Tag Archives: documentaries

Food Coop

There’s a grocery store in Brooklyn that’s 5 times busier than other markets in the area; it’s a food co-op, where members trade labour for access to the best and freshest food sources.

The Park Slope food co-op is kind of great in an old-fashioned way, with so many people MV5BZjA2OTQ0NmQtOWE1Yy00OGU5LWI4ZDUtYWZjNjkzZmYwMzFhXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjIxMTk4Nzg@._V1_from all walks of life willing to put in work (2h45m monthly) in order to keep labour costs down for the greater good of this beloved co-op. And it clearly is very much loved. It offers locally sourced, often organic products for 40% cheaper than you’d find in luxury grocery stores, and the food on offer here is much, much better.

The documentary Food Coop, by directors Thomas Boothe and Maellanne Bonnicel,  explore this strange beast that exists in the shadows of Wall Street but thrives on a different kind of economy, one that is community-minded and fair. For the people who work and shop there, it fosters a neighbourly spirit where people are making connections with each other, and with the food grown within just a few miles of them. The film also serves as a guide book of sorts for others who might be interested in starting up a co-op. It’s a viable alternative system that seems to have few drawbacks. It’s democracy in action, good food in the belly, and a more planet-friendly approach to food and consumer culture. There’s a lot to be learned, but one of those lessons is just that the personalities that keep a food co-op running successfully over decades are quirky and varied. The people watching is almost as good as the system is tempting.

 

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Mankiller

Wilma Mankiller: you may not know her name, but you should.  She was the first woman elected Chief of the Cherokee nation but her story is more complex than any list of her achievements would imply.

Born to a Cherokee father and European mother, she was raised with  sense of her culture but was influenced by a lot of things. She married young but continued her studies, and upon leaving her husband (with 2 small children in tow), Mankiller underwent a cultural and political awakening that led her down the path that would cast her as a role model and inspiration to her people, and to women. But she started out in an entry level position, only wanting to “help her people.”

Mankiller-DocumentaryThis documentary is not particularly imaginative when it comes to film making; it is straight forward, with few tricks up its sleeves. But Mankiller is a compelling subject, and a documentary shedding light on her story is important when it is omitted from so many history books. When Mankiller was first elected chief in 1985, it was to a male-dominant political structure that she broke into with patience and tact. She persevered, secure in the knowledge that the traditional Cherokee way was a more gender-balanced approach. She overcame a lot of obstacles in order to improve the lives of her people, and many believed her work with the federal government might have led to a national political career had her own health not stood in the way.

Mankiller has a legacy worth notice. If the story-telling by director Valerie Red-Horse Mohl is a little bland, Mankiller’s message of empowerment and equality still resonates.

A film like this can be difficult to get off the ground, and a Kickstarter campaign was necessary to secure the least bit of funding. Luckily, the “First Lady of Sci-Fi” Gale Anne Hurd was on board as a producer. Her career was launched when she produced and co-wrote The Terminator but followed up with Aliens, The Abyss, Armageddon, The Incredible Hulk, Dick, and more. Today she’s the executive producer of The Walking Dead, which means she had lots of famous friends to call upon for lucrative Kickstarter rewards. Creator Robert Kirkman signed comic books; composer Bear McCreary contributed copies of the score; the costumer Eulyn Womble designed special tshirts; Norman Reedus volunteered a custom voicemail message; Hershel himself, Scott Wilson, offered up a spaghetti dinner; showrunner Scott Gimple signed scripts. I think it’s really special when people come together to back a project like this. And I think it’s a credit to Mankiller’s memory that this documentary came together under the supervision of two strong and capable women. You can see this film when it screens at the ImagiNative film festival, Saturday October 21st at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Unfractured

Greetings from Toronto’s Planet In Focus film festival, an environmental festival that highlights films that “question, explore, and tell stories about the world in which we live.”

Their opening night film is Chanda Chevannes’ Unfractured. It’s about fracking, but more than that, it’s about Dr. Sandra Steingraber, the tireless anti-fracking activist from upstate New York. The documentary follows her industrious and tenacious work to get her government to outlaw fracking. Chevannes follows her as she makes speeches, risks arrest at protests, and visits other countries to find out how others are dealing with this environmental disaster in the face of fierce opposition from its profiteers.

