Filmmaker Alice Gu’s new documentary The Donut King follows the dramatic rise and fall of Ted Ngoy, a Cambodian refugee who started a donut empire and the enduring legacy of one of America’s most beloved pastries.
Ngoy fled his native country in the mid-1970s during the Cambodian Civil War. He and his family made their way to California where they were taken in by a sponsor. It was there that Ngoy had his very first donut. It was love at first bite.
He immediately inquired about how to start his own donut shop and someone recommended that he get training at Winchell’s, a popular West Coast donut chain. He became a master donut maker and businessman, managing a Winchell’s and eventually opening his own shop. Ngoy was devoted to his business and made it a family affair. He kept overhead low and made shrewd business decisions. The smartest move he made was working with other Cambodian refugees by helping them finance their own donut shop. They would apprentice with him, learning the craft and in return “Uncle Ted” as he was affectionately called would co-own the shop. At one time Ngoy co-owned over 60 successful donut shops in the 1980s and became a millionaire. It was only a matter of time before the trappings of wealth lead to his downfall.
The Donut King is a wild ride. Ted Ngoy’s story is quite remarkable and the ups and downs will keep viewers glued to the screen. Gu’s documentary does a fantastic job building a portrait of this visionary, flaws and all, with extensive interviews with Ngoy himself, his wife, his two kids, other family members and colleagues. The Donut King is slick, alternating from talking head interviews, to short animations, archival footage and sexy shots of big fluffy donuts. If you watch this film and don’t immediately crave a donut, something is wrong with you. The biggest takeaway, however, is Ngoy’s journey as an immigrant forging a path for himself in America and helping others do the same.
The Donut King was to premiere at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival. It received a Special Jury Recognition for Achievement in Documentary Storytelling. Find out more information about the film at the official website.
Dogs bring us so much joy. They care not about our race, ethnicity, appearance, status, reputation or wealth (or lack thereof). They love us unconditionally in a way that other humans are incapable of. That’s why people from all walks of life love dogs. Some mistreat them but many of us fight for their rights. Dogs are a beloved member of our global family.
“A relationship with a dog is better than any relationship you’ll have with a human… They don’t know the bad side. They just know the good side.”
Directed by Matthew Sellah and produced by Rose Tucker, We Don’t Deserve Dogs is a series of vignettes about the impact dogs have on humans. Numerous countries are represented. Some of the most interesting stories include Ugandan kidnapping survivors who use dogs as a form of therapy for their PTSD, an older gentleman who is still haunted by the memory of abandoning his dog 20 years earlier, the Chilean street dog who goes by many names and depends on the kindness of strangers and the dog walker in Istanbul who walks over 30km a day taking care of the neighborhood dogs. The filmmakers interview a wide variety of subjects. Each story is unique in its own way. The cinematography is quite stunning. Low shots at the dogs’ level make for a very intimate point of view.
The film was shot over 13 months and in 11 countries including Chile, Uganda, Peru, Italy, Turkey, Pakistan, Finland, Romania, Vietnam, Nepal, and Scotland.
I had two major issues with the film. First of all, there was no lower third. The audience doesn’t learn the names of the subjects or where their from. I could pick up on some clues but otherwise I was confused about which countries are represented. This may be to strip the focus away from the humans and onto the dogs but I think a lower third could have helped. The second is a huge trigger for dog lovers. One vignette follows a Vietnamese couple who kill dogs and sell their meat. The dogs provide a form of income for them but I do think this segment was unnecessary and difficult to watch. Removing it would make for a better film overall.
We Don’t Deserve Dogs was set to have its world premiere at the SXSW film festival. You can find more information about the film over on the Urtext Films website.
26-year old PhD student Yingying Zhang went missing on June 9th, 2017. After graduating from Peking University, Yingying traveled from China to study Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois. Yingying was full of wonder and hope. She was in a loving relationship with her boyfriend Xiaolin and excited about this new phase in life. She documented those early days in the US in her journal. Mere weeks after she arrived, she made the fatal mistake of getting into a car with a stranger. She had missed the bus and was late for an appointment. A man claiming to be an off-duty cop offered her a ride. Yingying has never been heard from again.
Directed and produced by Jiayan “Jenny” Shi, Finding Yingying is a sensitive portrayal of a young woman with a bright future and a family struggling to come to terms with their loss. The documentary features extensive interviews and footage of Yingying’s boyfriend, parents, brother, aunt and friends as they search for answers and prepare for the criminal trial that would come two years later. Filmmaker Shi graduated from the same university as Yingying. Although they had never met, when Jiayan heard of Yingying’s disappearance she felt an immediate connection and a strong desire to help. About her filmmaking approach, Shi said:
“Finding Yingying was made in a vérité observational filmmaking style… I wanted to allow the audience to feel that they were experiencing the painful and challenging journey along with the family.”
Jiayan “Jenny” Shi
Shi humanizes her subject. As is the case with many true crime stories, violent acts and perpetrators are glorified to satisfy the audience’s hunger for salacious details. This is not the case with Finding Yingying. In fact, this documentary is the complete opposite of that. The majority of the film is focused solely on Yingying and her family. We learn that Yingying was inquisitive, thoughtful and kind. Her parents traveled to the US for the first time to help search for Yingying and held out hope that she was still alive. Shi becomes a living representative of Yingying through this film. She reads segments of Yingying’s diary, bringing her voice to the forefront. Shi said:
“my voice and presence are integrated into the film to show my deep personal connection to Yingying, and my deep desire to tell her and her family’s story beyond the headlines. I want to preserve her legacy.”
Jiayan “Jenny” Shi
The murderer, fellow PhD student Brend Christensen is given very little attention, as he should be. We learn as much as we need to about the investigation, how the FBI tracked him down with surveillance footage and how they employed his girlfriend to secretly record Christensen. The details of Yingying’s murder are kept to a minimum.
Finding Yingying turns the focus away from the murder and on to the victim, an inquisitive, thoughtful and kind young woman who brought joy to those around her. It’s a beautiful documentary that will make you think twice about how true crime films portray victims.
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.
I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, the heyday of the American mall. Indoor malls were everywhere. They reinvigorated the retail business and gave the community a place to shop, eat, socialize and even to exercise. With the advent of online shopping and the birth of new retail concepts, the indoor mall is rapidly losing its appeal. Countless videos on YouTube show tours of abandoned malls that only have a few businesses running, are on the verge of foreclosure or are just days before shutting down. It’s quite depressing to watch especially for those of us who remember these malls as bustling hubs of activity.
Bradford Thomasson and Brett Whitcomb’s new documentary Jasper Mall, chronicles one year in the life of a declining mall: Jasper Mall in Jasper, Alabama. What used to be a happening place swarming with teenagers is now a quiet space with only a handful of shops and eateries still open. What keeps the mall going is the dedication of the mall’s manager, whom the film follows closely throughout the year, the elderly visitors who walk the length of the mall for exercise, the Army recruitment center, and the mall’s one remaining anchor store. Despite all the manager’s attempts to keep the mall going, including hosting community events, a Santa Claus meet and greet and inviting a traveling carnival to use the mostly empty parking lot, the mall continues on its steady decline. It’s not a hopeful documentary but there is something inspiring about watching someone fight for something they care for even when our culture threatens to leave that behind.
Jasper Mall is a fascinating look at a dying enterprise: the American mall.
Jasper Mall had its world premiere at the 2020 Slamdance as part of their Documentary competition.