MSPIFF Double Documentary Reviews: Chavela and Untouchable (2017)

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CHAVELA

Directed By: Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi
Runtime: 1 hour 30 minutes

Like most 20-something-year-old Midwesterners, I had never heard of Chavela Vargas. I might have heard some of her music in college, but I didn’t know her name-or her incredible history-until I saw Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi’s documentary chronicling her unconventional musical career, heartbreaking personal experiences, and massive impact on Mexico’s LGBT community.

Chavela tells the story of Chavela Vargas, a Costa Rican-born Mexican ranchera singer who gained popularity in the 50’s and 60’s, then disappeared into obscurity until the her career was revived in the early 90’s. Through a collection of interviews of individuals who knew her, as well as an interview of Chavela herself, we learn of her life-her lonely childhood with her loveless parents, per move to Mexico to pursue a music career, her struggle to find mainstream success due to her masculine style and being a known lesbian, despite not publicly labeling herself as such until her later years, her nearly crippling alcoholism, and her comeback in the 90’s that led to a huge, 2-decade-long success until her death in 2012.

I obviously can’t discuss this film without first discussing Chavela’s music, which acts as the perfect soundtrack to the story of her life, because it is so genuinely emotional. Every note in her strong, smoky voice carries a passion that you don’t realize is absent in other artists until you hear the real thing. It’s integrated so well into the movie too- each song, with its lyrics subtitled in English in a script-like font over concert clips and snapshots, introduce the different parts of Chavela’s life. It’s a beautiful and creative way of incorporating her music into the storytelling instead of just playing it in the background.

My only critique of this documentary is that, while for the most part it is very well-organized, it occasionally introduces a topic or piece of information in a seemingly unrelated spot, which can be a little jarring in an otherwise smooth narration. I understand there’s only so much they can fit into an hour and a half-long film, but that doesn’t completely excuse messy structure.

Despite minor organizational problems, I would highly recommend you see this fascinating movie if you get the chance, and if you don’t, at least listen to some of Chavela’s music, and if you don’t have tears in your eyes by the time you’re done, you’re made of stronger stuff than I am.

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UNTOUCHABLE

Directed By: David Feige

David Feige’s documentary Untouchable is a difficult film to review, mostly due to the painful and complicated subject content. Documentaries are difficult enough to critique since they’re more informational than entertaining, and one about the sex offender registry is even more challenging to discuss. As Feige said when introducing it at MSPIFF, “it’s hard to watch, but easy to remember.”

Untouchable explores the national sex offender registry, using the stories of individuals affected by it to show its intricacies. Interviewees include Ronald Book, a lobbyist who has been fighting for the toughest sex offender laws possible after discovering his daughter Lauren had been assaulted by her nanny; Shawna, a mother of two who has been on the registry since she was 18 for having drunken sex with a 15-year-old boy; and Patty Wetterling, the Minnesota mother whose son Jacob was kidnapped, assaulted, and murdered by a complete stranger who had no history of pedophilia on criminal record.

This film does an excellent job of showing all sides: the victims and their families as well as the sex offenders and theirs. They never try to excuse the behavior of the worst criminals, but they show that nothing about the registry is simply black and white, despite how a lot of the laws are set up.

Untouchable’s biggest problem is that they don’t explore sexual assault prevention; they make a point that it’s important but don’t really discuss it past some clips of Lauren Book reading her children’s book on the subject to a group of kids, and, as Patty Wetterling pointed out during the Q&A after the movie, just holding your hand up and loudly saying “No!” isn’t a solution. Granted, the majority of the film was about the intricacies of the sex offender registry laws, not sexual assault itself, but discussing prevention would have provided a good balance, especially since it is brought up during the film.

Despite this, Untouchable is an important documentary, and hopefully its release will lead to more exploration in and work on sex offender registry laws.

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Have you seen either one of these documentaries? Well, what did you think? 

Guest Coverage & Reviews of Frozen River Film Festival 2017

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The Twin Cities might be more well-known for their arts and culture scene than other parts of Minnesota, but there are plenty of small towns that have so much to offer as well-Winona, for example. Okay, I might be a little biased, as it is home to my beloved alma mater (Winona State University), but it still deserves recognition. The cozy college town, nestled in the gorgeous bluffs of Southeast Minnesota, has a flourishing community of art, music, theatre, and film which can be enjoyed year-round, including Midwest Music Fest, the Great River Shakespeare Festival, and one of my favorites: Frozen River Film Festival. This five-day-long event showcases a variety of documentaries that educate and inspire audiences of all ages.

This year, FRFF showcased 81 different films, all of which went through an extensive selection process. According to Crystal, the festival’s executive director, the films are chosen by a committee of 12 individuals. “Each film is watched at least three times and ranked according to content, subject matter, narrative structure and audience engagement,” Crystal explains. “Once the top ranking films are analyzed, we look at the variety of subjects, important and relevant issues and decide which ones to program.”

My friend Alisha and I have volunteered at the festival for the past few years. In exchange for a few hours of tearing tickets and helping guests find seats, we get a free pass to any of the other movies for the rest of the week. It’s a fun excuse for us to visit our college home, get our coffee and cocktail fixes at our favorite local spots (looking at you, Blue Heron and Ed’s No Name Bar), and check out a variety of educational, entertaining, and inspirational documentaries.

Below are the ones we saw this year, and I highly recommend you watch them if you get a chance.

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The first film we saw was a collaborative effort of 40 film teams all over the world. There was no narrative, which could have made the movie feel disorganized, but the editing and handful of interviews throughout actually made it a very effective choice. The film included a great range of cultures and beliefs, and it was interesting to see how, despite the differences in rituals and practices, they are used for the same purposes: as a source of strength in difficult times, as guidance in being a good person, as a way of connecting with the community. With a subject that is often so divisive, it’s so uplifting to see a project that highlights the similarities instead.

50 Feet from Syria – Skye Fitzgerald

This documentary left me shaken, but it was also one of the most important; it’s definitely relevant considering the debates over Syrian refugees. The documentary follows a doctor from the U.S. who travels to a hospital in Turkey, literally fifty feet from the Syrian border, to help injured refugees. It’s gut-wrenching, hearing about government snipers singling out defenseless children and pregnant mothers, about markets being bombed when people are just trying to get food for their families, about how healthcare workers in the country are banned from helping those who oppose the government. The hospital the documentary takes place in is the only one in Turkey approved to help Syrian refugees. It’s certainly an eye-opening film that I hope will gain more attention soon.

A Way Forward – Isaac and Jacob Seigel-Boettner

While this was the shortest film we saw (only about six minutes long), it was still impactful. Three women in rural Kenya explain how difficult it is for them to get to school, often having to risk their safety just to make it there. An organization called World Bicycle Relief provides bikes for the school to give girls, not only providing transportation, but a feeling of empowerment and courage for the students. In addition to benefiting the students, the organization also supports the local economy; the bikes are built in Kenya, and their next goal is to build an infrastructure to support them. It’s a great film for students here to watch in order for them to understand what they take for granted, because the women in the documentary are so willing to overcome serious hurdles in order to get an education: as one, Dianah, explains, “The challenges may be many, and the blessings bigger.”

Daughters of the Forest – Samantha Grant

Another strong documentary about female empowerment, Daughters of the Forest profiles the Centro Educativo Mbaracayú, a boarding high school for girls in a Paraguayan forest reserve, where they teach girls how to support their rural communities without destroying the forest, as well as give girls an opportunity to learn about and explore career options they might not have otherwise imagined for themselves. In a society with a teen pregnancy rate of 30%, where young girls are seldom asked what they want to be where they grow up, this school teaches girls they can be anything they set their minds to, even in roles that are not traditionally female. The documentary was filmed over a span of five years, showing the girls’ journeys as well as where they are now.

