documentaries

Streaming for Gold

The Internet now offers more streaming movies and TV shows than free IQ tests. Of all the options out there-YouTube, Hulu, Joox, and so on-I pay fealty (and nine bucks a month) to Netflix. Their “Instantly Watchable” feature is intuitive, unlimited, and commercial-free, and it even integrates with my regular rentals.

A nice side effect to this setup is the movies one discovers, and this seems especially true of documentaries. In fact, Netflix’s “Instantly Watchable” catalog includes more documentaries than any other genre-twice as many as, for example, the “Action & Adventure” category. Now, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, may never attract as many viewers as Spider-Man 3, but it’s nice to know that Netflix gives it a chance.

Viewers aren’t the only ones who benefit from this arrangement. Documentarians often struggle with distribution: there’s a whole world of quirky subjects and cheap camcorders, but how to get the finished product to the masses? Netflix provides a cheap, inclusive answer. Since they’re often lo-fi to begin with, documentaries also suffer less on the smallest screen, and their shorter running times makes them perfect for online viewing.

One of the many Netflix-able documentaries worth viewing is The Education of Shelby Knox. It takes place in Lubbock, Texas, a chain store town full of big trucks and bigger cowboy hats. Unfortunately, Lubbock lives up to another rural stereotype: an excruciatingly high rate of teen pregnancies and STDs. Nevertheless, the local high school maintains its policy of abstinence-only sex education, even as nice, normal teenagers like Shelby Knox begin to question it.

At the start of the film, and Shelby’s sophomore year, she joins the Lubbock Youth Commission to campaign for comprehensive sex ed. Shelby surveys people in parking lots, organizes rallies and meetings, and gives interviews-lots of interviews. (She probably doesn’t share Paris Hilton’s morals, but may well share her publicist.)

Complicating Shelby’s crusade is her personal life. She describes her family as “strongly conservative and Christian” and, early in the film, completes her own “True Love Waits” pledge. The rest of the film finds Shelby-and, just as much, her affable parents-sorting out the conflicts between personal beliefs and political realities.

Netflix might be commercial-free, but you should expect some bias in Shelby Knox. When its directors, Marion Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt, include shots of the Knox family’s chintzy Christian decorations, the snark practically pulses through the screen. More seriously, Lipschutz and Rosenblatt never explore any real arguments against premarital sex. To be fair, the local frost-tipped pastor Edward “Sex Ed” Ainsworth isn’t the best interlocutor; at one point, he compares sex ed to “teaching every kid how to use a gun.” But when the directors do show Ainsworth’s presentation, they only hit the hysterics-the corny jokes, the tearful pledges-and not the actual content. Plenty of secular examples (like this New York Times article) demonstrate that a pro-abstinence case can be made, and that interesting reporting can result from it.

Lipschutz and Rosenblatt’s one-sided approach ultimately hamstrings their film. By Shelby’s senior year, the students bring the sex ed issue before Lubbock’s school board. The meeting actually kicks off with a prayer, and the abstinence advocates fall into a debate over the use and meaning of the word “condom” that matches anything Bill Clinton ever did with “is.” In short, it’s great theater, and it only intensifies when a cowardly school official tries to use Shelby’s own “True Love Waits” pledge against her. Instead of expanding on this, though, Lipschutz and Rosenblatt abruptly switch to Shelby’s decision to advocate for a straight-gay alliance. While this is an equally intriguing cause, the film sputters and then falls apart. It would have been better served by sticking with sex ed and exploring it more broadly (and more fairly).

What does this have to do with Netflix? For a documentary, Shelby Knox received a surprising amount of attention at its 2005 release-reviews in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, a broadcast on PBS’s “POV” series, even a mention in a Dixie Chicks song. Since then, though, it’s faded into pop-cultural oblivion. Good luck finding it at Best Buy or Blockbuster.

This is a path followed by most documentaries, and even most movies. But Shelby Knox is still worth watching, even when it falters as a documentary, because of its subjects. Whatever else they do or don’t, Lipschutz and Rosenblatt tackle a thorny issue and a small-town locale, bringing needed attention to both. And Netflix’s “Instantly Watchable” service continues to provide a home to fascinating but flawed stuff like Shelby Knox and its less-hyped brethren.

Of course, as online viewing becomes more popular, Netflix will acquire the rights to bigger and better content. Let’s hope they continue to give us interesting, offbeat films like The Education of Shelby Knox. Call it comprehensive streaming.


This article originally appeared on Patrol, a daily web magazine that covers the arts, culture, and politics in New York City.

