Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Boys of Baraka

Release Date: 2005
Production Company: Loki Films
Directors: Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady 
Run time: 84 minutes
Seen on: Netflix DVD

This 2005 documentary is by the directors of Detropia.  Before I get into the review, I sat right next to one of the directors, Rachel Grady and one of the boys from this documentary, as I sat outside eating my PB&J in between the screenings at Maryland Film Festival this May.  I realized it later as she was introducing the film with MFF Director Jed Dietz.  It was random, and now another reason why I think film festivals are great.

I was drawn to this documentary first because I had enjoyed Detropia.  Secondly, the documentary focuses on young African-American boys in Baltimore.  I watched this documentary a few days after The Interrupters.  Both films deal with communities struggling with violence, drug abuse, and the future of its young people. 

The Boys of Baraka poses the question: Can 10,000 miles make a difference?  When the documentary was made, 76% of African-American boys did not graduate high school.  The Baraka School strove to change that.  Each year, the Baraka Boarding School in Kenya, East Africa, selected 20 at-risk boys from Baltimore to spend 2 years in Kenya. 

The film focuses on 4 boys, Richard and his younger brother Romesh, Devon, and Montrey.  You meet each boy in his home and understand where he is coming from.  When the boys leave home, you see the struggle of 12 and 13 year old boys moving away from home.  The scene at the airport is moving: families crying, but mothers reminding them why they are going, why they are doing this.

The documentary shows how the boys begin to change, working together, convincing one another not to fight, and growing academically.  There is some humor in it as well.  Boys from the inner city getting used to rural Kenya, without power 24 hours a day. "There is something better than a cat, a hedgehog.  See?"

Bonus materials include an interview with Bill Cosby: "Your white critics, your black critics.  "Well why are these white people there?'  Well then goddamnit, put the black bodies on them.  Cause if no black bodies show up, don't bitch to me about white people doing a marvelous job."

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Interrupters

Release Date: 2011
Production Company: Kartemquin Films/Rise Films
Directors: Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz
Run time: 125 minutes
Seen on: Netflix DVD, on PBS
Update 5/20/13, Available Free Online at PBS

Even before I watched, The Interrupters , I was impressed by its pedigree.  It is directed by Steve James who is also responsible for the acclaimed Hoop Dreams.  That is on my must watch list.  Kartemquin Films is also responsible for Refrigerator Mothers, a film I watched in February and was also impressed with.

This film follows the Cease Fire program in the neighborhood of Englewood in Chicago's South Side.  "Violence is like a disease, it spreads from one person to another.  To cure it you must interrupt it."  The film follows The Interrupters through a year in Chicago and focuses mostly on Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams, and Eddie Bocanegra: former gang members who now work with the program. 

The goal of The Interrupters is to "interrupt" the cycle of violence.  The idea behind it seems fairly straight forward.  If violence leads to violence leads to more violence, the only way to stop it is to convince someone not to retaliate.  But how does one step into a conflict and break the cycle?  This film follows them into the fray, directly into conflicts, fights, and community action.  You see Ameena speaking to the youth at a funeral.  You see Cobe trying to convince a friend to follow the right path.  You see Eddie teaching art to kids.

The film follows them through a full year and begins in the summer.  One of the first shots brought me right to Baltimore.  Someone on the corner selling "Ice Cold Water, One Dollar."  The chant and the cadence was the same in Chicago that it is in Baltimore.  While I do not have first hand experience with the violence in Baltimore, it appears that Chicago may have some of the same problems with poverty and violence among young people.

This is a film that I was not able to look away from.  I had this on my list for a few weeks, but it took me awhile to get up the courage to watch it.  This is not easy to watch but I highly recommend it.  The Interrupters is a captivating and potent view of a community in crisis.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Get Bruce!

Release Date: 1999
Production Company: AJK Productions
Distribution Company: Miramax Films
Director: Andrew J. Kuehn
Run time: 84 minutes
Available on Netflix streaming

Get Bruce! is an entertaining look at the inside the creative process of a writer and actors.  Bruce Vilanch is an American comedy writer whose credits include writing for the Oscars, Emmys, Grammys, and Tonys.

The film includes interviews with legends such as: Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, Bette Midler, and Robin Williams.  It is impressive to see how Vilanch can work with these hugely varying characters and create things that work for them.  He works with both comedians, who are used to speaking to a crowd, and actors, who are not used to public speaking as themselves.  Actresses such as Lauren Bacall or Raquel Welch used Vilanch to assist them when presenting for awards shows or fundraisers.

Overall, I would recommend this film as a clever and enjoyable look at a man behind Hollywood's known faces.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Thin Blue Line

Release Date: 1988
Distribution Company: Miramax Films
Director: Errol Morris
Run time: 96 minutes
Seen on: FLIXe, Channel 170, also available on Netflix streaming

I have had The Thin Blue Line on my DVR since January and finally got around to watching it last week.  This film by Errol Morris recounts the murder of a Dallas police officer in November 1976.  The film combines reenactments with interviews.  The same scenes are reenacted several times during the documentary.  They are showed from different perspectives and with different information from witnesses.  This technique helped to illustrate the differing viewpoints and clashing information.

They do not list the interviewees by names during the film.  I found this to be an interesting and effective technique because it made you pay attention to what the person was saying, not who they are and how they fit into the puzzle.  It definitely made me focus more on the film.

It was somewhat disturbing hearing how it appeared that the cops and DA railroaded a conviction.  The film showed both sides of the story, but you could see what the cops and DA were wrong.  Some witnesses appeared unreliable, with suspicious motives or memory problems.

This is another case of how a documentary can create new interest in a case and effect the individuals involved.   I won't ruin it for you, but you can Google it if you are interested.

It had a great use of music.  The cuts between scenes are silent, almost like the film ends each time.  I had enjoyed Morris' techniques in the film Tabloid  and I am looking forward to watching Fog of War.  It has also been sitting on my DVR, so hopefully look for it soon.


Thursday, July 26, 2012

These Amazing Shadows: The Movies that Make America

Release Date: 2011
Production Company: Gravitas LLC
Directors: Paul Mariano and Kurt Morton
Run time: PBS Version 57 minutes, Full Version, 88 minutes
Seen on: PBS Independent Lens, Available on Netflix streaming

This documentary focuses on the National Film Registry, the United States Film Preservation Board's selection of films for preservation for the Library of Congress.  Each year, 25 films are selected for preservation which are "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."  The films selected must be at least 10 years old and range from blockbusters to technological advances.

