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We Believe in Dinosaurs

I had first heard about The Creation Museum by way of the Duggars. You remember them. The Quiverfull family who had their own hit show on TLC that went from 17 to 18 to 19 Kids and Counting. It was eventually pulled off the air when their oldest son was involved in a sex abuse scandal and a spin-off show eventually replaced it. On one episode of the 18 Kids and Counting, the Duggar clan visits said museum and I was both fascinated and horrified by what I saw. The fierce protection of their literal interpretation of the book of Genesis meant that dinosaurs had to be explained and Darwin’s theory of evolution had to be debunked. Led by Ken Ham, the president and founder of Answers in Genesis, the museum’s sole purpose is to prove that the Bible is scientifically accurate.

A new documentary, We Believe in Dinosaurs, directed by Clayton Brown and Monica Long Ross visits Petersburg, KY, home of The Creation Museum and the center of a turbulent battle between creationists and pro-science communities. Shot over the course of four years, it chronicles the building of the Ark Encounter, a life-size replica of Noah’s Ark. In addition to interviews with creationists who work for the museum or support its cause, the documentary also follows two outspoken critics. First there is Dan, a pro-science geologist who has had a lifelong fascination with dinosaurs. Then there is David, a former creationist with a lifelong membership to the museum whose Christian beliefs have evolved away from the psuedo-science of creationism. The events in the documentary lead up to the unveiling of the Ark Encounter and the consequent protest. As a whole the film serves as a portrait of a rural conservative town that has a complicated relationship with the Creation Museum and the economic growth that it promises to bring but ultimately fails to.

I’m impressed by how We Believe in Dinosaurs takes a balanced approach to this subject matter even though it’s clear that this is a critique on creationism. We hear from both sides which is quite extraordinary as the creationists are very protective of their ideology. Ken Ham is not interviewed but several others are including a lecturer, one of the artists working on the Ark Encounter and a pastor who orchestrates a protest to the protest.

“The film echoes the present political climate as Americans stare across a divide at one another, science growing ever more politicized and truth dependent on one’s worldview. Given this highly polarized state of affairs, we understand that WE BELIEVE IN DINOSAURS will not convert creationists to the truth of evolution. However, we do believe the film will spark a vibrant dialogue about the thorny intersection of belief, religion, and science, penetrating the cultural “bubbles” in which so many Americans seem to exist.”

–    from the directors’ statement by Clayton Brown and Monica Long Ross

As someone who grew up in a Christian denomination that promoted a problematic interpretation of Genesis, I felt closest to David. I wanted to hear more from him. In fact, this would have been a better documentary had David been the center of the story. He’s an in-between figure; someone who’s been on both sides of the creationist vs. science debate and can offer a unique perspective. It would have grounded the story and made it more relatable.

We Believe in Dinosaurs opens up a dialogue about America’s problematic relationship with science. It’s a difficult subject to broach and will make some viewers angry. Where it lacks in storytelling it makes up for in starting the much needed conversation that we’ve all been avoiding.

We Believe in Dinosaurs had its world premiere at SFFilm.

Riplist

They say celebrities die in threes. They die the way the rest of humanity dies but their fame elevates the awareness of their passing and casts a wider net for mourners. We’re despondent over the deaths of people we may have never met in real life. These deaths come as a shock, even when our favorite celebrity is of advanced age or has known health problems. It puts us in a vulnerable place. It puts us face-to-face with our own mortality. For some people, they decide to take back some of the control death has over us with celebrity death pools. The gamification eases some of the grief if we know its coming.  

A group of friends who refer to themselves as “Riplisters” come together every January to create a draft of the 15 celebrities they believe will die within that calendar year. Each participant has their own draft, or “Riplist”. The selection process is long and involved. The participants negotiate, research and strategize. Eligible celebrities can come from all different walks of life whether they are actors, musicians, athletes, royalty, politicians, etc. Whomever gets the most right on their Riplist wins a trophy and bragging rights. The participant with the fewest correct has to draft first the next go around. Some celebrities seem like a sure thing but other deaths elude the riplisters. 

