Tag Archives: documentary

Jessica Williams, Cate Blanchett star in Sundance premieres

Former “Daily Show” correspondent Jessica Williams flexes her dramatic chops. Cate Blanchett pays homage to great 20th century artists and “Silicon Valley” star Kumail Nanjiani tells a very personal story in some of the films premiering at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Programmers announced their selections for the documentary and narrative premiere sections at the Sundance Film Festival, which has launched films like “Boyhood,” “Manchester by the Sea” and “O.J.: Made in America.”

As with many years, the Sundance premiere slate can be a place for well-known comedians to take a stab at more dramatic and serious roles.

In what’s expected to be one of the breakout films and performances of the festival, comedian Jessica Williams stars in Jim Strouse’s “The Incredible Jessica James,” about a New York playwright recovering from a breakup and finding solace in a recent divorcee.

Nanjiani is another who might surprise audiences in “The Big Sick,” which he co-wrote with his wife Emily V. Gordon and is based on their own courtship. He stars alongside Zoe Kazan in the Michael Showalter-directed pic.

The festival also has films featuring veteran stars in different kinds of roles.

Shirley MacLaine stars in “The Last Word,” about a retired businesswoman who strikes up an unlikely friendship with a journalist (Amanda Seyfried) after writing her own obituary.

Festival founder Robert Redford, too, is in Charlie McDowell’s “The Discovery,” about a world where the afterlife has been proven. Jason Segel and Rooney Mara also star.

Cate Blanchett re-enacts artistic statements of Dadaists, Lars von Trier and everyone in between in “Manifesto.”

Michelle Pfeiffer and Kiefer Sutherland co-star in the drama “Where is Kyra.”

“Avengers” Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen re-team in the FBI crime thriller “Wind River,” the directorial debut of “Hell or High Water” writer Taylor Sheridan.

“Bessie” director Dee Rees is poised to be a standout with “Mudbound,” a racial drama set in the post-WWII South and starring Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell and Mary J. Blige.

“It’s quite topical to this time even though it’s a period piece,” said festival director John Cooper.

Among the documentaries premiering are a look at the Oklahoma City bombing from Barak Goodman; Stanley Nelson’s examination of black colleges and universities, “Tell Them We Are Rising”; and Barbara Kopple’s account of a champion diver who announces he is transgender, “This Is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous.”

“The beauty of independent film is it’s not a copycat world, unlike some of the Hollywood stuff where they follow trends,” said programming director Trevor Groth. “Independent film has always been about originality and choice and something different.”

The 2017 Sundance Film Festival runs Jan. 19- 29.


On the Web


Doc shows militarization of US police from the inside

The documentary Do Not Resist provides a timely look at the state of policing in the United States, from the escalation of SWAT raids to the unregulated technology police departments are using.

Director Craig Atkinson for over two years traveled around the country shadowing various police departments in their everyday activities. The film is now playing in limited release, with weeklong runs launching in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles on Friday, and expanding throughout October and November.

Atkinson, the cinematographer on the documentary Detropia, was first intrigued to pursue the issue of police militarization after seeing the police response to the Boston Marathon bombing and the military grade equipment they used. He was struck by how police acted more like an “occupying force,” he said.

“I was seeing reports coming out later where people were handcuffed face down on their front lawn detained, no charges filed, no questions, police officers entering homes without search warrants,” Atkinson said.

It was just different from what he’d known. Atkinson has in some ways been observing the police his entire life. His father was an officer for 29 years outside of Detroit and a SWAT member from 1989 to 2002. As a boy, Atkinson would tag along to training exercises and play hostage. When he got a little older he would play the role of armed assailant.

“I always had a great deal of respect for the work he was doing,” Atkinson said. “He was a very upstanding officer.”

He knew, too, in the War on Terror era that police, and SWAT, were getting a bad rap and thought it would be a good idea to go behind the scenes and show it as it really happens — “the full breadth of the SWAT experience.”

What he found, however, was not what he expected. In one department, SWAT was being used for raids over 200 times a year. It was a striking difference to the experience of his father, who, in a similarly sized department, did 29 search warrants in 13 years.

“We never found an opportunity where you see the equipment being used in a situation where you would actually want it used,” he said. He thinks something like the Florida nightclub shooting was one instance where SWAT was in fact used appropriately.

