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Feb
06
    

By Sarah Boslaugh
February 6, 2009 

 

Many Americans still think of AIDS as a disease of gay men, but this is a misconception: about half the adults infected with HIV worldwide are women and the usual route of infection reported is heterosexual sex. In Malawi, the subject of the documentary The Female Face of AIDS, the national rate of infection is estimated at 14%, with almost 60% of the infected being female.  

In 2007, a team of four faculty members and eight students from the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice of the Fordham Law School traveled to Malawi to study why Malawian women are disproportionately infected with HIV and how HIV infection affects their lives. Interviews conducted by the team, which are recorded in the documentary, reveal a deadly combination of female inequality, poverty, and cultural practices and beliefs which promote the spread of HIV and severely impact the lives of infected women and their children. 

Some of the factors which promote HIV+ transmission in Malawi are common to many countries of the world. First of all, Malawi is a poor country: the per capital income in 2006 was $690, and per capita government expenditure on health in 2005 was $64. Women do not have the right to assert themselves in sexual situations, for instance by insisting their husband use a condom. They also have few ways to earn a living, and if they are HIV+ are often abandoned by their husband (the most likely route of the woman’s infection, since multiple sexual partners are both common and socially acceptable for Malawian men but not for women) and shunned by their community. As a result, some infected women become prostitutes, further spreading HIV infection to men who will spread it to their wives.  

The Fordham team also discovered some cultural practices specific to Malawi which further support HIV transmission. One is the custom of “widow cleansing” in which a widow is expected to have intercourse with a specific man (the “widow cleanser”) after her husband dies, in order to be accepted back into her community. Another is the practice of requiring girls to have intercourse with an appointed man as soon as they begin to menstruate, in order to be considered a woman. Not coincidentally, both practices deny women the right to control their own bodies or protect themselves from HIV infection.  

Not all is bleak, however: antiretroviral therapy is available in Malawi, and some of the women and children interviewed are receiving it. Some of the women have also begun to take action to help other women: for instance a woman identified only as “Daphne” responded to learning of her infection (by her promiscuous husband, who refused to accept responsibility) by founding the Coalition of Women Living with HIV, the Malawi’s first HIV/AIDS organization run for and by women.

The Female Face of AIDS is a straightforward, high-quality film suitable for classroom use. Despite the serious subject matter (statistics presented at the end of the film highlight the serious consequences of HIV infection for Malawian women), the film itself is not downbeat: high production values, including excellent photography and a soundtrack of traditional African music, and the positive attitude of most interview subjects, emphasize the strength of Malawian women and the possibility of positive change.  

The only DVD extras are a gallery of still photographs accompanied by traditional music, and a link to a guidebook for the film. The Female Face of AIDS is available from Choices, Inc: further information is available from www.choicesvideo.net or by calling 1-888-570-5400. Further information about the Leitner Center’s work in Malawi, including a copy of the report We Will Still Live: Confronting Stigma and Discrimination Against Women Living with HIV/AIDS in Malawi, is available from www.leitnercenter.org.  

—–  

The Female Face of AIDS: Crisis in Malawi

Choices, Inc.

Directed by Doug Karr and Edward Boyce

Color, 2008, 33 Minutes


 
Dec
22
    

By Sarah Boslaugh
December 22, 2008 

Stanley Njootli, Jr. is a young man at the crossroads: he’s charming and amiable and has a talent for art, but he also a taste for drugs and alcohol and idling his time away in bars. In his early 20’s, Stanley Jr. has already experienced homelessness, and even his drinking buddies tell him its time to go into rehab.  

Stanley’s father, Stanley Njootli, Sr. has a different idea: Stanley Jr. should leave the temptations of the urban world behind and come to live with Stanley Sr. in Old Crow, a small village 80 miles north of the Arctic Circle. There’s no road access to Old Crow, and also no bars, restaurants, or movie theaters: satisfaction comes from work, family and friends, with radio broadcasts and community dances for additional entertainment.  

Besides the absence of urban temptations, Stanley Sr. believes that if Stanley can reconnect with the traditional lifestyle of his ancestors (the First Nations Gwich’in tribe), he’ll find his identity and sense of purpose. And it will give the two a chance to reconnect as well: Stanley Sr. abandoned his wife and children almost 25 years previously, in part because he did not deal well with the temptations of the “south” (the contiguous 48 states), so father and son are virtual strangers. 

The experiment does not begin promisingly: his first night in Old Crow (by law a dry town) Stanley Jr. goes out to party, finds a source of homebrewed alcohol, and comes home drunk. He’s not at home in his new environment, and his initial attempts at traditional skills, from managing a dog team to ice fishing with a net, do not go well. 

But Stanley Sr. is patient and consistent, and gradually Stanley Jr. comes to appreciate a lifestyle which is very different from anything he’s known, and to take pride in his new skills. The relationship between father and son clearly grows stronger as well, although neither is given to displays of emotion or long discourses about their feelings. Stanley Sr. does articulate his beliefs on the value of the traditional lifestyle while Stanley Jr. communicates by his manner that he’s starting to agree. 

But the stay in Old Crow wasn’t meant to be permanent, and Stanley Jr. returns to Washington State. He gets a meal at Burger King, heads to the mall and goes out drinking with friends, but concludes that it’s not as much fun as it used to be. Although Stanley Jr’s future is uncertain, he chooses to return to Old Crow at the end of the film, and his time there has clearly made him a more reflective and responsible young man. 

Calm is the prevailing mood in Arctic Son, as if director Andrew Walton wanted to reflect the experience of the Gwich’in lifestyle in his film. Excellent cinematography by Jonathan Furmanski and Jeff Stonehouse reveals the northern landscape as spare and harshly beautiful, and Walton allows the story to unfold at a natural pace. He shows the two men slowly journeying toward an understanding which is implied more than stated, and presents it without interpolations by talking heads or voiceovers: what you see are the two Stanleys going about their daily lives and occasionally commenting on them in matter-of-fact terms.  

The elephant in the living room is global warming, which is barely mentioned in Arctic Son. At one point Stanley Sr. notes that the temperature in Old Crow has begun to reach 80 degrees in the summer time. That’s no idle comment, because it can bring about a change in the ecosystem which could destroy the subsistence hunting and fishing culture which is the basis of the Gwich’in traditional lifestyle. It is further threatened by the proximity of Old Crow to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska: the continuing debate about drilling for oil in the Refuge is not just an academic discussion for the Gwich’in since it would threaten the caribou herds which form an important part of their livelihood.  

DVD extras include a family-friendly version which bleeps out the stronger profanity, a 10-minute interview with director Andrew Walton, four additional scenes (one also in a family-friendly version), and a gallery of Stanley Jr’s artwork which, true to his description, is weird, but also shows his potential as an artist. The director’s interview includes background information about the film, including its origins: Walton met Stanley Sr. while researching a film about oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and was impressed by his intelligence and the depth of his knowledge of traditional Gwich’in culture. Stanley Sr, in turn, wanted to record traditional Gwich’in skills on film before they disappeared.  

Arctic Son was broadcast as part of the PBS series P.O.V. and is distributed by docurama. Further information is available through their web site http://www.docurama.com/, email  (info@newvideo.com) or by calling 1-800-314-8822. 

—–  

Arctic Son

docurama films

Directed by Andrew Walton

Color, 2006, 75 Minutes


 
Dec
09
    

 

By Umut Newbury
December 9, 2008 

This holiday season, books like “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” “Tropic of Cancer,” “Naked Lunch” may not be on too many gift lists, but they should be. 

While the trials and tribulations of comedians George Carlin and Lenny Bruce with obscenity are well publicized and known about, the story of one American publisher and the trouble he went through to distribute the three titles mentioned above are almost unknown. 

Neil Ortenberg and Daniel O’Connor put the much-deserved spotlight on Barney Rosset, the founder of Grove Press and Evergreen Review, in their debut documentary Obscene.  

Rosset is a Chicago native, born to Irish-Catholic and Jewish parents. Though he did serve in World War II, that’s where the 86-year-old’s similarities end with his peers in the Greatest Generation. Rosset went to radical progressive schools in Chicago and started his subversive activities in high school. He circulated a petition for John Dillinger to be pardoned and ran a newspaper, which eventually became the Anti-Everything Newspaper. Rosset’s first love was film, and through his banker father’s good connections, he managed to serve as an army cinematographer along with the likes of Frank Capra and John Hughes during WWII. His first project after the service was Strange Victory, a feature film about the problem of racism in the U.S. 

Rosset’s foray into publishing was almost accidental. His first wife, Joan Mitchell, after the couple broke up, told him about a publishing house that was abandoned after three books. In Obscene, Rosset puts it rather nonchalantly, “Somehow I acquired it.” Things that occurred afterwards, however, hardly seem random.  

His first great literary find was Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” back when it was a small play in Paris. In 1954, Rosset went to meet Beckett and managed to get the American publishing rights of the play for a ridiculous sum ($100 or $150), but told friends, “you mark my words, someday Beckett will be huge.” 

Rosset then started the Evergreen Review, the radical literary magazine, which was unlike all other magazines at the time. One colleague tells Obscene, “We were rebels; looking for things nobody else would publish.” When City Lights owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti got arrested and charged with obscenity for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” Rosset published the poem in Evergreen as an act of solidarity. For many people, this was the first time they had a chance to read the epic poem, since all the book copies were impounded.  The judge ultimately found “Howl,” not obscene and exonerated Ferlinghetti.  

Rosset’s legal battle against obscenity began with D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” When published in 1928, it created furor in the U.S. In 1959, Rosset chose that as his first fight against censorship. “My god, people won’t publish a book like ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover,’” he says in Obscene, “which made me vomit. I had guts and I would fight.” All the literary experts of the time got behind Grove Press and Rosset, leading the court to rule that the book was not obscene and “may be out in mail.” 

