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by Chris Barsanti

12 Jun 2017


Black Code (2016)

It wasn’t that long ago that one-time proselytizers of the World Wide Web paradise to come, like Douglas Rushkoff, began to sheepishly come forward and admit that, yes, they might have been a tad over optimistic about the world-changing potential of the Internet back in the ‘90s. We are just now starting to see some reevaluations from the eager Netizens who proclaimed that the Twitter- and Facebook-fueled Arab Spring was the harbinger of a glorious new dawn of an empowered, jacked-in cybernetic citizenry. The darker side of the democratization of online messaging, however, is on full display in Nicholas de Pencier’s Black Code, screening at the New York Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

An adaptation of the book of the same name by Ronald Deibert, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, the movie is an anxious and earnest policy piece about the darkening Web that followed in the wake of the Arab Spring’s first flush of people-powered optimism. Deibert and the Lab’s band of “Internet sleuths” research monitor the state of worldwide human rights as it intersects with the virtual realm, where “Big Data meets Big Brother”.

What Black Code sees is that a tide turning against citizen activists around the world. In Tibet, the Chinese government’s strategy of total surveillance works to smother the decades-long resistance movement, particularly any online reference to the hundred-plus activists who self-immolated in protest of Beijing’s policies. The government in Ethiopia centralizes Internet access through a single, monitored server. Pakistan and Brazil keep close tabs on any anti-government activity online, while Syria’s place as the “Arab Spring’s dark aftermath” sees malware and Facebook misinformation weaponized against their citizenry. 

In what Deibert refers to as the “commercialization of cybercrime”, numerous companies now provide off-the-shelf products to companies and governments looking to monitor and stifle resistance movements. Deibert and the watchful researchers of the Citizen Lab don’t exactly provide answers to the campaigns of oppression they document, but they provide a hopeful reminder that at the very least, somewhere on the Web, somebody is watching—for the right reasons.

Bill Nye: Science Guy (2017)

Bill Nye: Science Guy (2017)

A curious inclusion in the Human Rights Watch Festival, David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg’s Bill Nye: Science Guy is a PBS-friendly thumbnail biopic of Bill Nye, the “Science Guy” who—if the legion of his fans who show up in the movie are to be believed—is a pop science hero of magnificent proportions. As the bowtied host of a goofy kids science show back in the ‘90s, Nye was a great popularizer of scientific inquiry for the after-school crowd; a kind of bridge between Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson. The former was, in fact, a hero of Nye’s and the latter shows up here as Nye’s slightly more authoritative but just as aggressively gung-go comrade in scientific arms.

While the movie itself is something of a hodge-podge, it keeps returning to one of Nye’s current missions: fighting the scourge of climate change deniers. While debating the reality of man-made climate change with oleaginous goons like the Creation Museum’s Ken Ham or the bodybuilding meteorologist Joe Bastardi (a glib and pugnacious propagandist who must be seen to be believed) might not seem like exactly the stuff of human rights, it is certainly a service to humanity.

The Blood Is at the Doorstep (2017)

The Blood Is at the Doorstep (2017)

Nearly the definition of the kind of movie an event like the Human Rights Watch Film Festival is made to showcase, Erik Ljung’s captivating The Blood Is at the Doorstep tracks the aftermath and struggle for justice that came after the 30 April 2014 fatal shooting of Dontre Hamilton in downtown Milwaukee during broad daylight by a police officer. Although it begins in fire and violence, the bulk of the movie is a timeline following that shooting itself and the passionate, quietly strong campaign fought by his family to ensure that the city found somebody accountable for what happened.

Ljung’s portrait doesn’t attempt to litigate the shooting itself. Instead of pulling apart the forensics of what happened, the angle of this bullet or the conflicting testimony of that witness, it focuses on the Hamilton family and their attempt to come to grips with what looked in all fairness like an unwarranted killing. There are times when this feels briefly like a weakness, that maybe a closer examination of the case itself could have helped clarify things. But Ljung’s approach is ultimately a humane one, embedding closely with Hamilton’s grief-struck mother and brothers as they move from shock to anger to steady and organized action. Before long, the family is leading a growing number of like-minded activists on marches protesting the reluctance of the city to file charges against the officer, or at the very least institute mental-health training for the police.

