Director Dawn Porter (John Lewis: Good Trouble) delivers again with another political documentary wrought with emotion. Inspired by the best-selling book, The Way I See It tells the story of Pete Souza, former photographer for the Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama administrations.
On that fateful day in January 2017 when Donald Trump was sworn in as president and Obama left the White House, Souza sensed that the country had lost something substantial. Having spent four years photographing Obama in moments both historic and intimate, Souza thought he was ready to retire. But he just couldn’t keep quiet as he saw the rapidly changing political climate. He started an Instagram account to share some of his photos and it quickly turned into his form of resistance.
In an age when we are exposed to a constant stream of video content, we forget how powerful a still photograph can be. Souza’s photographs capture a mood, an emotion and offer insight and context. Fleeting moments frozen in time. With his Instagram, Souza delivers biting political commentary with posts that are perfectly timed to respond to whatever is happening in the news. He uses the past throw shade at the present.
The Way I See It may be the most important documentary you’ll see this year. It is heartbreaking and emotional in its nostalgia of an era that is quickly slipping away from our collective memory. Porter offers us not only a biography of a photographer but also of his most captivating subject: Barack Obama. While there is also attention paid to Souza’s work in the Reagan administration, this film is more pointedly political and will appeal more to viewers with liberal points of view rather than conservative ones. Souza’s story will awaken your empathy, no matter how dormant, and will empower you to get out and VOTE.
As someone who devours Spanish-language feature films and documentaries, I was thrilled to learn of streaming service OVID’s new collaboration with PRAGDA, a production and distribution company dedicated to promoting films from Latin America and Spain. This month OVID made seven of Chilean director Patricio Guzman’s documentaries available on their service, timed for the release of his newest film The Cordillera of Dreams/La Cordillera de los sueños.
Over the past 40+ years, Patricio Guzman has been chronicling the natural and sociological history of Chile. Guzman’s home country is one of the most fascinating places in the entire world. It’s the longest and narrowest of countries with 2,700 miles/4,300 kilometers of coast line to the west, mountains that border the east, deserts to the north and a southern tip that is mere miles away from the Antarctic peninsula. The Atacama desert is one of the driest places on earth and because of the clear skies and high altitude, it’s one of the best places for astronomers to observe space and is home to several large scale telescopes. Chile’s history is fraught with political turmoil from the brief presidency of democratic socialist Salvador Allende whose government was overturned by a military coup d’etat in 1973. This was followed by the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet who was eventually charged with human rights violations and embezzlement.
Guzman offers poignant and emotionally resonant portrayals of Chile. Let’s take a look at the seven Guzman documentaries available to watch on OVID.
Guzman’s three part epic depicts the tumultuous days leading to the end of Salvador Allende’s presidency and the beginning of Pinochet’s regime. Guzman and five cameramen were on the ground recording the events as they unfolded. One cameraman even died in action and filmed the last moments of his life as he was by the military in a coup. The documentaries also capture the struggle of the working class who are fighting for their rights as the bourgeoisie rise in power.
The three films include The Battle of Chile: The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie/La Batalla de Chile: La insurrección de la burguesía (1975), The Battle of Chile: The Coup d’état/La Batalla de Chile: El golpe de estado (1977) and The Battle of Chile: Popular Power/La Batalla de Chile: El poder popular (1979).
If you’re uninformed about the tyrant that was Augusto Pinochet, watching The Pinochet Case (2001) is a great place to start. Guzman’s documentary takes a look at the 1998 arrest of the dictator while on vacation in London. Pinochet came into power in 1974 and ruled Chile as a dictator until 1990. Over the years, countless political opponents disappeared. Those who weren’t able to flee Chile for refuge in other countries were imprisoned and tortured. Many were murdered and buried in desert in unmarked graves. Guzman interviews over a dozen of victims who lost family members and nearly lost their own lives during Pinochet’s regime. Guzman also offers archival footage of Pinochet in London as he was charged and tried for human rights violations.
In Salvador Allende (2004), Guzman chronicles the presidency of Allende from his election campaign to his seemingly impossible win, to his short lived term that ended with a military coup d’etat and his eventual suicide in 1973. Guzman interviews family members, friends and colleagues of Allende, a CIA operative, as well as one of the last people to see Allende alive. Guzman always offers some hard-hitting scenes that really encourage audiences to appreciate the gravitas of the story. In this film, Guzman tries to find someone who witness the bombing of Allende’s home and gets a tour of the exact spot where Allende killed himself.
