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28th Annual Human Rights Watch Film Fest: Part 2

Lindy Lou, Juror Number 2

 

The Blood Is At The Doorstep

Erik Ljung’s debut documentary is an extraordinarily detailed examination of a police shooting of an unarmed mentally ill African-American man, and an intimate portrait of the devastating, yet energizing, impact on his family.  
Dontre Hamilton, 31, was shot 14 times in a public park across from Milwaukee City Hall, not far from where Ljung lives, and he was in contact with the family within weeks of the April 2014 deadly confrontation.  Maria Hamilton is the grief-stricken mother, but is furious that since the first day when she told an officer that her son was coping with paranoid schizophrenia the investigation stopped and she could get no answers.  Rather than the usual TV news approach of focusing on her tears and baby pictures, Ljung is with her week after week as she presses the police department, the medical examiner, the district attorney, and the mayor for facts and justice, and rails against the police union.  Her older son Nate is guiltily shaken from his own problems when the police and press mix up his own checkered background with his brother to justify the officer’s shooting.

BloodIsAtDoorstepHamiltonFamily 
When Michael Brown is killed in Ferguson, Missouri a few months later, the Hamiltons are ready to join a solidarity rally and start seeing their tragedy as part of a long-time national problem.  Ljung stayed by them over three years, documenting how they gradually turn into nonviolent activists, and constructively push for changes in police procedures that can be used as a model in other cities.  (He also frequently interviews besieged Police Chief Ed Flynn to get his perspective.)  Maria becomes one of “The Mothers of the Movement” campaigning with Hilary Rodham Clinton, and founding Mothers for Justice [http://www.mothersforjusticeunited.org].

 
The family’s experience directly intersects with simultaneous scenes in Ferguson from Camilla Hall’s Copwatch (that World Premiered at Tribeca Film Festival), Queen Muhammad Ali and Hakeem Khaaliq’s #Bars4Justice screened at MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight, and Sabaah Folayan & Damon Davis’s Whose Streets, that Magnolia will release in theaters August 11.  But even as the Hamiltons articulately take on leadership roles in protests and community training, they amazingly do not get sucked into rhetorical flourishes or physical confrontations celebrated in those films, but stay focused on keeping the peace and what could benefit Dontre’s legacy: the Milwaukee Police Department became one of the first in the U.S. Crisis Intervention Training for all officers.  Nate, Maria, and another brother Dameion Perkins participated with the director in Q & A’s with each Festival screening.

The Festival also included related screenings of Peter NicksThe Force on the beleaguered Oakland Police Department under pressure to reform and perform, the second in his planned trilogy of films exploring public institutions in Oakland: health care (The Waiting Room), criminal justice, and then education.  Kino Lorber will begin its theatrical run on September 15 in New York and the Bay Area, in Los Angeles on September 23, and then around the county.

Lindy Lou, Juror Number 2

Each of the documentaries on law enforcement rages against juries.  One is an in-depth re-consideration of the jury experience, albeit without the racial element.  French documentarian Florent Vassault met Lindy Lou Wells while working on his first documentary in the U.S., Honk (To Stop Executions) (2010).  Lindy Lou served on a Mississippi jury in 1994, went along with the other jurors to find Bobby Wilcher guilty of fatally stabbing two women, voting to sentence him to the death.  She has been haunted ever since.


Twenty years later, Vassault follows the 65-year-old Southern Baptist on a unique, thought-provoking quest through the Deep South landscape to find her eleven fellow jurors and see how they have reconciled with the trial and the sentence.  She is one of the most effective interviewers I’ve ever seen on screen.  Very personable, she disarmingly engages each former juror, who she tracks down one by one, about their memories of the trial and their reflections since.  In comfortable living rooms, on porches, and drinking sweet tea on front lawns in rural and suburban towns, their dialogues with this very open and honest woman run the gamut of opinions and are unpredictably revealing -- from refusal to talk, blanked from memory, to eye-for-an-eye Bible-thumpers with no doubts or regrets.  But she is gratified to find four who share her anguish that there was then no legal option of life without parole.
She also takes the director on a tour of her conscience, from returning to the courtroom and the prison where she became Wilcher’s sole visitor and correspondent in his last years, until his appeals ran out and he was executed in October 2006.

 
Lindy Lou is relieved to find younger family members of the jurors who question if they would ever serve on such a jury.  I, too, was called to serve on a death penalty case jury.  In the 26 page questionnaire that a higher court ruled potential jurors had to complete to weed out those against the death penalty, I successfully put in everything I could possibly think of that would disqualify me.  So the final approved jury only consisted of those who are pro-death penalty.  This film portrait is an unusually brave and frank look at that civic duty that bears a heavy responsibility.


Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press

NobdySpeaksHulk HoganLeaving CourtAmerican investigative documentarian Brian Knappenberger specializes in delving into controversial people behind the internet.  Celebrity sex tapes online are tawdry click bait, and cheeky Gawker was the online equivalent of a gossipy tabloid (several editors came from the British Fleet Street tabloid tradition).  In 2012 it posted clips from a sex tape of WWE wrestler Hulk Hogan (real name Terry Bollea), though it wasn’t the first to break the salacious story.  Hogan’s lawyers initiated legal wranglings in his Florida hometown to get hold of the video, in the first celebrity sex tape case to go to trial.  Gawker refused to take down the clip.

 
Knappenberger immediately puts the well-publicized Bollea v Gawker Media in the political context of the attacks on the press around the right-wing conspiracy dial and the wider declarations from candidate Donald Trump: “We’re going to open up those libel laws, and you’re going to get sued like never before!”  Gawker is more sympathetic as a defender of free speech than Hustler Magazine when it won a 1988 Supreme Court case defending their freedom of speech against Rev. Jerry Falwell.


