Sarah Hanssen

Sarah Hanssen’s film and video works have shown at festivals, museums and screenings throughout North America, Asia and Europe. She received her Masters of Fine Art in film and video at the Massachusetts College of Art. In addition to her artwork, she has served on festival juries and worked as a programmer for The Hamptons International Film Festival. Sarah is an assistant professor at CUNY's Bronx Community College and mother of three amazing children.

Where To Invade Next

“The American Dream was alive everywhere except America.”

— Michael Moore in Where To Invade Next

Documentary filmmaker and activist, Michael Moore could make a movie about nearly anything at this point. His Academy Award winning films are among the top ten highest-grossing documentaries of all time, delving deep into sizable topics like, poverty, capitalist corruption, failing healthcare, assault weapons, and war. After 25 years of successful filmmaking, Moore himself is a wealthy man, worth millions of dollars and named one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine. He has a platform and a microphone; he could make a film about anything and people would likely flock to see it. However, his latest film is a departure, it doesn’t reveal any conspiracies or out evil behind-the-scenes capitalists. Instead, Moore takes a much more positive approach, he’s not simply presenting a problem, he’s attempting to cultivate a desire from American viewers, the desire for a better quality for life.

Where to Invade Next is one of Moore’s more entertaining films. He begins with the darkly playful premise that after having forcefully taken resources from other nations, the time has come for the United States to aggressively plunder ideas. And who better to lead the crusade than Michael Moore himself?

Moore travels to nine countries to witness their best policies and then bring them back for America’s benefit. He begins with the concept of leisure in Italy, where citizens get 30 days of paid vacation per year, plus an additional monthly salary each year specifically to fund holiday travel and relaxation. Moore presents a cheerful and productive workforce and, in interviews with company owners, discusses the societal priority of cultivating the health and wellbeing of the entire community. This is a culture invested in the protection of everyone’s leisure time, from the two-hour lunch break, to the five months of mandatory maternity leave. At this point, I’m hooked. 

Not unlike listening to a friend go on and on about the extravagant gifts her husband lavished upon her for Valentine’s Day, while your own spouse bought you half-price drugstore milk chocolates, I tried to smile, and take the high road. It’s nice to know someone else has it so good. Right? As an American, jealously was easy for the remainder of the film, and other uncomfortable feelings come from many angles. When the quality of life on screen is so appealing, there’s envy for the free college education and the healthy school lunches, but there’s also shame, knowing that there is such extreme poverty, corruption and racism in America. 

Moore tries to keep it light, and he’s been criticized for this approach. Tackling so many social issues means he can only provide a cursory glance into each topic. In a review at Vulture, Bilge Ebiri says “he doesn’t give us (or himself, frankly) the chance to dig deeper into the story — to engage with the concepts he’s discussing.” And while this criticism is true, I see this as a prudent directorial choice. This film isn’t going to provide a comprehensive study on any one social issue, instead, it’s purpose is to open a window for American audiences to see how other countries have taken the idea of the American dream, and run with it. 

There are moments of weakness where Moore’s heavy-handed style gets away from him, and leaves me with my eyes rolling at the simplistic solutions he offers. In the Icelandic section he focuses on the topic of women in leadership. He interviews Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the first democratically elected woman president in the world, who’s personal story of single motherhood and political achievements is inspiring. Moore then gathers a handful of the country’s top female executives to discuss the secrets of their success, they share tremendous insights about the importance of cultivating a leadership that reflects gender equality. But Moore goes on, through a sappy montage, to postulate that if there were more female leaders there would be less war and a new global way of thinking that prioritizes children, health, and communal wellbeing. History has shown us otherwise with the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi, and Moore does a disservice to the articulate Icelandic women he interviews and their emphasis on cultivating a society where equality and moral obligation for our neighbors is more important than the pursuit of individual prosperity. It’s not just about being female; it’s about being a better human being.

Frustrations with Moore’s simplified solutions aside, Where to Invade Next presents a needed opportunity for Americans to question our own culture and our power to change it. The film doesn’t live up to Moore’s thesis—we don’t walk away with ways to adopt the best social policies of his “conquered” countries—but the film does succeed in cultivating a taste for more than we’ve been putting up with in the United States. Where to Invade Next has the potential to be Moore’s most people pleasing film yet, regardless of a viewer’s politics, religious beliefs, or cultural biases, we can all agree that it’s time to discuss improvements to our daily lives, and public school lunches are as good a place to start as any.

Living the Fantasy

Until last week, online fantasy sports betting was a prosperous and unregulated new industry, but things are shifting as Nevada regulators determined that fantasy sites are not skill-based, but rather a form of gambling.

These quick leagues offer instant satisfaction compared to the traditional fantasy leagues where participants were stuck with the team they chose before the start of the season.

I recently saw Living the Fantasy, a straightforward documentary which follows several top fantasy football players during the 2014 season. Living the Fantasy tells a story, but like most art, it also helps us ask questions. This look into the world of online fantasy sports raises questions about the allure of quick money and the contradictions of internet-based community—about how we interact, compete, and commune. Traditional, real-life fantasy leagues brought individuals together and stimulated people’s imaginations. With the shift to online fantasy sports, gamers are isolated in their pursuits, and the payoff shifts from the thrill of competition to a million dollar jackpot. Yet, even with the changes and the questions they raise, there is something powerful in watching people compete.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with the director of Living the Fantasy, Joshua Adler, about his film and the questions it raises.

Sarah Hanssen: Can you tell me about the genesis of Living the Fantasy? Why did you think this was a story worth telling?

Joshua Adler: I’m a filmmaker first, but a big sports fan as well. I’ve been playing fantasy sports for many years (even when I was in film school at Columbia). I discovered daily fantasy games about three years ago and found myself playing practically every day.

In September of 2013, I was on a site called DraftStreet (which has since been acquired by one of the largest daily fantasy sports providers, DraftKings) and I was playing a daily fantasy baseball game that night. There’s a chat board on the site that shows up at the bottom of the page. You couldn’t avoid seeing it. And I noticed people would write the most absurd and obnoxious things on it. I saw that someone wrote “Fuck Mark Teixeira. I hope he fucking dies of testicular cancer.”

That intrigued me. What kind of people are so obsessed with this game that they, even jokingly, wish testicular cancer on a stranger because he had a bad day at the plate?

That’s the genesis. I wanted to learn who these people were. However, I never really learned who “that person” is. But it was the beginning of wanting to make a documentary on the subject.

SH: Were there any moments or angles you wish you could have included in this film that didn’t make the final cut? What else do you wish audiences could know about in the fantasy sports world?

JA: We started making this documentary quickly. The world was blowing up so fast that we could hardly keep up. Time was a factor, and if we started making the film today, it would be significantly different, more well thought out. However, while it wouldn’t simply be a document of how fast the fantasy world was changing in 2014, we could have delved into the speed of the change a little more. When we started, no one really knew about DraftKings or FanDuel. Now, you can’t turn on the television without seeing one of their ads.

I also would have also have liked to explore the “gambling” aspect of this world a bit more. It’s a fascinating question whether this is a skill or gambling, and my thoughts changed back and forth as we shot the film.

SH: After being immersed in this world as long as you were, what do you think are the pros and cons of the online fantasy league world? Is it bad for society? Is it risky for human beings?

JA: My father said something years ago that has always stuck with me: “Anything in moderation is okay.” Of course there are exceptions to this rule.

That’s the simple answer.

Fantasy sports has been great for sports. For instance, basketball has really embraced fantasy. People like me, who were never big fans of basketball have found how much fun it is to play and through it I have become a basketball fan now. It’s also fun. I’ve had experiences where I’ve had a $20 team and been up to win a million dollars. Nothing beats watching football on a Sunday when you have a legitimate shot of winning big money with your fantasy team.

And trust me, if you don’t know anything about the sport, you’re not going to come close to winning money. That’s the big difference between this and sports betting. Anyone can go to a sports book and put money down on different teams. And anyone will win some and lose some. With this game, you have to know the players and the match ups.

Yet fantasy sports has been terrible for sports. As we say in our documentary (or as people we interviewed said), it’s broken sports down into plays and moments. People who play fantasy, none of them watch games anymore. No one roots for teams. It’s players. It’s moments. I personally can’t watch Sunday football without my computer open—scanning box scores of all the other games.

Fantasy Sports seems tailor-made for the ADHD generation. And it works. The purity of sports is totally fucked. Don’t get me wrong, I personally love it, but it’s still fucked.

As my father said “anything in moderation” and that goes double for fantasy sports.   

SH: Would you have any caveats for people just considering giving it a try? I ask, for two reasons: I’d like to know what you see as the ethical conundrum in this world of fantasy league wagers, and I’d like to know for more personal applications. Modern human existence feels so isolating with less and less face to face interaction. Doesn’t this amplify that problem?

JA: Modern human existence is isolating. Look at the opening sequence of The Social Network (the credit sequence, that is)—it’s beautifully simple how Fincher takes us through the campus of Harvard before Mark Zuckerberg invented Facebook. It shows Harvard campus on a Friday night and people are talking and interacting and riding bikes and hanging out. None of them are looking at smartphones. Fincher subtly sets up the thesis world that’s about to be changed forever.

However, I don’t know if fantasy sports has anything to do with the isolation through media. That happened long before fantasy sports developed. Fantasy sports (specifically daily fantasy games) has simply adjusted to the world that was created by Facebook and Twitter and so on.

I recommend to friends that they play all the time. If anything fantasy sports brings many people together. Because of it, I seek out friends who might want to go to a bar on a Sunday and watch football with me. For season-long leagues, it gets people to sit together for a day or for a weekend with old friends. It helps facilitate friendships and human interaction.

That being said, you go to a DraftKings event and spend a lot of time watching people watching the games. Most of them (including myself) are staring at their smartphones, checking stats. Is that fantasy sports, or is that the society we live in?

Hell, football stadiums now have the Red Zone playing on the big screen. Why? Because they know that in order to get people to come to the stadium and watch a live game, you have to give them the opportunity to see all the other games so they can follow their fantasy players.

SH: There’s something bittersweet and even disappointing about the fact that none of the characters we follow in Living the Fantasy are winners in the end. For me, this mirrors the experience of gambling. Can you talk a little about this parallel?

JA: It’s interesting that you think there aren’t any real winners at the end of the movie. I swear I’m not saying this, but I think they all win at the end. They just don’t win a million dollars in the last tournament.

I’ve been to Vegas many many many times. I’ve sat at tables with people and I’ve seen it in their eyes that they have gone overboard. They have lost it all. They were praying for that last spin of the wheel to finally turn their luck around. It’s horrible and devastating. I once witnessed a woman being dragged out of a casino by her husband because she blew $15,000 on high-stakes slot machines.

This was not the experience of the people we followed in our documentary. They all had fun; some even won a little or a lot of money. And if they did lose any, it could rightly considered “the price of entertainment.”

On Thought Crimes

Erin Lee Carr is a documentary filmmaker based in New York City. After producing short videos at Vice for several years, she released her first feature length documentary, Thought Crimes in 2015. The film follows the trial and sentencing of Gilberto Valle, the so called New York “cannibal cop,” who was accused of plotting to rape, murder and eat several women. However, the great majority of evidence against Valle exists in the virtual world of the online fetish fantasy community he was part of, not in real world physical proof. The Curator had the chance to talk with Erin about Thought Crimes, and how it confronts the ethical dilemmas of criminalizing fantasies and punishing intentions.

 

Sarah Hanssen: Thought Crimes is a work of journalism, but there are clearly moments of creative expression, can you talk about those creative decisions?

Erin Lee Carr: I think what you see in this film is a collaboration of creative expression as most documentary films are. The editor of this film was Andrew Coffman and it was important to both of us that this not be a tabloid treatment of the Cannibal Cop case but a meditation of what it means to live a different life online. Who is Gil Valle offline and online? Were his google searches thoughts or actions? What ramifications does that have for every day people like you and I? Those are all concepts that we wanted to implement in the film so most of the choices and castings revolved around that.

SH: Even though the film is mainly set in Valle’s unassuming Queens two story home, there’s a dark, unsettling chill that permeates all the material. I doubt I’d want to be in the same room with Valle for days on end, especially after reading the transcripts of his murderous fantasies. Were you ever scared of Valle? In the face of those frightening feelings, what inspired your decision to make Thought Crimes?

ELC: I was not scared of Valle, of course it was a bit weird to know the thoughts and words that landed him in jail, but he was kind of unassuming in person. It was very difficult for Valle to be stuck inside and under house arrest. I think the dark atmosphere that you or the audience may be feeling is the feeling of being trapped.

SH: Your access to Valle is remarkable. How did you cultivate such an intimate atmosphere? and yet, at times I felt like he was performing, that for all the “nice guy,” “average NY cop,” talk, there was a pathological psychopath underneath. Did you ever feel that he was manipulating you? If yes, why did you downplay that side of him from the film?

ELC: Gil and I spoke for nine months before I ever introduced a camera, that was mostly because he was in prison but I definitely think that it helped create comfortable nature of our working relationship. It’s astute to make the observation that he seemed to be acting at certain points but the reality was this — Valle was incarcerated and the case was still being litigated, so he was motivated to act a certain way. I think, that like most humans, there are many different facets of Mr. Valle and we encountered a couple of them.

SH: Your film is not so much a portrait of the “cannibal cop,” as a warning against creating a legal precedent where individuals can be punished for thought crimes, that is, professed criminal conspiracies that do not actually manifest in action. However, as a case study, Valle is not a clear victim of paranoid prosecutors, in fact, he does seem quite capable of following through with his plans of kidnapping and murder. Were you ever tempted to exclude information about Valle in order to tell a story that fit the intention of a film about thought crimes? Or, is there any material that didn’t make the cut which you wish audiences could have seen?

ELC: I feel conflicted about his guilt or innocence and I am definitely not sure that he “would have done it.” I think there were aspects of the case, like the fact that there was no physical evidence, that made it a very weak case for the prosecution. I do think that everything that we wanted audiences to see for the most part made the cut.

SH: I’ve mentioned how impressed I am with the access you had to Valle. Even if a viewer agrees with the idea that Valle cannot be imprisoned for his fantasies, we all recognize that his fetishization of suffering, murder, and cannibalism, are terrifying. Most of us find it easier to ignore this depravity and suppress the knowledge of how cruel human beings can be. Has the making of this film changed how you see humanity?

ELC: I had to look at dark fetish net… a lot. That was fairly difficult for my psyche. I think as a woman, it is very difficult look at women being tortured, a very obvious statement, but true. I know that there is a decent amount of violence against women but this was really next level. To be honest, sometimes I had to shut the computer off and play with with my dog Gary. After the jury reached their “guilty” verdict, Judge Gardephe thanked the them for their time but apologized by saying that the content of this trial involved “material that degrades the human spirit and corrupts the human.” I believe Judge Gardephe was correct.

SH: Finally, what do you hope audiences will take away from Thought Crimes?

ELC: Mostly I wanted people to think. To think about Gil Valle as a human being, to look at the ramifications for our behavior online, to think about first amendment rights in the digital age…all those things are important and worth thinking about.

Haunted Loves

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, the “feminist Iranian vampire-Western,” by award winning, first-time feature director, Ana Lily Amirpour is a riveting clash of stereotypes and genres.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a romance. The Girl, played by Sheila Vand, is the seductive, female protagonist. Her costume alone represents a mismatch of sensibilities—an Iranian chador with a French, striped fishing shirt—making her image a combination of playful flirtation and powerful mystery. Everything about her is a contrast; a fragile, young face, with innocent, piercing eyes, and the violent fangs of a vampire.

