Archive for the ‘Message’ Category
Monday, July 27th, 2009
There are seven movies contained on the Human Rights Watch DVD box set, out July 21st from First Run Features. I have chosen to review each of the seven seperately because I think many of them are terrific films that deserve their own reviews, and all of them are worthy efforts in terms of furthering human rights around the world. A quick recap:
Dangerous Living: Coming Out in the Developing World (4/10): A documentary about gays and lesbians who are oppressed far worse in their native countries than anyone could imagine in North America. The thing is, I get it. It’s worse in Iran than it is in the U.S. But I need more than just a list of abuses that I could find online.
Silent Waters (8/10): A powerful film about a Pakistani Muslim woman whose past comes back to haunt her when her son gets caught up with a group of Islamic fundamentalist nutjobs. Not terribly well made, but it has a lot of heart.
S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (10/10): A small but very ambitious documentary surrounding the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the late 70s. A genocide that claimed the lives of 2 million people, a film maker brings the victims of the toruture and genocide together with the perpetrators of the same events at the place where it all took place. A magnificent film.
The Devil’s Miner (9/10): A remarkable, charming and heartbreaking film about a 14-year old who has worked in the mines of Bolivia since he was ten, and his 12-year-old brother who is joining him in the mines for the first time. Miners work themselves to death searching for silver that may no longer be there at all, and pray to the devil since they believe that it must be he that controls the mines. A terrific movie.
Dreaming Lhasa (8/10): A passionate, moving story about Tibetan exiles living in Dharamsala, India. An American film maker goes to India to learn more about her roots and the freedom fighters and the Chinese occupation of her homeland, and end up on a journey of revelation and self-discovery. Mostly cast with non-actors, Dreaming Lhasa has a uniquely genuine feel to it.
Roses in December (5/10): This is the story of Jean Donovan, a lay missionary who was murdered in El Salvador along with three nuns by military police in 1980. The U.S. government tried very hard to ignore the whole thing. But instead of exploring any of the reasons behind the murder, or the reasons behind the United States platform of non-involvement, the film is an hour-long biography of Jean Donovan. She was a remarkable and interesting woman, to be sure, but I wanted to know more than just that she rode a motorcycle.
The Camden 28 (8/10): A remarkable documentary about several priests and ministers, part of the anti-war “Catholic left” in the 1960s, who broke into a draft office to destroy draft cards in an act of protest against the Vietnam war. What ensued was a trial that changed protests, changed peoples’ perception of the war, and even changed the laws of the United States.
Monday, July 27th, 2009
“The voice of the true Muslim will be the one that matters.”
Countries: Pakistan, Germany, France
Language: Punjabi w/ English subtitles
Starring: Kirron Kher, Aamir Malik, Arshad Mahmud
Director: Sabiha Sumar
Run time: 99 minutes
DVD distributor: First Run Features
There have been many movies recently that dealt with the conversion of regular young people to radical Islam. The young folks go from decent and hard working young people to rabid, bloodthirsty jihadists in what seems like a matter of hours. Some of these films have been very good, (Syriana), and others have been absolutely awful. Treating the radical Islamic movement as though it were the weed in Reefer Madness. Silent Waters treads some middle ground here. When young Saleem (Aamir Malik) is approached by some fundamentalist bullies, he is at first skeptical, and in fact laughs outright and calls them ridiculous. And it’s fairly clear in Silent Waters that these jihadists are, in fact ridiculous and that any reasonable Muslim in the area can see through them and their bilious rhetoric.
But they show Saleem some pictures, you see. And within about four minutes, he goes from the reasonable position (these people are ridiculous) to the inexplicable one (these people speak the truth and this is the life for me). It’s a bit much. What photos could someone show you that would make you renounce all reason and join a group of maniacs? I would argue there is no such photo that could accomplish the job in four minutes. Which means Saleem is instantly a bit of a cartoonish character. The weak-minded offspring of a strong-minded mother. Except that Saleem is not a man with a weak mind. He shouldn’t be this easily persuaded.
Then again, more than most films with a similar character, Silent Waters rings true in the case of Saleem, because you can tell the director (Sabiha Sumar) and the actors all understand what they’re doing and what they’re talking about. Saleem’s transformation into a radical may be badly written, but it is superbly acted and ultimately entirely convincing. Aamir Malik is one of the best things about this movie. But then, it isn’t really a movie about Saleem. It is a movie about Saleem’s mother, Ayesha, played by Kirron Kher, who is the best thing about the film, without a doubt.
The movie is based on real-life tensions between the Muslim community and the Sikh community that stem from some serious brutality several years ago. Sikh men slaughtered Muslims, Muslims slaughtered Sikhs, and in order to dishonour their enemies as much as possible, they abducted each others’ women. This led to a number of dreadful ”honour killings”, where men on both sides murdered their wives and sisters rather than have them fall into the hands of their foes. Ayesha is one of the women who escaped. As a young Sikh, she escaped murder at the hands of her own father only to fall victim to an abduction by Muslims. But she was (and still is) tough. And she adapted. And eventually found a young Muslim man, fell in love and got married.
Now her husband is dead, and Ayesha teaches the Koran to local children. But when her son comes under the spell of the extremist Muslim reactionaries, and sets off with them to make war on the Sikhs, everything in Ayesha’s life and history threatens to come apart. Silent Waters is not a perfect film. Some of it is trite, some of it is silly, and occasionally it can be a tad ham-handed. But it works. It works because of the actors, especially Kher and Malik, and it works because it is telling a story it knows. There is real tragedy still lurking under the surface in Pakistan and other parts of the world, and the current climate is more likely to bring it to the surface than any before.
