Underseen Movie: ‘Music From The Big House’ – A Glorious Prison Musical

Music From The Big House” follows Rita Chiarelli, or “the goddess of Canadian blues” as she is known, as she visits what is considered to be the birthplace of blues music: Louisiana State Maximum Security Prison (a.k.a. Angola Prison). What she finds once there is a number of inmates who have long since found solace through their love of music, and this leads her to stage a concert at the prison with them. But unlike when Johnny Cash did his performance at Folsom Prison, Chiarelli performs with the inmates instead of just for them.

Cinematographer Steve Cosens originally filmed this documentary in color, but the decision was later made to show it in black and white which suits this documentary perfectly. McDonald goes over the history of this prison which was at one time known as the bloodiest in America. The descriptions given to us of how it operated years before gives you a picture of what hell on earth must seem like. The fact the filmmakers and Chiarelli were allowed access inside this prison is amazing to say the least, and it almost seems like a miracle they made it out of there as well.

We get a chance to meet the individual inmates who end up playing in the concert, and they are a fascinating bunch. It is not until the very end when we are told what crimes they have committed which got them sentenced to time behind bars, and this was a smart move on the part of the filmmakers. By not learning of their crimes right at the start, we are forced not to judge them ahead of their musical performances. Some of them do allude to their crimes without too many specifics, and one in particular hints at how he isn’t apologizing for what he did because he’s not sure he is yet.

Some might consider this project to be a self-serving one for Chiarelli so she can get good press and sell a lot of records, but that is not the case. Her love for blues music is never in doubt, and those who have seen her perform live can verify what a powerful musical presence she can be. Those not familiar with her work will be blown away by her performances, and there is no forgetting her once the lights go up. There are also moments where Chiarelli questions why she is doing this concert as she’s not blind to what these felons have done to earn long prison sentences. Still, none of it deters her from performing with them in what turns out to be a joyous occasion, and the kind many do not expect to see from hardened inmates.

Speaking of the concert, we do get to see a lot of it here. The musical numbers are utterly invigorating, and the audience I saw this documentary with couldn’t help but clap along with the music. They even applauded at the end of the songs and for good reason; the music is incredibly thrilling to take in even if you are not a fan of the blues. I haven’t been to many movies over the years where the audience really got into what was onscreen, so this is not a cinematic experience I am going to forget any time soon.

“Music From The Big House” is one of those small movies, let alone documentaries, which deserves a bigger audience than it has already received thus far. While you could just get away with buying the soundtrack (and please do buy it), this documentary invites more than one viewing, and it would make a wonderful double feature with the Talking Heads concert film “Stop Making Sense.” You will not be able to keep your feet still while watching either film, nor should you.

* * * * out of * * * *

Rita Chiarelli Speaks About the Making of ‘Music From The Big House’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article is about a screening which took place on June 13, 2012.

Canadian blues artist Rita Chiarelli made a special appearance at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica to talk about the documentary “Music From The Big House.” Directed by Bruce McDonald, it follows Chiarelli as she goes inside the Louisiana State Maximum Security Penitentiary to perform with inmates who share her love of music. Chiarelli’s appearance was part of her tour with the documentary which has her traveling to 60 cities in 70 days for post-screening Q&As and performing the blues, and she blew us away with what she had to say as well as her music.

Moderating the Q&A was Richard Matson of Matson Films, the company distributing “Music from the Big House” in the United States. His first question for Chiarelli was how she managed to persuade the prison to let her in, and she said she had to be “very charming.” She admitted to having many meetings with the warden and other prison officials in Louisiana and managed to gain their trust over time. Putting it very bluntly, she said, “They let me in… and they also let me out.”

One audience member asked why the documentary was shot in black and white, and Chiarelli said cinematographer Steve Cosens originally shot it in color. However, it was decided later on to take the color out as everyone thought this was really how the movie should be seen. The way Chiarelli says she saw it, black and white “carried the story more” and made it “truer to its meaning.”

Chiarelli also added how the whole documentary was shot in just two and a half days and that everything done “was a first take.” Everything we saw on screen was “totally how it went down.”

Another person asked why the prison had so many African-Americans and young men incarcerated there. Chiarelli responded that 80% of the population in Louisiana is black and added “whatever that speaks to, that’s what’s going on.” She also said the laws in Louisiana are “very strict” and that it is the only state in America which still operates on the Napoleonic Code which allows more in the way of judgment calls than anything else.

One thing I wondered about, as did others, was why the crimes these inmates convicted of and serving time for were listed at the end of the documentary. We don’t know exactly what they had done to be behind bars while watching, but we do get hints at times of what landed them there. Chiarelli stated this was done so we “wouldn’t judge them before meeting them.” She and McDonald wanted us to meet the inmates first, get so see them in their present state and show how their love of music elevated their souls, and then we got what she called the “nitty gritty” of their crimes.

