Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Other Israel Film Festival Spotlight: Golda

I’m delighted to be returning for the seventh time to cover the Other Israel Film Festival, which features a diverse crop of Israeli and Palestinian cinema and is hosted by the JCC Manhattan. The 14th Annual Other Israel Film Festival runs virtually December 3rd-10th, 2020.

Golda
Directed by Sagi Bornstein, Udi Nir, and Shani Rozanes
Ticket Information

Israel has only existed as a country for fewer than seventy-five years, and over the course of that time, has not had many prime ministers. Five leaders – David Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Rabin, Yitzhak Shamir, Shimon Peres, and the current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu – have been elected to separate non-consecutive terms. Their legacies are full of important moments in Israel’s brief but very storied history, and, particularly for the earliest holders of the office, involve international influences in place before Israel was declared a state. One of the most famous among them was Golda Meir.

Meir was born in 1898 in Kiev and grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She moved to what was then Palestine with her husband in 1921 and was an influential figure in Israeli politics, serving as the Minister of Labor and Foreign Minister, among other positions. When Levi Eshkol died of a heart attack in 1969, Meir, who had retired, was chosen to become Prime Minister. Her turbulent five years leading the country are explored in this documentary, which includes footage recorded after an aired interview shortly before her death from lymphoma in 1978 that finds her discussing much more openly and casually her true thoughts on Israel and the decisions she made in its stewardship.

This film offers a remarkable window into the way that Meir thought, showing her facial expression and her body language as she gave interviews and smoked a signature cigarette between carefully-calculated and direct words. The demeanor she has when the cameras stop broadcasting isn’t remarkably changed, but she does see an opportunity to address that which she may have been less willing to clarify knowing how it might be perceived. She is someone who, throughout her life, put tremendous consideration into all of her personal and political moves whose effects and consequences she knew would be remembered.

Meir’s time in office coincided almost perfectly with that of U.S. President Richard Nixon’s, and while Meir also resigned, that significant act was not treated with widespread condemnation. Her attitude in conversations that follow her term does not involve a staunch protest against unfair treatment, but instead a defense of what motivated her to do them and what she has seen come about as a result, not to mention what could have been had she done nothing. As assembled here, that footage and the interviews conducted with people who interacted with her during her life proves extremely insightful and informative, painting a picture of a leader combating impressions imposed upon her as a woman in a position of power whose resolve never wavered despite considerable turmoil during the most formative years of her career.

B+

Other Israel Film Festival Spotlight: One More Jump

I’m delighted to be returning for the seventh time to cover the Other Israel Film Festival, which features a diverse crop of Israeli and Palestinian cinema and is hosted by the JCC Manhattan. The 14th Annual Other Israel Film Festival runs virtually December 3rd-10th, 2020.

One More Jump
Directed by Emanuele Gerosa
Ticket Information

Sports are a common way that people escape their environments and move on to something else. High school students head to particular colleges based on athletic scholarships, and many train for years to impress scouts and make a future for themselves. Those means aren’t always possible, and a drive serves instead as a distraction and a way to channel frustrated energy into something productive. Participation creates community and instills a sense of belonging that be a force for positivity when it feels like someone truly can’t do anything to change their circumstances.

This documentary opens in Gaza with a group of young men running together through the streets before reaching a more open space where they can practice their chosen art form: parkour. They train vigorously to master their skills and to remain active, their main hope for satisfaction given the unlikelihood of being able to leave. Jehad is a mentor for many young Gazans eager to follow in his footsteps, while his friend Abdallah has moved to Italy, where his dreams of entering the world of parkour are becoming increasingly real.

This film begins with an invigorating rhythm, showing the sincere joy that its subjects get from being able to express themselves in this way. There is something sincerely exciting that comes from seeing them jump and spin, showing off their tremendous abilities as they work to become even better. There is an extraordinarily meaningful metaphor that exists in their training to move in a manner that most can’t, when that won’t enable them to vault over the physical barriers that separate them from the life they might want.

From its energetic start, this film travels down a less optimistic road as reality for Jehad and Abdallah sets in. Jehad witnesses the unrest that exists in Gaza as he and his friends feel subjugated and abandoned by both Israel and neighboring Arab countries, and he can do nothing to prevent or affect it. Abdallah feels like a stranger in a foreign land because opportunity meant leaving his home behind, and he risks being forgotten if he fails to make a name for himself and to represent his community from afar. The camera serves as a formidable storyteller, following these real people as they walk, run, and jump through a city that may be very far from perfect but it still their own and defines them. This film is an effective vehicle to tell their story, sharing a window into their unique mentality.

B+

Monday, November 30, 2020

Other Israel Film Festival Spotlight: Ma’abarot

I’m delighted to be returning for the seventh time to cover the Other Israel Film Festival, which features a diverse crop of Israeli and Palestinian cinema and is hosted by the JCC Manhattan. The 14th Annual Other Israel Film Festival runs virtually December 3rd-10th, 2020.

Ma’abarot
Directed by Dina Zvi Riklis
Ticket Information

In 1948, Israel officially became a country and faced many uphill battles in the formation of its nation, including minimal international recognition of its right to exist. The creation of a Jewish state was seen by communities around the world as a return to its historical homeland, and tremendous numbers came to Israel seeking a safe haven from their countries of origin, which were no longer friendly to them. The attitude towards Holocaust survivors from Europe and Jews from the Middle East and Africa was not the same, fostering a system of inequality explored in depth in this documentary.

This film’s title refers to the transit camps established to house the hundreds of thousands of new arrivals to the country. Former residents who lived for years in these camps are interviewed as they reflect back upon what they experienced and the way that they were treated, explaining how the camps were structured and run. Those coming from Yemen, Morocco, Syria, and other places note the disparity in the governmental perception of their communities and those from Romania, Poland, and other Ashkenazi areas who were given access to superior housing options and generally better fortunes.

The ideas covered in this film are far from surprising, and they feel reminiscent of the current spotlight on systemic racism in America. While many would not acknowledge that they see a difference between the Ashkenazi and Sephardic residents of Israel, it is clear that those who have experienced discrimination and unequal circumstances believe their perspectives to be valid, which in itself is reason enough to hear from them and learn from what they have to share. As a selection of the Other Israel Film Festival, this film serves a crucial function examining Israeli society as much more complex than simply a years-long conflict between Jewish and non-Jewish populations.

The content presented in this film is unsettling since the trauma endured by so many of its interviewees continues to be felt decades after their arrival to Israel. The use of archive footage of the transit camps is very effective in recreating the feeling of the time, and hearing from the people who now have much more life experience to reflect back on than they did when they first entered Israel is truly meaningful. Most countries aren’t nearly as young as Israel and the road to where things are at the moment must be traced through a much longer process, and this film offers a rare opportunity to look back a short time and gain tremendous knowledge from those still around to talk about what they remember.

B+

Other Israel Film Festival Spotlight: Crossings

I’m delighted to be returning for the seventh time to cover the Other Israel Film Festival, which features a diverse crop of Israeli and Palestinian cinema and is hosted by the JCC Manhattan. The 14th Annual Other Israel Film Festival runs virtually December 3rd-10th, 2020.

