2019 DOC NYC movie review: ‘Mai Khoi & the Dissidents’

November 18, 2019

by Carla Hay

Mai Khoi
Mai Khoi in “Mai Khoi & the Dissidents”

“Mai Khoi & the Dissidents”

Directed by Joe Piscatella

Vietnamese with subtitles

World premiere at DOC NYC in New York City on November 13, 2019.

There have been many pop stars who have changed their safe, politically neutral images to making music that’s edgy or politically controversial. But what if a pop star does that and is then persecuted by the government? That’s what Vietnamese singer Mai Khoi has experienced, according to this compelling film that clocks in at a brisk 70 minutes. This documentary chronicles her ongoing struggles in fighting that persecution and for her rights to freedom of expression.

She first became famous in Vietnam for doing fluffy, inoffensive pop songs. In 2010, Vietnam Television awarded her the prizes of Album of the Year and Song of the Year (for “Viet Nam”). But, as she says in the documentary about her former life as a pop star: “I felt comfortable having a lot of money, but I felt something missing inside me.” Her Australian husband, Ben Swanton, a fellow left-wing social activist whom she married in 2013, says: “She caused a major national scandal when she said that she didn’t want to get married and have children.”

She caused another scandal with her song “Selfie Orgasm,” which essentially dropped the final bomb in her “safe” pop-star image. Khoi says that the song was a social commentary on narcissism, but it was eventually banned by Zing, which is the Vietnamese version of YouTube. By then, a political fire had been began to roar inside her, and she ran for political office as an independent, for a seat in the National Assembly of Vietnam. However, the Vietnamese government, specifically the Vietnamese Fatherland Front, made sure that her name was left off of the ballot.

Khoi’s 2016 meeting with then-U.S. president Barack Obama when he visited Vietnam made her even more of an enemy to the Vietnamese government, she says in the movie. In March 2016, the police raided her concert in Saigon, and she’s been banned from performing in Vietnam. But in one scene in the movie, she does a secret show anyway, and braces herself for the consequences. Viewers see in the film that the government’s reaction is swift and severe: In retaliation for Khoi doing the secret show, the government forced her landlord to evict her. One of the people interviewed in the documentary is Nguyen Qui Duc, also known as radical blogger Anh Chi, who says he’s also been harassed by the Vietnamese government for speaking out against the government.

The movie also shows her botched attempt to hang a banner saying “Keep the Internet Free” from the Long Biên Bridge in Hanoi. She dropped the banner into the Red River after only five minutes, out of fear of being arrested. However, that experience perhaps emboldened her to do an even more daring protest publicity stunt.

The election of Donald Trump as U.S. president added more fuel to her fire. In 2017, when Trump visited Vietnam for the first time as U.S. president, she made headlines around the world for holding a banner up as his motorcade passed by on the streets of Hanoi. The banner said, “Piss on you Trump,” with “iss” crossed out to read “Peace on You Trump.” She was quickly visited by the police, who harassed her. Some of the harassment was caught on camera, but the police eventually forced the cameraperson to stop filming. Despite the police attempting to silence Khoi, her protest achieved its goal of international attention, since video of Khoi holding up the banner became a viral sensation.

A great deal of the movie also documents the recording of Khoi’s first album with her all-male band the Dissidents, whose members all have left-leaning political beliefs, but some of them express a certain trepidation about how being in the band will make them targets of harassment from the government. The musicianship  isn’t particuarly impressive, but the album isn’t about crafting catchy pop songs, and the song lyrics clearly mean more to the band than the music.

It’s not a spoiler to say the “Mai Khoi & the Dissidents” album was released in 2017. The album, which was picked up by a Norwegian record company to be released in Norway, became only the second album from a Vietnamese artist to be released outside of Vietnam, according to the documentary. Khoi also received the Human Rights Award from the Oslo Freedom Forum, but the Vietnam government censored this news in the BBC report that was televised in Vietnam.

As a documentary, “Mai Khoi & the Dissidents” is at its most riveting when it conveys the fear and tension after Khoi does something to agitate the Vietnam government. It leaves viewers wondering what’s going to happen next, and what kind of harassment Khoi will experience. What’s less interesting is footage of Khoi and her bandmates in the recording studio, because the musicianship is, frankly, mediocre.

There’s a poignant scene at the end of the film when Khoi seriously contemplates moving from Vietnam to Australia, even though she would be leaving her entire biological family behind. You’ll have to see the movie to find out what she decided in her dilemma to leave Vietnam or stay. The biggest downside to this movie is that in the unpredictable world of a firebrand like Mai Khoi, she’ll inevitably make headlines again for bold and risk-taking activism, and this documentary will then be rendered very outdated.

2019 DOC NYC movie review: ‘Healing From Hate: Battle for the Soul of a Nation’

November 18, 2019

by Carla Hay

Tony McAleer, Amar Kaleka and Sammy Rangel in “Healing From Hate: Battle for the Soul of a Nation” (Photo courtesy of Big Tent Productions)

“Healing From Hate: Battle for the Soul of a Nation”

Directed by Peter Hutchison

World premiere at DOC NYC in New York City on November 13, 2019.

The rise of hate crimes in recent years has led to an increase in documentaries and news reports about bigotry and its effects on our culture. “Healing From Hate: Battle for the Soul of a Nation” focuses on former extreme racists who have devoted their lives to helping others get out of the belief systems and lifestyles of hate groups. The three main stars of the film are Life After Hate co-founders Frank Meeink (the real-life inspiration for the dramatic film “American History X”) and Tony McAleer, as well as Sammy Rangel, a Latino former gang member who founded the group Formers Anonymous for ex-bigots. (Rangel says in the documentary that he used to hate white people.) All of the men openly admit to committing several hate crimes in the past, and they’ve spent time in prison.

The film points out several common denominators of people who join extreme racist groups: They usually had abusive childhoods; they feel mistreated by mainstream society and joined hate groups to have surrogate families; and they often abuse drugs and/or alcohol, even if they leave the hate groups. All of the ex-racists in this documentary fit this profile, and they talk about their ongoing struggles with substance abuse.

McAleer, who is originally from Vancouver, says he changed his ways after the births of his daughter and son. One of the more effective parts of the film is when he returns to his hometown to visit members at Temple Shalom, where his hate crimes started. Another standout scene is when McAleer and Rangel visit the Sikh temple (gurdwara) in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, where in 2012, a white supremacist murdered six people and wounded four others before committing suicide. In an emotionally powerful moment, the documentary shows McAleer and Rangel going to the scene of the crime to meet with Amar Kaleka, son of the gurdwara’s murdered founder, as they talk and pray about the tragedy. The movie’s archival footage includes the 2017 deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Other people featured in the movie are Randy Blazak, a criminologist and researcher of hate groups; Thomas Engelmann, founder and ex-member of the Aryan Brotherhood, which does a lot of recruiting in prisons; and author Michael Kimmel, a founder of Stony Brook University’s Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities. Also interviewed are former neo-Nazi Randy Furniss and African American activist/radio host Julius Long, who formed an unlikely friendship with each other after Long rescued Furniss from being attacked by an angry crowd protesting against white supremacist Richard Spencer’s 2017 speech at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Spencer is featured in the movie getting into a spirited debate about racism with Life After Hate co-founder Christian Picciolini, who is no longer affiliated with Life After Hate. You might notice a pattern here: This is a very male-centric movie.

