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Cary Bell shares a glimpse into the world of a teenage girl living with a rare, incurable skin disease. By Tanya Pai
Photograph courtesy of AFI Docs.

Take all the highs and lows of being a teenage girl—the thrill of flirting with a boy, the frustration of feeling awkward in your own body, the embarrassment of being in public with your parents. Now add a rare, incurable genetic disease that makes your skin incredibly fragile, fuses your fingers together, and requires you to undergo multiple surgeries and use a feeding tube to absorb adequate calories. That’s the life of Abigail Evans, a pretty, vivacious teenager afflicted with epidermolysis bullosa. When she was born, her father recounts, the nurse wiped her down and accidentally took off much of her skin in the process. Doctors told her parents she would likely be dead within six weeks. Now, at 18, she’s somewhat of a living miracle—but her life is far from easy.

First-time director Cary Bell takes an intimate and unflinching look at the Evans family’s life in Austin, from the mundane pleasures of making pancakes to the pain and fear of the multiple surgeries Abbie undergoes. Abbie’s parents are separated but are cordial with each other and take her to doctor’s appointments together; while their parenting styles and relationship to their daughter are very different, they’re united by their love and concern for her. She lives the life of a regular teen in many ways: She sneaks beer and chats up guys while on the job as the merchandise girl for her musician dad (a scene in which he dedicates his song “Butterfly Girl” to her at a concert seems almost too cinematically perfect to be real) and dreams of getting her own apartment and traveling the world. But the fragility of her condition (her beauty routine involves applying mascara and draining the large blisters that form regularly on her skin, and she undergoes regular procedures to open her esophagus enough for her to be able to swallow food) make her wish for a “normal” life seem nearly impossible. 

While most kids her age are debating which college to attend, Abbie has to choose between going to school at all or opting for surgery to reconstruct one of her hands (the other has already healed) that will cause mountains of pain and require months of recovery time. Still, her irrepressible spirit shines through, especially as Bell follows her while she takes the important step of flying to California by herself to participate in a Stanford study on EB—and, of course, to go to the beach. “I don’t have an easy life whatsoever,” she says to the camera at one point. “But I’m never gonna give up.” 

Butterfly Girl serves to educate people who may be unfamiliar with the condition Abbie suffers, but it’s also relatable on a simple human level. Though Abbie is affected by extraordinary circumstances, in the Evans’s story is the universal tale of a young person trying to discover herself and her place in the world, and of the parents who love her enough, despite their worry, to let her. 

Screening Friday, June 20, 7 PM at Goethe-Institut, and Saturday, June 21, 2 PM at AFI Silver Theatre

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Posted at 01:40 PM/ET, 06/18/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Filmmaker Nickolas Rossi takes a look back at the life, career, and enduring legacy of the late musician Elliott Smith. By Benjamin Freed
Photograph courtesy of AFI Docs.

To a punk band, is there any higher praise than a comparison to Fugazi? That’s what Heatmiser was to Portland, Oregon, in the early 1990s: a quartet of skilled musicians churning out memorable, poppy-but-not-lame tracks filled with soul-searching, melancholy lyrics.

This is how the late Elliott Smith’s former band is described early on in Heaven Adores You, a somber but weirdly redemptive look back at the singer/songwriter, who died in 2003.

Director Nickolas Rossi covers Smith’s death at the opening of his 96-minute elegy. It drips with sadness from Smith’s friends and former collaborators, but Rossi manages to steer away from maudlin hand-wrenching, not unlike Smith’s best songs. Contemporary interviews with those who knew Smith are mixed with archival performances and conversations with Smith, along with rain-streaked glimpses of Portland. Eleven years after Smith’s death, the myth-making and legacy-building of this remarkably gifted musician is largely complete, but to his biggest fans, Smith is still freshly mourned.

Smith’s biggest moment of exposure was at the Academy Awards in 1998, when he performed “Miss Misery,” which was nominated for the Best Original Song Oscar after being featured in Good Will Hunting. (It lost, obviously, to Celine Dion’s Titanic ballad.) Smith never really recovered from his Hollywood moment, we learn. He became, to most, the weird-looking guy in the poorly fitting white suit.

