“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.”
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.
“These people have let you into their lives… to violate that trust is criminal.”
Jim Marshall (1936-2010)
In Jim Marshall’s illustrious career as the photographer to the stars, he captured some of the most enduring images of Rock-n-Roll legends. He elevated artists with quality photographs, capturing their images with a level of intimacy that required trust and an attention to detail that signaled respect. And that’s what these artists had with Jim Marshall, a mutual admiration. The musicians offered him their vulnerability and he in return showcased them as the rock stars they were.
In director Alfred George Bailey’s new documentary, Show Me the Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall, we learn about the man behind the camera. From his early days making a photography scrapbook, to his legendary career as a celebrity photographer, this film charts the ups and downs of this talented yet difficult man’s life. It includes footage of Marshall reminiscing about his career as well as interviews with the people who knew him best including his former assistant Amelia Davis, fellow photographers, friends, musicians and a variety of experts. Notable talking heads include actor Michael Douglas (Marshall was an on-set photographer for the show The Streets of San Francisco) and Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills and Nash.
Who did Jim Marshall photograph exactly? Everybody. In the documentary we learn about his work with some of the following artists:
The Grateful Dead
Crosby, Stills and Nash
The Rolling Stones
“Jim had an eye for the moment.”
The biggest takeaway from this film is not the legends Marshall collaborated with, although that is pretty interest too, but the analysis of what it took for him to do his job and to do it well. We learn about how a photographer relates to his subject. Marshall was an active and passive participant. He blended in seamlessly with the scene yet was not afraid to plant himself into the personal space of his subjects.
“He died like a fucking rock star.”
Jim Marshall was quite a character himself. His love of guns and his drug use got him into trouble. And his temperamental personality often ostracized those near and dear to him. There is a dark side to every great artist and Marshall was no exception. Yet his body of work speaks for itself.
Show Me the Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall is a compelling portrait of a difficult man with great talent who made an impact on the careers of the 20th century rock stars we know and love.
Show Me the Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall screened at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival as part of their 24 Beats Per Second series.
Adventurous and determined, Janet Guthrie is a trailblazer in the auto racing world. As the first woman to race the Indy 500, she faced an uphill battle to break the gender barrier in the late 1970s. Her career was plagued with setbacks; from mechanical failures, to lack of sponsorship that kept her out of races, to injuries and the biggest of all was the engrained belief that women could not physically be race car drivers.
Guthrie is a fearless woman. At a very young age, she fell in love with flying and didn’t hesitate to jump out of a plane for her first skydive. But realizing that female pilots were banned from both the airline industry and the military, she decided to become an aeronautical engineer instead. This led to her discovery of sports cars, a fascination with their design and her infatuation with the sport. Developing her skills as a driver, Guthrie loved speed and racing took over her life. But was auto racing ready for a woman driver?
“What is this nonsense that women can’t do it?”
Janet Guthrie on women race car drivers
Director Jenna Ricker’s Qualified follows the career of Janet Guthrie and all its ups and downs. And there were a lot of downs. The documentary consists of mostly archival footage of Guthrie’s races and television interviews. Guthrie herself and the various drivers and mechanics speak at length about her qualifying attempts, her races and all the struggles she endured in her career. I found Guthrie’s story both frustrating and awe-inspiring. I was angry at society for holding her back whether it was a sponsor not wanting to risk being associated with a woman driver or other people in the industry believing the sport was too dangerous for women. One pivotal moment show the dilemma of whether to call out “gentleman start your engines” when both Guthrie and the mechanic starting her engine were women.
As a woman who has experienced many career setbacks, I was really motivated by Guthrie’s tenacity. She explored every option, fought for every qualifier and race and only gave up when no options were left for her. If it hadn’t been for her tenacity, she might not have opened the doors necessary to pursue her dream. That’s a powerful message for any woman of any age.
Qualified takes its viewers on an emotional journey. I’m so grateful for Ricker’s film and the opportunity to learn about Guthrie’s story. I’ll have to admit, I choked up a few times. I can’t emphasize how important it is for a woman to have a strong female role model, even if she’s in a completely different field from your own. It can be life changing.