Silent Waters is a part of the Human Rights Watch DVD box set, out July 21st from First Run Features.
Monday, July 27th, 2009
“Until now, has anyone said this past action was wrong – that two million dead among the Khmer people was wrong? Has anyone begged forgiveness?”
One thing that bothers me about the Holocaust in Germany is when people use the phrase “never again”. It seems like such an empty phrase when, since 1944, it has happened again. Many times, in many countries. And perhaps never worse than in Cambodia in the late 1970s, when more than two million people lost their lives to the Khmer Rouge in the worst genocide since World War II.
S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine is a unique and powerful movie that seeks to explain the genocide, the torture, and the brutal actions of the Angkar (the party in control of Cambodia at the time). Rithy Panh, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge atrocities, brings several people together at one of the most infamous sites, the S21 Security Bureau, in the heart of Phnom Penh. There, 17,000 people were tortured and executed between 1975 and 1979.
Three prisoners survived S21 and are alive today. Panh brings those three survivors back to the Security Bureau, where they endured some of the most horrific things men have ever done to other men. The building is now a genocide museum, but it clearly carries devastating emotional significance to these men. Joining them for this pilgrammage are some of those who were on the other side – the torturers themselves.
It isn’t really about clearing their conscience, or receiving forgiveness for their sins. These men are, in their own way, as broken as those they tortured. They try to repeat the mantra “I was just following orders”, but faced with those they brutalized, they seem to realize that those words are terribly empty. The idea behind this movie is simply to recreate the conditions and the terror that went on in the S21 Bureau. And it certainly succeeds.
One of the most chilling aspects of the movie is the ease with which the former torturers fall back into their routine of the time. One of them, who was all of 12 or 13 years old when he began “working” at S21, goes through the motions in a rote sort of way, checking imaginary handcuffs and locks, blindfolding prisoners, beating other prisoners, taking water away from others, and threatening the imaginary “enemy” as though he has never left this place.
I can’t help but feel for that particular guy, because he was really a child soldier, asked to do some horrendous things. The others explain their involvement by citing their families, or a fear of the Angkar, or the idea that if they didn’t kill the “enemies” of the state, then they would be branded as “enemies” themselves. It’s probably all true, but other phrases are more telling.
“I had power over the enemy…I never thought of his life.”
Female prisoners were raped and tortured with their kids in the room. When hospitals needed blood, four bags worth were taken out of prisoners until they collapsed and died. All the prisoners were forced to sign a declaration of the things they had done to make them prisoners, even though none of them ever appeared to know why they were there. They were tortured until they made something up, and then eventually executed for the crime they had invented.
I have been complaining for a while about the scope of certain documentaries, many on the same box set as this one. They are either too narrow and I don’t learn enough about the story surrounding a particular event, or they are too broad and I don’t care about any one person. And S21 doesn’t really tell the story of the rise to power of the Khmer Rouge, or any Cambodian history leading up to the event. They mention, briefly, the Vietnam war and the American bombing of their country, and that’s about it.
But S21 is a movie that works really well because of it’s narrow scope. Just these men, in this place, is all we really need to know. We know they were detained for no reason. We know these beatings and torture sessions took place for no reason. And we know that these actions were suffered by human beings and performed by human beings. Seeing them together, the tortured and their tormentors, is moving and devastating and S21 becomes transcendant.
Not just a documentary about a bunch of bad stuff that happened, S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine is a dark, frightening look at human nature, and about the things ordinary men can do to other ordinary men. Panh, much like he does with paintings that crop up every now and then in the film, has created a masterpiece out of an outrage. S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine is part of the Human Rights Watch DVD box set, out July 21st from First Run Features.
Thursday, July 23rd, 2009
“The Peace Corps left today and my heart sank low. The danger is extreme. Several times I have decided to leave El Salvador. I almost could, except for the children. The poor, bruised victims of this insanity. Who would care for them?”
I wanted a lot more from Roses In December. The story of Jean Donovan is a compelling one, a nice one, and a heartbreaking tragedy. Interviews with her family and friends are interesting and sweet. Memories of Donovan are always good ones, and it certainly seems like she was a wonderful person. But I wanted to understand a little more about her death, and a little less about her. Or, at least, more about her death. You see, Donovan was an American lay missionary who was murdered, along with three nuns, by a military death squad in El Salvador in 1980. The American government, in bed with the regime in El Salvador, paid lip service to finding her murderers, and even charged her family money for helping to facilitate the return of her body to America.
This is, to me, the most interesting part of the story. Why were the American government officials so reluctant to do anything about the tragedy? Why did they help the El Salvador government basically cover up the crime? What about the three American nuns who were executed with her? Who were they? Why were the hit-squads in the country targeting religious figures? What was behind the civil war that started the whole thing? Who were the bad guys in El Salvador, and what was their role (likely or confirmed) in the rape and murder of these four women?
We get lots of pictures and video of the corpses, which certainly adds to the heartbreaking nature of the story. But we get about two minutes spent on the American government’s refusal to help. We have no real context for the civil war, and we don’t really learn what it was about the religious people that made them targets for these military death squads. We just get a nice biography, about a nice woman, who happened to be involved in a politically motivated murder in Central America in late 1980. The synopsis on the back of the DVD box says that the film is a “powerful indictment of U.S. foreign policy in Central America”, but so little time is spent on it that it comes across as a pretty weak indictment in the end.
