Archive for the 'Documentary Monday' Category

Documentary Monday~~A Small Act

TitleA Small Act


Awards-Nominated for Best Television Documentary at the Black Reel Awards, 2011

Nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, 2010

Summary-The film shows how one small act can change the world in many ways.  It tells the story of Chris, from Kenya, who was sponsored through secondary school by a Swedish woman.  Many years later he forms his own foundation in her name to help other children in Kenya.

My Thoughts-I have been wanting to watch this documentary for a long time.  Ever since I read the description I have been sitting at the ready with tissues in hand.  Just reading what it is about was enough to get the tears flowing for me.  The film interweaves several different stories, but they all revolve around Chris Mburu.  He was a poor student in Kenya many years ago who could not afford to go to school.  In Kenya, if you can’t pay, you get kicked out of school.  There was a Swedish scholarship fund set up that sponsored children in his area and he received money from Hilde Back.  He grew up and attended college and then went on to get a Master’s Degree at Harvard.  He currently works at the UN investigating genocide.

After the success of his adult life, Chris started a fund that would help other Kenyan children go to secondary school (high school) who could not afford it otherwise.  He named it after Hilde Back because of what she had done for him, even before he met her.  The documentary then focuses on Chris’ current relationship with Hilde.  They did finally meet and she even traveled to Kenya.  It also follows three students in one of the schools who are trying for the scholarship.  Even though all three of them are very smart, the scholarship can only support one of them.

First of all, I ADORED Hilde.  She is the cutest woman ever.  She talks a little about her life, which is another reason to reach for the tissues.  As a little girl, she escaped from Germany as a Jew during WWII, but sadly, her parents did not.  She never had any children and currently lives alone, which makes her relationship with Chris so special.  He is like the son she never had.  I totally loved every time she showed up, especially when they showed footage of her trip to Kenya.

The really hard part to watch was about the current students vying for the scholarship.  It was just like Waiting for Superman all over again.  These children had worked and studied so hard, and they all know that they can’t go to school without the money from the scholarship.  The interviews with them are heartbreaking.  One little girl (I think it was Ruth) said, “I can’t even explain how much knowledge I want.”  Oh. My. God.  Every school child in the US today should totally watch this to realize how good they have it.  Some of our schools might suck, but at least every kid can go up through high school without paying too much.

It was also hard because these little kids have so much responsibility placed on their shoulders at such a young age.  Each of them had dreams for how they would help their families after they graduated from school.  One little boy had a sick mother who needed an operation and he was going to get a good job so he could pay for it.

I did get really mad during the film thinking, “Okay…..these people are movie producers!  They should just pay for all three of these kids to go!!!  It will be nothing for them!!!”  It was just like in the nature documentaries when the camera people stand by and let the baby sea turtles get picked off one by one by the sea gulls.  Why don’t they do something to help????!!!!  Well, I will say that this question is answered at the end of the film, so thank goodness it was actually addressed.

One other aspect of the film that was difficult was about the unrest in Kenya during the time filming was taking place.  There was an outbreak of violence after the 2007 elections that involved the killing of people in the same tribe that Chris belonged to.  It was awful to watch his reaction to the violence in his homeland.  I also felt really guilty because I don’t even remember that happening at all.

So, it is not the easiest film to watch sometimes, but it does give you hope.  The overall message is that every action makes a big difference, no matter how small it may seem.  It is great to see Chris and Hilde’s friendship and to see how much he still cares about his homeland even after becoming so successful.  The best part is that it is not one long commercial for Chris’ charity.  It could very well have ended up like that, but it is not.  It will hopefully bring more attention to the foundation, but it does not scream, “YOU MUST DONATE NOW!”  I will say that you probably should donate, and you probably will after you watch it, but only because you really want to.  I donated, so you guys should all join me!

FInal Verdict-This documentary was just amazing.  It is very well done and moving to watch.  Be prepared to fall in love with all the kids, Hilde, and Chris.



Documentary Monday~~Magnificent Desolation

TitleMagnificent Desolation


Awards–Won Outstanding Visual Effects in a Special Venue Project at the Visual Effects Society Awards, 2006

Summary–Uses a combination of NASA videos with simulated footage to introduce what it feels like to walk on the moon.

