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40 Film Reviews for SIFForty

40 films single-handedly seen by this one naive film critic has me all but overdosed on cinema. I'm fattened on art films. I'm backed up by having seen films from the US, the UK, Spain, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Norway, Australia, Hong Kong, Chile, South Korea, Canada, France, Ireland, South Africa, Greece, and Poland; my pipes all clogged by the sheer amount of celluloid spun out movie after movie. The long and short of it: SIFForty was a haul.

Read more: 40 Film Reviews for SIFForty

"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.

Women's Docs at DOC NYC

Two unique documentaries on important women’s issues from the fourth annual DOC NYC, held November 14 – 21, are succeeding to wider distribution, in theaters and on such video-on-demand platforms Netflix and iTunes, as well as special screeningss.  Both films make clear that what affects women impacts everyone else in their lives.

The World Health Organization and the National Institutes of Health have declared that breastfeeding is the most normal and optimal care for infants.  Sure there were past scandals of huge corporations pushing formula profits.  So it should be standard to successfully breastfeed a baby in New York, as I did over 30 years ago while working (one son for nine months and the other for eighteen months), right?  But just as I was surprised to see in executive producer Ricki Lake’s 2008 documentary The Business of Being Born that my natural childbirth experience was now more atypical, a biological process that evolved so even cave people could thrive is endangered.  My mother thought I looked “tribal” breastfeeding, yet the how-to seems to have been forgotten.

There’s plenty of explanations here, from comic to didactic, feminist, historical, sociological, sexual, and symbolic (even breast as phallus), with various lactation experts (not only the dogmatic La Leche League).  But what makes Dana Ben-Ari’s first documentary so fair and thoughtfully absorbing is how she follows an economically and racially diverse group of New Yorkers – married with husband, unmarried, lesbian, with another child, supportive family or not, straight-laced to hippie, from student to working professional.  Counting down to the due dates of the planned and unplanned pregnancies at private and public clinics, doctors’ offices, and hospitals, she first charts their prenatal preparation (what the PBS series Call the Midwife calls antenatal), and the expectant mothers’ hopes, fears, and expectations of breastfeeding.

Unfolding over time as a suspense story from late pregnancy through newborn and beyond, Ben-Ari visits at regular intervals of weeks, then months, as the bodies of mothers and babies change.  Each woman is honestly unpredictable as to who can withstand all the surprising pressures to stop breastfeeding when they are at such vulnerable points of fatigue, worry, and insecurity (“I feel like a cow”), just when they need the most sympathetic support.  (Frequent calls to my midwife for practical advice were very helpful for me.)  

Discouraging for any advocate, their plans pretty much go out the window.  Instead of being convinced by the convenience and mutual comfort, they are constantly barraged more with how to “overcome difficulties” and warned by medical professionals of dubious issues such as “enough milk” and (incredibly) nutritional deficits as formulas and milk substitutes are dangled.  Shockingly, there is not a word of the warnings I got on how to cope with the expected growth spurts (at three weeks, around eight weeks, three months, six months, and nine months) until both synced bodies adapt and are not identified here as the key risk points for anxiety and risk for discouragement. 

Instead, the ease of expressing milk (albeit within the luxury of private, relaxed time) has been replaced by guilt-induced harping about mechanically-assisted pumping, with appliances costing up to $3,000, that raise other discomfort issues, though the pro’s and con’s of breastmilk co-op sharing banks are covered as well.  At the Q & A after the “Mommy & Me” screening I attended along with many nursing babies, the director emphasized the solution rests with women themselves “fighting back”.  Released by CAVU Pictures in theatres in time for Mother's Day, this important lesson for parents, parents-to-be, and health providers is also streaming on iTunes.

BraveMissWorld PosterBrave Miss World

Think the Miss World pageant is just a superficial display of pretty women?  Watch what was really behind the winning tears of the lovely Miss Israel 1998 and how she has used that platform not only as an extraordinary bully pulpit to inspirationally help women around the world, but in the process transform herself, too.  

Director Cecilia Peck (Shut Up and Sing) first travels back with Linor Abargil to her thrill at winning the competition as an 18-year-old, and her excitement at being sent on modeling gigs in Milan, a dream of so many (gullible) young women.  But they also revisit her awful path back to the airport, where her travel agent violently attacked and raped her.  She managed to get to a phone and call her mother who (this is key) sympathetically advised her to go to a hospital for a rape kit, tell the Italian and Israeli authorities to catch the culprit, and get back home to get herself together to win the international competition in the Seychelles Islands a month later – all before the public found out what happened to her.  Her determination to follow through at the trial the next year became a cause célèbre in Israel, and other women there drew on her strength to report this notoriously unreported crime, even as she struggled with her own recovery.  

That story alone would be the usual, albeit horrifically unfortunate, celebrity tell-all.  But Abargil goes much further in catapulting her unwelcome notoriety, to travel the world literally touching girls and women to publicly share their experiences-- person-to-person, online, and in this film-- and, just as importantly, to seek justice.  Not only is Peck there to document her miles of hugs over many years, but also reveals Abargil’s inner journey as her protests against her attacker’s parole sets off a downward spiral of PTSD.  Even as she galvanizes a suspenseful search for his other victims to prove a serial pattern, this secular Jew finds solace through religion, and becomes –these are the most surprising images -- ultra-Orthodox (and a law student specializing in abuse cases, interning for the prosecutor on her case).  Her relationships with the men in her life, both as friends (one is a producer on the film) and romantic partners, are also frankly discussed, including that she convinces her fiancé, who is supportive through her crusade, to reluctantly follow her observance into marriage.  (She couldn’t attend the festival as she was giving birth, again). 

