To a generation for whom the legalization of gay marriage has become one of the defining issues of the day, The New Black is a film with both national and local significance. Taking place in Maryland during the months surrounding the passage of the Civil Marriage Protection Act and the subsequent referendum on the issue, director Yoruba Richen’s documentary examines the struggle to legalize gay marriage through the perspective of African-Americans—both advocates for it, who frame it as a civil-rights issue, and opponents of it, who base their objections on religious beliefs.
An early scene flashes back to President Obama’s first inauguration. Sharon Lettman-Hicks, a member of the Coalition for Black Justice, recalls the elation she felt at seeing a black man elected President being swiftly tempered by the passing of Proposition 8 in California—and the subsequent blame that fell on the African-American community. The question: What does it mean to be both African-American and LGBT?
It’s a question with a great many sides, and the film explores several. We see people attempting to reconcile their love for their family with their family members’ rejection of their right to marry, and youngsters struggling to equate their idea of faith with the knowledge that the church community is attempting to use that faith against them. The opponents of gay marriage, led by the Maryland Marriage Alliance and its chairman, pastor Derek McCoy, insist that African-American ideas about gay marriage stem from long-running, unshakable beliefs rather than any sort of outside manipulation. He holds to this even after previously sealed court documents are released detailing a plan to “drive a wedge” between the gay and African-American communities as part of a strategy by the Christian right and a main campaign donor, the National Organization for Marriage, to divide and weaken the Democratic voting base. It’s a disturbing idea, underlined by a TV clip from 2008 showing Obama saying he believes marriage is a sacred bond between a man and a woman. While he’s since changed his tune, the clip and documents suggest that opinions on gay marriage, while couched in rhetoric of religion and family values, are still controllable by the highest bidder.
Best Kept Secret follows a class of autistic students at John Franklin Kennedy, a special-needs public school in Newark, New Jersey, in the year leading up to their graduation. “Graduation,” however, is a euphemism. At 21, special-needs pupils age out of the system. After years of speech therapy and one-on-one attention, many JFK alums wind up in institutions or are shut in at home with little social stimulus. Teacher Janet Mino and her colleagues call it “falling off the cliff.”
Mino, with her wild laugh and intense extraversion, is a natural scene-stealer. Filmmaker Samantha Buck trailed her class for 18 months, interviewing families at home and shadowing the teacher as she works overtime to explore the fates her students will soon face—rote work at a grim gift-basket factory, dull comprehension lessons at a decrepit senior citizen center. Curiously, though, we never see Mino outside of her role as saintly special-needs instructor. If there is a partner, or children, impacted by her singular obsession, we don’t get access to them. We’re privy to the complex conflicts faced by her pupils’ families—one student’s father describes struggling to accept his son as he is; a caretaker diagnosed with colon cancer expresses agony over returning her nephew to his drug-addled mother. Mino, though, is contained to her role in the classroom.
Her grandfather—the larger-than-life writer Ernest Hemingway—committed suicide. Her great-grandfather—Ernest’s father—committed suicide. Her uncle, her great uncle, and her sister all took their own lives.
Is it any wonder that Mariel Hemingway says—in Barbara Kopple’s compelling documentary—that her whole life she’s felt like she’s “running from crazy”?
The film by two-time Academy Award winner Kopple (Harlan County, USA and American Dream) explores the subject of mental illness through the life of actress Mariel Hemingway, known for her Oscar-nominated portrayal of Woody Allen’s 17-year-old girlfriend in the 1979 movie Manhattan—and for being part of a family plagued by depression, alcoholism, and suicide.
“It was kind of like the Kennedy family,” she says. “We were sort of the other American family that had this horrible curse.”