Life, Animated – Roger Ross Williams

This film was one of the Oscar nominees this year, and for good reason. Life, Animated tells the story of Owen, a young man with autism who is about to take his first steps toward independent living. Since childhood, Owen has been able to make sense of the world through Disney animated movies, and the documentary intercuts moments in Owen’s life with related Disney clips as well as roughly sketched animations of Owen as a young boy, which adds a beautifully creative touch to this particular style of filmmaking. Life, Animated is an informative, uplifting movie that brought tears to my eyes more than once; I never thought Gilbert Gottfried (the voice of Iago in Aladdin) making a surprise appearance would be considered heartwarming, but once you find out the significance of the character to Owen and his development, the grating-voiced actor’s cameo really packs an emotional punch.


My biggest regret is that I was only in Winona for the weekend and was only able to see a handful of films. There were so many others that sounded amazing, and next year I might have to take a little more time off work so I can enjoy more of the festival.

FRFF isn’t just a tourist draw, but an advantage for Winona locals as well. “Individuals who may otherwise not be documentary or independent film fans will come out to this event to catch up on the latest films,” Crystal explains. “Many films don’t come to our local theater. For instance, Life, Animated, which plays on Sunday 2/19, is up for an Oscar in February. Our local theater will never play some of the less-known films that people can catch at the festival.”

Whether you’re a city dweller or a Winona native, Frozen River Film Festival is worth checking out.

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TCFF 2016 Documentary Reviews: ‘In Search Of America’ + ‘Beyond The Thrill’ + ‘The Unrelenting Charlie Davies’

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There’s no shortage of great documentaries at TCFF! Today we’ve got a trio of reviews, thanks to FC contributor Sarah Johnson, my awesome reviewing partner during the film fest. Check out her bio page here, she’s a MN-based freelance writer who also writes for City Pages.

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‘In Search Of America’ Review

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Haven’t gotten enough of the presidential campaign over the past year? Throughout In Search of America, Marc Kornblatt, a former elementary school teacher from Wisconsin, crisscrosses the United States asking people from all walks of life about the issues of the day.

In one scene, Jonathan Katz, a professor of physics at Washington University, says, “Unless someone is a criminal or a terrorist, we should welcome immigrants.” In another scene, Heather Creighton from Toomsuba, Mississippi says, “I try to avoid politics and express what I believe in, which is the good Lord above.” As the camera pans out, you can see she is sitting under a Confederate flag. “It’s not a bad flag…I don’t know why everyone thinks it is?” She wonders.

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So this documentary definitely has a point of view but the more I watched it and listened to the people being interviewed the more I felt like it was not about what political party you belong to or where you live, it was just a very human portrait of people struggling along in this country as best they can. “My father was in the military so I grew up overseas,” said Joanne VanDeusen. “I wish every American could have the opportunity to travel outside of the United States and meet the real people of the world.”

A quote from Edith Neimark, a diminutive white haired lady from South Brunswick, New Jersey, summed up the angst of many Americans when she gave her opinion on the bloodshed around the world. “Kill someone because you don’t like them? What’s that going to solve? But how do you stop it? I have no idea.” “As we say in the Badger State,” Kornblatt opines near the end of the movie, “Forward.” What other choice do we have?

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‘Beyond The Thrill’ Review

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Mixed with creative camera work and a frank discussion about what draws them to such a risky endeavor, “Beyond the Thrill” is an intriguing look at the world of competitive skydiving. Director Jason Schumacher (some Twin Cities Film Fest regulars may remember him from winning the Short Film Audience Award for his Sad Clown in 2014) finds some beautiful scenery as a backdrop to showcase a four person team at terminal velocity.

“That feeling in your stomach after you jump…I was kind of afraid of it but I loved it,” says one skydiver. “You could be a doctor or you could be a garbageman…it doesn’t mean much at the drop zone,” says another. Schumacher does a good job highlighting some of the work the team does (in one scene they are rolling around on skateboards to practice their routines) and also interviews United States Parachute Association Regional Judge Jon Goswitz on how each team gains or loses points for completed formations.

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It doesn’t shy away from the inherent danger either: in one scene, Andy Junghans, wearing a Skydive Twin Cities hat, tells the story of a fellow skydiver who didn’t react quickly enough when his chute got tangled up while in the air. “When other divers reached him, they saw that his femurs were shoved up into his rib cage and he was gurgling blood…he stayed like that for about five minutes until he died.”

While it would have been interesting to learn more about what these people do in their “day jobs” or how their family and friends feel about their hobby, Schumacher ably brings us into this intense world of adrenaline.

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‘The Unrelenting Charlie Davies’ Review
(documentary short)

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Given what he has gone through in his life, The Unrelenting Charlie Davies, the 17-minute short film directed by Bryan Reisberg that premiered earlier this year on ESPN2, feels like a missed opportunity. It features Charlie Davies, once called “the most promising striker in American soccer,” and his recovery from a horrific car accident that nearly took his life.

Davies was a popular athlete who went on from Boston College to play for the US national team. In 2009, he got into a car with two women he didn’t know well and was injured when the driver smashed into a metal guardrail. With a shattered femur and a fractured skull, one of his friends said “he looked like he was dead.” The movie seems to skip ahead to his first game after the accident where he, despite having a right leg 1 ½ inches shorter than his left, scored two goals.

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It would have been interesting to learn more about the aftermath and psychology of the accident: What was it like to survive that? To what do you attribute your ability to go through that and come back to play soccer at a high level? What has changed in your life as a result of the accident? It was well done (I’m not a soccer fan but I enjoyed his biography) but it just felt like the filmmakers could have dug a lot deeper.

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What’s in store for Day 8 & 9!

Stay tuned for more TCFF reviews and interviews!


TCFF 2016 Documentaries Reviews: ‘Denial’ + ‘Prison Dogs’

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We’re now on its halfway point of the 11-day film festivities! I’ve been watching plenty of documentaries back to back, and today we’ve got reviews of two excellent ones we highly recommend.

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‘Denial’ Review

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Our nation’s electrical grid and having a transgender family member. The two don’t seem to be related, do they? They will after you see Denial, the first feature film for director Derek Hallquist. The background for this movie and the story it turned into are as interesting as the film itself.

It starts out as a traditional documentary, with Hallquist’s father, David, the CEO of Vermont Electric Cooperative, attempting to educate his son on the shortcomings of our nation’s power grid and the threat of climate change. It’s a little wonky: “Okay, I lost you there,” the son says at one point.

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During the shooting of the movie, a family secret is revealed: his father has come out to the family as transgender and wants to live as a woman named Christine. One of the things I admired about this film is that it doesn’t sugarcoat the struggles the family goes through. “We didn’t know how to handle it,” Derek says. While he comes out to his family, he struggles to fit his new identity into his work life. “He says he’s Dave at the co-op because he has a contract,” his wife says. “Well, we had a contract too.”

Change is hard. Both of these situations are transformative social and moral issues. “We don’t think very much about the amount of electricity we use until it smacks us in the face,” Dr. Courtney Warren, a social psychologist, says in the film. The same could be said for the process the Hallquist family is going through. Through the work of an earnest young filmmaker, he uses his own family’s situation to bring a new voice to something that affects everyone.


