Tag Archives: documentaries

SXSW 2021: WeWork Or The Making And Breaking Of A $47 Billion Unicorn

Adam Neumann really, really wanted to be the next Mark Zuckerberg. Or Jesus Christ. I’m not sure which he thought was more attainable, but either way he founded a real estate company and ran it like a tech company, and he was its messianic leader.

Maybe you know about WeWork. Not long ago, it was the next big thing in terms of office space. Aimed at freelancers, entrepreneurs, and start-ups, it wasn’t just a flexible, communal place to work, it was a lifestyle choice. Adam Neumann claimed he wanted to change the world, but first, he’d change the way we work. Charismatic like a cult leader and with an inflated sense of self also like a cult leader, Neumann talked a big game, attracting clients, employees, followers, and crucially, investors. And office space was just the first stop on his quest to dominate the world; next came housing, and education. But as WeWork readied for an IPO, a company that was once valued at an astounding 47 billion dollars went from magical unicorn to bloated corpse in a brisk 6 week death spiral that shocked the heck out of everyone.

What happened? Hulu’s glad you asked, and they can’t wait to tell you all about it.

Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal

The college admission scandal was a hot and juicy news item for a minute. Rick Singer was getting rich kids into college through a “side door” called money. Money paid to Singer inflated test scores while bribes to college coaches went to fabricating phony athletic profiles for the prospective student, allowing the coach to “recruit” them. Kids who stood no chance of getting admitted into a good college were now strolling right through a side door thanks to mommy and daddy’s wallet. This got a lot of play in the media because it meant rich white people were scamming a system already designed to highly favour them. There was not a lot of sympathy in the story (except maybe for the clueless kids whose own parents knew them to be too dumb to earn anything meritoriously). Plus the whiff of disgraced celebrities (Lori Laughlin, Felicity Huffman) was hard to resist.

This documentary enlists a host of actors including Matthew Modine and Josh Stamberg to reenact an FBI investigation that went after not just kingpin Rick Singer, but the bribed officials and the shady parents as well.

What it does particularly well, and makes it worth the watch, is keeping its target on the “victim” of these crimes, the colleges themselves. The true victims are of course the many applicants who were refused because their rightful places were taken by undeserving kids, but in the court’s eyes, it was the colleges who were defrauded. But as the documentary cleverly points out, the colleges have not only benefited (and not been required to pay back the bribes) from the situation, they’re the ones who created it. The side door was used primary by rich families who weren’t quite rich enough to use the back door that American colleges and universities leave purposefully propped open. Donations of about $10 million tend to net candidates preferential admissions consideration. And that’s to say nothing of the problematic front door, where the most elite schools are only accessible only to those rich enough to pay the exorbitant fees, privileged enough to attend schools that adequately prepare them, and white enough to ace culturally-biased entrance exams. The law may have let these schools off the hook, but Operation Varsity Blues does not.

Seaspiracy

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to watch this documentary; how smart could it be, I wondered, if it went with Seaspiracy over the rather obvious and clearly superior Conspirasea.

Film maker Ali Tabrizi is clearly passionate about the subject matter but let me tell you a little secret about documentarians: they’re not necessarily experts in the subjects they’re covering. Of course, some documentarians are well educated, and some are journalists, but some just want to make movies, or get famous. Their films’ content isn’t always deep, or thorough, or correct.

Seaspiracy is so general that I don’t doubt it’s fairly accurate. Its main thesis is: oceans are dying, and the commercial fishing industry is largely to blame. Tabrizi seems genuinely surprised by most of the facts he “uncovers” in his film and not particularly well-versed in basic ecology despite a self-proclaimed love for oceans and marine life. He’s also got a remarkable love for himself, and a good portion of his film is overshadowed by his own presence. Are the oceans being saved by shots of him shaking his despondent head as he scrolls the Internet? Or of him wiping away definitely not manufactured tears? Not likely. But he’s sad, guys, very sad, and worse, he’s disappointed. But he’s also very heroic! Don’t take my word for it – he’ll provide multiple statements to that effect, lauding him for risking his life to “report” on this important subject. Never mind that his courage is a little late to the party; his attempt to surreptitiously film a dolphin hunt at “a cove,” as he calls it, is actually The Cove, you know, the 2010 Oscar-winning documentary?

I don’t have a lot of respect for Seaspiracy but I suppose it’s an able enough introduction to the subject matter, perfect for children raised by wolves, people living under rocks, and mole women rescued from underground bunkers. If, however, you’re a normal human person, this particular doc might only be of interest for Tabrizi’s overzealous use of the word ‘equivalent.’ He loves when things are equivalent to other things! And while Seaspiracy exposes corruption and even slavery, its white saviour complex is as troubling as its integrity is suspect. Even if I agree with it in large part, I believe that almost anyone else would have done a better job.

