19th 05 - 2017 | no comment »

Heather Booth: Changing the World (2017)

Director: Lilly Rivlin

By Marilyn Ferdinand

“They said, ‘Elizabeth, if you really want to push for this consumer agency, you’ve got to get organized.’ And I said, ‘Great! How?’ They said, ‘I’ve got two words for you: Heather Booth.’” –Sen. Elizabeth Warren on the subject of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Ever since the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election became known, people throughout the country and the world have been mobilizing in a resistance to the current regime the likes of which haven’t been seen since the 1960s. The current outrages to human decency that are emanating from Washington, D.C., however, are neither as unprecedented nor as unusual as many newly woke people seem to think. Again we have had to learn that democracy is not a spectator sport. Now is the perfect time to reflect on the power of community organizing, and virtually no one has been a more important community organizer than Heather Booth.

People who know what community organizing is usually think immediately of the late Saul Alinsky, a Chicago-based educator and activist who wrote Rules for Radicals and is often called the father of community organizing. Or they may picture young community organizer Barack Obama, who we see in a still photograph at the very beginning of Heather Booth: Changing the World knocking on someone’s door. However, although few outside the groups that call on her for help know about Heather Booth, her influence is enormous. One interviewee says: “It’s like Zelig.” Anywhere a progressive cause needs a helping hand, you’re likely to find Heather Booth.

The sheer volume of Booth’s activities could be a challenge to any documentarian, but director Rivlin takes us through Booth’s life and career economically through the use of Booth’s audio diary, begun in September 2015, and interviews in which Booth recounts her personal history. What emerges is an inspiring portrait of a highly effective activist who has accomplished a great deal in her 70+ years on this planet.

The film starts with a look at the nuts and bolts of organizing, as Heather records in her audio diary the steps she is taking to organize a September 2015 rally on the Mall in Washington, D.C., for a group called Moral Action for Climate Justice. Booth lays out the basics of a successful action: “Clarity of purpose, clarity of the specific tasks, accountability on the tasks, and interconnection on the tasks.” Rivlin films her laying the groundwork for the event and then the successful rally itself. It then segues into a rough chronology of Booth’s life and activities.

Booth was raised in Brooklyn by progressive Jewish parents. When they moved to Long Island, she realized that did not feel comfortable in a suburban social setting. She spent as much time as she could in the free-wheeling atmosphere of Greenwich Village, taking up the guitar and hanging out with “the beatniks.” It was there that she took her first steps as an activist, handing out flyers for a group opposed to the death penalty, a task that intimidated her. Her own experience informs her approach to activism: “We need to give people confidence to take even simple steps like that.”

She lived on a kibbutz in Israel, but galvanized by news of the 1963 March on Washington, she returned to the United States to be part of the civil rights movement. Among her activities at the time involved going to Mississippi to set up freedom schools and to register voters. Her visit to Shaw, Mississippi, during Freedom Summer put her in touch with the Hawkins family, who eventually sued the city for equal access to services the white side of town enjoyed, such as sewers, traffic lights, and fire hydrants. Booth says that some consider the U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of Hawkins to be as important as Brown v. Board of Education, which codified equal access to education for white and nonwhite citizens.

She met her husband Paul, then the national secretary of Students for a Democratic Society, in 1966 while both were involved in a sit-in on the University of Chicago campus to protest the war in Vietnam. He proposed on the third day of their acquaintance, and their life together, says Heather, “gets better and better. We work on our marriage the same way as our organizing.” It was inevitable that once the Booths had children, in 1968 and 1969, Heather’s work would turn to the plight of families. She helped organize the Action Committee for Decent Childcare in 1972 that eventually squeezed $1 million from the City of Chicago for childcare services. Her account of how the group accomplished this amazing feat shows her humor, ingenuity, and tenaciousness.

It’s not often commented upon, but the progressive movement was and often still is dominated by men. Booth decided that to help women avoid being marginalized in the movement, she would help found an institute to train more women in community organizing. The Midwest Academy, which she chairs to this day, was the result. Other work on behalf of women included JANE, a service that provided illegal abortions before Roe v. Wade made the procedure legal and widely available.

Rivlin’s film, which includes title cards, archival footage and still photos, and talking-head interviews, moves briskly, even breezily, with encouraging news about the wins Heather Booth helped effect, all scored by the infectious Bob Marley-like social justice song by Kyle Casey Chu, “Woman Strong,” that repeats “ain’t nobody gonna stop her now.” Her accomplishments are too numerous to recount here—a very good reason to see this movie and hear people like Rep. Jan Schakowsky, Sen. Warren, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, and other community activists sing her praises.

The forces that shaped Booth’s destiny helped her empower others. Booth said that visiting Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Israel with its monument to the resistance fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto, had a profound effect on her. She says, “This was a place where people stood and and fought back—this feeling of better to go down standing up than living on your knees.” Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you, whoever and wherever they are. A sign on Booth’s desk confirms this idea, but prescribes an attitude that refuses to admit despair: “Pessimism of the mind, optimism of the will.” It’s a good thought to keep in mind for the fight ahead.

Heather Booth: Changing the World screens Friday, May 19 at 7:45 p.m. and Saturday, May 21 at 7:30 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St. Heather Booth and director Lilly Rivlin will be present for audience discussion after both screenings.


21st 03 - 2017 | no comment »

Austerlitz (2016)

Director: Sergei Loznitsa

2017 European Union Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

In 2008, I interviewed Errol Morris about his then-new documentary, Standard Operating Procedure, which tried to make sense of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal of the Bush Jr. administration. We talked about why he thought one of the scapegoats who took the fall for the administration photographed the humiliations and torture in which she took part. He said:

In a way, it’s an essential question, and I don’t pretend that I have some definitive answer. I think, in general, we photograph things because reality is peculiar. Maybe we need to stop it and look at it and memorialize it so we can scrutinize it at some later time, refresh our memory of our own experiences.

This is certainly one of several possible reasons we take pictures, and tourists are especially keen to document and view themselves in places they may never visit again as a kind of highlights book of their life. What I find peculiar is not necessarily reality, as Morris suggests, but the urge not only to visit places like Auschwitz or Gettysburg, but to stand smiling before a camera at these sites of mass slaughter. Austerlitz, an unnarrated look at visitors to the Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg concentration camp in northeastern Germany, raises these and other issues, and causes a unique kind of self-questioning in audiences who view it.

There are few things more boring than looking at someone else’s vacation pictures, and it is perhaps with this wry thought in mind that director Sergei Loznitsa places his static camera just inside the camp gate to film a long opening sequence of arriving visitors. Several tour groups deposit large clots of tourists outside, many with cameras dangling around their necks or selfie sticks at the ready. We also see family groups pushing buggies and baby strollers, and couples having a day out together. All the visitors are dressed for summer in slogan- or logo-tagged t-shirts, shorts, tank tops, and other light gear.

Many are drawn to having their picture taken in front of or standing like inmates behind the bars of the wrought-iron gate into which the message “Arbeit Macht Frei” is twisted, including a man wearing a yarmulke. That infamous phrase assures us that we are not at just any tourist attraction, but one specifically linked to mass murder. Loznitsa’s choice to shoot the entire film in black and white recalls the monochrome pictures and newsreels that are many people’s only exposure to period images of Nazi prisoners; thus, this choice has the effect of marching these day trippers in the shoes of those who would never emerge from this camp again.

Loznitsa sets his camera up at various locations, but aside from crematory ovens and a tiled room that was probably an exam or autopsy room, we don’t see most of what the visitors see. We watch people standing and moving down a long corridor pocked with doors, some looking briefly inside one of the rooms and at least one woman examining the contents of one for a long time, obstructing other visitors who want to see it, too—is it curiosity about what she’s seeing or just another stop on the tour to be checked off? After she finishes her examination, the camera catches her in the corridor looking grave and isolated while foregrounded by a child moving swiftly in her direction.

It is truly remarkable how a static camera can capture people randomly arranging themselves in very artful compositions. A bridge over a closed-up half-square is empty as a lone figure positions herself in front of the sealed opening to listen to the explanation of what she is seeing on the handset for her self-guided tour. Caught in the narrative, she must stand in place until it is finished as the bridge fills up with tourists moving in either direction. We, then, are the observers of a pure abstraction of disquieting beauty.

Loznitsa offers some details about Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg by way of the tour guides who provide information about the camp to their groups. One Italian guide describes the treatment of the political prisoners who formed the majority of the camp’s residents and the agonizing pain they went through when they were tied to pillars in the yard, their screams unnerving the other prisoners who were being interrogated. Again we see the spontaneous pull of the narrative as one member of the group puts his back to one of the pillars and stretches his arms up as though tied to it to pose for a picture.

What are we to make of this action? It’s a kneejerk reaction to condemn the apparent insensitivity of so many of the people who walk like seemingly mindless cattle through the camp—but then, weren’t Jews mocked for being sheep to the slaughter? Perhaps the photo at the pillar offers a graphic “caption” of how these pillars were used for the edification of unknown viewers in the future. Loznitsa is careful to ensure that we see the look of horror on some visitors’ faces at certain points, particularly at one exhibit we know must be especially meaningful because a large bronze sculpture commemorating the dead and suffering inmates stands opposite it.

We can’t expect people who are not living in emergency to act as though they are. This is history, an edifice devoid of actual threat that, nonetheless, bears witness to the fact that atrocities under the Nazi regime took place here. Those who choose to visit concentration camps may just be along for the ride, to see but not learn. But I imagine many of them and those who watch this film are drawn to examine a side of humanity most have never seen, to learn more about what their ancestors went through, or even to search their souls for their own capacity to do evil. The film takes its title from German writer and academic W. G. Sebald’s 2001 novel Austerlitz. Like most of his works that deal with personal and collective memory, his novel depicts a man who fled Czechoslovakia during World War II as part of the kindertransport who works to reclaim his history, which had been banished from memory by the foster parents who took him in and adopted him. Although Loznitsa’s Austerlitz may try some viewers’ patience, it is an excellent reminder that all works of art ultimately are examinations of the relationship of human beings to themselves, each other, and to the world.

Austerlitz screens Sunday, March 26 at 3:15 p.m. and Wednesday, March 29 at 6 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.

Previous coverage

Eva Nová: An alcoholic actress faces her family’s rejection and the harsh reality of being old in a profession that worships youth in this compassionate look at human fragility and the need to survive. (Slovakia)

J: Beyond Flamenco: Master dance filmmaker Carlos Saura offers up another fascinating look at dance styles from Spain, this time, jota, a folksy, upbeat style from his native province of Aragón. (Spain)

Portrait of a Garden: This contemplative documentary shows a year in the life of a 400-year-old estate garden and a loving look at two master gardeners trying to pass on the wisdom of many years of working with plants, soil, and climate. (The Netherlands)

Tomorrow, After the War: A detailed look at wartime betrayals that threaten the tranquility of a small village when a Resistance fighter returns home and starts digging into a murder case. (Luxembourg/Belgium)

My Name Is Emily: A teenager coping with the death of her mother and separation from her mentally ill father manages to be both sincere and funny when she sets off with a would-be boyfriend to spring her father from the asylum. (Ireland)


10th 03 - 2017 | 2 comments »

J: Beyond Flamenco (Jota, 2016)

Director/Screenwriter: Carlos Saura

2017 European Union Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Eighty-four-year-old Carlos Saura has been making movies since 1956, with 47 directing credits to his name, including his masterpiece on childhood trauma in fascist Spain Cria Cuervos (1976). Nonetheless, Saura lamented during a personal appearance he made some years ago at the Gene Siskel Film Center that the only films he’s known for seem to be his dance films.

I understand how this can be frustrating to a consummate film artist, but in fact, Saura originally aspired to be a dancer, and his own enduring love of the form has resulted in a significant number of the best dance films on the planet, from his incredible flamenco trilogy Blood Wedding (1981)/Carmen (1983)/El amor brujo (1986) to his dance-specific documentaries, including Flamenco (1995), Tango (1998), and Fados (2007). Jota joins the dance documentary group, which are filmed dance recitals created on a soundstage that simulate a live performance in a theatre for the movie-going audience. In choosing to train his gaze on jota, Saura has chosen a dance form close to his heart and roots, a rhythmic, lively dance from his native province of Aragón in the northeastern part of Spain.

The opening title card informs us that the original dance incorporated Arab and Asian elements, and exerted a strong influence on flamenco. Of course, like all art forms, as jota traveled to other parts of the world, it changed, acquiring embellishments, as well as different pacings and stylings. Very cleverly, Saura opens the film with a youth dance class conducted by jota star Miguel Ángel Berna so that we can learn the basic steps that comprise jota in its purest form. After this lesson, it becomes relatively easy to recognize the characteristic heel-toe combination and low kicks that comprise the basic steps of jota in the performances to come. Incorporated into these performances, of course, is the characteristic music that is also considered jota, including in classical pieces by Luigi Boccherini and Pablo Sarasate.

Saura takes a historical look at jota, beginning with a bride’s song from Aragón’s Ansó Valley. The dancers are all in traditional dress from the region and dance a simple, circular jota as they honor the bride. Saura also introduces the music of jota with an Aragónese cantada performed by singers Nacho del Rio and Beatriz Bernad, and accompanied by Miguel Ángel Tapia on piano. Their loud, lusty singing, what Saura has called the “barbarous voices” signaling the independence of Aragónese women, takes place in front of a wall of historical posters and pictures, including one for the film Goyescas (1942) starring Imperio Argentina, who will be shown later in historical footage singing and dancing jota.

There are strikingly dramatic sequences in the film, for example, La Tarántula, which, unlike the Italian tarantella, builds slowly with a dancer laying on the floor covered in a white gauze slowly rising as a group of women dance around her and, finally, spreading her diaphanous, winglike “body” as they all fall to the ground. In another, Berna, dressed all in black, postures solo in front of a four-way mirror. The most affecting of the sequences shows a boy sitting in a classroom look up at rear-projection screens behind his teacher’s desk and watch archival footage of the Spanish Civil War—the battles, overhead bombers, frightened citizens running for cover, and dead children. Not only is Saura going through the history of jota and of Aragón, but also his own history.

Nonetheless, most of the film is a joyous celebration of dance and community, with the requisite number of flamenco jotas. My favorite sequence was the jota from Galicia, which gathered musicians playing everything from the Irish bodhrán to thumb cymbals and featured Carlos Núñez on the Scottish bagpipes and two dancers, one of whom leaped into the circle to dance barefoot, snapping his fingers because he lacked castanets.

The film ends with what I can only call the lounge lizard version of jota, called modern, and a fiesta of people of all ages dancing together to the sounds of the professional singers and musicians, while gigantic, papier-mâché figures circulate among them. Despite being confined to the soundstage, Saura finds visually varied ways to increase audience interest, with mirrors, overhead shots, projection, impressionistic painting, and color screens backing the dancers. This film, called J: Beyond Flamenco in English presumably to capitalize on the familiarity and popularity of flamenco, preserves the more folksy jota form and entertains us with it in all its many forms.

