Tag Archives: documentary

Cult of Personality- The Source Family (2012)

13 Sep

SourceFamily_2000x2841_1shtWhat started as a lucrative, hip vegetarian restaurant in late-1960’s LA, led to a religious way of life for over one hundred followers in the 70’s. The Source Family documentary tells the tale of Ya Ho Wha, or Father Yod, and his transformation from a straight-laced and allegedly violent businessman to a polygamous cult leader. A unique perspective emerges as past followers are interviewed in present-day, with many seeing no harm in the crazy life they used to lead under this cult leader. What started out with seemingly reasonable life habits- healthy and organic eating, commitment to above all else do no harm, communal living and positive thinking- devolves into power-hunger, community backlash, withdrawal from society, and as Father Yod’s ex-wife, Robin, so aptly put it, “a dirty old man on a lust trip.”

And despite the obvious manipulation at play within the Source Family, it is incredible to see how former members still speak so highly of the cult and its missions- many retaining their cult-given names (Sunflower, Isis, Electricity, all with the last name Aquarian) even more than 40 years after the Family’s dissipation.

Oh the fashion!

Oh the fashion!

The incredibly raw, archival footage maintained by photographer, official Source Family member, and appointed documentarian, Isis Aquarian, gives a first-hand look into the ceremonies, rituals, daily life, and philosophies of this group. It is quite surprising that documentation was even allowed, considering how it doesn’t always cast the group or its leader in a positive light. There is also some unique insight into why exactly someone would fall for cult mentality, as well as the societal pushes and pulls in the climate of the 1960’s and 70’s family. Most notably, during a time in which fatherly love and warmth was not the customary order of the day (think Mad Men), followers with daddy issues flocked to Father Yod’s side for love and guidance.

Plus, they formed a pretty interesting psychedelic rock band, that for some reason was allowed to play California high schools during their heyday. Nowadays, their records are a coveted find for serious collectors.

Check out this far out trailer for the doc, man:

“He Lives in a Horde of His Own Personal Peculiarities” Burt’s Buzz (2013)

22 Feb
Burt Shavitz, namesake of Burt's Bees

Burt Shavitz, namesake of Burt’s Bees

I’ve been using Burt’s Bees products for as long as I can remember, but until I saw the documentary Burt’s Buzz, I had no idea that Burt was a real person. This documentary takes an intimate look into Burt Shavitz’s life as the poster “boy” of Burt’s Bees products. He travels all over the world, passing out samples and meeting superfans (yep, he has those). He is just as rustic as the photo to the left suggests.

Some Burt's Bees superfans in Taiwan

Some Burt’s Bees superfans in Taiwan

April Ludgate is similarly not amused

April Ludgate is similarly not amused

Trevor Folsom is known as “The Majordomo,” aka Burt’s handler, who makes sure he gets his packing in order and to his appointments on time, but mostly he helps Burt with things around his house and in his life on a daily basis. He is the darling of the documentary, in my opinion; he made me laugh until I cried. Folsom’s deadpan sarcasm and obvious annoyance with the one man pony show that is Burt would put April Ludgate (Dwyer) to shame. In the first shot in which he faces the camera, interview style, he states, “Burt’s a very interesting guy that I spend every day with. And sometimes I wanna throttle him,” and later he delivers my favorite lines, “He lives in a horde of his own personal peculiarities…He does not have the range of conception that allows him to see what he has become…He’s like Colonel Sanders, and he simply does not understand that.”

I will always love documentaries about peculiar people. They are uplifting alternatives to the depressing docs I watch about climate change, religious extremists, and hegemonic US international policy-making. Burt’s Buzz is one of the best I have seen in some time, although there is a bit of a sad twist to his story as well.

My favorite scene from the doc at the end of the following video: https://thescene.com/watch/presents/burt-s-buzz-meet-burt-and-his-majordomo-trevor

Netflix Documentaries for Your Snow Day(s)

6 Jan

So from what the internet is telling me, it looks like the whole world is having a snow/ice/coldness holiday today. Even many of you who are not in the education field are enjoying a day off that usually only happens if a bomb threat is called into your work (which is what I have always referred to as Adult Snow Days).

Now that you have an extra day to remain snuggled in your pajamas with your pet or your loved one(s), don’t you think it’s time to fire up your Netflix and participate in some informational movie film viewing on your new flat screen? Luckily my three-day NYE hangover has afforded me the opportunity to preview and review many of Netflix’s old and new docs for you. Here are some recommendations, in no particular order.

