Review: ‘Undocumented Lawyer’ – Against All Odds, Protagonist Risks Everything For Immigration Rights – Relentlessly Moving

Lizbeth Mateo, Photo: Emily Topper

We are on the brink of fascism. To sugarcoat and soften the blow of the current state of affairs in this country is a disservice to the truth. We are facing the most important elections of our lives to save our democracy. It’s not alarmist; it’s reality. There is so much at stake: the repealing The Affordable Care Act. Intrusive policies on women’s reproductive rights, and the war on immigrants by the far-right. And at the center of the immigration topic and championing undocumented immigrants like her, is Lizbeth Mateo; the subject of the award-winning documentary, Undocumented Lawyer, by directors Chris Temple and Zach Ingrasci and producer Jenna Kelly.

Lizbeth Mateo crossed the border with her family at age 14. They fled cartel violence and poverty from Oaxaca, Mexico to seek a better life: a common thread for many immigrants leaving their homeland behind. But what makes Lizbeth’s story so remarkable is even after 20 years of being in this country, Lizbeth remains undocumented. Undeterred by her circumstances, and living in California, which is a sanctuary state, provided her the opportunity to attend college and law school, and pass the bar exam. Nothing short of exceptional, really. In 2018, she was appointed to a state post as an advisory committee member by senate president, Kevin de leon. The California Student Opportunity and Access Program Project Grant Advisory Committee, (CAL-SOAP) – the committee’s mission is to assist students in underserved communities attend college. This drew criticism in the form of vitriol: death threats to de leon and nasty statements directed to Mateo, calling for her deportation; scrutinizing Mateo and catapulting her into the spotlight. Unfazed by all the attention, Mateo tweeted: “undocumented and unafraid.”

Edith Espinal, Photo: Zach Ingrasci

Dissuaded by efforts to have her deported, as the documentary illustrates, Mateo did more than accomplish the impossible without citizenship or even legal status. She set up a legal practice and hired 4 employees in L.A. to fight for immigration rights. Determined to take on immigration cases that are challenging such as: Edith Espinal’s, a woman avoiding deportation by taking sanctuary in a church in Ohio since 2017. The case has received national attention, including support from former presidential nominee and Massachusetts Senator, Elizabeth Warren urging Congress to help to support a bill to protect asylum seekers. With the critical elections looming, there is hope voters are incentivized to vote Democrat across the ballots, and the attack on asylum seekers cease with a new administration at the helm come January 2021.

Top: Lizbeth Mateo, Bottom: Kate del Castillo

Mateo’s fight for equitable immigration law through activism and advocacy is inspirational and she persists in her quest, in spite of a recent deportation case that has been brought against her. Recently, actress Kate del Castillo and Latinx House, hosted an Instagram Live Q&A with Lizbeth Mateo to bring national awareness and fundraising initiatives to Mateo’s own immigration case and that of her clients. An impassioned Kate del Castillo is an ardent supporter of Mateo and said “she will do everything in her power to keep her in the U.S.” – a great moment of solidarity for viewers to witness and get involved in. To stream Undocumented Lawyer now and donate to Lizbeth’s cause, click here. HBO Latino acquired the documentary and will begin airing it early 2021. Undocumented Lawyer has a 20 minute run time.

Review: ‘American Street Kid’ – Narrative Meets Documentary Style Portrayal of America’s Homeless Youth – Bitingly Gritty and Honest

Homeless kids in Los Angeles, Photo: Jeff Farkash

By definition, documentaries are meant to educate, shed light, and “document reality” to inspire and move audiences on any given subject they may know nothing about. American Street Kid, by writer/director Michael Leoni, met these criteria – and then some. He pushed the genre further by injecting himself into the story; weary at first, I thought his inclusion would taint the outcome of the film – turns out I was wrong. Leoni begins the film by asking random people – young and old – their perception of homeless youth. Typical responses: lazy, unmotivated, and labeled as undesirable.  Disheartening to hear as the absence of empathy reflects society’s lack of interest and understanding of how these youths become entrenched in these unfortunate circumstances.