I was impressed by These Amazing Shadows.  As a preservationist, I felt compelled to watch it to see what has been saved for the future.  It reminded me of great films (Toy Story and Blazing Saddles) and compelled me to watch more (Blade Runner).  When researching details from this post, I stumbled across a blogger who is watching all 575 films in the National Film Registry.  I haven't had a chance to read many of her posts yet, but it looks like she has reviewed over 100 of them so far.

These Amazing Shadows reminds us what is great about films and why they are just as important to our heritage as painting, sculpture, or architecture.  Films are indeed a capsule of the time.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Art of the Steal

Release Date: 2009
Production Company: 9.14 Pictures
Director: Don Argott
Run time: 101 minutes
Seen on: Netflix Instant, Sundance Channel
Recommended: Highly
Next Air Date: Wednesday, 7/18 9:00-10:45AM, 4:15-6:00PM on Sundance Channel, Baltimore Comcast Channel 165

The Art of the Steal tells the tale of the Barnes Foundation in Merion, PA.  Located less then 5 miles from downtown Philadelphia, the Barnes held one of the best collections of Impressionist and Modern masters in the world.  Barnes Foundation was founded in 1922 as an educational institution. 

The purpose of the art was to teach students, not pander to the cultural elite.  His collection was exhibited to the public in 1923 and denounced as "primitive."  Paintings were hung for its aesthetic value alongside furniture and art from around the world.  Dr. Albert Barnes shunned the "elite" of Philadelphia and what they stood for.  "Philadelphia is a depressing intellectual slum."  "The Philadelphia Museum of Art is a house of artistic and intellectual prostitution."  Dr. Barnes was determined to keep his art out of the hands of the downtown interests.

Dr. Barnes' will was written to ensure the preservation of the school in perpetuity.  The commerical value would be removed if they were never sold or lent.  After Barnes' death in 1951, the Foundation was kept intact.  The Foundation and will was not weakened until 1988, upon the death of Violette DeMazia, Barnes' "Last Living Apostle."

The Art of the Steal chronicles the struggle of educators and polticians to "control" the Barnes Collection.  The argument was made that the original structure in Merion, PA was unfit for the collection.  To preserve it, one must move it to a proper location, perhaps in downtown Philadelphia as part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  It makes you realize that the fantastic, earth-shatteringly important collection was used as a pawn of politicians and charitable trusts. 

This film not only sheds light on an important and outrageous cultural struggle, but also presents it in a compelling way.  The news clips are shown on an old tv.  Newspaper clippings and photos are presented on a cork board, much like a detective would show his suspects.  The use of music is compelling and heightens the drama.  But above all, there are compelling stories from past students and educators which draw you into the film.  Once you realize what the Barnes stood for, you are that much more outraged at what they tried, and unfortuantely ultimately succeeded in doing.  The Barnes on the parkway opened in Philadephia in May 2012.  Tickets are sold online for this collection.  Tickets and online museum store are sold in direct contradiction to a man's wishes and will.  I urge you to watch this before your next trip to Philadelphia.

"It is the greatest act of cultural vandalism since WWII."

"This is the scandal of the art world in modern America."

"The name of the game is, if you're going to leave your paintings somewhere, don't let there be a politican within 500 yards."

"It's fair to say that there was a vast conspiracy to move the Barnes."

"One man's conspiracy is another man's political consensus."

"It's about whoever controls $25 Billion worth of art and everything else is bullshit."

Monday, July 16, 2012

Left by the Ship

Release Date: 2012
Production Company: VISITOR Q sri
Director: Emma Rossi Landi and Alberto Vendemmiati
Run time: Full length 81 minutes, PBS length 57 minutes
Seen on: PBS Independent Lens

Subic Bay in the Phillipines  was a major ship-repair, supply, and rest and recreation facility of the United States Navy.  When it was closed in 1992, it was the largest overseas military installation of the U.S. Armed Forces.

Left by the Ship tells the story of three young Amerasians, Charlene Elizabeth Rose, JR Nielson Dyas, and Robert Ianne Gonzaga.  These young people are in a strange position, caught between two societies.  The Amerasian Homecoming Act  "provides for the immigration to the United States of certain Amerasian children. In order to qualify for benefits under this law, an alien must have been born in Cambodia, Korea, Laos, Thailand, or Vietnam after December 31, 1950, and before October 22, 1982, and have been fathered by a U.S. citizen."  The Phillipines are not included in the act, despite the estimate of 52,000 Amerasians fathered by U.S. military service members.

Robert was a journalist and acts as the narrator of the film.  It is powerful to have the narrator as someone looking from within, not an outsider.  After having children, Robert found it important to learn about his background and help others find theirs. "And the thread of my life joined theirs."  He worked with JR, gang member who always found struggles despite his loving mother.  Together they found and contacted JR's father, a former Blood gang member is California.

The background of Amerasians is evident on their faces, especially those who are half African-American.  They are often stigmatized and bullied by their peers.  The story of Charlene Elizabeth was quite interesting.  She was in college and gained entrance into a beauty pageant.  Despite the economic hardships the competition placed on her and her mother, she competed.  It seemed significant to her to be included in a beauty pageant as a half-Filipino and half African-American.  She got choked up when introducing herself in the competition.

Overall, the film is a compelling story of three young people.  They are "not so different from other Filipinos in the way we lead out lives, the way we speak, the way we dress.  But inside us is a secret burden, a weight we all share."

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The City Dark

Release Date: 2011
Production Company: Wicked Delicate 
Director: Ian Cheney
Run time: Full Length is 84 minutes.  PBS version is 57 minutes.
Seen on: PBS's POV
Recommended: Yes, poses interesting questions
Watch NOW:, available until August 5, 2012

This documenary poses the question: "What do we lose when we lose the night?"

Director Ian Cheney compares the skies visible around the world.  He was raised in Maine, with amazing skies visible due to the lack of ambient light or light pollution.  After moving to New York City, he noted far fewer stars in the night sky.  The massive lights NYC is known to prevent one from seeing most stars.  He then wondered what the effects were of losing the connection to the night sky.

The film casts a broad net of what the night sky means for personal ego, health, endangered species, and mankind as a whole.  The film is broken into six parts, with each section posing questions to the next.  Because I watched the shorter PBS version, the film touches on each subject just enough to tantalize you and want you to learn more. 

I. The City Bright
II.  Islands of Dark
III. Nature and the Night
IV.  Night Shifts
V. Why We Light
VI.  Astrophilia

Neil deGrasse Tyson, the Bronx-born astrophysicist, ends the documentary: “When you look at the night sky, you realize how small we are within the cosmos. It’s kind of a resetting of your ego. To deny yourself of that state of mind, either willingly or unwittingly, is to not live to the full extent of what it is to be human.”

