2019 Double Exposure (Investigative Film Festival & Symposium)

(The following coverage of the 2019 Double Exposure/Investigative Film Festival appears online at Film Festival Today)

Five years and, hopefully, counting.  The noteworthy Double Exposure/Investigative Film Festival is thriving as co-directors Diana Jean Schemo and Sky Sitney and the nonprofit investigation news organization 100Reporters continue their excellent film festival that premiered in the fall of 2015 in the nation's capital.

Despite losing a day (I was told a religious holiday fell on what would have been a Wednesday Opening Night), the festival jam packed those four days with nine memorable documentaries, two Shorts programs, ten  symposiums held over two days and nine separate workshops on the third day.  The organizers even added two new programs entitled "Crossing Borders" and "The Art of Exposure With Halcyon House Fellows".  Finally, A DX Access and DX Pitch (where "registered participants in Double Exposure have found funding for projects, distribution deals, new homes for their work and jobs") and Docs In Progress Pitch ("where six pitching filmmakers present their projects to a panel that includes representatives from across the documentary industry") were held over two days.  (A complete topic list can be found on the Double Exposure website.)

A user friendly festival footprint continued with Opening Night being held at The National Portrait Gallery, the closing night film screened at The National Geographic Museum and all remaining seven films and Shorts Programs at The Naval Heritage Center.  For the first time, the Eaton Hotel was the site for the remainder of the programs stated above.

This years impressive film lineup included the U.S. premiere by Academy Award winner Barbara Kopple, "Desert One".  A fascinating post-film panel discussion with film subjects involved with the failed 1979 effort to rescue the American hostages during the Iranian revolution kicked off the festival in grand style (refer to my honorable mention below).  Also notable was my personal favorite the festival's Centerpiece presentation of  the brilliant "Citizen K" by the talented and prolific Alex Gibney (reviewed below); and the Closing Night Film "The Cave" by Academy Award nominee Feras Fayyad ("Last Man In Aleppo") about an underground hospital in war-torn Syria. 

The relevance of Double Exposure cannot be overstated as investigative reporting in today's volatile political and social consciousness seems to be at the forefront of today's explosive headlines.  As aptly stated by Diana Jean Schemo and Sky Sitney in their opening letter to attendees, "Public awareness of investigative reporting's importance for a vibrant democracy has never been more urgent - particularly in Washington, epicenter of the assault on verifiable truth. . . Investigative journalism cannot survive as a spectator sport.   It requires public awareness and active support.  That has proved more critical than ever, particularly here and now."  To this end, the co-directors successfully continue to offer journalists and the public at large a unique wide selection of offerings and activities that help filter out the noise and focus on the truth.


(1)  Citizen K (**** out of 4 - 128 minutes)  
Writer/director Alex Gibney has numerous nominations 
 and awards on his resumé, 
including two Best Documentary Feature Academy Awards for Enron:  The Smartest Guys in the Rooms Side (2006) and Taxi to the Dark Side (2008).  The D.C. premiere of his latest, a brilliant captivating profile of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oil oligarch (and perhaps the richest man in Russia) who created Russia's first commercial bank and who became a political protester in today's post-Soviet Russia, is this reviewer's early pick on making the Academy's short list.  Pointing out the corruption in the Putin regime, Khodorkovsky became the biggest thorn in Putin's side.  As a result, he lost his assets and his liberty when thrown in a Siberian jail for ten years.  Upon release, he did a political about-face by founding Open Russia, a pro-democracy initiative advocating democracy and human rights.  He later exiled to London in 2015 after being charged with the murder of a small-town Siberian mayor in 1998 who had charged him with tax invasion.  With that as a background, this space is not nearly large enough to depict the numerous directions Gibney takes to cover the historical timeline and personalities involved.  The viewer will be left with countless ideas, pro and con, making it difficult to ascertain motives that would ultimately provide answers on Khodorkovsky's villainy or innocence.  This is a decision the filmmaker correctly leaves to the audience as there are many shades of gray here in this convoluted story of power and greed.  Documentaries that ventured past the 90 or so minute mark, more so than not, tend to lose focus as well as the average viewer's attention.  However, Gibney here is masterful in generating so much interest and entertainment that the 128 minutes literally flew by.  Editor Michael Palmer is instrumental in keeping the narrative streamlined that is terrifically complemented by a appropriately thrilling soundtrack provided by Robert Logan and Ivan Guest.  (Of special note is the opening of drone images over the Yukos oilfields accompanied by Zbigniew Preisner's dramatic "Song for the Unification of Europe" musically pounding the visuals.)  Gibney's most satisfying work to date, the Amazon-produced Citizen K started a limited U.S. roll out beginning November 22 and will eventually be streamed over Prime Video.

