The Champions

The Champions, a film by Darcy Dennett

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This film strips away stereotypes and breaks down barriers. This film makes you feel something. I am finding it hard to put in to words how incredible it was to follow along as we watch 5 of over the 50 pit bulls that were at one time part of Michael Vick’s dog-fighting ring, come to life. We also get to see another pit bull rescue, Slater, remain in a loving and healthy environment despite his battle with breed discrimination.

As much as I want to stand on my soap box and preach about how terrible it is what Michael Vick has done and how I don’t feel he could ever possibly redeem himself, I want to focus on the hope that these dogs and their caregivers share throughout the course of the film. A hope, that in this crazy world, we could all use a little bit more of.

Filmmaker Dennett and her team told not only an amazing story about these heroic dogs and the unconditional love they were given by rescue organizations across the country as well as individuals who fostered and ultimately adopted them, but she captivated me with beautiful cinematography and meaningful and poetic score. The film was visually stimulating as well as a wonderful web of stories.

I would recommend this film to anyone who not only loves animals, but loves a story about an underdog, no pun intended. These dogs, against all odds were brought back to life. They were given a second chance. I think this film has the power to change the way the world sees pit bulls. The Champions is a story of resilience; Cherry, Slater, Little Red, Handsome Dan, Mel, and Johnny, overcome what could have been the end and found peace, love, life, and happiness.

 

 

 

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Cartel Land

Cartel Land, a film by Matthew Heineman

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I apologize for my 9 month nap. I am back and just in time for the Oscars!

There was no better way to break out of hybernation than watching Cartel Land. Not since Restrepo, had I seen a filmmaker physically risk his life to capture such sordid stories as those of the anti-cartel vigilante group Autodefensas and those behind one of many meth-cooking operations deep in the Mexican jungle.

As in all great documentaries, a filmmaker sets out on a journey to tell one story, and along the way finds many twists and turns and curves that lead them on a path to a much different, and in this case, all-important story.

Heineman followed not only the Autodefensas and their leader at the time, but he gained the trust of Tim ‘Nailer’ Foley, leader of the Arizona Boarder Recon, and was able to follow Tim and his men while they patrolled the US – Mexico Boarder in Southern Arizona.

Throughout the film, you can feel the passion Heineman felt for the stories unfolding all around him. He put himself in a position to film in real time, to capture things as they were happening. Whether that was a man being interrogated at gunpoint, or a takedown by Foley and his men, what Heineman and his small crew did was brave. He put himself in complete danger to allow us to see first hand how cartel violence is affecting everyday people. He captured men and woman rising up to fight back and the potential outcome that may lead to.

When asked about the film, Heineman said, “I thought it was this very simple story of good versus evil, guys in white shirts versus guys in black shirts. Then over time, those lines between good and evil became ever more blurry.” His love of storytelling and his desire to tell this story from the inside rather than the outside may just be the best documentary of 2015.

“You can’t stop the cartel, no matter what you do…it’s a never ending story.”

– annoymous meth cook & member of the Policia Estatal Fuerza Rural

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Blackfish

Blackfish, a film by Gabriela Cowperthwaite

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I put off watching this film for quite some time as I consider myself an animal advocate. I couldn’t bear the thought of watching animals be mistreated and misrepresented, as well as punished and harmed. I finally had enough people tell me how important this film is to watch, and how if my dream of making a documentary that will create change, then Blackfish was the one to watch.

Cowperthwaite didn’t make this movie to create conflict or start a controversy, she was a filmmaker who was interested in investigating the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau. Despite Cowperthwaite’s interest in simply making an investigatory documentary, she has definetally rocked the boat in more ways than one. She made a powerful and horrifying case against keeping orca whales, and by extension any wild animal, in captivity.

Through years of archival footage, as well as interviews with many former SeaWorld trainers, Cowperthwaite told the story of Tilikum, the killer whale, and the events leading up to Dawn’s death. She was able to capture heartfelt and remorseful moments from those who first captured Tilikum as a 2 year old, separating him from his family and native ocean home.

Cowperthwaite’s initial instinct that “there had to be more to this story” and her determination lead her on what she describes as a “journey of shock and discovery”.

This film is a must see. It is people like Cowperthwaite that have the strength of purpose to direct a film that will make a change in this world. Blackfish could very well be a film that we not only see nominated, but win the Oscar for Best Documentary.

I give Cowperthwaite a standing ovation.

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5 Broken Cameras

5 Broken Cameras, a film by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi

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Early on in the film, Emad says, “I kept thinking what should I do? I had to believe that capturing these images will have some meaning.” There is no point during this film that as a viewer I wasn’t biting my nails and squirming in my chair. The images that Emad was capturing surrounding the Israeli – Bil’in conflict were horrific. The footage that came from the 5 broken cameras had, and still holds tremendous meaning.