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Times of Harvey Milk

Release Date: 1984
Production Company: Black Sands Productions
Director: Rob Epstein and Richard Schmiechen
Run time: 90 minutes
Seen on: FLIXe Channel
Recommended: Yes, interesting and powerful
Watch NOW:

The Times of Harvey Milk is a documentary about the political life and assassination of the California's first openly gay elected official.  He won a seat on the San Franscisco Board of Supervisors in 1977.  This story was also the basis for the 2008 film, Milk, starring Sean Penn as the titular character.

The doc was released in 1984, only 6 years after the assassinations.  The film begins with news footage announcing the assassination of Harvey Milk and mayor George Moscone by councilman Dan White.  While some documentaries might leave this information until later in the film, this event was such a significant cultural event. 

The film combines interviews with friends and colleagues, photographs, and news footage.  The film is also tied together by the narration of Harvey Fierstein.  Some of the most interesting interviews are with union supporters.  The gentleman interviewed didn't think he would like Milk.  But Milk stood not only for gay rights, but for the rights of all minorities: Chinese, senior citizens, and working class unions.

The most powerful image of the documentary was of a candlelight walk after the assassinations.  There were candles in the dark across a wide avenue as far as you could see.  "It was one of the most eloquent expressions of a community's response to violence I've ever seen."

"Without hope, the us's give up.  I know that you cannot live on hope alone, but without it life is not worth living.  And you, and you, and you, you've gotta give 'em hope."

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Love Free or Die

Release Date: 2011
Production Company: Reveal Productions
Director: Macky Alston
Run time: 82 minutes
Seen on: Maryland Film Festival, MICA Brown Center, Sunday, May 6, 4:30PM
Hosted by: Macky Alston and Bishop Gene Robinson
Confirmed Showing: PBS Independent Lens
Recommended: Yes
Awards: Sundance U.S. Documentary Special Jury Prize for an Agent of Change

Love Free or Die was screened this past Sunday at MICA's Brown Center.  I was surprised that the audience was not bigger because the film was hosted by both the director, Macky Alston, and the subject, Bishop Gene Robinson.  I suppose the fact that it was a Sunday afternoon made for a smaller audience. 

The film captures the experiences of Bishop Gene Robinson, an Episcopalian Bishop in New Hampshire and also "the first openly gay partnered bishop to be consecrated a bishop in the three largest high church traditions of Christendom."  Bishop Robinson's consecration started a schism within the greater Anglican Church which has an estimated 80 million members worldwide.  The documentary was filmed in 2008 and catches this political and theological issue mid-stride.

In July 2008, Anglican bishops from across the globe gathered in England for the Lambeth Conference.  Rev. Robinson was not invited and banned from preaching in England.  Fortunately, a London priest, Giles, invites him to preach at his congregation.  "I am a straigforward parish priest who believes in this stuff and has the balls to say it."  He is interrupted early at the beginning of the service.  A man near the front of the crowd stands up and starts shouting at him.  The scene is shot from the balcony and you are unable to make out his words.  He is ushered from the church by several church members.  Rev. Robinson is visibly shaken, "Pray for that man.  Fear is a terrible thing.  And the opposite of love is not hate, it is fear."  Rev. Robinson is choked up, "Sometimes when evil comes your way, the only thing to do is to have it stop right there and absorb it."

The film interviews church members on both sides of the issue.  These bishops read the same sources, but come to different conclusions.  Despite their differences, the church members are cordial and positive to one another.  They all have deeply held beliefs and communicate them with respect and decorum.  Even so, the actions can be hurtful.  Rev. Robinson hears that the Lambeth Conference has his picture up in the security office.  "I am not going to storm the cathedral.  It's another one of those small hurtful things."

The film also shows Rev. Robinson's private life.  He met his partner, Mark Andrew in 1987.  Robinson was previously married, and amicably divorced after coming out.  His two daughters Ella and Jamee are interviewed at Gene and Mark's civil union.  We are also introduced to his parents, Charles and Imogene.  They describe how their relationships with some friends lessened and changed after Mark came out.
"It's going to take a lot of religious voices to fight those religious sources."

In July 2009, the Episcopal General Convention met in Anaheim, CA.  The Bishop of Pittsburgh, Rev. Bob Warren leads a breakaway faction with Rev. Rick Warren.  At the Convention, two issues are up for a vote: Allowing the consecration of openly gay bishops and Blessing same-sex marriages in states where it is legal.  "It feels like a make or break situation for me." 

At the convention, the resolutions are discussed and debated.  Here you can see the true struggle of faith.  A bishop from Indiana says that he prays for God to guide him and take the "scales off his eyes" in the future.  "I don't have clarity."  The documentary is fascinating because it shows the struggle of the faithful without shouting and finger pointing.

This film is a moving, thoughtful, and funny portrait of a man and a community in turmoil.  Rev. Robinson is a warm and caring individual who puts a human face on an epic debate.  He is comfortable with himself which allows others to relax "into the comfort and normalcy of it all." 

"It's just an accident of history that it turned out to be me."

After the screening, there was a question and answer session with the director, Macky Alston and Bishop Gene Robinson.  It was surreal to watch a documentary for an hour and a half and then suddenly the subject is right there in front of you.  Rev. Robinson waved off his standing ovation saying, "I think the hero of this movie is the church."  It was able to change after 2000 years. 

The questions were mostly directed towards Rev. Robinson.  He was asked questions about the future of the LGBT community in other churches.  While he couldn't speak for other faiths, he was able to see what was happening and counsel others in how to make changes in their own churches.  He also spoke about the importance of intersectionality in fighting discrimination.  Oppressed groups working together are far more powerful than the oppressors.  He stressed the importance of bringing all groups together.

The film has screening times available on its website.   The director is also making it possible to set up your own screening in your community center, church, or even your own living room.  They want to make sure that the film is seen.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012


Release Date: 2012
Production Company: Loki Films
Directors: Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady
Run time: 90 minutes
Seen at: Maryland Film Festival, MICA Brown Center Saturday, May 5 1:30PM
Confirmed Showing: Independent Lens on PBS May 27th
Hosted by: Rachel Grady
Recommended: Yes
Award: Sundance U.S. Documentary Editing Award
NEW: Now available streaming on Netflix and DVD.

I screened Detropia immediately after seeing Ethel on Saturday afternoon.  Before I get into the review, I sat right next to one of the directors, Rachel Grady, as I sat outside eating my PB&J in between the screenings.  I realized it later as she was introducing the film with MFF Director Jed Dietz.  It was random, and now another reason why I think film festivals are great.