1. Blackfish (2013) Blackfish

You have been putting it off, or perhaps you didn’t even know it was available on Netflix streaming, but it is time to sit down and punish yourself for all the carefree hours (or days) you spent at SeaWorld in your childhood. Blackfish uncovers SeaWorld’s reckless policies when it comes to the capture and handling of orcas, and focuses in particular on Tilikum, an orca that really lives up to the killer whale nomenclature.

Somm2. Somm (2012)

I love wine, yet all I know about it is that you should drink white wine cold, it’s not technically champagne unless it comes from the Champagne region of France, and if you want to get the best Malbec, you should ensure that it originated in the Southern Cone (Argentina/Chile). I thought I was doing pretty well on my wine knowledge until I saw Somm, a documentary about some of the elite few sommeliers who put their lives on the back burner for years in order to study for, and often fail, the Master Sommelier exam. It is absolutely insane what these people have to know in order to pass. I hope this can lead to more wine parties in my future, as we attempt to recreate the “blind taste” part of the exam. “This wine tastes like a freshly opened can of tennis balls, freshly cut hose.” And for those of you who think wine is a drink that is just for women, you will be surprised at what a boys club it tends to be. Which leads me to my next recommendation…

3. Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony (2012)Bronies

Apparently I am late to the party, but until I saw this documentary, I had no idea that people flock, in the thousands, to My Little Pony conventions all over the world to join in

Abe Simpson

fellowship with Brony bretheren. This isn’t your MLP of the 80’s or 90’s, however. The (mostly) male followers of the new age of My Little Pony love it for its animation, music, and above all, the overall message of friendship and love in the show. I must admit, I still don’t really get it, but maybe I’m just getting too old. I really do appreciate the message and the vibe of these Bronies, however, and I think it’s a world worth gawking at through this doc.

ROOOS_70_M1V1.indd4. Room 237 (2012)

If you love Stanley Kubrick and/or The Shining, you’ll enjoy this documentary about the many (conspiracy?) theories that surround this masterpiece of cinema from 1980. Some of the theories presented in the documentary are downright frustrating, and remind me that I am in wayyyy over my head if I really wanted to be a film critic/analyst. It took me back to the days of high school English classes in which every little literary symbol is beaten to death as a possible reference to a Freudian nightmare. But overall, even my frustration came from a place of entertainment, and some of the theories I found quite enjoyable. My favorite one claims that the original moon landing shown on TV was actually a fake, directed by Stanley Kubrick himself. It refers to several instances in The Shining that support this conclusion. While some are far-fetched, I want to believe!

5. Kumaré (2011) Kumare

We all spend at least part of our lives pondering the existential questions of “who am I really? Why am I here? What is my purpose? Why is there suffering?” etc. Some of us even seek the answers from others, often a guru, or a spiritual teacher/guide/healer. Kumaré tells the story of a “false prophet,” a man who creates his own philosophy, teachings, and spiritual practices, and then gains followers to see how far he can take it. As a viewer, I often found myself wincing at how blindly these people accepted him as a guru and prophet. Yet at the same time, he did have a virtuous message underlying this whole project, and I think that those who came out of the project without hating him for his betrayal actually learned more about themselves, life and enlightenment than many who never see the veil of their guru lifted.

Keep warm, my friends! And stay tuned for my next wintery installment of Netflix streaming and Hulu TV shows to keep you warm until the first thaw.

Lunarcy! (2012) Moon Dreamers Gotta Dream

11 Aug

lunarcyLunarcy! is a quirky documentary that zooms in on the lives of a handful of individuals whose lives revolve around the moon in different ways. These men run the gamut from Alan Bean, an astronaut-turned-artist, to Dennis Hope, a man who claims ownership to the moon (and makes a living off of selling plots on it). But by far the most interesting “character” of the documentary- for me- is Christopher Carson. This young, nerdy hopeful wants to start the first colony on the moon. He seeks to travel to that giant, grey, orbiting rock never to return to earth again. Check out his organization dedicated to this dream, called The Luna Project. After several testimonial-style interviews with Carson and his mother, you start to paint a small picture of why he is so obsessed with this dream. As she says, “He needs  a society where people like him are valued…He needs a society that accepts him. It may be that he feels that one of the ways to do that is to gather like-minded individuals and…isn’t that what we all wanna do?”

Former astronaut, Alan Bean, paints images such as this one, First Men, using actual moon dust he collected from his NASA uniform.

Former astronaut, Alan Bean, paints images such as this one, First Men, using actual moon dust he collected from his NASA uniform.

While this film is reminiscent of docs such as King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters because of its voyeurism into a sort of “nerd culture,” it doesn’t poke as much fun at its subjects. Well….maybe a little. But this movie also shows a certain amount of respect for those who have dedicated their every moment to the moon in some way or another.