The director interviews Gawker editors extensively on the personal toll of the suit and liabilities, and media reporters give an inside look at the trial when more and more expensive lawyers (staying in nice hotels) dragged out the case, excluding their insurance company.  Only after their legal fees mounted over $13 million, and the court announced astronomical compensatory and punitive damages of $140 million did Forbes Magazine in 2016 reveal that billionaire Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel funded the litigation in revenge for Gawker outing him as gay back in 2007, quite a dish best served cold, or philanthropy as Thiel called it. Gawker was sold off (it still has profitable sub-websites) and the editors nearly bankrupted.  
Other detailed case studies show a warning trend, from Hearst in history to how investigative reporters (proudly) outed casino-owner Sheldon Adelson as the secret buyer (and bully) of their newspaper – and lost their jobs.  One wonders if the legal troubles fact-checking website Snopes faces is part of that trend.


Too bad the extended conclusion gets overly dramatic and heavy-handed.  Many familiar clips from the 2016 Republican Convention of Thiel and litigious Trump on the campaign trail railing against the media pile on.  These are intertwined with too many sanctimonious defenses of noble “speaking truth to power” journalism (even old school Edward R. Murrow and Woodward & Bernstein flash by), all citing wrapped-in-the-flag first amendment guarantees of free speech, accompanied by stirring music -- appropriating the very emblems the threatening side uses.  In addition to a theatrical run, the relevant documentary is now streaming on Netflix.

Black Code

Canadian director Nicholas de Pencier’s debut feature documentary is based on key chapters from Ronald Deibert’s 2013 book, with the subtitle Inside the Battle for Cyberspace, about the work of the public interest cybersleuths at his Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto.  They reenact how they first revealed how deeply the Chinese government had infiltrated the Dalai Lhama and other exiled Tibetans in Dharamsala, India through software they dubbed Ghostnet.

BLACKCODE CariocainRioHis emphasis that the fastest rise in internet use will be in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America where both populations and government control are growing are vividly illustrated with on-the-ground examples.  The posts by an activist against violence on women in Islamabad, Pakistan are sobered by news of how rape threats escalated to her murder.  Activists are seen using the expanded WiFi connections for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Rio de Janeiro to upload video as the “Media Ninja” network of their protests against the showy expenditures, even unmasking an undercover police provocateur, while the main TV networks ignored the demonstrations.  

The documentary also points to governments that have controlled internet connections to track down regime opponents, such as Ethiopia, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Syria.  The Citizens Lab identified off the shelf American and Canadian software that makes possible this spying on citizens.  
Some of Deibert’s insights are no longer shocking to a public inured by Alex Gibney’s Zero Days (2016) on the Stuxnet cyberweapon, how Arab governments have stymied the hopes of the Arab Spring’s Facebook revolution, the Russian cyberhacking of the U.S. election, repeated disclosures by corporations of data breaches, and especially the videos of police attacks on unarmed African-Americans that spurred #BlackLivesMatter.  One woman activist offers good advice: the best security is livestreaming everything.  Deibert keeps his faith with technological solutions to protect digital rights.
Human Rights Watch Festival also screened David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg’s Bill Nye: Science Guy as Nye’s mission for science literacy goes from his classic kids’ TV show to take on anti-science agitators directly through the media, a la his mentor Carl Sagan.  This is second feature-length documentary from these “science storytellers” whose Structure Films “makes films about people doing cool S.H.I.T– science, health, information and technology”.  PBS will release the film in theaters across the country later this year, after its festival; it will be broadcast in 2018 on PBS series POV.

Some of these films are also shown at versions of the Human Rights Watch Festival in Amsterdam, London, San Francisco, and Toronto.  Watch for them as they open in theaters, streaming platforms, or broadcast on PBS or other channels.

28th Annual Human Rights Watch Film Fest: Part 1

Nowhere to Hide

The 28th annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival is one of the best socially conscious series of documentaries shown in New York City.  Co-presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center, most screenings June 9 -18, 2017 were followed by Q&A’s with filmmakers, film subjects, Human Rights Watch researchers, and other experts.  Here’s an overview of a selection of the engrossing and informative documentaries, most New York Premieres, shown on themes around:

  • Mideast Migrants
  • No Justice, No Peace; and Media Freedom (To be covered in Part 2)
  • Migrants and the Mideast

The continuing human fallout from the disruptive rise of ISIS and the ongoing Syrian civil war dominated the Festival.  Each international documentary focused on a different aspect of this tragedy whose causes and impacts extend far beyond its origins.

Nowhere to Hide

Zaradasht Ahmed and Nori Sharif, the filmmakers of the Opening Night selection, received the Festival’s prestige honor, the 2017 Nestor Almendros Award for courage in filmmaking, named for the activist cinematographer.  Their inside view of the war in Iraq is a revealing eye-opener for Americans who turned away when the U.S. pulled out in late 2011.

Kurdish/Norwegian director/photographer Ahmed specializes in empowering local people to document their own experiences.  When he was filming at a medical clinic in the formerly diverse village of Jalawla, in the central Diayala Province of Iraq, just over three hours from his family’s hometown, he himself first interviewed the staff about the change-over and the wary optimism at the front-line facility.  Similar to the arrangement of Guy Davidi with Emad Burnat for 5 Broken Cameras (2011), he trained and equipped a dozen medics to continue filming.