Detropia focuses on the plight of Detroit, Michigan.  Once the fastest growing city in America, it is now the fastest shrinking city in America.  Detroit is 139 miles, the size of San Francisco, Boston, and New York combined.  40 miles of Detroit are vacant.  This documentary highlights the plight of the city and its citizens, but does not provide a neat answer.  One cannot get a neat, concise answer to a problem as big as the one Detroit is facing.

The documentary follows individuals and sees Detroit through their eyes.  Crystal Starr, a Detroit blogger, takes us into the ruins of Detroit.  Detroit from her perspective seems like the ruins of a once great society like Athens or Rome.  The difference is that this society is still living and we gain a sense of the people.  Massive train stations, apartments, and office buildings are left to beautifully decay. 

There are over 100,000 abandoned homes and lots in Detroit.  Some are left.  Some are torn down by city contracts.  Some are burned by arsonists.  Some are torn down and the scrap steel is sold for 11 cents a pound.  (Scrap metal is the United States largest export to China.)

George Mc Gregor, president of United Auto Workers Local 22, gives us an insight into the crumbling auto industry in Detroit.  He drives us all over the city, showing us what once was.  "When the plant left, the neighborhood left."  In 10 years, Detroit lost 50% of its manufacturing jobs.  In 10 years, the US lost 50,000 factories and 6,000,000 people lost their jobs.

Tommy Stephens, owner of the Ravens Lounge, shows us how the loss of the factories affected the neighborhoods as well.  There is a great exchange near the end of the film between him and a female companion.  They consider the future of America competing with countries like China.  She asks "should we lower our standard of living?"  He responds, "I think we're going to have to."  "They're not going to like that."

Detroit's mayor, Dave Bing, was shown in a meeting with urban planners.  This meeting was the first and only one they allowed the production to film.  The urban planners tried to create a land use policy in which they can find sizeable neighborhoods to invest in.  This would mean consolidating the population in order to provide better city services such as emergency vehicles and bussing.  When the plan to consolidate the city is revealed, the citizens of Detroit are outraged.  They consider downsizing a form of segregation that would  have "Gardens every motherf**king-where."  Others are willing to have half a city if they could have it the way they used to.  The debate rages on.

But there is some growth in Detroit.  In 2010, the census reveals that the population has dropped to 713,000, the lowest in 100 years.  But there is a 59% increase in young residents.  Young people are choosing to move to Detroit for opportunities they could not have elsewhere.  We meet 2 street artists who considered Baltimore and New York before moving.  In Detroit, they can buy their own loft for $25,000 and still afford their art studio.  They enjoy the beauty in the desolation of Detroit.  "We can fail, because if we do, we haven't really fallen anywhere."

In all, Detropia is a beautfully shot picture of an American city in turmoil.  We are left with more questions than answers.  We must consider the future of all our cities. How can they survive?  In the words of Tommy Stephens, "This is coming to you.  That's just my opinion."

Monday, May 7, 2012


Release Date: 2012
Production Company: Moxie Firecracker Films
Director: Rory Kennedy
Run time: 97 minutes
Seen at: Maryland Film Festival, screened at MICA Brown Center, May 5 11am
Recommended: Yes
Hosted by: Meaghan Kennedy Townsend (Oldest granddaughter of Ethel Kennedy)

I screened this film at Maryland Film Festival this past weekend.  I have never attended a film festival before, but I now understand them.  It was great to see the community of people attending new films.  I also have not seen a documentary with such a large audience before.  I volunteered at the festival, and received free screening passes.  It was a great trade-off, and I saw 5 films for free.

Ethel was also produced by HBO Documentary Films. HBO is now screening their documentaries at festivals before they release them.  Because it was an HBO production, it had great production value. 

Rory Kennedy is the eleventh and youngest child of Robert and Ethel Kennedy.  She was born 6 months after her father's death, so she was raised by her mother.  The close relationship between the director and her subject allowed for an exceptional film.  The film uses home movies and recordings not previously released to show "behind the scenes of history." There are also interviews with Ethel and her children recalling their lives.  This proves to be very funny and engaging.  The director has to prop up her siblings and make sure that they are comfortable and ready.  Meanwhile, Ethel did not think the film was a good idea.  Who would care about it?

The film tells the story of Ethel's life, beginninng with how Ethel and Robert Kennedy met.  Ethel was college roommates with Jean Kennedy, sister of Robert and John.  They planned a ski trip to Mont Tremblant in Quebec, Canada.  The documentary is entertaining and touching.  It tells the humorous stories, such as the kids tearing through the White House or watching the sharpshooters in the FBI basement.  (Apparently J. Edgar Hoover was not a fan of kids.)  It also tells the difficult stories, such as Ethel losing both parents in a plane crash when she was only 27.  We learn the difficulties Robert faced after the death of his brother.  Ethel is does not articulate her feelings on Robert's death.   However, her reaction speaks volumes.  Ethel has never remarried.

Ethel's oldest granddaughter, Meghan Kennedy Townsend hosted the question and answer session after the film.  She felt that this was an accurate portrayal of her grandmother.  When asked how Ethel felt about the documentary, she was instructed to "tell them how great Rory did."  This statement reflects the character of Ethel Kennedy revealed in the documentary.  She raised 11 children, instilling a sense of reverence of history and knowledge of the greater world around them.  Many of her children have gone into public service or work in some form of social justice.  Yet, Ethel is unwilling to take the credit for her children.  She puts the reasoning on inheriting the traits from her husband.  Rory reminded her mother that he has been gone for 40 year and that Ethel raised them.  Ethel still does not take the credit for her remarkable work.  She believes that the film is about her family, but not about herself.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Burning the Future: Coal in America

Release Date: 2008
Director: David Novack
Run time: 56 minutes for PBS version (89 minutes full length)
Seen on: PBS, see website for Airdates in your area, Available on Netflix DVD
Recommended: YES.  And then turn off some lights.
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 88%

The first thing I did when watching this documentary was turn off an extra light.  Look around you.  Do you have too many lights on in your house?  If so, please stop and turn some of them off.  SERIOUSLY, get UP and turn off a light.  I'll wait.




OK, done?  Thanks.  And I am sure the people of West Virginia thank you too.  Burning the Future aired last week on PBS in its shortened format.  This doc takes a look at coal mining in West Virginia.  Deep mining of coal has gone on in the Appalachians for generations.  Coal has fueled our country.  However, deep mining takes time.  They have now frequently changed to the practice of mountaintop removal or strip mining.  Strip mining removes the rock at the top of mountains to expose the coal seams near the surface.  This practice obliterates the environment.  It moves entire mountains, takes out the useful coal, and fills in valleys.