The issue of the militarization of police in the United States has been vexing the country for years, most pointedly during the police-shooting protests in Ferguson, Missouri, where police wore riot gear and deployed tear gas, dogs and armored vehicles, sometimes pointing assault rifles at protesters.

The ACLU has spoken out against it, and the Obama administration, which defended the use of military vehicles during the Boston Marathon bombing, subsequently issued stricter controls over weapons and gear distributed to law enforcement. But it remains a hot button issue in the country, with some passionately defending the necessity of riot gear for the protection of officers in dangerous situations.

In the tense aftermath of a police shooting death in Louisiana, for instance, Gov. John Bel Edwards said a Baton Rouge police officer had teeth knocked out with a rock thrown by a protester. He said if officers don’t use riot gear, “you have no defense against that sort of thing.”

For his part, Atkinson started filming about a year before the events in Ferguson. Once that happened, he knew his footage would be timestamped around that, and there became an urgency to finish.

He chose to present the footage in a verite style. Thus, we hear only from those either involved in policing or public events like congressional hearings or community meetings.

People encouraged him to include his father’s story (he didn’t) or a “voice of god” narration to guide the audience (also absent). Atkinson says his personal interjections are not the point.

“Everybody already has an opinion about these issues,” Atkinson said. “We’re just showing things, we’re letting things unfold.”

As the film continues its run throughout the country, he’s mainly surprised and “disheartened” that it remains relevant.

“Here we are years later and it’s as timely as it ever could be,” he said.

‘I am’ doc celebrates life of JFK Jr.

“I Am JFK Jr. — A Tribute to a Good Man,” which hits select theaters on July 22, captures the fascination with John F. Kennedy Jr., from his early days toddling around the White House to his death in a plane crash in 1999.

Network Entertainment’s Derik Murray made the film in the mold of his other “I Am” movies, including “I Am Bruce Lee,” “I Am Chris Farley” and “I Am Evel Knievel.” The film also airs on Spike TV at 9 p.m. EDT on Aug. 1, and a DVD release is set for Aug. 16.

The film captures JFK Jr. as John John, the tousle-haired toddler of the late President John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, saluting his father’s casket after his 1963 assassination.

Highlights include JFK Jr.’s time as an assistant district attorney in New York, his 1988 People magazine Sexiest Man Alive cover and his 1995 debut as publisher of the splashy but short-lived magazine George.

Interspersed are snippets of interviews with celebrities and politicians who knew him well. They include supermodel Cindy Crawford, who famously posed as a midriff-baring George Washington, complete with powdered wig, for the inaugural issue of George; actor Robert De Niro; boxer Mike Tyson; journalist Christiane Amanpour; Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt; former Brown University roommate Chris Oberbeck; and Grateful Dead songwriter John Perry Barlow.

“John Kennedy Jr. was destined for greatness, the heir apparent to his father’s legacy, and he knew that,” Murray said.

But the son, a student of history’s great men, had an overriding interest in goodness over greatness.

“After reading about them and who they were at home, how they treated their families, he thought it was more important for him to commit to being a good man,” Murray said. “In his mind, that was often missing in great men.”

Not surprisingly, the film focuses on JFK Jr.’s death at age 38 on July 16, 1999, when the single-engine private plane he was piloting from New Jersey to Martha’s Vineyard en route to a family wedding on Cape Cod crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. Killed with Kennedy were his wife, Carolyn Bessette, and her sister, Lauren Bessette.

Friends, acquaintances and pundits reflect on a life cut short and speculate on what he might have become.

President, for instance?

A clip of an interview that JFK Jr. gave to Oprah Winfrey is telling. She insists he surely must have thought about running for office, and he responds, somewhat coyly, “There is this great weight of expectation and anticipation.”

But maybe not.

“John was smart enough to know, ‘I’m Junior. I’m not my father,”” another presidential son, Michael Reagan, says in the film.

“I believe that he had greatness in him,” CNN journalist Chris Cuomo tells the producers. “And I don’t give a damn if that meant anything about politics.”


On the web

Online: http://www.iamjfkjr.com/


Love conquers in ‘Loving’

Jeff Nichols, sitting by the beach, was surprised to notice a curious calm amid the usually anxiety-ridden premiere experience at the Cannes Film Festival.

His film, Loving, is about Richard and Mildred Loving, the Virginia couple whose biracial marriage in 1958 led to a landmark Supreme Court decision on marriage equality.