As a one-hour biography, Roses In December works just fine. And Jean Donovan has a devastating and powerful story. I just wish it was fleshed out a lot more, and that her murder was put into more context. To learn about that event, click here. To learn about Jean Donovan, watch Roses In December. The film is part of the Human Rights Watch DVD box set, released July 21st by First Run Features.
Thursday, July 23rd, 2009
“How does it become a man to behave toward this American government today? I answer that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it.”
– Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience
In 1971, a whole bunch of people, among them several religious leaders, decided to break into a draft office in Camden, New Jersey. Their intent was to destroy as many draft cards as they could, in an active act of protest against the war in Vietnam and the drafting of young men to fight in that war. The movie about their actions, Camden 28, asks the question “how far would you go to stop a war?” And although many people would likely go even farther than these men did, their act of civil disobedience was about as far as you can go without doing something truly dreadful.
Four Catholic priests, from what the media at the time dubbed “the Catholic left” and a Lutheran minister were among the 28 people eventually arrested and brought up on all kinds of charges. It turned out that one of the men in the group was an FBI informant. The subsequent trial became a sensation, in part because of the identity of the people in the courtroom and also because it was the first time, ever, that a jury returned a verdict of “not guilty” in a case of antiwar activism.
The Camden 28 reunites all the players in the drama – the men brought up on charges, the FBI informant, the FBI agent assigned to the case, and the lawyers both for the defense and the prosecution. The special features on the disc are 35 minutes long, including an extensive look at the years-later confrontation between these men. It’s fascinating viewing, and it’s a truly remarkable story. The trial came down to a question of entrapment. The perpetrators of the break-in couldn’t possibly have carried out their plan if it wasn’t for the FBI informant, who taught them how to pick locks, get around security, and even had to (seriously) teach them how to break windows and climb a ladder!
That informant’s name was Bob Hardy, and at the trial he actually appeared on the side of the 28, having been assured by the FBI that his friends would serve no time in prison. Now that they were facing up to 47 years each, he took their side and told of his whole involvement in the scheme. This film is a wonderful document about an important moment in American history, in terms of the war, the legal system, the protest movement, and the history of civil disobedience in the United States. Listening to these now-elderly men reminisce and tell their story is both powerful and charming.
There are a few minor problems I had with The Camden 28. First, I wish there was actual footage of the trial in the film. I understand that this is likely impossible, and at least we get to see post-trial news reports to put the events into context. I would also have liked to see a little bit more time spent on the ramifications of the trial, the stand these men took, and the effects the verdict had on the public. After all, if we can’t see the trial footage, and obviously the people at the time couldn’t see the trial footage, then who was receiving the message? The jurors? The men took a stand and risked going to jail for the rest of their lives in order to make a statement against the war. But how many people heard it, and what effect did it have?
It’s easy to marvel at the courage these men displayed. It’s also easy to see why they did what they did, and it’s easy to come to the conclusion that they were entirely in the right. (The conclusion reached by the jury as well, it would appear.) Some of the stuff that I felt was missed in the film appears on the extensive special features – a brief history of anti-war resistance, more information on the legal issues raised by the trial, and the relationships and animosity between the principle players that exist to this day. It’s a terrific DVD and the special features are a solid addition to a really good movie. The Camden 28 is included in the Human Rights Watch DVD Box Set released July 21st by First Run Features.
Thursday, July 23rd, 2009
“They lost their land by gradual encroachment.”
The idea behind “gradual encroachment”, as best as I can understand it, is as follows. The United States has said to the Shoshone natives that the land designated as their own is, indeed, their own, except for the parts that are not. And because the government and the authorities in the area have gradually moved in on their land, their land is no longer theirs. Because it has been gradual. The Shoshone are, understandably, not pleased about this. A quick analogy. Suppse you were unable or too busy, for a time, to go outside into your backyard. And, after six months, the guy who reads your hydro metre decides to annex your backyard. He has been in your backyard twice in those six months, therefore he has spent more time there than you have, and it follows that the backyard now belongs to him.
That is the outrage that opens American Outrage, a marvelously engaging and heartbreaking documentary about Carrie and Mary Dann, elderly sisters of the Shoshone tribe who are fighting a government whose motives and methods they can’t begin to understand. The outrages pile up from that point. The government comes onto their land and steals their horses. Actually, in the dead of night, steals their horses. You know, the kind of thing Lee Marvin or Lee Van Cleef or Eli Wallach would do in an old western movie. Old westerns were full of characters like this. Unscrupulous land barons who wanted to force the hapless settlers off their land.
In fact, there are a ton of parallels here. Usually, in an old western, the evil land baron would push the benign settlers as hard as possible within the confines of the law. And when those tactics failed because the settlers were too tough, the evil landowners would eventually cross the line and start breaking the law, stealing horses and maybe even murdering some of the homesteaders. And, if they were powerful enough, they would actually change the law to allow them to do such things. And there is obviously no entity more powerful, in terms of changing laws and ignoring them if it sees fit, than the United States government, the evil land baron in this story.
It’s no secret that the government of the United States (and of course the government of Canada as well) has not always been a friend to the native people. But American Outrage makes it clear that the unfair treaties and the bullying treatment suffered by the natives hundreds of years ago continue today. The government does everything it can to force these earth-loving, spiritually strong old women off their land. Land that is, ostensibly, protected and sacred. And why? Because of gold. Beneath the land of the Shoshone, there is a massive lode of gold, and miners and jewelers and the government want to get to it.
