Tag Archives: documentaries

Tell Me Who I Am

Do yourself a favour and go into this movie blind. Normally I’m a complete whore for your time and attention, and I do implore you to come back once you’ve finished, but truly, you don’t need to read this review. The movie is good, worthy of your time. Go watch it.

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When Alex is 18 he wakes up in a hospital bed and the only person he recognizes, in fact the only thing in the world he knows to be true, is that the 18 year old man sitting beside him is his twin brother Marcus. A woman claiming to be his mother brings him to a house she assures him has been his childhood home; he shakes hands with a cold man he’s told is his father. Alex has no memory of his life up until this point, knows nothing; he has to be told what a bicycle is and how to ride it – and then he doesn’t know where he’s going. The world seems scary and blank but Alex has one thing on which he can rely: brother Marcus. So after he starts to get the basics down, Alex asks Marcus about more personal questions like: who am I, really?

Is there any one person in your life who knows the entire answer to that question? The truth is, every single person who knows you knows a slightly different version of you. They see you through their own filters. You present yourself to them with your own hopes and biases about how they’ll perceive you. You may augment yourself in certain areas, you might tell little fibs about your past, or construct whole chapters of it out of thin air. Who, then, has the authority and insider knowledge to fully tell you who you are.

***Spoilers ahead

The truth is, Alex and Marcus had a terrible childhood. Terrible is too easy a word, actually. So when Alex’s memory was erased, Marcus kept it from him. He painted a lovely picture and Alex never questioned it. But Marcus found that lying to his best friend and twin would take its toll. Still, telling him the truth felt way worse than to carry on lying.

Gosh. What a choice. What a life. Not only did Marcus take on the the guilt of lying, but also the aloneness. Because that childhood, the knowledge of that childhood, was still his. And now he was alone with it. The lies were a gift to his brother Alex, but what did they do to Marcus? Now he has to pretend to not be fucked up. He has to look the other way when Alex acts lovingly toward his parents. He’s swallowing his own pain and anguish to protect his brother. But if you keep up these lies for years and years and years – how long before you start believing them? And how long before that buried dirt comes back to infect you? And when the truth surfaces, as it always does, will Alex see the lie as a gift or as a betrayal? Oof.

This documentary is presented very simply yet with great emotional impact.

Dream/Killer

On October 31, 2001, a journalist was killed in the parking lot of his newspaper. Two years later, a 19 year old man named Chuck turns himself in, confessing to the murder, and naming another man, Ryan, in the process. The police confession tapes reveal that Ryan maintains his innocence, and in fact his confusion, throughout the entire interview. Worse, they also reveal that Chuck doesn’t seem to know much about the murder either, though investigators are keen to spoon-feed him details.

The American “justice system” is an oxymoron. The system is broken and I’m not sure it’s serving anyone on either side of the bench. Perpetrator, victim, guilty, innocent, everyone’s getting fucked.

Ryan is charged with second degree murder despite there being no physical evidence. Chuck testifies in court against him, suddenly a very polished and credible witness, totally confident in details that he had no prior knowledge of. Ryan’s lawyer seems lost and incompetent. The other lawyer bullies him on the stand. The jury finds him guilty, sentences him to 40 years in prison. His family, in the stands, sobs.

There’s a certain amount of shock and numbness that I imagine comes with hearing your kid be sentenced to a lengthy prison term, knowing you’ll be dead before he gets out. Ryan’s dad, Bill, marinates in his grief for just 24 hours before realizing that if anyone’s going to save his son, it’s him. Because Bill has never wavered in his conviction that Ryan is innocent.

The justice system has washed its hands of Ryan. He’s rotting in prison, watching his youth waste away. The courts won’t have anything more to do with him. So let’s all take a minute to stop and wonder: if your life depended on your father hustling for you – would you be free, or would you be locked up? Because lots and lots of people accused of crimes don’t have loving families taking care of them. I’d be behind bars for sure. But even if you have a father in your life, does he have the time, the experience, the resources to do this? To learn the law, re-examine the evidence, walk the crime scene, track down the witnesses? Does your father have enough flex time in his job to do this, enough money in the bank account to pursue this, enough energy and persistence to do this year after year (after year after year)?

No “justice system” should rely on lay people to chase that justice. That is not a fair system. Ryan is languishing behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit and yet in many ways he is lucky: he has people who visit him, people who believe in him, people who prop hi up when he’s low. When you’re in prison, stripped of every possession, every freedom, the only way you can be rich is rich in people, rich in loved ones who will pick up that collect call from a federal institution and lend their support.

Ultimately, a documentary like this is a shock to the system. We like to exist in our little bubbles, believing that the world is relatively good, and safe. But if this can happen to Ryan, it can happen to me, or to you. The system needs fixing and we all should be motivated to see that it is. Cops who force false testimony should be fired, made examples of. Prosecutors who do shady things, including fabricating evidence and violating the Constitution, should be fired, made examples of, not promoted to judge as he was in this case. And we, as people, need to value justice above easy arrests or empty charges or wins in court. Yes, we like to believe the bad guy is off the streets, but that only works if it’s the actual bad guy, and that means doing a lot more police work – hiring the right kind of police officers, and then making sure they have the necessary resources, the necessary training, and redefining their jobs as finding the truth instead of finding someone to blame.