Crossings
Directed by Itzik Lerner 
Ticket Information

The checkpoints that exist throughout Israel separating the country from Palestinian territories are a subject of much controversy around the world. Its harshest critics compare it to the maintenance of an apartheid state in which the movement of Palestinians is severely restricted and controlled by an unfeeling imperial power. Israel defends its actions as necessary to its own security, citing past threats that have emerged by those who seek to deny its right to exist through violence and terrorism. Whatever arguments there may be for and against them, the fact at this moment is that they exist.

This film doesn’t expressly take a position on the legitimacy of these border crossing stations and whether they are just. The straightforward presentation of footage speaks volumes, showing the way in which Palestinians wait for hours to get to the jobs they are desperate to keep, subject to the whims of an Israeli soldier who will determine whether they are permitted to go or must turn back for any number of seemingly arbitrary reasons. But that isn’t the focus of this film, which instead provides an unexpectedly intimate look at the lives and training protocols of the Israeli soldiers stationed at the checkpoints.

Working both as a soldier and at a border crossing is new for most of these young Israelis who aren’t prepared for the pressures that come with it. They are encouraged to compete with each other and told to toughen up when they complain about painful boots or undue stresses that they are expected to get through rather than acknowledge. When they begin to question their purpose and the validity of their presence, they are reminded that this is the job and that the security of the country depends on them following orders and remaining vigilant.

It’s never made clear who commissioned this film and what perspective it’s meant to represent. Those shown on camera are obviously aware that they are being filmed, and that doesn’t seem to affect their behavior in any way, with harsh statements being made and crying occurring frequently. Director Itzik Lerner’s last film, which also played at the Other Israel Film Festival, was “Megiddo,” showcasing Palestinians housed in a high-security prison, also training its lens on fascinating subjects and simply allowing them to speak without framing the narrative in an influential way. Like that film, this is an undeniably enlightening approach, even if it leaves moral takeaways entirely up to its viewers.

B

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Interview: Director Pavel Lungin

I had the pleasure of speaking with director Pavel Lungin, whose new film “Esau” debuts on digital and VOD this Tuesday. Check out our conversation below to learn more about the film!



Saturday, November 28, 2020

Weekend Movie Recommendations with Abe

Every Friday, I'll be uploading a Minute with Abe: Weekend Movie Recommendations Edition, surveying new releases on DVD, and on streaming services. Check it out, and subscribe to the movieswithabe channel!


New to Theaters: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
New to DVD: The Irishman, Buoyancy, American Trial: The Eric Garner Story
New to Netflix: Hillbilly Elegy
New to Amazon and Hulu: Bombshell
New to Amazon: Uncle Frank, Lovers Rock
New to Hulu: Happiest Season

Friday, November 27, 2020

Movie with Abe: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Directed by George C. Wolfe
Released November 25, 2020

Musicians are usually talented, and bring with them a great deal of creative energy. While some are happy to be directed by others and defer to their artistic notions, many have strong opinions about their craft and the way that they should express it. Having more than one person who feels that they are right and things must be done in the manner they believe is correct can lead to friction during collaboration, which may help the process by infusing that much more passion into their work but can also lead to considerable delays and tension that adversely impacts it.

In 1927, Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) is coming in to a Chicago recording studio to sing her classic “Black Bottom” with her band. Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) anxiously await the late arrival of their star while trumpet player Levee (Chadwick Boseman) argues with Cutler (Colman Domingo), Toledo (Glynn Turman), and Slow Drag (Michael Potts) about whether he can use his arrangement instead of Ma’s. When she finally shows up with her girlfriend Dussie (Taylour Paige) and her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown), things only becoming more tense and complicated as dueling egos cause considerable frustration for everyone in the studio.

This film is based on the 1982 play of the same name by August Wilson, whose “Fences” was adapted several years ago and won Davis an Oscar for her performance. Its rhythm does very much resemble that of a stage production, but there is a tremendous amount added in this cinematic version, including vivid colors, backdrops, and camera angles that make it a dynamic story well worth viewing on any screen. The dialogue and the music work in concert to create an involving experience that, through casual conversation and comments that lead to deeper contemplation, reveals a great deal in a short period of time about the personalities depicted.

This film’s small ensemble is formidable, giving excellent supporting roles to underappreciated actors like Domingo and Turman. Davis makes an immediate impression in the film’s first scene as she sings her signature song, and the performance only gets better when she gets a chance to speak and make it known to anyone in her orbit that she doesn’t care what they think because she knows better. Boseman crafts a character just as sure of himself but with far less power to make anyone listen, and there’s something so sincere and confident about the way he carries himself and defends his opinions. It’s a career-defining turn for the actor, who sadly died at age forty-three this past August. This film should keep its audience captivated for the entirety of its ninety-four-minute runtime, actively interested in the discussions, motivations, and interactions of these characters, representative of a generation of influential artists intent on success despite the pervasive prejudices of their time.

B+

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Movie with Abe: Lovers Rock

Lovers Rock
Directed by Steve McQueen
Released November 27, 2020 (Amazon Prime)

Films, unlike plays, tend to take advantage of the ability to cut together scenes to feature multiple locations and have their characters travel to places rather than simply talk about them. Yet there is something to be said for how telling an entire story in one place can in fact strengthen it, inviting viewers in to experience the same surroundings and not allowing them to escape to other settings. It’s a bold choice in cinema that may not work for all audiences, but it may also be able to offer more to contemplate thanks to the created boundaries of its portrayed world.

In the 1980s, a group of Black people are gathered at a house party. Over the course of the night, which is filled with music and occasional confrontations, Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and Franklyn (Micheal Ward) form a connection through looks, dance, and interaction. There is something about being together in that house that only serves to intensify their feelings, and the rhythm of the songs serves as a score of sorts to guide their romance.

This film is the second in an anthology series called “Small Axe” directed by Steve McQueen, best known for the Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave.” After the first film, “Mangrove,” this feels like something out of a completely different world. The characters don’t interact with police officers, and they’re left alone to sort out their own issues within the confines of the house. Plot is not the emphasis here, but instead it’s about the relationships that are building, and the way in which one night can truly feel like forever even if it is certain to come to an eventual end.

This film’s title does a good job of explaining its subject matter. Compared with “Mangrove,” this film is far less engaging in a traditional way. Remaining mostly within the confines of the house is a technique that works well to underscore the closeness building between people who don’t know each other, but, as a result, there’s not all that much that happens, making this film’s brief sixty-eight-minute runtime feel like an eternity. As the music repeatedly increases in volume, songs serve as the more effective anchor, making things more interesting for a few moments before returning to a decent but far from invigorating portrait of passion. It may prove most resounding if watched on its own and considered more as a music piece than a mediocre movie.

B-

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Movie with Abe: Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy
Directed by Ron Howard
Released November 24, 2020 (Netflix)

During childhood, people learn about the world from those in their orbit and the experiences that they have. What they know depends on where they travel and the example set for them by family and friends. For someone who doesn’t leave their small bubble and get to interact with those who are different from their neighbors and community members, venturing out into the world can be jarring and overwhelming. It may also likely come with judgment from the people for which seeing someone unaccustomed to their way of life seems unfathomable and a target for mockery.

J.D. Vance (Gabriel Basso) grows up in Ohio and Kentucky with his strong-willed mother, Bev (Amy Adams), a nurse, his sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett), and his grandparents (Glenn Close and Bo Hopkins). Bev has trouble with drug addiction and is prone to bouts of fury, frequently lashing out at her children for perceived disrespect and questioning any of the values she has instilled in them. When J.D. grows up and goes to law school at Yale, where he meets Usha (Freida Pinto) and prepares for an illustrious career full of opportunities, he is forced to return home and confront the past he left behind when he learns that his mother has relapsed.