J: Beyond Flamenco screens Saturday, March 11 at 6:30 p.m. and Thursday, March 16 at 8:30 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.

Previous coverage

Portrait of a Garden: This contemplative documentary shows a year in the life of a 400-year-old estate garden and a loving look at two master gardeners trying to pass on the wisdom of many years of working with plants, soil, and climate. (The Netherlands)

Tomorrow, After the War: A detailed look at wartime betrayals that threaten the tranquility of a small village when a Resistance fighter returns home and starts digging into a murder case. (Luxembourg/Belgium)

My Name Is Emily: A teenager coping with the death of her mother and separation from her mentally ill father manages to be both sincere and funny when she sets off with a would-be boyfriend to spring her father from the asylum. (Ireland)


8th 03 - 2017 | no comment »

Portrait of a Garden (Portret Van Een Tuin, 2015)

Director: Rosie Stapel

2017 European Union Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

There are few things I can think of that are as restful and exhausting, rewarding and frustrating, and the very definition of partnership as cultivating a garden. Like the fabled Garden of Eden, human beings can find peace and contentment surrounded by nature, but the minute they start thinking they are the masters of their surroundings, the garden will chew them up and spit them out like pollen from an Anneslea fragrans blossom. Gardeners must be patient, humble, and vigilant to partner successfully with their plants, soil, and climate for bountiful harvests and blooms.

Rosie Stapel seems to have cooked up the idea for Portrait of a Garden, her directorial debut, with Daan van der Have, one of the two featured gardeners in this lovely documentary, and the location choice is more than appropriate. There aren’t many places on earth more plant-mad than the Netherlands. Just as you’ll rarely see a Parisian going home for dinner without a baguette or two in hand, the Dutch provide a brisk business for their ubiquitous city and village flower markets.

The Dutch estate garden featured in Portrait of a Garden was founded in 1630, and has seen its ups and downs in the intervening 400 years. Van der Have and pruning master Jan Freriks had a good deal of restoration work to do when they dug their hands into the soil some 30 years ago. The 85-year-old Freriks is something of a rock star in the horticultural world; his books are known and loved by the estate staff, tree nursery owner and gardening enthusiasts they meet during the film. Freriks is handing down his knowledge to Van der Have, who is no spring chicken himself, in hopes that his skills built over a lifetime of observation, experimentation, and practice won’t die with him.

Stapel takes us through one year in the life of the garden and its tenders, beginning in fall. We first meet Van der Have and Freriks as they work on a wall of espaliers, energetically applying their pruning shears to maintain the flat profile of the trees against their natural inclination to branch and spread. We’ll see them throughout the film sawing away at tree limbs and twisting the branches of pear trees over the lengthy arch of an arbor they have been working to create for some years. They’ll reminisce about Van der Have tempting Freriks out of retirement with the chance to work on an estate garden where heirloom varieties of edible and inedible plants are grown and survivors from the earliest days of the garden still leaf and bloom.

It’s fascinating to watch the various techniques the two men and the other garden staff use in their work. White caterpillers of metal hoops and polyester tissue protect the tomato beds from birds and other animals. A multipronged hand hoe is raked across a bed to create perfectly spaced rows for planting. Thin cotton strings are pulled to hoist individual bean vines up to hang from a crosshatching of string above them. Bales of hay are spread by hand to keep beds warm during the cold winter and early spring. Stapel films the work straightforwardly, with slow, swooping boom shots and slower time lapse photography than audiences are used to seeing. The latter technique works quite well to preserve the relaxation the garden engenders in the viewer, even as the people on screen work hard at the many tasks they have to keep up with daily. Her ingenious shots are complemented by the meditative solo lute of Jozef van Wissen, who scored this film as well as Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2013).

At harvest time, Stapel’s experience in film art direction and production design comes to the forefront. She shows gardeners harvesting armfuls of luscious-looking rhubarb for the chefs who work in the estate restaurant. Then it’s a veritable card deck of fruit and vegetable varietals, shot overhead and labeled like still lifes at the Rijksmuseum, showing off the richness of our floral heritage. Freriks sees agriculture and gastronomy becoming less diverse because of industrial farming and the decline of growers who use cross-breeding techniques to develop new hybrids that can strengthen a plant line; the estate itself uses only organic pest control such as crop rotation, soil replacement, nontoxic pesticides, and visual inspection to protect the plants against damage or destruction.

Van der Have dreams of having a banquet under the pear arbor when the branches finally meet and the fruit hangs heavy above him. Freriks, however, hates that kind of thing. He prefers his plants and knowing that the work he started long ago as a steward of the earth will far outlast him. Rosie Stapel has ensured that the man himself and some of his words of wisdom also will be accessible for a long time to come.

Portrait of a Garden screens Friday, March 10 at 2 p.m. and Sunday, March 12 at 3 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.

Previous coverage

Tomorrow, After the War: A detailed look at wartime betrayals that threaten the tranquility of a small village when a Resistance fighter returns home and starts digging into a murder case. (Luxembourg/Belgium)

My Name Is Emily: A teenager coping with the death of her mother and separation from her mentally ill father manages to be both sincere and funny when she sets off with a would-be boyfriend to spring her father from the asylum. (Ireland)


12th 02 - 2017 | no comment »

I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

Director: Raoul Peck

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Back in the 11th hour of the American Century, the now-extinct species called the American intellectual spoke not only in lecture halls, but also in printed newspapers and magazines, on television programs of all stripes, and especially in books that landed regularly on bestseller lists. James Baldwin, a true American intellectual from the most humble of circumstances, left a long, self-imposed exile in France to witness and become a part of the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, writing articles for such periodicals as The Partisan Review, Mademoiselle, Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, and The New Yorker and befriending Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. He started a memoir in 1979 whose working title was “Remember This House” that was to revolve around those three slain civil rights leaders and his relationship to his native land. Although it was abandoned after 30 pages, the book has been brought to life by black Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck as the script for I Am Not Your Negro. Through a combination of film clips of Baldwin and Samuel L. Jackson voicing Baldwin’s words from his unfinished book, Peck cogently resurrects Baldwin’s personality and vibrant intellect, showing his words to be not only powerful, but also prophetic.

I’m going to start at the end of the movie, with a taped interview of Baldwin during which he poses a question:

The question the white population of this country has got to ask itself is why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place. Because I’m not a nigger. I’m a man. But if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it. And you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that.

You’ll note that the title of this documentary avoids the very word Baldwin, a writer deeply concerned with the effects of language, asked us to consider. Think about that. Putting the word “nigger” in the title likely would have offended African Americans and shocked liberals of all kinds. It may even have hurt the advertising and distribution plans for the film. Yet if we don’t grapple with the implications of that word, but more important, that construct, as Baldwin asks us to do, this film will have been an exercise in futility.

Peck establishes that Baldwin may have left the United States voluntarily, but that the country never left him and that he has the communal connections, memories, and above all, the right to call himself an American and stake his rightful claim to full citizenship. He even rejects the concept of a civil rights movement, diagnosing instead “failure of the private life . . . the role of the guilty and constricted white imagination” with “white people . . . endlessly demanding that Birmingham is on Mars.” He says that “the Negro has never been happy in his place. When you stand up and look the world in the face like you have a right to be here, you have attacked the entire power structure of the western world. Forget the Negro problem. It’s not a racial problem,” he says, “but whether you’re willing to be responsible for your life.”

I have watched this film three times and am still not done with it. I looked at the angrily contorted faces of white people terrorizing painfully isolated black children trying to go to school, “heroic” movie stars shooting down marauding Indians (or more likely, white men in “red” face), and a final, shocking sequence of Doris Day looking her most angelic as she sings about whether to be “bad” and go all the way with Rock Hudson, followed by black bodies hanging from a tree as white onlookers smile their satisfaction. This sickness, this segregation not only of our physical beings, but also of our lived experiences, has turned many white people into what Baldwin calls “moral monsters.”

Am I a moral monster? I don’t think so, yet I can’t deny that my life rarely intersects with those of African Americans. I used to have black friends—real friends—but there were still gulfs of understanding between us. I was relatively poor, living paycheck to paycheck when I was friends with Bernadette, yet I lived in a two-bedroom apartment in a safe, white neighborhood, and she lived in the projects. I even gave her my space heater after she had a baby so she and her son would not freeze; I never much used it, as the heat in my home was generally adequate. My friend Jacqui and I went everywhere together. We went to a disco in the Loop, which we had to exit quickly when two black men started fighting over who would dance with me. Why was I so important? She spoke with me in a real panic about her hair falling out—I knew nothing about how important hair is to a black woman and offered little in the way of comfort. Then she fell on hard times I couldn’t share with her and vanished. I don’t know where she is today.

I became aware of black anger as a daily condition for some people when I visited the headquarters of my employer in Alexandria, Virginia. The black/white divide was an open wound in this state that had once contained the capital of the Confederacy. Suspicious self-segregation was the order of the day at the office; I was oblivious to the tensions most of the time because I worked remotely, and I blithely sat with my black colleagues when we did team-building exercises during my visits east. I danced in a Soul Train line at one of our Christmas parties, proud that I watched the show and not American Bandstand, vaguely aware that my black coworkers were probably laughing at me.

The most defining moment of my personal education in the ways in which white supremacy operates came during a taxi ride. The cabbie was telling me a story about how he hit a black boy who rode his bike into the car’s path. The cabbie was guilt-stricken at the damage he did to the boy’s legs and spoke about it with real distress. Suddenly, his tone changed. His voice took a sarcastic tone as he came round to blaming the boy for causing his own injuries, almost implying that the boy deserved to have his legs broken. The mental whiplash this strange encounter caused me has never healed; I have no idea what it did to the cabbie.

White Americans, particularly those who are liberal-minded, seem to think we can get past race if we just ignore it. Baldwin, a guest on The Dick Cavett Show, is shown confronting a white academic who complains that Baldwin needs to stop talking about race and argues that what we have in common in terms of our interests and personalities should be the guidepost for future interactions. Baldwin, who says he fled to Paris so that he could continue his work without fear of violent attack, roundly slams him: “You want me to make an act of faith, risking myself, my life . . . on some idealism which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen.” In a similar vein, I interviewed Harry Lennix in 2013. I asked him about colorblind casting, which seems designed by simpletons to level the playing field for people of all races and ethnicities. He said, “I just saw “The Hollow Crown” on Great Performances, with Jeremy Irons, the other day, and they had a very good actor by the name of Paterson Joseph playing Henry V’s cousin York. But he was black! I’m not aware, in the 14th century in England, of any black person walking around in the court of the king as a fully functional, empowered official of the court. ‘So who is this guy?’ I wanted to know. It took me out just long enough for me to say, I applaud the effort, that’s nice, it’s good that they want to include people, but that is not indicative of an actual experience.”

It is, as Baldwin says, our failure of imagination, our simplicity, that offers such tepid, inconsequential attacks on the construct of the nigger. Baldwin says, “Simplicity is taken to be a great American virtue, along with sincerity. One of the results is that immaturity is taken to be a virtue, too, with no necessity to grow up.” Peck inserts a litany of apologies coming from everyone from Ronald Reagan to the Clintons and Eliot Spitzer. Like my cabbie’s fleetingly expressed shame, these apologies were given with fingers crossed; these temporarily humbled leaders would commit their crimes, both large and small, again, and would never be made to take responsibility for them. Tellingly, the opposition white establishments take turns playing Parent and Child, with each calling the other out and demanding an apology. In 2017, given the individuals in charge of our country, no one expects to get even the smallest of apologies, black Americans least of all.

Baldwin asserts that “it’s an absolute miracle that the black population has not given into rage and paranoia,” as footage and images of white brutality from Birmingham to Ferguson fill the screen. This miracle, however, has a reason, which Baldwin himself offers in a television interview: “The Israelis pick up guns, or the Poles, or the Irish—every white man in the world says give me liberty or give me death—and the entire white world applauds. But if a black man says exactly the same thing, word for word, he is judged a criminal and treated like one, and everything possible is done to make an example of this bad nigger so there won’t be any more like him.”

And, of course, the film, spends time on the three martyrs Baldwin wrote about, none of whom lived to see 40. I’m particularly embarrassed by a popular 1968 song, “Abraham, Martin and John,” written by a white man and introduced by white teen idol Dion, and note how it lionizes the peaceful black man, and how the song was amended later to include the fallen Bobby Kennedy, a man whom Baldwin asserts was insulted when writer Lorraine Hansberry asked him, as then-U.S. Attorney General, to make a moral commitment to black progress at a 1963 meeting also attended by Baldwin and other black leaders. I’m also embarrassed that 2017 was the first year since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was declared a federal holiday in 1986 that my employer gave its employees the day off. I’m quite sure I will not live to see the federal government declare a Medgar Evers or Malcolm X Day; they did not preach respectability politics or nonviolence, even though Baldwin says that Martin and Malcolm were coming closer to a meeting of the minds that would have been less threatening to white people.

So, have African Americans come as far as white people think they have? Consider that black men were elected to office during Reconstruction; Joe Gans and Jack Johnson won world boxing titles against white opponents in 1902 and 1908, respectively; Madame C. J. Walker became a business scion in America in the 1910s; and integrated schools were known in the 1840s, before the famous Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. These achievements have been more normalized in 2017, and, of course, we’ve had a black president, just about when Bobby Kennedy predicted in 1963 we would, outraging Baldwin with his arrogance as an Irish johnny-come-lately to America.

But I understand Bobby. His ancestors were hated and rejected, and so were mine. But he was and I am white. We eventually assimilate because our difference doesn’t show. As a Jew, I know I feel safer because someone else is targeted. I didn’t participate in slavery, nor did my ancestors in this country, but that doesn’t make me innocent of accepting the protections my skin color affords me. I move with relative ease and have absorbed some of the fear of black people I’ve been taught. When I was in South Africa after the fall of apartheid, it was the whites who were afraid of reprisals for their heinous behavior toward the black majority. Today, in America, I believe that white fear of facing our insanely cruel history in the name of commerce and comfort has allowed the worst elements of our society to run amok. I fervently hope we take a page out of recent South African history and set up our own truth and reconciliation commission to tour our country and pay more than lip service to our collective guilt, before widespread violence becomes the only recourse.


28th 01 - 2017 | 2 comments »

Finding Babel (2015)

Director/Coscreenwriter: David Novack

By Marilyn Ferdinand

“Babel loved life. He believed that people are born to enjoy life.”
–Antonina Pirojkova, mathematician, construction engineer, and second wife of Isaac Babel

Isaac Babel, the acclaimed Jewish writer from Odessa, Ukraine, enjoyed a momentous life—two wives, two children, numerous lovers, an international literary reputation, and an adoring public. But it was not a long one. He was arrested on May 15, 1939, and taken to Lubyanka Prison in Moscow. Eventually, he was transferred to nearby Butyrka Prison, where he was tried for treason and executed in secret on January 27, 1940, at the age of 45. Soviet agents seized 24 folders that may have contained nearly 80 of Babel’s writings; they have never been recovered.