“It’s not my story,” said the writer-director, whose previous films, including the Mississippi River coming-of-age tale Mud and the science-fiction thriller Midnight Special were original creations. “It’s their story.”

Loving, starring Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, is told straightforwardly and simply. Although it has the context of a civil rights drama, it’s a portrait of a humble, unassuming love so steadfast that it eventually toppled one of the most odious legal remnants of slavery-era America — the ban against interracial marriages.

Without the standard Hollywood histrionics, the film patiently accumulates considerable force before finally overwhelming the viewer.

“No one moment adds up to the whole. But if you put them all together, hopefully, the weight of it gains this emotional density,” said Nichols. “Part of the cruelty of what was happening to them was time. Time was being taken away from them.”

The Lovings didn’t seek the spotlight, but their efforts to return home after being exiled from Virginia eventually led to the 1967 Supreme Court ruling of Loving vs. Virginia — a decision cited in the high court’s 2015 ruling on same-sex marriage.

Nichols and Edgerton believe the film has obvious significance at time when religious liberty laws and bathroom battles are being fought in the U.S.

“It’s kind of shameful to watch and look back and think 50 years ago that that was happening and yet it’s still very much relevant today,” says Edgerton. “Things are changing, obviously, but it’s weird to think we’ll look back in 20, 30 years’ time and say that law (gay marriage) changed in 2015.”

Of the many films in Cannes, Loving, which Focus Features will release during the heart of awards season in November, is among the most likely to garner significant attention from both moviegoers and the Academy Awards. The performances of Negga and Edgerton have already been widely hailed.

“This is the most important film I’ve made and it’s one of the most important films in history, I think,” Negga told reporters in Cannes. The Irish-Ethiopian actress — the first Nichols auditioned for the role — pursued the part fervently. “There was no alternative, really. I just really had to play her.”

Both actors drew from the famous images of the couple, who were photographed by Life magazine’s Grey Villet (Michael Shannon in the film) in 1966. The photographs captured their sweet, almost teenage-like manner together. In one, Richard — a buzz-cut blond country boy — lies with his head in Mildred’s lap while watching TV.

Nancy Buirski’s 2011 documentary The Loving Story was also a major inspiration.

“The court case is fascinating, but I just wanted to hang out in that documentary footage more,” says Nichols. “I wanted to go around the edges of it. I wanted to go around the corner of it.”

Avoiding inflated dramatics, Nichols and his cast sought to stay true to the Lovings, who effected change just by being.

“To me, it’s like this series of checkmates. It tends to move and be shut down. Move and be shut down. Have a voice and be stifled,” says Edgerton. “Finally when the Supreme Court decision releases that weight, it’s quite an overwhelming feeling. It’s a triumphant feeling, but when Richard proposed in the field, that should have been their right and freedom at that time.”

Richard Loving died in 1975, the victim of a drunk driver, and Mildred Loving died in 2008.

Loving may be a departure for Nichols in that it’s a true-life tale. But it continues the Arkansas native’s interest in the preservation of family amid elements out of one’s control.

Choosing to make the film, though, was easy enough. When he first shared the trailer of The Loving Story with his wife, she told him if he didn’t make it, she’d divorce him.

“That’s all she wrote. She didn’t sign off or anything,” recalled Nichols, chuckling.


For a few Oscar doc nominees, films incite change

When it came to gaining the trust of the subjects featured in her latest Oscar-nominated documentary, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy had an advantage.

“It helps to be an Academy Award winner,” joked Obaid-Chinoy, who won the best documentary Oscar for her 2012 short film “Saving Face” about the suffering of women disfigured by acid attacks in the Middle East.

The Pakistani filmmaker was among the nominated documentarians on hand for a Wednesday event at the motion picture academy honoring this year’s documentary Oscar nominees ahead of Sunday’s ceremony.

Obaid-Chinoy is up for another Academy Award this year for her short documentary “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness.” The film, which is about a girl who was shot and thrown into a river by her father after she married a man he did not approve of, is among this year’s documentary nominees affecting change in the world.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif vowed Monday to act against the “despicable” practice known as honor killing after viewing Obaid-Chinoy’s film.

“If you’re cynical about the Oscars, think about that for a second,” she told the crowd at the motion picture academy’s headquarters.