Dr. Steingraber is an eco-activist, a biologist, and a prolific writer on the topics of climate change and ecology. Her previous collaboration with Chevannes based on her highly acclaimed book, Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment resulted in a documentary seen by millions. Unfractured is a further exploration of the topic, linking fracking not just to damage to the environment, but to terrible risks to the health of the people living anywhere near it.

Dr. Steingraber is also a wife and a mother. Even when her home life is shaky, she doggedly pursues her advocacy because she genuinely believes in health and safety not just for her own family but for her community. Her commitment to the cause is inspiring; I was particularly moved by “The antidote to despair and cynicism is to fight with your whole heart.” This documentary speaks to any of us who feel sometimes that the fight is just too big, that things are hopeless as they stand. As Steingraber puts it, “We are all members of a great human orchestra and it is now time to play the Save the World Symphony. You do not have to play a solo, but you do have to know what instrument you hold and find your place in the score.”

 

OPENING NIGHT GALA & RECEPTION

Thursday, October 19, 2017
The Royal Cinema
6:30 PM (Doors Open at 6:00 PM)
Reception to follow at Revival Bar at 9:00 PM

 

TIFF: Gaga: Five Foot Two

Whether or not you love her music, you know Lady Gaga. You know the stunts, the hair, the makeup, the crazy costumes, the meat dress, the Madonna feud, the constant nudity. But when Lady Gaga wanted to rebrand herself with a new album,  Joanne, in which both she and her music would be stripped-down and very different from their former selves, she decided this documentary would be just the thing to introduce Lady Gaga-lite to her fans.

Like way too many documentaries of this sort, Lady Gaga only offers up what she wants us to see, nothing more, and definitely nothing very personal. It’s all about the music, so your enjoyment of this film will depend a lot on your appreciation of her music. Director Chris Moukarbel grants us backstage access to her shows, her recording studio, her music video shoots, and the preparations for her Superbowl halftime show.

I’m not a huge fan of hers, but I can appreciate her voice and her musicianship. I am a little less forgiving of the rich and famous who star in documentaries whose sole purpose is to tell you how hard their cushy lives are. As a fellow sufferer of chronic pain, I want to have sympathy for her plight, but watching doctors who treat the rest of us as drug seekers literally throw them at her is a little disheartening. And that’s not mentioning the personal masseuse and physio therapist she staffs round the clock, or the makeup artist who accompanies her to doctor’s appointments to make sure she never looks less than her best.

Lady Gaga arrives on the red carpet for her film "Gaga: Five Foot Two" during the Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto

I suppose if you’re a big enough fan you can likely look beyond the privileged whining and appreciate the work she pours into her music, and the family story behind the album in question, which is actually quite interesting.

 

I did, at times, feel a little sad for her. In the documentary she seems ready to shed the more outrageous parts of her “performance”, wants to be taken seriously out of the crazy high fashion and in just a pair of jean shorts. Will her fans accept this transition? If you saw her at the TIFF premiere of the film, you’d be inclined to assume the answer is no. She seems to have already reverted to her old ways before the movie even hit Netflix. I guess my biggest takeaway is that yes, compromises have been made. Money and success don’t insulate from that.

Chasing Coral

The ocean only has to warm about two degrees for coral to die, and guess what? The ocean is warming and the coral is dying. Much of it is dead already. It’s not just sad because we’re losing a beautiful animal; coral is vital to our ocean’s ecosystems, and when coral dies, so do many other species in the ocean, and it’s only a matter of time before we ourselves feel dire repercussions. Coral are the trees of the ocean, and their extinction en masse cannot and will not go unnoticed. The question is: will we notice before it’s too late?

One diver, Richard Vevers, realizes the ocean has a bit of an advertising issue: it’s out of sight, and largely out of mind. But if he could find a way to show us at home what’s going on beneath the waves, might we pay attention? Inspired by the film Chasing Ice, which captured the receding glaciers through years of time-lapse, Richard thought the same MV5BODA5ODAyNjk5M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzQ3NTE5MDI@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,785_AL_technique could be applied to the reefs, so he called up director Jeff Orlowski, and an idea was born.