Next, Rosset tackled Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer.” Published in 1934 in Paris, the book was banned in the U.S. and literally made it copy by copy across the Atlantic in people’s luggage. In Obscene, Erica Jong brilliantly summarizes the trouble with “Tropic of Cancer”: “If just having a word like ‘cunt’ is going to throw you off the track, you’ll never know what Miller’s all about.” The court seemed less friendly toward Miller and “Tropic of Cancer.” As one witness to the case puts it, “When you went in to testify for ‘Lady Chatterley,’ you were treated with respect. With Miller, you were treated as a member of a shit group.” Luckily for Rosset, the battle culminated in a lawsuit in his hometown Chicago and the presiding judge just happened to be a close friend of his late father. Rosset 2, Censorship 0.  

After those two legal victories, Rosset felt it was time to start distributing William Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch,” which already had been printed, awaiting the result of the “Tropic of Cancer” lawsuit. The lawyers, Obscene informs us, were really afraid of this particular battle. Through the battle for “Tropic of Cancer,” Rosset managed to get the public opinion on “Lady Chatterley” to change from “wicked, perverse,” to a “fine book.” Through the fight for “Naked Lunch,” “Tropic of Cancer” was elevated from “a corrupt mess,” to “a great classic.” Still, “Naked Lunch” managed to prevail in the courts as well. Rosset, quoted early in the film as saying, “I feel personally there hasn’t been a word written or uttered that shouldn’t be published,” succeeded in getting a lot of judges to agree with that sentiment. 

What’s most amazing about Rosset, though, is not just his incredible struggle for First Amendment rights, but also his ability to get a really respectable list of authors under the umbrella of Grove Press. Just like he predicted, Beckett won international acclaim and the Nobel Prize in 1969. Rosset published other Nobel winners, as well, including Kenzaburo Oe, Pablo Neruda and Octavia Paz. 

Rosset’s story is a classic American story, the tale of a wild-eyed man with a lot of guts and some good luck and resources through family to fight the right battle. Obscene is an engaging biography with lots of detail and a star-studded interviewee list. There is the always-charming John Waters convincingly claiming that many in the arts and media “are benefiting from freedoms that we have because of what Barney Rosset did” and an aging Jim Carroll talking about his drug days with William Burroughs. Gore Vidal, Amiri Baraka and Ray Manzarek are also among the famous that chip in with their perspectives on Rosset’s contributions to freedom of expression. 

As thoroughly as directors Ortenberg and O’Connor walk us through Rosset’s early life and three major legal battles, they unfortunately wrap up the later years of Grove Press and Evergreen Review rather quickly and haphazardly. Obscene glosses over the incident when a bunch of feminists attempt to unionize Grove Press. Rosset dismisses them as “FBI agents” but blames the financial fall of the company on the mutiny. At the end of the film, we find out Rosset sold acres of land he owned in the Hamptons to keep the court cases going and that he went broke, sold the company then got fired. The details are murky and confusing. Surely, this wasn’t one of Rosset’s favorite parts of his life story, but it deserved a little more attention. 

Nevertheless, for those of us in the arts and media, Obscene is a wonderful history lesson. The notion of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” “Tropic of Cancer” or “Naked Lunch” being banned in the country that made a big enough deal about freedom of expression to make it its very first amendment is itself obscene. Rosset probably won’t get a presidential medal of honor for protecting First Amendment rights, but this film is the next best thing, paying respect to a true American icon that should be a household name.  

—–

Obscene: A Portrait of Barney Rosset and Grover Press

Directed by Neil Ortenberg and Daniel O’Connor

2008 Arthouse Films

Color, 97 minutes


 
Dec
04
    

By Sarah Boslaugh
December 4, 2008

In his 2007 documentary For the Bible Tells Me So, Daniel Karslake examines some of the different ways Christians and Jews interpret the Bible’s statements on homosexuality. The film has two principal components: one follows the stories of five Christian families which include a gay or lesbian member, while the other presents interpretations of Bible passages relating to homosexuality and other sexual practices from a variety of individuals. Karslake includes statements from anti-gay Christian ministers and spokesmen such as Jimmy Swaggart and James Dobson of Focus on the Family, as well as from Biblical scholars and theologians who explain what they believe the Bible says about homosexual behavior and how those statements apply to the modern world.  

For the Bible does not attempt to be an even-handed examination of the question of what the Bible says about homosexuality, but it does make a reasoned presentation of the arguments against literal interpretation of certain Biblical passages which have been used to justify condemnation of homosexual behavior. For instance, the well-known verse Leviticus 20:13 is often cited as evidence that Judaism and Christianity prohibit male homosexuality: “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” 

Well, that’s perfectly clear, isn’t it? Maybe not, if you are one of the Biblical scholars interviewed in this film, who interpet the passage in context and with particular attention to the specific words used in the original Hebrew text. The Rev. Steven Kindle of Clergy United points out that similar passages in Leviticus say it is an abomination to eat rabbit or shrimp. Rabbi Brian Zachary Mayer notes that Leviticus also says you shouldn’t wear linen and wool together, or plant two crops in the same field. Their point is obvious: when was the last time you saw a Christian minister get all worked up about people who like to eat shrimp or wear clothing made of two different fabrics, let alone assert that those who engage in such practices will burn forever in hellfire?  

The Rev. Dr. Laurence Keene explains that the Hebrew word translated as “abomination” in this passage refers to a ritual wrong, not a moral wrong, in the same sense that eating pork for a Jew is not innately immoral (like murder) but a violation of a ritual requirement. Similar, he explains the famous passage about Onan spilling his seed upon the ground (Genesis 38:8-10) refers to Onan’s violation of a cultural norm: given the Jews’ interest in being fruitful and multiplying, Onan was supposed to impregnate his sister-in-law since his deceased brother was no longer around to do it.  

As is often the case with Biblical interpretation, with this issue it seems that the less you know, the more likely it is to believe that you both know it all and that you know what it all means. For the Bible seems largely to have been created for the purpose of countering this tendency by presenting information and reasoned opinions about how the Bible regards homosexuality, albeit primarily from one side of the discussion. While it won’t win any points for style it serves very nicely as an educational tool and aid to discussion, and is supported by an impressive array of materials downloadable from the film’s web site (http://www.forthebibletellsmeso.org/) including two study guides.   

Given that homosexuality is a topic which often polarizes people, it’s unfortunate that For the Bible doesn’t include discussion among theologians who hold opposing points of view. It’s not really fair to pit an archival clip of Jerry Falwell making homophobic remarks against reasoned statements from numerous scholars and theologians who believe that Falwell’s interpretation is wrong. I’m certainly not in Falwell’s camp myself, but is that point of view wholly without support from contemporary scholars? Perhaps, but I find it hard to believe that all religious faculty at American universities, for instance, are all in agreement on this point.  

It’s been my observation that people’s opinions on sexual matters are often formed not by moral reasoning but by what psychologist Steven Pinker calls “moral rationalization:” that they react to a situation or issue emotionally, then seek to find a moral basis to justify their reaction. If that is the case, then the arguments and interpretations presented in For the Bible will be useful in providing debating points to people who already agree with its point of view, but are unlikely to do much to change the mind of anyone who disagrees. And by so obviously favoring one point of view this film leaves itself wide open to charges of bias, giving those who hold other views an easy route by which to condemn and ignore it.  

A different view of how literalist interpretation of the Bible can affect people is provided by the profiles of five Christian families which include a gay or lesbian individual. Although this ground has been covered before, Karslake did find an interesting range of families who have different reactions to their children’s sexual orientation. Most famous are the Gephardt family (as in Dick Gephardt, long-time U.S. Representative from Missouri and unsuccessful Democratic candidate for president), and the Robinson Family (as in Gene Robinson, the first gay man to be consecrated as an Episcopal bishop). But there’s at least as much to be learned from the journeys of the African-American Poteat family, the Reitan family (who were arrested as they tried to deliver a letter to Jim Dobson at the Focus on the Family headquarters), and Mary Lou Wallner, who initially condemned her daughter Anna’s sexual preference but became a gay rights activist after Anna committed suicide (motivated, her mother believes, by the rejection she experienced because of church teachings about sexuality).  

—–  

For the Bible Tells Me So

Jeremy Walker + Associates/First Run Features

Directed by Daniel Karslake

Color, 2007, 97 Minutes

For the Bible Tells Me So is distributed by Icarus Films. Further information is available through their web site http://www.icarusfilms.com/new2007/me.html or by calling 718-488-8900.


 
Nov
25
    

By Bryan Newbury
November 25, 2008

Which came first, the egg or the hen phobia? This question seems at the root of Werner Herzog’s new documentary as well as his last one. While engaging in his “latest meditation on nature,” it is hard not to wonder just what Mr. Herzog has against the subject. 

Encounters At the End of the World is principally a film about people. Set in Antarctica, where the true significance of man is on brutal display, it guides us in and around the natural (and, at times, unnatural) world of the continent that fascinates, and endeavors to shine a light on what the film presumes is its most enchanting aspect: the men and women who choose to work there. Noted as much for his appreciation of opera as his irrational fear of all things altricial, it should be no surprise that the conflict between the central supposition and the footage and sound, which belie it, treads a precarious balance between symphonic and cacophonous.  

Beginning with the more endearing aspects, the footage is stunning. Whether in the miniature killing fields existing in the sea below the ice, in the baffling songs of the Waddell seals – Radiohead must sleep better knowing that a seal can’t file an infringement suit – or simply the sheer scope of the ice shelves, there is scarcely a moment where the strange setting isn’t compelling to the point of consuming. It appears obvious why Encounters has earned its far-flung accolades. The problem occurs when the viewer emerges from the audiovisual ayahuasca and lands in Herzog’s solipsistic universe.  