The documentary, although well-intentioned, can’t quite overcome its biggest flaw: It basically ignores women. Current and former racists who are women are not mentioned or interviewed. In addition, most of the men in these reform groups have children, but the mothers of these children aren’t interviewed either. The film never bothers to answer these questions: What are these mothers’ perspectives? How are these children being raised? What happens when one parent leaves a hate group, but the other parent wants to stay? The filmmakers don’t mention if any effort was made to include an adequate number of female viewpoints in the documentary.

Although it’s true that the vast majority of violent hate crimes are committed by men, and most of the white supremacists who march at rallies are men, it’s also indisputable that women are a big part of white supremacy, and women’s roles in this damaging movement have been irresponsibly overlooked in this documentary. For example, women who are racists have other insidious methods of inflicting fear on the targets of their hate, besides committing violence. Viral videos and several news reports have proven that female racists like to call the police on people of color who are minding their own business and not breaking the law.

“Healing From Hate” also avoids discussing that within the white supremacy movement is an inherent culture of misogyny because of the belief that white Christian males are the most superior of the human race. However, the movie does not address any sexist beliefs these former racists probably had while in the movement, and the documentary never mentions if their therapy also includes “detoxing” from the overwhelming sexism in white supremacy. (A more accurate title of the movie is “Healing From Male Racists,” not “Healing From Hate.”)

Since men are the only focus of this documentary about current and reformed bigots, it paints an incomplete and inaccurate picture that male racists should be bigger priorities than female racists. And this documentary’s emphasis on male redemption is itself kind of sexist. Not surprisingly, all the group therapy leaders in this documentary are men, and almost everyone interviewed for this movie is a man.

A friendly reminder to the filmmakers: Females are 51 percent of the U.S. population. If you’re going to do a documentary whose subtitle is “Battle for the Soul of a Nation,” it would help if you included perspectives from the gender that represents the majority of this nation. “Healing From Hate” director Peter Hutchison plans to make two companion documentaries: “Angry White Men: American Masculinity in the Age of Trump” (based on the sociology work of Kimmel) and “Auschwitz: Facing the Legacy of Hatred,” which will focus on McAleer’s redemption by showing him visiting the sites of Polish death camps. Let’s hope that the makers of these companion documentaries don’t forget that healing from hatred doesn’t exist in only a male vacuum. Female voices need to be valued and heard too.

UPDATE: Media Education Foundation will release “Healing From Hate: Battle for the Soul of a Nation” in select U.S. cinemas on September 4, 2020.

2019 DOC NYC movie review: ‘The Longest Wave’

November 18, 2019

by Carla Hay

Robby Naish in "The Longest Wave"
Robby Naish in “The Longest Wave” (Photo courtesy of Red Bull Films)

“The Longest Wave”

Directed by Joe Berlinger

World premiere at DOC NYC in New York City on November 13, 2019.

There comes a time in professional athletes’ lives when they have to decide when they’ll retire from professional sports competitions. But most athletes who’ve been world champions would say that even if they stop competing in professional sports, their sport of choice will always been in their blood. That’s certainly true for windsurfer Robby Naish, who started winning world championships in 1976 at the age of 13. Now that he’s middle-aged, he’s reached a crossroads in the inevitable decision on how much longer it will be before he officially retires.

“The Longest Wave” is ostensibly about Naish’s quest to find and ride the longest wave possible before his advancing age prevents him from taking the kinds of surfing risks that he could when he was younger. It’s a dream he’s been chasing since 2016. But the real issue, which becomes clear early on the documentary, is that Naish is kind of having a mid-life identity crisis. He didn’t really have a “normal” childhood. For decades, his entire life has been about surfing, so it’s unthinkable for him to have any career that doesn’t involve the sport.

“The Longest Wave” director Joe Berlinger doesn’t assume that viewers will know who Naish is before seeing this movie, so Berlinger takes a great deal of time (approximately the first half of the film) to show Naish’s life story, before the second half of the film focuses on Naish’s ultimate quest of finding the longest wave. Naish’s family members (including his father, mother, older brother and two daughters) and colleagues (including surfers Matt Schweitzer, Kai Lenny and Chuck Patterson) are among those who are interviewed. Naish chose Lenny (a Naish protégé in his 20s) and Patterson (a longtime friend who’s closer to Naish’s age) to accompany him on his international journey to chase the longest wave. Their globetrotting included trips to Namibia, Peru and Costa Rica.

Naish’s family members, friends and associates consistently describe him as someone who has a single-minded obsession with surfing and winning any surfing competition that he enters. One of his biggest flaws, they say, is that he’s a sore loser. But on the flip side, he’s also generous about helping and teaching other surfers. Naish essentially admits all of this is true, and he knows that his unwavering commitment to being a pro surfer (which includes constant traveling) has ruined his two marriages. He has a daughter from each of his failed marriages. Naish was going through his second divorce while making this documentary. His ex-wives are not in the film.

Lenny idolized Naish since he was a kid, and he is one of Naish’s best-known protégés, who went into business with Naish’s self-titled brand and signed with many of the same sponsors that Naish has. It should be noted that Red Bull has been a longtime sponsor of Naish, and “The Longest Wave” is from Red Bull Films, so there’s a lot of Red Bull product placement in the movie. Lenny’s smirky cockiness and mugging for the camera easily make him the most annoying person in the film. It’s not surprising later in the movie when he makes a decision that blindsides Naish, but an outside observer watching this documentary can see it coming from a mile away. Meanwhile, Naish’s longtime buddy Patterson has a laid-back presence that’s welcome when Naish and the other members of the team get too high-strung and agitated.

As if going through a divorce hadn’t been bad enough, Naish experienced some major setbacks during the making of this documentary, including a broken pelvis (which required a recovery of at least six months) and a broken foot. While traveling to Walvis Bay, Namibia, the Naish team had the bad luck of several of their luggage items (including Naish’s most-prized surfboard) not arriving, so they spent about six frustrating days watching the surf that they couldn’t ride.

It’s a testament to Naish’s perseverance that he didn’t let these obstacles deter him, but you have to speculate how much longer Naish will be willing to risk getting severe injuries, in order to pursue the kind of extreme surfing that he likes to do. He makes it clear in the movie that he has no regrets, and he’ll keep surfing as long as he’s physically able.

One of the best qualities of the film is the cinematography (there are some truly stunning aerial shots), and it’s why this movie should be seen on the big screen. However, the film’s editing needed to be tighter, because it looks like the filmmakers couldn’t really decide to make this movie a Naish biography or a story about his journey to find the longest wave, so they decided to mash up the two concepts in one movie. You’ll have to see this documentary to find out if Naish ever got to ride his longest wave. You don’t have to be a surfing fan to enjoy this film, because the movie is really about people defining for themselves how they want to chase their dreams.

