Tag Archives: documentary

Back for Seconds

Food Inc. 2

by Rachel Willis

I’ll admit I didn’t watch 2008’s Food, Inc., but the first film is not a prerequisite for watching Food, Inc. 2—an updated, critical look at the system that feeds us.

What director Robert Kenner addressed in the first film is, in part, revisited—this time with co-director Melissa Robledo. Has much changed since Food, Inc. was released 15 years ago? What role did the COVID-19 pandemic play in exposing the weaknesses in our food system? And what is ultra-processed food doing to our health?

Producers Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser once again join Kenner in tackling the issues that come with food consumption in America. While farmer’s markets are now a staple in many American cities, and organic and free-range food is readily available in big chain grocery stores, much of what we eat is still controlled by only a handful of companies.

The point is made early that what was started with the original Food, Inc. wasn’t enough.

The filmmakers make a strong case for the fragile nature of our food supply. The COVID pandemic brought into sharp relief the problems with having so few suppliers for our food. Footage shows milk being dumped, pigs euthanized, and produce wasted while store shelves stand depleted. It’s a harsh fact brought to light: the food industry is based on predictability. When something unpredictable happens, people go hungry.

One issue highlighted is that 80% of the infant formula market is controlled by only two companies. When one of those companies had to shut down one of their factories in 2022, parents were left desperate to find the food necessary to feed their babies—just one of many examples that demonstrate the fragility of our most important system.

Several interviews focus on the exploitation of workers harvesting and producing crops for pityingly low wages in inhumane conditions. One man makes the point that “the work is essential, but we’re treated as disposable.” In the 100+ years since The Jungle was published, it seems little has changed.

Michael Pollan is quick to highlight the war between Big Ag and nature. Moving dairy farms to the desert is unsustainable, yet regulations are few and land is cheap. When cows need water from aquifers to produce milk, people go without water.

Food, Inc. 2 raises urgent issues. It’s essential that we listen.

Music Maker, Dreamer of Dreams

Remembering Gene Wilder

by Hope Madden

Maybe the smartest choice director Ron Frank made when putting together his affectionate documentary Remembering Gene Wilder was to pull audio from Wilder’s own autobiography. Sure, we hear from many who loved the comic actor—Mel Brooks, Carol Kane, Alan Alda among them. But everything they tell you about his authenticity, humility, humanity, and perfect comic timing you can hear for yourself as Wilder spills the beans on his life.

You remember the hair, of course. And probably those eyes. But that voice proves, in case you have forgotten, that there was something deeply, bubblingly, undeniably delightful about Gene Wilder. And he could act.

Frank, working with writer Glenn Kirschbaum, hand picks some of Wilder’s best scenes. Not necessarily the most iconic, but the most confounding, the scenes where he made a creative decision no one else would have considered, creating an indelible moment on screen.

This is a film that loves Gene Wilder, and it makes a pretty good case for that.

We hear about is childhood, about Willy Wonka, Young Frankenstein, Richard Pryor, Gilda. Each story showcases the gentle, charming creature that was Gene Wilder. Though Frank doesn’t break any new ground cinematically—talking head interviews flank home movies, film clips surround family photos—the mellow approach belies a deep emotional connection.

Remembering Gene Wilder is not just a greatest hits. Although the film does not delve into any of the actor/director’s box office or critical missteps—nor does it devote a single moment to anything that would make Wilder out to be anything other than a treasure—it acknowledges low times. Even those just make you want to hug him.

Not every film or character of Wilder’s has aged well, but his good nature and talent shine none the dimmer. Remembering Gene Wilder certainly does not unearth any ugliness, bares no startling truths. It’s clearly the product of a filmmaker who truly loves his subject.

He doesn’t seem wrong, though.  

Play Me a Memory?

They Shot the Piano Player

by Hope Madden

An unusual hybrid of documentary and narrative, music and animation, They Shot the Piano Player pulls you into a political mystery.

Jeff Goldblum voices the character of a New Yorker journalist writing a book about bossa nova, or so he thinks. He travels to Brazil to dig into the history of this groundbreaking musical movement and finds himself drawn to the story of one particular pianist.

Inside the chaos of color, vibrant animation and remarkable soundtrack, directors Javier Mariscal and Fernando Trueba unveil a particularly turbulent moment in history. The discovery and quick popularity of Brazilian bossa nova—literally the “new wave” of samba and jazz fusion—ran headlong into a continent-wide collapse into violent, oppressive military regimes.

Goldblum is one of a handful of actors whose fictional storyline collides with archival interviews with some of the musical movement’s greats. Little by little, the investigation sidesteps music to focus on the 1976 disappearance of Francisco Tenório Júnior.

