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TagBiographical Documentaries

SXSW: Soy Cubana

Director Jeremy Ungar and Ivaylo Getov’s new documentary Soy Cubana spotlights four talented women as they travel from Cuba to the US to perform. It also gives viewers offers a window into modern day Cuba. Vocal Vidas is a Cuban acapella quartet made up of Ana Josefina Hernández (Soprano), Maryoris Mena Faez (Contralto-Bass), Koset Muñoa Columbié (Mezzo-Soprano) and Annia del Toro Leyva (Contralto). Together their harmonies are magical. Through song they share various cultures and traditions and captivate audiences with their dulcet tones. In their native Cuba, the Vocal Vidas make money by selling CDs and through tips. They garnered much attention in 2016 when  short documentary hit the film festival circuit. In 2017, they were invited to perform and a full-length documentary was shot to chronicle their life in Cuba, their application for a Visa and their journey to Los Angeles  where they perform at Mambo’s Cafe, the Vibrato club, and for Grand Performances.

The film lightly touches on the problematic relationship between the US and Cuba. It’s interesting to hear the women gently criticize life in Cuba while also defending their homeland. Soy Cubana is well worth the watch if anything to be captivated by this quartet of resilient women. Be prepared to get up and dance. There is plenty of wonderful music to enjoy.

Soy Cubana hd its world premiere at the virtual 2021 SXSW Film Festival.

kid 90

“I documented everything and locked it away from 20 years. I’ve never looked back at it. And so I decided to unlock the vault.”

Soleil Moon Frye

Actress Soleil Moon Frye catapulted to fame when at the tender age of 7 she starred in the hit TV series Punky Brewster. She was among a group of child stars who worked through the ’80s and came of age in the ’90s. During her teenage years, Soleil grabbed a video camera and a journal and began documenting everything: partying with friends, road trips, intimate conversations, flirtations, her experience having major surgery when she was 15 years old, family gatherings etc. Her circle of friends included fellow actors including Jenny Lewis, David Arquette, Leonardo DiCaprio, Brian Austin Green, Mark-Paul Gosselar, Stephen Dorff, among others. Soleil chronicled all the ups and downs of this stage in her life. More than two decades later, she’s ready to show this archive of tapes, diary entries and voice mail recordings to the world.

Picking up the camera was a way of controlling.”

Soleil Moon Frye

Directed by Soleil Moon Frye, kid 90 is an intimate documentary with a lot of heart. It captures a time before social media when teens, even those who often found themselves in the public eye, had some modicum of privacy and the freedom to be their most authentic selves. Soleil Moon Frye is front and center and we get to know the person behind the iconic character of Punky Brewster. Throughout the documentary, Soleil interviews her peers including Stephen Dorff, Brian Austin Green, Balthazar Getty, David Arquette and others. The most poignant aspect of the film is Soleil’s memories of friends who left us far too soon. I was particularly moved by seeing images and hearing the voice of Jonathan Brandis, whose tragic death by suicide is one I’ve never really come to terms with.

Through the tapes we see Soleil as a rebellious teen. As a Punky Brewster fan myself, it was difficult to see this other side of Soleil Moon Frye but I’m so grateful I did. It made her a more of a multi-dimensional person in my mind rather than simply a figure from childhood. Soleil Moon Frye exudes warmth and kindness. She’s someone you’ll want to spend with. 

kid 90 is a must see, especially for those people, like myself, who came of age in the ’90s. I hope Soleil Moon Frye will consider turning her archive of memories into a book!

kid 90 premieres on March 12th on Hulu.

Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival: MLK/FBI

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.

AFI Fest: The Lost Astronaut

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.

Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival: Baby God

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.

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