This film is adapted from the memoir of the same name by Vance published in 2016. The film represents both Bev and her mother, known as Mamaw, as fiercely protective of their family and their way of life, not content to be told by anyone else that the way they do things isn’t correct. Once he has left, J.D. begins to notice the stark differences between his upbringing and that of his peers, ranging from dismissive summaries of state colleges as “not that bad” to formal dinnerware whose functions he is expected to know. This isn’t an oversimplification of the “hillbilly” lifestyle but instead a collection of memories and experiences that serve as a reminder that people must, do some degree, adapt to their surroundings.

Basso, best known for his role on “The Big C,” is the true star of this film, demonstrating honesty and sensitivity in his portrayal of the protagonist. Adams, typically known for playing warm, likeable characters, delivers admirably with a passionate performance that makes Bev feel very real. Close, though talented and committed, isn’t quite as resonant in her portrayal of the older generation with a similar mentality. This film doesn’t uncover new earth-shattering truths about the differences that exist even within the same country based on geography and attitude, but it does tell a worthwhile story about one man determined to take only the best of what his early life has given him and shape it into something meaningful and enduring. It’s certainly not deserving of the onslaught of very negative reviews it has received.

B

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Movie with Abe: Happiest Season

Happiest Season
Directed by Clea DuVall
Released November 25, 2020 (Hulu)

Coming home for the holidays is something that many people won’t do this year, which is sure to be difficult and will only increase feelings of loneliness and isolation. For many, that time is normally one filled with positive reunions and the chance to return to the closest thing resembling childhood. For others, however, it may not be such a warm experience and come with a good deal of apprehension. People change and grow up when they move away, and returning to a formative place may represent an unwanted regression and engagement with memories and people that aren’t quite so comforting.

Abby (Kristen Stewart) accepts an invitation from her girlfriend Harper (Mackenzie Davis) to come meet her family for Christmas despite her tradition of not doing anything special for the holiday since her parents died. She only learns on the way to Harper’s family’s home that she isn’t actually out, meaning that she’ll have to pretend to be her roommate. The experience only gets more intense as she is introduced to Harper’s overbearing mother (Mary Steenburgen), detached politician father (Victor Garber), eager sister Jane (Mary Holland), and ice-cold sister Sloane (Alison Brie), who all seem to turn Harper into a different person than the one Abby knows.

This film takes a moderately conventional premise - the dreaded prospect of meeting a partner’s judgmental family over the holidays – and smartly incorporates the lesbian aspect of the story. Abby’s gay best friend John (Dan Levy) incredulously asks if Harper’s parents have ever met a lesbian when he hears that she has to pretend to be straight, but it says much more about their obliviousness than anything else, since they wouldn’t even bother to think that Harper might be romantically interested in a woman. That they wouldn’t approve isn’t even guaranteed, but Harper has obviously been made to feel that any deviation from normalcy is cause for shame, and she hides part of herself as a result as a protective mechanism.

It’s great to see a high-profile film like this feature a romance that isn’t heterosexual in a perfectly normal way that isn’t exaggerated or played up for basic comedy purposes. Actress Clea DuVall co-writes and directs her second feature film, which is a fully engaging and entertaining look at the standards people hold others to and the acts they put on to cope with them. This is a fitting role for Stewart, who shares the screen generously with the rest of the cast. Davis handles the complexities of Harper’s character well and still makes her likeable, while Aubrey Plaza stands out in a supporting role as Harper’s ex-girlfriend. There are funny moments throughout this enjoyable ensemble comedy, one that should make a great watch for any holiday.

B+

Monday, November 23, 2020

Movie with Abe: Saul and Ruby’s Holocaust Survivor Band

Saul and Ruby’s Holocaust Survivor Band
Directed by Tod Lending
Released November 24, 2020 (VOD)

There are many different experiences that those who endured the Holocaust had. The number of lives lost is truly appalling, and those who managed to survive had to face a world that looked nothing like the one they knew before it. Many, if they were able, traveled to other countries where they might have been able to build a new life, unsure of the challenges they might face but aware that they could not return to what used to be home. The perspectives of those who went through this unimaginable time are extremely varied and influence how those people interact with the world around them.

Saul Drier and Ruby Sosnowicz are Holocaust survivors who made their way to America after World War II. When they retired, they decided to start a Klezmer band, channeling their traumatic experiences into vivid recreations of the music and energy of the Poland they remembered from before the war. The band’s name – Holocaust Survivor Band – is direct, representing the signature enthusiasm of these two old men with a wealth of memories and eagerness to express themselves. As they navigate age, loss, and identity traveling around to play music, they prepare for a trip back to Poland to confront the history that shaped them.

This film is an endearing portrait of two friends who have chosen to embrace a defining aspect of their stories and use it for good. The images and anecdotes that are presented about their childhoods and the deaths of their family members in concentration camps are upsetting, and it is clear that the way they view the world is particularly astounding given the horrors they have had to face. Yet they persevere and latch on to dreams of grandeur, ready to start at synagogues and public libraries to infuse a bit of culture back into the community from a heritage that only they and those of their generation can truly remember.

This film, and the band it showcases, represent an engagement with the past that many Holocaust survivors, including Saul and Ruby earlier on in their lives, do not do. The deep pain and trauma formed during the destruction of so much of the Jewish community in Europe is difficult to relive, and Saul and Ruby’s approach shouldn’t be seen as the only or even the most common way to ensure that their descendants and the rest of the world remember what happened so that history is not repeated. This film, for those who are open to it, is a delight, featuring two real personalities who still have plenty to offer after a long and challenging life.

B+

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Movie with Abe: The Last Vermeer

Claes Bang and Guy Pearce star in the disappointing art history film now playing in theaters, “The Last Vermeer,” which I reviewed for The Film Experience. Head over there to read my review.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Movie with Abe: Run

The terrific Sarah Paulson and breakout star Kiera Allen play mother and daughter in the intense and engrossing new thriller now available on Hulu, “Run,” which I reviewed for The Film Experience. Head over there to read my review.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Weekend Movie Recommendations with Abe

Every Friday, I'll be uploading a Minute with Abe: Weekend Movie Recommendations Edition, surveying new releases on DVD, and on streaming services. Check it out, and subscribe to the movieswithabe channel!


New to Theaters: Sound of Metal, The Last Vermeer
New to DVD: Summerland, The Orange Years: The Nickelodeon Story
New to Netflix: Loving, V for Vendetta
New to Amazon: Mangrove, 7 Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss by Passing through the Gateway Chosen by the Holy Storsh
New to Hulu: Run, Tesla

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Hearing Loss Is Marvelously Conveyed in “Sound of Metal”

Amazon Studios will release “Sound of Metal” in theaters tomorrow, November 20th, before bringing it to Amazon Prime on December 4th. This affecting story of Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a drummer who begins to lose his hearing, is extremely powerful and very worth seeing. My review from AFI Fest is here. If you’d like to go into the film without knowing more about it, come back to read this piece after you’ve had a chance to see it.