“He just looked like a normal dude,” the photographer Autumn de Wilde says during the movie.

As first-time director Rossi shows throughout Heaven Adores You, there was little “normal” about Smith. Born Steven Paul Smith, he started calling himself “Elliott” a few years after his family moved from Oklahoma to Portland. Heatmiser emerged out of his days at Hampshire College, and quickly took over the Portland scene.

The Heatmiser footage shows a very different Smith from the brooding, lonesome artist we remember. As part of the band, Smith seemed a bit less morose, even if his lyrics never showed it. But Heatmiser was not built to last. Smith’s solo act didn’t fit the loud punk scene.

The thing about “Miss Misery” is that it was not originally written for Good Will Hunting. Smith’s fellow Portlander Gus Van Sant wanted to use one of his songs over the credits, and Smith furnished a song that might have otherwise been left unfinished.

And for all the discomfort it caused Smith, it paved the way for his last two studio albums, XO and Figure 8, to find broader audiences. “Waltz #2,” considered by many to be Smith’s best song, is a rollicking, biting, roadhouse tune about the struggles of being a lonesome artist. It plays multiple times during Heaven Adores You, and each cue is a fresh wound.

Rossi arrives at Smith’s growing struggles with depression and drug addiction. The hints were there before “Miss Misery,” but they spiraled afterward. Relocations to New York and then Los Angeles provided brief artistic respites until they began to exacerbate Smith’s problems. His closest friends saw him drifting further back.

Although commonly referred to as suicide, the manner of Smith’s death has never been declared officially by the Los Angeles coroner. What does seem confirmable is that no matter how warmly his music was received, Smith was not always suited to the attention. He might never have sought fame, but as a string of tribute shows staged last year demonstrate at the end of Rossi’s film, Smith will always be adored by many.

Screening Friday, June 20, 9:30 PM at AFI Silver Theatre, and Saturday, June 21, 6:15 PM at the Goethe-Institut

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Posted at 12:12 PM/ET, 06/18/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Director Ryan Murdock profiles a single father in the Bronx trying to make it big as a presidential impersonator. By Tanya Pai
Image courtesy of AFI Docs.

What if you woke up one day and realized you bore an eerie resemblance to one of the most powerful men in the world?

That’s the experience of Louis Ortiz, a single father in the Bronx who, after losing his job at a telephone company, begins to get recognized for his likeness to then-presidential candidate Barack Obama. Director Ryan Murdock follows Ortiz as he learns to capitalize on his accident of birth; he lands gigs in music videos and television shows, and goes from never having held a passport to flying to Japan and Australia for movie parts and appearances. (A memorable scene involves Ortiz performing in a funk concert with impersonators of Bono, Nelson Mandela, and the Dalai Lama to promote world peace.)

To accommodate his new career, Ortiz has to send his teenage daughter to live with his parents in Florida. (Though they stay in regular contact, it’s hard not to wonder whether part of him enjoys his second chance at bachelorhood.) The other issue? He’s still struggling to make ends meet. When he signs a contract with a manager who promises to help him polish his Obama impression and books him on a tour with Bill Clinton and Mitt Romney impersonators, it seems his big break has arrived—but the manager soon reveals himself to be a racist, abusive bully who’s on probation, as we’re told at the end of the film, for stabbing someone. Some of the film’s most demoralizing sequences show Ortiz trying to memorize his lines for the tour as his manager continually degrades him, refers to him as “Mexico” (Ortiz is Puerto Rican), and at one point says he plans to “harass the sh*t” out of him.

Ortiz is a frustrating character at times—he balks at his intense touring and practicing schedule, and one wants to remind him how much he has riding on his performance. Still, there are moments of levity and plenty of visual humor; it causes a certain amount of cognitive dissonance to hear Obama’s clipped tones uttering swear words and rap lyrics, and Ortiz earns plenty of double takes as he walks the streets of New York in a POTUS-style suit and tie. There’s also a fascinating commentary on race and class in the idea of Ortiz, who once relied on welfare and has $60 to his name, parroting the President’s speeches on job creation and improving the economy, and shedding his working-class accent to adopt the tones and mannerisms of the far more affluent people who pay money to see him deliver jokes as someone else.

