HelenHighly Highlights DOC NYC 2019: Curtain Raiser Part Two

DOC NYC 10th Anniversary

by HelenHighly

Now that I’ve seen a few more films, I am updating and expanding my original DOC NYC 2019 Pick List. I am also explaining my bias and process in selecting which films to include in my list. Note that even after the festival ends, it’s still worth coming back to this overview list and to the DOC NYC 2019 website to find suggestions of which films to see; they will be debuting in theaters and online throughout the coming year.

It was not until I finished compiling my original Pick List that it occurred to me how many music and art films I had included and how few political and social justice films. In the past, I’ve been especially attracted by relevant-right-now films that illuminate important and serious topics. Now my list is oddly weighted with music history films, artist portraits and films from the literary world. I can only say that the change is due to urgency fatigue – exhaustion from hearing about all the national and global problems that are bearing down on us right now and feeling powerless to do anything about them other than pass along the bad news. Yes, there is an inherent hopefulness in the making of movies even when they are about depressing topics, and sometimes even solutions offered, but still. I guess I am looking for a break. And maybe my readers are too.

DOC NYC 10th Anniversary

DOC NYC 10th Anniversary

But I will also say that films about art and fashion and music are often powerful metaphors for larger ideas, and they can offer a way into contemplating difficult realities that is not so overtly painful. So, I encourage my readers to consider my Pick List less as escapist and more as an alternative way to look at the world. Shifting to a different window can give you a closer view, or a broader view, or just a different angle, and change is good.

That being said, I did include a few serious films and am going to add a few more in this article. (When I finally got around to seeing them, I saw how worthy they are, and the best ones are inspiring, not just depressing.) Remember that most indie films that come out of film festivals don’t get a theatrical run or even TV exposure until many months later, so it’s worth checking out my previous pick lists, as they often become more relevant over time as the films become more widely accessible. I have two articles highlighting recommended films from Tribeca Film Festival this year: Archival Movies and More Movies. And my article about last year’s TFF also has a documentary section full of still-relevant, really-good movies than can mostly be found available for streaming.



DOC NYC 2019 Sections

As I mentioned in my previous article, there are 21 different sections in this festival (more, depending on how you count), which is a bit overwhelming in itself. I did not evenly choose my suggested films, so I will at least include all the sections here and offer a few more titles for you to consider. Remember, even if you don’t catch these at the festival, they are worth checking out and looking for as they come to your local theater or to streaming platforms in the coming months. There are four sections that are new to this year:

Note: The section links are a bit tricky; my link will take you to the designated section page of the DOC NYC website, but you will need to change the date to “All” in order to see all the films in that section.

  • Masters offers a “spotlight on today’s nonfiction auteurs.” It features: the newest film from two-time Academy Award winner Barbara Kopple, Desert One, about the Iran hostage crisis (Helen Highly Recommends in this article); Alan Berliner’s Letter to the Editor, a profound visual essay on photojournalism (Helen Highly Recommended in the previous article); a special presentation of Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s Town Bloody Hall (1979), on the infamous 1971 debate between a panel of feminists and Norman Mailer, screened in memory of D.A. Pennebaker; and three more, one of which I include in my list below.
  • Investigations features “thought-provoking investigative nonfiction,” which includes: the world premiere of The Queen’s Man, following the efforts of the former bodyguard of the wife of the Shah of Iran to recover her stolen art collection (lots of good buzz around this film); the international premiere of Coastal Road Killer, a new true-crime series from the creators of the hit Netflix series Shadow of Truth; the US premiere of The Pickup Game, an exposé on the billion-dollar industry that teaches men how to manipulate women into bed, and five more (including In Bright Axiom, from my previous article.)
  • Green Screens features environmentally focused films, which include the NYC premieres of The Great Green Wall, about efforts to plant trees across Africa; The Story of Plastic, an investigation into the unceasing production of plastic (which I suggested in the previous article and Helen Highly Recommends here), plus four more.
  • Food for Thought are films that tell “culinary stories,” including: the world premiere of Laura Naylor’s Vas-y Coupe!, an observational portrait of the harvest of a family-owned vineyard in France’s Champagne region; Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy, where this celebrated British-born chef, now in her 90s, shares her love of Mexican food, documents its regional varieties and advocates for environmental sustainability; plus one more. I have not picked any of these films for my list in either article, so you’re on your own here.