 But as militias filled the power vacuum that gradually made the area a “no go zone” inaccessible to outsiders, Sharif, a 36-year-old long-time nurse, was one of the few who stayed on, even as the wounds to treat got more serious.  He kept filming the violent chaos he was seeing on ambulance runs through the ruins, and the contrast to the rising stress on his wife and four children.  ISIS starts infiltrating, then takes over in 2014; the doctors flee and he keeps filming.  When ISIS threatens him as an elitist, and the clinic is wrecked, he takes the camera on their harrowing flight through the desert, that before just looked beautiful from a distance and now risks his families’ lives.  He struggles to get to a meager refugee camp where his small children still suffer PTSD from bombings, and he helps set up a medical clinic.  After five vividly chronicled years, he puts down the camera so Ahmed can bring his first-person story to the world.  

Ahmed, along with producer/editor Mette Cheng Munthe-Kaas, participated in Q&A’s at the Festival.  East Village Entertainment is distributing this powerful diary through North America for awards qualification.  Producer Ten Thousand Images is also soliciting donations for Nori and his family and the others living in Sa’ad IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) Camp at:
http://www.tenthousandimages.no/portfolio-item/nowhere_to_hide/#thestory

City of Ghosts

American director Matthew Heineman documents the stories of parallel, though more political, witnesses, in Syria, with this revealing behind-the-news documentary that had its New York premiere earlier this spring at the Tribeca Film Festival.  He interviews four twenty-something men who first got caught up in the Arab Spring to start web-casting protests in their ancient home city of Raqqa, on the northeast bank of the Euphrates River: “The Syrian revolution changed us.”  

But they continued as citizen journalists when another authoritarian regime filled the vacuum.  ISIS gradually took over to declare the capital of their caliphate, a geographic base that supported their extreme ideology.  With ISIS tightly controlling its own propaganda media, any footage or photographs you saw on CNN, BBC, and other international outlets on what it was really like to live under ISIS’s brutal rule came through these men and their dedicated reporters as RBSS - “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently”.  This film includes additional images not seen before that searingly counter ISIS’s slick videos and social media posts.  With ISIS not only hunting and killing journalists but also their families, they managed to slip out to still dangerous exile, where Heineman tracks their fraught exile in Turkey and Germany.  They are buffeted by kudos, anti-migrant protests, and ISIS-inspired attacks in Europe.  But courageously they persist. 

 
Lost in Lebanon

LOSTinLEBANONSheikh Abdo inAkkar northern LebanonWith the West pushing against Syrian war refugees, British directors Sophia and Georgia Scott spent a year at the northern Lebanese border where Syrians first arrive, for the sisters’ second film looking at the psychological impact of war.  They closely followed four people who would be regular folks in the U.S., from the youngest, Nemr who at 19 just wanted to be a high school student before his parents sent him out of the country to avoid conscription in the oppressive Assad’s army, to the oldest, Sheikh Abdo, who at 39 takes seriously his traditional leadership role like a mayor for his community and tries to do all he can for them in a refugee camp.  

Each is homesick and fearful for loved ones, as they describe the bombs and devastation they fled.  But even as the directors show how well-organized they’ve been to try and be self-sufficient and useful during their difficult year among half-million Syrian refugees, the cameras intimately document the personal impact as the Lebanese authorities ramp up restrictions, with arbitrary arrests and paperwork, as well as denial of access to schools, housing, and supplies.  As the four get more depressed and frustrated, their conditions seem like a recipe for radicalization (or worse), while all they want are normal lives.  Unlike other films (let alone fundraising solicitations) that appeal just to pity, this is a thoughtful, articulate warning against the world’s continued inaction on this ongoing crisis.  


The Good Postman (Hyvä postimies)

In a microcosm of Eastern European impacts and debates, a small village in Bulgaria has been ravaged by the invisible forces of globalization and Westernization that have left only 38 elderly residents and many abandoned houses.  What is visible to them are the primarily Syrian refugees who walk through at night, and the direct democracy still new since the downfall of Communism.  Director Tonislav Hristov returned to his homeland to patiently observe the effort of one man, Ivan the Postman, to bring all these issues together in one bold idea: he runs for mayor on the platform of opening up their village to welcome the asylum-seekers.  
The migrants are trodding the same paths conquerers have used for centuries.  Ivan watches them pass through, chased by border guards, and realizes they are a potential resource to revitalize the community with young families willing to work the fields and fix up the houses.  The camera follows Ivan on his route each day as he not only delivers the mail but checks on each person, helps them out with chores – and feels each out for their views on the refugees and his idea.
 
This all looks warmly promising until we get to see his opposition-- the long-time mayor who locks herself in her office keeping busy on the town’s only computer, and a loudmouth, long-haired, unemployed nationalist.  Both take advantage of the old ways and nostalgia for the good old days -- she counts on her extended family to vote for her, and he whips up blame-the-migrants complaints while sitting around tables drinking beers.  Where Ivan sees the refugees’ occasional stays in the empty buildings as pointing to a positive development, the others complain about dangerous vandals.  Despite the lovely views of mountains and close looks at craggy faces, the hopeful vibes depressingly dissipate the more these negative agents are on screen, just like those getting louder in Europe.  

TheWorkersCupTeamWorkers Cup

Some of the men leaving Asia and Africa are economic migrants desperately seeking jobs.  Debut feature filmmaker Adam Sobel intimately captures how their fantasies of opportunities don’t get to square with the realities of building the huge facilities needed for the 2022 FIFA World Cup of soccer, the world’s biggest sporting event, in Qatar, one of the Middle East’s richest countries.  For this unique access, Sobel’s team was already based there when the government decided to counter the bad press about the conditions for the 1.6 million temporary laborers by staging a “workers welfare” soccer tournament among the contractors, dubbed “The Workers Cup”.