The Girl is a wild creature. She observes human behavior from a distance, playfully mimicking, or silently manipulating the powerless people she encounters. Her gaze, like that of any predator, transforms people into prey. We see others as she does, sizing up their value, as a meal, or as a companion. At times this way of seeing humanity is playful, a fresh perspective on our peculiar moves, our inexplicable motivations, or idiosyncratic charms. But the Girl also sees sadness, the anguish that leaks out of emotional wounds. This is the blood pulsing right under the surface, igniting her hunger. The Girl has a clear sense of hierarchy in her meal making. She feeds, not just to satisfy her appetite, but for revenge and justice.

Beyond blood, she enjoys simple things, ’80s synth-pop, skateboarding, and the innocent charm of Arash, played by Arash Marandi. Styled like a James Dean greaser, Arash is also an outsider in the fictional Bad City they inhabit. In contrast to The Girl’s tremendous life or death power, Arash is weak from the start. Humiliated and defenseless, he’s a victim of corrupt characters and unlucky circumstance, still, he maintains his simple heart. His naiveté is what draws The Girl to him. Their opposites attract.

Arash triggers another side of her, his judgment matters to her, like a teenager seeking approval, she strives to impress him, as in the scene where he gives her earring and she pierces her ears on the spot with adolescent bravado. She seems so grateful for his gift, but she is also wrestling with her desire to suck the life out of him.

The audience is privy to their enormous inequality. Arash is no match for The Girl, even as he perceives himself as her savior. To him, she’s a little helpless creature in a big, bad world; he’s a man with a car, ready to rescue her. The most obvious interpretation of the film is one about gender inequality, because The Girl represents the hidden and untapped power of femininity in a chauvinistic world, but this film goes further, allowing us an opportunity to stand back and see how blind we are about others, and even ourselves.

The film moves beyond entertainment and becomes an opportunity to reflect on our limited human understanding, how restricted our perceptions are. How often we think we know what’s in front of us, and yet, the truth would shock us. Arash, as endearing as he is, has no idea who he’s really in bed with. And sometimes, neither do we.

It’s funny to watch someone get it so wrong, but it’s also haunting, because I’m sure I’ve done it too. On a simple note, we don’t know the burdens our neighbors and coworkers carry. We tell ourselves we’d care if we knew, but we usually don’t even bother to see them. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night goes beyond making me think about common courtesy, I think about how we don’t know even those we feel close to.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a love story, albeit a scary one. And the beautiful adventure of love Amirpour portrays is one where the person beside you may be different than you imagined. They may be much stronger, they may destroy you, and you may destroy them. Amirpour’s slow, don’t blink, film, reminds me to keep that alert gaze outside the theater as well, watching for inequality, stereotypes and the unexpected in everyone.

Thoughts on Citizenfour

“One of humanity’s prime drives is to understand and be understood.”—Buckminster Fuller

As a college professor teaching introductory non-fiction filmmaking classes, I spend a lot of time helping students generate ideas and identify the subjects for their work. For first-time filmmakers this can be an exhaustive process. With tastes informed by their consumption of pop culture, they know what they want their film to look and sound like, but they don’t know what they want to say. I begin with a discussion about privileged access. As a viewer, I want to understand something new, “who or what do you have access to that no one else does?”

Citizenfour s the ultimate fulfillment of that question, and Laura Poitras—the film’s director—has spent her life, both professionally and personally, positioning herself to have that access. This isn’t VIP access to celebrities, but admission into the lives of real people, and their trust to have themselves recorded by her, Her most recent film documents Edward Snowden’s efforts to reveal illegal invasions of privacy by the National Security Agency (NSA).

In June 2013, Snowden arranges to meet Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald in Hong Kong, in order to hand over classified documents gathered at his job with the NSA. Citizenfour primarily consists of those days in Snowden’s Hong Kong hotel room.

Compared to when film was shot on actual film and there was no internet distribution, filmmaking has become a far more approachable art form. There’s a sense that anyone can do it. The tools are affordable and user-friendly. There’s dozens of free online tutorials on lighting an interview or storyboarding your documentary. Movies almost seem easy to make.

And, Citizenfour validates that attitude. Poitras shoots in an informal way; there’s nothing flashy or dramatic in her visual style. Noting the long takes, accentuated by focus adjustments and awkward pauses, simple graphics and occasional news footage, a student might even say, “I could do that.” But part of what makes Citizenfour so unnerving is the contrast between this fluid, accessible, directorial style and the unsettling reality of its content.

Yes, “anyone” with a decent camera and mic could have made this film, but only Poitras did. She was the only one whom Snowden trusted for this delicate job. While Snowden went about revealing these secrets through journalists, handing over these documents to the journalists, and then the public, he wanted the process documented by a sympathetic eye. Poitras documented the process.

Poitras has been emphasizing under-reported and anti-establishment stories in her documentation of post 9/11 America. Her work has lead to her repeated detainment at airports—the confidential nature of her footage has resulted in her decision to edit outside of the United States. Snowden chose her because she shares his own fears about a surveillance state. I didn’t learn anything new about the NSA or their vast spying enterprise that was the news of 2013. What I did see was a new kind of relationship and trust that must be cultivated between the filmmaker and her subject. That shared risk and fear of retribution created a bond between them, and the resulting footage resonates with the intimacy of that mutual experience. There’s an adrenaline in the room; we wonder what the personal cost will be to Snowden, and to Poitras herself, for being part of releasing such a massive trove of confidential and damning information. There’s a sense that they are in it together.

Some suspicious part of me also wondered if Citizenfour was just an extension of a selfie. Had Poitras really gotten the ultimate scoop, or just been roped in to holding up the lens for Snowden to show the world what it looked like to be in his shoes? While he claimed to have no personal ambition, by now, among the general public, Snowden is more famous than the documents and data he exposed. Whether you judge or sympathize, you know him. He is public figure. Poitras is a key player in making that happen. Her camera validates the choices Snowden and Greenwald made and her presence in that hotel room confirms how important their voices are.

As I watched Citizenfour I craved some image of Poitras herself. Snowden engages with her directly. Even as he understands that her lens represents millions of viewers, it is her that he interacts with in that room, speaking and looking directly at her. I wanted that camera to turn around and show me who’s perspective I was inhabiting. Poitras stays behind the camera and all we hear is her voice reading the messages she and Snowden exchange behind this bright, sterile hotel room.

In the film Snowden talks about how the press will want to quench their curiosity about who is leaking this information and that he intends to reveal his identity on his own terms with the advice of these trusted journalists. Snowden and Poitras understand our fascination not with the message, but the messenger, and Citizenfour triggers the same curiosity in me. More than wanting to know about Snowden, I am left wanting to know the story of the woman who got us in that hotel room. Does the thrill of being “chosen” by Snowden impact her ability to tell this story? How does she reconcile her role in this situation?

Privileged access. Who or what or where do you have access to that no one else has? Poitras’ unusual choice to sacrifice personal liberties in the pursuit of controversial stories attracts me to her films. Her process and commitment intrigue me. Snowden hopes that more individuals involved in the design and implementation of vast spying machines will come forward, inspired by him. I hope more filmmakers, inspired by Poitras, will come forward and show us what only they can. I hope that they will be individuals propelled, not only by ambition and ideology, but by the curiosity and bravery to confront their own responsibility in the vast media machine they contribute to.

Poitras got what she came for in Snowden. She documents his story, and portrays him in a suspenseful way that keeps audience’s attentive. Still, I wondered if her preconceived ideas about Snowden, whistle blowers and surveillance had hindered her reflexes for other details. Is she just so excited to be in that room, the chosen, trusted secret-keeper, that she no longer questions Snowden? I wanted her to arrive in Hong Kong open to the story, but I think she already knew what she had come to get.

“How often I found where I should be going only by setting out for somewhere else.”―Buckminster Fuller

Return to Mogadishu

As the Battle of Mogadishu, commonly referred to as Black Hawk Down, escalated around him, U.S. Army Ranger, Jeff Struecker reconciled with death. Surrounded by brutal violence and death, that moment of prayer and acceptance, freed him of fear in a way that many soldiers around him found inspirational. Return to Mogadishu: Remembering Black Hawk Down is a 9-minute movie, filmed in 2013, following Jeff and another former U.S. Army Ranger, Keni Thomas, as they return to the war-torn streets of Mogadishu—a trip no other Ranger has risked.

What inspired you to make this short film?

Jim Hocker, the Executive Producer, saw my first film and approached me about making “Return To Mogadishu.” Jeff Struecker’s story had already reached half a million people through a small booklet entitled “Bullet Proof Faith.” After reading the booklet and seeing its impact on soldiers I was thrilled to tell his story through the medium of film. Seeing the stacks of thousands of personal letters written in response to the booklet moved me. Another factor was this story’s connection to the Rwandan genocide. Just before saying yes to RTM I had become involved in seeing Immaculee Ilibagiza’s Rwandan genocide survival story brought to the big screen. When Jeff informed me of the connection between Black Hawk Down and the Rwandan genocide and his desire to apologize to Rwandans, it was clear that I needed to be a part of telling this story through film.

Why is it important for your protagonist to return to Mogadishu?

The power of Jeff’s story is his courage in the face of death. He moved forward in the midst of fear in such a way that his fellow soldiers approached him after the battle, curious about what set him apart during the firefight. We wanted to tell his story in the most powerful way and filming his return to the site of the battle seemed like the most powerful way. It was also the first time anyone from Task Force Ranger had returned and in light of the 20-year anniversary this October, it seemed like an interesting, dangerous and important setting.

Who is your intended audience?

We hope millions of people view this film that come from a variety of backgrounds. Obviously those active in the military or veterans will find a particular interest in it. But we hope that we have told the story in such a way that it is accessible to a broad range of people.

What do you want viewers to walk away with?

Three things come to mind when I think about my hopes for this film. First, I hope that it allows people to get a taste of what our service men and women go through in defense of our nation and are more deeply grateful for the sacrifices that they make to ensure our freedom. I hope this film reaches many who are unfamiliar with the history behind The Battle of Mogadishu and peaks curiosity that leads to a greater education about this particular event. Most people after viewing the film have expressed their desire to watch “Black Hawk Down” and to read the book. Lastly, Jeff Struecker’s faith is central to his experience in Mogadishu. I hope that viewers are curious about his faith and will want to hear more from Jeff about this. The “Hear More From Jeff” link on our site [under “Story”] gives our viewers an opportunity to begin to learn more.

Do you think the soldier’s faith made them better soldiers?

That’s a great question. I think so. Jeff’s ability to move forward courageously in the midst of a terrifying situation as well as his ability to rally others to follow him into the firefight is one example of how his faith made him a better soldier. Jeff competed in the 1996 David L Grange Best Ranger competition and won. He is among the “best of the best” when it comes to soldiers. I think if you asked him he would say that his faith influenced the way that he fought.

The idea that Jeff Struecker is fearless because of his faith raises some difficult ethical issues. On the one hand, we admire his bravery and calm in the face of such violence, but there is also something unsettling about it. It reminds me of how fanatics justify suicide missions. Is there something problematic about the idea of a soldier who feels right with God and prepared to die?

Another great question. I think there is a distinct difference between Jeff’s faith and peace with God and those who engage in violent suicide missions. Jeff’s peace with God was settled not because he was willing to die, but because Jesus died. Jeff wasn’t justifying himself before God by fighting, but because he was justified he was able to face death without fear. Also, Jeff’s objective wasn’t to kill, but to rescue his fellow soldiers who had fallen.

Jesus, preparing to face crucifixion, asked God to spare him. I’ve wondered if that meant Jesus didn’t really know what was to come—He is still laying out His hopes before God, and His hope is for life. The soldiers in your film describe being ready to die because of their faith, but I don’t think Christ was even ready to die. It seems to me that the Bible describes a deep value to human life and resistance to the acceptance of death. So, when I watch your film and the coolness with which the soldier describes his freedom from death, it unnerves me. He explains that “death really became less significant to me in Somalia,” and while that gave him, as an individual, peace, it seems like a dangerous thing to place in the hands of military leaders, an army of soldiers with no fear of death would be a powerful and frightening military force. As you made this film, were you faced with ethical dilemmas of how to tell their story?

I guess I see Jeff and Jesus in a similar position. Jeff didn’t want to die, he very much wanted to live and return home to his family. But, despite their desires to live, Jesus and Jeff were willing to sacrifice their lives for others. In the case of Jesus, he lost his life. Jeff’s story could have ended similarly, but for some reason he survived. What the battle clarified for Jeff was his perspective on life and death and eternity. His time in Somalia crystallized for him the importance of eternity. He has dedicated his life since the battle to inviting others into a relationship with God through Christ: First as a chaplain and now as a pastor. To answer your question about an ethical dilemma, I did not face one. My agenda and objective was to faithfully tell Jeff’s story. I think we’ve done that.

“Valentine Road”: A Moral Tale

Marta Cunningham’s new documentary Valentine Road, which premiered at Sundance in January, takes on a 2008 school shooting in the small town of Oxnard, California. The victim, Lawrence “Larry” King, is an openly transgendered, mixed race, 15-year-old boy who had been in and out of foster care and group homes most of his life. The 14-year-old perpetrator, Brandon McInerney, also endured a traumatic childhood and had joined a neo-Nazi gang just prior to the attack. He’s currently serving a 21-year prison sentence.

The film hinges on intimate interviews conducted by Cunningham. She respects her subjects, and they respond by opening up about their emotions and memories with heart-wrenching detail. Cunningham’s greatest strength lies in her ability to present both victim and perpetrator as sympathetic children. Like any real tragedy, Larry’s murder and the events around it are rife with injustice, prejudice, fear, loneliness, misunderstandings and missed prevention opportunities.

There’s little disagreement as to the day’s events. Multiple students witnessed Brandon fatally shoot Larry at close range in the school’s computer lab. He was apprehended by police near the school shortly thereafter. But Cunningham has her work cut out for her as she explores the causes, motivations, mistakes, and, most significantly, the blame surrounding this horrific crime.

Many voices emerge: the students who loved Larry, the teacher who encouraged him to embrace his transsexual identity, the attorneys emotionally and financially invested in the movement to stop minors from being tried as adults, Brandon’s broken family members and his devoted girlfriend, school administrators who botched any opportunities for healing or change, and, most damningly, the Christian members of the community who believed that Larry was “asking for it.”

The film is full of such comments. One of the teachers at Oxnard’s E.O. Green Junior High School says that Larry was inviting mistreatment when he was open about his sexuality and calmly surmises that he is probably “in hell” now. A handful of other teachers pronounce similar judgments on the victim and those who’d attempted to support him. Of course, Larry wouldn’t have been served well if the adults around him had failed to warn him that he might encounter violence in the world, but it’s unnerving to hear average adult Americans—teachers, parents, community members—imply that a young teenager deserved his own murder.

Why was Larry’s life any less sacred than the unborn whose lives many Christians fight to protect? It seems that the Christians interviewed in Valentine Road deem Larry’s life less valuable—and his death at least explainable—because he identified as transgender and was open about it. But no matter what one’s views on sexuality are, Larry was a human being. All humans are valuable, especially for those who believe that all humans are created in God’s image. That belief is fundamental to the conviction that all human life is inherently worth protecting.

Cunningham is to be commended for piecing together a chilling and complex story that required years of her attention as a filmmaker, and especially for her ability to remain calm while talking to people who almost certainly offended her own liberal convictions. Still, I wonder why more Christian filmmakers aren’t drawn to these issues. I imagine it is because a director must feel a deep sympathy for the subject with such a film, and perhaps some or even many Christians lack that depth of sympathy when it comes to people who identify as anything other than heterosexual.

