Tag Archives: documentary review

Talk to Me

The Ants & the Grasshopper

by Rachel Willis

For Anita Chitaya, climate change is devastating. Along with her community, she does what she can to minimize its impacts in Bwabwa, Malawi. However, she knows that for real change to happen, she needs to go to America – and convince those who don’t believe.

Directors Raj Patel and Zak Piper give her that opportunity and film the journey for their documentary, The Ants & the Grasshopper.

The first 20-minutes of the film shows us Anita’s world. Not only does she farm her one acre of land with her husband, Winston, she erases old notions of gender roles. She encourages men to cook and help their wives with necessary chores. Her program is successful, though there is one notable hold out who refuses to do “woman’s work.”

Upon the success of her endeavors in her hometown, she believes she can convince people in America about the reality of climate change if only she could talk to them.

The film picks up steam when Anita, along with her friend Esther, arrives in the United States. Her journey begins in the Midwest, speaking with farmers about the impacts of their practices on Bwabwa.

Though everyone who meets Anita is civil, it’s clear some don’t believe her plight at home is due to climate change. Jordan works on his family’s farm; though he says he will do what he can to help, he blatantly states he doesn’t think it’s an issue. This shocks his parents. That members of the same family have conflicting beliefs speaks to the heart of the problem in America.

It’s humbling and a little shaming to watch Anita travel across America. As she takes in the excess, she points out that we take what we have for granted. Her companion, Esther, points out that it’s not about making anyone feel guilty – “too much time is wasted on guilt.” But when Anita and her community struggle to find water for cooking and cleaning, what we take for granted is damning.

However, there is hope to be found. After Anita returns home, we find the same man who refused to do woman’s work now teaching other men how to cook. Skeptic Jordan wishes he could apologize to his Malawi friends for laughing when “maybe I should have cried.” People can change. Though the sentiment is that it’s never too late to change, the faster we wake up, the better for everyone.

Both Refined and Uncouth

Personality Crisis: One Night Only

by Hope Madden

David Johansen may not be the first name you associate with New York City, but why not? The Staten Island native has been a fixture of a teeming NYC Avant Garde since his teens, even before he launched perhaps the city’s first punk rock band, the New York Dolls.

Martin Scorsese, directing with longtime collaborator David Tedeschi, captures both New York and live music as only he can with the Johansen documentary, Personality Crisis: One Night Only.

Filmed in January, 2020 – Johansen’s 70th birthday – at Café Carlisle, the show sees the finely-coiffured troubadour fronting a jazzy combo, still the hippest guy in the room. Interviews, concert clips and other archival footage flank selections from a classic cabaret act.

As has been the case with all of Scorsese’s music docs, Personality Crisis is heavy on music. We’re treated to complete songs, Scorsese’s camera lingering on the Johansen’s snapping fingers, a great over the shoulder shot continually glimpsing an intimate club space filled with well-behaved, well-dressed patrons.

Because Johansen “was in no mood for learning new songs,” he performs old, mostly Dolls tunes in the style of Buster Poindexter. Of the many brilliant ideas to pour from this two-hour testament to punk spirit, the decision to perform Dolls songs as cabaret standards is perhaps the brightest and best.

Plenty of punk bands have taken on pop classics, giving them a dangerous spin. But very few punk songs stand up to more popular, lyric-focused stylings. But as Dolls superfan Morrissey points out early and often in this doc, Johansen wrote incredible pop songs.

As much as I hate to agree with Morrissey, he’s right. There’s no denying the introspection, pain and poetry in Johansen’s lyrics.

Plenty of Music, Funky but Chic, Temptation to Exist, Subway Train, Better than You (even though he forgot the lyrics), and, of course, Personality Crisis take on the rich, boozy texture of the cabaret style and tell you more than they did the first go-round.

Maimed Happiness transcends time entirely, feeling more at home in the mouth of a septuagenarian than it ever did a teenaged punk.

Tedeschi also edits this film, having worked with Scorsese on Shine a Light, and George Harrison: Living in the Material World . He mines for gold, not only onstage, but in the archives. From old interviews to intimate family footage shot by Johansen’s daughter, Leah Hennessey, to clips from his Sirius satellite radio show, we’re treated to a glimpse of a life richly, and sometimes dangerously lived.

Johansen’s an onstage charmer, but more than that, he’s a vibrant ghost of New York past.

Cultural Echoes

Echoes of the Empire: Beyond Genghis Khan

by Tori Hanes

A thorough and colorful exploration of Mongolian history and culture, director Robert H. Lieberman’s Echoes of the Empire: Beyond Genghis Khan immediately astounds with breathtaking cinematography. That awe is transferred to the artistic animation as stories take shape, and is continued in every visual aspect of the film for its entirety. 