Sobel was able to interview the participants living in the Umm Salal Camp run by the Gulf Contracting Company for over 4,000 laborers.  Before try-outs begin, we hear the men from Ghana, India, Kenya, and Nepal rue their misleading recruitment and their hopes, while we see their exhausting work days and a scroll cites the restrictions that keep them behind locked gates, reminding one of the refugee camp he left.  They recall co-workers who went violently crazy and point to where others were seriously injured.  Two had played on good teams at home in Ghana and they have long-term dreams of getting on professional teams, one even lying to his parents that he already has.  They even imagine scouts might see them play at this tournament, so they successfully negotiate for practice time.  

In class divisions, the Indians work in air conditioned offices; Sebastian manages nine such labor camps and, as a loyal eight-year employee, he takes on managing the company’s team, too.  But for all their condescending attitudes to the Africans and Nepalis, they also struggle with financial pressures and long-distance relationships, wishing to be promoted to a level that qualifies them to bring their wives.  All the men are lonely, and all are big soccer fans.  
As the championship games excitingly go on, there are swings between camaraderie and racism, with frustrated suspicions that other companies’ teams have non-worker ringers.  There’s cheers and moments of restored self-respect, then they go back to being a cog in the regulations.  Not a Hollywood victory, but a modest win-win for the companies, the workers, and the audience getting this first empathetic, insightful look behind the expensive facades.


Muhi - Generally Temporary

MUHIMuslim Palestinian boy Muhammed with a rare disease is seen as a migrant for medical care from the limited facilities in Gaza to a Tel Aviv hospital, living from ward to ward.  Co-directors Israeli photojournalist Rina Castelnuovo-Hollander and American videographer Tamir Elterman movingly documented for over four years his and his dedicated grandfather’s life living in a Middle East limbo full of cultural contradictions and heartrending juxtapositions.  While his family can only rarely get through the checkpoints to visit (and are not convinced the extreme treatment of limb amputation was necessary), his grandfather Abu Naim tries to maintain his grandson’s Arabic language and Islamic education.  The caring Israelis, including his advocate and long-time peace activist Buma Inbar whose son was killed in war, give him the Hebrew nickname “Muhi” and celebrate Jewish holidays with him.  When his grandfather finally gets a permit to work, the hospital, unfortunately, misses the opportunity to hire him as a translator or liaison with the many glimpsed Arab patients and families to just condescendingly employ him as a janitor.  Ironically, the prosthetic arms and legs, that give Muhammed the joyous thrill of mobility to attend a rare bi-lingual school, are not available in Gaza and will keep him in this limbo as he will need new ones as he grows.
 
Some of these films are also shown at versions of the Human Rights Watch Festival in Amsterdam, London, San Francisco, and Toronto.  Watch for them as they open in theaters, streaming platforms, or broadcast on PBS or other channels.

It’s A Sensitive Man’s World at the 2016 Human Rights Watch Film Festival

Do Not Resist

The 27th annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival balanced artistic merit with Human Rights Watch’s NGO goals of spotlighting terrible injustices around the world.  Some films even gave the audience hope!  In New York City June 10-19, this important film festival has expanded over the years, co-presenting uptown with the Film Society of Lincoln Center and downtown at the IFC Center, accompanied by related exhibitions and post-screening discussions on the issues with the filmmakers, HRW staff, and other experts.  Versions of the festival also travel: this year to Amsterdam and San Diego in January; its 20th anniversary in London in March; Toronto in April; Los Angeles and Miami in May; Chicago and Sydney in June; and selections are shown in over a dozen other cities throughout the year. 

Many of these involving films continue to make the festival rounds elsewhere, and some will be released in theaters or on viewing platforms.
In this year’s New York City edition of the festival, most of the promotional attention has gone to the record 10 out of the 18 films directed/co-directed by women, particularly on feminist sites and publications.  So here’s a round-up of the excellent films directed or co-directed by men, with almost all showing insight on issues affecting a diverse spectrum of males.  Four documentaries made in the USA delve into hot topics: two on the experiences of growing up transgender; one on veterans working through Post Traumatic Stress; and one on training policemen.  Two documentaries show fresh perspectives on Muslim lives in the Middle East, including one that sensitivity follows imprisoned girls.  Two films poignantly use fiction, based on true stories, to personalize plights that usually numb us with big numbers, while two international documentaries were co-directed by men.


GROWING UP COY

At what age does a child start feeling their body doesn’t match their gender role?  How young do they tell their parents?  Eric Juhola’s world premiere debut feature is a fascinating portrait of how quintessential All-American parents, ex-Marine Jeremy Mathis and his wife Kathryn, support their trans-gender male-born six-year-old, first within the family, then against the maelstrom of public opinion when Coy goes to elementary school and they request Coy’s use of the girls’ bathroom.  Though this is the hot issue of 2016, Juhola met them in 2012 with his attorney friend Michael Silverman of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund as they prepared to file a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Division against the school system.  

coy
Kathryn is a children’s photographer, so she has lots of pictures of their large blonde brood: older sister eight-year-old Dakota, younger autistic sister three-year-old Auri, and the six-year-old triplets: Lily with cerebral palsy, now sole boy Max, and Coy.  The photos of Coy reveal an unhappy little boy until by 18-months-old his parents relent to his demands to wear the sisters’ frills, be surrounded like them by the color pink, sing alone with them to Justin Bieber, and wish for their anatomy.  So they consult a psychologist specializing in nonconforming gender identity and send Coy off to kindergarten in the suburbs of Colorado Springs, an area known for evangelical mega-churches (as seen in Jesus Camp in 2006) and for proselytizing at the nearby Air Force Academy.  Anti-government and anti-Planned Parenthood billboards dot the beautiful landscape in the foothills of the Rockies.  The lawyer warns that their legal strategy has to include a media plan for educating the public.