Qualified had its world premiere at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival as part of their Documentary Spotlight series.
“How am I ever going to find peace being comfortable in my own skin?”
Matt “Kroc” Kroczaleski was caught between two worlds. He always knew he wanted to be a woman and he wanted to be strong. But he didn’t know how he could reconcile those two things being biologically born a man. Over the years Matt found success as a Marine and then as a champion bodybuilder and powerlifter where he won competitions and graced the cover of bodybuilding magazines. He became a legend in that world, idolized for his ability to develop huge muscles and to lift some really heavy weight. He had his fair share of struggles overcoming a difficult childhood, then surviving testicular cancer, depression and a divorce. Now a single father of three sons, he made sure they would grow up with an attentive and involved father. But something was missing for Matt. He could no longer fight against his true authentic self.
“I felt like the person I was was completely constructed. There was a whole bunch that was missing. I didn’t know if there was anything about me that was authentic.”
Michael Del Monte’s documentary Transformer, follows 43-year old Matt as he transitions to become Janae Marie. It’s an intimate portrait of a transgender individual grappling with how to function in society, relationships and career. Janae struggles the stability of being a man and instability of being a transgendered woman. And because Janae spent so many years as a visibly muscular and masculine man, she must deal with how to present her femininity but still train as a body builder. Having the majority of her hair, Janae must wear wigs and depend on make-up and clothes to present as feminine as possible even when a deep voice, wide jaw and wide muscular build fight against that.
What stands out about Janae’s story is the dichotomy between femininity and muscularity. She is a woman who founds success in the bodybuilding world as a man and its a world that she can’t seem to leave behind. In the documentary, we see Janae switch back to male many times until she finally decides to stay as Janae forever and moves forward with facial surgery that will help her connect with that feminine self that seems just out of her grasp.
“If all else fails your Matt Kroc.”
The film follows Janae through her transition, how she currently stands in the bodybuilding world and her relationships with her father (who refuses to accept), her mother (who is starting to accept) and her sons (who are completely supportive).
Transformer is an important LGBTQ documentary and its most significant message is for transgender individuals life is a constant struggle. However, as an audience we don’t really learn too much about the transgender community or the bodybuilding world and how it rejects transgender athletes. Its focus is squarely on Janae’s story. I would love to see another documentary that shines a spotlight on the gender bias in the bodybuilding world and how female and transgender athletes are treated.
Transformer is in select theaters today and is available to purchase on iTunes, Amazon prime, YouTube, Vimeo and other digital platforms. You can find more information on the official website.
Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World of Ben Ferencz
dir. Barry Avrich
99-year-old Ben Ferencz is the last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor. At the tender age of 27 and at the very beginning of his career as a lawyer, Ferencz went head-to head with some of the most notorious Nazi criminals of WWII. Born in Romania to Hungarian Jews, Ferencz and his family fled Transylvania for asylum in the United States. Raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, teachers quickly took noticed of the gifted young Ferencz. He went on to study in the City College of New York and Harvard Law School and during WWII where he served abroad in an anti-aircraft artillery unit before he was transferred to Gen. Patton’s Third Army where he investigated war crimes and visited concentration camps to collect evidence. Horrified by what he saw, he made it his lifelong mission to give back to humanity by prosecuting international crimes.
Director Barry Avrich’s newest documentary Prosecuting Evil, covers the whole scope of Ferencz’s life and career through interviews with colleagues, Ferencz’s son and Ferencz himself. It also includes archival footage from the Nuremberg trials and disturbing images from the Holocaust. Ferencz has been a tireless champion for humankind and even at the age of 98, when this doc was filmed, there were no signs of stopping. Ferencz has an important message from the past to deliver to the future. This can and is happening again. We must fight for humanity.
Prosecuting Evil is a beautiful and poignant documentary about one of the most important living figures from WWII. My heart swelled with emotion and I left the theater very moved. Ferencz is fierce and fearless. He’s a sweet man but not someone you want to mess with. If you have any interest in the history of WWII or humanitarian efforts of if you’ve heard of Ferencz and want to learn more about him, this documentary is essential viewing.
I attended a press and industry screening of Prosecuting Evil at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.