He can’t help himself. The jarring dissonance achieved by an aside from the narrator rivals the most bombastic flourishes in Tannhäuser. In a few interviews, we are treated to shortening of a long story. Apparently the most interesting part of Antarctica can be a bit of a gasser. Werner the Wise, after summarizing one resident’s complicated story, manages to strike a tone that confounds. Shortly after (rightfully) rendering judgment on a “stupid academic trend” a thought occurs to him. It would only occur to him, actually. “In our efforts to preserve endangered species,” he begins, “we seem to overlook something equally important. To me, it is a sign of a deeply disturbed civilization, where tree huggers and whale huggers in their weirdness are acceptable, while no one embraces the last speakers of a language.” Never mind that the threat of mass extinctions is tangible throughout the film. Never mind that there is quite a distinction between extinction of an entire species and the presumed loss of the Winnebago Whitman. Forget, even, that ecological activism isn’t the most direct route to social acceptability. All we need ask in this moment is “what in ruddy frozen hell are you babbling about?”  

This is far from the only occasion where Herzog stretches a soliloquy to tell a point that hasn’t been shown. Returning to his inexplicable hatred for the animal kingdom, we see this odd proclivity acted out against Dr. David Ainley, a “taciturn man, who in his solitude, was not much into conversation with humans anymore.” As of the time of this review, there is little to suggest that Ainley has reconsidered. 

Herzog didn’t go down to Antarctica to do a penguin picture. He points this out early on. Presumably after contemplating the fact that everyone on the planet save him loves penguins, he does his own Herzogian bit on the adorable creatures. His questions, he reminds us, are harder to answer. Those questions, naturally, are about whether male penguins have a penchant for buggering each other, and whether penguins that deviate from the colony in travel or attitude are “deranged.” Can a penguin, that is, go batshit crazy? Does anyone give a cup of guano? The good German finds his deranged penguin after some investigation… or, at least what he determines to be a stark raving mad lunatic penguin, who, rather than going to sea to feed, turns back towards the mountains. There is a perceptible glee in the voice that assures us this flightless Fitzgerald is going on to certain death. Surely some share Herzog’s apparent disdain for bears evidenced in Grizzly Man; but, seriously, penguins? Yes, Dr. Ainley, you aren’t missing much. 

Let it be said that Herzog has accomplished what he was out to do. He has made an aurally and visually arresting anti-nature film. In it, we witness how Herzog’s Cartesian cant is becoming thematically barren through the research of men like Peter Gorham. In a fitting coda, the film documents the neutrino detection project. Dr. Gorham explains the baffling particles that suggest a cosmic oneness that subatomic physics might yet give voice to. What this portends for the philosophical outlook that begs a quote or two from the preface of “The Double Axe” is a shift in consciousness away from the infantile human ego. To the chagrin of Herzog and those like him, the universe does not revolve around us and likely would not mourn us. And the penguins will have a laugh at our collective funeral.

—–

Encounters At the End of the World

A Werner Herzog film

Color, 101 Minutes


 
Nov
18
    

Read reviews of several of the documentaries still in the running for the Oscar.

“At the Death House Door” REVIEW
“The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)”
“Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh”
“Encounters at the End of the World”
“Fuel”
“The Garden”
“Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts”
“I.O.U.S.A.”
“In a Dream”
“Made in America”
“Man on Wire” REVIEW
“Pray the Devil Back to Hell”
“Standard Operating Procedure” REVIEW
“They Killed Sister Dorothy”
“Trouble the Water”


 
Oct
20
    

By Bryan Newbury
October 20, 2008

 

Nearly six years ago, the United States committed itself to a costly and embarrassing debacle. In the end accounting, we’ll be looking at a $3 trillion price tag, in addition to the 4,181 (and counting) servicemen who’ve died in country (the statistics on casualties are subject to some creative accounting… it is hard to know the true number of American soldiers killed and maimed because of this), the 300,000 to 1.5 million Iraqi deaths (who’s counting?), and a few generations of international leprosy that make the 21st Century a hell of a time to manufacture Canadian flag backpack decals.  

While it is obvious that the likes of W., Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Rice and Kristol, among others in the neocon rogues’ gallery, were the team that brought us the fiasco, much has been made of who the bench team of blame might be. Is it the Congress, for rubber-stamping virtually any action the administration suggested? Is it a complicit media, who took a pass on their charge as the Fourth Estate and assumed the role of official stenographers? Could it be the American people, who should’ve known better despite government and media propaganda that seemed to fool only us?  

As Errol Morris artfully depicts in Standard Operating Procedure, the above list of possible co-conspirators has come to their own comforting conclusion. The people to blame, as it turns out, are low-level enlistees of the United States Army. 

While S.O.P. is a film about the Iraq War, specifically the sickening spectacle of Abu Ghraib, it is also a meditation on the role of women in the military, the idea of complicity in evil, and the digital camera. Morris is keen to point out that photographs are, in some ways, the central characters of the film. We begin with them and end with them, and most of S.O.P. pontificates on how a still photo, or even a moving picture, can simultaneously rescue events from the memory hole and frame our perception of events.  

Morris makes his case through a host of interviews with people involved in our war crimes theme park. We see the story through the eyes of the men and women who were implicated in the photographs our nation will not live down any time soon, from the PFCs and sergeants who actually took the fall, to a private contractor, up to Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, who fell on the sword the way generals do, not by way of a jail term but by professional hand slapping. As her interviews progress, it is hard to see whether even the hand slapping was merited, and she offers a few names who could be added to our ever-growing Nuremberg list.  

The film challenges our perceptions at every turn. More surprising than any revelation we get about the infamous Lyndie England are the photographs and letters of SPC Sabrina Harman, best known for her smiling, thumbs-up shot with a severely beaten dead man in a body bag full of melting ice. The question seems obvious, but, until Morris bothered, seems to have gone unasked: the shot is pretty gruesome, and obviously this young woman is quite disturbed… but, who killed the guy? This scene is the major chord around which the Abu Ghraib torture photos ascend and descend. When these pictures came out, people the world over were rightly disgusted, saddened and angered. Given the visceral reaction they elicited, it should be little surprise that the scope of investigation was myopic. The emotional impact of on-the-ground proof that we do indeed torture was such that the only psychological response for the vast majority of people is to recoil, punish the act and not go into the matter any further, giving birth and breath to the “bad apple” account of events. Send the grunts to the brig and this water will make our hands clean.
–Read the rest of this entry »


 
Oct
16
    

By Sarah Boslaugh
October 16, 2008

Seldom has a film been more aptly titled than Saving Marriage, a new documentary by Mike Roth and John Henning which traces the political course of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts from November 2003 through June 2007. The film presents a diversity of voices, both for and against same-sex marriage, and makes one point crystal clear: people on both sides of this issue believe they are, in fact, saving marriage.  

No wonder tempers run high. On the one hand the film includes people such as Mitt Romney (governor of Massachusetts, 2003-2007) who states his belief that “marriage is a special institution between a man and a woman” and Kris Mineau of the Massachusetts Family Institute, who says he believes that “Same sex marriage degrades the value of my marriage. It says to me that my uniqueness as a man, as a father and as a husband is irrelevant.” For both men, traditional marriage is part of their identity as well as a fundamental institution which they feel is crucial to American civil society. 

On the other hand, Saving Marriage interviews many gay and lesbian people who feel they are denied both the legal protections and the cultural significance of marriage, for no reason other than prejudice against their sexual preference. The cultural significance is not to be minimized: as activist Amy Hunt puts it, you grow up seeing your relatives and friends get married and it’s the most important day of their life, and then you realize that “you can’t have the most important day in your life” because the law doesn’t recognize your relationship with your partner. Neither are the legal protections: one gay man interviewed for the film relates a terrifying experience in which his child (co-parented with his male partner) was seriously ill and when he tried to learn more about the child’s condition a nurse seemed mainly interested in interrogating him about his relationship to the child (which did not fit into any legally-recognized category).  

Saving Marriage presents its story chronologically, alternating between the progress of same-sex marriage through the courts and legislature and personal stories of how members of the gay and lesbian community were changed by the court’s decision. The story begins on November 18, 2003, when the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health that excluding same-sex couples from the right to marry was unconstitutional. Governor Mitt Romney ordered that marriage licenses be issued to same-sex couples beginning May 17, 2004, and gay and lesbian couples all over the state began shopping for rings and planning their vows. Lest anyone doubt the eagerness of gay and lesbian couples to marry, on the night of May 16, many couples lined up at Boston City Hall so they could apply for a marriage license immediately after midnight. Roth and Henning are there with their cameras, documenting the happy couples applying for their marriage licenses, and some of the subsequent marriages as well. 

However, those opposing gay marriage also launched into action “about one nanosecond” after the Supreme Court decision, according to one of the lesbian activists interviewed in Saving Marriage. The opposition was successful in communicating their displeasure to the state legislature, which in March 2004 voted to allow the public the right to vote on a constitutional amendment which would override the Supreme Court decision and ban same-sex marriage in Massachusetts. This effort was often couched in phrases such as “let the people decide” although, as one of the gay activists points out, matters of civil rights are not customarily left up to a popular decision. What if some of “the people” wanted to ban people of different races from marrying: would that be an appropriate matter to place on a general election ballot? And if it passed, would such marriages be banned? 

Nothing is simple in American politics, and one of the best features of Saving Marriage is the way it maintains focus and a sense of chronology while also relating the complexities of the legal status of same-sex marriage: it was not just won once, but won, threatened, saved, threatened, and saved again. Conveying this complexity is crucial because few things are as exasperating to an outsider as the American political system, which at times seems to have been devised by Rube Goldberg for the purpose of discouraging the uninitiated from even trying to understand the process. And in the gay and lesbian community, politics hasn’t always been considered the coolest way to spend your time: as gay activist Josh Friedes puts it, as a gay man he expected to spend his time “looking for Mr. Right instead of fighting for the right to marry Mr. Right.”  
–Read the rest of this entry »


 
Oct
12
    

By Bryan Newbury
October 12, 2008 

“Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”

H.G. Wells
 

There seems to be a drumbeat. Through the ages, battles of ideas and territory (and, of course, acquisition of resources, which always brings about ideas on why someone wrongfully holds territory) have raged, to the point that it would seem to most observers that conflict and usurpation are simply part and parcel of the human condition. In the 20th Century, the model was that of the Cold War, where, as Ed Abbey put it succinctly, “In the Soviet Union, government controls industry. In the United States, industry controls government. That is the principal structural difference between the two great oligarchies of our time.” In 19th Century America, it was over the scourge of slavery, or, if you prefer, a clash between an outmoded agrarian culture and a new industrialized one. In the 18th, to venture further into a sort of romantic oversimplification, there was the battle between monarchy and representative governance. And on through the centuries, even back to the sieges of Lisbon, Jerusalem, Istanbul, et cetera.  

