Saturday, November 28, 2015

Edible Docs

This thanksgiving, I ate my fill. Having hosted my family for the first time, I must say I relished a bit too much of the fruits of my labor. After several days of digesting oh-so-many calories, this has surprisingly become a time of reflection. This blog used to be one of those spaces. So in honor of taking time to both digest and reflect on eating, I'm recommending these food related documentaries. A menu of tasty morsels:

Amuse-Bouche: Fake Fruit Factory

Fake Fruit Factory by Chick Strand.

Not about real food per se, but delicious viewing nonetheless. Chick Strand's 1986 ethnography Fake Fruit Factory is built through16mm close ups that empower the "chatter" amongst women working at a Mexican factory. The sensual and sexual content inspiring their laughter contrasts with the absence of juiciness in the fake fruit they are paid to construct. If you do not know Strand's work - get to watching an experimental film pioneer.

Appetizer: I Like Killing Flies

With 900 items on the menu, Matt Mahurin somehow manages to capture them all in his 2004 documentary I Like Killing Flies. Endlessly entertaining doc in which a neighborhood cook serves up truth about gentrification, class, and taste in short order behind the counter of his West Village greasy spoon.

Main Course: Soul Food Junkies

"Soul Food Junkies" 2012 Trailer from Byron Hurt.

Byron Hurt's documentaries reach audiences through his affable, informed intimacy. Though heavily researched, his warm tone gives a dose of history and social theory like fiber surreptitiously blended into your sweet potato pie. Here, as with Beyond Beats and Rhymes, Hurt welcomes us into his life and perspective with focus on his father who sadly passed at age 63 of pancreatic cancer. This inspired Hurt to take this journey into the potential causes of his father's passing: his physical health. And connected to his weight, an external marker of his father's love of soul food. Hurt wonders why and how the soul food addiction swelled amongst African American families and, as he reveals, how it became a passion and even an unhealthy addiction for many Americans. He considers the impact of slavery on this culinary tradition and moves to a more recent history of self-sufficient food production and healthy eating as part of the Black Power movement. Hurt ends with a picture of "food deserts" - places, both urban and rural, where low income people of color cannot find edible produce and therefore, are challenged to make healthy eating choices. Here the film becomes a work of social justice. Thankful this doc got wide release on Independent Lens and reached a mass public television audience. (It's now available for viewing on Netflix!)

Dessert (which may as well have several courses of its own): Mind of a Chef

Another Netflix-available delicacy is the PBS project Mind of a Chef, Executive Produced by globally ubiquitous eater Anthony Bourdain. The first season features David Chang (of Momofuku fame). This man is solely responsible for at least five lingering pounds, as Milk Bar sat on the corner of my old street in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. The foodie in me seriously geeked out over 16 (!) episodes with Chang in Season 1 as he traveled across the globe to the chefs and dishes that inspired him. But the science nerd in me lost my damned mind when the show invoked Harold McGee to explain the chemical processes impacting fermentation and leavening. Which led me to the cooking bible On Food and Cooking this summer. Season 2 added a woman to the mix (women are pitifully few, far between, and generally making sweets in this series) with superstar April Bloomfield. I've luckily tasted her food in its various orgasmic forms - from sea urchin with pomegranate at John Dorey Oyster Bar to her classic burger at Spotted Pig. But seeing how she came to her craft in such a kind and humble manner, fomented a true crush. Season 3 looks a lot like Chef's Table. There's significant repetition that suggests these shows were produced together in some fashion. So the absence of a sense of discovery made the 3rd season slightly less appealing. I'm hoping for better in Season 4 which kicks off with Gabrielle Hamilton of Prune fame.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Come Hell or High Water

Last week, as the storm approached, I posted on my Top 10 Election Films to watch. As someone who lost internet herself, that may not have been possible for folks inside the Sandy swatch.

But as power and internet begin to come back on-line for some, and if you find yourself taking a break from clean up activities and volunteer efforts, one of the top 10 is now available for your viewing pleasure. Check out Divide!

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Voting in a Hurricane

The east coast is preparing for two simultaneous storms: Sandy racing up the coast and the Election of 2012. With the potential of being home-bound for a day, here’s some great docs on voting to check out.

10. Watch Shola Lynch’s 2005 film
Chisholm 72: Unbought and Unbossed, a profile of the first black woman to run for president, and prepare to get inspired to act.

9 and 8. Milk: While not a work of non-fiction the film builds directly from footage and structure of Epstein’s 1985 The Times of Harvey Milk.Gus Van Sant’s Milk positions the Harvey Milk campaign as a central story arc.
7. Divide: For the past two years, I’ve begun my advanced video course in documentary production with Michael T. Miller and Maura Ugarte’s short documentary. This is a sharp gem of a film that attends to the racial politics involved in Obama’s campaign on the ground – or in the mountains – through a white supporter and former coal miner from West Virginia.  

