Review: ‘Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado’ – Nostalgic and Magical!

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Walter Mercado, Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

Growing up in my Latin household, I was guaranteed three things: flavorful rice and beans, the sound of salsa, and exposure to astrological phenomenon, Walter Mercado. I miss and relish all three, but what stuck with me throughout the years is the influence of the latter. I attribute my love of sparkles and all things astrology to the enigmatic Walter Mercado. I can’t remember any other time during my Cuban childhood home, or my extended family’s, where we’d sit in complete silence, listening to Walter Mercado deliver new developments for each sign of the horoscope. We were all captivated by his presence and larger-than-life TV persona. And, come July 8th you will be too, as Netflix begins streaming Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado globally, to entice – existing and new fans – with this wonderful documentary of the iconic clairvoyant.

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Eugenio Derbez, Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

The documentary begins with a series of Walter Mercado images from the height of his popularity on television, displaying his signature choreographed arm moves to draw the viewer’s attention, and in true Mercado form – he succeeded in commanding it! Millions of Latin families tuned in daily to listen and absorb new astrological insights pertaining to the zodiac. Actor/Comedian, Eugenio Derbez says: “ When I first saw him on TV, I was like, What is this I’m watching? Is it a woman, a man, a sorcerer?” Derbez was hooked! Legions of Walter Mercado fans continue to experience this sentiment. With his grandiose beautiful outfits, soothing voice, and mesmerizing gaze he was unstoppable. Undoubtedly, gender non-confirming Walter Mercado was a pioneer for LGTBQ+ personalities we see today. As the documentary delves deeper into his life, we learn that he refused to adhere to societal rules, and instead, opted to break them.

Mercado, born in 1932, knew he was different from the outset and destined for a different life from that of his siblings and the poor rural area of Ponce, Puerto Rico where he was from. After breathing life into a small bird on the brink of death, young Walter Mercado became the talk of his town and was deemed a mystic figure people sought advice and help from. His mother accepted and encouraged his newfound adulation and set up a designated space in their home for Walter to thrive as fortune consultant. Following his natural gift for entertainment, Mercado enrolled in the University of Ponce and pursued dancing and acting and landed telenovela roles with Telemundo.

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Walter Mercado at home, Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

A momentous visit to the set from the head of Telemundo at the time, prompted Mercado to create a promo for the soap opera that would launch his astrological career. For decades, Mercado’s message of peace, love, and prosperity has impacted Latinos and Americans around the world. He’s the most renowned astrological figure nationally and internationally, meeting the likes of prime ministers, former presidents with special guest appearances on American talk shows. The documentary doesn’t just focus on his successes, tragedy befell the icon, which almost left him for dead and the film does a superb job allowing Mercado, and those close to him, tell his story. Mucho Mucho Amor (Mercado’s signature catchphrase) captures the essence of the legend and depicts his ups and downs with authenticity and grace, from the music to the use of tarot cards. Although Mercado left the limelight and remained dormant for a while, his comeback was almost inevitable as a new generation of adoring fans surfaced on social media and beyond.

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Walter Mercado and Lin-Manuel Miranda, Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

Mucho Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado directed by Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch, and produced by Alex Fumero has a run time of 93 minutes and begins streaming on Netflix, July 8th. Don’t miss this spectacular documentary and special appearance by Lin-Manuel Miranda fan-boying Walter Mercado as he meets the iconic psychic in Puerto Rico. To learn more about the film, click here.

Film Review: ‘The State of Texas Vs. Melissa’ – A Gripping Doc on the Judicial System’s Exploitation of the Marginalized in America

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Melissa Lucio, Photo: Courtesy of The 2050 Group

As the first Hispanic woman facing death row in the state of Texas, Melissa Lucio’s milestone or accomplishment isn’t worthy of recognition, especially for Latinos, yet her story and impending fate is compelling and requires attention. The State of Texas vs. Melissa, a documentary by French-American director, Sabrina Van Tassel (The Silenced Wall) asserts how the laws of injustice favor poor, uneducated people of color. And how their cases are inevitably swept into the vortex of anonymity. Sabrina Van Tassel first encountered Melissa as she was researching for her documentary about women in jail. Van Tassel, an investigative journalist and filmmaker for over 15 years, was reluctant to meet Lucio as her case centered on the homicide of her 2-year-old daughter, Mariah. An abhorrent charge, undoubtedly. What drew Van Tassel to Melissa’s case was the inmate’s demeanor, the facts of the case, and belief that she’s innocent.

