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by Cynthia Fuchs

12 Jan 2012


“The block is quiet,” remembers Ameena Matthews, “And I’m looking down the street, and here come the sisters of the guy that got his tooth knocked out. They came to defend the brother’s honor with a butcher knife.” She means to make a difference in this all too common scenario. A Violence Interrupter, Matthews works with the group CeaseFire, whose efforts are at the center of the magnificent documentary, The Interrupters. Following the experiences of several Interrupters, the film reveals how the group is taking a different approach to gang violence, how it works to intervene in usual cycles. “People believe in punishment,” says epidemiologist and CeaseFire co-founder Gary Slutkin, because when “you punish a young person, he stops. But he actually learns to mimic the punishment.” If the task is daunting, CeaseFire members remain courageous, determined, and brilliantly flexible when necessary. In spite of missteps and steps back, in spite of the many times that the interrupters attend funerals and console grieving parents, they try again and again. If they can stop one act of violence, they might stop another.

Nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, winner of the 2011 Chicago Film Critics Association Award for Best Documentary, and also two 2012 Cinema Eye Awards, for Outstanding Achievement in Direction and Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Feature Filmmaking, the film is screening on 12 January at Stranger Than Fiction as a Pre-Winter Season Special Event, followed by a Q&A with producer/director Steve James. It will also be airing on Frontline on 14 February as part of OBS’ broadcast schedule for Black History Month.

See PopMattersreview.

by Cynthia Fuchs

15 Dec 2011


“If you find a way to fix this thing right here, it’ll make you better. It’ll make you better in areas you didn’t think were related to horses.” Buck Brannaman’s students listen carefully when he speaks. They stand alongside their horses, hoping they’ll hear in his instructions a solution, whether their animal is fearful or fierce, stubborn or prickly. But clinics with Buck usually end up teaching them less about their horses than themselves. “A lot of times,” he says, “Rather than helping people with horse problems, I’m helping horses with people problems.” The inspiration for the book The Horse Whisperer and an advisor on Robert Redford’s movie set, Buck reveals he has his own issues—a severely abusive father when he was young and trained up to be a rodeo performer with his brother (who is not interviewed here), as well as a measurable loneliness now on the road, when he leaves his wife and children behind. While his clients (and he) extol his wisdom, Buck is also apt to chastise them for not being self-aware, as he’s been forced to be. When he chastises a woman for her carelessness with her horses, a carelessness that leads to a bad end for one of them, the film makes clear his stakes: he’s finding and saving victims, again and again. In so doing, he saves himself. Shortlisted for the 2012 Best Documentary Academy Award, the movie screens on 19 December as part of Stranger Than Fiction’s Pre-Winter Season Special, followed by a Q&A with director Cindy Meehl.

See PopMattersreview.

by Cynthia Fuchs

15 Dec 2011


“It’s hideous to be called a terrorist,” says Daniel McGowan. “But here I am, facing life, plus 335 years.” Sitting in his kitchen with a lowjack on his ankle and awaiting trial in 2006, McGowan looks back on the events that brought him to this place. As he explains in If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, he’s never considered himself a terrorist, though of course he’s seen the reports on television and in newspapers concerning his work with the Environmental Liberation Front (ELF). “People need to question this new buzzword,” he suggests, “It’s a new bogeyman word.” Screening on 15 December as part of Stranger Than Fiction’s Pre-Winter Season Special, Marshall Curry’s documentary is remarkable for its access to McGowan and its examination of so many aspects of the case. Recently named to the short list for a Best Documentary Oscar, the film doesn’t judge so much as it considers—actions and motives, ambitions and mistakes. As Curry says, “I think complexity is more interesting, and from the beginning I wanted to present people’s best arguments and let those smack into each other, rather than their worst arguments.”

See PopMattersreview.

by Cynthia Fuchs

14 Dec 2011


“In 1997, I was fixing a plate of food in the kitchen,” says Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger, “Getting ready for the evening news.” What he heard on the TV changed everything: a scientific report linked birth defects and childhood cancers to water contamination at Camp Lejeune, where he and his family had lived. “I dropped my plate, right there. I mean, it was like God was saying to me, ‘Here is a glimmer of hope, that you will find your answer.’” Ensminger’s question concerned the death of his nine-year-old daughter, Janey, some 14 years earlier. She’d had leukemia, and throughout her illness and after her passing, he wondered why. For the rest of Tony Hardmon and Rachel Libert’s Semper Fi: Always Faithful, Ensminger pursues answers, joining with two other victims. Their efforts are made more difficult by military and government efforts to deny responsibility. Screening on 14 December as part of Stranger Than Fiction’s Pre-Winter Season Special series, the documentary follows their alternately frustrating and heartening journey and also advocates for their cause. Given the passion that Ensminger and others bring to the story, Semper Fi mostly needs to observe, though occasional images or empty swings in a back yard or Jerry traipsing through the woods with his hunting rifle (“I come up here to get away from the daily stress”) help to underline its poignancy and also, their perseverance.

See PopMattersreview.

by Cynthia Fuchs

13 Dec 2011


When Bruce Ratner announced the Atlantic Yards development project in Brooklyn in 2003, he brought along noteworthy supporters, from architect Frank Gehry to New Jersey Nets minority owner Jay-Z to Mayor Mike Bloomberg. They all touted the arena as a way to create jobs, to improve the local economy, to bring new life. It hasn’t quite worked out that way, as documented in Battle for Brooklyn.

Troubles began when some residents of “the footprint” resisted being moved. Their resistance led to the corporation bringing in the state government, who cited “eminent domain” as a rubric for claiming the land, that is, the expropriation of private property for the public good. And oh yes, primary “public” beneficiary was to be Forest City Ratner Companies. Local resistance galvanized ROUND EXACTLY THAT APPARENT OVERSIGHT. Screening on 13 December as part of Stranger Than Fiction’s Pre-Winter Season Special—and followed by a Q&A with directors Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky—the film follows one resident in particular, Daniel Goldstein, a graphic designer who can’t imagine how his life will be changed by his commitment to the project. Goldstein and other residents resent the implication that they matter so little as to be considered “practically from scratch.” To be sure, not all residents feel this way: some believe the promises made by Ratner, Brooklyn Borough president Marty Markowitz, Mayor Bloomberg, and Senator Chuck Schumer, that the development will bring employment opportunities to Brooklyn and improve material and economic conditions going forward. (Senator Schumer’s misspeaking during a press conference may or may not be telling: “Basketball is great, but you know what enervates me about this? 10,000 jobs!”) As the Atlantic Yards project divides the community, it inspires a range of responses, from placards in residential and commercial windows and street protests to local organizing and full-on media campaigns.

See PopMattersreview.

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