This documentary does not have much animation, graphics, or even elaborate text.  After watching numerous documentaries over the past few months, I sometimes find my attention waning if there is not a great production value.  Although this doc did not have elaborate production, it drew me in.  I was drawn in by the stories of people whose families have lived there for generations upon generations.  They love their homes and want to stay there.  But they are being poisioned by the water coming out of their pipes and the air that they breathe. 

Neighbors are pitted against neighbors.  There are people employed by the coal companies who oppose the stopping the mining.  But their neighbors are sick and dying.  The water coming out of their pipes is contaminated with sludge and runoff.  They have to buy their own water or are forced to know they are getting sick from it.  West Virginia has some of the greatest natural resources, but also has some of the poorest people in the world.  Let that sink in for a minute.  Not just in the US, but some of the poorest people in the world.

As I have said before, the best documentaries engage you.  They pique your interest and even enrage you.  Although I was not sold on this rough looking documentary to begin with, I am now.  WATCH THIS DOCUMENTARY.  Think about what you use and where it comes from.  There are people sick and dying because of the coal companies.  Coal companies consider it "collateral damage" to provide people with the high standard of living they are accustomted to.  One of the interviewees says it best, that he is not "collateral damage."  He is a human being. 

This documentary forces you to consider the lives of people far from you, but intrinsicially linked to yours.  Coal production in West Virginia powers large parts of the country.  So watch this documentary, think about what you use, and then turn off some lights already.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Reel Injun

Release Date: 2010
Production Company: Rezolution Pictures, National Film Board of Canada
Directors: Neil Diamond, Catherine Bainbridge, and Jeremiah Hayes
Run time: 85 minutes
Seen on: Netflix DVD, available on Watch Instantly
Recommended: Yes, very compelling and interesting
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 85%

The film begins: "In over 4000 films, Hollywood has shaped the image of Native Americans.  Classic westerns like They Died with Their Boots On created stereotypes.  Later blockbusters like Little Big Man, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and Dances with Wolves began to dispel them.  Not until a renaissance in Native cinema did films like Once Were Warriors and Smoke Signals portray Native people as human beings."  This film explores the effect of Hollywood cinema defining the Native American not only for whites, but for Native people as well.

The desire to watch films depicting Native Americans may stem from their tragedy.  "The myth of the fearless stoic warrior lives on."  It is similar to watching Greek or Roman myths.  The narrator, Neil Diamond (no, not that Neil Diamond), drives 4000 miles from Canada through the American West to discover the origins of the stereotypes of the "Indian."  He arrives in the Great Plains and Black Hills, home to Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.  Here, the narrator fulfills a dream.  "I've always wanted to ride a horse on the open plains.  I finally feel like a real Indian."  The irony is not lost on the viewer.  We later learn that Plains Indians were the stereotyped "Indian" with the large headdress and the excellent horsemanship.

With the Battle of Little Big Horn, Hollywood turned the battle into a legend and Crazy Horse into an icon.  He is a mystical warrior to Native Americans as well as in movies.  "He is an embodiment of the human spirit." (John Trudell.)

Birth of the Hollywood Injun
The Native American is portrayed as spiritual, noble, and free.  The first films created by Thomas Edison in the 1800s through his kinetescope captured the world's imagination.  "These people are mythological.  They don't even really exist.  They're like dinosaurs." Jim Jarmusch, Filmmaker.  "The reason Indians were projected so heavily into movies was the romance of the tragedy, Greek/Roman tragedy."  (Chris Eyre, Cheyenne/Arapaho Filmmaker)

This documentary moves nicely between the journey of the narrator through the American West, interviews with Native filmmakers and critics, and clip of the important films.  The narrator comes to Crow Agency, Montanta.  It was here that the myth of the Native as a born horseman may have begun.  It is like they were born on a horse.  Rod Rondeaux is a Crow Stuntman who also teaches his craft of horsemanship.  He believes the horses can save them as they saved him.  In an ironic twist, Rondeaux can also ride in a low-rider and or put on a turban to be your "worst enemy."  Now Hollywood does not have whites playing Indian, but Native Americans playing Hispanic or Arab.

The Noble Injun
In the silent era, Indians were a Hollywood star.  People went to the movies every week.  There were Native Americans directing and acting in the films.  The population was dipping, so films were see as a chance to capture Indians before they vanished.  The Silent Enemy was one of the most authentic films of its time.  The enemy was starvation and their battle to survive.  The star, Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance was a darling of Hollywood before his tragic end.

The Savage Injun
During the Great Depression, Indians were transformed into the brutal savage.  This was damaging to Native people.  It gave the opinion of Native people for decades, not only for the country as a whole, but for Native people as well.  Native men were viewed as a characterture.  Movie stars such as Burt Reynolds, Anthony Quinn, and  Charles Bronson "played Indian."  Hollywood robbed Nations of their individualism.  They were no longer regional, but all became Plains Indians, with headdresses, buckskins, and the thoroughly unauthentic headbands.  Native women were largely absent, aside from the mythic image of Pocahontas.  The Hollywood image of Pocahontas was so removed from the reality of a nine year old girl.  Her character became the embodiment of American society and desire.

The Cowboy
John Wayne's violent actions are excused because they are against Indians.  John Wayne represented the moral center of America.  The actors used in films during this time were often true Native Americans.  They spoke their true language during filming, one that the director did not bother translating.  One actual translation is: " Just like a snake you'll be crawling in your own shit."

A Good a Dead Injun
Even Bugs Bunny killed Indians in his cartoons.  These films shaped peoples opinions.  "I am a human being.  This is the name of my tribe.  This is the name of my people, but I'm a human being.  But the predatory mentality shows up and starts calling us Indians and committing genocides against us as a vehicle of being a human being.  So they use war, textbooks, history book, and when film came along they used film.  You go in our own communities.  How many of us are fighting to protect our identity of being an Indian and 600 years ago that word 'Indian', that sound, was never made, ever.  And we're trying to protect that as an identity.  See, so it effects all of us."  "But we're not Indians and we're not Native Americans, we're older than both concepts."  "We're the people, we're the human beings." (John Trudell)

