Archive for the ‘Documentary’ Category

At a young age, Owen seemed like a healthy, growing boy. Suddenly, at the age of 3, something dramatic changed. Owen became listless and seemed to lose his ability to speak. After getting tested, it was discovered that he had autism. While the doctors believed there was a chance his vocal abilities would never develop, his parents maintained hope. While watching The Little Mermaid, he spoke something that could have been gibberish but could have been an attempt to speak up. While it produced another spark of hope, it was not until his brother’s 9th birthday that Owen finally spoke up. The journey ahead was not going to be easy, but Owen’s family believed they could give him the great life he deserved.

The Power of Disney: While there were many factors that led to his growth and ability to overcome his disability, the animated films of Disney provided a context to connect with the world around him. Starting with the recitation of dialogue from the films, Owen used the themes and lessons from the films to express his feelings and communicate with his family. When he felt sad, Bambi’s mother or Mufasa and the canyon let him express his sadness to his parents. Iago was the sidekick he needed when he felt alone and bullied at school. Disney continues to be a bridge he uses to survive and find his happiness.

Affluence & Managing the Challenge: One of the criticisms that could be brought up about this story was the fact that the Suskinds had the means to be able to provide support for Owen’s therapy and schooling. He was even able to get an assisted-living apartment without a full-time job. The reality is that autism is a challenge for any family regardless of their means. They did not have control over the bullying at school or his heart being broken by his girlfriend. Unable to fully comprehend these challenges, it was still a major struggle to overcome those obstacles.

Life Through Storytelling: While the film’s title makes mention of the animated elements of the story, the actual story itself was crafted from Owen’s writing. For him, the sidekicks of Disney films provided motivation to show bravery, care, and compassion. His story focused on a young boy being chased by doubt and disconnect. The filmmakers took his story and animated his thoughts. Just like the greater film, it helped to exemplify the struggles of feeling lost and out of place, but it also promoted inner strength to fight for a connection to everything he cared about.

Final Thoughts: I truly loved this film. It was emotionally strong and promoted an image of autism many have never experienced. The strength of the family and of Owen individually was truly a sight to see. Watching him give the speech at the conference and experience love, loss, and recovery was truly inspiring. I believe this is a must-see film.

Dan’s Rating: 5.0/5

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Every August, colleges and universities welcome new freshman to their campuses with promises of intellectual development and an enriching experience achieved nowhere else. What many of these colleges do not talk about are the risks to young women and men of sexual assault and rape. For nearly 1 in 4 college women, sexual assault is a likelihood attached to their college experience. While administrators and professors are supposed to be there to support their students, most assault and rape survivors find themselves in the crosshairs for speaking up. Two former students have taken up the cause and created a network to provide the support current students desperately need.

Scales Systemically Tipped Against Support: While not a surprise to the average person, college rape survivors find themselves in a steep uphill battle when trying to report an attack and seek justice against their assailants. Whether it be the fraternity system, athletics departments, or general representation of the institution, there are plenty of components with influence looking to maintain their positive image. Even a clear incident is something that many institutions would rather suppress in order to maximize profits/donations and minimize detractions.

Hard-Hitting Real Examples: Annie Clark and Andrea Pino should be commended over and over again for their tenacity and drive to support survivors and their families from across the nation. The reality is that they both experienced the trauma themselves before they took up the cause. Both former students went to their administrators to only be met with resistance. Annie was blamed for her rape through use of a metaphor, while Andrea’s performance in her classes dipped amid a lack of support. Andrea went to Annie for support and their mission became clear from their first meeting.

Beyond the two focal champions for rape survival, there were numerous other examples that made themselves known and were even willing to include their stories in this film. While all of the accounts are disheartening, hearing about young men and women taking their lives following the incidents is that much worse. It would seem an easy decision for a university to move toward a path of support for their students going through trauma but the common thread between the stories was the lack of effort or willingness to investigate in the first place.

Did I Say the Scales Are Tipped the Wrong Way: Money and prestige guides a lot of the decisions to avoid seeking justice in these cases. One of the standout moments of the film was the story of a rape incident at Florida State University. The student was drugged and lured back to a student’s apartment before getting assaulted. She was forced to ride on his scooter back to the entrance of campus because she did not know where she had been taken. It was not until the start of the next semester that she realized that it was Jameis Winston, star quarterback for the Seminoles. Though she attempted to report the incident, she was met with immediate backlash from the entire Florida State community and even was berated in the media by commentators on ESPN for being a distraction from a young, exceptional football talent. The incident led to her withdrawing from the university and the fanbase celebrating her departure. Winston went on to win the Heisman trophy,  win a national championship for FSU, and get selected as the #1 overall pick in the NFL draft.

Was that fair?