Emily Kell

Emily Kell’s painting, Flowering, evokes the divine feminine at play with the moon. http://emilykell.com/

The one thing that puzzles me after watching this documentary is that it only focuses on men who are so focused on the moon. It makes me wonder where the women are who are just as fascinated in the moon; they must exist, right?  This is especially interesting to me because of the feminine associations that many cultures make with the moon. Perhaps it is the feminine allure of la luna that is subliminally driving these men to their obsession. Just a thought. It would have been an interesting reflection for the movie to make considering it also touches upon issues of autism, the defunding of the NASA space program, and the commodification of space.

And for good measure: We’re earthlings! Let’s blow up Earth things!

Dark Days (2000)

14 Apr

dark_days

Documentaries run the gamut from silly bio-docs about video gamers (i.e. King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters and Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters) to change-the-way-you-live-or-die guilt trippers (Food Matters, Food Inc., Forks Over Knives, etc.). There is a place and time for each kind on the spectrum of documentaries. Sometimes you want to learn how to make a change in the world, or learn how your behavior impacts the environment, international relations or the political climate. Sometimes you want to gawk at some unusual people who are not fictional characters. Dark Days is one of those docs that falls between the two categories. It won’t make you hate life, and it’s not just a voyeuristic romp through someone’s life. This is one of my favorite documentaries to date, due, in part, to the beautiful score composed by DJ Shadow. This haunting soundtrack paired with the black and white (though mostly black) film brings an eerie feel to the whole picture.

One of the NYC underground tunnel-dwellers of Dark Days

One of the NYC underground tunnel-dwellers of Dark Days

Dark Days takes you into the humble lives of the marginalized and forgotten citizens of the New York City underground. Not some underground “scene,” but literally under the ground in the abandoned tunnels of NYC’s subway system. The living conditions of these people are unbelievable. They live in complete darkness in small makeshift shacks. Yet some of them have carved out a nice little niche for themselves, complete with meager appliances and the electricity they use to run their naked lightbulbs and small hotplates. Many aspects of this life mirror the social structure that we above-grounders enjoy. There are feuds and relationships, people have pets and set up security systems around their homes. But as you might guess, this kind of living is illegal, and many of these people are driven out of the tunnels by law enforcement.

Some more tunnel-dwellers who take us into their homes

Some more tunnel-dwellers who take us into their homes

I was happy to see that Dark Days made its way back to the Netflix Instant Streaming list. Do yourself a favor and check this one out before Netflix pulls it again. (Actually, I just found it here, on YouTube, but sometimes those get taken down as well).

Whores’ Glory (2011)

24 Mar

Whores'_Glory_(US_dvd_cover)Any documentaries involving real sex are going to draw in and intrigue viewers. Rather than being a gratuitous nudy romp, Whores’ Glory, directed by Michael Glawogger, shows the human side of the sex industry in three international cities: Bangladesh, India; Reynosa, Mexico and Bangkok, Thailand. The film focuses mainly on the women involved in sex work, their lives inside -and in some cases outside of- the brothels, and their motivation for working in this dangerous and usually degrading work. This movie is an interesting counterpoint, or perhaps more of a missing puzzle piece, to The Great Happiness Space, which focused on male escort clubs instead of female brothels.

I have studied about women in sex work before, (see Sex at the Margins by Laura María Agustín), so I was not surprised at the various factors that led these women to the sex industry. Nonetheless, the movie is a great sociological exposé about the men who receive their services, and the society that creates the contradictory climate where sex work is stigmatized and shunned, yet in high demand, as it has been since the beginning of civilized society. This film is a geographic and social dissertation in movie form, and yes, that means it gave me an academic boner. (Pun intended).

I found India to be the most eye-opening chapter in this three-part documentary. The caste system at play and the words of the informants in this chapter highlighted some key societal elements that lead to prostitution, at least in the case of Bangladesh. Though I would argue that the message extends far beyond those borders and sheds light on not only prostitution, but on a prevalent rape culture in many nations across the world. You may have noticed that we are beginning to open up dialogues about rape culture, most recently in the fore due to the Steubenville, Ohio rape case that has made headlines across the world.

At the Fish Tank, a brothel in Bangkok, Thailand, prostitutes sit and chat behind glass while clients take their pick from the lot by calling upon them by their assigned 2-digit number.

At the Fish Tank, a brothel in Bangkok, Thailand, prostitutes sit and chat behind glass while clients take their pick from the lot by calling upon them by their assigned number.

