Friday, February 12, 2010

Theatrical Releases

Every Friday we update you all with the week's theatrical documentary releases. Now, this is not a perfect process as our beloved genre prefers the rolling/limited release schedule instead of a big nationwide or international-wide release. So apologies if a film isn't out in your area or if you are a filmmaker and we missed the boat on announcing your documentary's big day (if that is the case, please let us know and we'll correct the mistake).

Now, with that introduction out of the way, here's this weekend's releases with their current rating on the amazing website

American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein- (100% rating) A devoted son of holocaust survivors, ardent critic of Israel and US Middle-East policy, and author of five provocative books, including The Holocaust Industry, Finkelstein has been at the center of many intractable controversies. Called a lunatic and a self-hating Jew by some and an inspirational street-fighting revolutionary by others, Finkelstein is a deeply polarizing figure whose struggles arise from core questions about freedom, identity, and nationhood. From Beirut to Kyoto, Ridgen and Rossier follow Finkelstein around the world as he attempts to negotiate a voice among both supporters and critics, providing an intimate portrait of the man behind the controversy while giving equal time to both his critics and supporters. (

Barefoot to Timbuktu – (50% rating) A Film about Tolerance, Conflict and Friendship between Cultures 

Araouane, a settlement in the middle of the Sahara, seven days by camel from Timbuktu. 
In 1989, the once prosperous oasis was disappearing under encroaching dunes, when the noted Swiss/American artist Ernst Aebi passed through on a caravan. The population’s destitution leaves a deep impression on him. Trying to help them becomes an obsession for Aebi because attempting the impossible satisfies his quest for adventure. 

Aebi, one of the pioneers in the transformation of New York’s SoHo factory spaces to lofts, stays for three years in the desert and becomes so engrossed in the project that he is willing to bury his capital there. Under his guidance, the village awakens to a new life: a productive vegetable garden, a school, and even a small hotel rise from the barren sands. 

A civil war in Mali forces Aebi in the early nineties to escape “his” village. He leaves behind a blooming oasis and a family of friends who await his return. 

Except for a few earlier unsuccessful attempts, almost twenty years pass until Aebi is finally able to get back. (

October Country - (100% rating) October Country is a beautifully rendered portrait of an American family struggling for stability while haunted by the ghosts of war, teen pregnancy, foster care and child abuse. A collaboration between filmmaker Michael Palmieri and photographer and family member Donal Mosher, this vibrant and penetrating documentary examines the forces that unsettle the working poor and the violence that lurks beneath the surface of American life. Shot over a year from one Halloween to the next, the film creates a stunning cinematic portrait of a family that is unique but also sadly representative of the struggles of America's working class. As the Moshers do their best to confront their ghosts, the audience confronts the broader issues that haunt us all in the continued struggle for the American Dream. (

Videocracy – (80% rating) How can one explain the devolution of the politics and media culture of Italy in the age of its current prime minister and media emperor Silvio Berlusconi? As Italy's political leader, he maintains considerable control of the state-run RAI channels, affording him an unprecedented hybrid of executive power and private interest to control the airwaves. Videocracy probes the methods and lives of key players in Berlusconi's empire, examining how they thrive in the secret leveraging of their own conflicted interests in the realms of fame, politics and finance. 

Director Erik Gandini richly illustrates Videocracy with the trashy TV clips, bucolic political spots and brazen press conferences that swept Berlusconi into power. Approaching the material as both insider and outsider, Gandini gains remarkable access to the opulent world of Berlusconi's associates and the armies of willing wannabes that swarm around them. (

Thursday, February 11, 2010

2010 Oscar Nominations Reflections

So if you haven't been paying attention, the Academy Awards announced their list of nominees awhile back. The Oscars have already been receiving flack for not including fan favorites like It Might Get Loud, Capitalism: A Love Story and Anvil! The Story of Anvil, but at this point, protests won't change anything so audiences must move on with the nominees provided them. In case you aren't up to speed on the films, here's a little bit about each and our early impressions for who might win the award on March 7th.

Burma VJ – Directed by Andres Ostergaard, who is probably only known by documentary lovers outside the United States. Burma VJ profiles the courageous efforts of a renegade band of Burmese reporters who, in the face of a repressive regime and media censorship, refuse to be silenced. A potential favorite for the Oscar award because it’s topic is relevant and hits close to home for audiences worldwide. Though Ostergaard’s film didn’t receive a major theatrical run like The Cove or Food Inc, audiences world wide none the less know his work and the subject it covers.

The Cove – Directed by first timer Louie Psihoyos, who has already established himself within the ranks of freshman filmmakers making waves in the documentary world. The Cove follows a group of animal activists to a scenic cove in Taijii, Japan, where they use surveillance equipment to capture footage of a secretive and heavily guarded operation run by the world's largest supplier of dolphins. The Cove may easily be the front runner for this category as it has cleaned up at every possible venue- including winning the Audience Award at the Sudance Film Festival.

