Tag Archives: documentaries

Marks of Mana

According to Samoan legend, two goddesses intended to give tattoos, traditionally called “tatau”, to the Samoan women, but on their long swim to Samoa from Fiji the goddesses got confused and gave tattoos to men instead.  Marks of Mana offers a look at a number of women who are now reclaiming the art of tatau for themselves as well as for the memories of their ancestors, and reporting these tattooing ceremonies as being a life-changing experience.marks of mana

This documentary begins in Samoa, naturally, as we meet a female chief and her family of seven (grown) children.  One of her five daughters is about to get her malu, which is a thigh tattoo only for women that is both a coming-of-age moment and a ceremonial recognition and affirmation of a woman’s connection to her ancestry.  Meeting this family emphasizes the historical standing of women to Samoa’s indigenous people, as equals and leaders rather than as less than men.  Similar longstanding “progressive” attitudes are on display at other South Pacific locations as well, such as Papua New Guinea, as it’s a consistent theme that women’s tattoos signify their knowledge and power within their societies.

Of course, the power that women traditionally possessed in those societies was suppressed, stymied and rejected by the island’s colonizers, who saw no problem with imposing their backwards, misogynistic cultures on the Samoans.  The absurdity of that transaction and the colonizers’ arrogance in forcing their values on the Samoans and others is subtly displayed by this film in each of its segments, and nicely displaces the false narrative that colonizers were welcomed by the colonized because they improved the colonized societies with their intrusion.

The version of Marks of Mana shown to me was unfinished (the main omissions were subtitles and one segment out of five).  Having seen the work in progress, I am eager to see the finished product because what has been created so far is a valuable, enlightening and uplifting look at the ceremonial aspect of Polynesian tattoos and the healing power of reclaiming one’s cultural traditions.

Marks of Mana is screening as part of Toronto’s ImagineNATIVE Film & Media Arts Festival on October 19, 2018 at 11 a.m. at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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After The Apology

The stolen generations. That’s what they call the many, many Aboriginal children who were taken out of their homes and put into care outside their families and community. Ten years ago, the government issued an apology for its past transgressions and Aboriginal peoples were gratified for the acknowledgement of their pain and suffering but it didn’t take long to recognize the apology as a hollow one. ‘Sorry’ means you don’t do it again.  But they did. In fact, in the following years, the number of Aboriginal kids apprehended by the system nearly doubled. And even though their own policies in the care and protection act supposedly prevent this, Aboriginal children are 10 times more like than non-Aboriginals to be taken away from their parents, and 70% are removed entirely from their communities.

When I read the movie’s synopsis, I assumed this film was Canadian. It is not. It is Australian. But their story is our story. We have these issues here too.

MV5BM2YyY2EwNTgtNjg2YS00NDk1LWFhZDctYmQ5MWVlMTg0MzVhXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTAxNTY0MjI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1509,1000_AL_Aboriginal people have been through a lot, historically, and still. Snatching children from out of their homes is among the most destructive of them. It breaks down their culture, their language, their family ties. It robs them of identity.

In most cases of family and children services, children are removed because of domestic violence, mental illness, and drug/alcohol abuse. It’s hard to argue against those judgments, though individual situations vary. In the case of Aboriginal children, the reason most often cited is ‘neglect’ and that’s a harder one to address. Often this label of neglect is assessed by middle-class white ladies who don’t understand the culture or can’t see beyond the poverty. The cupboards aren’t well stocked but the children are not hungry. There may not be a crib in the house, but the baby is loved and cared for according to the family’s values. The system  is racist. Plain and simple. Its many inadequacies are illustrated (sometimes literally) by the stories in this documentary.

Director Larissa Behrendt focuses on four grandmothers in particular who are taking on the system on behalf of their communities. It’s a brilliant approach that personalizes the cause and leaves us with a bit of hope. It’s a look toward the future, but one informed by the mistakes of the past, which we cannot afford to ignore. This documentary insures we do not.

 

 

 

Transformer

Janae Marie Kroczaleski was just going about her business in 2015 when she was publicly outed by a Youtuber without her consent. Her parents disowned her, her sponsors dropped her: overnight her life had been decided for her. Born Matt Kroczaleski, she had known for a long time that her true identity was female. Matt joined the Marines to help “push down the feminine stuff.” He married and had 3 children. But Matt never felt right in his skin. If he had to live as a male, he had to be the biggest, strongest guy he could be, and he was. A power-lifter known to his fans simply as ‘Kroc,’ Matt became the strongest man in the world for his size.

