Tag Archives: documentaries

Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over

When Dionne Warwick says “Don’t make me over,” what she really means is don’t fuck her over. Don’t you dare underestimate her.

The music industry wasn’t so friendly to people like her when Dionne Warwick came along with that big, undeniable voice of hers. But she wasn’t going to take no for an answer, and with talent like hers, she wouldn’t have to. With tenacity to match her talent, and a savvy way with people, Warwick went from singing in her church choir to international superstardom.

Directors David Heilbroner and Dave Wooley assemble a who’s-who of talking heads: Quincy Jones, Elton John, Gloria Esteban, and of course cousin Whitney Houston, who appears through archival footage. Oh, and don’t forget Bill Clinton, who seems to have dedicated his retirement to appearing in a truly vast array of documentaries. I think he pops up in at least 1 in 3.

The film’s greatest asset is of course Warwick herself, who seems ageless and resplendent, and highly entertaining. As a formative and influential player, she’s got so many great insights into the industry -as an artist, a woman, a person of colour, and the woman tells a hell of a story. She’s been everywhere, won everything, met everyone.

As far as music documentaries go, this one feels essential.

Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over is an official 2021 TIFF selection.

Bob Spit: We Do Not Like People

Welcome to the Ottawa International Animation Film Festival, a festival which always includes an eclectic lineup of fantastic animated movies, movies that will likely challenge your notion of what an animated movie can be. Most are not kid-friendly. There are no Disney princesses here (though we have seen the folks from Pixar attend, give great talks about their creative process, and host a hiring booth at the career fair). You’re more likely to see something about the war, or Alzheimer’s, or an esoteric exploration of the meaninglessness of life. Although not always dark, these movies are likely to leave you with something meaningful to chew on. So what better way for us to start this year’s festival than with Bob Spit: We Do Not Like People, a meta, self-referential claymation about a popular comic book, and its creator.

Director Cesar Cabral interviews popular Brazilian cartoonist Angeli, who bemoans his current writer’s block, and his evolving style, feeling like he’s no longer the artist he once was, or that others would recognize. The interview is of courses stop-motion animated, there’s nothing live action to see here. Angeli decides to overcome his block by killing his most famous character, Bob Spit, an aging, angry, misanthropic punk.

We deep-dive into Angeli’s head, where character Bob Spit lives in a post-apocalyptic desert with mutant cutesie pop stars who want him dead. A couple of his old followers help him confront his creator (Angeli himself) to make a plea before it’s too late.

Part documentary and part comic book adaptation, where both get equal treatment in clay, Cabral makes an interesting connection between the artist and the art he creates. The relationship is clear; the delineation is not. Bob Spit is Angeli’s most autobiographical character, a character Angeli is now determined to kill off.

This film defies expectation, defies label, defies genre, defies logic. It is, however, eminently watchable. Bob Spit, caught off guard on the toilet by a bunch of homicidal pop stars, picks them off one by one with his trusty shotgun. His pants around his ankles (full-frontal claymation!), the popstars burst with a riot of glitter in place of blood. The Bob Spit universe inside Angeli’s head is a marvel. Angeli himself is a mystery, but it sure is fun to live in his world for a bit. This film needs to be seen to be believed and lucky for you, it’s screening online at the festival right now.

Bob Spit: We Do Not Like People is an official selection of the Ottawa International Animation Festival.

Hold Your Fire

In 1973, four young Black Muslim men went into a sporting goods store to steal some guns. It didn’t go as planned, as these things rarely do. The cops got there too soon, pinning the would-be thieves inside, with a loaded gun counter, and a bunch of hostages. This would be the longest hostage siege in NYPD history.

With the four men holding captives inside, and the police outside preparing to meet them with deadly force, the media reported round-the-block updates while crowds gathered around the police perimeter. The fear and anxiety was high. The crowd took sides, and became aggressive. The journalists reported misinformation. When the police department showed up with tanks and ultimatums, the hostage-takers grew angry, and uncooperative. Communication was very poor. Looking back at the bungles on both sides, it almost feels like a funny game of cops and robbers, but the guns were real, and so were the stakes. The young Black men knew they stood little chance against the cops, not exactly known for being kind to people of colour at the time. A Black hostage refused to be released because she was afraid of the cops; she’d rather take her chances with the men holding her captive, of whom she was also quite afraid.

Enter Harvey Schlossberg, a traffic cop with a PhD. Since Attica, he’d been struggling to be taken seriously as a psychologist who could train the police force with new negotiation tactics, potentially saving lives and making the officers more community-minded. He believed that words were more powerful than bullets, and that time should be taken to speak and to listen to the captors, to find peaceful resolution rather than force violent altercations.