The film is strongest at showing the personal stress from what follows, in intimate verité style.  Unlike reality TV stars who long to be famous, for this family living in the media storm is a nightmare.  After their announcement in Denver, local, national, even international press lay siege to their house and the phone never stops ringing.  TV news clips emphasize they were depicted in salacious promotion and headlines.  The father is a media relations major at Colorado State, so maybe that helps them get adept at handling press conferences and balancing the media’s need for access to their child with Coy’s fatigue at rationalizing his choices, let alone as the other kids start acting out their resentments.  Amidst all this, the parents struggle to continue home schooling their kids until the school will accept them on their terms.  Their ten-year marriage tensely frays in plain sight of the camera.


With all the participants jumping on this test case, what is not explored are their rigidly cultural definitions of gender expectations.  Ironically, about the same week I saw Ian Edelman’s breezy Puerto Ricans In Paris that includes a French boy with long blonde hair and quirky fashion sense with no presumption by his sophisticated mother that his style preferences indicate a gender question.  Since the Mathis’s groundbreaking victory in 2013, a model for other states and the recent directive of the Federal Departments of Education and Justice establishing trans students access to bathrooms of their choosing, one hopes the family has moved to a more fluidly accepting place where personal choices don’t have to be defined by a binary litigious system.


SUITED


What a socially conscious break from all those self-aggrandizing documentaries about couture fashion designers!  Like couturiers, Bindle & Keep make bespoke clothing for one customer at a time, but here the focus is on the needs of their clients.  Jason Benjamin’s debut documentary, previewed at HRW Festival before its premiere on HBO, followed up on a New York Times article “The Masculine Mystique” about a duo specializing in making suits for trans-people who have never felt comfortable in their bodies or clothes, and have never been able to find a formal suit in the shape of the gender they prefer.  


As Bindle & Keep (the name comes from Irish folklore: “bindle” symbolizes the traveler/seeker; “keep” is for home/destination) set up a new showroom in a former industrial area in Brooklyn, the clothiers describe the genesis.  Daniel Friedman was a (straight) one-man tailor shop when Rae Tutera, who blogged as “The Handsome Butch”, commissioned a suit, then asked him “to apprentice me and I introduced him to a world of people he didn’t know existed. He taught me to make clothes for those people.”  Friedman proudly beams: “Now I fit hundreds of people with different gender identities.”  Specifically, for suits they can’t find off the rack, whether for their professional work or for special occasions.

suited


Each client submits a request explaining their problem and goal, and each fitting is an unfolding story.  A sample instruction from a trans-man: “Make my body as masculine as possible. I don’t want anyone to be able to pick me out from guys and see curves.”  (Some clients have had surgery, others not.)  The collaboration is not just over measurements, fabric, lining, and cut, but about listening with empathy: “Let’s talk about why you’re nervous.”  Coming from around the country where they can’t find this service, their upcoming events range from a wedding, to a 40th birthday party, to a bar mitzvah, with this suit a present from a lovingly supportive lesbian grandmother.  Two face the specific problem of working as lawyers where conservative attire is a requirement-- a young trans-man sporting a big afro trying to get his first legal job and a trans-woman litigating against trans-gender discrimination in court.  Outside the office, some buyers supply videos with the context of their lives at home, from childhood photos and family interviews, to showing off their new suit on their big day.

Unlike Kinky Boots, fit is about more than just making a bigger size.  Nor is it like Marlene Dietrich or Madonna transgressively donning sexily fitted tuxedos.  So I wanted to hear more from the tailors on the technical specifics of the different adjustments, especially when the first fitting is a cross-communication challenge where the clients try to express what changes they want (“Too flared?”  “The pants feel tight.”) and the tailors are hands-on with solutions.  For clients who have sadly repeated: “I never felt good in clothing”, the pay-off is not the product (displayed in a rousing closing fashion show for a cheering audience).  The uplifting triumph is the looks and first big smiles on their faces when they finally see their reflection in the mirror match how they feel inside, and how they’ve always wanted to look.  Rae sums up the theme: “Dress braver than you feel!”

 

ALMOST SUNRISE

Civil War veterans with symptoms of depression, disruptive behavior, and flashbacks had “soldier’s heart”.  Past meets present as Father Thomas Keating, Trappist monk and long-time veterans’ counselor of those suffering from what is now called PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), frequently frames the condition for this documentary as “moral injury” of guilt or shame for what they saw or did during war that is inappropriate in peaceful civilian life.  His solutions of meditation and “nature therapy” could have helped the men in Blue and Gray, or could seem either too old-fashioned or too New Agey to be undertaken by two husky, bearded veterans of the ongoing Iraq War.  But by following them in intimate and captivating verité style on their 2,700-mile crowd-funded/social-media supported pilgrimage on foot across America the Beautiful, director Michael Collins lets us “see” how they clear their heads and souls.

Collins provides essential context with their families by catching the two former infantrymen just before they leave Wisconsin to set out for the Pacific Ocean: Anthony Anderson, with his wife Holly and toddler daughter Madeline, and Tom Voss, with his girlfriend Katinka Hooyer, who is also doing postdoctoral research on holistic treatments of PTSD.  While both vets have been volunteering as mentors and peer-to-peer counselors for those just returning from military service, the awful statistic “Twenty-two veterans kill themselves every day” haunts their own unresolved adjustment struggles.  Voss’s recurring memories are seen as photographs by his friend Emmet Cullen, who trained with him.