Chiarelli said she found it hard to ask the inmates what they did as it felt “rude to ask.” Her hope was they would eventually “open up by choice” and they would trust her and the filmmakers to tell their story.

Chiarelli finished her evening at the Aero Theatre by performing some songs from “Music from the Big House” live, specifically “Rest My Bones” and “These Four Walls” which she wrote after the making of the documentary was completed. She certainly has a great set of pipes on her, and her passion for blues music is beyond measure. It is this same passion which is shared by the inmates onscreen, and it makes for one of the most exhilarating musical documentaries you could ever hope to see.

Stranded: I Have Come from a Plane that Crashed on the Mountains is an Unforgettable Documentary

Now I am sure many of you have long since become familiar with this story. On October 13, 1972, a young ruby team from Montevideo, Uruguay, boarded a plane which was going to take them to a match in Chile. Their plane ended up crashing on a remote Andean glacier, its fuselage torn off and wings shorn. Anticipating they would be rescued, they waited in the snowy wreckage for help, but none came. When they ran out of food, they were forced to eat from the bodies of those passengers who had died. Eventually, two passengers managed to breach the treacherous Andes Mountains and brought help to their teammates left stranded in what was left of the plane. Out of the 45 passengers on that plane, only 16 survived. They were stranded on that glacier for 72 days. The fact any of them survived is nothing short of a miracle.

This story caused a sensation when first presented on the news, and many focused more on the sensational aspects of what happened, namely the cannibalism or reports of it. It was later documented in the 1973 bestselling book “Alive” written by Piers Paul Read. I have not read the book, but I did see the movie it was based on back in 1993 which starred Ethan Hawke. I remember watching it with my brother, and we both dug the seriously nasty plane crash which opened it. The movie was okay, but even with a screenplay by John Patrick Shanley of all people, it got weighed down by an endless variety of clichés. There did not seem to be any real tangible way to really get at how those rugby players truly felt while they were stranded on a glacier which they seemed destined to die on. How could they anyway?

Decades after this plane crash occurred, we got a documentary about it entitled “Stranded: I’ve Come from A Plane That Crashed on The Mountains.” This one has the advantage of having all the survivors from the crash participate participating in interviews in which they recount all the horrors they were forced to endure, and it was directed by a documentary filmmaker who also happened to be a childhood friend of theirs, Gonzalo Arijon. Through archival footage, interviews and reenactments of the events, Arijon succeeds in creating a shockingly intimate look at what these people went through in order to survive, and it puts us right into the mindset of the survivors in a way no movie or book, however well written it was, could. It proved to be one of the most astonishing cinematic portraits I have ever seen about survival, and it has stayed with me ever since I first watched more than a decade ago.

A documentary with reenactments almost sounds like an oxymoron. Certain other documentaries like “American Teen,” which came out in the same year, have been accused of restaging events that happened to the people, and it threatened to take away what felt truly real about it. The director of the movie, Nanette Burstein, admitted to restaging one event regarding a text message, and it did make for a good emotional moment, and I really do not blame her for doing so. I bring this up because the reenactments and restaging of events in “Stranded” serve to illustrate how incredibly desolate the circumstances were for these people, and they are necessary to show the way they survived. Plus, there is not a lot of archival footage for Arijon to work with, and without the reenactments, I am not sure he would have had much of a documentary.

The archival footage consists of photographs which were taken before and after the crash, and they are haunting to see as they show who these people were and what they ended up becoming. There are also some interviews shot with the survivors after they are rescued, and the audience reacted strongly when the interviewer asked them how they managed to survive. Their response to this at a later news conference brilliantly spells out why they did what they did.

The issue of cannibalism, if you really want to call it that, is handled very sensitively here. The reactions of the survivors to eating the flesh of those who have died goes through a variety of emotions from revulsion of even thinking about it to determination to survive and see their families again. But in the end, who are we to judge them for what they did? These were people pushed to the brink of madness and did whatever they could to survive, and “Stranded” puts us right in their mindset as they made their decision to eat from the bodies of their teammates. Do not even think you would have done things differently because you have not been through what they had. If you want to get cynical about it, those teammates were already dead, so they did not have a lot of say in the matter.

But the most astonishing moments in “Stranded” come from the survivors themselves. Their recollections of what they went through are still very vivid to them to this very day. The participation they gave to this project was invaluable, and we see them with their spouses and children as they go to revisit the site of the crash and go over what happened with them. What they do here is very brave, and their willingness to talk about what went on is beyond commendable. While this documentary may seem more about death than anything else, it is really more about survival and the power of the human spirit. It is also about the power of friendship and how indestructible it can be even in life’s worst moments.