Reflections on Norman Jean Roy’s
Traffik Exhibition Opening

After nearly ten years as a New Yorker, and having worked in the entertainment and prestige beauty industries before entering the arts world where I now reside, I have learned that there is no point in trying to predict what will happen to me each day – whom I will meet, where I will end up, or what I will see. A couple weeks ago I met my friend for Vietnamese food in Chinatown, where, over sour vegetable soup and two pots of tea, we talked at length about the intersection of art and social justice. This friend, a sculptor, is deeply devoted to helping humanity’s most needy, and this devotion is born out of an intense closeness with God and healthy sense of mysticism that enables her to see angels where the rest of us might only see mere men.

After dinner, we headed to Chelsea to attend the opening reception for Traffik, an exhibition by fashion photographer Norman Jean Roy at MILK Gallery, open to the public November 21 through December 8. MILK, located at 450 W. 15th Street, is considered to be New York City’s most prestigious photography gallery, and Roy is one of the most prominent high fashion photogs, under contract with Conde Nast to shoot exclusively for Vogue, Vanity Fair, Men’s Vogue, Allure, and Glamour.

With a resume like that, it’s no wonder that as we neared the gallery, we felt like we had walked onto the set of Entourage. Entering MILK and passing the hefty team of security guards, we were immediately swept into 6,000 square feet of models, agents, creative directors, managers, editors, and other photographers. The walls were hung with nearly fifty images, approximately four feet by five feet each. They were portraits of Cambodian prostitutes and other victims of the sex trafficking industry. The images were beautifully shot and the small placards posted beside each one gave a brief history of each subject featured. For anyone interested in the plight of victims of sex slavery, it would seem that this was a very important exhibition to attend.

However, the evening left both my friend and me deeply unsettled, because walking into the gallery, we entered what looked and felt, for all intents and purposes, like a house party. Club music was pumping, with a bass boost that reverberated through our ear canals and pulsated through our bones. The several hundred people bumping into one another throughout the huge room were talking so loudly that I could not hear my own words, and, from all appearances, very few of the people present were engaged with the art.

Interestingly, this was my second event dealing with sex trafficking in the past few weeks. On November 6, International Arts Movement hosted a screening of the film Branded, a documentary about the sex slave industry in Phoenix, Arizona. Following the film, I moderated a panel discussion with the filmmaker, Chad De Miguel, and a representative from Food for the Hungry, a non-profit organization committed to rescuing victims of the sex industry. I was surprised at the show when a woman came up to me and shouted through the noise, “You’re from International Arts Movement, right?” Trying to place her face (and failing), she quickly rescued me by explaining that she had attended the Branded screening, and I finally recalled meeting her briefly that night.

She works full time for a non-profit that is devoted to helping put an end to sex trafficking, and we tried to engage in meaningful conversation, but the atmosphere made it virtually impossible. I was yelling at the top of my lungs, and still couldn’t hear myself, or her. We exchanged cards and agreed to meet sometime in the future to discuss how IAM and her organization might partner together.

As I made my way around the outside parameters of the room, reading the placards and studying the artwork, I was increasingly ill at ease with the scene I was smack dab in the center of. As I watched people laughing and mingling and networking and scanning the room for who was there, eager to see and be seen, the paradox before me became increasingly obscene. I felt like I was looking at a room full of sex industry workers surrounded by images of sex industry workers; both the industry represented in the flesh, and the industry represented on film used sex to sell their wares.

At one point I pulled out a pen and began making notes about what I was experiencing. Shortly after I had started writing, a man with shoulder-length blond hair bee-lined for me, a full glass of white wine sloshing around in his hand. I didn’t need to hear his slurred speech to know he was drunk; his red eyes and dopey smile spoke volumes. “What’cha writin’?” he asked in a singsong manner, which was creepy coming from a man who appeared to be approximately fifty years old. I stared down at him and managed to dodge him for a bit, but quickly became the unwitting audience to his editorial of the event. “We can’t look at this from an American perspective, with an American standard,” he blathered. “These girls . . . what else do they have? This is all they have. We shouldn’t judge them. This is all they know. This is their life. They’re not asking to be anything other than what they are.”

I was dumbfounded. Was he serious? I’m afraid he was. I contemplated trying to reason with him, trying to somehow get past the incomprehensible ignorance of one who could stand in front of a picture of a woman with deep scars all over her body and filthy, infected lesions on her feet, who barely earned her living by servicing men sexually, and think this way. But I was not up to shouting, and I knew that nothing I could say would make any difference. As I excused myself and walked away, he said something about the self-righteousness of expecting people in other countries to live up to our American standards. I actually did say something to him about them not being “American” standards, but rather basic humanity standards, but he dismissed me.