My Thoughts–I know that I just posted about an astronaut documentary not too long ago, but I do have a real fascination with space and I couldn’t pass up watching this one when I saw that it was an IMAX movie and that Tom Hanks was the narrator (I have a huge love for Tom Hanks, but I probably don’t even need to say that because everybody loves Tom Hanks).  I figured it was okay since it is the Fourth of July and what could be more patriotic than celebrating one of America’s greatest accomplishments?

I enjoyed the other documentary (The Wonder of it All) but I LOVED this one.  I was glad that I had watched the other one first because I recognized the names of the astronauts mentioned and they felt like old friends when they showed up in the archival footage.

The film is short and sweet and very entertaining.  It starts out with a brief overview of the Apollo program and talks about how only 12 men have ever set foot on the moon (I don’t care how many times I hear that, it always surprises me).  There is a really cute bit where they interview children and ask them some questions about astronauts.  When prompted to name some, one kid comes really close when he says Lance Armstrong (better than the kid who said Jim Carrey).  When asked how the astronauts go to the bathroom in space, one little guy said, “maybe they had to hold it.”  Priceless!

A huge part of the film takes place on the moon during a simulated future mission.  The production quality is really great and for a moment I was confused.  I was like, wait a minute, is this the NASA footage??  For those of you who are a little dense like me, the NASA footage is always shown as a smaller box or series of boxes in the center of the screen.  I adored the footage that they showed.  They highlighted other astronauts’ first steps off the ladder and their words as they set foot on the moon (since we all know what Neil Armstrong said, it was nice to hear from some of the other guys).

It was also great just to see the astronauts in candid moments on the moon.  Interviews are a great way to learn about their experiences, but you can really learn so much more about a person from watching a five second clip of them bouncing on the moon than you can in a 15 minute interview.  Plus, there is a lot of footage of astronauts falling down, which I now know to be one of the funniest things ever.  I kind of want to have tripping and falling astronauts as my screensaver 🙂

Another cool thing about this documentary is that various celebrities read quotes from the astronauts over the videos.  So you get to hear the real astronauts’ voices as well as having celebrity voice-overs.  It’s the best of both worlds!  I liked to try to figure out who it was saying all the quotes.  I picked out Gary Sinise, Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon, Matthew McConaughey, and Bill Paxton, but there are a ton more.

Final Verdict–This was a very cool little film that will be enjoyed by anyone with even the slightest interest in science.  It’s an IMAX show, so it is designed to appeal to a wide audience and I think it really succeeds.


P.S.  For your viewing pleasure, here is a video of astronauts falling!  I’ve watched it like five times and almost hyperventilated.  I don’t know if I’m just weird, or if it really is the funniest thing ever.

Documentary Monday~~Bigger, Stronger, Faster*

TitleBigger, Stronger, Faster*


Awards–Nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, 2008

Nominated for the Feature Film Award at the Prism Awards, 2009

Summary–Takes a look at steroid use in America, especially among celebrities and athletes.  The film is made by Chris Bell, and follows him as he struggles with whether or not to use, especially since both of his brothers do.

My Thoughts–I wasn’t sure if I was going to like this film or not.  I don’t know a lot about the topic, and aside from being a baseball fan, don’t really think too much about steroids.  My opinion is that if they are illegal, then nobody should be using them and also, it is cheating.  I thought it was interesting that one of the big questions this film asks is, “Should they even be illegal?”

Chris Bell is the director and narrator of the film.  He talks about how Arnold Schwarzenegger, Hulk Hogan, and Sylvester Stallone were all his heroes.  He spent a lot of his high school years bodybuilding and getting buff to be like his role models.  Of course, later in life he realized that they were all on steroids at one point.  Chris thinks steroids are morally wrong and after trying it, decided that he wouldn’t use them.  But both of his brothers use them on a regular basis.

The documentary spends a lot of time talking about how the negative effects of steroids have been blown out of proportion.  It is pointed out that all drugs have negative side effects and potential pitfalls.  Also, tobacco and alcohol are legal even though they are harmful when used and cause thousands of deaths every year.  One statistic they mention is that deaths related to steroids in one given year were only 3.  From the info they provided, I can understand why it is a little bit silly for someone who possess anabolic steroids to be classified as a federal drug criminal.

