The Barkley Marathons: A Doc Not Just for Trail Runners, but Extremists Who Must Succeed

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The Barkley Marathons; I bet you’ve never heard of the long distance trail run competition. Neither had I before I saw the poster for this new documentary with its intriguing tag line: The race that eats its young.  Sounds more like a horror film than a sports doc.  And the poster’s artwork is reminiscent of a Wes Anderson film.  With all that going for it, I just had to check it out.  And surprisingly, I was kind of right on both my initial impressions, which is a good thing in the most interesting ways.

Having had no idea about the Barkley, or the sport of Trail Running I didn’t know what to expect from a film on the subject.  After all, how interesting can it possibly be to anyone outside the realm of athletes dedicated to that specific niche sport?  But it seems the directors; Annika Iltis and Timothy James Kane (two long time professional camera assistants working in TV) didn’t know anything about this intriguing little world either before they decided to make the film.  According to Kane (Iltis was unfortunately unavailable for my interview) the two started out wanting to make a movie that would allow them to branch out and showcase their own abilities as filmmakers.  And they accomplish that quite well with a documentary that really draws the viewer in through the most basic human trait: curiosity.

barkley1-videoLarge-v2Inspired by a magazine article on the subject the two decided to find out more about something they knew absolutely nothing about, beyond the realms of Hollywood and the Los Angeles lifestyle in general.  Because of their own perspective their approach to the topic does not assume any knowledge on the audience’s part (a pitfall for the average documentary).  Instead the film is a logical presentation of the who, what, where, why and how of the subject, complete with on site coverage of the annual event.  This refreshing and mindful approach serves its subject well, and keeps the viewer in tandem with the camera, as if everything is presented from the audience’s point of view rather than that of being along for the ride with an insider.  There is a distinct difference in those two approaches, and one that really makes The Barkley Marathons a fun and compelling experience regardless if one has any interest in the sport or not.

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I’m not one for spoilers, so I won’t be going into much detail.  What I can tell you is that you’ll find yourself being drawn in deeper and deeper as the story builds, virtually hanging on the edge of your seat as the surprisingly dramatic tale takes it’s twists and turns.  There’s plenty of humor and lighter moments with the colorful inhabitants of the base camp where runners check in after every completed circuit, but you’ll be particularly impressed with the bodily damage the participants inflict upon their selves in the pursuit of a personal best against the elements.  You’ll route for odd ball characters who range from first time “virgins”, to repeat competitors who enter knowing they will never complete the run but migrate annually to a remote part of Tennessee for the camaraderie that comes with the physical and mental challenge unique to the Barkley.  Front-runners will fail; defeated by the elements, and an unknown up and comer will emerge to challenge the existing champion.  The final moments are exciting as we wait to see if a new record will be made in a twenty five year old competition that has seen only ten finalists.

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Winning all sorts of accolades at festivals that feature “Trail” films (who knew?), The Barkley Marathons may just be spearheading widespread acceptance with a cult genre, much like that of the surf films of the 1960s and 70s.  Like co-director Kane noted, with the abundant beauty inherent in shots featuring such rich topography these films inspire rabid fans.  Although The Barkley Marathons is far short of what is known as “trail porn” due to its inclusion of the gritty reality of the competition.  And as Kane went on to say, if the film were glossier it would come off as false, lacking the reality of the harsh extremes of the race.  That is an observation to which I couldn’t agree with more.

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A particularly notable aspect of the movie is the abundant number of cameras utilized through out the filming process.  Fortunately, the two camera savvy directors recognized ahead of time the need for coverage and employed as many independent camera operators as they could entice to the remote hills of Tennessee.  Although the most sophisticated camera is a 5D and the others down grade from there, there is no image within the film that is less than professional – a true testament to the skills of the operators.  And one of the race participants graciously allowed the use of the footage he shot from his own chest mounted GoPro.  Remarkable footage indeed, considering each shooter was out in the field for twelve or more hours at a time across a sixty hour time period, while keeping out of site of the competitors.  One wannabe crew member actually showed up only to quake at the reality of the situation in which he would be shooting and quickly left (quitter).