Ish playing guitar, Photo: Jeff Farkash

Director Michael Leoni gives us a glimpse into the lives of these troubled young people by hanging out in the Los Angeles neighborhoods they frequent. Unsettled by and distrusting of Leoni, it took time for the filmmaker to gain the kids’ trust. Once he did, the audience meets incredibly charismatic and endearing characters like Ish, a talented African-American musician who struggles with childhood abandonment and abuse by a pimp father and prostitute mother, Greenz and Nick, likeable guy-next door types with winning personalities, yet drugged-addicted with abusive parents that led them to run away and seek a better life in the streets of Los Angeles. Bublez and Kiki, two of the younger kids, the filmmaker encounters, with so much promise, likely destined for tragedy. Although post-film release, Marquesha “Kiki” Babers has launched a successful career as a poet, touring nationwide and speaking about her experiences in conferences.

Bublez on the streets of Los Angeles, Photo: Jeff Farkash

For many of these kids, their fates are sealed in death or imprisonment. It’s inevitable. Failed bureaucratic agencies doing the minimum to assist these kids and overworked staff unable to meet the influx of homeless teens in overcrowded facilities, as Leoni experiences when reaching out to them. But, the filmmaker doesn’t solely rely on the mishaps and the negative circumstances these young people endure to tell the story, he incorporates narrative elements to build storylines with these real-life characters – to not just keep you engaged and sympathize with their abysmal situations, but root for them as you’d be inclined for protagonists in any narrative drama or comedy. It’s a refreshing spin. And it works.

Homeless kids on the streets of Los Angeles, Photo: Jeff Farkash

What started as an assignment to produce a 2-minute PSA on America’s homeless youth turned into an 8-year journey for director, Michael Leoni. Compelled to document the struggles and hardship of America’s 1.8 million forgotten homeless youth, after struggling with financial hardship in New York City at the age of 19, became more than a passion project for him. Leoni launched the Spare Some Change nonprofit to engage and empower homeless youth to change their lives and create a stable future. The film earned the Social Impact Award at the Hollywood Film Festival and Excellence Award at the Impact Doc Awards!  The film has a run time of 104 minutes. American Street Kid begins streaming worldwide today on Apple, Amazon Prime, Spectrum, and another popular services. To learn more about more the American Street Kid documentary, click here.

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 Independent’s Project Involve 2020 Showcase Raises The Creativity Bar With Thought-Provoking Films

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Jonah Beres as Sam in Balloon, Photo: Courtesy of Film Independent

We are living in unprecedented times. That’s a given. A global pandemic claiming more than 2 million lives and counting, a monumental Black Lives Matter Movement calling for the dismantlement of systemic racism rooted in American foundations. Yet, in the midst of all this chaos (ultimately for the greater good) there is beauty waiting to be discovered through the magical storytelling lens of filmmakers. Stories about communities underrepresented on the screen that need to be seen. This year, Film Independent unveiled 6 short films from their 27th Project Involve program poised to make a lasting impression on audiences. 4 of these films are laced with bittersweet, funny, and controversial themes expressing emotions validating our universal experiences we share as humans.

Balloon, directed by Jeremy Merrifield, and edited by Bowei Yue, follows 14 year-old Sam (Jonah Beres) in the middle of an active-shooter drill, led by the talented Paul Scheer (Officer Hart). Sam, a quiet teen, is the target of harassment after a video of him crying goes viral after being punched by school bully, Jason (Carson Severson). Jason is dead set on seizing any opportunity to get a rise out of Sam and his other victims. Sam’s friend, Adam (Jaylin Ogle), tries to console Sam and urges him to fight back, while not wanting to be labeled as weak by the other boys. When Sam discovers he has super powers to defend himself from his aggressors, he’s at a crossroads: fight back or continue enduring the brutal torments. The film reveals an all too familiar toxic masculinity in American culture and what’s at stake for children and young adults to survive in school. It’s relevant and timely and worth watching.

