If you were a child of the ’80s and ’90s, chances are you watched the children’s television program Reading Rainbow and it had a profound effect on you. I was a PBS kid who really took to LeVar Burton’s gentle and inviting demeanor and seeing real kids like myself get excited about books. This influence and my natural curiosity sent me a lifelong journey of reading and loving books. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Just ask any Reading Rainbow kid and they’ll tell you the same: LeVar Burton made books cool and interesting.
“Anybody who worked with us and said oh, it’s just a kids show, never worked with us again.”
Directed by Bradford Thomason and Brett Whitcomb and produced by Bryan Storkel, Butterfly in the Sky chronicles the extraordinary story behind Reading Rainbow, the figures who made it happen and its profound effect on the children who watched the show. The documentary also serves as a celebration for all the incredible work Burton and the production team, who were all interviewed for the film, put into Reading Rainbow.
The show premiered July 11, 1983 but production began as early as 1981. It was a hard sell to get a show about reading on the air and to convince book publishers that they should want their books on the program. While it took a couple of years for the show off the ground, once it did it really started having a profound effect. The show had a solid concept and structure that just made it work: a friendly host, an earworm of a theme song, a memorable catchphrase, book reviews by real kids, readings by celebrity guests, songs and documentary style segments that put the featured book into context. LeVar Burton turned out to be the perfect host. Kids watching felt like he was speaking directly to them. Burton insisted on authenticity, always preferring to be true to himself even when the producers didn’t agree with what he was doing, and this really made the show work.
Butterfly in the Sky is in the same vein as recent documentaries on PBS kids shows including Won’t You Be My Neighbor (2018) and Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street (2021), both of which are excellent in their own right. Butterfly in the Sky is relentlessly positive, even when the show’s many adversities are discussed (it also completely skips the tumultuous life of the brand after it went off the air in 2006). This film serves up a heaping dose of nostalgia while also enlightening viewers on the history and importance of this landmark television program.
Butterfly in the Sky was part of the 2022 Nashville Film Festival.
Set in Beirut, Lebanon, Warsha follows Mohammad (Khansa), a construction worker tasked with operating one of the tallest and most dangerous cranes in the city. Isolated and far away from his fellow workers and the city below, Mohammad has a moment of freedom, tapping into his most secret desire. The climb up to the crane and the fantasy sequence were absolutely breathtaking. I enjoyed the LGBTQ angle. Highly recommended.
Warsha screened at the 2022 Nashville Film Festival.
Lupe (Briza Covarrubias) is a hard-working Mexican-Navajo Diné woman just trying to make ends meet and support her family. When her mother Adamina (Paula Miranda) is hospitalized, Lupe will go to any length to acquire the funds needed for a possible life-saving procedure. Her quest to meet her father Carl (Micah Fitzgerald) and ask for his help leads her on a treacherous journey. Along the way she meets Maddy (Allee Sutton Hethcoat), a gun-toting cowgirl who is on the run from a dangerous cartel. The two form an unlikely bond as they join forces on a roadtrip through the Alta Valley.
Written and directed by Jesse Edwards, Alta Valley offers viewers a classic western style thriller as a platform to share the important story of the Diné people (given name: the Navajo). In his director’s statement, Edwards writes “this project is an honest and heartfelt attempt to make an action film, that starts an essential conversation around colonization, land ownership, and reparations toward Native American people.”
Alta Valley can at times be melodramatic and overwrought. However, its bolstered by interesting characters and its effectiveness as a message film. It explores themes of family, greed, language and land ownership with great respect for the Diné people. It flips the script on westerns of the past while also offering fans of the genre plenty of shoot outs and beautiful cinematography of the vast Utah landscape.
Alta Valley is having its world premiere at the 2022 Nashville Film Festival. Visit the official website for more details on the film.
Jada (Margo Parker) and her friends Sky (Daisy Lopez) and Bianca (Victoria T. Washington) are ready to take the music world by storm. It’s the 1990s and girl groups are all the rage. The Space Girls, as they call themselves, are preparing for an audition in front of an important music exec. They take the stage to perform their newest song and everything is going fine until Jada spots the exec. It’s Landon (Peter Zizzo), the man who raped her at a party months earlier. Jada must face the decision of whether to work with her assailant or to give up the dream she has long worked for.
Written and directed by Josie Andrews, Wannabe is a powerful short film, primed for the #MeToo era while also giving viewers a window into the past. It’s a reminder that these situations have been going on for far too long. The power dynamic in the aftermath of an assault has always favored the man and what Wannabe effectively demonstrates is how rape victims face impossible decisions for how they should live their lives moving forward. The film is a personal project for director Josie Andrews. In her director’s statement she says:
“Wannabe is not just a plea to believe those who have come forward, but a cry to consider the thousands who have not.”
I would love to see Wannabe developed into a full-length feature. But it’s also quite potent as a 13 minute short film. The three lead actresses are fantastic and by the end you’ll want to continue following their characters’ journey, wherever it may take them.
Wannabe is part of the 2022 Nashville Film Festival. Visit the director’s website for more information about the film.
“There is no story about wishing that is not a cautionary tale”
Dr. Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton) embraces solitude. When she’s not teaching at the university, she spends her time reading and studying and feels the independence of not being attached to a spouse, child or family network. As a scholar of mythology and storytelling, she often travels to faraway lands to be in the world of the fantastical stories that she teaches. On one trip to Turkey, she finds a unique looking bottle in a shop. Upon opening it in her hotel room, suddenly a Djinn (Idris Elba) appears, offering her three wishes for whatever her heart desires (with a few rules of course). But Dr. Binnie knows better. Wishes never turn out how the asker intended them and Djinns like the one she conjured are often tricksters. Djinn taps into Dr. Binnie’s hunger for engaging storytelling and recounts the times he’s been released and trapped in a bottle. As the Djinn tells his stories, Dr. Binnie must come to terms with whether she should or should not ask for the three wishes offered.
Directed by George Miller, Three Thousand Years of Longing is a fanciful meditation on the power of human connection and stories. It’s light on the world building, focusing on small stories to tell a bigger tale of humanity and desire. Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton are fantastic in their individual roles but ultimately lacked chemistry with each other. The movie is based on A.S. Byatt’s short story The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye and adapted to the screen by Miller and Augusta Gore.
The screening I attended began with a message from the director thanking the audience for watching the film on the big screen. It’s definitely a film best viewed on the big screen. It’s a visual spectacle with some amazing cinematography by John Seale, who also worked with Miller on Mad Max: Fury Road. I do think it’s a film that could also be enjoyed at home. There are some subtle details, especially with Dr. Binnie’s mannerisms that can be seen with the female characters in Djinn’s stories. Repeat viewing will enrich the experience, finding those subtleties that were missed the first time around.
Three Thousand Years of Longing premiered at the 2022 Cannes FIlm Festival and is currently in theaters in the U.S., distributed by MGM.