atticaComing to PBS’s WORLD Channel as part of its American Justice series today, Monday, July 27: CRIMINAL INJUSTICE: DEATH & POLITICS AT ATTICA

David Marshall’s investigation into the notorious 1971 prison rebellion debuted at the American Historians Association conference in New Orleans in 2013. Since then it has been broadcast on PBS stations in upstate New York and won regional Emmy Awards.

I previously profiled the project when it was still in the works. The finished film brings together witnesses and the families of victims from the prison takeover which turned into a massacre in order to reveal a forty-year cover-up. Excellent archival footage and contemporary media coverage of the four-day encounter place the audience in the moment, while modern-day interviews offer a retrospective analysis which often challenges the official stance on what was too flippantly labeled a “riot,” but was instead more of an organized political protest that was turned violent by state police and then blamed on the inmates. Of particular interest is the consideration of the role then New York State Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s political ambitions played into his handling of the uprising, as well as that of President Richard Nixon’s desire to be viewed as “tough on crime.” Despite the strength of the archival material, the conventional and heavy talking heads approach taken detracts from the historical immersion and lends a flatness to the proceedings, robbing the project of the greater cinematic impact it might have had, though it remains affecting as a whole.

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Special Screening: PROPHET’S PREY

prophet's preyComing to LA’s ArcLight Documentary Series tomorrow, Tuesday, July 28: PROPHET’S PREY

Amy Berg’s exploration of a notorious cult leader made its debut at Sundance this year. Other fest screenings have included Sarasota, AFI Docs, Edinburgh, BAMcinemaFest, New Zealand, and Melbourne, among others.

I profiled the doc before Sundance here.

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tea timeComing to PBS’s POV tonight, Monday, July 27: TEA TIME

Maite Alberdi’s loving look at a group of longtime friends debuted at SANFIC last year. It went on to screen at IDFA, True/False, Miami, Ambulante, BAFICI, Doc Aviv, Seattle, Sydney, and Sheffield, among others.

Since they graduated from high school, a close group of Chilean women have hosted a small tea party once a month – for the past sixty years. One of these women is Maria Theresa, Alberdi’s grandmother, and the film’s primary guide to the proceedings. These lively meetings have sustained them through radical changes to their nation and to more personal changes to their lives, from marriages and divorces, to births and deaths, with seemingly the only constant being the enduring friendship and love between this tight circle. Shot over the course of several years which saw their own measure of change, as the friends have to confront sickness and aging among their own group, Alberdi’s film offers the viewer a place at the table to listen in to the gossip, recognize each woman’s quirks, and to be charmed by them all while witnessing the elaborate pastry spreads they’ve painstakingly organized.

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amina profileComing to theatres and to VOD today, Friday, July 24: A GAY GIRL IN DAMASCUS: THE AMINA PROFILE

Sophie Deraspe’s look at the true story behind a controversial Syrian blog debuted at Sundance earlier this year. It has gone on to screen at Hot Docs, Biografilm, Dallas, IFF Boston, and at LGBT fests in San Francisco, Toronto, London, and Miami, among others. Sundance Selects now brings the films to theatres in limited release, while the SundanceNow Doc Club makes it available on VOD.

I previously wrote about the doc before Sundance here.

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Asian American International Film Festival 2015: Documentary Overview

imagesThe 38th annual Asian American International Film Festival brings eighteen new features to New York City between today, Thursday, July 24 and Saturday, August 1, reflecting the diversity of Asian and Asian American filmmaking. Among the eight new nonfiction features presented are the event’s opening night film, Ruby Yang’s MY VOICE, MY LIFE, about a musical staged by under-privileged Hong Kong students. Other documentary entries include:

From China, Haibin Du’s A YOUNG PATRIOT (pictured), a portrait of the gradual ideological development of a young Chinese man over several years; Adler Yang’s IF THERE IS A REASON TO STUDY, which follows the teenage Taiwanese filmmaker as he documents the experience of alternative schooling on his fellow students; Lauren Knapp’s LIVE FROM UB, which offers a look at Mongolian identity through an independent rock band; Derek Shimoda’s JUNE BRIDE: REDEMPTION OF A YAKUZA, about former Japanese gangsters turned pastors; and DOC NYC 2014 alumnus MISS TIBET: BEAUTY IN EXILE, Norah Shapiro’s exploration of a controversial cultural and beauty pageant for Tibetans in exile.