With the aid of Arijon’s work, we see specifically how the survivors remember all the details of what happened. We see them lose their friends and of how they died, and of the ways they survived which included punching each other constantly so the blood would circulate better in their bodies. The moment we see those three men, which later became two, breach the Andes Mountains, we feel their desperation as well as their dwindling feeling of wanting to survive. All of these elements provide us with the most intimate portrait of this plane crash they could ever hope, or want, to get.

2008, the year in which “Stranded” was released, proved to be a tremendous year for movies set in the coldest of environments. During the summer, we got “Frozen River” which took place in the subzero weather of upstate New York. A few months later, I watched “Let the Right One In” which observed the tender relationship between a young boy and a female vampire in a frigid suburban neighborhood of Sweden. The details of these ferociously cold climates are almost completely dwarfed by the barren coldness which this documentary focuses on. Some of us are spoiled by the elongated summers we have in certain parts of the United States, but nothing we have experienced thus far will ever seem as cold as it is here.

“Stranded” gave me one of the most powerfully absorbing cinematic experiences I back in 2008. It is at turns thrilling and harrowing and, in the end, it is utterly inspiring as some of these passengers just refused to give up and die. Gonzalo Arijon brilliantly succeeds in capturing the events of this situation in a way no other filmmaker could, and it will stay with you long after you have finished watching it.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Risk’ Invites You into WikiLeaks’ Inner Circle… Somewhat

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Laura Poitras’ “Risk” is one of those documentaries which had me believing the scenes left on the cutting room floor were as, or perhaps even more, riveting as what ended up on the screen. It offers us a look into WikiLeaks and its creator Julian Assange, and it is a very intimate look which I was never sure we could ever get. What we get is a very compelling look at the inner workings of this organization which thrives on getting to the truth which is more often than not kept away from our prying eyes, and we see how this organization is constantly threatened by its infinitely powerful adversaries and perhaps by Assange himself. Yet at the same time, it feels like there is much more to the story than what we see onscreen.

Poitras filmed this documentary over the course of six years and was granted an astonishing amount of access to WikiLeaks and Assange. It starts off with Assange trying to get in touch with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as the security of WikiLeaks has been breached to where Clinton’s emails are about to be revealed to a public eager to sift through them voraciously. Assange has been accused of conspiring with the Russian government to interfere in the 2016 Presidential election, but he is shown here to be very eager to inform Clinton of how her problems are going to be much bigger than his own.

The most introspective moments in “Risk” happen near its start as Assange talks about what drew him to the work he does today. In a talk with Poitras, he says he doesn’t believe in being a martyr as much as he does in those who take risks for the things they care deeply about. The way he sees it, it is far more dangerous to do nothing than it is to do something, and the inaction of many has certainly led people to go against their best interests for no intelligent reason.

As the documentary goes on, however, the focus of it becomes a bit muddled as Poitras admits she is not sure what to make of Assange after a while. We never see her onscreen, but she does provide narration at various points where she admits she can’t ignore the contradictions of Assange’s character and is convinced he doesn’t like her. There is a scene where he and a fellow lawyer retreat to the woods for a private conversation, and at times he urges Poitras to take her camera off of him as he shares something he doesn’t want her to know. Towards the end, she says her friendship with Assange deteriorated to the point where they were constantly yelling at each other. Taking this into account, it makes you wonder just how much access she really had to his world as he remains so close and yet so far away.

One thing which cannot be denied is the size of Assange’s ego as he confronts many obstacles and impediments with a strange confidence even while the odds are stacked against him. We can’t help but laugh at scenes where those who work closest to him exhibit an exasperation as they clearly more aware of the ramifications of his actions more than he ever bothers to. He also manages to keep Poitras and even Lady Gaga at a distance as he is questioned about his intents and of what might happen if WikiLeaks one day comes to a sudden halt.

Assange does address the sexual assault charges in how he feels the U.S. government will exploit them for the sake of turning the American people against them. Still, in her director’s statement, Poitras says there was legal and personal pressure and demands by him and his colleagues to remove scenes which deal with the sexual assault investigations, and this was further complicated by another member of his staff being accused of the same thing. “Risk” does not imply guilt on Assange’s part, but it also doesn’t prove he is innocent either. This, more than anything else, makes me wonder what was left out of the final cut. Assange appears assured that WikiLeaks can never be taken down, but it feels like his inner circle sees the dominoes falling down a lot quicker than he does.

Looking back, “Risk” is really more about Poitras than it is about Assange. We never see her face, but we do get narration from her throughout. On one hand, she has the kind of access so many others can only dream of having, but you feel her growing confusion as she continually wonders if she can ever figure this man out fully. At the end, it seems like she may never know as he becomes more and more remote to where she wonders if she has just been used to further his agenda.