Christians are called to protect those that are weak, ostracized, alien or victimized. I think of the many social outcasts who found refuge and belonging in the presence of Christ, and I wonder who those people are today. Who are the “tax collectors and prostitutes” of the contemporary world? I imagine they would be anyone society has written off, anyone we would generally think of as worthless or beyond hope. I’m not assuming a particular conclusion about the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality, but simply pointing out that violation of the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” should be at least as upsetting to Christians as seemingly wrong sexual identity choices. Whether or not we think of homosexuality as acceptable, we should feel sympathy toward those among us facing bigotry or threats on their lives.

This is compounded by the fact that our culture generally lacks the courage to take a stand on anything. On the other end of the spectrum from the damning conservative Christian is the open-minded liberal who endeavors to treat all voices and opinions as equal. Valentine Road does exactly that, showing us how both Larry and Brandon were victims of childhood abuse, how the adults around them failed to protect them, how unloved and isolated they had been. Larry is portrayed as having been a free spirit, a person who had come to terms with who he was and was openly exploring what that would mean for him in the world. Brandon is a tortured and confused youth, loved by his devoted girlfriend but scarred by a traumatic childhood and misled by neo-Nazi gang members, who is being tried as an adult for a crime he committed right after his 14th birthday.

While it’s evident that both the crime and the response to the crime were a mess, Cunningham fails to bring Valentine Road to an appropriate conclusion. Instead she leaves the audience in artful ambiguity. Is it right or wrong to try a child for murder? Were the adults in Larry’s life protecting him sufficiently from the discrimination he would face? Why had no one noticed Brandon’s burgeoning neo-Nazi fascination and realized violence was brewing? Cunningham fails to take on these big questions. She falls into the postmodern trap of raising questions and then standing back with an all-knowing look and declaring “but there are no right answers.”

This is not to say a film can’t revel in telling ambiguities. But I think there is a right answer to whether or not a minor should be tried as an adult. The answer is no. There is also a right way to honor young Lawrence King’s memory. While candlelight vigils may comfort his friends, they do not address the source of the problem. Teachers and parents in small-town America need to face the hatred that they have tolerated for too long and take some adult measures to prevent emotionally disturbed children from walking around with guns.

“Life of Pi” Isn’t Enough

Life of Pi, Ang Lee’s new film based on the 2001 fantasy adventure novel by Yann Martel, tackles the uncinematic tale of a teenage boy surviving at sea with a Bengal tiger. With few typical Hollywood conventions—no romance, chase scenes or celebrities—Lee and writer David Magee are nonetheless challenged with the task of entertaining audiences for a full two hours.

The book is organized in three sections, and the film follows that format. The first section of the film explores Pi’s childhood living on the grounds of a zoo his father owns and operates in Pondicherry, a formerly French-controlled territory in southern In India. Lee takes advantage of 3D technology especially in these opening sequences where the bright landscape and exotic wildlife of tropical India come to life with the startling 3D flight of a hummingbird or the vibrant movements of a flock of flamingoes.  For the second section, Lee continues to exploit the 3D into the Pacific where the majority of the films is set on Pi’s lifeboat, amongst dramatic storms and sea creatures.  Of course, at this point the foremost concern is the giant CG tiger trying to eat the young man.  The third and final section of the film is the recounting of Pi’s survival at sea. Forced to explain the sudden sinking of the ship to representatives of the Japanese officials who oversaw the ship, Pi tells two versions of his tale. All of this is neatly packaged as a conversation between the grown Pi peacefully speaking to an aspiring young writer from the safety and comfort of his Canadian home.

While the film is visually stimulating and honors the book well, it leaves much to be desired. I was not as impressed by what took place before my eyes than by the questions about stories and the nature of narrative the film provoked. As the narrator tells this mesmerizing and unbelievable tale, he also offers the more realistic version, leaving it up to viewers to choose which story they prefer.

It doesn’t give away the end to talk about the fantastical nature of the film and how we are asked to explore the limits of believability. A teenage castaway struggling to survive the glorious and terrible expanse of the Pacific on a lifeboat with an adult Bengal tiger is not a believable premise, yet it is sufficiently entertaining that we are adequately consumed by the details and characters of the story and we want to believe it even if doing so goes against our better judgment.

That appreciating any narrative requires a leap of faith is a plain fact. Filmmakers take us on imaginary journeys, either by the suspense of a horror film or the longed-for consummation of a romance. We tolerate many inconsistencies and stretches of the truth in an effort to hold onto a larger story. The problem with this film is that the larger story holds few truths at all.

Instead, Lee is content simply to ask questions: Who is God? Which religion is true? Are they opposed to each other? How do we know if God is real? Writer, Magee, puts it plainly, “Our goal in writing the film the way we did was to make sure that you could read the story, or stories, in any way you wanted to, and it would be more of a reflection on your own belief system at the end.”  For me, that simply isn’t enough. I don’t need a film to function as a mirror to my own ambiguity and doubt, rather, I crave the exposure to alien perspectives, the sense of experiencing someone else’s reality and the clarity of those details.  Life of Pi offers none of those opportunities.

Still, Lee gets some points for taking on a beloved book and posing these questions.  He goes on to say “I think we always need to pretend to reach the truth … so, I keep doing it. I keep finding new ways to go to the oldest place, to the youngest place.” In that effort, he succeeds. I was left hungering for more substance and that is something most films fail to inspire. Now, off to chew on some more substantial films.

 

 

 

 

 

An Oversimplification of Her Beauty

Combining live action, animation, interviews and formal narration, Terence Nance’s feature film An Oversimplification of Her Beauty is a creative patchwork that delves deep into the emotional life of the main character. Triggered by the seemingly minor event of being stood up, Terence takes the opportunity to reflect and brings us on a journey where self doubt is explored in drawings, clay or papier-mâché, and regrets are best confronted in lingering sensual close-ups, tasting the misunderstanding over and over. Nance’s approach to storytelling is much closer to the disjointed and imprecise narratives in our minds than anything we’d find in a well constructed Hollywood spectacle. Here, time, place and characters are second to the themes of memory, mood and the visual manifestation of emotions, arriving at a film that feels more like being sat down and told a story, with photo albums and music playing, than the sentimental bombardment we’re accustomed to in a movie theater.

Filmmaker Terence Nance

Sarah Hanssen: This film seems so very personal, but the somewhat stunted and bumbling Terrence character in the film doesn’t seem like someone who could complete a feature film. What parts of your on-screen character did you play up and what parts did you have to throw aside in the interest of the work?

Terence Nance: Well my performance is sort of my take on Mr. Hulot (by Jacques Tati) and it is the sort of mishap-prone, Barry Lyndon part of myself– I definitely exaggerated that part of me for the film. I think the more aggressive / self-assured me is in the subtext of the film but also the film is a portrait of a me that doesn’t exist anymore. I was a Student first of all and that is a very distant reality from the “me” who completed the film.

SH: Between animations, live action, music and more, there seemed to be so much precious material. Editing must have been a challenge. As you cut the film, what were the pieces you hated to see go?

TN: The pieces that took years to animate were hardest to cut from the film. After seeing it several times with audiences however, the ‘preciousness’ of everything has slowly bled out of me.

SH: How has this experience influenced your artistic goals? As you gear up for your next project, how does the feedback and success you’ve experienced affect you?

TN: Well, it is just clear that from now going forward I’m working in a context that includes more publically held expectations. I think building a creative space that allows me to ignore them is probably best. I think however the sharing experience can change your purpose for making work. I think the process has kind of steeled me against re-framing the “why” of making something.

SH: Did you ever have a moment of doubt and crisis as you made the film?

TN: Not really doubt or crisis, but I did have several moments of thinking the film would be done and then my certantity of finishing getting suddenly undermined by an unfortunate series of events. I practice Yoruba and I had a reading from a friend of mine’s priestess from Bahia (in Brazil.) She gave me a message from the Orisha that I can’t share but I can say that it put me on track to finish the film the following year.

SH: One of the missions of this publication is to create “the world that ought to be” through the arts. With that in mind, how have you improved the world through this film? Even just your own world?

TN: Well I think I finished my first feature film. It sounds trite maybe but for me the… relief I experience of just getting it finished. Just the expressing of it feels GREAT. Not from a perspective of catharsis, personal or artistic, either it just feels good to be able to make something else. So I think that is how it improved my world.

For the world in general, I think films like mine with Black people in them that are non-traditional aesthetically or thematically are sort of always at the brink of extinction. Luckily every few years a little air gets put back in the lungs of films of this nature (most recently Medecine for Melancholy). So hopefully someone who has an idea that is weird and Black will feel empowered, because my film proves they aren’t alone.

SH: While it would surely be an accomplishment if more unusual and racially diverse stories made it into movie theaters, I think you can take more credit than that. Your film won’t just inspire like minded people to make work– it reaches to a much wider audience. Films that are a genuine personal expression of the individual behind them are rare and refreshing in our media- saturated environment, but when we see one we know it.  For those of us who want to pursue our own creative art making, it is an encouragement along the way, and for those of us who get carried away in the world of An Oversimplification of Her Beauty for an hour and a half, it is something real in a world where most moving images are fakes.

A Neighborhood Divided

The documentary Battle for Brooklyn, co-directed by Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky,  follows community activist Daniel Goldstein as he fights to preserve his community in the face of the massive Atlantic Yards development that threatens to carve up Prospect Heights.  The proposed project would displace many lifelong residents as well as those new to the charming Brooklyn neighborhood. However, not all of Goldstein’s neighbors agree as, lured by the promise of affordable housing and jobs, many have sided with the developers.
Sarah Hanssen: As a native New Yorker, one of the things that really struck me as I watched the film was how divided the community seemed. Why do you think this is?
Michael Galinsky: The community was divided because the developer set out to divide them and did it very successfully.   The people divided will always be defeated and the developer did things like help create local groups to support the project, promising them jobs.  The people who supported the project got jobs but very few others did. The media was also very involved in this campaign, playing into the PR playbook and printing what they were asked to print.  There was no real reporting on the project so it was nearly impossible for people to get a sense of what was going on.

SH: Why did you devote so much of your own time to this project? How invested were you personally in the outcome of the Atlantic Yards development?

MG: As filmmakers we [Hawley and I] follow stories because that’s what we do.  As a neighborhood resident, I personally thought the project was a bad idea, but we tried not to be involved in the fight so that we could make a film that wasn’t a partisan attack.  That would have turned off the very people we wanted to reach with it.

SH: How did your own opinions impact the way in which you made this film?

Daniel Goldstein in Battle for Brooklyn. Photo by Tracy Collins.

MG: We tried really hard to make the film as even handed as possible.  At the same time, our main character was the leader of the fight against it.  As such, if the viewer gets to the end of the film and isn’t against the project then we have failed as storytellers, because then they aren’t with the main character.

SH: Has following this process changed your opinion of our legal system?

MG: We already were pretty suspect of politics and such, but this was a painful wake-up call to how deeply corrupt the system is.  The fact that the railyards could be handed over to the favored developer for a vastly lower sum was pretty mind boggling. It was a lesson in the harsh realities of power.

SH: This publication strives to support artists who are creating “the world that ought to be.” Even in some small way, how would you hope this film changes the world? How has making it changed you?

MG: Making the film changed us a great deal as members of our community.  We came to understand the ins and outs of local politics, and we came to understand the divisive power of power in regards to race and class.  The film has done a lot to galvanize communities all over the country who are facing similiar issues, and did a great deal to wake us up to the play book that is used to divide communities whenever those in power want to push something through.

SH: Finally, with so much injustice and so many neglected stories out there, how might you encourage either burgeoning activists or emerging filmmakers who might be starting out on a similar endeavor?

MG: Find a good story, stick to it, tell it and don’t give up when you can’t find support.  Questioning power is never a good way to get people in positions of power to help you out, so don’t expect help– just make work.

For screenings and more information, visit battleforbrooklyn.com.

Unraveled, but Not Undeceived

Marc Simon’s latest documentary, Unraveled, delves into the mind of Marc Dreier, an attorney convicted of fraud. Overshadowed by the Bernie Madoff scandal, Dreier’s story, though in the press, might still be news to viewers. What’s most unusual is Simon’s access to Dreier for the weeks he is under house arrest prior to his sentencing.Marc Drier under house arrest.

House arrest is a drudgery, even in the swanky, New York apartment of a multimillionaire. The breathtaking views and clean, modern decor do not soften the monotony and claustrophobia that pervade the film. I frequently wanted to escape myself. While the limited locations do not make for great cinematography or compelling visuals, the true action takes place within the mind. Drier’s confinement results in some unexpected introspection. Initially, he seems open to both confessing his guilt and being apologetic for the catastrophic outcomes. But, as he begins to examine his own motives, his instinct to justify and explain away his own culpability takes hold. Drier goes on to say that he was not a unique criminal, postulating that many people, if given the opportunity, would have also manipulated the system for their own gain. Witnessing a bright and articulate man make excuses for his fall is uncomfortable, but it is also valuable to see the ease with which self deception and justification can take hold. We know he is lying to himself in order to live with his massive guilt, the weight of which is too much for this weak man to bear.

Listening to Dreier’s justifications, I could not help but be reminded of a small child arguing with his parent. In the face of an impending punishment, a child will attempt to justify their misbehavior, frequently citing that other children get away with such infractions. And yet, as a parent, I know you cannot be swayed but such arguments. In a child’s mind this seems unfair, ‘Why does so and so get to when I don’t?’ The child does not fully comprehend the consequences of his actions or the validity of the parent’s rule. Similarly, Dreier bucks all moral authority when he commits his frauds and goes on to rebel against the rule of law when he attempts to explain away his crimes.

Watching a grown man maneuver through the world with the ethical mentality of a child is discouraging, and this disappointment is magnified when we see the great wealth and success he was able to attain. His schemes were never complex, but they worked nonetheless.

It’s no surprise that there are people like Dreier who are ruled by their desire for wealth and power. What is most unsettling about Dreier’s story is not the peek into his mentality, but the implications they have on our view of humanity. We imagine that it’s difficult to get away with fraud, and think of a complex, interwoven Hollywood film, but it didn’t take a mastermind to manipulate the lending system, just a proud and greedy individual. It is alarming that such a bumbling and obvious deception could go on for as long as it did. And in a sense, Dreier’s supposition that someone else in his position would have also seized the opportunity seems accurate. Is it really that easy to steal millions? Still, Dreier is unique in some sense; it may have been easy to be tempted, but it takes a rare person to live with the weight of such guilt after the fact.

Facing the possibility of life in prison, Dreier has moments of self reflection and clarity. His musings, though insightful at times, also pose a question. Should the perpetrators of crimes be given their own soap box? Does the projection of their story somehow diminish the suffering they inflicted on others? Even as I experienced moments of sympathy for Dreier, I also felt confused; I didn’t want to see the human side of a person it would be easier to dismiss as greedy and corrupt, but that is exactly where Simon takes the viewer.

Unraveled, while valuable for its privileged access to the subject, is missing the counterpoint. While I was absorbed in Dreier’s storytelling, it was not sufficient to hear his side alone, especially because his voice was so inflated with self deception.

I Am, the Movie

I couldn’t help it, with a film titled “I Am”  it just seemed fitting to share it with the readers at The Curator, the web publication of IAM. Plus, the theme was applicable. It’s a film about one man’s journey to answer some of the most profound questions of life: what’s wrong with our world, and what can we do to make it better?

The man on this journey is Tom Shadyac, a Hollywood film director whose comic blockbusters, “Ace Ventura,” “Liar Liar,” “The Nutty Professor” and “Bruce Almighty” had earned him a luxurious lifestyle and hefty bank account. However, after an accident leaves Shadyac with a debilitating injury, he finds himself looking for deeper meaning and purpose in life. The film follows Shadyac as he interviews visionaries like Bishop Desmond Tutu, Dr. Noam Chomsky, historian Dr. Howard Zinn, physicist Lynne McTaggart, and poet Coleman Banks. Along the way he sheds the trappings of his success, such as wealth and excessive consumption, and finds a simpler, more rewarding path.