The documentary guides you from early Mongolian history to present-day culture. Lieberman’s visual storytelling almost does more to narrate the culture than the scattered interviews. Exploration into the fabric of early Mongolian society is where Lieberman excels. He details how fables turn into norms to connect the culture to an audience largely unfamiliar with the country.

First-person accounts from citizens raised nomadically (a fact touted in the film: nomadic citizens estimate approximately 30% of the country’s population) beautifully and effortlessly transcend the audience to the lush, rolling hills of farmers and livestock.

Unfortunately, an interest in both glossing over and thoroughly explaining the complex history of the country causes a bit of a pile-up. It’s understandable. Recognizing how the culture found itself in the present is paramount for the film’s ultimate point: that Mongolia is a rapidly evolving nation, shifting its position both in the world and internally. Knowing the past is important for expanding on the future, but a smoother structure would’ve made the information more digestible.

On the other hand, Mongolia’s constantly changing society remains under-explored. The choice to invest the audience’s time in the past without a significant payoff looking toward the future leaves the film imbalanced, slightly muddling the ultimate point. 

Echoes of the Empire is many things: informative, compelling, astounding, and sometimes, disproportionate. But the beauty of Lieberman’s vision tied closely with the captivating culture makes for a unique, lifted experience.

Birds, Bees and Whatnot

A Sexplanation

by Rachel Willis

Director Alex Liu is on a quest to overcome the shame he feels regarding sex. He’s also out to understand why sex is such a taboo subject in America – especially when it comes to our kids, their curiosity, and their own drives (whatever they may be) – in his documentary, A Sexplanation.

Part exploration of sex education in the United States, healthy sexual conversation, and personal memoir, the doc wants to understand why Liu was made to feel such shame about his own sexual acts and preferences. In a heart-wrenching moment, he even admits to contemplating suicide because of it.

This is a heavy sequence in an otherwise very lighthearted and funny documentary. Liu might still feel some of the embarrassment of his upbringing (in one particular interview it’s obvious from his blush he’s asking questions that bring discomfort), but he is determined to upend the current notion of sex as shameful.

This is the kind of documentary that would be a wonderful conversation starter for parents and their teenagers, as some of its queries are a bit too advanced for younger children. One of the points the documentary makes is that there shouldn’t be “The Talk” with kids, but a continuing conversation around age-appropriate topics. There’s no reason why a two- or three-year-old can’t know the proper terminology for their body parts. Or why a six-year-old can’t begin to understand the biological differences between the sexes. In the case of sex, silence from parents can be just as damaging as outright shaming.

This is what appears to have happened to Liu. As he talks with his parents, both of whom seem quite open to his questions, it doesn’t appear that they intended for Liu to feel awkward, embarrassed, or even wrong for a natural part of development. But their silence meant he was left to the wayward American education system, which primarily values abstinence-only over comprehensive sex-ed.

Conversations with others his age reveal the woefully inadequate education most of us have, not only concerning sex, but also some of the basics of human biology.   

Liu could probably have done a bit more exploring. Still, A Sexplanation offers a non-judgmental safe space for the questions that many of us (okay, probably all of us) have had when it comes to masturbation, sexual proclivities, and the whole exciting and wonderful topic that is sex. 

Giving Voice


by Rachel Willis

One of the literary giants of his age, Nelson Algren has faded from public consciousness in the seventy years since the publication of his award-winning novel, The Man with the Golden Arm.

Writer/director Michael Caplan hopes to revive interest in the Chicago native with his documentary, Algren.

As the winner of the first National Book Award, issued in 1950 for the above-mentioned novel, it’s surprising Algren is not grouped in similar circles as other U.S. literary greats such as Hemingway, Faulkner and Steinbeck. 

The best parts of Algren highlight the words of the writer himself. Excerpts from his letters, interviews, and his novels and short stories depict not only Algren as a person and writer, but the way he hoped to portray people in his work. Drawing attention to the underbelly of Chicago, and America itself, Algren portrayed prostitutes, addicts and the dark side of the American dream.

And he did so with sympathy rather than voyeurism or exploitation, according to the many interviews with Chicago natives (such as Billy Corgan) and Algren lovers alike. Several interviews with writers, such as Russell Banks, Studs Terkel and others, help capture the influence of Algren’s work and the importance of his depictions of the “voiceless.”

There is a lot to interest a viewer about Algren, not merely his writing, but his collage work, as well. Many of his collages are revealed throughout the film, and it’s moments like these that help the viewer understand Algren better than the tawdry details of his gambling issues or love life.