Food, Inc. – Directed by Robert Kenner whose work has been more connected with 'made for TV' documentaries than anything else. Food, Inc explores the food industry's detrimental effects on our health and environment. This is a film that has received a lot of buzz from the Academy and for good reason. Though we found it to be too short in its investigation, the film as a whole provided the right amount of investigation, human interest and engaging special effects to warrant a serious look by the Oscars.

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers – Directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith whose previous work is pretty slim, though Goldsmith has an Oscar nomination to his name for his 1996 documentary Tell the Truth and Run: George Seldes and the American Press. So at the very least, you know these two love the long titles for their films. The Most Dangerous Man in America revisits a pivotal point in American history, chronicling Pentagon insider Daniel Ellsberg's daring endeavor to leak top-secret government papers that disclosed shocking truths about the Vietnam War and Nixon's presidency. Political intrigue is usually a safe bet for a nomination with the Academy, though few actually win.

Which Way Home – Directed by Rebecca Cammisa whose previous work (Sister Helen) received quite a bit of critical success on the festival circuit and with the Directors Guild. Which Way Home follows several unaccompanied child migrants as they journey through Mexico en route to the U.S. on a freight train they call “ The Beast ”. The film has a plot that would pull on anyone’s heart strings and covers a controversial subject (illegal immigrants) in a way most audiences should be able to accept, though it is such an unknown film it's doubtful to win.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Sundance Films: Waiting For Superman

Title: Waiting For Superman
Director: Davis Guggenheim
Website: no individual site, but click here for Sundance page

Summary: For a nation that proudly declared it would leave no child behind, America continues to do so at alarming rates. Despite increased spending and politicians’ promises, our buckling public-education system, once the best in the world, routinely forsakes the education of millions of children. Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim reminds us that education “statistics” have names: Anthony, Francisco, Bianca, Daisy, and Emily, whose stories make up the engrossing foundation of Waiting For Superman. As he follows a handful of promising kids through a system that inhibits, rather than encourages, academic growth, Guggenheim undertakes an exhaustive review of public education, surveying “drop-out factories” and “academic sinkholes,” methodically dissecting the system and its seemingly intractable problems. However, embracing the belief that good teachers make good schools, and ultimately questioning the role of unions in maintaining the status quo, Guggenheim offers hope by exploring innovative approaches taken by education reformers and charter schools that have—in reshaping the culture—refused to leave their students behind (Sundance).

Thoughts: Winner of the audience award in the U.S. documentary competition, Davis Guggenheim’s third major documentary appears to be another success. Admittedly, the summary for Waiting For Superman gives the impression that perhaps he has bitten off more than he can chew in this subject. His previous two films (An Inconvenient Truth and It Might Get Loud) had a much smaller scope, but perhaps it’s good to see a great filmmaker stretch himself on a subject. We’ve seen many documentaries focused on specific education problems or solutions but few have attempted to go so in depth with a national focus as Waiting For Superman. Guggenheim has proven his talents as a director and with an audience award in tow, this is clearly a documentary you shouldn’t miss.

Sundance Films: The Tillman Story

Title: The Tillman Story
Director: Amir Bar-Lev
Website: no individual site, but click here for Sundance page

Summary: Pat Tillman gave up his professional football career to join the Army Rangers in 2002—and became an instant symbol of patriotic fervor and unflinching duty. But the truth about Pat Tillman is far more complex, and ultimately more heroic, than the caricature created by the media. And when the government tried to turn his death into war propaganda, they took on the wrong family. From her home in the Santa Cruz mountains, Pat’s mother, Dannie Tillman, led the family’s crusade to reveal the truth beneath the mythology of their son’s life and death. Featuring candid and revelatory interviews with Pat's fellow soldiers as well as his family, Amir Bar-Lev’s emotional and insightful film not only shines a light on the shady aftermath of Pat’s death and calls to task the entire chain of command but also examines themes as timeless as the notion of heroism itself (Sundance).

Thoughts: Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary The Tillman Story has all the makings of a good film: heroism, a military/government cover up and the relentless pursuit for truth. Many American’s (whether they are football fans or not) are aware of Pat Tillman’s sacrifice to join the military over a lucrative football career, but even with the celebrity status this documentary has, it may be hard to pull audiences back into a scandal from several years ago (and under a different president and military leadership). Bar-Lev’s film may not get the theatrical release it deserves, but this still looks like a potentially fascinating film- especially with the U.S. trying to maintain support for two wars.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Sundance Films: Waste Land

Title: Waste Land
Director: Lucy Walker

Summary: Brazilian artist Vik Muniz creates photographic images of people using found materials from the places where they live and work. His "Sugar Children" series portrays the images of deprived children of Caribbean plantation workers using the sugar from their surroundings. When acclaimed filmmaker Lucy Walker trains her camera on Muniz, he is cultivating a new idea for a project. He knows the material he wants to use—garbage—but who will be the subject of the new series of works? Waste Land is a wonderfully resonant documentary that chronicles Muniz's journey to Jardim Gramacho, the world’s largest landfill, located on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. He collaborates with an eclectic band of catadores, or self-designated pickers of recyclable materials, and photographs these inspiring characters as they recycle their lives and society’s garbage. Walker gains fantastic access to the entire process and, in doing so, offers stirring evidence of the transformative power of art and the dignity that can be found in personal determination (Sundance).