Of course, gold mining is one of the most destructive things one can do to the local environment. And yet the government levels accusations at these elderly women that their herd of cattle is destroying the local environment. And eventually, the Shoshone are sued, by the government, for trespassing. On their own land. Eventually, the fight reaches the Supreme Court. And the United Nations. Which is a good thing. The persecution of indigenous tribes must be recognized, and must be brought to the attention of the world. It doesn’t happen just in developing countries, but it continues in places in the United States just as it did hundreds of years ago.
The two elderly sisters, Carrie and Mary, are inspirational in their toughness and their take-no-guff attitude. They are not capable of fighting the government alone, and the people who come to their aid are idealistic and passionate. And in a tight, powerful 56 minutes, the story of these women, of the Shoshone, and of government callousness will affect anyone who watches it. I have long said that anyone who wants their girlfriend or wife to stop bugging them to buy diamonds should get them to watch Blood Diamond. Now, if you want your significant other to think twice before asking for gold, look no further than American Outrage. If this doesn’t make you think twice about the true price of gold jewelry, you had better watch it twice.
American Outrage is a remarkable documentary that not only tells an amazing story of struggle and pride, but also features some terrific camera work, and it looks amazing. Well worth it in every way, the film came out July 21st from First Run Features.
Thursday, July 23rd, 2009
“They were going to rape me to take the lesbian out of me.”
I think most of us realize that even though it’s tough for homosexuals and lesbians and transgendered people in Canada and the United States, and that the fight for equal rights is ongoing and difficult, it is much worse in other parts of the world. Being gay in Iran is not like being gay in Vermont. The scary attitudes in developing countries twoard homosexuality do not compare with the intolerance faced by those groups in North America.
Dangerous Living explores those attitudes in the developing world, interviewing people from Uganda, Honduras, Samoa, India, Namibia, Vietnam, Pakistan, Brazil, Egypt, Malaysia, the Philippines, Fiji, Thailand, Kenya and many other countries. We meet a woman who had military police storm into her house in Honduras when she was away, looking to rape her. Instead, they tortured her babysitter and six-year-old son. And there are dozens upon dozens of stories similar to that one.
Rape, murder, public beatings and torture are de rigeur for the gay communities in many of these developing nations, and it is certainly an international tragedy. But I think most of us are aware that this stuff goes on. And just hearing one oppressed person after another talking about those hardships doesn’t tell me any more about the tragic attitudes of, say, Uganda than I already knew (or assumed existed).
And because there are so many interview subjects, I didn’t get to know any one of them well enough to feel for them when they recounted the horrors they have seen. It was just a long list of terrible stuff that goes on in the world. A few times, the movie returns to one event – the arrest of 52 men on a gay party boat in Cairo in 2001. This was a major event in the way the world looked at the persecution of gay minorities in developing countries.
Through the internet, and organizations dedicated to publicizing human rights violations like the ones inflicted upon the “Cairo 52″, the case became an international rallying cry for the LGBT movement. Dangerous Living uses that incident as a touchstone, occasionally returning to Egypt to delve a little deeper into the case and the media attention surrounding it. But overall it’s just another story in a sea of stories, all of which are crammed into a very economical 60 minutes.
The one thing I found interesting in the movie was the notion that homophobia is not innate to these countries, and that for the most part it is a western value that was introduced at certain points in history. In India, for example, gay men and lesbian women were not seen as a big deal throughout most of the history of the nation, until the British Empire ruled the country and began to make people feel bad about their sexuality. When the British finally left, the homophobia stayed.
In Cairo specifically, the city was seen as a (reasonably) safe place for gay men and women to congregate and party and love one another, until the shocking raid of the Cairo 52 put an end to that. In many of the countries of the developing world, escalating homophobia coincided with the rise in religious fundamentalism (not all of it Muslim) in the early years of this decade.
There are a few hopeful stories, like that of the Thai kickboxer who rose to be the champion of the country, adored by the people, even though he/she is transgendered. Some developing countries are still very tolerant of alternative lifestyles, and do not feature the oppressive policies that one might find in Iran or Kenya. But again, the bright spots are touched on so briefly in the film that I tended to forget them almost as soon as I had seen them.
The thing is, I would like to know so much more about every single interview subject in the film. I would like to see a 90-minute documentary on the Cairo 52. Or a 60-minute piece on the Thai kickboxer. Or the woman in Honduras who was the only one to march in a human-rights gay pride parade with her face uncovered, leading to the military police assault on her house. Each story is compelling and interesting.
But not in 30-second sound bites. There is a special feature on the disc that documents a bit more of the reaction outside the trial of the Cairo 52 which indicates to me that there is more than enough footage to create a documentary about that event itself. And that is something I would much rather see. A good example of this, focusing on just one subject instead of all of them at once, is the vastly superior A Jihad For Love, which focuses on the trials of just a few Islamic homosexuals.
That being said, the global fight for equality is an important one, and any documentary made on the subject is therefore afforded a certain amount of importance. I just think this one could have been done better. Dangerous Living is featured on the Human Rights Watch DVD Box Set, out July 21st from First Run Features.
Sunday, June 21st, 2009
“Everything about her is a red flag.”
“Only when viewed through the distorted looking glass of your own paranoia.”
