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SXSW: Clean

Sandra Pankhurst was an incredible woman. She lived through so much trauma in her early years, more than anyone should bear. Sandra knew how trauma could effect people and was inspired to start her business: Specialized Trauma Cleaning Services in Melbourne, Australia. Her team specializes in all kinds of cleaning, in particular hoarding cases and trauma clean-ups after suicides, murders and other sudden deaths. Having to deal with the death of a loved one is already such a burden, Sandra felt that she could help people by taking on the responsibility of cleaning up the aftermath. When she began her business in the 1990s, trauma cleaning was not an available service and she saw a crucial need that she could fill. Sandra and her team never judge or meddle. They’re just there to provide a valuable service.

Directed by Lachlan McLeod, Clean takes a two-prong approach telling the story of Sandra Pankhurst’s difficult life journey as well as that of her business. The subject of trauma cleaners is a fascinating one and anyone intrigued by the subject will find the documentary very rewarding. Sandra herself was charismatic and endlessly interesting. So many aspects of her life are explored including her traumatic adoption story, the search for her birth mother, her journey as a transgender woman, her health struggles and her triumphs as a business owner and public speaker.

The documentary feels disjointed, depends a bit too much on reveals and leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Sandra was fiercely private in regards to some aspects of her life so there are some things that the filmmakers just couldn’t show. With that said, the filmmakers show a lot of respect for their main subject Sandra as well as her cleaning team and their clients. While the film might leave viewers wanting more, it’s still well worth a watch.

Clean had its world premiere at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival.

SXSW: Facing Nolan

Nolan Ryan is one of the greatest baseball pitchers of all time. As a power pitcher he had one of the fastest pitches and broke record and after record, chasing Sandy Koufax’s milestones of most no-hitters and most strike-outs. Many of his records are still unbeaten and could stay that way. He played for the Mets and the Angels but found that his home state of Texas was calling and made the career move to the Astros and eventually the Rangers. He played a whopping 27 seasons. And while he didn’t finish on top, he did have a marvelous career that got better even when he reached his 40s. We don’t talk enough about how much of a baseball legend Nolan Ryan is… and one documentary sets out to fix that.

Directed Bradley Jackson, Facing Nolan is a charming documentary that is sure to please any crowd. At the world premiere, Jackson called it a love letter to baseball and to Texas. This film has a lot of heart and treats its subject with both reverence and tongue-in-cheek humor. Nolan is portrayed as a family man who was extraordinary talented but never let his career take him away from what mattered most to him. His wife Ruth Nolan is an integral part of his success and her story runs parallel to his throughout the film. Talking heads include friends and family, retired baseball players, particularly Nolan’s peers, journalists, experts and the man himself. The documentary does a great job creating both tension and laugh out loud moments. Viewers will come away from this film with newfound appreciation for Nolan Ryan’s extraordinary career.

Facing Nolan had its world premiere at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival.

Note to add: Facing Nolan will be released theatrically June 24th and digitally July 19th. Visit the official website for more details.

SXSW: Fire of Love

“When you can die at any moment… what do you leave behind?”

Directed by Sara Dosa, Fire of Love is a truly extraordinary documentary about two scientists who lived their lives on their own terms.

French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft boldly went where few scientists went before. After marrying in the 1960s, they set out to chase fire, traveling all over the world to study active volcanoes. Katia photographed, Maurice filmed, and together they captured some of the most stunning and frightening images of volcanoes. Over the decades the took calculated risks getting closer and closer to lava flows and craters. To fund their expeditions they would use their footage to publish books and release documentaries. The Kraffts were well aware that their passion would most likely lead to an early demise, which it did in June of 1991.  However, their absolute resolve to pursue their passion enlightened the public about the ways volcanoes work and the real dangers they pose.

Fire of Love envelops the viewer into the world of the Kraffts and gives us a close-up look at the awe-inspiring power of volcanoes. The documentary is composed of archival footage from the Kraffts and a voice-over narration that tells the story of their romance as well as their mutual fascination with volcanoes. The images are truly breathtaking. The writing is exquisite. The Kraffts story will make viewers contemplate what it means to live without fear.

Fire of Love had its Texas premiere at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival. The film is distributed by National Geographic and will stream on Disney+ at a future date.

Slamdance: Underdog

For three decades Doug Butler, a dairy farmer from Middlebury, VT, has dreamed of one thing: to race sled dogs in Alaska. Directed by  Tommy Hyde, the documentary Underdog chronicles Doug’s journey to the Open North American Championship in Fairbanks, Alaska and his struggles in keeping the nearly 100 year old dairy farm going. Doug Butler is a great subject for a documentary. He’s passionate about what he does, charismatic and deeply cares about his animals and his family business. You can’t help but root for him and also mourn his losses. Underdog is a truly heartfelt documentary offering up heaping doses of melancholy and joy.

Underdog is part of the 2022 Slamdance Film Festival.

Slamdance: The Ritual to Beauty

“What happens to brown girls who never learn who to love themselves brown?”

Dominicans have a long and tortured relationship with their hair. As a Dominican-American woman I know this all too well. My mother and grandmother were both hairstylists who specialized in relaxing Dominican hair to a more culturally appealing state.  Wearing one’s hair “natural” was looked down upon. The pain of not being something acceptable and having to change yourself to fit an aesthetic is passed on from generation and the harm lingers for years.

This is why I’m grateful for the precious gift that is The Ritual of Beauty (2022). Directed by Shenny De Los Angeles and Maria Marrone, is a short documentary that sheds light on the social custom of straightening hair and how it keeps Dominican women from loving themselves. The doc focuses on a young Dominican woman who is on a journey to embrace her natural hair. And in doing so, she examines the stories of her mother and grandmother whose different relationships with their own hair spoke volumes of what they thought about themselves. The doc is haunting and poetic and revealing. A truly amazing film.

The Ritual to Beauty was part of the 2022 Slamdance FIlm Festival line-up.

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