I do, however, think that they should not be allowed in sports.  One of the most depressing things about this documentary is how many people said “everybody does it, so that’s why I did it.”  He talks to people from so many different sports and they all say the same thing.  It kind of broke my heart a little bit.  It really is true when the narrator says “Steroids are as American as apple pie.”  Sigh.

There are a lot of things addressed in this film (my one complaint is that it did feel a little long) but all of it is tied in with Chris’ struggles with his family and their decision to use steroids.  The interviews and discussions with his family members really added a lot to the topic and made it more personal.

Final Verdict–Well-made, interesting film that will never let you look at your favorite athletes in the same way.


Documentary Monday~~Sound and Fury

TitleSound and Fury


Awards–Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, 2001

Nominated for Best Documentary at the Independent Spirit Awards, 2001

Won the Freedom of Expression Award from the National Board of Review, 2000

Summary–Follows the story of a two related families who are considering cochlear implants for their children.  One of them is an infant, Peter, who was born to parents who can hear.  The other is his cousin Heather, who has grown up in an all deaf family.

My Thoughts–This was a really good film, but parts of it were hard to watch.  It is a very emotional story where people feel very passionate about their views, so there is a lot of arguing.  I am not big on confrontation or fighting, so some of the family discussions were hard for me to watch.

The main focus of the film is a 4 1/2 year-old girl named Heather whose parents and siblings are all deaf.  She is interested in getting a cochlear implant which would allow her to hear so it will be easier for her to interact with other children who are not deaf.  Her parents have very mixed feelings about the idea because they are worried that she will stop identifying with the deaf community and lose herself in the hearing world.

Heather’s infant cousin Peter (their fathers are brothers) is born deaf and his parents really want to get him an implant as soon as possible.  Peter’s maternal grandparents are both deaf and think that this is not the right choice for their grandchild.

One of the good things about seeing all the arguing amongst family members is it really helps to illustrate what a huge impact these implants have on the deaf community.  Many of the older deaf people in the film seemed to be opposed to them, while the majority of the hearing people seemed to think it was the only way to go.

I admit that I fell into that category at first.  I thought, well, of course I would want my child to be able to hear.  But after listening to Heather’s parents discuss their fears and seeing how great it was for Heather when she went to visit the deaf school, I began to rethink my position.

This is a good film to introduce you to the topic because there are good arguments on both sides of the issue.  I’m so glad I watched it because I was only vaguely aware that this surgery even existed.  I also enjoyed watching everyone speaking in sign language.  I almost never get to watch people signing, and I am always so impressed with how beautiful the language is.

Final Verdict–This is a good, emotional film that will make you really think.  It’s impossible to watch it and not think about what you might do in the same situation.


Documentary Monday~~The Wonder of it All

TitleThe Wonder of it All


Awards–Won Best Documentary at the Rhode Island International Film Festival

Summary–This film explores what it was like for the men who landed on the moon during the Apollo missions.  It includes interviews with several of the 12 astronauts who walked on the moon from 1969-1972 and original NASA footage.

My Thoughts–I am fascinated by everything that has to do with space.  I wanted to be an astronaut when I was little, but then one of my teachers told me that I should pick a more realistic career (yeah, I had some pretty *awesome* teachers).  The fact that only 12 men in history have ever walked on the moon totally boggles my mind.  And the last man to set foot on the moon did it in 1972!!!  I honestly thought we had gone back since then, but apparently I am not that bright.

This film is composed of interviews with 7 of those 12 men.  They talk about how they first got involved with NASA (most of them can’t really describe it, they just feel like they got lucky) and the beginnings of the Apollo program.  I will admit that this first part was a little slow.  It started out with a bang when Eugene Cernan said that Kennedy’s challenge to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade was scary because “we didn’t know tiddly-winks about space.”  Heehee.  I love it when grownups use fun words.  🙂  It kind of got a wee bit boring after that, but it picked right up when they started talking about their time on the moon.