The drumbeat that Religulous continues, building on the rhythms of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris, might be summed up thusly: Welcome to the New Dark Age. For the more hopeful, it could be tweaked to read “Let’s get a handle on this thing, or we’re looking squarely into the New Dark Age.” As Bill Maher inveighs against the reckless stupidity, arrogance and danger of religion in our time with rapier wit and a type of infectious charm, there is no secret that the thesis behind this comedy is no laughing matter. In fact, he sees the problem as important enough to eventually say it flat out. If those who value rational thought don’t begin to stand up to those of fundamentalist persuasions, we are courting disaster. The 21st Century will not be defined by American economic power versus a rising China, nor by a battle the world over for depleting resources, but by a final battle, pardoning the revelatory tone of such a phrase, between secular and scriptural. 

When one examines the last couple of decades, the pieces seem to fit. They seem to paint a picture that makes a compelling case for what would have seemed hysterical posturing. Even a few years ago, the concept of our time being defined by a tussle between faith and reason would raise nearly every eyebrow in the room. As political theology morphs and advances, as it becomes more sophisticated and savvy the world over, it becomes very hard to dispute the core statement of Religulous, that just such a battle will indeed define or devour us all.  

Maher’s grand statement is a must-see if only for timeliness and as a companion volume to the aforementioned authors on the subject. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the film is also brilliantly written, sleek in production, direct and coherent in narrative and simply hilarious.  
–Read the rest of this entry »


 
Oct
11
    

By Bryan Newbury
October 11, 2008
 

To state that the United States of America is increasingly politically polarized will do little to confirm one’s acuity in matters of state. By now, it has entered into bromide territory. The progression from observation to recognized fact to platitude is seldom a straight road, and the oddity with this particular bit of wisdom is just how incorrect – or imprecise, if you prefer – the definition of the division happens to be.  

It doesn’t take long for Split to point out the imprecision in the Red State/Blue State narrative. This is to be commended, because looking to closely at ill-defined macro classifications will invariably end up in a film, or even a conversation, losing the plot. As Jack Hitt and a host of others astutely observe, the notion of a neatly divided group of states defining the political culture of a nominally democratic republic is quite absurd. Were it true, we’d be in more trouble than we have already. Looking at demographic data, it’d be closer to accurate to describe the break as Rural versus Urban. Closer, but not quite there. 

Split certainly succeeds at viewing the political situation, so often represented by the primary colors equation, in a more reasoned and deliberate way. We get to see where the real divisions are and how geography, religion, media and money fit into the picture. There are real issues with the nature of the composition, which we’ll attend to later, but the film can be said to achieve its objective by illustrating how confusing and complex the American political landscape is. 

Religion looms large, and begs the viewer to ask himself whether that complexity is really there. Right now, and for some time before and likely to come, the split between secular and religious worldviews has dictated the debate in most of the world. The main sticking point with defining a person or group with so basic a term is that the definition becomes muddled when one considers that there are some in the “secular” camp that display characteristics more befitting our picture of the religious mindset and the other way about. (Think of the secular humanist who accepts nothing that our limited perspectives and perceptions can’t classify on the one hand and the progressive Christian who espouses the red words of the New Testament as beacons of tolerance on the other.) To make it plain, we could paraphrase an old division into the cognitive versus the moral. What we collectively describe as the “religious” outlook in the U.S. is largely understood to be the evangelical Christian element. Nyks speaks with a few proponents of this quaint watch post against rational thought, and the responses they give are telling, as are those of the people on the other side of the thought fence. What occurs reminds one of the ever- pervasive influence of Islam in western Europe more than any other correlative. 

What happens during Split conjures the debate of the Cologne mega mosque, which quickly deteriorated to a pissing match between pious Muslims and protofascist nationalists. Left on the sidelines to ponder the finer elements were the rational leftists. Eventually, they sided more often with the go-ahead on building. After all, what are progressive western values if not tolerant? That the ambitions behind such structures don’t generally end up on the tolerant side of things had to be tossed aside in the final analysis. One can see the same type of losing battle the cognitive minority fights in an interviewee for the film, who asserts that it isn’t in the national interest (maybe not even possible) to divorce the faith of people from their view of governance, though it is a great danger when such faith can be manipulated and then foist upon the population through legislation and overall atmosphere in the public discourse. While it is pretty to think so, it is madness to assume that religion, when mobilized to a political end, will do anything else. So, there you have why the assorted crackpots and snake oil men, along with their snake handling cousins, are winning the war globally as well as nationally. For the religious section of this split, there are really three factions. The first are the types who insist the Founding Fathers thought the bible should be the law of the land and who illustrate issues of human sexuality with hardware implements. The second are stridently secular or involved with a much more nuanced view of history and religion. The third are of a secular bent, but wouldn’t want to dictate their outlook to the other two. Groups two and three being roughly equal to group one, it is little surprise that the lack of fight in the third opens us all to the whim of the first.  
–Read the rest of this entry »


 
Sep
18
    

By Umut Newbury
September 18, 2008

More than 20,000 Americans will die in 2008. The cause of their death will not be combat, traffic accidents or terrorism. They will die because they do not have health insurance.

In the 21st century, in the world’s richest nation, how that statistic doesn’t shock, deeply depress or simply upset Americans, is hard to comprehend. When Michael Moore released Sicko in 2007, the assumption about his film was that it would focus on uninsured Americans. Instead, Moore chose as his subjects those with supposedly “good” health coverage. Though he exposed how even the covered fall through the cracks tragically, Moore’s film didn’t have the impact it deserved. The mainstream media (the likes of Dr. Sanjay Gupta on CNN) decided the “fact-check” Sicko and argued that health care in Cuba wasn’t that much better than in the U.S. They emphasized how long the waiting lines in Canada were. So, the vast majority of Americans were persuaded once again that, even if their health insurance wasn’t saving their lives when they needed it, darn it, it was still better than that of foreigners.

What about the uninsured then? Two-time Academy Award nominee director Roger Weisberg takes us into the deep, dark underbelly of the life of 47 million Americans who do not have health insurance in his new film Critical Condition and it isn’t pretty. Weisberg’s brilliantly somber documentary is hard to watch. As well it should be, for anyone who has a heart or a soul. He takes us on a very personal journey of four patients and their families. These are not welfare-sucking, crack-addicted deadbeats the mainstream media would have us believe as the sole victims of lack of health insurance. All of them are working, tax-paying, law-abiding citizens. In fact, as Weisberg points out, the overwhelming majority (80 percent) of those without health insurance are working-class Americans. Let’s repeat that (if only for Lou Dobbs): Not immigrants, not illegal immigrants, but millions of Americans who work for a living have no health insurance.

Joe Stornaiuolo is a doorman from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He is diabetic and has a liver disease, though he never drank. When he was diagnosed with the illness, his employer decided he could no longer do his job. When Stornaiuolo lost his job, he lost his health insurance, too. When he couldn’t afford his medicine, he started skipping doses and got sicker and sicker.

Hector Cardenas is a warehouse manager in Los Angeles. His diabetes caused a foot infection that spiraled into gangrene. He had insurance through his job, but taking care of the gangrene was taking too long and eating up all his sick time. His doctor told him, “It’ll take four to five months to save your foot, but if you want to go back to work, we’ll have to cut your foot off.” Hector told his doctor to cut his foot off and still lost his job and his insurance.

Karen Dove, of Austin, Texas, and her husband Ronnie couldn’t afford health insurance. For months, she had abdomen pains. Doctors kept turning her away because she didn’t have coverage. Finally, she contacted the Cancer Society and got a call from a doctor’s office willing to see her. By the time she was diagnosed, her ovarian cancer was in Stage 3. “Most people with Stage 3 cancer will die,” said her doctor.

Carlos Benitez, a chef for a French restaurant in Los Angeles, has been living with chronic back pain and deformity of his spine for 15 years. He makes $45,000 a year, but decided several years ago to let go of his health insurance because he needed the extra money to raise his family. When he went to a free health clinic at the UCLA campus, he was told that he needed to go to a doctor immediately because the pain medication was making him bleed to death. He got a blood transfusion and escaped death, but no doctor in California would perform the surgery to fix his spine and end his pain, because he didn’t have the money.

Weisberg tells the stories of these families candidly. These are not political people trying to push a policy issue. Critical Condition reveals them as they are, regular, hard-working Americans with terrible health conditions, yet with very few options. Weisberg, though, has done his homework on the health care issue, and peppers the film with sharp statistics. When people like Carlos, Karen, Joe and Hector run out of options, they go into emergency rooms. Covering the bills of the uninsured like them, Weisberg tells us, increases the annual health insurance premiums of a family by $922 per year. He also points out that though the U.S. spends $2 trillion per year on health care, it still ranks 24th in life expectancy, 27th in infant mortality and that lack of health insurance is the sixth leading cause of death here.

With less than two months from the presidential election and just days before the first debate between the candidates, Critical Condition is timed perfectly. Weisberg’s film makes it painfully obvious that health care in the U.S. is no longer a problem — it is a crisis.