Wade-Payne-AP-USA-TodayWith this remarkable first film under their belts it will be exciting to see what these two young filmmakers will come up with next.  So-called sophomore films can be disappointing, but I do not fore see such a problem in the case of Annika Iltis and Timothy James Kane.  Whether it is a narrative feature or another documentary film I’m sure the two directors will have plenty of offers to assist them and guide them through that awkward stage.  Perhaps then we will have the satisfaction of seeing them justifiably in contention for an Oscar.  Sadly it won’t happen with The Barkley Marathons.  Iltis and Kane were unaware of the appeal the film would ultimately have and lacked the finances to open the film where necessary in order to qualify the film.  In fact, you’re only going to able to see this film via VOD, which I think is particularly fitting since you’re going to want to be as comfortable as you can be while watching such an exhausting race.

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I encourage you to see it now, perhaps as a break from all the holiday, Oscar vying films that are out there now.  See it, and tell your friends about it.  Then you’ll see and they’ll see that The Barkley Marathons is about people who won’t give up even when facing insurmountable odds made by people of the same ilk, made to inspire others who live the same way.  Who knows, maybe The Barkley Marathons will be the next inspirational film shown to sales people, executives and small business owners alike.  After all, it’s about those with the will to succeed no matter the cost.  That’s just about as entrepreneurial as it gets, and speaks to the core of American values.  That’s a lot for a little documentary.  But then again, that’s exactly what documentaries are supposed to do – inspire greatness.  The Barkley Marathons achieves this goal beautifully.

 

 

 

Cartel Land

by Timothy Kennelly

maxresdefaultThe recent recipient of the Sundance Jury Prize for Documentary Directing is one of the most powerful and gripping docs I’ve seen in many years. Director Matthew Heineman’s up-close look at the drug cartel’s impact on Mexico opens with a nighttime scene of masked men offloading chemicals from a truck and doing a large-scale meth cook in a secret location in the Michocoan mountains.  Is that up-close enough for you? The movie follows parallel stories of citizen vigilantes, militias formed in the absence of government support, or in the presence of government corruption.

Cartel-LandA pickup truck drives along a dusty road bordering the fence between Arizona and Mexico, with both the road and the fence fading into the infinity of the desert.  A voiceover says, “There’s a line between good and evil—maybe imaginary, but I believe it’s real—and I see myself as guardian of that line, protecting the good people from evil.”  The words spoken by Arizona resident Timothy Nailer, leader of a self-organized militia trying to keep Mexican meth smugglers from bringing drugs into the U.S.  Like many big city liberals, I tend to associate border-guarding militiamen with gun-happy racists.  Yet Nailer is empathetic and earnest as a local man whose life was almost ruined by drugs, and turned his near-ruin into redemption, organizing patrols to capture drug smugglers and turning them over to Border Police.  He makes it clear he’s not after innocent migrant families who pose no security threat.  He and his fellow militiamen (most from the region, and ex-military) are dedicated to capturing criminals and staunching the flow of poison into the US, and money back to Mexico.  The filmmaker is smart to focus on Nailer, as when the camera picks up the chatter of some of his cohorts, a bit more unfocused racism seeps through the cracks of their casual conversation.  Still, Nailer is an inspiring and eloquent leader, glad to have the help from others, whatever their political views, and he puts his life on the line for the cause he believes in.  After hearing the body count of the cartel wars (80,000 killed and 20,000 missing since 2007,) it’s impossible to not reevaluate my own preconceptions about these militiamen, who are in their own way “Watchers on the Wall, Guardians of the realms of Men.”

#3 - Dr. Jose Mireles (center), in CARTEL LAND, a film by Matthew HeinemanAcross the border, we’re dropped in middle of a small Mexican town’s funeral for victims of a massacre by the local drug gang—including many children.  There’s no short supply of harrowing tales in Cartel Land.  I had to close my eyes for some scenes, not wanting to read any more subtitles of survivors’ tales, and they were the lucky ones.  Terrorized by the biggest gang, sickeningly ironically named “Knights Templar” (an ancient Catholic order), and abandoned by their corrupt government, the citizens finally declare a war against the cartel.  Men old and young respond to the call, and are given T-shirts, training and weaponry, and a true “folk militia” is born.  In an early scene, they move into a neighboring town, taking over the central square and declare it “liberated”. Soon the army shows up (any government body as we soon learn is completely in the pocket of drug gangs).  The way the small town citizens surround the military and make them back downis one of the high points of this film.  A bullied population suddenly sensing and seizing their moment of power is electric and unforgettable.  One wonders how many small towns around the globe are only one spark away from similar explosion of repressed righteous anger.