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‘Prison Dogs’ Review

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This is one of TCFF’s Changemaker Series’ films playing this year tackling the topic of PTSD, and it’s no doubt one of my favorite docs of the year. The bond of humans and animals are undisputed, but the bond between service dogs and their masters are pivotal. Prison Dogs explores a groundbreaking program that offers the gift of a second chance to prisoners in which they train puppies to be service dogs for veterans with PTSD.

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The film is set in New York’s Fishkill Correctional Facility where the many inmates serve a long sentence for violent crimes such as murder and armed robbery. At the start of the film, a selected number of inmates get assigned a puppy to train, and the joy and excitement is palpable. For them this is a gift of redemption, it’s their chance to pay their debts to society in some ways. The show also shows Gloria Gilbert Stoga, the feisty dog expert who runs the Puppies Behind Bars program and her tough love approach to teach the inmates to train their puppies. It shows an amusing moments where these inmates are intimidated by her, who expects a 100% commitment and responsibilities from the inmates.

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It’s one of the most moving, as well as entertaining documentaries that truly make you fully invested in the subjects’ journey. Whether it’s the inmates, the dog expert or the veterans who gets to keep the service dog in the end, I care about each and every one of them by the end. This is what an amazing storytelling is all about, so I applaud directors Geeta Gandbhir and Perri Peltz, who each have won Emmys and Peabody awards respectively. I’ve never heard of this life-altering program before but I’ve come to believe that it just could be the answer to making a prison a real place of rehabilitation.

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Be sure to bring tissues when you see this one. The scenes between the inmates and their puppies tug your heartstrings, especially the ‘graduation’ scene where the puppies are now certified service dogs ready to go home with their new masters. The inmates kept a journal as they trained the dogs and it’s heart-wrenching to watch them say goodbye to their four-legged friends.

I can’t recommend this enough folks, run don’t walk to see this when it plays near you. It proves that despite the bleak subject matter, the film can be a joyful, inspiring and uplifting experience. It one of those documentaries I don’t even mind watching again!


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PRISON DOGS is now available on @iTunes, Amazon Video and Google Play.
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Get the TCFF App!

The TCFF app is such a lifesaver for me. Instead of futzing with paper that’s easily lost, download the app so you have easy access the film schedule at your fingertips! It’s got all the info for the daily educational events as well as film schedule, which is immensely helpful!

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What’s in store for Day 6 & 7!

Stay tuned for more TCFF reviews and interviews!


TCFF Documentary Spotlight: ‘Word Of Honour: Reclaiming Mandela’s Promise’ + Interview with director Kiersten Dunbar Chace

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One of my most anticipated TCFF documentaries is playing today and I can’t be more thrilled that I got a chance to connect with the filmmaker to talk about her film. I always love films that immerse me into a world that’s far away from where I live, and gives me a chance to learn a bit more about the struggles they are facing. A large spectrum of the South African population includes the indigenous, Asian, European, Indonesian, Phillipino, Indian of India, and many others. In the Western world, we mostly hear about the Black/White struggle in South Africa, but nothing about the minority ‘Coloured’ people, as they’re called in that region.


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kierstenchaceKiersten Dunbar Chace (Producer, Director, Editor) founder of Chace Studios/Mondé World Films, is an award winning indie film producer/director and human rights activist/advocate who for the past 21 years has focused her lens on South Africa. In 2009, Chace produced her first feature length documentary film I’m Not Black, I’m Coloured – Identity Crisis at the Cape of Good Hope which explored the legacy of apartheid from the viewpoint of the Cape Coloured people. The film won an Audience Choice award at the Africa World Documentary Film Festival (Bermuda Int’l Film Festival) and was featured at several US, International Film Festivals and in over 60 major Universities. In September 2014, Chace’s film was one of two selected to present at the prestigious academic conference Migrating the Black Body: Visual Arts and the African Diaspora in Hanover Germany. Her role in the conference will be documented in the upcoming book by the same name.

Most recently, Kiersten was invited to be an observer at the United Nations in Geneva in September 2015 when a Shadow Report was presented/submitted to the Int’l Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination citing South Africa as being in violation of the UN CERD treaty/convention. The film was used as a supplemental neutral piece to help educate UN members on the history of the Coloured people of South Africa.

A documentary film that gives voice to a community questioning the future of their mixed-race/indigenous identity in the new South Africa. Blending poetry, landscape imagery, and rare archive footage with a collection of powerful, indigenous voices, Word of Honour is an introspective look into South Africa’s young democracy as well as a meditation on what may be looming on the horizon. (All South African cast and crew)

TCFF screening: Sunday | October 23 – 3:45pm
Runtime: 73 min

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Q: What inspired you to become a documentary filmmaker?

My inspiration was South Africa. In 1995, I helped produce a US concert tour for the popular South African vocal group the Christian Explainers. During that tour, one of young women in the group, in a somewhat fearful confession, shared a secret with me “Kiersten, in my country I am not considered black, I am Coloured.” Like many Americans I was stunned by her use of the term Coloured, but she kindly requested that I maintain an open mind. That was not a difficult task, however, with that open mind I felt this so-called secret would have been a great opportunity to educate Americans about the absurdity and injustice of the apartheid system; beyond the black/white rhetoric perpetuated by Western media. It also saddened me that they had to endure and maintain this awkward situation of telling people they were black South Africans, when culturally and linguistically they were not. Their reasons were centered around the use of the term Coloured in America and they were also embracing and putting into motion Mandela’s promise that they were now part of the majority alongside black/Nguni South Africans. So over the course of the next two weeks Suzanne shared the rich culture and history of her people and I listened closely with great interest.

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“Danny Brown, Elsie’s River” – Image Credit: Kiersten Dunbar Chace

Soon after that 1995 concert tour, I was invited to South Africa to visit Suzanne and my other friends. It was on that trip that I began learning more about this community and culture and for the next 5 years I traveled across South Africa meeting various non-profits and developing new friendships. In 2000, I began organizing group cultural tours to South Africa including Open Arms of Minnesota’s first visit, which ultimately led to the development of an HIV/Aid’s nutrition program at the new JL Zwane Center in Gugulethu. No matter how hard I tried to explain the history and culture of coloured South Africans, Americans were always drawn into the exotic tribal cultures of Southern Africa which are the common images portrayed of the African continent in Western media. I learned quickly that Americans don’t want to travel to South Africa to be visually reminded of impoverished communities in their own backyard per se, and that is the image they see when looking at Coloured townships.

Ten years’ post-apartheid, 2004, I organized another American tour group to South Africa. It was on that particular journey that I recognized how quickly the Coloured communities were deteriorating structurally and economically. Foreign investments and donations targeting disadvantaged communities were not filtering into Coloured townships due to their lack of knowledge and various government agencies bypassing Coloured townships. It was then that I knew I had to step up and educate the globe about this community and their existence. To accomplish this, I chose film as my instrument for change.

Knowing very little about the film industry, I went to Daniel Pierce Bergin in 2007, a senior producer at TPT/PBS in Minnesota and asked for his mentorship. His support of my project propelled my confidence greatly. He also connected me with a monthly event called Docuclub at IFP Minnesota where I met the talented Producer and Director Melody Gilbert, who gifted me and many other aspiring filmmakers in the Twin Cities with her years of documentary film knowledge. She gave me the tools and insight I needed to be a documentary filmmaker and in 2009, I release my first feature length film I’m Not Black, I’m Coloured: Identity Crisis at the Cape of Good Hope.

"Freedom Farm Informal Settlement" – Image Credit: Kiersten Dunbar Chace
“Freedom Farm Informal Settlement” – Image Credit: Kiersten Dunbar Chace

Q: How was your background as a humanitarian activist play a part in getting this film made?