“A Girl in the River” is up against the Ebola clean-up chronicle “Body Team 12,” the Vietnamese artist profile “Chau, Beyond the Lines,” the behind-the-scenes-of-“Shoah” saga “Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah” and the animated post-traumatic stress disorder narrative “Last Day of Freedom.”

“The Look of Silence” filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer similarly raved that his work about Indonesian genocide prompted the government to recognize the mass killings of communists and ethnic Chinese following the release of his previous film, 2012’s “The Act of Killing.”

“It was this wonderful moment not lost on ordinary Indonesians because it was the first time that the government had even implicitly said what happened was wrong,” said Oppenheimer.

“The Look of Silence,” which serves as a follow-up to “The Act of Killing,” is nominated for the feature documentary prize alongside the Amy Winehouse profile “Amy,” the Mexican drug war expose “Cartel Land,” the Nina Simone biography “What Happened, Miss Simone?” and the revolt chronicle “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom.”

On the Web


Spike Lee’s Michael Jackson doc a tribute to his music

As a young artist, Michael Jackson knew he wanted to be legendary.

“I will be magic,” he wrote as a teenager, outlining his plans for his career. “I will be better than every great actor roped in one.”

Jackson’s drive to succeed and his striking talent as a singer, dancer and songwriter are the focus of Spike Lee’s new documentary, “Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to ‘Off the Wall,’” which made its world premiere Sunday at the Sundance Film Festival.

“This film is all about love toward Michael Joseph Jackson,” Lee said as he introduced the film, which is dedicated to Jackson’s children Prince, Paris and “Biji” (formerly Blanket), along with family matriarch Katherine Jackson.

Beginning with the Jackson 5’s earliest songs with Motown Records — featuring a charismatic 9-year-old Michael on lead vocals — the film explores Jackson’s growth as an artist and the perfectionist nature that fueled his work ethic.

Archival footage of the Jacksons’ performances on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “American Bandstand” and their “Destiny” tour is interspersed with interviews with music industry talents from then and now. Sammy Davis Jr., Gene Kelly, Berry Gordy, Quincy Jones and Questlove, along with contemporary music producers Mark Ronson and Rodney Jerkins, are among dozens of voices in the film. Jackson’s brothers Marlon and Jackie also appear on screen, but sisters Janet and LaToya do not.

“Everyone was invited to participate, but we used those who wanted to participate,” said Jackson’s longtime attorney John Branca, now executor of Jackson’s estate and a producer of the film. “Certain (members) of the Jackson family are not quite big fans of (fellow attorney) John and I, but that’s fine. We’re trying to do right by Michael.”

This film makes viewers miss Jackson’s dynamic dancing and mellifluous voice while deepening their appreciation of his talents and endless efforts to hone them.

“I do believe deeply in perfection,” Jackson says in a 1976 interview.

It captures Jackson’s evolution from a breakout child star to a multifaceted adult entertainer determined to transcend barriers of race and genre. Even as a teenager, he dreamed of being able to “translate my music to different countries: Japan, Sweden… even Australia.”

“He took black music to a place where it became human music,” Pharrell Williams says in the film. “My music would not be here if it wasn’t for his music.”

Lee goes beyond music, however: Ballerina Misty Copeland credits Jackson for inspiring her love of dance. L.A. Laker Kobe Bryant says Jackson’s approach to his art “impacted everything for me.”

The late Sidney Lumet, who directed Jackson in the 1978 film “The Wiz,” said: “Michael may be the purest talent I’ve ever seen.”

The film follows Jackson’s career until the release of his groundbreaking 1979 album “Off the Wall,” which paved the way for 1982’s “Thriller,” the best-selling album in history.

It doesn’t get into Jackson’s personal life or any of the legal troubles that would plague him later in life. It’s simply a portrait of a man and his music.

“Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to ‘Off the Wall’” is set to premiere Feb. 5 on Showtime.

Next Act Theatre reflects on Rodney King riots in the age of Ferguson

Not guilty.

Those are the words that set off the Los Angeles riots of 1992, the verdicts in the trial of four white police officers accused of using excessive force during the arrest of Rodney King, a black man beaten by the officers after a high-speed chase. Those words sparked five days of riots throughout the city, ending with more than 50 people dead, thousands injured and $1 billion in estimated damage.

And those words aren’t the only words that matter, in our understanding of what caused the riots and why the racial conflicts that still challenge our society decades persist. With Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, Next Act Theatre will present the words of 37 people connected to the riots, telling their stories as a way of telling the whole story — and ensuring they and their audience can’t help but see the riots from vantage points they never considered.