In addition to these four new sections, DOC NYC 2019 includes: Special Events, which I covered thoroughly in my previous article, with a special recommendation for The Apollo (not to be confused with Apollo 11, also good); Viewfinders — seven “distinct directorial visions from around the world,” one of which I included in my previous article; Metropolis — seven “New York stories,” two of which I included in my previous article; American Perspectives and International Perspectives, eight films in each, only one of which I included in my previous list (Scandalous, which Helen Highly Recommends), so you have a lot to explore on your own in these categories; Portraits, eight films that “profile singular individuals,” only one of which I included in my list; Modern Family, six films “about unconventional families,” one of which Helen Highly Recommends in this article; New World Order, four films on “today’s most urgent issues,” two of which I will include in this article; In The System, seven films that provide “inside looks at institutions and systems,” which I have completely ignored so you’re on you’re own there too; Fight the Power, eight “stories of activism,” none of which made my list but that is, as I explained, due to my politically-exhausted bias right now; Behind the Scenes, three films about film, none of which I included but seems like an interesting category; Winners Circle, five award-winning films, two of which I included in my previous article; Short List: Features, 15 films “representing the best of the year” and “distinguished by honors,” (most likely to show up in the running for an Academy Award), two of which I mentioned in my previous list; Short List: Shorts (and also regular Shorts), a terrific list for folks who enjoy short films, but none of which I have even considered (I have to stop somewhere); and then the two sections which I have most heavily recommended — Sonic Cinema and Art + Design.

Helen Highly Recommends

That’s my fair and balanced list of all the DOC NYC categories, so now I will list a few more of my personal favorites:

Reverend Sun Myung Moon and his wife

Reverend Sun Myung Moon and his wife

Blessed Child

(Modern Family)

This intimate film revisits director Cara Jones’ upbringing within the Unification Church of Reverend Sun Myung Moon—commonly known as the Moonies—where her parents are high-ranking members. Home videos reveal never-before-seen footage of the inner workings of the controversial movement, considered a cult by some. After Jones separates from the church, she must come to terms with the shift in her relationship with her parents and with the impact of this unusual background on her family. I personally found this film to be deeply unsettling, but I recommend it as fascinating and insightful (perhaps more insightful than it intends to be).

When I was a child, there was a Moonie house in my suburban neighborhood — a large, old house that was home to a group of people, and my father treated that house as if it were the Manson family home; it was a place of disdain to be avoided at all costs. My father was conservative and self-possessed and mostly imperturbable, so seeing his out-sized reaction to these people was surprising — a fear and loathing he usually reserved for Communist propagandists. This, of course, peeked my interest, although I never did venture near that house. And the people inside kept to themselves; we never saw them out in the neighborhood proselytizing. I did, however, see Moonies out and about in a variety of public spaces, especially at shopping malls and airports, and they always seemed eerily cheerful. Yet, something about their sense of unity and overt expression of what they called “love” was appealing to me. In later years I would hear the harrowing tales of parents “kidnapping” their children back from the Moonies and needing to “de-program” them. And of course, there was the requisite discovery of fraud and corruption in the Church, and lies and “sins” by the Reverend.

Blessed Child documentary

“Blessed Child” documentary

My father was a strong advocate of thinking for oneself, so the idea of a cult was anathema to him. My brother and I grew up around a dinner table that regularly involved formal debates on a wide variety of social and political topics; we were taught the processes of logic and how to construct a solid argument. We were no fools — not if my father could help it. In the film, we see home movies of Cara and her brothers being taught to respect the principles of the Unification Church, and it seems somewhat similar in structure to the training my parents gave me. In college, one of my apartment mates came home one day suggesting that we all go to the nearby Moonie house for dinner. They were offering a free vegetarian meal and “discussion,” and I was quite intrigued — wanting to test my mental resolve against what I imagined would be their mind-control efforts, but we never made it over there, which was probably all for the best.

It’s difficult to explain to people who have never experienced  how bad a “perfect childhood” can be, how insidious and lasting the ill-effects are.

I felt a strong affinity to the woman who tells her story in this film. I was not raised in a cult, but I was raised in what — it took me until adulthood to see — was an unhealthy and distorted reality (despite my father’s best efforts at building a life around logic). I feel the impact of my relatively subtle childhood traumas to this day and continue to struggle with healing those internal wounds and breaking the invisible cord that connects me to my anxiety-ridden childhood and my parents’ privately unhappy world. So I can imagine what it’s like to grow up in an even more twisted home.