Certainly, no one knows more about risk than Poitras as she has been constantly interrogated and detained by U.S. officials whenever she traveled internationally, but this has not deterred her from reporting on mass surveillance and getting Edward Snowden on camera to discuss what he knows about it. Her previous documentary, “Citizenfour,” quickly became one of the most politically potent films ever made about the power a government can have over its citizens and its quest to silence those who dissent. “Risk” finds her continuing her quest for the truth even as her main subject is at times elusive as the forces surrounding him become more determined to shut him down for good.

I wish the film had been more probing into Assange’s life as he still remains a bit of an enigma, and there will always be a cloud of distrust hanging over him until the day he dies. Still, “Risk” gives us the closest of looks at an organization which continues to expose the things your government doesn’t want you to know about. If you can get past its flaws, it is a compelling watch which will have you contemplating the future of the free press and the first amendment. It ends on an ominous note as the FBI is determined to prosecute anybody and everybody involved with WikiLeaks, and I left the theater wondering how much longer we will have the First Amendment to fall back on. Hopefully, it will never disappear, but with the Trump administration, many unthinkable things have suddenly become possible.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Full Tilt Boogie,’ the ‘From Dusk Till Dawn’ Documentary, Screens at New Beverly Cinema

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After a double feature of William Friedkin’s “To Live and Die in L.A.” and “Rampage,” which is not currently available on DVD, the audience members at New Beverly Cinema were in for a special midnight treat as the theater held a screening for the 20-year-old documentary “Full Tilt Boogie.” Directed by Sarah Kelly, it chronicles the making of Robert Rodriguez’s action horror cult classic “From Dusk till Dawn” which starred George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino as outlaw brothers who, along with a vacationing family, end up at a rowdy Mexican bar which turns out to be infested with vampires. The documentary introduces us to those people who worked behind the scenes on the movie, of why they want to be a part of show business, the fun they have when the cameras are not rolling, and of the complicated relationship between movie studios and unions.

Introducing this screening of “Full Tilt Boogie” was Kelly, and she was joined by her producer and friend Rana Joy Glickman. The emcee who welcomed them remarked about how cool it was this documentary was playing at the New Beverly and that it was sharing a marquee with Friedkin’s “Cruising.” To this, the emcee said about Kelly, “Whoa! She scored good!”

Kelly welcomed all the “insomniacs” who came out to see her documentary and explained how it became a reality.

“The reason this movie came about was that Robert Rodriguez and Quentin were about to start shooting ‘From Dusk till Dawn,’ and it was an $18-million-dollar independent movie and the unions were pissed,” Kelly said. “They were like, ‘What do you mean? No, you have to go union.’ And so, there was a big threat of a strike, and Quentin thought it would be cool to document it.”

“I had worked for him on a little movie called ‘Pulp Fiction’ and a couple of other movies he was involved with,” Kelly continued, “and he knew that I was studying to be a director so he gave me a shot. At the time, I was taking a break from production and I was working part-time in a law firm and I was like, ‘So is this for real? Should I quit my job?’ And he said, ‘Uh, quit your job yesterday.’ So, I did. We wrangled our little, tiny, hardcore crew and we started shooting, by the way, on 16mm film. Nobody shoots documentaries on 16mm film anymore, but we did. The union threat kind of turned into a cold war and I asked Quentin if we could keep shooting and just do a love letter to the crew. I pitched it as kind of like ‘Hearts of Darkness’ (Eleanor Coppola’s documentary on ‘Apocalypse Now’), but not that dark. Quentin said, ‘Yeah, that’s really fucking cool!’”

As for Glickman, she claimed to have hundreds of stories to tell about the documentary and “From Dusk till Dawn,” but she chose to tell only this one.

“When we finished ‘Full Tilt Boogie’ we were just so pleased that we finished and we got to make the posters for the film, not the one that Harvey Weinstein had selected,” Glickman said. “Our favorite poster is Sarah’s design, and it was Ken (Bondy), the craft service guy on ‘From Dusk till Dawn,’ standing there with a tray of lattes and it said, ‘From the maker of coffee on Pulp Fiction, we bring you Full Tilt Boogie.’”

Kelly responded, “That’s a great poster, right?”

“Full Tilt Boogie” may not be the masterpiece “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse” is, but it’s still a very entertaining documentary which takes you behind the scenes of a movie’s production in a way few others do. We get to see the challenges crew members constantly face on a movie set, and we also get to take in the fun they have outside of it as well. For these people, this is a job done out of love and far more preferable than working a 9 to 5 job which has them sitting at a desk all day. Kelly certainly did create a love letter to these crew members, and we revel in the festivities they have from one day to the next.

Thanks to Sarah Kelly and Rana Joy Glickman for taking the time to come out, and at such a late hour, to talk about “Full Tilt Boogie” at New Beverly Cinema.

