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A Towering Task: The Story of the Peace Corps

“Helping other nations build the strength to meet their own problems, to satisfy their own aspirations, to surmount their own dangers. The problems in achieving this goal are towering and unprecedented. The response must be towering and unprecedented.”

President John F. Kennedy

The Ugly American by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick, published in 1958, demonstrated how Americans working abroad failed to integrate with local communities allowing Russians, who did in fact integrate, to spread Communism. President John F. Kennedy read the book and was spurred to action. His goal was to have Americans volunteer to combat hunger, fight for civil rights and promote world peace by working within the communities they were helping. On September 22nd, 1961, Congress voted to make the Peace Corps a permanent agency.

“To help young Americans understand the rest of the world is vital to American leadership. How can you lead a world you don’t understand?”

Photo courtesy of First Run Features

Directed by Alana DeJoseph and narrated by Annette Bening, A Towering Task: The Story of the Peace Corps is a soup to nuts exploration of the history of this government sponsored volunteer program from 1961 to present day. Viewers learn how the agency has evolved over several presidential administrations with notable high and low points. The documentary features extensive interviews with Peace Corps staff, former volunteers and experts. Notable talking heads include former president Jimmy Carter, Maria Shriver, U.S. representative Joe Kennedy III and former Peace Corps director Carrie Hessler-Radelet. There is plenty of archival footage and photographs of those early days of the Peace Corps. The phrase “A Towering Task” is reference to a document that Sargent Shriver, who was assigned by JFK to put his idea into action, and his task force wrote laying out the plans for the Peace Corps.

Perhaps the documentary’s most significant impact will have is through the voice of the volunteers. The story of Peace Corps volunteers in the Dominican Republic today (helping develop an ecotourism business) and during the revolution in the 1960s is very inspiring. My mother’s family lived through that revolution and received help from Peace Corps volunteers. I was particularly moved by one Dominican woman’s account of how a volunteer brought her rice and beans when she would have otherwise starved.

At first I felt the documentary might whitewash the history of the Peace Corps. However, it does explore some of the issues that have plagued the agency including its reputation as a haven for draft dodgers as well as the inaction on the part of higher ups to address sexual assault. It also discusses whistleblower Kate Puzey, a volunteer murdered in Benin. The film addresses the recent Ebola outbreak in Africa but was made before the current Coronavirus pandemic in which the Peace Corps, for the first time in its history, pulled all of its volunteers from service. 

A Towering Task: The Story of the Peace Corps is a comprehensive look at the history of an agency born out of both patriotism and altruism in an effort to good for mankind.

A Towering Task will have a virtual theatrical release on May 22nd. Visit the First Run Features website for more information.


Review by Ale Turdó

RATING: 9/10

The eternal underdog.

Director Bert Marcus steps inside the ring to run a deep and critical status check on the boxing world. Champs (2014) might initially be perceived as your average run-of-the-mill boxing doc, but scene after scene and interview after interview it reveals to be so much more.

Pivoting between the legendary sporting careers of heavyweight powerhouses Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Bernard Hopkins, Champs keeps its distance from the glossy fables of success we usually stumble upon within the genre. Instead, it tries to make sense of a business in desperate need of deconstructing and self re-evaluation.

Boxing as a sport is rooted deeply in the American culture, it may have become the ultimate representation of the American dream: young people raised in poverty, coming from humble neighborhoods and having no role models. Surrounded by bullies, pimps, drugs and gangs. Those who might strike gold inside the ring lose it just as fast at the hands of their managers, layers and ultimately their own incapability of grasping the harsh side of the business. Which raises the question: why is this system still running?

An A-list of boxers, trainers, promoters, journalists, biographers, movie directors and actors share their thoughts on this unforgiving sport, where everybody learns their lesson the hard way and rising up can be just as easy as falling down.

The documentary builds its narrative around the different profiles of Tyson, Holyfield and Hopkins both inside and outside the ring: Tyson as the uncontrollable force of nature that spins out of control, Holyfield as the methodic sportsman and Hopkins as the underdog that turned his life around. The singularities of the three character’s careers and their charismatic personalities blend with Marcus’s masterplan of shining a light over the most controversial issues of the boxing world.