At first I was put off by the way in which Shadyac displays the act of throwing off his wealth. I wondered if he wanted me to like him more because I had seen the vast mansion he had left behind. But I couldn’t relate to it at all. I didn’t like him because of his wealth. Why had he ever wanted to live in such a den of excess to begin with? Didn’t the private jet feel like too much?

Most of the people I know work hard for their livings and they don’t earn the kind of compensation Shadyac was accustomed to. They tend to be generous and hospitable. They don’t have everything, but what they have is yours to share in, for the most part. But maybe that becomes more of a challenge the more you have. I began to see just how difficult it must have been to let go of wealth, not just to lose your individual comforts, but how it will affect those around you. All those with riches, everyone entrenched in the pursuit of wealth, will feel condemned by this act.

We all know this feeling or a similar shade of it. Maybe a guest comes over and, with empty beer bottle in hand, says “Where is your recycling?” but you haven’t gotten around to setting up the bins to organize your waste, instead you just pile it all in the garbage, shamefully. Or maybe you neglected to vote one year and your coworker wants to commiserate about how crowded the poles were. Or maybe your friend goes on a service trip to build houses in New Orleans while you go skiing in Lake Tahoe. Whatever it is that you want to be achieving, the person you think you should be, the behavior you envision yourself doing, it stings to see others doing it while we fail. Not only that, but we might even resent those people, just as, I imagine, Shadyac’s neighbors, and all those in elite tax brackets, might harbor disdain for Shadyac; he makes them look bad.

During the course of the film, Shadyac deftly transforms those feelings of guilt, resentment or powerlessness into potential for lasting change. He confirms our instincts that little things count, that we are all connected and that it is the percentage of giving, not the quantity that matters. The film arrives at a place of affirmation and positivity, leaving viewers feeling excited about the potential steps they too can take to better the world. Exiting the theater, we were all asking one another what we could do to make the world better, not just ruminating on what Tom Shadyac was doing.

Despite the similarity of names, I Am is not affiliated with International Arts Movement, publisher of The Curator.

photo by:

Tiny Furniture and Tiny Milestones

In Tiny Furniture, Aura (Lena Dunham), a recently single college grad returns home to her mother’s TriBeCa loft with no idea what comes next. While her mother and over achieving younger sister are off touring colleges, Aura takes in Jed (Alex Karpovsky), a broke, YouTube comic ‘celebrity’ on a so-called business trip. Aura is too busy with her own self-pity to mind Jed leeching off of her kindness, nor does she recognize that she is really just allowing him to leech off her mother. Instead, she wastes her days working as a hostess at a restaurant around the corner, taking reservations and flirting with Keith (David Call) whose enthusiasm for prescription drugs and pornography should be sufficient red flags to prompt any self- respecting individual to run away.

David Call and Lena Dunham in "Tiny Furniture."

Typically, I wouldn’t have much sympathy for a character like Dunham’s; she is a privileged young woman prone to complaining about her lack of direction in life, but Dunham’s performance does draw me in. Her character may not be very likable, but she feels real, and while there are surely more dramatic topics to explore, I admire that this filmmaker wasn’t trying to tell a story she didn’t know, but rather, took the risk of creating a work that was close to home, albeit somewhat self-indulgent.

Herself a recent college graduate and the daughter of a successful artist, the character of Aura is pretty close to home for Dunham. The charged moments between mother and daughter owe their authenticity to the fact that the onscreen mother is Dunham’s real life mother, artist Laurie Simmons, so too are her sister and high school friend. The performances she captures are singed with reality, but it isn’t lazy casting; it is a wise choice for a director who doesn’t have access to more experienced talent.

Still, one can’t escape the fact that the film has no narrative of value. It is simply a moment in a young woman’s life. It is a time marked by confusion, self-centeredness and dejection. The young woman herself is not exceptional or sympathetic, and neither is the film, but it did make me wonder what well-educated young people are likely to do once they are out of academia. Aura’s predicament doesn’t seem that unusual these days as more and more people rely on their parents for money, food and shelter well into their twenties. It seems like most people graduate with hardly any real life skills and some transitional dependence upon their parents is necessary in order to get them up to speed with the responsibilities of making it to work on time and the nuances of online bill paying.

So what should we expect from recent college grads? Poor economy aside, do we expect them to buy homes? Travel? Get married? Party? Have kids? What is the ideal we should present to young people? While rigid cultural roles may seem restrictive, this film illustrates just how bad it can be when there are no goals or role models. And with that in mind, I am impressed that Lena Dunham wrote, directed and starred in her own film.

Insecurity, Creativity, and Superiority

At the end of The Social Network, David Fincher’s film chronicling the creation of the social networking site Facebook, I found myself asking the question, What motivates my own creativity? Why do I feel the need to make or say something meaningful? I know the answer isn’t all benign. Mixed with the joy of creating and communicating are feelings of insecurity and the need to prove my worth. In the film, ingenuity is sparked by a bruised ego, and creativity perseveres on the power of pride.

Advertisements for the film capitalized on audiences' conflicting judgements of Mark Zuckerberg.

The film version of Mark Zuckerberg desperately wants to be heard and is driven by a deep need for recognition. Zuckerberg is clearly self-centered. Although I doubt he was the only one without looks, ladies, or style, he fancies himself a social outcast among the rich and privileged on Harvard’s elite campus. The character on screen is not very sympathetic, but the onscreen story is so appealing because we all experience similar emotions. We might not lie or mislead people to get recognized, but everyone wants to be valued by others — it’s part of why we end up on facebook.com.

But the film is also about being a social outcast. When you are on the outside, it’s easy to sit there stewing and thinking up all the clever things you’d say if you were in that perfect, popular place. And that is just the kind of motivation that drives Zuckerberg’s character to program his days and nights away and arrive at thefacebook.com.

Typically, lead characters are appealing, but Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg is far from flattering, and it’s no wonder the real life Mark Zuckerberg isn’t pleased with the picture that is painted. The film has other appealing characteristics — fast-paced editing, a little humor, terrific casting, and a clever score — but the film succeeds for a different reason. The Social Network illustrates the road to unfathomable wealth and success, but the man who gains the riches is no better off in the end. It’s a story we welcome while the economic downturn has most of us tightening our belts. We spend a lot of time daydreaming about how much better our lives would be if we only a little bit more — just enough to pay for healthcare, or just enough to fix the car. We don’t dream big these days; they are modest fantasies.

Still, while watching The Social Network, wealth and comfort seem like one lucky idea away. But instead of provoking our jealousy, David Fincher allows us to feel superior. We don’t want to relate to this character; we want to condemn him and his money. We see ourselves as the moral superiors to this billionaire. Not only would we not engage in the manipulations and deceptions we see here, but we can also look down on the petty injury that started it all. As a Christian, I am relieved that the film doesn’t stir emotions of jealousy and envy when portraying wealth, but on the other had, it does inspire some problematic feelings of moral superiority.  In the end, I am just as guilty as Zuckerberg when it comes to evaluating myself against others.

Last Summer at Coney Island: An Interview with J.L. Aronson

J.L. Aronson’s new film, Last Summer At Coney Island, documents the recent turmoil and transformation along the historic boardwalk.  Worn down over time, Coney Island isn’t how most people might imagine it– its past splendor hidden behind broken signs and cheap plastic prizes– but rebuilding isn’t as easy as you would assume.  City officials, real estate developers, old time amusement employees and residents clash over the direction of the proposed plans.  Aronson’s film delves into the question of whether it’s possible to recapture the lost glories of a national icon, or better to raise a brand new kind of spectacle.

J.L. Aronson films the closing of Astroland at Coney Island.

After your other films, one about artist Daniel Smith and his band Danielson, and another featuring a Brooklyn pigeon keeper, how did you stumble onto Coney Island as a subject matter?

Well, it was just the other day that I realized my first professional gig as a video producer was in Coney Island when I was 26. I had just completed my first feature length film (a music doc) and a friend was starting this music festival in Coney called “Siren” featuring bands like Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Guided By Voices. They wanted someone to shoot it and edit a piece they could use to sell people on the festival for the next year. The gig went to me and through making connections out there, I then got hired to do a TV commercial for Astroland Amusement Park, the biggest and oldest park in Coney Island, and the focus of my new film. When Astroland was sold in late 2006, along with many other key properties in the amusement area, I knew it was a story. I was really just attracted to documenting a time and place as it was about to change. And because I had connections to the park and could get introductions to other key people out there, I figured there’d be few better people to tell this story than me. I quickly realized that this was a sort of sequel to my previous film, Up on the Roof, which looks at the transformation of a very different Brooklyn neighborhood as seen from the perspective of old timers who raise pigeons on their rooftops. Perhaps it’s 2/3 of a New York trilogy.

As a person of faith, I am disheartened by the chasm I see between the rich and poor in our culture.  If you believe the commercials, “happiness” costs a pretty penny and leaves most of us still wanting more.  One of the ideas about Coney Island that strikes me from the start of your film is this concept of the “people’s playground.”  What does that mean exactly?

Well, Coney Island, as a destination, started out as a getaway spot for the wealthy in the 2nd half of the 19th century. But, with the new subway lines, it quickly developed into this unparalelled spectacle that was affordable and open to everyone. For many decades it continued that tradition of having something for everyone, but really pandering to the masses. Popular culture was pioneered in Coney Island. After World War II, three main components brought major changes to Coney Island: air conditioning, affordable automobiles and the Verranzano Bridge. After that, more New Yorkers had options of where to go for their relaxation. The least affluent still headed to Coney, but with a decreased audience and quite a bit of neglect on the City’s part, things kind of collapsed. Since the sixties, it’s lumbered on but with fewer and fewer attractions.

One of the things that I think about when watching a film like yours is that it is so difficult to balance between educating and entertaining. Viewers oscillate between wanting to escape into their media and actually seeking out films that challenge them. In your film, there is a lot of information viewers need to absorb in order to follow the developments, but at the same time, you’ve got to keep us engaged. How did you tackle this problem? What do you think works in general?

This seems to be a huge challenge to any documentary that isn’t about a competition. It’s an endless effort of trial and failure but there are a few techniques that seem to work. First, you can’t have just one person explain some complicated backstory. It’s got to come from multiple voices. Three or four should do, back and forth, almost like they’re having a conversation, though sometimes they’ll be contradicting each other and that’s okay so long as it doesn’t get too confusing for the audience. Add music and stir. If all else fails, try animation. And honestly, you can only whop people with thickets of facts in digestible spoonfuls. So those parts of the film need to be separated by lighter scenes. I can only imagine how hard it must be when you’re making a film like The Corporation or Why We Fight.

Finally, on a more personal note, your life is about to take a very different turn from the boardwalk and editing room. You’ll be focusing on your Buddhist practice almost exclusively for the next year. How did you know it was time for such an intense sabbatical? How do you expect it will influence your creative endeavors in the future?

I’ve felt ready for a ‘sabbatical’ for several years now, it’s just that my projects have overlapped and I always think at the inception of a new project that it’ll be easy and less time consuming [than it actually becomes]. When I started this one, however, I promised myself that it would be the last one, so I could take a break. And the need for that just became more and more apparent. Not because things became super-stressful or anything, just because I felt increasingly like this was something I really wanted to do. If you live in New York and work as a freelancer while putting all your spare time and money into your own projects, you’re not left with much time for whatever transformation you might feel drawn to. I’m very fortunate that I have the freedom to alter course, or press pause, that’s for sure. But I really can’t say what the result will be. I’d like to pick up a still camera again and maybe do some writing. But I feel pretty open to where it might lead. I’m not thinking at all about future films right now. I guess you could say being a documentarian has trained me in the avoidance of expectations.

Our House: An Interview with Greg King

Greg King’s new documentary, Our House, is about an experimental Christian community in Brooklyn. Led by several young, punk, vegan Christians, Our House is an abandoned warehouse-turned-homestead for the chronically homeless and recovering addicts. The handful of individuals who end up living there experience a new kind of community, one where prayer and love abound. Beautifully shot and delicately edited, the film is sure to challenge the viewer’s ideas of community and definition of home.

Since the film centers on a community that tries to hide from public view, how did you find “Our House”?
I was invited to one of their prayer meetings one night by a friend of a friend of the Our House guys, who herself was visiting New Y0rk, interested in starting a Christian community there. The story of how she learned of them is rather long, but I could summarize it by pointing out that there is a network of “intentional Christian communities” growing in the United States, and I simply tapped into it through random connections. My friend and I were having dinner, and she invited me to tag along with her to meet the guys one cold early March night, because she thought I might find it interesting. When we got to the building, I couldn’t believe there were people living in it, as it was a long-abandoned warehouse that looked like no one had set foot in it in a decade. Derek – one of the dreadlocked squatter punks – answered the door, and led us into the pitch-black space (we used our cell phones as flashlights), where the only light (and heat) came from this tent they had hung inside, filled with candles and a propane heater, and a dozen people huddled within. They welcomed us warmly, and continued on with group prayer, singing, and discussion. I was immediately transfixed at the intimacy of their lifestyle and spirit, and wanted to document the community on film right away.

Setting out to take over an abandoned warehouse and make it into a home for the chronically homeless is ambitious to begin with, but these young men also choose to live there themselves. For a viewer who can’t imagine making such an extreme lifestyle choice, what would you want them to take away from the film? How can they relate?
The Our House building was just one manifestation of how the young men behind it engage with the poor and less fortunate around us. They have all made commitments to invest time in the lives of others in simple, concrete ways, and the building was a culmination of that, not a starting point. Derek was inspiring to me for the casual approach he has in striking up conversations with just about anyone he meets on the street, and developing authentic friendships. JP spent a lot of one-on-one time with Dan, teaching him weight-lifting and sharing rich conversations about their life experiences, so that Dan knew he could always turn to JP for support on his road to recovery from drugs. Neil “escorted” Monica on appointments in New York City, holding her hand in reassurance when she had to pass by neighborhoods where she used to get high, in support of her newfound sobriety. To them, it wasn’t about creating another program or shelter, but developing friendships and relationships of love and concern for people less fortunate. Whether or not they had a physical building, they were guided by a desire to personally know people living on the street, and help them in any way they could. My hope is that viewers would be inspired by the film to find their own means of doing the same in their neighborhoods and cities.

While we never hear your voice, the presence of the filmmakers is clearly felt as the subjects address the camera. What was your relationship with the people in the house like? Were there ever any ethical or personal dilemmas in making the film?
The guys who started Our House were very accommodating, allowing us to start filming soon after meeting them. Not everyone living in the space wanted to be on camera, and we respected their wishes, but those folks seen in the film were basically open to it from the get-go. I think because of the personalities of the Our House founders, their generosity of spirit to try and appreciate the reality of anyone they met, and the kind of lifestyles the residents have had living on the street, it really wasn’t a big deal to them to be filmed. “Documentaries” weren’t a part of their life experiences, really, so they were natural on camera and didn’t think too much of it.

While at first we felt somewhat awkward in our role as “filmmakers” (we mostly worried that they would think we were square, since we had no tattoos or piercings), before long we became friends with the group, especially after they were kicked out of the building. We never felt any ethical dilemmas really, but we were wrapped up in the fates of some of the residents once they had to move out. I personally became close to Dan Taylor and was really worried about what would happen to him. There was one time that I was shooting on my own, and I just couldn’t film him, because it was on the eve of his having to leave the building, and it was simply too painful to try and interview him in that vulnerable state. But, thankfully, soon after that his situation improved in a dramatic fashion, and in a way that was fun to incorporate into the film.

