugatz has breathtakingly captured the generous spirit of a master practitioner and teacher. That footage is alternated with interviews of Man-Ching’s students who became teachers. By film’s end it is clear there is no way to measure the depth and profundity of Man-Ching’s contribution to our world. This is a documentary film you will want to share with your friends and family.

I’ve known and wondered about Tai Chi for decades. Seeing this film has inspired me to finally start taking classes.

the Professor is a First Run Features release.

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DKJust as there cannot be too many documentary films about our environment, so there cannot be too many documentary films about prosecutorial malfeasance. The environmental damage perpetrated by us humans is ubiquitous. Twenty thousand inmates in the United States are innocent of the crimes for which they have been convicted and incarcerated.

Ryan Ferguson was one of them.

Andrew Jenks’s “DREAM/KILLER” is a superbly produced documentary film about a young man falsely accused, convicted, and imprisoned for a brutal murder. His father, Bill Ferguson, passionately pursued justice for his son. After ten years of non-stop activism, Ryan was released.

It is ironic, of course, to call a man who lost ten years of the prime of his life lucky. Irony aside, Ryan was lucky that his father had the ability, resources, and iron-will to sustain his quest for justice. Very few of the incarcerated innocent have that kind of blessing.

Our American justice system is corrupt to the core, each and every news story and documentary film about injustice in the United States testifies to that tragic fact. The more of us Americans who see and respond to these films, the faster we will implement much needed federally-based reforms—most of the malfeasance occurs at the local level. In the meantime, you may support The Innocence Project—and see the slideshow at the top of the home page.

DREAM/KILLER is distributed by Kino Lorber.

“Retreating from the cacophony of the world is stepping towards everything that’s essential.” Pico Iyer

SilenceProduced, directed, and shot by Patrick Shen, In Pursuit of Silence is a masterpiece of documentary filmmaking. The film explores the psychological, social, and health impacts of sound, noise, and silence. Lessons learned about the grace, virtue, and power of silence—as well as solitude—inform every aspect of the film.

From the first few moments it becomes clear that In Pursuit of Silence is, in part, a meditation. Peppered throughout we hear from a variety of people speaking with insight and wisdom about our world of sounds and noise, and the critical role silence and solitude play for the individual and our social fabrics.

I felt encouraged when I learned about the work of Quiet Mark which tests and helps design equipment that operates with as little sound as possible. I was both not surprised and somewhat humored to learn of the work of The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy which, as the name suggests, promotes the practice of forest therapy.

Shen’s cinematography is stunning. Alex Lu’s gently captivating music draws viewers into the meditation. By virtue of its visual and aural power, In Pursuit of Silence invites multiple viewings. I imagined watching with sound only, and then watching with vision only. In any case, it will be watched many more times.

Consult the film’s website to find your way to the film.

IndianPoint-IP_VALLEY_2-e1403040552447Written and directed by veteran filmmaker Ivy Meeropol, Indian Point is another look at our use of nuclear energy to power our electrical grids. She follows the antiquated journalistic dictum of giving voice to both sides of an issue.

Indian Point is an aging nuclear facility planted on the Hudson River, 35 miles from New York City. It is preparing for its re-licensing, and the usual pro- and con-forces are out yet again making their well-worn arguments. Fukushima, however, has super-charged the conflict.

Meeropol brings us deep into the Indian Point facility. With slow pans she effects the kind of ominous portent seen at the beginning of a disaster movie. Subtext aside, like most environmental issues, those who already have clear positions on nuclear energy will not be moved. Dogma and talking points reign. A third position emerges, though.

The film reveals our nuclear plants are aging, in need of upgrading or total replacement. The current Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s work is not in the public’s interest, as usual, but in the industry’s.

Nuclear energy is dangerous. Our cavalier treatment of it only heightens its danger. But, if we invest a few billion or trillion, we’ll be a little safer. For unknown reasons, one danger does not appear in Meeropol’s film. Terrorism.

By film’s end, even those who champion nuclear energy may take pause for our massive acts of omission in protecting our environment and our health. The above-mentioned third position requires reformation of our nuclear power regulation policies and procedures as well as a massive re-investment of funds. Those who are entrenched in their anti-nuclear positions, like yours truly, will not be moved by any position other than eliminating our use of nuclear energy to power our lives.

Our news media does not give appropriate coverage of nuclear issues—to make an understatement. No matter your position, Indian Point is your opportunity to consider an environmental issue that is virtually censored.

Over fifty million people live within a 50 mile radius of Indian Point.

Surviving the censor’s knife, Indian Point premiered at 2015’s Tribeca Film Festival. It is produced by Motto Pictures, and distributed by First Run Features.

posterDirected by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, distributed by First Run Features, Unlocking the Cage documents the pioneering work of attorney Steven Wise to establish personhood rights for nonhuman animals. As of the film’s production, Wise’s overarching strategy is to establish rights for chimpanzees, whales, and dolphins. I hope gorillas are next on the list. The film includes an utterly jaw-dropping clip of legendary gorilla Koko watching and responding to her favorite movie.

The film covers Wise’s team seeking the most appropriate nonhuman animals to represent in court, the struggles of that search, as well as courtroom litigation. Wise emerges as a sweet warrior smart enough to surround himself with even smarter women.

Wise works under the aegis of the Nonhuman Rights Project whose mission is “to change the legal status of appropriate nonhuman animals from mere ‘things,’ which lack the capacity to possess any legal right, to ‘persons,’ who possess such fundamental rights as bodily integrity and bodily liberty.”

