Rainbow Man/ John 3:16 (USA, 1997)

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If you’ve ever wondered if television, particularly religious programming or reality TV, could actually brainwash people, well … here’s the proof. Of course, the mind must be ripe for it. A life of loneliness and exclusion can lead to intense feelings of alienation. The more alienated one feels, the more one needs to have an identity and purpose that makes one’s separation from society seem as though they are supposed to be different from everyone else for a reason. That need and sense of heightened reality can become almost pathological when mixed with drugs or TV. Enter Rollen Stewart, a man desperately searching for an identity and a purpose. The identity came via being a TV star. What better way for the world to notice you than by making yourself appear in the background of every sporting event? The way Stewart decided to call attention to himself was by being a clown. Harmless enough. The sense of purpose unfortunately, was sparked by an evangelical TV show decrying the end of the world. The clown persona gradually turned into an angry prophet, who now is in a state prison still waiting for the end of the world. His crime (which you’ll see in the film) was not terribly bad, since no one was hurt. What’s sad is that the man should be in a mental institution instead of a prison. What’s more sad though, is the fact that someone with such sensitivities and audaciousness might have found a healthy path for himself had he not been exposed too much drugs, too much TV and too much negative religion. The documentary is formidable in the way it packs a great deal of thought and energy into a mere 30 minutes. By the end, I kept thinking of “Bowling for Columbine”, where Moore showed how the media (especially the news and reality TV), can create a world that’s extremely vile and threatening. It’s enough to overwhelm anyone into despair!

Included in the DVD are three short films by the same filmmakers, and they are also extremely well-made. The first film focuses on a movie about an all-girl punk band in the early 80s (I saw it a long time ago and remember liking it). The second film is a brief look at a guerilla street theater group in 1969 who attacked patrons of the San Francisco Film Festival with pies (how I wish they’d do that at Sundance!) – a great jazz score on that one. The third film is a very brief but interesting look at passengers on a night train in the sickly, aqua-green glow of a hermetically sealed society. Also, there’s a trailer for “The Weather Underground”, a documentary that I saw last year and is definitely worth renting! I’m very anxious to see what else these guys come up with!

My grade: 8

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Purple Hearts (Netherlands, 2005)

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I’ve seen several documentaries about our soldiers in Iraq, including a couple of brief ones that showed what life is like for some of those who are now back home. Most of the documentaries were very good but none had the impact that this one had. This one focuses on five soldiers who have come home with wounds that stagger the imagination, including a couple of GIs who were shot in the head, and a young soldier who spent three months having surgery on his intestines in order to clean out all the sand that had originally gathered in his open wound. Each soldier is emotionally dealing with his injury and his feelings about the war on different levels, which is important to see because people on both ends of the political spectrum tend to want to lump all the soldiers in one category. I happened upon this masterpiece on the Sundance channel, but it really deserves to be seen on a much wider level, especially for those who are considering on joining the army. It seems only fair that if they are effected so strongly from video games, commercials and recruiters, they should also consider the price they may have to pay if they join. Most of the soldiers in this film say that they would still have joined had they known what they know now, so it wouldn’t necessarily stop young men and women from joining the armed services. But it sure would make them think more clearly about the realities of war, and hopefully question whether or not the war they may be asked to fight is legitimate enough for them to risk spending the rest of their lives severely disabled and in emotional and physical pain.

My grade: 10

Pumping Iron II: The Women (USA, 1985)

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This was the wail of one of the competitor’s trainers, and he was defining the prime theme of this movie. For people who have a real problem looking at `masculine’ women, the theme of this film will sure be `what a freak show’. When I first saw this movie eighteen years ago it took nearly an hour for me to pick my jaw off the ground due to how stunned I was to see women who looked like this. But I let myself get into the head of these women since as a movie lover, that’s what I love doing most: trying to walk inside the souls of the people onscreen. I did say souls. It IS difficult to relate to the bodies depicted in this film, but that’s not what the film is asking us to do.