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During the rise of the vigilante defense force, we see the predictable stages such as the government minister calling them “hoodlums with no respect for the proper authorities”, an assassination attempt on the leader, the jockeying between power-seeking lieutenants, and of course the government’s attempt to eventually co-opt them by offering to make them an official government militia.  We also witness the ethical transgressions of its leader, almost inevitable in a man of such charisma and hubris.  There are more external factors behind the transfiguration of the Civilian Defense Force (Autodefensas), but I won’t ruin it because you should see it yourself unfolding in the movie.

The “no man’s land” of Timothy Nailer’s Arizona/ Mexico desert is a physical metaphor of the moral landscape.  Proactive self-defense is survival, where lines of morality disappear in the desert sand, and traditional authorities are nowhere on the horizon.  Justice is often a mirage that disappears as one approaches.  Perhaps the saddest manifestation of this, is the slow change of the Mexican Autodefensas from liberators to harassers to oppressors. We have a front row seat to this including a car chase and firefight so intense the filmmakers have to leap out of the SUV and run down an alley for their lives, still filming. Citizen Defenders capture what they believe to be a member of a drug gang, who may have just been an innocent man driving down the wrong street.  They pull him away from his screaming child and wife to interrogate him in the back of their SUV.  The temptation to bully the handcuffed man is too great, and the camera, inside the claustrophobic car, captures all this intimately, as if to remind us indelibly, “This is the way of the world—the devil hands the victim the whip and whispers to him use it on his tormentor.”  In the next scene he’s at the “questioning/processing center” in a line of handcuffed, fearful men, hearing the screams of the current interviewee behind the wall.  No overt statement is needed to conjure the image of Abu Gharib and America losing its moral compass down the blind alley of the War on Terror.

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In a movie full of moments tearing away the veil, I found this unmasking to be the most haunting, that the victimized can turn into hero, only to be seduced by power into becoming the victimizer.  In many ways it’s the oldest and saddest tale of human history. It’s the journey from 9/11 Ground Zero to Rumsfeld’s Gitmo, it’s Israel walling Palestinians inside a West Bank ghetto, it’s Tamora of the Goths in “Titus Andronicus” turning from Titus’ prisoner to Titus’ destroyer after she becomes Roman queen. Shakespeare 400 years ago, casting his lens back 1600 years further, vividly showing us that the seductive siren song of Retribution is the force pulls all Progress inexorably back down into the History’s whirlpool of perpetual violence.  “I do believe the cycles can be broken”….said the filmmaker Heinemann in his Q&A. “The population is approaching the tipping point of tolerance.. The recent murder of 43 university students inspired hundreds of thousands of people to take to the streets and demand an end to this catastrophe.”  Let’s hope that this documentary can open even more eyes and help bring real-world changes.

 

Blood Brother – The True Meaning of the Holiday Spirit

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by Carrie Specht

In case you’re tired of the same old rush of Holiday films and you’re looking for something different to fill your movie going hours, may I suggest a documentary? There are quite a few good ones out at the moment, and playing at many of the major chain theaters. If you throw in Netflix, Red Box and your neighborhood Art Houses you have a lot of variety from which to choose, including a rare and unusually quite, yet moving tale of a young man’s new found life as a volunteer at an Indian orphanage for children with AIDS. Blood Brother is just the kind of story that will help keep the true meaning of the holidays in focus as you hustle and bustle between Black Friday, Cyber Monday and all the big budget block busters extoling the virtues of caring for your fellow man. Blood Brother is the one film that actually, truly demonstrates the true depth of human compassion.