After the completion of my first film I’m Not Black, I’m Coloured in 2009, I was surprised at its impact not only in South Africa but other mixed-race communities around the globe, academia and the United Nations. For example, in 2011, a Non-Profit organization in Johannesburg, South Africa used the film to petition the South Africa Broadcast Company to ask them to invest in Coloured television and radio programming. In 2014 I was invited to screen the film at a private academic conference in Hanover Germany ‘Migrating the Black Body: Visual Arts in the African Diaspora’ where 30 top professors gathered to present their academic research papers. Nearly half of the conference attendees were not aware this community even existed. I also learned that several universities over the years altered their curriculum to include this film. And in 2015, I was invited to participate as a human rights observer at the United Nations in Geneva where the film was used to educate UN rapporteurs. It is my goal to return to Switzerland again in March 2017 with the Advocates for Human Rights based in Minneapolis for additional UN training.

Through these experiences and the continual movement of my first film, I came to realize that my role as a human rights advocate was materializing before my eyes, unexpectedly. There is no doubt that these experiences along with the support of community leaders in South Africa gave me the confidence and motivation to produce Word of Honour. So yes, my human rights activism played a major role in this latest production.

Q: ‘Word of Honour’ is a sequel to your 2009 film… it is extremely rare to see a documentary sequel, would you speak about the differences between the two?

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Image Credit: Antoni Commodore

I’m Not Black, I’m Coloured: Identity Crisis at the Cape of Good Hope (filmed in 2007/2008) explored the legacy of apartheid from the viewpoint of the mixed-race/indigenous Cape Coloured/Khoisan people of South Africa, whose largest population resides in Cape Town (approximately 60% of the total population). After 10 years of witnessing the decline of this community and trying to teach Americans about a marginalized people who identified themselves by the term Coloured, I focused the film on history and identity.

The film also illuminated their diverse ancestry, how they suffered (180 years of slavery and a vast number of forced removals), and their contributions to South African society dating back to the mid 17th century to the dawn of democracy in 1994. So INBIC was historically driven and educational. That film won an audience award at the Africa World Documentary Film Festival in Bermuda, sits on the shelves of nearly 63 major universities around the globe.

My latest film, Word of Honour: Reclaiming Mandela’s Promise, focuses on the first 21 years of democracy – post 1994. It is less historical and more focused on the socio-economic struggles and the marginalization of this community due to discriminatory government policies. It features communities all across South Africa, not just Cape Town. In addition to the difference in storyline, the production value of Word of Honour is much greater and it is structured differently. More artistic yet the focus remains on the voice of the people.

You are correct. It is very rare to produce a documentary sequel. But as I mentioned before, my purpose for entering the film industry was for advocacy purposes, not awards, and as you will witness in this new production, clearly my work was not completed within South Africa. Especially after viewing Jimmy Manyi’s public statement in 2011 about Coloureds being ‘over concentrated’ and ‘should spread in the rest of the country if they want jobs’ my friends, community leaders and myself, became very concerned. Hence the making of Word of Honour. Since I already had a decent university presence with the first film I wanted to continue the dialogue around race, identity and human rights. With the two films together, we have created a more holistic perspective, identified and exposed the root of the problem, and documented a specific time in history that will last for generations.

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Q: What motivated you to shine a light on the complexities in identity/ history of the people in South Africa?

There are a lot of misperceptions about South African history internationally and within South Africa. As recent as 2015, trial attorneys who were attempting to justify their client’s discriminatory practices, claimed that coloured South Africans did not suffer as much under apartheid and should not benefit from Affirmative Action policies. This depends on how you define apartheid. Many scholars will argue that the system of apartheid was implemented the moment the Dutch arrived in South Africa and formally legalized in 1948. But others will argue the opposite and define apartheid as only starting in 1948. So it was important for me to focus on history as it relates to their identity, how this community evolved, what they endured and as reflected in this new film their struggle to fit in the new South Africa.

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Q: How many people did you end up interviewing for your film? (Vast area that is covers)

For 21 years, I have developed friendships with community leaders, business leaders and political activists all across South Africa. In our discussions, each person was very adamant in sharing their regions unique needs; that their struggles were very different from Cape Town (the largest population of Coloured’s in South Africa). Combine those strong regional or provincial sentiments alongside a lack of unity nationally amongst their leaders, I personally wanted to see if the socio-economic issues facing the coloured communities were different between the various provinces and townships. In the past, I had travelled across South Africa but with a very different purpose. So to observe the country from behind a camera lens with the intent to further educate the globe about this community, including South Africans, I wanted to see if I could capture the similarities versus the differences as well as affirm or nullify the psyche of disunity that seems to be embedded in national rhetoric amongst community leaders.

So our film journey included six of the nine provinces, thirteen cities, drove approximately 7000 km’s, interviewed 27 people and brought home close to 200 hours of footage. All but one of our production locations was pre-planned and budgeted. That one unplanned ‘spur of the moment’ location was Riemvasmaak, a tiny desert community near the Namibian/South African border where we literally knew nothing about this area historically or culturally, nor did we know a single soul who lived there. However, what we captured in 3 short hours (in the middle of the desert) ended up being one of my favorite scenes in the film and possibly one of the most important in terms of using an historical event as a reflection of what the future might be for this community if government policies continue on the path of racial quotas.

Q: Would you share a bit about your collaboration with David Grant, a prominent figure in MN arts/film/writing?

davidgrantI actually met David through a shared interest in genetic genealogy five or six years ago. I was the founder of the Cape Coloured DNA project at Family Tree DNA and we were introduced by a distant blood cousin from Arizona who also shared similar DNA with one of my former cast members in South Africa. Soon thereafter I learned of his gift for writing as well as his respected presence in the Twin Cities arts community. After one long breakfast meeting in South Minneapolis, I knew this was the person I needed to collaborate with.

With Word of Honour, I was taking a riskier more creative approach to my storytelling. I didn’t want this project to be cookie cutter journalistic type documentary film so I searched for someone who would take my artistic vision and goals and help build the storyline. With an arsenal of powerful poetry, rare Mandela footage, great interviews and beautiful landscape imagery I needed someone to help create a piece that made people think outside the box and engage the heart. Being a seasoned writer David understood all of these important elements and was instrumental in guiding me through some difficult storyline and structural decisions.

Q: Who have been some of the people who’ve inspired you, both in term of history/culture or cinema. Any documentarian whose work you admire?

I’m a great admirer of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films and books. He inspired me in my artistic direction, to not be afraid of taking risks and to be confident in your artistic expression. Not everyone will like your work but in the end you were staying true to the vision or your film. Another person who inspires me is Al Milgrom. A longtime friend and walking encyclopedia of film. Our long conversations and his passion for film inspired me greatly.

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“Near Polokwane” – Image Credit: Kiersten Dunbar Chace

Q: While traveling around South Africa, what was your greatest take-away from this production in comparison to your other journeys 20 years ago?

There were actually several key take-away’s on this journey but the greatest would be discovering how many Coloured communities across South Africa endured forced removals. I knew of District Six, South End and Sophiatown but I was stunned how many others there were. Nearly every major city in South Africa, including small villages, has a history of forcibly removing Coloured communities.

On a more positive note, I was encouraged by the economic progress in the Eastern Cape province near Mandela’s Qunu home where I spent some time back in the early 2000’s. This was a pretty impoverished area back then but today that has changed. The energy there was uplifting. I just wish I could say the same thing about ‘one’ coloured township, sadly it does not exist.


Thank you Kiersten for taking the time for the interview!

For more info on the film, please visit Word Of Honour‘s official site.