(l to r)  New York Times Washington investigative
correspondent Mark Mazzetti and director Alex

(2)  Bedlam (**** out of 4 - 128 minutes)`
As the poster exclaims, a film that is "an intimate journey into America's mental health crisis" doesn't exactly scream riveting entertainment.   However, to this reviewer's
pleasant surprise, director/co-writer Psychiatrist Dr. Kenneth Paul Rosenberg's engrossing, compelling and relevant doc ended up as my second favorite at the festival.  The timing could not be more appropriate as currently there exists an increasing homelessness problem plaguing several of our largest cities.  According to a Harvard study, 45 per cent of these folks suffer from mental illness, and some would argue the problem is mainly or partly due to local government's inability to adequately deal with the mentally ill.  Dr. Rosenberg spent five years documenting the issue and neatly intertwines his film into two parts.  There is a more general look at the treatment of those inflicted with the insidious disease.   As one expert points out, treating mental illness is, "a 150-year-old disaster".  The most severely inflicted went from being warehoused in frightful institutions to now where their final destinations are either the ER, prison, or the city streets.  After presenting a brief history of the treatment of the mentally ill, Dr. Rosenberg directs his focus mainly to LAC USC (Los Angeles County University of Southern California Medical Center).  Here we are introduced to a Psychiatric resident and an ER Psychiatrist as well as three individual case studies.  Their individual medical treatments as well as their ups and downs over the course of several years hammers home the frustrations faced by the medical community in trying to deal with what is really an incurable disease.  In the second part, as if these case studies aren't heart rendering enough, the director introduces us to his own personal connection, and the reason he entered the field of psychiatry.  His older sister Merle, developed Schizophrenia at the age of 20 and later committed suicide.  Her story lands a strong emotional punch that clearly illustrates his anguish and overall punctuates the sorry state of the afflicted and the incredible challenges health professionals are faced to help them.  Bedlam features strong editing by Jim Cricci, wonderful camerawork by Director of Photography Joan Churchill and an effective score by Dannt Bensi & Saunder Juriaans.  The film had its D.C. premiere at the festival and is currently scheduled to be televised next April 13 on the PBS Independent Lens series.

(l to r)  Director Dr. Kenneth Paul Rosenberg and 
moderator Susanne Reber, executive editor and 
co-founder of Reveal

(3)  Bellingcat - Truth in a Post-Truth World (**** out of 4 - 88 minutes)
In today's era of "fake news" comes the D.C. premiere of this eye-opening film from Dutch director Hans Pool which practically plays like a spy thriller.  With misinformation and questionable sources from the media and governments plaguing our everyday news, there is some comfort knowing there are people out there who are constantly in search of the truth in our "breaking news" universe.  Bellingcat, an online investigative journalism website was founded in 2014 by British journalist and former blogger Eliot Higgins when he began investigating the use of weapons in the Syrian war.  Specializing in fact-checking and open-source intelligence (OSINT), the group has investigated such worldly events as the 2014 shooting down of the Malaysian MH17 plane over Ukraine, the Russian spy poisoning in the UK and identifying assailants during the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Va.  One of the group was even able to pinpoint the location where free lance report James Foley was beheaded utilizing the video of the event.  What sets this group apart is their use of unorthodox methods of investigative journalism which includes satellite photos, Google Earth, social media, public databases and obscure digital downloads off The Internet.  The name "Bellingcat" is derived from a children's tale ("Belling the Cat") in which a mouse plans to tie a bell to the neck of a cat but is unable to enlist the aid of someone brave enough to do it.  However, unlike the mouse in the story, Eliot's group is scattered around the world and dedicated to unmasking falsehoods and deceptions without fear of being "eaten" by powers much greater than themselves.  The forensic methods these citizen journalists use is nothing short of engrossing and will hold ones interest throughout the 88 minute running-time and will have you marveling at their dedication in establishing true facts behind today's explosive headlines.  The film is currently seeking distribution in the U.S.

Film subject Christiaan Triebert and moderator Claire
Wardle, who leads the strategic direction and research
for First Draft and is co-founder of Eyewitness Media 


Desert One  (*** 1/2 out of - 108 minutes)
The opening night film and U.S. premiere of the latest from Academy Award winner Barbara Kopple (1976's Harlan County, USA and 1991's American Dream) superbly chronicles the failed 1980 Delta Force mission to rescue the 52 American hostages taken in 1979 during the Iranian Revolution and who were held for 444 days.  The botched mission resulted in the deaths of eight soldiers and likely cost President Jimmy Carter the election in the fall of 1980.  Her nuts and bolts approach details like never before the incredible behind-the-scenes 40-year-old event.  Kopple obtains interviews with many of the principals (including hostages) and uses archival footage, military documents and effective animation (to illustrate the unfilmed nighttime fiasco), in order to thoroughly investigate the operation as well as commenting on its significant historical and political impact.  The director even gained a major coup by obtaining a fascinating present-day interview with the 94-year-old ex-president.  The U.S. theatrical release date has yet to be announced; however, since Desert One was produced for the History Channel, it will eventually appear on that cable station.


Bikram:  Yogi, Guru, Predator  (*** out of 4 - 86 minutes)
Cult leaders have taken many forms over the years.  From extreme examples such as Jim Jones and David Koresh to much subtler forms where a charismatic leader grabs hold of folks who are willing to follow doctrines and activities that others would label abuse.  Bikram Choudary clearly falls into the latter category.  Director Eva Orner recounts his rise and "fall" by detailing a journey that began in the early 1970s when he left Calcutta for Beverly Hills, California where he established a global hot yoga fitness empire.  Great wealth and celebrity status followed until 2005 when deeply nefarious sexual abuse and unconventional methods allegations began to surface - along with lawsuits being filed which became national headlines.  Orner includes victim interviews as well as those from devout followers who still believe in this heinous excuse of a human being.   However, in the end, I was ultimately left unsatisfied and frustrated and only felt the need to head to the nearest shower.  The film, which had its D.C. premiere at Double Exposure, is currently available on Netflix.