The fact that the family was so famous turns out to be a blessing, at least as far as the documentary is concerned. Kopple and her team had access not only to archival video, audio, and photos of Ernest, Mariel, and her sister Margaux, but also to extraordinary footage of the family from a documentary Margaux intended to make. In one heartbreaking scene, the girls’ father, Jack, says to Margaux, once one of the world’s highest-paid models and a frequent partier at Studio 54: “I saw what effect fame had on Papa, both in a positive and negative way. Seems to me I heard you or Mariel say at one point, ‘Don’t worry, daddy, I’ll never change.’ But you do.”
Mariel’s childhood is not a happy one. Her father, Ernest’s oldest son, drinks, and her parents fight constantly—frequently to the point where one will hurl a bottle against a wall. Mariel, the youngest of three daughters, is often the one to clean up the blood and glass. Affection was rare in the Hemingway house. Also strangely absent was any talk of their famous grandfather.
Much has been said about the 37th President of the United States, but in her debut documentary feature, Our Nixon, artist and filmmaker Penny Lane takes a fresh look at a familiar figure through a huge trove of archival footage: more than 500 reels of home movies chronicling Richard Nixon’s presidency from 1969 to 1973. During their tenure at the White House, Nixon’s key staff members, H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Dwight Chapin, took their Super 8 cameras wherever they could, hoping to capture some pivotal moment in American history, or just something to show their grandchildren. They weren’t disappointed.
The film begins with Nixon’s inauguration in 1969: The American people are hopeful, and Nixon delivers a fine address, promising the usual goals of world peace and mutual understanding. The found footage slowly offers insight into his relationships with his right-hand men, and the dynamic is one of professionalism but also of true friendship—it’s clear Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Chapin respect Nixon, and vice versa.
Other milestones are documented in Nixon’s first term, including the moon landing in July 1969, his daughter’s wedding, the annual Easter egg hunt, and important moments in the Vietnam War. The events aren’t emphasized so much as used as reference points in the timeline of Nixon’s presidency. There’s no narration during the film, although every so often the clips are interspersed with interviews with Chapin or Haldeman from the ’80s and ’90s, offering their interpretation of events.
Year after year, thousands ascend upon Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee, hoping to snag a ticket that will gain them access not to the next NASCAR race but to free health care. They hope, sometimes in vain, while camping out in the freezing cold for days, that this time around there will be enough dentists to treat everyone. Or that a toddler can get a new pair of glasses so he can see the chalkboard at school. Maybe his mom will be able to finally get that mammogram, too.
The story that Remote Area Medical delivers—of the profound lack of affordable health care in the United States—isn’t groundbreaking, but it’s one worth telling over and over again. Despite the passage in 2010 of the Affordable Care Act, thousands of residents in remote areas of the country still lack the access, money, and resources to attain simple medical procedures. When the organization Remote Area Medical rolls its armada of volunteer doctors, nurses, and dentists once a year to Bristol, it’s the residents’ only hope.
“We’ve had to cut back in places like Guatemala and Honduras because of the need here,” says RAM founder Stan Brock. “Welcome to America.”
Wrong Time, Wrong Place is Dutch filmmaker John Appel’s unique look at the bombing and shooting spree that claimed 77 lives in Norway on July 22, 2011—the deadliest attack the country has witnessed since World War II.
The film, however, isn’t about Anders Behring Breivik, the right-wing extremist who detonated a car bomb at a government building in Oslo, Norway’s capital, before opening fire at an island summer camp hosted by a left-leaning political party, killing 69. Instead, Appel uses accounts of five people who experienced the attack to examine the role of fate and coincidence in the massacre.
Through emotional interviews with survivors and victim’s families, viewers learn the heartbreaking tales of those who made it through the day—and those who didn’t. The three students who, by chance, hid from the gunman in a bathroom. The young man whose decision to skip work for a day of base jumping saved his life. And the young woman who never learned to swim whose body was found dead on the shoreline.
It’s a fascinating topic: those split-second, seemingly inconsequential decisions that in the fog of chaos become matters of life and death. Appel committed to exploring this theme even before the tragic events in Norway. “I wanted to make a film about fate and coincidence, and I knew I had to wait for some tragic event to happen, like a plane crash or some very big accident,” he told the Independent last November. After learning of the attacks, he traveled to Norway and became convinced that the massacre produced the stories he needed.