In Guzman’s documentary Nostalgia for the Light (2010), audiences learn about the Atacama Desert, one of the driest places on earth which is home to important telescopes that capture images of space and is also where many victims of Pinochet’s regime are secretly buried. Because it is such a dry place, the human remains found in the desert date back from as recently as the 1970s to as far back as the 1800s and even further back to pre-1400s. Nostalgia for the Light is a quiet and somber documentary about how this unique landscape holds dark secrets of the past and helps us explore a world beyond our own.
In The Pearl Button (2014), Guzman man moves away from the desert to Chile’s coast and waterways. The title is a reference to Jemmy Button, the native of the Yaghan tribe who was brought to England, civilized and brought back. He was paid for with pearl buttons. Upon his return to his native land, he stripped away his newfound British identity but was never able to assimilate back into his tribe and lived the rest of his life in exile. It’s also a reference to the button found fused on a metal rod used to sink a political prisoner’s body to the bottom of the ocean. The most fascinating part of the documentary is Guzman’s interviews with some of the last remaining indigenous people of Patagonia and we hear words spoken in the Kawesqar language.
OVID streams a variety of independent and foreign films. I’m new to the service and am already loving how much they have to offer. Visit OVID.tv for more information.
“He was that rarest of men. One who simply did what he believed was right. Nothing more, nothing less.” – Charlie Mechem
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 space mission and the landing of the Apollo Lunar Module Eagle on the moon. Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins set out on a dangerous mission and their accomplishment remains unparalleled to this day. Director David Fairhead’s new documentary simply titled Armstrong focuses on Commander Neil Armstrong. Through archival footage and interviews with the family members and peers who knew him best, the film takes us on a journey through the life of an extraordinary yet reserved man. Actor Harrison Ford narrates the film using Armstrong’s own words in the absence of the man himself who passed away in 2012.
As a young boy fascinated with airplanes, Armstrong sought out a pilot license before he even wanted to drive a car. Soaring above the earth was his natural state of being and his early training as a pilot led to his career as a fighter pilot in the Navy. A near death experience during the Korean War changed his life forever and set the course for his future career as an astronaut. The documentary explores his early days as a pilot, his education and transition into NASA, his home life, the tragic loss of his two year old daughter Karen, his work on Project Mercury, Project Gemini and Apollo 11 and most notably Armstrong’s life and career after that epic mission. Helping paint a portrait of this legendary man are his sons Mark and Rick Armstrong, his first wife Janet Armstrong, his sister June, plus various friends and peers as well as astronauts Joe Engle, David Scott, Frank Borman and Mike Collins, all legends in and of themselves.
The biggest takeaway from the documentary is the lost culture of mid-20th Century Cold War America. Throughout the film, Armstrong is presented as this man who believed in working hard, keeping your nose clean, not complaining and moving on from great tragedies. It was also an innovative time when the field of aeronautics and space exploration was new and rapidly changing. There was this intrinsic desire to accomplish big things for the advancement of mankind. It was a challenging era but also a ground-breaking one. Things have shifted so much and we’ve lost that desire to work hard, keep our emotions in check and to achieve goals for something bigger than ourselves.
Armstrong is an intimate portrait of an extraordinary individual and required viewing for anyone who appreciated Damien Chazelle’s biopic First Manbut craved more. (You can read my review of that film here.) The greatest value this documentary has to offer is the abundance of pristine archival footage, including home video, news clips, footage from NASA, some of which has never before been seen by the public. It plays with format presenting much of this footage in the center of the screen rather than stretching it out to fit the widescreen. A biographical documentary or even a biopic that has the blessing of the subject’s family can be a double-edged sword in terms of output. There’s a benefit of having so much access to people close to the subject but it will come with an inherent bias that will filter the story. Viewers can take the documentary with a grain of salt while still appreciating the fresh new material it has to offer. I for one appreciate what biographic documentaries can do that biopics cannot; rely on the real footage and real stories to tell the story that needs to be told.
Armstrong released in theaters and on VOD from Gravitas Ventures on Friday July 12th.
