Review: ‘VAL’ takes a long, complicated look in the mirror.

presents

Val Kilmer, one of Hollywood’s most mercurial actors has been documenting his life and craft through film. He has amassed thousands of hours of footage, from home movies made with his brothers, to time spent in iconic roles for blockbuster films like Top Gun & Batman. This raw and wildly original documentary reveals a life lived to extremes and a heart-filled look at what it means to be an artist.


Let’s start with a confession – I’ll always think of Val Kilmer as my Batman. 1995’s Batman Forever was the first superhero film I ever saw, and that impression was deep and lasting. The car! The suit! Nicole Kidman! That is not to indicate that I am incapable of evaluating Kilmer fairly, but only to say this image of him at the likely mountain-top of his fame has left a lasting impression.

Kilmer’s legacy is evaluated and deepened in Ting Poo and Leo Scott’s new documentary Val (in theaters and streaming on Amazon Prime) which showcases Kilmer’s life, legacy, and his ongoing recovery after a battle with throat cancer. Kilmer’s contribution to the film is quite intimate: the narrative relies heavily on his collection of home videos and memorabilia. The quality and comprehensiveness of these past archives are shocking – there really seemed to be a behind-the-scenes moment for every milestone of his life. We see everything from home movies of Kilmer and his late brother all the way up to behind-the-scenes footage from Top Gun and (yes) Batman Forever. Kilmer’s energy and enthusiasm, tangible even when he’s behind the camera, is the common thread through it all, conveying if nothing else an authentic love for one’s craft.

Due to Kilmer’s condition, his son Jack provides the film’s narration. This is the film’s strongest choice, and it provides nuance and momentum across the entire narrative. It provides special poignance during moments of self-evaluation, such as when Kilmer must decide whether to financially support his father after a costly real estate venture.

VAL, Val Kilmer, 2021. © Amazon Studios /Courtesy Everett Collection

While Val has extensive insight into Kilmer’s personal archives, it is also uninterested in interrogating these vignettes from a critical lens. The film is not positioned as a confessional device. Kilmer’s reputation as a “difficult actor” is hinted at, but never fully challenged or justified. Nor is his deep religious commitment as a Christian Scientist fully explored, along with any influence this may have had in his cancer treatment and journey.

Rather, the thorough picture of the past serves as a mirror to better understand Kilmer’s present. Speaking through a tracheostomy tube, Kilmer’s voice is raspy and thin, and he moves wearily across the screen. We can see the frustration in his face when he has to take a lengthy pause – he has more to say, but his body won’t cooperate. This appears to be Kilmer’s core struggle: he resists defining himself solely by his past work, but his present limitations pull him towards an endless cycle of replaying his greatest hits.

Val reminded me of the 2014 documentary Life Itselfwhich chronicled the legacy of film critic Roger Ebert, as well as his struggles after losing his lower jaw to cancer. Both films showcase subjects whose brilliance and intellect remain sharp, but are otherwise challenged by physical limitations. Both subjects were energetic, frantic collaborators in their respective projects –conveying the urgency of being understood, of seizing the opportunity to fully articulate one’s legacy. While Ebert tragically perished before his film could be completed, Kilmer has the opportunity to carry on. Val left me not only with an appreciation for Kilmer’s complicated journey but also excited to hopefully see him press forward and continue the next chapter.


Steaming now on Prime Video and showing in select theaters


Forty years of never-before-seen footage chronicling the life of Val Kilmer.
Release date: July 23, 2021 (USA)
Directors: Ting Poo, Leo Scott
Distributed by: Amazon Studios
Music composed by: Garth Stevenson
Producers: Val Kilmer, Ting Poo, Leo Scott, Andrew Fried, Jordan Wynn, Brad Koepenick, Dane Lillegard, Ali Alborzi


Netflix review: ‘Misha and The Wolves’ documentary reveals victim and villain.

presents

Misha and The Wolves

Misha and the Wolves is the dramatic tale of a woman whose holocaust memoir took the world by storm, but a fallout with her publisher – who turned detective – revealed an audacious deception created to hide a darker truth.


I’ve never trusted wolves. You could argue this is because I’ve always been raised around ultra-docile dogs, but I think my 20+ years of watching movies are really to blame. The ratio just doesn’t hold water. For every domesticated wolf acting as Kevin Costner’s sidekick, there are countless more stalking our hero through a snowy tundra, howls echoing through the night.

So you could imagine my skepticism when faced with the story of Misha Defonseca. Here is the supposedly true story of a young Jewish girl who evaded the Nazis in the woods of Europe during WW2 by falling in with a pack of wolves. In Netflix’s stirring documentary, we hear Misha describe being taken in as a Mowgli-esque family member – traveling with the wolves and surviving on scraps from their hunts. It’s one of those “you have to hear it to believe it” type stories – I mean, these are wolves we are talking about!  It’s crazy to believe that Misha would be seen as family instead of a feast.

And yet, aren’t all stories of Holocaust survival are to some degree impossible? At their core, they are all linked by showcasing the triumph of the human spirit against overwhelming circumstances.  So it is not surprising that we are swept up in Misha’s story, just as the world was in the early 1990s. A book deal, publicity tour, and movie option are a natural fit for such a fantastical tale.

Sam Hobkinson’s smooth direction compels the audience forward. There’s a charming and particularly modern manner to the way that Hobkinson features key figures in Misha’s journey to stardom – their whole essence summarized into a single characteristic (“The Publisher”, “The Journalist”) We are not really meant to get to know these people (although “The Survivor” radiates winking humor with deep emotion in her few minutes of screen-time) – they are here to feed us the facts we need to drive the narrative forward, to build momentum towards the film’s core question. Which is, of course, can we believe Misha?

If you want to play detective, you’ll find the answers to Misha and the Wolves questions pretty quickly. A quick Google search will do the trick. The affirming or refuting of Misha’s story is only one part of the equation. Hobkinson’s film stumbles slightly on this follow-through: the film concludes with finality on the situation but left me wanting more on the motivations beneath the surface. A more rigorous interrogation would have been appreciated, but it is also fair to acknowledge that it might not have been possible.

Whether it be based on truth or lies, this is ultimately a story of family, legacy, and survival. Philipp Larkin once summed this story up a little more quickly:

“They f*ck you up, your mom and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.

They fill you with the faults they had

And add some extra, just for you.”

Larkin was more to the point, but there weren’t any wolves.


 *Streaming on Netflix on August 11th*

Written and Directed by Sam Hobkinson

*Official Selection Sundance Film Festival 2021*

Review: ‘Not Going Quietly’ Documents the Hope, Grit, and Sacrifice of Activism

NOT GOING QUIETLY

A rising star in progressive politics and a new father, 32-year-old Ady Barkan’s life is upended when he is diagnosed with ALS. But after a chance encounter with powerful Senator Jeff Flake on an airplane goes viral, catapulting him to national fame, Ady and a motley crew of activists ignite a once-in-a-generation movement for healthcare justice. Launching the Be A Hero campaign, Barkan travels across the country educating and empowering others to confront elected officials with emotional, personal stories intended to directly impact legislation. Continuing today to inspire others to use the time they are given and speak truth to power, Barkan continues to fight for a brighter and more just world for his son to inherit. He was featured as one of the 100 Most influential people of 2020 and has most recently been credited with pressuring President Biden to make the recent decision to waive the COVID-19 vaccine patent. Barkan is referred to as “The Most Powerful Activist in America,” because when he speaks, people listen.