At one point in the film, Ortiz buys a lottery ticket at a convenience store. It’s a symbol of the hope he holds that no matter how unlikely, his life could suddenly transform by chance—which, much like achieving fame through his current livelihood, comes with astronomical odds. He’s tied his fate to the fortunes of a man he has never met—and though that man wields significant power, by the end of the film it’s unclear whether it’s enough to let Ortiz escape the Bronx for good.

Screening Saturday, June 21, 11 AM at the National Portrait Gallery, and Sunday, June 22, 3:30 PM at AFI Silver Theatre.

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Posted at 01:36 PM/ET, 06/17/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
John Wojtowicz, the bank robber whose heist inspired Dog Day Afternoon, tells his own story. By Benjamin Freed
Image courtesy of AFI Docs.

John Wojtowicz should not be an engaging narrator.

Wojtowicz, who robbed a Brooklyn bank in August 1972 to finance his lover’s sex-change operation, is loud, obnoxious, vulgar, and sexually predatory. He’s also impossible to ignore. As horrible of a person as he was, he was still one of those only-in-New York figures who made the city more interesting, if not necessarily better.

Wojtowicz’s bank heist is best remembered as the inspiration for Sidney Lumet’s great 1975 caper Dog Day Afternoon, in which Al Pacino plays a slightly altered version of Wojtowicz. Nearly 40 years later, Lumet’s classic gets an unofficial sequel in The Dog, a biography far grubbier than anything Hollywood ever adapted.

Directors Allison Berg and François Keraudren started filming Wojtowicz more than a decade ago. Relying mostly on Wojtowicz and his doting Sicilian mother, Terry Basso, with whom he lived until his death in 2006, Berg and Keraudren start by diving back to Wojtowicz’s early-1960s military service. Wojtowicz had his first gay experience in basic training—he retells it as waking up in the middle of the night to find another recruit fellating him. He married in 1967 after he came home and had two children with his wife, from whom he was estranged by 1969 when he started living an openly gay life.

Wojtowicz was something of a crusader. To be openly gay in 1969 in New York City was dangerous, and Wojtowicz became a leader of the militant group Gay Activists Alliance, through which he met Ernest Aron. The couple became attached, and held what might have been the first public same-sex wedding ceremony—though non-binding, considering Wojtowicz’s existing marriage and the law at the time—in 1971.

But Aron’s desire for a gender change, at least as Wojtowicz tells it, unleashed “Dog,” the crude and often violent man Wojtowicz is remembered as. Wojtowicz was opposed to Aron’s wishes from the start: “What a lot of people don’t understand is that I didn’t want Ernie to have the sex-change operation. I was interested in a guy with big tits and a little dick,” he tells the camera.

The retelling of August 22, 1972, plays out largely similar to how Lumet portrayed it. Wojtowicz and his accomplices, Sal Naturale and Robert Westenberg, rolled up to a Chase Manhattan branch on a sticky Brooklyn afternoon and went about pulling one of the sloppiest bank robberies in history. The hostage situation, ordering pizza for the captives, and attempted escape to the airport are all the same.

But Wojtowicz colors in details of August 21 when, holed up in a hotel the night before the heist, he effectively raped Westenberg. “I’m giving you $50,000 and you’re telling me I’m not getting a f**k out of this?” Wojtowicz recalls in a disgusting boast. Berg and Keraudren just let the statement sit there.

For a film they worked on for more than seven years after the subject died, what Berg and Keraudren offer often feels rather incomplete. There is fleeting archival footage of Aron, who became Liz Eden and lived out a tragic life until her death from AIDS. There are glimpses of Wojtowicz’s final years, when he was ravaged by skin cancer but still took the time to visit his older brother, an epilepsy patient who lived as a ward of New York State. (It’s also one of “Dog’s” only humanizing moments.)

But this is Wojtowicz’s story to tell, and he lived it without a shred of remorse. Dog Day Afternoon became his life, from using his cut of the film money to pay for Eden’s gender reassignment surgery to suing Warner Bros. for a bigger chunk of the movie’s revenue to giving autographs outside the bank to curious New Yorkers who want the signature of the city’s most famous small-time crook.