Director Stefan Forbes interviews surviving hostages, cops, and robbers, and everyone’s got a conflicting story about what went down in the sporting goods store. When emotions and tensions are high, it’s way too easy for violence to be a first response, but Schlossberg’s methods focused on finding common ground and understand motives.

All these years later, this hostage siege is not well-remembered, but you can see how Schlossberg’s work basically founded crisis negotiation and influenced the concept of restorative justice as we know it today. His name may not be known, but his work has saved untold lives. This documentary is his origin story.

Hold Your Fire is an official selection of the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

Julia

Julia Child is part of the American holy trinity of beloved personalities, right up there with Bob Ross and Mr. Rogers.

When she and her husband moved to France for (his) work, she fell in love with the country, and especially with its food (and who could blame her?). Inspired, she resolved to learn to cook it properly, attending the famous Cordon Bleu culinary school, the only female in the class – and likely the oldest, not to mention the largest. She loved French cooking so much she wanted to make it accessible back home, to American housewives who were, at the time, swept up by food of convenience, presenting TV dinners to their families as the height of technology and efficiency. Her cookbooks, however, made delicious French food seem possible. Even more impressively, she pretty much invented the modern cooking show along the way. They didn’t have a lot of editing tools, so early shows were long single takes of her cooking a recipe all the way through. But people didn’t just watch for her recipes, they watched for her. Even non-cooks watched, enjoying her stream-of-consciousness patter, her love of butter, her appetite, her willingness to embrace mistakes and use them as teaching opportunities.

She came into this surprising and successful career late in life. Her loving husband supported her. She learned to be a businesswoman, not just a chef, learned who to trust, who to leave behind, and how to hold a grudge. Her enthusiasm for food was contagious, creating future foodies all across the country. Her legacy has influenced
American cuisine, and every cookbook author/TV chef today owes a debt to her.

You already know Julia Child is an interesting woman; let directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West remind you why she deserves to be remembered. Their documentary Julia is a tribute to her, clearly made with love and admiration. We hear from cooking greats like Ina Garten and José Andrés, but most wonderfully, we hear a lot from Julia herself, via vintage footage the directors have shrewdly crafted together to tell her story from her own point of view. As a legend and an icon, there’s no one better to tell her story, and I think she more than most would appreciate having the last word.

Julia is an official selection of the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

It is scheduled to be released on November 5, 2021.

Ferguson Rises

Say his name: Michael Brown.

Michael Brown had graduated high school just 8 days before the police shot him dead. He was planning to study heating and air conditioning repair at a technical college just two days later. Instead, an altercation with officer Darren Wilson, just 90 seconds from start to finish, led to Wilson discharging 12 bullets, 6 of which hit Brown, the last of which resulted in his death. Eye witnesses share conflicting accounts of what happened, but some are certain that Brown took the shots to his front while raising his hands in surrender and saying “Hands up, don’t shoot”. Michael Brown, completely unarmed, lay dead in the street, where his body remained for over four hours.

In the wake of Brown’s murder, protests, both peaceful and violent, continued for more than a week in Ferguson, and the police department’s response was botched, criticized for the tactless insensitivity of their highly militarized response. A grand jury failed to indict Wilson, adding injury to injury and reinforcing a divide in Ferguson based on the shade of one’s skin.

This documentary, by director Mobolaji Olambiwonnu, revisits the residents of Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, 7 years later. Michael Brown’s death – the murder of a Black body by a white and racist police officer – was sadly one of many, but his was a rallying point, igniting protests against police racism and brutality in Protests erupted in 170 cities across the U.S., including Seattle, New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago. But for Ferguson, it was different. It was personal. Missouri was the last state to abolish slavery, and the aftereffects of that oppression are still felt today. While white residents of Ferguson watched protests turn to riots, they expressed disbelief, and disapproval. But Brown’s death and subsequent treatment wasn’t a surprise to Ferguson’s Black community. Darren Wilson wasn’t one bad apple; the entire Ferguson PD was institutionally racist, routinely violating the rights of Black citizens.

Though the Black Lives Matter movement that has sprung up as a result of all these protests does have some white support in Ferguson, there are a number of white people still firmly on the wrong side of right. Brown’s mother and father will tell you what it feels like to live in a community divided over your son’s death. His friends will tell you what it’s like to drive by the spot where he was gunned down. Protesters will tell you what it was like to get on a plane and fly back in time, coming home to a town in Missouri where a white police force was brutalizing Black weeping mothers, shooting tear gas at people filled with righteous anger, using rubber bullets against people trying to express their horror, their abhorrence, their shock, their sorrow.