TCFF 2016 Reviews: ‘First Girl I Loved’ + ‘My Scientology Movie’ doc

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‘First Girl I Loved’ Review

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First Girl I Loved is a coming-of-age story for the social media generation. Mix this with a narrative about teenage sexuality and you have the new feature film written and directed by Kerem Sanga. It stars Dylan Gelula as Anne, the nerdy high school yearbook photographer, Brianna Hildebrand as Sasha, star of the softball team and the object of Anne’s desire, and Mateo Arias as Clifton, Anne’s best friend who secretly loves her.
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This is a movie that whether you like it may depend on what mood you are in. On one hand, the lead characters in this movie are teenagers that act like teenagers (no deep psychological speeches here). On the other hand, there is a lot of giggling and nonsensical teenager speak that can get annoying.

The narrative at times can be confusing as it’s told in flashback from each character’s perspective. If this was intentional to help the audience understand how conflicted these young people are, it succeeded. Dylan Gelula in particular is a standout in this movie, as she aptly portrays the angst of the high school years. I feel like this movie will really strike a chord with some viewers but unfortunately I am not one of them.

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‘My Scientology Movie’ Review

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I was intrigued by this documentary when I learned of the unconventional method that documentarian Louis Theroux (apparently cousin of actor Justin Theroux) in approaching the controversial subject matter. Directed by John Dower, Louis traveled around Los Angeles to investigate what goes on behind the scenes of the elusive church of scientology. But instead of featuring expert ‘talking heads’ as most documentaries typically do, Louis instead chooses to re-enact some of the practices and speeches, based on recruitment/marketing videos from the church that he got from whistleblowers.
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The style immediately reminds me of The Act of Killing documentary where filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer exposed one of the most brutal genocide in history that took place in Indonesia with re-enactments of the murderous ‘act’ itself. The difference is, Joshua used the actual perpetrators of the event to re-enact them, whilst Louis hired unknown actors to play the roles of major figures of scientology, including the church leader David Miscavige and the movie star Tom Cruise, the most famous celebrity scientologist in the world.

The result isn’t quite as hauntingly profound as The Act Of Killing, but still it’s quite a revelatory as well as amusing documentary. There are moments that are downright hilarious, such as when people start showing up across the street from where Louis was filming with their own video camera. When they’re confronted, they refuse to say who they are, but there’s little doubt they’re likely sent by the church to investigate Louis’ crew. The church also blocked certain roads and claimed they owned the property, which at the end is proven that it was in fact a public road. These encounters are often hilarious, but that’s not to say there’s no serious nor intense moment in the film.

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The exchange between Louis and Mark Rathbun, a former senior executive of the Church of Scientology who ‘blew’ from the church, is quite intense. There’s a certain unpredictability to Mark given that he was the inspector general of the church at one point. In fact, another whistleblower claimed that Mark had punched him during one of the most controversial practices. The scene where the actors re-enacted a brutal interrogation scene where Miscavige was berating some church members inside a room was quite intense, and I never know if at one point the actor playing Miscavige might snap and start hitting people.

Of course the church denies all the malpractices depicted in the film, including the infamous Hole that’s basically a prison for senior executives they deem as misbehaving. The whistleblowers were candid about the extreme abuse and human rights violation they suffered, to the point that they’d rather die than having to stay in the church. One of the most memorable moments was when Louis and his crew were watching a video of Tom Cruise talking passionately about scientology and they paused at a footage of him with a wild, fierce look on his eyes, as if he’s ready to strangle anyone to defend his religion. But I think its leader Miscavige is just as scary if not more as Cruise was, and he’s even more elusive.

As this is the first documentary on scientology I’ve seen so far, I don’t know if this is the definitive film on the subject. I’d think Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief might give more insights into scientology, just based on Gibney’s previous work. Still, this one is worth a look, an entertaining doc that’d make an intriguing discussion afterwards.

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Get the TCFF App!

The TCFF app is such a lifesaver for me. Instead of futzing with paper that’s easily lost, download the app so you have easy access the film schedule at your fingertips! It’s got all the info for the daily educational events as well as film schedule, which is immensely helpful!

tcffapp


What’s in store for Day 5 & 6!

Stay tuned for more TCFF reviews and talent interviews!


TCFF 2016 Reviews: ‘Funeral Day’ + ‘In Pursuit of Silence’ doc

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I know the next 10 days is going to be a whirlwind! Day 3 of Twin Cities Film Fest has pretty much come and gone. Thanks to Sarah Johnson, my awesome reviewing partner during TCFF, for contributing to the reviews of various indie and short films. Check out her bio page here, she’s a MN-based freelance writer who also writes for City Pages.

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‘Funeral Day’ Review

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“I am probably going to punch you in the face,” one of his friends says to Scott (Jon Weinberg) early in “Funeral Day.” Most of us have a slightly neurotic friend that we love anyway. In his feature film directorial debut, Weinberg also tackles the lead role as a hypochondriac who finds a mysterious lump on his testicle the day of his friend’s funeral and decides to skip it in order to start living his life to the fullest.

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Jon Weinberg & Dominic Rains

We meet a cast of characters – the jilted ex-girlfriend (Rahnuma Panthaky), the sleazy real estate agent (Dominic Rains, who has my favorite line of the movie – “I work for a living, do you think I have time for friends?”) and the Zach Galifianakis-type Chuck (Tyler Labine) – in Scott’s search for meaning.

While the cast is strong, I found the script at times (written by Kris Elgstrand) to be a little too raunchy, in that it almost took away from what would otherwise be an unexpectedly light way to look at dark topics such as illness and morality. Unquestionably what saves the movie for me is the winsome charm of Weinberg in his portrayal of a nuanced character.

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‘In Pursuit Of Silence’ Review

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Even before watching the trailer, I was immediately intrigued by the idea of In Pursuit of Silence. Billed as a meditative film about our relationship with silence and the impact of noise on our lives, it does exactly what it says on the tin. I truly believe silence is a lost art, as we’ve become increasingly absorbed by the bustling world around us and become more desensitized by it. I love documentaries like this that really make you pause and think about the world around you.

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Mr. Orfield at Orfield Lab in Minneapolis

Directed by Patrick Shen, the film itself uses sound… and silence, in a unique way. There are plenty of scenes where the only sound is comes from nature, be it the rustling trees or grass in a field, sound of water streams, or the wind in a vast, expansive space. It features several talking heads of experts in the field, some are actually on the field measuring the decibel level of certain environments. It’s amazing how loud certain cities have become that it far exceeds what the normal human hearing should withstand. The extended exposure of such loud sounds will no doubt cause hearing loss, yet most of us don’t realize it. I think people pay more attention to air pollution than sound pollution, but the latter can be just as damaging to our health.
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It also takes to to various parts of the world… Japan, India, London, New York, as well as Minneapolis. The film features Orfield Laboratories in Minneapolis, which lab is 99.99 percent soundproof and thus considered one of the quietest places in the world. I love how the film contrast the quiet serenity of a traditional tea ceremony in Kyoto with the deafening sound of the loudest city on the planet that is Mumbai during the thundering festival season.

In his director statement on the film’s website, Shen said that he …’hope that the film challenges audiences to slow down and on some level make the world new again for them.’ I think the film accomplishes that and it truly serves as a respite for me as I’m going through the busiest time of the year covering for TCFF. I’m definitely glad I watched this and I think every citizen of the world should!

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TCFF_reviewer_Ruth


Get the TCFF App!

The TCFF app is such a lifesaver for me. Instead of futzing with paper that’s easily lost, download the app so you have easy access the film schedule at your fingertips! It’s got all the info for the daily educational events as well as film schedule, which is immensely helpful!

