Tag Archives: social issues

To The Bone

The first image from the film is a trigger warning and believe me, take heed. To The Bone is a serious, unflinching look at eating disorders that will absolutely be upsetting to each and every one of us, but particularly to those suffering from or recovering from eating disorders themselves.

Lily Collins, herself a survivor of eating disorders, plays Ellen, a young woman still very much in the throes of anorexia. The film shows her getting treatment in a centre run by Keanu Reeves, which should tell you all you need to know about how inauthentically the healing is portrayed. In reality, treatment is heavily regimented, usually in a medical setting. Eating disorders are the most deadly of mental to-the-bone-sundance-e1495026297494illnesses, no one’s going to let an emaciated Lily Collins push a fish stick around her plate for dinner. And they’re also very difficult to treat because unlike drinking, you can’t simply give up food. You have to learn to eat in moderation. Eating disorders are often (but not always) about control. Often there is some type of childhood abuse that accounts for someone wanting very much to exert control over their bodies now.

This both is and isn’t the case with To The Bone, but the family dynamics are a strong point of the film. Ellen’s family situation is sad and disjointed. Family therapy does not go well. Her father is absent, her mother can’t deal anymore, so support is provided by a step-mother who maybe doesn’t have the closest of relationships with her husband’s tiring and trying daughter. Some of you may find this movie enlightening. Certainly I believe that Ellen and her disorder have been portrayed empathetically. But it’s a tough watch that could definitely be a hardship for some, and may glamourize a terrible disease for others. This is a film to be watched only with care, and preferably in the company of others.

Based on writer-director Marti Noxon’s own experiences with anorexia as a teen, the film forced Collins, in recovery for eating disorders, to lose 20lbs. She did so with the “help” of a nutritionist, but there’s nothing healthy about a young woman already on the brink of being too thin being asked to lose up to a fifth of her body weight. I hate that movies do that and I can’t imagine that graphic shots of protruding bones and skeletal characters is putting anything but negativity into the world. And it doesn’t help that none of the other characters are put into any kind of context. They help show that eating disorders are not just the stuff or rich white girls, but by keeping those characters one-dimensional, we do them a disservice. The thing is, even with good intentions, sharing stuff like this can be dangerous. Details about how to purge or count calories can come across as tips; Collins’ skin-and-bones frame can be seen as aspirational. And I suppose this is where we ask ourselves: is this film doing more harm than good? What is responsible film making? Without knowing the answers, I do know that I am not comfortable recommending this film without some heavy caveats.

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Vegas Baby

Perhaps as many as 1 out of 6 couples faces some sort of fertility issue when trying to conceive a baby. To answer this need, science offers a smidgen of hope: the ability to harvest eggs, inseminate them, and plant the fertilized embryos in utero, giving conception a greater chance. Is it a perfect system? No it is not. The odds are likely still against you. But the numbers aren’t the only barrier to babies – so, too, is the cost. One fertility clinic therefore offers the chance to “win a baby” – really, just one course of in vitro fertilization. But this contest attracts many desperate people who make emotional appeals.

This is a really interesting documentary, and a heartbreaking one too. It addresses issues ranging from:

movieposter.jpga) Is it even ethical to “give away”  a baby as promotional material?

b) Is it exploitative to force fertility-challenged people to compete against one another?

c) What happens to all the “losers”?

d) Why are people willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to conceive, but unwilling to adopt?

e) Why do some countries consider infertility to be a legitimate medical condition deserving of coverage and treatment while the U.S. leaves infertile men and women high and dry?

e) After bankrupting themselves financially and emotionally, what happens to a couple who still doesn’t have a baby?

f) What happens when your heart tells you to pursue baby-making by any means possible, but your religion expressly forbids it?

Director Amanda Micheli has fertility problems of her own, and used the baby contest as a provocative conversation starter in this documentary, a film that takes a look behind the curtain at the subject that is so rarely talked about. It’s a well-made film that is interesting and worth of your time. Kudos to all the people who shared their journey and their private pain; fertility and infertility are little understood, so shining a light on this issue is an important step in humanizing a subject that really hits us at the core of our personhood. We take our fertility for granted and losing control over something our bodies are supposed to do naturally seems to be a demoralizing process. The film is full of heartbreak. But there are little rays of hope too, and Micheli does a good job of balancing the rain and the sunshine.

