Tag Archives: documentaries

Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts

Sean and I are so movie-intensive that we don’t leave a lot of room for TV and we don’t mind that one bit. But we make exceptions for the exceptional, and if nothing else, Rupaul’s Drag Race is just that. Squirrelfriends, if you’re not watching it, I simply cannot fathom why. This is not mere reality television, it is LIFE. Over its many seasons we have had many favourites – and truly, with so many outsized personalities, it’s hard not to fall just a teensy bit in love with them all. That said, Trixie Mattel’s all-star win just about knocked our fishnets off with sheer delight. But with this documentary, Moving Parts does one better: it gives us a glimpse of the man behind the makeup.

Brian Firkus doesn’t get recognized often. Without a wig and heels, you might not guess that this mild-mannered, handsome man is capable of confidently captivating an audience, but in Trixie’s shape-wear and rhinestones, there’s nothing but sass and sparkle. Trixie is clearly the more dominant side of Brian’s personality; even outside of drag, he seems to reach for her persona and distinct speech patterns when he’s uncomfortable. But to give Trixie her own special trademark, he’s made accessible a more vulnerable side, channeling his life experiences into music. On stage, Trixie is vivacious and funny, but when she’s strumming a guitar, or playing an autoharp, she is somehow more than the sum of her (moving) parts. Like any great artist, from David Bowie to Dolly Parton, there’s a certain amount of glitter and pizzazz, but behind the warpaint is someone willing to take risks.

Director Nick Zeig-Owens documents Trixie’s enormous success, but if he catches her at her highest, he also catches her at her lowest. Trixie is a fantasy and a character, not built for disappointment, so it’s Brian who handles the blows. And perhaps the most revelatory nugget from the documentary is that Brian, unlike alter-ego Trixie, seems to be a bit of an introvert. So no matter how many people line up outside the venue just to shake her hand, or how many tiaras she’s crowned with on stage, Brian is at heart a humble guy trying to navigate the same murky waters as everyone else.

Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts is a nifty little peek behind the curtain of one of drag’s most successful performers – but climbing to the top always comes with a cost.

Hail Satan?

I didn’t realize I would identify so much with the satanists, that’s for sure.

Not that I’d looked into it much. I don’t care much about what people believe, I mostly care when people form exclusionary clubs (which they often call church) that seek to divide people, shame people, judge people, and persecute those who don’t share their beliefs.

Turns out, satanists don’t worship satan. Most are atheists who don’t believe in a literal devil any more than they believe in a literal christ. But since atheism is just a term for what you aren’t, they’ve chosen satanism to represent their feelings, which are not so much anti-christ as post-christ. The satanic temple’s 7 tenets include compassion, empathy, respect, accountability, and science, all of which I find easier to endorse than an overemphasis on not coveting your neighbour’s crap and putting murder and swearing on equal footing in terms of badness.

Practically, the satanic temple chapters exist mostly in opposition to the christians encroaching on the American way of life. Logically we all know the importance of the separation of church and state. America was founded on the freedom of religion as people who were persecuted fled to build a country on their own terms. Colonial founders and founding fathers baked freedom of religion right into the constitution – in fact, it’s in the first amendment. And yet there are references to a christian god on American currency, in the country’s motto, even in the pledge of allegiance. And that’s particularly interesting because as mentioned, separation of church and state was pretty important to the founding fathers. Of course, there was no mention of god in the first version of the pledge, in 1892, and none in the next 3 revisions over the course of 60 odd years. It was only in 1954 that god suddenly popped up where god does not belong, in a time of increasing evangelicism.

So yeah. That’s how Netflix turned me on to satanism. They’re not trying to convert christians and they’re certainly not devil worshipers. If church and state cannot be separated, all they’re asking is that everyone be treated equally. If a school or courtroom or city hall has christian iconography, it needs to consider all other religions too – and there are BUNCHES of them represented in the American population. The first amendment forbids Congress from promoting one region over others. That’s a basic American value. Apparently. America, what have you come to when the satanists are the level-headed ones?

#Cats_The_Mewvie

The Internet is: a) is a cat archive b) a world-wide phenomenon for cat enthusiasts c) a cat content generating machine, for cats, by cats d) now with 35% more cats. Even if you’re a dog person, sure there are cute puppy videos, but let’s face it: the internet is all about cats. Well, 96% about cats. Also 1% random ranting, 1% recipes and 2% butt stuff. At one point, when we were fools, we thought the Internet would be a treasure trove of accessible information and a geography-busting connection between humans. We were wrong. It’s all cats.

Not to be confused with Don’t Fuck With Cats, a true crime documentary on Netflix about hunting our own homegrown Internet killer, or Cats, a cinematic travesty that limped quickly out of theatres, tail between its legs, #Cats_The_Mewvie is a documentary that explores the whys and the hows of the feline domination of the world wide web.

