Wildfires have long ravaged California but 2018 was a particularly bad year. That was when the deadly Camp Fire spread quickly through Paradise, California, causing many residents to flee for their lives. The wildfire engulfed houses, burned vehicles, and killed 85 residents. Those who survived endured the trauma that came with escaping the rapidly encroaching flames. Other fires, including one in Malibu, destroyed homes leaving devastation in their wake. While fingers might point to climate change and gender reveal parties as the root cause, there are many factors involved both natural and man-made.
British director Lucy Walker offers a harrowing look at the 2018 California wildfires by examining the events of that year and the people affected by the disasters in her new documentary Bring Your Own Brigade. Perhaps the most eye-opening aspect of the documentary was how it uncovers the history of the wildfires and how they’ve progressively gotten worse over time. It’s not quite what you expect. The film features interviews with residents of Paradise and Malibu, first responders, and various experts. It unfolds in an organic way which at times can feel disjointed. Essentially we’re following the director as her curiosity about the California wildfires takes her on a journey of discovery.
In comparing this film with the Netflix documentary Fire in Paradise (2019), Bring Your Own Brigade offers much more in the way of context and background information to both enlighten and terrify its audience.
Bring Your Own Brigade premiered at the virtual 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
In February 2027, the Martin Luther King Jr. surveillance tapes recorded by the FBI will be unsealed and made available to the public. These tapes are the result of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI’s extensive harassment of MLK. Hoover sought out sordid details of MLK’s extramarital affairs hoping that the information would ruin his public image and in turn weaken MLK’s leadership. What Hoover didn’t anticipate is that ultimately no one cared. The movement was full speed ahead and even one of the most powerful men in America couldn’t stop it.
Directed by Sam Pollard, MLK/FBI is both a compelling look into one of the darkest times in the history of the FBI and a brilliant portrait of a charismatic leader who was able to mobilize a community into peaceful action despite all the challenges that faced him. The documentary is comprised of photographs and archival footage as well as clips from newsreels and relevant classic movies. It was based on recently released documents made available by way of the Freedom of Information Act.
The talking heads narrate but are not seen until the end of the film. The narrators include Civil Rights leaders, historians and former FBI employees including former director James Comey. The greatest value of this documentary is the amount of quality archival footage of MLK himself. I have seen several documentaries about the Civil Rights movement but none have included this much actual footage of MLK. The film is based on recently released documents made available by way of the Freedom of Information Act.
MLK/FBI is a priceless documentary that sheds light on the past and serves as a warning for the future.
MLK/FBI recently screened at the 2020 virtual Double Exposure Film Festival. It will be released by IFC in January 2021.
Representation matters. When a young Edward Dwight Jr. saw a photo of an African-American jet pilot in the newspaper, everything he dreamed about suddenly became a possibility. That one photo sparked something inside him and Dwight set out to achieve his dreams. He proved to be an excellent pilot and served as a captain in the Air Force. Dwight was selected as a NASA astronaut trainee by the Kennedy administration, the first African-American to be chosen. And while he was an exceptionally trained pilot, he never made it passed phase two of the training. It’s clear that the world wasn’t ready for a black astronaut. Dwight could have let this disappointment drag him down but instead he reinvented himself.
Directed by Ben Proudfoot, The Lost Astronaut is an intimate short documentary that profiles an extraordinary man. This 14 minute film is part of The New York Times series Almost Famous while profiles subjects in similar circumstances. The extreme close up on Dwight’s face as he recounts the story of his life makes the viewer feel like Dwight is an old friend that we care deeply about. What’s so exceptional about Captain Edward Dwight Jr.’s story is that his career happened during what the director refers to as “collision of the space race and the civil rights movement.” Had he been born a few decades earlier he may never have become a pilot. Had he been born a few decades later he might have become a NASA astronaut.
The Lost Astronaut was screened as part of the Meet the Press program for the 2020 virtual AFI Fest.
The brutal Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996) resulted in the deaths of many civilians, especially those of the indigenous Mayan population. In the days after the war, Bishop Juan Gerardi became an outspoken activist for the Mayan people, seeking justice for the crimes against humanity and giving a voice to the voiceless. He was a truly remarkable individual and one of the key members of REMHI, an organization that sought to bring to light the many human rights violations enacted by the military and government. This unfortunately made him a target and on April 26th, 1998 Bishop Gerardi was brutally murdered.
Directed by Paul Taylor, The Art of Political Murder investigates Bishop Gerardi’s state ordered assassination, the mishandling of the crime scene, the theories behind what exactly happened and the arrest and trial of the three assassins. George Clooney served as one of the film’s executive producers and the documentary is based on Francisco Goldman’s book of the same name. It features interviews with journalists, experts and those who knew Bishop Gerardi both personally and professionally. There isn’t much by way of background on either the Guatemalan Civil War or how Bishop Gerardi came to be involved with his activism. Instead the focus here is on the crime itself. In essence one could call this a biography of a crime as it dissects all the details of the murder, investigation, media coverage, trial, etc. I would have preferred more background on Bishop Gerardi but this was an interesting approach.
The Art of Political Murder is well worth the watch for anyone interested in true crime in general or Guatemalan history in particular.
The Art of the Political Murder recently screened at the 2020 virtual Double Exposure Film Festival.
Dr. Quincy Fortier was a fertility specialist based in Las Vegas in the mid 20th Century. He helped countless women battle infertility. Little did they know that the babies they had, thanks to Fortier’s “treatment”, were also biologically his. Years later, in an age of advanced DNA technology, his offspring find themselves on a harrowing journey of self-discovery.
Directed by Hannah Olson, Baby God is an engrossing and shocking documentary about deceit, manipulation and fractured identity. Dr. Fortier passed away in 2006 at the age of 93 and during his lifetime he got away with using his own sperm to fertilize his patients. It was only in his final years when his patients and their children started to catch on and he was brought to court numerous times. After his death, his actions continue to have ripple effects. The documentary investigates the culture in which Dr. Fortier was able to operate and how he was able to get away with this for so long. Unfortunately, there was no law against what he did and he was not the only doctor to have “worked” in this manner. Fortier genuinely thought he was helping these women.
In the film, we hear from his children, the offspring he raised with his wife, his two adopted daughters, and the half-siblings who discovered their origins in the most shocking of ways. We also hear from the women he treated as well as two of his Las Vegas colleagues. It’s easy to relegate Fortier’s actions to a mid-century naivete. But this documentary clearly demonstrates that Fortier was a deeply disturbed man.
“Do you want to say your father was a monster? And what does that say about you?”
Baby God can be disjointed at times. I would have preferred a more structured approach rather than its more free-flowing slow build. There was so much to grasp in terms of information, context and meaning that we, the audience, require more guidance. It’s still a highly compelling film that will leave viewers in a state of shock and awe. A must see.
Baby God recently screened at the 2020 virtual Double Exposure Film Festival and is slated to be released on HBO.