Tag Archives: documentaries

The Story of My Life


by George Wolf

Like so many other headlines of numbing enormity that we regularly scroll past, stories of the worldwide refugee crisis rarely come with an intimacy that makes the stakes feel palpable. Flee brings an animated face to the discussion, using one man’s incredible story to re-frame the issue with soul-stirring humanity.

Director and co-writer Jonas Poher Rasmussen identifies the man as Amin Nawabi. Amin’s on the verge on marriage, a life change that seems to compel him to reveal the secrets of his life story for the very first time. Despite happy plans for the future, the fact that the name Amin Nawabi is a pseudonym comes as a bittersweet reminder of how the past continues to haunt this soul’s present.

Amin’s earliest memories are of his native Kabul in the early 1980s when the Mujahideen took charge in Afghanistan and the dangers began. Amin’s father was deemed a “threat” and arrested. While his older brother was able to escape the bloody battles with U.S. troops, Amin and the rest of his family begin years of attempts to flee the country.

But even under such a harrowing veil, Rasmussen finds a sweet innocence to propel Amin’s coming-of-age story. Bedroom posters of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris wink back at the young Amin, as his gentle adult voice recounts an ever-present realization that he was attracted to men, and that he had one more reason to always be on guard.

A successful cross into Russia only changes the specifics of oppression, leaving Amin under constant threat of discovery, deportation and corrupt police. (One incident where Amin manages to escape their greed leaves a lasting scar on him, and on us.)

The animated wartime recollections — punctuated with scattershot live action moments — do bring the Oscar-nominated Waltz with Bashir to mind, but Rasmussen may well have preferred a completely live action narrative if he did not have an identity to protect. Using Amin’s actual voice in their conversations adds startling depth to the reenacted memories, and as our childlike comfort with animated scenes clashes with the uncomfortable scenes depicted, Flee‘s bracing resonance only intensifies.

And after all that Amin endures, as the horrors in his story gradually diminish and we see his fiancé Kaspar gently nudging Amin to accept the peace in the next stage of their lives, the full weight of the struggle emerges.

We yearn for Amin to let go of the past even as we know it is what defines him. He lives each day as a testament to those whose sacrifices enabled him to finally find something that feels like home.

What’s left is a hope that giving voice to his burdens may finally set him free, and lead to a greater understanding of the many voices yet unheard.

The Impossible Dream

14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible

by George Wolf

Nirmal “Nims” Purja likes to keep a positive outlook.

“I’m not going to die today. Maybe tomorrow, but not today.”

And while tomorrow isn’t promised to any of us, Nims tends to tempt fate more than most. A mountaineer, adventurer and former member of the Special Forces in Nepal, Nims feels most alive when he’s dreaming big and living life on the edge.

Netflix’s 14 Peaks documents his biggest dream: summiting all 14 of the world’s 8,000 meter + peaks (26, 247 feet and above) in just 7 months. To put that in proper context, the previous record for achieving the feat was 7 years. And Reinhold Messner – one of the greatest legends in all of climbing – took 16 years to ascend all 14.

So the plan that Nims dubbed “Project Possible” was ambitious, to say the least, and Messner himself sets the stakes for us. To Messner, climbing these wonders of the world “is not fun.” It is a practice filled with pain, danger and death.

That said, Nims sure seems to be enjoying himself, and part of that is helping to document his own journey.

If you come to 14 Peaks only for the breathtaking visuals, you will not be disappointed, especially if you can view it on a wide screen. Director/co-writer Torquil Jones takes us above the clouds over and over again, utilizing sparkling, absolutely thrilling footage often taken by Nims himself (including his incredible shot of a 300-person Mt. Everest traffic jam that quickly went viral).

But Jones also mines tension through the attempts at fundraising for the project (where Nims admits “I sound like a lunatic’) and getting the clearance from the Chinese government to climb in Tibet. Intimacy comes from getting to know Nims himself, who turns out to be a fascinating and endearing subject. We see his preparations and the tests that reveal him to be genetically gifted for enduring high altitude/low oxygen environments, as well as Nim’s commitment to to helping fallen comrades on the mountain, and to getting recognition for the oft-nameless Sherpas who are invaluable to visiting climbers.