6. In Street Fight, Corey Booker is introduced as he’s thrown out of a housing project where he is canvassing. His opponent had canvassed there only the week prior, but here we see a housing official call police to remove Booker from the building. Booker shrugs off the obvious corruption, “It’s so ironic. Here’s a neighborhood that never gets police protection. When I show up they call in the top brass.”  Marshall Curry’s 2005 doc closely profiles the 32 year old Booker well before he became a reviled/admired Superman (see his saving people from burning building tweet) of Newark.

5. While Hot Coffee by Susan Saldoff is not explicitly a voting doc, this film makes the import of small ballot issues clear. Here we see how corporations pour money into campaigns against judges that threaten their greed. Specifically, we see the case driven by Karl Rove and friends to unseat Mississippi state court judge Oliver Diaz, a judge who objected to tort reform that harms consumers.

4. Primary, a televised documentary that was the first to expose political drama behind-the-scenes, has been the focus of study, admiration and analysis by film scholars for decades and will be for many years to come. With Primary, Drew, Leacock and Maysles set the tone for what would be called the “direct cinema” tradition through the primary election fight between JFK and Hubert Humphrey.
3. Election Day: one day, one election, eleven locations. Katy Chevigny and her team synergistically capture voting energy in different locations, documenting the energy, tension, exhaustion and high stakes involved.

2.Electoral Dysfunction has just begun its theatrical run, yet there are already ample opportunities to see this comedic expose on our highly dysfunctional electoral college system this coming week on PBS. If you can’t get your eyes on the feature, the ED team packaged three nuggets that streamed on The New York Times online this month, a DVD on PBS, and book available on iTunes. film PBS NYT

1. The War Room D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’ masterpiece honors the tradition of direct cinema begun with Primary through the 1992 campaign for Bill Clinton. It made stars of George Stephanopolis and James Carville, while Clinton appears minimally as the on-camera drama swirls around him.

Needless to say, half of these docs have screened on PBS. So much is at stake with this election – but let this be a reminder of more we could lose. PBS, POV and ITVS showcase and make us conscious of our democratic process, warts and all. In this election, independent documentary filmmaking is on the table. Please VOTE!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Vids from interview with Students at Hofstra

Last fall, I visited the classroom of the extraordinary video artist Skip Blumberg, a professor at Hofstra University. He invited me to speak about Fair Use in documentary film and web video. In the past few years, I've given a handful of talks on teaching Fair Use. This video explains how that happened (not as intense as the still, I promise!):

The students who conducted the interview also asked about other topics, like suitable subjects for your first film. Considering I just posted BeauteouS: Stephanie online for free, this is quite timely:

Other interview clips pertain more to specific considerations in making documentary, like the ethics of editing documentary: and the ethics of working with participants (and check out this great paper Honest Truths by Mridu Chandra, Pat Aufderheide and Peter Jaszi for more on documentary ethics):

Here's my two cents on the importance of research in documentary:

and some closing advice for student filmmakers - treat your participants with respect!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Putting movies online

In 2000, I screened my first film, BeauteouS: Stephanie, for the first time at the Chicago International Film Festival. There it won the award for Best Student Documentary, and then screened at a handful of other film festivals. It felt like the most auspicious of beginnings to a film career.

Though I keep churning out films, largely on my own dime, and enjoy screenings at film festivals and invited talks at colleges, I always have a nagging feeling that my films reach few people beyond the converted (i.e. queers, feminists, indie enthusiasts). How many people have seen my early short films? Perhaps 10,000 total? Why can't it be more?

Admittedly, I've had this imagined future for my films; people buy them regularly, they are re-released on DVD, picked up for collections on feminist filmmaking and the like. But the reality is, eleven years after BeauteouS: Stephanie was released, that hasn't happened. The older works might screen once a year and a kind friend might offer to buy a DVD now and then. But largely, the DVDs sit on my shelf and the films remain unwatched.

In this era of "put it online" there is an expectation that artists should post their work for free. I've struggled with this idea for years, actively pulling down copies of my films available from bit torrent sites when alerts pop up in the email inbox. I've whined, "I just wanted to break even on these films, not even make a profit!" The idea of putting it online signaled an end to that possibility.

But as the years tick by and the DVDs sit on the shelf, I realize no matter how much people want to see the film (thousands of such comments over the years) and how cheap they are ($30 for 4 movies) and how available I make them (pay pal button on a website) they remain unsold. Then I saw this brilliant film on Vimeo, up for the masses to enjoy (and 29,000 have) and I've reconsidered the whole thing [G6 editor's note - this video has since become private. Perhaps because this short became Obvious Child...] I'm the only one holding these films back and it's fine time to let that go. These films got me to a place where I could land teaching jobs, raise funds for Period and slowly, maybe in the course of 20 years through a great relationship with my distributor, break even on that film. BeauteouS has screened at over 100 film festivals around the world in 15 different countries. The fact that it didn't sell is just fine. It did something despite its imperfections. And for that, I'm proud.

And so, I let go of BeauteouS and BeauteouS: Stephanie today, posting them on Vimeo. I'm holding onto two others, because they are very personal (i.e. I'm naked and on fire in one) Maybe, once more security comes, I'll release those films. But for now, if you want to see it, for fucks sake - buy it!

Friday, April 29, 2011

Student Filmmakers

I began teaching filmmaking in 2000 while I was an MFA student at San Francisco State University. My first teaching experience involved explaining lighting, color temperature, and wattage for 16mm cinematography to undergraduates in Karen Holmes' film class - surely a captivating lecture for students interested in physics, though I'm unsure if any of what I said reached the film students in the room. I've hopefully improved upon my lecture style and I continue to draw upon the lessons I learned from Karen Holmes, a professor who knows how to inspire people to be their most creative selves. She taught me most of what I know about the creative process and I feel as if I will always strive to approximate her brilliant techniques as a teacher.

During eleven years of teaching at a range of colleges and universities and learning environments, many of the 1700 students I've taught have met the challenge posed: create something thoughtful, ethical, and engaging. Here are a few standouts that have, in this era of self-publishing online, succeed in their own right.

This year, student David Moldover joined the Advanced Video class at Marymount Manhattan College. Despite having no formal video classes under his belt, Moldover had experience in working with documentary post-production and research. He engaged in extra lessons every week to get his skills in lighting, editing and cinematography up to speed. More importantly, as a stellar Humanities major, Molodver knows how to connect disparate sociocultural elements and construct an argument, which he does exceptionally well with his film "Guilty Bystanders". This film was chosen to screen at Honors Day at MMC and was awarded Honorable Mention- Dean's Award. It then won Best Documentary Film at the Communication Arts Showcase this Spring 2011. Here is a 7 minute excerpt of the longer piece:

Elizabeth Rocklin (Marymount 2011) is a video maker who focuses on disability and activism. Her work crosses genre well and in documentary or in a narrative PSA, she has succeeded in partnering with organizations beyond the college walls. The first piece showcased here is a short documentary made in partnership with Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts that lives on the homepage of their website:

An award winning PSA that Rocklin also produced takes a critical view of empty gestures toward inclusiveness. This video won Best PSA in 2010 at Marymount Manhattan College's Communication Arts Showcase:

That year, Maria Habib (Marymount 2011) also won an award - Honorable Mention - for her PSA on human trafficking. In this piece, Habib's camera takes on the first person perspective of a woman being lured into sex work. To construct this story, Habib interviewed a woman (anonymously) who had been tempted by a trafficker's charms in a similar fashion. The material in the thought bubble falls under the Center for Social Media's Code for Best Practices in Fair Use for Online Video:

Fair Use is a theme in many of my classes. It is essential that video artists learn how to legally rework the media around us. This year, The Center for Social Media recognized the work of two students from Intermediate Video at MMC, Stuart Kiczek and Billy Shields, for their employment of Best Practices for Fair Use in this brilliant online video on water. By clicking on the image below, you will be redirected to the CSM site where the video lives:

Another group of Marymount filmmakers in the class Web Video Activism produced a video in partnership with a local organization, Network for Peace Through Dialogue. This video highlights the youth program and was shown to 100 young students at an event in 2010 on youth dialoging for peace. The group included students Nicole Henry, Nicole Banner, Ryan Johnston and Lauren Kozlowski:

One of the most successful activist student videos made in any one of my classes is this PSA by Dana Corl. During our Intermediate Video class in Fall 2009, Corl completed the video and facebooked about it. Her friends started spreading it around. I encouraged her to email the activists at Hollaback!, a site dedicated to ending street harassment. They blogged about Corl's PSA on their page. Within 30 minutes, her video had 200 views...and growing (at 10,000 now):

In Spring 2008, a group of students at American University produced the website Tune in HPV in a class called Communication and Social Change. The site, designed by students and built by Zulma Aguiar, lives on. The stories were submitted anonymously by readers interested in sharing their experiences about human papillomavirus. The students and I then made videos engaging the stories with messages about safe sex. Some of the standout videos are these, which I wrote about in a chapter in the book Three Shots at Prevention: The HPV Vaccine and Medicine's Simple Solutions (2010, Johns Hopkins University Press).

The comments on Jennifer Derosa's HPV Dykes demonstrate how radical work challenges the viewer:

Vanessa Bradchulis made a series of videos for the Tune in HPV site. By creating a cast of characters who fail to avoid obvious risks, Bradchulis hoped that people would see the clear connection between avoiding risk through safer sex. Videos include Hand on a Hot Burner, Electric Bath, Running With Scissors, Cycling Blindfolded and this vid:

I could continue highlighting exceptional student work, but I'll save it for another post at sometime in the future. However, I'll end with this standout from Mathew O. Brady. Brady, who graduated in 2010, continues to make work with a clear vision, demonstrating his deftness and cinematic voice. In Beginning, Intermediate and Advanced video at MMC, Brady produced a series of films that connect through themes of friendship and the creative spirit. Recently, Brady collaborated with Gaelan Conell on a feature film that they co-wrote and directed, I Am Ben which will surely enjoy screenings in the coming year. This short, which they made in the Spring of 2010 for the Tisch 48 hour film challenge, highlights their collaborative energy and creativity (oh - and they won that competition with it!) This was not made in relationship to any of my classes, but I showcase it here as what happens beyond the classroom as students turn lessons into craft:

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Feminism Light: Potiche

Francois Ozon is my favorite director. Bar none. I admire how he deftly glides across genre, nodding to queer directors of yore through devoted homage, while his strong female characters and gay male leads find love in themselves as to find it in each other. Though he may not call himself a feminist director, Ozon’s work, especially prior to Potiche, is undoubtedly feminist. His female characters (save for the vagabond in the early See the Sea) are complex but likeable. They confront gendered realities through an intellect and honesty that typically surpasses the straight men around them.

Which leads me to wonder - why would Ozon make Potiche? It is so explicitly feminist as to become falsely simplistic. In Potiche, Ozon’s tale of female empowerment is driven by French film super-star/icon Catherine Deneuve (the co-star of his 8 Women). The film, at its face, is a personal cinematic wet dream: Ozon! Deneuve! Luxuriously fabulous sets! Musical numbers! Late 70’s fashion! Homage to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg! Jeremie Renier! Sex! Sensuality! …with one last gasp for Gerard Depardieu! Yet, despite all of this, for his feminist fans, Ozon blocks any orgasm.

The film, set in the prescient late 70’s, follows Suzanne, (spoiler) a older woman who takes over the family's umbrella factory when her husband falls ill. He suffers from a heart attack brought on by a worker uprising in response to his callous leadership. Ozon paints the husband in two broad strokes: as an unabashed philanderer who cheats on his wife nightly and as a capitalist pig unethically abuses his workers. The audience, and her daughter, Joelle, wonders why Suzanne has remained as the potiche (trophy wife) of this beast for some 30 years. However, upon taking over directorship of the factory, Suzanne instantly flourishes and undoes the destructive work of her husband to the factory as to her psyche. She listens to worker demands and positions her children in managerial roles while gaining instantaneous self-respect. In the end, Ozon wants us to revel in Suzanne’s gains which are meant to represent gains for all women through self-empowerment and awakening.

The problem here is Joelle, Suzanne’s daughter. At first she presents a discerning voice, challenging Suzanne to wake up to her husband’s vacant affections. But in her subsequent actions, the daughter Joelle follows in daddy’s leaden footsteps, eventually taking actions that threaten her mother’s success. In the final scene, Joelle ends up by her father’s side, pregnant by an absent husband and caring for 2+ children seemingly alone. She has given up her job at the factory for her husband to take on and has voted against her mother in an election. It seems that Ozon ends Potiche wanting us to celebrate with the feminist icon, Suzanne, but instead I linger on the image of a pregnant Joelle on the couch. Joelle has not only squandered what her mother gave her, she has acted against it, undermined her own gains, and abhorred the movement. Suzanne’s post-election party is populated by older women and young gay men. The younger woman who seeks to benefit most from a feminist revolution remains at home, immobilized by pregnancy and patriarchal conservatism.

Sadly, this is the state of feminism today. Advances made by women in the 70’s are seen as just that – actions made in a specific time and place for women of that era. Today, many young women are dismissive of the feminist label, lest they be considered old-school or worse - difficult, obstructionist, and undesirable to men. Feminism was something done by and for a generation long past. Of course, this ignores the sad economic state of women today. According to the Obama Administration’s report on the status of women in America released this month, women earn only 75% of what their male counterparts make, women are more likely to be in poverty, and there are more single-mother households than single father households. One in seven women has no health care. Simultaneously, attacks on Planned Parenthood threaten lower income women and teenage girls who depend on the facility for reproductive health care and sexual health care, not just abortion access.

So, I wonder again, why did Ozon make this film – one in which younger women are depicted as lacking in feminist zeal and actively undermining it. Why end a film about female empowerment with a young woman squandering the freedoms her mother fights for? This only makes all the feminist gestures that Ozon can cram into this one film feel empty and false. As his undying fan, I long for the subtlety he will surely return to in his subsequent work, and to a brighter future than the one imagined here.