Filmed entirely form the perspective of an observer, Blood Brother is about a young American man named Rocky who took a trip to India as a tourist and ended up changing the course of his life. On a chance day trip away from the big city, Rocky came across a home for children with HIV and created a lasting bond. The story begins when after a brief and disillusioning trip back to the states he decides to return to India and devote his life to the dispossessed children who had so impressed him. The film’s director, Steve Hoover is best friends with Rocky, and in a bit of a state of disbelief ventures to India with him to chronicle his newfound life. The end result is a film that is beautifully crafted and extremely personal.

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In the beginning of the film we learn that Rocky grew up without a close-knit family, which makes it all the more remarkable that he finds himself dedicated to the health and wellbeing of orphan children infected with HIV. And despite facing formidable challenges with nothing but his own instincts, Rocky’s playful spirit and determination proves to be unfailing even at the darkest and most depressing moments. Placing adoring faces upon the statistics of the HIV/Aids crisis in India, Blood Brother is a powerful film that beautifully illustrates the impact one person can have on the lives of so many.

blood-brothersReleased in October in Los Angeles, the film received a lot of attention earlier in the year when it won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for Best Documentary at Sundance. Since that time the film has been shown around the country at special one night only engagements in over 50 other cities. These screenings are presented in collaboration with Tugg.com, which is enabling communities nationwide to host screenings of Blood Brother in local theaters, schools and community venues.

Now here’s the really great, Christmas-y part – in support of Rocky and his work all proceeds earned will go directly back to the children and the orphanage featured in the film and to other HIV/AIDS organizations. Think about that. This is one of the rare times that just by buying a ticket to a film, or by organizing a screening you can make a difference. And you can contribute to the holiday spirit at the same time! So, I urge you to do some good for yourself and for others the next time you go to the movies – see something that will restore your faith in mankind and help it at the same time. Not only is this a win-win, it’s a pretty certain way to avoid coal in your stocking, at least for another year.

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To find show times in your city visit http://www.tugg.com/titles/blood-brother. For additional information about the film or to sign up to host a screening of Blood Brother in your town, please visit www.bloodbrotherfilm.com.

The Central Park Five is Another Powerful Documentary by Filmmaker Extraordinaire, Ken Burns

The latest Ken Burns documentary, The Central Park Five opens today, November 30 in Los Angeles for an exclusive engagement at the Landmark NuArt Theater. This very important must-see film examines the travesties that can happen when a city’s frenzied quest for a speedy conviction overpowers common sense, raising the question of whether the phrase “justice for all” is merely an antiquated and idealized motto touted by the powers-that-be to placate the naïve.

This time acclaimed filmmaker, Ken Burns turns the naked eye of his documentary camera upon a sensational event that happened in New York City almost twenty-five years ago. Back during a very tumultuous crime period for the Big Apple the body of a woman barely clinging to life was discovered in Central Park. Within days five teenagers (Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise and Yusef Salaam) confessed to her rape and beating after many hours of aggressive interrogations at the hands of seasoned homicide detectives – without the presence of their parents. The police then announced to a press hungry for a sensational crime story that the young men were part of a gang who had been assaulting joggers and bicyclists in Central Park.

New York Mayor Ed Koch called it the “crime of the century” and the ensuing media frenzy was met with a public outcry for justice. The young men were quickly tried as adults and convicted, despite inconsistent and inaccurate confessions, DNA evidence that excluded them, and no eyewitness accounts that connected any of them to the victim. Set against a backdrop of a decaying city, beset by violence and racial tension, The Central Park Five tells the story of how five lives were upended by a rush to judgment by police, a sensationalist media and a devastating miscarriage of justice.

Before I even walked into the theater my expectations for this film were very high. And why wouldn’t they be? After all, this is a Ken Burns production. Burns has produced some of the most critically acclaimed historical documentaries ever made including two landmark television series: The Civil War, and Baseball. Thanks to the veteran filmmaker audiences everywhere have come to respect and admire the art of documentary filmmaking, let alone discover a lot of American history they would otherwise have missed. Fortunately I was not disappointed; the Central Park Five is yet another fine example of Burns’ considerable talents.