As usual in Marcus’s body of work, the archive material plays a key role. Footage from fights, training and excerpts of all the media frenzy surrounding a boxer’s everyday life paints a chaotic and accurate picture rarely seen in a sports documentary.

One of the most interesting things in Champs is the way it keeps focus on the social aspect embedded in the boxing culture. It emphasizes the fatherly role of trainers, the broken homes as the textbook origin point and the false perception of winning as the only way to escape from poverty and violence. The inefficiency of the incarceration system in the United States -which no longer has the capability or the programs to re-educate individuals and simply turns them into something worse- is also portrayed as a problem that hits society but has also a severe impact in the boxing circuit.

When you win, everybody wins, but when you lose, you lose alone. That seems to be the toughest lesson. But Tyson, Holyfield and Hopkins testimonies work as a silver lining, sharing the hopeful idea that the love for the game -in its purest form- which is ingrained in the fabric of the country, may one day elevate the sport and all of those involved, in order to make it fair and safe for everyone. I guess a boxer can only hope, right?

Foto Ale TN_2018 Ale Turdó —Based in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Alejandro is a film critic and movie enthusiast that has been writing about movies for the past 7 years, covering everything from blockbusters to indie gems and all in between. He majored in Sound Design and Cinematography in college and is a full time digital content producer. He’s the kind of guy that thinks that even the worst movie can have something interesting to write about. Additionally, he writes for Escribiendo Cine and A Sala Llena. Twitter: @aleturdo and IG: @hoysalecine

The Longest War

The War in Afghanistan is the longest war in American history. While the war itself began in 2001, a direct response to the September 11th attacks, the conflict between the two nations had been building up for many years. The U.S. government had a vested interest in a nation that saw its golden age slip away in the 1970s with the Islamic Revolution and the Soviet occupation. The U.S. stepped in to help the Afghans defeat the Soviets. Doing so proved to be a big mistake. This left Afghanistan with a wealth of armament and money and left to their own devices the country resulting in chaos and an ensuing civil war. Internal strife in the nation led to the creation of the Taliban, led by Osama Bin Laden, which grew in power over the years and ultimately culminated in a war that is still going on today. 

“History teaches that aggression unopposed becomes a contagious disease.”

President Jimmy Carter
Photo Credit: SHOWTIME

Directed by Greg Barker, The Longest War is a detailed exploration of the U.S. government involvement with Afghanistan from 1979 to the present day. Interview subjects include former CIA officials, war correspondents, Afghanistan experts and nationals. Barker’s documentary is comprehensive and informative and offers some hard-hitting revelations. This film leaves no stone unturned in the quest educate its viewers about Afghanistan and U.S. relations. 

The Longest War recently premiered on SHOWTIME. It is currently available to stream or to watch on the channel. Visit the official website for more information.

What We Started

Review by Ale Turdó

RATING: 8/10

Pushing up the tempo.

Writing and directing duo Bert Marcus and Cyrus Saidi came up with a solid (re)telling of Electronic Dance Music’s past, present and future in their feature documentary What We Started (2017). Household names such as Tiësto, Paul Oakenfold, Steve Angello and David Guetta -among several other DJs, producers and promoters- share their thoughts and first hand testimonies of 30+ years of EDM.

But just like any story that makes its way into the screen, What We Started develops its narrative focusing on two pivotal and opposing characters: Veteran DJ and producer legend Carl Cox, and the upcoming dutch sensation Martin Garrix. Fifty-five year old Cox is about to wrap his 15 year tenure as the main DJ in Ibiza’s hottest club called Space, while eighteen year old Garrix tries to pull it together as he prepares to open Ultra Festival in Miami, being the youngest DJ to do so ever in the history of the festival.

The smart thing about What We Started, is the way it blends Cox and Garrix career paths with a detailed reconstruction of EDM’s close-to-official History: from New York’s disco days to the house scene in Chicago, Detroit’s techno and Manchester’s acid house scene, revisiting all the fundamental stops from dark crowded basements to neon crowded arenas. 

