Tag Archives: documentaries

Circles

Eric is a Katrina survivor who has built a new life for himself and his son Tre in Oakland, California. From his own childhood, he knows all too well the importance of fathers and father figures, particularly in the lives of young African Americans. That’s not the only reason he’s a restorative justice warrior in a really rough high school, but it just might be the reason he’s so good at it. Restorative justice tries to understand the circumstances which contribute to crime. Its emphasis is on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation. In terms of Eric’s work, his bottom line is to keep kids in school, to keep them from getting expelled, and maybe circles_2even graduate. He sees a lot of himself in his students, and even though the staff and school board often feel at odds with his work, he perseveres and fights hard for them.

But during the making of this documentary, Eric’s own son is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. So you can imagine that Eric’s ethics and beliefs (not to mention patience) are tested, and his son is about to be his toughest case. That’s what so great about documentary film – sometimes the movie you set out to make ends up morphing into something else entirely. You couldn’t really have planned this if you tried, but over the course of two years, director Cassidy Friedman has incredible access to this collision between Eric’s personal and professional lives.

Eric’s work is in impoverished neighbourhoods. His students are largely people of colour, vulnerable, with unstable family situations. He’s fighting racial discrimination, the insidious, every day kind, even if that’s not explicitly stated. He connects to the kids because the tragedies of his own life are so similar, and he’s not shy to relate them. But when things disintegrate for his son, he starts to really question himself, his efficacy as a teacher and as a father.

What Circles becomes is a sad, honest, difficult portrait of a man who is desperate to be the father his own could never be.

 

 

 

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Behind The Curtain: Todrick Hall

Dear Todrick Hall,

I’m sorry. As a film reviewer at a festival, we have dozens and usually hundreds of choices to make, and a tight schedule to keep, and we just cannot see them all. This documentary was available to me and I didn’t make time for it because I had no idea that it would blow me away. I’d have to wait to discover that for myself on Netflix. So I’m late to the party, but I brought tequila and nachos. Peace?

You may or may not know Todrick Hall as a Broadway and Youtube star. Having found the roles for gay African-American men to be quite limited, he simply started creating his own. He re-wrote other people’s songs and created short films to accompany them, and gained huge notoriety on Youtube because of it.  But Todrick Hall is no flash in the pan; his talent is of such cosmic, galactic proportions that of course he would burst out of MV5BNDY3YmM4OTUtYjRiMy00ODMyLWI1OTEtM2ZjNmRiNzJiMjEzXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTI4MjIwMjQ@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,666,1000_AL_Youtube and make a scene wherever he landed. But one of his absolute greatest accomplishments is a musical that he wrote and produced himself. Biographical, and inspired by The Wizard of Oz, Straight Outta Oz is an all-original production that covers the yellow-brick road he followed from being gay in small-town Texas and the struggles and hurdles that led to fame and acceptance and being fabulously gay anywhere he goes, including but not limited to small-town Texas.

Hall is enormously talented and handsome enough to coast on his looks, but what makes this documentary great is that he’s transparent and genuine. Behind The Curtain means actual access. And director Katherine Fairfax-Wright’s skill is for setting her subject within real social context. This musical was being mounted in a time when young black boys were being gunned down by police, a fellow Youtube star by the name of Christina Grimmie was murdered by a “fan”, and Hall’s old stomping ground, Pulse nightclub, was terrorized, a hate crime that left 49 dead. Both Todrick Hall and this documentary operate within this very real world, but both manage to remain optimistic and inspiring.

I hope one day I’m lucky enough to sit in his audience, but until then we can content ourselves with some of the amazing Youtube content he’s created.

I’m sorry we still live in a world that couldn’t immediately recognize the glittery, amber rays emanating from this shining star, but this kind of light cannot be contained under a bushel for long. Todrick Hall is destined for success because he knows the value of friendship, which is evident by the tight crew he keeps around him and the family that he’s made of his own choosing. And because of his voice, which is strong and knowing. And because he actually has lots to say with it, and the means to write it down, coherent and catchy. And because he wants it. He wants it so bad he’s not going to sit down and wait for it, he’s going to go out there and create it, and god damn do I admire that.