While the weakest scenes are already familiar to American audiences, such as her appearance on Oprah and a pile-on of testimonials from other celebrities repeating what’s been in their own shocking memoirs, the rape victims and their loving family and friends at the emotional festival screening I attended did not seem to object.  Now available on Netflix, that festival experience can also be felt by watching this moving documentary with someone who has been in any way affected by a too-common crime that needs this courageous exposure.

Politics at DOC NYC: A Look Back

Citizen Koch

The extended impact of the fourth annual DOC NYC, held November 14 – 21, is being felt as features are succeeding to wider distribution, in theaters and on PBS that raised some hackles as they turned a spotlight on a varied range of grassroots political activists across the American landscape:

Citizen Koch

Directors Carl Deal and Tia Lessin open with a barrage of timely claims to explore the impact of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision against restrictions on political spending of corporations and organizations by following the money from the prominent conservative Koch family.  Unfortunately, this close case study of the 2012 recall vote against Wisconsin governor Republican Scott Walker doesn’t carry the weight for an effective case study on this hot topic and is not a revealing investigation.
The documentary is effective as just an intimate profile of how a selection of long-time union members (Democrats and Republicans) got energized into hard-working activism by the governor pushing through rollbacks of public employee rights, who are followed through the campaign.  But the information on the organized, well-funded opposition is disappointingly superficial and doesn’t rise much above well-known media coverage.  The most useful background is the charting of the interlocked corporate and family ties of Charles and David Koch.  However, the constant railings against their money as among the millions of dollars raised by the governor from “outside interests” loses considerable credibility two-thirds through when a map shows the several factories and plants that the Koch company owns in the state.  Not that any other data is provided how they function as corporate citizens, whether pro (number of employees, philanthropy, or taxes paid) or con (environmental or labor records), beyond the simplified condemnation of corporations considered as people.  This is a missed opportunity to treat these complex issues seriously.  Variance Films is releasing the documentary in theaters June 2014.

Town Hall

town hallWhere Citizen Koch oh so proudly waves a claim that PBS withdrew financial support because David Koch is said to be a major donor, a fascinating look at the rise of the power of the Tea Party is currently running on the PBS World Channel’s America ReFramed series.Pennsylvania is not just the Keystone State in nickname, but was a battleground for hearts and minds from the 2010 congressional races through the 2012 presidential campaign for its 20 electoral votes.  Directors Jamila Wignot and Sierra Pettengill closely follow two new activists who are inspired to throw themselves into achieving conservative change.  John has retired in urban Reading that was spiraling down even before the recession.  Suburban Katy is channeling stay-at-home restlessness—and momentary media attention after a pointed challenging of a local politician at a town hall session.
As the directors described at the festival premiere, they were flies on the wall in the activists’ houses, cars, and meetings, and alongside them on long days of electioneering and voter turnout (and, quite alarmingly, intimidating suppression of minorities), an insightful and sensitive portrait emerges of absolutely committed individuals and the well-funded milieu that both isolates and sustains them.  Their exclusive sources of information about politics and the progress of the campaigns are striking -- they only watch Fox News and listen to conservative talk radio (continuously).  While they see themselves as grassroots activists, they are directed and supplied by national political action committees.  (The housewife becomes a paid campaign worker).  Through it all, the directors never lose their empathy for the Tea Partiers, allowing them every opportunity to show how they came to their narrow view of a changing world that makes them so very uncomfortable

American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs

At the other end of the political spectrum, way at the other end, out of the spotlight of national affairs, and much, much longer in local politics, is the preeminent Chinese-American community organizer of Detroit’s black community.  As she introduced the still-feisty 98-year-old at the festival premiere of her admiring portrait, director Grace Lee described meeting her oldest coincidental namesake through her light-hearted The Grace Lee Project (2005).  She continued to visit in the years since, talk-talk-talking, and pushing for personal, reminisces that would illuminate a life countering the stereotype of compliant Asian women.  A Depression era childhood above her father’s New York store, to Barnard at age 16, where a class in Hegel changed her outlook to achieve a PhD in 1940.  By the next year, she was helping to organize an anti-discrimination march on Washington, D.C., and (somehow) became convinced “You can change the world!”
GracePicnicShe moved to Chicago and onto leftist publications aimed at the booming factories that drew southern blacks in the Great Migration to Detroit -- including James Boggs, who became her life-long partner.  (He died in 1993).  While the director wheedled her permission to get her FBI file, it’s not clear how they were able to continue their political activities through the McCarthy years.  (“I didn’t think of myself as un-American.”).  Fellow activists, such as Fox News nemesis Bill Ayers, praise her decades of dedication to grassroots community organizing, and photographs show her with just about every civil and labor rights leader.  (The Boggs don’t seem to have had a life outside The Movement).

Maybe that’s why she’s so interview-resistant, always answering a question with a question or challenging the premise of the question to forcefully insist on the rightness of her philosophical positions as self-evident.  (Ironically, she reminded me of Bible classes.)  The director helped the charmed audience match Boggs’ intellectual knowledge with a clever series of animated concepts “in 30 seconds”.  May she live long enough to bask in the appreciation when this warm, if a bit frustrating, biography premieres on PBS’s P.O.V. series June 30, 2014.

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