 

 

Keepers of the Game

High school funding for sports, and girls’ sports in particular, is on the decline, but fundraising isn’t the only issue for the members of the Salmon River High team. As the first all-Native girls lacrosse team in their section, they’ve got something to prove, and 22KEEPERS-master768not just to their rivals, but to their own community as well. Lacrosse was born on their land, the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory, but it’s a game traditionally reserved for men. Considered a gift from their Creator, lacrosse was meant as a way for men to settle disputes among tribes.  The community is split as to whether women should be allowed to play this sacred game at all. Some believe that like all surviving culture, theirs too must grow and change to meet the needs of the people. Others cling to tradition. But all agree that this game is medicinal and can be used for healing. When the girls play, they take it seriously; they too want to honour their culture. Is it really such an abomination to take up their Nation’s sport?

Lacrosse is Canada’s national sport (or its summer sport, hockey being our winter one), and it so happens that I grew up on the Canadian side of the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory. The fact that none of this was unfamiliar to me didn’t make the documentary any less watchable – that’s a real credit to the movie. I have a deep respect for Aboriginal people, for their values, culture and beliefs, but there’s still a big part of me that struggles to see any woman being shut out of, well, anything in 2017. So I’m going to remind myself of some pretty important cultural context: the 2012 Olympic Games in London were the first games in which every participating country included female athletes, and in which women were able to compete in all sports. The very first Olympics were of course men only, and when women did start competing last century, it was only in golf and tennis. Women didn’t curl or play hockey in the Olympics until 1998. Weightlifting, pentathlon, taekwondo, and triathlon weren’t added until 2000. Also new to women in sports this century: bobsled, wrestling, and BMX. And finally in 2012, boxing and ski jumping were added to make women competitive in every sport. Isn’t that crazy? Of course, just because those sports are now included doesn’t mean you’ll get to see them played. NBC still spends more time covering men’s sports than women’s, particularly in winter (women fare a little better in the summer because American women win more medals than their male counterparts – BUT EVEN THEN IT’S STILL NOT EQUAL). TV time for women’s sports are still mostly dedicated to thinks like gymnastics and figure skating rather than say, judo or shotput. Women’s beach volleyball seems to get quite a bit of coverage, but I’m not sure that’s about pride in athleticism so much as the REGULATION uniform of bikinis. Yes, American women do quite well in beach volleyball. In 2008 both the men’s and women’s teams medaled but more coverage went to the women’s teams. The women’s indoor team also medaled that year but it wasn’t covered at all. So before we get on our high horses about a culturally-held belief, we need to remember that the sports most associated with women today – figure skating, swimming, gymnastics, beach volleyball – are all sports in which women are non-aggressive and scantily clad.

Back to the movie. Director Judd Ehrlich does an excellent job of sitting back and letting the girls speak for themselves. It’s clear from footage that there is no lack of skill or athleticism, but the girls are also thoughtful and expressive. Ehrlich frames the documentary as one season’s push to defeat a rival team, win a championship, and change hearts and minds along the way, but this documentary, part of the programming at the Canadian Sports Film Festival, is also an exploration of culture and identity. School sports do not exist in a vacuum. The girls attend a public school where the curriculum is very light on, and sometimes misleading about Native culture. They are taunted with racial slurs. They play competitors that have racist mascots. The film is much more than the game. And thanks to nimble editing and savvy camerawork, it’s a thrill to watch, too.

 

 

 

 

Oranges and Sunshine

In the 1980s, British social worker Margaret Humphreys uncovered a secret. Her government had sent hundreds of children to Australia. Supposedly orphaned, these kids were sent to be adopted by Australian parents, though some wound up in orphanages instead. Turns out, the kids weren’t necessarily orphans. If their parents turned up to reclaim them, they were told their kids had already been adopted. In fact they’d vanished into a child migration scheme that was kept quiet for decades. Humphreys set out to reunite these displaced children,  scattered across Australia over decades, with parents who might still be living in Britain. Neither country wanted to take any responsibility, of course.