Final Verdict: Unless you are without a soul, there is no way you can watch this film and not feel something for the women and men involved. This is a clear epidemic across American universities and one that is not going away anytime soon. I felt personally affected by the film for two reasons: 1) I have worked at a couple of the universities named and 2) I have worked directly with one of the former administrators interviewed for the film. I know Melinda Manning to be a kind-hearted, compassionate, and advocacy-focused person who has worked on behalf of students in need of support. She is one of many administrators who are actually focused on victims/survivors first, but this film proves that there is a lot of change needed to overhaul a dramatically flawed system.

The Central Park Five (2012)

Posted: March 14, 2014 in Documentary
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central_park_fiveIn 1989, five teenagers were surprised to get caught up in a rape and assault case. A young, white woman had being jogging in Central Park at night when she was attacked and left for dead. After she was discovered and taken to the hospital with serious injuries, the police jumped to action to track down the assailant(s). Five young men were identified and taken into questioning by different police units. Each of them were pressured and held under custody until they were coerced into ratting out the other suspects in the case. All five of the men were detained and taken to trial under the pressure of a scornful media and public looking for justice for the young woman. While there were also supporters for the convicted young men, the justice system appeared to be misguided in its decisions to find these men guilty in the face of evidence to the contrary.

The Central Park Five: Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Kharey (Korey) Wise

Other significant members of the story: Matias Reyes, Jim Dwyer, Angela Black, Ed Koch, Craig Steven Wilder, LynNell Hancock, Raymand Santana Sr., Calvin O. Butts III, Natalie Byfield, Michael Warren, Saul Kassin, Michael Joseph, David Dinkins, Ronald Gold

This documentary by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon explored the tragedy of misguided justice in the case of the attacked Central Park jogger. The Central Park Five started with the attack but was quickly about the manhunt, interrogation, and conviction of the five teenagers. The film included video of the interrogations and the reactions of the convicted years later. Their families were devastated by feeling left in the dark about their involvement in the case and the subsequent convictions, and the convicted struggled with reflecting back on their experiences. These coerced confessions were never challenged in the courts, as the officers were able to deny that they forced the young men into their confessions.

Transitioning to the trial, the reflections highlighted the challenges of the legal teams and the veracity of the prosecution. Three of the men were taken to trial first and were subsequently found guilty. The other two followed suit several months later and also given the guilty verdict. Even though they had minor status, their prison terms ranged from 6 to 13 years. Some of the challenges that were identified against these men during the trial were the inability of the victim to recall the events of that night, the lack of questioning about the coerced confessions, the lack of attention to their involvement in other chaos that happened the same night in a different part of the park, and the seemingly public acceptance that these men were guilty based off their appearance/race and media influence. Highlight as one of the most challenging moments of the experience and the documentary was just after the verdict. Each of the men reacted at different moments, but all of them appeared to break down following the decisions.

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The story also covered the experience following the trial, from serving their sentences to the eventually discovery of Matias Reyes’s confession for the crime. Including the pressures politically to take a hard stance on crime, the public believed that justice had been served. It was not until most of them served out their sentences and only Raymond Santana remained in prison that Reyes’s confession caused the review of the court decisions. Finally at this point, the courts reviewed the evidence and discovered the significant discrepancies in the justifications for the verdicts. The charges were vacated and Raymond was given the news that he would be released as well. The emotion experienced by these men in the film was tangible. They had suffered through a horrendous experience. No decision or other offerings would ever be able to relieve the years lost through this case, but the announcement was joined by a strong sense of release.

This film is detailed, emotional, and calls into question the battle between justice and prejudice. It explores, though only on a surface level, the impact of race and stereotyping in the pursuit of justice. Overall, this was a solid retelling of this intriguing criticism of the police, media, and legal systems.

Dan’s Rating: 4.0/5

BK_newPoster_crowns_01Considered the rulers of the grade school chess world. the kids of I.S. 318 in Brooklyn, NY live and breath the game of chess. While many schools focus on after-school programs related to sports or music, chess has its own sense of celebrity at this middle school. Consistently competing in national championships, the kids regularly bring home individual and grade-level trophies. Leading the way are Elizabeth Vicary (coach/chess teacher), John Gavin (assistant principal/coach) and Fred Rubino (principal). As a way to allow their students the chance to study the game and get to a level of competition, these educators allow the kids a chance to replace a few of their classes each week with chess. This helps them continue their dominance in competitions and high reputation in the world of chess.