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Director, Sabrina Van Tassel, Photo: Courtesy of The 2050 Group

The director does a fantastic job of letting the images and cast of characters guide the narrative- everyone from Melissa’s family members to defense attorneys and forensic scientists play significant roles in how the documentary unfolds. From the beginning, as Melissa is interrogated for over 7 hours by unrelenting police in Southern Texas, the audience can surmise she was coerced into confessing to the murder. The filmmaker paints a vivid picture of Melissa’s life. We see she comes from a broken home, suffered physical abuse at the hands of relatives and her mother’s ex-boyfriends. The indifference Melissa’s mother shows towards her daughter’s sexual abuse and current situation is quite telling of the lack of parental and emotional support Melissa received. The drug abuse, abject poverty and guardianship of 14 children overwhelmed Lucio. It’s obvious her unresolved trauma led to her downward spiral, but this impossible situation does not make a murderer. Or does it? With no history of violence, as confirmed by family members and psychologists, there wasn’t sufficient evidence she was prone to commit this heinous crime. Melissa Lucio was a negligent mother and child services eventually removed her children from her care, the director glosses over these facts. The audience could have benefitted from learning more about Melissa’s state of mind during the actual death of Mariah.

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Although some details were omitted, the documentary chronicles the turn of events that make Melissa’s story so fascinating. A corrupt DA looking to seek re-election in Texas’  Cameron county; a defense attorney with career aspirations that trumped his client’s best interest and goal of being freed; Melissa’s other daughter, who may have been responsible for her sister’s death. Van Tassel sets the stage for a documentary-style whodunit. And in doing so, we see how easily Lucio was railroaded in a failed judicial system. Sitting on death row for over 13 years, Melissa Lucio is on her last appeal, which if overturned, may go to the Supreme Court.

Making its Tribeca 2020 Film Festival world premiere, The State of Texas vs. Melissa has received well-deserved media attention from virtual festival filmgoers and panelists. Written and Directed by Sabrina Van Tassel, produced by Vito Films in co-production with Tahli Films and Andaman Films has a running time of 97 minutes. To learn more about The State of Texas vs. Melissa, click here.

 

 

Review: ‘The Woman Who Loves Giraffes’ – Moving, Inspirational, and Triumphantly Valiant

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Anne Innis Dagg, Photo Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

To say Anne Innis Dagg was a trailblazer is an understatement. Making her mark before Jane Goodall studied chimpanzees and Dian Fossey gorillas in mountains, Dagg ventured on a solo trip to Africa and became the first female scientist/researcher to study giraffes in 1956. Giraffes have intrigued Dagg, a scientist/feminist/animal conservationist, since the age of three when her mother took her to a zoo. Twenty-years later, this life-altering, fateful encounter at the zoo; set in motion Anne’s quest to study giraffes in their natural habitat. Encouraged by her mother and then-boyfriend Ian Dagg, Anne began her research in the middle of the African bush when such endeavors by women were unheard of, yet Anne Innis Dagg pioneered the study of giraffes and discovered behavior never before documented. And, director Alison Reid, fascinated by Dagg’s life, embarked on bringing Anne Innis Dagg’s story to the screen after Listening to a CBC radio documentary, ‘Wild Journey’ on Dagg’s experiences.

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Director, Alison Reid, Photo Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

Award-winning director Alison Reid (The Baby Formula) wrote, developed, and shot the documentary, The Woman Who Loves Giraffes. Audiences will be thrilled she did. Besides bringing phenomenal historical context to the film, Reid does a beautiful job of capturing Dagg’s spirit and passion for giraffes. Reid chronicles Anne Innis Dagg’s life with rare footage from Dagg’s time in Africa by herself, the recreation of letters read between Anne, her mother, and boyfriend Ian Dagg. Anne’s unbelievable journey as a scientist, researcher, and feminist crusader fighting for her career against the patriarchy and male-dominated Canadian university staff. Her determination is admirable as she’s led the charge in challenging existing beliefs on female scholars.

Through Alison Reid’s lens and Anne Innis Dagg’s intact footage from over 60 years ago, we experience the highlights and low points of Anne Innis Dagg’s life. And complementing the film are the voices of Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black), Victor Garber (Argo, Alias) David Chinchilla (The Expanse) and Lindsay Leese (Bomb Girls). We witness a seamless real-life story unfold of an extraordinary woman following her passion with grace and perseverance. Dagg’s multiple books on giraffes laid the foundation for future wildlife conservationists to study Anne’s findings and pursue careers in the field. Her contributions to the study of giraffes led to a resurgence in her career, and at almost 87 years-old, Anne Innis Dagg, currently known as a “giraffologist”, is still advocating for her beloved animals.

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Anne Innis Dagg at age 23, Photo Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

First airing in Canada, Zeitgeist Films and Kino Lorber Inc. acquired the U.S. rights for The Woman Who Loves Giraffes. Opening this past week in New York and slated to open February 21st in Los Angeles, with subsequent engagements nationwide, The Woman Who Loves Giraffes is a must see! Whether you love animals, science or fighting for women’s rights, this film is for you. To learn more, click here.