And, Jones lets us meet Nims’s family, establishing a touching contrast between his apparent lack of fear and the feeling of failure that comes from being away from his ailing mother as he climbs.

14 Peaks will help you discover both a man and a mission. Separately, they’re pretty compelling. Together, they’re a force of nature.

He Sells Sanctuary

The Conservation Game

by George Wolf

The runaway train wreck that was The Tiger King made Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin into instant celebrities, and overnight, it seemed everyone in America was taking sides.

Retired Ohio cop Tim Harrison kept his focus on the cats, and The Conservation Game takes us inside his relentless but cool-headed mission to expose the shadowy dealings of the animal exploitation trade.

Harrison grew up enthralled by Marlon Perkins on Wild Kingdom, and then by Jack Hanna’s animal exploits on TV. For a time, Harrison even wanted to follow in Hanna’s footsteps. But he was already growing disenchanted with “reality TV mindset” of the talk show animal segments when a visit to an exotic animals auction changed the course of his life.

Wisely, director Michael Webber takes an approach that is the polar opposite of The Tiger King. Though the Baskins make an appearance and Joe Exotic’s threats to Carole’s life are referenced, Webber makes all that mess a logical and organic part of a bigger picture that is well-reasoned and far from sensationalized.

Harrison and his passionate team set out to expose the dirty secrets of the animal expert personalities, and the hidden network of breeders keeping them supplied with cute baby “ambassador cats.”

But what happens when the babies grow up? Where are these “sanctuaries” the hosts talk about on TV?

Harrison puts those questions to wildlife personalities including Jerod Miller, Dave Salmoni, Boone Smith and Grant Kemmerer, and their answers are peppered with evasion, condescension and and even veiled threats.

“Just because you haven’t found them doesn’t mean they disappeared,” one of them argues. “It means you need to learn how to find them better.”

Webber makes a quick cut to the online sleuth of Harrison’s team who deadpans, “Challenge accepted.”

Outside of a few re-enactments of Harrison’s youth, the film trades style for a more guerrilla approach. But the hidden-camera footage rivals both Blackfish and The Cove for sheer bullseye effectiveness. It’s gut-wrenching, heartbreaking and downright infuriating, with Webber employing well-placed edits that call out apparent lies with speed and precision.

I’ve lived in Columbus, Ohio for almost forty years, and much like Harrison, I’ve always regarded our zoo as a national treasure and Hanna as a local hero. Full disclosure: I’ve been to events that enabled me to take photos with these types of ambassador cats.

And because Hanna is the biggest name involved here, the charges against him and the Columbus Zoo land with the most shocking and disappointing force.

Webber is able to include the news of Hanna’s retirement and dementia diagnosis, as well as the Columbus Zoo’s recent decision to reverse course and formally endorse passage of the Big Cat Public Safety Act championed by Harrison, Baskin, and scores of other zoos and animal rights activists.

What prompted that specific change is left up to us to decide, but Harrison is much more direct about the changes needed to end the exploitation of ambassador animals.

Webber uses the journey of one committed man to make the message relatable, relying on the power of what he finds to become universal. Will this film fuel the outrage that arose after the revelations in Blackfish and The Cove?

That’s up to us as well. The Conversation Game may be a little more rough around the edges, but its case is nearly as closed.

Paint, by the Numbers

The Lost Leonardo

by George Wolf

In 2005, a “sleeper hunter” looking for undervalued art made a pretty good call when he bought a work at a New Orleans auction for $1,175. Twelve years later, that painting sold for a record-setting $450 million.

What happened in between is a real world mystery, one that The Last Leonardo unveils like a globe-trotting thriller to deliver a completely spellbinding ride. Full of amazing discoveries, dangerous despots, faith, doubt, economics and greed, it’s a behind-the-brush account of “the most improbable story in the art market.”