2019 DOC NYC movie review: ‘Ganden: A Joyful Land’

November 18, 2019

by Carla Hay

Jampa Legshe in “Ganden: A Joyful Land” (Photo by Ngawang Choephel)

“Ganden: A Joyful Land”

Directed by Ngawang Choephel

Tibetan with subtitles

World premiere at DOC NYC in New York City on November 12, 2019.

If you ever wondered about how influential Tibetan Buddhist monestary Ganden survived China’s invasion of Tibet, by relocating to India in 1959, and rebuilding in 1966, this thoughtful documentary explains it all. Ganden is where a young Dalai Lama had his religious origins and his awakening as an activist for world peace. Although the Dalai Lama is not interviewed in the documentary, several Ganden monks who were part of the relocation share their memories of what it was like to be refugees from their native Tibet and to rebuild the monastery in India, a country that welcomed them, with the help of the Dalai Lama.

For the documentary, director Ngawang Choephel (who also narrates the film in a soothing tone) has kept the pacing very deliberate and historically oriented. It’s the kind of film that would be right at home in a museum, a school class on Tibetan Buddhism, or on PBS. In other words, “Ganden: A Joyful Land” might be too slow-paced for those who prefer their documentaries with more flash or quick-cutting editing styles, but just like the monks in the film, tranquility is valued over adrenaline. (Choephel says he began filming Ganden in India in 2011, and about half of the monks interviewed in the movie have since passed away, which adds a certain historical weight as archival footage.)

One of the strongest qualities of the film is the cinematography, which is simply gorgeous. Some of the most compelling and colorful imagery is of monks creating mandala paintings for the Tagtse Dumshoe festival, using sand-like paint. Because the movie has first-person accounts of the monks who founded Ganden in India, their stories are the heart and soul of the film. Many of the monks consistently say that even if they didn’t have enough to eat in the early years of the monastery, life at Ganden was extremely fulfilling for them. One of the monks said that when he went home to visit with his family, he couldn’t wait to get back to the monastery.

Of course, the hardships and suffering they endured are not ignored in the film, and neither is a mention of the high number suicides of the refugee monks and the monks who were still in Tibet, because of their despair over China’s invasion and religious persecution. Despite these depressing but necessary aspects of the film, “Ganden: A Joyful Land” is ultimately an inspiring story of faith, hope, and the will to survive in a world where a peaceful existence is always at risk.

2019 DOC NYC movie review: ‘Los Últimos Frikis’

November 18, 2019

by Carla Hay

Los Últimos Frikis
Zeus in “Los Últimos Frikis”

“Los Últimos Frikis”

Directed by Nicholas Brennan

Spanish with subtitles

World premiere at DOC NYC in New York City on November 10, 2019.

If rock music can be described in family terms, heavy metal is often perceived as the trashy, “black sheep” stepchild. For the Cuban heavy-metal band Zeus (which formed in Havana in 1997, during the Fidel Castro regime), getting respect has always been an uphill battle, made all the more difficult because of Cuba’s restrictive policies on rock music. The music primarily comes from Western, capitalist countries, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, which dominate the shrinking market for heavy-metal music. It’s another reason why Zeus is a metal underdog: Often disrespected in their own country, the members of Zeus also know that because they’re in a Cuban band, the odds are stacked against them that they’ll be accepted in other countries that have embraced U.S. and European metal bands.

Despite all of these obstacles, Zeus is still making music after all these years. “Los Últimos Frikis,” which translates in English to “The Last Freaks” is primarily a chronicle of the band’s 25th anniversary tour of Cuba, with tour stops in the cities of Camaguey, Santa Clara, Guantanamo and Ciego de Avila. Before viewers get to see the tour, director Nicholas Brennan introduces each band member in segments that show them at home with their families and playing music.

Lead singer Diony Arce is the expected charismatic focus of the band. In the movie, he discusses his turbulent childhood. Arce says that he was on his own since the age of 11, because his singer mother traveled a lot, and as a child, he would live in hotels, sometimes for two or three years at a time. Learning to be self-sufficient at an early age helped shape his rebellious streak and his leadership skills. His first band was Venus, which broke up in the late 1980s, because of pressure from the Cuban government, which branded Venus as too radical. He was arrested and was in prison from 1990 to 1996.

Eduardo Longa Aguilar (drums), who confesses later in the film that he abuses drugs and alcohol, is seen near the beginning of the movie trying to convince a woman to sell him a soda on camera, because she’s afraid she’ll be arrested for it. Hansel Sala (guitar), who says that heavy metal has to be strong, is a family man who’s proud to show his son how to be a musician. Yamil Arias (bass) is a welder by day, and he says that Metallica’s 1988 album “…And Justice for All” was a big early influence for him. Ivan Muñoz (guitar) says that people listen to hard rock/heavy metal to reaffirm their frustrations in life. The center of Zeus’ musical activities is Maximum Rock, a facility that houses a rehearsal studio and management company for rock bands. The Cuban government opened Maximum Rock in 2007, as the government became less restrictive about rock music.

Heavy metal’s popularity peaked in the 1980s, and it’s been on a steep decline ever since, which is why the few hard rock/metal bands from that era that can still headline arenas around the world (for example, Metallica, Guns N’Roses, Judas Priest) are those that arguably made their best music in the ’80s. However, metal fans who still support the music are extremely loyal, and they don’t care if heavy metal is considered an outdated genre or not. The documentary shows that the audiences that Zeus plays to on the tour aren’t very large (about 200 people or less at each concert) because the cities they go to in the documentary are much smaller than Havana. And by today’s slick and high-tech production standards, the band’s outdoor concerts have the bare-bones look of a garage band performing at a backyard party.

It wouldn’t be a heavy-metal tour documentary without a “Spinal Tap” moment, and Zeus has two of them in the film. When they get to the concert site in Ciego de Avila, to the band members’ horror, they find out that Zeus has been booked for a reggaetón festival. Reggaetón is Cuba’s most popular music genre for young people, and the members of Zeus openly express their disdain for reggaetón, which they consider to be mindless garbage. Arce has somewhat of a meltdown and refuses to let the band play at the festival.

Another “Spinal Tap” moment happens in Camaguey (the last stop on the tour), where the band says Zeus is very popular. But when they get there, they’re crushed to find out that nothing has been set up for the concert, and the performance has to be cancelled. It’s a humiliating scene, and at one point, Arce tells the cameraperson to stop filming. In other words, the tour ended with a whimper, not a bang.

It’s mentioned in the movie that concert promoters in Cuba will make sure that reggaetón shows are high-priced and well-organized, but rock concerts are handled in the opposite way. However, you also have to wonder what kind of incompetent management Zeus has for these embarrassing things to have happened to them on such an important tour for the band. That question is never answered in the documentary, since there are no managers or agents shown at all in the movie, which gives the impression that maybe Zeus is self-managed. If that’s the case, then Arce, as the leader of the band, has to take some responsibility for these screw-ups, but he never does. At one point in the movie, he gripes: “This country has made a complete fool out of me.”