A special kind of courage is required to devote your life to a cause and lead an activist movement, particularly in an era when it is easy to be cynical about politics. In “Not Going Quietly,” filmmaker Nicholas Bruckman takes us behind the scenes of the “Be a Hero” campaign for healthcare justice in America and wrestles with the question, “What are you willing to give for a cause?” 

The film’s heartbeat is an intimate portrait of political activist Ady Barkan, who leads the campaign effort even while grappling with increasingly advanced stages of ALS. Barkan came to prominence in a viral video of a chance encounter with former Senator Jeff Flake on a plane, where he passionately advocated for healthcare protections for himself and others. Forcing elected representatives to confront the consequences of the laws they support would become the cornerstone strategy of the “Be a Hero” campaign. Activists hope to push past glib political narratives and force a reckoning that will change hearts and votes– or at the very least, record the interaction and make sure the hostile indifference of Congressional Members and Aides is on public display.

The film excels at telling the story of this kind of work by juxtaposing powerful political rallies– including a cameo from Bernie Sanders– with the harsh realities of ALS and heartwarming scenes with Barkan’s supportive wife and young son. In addition, moments of humor and fun with the campaign’s inner circle present another side of the fight– the deep friendships that bind people working for a cause greater than themselves. 

Within the first fifteen minutes, it becomes clear why “Not Going Quietly” won the Audience Award and Special Jury Recognition for Humanity in Social Action at SXSW. This film is guaranteed to pull at all of your emotions. So what is it that moves you? I am confident this documentary has it in spades.


In Theaters on August 13, 2021

Directed by: Nicholas Bruckman (La americana)

Co-Written by: Nicholas Bruckman, Amanda Roddy

Produced by: Amanda Roddy

Executive Producer: Bradley Whitford (Get Out, “The West Wing”), Jay Duplass (“Transparent”), Mark Duplass (Creep, Safety Not Guaranteed), Mel Eslyn (The One I Love, Horse Girl), Sam Bisbee (The Truffle Hunters, Farewell Amor), Nina Tassler, Joan Boorstein, Jackie Kelman Bisbee, Wendy Kelman Neu, Nicholas Bruckman, Ryder Haske

Featuring: Ady Barkan (co-founder of the Be a Hero PAC, organizer for the Center for Popular Democracy), Rachael King, Liz Jaff, Nate Smith, Tracey Corder, Ana Maria Archila, Helen Brosnan

With special appearances from:
Vice President  Kamala Harris
Senator Bernie Sanders
Senator Elizabeth Warren
Senator Cory Booker
United States Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg


Review: ‘Enemies of the State’ takes the courtroom drama into the digital age.

ENEMIES OF THE STATE

ENEMIES OF THE STATE is a documentary thriller that investigates the strange case of Matt DeHart, an alleged hacker and whistleblower, and his former Cold War spy parents who believe they are at the center of a government conspiracy and are ready to do anything to save their son from prison. This stranger-than-fiction story takes audiences on a wild ride of unexpected plot twists and bizarre discoveries in an artistic and cinematic documentary that blurs the line between reality and paranoia. With extraordinary access to all lead characters and key sources, this film presents many contradicting viewpoints as it attempts to solve a mystery that has kept attorneys, activists and journalists occupied for over a decade.


If an innocent man was sitting in front of you, would you even know it? This is a question I asked myself several times throughout Enemies of the State, Sonia Kennebeck’s propulsive new documentary. Years ago, movies made these kinds of questions easy on us: there’s that old western stereotype of the gunslinging hero wearing the white hat, staring down a villain dressed in black. These days, our digital lives have complicated that confrontation. In a world where stories of hackers, deep fakes, and police corruption flood the headlines, who can truly be trusted?

Enemies of the State’s subject is Matt DeHart. Through one lens he is an online activist, presumed hacker, whistleblower, and WikiLeaks courier. Through another, he is a convicted felon, guilty of soliciting child pornography from multiple victims. We will meet Matt’s supporters – family, friends, and online activists who all suggest these charges amount to little more than a government cover-up. We also see the case from law enforcement and hear the testimonials of the alleged victims. Who to believe?  This is Law and Order meets Mr. Robot.

In a film where nothing is certain, Kennebeck’s balanced direction is welcomed. Pains are taken to give equal air time to protagonists on each side of the conflict, to keep the viewer in check. I naturally found myself empathizing with DeHart’s family early in the film. In the immediate next scene, the camera lingers on the variety of medals on Detective Brett Kniss’ walls – as if to say, “You don’t want to believe this guy? He’s an Eagle Scout!”

I found the re-enactment scenes, featuring actors supported by authentic audio clips, robotic and less compelling. While robotic may indeed have been Kennebeck’s intention, sections in which the audio played simply over a black background were more resonant and unsettling.

Ultimately, the question of DeHart’s guilt or innocence depends on trust. Do you trust Matt’s family, his friends, or the FBI? Enemies of the State doesn’t take it easy on you – that answer is probably going to change a few times over the course of 103 minutes. I won’t give away where I landed – I’ll just say the image of the empty chair at the end of this film stuck with me long after the screen faded to black. Don’t understand? Just trust me.


In Theaters and On-Demand
July 30, 2021

Directed by: Sonia Kennebeck (National BirdUnited States vs. Reality Winner)
Produced by: Ines Hofmann Kanna, Sonia Kennebeck
Executive Produced by: Errol Morris


*OFFICIAL SELECTION – 2020 TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL*
*OFFICIAL SELECTION – 2020 DOC NYC*

*OFFICIAL SELECTION – 2021 TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL*


Review: ‘Life & Life’ is a thoroughly thought-provoking doc.

LIFE & LIFE

Synopsis:

NC Helkin’s LIFE & LIFE, which just won Best Documentary at the Brooklyn Film Festival, tracks the journey that musician Reggie Austin takes to redeem his life following a murder conviction 40 years ago. With surprising honesty and depth, the film looks at Austin’s effect on his fellow inmates at San Quentin and his efforts to reconnect with his family, as well as questioning parole and sentencing practices through his story. Ultimately, the film reveals the steep and dangerous hill ex-prisoners must climb upon release to free themselves and create a positive future. LIFE & LIFE is a story of the struggle for redemption and hope against near-impossible odds, accompanied by a soundtrack that comes straight from Austin’s heart.

Professional musician and convicted murderer. Two strikingly different resume items that Reggie Austin carries daily. In NC Helkin’s documentary Life & Life, after serving 35 years in prison for murder, Reggie Austin navigates life back on the outside. We watch his journey as he attempts to successfully balance work and the rebuilding of familial relationships. His grace is startling. His talent is undeniable. His advocacy is inspiring. The film consists of a genuinely effective combination of sit-down interviews, archival records, and Reggie’s musical stylings. Parole board transcripts give us a peek inside the complexities of releasing someone from prison. The editing of this particular section of the film deserves an award. It adds a dynamic and intentional rhythm.

But, Life & Life is not solely the story of one man. It’s a film that tackles the nuanced reach for systematic change within the prison industrial complex. It specifically addresses the “Three Strike Law” and its effects on so many still behind bars. It injects humanity into an oftentimes brushed aside section of the population. Reggie Austin is a success story. It’s not one we hear often, but I’m grateful we’re hearing it now. Life & Life is a lot of things. It’s frustrating, it’s joyful, and it’s artistic. It’s a lesson in compassion and redemption for not only Reggie but the audience as well.