Algren’s work, though lauded, also drew controversy. Bookstores refused to carry his books; the Chicago Public Library sent a scathing letter declaring their decision to remove his work from its shelves. These are interesting tidbits provided in Caplan’s film.

Unlike the author’s groundbreaking work, Algren is standard documentary fare. It follows a common pattern, although at times, is messy, as it jumps around from subject to subject – Algren’s affair with Simone de Beauvoir, his dislike of the film version of The Man with the Golden Arm, his love of boxing and poker, his gambling issues. The documentary jerks us along through his life story without a clear focus.

If the documentary had kept a solid focus on one aspect of Algren – whether his artistic endeavors or his life experience – it would have benefitted greatly. Still, if Caplan’s film achieves its goal of reminding Americans of one of our great writers, it’s done what it sets out to do.

It’s Out There

Truth is the Only Client: The Official Investigation of the Murder of John F. Kennedy

by Rachel Willis

Quick question: do you think Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in assassinating John F. Kennedy? If you think Oswald was part of a larger network, whether tied to the mob, Cuba, or the Soviet Union, you’re not alone.

Directors Todd Kwait and Rob Stegman want to dispel the conspiracy theories once and for all. Along with Cuyahoga County Judge Brendan Sheehan, who narrates the film, Stegman and Kwait bring us a detailed look at the findings and conclusions of the Warren Commission, the committee of men charged with investigating the Kennedy assassination.

The bulk of the film features interviews with many who worked for the Commission, men who conducted witness interviews, reviewed the police and FBI reports from the crime scene, and sifted through the numerous avenues which Oswald might have been connected.

But there is also gruesome footage – the infamous Zapruder film, autopsy photos. These scenes are hard to watch. Since these things are easy to find online, their inclusion in the film could be deemed unnecessary, but they help underscore the point being made – that the conclusion Kennedy was shot from behind is accurate.

Two of the major avenues for a conspiracy are addressed in the film – the destruction of evidence by members of the FBI, and the CIA coverup of the plot to assassinate Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro. Both events became known after the Commission released its findings. These are profoundly disturbing occurrences, but do they speak to a larger conspiracy?

Not every conspiracy surrounding the assassination can be tackled in a 2 hour and 20 minute documentary, so the filmmakers try to restrict their focus to not only the most major theories, but also to a lengthy examination of Oswald himself. Some of the information presented is tedious and doesn’t do anything to convince us that Oswald acted alone. However, most of the information is pertinent to the investigation and the conclusions made.

The major question: Is any of the information presented new to those who believe Kennedy’s murder was part of a larger plot?

Maybe not, but as we approach the anniversary of the assassination, during a period of history that’s ripe with conspiracy theories, it’s worth re-examining once more. 


Weaponizing Anxiety

Viral: Antisemitism in Four Mutations

by Christie Robb

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it[1].”

In the documentary Viral, director Andrew Goldberg explores the recent rise of antisemitism in the United States and Europe. In a painterly black and white introductory sequence he gives the subject matter the feeling of a fairy tale. The film begins, “It started long ago with a lie about the Jew…”

If only the rest of the film was fiction.

Goldberg compares antisemitism to a virus (topical) which evolves and spreads, empowered by its ability to adapt to the people and circumstances in different locations. The virus began thousands of years ago. Now, one of the interview subjects suggests, we are nearing the “end of a Jewish golden age of feeling comfortable.” The virus is ending a period of dormancy and becoming active once again.

In this film, we are introduced to four “mutations” of the antisemitism virus: the Far Right, USA; Blaming the Jew, Hungary; The Far Left, The United Kingdom; and Islamic Radicalism, France.

 Although tweaked in each mutation to suit the individual circumstances, the “virus” involves getting people to turn off their ability to think critically and giving them a embodied focus on which to place the blame for their fears or anxieties. (See Germany in the 1930s.)

In the US it’s the Jew as orchestrator of the Civil Rights movement and subsequent supposed lessening of accustomed white privileges. In Hungary it’s a campaign to brand George Soros as a puppet master apparently forcing Muslim refugees into the nation to destabilize national culture. In the United Kingdom it’s Jewish colonial capitalists evidently conspiring against the working class. In France, it’s Muslim former-colonial subjects violently murdering random French Jews because they ostensibly back the Palestinians against the Israelis.

Individual Jews are conflated with “the Jew,” which is associated with the threat, the change, the loss of power. Concepts that take years of study to unpack are simplified and reduced again and again until the result is a caricature of a hook-nosed grinning villain with a neon arrow pointing to it and letters spelling out, “B-A-D G-U-Y.”