Not yet another “inspiring” personal achievement trek, the two men actively post their progress on social media and arrange to meet up with other veterans along the route, as well as the occasional local press.  They are sometimes hosted in the houses of relatives or strangers, sometimes saluted with flags and BBQ picnics or as honored guests at church services and Native American ceremonies, and sometimes they sleep under the spacious starry skies.  (The two-person film crew improvised techniques to keep a discreet distance when they met up.)  Through four seasons and locales out of “This Land Is Your Land”, sometimes to the guitar of Nels Cline, beautifully shot by cinematographer Clarissa De Los Reyes and second unit DP Gideon DeVilliers, they walk a clearly mapped route like the pioneers, from Middle America to the West Coast, sharing experiences, breathing exercises, and meditation coping strategies.  In one moving stop, they accompany an elderly mother at her son’s funeral after his suicide.

While some human rights documentary filmmakers grumble about the ancillary programs funding sponsors require these days, this New York premiere and other screenings around the country participate in the project’s two-year “Impact Campaign” with local and national soldier suicide prevention partners, and with the Veterans Administration.  Collins and his producing partner Craig Atkinson learned the value of external activities with their previous, investigative documentary Give Up Tomorrow (2011) that sought to free a prisoner.  Almost Sunrise will premiere on PBS’s POV on January 2, 2017.

DO NOT RESIST

Scenes from Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014 opens and are repeatedly revisited, the confrontation between chanting protestors and policemen looking like an occupying army with raised shields, face masks, and tear gas.  Sadly, they could also be footage from Baton Rouge this summer.  After world premiering and winning Best Documentary Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival, Craig Atkinson’s pointedly relevant directorial debut looks at the macho equipment, tactical, and training issues that have aggravated law enforcement’s relationship with civilians.  

While other recent festival fave documentaries have dealt with pieces of the problem– Barber & Christopherson’s Peace Officer (2015) on the growth of SWAT teams; Nick Berardini’s Killing Them Safely (aka Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle) (2015) on the unregulated use of tasers; and Steve James’s The Interrupters (2011) on nonviolent alternatives for de-escalation – this thorough and alarming investigation covers two years across 11 states.  Useful facts, in annoying capital letters, scroll by on screen to buttress the footage and interviews with academics and police authorities.  (Atkinson says he’s the son of a cop, and does give them plenty of screen time for their point of view.)

The police look like an army because they are getting de-accessioned equipment from the Department of Defense.  As one young black woman demonstrator comments disgustedly: “They’ve got to stop giving these boys these toys because they don’t know how to handle it.”  Local police departments, small and large, rural and urban, are shopping for free ordnance picked off the DOD websites like shopping from a catalog, items that each originally cost taxpayers millions.  Though these are highly technical machines, they come with no instructions, let alone training.  In Concord, NH, councilpeople who try to speak up against these acquisitions are bullied by fear facts.
There are extensive clips from a quizzical Senate committee questioning Departments of Homeland Security and Defense on this program, and President Obama did sign an executive order in January 2015 banning local police from acquiring the most egregious military equipment, put tighter controls in place and set up a task force that released in May detailed recommendations for further restrictions.  But as current as the documentary feels, the recent spate of police shootings brought sheriffs and their unions to the White House already asking for more, and NYC announced plans to spend $7.5 million to buy new ballistic vests and helmets for police officers.  

Into the training gap are private contractors, like Dave Grossman, who the film bills as “America’s #1 trainer of all U.S. local law enforcement for almost 20 years”.  To keep his customers coming back for seminars, he preaches a dangerous world out there, that sounds like we still live on the Western frontier, or at least on the set of The Walking Dead.  His alarmist books are used at FBI and police training academies, and the aggressive exercises he runs at a headquarters in Orlando, FL, leaves the participants exulting and exhilarated (and up for great sex, they say).  They start thinking of themselves as “warrior cops”.  This mentality gets scarier, even without any assumption of racism, in eager collusion with the private “persistent surveillance systems” that are already approaching the TV science fiction of Person of Interest and Minority Report, with unregulated use of drones and information collection, though this section feels added-on.  Assuring them all, as Grossman says, “Good news – you have job security!”  For documentary filmmakers, too, in gathering this disturbing evidence?  The film’s theatrical release will begin in New York on September 30, then expand across the country.
Two absorbing films from the Middle East keenly explore concepts of freedom, with male directors showing special sensitivity to girls and women.


STARLESS DREAMS


Iranian independent filmmaker and film professor Mehrdad Oskouei was working on a duo of documentaries about a male juvenile detention center on the outskirts of Tehran when he saw two shackled and handcuffed young girls, looking like his own daughter, taken behind high walls to a separate wing of the institution.  Seven years of persistent requests to film inside finally led to a 20 day window for he and his small male crew to document the girls inside their rehabilitation center.  
In the U.S. Oskouei is known more for his researched documentary Nose, Iranian Style (2005), but a workshop with American documentarian Frederick Wiseman in Amsterdam inspired his change in style to intensively look at and interview a few people in a limited space.  Here, we meet a dozen teenagers in a large ward with bunk beds, barred windows, and a cement courtyard.
Enrobed in black head scarves and chadors, their stories are gradually revealed in moving interviews and exchanges between the girls.  Charged with such offenses as robbery, drug abuse, and patricide, they are really victims of poverty.  Most of the girls endured beatings and traumatic sexual experiences with a male relative – and beatings for alleging they were “bothered with”.  A drug addicted father forced a daughter into prostitution to support his habit; another girl stole food to feed her family.  For many, their violent rebellion against their male abusers, sometimes to protect a younger sister, or running away, got them imprisoned.  With one girl weeping herself to sleep and another insisting her name is “Nobody”, his gentle (disembodied) voice in sympathetic interviews become something like therapy sessions for these neglected children with few calls and fewer visitors.  
But his observant camera also watches as the girls revel in the joy of female solidarity, shared laughter, and affection, or when they get treats like art and puppetry classes where they can express themselves, share dreams, and celebrate holidays.  You don’t just cry at their pasts.  When the abusing families pick girls up when they are released outside what now seem like protective gates, you cry for their futures.  
Oskouei edited and distributed only to academic and cinéphile audiences to protect the girls’ even more troubling secrets.  From winning awards at the Berlin International and other film festivals, Cinema Guild will be releasing this wrenching documentary as part of Oskouei’s trilogy with the boys at the juvenile detention center in It’s Always Late for Freedom (2006) and The Last Days of Winter (2011).