The madame of one of the Indian brothels talks about the vicious cycle that befalls women in sex work there:

This is our whole life. What else do we have? Think of my daughter. Because her mother is a whore, no one will marry her… When I am very old, I won’t be able to support her. She’ll have no choice. She’ll become a whore. The outside world pushes us out of the way to make room. Those people are our clients. Outside they are disgusted by us; in here, they love us and our bodies.

A barber in Bangladesh speaks out as an advocate of the brothels and an apologist for rape culture in India:

Without the… brothel district women couldn’t go out in the street without being molested. Men would be so horny they would rape them. Without those women, men would be screwing cows and goats.

A fascinating slew of vignettes make for an enlightening documentary for those viewers who still have an image of a crack-addicted street walker when they hear the word “prostitute,” Whores’ Glory is certainly worth the watch.

Deliver Us from Evil (2006)

3 Mar

Deliver us from evilDeliver Us from Evil is a very relavent documentary in these times of Pope/Catholic Church sex scandals. This documentary gives just one example out of the many pedophilia cover-ups in the Catholic Church. It tells of the decades of child sexual abuse at the hands of Father Oliver O’Grady, and exposes how deep the coverups go within the Catholic Church. This movie includes interviews from the victims and their families, Father O’Grady and other priests, and the therapists that work to help victims of clergy sexual abuse to pick up the pieces and get their lives back.

It is tough to watch and absolutely nauseating because it is all real. O’Grady

Father O'Grady, Catholic pederast, was free to walk the streets even after admitting to sexually abusing 25+ children

Father O’Grady, Catholic pederast, was free to walk the streets even after admitting to sexually abusing 25+ children

describes, in detail, the ways in which he abused these children (as young as nine months old), and he doesn’t shed a tear, bat an eye, or convincingly express his remorse for the lives he has ruined and the crimes he committed. Throughout the movie, O’Grady is interviewed in various surroundings, including: in a church, at his home, and at a playground! You spend most of the documentary wondering how the shit is this guy able to be around children!? And then you find out, after being moved around California for decades, he was finally charged, sentenced to fourteen years in prison (he served only seven), and later deported back to Ireland, where he roams free at the time the documentary was filmed. (Yeah, I think I just threw up a little, too).

Some recent Googling has shown me that O’Grady is now incarcerated in Ireland for possession of child pornography. So much for his reformation.

Koko: A Talking Gorilla (1978)

24 Feb
Koko and Penny back in the day

Koko and Penny back in the day

Yes, this might stray from my typical taste in controversial and artistic documentaries, but I came across this documentary after stumbling through a maze of YouTube videos on Koko the gorilla spurned by this video that wimp.com posted earlier this month. I started to watch the documentary, which is posted in its entirety on YouTube, thinking that I would grow tired of it before long, but I didn’t.

What really kept me engaged throughout a documentary on a gorilla that knows sign language was not the title character at all. It was actually Penny Patterson, Koko’s researcher and caretaker, who caught my interest. Penny plays a major role in this documentary without being the focus. She is treated as

A more recent photo of Koko and Penny

A more recent photo of Koko and Penny

an auxiliary character, someone the documentary may have left out had Koko truly been able to speak to the cameras for herself. But quick snippets about Penny made me interested in her life -or lack thereof. It seemed to me that she has made many personal sacrifices in order to dedicate her life to Koko. It seemed sad to me because I live a life that thrives on human relationships; interestingly enough, Penny does not seem to feel that she is missing out on anything.

Koko: A Talking Gorilla is not a mind-blowing documentary that exposes dark truths, but there are still some underlying messages and unanswered questions that arise after watching it. While these cater more to an animal rights message, there is still a secret human interest piece present. It makes me want to watch more documentaries from the 60’s and 70’s to see if they are all so much different from modern-day docs. It definitely seems more polished and candy-coated than the ones I am privy to. If you have any suggestions of older documentaries that you have enjoyed, I would love to have your input. The only one that comes to mind is Grey Gardens, which I should be writing a review about sometime soon.

Witness to Jonestown (2008)

17 Feb

Witness to JonestownEven if you are not familiar with the story of the Jonestown Massacre, it is probable that you have heard of the metaphor, “Drinking the Kool Aid.” This metaphor refers to people blindly following a belief or philosophy, and like most metaphors, comes from a very literal event that once took place. While some contribute this saying to the Ken Kesey & the Merry Pranksters Acid Tests of the 1960’s, its more sinister referent is the Jonestown Massacre, during which 900+ people in a group known as the People’s Temple drank a lethal concoction of Kool Aid and cyanide led by their religious leader, Rev. Jim Jones. (Not to be confused with Brian Jonestown Massacre or this guy).