Back at home in Havana after the tour ends, Zeus is shown in a career limbo, as the band members lament how hard it is to keep the band going when heavy metal is constantly disrespected and they can’t make enough money as rock musicians to pay their bills. It’s a struggle that hard rock/metal musicians all over the world are facing, especially those who’ve never had a catalogue of big hits to fall back on to bring in the nostalgia crowds.

There’s a huge jump in the timeline toward the end of the film, which shows that Maximum Rock has been shut down, and the building is in disrepair. The band is also coping with disillusionment and wondering if it’s worth it to keep the group going. “Los Últimos Frikis” director Nicholas Brennan obviously filmed this documentary over several years, and the movie is compelling because it’s about a heavy-metal band that’s been able to survive for decades in a restrictive, Communist country. In an era where bands rely on social media to promote themselves, it’s interesting to see Zeus operate as a band in a country where Internet access doesn’t come as easily as it does in other nations. In that sense, much of what’s seen of Zeus looks like a time warp back to the pre-Internet days when heavy metal was at its most popular.

To its credit, the film avoids heavy metal clichés of portraying the band members as dumb partiers. (And considering that the band members have settled into middle-age, they would look kind of ridiculous if they acted like frat boys on tour.) However, the movie would have benefited from better editing to make it a more cohesive story. For example, the ending of the movie feels very tacked-on and too rushed.

But kudos to the filmmakers for getting Dave Lombardo (Slayer’s on-again/off-again drummer, who’s of Cuban heritage) to compose the documentary’s music. Lombardo is also an executive producer of the film. His participation adds an extra layer to the kinship that the Zeus members have for each other and their loyal fans. It’s a connection that comes through loud and clear in the film, and which has stayed with them even during their toughest times.

2019 DOC NYC movie review: ‘He Dreams of Giants’

November 18, 2019

by Carla Hay

Terry Gilliam and directors Louis Pepe and Keith Fulton on the set of “He Dreams of Giants” (Photo by Jeremy Royce)

“He Dreams of Giants”

Directed by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe

World premiere at DOC NYC in New York City on November 10, 2019.

For nearly 30 years, director Terry Gilliam tried to get a movie made based on the novel “Don Quixote,” but he experienced the kind of bad luck and setbacks that you might see in a movie. This documentary shows how difficult the journey was for Gilliam to make the adventure comedy “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” which had its world premiere at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, and finally had a U.S. release through Fathom Events in April 2019, in a select number of theaters for one night only. The movie is now available on home video, and can be streamed for free on Crackle. “He Dreams of Giants” directors Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe previously did another documentary—2002’s “Lost in La Mancha”—that covered the same topic, so “He Dreams of Giants” is really an update of that documentary.

Gilliam’s production problems for “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” included cast members (such as Johnny Depp, Vanessa Paradis, Ewan McGregor, John Hurt and Gilliam’s former “Monty Python” castmate Michael Palin) who dropped out of the film and moved on to other projects. (“He Dreams of Giants” shows early footage of Depp filming the movie in 2000.) The movie was also plagued by bad weather and other mishaps. And the biggest obstacle of all was the financing, which Gilliam lost several times and struggled to keep, even when the movie began filming. The documentary shows that even while making the movie during this final phase, Gilliam and other filmmakers on the project (including his producer daughter, Amy Gilliam) were bracing themselves for something to go wrong.

Adam Driver and Jonathan Pryce were the actors who ended up being the two main stars of “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.” Driver played an ad executive who goes back and revisits a student film he made called “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” in which he had cast an actor (played by Pryce) as Don Quixote. The documentary shows Driver, Pryce and other cast members getting acquainted over table reads of the script. The documentary also has plenty of scenes of Gilliam directing the film and sometimes getting frustrated when things don’t go as planned. He acknowledges that having a quick temper is one of his flaws. For all the years that it took to get the film made, “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” ended up being filmed in just 55 days.

Even though the cast changed over the years, some members of the crew stayed with the film during its entire turbulent journey, including costume designer Lena Mossum, cinematographer Nicola Pecorini and a few of the actors playing supporting roles as giants. The documentary shows Gilliam getting teary-eyed and emotional when Mossum shows how she kept all the original costumes preserved and intact for decades, and he’s elated when he finds out that Pryce fits into the Don Quixote costume. Early on in the documentary, Gilliam gives credit to the illustrations of Gustave Doré, who illustrated the 1868 edition of the “Don Quixote” book, as an inspiration for how he wanted his movie to look.

Much like a book, “He Dreams of Giants” is divided into chapters, with titles such as “Momentum,” “I Can’t Sleep,” “The Madness” and “The Will to Survive.” There’s some archival footage of Gilliam discussing the movie over the years in TV interviews. And there’s new, somewhat pretentious-looking footage of Gilliam looking thoughtful or a pacing around in completely white backdrop, as if to show he’s a “serious artist,” alone in his thoughts.

Even with all the artistic ambitions of “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” Gilliam is smart enough to know that the movie has limitations in box-office appeal, and he doesn’t have the clout he used to have in the ’80s, because his last several movies have all been flops. “The marketplace has no faith in this movie,” he says with a tinge of sadness. “I’m no longer an A-list director.” As for what people can learn from all the ups and downs he went through to get the movie made, Gilliam sums it up best when he says, “Life is hard. The idea that it should be fun—who the fuck invented that story?”

2019 DOC NYC movie review: ‘Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over’

November 18, 2019

by Carla Hay

Lydia Lunch
Lydia Lunch in “Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over”

“Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over”

Directed by Beth B

World premiere at DOC NYC in New York City on November 9, 2019.

Lydia Lunch has been serving up her unique brand of angry, sarcastic and unapologetic feminism ever since she was a teenager who escaped from her abusive home in Rochester, New York, and fully immersed herself in New York City’s punk scene in the late 1970s. This in-your-face documentary, which was made with Lunch’s participation, shows how she’s been able to survive on her wits and attitude, while being an underrated influence on her peers and subsequent generations of punk-influenced music artists. The riot grrrl movement that became popular in the 1990s owes a lot to the road that Lunch paved two decades earlier, at a time when it was still pretty rare for women to be lead singers of punk bands.

Back in the 1970s, Patti Smith and Blondie’s Debbie Harry represented what can happen when female punk singers have mainstream pop hits. Lunch (whose birth name is Lydia Koch) wasn’t interested in appealing to the masses. She wanted to stay underground and writhe around in the creative and sometimes twisted alleys of her pain. Throughout the documentary, Lunch repeatedly talks about her anger; how she uses her sexuality to channel that anger; and how she has a sadistic side that’s often had fantasies about murdering people. What’s the reason for all this rage? It might not be a surprise to people who’ve listened to Lunch’s song lyrics and spoken-word art over the years, but in the movie, she candidly talks about being sexually abused by her father when she was a child. (She describes her father as a “petty criminal and pretty insane.”)