It was so fascinating to hear them talk about their time up there.  These are men who have experienced something that no one else has, and you can tell by the way they talk about it that they know how special it is.  They spend a lot of time talking about how tightly scheduled their time on the moon was.  They were not allowed time to goof off or marvel at the view, because they had task after task that they had to perform.  But each one was able to take a moment to reflect on the enormity of the situation.

There is some great footage of someone (I can’t remember who) hopping along the surface singing “I was strolling on the moon one day…”  And Charlie Duke talked about how he started jumping up and down just for fun and ended up falling on his back, which could have been really dangerous.

One reason I am glad that I watched this documentary is that I had never even heard of any of these guys, except of course for Buzz Aldrin.  The other astronauts interviewed accomplished just as many amazing things as Buzz and Neil, but no one knows who they are.  I now feel better knowing that I am a little more informed than I used to be.  (Now I can list off all the astronauts on Apollo 13 without batting an eyelash, but of course they were not included because they did not land on the moon.)

Final Verdict–If you are interested in space or NASA related things, this is something you should watch.  If that’s not your cup of tea, you should probably skip this one.


Documentary Monday~~Man on Wire

TitleMan on Wire


Awards–Won tons of awards, most notably the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2009

Summary–Tells the amazing story of Philippe Petit, a Frenchman who in 1974 wire walked between the tops of the Twin Towers.

My Thoughts–I will start by saying that this documentary is very good.  It won the Oscar, so it has to be great, but I was a little let down by it.  I liked it and all, but the trailer really builds it up to be “THE GREATEST MOVIE IN THE HISTORY OF EVERYTHING EVER MADE!”  Well, let me tell you a little secret–it’s not.  It is really good and enjoyable to watch, but it is not the nail-biting, suspenseful roller-coaster ride that is suggested by the critics’ comments.

The film goes back and forth between interviews with Philippe and his cohorts, home video footage they shot back in France, and recreations of the big event.  Philippe mentions that the first time he ever saw a picture of the Twin Towers he knew that he had to wire walk between them.  He spent a lot of time dreaming about the day he would do it.  I loved hearing about just how much planning was involved in order to accomplish his feat.  He needed a whole team of people to help him set up the wire and prepare for the big event.

I really enjoyed all of the talk about how they had to study the World Trade Center and learn how to get in and out and which elevators to use.  They would NEVER be able to get away with things like that in today’s world, with all of the crazy security things we have set up in buildings like that.  It is sort of sad to think that in keeping ourselves safe, we also prevent people from doing amazing things like Philippe did.

It was really interesting to hear the story of all of the events leading up to the actual walk.  There were so many things that could have gone wrong, and some things that really did go wrong that could have stopped them at any moment.  Just the fact that they were able to get the wire set up between the buildings before someone caught them is incredible.

There are two things about this documentary that I found disappointing.  First of all, there is no actual video of Philippe’s great accomplishment.  There are photographs, but no video.  I found it funny that there seems to be endless footage of Philippe and his cronies frolicking about and being silly in a meadow in France, but nobody had a video camera handy when he did his biggest stunt ever.

Also, I was really enjoying the movie until it came to the end.  After he got out of jail (because that’s what happens when you do crazy things, you go to jail) he randomly runs off and has sex with a beautiful stranger (groupie) who is waiting outside the jail.  WTF???  I would normally frown upon this type of behavior, but he was in New York with his longtime, very serious girlfriend who had helped him through the whole process, so it really pissed me off.  So my opinion of him pretty much hit rock bottom after that, because I don’t care how high you are flying because you are awesome, that is no excuse for being a cheating bastard.

Final Verdict–This is a good film, that I would recommend to any fan of documentaries, even though I didn’t LOVE it as much as everyone else seems to.


Documentary Monday~~Waiting For Superman

TitleWaiting For Superman


Awards–Won Best Documentary from the National Board of Review, 2010

Won Best Documentary Feature from the Broadcast Film Critics Association, 2011

Won the Documentary Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, 2010

Summary–This film takes a look at the education crisis in America today, interviewing leading members in the education field.  It also follows several students who are trying to win coveted spots at the best schools in the country.

