AFI Docs 2013: 'Best Kept Secret' & 'Remote Area Medical'

Best Kept Secret (2013)

Two films at this year's AFI Docs Film Festival demonstrate the resilience and courage of individuals facing impossible situations, inner city school students with special needs and patients without health insurance.

Best Kept Secret

Director: Samantha Buck
Cast: Janet Mino, Cynthia Pullen Thompson, Quran Key, Bradley Key, Robert Caspar, Linda Coleman, Erik Taylor, Maurice and Alyce Barnhardt
Rated: NR
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-06-21 (AFI Docs)

Remote Area Medical

Director: Jeff Reichert, Farihah Zaman
Cast: Stan Brock
Rated: NR
Studio: Focus Forward Films
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-06-22 (AFI Docs)

"Rahamid has a fear of plants," explains his teacher, Janet Mino. "We're trying to desensitize him. Outside, he won't go by the trees." She holds a potted plant in front of Rahamid, asking whether he might take it from her and put it back on the classroom shelf where she found it. "Ouch!" he murmurs. Mino presses on. "You want to put it back for me or no?" she asks. No. "You want me to do it?" Yes. "Okay, I'll do it."

Rahamid has been able to say what he wants, and that's the point for Janet, rather than the fear of plants. Mino seeks engagement and communication, asking for each student, "How to take care of yourself, how to express yourself or just get some type of language out of you?" Throughout the documentary Best Kept Secret, she patiently coaxes just such self-expression from her students at John F. Kennedy High School in Newark. These students have a range of special needs, met by JFK staff members with attention to detail, innovative strategies, and remarkable dedication. As Mino puts it, laughing through her visible exhaustion, "I should get paid overtime, always… weekends, I'm always thinking about them."

So far, so familiar: during its first moments, Best Kept Secret looks like another documentary about great work at a great school. But Samantha Buck's film -- which screened at this month's AFI Docs this month and will be airing on PBS' POV on 23 September -- takes a next step, looking at what happens after school. Specifically, it shows what's happening as, for the first time in her 20 years of working with autistic spectrum children, Mino's entire class is graduating.

The film follows this transition in 2011, as it affects Mino and several of her students. Outside of school, they won't have the same sort of attention or time devoted to them, and so, in the months before graduation, she sets to work with parents, guardians, and area agencies in hopes of finding situations for each graduate. As Mino confronts the difficulty of finding ways for each student to feel as stimulated and special as he -- and they are all hes in this film -- can feel at JFK. Social worker Cynthia Pullen Thompson cautions Mino that their lives are about to change radically, as the state now sees them not as students but as consumers ("Instead of a person," interjects Mino). "That's the language they use, the agencies," underlines Thompson, language designating new costs and payments to be made.

As Mino notes, her students are all "inner city," which is to say, poor. Their parents and guardians can't afford the private services of a place like the West Orange's WAE (Wellness, Arts & Enrichment) Center, a nonprofit alternative learning center where she sees students in a group situation, painting, sharing their work, encouraging each other, and engaged in the kind of self-expression she values. But even as a counselor assures Mino that "The only criteria is [sic] that you like to be here," either the state or families have to cover costs. More often, the options for Mino's graduates are "work-oriented," janitorial activities or piecework they take on as individuals, where supervisors don't have time or training to attend to what Thompson calls "social recreation," and what Mino calls "life."

Mino's efforts to find rewarding situations for her graduates seem heroic in the film, and you're invited to share in her frustrations, as caretakers and children are left with non-choices. Individual stories speak to broader constraints: Erik is thrilled to see his mother when she can make it to see him, as they've been separated owing in part to her addiction; Quran's father admits that it was difficult for "accept him for him being who he is," but still, he wants to have him tested, despite Mino's advice against such standardized assessments (Bradley, Quran's dad, sighs when he learns the results, which suggest his son has "regressed [in] some of the things that I know that he's able to do"). Another graduate, Erik, finds brief joy in the job he's "always wanted," cleaning up once a week at a Burger King, but an epigraph at film's end reveals that when his family is unable to secure a regular monitor for him, he loses the position.