At the conclusion of the film Wise characterizes his team’s progress as ‘the end of the beginning.’ Given the depth and breadth of our assumptions about who nonhuman animals are and are not, this is obviously a monumental initiative—one necessary, but not sufficient to solve our environmental crises.

The film’s theatrical opening is at the Film Forum in New York, on May 25. See the film’s website for more screenings across the nation. HBO will cablecast the film beginning in July.

Nina-1970FilmoreEast“With her voice, with her presence—whether it was silence, staring at the audience—she was challenging. Anyone who has experienced alienation finds a little bit of comfort in her music, and in her style, and in her courage to say what she wanted to say always—and never back down from it.” Kevin Allred, Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies, Rutgers University

Stunning—the critic’s go-to cliché when a film strikes so deep that the feeling of being changed by a film is impossible to describe. I reluctantly surrender to ‘stunning’ in describing the experience of seeing Jeff L. Lieberman’s The Amazing Nina Simone.

Lieberman tells the story of Simone’s triumphant and troubled life from birth to death. The over-arching tragedy is Simone’s untreated mental illness. Her ultimate triumph was her ability to suppress or transcend the wounds of her upbringing and give our world a lifetime of beauty. In less than two hours, Lieberman powerfully conveys Simone’s pain, raging talent, and complex character.

Lieberman wrote, produced, directed, shot, and edited his film. A filmmaker’s heart and soul is obvious to see in the documentary films I review. The loving connection with a film’s subject is rarer to find, and that connection between filmmaker and subject shines throughout viewing The Amazing Nina Simone.

(I was delighted to see and hear interviewee Eric Burdon in such fine form.)

Please see the film’s website to learn about screenings and the home video release.

The Dying of the Light is a prime example of the magic of documentary filmmaking. A talented filmmaker takes a topic one might have never considered as worthy of documentary coverage, and transforms the topic into a thoroughly engaging film.

LightOne-man-band filmmaker Peter Flynn—he wrote, produced, directed, shot, edited, and color corrected the film—interviews more than two dozen veteran and contemporary projectionists who speak with fondness for their work, and nostalgia about the gradual transition from film projection to digital projection of movies. The projectionists tell of the worlds within which they worked, the challenges and demands they faced projecting their cans of film, and the loss they’ve experienced.

Flynn escorts viewers through haunting tours of projection booths, their equipment, and the difficult work of changing reels every twenty minutes. We also learn about the heyday of film projection—the thirties and forties—when ‘movie palaces’ reigned supreme. Large buildings, majestically designed inside and out didn’t just show a movie. Instead, they featured elaborate shows—combinations of live performances, orchestras, pipe organs, short films, cartoons, newsreels and, of course, the movie.

Flynn concludes the story in digital projection booths featuring films in external hard drives operated by keyboards. There are a few giant booths left—ones that string long lengths of 70mm film for large screens. Digital is not yet up to that level of image quality.

We will, of course, be nostalgic for our current times once we have chips implanted in our brains. The tiny bio-cyber devices will receive 3-D films right from our router with 7-channel sound, scene-appropriate aromas, and proprioceptive experience.

The Dying of the Light is a First Run Features release.

Idyll curiosity. That was the motivating force that caused this Netflix flick to stream on my TV. I simply wondered ‘what’s the deal with 3-D printing?’

PTL Max Lobovsky of FormlabsWell, the deal—what caused the flick to be produced—is the technology’s inevitable arrival to our consumer market.

At an hour and forty minutes, the oddly-titled Print the Legend is about the social, political and economic dynamics of tech-based start-ups within the confines of what has been a below-the-radar birth and growth of ‘3-D Printing.’ Some call this new technology the next industrial revolution, one in which manufacturing, like shopping, is done in the home.

Filmmakers Luis Lopez and Clay Tweel have produced a compelling story of several stories. They follow the men struggling to become the Apple of 3-D printing, to become the next Steve Jobs.  The two start-ups are Formlabs and MakerBot. The two established commercial companies in this story are Stratasys and 3-D Systems.

There’s a side-bar character who practically steals the show—Cody Wilson. He does the obvious. Wilson secures consumer-based hardware and software, makes guns of various ilks, and establishes instant infamy for himself.

An emblematic story of our times, I would not be surprised if Print the Legend replicates a Hollywood movie version of itself.

 

‘pelagic’ – of or relating to the open sea.

MexicoLet’s face it. The narrator’s voice doesn’t fit the tone of this film. The opening narration is unnecessary, if not pretentious. Sometimes it’s not clear who he’s talking about. Who is going where? Is this an organization? If so, what or who are they called? I wanted and needed more introductory context.

Despite these…. concerns, there’s a reason why México Pelágico has five full stars next to its Netflix title. Two reasons, that is.

The film is inspiring and beautiful.

After viewing, I consulted the film’s English language website seeking answers to my questions.

If I understand correctly, there’s this ‘team’ of young adults called Pelagic Life. It must be based in Mexico—by virtue of the title and language of the film. The team is dedicated to “documenting awesome sea-life phenomenon” (sic).

This team had an inciting incident—which we see in the film’s introduction. They were under water, in the open ocean, observing a group of sharks dinning on a shoaling of sardines. (First time I’d seen sharks doing that.) The team discovered a shark that had bit on a hook’s bait. The hook was attached to a rope which, in turn, was attached to an unmanned buoy.

The shark was slowly dying as it struggled against the buoy’s rope. This is the manner local fishermen use to capture sharks for slaughter and sale. The young people were not previously aware of this method. The team struggled with and rescued the shark from the hook.