A new study published this week in the journal Health Affairs projects that Sen. John McCain’s health plan would cause as many as 20 million Americans to lose their health insurance through their employers in the next five years. Add that to the number of uninsured now, we might be looking at almost 60 million Americans without insurance —that makes one-fifth of the population without access to health care by 2013. In July, another study by the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution projected an initial rise in people with health coverage under McCain’s plan, but predicted the number would start to dwindle in a few years. The same study showed that Sen. Barack Obama’s plan would reduce the number of uninsured by 18 million in 2009 and by 34 million by 2018. Obama’s plan still falls short of universal health care coverage.

Critical Condition makes the viewer wonder why it is so forbidden to talk about single-payer, universal health care in this country. What are we so afraid of? What could be worse than 22,000 people dying every year? Surely, the two major presidential candidates will not have a chance to view this significant documentary before Election Day. But perhaps the mainstream media can take a look at it honestly, and make it a part of the debates. Or is it too much to ask to move beyond the critical issue of lipstick and take a look at what’s killing people and how to fix it?

—–
Critical Condition

Directed by Roger Weisberg

83 minutes plus extras

Docurama Films 2008

Premieres on Sept. 30, 2008 on PBS


 
Sep
16
    

By Bryan Newbury
September 16, 2008

“You could have presented yourself as being self-taught, the product of your own worthy efforts, there’s nothing to be ashamed of, society in the past took pride in its autodidacts, No longer, progress has come along and put an end to all of that, now the self-taught are frowned upon, only those who write entertaining verses and stories are entitled to be and go on being autodidacts, lucky for them, but as for me, I must confess that I never had any talent for literary creation, Become a philosopher, man, You have a keen sense of humour, Sir, with a distinct flair for irony, and I ask myself how you ever came to devote yourself to history, serious and profound science as it is, I’m only ironic in real life, It has always struck me that history is not real life, literature, yes, and nothing else, But history was real life at the time when it could not yet be called history, Sir, are you sure, Truly, you are a walking interrogation and disbelief endowed with arms…”

José Saramago, The History of the Siege of Lisbon
(Giovanni Pontiero, translator.)

Astra Taylor’s Zizek!, like the film’s namesake, provides a challenge to the reviewer in a way many ostensibly similar films – think You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train and Manufacturing Consent – do not. There are quite a few reasons for this: brevity of run time; the difference between “activist” theoreticians, historians and philosophers like Zinn and Chomsky and the more urbane and inactivist bloke that Zizek personifies; the rarified air of Lacanian psychoanalysis versus the relative simplicity and utility of pure social science. In a sense, to wax postmodernist, the reviewer is burdened with the same role as the director. The observer is inside, aiming to describe a description, or depiction, that was the implicit purpose of the film itself.

This is a conundrum above the reviewer’s pay grade, unless he is arrogant enough to presume he can cut through to the marrow of Zizek’s unity within paradox within unity, or perfidious enough to claim to have read the source texts so beautifully displayed by Molly Schwartz’s animation. How to attack it, then?

In a state of deep contemplation, this reviewer considered the José Raimundo Silva option, to say, emphatically and unironically, that Slavoj Zizek does not embrace a Lacanian-Marxist hybrid, that he did not call himself a monster, that the viewer does not question whether paradox is unity and chaos order. This brief flirtation with critical liberation was snuffed out precisely because it begged all of the mendacity and conceit mentioned above.

The only way to view Zizek! is the most direct one: what is Taylor seeking to accomplish and how entertaining and thought provoking were here efforts?

The first question requires a certain presumptuousness. Having been duly acquitted of fraud and deception, the reviewer can expect some latitude in this direction. It would be fair to say that the goal is an introduction to Mr. Zizek and his outlook. If it were an overture to cultural theory wonks and professional academics, it would be lacking. Nothing in the presentation of the film suggests such soft failures. If the presumption is correct, then Taylor has certainly achieved her goal. Through a series of interviews, brief clips from lectures spanning from Buenos Aires to Boston, and artfully portrayed texts central to the disjointed unity of Zizek’s approach to, for lack of a more precise term, philosophy, the viewer is instantly gripped by the larger than life yet knowingly insignificant character Zizek cuts. There are bits and pieces, a successful introduction to just who the man is and what, at the surface, he thinks and why, just enough to cajole the viewer into further examining his works. It would be less presumptuous to posit that the person buying this film from the website of her choice would be wise to go ahead and employ the “people who bought this also…” option.

As to the second, Taylor and team couldn’t have done better. The shooting and editing subtly frame the film in a way that we might imagine Zizek appreciating. From the very beginning, with a short statement on creation, chaos, void and love, to the imaginatively sequenced subsections of the film (one of which has the humorous linguistic breakdown “PSYCO/ANAL/YSIS”), there is a harmony of presentation of a harmony of thought. The most impressive ingredient in the presentation is the work of Ms. Schwartz, who alights upon biographical snippets, bits of text and elegant yet enigmatic cultural theorizing with an aplomb that must make her quite sought after in her discipline. Her ability to illustrate complex concepts with a combination of aesthetic grace and edifying simplicity take the film up a few levels. Again, the documentary succeeds in artfully and entertainingly embracing its subject.

Zizek! does not look to be designed for group viewing or post-film (dare we say postfilm?) discussion among more than a roomful of people. Whether a film could present a more complete characterization of Zizek or his works in three hours, let alone one, is debatable. (The reviewer leans more to the contrary position on this question, and thankfully there is a wealth of extras on the DVD to soften the blow of the shockingly abrupt end leaving the viewer engaged in an Armageddon of the Ego, or possibly just politely asking for a bit more footage.) As an introduction, and an effective way to entice people into poring over Slavoj Zizek’s punctilious planet of paradoxes, Zizek! comes up roses.

Which would bring us to what roses actually are…

—–

Zizek!

Directed by Astra Taylor

Color, 2005, 71 minutes

English and Slovene with English subtitles

Zeitgiest Films


 
Aug
13
    

By Bryan Newbury
August 12, 2008

It has often been observed that all worthwhile traditional music emerges from suffering a combination of repression, violence and want. One could say often enough to make the sentiment platitudinous in the abstract. In the concrete, it is as essential a statement as could be made, especially to those who have been the ones experiencing the suffering.

If these tribulations are indeed the provenance of brilliant music, then no one has carried a heavier weight than the Roma people. 

A few additional elements are resourcefulness and soul, which the Roma have in spades. To argue which type of performance is more stirring, or to suggest that one kind of music is more soulful than another, is to court a series of debates which all turn up at a dead end. Then again, it would be difficult if not impossible to debate the earth moving spirit, the virtuosity, the proficiency and the originality of Roma, or gypsy, music. In the series of dead end roads, the dirt path trod by these beleaguered geniuses might well be the most magnificent. Whether playing on the traditional saarangi spike lute, the violin, the ney or the trombone, whether influencing Andalucían string music and dancing or appropriating Ottoman military marches, the Roma have historically absorbed hatred and bigotry and repaid their hosts with cultural expansion. 

In her latest film, Jasmine Dellal provides us with a glimpse into the music and lives of disparate yet unified Romani, as they venture from their homes in India, Romania, Spain and Macedonia on a North American tour. Equal parts performance film, travelogue and ethnological study, Gypsy Caravan does precisely what any fan of world music – music, for that matter – seeks. While treating us to largely uninterrupted sets (when interrupted with dialogue or shots from the performers’ home countries, done incredibly tastefully and without distraction) of some of the finest musicians and dancers in the world, it presents us with a look into just who the people are making their art. 

No character could be more arresting than the undisputed star of the film, Nicolae Neascu. Founder of the award winning and awe-inspiring group Taraf de Haïdouks, Nicolae was the living embodiment of a Romani musician. The viewer feels giddy and lucky at the prospect of listening to his setbacks, successes and desires, of seeing him interacting with kinsmen and countrymen, of hearing him proclaim from his humble abode that he is a star, and that “I am going to build a swimming pool, like Johnny Depp. Johnny Depp.” (Depp, of course, has spent a bit of time with Taraf. That alone establishes their must-know bona fides. Whenever someone is really worth knowing, Depp takes his plane out to hang with him/her/them, in order to bolster his greatest life ever credentials. Yes, ladies, Mr. Depp does appear in the film. Let us move on.) 

From Neascu’s village in southern Romania, to the Romania-Moldova border home of Fanfare Ciocarlia, the superlatively adept eleven-man brass band whose sound permeates Goran Bregovic’s stunning Underground soundtrack, to Skopje, Spain and northwestern India, Caravan commits to film something more than slice of life. In the stories and songs of Esma Redzepova, who can fairly be promoted from “Queen of the Gypsies” to “Patron Saint,” in the passionate torrent of Antonio el Pipa and the heart-rending saga of his aunt Juana, in the joyous and troubled qawwali blues of Maharaja and the cathartic dancing of their leader by fiat, Harish, we receive an adequate rendering of Roma music, culture and daily life. The word “adequate” seems harsh in most instances. In this case, it conveys the highest compliment. To expect a filmmaker to cover the millennial odyssey of such a colorful and complex people in a mere hour or two, while providing us with stirring live music from five distinct and enthralling ensembles would be beyond harsh. 

Dedicated to the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015 (www.RomaDecade.org), Gypsy Caravan dispels popular mythology of the Roma people while providing footage of events and attitudes even in the United States, no stranger to prejudice, but with a much less present Roma Diaspora as that of Europe, that indicate the need for such mythology to be shattered. The Decade project prioritizes education, employment, health and housing, which the interviews in the film indicate are central to the dreams of Romani young and old. Among the less pernicious myths about the gypsy is his happiness with his lot of wandering and entertaining, a kind of Old World spin on the noble savage. It is clear that, while embracing a distinctive and many hued heritage, these people aspire to the same things the rest of us do. As Redzepova relates, the world could learn a few lessons from a people that have never engaged in warfare or occupation of a country. If one needs proof that music has the power to break barriers, to communicate and universalize the suffering of all, and to forge a path toward understanding and appreciation of his fellow man, he need look no further than Gypsy Caravan

If, however, the viewer wishes only to have a film whose music stirs the soul and injects frenetic energy and baffling musical proficiency, she might procure the exact same film.