Only 15 Da Vinci works were known to exist before that Louisiana find, and none had been discovered for over a century. Could that Big Easy bargain actually be the 16th, an early 1500s work entitled Salvator Mundi (Savior of the World)? Plenty of important voices in the art world say yes. Others say there’s a better chance of finding aliens landing in your front yard. And some can’t make up their minds about the painting.

Oh, and nobody seems to know where it went.

Director and co-writer Andreas Koefoed weaves the layers of this tale together with a damn fine sense of artistry himself. He quickly shapes the backstory with a hook irresistible to even an art history novice, then keeps a steady pace of twists and revelations to rival the most delicious true crime sensations.

Koefoed mixes first-person interviews with jet-setting locales, and stylish art restoration technology with political intrigue. His sense of timing is sharp as well, knowing just when to spotlight the accusation that with a question this large and an answer so potentially valuable, “opinions matter more than facts.”

Because by the time the film enters its third act, Koefoed’s meticulous approach – paired with the refreshing honesty of many of the players involved – has seamlessly shown how the process moves past art, and even commerce, to settle comfortably on power.

And much like the treasures waiting beneath centuries of brushstrokes, the brisk 96 minutes of The Lost Leonardo also manage to transcend the galleries and auction houses to speak more universally on how this global brokerage network flourishes largely out of the spotlight.

But don’t be scared off by the whiff of stuffy art house pretension, this is also a damn fine piece of entertainment. I mean, all due respect to GD National Treasure Tom Hanks, but here’s a Da Vinci mystery that’s suitable for framing.

They Call Me…

Mr. Soul!

by George Wolf

Who do you think of when you hear the title “Mr. Soul!”?

James Brown? Otis Redding? Marvin Gaye?

Give writer/director Melissa Haizlip 104 minutes, and she’ll more than convince you the correct answer is her uncle, Ellis Haizlip, the trailblazing producer and host of the first “Black Tonight Show.”

Ellis and his team televised the revolution on Soul!, a landmark “love affair with blackness” which ran on New York public television from 1968 to 1973.

Under Ellis’s guidance as visionary producer and thoughtful host, Soul! confidently promoted the liberation of Black people. Tossing a truth bomb into the lily white television landscape of the late 60s, the show brought a focus on Black arts never before seen on screen.

Melissa Haizlip presents it all in absolutely riveting fashion. She primes us with the fascinating story behind the birth of the show and Ellis’s somewhat reluctant ascension to host, and then drops our jaws with a litany of archival performances that make the past crackle with new urgency.

Of course there are rousing musical segments from Stevie Wonder, Al Green, Gladys Knight, Billy Preston, Earth, Wind & Fire and more, but Ellis made sure Soul! also brought an overdue showcase to the “original avant-garde” of Black dance, writing and poetry.

Ellis’s goal was to share the Black experience first, and then educate and entertain. Bringing the brilliant work of Toni Morrison, the Last Poets, Nikki Giovanni and James Baldwin to television audiences cemented Ellis’s vision, and Melissa provides context to transcend the decades and allow the voices to speak their truth to current power.

And as you would expect, Melissa makes sure we see the caring soul of her uncle. With help from Blair Underwood often narrating Ellis’s writings (Ellis died in 1991 at the age of 61), we get to know an openly gay man who raised the topic of homosexuality with his audience and guests, and filled his own production team with a majority of female staffers.

Of the new interviews that Melissa weaves into the history lesson, hearing from Amir “Questlove” Thompson seems especially fitting. Though Mr. Soul! was completed 3 years ago, a more widespread release now makes it the perfect complement to Thompson’s own Summer of Soul.

This is Black history coming thrillingly, vibrantly alive, through the life of an enigmatic man earning that exclamation point.

Mr. Soul! Get to know him.

Hey You Guys!

Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided To Go For It

by George Wolf

By now, we can probably guess your age by how you first came to know Rita Moreno.