NC Heikin’s Award-winning LIFE & LIFE

Screens at

2021 New Hope Film Festival (Philadelphia) JULY 30

Friday, July 30 at New Hope Arts Center (2A Stockton Ave.) Tickets are available at: https://www.goelevent.com/NewHopeFilmFestival/e/LifeLife.


Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival

Monday, August 9 at MV Performing Arts Center (100 Edgartown Vineyard Haven Road) Tickets available at: https://www.mvaaff.com/tickets/


NBFF 21 review: ‘The Witches Of The Orient’ is an ace.

THE WITCHES OF THE ORIENT

Textile workers are transformed into an Olympic level volleyball team by their coach, whose unconventional techniques emphasize speed and aggression. The team has a record-setting winning streak and a triumph in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

THE WITCHES OF THE ORIENT manages to simultaneously be exhilarating and endearing. The film is a multimedia celebration of an unforgettable group of women who worked tirelessly for victory and pride. The film works its way through intimate sit-down interviews with team members, now in their 70s, to recreate the journey to the 1964 Olympics. These extraordinary women worked diligently under a coach that was deemed harsh and unconventional. To hear them speak about it now, they saw things very differently. They had respect and adoration for a man who took a chance on a group of women who had the weight of their country’s honor on their shoulders.

The soundtrack is incredible. Even though you know the outcome of the final game, watching the tape makes your palms sweat and your heart race. You’ll stand up, cheer, and cry happy tears alongside the team. It’s simply inevitable. The film could not be more relevant as we roll into this year’s Tokyo Olympics. This team paved the way for female athletes to defy the masses. While it continues to be an uphill battle of sexism and controversy for today’s athletes, The Japanese Volleyball Team in 1964 owned their naysayers. Director Julien Faraut gave NBFF 21 audiences a history lesson that charmed the pants off of audiences.

Netflix review: ‘Sisters on Track’ Proves that You’ve Got to Work for Your Dreams, They Don’t Just Come.

Sisters on Track chronicles the coming-of-age story of the Sheppard sisters: Tai, Rainn, and Brooke who were propelled into the national spotlight in 2016 with their first-time wins at the Junior Olympics. The resulting media storm landed the trio on the cover of Sports Illustrated Kids as “SportsKids of the Year” and they were able to move from shelters into their own home. The film offers a rare intimate glimpse into a tight-knit Brooklyn family’s journey to recover from trauma and tragedy. With the support of their mother, Tonia Handy, and the guidance of coach Jean Bell, the Sheppard sisters aim to beat the odds, dream big, and aspire to higher education as they are finding their voices as athletes and students – all while processing the growing pains of adolescence. At the heart of the story is the bond between sisters and an entire community of women, passing the baton of self-empowerment and hope through track and field, from one generation to another.

“You’re not the only one raising these girls,” Coach Jean Bell says to Tonia Handy, mother of the Sheppard sisters Tai, Rainn, and Brooke in a heartfelt moment that perfectly articulates the thesis of this story. Although the sisters have faced the kind of adversity that makes their success all the more inspiring, the magic of the film is in watching a village pull together to prepare these young ladies for bright futures of their choosing. 

The sisters’ meteoric rise in the track world is only amplified by the challenges they have faced. When they exploded onto the track scene in 2016 with first-time wins at the Junior Olympics, the family was living in a homeless shelter. The resulting media storm landed them on the cover of Sports Illustrated Kids as “SportsKids of the Year” which caught the attention of director Tyler Perry. Inspired by their story, Perry generously secured the family a furnished apartment in their Brooklyn neighborhood and committed to paying the rent for two years. 

The documentary picks up in the aftermath of these exceptional events as the girls navigate the demands of high-level competitive sport and more universal trials like coming-of-age. In the hands of a different group of filmmakers, the documentary may have focused gratuitously on the tragedy and hardship of the girl’s early lives or the precariousness of what they have now. Sisters On Track, however, is a joy to watch. Although the reality of the girls’ home lives is apparent, it is not exploited for pathos. Instead, the bulk of the film is watching a group of talented young women train and compete at the highest levels amid a continuous stream of motivational pep talks from Coach Jean Bell who is an inspiration in her own right (I could write an entire piece on the Jeuness Track Club where they train).  

The documentary is extremely heartfelt and honest, bolstered by the Sheppard sisters themselves who are blessed with vibrant personalities in addition to their clear athletic talents. Middle sister Rainn says it best, “You’ve got to work for your dreams, they don’t just come.”

Watch the Official Trailer:

SISTERS ON TRACK launches on Netflix on Thursday, June 24th
Directed by: Corinne van der Borch & Tone Grøttjord-Glenne
Producer: Anita Rehoff Larsen & Tone Grøttjord-Glenne
Executive Producer: Sam Pollard
Story Consultant: Shola Lynch
Run Time: 94 minutes
Featuring the Original Song:
“The Dream”
Performed by: Mark Batson featuring Tarriona “Tank” Ball
Written by: Mark Batson and Tarriona “Tank” Ball

Review: ‘Chasing Childhood’ is essential viewing for parents and policymakers, alike.

CHASING CHILDHOOD

Overprotected and over directed, American children are wilting under the weight of well-meaning parents. In the pursuit of keeping them safe and creating an impressive resumé of extracurricular activities to wow admissions boards, over-parenting smothers children across socioeconomic classes. This thoughtful film follows education professionals and reformed helicopter parents who seek and offer solutions for developing more confident, independent young people while restoring some joy and freedom to childhood.

I grew up in Simsbury, Connecticut. Getting less than an “A” on an assignment my entire childhood was, shall we say, frowned upon. When I struggled with pre-Algebra in 7th grade, my parents got me a math tutor. I loathed it. To be clear, this was triggered because I had a “B+” grade point average. That pretty much sums up the pressure I felt to excel. I was in dance classes 5 days a week until I aged out of the studio, performing En Pointe at age 9 with girls 4+ years my senior. I was an overachiever born and, most definitely, bred. Once high school began, my anxiety hit new heights. Silently struggling with dyslexia, believing that my peers would hear the millisecond long pause when I had to read a date out loud was panic-inducing. Starring in every school play, managing boys Cross-Country & Track, maintaining a social life, and prepping for college were all-consuming. This was in the late 90s. That disquieting grew exponentially over the years. I used to be fearless, attending a performing arts conservatory in Manhattan, moving across the country to audition for Disneyland on a whim. But social pressure from my parents for not following the “traditional” educational path weighed on me like an elephant on my chest. I never felt like any of my success was enough. I’m 41 now, and that sense of inadequacy remains. Despite the incredible stories I have from living abroad, making movies, writing, teaching, creating a small business, the list is obnoxious, I have been trained to think I can be better.