I see that you worked together with another filmmaker. How did that inform your creative process?
Our House is a collaboration at every level with my co-director and friend David Teague, an immensely talented filmmaker living in Brooklyn. It’s one of the most collaborative projects I’ve ever worked on, which has been a lot of fun, and I feel I’ve learned a lot from him. David and I are both freelance film editors and cinematographers, and we approached this project with equal enthusiasm to make it entirely on our own.

We both come from a background in experimental Super 8 and 16mm films, and are inspired by the avant-garde movements in film. We therefore had a like-minded approach to the cinematography, and the desire to incorporate celluloid film with HD video (our primary format). For example, we knew right away that we would shoot the space itself as a “character” in its own right, using film to accomplish a shift in cinematic form, as the building possessed a sacred quality for the residents. Also, we knew we wanted to shoot using only available light – no artificial lights brought in from the outside – in order to match the lifestyle and ethos of the community.

Once in the edit room, I did the early assembly cuts, and then he and I would trade the film back and forth to find its structure and to fashion the story arc of Dan, our main character. Our material could have taken any number of directions, but we learned through editing and pitching the film that having a principal character arc made the most sense. I contributed a lot to individual scene content, directing the scoring process, and fashioning the artistic montages, and David contributed a lot to story and plot structure, honing the scenes and fine-tuning a lot of moments. We were in constant dialogue about all elements, so this is a generalization, but gives a sense of our process.

Lastly, I think it’s important to note that whereas I am a Christian, David is not. Although we differ on worldview, we agreed on how and why we wanted this film to be made. We are exasperated by the common conflation of social conservatism and religious belief in this country, and find the people behind Our House interesting for what they are striving to achieve on a local level. Their lifestyle choices and radical/progressive Christianity are refreshing to us.

You’ve recently begun screening the film at festivals around the country. How have audiences responded? Were there any surprising reactions?
We’ve been greatly encouraged by the response so far, given the predominance of Christian voices in the film. In an early test screening, the audience [reaction] was mixed about “all the God talk,” which was both funny to hear and yet instructive in how we wanted the film to read. We didn’t make the film to appeal to only Christian audiences, so we took this to heart, and were careful to strike a balance of illuminating our characters’ rich personalities without overwhelming the audience with Christian jargon or preachiness.

At our World and U.S. premieres, we were happy to see that the film was very well received, and that the audience was mostly inspired by its story of community and reaching out to others. We’ve had our share of odd questions, but I think the community portrayed is so unique in a way, that audiences are quite engaged, and interested in knowing more about the lives of the characters after the film was made, our filmmaking process, and what this community might represent on larger societal levels. Also, we’ve been approached by pastors and individuals interested in screening the film to support homeless ministries and progressive Christian communities, which is an encouragement, as this was a hope for the ongoing life of the film.

“OUR HOUSE” (2010), directed by Greg King & David Teague. 56 Minutes

An Interview with Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler

After a busy run on the film festival circuit, a theatrical release, and the upcoming DVD release of their film William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe on April 27th, I’m grateful that Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler were able to take the time for this interview.

The sisters (producers/directors) run Off Center Media, a production company that produces documentaries exposing injustice in the criminal justice system. This award-winning film about their father is scheduled to kick off this season of PBS’s POV on June 22 at 10PM. The Kunstlers received the L’Oreal Women of Worth Vision Award at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

What were your goals for this film? How can film carry on the legacy of social change that was crucial to your father’s life? What are some examples?

Sarah Kunstler: We believe that creativity and art have tremendous power to spur people to action. That is why we got into filmmaking. Our first film, Tulia, Texas: Scenes from the Drug War, opened our eyes to the power of art to further social change. We went to Tulia, a small town in the Texas panhandle in 1999, after a drug sting netted almost 20% of the black population, leaving more than 50 children without one or both parents. All of the charges were based on the word of a crooked undercover cop. It was horrific. We knew immediately that we needed a way to convey the injustice of the arrests and the power of the families of the incarcerated who were fighting for their loved ones. Our film brought national attention to the injustice, helped the incarcerated get new lawyers, and led ultimately to the exoneration of those arrested.

Making that film led us to form our production company, Off Center Media. Over the past ten years, we have made a number of short films highlighting injustice in the criminal justice system – from clemency videos for death row inmates, to documentaries that have been used as part of campaigns highlighting wrongful convictions or Supreme Court cases.

Emily Kunstler: Both of our parents raised us with a deep commitment to social and racial justice, and we knew from a young age that this commitment would dictate the course of our lives. There are may ways to combat social and racial justice in society; we ended up using film as our tool. Our father principally was a storyteller. He would tell a story to the jury and he would tell the same story to the general public through his skilled use of the media. Dad would have been the first to admit that all of his major court victories were decided first in the court of public opinion and then inside the walls of a courtroom. Judges and juries are often disinclined to go out on a limb and take a risk. In this way, educating the public about particular cases of injustice was just as important to our father as what when on in a courtroom. Dad would use a press conference, we use documentary film – but essentially our tactics are the same.

As filmmakers and daughters, when did you decide you were ready to tackle such a personal story on film?

EK: We had been making films for about seven years by the time the idea occurred to us. I don’t know why we didn’t think of it sooner. I think you have to be well into your adult life before you can entertain the idea of looking backwards. Sarah and I were both approaching 30 when we began making this film. When you are young, you really want to strike out on your own. We wanted to do our own thing and not necessary be associated with our parents. I don’t think this something unique to Sarah and my experience. I think most young people feel the same way, though it may have been exacerbated by our father’s celebrity. We didn’t want to be known as our father’s daughters; we wanted to make our own mark. So in choosing to make this film, we had to not only actively embrace our past but consciously choose to identify ourselves with our father, and I don’t think that is a choice either of us would have been prepared to make sooner. But in short, we decided to make the film over a margarita lunch at a small Mexican restaurant in the Fort Greene, the Brooklyn neighborhood that is home to our production office, and we never looked back.

In light of it being such a personal film, what was the greatest challenge in making Disturbing The Universe?

SK: The greatest challenge was making the choice to tell the film from our perspectives. Our father always seemed larger than life, and during his lifetime he was the center of our world, so it was hard to find room for ourselves in the telling of his story – to figure out where we fit. But it was important to us that the film be from our perspective. Emily and I could never have made an emotionally removed straightforward bio-pic, but I think more importantly we hoped that our perspective might be a window for our generation and younger viewers into the stories of some of the most important social movements of the 20th century. Many people our age have never heard of the rebellion and massacre at Attica or the murder of Fred Hampton. It was important for us to have outside perspectives. We worked with terrific producers who helped us get enough distance to find room for our voices.

There were so many interesting characters in your father’s life. Who among them surprised you most?

EK: I think we were most surprised to find and interview Jean Fritz. Jean was one of the jurors during the Chicago Conspiracy Trial, and when we interviewed her almost forty years later, she still maintained a collection of all of the newspaper reports as well as her daily accounts of what transpired in the courtroom from a journal she kept at the time. What surprised us most about Jean was the transformation she went through during the seven-month trial. When the trial commenced, she considered herself to be a conservative Republican. She lived in the very conservative suburb of Des Plaines and ran an auto supply store with her husband. By the close of the trial, after seeing Bobby Seale bound and gagged in the courtroom and the clear bias of the judge toward the defense, she had come full circle. She no longer trusted or had faith in her government.

Jean’s transformation goes to the heart of our father’s belief in the jury system. He thought that if you could reach twelve random people, connect to them, take them out of their comfort zone, and show them the truth, that they wouldn’t be able to ignore it and and their thinking would be altered. Dad believed that we are all capable of transformations, large and small.

One of the things that stands out in the film is your deep respect and admiration for your father, even as you doubted many of his choices. Considering the demands of his work and his many obligations, what do you think your father did as a father, not just an attorney, that inspired such devotion from his daughters?

SK: I think he valued our opinions. Even when we were small children, he made a point of talking to us about what mattered to him – racism, the importance of standing up to and combating injustice. He involved us in what he was doing. He made us want to be a part of it. Dad loved it when we showed any interest in his work and would encourage us to challenge him. Whenever possible, he took us with him – to court, to protests, to places like Wounded Knee that were important to him. And he loved us without measure. Emily and I definitely felt that growing up.

But I also think that choosing to be the kind of lawyer, to live the kind of life that our father did requires compromises. You can’t be the kind of Dad who is there all the time. You can’t make your children your first priority. And I think our mother deserves recognition and praise in this regard, because Emily and I never would have made it without her. We had great childhoods. We were protected, we were nurtured, we thrived. And we have her to thank for that.

At the conclusion of the film, you seem to recognize the value of your father’s choices in a new way. I wonder, who do you see taking up that torch? Who do people in distress around the country ask for representation since William Kunstler is no longer here?

SK: This is a hard question – and one that is often asked of us at Q&As following our film. I don’t think there will ever be another William Kunstler. But I don’t think there should be, either. He was a person of his generation – he belonged to the time he lived in. There are a lot of dedicated lawyers out there doing good work, most of them doing it anonymously.

EK: I think, ultimately, that the world we hope to see is a world where you don’t need a Bill Kunstler to stand next to you in order to get attention for the cause you are fighting for or the injustice you are fighting against, a world where lawyers stand in solidarity with movements and where the activists do the talking.

——-

The DVD of Disturbing the Universe released on April 27, 2010 and are available through Amazon and directly from the filmmakers. The DVD can also be rented from Netflix and streamed from iTunes. The film also opens this season of PBS’s POV on June 22 at 10PM.

Analyzing Up In the Air

Since Up in the Air is up for six Oscars this Sunday, it can’t hurt to delve into this unassuming film, which most of us have probably caught by now. (If you haven’t, this is your call to make that happen – and a warning: serious spoilers ahead, so read at your own risk).

Upon leaving the theater, I was discouraged. It’s a great film, with some very entertaining dialogue and sensitive performances, but the overarching portrait of American culture is disheartening. Up In The Air gets so many of our modern conundrums right that it’s hard not to classify it as a tragedy, even with some great laughs. The film explores themes of corporate greed, alienation, infidelity, and much more, but the dilemmas that really triggered further reflection were the film’s portrayal of certain dichotomies: family versus career, love versus romance, and freedom versus commitment.

Family vs. Career
Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) has found his true vocation as a career transition counselor, carrying out face-to-face firings for companies that would prefer to hire out this dirty work. Ryan seems perfectly suited for the role; a perceptive and observant man, he’s good at shattering people’s lives with a balance of detachment and sensitivity that most people couldn’t muster. He enjoys the constant traveling and comes to see himself as a master of his domain: airport terminals and hotels across America. When a romance with fellow business traveler Alex (Vera Farmiga) blossoms, Bingham begins to question the primacy of career in his life.

I was never carried away with the thrills Bingham seemed to find in his jet setting lifestyle; airport hotel bars just don’t have much charm for me. But, I could relate to the idea of placing career pursuits above family. We have all faced this choice. After years of education and plenty of student loan debt, most of us would like to reap the benefits of the efforts we’ve extended towards our areas of expertise.

However, just when you’re climbing the career ladder in your early thirties, you are also faced with the importance of family. Whether it’s your biological clock or aging parents in need of your help, being the person you’ve always wanted to be usually means more than excelling at your job. But how can we balance it all? Many of us fail in some way or another. If you don’t put in the extra hours at the office, you may get looked over for a promotion, and if you don’t actually spend waking hours with your children, you may miss out on one of life’s greatest intimacies.

Love vs. Romance (spoiler!)
When Ryan finally takes a chance on building intimacy with Alex, it’s a bit of a fairy tale. He’s been avoiding relationships for so long – and then his perfect match appears out of thin air. She’s beautiful, independent, and witty. They have immediate conversational and sexual chemistry. Her “take it or leave it” attitude is exactly what draws him in. It’s that cliché that so many single women hear over and over about how men love the chase, how playing hard to get is the ultimate draw. Alex was everything that a man like Ryan would be drawn to. Indeed, she is playing that part so well – because she is playing.

Like Ryan, Alex is a perceptive person who can read people with ease. She’s sized up this cocky business traveler and knows just what to say to draw him in. Never betraying a desire for commitment, always hinting at sex, and keeping the intellectual stimulation high, she is Ryan’s perfect match. But I couldn’t believe her as a middle-aged woman with so much charm and talent who would settle for occasional rendevous and never require true intimacy.

George Clooney and Vera Farmiga in Up in the Air.

Of course, she didn’t. It’s all icing on the cake for a woman that already has it all. For Alex, marriage, family, and career isn’t enough; she wants the extra thrill of romance that, we can assume, she no longer finds with her husband. The affair does seem fun. It has all the thrills of falling in love: the flirting and flattery, the adventures and risks. And we all know that domestic life can run short on these delights.

That Alex is the first woman to challenge Ryan’s desire for independence is highly ironic. In the end, he doesn’t so much learn about love as about his own vulnerability. Having played God on the job for so many years, he’s come to think of himself as impenetrable to the lures of intimacy. But being played by Alex reveals a weakness he’s long suppressed: his own desire for companionship.

While we’d like to think only true love could break Ryan’s steely exterior, Alex wasn’t a real woman after all – just the embodiment of his fantasy. The portrait of love that unfolds is disheartening, one in which our virtual selves, the parts of us that perform and project based upon vanity and insecurity, come to dominate the genuine and sensitive parts of us that would otherwise unlock to love in the most meaningful ways.

Freedom vs. Commitment
From the beginning of the film, Ryan extols the virtues of his independent lifestyle. He’s free from relationships and weightlessly untethered in a world that seeks to hold him down. Meanwhile, after an impersonal text message break-up, his young co-worker Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) is seeking love and commitment in her personal life. Ryan and Natalie are opposites when it comes to their approach to relationships; however, they are both aggressive go-getters in the business world who end up learning from one another. Ryan shows the Natalie that there is a place for heart and emotion on the job, and Natalie’s contributions to the career transition industry reveal how feeble Ryan’s job security is as well. In the end, we see that Ryan only saw himself as free. In fact, his relentless avoidance of personal connections only masked the larger devotion in his life, his disproportionate emphasis on his job.

There is always something that takes hold of us and controls us, something we feel we cannot live without. For Ryan, it was his concept of freedom; for Natalie, it is the mental image of the powerful businesswoman who has it all; and for Alex, it may simply have been the vain thrill of male attention. All of it seems like an illusion in the end.

The film leaves us wondering how much these individuals have really changed. What stayed with me were the quick interviews of newly unemployed characters, and what they claimed mattered in their lives. Their emphasis on family and companionship as the most important validation, even at their most rejected moment, reminds us what a tenuous state our culture is in.

The success of Up in the Air lies in the timeliness of its underlying subtext: As the economy falters, while our livelihoods and homes can slip through our fingers in a moment, we are forced to confront what is really important to us. And we often find it wasn’t what we thought.

Precious, or The Blind Side?

I recently ventured past the holiday bargain-hunters to see two very different blockbuster films. Both movies centered around African-American teenagers who are up against the odds but destined to overcome, yet their approaches were strikingly different.

Of course, these movies serve two different purposes. One entertains and affirms, while the other challenges and transports. You may prefer to see a film that encourages a more passive escape into fantasy, andThe Blind Side won’t disappoint.Precious takes some effort, a willingness to confront the most revolting sides of humanity and the energy to think through how it relates to your own life.

Precious, based on the novel Push by Sapphire, contrasts a world full of severe human depravity with a handful of individuals – predominantly the title character – who hold on to hope when all seems lost. Precious’s successes seem miraculous, and we wonder at her strength to overcome the worst obstacles of abuse, neglect, illiteracy, illness, poverty, and isolation.