THE CROSSING

In this U.S. premiere, the Syrian refugees desperately streaming away from civil war and to hope in Europe are seen unusually up close and personal.  

Amidst political strife and chauvinism in Egypt, director George Kurian learned his music teacher/oud player Nabil Hilaneh was planning to leave with a group of other discouraged (middle-class, educated) Syrian exiles to be smuggled across the Mediterranean.  His friend Rami, a computer specialist, agreed to take a camera, and with a few basic lessons, to film their odyssey, along with Angela, a TV reporter and journalist repeating her husband Najib’s journey a month earlier; Afaf, a pharmacist; her son Mustafa, and Alia, a wife and mother of two.  Their gung ho spirit of adventure in following the smugglers’ directions to a beach in Alexandria, are quickly dampened when Afaf and Mustafa are taken in a police raid of the area.  

Rami’s footage captures how more of their careful preparations are swept over the boat, as water and food supplies don’t make it through the longer-than-expected eight days (and nights) to get to Italy. Kurian was instrumental in sending out a SOS to ships to look for the group, and an oil tanker seen stopping for the woebegone little boat.  

In the second half, Kurian interviews them from landing in Italy, in person and via cell and Skype, as they are first housed in temporary shelters.  But then the group is separated into refugee hostels in five different countries and wait for permanent housing.  (Surprise- the mother and son do make it out of Egypt, too.)  The easiest trip seems to be for Angela as the train takes her to meet up with her husband in Belgium; then their struggle is how to continue their journalism careers.  For all the unity of the European Union, the cultural differences are sharply drawn as Rami and Alia are sent to the Netherlands, Nabil to Germany, and Afaf and Mustafa to Sweden.  As skilled and educated as they are, each now has to learn a new language, and has to navigate each country’s varying employment and training rules, let alone the complicated requirements a refugee has to meet to retain housing in this colder climate.  Periods of stasis and depression are relieved as the group and the director stay in contact.  While Rami learns that the disruption of the civil war has out-dated his IT skills, Nabil is gratified that his musical talents are finally appreciated more than his dishwashing skills at a restaurant.  (Oud master Rahim AlHaj has told of virtually the same experience, as a 1991 political refugee from Iraq coming to the U.S. in 2000, when he last year received a NEA National Heritage Fellowship, this country’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts.)  

Refugee issues were also the subject of other programs in the festival.  The documentary was preceded by two five-minute shorts, Malak and Mustapha, that followed the overwhelming experiences of two young children fleeing Syria with their families to scramble to Greece.  “Desperate Journey: Europe’s Refugee Crisis” featured a discussion with HRW Emergencies Director Peter Bouckaert and photographer Zalmaï, who accompanied HRW teams researching the crisis in several countries.  Himself a refugee from Afghanistan to Switzerland, Zalmaï’s photographs were exhibited in the Roy and Frieda Furman Gallery at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater.

Though the Human Rights Watch Festival is known more for searing documentaries, I always appreciate when fiction features are included to bring to life real situations not easily filmed in real life.

THE HIGH SUN (ZVIZDAN)

The Human Rights Festival not only covers contemporary crises, but looks at the continuing reverberations from earlier violations of human rights.  Over the past nine years I’ve been covering the festival, I’ve appreciated that it revisits the Balkan wars of the early 1990’s between Serbs and Croatians that horribly split former neighbors with disintegration into ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and genocide.  

Writer/director Dalibor Matanić creatively takes the humanistic long view of these impacts on neighboring rural villages with different lovers at three mirror points at hot summers in consecutive decades (with changing representative music).  The same attractively appealing actors (Tihana Lazović and Goran Marković) are couples in unrelated roles, but the same family pressures, inevitable accusations, and recriminations:
In 1991, imminent war violently and tragically breaks apart the sensually languorous relationship between Serbian Jelena (Lazović) and Croatian Ivan (Marković).  With echoes from past ethnic conflicts, her confused grandmother thinks the Nazis and their local allies have returned.
In 2001, emotional wounds are still as broken as the house of officious Serbian Natasha (Lazović) as she peremptorily adds to the to-do list of hunky Croatian handyman Ante (Marković), but these two could keep flirting through a longer film.  
In 2011, enough time has passed for the town to host a hip collegiate rave, but the initial reluctance of city-returnee Luka (Marković) is still too matched by the simmering resentment of his Serbian ex Marija (Lazović) to make a belated separate peace with their son.  His rom com-ish persistence is almost convincing, even if it’s out of guilt.  Anywhere in the world, in a lesson from every film in the festival, accepting guilt is an essential first step in reconciliation.

Winner of the Jury Prize at Certain Regard of the Cannes Festival where it was the first Croatian film to compete since Yugoslavia broke, among other international festival awards, and Croatia’s submission for the Foreign Language Oscar, this lovely looking film was shot by director of photography Marko Brdar (also outstanding for the very urban Slovenian The Beat of Love) with a continuity of dappled sunshine, leafy horizons, and misty mountains to emphasize that the bitterness on the dirt road between segregated communities is only transitory.  In trying to challenge his own family’s negativity that gave into inter-ethnic hatred, this is the first film in Matanić’s planned trilogy is the most optimistic for the possibility of love conquering all.