Cara’s parents loved her and she was never physically abused. In fact, she received loads of attention and what seemed like positive parental involvement in her development. Same with me; my parents loved me and were more involved with my life than most parents — made sure I got into a good college and that my shoes matched my handbag and all that. I surely have their dedicated training to thank for any of my life’s accomplishments. And yet, it’s difficult to explain to people who have never experienced how bad a “perfect childhood” can be, how insidious and lasting the ill-effects are.

Mass wedding in "Blessed Child" documentary

Mass wedding in “Blessed Child” documentary

And this is why I felt the film to be so heart-breaking. Cara is making the film 20 years or more after finally “breaking free” of the Moonie Church. Her parents remain in the Church and appear in the film telling her that they love her unconditionally (with strained believability), although she stated several times throughout the film that one of her greatest fears in her many years of wanting to leave the Church was losing the bond she had with her family. She grew up intensely dependent on that bond; independence was something she learned was wicked, and dangerous.

Now we see that while her parents have not disowned her, they have not actually understood or acknowledged the harm they caused her. Her mother’s main concern is that she will be made to look bad in the film and her father shrugs off the ruin of his gay son’s life, saying that he hopes one day the Church will become more accepting. They apparently love Cara enough to accept her disloyalty but not enough to give a heartfelt apology or any real support for her quest for recovery. I offer my respect and best wishes to Cara in her ongoing journey toward her own identity. It’s a story worth sharing.

But the film breaks down at the very end. We have watched Cara fight against the powerful forces of childhood indoctrination. (It’s not really the religion itself that is so destructive; it is being taught as a child that the only way to reach your parents’ love or your own self worth is through the Church.) And this movie seems to be Cara’s official declaration of independence; she has finally become her own woman and succeeded at her separation from the Unification Church. She was once miserably married in one of Sung Myong Moon’s mass weddings — thousands of couples matched by the Reverend, thousands of women standing together in the same wedding dress as they are married in bulk, but now she is about to be married to a man she truly loves in a traditional ceremony, in a dress of her own choosing.

And then the final frame of the movie is a screen graphic thanking her parents for their support and saying that none of this would have been possible without them. Ouch. It hits me like a blow to the side of my head. As an audience member, I hear ringing in my ears, and it hurts; here is Cara in her final moment, still trying to please her parents, all but pleading for their mercy for her betrayal. It is a painful thing to see — the way we are forever tied to our parents’ mistakes and how self-denial is so terribly difficult to quit.

"Capital in the Twenty-First Century" documentary

“Capital in the Twenty-First Century” documentary

Capital In The Twenty-First Century

(New World Order)

Based on economist Thomas Piketty’s groundbreaking New York Times bestseller, this accessible and enlightening adaptation explores the history of wealth, power and inequality from the French Revolution to the present day. Is today’s ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor an aberration, or just the way capitalism is meant to work? Drawing on experts, historians and even The Simpsons, Capital in the Twenty-First Century offers a thought-provoking reframing of global economics and a caution for the future. The French/New-Zealand co-production blends talking heads — including Piketty and Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz — and pop culture imagery of the rich and famous.

Yes indeed. This is a super-compelling and informative film. It couldn’t be more timely as we work our way up to the 2020 presidential election and all ought to be weighing the different economic and social policies of the candidates. I compare this film somewhat to The Big Short in how it entertains you into listening and amuses you into understanding what might otherwise seem bookish and boring. The use of pop music is especially effective, especially “Royals” by Lorde. And there are some excellent old movie clips too, including one that says, “Oh, you’re a humanist aren’t you? You believe one person is as good as another — an absurd notion, contradicted by the facts.”

The film is fill of old movie references, including a critical assessment of Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice, where it explains that Austin created the fantasy that you could get your hands on the inherited old-money of landowning families if you were just a bit witty and cute. In reality, we are told, there is No Way Mr. Darcy would have ever married Elizabeth. We learn how the cult of fashion saved the industrial revolution. We hear about the unique way the advent of television combined capital interest and public service. There is a “Greed is good” scene, based on the movie Wall Street, of course, but with smarter commentary than it typically gets.

"It's a Wonderful Life" banking lessons

“It’s a Wonderful Life” banking lessons

But my favorite part of this this film might be the criticism it gives to the economic basis for everyone’s favorite Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. I have long resisted the notion that this is a great Christmas movie, and now I have economic evidence to support my opinion. Capital in the 21st Century discusses this revered holiday film in terms of how it depicts the nature of banking, the philosophical calculus behind issuing loans, and the way American families’ financial fates are intertwined. It considers the movie in terms of the question “What are banks meant to do and who are they meant to serve?” I will let Piketty ‘splain the details, but my takeaway is that It’s a Wonderful Life perpetuates faulty economic beliefs.

So, whether as a film-lover, an economic hobbyist or a would-be qualified citizen capable of making smart choices in upcoming elections, Helen Highly Recommends Capital In the Twenty-First Century. Kino Lorber is the distributor so look for it coming to a theater near you.

Note: As long as I’m on this topic, I want to recommend a book by the new winners of the Nobel Prize for Economics, Abhijit V Banerjee and Esther Duflo — Good Economics for Hard Times, which The Guardian calls “a methodical deconstruction of fake facts” and is also very accessible and relevant to the way real people make choices about everyday economic issues. Along with the Capital in the 21st Century book, this book deserves to be at the center of our presidential debate.


"Desert One" documentary about the Iran hostage crisis

“Desert One” documentary about the Iran hostage crisis

Desert One


Two-time Oscar-winner Barbara Kopple (Harlan County USA, American Dream) re-examines the story of Americans taken hostage by Iranian revolutionaries in 1979. Focusing on a rescue mission, the film plays like a thriller. Kopple draws upon never-before-heard audiotapes from inside the White House, as well as new interviews with hostages, rescuers, Iranians and even President Carter, whose 1980 election loss to Ronald Reagan was greatly influenced by this decisive chapter of history.

Wow. The movie opens with someone saying most people today don’t even remember the Iran hostage crisis, and they are correct. When they made that statement, I thought it certainly did not apply to me. I was a senior in high school in 1979 and I remember all the yellow ribbons tied around all the trees in the neighborhood. But I forgot how it all actually ended, how catastrophically. Or, in truth, I learned in this film, I was never remotely aware of all that was involved and all that was going on behind the scenes — all the drama and tortured heroism.

Yellow ribbons around oak trees, for the Iran hostages

Yellow ribbons around oak trees, for the Iran hostages

This film sure does play like a thriller, and it’s revelatory. It easily could be in the Investigations category due to all its journalistic detail and thorough coverage of every angle. It doesn’t play the least bit like a stuffy history film and I wish it were going to get a theatrical release, although I think it’s already set to air on The History Channel. But go search it out and find it. It’s a stunner.

And, similar to Capital in the 21st Century, this film becomes politically significant due to its timing — so close to the 2020 presidential election. The film keeps a relatively tight focus on the nuts and bolts of the story, which are immensely absorbing in themselves, but it’s hard not to consider how this story, re-told now, reflects on the current situation in America and the world at large. These days, we say how 9/11 2001 changed the world forever. But really it was April 4, 1980 that changed the world and was very much responsible for bringing us to where we are today, in terms of global power dynamics and how American citizens view presidential leadership, our beliefs about patriotism and about political strength vs weakness.

(I also want to mention that two recent documentaries are about people who were inspired on their own strange journey by the events surrounding the Iran hostage crisis and the news coverage it received — Recorder: The Marion Stokes Story, and Letter to the Editor, both of which I include in my Part One DOC NYC Pick List. Neither of these films is about this story, but their initial connection to the Iran hostage crisis is evidence of how significant that situation was to so many Americans, and how it changed the course of their lives.)

"Command and Control" documentary on PBS

“Command and Control” documentary on PBS

Helen Highly Recommends Desert One as a film that will make you re-examine your ideas about patriotism, military action, and who America is in the world. Plus, it’s worth mentioning that this film is not the least bit didactic; it has no political agenda other than to reveal the truth of an extremely complicated situation. The interviews with Jimmy Carter add great value, but the most intensive moments come from the present-day interviews with hostages and rescuers themselves. To hear these elder giants of stoicism and strength struggle to tell their story while holding back tears… that packs a wallop. It reminds me in that way of another military-disaster documentary, Command and Control (available on PBS). That film definitely has a message, but its power comes from the first-hand accounts of the key figures in the devastating tale, told now from the vantage point of old age. Perspective, people! (Click here for my review of Command and Control.)