Film Review: ‘People of the Wasteland’ – Frenzied, Raw Storytelling

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Courtesy of Jouzour Film Production

Anxiety levels are sure to soar after watching, People of a Wasteland, mine sure did! Heba Khaled’s experimental documentary short; shot on a Go-Pro for two years, chronicles Jihadist fighters, working under the command of Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on the frontlines of war in Syrian-occupied territories against the Kurds and the Syrian army. This film isn’t an US vs. Them type of war genre. We don’t know whom we’re rooting for, since the audience is limited to the Go-Pro’s footage and essentially, it’s point-of-view, and we depend on the sights and sounds captured. We see what the soldier(s) sees.

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Director Heba Khaled, Courtesy of Jouzour Film Production

And, first-time Syrian-born female filmmaker, Heba Khaled, weaves and edits different moments where the audience witnesses brutal warfare, fighters interacting with each other and performing basic acts like drinking water and taking pictures of one another drawing empathy from the audience. Her time spent with CNN and Reuters allowed Khaled access to cameramen and the fighters because there’s absolutely no way she would have survived as a female in the trenches and she knows it. According to Khaled: “As a female filmmaker, it was impossible for me to be there to film this. It was very urgent to learn how men and masculinity controls radicalism, and this experience at the moment of killing in a war, and to transfer it in a cinematic way through my own eyes, mind and heart.” War and devastation: a familiar theme in Heba Khaled’s life has been ingrained in her; she’s lost 20 relatives to bombings throughout the years.

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Courtesy of Jouzour Film Production

People of the Wasteland’s experimental nature and powerful composition exposing fighters from both sides, even if it’s vague on identifying who’s who – done intentionally by the filmmaker, poses the question: What is the point of war when ultimately, everyone loses? Judge for yourself. Produced by Talal Derki, winner of Sundance’s Sundance Film Festival’s World Cinema Grand Jury Prize in 2018 for directing Of Fathers and Sons, and the Oscar® nomination for “Best Documentary Feature” in 2019. People of the Wasteland has fared well in the festival circuit, winning The Grand Prix for Best Short in the Berlin Liberi Film Festival, where Khaled now resides. The 21-minute short is under consideration for “Best Documentary Short”, and rightfully so. It merits all the accolades it has received thus far, and I would love for it to be expanded into a full-length feature. To learn more about People of the Wasteland, click here.

‘Hurdle’ Review: Palestinian Youth Combat Political Strife With Inspiring Creative Outlets

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Photo: Courtesy of Hurdle Film

The world is in political turmoil domestically and internationally as evidenced by the ongoing deadly protests in Hong Kong, Venezuela, Chile and Bolivia. Reaching its 50th year of Israeli military occupation, Palestinians have mastered the virtue of resiliency in fighting for their rights to exist and living with the oppression that brings social injustice; they’ve taken to the streets for half a century, and attempting to reclaim their land is nothing new. But what has emerged, and shed light on this age-old Middle Eastern conflict, is a fresh perspective by documentary filmmaker, editor, cinematographer, producer: Michael Rowley. In his film Hurdle, audiences can judge for themselves what Palestinians are fighting for.

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Photo: Courtesy of Hurdle Film, Mohammed by Wall In Occupied Palestine

Hurdle begins with Mohammed, a Palestinian photographer examining a wall built to confine Palestinians to their “territory” by the Israeli military. Mohammed is clearly anxious and frustrated by his and his family’s current situation, but uses his photography business to enlist the youth in his community to find what’s beautiful and intriguing in the midst of all the violent attacks on their people. It’s gut-wrenching yet hopeful to see this community persevere and strive for a better life and brighter future.

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Photo: Courtesy of Hurdle Film, Parkour Team Member Jumping

The film then follows Sami, a parkour instructor who teaches young men to jump and flip over rooftops and structures with measured form. Apart from the mental and physical demands the sport requires – it invokes the spirit of these young men to persevere, to attain the unattainable and overcome obstacles in currently occupied Palestine, even with all the violence and bloodshed simultaneously consuming their daily lives.

Rowley’s Hurdle film is candid. It shows daily Palestinian life: the celebrations, familial moments, triumphs and tribulations that connect us on human level. There are devastating violent attacks that can strike at a moment’s notice. On one side, we see people (Palestinians) fighting for their very existence, and on the other, Jews waving their flags rejoicing as they claim victory over their enemies. It’s an eye-opening experience to see basic freedoms we are all entitled to, squashed, but in succession, witness a movement of self-preservation and determination. Rowley documents the breathtaking landscapes and energy of Jerusalem with captivating cinematography and music. Winner of the Best Documentary Feature Film from the 2019 Tulsa American Film Festival, Hurdle is destined for more accolades and world-wide recognition. To learn more and check out future screenings of the Hurdle documentary, click here.