Andrei Malaev-Babel, an acting teacher at the theatre conservatory of Florida State University, was moved to uncover the history and retrace the steps of the grandfather he never knew upon the 2010 death of Pirojkova, his grandmother and still grieving widow of Babel. The odyssey took him to Polish Galicia, Odessa, Paris, and Moscow, to the places where Babel lived, was detained, died, and was interred. Along the way, he samples Babel’s works as a progression of the things the writer saw and felt compelled to comment upon, even though it meant his death.

Finding Babel, directed and cowritten by award-winning documentarian David Novack, offers viewers a look at a perhaps unfamiliar literary giant in a way that illuminates just how great a writer and chronicler he was. Malaev-Babel and he approach Babel’s story chronologically, linking key writings with the places and people they visit.

The film opens with a sculptor burnishing a giant, bronze sculpture of Babel that is to grace an Odessa square in front of a new museum dedicated to the writer. This polishing process, which makes the sculpture shine like gold, is an evocative metaphor for bringing Babel out of the shadows of Soviet oppression and his secret fate and into the light of a new age.

To emphasize the point, the film launches immediately into Liev Schreiber reading from Babel’s Red Cavalry, based on eyewitness reportage of his time riding with the Cossacks, the traditional enemies of the Jews. The music is mournful, and the image on screen mimics the location where Babel stood, posterized to distinguish it as heightened reality. The language is rich and voluptuous, the descriptions horrifyingly vivid:

“A dead old man lay there on his back. His throat had been torn out and his face cleft in two. In his beard, blue blood cloated like a lump of lead.

“‘Sir,’ said the Jewess, shaking the feather bed. ‘Poles cut his throat.’”

This is what it means to be a witness to history.

The film jumps to New York’s Brighton Beach, with lively klezmer music invigorating what was, and is, Russian Jewish life. Malaev-Babel is being interviewed on Russian-language radio about his pending trip to trace Babel’s footsteps. Next stop is what is now western Ukraine, where he meets a guide in Lviv who helps him find the places Babel wrote about in Red Cavalry. During his travels in Ukraine, he meets a group of tourists from Israel who are likewise interested in Babel, confirming to Malaev-Babel that Babel is more than remembered—he is revered. He visits a large Jewish cemetery Babel mentions in his 1920 Diary, one of the few not destroyed by the Nazis or the Soviets and an image that will form a bookend with Babel’s final resting place, a mass grave marked only by a single monument festooned with nameplates and flowers.

From his teens until his 30s, Babel lived in Odessa’s Jewish Moldavanka section, where he may have been born. His famous Odessa Stories put the area on the map, infusing it with the lively chatter of the courtyard buildings, streets, and shops before the pogroms began. Malaev-Babel is escorted by two history professors, who comment that the cobblestones that still line the streets are the same as in Babel’s time. Following a reception at the Babel museum and the unveiling of the statue, Malaev-Babel visits the apartment where Babel lived, a crowd of journalists and onlookers documenting this historic meeting of past and present.

Novack offers excerpts of Benya Krik (Benny the Howl), a 1926 silent film by director Vladimir Vilner of one of Babel’s Odessa stories about a master criminal of whom Babel says, “He is the king while you give people the finger with your hand in your pocket.” Novack cleverly superimposes images of the films on present-day structures, again working very deftly to bring Babel’s words to life.

Malaev-Babel moves on to Paris, where Babel lived for a time with his first wife and three-year-old child, both of whom he abandoned to return to his homeland, soon meeting Malaev-Babel’s grandmother. In Paris, his grandson stretches his professional muscles by rehearsing a production of Babel’s 1935 play Maria. The play was never produced in Babel’s lifetime; it was shut down during rehearsals because of its very dangerous message that human nature will devour the utopian ideal of the Soviet Union and that all the people who died during the Russian Revolution were sacrificed for nothing.

A final, chilling moment comes when Malaev-Babel tries to visit the place where Babel was arrested. It is now in a gated community, and when Malaev-Babel tries to enter, he is roughed up by two security guards. The past, of course, is still present in Putin’s authoritarian Russia. As French actress Marina Vlady, the daughter of Russian immigrants to France, told him in Paris, “We have no Stalin, but we have a great many little Stalins.”

I’ve largely given a precis of this documentary because I fear many people will not be able to see it, but if you have a chance, do not miss it! Novack is a master imagist, creating filmic paintings of wonderfully chosen excerpts from Babel’s works that reveal the writer’s sensuality, keen eye, and vivid understanding of events he thought, in his idealism about the Revolution, would never happen. Malaev-Babel exhibits a lot of the charisma and intelligence that must have adhered from Babel, and thus, is a compelling and engaging guide. The horrors of Stalin’s Great Terror are everywhere apparent, from our tour through the monastery that was built above former torture chambers and cells to the ruins of barracks that housed the murderous Cossacks and their horses, the latter a strong symbol in Babel’s writing.

Babel met his fate, but remains a passionate voice in our world today. Aaron Lansky, founder and president of the National Yiddish Book Center, explains it this way: “Tyrants fear the poet, and people fear the writer, because they tell the truth. They tell a much deeper truth.”

Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, 610 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago, screens Finding Babel January 29 at 2 p.m. David Novack will introduce the film and lead a postshow discussion. Finding Babel is the first of four films showing at Spertus in its Sunday Cinema film festival, January 29–February 19, 2017.


13th 01 - 2017 | 2 comments »

Vietnam, Long Time Coming (1998)

Directors: Jerry Blumenthal, Peter Gilbert, and Gordon Quinn

By Marilyn Ferdinand

A lot of notable events occurred in 2016, not many of them pleasant. Fortunately, one of them delighted me all year long. Kartemquin Films, the Chicago film collective that makes thought-provoking documentaries that “seek to foster a more engaged and empowered society,” celebrated its 50th anniversary.

Kartemquin offered a free film every week from its online archive and then finished the year with a month of all-access free streaming. The most popular film streamed during the year was Life Itself (2014), star Kartemquin filmmaker Steve James’ compassionate portrait of Roger Ebert during the last months of the critic’s life. I joined others in making Inquiring Nuns (1967) the Number 3 viewing choice. As two nuns asked random Chicagoans in various parts of the city the question “Are you happy?” I was struck by how many people mentioned the Vietnam War as a source—sometimes the only source—of unhappiness in their lives.

I was moved by the concern ordinary people out of the line of fire felt for the horrors facing Americans and Vietnamese at the center of the conflict, an empathy that seems much harder to come by these days. And that is the beauty and value of Kartemquin films: they take circumstances that are largely abstractions to many people and help us empathize by bearing witness to other people’s lives. Vietnam, Long Time Coming is a brilliant example of their particular kind of filmcraft.

The documentary deals with an historic event—the first postwar American-Vietnamese athletics event. A group of 45 able-bodied and disabled Americans, plus support crew, staff, and board members of World T.E.A.M. Sports, joined a group of 20 Vietnamese to complete a 1,200-mile bike trek from the northern Vietnamese city of Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City in the south. Veterans from both sides of what narrator Joe Mantegna sensitively refers to as the “Vietnam-American War” took part in the ride and form the core of the documentary. Framing the war this way helps American viewers with received notions about it enter a more nuanced space, one that the war veterans enter on their literal journey through their own past.

The film opens as the plane carrying the Americans begins its descent into Nội Bài International Airport. The veterans are visibly nervous, and older viewers may flash back to the helicopters, battles, and broken bodies they could view most every night on television. This was a shared national trauma as vivid as 9/11, and the directors know how to evoke memories that will help viewers face their own fears as well.

As the team members are introduced to each other and the paralyzed Vietnamese riders get used to their hand-pedaled bicycles, the struggles of the veterans start to reveal themselves. A 2-year-old Vietnamese girl runs over to Duane Wagner, a Marine sergeant from 1965 to 1968. He gives her a hug and then tells us he killed a girl just like her who emerged from her home carrying a couple of grenades. Tears form in his eyes as he rues “the fucked-up things I did.”

There are more tears when, as part of the team’s mission of medical and educational outreach, the group goes to Bạch Mai Hospital, which was bombed during the war. Bob Connors, who served in Vietnam as a sergeant in the U.S Air Force, muses that he could very well have dropped a bomb on Bạch Mai. “I want to go up to everyone here and apologize,” he says as his brave demeanor crumbles. Still, the mood lightens considerably when the announcement of a $200,000 check from World T.E.A.M. Sports to the hospital for a new, state-of-the-art orthotics unit has the interpreter do a double-take to see if she heard the amount right.

After a few too many shots of professional cyclist and Tour de France winner Greg LeMond, the directors drop their celebrity ogling and just get on with it. They turn the somewhat hackneyed device of a road picture into a meaningful metaphor for the rhythms of grieving and the slow return to life for the emotionally maimed, and improve upon many war documentaries and feature films by providing a 360-degree, balanced view from both sides of the complicated and emotionally charged conflict while maintaining a lively pace and narrative. The directors film a solemn rite at the Vietnamese Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, with burning incense sticks seeming to represent the lives the war torched. They follow it later with a buoyant orgy of shopping in Huế’s colorful markets.

Liberal helpings of the bike ride, including crashes and flat tires, scored to bright music by Ben Sidran continue the forward progress as the participants and viewers return to some famous touchpoints—the demilitarized zone, China Beach, Da Nang, My Lai—that make us and the veterans pause and reflect. The directors get marvelous landscape shots and scenes of everyday life that reflect what one vet says late in the film: “Vietnam is not a war, it’s a country. A beautiful country with beautiful people.” Peacetime and the filmmakers’ discerning choices allow us to appreciate what fear, anger, and war coverage could not.

What I found most touching and valuable were the veterans’ memories and how they related to their surroundings. A Vietnamese rider in his 30s recalls being evacuated from his home in Hanoi and watching from a distance as the city was bombed repeatedly. Another spoke about the My Lai massacre that claimed 504 people, including 153 children, recalling that “Our hatred for the enemy boiled over” and transformed into campaigns of revenge.

To a person, the American vets suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder. They talk with the team psychologist and among themselves as their trip south through rice paddies and Agent Orange-scorched fields that were once deadly traps for them unnerved them more and more. A bucolic afternoon at China Beach, where soldiers went for R&R with the war raging only a few kilometers away, gives way to a painful memory for Diane Carlson Evans, an Army nurse who founded the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in Washington, D.C., of another nurse who was killed nearby by a piece of shrapnel. The humor of the lifeguard at the beach waving long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad away from the rough surf transitions to a late-night rap session during which Carlson Evans reveals her abiding shame: “We feel we did something very bad.” A rainy day conjures memories of being soaked, trudging through mud, and then drying in the hot sun, only to be soaked again, this time with sweat, and covered with the biting red ants that were everywhere.

Nonetheless, struggle is sometimes its own reward. The climb up the steep Hải Vân Pass marks a turning point for some of the riders, as a policeman who discouraged the attempt comes to understand how much succeeding, particularly for the hand-pedal riders, means to them. Amputees Dan Jensen and Tran Van Son hit it off like gangbusters and give their artificial limbs a workout in an impromptu footrace; in the film’s postscript, Jensen brings Tran to his home in Sioux Falls, S.D., to get a proper artificial leg and run in a rematch.

All of the veterans found that the ride, the contact with Vietnam and the Vietnamese in a safe and comradely context helped them calm their demons. This seemingly happy ending, however, poses nagging questions to viewers by simultaneously offering a chilling indictment of the war and America in its aftermath. As the crowds cheer the riders as they enter Ho Chi Minh City, the American veterans contrast it with the brutal cold shoulder they received and continue to receive in the States. Jose Ramos, who developed drug and alcohol problems and made multiple suicide atempts after his return home, says “What America could not give me in 30 years, I have found in Vietnam in a matter of days.” Jerry Stadtmiller, disfigured and half-blinded, thought he would be defending freedom, but found out that “freedom had nothing to do with it.”

Directors Blumenthal, Gilbert, and Quinn made a record of a small, but successful attempt to bring peace to warring minds and hearts, and further understanding and friendship between former enemies. In the United States and in other restless countries, ideology has turned people against each other again in ugly, often violent ways. Vietnam, Long Time Coming has something to teach us in this crucible moment in time, if we choose to listen.

Watch this film for free at Snag Films.


15th 09 - 2016 | 2 comments »

Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise (2016)

Directors: Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

At the time of Maya Angelou’s death in 2014 at the age of 86, she was a world icon. The holder of more than 50 honorary doctorates, she was known to millions as a close, personal friend and mentor to Oprah Winfrey. Another famous friend, Bill Clinton, asked her to write and deliver a poem at his first inauguration. Long a poet, her debut prose work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), launched her into the stratosphere of fame, winning millions of readers and admirers internationally who identified with and gained strength from her candid memoir of growing up black and female in Stamps, Arkansas. The book frightened a lot of people, too. Over the years, the book has been banned from various junior high and high school libraries and classrooms in the United States for sexual explicitness and violence; in 1983, the Alabama State Textbook Committee banned it for preaching “bitterness and hatred against whites.”

maya_angelou_and_james_baldwinAngelou was a certified renaissance woman whose one long lifetime ranged farther and higher than most people of any race or class, let alone an African-American woman from a broken home who was dropped into Jim Crow Arkansas following several years in more permissive California and then experienced the racial tumult of every decade to the present. As the directors of And Still I Rise put it, “An eloquent poet, writer and performer, Maya Angelou’s life intersected with the civil rights struggle, the Harlem Writers Guild, the New Africa movement, the women’s movement and the cultural and political realignments of the 1970s and ’80s.”

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Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise is a two-hour documentary made for PBS’s American Masters series that works hard to encapsulate the many facets of Angelou’s life. My own awareness of Angelou comes mainly through her appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show, so I found this documentary revelatory. Who knew she was a dancer! Who knew she sang, if not beautifully, then with a kind of actorly expression that would find further voice in her role as Kunte Kinte’s African grandmother in the ground-breaking miniseries Roots (1977) and a dozen more parts through the 1990s and 2000s! I didn’t know she had a son, that she was married twice to white men, that she included B.B. King and South African civil rights activist Vusumzi Make among her lovers, that she directed the quite wonderful feature film Down in the Delta (1998). Angelou was voracious in her pursuit of experiences and challenges, and, to my shame, I didn’t even know the half of what she accomplished.

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In some ways, Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise doesn’t either. Tackling such a consequential and eventful life forced directors Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack to make choices about what to include. Generally, they make good use of archival footage to illustrate parts of Angelou’s story. They include clips of her dancing and singing from Columbia Pictures’ Calypso Heat Wave (1957), made to capitalize on the popularity of calypso and Afro-Cuban music during the late 1950s. We also watch her deliver her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” during President Clinton’s inauguration—or rather, we watch it in bits and pieces as the directors repeatedly insert Bill Clinton’s talking-head reminiscences about both the day and his friendship with Angelou. Other luminaries who are interviewed include Diahann Carroll, Alfre Woodard, Hillary Clinton, Cicely Tyson, Common, Louis Gossett Jr. and, of course, Oprah. These interviews show how much of an inspiration Angelou was, but only Cicely Tyson seemed comfortable speaking about Angelou as a regular person with flaws and quirks.