The Blind Side is about a homeless African-American high schooler with extraordinary athletic ability who is taken under the wing of an affluent white family. The film emphasizes the impact of single acts of charity and the rare person who ventures beyond their comfort zone to help someone else. But here, it is the latent talent of the young man that is his ticket out of strife.

The Blind Side is based on a true story, and Michael Oher’s (Quinton Aaron) achievements are that much more powerful to watch because we know the suffering he endures is real. One of a dozen children born to a crack-addicted mother, Michael spends his childhood in and out of foster homes, repeatedly running away to search for his mother and siblings, for whom he has undying devotion. The loyalty he feels towards his family shapes the protective instincts credited with giving him an extra edge as a left tackle on the football field.

Sandra Bullock and Quinton Aaron in The Blind Side

Sandra Bullock and Quinton Aaron in The Blind Side

The film is based on a book by Michael Lewis, which explores more about Michael’s childhood and personality. This retelling of the story focuses on his rescuer, the rich white woman who takes him in, played by Sandra Bullock. She is a stereotype of white Southern affluence, dripping in gold with every hair in place, her unwavering confidence and convictions affirmed by her homogenous Christian community. Isolated in country clubs and sororities, Mrs. Tuohy’s ideas about gender and race have been passed down from one bigoted generation to the next. And while she never lets go of her dreams of a picture-perfect cheerleading daughter, she does come to see one African-American young man as family. Her willingness to shelter and love a boy who had lost everything is inspiring, but it is also nothing new; it emphasizes the fairy tale ideas we’ve all grown up with.

Precious doesn’t have the benefit of a rich family who takes her out of her horrible circumstances – not to diminish the value of an encouraging presence in our lives. There are some people who take an interest in her well-being. A handsome male nurse played by Lenny Kravitz shines some needed light her way and Precious’s unrelenting teacher, Ms. Rain, won’t allow her to sink into the background. By holding Precious to a higher standard, Ms. Rain ignites her inner motivation to succeed – but Precious must jump the hurdles herself. She must learn to read, give birth, confront her abusive mother, and seek a safe home for herself and children. No one can do these things for her. Director Lee Daniels artfully imagines Precious’s inner world and fantasies where she does dream of attention and recognition, the flashbulbs and red carpet. Like everyone, she wants the world to find value in her, but somehow she conquers on her own even without it.

While The Blind Side is an inspiring story – especially because it is true – it perpetuates the stifling ideas we see all around us: because of some hidden talent, a privileged outsider will swoop in to rescue us from our dingy circumstances (think Sleeping Beauty or Harry Potter). But eventually we realize that there is no fairy godmother, and that we aren’t misplaced princesses or princes within frog bodies. No; we are who we are, and most of us won’t be NFL stars. We may be gifted in many ways, but we may also be average and never get to experience the splendor of being center stage. Without that outside admiration, where do we belong? The question of where we get our value, how we measure our success, is what Precious takes on so artfully.

The Myth of Extremism: The Baader Meinhof Complex

 

The Baader Meinhof Complex is an unrelenting portrait of the West German terrorist group which both polarized and preyed upon German society in the 1970s. All 150 minutes are riveting; director Uli Edel (Last Exit to Brooklyn and Downfall) stays as true to actual events as possible while developing a suspenseful narrative with multifaceted characters.

The film begins with Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck), the mother of twin daughters and a radical writer, in the comfortable and chic world of late sixties West Germany. But she begins to challenge her easy existence when student protests turn violent and an innocent bystander is killed by the brutal police force. Galvanized by these events, Meinhof’s life takes a radical turn. Before long, she teams up with the charismatic and militant Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu), and they go on to found the communist-inspired Red Army Faction, RAF, committed to armed resistance against the German state, which they deemed both fascist and compromised by capitalism’s corrupting influence.

The film’s emphasis on fact over fantasy is its great strength. Director Edel rigorously recounts the chronology of the RAF’s early years, including training camps in Jordan, bomb operations throughout Germany, bank robberies, arms trading, and their final months in prison. Edel does not spend much time speculating about the interior motivations of the individuals involved; rather, he paints a broad picture of social unrest combined with misguided idealism that results in the deaths of more than 30 people.

One could claim that the film idealizes these characters. The handsome movie stars portraying Baader and Meinhof are surely pleasant to look at and the fast paced music of the 1970s adds a rock-star mystique. As viewers, we’re accustomed to empathizing with the main characters of fiction films, and Meinhof is easy to identify with. Her early life is a norm with which we’re all familiar, and her disillusionment is also easy to relate to as family relationships are tested and the political powers seem intolerable and corrupt.

Though her desire to break free from the contradictions of her life is worthy, Meinhof becomes impossible to figure out after her leap into violence, after which it becomes difficult to engage with her; while Baader and his young comrades revel in their outlaw lifestyle, the cause has a price in Meinhof’s life – the relationship to her children. Her trials and demise do not elicit sympathy – instead one marvels at how a bright and otherwise normal individual could become so possessed with propaganda and hatred.

The Baader Meinhof Complex may not be entertaining – in the conventional sense of escapism and distraction – but it is a film worth grappling with. Each person’s motivation for conversion to extremism is inexplicable and nuanced, but even more challenging is our tendency to glamorize the renegade outsider. The RAF lived on long after the deaths of Baader and Meinhof, inspiring future generations to terrorist tactics, because of the mystique surrounding their subversive ways. People admired their willingness to risk everything for what they believed in. While most people would never condone their methods, it seemed their sentiments resonated with many. This film doesn’t provide answers for the powerlessness so many people feel in the face of overshadowing and oppressive governments or cultures corrupted by industries that favor profits over human rights, but it does show the limits and ultimate failure of violent political extremism.

Dreams, Chickpeas, and Cold Souls:
An Interview with Sophie Barthes

Filmmaker Sophie Barthes was born in France and grew up in the Middle East and South America. A Columbia University graduate, Barthes has made short films that garnered numerous awards. She completed residencies at the Nantucket Screenwriters Colony and the 2007 Sundance Directors Lab. Her new film, Cold Souls, is in selected theaters now.

The Curator: The film begins with a quote from French philosopher René Descartes: “The soul has its principal seat in the small gland located in the middle of the brain.” How do you interpret this statement? What does it lend the film?

Sophie Barthes: The idea was to be ironic. We had to read a lot of Descartes in French school. This quote is from “The Passions of the Soul.” I find it very funny and absurd. I’ve always been suspicious of dualism in philosophy (the idea that mind and body are two ontologically separate categories). I feel that the relationship between the psyche and the body is more mysterious and complex and more integrated and intertwined than we think.

In the film I’m trying to show that soul extraction (and the idea that the soul is just a little gland that could be removed), although made possible by what Dr. Flintstein proudly refers to as “the progress and triumph of the mind,” is not sustainable: Nina, the soul mule, gets worn out and her system often rejects the souls she carries like an incompatible transplanted organ; soul donors cannot bear the feeling of emptiness; and Paul, after an initial moment of bliss, experiences a complete sense of loss.

Cold Souls is the story of a famous American actor, Paul Giamatti, who hits a wall with his performance in Chekov’s “Uncle Vanya.” Weighed down by his own issues and desperate to regain his creative abilities, he undergoes a new procedure that promises to clear some needed space within him: soul extraction and storage. However, soullessness doesn’t meet his expectations, and soon his life is derailed. Traveling deep into the bizarre world of underground Russian soul trading, Giamatti’s struggle to be reunited with his soul is both humorous and unsettling.

The concept of being separate from one’s soul is a peculiar one – how did you come up with the idea?

The idea came in a strange and funny dream I had three years ago. In the dream I’m waiting in line in a doctor’s office, holding a box, like everybody else in line. A doctor comes and tells us that our souls have been extracted and a doctor will examine it and assess its problems. Woody Allen is also in line, in front of me. When his turn comes, he opens his box and discovers that his soul is a just a little chickpea! He is furious and fidgety and says there is no way, that it must be a mistake. At this point, I feel extremely anxious. I look down at my container but the dream ends. I never saw the shape of my soul!

What makes it something we might all relate to?

When I had this dream, I was reading Carl Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soul. The dream and the screenplay are infused with many Jungian themes. Jung believed in the existence of a collective unconscious made of shared symbols and myths.

As a child, my favorite tale was “The Princess and the Pea.” I never fully understood the meaning of this tale. But now in retrospect, I realize that the pea has a strong symbolic meaning. How can such a small thing disturb the Princess’s sensibility so much? And in Cold Souls, or in my dream, how can such a tiny soul, a simple chickpea, create so much turmoil? I was doing some research on the Internet while writing Cold Souls and I discovered a Sufi poem about a “chickpea soul.” It’s definitively a shared symbol.

Jung also explains that one of the biggest fears in primitive societies was the “loss of the soul,” where the soul could escape from the body and find refuge in a tree or an animal. He saw a correlation between that fear and modern neurosis or depression. I believe that the desire to be artificially released from the troubles of the soul (from Prozac to, maybe one day, soul extraction) is part of an obsessive quest for well-being, particularly in this country. A depression or breakdown could be an opportunity for introspection, a rite of passage for the soul to grow and expand. But it’s perceived as a disease and must be treated immediately. Maybe the soul is a strange muscle, and it is possible to develop it or let it shrink . . .

One of the more striking things about the film is how it contrasts styles – humor with tragedy, sci-fi with very convincing present-day reality. This is an unconventional technique; were you concerned with how viewers would respond?

Yes, the tone is definitely tricky. I intentionally blended comedy and tragedy, but I’m conscious that this combination requires a lot from the audience. Some people can’t deal with the shift of emotions or tone. They need a unity of tone. But for me, this is closer to how life is. In a given day, I can go from a profound melancholic state to euphoria or lightness. Also, I love the Chekhovian tone. Most people sees his plays as tragedies, but I think they are very comic, too – especially “Uncle Vanya.” Chekhov knew how to blend comedy and tragedy so perfectly.

In filmmaking there is a lot of collaboration, yet this film has your individual mark. How did you maintain your vision throughout the process?

I couldn’t imagine making this film without cinematographer Andrij Parekh. He is my life and creative partner. He brought so much to the film – his sensibility, his style, his craft. I guess the writing and choice of actors has an individual mark, but in the process of making the film it got so intertwined with Andrij’s style that by the end of the process it’s difficult to say what comes from whom. That’s the beauty of cinema as a medium – it’s very collaborative.

How would you describe the creative process in making Cold Souls?

I use my dreams a lot in the creative process. I’ve been keeping a dream journal for years and used many of them for Cold Souls, particularly in the “soul sequences,” when characters look at their souls or someone else’s soul. I also like to put together a visual treatment with paintings, photos, and drawings that inspire me visually. For Cold Souls, I gathered hundreds of pictures and paintings from artists such as Francis Bacon, James Turrell, Deborah Turbeville, and Bill Henson.

Andrij and I would always go back to those images to immerse ourselves in the visual world we wanted to create. We decided that we didn’t want any primary colors in the film but a very soft, pastel palette. We thought that, unconsciously, it could affect the viewers and put them in a strange dreamlike mood. The cinema industry tends to forget that their medium is visual, and relies solely on the screenplay. I would always have people read the screenplay and look at the visual treatment.

This film is one of the greatest creative ventures you’ve embarked upon. How has it changed you?

It changes you the way time and life change you. I remain faithful to my ideals, but I’ve learned a lot in the process. I’m always very critical, so I can see all the things I would do differently today. You can only learn cinema by making it. A first film is full of imperfections, and sometimes that’s what is charming about it, but I think the objective is to develop and grow as a filmmaker and try to master the craft a little bit better every time you get the chance to work.

Night In At The Movies

Early this year, some friends from church approached me about organizing a monthly film night. They had just finished remodeling their single-family home in Brooklyn, and they were feeling generous towards their neighbors, and maybe a little thankful to God for the good fortune of a beautiful new home. So, armed with a video projector, fresh popcorn, and an unpainted sheetrock wall, we set about creating a little living room cinema.

Initially, I wondered what the purpose of such a “movie night” would be. We live in New York City and can attend any number of awesome film and culture events – so why bother? What hooked me was the chance to see people with whom I always intend to socialize but never actually do. I see these people in church every week, but our lives only rarely connect beyond that pew (or folding chair in a lunchroom, as is the case at my church).

And even though I live in New York, I don’t like paying New York prices and dealing with New York crowds. Movie theaters on a Friday night can be such a source of tension. Did you remember to buy tickets ahead of time online? Did you fill your pockets with affordable snacks from the bodega? If not, you’ll be paying twenty-five cents per kernel at the concession stand and can end up seeing a Hollywood action sequel when your quirky indie pick is sold out.

Maybe a movie in a friend’s living room wouldn’t be so bad after all.

There is also the issue of my Netflix queue, which is filled with the films I actually want and the films I feel I should watch. There are dozens of titles to which I never get: those old foreign dramas I heard about in film school, the slow paced but worthwhile documentaries that will make me a better person. They hover down at the bottom of the queue.

I have had two Holocaust-themed documentaries on my shelf for six weeks, but what I really want on a boring weeknight is another mindless and entertaining episode of Mad Men. Good movies have become like salad – I know I should eat it, but is there any chocolate, instead? In the face of these weaknesses, my church’s Indie Movie Night always ensures some edifying viewing.

But watching good films isn’t all work either. Our Indie Movie Night has been a success, drawing different people each month and helping us get to know one another beyond small talk. So, if you are considering starting up your own, here are some guidelines:

Challenge. People want to engage more with their movies. Maybe they suffer through my picks because they’re free, and movie tickets in New York cost more than $10, but I get the feeling people value movies that get them thinking. We’ve watched a lot of documentaries for that reason; we can immediately begin discussing the topic at hand. Which brings me to the next point.

Talk. People want to talk about movies. In fact, some people are movie viewing experts with way more opinions than you’d expect. Because I choose the films, I am the one who gets the conversation going. But when we are sitting around with a group after watching a movie, it doesn’t take long for others to share their (often strong) points of view.

Most of us are media experts just because we consume enormous quantities of media. But most of us consume that media in isolation, with no one to share those thoughts with in person (though there are no shortage of places to voice your opinions online, of course). When conditions are right, the opinions overflow. Oddly, in church we feel like one body, but here we get to see the viewpoints that make us individuals.

I’m not just describing a difference in tastes for romances verses comedies; I’m talking about the moment you realize that a woman who has served coffee to you at church for ages is actually an expert on ocean acidification, and you never knew! We have so much to offer one another, but it requires getting to know each other – which brings me to my final revelation.

The right conditions (or, food and drink). Our hosts are big on popcorn, and not the kind that comes out of the microwave – real popcorn, with melted butter and salt. A weaker person than myself might be tempted to come along just for the snacks, and they would be satisfied. No one is doing any elaborate baking, piping, or pairing cheeses with preserves; it’s all simple, but there is plenty of it, and drinks, too. We stand around snacking and chatting for a half hour before the film. By the time the movie starts, our stomachs are full and we’ve left behind the busy week.

If you are looking for some film recommendations, you can email me at sarah@curatormagazine.com!

Recording Reality:
An Interview with Brent Renaud


Filmmakers Craig (left) and Brent Renaud in Iraq
during the filming of
Off to War.
Photo by Brent Stirton.

Brent Renaud is an award-winning documentary filmmaker whose work has shown at numerous festivals, and broadcast on HBO, PBS, CBS, the Discovery Channel, the Discovery Times Channel, and ESPN. Since 1995, he has been working alongside his brother, Craig, on films that have taken them both around the world, and deep within American culture.

Tell us a little bit about your creative process, both in working within the documentary format, and in teaming up with your brother.