And here’s the worst part, guys. This documentary is dedicated to seeing Ryan set free. It is a testament to the hard work and persistence of his family. But if Ryan didn’t commit the murder, who did? There is still an innocent man who was beaten to death as he left work. His murderer is still out there. This victim has not seen justice. His case is unsolved – that’s what happens when concentrate on convictions instead of guilt. The wrong guy got sent away, his life was ruined, and terrifying, a killer has been allowed to walk among us, and possibly to kill again. So even if you’re never wrongfully arrested, we are all a little less safe when these things happen and the nightmare reality is: they happen all the time.

Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator

I don’t mind stretches and poses but I’ve never bought into yoga culture. I don’t like the body shaming or the forced spirituality or the merchandising juggernaut it has become. Some yogic schools of thought actually believe that yoga should be a gift to the people; teaching yoga is a seva, a blessed service, so teachers shouldn’t charge. And yet yoga studios pop up in every gentrified corner of the world ready to take hundreds of dollars from their affluent customers, with a LuluLemon around the corner ready to charge exorbitant rates for a see-through pair of pants.

Bikram Choudhury arrived in Beverly Hills (where else?) and immediately set the yoga world on fire – and some would say, created the yoga world, at least in America. He claims clients in Elvis, Nixon, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and more. He built an empire, franchising some 600 studios and embracing the nickname McYoga as some kind of distinction of honour.

Bikram was a celebrity and loved his Hollywood lifestyle. Sure his acolytes saw “red flags” and signs of “megalomania” and acknowledge that humiliation was part of the training. People were fat-shamed routinely. “The best food is no food” was a popular mantra. All part of the fun. Yoga was a cult and his followers were clearly brain-washed – some of them still today, scrambling over all kinds of logical fallacies to excuse away his transgressions, one lady basically saying they won’t say anything negative about him because thanks to him, her back bends were deeper. The man referred to himself as a blood sucker and literally told women “put a cork in your pussy, you’re not allowed to pee” and still people cover for him, “he has his own truth.” Yes, he certainly does.

This documentary covers all manner of sin in the Bikram Yoga Studio. “Separate the man from the teacher,” they said, but you’ll notice nobody says “separate Jim Jones from Peoples Temples”; I’m pretty sure we’ve agreed that everything that comes from an evil cult leader is also evil.

Were you surprised to learn that Bikram Choudhury is a sexual predator? That his yoga studios were basically an excuse to have a constant rotation of sweaty women in bikinis parade their flexibility in front of him so he could pick who to rape next. Bikram yoga was a conveyor belt feeding a hungry rapist.

And let e tell you: if anyone refers to themselves as your family who is not actually your family? Run. RUN. Normally this happens at work, and it’s almost always done to cover up some kind of abuse. They’re about to make you work weekends. Or not pay you for overtime. Do it because “we’re family” though it never EVER works both ways.

And another little hint from your friendly neighbourhood Jay: a man who shows up dressed only in a Speedo and a Rolex? Not a good guy.

It breaks my heart to see so many of his followers turn a blind eye to some really awful stuff. Bikram the man is a monster, but how many of his followers are complicit? Hundreds. Thousands. More? He has fled the country but he’s still doing teacher training and studios are still sending girls to him in Spain and Mexico. Shame on them. The only effective inoculation is information, and this documentary is a powerful dose.

How To Bee

Naomi Mark has set out to make a documentary about beekeeping. Her father Don kept bees for a time when she was a child but gave it up for lack of time. Her fascination, and his, has continued.

Don left America and came to Canada’s Yukon in search of wide open spaces and adventure. He trapped, ran dog sleds, and worked in fire towers: the whole northern Canadian experience. And then, a little late in life, he settled down with Ruth and had a family, one he hoped would be self-sustaining. Now that the kids are grown and he’s retired, Don has taken to keeping bees once again and now has one of the most prolific apiaries the Yukon has ever seen.

Naomi’s documentary, shot over three beekeeping seasons, is a way to pass Don’s knowledge on to his daughter. Naomi believes this to be a documentary about beekeeping until it becomes clear that it’s actually a way to keep her dad alive and spend time with him in his dying days.

Don has been living with COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) for longer than anyone knew. Naomi begins to realize that there’s more than one reason for her father pullig away from his beloved bees.

The documentary isn’t always my favourite kind of doc; too much melancholic staring silently into the camera, too many flowery narrations. But it’s hard to deny the real, raw emotion behind the film’s original premise and how deeply affecting it can be to watch someone lose a parent, even when many of the people involved are in pretty deep denial. It’s also interesting to watch Naomi, a novice beekeeper at best, struggle to keep her hive alive when we know important bees are to our environmental well-being. Meanwhile, her father, crucial and vital for so many years to her family’s well being, is also in decline. It’s a downward trend that perhaps gives the hive an elevated status in Naomi’s mind since she has some control over the life of her bees if not that of her father. At any rate, with such a loving film, it’s nice to know that honey won’t be Don’s only legacy.