Margaret Humphreys is a real woman who took this on herself because she saw the MV5BNTk2MzYyMDA2M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTAxMjg0NA@@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,740_AL_injustice, and people’s pain, and she decided to do something about it. She was threatened and abused because she was exposing some very dirty secrets covered up by some very powerful people. The only help she ever got was from the adoptees themselves, all of them different shades of broken, harbouring the wounded children within. The real Margaret was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in 1993, and Commander of the British Empire in 2011 for her work, but as this film can attest, life was not made easy for her.

I believe that we can’t start healing from a trauma until the truth of the injury is admitted. This story was quite shameful on Australian and Britain, but they’re not the only ones with blemishes. Here in Canada we have our own sorrow. We call it the 60s scoop though it’s much broader than that. It refers to the over-eager removal of Aboriginal children from their homes. In some cases removal may have been appropriate, but others not, and in any case, the children weren’t just taken from their parents, but from the culture. They were raised off-reserve, losing their language and their identity, breaking social and familial bonds. Although not deported, these kids also lost more than just their parents.

In Oranges and Sunshine, Emily Watson plays Margaret Humphreys, and she does the formidable woman justice. Watson always does, doesn’t she? Hugo Weaving plays Jack, the adoptee through whom we experience the grief and loss of the process. Seeing it from both their perspectives keeps the film balanced; this is not merely an interesting case, but a personal and painful journey that doesn’t guarantee a happy ending for everyone. It’s not a flashy movie. It’s mostly fact-based. But it is sincere and at times quite powerful.

Night Moves

Josh and Dena are passionate about their cause: the environment. Tired of small measures, they team with Harmon, a shadier character who can help them pull off an act of eco-terrorism, the bombing of a hydroelectric dam.

Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) and Dena (Dakota Fanning) are idealistic and young. They figure this revolutionary act will prompt people to think about what they’re doing to the environment, which you and I know is almost never how it works. What happens in real life is that we’re angry about the disruption to our lives. In the movie, however, what happens is even messier. The greatest impact they have is on themselves.

MV5BMTY1NDIzODA2MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTE4Mjk0MTE@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,999_AL_Night Moves isn’t so much about the environment as it is a character study between these three individuals trying to make a statement, and then living with the consequences. It’s slow, almost plodding. There’s no flashiness, just a creeping sense of guilt and paranoia.

The thing is, Jesse Eisenberg is a one-note actor and I’m damned tired of that note. He wears this grimace that tells us the world is just painful to him, like how can his pinched little rat face be expected to live in a world with us plebeians? He got lucky once with a role whose neuroticism suited him perfectly. Everything else has been derivative, and while it might have been slightly funny to watch Mark Zuckerberg get chased by zombies, I just don’t buy him as an eco-thug, bless his entitled little heart.

Otherwise I think Kelly Reichardt puts together a uniquely character-drive film that defies classification. It pushes us to challenge what we think of as “natural” and ratchets up the tension with increasing themes of alienation. What Reichardt doesn’t do is decide for us.

SXSW: M.F.A.

MFA-movieShortly after we are introduced to Master of Fine Arts candidate Noelle (Francesca Eastwood), she is raped by a classmate.  When she confronts him the next day, he denies doing anything wrong and winds up dead in a mostly-accidental way.  Somewhere during the events that caused Noelle to be a victim of sexual assault and a murder suspect, she snaps.  Formerly introverted and a loner, Noelle starts going to frat parties in order to seduce and murder other rapists who, due to a faulty system, got away with their crimes.

It will not be surprising to anyone who has seen the excellent documentary The Hunting Ground (or really, anyone who has attended a post-secondary institution) that despite her school having reported no sexual assaults at all, it is all to easy for Noelle to find rapists to kill on her college’s campus as she goes full vigilante.   In carrying out a series of increasingly violent kills, Noelle has no real fear of being caught even though she knows the police are closing in.