Bully, Coward, Victim.  The Story of Roy Cohn  (*** out of 4 - 98 minutes)
Yet another doc (Where's My Roy Cohn was released last September) on the legendary and controversial lawyer, directed by Ivy Merropol, the granddaughter of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.  Cohn came to prominence when he prosecuted the Rosenbergs who eventually were executed in 1953 for stealing atomic secrets and passing them on to the Soviets.  Cohn then added to his notoriety as chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy during the Red Scare in the 1950s.  From there, he became a New York-based power broker and eventually a personal lawyer and mentor to Donald Trump.  There is much much more to this enigmatic figure (his cousin David Lloyd Marcus stated, "He was the personification of evil")  that Merropol carefully explores, including his closeted homosexuality (Cohn succumbed to aids in 1986), that makes this an overall compelling film.  The HBO-produced film, which had its D.C. premiere at this festival, is still making the festival circuit and will eventually be shown on the network in 2020.

Dark Suns  (** out of 4 -154 minutes)
One of the more depressing over 2 1/2 hours that I've ever spent in a theater seat is the D.C. premiere of this documentary by Julien Elie chronicling the murderous crimes, corruption and overall lawlessness in Mexico since the 1990s.  Too numerous talking heads will relentlessly pound this theme into your brain. And by the time the last reel where cameras follow distraught mothers searching in desolate mountain locales for any remains of their missing loved ones, I'm certain few patrons will still be there for the closing credits.  Excruciatingly slow, Dark Suns will have you wondering why anyone would ever want to venture to the country south of the U.S. border.  There has been no distribution date established as of this writing.

The Cave  (** 1/2 out of 4 - 90 minutes)
The U.S. premiere and closing night film is the latest from Oscar nominee Feras Fayyad (2017's Last Men in Aleppo) in which he focuses on the Syrian War between 2016 and 2018 taking his cameras into a subterranean hospital and observing the workings of the courageous men and women tending to victims below a war ravaged country.  Using cinema vérité, the director concentrates mainly on pediatrician and managing physician Dr. Amani Ballour and a couple of her female colleagues as they work under the most horrific cultural and social circumstances.  One can truly admire the danger Fayyad and his crew faced during the chaotic filming.  However, the constant repetition of bombing, followed by White Helmet led search-and-rescue mission, followed by the barrage of images of children suffering every wound imaginable had such an overwhelming monotonous and ultimately numbing effect that those 90 minutes of running time seemed much longer.  The documentary had a limited U.S. theatrical release beginning October 18.   

The Preppy Murder:  Death in Central Park  (*** out of 4 - Parts I & II: 86 minutes)
The world premiere of the first two installments of the AMC 5-part docuseries directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sunberg (Joan Rivers - A Piece of Work & The Devil Came on Horseback) investigates the notorious 1986 murder of Jennifer Levin by her handsome prep school friend Robert Chambers.  Chambers quickly admitted to the crime, saying she died as a result of rough sex.  The salacious story grabbed national headlines - occurring well before the existence of the current-day social media explosion where such cases NOW seem almost common place.  Based only on the first two episodes I screened, the doc is generically told with the usual interviews and reenactments but is still certain to hold ones interest considering the subject matter.  However, it is hard to discern how much padding may have ultimately been used to fill five segments.  The series began on AMC on November 13 and is currently available for streaming and on-demand.


Director Barbar Kopple (l) introduces her 
"Desert One" as festival co-creators and 
co-directors Diana Jean Schemo and 
Sky Sitney look on

Filmmaker Barbara Kopple (in red) with film
subjects and participants


"Bikram:  Yogi, Guru, Predator" director Eva Orner 
appearing at the Q&A via Skype from The Hamptons 
Film Festival

(l to r) Radio & multimedia producer and series host of 
ESPN's 30 For 30 podcast on Bikram; moderator and Double
Exposure co-director & co-producer Sky Sitney

(l to r) "Bully, Coward, Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn,
director Ivy Meeropol; Michael Meeropol, father of the
director & son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg; moderator 
Dan Friedman, Mother Jones staff writer

Q&A for "Dark Skies" with Maureen Meyer, Director for 
Mexico and Migrants Rights at The Washington Office on 
Latin America (WOLA) and PBS Public Editor, Ricardo 
Sandoval Palos

(l to r) "The Cave" producer Sigrid Dyekjær; Director Feras
Fayyad; moderator Diana Jean Schlemo, Double 
Exposure co-creator and co-director

(l to r) "The Preppy Murder: Death In Central Park" 
directors Annie Sundberg & Ricki Stern

UPCOMING:  My annual pre-Academy Award Random Thoughts and Predictions column including what will win and what should win


The fifth annual edition of the ground-breaking Double Exposure-Investigative Film Festival is returning once again to Washington DC on Thursday October 10 and will run through Sunday October 13. A project of the investigative news organization 100Reporters, the festival opens with a bang offering the Washington premiere and the latest documentary Desert One by acclaimed Academy Award winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple. Eight other films plus two shorts programs will also be screened including Academy Award winner Alex Gibney's newest Citizen K as well as the closing night film The Cave directed by Academy Award nominated Ferras Fayyad. (For a complete list click here.) In addition to the outstanding documentaries, the festival “offers a unique meeting ground for investigative journalists and filmmakers, featuring an extraordinary lineup of speakers, provocative panel discussions, master classes, a full day of hands-on workshops and special programming designed to connect and facilitate collaboration across disciplines.” Click here for complete festival information.  Stop back after the festival for my coverage including my top 3 films