Many voices contribute to Ferguson Rises, and themes of strength and resilience seem to create a pattern. Black Americans may have suffering and oppression in their DNA, but they’ve got determination in their souls.

I knew this documentary would be an emotional watch, but it feels essential to return to the scene of the crime with a clear head in the pursuit of truth, and perhaps more importantly, real change. We have so little to offer Brown in exchange for his life – this feels like the least we can do.

The Devil’s Drivers

Hamouda and his cousin Ismail are Palestinian Bedouins living in the town of Yatta. With few ways to make a decent living, they offer a unique taxi service, driving Palestinian workers across the Negev desert to a southern gap where Israel’s border wall hasn’t been finished. Or smuggling Palestinian workers, I should say, as this is technically extremely illegal. If caught, everyone in the car will go to jail. Both driver and passenger is risking his life to feed his family. Neither sees any alternative.

Documentary filmmakers Mohammed Abugeth and Daniel Carsenty spend eight years in the passenger seat, capturing these dangerous drives with a sense of urgency many will liken to a 1970s car chase, but for these men, the stakes are real. They drive stealthily, obscured by clouds of dust, they live suspiciously, paranoid that neighbours may be spies, they work reluctantly, carefully evading the military but always fearing getting caught; they survive precariously, living amid hostilities.

At the end of the day, these are just regular men, with homes and children and jobs they don’t like. Living under occupation has taken its toll, and Abugeth & Carsenty deftly capture what it’s like to exist under such difficult circumstances, to try to be a decent guy – a day who comes home to play with his kids, a neighbour who still waves hello, a brother still dutiful to his family. Life in Palestine is rough. Living and working in a pressure cooker changes you. Hamouda and Ismail won’t be the same men when this film closes.

Abugeth and Carsenty work well together, bringing a full and authentic picture of the human condition flailing under such conditions, yet persisting, irrepressible. The mere fact of their collaboration is a testament to what can be achieved. Abugeth is Palestinian and Carsenty is Israeli, and such a comprehensive documentary would have been impossible without their teamwork.

The Devil’s Drivers is an official TIFF2021 selection.

Florian’s Knights

In director Panayioti Yannitsos’s new documentary, a bunch of firefighters in New York City, Toronto, Detroit, and Vancouver discuss the difficulties of working this job. As first responders, they’ve seen some shit, the worst of which is difficult if not impossible to ever forget. They bring those disturbing images and experiences home with them, intentionally or not, colouring their entire lives, affecting time spent with family. For a long time, the mental health aspects of the job just weren’t discussed. They attended each other’s funerals, never mentioning the word suicide but knowing what it was nonetheless. The post-traumatic stress is real, whether it’s named or diagnosed or not. This job takes its toll.

This documentary offers up an interesting cure. Florian’s Knights is a motorcycle club for firefighters. “Wind therapy,” one of them calls it. There’s something about the quiet and peace of the open road that allows them the time and space to process the pain and foster brotherhood with people who actually understand. [Florian is the patron saint of firefighters, fyi]

Silence and solitude have been the default and dominant methods of ‘dealing’ with the demands of the job for as long as holding a hose has been someone’s job. Finally, this club offers up the chance to actually express themselves in a safe space where family and work don’t have to be separated. It’s a solution they found themselves, and by offering new chapters to fire departments in different cities and countries, it seemed Florian’s Knights were likely to be a healthy alternative for battling the effects of PTSD.

Except not all motorcycle clubs are created the same, and some have an incredibly long history of violence and criminality. Once associated with the Hell’s Angels (in part by wearing 3 piece patches, emblematic of outlaw MCs), Florian’s Knights flounders. What will happen to men who have nothing else if this is taken away? Who wins?

Memory Box: Echoes of 9/11

I know I don’t need to tell you what today is. 20 years. Everyone remembers.

In 2002, artist Ruth Sergel set up a plywood video booth, inviting people, including eye witnesses of the attacks, from New York City, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, PA to share their experiences. It wasn’t an interview; people stepped into the booth, hit a button, and shared whatever was in their hearts, as much as they could. Directors Bjørn Johnson and David Belton sifted through that raw footage and cobbled together an emotional tribute to that horrible, fateful day, telling the story from personal, intimate accounts of what it was like to survive that day, to lose on that day, to live through that day. As Johnson puts it: “the human story behind the tragedy.”