I had the opportunity recently to participate in a press conference with a number of the artists who worked on the film. Making his feature film debut, Darius Marder served as director and co-wrote the script with his brother Abraham Marder, who was also the film’s composer, and Derek Cianfrance, best known for “Blue Valentine” and “I Know This Much is True.” Darius describes the true intentionality behind the film, which was to “do something new that hadn’t been seen or specifically heard” and “almost like putting on a virtual reality headset.” Sound designer Nicolas Becker and editor Mikkel Neilsen worked together to highlight immersive sound and bring the audience in to the experience of hearing loss. Neilsen explained that he worked with the film largely as a silent movie, determining when sound would be necessary to add and analyzing how much sign language should be seen on screen in the use of close-ups and framing shots.

Abraham detailed a fascinating process of creating plenty of music for the film then slowly taking most of it away over the course of post-production “so that you can really hear and see the story.” He and Becker used instruments that could produce vibrational sounds and mimic the sound of the inner ear. For Darius and Abraham, this experience was personal as a result of influential memories of their grandmother, who lost most of her hearing late in life. Abraham remembers that she felt isolated because she wasn’t part of the hearing community or the deaf community, and though she had a headphone system with a microphone she could give to people to use, it wasn’t practical for a family gathering. Abraham added that she was a cinephile and was passionate about the dream of seeing proper captioning in all films. The film is dedicated to her.

Capturing the alienation that Ruben feels was essential to the success of this experience. Production designer Jeremy Woodward and costume designer Megan Stark Evans worked to create an environment full of meaning with rich subtext in each scene. Woodward assembled and decorated the Airstream that serves as Ruben’s mobile home with his girlfriend and lead singer Lou (Olivia Cooke), while Evans chose clothing that spoke to the way both Ruben and Lou expressed themselves and evolved over the course of the film as their own relationships changed. Woodward also transformed a church and dormitory into an on-set deaf community which mirrored the warm, embracing attitude that welcomes Ruben in over the course of the film.

This film was shot chronologically, which allowed the crew to go through Ruben’s journey with him as Ahmed utilized his muscle memory to become more accustomed to the way his character needed to exist. Darius gave Ahmed custom-made earpieces that didn’t let him hear his own voice, the culmination of an extensive “nerdy research process” into the unexpectedly common reasons people lose their hearing, like medication or as a byproduct of their mental wellness. Abraham, a musician, was also experiencing tinnitus during filming, which Darius joked was a kind way of him relating to what they were doing.

The finished product is extraordinarily resonant, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the process to get there was guided by purpose and an effort towards accessibility. Thanks to the collaboration of these talented artists and everyone else who worked on the film, it offers a remarkable window into a world that for many will be jarring, honing in on how a dramatic loss like this hits the senses thanks to an intentional “highlighting of the extremes.” It does more than merely provoke thought – it invites audiences in to begin to grasp the gravity and isolation of an unexpected and irreversible new reality.

Movie with Abe: Mangrove

Mangrove
Directed by Steve McQueen
Released November 20, 2020 (Amazon Prime)

Living in the United States, it’s easy to forget that there’s a whole world out there that faces many of the same problems that exist here. Many other countries have narratives built on inequality and societies created from structures that turned people into property. The passing of laws to prohibit discrimination after those systems were officially dismantled only did so much, and there are many disturbing and compelling stories of people and communities that were forced to assert their right to live and exist peacefully and in charge of their own destinies.

In the late 1960s, Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), originally from Trinidad, was the owner of a café in the Notting Hill neighborhood of London. Proudly displaying a sign denoting a “Black-owned business,” Frank found his shop continually subject to police harassment and frequent baseless raids. When Frank and other members of the West Indian and Black communities staged a protest against this police mistreatment, they were arrested and put on trial, where Judge Edward Clarke (Alex Jennings) repeatedly refused a number of requests designed to ensure the fair treatment of the defendants.

This film is the first in an anthology series called “Small Axe” directed by Steve McQueen, best known for the Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave.” Based on the true story of the Mangrove Nine, this entry showcases a powerful case of people demanding to be heard and to live without being constantly subjugated to persecution. Its timing coincides closely with the release of the American film “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” which presents its own version of distorted justice and a resolute governmental defense of police over the rights of those oppressed and abused by them. There are clear differences and the stakes are very much not the same, but both films make for emphatic and worthwhile viewing.

This film makes strong use of an ensemble cast led by Parkes that includes Letitia Wright, who delivers a formidable turn as a Black Panther activist who knows exactly what the law entitles her to and is not content to relinquish any autonomy, especially not to a white lawyer. Before it even gets to the courtroom, a setting that is truly compelling and presented in an engaging fashion, this film cements itself as an important and involving dramatization by refusing to pull away from its most intense scenes, firmly trapping its audience in the center of violent protests or unexpected raids. This film’s events may be in the past, but its content as portrayed in this format feels enticingly urgent.

B+

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

DOC NYC Spotlight: ‘Til Kingdom Come

I’m excited to be covering DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its eleventh year, this time in a mostly online format, from November 11th-19th.

‘Til Kingdom Come
Directed by Maya Zinshtein
Ticket Information

Israel, in its current form, is a relatively young country, but one that has been subject to a great deal of controversy and global attention over the course of its short existence of just over seventy years. Most of the surrounding Arab nations have been engaged in wars with Israel, and many refuse to acknowledge its right to exist. Jewish communities in America and around the world have largely expressed support for a Jewish homeland, and there is another body with a vested interest in strengthening the state: evangelical Christians.

The focus of this documentary is a community in Kentucky where members describe their appreciation for Donald Trump as a messenger of sorts for their movement, affirming their existence even if they admit that he might often play to what he knows they will like. One of the most important things for the evangelical church is financial backing for Israel, which, in scripture, is purported to be the place where salvation will arrive. Through partnerships with a Jewish organization that embraces the love expressed by Christians, evangelicals make up the largest pro-Israel group in the United States.

This film comes off as an exposé, but all of its subjects are more than happy to share their opinions. They are passionate and know what they want. Pastors recite verses that reference terrible fates for those who don’t accept Jesus, and, in a chilling scene, one prominent player calls Jews arrogant for not realizing what they will need to do in order to be saved and continuing to practice their religion. Another refutes comparisons to Muslim extremists who do jihad and declares that there is no such thing as a Palestinian, elevating what is for many a political and geographical argument to an expression of supremacy over a supposedly invalid group of people.

Much of this film’s seventy-six-minute content is unsettling, even more so as a Jewish viewer who understands the implications clearly stated by many of the evangelicals interviewed. Just as Trump sees that community as his stepping stone to power, the most fervent seek to align themselves with Jews, who make up some of the current residents of the land of Israel, not in harmony but in order to eventually compel them to accept Jesus. Not everything is quite so malicious, but this brief introduction to this mindset is deeply unnerving, and this film offers only a small snapshot of this mentality and the power of the people who preach it.

B+

DOC NYC Spotlight: Welcome to Chechnya

I’m excited to be covering DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its eleventh year, this time in a mostly online format, from November 11th-19th.

Welcome to Chechnya
Directed by David France
Ticket Information

The increasing instability of political liberties in the United States have propelled a generation of activists into action, desperate to protect the freedoms that they may have, up until this point, taken for granted. There are many more steps to be achieved in order to approach true equality, but the United States is significantly ahead of many other countries in at least working towards legislation to protect certain classes. It’s truly horrifying to see what can happen around the world when discriminatory behavior is not only permitted but even encouraged by governments and culture against those who don’t conform.