Singin’ in the Rain? The King and I? West Side Story? The Electric Company? The Rockford Files? Oz? Jane the Virgin? Carmen Sandiego? The One Day at a Time reboot? Even if you just got here, there’s the recent In The Heights Twitter feud and if you’re on your way, it’s almost time for West Side Story again!

The point is, Rita is among the most legendary of entertainment legends, and Just a Girl Who Decided To Go For It is a completely captivating tour through an iconic, trailblazing life.

A Puerto Rico native, Rosita Alverio emigrated to New York with her mother at age 5 – and never saw her native family again. “Rita” made her dancing debut at age 6 in a Greenwich Village nightclub, and by 16 she had landed a contract with MGM Studios.

Through countless “shut up and be sexy” roles that prompted self-loathing, to Emmy, Oscar, Grammy and Tony Awards, an abortion, a suicide attempt, marriage and family, political activism and therapy, her 90th year has found Rita to be a fulfilled, thankful survivor.

And beyond the treasure trove of archival footage, home movies and interview praises from the likes of Eva Longoria, Gloria Estefan, Morgan Freeman, and Lin-Manuel Miranda (also one of the film’s producers), director Mariem Pérez Riera finds the most resonance in the personal journey told by Rita herself.

Looking back on the obstacles she faced and the successes and failures of her life and career, Moreno displays a hard-won self-worth and an honest self-awareness, one that – as evidenced by her In The Heights second thoughts – she continues to probe.

This is not just an entertaining Hollywood story, it’s an inspiring American story and a hopeful human story. It’s just a damn good story, from someone worthy of celebrating while she’s still here.

White Gold

The Truffle Hunters

by George Wolf

On the surface, a documentary about old men searching for subterranean fungi might not sound overly compelling. But as great docs often do, The Truffle Hunters introduces a world you may not be aware of, and the souls struggling to keep that world from slipping away.

To date, the highly-prized white Alba truffle has been resistant to cultivation. Documentarians Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw take us deep in the wilds of Piedmont, Italy, to meet a group of seventy to eighty-year-olds who rely on traditional methods and trusted dogs to find the elusive white Alba.

Dweck and Kershaw (The Last Race) employ a vérité style that’s instantly immersive and completely charming. These old time foragers cherish their proven methods and their canine partners in equal measure, taking care to protect both from the ravages of climate change and cutthroat profiteering as long as possible.

Often reminiscent of 2019’s Oscar-nominated Honeyland, the film transports you to a community that seems a nuisance to the modern world – even as gourmet palettes continue to cherish its fruits.

The 84 minutes in The Truffle Hunters is time well spent with old timers who are holding back the charge of progress in ways that are funny, defiant, sometimes curious but always joyful. Their days may be numbered, but their spirit endures, a spirit this film captures with beautifully subtle intimacy.

Speak Up and Sing

Truth to Power

by George Wolf

Serj Tankian is a passionate guy.

As frontman for System of a Down (and as a solo artist), he’s passionate about music. As an American of Armenian descent, he’s passionate about America’s foreign policy – specifically the U.S. stance on recognizing the Armenian genocide of 1915.

In Truth to Power, director Garin Hovannisian not only gets us closer to a charismatic and multi-talented performer, but he also tackles the sometimes thorny relationship between art and activism.

For Tankian, shutting up and singing is a ridiculous notion. And though he freely admits he seldom knows what he’s going to say before an onstage rant, Tankian’s social consciousness only increases when the lights come up.

Hovannisian gives us a satisfactory trip through Tankian’s life story and the forming of SOAD with three other Armenian-Americans, then brings us along as the band plays its first Armenian show in 2015. Tankian especially is regarded as a national hero, and the intimate moments where we see how deeply this treatment touches him are among the film’s strongest.

But the broader focus is on Tankian’s push for Turkey to admit to the Armenian genocide, as well as his inspirational role in the Armenian revolution of 2018. And though the film makes an often powerful case for art’s ability to affect change, it ignores a very obvious conflict.