Still, he thought constantly about living as a woman, and didn’t feel authentic in his body. Over a period of 10 years, he began transitioning many times. He didn’t quit VWrtDx-gbecause it was difficult, or because he was unsure. He’d quit because he couldn’t reconcile the two halves of himself: the need to be strong AND be a woman. In his male skin, he needed to be the biggest, the most muscular, but as a woman he wanted to be petite. When he cut weight, dieted and stopped lifting, he deprived himself of his friends, his support system, the world he knew and the lifestyle he loved. Muscles were a security blanket of sorts. It’s hard to let those go.

Director Michael Del Monte makes a fascinating documentary because he’s chosen a subject who is open and accessible. Janae is courageous and enlightening. It may not have been her idea to go public, but she embraces it bravely. I loved her willingness to speak candidly about failed transitions. I adored scenes with her family – her sons are terrific people who are not only supportive but engaged in her transition, asking intelligent questions while treating her in the same loving way they’ve always treated their father – they know this is the same person, only happier and more honest. These young men have a lot to teach adults twice their age.

The documentary bracingly follows Janae as she makes this transition her last. She’s going to learn that all women are strong, by necessity, no matter what they look like on the outside. Matt Kroczaleski went through a lot in his life, but Janae understands that her path will be hardest to follow. In this documentary, she loses her job, encounters protesters, has “elective” surgery that for her is life-saving, life-embracing, is a supportive and knowledgeable judge at transfitcon, and evaluates her ass in a pair of skinny jeans. The world is complex. Janae is realistic. Transformer doesn’t speak for all transgendered people, but it speaks wonderfully to one woman’s experience. It’s personal, it’s intimate, and it’s a beautiful portrait of a life in transition and a woman coming in to her own.

 

 

Living Proof

When I was a little girl, my school had an annual “read-a-thon” to raise money for MS. Finally, a “thon” that little unathletic Jay could win! And boy did I: hundreds of books read, and hundreds of dollars raised.

Film maker Matt Embry was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when he was only 19 years old. A debilitating, incurable disease, both Matt and his family were devastated by it. His father, Ashton Embry, was frustrated at the paltry support offered by their doctors and with the lack of long-term results offered by any of the medication available. So he did his own research, and thanks in part to Judy Graham’s book about living with MS MV5BMjZhYmVmNTctNTlhZC00YmQ5LWJkZTUtM2ExN2RiMTc3ZWEyXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMzc4MTI1OTQ@._V1_naturally, he developed a diet for his son to follow. Matt eats unprocessed food – no gluten, no dairy – mostly fruit, veg, and lean meats. And since MS occurs more often in northern countries, like Canada, he takes a big ole dose of Vitamin D, like sunshine in a bottle. Yes, it’s a strict diet and requires constant preparation and vigilance. But if you’ve known someone cut down by MS, their bodies just literally abandoning them, you’d probably find such a possibility to be suitably motivating. And thanks to this lifestyle, Matt is still symptom-free, TWENTY YEARS after diagnosis. He has never taken any medication, but he has had a procedure called CCSVI – many people with MS have significant blockages in their jugular vein, which means not enough blood flows through to the brain.

Staving off MS without expensive drugs is reason enough for a documentary. Though it’s likely not the answer for everyone, it seems harmless enough to try, so Matt and his family have been devoted to disseminating the information, free of charge. But MS patients must happen upon it themselves, because none of the official avenues will so much as suggest it as an alternative. People my age are confined to wheel chairs and nursing homes because big pharma is only interested in medical alternatives that will make life-long paying customers out of patients. Diet and exercise are not profitable.

But you and I expect no less of the pharmaceutical industry. It’s unconscionable.  What really got my goat was the complicity of the MS Society of Canada, and its many chapters around the world. They raise millions of dollars, give a fraction to research, and literally suppress invaluable information from the people who suffer from MS and depend on them for resources. They accept donations from pharmaceutical companies, they endorse their drugs, and they funnel the money back toward research for medicine that will not cure MS. I am enraged to know that I ever gave\raised money for the MS Society. I was even more enraged to see them using the donations of well-meaning, hard-working people to sue the likes of Matt Embry. No wonder there have never been any significant advancements in MS research. It’s enough to make you sick.

Three Identical Strangers

This might be the only time I steer you away from the page, but if you haven’t seen Three Identical Strangers, it’s best to go in cold. May I suggest you read instead about Damien Chazelle’s Oscar-front-runner First Man or Lynne Ramsay’s disturbing 2011 movie, We Need To Talk About Kevin?

If you have seen the movie, however, I’m sure you’re half-mad with wanting to talk MV5BMTc0NWM3ZGItMzlmZC00NDRmLWJlZmUtMjkzZjNlYmNhYTc1XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzgxMzYzNjA@._V1_SY1000_SX675_AL_about it. It’s a documentary about two guys who discover, quite by accident, that they are twins, separated at birth. They were both adopted and had no idea they had a look-alike brother until mutual friends confused them when they both wound up at the same college, which is amazing enough. Their story goes national: it’s the feel-good story of the year, two 19 year old boys jubilantly reunited. And of the millions who catch sight of their front-page story is a third identical stranger. They are not twins, but triplets.