Writer/Director Mike Scholtz’s new documentary Riplist chronicles the participants in this group and focuses primarily in the drafting process. As a classic film enthusiast, I was particularly interested in Matt, a film critic who owns over 4,000 movies and knows all the Oscar winning films and can recite them chronologically from memory. Other participants are mostly men but there is one woman, Christie, whose parents were morticians and now works as a death investigator. A few of the subjects are profiled and there are some frank discussions about mortality. Ultimately the Riplist is a way for them to process the idea of death. But they can take things too far. They research which celebrity is in hospice or as one subject says “who’s circling the drain.” They congratulate each other when one of their picks dies. They claim they’re not rooting for people to die but the gamification of the whole process makes it seem that way.

“The game of life is fun. Why can’t the game of death be fun?”

Some of the classic film related people mentioned

  • Olivia de Havilland
  • Jerry Lewis
  • Elizabeth Taylor
  • Kirk Douglas
  • Robert Osborne
  • Norman Lloyd
  • Baby Peggy/Diana Serra Cary
  • Don Rickles

“I do enjoy it. I don’t know why but I do.”

However for me what these Riplisters were doing left a bad taste in my mouth. And I’m one of the most morbid people you’ll meet. Death fascinates me and if you were to look at my browser history you may back away cautiously and run in the other direction. However, I dread the day that my favorite classic film stars, many of whom are in their 80s, 90s and 100s, pass away. I don’t like to think about it. I will never write an obituary in advance. I would never participate in a death pool. I want these people to live as long as humanly possible. Hoping someone dies so you can win a game just seems flat out wrong. It’s asking for bad karma.

With that said, I believe it’s important to explore the different ways people deal with death. And while the film’s subject matter is quite heavy, Scholtz takes a lighter approach that will relieve viewers of some of the inevitable tension that would have otherwise been overwhelming. The documentary has fun with the lower third, the subjects are interviewed in interesting places, for example a grocery store, taxidermist’s lab, cemetery and mausoleum. There are some reenactments which are a bit hokey but that also adds to the fun.

Essentially Riplist is a dark comedy with a healthy mix of gravitas and humor. It presents a difficult subject in an approachable way. For my fellow classic movie fanatics however, the ones who are praying their favorites won’t be dying anytime soon, Riplist is your next horror film.

Riplist is part of IFFBoston’s Documentary Features series.

Instant Dreams Poster

Instant Dreams

“The digital dark ages took over our lives…”

Edwin H. Land in The Long Walk

In 1947, Edwin H. Land introduced his invention to the world. The Polaroid camera would revolutionize photography. Inspired by his young daughter, who just couldn’t wait to see a photo that was just taken, Land decided he would develop the technology that would shorten the time gap between the shutter click and the final product. With Polaroid technology it would reduce the time to just one minute.

Fast forward to 1970, when Land was filmed for the short documentary The Long Walk in which he narrates a helicopter tour of several Polaroid facilities in Massachusetts and discusses at length the company’s new technological advancements and his predictions for the future. Land envisioned a day when we would have a portable camera, the size of a wallet, that would be used as regularly as the telephone.

In 2008, the bankrupt Polaroid announced it was no longer producing its trademark film stock. Although Polaroid still exists today, in a new iteration after the brand had been sold, and re-sold, it’s a shadow of its former self. What was once revolutionary is now obsolete in the rapidly changing landscape of the digital age. Have we lost the magic of Polaroid forever?

“It felt like I was confronted with the death of a friend.”

Photographer Stefanie Schneider
Scientists at work on developing Polaroid technology for the Impossible Project

Directed by Willem Baptist, Instant Dreams is a moody and atmospheric eulogy to a lost technology. It’s a quirky documentary that explores the importance of Polaroid as both art and science. The subjects in the film feel the profound loss of Polaroid. Scientist Stephen Herchen can be seen in the film trying to reinvent the lost formula of Polaroid for the Impossible Project. Other subjects include photographer Stefanie Schneider who uses the last of her Polaroid stock to capture her unique aesthetic and Christopher Bonanos, a Polaroid historian.

Instant Dreams captures the essence of Polaroid through its poetic approach in storytelling and visual artistry. If you’re looking for a more traditional documentary on the history of Polaroid, this isn’t it. It does require some patience from the viewer and it won’t be to everyone’s taste. 

Instant Dreams is my cinematic ode to that longing for magic, mystery and a celebration of the dreams of the future that are interwoven with this medium.”

director Willem Baptist

Instant Dreams opens in NYC and L.A. and 10 other North American cities today. Visit the official website for more information.