My Thoughts–This was a really hard movie to watch because it was so upsetting.  The filmmaker (Dennis Guggenheim, who did An Inconvenient Truth) focuses on the real problem that exists in our schools today.  The numbers and facts he throws out are so startling that I literally sat there gaping at the tv with my mouth open.  (I kept chanting, thank God I’m not having kids, thank God I’m not having kids.)  Test scores are going down, down, down and the current fixes do not seem to be working at all.

The documentary looks at certain schools throughout the country that are doing things right.  The view taken by these schools and the filmmakers is that good teachers make good schools.  Basically, there are some crappy teachers in this country, and because of the way the teacher’s union contract is set up, there’s nothing we can do to get rid of them.  Now I know that now is not a good time to be hating on teachers.  I for one think teachers have one of the hardest jobs in the world and think they should be making CEO level salaries.  But let’s face it, some teachers really suck.  We’ve all had at least one (hello, high school chemistry teacher!).

One example of just how messed up the system is, happened a while ago when some students used a hidden camera to record teachers reading the paper at their desk and putting a student’s head in a toilet.  The principal of the school fired the teachers, but then had to hire them back with a year’s back pay because it violated their contracts to fire them.  I’m sorry, but if you are terrible at your job, your boss should be able to fire you no matter what your contract says.

Anyway, moving on from that little rant…the really heartbreaking part of the film involves several students from horrible neighborhoods who are trying to get into some of those awesome schools that are really working.  Hundreds to thousands of children enter lotteries around the country to fill the tiny amount of spots available.  Tears were rolling down my face at the end of the film as the kids and their families sat waiting for their number to be called.

Final Verdict–This is a fantastic movie that every parent and teacher should watch.  I am neither, but I still found it heartbreaking and touching.


Documentary Monday~~Helvetica



Awards–Nominated for the Truer Than Fiction Award at the Independent Spirit Awards, 2008

Summary–Experts in the field of typography and graphic design discuss the history and eventual dominance of the Helvetica typeface.

My Thoughts–I hope all those words I used in the summary were right.  This documentary was filled with so much terminology and information that I was only halfway familiar with, so I might not have used it all correctly 🙂

I do an awful lot of reading throughout a typical day, but I almost never think about the typeface I am seeing at any given moment.  The only time I have ever really thought about it was at Amber’s amazing program during Phoenix Rising (woohoo go Amber!!).  This documentary was really fascinating to me because I guess I had never thought about the fact that people have to “make” fonts.  I think my favorite part of the whole thing was when someone talked about their process for creating a new typeface.  He said that he would start with the “h” because it has height and a whole bunch of other important characteristics that I can’t quite remember.  Then he would move on to a letter like “o” that had the rounded element and see how they looked next to each other.  So cool!

I also really loved how they kept showing numerous street signs and ads and everything else under the sun in little montages that all used Helvetica.  I see it every day in things like Target, Energizer, and Gap, but I would never really have recognized it until now.

The film talks about how Helvetica is like air or off-white paint; you don’t really notice that it’s there but it does the perfect job that it is supposed to.  There is a bit about how the typeface originated in Switzerland and literally means “the Swiss” typeface.  Then it goes on to discuss how views of Helvetica have changed over the years.

This is a topic that I didn’t know very much about and certainly don’t think about very often, so I learned a lot while watching.  Now I am watching TV and I am totally seeing it pop up all over the commercials!

Final Verdict–If you are a nerdgirl (or nerdboy) you will appreciate this in depth look at a simple (or is it?) typeface.


Documentary Monday~~Jesus Camp

TitleJesus Camp


Awards–Won the Special Jury Prize at the Tribeca Film Festival, 2006

Won the Grand Jury Award at the Silverdocs Documentary Festival, 2006

Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, 2007

Summary–This film looks at the Evangelical Christian movement in this country and specifically focuses on their ministry to children.  It follows several kids as they go to the Kids on Fire camp in North Dakota.