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The most emotionally satisfying commentator on Angelou is her son, Guy Johnson, who talks of seeing his mother very little, but forgiving her absences as her attempt to keep a roof over his head. He is moved to tears about her sacrifices and her guilt about her absences and the fact that he was crippled in a car accident while on a trip with her. He also regrets that she never found a satisfying romantic relationship. The film also includes fairly robust information about her involvement in the civil rights movement, which put her in the orbit of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, the latter a close friend. I enjoyed seeing her in still photos and footage with James Baldwin, who encouraged her to devote herself to writing and telling the truth, and who is a man always worth listening to.

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Hercules and Coburn Whack spend time on her writing process as personal therapy and liberation, and allude to the power of words for her by having her recount her five years of voluntary muteness as a child, a result of thinking she had killed someone with her voice. Disappointing was the fact that for a woman who left a large body of written work, including eight autobiographies, we hear so little of her prose and poetry. Indeed, we learn more about Jean Genet’s play The Blacks, in which Angelou performed, than we do about her own plays and screenplays, despite the fact that the filmmakers thought to include her poem and play title And Still I Rise in their own title.

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The filmmakers worked with Angelou on this documentary until her death. While Angelou is frank about her life, the film tends to gloss quickly over her childhood rape and her time as a sex worker, offering instead her account of her calculated and personally disappointing first adult sexual encounter. If you’re going to bring the subject up, then you should follow it up with her attitude toward sex and relationships over time. Instead, it goes nowhere and seems more like the teasing opening sex scene so many movies punt to today. In addition, don’t expect to learn anything that questions her almost sainted status today—the people in this film and those behind the scenes love her and it shows.

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I applaud the effort to bring the life of this seminal figure in African-American history and culture to the screen and think this is must-viewing for anyone who knows little about Maya Angelou. At the same time, this film could have been much more. Liz Garbus’ What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015) took an equally complex and extraordinary subject, Nina Simone, and told a riveting warts-and-all story that is one of the best documentaries of its type ever made. I hope that another documentarian brings that kind of razor-sharp observation to another telling of the life of Maya Angelou.


12th 05 - 2016 | no comment »

The Summer Help (2016)

Director: Melody Gilbert

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Award-winning documentary filmmaker and journalist Melody Gilbert is, like most documentarians, a carefully observant opportunist who finds her stories in her surroundings. Among her films are Fritz: The Walter Mondale Story (2008), about the career politician from her home state of Minnesota who served as vice president to President Jimmy Carter, and a short film for Twin Cities Public Television, Toxic Testing, about a 1950s program by the U.S. government to spray Minneapolis residents with toxic chemicals that prompted a federal investigation. Currently on a leave of absence from her job as an assistant professor and chair of the Journalism and Mass Communication Department at the American University in Bulgaria (AUBG) in part to workshop The Summer Help through Chicago’s Kartemquin Films lab program, this latest effort has emerged directly from her experiences at the Blagoevgrad campus.

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Specifically, Gilbert focuses primarily on two AUBG business students as they head to the United States for the summer to earn money for college. The two young women, Nikoleta and Elena, are friends who have secured work as housekeepers at a resort in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. They have paid around $1,000 to a placement agency to help them obtain their J-1 exchange visitor visas to work in the United States, and bear on their own the expense of their travel and housing. As Gilbert relates in an informational title card, they are only two of up to 100,000 students who travel abroad for summer work in countries that can pay them far more than they would earn at home. To put a point on it, Gilbert adds captions to images of Nikoleta and her mother at work informing us that the young woman makes $8 an hour, whereas her mother, a factory seamstress, makes $8 a day.

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The girls are excited about their first trip outside Bulgaria and record with their cellphones the various legs of their journey. In Myrtle Beach, they pound the pavement looking for second jobs, as their primary job will only cover their costs, contributing nothing to their college fund. As though to set us up for a film about worker exploitation, Gilbert follows Nikoleta home from her housekeeping job one day to her home away from home: the place is a cockroach-infested mess, but one with a refrigerator stuffed with food left behind by resort guests, including a whole watermelon. Pity the poor exchange worker and shame on wasteful Americans, the film seems to say at this point.

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Of course, reality isn’t quite that simple, as we learn when Gilbert travels to visit with some exchange workers who ended up in Provincetown and Martha’s Vineyard, both in Massachusetts. The young men and women work two to four jobs catering to the upscale tourist trade in both locations. In a Martha’s Vineyard restaurant where one student works, an older couple commends her initiative in not accepting handouts and working hard instead to get what she wants out of life: “That’s what America’s all about,” the man says, like an embodied talking point for the Republican credo. Colorful, diverse Provincetown absorbs the newcomers from Eastern Europe easily, and the sprightly nightlife, welcoming atmosphere, and generous tips create a favorable impression among the workers and a desire to return the next year. One student says that the American University in Bulgaria has taught them to be tolerant of the eccentricities of Provincetown dwellers.

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Perhaps some of the residents of Myrtle Beach should attend AUBG, because Nikoleta expresses her disgust and disappointment with Americans after she and Elena are ridiculed by some locals for the uniforms they wear. As housekeepers, they garner far fewer tips and pull in far less money than their counterparts in Massachusetts. Further, without access to a car or public transportation, Elena is subjected to a nasty fright when a man in a car follows her and tries to get her to ride with him. “He was drunk,” she says, adding incredulously that nothing like that ever happened to her in Bulgaria. Indeed, cultural exchange only goes so far. The painful class conflicts and behavioral disparities from one part of the United States to another are difficult for native Americans to negotiate, let alone young exchange workers.

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Gilbert spends considerable time in Bulgaria shooting family gatherings and home interiors, as well as Skype chats spanning the distance between the girls and their families. She offers a somewhat sentimental view of family ties, scoring most such interludes monotonously with Erik Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 1. Because this film was funded in part by a Kickstarter campaign, public domain music was the most reasonable financial choice, but there are other public domain pieces of music that could have worked and enhanced other moods within the film. It seems a shame Gilbert didn’t explore more options.

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The Summer Help has a brevity in keeping with Gilbert’s background in television journalism. The film provides a discernable contrast between the prospects in rich countries like the United States and poor ones like Bulgaria, but is content to comment on the more superficial aspects of these contrasts. Nonetheless, Gilbert found engaging students to foreground and hold our attention and sympathies. Nikoleta and Elena came of age in different ways through this experience—one embracing the American experience in a big way, the other rejecting it and finding better opportunities and lifestyles in other countries.

A one-time-only screening of The Summer Help takes place this Saturday, May 14, 7:45 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Director Gilbert will be on hand for a Q&A session after the film.


3rd 05 - 2016 | no comment »

Man with the Movie Camera (1929)

Director: Dziga Vertov

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

In preparation for a review here, I have been working my way through Chantal Akerman – Four Films, a 2016 Icarus Films release of four documentaries made by the late Belgian director that features her “slow cinema” approach as she observes various locales around the world. One of the films, From the East (1993), chronicles her trip following the fall of the Soviet Union across Eastern Europe to Moscow, where she films workers walking to and from a factory and others standing in the cold waiting for buses. It is an interesting end to a story begun in 1917 with the Russian Revolution, a time of decisive action and idealism that the workers of the world could indeed unite and throw off their shackles.

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I wonder what Dziga Vertov, creator of the movie under consideration here, the much-acclaimed Man with the Movie Camera, would have made not only of life after the fall of the Soviet Union, but also the molasses-like observational style of one of today’s most honored filmmakers. I believe he would have to recognize that the films are cousins, with points of view reflecting their makers’ personalities, experiences, and ideologies and containing many of the observational shots both indoors and out, with people alternately mugging for and hiding from the camera, that allow cataloguers to call them documentaries. I think he would be very sad to see the failure of the great Soviet experiment Akerman documents with deliberate understatement; he might also be disappointed that the kinetic musicality he celebrated in Man with the Movie Camera seems to have left the documentary field and migrated to fantasies of other times and other worlds.

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Vertov (given name: David Kaufman), born in 1896 as a subject of the Russian Empire, emerged after the Russian Revolution as an adherent not only of bolshevism, but also of a cinema that would reflect a society reinventing itself. His interest was in taking actualities—films of everyday life that were among the earliest cinematic creations—a step further with new narrative and documentary forms. With Man with the Movie Camera, Vertov unveiled an almost pure cinema in somewhat-documentary form, an “image-oriented journalism” that could dissect “life caught unawares” and somehow create a symphony for the eye. An opening title card for the film is reminiscent of the spirit of The Communist Manifesto, with Vertov announcing his intention to create “a truly international, absolute language of cinema based on its total separation from the language of theater and literature.”

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Vertov’s strategy is to self-consciously reveal the workings of the filmmaker, in fact, to make the filmmaker the title character of his film, appearing in its opening moments atop a gigantic camera and then moving into a movie theatre to show his epic of a day in the life of a Soviet city. The man with the camera is the new Tolstoy for a new age, chronicling a great new society. A repeated image of a marketplace named after Maxim Gorky aligns Vertov with the founder of the literary socialist realism in a Soviet Union whose aims are echoed in glorified images of the industrial age powered by ordinary workers pulling together and enjoying their lives to the fullest.

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Vertov’s film starts off slowly, showing apparently homeless people sleeping in the street, a metaphor for the Soviet Union before the revolution—poor and unconscious of the dawning social transformation. A row of cribs, the images of two sleeping babies superimposed on each other, suggests new energy from a new generation born into a proletarian dream. All is quiet—lifeless mannequins in shop windows, a taxidermied dog in a perpetual snarl, empty streets, an idle abacus, tall apartment buildings, imposing factories, and dormant machines bearing witness to the mechanisms of industry about to spring to life.

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From the interior of a building we see a car pull up. The man with the camera goes through a set of double doors, gets in the car, and is driven through the streets. Soon a flock of pigeons are on the wing—a sure sign of a change coming. In perhaps the most startling image of the film, the man with the camera is laying on a railroad track looking into his viewfinder with a train fast approaching. A thrilling set of cuts leaves us in suspense as to the man’s fate. Soon, Vertov reveals the magician’s method—a trench dug under the tracks allowed the camera to capture the shot safely.

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What then are we to make of close-ups of a young woman getting out of bed, affixing her stockings to her garter belt and buttoning her ragged bra behind her back? Other images later in the film of women sunning on a beach and naked women smearing themselves with mud suggest Vertov isn’t as revolutionary as he might appear at first glance. Sex still sells movie tickets, crowds still want to be pleased, experimentation shouldn’t confound and alienate.

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Intriguing are shots of Vertov’s wife and film editor, Elizaveta Svilova, working with bits and pieces of film strip. Single frames are shown, asking us to reengage our disbelief that what we have been watching is now history, not actually happening before our eyes. Short sequences of these frames moving at the speed of life and then stopping emphasize the artifice of the presentation. So, too, does all the trick photography in which Vertov engages, including split screens, superimpositions, slow motion, fast motion, and trick photography that engage the viewer with a rhythm that quickens our breath and heart beat.

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Vertov himself plays the man with the movie camera, but, of course, someone else is filming him as he shoots from open cars, climbs brick smoke stacks, follows around men and horses working in a low-ceilinged mine, and scales steel beams with his tripod on his back. The director’s claim that he is eschewing the literary and theatrical doesn’t exactly hold water because there is continuity of character (his), time linearity, dramatic and even melodramatic scenes, e.g., a close-up of someone talking urgently into a phone intercut with an ambulance racing down the street with the cameraman’s car in close pursuit. His section on life—marriage, divorce, birth, death—is quite short and occasionally humorous, the embodiment of the side-by-side theatrical masks of comedy and tragedy.

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Vertov also avails himself of the then-common technique in Soviet filmmaking of montage, with a dizzying array of quick cuts to disorient the audience, as well as thematic juxtapositions. For example, in one scene, he films a woman having her eyebrows dyed and matches it with a rough woman at work tossing coal into a railcar; in another, he shows a woman having her hair washed, followed by working hands scrubbing clothes in a washtub. The implications for socialist ideologues are plain as day and far from the objectivity people ascribe, generally incorrectly, to the documentary form. Nonetheless, all of these activities are part of the new order, so it’s hard to say what Vertov’s objective attitude may be.

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Music, of course, has always been vital to silent film presentation. The DVD I watched was scored by the Alloy Orchestra. Alloy is not my favorite silent film scorer, and other silent film buffs mention two earlier versions favorably, one featuring music by Jason Swinscoe performed by The Cinematic Orchestra and the other by Michael Nyman performing his own music with the Michael Nyman Band. Nonetheless, Alloy followed to the letter Vertov’s instruction that the film be accompanied by energetic music, providing the verve the director felt vital to his enterprise.

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This 68-minute ode to Soviet life and the filmmaking process is an exhilarating work of invention and must-viewing for every serious cinephile, but one I believe I have come to too late. Even while trying to keep the age of the film in perspective, I found it hard to think of this film as one of the greatest documentaries ever made. If it is a documentary at all, it is of the filmmaking process and the trickery that filmmakers use to entertain and inform, but it is incomplete in not sharing how special effects are achieved. Its special effects, which were not revolutionary in 1929, serve mainly to celebrate film’s own power of invention—for cinephiles, that may be enough.


11th 04 - 2016 | no comment »

Burden of Peace (Paz y Paz, 2015)

Directors/Screenwriters: Joey Boink and Sander Wirken

32nd Chicago Latino Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

On many best documentary lists, including the 2014 and 2016 Academy Awards nomination lists, were The Act of Killing (2012) and The Look of Silence (2014), both of which deal with the Indonesian death squads that brutally murdered more than a million people in the mid 1960s. Both films are very painful to watch, but it is even more painful to contemplate the depths of depravity and utter heartlessness to which human beings can sink. It’s downright crazy-making to know that anti-communist, anti-unionist, and anti-leftist ideology was used as an excuse for the machinelike decapitations and hackings of hundreds of human beings at a time, and that the murderers credited the United States with teaching them to hate communists.

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Burden of Peace tells another such story in another part of the world—Guatemala. Perhaps it should not have surprised me that these same ideologies were behind the genocide of 200,000 Mayan people, from babies to old men, the destruction of more than 450 Mayan villages, and the displacement of more than 1 million people during the 1990s and early 2000s—but it did. One survivor said that the killings were with an economic purpose: a hydroelectric power plant and mining operations are now cranking at full steam on stolen land from which the original inhabitants were, ahem, removed. The Guatemalan military government that ordered the killings had the full support of the United States.

