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CategoryDocumentaries

The Unmaking of a College

Directed by Amy Goldstein, The Unmaking of a College chronicles a turbulent time in Hampshire College’s recent history. The title is a play on The Making of a College, a book written about Hampshire College in Amherst, MA and its alternative approach to higher education. Over the years, the school has suffered from one financial crisis after another. When the new president Miriam Nelson was instated in 2018, it quickly became clear that Hampshire was being set up to be shut down. This documentary follows the most volatile days in Nelson’s administration when students staged a sit-in to protest and spark talks about the school not taking a freshman class for 2019. 

While the subject matter is fascinating in its own right, this documentary was hard to get through. It meandered aimlessly and it became difficult to follow the thread of the story. Interview subjects were positioned in awkward places and some had projected video footage on their faces which seemed unnecessary. It distracted from the important things they had to say. If the film was trying to be quirky, it definitely failed in that regard. With that said, there were some redeeming moments in the documentary. The footage of the sit-in, student talks, meetings and an interview with alum Ken Burns were definite highlights.

The Unmaking of a College is available from Zeitgeist Films on DVD, Blu-Ray and digital VOD.

SXSW: We Feed People

“Food is an agent of change.”

José Andrés

World renowned chef José Andrés’s humanitarian efforts are the subject a new documentary by director Ron Howard. We Feed People chronicles Andrés and his team at the World Central Kitchen as they provide much needed food to communities suffering from aftermath of natural catastrophes. 

Andrés is a remarkable chef in his own right with 30 restaurants in the US, several cookbooks, his own cooking show and bragging rights for introducing Spanish tapas to the American dining scene. But his work as a humanitarian has elevated him to veritable hero status. The story begins with the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Andrés heard of the disaster and traveled there to help provide food to Haitians in need. He realized that not only was food necessary for disaster relief, these people needed real meals, not just shelf-stable rations. Andrés realized that meals that could be made on site, were easily transportable and were part of the already established local cuisine would bring sustenance and comfort to the people. The documentary captures the work of the World Central Kitchen in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Marica, Guatemala after a volcanic eruption, the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian, Arizona during COVID and more.

If We Feed People is the official application for Andrés’s future Nobel Peace Prize it’s a good one at that. Howard’s documentary clearly demonstrated that Andrés is one of the great humanitarians of our time. However it does not glamorize Andrés. We witness the stress, the financial burden and the many challenges that come with the important work Andrés has done. This film will move audiences to tears and hopefully inspire some to take on their own philanthropic cause.

We Feed People is awe-inspiring and simply brilliant.

“I’m good in seeing opportunity when others see mayhem.”

José Andrés

We Feed People had its world premiere at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival. It’s distributed by National Geographic Films.

SXSW: The Unknown Country

“Everybody has a different story.”

Written and directed by Morrisa Maltz, The Unknown Country stars Lily Gladstone as Tana, a young native woman who, upon learning of her grandmother’s death, sets out in her car to travel from Minnesota to Texas. She’s been estranged from her Oglala Lakota family and this journey is a way to reconnect with her roots and herself. Set against the backdrop of the 2016 election, Tana navigates vast open space of the midwest and southwest. Along the way she reconnects with her community, interacts with strangers, attends a friends wedding, develops a romantic connection and even has a couple of scares. 

There is a poetic beauty to this film. The cinematography is absolutely stunning with some fantastic shots of the open highway, wintry landscapes and the Gladstone traversing the natural space of her final destination. The Unknown  Country takes a hybrid approach melding elements of a feature film and a documentary. Tana’s story is fictional but the events happening around her are real. Interspersed throughout the film are documentary vignettes that tell the story of real people Tana meets during her travels. 

Made over three years, the project began with a concept of a beginning and ending and everything in the middle came to be organically. In Morrisa Maltz’s director’s statement she writes:

“We feel very proud that the film shows people and aspects of humanity in the American Midwest that are often overlooked. In such a continuously divided America, we did our best to create a film that shows a patchwork of people and places that can bring us together as humans, rather than to further divide us.”

Unknown Country had its world premiere at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival.

SXSW: Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story

Directed by Frank Marshall and Ryan Suffern, Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story is a joyous celebration of the famed music festival and its home base. Started in 1970 by George Wein, who also founded the Newport Jazz Festival, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival has celebrated music of all types, exposing its attendees to a rich and diverse array of performers. New Orleans has always been a cultural center for music and art and the festival pays homage to that. The documentary tells the history of the festival and shares performances from the 50th anniversary in 2019. There is also archival footage of festivals past and interviews with notable artists. Performers include Earth, Wind and Fire, Al Green, Irma Thomas, Ellis Marsalis and family, and more. I could have done without the performances by Katy Perry, Pitbull and other more popular entertainers as I felt that was an attempt to appeal to a wider audience. I wanted to see more of the indie artists and legacy performers instead.

This is not a historical biography and there is just a smattering of background and context offered. Instead, the documentary takes the viewer into the world of the festival as though they were stopping at the different stages and tents to take in the various offerings. There is also a lot of appreciation for New Orleans , its history, its music and its people.

Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story had its world premiere at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival. It’s distributed by Sony Picture Classics.

SXSW: Diamond Hands: The Legend of WallStreetBets

During the pandemic, many of us took an interest in the stock market out of sheer boredom and a desire to turn stretch our stimulus checks. Then in 2021, Reddit users who followed r/WallStreetBets took it a step further by buying GameStop (GME) and AMC stock changing the valuation of both companies and throwing the market for a loop. Directed by Drea Cooper and Zackary Canepari, Diamond Hands (a term for those who hold onto a stock for longer than normal to let it grow) follows the story of Reddit users who overtook the market and the ripple effects it had in the financial world. The film is frenetic and difficult to follow unless you’re well versed in stock market lingo and spend a lot of time consuming short video content. Some of the subjects are a bit annoying but I’m glad they balanced out the tech bros with two women investors. Unless your super interested in the topic, this documentary is a pass.

Diamond Hands: The Legend of WallStreetBets had its world premiere at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival

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