By doing no more than reporting the simple facts this film is no less than a powerful condemnation upon the New York legal system in the last part of the 20th century. The documentary skillfully utilizes actual media coverage of the 1989 case combined with modern day interviews of the five black and Latino defendants who were railroaded into confessing to, and thereby convicted of raping a white woman in Central Park. I don’t want to give away the means, but as the story unfolds it is revealed that after the young men each spent between 6 to 13 years in prison a serial rapist finally came forward and confessed to the crime. It was only then that the defendants’ pleas of innocence were even considered. Naturally they were released, but that doesn’t erase the horrible ordeal they were forced to endure. Why did this happen? How could this have happened?

Co-directed by daughter Sarah Burns and son-in-law David McMahon the film is handled in a fashion one would expect from the veteran documentary filmmaker and his offspring. The answers to these fundamental questions are presented in an unbiased and balanced manner as the facts that they are. That’s one of the truly amazing aspects of the film; it’s impressive sense of fairness. And yet it maintains an indelible mark of passion. Having met Burns (as well as his charming daughter and son-in-law) I can tell you that this family’s devotion to the subject is impressively genuine and every ounce of that emotion comes across on the screen.

After spending little more than an hour with them participating in a round table discussion I came away convinced that once Ken Burns and company are committed to a project no aspect of that topic will remain unexamined, nor unexposed. He just can’t help it. He gives his all and expects no less from others whether they’re relatives, documentary subjects or the people who’ve sworn to protect and serve the community. If Ken Burns is all in you’d better be too. Because if you’re anything less, regardless of what side of the camera you’re on you’ll be left either trying to catch up, or floundering for excuses.

No doubt you’ll be hearing a lot about this documentary between now and Oscar time. Blowing audiences away with its themes of racial profiling, wrongful accusations and the damaged court system The Central Park Five has left its mark upon every festival in which it’s played, including the recent 2012 AFI Film Festival where it garnered standing ovations after each screening. Surely its nomination for Best Documentary by the International Documentary Association is only the beginning. I have no doubt that the film will be a solid contender for the coveted golden statuette, come late February.

After its initial release the film will open in New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, Chicago and other cities throughout the year. So, keep an eye out for it where ever you live. This is one movie-going experience that will heighten your appreciate for the liberties you take for granted.

Fightville is an MMA Documentary with a Lot of Heart That Throws a Lackluster Punch

I love a good documentary, one that informs, educates or even draws you into a world you’ve never seen before. Fightville is not one of these documentaries. It’s particularly heartbreaking because it has so much potential for being exactly that, but falls far short of that goal. It’s actually frustrating watching the film, having your interest peek (however slight) only to have the filmmakers not complete the process of providing the audience with a fulfilling experience. If you’re already a fan familiar with this world then you’re likely to really enjoy this small journey. However, most people are not and will remain unaware of the intricacies of a fascinating sport after viewing Fightville.

My main problem with the film is that it seems that the filmmakers have taken a lot for granted. The film just jumps right in with an unknown voice describing a world that has yet to be defined. The film is obviously about fighting, but what kind and at what level? It seems like it takes forever before we, the audience are told that we are entering the lower echelons of the world of Mixed Martial Arts, and that we will be following a couple of coaches as they train two young men of potential. But what level are we starting at? What is the ultimate goal beyond winning the next fight? What are the heights to which these athletes can rise? If I’m not mistaken this is the sport of Tito Ortiz and one could ultimately end up competing in Las Vegas in front of enormous crowds for outrageous amounts of money, but I could be mistaken and no one in the film has bothered to provide this frame of reference.

What is great about the film is the story of these dedicated trainers and fighters. There is a passion expressed through their words and actions that is infectious. Gil Guillory is an aspiring P.T. Barnum type whose whole family (from his wife to his young children) participates in the grass roots promotion of the fights he sets up. Tim Credeur is obviously an experienced fighter (although we are not told about his past) who is dedicated to grooming the next generation. His gym may be located in a strip mall, but he expects nothing less than total commitment. Dustin Poirier and Albert Stainback are the two young fighters who we follow as they train and fight, sneaking peeks into their personal lives along the way, and yet we are given very little information. It’s more like hints and suggestions.