Edgy sexuality and sexual abuse are ingrained in Lunch’s DNA, she says, but it’s impossible to know how she would be different if she weren’t a survivor of abuse. It’s such a big part of her identity that director Beth B chose to start off the documentary with a close-up scene of Lunch telling a bizarre story about how, at the age of 13, a stranger (whom she describes as looking like “Robert Blake with a cheese-grater face”) lured her into his car to give her a ride. He then drove to a remote area, and forced her out of the car at gunpoint, and ordered her to lick the car’s tires. When telling the story, Lunch said that when that incident happened to her, she knew: “It’s not about sex. It was about power.”

It’s clear that Lunch’s art is an expression of power. And, just like in her love life (she’s never been married and has no kids), she’s not the “settling down” type when it comes to bands, because she’s never stayed in just one band for most of her career. The movie includes early footage of Lunch singing and playing guitar in Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, the first band that got her recognition in the New York club scene. The bands Suicide and Mars were two of her biggest influences in becoming a punk-rock singer/musician, she says.

The documentary also has footage of her performing with other bands she’s had over the years, including the surf-punk group 8-Eyed Spy, the psychedelic rock group 1313 (which Lunch said was partly inspired by serial killer Richard Ramirez), Shotgun Wedding and Retrovirus, as well as footage of Lunch performing as a solo artist. Nicolas Jaar, a DJ/musician who’s obviously a star-struck fan of Lunch’s, talks about how he was able to introduce Lunch to a whole new audience of electronica fans by playing Lunch’s 1990 “Conspiracy of Women” spoken-word album over ambient tracks.

Having grown up around the ’60s counterculture movement, Lunch was part of the generation that rebelled against hippie culture. “We felt the ’60s failed us, our parents failed us, our country failed us,” she snarls. Punk appealed to her because, as she says in the movie: “I wanted to make the angriest, most precise, bitter music that was like a caterwaul, a scream from the walls. It was me exorcising my anger.” She later says in the movie that what makes her different from most other trauma survivors is that she felt homicidal, not suicidal: “I never turned the knife inward. I turned the knife outward.”

And Lunch says she wasn’t going to play nice. She bluntly says in the movie that she became promiscuous “in order to wash the taste of my father off my hands.” But beyond being promiscuous, Lunch also talks about the extreme aggression that was part of her sexuality, where she harassed and used abusive tactics with her lovers. The documentary mentions “Right Side of My Brain,” the 1985 explicitly erotic art film starring Lunch as a woman whose sexuality involves violence, power and control. “Right Side of My Brain” director Richard Kern and co-star JG Thirlwell are interviewed in the documentary. Lunch called “Right Side of My Brain” an homage to director Roman Polanski’s 1965 psychological horror film “Repulsion.”

Jim Sclavunos, a former drummer of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, says in the documentary that Lunch wouldn’t let him in the band unless he had sex with her. She was even more intrigued when she found out he was a virgin, and he described what happened on the date where she took his virginity. According to Sclavunos (who’s also worked with Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds), she ordered him to bring “supplies” to the date: whipped cream, Coca-Cola and chewing gum. He nervously thought it would be a kinky encounter, but it turns out she that the food and drink items he brought were her dinner. Sclavunos adds with a laugh by saying that “there was no kinkiness whatsoever” and that Lunch “was very gentle and understanding with the act of seduction” and “successfully accomplished the deflowering without any trauma.”

In this #MeToo era, what Lunch did would be considered sexual harassment, but based on how Sclavunos told the story, the encounter was ultimately consensual, and he was okay with what happened. The documentary doesn’t take sides either way, and allows people to tell their Lydia Lunch stories from their perspectives.

And the anecdotes continue about Lydia Lunch being mad, bad and sometimes dangerous to know. Bass player Tim Dahl, a longtime collaborator with Lunch, told a more disturbing story of Lunch humiliating a musician whom she had a brief fling with from another band who was an opening act on one of their tours. Lunch’s S&M ways were too much for the unlucky guy. With tears in his eyes, Dahl talked about witnessing Lunch physically abuse and psychologically torture the man, and ordering him around like a slave, until the man couldn’t take it anymore and pleaded her to stop because he was being traumatized. Dahl said that even though Lunch clearly has a taste for sadism, she also showed a tender side by stopping the abuse she was inflicting on her lover and hugging him.

Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore tells a hilarious story (illustrated by animation in the documentary) about being shocked to see Lunch squat down and urinate in an abandoned building when they first started hanging out and barely knew each other. Moore describes Teenage Jesus and the Jerks’ first single “Orphans” as both “a masterpiece” and “the worst-sounding thing I ever heard on record.” He also said the band sounded like “cats howling before they’re killed.”

L7 lead singer Donita Sparks remembers going on a Coney Island roller-coaster ride with Lunch, whom she says was probably on acid, and feeling both terrified and elated by the experience. Singer/filmmaker Kembra Pfahler describes the No Wave movement that Lunch helped pioneer as “a contrarian gesture against classic rock.” Lunch herself describes No Wave as “very user-unfriendly, very discordant, and based on personal insanity.”

Although director Beth B thankfully doesn’t have pretentious music journalists as talking heads in the documentary, the film could have used a better variety of perspectives, other than those who are clearly Lunch’s admirers. In her career and in her personal life, Lunch is obviously a divisive personality, so why not interview people who were part of the same punk scene but aren’t fans of her? Lunch herself confirms that she has a “love her or hate her” persona, when she says of former collaborator Nick Cave: “We couldn’t agree on anything,” compared to her “Shotgun Wedding” albums collaborator Rowland S. Howard: “We agreed on everything.”

Has Lunch mellowed with age? No. As the documentary shows, she won’t hesitate to go off on an obscenity filled-rant against Hillary Clinton or anyone else she sees as a sellout or a hack. She hates how today’s female artists don’t seem to be as fearless as they used to be. “We used to be warriors. How we devolved from Medusa to Madonna … I don’t get it.”

And she’s not one of those old-school punks from New York who’ll talk about how much she loves the city, because she’ll be the first to tell you that she hates New York City now. She moved out of New York back in the early 1990s, she says, because she knew that the city was headed toward more gentrification and corporate takeovers that kill off affordable housing and small, independent businesses.

Lunch continues to tour and make music, and she has a vast catalogue of albums as testament to her longevity. As drummer Bob Bert (who’s played in Sonic Youth and Retrovirus) says what is very evident in this documentary: “Lydia’s greatest work of art is herself.”

2019 DOC NYC movie review: ‘Maurice Hines: Bring Them Back’

November 18, 2019

by Carla Hay

Maurice Hines in “Maurice Hines: Bring Them Back” (Photo by John Carluccio)

“Maurice Hines: Bring Them Back”

Directed by John Carluccio

World premiere at DOC NYC in New York City on November 10, 2019.