—–

Gypsy Caravan: When The Road Bends…

Written, Directed and Produced by Jasmine Dellal

Color, 2006, 111 minutes

English; Romani, Spanish, Romanian, Macedonian, Hindi and Marwari with English Subtitles


 
Aug
07
    

By Umut Newbury
August 7, 2008

“To me it’s so simple that life should be lived on the edge of life. You have to exercise in rebellion, to refuse to taper yourself to rules, to refuse your own success, to refuse to repeat yourself to see every day, every year, every idea as a true challenge and then you are going to live your life on a tight rope.”  -Philippe Petit

Life, death, dreams and rebellion… The French have always been extraordinarily talented in defying the mainstream Western cultures’ accepted notions on these. The last time the French were truly successful at jarring our sense of what is good – life, what is evil – human mortality, was done through New Wave cinema with the likes of Jean Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut.

James Marsh’s new documentary, Man on Wire, combines the best of that era: Godard’s Breathless, and Truffaut’s 400 Blows, with a touch of Camus. For the post-911 world inhabitant, it is a foreign time, where breaking into buildings, i.e. the World Trade Center towers, and mocking death was an act of art, not an act of terrorism.

The subject of Marsh’s masterpiece, Philippe Petit, is not your typical Frenchman, just smoking cigarettes and drinking Bordeaux and cursing the meaninglessness of life at a sidewalk cafe. He is a reckless high-wire walker taunting death on a daily basis. His goal: To walk on a wire suspended between the North and South towers of the World Trade Centers shortly after they are built in 1974.

“My story is a fairy tale,” Petit begins rather innocuously. He was a little boy with a passion for climbing things, anything: “Why, I’ll let the psychiatrists to figure out the reasons. To escape things, to see things from a different perspective.” Well, the little French boy gets a toothache someday and is sitting in a dentist’s office looking at magazines. He sees a picture of these two towers (the French media cleverly juxtaposed the Eiffel Tower in front of them to show how magnanimous they would be when they were built) and is smitten instantly. He rips the picture out of the magazine and carries it with him: “Usually, when you have a dream, it’s there, tangible. The object of my dream doesn’t even exist yet.”

The film doesn’t quite explain how Petit grows up to have the luxury of just walking on wires in his backyard and dreaming of scaling large, prominent buildings, and it really doesn’t have to. This story originates in France, after all, and we must start with a romance. Petit pursues a shy 20-year-old, Annie Allix, and she immediately becomes his number one fan and supporter of reckless acts. By 1971, Petit gets his first grandiose idea: To walk on a wire between the towers of the Notre Dame Cathedral. He sees it not as trespassing on the holy, rather describes himself as “a poet conquering beautiful stages.” The footage is simply breathtaking, even for those who have never been a fan of circus acts. There is a deep philosophical sense about Petit’s act. Somehow, it is not about the ridiculousness of a young man risking his life publicly. He is making a statement.

Two years later, in June of 1973, Petit, Allix and Petit’s other, nonsexual cohorts, repeat the act at the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Again, it is a magnificent scene. The whole bay of Sydney stretched out below a lunatic, while regular folks are communing to work, provides an immensely ironic perspective. When he gets arrested, Petit is still playing around, managing to swipe the watch of a Sydney policeman. The viewer would think this is a child who does not understand the consequences of his actions. But he does. “The fact that high-wire activity is framed by death is great,” Petit says. “You have to take it seriously.” With every potentially fatal act, Petit seems to be saying, “I understand life. I understand death in a way you will never know.”

After the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Sydney Harbour Bridge, where does the high-wire walker take his act? Of course, he could have chosen any of a number of well-known European or Asian sites, however, this was all a means to an end – The World Trade Center towers. “The two towers galloping in my head, as I return to Paris, the towers were almost built,” Petit recalls. His girlfriend Allix admits to having limits to her undying support. “When he showed me the pictures, I was afraid. It’s inhuman to want to go up 450 meters in the air and walk. This was demonic, I wanted to say, ‘Stop.’” But she doesn’t. Neither do his buddies, Jean Louis Blandeau or Jean Francois Heckel. Heckel says about the Notre Dame project, “It was against the law, but not wicked or mean. It was wonderful.” So when approached about the World Trade Center project, Heckel is in. So is Blandeau, after receiving a postcard from New York. He looks at the towers on the front of the card, with a line drawn between them. “I thought, of course, that’s why they are there.”

Blandeau is the voice of reason in the group, immediately realizing that there is no way to accomplish Petit’s crazy dream legally. No one is going to authorize such a wildly risky, childish dream. Once again, this will be a covert operation. Petit’s small group of outlaws soon grow, with an Australian, a couple of stoner Americans, and even an inside man from the WTC. To some, it is “a fun adventure,” others admit that they have been drawn to things, “that are not totally legal.”

The team travels back and forth between New York and France. They spy on the World Trade Center towers, disguise themselves to get information, set up a “training camp” in a meadow in France. By all modern classifications, they must be terrorists. The day of the act, affectionately nicknamed “Le Coup” by Petit, they sneak in the buildings with fake IDs. Everybody is terrified, everyone is convinced they will get busted and end up in jail or deported. But after more than 12 hours, in the early morning hours of Aug. 7, 1974, Petit manages to get on his wire between WTC North and South towers. He walks back and forth for 45 minutes, making the crossing eight times. Sgt. Charles Daniels, one of the two Port Authority police officers on the scene describes him as a “tight rope dancer because you couldn’t call him a walker.” Petit keeps walking back and forth smiling at the police, taunting them, only agreeing to step off after being told that he will be plucked by a helicopter. Everyone, including the authorities, is mesmerized. “I personally thought I was seeing something I would never see again, once in a lifetime thing,” Daniels tells the local press.

The footage of this crazy little Frenchman kneeling on a wire in between the two World Trade Centers is one of the most haunting images one will ever see on the big screen. The images of Petit on top of the Notre Dame Cathedral and the bridge in Sydney are powerful, too, but because of our collective history in the 21st century, it becomes something else. It makes the viewer wonder what happened to us as a human race. When did we get from that to this in less than 30 years? But perhaps, it is best to not think of this film in the context of recent history at all and to stick with Petit’s philosophy, “Why? There is no why.” Modern life is both beautiful and terrifying, and we’d be better off just accepting that. Man on Wire will help anyone come to terms with the absurdity of our existence on this planet.

—–

Man on Wire

Directed by James Marsh

2008 Magnolia Pictures

94 minutes


 
Aug
06
    

By Umut Newbury
August 6, 2008

Less than three months from a historic presidential election comes an extremely timely documentary from Docurama Films. The Robert Drew Kennedy Films Collection, including Primary, filmed in 1960, Crisis, filmed in 1963, and Faces of November, filmed in 1964, is a crucial trilogy for students of history and political junkies everywhere. 

History repeats itself and the resemblances of this year’s presidential race, or more accurately, of one candidate, Sen. Barack Obama, to the Kennedys, both JFK and RFK, have already been underscored earlier in the year. Primary only makes this more evident, as it follows John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey during the Wisconsin primary election. The similarities are eerie. Humphrey talks to farmers and older folks. Though he has a populist message similar to that of John Edwards in this year’s campaign, the size of his crowds resembles more that of John McCain’s. Then we see images of Kennedy that are all too familiar: Large crowds, mostly young people, mostly young girls, cheering, running down the streets to meet the candidate. Just like with Obama, JFK as a candidate is more like a celebrity; everybody wants to shake his hand, everybody wants an autograph. Humphrey tells the farm folk, “Fortune and Life magazine don’t give a hoot about your life,” in an effort to undermine JFK’s celebrity status. Isn’t that what John McCain was echoing when he ran the recent attack ad “Celeb,” asking the question about Obama, “Sure, he is a celebrity, but is he ready to lead?”

Kennedy’s strength in Wisconsin, as Primary shows, is in the heavily populated areas, mostly the big cities. Fast-forward to 2008, Obama’s strengths are the same. Then, of course, there are shots of the first great First Lady, Jackie Kennedy. She is quiet and graceful, the symbol of the good, supportive wife of the 1950s and 1960s, much like the character Betty Draper in AMC’s Mad Men. The viewer cannot help but think of Michelle Obama. If only Mrs. Obama stayed quiet and doting like Jackie Kennedy, she would be beloved as well. But this is 2008 and Mrs. Obama is the symbol of the 21st century wife: strong, independent, smart, but never timid. 

Primary’s closing shots are from the campaign headquarters where we see JFK chain-smoking his H. Upmann petite cigars and admitting that he did indeed tell a reporter, “if lost here, I’d find it extremely difficult to be nominated.” Luckily for him, the newspapers never had a chance to use that line against him to get him to drop out of the race. As Humphrey leaves his headquarters quietly at the end of the evening, it is evident the candidate from the neighboring Minnesota has lost the election to the “Catholic elitist from the East.”

As fascinating as Primary is with the déjà vu moments, the next film of the historic three-film collection simply blows it out of the water. Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment has some of the most incredible behind the scenes White House footage ever seen on film. The footage starts on June 10, 1963, the day before the first two African-American students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, would try to enroll for summer classes at the University of Alabama. Alabama is the last state in the nation to allow integration and the state’s infamous Governor George Wallace threatens to stand between the students and their education.
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Jul
30
    

By Bryan Newbury
July 30, 2008

Democracy, it could be argued, is a swindle. The quintessence of a bunco game perpetrated on the well meaning and cynical alike. This isn’t the exact conclusion one suspects Weijun Chen is aiming at delivering in his superlative documentary, but, for those predisposed to the notion, it is conveyed masterfully.

Please Vote for Me documents a class monitor election at Evergreen Primary School in Wuhan, China. It would be hard to argue that the Chinese haven’t the capacity or ability for electoral politics after this short hour. Indeed, they’re ducks in water.