I believe in Jim Jones

Rev. Jim Jones founded the People’s Temple on a message of brother- and sisterhood that spanned all races and creeds.

While the story itself is unsettling and confusing, this movie adds to that feeling. It is easy to disassociate from the horror that is 900 people allegedly committing group suicide. I have always dismissed it as a cult full of mentally unstable people who made a decision that no rational-minded human being would make: to end their own lives and the lives of their family members at the behest of a maniac. But it becomes all too real when you hear the testimonials of the few members of People’s Temple who survived, witness the tense conditions at their commune in the jungle leading up to the moment that the Kool Aid was pushed upon the members of People’s Temple, and see the footage of the aftermath where piles of corpses include babies and children.

jonestown victims

A fraction of the more than 900 people who ended their lives in Jonestown, Guyana, some willingly and some forcibly.

This isn’t even the first documentary I have seen on the subject of the People’s Temple and the Jonestown Massacre, but it is the best one that I have seen. I assume that because it is an NBC made for TV movie, it contains exclusive footage that could not be found elsewhere, including some of the last moments of Jim Jones’ drug-addled mental unravelling at the People’s Temple compound in Guyana, and audio footage of the actual mass “suicide,” which still haunts me.

I still can’t imagine finding myself in the situation in which members of the People’s Temple found themselves, but hearing the surviving members speak of their experiences sheds a beam of light on the murky history of Jonestown and the People’s Temple. What is more disturbing and even less clear coming out of the movie are the motivations Jim Jones’ disturbed desire to exercise such lethal control over nearly one thousand people who loved and trusted him.

The Queen of Versailles (2012)

10 Feb

Welcome to the first edition of Documentary Sundays. For me, Sundays have always been good for sleeping in, eating brunch, enjoying mimosas and bloody marys (bloody maries?), and curling up on the couch to watch some of the myriad of documentaries in my netflix queue. Unfortunately, work obligations have cut into my early morning mimosas, but Sunday evening documentaries are still a time-honored tradition in my house. Won’t you join me?

Image

David and Jackie Siegel. And their taxidermied dog draped over the piano in the background. Yep. That classy.

This week’s DS doc is a guilty pleasure view of mine, The Queen of Versailles. It is basically one of those reality shows I always talk shit about, but as a whole movie, I somehow accept it. It’s one of those train wrecks that you can’t look away from. So please, take this recommendation with a grain of salt, and don’t expect to really learn anything from this documentary.

The Queen of Versailles has been called a “rags-to-riches-to-rags” story by critics, and I can’t think of a better or more clever way to explain it in a snappy tagline, so there you have it. This movie explores the rise and fall of David Siegel, the Father of the Timeshare. And when I say “fall,” the fall itself is still a work in progress. Siegel hasn’t quite hit rock bottom, but you may surmise that he isn’t quite done falling at the end of the documentary. You will most certainly look up his status in the business and financial world after you watch the movie.

Image

“Help. What do I do with this?”

You may be asking yourself, “if this movie is about David Siegel, why is it called the Queen of Versailles?” I wish I could tell you that in an attempt to save his failing business, Siegel throws the biggest French-themed drag show the world has ever seen. The truth is, in a nutshell, this title refers to Siegel’s wife, Jackie, and they are building a multi-million dollar mansion that is a replica of the palace at Versailles. Jackie is smart enough to get a computer engineering degree from MIT, but ditzy enough to do, well, all of the other things she does in this documentary. She has a gigantic litter of children that she doesn’t know what to do with, and clearly she and her husband both continue to pine for the days that she was Miss America. Jackie continues to feed her shopping addiction while David’s various resorts go belly-up and their bank account runs dry.

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Virginia Nebab, the Siegels’ nanny, stands in front of her “house,” on the property. And you’ll never believe what it used to be. Actually, you probably will.

So, a little something you might not know about me, I have my Master’s in International Studies. It may be for this reason that the most poignant element of this documentary is the storyline which follows the housekeepers and nannies of the Siegel household. I thought this documentary was going to be a huge joke, but the stories of these women who have lived thousands of miles away from home for decades to raise someone else’s children was just heartbreaking. It is not the ideal job, by any stretch of the imagination, but these women don’t complain. They just tell their stories point blank. I got anxiety listening to their sad stories just thinking about how David Siegel would probably fire them once he saw the documentary for making him look bad.

And even with all of that commentary, I haven’t even scratched the surface of The Queen of Versailles. So no worries, you have a lot to get out of watching this documentary. Just be sure to stock up on plenty of champagne and orange juice, because you’re going to need them it to dull the sting that is 21st century American capitalism, incarnate.