Eastwood is INTENSE in M.F.A.  Like, maybe more intense than her father has ever been, and that’s saying something because that guy’s face is frozen in a permanent, angry, “Ima kill you” sneer.  She is the best part of this movie and while she can’t make Noelle relatable, she keeps the audience on her side throughout the film, and that is no small feat in the face of her bloody killing spree.

M.F.A. offers an interesting twist on the typical slasher flick, and Noelle’s numerous kills are well-executed and, as is traditional in the genre, get more gory as she goes.  If nothing else, M.F.A. calls attention to the conversation we all should be having, namely why so many women are being sexually assaulted on college campuses and why the colleges are in many cases turning a blind eye to the rapes, or even discouraging victims from reporting these assaults!

The scary part about M.F.A. is not Noelle, it’s that the rapists and the evil administrator who blames the victim and covers up assaults are all too real, and are on your campus, or your friend’s, or your daughter’s.  We need to find an alternative solution, other than murder, so that a campus rape stops being a standard part of a Saturday night frat party, and so that when a college claims to have had zero rapes it’s not because the administration successfully intimidated and discouraged all potential complainants.  No more sexual assaults should be swept under the rug.  M.F.A. helps to shine a light on the problem.

 

SXSW: A Critically Endangered Species

a-critically-endangered-species-F64922.jpgOnce in a while I wish I had a more literary mind.  When I write, it’s pretty direct and while I used to attempt subtext I’ve pretty much given up on it at this point – too much effort for too little payoff.  But that’s for my writing, where no marks are given for artistry.  All that matters is the end result.

Whereas for Maya (Lena Olin), the protagonist in A Critically Endangered Species, artistry is all that matters.  She’s a very successful writer, possibly too successful in that she has decided her best work is behind her and she will kill herself rather than crank out any more mediocre books.  Her last project is to select a young male writer to inherit everything and safeguard her work after her death.

She holds tryouts that inevitably include detailed examinations of the applicants’ work, and with one notable exception end in sex.  The field is quickly narrowed to two finalists, a showdown between intellectual and sexual appeal.  For Maya’s part, she takes pleasure in sex but she obviously does not get pleasure or happiness from anything else, and sees no value in her life aside from her work.  The beautiful but muted shots of northern California are a good match for Maya’s melancholy state of being.

Which candidate wins is incidental.  The process is what matters.  Just as incidental is the fact of Maya’s imminent suicide.  Refreshingly, this is not a moral examination of Maya’s choice.  The focus of the movie is the competition between two very different suitors and the discussions between them about some very interesting writing.  The movie is extremely well-written and writers Zachary Cotler and Magdelena Zyzak deserve particular praise for producing so many stylistically different pieces of poetry for the applicants to read and defend against Maya’s criticism.  The acting is spot-on as well, giving us main characters that are both well-written and well-executed.

A Critically Endangered Species is heavily intellectual and took less than five minutes to go over my head as far as literary analysis goes.  Even so, it was extremely interesting to take in the poetry and the discussions that followed each piece.  This is a different sort of movie than I’m used to, and while I would have found the difference refreshing on its own, the quiet excellence of this film is what really made a lasting impression.   Added to that, if you have more than a passing interest in literature (which for me basically starts and ends with comic books), then A Critically Endangered Species is not only a good movie, it’s an intricate discussion piece that should rub you in a few different ways at once.  Which may be what Maya was searching for all along.

 

OJ: Made In America

First, understand that OJ Simpson, to me, is the murderer. I was a kid when he killed his ex-wife and her friend, so I hadn’t known him as a football player or movie star or celebrity before then. The first I ever knew of him was when his white Bronco interrupted my Saved By The Bell marathoning.

This documentary doesn’t just seek to illustrate the life and times of one Orenthal James Simpson; rather it places his career and his crime within the context of L.A.’s race wars in the 1980s and 1990s. While the things you thought you knew about his sensational murder oj-made-america-show-400x400trial aren’t wrong, they’re explored with new understanding, through a lens of his being a black man, sort of, but not really.