Underwater time lapse meant nothing short of a new invention was necessary. A whole team built special cameras that could exist in salt water for months a time, in the cold, under great depth and pressure, subject to storms, and needing not only to be wiped clean regularly, but to host a router that would send the images back. This is how they meet Zackery Rago, who’s part of the camera building team but also has a secret passion for coral. They position their cameras in the reefs of Hawaii, the Bahamas, and Bermuda, but nature and technology conspire against them. In the end, it’s necessary for them to go down and record this massive bleaching event themselves.

Another lesson learned: watching a beautiful animal die is hard. Watching them practically go extinct is wrenching. 2016 was a bad year for coral. 29% of the Great Barrier Reef died in 2016 alone. In 30 years, we could lose it all. White coral is a shock, of course. The white is the coral’s exposed skeleton. Death is imminent. Dead coral is even sadder, devoid of any life or colour.  While the time lapse originally meant that they could observe this happening from a distance, the modified plan of divers capturing the footage themselves means they are confronted with this death and dying in person, and they find that quite devastating. I think you will too and I think you should watch anyway.

Kristen Bell recorded a song specifically for use in the film. She feels strongly about the film’s message, but I think the hope is that we all will, and feel galvanized into action. You can start with Vever’s The Ocean Agency and suggestions found at Chasing Coral. But I think just not turning away from this is the important thing.

 

 

 

Vegas Baby

Perhaps as many as 1 out of 6 couples faces some sort of fertility issue when trying to conceive a baby. To answer this need, science offers a smidgen of hope: the ability to harvest eggs, inseminate them, and plant the fertilized embryos in utero, giving conception a greater chance. Is it a perfect system? No it is not. The odds are likely still against you. But the numbers aren’t the only barrier to babies – so, too, is the cost. One fertility clinic therefore offers the chance to “win a baby” – really, just one course of in vitro fertilization. But this contest attracts many desperate people who make emotional appeals.

This is a really interesting documentary, and a heartbreaking one too. It addresses issues ranging from:

movieposter.jpga) Is it even ethical to “give away”  a baby as promotional material?

b) Is it exploitative to force fertility-challenged people to compete against one another?

c) What happens to all the “losers”?

d) Why are people willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to conceive, but unwilling to adopt?

e) Why do some countries consider infertility to be a legitimate medical condition deserving of coverage and treatment while the U.S. leaves infertile men and women high and dry?

e) After bankrupting themselves financially and emotionally, what happens to a couple who still doesn’t have a baby?

f) What happens when your heart tells you to pursue baby-making by any means possible, but your religion expressly forbids it?

Director Amanda Micheli has fertility problems of her own, and used the baby contest as a provocative conversation starter in this documentary, a film that takes a look behind the curtain at the subject that is so rarely talked about. It’s a well-made film that is interesting and worth of your time. Kudos to all the people who shared their journey and their private pain; fertility and infertility are little understood, so shining a light on this issue is an important step in humanizing a subject that really hits us at the core of our personhood. We take our fertility for granted and losing control over something our bodies are supposed to do naturally seems to be a demoralizing process. The film is full of heartbreak. But there are little rays of hope too, and Micheli does a good job of balancing the rain and the sunshine.

 

 

Mommy Dead and Dearest

Dee Dee Blancharde had had a rough go: displaced by Hurricane Katrina, she was the sole care-giver for her severely disabled daughter, Gypsy Rose. Gypsy’s diagnoses were many: epilepsy, muscular dystrophy, asthma, sleep apnea, cancer, chromosomal and developmental defects. She was confined to a wheel chair, fed by a tube, often breathing with the help of an oxygen tank. She endured frequent surgery and chronic pain. She was brain damaged and stuck at the intellectual age of 7. Dee Dee, devoted to her daughter, didn’t work. They accepted charity in the form of a house from Habitat for Humanity, met Miranda Lambert through the Make-a-Wish Foundation, got free trips to Disney World, Gypsy’s favourite. Kindly neighbours pitched in what they could; the Blanchardes were community fixtures, and well-liked. Then one day Dee Dee’s Facebook status read “That bitch is dead” and when police investigated, they found her stabbed to death in bed. Gypsy was nowhere to be found.