The Groovy Injun
In the 1960s and 1970s, the Western was out of style.  The Hippies were popular and emulated the American Indian as a free spirit.  It was a fictionalized version of American society.
"Native American people became a great allegorical tool to stand in for virtually any oppressed people.  So you had Native Americans really standing in for the Civil Rights Movement which was going on at the time.  It was a time when Native Americans began to assert themselves more politically and more forcefully."  (Jesse Welte).  Native people began to fight back not only in movies, but in real life as well.  Through the character of Chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, "There was a beginning to see an ownership over these stereotypes." (Jesse Welte)  There was a satire of these stereotypes through Little Big Man.  Natives were fleshed out as characters.  The view was still from the outside, but there was a sensitive and sympathetic approach.
The Renaissance
Native filmmakers are emerging as a cultural and artistic voice.  The stories being told are not necessarily for the Hollywood audience.  They are telling their own stories, from the inside.  They are recording their own stories.  Their is an aboriginal film movement across the world from Australia to South America to Canada.
"We're not asking to be you know nobles, righteous, or good all the time.  We're asking to be human."  Chris Eyres

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


Release Date: 2006
Distribution Company: IFC Films, The Weinstein Company
Director: Patrick Creadon
Run time: 94 minutes
Seen on: IFC Channel 164, previously shown on PBS' Independent Lens, Available on Netflix DVD
Recommended: Yes, interesting use of graphics kept me engaged.  I doubted it at first, but stick with it, and trust me on this.
Rotten Tomato Rating: 95%

I have had "Wordplay" on my DVR since February.  I put off watching it, because honestly, how interesting can a documentary about crossword puzzles actually be?  I was wrong.  I was drawn into the documentary during the title sequence after hearing Cake's "Shadow Stabbing."  The design of the documentary is very appealing.  It had excellent graphics and used overlays to show the clues as the answers filled in on a page.  This technique drew me into the documentary and allowed me to solve the puzzle along with the contestants.  I credit this interesting use of graphics that kept my attention throughout the film.

The first half of the doc introduces us to the big names in the crossword puzzle world: the editor, the creator, and the enthusiasts.  This doc features Will Shortz, Editor of the New York Times Crossword Puzzle.  He was so interested in puzzles that he created his own major at Indiana University, enigmatology.  He was willing to be poor in order to do puzzles.  Shortz reads some amusing hate mail in the doc, revealing the interest and passion of those who regularly do the NYT Crossword.  Shortz also founded the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in 2008.  We are also introduced to puzzle creator Merl Reagle and former Public Editor of the NYT Daniel Okrent.

While the first half of the documentary focuses on the creation of crossword puzzles, the second half focuses on the 2005 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.  We were introduced to five major competitors in the first half of the documentary and now have a more personal connection to these contestants.  The contestants include:
#333 Al Sanders from Fort Collins, CO
#321 Ellen Ripstein from New York, NY
#90 Jon Delfin from New York, NY
#162 Tyler Hinman from New York, NY
#292 Trip Payne from Fort Lauderdale, FL

Because we had been introduced to these contestants in the first half, we are now rooting for them to succeed in the competition.  There are numerous rounds in the competition.  You are competing against yourself as much as you are against the person next to you.  Your score is based on your time and your errors.  So the first one done may have the highest score.  The competition is based on seconds and accuracy.  You struggle with the contestants and groan when you know they have made an error.  Again, the graphics help you to work along with them and keep a running score of who is in first.  By the time you are in the final round with the final three, you are right there with them.  I won't ruin the ending for you, but I was yelling at the film by the ending.  I recommend this documentary.  I doubted it at first, but stick with it, and trust me on this.

Interspersed into the doc are interviews with fans of the NYT Crossword including: Jon Stewart, Ken Burns, Indigo Girls, Mike Mussina (New York Yankees Pitcher), Bob Dole, and Former President Bill Clinton.  The documentary filmmaker Ken Burns describes his interest in crossword puzzles: "Cities are where we leave the imprint of human interaction.  What the city offers, particularly this city, especially this city, is a sense of grids.  You know, it's all about boxes.  You live in a box, and you ride in a box to go to work in a box.  And we have the wonderful newspaper that boxy-shaped that has in it this page which is my favorite page in the whole newspaper and there are a set of boxes in which you kind of practice the wordplay of this particularly exquisite language."

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Refrigerator Mothers

Release Date: 2003
Production Company: Kartemquin Films
Director: David E. Simpson
Run time: 60 minutes
Seen on: Netflix DVD, formerly on PBS's POV
Recommended: Yes

Refrigerator Mothers is a great example of how a short documentary can illuminate a powerful subject.  This documentary sheds light on a generation of mothers in the 1950s and 1960s who had children diagnosed with autism.  The term "Refrigerator Mother" came from the prevailing idea that a cold and distant mother was the psychological cause of their children's autism.  Doctors and "Experts" labeled these mothers as frigid and distant caretakers who were unable to love and care for their children.

The documentary revealed the effect of a difficult diagnosis combined with the dehumanizing aspect of being blamed for their children's disorder.  Several mothers are interviewed in their homes.  The documentary also combines home movies, family photographs, and visits with their children.  Even something as simple as a photo album can be powerful.  One album shows a son sitting on Santa's lap over the course of several years.  You can see his detachment grow with the progression of his autism from about a year old to age 7. 

This doc calls into question the authority of "experts" over the relationship of a mother and child.  Dr. Bruno Bettelheim was a prevailing "expert" on autism in the 1950s and 1960s.  Bettleheim, an Austrian survivor of concentration camps, compared the experience of a child with autism to a the isoloation of person in a concentration camp.  He compared the mothers to Nazi guards, lacking compassion and interest towards their childen.  Unfortunately, Dr. Bettelheim had an international reputation for his work with children.  His views were widely known, and once accepted by the medical community.

This documentary, like the best documentaries, calls into question the accepted norms and requires you to consider your position.

Friday, February 17, 2012

If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front

Release Date: 2011
Distribution Company: Marshall Curry Productions
Directors: Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman
Run time: 85 minutes
Seen on: Netflix DVD and Watch Instantly, Currently available to watch free online at:
Recommendation: Yes, a thought-provoking film
Rotten Tomato Rating: 88%

With the Academy Awards coming up, I decided to try and watch this years nominees for Best documentary.  There are only two available on DVD so far.  "If a Tree Falls" is the second one I watched, after "Hell and Back Again."

This examines the case of Daniel McGowan, a member of the radical environmental group Earth Liberation Front.  Earth Liberation Front, by their own description, use "economic sabotage and guerrilla warfare to stop the exploitation and destruction of the environment".

The documentary follows the split between "traditional" environmentalists and radical environmentalists.  "Traditional" environmentalists sought change through peaceful protests and letter writing campaigns.  Radical environmentalists saw these tactics as ineffectual and sought change through more dramatic means.  Earth Liberation Front, or ELF, grew out of this split.  Their means included tearing up federal logging roads and building barricades.  Or chaining themselves to old growth trees slated to be torn down for a parking garage.  Or sabotaging construction equipment and gas tanks.