To hear the review
To hear the review
The writing is not excellent in Crossing Over, out June 23rd from Alliace Films. The dialogue is, at times, jarringly silly in its attempt to be smart. However, there are moments when the movie is pretty smart. Just not enough of them. There is just too much going on in this film for anything to be really compelling. There is an Korean kid who gets involved with the local gangster thugs (which was explored fully, and done much better, in Gran Torino). There is a Muslim honour killing, an illegal Mexican immigrant woman trying to get back into America to take care of her son, a musician pretending to be Jewish to get his green card, and an actress forced to sleep with a bo-toxed up Ray Liotta to stay in the country.
Then there is Harrison Ford, who plays an immigration federal agent who sympathizes with the people he is forced to capture for deportation, Ashley Judd who is an immigration lawyer who wants to adopt a young girl from a war-torn African country (and RayLiotta’s wife), and a girl who writes an essay about the terrorists who perpetrated 9/11 and gets investigated by Homeland Security, which could lead to her deportation and that of her family.
Unfortunately, this is just too much. Very few of the situations resonate, because they are spread far too thin. The only story line that really works is that of the young girl who wrote the 9/11 essay. Even then, her story is just a series of what-comes-next. She gets reported to the police by the school principal, who doesn’t understand the essay and thinks she might sympathize with the terrorists. The cops turn it over to Homeland Security, who bust into her house and search through her room to find evidence of that sympathy to meet their pre-conceived notions that she is a threat. Although they can’t find anything with which to prosecute her, they can deport her. And her family must decide if some of them will stay in America, if they will all go with her, or if they will let her go back alone.
That story line works mostly because of some terrific acting on the part of the girl who plays the young Muslim woman. (I believe her name is Summer Bishil, but there are so many characters that I’m not 100% certain who plays whom.) Also poignant is a scene where a Mexican immigrant (Alice Braga) begs Harrison Ford, the immigration officer, to look after her child. But it is too little in a movie that features immigrants from Australia, Korea, Nigeria, England, Mexico and other countries, then tries to tie them all together tangentially, in the style of Crash. I liked Crash, in that it was a pretty good meditation on racism that was tied together in a seemingly effortless way.
Crossing Over does not tie things together effortlessly. In fact, this movie smacks of one thing more than anything else – effort. There is a scene where Harrison Ford’s partner, played by Cliff Curtis, happens to end up in the convenience store that is being robbed by the gang with the young Korean kid. Curtis is struggling with his own Iranian family, his rebellious sister and their overbearing father. He recognizes something of himself in this kid, and…I don’t know. The whole scene is just so forced I couldn’t bring myself to care about this shoehorned connection between the two characters.
Also terribly forced is the connection between Ashley Judd (a lawyer representing the Muslim girl who is also trying to adopt the Nigerian girl) and her husband Ray Liotta, an adjudicator who is blackmailing the crazy-hot Australian actress Claire Shepard (Alice Eve) into having sex with him in exchange for a green card. The whole connection is so tenuous and forced that I just didn’t care about (or even like) any of the characters. I think that in the whole movie, I only really liked five of the seven hundred characters. And three of them were children.
Claire could be a compelling character. She really appears to have no choice but to submit to this disgusting relationship with the gross bo-toxed Ray Liotta. And Alice Eve spends a large portion of this movie naked. Very naked. Which is nice, but useless in the end. She comes off as pretty callous and sleazy herself. But played right, this particular interaction could have been a movie all on its own. So too could the story of the Korean kid (oh no, wait, it was in Gran Torino), or the story of the Iranian family and the rebellious daughter, or the story of the British musician (Jim Sturgess) pretending to be an uber-religious orthodox Jew. And especially the story of Harrison Ford and the Mexican woman, which is compelling for a few seconds here.
But unfortunately, all these stories are not given much time, therefore none of them have much depth, and the movie’s parable about immigration is lost in the superficial nature of the seventy-eight stories. For those who want to see a good movie about deportation, immigration and heartbreak, check out The Visitor. Actually, that one was far better than good – it was magnificent. Crossing Over is just a laundry list of immigrants who have trouble with green cards and meet in convenience stores. And it’s contrived and tedious.
Friday, June 5th, 2009
The biggest humanitarian crisis the world over may be the one brought on by the “water wars” – the idea that mega-corporations can actually “own” water. Actually, “own” shouldn’t be in quotation marks. Because they do own it. In hundreds of places around North America, and in thousands of places around the world. Blue Gold is a documentary movie based on a book by Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke of the same name. It takes a look at major water companies trying to buy out the water in the United States, and the people who have fought them every step of the way. It deals with the unscrupulous and evil practices of those companies.
It’s nice to see kids taking an interest in this sort of thing. The story of the kid who convinced his school and the stores in his neighbourhood to stop selling a particular brand of water is sweet and inspirational. The kid (from Carleton Place) who started the Ryan’s Well initiative to provide clean water to people in Africa is amazing. But the thing I took away from the movie more than anything else was the incredible, painful, and heartbreaking suffering felt by the people across the world from us, simply because companies own their water.
There is a story about a village in Africa where the water is tapped and doled out by a big international corporation. When one of the houses in that village caught on fire, the neighbours decided not to put it out – or maybe they couldn’t – because they couldn’t afford the water to do so. The young children inside perished in the flames. And this isn’t the only devastating story brought on by the water wars. There are more, and they are sad and awful and they should never, ever happen in this world. What’s amazing is the level of corruption and indifference to human life and suffering exemplified by these companies.