The concept is novel. The third grade class will take part in an election for class monitor, as opposed to the selection that had always occurred. The candidates have been chosen by the instructors (free markets did lead to Western style democracy! Yaaay!) and put through the paces of what turns out to be a difficult, brutal and astonishingly mature election season. 

If the candidates were chosen specifically for the purpose of a film, it wouldn’t be surprising. The key to any good election… or election film, for that matter… is to have compelling candidates who fit certain profiles while belying the traits one expects and then return to home in a roundabout fashion. The characters typically break down thusly: an autocrat; a visionary; and a charlatan. It would seem that candidate Cheng Cheng fits the first and third categories nicely. Early on, he espouses the virtue of class monitor in starkly authoritarian terms. “The class monitor,” he reminds us, “gets to order people around.” Cheng Cheng does a good deal of this, both at school and at home. He is equal parts Dick Cheney, Barack Obama and Eric Cartman. Even as he begins his dirty tricks campaign against his adversaries – it took about four minutes – Cheng Cheng manages to charm and amaze with a combination of sweeping rhetoric and democratic ideals. At first, his motivations seem to be the purest of political ones, namely, that he wants the office and could use the control. As the film progresses, the child displays a personable and complex character. Few observers will argue early on that he isn’t a winner.

The next candidate, a female, is Xu Xiaofei. Unlike the two boys, Xu comes from a single parent home. We quickly see that bare knuckle campaigning just isn’t in her. Cheng Cheng deploys a sort of primitive Swift Boating during the musical competition, which leaves her in tears. She is kind and deliberate, not exactly the stuff of Tammany Hall. 

The third, and incumbent, candidate is Luo Lei. Much like Cheng Cheng, the first impression can be misleading. When discussing campaign strategy with his parents, Luo Lei insists that his compatriots should make their decision freely, and of sound mind. As the film develops, we learn that Luo defines bearing any burden through a clenched fist. There is an hilarious scene where both Xu Xiaofei and Cheng Cheng’s campaign staffers are compiling a list of Luo Lei’s shortcomings as class monitor. When Xu Xiaofei’s emissary gets around to Cheng Cheng himself, he states that a serious flaw in Luo Lei as monitor is that he beats the students too much. “We’ve got that one already,” she responds, to Cheng Cheng’s amusement.  In the course of debate, Cheng Cheng asks for a show of hands on who has been beaten by Luo Lei during his tenure as class monitor. There are quite a few volunteers. Luo Lei defends himself, as his parents suggested the night before, with very paternalistic reasoning. “Sure, I beat you, but only because you misbehave. If a parent beats his child, is it for no reason?” Cheng Cheng responds logically, stating that Luo Lei is a child himself, not an adult, then continues with a rhetorical flourish that eventually renders his opponent speechless. He has vanquished the more difficult foe, it seems. 
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Jul
17
    

The IFC has a great opportunity for individuals with documentaries ideas.  If you have a good concept for a documentary and want to get funding for it or get it seen by decision makers, you need to check out the IFC The Back to Basics Documentary Challenge.

You are only required to submit three minutes of video with your idea for the film, but the deadline is fast approaching (August 3, 2008), so you need to get organized quickly.

IFC is looking for a short documentary or a documentary trailer. It must be a non-fiction with the subject matter of your choosing. Please note, for this contest, IFC is only accepting documentary concepts. Film submissions will be judged on the filmmakers ability to portray their unique point of view with their chosen subject matter as well as the film’s overall creative and technical production merits.

Two cash prizes are being offered: 1st prize is $7500, Runner-up prize is $2500.

To get signed up and upload submissions, visit www.ifc.com/backtobasics 

Documentary Films .Net receives emails frequently from individuals with ideas for a film, but no idea how to take the next step.  This is the next step.  Use your video to pitch the idea you have always had.

Go to the IFC challenge webiste here www.ifc.com/backtobasics.  Opportunities to just pitch ideas are very limited.  This challenge is your opportunity.


 
Jul
08
    

By Umut Newbury
July 8, 2008

In the last year and a half, Democratic presidential hopeful Senator Barack Obama has faced a myriad of attacks against his personality, character and background. It’s not that presidential politics in the United States is getting any meaner or worse than before. It’s that Barack Hussein Obama, the son of a white mother from Kansas and an African father from Kenya, provides a more colorful smorgasbord of topics for the misinformation machine. During the Democratic primary campaign, one Hillary Clinton volunteer was fired for disseminating an e-mail about Obama being a Muslim. Another Clinton campaign surrogate forwarded to the media a picture of Obama from his visit to Africa, in which he was wearing traditional garb, as many leaders tend to do. The Clinton campaign never admitted or denied that it sent the photo, instead tried to spin the story by saying that “Obama shouldn’t be ashamed of wearing traditional Somali clothing.” Fortunately for Senator Obama, these campaign tactics did not work and he managed to clinch his party’s nomination. Unfortunately, the hate mail campaign against him continues on the Internet, with chain e-mails circulating all sorts of lies about who he is and what his beliefs are.

What’s curious about some Americans’ continued interest in letting the whole world know “who the real Barack Obama is” is that this is a candidate who has been particularly open about who he is and how he found himself. Obama is a prolific writer, and Dreams from My Father, his 400-plus-page autobiography, which he penned when he was 33, reveals more about him than what would be comfortable for most national politicians. Despite it being a bestseller, apparently there are still people out there who have more to learn about this “skinny man with a funny name.” Good news for those who don’t want to trudge through the first 300 pages of that book before getting to the last 150 about Kenya, there is a new film that gives a glimpse of the candidate in his ancestral home. Senator Obama Goes to Africa, directed by Bob Hercules, is a concise and balanced documentary chronicling Obama’s diplomatic trip to Africa in 2006. In 60 minutes, the film takes the viewer from Obama’s father’s country of birth, Kenya, to South Africa and finally to eastern Chad, to a Darfur refugee camp.

Obama narrates the documentary (which might give the naysayers an easy reason to question its objectivity) but the senator is quick to point out this trip is “obviously a big production.” He’s followed not only by the filmmakers but also by international news media everywhere he goes. Even under these extremely public circumstances, Senator Obama Goes to Africa is a film that manages to capture candid moments of the presidential candidate, his family and fans on the other side of the world.
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Jul
02
    

By Bryan Newbury
July 2, 2008

“Time is running out for Tibet. Every day, while we are sitting here praying for world peace, inside Tibet there’s more and more and more… and more… Chinese moving in. And, as I see it, the Chinese are playing for time… and we’re playing into their hands.”

Lhasang Tsering, Pro-Independence Tibetan in Exile.

Proposed diegesis:

08.08.08. The Olympic Torch has arrived in Beijing, give or take a few hundred human rights related expulsions on the way, and the grand flame is alight in the cauldron. Without warning, an international event ensues. The countries involved immediately scramble into action mode. For the United States, it could be a further incursion into the Near East. For Germany or France, a retribution through immigration reforms. For any number of countries, any number of scenarios. 

What of the host country, then? In the paranoiac surveillance state of China, there are a hundred ways to spin the event. Whatever the case of the victim country, China can surely parlay the unfortunate event into additional repression of a chosen group. The smart money may very well be on the largely ignored Uyghur dissidents in Xinjiang province. Why not? They are Muslim, as the assailants will no doubt be, and there are no celebrities to rally on their behalf. Then again, the Tibetans have long been the face with which China’s Orwellian boot has sought to step on eternally. Again, what would stop them, provided they share the requisite intelligence on the criminals in this hypothetical situation?

If The Unwinking Gaze is any indication, it wouldn’t be His Holiness, The Dalai Lama. 

It is difficult to wrap one’s mind around the Tibet situation. Aside from the vocal, well-meaning… and, likely, misguided… activists in the west – with their “Free Tibet” stickers and catchy chants in tow – any outside observer must confess an embarrassing inability to appreciate the nuance His Holiness is obliged to deal with.

Joshua Dugdale is to be commended for presentation. The film presents The Dalai Lama as he is; or, at least, as he is within the parameters of cameras and microphones. Following a brief introduction, we are given His Holiness and his supplicants without voiceover. Restrained narration is often a demerit in documentary filmmaking. In the case of The Unwinking Gaze, the viewer is rewarded greatly. Whatever frustration might arise from a seeming lack of context is subsequently acquitted in the conversation it elicits. 

A possible point of debate would be The Dalai Lama’s politic nature. From one perspective, it would appear to be callous, the proclamations of a false prophet. When listening to Tsering or the Tibetan Youth Congress quite literally shouting from rooftops, the long view of His Holiness – secure in his Dharamsala castle – it is forgivable for the viewer to share a profound consternation with the patient “Middle Way.” On the other hand, what would you have him, or his countrymen, do? As he points out, to the Chinese, the loss of 100,000 is nothing. To the Tibetans, the loss of 100 is substantial. “What of Castro, the Granma, and Ernesto Guevara?” the response comes, “Or Mao, for Chrissakes? Would the Tibetans not be served better by their own Mao, rather than this ineffectual holy man?” Whatever victory could be expected, the other side will respond, would redefine Pyrrhic. 

Back and forth it goes, like the recently minted Olympic sport of table tennis. “The Tibetan leadership in exile seeks to retain only the linguistic, cultural and religious elements of society, happy to consign its brethren to slavery. What’s that, then? As long as they retain primitive control, they capitulate to the very modern Chinese concept of Market Stalinism?” “Would you have the Lamas and the Ayatollahs equated?” comes the reply. And on and on.

This is the magic within The Unwinking Gaze. To the detached viewer, it is anything but a naïve hosanna to His Holiness. There are fifty questions for every answer, which, in this case, is the best we can expect. The Dalai Lama may well qualify for sainthood. An argument exists for his being all too human. What better praise of a filmmaker than to say that he puts this complexity at our door? 

