Director Ben Asamoah’s new documentary Sakawa explores the underground world of Ghanian internet scammers. They gather in a room sharing one source of internet and electricity and using smartphones and computer equipment that they’ve salvaged. The scammers work individually on different projects but advise each other on how to improve their techniques to get the most money out of their victims. By creating fake online personas and focusing on profile types, mostly caucasians in the U.S. and the U.K., they build relationships with their targets and work towards the big pay day.
Viewers will feel conflicted. This is a community of people living in a third-world country. They have few options available to them so they find an alternate way to make money to support themselves and their families. But on the flip side, they’re scamming innocent people out of their hard-earned dollars. These aren’t multi-millionaires, these are middle or lower class people who are gullible enough to fall for these elaborately crafted schemes.
“We use what we have to get what we want.”
There are no in-depth interviews and we don’t learn their names. The film holds the viewer at arms-length which is necessary I believe to keep us in as neutral a space as possible. Some might find the film and its subject matter off-putting but I found it fascinating.
Beyond the internet scams, we also get a look at the religious/cultural practices and home life of Ghanians.
Sakawa is a compelling documentary that offers insight into the little-known world of internet scammers of Ghana, Africa.
Sakawa had its North American premiere at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival as part of their Visions series.
Ariel (Lucia Bedoya) is a Venezuelan woman going through an incredibly painful time in her life. Her day job as a dressmaker finds her surrounded by judgmental women in a stifling environment. At night she cares for her dying mother (Maria Elena Duque). The film opens with Ariel having her first sexual encounter, one that leaves her bleeding and in pain for days. With everything else that’s going on, why is her body betraying her?
What Ariel doesn’t know but something the audience learns with hints along the way is that she’s intersex. When Ariel was born, her mother arranged for her to have sexual reassignment surgery to become female. As the story progresses, Ariel is confused and bewildered. She doesn’t know why she’s physically attracted to the new woman at work, why sex with a man is so incredibly painful and why her mother refuses to let her see another doctor for a second opinion about her pain.
Director Patricia Ortega’s Being Impossible/Yo imposible is a hard pill to swallow. It’s a heavy-handed story that offers little to an audience that will be overwhelmed by the subject matter. The story is set up as a mystery with Ariel finding about her true gender at the end. While this might make sense on paper it doesn’t really work in the film.
I did identify with the character of Ariel because even though I don’t know what it’s like to be intersex, I could relate to the feeling of being betrayed by one’s own body and the repression that comes with being in an a religious environment. Interspersed throughout the movie were interviews with intersex subjects who described their own struggles on camera. I thought these were effective but would have been more so if Ariel’s discovery had happened earlier in the story. I loved the tender love story between Ariel and her female coworker. This was a little kernel of hope in otherwise grim movie.
If you’re interested in the subject matter, I would direct you to another South American film with an intersex protagonist XXY (2007) which I thought was a far better story overall.
Being Impossible had its North American premiere at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival as part of their Global series.
Cookbook author and chef Diana Kennedy is the leading expert on traditional Mexican cooking. For over 60 years, Kennedy has immersed herself in Mexican culture and food, learning and respecting the traditions of one of the most celebrated cuisines. This feisty and unapologetic British woman may be an outsider looking in but because she has lived in rural Mexico, in Zitácuaro, Michoacán, for most of her life and sticks to the tried and true approaches to different dishes and recipes, she’s become what one of her friends calls an “adoptive daughter of Mexico.”
Director Elizabeth Carroll, in her debut documentary Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy explores the life and work of this outspoken advocate for preserving Mexico’s culinary history. Nothing Fancy is a reference to one of Kennedy’s cookbooks but also speaks to Kennedy’s approach to cooking and to life. There are no variations, twists or updates. She sticks to the old ways. Kennedy is a fascinating subject. She’s scrappy, resourceful, and is a champion for organic gardening and sustainable living. She’s always on the road exploring different parts of her adopted country. Kennedy isn’t afraid to tell you what she thinks in her abrupt and frank manner.
In the film we mostly hear from Kennedy herself but Mexican chefs, including one of my favorites Pati Jinich, and other experts also chime in on Kennedy’s legacy. My favorite scene shows present day Kennedy making guacamole with spliced in archival footage from decades earlier of her making the exact same recipe. Kennedy is a free spirit who does not change and is true to what she believes in.