In the opening scene of “Maurice Hines: Bring Them Back,” Tony-nominated entertainer Maurice Hines Jr. (who is in his 70s) is shown tap dancing with the kind of talent that most people never have in their lifetimes. That opening scene in this fascinating and comprehensive biographical film is a nod to Hines’ dancing roots, because he got his start in showbiz as a tap dancer at the tender age of 5. Throughout his childhood and early adulthood, Hines’ dancing partner was his younger brother Gregory. The two brothers also performed with their musician/singer father, Maurice Hines Sr., as part of the trio Hines, Hines and Dad.

But just like a lot of siblings, Maurice and Gregory (who died of cancer in 2003) often didn’t see eye to eye, and the documentary shows that the brothers’ relationship is the source of Maurice’s biggest lifelong emotional joy and pain. Their on-again, off-again feuding is discussed, but thankfully not exploited in the movie, which shows that Maurice has led a full and interesting life that includes being openly gay from as early as he can remember.

As Maurice’s friend Debbie Allen says in the film: “Maurice is one of the most energetic, alive people I’ve ever known.” And the movie has a spectacular range of archival footage, from his early years as a performer to his stints on Broadway or on tour for such productions as “Eubie!,” “Sophisticated Ladies,” “Uptown… It’s Hot!” There’s also new footage of Maurice dancing up a storm with dancer brothers Leo and John Manzari, who are his protégés and frequent collaborators. Viewers also get to see how much he loves to mentor young dancers, as he’s shown as a guest instructor at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Los Angeles, as well as at the University of Hartford in Connecticut.

One of the surprising revelations in the movie is that Maurice’s family always accepted him as gay. Living his life so openly as a gay man was rare for his Silent Generation, just as it was rare for out LGBTQ people to be completely welcomed by their families, when homophobia was enforced by society at large. In the documentary, Hines remembers his mother telling him that she always knew he was gay before he told her, and he’d tell his father about the guys he was dating when his father asked about his love life. His straight brother Gregory, who used to go to gay bars with Maurice, had no hangups about dancing with gay men at the clubs.

And Maurice isn’t shy about discussing his favorite type of men: “I like football players the best,” he says. “If they’ve got big calves, we’re going to talk.” He also mentions that he used to date a lot of football players (but he doesn’t name names), and here’s how he described the relationships: “They just fell in love with me.”

The documentary also shows him playfully flirting with a young, stocky black cameraman from the film crew, after Maurice realizes that the cameraman overheard his microphoned comment about how he thinks the guy is sexy. “I’m 75, baby,” he laughed while sizing up the cameraman. “I say exactly what I need.”

Among the other people interviewed in the movie are Gregory’s children Daria and Zach; Gregory’s first ex-wife, Patricia Panella, who’s remained a close friend of Maurice’s; the Manzari Brothers; Ballet Tap USA founder Mercedes Ellinston; and Maurice’s friends Chita Rivera and Mel Johnson Jr., whose decades-long friendship with Maurice began when they when they were in the original 1978 Broadway cast of “Eubie.” Maurice also acknowledges some of his biggest influences, including his mentor Henry LeTang and VOP dance creator Frank Hatchett.

The documentary also covers how Maurice was affected when Gregory split off from him in 1972 to establish a separate career. Gregory still performed in musical theater, but he went on to become a star of films and TV shows, while Maurice stayed primarily in theater, where he sometimes replaced Gregory in touring productions of Broadway shows that previously starred Gregory. Maurice made his film debut in director Francis Ford Coppola’s 1984 drama “The Cotton Club,” in which he and Gregory played estranged, tap-dancing brothers who eventually reconcile. (The movie was also the last time that the two brothers danced together in public.)

The brothers’ relationship in “The Cotton Club” was very much a case of art imitating life. Although there was a period of about 10 years when Gregory and Maurice didn’t speak to each other (even when they lived just a few blocks from each other), they eventually reunited by the late 1990s, and remained close until Gregory’s untimely death in 2003. Maurice says in the movie (and his family and friends confirm) that he will never tell anyone why he and Gregory stopped talking to each other during their long estrangement. One of the most touching parts of the documentary is when Maurice accompanies Coppola to a 2017 Telluride Film Festival restoration/revival screening of “The Cotton Club,” and Maurice gets emotional during a post-screening Q&A when talking about Gregory.

Maurice also shows his tender side when it comes to his daughter, Cheryl Davis, whom he adopted with Silas Davis, who was Maurice’s partner from 1979 to 1996. (It’s another example of how Maurice was ahead of his time, because he adopted when gay adoptions weren’t allowed in most states.) Cheryl is in the movie, and Silas is briefly heard in in the film, in a voiceover interview discussing how they raised her.

“Maurice Hines: Bring Them Back” director John Carluccio, who is also the film’s editor and cinematographer, weaves together a fascinating story by not only respectfully telling Maurice’s life story but also not forgetting to present an overall historical context of the groundbreaking things that Maurice did as an openly gay black man in the entertainment industry. Many of his accomplishments were during a time when being an openly gay black man put him at high risk of being fired, assaulted, or worse.

The movie is also an unflinching look at how Maurice is dealing with aging. He shows some reclusive tendencies as a senior citizen who lives alone, and he openly discusses how much it bothers him to know that he’s losing his short-term memory. But no matter what age Maurice is, his charisma and zest for life are firmly intact, and it’s a joy to watch him in this movie. Simply put, “Maurice Hines: Bring Them Back” isn’t just a documentary about an underrated artist who at times was overshadowed by his more famous younger brother. The movie also shows how Maurice is a person of substance in his own right, and it’s an inspirational look at how someone can live life with passion and authenticity, while uplifting other people.

2019 DOC NYC movie review: ‘Stevenson Lost & Found’

November 18, 2019

by Carla Hay

James Stevenson
James Stevenson in “Stevenson Lost & Found” (Photo courtesy of Salient Films)

“Stevenson Lost & Found”

Directed by Sally Jean Williams

World premiere at DOC NYC in New York City on November 10, 2019.

If you’ve ever wondered why so many people despise or distrust big-city “liberal” media types for being “hypocrites” and “out of touch,” then this documentary about illustrator/author James Stevenson (best known for his illustrations for The New Yorker and The New York Times) is a perfect microcosm to show why there’s so much animosity toward mainstream corporate media. In an era where “liberal” media outlets, now more than ever before, are in the business of exposing sexism and racism, there are large segments of the “liberal” media who ignore these problems in their own companies, and don’t question that the people they choose to elevate to the top aren’t exactly a diverse group.

Things are slowly changing, but Stevenson represents the “old establishment” of media that takes for granted that being a white male automatically comes with privileges that shut out other people who don’t fit into that demographic. It’s the type of people who live or work in one of the most racially diverse cities in the world, and yet they spend decades or an entire life not having any close friends outside of their own race. They live in such a bubble that while they spend a lot of time in their media jobs pointing fingers at all the horrible racists and sexists in the world, they fail to see that they’re not part of the solution, and they might be part of the problem.