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Exclusive Interview with Kim A. Snyder about ‘Newtown’

I got to speak with Kim A. Snyder recently while was in Los Angeles to discuss her documentary “Newtown.” The documentary looks at the aftermath of the largest mass shooting of school children in American history which took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012. The school was located in Newtown, Connecticut, and we watch as the adults who tragically lost their children attempt to move on with their lives. But since this tragedy, these adults look to be stuck in a moment they may never get past. What they are left with is profound grief and memories which will now be forever tinged with sadness.

“Newtown” is certainly one of the most emotionally devastating documentaries to come out in some time, but it is not without hope. Not once is the killer’s name mentioned or his face shown as Snyder’s real interest is in the townspeople who struggle to move on despite all they have lost. As painful as their stories are, these are the stories which need to be heard as the media often tends to focus on the shooter more than anything else.

Snyder is an award-winning filmmaker and producer, and for a time she was a contributor to Variety Magazine. She made her directorial debut in 2000 with “I Remember Me” which chronicled her struggles with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). She also directed “Welcome to Shelbyville” which documented the intersection between race and religion in America’s Heartland. Her other works include the short films “Alone No Love,” “One Bridge to the Next” and “Crossing Midnight.”

While talking with Snyder, she explained why the shooter’s name was never mentioned in “Newtown,” why the term “gun control” was never used, of how Atom Egoyan’s “The Sweet Hereafter” proved to be a major influence on this documentary, and of how she managed to find hope in a story filled with infinite grief.

Check out the interview above, and be sure to catch “Newtown” when it opens in Los Angeles on October 14. Also, be sure to visit the documentary’s website at www.newtownfilm.com.

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No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: Citizenfour

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Citizenfour” is a documentary I should have taken the time watch when it first came out in theaters back in 2014. For one reason or another, I just never got the chance to check it out and life got busier for me as it always does. As a result, my view on Edward Snowden, its chief subject, has remained neutral as I never knew what to make of him when the news of his revelations about the National Security Administration’s (NSA) illegal wiretapping were brought to the public. But with Oliver Stone’s “Snowden” now playing in theaters, the time had come to check out “Citizenfour” as it likely provides audiences with the most objective and unbiased view we could ever hope to have about this particular whistleblower.

Technically, “Citizenfour” is a documentary, but it also works as a nail-biting thriller as we watch Snowden and others doing interviews in secret, but we always wonder why the phone keeps ringing and why the fire alarm keeps going off. Is everyone in the hotel room under surveillance? Are there CIA or NSA agents ready to storm it? Might there be a government assassin prepared to take everyone out from a building across the way? In the movie “Strange Days,” Tom Sizemore told Ralph Fiennes the issue isn’t whether you’re paranoid, the issue is whether you’re paranoid enough. These days, that piece of dialogue is an amazing understatement.

This documentary was directed by Laura Poitras who knows all about being under intense government surveillance. She declares “Citizenfour” to be the final part of her post-9/11 trilogy which includes “My Country, My Country” about the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and “The Oath” which focused on Guantanamo and the “war on terror.” Since 2006, she has been placed on a secret watch list by the U.S. government and was constantly interrogated by border agents every time she traveled internationally. It got to where she had no choice but to move to Berlin in an effort to protect her footage from being confiscated. Suffice to say, “Citizenfour” is a documentary which would never have seen the light of day were these secret interviews conducted in America.

The title refers to the name Snowden used when he attempted to make contact with Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald. Eventually, the three meet in a Hong Kong hotel room where Snowden tells them, as well as The Guardian’s intelligence reporter Ewen MacAskill, all he knows about the U.S. government’s illegal wiretapping activities, and it is frightening to see just how far it goes.

What’s fascinating about “Citizenfour” is how calm and collected Snowden appears here as he divulges information which will eventually render him a traitor to many and a hero to others. It’s almost like a ticking time bomb as we are viewing his very last hours of anonymity as he will soon be revealed to the world as a whistleblower, and many will manipulate his image any way they can. But in this day and age, when everyone is so hooked on their cell phones and Facebook, aren’t we a little too quick to give up certain parts of our privacy? We have always felt something or somebody keeping an eye on us to where we accept the fact we are being watched, but we reveal more about ourselves now than we ever did in the past.

Poitras deserves a lot of credit for keeping a firm hand on the subject matter here as she gives “Citizenfour” a dark and ominous tone as we know how much Snowden’s revelations will rock the world. She is also aided by the use of Nine Inch Nails’ instrumental music from the “Ghosts” album which provides an electronic hum which keeps getting louder and louder as the truth is revealed and identities will be forever burned in our conscious minds.