The students that are the focus of this documentary are at all skill, class and background levels. Seeking an opportunity to be the first black woman to earn the title of chess master, Rochelle anchored the 8th-grade team to start the film. After graduating to high school, she found herself in a difficult place of not yet having achieved her chess master goal but trying to balance her continued chess practice and competitions with her rigorous academic work. Stepping in as the leader after Rochelle’s departure, Pobo balances his passion for chess and his desire to get politically engaged. Pobo serves as the emotional leader of the group while also earning the honor of representing the student body as the student president. Alongside Pobo is the extremely talented Alexis. Dreaming of a chance to get into a great high school, chess appears to come fairly easily to him but he worries about needing to pass the standardized exam for acceptance to a top high school. Patrick is a newcomer who is battle ADD and self esteem issues in order to show improvement at the game. His goal rests upon simply showing progress in his ability to win at chess. Finally, Jutus had already achieved a high status prior to joining the chess team. His biggest struggles happen to be his own expectations, as he feels like all eyes are on him.

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While the film focuses mostly on the impact of chess on the students’ lives, there are a number of threats they are facing to their success. The biggest of all of the threats happens to be the economy and the effect on the school’s budget. Before the cuts, the team traveled to 3 major tournaments and a host of smaller local competitions, bringing back a number of accolades after every one. After the budget cuts, they had to drop on of the major competitions and reduce the number of kids that could go to nationals. Pobo worked with Gavin and Rubino to get students and families to meetings to discuss how to get the attention of politicians and attempt to raise some money. The efforts manage to accumulate some gains and help to support the chess team, but additional cuts have continued to threaten the funding for the team.

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Katie Dellamaggiore’s approach to this story was to really make the viewer pull for these kids, even though they were like the Yankees of the chess world. Each of the kids are highlighted for both their successes and challenges. Rochelle left the school on a high after her final 8th-grade competition but she was met with the challenge of losing the structure of the I.S. 318 team. Alexis and Pobo both get chances to exhibit their desires outside of chess to achieve other goals. Meanwhile, Patrick revealed his challenges with ADD but also shared how playing chess allowed him to focus and stay more in check. The camerawork is a little funky at times with choppy movements, but the cameras definitely capture the fluctuations in energy levels of the students as they practice and compete.

This is a wonderful little documentary that provides a compelling narrative while proving the importance of the need to advocate for more support for educational activities. The learn more about the story behind the film, click here.

Dan’s Rating: 4.0/5

bully_project_ver2Bullying is an unfortunate common occurrence among children. Seeking to bring a new understanding and awareness to this epidemic, Lee Hirsch followed families affected by bullies and documented the trauma experienced both by the children and their loved ones.

Tyler, a young boy plagued by the significant presence of bullying, took his life because he felt unable to deal with the torment. Leaving behind a void in his family’s hearts, his parents attempted to accommodate their remaining children’s needs to help them cope with the loss and repurpose Tyler’s old bedroom into an office used for research and advocacy against bullying. When they have confronted the school system, they have been met with excuses and lack of acceptance of responsibility.

Alex is a 12-year kid who struggles to find his voice against the bullies on the bus and at his school. As the cameras follow him, they capture some teasing and comments at the bus stop, physical violence on the bus and ribbing in the halls of the school. While Alex does have communication with educators, even his parents struggle to help get him the support he needs. The vice principle both acknowledges that Alex is getting bullied and that she has little feeling of control to make any sort of difference. She even makes Alex feel like it is partially his fault with the way she pressures him during her questioning of the situation.

This theme seems to continue through a couple of the stories, as the educators let the kids known to be bullying off the hook during their conversations while failing to empower the students struggling to simply deal with the pressures of going to their schools. Hirsch essentially tries to portray the educators as at least contributors to the continuation of bullying, if not actual bullies themselves. There is a strong sense of denial that educators are either too overwhelmed or cannot handle the chaos of children.

Alex in ``The Bully Project.'' Alex in ``The Bully Project.''

In a bit of a different twist, Ja’Meya is a young girl who finally felt like she could not take the abuse and decided to act against it. She brought a gun on the bus with her and drew it on the rest of the kids on the bus when she felt threatened by her peers. While tackled and subdued, she was sentenced to detention and counseling, but the story allows viewers to see her full arch. She is able to return home and exhibits the elation of feeling like she has a fresh take on life and chance to appreciate what she had.

A scene from ``The Bully Project.'' A scene from ``The Bully Project.'' A scene from ``The Bully Project.''

The film ends with a tribute to the lost children due to bullying and violence. It is a tender moment with speeches and connections with current youth to empower them to be aware and respond to concerns of bullying. Attached to this film is a campaign that looks to educate and encourage advocacy. For more details: http://www.thebullyproject.com/.

In the end, the film’s subject matter is timely and well presented, but there are some times where the stories lose a little steam and opportunity to provide more depth into the challenges of this issue. The educators are really portrayed in a poor light, which missed the efforts that actually try to address these issues.