2019 AFI DOCS Documentary Film Festival

The AFI DOCS documentary film festival (formerly AFI SILVERDOCS) rolls along with this its 17th yearly edition.  However, there are definite signs that a significant downsizing, or even demise, could be the ultimate fate of this very important festival.  The most notable indicator is yet another notable yearly drop in the number of films being offered.  The last three fests have seen the total films offered fall from 112 in 2017, to 92 last year to 72 this year.  And one has to wonder about its overall financial stability when they could not even afford (as told to me by an unnamed festival official) a portable spotlight to properly light Q&A's in the dimly lit Landmark Theater venues. 

The good news is the festival is still being presented over the course of five days and maintains a solid Presenting Sponsor in AT&T while continuing to offer a variety of Impact Labs (which, "helps artists generate broad social impact and political change through the power of story and film") and Forums (which, "presents a variety of networking and professional development events for filmmakers, industry professionals and those with a passion for nonfiction storytelling").

Gala presentations included the opening night documentary "True Justice:  Bryan Stevenson's Fight For Equality", the closing night film "Raise Hell:  The Life & Times of Molly Ivins", and "American Factory" which won the Sundance U.S. Documentary Directing Award.  Two special programs offered discussions entitled "In The Line Of Duty:  A Conversation with Ernie and Joe and Rep. Bruce Franks, Jr. (St. Louis Superman)" and "Protecting Journalists and Safeguarding Press Freedoms:  A New Initiative" which followed screenings of "Ernie And Joe" and "The Assassination of Jamal Khashoggi", respectively.  

Also, special screenings included the World Premiere of the six-hour American Experience miniseries "Chasing The Moon" (which won The Audience Feature Award - see below), National Geographic's "Sea of Shadows", as well as "Toni Morrison:  The Pieces I Am".  And for the first time, the majority of feature films were organized into specific categories:  Portrait, Truth & Justice, Spectrum (explained as "a wide selection of some of the most exciting nonfiction work of the year" where "these filmmakers are pushing the boundaries of storytelling and exploring more unconventional subject matter"), Anthem ("a cinematic celebration of music in all its forms") and Cinema's Legacy where three groundbreaking documentaries from the past, "of such originality and brilliance that they redefined the documentary art form". 

This year's Guggenheim Symposium honoree was filmmaker Freida Lee Mock whose numerous nominations over the year's included winning a Best Documentary Feature Academy Award for her 1994 film "Maya Lin:  A Strong Clear Vision" and a prime-time Emmy Award.  Following a discussion with Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday was an advance screening of her latest work "Ruth - Justice Ginsburg In Her Own Words".

Once again, festival locations occurred in both Silver Spring at the AFI Silver Theater (the birthplace of the festival) and various venues in the downtown D.C. Penn Quarter section with most films playing at The Landmark theater.  New venues here included a switch of the Opening Night film ("True Justice:  Bryan Stevenson's Fight for Equality") from the Newseum to the significantly smaller National Archives Museum, single showings at The Warner Theater and National Geographic Museum as well as three films playing at the Navy Memorial. 

Overall, The AFI Documentary Film Festival, despite its minor shortcomings, continues to provide the public and filmmakers, from over 2000 entries, a top notch conglomeration of quality documentaries from 17 countries around the world and a meaningful topical platform that entertains, informs and educates.  Nonfiction documentaries continues to be relevant and along with conversations here with some of this nation's leading media journalists help to further emphasize the value of this festival which cannot be overstated in this increasingly complicated world.  

NOTE: The Audience Award for Best Feature went to The American Experience series “Chasing The Moon” directed by Robert Stone about American's race to the moon and honors the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.  The Audience Award for Best Short went to "St. Louis Superman” directed by Smriti Mundra and Sami Khan about 33-year-old rapper Bruce Franks, Jr. who became an influential St. Louis activist and representative.  A Short Film Grand Jury prize went to "In The Absence" directed by Yi Seung-Jun about the 2014 South Korean ferry disaster which claimed over 300 children and the efforts by victims' families and survivors to seek justice.  Honorable Mention Short Awards went to "A Love Song For Latasha" (directed by Sophia Nahli Allison) and "Scenes From A Dry City" (directed by Francois Verster and Simon Wood).  (None of these films were screened by this reviewer.)