SXSW Interview: Amy C. Elliott, director of Salvage

At the recent SXSW Film Festival, I had the pleasure of chatting with the documentary filmmaker Amy C. Elliott. Her latest film Salvage had its world premiere on opening night.  This film follows a group of residents who salvage goods from an open dump in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, one of the most isolated communities in North America. In town with a long history of gold and diamond mining, these salvagers find treasure in their own unique way. You can read my review here.

Raquel Stecher: What inspired you to make your documentary?

Amy C. Elliott: I had always wanted to make a film about a dump. I think it’s interesting what we throw away from an environmental impact level… I also think on a philosophical level, the subjective nature of things is really interesting… the transitory nature of things. I also thought about the idea of a community dump as a watering hole… Who goes there? What do people take out of it? What do people leave? I thought it would be a really interesting look at a community. My beat is about how we’re shaped by where we live.

 

Raquel Stecher:  How did you find out about the Yellowknife landfill?

Amy C. Elliott: I’m based in New York so I wanted to find a dump closer to me. It’s very important to have a site that you have access to. I looked around and in the states most of them are closed at this point for liability reasons, like it’s just not feasible to let people into a dump like the way I wanted to make movie… Then I did some research, just scouring the internet for any open dumps. I found a column in a newspaper called Tales from the Dump which is written by a guy who ended up becoming one of the protagonists of the film, Walt Humphries. I [thought] if there was a community somewhere that their dump has inspired a weekly newspaper column, I think I need to check it out. It turned out to be in Yellowknife. It was the closest dump of size that was open still to the public [but] it was 7,000 round-trip miles so it was not my first choice.

 

Raquel Stecher:   How long did you work on this project?

Amy C. Elliott: It was filmed over close ten years. There’s ten years worth of footage in it. I went there over a period of six years regularly, annually for a couple of weeks [at a time].

 

Raquel Stecher:  What was it like traveling to Yellowknife and did you pick a certain time of year to go?

Amy C. Elliott: It’s only 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle. It’s extremely isolated. At the time, it was literally at the end of the highway. There were no other roads leading out. It was an ice road… I don’t think people realize how isolated it is. I had to take three planes to get there. It’s also stunningly beautiful. It’s one of the best places to see the Northern Lights. [Traveling there] was an obstacle. I would say it was the biggest obstacle.

I went in the Spring because I thought in the height of summer the dump would be a little too much in terms of the smell and the bugs. It gets extremely cold there. Regularly negative 50. It was still snowing [in April]. It was still super cold but it was enough light and it was warm enough that the dump smelled okay. The waste was solid enough that I felt like it was a good time to go but it was [still] not the height of mosquito season.

 

Raquel Stecher: What was like what was filming the dump like? Part of the fun watching the movie is all the discoveries the salvagers make. Was there anything about the dump that was shocking?

Amy C. Elliott: It was all shocking to me because I never experienced anything quite so unregulated. When I first started shooting there, we were on the open face of the dump. You see people kids, people barefoot, you could just do what you wanted. It was really a free-for-all. I got a tetanus shot before I went and filmed.

In terms of the stuff there… I thought the food was shocking for sure. Some of the most shocking stuff were the new items. like clothes with the tags still on, kid’s toys still in plastic wrapping… you just can’t help but feel like there are people who would need that stuff, would like that stuff, who would benefit from that stuff and it’s just being thrown away.  I never quite got used to it. I thought that there was something really poignant about that.

For me [personally it was] the unopened rolls of film. There were just bags and bags of it. I just wanted to take it and send it to The Rescued Film Project and see what was on those rolls of film. The idea that that would be gone forever was really interesting.

 

Raquel Stecher: One of the biggest takeaways of the film was how resourcefulness is looked down upon. What are your thoughts on that?

Amy C. Elliott:  It’s that idea of thrift. Even as the old-fashioned virtue of thrift. It seems like something out of Benjamin Franklin days. It’s hard though… Do you really want to rescue and repair a broken DVD player? You can get one for $20 completely new. We’re living in a time where we have such access to cheap things. It’s easier… and time is valuable so is it really worth your time to go rescue. That’s the dilemma of where we are now as the world came to Yellowknife.

