Tag Archives: documentaries

Crack: Cocaine, Corruption & Conspiracy

I doubt anyone needs to be reminded that crack is a very bad, no good idea. However, you might appreciate a documentary that explores the ways in which the American government used a drug to exploit and manipulate a population.

Though the government itself was responsible for importing this insidious substance, it had no problem with the hypocrisy involved in blaming the victim and criminalizing a disease. Addicts were shown no mercy. In fact, these were, not coincidentally, the days of mandatory minimums, where (Black) people were being thrown in jail for decades over piddling amounts of drugs. Racial bias you say? Absofuckinglutely.

This documentary probably tries to cover too much ground and talk to too many people, not all of whom agree on all of the facts, so there are inconsistencies that might niggle at you, but that’s life. This is a complex issue and we’re still trying to follow all the threads. The constant, though, is the destruction it brought down upon a community that is still reeling and trying to recuperate.

Is Crack: Cocaine, Corruption & Conspiracy a perfect documentary? It is not. Perhaps a narrower focus might have improved the view. Still, it’s a worthy effort and an important subject, especially with the benefit of hindsight that allows us to take a look in the rearview and really appreciate how much it altered a culture and left an indelible stain on a country that would rather sweep these contradictions under the nearest supermax prison.

The Man Who Walked Around The World

Anthony Wonke has a wonky way of starting movies. It can never be any director’s intention to confuse the viewer into turning the movie off just to double check they’ve clicked on the right one, and yet that’s exactly the effect he creates when he introduces the topic in the most roundabout way possible.

For those of you who think you might like to tackle this documentary, know that the film will make you believe, for the first 5 minutes or so, that this is about some very bad men in Iraq, but when Mr. Iraq eventually gets to his point, which isn’t very interesting, it’s that whisky saved Iraq. Won Iraq? Whatever the hell they were doing there, whisky helped. And not just any whisky. Johnnie Walker whisky.

Note: I very much want to spell it whiskey, as I always have, and always will, but since Johnnie Walker spelled it whisky, I’ll honour his wishes this one and only time since we are indeed talking about the 200 year history of his well known and well loved brand.

Johnnie Walker was indeed a man, the son of a farmer who poured his inheritance into a grocery store where he blended and sold his own whisky, which his ancestors shrewdly turned into a global brand that may or may not help Americans end wars. Don’t worry, the hyperbole won’t stop there: Johnnie Walker was also the hero of prohibition, and the brave solver of racism. According to this documentary, which I’m beginning to suspect may be a little biased. It is not, however, contributing in any positive way to sexism, because the brand aims to be synonymous with masculinity, so if you’re a woman who drinks whisky, go fuck yourself.

But at least it’s not contradictory. For example, Johnnie Walker is a respected and recognized brand that is its own best advocate and is so sophisticated it would be demeaning to pay for product placement or celebrity endorsement, and don’t just take our word for it, let’s hear from brand ambassador Sophia Bush, or the guy in charge of pointing out it’s the preferred brand of Superman (in Superman 3) and Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford, Blade Runner).

The Man Who Walked Around the World is either a very bad documentary or a very good commercial. If you hit the red label hard enough, it probably doesn’t matter which. If you’re sober, however, you might want to…well, keep walking.

Beastie Boys Story

Mike Diamond and Adam Horovitz stopped performing as Beastie Boys when friend and bandmate Adam Yauch died in 2012 after a 3 year battle with cancer. Actually, their last performance was in 2009, though none of them knew that it would be then.

This is an untraditional documentary; Diamond and Horovitz have mounted a stage show about the band’s history, its improbable beginnings, the ups and downs of fame, success, and friendship, all filmed by director Spike Jonze in front of a live audience. With behind the scenes photos, intimate stories, and little-known details, Diamond and Horovitz paint an intimate portrait of the Beastie Boys origin story, the turning points, the slumps, the resurrections, the regrets, the compromises, the hardships, and the insane parties.

Of course, at the heart of it all is a 40 year friendship between 3 guys who never grew bored of creating together. It’s clear that Diamond and Horovitz relish the opportunity to remember and honour their fallen friend, but are still emotional doing so. I felt it too, not because of his absence but because he actually felt quite present, so well remembered, so vibrant in memory and legacy. If you’re any kind of fan, you’ll enjoy taking a trip back to their earliest days, and then riding that crazy wave all the way to their most recent success. With so many hits in their catalogue, it’s definitely an enjoyable trip.