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It is a miracle that the heroine of Burden of Peace, Claudia Paz y Paz (Peace and Peace), was appointed Guatemala’s first female attorney general. Paz y Paz became a dedicated human rights activist during her time working with Roman Catholic archbishop Juan José Gerardi, who was symbolically murdered in 1998 with a rock to the skull after he named names to a UN commission investigating human rights violations. As attorney general, she set about purging her office of incompetent and corrupt functionaries and then massed an impressive record of successful prosecutions of everyone from crime lords to corrupt officials. It was when she started to target the military leaders who engineered the Mayan genocide that she finally became a painful enough thorn to the country’s power elite to warrant removal.

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Dutch filmmakers Boink and Wirten give us the lay of the land prior to Paz y Paz’s installation as attorney general, with pictures of the murdered and missing among the Mayans, dead bodies from gangland slayings and gang disputes, and frightened Guatemalans standing by helplessly as the police and government officials fail them. Then they follow Paz y Paz around as she is driven in what must be an armored SUV to and from her office in Guatemala City and conducts investigations, staff performance reviews, and victim interviews. She doesn’t complain about her exhaustion or the difficulties of trying to get her job done in the face of so much corruption; she finds people willing to work honestly alongside her to try to get the rule of law off life support. She has a picture of former U.S Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy on her office wall to give her inspiration. Her objective is to give the people of Guatemala hope and confidence in a system that has been broken for nearly 40 years during the country’s lengthy civil war and numerous military coups and dictatorships. Her most important case, and the centerpiece of the film, is the prosecution of Efraín Ríos Montt, president of Guatemala during the genocide.

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There is something about her that makes one breathe easier. She has an open, caring face and an obvious intelligence and determination. The film luxuriates in her presence, lulling one into thinking everything will turn out well despite the formidable obstacles. Thus, it is a real shock when Boink and Wirten turn to one of her most vociferous detractors, Ricardo Méndez Ruiz, whose father served in Ríos Montt’s government during the genocide. His Foundation Against Terrorism represents the business elite and the military establishment, and he publishes tracts and blogs that denigrate her and accuse her of ignoring ordinary crime to advance her ideological war against the state. He says, “She may be charming with her soft voice, and you may think ‘O poor, little fatty.’ But she is incapable of being the attorney general. She comes from a different world, the world of human rights.” If your jaw just dropped, join the club. The thinking behind these statements and the insulting, racist comments that come from the defense attorneys for Ríos Montt left me dumbstruck.

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The trial is both fascinating and deeply depressing, as Mayan villagers come one by one to the witness stand to testify to what they saw, brutality beyond description but crucial to the trial’s outcome. A victory that becomes a defeat is to follow, and then Paz y Paz finds herself accused of impropriety in office and facing an early ouster. She knows that the establishment intends to undo all she has done, return the crime bosses to the five regions from which they had been eradicated, install more corrupt, incompetent police and prosecutors. Perhaps another genocide is in the offing. I left this film feeling deeply disheartened and pessimistic about the human race, let alone Guatemala. But then I read on about Guatemala post-Paz y Paz—a corrupt president was forced to resign. I hope Claudia Paz y Paz, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee and beacon for human rights around the world, knows that her legacy endures.

Burden of Peace screens Monday, April 11 at 6 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

I Swear I’ll Leave This Town: A recovering cocaine addict goes more out of control than when she was using when her father takes control of her life in the hallucinatory dramedy. (Brazil)


23rd 02 - 2016 | 13 comments »

Forbidden Films (2014)

Director/Screenwriter: Felix Moeller

2016 European Union Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Freedom of speech. Has there ever been a more slippery phrase in modern times? In 2015, French cartoonists exercising their free speech to lampoon Islam were gunned down by offended Muslim extremists, causing worldwide mourning and defiant support for their work; yet, a French comedian was arrested for hate speech for making comments that appeared to sympathize with the gunmen. Americans condemn the repressions of the Iranian state, which has banned writers, filmmakers, and activists, imprisoning and executing some of them; yet, in recent years, Americans have seen major suppression of demonstrations and the killing of citizens, most notoriously in Ferguson, Missouri. Moreover, in the name of free speech, billionaires are now able to spend unlimited amounts of money in U.S. elections on politicians they favor. If there’s anything that’s certain, it’s that free speech is neither universally understood nor universally available, even in countries where it appears to be a core belief.

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Film, of course, has a long history in the debate over free speech. From the Catholic Church to AMPAS and governments at all levels, films have come in for condemnation, censorship, and outright banning for everything from miscegenation of the races (Piccadilly [1929]) to sexuality (Kiss Me, Stupid [1964]). Implicit in these actions is the recognition—or fear—that films can be an effective tool for winning hearts and minds. As Hitler articulated in Mein Kampf:

One must also remember that of itself the multitude is mentally inert, that it remains attached to its old habits and that it is not naturally prone to read something which does not conform with its own pre-established beliefs when such writing does not contain what the multitude hopes to find there. … The picture, in all its forms, including the film, has better prospects. … In a much shorter time, at one stroke I might say, people will understand a pictorial presentation of something which it would take them a long and laborious effort of reading to understand.

With this assertion in mind, the Nazi Party included propaganda filmmaking in its plan, establishing a film department as early as 1930. Eventually, filmmaking was nationalized and administered by Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. While only about 15 percent of the more than 1,000 films that were made in Germany from 1933 through 1945 were blatantly propagandistic, most films conformed to Goebbels’ Nazification program in some way.

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Today, Germany still grapples with its Nazi past, including how to deal with the hundreds of propaganda films that unified the people of the Third Reich so effectively behind its mission to become masters of the universe. Forbidden Films deals specifically with the 40 or so Nazi-era motion pictures that are still banned from unrestricted public viewing. Director Felix Moeller isn’t as interested in the films themselves as in the debate surrounding whether it would be wise to loose them upon the general public. Although Forbidden Films wends its way through some of the “genres” with which Nazi propagandists concerned themselves, including anti-British, anti-Polish, youth indoctrination, pro-euthanasia, and, of course, anti-Semitic, with each topic prefaced by a quote from Goebbels (e.g., “Film is the educational tool to teach our young people” for films meant to delegitimize parental guidance in favor of Nazi ideology), he’s more interested in the reactions of those who attended supervised screenings of these films in Germany, France, and Israel and discussed them afterward.

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Moeller consults a number of film scholars who foreground the films under discussion with their specific function and the elements that helped them work their magic on the movie-going public. Some films are blatant with their messages, which we see in the anti-Polish Homecoming (1941). Poles are shown discriminating against their German-minority population, climaxing with the gunning down of a family of five—an incredible act of projection that the Nazis used to justify their invasion of Poland. Homecoming fooled one German viewer, who said he never knew about the “merciless way that Poles terrorized minorities.”

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Other films, the scholars say, are more suggestive. The Rothschilds (1940), which takes fictionalized biography to new territory, reinforces with subtle, repeated phrases the notion of a global Jewish conspiracy to control the world by controlling its banks, ending with the admittedly not-so-subtle image of a Star of David formed by connecting the dots representing centers of Rothschild domination. An even more disguised propaganda film, the pro-euthanasia I Accuse (1941), was designed to make the public comfortable with the Nazi plan to murder 70,000 physically and mentally disabled Germans. The film concerns a woman afflicted with multiple sclerosis who begs her physician husband to end her life before the disease leaves her unrecognizable. Right-to-die groups operating today might take a lesson from its persuasive melodrama and the star power of Heidemarie Hatheyer as the wife. Indeed, I Accuse is only one of the films that skillfully used well-known stars for their marquee value and acting talent. In addition to Hatheyer, Goebbels employed Paula Wessely (Homecoming and other films), Emil Jannings (Uncle Kruger [1941] and other films) and Heinrich George (Kolberg [1945] and other films). Many of the viewers are surprised at how entertaining and well produced they are.

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The most notorious film Moeller takes on is Jew Süss (1940). Considered by many to be one of the most effective of the anti-Semitic films of the era, it takes place in the distant German past, during the 18th century reign of Duke Charles Alexander of Württemberg. The duke turns to Süss the Jew for financial help, and this allows Süss to infiltrate Christian society, where he subverts the rule of law and eventually rapes a Christian woman. The money-grubbing stereotype is paired with dangerous, lawless behavior to incite audiences and help them justify the persecution of Jews. A lot of money was spent on this film, and the high production values and quality performances and script made it a big hit.

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Most of what I know about Jew Süss is what I’ve read because Forbidden Films provides only excerpts of that film that are not particularly edifying about why it is so heinous. On the whole, however, the film handles its excerpting quite well, and I found particularly interesting the edited-out footage—swastikas, Hitler, tanks, and planes—of films that then went on to be shown in theatres and on TV after the war.

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Forbidden Films is hardly a well-crafted film itself. It opens somewhat inexplicably at a well-fortified storage facility for thousands of nitrate films. Apparently, the idea was to compare the flammable and explosive nature of nitrate with the incendiary nature of the banned films whose reel cans are displayed for Moeller’s camera. The audience discussions resemble C-SPAN televised lectures and discussions. Better are the individuals who are filmed outside the screening room for their take on what they have seen. These interviews go from unhelpful to illuminating: director Margarethe von Trotta, no doubt approached for her celebrity, adds nothing, while a French woman, interestingly, believes the films would be more dangerous in France, where the right-wing National Front is strong. Moeller also obscures the faces of two interviewees, former neo-Nazis, who offer little other than that these films were popular in their group and available through YouTube.

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Unsurprisingly, opinions about the continued restrictions on these films are varied. In Israel, one man thought they should be shown to every school child so they can be understood and rejected. A Holocaust survivor in Germany did not want them shown on TV, as had been proposed, whereas free-speech advocates believed that people should be allowed to make up their own minds. Some people castigated film fans for wanting them released just to satisfy their cinephilia, and one scholar felt that editing the films was tantamount to mutilation. Knowing how carefully these films were crafted to sway public opinion and how susceptible all of us are to being manipulated, I personally favor erring on the side of caution by offering them only for educational purposes. Forbidden Films is not a great film, but it can be a great facilitator of conversation.

Forbidden Films screens Sunday, March 6 at 3 p.m. and Wednesday, March 9 at 6 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.


19th 10 - 2015 | no comment »

CIFF 2015: Motley’s Law (2015)

Director: Nicole Nielsen Horanyi

2015 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The documentaries at this year’s CIFF lean heavily on portraits of influential individuals, including Chicago “Breakfast Queen” Ina Pinkney, Italian designer Michele De Lucchi, and architect Helmut Jahn, whose State of Illinois building in downtown Chicago may be facing the wrecking ball. I don’t deny that these and other individuals highlighted at the festival are interesting and notable, but I’d bet large that the most fascinating and arguably most important person profiled in a CIFF documentary is Kimberley Motley, the central figure of Motley’s Law.

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Motley is an American attorney and former Mrs. Wisconsin who is the only American allowed to practice law in Afghanistan. She first went there in 2008 as part of a nine-month legal education program run by the U.S. State Department and spends approximately six months a year in Kabul mainly defending foreigners caught up in the country’s legal system and pursuing women’s rights cases on a pro bono basis.

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Motley, half-black/half-Korean, proudly sporting her University of Wisconsin Badgers T-shirts and a dizzying array of dangling earrings, would be a striking figure anywhere, but in Kabul, she’s utterly singular. She never wears a veil anywhere, not on the streets, not at the prisons where she consults with her clients, and not in court. She’s forceful, no-nonsense, and relentless in pursuing justice under whatever laws apply—constitutional, Sharia, or tribal. She shakes off the fact that a grenade was thrown into her house while she was in the States and tells her assistant Khalil, who wants to bring her car into the courtyard, to leave it on the street. She prefers to be the intimidator, not the intimidated.

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We follow her as she visits a prison to see her client, a South African contractor who was convicted of what may have been trumped-up charges and has been in prison for six years. Instead of waiting however long the prison guards see fit before allowing her in, she simply breezes in through the open gates, blankets of barbed wire flanking her on either side. The South African has found ways to keep his spirits up, but he says he has reached his breaking point. He knows that if he pays a $5,000 bribe, he will be released—the two Nigerians who were convicted with him went free long ago, most likely because they paid up—but he refuses. He has already gotten a letter ordering his release from Afghanistan Attorney General Aloko, but the court officials want to keep bouncing his case around, perhaps hoping he will eventually pay them off. Motley isn’t exactly patient, but she hangs in there, restating her points over and over; finally, when she offers to help an official with a green card problem he has in the United States, her client gets his walking papers. “Every system is corrupt,” Motley says, “but this system is really corrupt.”

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Motley is very frank in stating that she came to Afghanistan for the money, which affords her, her husband, and their three children a very comfortable lifestyle in North Carolina. We see the contrast during the fall months when she’s at home celebrating Halloween with her family and neighbors. Horanyi takes her camera down a North Carolina street lined with trees and comfortable houses and then immediately contrasts it with a Kabul street, where a father, mother, and baby stand in the middle of the street, seemingly with nowhere to go, and children wade through garbage-filled water. The military roams everywhere.

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Although Motley lives in a very large, fairly luxurious house in Kabul, she is subject to power outages and leaking plumbing. When the lack of utilities becomes too much, she decides to move into the luxury Serena Hotel; 15 minutes after her check-in, gunmen arrive and kill nine people. She sluffs it off as just another attack to her husband—she likes to drive after an attack because the streets are usually clear—but he learns how serious it was from U.S. news reports. Ironically, her husband is nonfatally shot through the jaw when he visits his family in Milwaukee. Motley decries Americans and their guns, but she isn’t sure she’ll remain in Afghanistan as cut-ins of President Obama announcing the pull-out of U.S. troops in 2015 (now delayed) means decreased security for her and increased factional fighting.

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It’s hard to know what keeps Motley going in such capricious and dangerous circumstances, but one case she handles provides the best clue. A young, religious woman has been thrown in jail for running away from her husband. He took her to a party where he wanted her to drink and have sex with his friends. Motley points to the Koran to defend her and wins her release. The poor woman, practically a girl, is crying as she talks to Motley and says she would kill herself if she didn’t fear Allah. Motley may have been in it for the money, but it’s clear that she considers herself, as her banter with Khalil at the beginning of the film states, like a member of DC Comics’ Justice League.

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I found Motley’s Law inspirational as well as informative about what life in Afghanistan is like beyond the dutifully reported attacks and counterattacks. While anarchy may seem to reign, people like Motley prove that the infrastructure of Afghan democracy, while shaky, still stands.