(1)  Maiden  (**** out of 4 - 93 Minutes)
One of the more inspirational stories is Director Alex Holmes' profile of British sailor Tracy Edwards and her phenomenal achievement after gathering an all-female crew in 1989 at the age of 24 to participate in the male dominated 33,000 mile, 9-month Whitbread Round the World Race.  It begins with  a detailed biography of Edward's early life which went from relatively normal up until the death of her father at age 10 to her dealing with an abusive stepfather that led to her leaving home at the age of 16 to explore the world.   This is where, literally and figuratively, the heart of the film begins.  Her initial restlessness took her to Greece where her passion for sailing began with odd jobs on charters.  She would end up in the 1985 version of the race after begging to work below deck as a cook.  Yearning to work above deck, she had, what was considered crazy at the time, the audacious idea to place a yacht in the 1989 with a 12 all-woman crew.  Tracy was immediately faced with the first of many obstacles:  in order for her dream to materialize she required significant funding to obtain a racing yacht.  Unable to obtain sponsorship for her novel idea, that was universally perceived likely to fail, she obtained the necessary financial support from King Hussein of Jordan whom she had met during a stopover in the U.S.  Now able to purchase and refurbish a 10-year old second-hand 58-foot boat that she renamed "Maiden", she set her sights on the grueling race which comprised six legs over nine months.  As the race unfolds, viewers will experience equal parts excitement, exhilaration and amazement while witnessing the fantastic footage (taken by her cook and designated videographer, Jo Gooding) all of which concludes in an unpredictable and emotional manner.  The director emphasizes the visuals by 
incorporating Edwards as the principle narrator along with interviews of some of the participants.  Thirty years before the recent outstanding team performance by the U.S. soccer team in this year's World Cup came this sensational achievement by a group of woman attempting to coexist in a totally chauvinistic environment facing constant hostility and contempt from the media and competitors for what they were attempting to accomplish.  A total crowd-pleaser!  "Maiden", which won the Audience Award at The Dublin International Film Festival and the Audience International Feature Award at The Northwest Fest, opened nationally on a limited basis on June 28.  
The all-female crew of the Maiden

(2) Cold Case Hammarsköld  (**** out of 4 - 128 Minutes)
For me, a top-notch documentary should inform, entertain, and have me reflecting on the film long after the lights come up.  Danish director Mads Brügger had me checking all these boxes in spades with his latest, exploring the 1961 untimely death of the late UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarsköld who was killed in a plane crash in Africa.  I screened Brügger's 2012 The Ambassador at this festival seven years ago in which he tackled the rampant political corruption in the ultra-dangerous Central African Republic.  Chock full of humor and irony, Mads dangerously puts himself in the middle of his investigation going undercover with hidden cameras to expose the corruption first-hand.  (The film placed 6th in my top 10 at the 2012 AFI Silverdocs fest.)  This time around, Brügger, using the same ironic humor, takes great pain to explore what seems on the surface a potentially outrageous conspiracy theory that the crash was actually an assassination.  The film begins with the director dressed in an all-white safari outfit dictating his thoughts to an African stenographer (who uses an old typewriter no less) - explaining that the actual villain (to be revealed much later in the story) was known to appear only in such garb.  Brügger explains that he mimics the dress choice, in the same hotel used by the protagonist, to put him in the proper frame of mind to tell/dictate his narrative.  There are multiple twists and turns and just when the viewer thinks the story is going in one direction, Mads pulls that rug out from under you and takes you down another sordid path that includes genocide, mercenaries, secret militias, death cults, as well as incredible theories such as the possibility of a "doctor" who was deliberately injecting patients with AIDS while profiting from cheap vaccines.  The director bombards us with visuals:  from black-and-white animation in order to illustrate his six-year-long quest to uncover the truth, to his and his Swedish aid worker's attempt to unearth the actual site of the plane crash with a metal detector and woefully inadequate shovels.  The humor will have you pondering the seriousness of it all, but then Brügger uncovers something that will negate your interpretations and conclusions.  At no point does his journey to uncover the truth leave you bored or uninterested or have you looking at your watch counting down the minutes.  When he reveals that the late Secretary-General was the only one found intact and was discovered with an ace-of-spades playing card wedged into his collar - Brügger grabs our psyche and doesn't let go until the last of the 128 minute running time.  The director prepares the audience at the start proclaiming that we are about to see either "the world's biggest murder-mystery, or the world's most idiotic murder-mystery."  I'm still not certain which is the correct answer but I am delighted that I took the fascinating journey.  Cold Case Hammarsköld, winner of this year's Sundance World Cinema Documentary Directing Award, is scheduled for a limited U.S. theatrical release on August 16.

(l to r) Director Mads Brügger and Swedish aid worker
 Göran Björkdahl searching for remnant's of  Dag 
Hammarsköld's plane

(3) Who Killed Garrett Phillips?  (**** out of 4 - 186 Minutes)
Academy Award Best Documentary nominee Liz Garbus (1998's The Farm:  Angola, USA and 2015's What Happened, Miss Simone) directs this riveting two-part HBO mini-series investigating the 2011 murder of 12-year-old Garrett Phillips which occurred in mostly white Potsdam, a small town in upstate New York.  Garbus never definitely answers the question in the title.  As it turns out, it doesn't matter as she is more interested in the journey involving the suspect who is the focus of the investigation.  With surgical precision, the director presents a compelling peak into our justice system that is both scary and relevant in today's racially charged climate.  Garrett lived with his single mom, Tandy Cyrus, in an apartment building and when neighbors heard disturbing noises and a voice saying, "no", police were called.  After they eventually entered the apartment they found the boy dead of strangulation.  The local cops quickly focused on Garrett's mom's ex-boyfriend, Oral "Nick" Hillary, a Jamaican-American black local soccer hero at St. Lawrence University where he was now a coach.  It is revealed that Nick and Tandy eventually broke up mainly due to Garrett never being accepting of Nick in his mom's relationship.  Was this a sufficient motive where a love struck lover inflicts revenge?  One of the film's highlights is how Garbus meticulously presents the details of Hillary's initial interrogation, which depicts the cops as bungling, incompetent, and biased.  Nick, on the other hand, uses his intelligence as well as his awareness of the judicial system and his own innocence to thwart all their attempts to gain a confession.  Then there is John Jones, Tandy's previous white boyfriend prior to Nick, who just happens to be a Potsdam cop and whose fellow comrades are the interrogators.  Is he a driving force behind the scenes to convict Nick?  Could Jones even be considered a suspect in the murder??  Again, these questions are not explored by the filmmaker, who instead recounts Hillary's incredible 5-year journey to rectify his name and reputation.  The real joy here is not in answering the title's question, but reveling in the process by which an innocent man tries to retain his freedom and dignity.   Liz Garbus won two Primetime Emmys for Ghosts of Abu Ghraib (2007) and What Happened, Miss Simone and is sure to be a solid contender with this outstanding documentary.  The film had its World Premiere at this festival and premiered on HBO on July 23.