Boys State

Every year, the American Legion hosts a thousand 17-year-old boys from Texas and has them build a representative government from the ground up.  Every state but Hawaii does the same or similar, but this particular documentary is hanging around Austin, Texas, to witness their particular experience. High schools nominate which students will be sent, ostensibly some from all different political backgrounds, dividing them up into ‘cities’ which will then elect mock municipal officials, and representatives of state legislature, even state officials all the way up to governor. It sounds rather noble, definitely educational, like a mock-UN for local politics. But in practice, it’s actually pretty ugly. The kids aren’t learning to be civic-minded good citizens, they’re learning to lie, cheat – and worse.

Obviously politics is a dirty game, but I think it might be nice to at least teach kids the right way, the better way, the idealistic way before we give up on them entirely in adulthood and actually let them vote…or run! But no, these kids are petty and ruthless. They’ve come to win at any cost, and there’s no pretense in running clean campaigns. While organizing political parties, their fundamentals are decided upon by what tracks well, not by anyone’s actual beliefs. They’ve already learned about identity politics, and they’ll comb each other’s social media, looking for any weakness they can leak and exploit. They make empty promises, pass harmful bills, and shamelessly pander for votes.

It’s clear that as far as American politics goes, the corruption is baked right in. It’s being taught and endorsed by the American Legion! While I of course abhor the Boys State program for what it’s allowing, I applaud the documentary for exposing it for what it is. It’s important to understand just how ingrained these dirty politics have become. By the age of 17, it is clear to these kids that a life and career in politics is not about values or beliefs or doing what’s right or helping people or serving one’s country. It’s about winning, at any cost, and being willing to make any compromise in order to cross that finish line in front of one’s opponent. If adult politicians are varying degrees of good at concealing that naked fact, these kids are not. Some of us (by which I mean myself) often make the mistake of believing that things will be better when the old guard dies out, but this film makes it clear that this is a dangerous expectation – not only have the bad habits already been passed down, these kids are honing them. Soon there will be no pretense at all in the game, simply undisguised greed and self-interest.

Ariana Grande: Excuse Me, I Love You

Random thoughts I had while watching Ariana Grande: Excuse Me, I Love You an essay by Jay Taylor

Calling this a documentary seems generous if not downright false. It’s 90% concert footage, 5% rehearsal, and 5% nonsense. You won’t get to know the girl behind the music, you’ll just get a better than average view of her Sweetener World Tour for a fraction of the price.

First song: God Is A Woman, or, if the staging is to be believed, Ariana is the woman who is God, or at the very least Christ, seeing how she’s got the seat of honour at a table that looks very last suppery. Although if the lyrics are to be believed, Ariana is God because she’s good at sex. Turns out, Ariana isn’t very good at songwriting – and she had 4 other grown ups help her with such gems as “We can make it last, take it slow, hmm.”

Confession that’s probably already obvious: I’m not a fan. I’m not not a fan. I’m not a hater. I’m just not a fan. I recognized a couple of the songs because I’m a human of Earth, but I never thought any of them great and now I’m convinced they’re pretty bad.

Also pretty bad: Scooter Braun. You know, the evil man who tried to shit all over Taylor Swift? Him. He’s still Ariana’s manager, and she’s so unashamed of this he features in this “documentary” more than once. Sean and I both booed him at the exact same time. We may not know much about Ms. Grande but we do know that there is only one right stance to have about Scooter Braun and that’s against. I’m disappointed in Ariana; it’s a total violation of girl code, of good person code, and though I don’t expect much of her, this is still a pretty shitty thing.

This never occurred to me before, but are there no atheists in pop music? Literally every film of concert footage has a prayer circle before each performance with hand holding and out-loud prayers for a good show. Most work places are super duper not allowed to force their employees to pray for show, but pop star world tours seem to be some sort of exception because that shit does not look voluntary at all.