They Call Me Dr. Miami

Dr. Miami (Michael Salzhauer) is a Miami-based plastic surgeon who specializes in Brazilian Butt Lifts, whose most valued employee is a social media consultant. He has assembled a multinational team of like-minded surgeons who are happy to pay to be part of his network. Salzhauer spends most of his time filming Game of Thrones spoofs and appearing in music videos, and may or may not have time left over to actually perform surgeries in his namesake clinic, within his namesake tower.  Salzhauer is also an Orthodox Jew who seems fully aware of the fundamental conflict between his religion and his work, but believes it is necessary to sacrifice his beliefs to get what he wants. And also believes that everyone else is doing the same.

Dr. Miami should not be a doctor. He is focused on fame above all else, above family, work, and religion. Without even a cursory nod to professionalism, every aspect of his life is secondary to fame, and it’s not close.  Dr. Miami is an irredeemable character who would, I think, be quite happy with how he is portrated in this documentary. So it is a credit to filmmaker Jean-Simon Chartier that a documentary about this unlikeable person manages to stay neutral and, more impressively, stay interesting, as we follow Dr. Miami’s relentless pursuit of more.

If you are anything like me you will be horrified by much of what you see in They Call Me Dr. Miami, and yet you will be unable to look away.  This is an unflinching look at a person whom I cannot resist judging as a buffoon, yet I have to admit he is more introspective and self-aware that I would ever have guessed from his social media content. They Call Me Dr. Miami manages to humanize an individual even as he is trying so very hard to make a caricature of himself. That is no small feat, and it is all due to Chartier’s ability to remain objective, to which every true documentarian aspires but so few acccomplish.

 

SXSW 2021: We Are The Thousand

I grew up in a small town where absolutely no concerts that I didn’t perform myself were ever given. NO ONE came to town and of course we didn’t even blame them. I was lucky, though, to live a very drivable distance between several large cities, which means I didn’t miss out on much. I saw tonnes of shows (not in the last year – I miss live music!) but not everyone is nearly as lucky. Take the good people of Cesena, Italy. They were fed up with being passed over for concerts and they did something about it.

Anita Rivaroli’s We Are The Thousand documents Cesena’s attempt to lure the Foo Fighters to perform in their town by staging their own concert – 1000 musicians playing Learn to Fly at the same time. Go behind the scenes to see the year’s worth of preparation that goes into a four minute song as volunteers figure out logistics, equipment, and financing on the fly – after all, this has never been done before.

Watch the thrilling ensemble of 250 drummers, 150 bass players, 350 guitarists, and 250 singers, known collectively as Rockin’1000, on the warm day one thousand musicians learned to play together. Can this many drummers really play in sync? Can that many guitarists be convinced not to engage in musical masturbation? And even if they can, will it work? Will Dave Grohl hear their plea? Will Foo Fighters play their town?

We Are The Thousand is a heck of a great way to find out.

SXSW 2021: Disintegration Loops

William Basinski may not be a household name, but among avant-garde ambient music composers, there are few who stand shoulder to shoulder with him. Best known for The Disintegration Loops, an elegy to the 2001 attacks, Basinski reflects on his legacy as we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

The music consists of found sound sources, shortwave radio, and delay systems recorded on tape loops that, when played repeatedly as he transferred the sound to a digital format, gradually deteriorated as they passed over and over the tape head, the ferrite eventually detaching from the plastic backing, with increasing gaps and cracks in the music as it played on. The crumbling tapes leave a haunting musical memorial of their own demise. The mournful sound, produced by catastrophic decay, became the soundtrack for the terrible aftermath of the terrorist attacks. A resident of New York City, Basinski watched the towers fall from the roof of his building, and dedicated the album to the victims.

The events of 9/11 are eerily paralleled in the documentary as it is shot during the COVID-19 pandemic. Interviews over Zoom are threaded with shots of a dramatically empty New York City, and Basinski is once again composing music for the time.

SXSW Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America

Racism is bad. Inarguably, unequivocally bad. And yet it’s had a persistent history in the USA (and most other places, but this is about racism in America) and is baked right into its constitution, making it all but impossible to shake.

This documentary doesn’t need to convince you that racism is bad. Jeffery Robinson is a lawyer, which makes sense, because he’s exceptionally good at building a case. America is on trial, and Robinson is the crusading prosecutor with such compelling and relentless evidence you can’t help but convict.

Although Robinson’s approach is very fact-based, his stories add up to something as moving as it is convincing. I could go on and on but the truth is, this is a strong documentary that deserves to be seen, end of story.

