Tag Archives: documentaries

Becoming

Michelle Obama’s post-White House memoir Becoming explored her roots and the path she followed to become the formidable woman we know and respect today. Her new documentary on Netflix, also titled Becoming, shadows her on her massively successful book tour, and focuses more on the role and the identity she’s forging for herself as a former First Lady who still has a lot to give.

Director Nadia Hallgren crafts the sort of documentary that will have you asking why this incredible woman won’t just run for President herself – but if you’re paying attention, Michelle Obama answers that question in every word and sigh. It’s clear that her eight year sentence in the White House has taken its toll. For America’s first black First Family, the presidential spotlight meant constant scrutiny and a constant need for carefully modulated perfection. The First Families that preceded and succeeded them have been allowed far less criticism for far greater blemishes. The Obamas knew that theirs would be treated differently and they played the part. But while Michelle Obama’s poise seemed effortless, Becoming shows the emotional impact, even the trauma, incurred for an accomplished and intelligent woman to mute her voice. And while she was a beloved First Lady for her husband’s entire term in office, it’s clear that she has now stepped confidently out of his shadow, and that the country, and even the world, has a thirst and a fervor for this new, less filtered, more authentic Michelle Obama.

While the documentary isn’t revealing any deep dark secrets, it does allow Michelle Obama to let down her hair – sometimes literally, into luscious curls, and to step out of the First Lady’s shoes – carefully curated by a stylist who understood her White House role as a costumer projecting class and elegance and respectability – and into gold, glittery, thigh-high boots, if that’s what she wants. The White House has changed her but it hasn’t silenced her. It hasn’t convinced her mother to stop favouring her brother, or her staff to stop teasing her, or her daughters to stop needing her. Seeing her nestled amongst any and all of these people gives us a clearer sense of who she is. And while those of us on the outside can’t help but respect and admire her, we see how much that holds true, and in fact truer, for those who know her more intimately.

The American Nurse

It shouldn’t take a global pandemic to appreciate the nurses who have been working fairly tirelessly and devotedly all along and yet we all too often take them for granted.

Today, May 6th, is National Nurses Day in the U.S. while internationally it is celebrated May 12, Florence Nightingale’s birthday. The interim between the two is usually called Nurses Week and if ever there was a time to make it a week-long act of gratitude and commemoration, it’s now. The International Council of Nurses picks a theme each year and for 2020 it’s ‘Nursing the World to Health.’

Florence Nightingale is largely credited with founding what we think of as ‘modern nursing.’ Her emphasis on proper hand washing alone saved countless lives (literally countless – think about that), beginning on the battlefields of the Crimean war. It is remarkable that in 2020, we are fighting an epic battle against a virus wherein hand washing again is the most important weapon.

The American Nurse is a 2014 documentary by Carolyn Jones who explores aging, war, and poverty through the work and lives of 5 working nurses. The camera follows them through a typical day’s work while we consider what it truly means to care: to care with our hands, with our hearts, with experience and knowledge, with commitment and dedication.

And now nurses are again at the forefront of the meanest and most threatening bug we’ve faced in a lifetime and we’ve been unable to provide them even the most basic personal protective equipment necessary for providing the care we’re demanding. Not only are healthcare workers more at risk for contracting the virus due to repeated exposure, they’re also more likely to have life-threatening symptoms (perhaps because they’re exposed to a much higher dose, or to multiple strains, but science has yet to confirm the reason). I know a nurse who works in mental health who spent the early days of lockdown seeing patients with no PPE at all as they’d all been locked away for when they were “really needed.” Now she gets 1 per day, which means she’s eliminated coffee, water, and food before and during shifts because going to the washroom would contaminate them. And at any time she faces redeployment to the E.R. even though she hasn’t practiced that kind of nursing in a decade. She has young kids at home, which means after a long shift she can’t hug or kiss them until after she’s stripped and scrubbed. And then the fun of homeschooling begins. She was telling me about a local grocery store that allows healthcare workers to skip the line. She would never accept, of course, because she’d feel like a jerk – lots of people are pulling double duty these days, and everyone would rather not be there. But also because standing in line 6 feet apart at the supermarket is the quietest and easiest part of her day.

COVID or not, The American Nurse is a well-made, interesting documentary which you can watch here for free. It gives us a little insight into what it takes to heap the world’s healing upon your shoulders, to run towards the crisis instead of away from it, to feel compassion for others when you could use some yourself.

Thank you, nurses.