3rd Annual Festival of Cinema NYC: Hosted Brave, Brash, and Beautiful Films

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Photo: Courtesy of Festival of Cinema NYC

Festival of Cinema NYC has wrapped its 3rd season – and it was a season replete with films tackling trauma, love, and hope with authenticity. Cinema fanatics from not just Queens (host location), but all over the world were treated to more than 125 films, relentlessly holding audiences’ emotions hostage and settling up well-deserved ransoms at the end of each screening with sensational works of art.

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Photo: Courtesy of Red Dress. Red Straps film

This years’ roster of indie shorts held their own and commanded as much attention as their full-length narrative features and documentary counterparts. The films that merit mention: Red Dress, Red Straps, Keylight, and Coffee and a Donut – brief in presentation, robust with long-lasting, heart-felt and controversial themes that permeated well after their screenings. Red Dress. Red Straps by director Maryam Mohajer follows the story of a young girl in her grandparents’ home in the midst of Iran-Iraq war in 1985. She’s enamored by a pretty pop star’s red dress she sees on television all the while listening to her grandfather’s favorite radio program spouting “Death to America” chants. The child is nonetheless consumed with how the dress her grandmother is making for her will turn out during this upheaval in her life. The whimsical animation touching upon war, coupled with a child’s perception of the world she lives in is bittersweet and enchanting. Red Dress. No Straps was produced in the U.K. and won the Best Animation award from the 11th annual NYC Independent Film Festival. To learn more about Red Dress. Red Straps, click here.

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Photo: Courtesy of Keylight film

Keylight by director Simon Kay begins with former child star Sarah, (Samantha Strelitz) about to audition when she’s suddenly confronted with what seems like stage fright but turns out to be thoughts of a traumatic incident in her past she’s incapable of letting go. Sarah finds a way to channel this experience to bring forth her best stage performance – but via dark introspective means. Winning the Festival of Cinema NYC’s Best Cinematography Award, Keylight offers a fresh perspective on how people can address past trauma to release cathartic enlightening and rise above it. To learn more about Keylight, click here.

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Photo: Courtesy of Coffee and a Donut film

Finally, the last narrative short that resonated with me was Coffee and a Donut by director Cary Patrick Martin. The story is about a young Spanish-speaking immigrant (Memo), whom after hearing a patron request a coffee and a donut at a local diner, perpetually asks for the same order because it’s the only English phrase he’s learned. He suffers in silence as he watches others order mouth-watering pancakes and the like – until he meets a fellow Spanish-speaking customer (Rocio Mendez) that helps him learn English, but not without some hiccups. This short film has resonated with audiences as it explores the universal immigrant experience of adapting to a new country they now call home; it’s sweet, funny and empathetic; a film so vital in today’s current political climate, particularly with the current administration’s animosity towards immigrants. Actress Rocio Mendez received this year’s Festival of Cinema NYC Best Supporting Actress Award. To learn more about Coffee and a Donut, click here.

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Photo: Courtesy of Over 18: A Documentary About Porn film

Documentaries must be given their spotlight too. After all they focus on topics that are rarely covered in mainstream films. This year’s standouts: Over 18: A Documentary About Porn and The Queens. Over 18 by directors Jared Brock and Michelle Brock chronicle the life of Joseph, a 13 year-old boy recovering from a porn addiction since age 9. Shocking? Absolutely. As the film progresses and shares eye-opening data, the more disturbing it becomes. The filmmakers examine the correlation between the Internet and the easy accessibility children have to porn sites with inadequate, limited restrictions; the male porn stars and companies who’ve profited and continue to make money from pornography, the female stars exploited and left to pick up the pieces – post porn work, and most importantly, the devastating effects and consequences porn addiction can have on children and adults. The directors did a fantastic job of interviewing subjects to discuss their roles in porn culture – specifically content, distribution and consumption; and what ultimately needs to change to safeguard children’s accessibility. To learn more about Over 18: A Documentary About Porn, click here.

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Photo: Courtesy of The Queens film

The Queens documentary introduces audiences to a whirlwind of female impersonators and female illusionists around the country vying for the coveted title of Miss Continental. The national pageant, founded by Jim Flint in 1980, is held annually in Chicago and has preliminary qualifying Miss Continental contests around the country and the world. Forget everything you’ve heard or know about traditional pageants. The true super stars are the contestants in this documentary. Filmmaker Mark Saxenmeyer follows contestants that have invested tens of thousands in becoming Miss Continental; the dance routines they create and practice; the lavish costumes and makeup they spend money on; the perseverance they posses is immeasurable. Saxenmeyer delves into the culture of female impersonators and what’s at stake for them to follow their dreams with grace and integrity. To learn more about The Queens, click here.

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Photo: Courtesy of Quest: The Truth Always Rises film. L to R, Dash Mihok as Tim and Greg Kasyan as Mills.