Chasing Childhood is a film that could not have arrived at a better time. After the year we’ve had in lockdown, it’s time to confront some harsh realities. Chasing Childhood is tailor-made for parents, educators, and policymakers of every age. I have a 4 and 5-year-old living in an apartment we own on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. By all measures, life is great. What you don’t see is the aura of tension that surrounds the admissions process when applying to preschool. Now, we’re entering Kindergarten with my son. The questions of, “Where are you all applying?” have been swirling around me since he was 2. The idea that the school we picked for our 2-year-old would somehow determine what tax brackets my children would fall under in 20 years is exhausting. Filmmakers Margaret Munzer Loeb and Eden Wurmfeld clearly explain how we’re stifling kids. They are exhausted. This trend of micromanaging their futures kills their present joy. The doc talks to parents, teachers, experts, and kids about how we can change this negative trend. With stats about recess and play Vs. standardized testing will undoubtedly move your needle in terms of curriculum and quality of life. Wilton, Connecticut is featured quite heavily, alongside Patchogue, NY, and of course, Manhattan. Wilton is actually one of the towns we’ve considered in making our city exodus. The irony of how I stumbled upon Wilton should not be surprising. I googled, “Top School Districts in Connecticut.” Simsbury was always in the Top 5. I should have guessed that any town along what Connecticut calls “The Gold Coast” would be the other top districts. After watching, Wilton is looking better and better. What makes Chasing Childhood so successful is the film’s honesty. The interviews with every participant are authentic. The implementation of more play is key to a well-balanced life. The film is not preachy. It does not judge. It does explain how we’ve become wired this way. How seemingly small societal shifts went from ripples to tidal waves in policy and parenting. It’s nothing short of fascinating.

I have a greater understanding of my own parents now. We all want better for our kids. I try to keep this in mind when signing up my littles for activities. They are few and far between on purpose. Besides the logistical and monetary commitments involved, it’s because I vividly remember the years before high school. Playing outside until it got dark, riding my bike across town, exploring the woods, jumping off things that most definitely should have broken my bones. I retain the joy and excitement and calm from those moments. If nothing else, Chasing Childhood is a perfect reminder to stop, take a breath, and realize that success in life doesn’t come from the longest resume. It’s time and memories. Let’s step back and honor childhood. Let the kids be kids. Happiness comes first.

Virtual Live Premiere on June 24, 2021, and

Nationwide Watch Now @ Home Cinema Release on June 25, 2021

Directed by: Margaret Munzer Loeb, Eden Wurmfeld

Produced by: Lisa Eisenpresser, Eden Wurmfeld

FeaturingGenevieve Eason, Savannah Eason, Julie Lythcott-Haims, Peter Gray, Lenore Skenazy, Dr. Michael Hynes

 

World Premiere in the American Perspectives section at the 2020 DOC NYC Film Festival 

Official Selection of the 2020 Annapolis Film Festival

Official Selection of the 2021 Portland International Film Festival

Official Selection of the 2021 Cleveland International Film Festival

Official Selection of the 2021 Julien Dubuque International Film Festival

Official Selection of the 2021 Sonoma International Film Festival

Tribeca Festival 2021 review: ‘P.S. Burn This Letter Please’ is a joyous history lesson.

P.S. Burn This Letter Please

A box of letters, held in secret for nearly 60 years, ignites a 5-year exploration into a part of LGBT history that has never been told. The letters, written in the 1950s by a group of New York City drag queens, open a window into a forgotten world where being yourself meant breaking the law and where the penalties for “masquerading” as a woman were swift and severe. Using original interviews, never-before-seen archival footage and photographs and stylized recreations, P.S. BURN THIS LETTER PLEASE reconstructs this pre-Stonewall era as Lennie, Robbie, George, Michael, Jim, Henry, Claude, Tish, and Terry—former drag queens now in their 80s and 90s—reveal how they survived and somehow flourished at a time when drag queens were both revered and reviled, even within the gay community. The government sought to destroy them, then history tried to erase them, now they get to tell their story for the first time.

There’s something both nostalgic and tangible about handwritten letters. With technology at our fingertips, they are few and far between and nearly nonexistent to certain generations. In P. S. Burn This Letter Please, a box of letters from the 50s chronicles the lives of a small LGBTQ circle of friends. Through sit-down interviews with the authors, immaculate archival footage and photos, we delve into history. This documentary is phenomenally compelling. If it doesn’t make you grin from ear to ear, you’re out of your mind.

Happiness isn’t the only reaction this film elicits. It is a lesson in oppression, one that sounds all too familiar. We hear about biological family dynamics, the difference between those who accepted and those who broke these beautiful souls down. The majority of the doc is celebratory and juicy. Oh honey, the exquisite fashion. The delicious stories. Hearing the truth from those who lived it is priceless.

I learned an entirely new vocabulary. I learned about the “who’s who” of drag and female impersonators in those years. What was it like to be a performer? Who was actually running the gay clubs? That answer will shock you. To say I was fascinated would be an understatement. The dramatic readings of the letters are to die for. To think what wasn’t included in the film leaves me wanting more. Outside of its Tribeca Festival screening, you can watch P.S. Burn This Letter Please streaming on Discovery +. You will not regret jumping into its fabulousness.

 

REVIEW: ‘An Unknown Compelling Force’ Takes You Deeper Into the Mystery

An Unknown Compelling Force

An Unknown Compelling Force is the True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident, known as Russia’s greatest unsolved mystery. In 1959 a group of student hikers were attempting a difficult winter expedition in the remote Ural Mountains of Russia when an unknown event lead to the mysterious deaths of all nine. When the team failed to report back, search parties lead by the Soviet Government and fellow students uncovered the grizzly remains of the hikers. Found a mile from their shredded tent, they seemingly fled into the freezing temperatures without their winter clothes or boots. Adding to the mystery, many of the bodies had suffered brutal and inexplicable injuries, and some even showed traces of radiation.
                                                            
The case was closed by investigators at the time, stating that the hikers died from “An Unknown Compelling Force.” For more than 60 years the story has been shrouded in mystery and conspiracy theories, suggesting everything from UFOs, murder to a Soviet Government cover-up. British adventure filmmaker Liam Le Guillou travels under the radar to Russia in search of answers. Braving the dangerous conditions and hundreds of kilometers in sub-polar conditions, the documentary team attempts to reach the very location of the incident, a place the locals call “The Dead Mountain.”

About two minutes into watching this documentary, it occurs to me that I may be its exact target audience. As a lifelong fan of Unsolved Mysteries (the old school 90s version with Robert Stack, naturally), the opening montage with talking heads spouting their pet theories had me instantly hooked. For the next two hours, I was engrossed in Director Liam Le Guillou’s exploration into the unknown events that caused the mysterious deaths of nine student hikers in Russia’s remote Ural Mountains.

The Dyatlov Pass incident is a topic that regularly pops up in true crime and history podcasts because of the many bizarre and cinematic elements at play. A group of experienced young hikers goes on an adventure, something terrifying and inexplicable happens, and no one makes it back alive. More than a week later, the search and rescue team discovers a tragic tableau– the hikers had fled their tent only partially clothed and their bodies were discovered a mile away from the campsite riddled with violent, inconsistent injuries. After an initial investigation, the Soviet government quickly buried its findings and the records were sealed for sixty years.

With a team of journalists, eyewitnesses, and researchers, the documentary sorts through many common theories about what may have happened to the hikers ranging from the scientific and rational (avalanche) to the more whimsical and outrageous (alien abduction/ Russian yeti), and intriguing geopolitical angles (Cold War military experiment gone wrong). The documentary adds color to the historical narrative by bringing a crew into the Ural Mountains to complete the same trek as the doomed hikers, which adds striking visuals into the bleak and unforgiving landscape. 