Moe Berg was an extraordinary human being. The son of immigrant Jewish parents, he developed prowess as a baseball player, studied at Princeton, received his law degree at Columbia, traveled the world, spoke over 10 languages, was the star of the trivia show Information Please and just happened to be a spy for the U.S. government during WWII.
Aviva Kempner’s documentary The Spy Behind Home Plate paints a portrait of the human phenomenon that was Moe Berg. A catcher with a 15 year career in the Major Leagues, Berg went against his father’s wishes to pursue his baseball dreams. From those early days he already showed potential for a future career as a spy. He used Latin and Sanskrit to create secret codes for his fellow baseball players so they could communicate without informing the other team. Berg was part of a diplomatic mission to Japan, led by Babe Ruth, to train Japanese players and share the mutual love of the sport in an effort bridge the growing divide. Berg, the quintessential polyglot, spoke fluent Japanese and hung around in Japan then traveled to Asia and already started gathering intelligence photographing and filming in areas that were forbidden by the local government. During WWII, he was recruited for the OSS Operational Group. He had proven his chops with his fluency in a variety of languages, including German.
A man of the world, Moe Berg was the epitome of brain and brawn. We learn about his extraordinary life through interviews with family members, experts, historians, filmmakers, athletes, sports columnists and figures as well as archival footage and photographs. This documentary is multi-faceted, much like the man himself. It’s a satisfying combination of baseball and WWII history but works on its own as a biographical documentary about a fascinating subject. The film gets a bit muddled with all of the details during Berg’s time in the OSS but those who are well-versed in military history will find much to enjoy here. Film buffs will appreciate the variety of clips from classic war movies included in the documentary.
The Spy Behind Home Plate is presented by The Ciesla Foundation. It released in theaters Friday and there are screenings nationwide through July and August. Visit the official website for information on screenings.
On April 27th, 1953 President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed Executive Order #10450. This order enabled his administration to orchestrate a witch hunt seeking out anyone in the federal government who might be homosexual. These employees were either encouraged to resign or outright fired. They were also denied employment in other branches and sectors of the government. Homosexuals were deemed a “security risk” and denied clearance. They were often threatened with exposure and coerced to name names much like the Communist witch hunt of the McCarthy era. This persecution, known as the “lavender scare”, continued for over four decades until the Clinton administration ended the ban. In the years in between, tens of thousands of employees lost their jobs. Careers ended and lives were forever changed. However in the midst of the Cold War paranoia of the lavender scare, the seed was planted for the gay rights movement. What originally was intended as a moral crackdown helped spur a rebellion against oppression.
Director Josh Howard’s new documentary The Lavender Scare examines a dark time in the history of our government and our culture. The film was inspired by David K. Johnson’s non-fiction book by the same name. Talking heads include Johnson himself, other historians, former government employees who were victims of the bans, their family members and even their persecutors. Notable figures include Joan Cassidy, who served as a captain in the Navy Reserve, and Frank Kameny, an astronomer turned activist. Kameny is by far the most interesting subject in the film. Known as the grandfather of the gay rights movement, he was the first person to fight back against the ban and organized a protest outside the White House in 1965.
“It’s a story that’s both tragic and triumphant. It tells of the heartbreak of those who lost their jobs and their careers – and even their lives – as a result of the government’s brutal tactics. But it is uplifting as well. It shows how the policy of discrimination stirred a sense of outrage and activism among gay men and lesbians and helped ignite what was to become the gay rights movement.”
Director Josh Howard
Howard’s documentary is an interesting mix of first and second hand accounts, FBI files and other written documents as well as plenty of context about the era of the lavender scare. It’s narrated by Glenn Close and features the voices of Cynthia Nixon, Zachary Quinto, T.R. Knight and David Hyde Pierce.
I do wish there was a bit more information about the post WWII when the LGBT community moved to Washington D.C. in search of government work. There were some other bits of history I wanted to know more about (Kinsey Report findings, the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, etc.) but I felt like the documentary did a surface level look and not a deep dive. There was perhaps too much going on and it lost focus. However, this film serves as an important primer on a lesser known aspect of our government’s history. The Lavender Scare doesn’t leave us in despair but fills us with hope that this dark history is behind us and we can learn from it for a better future.
The Lavender Scare released in NY and Los Angeles this month in time for the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Visit the official website to check out dates for future screenings. It will have it’s nationwide PBS premiere on June 18th.