In many cases, the companies feel that it’s in their best interests to allow waterways to become polluted. The water becomes undrinkable, the people get diseases and die, and when the company comes in to buy the water, they appear to be the saviours of the community when they clean up the pollution and restore the water. Then, they sell it to the very people who have been drinking it and bathing in it for free for so long, at such rates that they can no longer afford to live. This is human behaviour at its worst, it’s going on right now all over the world, and it’s just getting worse as more and more places agree to “privatize” their water. People need to know. And this movie is a great way to learn about it.
Friday, June 5th, 2009
“40-50 percent of my students have not developed the motor skills of…running.”
There must be something wrong when Grade Three students don’t yet know how to run. If you have to teach them how to run, as well as the whole reading writing and math thing, then there is a problem. Not just one of physical fitness and the possibility thereof in the future, but an overall mentality where video games and television have taken the place of athletic pursuits and books. But this is only a very small part of the problem leading to the obesity epidemic in America (and, to a lesser extent but still serious, Canada). You see, if kids are being raised by television, that means they are exposed to ridiculous amounts of advertising for unhealthy foods.
That advertising makes them want the crappy food, then they go to school where there is crappy food in vending machines strewn about the halls, and the only other option is the school lunch, which due to government regulations is necessarily unhealthy and contains far too many calories for a reasonable meal for children. And then there are other problems. These are the subjects tackled by Steven Greenstreet in his documentary Killer At Large, out now. This movie is very comprehensive, tackling all sorts of subjects related to obesity and unhealthiness in North America.
Of course, as with many similar documentaries, it opens with some SCARY pictures. Amputated toes, gross-out pictures of What Could Happen To You If You Get Fat, a truly disgusting video of liposuction being done on a little girl, and so forth. From there, it lets us breathe a little, as it uses clips of Bill Clinton, Arnold Schwarzennegger, Ralph Nader, Chevy Chase, Bill Maher, Wolf Blitzer, Bill O’Reilly, Stephen Colbert and others. (Sidebar – Bill Maher, on his HBO show Real Time, had Michael Pollan on to talk about food in America – Pollan figures prominently in Killer At Large.)
The documentary is a little too ambitious at times. It takes on such a huge variety of subjects that some of them can be quickly forgotten. It takes on corn (there is corn in everything), the link between food and oil, stress factors that tell the brain to eat and the body to store fat, kids contracting diseases that we all thought were eradicated (Rickets?) from eating nothing but fast food, the price of food in supermarkets where the worse something is for you the cheaper it is, and the bonkers protesting of Sesame Street by lunatic parents who were furious that Cookie Monster started to eat his vegetables.
When the movie is most effective is when it takes a look at things from the top. Not just the Cookie Monster protests, but the protests of parents who passed junk food through school doors to their kids when Arnold Schwarzennegger banned vending machines in California schools. The Bush administration “tackling the problem” by coming up with a campaign to promote excercise - with the input of…the food companies. And with the help of Dreamworks and Shrek. Shrek, who is of course featured on the packages of everything from Twinkies to Sugary Sugar-O Cereal With Sugar.
The most compelling figure in the movie is Dr. Richard Carmona, the former surgeon general of the United States, who says that while working under the Bush administration, he had his speeches vetted, his words edited, and some sections of his writings cut out entirely. All to help the major food companies keep peddling their poison to pre-teens. It’s some scary stuff, but fortunately the movie ends with a few good municipal programs and a few good school programs that are fighting the uphill battle. The DVD is out now, and comes with an “abridged educational version” so that it can be shown in schools. I hope it is.
Friday, June 5th, 2009
“A world of environmentalists agree.”
This is about the last line of Addicted To Plastic. After saying that a “world of environmentalists agree”, we get a series of clips to close out the film where a world of environmentalists don’t agree. Well. They don’t agree that they are environmentalists. Some say they aren’t, some say they are, some say well…I guess…but they all agree about plastic. That all of us, people around the world, are addicted to the stuff and that we really need to do something about it.
Most of Addicted To Plastic is fairly conventional when it comes to activist documentaries – like in the little animations that explain things like “bioaccumulation” and other complicated terms. I expected to see the things I saw in the film. Landfills full of plastic bottles and plastic bags. Seabirds dying from having eaten plastic. The LEGO factory in Denmark. OK, I didn’t exactly expect to see the LEGO factory. But the environmental impact of thrown away plastic is well known. And although seeing the dissection of a sea bird was poignant, and the sheer volume of plastic garbage in the ocean is staggering, I was hoping for something more, something I hadn’t seen before.
And that’s what makes this documentary excellent. I did get something more. And that is – in a rather unusual twist for an activist doc such as this one – hope. Signs that we are not, after all, moving down some irreconcileable path toward destruction. That people are doing something. And a good half of the movie looked at the people who were recycling plastic and making use of the crap in our landfills. Toronto film maker Ian Connacher travels around the world, visiting an extensive program in Kenya that makes use of plastic waste, even without a recycling program. He goes to India, where in some cases they are buying OUR plastic garbage.
At a university in Germany, we meet scientists who have managed to turn waste plastic back into the oil from which it came, harnessing its energy. We see bioplastics made in Australia that dissolve in water instead of lasting forever. A California company that makes fleece jackets out of waste plastic. A firm called WastAway in Tennessee where an executive talks about how, in the future, people will be mining landfills to get to our old plastic! This is a theme that came up a couple of times through the film – the idea that these massive deposits of plastics will somehow become a worthwhile resource in the future.