Sean commented about how 88% of people in the doc are billed as Ariana’s “best friend” but that’s literally the only thing about the “movie” that didn’t bother me. Like Mindy Lahiri once said, “A best friend isn’t a person, it’s a tier.” Although, I will say there are a suspicious amount of “best friends” on the payroll; how “best” is this “friend” if you have to pay them?

Speaking of which: mom Joan is a chronic hanger-on herself. Ariana Grande is 27 years old. I’m not sure at which age exactly that becomes creepy, but it was before 27, even if you’re not gyrating in PVC while singing about your sex being god-like. NOT CREEPY AT ALL.

Anyway: is there any personality underneath that high pony? Unknown. There’s nothing new or illuminating or interesting here, just definitely-seen-before pieces of her already dated world tour. It’s a 1 hour, 37 minute commercial for Ariana Grande who must be, if nothing else, pretty savvy about marketing herself – especially since the day this doc hit Netflix just happens to also be the day she announced her most recent engagement.

Continue the Ariana discussion on Youtube!

Queer Japan

Director Graham Kolbeins’s Queer Japan has a big, open heart. The documentary examines the multi-faceted queer community in Japan with a generous cross-section of its members. Tomato Hatakeno is a transgender activist and video game guide book author; Gengoroh Tagame is a gay erotic artist known internationally for his hardcore BDSM-themed manga; Vivienne Sato is a famed artist and drag queen. But despite the film’s depth of  trailblazing artists and activists, it punches most heavily when it’s sitting with everyday people, people who are making compromises and taking risks just to live some part of their truth. One young person, a misfit, a gender outlaw, commented at a pride parade “I don’t give a shit about love, I need toilets” – a brutally honest reminder of a hierarchy of needs and rights that are not addressed equally within the community (or, I suppose, without).

Curating from over a hundred interviews conducted over 3 years in various locations across Japan, Kolbein has more than enough colour to paint a rainbow. We get a back stage pass to the glossy parties and the seedy underground, meeting people living boldly in all walks of life. It’s truly a prismatic view of Japan’s deliciously diverse queer culture, and a glossary of terms is helpfully provided so we enjoy as immersive an experience as possible.

Queer Japan is a celebration of non-conformity, of alternative thinking, of living life without apology. But this party is also well-informed by that same community’s hardships, struggles, and minority status. While much of it is still lived in the margins, the documentary’s hopeful, irrepressible tone makes it clear that change is coming, and this vibrant, resilient community is not just ready for it. They’re making it happen.

Queer Japan is available in virtual cinemas and on demand December 11.

Crip Camp

December 3rd is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. You may have heard some rumbling about disabled representation in the movies lately – Anne Hathaway took some flak for her limb difference in The Witches, and Sia’s movie, Music, has been criticized for casting a non-autistic actor in the lead role. Representation matters, and while the Oscars LOVE disabled characters, they don’t show the same love for disabled actors, who are rarely cast to portray themselves on screen, and almost never cast to portray anyone else. Although 20% of us live with some sort of disability, less than 5% of movie and TV characters are disabled, and of those few who are, less than 3% are played by actually disabled actors. That math is abysmal. Are disabilities the last place of the civil rights movement?

To mark the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, we watched a documentary on Netflix called Crip Camp.

Camp Jened (its legal name), had actually been in existence for years, but in the early 1970s it was run by hippies who created an oasis of sorts for disabled teenagers. To anyone else, it would have looked like a run-down, ramshackle summer camp of nightmares, but to those who attended, it was practically utopia. In the 1970s, the world was not accommodating to those with disabilities. Most disabled persons lived in relative isolation, dependent on others, if not outright institutionalized. At Camp Jened, they were free. Not free of their disabilities, but free of the judgement and discrimination. In a camp where everyone was disabled, no one was; the disabilities virtually unnoticed, the campers were allowed to be defined by other things, perhaps feeling fulfilled as human beings for the first time. Like any teenager, they played sports, sang songs, smoked and made out – for many this was the only opportunity to “date.”

When they grew out of camp, this close-knit group stuck together, and started advocating and disrupting for disabled rights, inclusion, and accessibility.

Crip Camp is co-directed by filmmaker Nicole Newnham and former camper Jim LeBrecht, an overdue tribute to the place that ultimately changed the world for millions of disabled people.

Although the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed 30 years ago (in 1990: that is actually shamefully recent!), disabled people to this day are fighting just for the right to exist with dignity and anything resembling equality.