Next Act’s artistic director David Cescarini, co-directing the production with Jonathan Smoots, says Anna Deavere Smith’s play is often categorized as “documentary theater.” But he considers it something different: “highly personal revelatory theater.”

Twilight consists entirely of interviews Smith conducted with parties affected by the riot — white Hollywood agents, black activists, Korean merchants, politicians, intellectuals, everyday Angelenos — and moves chronologically from a short period before the riots until their aftermath. 

“It’s not documentary drama and it’s not just monologues,” he says. “It’s storytelling. Thirty-seven people have their stories to tell.”

Twilight was a piece Cescarini had never heard of before stumbling across it in a play anthology a little more than a year ago. But only a few months removed from the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, after the fatal shooting of black teen Michael Brown by a white police officer, as well as other protests across the country over similar killings, he was struck by how relevant the piece was, more than two decades after it was written. 

There are differences, of course. Crucially, the Rodney King beating was captured, in part, on a home video made from a balcony overlooking the scene. That video was subsequently shared via telecasts across the nation, going as viral as was possible for a work of broadcast media to go in the early 1990s. 

“No one had ever seen something like that before,” Cecsarini says, adding that the general public was sure the police officers indicted would be convicted. It was when they weren’t found guilty that the rioting began, much as how, in Ferguson, riots started after the officer who killed Brown was not indicted.

‘Those issues are still there to be reckoned with. … They’re not just going to go away on their own.’

To Cecscarini, the parallelism demonstrates that we, as a nation, have not learned from earlier racial tensions, and will continue perpetuating the same injustices unless we are willing to take action. “Those issues are still there to be reckoned with. … They’re not just going to go away on their own,” he says.

When playwright Smith originally performed Twilight, she did so solo, delivering the words of each of her 37 characters. Next Act will present the play with six actors dividing the roles, an option included in Smith’s script. What will be preserved, Cecsarini says, is the gender-bending and race-bending implicit in the work, with each of the six portraying individuals who are different races and genders from themselves as well as characters who share their race and gender.

Cecsarini says playing against type has occasionally been a challenge for him and his actors, but it’s also been a rewarding way for them to discuss and understand elements of the play that their races and genders may otherwise have prevented them from grasping. He also believes it’s part of the purpose of the play — deliberately blurring the lines of gender and race to force audience members out of their comfort zones. 

It’s clear from the words Smith has captured that many of her interview subjects are verbally acknowledging their feelings about race and the riots for the first time, Cecsarini says, with conversations stuttering and dancing around points before finally reaching their destination or hitting a wall and moving on. It’s a position he says he can relate to as well, with his work on the play illuminating his own shortcomings on race, as a white man who grew up in Brookfield largely unaware of Milwaukee’s own conflicts in the 1960s over fair housing and opportunities.

“I was ignorant,” he says, “and in some respects I am still ignorant about what are the day-to-day issues, what people really go through, and what it feels like. This experience has taught me a lot, at least of what I don’t know.”

Twilight is a challenging play to face, but Cecsarini believes Next Act’s audience needs to accept that challenge. “People sometimes cannot see beyond (the) difficulty in going to a theater piece that has something to say,” he says. To him, this play should ideally be seen as an “essential community event” — one that no Milwaukeean, of any race or social class, can justify avoiding. 

“A riot is not the beginning of events, but the end of events,” Cecsarini says. And the only way to prevent one is for communities to come together, across dividing lines, and truly see the different perspectives through which we view our society and its injustices.


Next Act Theatre’s production of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 runs Jan. 28 to Feb. 21 at 255 S. Water St., Milwaukee. Tickets range from $21 to $38 and can be ordered at 414-278-0765 or nextact.org.

Weight-loss resolution? Watch ‘In Defense of Food’ first

January is looming, and we all know what that means: A resolution to lose weight and get healthy. Just like the 2015 declaration. And the one before that.

What diet to choose this time? Low-fat? Low-carb? Gluten-free or prehistoric? Or just throw out the scale and surrender to fate and French fries?

Stop, take a breath and consider instead a seven-word alternative offered by prominent food writer Michael Pollan that embraces clarity and shuns extremism.

Here goes: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

Behind that advice is a wealth of scientific, medical and anecdotal evidence as explored in the documentary “In Defense of Food.” 