What on earth do I mean by that? OJ grew up in the projects, as he is fond of saying when it’s convenient. He dreamed not of glory or achievement or wealth, but of fame, of being known. Certainly his football career granted him that. He was a big deal in college football circa 1968, kept his nose clean, stayed out of politics, and earned himself the Heisman trophy. He was drafted to the NFL where he suffered a bit of a slump but had a rebirth by 1973 when he set a record rushing for 2000 yards in one season. I walk my dog further than that nearly every day, but apparently that’s some sort of accomplishment in football.

OJ became a star athlete and celebrity whose fame transcended his race. White American embraced him, and OJ played his part. He courted white culture and did his best to never remind anyone that he was still technically a black man. He was the first national black spokesperson, for Hertz rental cars, and that meant he’d arrived. When he retired from football, he traded in his black wife for a white one and transitioned to Hollywood.

Yeah sure he beat his wife on the reg, but with a wink and an autograph the cops would be slapping him on the back, making no reports, casting no aspersions. Life was good until Nicole up and left him and his jealousy surged. The one night Nicole was found dead, nearly decapitated in fact, in a small ocean’s worth of her blood. A friend who had had the misfortune of stopping by at the wrong time, Ronald Goldman, was also killed. And this time the cops couldn’t deny that the crime had OJ’s name all over it.

We all know that OJ was acquitted, but this documentary shows his acquittal as an act of vengeance. The jury was stacked largely with poor black people who had seen members of lead_960the LAPD be acquitted in he Rodney King beating. Here was a chance to right that wrong and make the system work for a black man for once. Everyone conveniently forgot that OJ had spent his entire adult life distancing himself from the black community and they made him a civil rights hero. His lawyer, Johnnie Cochran, played the race card and he played it hard “dealt it from the bottom of the deck” it’s said. And he got off. But instead of relishing his incredible good luck, OJ’s life continued to derail until he found himself in court once again, this time found guilty and sentenced to some 33 years in prison, whether or not his crimes truly warranted it. This, again, was retaliation rather than justice.

At 467 minutes, this documentary achieves a depth we haven’t seen before and earns itself an Academy Award nomination – but is this fair? It had a qualifying run in theatres (though who would pay to sit for nearly 8 hours is a mystery to me) but it was produced and aired on television, in 5 parts on ESPN. Every other documentary had to play by different rules, hovering around that 90 minute mark that makes a film viable and marketable. This is the longest film to ever receive a best documentary nomination, and I can’t help but wonder if this will change things moving forward.

I can’t ignore that this film is very effective, juxtaposing the American dream with American reality, pinning OJ’s circumstances in a time and place that were far from ideal. It is balanced and cheese almighty is it ever thorough, complete with Marcia Clark in a redemptive hairdo. Glory be! It doesn’t waste any of its 467 minutes, nor are any redundant. There is much ground to cover and the film makes clear that OJ is not just a man of his own making, but an idol that a whole culture had a hand in creating (and destroying). There are so many insights here that I sent constant missives to Sean, just venting my hurt and frustration. I’ve come away with a breadth of understanding that his filled a gulch I didn’t even know existed in my awareness of this epic and polarizing event. There are discoveries to be made here, if you’re willing to follow director Ezra Edelman’s trail of breadcrumbs for the requisite 7 hours and change.

Mixed Match

If you are facing a life-threatening disease, finding a bone marrow match for donation may be life-saving, even a cure, but as we all know, people languish on lists waiting for matches and sometimes die before they ever find one. For people of mixed race, finding that match is so much harder, akin to finding a needle in a haystack.

Mixed Marrow is an organization that helps people find those elusive matches. It is dedicated to finding bone marrow and blood cell donors for patients of jeff-chiba-stearn-s-mixed-match-is-a-call-to-action-to-build-the-bone-marrow-donor-registrymultiethnic descent. Before I watched this documentary, I didn’t understand that these matches tend to be found within one’s own race, and how limiting that can be for all kinds of people. Multi-ethnic backgrounds are the fastest-growing demographic, but the waiting lists aren’t keeping up, leaving multi-racial patients struggling to surmount complex genetics on top of everything else. It’s already tragically unlucky to be struck by a stupid disease, but to fail to find a match because you’re losing at a numbers game? That’s just unacceptable.