With our films – whether the subjects are drug addicts, soldiers at war, politicians, or athletes – the process is the same. We spend a tremendous amount of time integrating into the subjects’ lives. We hope that in doing this before the cameras begin to roll, the audience will experience the story on a deeper level, because in effect, we are taking them closer than they have ever been to the story. Obviously, the small-format cameras and the ability to film in a discreet way with natural light is important, but I think the relationship we build with the subjects is much more valuable.

Your film, Dope Sick Love, in which you followed the lives of two drug-addicted couples on the streets of New York City for 18 months, is profoundly disturbing for the viewer. What was it like to film? Does it still affect you today?

Dope Sick Love is a film we made for HBO in 2004. Critics have called it disturbing, as you mentioned, for the graphic nature in which we documented the drug use, prostitution, domestic abuse, and crime that dominates the subjects’ lives. We spent over a year on the streets of Manhattan telling this story. Because of the difficulty in locating the subjects, we often filmed with them up to a week straight without going home. This kind of severe drug addiction means that the user is consumed by a 24-hour-a-day need to acquire drugs. They are not able to hold a job, or keep an apartment, and they rarely eat or sleep. It was a grueling shoot, but ultimately, I believe it tells an important story about the unglamorous and devastating effects of drug abuse.

Similarly, your award-winning series, Off to War, about the Arkansas National Guard in Iraq, is a rare glimpse into a world about which many people know very little. What draws you to subjects that require your own personal peril? Have the experiences of filming these charged situations changed you in the process?

I don’t think we are adrenaline junkies like some of the war correspondents who we know. We don’t seek out the dangerous assignments.

But once we are committed to a story, we are willing to do whatever it takes to tell that story. In the case of Off to War, we made a commitment to the soldiers and their families that we were going to follow this unit of soldiers from the beginning of a deployment at war, all the way to the end. This had never been done on television before, and it was truly a historic moment when as a country, we were activating tens of thousands of citizen soldiers from small towns around the country to go fight in a foreign war. The families understood the importance of it and they opened up their lives and homes to us.

We spent six months with the families of the soldiers prior to the employment, and then the year in Iraq with the soldiers in the Sunni Triangle. We went along on missions with the soldiers every single day. This was a dangerous time in Iraq, and the Arkansas National Guard lost 33 soldiers during the deployment. We witnessed naive young kids age decades as their friends died and they were forced to do things they never imagined. There was a point near the end of the deployment, after another couple of deaths had occurred, when one of the leaders of the unit took us aside and essentially said, “Look, guys, you have been here eight months and you have more footage than you can possibly use for this series. Maybe you should consider going home.”

It wasn’t a consideration for us – the danger was not an issue, and the story was not complete. In retrospect, I think what we did was worth it. Off to War is a nearly day-to-day chronicle of one of the most important periods in modern American history. We are just lucky that the families and the soldiers believed in it and allowed us to tell their story.

At the heart of The Curator is the idea that art makes for a better world; how do you hope a viewer will be impacted by your films?

We wouldn’t take the risks we take, or spend the amount of time we do on these stories, if we didn’t think it was important. With both Off to War and our latest HBO film, Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later, we held screenings around the country after the broadcast in town hall-like settings. The discussions they sparked were amazing and important to those who attended. With Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later, a film about school segregation, we produced a study guide with Columbia University and helped to distribute it with DVDs to schoolteachers around the country. Dope Sick Love is used widely in drug rehabilitation centers and juvenile facilities around the country.

We hope that the time we put into the films translates to the viewer having a more complex understanding of a particular subject or issue. We don’t make political films, or activist films, but we do want our work to make a difference, which is why we work so hard to keep our films out there, even after the broadcast.

This is also one of the reasons we founded the Little Rock Film Festival. It’s another way for us to help important work reach an audience.

Why was it important for there to be a film festival in Little Rock? How have the community and filmmakers benefited from the festival?

We started the LRFF for a number of reasons. First, Little Rock, where we grew up, didn’t have one. We have been fortunate enough to show our work at some of the best film festivals in the country, and when done right, they do great things for their communities. Little Rock and North Little Rock are revitalizing their downtowns and historic areas. We felt a film festival could draw from that energy and help guide some of that energy in creative directions. New lofts and bars are great, but you need soul as well, and that’s where we thought we could contribute. Now in its third year, the festival has amazed us by how fast it has grown and how the community has embraced the concept.

There is a talented group of filmmakers in Arkansas, but there was no real cohesive community, and almost nowhere for them to show their work. We show the best in narrative and documentary films from around the world, but we also have a fully developed Made in Arkansas program, featuring workshops, special events, and a juried film competition. In our first year, we received two feature film submissions from Arkansas filmmakers; in our third year, we received almost twenty. Filmmakers are now collaborating on projects, sharing ideas and equipment, and building their production schedules around the festival. And we are only getting started. We hope to begin having fellowship and grant opportunities for local filmmakers soon.

Since we started the LRFF in 2007, numerous film series have been started around central Arkansas. The city of Little Rock has appointed a film commissioner, and just this week, the state legislature passed new film incentives where before, Arkansas had none. We are proud to have been an integral part of the groundswell that helped make this happen.

Revolutionary Road:
Marred Sophistication, Trapped Dreams


Kate Winslet and Leonardo Di Caprio in Revolutionary Road,
directed by Sam Mendes.

Warning: some spoilers below.

Revolutionary Road is a beautifully made film, boasting magnificent performances in the perfectly orchestrated backdrop of 1950s America. Director Sam Mendes takes on issues and struggles of a heft usually reserved for literature (and in fact, this is an adaptation of the book by Richard Yates). The film depicts the ruin of a marriage and the constricting bonds of a culture that values conformity over personal happiness.

The film centers on April and Frank Wheeler, living in suburban Connecticut and tending to the responsibilities at hand. Frank trudges into the crowded city each day, punching the clock at a joyless office job while April minds the house and children in an idealized yet lonesome world. While Frank is satisfied with the thrills of lunchtime infidelities, April is bent on a better future for the whole family, one in which romance and adventure trump conformity and security. Her desire manifests in a plan to move to Paris; the couple’s discontent dissolves as they pack their belongings and book tickets aboard a steamer. April’s idea, to support the family as a secretary while Frank takes a sabbatical to find his true purpose, seems far-fetched from the start, but we are swept away in their enthusiasm, hoping that their love will overcome the strictures of a chauvinistic culture.

One of Mendes’s great successes is the mood he captures, in which we see doom but continue to hope for these characters. Kate Winslet’s April is that fragile balance of strength and whim so rarely achieved without overdoing it. The world around her closes in, and yet she continues to believe that things can change. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Frank for the coward he is; his youthful good looks and charm allow him to coast in a world where people are pleased to accept the easiest answers and deflect personal responsibility. Frank has a gift in April. She sees the potential within him as no one else does, a vision she received as she fell in love with him years ago, but rather than harnessing the strength of his wife to propel him forward, Frank accepts mediocrity.

This is where the film takes an unfortunate turn. April discovers she is pregnant with their third child and designs for their escape to Paris crumble. While she still holds out hope for their future abroad, Frank is getting comfortable with the possibility of promotion at work and staying on in suburbia. The ease with which he accepts the dissolution of their dreams devastates April, and her image of Frank is shattered. Without the idol of her husband April’s strength and conviction disappear and blame shifts to the child with her. Wouldn’t things have gone according to plan if she were never pregnant?

While the book may have succeeded in tackling this issue, the film falls short. I simply didn’t believe that April would have confronted the dilemma as she did. Perhaps Winslet’s performance lent too much strength to the character, but the onscreen April was too resilient to let herself die this way. She would have left for Paris on her own, gone through illegal means, or simply moved back to thriving, culture-filled Manhattan. The only way I could justify her solution was to see it as a suicide attempt. And until this point the film concentrates on the unsaid, mundane and normal aspects of working out a marriage – but April’s choice devastates that sophistication.

If only the film had ended sooner, when the outcome was implied, when our own intelligence as viewers was still respected. We knew after their explosive argument that their marriage was fractured beyond repair. We saw at breakfast that April was broken, her spirit crushed under the realization that this dead end was to be her life. We witnessed Frank’s despicable cowardice when he accepted April’s half-hearted performance of a happy housewife and walked out the door towards work rather than confront the gaping wounds in front of him. If only the credits had rolled then. We could have imagined the end: would April continue her charade until old age? Would they sink into the common culture they had once abhorred? Would April abandon Frank and her children? Would she go through with her threat? Would you?

But the ending on screen doesn’t allow for such weighty wondering. The theatrical twist of events makes it easy to turn the scrutiny away from one’s self and back on the characters whose desperate behavior becomes altogether dramatic and distant. Where once I put myself in her shoes, now I looked in judgment; where once I empathized with Frank, now I looked on at his suffering with disdain and dismissed him. A film centered on what is implicit and unspoken would have benefited from leaving some things unseen.

Morality Suspended in Seven Pounds


Rosario Dawson and Will Smith in Seven Pounds.

Usually, I am loathe to write about a big Hollywood blockbuster here, where you’d hope to find news of an artful cinematic accomplishment, but when I saw Seven Pounds over my holiday vacation, the need to break form was self-evident.

What was I doing spending my valuable free time at a megaplex? I was away in the Rust Belt, enjoying a leisurely time with family, and there wasn’t much to do. On the most cold and snowy days I made a point of going to the movies every afternoon. (Wouldn’t you?) But I exhausted the area art house cinema’s lineup by day three, leaving me with a scarcity of choices midweek. I’ll confess from the start I chose the film for one idle reason: it was playing at a convenient hour.

I’ll begin with some praise; the film achieves an adequate amount of suspense, although I did catch on rather quickly to the direction of the storyline, it wasn’t obvious how we’d get there. Will Smith and Rosario Dawson create a convincing chemistry between them and, to my surprise, I actually forgot it was Will Smith in a few scenes. That was a welcome escape from what I had grown to expect from his typical action-packed roles.

It could be an acceptable movie if the message at its core weren’t so poisonous.

(From here on I spoil the film’s suspenseful narrative. If you’re inclined to see it, don’t read on!)

What is so toxic? It is the central theme of a man, Ben Thomas (Will Smith), who accidentally kills seven people in a careless car wreck, including his own wife, and attempts to make amends for their deaths by committing suicide and donating his organs to needy individuals post-mortem. In order to discern the character and worthiness of these sick individuals to whom he will give his organs and earthly possessions, Ben impersonates an IRS worker who has the authority to ask probing questions, examine a person’s motives, and leaf through their medical files.

While a person responsible for so many deaths is likely to experience tremendous grief of the sort that makes you question your existence, it doesn’t seem right that that person would go through the trouble of finding all these people in need and researching their value as human beings. If you feel worthless enough to want your own death, wouldn’t you consider anyone more valuable than you, eliminating the entire need for this twisted quest? Of course, I’d go further and say that suicide does not actually atone for a person’s wrongdoing, but that it is a self-centered escape from the culpability that haunts the individual.

I did actually get absorbed in Ben’s suffering and the thrill of new love that blooms with Emily (Rosario Dawson), but I am revulsed at the idea that suicide would be an acceptable end to that suffering. And beyond that, Ben is depicted as a hero for his choice because his organs and gifted possessions improve the lives of others. I am troubled with this representation of an ideal that ultimately degrades the value of life. I have no doubt that Ben’s character could have done far more to mitigate the pain he caused in those deaths had he been alive. He still could have given away his earthy possessions and devoted himself to saving the lost and doomed. The thesis that he gave most because he gave his life is a dangerous one.

I also take issue with characters who benefit from his suicide. Ezra Turner (Woody Harrelson) is a lonesome blind pianist who passes Ben’s character test when he refuses to respond in anger to Ben’s cruel tirade. When he receives the gift of eyes after Ben’s death, Ezra is pictured at a children’s musical recital, leading the joyful song. The celebratory moment is undermined by the fact that Ezra could have been doing the same thing with, or without, his newfound sight. Was Ben’s death really necessary for Ezra’s life to improve? Similarly, we are left wondering if there is lasting change for the battered woman (Elpidia Carrillo) and her two children who receive Ben’s gorgeous beach house. Thrown into the isolated word of wealth and lacking any community, I doubt she will be adequately transformed by home ownership to make the needed changes to herself that will heal her past and prevent future dangerous relationships. Are people really changed by new scenery?

What transforms people is relationship. If Ben had wanted to help these people, he should have stayed alive and loved them. If helping sick people were his ultimate goal, he could have continually given blood and bone marrow – but that wasn’t his aim at all. Ben wanted to die, and he didn’t want to be remembered for that selfish act of taking his own life. He hoped that by donating his organs someone would recognize the value of his life, even if he did not.

Seven Pounds illustrates the power of cinema, in which a filmmaker can manipulate a willing audience to the point where, against their better judgment, cowardice becomes heroism. However, it also takes the viewer down a dangerous road, one where selfishness equals generosity, and wrong becomes right.

Moskow, Belgium

Moskow, Belgium is the kind of film that appeals to both the hopeless romantics and the sarcastic cynics. Matty (Barbara Sarafian) is a worn down middle-aged mother whose professor husband (Johan Hildenbergh) has taken a leave of absence from their marriage. While he is busy in bed with his much younger student, Matty is working at the post office, raising their three kids and not getting any younger. But when she has a mild fender-bender with 29 year-old Johnny (Jurgen Delnaet), an ex-alcoholic truck driver, things change. Johnny is instantly taken with her unkempt beauty and begins an unwavering courtship that changes both of them. Matty, who refuses to take any crap, challenges Johnny in all the areas that matter, and likewise, Johnny brings the attention and recognition that Matty has been craving. The unlikely pair fill the gaps in one another’s lives and one can’t help but want happiness for such broken individuals.

Director Christophe van Rompaey addresses hefty issues in what is, more or less, a comedy. The morality of infidelity is on display in all its shades of grey. Matty is still married to her cheating husband and feels very much committed to that relationship, but Johnny’s wooing has sparked her repressed desires for intimacy. Johnny brings his own baggage from a previous marriage, and although his self-assurance is captivating, at first he doesn’t seem altogether trustworthy. Meanwhile, the cheating husband is having second thoughts about his mistress. It is all so relationally complicated, and yet terribly simple; everyone is following their own desires. Unapologetically selfish, everyone is on a path towards their own happiness without considering the costs for those around them. Only Matty, with her thriving maternal instinct, shows any shred of restraint – but not much.

“It was nothing. Nothing. I mean, it was just . . . I’ve never done anything like that with a guy before. You know, a one-night-stand. Don’t follow my example. It was just the once. Just the once.”

A gleeful Matty speaks these words to her precocious teenage daughter after being caught with her boyfriend like a teenager herself. The smile on her face says more than her jumbled defenses. Her romance with Johnny has sparked a youthful excitement within her, and she can’t help but grin. It is easy to be taken with Johnny and his reckless emotions, because although his life has a trail of errors, he is clear about his intentions with Matty.

Barbara Sarafian taps into the essence of a character like Matty, the conflict between her mother self and her other self. She is a woman who has seen her youthful glow come and go, and is now witnessing the sexual maturation of her own children. While that seems like a natural flow of events, the rejection from her husband upsets the balance of Matty’s identity. She is left wondering if she has lost her sexual worth and attractiveness. Sarafian captures that mix of confidence that comes with motherhood and the fragility of wanting to be desired. It is an emotional conundrum that many modern women face, and it is what gives the film a wider appeal.

As someone who prefers a story about perseverance and the fulfillment of promises, Moskow, Belgium surprised me with its unusual portrayal of infidelity and the human desire for intimacy. The viewer is caught wanting happiness for the characters and hoping that this quirky love affair might take off. The film portrays the contemporary problem of divorce with insight and humor, never belittling or simplifying the significance of a broken marriage for everyone involved.