The idea is echoed by people who use waste plastic to make car bumpers, flower trays, railroad ties, and carpets. The guy at the carpet factory suggests that landfills will be the oil wells of the future. Now that’s hopeful! It may be a little (or a lot) hyperbole, but it’s nice to hear anyway. And that’s what makes this movie good. The balance between “this is what we’re doing wrong” and “this is what we’re doing right”. Now, there are a few stylistic touches I didn’t like – too many long, slow montages that I really wanted to skip, for example. But the message and the information contained in Addicted To Plastic are the reason the movie was made, and for those reasons it’s more than worthwhile.
Monday, May 18th, 2009
To hear the review
To hear the review
Lesbian Nation, a DVD out May 19th from First Run Features, is a collection of lesbian-themed short films, some better than others. Also out today is the big highlight of the DVD, Lavender Limelight, a 57-minute behind the scenes look at lesbian film makers (and there are not a lot of them). For a little more money, you can get all the other short films on this DVD set as well, and that’s probably worthwhile. Both this set and Lavender Limelight can be ordered here. Here is a look at each individual short film:
Carmelita Tropicana: Your Kunst Is Your Waffen (1994) (*******7/10):
“Open your eyes, honey, ’cause Latinas come in all different colours!”
28 minutes long, this short film is about a Latina performance artist and protester who ends up in prison with a bunch of other protesting girls after a mini-riot in the East Village. Most of the film takes place in the jail cell where four women are being held. There are also some bizarre art sequences thrown in, which may or may not belong in the movie. Frankly, they seem to be art-for-art’s sake. There are also a few Spanish song-and-dance numbers, which are strangely compelling in a bonkers kind of way. The fact that the women are lesbians seems to be incidental to the story, since they are fighting tooth and nail against racism, sexism, and all types of oppression in general. The lesbian things just gives them another thing to be angry about.
Even though a lot of the film appears to be contrived and silly, it still manages to be oddly inspiring and fun. The over-acting stars are entertaining in their ham-fisted performances, and although almost all the dialogue is either angry shouting or Empoerment Shourting, it all works well enough to keep the movie fun for 28 minutes. Any more and it would have been too much. But 28 minutes is just right.
Jumping The Gun (1996) (******6/10):
“Your place or mine?”
Just a few minutes long, Jumping The Gun is a welcome little addition to this DVD set. After a one-night stand with a badass biker chick, a young woman wakes up early and while her companion sleeps, she imagines their entire relationship together by means of a typewriter, like she’s writing a short story. It’s all over very quickly, but packs a full, lyrical story into the few minutes of screen time it has. It’s a neat little fantasy sequence that works.
Little Women in Transit (1996) (*****5/10):
“Dad, are you ever disappointed that you never had any boys.”
A twelve-year-old girl sits in the middle of the back seat of a car between her two older sisters during a car trip. She is writing in her notebook, and soon gets into a fight with her older sister about Louisa May Alcott and bras and other things. Jennie’s sister torments her with lesbian taunts – Louisa May Alcott was a lesbian. Jennie has three nipples, and all lesbians have three nipples. It’s brief, about six minutes, but neat. The father is basically one of those Peanuts adults, in the drivers seat, and the end is a bit of a shock. But there’s nothing really compelling about the short.
Playing The Part (1995) (********8/10):
“This young man is going places. I think I want him for my daughter.”
Playing The Part is a 38-minute short film about a young lesbian trying to come out to her parents. She is so conflicted about the prospect of doing so, and so frightened, that she does just about anything she can to avoid the confrontation that is sure to ensue. She does some strange things, like trying to provoke her mother by turning her room into a pigsty. She interviews her grandmother and father, and hides her lover from her family for quite a while. It goes on a bit too long – by the time the actual Coming Out happens, I was pretty impatient. I think that’s the idea here, that I feel as uncomfortable and impatient as she does, but I really did want to just fast-forward to the part where the whole thing gets resolved.
High-society balls and a rich-girl lifestyle form the backdrop to the woman’s inner conflict – what should be a wonderful life for just about anyone else is actually oppressive for her, as the expectations of that society are keenly felt at every turn. And, at every turn, she can’t tell her family and she runs away from the inevitable talk. And, in the end, she doesn’t tell them at all. I thought I would be annoyed, even angry, over such a non-ending after such a long (short) film that made me so impatient to begin with. But I wasn’t. As it turns out, I loved the ending. I was happy I had been able to watch the reflective journey, and the actual confrontation itself may well have been anti-climactic. Playing The Part really works, and shows that the journey is always more interesting than the destination.
Lavender Limelight (*********9/10):
The full review of this terrific documentary I have done seperately, because it is being released on its own by First Run Features the same day as Lesbian Nation. A great movie.
Monday, May 18th, 2009
“I make films.”
“Why don’t you just find yourself a nice man?”
To hear the review
To hear the review
Lesbian Nation comes out on DVD May 19th from First Run Features. It features five short films with a lesbian theme, and one of them is Lavender Limelight. Clearly, Limelight is the highlight of the other DVD, but Lesbian Nation is a better pickup, just because of the extra material. Both DVDs are available from First Run Features today, and both are fascinating. The biggest problem I had with Lavender Limelight was that I hadn’t seen most of the movies that are talked about in the film. Now I have to go find Go Fish, and Watermelon Woman, and a bunch of others. Basically, I am annoyed by this movie because it cost me a lot of money.