In 2017, Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya, began commanding efforts to purge the region of any undesirable LGBTQ elements. Those who were outed were rounded up, tortured, and often sent back to their families, who were encouraged to kill them to preserve their honor and standing in society. A group of activists supporting the LGBTQ community work desperately to help save the lives of several individuals who are facing impossible situations and whose only hope for survival is to leave the country and be granted asylum somewhere where they can be truly safe from persecution.

This film includes a number of extremely disturbing clips described as footage “intercepted” by the group that demonstrate the true inhuman depravity being inflicted upon people based only on their sexual orientation. It’s remarkable, then, in the face of such brutality, the good that others are able to do to put themselves in danger for the sake of others who risk plenty just by existing. The stories they hear about the impossible predicaments faced by the individuals they help, like a young woman who has to choose between having sex with her uncle or having the fact that she is a lesbian exposed, are harrowing and extremely disturbing.

This exposé takes a responsible approach to the truth it showcases, digitally altering the faces of those who are on the run so that they will not be put further at risk. There is an astonishing degree of bravery demonstrated by the team that goes to great lengths to secure safe passage out of the country and a pathway to a better life free from constant fear for members of their community. This problem has by no means been solved, since Kadyrov and the government continue to deny the presence of any LGBTQ people within Chechnya or Russia, but the work being done here is formidable and given a vital platform to have its crucial message transmitted to a world that can hopefully begin to intervene.

B+

DOC NYC Spotlight: The Viewing Booth

I’m excited to be covering DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its eleventh year, this time in a mostly online format, from November 11th-19th.

The Viewing Booth
Directed by Ra'anan Alexandrowicz
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The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has many elements to it, and it’s difficult to find someone without a perspective on it if they have a connection of any sort to the region. Where people grew up, their religious affiliation, their politics, and their own experiences with Israel and Palestine inform how they look at any situation related to them. Some have changed their attitudes over the course of their lives, and an important factor in that can be the media they digest and the way in which they are open to their perceptions being challenged.

Filmmaker Ra’anan Alexandrowicz enlists several participants to take part in an experiment of sorts, bringing them into a booth to look at a series of clips involving Israelis and Palestinian. Some come from the Israeli army or pro-government sources, while others have been put together by B’Tselem, an organization emphasizing human rights. From those he brings in, Maia, who is Jewish, American, and supportive of Israel, stands out to Ra’anan due to how she comes with her own biases and begins to peel back the layers of what she has been taught to believe, and how that informs her own willingness to consider something that doesn’t support her preexisting notions.

This film trains its lens on Maia as she watches and comments on the videos she sees, utilizing her reactions and responses to make a case for the power of suggestion and the way in which rational thought isn’t always at play when the thought process stops at an initial dismissal. Maia believes certain things and can’t stop her mind from making conclusions even if some evidence is missing, and she begins to question her own objectivity when she incorrectly guesses the source of a particular video. She knows, at the very least, that she brings in her worldview to color a situation that for her – and most – can’t be seen exactly as it is.

Early into this documentary, Ra’anan mentions that, though there were multiple people involved in this viewing project, he chose only to focus on Maia. It’s irresponsible, therefore, to conclude that watching footage which challenges someone’s previously-held beliefs can lead to a shift in perspective, since she’s merely one data point. The rest is ignored, perhaps because it didn’t support that thesis or merely because what Maia came to understand was most potent. The idea that consuming a diverse sampling of media in any case – not just this situation – is certainly valid, though this film, which is indeed compelling, shouldn’t really arrive at that point based on its use of just one participant.

B

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

DOC NYC Spotlight: Blue Code of Silence

I’m excited to be covering DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its eleventh year, this time in a mostly online format, from November 11th-19th.

Blue Code of Silence
Directed by Magnus Skatvold and Greg Mallozzi
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Throughout the recent prominence of the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” there has been considerable pushback from staunch supporters of the police about the importance of “blue lives.” While that term has been debated since there are in fact no blue people, the notion of backing those who “protect and serve” and constantly put their lives in danger is not something that is more complicated to question. That does not mean, of course, that those with power should abuse it, and that a system of checks and balances should not exist to ensure that corruption is not allowed to fester.

In the 1970s, NYPD Detective Bob Leuci became a notorious figure in the police force due to his active participation in recording members of the Special Investigative Unit and helping to build a case against his fellow officers. This documentary tracks Leuci’s career and the way in which he became involved in illegal activities, ultimately prompting him to turn against his colleagues and earn widespread condemnation for his portrayal. Former police officers and detectives offer their opinions, as does the late Leuci, who died at age seventy-five in 2015.

This is absolutely a relevant subject today as law enforcement stands on trial with the public for its treatment of people of color and the frequent use of excessive force. Leuci was one of the first to cooperate and actively work against members of his team, something that was seen as detestable and unforgivable. Such career-ruining bravery may be applauded in our current moment, but there is also no clear consensus on Leuci’s motivations and whether he was merely trying to save himself or if he actually believed in doing good.

This film doesn’t take a firm position on Leuci’s innocence or guilt, and instead presents a variety of perspectives that speak to specific moments from Leuci’s life and the way others interpreted his behavior. He is not described as a flawless man, and even he, and his Kathy, admit the ways in which his actions were far from perfect. This film’s archive footage showing figures like Rudy Giuliani that chronicle the way in which the NYPD was shaped decades ago is remarkably interesting, and even if it’s far from conclusive, it’s enlightening for how things have evolved today and might well contribute to arguments for or against the dismantling or at least a formidable reconstruction of policing in the United States in its current form.

B+

DOC NYC Spotlight: Beautiful Something Left Behind

I’m excited to be covering DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its eleventh year, this time in a mostly online format, from November 11th-19th.

Beautiful Something Left Behind
Directed by Katrine Philip
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Loss is something that everyone experiences at some point in their lives. There are degrees to which that loss can be felt and the impact it may have, depending on the length of the deceased’s life and the circumstances under which it ended. An unexpected passing can be particularly devastating, and it can create a particularly large void for those who knew a person best and are now no longer able to spend time and make new memories with them. Losing a parent at a young age can be especially traumatic, in part because children relate to death in a different way than adults do.

In New Jersey, Good Grief is a counseling center that works with children who have lost a parent. They are encouraged to share how they are feeling and to talk openly about the fact that someone they loved has died. They participate in group sessions that allow them to hear each other’s experiences and find common ground in the emotions that they are feeling, and speak directly to the camera about the people they are so sorely missing. They are given the opportunity to engage in a physical way with their loss through, among other representative activities, the release of floating lanterns into the sky.

This is a film whose content will likely be completely unwatchable for some because it hits far too close to home if they have been through something similar. It is certainly difficult to watch young children talk about how their mother or father has died, but there is also something wonderful about seeing how they are able to do so freely and honestly. The innocence often assigned to those who have yet to experience some of the darker and less pure aspects of the world should theoretically have been lost due to the trauma these children have been through, but the open way in which they are working through it actually seems to help them preserve and harness it.

This documentary was of special interest to me because my wife works in the end-of-life space and is absolutely supportive of organizations like Good Grief that take a positive approach to a subject that many find taboo and don’t ever want to discuss. In spotlighting their work, this film helps takes productive steps towards normalizing the idea of difficult conversations and that talking about death can indeed have tremendous benefits. These children are the clearest example of that, sharing deep pain in a mesmerizing and very affecting way.