Mixed Match is a solid documentary by Vancouver filmmaker Jeff Chiba Stearns, one that blends medical research and personal stories that make sure we remember that this topic is literally life and death. Brave patients and families share their stories, some of triumph, some of heartbreak, to help educate us while also personalizing the urgency. Cute animation helps us break down some of the more challenging science. But nothing makes a sick kid okay. That’s never easy to watch, nor the helpless of desperate parents.

Mixed Match, more than just a documentary, is a call to action. The only way to achieve more happy stories of survival is to expand the donor registry. Race is part of medicine. Our genetics have something to do with our ancestry, and where we come from. And we’re all multi-racial, in way or another. Lots of us don’t even know all the combinations that may be forgotten within our lineage.

Mixed Match, while dealing with a serious subject, is very hopeful in its heart. There’s an answer here, and the film exuberantly charges us to be part of the solution.

 

Before The Flood

I learned two major things watching Before The Flood:

  1. Leonardo DiCaprio’s parents really should have sprung for an interior decorator for his nursery.
  2. (North) Americans are goddamned hypocrites.

We all know the Earth is dying, and we’re the murderers. This is pre-meditated, Murder One, capital stuff. There won’t be any plea-bargaining at the end of the world because we’re guilty as sin.

We’ve seen this coming for 20 years or more. Unfortunately, climate change is accelerating at a greater rate than even predicted. We have very

real, very frightening present-day consequences as it is. But we’re still not making changes. Oh sure we’re willing to do the small stuff, like recycling, or using lower-watt light bulbs, or bringing reusable bags to the grocery store. But the big stuff? Oh man. Don’t ask us to change our lifestyles! We’re very attached to those.

I’m attached to it. I’ll admit it. I treasure my back yard, which is why I live nearly 40km away from my work, so my car guzzles gas to make that daily round trip. I also live away from my family and my in-laws, so we’re either travelling 272km or 840km roundtrip to visit them – or 2646km if it’s my baby sister. And that doesn’t begin to include the 3 or 4 trips I take every year by air. It feels almost commonplace now to be able to get on a plane and land anywhere in the world, but it’s a luxury in how absolutely wasteful it is, how much energy we consume to travel long-distance. I know this. I feel guilty about it. But I’m still going to Hawaii in 3 weeks.

As privileged North Americans, we create 13 times as much ecological damage as someone in Brazil. One American consumes as many resources as 35 Indians, and 53 times more goods and services than someone from China. The sad fact is, we depend on the poor staying poor. If the people of India, China, and Africa caught up to our before-the-flood-leonardo-dicaprio-imageconsumption rates, the Earth would already be dead, and so would we. “Luckily”, poverty has stopped them from even accessing the kinds of resources that we have at our fingertips. If everyone had a light bulb in their home, a washing machine, a car in the driveway, a heat source for cooking…well, we’d be doomed. But the thing about developing nations is that they are in fact developing. They are making headway. They’re getting closer and closer to attaining our level of lifestyle everyday, and we’re PANICKING. We know it spells our demise. So we plead with them: don’t bother with coal or fossil fuels, go straight to solar power, India! Hey Kenya – why not go solar? Why not? Well, because those things cost more. Which is why we still haven’t adopted them ourselves. We’re the wealthiest countries and the most able to absorb those costs, but we haven’t.  We do not practice what we preach.

Fisher Stevens directs an urgent but humble documentary that keeps climate change advocate Leonardo DiCaprio front and centre, even as he questions his own credentials, and laments his carbon footprint.

Just a decade ago we saw America start a war over oil. In a not very distant future, those same wars could be fought over water. We’re already seeing climate change refugees – people forced to leave their homes because flooding or other “natural” disasters prompted by global warming. This won’t just be about the environment. This will quickly become an issue for national security.

There is hope. There are things we could and should be doing. You and I share a responsibility to lead by example. We need to start making wiser choices now, because we will be judged by future generations, and we need to decide whether we want to be lauded by them, or vilified.

 

 

National Geographic cares so much about this issue that it has made Before The Flood available for streaming for free. You can watch it here: