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!


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?