The whole simplification process is only made more efficient by the availability of the Internet. Once the conspiracy theory is tailored for a local audience it can be repurposed by anyone with a cell phone and/or social media account and replicated over and over.

It’s a scary documentary Goldberg has put together. It’s scary because of the real-life examples of abuse, vandalism, and murder, and because the film itself can be a bit simplistic. This could easily be a miniseries or several individual films, rather than Viral‘s quick summaries of really complicated issues. (Just unpacking everything around the creation of the state of Israel could be its own series – or academic career.)

Still, it’s useful to be aware of when, how, and where a virus is surging. Those of us who are willing to think must keep an eye on the present so we are not doomed to repeat the past.

[1] A quote by George Santayana which is itself frequently misremembered.

Posse of One

Wrinkles the Clown

by Hope Madden

It’s fun to scare kids.

Oh, wait, is that illegal?

Documentarian Michael Beach Nichols (Welcome to Leith) looks at just about every side of that unusual argument with his sly documentary Wrinkles the Clown.

Ostensibly, Beach Nichols digs into the story of the man behind Wrinkles, a shady older gentleman living in a van in Fort Myers who failed as a traditional clown, so he improvised. Placing stickers around town with his masked face, clown name and phone number, Wrinkles offered to frighten your misbehaving children for a fee.

Yes, it is sort of genius.

As we ride around the beach town for the aged in a lived-in conversion van, we’re privy to the voice mails recorded at the Wrinkles number. Reprobate that he seems to be, Wrinkles is still considerably less frightening than the parents hoping to take advantage of his behavioral services.

Says one father, his child wailing in the background, “I want you to eat her.”

Wrinkles’s response? “My favorite kind of scares are the ones that pay the most.”

This kind of dry, deadpan humor fuels a film that explores the most peculiar sociological experiment.

Who would call? How will their children react? Why are clowns so effing scary in the first place? A solid documentarian, Beach Nichols understands that these are the deeper questions to be addressed. Admittedly, continually flashing the image of a grampa-faced clown holding balloons and peeking into your sliding glass door late at night is his excellent way to keep your interest as he digs into these concerns.

We hear from folklorists (with still-packaged action figures mounted to their office walls, so  you know they’re legit), child psychologists, pro-Wrinkles parents, anti-Wrinkles parents and one traditional clown.

Poor Funky. “There’s a whole generation growing up with no positive image of a clown whatsoever,” he laments, happy face in place.

It’s a fascinating look at the function clowns have served since their medieval beginnings, as well as the internet’s way of amplifying folk tales.

And while Beach Nichols, like the great showmen, performs his own sleight of hand, the film itself is more interested in the primal, collective unconscious tapped by those Wrinkles wrinkles.

Wolf Pack Mentality

Meow Wolf: Origin Story

by Rachel Willis

If you’ve never heard of Meow Wolf, an 88-minute documentary about their beginnings may seem pointless, but I promise it’s worth it. By the time the credits roll, you’ll be looking into the price of plane tickets to Santa Fe.

Santa Fe, New Mexico is one of the world’s most vibrant arts centers. Home to hundreds of galleries and dozens of museums, it’s known worldwide for its art markets, events and performances.

And it’s also home to Meow Wolf, an art collective comprising a handful of anarchistic artists who saw too much bourgeois capitalism in the local art scene. Seeking to break away from the idea of art as commodity, these creative individuals banded together to create something new, unique and entirely collaborative.

Using animations, archival footage and interviews with founding members of the collective, directors Jilann Spitzmiller and Morgan Capps create a visually engaging documentary. It would have to be to capture the spirit and brilliance of the art and artists behind Meow Wolf.

The major theme of the film, which is the major dilemma for Meow Wolf, is maintaining artistic integrity while creating a marketable product. From the very beginning of Meow Wolf’s inception, most of the group’s members were opposed to anyone trying to impose too much order into the creation process.

Spitzmiller and Capps document the bitter fights, the fissions within the group, and ultimately, the success when they manage to work together to find common ground. With a collective, each member is involved in the creation process. Each member has a say, and each person contributes to the final product.

Documenting a few of Meow Wolf’s early successes, the film culminates with their most ambitious endeavor: the House of Eternal Return. A 20,000 square feet interactive, immersive art installation, it’s one of the most incomparable and wondrous projects you’ll have the pleasure of viewing from conception to completion onscreen.

That George R.R. Martin of Game of Thrones fame helped fund the project only adds to its charm.

Watching Meow Wolf create ambitious, quirky projects is like watching a great band write game-changing songs. There are tense moments, fights and losses, but when things come together you’ll come as close as one can to true magic.