Dan’s Rating: 3.5/5

After 75 years of preparing sushi, Jiro Ono continues to serve as arguably the best sushi chef in the world. He has won multiple accolades, including a perfect 3 stars in the Michelin guide and an award from the Japanese president. He is also the oldest chef to have received such distinctions. Working out of his 10-seat restaurant located in a subway station, patrons have to make reservations at least 1 month in advance and pay 30,000 yen in order to eat there. His eldest son, Yoshikauzu, stands to eventually inherit the business but works under his father as he continues to learn the best methods to prepare sushi and manage the business. Jiro’s younger son, Takashi, trained for years with his father but eventually was allowed to leave to open his own sushi restaurant, since his brother was already promised the existing one. Jiro never takes a day off unless it is a national holiday, and even when given a break, he still anxiously awaits his chance to get back to work and start another day.

Jiro clearly is a dedicated chef. In a culture that promotes honor, integrity and commitment, Jiro embodies all of the elements vital to be recognized as a successful person. As highlighted in the film, he contains the five attributes of a successful chef: taking one’s work seriously, aspire to continue to improve, keep one’s work space clean, be a better leader than a collaborator and be passionate about your work. These are skills and qualities that he strived to pass down to his sons and to all of the young men who have attempted to train at his restaurant.

  

The film, directed by David Gelb, takes a look inside the life of Jiro and highlights the effort necessary to reach his level of success. Running on themes of consistency and dedication, Gelb is able to present a life of servitude that brings respect for Jiro and his family. Cultural differences are significantly identified as well, particularly in the way that his sons were compelled to follow in the family business rather than go to college to study other fields. To remain loyal to their father and his legacy, they both complied. Jiro developed his technique over many years, but created his course menu in only the last seven, including three significant groups of sushi. Patrons can expect to taste up to 20 different pieces.

  

The documentary also dives into more of the background of the process of his business. Until he suffered medical troubles, Jiro would visit the fish market himself, as a high quality fish is required to make top notch cuisine. Handing this responsibility over to Yoshikauzu, Jiro focuses a little more on the training of the staff in the kitchen. His apprentices are responsible for learning and managing the preparation methods necessary for Jiro to run a 15-minute experience for each of his patrons. It takes a significant amount of time for each of the apprentices to move up the hierarchy of responsibility, from holding the hot towels for patrons to cut the fish to making the grilled egg dish.

This simple but compelling look into the life of Jiro Ono is rathering entertaining and can raise interest in even mild sushi appreciators to want to travel to Tokyo to try his cuisine.

Dan’s Rating: 4.0/5

Kevin Clash was a young kid growing up outside of Baltimore when he discovered he had a dream. While watching television, he was inspired to create and animate puppets. Starting with the fur lining of one of his father’s coats, Kevin created dozens of different characters. He was misunderstood as a child and a teenager, but exposure and philanthropy provided him the exposure to get discovered to join a small children’s television program with Channel 2 in Baltimore. A surprise opportunity to meet with Kermit Love and learn many of the secrets to Jim Henson’s success did more for his career than he could have realized. He made a connection that launched him into opportunities to work with Captain Kangaroo and, of course, Jim Henson and Frank Oz. Elmo was not even his original creation, but he re-imagined the character to be a combination of the loving and energetic traits of his parents. The new Elmo became a sensation and the anchor to Clash’s career.

The documentary, narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, focuses on Clash’s rise from child puppet prodigy to international success. One of the consistent realities when comparing his success with his more humble beginnings is that he would not be recognized as a celebrity without Elmo at his side. Still, his focus has never been the fame or fortune. Originally, his creations and performances were for the children from his mother’s work and attempts to fundraise for sick children in the community. He wanted to explore the land of Jim Henson, meet his idol and find his way to Sesame Street. He accomplished all of these things, with a bit of help from Kermit Love. He never lost his passion for helping others and even invites young talents to visit the studio and learn from his experience. Kevin Clash has a humbleness that is truly inspiring.

  

Although the start of the film is a little disjointed, it quickly finds its bearings and paints a story of the history of Kevin Clash and how his life coexisted with Jim Henson’s success and filmography. Goldberg’s involvement as the narrator was not overpowering, as much of the film was actually narrated by Clash himself. His parents were rather charming, as they proclaimed their support for Kevin starting from the first puppet he created. He also received a lot of praise and acceptance from the other puppeteers between the different Henson projects.

  

There are a couple of questions that arise from this film that would be interesting to know. Since they glossed over his personal life, what happened to cause his divorce and what is his relationship like with his ex-wife? Even when he highlighted some of the challenges with a lack of resources and show cancellations, those elements were only highlighted for brief moments before moving onto the oncoming successes. There seemed to be opportunities to talk more about educational lessons from each of those experiences. There also seems to be a gap about his continued goals, to use the Latin phrase quo vadimus. So what are the continued hopes and goals of Kevin Clash?

Even with the questions, the film sinks its hooks into the viewer with its charm and inspiration description of Clash’s life.

Dan’s Rating: 4.0/5