B+

DOC NYC Spotlight: Red Heaven

I’m excited to be covering DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its eleventh year, this time in a mostly online format, from November 11th-19th.

Red Heaven
Directed by Lauren DeFilippo and Katherine Gorringe
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There is much to be explored beyond our world, but because things are radically different without gravity and with other conditions in space and on other planets, there is considerable research that needs to be done in advance of sending actual people on the journey to discover it. Among the training required by astronauts is the simulation of conditions similar to what they will experience once they have left Earth. In the case of a manned mission to Mars, the duration and intensity of that trip must be factored in and tested to determine whether humanity is indeed ready for such an immense undertaking.

Six individuals, all of whom are not astronauts, are selected to be part of a yearlong experiment in which they will experience conditions designed to mimic life on Mars. In Hawai’i, they enter a station where they will live and keep meticulous records of what happens. They maintain journals and complete countless surveys about what they are doing and feeling. Aware of the duration of their mission, they do what they must to maintain their sanity and come to important realizations about what it’s like to be in isolation with other people.

This film’s world premiere at DOC NYC surely has an added relevance that wasn’t intended when cameras were given to the participants at the beginning of this process. Much of what is deduced about spending uninterrupted time with the same people has been felt by those who have been largely quarantining and remaining at home over the course of most of this year. Not getting fresh air and pretending to be on another planet have additional psychological effects, to be sure, but the overall conclusions are likely similar to what many worldwide have come to believe about living on this planet in its current state.

This documentary is made up of interviews with each of the participants in which they share their observations and frustrations, which are both informative and often humorous. There is definitely comedy to be found in the way that each of them drive each other crazy and are more attuned to the seemingly insignificant actions of their colleagues. More serious historical analysis provides additional context to the effects of spending time away from the events of the world, and the data gleaned here – which is still being studied – can be of tremendous help for much more than otherworldly exploration.

B+

Monday, November 16, 2020

DOC NYC Spotlight: Mayor

I’m excited to be covering DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its eleventh year, this time in a mostly online format, from November 11th-19th.

Mayor
Directed by David Osit
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There are many stories and perspectives that can be portrayed about the most controversial place in the Middle East. The conflicted lands have strong roots for many people, and it is often a charged subject with plenty of passion behind it for both filmmakers and those interviewed about circumstances that drive and affect their daily lives. People can make statements and arguments in an attempt to make their positions known, but what is most valuable is to truly see and understand what they experience, which can offer a tremendous amount of information about why they feel and act the way they do.

Musa Hadid is the mayor of Ramallah, a prominent city in Palestine. Hadid wears many hats as he navigates the various issues facing his city, ranging from dealing with the reality of being under Israeli occupation and preparations for high-profile Christmas celebrations. As he manages the public relations campaign to brand the mostly Christian city, Hadid sees progress deterred by factors that are out of his control, including the announcement by the American government that it will officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, an event that is sure to have implications for nearby Ramallah.

This film succeeds most because it shows Hadid and his constituents where they are, coming together for meetings dressed in suits and dealing with both expected and unexpected bureaucratic obstacles to achieve what they believe will better their lives. Hadid is an honest, open leader who freely shares his opinions, which include a firm belief that his city should be part of a Palestinian nation and not subject to Israeli rule. Making the most of important state visits, like that of Prince William, is a significant aim since Hadid knows that they, like this film, can help broadcast its message to a wide audience.

As with any public servant, Hadid’s job is largely a thankless one since he is inevitably blamed for much of what goes wrong in his city even if he bears no responsibility. The respect the residents of his city feel for him is evident in the warm greetings he receives while walking on the street and the concerned calls he gets from people when his safety is in doubt. This film doesn’t purport to solve any crisis or provide many answers, but it is a poignant and involving portrait of a man who embodies the passion of the city he serves.

B+

DOC NYC Spotlight: MLK/FBI

I’m excited to be covering DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its eleventh year, this time in a mostly online format, from November 11th-19th. 

MLK/FBI
Directed by Sam Pollard
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Martin Luther King, Jr. is surely one of the most influential figures in American history. His legacy is invoked frequently by those championing noble causes, and his tragically short life has left quite a mark. His fight for the rights of Black people in America was in response to the horrible inequality he witnessed that was so pervasive in society, rooted in slavery and transformed into segregation and discrimination. Though most consider him a role model, it’s an unfortunate fact that not everyone saw him as a force for good.

This documentary examines the FBI’s years-long surveillance of King, directed by J. Edgar Hoover to dig up dirt on the popular activist that could potentially be used to discredit him if he was perceived to have become too much of a menace. As he spoke on television and to packed crowds about the issues that mattered most to him, he was followed and listened to constantly by teams set on uncovering elements of his personal life, such as infidelity, that might serve to damage his image as an example for so many.

The full details of this investigation are set to be unveiled in 2027, a future event several subjects in this film discuss as a potentially damaging revelation since it will likely show an even more targeted and infuriating effort to paint King as anything other than a good person. This film makes excellent use of archive footage and knowledgeable historians to construct a timeline and framework to track King’s public actions and the near-certainty that he was being watched at every moment, including when he was assassinated.

There may be many implications from this film and the eventual declassification of all the documents from the FBI. A mistrust in government organizations isn’t likely to be helpful since that has already begun in many forms, but the notion that King was profiled as a threat because of the things he was saying serves as an important reminder about the institutionalization of systemic racism at precisely the time when civil rights were supposedly advancing the attitude of the country. This film doesn’t attempt to suggest that King was anything near perfect, and instead shows him as a humble man who believes strongly in the causes which he preaches and doesn’t believe himself to be better than anyone. It offers a powerful portrait of a man whose legacy needs no pampering and the disappointing way in which others sought to keep him from achieving any progress for fear of what his message might mean.

B+

DOC NYC Spotlight: On the Record

I’m excited to be covering DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its eleventh year, this time in a mostly online format, from November 11th-19th. 

On the Record
Directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering
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The #metoo movement has exposed horrific behavior from a number of powerful men who took advantage of the positions they were in to harass, assault, and abuse those who had previously looked up to them or needed their approval to keep their jobs. While there have been many brought down by accusations against them, their prevalence means that many more have likely been able to perpetrate similar offenses without any consequences. Coming forward can be an extraordinarily painful experience for victims, and the notion that they may not be believed makes that process even more difficult.

Drew Dixon is a music producer who, early in her career, worked at Def Jam Recordings, where she interacted closely with Russell Simmons. She was subjected to increasingly disconcerting instances of inappropriate behavior from Simmons, and understood that the culture of the industry and company wouldn’t find in her favor if she spoke up about it. Years later, along with Sheri Sher, Sil Lai Abrams, and others, she has come forward to share her story, risking her reputation to tell the truth, fully aware that a society that has not been taught to believe women may dismiss her and side with Simmons.

This film offers a firm defense of the right of sexual assault victims to be heard, probing the multitude of reasons why women do not speak out and how those who abuse their authority are enabled to continue unchecked. There is also an examination of the higher burden placed on women of color, and the “light privilege” enjoyed by Dixon and others like her whose skin tone make her more likely to be taken seriously by a public that has undeniable prejudices. It’s an important message about the complexities of situations which are all too often made to seem simplistic and navigable for those who haven’t had to experience them.