Motley’s Law screens Tuesday October 20 at 8:00 p.m. and Thursday, October 22 at 2:30 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

The Emperor in August: Beautifully shot, compelling, and updated telling of the final days before Japan’s unconditional surrender in World War II. (Japan)

Dégradé: Tensions both personal and political rouse a group of women trapped in a Gaza beauty salon by street warfare in a revealing look at life in a war zone. (Palestine/France)

Chronic: Compassionate, unflinching look at a home care nurse who treats dying and gravely ill patients as he begins to come to terms with his own terrible loss. (Mexico)

Clever: A divorced martial arts instructor pursues the reconstruction of his ego with a custom paint job on his car in this knowing comedy about human foibles. (Uruguay)

Adama: This ingeniously animated coming-of-age story takes a West African boy from his sheltered village to the very heart of darkness—the battlefield of Verdun during World War I—to bring his older brother home. (France)

How to Win Enemies: On the eve of his brother’s wedding, a lawyer is drawn into investigating a theft that hits close to home in this comedy set in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. (Argentina)

Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)


1st 10 - 2015 | 2 comments »

CIFF 2015: Women He’s Undressed (2015)

Director: Gillian Armstrong

2015 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

My 2015 Chicago International Film Festival coverage kicks off today, and the film under consideration is a real doozy from the brilliant Australian filmmaker Gillian Armstrong. Armstrong has largely abandoned the feature format she plied with such skill to turn out such enduring films as My Brilliant Career (1979), Starstruck (1982), and my favorite version of Little Women (1994), and turned to documentary filmmaking. While spending about the last 40 years creating her version of Michael Apted’s Up series featuring three girls from Adelaide, Armstrong has kept her focus on women’s experiences and her homeland. Women He’s Undressed combines these two concerns as Armstrong creates a hybrid documentary about costume designer Orry-Kelly, the Australian from the tiny coastal town of Kiama, NSW, who made it big on the other side of the Pacific dressing some of Hollywood’s brightest stars.

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Armstrong combines traditional talking-head interviews and clips from some of the nearly 300 films for which Orry-Kelly made costumes with depictions of Kelly, engagingly played by Australian TV star Darren Gilshenan, breaking the third wall to speak directly to the audience about his life from a stage, the place where Kelly first gained inspiration and experience in show business. As seems to be something of the norm with biopics these days, Women He’s Undressed starts with Kelly’s death, as eight young women dressed in red gowns serve as pallbearers to a rowboat. The dresses refer to Kelly’s most notorious creation, the red gown Bette Davis’ defiant character wore to the white ball in Jezebel (1938), and the boat the conveyance Armstrong uses throughout the film to propel Kelly away from Australia and through the episodes of his life. “When you grow up with the smell of the ocean, the horizon beckons you every day,” Kelly says early in the film.

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Costume designer Ann Roth, who worked with Kelly, questions Armstrong’s project at the very beginning. “You say nobody knows who he is? Who doesn’t know who he is!?” A string of snippets showing the costumes he made on the backs of a slew of famous actresses, from Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca (1942) to Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame (1958) and Natalie Wood in Gypsy (1962), confirm that even if people don’t know precise details about Orry-Kelly, they certainly know his work.

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The film proceeds roughly chronologically from Orry George Kelly’s childhood and takes liberal dives into his experience of being an out gay man in homophobic Hollywood. His nurturing mother, played by Deborah Kennedy, encouraged his art studies and theatrical ambitions, while his father, a tailor and reformed drunk, propagated a bright pink carnation he dubbed the “Orry,” in oblique reference to Kelly’s being “different” despite his father’s attempts to drum the tendency out of him.

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Much is made in the film of Kelly’s “matehood” with Archie Leach when they were both struggling actors living together in New York. Through Kelly’s narration, we learn that the two had a lot in common and subsidized their anything-goes lifestyle in Greenwich Village by making and selling Kelly-Leach ties by the hundreds. Throughout the film, Armstrong returns to Archie’s transformation into Cary Grant, how Grant played the studio game by giving up his relationship with actor Randolph Scott to marry actress Virginia Cherrill; his subsequent suicide attempt, which Kelly blames on denying his true nature; and his later failed marriages. This throughline provides the private part of Kelly’s biography that producer/director Eric Sherman says he undoubtedly had but had been secretive about to the end of his life. Grant, who never answered any questions about his sexuality, doesn’t come off very well in the film, but this again would probably be true to Kelly’s undoubted sense of betrayal and abandonment.

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The main event, of course, is Kelly’s spectacularly successful career. He was hired by Warner Bros. to bring some gloss to their proletarian style of filmmaking, and he outdid himself. He worked with colleagues Adrian and Travis Banton to make Kay Francis Hollywood’s “best dressed woman,” and Ruth Chatterton, another Warner Bros. star, called his designs “well bred.” His gowns for 42nd Street (1933) show the energy of the unforgettable penny costumes and double-hooped skirts that he may or may not have had a hand in creating; the film suggests that he admired the creative volcano that was Busby Berkeley. It was his working relationship with Bette Davis, however, that provided him with his greatest challenge.

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It’s fascinating to learn that Davis refused to allow Kelly to use a metal underwire to boost her sagging breasts because she feared the metal would give her cancer, so he had to design other foundations for her. Armstrong shows us clip after clip of Davis and the challenges her figure posed to Kelly. His tests of fabrics for the red gown in Jezebel were extensive and successful, as many people who have seen the black-and-white film swear it was red that they saw. Another figure that gave Kelly trouble was Natalie Wood’s. Her too-slender form did not make her the ideal candidate for the role of Gypsy Rose Lee, the world’s most famous stripper. Armstrong takes a peek inside one of her costumes for the film to show the padding Kelly used to fill out her breasts and hips.

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Angela Lansbury, who considers herself a character actress, confirms that Kelly’s skill went beyond making beautiful clothes to helping actors inhabit their roles and enhance their performances by matching the mood of each scene. This comment is illustrated through several of the films he designed. For example, clips of Now, Voyager (1942) show the transformation of Bette Davis from a dowdy, mentally unstable woman to a glamorpuss of classic elegance; however, the real touch of genius Kelly brought to the film was in the last scene, when he responded to Davis’ desire that her clothes not detract from the drama of the moment. He puts her in a simple blouse and skirt, allowing her face to register as the most important element in the frame. In another anecdote, we learn that Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis went into the ladies restroom at the studio in their Some Like It Hot (1959) disguises to see if anyone would notice them—nobody did!

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Kelly also liked to push the envelope of the stuffy 1950s. His designs for Auntie Mame allowed him to create flamboyant, colorful outfits for the outsized personality of the main character, a visual tweak to the Establishment that defined Mame Dennis. He was determined to bring all of Marilyn Monroe’s sex appeal to the screen in Some Like It Hot. Jane Fonda, who worked with him on some forgettable movies, is interviewed about this film and says that despite not being gay, she was transfixed by Monroe’s pregnancy-swollen breasts, which Kelly saved from censorship by some strategic beading.

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Orry-Kelly won three Academy Awards, and his designs were knocked off for retail sale all over the world, a fact the film suggests galled him given that his own atelier went bust. In the end, his hope for a comeback from cancer was not to be, and his wish that, after years of estrangement, Cary Grant would be one of his pallbearers actually did come true, as Armstrong shows someone scrawl his signature in the funeral guest book that opened the film.

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Gillian Armstrong brings almost as much design panache and ingenuity to her film about Orry-Kelly as he had himself. Her strategy of offering a theatrical setting for the imagined scenes with Kelly, complete with stage make-up and tinny sound effects, evoke the era in which he grew up and from which he claimed his influences. The film is hampered only by the familiar talking-heads format that may be necessary to offer detail but interrupts the flow of the film as told by Kelly himself. Where did this script by Katherine Thomson come from? The movie discusses an autobiography Kelly wrote but never published and shows one of his heirs holding it, under orders never to let it slip from her grasp. Did Thomson crib dialog from it? I don’t know. But I can say that as written, the outspoken, entertaining Orry-Kelly in Women He Undressed is as unforgettable as his costumes.

Women He’s Undressed screens Friday, October 23 at 8:30 p.m. and Wednesday, October 28 at 5 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.


29th 09 - 2015 | no comment »

Paul Taylor Creative Domain (2015)

Director: Kate Geis

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

As an inveterate Paul Taylor fan, the prospect of a new movie about this master dancer/choreographer filled me with joyful anticipation. Taylor is one of the last links to the legendary Martha Graham—the “naughty boy” of her company, as she said of him—and is himself one of the last grandmasters of dance. Long retired from performing himself, he is still choreographing new works at age 85. That fact in itself is interesting, as late works of masters in the arts can often have a gravity that comes from their accumulation of experience. Yet, I wondered what director Kate Geis would reveal that hadn’t already been shown in what I thought was the definitive documentary about Taylor, Matthew Diamond’s Dancemaker (1998). Riffing on the title of Taylor’s autobiography Private Domain, Geis’s conceit is that she will reveal the secret of Taylor’s choreographic genius. This she does not do—nor do I think anyone can—but she nonetheless offers accumulative detail in showing how a dance is made, eschewing the more all-encompassing look at Taylor and his dance company in Dancemaker in a way that resonates more deeply for its concentrated focus.

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The film moves from the first day of working on a new dance to its premiere in 2010. Taylor explains to his company that he wants to examine a love triangle in a Rashomon-like fashion. It’s doubtful that the dancers have seen or know about Rashomon (1950) and its shifting points of view, but no matter. Taylor gets his point across and casting begins for what will become “Three Dubious Memories,” his 133rd modern dance. All of the dancers say they want to be a part of any new dance, hoping to be part of writing the history of the company and having the pleasure of working with Taylor. Amy Young, too, is anxious to be cast, and when she is given the principal female role of the Girl in Red, she is nervous about being physically and artistically able to give Taylor what he wants. He casts Sean Patrick Mahoney as the Boy in Blue, who disrupts the initial romance of the Girl in Red and the Boy in Green. He gives the latter role to Robert Kleinendorst, perhaps sensing that Kleinendorst and Young had started to see each other (they are now married).

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Taylor has written out specific beats and dance patterns for the music he will use, but prefers to work without music as he evolves the piece. He manipulates the bodies of his dancers, offers them shapes to imitate, and verbally instructs them where to move. His plan is to allow the three principal dancers to move freely as full-bodied beings, but restrict the eight-member chorus commenting on the story to flat, angular movements reminiscent of Egyptian hieroglyphics to suggest two dimensions. His ideas sometimes outstrip the dancers’ ability to carry out the movements he wants, and we thus get to witness not only the strength, but also the fragility of a dancer’s body and the need for the artist to modify his vision to accommodate the “clay” with which he is working.

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Little in Taylor’s method has changed over the years, certainly not from what was shown in Dancemaker. Former dancer turned rehearsal director Bettie de Jong is still his rehearsal director. He still uses reel-to-reel tape to play the music for his dances. He still injects sexual ambiguity into his romantic pieces, as when the principal male dancers seem to reject the Girl in Red for their own camaraderie and possible romance, drawing a swift and powerful reaction from her worthy of the feminist model he had in Graham.

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When Taylor finally plays the music for the company—unusually, Taylor chose to use an unsolicited composition from Czech-born composer Peter Elyakim Taussig—the dancers’ interpretations of the moves they have learned gain force and fluidity. Taussig is delighted by what Taylor has created when he sees the dance for the first time in the company’s studio space. Then we’re on to Santo Loquasto’s costume designs and fittings, tech rehearsals with lighting designer Jennifer Tipton, and, finally, the premiere performance.

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What I like about Reis’ approach is that we get a chance to watch the dance as it is built, step by step, with little in the way of navel-gazing by the dancers or Taylor. The dancers say they really don’t know much about Taylor, and he deflects any such probing by saying that what he is can be seen in his dances. It is a little frustrating not to see “Three Dubious Memories” danced straight through in its entirety, but in a way, it really doesn’t matter that much. We’ve seen all parts of the dance at various stages and have an insight into what it takes to make and perform a dance that simply watching from the audience can never convey. Dancers are supposed to make it look easy, so the more grueling and painful aspects of the life are never fully understood, though this film is blessedly free of the litany of injuries and parade of deformed feet that characterized Dancemaker.

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One the other hand, claims I’ve read that this film is the first to pull back the veil on Taylor and his process are nothing but marketing fiction. Nonetheless, even though it’s not the exclusive look the copywriters claim it is, it is a look, and a very good and well-shot one. If you’re a fan of dance, and especially if you’re a fan of Paul Taylor, Paul Taylor Creative Domain is well worth your time.


1st 09 - 2015 | no comment »

Dreamcatcher (2015)

Director: Kim Longinotto

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Several years ago, I had a discussion about prostitution with some of my regular commenters. Among the ideas put forth were that prostitution is a victimless crime and that sex workers are free to choose other lines of work if they don’t like what they’re doing. My reply to these ideas was that sometimes a choice is not really a choice and that prostitution victimizes many people, from the prostitute to the family she or he is supporting through this work. I continue to hold these beliefs, and now I have evidence to back them up in the form of director Kim Longinotto’s new documentary Dreamcatcher.

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Longinotto is a respected British documentarian who has used her camera primarily to focus attention on women’s issues, such as female genital mutilation and divorce in Iran, as well as such feminist leaders as a group of women who protect and care for the abused and neglected children of Durban, South Africa (Rough Aunties, 2008) and Indian poet, politician, and activist Salma (Salma, 2013). Dreamcatcher looks at prostitution through the eyes and work of Brenda Myers-Powell, former prostitute and cofounder and executive director of The Dreamcatcher Foundation, a Chicago-based organization working to end human trafficking, prevent the sexual exploitation of at-risk youth, and help current prostitutes find a way out of their current lifestyle. Longinotto and her sound recordist, Nina Rice, follow Myers-Powell as she makes her rounds of the streets, prisons, and schools where she connects with at-risk girls and those already in the life, as well as to the home where she lives with her husband and her adopted son, the natural son of her drug-addicted sister-in-law. Longinotto also accompanies her on a trip to Las Vegas where she and an ex-pimp who works with her, Homer, lecture at a conference on human trafficking.

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During the opening scene, Myers-Powell is looking for streetwalkers whom she hopes will accept the free condoms she has on hand, as well as some words of help and encouragement. One older prostitute accepts the condoms and climbs into the van emblazoned with The Dreamcatcher Foundation along its side to talk with Myers-Powell. Her story is beyond harrowing, as she talks about being stabbed 19 times by one man and trying to help her friend, another prostitute who was stabbed on another occasion and died in her arms. She can’t wrap her head around the fact that she survived 19 stab wounds, while her friend died from one, and says repeatedly that she doesn’t want to live anymore but is too afraid to kill herself. She leaves the van grateful for having someone to talk to, but it’s hard not to feel that one day soon she’ll get her wish.

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That same evening, Myers-Powell finds Marie, a prostitute working in one of the most dangerous areas in the city, a wooded, isolated park. Marie is from Portland, Oregon, and has been on the streets most of her life, starting as a child collecting money for a pimp and graduating to hooking. Myers-Powell listens to her story of abusive pimp boyfriends, guesses that she’s pregnant, and offers her judgment-free help. Marie will turn up throughout the film.