This case caught my eye at the time and I read about it extensively. It turns out that MV5BZGI5Nzg5YzktOGQ5NS00MGJhLWI4MWUtODQxZGE1MGQxYWMzXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjA0OTQxMDQ@._V1_Gypsy was never sick, wasn’t even paralyzed. She had endured years of abuse, via ‘Munchausen by proxy,’ a condition wherein a caregiver fakes and actually induces health problems in their child in order to gain sympathy and attention for themselves. Gypsy, armed with a secret internet boyfriend, had had enough, and plotted her mother’s murder.

Mommy Dead and Dearest is a shocking documentary that explores this case in depth. People who knew them were shocked to see Gypsy Rose walking unassisted, and wondered how much she herself had been in on the deception. But even Gypsy Rose didn’t know her true age, or the extent of her health problems. Many of the medications given her to treat fake illnesses gave her real, troubling side effects. The documentary follows her trip through the justice system and asks us whether we must consider her to be a cold-hearted perpetrator, or a victim who finally fought back. Director Erin Lee Carr lets the story tell itself, giving the narrative time and space to unfold itself, deftly answering questions before we even ask them. This case is so astonishing that Carr’s guidance is particularly necessary, yet her presence is minimally felt. I was completely fascinated and absorbed by the story, and I bet you will be too.

Crossing The Line

Danny Lee Harris, 1984: a American track and field athlete who ran the 400-meter hurdles and won silver medals at the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. He was the guy who always finished behind Edwin Moses, a track and field phenom, known as the guy who never loses – and he never did; he had a decade-long winning streak of over 100 races, and never lost until 1987 in Madrid, where he was unseated by Harris.

Danny Lee Harris, 2004: arrested in Santa Monica, he’s charged with the kidnap and robbery of a 75 year old woman. He faced life in prison.

Crossing The Line covers the ground between these two formative events, and what led from one to the other. Hint: cocaine.

David Tryhorn’s documentary explores the highs of sports achievements, and the lows, especially comparatively, that come after it. There’s not much that competes with winning a medal for your country, but I suppose cocaine is close. An athlete almost has to have an addictive personality in order to keep that single-minded discipline required for elite training. But what happens when that career is over and the sport just doesn’t consume you the way it used to? There’s a void. Tryhorn uses interviews with Harris’s track and field colleagues and with addictions counselors to give a fuller picture of that post-race deflation effect.

For Harris, the more cocaine he did, the more raced he need to run and to win in order to fund his habit. But running meant exposing himself to drug tests. Eventually he was caught and banned for 4 years, effectively ending his career (at the time, steroid use, an actual performance enhancer, would have only gotten him 2 years). Harris’ downward spiral feels almost inevitable, but Tryhorn is careful to paint a wider picture in which he is only one of many athletes to trace that trajectory. Crossing The Line is a well-made film that shows the flip side to sporting fame and glory.

 

 

 

 

 

Keepers of the Game

High school funding for sports, and girls’ sports in particular, is on the decline, but fundraising isn’t the only issue for the members of the Salmon River High team. As the first all-Native girls lacrosse team in their section, they’ve got something to prove, and 22KEEPERS-master768not just to their rivals, but to their own community as well. Lacrosse was born on their land, the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory, but it’s a game traditionally reserved for men. Considered a gift from their Creator, lacrosse was meant as a way for men to settle disputes among tribes.  The community is split as to whether women should be allowed to play this sacred game at all. Some believe that like all surviving culture, theirs too must grow and change to meet the needs of the people. Others cling to tradition. But all agree that this game is medicinal and can be used for healing. When the girls play, they take it seriously; they too want to honour their culture. Is it really such an abomination to take up their Nation’s sport?