In a film festival, more often than not, there’s a film that makes you stop, reflect and ponder for a while what you just saw. For me, this film was: Quest: The Truth Always Rises. Quest, written and directed by Santiago Rizzo, is autobiographical. Rizzo’s character Mills is played by Greg Kasyan. Kasyan (Netflix’s “Daybreak”) portrays a troubled teen in Los Angeles from an abusive home that seems destined for doom with tremendous grit and vulnerability. The teen is a graffiti artist and is talented in his tagging pursuits and expresses interest in school, but lashes out, as he internalizes the consistent physical and verbal abuse his stepfather (Lou Diamond Phillips) bestows on him. There’s a teacher and football coach that takes notice of his behavior and attempts to befriend the youth, albeit with resistance, but ultimately changes his life. The educator played by Dash Mihok (Showtime’s “Ray Donovan”) shows a display of compassion and lack of judgment so admirable and mirrors Rizzo’s true-life mentor, Tim Moellering. Mihok interprets the character with great stoicism and sincerity and the audience can’t help but root for both student and teacher. Receiving Best Feature Narrative at this year’s Festival of Cinema NYC, I can’t recommend this film enough. We need more stories like these to be told and raise awareness of troubled youth, the good these films can do to improve their lives and impact change. I impart Santiago Rizzo’s words from his emotional post-film Q&A: “Trust Your Struggle.” To learn more about Quest: The Truth Always Rises, click here.

Festival of Cinema NYC’s name was recently changed from Kew Gardens Film Festival to promote film submissions globally. The Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment and Governor Andrew Cuomo recently acknowledged the tremendous strides the festival is making to promote filmmakers and their work, and the free programming film panels and workshops events they sponsored in New York City. To learn more about Festival of Cinema NYC, click here.

Rawness and Unconventionality Captured The Essence of The 22nd Annual Brooklyn Film Festival

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Opening Night, 22nd Annual Brooklyn Film Festival

This year’s Brooklyn Film Festival broke new ground with superb storytelling. And, we couldn’t get enough of it. According to the festival’s Executive Director, Marco Ursino, “BFF featured the largest presence of female directors within a single festival edition to date. I’m also proud to say that four out of our six festival programmers are women and the festival is run mostly by women.” What a refreshing and revitalizing statement from a male festival organizer. Time will tell if other male festival directors will follow suit with domestic and international film festivals in the future. Brooklyn Film Festival’s (BFF) roster of films included 133 features and shorts from over 30 countries spread over six continents. The lineup included 37 world premieres, 29 east coast debuts and 34 first-time screenings in NY.  In addition to the 13 narrative features and 10 documentary features, the festival presented 39 short narrative films, 23 short documentaries, 28 animated films and 20 experimental projects.

Documentaries at their core are meant to raise awareness and provide a candid journalistic perspective on subjects completely devoid of mainstream coverage. The documentaries that rose to the occasion in this year’s festival are: Clean Hands and RocKabul.

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The Lopez Children At La Chureca, Photo: Courtesy of Clean Hands Press Site

Clean Hands, directed by Michael Dominic, follows a family in Nicaragua over the span of seven years (2011-2018) living in extreme poverty and relying on a garbage dump, La Chureca (Central America’s largest garbage dump) for food and everyday necessities. When we first meet the 4 children in the Lopez family, they are aged 6 – 10, unable to read and write and depend on each other for companionship and engage in sibling rivalry. They are unaware of a better life, unlike their parents. When they receive an opportunity from a foundation to move into a new home on the condition that the kids go to school, the family seems destined for a bright future until other underlying problems set in. Dominic’s storytelling is raw, and depicts his subjects as they are. The director captures moments that are heart-wrenching in its portrayal of this family and lets audiences experience the highs and lows with them. In the end: you’re rooting for the Lopez family instead of pitying them.

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L to R: Qais (Guitarist), Pedram (Drums), Yousef (Vocals), Qasem (Bass), Lemar (Vocals/Guitar) Photo: Courtesy of Rockabul Press Site

In RocKabul, Australian director/journalist, Travis Beard goes on a journey with the first metal band in Afghanistan: District Unknown. What’s so interesting and compelling about this movie is the universal love for music these subjects exhibit. Whether you love metal or not, you will be immediately drawn in by these subject’s relentless pursuit of their passion for music – a passion that is frowned upon by the conservative and extremist government of Afghanistan. Beard, having lived in Kabul for seven years, and a metal musician as well, injects himself in the documentary as an advocate and mentor for the group. District Uknown’s story is bittersweet as Beard chronicles the band’s discovery of rock music, playing an international festival in India, and capturing Kabul’s underground party scene. The band members face insurmountable threats by the Afghani system and ultimately must make a decision on the future of the band.

Two narrative features that boldly address unconventional themes in their films and were awarded Certificates of Achievement by the Brooklyn Film Festival this year are: #LIKE for Best Producer Award and Only Good Things for Best Original Score Award. Both directed by female filmmakers. These films are true standouts in their own right.