However, what sets this film apart from other retellings is that the Director has a favorite pet theory that he builds a case for throughout. In the final minutes, there is a bold closing argument to explain the fate of the hikers that I had never heard and seems to not have been fully explored. Although I am not convinced, the argument is compelling and as good as any other put forth to explain this mystifying series of events. 

If the title or synopsis of this project makes you want to spend the next half hour on Wikipedia doing a deep dive, then this film is for you.

 Available Digitally on June 15, 2021

 Order Now: https://geni.us/Watch_UCF

Directed by Liam Le Guillou

Review: ‘GENIUS FACTORY’ on Discovery + is mind-blowing story of money and mad science.

GENIUS FACTORY

In the 1980’s an eccentric billionaire named Robert Graham wanted to create the world’s smartest kids, so he funded the largest legal genetic experiment in human history. He felt that unintelligent people were breeding too often and smart people weren’t breeding enough, so he decided to do something about it. Today, 30 years later, the children of his eugenics experiment walk the streets of America as adults. These super babies seem normal enough, but there is a hidden struggle to understand who they are and why they came to be. They struggle to understand if the Genius Factory rewarded them or condemned them.

The founder is dead, the sperm bank is closed, and the records were burned. But now, for the first time, people who worked at the bank are ready to talk, the genius children are going to meet each other and find out who their fathers are. Never before has nature vs nurture ever been tested quite like this.

Discovery+ documentary Genius Factory tells a remarkable story. In the 1980s a wealthy optometrist became fixated on creating the world’s smartest babies through selective breeding, or as it’s more commonly known, eugenics. Now the children from the largest legal genetic experiment in the U.S. are in their 30’s. As one might expect, they have decidedly mixed feelings about their origins. 

The documentary takes viewers on a journey from the eccentric billionaire Robert Graham’s personal philosophy behind the clinic to first-person accounts of clinic operations with a colorful cast of former employees in sequences reminiscent of Tiger King. Some of the most intriguing interviews, however, are with the adult children of the genetic experiment. They grapple with the knowledge of where they came from and whether their lives measure up to the grand expectations that they were born into. 

Genius Factory is a fascinating watch that mostly does an adequate job explaining complex subjects like the dark history of genetic science, the racist personal beliefs of many of the clinic’s supporters, and how the experiment weighs into the “nature vs. nurture” debate. That being said, I question the decision to include commentary from an uncompromising supporter of eugenics here. For decades, the public debate on this issue has been closed. I am not sure it is the right choice to provide a tv credit to an unapologetic eugenicist in 2021. Overall, however, the documentary does a good job shining a light on the darker aspects of this science.       

It is telling that the first frame of Genius Factory is the legendary quote from Jurassic Park: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” As a lifelong fan of Jurassic Park, I found the introduction to be an absolute delight. Genius Factory spends the next 75 minutes detailing how much thought actually went into creating a sperm bank for Nobel Prize winners and how many people thought on balance that it seemed like a good idea.

Streaming on discovery+ May 20, 2021

Directed by Daryl Stoneage (Donkey Love, Pizzicato Five, Shlomo Arigato)

SXSW 2021 reviews: ‘The Lost Sons’ & ‘United States Vs. Reality Winner’ are two mind blowing docs from this year’s virtual fest.

THE LOST SONS

1960s Chicago, a baby is kidnapped from a hospital. Fifteen months later, a toddler is abandoned. Could he be the same baby? In a tale of breathtaking twists and turns, two mysteries begin to unravel and dark family secrets are revealed.

When my son was born in 2016, I remember the extreme level of security on the floor we were staying on. We all had bracelets on with his name, while he also had an electronic ankle bracelet which would beep if he were taken past a certain threshold. The idea of some stranger coming in and taking my child terrified me. I hoped to God that I never heard that alarm go off while we stayed in the hospital. Reenactments, newspaper clips, photographs, archival footage, home video, and sit-down interviews with witnesses all make up the massively intriguing and mystery-laden doc. Who is Paul Fronczak? This is a loaded question. The Lost Sons attempts to answer this question and so many others. The editing is mesmerizing. You don’t have a moment to catch your breath as this story unfolds. The twists and turns will shock you. They are relentless. I found myself shouting at the television more often than usual in one true crime sitting. It unravels like a James Patterson novel. If you are a homegrown detective, The Lost Sons at SXSW21 will be a true highlight for you.


UNITED STATES Vs. REALITY WINNER

A state of secrets and a ruthless hunt for whistleblowers – this is the story of 25-year-old NSA contractor Reality Winner.

Reality Leigh Winner saw something that she thought the entire country should know. She decided the public had a right to evidence the government was keeping secret. For this act, she was severely punished. The line between right and wrong can be blurry, but in this instance, it feels clear as day that Reality Winner was right. The film follows Reality’s mother, Billie J. Winner-Davis, as she tracks the public and the court’s response to Reality’s case. We learn about the kind of person Reality is through diary entries and jailhouse phone calls. She’s funny, talented, with a sharp wit. With the full understanding that most documentaries have an agenda, I cannot imagine someone walking away from the film without a ferocious sense of injustice. Including never-before-heard audio from Reality’s FBI  initial interview, sitdowns with her attorneys, family members, and fellow whistleblower Edward Snowden, you will finally learn what was in the document in question. Understanding the content is key to grasping the fact that Michael Flynn was pardoned and Reality Winner was given the harshest sentence in history for any whistleblower. I cannot stress this enough. I am thankful that United States Vs. Reality Winner is being shown to audiences when Joe Biden is now President. I join in the urgent call for justice. #FreeRealityWinner

SXSW 2021 review: ‘Broadcast Signal Intrusion’ and ‘Alien On Stage’

BROADCAST SIGNAL INTRUSION

In the late 90s, a video archivist unearths a series of sinister pirate broadcasts and becomes obsessed with uncovering the dark conspiracy behind them.

Harry Shum Jr was one of the most underutilized actors on GLEE. With a true leading man role in Broadcast Signal Intrusion in the Midnighters section, he was up against genre fans’ huge expectations. I think he definitely delivered. He gave us brooding vulnerability and a badass attitude that played well against the jarring imagery of the tapes. They were truly skin crawling. The film’s score has a throwback feel. It’s pure noir thriller deliciousness. The cinematography is certainly noteworthy. There is no denying the inspiration from Brian De Palma‘s ‘Blow Out.’ Gentry’s finale leaves a lot of unanswered questions but Shum holds his own in an inspired by true events screenplay. I was fully invested as he went down the rabbit hole of mystery and obsession. Please cast him in more roles with the complexity of Broadcast Signal Intrusion. A few things that stuck out like a sore thumb; James’ newly acquired detective skills get him further than any FBI agent, and the mystery of his stalker breaks late then peters out to less of an impact. Aside from a few script tweaks, this is a solid entry from this year’s lineup and well worth being disturbed by.


ALIEN ON STAGE

Alien On Stage is a Documentary about a unique crew of Dorset Bus Drivers whose amateur dramatics group decides to ditch doing another pantomime and try something different. Having never done anything like it before, they spent a year creating a serious adaptation of the sci-fi, horror film, Alien; finding ingenious homemade solutions to pay homage to the original film. The show is a crushing flop but fate gives them a second chance to find their audience. Whilst still adjusting to the idea that their serious show is actually a comedy, the group finds out they’re suddenly being whisked from their village hall to a London West End theatre to perform this accidental masterpiece for one night only.