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What’s in store for Day 4 & 5!

Stay tuned for more TCFF reviews and my interview with the filmmaker of Word of Honour: Reclaiming Mandela’s Promise documentary!

Word of Honour: Reclaiming Mandela’s Promise Screening:
Sunday, October 23 | 3:45 pm.


Spotlight on 10 great documentaries – and they’re all playing at 2016 TCFF!

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Just a few days aways until the seventh Twin Cities Film Fest begins on October 19! The 11-day cinematic marathon, running October 19 – October 29, will showcase 100+ films. It’s definitely great to be a film lover living in Minneapolis!

I’ve blogged about some of the films I’m super excited about, but I wanted to talk about the documentaries specifically, as year after year TCFF has always featured great documentaries that are both insightful and entertaining. Before I get to the list, check out the TCFF documentary promo:


Have you gotten your tickets yet? They are selling fast, in fact when I went to the SHOWPLACE ICON THEATRE in St. Louis Park this weekend, the seats are really picked over so don’t delay.

Get your tickets soon!
Click on each documentary title that’ll take you to its respective page on TCFF site.


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Here they are in alphabetical order:

Actors of Sound w/ Boom Up

  • October 29, 2016 10:15 am
  • Runtime: 112 min

Director/Producer: Lalo Molina

ACTORS OF SOUND: From footsteps to bone cracks, Foley artists bring films to life with their imaginative sound effects.

I always love learning about the various aspects of filmmaking and foley artists are one of the unsung heroes in the filmmaking process. This sounds like a fun insights into a world we rarely see, but one we’d definitely notice if not done properly.


Beyond The Thrill w/ The Unrelenting Charlie Davies

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  • October 24, 2016 5:15 pm
  • Runtime: 76 min

Director: Jason P. Schumacher

Skydiving isn’t just a hobby, but a sport and a lifestyle. These unique athletes compete in the relatively unknown world of competitive skydiving. The Unrelenting Charlie Davies: Charlie Davies was the most promising young striker in professional American soccer until a fatal car accident in October 2009 derailed his career and threatened his life.

I’m afraid of heights so skydiving is one of those bucket-list type of activities I wish I could do one day. But I always get a kick out of living vicariously through people who dared to do these kinds of extreme sports. This one offers something inspiring beyond just the thrill of the sport, and that’s what a great documentary should be about.


The Eagle Huntress

  • October 24, 2016 6:15 pm

Director: Otto Bell
Runtime: 101 min

The Eagle Huntress follows Aisholpan, a 13-year-old girl, as she trains to become the first female in twelve generations of her Kazakh family to become an eagle hunter. Narrated by Daisy Ridley.

I didn’t know there is such a thing as an eagle huntress, so this film immediately intrigues me. Per IMDbStar Wars: The Force Awakens star Daisy Ridley saw an early cut of this film and loved it so much that she wanted to be a part of it. She is now credited as an executive producer on the film. No doubt this will be an eye-opening and awe-inspiring glimpse into an exotic part of world we rarely see.


Free Cece

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  • October 29, 2016 2:45 pm
  • October 29, 2016 3:15 pm

Director: Jacqueline Gares
Runtime: 87 min

CeCe McDonald survived a brutal attack, only to be incarcerated for defending her life. After an international movement to free her, CeCe emerges as a leader to interrogate the prison industrial complex and inspire women to fight back when attacked.

lavernecoxThe title isn’t just a name of the film but also the call to action for a movement sparked by the incarceration of CeCe McDonald. Following her release, McDonald became an activist for prison reform and against transphobia. Orange Is the New Black star and activist Laverne Cox is the executive producer of the film and she’ll be attending TCFF and participates in the A Q&A session following the two screenings at 2:45 and 3:15 p.m. on 10/29. As timely as ever, the film highlights the struggles trans women face in prison, a topic I’m not familiar with but an important one to learn and support.


I Do?

  • October 26, 2016 8:45 pm
  • October 20, 2016 7:05 pm
  • October 26, 2016 4:20 pm

Director:Joe Brandmeier
Runtime:79 min

A light-hearted documentary on the “crazy” concept of marriage.

As someone who’s been happily married for over a decade, I don’t know if I’d call the concept of marriage as ‘crazy.’ But of course not every marriage is alike and some of the stories would likely resonate with people, no matter what their definition of marriage is. It’s interesting to note that the filmmaker Joe Brandmeier was inspired by his own marriage to former Minneapolis Kare 11 anchor Joan Steffend to make this doc (per Star Tribune).


In Pursuit of Silence

  • October 22, 2016 10:30 am
  • October 20, 2016 5:05 pm

Director: Patrick Shen
Runtime: 81 min

In our race towards modernity, amidst all the technological innovation and the rapid growth of our cities, silence is now quickly passing into legend. Beginning with an ode to John Cage’s seminal silent composition 4’33”, the sights and sounds of this film delicately interweave with silence to create a contemplative and cinematic experience that works its way through frantic minds and into the quiet spaces of hearts. As much a work of devotion as it is a documentary, In Pursuit of Silence is a meditative exploration of our relationship with silence, sound, and the impact of noise on our lives.

It’s so true that silence has become a lost art in our increasingly noisy and bustling world. I know I find myself struggle to just be still and turn off all the ‘chatter,’ so this is a film that I know will challenge me to look at silence and how it impacts my own life.


Iron Will

  • October 22, 2016 7:15 pm
  • October 22, 2016 7:30 pm

Director: Sergio Valenzuela
Runtime: 120 min

IRON WILL is a journey into the minds and lives of Veterans suffering with some form of (PTSD). Narrated by Billy Bob Thornton.


I’m glad that TCFF’s social cause this year is in support of veteran health as it’s such an important issue that impact so many people who’ve given their lives to keep our country safe. PTSD is another topic I’m not familiar with, so I always welcome the opportunity to learn a bit more about it.


My Scientology Movie

  • October 28, 2016 12:45 pm
  • October 21, 2016 5:15 pm

Director: John Dower
Runtime: 99 min

Louis documents his investigation into what goes on behind the scenes of the infamous church of scientology.

One of the documentaries on scientology I still need to see is Alex Gibney’s Going Clear, but I’m curious about the unconventional approach of this one. British documentarian/ broadcaster Louis Theroux features young actors “auditioning” for parts playing high-profile Scientologists. I’d imagine it’d be a hoot to watch the recreation of accounts from ex-members about incidents involving senior church management. It’s certainly a wacky way to get people to understand the way this religious practice operates.


Prison Dogs

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  • October 26, 2016 2:30 pm
  • October 22, 2016 5:15 pm

Director: Perri Peltz and Geeta Gandbhir
Runtime: 72 min

A story of love, loss, and redemption; Prison Dogs focuses on the impact of a unique dog training program that gives two of the most marginalized populations in our society, —prison inmates and veterans, —a second chance.

I love the idea of giving incarcerated people find a path to a second chance at life through their love and care of a puppy. The powerful relationship between humans and animals have proven to help restore the lives of those deemed impossible to save, no doubt it’ll be a heart-wrenching and moving film to experience. I have to remember to bring tissues to this one!