KillingFieldsAlso represented at the festival is the work of noted Asian American filmmaker Arthur Dong, the subject of a retrospective tribute, which also includes the NYC debut of his latest film, the Cambodian-focused THE KILLING FIELDS OF DR HAING S NGOR (pictured), on the Hollywood actor and Khmer Rouge survivor; and Grace Lee’s OFF THE MENU: ASIAN AMERICA, a travelogue that explores Asian American identity through food.

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i-am-femen-1140x717New to DVD this week: I AM FEMEN

Alain Margot’s profile of the controversial Ukrainian feminist group debuted at Visions du Réel last year. Screenings have followed at CPH:DOX, Locarno, Haifa, Thessaloniki Doc, Stockholm, and Santa Barbara, among others.

Margot’s film is the second Femen documentary to make its way on the international festival circuit and into limited release after Kitty Green’s UKRAINE IS NOT A BROTHEL, which debuted at Venice in 2013. While I have not written here about Green’s film, its take on the “sextremist” group is far more critical, even sinister, postulating that the true leader of the group is actually a man, Viktor Sviatsky, and that the women he recruits aren’t particularly that invested in Femen’s causes and instead are picked to look beautiful topless and generate media attention. Margot’s take is far more straightforward, and doesn’t even hint at any of these allegations, which Femen members substantiated in their promotion of Green’s film, though they note that Viktor was ejected from the group in 2012. Margot’s film begins in 2012 as well, and focuses primarily on one of the founders, artist Oksana Shachko, also featured in Green’s film. Through the course of the doc, Oksana and her fellow activists stage protests around a number of causes, opening with the condemnation of the Ukrainian justice system for failing to punish the rapists/murderers of one of their Femen sisters, and proceeding to animal abuse and support for Pussy Riot, among others. Margot provides some degree of background on Oksana, such as her early interest in religious iconography and desire to join a convent, but mostly concentrates on her activist work, and the sacrifices she’s willing to make in the name of justice. If Margot’s film lacks the surprise of Green’s, it manages to find a compelling figure in Oksana, one who can speak articulately about the intersection of sex, bodies, and politics that motivates Femen’s actions.

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mamaSherpas_homepage_bgComing to DVD and VOD today, Tuesday, July 21: THE MAMA SHERPAS

Brigid Maher’s look at modern midwifery across America debuted as part of a benefit event in Los Angeles this past May. After a limited theatrical release, Bond/360 now brings the film to DVD and to VOD platforms including iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Instant Video, and VUDU.

Maher’s film has two interrelated concerns: to highlight the work of nurse midwives and to showcase how they can help reverse the worrisome trend toward unnecessary Cesarean births in the United States. As established within the film, Maher came to this topic from her own personal experience, having delivered her first child by C-section but unwilling in her second pregnancy to put her body through the pain of recovery from another Cesarean while trying to care for a newborn and a four-year-old. In the jargon of midwifery (which the film sometimes takes for granted, assuming it’s preaching to the converted), her goal was a VBAC, vaginal birth after Cesarean. Her research into modern midwifery practices led to a successful birth, and opened Maher’s eyes to the prevalence of nurse midwives, midwives who work within the hospital system, and thus able to draw upon not only traditional midwifery practice but, where necessary, modern obstetrics. As Maher profiles various types of approaches taken by a range of nurse widwives, and introduces audiences to expectant families, she reveals the troubling statistics about C-sections, which speaks to the pathologization of pregnancy, as well as to simple impatience and lack of comprehensive training of such eventualities as vaginal breech births, one of which is shown successfully on camera here. While Maher’s conventional film tends much more to the informational than to the artful – and is saddled with a truly unappealing and muddled title which conjures up images of an ethnographic study of Tibetan mountain climbing families – it accomplishes its educational objectives, reframing the viewer’s understanding of natural approaches to childbirth.

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