If Wojtowicz had any regret, it might be that he never liked the movie based on his caper. “F**k Al Pacino,” he says. “I’m a bank robber.”

Screening Thursday, June 19, 3:45 PM and Sunday, June 22, 9 PM at AFI Silver Theatre.

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Posted at 01:21 PM/ET, 06/17/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman explore the life of one of America’s most prolific art forgers. By Tanya Pai
Image courtesy of AFI Docs.

“Nothing’s original under the sun, you know. Everything goes back to something.”

These are the words uttered by Mark Landis at the beginning of Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman’s Art and Craft, which explores the stranger-than-fiction story of Landis—a Virginia native, a diagnosed schizophrenic, and one of the most skilled and prolific art forgers in American history. In his cluttered apartment, he laboriously creates pitch-perfect copies of works by artists ranging from Pablo Picasso to Paul Signac to Charles Schulz. But he doesn’t sell them—instead, he takes them to museums across the country while under various aliases (including a Jesuit priest) and “donates” them, claiming the contributions are at the bequest of one fictional deceased relative or another. Landis calls himself a “philanthropist,” and his methods manage to get more than 100 of his forgeries into an astonishing 46 museums across 20 states. And he might have continued in the same vein indefinitely, were it not for a determined University of Cincinnati registrar named Matt Leininger, who discovers the fakes and embarks on a personal crusade to expose Landis, losing his job and gaining an obsession in the process. 

Parts of Art and Craft feel almost like a caper film, as when the filmmakers follow Landis donning his disguises and road-tripping from city to city with a briefcase full of fake masterpieces. Other times it’s more simple, the story of a lonely man living with mental illness, devastated by the loss of his mother and with only TV shows and movies to keep him company and shape his world view. (In a scene at the clinic where he’s treated for schizophrenia, the clinician asks after his mother, unaware that she died more than two years prior.) It’s clear Landis has mental issues; what’s less clear is whether what he’s doing is actually illegal. Most of the curators he’s duped seem more embarrassed than angry (with the exception of Leininger), and Landis has never been prosecuted nor attempted to cover up or deny what he’s doing. Even after the New York Times publishes a feature on him and includes his picture, leading to dozens of other news stories, Landis doesn’t stop. In fact, he almost seems to enjoy the attention.

The film meanders at times, spending long chunks focused on Landis’s face as he explains how he tries to emulate characters from classic films, or why he smokes the occasional cigarette (another affectation picked up from movies and TV), or how he had a nervous breakdown at the age of 17. The climactic scene, as it were, centers on the opening of a curated show of Landis’s forgeries. At long last, Leininger once again meets his nemesis face to face—and seems to find himself at a loss for what to say.

Art and Craft raises interesting questions—Is Landis an artist or just a savant? An eccentric or a crook?—but ultimately offers little by way of a conclusion. At the gallery opening, several people approach Landis to praise his work, and unfailingly they suggest to him he use his talents to create original works. “I made ‘The Young Virgin,’” he tells them, pointing to a portrait he sketched of his mother as a young woman—copied, in perfect detail, from a photograph.

Screening Friday, June 20, 9 PM at the Naval Heritage Center, and Saturday, June 22, 1 PM at AFI Silver Theatre.

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Posted at 02:22 PM/ET, 06/16/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Meet the man who’s brought the beloved Sesame Street character to life for more than four decades. By Vicky Gan
Image courtesy of AFI Docs.

Before Elmo hugged and giggled his way into the hearts of America’s youth, Big Bird was the undisputed star of Sesame Street. Now, I Am Big Bird, a new documentary by Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker, tells the story of the man behind the feathers: Caroll Spinney, who’s performed the beloved character for the past 45 years.

Through home videos, archival footage, and interviews with the cast and crew of Sesame Street, the film portrays Spinney as a humble, soft-spoken family man who comes to life in his most famous puppets, Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.

Spinney got his start in show business straight out of the Air Force, performing with puppets on a children’s TV show in Boston. His big break came in 1969, when Jim Henson spotted him at a puppetry festival and recruited him for Sesame Street. Despite a rocky start on the program—Spinney struggled to make ends meet after moving to New York for the job—he stayed on to transform the character of Big Bird from dopey goofball to innocent little kid and, eventually, international icon.

