LITTLEHOPE-master675Coming to theatres and to VOD today, Friday, November 21: LITTLE HOPE WAS ARSON

Theo Love’s exploration of a case of serial church arson debuted at Slamdance this year. It has also screened at Cucalorus, Austin, Heartland, Big Sky, and Lone Star, among others. In addition to theatrical engagements, the doc is available on VOD platforms including iTunes, Amazon, Google, and Vudu.

In 2010, various communities in East Texas were rocked by a series of church burnings, beginning with the Little Hope Baptist Church in Tyler TX. While state and federal authorities hunted for motive and clues, some concerned congregations in the deeply religious region staged armed night watches to defend their houses of worship from being next on the arsonists’ list. Love initially details these efforts in a straightforward manner, demonstrating how deeply ingrained religion is in East Texas, and what an affront these acts were to the communities through media coverage and interviews with various parishioners and pastors affected by the fires, as well as law enforcement representatives, such as Christy McAllister, a communications specialist with the Texas Department of Public Safety. The film deviates from conventional true crime coverage through Christy, who ends up being linked to the case’s first credible suspects – her younger brother Daniel, and his friend Jason. As soon as these two figures are introduced, Love breaks away from the arson narrative to sketch out their past, detailing how the two pious young men turned their backs on God when faced with personal heartbreak – Daniel blaming God for his mother’s death, Jason angry over a breakup – and, apparently, lashed out by laying waste to ten churches. While somewhat awkward, this rupture in storytelling is also intriguing, introducing additional family members who lend a texture to the setting, and seems to promise a moral quandary for Christy, which ultimately isn’t borne out, as she instead assists the authorities without hesitation. Too quickly, Love returns to a somewhat dry recitation of what happened next, how the boys were arrested, and the unconvincing excuses employed which lay blame on drugs. While the director captures a clear sense of the all-encompassing nature of religion in the Bible belt, with pretty much every subject weighing in on questions of forgiveness and redemption, the film ultimately is weakened by returning to a too-conventional approach.

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monk-with-a-camera.10145912.87Coming to theatres today, Friday, November 21: MONK WITH A CAMERA

Guido Santi and Tina Mascara’s profile of a well-heeled photographer turned Tibetan Buddhist monk debuted at IDFA last year. Other festival stops have included Palm Springs, Ashland, Full Frame, Cleveland, Documentary Edge, and Sedona.

Grandson to legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, and a photographer who worked with Irving Penn and Richard Avedon in the 1970s, Nicky Vreeland surprised friends and admirers alike when he gave up his glamorous lifestyle for the asceticism of Tibetan Buddhism. At the same time, as hinted in Santi and Mascara’s portrait, he hasn’t really completely abandoned the trappings of celebrity and wealth – after all, it’s not every monk who works directly with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, or who is appointed by the spiritual leader to be an abbot. While the filmmakers acknowledge some of the contradictions of Vreeland’s comportment – largely dwelling, as signaled by the project’s title, on his continued interest in photography despite Buddhism’s foregrounding of ephemerality – they never particularly push too hard to make sense of their subject’s ability to keep one sandal in the material world. While never quite descending into straight hagiography, the generally likeable film remains fairly slight, and doesn’t seem to take full advantage of the possibilities presented by its unusual subject.

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In Theatres: FOOD CHAINS

food chainsComing to theatres today, Friday, November 21: FOOD CHAINS

Sanjay Rawal’s exposé of exploited migrant farmworkers had its world premiere at Berlin at the beginning of the year. It went on to screen at Tribeca, Guadalajara, Vancouver, Minneapolis St Paul, and Napa Valley.

Making a strong argument that today’s migrant farmworkers, like those organized by Cesar Chavez in the 1950s and ’60s, are not much better off, Rawal’s film likens them to slave labor in a system controlled by large corporations. The ostensible focus here is on the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a union of Florida tomato pickers who stage a hunger strike to get the attention of powerful supermarket chain Publix. While other corporate entities have signed on to CIW’s Fair Food Program, which modestly asks for farmworkers to be paid a penny more per pound of tomatoes picked, Publix views the issue as a labor dispute and refuses to come to the bargaining table. While Rawal uses this standoff as the backbone of his film, it’s a bit unsatisfying, as the hunger strike ultimately fails. Still, the workers serve as a sympathetic point of identification for the viewer, and their plight forces us all to take stock of who suffers when we benefit from lower food costs.