—–

The Unwinking Gaze: The Inside Story of the Dalai Lama’s Struggle for Tibet

Produced & Directed by Joshua Dugdale

Color, 69 minutes, 2008


 
Jun
15
    

By Joshua Davis
June 15, 2008

The scene is high school students looking unusually confident and serious.  Young people any instructor would be happy to have in a classroom setting.  Some jargon is used, but most viewers will see nothing out of the ordinary.  Then the speeches begin, and all hell breaks lose.  These kids are speaking at speeds so fast that very little is understood.  If you were in the room with them, you would have little reason to stay longer than a few minutes.  Something must be wrong.  Are the judges going to leave the room in disgust? Certainly this can not be normal; did these kids take an overdose of an often prescribed drug to address ADD?   Weird. Alien. Pointless. Why?

This is the opening of the movie Resolved. Up until this point it would seem obvious that debates should be easy to film.  In national politics, they are often televised and have served as a way to document key parts of political history.  But after jolting the viewer with the opening, the narrator explains that the highest level of high school policy debate started to take a turn in the 1960s to what is called “spread” (SPeed-READing).  Spread involves speaking rapidly in order to get out as many arguments as possible.  One debater started speaking faster and others just kept increasing their pace until nearly all debaters at the highest level were speaking at a rate of 300 to 400 words-per-minute.  The speed at which the debaters speak does not make for comfortable observation.  The film explains that since spread became the norm, only those who have participated in or coached debate can now effectively follow the debates.

Despite this potentially barrier, the filmmakers were still able to create a compelling film that is well balanced between explaining the competition that is debate and how the lives of the debaters affect their approach to the activity and its potentially exclusive nature.  
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Jun
11
    

By Bryan Newbury
June 11, 2008

Just a day after clinching the Democratic nomination for the presidency, Senator Barack Obama received helpful words from his erstwhile (so Democrats hope) adversary, Senator Hillary Clinton. It was at an AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) convention, where she assured the audience that Obama would be a friend to Israel. The elephant sitting at table three could have pointed out that this goes without saying. In the United States, support for Israel is a requirement, whether running for state senate, the House of Representatives, or county clerk, let alone president.

It is understood by anyone who even casually follows politics, yet it retains elephant in the room status. This is one of the many “whys” regarding the influence of the Israel lobby, one that – like most of the others – will likely never be discussed in our media, and certainly not in our legislature. 

Dutch public broadcaster VPRO presents a balanced and knowledgeable look at the question, and it is vexing to contemplate why our PBS avoids the issue. As with so many things dealing with Israel or the Jewish Diaspora, it is tricky footing for any commentator. The dual nature of the Jewish people, that Janus face of perseverance and victimhood, opens any interrogation to a host of charges, along with observations that can tread easily into the realm of conspiracy theory. The deftest minds of the ages have fallen prey, and the current state of affairs hardly makes it any easier. Thus, the host of “whys,” such as: Why does the United States give more money to Israel than any other nation, though it is a comparatively wealthy nation state?; Why do we consistently veto any United Nations resolution that is infinitesimally critical of Israeli policy or action?; Why is it that the truism, as stated by Eric Hobsbawm, that “(t)he default position of any state is to pursue its interests,” seems to belie our relationship to this small Near Eastern nation?; fall into a dead zone of inquiry here. 

It would be simple to dismiss these questions, and others, as the stuff of conspiracy theory… as wild-eyed Anti-Semitic claptrap… were it not for the fact that a documentary such as this is virtually impossible to make or distribute in the United States. The findings and opinions contained therein would be rightly condemned as Illuminatiesque soothsaying, were it not for the palpable intimidation and atmosphere of silence cultivated by allies of the Israel lobby, the same kind of silencing that serves as primordial breeding ground for over-reaches and conspiracies. The only cure for hatred and darkness, to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, is love and light.

Just why these tactics are employed, in academia, international affairs, and even domestic issues, isn’t addressed directly by the film, nor is it the subject. In quite objective fashion, The Israel Lobby chooses to poke the elephant by pointing out that these tactics do exist, and that the aforementioned groups are subject to the sort of chilling effect that they portend.
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Jun
02
    

A Reaction, by Bryan Newbury
June 2, 2008

http://www.theonion.com/content/video/diebold_accidentally_leaks

You might have seen a satirical Onion video this February about Diebold accidentally leaking the 2008 general election results. You might have laughed. You might have stopped to consider the likelihood of this fake news piece being, in many ways, more efficacious than hours of election coverage on mainstream networks. The laughter might have subsided when the realization hit.

For those of you who did indeed experience that, Uncounted will serve as a thought-provoking sermon to a convert. For those of you that might have, but haven’t seen it as yet, click the link. We’ll wait.

All right. Now, for everyone left outside of groups A and B (which one can only suppose fall into the ostrich camp, the third congressional district of Oklahoma, or the mainstream media), the film should serve as a wake-up call. It’s tough out there, but you’ve been hitting the snooze button for about a decade. While you were sleeping, we might have lost our democracy.

Uncounted, much like Hacking Democracy, is information dense and utterly shocking, if a bit uneven in strictly aesthetic terms. In the course of a short 81 minutes, David Earnhardt addresses the principle issues driving successful election fraud. We start, naturally, in Ohio, circa 2004. One can almost feel the tingling, as the ghosts of strongmen and box stuffers throughout the ages, from Chicago to New Orleans and beyond, simultaneously quiver with admiration and kick themselves with envy while witnessing the myriad of methods used to attain scandalous levels of voter disenfranchisement. Uncounted illustrates the oppressively long lines, the purging of voter rolls, the undervotes (more on this to follow), and, of course, the voting machines. This reviewer can relate on the latter only through the words of the eternal Viv Savage: “Quite exciting, this computer magic.”
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May
21
    

By Phillip A. Pell
May 21, 2008

It’s fashionable to add “the Musical” to the end of things these days.
From “Cannibal: the Musical” to “My Hammer, My Friend: the Musical” the
tag line is intended to convey a snide, ironic sneer about the subject
matter; a blase disregard for what otherwise could be considered a
subject ill-suited to the frivolous treatment musical theater normally
conveys.  From the title alone it would be very easy to write off
“Autism: the Musical” as just another offensive example in this same,
tired vein.  This hasty rush to judgment could not be farther from the
truth.

The film starts out with a set of statistics from the Centers for
Disease Control.  In 1980 fewer than 1 in 10,000 children was diagnosed
with autism.  Now it’s 1 in 150.  The filmmakers apparently want to lead
the viewer to the conclusion that autism is on the rise at more than
epidemic proportions however it is just as easy to draw the conclusion
that we’re getting better at understanding who is autistic and
diagnosing disorders farther up the autism spectrum.  Watching the film
you’ll probably recognize the mannerisms of “that weird kid” you avoided
or bullied in grade school.  You just wrote him off as a spaz or a nerd.
You probably gave him a wedgie or kicked him down the stairs.  From the
first frames of this film it’s hard to avoid the realization that this
is a film less about a bunch of autistic kids making a musical than it
is a less-than-subtle indictment of society, schools, medical
institutions, parents and you personally.  The autistic kids are a red
herring; an obvious attention-grabber that sets you up for the kick to
the gut realizations that come later.
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Apr
28
    

By  Bryan Newbury
April 28, 2008

A person’s views on the death penalty don’t just change. They evolve. When someone takes the time to investigate the process and the punishment, the only intelligent conclusion he can arrive at is that capital punishment is a barbaric miscarriage of justice. This seems to be the case At the Death House Door puts forward, and it would be difficult to argue to the contrary.

Most who maintain a fervently anti-death penalty stance have a Road to Damascus moment in which the act of a state killing in order to discourage killing unravels before them. For some, it was the case of Roger Keith Coleman of Grundy, Virginia. In 1992, Coleman became a cause célébre. All the pieces seemed to fall into place. Here was a coal miner who seemed to have had to complete a decathlonesque performance en route to the rape and murder of his sister-in-law. Key evidence seemed to point to at least a shadow of a doubt. Governor Wilder was up for reelection, and seemed to be hearing none of the case.

The same year saw the execution of Ricky Ray Rector. Though the evidence of his guilt wasn’t in question, the issue of trying, convicting and executing a man who was essentially retarded shone a light on the craven political advantage in vengeance and blood lust. Governor Bill Clinton took the time to return to Arkansas, mid-campaign, in order to make sure the execution transpired. 
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Apr
22
    

By Umut Newbury
April 22, 2008

On the 38th anniversary of Earth Day, an entire generation of Americans born after the introduction of this much-mocked and undervalued holiday/celebration/day of pondering can now be affectionately referred to as the “Children of the Corn.”

Anyone who pays the slightest attention to the ingredient lists of most of the food items sold at the conventional grocery stores across this country would know this, except the American consumer seems to do very little research while buying things that go directly into her body. This is why we need more investigative reporting and more documentary films on the subject of food. This is why King Corn, directed by Aaron Woolf, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, is important viewing for the average American consumer.

In King Corn, Woolf, Cheney (we hope of no relation the Cheneys of Wyoming) and Ellis spell out in very basic terms, what has gone so wrong with American agriculture and its direct product, American food. They present their hardest evidence first: Ellis and Cheney have their strands of hair analyzed at the University of Virginia. The result: the carbon in their bodies originated from corn. The two Ivy League grads seem shocked and appalled. They run to the grocery store and start reading labels of their favorite food products such as Twinkies and apple juice. They find out the obvious — most packaged foods in America contain some derivative of corn, whether it comes in the form of corn oil, the infamous and ubiquitous high fructose corn syrup or the mysterious xanthan gum. 

Instead of doing the East Coast elitist exposé composed of interviews with nutritional and agricultural talking heads (which does happen in small bits in the latter half of the 90 minutes), the directors take a softer, more personal approach to the controversial subject.

Ellis and Cheney, best friends from Yale, decide to move to Iowa for a year and grow corn to find out what happens with it. It’s not quite as extreme as the personal sacrifice of Morgan Spurlock with Supersize Me! or as abrasive (yet entertaining) as Michael Moore with his ambush interviews, but it’s an effort at least appreciated by the rural farm folk of Iowa (at first.)
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