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Actress Sarah Rich As Rosie, Photo: Courtesy of Brooklyn Film Festival

In #LIKE, director Sarah Pirozek begins the story with the aftermath of suicide brought on by cyberbullying and the family members left to pick up the pieces, one year later. In this instance, it’s Rosie’s point-of-view, a teen from Woodstock New York confronted with the harsh reality that the anonymous man whom bullied her younger sister into committing suicide is back on the prowl trolling for new victims online. After getting nowhere with the local police and realizing their lack of interest to prosecute her sister’s assailant, Rosie decides to seek retribution. This is more than a vengeance-thriller film. Pirozek is smart to keep Rosie’s teenage perspective with every action and decision she makes – even if detrimental. We empathize with her situation and revel in the psychological exploration of captor vs. captee.

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Cast of Only Good Things, Photo: Courtesy of Brooklyn Film Festival

Only Good Things (Solo cose Belle) by director Kristian Gianfreda is delightful all around. The premise: a popular 16-year old teen starts to question her loyalties and character when a bizarre family moves into her small town of Rimini, Italy. Unwanted and stigmatized by town regulars and her own mother, father, who’s the mayor of the village; Benedetta can’t – in good conscience – follow the pack and mistreat her new neighbors that are quite odd, but familial and loving nonetheless. As Benedetta’s moral compass keeps getting tested, the surprise ending will leave you feeling warm and fuzzy. No wonder this film won the festival’s Achievement of Certificate for Best Original Score Award for composer, Bevano Est.

Two shorts in the documentary and narrative categories that left me smiling and hopeful are One Leg In, One Leg Out and Dunya’s Day.

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One Leg In, One Leg Out, Photo: Courtesy of Brooklyn Film Festival

One Leg In, One Leg Out, won Best Documentary Short at the Brooklyn Film Festival this year. The film is about a transgender female (Iman) sex worker who dreams about becoming a social worker to help her fellow transgender community. Canadian Director Lisa Rideout follows Iman as she seeks out johns on the street and interacts with them on the phone. Iman is skilled at her job, but knows her profession has a limited shelf life. In pursuit of bigger things, she seeks information about a social work program and seriously considers the career change. Rideout aptly lets the audience get to know Iman with no preconceived notions. The film paints the transgender subject in a positive light – especially in the era we are living in, where LGTBQ rights are being stripped away by the U.S. government and attacks against the group have increased exponentially.

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Sara Balghonaim as Dunya, Photo: Courtesy of Brooklyn Film Festival

Dunya’s Day, a narrative short by writer/director Raed Alsemari pokes fun at Dunya, a well-to-do Saudi Arabian woman who is in the midst of having her college graduation party and is abandoned by her help staff. Who doesn’t want to see entitled people struggle? I suspect just the entitled. Even through her desperate attempts to save her soiree, Dunya still wants to be perceived as “having it together” and a gracious host by her rival affluent friends. It’s comedic timing is spot on. Dunya’s Day is the winner of Sundance’s Short Film Jury Award for International Fiction at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

The Brooklyn Film Festival has been supporting competitive film events since 1998 to drive worldwide attention to Brooklyn as a purveyor of stellar cinema and independent filmmaking. This year the 22nd Brooklyn Film Festival collaborated with several South American film organizations: Proimagenes (Colombia), ChileDocs, IMCINE (Mexico), Universidad del Cine (Buenos Aires, Argentina), Festival Internacional del Cine Buenos Aires (FIDBA), Cinema Tropical and Proyector Film Series to increase Latin American film submissions. I’ll be waiting with bated breath to see what’s in store for 2020. To learn more about the Brooklyn Film Festival, click here.

 

 

 

Female Filmmakers Rule The Spotlight At The 22nd Annual Brooklyn Film Festival

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Photo: Mercedes Vizcaino

If you’ve had enough of the quintessential Hollywood hyped films that have been – and will continue to be – splashed all over TV stations and streaming services with overly saturated ads (after all it’s only the beginning of June), then check out the roster of films at the 22nd Annual Brooklyn Film Festival to embrace global innovation and creativity. I’ve seen a few films thus far, in the narrative and documentary features and shorts, and experimental and animation categories, and wow! have they made an impact on me. And, we still have 6 more days of film festival-ing to revel in and see more fascinating films.

It all began with the presentation of The Gathering on BFF’s opening night and this year’s festival theme of empowering women to tell their stories and call out Hollywood for their inaction towards predatory powerful men. The Gathering, directed by Emily Elizabeth Thomas, showcases actresses dressed in character (the nun, elf queen, spy) all sharing personal accounts of sexual assaults within the film industry. The film and director’s message: “NYC…Brooklyn is a space for the other, the weird, the disruptors. And, that a better Hollywood is possible.” Following this powerful short film was the world premiere of Above The Shadows by Claudia Myers starring Olivia Thirlby, Alan Ritchson, Jim Gaffigan, and Megan Fox.