With his first camera in hand, a project that initially began in 2005 to film the moments surrounding the birth and early childhood of his fourth son, Emad Burnat found himself on the front lines of the demonstrations protesting the barrier that was being built to separate his village of Bil’in from Israel.

Led by two of his best friends, the protestors were peacefully demonstrating their frustration in having lost 60% of their land to the building of the barrier. Emad was there to document it all. His bravery is apparent in the footage captured. One camera would break or be shot – and the next would be rolling within days. Throughout the film, his friends and his brothers are either shot or arrested. Some are even killed.

For the fact that Emad didn’t realize he would one day be making a film out of the events he was capturing, he wasn’t held back by any filmmaking “rules”. He just filmed because he loved to film and because he had hope that his footage would produce meaningful insight and important memories. He was the lens through which not only others in Palestine saw the struggle, but eventually the world would have eyes on.

5 Broken Cameras is remarkable visual essay that deserves much appreciation and is a must see.

“The only protection I can offer him (Gibreel, Emad’s youngest son) is allowing him to see everything with his own eyes, so he can confront just how vulnerable life is.” 

-Emad 

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Searching for Sugar Man

Searching for Sugar Man, a film by Malik Bendjelloul

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This true story is a filmmakers dream. This film is a dream that became a true story to tell.

Director Malik Bendjelloul was given a gift when he came across this story in South Africa back in 2006. It was what he did with that gift that was life changing for Rodriguez, those close to him and to the story, and all his past and future fans.

Bendjelloul crafts the beautiful and almost unbelievable tale of how a wildly talented and almost forgotten singer-songwritter is unearthed after decades of obscurity in this outstanding documentary. Thanks to two South African “super fans” and their dedication to finding out who Sixto Rodriguez really was, Bendjelloul was able to discover this story.

Bendjelloul recalls spending “every single cent and every single second of my life for four years to make this film”. Similarly, Rodriquez is compared by one of his bosses to a silk worm, in that he took raw materials and transformed them into something that wasn’t there before. Something beautiful and transcendent.

Both the artist and the filmmaker created something that represents possibility and triumph through the human spirit.

“Just because people are poor, or have little, doesn’t mean that their dreams aren’t big and their soul isn’t rich…” 

– Eva Rodriguez (oldest daughter) 

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Stevie

Stevie, a film by Steve James 

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I think one of the most powerful scenes in this film is when Stevie, the main character, is re-united with one set of his foster parents. During their meet up, Hal says to him, “It’s going to work out…It always does…Just always doesn’t work out like we want it to”. I feel like that statement could be used to describe the through line of this film.

Director Steve James decided to reconnect with Stevie Fielding, who he had mentored as a Big Brother, 10 years earlier. When James enters Stevie’s life again 1995, it was evident this wasn’t going to be an uplifting reunion.

James has such an eloquent and gentle way of taking us through Stevie’s past as well as the trouble he had gotten himself in to during the time the film was being made. This film is heavy and raw. I commend the honesty of those who participated in the making of the film. Their participation encouraged me to want to know more about why these horrible crimes are committed. James’ brilliant use of cinéma vérité captivated me as a viewer. I learned a lot about the craft of documentary filmmaking while watching this film. Thank you Steve James for your strong work.

This film changed Stevie’s life, whether it was for the good or the bad. Things worked out, but not necessarily how everyone close to Stevie wanted them to.

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Happy People: A Year in the Taiga

 Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, a film by Dmitry Vasyukov and Werner Herzog

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Equipped only with what they bring on the hunt along with their individual values, the indigenous people living in the heart of the Siberian Taiga, are truly happy people. Herzog, who is known as one of the greatest fimmakers of the New German Cincema, does another magnificent job at producing this beautiful and sublime documentary about those living and surviving in the Siberian wilderness village of Bakhtia.

Taiga is the world’s largest land biome, making up 29% of the world’s forest cover. Inhabited by 300 people, the town of Bakhtia is far from civilization. There is no telephone available, no running water, and no medical aid in this village. Those who inhibit this area are on their own. They must rely solely on what they have learned from their forefathers, who taught them how to survive.

The camera follows one main villager through all four seasons. It is late spring, early summer at the beginning of the film as the hunter lays his traps, trains his puppies, builds new canoes, collects firewood, and makes adjustments to his damaged huts.

As a vegetarian and animal lover, I was a bit skeptical about watching this film. I was unsure if as the viewer I would be along for the bloody hunts, but I am very intrigued by what I saw and what I learned throughout the course of the film. The journey throughout this remote and stunningly beautiful landscape, teaches us that surviving in the Taiga is all about who outsmarts whom. I came to realize how important cultural traditions are as well as how necessary they are to pass down to younger generations. I would recommend watching and learning from these very happy people.

“When I came here, I had a feeling that my dream had come true. You enjoy the beauty of nature, and you do your job at the same time. That’s why they all end up by being hunters. Because hunting brings you closer to the Taiga than anything else”. 

–  Bakhtia Villager | Hunter

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