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We see Myers-Powell at a women’s prison talking to inmates about the choices they made because they had to survive and celebrating that her record has been wiped clean. Her attorney, Rachel Pontikes, speaks before the group, telling them that Myers-Powell actually made law as a result of her petition to have her prostitution convictions erased; in 2011, Illinois passed the Justice for Victims of Sex Trafficking Crimes Act, under which survivors can petition a judge to vacate prostitution convictions that resulted from sex trafficking. The celebratory mood breaks something open in the group, as one woman talks of being repeatedly molested as a child, and then tells the shocking story of being beaten severely, having her jaw dislocated, and then being forced to perform oral sex on the man who beat her.

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Throughout the film, we meet women who were molested as children, some as young as four years old. In fact, in one of her weekly meetings with at-risk teenage girls, Myers-Powell listens as one girl after another tell about being molested by relatives and the boyfriends of their mothers. Often, these stories are told in an unemotional way, but some of the girls break down in tears or become angry when telling about how they tried to prevent the abuse, but were not believed by the adults around them. Homer comes to talk with them one week, and reveals that he was molested, too, and found a way to feel powerful and wanted as a pimp.

_83595763_brenda-on-steps_editedThese stories have the important effect of putting to rest such ridiculous ideas as the “happy hooker” or prostitution as a free choice. Clearly, the abuse the vast majority of these sex workers and at-risk girls experienced in their formative years have had a strong effect, causing Myers-Powell to say repeatedly “it’s not your fault” and “you did what you had to do to survive.” This is the language used with rape victims, which, of course, most prostitutes were as children and are at various points during their lives as sex workers. It’s not that surprising that prostitutes have children: when Myers-Powell learns from a teenager who keeps moving out of her mother’s house that she is pregnant, she remarks, “She wanted someone to love her, so she made one. I know, I did.”

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Longinotto makes a stab at providing some sort of uplift for the audience. Marie finally leaves her boyfriend and is shown moving into a shelter with Myers-Powell’s help; she says her spirit was touched and that things will only get better. Maybe, but the preponderant feeling Dreamcatcher elicits is despair. Myers-Powell is a dynamic, determined individual who has survived and thrived despite the dead weight of her background, but the repetition of the same stories by girl after girl, woman after woman, made me feel pretty hopeless about reducing human trafficking, never mind eliminating it. This is an important subject, and Brenda Myers-Powell is a lively central character who does more, I’m sure, than hug people and provide positive messages. Unfortunately, as a piece of filmmaking, Longinotto has produced a static bludgeon of what are, essentially, sloganeering talking heads.


27th 06 - 2015 | 1 comment »

Near Death (1989)

Director: Frederick Wiseman

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Among the documentarians whose films are hallowed by critics and audiences alike, perhaps none stand taller than Frederick Wiseman. A fly-on-the-wall chronicler of subjects as varied as the University of California at Berkeley, the New York City Ballet, the Panamanian Canal Zone, and Long Island’s Belmont Park racetrack, Wiseman demonstrates again and again that those entities we call institutions are, in fact, human expressions, organizing principles for social intercourse. At the perhaps not-incidental age of 60, Wiseman chose to spend several months filming the denizens of the medical intensive care unit (MICU) at Beth Israel Hospital in his home town of Boston. His interest was more specific than the workings of an MICU, however—he fixed his gaze only upon dying patients. Thus, Near Death looks at the modern approach to the end of life and the clinicians who work near death on a regular basis.

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Health care has come a long way in less than 100 years. The discovery of penicillin in 1929 heralded an age of miracle drugs that eradicated the death sentences previously dealt by many infectious diseases. Further advances in medicine, medical technology, and surgery have increased the life expectancy and vigor of the aged; today, the United States has more centenarians than any other nation—53,364 reported in the 2010 census, or 17.3 per 100,000 people. Health care has become a consumer-driven industry from which we have come to expect a fix for every ailment from infertility to paralysis. The formerly unimaginable ability to prolong life after a person’s vital functions have failed is a particularly acute one for Beth Israel’s MICU clinicians.

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Just what constitutes life and death had become a real muddle by the time Wiseman began this film. He shows MICU nurses participating in an ethics training group discuss the difficulty family members have understanding that “brain dead” means “dead” because they see their loved ones breathing with the aid of a respirator. The growth of the hospice care movement since the 1990s has eased this confusion and offered a real alternative to patients and families searching for a more consistent and peaceful end-of-life care plan. None of the clinicians in this film seem to think that prolonging life at any cost is humane, but Wiseman gives us room to consider whether they might sometimes be in too big a rush to throw in the towel.

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Bernice Factor, a stroke victim who cannot speak, was admitted to the MICU after her breathing proved inadequate to sustain her. A tube was inserted down her windpipe through her nose and attached to a ventilator to support her breathing. This is the seventh time Mrs. Factor has undergone the painful procedure of temporary intubation, and the clinical staff discuss creating a permanent airway for their tubes via a tracheostomy in her neck. After telling a nurse and the attending physician, a pulmonary specialist named Dr. Weiss, that she doesn’t want a tracheostomy or further intubation should she stop breathing after the tube is removed—in effect, that she wants to be allowed to die naturally—her long-time physician, Dr. Curlin, goes to see her and finds her to have grown more ambivalent about her decision.

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Mrs. Factor is not truly terminal in the sense that prolonging her life is pointless—she can still communicate and share time with her devoted husband—thus Dr. Weiss seems to have jumped too far forward in thinking that he understood the clear wishes of the patient. To further illustrate this point, Mrs. Factor’s story follows one in which a dying patient named Mr. Gavin and his family are told at least five times in exhaustive detail about treatment options and the consequences of a “do not resuscitate” (DNR) order, even though the patient has a living will stating his wish to be allowed to die with dignity. Although these discussions get a bit tedious for the viewer, they are vitally important to include to illustrate how difficult it is to help people in crisis to reach a rational decision, particularly when the decision will lead to death.

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At the time this film was made, Beth Israel’s policy of including patients and families in all treatment decisions was not routine in the medical community, and it’s clear that some of the clinicians find it frustrating. We hear Dr. Weiss say what many had long suspected—that lethal doses of morphine were administered to patients who were “imminent.” Behind this seemingly cold-blooded “angel of death” approach are philosophical questions that clinicians face every day and that society at large has yet to come to grips with: Are we managing patients’ lives or manipulating their deaths for our own emotional ends?

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In the film, Dr. Taylor is the individual who provides a bridge for the audience between the clinicians and the patients and their families. A man who can speak frankly about death to his colleagues, he shows seemingly infinite patience as he listens carefully to Mrs. Sperazzo as she goes over the choices for her beloved husband Charlie. She is a sweet, old woman who breaks down in tears frequently as she contemplates life without Charlie, but she affirms to Dr. Taylor that she understands what he is saying about working not toward Charlie’s recovery, which is unlikely, but toward his comfort. Dr. Taylor, choosing his words carefully, never rules out the possibility of a miracle, never claims 100 percent certainty about Charlie’s prognosis, but helps ease Mrs. Sperazzo toward acceptance of the inevitable. Wiseman’s carefully tuned ear offers as much dignity to her in his edit of Near Death as he tries to offer to the gravely ill patients on the MICU—both are sometimes robbed of their humanity by the machines that engulf them and the medical professionals who dismiss their intelligence and emotional struggles.

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Although the core of Near Death is death’s approach, the film inevitably spills into the after-death activities at Beth Israel, including showing nurses move a body discreetly through the hospital corridors and into a drawer in the morgue. We see only one of Wiseman’s subjects beyond death, Mr. Cabra, a 33-year-old Latino father of three who successfully fought testicular cancer. He returns to the hospital in rapidly failing health and is eventually found to have fibroids in his lungs, a rare side effect of gliomycin, the drug used to treat his cancer. He will never be able to breathe with his own lungs again, and his wife bravely agrees to a DNR order and donates his body to science. The end point of this tragedy, as an MICU nurse accurately describes it, is knowledge for a medical school class that has a chance to examine his lungs.

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With a running time of 6 hours, Near Death is Wiseman’s longest film. Through his compassionate, unblinking gaze we become attuned to the rhythms of the MICU, the regular comings and goings of the orderlies appearing to pick up the trash and wipe down the rooms and floors, the nurses giving report on their patients’ status to the next shift, the meetings and grand rounds of clinicians, the beeps and displays of monitors and infusion devices. Wiseman gets exceedingly lucky in recording a snippet of diagetic music, the Nino Rota/Eugene Walter love song “What Is a Youth” from Franco Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968). The lyrics provide a wistful commentary on the human drama unfolding on the screen:

What is a youth? Impetuous fire.
What is a maid? Ice and desire.
The world wags on,
a rose will bloom….
It then will fade:
so does a youth,
so does the fairest maid.

Death will come soon to hush us along.

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Wiseman’s deep engagement with this most primal of subjects avoids the romance of Romeo and Juliet, but reveals the peculiar kind of love of humanity these sometimes brusque clinicians must have to face down death every day of their working lives. By escorting us through their world, Wiseman largely succeeds in getting us past the kind of morbidity that causes most of us to crane our necks toward a car accident and breathe an uneasy sigh of relief that it was someone else, not us, who was unlucky—this time.


6th 02 - 2015 | no comment »

Pina (2011)

Director/Screenwriter: Wim Wenders

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

This year, the Berlinale is paying tribute to one of Germany’s most creative native sons, Wim Wenders. Showing next week at the Berlinale Palast theatre is Everything Will Be Fine, Wenders’ brand-new feature film shot in 3D, and the “Homage” section of the festival will screen 10 of his works, including the film under consideration here, Pina. This documentary about one of the giants of German modern dance, Pina Bausch, was the first film Wenders shot in 3D. Clearly, he must have been intrigued by the form during his first outing and wondered how it could be applied to a fictional narrative. Like many of our finest directors, including Jean-Luc Godard and Martin Scorsese, Wenders has found a new toy to play with and has had to learn all over again how to shoot a movie. Pina is an interesting, often beautiful film that shows the learning curve for 3D cinematography is a sometimes steep and bumpy one.

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Pina was a project nursed over the 20-year friendship of Wenders and Bausch, but it stayed as little more than an idea until 3D cinematography made its resurgence. In a 2011 interview with The Guardian, Wenders said, “I never knew, with all my knowledge of the craft of film-making, how to do justice to her work. It was only when 3D was added to the language of film that I could enter dance’s realm and language.” Although dance has been filmed since the very beginnings of motion pictures, Wenders’ appreciation of the importance of space as well as movement to dance is an interesting and vital addition to the representation of dance on film. The possibilities of allowing viewers to “enter” the spaces between dancers must have had great appeal for Bausch, for whom some level of audience involvement would be a natural fit with her convention-defying choreography and collaborative work method.

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Sadly, Bausch died suddenly before principal photography began, so we will never know what influence the 3D effects would have had on her personal language of movement or what contributions she could have made to the visual approach and results Wenders achieved. But we do have her company, the Tanztheater Wuppertal, who were filmed in live performances before an audience and in sequences set up by Wenders in a variety of environments, including a warehouse, an overhead tram car, a glass house set in the midst of trees, a swimming pool deck, and a busy street, among other locations.

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The place where Wenders achieves the potential of 3D is in the film’s opening. A topless woman wearing an accordion briefly sings about the seasons of the year, initiating a kind of snake dance in which the company, dressed in suits and evening wear, move onto the stage in a line repeating small hand gestures for spring, summer, fall, and winter as they cross the stage and double back behind a flowing scrim. The 3D effect actually seems to move us into the line and, at one point, elicits an urge to sweep the scrim out of our way. It’s an amazingly effective opening, giving the audience a stake in the film as a participant, not just the usual passive viewer of dance.

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Wenders follows up by showing in slow time lapse workers dumping large containers of earth onto the stage and smoothing it into a giant square that covers the entire performance space. We are then treated to perhaps Bausch’s most famous piece of choreography, her interpretation of Igor Stravinsky’s composition The Rite of Spring. This is the only piece we see in its entirety, and indeed, it would be hard to cut away from this primal, frightening work whose power would pop off the screen with or without Wenders’ camera tricks. As the film moves on, however, Wenders is content to present fragments of dances, interspersing them with short vignettes of the dancers talking briefly about Bausch or sometimes saying nothing at all. He does not see fit to identify the dancers in any way, though he does relate them to the dances they perform. Bausch painted with a wide brush, and her company is polyglot and international, young and not so young, tall and tiny—the very opposite of the regimented sizes and shapes of traditional ballet and even more diverse than can be found in many modern dance companies.

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As the film moves on, Wenders’ use of 3D is less obvious, and the film becomes less interactive as a result. He uses his power as director to become something of a choreographer, particularly in a performance of “Kontakthof,” a ballroom-dance-inflected piece concentrating on the awkwardness of finding intimacy transformed into an examination of aging by having three different casts—adolescents, adults, and mature adults—melting successively into each other, thus merging the three age-specific versions of this dance Bausch staged over the years.

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The piece that gets the majority of Wenders’ attention is “Café Müller,” which introduced the director to Bausch’s work in 1985. It is also the piece where we get to see and hear Pina dance and talk about the language of dance. It’s poignant to hear her remark that the deep feeling she had for this piece vanished when she tried to dance it with her eyes open—once she closed them again, it all fell back into place emotionally. We see archival footage of Pina in the piece as well as a contemporary mounting with another dancer in Pina’s role. The dance certainly is remarkable, with two women moving through the space of a café peppered with round tables and chairs with their eyes closed, a male dancer rushing to remove the objects before the dancers run into them. Pina’s part was more minimal in this regard—she largely remained against a wall, moving slowly against the vertical plane, occasionally breaking away from it to shuffle behind a plexiglass wall and bash into it from time to time. This dance carries on Bausch’s habit of ritualized movement and repetition, seeming to turn people into machines that become habituated to their environment and frightened of separation.

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Wenders recognizes this approach and chooses sites that emphasize a harrowing, hemmed-in quality to match the movements. One dance that particularly struck me begins in a factory of some kind that has metal cars moving on overhead rails along its periphery. A male dancer is swinging his female partner on a concrete floor boxed by I-beams, making this open, expansive movement appear dangerous. As they move out of the frame, a male dancer is filmed moving on the floor; he seems to be paralyzed from the waist down and must use his hands to manipulate his legs in fast, repetitive motions that create a box of his body. The effect is of a man turned into a machine, and the marriage of his frantically busy movements and his mechanical, industrial surroundings is a fortuitous one.

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Other sites are less felicitous. Wenders films a younger dancer new to the company who barely had a chance to work with Pina before her death. The dancer talks about how Pina would give her little instruction—in fact, all the dancers remark on her reluctance to give them more than a line or two of direction—and how she realized that she would have to pull herself up by her own hair. Wenders films her dancing on the deck of a pool with a few swimmers in the water, a rather clichéd way to suggest her fear of drowning in her new environment. Interestingly, the choreography includes her pulling her hair up above her head, but whether Wenders suggested the gesture or the dancer improvised it is anyone’s guess.