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Lara Cengiz as Kati in Bambirak, Photo Courtesy of Film Independent

The film Bambirak by director Zamarin Wahdat, about an 8 year-old Afghan girl (Kati) and her single father (Faruk), adapting to a new country they’ve sought asylum in is poignant and speaks to the collective solid bond fathers and daughters have. The story begins with Kati (Lara Cengiz) hiding in her dad’s delivery truck. Once he discovers her while making deliveries, Faruck (Kailas Mahadevan) becomes desperate to drop Kati at the grandmother’s home, although she’s nowhere to be found. Faruk enlists Kati to be his assistant. Everything seems to go smoothly until a racist turn-of-events challenge the father-daughter duo. Tensions flare, accusations are made, and with minimal dialogue, the father-daughter team accept the trade-off of being in a new country. Wonderfully acted and scripted, Bambirak is a gem of a short film.

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Buck, the narrative short by director Elegance Bratton and co-director Jovan James follows Lynn (Malik Shakur), a young gay black man dealing with his depression in a self-destructive manner that has the potential to lead to tragedy. The film starts off with Lynn’s mother pressing him about his meds. Determined to seek happiness with a visit to his white male lover, Richard (Gabe Peyton), the encounter proves to be disappointing. Lynn realizes there is another gay couple waiting for him to partake in a sexual party. Reluctant and declining to participate, Lynn decides to leave even though he’s taken a hit of Meth, is barely conscious, and is rescued by fellow black gay man whose life is on borrowed time. With the 25 million Americans suffering from depression to date, we don’t see nearly enough films examining and exploring individual experiences with this disease and Buck does a great job of portraying someone who battles mental illness, with empathy, not pity.

 

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Saint from La Gloria film, Photo: Courtesy of Film Independent

La Gloria a film by Mary Evangelista explores the aftermath of an attempted suicide by a young gay Latina (Gloria). And she how copes with lovesickness and sorrow with the help of her grandmother’s optimism and dream-channeling to achieve hope and peace. While the rest of her family glosses over her suicide attempt and go about their everyday lives. Gloria (Chris Gris) and her grandmother’s bond is authentic and compelling. It offers a sweet glimpse into relationships between younger and older generations. And we are here for it!

Film Independent’s 2020 Project Involve Showcase, a carefully curated program of short films spotlighting some of the program’s most exciting new filmmakers. Project Involve (PI for short) fosters the careers of talented filmmakers from communities traditionally underrepresented in the industry, and is celebrating 27 years of working toward a more inclusive entertainment landscape. The program serves as a valuable incubator for diverse talent and has cultivated the careers of more than 820 filmmakers. Notable alumni include Linda Yvette Chavez & Marvin Lemus (Gentefied); Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians); Jomo Fray (Selah and the Spades); LaToya Morgan (Into the Badlands); Justin Simien (Dear White People); Lulu Wang (The Farewell), Kim Yutani (Director of Programming, Sundance) and many more. To learn more about Film Independent and Project Involve, click here.

Review: ‘Ovid and the Art of Love’ – Resoundingly Mirrors Modern Times

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Corbin Bleu as Ovid, Photo: Brian Geldin PR

Esmé von Hoffman’s latest film to hit the streaming platforms, Ovid and the Art of Love, couldn’t have come at a better time amidst a global pandemic and the ensuing chaos the current administration is wittingly encouraging in our nation. Its social and political commentary will resonate with audiences. As millions of Americans affected with the repercussions of the novel coronavirus (over 76K+ deaths domestically, an unemployment surge of 14.7%, a statistic unseen since the Great Depression) continues to wreak havoc in our daily lives.