Word of Honour: Reclaiming Mandela’s Promise

  • October 23, 2016 3:45 pm

Director: Kiersten Dunbar Chace
Runtime: 73 min

A documentary film that gives voice to a community questioning the future of their mixed-race/indigenous identity in the new South Africa. Blending poetry, landscape imagery, and rare archive footage with a collection of powerful, indigenous voices, Word of Honour is an introspective look into South Africa’s young democracy as well as a meditation on what may be looming on the horizon. (All South African cast and crew)

This is a rare documentary in that it’s a sequel to the filmmaker’s 2009 film I’m Not Black, I’m Coloured: Identity Crisis at the Cape of Good Hope, which explores the legacy of Apartheid from the viewpoint of the Cape Coloured people and their struggle as a mixed-race people to fit into the ‘new’ South Africa. Once again I look forward to learning more about the racial issue that people in the western world (including me who’ve lived in the US for more than half of my lifetime) have known so little about. We mostly hear about the Black/White struggle in South Africa, but nothing about the minority Coloured community.

Stay tuned for my interview with Kiersten Dunbar Chace that’ll be published next week!


Thoughts on any of these docs? Which one(s) caught your interest?

Spotlight on FINDING NOAH doc & interview with director Brent Baum

This year’s Twin Cities Film Fest could very well be a Documentary Film Fest given how many of them are screening in 2015. I’m glad this one is one of them as not only is the subject matter close to my heart, but it’s an insightful and beautifully-shot film.

A group of intrepid explorers go on a journey of discovery and excitement as they climb and live atop Mt. Ararat’s 17,000 ft. summit in Eastern Turkey to conduct a scientific expedition to determine the final resting place of Noah’s Ark. 

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Shot in never-before filmed locations and in the harshest of conditions, this unprecedented feature-length documentary shows just how far men are willing to go to discover the truth. Narrated by Academy Award nominee Gary Sinise, FINDING NOAH is more than a quest for answers, it is a testament of the human spirit, where belief and the need for exploration transcend risk and limitation.

Check out the trailer:

I have to include one of the songs featured in the doc by Aussie Christian band For King & Country:

 


TCFF Screening Time(s): 
10/25/2015 (12:00 PM)
10/31/2015 (10:10 AM)


I had the privilege of chatting with director Brent Baum about the challenges of bringing this film to light, collaborating with Gary Sinise and For King and Country, and the origin & significance of the film title.

THANK YOU Mr. Baum for taking the time to share these wonderful and fascinating insights about your film.

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What inspired you to tackle this project? I’d love to know how the initial process was, how you came to find the arkeologists/explorers/experts etc featured in the film?

Like all people who grew up hearing the story of Noah in Sunday School, ​I had always been curious as to these stories surrounding the remains of Noah’s Ark. Don’t I read every few years how it has been already found?  Well, one day I got a random call from an acquaintance who ​was part of the excursion team…the Arkeologists as we like to refer to them. He mentioned that he was going and asked if we would like to buy the rights to film the expedition. My interest was certainly piqued. Wanting to go film this incredible journey was not the hard part, finding the funding to do so was the most difficult.

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Brent Baum (in baseball hat) on the set of Finding Noah

As you can imagine, sitting in front of a group of investors and asking for money to film the search for Noah’s Ark is not an easy thing.  But we were blessed with open minds who understood from the beginning, that this movie was not about finding a piece of wood, rather an opportunity to look into the hearts of those men who feel compelled (by science, faith, a sense of adventure or whatever their reason) to go and look for this immensely significant artifact.

What’s been the most challenging aspect of making this? The climb itself looked incredibly daunting, not to mention the fact that the Kurdish Rebel pose a threat to the explorers. Was there any filming delays due to unforeseen circumstances, be it weather or other political issues?

​Well, yes, first and foremost is the simple fact that we had no agreement with Mother Nature to play nice with our crew and timing. Climbing a peak the size of Ararat is a feat on its own, yet to live at 17,000 feet and work for 30 days is a whole other realm of physical and mental demands.

We were in the middle east for three months, 2.5 of which was in East Turkey on and about the mountain.  We had members of our team on the summit at varying times, the longest of which were up there for 30 consecutive days. The remainder of which was spent filming in Israel, Jordan and Armenia.

 The Kurds are the good guys… On one side of the hill they are fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, on the other side of the hill they are considered terrorists because of their decades long battle with Turkey for independence. Hence the uproar when the Turkish air forces would bomb Kurd positions on their way back from NATO sorties against ISIS in recent news.

For most of us, the Ararat experience is a metaphor for life and for faith. Mountains are put in front of us and we can chose to climb them or succumb. On Mt. Ararat I was honored to film those who chose to bravely climb them one step at a time exercising their faith with each dangerous step.

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The documentary addresses spiritual/faith aspects of the expedition as well as the science/archaeological aspects, was that a conscious decision on your (and/or the producers) part?

​Yes, from the very start of the film, ​we made a conscious decision to walk down the middle, to tell the science and the spiritual sides of this story.  I remember sitting in the production office and telling the crew over and over that in regard to this film, we had to operate more like a news room than a film production. There is just so much science and religion, historical sightings and myth, false claims and intrigue surrounding the story of the Ark; we had thousands of years of history to break down. So off we went to interview world experts on volcanoes, glaciers, wood preservation, satellite imagery, and the history of the region as well as leading scholars from Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Our first cut of the film was 4 hours in length.  There is just so much information and intrigue surround this story.

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I love the narration by Gary Sinise and the music by For King & Country. How did those collaborations come about?

​Gary and the 4K&C guys did such a wonderful job. We have been big supporters of Gary and the work his foundation does on behalf of veterans over the years.​ ​So when we were looking for a narrator and he just seemed like the best choice. He has a very distinct voice that we thought would lend to the thoughtfulness and tone of the film.​

With 4K&C it was a bit more round about. We had been searching for months for a song for the end credits of the film and could find nothing I was happy with. I was in a meeting with our lawyers discussing an entirely different film and they asked me if I would mind taking a call with one of their friends who was producing an independent movie that had a faith-based theme to it. So I spoke with the producer and he told me that he was working on a movie with the guys from the band 4K&C. When I got back to the office, I asked the staff to look up the band and their songs. We were just amazed at how uniquely the message of their music fit with the tone of our movie.  It is as if the lyrics were written for us. We immediately called the band and went to see them in concert…ever since we have all been big fans. We ended up putting three of their songs in the movie.

Lastly, what’s the significance of the title ‘Finding Noah’ which focuses more on the spiritual journey as much as the physical one in finding the Ark?

​Finding a title for the film was one of the most difficult parts of the production. We agonized over this.​ ​The Search for Noah’s Ark was such on over-used title in media over the years for movies and History Channel Unknown Mysteries type of shows.  It was just about so much more than the Ark. I found myself saying to people along the post production process something along the lines of: When you search for the Ark, you find a piece of wood; but when you search for and find the metaphorical Noah, you find something much deeper. In the Bible, Noah alone was chosen (because of his faith) to restart humanity in a world that had become corrupt and evil. And much like Noah, many of the men on this journey got a chance to start their lives again.


What are your thoughts of Finding Noah? 

Spotlight on The Last Great Circus Flyer doc & interview with director Philip Weyland

There’s something so inherently fascinating and magnetic the first time I heard the name The Last Great Circus Flyer. It’s one of the seven documentaries playing at TCFF I look forward to the most. The film focuses on Miguel Vazguez, who performed ‘the greatest feat in all of circus history’ during a Ringling performance in 1982. Vazquez’s “Quad’ was a premiere attraction at Ringling Bros., and the largest circuses in Europe until 1994, when, at the apex of his career, Vazquez unexpectedly quit flying.

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Check out the trailer:


TCFF Screening Time(s): 
10/23/2015  (10:30 AM)  |  10/25/2015  (7:00 PM)


I had the privilege of chatting with director Philip Weyland about the genesis of the project, approaching Miguel about making it, his opinion about circus as a form of entertainment, and more!

THANK YOU Mr. Weyland for taking the time to share these wonderful and fascinating insights about your film.