The young people’s horror sparked a metamorphosis of their goal of exploration to one of activism.

México Pelágico is heart-warming and deeply inspiring. Many of its high quality undersea images were new and revelatory to me—and I’ve seen a cornucopia of nature programs in the last five decades. These charming young people have made dramatic differences in the oceans surrounding Mexico—and continue to do so. They have, indeed, documented awesome sea-life phenomena. They are now one of those phenomena.

According to the website there’s going to be a México Pelágico 2. If anyone from Pelagic Life is reading this review, I hope you will consider my above-mentioned concerns. (Suggestion: Employ a female narrator.)

Note: When viewing the film’s English language website, scroll down after accessing each page to find the substance of that page.

Petroleum jelly—aka Vaseline®—is iconic, prolific artist Matthew Barney’s most oft used medium. That detail is just the tip of the iceberg of information about the jaw-dropping life and work of an artist who has taken the ‘multi’ in multi-media into the stratosphere.

BarneyAlthough Alison Chernick’s 2006  Matthew Barney: No Restraint may seem dated, what she has captured on camera and microphone is no more or less than art history. Everything about Barney is fascinating and bewildering. He was a quarterback on Yale’s football team, and earned good money as a model. These two adventures are considered black marks on the resumé of anyone aspiring to enter the upper echelons of the art world. Instead, so much of who Barney is and what he does is so non sequiturial, those two activities perfectly fit his iconic status.

Chernick’s film introduces Barney to those of us who haven’t paid attention to the aforementioned upper-echelon art world. But, once informed, we will never be the same. We have taken some version of The Matrix’s red pill. The substance has been permanently installed in our biochemistry. I will be exploring Barney’s work in the weeks, months, and years ahead.

At the time of filming, Barney was working on one project of a series called Drawing Restraint—this was number 9—which included the requisite petroleum jelly (45,000 pounds this time), a film featuring Björk, Japanese sailors and Japanese rituals on a contemporary whaling ship, along with many more elements. The making of this piece is the primary substance of Chernick’s film. Sensitive viewers are cautioned because the film includes archival footage of whale slaughter.

Despite the highly idiosyncratic, exotic nature of Barney’s work, he comes off on documentary film camera as just a normal guy—handsome, charming, successful, enjoying his work and life.

Matthew Barney: No Restraint is available from Kino Lorber.

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everythingiscopy01Directed by her son Jacob Bernstein, Everything Is Copy: Nora Ephron Scripted and Unscripted is a brilliant, loving and powerful documentary about a brilliant, loving and powerful woman. Bernstein tells his mother’s story from early childhood through her untimely death.

After a relatively short 90 minutes I felt as if I had known my friend Nora all my life. By film’s end I was grieving at her passing along with the many interviewees—glitterati from in front of and behind the camera—struggling to speak through their tears. There must have been a lot of cuts during filming, and a lot of bytes left on the cutting room floor.

In the small chance Nora’s name is unfamiliar, think SilkwoodWhen Harry Met SallySleepless in Seattle, and Julie and Julia — movies which are among my all-time favorites.

Photo Credit: Dan Greenburg / Courtesy of HBO

 

Mission Blue documents the life and work of environmental activist Sylvia Earle. ‘Mission Blue is also the name of Earle’s organization dedicated to reversing the damage done to Earth’s oceans by human beings.

EarleDirected by Robert Nixon and Fisher Stevens, the film tells Earle’s personal stories, traces her professional development, and introduces her Mission Blue, an initiative of the Sylvia Earle Alliance.

Diminutive in frame but giant in spirit, Earle must have been born with a connection with, and passion for our oceans. That passion seems to have eclipsed her three marriages. The film proffers exquisite underwater cinematography, and presents a broad outline of how we are rapidly damaging our oceans—and, ultimately, ourselves. We also learn about Earle’s initiative to create and expand ‘Hope Spots’ which are areas of the ocean where fishing and dumping are prohibited.

Earle tells much of her own story, and we hear from several of her peers and admirers—including friend James Cameron.

A Netflix documentary, produced by Insurgent Media, Mission Blue is yet another powerful, consummately-produced documentary film that is a must-see for all those concerned about our Earth’s environment, and an absolute must-see for those who are not concerned.

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March 23, 2016

“Carbon Emissions Haven’t Been This High Since The Dinosaurs” screams the headline of a feature story in today’s Huffington Post. The statement derives from a study funded by the prestigious National Science Foundation.

This is the context within which I put on and watched this brilliant documentary about the origins of Greenpeace International.

CaptureThe film follows the international organization from a small group of friends in Vancouver, B.C. mounting a seemingly Quixotic attempt to stop the United States from conducting an underground nuclear test on an island off the coast of Alaska. I write ‘seemingly’ above because their failed attempt inspired and evoked strong public support for the cause of a nuclear-free environment.

Lances pointed downward to the sea, the dejected activists returned to the British Columbia shore heroes. Greenpeace was born.

Directed by Jerry Rothwell, How to Change the World follows this almost magical birth story of Greenpeace. Like a garage band suddenly thrust into music’s limelight, the friends struggle with a myriad of complicated, painful decisions regarding leadership, strategies, tactics, and organizational structure—or lack of same.

Rothwell and company weave archival footage with contemporary interviews of many of the earliest players. The central character is Robert Hunter. The reluctant leader passed away before production. Actor Barry Pepper voices Hunter’s written words.

How to Change the World is a powerful documentary which deserves a large audience. Potential viewers are cautioned that the film includes the inevitable, requisite footage of the whale and seal hunts Greenpeace activists struggled mightily to stop.