Robbie Naish is seen in "The Longest Wave" documentary

Robby Naish is seen in “The Longest Wave” documentary

The Longest Wave


World champion windsurfer Robby Naish has solidified his legacy through his dominance in nearly every kind of watersport. After a major hip injury and with the specter of age looming over him, Robby takes on a new challenge: surfing the world’s longest wave. Robby’s passion for the ocean is challenged as health, family and professional struggles arise during a three-year journey around the globe in pursuit of the perfect surf.

I’m not into sports films. I watched this because it came up as I sat in my seat during press screenings. I was planning to leave, but the color and beautiful cinematography caught my eye — was a refreshing change from all the dark and depressing fare at the festival. And then the film stayed with me as I walked home. There was something to it. It was more than just a portrait of a great athlete. The story starts when Robby is 10 years old, and he’s now in his 50s — still muscular and deeply tanned and full of spirit, and we are all set up for a portrayal of life-long exceptionalism and adventure. But unexpected events interfere with all the greatness.

I was impressed that the filmmaker was resourceful enough to save his film from flopping due to events beyond his control. In fact, I thought, it was that apparently sophisticated talent for storytelling that made this film worthwhile. I am sure he started out planning to make a different movie — a straight. heroic tale of the long life of a never-stop-competing surfer, but it ended up being something more nuanced and thoughtful. The long wave that Robby pursues becomes both literal and metaphorical.

Water sportsman Robbie Naish dazzles

Water sportsman Robby Naish dazzles

A decent film. Respectable, I thought. Almost interesting (I say cynically). If I were interested in sports, I would certainly have enjoyed this more and it might have felt genuinely inspirational. I did notice that there seemed to be a Red Bull logo in virtually every frame of the film. I thought that, well, athletes always have sponsors who plaster their logos everywhere — on shoes and shirts and hats, so I guess that’s normal. But there was an awful lot of Red Bull; it was almost its own character in the film. Robby is especially loyal to his sponsor, I assumed.

I went home and looked up the details of the film, and light started to dawn: In the “producer” spot where I expected to see “Netflix” or “HBO,” it said “Red Bull.” And right on cue, the phone rang and it was the film’s publicist calling to ask if I would tell her what I thought of the film. “Well, I have a question,” I said. “What is the deal with all the Red Bull? I get that they’re a sponsor, but it’s a typo that they are listed as the producer, right?”

“No,” she says, “Red Bull is the producer.”

“They made the film? They own the film?”

“Yes, they made the film. But they would like to sell the film, too.”

“So they’re looking for a distributor?”

“Yes. Red Bull is the sales company for the film and is looking for a distributor outside Red Bull channels,” she said.

“‘Red Bull has its own channel? How many films does Red Bull make?”

“I’ll have to get back to you with those details,” she said.

At this point, I’d been Googling as we talked and had arrived at the Red Bull film platform, full of dozens upon dozens of sports movies. I hurried off the phone with the publicity chick and started scrolling. It was astounding how many films. All extreme sports films like skateboarding and car racing — not “regular” sports like baseball or basketball. hmm. So, okay, Red Bull sure is clever and they know their market and make movies to entertain… or to persuade. I mean, these are commercials for Red Bull, right? I guess you could call them advocacy films — advocating for their product.* Bottom line: these are expensive infomercials.

"Brother's Keeper" documentary -- not exactly Red Bull material

“Brother’s Keeper” documentary by Joe Berlinger — not exactly Red Bull material

Color me mind blown. Not that I am clueless to product placement in movies but this is something altogether different. This is a paid advertisement, and I was kinda shocked that they made it into DOC NYC film festival, which is among the most discriminating of documentary festivals. AH! Here is the answer: This feature-length commercial is actually listed in the “Masters” section. That’s because Red Bull was savvy enough to hire an award-winning, very up-and-coming documentary film director, Joe Berlinger, who is known for making serious, social justice docs, such as Brother’s Keeper. Berlinger apprenticed with iconic documentarians Albert and David Maysles and went on to make acclaimed films and docu-series, so he’s a credible director. (Master? I don’t know. But I guess he is by DOC NYC standards; he’s won awards.) A 2017 HuffPost article said “Brother’s Keeper (1992) and the Paradise Lost trilogy (1996–2011) helped pioneer the style of documentary filmmaking in Netflix’s recent true crime sensation, Making a Murderer—a combination of artful cinematography, a stirring musical soundtrack, and a dramatic narrative structure as compelling as any scripted film.”