This charming doc is the perfect family watch. More specifically, it is theatre nerd deliciousness. It’s Waiting For Guffman in real life. The rehearsals are almost painful to watch. I felt director Dave’s anxiety as his cast muddled through forgotten lines, missed cues, and disastrous blocking. You’re just rooting for it all to come together in the end. Each actor has a genuine love for the show. Most of them are completely clueless about dialogue delivery, making it a laugh riot for a hyped-up, tuned-in, sold-out audience. The amount of work these bus drivers and their family and friends put into this stage production of Alien is astounding. Every set piece, prop, and costume is made by hand with more love than a Broadway play. You will absolutely fall in love with them all. You’ll be cheering along with their live audience. Bravo to directors Lucy Harvey and Danielle Kummer for having the foresight to nurture this local charity production and turn cameras on them. Everyone involved in Alien On Stage deserves a standing ovation.

Review: Extraordinarily personal doc ‘GROOMED’ comes to Discovery+ this Friday.

GROOMED

GROOMED is the devastatingly powerful story of filmmaker Gwen van de Pas as she returns to her hometown in search of answers about the man who sexually abused her as a child. To understand her ongoing traumas, Gwen travels to meet survivors, psychologists, and even a convicted sex offender. Produced by Gwen van de Pas, Bill Guttentag, and Dylan Nelson, GROOMED addresses a common yet little understood manipulation type called ‘grooming’, how to recognize it, and how to stop it. What begins as an exploration into grooming becomes a dramatic journey where Gwen faces unexpected revelations in her case, finally finds her anger, and boldly confronts the evil we’d rather ignore. Executive produced by Blumhouse in association with Yellow Dot Films.

Gwen Van De Pas’s trauma has never gone away. As an 11 year old, an older swim teammate groomed her. The term was one she only learned 20 years after the abuse occurred. To regain power, she returns to Holland to decide whether or not to report her abuser. Her life cannot move forward without healing. The insight Gwen gains from sitting down with her parents are very impactful. They’re able to explain that when at 17 years old Gwen told them about her abuse that they were at a crossroads based on her mental health. Their guilt is palpable. As a parent myself, I completely understand their desire to protect Gwen from self-harm first. This is not simply about her healing. This film is about the healing of everyone around her. Sexual abuse infiltrates entire families.

The structure of the doc takes us through the grooming bullet points one by one, through the words of a convicted sex offender and behavioral experts. (1. Target The Victim 2. Gain The Family’s Trust 3. Build A Relationship 4. Sexualize The Relationship 5. Maintain Control) She interviews other victims, of all ages, sex, and backgrounds. Not only is this a part of understanding just how pervasive sexual abuse is, but it was a chance for Gwen to feel less isolated for once. Speaking with psychologists, her ultimate goal is to finally report him, but she is rightfully afraid. The evidence she kept still has a profound emotional stronghold. Watching her battle the words and the intentions of her abuser is heartbreaking. She feels complicit and he groomed her to think that way. In their interviews, other victims express how it has affected them physically. Hospitalization, eating disorders, disassociative habits, physical intimacy, panic attacks are just the tip of the trauma iceberg.

This incredibly personal and powerful doc is something parents need to watch. It’s a film survivors should watch. Reporting is not easy. Retraumatization is one of the key factors in every single one of these cases. Gwen Van De Pas was brave. Groomed is her victory lap. If we could all just have a fraction of her courage, we might be able to prevent others from becoming victims. The cycle has to stop.

Streaming Exclusively on discovery+
March 18, 2021

National Geographic and Disney+ review: ‘OWN THE ROOM’ is at the crossroads of passion and presentation.

OWN THE ROOM

Directed by Emmy® Award-Winning team behind Science Fair, Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster, OWN THE ROOM chronicles five ambitious students from disparate corners of the planet and the victories and setbacks they face as they take their budding business ventures to Macau, China to compete in the Global Student Entrepreneur Awards. Santosh is from a small farming town in Nepal; Alondra works the register at her family’s bakery in Puerto Rico; Henry is a programming wiz from Nairobi; Jason is a marketing machine from Greece; and Daniela is an immigrant escaping the crisis in Venezuela, taking on the chemical industry from her lab at NYU.

Every year, students represent each country in an entrepreneurial pitch competition where 1st prize is $100,000. The Global Student Entrepreneur Awards is a life-changing opportunity. In Own The Room (filmed in 2019) New York by way of Venezuela, Nairobi, Nepal, Puerto Rico, and Greece, were represented by Daniela, Henry, Santosh, Alondra, and Jason. You will absolutely fall in love with all five of them. While these young entrepreneurs are unique in personality and ideas, their dedication is familiar and infectious. Sustainability, housing, well-being, accessibility, and communication are merely the broad categories for each of their pitches. With intimate sit-downs and real-time competition footage, this film immerses the viewer in this global, high-stakes competition.

An intriguing highlight of Own The Room is the fact that all five students have the love and encouragement of their parents. It was great to hear the families support each dream, instilling them with the confidence to succeed. Watching the preparation, their anxiety and excitement are visceral. You’ll be on the edge of your seat as you wait for their pitches in Macau. First, they must get past the semifinal round. Contestants are split between seven rooms. The winner of each room makes it to the finals. You won’t believe the last-minute obstacles that Henry faces. It’s simply exhilarating. As a viewer, you’re proud of these young people. They give you hope that our future is bright. Own The Room is an inspiring documentary.

National Geographic will premiere OWN THE ROOM on Disney+ on March 12, 2020.

Review: ‘My Beautiful Stutter’ speaks to everyone.

MY BEAUTIFUL STUTTER

My Beautiful Stutter follows five kids who stutter, ages 9 to 18, from all over the United States and all walks of life, who, after experiencing a lifetime of bullying and stigmatization, meet other children who stutter at an interactive arts-based program, The Stuttering Association for the Young, based in New York City. Their journey to SAY find some close to suicide, others are withdrawn and fearful, exhausted and defeated from failed fluency training, societal pressures to not stutter or the decision to remain silent. Over the course of a year, we witness firsthand the incredible transformation that happens when these young people of wildly different backgrounds experience for the first time the revolutionary idea at the heart of SAY: that it’s okay to stutter.

This heartfelt doc is incredibly eye-opening for anyone who doesn’t have information about stuttering. While we learn about the neurological reasons, more importantly, we learn about the social-emotional effect on children. Bullying is already such a pervasive issue. Add on stuttering and it can really be a recipe for an exponentially challenging childhood. These beautiful, intelligent, glorious kids should not be “fixed”. They aren’t a problem. It is society that should be more accepting.

Growing up stuttering, Taro Alexander wanted to create a program to improve the lives of kids who stutter now. He understood the weight of feeling viewed as different. He founded SAY The Stuttering Association for the Young. Then came CAMP SAY. CAMP SAY is a safe environment where kids of all ages can come and learn, play, make friends, and be accepted for exactly who they are. The film features the summer of 2015. The kids have group therapy sessions, not necessarily clinical, but it allows them to share their feelings without judgment. Outside of all the typical camp activities like sports, ceramics, campfires, and swimming, Alexander utilizes theatre and creative writing to break down their barriers.