The narration tries to make its most honest effort not to avoid sensitive issues inherently attached to the nightclubbing culture – mainly drugs and alcohol- and the way illegal activities seem to latch on this scenario.

Documentary-wise, the producers take an enormous advantage out of the fact that EDM is still a “young” musical and cultural phenomenon, meaning they can get their hands on lots and lots of footage -mostly from the digital era- to help paint the most accurate picture of this movement thru the decades, from close to illegality to standard industry professionalism. The exact same way it happens with pretty much every music genre.

Contrary to other genres, like Rock-n-Roll or Pop for example, there seems to be no room in EDM’s environment for egocentric feuds or vanity beefs. What We Started tries to portrait this singularity as utopic as possible. It is only accurate to say that it succeeds most of the time, except when small arguments arise, dividing old school-vinyl-scratching DJs and young-USB-button-pushing upcomers. That’s pretty much as far as rivalry goes in this domains.

There is a lot of detail and effort put into pointing out the craftmanship of the DJ as a creative artist and not just a mere extension of its turntable, a character that started out in the darkest corner of the shadiest clubs and now has a prominent place on the main stages of the world. While the electronic movement continues to develop decade after decade, the documentary stresses the importance of considering the figure of the DJ as the equivalent of a lead singer or lead guitar player from the Pop/Rock Music universe.

But without a doubt the biggest achievement of What We Started ends up being its ability to tell a thorough and solid chronicle of EDM’s journey that entices both the fan and the non-initiated, coming from out of the mouths -and tracks- of the top players of a genre that keeps on writing its own history.

Foto Ale TN_2018

Ale TurdóBased in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Alejandro is a film critic and movie enthusiast that has been writing about movies for the past 7 years, covering everything from blockbusters to indie gems and all in between. He majored in Sound Design and Cinematography in college and is a full time digital content producer. He’s the kind of guy that thinks that even the worst movie can have something interesting to write about. Additionally, he writes for Escribiendo Cine and A Sala Llena. Twitter: @aleturdo and IG: @hoysalecine

SXSW: My Darling Vivian

Vivian Liberto Cash, Johnny Cash’s first wife and the mother of his four daughters, passed away on May 24th, 2005. This was a few months before Walk the Line (2005), the critically-acclaimed and award-winning Cash biopic starring Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon and Ginnifer Goodwin, was released. Vivian didn’t live to see the film nor did she want to. The script circulated and the way it portrayed Vivian was far from the truth. It created a myth about Vivian as a vindictive woman who tried to get in the way of Cash’s music career.

In reality, Vivian Liberto was a complex woman. A strong-minded woman who was fiercely private and devoted to her husband and her children. The daughter of Italian-American Catholics in San Antonio, Texas, Vivian first met Johnny Cash in 1951 when she was a teenager and he was an Air Force cadet. They had an instant connection and exchanged love letters when Cash served abroad. When he returned in 1954, they married. Cash’s career took off. They moved to California and into Johnny Carson’s old home. They had four children together: Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy and Tara. Vivian had a difficult time with Cash’s fame. It was intrusive and put Vivian on guard. Cash spent more and more time away from the family, started using drugs and started a relationship with singer June Carter that would eventually lead to Vivian and Johnny’s divorce. Vivian wasn’t the perfect mother but she did what she could to raise her four children. She re-married and wrote a book about her life. But her desire for privacy meant the world didn’t really know or understand Vivian. By the time her book published, it was too little too late. A new myth would eclipse the truth.

Filmmaker Matt Riddlehoover’s new documentary My Darling Vivian sets the record straight about the woman behind the legend. The film features extensive home footage and photos. Only Vivian’s four daughters Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy and Tara are interviewed. There are no other talking heads, no other family members, friends, pop culture experts, historians etc. This documentary keeps it in the family. It’s easy to watch this film and immediately get defensive of Vivian. You might reconsider your feelings on Walk the Line and how it portrayed her. Of course there is some bias but I was impressed how frank and open the four daughters were about their mother. They discussed both the good and the bad about their parents. My Darling Vivian is a well-rounded and fairly intimate film about a misunderstood woman.

My Darling Vivian was set to have its world premiere at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival. Visit the official website for more information.

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