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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Love_Me_3Coming to DVD today, Tuesday, July 21: LOVE ME

Jonathan Narducci’s exploration of the mail order bride business had its world premiere at the Florida Film Festival last year. It went on to screen at New Orleans, Hot Docs, Hot Springs, CNEX Doc, Newport Beach, and San Francisco DocFest, among others.

I previously wrote about the doc upon its VOD release here.

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Special Screening: VERY SEMI-SERIOUS

verysemiserious_press_1Coming to NYC’s Tribeca Film Institute Summer Documentary series at Nitehawk Cinema tomorrow, Wednesday, July 22: VERY SEMI-SERIOUS

Leah Wolchok’s love letter to the cartoons of The New Yorker had its world premiere at Tribeca this Spring. Other festival appearances include San Francisco, Seattle, Montclair, AFI Docs, and the upcoming Traverse City.

Taking a microscopic view of the venerable publication through its popular, though sometimes headscratching – single-panel cartoons, Wolchok takes as her primary subject, sometimes to its detriment, the magazine’s longtime cartoon editor Bob Mankoff. Since he took the reins in 1997, he has invited cartoonists into his office once a week to pitch their gags, often reviewing close to 1000 pieces to find the fifteen he needs for every issue. These brief meetings, and the reflections by both Mankoff and both veteran and newbie artists about the process, offer the best in Wolchok’s film, encapsulating that moment when the viewer either gets the joke or doesn’t, and offering a direct look at Mankoff’s editorial instincts. The film also wisely revisits a greatest hits of the magazine’s cartoon history, briefly profiling a range of popular published artists in addition to aspiring ones. Where Wolchok falters is in placing too much of a focus on Mankoff outside of his editorial role. Sequences recounting his personal life and grief over the loss of a son simply do not belong in the context of this film, no matter how much Wolchok tries to justify them through a consideration of the role of comedy set against tragic occurrences, such as September 11 or the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Similarly out of place is the unnecessary and frankly boring look at Mankoff’s memoir, another instance of losing sight of the film’s more compelling actual subject – the cartoons.

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Special Screening: SONG OF LAHORE

lahoreComing to Los Angeles’ ArcLight Documentary Series tomorrow, Tuesday, July 21: SONG OF LAHORE

Andy Schocken and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s look at Pakistani traditional musicians’ forays into globally-inflected jazz made its bow at Tribeca this Spring. Other fest screenings include Sydney and Melbourne.

Until the advent of Sharia law, the Pakistani city of Lahore served as the nation’s seat of culture, with local musicians kept busy performing in concerts or on the soundtracks of the popular regional film productions collective known as Lollywood. Taboos on artistic expression essentially wiped away generations of musical heritage and appreciation, so much so that even as religious restrictions have since been somewhat lessened, aging traditional musicians find themselves at a loss for a local audience. In response, Sachal Studios was founded to provide a sense of both community and potential livelihood for this fading music culture, but despite founder Izzat Majeed’s best efforts, it too struggles – until he decides to reach beyond Pakistan to try to engage a global audience. Inspired by memories of the US State Department’s Jazz Ambassadors program, a Cold War era cultural diplomatic initiative that saw the likes of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Dave Brubeck travel around the world, Majeed has his musician’s record a version of Brubeck’s popular jazz standard, “Take Five.” When a video of their take goes viral, they find themselves thrust into the global spotlight, invited to New York City for a cross-cultural concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Schocken and Obaid-Chinoy’s likeable film is most interesting as it profiles the musicians on their home turf, struggling to adapt their music, and their expectations for their offspring and the local audience, with the times. Once they arrive in America, the film loses steam as it documents fairly repetitive culture and music clash in the rehearsal room as members of the ensemble struggle to keep up with Jazz’s Wynton Marsalis, who looks exasperated enough to cancel the show. Nevertheless, the pay-off, a sold out performance, features some memorable moments, including a playful dueling flutes sequence which underscores the musical exchange at the heart of the film.

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Coming to VOD tomorrow, Tuesday, July 21: WHEN WE WERE BOYS

Sarah Goodman’s portrait of adolescence debuted at Hot Docs in 2009. It went on to screen at Beijing and True/False and to be released on DVD. The doc now comes to iTunes.

I previously wrote about the film out of Hot Docs here.

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packed-in-a-trunk-1024Coming to HBO tonight, Monday, July 20: PACKED IN A TRUNK: THE LOST ART OF EDITH LAKE WILKINSON

Michelle Boyaner’s chronicle of a forgotten American artist had its premiere at Palm Springs at the beginning of the year. Screenings have followed at Provincetown, Frameline, and LGBT fests in Halifax, Kansas City, and Portland, among others.

The forgotten artist at the core of Boyaner’s scrappy doc is Edith Lake Wilkinson, a late 19th/early 20th century painter and printmaker whose career was cut short when she was committed to an asylum in 1924 by an unscrupulous attorney. Just as important to her story is Edith’s great-niece, Emmy-award winning writer/director Jane Anderson, who serves as the audience’s guide here, and whose obsession with Edith’s story has compelled her for four decades. When Jane was just a child, her mother discovered a trunk full of Edith’s canvases in the attic of a relative’s home in the artist’s native West Virginia and was given some of the work. Growing up surrounded by Edith’s paintings, Jane drew creative inspiration from the relative she never met, and, as she learned more about her, found eerie similarities to her own life. Chiefly, like Jane, Edith was a lesbian, with a longtime female companion, Fannie – a fact may have led to Edith’s institutionalization. Seeking to give her great-aunt her due, Jane partners with a gallery in Edith’s beloved Provincetown to stage an exhibition of her work, discovering curious details that cement her formative place in the venerable Cape Cod artist haven’s history. While the film never loses sight of its focus on Edith, Jane emerges as a feisty, genuine, and appealingly goofy presence, emotional and at times giddy at finally realizing her decades’ long mission. If there are some clunky bits – a visit with a psychic to try to fill in some blanks about how Edith ended up in her predicament, an overused folksy score that wears out its welcome quickly – Jane’s welcome presence makes up for it.

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