Another thing I found annoying is the fact that this documentary came out in 1997. I would really like to know a little more about the progression of lesbian films and film makers since that time, in the intervening 12 years. Maybe a little special feature or something? Because the documentary is so compelling, and interesting, and inspirational, I wanted to know more than just what happened before 1997. Anyway. It doesn’t matter because what DID happen before 1997 is fascinating.
The film interviews several lesbian film makers – Heather MacDonald (Ballot Measure 9), Rose Troche (Go Fish, The L Word), Jennie Livingston (Paris Is Burning), Monika Treut (Seduction: The Cruel Woman), Maria Maggenti (The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls In Love), Su Friedrich (Sink Or Swim), and Cheryl Dunye (Watermelon Woman, The Early Works of Cheryl Dunye). Each woman offers a unique and insightful perspective on being a woman, being gay, and being a filmmaker. For me, the most interesting thing was the film talk.
So many of these women are on the outside of the film world looking in, or at least existing on the fringe. Sometimes it’s by choice, sometimes it’s simply because of the nature of their films – lesbian films are by definition going to be indie efforts, and they are the type of movie that a viewer doesn;t normally come across at the local video store. You would need to seek them out, and this is a great place to start. Seek it out here. But you’re still better off with Lesbian Nation, which contains more good stuff.
Monday, May 18th, 2009
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.”
To hear the review
To hear the review
That is the quote, from Martin Luther King, that opens Sole Journey, on DVD May 19th from First Run Features. The documentary follows a group of gay and lesbian activists who took on James Dobson and his Focus on the Family group. Dobson is one of the most influential evangelical religious leaders in the States, and his group promotes a large amount of anti-gay viewpoints. The Soulforce movement sees a group of people – some gay, some family members of gay people, march to the Focus On The Family headquarters with letters to Dobson and his followers pleading with them to stop promoting anti-gay sentiment and spreading disinformation about homosexuality.
We get to meet many of the crusaders along the way, including Chad Allen, the star of the terrific movie Save Me. Although calling them “crusaders” is maybe a misnomer. They are not violent or antagonistic, but instead they take their theory of resistance from Gandhi – non-violent resistance, benign acts of civil disobedience, and a constant powerful message. And the message is powerful. Lesbian couples who have been oppressed by the teachings of Dobson and his ilk. Gay couples who are fighting for equal treatment. And parents of gay kids who see what the struggle is doing to their children.
Most powerful of all perhaps is Judy Shepard, of the Matthew Shepard Foundation. She is the mother of Matthew Shepard, the young man whose murder was one of the most galvanizing events of the gay rights movement. Her tough, positive message is resonant, and heartbreaking at the same time. There is of course a long way for this movement to go. Just last week, in the American Congress, representative Virginia Foxx called the murder of Shepard a “hoax”, a myth propagated by the pro-gay movement to help their cause. Like I said. A LONG way to go. But seeing the courage and the determination and the passion of the people in this documentary, I have no doubt that they will get there. That we all will.
“The constitution has to trump the bible. Every single time.”
Tuesday, April 28th, 2009
“The people…united…can never be divided!”
To hear the review
To hear the review
That’s a pretty trite slogan, shouted at protest marches since time began. Or, at least, since protests began. But somehow filmmaker Stuart Townsend imbues even the most hackneyed protestor cliches with a powerful feel and a passionate energy. And that is the strength of Battle In Seattle. This is the true story (with, of course, considerable dramatic license) of the protests in Seattle in 1999 during the meetings of the World Trade Organization. An impressive cast of actors stars in the film, but there are so many people and so many stories that few of those actors have a lot to do.
Ray Liotta is the embattled mayor of Seattle, squeezed between political pressure from the top and a desire to do the right thing. Woody Harrelson is a riot-squad cop who gets sent out to help quell the protests while his pregnant wife (Charlize Theron) gets trapped in the chaos of the protests. Channing Tatum is also a cop, but he’s one that is acting as an agent provocateur, smashing store windows and causing violence in the guise of a protester, so the cops will have an excuse to crack down on the non-violent demonstrators. Michelle Rodriguez (Lost), Jennifer Carpenter (Dexter), Andre Benjamin (Outkast), and Martin Henderson (Flyboys) are the four starring protestors.
Also in the cast are Joshua Jackson, Rade Sherbedzija, and Connie Nielsen. The biggest failing of the movie is that there are too many characters. Although each one has a personal story, and each one is fascinating in their own right, there is not enough time to really care about any of them. But I don’t think that’s the point of the movie. In the end, the point seems to be that protests can spiral out of control, that the involvement of authorities usually makes things worse, and that protests can, against great odds, WORK from time to time.
The film is almost uniformly excellent. I felt Townsend’s passion for his subject material in just about every scene. All the characters, even those who commit some horrible acts (Tatum, Harrelson) are still seen as sympathetic figures at times. Liotta’s tortured situation is compelling. Sherbedzija, as a speaker at the WTO conference, infuses his performance with a dignified power. Theron plays a marginal character at best, but as the pregnant wife of Harrelson, she acts as the catalyst for some of the craziness later. The central character in the film is actually the least-known actor, Martin Henderson. He plays Jay, the organizer of the protestors, who can’t afford to go to prison a third time or he will be there for life.
The performances are genuine, the subject is one in which the director clearly believes strongly, and the construction and pacing of the film are terrific. This true story is compelling and powerful, and it comes out on DVD April 28th from Alliance Films.