A Secret Love

If you’ve ever seen A League of Their Own, then you already know a bit about Terry’s youth. She was a Canadian ball player who went to America to try out for the American Baseball League, an all-female league that played in the 1940s while all the men were at war. She made the roster and played for them all four years, the ladies proving quite adept at baseball and the league gaining surprising popularity, a worthy distraction during difficult times. But when the war was over, so was baseball, at least for women.

Instead of returning home to a farm in rural Saskatchewan, Terry and her cousin, hockey player Pat, bravely decided to move to Chicago together, safety in numbers. Further bucking social norms, both ladies went to work and had careers. Though they each had their share of beaus, they stuck together, building a home in Chicago and to the shock of their families, they lived there contently for decades. But now, in (nearly) present day, Terry and Pat are both elderly ladies, and Terry in particular is suffering declining health. Her beloved niece is begging them to come home to Canada, to move into a nursing home near family where they can be cared for. But after a life of independence, Pat in particular is loathe to give it up. When they are finally persuaded, they decide to move into a retirement home together, and for the first time in their almost 70 years together, to live openly as a lesbian couple.

This film is really an attempt to document their love story, a beautiful story that they kept secret for longer than most of us have been alive. Some family members are shocked, some are not, and some feel an ounce or two of betrayal. But within their own community, Terry and Pat have a robust social life, a second family of their choosing, and it’s very sad to see them leave it. Even sadder is the packing up of their home together, mostly because of the shreds of mementos the packing uncovers, touching love letters saved but also anonymized, the signatures torn off just in case it should be seen by the wrong eyes.

Terry and Pat were rebels. They chose happiness, and they created it together, on their own terms. There’s no doubt you’ll fall in love with them yourself, Terry the sweet one, Pat just a little saltier, but so devoted to and solicitous of her longtime love. Director Chris Bolan offers contextual evidence that reminds us why the lies were necessary, but the joy of finally living their truth is right there on their faces. This is a love story for the ages.

Planet of the Humans

Global warming isn’t up for debate. Not only is it real, it’s already here. It’s happening. And the sad thing is, we’ve seen it coming for at least 60 years. We’ve talked about fossil fuels and acid rain and peak oil and holes in the ozone layer literally all of my life, and in fact, literally all of my mother’s. We’ve reduced, reused, recycled. Sort of. We never reduced, that’s for sure. We fill our blue bins with more and more single use plastics every day. Capitalism ensures that we don’t reuse – in fact, it’s got us replacing items that aren’t even broken. And now our recycling programs are a sham; China used to buy our recycled plastics but they don’t want them anymore, so our municipalities keep picking them up for the sake of optics, but they sit at the recycling facility not getting recycled.

Normally we celebrate Earth Day on April 22nd. This year was its 50th year. Of course, 2020 is turning out to be a notable year in many ways, and most communities postponed or cancelled their events due to the global pandemic. Humanity is so hell-bent on destroying ourselves that we didn’t want to sit around waiting to drown in melted ice caps, we’re just going to go straight for the super bug that wipes us all out for good. That IS ultimately what we’re talking about when we talk about Earth Day: our demise. Because the Earth is not an infinite resource. With overpopulation and overconsumption, we have stupidly decimated the planet we count on for living and breathing and existing and stuff. In his recent stand-up special for Netflix, End Times Fun, Marc Maron poked fun at our self-righteous but minuscule attempts at contribution – the reusable grocery bags, the banning of straws – sarcastically noting that “we did all we could.” I mean, it’s embarrassing. It’s embarrassing that we all saw this coming and we not only watched it happen but we hastened it. We worsened it. And in our own self-delusion, we pretend that the tiny steps we’ve taken (while refusing to make any sacrifice at all) aren’t totally phoney baloney.

Well, Jeff Gibbs has a documentary for you. Capitalism wants you to stop crying about the environment and get back to making and spending money. So they’ve thrown things at us like, for example, solar panels, so we can believe things aren’t completely hopeless. Except it’s all a lie. Solar panels are either prohibitively expensive or nearly totally ineffective as a viable alternative energy source. Making solar panels uses up a tremendous amount of resources and the same dirty, polluting fuels that we’re trying to avoid in the first place. And then they need to be replaced every few years. And you still need a back up power source so you can’t disconnect from the grid. We don’t have the capacity to store excess power for days that are cloudy or rainy or, you know, have a sunset and then a nighttime. Even if we cut down every forest we still wouldn’t have enough space to house even a fraction of the panels we’d need. So solar panels are a nice thought, but they’re really just a distraction to keep environmentally-minded people occupied while big business continues to raze the Earth.