Thoughts: Winner of the international documentary audience award at Sundance, Lucy Walker’s Waste Land does appear to be one of the most inspiring films of the year. There is something magical about turning garbage into treasure and giving the downtrodden the ability to take pride in who they are. Walker appears to have stumbled upon just such a story and when an audience at Sundance approves, you should take notice.

Sundance Films: Smash His Camera

Title: Smash His Camera
Director: Leon Gast
Website: no individual site, but click here for Sundance page

Summary: Paparazzi might be the norm in our celebrity-infested times, haphazardly snapping every movement of the rich and famous. Ron Galella, though, is the original paparazzo. He elevated the celebrity snapshot into art and, at 78, remains a stalwart in the business. Dogged in his quest to photograph celebrities in unguarded moments, he defines his passion for his work by the ups and downs of his career—documenting the parade of stars at a thriving Studio 54 and having the dubious honor of being sued by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (his favorite subject) and having his jaw broken by Marlon Brando. Leon Gast (When We Were Kings) masterfully profiles Galella and places him at the center of the debate about the First Amendment right to privacy. Galella’s work and tactics have their critics, but his influence is undeniable. In a career defined by perseverance, he has created some of the most lasting, iconic photographs of our times (Sundance).

Thoughts: I love a good villain turned hero story and any documentary with Leon Gast at the director’s helm is an instant classic in my book. No wonder Sundance awarded him with the director’s prize for domestic documentaries. Gast was masterful in his earlier work When We Were Kings and I can’t imagine him falling short in this work about the oldest paparazzi around. At the very least, it will be interesting to see how he paints one of the most despised professions in the world.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Sundance Films: A Small Act

Title: A Small Act
Director: Jennifer Arnold

Summary: As an impoverished boy in Kenya, Chris Mburu's life was dramatically changed when an anonymous Swedish woman sponsored his primary and secondary education. Now a Harvard-educated human-rights lawyer, he hopes to replicate the generosity he once received by founding his own scholarship fund to aid a new generation. The challenges Mburu faces instituting his new program seem at times insurmountable but lead him down the path to discovery. Who is Hilde Back, the person who signed the checks that gave him a chance to succeed? With clarity and grace, Jennifer Arnold's film bears cinematic witness to the lasting ramifications of a small ripple of human kindness. Using a strong narrative thread, she unearths fascinating accounts and weaves them together seamlessly. It doesn't hurt that her subjects have pure motivations and back stories to match. The secret of A Small Act was destined to be discovered, if only to remind and inspire others to take such a chance—and change a life (Sundance).

Thoughts: HBO has already snatched up the rights to this film by Jennifer Arnold and it should be airing sometime this summer for those interested. It sounds like a terrific, heart warming story much in the vain of last year’s Hollywood hit The Blind Side. Hopefully it won’t be nearly as cheesy, but certainly just as inspiring. I look forward to taking a break from the sun to watch this story warm my heart.

Sundance Films: Space Tourists

Title: Space Tourists
Director: Christian Frei

Summary: Anousheh Ansari has dreamt of going into outer space since she was a child. A number of years and $20 million later, with the help of the Russian space program, her dream is realized—Ansari becomes the first female space tourist. In recent years, a number of private citizens like Ansari have been willing to endure rigorous training in Star City, Kazakhstan, and part with significant funds to spend time aboard the International Space Station. Director Christian Frei (The Giant Buddhas, Sundance Film Festival 2006) explores the impact of space tourism in the heavens and on Earth by adeptly weaving together multiple strands: Ansari’s joyous experience in orbit; the efforts of local villagers to claim black-market rocket debris; the observations of photographer Jonas Bendiksen; and the training of the next space tourist in line. Space Tourists examines the intersections of human enterprise and commerce in the final frontier. (Sundance).

Thoughts: Winner of the Directing Award in the Documentary World Cinema category, Christian Frei’s Space Tourists appears to have the quirky edge of a Cohen brothers’ film. Obviously, that is probably giving it too high of praise before even seeing the film and it will be interesting to see how Frei is able to pull off the multiple story lines, but if she does it well (and her past talents prove she can) then it should result in a fascinating documentary.