Potsdam billboard

(l to r) Defendant Nick Hillary, Director Liz 
Garbus, Attornies Mani Tafari, Earl Ward
 and Norman Siegel

(4) Sea Of Shadows  (*** 1/2 out of 4 - 105 Minutes)
In recent years there have been several terrific docs focusing on the abuse and/or endangerment of various aquatic animals.  The 2009 Academy Award winner The Cove about dolphin slaughtering in Japan and the 2013's Blackfish about the abuse of killer whales at sea parks are just a couple of examples.  Besides bringing awareness to the atrocities it is equally important to bring their messages to as many folks as possible in order to have maximum impact.  Therefore, in this vein, it is imperative that the filmmaker takes the time and effort to create a quality film that only helps in obtaining a more widespread distribution. Director Richard Ladkani has done just that for the National Geographic Channel and produced this disturbing account of the possible extinction of the endangered vaquita, a species of porpoise, and considered the world's smallest whale, endemic to the northern part of the Gulf of California that now number less than two dozen.  There is currently an illicit trade for the swim bladder of the totoaba fish in China (it has been referred to as "the cocaine of the sea" due to its value as a delicacy in Chinese cuisine and its alleged holistic powers) and catching these fish has resulted in vaquita getting ensnared in the nets earmarked for the totoaba.  Ladkani effectively weaves two narrative threads:  the insidious cartel that treats the swim bladders like any other typically violent drug traffickers, and the concerted efforts by conservationists to combat their efforts as they attempt to roundup the remaining vaquita to hold in captivity until it is safe to return them to their habitat.  The result is a film unlike the usual fare on National Geographic in that it plays like a Hollywood thriller complete with guns, criminality, vicious syndicates, and the Chinese Mafia; all surrounding a desperate attempt to save a species on the verge of extinction.  Winner of the Audience Award for World Documentary at this year's Sundance, Sea Of Shadows had a limited theatrical release on July 12 and will appear on the National Geographic channel sometime in 2020.  

Dr. Cynthia Smith, Executive Director and Director of  Medicine for the National Marine Mammal Foundation during her quest to save the vaquitas

(l to r) Director Richard Ladkani; Dr. Cynthia Smith; 
Andrea Crosta, Executive Director and co-founder 
of Earth League International (formerly Elephant 
Action League)

(5) Ernie & Joe (*** 1/2 out of 4 - 97 Minutes)
Buddy movies.  We've all seen them.  However, it is a rare genre for documentary films.  So, it was a welcome surprise to not only screen a nonfiction bud film, but one that was also so exceptional and inspiring.  Director Jenifer McShane for two years followed a couple of officers from the San Antonio's Police Department's 10-person Mental Health Unit (MHU), Ernie Stevens and Joe Smarro.  With today's headlines screaming with instances of crimes involving disturbed individuals and with several major U.S. cities at a breaking point dealing with homelessness and the mentally ill, these two officers have utilized unique methods for confronting these folks head-on.  Their "hug-a-thug" approach is appearing less threatening by wearing lay clothes, being unarmed, and being prepared to better connect and gain trust by slowly conversing and listening with their subjects who could be suffering with such maladies as extreme depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and PTSD.  They are treated more like patients instead of criminals.  Making follow-up visits to check on their progress is often part of the everyday agenda of these two officers, imparting a personal touch that connects strongly with those who are troubled.  The importance of all this cannot be overstated as one in five Americans have been diagnosed with a mental illness.  This has not been lost on the SAPD as they have upped the mental health communication training for their officers from 8 to 40 hours (gun training is 60 hours!).  McShane's effective vérité style includes several encounters the two have experienced to illustrate the successful techniques the MHU officers employed.  In order to personalize Ernie and Joe, focus is also placed on their private lives and depicts how each is struggling and juggling their separate life issues with an extremely stressful demanding job.  The contrast between the two is striking:  Joe, who started the MHU, is a devoted church-going family man in a stable relationship while Ernie is an ex-Marine who did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and who is dealing with his combat PTSD and history of child abuse while going through a divorce.  He clearly recognizes the challenges of those unbalanced folks they encounter daily in San Antonio.  The support each officer brings to each other is reflected in their humanitarian efforts to save others, which is reflected in one report that states they have save 100,000 people from jail or ERs.  The film does show their chemistry and includes its share of humor as is no doubt a release of the tension they face on a daily basis and helps to balance the anxiety they constantly encounter.  McShane includes a segment where Joe prepares and lectures at a TEDx talk, spreading their techniques to other departments around the country in the hope that words, actions, and empathy are initially used to defuse a confrontation instead of firearms.  We can only hope.  Ernie & Joe, which won the Special Jury Recognition at this year's SXSW Film Festival and the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary Feature at the Independent Film Festival Boston, was bought by HBO and is scheduled to appear on that channel later this year.