Even more than the film industry, where the most prominent directors and producers who have been accused of deplorable behavior may not be known by face to the public, those with all the power are often recognizable faces with loyal followings. It’s disturbing to see the flood of responses to Dixon coming forward which attempt to silence or mock her and offer firm support for Simmons, who flatly denies all of the allegations. The #metoo movement may help some feel more comfortable with the idea of sharing their painful stories, but there is evidently a lot of work to be done, as shown by this powerful and enlightening spotlight.

B+

Sunday, November 15, 2020

DOC NYC Spotlight: 9/11 Kids

I’m excited to be covering DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its eleventh year, this time in a mostly online format, from November 11th-19th. 

9/11 Kids
Directed by Elizabeth St. Philip
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Most people who were alive on September 11th, 2001 can tell you where they were when they found out about the terrorist attacks that day, whether from their own recollections or from a parent who has reminded them. It was a transformative moment in American history most comparable to the assassination of John F. Kennedy four decades earlier, and one that has had many lasting effects on foreign policy, air travel, and racial profiling. As the twentieth anniversary of that day approaches, those who were too young to comprehend the implications of its events then have considerably more life experience upon which to reflect.

The Emma E. Booker Elementary school in Sarasota, Florida was chosen due to the strong test scores and reading skills displayed by its six- and seven-year-old students as a site to be visited by President George W. Bush on the morning of September 11th. An opportunity to invest in education and interact with these young children quickly turned into something else entirely as he was informed about the attacks and later held a press conference from the school to address the nation. Their teacher and principal were keenly aware of what had just happened, while their students could see that something was wrong but may not have truly understood it at that time.

This film checks back in with the now-twentysomethings who were in the classroom that day. At first, they recount what they remember of that morning and of the excitement of the president coming to see their class. This film digs much deeper into what has transpired since then for each of them and how their lives have been affected by their circumstances. The school is in a predominantly Black neighborhood, and several students discuss the role of race in Sarasota and how they were the victims of police brutality and excessive sentencing for minor crimes. Others have enlisted in the military or dealt with challenging and abusive relationships.

The premise here is to look at a small sample of people who were indirectly thrown into the spotlight as a result of where someone important was on an important day, and that what they digested at a young age has in some ways influenced their perspective. September 11th and its effects are merely the introduction, as this film serves as an eye-opening analysis into what can transpire over two decades and how the paths of sixteen students in one classroom can diverge during that time. Its title may be a slight misdirect, but its content is undeniably interesting.

B+

DOC NYC Spotlight: Francesco

I’m excited to be covering DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its eleventh year, this time in a mostly online format, from November 11th-19th. 

Francesco
Directed by Evgeny Afineevsky 
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There aren’t too many people who are known by most of the world. Certain actors and celebrities achieve that kind of fame, and a few political leaders, like the President of the United States or the Queen of England, might also be recognizable to almost anyone. Another figure whose position, at the very least, is almost universally known is the Pope. The press coverage and influence that come with that prominence can be used to bring attention to important causes, and there is an immense power to the words spoken and actions done by a person of stature, modeling behavior for those who look up to them.

Pope Francis was born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Buenos Aires, and joined the Jesuit order shortly after becoming a priest. While serving as a cardinal in Argentina, Bergoglio maintained great relationships with the community rabbi and sheikh, emphasizing the spirit of interreligious coexistence. After being elected at the papal conclave in 2013, Pope Francis took on a number of issues close to his heart, traveling across the world to support causes that had not directly influenced him but which he wanted to spotlight so that the world could not ignore the plight of others.

This is an inspiring film that comes at an important moment in time, opening with shots of completely abandoned public spaces during the coronavirus pandemic. Pope Francis speaks frequently and widely about climate change and the need to protect the planet, as well as a duty to remember and help the poor communities of the world. He makes explicit visits to places where conflict exists to deliver a message of peace, speaking to everyone on all sides, actively listening and seeking to understand their perspective. Such trips are far more than just symbolic, particularly because they have nothing to do with Catholicism and everything to do with being part of the human race, which the leader of a religion seems to see as more important than anything else.

This documentary tackles as much as it can in just under two hours, and it’s a fascinating and invigorating portrait of a man with seemingly no ego despite the immense magnitude of his role. Interviews with those who have known or studied him are enlightening, and what he shares directly with an interviewer conveys great wisdom and humility. It also portrays him as a man willing to admit his flaws, never eager to take the easy route that doesn’t require considerable self-examination and constant humbling. Pope Francis is a mesmerizing figure, and this film offers a fantastic spotlight on him.

B+

DOC NYC Spotlight: Kings of Capitol Hill

I’m excited to be covering DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its eleventh year, this time in a mostly online format, from November 11th-19th. 

Kings of Capitol Hill
Directed by Mor Loushy
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It’s hard to find any political subject that people in America can agree on right now. Attitudes and perspectives are framed by a number of factors, and ever-increasing partisan sentiments put people further at odds with each other and often unwilling to find any sort of compromise. Many believe that there are issues that should be patently non-partisan and applicable to everyone, but it’s hard to get those from different places and backgrounds to feel the same way. Trying to establish common ground so that certain topics are not up for debate can be difficult, and can lead to shifts in one direction when those espousing one sentiment are just as passionate about another.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, better known as AIPAC, was founded in 1963 with the mission to be a bipartisan organization offering support for Israel. It sought to advocate for aid to the young nation in the Middle East surrounded by many hostile powers and to ensure that politicians in the United States could hear from the American Jewish community about their connection to a country whose survival they felt was vital. A number of former leaders and administrators share deep concerns, however, about the direction that AIPAC has gone since its inception, leaning very far to the right and representing policies that feel anything but nonpartisan.

The topic of this film is more interesting to me than most as a past attendee of the AIPAC Policy Conference, including when Donald Trump spoke as a presidential candidate and when Mike Pence came to address the group on Trump’s behalf during his first year in office. The people interviewed in this film unpack trends they see which were certainly becoming apparent to me as well that steadfast support for Israel from AIPAC often aligned too strongly with right-wing sentiments within both the American and Israeli governments, represented most by Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been Prime Minister since 2009.

This documentary does a responsible job of avoiding unnecessary express criticism of Israel as a country, honing in instead on the way that Netanyahu has governed and dealt aggressively with elements he does not like, in the same way that liberal Americans can support the United States while decrying the actions of its current president. As the sole piece of education about Israel, this film might not offer a fully accurate picture of the scope of alternatives to AIPAC – ranging from a pro-peace, pro-Israel organizations like J Street to more vocal groups with more critical approaches like IfNotNow. It does present a compelling and very thought-provoking exploration of a worrisome shift that likely can’t be undone without a serious examination of AIPAC’s founding core values.

B+

Saturday, November 14, 2020

DOC NYC Spotlight: Television Event

I’m excited to be covering DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its eleventh year, this time in a mostly online format, from November 11th-19th. 

Television Event
Directed by Jeff Daniels
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Movies tell stories, and for many, going to a theater or sitting down at home to watch something is the totality of the experience. In some instances, biopics or other historical productions may inspire further research, at the very least encouraging curiosity regarding what actually happened and what may have been exaggerated for cinematic value. In rarer cases, the circumstances surrounding the creation of the film itself are just as interesting as the finished product, capable of filling an almost equal runtime with a chronicle of what went into the project and just how it turned out the way it did.