CHAPTER & VERSE

How unusual to have a fiction selection that was filmed just 70 blocks north of Lincoln Center in gentrifying Harlem.  Passionately felt and enriched by authenticity in setting, characters, situations, conflicts, and solutions, director/co-writer Jamal Joseph and co-writer/star Daniel Beaty drew on their own, family, and friends’ experiences in frankly looking at the crisis of incarceration and recidivism in the African-American community.  Though having much in common with Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway’s new documentary The Return, this is strong, involving entertainment that also attests to Joseph’s solid credits in commercial TV and movies, bolstered by dynamic acting from both familiar names and newcomers.

Beaty, in his first major movie role, effectively embodies Lance Ingram as he’s released from years in prison and is determined to stay away from his former life in a gang by finding employment and an apartment.  Even with his prison-learned skills in computer repair, achievement of those two basic goals is almost insurmountable, and could be seen to defeat most men.  But as Lance (that it’s short for Lancelot is a bit much) entrepreneurially and stoically navigates the shoals of temptation and discouragement, he’s helped by colorful characters: a demanding supervisor of meal deliveries Yolanda (Selenis Leyva, of Orange is the New Black); a cranky senior citizen client Miss Maddy (the incandescent Loretta Devine); and an old friend now managing a barber shop JoJo (the always classy Omari Hardwick, currently of Power).  The multi-talented Joseph also wrote the music and several songs heard on the soundtrack.

With Joseph, who is a former Black Panther and is a film professor at Columbia University, quoted in interviews that one in three children raised in Harlem will spend time in prison, the story also muscularly emphasizes the negative impact on sons raised without fathers to keep them off the streets, as Lance takes on a paternal role for a boy attracted to the dead-end gang life.  (Young Khadim Diop makes an impressive debut as Maddy’s grandson.)  With rising tension, this is eyes clear that dialogue and nonviolence may not always be the most determinative choice.  

While still making the festival circuit, this should be a definite contender for theatrical or other platform distribution: an intelligent, politically astute film dealing realistically with an important issue, supported by a fine African-American cast portraying non-stereotyped individuals, and an attention-keeping story line.  Kudos to the festival for including an unusual selection among this year’s roster of excellent nonfiction and fiction films.

Richard Lester Retrospective at Lincoln Center

The Knack
 
The summer schedule of the Film Society of Lincoln Center reached its apotheosis this month with it's long-gestating, comprehensive retrospective of the films of Richard Lester — several shown in excellent, 35-millimeter prints on the magnificent Walter Reade Theater screen — which ran from the 7th through the 13th and was curated by Gavin Smith, the editor of Film Comment.
 
The underrated director's work was showcased in a series at the Museum of the Moving Image in the 1990s but in a much smaller selection. Only a few films were left out of the current program: his first feature, It's Trad, Dad! (screened at the Film Society in a rock 'n' roll series a few years ago); The Mouse on the Moon, a sequel to the popular Peter Sellers vehicle, The Mouse that RoaredThe Ritz, an adaptation of the Terence McNally play; Superman IISuperman III; the wonderful, unsung Finders Keepers; and his last film, the Paul McCartney rockumentary, Get Back
 
Highlights of the series included the  titles described below, all shown in beautiful 35-millimeter prints at the Walter Reade.
 
The director's almost never screened, early, silent, slapstick short made with and starring Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, the rarely screened The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film displays the madcap sensibility that would flower in Lester's features.
 
The dazzling, exhilaratingly creative The Knack …and How to Get It, one of Lester's supreme works, stunningly photographed by the incomparable David Watkin, and starring Michael Crawford and Rita Tushingham, as wonderful as they have ever been, and also featuring a superb performance by Ray Brooks as the story's resident Lothario. This was previously screened at the Film Society in a series devoted to Woodfall Film Productions. A further bonus here is the chance to glimpse early appearances of Jacqueline Bisset, Jane Birkin and Charlotte Rampling, all at their most ravishingly gorgeous.
 
The brilliant and rarely shown thriller, Juggernaut, was shot by Gerry Fisher and features an astounding cast including Richard Harris, Omar Sharif, David Hemmings, Anthony Hopkins, Shirley Knight, Ian Holm, Roy Kinnear, Freddie Jones, Cyril Cusack, Michael Hordern and Roshan Seth, among others.
 
The equally rare Royal Flash is an enjoyable romp set in Victorian era Europe, adapted from a novel by George MacDonald Fraser, with brilliant performances by Malcolm McDowell, Alan Bates and Oliver Reed.
 
The entertaining Butch and Sundance: The Early Days, another rare title, was Lester's second film made in Hollywood — the extraordinary Petulia was his first — and was pioneering as a "prequel" — in this case to George Roy Hill's popular western, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford — before that format had become a commercial standard in the industry. The casting of Tom Berenger — who gives a splendid performance — and William Katt cannily recalls the iconic faces of Newman and Redford, while the film, shot by László Kovács, sports a roster of excellent supporting actors including Peter Weller, Brian Dennehy, Christopher Lloyd, John Schuck, Jeff Corey, Jill Eikenberry, Vincent Schiavelli, as well as Michael C. Gwynne, who gave a delightful introduction to the screening, recounting anecdotes from the shooting.
 
The powerful, politically astute, ultra-rare Cuba — also shot by Watkin — a romantic drama set on the eve of the Cuban revolution, also features a remarkable cast, starring a dashing Sean Connery doing some of his best work, along with a winsome Brooke Adams — the one weak link here, unconvincing as a strong, erotic presence — along with a handsome Chris Sarandon, Martin Balsam, Walter Gotell, Hector Elizondo, Jack Weston, Denholm Elliott, and Lonette McKee. It was shown in a newly struck print.

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