There’s no doubt that the way these women look is not conventional. Unfortunately, there will always be people who believe that `unconventional’ is bad because that makes us uncomfortable. It’s very obvious though that when people start calling those who are different `freaks’, it’s because they’re feeling a deep need to cover their discomfort with a feeling of superiority. That’s why I love movies about people who are different. Whether it’s `The Elephant Man’ or `Paris is Burning’ or `Live Nude Girls Unite’, the ultimate focus is on US. These films challenge us examine how we feel about ‘odd’ people and to ask ourselves why the hell we’re so uncomfortable anyway. There’s always a choice: one can revel in disgust, or one can get over it and try to embrace a concept that is new.

Well, since this film’s release, the city I live in now has almost as many gyms as restaurants, and there are hundreds of women who look like most of the bodybuilders in this film. I’ve gotten over the ‘weirdness’ of how they look and except them as women who like the empowerment they feel from turning their bodies into sculptures. From what I understand, the masculine looking bodybuilder Bev, is now pretty much the standard for female bodybuilding competition. And who’s to say she shouldn’t be? If the qualifications for male bodybuilding are for each competitor to achieve the utmost of his muscular form and potential, why do women have to lower their standard? The men aren’t judged by their sexiness (unless the male judges who judge them are all gay, which I doubt). I personally find them quite unattractive, but they are not supposed to be the male’s version of Miss America. They are there to present the human physique in its most extreme `glory’. One can quibble about what the criteria for glory is, but once it was established, it’s shameful that a double standard existed for women. At least at the time this film was made, women were still supposed retain the standard that they always have first and foremost been judged for: their sex appeal.

But enough of philosophizing. This movie is a fun documentary, showing both the camaraderie and bitching that goes on between some contestants, and giving us an understanding of how each of them define themselves. It’s also a lot of fun when the film shows the confusion of the judges, whether they’re trying to agree on the hypocrisy they plan on using, or trying to tally up the score (very funny scene, that!). It’s a perfect analogy of the old school white male mentality that at least in this field, has thankfully faded away over the past eighteen years. With things more fair and equal now, I’d be very interested in seeing a `Pumping Iron Part 3′.

My grade: 9

Orwell Rolls in His Grave (USA, 2003)

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If like me, you saw the film in a theater last year and weren’t sure you wanted to buy the DVD outright, don’t think twice. It’s a `must have’! There’s 75 minutes of extra interviews, all of which are as compelling as those that are shown in the film. There’s even some stuff that the filmmakers tacked on about the 2004 election results that detail the contradictory nature of the exit polls and the conflict of interest (if you are a person who believes in democracy) regarding the voting machines. It’s no accident that in the past couple of years, there’s been a deluge of documentaries regarding the corruption of our government at every level. If the media really was fair and balanced and practiced real journalism, films like this wouldn’t have to be made. Some may scream `liberal bias’, but one would really have to be in a major state of denial to not question why the media doesn’t investigate itself in regards to any of the issues brought up in this film. What are they afraid of? This film supplies you with ample evidence that will explain why the media will never dig beneath its own very superficial surface. I’d say that this film, “The Corporation”, “Mark Crispin Miller’s ‘A Patriot Act'”, and “Hijacking Catastrophe: 9/11, Fear & The Selling of American Empire”, are extremely vital films to be passed around to everyone you know. Think of Winston Smith, scribbling away in a corner. Keep that flow of information alive!

My grade: 10

North Korea: A Day in the Life (Netherlands, 2004)

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Although this film is described as following a ‘typical family’ through a typical day in their life, we know that the family in this film had to be hand picked and very likely trained for the filmmakers. Still, that in itself speaks volumes about how tightly controlled everything – and everyone – is. I won’t go into details because the descriptions of life in this hellish country can’t possibly compete with the images. The thing that makes it all so surreal is that what we see as a nightmare way of life is something that the North Koreans see as enviable. They’re so out of touch with the rest of the world they really do believe they have a model society. Of course, this place isn’t hellish in the way that Sudan or Afghanistan seems hellish. Everything in North Korea seems incredibly clean and orderly to the point of sterility, and the entire population seems to have been replaced by the Pod People from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Even the smallest children are incredibly quiet and subservient. I had to admit I was almost impressed by the sight of a Kindergarten classroom full of still, silent children lined up along the walls like glass dolls, until I remembered; they’re children – they’re supposed to be loud and unruly! I have to wonder how the teachers do it; is it Ritalin or… I don’t think I really want to know. It’s definitely spooky.