Because these men are so determined you really want to rout for them and see them succeed. Sadly, you just don’t get the full feeling of emotion you should from either the successes or the disappointments because it just hasn’t been explained thoroughly enough what’s exactly at stake, if anything. The fault has nothing to do with the subject matter, but lies squarely with the filmmakers. The material is obviously there. I just think it was handled haphazardly, resulting in a less than stellar representation of an exciting sport. Which is really too bad since this may be the first and only introduction many people have to one of the fastest growing sports in the world. After watching Fightville they’re going to be left wondering what all the fuss is about, instead of joining the excitement.

The Other F Word, A Touching Documentary on Punk Rock Fathers, Opens Friday, November 4th

The Other F Word is an insightful, funny, and often ironic tale of the traditional role of fatherhood seen through the eyes of the modern day icons of anti-authority – punk rock musicians. This very candid look into the every day lives of the punk scene’s living legends and their relationships with their offspring offers more than just a humorous take on the contradictions of play dates and mosh-pits. It gets to the very idea of fatherhood itself as the subjects of the film hold nothing back, revealing some complicated and emotional truths about their own fathers and what it means for the men of Generation X to be fathers themselves, punk or otherwise.

One of the things I like most about this film is that its style does not overshadow the subject. Told in a very traditional documentary manner, The Other F Word does not try to reinvent the genre, but holds fast to the standard tools of the documentary. Vintage footage is used to great effect to indoctrinate the unfamiliar, talking head interviews provide a previously inaccessible intimacy to the punk heroes of yesterday and today, and on-the-road, day-in-the-life concert shots of Jim Lindberg (the lead singer of Pennywise whose most recognized song is “Fuck Authority”) epitomizes the contradicting demands of family life and a world tour.

Most importantly, the filmmakers didn’t just scratch the surface, but reached out to some of the most recognized leading men of punk rock, including Blink-182’s Mark Hoppus, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea, Rise Against’s Tim McIlrath, Art Alexakis (Everclear), Mark Mothersbaugh (Devo), Tony Adolescent (The Adolescents), Fat Mike (NOFX), Lars Frederiksen (Rancid), skater Tony Hawk, and many others. The stories these men tell of heartbreak and sacrifice, obstacles and challenges, and of just plain old everyday life, are as touching and loving as any I’ve heard from the most endearing and scripted Hollywood tale. One particularly poignant aspect running throughout the film is how much these men strive to be better fathers than their fathers were to them. This is a rather telling characteristic of those who have lashed out against authority and now find themselves to be the authority. It shows they were more than just angry young men, they wanted more, and now they are in a position to fulfill that need in their own kids.

To that end, these guys are attempting to be the hands-on fathers their dads either couldn’t, or wouldn’t be. Which is even more of a challenge today than it was for their dads considering the demanding world of music. Traditionally, fathers are gone all day making a living. But musicians obviously work differently, and they work a lot differently today than they use to. The Other F Word does a good job of laying down the facts that music just doesn’t pay like it use to through product sales. The money is in the concert tour. So for musicians, making a living means being on the road. The irony is these guys who want so much to be there for their kids have to be away from home, not just from nine to five, but for months in order to provide for their families. And that’s where the subjects themselves come to a better understanding of their own fathers, if not an all out forgiveness.

Easily my favorite documentary of the year, and likely one of my top ten favorites overall, The Other F Word managed to effect me in a way few other films ever have regardless of the genre. Not only did I leave the theatre with an infused appreciation for the modern day dad, but I also emerged from the experience with a broader tolerance for those with lifestyles different from my own. One particular scene of a hard-core looking guy taking his adorable little tot to the park reminded me of the tough looking men I know. Most are regular guys, but because of their appearance, I wouldn’t want to approach them if I didn’t already know them. But given the chance, tough guys are just as capable as anyone of the unconditional love required of good parenting.

Trust me, whether you’re a father, have a father, or know a father you’re going to enjoy this film, and more than likely walk away with a greater affection for all men who live up to that title.