(l to r) San Antonia detectives Ernie Stevens & Joe Smarro
 on the  job in San Antonia, Texas


Aquarela (*** 1/2 out of 4 - 90 Minutes) - Stunningly beautiful visual and aural commentary on the raw power of water and its affect on mankind around the globe. Director Victor Kossadovsky takes us to various striking locales and events such as Russia's frozen Lake Baikal, Miami during Hurricane Irma, and Venezuela's Angel Falls.  Filmed at a rare 96 frames-per-second (movies are typically 24 frames-per-second), this doc is a must-see on the big screen with an equally big sound system.  Aquarela is scheduled for a limited US theatrical release on August 16.  

Recorder:  The Marion Stokes Project  (*** 1/2 out of 4 - 87 Minutes) - Beginning in 1979, Philadelphia native Marion Stokes became fascinated with the Iranian Hostage Crisis and began recording history 24/7 on multiple video cassette recorders.  She eventually amassed over 70,000 VHS cassettes on multiple recorders covering the news cycle for over 30 years until her demise on December 14, 2012 during the Sandy Hook school massacre.  Her project is a time capsule of mankind over these years that has since been preserved by The Internet Archive in San Francisco converting these tapes to digital files.  However, what makes Matt Wolf's film equally fascinating is the life profile of this reclusive Communist-leaning media activist who, in the final analysis, became a visionary as a result of her OCD-like obsession.  

The Amazing Johnathan Documentary  (*** 1/2 out of 4 - 91 Minutes) - Documentary filmmakers often will say that their movies will start off in a particular direction and end-up becoming entirely different.  Director Ben Berman, a TV comedy vet, experienced just that when he set-out to make his first documentary.  He chose as his subject a supposedly dying Las Vegas comedian/illusionist/magician, John Szeles, aka the Amazing Johnathan, who retired in 2014 when he was told he had one year to live due to a heart condition.  When Berman begins filming in 2017 he encounters several surprising developments:  Szeles is still alive, he has a meth habit that might be the cause of his health issues instead of a heart ailment, and, when Szeles announces he is planning a comback, he finds himself unexpectedly competing with a different film crew who is also filming his subject.  Eventually, Berman has second thoughts about the whole project and considers ditching the whole thing.  However, instead, the director turns the camera on himself and faces the conundrums head-on in order to to complete his project.  The crazy rabbit holes he goes down emphasizes the utter unpredictability and challenges of making a non-fiction film.

"Woodstock: Three Days That Defined A Generation" - **** (96 minutes)

Tuesday June 4, 2019

In the early summer of 1969, a college buddy of mine stopped by and asked me if I was interested in joining him in August to attend a three-day outdoor music festival being held about 100 miles north of Manhattan in rural New York.  Although I was a lover of music, and was even a current member of a local rock band, I respectively declined his offer.  That instantaneous refusal to embark with him on that adventure to Bethel, NY  has been the one major regret of my life.

As I sat there watching Barak Goodman's outstanding documentary, a wave of nostalgia and remorse wafted over me - reaffirming my missed opportunity to be a first witness to such an historic event.  The promoters figured a crowd of no more than 150,000 (50,000 per day) over the three days.  However, approximately 400,000 (some accounts put it at closer to 1/2 million) showed up.  

The film begins with the impending storm that overcame the throng on day-three.  Anyone who has seen this footage should recall the scrambling folks did to take cover.  From there, Goodman shifts the focus away from Max Yasgur's diary farm on August 17, 1969 to three years earlier and begins to  document the origins of the festival amongst the surrounding backdrop of the times:  a nation grappling with sexual and civil rights issues as well as the divisiveness of the Vietnam War.  

As the calendar turns to 1969, the detailing of the overwhelming logistics facing the organizers will have you shaking your head in amazement that the extravaganza was ever pulled off.  Originally, the festival was slated to occur in Wallkill, NY.  However, the conservative townsfolk feared the onslaught of "dirty hippies" and the town revoked the permit just months before the festival dates.  

The organizers then spent weeks surveying the New York countryside via helicopter when they finally happened on Max Yasgur's idyllic farm in Bethel.  And after getting the conservative republican's approval to utilize his bucolic setting only months before the kickoff, they soon realized that, in order to get everything in place would have taken them well into November.  Unfortunately, August 15 was only weeks away.  Having already sold thousands of tickets, they were pass the point of no return and had to make a critical decision: do they construct a mile of fencing surrounding the property in order to reap a profit, or a stage.  Their choice was clear and the end result was declaring the "Three Days Of Peace and Love" a free-fest for all.