It is not clear that we will recover from our cooking of the Earth’s ecosphere. Whether or not their missions are ultimately Quixotic, environmental organizations and documentaries about issues that impact our ecosphere need our support. It is in that spirit of support and participation that I suggest you see this film.

How to Change the World is available from its distributor, Kino Lorber.

HQ1017801Written, produced, and directed by Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman, Sembène! is the biographical documentary about Ousmane Sembène (1923-2007) who, as the subtitle states, is the father of African cinema.

Born, raised, and based in Senegal,  Sembène produced feature films of, by, and for Africans. Given the films featured in the documentary, it seems as if all of Sembène’s stories focused on social, economic, and political issues. This focus on issue-based films added to the already-daunting challenges of funding, producing, and distribution of feature films.

Sembène! follows our hero from uneducated, migrant worker to the educated, talented, courageous filmmaker (and novelist) who achieved global recognition for his role in film history. Much of Sembène’s story is told via the powerful on-screen presence of his biographer Samba Gadjigo.

The Kino Lorber DVD includes several bonus features: Making of “Moolaadé” (2005), Sembène for the People: Reflections from Angela Davis, Youssou N’Dour, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Cheikh Hamidou Kane, et.al., and ‘Samba’s Childhood.’

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1396292934Produced, directed, and shot by Diana Whitten, and released on DVD by Kino Lorber, Vessel tells of the birth and development of Women on Waves, an international organization based in The Netherlands, and founded by Rebecca Gomperts, MD, MPP, PhD. Gomperts also founded a sister organization, Women on Web.

Women on Waves derived its name from the first initiative—a ship and staff that support women from countries where abortion is illegal by providing them with access to safe and legal abortion. The basic idea was to provide services in international waters.

Whitten follows the organization for about ten years beginning with their first voyage from The Netherlands to Ireland. We accompany the staff on several odysseys around the world. Vessel covers the inevitable trials and tribulations along with the organization’s hard-fought victories. The passionate resistance to the organization’s activism, as well as how Gomperts and staff learned from and adjusted to public and governmental barriers are well covered.

The raw fact of life is that women’s right choose is the subject of immeasurably powerful human passions. Vessel—the film and the organizations it covers—courageously addresses those passions.

SlingShot is a profile of inventor/entrepreneur Dean Kamen and the story of his development of SlingShot—a portable, high-efficiency distiller which produces clean water from dirty water.

unspecifiedVeteran writer/producer/director Paul Lazarus presents Kamen as a man with a brilliant mind, a noble heart, and one who has garnered great wealth from his efforts. But, as the title indicates, the focus is on Kamen’s water machine.

His distiller was conceived and developed to address the water crisis in impoverished regions where clean water is hard to find—and, as we’ve recently learned in the United States, even the wealthiest nations may lack clean water.

But, I digress.

Lazarus covers the painful and fruitful process of SlingShot’s development—multiple iterations as the developers struggle to lower its weight, size, cost, and to increase its efficiency. Even more challenging is the securing of global distribution.

The film ends on a hopeful note: Coca Cola has the resources to get SlingShots to many, if not most, of the regions of the world beset by a lack of clean water. As of this writing, it is not clear that this agreement will be executed by the Coca Cola company.

A Personal Note: I applaud all environmental efforts to create a cleaner, healthier world. I’ve seen hundreds of documentary films and television shows revealing an ecosphere being rapidly destroyed, while featuring various endeavors—more often possible endeavors—attempting to mitigate this destruction. The endeavors make sense, yet the ongoing destruction is an ongoing global tragedy.

It is not clear at this moment if our efforts to reverse our destruction will be successful—hence, the many decades of books, comic books, graphic novels, television shows, movies, webisodes, and social media posts depicting a post-apocalyptic world.

There is one environmental issue that is virtually ignored by all media, all leaders, and all of us—human over-population. For every environmental media project I view I wonder how the current or proposed efforts presented can make a difference as long as our human population continues its geometric expansion on the Earth.

The word ‘animals’ is absent from SlingShot. Non-human animals are also victims of a paucity of water. Yes, their bodies have adapted to unclean water, but the elimination of massive numbers of species by human beings continues—which, in turn, contributes to further environmental degradation.

The SlingShot holds a potential to save millions of human lives. What will be the environmental impact? What effects will this much larger number of people on our Earth be on our ecosphere? How will this expansion impact the quality of life for all who survive? The most painful question is: How many lives will be lost by virtue of all the lives saved?

War, strife, poverty, crime, disease, famine, malnutrition. These are nature’s ways of mitigating over-population.

There are humane ways to reduce our human population. For instance: female literacy.

All this is not to discourage you to see SlingShot. It is an important film, Dean Kamen deserves acknowledgements for his many contributions to our world through his company, DEKA. I hope one day he will focus his brilliant mind on humane ways to reduce our human population.

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SilencedSilenced tells of the investigations and prosecutions of three federal government workers who blew the whistle on governmental malfeasance in post 9/11 America. Instead of being honored as patriots, two were accused of treason and one was investigated—their lives were shattered.

Writer/director James Spione follows the three whistle-blowers—Jesselyn Radack, John Kiriakou, and Thomas Drake—who speak of their struggles with federal authorities.

The truth tellers speak of treason at the highest levels of government: torture, domestic spying, tampering with evidence, and the squelching of public information. One whistle-blower uncovered overlooked information warning of 9/11. Was that human error or an act of omission? In any case, the information was effectively hidden from the 9/11 investigators.