The filmmakers bridge audio commentary concerning the disappearance, the desperate search, and the inevitable truth with Goldblum’s fictionalized storyline. The result, much elevated by Goldblum’s characteristically offbeat performance, generally works. The filmmakers attempt to do more than uncover one of hundreds of thousands of stories of innocent lives lost to Central and South American despots beginning in the 1960s.

Mariscal and Trueba want you to know Tenório, to see all that was lost when he was disappeared: father, friend, artist. And with him, the entire beautiful new wave of music and art that had been blooming across the continent.

Unruly and fresh as the music it dances to, They Shot the Piano Player sometimes loses its train of thought. The outright documentary content is probably compelling enough—even if told via animation—to omit the fictionalized sleuthing. But the way Mariscal and Trueba couch the heartbreaking loss of one life within the larger artistic loss of an entire art form is melancholy magic.

Self Portrait


by Rachel Willis

Director Carla Gutiérrez lets Frida Kahlo speak through her words, photos, and most movingly, self-portraits (including images from her illustrated diary) in the documentary Frida.

The film moves through the years of Kahlo’s life, weaving in her own words and images from her young life. Film from the time period helps set the scene of Frida’s childhood in Mexico. Photos of Kahlo and her parents illustrate her spoken memories.

The documentary makes impressive use of Kahlo’s paintings to bring the legend to life. This is a documentary that puts the soul of the artist front and center of her own story.

When Frida tries to bring in its own artistry, it suffers by comparison. The choice to highlight certain sections of black and white film in bright colors feels tacky compared to the rich paintings. Used to better effect are animations that enliven the artist’s works.

In addition to Kahlo’s own words, voices from those who knew her pepper the film. Classmates, former boyfriends, and friends add layers to the portrait the film paints.

It is impossible to study Kahlo’s life without examining her relationship with fellow artist Diego Rivera. His influence on her life was profound, as was hers on his.

Kahlo’s emotional highs and lows allow the audience to know her in a way that enhances an understanding of her art. Like so many artists, the true impact of her work would only be understood after her death. But in life, it brought her joy.

For those unfamiliar with Frida Kahlo, this is a lush and impressive introduction to her life and art.

Wolves at the Door

Four Daughters

by George Wolf

The Oscar-nominated documentary Four Daughters tells the story of Olfa Hamrouni and her four girls. The two youngest, Eya and Tassir, still live at home and speak for themselves. The eldest, Rahma and Ghoframe, are played by actors (Nour Karoui, Ichrak Matar) as the real sisters “were devoured by the wolf.”

Yes, it is a metaphor, one that Tunisian writer/director Kaouther Ben Hania explores with a deeply sympathetic mix of doc and drama.

Most of the time, Olfa will tell her own story while veteran actress Hind Sabri stands by, ready to step in and play the role when the emotion is too much for Olfa to bear.

Mother and daughters laugh, cry and bicker as we hear of their life in the patriarchal society of Tunisia. Olfa moves between gregarious and reserved, as capable of flashing a strong defiant streak as she is of handing down oppressive customs because “that’s just the way it is.”

And as Ben Hania slowly moves toward the source of the family’s heartbreak, the film’s many moving parts don’t always engage in perfect sync. The subtle aspects of Ben Hania’s reenactments – such as having actor Majd Mastoura play all the male parts, or the surreal interplay between real sister and stand in – pay dividends. But moments when actor and subject go off script to debate the familial choices can begin to blur unfortunate lines.

The staggering 2012 doc The Act of Killing used similar tactics, but the arc of barbaric murderers recreating their genocidal crimes mined insight from intimacy. Here, the staged production of pain spurs questions about when intimacy becomes exploitation.

Ben Hania wisely travels a more conventional road in the film’s third act. The reason for the elder sisters leaving home becomes clear, and Four Daughters leaves its unique mark.. A compelling, touching story of memory and generational trauma, it’s a heartbreaking roadmap to radicalization marked with a family’s despair.

Feelin’ Groovy

The Job of Songs

by Christie Robb

Paul Simon’s “59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)” is a one minute and 43 second impression of being content and in the moment. It feels like a possible anthem for the Slow philosophy—an approach to life that values taking one’s time, doing things at the right pace, valuing the quality over the quantity in life.

Writer/director Lila Schmitz’s one hour and 13 minute documentary has a similar approach.

The Job of Songs is about the community of session musicians that populate the small village of Doolin in County Clare in the west of Ireland—the area around the Cliffs of Moher. An isolated village until the 1970s, folks gathered in homes to play traditional (“trad”) Irish music and to dance.

Opening the Cliffs to international tourism brought in increased revenue and enabled musicians to pursue their art professionally, but it also changed the cultural scene. Folks dashed in on day trips to take a snapshot of the Cliffs, but failed to linger and really take in the place and the people.