My Thoughts–I am finding it really hard to talk about this movie.  Whenever people start to talk about religion or politics, somebody is bound to get offended, and this documentary is loaded with both of those things.  I will preface this post by saying that my parents are both Methodist ministers.  I grew up in a Christian house and even went to church camp many times during my childhood.  That being said, this film scared the living sh*t out of me.  It made me terrified and it made me really, really, really mad.  There is one point at the end when the leader of the Kids on Fire camp literally says, “extreme liberals who see this must be shaking in their boots.”  Yes, Becky, yes I am.

First of all, I just wanted to point out that even though I did go to church camp several times, I am not a fan of it.  I always felt emotionally manipulated by a lot of the stuff that happened there (it is very easy to cause someone to break down in tears when they are ten years old and away from home for a whole week).  It also doesn’t help that one of the most traumatizing events in my life happened at church camp.

So since I am bringing all of my own views and biases, I am just going to try to point out a few things that happened in the film and you can judge for yourself on how you would feel about them.

*Becky literally says that she enjoys preaching for kids because they are “so usable for Christianity.”

*There were multiple instances of grownups telling children that evolution and global warming are ridiculous.

*A little girl named Rachel is shown several times randomly approaching strangers to tell them about God.  She goes up to some old guys and says, “If you were to die right now, where would you go?” And they said “Heaven.” And as she was walking away she said, “I think they were Muslims.” and shakes her head.

*So many shots of kids sobbing uncontrollably, shaking, flailing about, and wailing during camp.

*The kids get called up to break porcelain mugs symbolizing the government because the government is corrupt and allows abortion.

*Becky says, “Let me talk to you about Harry Potter….warlocks are enemies of God!!!  If this was the Old Testament Harry Potter would’ve been put to death!!!!!!!!”

*Some boys were having a great time in the cabin at bedtime playing with flashlights and being silly.  Then a counselor busts in and makes them feel terrible for having fun.

Final Verdict–This was really hard for me to watch, but I am glad that I saw it.

Documentary Monday~~Typhoid Mary (Nova Special)

TitleTyphoid Mary: The Most Dangerous Woman in America


Summary–This special that originally aired on Nova tells the story of Mary Mallon, an Irish immigrant cook in New York who was a healthy carrier of typhoid.  She infected numerous people with the disease and was eventually quarantined by the Department of Public Health.

My Thoughts–I picked this up at the library because I just finished reading Deadly by Julie Chibbaro and I wanted to learn more about the infamous “Typhoid Mary.”  Unfortunately, I didn’t really learn any new information that I hadn’t discovered from reading the book.  I did discover that Miss Chibbaro did an awfully good job of researching the topic.

Even though I didn’t learn a lot of new info, I still really enjoyed this special.  Before I read Deadly, I didn’t know anything about Typhoid Mary.  She was discovered in 1906 as a healthy carrier of the typhoid fever disease.  This was a radical idea at the time when scientists were just beginning to learn about the bacteria that causes disease.  Mary Mallon had never been sick in her life but the families that she cooked for kept coming down with typhoid.

When I read Deadly, the story was told from the point of view of the health officials, so I didn’t really have much sympathy for Mary at all.  She resisted the officials at every turn and refused to believe that she had ever made anyone sick.  I was happy when she got put into quarantine because I knew she couldn’t do any more damage.  When I watched Typhoid Mary, I found myself feeling much differently about her.  I realized how crazy the scientists must have sounded when they told her that she had typhoid and was spreading it around.  If I was a perfectly healthy person who knew nothing about bacteria, I would be pretty pissed off if somebody wanted a sample of my pooh.

But, as several historians point out in the documentary, she loses sympathy when she goes right back to cooking for people once she is released!  What were you thinking Mary???  Typhoid is transmitted through food!!!  We might not be talking about you today if you had just disappeared into history as a maid or a laundry worker.

A couple of interesting tidbits about this special.  They have actors playing several of the key historical figures including Mary.  At first I thought this was super cheesy, but after a while I got used to it and it actually added a lot to the show.  Also, Anthony Bourdain is one of the guys they interview.  Huh?  Is it because he’s a chef and Mary was a cook???  I didn’t really get it, but it was nice to see someone I recognized.

Final Verdict–Great introduction to the topic of Typhoid Mary.  I thought it did a good job of showing both sides to the story and portraying her as something other than the monster she is known as today.