Mino sees that such disappointments have more to do with her graduates' economic situations than with their abilities, or their many achievements at JFK, a point she makes during a public panel discussion with Senator Robert Menendez. But identifying that particular difficulty doesn't begin to improve it, as funding remains largely unavailable. That's not to say Best Kept Secret focuses on the disappointments, or that it doesn't return, in its final moments, to Mino's classroom, where she has a new class of energetic students who are learning to express what they want.

Self-expression is at the center of another film at AFI Docs, Remote Area Medical. Here again, communication is limited by economic conditions, and again, consequences can be brutal. The film focuses on Remote Area Medical, founded in 1985 by Stan Brock and currently operating out of Knoxville, Tennessee. Brock explains briefly that this original idea was to provide medical care for communities in faraway places, for instance, South America or Africa, inspired when he was injured as a young man in Brazil and learned that the nearest doctor was 26 days away by foot. But the locus of operations has since turned to the US. "The thing that weighs on me the most," says Brock, "is we have people who need help right inside our borders. Remote area medicine, it's not too remote."

Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman's movie tracks the group's work over one weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway. They bring in a huge semi-truck full of supplies and equipment, as well as volunteer doctors from all over the country, and service patients on a first come, first serve basis for three days. The undertaking is huge, complicated, and by now, too often practiced. The caregivers participating assert the rewards of the experience, and patients are grateful to get care -- from dentists, opthamologists, and physicians, as well as veterinarians -- they can't begin to afford otherwise, the film makes clear that even these returns only expose and reemphasize the cruel limits facing everyone involved.

Such limits are made visible immediately, even before the clinic opens for business, as patients arrive by the hundreds in the parking lot, angling for position, waiting for Theresa, the extraordinarily serene person in charge of handing out tickets. Bundled in her jacket and making her way from car to car, she assigns tickets for each day, 500 for the first and 800, for the next, a process that is as efficient as it might be but also leaves hundreds of people without a chance to get care. Those waiting have to contend with all manner of troubles, the distance they've driven, the need to be back home with kids or back at work. They've started lining up long hours before for the opening at 5:30am ,and some find ways around, pretending a car is theirs when it's not. But for all the understandable disappointment and anxiety, the RAM team maintains order and calm, even as they look forward to the escalating activity of the following days.

Throughout these days, the film makes clear enough its argument with the current state of health care, the woeful lack of delivery and efficiency. One of the staffers observes, "I wish all of the people who make decisions would come down and be at the racetrack this weekend and see what the consequences of some of their decisions have been." The film's portrait of these consequences is acute, evoking the many costs of the system as it stands. It does so by conjuring a compelling mix of emotional effects, a sense of urgency and good humor, fear and trust, desperation and hope. Most often, these effects are rendered in close-up, handheld images: dentists bent over open mouths, pulling tooth after tooth, doctors gently pointing out spots in lung x-rays or encouraging patients who've had minor but still painful surgery done on the spot, and a pair of eyeglasses makers, one a jeweler by trade who's happy to serve as an "apprentice" today.

The film also offers interviews with patients: one woman looks forward to having her teeth fixed, she says, because the discomfort "takes a little bit out of me, I'm trying to see on the other side, that my self-esteem is gonna be a lot better (He husband adds that's it been difficult not being able to "kiss my wife for a year"). A man reveals that he's been desperate enough to pull a couple of his teeth, a woman with a cyst under her eye feels unable to leave her home, and another woman explains that she's been unable to have insurance because she can't find work, being over 50, overweight, and without a college degree. "I have a lifetime of experience and I ain't stupid," she says, but I can't get a job."

Remote Area Medical (2013)

Stories like hers are familiar but still, rarely examined. Remote Area Medical uses such stories to show stress and tension, as well as courage and joy, as patients leave with glasses, able to see clearly for the first time in years, or with a contact for follow up on a chronic condition. One fellow is pleased to have his teeth pulled, but now faces more problems. "I'm a criminal now," he says, "because I can't afford to go to the dentist, but can afford five or 10 dollars to get something for the pain." Leaning over the plate where he's crushed a couple of pills so he can snort them, he insists, "I don't use a lot of these drugs like that really."

Set within the ongoing context of the patients' daunting needs and RAM's substantial efforts, this scene seems straightforward, another practical attempt to deal with an alarming lack of options. No one -- not the patients, not the doctors, not the volunteer assistants -- sees RAM as the best solution to what's wrong. But for now, the film shows, vibrantly and compassionately, it is one of the only ones.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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