The film features members of CAMP SAY community. Juliana, now graduating from the program uses singing to boost her confidence. Malcolm’s stutter was triggered after witnessing a violent act. His passion is baseball. This is his first year at camp. Sarah and Emily are best friends at CAMP SAY. They explain how important it is to be able to connect with someone who can genuinely relate and to finally realize that they’re not alone. Travis is one of the counselors at camp. He also uses music to feel uninhibited by his stutter. Will features his college entrance essay. The gorgeous, astute, poetic writing in that essay undoubtedly wowed any essay reader. My Beautiful Stutter brings together footage from home, camp, and beyond to immerse you into a world where communication is a double-edged sword.

One of the greatest days at camp happens when an older camper is paired with a younger one and they answer questions like, “What’s your favorite subject in school?” or “Something I’ve always wanted to try but haven’t had a chance to yet…” Watching these kids grow is profound. The amount of sadness they carry with them every single day will stay with you. As a former teacher and current parent of a child on the spectrum, it was disheartening to hear that these kids all recall their teachers not understanding how their stutter affects them emotionally. The stories of constantly being cut off by others must be ceaselessly frustrating. Frankly, they all feel exhausted.

The timing of My Beautiful Stutter is incredible considering President Biden stuttered as a child. He actively reaches out to kids across the country, even giving them his cell phone number so he can pass on techniques on how to ease their frustration. Kids and parents alike can learn more about Taro Alexander, SAY and CAMP SAY here. My Beautiful Stutter is an important watch. This is a family film. Make it a movie night. Sit down with your loved ones and feel the unadulterated love these children bring to the world. As Emily says in the film, “Stop and Listen.” Solid advice.

Premiering Exclusively on discovery+ This Thursday
March 11, 2021

Directed by: Ryan Gielen (Stop The Bleeding, The Graduates)
Produced by: Michael Alden and Ryan Gielen

Executive Produced by:
Paul Rudd, Mariska Hargitay, Peter Hermann, Patrick James Lynch, George Springer

Since 2001, SAY has offered comprehensive and innovative programs that address the physical, social and emotional impacts of stuttering.

**Film Festival Awards**
Best Documentary at Boston International Kids Film Festival
Audience Award Best Documentary at the Rhode Island Film Festival
Best Documentary at the Golden Door Film Festival
Best Documentary at Doc Sunback Film Festival
 

discovery+ is the definitive non-fiction, real life subscription streaming service. discovery+ features a landmark partnership with Verizon that gives their customers with select plans up to 12 months of discovery+ on Verizon. discovery+ has the largest-ever content offering of any new streaming service at launch, featuring a wide range of exclusive, original series across popular, passion verticals in which Discovery brands have a strong leadership position, including lifestyle and relationships; home and food; true crime; paranormal; adventure and natural history; as well as science, tech and the environment, and a slate of high-quality documentaries. For more, visit discoveryplus.com or find it on a variety of platforms and devices, including ones from Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Roku, and Samsung.

RT: 90 Minutes

SLO Film Fest 2021 review: ‘BLEEDING AUDIO’ rocks.

BLEEDING AUDIO

Told through the eyes of quirky, charming and humble bandmates Shawn, Jon, Matt and Justin, BLEEDING AUDIO is an intimate portrait detailing The Matches’ promising career, defeating break up, and inspiring reunion, as they reflect on what success truly means for musicians in today’s digital industry. Their story overlaps with the drastic changes the music industry has undergone in the past several years. From declining record sales, to excessive touring, to illegal downloading and streaming, this film digs deeper into the challenges the average musician faces in the digital age and how artists can navigate their careers today

How do I not know about The Matches? Their sound is right up my alley. The minute I heard their songs in the introduction, I was hooked. Shawn, Justin, Matt, and Jon have distinct personalities and styles, and together they are unbelievable. This is the most badass entrepreneurial band I’ve ever heard of. The things they did to become known were geniuses. This was pounding the pavement in its truest form. Members Justin and Shawn made all the band’s art. Their parents worked the door, security, snack bar while they slowly wracked up fans.

Huge names in the industry like Mark Hoppus of Blink-182,  Warped Tour founder Kevin Lyman, Tom Higgenson of Plain White T’s (just to mention a few) all wonder why the hell these guys aren’t one of the biggest bands in the world. Their consensus is they had everything they needed to be massive; catchy songs, genuine talent, an ambition that blew people away. Why aren’t they household names?! Bleeding Audio breaks down the music industry. Literally explaining where the money goes and why. I think we all sort of understood this concept when Taylor Swift took Spotify to task over streaming but I don’t think I ever thought about what happens to get to the album itself. The money comes from publishing. The Matches didn’t necessarily go searching for a label. Once they were popular the labels came to them. Epitaph was their dream. They got it. Warped Tour was next. Meeting other bands who became their fans opened even more doors. These guys were loved. Their creativity surpasses anything I’ve ever seen from a single band. Then… Napster happened. Music was about to change forever.

After their third album, they were burnt out. The band played one final beautifully, raucous show. 2 years later, they find out that their overbearing manager Miles didn’t register their songs, with the exception of 4. The amount of money they lost because of this was ultimately the reason they broke up. It was a brutal blow. In 2014 the guys meet up for pancakes. This leads to a show that sells out in 2 minutes. Then another. Then another. The Matches were inexplicably back for what would become a sold-out world tour.

The doc has an unreal amount of footage, art, interviews, it’s pretty magical. If you’ve never heard of The Matches, there’s no way you’ll walk away from Bleeding Audio without needing to go find their music. Thank you to director Chelsea Christer for introducing me to my newest musical obsession.

Bleeding Audio – Official Trailer from Chelsea Christer on Vimeo.

You can get tickets to a watch BLEEDING AUDIO here

 

Netflix Original Documentary review: ‘STRIP DOWN, RISE UP’ is raw and revelatory film on the power of pole dance.

STRIP DOWN, RISE UP

STRIP DOWN, RISE UP is a cinema verité film about women from different walks of life—all ages and ethnic backgrounds—who shed trauma, body image shame, sexual abuse, and other issues locked in their bodies to reclaim their sensuality and sense of self through sensual movement and pole dance. While pole has the stigmas of being a strip club activity, and more recently, an exercise fad, the film tells deeply transformative stories of women within this little-known, supportive community who embark on a journey to heal themselves.

Did I think I would be weeping while watching a documentary about pole dancing? Absolutely not. Strip Down, Rise Up is one of the most personally impactful docs I’ve ever seen. As a dancer, a competitor, a choreographer, a performer, a wife, a mother, a sexual trauma survivor, a film critic, this movie is a therapy session and motherf*cking triumphant scream into the abyss. The stigma that pole dancing carries were created by, everyone say it with me, “Patriarchal Structure!” When I say this, I don’t just mean men. When someone tells you that a particular thing “isn’t feminine” they are part of the problem. Suggesting a stripper is a whore, that’s definitely part of the problem. These are just two examples of how we’ve all been trained to toe the line in outdated gender normative behavior. Take your bullshit standards and eat them. Strip Down, Rise Up is empowerment to the nth degree.