Opening weekend of The Other F Word starts this Friday, November 4th at the Landmark Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Boulevard, in Santa Monica right at the edge of the 405 Freeway. Q&A’s are scheduled during the weekend, including Saturday night with Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, Jim Lindbergh of The Black Pacific (formerly of Pennywise) and Art Alexakis of Everclear. With this kind of a lineup don’t be surprised if there are some unscheduled guests that pop up as well.

To view the trailer just go to http://youtu.be/zZkWHZ3hJtY.

Battle for Brooklyn: A Fascinating Documentary that Examines the Power of Big Business and the Rights of the Individual

The documentary Battle for Brooklyn is a true David and Goliath story reshaped for the modern age of capitalism. The David in this case is a young man, Daniel Goldstein who at the beginning of the film has recently purchased an apartment in Brooklyn with the intent of starting a family. The Goliath is a huge development company with plans to build a massive sporting facility and surrounding buildings right where Goldstein’s apartment building (as well as many other buildings and businesses) already exist. With the promise of thousands of jobs for the community and armed with the weapon of “eminent domain” the development company takes advantage of the law and public opinion to push their project through.

However, according to the dictionary “eminent domain” is a law that gives a government or its agent the right to expropriate private property for public use. You know, like for highways or parks and such. Since the project in this case was being developed for private use, by a private company it appeared to Goldstein that the intent of “eminent domain” was being misused, regardless of the supposed benefit to the community. So the young graphic designer spearheads a campaign to oppose the development, and sticks with the fight for more than 7 years!

First of all, I found it compelling that any documentary filmmaker would stick with a subject for seven years. You’d think they’d get bored with it. However, once you’re in this story it’s easy to become engrossed, and the filmmakers were very clever about pulling the audience in as quickly as possible. Using the camera almost like Goldstein’s conjoined twin, empathy is developed virtually instantly as the audience experiences his life, the triumphs and the set backs, first hand. And because Goldstein is constantly talking to the camera, the audience is seamlessly pulled into the narrative as a trusted confidant. Therefore, within a short time it is no longer just Goldstein’s cause, but “our” cause he’s fighting for.

Which is exactly the point the filmmakers are successfully making. If the law can be so easily misused, then this exact same thing could happen to any individual property owner, even you. With that in mind, it’s pretty damn compelling to see how a big corporation can come along and literally procure property it finds desirable for its own needs. To be fair, adequate, if not extravagant, compensation was part of the equation, but the scary part is that no one is given the option to decline. Is that legal in America?

The story of Battle for Brooklyn reminds me of another documentary I saw not too long ago at the Los Angeles Film Festival called Paraiso for Sale. It too focuses on the property and homes of individuals being snatched up by big development companies while the government stands by and does nothing. But Paraiso for Sale was set in Panama! I distinctly remember thinking this could never happen in America. Regardless of the potential benefits to a community, and the limited number of people negatively affected, I believed our government would never stand by and let such unfair practices take place. As evidenced here, I was apparently very wrong.

Holding true to Goldstein’s motto, “Develop… Don’t Destroy”, Battle for Brooklyn stands as a fine example of true documentary filmmaking by presenting the facts (albeit from one perspective) as they appear. There is no overt “demonization” of the corporate entity or the people who represent it. Their actions speak for themselves, and one is left with the sense that the developers and their supporters truly believe that what they are doing is for the greater good. But that does not make the ends justify the means. Perhaps, in future, those purposing to take a same tact in development projects should watch Paraiso for Sale and Battle for Brooklyn back to back, and then remember we are not a third world country, so let’s not behave like one.

LAFF Succeeds with Thought Provoking Documentaries

 

Even though I’ve made LA my home for the past thirteen years, like most people who live here, there are many annual events that take place that I’ve never gotten around to experiencing. The LA Film Festival is one of them. But this year is different. After living in San Francisco and never visiting Alcatraz, and living in New York City and never going to the top of the Empire State Building I’ve decided it’s about time I enjoy my surroundings. And so far in regards to the LAFF, I’m really glad I’ve made the effort.

It’s not even that much of an effort really. Now that the Festival is in its second year at LA Live downtown it’s very easy for me to take the Metro from Hollywood for a $3 roundtrip. Granted, finding a place to eat between screenings can be tough when an event at the Staple Center is happening, but the Regal Cinema has turned out to be a real discovery for me. I don’t know about the popcorn, but the screenings I’ve been to so far have all been in great theaters with impressively large screens and incredibly comfortable seats that rival those at the Arclight.