 

 

TJFF: Another Planet

Over 70 years later, we’re still trying to make sense of the horrors of Auschwitz. Architects, historians, game designers, and prosecutors have started using 21st century virtual reality technology to help see history in new ways but, to paraphrase the great prophet Jeff Goldblum, just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should.

I’m not necessarily saying that you shouldn’t. I am saying that it’s unnerving to see VR Auschwitz. We begin with a tasteful black and white recreation designed by an architect and a historian for a VR museum exhibit. They mention that the museum wanted it to be in black and white so that it doesn’t look like a comic book.

Cut to an unsettling full-colour model designed to aid in the prosecution of a Nazi war criminal. The defendant claims, as many apparently do, that he didn’t actually know what was going on at the camp and that he worked as a cook. Using this fancy new technology, forensic experts can estimate what he was likely to be able to witness from his position in the kitchen. They say that they are sure to make sure that their model doesn’t fall into the wrong  hands. What if, for example, someone were to want to make a game using their replica? Wouldn’t that be in bad taste.

Cut to an actual escape from Auschwitz virtual reality game. And this is where things get really weird.

To be fair, everyone interviewed in the film, including the video game designer, has an explanation for how their work is respectful to victims of the Holocaust and none of them are unconvincing. It’s just a little jarring. And it’s fascinating to think of technological advances can change the way we look at the past. It’s a great subject for a documentary that is sure to start some lively conversations.

Slut or Nut: The Diary of a Rape Trial

Mandi Gray was raped. She is one of the very rare few to speak up, to pursue criminal charges, to undergo a brutalizing justice system process that seems built for the benefit of perpetrators, not victims. I want to call Ms. Gray strong and courageous for doing so, but I don’t want to imply that women who do not are not. I think Ms. Gray knows better than anyone why women choose to stay silent, or are silenced, and this documentary puts us squarely in her shoes, so we can understand it too.

Only 3 of 1000 sex assaults result in conviction. Most go unreported because even in the era of #metoo, women are categorically not believed. But for the small percentage who do bring an accusation to the police, one fifth will be dismissed as MV5BNzJiY2ZmMWItOGI4My00ZGVlLTljOWMtZGZjNjZhZjBiNjUyXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzQ3MjI5NzM@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,658,1000_AL_“unfounded” which seems to be a fancy word for the police not believing her, which is hard not to take personally when ‘unfounded’ is used exponentially more often in sex assault cases than for any other crime. If you’re a woman of colour, disabled, or a sex worker, your word is all but meaningless. But if you’re one of the small sliver of people not dissuaded yet, you may find, as Gray did, that your body is now a crime scene. A rape kit is a must for conviction, yet there aren’t enough rape kit nurses to go around. You’ll have to offer yourself, body and soul, as evidence, because for some reason it’s your responsibility to help catch the rapist. But the fun doesn’t stop there: next you’ll be revictimized in court in a discouraging, dehumanizing procedure that never grants any real justice because it’s the victim who seems to be on trial.

This is the reality in which we live, and there’s no dearth of documentaries, well-made, well-researched, passionate, rally-cry, stoke-the-fire documentaries, that point out the inadequacies of this oppressive system. And yet we need another. And another. Because as often as women have said it before, it’s clearly still not sunk in. The system is broken.

Kelly Showker puts together a documentary that doesn’t just plead for social change and justice, it shows us quite plainly just how badly it’s needed. Ms. Gray could be your roommate or your sister or your friend. Stand beside her as she relives the worst night of her life, followed by the worst year. This documentary doesn’t preach, because it doesn’t need to. It shows you the callous reality of a rape trial, and watching it, there’s really only one conclusion you can draw. Seek out this documentary. Watch it, share it, talk about it. Change only happens when we unite, and a documentary such as this has the power to make advocates of us all.

 

 

 

This documentary screens as part of the Hot Docs film festival; this review was first published at Cinema Axis.

 

 

 

 

Cornered in Molenbeek

cornered_in_molenbeek_1Few things are more ubiquitous than a group of old men chatting about life in a local barbershop.  Cornered in Molenbeek starts innocently enough as it drops us, seemingly randomly, into one of those barbershops.  Sure, the customers are speaking Arabic, but they are also speaking about things that I might talk about with my barber (sorry, stylist).