That’s not to say that Stevenson was a racist, but it’s very telling that the only people interviewed in this documentary are white. The people in his inner circle—including his closest colleagues at The New Yorker, The New York Times and Greenwillow Books—are all a homogenous group of New York media types who clearly think of themselves as elite intellectuals. It’s very obvious that in his long life and career (he remained employed by The New York Times until his death in February 2017 at the age of 87), Stevenson chose to be close to only a certain type of people, which is a shame because he was in a position that allowed him access to a much broader view of New York and the world. He wasn’t a rank-and-file member of the media. He had prestigious media outlets as platforms that most media people don’t have, and his job at these media outlets was to make social commentary in his work, albeit through comedic illustrations.

Stevenson is interviewed for this documentary, which gives you an idea of how long it’s taken for this movie to finally get a public screening through its world premiere at DOC NYC 2019. A lot has changed in the media landscape since Stevenson died. The New York Times and The New Yorker have been at the forefront of breaking #MeToo stories. Many more women in all walks of life, including the media, are starting to stand up for their rights and no longer tolerate sexism and other forms of bigotry.

It shouldn’t take just the #MeToo movement to point out sexism, and yet this documentary (whose title is inspired by Stevenson’s  work in the “Lost and Found New York” column in The New York Times) fails to address the fact that Stevenson’s illustrious career was the direct result of ingrained sexism in the media that gave and (in some cases) still gives the best opportunities to men. If you don’t believe it, think about how rare it is for a woman to become an illustrator at prominent newspapers and magazines. It’s not because there aren’t talented and qualified women who can do this type of job. Even if they apply for this job, chances are they won’t get hired for it.

Stevenson, who was educated at Yale University, talks about starting his media career as an office boy for The New Yorker, a magazine that Stevenson describes as having “snob appeal.” He then got promoted to being a joke writer. When he discovered that he had a knack for illustrating (he had no formal training), he became a combination of a joke writer and illustrator. It was basically a career path that owed a lot to luck, talent and connections, without any of the struggles that a woman or person of color would have experienced. We’ll never know if Stevenson ever really understood how opportunities could have been handed to him because of his race and gender, because he was obviously not asked to reflect on it in this film.

He also doesn’t talk about mentoring anyone, which is a little strange, because Stevenson wrote several children’s books, some of which are mentioned and shown in the movie. And yet there’s no sense that he was interested in helping young people achieve their dreams through mentorship or charity work. This documentary is so fawning toward Stevenson, that if he had done any significant charity work, it would have or should have been mentioned.

His first wife, Jane, was also an artist, but like most women of that era, she sacrificed having a career to raise a family. She and James had nine kids together, and some of their children are interviewed in this movie. Having this large family put James under such an enormous financial burden that his kids say that he often had “explosive anger” toward them. Stevenson acknowledges this flaw too, and he seems remorseful that he wasn’t a better father. But nowhere does the film address why he and Jane decided to have so many kids, knowing they would have a hard time affording such a large family.

And while Stevenson talks a great deal about all the pressure he was under to be the family’s breadwinner, nowhere does he acknowledge if Jane (a fellow artist) had any career ambitions outside of raising a family, or if he was ever supportive of her having a career, even if it was to help pay their bills. He clearly had the connections to help her get work as an artist, but all he says in the movie is that she channeled her creativity into being a nurturing mother. You get the feeling that the filmmakers never asked him these questions. And if they did, they should have put it in the movie.

Jane and James split up around 1980, and their divorce had long-lasting effects on the family. He eventually remarried (to Josephine “Josie” Merck, in 1993), and stayed in his second marriage until his death. Merck is also interviewed in the movie, but she doesn’t offer much insight, other than having the role as Stevenson’s adoring and doting wife who helped him recover from alcoholism.

“Stevenson Lost & Found” is very much a “bubble” biography that falls into the same trap that many authorized documentaries tend fall into when they’re about someone who has a certain level of fame: The filmmakers are so concerned about wanting the celebrity to like the film that they don’t ask hard questions or show how the celebrity’s life fits into a larger cultural context. It’s very easy to do a documentary as a star-struck fan. It’s much harder to be a more objective filmmaker and shine a light on some unflattering truths. A biography isn’t an “intimate portrait” if you just interview a small group of people in the subject’s inner circle, because that narrow view often makes the biography very superficial indeed.

Yes, Stevenson talks about his alcoholism in this movie, but nowhere do we hear how having this disease affected his job. Did he show up to work drunk? Was he tardy or absent because of his alcoholism? And if so, did people make excuses for him because of his clout? Did his work colleagues or supervisors know about his drinking problem and try to help him get treatment? These are all questions that are not asked in the movie.

Yes, Stevenson opens up about problems in his family (alcoholism, mental illness, divorce and possible verbal abuse of his children), but they’re framed in that bubble of not acknowledging how lucky he was that none of these problems ruined his career. Stevenson was no doubt part of a “good ol’ boy network” that protects its own and will condemn other people for making the same mistakes or having the same flaws and problems. Because the documentary doesn’t ask any real, probing questions and lets Stevenson control the narrative, it’s clear that director Sally Jean Williams wants this documentary to be a love letter to Stevenson instead of a truly insightful biography.

And although Stevenson’s work was based in humor, the movie barely scratches the surface in how his work was also meant to be social commentary, and yet he remained oblivious to addressing a lot of uncomfortable social issues. During Stevenson’s long career, New York City experienced many social ills and tragedies, such as the Son of Sam killings; the Central Park jogger rape case and the Central Park Five who were wrongly convicted of the crime; the World Trade Center bombing; 9/11; and Eric Garner’s chokehold death by a NYPD officer. Stevenson acknowledged some of these issues in his work, but the movie shows that Stevenson avoided a lot of commentary about the city’s social tensions over race and class, and mainly focused instead on more light-hearted concerns for the privileged set. It’s yet another example of living in that bubble that doesn’t really like to include or acknowledge non-Caucasian people in this very racially diverse city.

As for Stevenson’s own background, he says he went to a “radical” high school that allowed the students to have a lot of creative freedom. His family and friends talk about how close he was to his mother, and how distant he was from his father, who used to be in the Army and was frequently away from home. Ironically, Stevenson said one of his biggest regrets is that when he became a parent, he also was a frequently absent father because of his work. His father ended up being an architect, and is described as “formal” and “stern.” Stevenson relays an anecdote that probably influenced his career ambitions. He said his father once told him: “I don’t care what you do, as long as you do it better than anyone else on earth.”

Stevenson should not be criticized just because he was a white male who benefited from racism and sexism in his chosen profession. He was obviously very talented and worked very hard for all the success that he had. And despite the flaws in his personality (no one is perfect), he was an upstanding person who never abandoned his family. All of that should be commended, but not at the expense of exploring why an exalted media person who was supposed to be an observer of the world through a New York City lens chose to shut out a fascinating amount of diversity he could have had in his own world.