That feels like more than enough to have an engaging story, but in fact their story is only getting started, and it isn’t all as happy as their initial heady days together suggest.

This documentary is so well put-together that the intrigue stays with the film way beyond its first reveal. But this is not a piece of fiction. They’re real people who not only have their lives disrupted but find out they’ve been living with a painful absence. And then they find out worse things still. It drove me so crazy I was literally yelling at my TV (Three Identical Strangers has recently become available for rent).

I wrote recently about the above-mentioned We Need To Talk About Kevin, in which Lynne Ramsay gives us an awful lot to think about nature and nurture. Three Identical Strangers does it too in a way that’s utterly heart breaking. There are so many questions raised and injustices singled out and ethics breached that it’s aching, hard to catch your breath. But it’s must-watch material.

 

McQueen

Lee Alexander McQueen was an unlikely fellow in the world of high fashion. His family was blue-collar, his life quite humble. But for some reason he couldn’t stop drawing dresses, and he started making those drawings into actual pieces of clothing, he found he was quite good. Unexpectedly, criminally good.

MV5BZjcwNzQxMGQtMzJkMy00M2QyLWE0Y2QtZTI0YWY3ZDhiMjFhXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTc5OTMwOTQ@._V1_Lee’s flair for the dramatic meant he put on a damn good fashion show. Between his theatrical catwalks and his astonishing creations, he made a name for himself very quickly, very young. London loved to call him their own fashion bad boy, but he was nearly rejected by couture’s real epicentre, Paris, for being of the wrong cut. He was crass, he was lower class. He didn’t look the part or dress the part. Luckily fashion icon Isabella Blow discovered him, and through her, so did the world.

This documentary is extremely well done, each chapter reflects a new “season” or collection of clothing, which he centered around dark, brooding, often violent themes. And as the documentary shows, those themes often reflected his own frame of mind. He was troubled by what he’d experienced in life, and the way he used fashion to work out his mental health was revolutionary but not always appreciated.

The movie gives us a front-row seat to a brilliant but tormented soul who achieved everything he ever wanted but never got to be happy about it. The directors ( Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui) come at their subject from all angles and withsawqs2 impeccable sources to give us a full portrait of a man we previously only knew from headlines. This is more biography than fashion retrospective, but it’s as beautiful as it is well-crafted. Intimate, startling. The title cards alone would make McQueen proud.

TIFF18: Quincy

Quincy Jones is an icon, a man who needs no introduction from the likes of me. He’s worked with the best because he is the best – not just at composing music or creating trends, but at transcending them, and transcending culture itself. If you listen closely, this movie is about a man who consistently allows his talent to break down barriers. He’s accumulated a lot of “firsts” in his life (the first African American to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song – and the first African American to be nominated twice in one year as he was also named in the Best Score category; the first African American to hold the position of vice president of a white-owned record company;  the first African American to be the musical director and conductor of the Academy Awards ceremony) but as far as I’m concerned, he’s also a man with a lot of “onlies” to his name – the first, and the only, because this man is a trail-blazer of incomparable talent and drive.

With his daughter Rashida Jones co-directing the film, they skate lightly over the more scandalous periods of his life and focus on his love of family and his impressive musical career. He composed for Frank Sinatra and for Sidney Lumet. He MV5BYzZhMTY1YjQtNWRjNi00YzVkLWEwODAtNzk1MjMzNzZiMWE1XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTc5OTMwOTQ@._V1_wrote movie scores and TV theme songs. He traveled the world making music, and he’s given back to the community by mentoring young musicians and passing the baton, literally, to new composers. He met Michael Jackson while working on The Wiz, and went on to produce Off The Wall, Thriller, and Bad with him. Oprah credits him for ‘discovering’ her for The Color Purple, which he scored and produced. He also composed the music to Will Smith’s Fresh Prince theme song – he was a show producer, and Will Smith auditioned for and signed a contract at Quincy’s 57th birthday party.

Between his art and philanthropy, there isn’t a corner of culture the man hasn’t marked and this documentary offers an excellent overview of his accomplishments while also providing insight to the life he lives at home. I love the many Quincy-isms up for grabs in this doc. There aren’t many topics where he doesn’t offer some bit of wisdom. But neither he nor his daughters (he’s got 6 – it’s almost biblical) believe him to be without flaws, but perhaps at the age of 85, we can afford to concentrate more on his activism and artistry, and the terrific impact he’s had on music and pop culture. You can check Quincy out right now on Netflix.