Actress Sheila Kelley began The S Factor after doing research for a role. After falling in love with the art and sport and strength of pole she decided to start a studio. This movement is about the reclamation of our bodies. The power, both physically and emotionally it takes to do pole is beyond most of our basic understanding. The women profiled in the film come from every background, are every age and shape. One is a widow, one a victim of Dr. Larry Nassar. Another is a cancer patient, another a first-time mother. Then there’s the lawyer, pole competitor, and studio owner. And that’s just a few of the unique individuals spotlighted here Through pole exploration, these women are allowed to feel sexy, build strength, and reclaim their bodies. Too often they are sexual assault survivors. The fear and disconnection spread so much further than I ever thought, even after the #MeToo movement kicked off. The amount of trauma is both shocking and not. Which is a scary commentary unto itself. There is so much complexity built into the intimate stories of these women. Director Michèle Ohayon has given every viewer a gift. Throw your expectations out the window. Burn them to the ground. Strip Down, Rise Up will free you.

Oscar-nominated filmmaker Michèle Ohayon‘s new doc feature, STRIP DOWN, RISE UP, is now on Netflix.

Review: ‘Narratives Of Modern Genocide’ forces us to stop talking and start listening.

Narratives of Modern Genocide

After the holocaust, the world said, “never again,” yet genocide is happening in the world right now. The stories we forget to tell, of the survivors we never knew, will haunt us until we listen and act. Narratives of Modern Genocide challenges the audience to experience first-person accounts of survivors of genocide. Sichan Siv and Gilbert Tuhabonye share how they escaped the killing fields of Cambodia and the massacre of school children in Burundi. Mixing haunting animation, and expert context the film confronts our notion that the holocaust was the last genocide.

Sichan’s Siv narrative is all too familiar. He suffered unimaginable losses at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, enduring forced labor and the eventual execution of his family. But for Sichan, it becomes a tale of bravery and audacity.  After a failed attempt to escape, he tries a second time, fleeing on foot for three days with only the sun and moon to guide him to Thailand. He is the epitome of “The American Dream”. After emigrating to CT then New York City, he would eventually end up working for President George H. W. Bush as a translator. Think about the gravity of his journey. He went from being persecuted by his native government to becoming a prominent figure in the American government. That’s extraordinary.

Gilbert Tuhabonye was just a schoolboy when he witnessed atrocities that will haunt any viewer. He was the fastest runner in his Burundi community and it served him well when escaping torture and the mass murder of his classmates and teachers. Now living in Austen, he is a motivational speaker, author, retired professional long-distance runner, and a cross-country and track coach. Gilbert also the co-founder of the Gazelle Foundation which provides clean drinking water in his homeland.

We think genocide isn’t as prevalent, but we must learn from our history. The release of this doc is eerily timed with the events of insurrection at the US capitol last week. We have to pay closer attention to the calls of violence. Our democracy is on the brink and vigilance is key. Narratives of Modern Genocide will undoubtedly punch you in the gut. Sichan and Gilbert’s stories are difficult to hear but they cannot be ignored. While this may seem like the story of two men, it is the history of too many. Combined with beautifully drawn animation and starkly contrasted news clips, this doc strikes a cord. It’s important. It must be shown to as wide an audience as possible. It must serve as a warning to future generations.

ON DVD AND DIGITAL
January 12, 2021

Review: ‘The Reason I Jump’ is a megaphone for nonverbal autism.

The Reason I Jump

Based on the best-selling book by Naoki Higashida, translated into English by author David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas), The Reason I Jump is an immersive cinematic exploration of neurodiversity through the experiences of nonspeaking autistic people from around the world. The film blends Higashida’s revelatory insights into autism, written when he was just 13, with intimate portraits of five remarkable young people. It opens a window into a sensory universe that guides audiences to Naoki’s core message: not being able to speak does not mean there is nothing to say.

Based on the book of the same name by Naoki Higashida, The Reason I Jump is an emotional rollercoaster. I was already welling up listening to the opening monologue. The echolalia, the sensory overstimulation, the hand flapping, and ear covering all punched me in the gut when presented on screen. I’m a lucky Mom. At 5 years old, my child is now very verbal, he’s hyperlexic which means he’s been reading since he was two. He loves hugs, sleep, and eats well. On the autism spectrum, he would be closer to Asperger’s, if that were a diagnosis recognized nowadays. None of these facts lessen the fear, frustration, exhaustion, and pure elation in raising an exceptional human being. The Reason I Jump is tailor-made from the words of a nonverbal 13-year-old boy’s experiences from the inside out. In film form, it’s simply triumphant.

In the doc, we are introduced to 5 unique young people with autism.

Amrit (India)
Her mother realized she was using art to communicate. Her paintings are extraordinary, some visually akin to continuous line drawings. It took time for everyone to realize they are snapshots of her day.

Joss -(UK)
His anxiety is palpable. His impulses and tendency to meltdown are understandably unpredictable. Joss’s ability to show unadulterated joy is magic. His parents break down their own existence in the most relatable ways, both the highs and the lows.

Ben & Emma – US
These two have learned to spell with letterboards and keyboards to communicate. Best friends since very early childhood, what they have to say will shock you.

Jestina – Sierra Leone
With Jestina, we tackle stimming and perception by others. Stimming a sensory-driven repetition of behavior like rocking or flapping to self soothe. Sometimes it’s a visual stim, sometimes watching wheels turn or glitter shine. Culturally, her mother and other parents in her autistic adjacent community are told their children are possessed. It destroys the spirits of entire families.

The narrated excerpts from the book directly correlate with whichever child is being highlighted at that time. Voiced by Jordan O’Donegan, they have a poetic feel to their profundity. Naoki writes, “Making sounds with your mouth isn’t the same as communication.” That quote did me in. When you hear that, truly hear it, you will be taken aback. Jestina, Ben, Emma, Joss, and Amrit all communicate in a different way, we just had to learn how to listen. The heightened sound design immerses you into the world of an autistic person. We do not understand what it is like to be utterly overwhelmed not being able to be fully understood. The cinematography is breathtaking. Quick cuts, predominantly in close-up form combined with a gorgeous soundtrack put you in an alternate headspace. The editing takes all these elements and blends them into a viscerally stunning documentary.

As a mother of a child on the autism spectrum, I feel like I can see I want to broadcast this film to the world so that neurotypical individuals can understand my son and every other person on the spectrum. The label of autism, whether people realize it or not, creates implicit bias. We are missing out on the potential and impact of an entire faction of our society. It is our duty to meet each other in the middle. The Reason I Jump is a captivating peek behind the autism curtain. Don’t look away now. Thank you Naoki Higashida for writing this book. Thank you David Mitchell for translating it for your son. Thank you Jerry Rothwell for directing such an important film. Thank you to the families that shared their lives. Watch this film, then choose to listen and learn in a new way.

The Reason I Jump will be in theaters and virtual cinemas Friday, Jan 8th

**WINNER – Audience Award, World Cinema Documentary –
Sundance Film Festival 2020**
**OFFICIAL SELECTION – AFI Docs 2020**
**OFFICIAL SELECTION – BFI London Film Festival 2020**
**OFFICIAL SELECTION – Chicago International Film Festival 2020**
**OFFICIAL SELECTION – Hot Docs Film Festival 2020**
**OFFICIAL SELECTION – Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival 2020**
**OFFICIAL SELECTION – SXSW Film Festival 2020**
**OFFICIAL SELECTION – WINNER’S CIRCLE – DOC NYC 2020**