The shop closes for the day and then, in an instant, everything changes.  News breaks of a terrorist attack on Paris.  It’s November 13, 2015 and when the dust settles, 130 people are dead and 413 more are injured in a series of coordinated attacks at a number of locations throughout the city.  The investigation quickly determines that the attackers are from Molenbeek, Brussels, the very neighbourhood where this barbershop is located.  Of course, the attack becomes the main topic of conversation here, just like it was everywhere else.

Not surprisingly, this barbershop collective has no real answers as to what made the attackers do what they did.  Because guess what?  I have no real answers either.  The lack of answers here is revealing, though, particularly as the collective’s attempt to find an explanation weaves through a wide variety of possible causes, often looking for someone or something to blame, such as government, poverty, and the attackers themselves, with one notable exception: these people do not try to place blame Muslims as a group for these attacks, because they are Muslims themselves.  Contrary to the torrent of right-wing nationalist propaganda that is so often shouted at me online by a host of faceless idiots (oh, and also by the President of the United States), this group of Muslim acquaintances in this barbershop are just as innocent, just as angry and just as confused about the attacks as the rest of the world, and maybe more so because their religious and geographical association with the attackers draws them personally into the aftermath, exposing them to significant consequences that most people don’t have to worry about.

The phenomenon of terrorism is worthy of examination, and it was a refreshing approach to do so through the familiar lens of this barbershop, which otherwise would be functionally closed to me as a uni-lingual white Canadian (Arabic and French are the only two languages being used in these conversations).  The film’s structure serves to enhance the fly-on-the-wall feeling by letting us experience the barbershop’s normal environment before the attack happens.  The stark contrast in what is being discussed before the attack as opposed to afterward clearly shows that these types of attacks affect everyone regardless of their religion or native language, and really, we all need to be involved in this discussion on terrorism in order to stop it.  Cornered in Molenbeek does its part to start the conversation, and it’s up to us to keep it going.

 

 

 

Chef Flynn

Flynn McGarry, 15 in the documentary, has been “cheffing” since he was 10. I’m not talking about peanut butter toast, this kid is the real deal, sourcing ingredients most people wouldn’t recognize as food, preparing it in ambitious ways, plating it with finicky precision to detail. His mother Megan, once a film documentarian herself, has no shortage of home video of his meteoric rise to culinary stardom, and this film uses that footage liberally. We see him hosting a 12-course “supper club” for family friends in his home at age 13, with a kitchen full of children to do his bidding, and transitioning to professional pop-up restaurants in New York, with trained staff underneath him, just a few short years later.

Chef Flynn is replete with food porn sure to make foodies happy, but this documentary doesn’t exactly focus on the culinary side of things. Instead, director article-2269130-1733455C000005DC-923_634x422Cameron Yates focuses on the unusual relationship between mother and son. Meg McGarry allowed her son to drop out of school to focus on his passion. Now, nearing 16, he’s ready to move away to pursue his career. As a mother, we see helicoptering, permissiveness, indulgence, and an incredible amount of creative nurturing. But we also find a woman who has lost herself in her son’s shadow. Pursuant of her son’s great passions, she’s forgotten hers, and now that he’s ready to leave her behind, what will become of her?

Yates shows a little of the familial friction but that’s as far as he’s willing to go. This is otherwise about as thoughtful as any home video: with almost no input from outside the family, it’s hard to judge how good Flynn really is, or what place he has among top chefs. Plenty of pro chefs balk about even calling him a chef, but we never get to hear from the opposition. I think his talent and enthusiasm are in earnest, but the truth is, this is a privileged white kid whose parents indulged his whims and bought him his biggest dreams. His childhood bedroom housed more high-end appliances than my grown-up kitchen. He hasn’t paid any dues. He didn’t have to work for this. Chef Flynn is interesting, but it’s a one-sided story, all sweet with no salt, which any chef should know makes for a boring meal.

Tiny Shoulders

Barbie has been a controversial figure since her inception. Before Barbie, little girls played with dolls that looked like babies. These dolls encouraged nurturing, mothering instincts. But then along came Barbie, a doll that had been “sexualized” with large breasts and hips, a distinctly adult doll that inspired little girls to dream about their own futures, to project their own aspirations.