The outlines of the Hamilton shooting are depressingly familiar. From his history of mental illness to the officer’s history of excessive force complaints to the overwhelming amount of force used (14 shots fired at a man who by all accounts had started fighting with the officer after being woken up in a city park, but likely never posed a real threat) to the closing of ranks by police and the splits in tactics between nonviolent and more aggressive protesters, these are all elements that have become numbingly familiar in America’s cities.

Although there is plenty of outrage in The Blood Is at the Doorstep, Ljung is primarily an empathetic storyteller. From his surprisingly luminous cinematography to the intimate portrayal of the family’s stout and humble resilience, this is a movie that is always finding beauty in ugliness and manages to celebrate the former without forgetting the latter.

by Sachyn Mital

20 Apr 2016


Jo Miller and Samantha Bee (L-R)

Nine episodes into her new TBS show Full Frontal, Samantha Bee has quickly risen to the top of the late night game. In aptitude, her only rival may be HBO’s John Oliver with Last Week Tonight. Even before the show aired, the organizers of the Tribeca Film Festival recruited Bee and her showrunner Jo Miller to discuss her show with them, fully trusting Bee’s abilities to produce an excellent television program. Bee’s new network home also held the same confidence in her. After years of being a correspondent for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Bee proved her worthiness and value as a comedian and as a political satirist. At the Tribeca talk, Bee said TBS, who had already been working with her husband Jason Jones, “just trusted us because we had already been working with them. They put a lot of faith in Jason and they put a lot of faith in me. I’m very thankful for them.”

The attitude of Full Frontal is apparent right from the intro where Peaches’ “Boys Want to Be Her” plays over the credits. Bee knew right away she wanted Peaches, “almost from the moment of knowing we were gonna be doing a show it came to me in a moment where I went, ‘Well, Peaches will do the song.’ Because, Peaches.” before reaching out to Peaches, another edgy Canadian female, via Twitter. Peaches, ever so generously provided additional cues, cuts and backing bits for the show to supplement her song.

by Sachyn Mital

18 Apr 2016


The Show of Shows bears some similarity in terms of composition to a 2011 Tribeca Film Festival selection that I saw, The Miners’ Hymns. Both set black and white footage from a UK archive against an original score from an Icelandic composer (or in this case composers) to present a documentary feature. Each has a score essential to the narrative arc of the film yet stands alone—particularly the final cut in Miners, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s epic “The Cause of Labour is the Hope of the World”. But, while The Miners’ Hymns carried political weight, The Show of Shows is lighter, more entertaining fare.

by Sachyn Mital

19 Jun 2015


On Tuesday June 16th, eager animation fans who wanted to see the latest film from Disney Pixar Inside Out had the opportunity to see the film early via a “special event” screening from Fathom Events. Fathom Events often screen opera or theater productions on the silver screen but this was a notable screening as it was the first time I was aware of them working with a major popular animated film. The Inside Out screening featured “exclusive behind-the-scenes footage from Pixar Animation Studios and a Q&A with director Pete Docter, producer Jonas Rivera and the voice of Joy, Amy Poehler.” Essentially, these were unique offerings that might be expected to be on a DVD release but were prepared ahead of time to give the audience reason to shell out for higher priced tickets.

by Alex Ramon

17 May 2015


I finished reading Patricia Highsmith’s Carol while waiting in the (very long) press line to see Todd Haynes’ much-anticipated adaptation of the novel, which premiered here at Cannes last night. It was one of those unforgettable moments. Already loving the novel, and hugely excited for the movie, I was blown away by the grace, poignancy and quiet power of the final chapter and by Highsmith’s brave, pitch-perfect resolution of the narrative.

I went into the screening equal parts thrilled and nervous. Could the movie do justice to the novel, and yet emerge as something fresh and distinctive in its own right? Well, as it turns out, it’s a complicated story.

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