By the time “Citizenfour” ends, the cat has been let out of the bag and Snowden finds himself living in Russia along with his girlfriend. The fact Poitras was able to get him back into the documentary before the end credits started rolling feels remarkable in hindsight. At this point, only he and Greenwald can communicate certain bits of information through pieces of paper which they later rip up. The battle to restore privacy has only just begun, and it will be a long time before it will be resolved. Whether it will be resolved fully is another story.

Poitras makes us see the reach of the U.S. government both through her own struggles and former NSA intelligence official William Binney whose own whistleblowing efforts had people bursting through his door with guns. President Barack Obama is shown in footage saying Snowden should have gone through legal channels and share his information legally, but when you take into account how other government whistleblowers have been treated, even he can’t guarantee Snowden can be brought in safely.

What is particularly frightening about “Citizenfour” is how the different parts of government are constantly watching one another to where it feels like trust in one another can seem like a rare commodity. It all brings us back to the “Watchmen” question, who watches the watchers? Everybody is watching each other, and in many ways it doesn’t matter who the President is because the NSA appears to run by their own rules and no government oversight can easily stop them in their tracks.

Opinions on Snowden still differ as some see him as a hero and others as a traitor. “Citizenfour,” however, shows him to be a selfless man eager to right the wrongs made by people who have betrayed the public’s trust. The fact that Poitras was able to get this documentary made let alone released is astounding, and it should be required viewing for all Americans. At the very least, she, Snowden and Greenwald deserve credit for bringing this wiretapping issue to light as there needs to be more discussion about it. We are still feeling the aftereffects of these revelations, and the dominoes keep on falling. While it helps to have all kinds of information to combat those who threaten our livelihood, you eventually have to wonder if it is worth the price.

* * * * out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

Exclusive Interview with Dana Ben-Ari on her Documentary ‘Breastmilk’

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The documentary “Breastmilk” marks the directorial debut of Dana Ben-Ari, and it deals with a subject we think we know a lot but really don’t: breast feeding. It follows first-time mothers of different ages and backgrounds as they deal with the breast feeding process in various ways, and it documents the successes and struggles they are forced to endure. While some are pro-breast feeding, others find themselves relieved at not having to go through with it. But throughout “Breastmilk,” Ben-Ari never judges the families and prefers to present their stories as objectively as possible. Sure, there are a number of instructional videos, books, experts, lactation experts and do-it-yourself guides you can find on YouTube, but there really hasn’t been a film which explores real people going through this process before this one.

I got to speak with Ben-Ari while she was in town to do press for “Breastmilk,” and I congratulated her on making a documentary which will appeal to both women and men. It certainly promotes a lot of discussion on breast feeding, and it will be interesting to hear what people who see this documentary have to say about it. We talked about what drew her to make “Breastmilk,” how she went about choosing its participants, what surprised her most about the making of it, and the importance of including gay couples in this debate as well.

Ben Kenber: What was your main inspiration for wanting to make this documentary?

Dana Ben-Ari: Well I am a mother myself and I am pro-breastfeeding, and I’ve seen many women in many families struggle and go through these similar experiences. I thought that this would be fun and interesting to explore on camera because I think that it is part of a larger conversation around feminism, and I thought that voicing and making these experiences visible would be very helpful and important.

BK: In regards to the people who participated in this documentary, how did you go about selecting them?

DBA: We posted various flyers and we posted on parent sites and groups and word-of-mouth and friends. We had an overwhelming amount of emails and stories shared, and then we realized that we wanted to find pregnant women who were carrying their first child so that we could have a more immediate first time experience. We started with that, and then I wanted to have a few other families participate in the conversation because I thought that families with slightly older kids, as you see sprinkled throughout the film, just provide a little bit of a different perspective than the young families who are going through it for the first time. That’s how we came out with that balance.

BK: Have you kept in touch with the participants since you finished making this documentary?

DBA: Yeah, a few of them came to one of the Saturday night screenings and then the Sunday screening. We’ve been in touch. A few people have moved out of New York, but the ones in New York try to come to the screenings when they can.

BK: Were there any really big surprises while you were making this documentary?

DBA: I learned a lot about filmmaking because this is my first film, so that was quite interesting. I had a great cinematographer (Jake Clennell) who taught me how to be in the room but still respect the space and the experience, and we really learned a lot about being patient and giving that families time. What also stood out was how vulnerable all of these families are and how women are still oppressed.

BK: One woman talks about how women are still made to feel bad about their bodies, and that’s a shame. You get the feeling that people who say that probably don’t understand what the experience is like, and we are seeing that experience in front of us. They are doing the best they can.

DBA: Right. All of these families are doing the best that they can.

BK: One of my favorite scenes is when a white couple goes to one of the black mothers and gets bags of breast milk. It reminded me of picture I saw in a magazine where a heart from a white person was placed next to a heart from a black person, and you see that there’s no difference between them. It’s the same thing with the breast milk because, in the end, milk is milk. How did you come to get that scene?