Silenced had a strong festival run, but it needs to be seen by every American. It was only by chance that I found this incendiary documentary, and this is my humble contribution to bringing the film to more hearts and minds.

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Jesselyn Radack’s book, Traitor 

John Kiriakou’s book, The Reluctant Spy

 

PlantPure Nation is much more than just another movie about eating right, and filmmaker Nelson Campbell is much more than a documentary filmmaker pointing out a social ill.

Plant PureCampbell is also a charismatic activist addressing the life-destroying diets of the American people—as well as the corrupt political systems that have cultivated our nation’s unhealthy eating habits. This film is an integral part of Campbell’s over-arching strategy to effect improvements in the public health and environment of the American people.

Campbell tells the story of his father’s and his own discovery of the health values of a ‘whole foods, plant-based’ diet—‘whole foods,’ in this context refers to non-processed foods. His film is a reasoned and powerful testament on behalf of healthy eating and living.

Whether or not you’ve seen a cornucopia of documentaries about food, health, and agribusiness, Campbell’s narratives of his father’s and his own activism are touching and deeply inspiring. If I had the resources I’d send a copy of this film to every member of our House of Representatives and Senate, every member of our President’s Cabinet, and every state Governor.

From the film’s website: “Our mission is to lead a new grassroots movement sharing the life-changing message that plant-based nutrition can not only prevent a broad range of diseases and illnesses, but also reverse some of the most dangerous chronic conditions.

I viewed PlantPure Nation on Netflix. More information about how to view the film can be found on its website.

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The ‘frame’ is a bicycle frame, the fire emits from a welder’s torch.

Marinoni: The Fire in the Frame is Tony Girardin’s affectionate profile of part-curmudgeon, part-angel Giuseppe Marinoni, an Italian transplant living his life in the Canadian province of Quebec.

marinoni_buildingMarinoni was an accomplished competitive bicyclist in his homeland. When he journeyed to Canada for competitions, he did not return. After several false starts Marinoni discovered a passion for building bicycles, and became a celebrated master of same.

Now, at age 75, he is returning to the track, preparing for his first competition in many decades—a grueling one-hour ride the measure of which is how much distance the rider rides. He intends to set a new world record.

Girardin’s film is touching and quietly jaw-dropping. In addition to Marinoni’s crafting of bicycles, he takes care of six chickens, a large vegetable garden, a few grape vines, and enjoys mushroom hunts.

In addition to documenting Marinoni’s life and his competition, Girardin tells the story of the sweet relationship that emerges between the young filmmaker and the old master.

A First Run Features release, Marinoni: The Fire in the Flame is a delightful, inspiring film.

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Tragedy trumps triumph in the story of Nelson Algren’s life. Yet, without the many tragic circumstances and events of the life of this legendary American writer the world would not have benefited from his literary triumphs.

AlgrenMark Blottner, Ilko Davidov, and Denis Mueller wrote and directed Nelson Algren: The End is Nothing, the Road is All, a biographical documentary of Nelson Algren. Their film celebrates Algren’s literary work as well as the nobility and generosity of his character as a writer—as a human being, he struggled mightily.

Algren’s writings honor and respect the lost, the dispossessed, the marginalized lurking in the confines of a national society that wears diaphanous blinders to these people as well as to its role in creating their damning circumstances.

The three filmmakers pepper their film with readings from many of Algren’s books over images of urban desolation. It seems as if the power of Aldren’s narratives could not or would not exist without the prolific writer making a semi-conscious decision to live a life governed by a need to not escape the worlds of his characters.

The First Run Feature’s DVD Extras include: Short Film: Algren’s Last Night; Slideshow; Stephan Deutch’s Photos of Algren; Filmmakers’ Biographies; and Five Bonus Videos.

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Mike Correll is a one-man-band filmmaker. He wrote, directed, shot, and edited Chet Zar: I Like to Paint Monsters—a biographical documentary about artist Chet Zar.

EgoCenterMeThe film introduces the naive viewer to both Zar and ‘The Dark Art Movement’—art with dark themes and images. Although there is no want of that kind of art, this movement focuses on phantasmagorical and horrific images—and Zar is a master of the genre.

Zar’s life and background include a loving, supportive family, paranormal experiences from an early age, and an innate ability to draw and paint. His multi-faceted career includes many years working for the film and television industries as well as international success as a fine artist.

The film is enlightening and engaging, and the First Run Features DVD contains a plethora of special features including extended interviews, deleted scenes, a ChetPainterPic.2‘gallery’ of Zar’s art, behind-the-scene featurette, time-lapse images of the creation of six paintings, official trailer, and ‘Rick Zar: Live Neon.’

Zar and Correll are working on a book about Zar’s art. They have a Kickstarter campaign. I encourage readers to pass it on. They are both deeply talented artists worthy of support. Here’s the campaign.

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Written, produced, and directed by Mark Brian Smith, Fear No Fruit begins and ends as a celebration of Frieda Caplan who broke gender barriers and changed America’s culinary habits throughout her decades-long career as a wholesale distributor of fruits and vegetables.

FNF_5-1200x675In-between Caplan’s story we learn about the worlds of produce growing and marketing, as well as endeavors to improve the dismal diets of the American people—especially our children.

But, Caplan is the well-deserved star. A young wife and mother, Caplan accidentally slipped into southern California’s wholesale produce distribution industry—the first woman to do so. Her two daughters joined the business now known as Frieda’s, Inc. As they and their mother aged, the two became the company’s controllers.