The documentary follows the ELF from these dramatic and minimally destructive means to arson.  Arson was seen as a way to immediately and sometimes permanently stop an environmental adversary.  Business targeted included timber companies, slaughterhouses, and ranger stations.  The ELF prepared carefully to ensure that no person was injured during their arson.  The ELF was also careful to not leave any forensic evidence such as fingerprints or DNA.  Although the individuals setting the fires wanted to remain anonymous, the ELF was public. They enacted a Public Relations department to speak with the media on why they were setting the fires.

The media and law enforcement called them "Eco-terrorists."  The documentary poses this interesting question: Do these ELF members who set the arson deserve to be called terrorists?  Their actions of setting multiple fires did cause terror.  Terrorism means "the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes".  The actions of the ELF classify as terrorism.  The stance of law enforcement is, "You don't have to be Bonnie and Clyde to be a bank robber. You don't have to be Al-Qaeda to be a terrorist." 

However, reflect on the modern consideration on the word "Terrorist."  What do you think of?  The members of the ELF did not injure or kill anyone during the arson.  Daniel McGowan, the main focus of this interview, was a native New Yorker.  He was appalled to be considered a terrorist.  His actions had not injured or killed anyone, yet he was facing life plus 335 years in prison.

Even if you have not seen the documentary yet, let me know what you think.  Did the actions of the ELF deserve to be classifed as terrorism?  Use the Comments Section below.

Bonus materials on the DVD include: Commentary, Deleted Scenes, Extended Interviews, Updates on the ELF members, and Q&A with the Directors.

UPDATE:  In honor of the upcoming Oscars, PBS POV is now showing this free on their website:

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Hell and Back Again

Release Date: 2011
Production Company:
Director: Danfung Dennis
Run time: 88 minutes
Seen on: Netflix DVD and Watch Instantly, showing on PBS May 24 10pm
Recommended: Yes, but not an easy viewing
Rotten Tomato Rating: 100%

With the Academy Awards coming up, I decided to try and watch this years nominees for Best documentary.  There are only two available on DVD so far.  "Hell and Back Again" is the first one I watched.

"Hell and Back Again" follows Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines in their deployment in Afghanistan.  The documentary features imbedded footage from Afghanistan and follows the life of Sgt. Nathan Harris after being wounded by machine gun fire in Afghanistan.

I was first impressed with the quality of the footage in Afghanistan.  The picture was extremely clear and stable.  It looked closer to a feature film or digital film rather than a documentary.  I was pleased with the quality of footage taken within the Marines.  After watching the Bonus Material on the DVD, I learned that the director, Danfung Dennis, used a custom Steadicam rig to ensure the smoothness of his footage.  It was also interesting to learn that his camera was one typcially used to shoot digital shorts.

The documentary intercuts Echo Company in Afghanistan with Sgt. Harris' life in North Carolina after his return.  Sgt. Harris was hit by machine gun fire in his right hip and leg.  His ongoing struggle of recovery is difficult to watch.  You see Harris' physical, emotional, and mental struggles upon his return.  He struggles more with navigating a Wal-Mart parking lot than an insurgent zone in Afghanistan.

This documentary tells the necessary story of the transition from a warrior to a Wounded Warrior.  Although it focuses on Sgt. Harris, you also see the struggle of his wife and friends.  This is not an easy or light viewing although I believe it needs to be seen.  While watching, I was reminded of "Restrepo," because it was difficult to watch, but something necessary for all to see.


Thursday, February 2, 2012

Disney Docs: Part 3, The boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story

Release Date: 2009
Production Company: Crescendo/Traveling Light
Directors: Jeffrey C. Sherman and Gregory V. Sherman
Run time: 101 minutes
Seen on: Netflix DVD, Encore Family
Recommended: Yes, you can see the creative process for iconic Disney songs
Rotten Tomato Rating: 89%

"Bob and I are two and a half years and about five eons apart."

"The Boys" tells the story of Richard and Robert Sherman, brothers and co-composers of iconic Disney songs such as "It's a Small World," "Spoonful of Sugar," and "Tiki Room".  The story is told by their sons Jeff and Greg Sherman who met again after 40 years of their fathers' estrangement.

Robert wanted to write the Great American Novel.  Richard wanted to write great symphonic masterpieces.  Fortunately life got in the way.  Their father had been a songwriter in New York for vaudeville stars.  He challenged his sons to create a song kids would send their allowance on.  After becoming songwriters independently, they started to work together despite their personal differences.

You should recognize their second song for Disney, "Let's Get Together" from The Parent Trap.  After the success of the song at Disney, Walt Disney gave the brothers a copy of "Mary Poppins" to see their input.  After hearing their song "Feed the Birds," Walt Disney invited the brothers to work at the studios.  The brother remember this day with tears in their eyes.  "That was the day."

The brothers worked together despite and perhaps because of their differing personalities.  Roy E. Disney says it best, "Bob is a little more 'Feed The Birds' I think, and Dick is a little more 'Supercalifragalistic.'"  Bob was thorough and Dick would have to for you in ten minutes.  Their method of creativity was conflict.

This doc was effective due to the close relationship between the directors and their subject.  They were able to reminisce with their fathers about their lives growing up.  The fathers were simply telling them stories, not necessarily being interviewed.  It broke your heart to see the wonderful music they created together professionally meshed with their personal estrangement.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Man on Wire

Release Date: 2008
Studio: Wall to Wall
Director: James Marsh
Run time: 90 minutes
Seen on: Netflix DVD and Watch Instantly
Recommended:  Yes, it has the pacing of a good heist film.  Won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2008, recommended on CurrentTV's "50 Documentaries to See Before You Die."
Rotten Tomato Rating: 100%
Showing on TV:  Sundance Channel, Wednesday, February 1, 7:25 AM, 12:00PM, 4:40 PM

"Man on Wire" documents the obsession of French high-wire artist Philippe Petit.  His obsession was the yet unfinished World Trade Center Towers in New York City. 

The doc is crafted like a heist movie, combining re-enactments, interviews, photographs, and vintage films.  From the beginning, they discuss how they needed to sneak into both towers in order to string the wire and ultimately walk the line.  The "heist" comparison lends a sense of drama and immediacy to an event over 20 years in the past.  Since the doc combines modern interviews, you know that Petit survived his ordeal.  But one wonders how and why he attempted this feat.