“Enjoy” is not the right word, but I did appreciate the film. It’s rather affecting to hear people speak from such a raw place, the wound not yet scabbed over. But for Memory Box: Echoes of 9/11, the filmmakers go one step further, building a new box but asking back the same people, people will revisit those wounds 20 years later and find them, if not exactly healed, then scarred at least. The tragedy is not so immediate, the emotions not so high. The people – survivors/victims/witnesses – have had time to reflect. To grow as people, to move on as casualties.

The box itself evokes the confessional, and inside, people admitted to guilt, grief, rage and resilience. We sit with them – the grieving parents, the young widower, the first responder, etc – and we hear their unfiltered stories. There are plenty of gruesome images in the media of that day; this documentary focuses not on what people saw that day, but what they felt. Like One World Trade Center (Freedom Tower) now standing in lower Manhattan, these testimonials form a de facto memorial, a living memorial, not just to people and places, but to the way the world used to be.

Memory Box: Echoes of 9/11 is an official selection of TIFF21.

Look for it on NBC/Peacock.

If you’d like some way to mark the occasion without dredging up so many painful memories, Apple TV has Come From Away, an uplifting Broadway musical about the best of humanity on that tragic day.

Attica

On September 9th 1971, the inmates at Attica took over the prison; it was the largest prison rebellion in U.S. history. 1200 prisoners now held half the prison in their power.

Tension had been brewing for months, at least, over the poor conditions of the prison. In fact, two months earlier, the prisoners had peacefully sent a list of 27 demands to the commissioner of corrections, and the governor. No actions whatsoever were taken, and the prison warden retaliated against those inmates by increasing restrictions.

The prisoners once again put forth a list of demands and prepared to negotiate in good faith. They asked for simple things like better medical treatment, fair visitation rights, edible food, religious freedom, an end of physical abuse, and for basic necessities like toothbrushes, showers, and toilet paper. They held 42 guards and civilian employees as hostages.

When negotiations broke down, blood was spilled as the corrections commissioner ordered the prison taken back by force. It needn’t have happened.

Director Stanley Nelson examines all angles of this most deadly riot, interviewing surviving prisoners, victims’ family members, lawyers, and journalists. He tries, perhaps in vain, to understand the series of poor decisions that led to violence as a response to men simply asking for basic human rights. And not only that, but when troopers stormed the building, they shot inmates who were not resisting as well as hostages, using ammunition banned by the Geneva Conventions. Law enforcement shot at least 128 men, killing 10 hostages and 29 inmates. That’s right, the operation was so disorganized that they killed ten of their own. How did this happen?

The answers are never going to be satisfying, but Nelson does his best to untangle this mess and bring some sense to it, maybe even some closure.

Attica is an official selection of the Toronto International Film Festival 2021.

Pray Away

The Premise: By now you’ve heard about conversion “therapy” – church groups with the audacity to not only claim that Jesus has no love for gays and that homosexuality is a sin, and inherently wrong, but that it’s also a choice, something that can be overcome through traumatic and soul-crushing “therapy” by unqualified, untrained individuals. This documentary gives survivors the chance to tell their haunting stories, but we’ll also hear from “ex-gay” leadership on the other side of the table, granting us a fuller picture of a story that’s been hiding in the shadows.

The Verdict: Director Kristine Stolakis isn’t afraid to confront both sides of the issue, nor does she overtly try to convince us that the notion of “praying away the gay” is wrong or stupid or impossible. She trusts that her audience has already come to that very obvious conclusion themselves. Her goal here is to let us hear directly from not just survivors, but the administrators of this very harmful practice – some who have seen the error of their ways, some who haven’t, all of whom are either ex-gay or ex-ex-gay themselves. What their stories amount to, rather importantly, is a reminder that this is not just some shameful part of the church’s history, of our history, but a continued practice that still takes place today – albeit underground. The truth is, almost no one commits suicide because they’re gay. Having warm, tingly feelings about another person is a thrilling thing – it feels good. Who wouldn’t want that? Only people who are then told that feeling this way about the same sex is somehow intrinsically bad, and that Jesus would deny his love because of it. People commit suicide because they experience virulent homophobia. They feel rejected by their communities and that their very personhood is corrupt and illicit. The only solution the church offers is dangerous and destructive. Conversion therapy has never had success in eradicating homosexuality; it merely creates trauma and scars and a lifetime of bad memories. It sounds barbaric and archaic, because it is, and through this doc you’ll find that the church has never stopped performing it, they merely got better at hiding it.