The Last Male On Earth

Sudan is the last male northern white rhino. He lives a life of relative luxury on a wildlife sanctuary in Kenya, surrounded by people who think of him as a friend. This documentary counts down the last couple of years of his life, giving us time to reflect on what it really means to watch the last of a species to die. Technically I suppose we lose dozens of species each day, but few are as large, majestic, and noticeable as a rhinoceros.

Sudan is cared for by keepers of course, but also by round the clock armed bodyguards. His sanctuary is visited by journalists and by tourists eager to touch him while he’s still around. Everyone goes home with the same message: Sudan can’t speak for himself so you have to speak up on his behalf. It seems most who come in contact with him are awed by his presence, but awe is not enough to save his species.

Sudan passed in 2018, leaving just 2 female northern white rhinos behind, the species functionally extinct – but that doesn’t mean science is going to just drop it. Director Floor Van Der Meulen explores Sudan’s legacy and the surprising ways in which he may live on.

The featured interviews are of such breadth that you really get a sense of Sudan’s importance and what he symbolizes to so many. Extinction makes for a flashy story (and Sudan was even on Tinder as the world’s most eligible bachelor) but for every dash of hope there’s bushels and bushels of futility. If we can stand by and watch Sudan and his friends disappear, is nothing sacred?

Los Reyes

Well, I’ve never seen anything like it before, that’s for sure.

I’m not even sure what to call it – documentary seems inaccurate and also somehow inadequate. “An enchanting nonfiction portrait of canine companionship” is what the Planet In Focus film festival has settled upon, and I’m game enough to go along with it. Set in a Chilean skate park, the film somehow makes 2 stray dogs its focus.

Chola is a sweet, proud girl who finds joy in chasing cyclists and is endlessly fascinated by dropping her beloved tennis ball town the skate park’s many ramps. Futbol, on the other hand, is more sedate, more stoic perhaps, but is rarely seen without some ‘toy’ to chew on, though that toy is most often garbage and if all else fails, a rock.

Besides the dogs, the skate park is often full of skaters, mostly teenage boys, slight no-goodniks, young rebels who are just learning to navigate an adult world they aren’t quite ready for. But there are no human faces in this film, just occasional body parts, the merest hint of human, as if the dogs don’t quite care to pay them full attention. More likely to be on screen: patches of sky, blades of grass, close-ups of bugs – whatever might be considered a dog’s eye view. The film is laconic. There is a lot of laying about in the sun, or obsessively sniffing a suspicious mound of earth. Perhaps mimicking the mind of a dog, there’s a lot of open space in the film, room to contemplate individual things but rarely a larger whole.

The film fest posits that Los Reyes will “delight dog- and doc-lovers alike” and while that may be the case for some, I’d guess that it won’t be for everyone. Largely silent, the film only occasionally picks up snippets of conversation from the nearby youth who seem to always have a domestic situation or a drug deal going down. The dogs remain uninterested. Two years into filming, the dogs are also surprisingly comfortable with the cameras, allowing for extremely up close and personal explorations of their bodies and the other inhabitants of their fur. It is not always pleasant viewing, especially because the lives of stray street dogs are probably not exceptionally long. I love dogs, but I love them to have homes and be cared for, and for me, this movie never shed its inherent melancholy.

Mossville: When Great Trees Fall

Mossville Louisiana was established by newly freed slaves, post-abolition. They designed it to be self-sustaining and community-minded. Many of the town’s recent residents are descendants of its founders. I saw recent rather than current because nobody lives there now.

A South African company (Sasol) came in and started buying up land. Those who didn’t get out immediately had to put up with construction, loss of basic services like electricity and sewage, and have weathered increased buy-out pressure from the company. The few remaining holdouts haven’t stopped the company from building its plants, but the residents are already decimated, poisoned by petrochemical plants and dying in droves, cancer not just visiting one or two but virtually all. Not that the company minds: when a resident dies, it’s that much easier for them to buy their land. Cheaper too.

It’s easy to want to solve this by relocating the sickly stragglers, but given their attachment to the land, the ancestral ties, their proud heritage, their unwillingness to abandon it is perhaps justified. My house was built by a stranger in a part of the country I don’t even like, but I still wouldn’t want to move. And the more someone tried to force me, the deeper I’d dig my heels. But for people like Stacey Ryan a.k.a. Mossville’s last man standing, he hardly has the strength left to put up a fight; he’s too often crippled in an emergency room to effectively advocate.

This documentary takes a cold hard look at environmental injustice and racism, and the embarrassing truth that a company with ties to apartheid has now come to the U.S. looking to do the same. Politicians are sacrificing communities belonging to the disenfranchised. They hope you won’t notice, or care. But please do.