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John Savage as Augustus, Kimberly Cruchon Brooks as Livia, Photo: Brian Geldin PR

Parallels of our stark reality compounded by the film’s theme are spot on. Writer/Director Esmé von Hoffman’s version of the old tale of beloved poet, Ovid, otherwise known as Publius Ovidius Naso, who was exiled by Roman emperor, Augustus in 8 AD, “allegedly” because of his exotic and provocative books of poetry. Corbin Bleu (“High School Musical,” “Dancing with the Stars”) is charming as he breathes life into modern-day Ovid, and finds his purpose in the urban streets of Detroit. He’s summoned by Augustus, the inept and hypocritical emperor, played by the talented John Savage, (“Deer Hunter”) to pursue a career in law but his interests lie elsewhere: poetry. Determined to follow his passion, Ovid attempts to read his poems at open mic clubs, failing at first and ridiculed by patrons, later finds his rhythm in verse and love as he follows a woman he thought would fulfill his life. As Ovid’s poetry career and romantic conquests flourish, the citizens of Rome, A.K.A. Detroit, are in an upheaval; jobs are lacking, health insurance is scarce, and people are protesting inadequate leadership. Ring a bell? It’s 2020 on screen, minus the fancy togas, and elegant headpieces.

 

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Director Esmé von Hoffman, Photo: Brian Geldin PR

Ovid and The Art Love is a tale as old as humanity – depicting average citizens standing up to power with truths and freedom of expression to affect change and the dire consequences that result, in this case, Ovid, regarded as the canonical poet of Latin literature, is exiled and sent to Romania, but his beautiful poetry and popularity lives on. In 2017, Ovid’s birthplace of Sulmona formerly Sulmo in Italy, acquitted the poet of any wrongdoing, Florence followed suit.

Check out this wonderful adaptation of Ovid and the Art of Love by director, Esmé von Hoffman, when it’s released on May 19th by Level 33 Entertainment via major streaming and VOD platforms including Amazon, iTunes, Comcast, XFinity, Dish, Sling, Microsoft, Google Play, YouTube and many more.

 

 

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: ‘A Patient Man’ – Dauntingly Relatable

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Jonathan Mangum as Tom Alexander, Photo: Courtesy of dawn til dusk PR

Indie film A Patient Man by writer-director, Kevin Ward (The Mist) starring Jonathan Mangum (“The Sarah Silverman Program”, “The Drew Carey Show”) follows Tom Alexander’s life after a devastating car crash. Alexander decides to go back to work after 4 months and tries to adapt to normalcy, begins cycling to work, as he’s not quite ready to drive a car, and goes to therapy yet can’t seem to open up. He’s the solo character driving the story. The film is absent of subplots. And the audience has to decide if they like or dislike the character pretty soon. Luckily, Alexander, played by Jonathan Mangum, who’s a comedic and improvisational actor, can pull off this sullen, ready to give up on life character with just the right amount of cynical sarcasm.

Exploring and delving into the mundane details of life, especially after a tragedy; scenes, I believed intentionally placed by director Kevin Ward, allows the audience to identify and feel empathy for Tom Alexander. The action finally comes in when Tom meets a stranger, Aaron Clark played by Tate Ellington (Remember Me, The Endless) on a Sacramento commuter train he uses to bike between home and work. We don’t know if this a chance encounter or a calculated meeting by Tom, but as the friendship progresses, we discover Tom is crafting a revenge plot on his would-be antagonist.

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Tate Ellington as Aaron Clark, Photo: Courtesy of dawn til dusk PR

We learn about Tom’s life through flashbacks and Ward does an excellent job of weaving them throughout the story to give the audience enough snippets of information for us to follow and stay vested. Tom’s wife was killed in this life-altering crash and as more of the couple’s relationship is revealed, the more we sympathize with Tom. It wasn’t an ideal love story, something was amiss and this propels Tom to react instead of accepting his current circumstances.

A Patient Man requires audiences to be patient with the storytelling. This dramatic thriller insists upon evaluating a character’s trauma-inducing experience, as most people have endured at some point in their lives, and figuring out what to do with the cracks these situations leave behind. It’s a nice break from the numbing action-driven, over-the-top special effects blockbusters that only seem to get made in Hollywood lately. A Patient Man will be available on AppleTV, Amazon, Vudu, and Google Play on February 7, 2020. To learn more about A Patient Man, 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.