Caplan’s success was sparked and established when she first began distributing fresh mushrooms which was considered a ‘specialty’ at that time; and specialty fruits and vegetables became her specialty. The hit that propelled Caplan’s fame into the stratosphere of wholesale produce marketing was her 1962 import and marketing of what we now call kiwi fruit. Her forever moniker became ‘The Kiwi Queen.’

Caplan and her company became well-known throughout southern California, and her impact on America’s culinary habits is celebrated nationally.

As of the film’s production, in 2014, Frieda was still working for her daughter’s company five days a week—at the age of 91. Grandchildren, too, have joined the company.

With a very small budget and 10-day shoot, Smith provides a thoroughly engaging and entertaining biography of a quietly charismatic innovator as well as an introduction to the much-needed marketing of fruits and vegetables.

Written, directed, and narrated by the prolific, highly accomplished Patricio Guzmán, The Pearl Button is the most beautiful, and the most haunting documentary I have ever seen.

1004Part ecstatic, poetic, cinematic essay, and part tragedy, the film covers the centuries of violence that destroyed the indigenous populations and cultures in the region now called Chile. It also covers Pinochet’s 20th century, U.S.-financed mass murder of his own people.

Yet, as the film unreels, the viewer is drawn into an inescapable world of beatific images, ideas, and mysticism.

Although Guzmán’s film is part eulogy for indigenous peoples and their cultures, the beatific images of water, land, and space, as well as his softly-spoken narration evoke a deep, layered, contemplative mood beyond the travails of our Earthly existence. This is utterly masterful filmmaking.

The Pearl Button is available on Blu-ray, and that is the ideal way to view it on home video—cell phones off, viewers quiet. The film is available via Amazon, eBay, and some libraries—when they finally open.

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Dayani Cristal is the only daughter of Honduran Dilcy Yohan Sandres Martinez. As an expression of love Yohan had her name tattooed on his chest in large longhand letters with elaborate flourishes. It was this tattoo—along with his fingerprints—that enabled U.S. government workers to establish the identity of his corpse which was found by border patrol agents in the Arizona desert, 20 minutes outside of Tucson.

685Directed by Marc Silver, and co-produced by Gael Garcia Bernal, Who Is Dayani Cristal? explores the world of migrants from south of the U.S./Mexican border. The film is a much-needed antidote to the mean-spirited, xenophobic, destructive rhetoric which has dominated American media for decades.

These are the people trapped and victimized by the socio-politico-economic miasma between the U.S. and the countries beneath its southern boundaries.

Silver presents this world with three stories: The tragic death of a loving husband and father; the dedicated work of those who seek to identify the many corpses found mostly in Arizona’s desert; and the cross-border odyssey—successful or stillborn—taken by migrants. Silver follows Bernal as he takes this journey.

Silver and Bernal have pulled back the curtain revealing a world of suffering and tragic loss, a world of our making. A world we can unmake.

Written and directed by Nadav Schirman, and based on Mosab Hassan Yousef’s memoir, Son of Hamas, The Green Prince tells the powerful, improbable story of two sworn enemies discovering common ground, working together, and forming a life-long bond.

Green Prince

Yousef is the son of a major Hamas leader. He was raised in the Palestinian side of the conflict with Israel.

Schirman’s film tells the story of how Yousef was captured by Israeli forces and placed in the hands of Shin Bet agent Gonen Ben Yitzhak who successfully ‘recruited’ him as an Israeli mole in the Palestinian territory. Yousef’s primary focus was on Hamas activities—including those of his father.

This spy/mole relationship lasted ten years, and ended when both men became dissatisfied with Shin Bet policies and actions.

The story is told via two separate interviews: Yitzhak and Yousef. Schirman provides interstitial visual context.

There are few films in our lives that haunt us. The Green Prince is one of those films. For those unfamiliar with this story, like yours truly, it is a shocking, thrilling, unbelievable experience to see and hear it unfold.

The Green Prince won the audience awards for Best Documentary at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and the 2014 Moscow International Film Festival. It is available directly from its distributor, Music Box Films, as well as most major on-demand sources including Netflix which is how I accidentally found the film.

 

The deceptively titled Where to Invade Next is a continuation of Michael Moore’s life-long examination and disparagement of social, economic, and political inequities in the United States.

WTIN3No, it’s not about a consideration of which middle eastern country the U.S. military should invade next—although we know that’s an ongoing dialog in America’s halls of power.

Instead, Moore does the invading. He single-handedly invades about a dozen nations. Instead of taking their oil or some other extracted natural or human resource, Moore steals a virtue, a policy from each country—a radical approach to education from Finland; healthy, gourmet, leisure lunches served to seated school children in France; countries with enlightened sex education; or which provide free college education; or with highly enlightened, justice-based incarceration policies, etc. For each theft, Moore ceremoniously plants an American flag claiming this virtue now belongs to the United States, and he’s bringing it back here—adding that, in fact, it originated from the United States.

Moore’s trademarked ironic humor abounds, of course—both verbally and visually. Humor aside, this is Michael Moore’s most incisive, subversive, impassioned, and inspiring plea for a more compassionate United States of America. More just. More caring. A country that honors human dignity.

Coda: A test. Most of the countries featured are European. I imagine the influx to Europe of middle eastern refugees is testing many social welfare and educational systems. I wonder what that impact will be. Over the last two years more than 1.6 million people have immigrated, and as of this writing, there’s no sign that this movement of people—in some measure—will stop.

3-1-2-minutes-1920Directed and shot by Marc Silver, 3½ Minutes, Ten Bullets is an HBO documentary film which covers Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ law via yet another instance of an armed white male shooting and killing an unarmed African American teenager near Jacksonville.