Tourism meant that performances moved from private to public spaces—out of the kitchen and parlor and into pubs and restaurants.  But performing trad music is still a community activity. At a session, anyone is welcome to pick up their instrument or raise their voice and join in, even if they only know a couple of bars to a piece.

Through candid interviews and emotional performances, Schmitz’s film explores the changing culture of Doolin and the various purposes songs have in the lives of the Irish of the West country. It’s a source of entertainment, yes. But songs also carry the often melancholy history of the Irish people and culture, allow the saying of otherwise unspeakable things, and give people permission to feel things that are not easily understood intellectually.

The film explores the different aspects, both dark and light, that this musical culture has in people’s lives. While the session scene brings people together, it also has ties to drink, depression, and suicide. And though singing the old trad songs maintains a connection to Ireland’s past with its history of brutal colonization, famine, and emigration, Schmitz also leaves space to explore the change that technology, tourism, and a recent history of immigration has brought to the scene. She shows how a culture so rooted in a place can slowly change over time.

The music of  Luka Bloom, Eoin O’Neill, Kate Theasby, Christy Barry, and Ted McCormac (among others) could be draw enough, but slowing down to appreciate the way the cozy light of the pub provides an antidote to winter’s gloom goes a long way toward making a person feel pretty groovy.  As does the drama inherent in the view of the green of the land ending abruptly in the pounding of the ocean. It’s a movie worth savoring.

Family Planning

Plan C

by Rachel Willis

Even before the fall of Roe v. Wade, abortion access was next to impossible for many across the United States, particularly for those in red states where legislatures worked hard to limit access as much as possible.

That’s where Plan C comes in – co-founded by Elisa Wells and Francine Coeytaux, Plan C attempts to get women information and access to abortion pills – in any way possible. Tracy Droz Tragos’s documentary, Plan C, focuses on the fight to get information and access to those who need it most.

The documentary begins during the height of COVID. Access to the ingredients needed to make the pills (which come mainly from India and China) was hard to come by, so the founders of Plan C took it upon themselves to encourage medical professionals to prescribe abortion pills for those in need.

However, Plan C doesn’t just examine the efforts of Plan C to get Mifepristone & Misoprostol into women’s hands. The documentary also spends time examining the hypocrisy of the “pro-life” movement, from the support of family planning clinics in neighborhoods of color by politicians on the right, to the lack of outcry in Flint over lead in the water (lead causes miscarriages), to the reality for Black women in Mississippi who are 118 times more likely to die from a pregnancy than an abortion. The question raised is “whose life are you saving?”

Texas is a major here, as its law, passed before the fall of Roe v. Wade, was one of the harshest in the country (Ohio’s own is currently on hold pending appeals and/or the passage of Issue 1 in November). Plan C’s plan of action to tackle the law is to keep getting information into women’s hands.

There is a sense of fear throughout the documentary, even as the women of Plan C continue their fight. There are threats of violence, even death, to those who provide abortions – and not just abortions, but information on how to obtain them. Again, it begs the question, whose life matters?

Plan C acknowledges that the work has gotten harder with the revocation of Roe v. Wade, but the important takeaway is that there are many who won’t stop fighting for reproductive rights. For these women, it’s about standing up to bullies. Whether that bully is a legislature, protestors, or a group of men with guns, these women will continue the fight to ensure safe, legal abortions.

Extraordinary Gentlemen

The League

by George Wolf

As James Earl Jones so eloquently told us in Field of Dreams., you can’t tell the story of America without baseball. And in The League, acclaimed documentarian Sam Pollard builds a gracefully powerful reminder about how important the Negro Leagues were to both game and country.

Pollard (Mr. Soul!, MLK/FBI, Oscar nominee for 4 Little Girls) weaves together the interviews, archival footage and re-enactments with the care of a master craftsman. He builds a timeline that informs and inspires, introducing us to professional players – such as Moses Fleetwood Walker – who came before Jackie Robinson but were left behind once the Supreme Court endorsed “separate but equal” in 1896.

And when the Black community “only had themselves to rely on,” we see how a new path to success was forged, thanks to the visionaries such as Rube Foster and a litany of players who got the attention of white sports writers with their athletic, fast-paced style of play.

Of course, all of this is a baseball fan’s dream, but Pollard (with Executive Producer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson) also achieves compelling resonance through socioeconomic lessons. The film illustrates how symbiotic relationships developed between the Negro Leagues and the social, political and geographical movements of the day, creating a fascinating push and pull that continued through the integration of Major League Baseball.