I played with Barbies as a little girl. In fact, in a family of 4 sisters, we easily had over 100 Barbies between us. Probably over 200. Sometimes we’d get gifted 2 or 3 of the exact same, which was never a problem at all: “Twins!” we’d squeal gleefully.

Despite her figure, Barbie has always been somewhat of a feminist figure, albeit one FJF70_Viewerbased on conspicuous consumption. She held jobs that real life women were still dreaming about. She wasn’t saddled with kids. She drove her own car and owned her own home, independently, without the help of Ken, who was little more than another accessory. But no matter how many astronaut Barbies existed, she was still tall, blonde, blue-eyed, thin, with impossible, top-heavy measurements. Sleepover Barbie came with a scale permanently stuck at 110lbs and a diet book that simply said “Don’t eat.” Needless to say, real-life feminists could never quite embrace her, even as their own daughters flocked to toy stores to buy her up.

My sisters loved to play “family” but I had zero interest in play-acting motherhood. I was born this way: there was never a time when I didn’t know myself to be a childfree kind of gal. So Barbie was it for me. Barbie had the life I imagined for myself – a fabulous wardrobe, a cute convertible, a handsome boyfriend, a serious profession. The only problem was, she didn’t look a thing like me.

Tiny Shoulders, Rethinking Barbie documents the 2016 launch of a line of different-sized Barbies, FJF41_01including tall, petite, and curvy. Curvy Barbie has a thicker waist and no thigh gap. It seems like a no-brainer now, but for the people working at Mattel, it was ulcer-inducing times. Would feminists finally be appeased? Would they be derided for waiting too long? Would children embrace a “fat” Barbie, one that didn’t fit into the outfits they might already own? They were anxious to steer the narrative but were wise enough to know that social media would own them – and that a Time cover story would largely dictate her early adoption or lack thereof.

I would have embraced a thicker Barbie had she existed when I was a kid. Heck, I just checked out the catalog right now to see if the Curvy line includes one with pink hair and lots of tattoos (it doesn’t). Representations matters.

Barbie has never been just a toy. She’s an icon, with a place in our culture. Even Gloria Steinem has a thing or two to say about her in this doc. Director Andrea Nevins looks at Barbie’s reinvention from every angle, seemingly missing nothing. This is a moment in time worth documenting, and she has. And it also turns the tables on Barbie’s critics. Yes, this move was probably long overdue, but seeing things from the business side makes us realize what a gutsy move this truly was, with possible million dollar repercussions. Barbie will always have it just a little tougher than most if not all of her fellow toys just by virtue of who she is, what she represents, and what we project on to her. People are keen to find fault. Today she reflects a greater diversity – not every body, and not every ethnicity, but progress is progress – and not only is that worth applauding, I also think it deserves the careful consideration granted by Nevins and crew.

The Rachel Divide

Rachel Dolezal: I bet you know her name. She’s the white woman who passed herself off as black and became the head of her local N.A.A.C.P. chapter. And in fact, she doesn’t just pretend to be black, she claims to really believe that inside, she is. She has called it transracial, perhaps to piggy-back on the recent (and limited) success of the transgendered community to gain acceptance. Transgendered people are born in the wrong body. Their biology may present as one sex but they feel very much like the other, and may even undergo reassignment surgery in the pursuit of having their bodies match their identities. But is transracial the same thing? Is it even a thing?

I definitely had opinions about Rachel Dolezal before I ever watched the MV5BYmMzZGRhMjctYTA4My00YWQ3LWJlZjUtZjZmZjU2NjI3NWMzXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjc5NTc1MTg@._V1_.jpgdocumentary. It was hard not to have a knee-jerk reaction to this thing that felt wrong, felt maybe even racist, though we couldn’t quite articulate why, other than the fact that it necessarily deals in stereotypes. But on paper, it’s harder not to see her point. And in practice, it’s impossible not to feel compassion for her children who are being punished for the sins of their mother.

Laura Brownson has a fascinating documentary that really challenges your beliefs, and to me that’s the ultimate mark of a good documentary. Why did Dolezal lie? Why does she continue to hold her ground? Why does she cry about her notoriety but chase it with a book deal and now a documentary? Why was she singled out for accolades when so many actually-black women were passed over? Should her contributions to the cause be forgotten or ignored?