There are many talented artists in this world, but a truly great artist is one who goes outside comfort zones, pushes boundaries, and uses any position of power as a platform to help others who aren’t as fortunate. Stevenson was clearly not that kind of artist. In fact, the documentary points out that he was very resistant to change and different points of view. According to his former colleagues at The New Yorker, he and some other old-time staffers quit the magazine because they couldn’t stand working for Tina Brown, who made sweeping changes when she was editor-in-chief of The New Yorker from 1992 to 1998. Coincidence or not, she was also the first (and only) female editor-in-chief in The New Yorker’s history.

The filmmakers of “Stevenson Lost & Found” missed an opportunity to present his story in the social context of why he ended up in his privileged position and why an illustrator whose job was to provide social commentary chose to surround himself with a very limited social circle. If Stevenson had a diverse group of close friends of different races and backgrounds (it’s obvious that he chose not to), his world view would have been much more culturally informed. And by “close friends,” that means people who you vacation with and who are welcome in your home anytime, not co-workers or colleagues you only interact with in a business setting.

The documentary doesn’t even have Stevenson’s thoughts on the current and future state of the media. In this day and age of many print media outlets consolidating or going out of business, it’s become increasingly rare for anyone in the media to expect job security for decades at the same outlet. Perhaps Stevenson, who had the same employer for decades and spent most of his career in the heyday of print media, couldn’t relate to what younger generations of media people are experiencing, and maybe he didn’t care to comment on the problems of modern media. Or maybe he just wasn’t asked. We’ll never know, because it’s not in the movie. And in the end, with more people expressing their distrust of the media, this movie shows that just like in society at large, success in the media isn’t really about being “liberal” or “conservative.” It’s about being “privileged” or “not privileged.”

2019 DOC NYC movie review: ‘Tyson’

November 18, 2019

by Carla Hay

Mike Tyson in “Tyson” (2019)


Directed by David Michaels

World premiere at DOC NYC in New York City on November 9, 2019.

Not to be confused with the 2009 Mike Tyson documentary “Tyson” (directed by James Toback), this new “Tyson” documentary (directed by David Michaels) is also about Mike Tyson, but it’s an updated look at the former boxing champ’s life. There’s also another movie called “Tyson,” which was a 1995 HBO biopic, starring Michael Jai White as Tyson. The filmmakers of the Michaels-directed “Tyson” movie made a huge mistake by choosing this title for the film, since it’s bound to confuse people who might think the movie is the other “Tyson” documentary. So with all these “Tyson” movies in the world, how is this second documentary different from the first one?

For starters, the Michaels-directed “Tyson” documentary doesn’t cover anything new in Tyson’s pre-2008 life that wasn’t already covered in the Toback-directed first “Tyson” documentary. The Michaels-directed “Tyson” documentary should’ve had a title like “The Redemption of Mike Tyson.” That’s essentially the theme of the film, as it pushes a narrative that Tyson is now an upstanding family man, after having a long history of violence and abuse against others. Tyson is interviewed in the documentary, as well as his current and third wife, Kiki; his daughter Mikey; his son Amir; his biographer Larry Sloman; his addiction specialist Sean McFarland; and his longtime friends Dave Malen, Al B. Sure and Damon Elliott. It’s a very one-sided narrative, because Tyson’s critics are not interviewed at all.

The 2009 “Tyson” documentary was unique because Tyson was the only person interviewed for the movie; the rest of the film consisted of archival footage. The result was that the 2009 “Tyson” documentary was rambling and flawed, but a riveting and unflinching look at Tyson’s troubled soul. There were things he said in that first documentary that would be cause for alarm in this #MeToo era. For example, he called his rape accuser Desiree Washington “wretched swine,” and admitted that although he “took advantage” of many women, he didn’t take advantage of her. He also vividly described how he liked to sexually dominate women.

Even though Tyson was convicted in 1992 of raping former beauty contestant Washington, and he spent three years in prison for it, he still denies committing the crime. His denial is more muted in Michaels’ “Tyson” documentary (which doesn’t have the victim-shaming language the first “Tyson” documentary had), but Tyson’s anger over spending time in prison for the crime is still palpable.

His short-lived, disastrous first marriage to actress Robin Givens (who was married to Tyson from 1988 to 1989) is portrayed in the Michaels-directed documentary as mostly her fault, even though Tyson has admitted in previous interviews that he physically and emotionally abused her. In this documentary, Givens and her mother are described as nasty, lying gold diggers who targeted Tyson to con him into marrying Givens, because she allegedly lied to him about being pregnant. Although Tyson shed tears in both documentaries when discussing his traumatic childhood, his past mistakes, and deaths of loved ones, director Michaels portrays Tyson in a much more filtered, sympathetic way than what viewers see in director Toback’s “Tyson” documentary, because Michaels allows several Tyson family members and associates to constantly defend him and insist that Tyson is one of the sweetest people they’ve ever met.

In the Toback-directed documentary, Tyson was divorced from his second ex-wife, Monica Turner, and had not yet begun the next chapter in his life as a professional entertainer. Tyson made a comeback in pop culture with his memorable cameo playing himself in the 2009 blockbuster comedy film “The Hangover.” In 2014, Tyson became the co-creator and star of Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim animated series “The Mike Tyson Mysteries.” In the Michaels-directed documentary, Tyson admits he was still strung out on drugs during his “Hangover” comeback period, and it took him several years and multiple stints in rehab to get to where he is now.

Tyson claims he’s now clean and sober, and that his kids (he currently has seven children by three different women) are now his top priority. (One of the movie’s opening scenes is of Tyson accompanying his daughter Milan to her tennis game.) His wife Kiki is described as a “breath of fresh air” and an “angel,” but like a carefully Photoshopped and curated Instagram account, her marriage to Tyson, as it’s presented in this movie, looks too good to be true. The cracks show when Tyson admits that he’s never been faithful to his wives and partners, and that infidelity is one of the main reasons why he’s had a string of failed relationships. Kiki also acknowledges that she and Tyson often argue, but family members (including her parents) say she’s strong-willed and is no pushover.

Kiki describes their rocky courtship as something she chose to endure in order to get a so-called happy ending. They started dating when she was 19, and he was 29, and he broke her heart when he abruptly married second wife Monica in 1997. After Monica and Tyson divorced in 2003, Kiki and Tyson reunited and got married in 2009, the same year that Tyson’s 4-year-old daughter Exodus tragically died from an accidental strangling by exercise equipment. It’s a loss that Tyson says he’ll never get over, and his most sympathetic moment in the movie is when he cries as he talks about losing Exodus.

One of the recurring themes in both “Tyson” documentaries is how he describes himself as a “pig” but also “generous” to a fault, and how he lost millions to what he calls “leeches” in his life, which led to him declaring bankruptcy in 2003. Based on the lavish spending by him, Kiki and ex-wife Monica (he openly talks about these spending sprees in the film), his money problems won’t be going away anytime soon.

Tyson has stayed out of trouble for years, so maybe he really has changed into someone who no longer abuses drugs, alcohol or women. Maybe he really is no longer the conflicted bully that he had the reputation of being for most of his life. But if there’s another documentary about him in 10 years (and please let it have another title besides “Tyson”), we’ll have to see if this reformed Mike Tyson is real or is a façade.