Planet of the Humans is an eye-opener. The environmental movement as we know it has largely been a hoax. It’s a bitter pill to digest. Gibbs is clearly an acolyte of Michael Moore’s. Not only does Moore produce this documentary, Gibbs mimics his style quite blatantly. But Gibbs is no Moore. He doesn’t have the same bullish charisma. He isn’t as emphatic or as fist-wavy. So while this is an important conversation starter, it’s not going to make waves or win awards or convert any birthers. But for the next 30 days, you can watch it for free on Youtube, and this is one way we can honour the Earth without compromising social distancing.

Penguins

We have continued our binge of Disney nature documentaries streaming on Disney+. It’s a welcome break from all the junk. Disney docs are like the strawberry of movies; they’re technically healthy but sweet enough to be eaten for dessert. We recently raved about both Elephant and Dolphin Reef, and now we’ve watched 2019’s Penguins. And guess what? It’s great.

Now, we’ve insinuated before that Disney nature documentaries are perhaps not the greatest source of information. They’re not just shooting facts at you rapid-fire, they’re crafting a story, which makes the doc far more palatable and definitely kid-friendly. that’s why I don’t call Disneynature documentaries the kale, but they’re definitely in the same tier of the pyramid.

In Penguins, “Steve” is a 2 foot Adelie penguin in the Antarctic. It’s spring time, and this is Steve’s coming of age. He’s finally considered old enough to make his way to the breeding grounds with the other male penguins. I’m not gonna lie: Steve is a bit of a bumbler. He trips over his own feet, he gets lost and turned around. He’s the last to the breeding ground, so he’s got fewer materials to make a nest to impress the ladies. He’s going to face a lot of rejection. Will he find himself a honey and make a family? You’ll have to watch to find out.

But even if Steve fails to triumph, there are still plenty of reasons to check out this movie. First, writer David Fowler puts together an awesome story and makes Steve into a compelling and relatable character. And then narrator Ed Helms steps in to fully animate Fowler’s story, giving life to penguin Steve, and drawing us in to his triumphs and challenges.

Of course, it’s nothing without the amazing pictures. Cinematographer Rolf Steinmann and principal photographer Sophie Darlington share the credit with a team of very dedicated people who bring a frozen land and its inhabitants straight into our living rooms. The crew can spend years capturing enough footage for a single 70-minute film, but the immersive experience captivates us and endears us to our little protagonists. Penguins is a fantastic offering from Disney+.

Dolphin Reef

Last week we were discussing Elephant, a brand new nature documentary released on Disney+. Disneynature films are perhaps not the most scientific among documentaries but they are beautifully photographed and extremely family-friendly. During these difficult days of self-quarantine, parents struggling to home-school their children or even just provide for some less junky screen time may want to turn to Disney+ for this not inconsiderable benefit. In fact, Disney+ is also home to National Geographic programs as well, perhaps better suited to older students. In any case, you can get a free one month trial from the streaming service and it’s hard to imagine a better time than now to use in.

Dolphin Reef is another incredible offering from Disneynature. This one dives under the waves near the Polynesian Islands in the Pacific Ocean to explore a colourful and diverse environment on the ocean’s floor. Dolphins have long been fascinating to we bipedal, air-breathing, earth-walkers. They are smart and engaging. They communicate and express emotion. They are playful and have close family bonds.

Echo is a young bottlenose dolphin who, at the age of 3, is struggling with the notion of growing up. His mom is devotedly and determinedly trying to teach him the ways of the reef but Echo keeps giving in to his silly side. But despite his playfulness, dolphin society is tricky, and survival depends on skill and preparedness.

As if Echo isn’t enough, we’ll also meet a mother-daughter humpback whale duo and learn some of the parallel trials and tribulations of growing up whale. In fact, there’s an entire ocean filled with orcas, sea turtles, and cuttlefish, and we’ll get the most amazing front row seats to it all.

What distinguishes a Disney nature documentary from others is that they write a narrative to go along with the pictures so kids get to know the animals personally. Each one becomes a character we can not only learn about, but root for. A few liberties are taken but on the whole the story fits accurately within the animal kingdom and the result is an exciting and engaging watch.

For me, even besides the dolphin and whale families we’ll get to know intimately, I just love trolling along the sandy bottom and discovering the bright and beautiful life that lives there. Lots of people look to the stars and imagine what alien life might exist, but I’ve always preferred plunging below the sea and exploring those unfathomable depths. There are creatures living on our own planet that defy our understanding. This documentary explores fairly shallow waters and still encounters fascinating species to capture the imagination.

Narrated by a very excited Natalie Portman, Dolphin Reef is an adventure worth taking.

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 religion 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.