Barak Goodman (winner of numerous awards and nominated for an Academy Award for his 2000 documentary Scottsboro:  An American Tragedy which won a Prime-time Emmy Award, and a longtime contributor to PBS' "American Experience" series) contacted Warner Brothers for footage. WB agreed to turn over over 55 hours of unused crowd outtakes taken by three young film crews who roamed the audience (Don Kleszy masterly edited it into the documentary), but had him agree on using only only snippets of the musical performances.  Undeterred, Goodman realized that Michael Wadleigh's critically acclaimed Academy Award winning 1970 epic doc Woodstock:  3 Day of Peace & Music had already brilliantly covered that aspect of the festival.  He was more interested in the backstory.  
The director avoided a never-ending parade of talking heads and instead made the correct decision of providing archival and present day voice-overs from organizers, concert participants and musicians including David Crosby, Richie Havens, and Paul Kantner (Jefferson Airplane) and placed their spoken word over the amazing visuals.  (As Goodman declared during the Q&A, this decision was easily made after realizing that showing the present-day narrators would have been a distraction and also felt that no one was interested in seeing the faces of 75 year-old ex-hippies.)  The effect, as Barak noted, was to put the viewer in the audience and to indirectly give them as profound an experience as possible without actually being there. 
One of the immense pleasures of the film, and a total hoot, is the "security" force hire by the promoters:  A West Coast commune group call The Hog Farm led by a revolutionary who called himself "Wavy Gravy".  Naming themselves "The Please Force", they were surprisingly successful in keeping the peace and were instrumental in preparing much needed food and tending to folks who had overdosed.  (Barak stated in the Q&A that Wavy is unchanged today and is still considered a saint in the Bay area.) 
It should be noted that there were several spectacular non-life threatening injuries which Goodman emphasizes by showing a medical inventory that will have viewers aghast in disbelief. And there were two documented deaths due to a drug overdose (surprising considering the amount of drugs consumed during the three days) and someone in a sleeping bag who was accidentally run over by a tractor. 

Despite that, overall, Woodstock showed the world how hundreds of thousands of mostly young people could overcome multiple days of numerous challenges (including lack of food, medical supplies and personnel, and weather) to peacefully endure and enjoy a momentous happening which probably would and could never be duplicated in our lifetime.  As one voice-over participant stated, "If 400,000 people could get together have absolutely no violence, absolutely no conflict, I felt like we could change the world."

Woodstock:  Three Days That Defined A Generation opened theatrically on a limited basis on May 24 (it will premiere in Baltimore and Washington on June 14) and will be shown on PBS' "American Experience" in late July in honor of the 50th anniversary.
(Click on Part 1 and Part 2 and Part 3 to view the Q&A with director Barak Goodman, moderated by Ken Jacobson, Senior Documentary Film and Special Content Programmer for AFI Festivals.  
NOTE:  Due to the poor lighting conditions at the venue, it took me several minutes to adjust the brightness and sharpness on my Canon Powershot HS60 camera.  However, if you stick with it, you'll be rewarded with some fascinating production and behind-the-scene facts of this superb documentary.) 

Director Barack Goodman

A screening attendee displays his one day ticket

UPCOMING:  Coverage of  the 17th edition of the AFI DOCS Documentary Film Festival (formerly SILVERDOCS) held in Silver Spring MD and Washington DC that runs from Wednesday June 19-Sunday June 23

"Ask Dr. Ruth" - **** (100 minutes)

Wednesday April 17, 2019

I traveled to DC to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History to screen this gem by director Ryan White (2013's Good 'Ol Freda; 2014's The Case Against 8).  In 1980, a diminutive sex therapist and Holocaust survivor began a 15 minute call-in show called "Sexually Speaking" on New York radio station WYNY-FM that was so controversial, the show was taped on a Thursday night so it could be screened by sensors before airing the following Sunday at midnight.  It didn't take long before Dr. Ruth Westheimer became a cultural icon - appearing on the late-night talk shows of the day, PBS specials, her own daytime show, nighttime drama shows, commercials, and even serving as one of the celebrities on "Hollywood Squares".

White begins the doc with a hilarious opening where the present-day 90-year-old Dr., in her cluttered three-bedroom Washington Heights N.Y. apartment, asks Amazons' smart speaker "Alexa" to find her a boyfriend.  Despite the fact that her earnings over the years would have assuredly entitled her to a more luxurious abode, we learn that Dr. Ruth has occupied the same home for 54 years while raising two children. White sprinkles his documentary early-on with various amusing short clips of her TV career while cutting back and forth to the present-day Westheimer as she meanders about her residence exhibiting surprising humor, spryness and youthfulness.

After about 15 minutes, the director shifts the focus to her amazing life journey.  The director shows a photo of the 4'7" doctor at age 10, which morphs into an animated likeness.  Westheimer was born in Frankfort Germany in 1928 where, at the age of 10, she was placed by her mom on the kindertransport to a Swiss orphanage to save her from almost certain death.  It would be the last time she would see her parents who she later learns perished in a German concentration camp.  She would be the only member of her family to survive the Holocaust.  Her remaining story, partially told with animation beautifully rendered by animator Isaac Rubio and narrated with excerpts from her diary, includes three marriages, a stint as an Israeli sniper, earning a doctorate while continuing to write books and teaching at two universities.

The director employs expert editing by Rejh Cabrera and Helen Kearns with a beautiful complementary score by Blake Neely.  This memorable movie will have you laughing as well as shedding a tear or two throughout.

Ask Dr. Ruth, which I predict could make the Academy Awards nomination short list next year, will have a limited release by Magnolia Pictures and Hulu on May 3.

Q&A moderator Washington Post reporter Lisa Bonos,
Dr. Ruth, and director Ryan White after the Q&A