In the last few years, SOAD drummer John Dolmayan has been an outspoken supporter of Donald Trump and various hard right political postures. Though we hear Tankian worry about the rise of such views, Hovannisian never broaches the subject of how the band members co-exist.

Even if the bulk of the film was completed before Dolmayan spoke out, the somewhat slight running time suggests an epilogue would only add relevant context to the entire conversation.

Without it, there’s a pretty major question just sitting there unanswered, and Truth to Power – despite its commendable passion – feels incomplete.

He Ain’t Heavy

Stallone: Frank, That Is

by George Wolf

The title of this documentary is a correct assumption that Frank is not the first name you associate with the last name Stallone.

So that’s a nice, self-aware start to things. But despite a succession of famous faces telling us what a great and multi-talented guy Frank is, the film never can convince us that he’s worthy of a documentary in the first place.

One of the first things writer/director Derek Wayne Johnson lets us know is that Frank loves to talk. He does that often in the film, running through the events in his life with rambling, disjointed stories about how many times he was soooo close to being a contender…only to have fate snatch his dreams away.

Using his own words, many archival stills and too few videos, the Frank Stallone timeline begins to feel propped up by tall tales. These stories are often lacking in specifics (especially for a 73 minute film that clearly has the time) and loosely connected with a magical “and then I get a phone call.”

Still, Frank clearly does have talent. He has a fine voice, has written plenty of songs and even scored one big hit (“Far From Over”, from the film Stayin’ Alive that his brother directed). He’s also shown acting chops in some of the film roles he’s done (Barfly and Tombstone, for example).

But seeing his name as producer of this film only adds to the feeling that it’s nothing but a calculated promotional effort. Many of the platitudes from celebrity friends and facelifts seem more manufactured than authentic, and even though Frank appears fine with poking fun at himself, he never directly address the ironic elephant in the Stallone living room.

He tells us how hard it’s been overcoming the “Rocky’s brother” image even as he’s taking us through a career full of breaks he’s gotten for being just that.

A little self-awareness on that point and SFTI might feel less like, frankly, the insincere vanity project it becomes.

School of Hard Rocks

Rock Camp: The Movie

by George Wolf

“Thanks for coming out tonight, we’re Motley Jüe..oy!”

Yes, Motley Jüe was a real band, at least for a few days. Picking the perfect band name is just a small part of the fun for the wannabe rockers at Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp. Rock Camp: The Movie takes us inside the experience that bridges the gap between stage and the Gold Circle section.

Because, let’s face it, those in the cheap seats can’t afford this, either. But for the fans that can swing it, RCTM shows us an indulgence that’s a lot less worthy of the kinds of jokes it inspired in year one.

Promoter David Fishof launched the first camp in 1997, to minimal interest. He got the idea from a practical joke played on him backstage by members of Ringo’s All-Starr Band (that home video footage is priceless), though low attendance the first year seemed to signal failure.

But after the camp was featured in various TV and commercial segments, it gained a foothold in popular culture. That brought some big rock stars into the fold, and Fishof (an interesting guy who could merit a documentary himself) suddenly had a hit.

The film is the debut feature for co-writers/directors Renee Barron and Douglas Blush, which often shows. Their focus can wander, and much of the production isn’t far removed from a marketing video. Plus, there’s no escaping that fact that much of the footage – judging by the look of some very famous faces – is clearly less than recent. The overall context of regular folk taking a chance to follow their passion, though, does help these rough edges seem appropriate.

Profiles of fewer campers might have allowed time to foster a more intimate feel, but the dreamers Barron and Blush introduce are worth knowing. We see lives uplifted, families strengthened, and true talent given the chance to grow.

Perhaps most surprisingly, we see rich and incredibly successful musicians truly moved by their students, and reconnecting with the simple joy of music that set them on their path. And some of them – Roger Daltrey, Paul Stanley and Sammy Hagar especially – seem like really nice people.

Yeah, Gene Simmons is still obnoxious. Even fantasies have their limits.