Pollan is an amiable, engaging guide through a buffet line that includes the how and why of the modern diet, the ever-shifting barrage of confusing, conflicting decrees (Don’t eat eggs! Eat eggs!) and, most importantly, realistic alternatives to chew over.

“The more I worked on this issue, the more I realized that painting things in black and white is not the way to help people move, because people move incrementally,” said Pollan, whose books include “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto” and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”

“Relaxing about our eating is really important, too. I don’t want to make people more anxious about it,” he added. “We already are made very anxious.”

But there is reason for concern. A sharp rise in U.S. obesity and diabetes parallels our devotion to a diet heavy in meat, white flour and fat.

And sugar: We consume about 1,000 percent more of it per day than we did 200 years ago, Dr. Robert Lustig , a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, says in “In Defense of Food.”

Among the guidelines Pollan offers in the documentary:

_ “When I say, ‘Eat food,’ I’m basically saying eat the kinds of things that people have been eating for a long time,” including meat, fish, vegetables, fruit and grains, but everything in moderation.

_ Avoid supermarket center aisles that harbor the processed foods that Pollan labels “edible food-like substances” that don’t deserve to be called food. “If it came from a plant, eat it. If it was made in a plant, don’t,” he says.

_ Use smaller plates and glasses to reduce portions.

Pollan says his inclusion of meat _ in limited quantities _ hasn’t made his approach popular with carnivores who feel he’s dissing their choices or with vegetarians. But it reflects his approach to being a happy and healthy eater.

“Absolutism in the quest for food is a huge mistake,” he said.

Even those eager to change their diet face daunting challenges. Processed foods are convenient, loaded with the salt, fat and sugar that “really push our evolutionary buttons” and are backed by multibillion-dollar marketing efforts, Pollan said.

And there are communities where residents have limited or no access to affordable and nourishing food (although the correlation between bad eating and such “food deserts” is more complicated than has been discussed, Pollan contends).

Whatever the obstacles, he refuses to give Americans a pass when it comes to making better choices.

Start by dropping misguided ideas and self-imposed restrictions, Pollan said. Food doesn’t have to be local or even fresh to make the grade, with frozen and canned vegetables good nutritional choices. And try cooking instead of bringing home dinner in a fast-food box, even if it’s just once a week to start.

Homemade meals can be economical as well as healthy, he said. They do take time and planning, but Pollan urges us to consider the payoff in our well-being.

“Part of my argument is this is so important its worth making a priority. When the (food) industry represents such an easy alternative, it’s very attractive. But you can’t let them set the agenda for you,” he said.

Review: ‘Malala’ is a gripping story, eloquently told

Many people know the basic elements of the story of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who was the youngest person ever to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But He Named Me Malala retells that story in a deft and affecting way. Director Davis Guggenheim, who made the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth and the controversial Waiting for Superman, does some of his most heartfelt work in this tribute to Malala and her entire family.

The film opens unexpectedly, with a beautiful animated sequence recounting the legend of the young woman for whom Malala was named, a 19th-century freedom fighter against the British in Afghanistan. Elegant pastel drawings are incorporated throughout the film, and although some may feel that the animation is overused, Guggenheim clearly wanted to find ways of filling in some of Yousafzai’s story without relying on talking-head interviews. He certainly benefited from the collaboration of Jason Carpenter, a talented young animator.

A more troubling choice that Guggenheim made is to tell the story in a non-linear manner. This kind of storytelling has become too faddish in all kinds of movies, and it leads to some unnecessary confusion here. The basic story is compelling: When the Taliban took over Malala’s village in the Swat Valley of Pakistan, books and videos were burned, and girls were forbidden any education except religious education. Malala spoke out against this policy, first on a BBC blog and later more publicly, and she was shot in the head by the Taliban at the age of 15. Miraculously, she survived and was transported to England for surgery. She spent months in the hospital recuperating. Although the left side of her face is partially paralyzed, Malala has become an eloquent spokeswoman for female education, and with her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, she has traveled all over the world as an advocate, in addition to co-authoring the best-selling book, I Am Malala.

All of this information is in the film, but not in chronological order, and this leads to disjointed moments. We see Malala in Kenya and Nigeria before we have a full understanding of her educational mission. Despite these few glitches in storytelling, Guggenheim scored marvelous interviews with Malala and her entire family, including a younger brother who is an uninhibited and engaging imp. The fact that he earned their trust is a tribute to his empathy as a filmmaker. One of the most affecting moments comes when Malala’s mother admits that she misses her home in Pakistan. The Yousafzais now live in Birmingham, England. This uprooting of a loving family is one of the prices Malala and her father paid for their outspokenness.