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Olivia Thirlby and Alan Ritchson, Photo: Courtesy of Brooklyn Film Festival

Above The Shadows is a supernatural action romance between a tabloid photographer (Holly) and a disgraced MMA fighter (Shayne). Holly has been invisible to her family and society for more than a decade. After discovering that one of her tabloid photos resulted in Shane’s downfall, she tracks him down to make things right and realizes he can see her and has the potential to restore her existence in the world. Director Claudia Myers brings a softer perspective to the sport of MMA and reverses the age-old boy-saves-girl paradigm with Thirlby as a believable heroine and savior of the day.

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Elephant in Africa’s Congo Basin Region, Photo: Courtesy of the Brooklyn Film Festival

Regardless if you love elephants or whether you just love all animals, the documentary, Silent Forests, is worth seeing. Taking place in Africa’s Congo Basin region, the film follows Cameroon’s first female eco-guard conversationalist, a Congolese biologist studying elephant behavior, an anti-poaching sniffer dogs team leader led by a Czech conservationist all tackling the unbelievable corruption, lack of funding and weapons, as they deal with the huge crisis of the decreasing population of forest elephants. The film is eye-opening and sentimental in the depths these activists undertake to examine the problem head-on,  from poaching to conversation and vice-versa. Check out director Mariah Wilson’s documentary feature on June 4th at 10pm at the Wythe Hotel.

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Numa Perrier as Susan (Center), Photo: Courtesy of Brooklyn Film Festival

A recent film that had me immersed in thought long after it ended was: Una Great Movie by Director Jennifer Sharp. The story begins with an African-American woman (Susan) traveling back to Mexico to rekindle a romance with a former lover; then it cleverly switches to the film’s screenwriter second-guessing her characters and their actions in the film and the all-too-familiar producers, “screen therapists,” agents, and movie insiders injecting their formulaic and over-used anchors to drive the film to “sell” and have a mass appeal. This film will speak volumes to all, but is especially poignant for any creative who has dreamt, tried-but-failed, or succeeded in making their vision come to life. It’s funny, full of heart, and entertaining for the entirety of its 96 minutes. Check it out and buy tickets to the world premiere on June 7th at the Wythe Hotel at 8pm.

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Mollie Cowen as Casey, Photo: Courtesy of Brooklyn Film Festival

The documentary short, 3 Sleeps, by painter-turned-director, Christopher Holt is based on the true story of a 9-year-old girl (Casey) left to take care of her younger siblings for a whole weekend in a tough London neighborhood. After her mother leaves young Casey with little money to watch over herself and sisters, her youngest sister, aged 5, becomes ill. While Casey is forced to make the harrowing decision to either protect her mom or save her sister’s life, the audience is at standstill – grappling and sympathizing with Casey’s predicament. Fine acting by actresses Mollie Cowen, Keira Thompson, and Emily Haigh. 3 Sleeps has its U.S. premiere tonight at the Wythe Hotel at 6pm and encore on June 7th.

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Bernard in Bristled, Photo: Courtesy of Brooklyn Film Festival

The animation short Bristled is a gem of a film that captures the idiosyncrasies of dating perceptions in the modern world. After countless failed blind dates, Bernard believes he may have found “the one,” only to find yet another fault in the person and is quickly consumed with his perceived “fault” she possesses, only to discover he’s not perfect either. The narration’s comedic dialogue and timing is superb. Bristled, by Scott Farrell has been selected by the Beverly Hills Film Festival, Chicago Comedy Film Festival, and Canadian International Comedy film Festival to name a few. Go see this quirky film on June 5th at the NY Media Center.

This year The Brooklyn Festival’s programmers are committed to advocating for filmmakers who are working in critical systems, taking risks and challenging themselves to tell stories that are breaking barriers. Please check out these amazing films and support these extraordinary and talented artists. To see Brooklyn Film Festival’s full schedule, click here. Plus, don’t miss my festival wrap-up piece next week. The Brooklyn film festival will be running through, June 9th.