In 1983, ABC aired “The Day After,” which was a three-hour made-for-TV movie about the detonation of a nuclear bomb and its effects on a Kansas town. Conceived in part as a sensational rebuke to the war-mongering policies of President Ronald Reagan, the movie, originally intended as a two-night miniseries, was plagued with controversy from its start. Its inception as a notion of executive Brandon Stoddard led to a rollercoaster development process that included an unruly director, Nicholas Meyer, intent on taking no notes from censors or anyone else, and a pre-air screening by Reagan that led to an international conversation about the horrific implications of nuclear war.

There is a great deal of hokeyness in the clips of “The Day After” that are screened throughout this documentary, and while there isn’t anything particularly dated about the journey to air, it is quite entertaining. Having the late Stoddard, who died in 2014, Meyer, writer Edward Hume, and producer Robert Papazian on camera to recount their memories is fantastic, interspersed with archive footage that shows them in the moment, now given the opportunity to reflect back on this wild experience. The time distance from the Cold War is helpful for reconsidering the value and potential danger of making this boundary-pushing telefilm.

This documentary doesn’t offer a definitive position on whether it was responsible to make “The Day After,” but probing the events that led to its airing and to the White House involvement is an absolutely worthwhile and completely engaging endeavor. It’s an extraordinary trip back in time to when families would gather around their televisions to watch something live and the idea of reruns or binge-watching streaming content wasn’t even a thought. The TV movie itself might not hold up too well after four decades, but reliving this rollercoaster is superb.

B+

DOC NYC Spotlight: In Silico

I’m excited to be covering DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its eleventh year, this time in a mostly online format, from November 11th-19th. 

In Silico
Directed by Noah Hutton
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There is a lot we know about the brain, and plenty that we don’t. There are many theories that have yet to be proven since it simply isn’t possible to know what it is that has yet to be discovered and concluded. Technology opens a new door to be able to learn by using computers to build a simulation of the brain that can mimic the way the human mind functions and teach its observers a good deal that can’t be mapped or explored in a living person. Unsurprisingly, there is considerable debate about the effectiveness of such projects and the factors that need to be taken into account for a proper and complete analysis.

This documentary is a ten-year study of prominent neuroscientists, including Henry Markram, who set out to create the perfect simulation that offers a window into understanding the brain in a whole new way. There are different approaches recommended by the clashing personalities, and questions about where the funding comes from since there may be ulterior motives related to other uses of this research that could take advantage of new knowledge for nefarious purposes. What is learned throughout the process is informative but also challenging since it often serves to reset the timetable and reignite previous objections.

This documentary functions on two different levels, spotlighting this ambitious journey undertaken by neuroscientists and the things they discover about themselves along the way. What many seem to agree on is that expectations will rarely be fulfilled, and presuming that a timeline is static rather than eternally fluid will never lead to anything other than partial conclusions based on incomplete data. Perhaps that in itself is indicative of information gathered, that the close collaboration of too many high-functioning brains is bound to lead to friction rather than progress.

As someone who reviews movies and doesn’t know a lot about science, this hands-on film feels like an appropriate first introduction to high-level concepts that its viewers aren’t meant to completely understand. Having its accomplished subjects speak directly about what they know and what they’re looking to find makes this a more accessible experience, showcasing various perspectives about the advantages and drawbacks of expecting human behavior from an entity that is inherently different. It may ultimately provide more questions than answers, but this is a worthwhile snapshot of a far grander endeavor to understand more about something powerful that exists within every person on this planet.

B+

DOC NYC Spotlight: The Meaning of Hitler

I’m excited to be covering DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its eleventh year, this time in a mostly online format, from November 11th-19th.

The Meaning of Hitler
Directed by Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker
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The infamy achieved by some of the most despicable people in history can outweigh the positive accomplishments of others. To most, it is easy to see a cautionary tale in someone whose influence has been felt and discussed for generations, a threshold which anyone or anything else should never reach. Yet that does not represent the entirety of society, which includes a frightening number that sees dictators and other abusers of human rights as heroes to be celebrated even more because the world does not look upon them favorably for all that they did.

Adolf Hitler is a figure synonymous with evil for many, but this film dives much deeper into his past, his legacy, and what we can learn from comparisons to him. A thorough examination of his childhood and his rise to power exposes many fabrications and exaggerations that contributed to the legend he built for himself, and his mastery of the microphone is attributed as one reason that he was able to command the attention of his audiences. Historians from all around the world look at the lasting effects of his Nazism and the way in which his ideas present themselves in modern-day leaders and white nationalist groups.

There is a concern that comes up over and over throughout this film about the glorification of Hitler that may result from constantly talking about him, feeding into his legacy rather than attempting to extinguish it. There are also many who are reticent to make comparisons to either Hitler or Nazis because they believe that nothing could be as bad and such examples are reductive to the experiences of their victims. This documentary and its subjects are not afraid to do that, emphasizing the importance of flagging signs of similar behavior to prevent the creation and exaltation of another demagogue capable of wielding such power.

Playing at a film festival the week after a presidential election in which the incumbent has refused to accept his very apparent defeat makes this documentary all the more vital and urgent. There are numerous clips of Trump interspersed throughout this film, often presented with no commentary to simply illustrate a point that has been made in examining Hitler’s ascension. The prevalence of white nationalism in America and other places and the way in which it has been allowed to exist without being condemned is also frightening, and this film offers an eye-opening analysis to the cyclical nature of history and the need to be vigilant about the threat of unchecked power.

B+

Friday, November 13, 2020

DOC NYC Spotlight: Calendar Girl

I’m excited to be covering DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its eleventh year, this time in a mostly online format, from November 11th-19th. 

Calendar Girl
Directed by Christian D. Bruun
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Any event that’s put on, no matter how small, has people working behind the scenes to make sure it runs smoothly. The larger a program or series is, the more hands are required, and it’s usually just the most visible and well-known among them who earn accolades and public thanks by name. An efficiently-run event requires tremendous planning and considerable work to ensure that the public sees only a presentable and flawless finished product. Even if consumers aren’t aware of who the most crucial parts of that process are, those involved in bringing it all together will surely know who is most responsible for its success.

Ruth Finley founded the Fashion Calendar, the written database of everything happening in New York City and around Fashion Week printed for decades on signature pink paper. Throughout her life, she continued to work, eager to ensure that a business known for its flair was accessible to newcomers and balanced to provide everyone with an equal opportunity to showcase their work. She navigated conflicts and crises, constantly moving people around on the calendar to fit everyone in, determined to maintain her independence despite interest from other companies in buying and taking over her token publication.

This is the third film in as many years about a tiny woman named Ruth who was well-liked and achieved extraordinary things in a time where it was far easier for men to be recognized and hired. Like Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Ruth Finley commanded respect from those around her who she physically looked up to but who turned to her for guidance and approval. She knew what she wanted and how to deal with designers who might have thought they knew better, but she was always concerned with being fair and earned respect and goodwill from everyone as a result.

This film is a delightful and entertaining look at the remarkable life of a woman who combined skill and resolve to help make the fashion industry what it is today. It’s wonderful to hear from so many prominent people about the influence that she had on their lives. Most of all, Ruth, who died at 98 in 2018, is the best reason to see this film, cheerfully sharing anecdotes from her experiences and demonstrating her upbeat personality by describing how she always tried to wear something from that specific designer to each show she attended. This is truly an endearing tribute to someone who was equally accomplished and beloved.

B+