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In Theatres: THE CIRCLE

circleComing to theatres today, Friday, November 21: THE CIRCLE

Stefan Haupt’s docudrama about gay life in Switzerland in the 1950s and early 1960s debuted at Berlin earlier this year, where it took home both an audience award and the Teddy for Best Documentary. It has gone on to screen at Seattle, Outfest and other LGBT fests in Boston, Torino, and Freiburg, among others.

Unlike its neighbor Germany, Switzerland had no laws prohibiting homosexuality. As a result, an underground community thrived in the capital of Zurich. At the center was Der Kreis (The Circle), a homophile organization that published a magazine and organized social events for its members. Haupt’s film primarily is concerned with the story of two of its members, young teacher Ernst Ostertag and even younger drag performer Robi Rapp, who meet at a Circle ball in the mid-1950s and soon pair up. As their relationship develops, a series of sensationalized gay murders turn unwanted attention to the community, culminating in police crackdowns and the ultimate dissolution of the organization. Through it all, however, Ernst and Robi remain together, and even become the first same sex couple to marry decades later, as is revealed through the intermittent documentary elements to Haupt’s awkwardly constructed docudrama, which is decidedly more fiction than non. While their story – and the larger one of the organization – has the potential for compelling viewing, the strange decision to meld a perfectly staged fictional version with talking head interruptions proves unsuccessful. It’s also something of a headscratcher, as the scripted aspect of the story could more than hold its own – beyond paying polite respect to the real couple, the documentary elements add very little to the proceedings that isn’t already covered by the actors.

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thehomestretchComing to theatres and to VOD tomorrow, Friday, November 21: THE HOMESTRETCH

Anne de Mare and Kirsten Kelly’s look at the lives of three homeless Chicago teens had its world premiere at Hot Docs this Spring. The doc has gone on to screen at AFI Docs, Citizen Jane, Indie Memphis, Human Rights Watch, and Hot Springs, among others.

de Mare and Kelly’s film opens with the sobering fact that between 2000-3000 youth are among Chicago’s homeless population before zeroing in on just three, Anthony, Kasey, and Roque, whose stories are largely unconnected except for their shared desire to better their situation via education. Technically speaking, none of these subjects is presently homeless – while Anthony and Kasey are no longer able to live in the under-resourced transitional youth program, Belfort House, due to age and curfew violations, respectively, both are set up in subsidized apartments. They continue to struggle, so their housing situation remains relatively insecure, but they at least are within the system and seeking solutions. Roque is far less at risk, however, having found a surrogate family in the form of his saintly teacher and substitute mother, Maria, and her husband and kids. His undocumented status presents a major hurdle, but Maria helps him circumvent this, even going to bat for him to ensure he gets enrolled in college after an initial rejection. His presence is a strange fit in the film, but perhaps is included as a wildly hopeful inspiration that things can get much better. The more outgoing Anthony and Kasey seem to be more appropriate subjects for the topic, as he reckons with job training and the realities of teen fatherhood while on probation, while she struggles to figure out her path, having been rejected by her family for her sexuality. As is often the problem with conventional survey approaches like the one taken here, the viewer is left wondering if the film would have been stronger had it instead focused on one intriguing, indelible character rather than three mildly engaging ones.

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measure of all thingsComing to NYC’s The Kitchen tomorrow, Friday, November 21 and Saturday, November 22: THE MEASURE OF ALL THINGS

Sam Green’s live documentary rumination on mankind’s desire to make sense of itself debuted at Sundance at the beginning of the year. Performances followed at Hot Docs, Planete+ Doc, Sheffield, and at Mass MOCA, among other venues.

I profiled the project before Sundance here.

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little whiteComing to theatres tomorrow, Friday, November 21: LITTLE WHITE LIE

Lacey Schwartz’s personal exploration of the impact of family secrets had its premiere at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. The doc has gone on to screen at DOC NYC, New Orleans, Sidewalk, Black Harvest, BlackStar, Trinidad and Tobago, Woods Hole, Martha’s Vineyard African American, and Philadelphia Jewish fests, among others.

I previously wrote about the film for DOC NYC’s program, saying:
Growing up in an upper-middle-class Jewish household, Lacey Schwartz knew she looked different from the rest of her family, but her darker complexion and curly hair were brushed off as traits inherited from her Sicilian grandfather. When she finally begins to dig deeper, Lacey uncovers unspoken family secrets and willful denial that cuts to the core of her very sense of self, inspiring an intriguing re-evaluation and redefinition of identity.

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