Red Bull Gives You WIngs (and movies too)

Red Bull Gives You Wings (and movies too)

So there you have it. Hire a real director to make your commercial and get it into a prestigious film festival. Not that I’m complaining. I am still processing. (I will let Scorsese be the judgmental one. And it’s not like this is taking up space in a movie theater. It has its own online channel. Although, I guess if they get their wish, this film will find a distributor and end up in a theater.) The lines between art and commerce and news and entertainment were blurred long ago, and I guess this is just the latest twist. And that HuffPost critic is right about dramatic narrative structure; The Longest Wave is, as I said, a would-be lame flick that is saved by its smart narrative and seemingly-inquisitive style. It does tell a worthy(ish) story. And it’s fun to watch. Plus, aspiring documentarians still gotta eat.

But here is my one remaining question for Red Bull: Upon further scrolling at your site, I see that you make more than just sports films. You also make adventure films (where one needs ones energy to climb that mountain) and dance and music films (especially featuring “rave” music — where Red Bull makes a nice combo with ecstasy, I have heard), but what about other applications that require energy, such as thinking or studying or working? I mean, I stay up many a late night at my computer, writing, and I drink coffee to stay alert, and so why am I and my efforts left out of your filmmaking agenda? I would like to suggest that Red Bull start promoting Extreme Thinking — movies that depict writers and scholars and scientists doing amazing feats of demanding mental labor. It might be a good influence on those impressionable youth who watch the other films at your site. Just a suggestion.

And so, Helen doesn’t really recommend The Longest Wave, unless you are interested in the latest wave of advertising.

* Btw, Tribeca Film Festival 2019 had a special section they called Tribeca X, which specifically explored the intersection of film and advertising. It was a legitimate and interesting presentation of films that were made by consumer-product companies. I wrote about a series of films produced by HP, and I gave them a thumbs up. But it’s significant that those films never once mention or show any HP product or logo. They are actually “advocacy films,” promoting a lifestyle or concept that is consistent with their brand. It’s the overt sales aspect of The Longest Wave that chafes — the fact that Robby Naish seems to have a Red Bull in his hand whenever he isn’t in the water. Just sayin’. (But hey, extra points for Red Bull selling their beverage in cans instead of plastic bottles. Good for them. See my review of The Story of Plastic, below.)

"Martin Margiela: In His Own Words"

“Martin Margiela: In His Own Words”

Martin Margiela: In His Own Words 

(Art + Design)

In 2008, after a show celebrating the 20th anniversary of his fashion house, Maison Margiela, visionary designer Martin Margiela left the fashion world for good. Throughout his career, the Belgian designer remained anonymous, refusing interviews and never being photographed, leading some to call him the fashion world’s answer to Banksy. Now, more than a decade after his departure, Margiela digs into his meticulous and idiosyncratic personal archives to reflect on his revolutionary career and legacy.

Yes, Helen is Highly Recommending one more fashion film. I haven’t seen this one yet, but it sounds especially appealing due to the mystique around this legendary designer. They compare him to Banksy, which makes it sound even more intriguing. And it’s another Archival Movie, which has become my pet subject (brilliant, insightful article soon to be published). It’s also another end-of-career memoir-ish biopic, which seems to be the popular mode these days. And why not let the artist have a say in how he is remembered?

Aung San Suu Kyi, "On the Inside of a Military Dictatorship"

Aung San Suu Kyi, “On the Inside of a Military Dictatorship”

On The Inside of a Military Dictatorship

(New World Order)

In 2016, 50 years of military rule in Myanmar ended when power was transferred to former political prisoner and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. While her ascendancy represented a victory for democracy, she came under fire after military involvement in the ethnic cleansing of Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority. In this film, archival footage and candid interview access to Aung San Suu Kyi and other key players in the government provide a wide-ranging look into the troubling complications and compromises of a regime change decades in the making.

I am listing this film not because it’s supposed to be especially excellent, but because it is such an important world topic, and reporting on it has been difficult due to the strict controls by the government. As we face increasing challenges to the US Constitution and issues about the power of the US presidency, it’s worth looking at how easily one can turn from Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning activist-for-democracy to Part of the Problem (if not THE Problem). Also, IndieNYC writer Ian MacKenzie did a good interview with the director, Karen Stokkendal Poulsen, which addresses the challenges she faced in gaining access in order to make this documentary. The film has been criticized for not being tough enough on Aung San Suu Kyi, but some access is better than no access. This was some patient and careful journalism. It’s worth reading our interview at least.

