2014 Film, Documentary, Film, Oscars, Oscars14

The Salt of the Earth (What is grief? What is resilience?)

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When events of uncaring disconnection (from fellow human beings, from history) happen—when people pull others into their pain, insecurities, and fear, as I believe is the case most of the time—the consequences turn into the greatest crises we see—terrorism, unjust laws and systematic practices, murder, genocide, everyday hatred, etc. It is hard for me to continue to believe in the “grieving process” or “human resilience.” And it makes me especially uncomfortable to hear people praise victims for their “dignity” and “grace” in handling injustice. People would not have to grieve or be resilient in these cases if we made our world better and did not waste our human potential—not our potential to build buildings or bridges or “win” a war—but our potential to treat each other humanely and with empathy and actually learn from history. But I guess a historian in a podcast I recently listened to was right—there is no such thing as learning from history. We learn the wrong things from history. But—still—I believe we can learn.

Sebastião Salgado spent decades depicting, in exquisite black-and-white photographs, horrific human events humans have perpetuated against other humans. He finally had to turn away from war, genocide, starvation, famine, and unspeakable horrors lived. After covering the Rwandan genocide, Salgado lost faith in humanity; his psyche was done. He says, “We are a ferocious animal. We humans are terrible animals. Our history is a history of wars. It’s an endless story, a tale of madness.” He’d reached the “maximum,” as he explains, because photography makes the photographer “part of the subject.” It was nature that rejuvenated him. He captures the beauty of the natural world (and how it does replenish itself) with the message that we must preserve it. This work became Genesis. In this interview with Benedikt Taschen, Taschen expresses that it is his hope that the book will “make a significant contribution to the awareness about the world we live in.”

The Salt of the Earth (2014 Academy Award® nominee, Best Documentary Feature, directed by Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado) shows us that that—contributing “awareness about the world we live in”—is exactly what Sebastião Salgado has always done. With his remarkable spirit as an economist turned photographer, he shows us the land, the water, and the human condition in intimate ways that should bring us closer to one another. I know it made me feel more connected. This stunning documentary reflects Salgado’s stunning life’s work.

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Sebastião Salgado | Click photo for Amazonas images

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2015 Film, Documentary, History

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

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During the last Christmas holiday, my brother (43), my dad (63), and I (31) had a spirited (heated) discussion about race. I mention our ages because they, in addition to our individual personalities and experiences (which are largely shaped by our ages), have so much to do with our perspectives and comments. My mother, who I wished would join in, just sat there giving looks that said plenty. We discussed the racial problem in this country, and at one point I said, “People get tired of being mistreated, so we need to consider that long history of mistreatment while we are considering people’s actions.” While we agreed in some areas and disagreed in others, I think that my comment resonated. I cannot simply take current events into account when they are in retaliation against a long chain (I use that word deliberately) of abuse.

I thought of that conversation (which is one of many–I love family debates) after I finished watching the documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (Stanley Nelson – Freedom Riders, Freedom Summer, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, The Murder of Emmett Till) at RiverRun International Film Festival (It was my first film of the day). As I watched and learned about the party and the movement and its eventual split into factions and disarray, I saw African Americans’ reactions to continued abuse. I saw the intersection of race and gender. I saw people give their lives in the fight for equality that continues today. I saw human beings facing their human flaws. But the line in the film that affected me the most was a statement that, despite infighting, despite insurmountable struggles, the original, most important purpose of the party was motivated by a love of people. That love is what inspired them to do something for their people. That is what resonates with me the most because they did something, despite an entire nation that was against them. People get tired of mistreatment. We must take into account, to quote the Declaration of Independence, the “long train of abuses and usurpations” a group suffers (really take it into account) when we judge its actions and the decisions it makes. This reminds me of what Ruby says in Cold Mountain: “Every piece of this is man’s bullshit. They call this war a cloud over the land. But they made the weather and then they stand in the rain and say, ‘Shit, it’s raining!'” When will this country realize that it made the weather?