Ryuichi Ichinokawa works at the margins of the Japanese economy—doing odd jobs, delivering packages, helping at a catering company. But the oddest job of all is the one he’s invented for himself.
Ichinokawa rents himself out to masquerade as the father, husband, or friend for perfect strangers who need a stand-in at an event or special occasion. He has a staff to call upon if he can’t fill the required role or the client needs a crowd. It’s all part of what Ichinokawa calls his “I want to cheer you up” service. And it’s the subject of Danish documentary filmmaker Kaspar Astrup Schröder’s Rent a Family Inc.
The landscape of Ichinokawa’s real life is lonely, barren, and bleak. His wife and two sons treat him with contempt. He has to sleep on the floor of a child’s room while his wife and preteen son share the marital bed. His only source of meaningful affection is his dog.
Imagine a behind-the-scenes glimpse of a family portrait being taken, and you have filmmakers Banker White and Anna Fitch’s poignantly intimate bio-doc, The Genius of Marian. The film covers three generations and two separate battles with Alzheimer’s as White pays homage to his mother, Pam, during her diagnosis and the early stages of the disease. At the same time, Pam is writing a novel conveying her own mother’s battle with the same illness.
With each personal interview the filmmakers lead us to connect with the family as they open up their lives during the matriarch’s most vulnerable moments. As the film progresses, Pam’s memory deteriorates, and the anecdotal stories reveal in heartbreaking fashion a woman and her family struggling to keep those memories while also establishing new ones.
Flashbacks to family photos and home video from vacations at the beach, along with images of the grandmother’s watercolor paintings of family members, help to establish a fluid and compellingly visual storyline. White’s love for his family and their efforts to combat Alzheimer’s from one generation to the next clearly motivates his storytelling technique and allows him to connect with his audience.
The somewhat optimistic premise of an afterlife—featuring the pearly gates of heaven for some, the fiery depths of hell for others—is typically reserved only for the religious. But there are also some 100-or-so people tucked away in a Michigan laboratory who believe in the phrase, “Heaven can wait.”
Directors Myles Kane and Josh Koury’s We Will Live Again feels chilling in more ways than one, opening with a lingering shot of a corpse’s frozen foot. In just 12 minutes and four seconds, Kane and Koury introduce us to the world of cryonics, a technique with the primary goal of extending the life of the dead—all with the hope that science catches up at some point to revive them.
“Nothing is for sure, but you have a chance. I think it’s a good chance,” says the hopeful and aging Robert Ettinger, founder of the Cryonics Institute in Clinton Township. Ettinger, who eventually died before the documentary aired and who became the 106th patient of the institute, now joins his mother and first wife, wrapped in a sleeping bag and stored at liquid nitrogen temperature in a cryostat, a floor-to-ceiling ice box.
Music is a universal language, a moving force that connects people. It breaks down language barriers. Music is for peace, not war.
These themes feature heavily in Ariana Delawari’s 80-minute documentary, We Came Home. Delawari, a singer/songwriter whose 2009 album Lion of Panjshir encompasses Afghan rhythms, narrates her family’s story both in front of and behind the camera lens.
The film opens with Delawari’s recount of how her family came to America. Her grandfather had been living in his native Afghanistan, and came across an American penny. Reading the words “In God We Trust” had such power over him that he decided to come to the US, eventually sneaking into the country via a trade ship. He started a new life in Los Angeles, married, had children, and watched his children and grandchildren—Delawari included—grow up as Americans.
This moving story depicts three generations of a family, and their efforts to reconcile their American lives and their Afghan heritage. Delawari was born the same year her father realized the main purpose of his life: to go to Afghanistan and try to restore peace in the troubled country. For the next two decades he split his time between Los Angeles and Kabul, where he was a financial adviser to the Afghan president.