I myself live with several (mostly invisible) disabilities. 2020 has been a strange year for people with disabilities. On the one hand, the whole world has gotten a taste of what it’s like to be me. Because I am immuno-compromised, I’ve always battled against viruses, each one potentially very serious for me as I lack a basic immune system to fight them. With the pandemic, every Canadian across this country automatically got all of the accommodations I’ve had to fight to have at my own work: clean work stations, physical distancing, even the right to work at home, which seems a small ask when it’s potentially life saving. I’ve been in medical isolation at home since March. When restrictions were starting to ease up over the summer, many Canadians ventured out of their homes while I stayed in mine. Like many people with disabilities, it’s hard not to feel like life sometimes moves on without us, forgets the people still trapped in their homes. Now that the COVID numbers are increasing again, Canadian regulations have once again changed to reflect it, to protect the majority, while those of us in the minority try not to take it personally that our lives are not worth the same consideration.

Before COVID, I led a relatively normal life, at least to outside eyes. I went to work, I travelled, I spent time with family and friends. My life is permanently etched with pain, and my health is constantly compromised by every passing virus, but since I don’t have a choice, I deal with it. Sometimes I miss things. Sometimes I cancel. Sometimes I can’t get out of bed. But I lived. I made significant contributions to my field, I found joy, I was a presence in the lives of my niece and nephews, I hosted dinner parties and attended film festivals and fell in love. Every moment also in pain, sometimes unable to drive or walk or sleep, but doing my best, which was still pretty good. And now my life is on pause. It’s disconcerting, it’s unfair, but it’s not without its positives: 2020 was the first year I didn’t get pneumonia in at least a decade. How about that?

Because actual representation in film is so rare, this is a very short list of actors with disabilities excelling in film:

CJ Jones: he played Ansel Elgort’s disabled foster father in Baby Driver, stealing scenes and providing the film with warmth and heart. But for Jones, parts like these are almost unheard of. “It’s hard to find a black deaf role” although it looks like he’s found another in Avatar 2.

Kiera Allen: she recently played opposite Sarah Paulson in Hulu’s Run, a mother-daughter Munchausen by Proxy thriller. The role is extremely physically demanding, but Allen, who uses a wheelchair in real life, nailed the part and showed us all what she can do.

Adam Pearson: in Chained For Life, Pearson portrays an actor with facial deformities with whom his leading lady struggles to connect while working together. Pearson has neurofibromatosis, type 1 in real life and gives a formidable performance in this film.

Zach Gottsagen: he won hearts in The Peanut Butter Falcon, playing a young man with Downs Syndrome who escapes his care home to pursue his dreams of being a pro wrestler. Starring opposite Shia LaBeouf and Dakota Johnson, Gottsagen holds his own and proves himself more than capable.

Millicent Simmonds: who can forget the deaf actress’ stunning performance in A Quiet Place, a horror film in which monsters hunt what they hear, and one family survives thanks to their ability to communicate in sign language.

TIFF20: Underplayed

You may not be ready to hear this, but did you know men and women aren’t always treated equally? Turns out, that holds true in the music industry as well. In 2019, only 5 of the top 100 DJs list were female, and they made up only 3% of technical and production roles, which is pretty embarrassing, and I thought the days I was embarrassed by math were behind me.

Underplayed explores gender inequality through the lens of EDM. It’s basically the Hidden Figures of electronic music, only these women send concert-goers into ecstatic trances rather than rockets to the moon. Tomato, tomahto.

The EDM community likes to think of itself as rather inclusive, but it clearly falls prey to the same gender, ethnic, and sexual equality issues that virtually everything else does. Systemic bias: it’s the real deal. DJs might put out music under fake names and perform wearing face-covering helmets, but they still find a way to weed out the ladies. That’s pretty dedicated sexism, if you ask me.

Director Stacey Lee assembles the very best in female talent, including Alison Wonderland, Tygapaw, TOKiMONSTA, REZZ, NERVO, Louisahhh, and more (gosh they love their CAPS), but clearly this is an issue that transcends the music industry and affects literally every woman the world over. Lee makes a point of not just discussing the disparity, but exploring how it happens, and how it might change.