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2015 Film, Documentary, Film

The Mask You Live In, The Hunting Ground – Reynolda FF 2015

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Thanks to my friend, Mary M. Dalton, Ph.D. (to my complete joy, she casually mentioned that the festival was happening), I was able to see three films last week at the Reynolda Film Festival. One of those films, The Mask You Live In, is one that I’d anticipated since it was announced that Jennifer Siebel Newsom (Miss Representation, The Representation Project) would be tackling the issue of masculinity and how the notions surrounding it are brutally damaging and crippling our boys. I shared with Mary a few of my own experiences with the one-dimensional expectations society places on men. (Don’t show emotions. Don’t cry. Never do anything associated with femininity) Unfortunately, not all males are in positions to deal with those challenges. They perpetuate violence and anger (one of the only “accepted” emotions boys can display). They end up in jail. They end up living the most inauthentic of lives.

The Mask You Live In explores the consequences boys face when, at an early age, they hear the most dangerous words a boy can hear: “Be a man.” I don’t know what that means, but if you are going to say, “Be a man,” you better also say, “Be a woman” because I am assuming you mean, “Be strong. Have integrity. Be open-minded. Stand up for what you believe in.” I know that is not what sexist and close-minded people mean when they say, “Be a man,” but I want to do what I can to change the meaning. Mine is much better. Everyone should see this film. Men need to see this film because they need to change their attitudes in order to change the world. It cannot be up to women alone. And it is an absolute necessity that (we) men recognize (our) their privilege and act accordingly. This narrow definition of “masculinity” is hurting and scarring, and the pathology spreads and spreads. It needs to stop.

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Right after you see The Mask You Live In, please see The Hunting Ground (2-time Academy Award® nominee Kirby Dick). The very ideas of masculinity and the very culture we have that values men at the expense of women lead to the sexual violence that is constantly swept under the rug. Victims are blamed and perpetrators are protected. Anyone who does not see that this is happening because of the ubiquitous sexism that plagues society is, well, certainly delusional.

The film focuses on the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses and the appalling reality that administrators work extra hard not to help victims but to make accusations disappear in efforts to maintain a “clean” image of the school for marketing and financial purposes. The problem is so extremely prevalent that if all schools came out and did what is right, everything would change. However, no one is willing to do so, so the violence and victim-blaming continue. Statistics show that 8 percent of men are responsible for 90 percent of sexual assaults. The men in that 8 percent repeat their crimes because they know they can get away with them. This is depressingly disheartening, and this is a representation of our greater society. Women are not listened to, they are not believed, and they are devalued, all for the sake of this unhealthy need to put men on a pedestal. The Hunting Ground also presents men who have been sexually assaulted. These victims face ridicule for “not being a man” and “allowing” themselves to be attacked. It seems that society would rather have men attack and rape than have them learn to be vulnerable, experience and work through their pain in productive ways, and take a healthy place in the world. You’d think we would have evolved further than this.

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Documentary, Film, Past Films

Grey Gardens – Look inward.

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Last month I watched the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens (for the first time). Because of the anniversary, I caught it on Turner Classic Movies. I need to watch it again as soon as possible. There is so much there in the setting, in the conversations, and in the moments of silence. “Big” Edith’s bed, in which she often sits and eats, was particularly striking for me. She keeps everything in this bed. I have a vivid memory from when I was young of once getting food crumbs in my bed. I hated the feeling so much that I never bring food anywhere near my bed. I was intrigued by “Little” Edie’s outfits and scarves. I enjoyed the singing.

But the really moving part for me is that the film made me look inward. While the film can be painful to watch, it is a revelation that should force us to take a good look at ourselves. We watch these two people living in those conditions and wonder what went wrong or what was “wrong with” them. But we all have struggles. What do we show? What do we hide? How does our pain manifest itself? What is the “squalor” that we are harboring inside ourselves, and what are we doing about it?

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