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This poolside dance was revealing of another aspect of Bausch and her company. A young woman with very little experience of or indoctrination into the cult of Pina showed more spirit and feeling in her dancing than the more established members, while still executing moves that were in keeping with Pina’s choreographic ethos. Pina’s dances are often described as cerebral, even cold, while her subject matter is about relationships, community, the fraught landscape of love and its discords. In “Café Müller,” she has a woman desperately hug a man, only to have another man break her grip and place her on her lover’s outstretched arms; when the lover’s arms grow tired and he drops her, she immediately goes back into her desperate clutch. The disruptive dancer again breaks her grip and places her on her lover’s arms, and the scene repeats over and over, moving faster and faster, until the couple repeat the sequence without prompting, a piece of conditioning that overtakes their genuine feelings. It was only when I saw Pina dance in the film’s archival footage that I understood that her choreography, for all its supposed collaborativeness, maps her feelings—every gesture she made was electric and alive. No matter how well-trained and devoted her dancers were to her, they could not duplicate her inner fire, and she could not articulate it to them in words. That Wenders’ 3D effects tended to wane the longer the film progressed may have had something to do with the difficulty even he was having finding the heart of Bausch’s art.

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Wenders ends the film at a deep quarry, where a young male dancer runs into the frame from below the lip of the quarry. He is a whirling dervish of movement, thrilling and frightening to watch as he edges dangerously close to the lip. Suddenly he breaks and climbs a steep slope. The snake dance of elegantly dressed dancers miming “spring, summer, fall, winter” moves along the top of the slope. A long shot of them reveals them to be the dancers of death from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), a too-much imitated shot that, nonetheless, offers an appropriate finale in tribute to its departed central subject.


11th 11 - 2014 | 3 comments »

Citizenfour (2014)

Director: Laura Poitras

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Every weekday, I hop on a Chicago Transit Authority train for my hour-long commute to and from work. My fellow commuters pass the time in a variety of ways—sleeping, staring out the window, reading a book or newspaper, talking to a fellow passenger. However, the majority of them use their commute to text, check email, play games, browse the Internet, listen to music, and do the myriad other things smart phones have made possible in this miraculous age of technology. They also do one thing they may not realize they are doing—provide the U.S. government with abundant information not only about themselves, but also about the people and places they know and frequent.

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We know this is happening and how because in 2013, a 29-year-old contractor for the National Security Administration (NSA) named Edward Snowden provided Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, then both reporters for the British newspaper The Guardian, with thousands of documents that offered ironclad evidence of the widespread, highly invasive government surveillance program being conducted by the NSA on American citizens and foreign nationals—including heads of state—around the world. How we came to know what the government never meant for us to know is the shocking, compelling, and utterly engrossing story of Citizenfour, easily the best and most important American documentary since Barbara Kopple’s Oscar-winning Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976), though I expect a timid AMPAS will find some less-explosive documentary to honor with an Oscar, one whose director can safely accept it in person. Director Laura Poitras now lives in Berlin, having moved there several years ago after suffering repeated government harassment dating back to 2006, when she started producing films dealing with life in the United States following the 9/11 attacks. Poitras was essentially drafted to make this documentary because “citizenfour,” the alias Snowden used when he first contacted Poitras, says she self-selected as the recipient of his information based on the films she’s made.

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Citizenfour presents an almost perfect balance of the disclosures that tore the veil surrounding the massive surveillance programs of the NSA and its even more effective cousin in the U.K., the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), and the human drama of the whistleblowing experience for both Snowden and the journalists who made his disclosures public. The intriguing cloak-and-dagger beginning—white-lettered email messages typed on a black background and masses of code scrolling their way up the screen—pulls one into the story. Poitras’ voiceover recitation of these and other messages are as far as she intrudes into the narrative, though her participation is absolutely pivotal to the end result.

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After following instructions on how to secure her communications, Poitras receives a series of encrypted emails that outline the scope of the information Snowden plans to share with her; each allegation is appended with the assurance, “I can prove this.” She is encouraged to bring Greenwald into her work. Snowden contacted Greenwald first, but refused to proceed when they were unable to communicate securely. Eventually, Poitras, Greenwald, and MacAskill travel to Hong Kong to meet Snowden and discuss the way they intend to share the information with the public. Her camera focuses on Greenwald as he sets up for the first filmed interview with Snowden in his suite in the Mira Hotel—it’s thrilling to get to know this maverick at the same moment in film time as Poitras and Greenwald do.

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Snowden is younger than the reporters expected. He’s good-looking in a geeky kind of way, intelligent, and articulate. He’s realistically paranoid, unplugging his hotel room’s phone because, he reveals, modern phones have a chip that acts as a room bug whether you’re on the phone or not. Most important, he’s principled. He was welcomed into the halls of power with the highest security clearances available in the NSA, and he was horrified by what he saw. He observed the massively invasive nature of programs like PRISM and Tempora that were collecting data from everyone, not just suspected terrorists and, crucially, being run entirely in secret. Remembering the early days of the Internet when young students and university professors from all over the world could freely converse with one another, he is appalled by what this democratic tool has become. He displays a surprising degree of humility, deferring with a touching amount of trust to Greenwald, MacAskill, and Poitras in all things journalistic. He says he wants to reveal his identity early to prevent our personality-driven media from focusing on a manhunt rather than the information he’s disclosing. He knows he will have to give up his home and family, maybe forever, and has done what he can to protect those he loves, though he is distraught about the effect his disappearance will have, especially on his long-time girlfriend. His hope is that his actions will inspire others to come forward.

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Poitras puts the story in a brief, but effective context. She takes viewers from the 9/11 attacks through early hearings about NSA abuses, showing archival footage of former NSA intelligence official William Binney revealing in the early 2000s that the organization, through its Stellar Wind program, was spying on American citizens illegally. Importantly, Binney, a double-amputee, remembers FBI agents storming into his home with guns drawn: “I don’t know why.” Then Snowden explains the spying capabilities of the NSA and GCHQ programs in a fairly easy-to-follow way. These explanations may no longer be necessary for most viewers of crime TV dramas, as CCTV is ubiquitous in British programs and real-time video capture from cellphones was part of a storyline in the Nov. 9, 2014, episode of CSI; nonetheless, it’s helpful to know that the metadata that we are always assured protects our identities has been jettisoned in favor of personally identifiable data collected on a routine, daily basis.

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Snowden’s caution—he admonishes Greenwald for having too short a password for his computer and Poitras for leaving an SD card in her computer drive for several days—doesn’t seem far-fetched in this context and once his revelations become public in The Guardian and are picked up by media around the world. As Snowden watches Greenwald being interviewed on CNN, his concern for his own safety and the sheer magnitude of what he’s done reflect on his pensive, worried face. Poitras is followed in Hong Kong, causing her to cancel plans to do additional filming and return to Berlin, and Snowden is whisked from his warren at the hotel to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Hong Kong, then to a safe house, and finally to Russia with the help of WikiLeaks.

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Following this rapid-fire series of events, the authorities start to get their wits about them. Greenwald testifies in his adopted country of Brazil about U.S. spying in that country; Greenwald’s partner is detained for nine harrowing hours at Heathrow Airport. Snowden is charged in the United States with “willful communication of classified intelligence with an unauthorized person” under the Espionage Act of 1917; President Obama says Snowden should return to the United States where he will be treated with all the rights and privileges to which he’s entitled in the U.S. justice system. We are then treated to a meeting of ACLU lawyers and others looking into Snowden’s legal defense who say that choosing to charge Snowden under this 100-year-old law enacted during time of war allows the government so much discretion that they would not be able to mount an effective defense.

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The film’s cumulative effect is deeply discouraging. High-level government officials, including then NSA Director Keith Alexander, are shown apparently lying to Congress. Big-name electronic communications companies like Google, Yahoo, and Verizon are revealed to have provided, either voluntarily or through some form of coercion, whatever the NSA has asked for. The sheer numbers are almost too large to comprehend: 1.2 million Americans on a security watch list, 200 million text messages captured per day, thousands of terabytes of data captured and available for mining now or in the future.

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Nonetheless, Poitras is a true believer who knows how to encourage audiences that even this seemingly insatiable machine of high-level control can be fought. A nighttime shot of Snowden in his new home in Russia reveals that the girlfriend he clearly loves very much has joined him in exile. Further, Snowden learns from Greenwald that someone else has taken the big risk to come forward. Together in another hotel room, the two talk and write down messages. Poitras tantalizingly films brief glimpses of the sheets of paper. Nothing is explicit except a diagram that shows boxes and arrows that point to a final box around the acronym “POTUS.” Both Greenwald and Snowden smile—courage inspired, mission accomplished.

Trailer for Citizenfour on TrailerAddict


18th 07 - 2014 | 4 comments »

Life Itself (2014)

Director: Steve James

13

By Marilyn Ferdinand

This is, perhaps, a review I ought not to write—after all, my acquaintance with the facts of Roger Ebert’s life and work isn’t exactly casual. I spent almost the whole of his career reading his reviews, watching his various TV shows, and attending his film festival. I owe my inspiration and approach to film criticism to him, more public acknowledgment than I might otherwise have gotten to his very occasional mentions of my work, and my absence of Second City Syndrome to the widespread love and influence he wielded as a critic who lived, worked, and died in my home town. Yet, when a local boy made good—Steve James—makes a documentary about another local boy made good—Roger Ebert—it would be unseemly for me not to comment on the effort. In fact, however, Chicago isn’t the home town of either James or Ebert—look to Hampton, Virginia, and Urbana, Illinois, for their earliest roots. Yet both embraced my Midwestern metropolis and found what so many other creative people have—a laissez-faire atmosphere that makes it possible to do the work in a generous and open fashion and avoid a lot of the competitive bullshit that closes off so many opportunities, both personally and professionally, in the nation’s large coastal cities.

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Life Itself really isn’t Steve James’ kind of movie, and I’m not referring to the subject matter. His very people-focused documentaries offer biographies of sorts about his subjects, perhaps most comprehensively in Stevie (2002), which brought James farther into the frame than any of his movies, based as it was on his former Little Brother when James was in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. James likes to spread into his subjects’ lives, take in the long horizon through his own observations. Life Itself, however, began as an end-of-life project for its subject—though neither Ebert nor James knew they would have only five months together, it was obvious to everyone that Ebert’s days were short.

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James reveals in the film that the nine single-spaced pages of questions he sent to Ebert to answer in writing were too much for the failing film critic, who requested that he receive them one at a time. Late in the film, Ebert points James to his autobiography, Life Itself, to glean answers, revealing even more than the voiceover recitations from the book by Stephen Stanton, doing a very good job of imitating Ebert’s voice, that the movie was largely structured and scripted by Ebert’s own take on his life. I think it was very honest of James to name the film after the autobiography, but I’m not sure he needed to crib so much from Ebert’s TV show, particularly his tribute show to Gene Siskel, in creating the film. At many points, I felt as though I were watching Sneak Previews or the tribute show, the latter of which included seminal moments from the careers of the two critics, such as their appearance on The Tonight Show when Ebert panned Three Amigos (1986) to Chevy Chase’s face, the combative outtakes of them recording promo spots for the show, and Ebert being interviewed about why he did not get top billing in Siskel & Ebert & the Movies.

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James tries to address some of the controversy surrounding the “thumbs” approach to movie reviewing with a series of talking-head interviews. Most cogent was his interview with Jonathan Rosenbaum, former chief film critic of Chicago’s alt-weekly, The Reader, and what he perceived as the demotion of serious film criticism that had arisen during the 1960s by the populist approach Siskel and Ebert popularized. (I’m not sure why James decided to do the interview in the lobby of the Music Box Theatre on Chicago’s North Side, but I’m always happy to see the old place, no matter the circumstances.) But he also recounts the appearance of Andrew Sarris, and especially Pauline Kael, on the print beat, pointing out that they were the darlings of those members of the film intelligentsia who were inclined to pay attention to the mainstream press—not surprisingly, both were based in New York City. A line that came from this part of the film, “Fuck Pauline Kael,” was said in reference to the people who held her in much higher esteem than they did Roger Ebert—who was, ironically, an acolyte of Kael’s approach. The line got a laugh, but a cheap one.

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Was being and staying a Midwesterner the secret behind the enormous affection Ebert garnered from most of the people whose lives he touched? Life Itself doesn’t say so explicitly, but does mention a throwaway comment Ebert made when the New York Times came a-courtin’ following his Pulitzer Prize win—“I don’t want to learn new streets”—exactly the kind of no-nonsense sarcasm a Chicagoan might issue to a self-important “newspaper of record.” Ebert worked for the Chicago Sun-Times, the proletarian paper in town, and stayed true to his employer, his coworkers, his alma mater (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), and his roots to the end of his life. James reports that as Ebert and his long-time TV partner Gene Siskel, a native Chicagoan and Yale graduate who worked for the Republican-leaning Chicago Tribune, became the most popular film critics in the country, the self-appointed tastemakers in Los Angeles and New York ignored them and refused to carry their syndicated program—until it was no longer possible to do so.

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The film recounts Ebert’s enormously mature felicity with words, even while working on the college newspaper; his alcoholic “men’s club” at O’Rourke’s, Chicago’s late, lamented haunt for newspapermen and writers; his entry into AA and sobriety; his jaunts to the Cannes Film Festival; and, of course, his marriage to Chaz, the woman who saved him from the life of loneliness toward which he said he seemed to be headed and who kept him going in the darkest throes of his fight with cancer. James offers a clip from the Conference on World Affairs Ebert attended for many years in which he announces that he is very ill—the salivary-gland cancer he thought he beat had returned and gone into his jaw. James is unsparing in showing the results of the illness—the lower part of Ebert’s face swings freely, the skin no longer having a jawbone to anchor it.

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It is in the footage of the day to day of Ebert’s final few months that James finds familiar ground, and it is here where the film really comes alive. Watching Ebert struggle to break free of his walker and wheelchair is grueling, but it also affirms how present he is in his life. When he comes home from the hospital, Chaz tries to stage-manage his ascent up the stairs, a cadre of home health workers at the ready. Ebert insists she give him his notepad to write some instruction or other; the couple’s power struggle continues for a couple of minutes, and Chaz finally relents. Ebert in his prime was a force of nature, a storyteller nobody ever interrupted, a critic of uncompromising honesty. He largely remained that man to the end, insisting on exerting his agency even in the most reduced circumstances. It’s easy to see how he could become so influential and champion so tirelessly the careers of filmmakers he believed in, from a faltering Martin Scorsese to promising young director Ramin Bahrani to Academy Award winner Errol Morris, whose first film, Gates of Heaven (1978), was dismissed by everyone but Ebert. That is what makes the single most affecting seconds of Life Itself so poignant. When James tries to press Ebert to type an answer to a question, we see his email response: “I can’t.”

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I have read extravagant praise of this film as well as withering takedowns by critics and fans alike. Life Itself—like life itself—isn’t perfect, but it is a fitting tribute to a man who meant a lot to a lot of people. I think Ebert would have given it a big thumbs up.


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