“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.
Dana (Noëlle Schönwald) is a prostitute living in Quito, Ecuador. She’s beautiful and smart and a favorite of her clients. But Dana harbors dark secrets. She sells her body to make enough money to support her terminally ill daughter and her own addiction to pharmaceutical drugs. And most of her funds go to her pimp, mob boss and human trafficker Nelson (Jaime Tamariz). On one visit to Nelson’s secret compound, Dana witnesses a child being transported from room to room. The young girl was kidnapped and about to be sold into sexual slavery. With the help of Dana’s client Julian (Cristian Mercado), a handsome young doctor who is in love with Dana, they concoct a plan to save the child.
“She is the perfect woman until she decides to be free.”
La Mala Noche is Ecuadorian director Gabriela Calvache’s narrative feature-length debut. Calvache is known for her narrative shorts and her documentaries. She and her producer Geminiano Pineda decided to make this as a fictional film to have the freedom to explore the subject without inciting the potential retaliation of the mob and to protect the survivors.
Calvache’s film is a heart-pounding thriller that will leave you on the edge of your seat. It’s brilliantly directed with some terrific cinematography and excellent story telling. Lead actress Noëlle Schönwald delivers a powerful performance. The child trafficking scenes are difficult to watch but also mercifully brief. While sexual slavery is grim topic to cover in a feature film, Calvache delivers the story in a way that is captivating but doesn’t diminish the gravity of the situations depicted.
Beyond having a female director and producer and focusing on a female character, 80% of the filmmaking crew were also women. I appreciate the fact that they didn’t translate the Spanish title for the English-language market.
La Mala Noche had its world premiere at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival as part of their Global series. Stay tuned as I’ll have a follow-up piece on La Mala Noche on Cine Suffragette.
“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.
Relationships are messy. They’re not these uniform experience with clear beginnings, middles and ends. When you invest your emotions into another person and that partnerships ends, it’s not a clean break. Especially when children are involved.
Director Hilary Brougher’s South Mountain is a beautiful, quiet film about a couple’s break-up and its repercussions. It stays true to the messy nature of family dynamics. It follows the story of Lila (Talia Balsam), an artist living in the Catskills with her husband Edgar (Scott Cohen) and their children. Lila has a lot on her plate. Her best friend Gigi (Andrus Nichols) is battling breast cancer, her adoptive daughter Sam (Macaulee Cassaday) is about to go on her first big adventure as a young adult and her husband Edgar just had a baby with his girlfriend Gemma (Isis Masoud) and is leaving the family. She has a brief affair with her daughter’s friend Jonah (Michael Oberholttzer) and tries to poison Edgar but rescues him just in time. As Lila’s world falls apart, can she put the pieces back together and find some semblance of happiness again?
At the world premiere of South Mountain at SXSW, Brougher spoke at length about the inspiration behind the film and what she hopes audiences will take away from the story.
“This is definitely a piece of fiction. It’s not all auto-biographical. It’s made from a lot of scraps from a lot of people’s lives that I’ve known very closely. It’s made out of the stuff that is my life. We did that for practical reasons. It was what I hoped would be a way to give the audience something of value… All I have is my particular view of the world.”
Director Hilary Brougher
“For me the film is about sadness but it is not a sad film. The film is about “to be continued.” The film is about how we stay connected when we fall apart… Everyone will bring their own emotions to this film in their own experience. I’m sure my own experience is colored by getting to connect with all these people and having it be a very healing experience.”
Director Hilary Brougher
“I was involved in a project that destroyed me creatively. Even in making this film about why people stick around when things are bad, I was getting healed. For me there is great beauty and joy and transcendence in it but I understand that people are going to access it from wherever they are. I hope they feel the love. I hope it heals more than it hurts.”
Director Hilary Brougher
South Mountain is gorgeously shot and directed and there is a unique beauty in the subtlety of the performances. Everyone goes through their own kind of pain and I love how this is portrayed by the different characters. By the end of the film I did feel I needed the story explained to me so I was grateful for the director Q&A although a second viewing would have expanded my understanding.
In one memorable scene, the family is enjoying an outdoor barbecue while Edgar is inside watching his girlfriend give birth to his child via FaceTime. It looked so realistic I asked myself “did they really use a pregnant woman and film a live birth?” When actress Isis Masoud spoke before the SXSW audience she confirmed this to be true. The iPhone sequence is footage of her child’s birth spliced in with scenes she filmed at 8 months pregnant. Amazing!
South Mountain had its world premiere at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival as part of their Narrative Feature Competition.
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.