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Q: What motivated you to film a documentary about trapeze performer Miguel Vazquez?

A: As a kid in the 1950’s and 1960’s, I’d been fascinated by circuses. The circus was the place to go to see people perform all sorts of mesmerizing and “impossible” feats. During that time (and for many previous decades), trapeze was THE most important act in the circus.

The triple somersault was considered to be the most difficult trapeze trick until the early 1980’s. There were very, very few performers who could do the triple somersault. It was said by circus historians that more trapeze artists perished from attempting the triple than any other circus act.

LastGreatCircusFlyer_YoungMiguelI was very aware of the history of trapeze and when I read in 1982 that a 17 year old performer, Miguel Vazquez, had completed a quadruple somersault in performance with Ringling Bros. with his brother Juan as the catcher – it was – well – rather unbelievable! I had never even heard of Miguel Vazquez or his flying troupe, “The Flying Vazquez”. It was all over the news – Tom Brokaw reported this first Quad for NBC, the New York Times covered it extensively, etc.

In the years following, Miguel became the master of this “Quad” trick. There were a few trapeze performers who eventually did a Quad – but they never approached the frequency and consistency with which Vazquez performed it. I remember a quote from a circus historian who described Miguel as “…being alone in his greatness”.

In about 1994, I used one of the early internet search engines to see where the Vazquez act was performing. Someone had incorrectly posted an entry – with Miguel’s photo – reporting that he had died in a trapeze accident. Unknown to me, the poster had confused Miguel with a different performer. I thought he’d died. I stopped going to the circus.For 14 years.

In 2008, on a whim, I searched YouTube to see if there were any old clips of Miguel doing a Quad. Didn’t take long to discover that the 1994 post was wrong. Miguel was alive. I couldn’t believe it. I searched the internet for additional information – and surprisingly, there was very little to be found.

I thought it was bizarre that so little was known about this great athlete, someone who had been a huge draw for Ringling for nearly a decade performing what had been called “The Greatest Feat in all of Circus History”. I thought it would be a great subject for a documentary. It was and is.

Q: How did you approach Miguel about making the film? Was he immediately on board the project?

A: After tracking down Miguel, I wrote him a long letter detailing my interest in doing a documentary. He and his brother Juan agreed to meet with me. I flew to Las Vegas from LA to meet them. There was some reluctance. They had left the world of circus and trapeze behind. My impression was that they couldn’t understand my great interest and passion for the project. I think they were a bit wary… of the project and me. I got the impression that they would just rather let the past stay where it was. They had no great desire to tout their past accomplishments. But I did.

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To help alleviate this “wariness”, I invited Miguel to come to LA for the day and visit the set of “Boston Legal” where I was working at the time. Miguel met Bill Shatner (who was quite interested in Miguel’s career) , spent a few hours on the set meeting my co-workers and watching the filming. My goal was to convince Miguel I wasn’t addled. I guess I was successful because shortly after that, we agreed to go ahead with the documentary. I figured it would take about 5 years to do the documentary. I sure didn’t tell them that. It took six years to complete!

Q: Congrats on your directorial debut. What are some of the challenges as well as best moments of making this film?

A: Oh – I could speak for hours – days – about the challenges and “best moments” of making this film.

I figured out early on that the fewer number of people involved in the making of the documentary, the better. After the initial stages of the filming, I shot most of the film myself. In an interview situation, I found that the interviewees were far more relaxed when it was just me in the room.

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I felt honored during the interviews and location filming that so many performers openly shared their thoughts about the past and the present.

I quickly figured out that I would have to edit the film myself. I had certain POVs and story points that I wanted to emphasize and only I could really put it all together piece by piece and be happy with the final version. I’d edit and then work with a tech person who’d put my edit together cleanly.

Funding! Always a challenge. About half way through the filming, I was very fortunate. I showed a rough cut of what had been shot to a longtime friend, Mark Charvat. He really liked what he saw and provided the additional funding to complete the film.

While I wanted to document the Quad and the athletic feats Miguel and his family accomplished, I also wanted to show the audience what they were doing now. It’s like when you see someone from college and say “hey…what’s so and so doing now?”. In the beginning, that was one of the things I was most curious about. However, during the initial concept of the film, I did not know how this would be fully accomplished. But – fortuitously, there were several events that took place that solved most of this problem. We also filmed at Ringling Bros., Cirque du Soleil. “Le Reve” at the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas, Circus Vargas and several other locations to assist in answering the “What are they doing now” question.

One of the best moments was filming Miguel’s youngest son Christian from the ages 4-9 and his “experiences” with trapeze. It’s one of the highlights of the film.

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Q: Would you tell me a bit about your background working in the entertainment industry and whether or not it influences your interest in circus, particularly the trapeze acts?

A: I went to Texas Tech and majored in theatre. After college, I worked as an Equity director and actor for about 10 years before moving to Los Angeles. I occasionally appeared as an actor on TV and movies. I also worked as a dialogue coach on several of the “Star Trek” motion pictures and on the television series “T.J. Hooker”, “Beverly Hills 90210” and with William Shatner on the 2011 comedy series “S#*! My Dad Says”. When not working as a dialogue coach with William Shatner, I’ve worked as his stand-in for over 30 years.

My theatrical background has had no influence on my interest in trapeze. What interests me is people who can do or create things I could not possibly do. We all have our own talents. Trapeze isn’t in my repertoire!

Q: With the exception of shows like Cirque du Soleil, the traditional circus like the Ringling Bros. Seems to be a dying form of entertainment nowadays. What are your thoughts about that.

A: Circus is certainly changing. All forms of entertainment are changing. As an example – many lament the dearth of intelligent, adult movies claiming that superheroes have captured the focus of movie studios and left the intelligent films behind.

The circus too is striving to appeal to an audience that differs greatly from the past. Many now lament that the circus of the past had far more big acts that featured “star” performers. The circus of the past catered far more to adults than the present incarnation. The circus of today is geared more toward a younger crowd – children that would rather view a fire-breathing dragon than a wire walker or trapeze performer.

I myself don’t consider Cirque a circus. It’s a magnificent theatrical display that features gymnastic elegance and ability, choreography and a more “sophisticated” – maybe that’s not the right word – production that may or may not contain some traditional circus acts. For me – it’s really a different form of theatre rather than a different form of circus.

As a result of the change in the artistic direction of traditional circuses comes the meaning of the title – “The Last Great Circus Flyer.” The late 1980’s marked the end of the “star” performers with Ringling. Miguel and “The Flying Vazquez” were featured and billed performers. That era has passed. And with the passing of that era – no matter what a trapeze performer may accomplish – he will never gain the public acclaim that once was achieved beginning with Jules Leotard and continuing with Alfredo Codona, Tito Gaona and ending with Miguel Vazquez. A young trapeze performer once said to me “Someone could do a quintuple somersault – and nowadays – no one would care. And Tom Brokaw would not bother reporting it.”

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Q: What do you want people to take away from this film?

“The Last Great Circus Flyer” is about people that have their high moments and low moments – as we all do. It’s a film about people. Good people. Talented people. It’s about a performer who accomplished what was considered “impossible” – and was able to continue doing the “impossible” until 1994. The film is not just a “tribute” film. The film touches upon circus and trapeze subjects that have never been discussed, to my knowledge, in any other circus/trapeze film. When you leave the theatre, it’s my hope that there will be an understanding and an appreciation and most of of all a respect for these trapeze performers that would not otherwise have existed had you not seen the film.


Are you a fan of circus and/or trapeze acts? Let me know your thoughts about this film and the interview