On Friday, November 23, 2012, Michael Dunn shot and killed 17 year old Jordan Davis. Their respective vehicles were parked next to each other at a Florida gas station in an upper middle class suburban neighborhood. Dunn’s fiancé was in the station’s market. Davis and three friends were listening to loud music in their Dodge Durango. Dunn asked them to turn the music down. Davis wound up dead.

Silver covers the crime, the trial, and its outcome.

The issues are layered. There is Florida’s law which allows for one person to legally injure or kill another person if the former feels reasonably threatened.

The next layer is simple: Racism-in-America which is alive and well despite decades of activism.

There are those closest to the crime: Davis’ parents—Lucia McBath and Ron Davis—and Rhonda Rouer, Dunn’s then fiancé. Silver’s coverage of these three highlight the deeply personal impact of this crime, the depth of its tragedy. These three people live on in the viewer’s mind and heart.

Finally, the issues converge with the high-profile trial.

Silver tells the many stories inside this one story with grace and elegance.

DogsProduced, shot, and edited by Brean Cunningham and Douglas Seirup, Dogs on the Inside tells the story of a prison program in Massachusetts called Don’t Throw Us Away that pairs prisoners with rescue dogs. In addition to bonding with the dogs, the prisoners are charged with fostering and training them in preparation for finding forever homes.

Many of the rescue dogs come from the state of Mississippi, and our intrepid filmmakers found their way to that southern state to cover the work of dog rescuers.

Whether it’s a 15 second Facebook clip or a two hour documentary, I can’t get enough of animal films, movies, videos, television shows—or in person. Seirup and Cunningham have successfully captured the magic and love that can happen between human and non-human—given, of course, the support and context.

Dogs on the Inside is available as a stand-alone feature or as a ‘Deluxe Edition’ that includes more than 30 minutes of extras. I highly recommend the Deluxe. When it comes to documentary films I automatically include any and all extras as part of the film, part of its story or stories.

If you love dogs, you’ll love this film. If you see this film, you’ll love dogs.

Directed and shot by Nick Read, Bolshoi Babylon is a sensational, visually ecstatic documentary which covers dark times at the legendary Bolshoi, located Anastasiya+Meskova+002500 meters from The Kremlin.

Veteran dancer and artistic director Sergei Filin has been attacked. Someone cast acid in his face, blinding him.

This is the inciting incident for both the ballet company and Read’s film. The attack is a dark capstone to destructive power plays within and beyond the company’s management. Read follows the aftermath, and reveals the festering wounds responsible.

We hear from a variety of key characters the most intriguing of which is Vladimir Urin who, after his meeting with Vladimir Putin, leaves his post as general manager of the Musical Theatre of Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko for the same post at the Bolshoi.

Read’s film engages the viewer immediately, and only releases said viewer at the end.

Bolshoi Babylon is an HBO documentary, and is also available on iTunes.

_c8856bwOHlppkCbenf5TcBmv1lNDuw0bUt8Hrs50S0Co-directed by Gina Leibrecht and Les Blank, How to Smell a Rose is an hour spent with legendary filmmaker Richard Leacock. The primary focus is Leacock’s biography, his thoughts and feelings about film and filmmaking, and his place in the history of documentary filmmaking. We are also treated to seeing his accomplished French cooking, and we spend time with the love of his life Valerie Lalonde.

I’m losing track of the number of documentary films I see which I would be happy to be two or three times their running time. Leacock’s life was so rich and varied, one lived with the heart of an artist and brain of an engineer, I wanted much more of this film. But, this is not a kvetch, it is praise. Leacock’s charm is irresistible.

Writer Leibrecht’s film introduces a passionate and creative character to a much larger audience who will learn of the inestimable contributions Ricky Leacock has made to documentary filmmakers and filmmaking.

How to Smell a Rose is available from Les Blank Films.

I walked out of the faux clinic room where I had just completed another day’s work as a Standardized Patient, assisting in the training and evaluation of medical students at the University of California San Francisco. It was 2003, and I was new to this work and its world.

sklaroff_fusterI was still gowned up when Bernie, my boss, asked me if I was available to stay another hour and be a demonstration body for a small class. I was introduced to the Professor, an old man with a cane and substantial limp. The room was small and crowded with a dozen medical students. The doctor spent the next hour demonstrating how to do a heart examination with just your own faculties and one stethoscope.

The students listened quietly, no remarks, no questions. It seemed as if they were listening politely—uninterested in, if not annoyed with what the teacher was teaching. In any case, I learned something. There is a significant amount of information about a patient’s heart to be had when you are fully trained, educated, and have that stethoscope. My response to his class was simple: amazement.

I doubted that this brief class with this astounding information made a difference to this particular group of students. The doctor’s voice betrayed frustration, and an embittered tone—as if he knew this demonstration was a hopeless cause, teaching this low-tech medicine to high-tech babies. I felt like a prop in a play about a strong character confronting an irrevocably altered world which has no interest in his antique medicine. Experiencing the play from the inside, I, too, felt that sense of hopelessness.

The Professor has moved on, and if I could speak with him I would say, ‘All is not lost! There are two acclaimed cardiologists teaching your kind of medicine at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York! I know because I just saw this documentary…’

‘This documentary’ is Muffie Meyer’s Making Rounds which follows Drs. Valentin Fuster and Herschel Sklaroff as they go on rounds at Mount Sinai Heart teaching residents to listen to their patients, learn about their lives, and learn, for example, about the 100 possible diseases that may be indicated simply by looking at their hands—and countless other low-tech examinations that can improve or even save lives.