"The Story of Plastic" is the documentary to see

“The Story of Plastic” is the documentary to see

The Story of Plastic

(Green Screens)

Plastic, a seemingly indispensable product, has wrought all sorts of innovations, but at what cost? The plastic industry’s success depends on consumers discarding the product and purchasing new items, creating an endless supply of litter that lingers forever. Filmmaker Deia Schlosberg’s incredibly detailed investigation into the plastic-production pipeline will shock, horrify and forever change your perception on recycling. Timely and critical, this film is a must-see for anyone who uses this infamous product.

The future of plastic is in the trash can. 

I included this film in my previous DOC NYC list. But I am including it again because I have now seen it and I am going to call this The Most Important Documentary of the Year. And it tops the list of my own category of films that I call “You Think You Know But You Don’t.” It absolutely blew my mind. This is an advocacy film, which tend to make me uncomfortable, and honestly I was not looking forward to seeing it, but felt obliged, and now I am an advocate for this film. This documentary does one of the deepest dives into one of the most horrifying subjects that I have ever seen. You will not be the same person after you watch it; it will change your world view and your private life (but in a good way). 

More plastic than fish

More plastic than fish

Early in the film, reporter Zoe Carpenter says that when she researches a story she likes to ask the people involved what they think about the media coverage it’s been getting so far. And what she discovered about the story of plastic is that there was a journalistic gap at the front end of the story, before it gets to the back of the story and becomes the problem we all know about — how plastic is a huge waste problem, washing ashore on beaches, swirling in giant ocean eddies, gumming up the insides of whales and seabirds, and provoking Donald Trump to warn that the liberal extremists “want to take away your straws!” and offensively disputing the mere mention of a Green New Deal by printing the name TRUMP on big red plastic straws and selling them on his website. (This is true. This is not in the film, but I want you to know that President Trump is selling his own plastic straws.) What is very rarely reported is who is making plastic, and how and why, and of course that turns out to be the most important part of the story.

The burden of plastic pollution falls onto marginal communities

The burden of plastic pollution falls onto marginal communities

This movie is full of profoundly distressing moments (for example, the depiction of how the trash of rich nations has become the deadly burden of poorer countries), as well as simply shocking scenes and surprising information — the opposite of what you think the story is really about. And that is where I will start writing, hopefully before I lose your interest. The first thing I want to tell you is the idea (and one-time public service announcement) that “people start pollution and people can stop it” and the very concept of recycling is essentially a con job to put the guilt of pollution and the responsibility for fixing the problem on the consumer and obscure the fact that the producers of plastic are the source of the problem and they are realistically the only ones who can fix it.

The story of plastic production and recycling is simply one of American history’s greatest deceptions. 

Break Free From Plastic

Break Free From Plastic

And guess who those plastic producers are? Ever think about it? Well, plastic is essentially petroleum! And 99% of what goes into plastic are fossil fuels! So, it’s the same sinister corporate entities that have been ruining the planet and our lives for decades — Exxon, Chevron, Shell, BP and of course Dow Chemical. And you think they are only providing supply that meets our demand for packaged foods and single-use plastics? Wrong. They systematically have strategized (and yes it is documented) that due to our intentional reduction in the use of fossil fuels to create energy — in order to combat global warming, they need to find another market for their product, and plastic is it (if only they can continue to make us all believe the lie that plastic is recyclable); that’s what will keep them rolling in money as they continue to destroy the planet. And destroy it does. It’s not only whales and sea turtles who are choking on the stuff. Plastic creates greenhouse gases as it degrades (or as it is incinerated, which is becoming increasingly more common as third world countries are refusing to let us use their homeland as our landfills), so you don’t have to choose between caring about global warming and caring about plastic pollution; it’s the same problem! 

This is not in the film, but a correlating message from Greenpeace, on Twitter:

Well… that’s why we recycle, you say? The truth is that only about 14% of the 400 million metric tons of plastic that is created annually can be recycled. And actually, most of that is made into something worse that will degrade into even more toxic material. (It’s called “downgrading.” Unlike glass and paper, plastic can only be recycled once, and then it’s too unstable and toxic to deal with.) So, only 2% of all plastic can be effectively reused, which means 98% of all plastic CANNOT be recycled in any practical way, so you are wasting your time separating your plastic for recycling, and it’s all to keep you busy and distracted from the terrible truth.