Because I am on Twitter, I constantly hear people talk about how negative and soul-sucking and bleak the Internet is. And I often wonder: are we using the same Internet? Because I do not ever feel that way. Of course, I also don’t seek out disagreements, or start flame wars, or engage people who do. When I’m feeling sleepy, I pull up my favourite song. When I need cheering up, I watch puppies doing puppyish things. The worst thing that’s happened to me on the Internet this month is a comment I received on Youtube where Sean and I were referred to as “Handsome man and beautiful hairy lady.” I’m choosing to believe it was a problem of translation…maybe they meant beautiful haired? I’d buy that. In fact, I already have! Why thank you. Thumbs up. πŸ‘πŸΏπŸ‘πŸΏπŸ‘πŸΏπŸ‘πŸΏπŸ‘πŸΏ.

The Internet is filled with cats and people like to look at them so much that some cats are famous. Some cats have agents. Some cat owners have made millions of dollars. Of course, like any show biz parent, you have to be willing to harass your ‘asset’ and turn them into a product to continually be exploited. The rest of us are just taking occasional, amateur, jittery videos of our pets doing stupid or silly things. Those are the ones we post. Most of the time our pets stubbornly refuse to do anything insta-worthy the minute you have your camera out and ready.

Truly, the world is a beautiful place, the Internet is bursting at the seams with quality cats, and Netflix is a black hole filled with documentaries such as this.

The End.

One Child Nation

China instituted its one-child policy in 1979. By 1982, it was locked into its constitution. The Chinese population had ballooned to a billion and officials knew that in order for the country to truly prosper, it would need to control its growing numbers. Western countries worried about China’s population for different reasons. Over here, population growth had slowly withered as our countries grew stronger economically. As families move away from agriculture, large families become less necessary. As health care improves, more children make it into adulthood, so having ‘spares’ feels less urgent. And in order to give children every economic advantage in this new world – each their own bedroom, perhaps, a swimming pool in the backyard, a ski vacation every winter, a college fund for everyone – families grew smaller. Here in Canada we rely on immigration to keep our population from shrinking. Sean and I both come from 4 kid families, big even in the 80s. But in each of our families, only half of the siblings chose to have children at all. Of the 4 siblings who do have kids, 3 families have 2 kids each and 1 family has 3. We aren’t even replacing ourselves. But there’s a big difference between choosing what feels right for your family considering all the pros and cons; it’s much different when your government had made a law about your uterus and what can be inside.

In 1982, ultrasounds were not sophisticated enough to discern gender but following centuries of tradition, most Chinese families still wanted and valued a son. It fell to village officials to enforce this impossible policy, taking possessions and destroying homes of people who refused to follow it, and forcing sterilization on women after their first child, sometimes even forcing abortion.

One village midwife has lost track of how many babies she’s birthed but knows she performed 40-50 000 sterilizations and abortions over 20 years. Women would be abducted from their homes by the government, tied up like pigs, and dragged onto her operating table. Now she’ll only treat infertility “to atone for my sins” she says, though it’s clear she was not exactly a willing participant, just one of many doing their jobs. And so many of them had suffered from starvation, had spent lives just struggling to survive, that this promise of a better life for their child had lots of appeal. But if anything, the one-child policy strengthened the Chinese preference for sons. Baby girls were abandoned in droves.

After leaving China for the U.S. and becoming a mother herself, Nanfu Wang wonders if her thoughts are truly her own, or the result of propaganda so finely ingrained in culture and daily life they were hardly noticed. It’s impossible to know how China would have fared without the policy and most citizens don’t want to broach the question honestly. They have sacrificed so much, but the values and ideas so deeply embedded they are impossible to separate. Nanfu Wang can’t help but ask herself why she has traded one country who seeks to legislate women’s wombs for another.

The one-child policy was finally repealed in 2015 (they can now have 2), China assuring us that the nation was stronger, the people more prosperous, and the world more peaceful. And that may be true. But there is a trail of heart break, human trafficking, and a heavy toll paid by broken families and exiled children.

For Sama

In so many ways, Waad al-Kateab is a young woman just like you and I. She went to school, left home, fell in love, got married, had a daughter. But al-Kateab’s milestones are happening amidst the backdrop of the Syrian war. For five years she has had her camera trained on the uprising in Aleppo and she crafts this documentary as a love letter to her young daughter so she may know just what her parents were fighting for.

This is an intimate, female portrait of war, a side of the story rarely reported. In many ways, Jojo Rabbit is the film that got me thinking down this path; war stories are so often told from the point of view of the soldier (1917 is a good one), but for the women and children left behind, life goes on. Life: complicated and confusing, but there is no pause button. Children grow out of shoes, and tape idols on their bedroom walls. Mothers cobble together meals, and try to create some semblance of a happy home. For Sama is a story that is ongoing, and real. Waad al-Kateab is a real wife and mother telling her story from war-torn streets. Bombs are dropping around her but she slow-danced at her wedding just like you, peed on a stick just like you, felt her belly swell not just with baby but with hope and happiness, but tinged with a filament of fear always burning from within. She plays peek-a-boo with her baby just like you, but flees from a barrel bomb dropped on her by her own government with her baby clutched to her breast. But she loves her country just like you, believes it is worth saving. Her husband, a doctor, tends every day to the wounded. There are always new wounded. Sometimes the body bags are so small. It is endless work. So is the balancing of parenthood and principle, the urge to flee the city to protect their daughter’s life, and the conviction to stay and fight for what so many have already sacrificed so much.