DBA: We knew that we wanted to show some donations, and I looked for women who were looking for milk donations. One of the women that we had been following did have a lot of milk that she wanted to donate, and I asked her if she wanted us to help her find somebody. So we followed the adoptive mother through a number of attempts, and then we also had this one. We had a couple more milk donations scenes that didn’t make the cut, and we were just left with this one which was really a great scene because so much gets covered. There’s so much you can discuss from that one little moment, and that was very natural actually (those reactions).

BK: Was there anything in particular that you wanted to capture but were unable to for one reason or another?

DBA: Not so much. I’m quite happy with everything. We packed so much in. I wish we’d have more time to develop more stories, but as far as 90 minutes go I think we covered quite a lot. There’s so much there that I think people may not have thought of, and it just inspires these questions and their interest.

BK: Going back to what the cinematographer told you about respecting the space, can you talk a little bit more about that?

DBA: He is very good and very talented at what he does, but he also is very good at being very social and knows how to make people feel comfortable. But then also, as a mother myself, I had some experiences with what some of these families were going through, and I really did not get too involved in their journey. So even if some couples were arguing over a formula I really stayed out of it, and that was something he and I discussed that we were not going to get involved in. We were just going to let things play out. Of course, if somebody had asked me privately off camera certain things I would tell them, but we really didn’t want to affect their decisions and their experiences. So I think we did a good job with respecting their choices and their decisions.

BK: I also liked how the documentary dealt with gay couples, both male and female, and you sort of wonder how certain couples deal with that or not being able to give their children breast milk (men can’t, but they do keep trying). It’s great to see them in the groups because what they go through is no different from what anybody else is going through. Was that what you were hoping to show?

DBA: Yeah, I loved that too. I think it’s like dropping certain things without an editorial just to make people think about what is family and what is community and what does it mean to be male, what does it mean to be female, all of those questions. While there are some differences, the similarities sometimes are really much greater than we realize. I think that those are wonderful moments in the film, and I think it’s important to include a diverse group because our country is diverse. If we just focused on the one or two examples I think we miss a lot.

BK: A couple of days ago I saw the movie “Neighbors” which stars Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne, and there is a scene where Seth gets sprayed with Rose’s breast milk. I was reminded of that when you show the montage of women squeezing the breast to show how much milk can come out of them, and it made the scene from “Neighbors” seem more realistic as a result. What was it like filming that montage?

DBA: Oh that was a lot of fun (laughs). That was a lot of fun and a lot of women had not really had that experience before, so we left those women feeling very satisfied that they got something of the experience. But really, this movie is about community and the body and how we’ve become and how nice it is for women to get reacquainted with their bodies and also just accept themselves as women. That was one of those celebratory moments in the film and humorous as well.

BK: Are you planning a follow up documentary to “Breastmilk” or do you have different plans for the future?

DBA: Well I have some ideas but not a follow-up to this. Some people are asking if there’s going to be a “Breastmilk 2;” no, I don’t think so. But I hope to be involved in something fun again soon. I do have to see this through, you know? It’s the first film so I have to do the short film tour and be available for press as much as possible.

BK: How involved were the executive producers, Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein, in the making of this documentary?

DBA: Well they came on after everything was done, and they’ve been very helpful and supportive in promoting it. That’s really more of our relationship, promoting and reaching a wider audience. They’ve been great.

I really want to thank Dana Ben-Ari for taking the time to talk with me. “Breastmilk” is now available to watch on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital. Click here to view the movie’s website for more information.

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Exclusive Interview with Jeff Feuerzeig and Laura Albert on ‘Author: The JT Leroy Story’

Of the plethora of excellent documentaries to come out in 2016, one of the most fascinating to watch is “Author: The JT Leroy Story.” Directed by Jeff Feuerzeig, it chronicles the rise and fall of literary sensation JT Leroy whose rough and tumble childhood crafted him into a writer of such books as “Sarah” and “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things,” the latter of which was adapted into a film by Asia Argento. However, it was eventually revealed that JT Leroy did not in fact exist and was actually an avatar for former phone sex worker turned housewife, Laura Albert. Following this revelation, Albert was considered a fraud and many believed she concocted nothing more than an elaborate hoax. But with this documentary, Albert seeks to set the record straight over how JT Leroy came into existence for her, and she makes it clear that what happened was in no way a hoax.

The beauty of “Author: The JT Leroy Story” is it never judges Albert for a second. The documentary simply lets her tell her side of the story which proves to be more complex than we could ever have imagined. Considering her dysfunctional childhood, it is understandable she needed an outlet of some kind to vent her pain and frustration with life, and with JT Leroy she found a way to express things she was unable to as herself.

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It was a real pleasure to talk with Feuerzeig and Albert while they were in Los Angeles, and the two of them talked at length about what possessed them to take on this project and of what went into its making. Albert’s insights into her writing process were especially fascinating as she actually found herself predicting the future through her books.