Lacrosse is Canada’s national sport (or its summer sport, hockey being our winter one), and it so happens that I grew up on the Canadian side of the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory. The fact that none of this was unfamiliar to me didn’t make the documentary any less watchable – that’s a real credit to the movie. I have a deep respect for Aboriginal people, for their values, culture and beliefs, but there’s still a big part of me that struggles to see any woman being shut out of, well, anything in 2017. So I’m going to remind myself of some pretty important cultural context: the 2012 Olympic Games in London were the first games in which every participating country included female athletes, and in which women were able to compete in all sports. The very first Olympics were of course men only, and when women did start competing last century, it was only in golf and tennis. Women didn’t curl or play hockey in the Olympics until 1998. Weightlifting, pentathlon, taekwondo, and triathlon weren’t added until 2000. Also new to women in sports this century: bobsled, wrestling, and BMX. And finally in 2012, boxing and ski jumping were added to make women competitive in every sport. Isn’t that crazy? Of course, just because those sports are now included doesn’t mean you’ll get to see them played. NBC still spends more time covering men’s sports than women’s, particularly in winter (women fare a little better in the summer because American women win more medals than their male counterparts – BUT EVEN THEN IT’S STILL NOT EQUAL). TV time for women’s sports are still mostly dedicated to thinks like gymnastics and figure skating rather than say, judo or shotput. Women’s beach volleyball seems to get quite a bit of coverage, but I’m not sure that’s about pride in athleticism so much as the REGULATION uniform of bikinis. Yes, American women do quite well in beach volleyball. In 2008 both the men’s and women’s teams medaled but more coverage went to the women’s teams. The women’s indoor team also medaled that year but it wasn’t covered at all. So before we get on our high horses about a culturally-held belief, we need to remember that the sports most associated with women today – figure skating, swimming, gymnastics, beach volleyball – are all sports in which women are non-aggressive and scantily clad.

Back to the movie. Director Judd Ehrlich does an excellent job of sitting back and letting the girls speak for themselves. It’s clear from footage that there is no lack of skill or athleticism, but the girls are also thoughtful and expressive. Ehrlich frames the documentary as one season’s push to defeat a rival team, win a championship, and change hearts and minds along the way, but this documentary, part of the programming at the Canadian Sports Film Festival, is also an exploration of culture and identity. School sports do not exist in a vacuum. The girls attend a public school where the curriculum is very light on, and sometimes misleading about Native culture. They are taunted with racial slurs. They play competitors that have racist mascots. The film is much more than the game. And thanks to nimble editing and savvy camerawork, it’s a thrill to watch, too.

 

 

 

 

10 Must-See Documentaries on Netflix

An earlier post flagged some good movies worth your time on Netflix. This one does the same but shines the spotlight on documentaries, an especially strong category on Netflix. These are current on Canadian Netflix as of May 2017 and clicking on blue titles will reveal a more detailed look at some very good films.

Sour Grapes: Welcome to the world of fine and rare wine auction markets, and how they were ripe for fraud. This doc centers on one particular counterfeiter who befriended the rich and powerful and swindled them out of millions of dollars.

13th: Ava DuVernay’s in-depth look at the prison system in the United States how it reveals America’s history of racial inequality. The system is busted. Get woke.

Jesus Camp: I’ve forced this one on a few people now because I think it’s daring and scary as fuck. It’s about a camp indoctrinating kids into evangelical Christianity and the extremism on display is alarming.

Muscle Shoals: A must-see for music lovers, it explores the studio itself and Rick Hall, the man behind it, responsible for making music that defined a generation, birthing the Muscle Shoals Sound, remaining influential and relevant today.

Peter and the Farm: One of the most authentic slices of life I’ve ever seen on film. Peter is an old man, the product of his addictions. He’s alone on his farm, resenting the land he once cherished, and counting down the days until he dies alone. Depressing but fascinating.

Tower: A look at the fateful day when a sharpshooter started killing people on a college campus in Austin, Texas. Effective story telling and a visual flair help piece together a narrative worthy of remembrance.

Raiders!: A somewhat gleeful fulfillment of a childhood dream. Friends who spent their youth remaking Raiders of the lost Ark reunite to film the one last scene that eluded them at the time due to budgetary and logistical reasons but is now within their grasp.

The Hunting Ground: An unflinching look at the campus rape epidemic: the boys who perpetrate it, the administrators who cover it up, and the girls and their families who lay devastated in its wake.

Miss Sharon Jones: Just as her singing career is exploding she’s sidelined by pancreatic cancer. It’s the worst year of her life, but she’s not the kind of woman who goes without a fight.

For The Love of Spock: A sweet tribute to his father, Leonard Nimoy, by a son in mourning for a father and a national icon. Learn about the man and his most famous character, and be touched by how much those two overlapped.

 

What are your Netflix picks?