Petit began his interest with WTC after seeing a plan of the towers in a magazine.  He was taken with the visual and wanted to bridge the span.  Petit had already spanned the towers to Notre Dame in Paris, France and Sydney Harbour Bridge in Sydney, Australia.  However, these had much less difficulties than the World Trade Center.  The WTC had the difficulty of being two separate structures, designed to withstand high winds.  The structures moved with the wind and their roofs were susceptible to high winds.

The doc moves you towards the inevitable point of his walk, but it does not rush you there.  It takes a leisurely stroll, stopping to talk to people on the way, watching Petit train, and re-imagining the hiding and risk they took.  Overall, it was an effective documentary despite the fact that there is no film footage of his walk from the rooftops.  The footage from the ground is combined with still shots to place you on the rooftop watching him.

Fun fact:  Ten years ago, I learned that the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City had a high-wire artist as an artist-in-residence.  Petit is that artist.

Monday, January 23, 2012


Release Date: 2006
Distribution Company: Independent Film Channel
Directors: Luke Meyer and Andrew Neel
Run time: 89 minutes
Seen on: Independent Film Channel; Comcast Baltimore 164, showing again on IFC on Tuesday 1/24 at 7:30 am and 1:45 pm, Available on Netflix DVD and Instant
Recommended: Unremarkable structure despite an interesting premise
Rotten Tomato Rating: 88%

"It is a time of unrest in the realm of Darkon as Bannor of Laconia seeks to bring Keldar, leader of the Mordomian Empire, before a War Crimes Tribunal.

Far below the surface of the realm, the dark elves grow eager to profit from the upheaval brought on by the conflict."
So begins "Darkon."

"Darkon" follows LARP-ers in Baltimore, Maryland.  LARP stands for Live-Action Role Playing.  (Think people dressed up, playing at battles with styrofoam swords.)  The location of its subjects first drew me to this documentary.  I was interested to see if I would recognize any of the locations.  (I didn't, most of the locations were generic suburbia, soccer fields, and forests.)

I found the structure of the documentary to be unremarkable.  It combined home intereviews with participants, battle footage from a hand-held camera, discussions between countries, and aerial shots.  Many of the participants interviewed show a great affinity for their life in Darkon versus their everyday life.  They found their everyday lives mundane and were unable to have the same confidence as their created character.

Overall, I found this a missable documentary.  There was a conflict, but I did not care about the outcome.  It gave the backstory of several characters, but I did not root for one to advance.  I was not able to focus on it in one sitting, but rather small sections over the course of two days.  You won't be missing anything by skipping this documentary.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The World According to Sesame Street

Release Date: 2006
Distribution Company: Participant Productions
Director: Linda Hawkins Costigan, Linda Goldstein Knowlton
Run time: 90 minutes
Seen on: Netflix DVD
Recommended:  Yes, it was interesting to see its devlopment in other countries

This is another doc I watched his past fall.  I saw it even before "Being Elmo."  This doc follows the development process by the CTW or Children's Television Workshop to  It follows the development of programs in Bangladesh, Kosovo, and South Africa.  All international programs are a collaboration between the international department at CTW and groups in the host nation.

The program can be simply a repackaging from the vault at Sesame Street that are redubbed.  They decided on this process for the Kosovo program.  They included both Serbian and Bosnian people in the planning process.  The hope was to influence future generations of children to view the other culture as valid and limit any future conflict.  Unfortunately, active fighting broke out during the planning process and documentary.

They may instead choose the creation of new characters and new streets, which was the case in Bagladesh and South Africa.  The development process to create an internationa Seame Street is intensive.  CTW wants to stay true to the message of entertain.ent and education for children.  However, they also want to reflect and speak to the country's culture.

The trick in Bangladesh was to create the "street." Where the goal in the original version was to represent the underrepresented urban environment, it would not work in bangladesh.  Ninety percent of their population is in rural communitites.  Instead "Sisimpur" reflected a rural town square, complete with tea shop, distant river, and banyan tree.

For international productions, the set was created by local craftsmen.  The puppets were created in the US and shipped overseas.  They took local influences and translated them into lovable Sesame Street characters.  They do not copy current characters, but are unquestionably part of the Sesame Street family.  The Bangladesh production includes a tiger.  The South African production includes an HIV positive human girl.

It was extremely interesting to see how Sesame Street is translated into different languages, cultures, and countries.  My favorite part was seeing the impact of Sismipur on the Bagladeshi children.  Highly recommended insight into the creative process.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Cameraman:The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff

Release Date: 2010
Production Company: Modus Operandi
Director: Craig McCall
Run time: 86 minutes
Seen on: Turner Classic Movies Channel 28; showing again Friday 4:15 am
Recommended: Yes, it made me want to watch more classic films
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 96%

This doc describes the career of late British cinematographer Jack Cardiff. He was still working at 91. He said he wouldn't be working for long. "Another ten years and I'll have to take it easy I think."

Jack began as a child actor in silent films. His parents were extras in films. He believed that he attended around 300 schools in his youth, but had an interesting source of inspiration. He was inspired to read, and was mostly self taught.

His interest in art got him chosen as one of the first Englishmen to be taught the new films process of Technicolor. The doc follows the devlopment of his career and British filmmaking as its own art form. It includes interviews with Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston, and Martin Scorcese. It contains just long enough clips to tantalize you to watch more. Most of the films I had never heard of, let alone seen.

Examples of his work include Black Narcisscus, The Red Shoes, and The African Queen. Black Narcissus, amazingly all done inside a studio. He describes using light like a painter, in a simple form. The Red Shoes, a film about ballet which does not film the ballet in full, but rather show what is going on inside the dancer's head. This film technique influenced Scorcese in Raging Bull. He created "paintings that moved." He also worked with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn in The African Queen, shot on location in the Belgian Congo.

"No matter how good a camerman thinks he is, he's got to serve the director."

He went on to direct films in the sixties and seventies. Surprisingly, after he directed about a dozen films he went back to cinematography. He even shot Rambo: First Blood Part II and Conan the Barbarian. His transition into the digital age took a lot of the effects out of his hands. He created some of his first effects by breathing on the lens or painting the lens to create the effect of fog.

Jack Cardiff's career spanned the range of film history, from silent films to sound, and from the advent Technicolor to the digital age. Through this documentary, one can see the influence of art on film. This documentary does what all great documentaries should do: inspire me to learn more. I now want to watch his films to see his use of color and light. I want to see the films that were at the forefront of their field.

It also poses an interesting question, "Is film art, even though it is populist?"

Fun fact: the film clappers used at the beginning of a take were used to synchronize the image and sound.