The film finds sure footing on the Sesame Street set, where Spinney is in his element and, mostly, on his own. Unlike the other puppeteers, who take visual cues from one another while their hands are occupied, Spinney is nearly blind inside the Big Bird suit and behind Oscar’s trash can. He reads lines taped to the suit’s interior while watching a monitor strapped to his chest, which shows a mirror image of his performance. Meanwhile, Spinney extends his right arm straight up through the neck of the bird to operate the head, which weighs about five pounds. Spinney’s left hand controls the left wing, which in turn moves the right wing in a kind of pulley system. The seemingly effortless persona of Big Bird is revealed to be an extraordinary feat of strength, skill, and empathy—one that Spinney pulled off by himself for 30 years.

For all its charm, though, I Am Big Bird invites largely unfavorable comparisons to Being Elmo, the 2011 documentary about fellow Sesame Street puppeteer Kevin Clash. Spinney doesn’t have Clash’s charisma, and his story is frustratingly untidy, interrupted by misfortunes the filmmakers don’t quite know how to deal with. Spinney’s difficult childhood and divorce, Big Bird’s aborted mission on the doomed space shuttle Challenger, a homicide that takes place on Spinney’s property—these events fit uncomfortably in the film’s narrative, prompting abrupt shifts in tone and an overreliance on sappy instrumental backing tracks.

Some of the most poignant moments show Big Bird being eclipsed by the new kid on the block, Elmo. The little red monster’s rise to stardom coincided with a shift in the show’s creative direction; Sesame Street began to appeal to a younger audience of two- and three-year-olds, for whom Elmo, not Big Bird, was an immediate favorite. Spinney and other Sesame Street cast members express weary resignation to the changes, as they wistfully remember the show’s—and Big Bird’s—good old days.

At 80 years old, Spinney has passed on an increasing number of his Big Bird duties to understudy Matt Vogel; now the veteran puppeteer spends much of his time drawing and animating. But it was Spinney’s Big Bird who appeared on Saturday Night Live in 2012, after Mitt Romney’s ill-advised quip about cutting funding to PBS, and it was Spinney’s Big Bird who recently appeared on Sesame Street to tackle the serious subject of bullying. Watching him perform after all these years, it’s clear he hasn’t missed a beat.

Playing Saturday, June 21, 1:45 PM at the National Portrait Gallery, and Sunday, June 22, 11 AM at AFI Silver Theatre.

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Posted at 10:23 AM/ET, 06/16/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
This profile examines the “Amazing Randi,” a trained magician who made a career out of exposing the tricks of con artists and faith healers. By Chris Campbell
Image courtesy of AFI Docs.

A name like Randall James Hamilton Zwinge conjures an image of a circus tent with a guy in a cape guessing some sap’s hometown and weight, or perhaps conversing with a long-dead relative. Pass the hat for a few quarters or dollars, and then usher in the next crowd.

And for a long while, that is almost exactly what Zwinge did, calling himself the Amazing Randi and plying his trade as an escape artist and magician on TV and in public shows.

After a back injury cut short his Houdini-inspired career, Randi began to use his skills in a new way: to disprove those who made a living by claiming to have special abilities. He’s not breaking the magician’s code showing you how Three-Card Monte works; rather, he has spent decades exposing hucksters who claim that they have direct conversations with God or can move objects with their minds. Filmmakers Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom follow Randi as he pounds home his belief that these individuals are using magic not for entertainment and awe, but as a means of implanting false hope in their powers in order to fleece people out of their money.

This entertaining and engaging documentary focuses on two of Randi’s chief targets, Uri Geller and Peter Popoff. The latter feels like a mission of social responsibility; the former is more to scratch an annoying itch that won’t go away. Popoff was a hugely successful televangelist, and while Randi’s discovery that Popoff used a hidden earpiece to have people’s personal information fed to him may sound obvious and silly in 2014, in the 1980s it was a massive exposé.

Geller, on the other hand, is a “psychic” and “mystifer” who Randi says spouts the same lies so often he now believes them as truth. Randi would often appear on the Tonight show with Johnny Carson and The Merv Griffin Show the night after Geller wowed the host and audience with his telekinetic abilities. One of several clips features Randi replicating Geller’s spoon-bending trick for Barbara Walters, and the wave of instant disappointment and embarrassment that washes over her shows the power of the new age movement’s hold on society at the time.