With the paradoxical scenario of serious subject matter and a party-like atmosphere, I was very curious about the background of this exhibition. According to the press materials I managed to procure, the project came about when Norman Jean Roy was on assignment for Glamour‘s “Women of the Year” portfolio. Roy was introduced to Somaly Mam, a former Cambodian sex slave who was being honored for her work rescuing women trapped in the sex industry and helping them reintegrate into society. Overwhelmed by her story and haunted by the faces of the women Mam had worked with, Roy decided to spearhead a project that would expose and elevate the grave reality and gross injustice of their experiences.

So last January, Roy returned to Cambodia to photograph the victims, gaining access to brothels with the help of Mam and her organization, AFESIP. He was able to observe and document the harrowing lives of working adolescent and child prostitutes, as well as those who have been rescued and are now in rehab at AFESIP centers. The book that resulted, which was the center of last night’s exhibition, was Traffik, which captures the powerful stories of young women who were beaten, starved, raped and tortured as sex slaves. Several of the women talked about being sold by their mothers and being raped as children as early as age four.

As I watched the professionals in one sex industry mingling and drinking wine while being surrounded by larger than life sized images of professionals in another sex industry, the pungent odor of sick irony filled my nostrils, and I wanted to scream. The very publications that use sex to sell their wares were, I guess, ostensibly mourning for victims, half a world away in a physical sense, yet in a totally different universe in the social sense.

Except they weren’t mourning. Honestly, it would have been a very noble scene if they had been. High-profile fashion and beauty professionals in a prestigious New York gallery, stepping out of their party-hopping and schmoozing for one night to examine the horrors of sex slavery? It would have brought a tear to my eye – seriously.

But, from what I could tell, a relative few people were even looking at the images, let alone showing any sort of deep emotional reaction to it. And while the images are very well shot and are effective in capturing the essence of prostitution in the impoverished developing world, set in the context of loud music and a well-stocked open bar, something just felt icky. One image was particularly disturbing in light of the environment we were in. A young girl was dressed in sexy shiny panties and grown-up jewelry, lifting her shirt and looking at the camera with an almost seductive expression that was totally incomprehensible in light of the fact that she could not have been older than four. She was labeled as a child of a prostitute, but it was not much of a stretch to imagine her entertaining clients herself. At the very least, she had to have observed the business her mother was in. The image might have been simply a snapshot of a little girl playing dress up, except that she was living in a brothel, where, according to the press materials available, men pay more for sex with girls between four and seven years old, believing them to be less likely to carry STD’s. (They are, unfortunately, mistaken in that assumption).

Yet, in the milieu of pulsating club music and a plentiful supply of wine and liquor, I wondered at whether there might be people in the room with pedophiliac tendencies who, rather than being correctly horrified by it, would instead be turned on. The music, which was fine by itself, and the wine, which I appreciate regularly, simply did not belong together with images of four-year-olds dressed in sexy lingerie. For everything there is a season – a time to dance, and a time to mourn. But when people are (figuratively) dancing in the midst of such a painful exhibit, it becomes almost a mockery of the tragedy.

When IAM screened Branded, we were very mindful about the context in which the film was shown. We sold no concessions that evening. No wine, no beer, no popcorn. Our intent was that, from the time people entered the space to the time they left, we would foster an environment of concern and soberness about the issue at hand. We hoped that the film would inform our audience, inspiring them to leave the space and look for ways to engage with the issue of sex trafficking, to help change the destiny of the victims and create the world that ought to be. Indeed, there is a time to dance, and Space 38|39 has seen plenty of playful reverie. But when it’s time to mourn, it’s time to mourn.

Unfortunately, this was not the case at the opening reception for Traffik. The project is important, and I hope people will attend the exhibition, buy the coffee table book (whose proceeds will benefit Somaly Mam’s Foundation) and leave more informed about this blight on humanity. Norman Jean Roy’s work in this project is excellent, and I applaud his use of his talent and opportunity to bring this awful situation to light.

However, I am not hopeful that many people at last week’s reception – people of great means and influence who, if engaged, could make a world of difference – will. People who actually hear a call for action are more likely to respond by doing something about it. Unfortunately, it was hard to hear anything above the roar of the electronica that blared through MILK that night.

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/.