TIFF20: Enemies of the State

This was one of the best and most memorable films I saw at TIFF this year, an unexpected surprise that disarmed me and disoriented me, and since I want it to do the same for you, this is going to be a sparse and succinct review.

Sonia Kennebeck’s documentary is about Matt Dehart, who in 2009 was accused and charged by the FBI for possessing child pornography and soliciting minors for sex on the internet. Matt claims these accusations are fabricated to punish and distract from the truth. That Dehart, a former U.S. Air National Guard intelligence analyst, was involved with the Anonymous hacker group and WikiLeaks, and claimed to possess classified documents alleging serious misconduct by the CIA. Matt Dehart counters that his arrest was a ruse to discredit him and an easy way to seize and search his computers for the documents.

Matt’s parents, Paul and Leann, both former U.S. military themselves, come to believe their son, and the whole family becomes embroiled in this cat and mouse chase, from the border of Mexico to the border of Canada, where they sought refuge in Canada, claiming Matt had been tortured in prison upon his arrest.

This story is a delicious, irresistible true crime rabbit hole with so many twists and turns you’ll suffer whiplash from jerking your head in opposing directions so many times. Every new interview seems to contradict the last and the documentary thrives when it pits these two narratives against each other. Is Matt a pedophile or a martyr to espionage? Is this treason or whistleblowing or just a clever and convoluted defense strategy? You can try to be analytical about connecting Kennebeck’s dots, but there are red herrings all over the place, from anthrax to the mob, and that thing called ‘truth’ seems impossible to pin down.

We have a natural and insatiable appetite for conspiracy theories and Kennebeck knows what she has in this doc: an addicting, shocking, ambiguous array of breadcrumbs, and she’s very savvy about how she plants them. Enemies of the State is an excellent, absorbing reminder that we live in a time with access to so much information, but very few paths to the truth.

TIFF20: I Am Greta

In August of 2018, Greta Thunberg, a 15-year-old student in Sweden starts a school strike for the environment. The more she learned about climate change, the more frustrated and fixated she became. What seemed to be the biggest challenge her generation would face, not to mention the certain extinction of further generations, went ignored by those who could and should be doing something – ignored, or worse, disputed. With global warming threatening the very planet she lived on, Greta saw no point in attending school, or in imagining any future at all. Instead she took to the street, the quiet girl on the autism spectrum, uncomfortable being the centre of attention, did the one thing she could because no one else would. Within months she was a world famous activist who’d started a global youth movement.

Director Nathan Grossman and his team have been there from almost the very start, capturing a small, shy girl answering questions, gaze averted, from passerby on the street. And then following her as she makes impassioned speeches to world leaders, her anger damning and shaming them.

I confess, I originally dismissed Greta Thunberg, assuming her cause was just a means to an end – and the end was probably Instagram fame or going viral or some such thing. I assumed she didn’t like the environment half as much as she liked the spotlight, or its money, and that her (stage) parents probably wrote the scripts. Now I am sad for my cynicism; by tolerating politicians who repeatedly break their promises, I am just as complicit. Perhaps I am, to Greta, the more unbelievable of the two.

Many news outlets, and some politicians, have zeroed in on Greta’s autism, and suggested that her “mental illness” causes her to obsess over topics. They’d like to dismiss her, and climate change, in the same breath. But if Greta’s focus is narrower than most, it doesn’t make climate change any less real, or any less of a threat. It makes her a brave whistleblower, the kind that makes people in power nervous because the truth tends to be inconvenient. Greta is the real deal.

By allowing us to observe truthfully, I Am Greta lets us get to know the girl and not just the crusader. This is not a documentary about climate change. It is a documentary about a young woman who becomes the reluctant voice of her generation. Grossman’s profile shows a young woman from an ordinary family, her parents struggling daily with doing the right thing, finding the right way to support her, balancing her needs with the rest of the family’s, and what’s good for her with what’s good for the world as a whole. Greta’s only motivation is the environment. The director’s motivation, however, is a little more complicated. Greta leads by example, and has inspired lots of young people to come forward and hold the adults in charge accountable. By showing us such ordinary domesticity, Grossman is reminding us that if Greta can do it, why not us?

I Am Greta debuts on Hulu November 13th.