Of course, any profile documentary eventually turns the focus toward the subject’s personal life, and An Honest Liar is no exception. Early in his debunking campaign, Randi enlisted the help of young man who posed as a medium and garnered a large following, despite it being a ruse conceived by Randi. The two form a lasting relationship that is tested by his citizenship status during the closing moments of the film, and after nearly 90 minutes of time spent with these two, one is inclined to agree with their sentiments that the only real truth is love.

Screening Friday, June 20, 4:30 PM at the Goethe-Institut, and Saturday, June 21, 9:30 PM at AFI Silver Theatre.

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Posted at 02:54 PM/ET, 06/12/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Filmmakers Rachel Lears and Robin Blotnick explore the struggle of undocumented immigrants to achieve fair working conditions and wages through the eyes of bakery workers in New York City. By Marisa M. Kashino
Image courtesy of AFI Docs.

Mahoma López, the protagonist in The Hand that Feeds, makes sandwiches on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. English is his second language. He’s soft-spoken and spends much of the time looking down at the ingredients he assembles. He’s someone customers can easily ignore.

You may realize, with some discomfort, that he’s someone you could easily ignore.

This is what makes López’s evolution into an impassioned, determined advocate for the rights of undocumented workers all the more poignant. Filmmakers Rachel Lears and Robin Blotnick follow him as he leads his coworkers at the Hot & Crusty cafe on 63rd Street—first in a push to unionize, then in a months-long struggle to secure a contract guaranteeing fair working conditions and wages. (The documentary opens with an older gentleman, a dishwasher named Margarito, counting a stack of bills. In total, he has been paid $290 for 60 hours of work, or less than $5 an hour. “We are undocumented, but that doesn’t mean they have to profit from our hunger,” reads a subtitle at the bottom of the screen.)

As the fight unfolds, Lears and Blotnick offer a look into the individual stories of the Hot & Crusty employees. Margarito came to the US with “a suitcase full of dreams.” He sends money home to his family, who stayed behind in Mexico. He vows to return to see his daughter graduate from college. López married an American woman of Puerto Rican descent, who disapproves of his newfound activist streak. She fears he’s putting himself at risk. López explains that they respectfully disagree on the matter.

The employees are funny, smart, and eloquent, committed to their jobs and to providing for their families. They’re believers in the great American possibility that their struggle may lead to a better future. No matter where your own views fall, the film’s personalization of the low-wage workers that sustain much of our economy is a necessary addition to the dialogue surrounding the issue of undocumented immigrants.

As a viewer, you’ll likely feel a bit exhausted by the time the credits roll. You’ll have witnessed the Hot & Crusty crew endure false hope and promises, abandonment by a friend and coworker, and the constant worry that their activism could get them arrested and deported. Be sure to remind yourself, when it’s all over, why they went to the trouble: to continue working as dishwashers and coffee- and sandwich-makers in a safe environment, for the compensation they’ve earned.

In other words, to get up and go to work, and to be treated fairly—something most of us take for granted every day.

Screening Friday, June 20, 4:45 PM at AFI Silver Theatre, and Saturday, June 21, 3:45 PM at the Goethe-Institut.

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Posted at 02:35 PM/ET, 06/12/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Johanna Hamilton’s documentary introduces for the first time the political activists behind the infamous 1971 raid on an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania. By Luke Mullins
Image courtesy of AFI Docs.

On March 8, 1971, a group of eight political activists broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, and removed every file from the room. The documents contained evidence of the federal government’s secret efforts to spy on its own people—a revelation that, when it became public, led to the first-ever Congressional investigation into an American intelligence agency. 

The activists were never caught.

Now, 43 years later, the men and women who carried out the crime—the self-titled Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI—have publicly revealed themselves for the first time in director Johanna Hamilton’s fine new documentary, 1971. The film explores the planning, execution, and impact of the Media break-in from the perspective of the activists: the university professor who led the group, the wife and mother who posed as a journalist to case the inside of the office, and the college dropout who picked the locks. The fast-paced plot unfolds dramatically and brings the viewer face to face with a question that has never been more important than it is today: What risks are worth taking in order to expose abuse of government power?