Spooky is the key word here. There’s nothing that one can compare life here to other than maybe a Gulag run by Moonies, but what we are seeing is only what we’re allowed to see. I can’t imagine what the lives they don’t want us to see must be like! The documentary has no narration, which is smart; we should let our senses guide us. But I actually found the extras on the DVD even more compelling than the film, particularly the discussion with the factory workers after the director came back and screened the film for them a year later (the film is a Dutch production). The translation by the interpreter at one point is hysterically wrong, which in itself is a sign of how self-censorship is automatic.

At the end of the day, the thing that is most disturbing in this film is that all the people we meet are kind and likeable and the kids are cute as buttons but … they think of us Americans as monstrous dogs who deserve to be wiped off the face of the Earth (usually stated with about as much passion as ordering one’s dinner off a menu). How much the people in that nation really believe that and how much of it is a polite regurgitation of propaganda for the cameras I don’t know. I refuse to hate these people; I’m sure most of them are miserable. But I get chills down the back of my neck when I try to imagine even half the population believing even half the propaganda they’re told. This is an uncomfortable but extremely fascinating documentary!

My grade: 8

Mana: Beyond Belief (USA, 2004)

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If I could choose to send one movie into orbit in the hopes of introducing any alien species out there to our species, this movie would get my vote. This is similar in some ways to Ron Fricke’s “Baraka” and Chris Marker’s “San Soleil”, in that it is an omnibus of our spiritual life and its relation to things, people and ideas. That’s a pretty big canvas and viewers might find the whole thing disjointed, but I love this movie for its audacity and for the very fact that it is fragmented. We are a fragmented species that in this modern age, often has to settle for a reflection of reality instead of the real thing (the Elvis impersonators, the Shroud of Turin, and the mini-sprint up the flagpole at the Capital Dome being the most obvious examples). Why people will embrace fake Elvises while turning their back on fake Rembrants is beyond me, but such are the ways of human folly. Part of the film’s audacity is that it often doesn’t explain what we are looking at, and that may turn some viewers off. But I think the lack of explanation helps the viewer feel as if they are really there. The film throws us off balance so we can almost feel like aliens from another world who have plunged to Earth and are trying to get our bearings amidst so much weirdness. The fact is, why certain objects, people and places are sacred is purely subjective. That is in essence, the film’s theme. A sky filled with clouds to some may be full of fascinating images that have spiritual significance, to others it’s merely beautiful and to others still, it’s about as mundane as their waterpick (I wonder if the family in India blesses their waterpick as well as their computer – I mean, who says a waterpick can’t be sacred?). The pacing of the film IS slow but what’s the rush? I didn’t find one second dull; in fact, if I had to complain about anything, it’s that I would have loved the movie to be even longer.

My grade: 8

The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (USA, 1980)

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This is by far, the best documentary on the American home front during the Second World War. It’s also an excellent and extremely entertaining look at the spark that ignited the women’s liberation movement nearly thirty years before it ‘officially’ planted its roots. With thousands of men leaving the factories to fight in the war, and with the urgent, escalating need for America to arm itself, women were strongly encouraged to join the factory workforce. They came from all over the country and discovered skills they never knew they had, both as laborers, and as independent women. They were self-sufficient and strong (many of them endured double-shifts on a fairly regular basis), and they eventually discovered new freedoms by earning their own incomes and making their own choices on how to spend that money. Connie Field has created an extremely entertaining documentary that’s choked full of interviews with women from all walks of life. She intersperses lots of the newsreel footage and the popular songs that had been created in order to encourage and inspire the female workforce. And she illustrates the myriad of ways in which women were discouraged from working after the war had ended, and how strong a role the media played in encouraging women to raise families and stay in the kitchen. This film is rare glimpse of the Second World War from the female perspective, and a vital document of American history.

My grade: 9