And speaking of integration, the story doesn’t end once Robinson and Larry Doby debuted in the National and American Leagues, respectively. In fact, the film is ready with some lesser known receipts from a less-than-admirable side of Branch Rickey’s decision to add Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Certainly, the story of the Negro Leagues is worthy of a multi-part mini series, but The League lands as both a satisfying overview and an enticing invitation to dig deeper. There is a wonderful sense of joy here. It’s a feeling born from a community that loved the game, players that lived to make it their own, and a movement that never backed down from the challenge of “finding other ways to succeed.”

Ashes to Ashes

Elemental: Reimagine Wildfire

by Tori Hanes

Fire, as the ultimate threat, has laid heavily in the public’s mind for a handful of years. West Coast dwellers live in near constant fear of ill-contained flames. With a significant spike in ravenous flames throughout the past decade, how can a government possibly triangulate and identify a solution to the rapidly progressing problem? As much as it postures, Elemental: Reimagine Wildfire doesn’t offer that fix. 

Director Trip Jennings knows how to accost audiences right in their vulnerable ethos. Jennings thrusts us into Paradise, California during an autumn day in 2018. With ash blocking the sun and blazes destroying the city, an unbelievable loss of 85 lives and 18,000+ properties result from the string of ravaging forest fires the year produced. Firsthand iPhone video accounts of shaken parents throwing sobbing children into the back of cars as fires overtake their once sleepy streets is haunting. However, Jennings relies on this initial emotional connection to keep audiences engaged through a scientific and roaming remainder.

The film is a heavily logistical view of attempts to mitigate the impact of fire-based disasters on the human population. What is so deeply interesting and perplexing is the film’s failure to speak on the cause: climate change. It feels like a well-formulated dance around a concrete base. Elemental: Reimagine Wildfire makes no mystery that a rapidly changing climate is to blame, but also does no due diligence of explanation or exploration. It seems to unintentionally avoid the topic, which is incredibly strange. Ultimately, you end up wondering what the purpose behind the snub really amounts to. 

This is not to say Jennings is an untalented filmmaker. The documentary itself is interesting, and digestible in its heavy scientific musings. The daunting subject matter is presented fairly and accurately, but a call to arms is missing. Beyond the begrudged idea that West Coast landowners should investigate fire-proofing their homes, no massively hopeful or inspiringly pessimistic conclusions are made. 

Even in the lovely landlocked region of the Midwest, fire threat has become a permanent and harrowing dilemma. Elemental: Reimagine Wildfire offers no solutions, although it will thoroughly explain half hearted ideas. For a some, it’ll result in more confusion than comfort.

Something Personal to Say

Chasing Chasing Amy

by Hope Madden

Nearly 30 years ago, Kevin Smith did what he does best. He made a film so simple, so personal, so deeply human, so profoundly myopic, so densely problematic, so deeply heterosexual-white-dude that it was hard not to simultaneously hate and love it. In fact, of all Smith’s movies, his 1997 straight-boy-falls-for-lesbian romcom Chasing Amy fits that (rather lengthy) bill best.

Hell, just being the indie darling of 1997 – pinnacle Weinstein era – creates additional problems, let alone the way Smith’s script funhouse mirrors his offscreen relationship with the star (Joey Lauren Adams, who earned a Golden Globe nomination for her vivid performance).

Whew, that’s a lot to unpack, and it’s not even the primary focus of Chasing Chasing Amy. For documentarian Sav Rodgers, stumbling across Smith’s film in his parents’ stash of Ben Affleck flicks as a kid saved his life. Literally. During his toughest times, Rodgers would watch the film every day. He’d never seen queer people in a film before. And he wanted to believe that one day he would find the kind of love Holden (Affleck) expressed for Alyssa (Adams).

And yet.

For many (most?) in the LGBTQ community, Chasing Amy is nothing if not problematic. So, what begins as Sav’s odyssey through the film’s New Jersey landmarks turns into an investigation into the movie’s queer depictions, then becomes an enduring friendship with Smith himself before turning into a remarkable examination of the seedy state of independent film in 1997. And that alone would be more than worth the price of admission.

Indeed, Rodgers gets better, more insightful talking head interviews for this doc than I’ve seen in any documentary in the last several years. Guinevere Turner (who wrote 1997’s Go Fish and partly inspired the character of Alyssa), in particular, is a treasure.

But even as Rodgers’s film metamorphosizes, so does its filmmaker. Because Rodgers is himself a large part of his film – the film’s impact on his own life did inspire the documentary – the director cannot help but document his own journey. And not his journey as a filmmaker, but as a trans man.

Rodgers possesses sharp storytelling instincts and a cinematic presence so sincere and authentic it could break your heart. You come away from this film hoping genuinely for his happiness and waiting eagerly for his next film.