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.