Back in 1971, the American public was largely unaware of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s sweeping efforts to surveil and intimidate citizens. But the documents stolen from the office in Media led to public disclosures about COINTELPRO, a secret FBI counter-intelligence program that targeted the American Indian movement, the Black Panthers, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., anti-Vietnam War activists, and many other law-abiding citizens. The impact of the disclosures was far-reaching, but so were the risks taken by the activists. 

Among the activists was a married couple who had three children; had they been apprehended, the couple’s children would have grown up parentless. By exploring the ideals that motivate otherwise ordinary men and women to make these profound decisions, the film offers an unique window into why contemporary figures such as Edward Snowden and Julian Assange have taken similar risks. 

Hamilton’s film is a compelling documentary that provides a powerful perspective on the current debate about the men and women who risk everything to disclose government secrets.

Screening Thursday, June 19, 7:30 PM at the National Portrait Gallery, and Saturday, June 21, 11:15 AM at AFI Silver Theatre.

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Posted at 03:48 PM/ET, 06/11/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The ’80s coming-of-age comedy is now playing at AFI Silver Theatre. By Tanya Pai
Ping Pong Summer, starring Marcello Conte and Myles Massey, is now in theaters. Photograph courtesy of Frank PR.

Filmmaker Michael Tully was a senior in high school when he first had the idea to turn memories of his childhood vacations to Ocean City, Maryland, into a movie. This year his dream finally became a reality with Ping Pong Summer, the story of teenage ping-pong and break-dancing enthusiast Rad Miracle and his family’s trip to Ocean City. The film, which features newcomer Marcello Conte in the lead as well as veteran actors Susan Sarandon, John Hannah, and Lea Thompson, was a Sundance Film Festival selection and is now playing at AFI Silver Theatre and on demand. We chatted with Tully about how he developed the concept for the movie, working with both novice and experienced actors, and the film’s soundtrack, which features an original song by Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes. 

You’ve had the idea for an Ocean City-set movie for a while, right?

The real core of it was in 1992 when I was a senior at Linganore High School in Frederick County. I remember driving through Virginia and seeing Radford College and thinking, “Rad would be a cool name for a character.” These germs were formulating, but for many years I stayed away from the personal aspect to the extent that I was calling the project Watertown, not Ocean City. I thought, “What’s more generic than the two words ‘Ocean City’?” I was afraid to embrace the real aspects of my life in Maryland. But now I’ve lived long enough and it took long enough for it to happen that the interesting challenge, the concept and experiment, became, “What if I inserted my own super-functional, normal, middle-class life into an ’80s movie? That became the modus operandi. In independent film—I write about movies for a living and go to film festivals—and it’s all about dysfunction and darkness, and someone’s gotta almost die for it to feel like a real movie. I thought it would be a challenge for there to not really be stakes, where the dad before the big showdown is like, “We’ll love you no matter what!” It was sort of anti-drama, and I wanted to explore that and see if I could still make a funny, interesting movie while removing those indie-film dramatic tropes from the equation. 

The movie seems to toe the line between being an homage to ’80s movies and sending them up. What was the intention?

It’s tricky—I don’t even know how to answer it myself. I think for many years that threw people off about the script. Is this ironic, is this mocking the ’80s, or is it sincere? I wanted it to be earnest; more than anything in a production sense, we tried to make a movie that felt like a lost movie from 1985, not like the Wedding Singer, with what I refer to as hindsight humor. The ’80s were kind of wacky and cheesy as it was, but my 11-year-old self in 1985 had a sincere earnest appreciation of Ocean City and the ’80s and even of those movies. I didn’t know the difference of what was a good versus a bad movie, and we’re definitely embracing the tropes—like having the bad-guy sidekick say a lot of homoerotic things, because that just happened inherently in those movies—but ultimately I wanted the movie to feel like a first person-perspective of a 13-year-old in 1985, as opposed to being a thirtysomething hip, clever filmmaker making jokes looking back on the ’80s. 

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Posted at 03:30 PM/ET, 06/09/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()