Beyond its protest of the subjugation of women in many parts of the Muslim world, the film contemplates the influence of parents on children. At the end of the movie, Malala ponders the question of whether her father chose her life by naming her after a rebel and by prodding her to speak out on issues of female education. But Malala answers calmly and decisively, “I chose this life,” although she acknowledges the influence of her family. These final scenes, which also incorporate Malala’s memorable address to the United Nations, are heartrending, though Thomas Newman’s score is a bit over-emphatic. The story itself is so powerful that it really doesn’t need any underlining.

He Named Me Malala, a Fox Searchlight release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “thematic elements involving disturbing images and threats.” Running time: 88 minutes

Milwaukee Film Fest announces jury award winners

The seventh annual Milwaukee Film Festival has announced its 2015 Jury Award Winners, presenting honors in the Competition and Cream City Cinema programs, which include cash prizes of $10,000 and $5,000 respectively.

This is the second Cream City Cinema program win for John Roberts, who also won the award in 2009.

Additional awards were made for a second year by the Shorter is Better and Kids’ Choice Juries.

For the first time, Milwaukee Film also presented awards for Documentary Festival Favorites and the Brico Forward Fund.

“The fact that we had 57 applicants for the inaugural year of the Brico Forward Fund really speaks to the prevalence of filmmaking and the need for financial support in Milwaukee,” said executive director Jonathan Jackson, in a news release. “We can’t thank our donors enough for their generosity in enabling Milwaukee Film to offer such substantial support to these local filmmakers.”

Brico Forward Fund top honors were awarded for continued production of a feature documentary based on local filmmaker Erik Ljung’s Mothers For Justice, a short film included in the 2015 Cream City Cinema’s Milwaukee Show II. “Mothers for Justice” follows Maria Hamilton, mother of Dontre Hamilton, who was shot by a police officer in 2014 in Milwaukee’s Red Arrow Park. In 2015, Maria Hamilton founded the organization Mothers for Justice dedicated to uniting mothers who have lost children in police related deaths and demanding further investigation and accountability from law enforcement.

The Brico Forward Fund, announced earlier this year, is an annual granting program with dedicated funding opportunities for local filmmakers, offering the funds and tools necessary to create and complete worthy filmmaking projects

The 2015 award pool included $50,000 in cash and $76,000 worth of sponsor-donated production resources (camera rentals, lighting rentals and post-production audio and visual services, etc). From this pool, the jury awarded recipients individualized packages to suit the project’s needs and merit.

The Allan H. Bud and Suzanne L. Selig Audience Awards for Feature and Short Films will be announced at the conclusion of the festival this month.


Abele Catalyst Award
Donna and Donald Baumgartner

Herzfeld Competition Award ($10,000 cash)
“No One’s Child” (dir. Vuk Ršumović)

Cream City Cinema ($5,000 cash)
“Lemon” (dir. John Roberts)

Cream City Cinema Special Jury Prize
“The Sound Man” (dir. Chip Duncan)

Documentary Jury Award ($5,000 cash)
“The Look of Silence” (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)

Shorter Is Better Award ($1,000 cash)
“Giovanni and the Water Ballet” (dir. Astrid Bussink)

Shorter Is Better Special Jury Prizes
“We Can’t Live Without Cosmos” (dir. Konstantin Bronzit)
“De Smet” (dirs. Thomas Baerten, Wim Geudens)

Kids Choice Short Film Award ($1,000 cash)
“A Place in the Middle” (dirs. Dean Hamer, Joe Wilson)

Kids Choice Special Jury Prizes

“Papa” (dir. Natalie Labarre)

“Johnny Express” (dir. James Woo)

Pitch Us Your Doc! Contest Winner (initially announced October 3)
“Wingman Dad” (Elizabeth Ridley)

Brico Forward Fund Winners
“Mothers for Justice” (working title) (Erik Ljung)
“The Night Country”

“When Claude Got Shot” (Brad Lichtenstein) 

“Never Home” (working title) (Pang Yang Her)
“Just Eat” (Laura Dyan Kezman)
“Lunar Man” (Kyle V. James)