Moskow, Belgium (Aanrijding In Moscou) (Belgium)
Director: Christophe van Rompaey
Producer: Jean-Claude van Rijckeghem
Writers: Jean-Claude van Rijkeghem, Pat van Beirs
Language: Flemish
Starring: Barbara Sarafian, Jurgen Delnaet, Johan Hildenbergh, Anemone Valcke, Sofia Ferri, Julian Borsani.

The Fight For Salmon in “Upstream Battle”

In a country overrun with Wal*Marts and convenience stores, the idea of living dependent only on the land seems abstract. But director Ben Kempas’s new documentary turns that distant truth into a concrete reality as he follows the efforts of Native Americans fighting a massive global energy company who have all but destroyed their way of life.

The Klamath Tribes of Oregon once inhabited a flourishing landscape where fat salmon teamed in the pristine Klamath River of Northern California and Oregon. But the damming of those waters by the PacifiCorp energy company has resulted in the decimation of the local salmon population. For the Native Americans , it wasn’t only a question of food, it was a question of faith. They believe that the Creator would provide for their needs through that water and those fish.

“This river is our temple and it is our sacred grounds. So we, the Hoopa people, the Yurok people and the Karuk people, we fight very hard for these waters because it is our church, it is our religion.”
– Merv George, Hoopa Valley Tribe

Whether or not you agree that a river has a spirit, you cannot deny its value to the human beings residing on its shores. Two in three Native Americans in these communities are out of work, and poor health is on the rise as they rely upon government subsidies for the majority of their diet. The idea that the need for electricity by distant urban populations should override the needs of the local inhabitants seems questionable to any onlooker and the justifications put forth by PacifiCorp for the dams are simplistic.

“People see hydro as a very green resource, this is a non-polluting resource, there are no emissions, no smokestacks. We are not burning fossil fuels to generate electricity here. We are simply borrowing water and returning it to a river.”
– Toby Freeman, PacifiCorp Energy

The filmmaker attempts to portray both sides of the issue fairly, but the Native Americans appear far more genuine and inviting than the energy company and its employees. Nowhere is this more evident than the scene in which the corporate employees are pictured eating lunch from plastic containers in their sterile workplace while the native people gather together and eat what they have fished for themselves. Not only is the fresh fish more appetizing, but the direct relationship they have towards their food is impressive.

Kempas does not mask his admiration for the Native Americans and their way of life. He presents them as both optimistic and brave as they fight for the largest dam removal project in history. There is a touching moment when a uniformed sheriff is seen eating a ceremonial meal with the people who have gathered to protest the dams. The Native Americans and their supporters are so inviting and open that anyone present, even those sent to monitor their demonstration, would want to participate. Similarly, the viewer is carried away with their cause and the hope that their fight for the river will not fail.

“It’s not something that is easy to explain to an outside person. Why I sit here on the river bar, and fish, why my kids are here, why we hunt, why we make baskets, why we sing, why we pray. Why do we do all these things when we can just go work in a big corporate building and forget about it all.”
– Wendy George, Hoopa Valley Tribe

Kempas successfully explains, through images and interviews, why we should not allow a way of life to disappear. It may not be our way of life, but its value is undeniable. Their dependence upon the river and the salmon is a model we are all too distant from in mainstream American culture. Kempas speculates that the more we understand and preserve their way of life, the more we stand to preserve ourselves and it is a notion worthy of consideration.

I recommend that you see Upstream Battle and decide for yourselves what should be the outcome for the Klamath River. But how are you going to see this film? I keep writing about works that are on the fringe of visibility for your average viewer; films that have been completed with the hope of reaching an audience but which are unlikely to make it to your local megaplex. Upstream Battle is no different. It is a passionate film about a pressing issue that most Americans may never know anything about.

What is the point of writing about a film you might never see? Well, I hope you’ll find a way to see it. Find the filmmaker online, send an email to the production company, seek it out on your local PBS station, or arrange a screening at your local church, library, school, or community center. I hope that people will gather to watch films that aim to educate and edify, and in doing so we might also find our own communities growing in new ways.

You can see Upstream Battle‘s website at www.upstreambattle.com/.

Pre-School Mayhem in Nursery University

Nurturing, stimulating, enriching, challenging: these are the words used to describe nursery programs for children as young as two years old. It sounds wonderful until you realize that the culture surrounding pre-school programs in Manhattan is also riddled with competition, jealousy, and greed.

Nursery University takes a typical approach to the documentary format, following several families of varying backgrounds as they go about the nursery school application process with their young children. We are introduced to a number of schools with impressive curriculums, and interviews with educators reveal sincere devotion to early childhood education. None of this is out-of-the-ordinary filmmaking, but even without innovation, the film is a strong one where director Marc H. Simon demonstrates a genuine respect for the subjects and refrains from pushing any one conclusion.

The parents themselves are the ones inviting the viewer’s judgment – not because they don’t love their children, but because the application process they participate in reveals a somewhat delusional side. We’re all familiar with the pushy parent who thinks their child should be at the front of the line, the father blind to his son’s flagrant aggression or the mother who believes her child a genius above all geniuses because she can bang on a piano. Maybe it sounds like music to her, but the rest of us are left wondering what it is about parenthood that makes a seemingly aware adult so oblivious to the facts at hand. And money makes it all worse.

“It’s almost as if the children are products and we are the consumers.”
– Dr. Hirsh-Passek, Developmental Psychologist

The underlying issue of entitlement is what gives this moderately light documentary a real purpose. Behind this relentless pursuit is the idea that if a child is in the best pre-kindergarten program, they will make it into the best elementary school, and so on through the Ivy Leagues. The sooner a person enters into the world of privilege and wealth, the more secure their position in it.

I cannot fault a parent for wanting the best for their child, but two important questions arise as you watch Nursery University. What is really best in terms of nursery school education? The schools featured in the film seem impressive, with exceptional education philosophies, caring teachers, and state-of-the-art facilities. But is some of this wasted on a toddler’s nascent intellect? Is some of this just for the parent’s benefit? How could such an elitist endeavor be a good thing? After all, these parents are spending an awful lot of time wrapped up in the application process when they could simply be spending time with their children.

The second question to arise is – how far would you go to secure that ideal for your child? These parents are pulling every string they have in a frantic maneuver to get their kid a spot in pre-K.They get recommendation from celebrities; they donate large sums of money to the schools themselves and coach their young offspring in how to interview properly. All of this would seem laughable if it weren’t so distressing.

“Parents are just so nervous in this process, and in their nervousness they lose sense of boundaries, they lose sense of appropriateness and they certainly lose perspective.”
– Gabriella Rowe, Director, Mandell School

Ultimately, it seems our culture has drastically failed young children. Many parents are occupied with their careers, and though the need for full-day childcare is not fully explored in the film, public preschools are only available once a child is four years old. Parents are left scrambling with their two-year-olds for these precious spots in private nursery schools.The resulting commodification of early childcare education means it is a luxury for the wealthy and a handful of lucky toddlers on scholarship. While there is no easy solution for working parents, I was left wondering why the obvious choice of parents or one-on-one caregivers raising children until school age was not explored. Considering how thoughtful these parents were, why did it not occur to them that they might be the best educator for their own son or daughter?

Nursery University offers a peek into a world where highly educated professionals are clumsily navigating their children’s education in a frantic attempt to secure their prosperous futures, all the while believing that success is something you can purchase. If only it were that simple.


Nursery University, Marc H. Simon 2007, Run time: 90 min., USA

Thoughts On Watching “Man On Wire”


©2008 Jean-Louis Blondeau / Polaris Images

Shortly after the dawn on August 7, 1974, a 24-year-old Frenchman named Philippe Petit stepped off the South Tower of the World Trade Center and onto an illegally rigged highwire. Within the next forty-five minutes, Petit made eight crossings between the still-unfinished towers, kneeling, dancing, bowing, and lying down – a quarter mile above the sidewalks of Manhattan.

James Marsh’s documentary “Man on Wire” brings to life the events of that day. Intercut with Petit’s own testimony, interviews with his co-conspirators, exquisite re-enactments, and archival footage, the completed work is one of the best documentaries you are likely to see this year.

Petit had already achieved several impressive wire-walking feats by 1974 – he had walked between the towers of Notre Dame in Paris and the Sydney Harbor Bridge in Australia. But he was obsessed by an idea that had struck him as a teenager in 1968. Sitting in the dentist’s office one day, Petit was leafing through a newspaper when he saw a drawing of the as-yet unbuilt World Trade Center towers. He sketched a line from one tower to the next and knew that he belonged there. Along with a band of confidantes and his faithful girlfriend, Petit spent years preparing for what they dubbed “The Coup.”

Petit’s preparation included years of research. On several trips to New York, he gathered information about work schedules and construction costumes at the World Trade Centers. He impersonated foreign press in order to access the roof and take pictures for his own illegal plans, and even hired a helicopter to photograph above the towers. Though he was working closely with two fellow Frenchman and an Australian he’d known since the wirewalk in Sydney, Petit needed the help of some locals, and the incongruous group of New Yorkers with whom he teamed up seemed more like the fictional characters from a heist movie than a reliable group of guerilla artists.

Beyond the surprising cast of characters, one of the film’s innovations is its tongue-in-cheek re-enactments. As they wait overnight in the construction area of the 104th floor, Petit and his accomplice must hide beneath a tarp to evade discovery by the night watchman. The comedy of two human forms beneath a mere piece of cloth yet eluding recognition by the guard is like an Inspector Clouseau caper.

While the film has moments of great humor, its real strength is Petit. As Barry Greenhouse, one of Petit’s New York conspirators, puts it, “He sorta draws you into his world.” His passion for his art is contagious and his personal magnetism is that rare combination of childlike enthusiasm and macho ego. Watching “The Coup” unfold, you have to wonder if you would have been drawn into his artistic ambitions as well.

“I, personally, figured I was watching something that somebody else would never see again in the world. Thought it was once in a lifetime.”
– Sgt. Charles Daniels, with the Port Authority police

Struggling to choose the right words when interviewed on local television, Sgt. Charles Daniels, the police officer on scene, a man accustomed to reciting commands and confronting criminals, describes Petit’s wirewalking as dancing, inspiring a vision of beauty for all those watching the nightly news. Clearly this man was moved by what he witnessed and the emotion that comes through him becomes part of the art, extending the works reach to all those who hear his description.

“Of course, we all knew that he could fall . . . we may have thought it but we didn’t believe it.”
– Jean Francois Heckel, accomplice

Leaving the theater, I was struck by how much I wanted to believe that the people involved in this event had been changed forever. Somewhere within me is the hope that great art changes people, makes them better, makes them more human. Those people close to Petit, those who participated in his magical moment – shouldn’t they be changed? Shouldn’t Petit be a superior man? But Marsh doesn’t let me keep this illusion. The film closes with the revelation that the intimate band of people who made this event possible fell apart. In response to his sudden fame, Petit allowed his ego to run rampant, and he was both unfaithful to his lover and neglectful to his friends.


©2008 Jean-Louis Blondeau / Polaris Images

I wonder why this bothers me so. It is the common stream of events: a man achieves something remarkable and he is changed. He knows he is special. But so often the knowledge of our value seems to corrupt the potential of that moment. We could have bloomed into an even better instrument of inspiration, but we were satisfied with fame or riches instead. It is a fantastic mixture of confidence and humbleness that allows us to dream of the image of our own bodies suspended in air, confident that anything is possible, humble to the inspiration.

I commend filmmaker James Marsh for making a film that invites this sort of meditation on art and humanity without ever seeming instructional or condescending, nor sentimental and hokey. “Man On Wire” is that rare film that allows a work of art to travel farther and live longer.


Man on Wire (1 hr. 30 minutes) is based upon Philippe Petit’s book, To Reach the Clouds. The film opened July 25, 2008 and is still in theaters. It was the recipient of the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize for World Documentary at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.

Rethinking What It Means To Be “Made In America”

Made In America is a documentary film that explores the history and current realities of gang life in Los Angeles, California. While we’ve become accustomed to some pretty challenging topics on screen – global warming, evil consumerism, and political conspiracies included – most of us don’t want a condemning finger pointed directly our way as we sit down to watch a movie. We’d prefer the message masked in metaphor, symbolism, or fiction – but Stacy Peralta’s latest documentary demands that Americans face their own bigoted perspective head on.

Peralta’s earlier works, Dogtown and Z-Boys and Riding Giants, were successful documentaries about sports and the charismatic individuals who excel as professional skateboarders and big wave surfers. Sticking to Peralta’s graphic filmmaking style, Made In America is a well-paced, comprehensive exploration of a world outsiders know little about.

From the initial disorienting shot of a city upside down, we are confronted with a dreadful sense of problems too big to solve, a landscape of despair followed by a montage of crime scene footage. The images are not beautiful or good, but they are true.

One of the film’s strengths is the attention paid to the genesis of the gang lifestyle among young men of color in L.A. during the 1950s. The picture painted is one of a disenfranchised community separated from the prosperity of their white neighbors, and emasculated youth turning to violence in order to claim the power denied them in society at large. According to Peralta, these young people in the 50s and 60s eventually channeled their energies into the Black Power movement, but the following generations were molded by crack, not political and social actions. The tragic irony is that even as they struggled against the injustice imposed on them from outside their communities, the greatest victims were themselves. Each successive generation has subscribed to this violent lifestyle, upping the ante from fists to knives to pistols to automatic weapons, and what used to end in a beating now brings dead bodies. The possibility of extinction looms large when murder and prison are a person’s likely future.

Peralta suggests that gang intervention organizations such as UNITY One, a program that teaches life management skills to communities and inmates across the country, can have an important impact. Interviews with former gang members exude regret and point towards a hope that lies in self-realization. They stress society’s responsibility to transform the way these young people are perceived, that we must seek out the humanity within these gang members. However, many people would be terrified of interacting with the men in this film. Even the filmmaker betrays a fear of gang members and makes clear the many precautions necessary in producing a film like this.

What penetrates the hearts of viewers are not the harrowing statistics or bleak urban landscapes; rather, it is the emotions of the many people in the film. One of the most moving sections features a series of one-shots. Continuous faces of parents flow by, and their tears well and fall as they recall their lost loved ones. What started out as bands of young men fighting over turf in lower-middle class, racially segregated neighborhoods has turned into a situation not unlike the fighting in Northern Ireland – citywide warfare where civilians and gang members alike are losing their lives each day.

“Here there is no choice. It’s like you are waiting for somebody to come save you, man, and you are never going to get saved.”

These grim words, spoken by a gang member, describe emotions to which all can relate. It is natural to feel confined at times, dreaming of relief and rescue from outside ourselves. But most of us have been spared the harrowing circumstances of drug-addicted mothers, missing or imprisoned fathers, and extreme poverty. When bearing the scars of a loveless childhood, it is hard to see a good side to humanity, and when no one positive will have you – not your parents, school, or the greater, richer world on TV – gang membership is the one source of love in sight. And when you’ve never received true love it is easy to be mislead by the picture of unity and protection within the gang, you are happy to accept this false love, even if it bares no good fruit; no joy, no gentleness, no goodness, no peace.

People of faith who have witnessed God’s love in our own lives might find it hard to believe that anyone could mistake gang camaraderie for love. How could anyone be so misled? Maybe we’d like to think that we wouldn’t succumb to such depraved behavior, but such thought only serve to separate us further from these individuals. One of the successes of this film is that it humanizes a group of people few have tried to relate to in decades.

In a New York Magazine interview, when Peralta was asked how he began this project, he answers with a question: “If white American teenagers were forming neighborhood gangs and arming themselves with assault rifles, and killing one another on a consistent basis, what would be the response of our society and our government?” While I am not sure what we would do, I know it wouldn’t look like this.

“Made in America” (unrated) played at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.