Check out the interview above, and be sure to catch “Author: The JT Leroy Story” when it arrives in theaters in Los Angeles on September 9. You can also check out a trailer for the documentary below.

 

Mapplethorpe: Look At The Pictures

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This documentary starts off with former Senator Jesse Helms on the floor of congress back in 1989 where he denounced the controversial photography of Robert Mapplethorpe. Now Mapplethorpe’s work ended up pushing a lot of social boundaries with his frank depictions of sexuality, nudity and fetishism, and since he became known during the age of Ronald Reagan’s moral America, many saw him as nothing more than a shameless pornographer and refused to look at his photographs with any penetrating insight. What was on the surface bothered them, but like with any work of art it is about how the mind perceives it and of the effect it has on your perception of the world around you.

Helms told congress to look at the pictures as if they were done by someone possessed by the devil, but the HBO documentary “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures” invites the viewer to look at them from a less biased perspective and see how this artist managed to turn contemporary art into fine art. What results is a fascinating look at an artist who in some ways is more prolific in death than in life, and it is probably the most in depth look at his life currently available.

We get scenes featuring curators at The J. Paul Getty Museum and The Los Angeles County Museum of Art as they prepare to open a landmark retrospective of Mapplethorpe’s work. Their intent is to look at him as a human being, and that intent is shared by the documentary’s directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato whose previous work includes “Inside Deep Throat,” “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” and “Party Monster” (both the documentary and the feature film starring Macaulay Culkin). They dig deep into Robert’s past and never sugar coat his life for easy consumption.

It was very interesting to see Robert as a kid when he was considered the pogo stick champion of his neighborhood and somewhat unsurprising to learn he never really fit into any of the social circles in high schools (the great artists never seem to). Throughout the documentary we get to hear his voice from old recordings, and he says that he grew up in suburban America which he described as a good place to come from because it is also a good place to leave. He also admits he never set out to be a photographer as he took a course on it and hated it. And yet during his college years he found a creative spark which never left him.

“Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures” also features interviews with various friends, family members and celebrities who all seem to agree Robert was a largely mysterious person who was always looking to get a rise out of people.  At the same time, his brother Edward said he could be quieter than anyone else in the room. Writer Fran Lebowitz even described him as looking like a “broken Cupid,” so it’s safe to say that many people viewed him differently. As the documentary continues on, it shows us a man struggling to express himself during a time where voices which differed from the norm were quickly chastised and silenced.

One of the documentary’s most fascinating segments comes when Robert meets up with singer Patti Smith and observes the time they spent together at the famous Chelsea Hotel in New York. This segment also takes us back to a time when the Big Apple was bankrupt, corrupt and looked nothing like the insanely expensive city it is today. The two of them fed off each other creatively and created art no one else ever could have, and Mapplethorpe even shot the photograph which became the cover for her first album, “Horses.” The fact that their relationship is cut a little short in the documentary is disappointing as it would have been great to see more of them here, and it could very well make for a great documentary of its own.

Both Bailey and Barbato also might have fared a little bit better had they given equal time to the methods Robert used to create his art instead of his personal life. Many of his photographs, including his famous “Man in the Polyester Suit,” are on display here, and while we get an idea of how he messed around with his Polaroid photos to create something startlingly unique, it would have been nice to see more of his technique in how he pulled certain photographs off.

Instead, “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures” spends more time than it needs to on Robert’s love life and his various lovers. Granted, hearing them talk about Robert does give us deeper insight into his psychology and how selfish he became as he got older. We even here Robert say at one point, “Life is about using people and being used by people,” so his self-centeredness is very understandable. But to hear people talk about him in this manner makes the documentary at times feel like a broken record.

However, “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures” finishes on a strong note as we watch Robert putting up his last solo show entitled “The Perfect Moment.” By this time, he had been diagnosed with AIDS which back then was a death sentence, and some described this show as being a “memorial with a living corpse.” Robert was only 42 years old when he died on March 9, 1989, but he looked more like he was in his late 60’s. In his later years he sought fame like crazy, and he soon became more famous in death than in life. The effect this final show had on the general public was profound, and it served to secure his legacy after he passed away.

Despite some minor flaws, “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures” is a compelling documentary which serves to look at the famous artist as more than just a controversial figure. Robert was a human being with problems like anybody else’s, but he always photographed what he loved and the people he loved to be with. He pushed all sorts of boundaries as he described art as being about “opening something up.” He certainly opened the world up to looking at things differently than ever before, and he remains a potent force in the art world today. Looking at his photographs now, one cannot help but wonder why certain parts of the human body are still considered more dangerous than a loaded gun.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016

* * * ½ out of * * * *