Photo from Salvage courtesy of Amy C. Elliott

Raquel Stecher: Was there a point when you were going to stop filming and then you continued when things started changing at Yellowknife?

Amy C. Elliott: I knew I wanted to film at least five years. I was committed to that unless something radical happened like the dump closed.I knew it was going to take a long time… The changes in the town, I could see that coming. I could see that there was something happening at the dump that was mirroring what was happening in the town. As the world became smaller… “the values from down south” as Tony talks about at the end [of the film], the consumerism, the concern with loss prevention and liability, the bureaucrats in the city were becoming more in tune with the rest of the South. It just mirrored what was happening in the dump. I think they’re intertwined intrinsically.

In my films I love exploring how where live shapes us culturally… our behavior is shaped geographically by where we live and that’s becoming rarer and rarer as the world becomes more homogeneous. As there’s a Starbucks on every corner as the world becomes… you can go anywhere now and have the same experience.

Raquel Stecher: How has the SXSW experience been for you?

Amy C. Elliott: Amazing. I love this festival. I think it’s the best. It’s one of the top tier festivals in the world but it’s also offbeat enough and different enough. They play films that you wouldn’t necessarily see it at other festivals. They really curate a different slate and the audiences who come appreciate that. A doc like Salvage is small. It’s not flashy, you do have to have some patience for it. It’s a hard film in some ways. But there’s going to be an audience here. It’s perfect place for an offbeat film like Salvage. I know that I’m going to get an audience that is engaged and wants to see that kind of stuff. I love SXSW.

Raquel Stecher: What do you hope that people will take away from Salvage?

Amy C. Elliott: That’s a two part answer. On a surface level, what I hope people take away is being more mindful of what we buy and [to think] about where it ends up. Do we really buy this next thing? Be mindful of waste. Do we have to know shepherd our products to a slightly better home rather than just throwing them out without thinking about it? The second thing would be to appreciate what’s distinct where you live and where you visit. What is special about a place and why?

Amy C. Elliott is the director of World’s Largest (2010), Wicker Kittens (2014) and Salvage (2019), all of which have premiered at the SXSW Film Festival. You can follow her on Twitter @SalvageMovie and learn more about her photography at her official website. A big thank you to Amy for taking the time out to chat with me about her film!

SXSW: Strange Negotiations

“There’s this push for your faith to be fully integrated into your person, into your identity.”

David Bazan on being Evangelical Christian

In 2006, Christian Rock star David Bazan left his band Pedro the Lion to pursue a solo career. Bazan’s entire world had been deeply entrenched in Evangelical Christianity. When he begins to question his belief and ultimately loses his faith he struggles to find a way to maintain his music career and support his family.

Director Brandon Vedder’s documentary Strange Negotiations follows Bazan a decade into his journey as he travels across the country as a solo act, performing in fan’s living rooms and in many other venues. There is this sense of community when you’re religious. It almost acts as a safety net. And when everyone in your life, your friends, your family, and your colleagues are in that world, leaving it can be incredibly isolating. The viewer goes on a road trip with Bazan and he becomes a spiritual guide. In interviews, we hear Bazan process his past, present and future within the scope of his religion and his personal struggles. Bazan’s story is juxtaposed with NPR coverage of the Evangelical movement in the U.S. and how that has effected the current political climate.

“I [saw] vulnerability as the antidote to all this anxiety and self-loathing.”

David Bazan

The cinematography in this film is absolutely stunning. I still have mixed feelings about the use of fancy drone shots but in this case it just plain works. The drone flies high above the barren landscape of the Bible Belt as we follow Bazan on his road trip. These shots are gorgeous, almost ethereal. It’s as if we’re seeing Bazan’s world from an angel’s point of view. The camera also gets right up into the personal space of its subject with Bazan being filmed in a tight frame while in conversation, driving through an urban landscape or in the intimate space of one of his performances.

Strange Negotiations is a poetic and deeply personal documentary about the loss of faith and the struggle to find oneself. If you’re someone, like me, whose struggled with faith, you may find a kindred spirit in Bazan. If the faith aspect doesn’t speak to you, it’s simply an interesting story about a musician at a crossroads in his life and career.

Strange Negotiations had its world premiere at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival as part of their 24 Beats Per Second documentary series.

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