Local boatman swims amongst plastic trash discarded in Manila Bay,

Local boatman swims amongst plastic trash discarded in Manila Bay,

One comically horrible scene in the film shows a man who runs a recycling enterprise in Indonesia (or such — can’t recall exactly), who reluctantly agreed to start accepting plastic and is now woefully sorry, as he stands in front of neatly bound giant bails of plastic and says, “What do they think anyone is going to DO with all this plastic garbage?” As he pulls pieces from the bails, he starts explaining that it’s all different colors… some of it was printed on so it has ink inside it… and there are 83 (eighty three!) different categories of plastic into which it all needs to be separated before anything can conceivably be made from it, which is virtually impossible to do in the vast quantities that we have. And then, the process of cleaning the plastic creates polluted water that has nowhere to go, and if you melt it, you get toxic fumes… and on and on. The absurdity of the situation becomes clear, and the outrageousness of the fact that we have all been told a completely different and entirely untrue story is dumbfounding, and infuriating.

How fossil fuel companies are killing plastic recycling

How fossil fuel companies are killing plastic recycling

My statements may sound too extreme and inflammatory to be true (we are drinking tiny plastic pellets, even in our bottled water!), which is why you need to watch this film and have these very calm and reasonable experts explain it all step by step. They have some astounding and incontrovertible facts. And I have not really begun to get into all the details of the disease and crimes and lies that are directly affecting quality of life Right Now in the United States — not just later or somewhere else but in your own backyards (where, in one Texan town, some ridiculously — unfathomably — high number of babies are dying from leukemia, the number which I need to double-check, but I assure you is waaay too high). The story of plastic production and recycling is simply one of American history’s greatest deceptions. 

Put the responsibility where it belongs.

Put the responsibility where it belongs.

And yes, there is a solution, or at least a path to a solution, so there is a reason to watch. In this case, it is very much true that identifying the real problem is half the way to solving it, so there are things to do and steps to take. But the solution mostly requires large, structural change starting at the top. And it begins with educating ourselves and each other so that we can fight back against the forces that want to distract and deflect from the truth (and that have forced single-use plastics into our lives and then blamed us for the results). This film does not yet have a distributor and is continuing to make the rounds of film festivals (follow the progress here, at The Story of Plastic website) but I promise you, if they don’t get a legit distribution system soon, I will personally start sending out emails with the screener links, because you MUST. SEE. THIS. MOVIE.


In the meantime, go to the website and read the literature. The Story of Plastic is a production of The Story of Stuff Project, a nonprofit dedicated to changing the way that we make, use, and throw away Stuff so that it is more sustainable, healthy, and fair. Since 2007 the nonprofit’s nine award-winning animated movies have garnered more than 50 million online views around the world and inspired a million-member global community to take action for systemic change. To learn more, visit storyofstuff.org

The Story of Stuff Project is a member of #breakfreefromplastic, a global movement envisioning a future free from plastic pollution. To learn more about the push for lasting solutions to the plastic pollution crisis, visit breakfreefromplastic.org

Want to know the Top 10 Companies Flooding the Planet with Throwaway Plastic? Click here.

Here is an excellent article, written by the journalist in the film, Zoe S. Carpenter: The Toxic Consequences of America’s Plastics Boom “Thanks to fracking, petrochemicals giants are poised to make the plastic pollution crisis much, much worse.”

Here is some more excellent reporting on the details of the situation: How Fossil Fuel Companies are Killing Plastic Recycling

Excerpt: “But plastic recycling is in trouble. Too much of the indestructible material exists in the world, more than our current recycling networks can handle. And the very same companies that say recycling is the answer are about to unleash a tidal wave of fresh plastics that will drown recyclers struggling to stay afloat.  “We’ve been trained [to think] that we can purchase endlessly and recycle everything,” said Genevieve Abedon, a policy associate who represents the Clean Seas Lobbying Coalition. “There is no way that recycling can keep up.” 

Big oil, natural gas and chemical companies have poured an estimated $200 billion into more than 300 petrochemical expansion projects across America from 2010 to 2018, according to the American Chemistry Council. Fossil fuel giants ExxonMobil and Shell, as well as plastic makers like SABIC and Formosa Plastics, are building and expanding at least five ethane cracker plants in Appalachia and along the Gulf of Mexico. The facilities will turn ethane, a byproduct of natural gas fracking, into polyethylene pellets, which can be made into a variety of products, including milk jugs, shampoo bottles, food packaging and the air pillows that protect your Amazon orders.

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