SXSW 2021: Kid Candidate

Hayden Pedigo is a 24 year old experimental musician who makes weird performance art videos that go semi-viral. His go-to character is a politician, and he gets just enough attention from these silly uploads that he decides to actually run for city council, as if having played one on Youtube somehow makes you qualified.

Pedigo may have honourable intentions, and he certainly loves his city, Amarillo, Texas. He’s even got a couple of ideas for improving things – almost, though not quite, some policy. But he does not have the heart for shaking hands and kissing babies or giving speeches or raising money or being criticized or talking to people. It’s going to be quite an uphill battle campaigning against an incumbent backed by the town’s elite, not to mention their very influential dollars.

It’s great to want to fight corruption and to unite communities, but let’s be real: Pedigo doesn’t actually stand a chance. And like its subject, Kid Candidate lacks the vision and ambition to really make a go of things. However, film maker Jasmine Stodel does get one thing right. She backs a youth movement that’s attempting to be the change they want to see. Maybe their inexperience and naivete mean they’ve failed today, but they’ve seen how dirty the game is, how rigged the system is, and they know the only way to change it is from within.

SXSW 2021: The Lost Sons

In early 1960s Chicago, newborn baby Paul Fronczak is taken from his mother’s hospital room and vanishes. Months later, a toddler with a black eye is abandoned in Newark, New Jersey. His foster parents call him Scott, and local police are astonished when no one comes forward to claim a missing child. Recalling the snatched baby in Chicago, they do the math and send little Scott to Chicago, where his parents reclaim him, restoring the name Paul, and immediately burying the disturbing truth of his disappearance. Paul doesn’t even discover that he was kidnapped until he’s 10, and his mother quickly shuts down any follow up questions.

Middle aged now, and with a child of his own, Paul once again attempts to open up this mysterious chapter of his life. This time he’ll circumvent his parents and follow the trail of his birth and disappearance down some fascinating paths – fascinating to us, anyway; understandably it would be much more difficult to be questioning your own heritage and provenance and identity.

Director Ursula Macfarlane does an excellent job of setting up an improbable premise and then guiding us down its many fantastical twists and turns. It’s such a cliché to say something is stranger than fiction, but truly you couldn’t get away with such an incredible story if you were writing it from scratch.

Unfortunately, this documentary isn’t as tasty or as satisfying as you might think. It’s certainly packaged like a true-crime doc worth devouring, but it’s got several major ingredients going against it. First, the re-enactments are a little amateurish, and feel like they’re just adding bulk to a thin serving size. Second, if you’re already familiar with the story, there aren’t any big bombshells to make this worth your time. The few new details push the boundaries of relevance. Third, the story is frustratingly unresolved, the loose ends dangling tantalizingly in front of us just begging for closure. And finally, the biggest problem is with Paul himself. A former musician and actor, he clearly enjoys having an audience and several of his answers feel rehearsed and self-conscious. But at the same time, he’s also very guarded, rarely allowing us beyond his carefully bricked wall. His refusal or inability to display emotion makes it hard to connect with him, and we shouldn’t have to work so hard to feel empathy for a story like this. Paul is his own biggest obstacle, and while his story is remarkable, The Lost Sons isn’t anywhere near as engrossing as it should be.

Berlinale 2021: North By Current

Filmmaker Angelo Madsen Minax returns to his rural Michigan home town after the mysterious death of his two-year-old niece, Kalla. His sister Jesse, the girl’s mother, is a suspect, his brother-in-law David is arrested, Kalla’s cause of death inconclusive, and the family tragedy as a whole is just a lot to process when there are so many eggshells to tiptoe around.

Minax is himself a trans man with a fraught relationship with his Mormon family. As he intercuts present day footage with old home movies of his childhood, it’s easy to see how his sister might have struggled with such an unstable upbringing and addiction issues. Motherhood seemed to have grounded her for a time, but the death of her daughter and her own possible responsibility and/or culpability seems to have both unraveled her but also encouraged her reproduction, replacing one baby with the next before the last one’s out of diapers. Grappling with trauma and depression, Jesse all but refuses to discuss the matter, but slowly their mother starts to open up, but she’s not exactly a great source of comfort to either. In fact, Minax’s mother is quick to point out that she’s lost two girls – Kalla, and the little girl that Minax himself used to be. While Minax’s mother may be entitled to her grief, it’s clear his transition and queer identity are still the family’s biggest challenge – even the murder of one family member at the hands of another is more easily overlooked.

North By Current is a testament of grief, tinted by faith, family, history, and isolation. Spanning topics including depression, domestic violence, motherhood and transgender masculinity, I’m not sure to what extent any true healing or catharsis occurred, but I know Minax, at least, is headed in the right direction.