Brownson offers no real answers but asks enough intelligent questions that it really gets your brain juices bubbling. She doesn’t let Dolezal off the hook but does treat her like a human being, which makes her the rare exception. And I’m still not certain where my own beliefs stand, but my thoughts are a little more evolved, and a little reflection never hurt anyone.

SXSW: More Human Than Human

1977: Star Wars introduces us to helpful and humourous robots like R2-D2 and C-3PO.

1982: Blade Runner tells us that robots can be scary, and the scariest thing about them is when they’re indistinguishable from us.

1984: Terminator is a robot who’s come to destroy us all.

About 5 minutes after we invented robots we started predicting our own extinction at their hands. About a third of jobs that used to exist in the 1980s and 1990s have been replaced by robots. Stephen Hawking has warned us that “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” In 1998, that annoying plush toy Furby had more computing power in it than was used to put a man on the moon. Our smartphones today are MILLIONS of times faster. With a god-like lack of hubris we are driven to create these things in our own image (or at least replicate the human brain), but once we’ve recreated human intelligence, and robots capable of building other robots, then isn’t the next step SUPER human download.jpgintelligence – and then haven’t we made ourselves redundant? And yet we can’t help ourselves.

Even within this documentary that explores the dark corners of AI, the film makers (Tommy Pallotta, Femke Wolting) can’t help but wonder if they can build a robot that will replace themselves. Can they get an AI to direct a movie about AI?

I am a fan of Isaac Asimov so this documentary is like heaven to me. This must be what it’s like to ride a rollercoaster: I am sickly fascinated by the very robots that I fear. Maybe that’s why I love movies like Her (in which Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with an AI) and Marjorie Prime (in which people assuage their grief by replacing their dead loved ones with cloned AI) and Ex Machina (in which Domhnall Gleeson falls in love with an AI even as he works to disprove her humanity) but I refuse Alexa in my home, and in fact have never even asked a single question of Siri.

A.I. is not a question of the future. It’s here. The question is, what are we going to allow it to do? Take care of our aging parents? Drive our cars? Create art? If machines can do all of that, then who the heck are we? That was my favourite part of this movie: really thinking about humanity and what it means to live among these sophisticated creatures – creatures of our own making, and possibly our undoing.

The directors do in fact come up with a movie-making robot, and bring in Billy Crudup and Richard Linklater to comment upon its success. But no matter how they feel, or I feel, or you feel, robots are here to stay. And they are capable of very convincingly telling us how great they are. Could we even get rid of them, if we wanted to? Are we as fully in control as we believe? And if so – for how much longer?

 

 

SXSW: Making The Grade

My grandmother had a very old, very creaky stand up piano in her dining room. Once we’d eaten all her cookies and drawn all over her church stationery, we’d pound away on the untuned keys, convinced we were making loud, beautiful music. We were not. But lessons were for rich people and we were not that either.

This documentary acquaints us with a whole spectrum of Irish piano students, those studying for their first grade exams all the way to the 8th. Old and young are peppered randomly throughout; some have natural ability and others are a little plonkier, but they’re all more dedicated than me. The kids astound me, of course. The piano seems the antithesis of our sped-up society and I’m impressed that any of them have the chutzpah to put in adequate practice, persevere through the tough spots, and pursue an accomplishment that isn’t very well rewarded anymore. But my favourite of director Ken Wardrop’s subjects is a woman with short gray hair and colourful tunics who persists though she’s the first to admit she isn’t any good. I suppose that’s what I admire most: yes, the music sounds better coming from the fingers of someone for whom this comes easily – but it’s so much sweeter coming from the clumsy fingers of a woman who possesses not the teeniest drop of rhythm.

Making the Grade isn’t flashy. There are no stylish tricks. But you’ll find that simply pointing the camera at a bunch of people who know a secret – well, the camera loves secrets, doesn’t it? This is what documentaries are for: exposing those we wouldn’t otherwise know. Whether it’s a little girl discover power and confidence in her music, or a woman finding solace and self-care in hers, it’s moving just to see others be moved by music of their own creation. And of their teachers? This is a loving tribute.