Perhaps the only flaw of the film, which the director hinted at during a screening of this documentary at SXSW, is that the relationships Kennedy has with people in the film isn’t explained. In one case, she is very close to another chef and there is a lovely scene where they have their portrait taken together. But we really don’t find out much about who she is and how they bonded.
Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy is a charming documentary that allows its subject’s vibrant personality shine through. It also serves as one way we can ensure Kennedy’s contributions to preserving Mexican food culture is appreciated for decades to come.
Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy had its world premiere at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival as part of their Documentary Feature Competition.
Cristina (Laura Tobón) and her boyfriend Simon (David Escallón) are two street artists living in Medellin, Colombia. They collaborate on their graffiti art, live in a commune with other artists and rescue a stray dog. Cristina is a free spirit and lacks any interest in University life spends most of her time wandering the streets, making art and hanging out with Simon. Her family life is tense and divided. She lives with her father (Christian Tappan) and his new bride and her mother (Margarita Restrepo) has fled Medellin in fear for her life. When a local gang spray paints the threatening message “snitches get stitches””/“los sapos mueren por la boca”, Cristina and Simon decide to paint over it with the image of the whale. Will this act of defiance put their lives at risk?
Days of the Whale/Los dias de la ballena was written, directed and produced by Colombian filmmaker Catalina Arroyave Restrepo. This is an auspicious start to what I hope is a long and fruitful career. Arroyave studied communication and film in Colombia, Argentina and Cuba and brings a new and fresh perspective to Latinoamérica cinema.
It’s important to step out of our own bubbles and explore the world around us. Days of the Whale offers viewers an insight into life in Medellin, Colombia through the perspectives of two young free-spirited artists. I love how Arroyave’s film drives home the symbolism of the whale. We see a whale trapped in a canal and as the film progresses the city kills the whale in stages. Cristina decides on a whale as the image to draw over the gang’s threatening message. Her reasoning is that they travel, take care of their young and its her mother’s favorite animal. The whale is symbolic of freedom, specifically creative freedom and being free from the fear that can stifle artistic expression. It can also symbolize being true to yourself and freedom to live your life, as Cristina and Simon do in spite of the oppression from local gang members.
Days of the Whale is a promising debut from a fresh new voice. It explores art as both expression and defiance and shines a spotlight on one of the lesser known urban communities of South America. It also features a fantastic soundtrack with a mix of Colombian hip hop and Cuban salsa.
Days of the Whale had its world premiere at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival as part of their Global series.
In 2004, Marv Heemeyer drove his bulldozer through Granby, Colorado destroying building after building. He carefully selected his targets. These were the townspeople whom he felt had been the cause of many injustices against his beloved muffler shop. Marv’s bulldozer was no ordinary machine. He’d modified it to function like a military tank and created an impenetrable seal armed with it cameras and semi-automatic rifles. He was on a suicide mission. Before that fateful day in June, Marv recorded his suicide note with incredible detail about his motivations behind. The rampage lasted for over 2 hours and no matter how many attempts by the local police force made to thwart his efforts the fact is that they couldn’t. A simple miscalculation was his undoing. Ultimately no one was killed in the incident, except for Marv, but it took years for his victims to recover from the loss. The event made national headlines before it was eclipsed by President Ronald Reagan’s death the next day.
Director Paul Solet’s Tread is a compelling and slick documentary about this little known event. It explores Marv’s motivations for the rampage and features many interviews with his targets and also his girlfriend at the time. His family refused to speak on record for the project. Solet also recreates many key scenes with actors. The rampage itself is a thrilling reenactment done with very little CGI. The filmmaking crew created their own version of the modified bulldozer for those scenes.
I have mixed feelings about the film. Visually its stunning but perhaps a bit too slick. I usually don’t care for reenactments but these were tastefully done. I thought the film overall was a bit too polished with some fancy drone shots and slow motion action sequences that felt unnecessary. I did however appreciate the archival footage as well as Marv’s audio recording which juxtaposed with all the interviews made it feel very balanced. With that said, I was rooting for Marv the whole time. I’m not sure if that speaks more to my own feelings or to how Marv was portrayed in the doc.
In the end, Tread was for me a thrilling revenge story that probably should have been something else entirely.
Tread had its world premiere at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival as part of their Documentary Spotlight series.