Meyer follows the two cardiologist’s-version of Car Talk’s Tom and Ray Magliozzi over a month of rounds, following a few patients over that time, sharing their knowledge and experience with young doctors who are eager to learn.

A career filmmaker, Meyer’s impressive filmography includes a co-director credit on the Maysels’ classic Grey Gardens, and assistant editor of Michael Wadleigh’s groundbreaking Woodstock.

On, May 23, 2011, documentary filmmaker Neil Diamond received the Peabody Award for his film Reel Injun at Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, in New York, New York.

How many people have seen this film? Even heard of it? The eternal questions and the dilemma for those who make and those who love seeing documentary films.

russellmeansThanks to From the Heart’s Carol Dean I was directed to see this film. The viewing prompted yet again that feeling, ‘Where have I been?!’

Diamond’s film tracks the devolution and evolution of images of Native Americans depicted in films beginning in the Nineteenth Century. The information and stories are crucial, vital, and another painful reminder of the decimation of the continent’s pre-Columbian population perpetrated by European colonizers. A reminder, too, of the value and values of the people incorrectly called ‘indians.’ For yours truly the film is a history lesson, one I should have learned decades ago.

Diamond’s approach is simple, sincere, and as comprehensive as 85 minutes of film covering a collection of 4,000 films can be. His interviewees include Sacheen Littlefeather, John Trudell, Russell Means (pictured), Chris Eyre, Clint Eastwood, Jim Jarmusch, and Robbie Robertson. Trudell died recently—on December 8, 2015.

A small percentage of the documentary film’s I see are ‘must-see.’ Reel Injun is in that imperative category.

I’ve found the film on Netflix, eBay, and Amazon.

It’s automatic. I walk in the doctor’s office, look around for issues of The New Yorker magazine, make sure I’ve not viewed them before at some other office, and proceed to read each and every cartoon.

VERY_SEMI_SERIOUS_StillAfter decades of my clichéd reading behavior, I found this gem by first-time feature director Leah Wolchok on HBO.

Very Semi-Serious pulls back the curtain hiding the magic that goes into the weekly volleys of satirical single-panel (mostly) cartoons peppered throughout this standard-bearing magazine. Wolchok interviews 13 cartoonists including editor Bob Mankoff who, righteously, gets the most screen time.

This is a documentary that’s fun and fascinatin’. As you may see from its website, Very Semi-Serious has been well-reviewed by a handful of prestigious national publications. However, I couldn’t find the list of cartoonists featured in the film from that website. However, again, I found the list of names by searching—and here it is. Links to each of the artists’ work are included.

Here’ the Facebook Page.

Preface: My number one issue is our environment—our ecosphere and its ongoing, out-of-control destruction by human beings. The denigration of the human female gender is a close second.

PetalsDirected by first-time feature filmmaker Nyna Pais Caputi, Petals in the Dust is the most devastating film on our treatment of females I have ever seen.

Caputi was born and raised in India. Her parents were loving and supportive, raising a healthy, talented daughter. She immigrated to the United States. She returned to India with her husband to adopt a baby girl. This was her moment of discovery. She learned of the deeply entrenched denigration of females in her culture of origin. Caputi worked seven years making Petals in the Dust.

Weaving statistics, personal stories, and interviews with activists working to end the mistreatment of and discrimination against females, Caputi paints a vision of human cruelty that transcends the wars and genocides of modern history. She is clear, of course, that the phenomena presented are not limited to India. Historical documents and endless news reports of our maltreatment of the female gender demonstrate the ubiquitous nature of this cruelty. Yes, this film focuses on India, but I saw the whole world in this seemingly tight-focus.

Petals in the Dust is a masterpiece of documentary filmmaking. It is an absolute must-see. It will catalyze and strengthen many more initiatives on behalf of the female gender.

The film won Best Documentary Film at the San Francisco Global Film Fest as well as Best International Documentary Film at the Vancouver International South Asian Film Festival. It continues being screened at festivals, universities, organizations, and corporations like Google and Cisco.

By the end of 2016, Petals in the Dust will be available as a disc and online.

The filmmakers’s goal for that year is for a million people to see the film in honor of the 50 million girls and women that were eliminated in India in the last century.

 

So I asked Celia, does ‘nostalgia’ mean you long for a previous time and place in your own life, or can you be nostalgic for a time and place you did not inhabit. After our discussion I did the obvious:

1800319_666839260045586_2030847049_nnostalgia: a wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one’s life, to one’s home or homeland, or to one’s family and friends; a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time: a nostalgia for his college days.

The emphasis in this definition is on our experienced lives. However, Greenwich Village: Music that Defined a Generation, Laura Archibald’s exploration of New York’s Greenwich Village in the late fifties and early sixties, gave me a serious case of nostalgia for that time of nascent political activism and a closely-related resurgence of folk music which quickly saturated our national culture and birthed legendary singer/songwriters.

Narration is provided by Susan Sarandon reading selections from Suze Rotolo’s A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties. In the film’s too-short 90 minutes we are treated to stories and interviews of a cornucopia of figures behind the scenes and on stage.

Archibald’s film evoked a deep longing to go back to that time and place of exploding passions and creativity, births of superstars, and a strong sense of community. You’ll recognize most of the names, and be introduced to a few new ones.

The most astounding performance I saw was an antiwar song performed by the duet of Buffy Sainte-Marie and Andy Williams—the very definition of ‘unlikely friends.’

If only I could have been 22, and living in the Village, instead of being 12, living in Fort Lauderdale, and listening to songs about very small yellow bikinis and purple people eaters.