Review: ‘What Is Democracy?’-Thought-Provoking And Essential

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What Is Democracy? Film Poster, Photo: Courtesy Of Zeitgeist Films

While half of the population is debating whether to see Netflix’s BirdBox, here’s an option you won’t regret: What Is Democracy? by filmmaker Astra Taylor. Not only will it get you thinking, as most documentaries set out to do, but long after it’s over the ideas will linger in your brain for the better good. The film forces the viewer to examine what this concept of democracy means to them personally, which makes the film that much more compelling and timely in our current chaotic political state. Taylor begins the film with a roundtable discussion in Greece with political theorists and activists discussing the origins of the democracy: the rule by the people. The term is derived from the Greek word dēmokratiā; the combined words dēmos (“people”) and kratos (“rule”) in the middle of the 5th century, notably Athens

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Cornel West, Photo: Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

One of the most refreshing elements about What Is Democracy; is the diverse opinions Astra Taylor interjects throughout the film. We hear from Cornel West – a prominent and provocative democratic intellectual and Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard University describing and citing historical moments with democracy and the African-American experience to first-hand accounts of factory workers forming a collective to work for themselves to a student activist coming face-to-face with gun violence during a peaceful protest to spending time with Silvia Federici, a researcher, activist, and educator and Emerita Professor at Hofstra University in Siena, Italy as she dissects the rise of capitalism, financial institutions and the inequality that emerged – illustrated by a medieval painting: The Allegory of Good and Bad Government; Siena is considered to be one of the first centers where banking originated.

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L to R, Silvia Federici and Astra Taylor in Siena, Italy, Photo: Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

The film weaves each subject’s viewpoint without the expectation to take a side; it presents ideas for analysis that beget a slew of questions for a democracy to be successful. Taylor is careful to let each subject tell their story organically and allows the audience to form their own opinions on the continued existence or demise of a democracy. Taylor is no stranger to filmmaking – her filmography includes Examined Life (Toronto International Film Festival Premiere, 2008) and Zizek! (Toronto International Film Festival Premiere, 2005). Her political and activism engagement is still prevalent. Her new book by Metropolitan Books: Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone, will be released in early 2019. What Is Democracy?: A Zeitgeist Films Release in association with Kino Lorber theatrical release begins January 16, 2019 at IFC Center in New York followed by theatrical engagements nationwide. To learn more about What Is Democracy?, click here.

Review: ‘Long Time Coming: A 1955 Baseball Story’ – Captivating and Heartfelt

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Common Pictures, Film Poster of Long Time Coming: A 1955 Baseball Story

Documentaries, if the subject matter is compelling enough, are meant to educate, stir up emotions, challenge perceptions, and shed light on topics otherwise nonexistent in mainstream films. Long Time Coming: A 1955 Baseball Story exemplifies all these attributes. Whether you’re a baseball fanatic or not, this documentary is a must-see to learn about the sport’s historical and cultural significance – not just within a sports context, but as it relates to the progression of race relations in America. The film, about the first racially integrated Little League Baseball game played in the South in Orando between the Orlando Kiwanis and the Pensacola Jaycees, by first-time feature documentary filmmaker, Jon Strong, interviews the players from both teams, 60 years after playing in this monumentally historic game, and documenting their unexpected reunion.

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Photo: Courtesy of Common Pictures, Film Still (L to R) of Stewart Hall of the Orlando Kiwanis revisits Florida’s 1955 Little League Tournament with Will Preyer of the Pensacola Jaycees

We first meet, Will Preyer, once team captain of the all-black Pensacola Jaycees, as he describes playing baseball in the South in the mid 1950s during segregation and his experiences as a 12-year-old black youth. Will proceeds to meet up with Stewart Hall, the team captain of the rival team: the all-white Orlando Kiwanis, whom Preyer hadn’t seen since that fateful day in August 1955 as the two teams, one black, one white competed against each other, breaking color barriers and cultural stigmas. Director, Jon Strong, does a fantastic job of juxtaposing these men’s stories with their love of baseball and perspectives on race with candor. The limitations placed on one group based on their skin color versus the other. It’s poignant, revealing of peoples’ past and present prejudices, which the director was unapologetic about depicting. According to Strong, “I wanted to dig into the uncomfortable, real stories that many find difficult to share.” And that he did. He shares sports milestones and also features interviews from prominent figures in Major League Baseball such as Hank Aaron, Cal Ripken Jr. and Davey Johnson and Civil Rights Leader, Andrew Young to give contextual background into pivotal movements in sports and cultural history that changed society – for the better.

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Photo: Courtesy of Common Pictures, The 1955 Pensacola Jaycees All-Stars and the Orlando Kiwanis All-Stars reunite in 2016 during the filming of Long Time Coming

Long Time Coming: A 1955 Baseball Story doesn’t portray victims or villains with heroes and protagonists and subscribe to a tidy, happy resolution. Instead it tells a story of a vehicle, in this case: baseball, as a unifier of people with a shared love for a sport that transcends race and economic status. It presents opposing views and aims to continue the conversation of race relations in present day America. Released nationwide, Long Time Coming: A 1955 Baseball Story can be seen just in time for the World Series. The Hank Aaron Chasing The Dream Foundation, Derek Jeter’s Turn 1 Foundation, and the Global Peace Film Festival have screened the documentary and acknowledge the power of its historical significance to affect change. To learn more about Long Time Coming: A 1955 Baseball Story, click here.