It feels so alien to face such choices, and yet one image stops me cold: sock feet in a pile of bodies. Sock feet that could easily belong to anyone. Must I (we?) relate to those who suffer before we feel compassion? It’s so easy to dismiss this conflict as “their” problem but the boundary between us and them is illusory at best. We are all brothers and sisters, and if this documentary helps us walk a mile in someone else’s socks, it has done its job.

Sama is a toddler with big, gorgeous eyes. She was born during war. She knows nothing else. A loud bang erupts as another bomb explodes nearby. Her mother flinches, crouches reflexively, but Sama doesn’t react at all: a baby who doesn’t cry at a loud noise? Sama doesn’t know this is wrong, this is scary. She thinks this is life. Who will be left to tell her otherwise?

The Edge of Democracy

Brazilian film-maker Petra Costa is in her 30s, and just a little older than democracy itself in her country. Her parents were activists and briefly jailed for their convictions when military regimes still governed the country. This film blends political documentary with personal memoir as she recounts her family’s political and social entanglements while studying the dramatic collision between two Brazilian presidencies.

Costa voted for Lula da Silva but watches in dismay as scandal and corruption engulf his presidency and he scrambles to compromise and resort to alliances with the oligarchy that he’d always railed against. And yet Brazil prospers: the economy thrives, the poor are lifted up. When he leaves office two terms later, his approval rate is at an all-time high. He anoints a predecessor, Dilma Rousseff, and she is elected thanks to an even stronger alliance with PMDB, who appoints her vice president. She starts her presidency strong but the socio-political climate of Brazil is changing, as it is in many of the world’s democracies. The people are waking up, and Rousseff scrambles to regain credibility by initiating a sweeping investigation into corruption.

As one president is impeached and another imprisoned, the country is further destabilized. It is clear as Costa narrates this film in the first-person that she is watching her country descend into turmoil and worries that democracy itself is crumbling. When you witness some of the illogical but fervent rhetoric being flung around in its media, it reminds us rather alarmingly of Trump’s disregard for the rules of democracy and the parameters of the presidency.

Brazil is on the edge of democracy, perhaps teetering back toward dictatorship. Costa narrates an angry and intimate portrait of this tumultuous time; it is one-sided to be sure, personal and impassioned. And yet the country’s split into two seemingly irreconcilable factions feels all-too familiar and if nothing else, The Edge of Democracy should be viewed by Americans as a warning shot against the increasing polarization of their own country. This documentary is a portrait of democracy’s demise, but Brazil isn’t the only country in danger of rolling down this hill.

The Edge of Democracy is nominated for an Oscar in the documentary (feature) category, alongside American Factory, The Cave, For Sama, and Honeyland. Which do you think will win?

The Great San Francisco Earthquake

First of all, it seems cavalier and irresponsible to bloat an earthquake’s ego with an adjective like ‘great.’ The Terrible San Francisco Earthquake, maybe, or Horrific, or Woeful. You know, out of respect for the dead.

The story of San Francisco’s deadly 1906 earthquake has rarely been reported accurately. Today we think of San Francisco as rather liberal, or more specifically: techy, leftist, flaky, homosexual wine snobs who love bikes and brunch. But it wasn’t always so: San Francisco came into its own during the gold rush, populated by gamblers, adventurers, and prospectors.

By 1906, San Francisco was a wealthy city, the economic capital of the west, but its wealth was a magnet for greed and corruption and nobody embodied that sentiment more than its mayor. San Francisco unfortunately is located not just on the San Andreas fault, but over 7 other earthquake faults as well. It’s not a matter of if, but when. Lots of people told the mayor how vulnerable San Francisco was, and that measures need to be in place in case of emergency, but the mayor was buys lining his own pockets. So when the earthquake hit, it was immediately devastating. And then fires broke out, and spread, nearly unchecked. Aftershocks hit fast and often, hampering rescue efforts. The mayor should have authorized a firebreak but didn’t want to sacrifice the homes of his wealthiest constituents/contributors. Instead he issued martial law, illegal for anyone but the president to do, and had “looters” shot on sight, even though many of the looters turned out to be victims trying to rescue their own meager possessions from the ruins of their own homes and businesses.

With the city a pile of ashes and ruins, efforts to rebuild began, and so did the mayor’s big cover-up. To maintain its status as an economic player, the mayor downplayed the death toll, staking it around 500 thought it is now believed to have been near 6000, or about a fifth of the city’s population. It was also rebranded as a devastating fire rather than an earthquake; fires were a familiar enemy, one that could be understood, and planned for. It was also covered by insurance, whereas earthquakes were not. Photos published in the papers were retouched to look more like fire damage, monetary damage estimates were manipulated. San Francisco was rebuilt by the same shady people who let it be destroyed in the first place. The film is imbued with a sense that its citizens today may soon pay a terrible price for the arrogance and greed of their ancestors.

The Great San Francisco Earthquake is a documentary, but it reenacts its events based on the many first-hand accounts left by survivors in heart breaking detail.