The films themselves have ranged from the well-financed, star-studded, heist job gone terribly wrong, “Drive” to the low budget, lackluster independents attempting to be kooky (I’ll spare giving a title). However, I’ve found that the truly dependable tickets for this year’s fest are the ones for the many thought provoking documentaries, particularly “Once I was a Champion”, “Salaam Dunk” and “Paraiso for Sale” (which screens for the last time tonight at 9:50pm).

Still from from "Once I was a Champion"

“Once I was a Champion” is the story of ultimate fighting champion, Evan Tanner. Many people are familiar with this story, but I was not and do not wish to spoil the many surprises in store for any one who might think this is just another sports bio. It is most certainly not. Granted the title does suggest that this film might just be about the spectacular raise and ignoble fall of an athlete who now bemoans what was and could have been. But there is so much more to this film and its subject than you could possibly imagine.

The thing that interested me the most was the in-depth and personal perspectives the filmmakers were able to obtain from the conflicting accounts of many of Tanner’s closest friends and fellow athletes. In an interview with director Gerard Roxburgh and producer Kirk Porter they made it clear that they wanted to approach the film as a narrative with a clear beginning, middle and end, establishing plot points where the audience would fall in love with the hero, come to dislike him, and fall in love with him all over again, and they succeeded. I fully expect to see Roxburgh at many more festivals in the future with narrative films and look forward to see what his distinctive voice will bring us in the future. “I Once was A Champion” screens two more times during the festival, Thursday the 23rd at 5:30pm and Saturday the 25th at 7:20pm.

Still from "Salaam Dunk"

Likewise, “Salaam Dunk” is another documentary well worth catching on the big screen. All though it also involves a sport, “Salaam Dunk” is most certainly not a sports film. It’s mostly about female empowerment. The YWCA and Girl Scouts of America have been saying it for years, and now “Salaam Dunk” demonstrates how sports can offer young women so much more than just the opportunity to develop athletic skills. Especially if the team is composed of young women who live in a society where playing a game like basketball can provoke violent acts upon the participants. The college students in this film live in a progressive area of Iraq where women are allowed to play sports under certain restrictions. And because it’s unlike anything these women have ever experienced they find new strength in themselves and the multi-ethnic friends they never thought they could have before. Ladies bring your friends, and dads bring your daughters. You’ll be delightfully surprised with the warmth and joy this film inspires. “Salaam Dunk” screens Tuesday the 21st at 7:10pm, Wednesday the 22nd at 4:00pm, and finally on Friday the 24th at 7:40pm.

Still from "Paraiso for Sale"

“Paraiso for Sale” was another well-executed film that had me leaving the theater with my mind reeling a mile a minute. This documentary tells the ongoing tale of an isolated area in Panama which was once an unknown paradise. But now this paradise is under threat from developers as well as individuals who have taken advantage of the near non-existent government in order to participate in what amounts to a land grab. What is particularly maddening is that the natives who have lived on land for generations are being forcibly removed from their homes. Even ex-pats with titled land they bought in good faith are facing an un-winnable battle against corporate giants who wish to build gigantic developments.

It seems almost unfathomable that this could happen and that no one is doing anything about, least of all the local government. Granted, this is an issue as old as time when one thinks of the history of the US, or even Europe. But what is most astonishing and even heartbreakingly demonstrated in this fair and balanced documentary is that we, as humans, haven’t learned our lesson yet, on either side of the battle lines. Come on out tonight and catch “Paraiso for Sale” for its last LAFF screening at 9:50pm. No doubt you will leave the theater discussing the film with fellow audience members whether you know them or not. This film will make you think, and wonder if the rest of the world is right – that there’s just no fighting the guys with the most money.

Whether you catch a documentary or not, there’s plenty to see at this year’s LAFF. And you’ve got practically five whole more days to do it. So no more excuses get out of the house and begin enjoying the many blessings an LA summer has to offer. This could be the beginning of a whole new tradition.