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"Birds of a Feather" Flock to DOC NYC

Birds of a feather, literally and figuratively, flocked together in three notable documentaries from the fourth annual DOC NYC, held November 14 – 21, are succeeding to wider distribution, in theaters and iTunes, as well as special screenings.

Emptying The Skies

Bird-watching can be dangerous!  Debut directors Douglas Kass and Roger Kass embedded, like combat photographers, for a year with dedicated activists who are determined to save migrating songbirds over southern Europe from being caught en masse for gourmands.  Across Cyprus, France, and Italy, volunteers with organizations such as the Committee Against Bird Slaughter look even more aggressive on the land than the Sea Shepherds on Animal Planet’s Whale Wars or The Cove’s dolphin protectors in the oceans.

Doggedly enforcing (weak) European Union and government regulations, these shaggy international birders ruggedly camp out to follow the seasonal swarms being cruelly trapped by hunters and poachers.  Their Sisyphean task is to dismantle a range of traps, from the small scale of individual farmers resentfully claiming centuries of traditions with homemade baited rocks and roadside lime sticks coated with gum, to armed, organized crime gangs with high-tech lures, large-scale nets, and a frightening willingness to thuggishly attack those who interfere with their profits.  (Assaults are captured on the run and veterans display their scars.)  Sometimes the bird-lovers can even get to free or repair a few tiny beautiful creatures.  

Seen in the opening bird-watching in Central Park, executive producer Jonathan Franzen inspired the film with his titular 2010 essay in The New Yorker, when he first followed these intrepid avian knights in Malta and elsewhere.  But his article also provides context and more detail that’s a bit confusingly missing here on the legal, financial, cultural, and market issues.  Without that information on the practical political challenges, the impression is left that conservation education and anti-bird-eating campaigns would have more impact as extinctions loom than brave birders flying from trap to trap on foot.  Music Box Films’ theatrical release of this valiant documentary in Fall 2014 will go a long way to raise people’s consciousness and help stop the threat of a silent spring.

We Always Lie To Strangers

We Always Lie to Strangers Key ImageDon’t roll your sophisticated eyes at the thought of a documentary about the place that markets an image as the capital of cornpone.  Branson, Missouri, the entertainment mecca of wholesome traditional values, turns out to be more Glee than Hee Haw.  Of the ten thousand residents working real hard to keep almost eight million tourists a year happy on 100 stages, native Missourian directors AJ Schnack and David Wilson followed, over several years, four families who have to keep smiling onstage amidst financial woes and their own battles in the culture wars.  

Just as the title is a sardonic play on a folkloric joke, the locals are heard on their nights off far off the beaten path at a traditional Appalachian country guitar pull that wouldn’t fill any of their large commercial theaters, but clearly fills a meaningful spot in their musical souls.  While the [not Elvis] Presley family’s story is the most conventional benchmark to provide historical perspective (there’s lots of wonderful archival and contemporary clips), from founding theater operators to the ever-promoting mayor, the others reveal the sharp contrast between their onstage glitz and their offstage grit.  

The Lennon Family plays on the nostalgia for their matriarchs, the Lennon Sisters who were singing stars of TV’s The Lawrence Welk Show from 19551968.  But, surprisingly, they still think of themselves as Los Angelenos and have the (lonely) lefty California political ideas to match.  Most heartbreaking to watch are the strapped owner and performers, including single parents, in the struggling new Magnificent Variety Show whose kitschy patriotic revue and overly optimistic business plan (there’s no headliner like comedian Yakov Smirnoff or the singer Andy Williams seen in other shows) add to the considerable stress in wavering lives that are more like backstage Broadway than front row church pews.  

You would think it would be obvious that some of these exuberant extroverts who enjoy dressing up to sing and dance for the public acceptance of applause include gay artistes.  But this reality painfully crashes into the wholesome heartland rhetoric of the dominant evangelistic southern Christian environs to keep them shoved into the (costume-filled) closet at great personal cost.  After getting to know these show folks so intimately, their personal compromises to their hopes and dreams linger long after the last upbeat notes fade.  This moving and entertaining documentary is now available on iTunes.

A Will for the Woods

awfw posterThe very serious people gathered here are celebrating a life, and a good way to die.  Four directors -- Amy Browne, Jeremy Kaplan, Tony Hale, and Brian Wilson— tag-teamed every step in the final illness and death plans (300 hours worth) of the amazingly open musician, psychiatrist, and folk dancer Clark Wang.  As lively as the North Carolina 40-something is shown doing what he loved in his prime, and trying every means to conquer Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma, he appreciated having a legacy as a role model for green burial.  This movement eschews the chemicals of embalming, the use of resources to make coffins, the pollution of cremation, and the artificiality of pristine cemeteries to have a minimal impact on the environment while conserving and replenishing natural areas.

Though the enemy here is what Jessica Mitford called "The American Way of Death" back in her 1963 exposé of the funeral industry, much of what these new-agey sounding advocates describe and supervise here is simply what many religious traditions have undertaken for millennia, and continue to do so.  While there’s no mention that urban cemeteries were an innovation of the Romantic movement to bring beautiful multi-use green space to cities (such as Mount Auburn in Cambridge, MA, and Brooklyn’s Green-Wood), usefully shown are how cemeteries are now setting aside sections as green burial gardens, and the audience is encouraged to find such back-to-nature facilities in their community.  This useful and emotional primer in how to do a green burial with considerable dignity will be released in theaters nationally beginning August 2014.

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