Culture Representation: Taking place on a farm in an unnamed Norwegian city, the documentary film “Gunda” focuses on a sow (female pig) named Gunda, her piglets, a flock of chickens and a herd of cows.
Culture Clash: Farm life can be precarious for animals that are bred as meat for humans.
Culture Audience: “Gunda” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching a minimalist animal documentary, with no voiceover narration, captions or music.
Neither brilliant nor mindless, the documentary film “Gunda” is a minimalist chronicle of animal life on a Norwegian farm in an unnamed city, from the perspectives of some of the animals. The movie was filmed in black and white, so it looks artsier than it really is. “Gunda is best enjoyed by people who are inclined to like animal documentaries.
Directed by Victor Kosakovsky, “Gunda” stands out from most other animal documentaries because it has no voiceover narration, captions or music. Therefore, whatever viewers get out of the movie will be exactly what’s shown on screen, not because the filmmakers are interpreting or explaining the animals’ actions. Any humans who are briefly shown in the documentary (to transport animals) do not speak in the movie.
A female pig named Gunda gets most of the screen time because it shows her from the moment she gives birth to a litter of about 11 pigs. (The documentary’s other animals don’t have names in the movie.) The first scene in the movie is of Gunda giving birth to this litter. Not long after she gives birth, Gunda accidentally steps on one of the piglets, which screams out in pain but is unharmed.
In addition to the pigs, the movie shows two cows and some chickens, with particular focus on a one-legged chicken. An example of a scene involving the chickens is when a chicken tentatively steps out of a cage, where it was confined with other chickens. There are closeups of the chicken’s feet as it steps on the grass. A visually striking scene with the cows is when at least 25 cows run outside of a barn, and this gallop is shown in slow-motion. The cows are also shown outside while it’s raining.
Viewers of “Gunda,” which was filmed for less than a year, get to see the piglets grow older. There are multiple scenes of Gunda nursing them. There’s a scene where the piglets go in an open field to play and rough house with each other. And there’s the inevitable scene of Gunda wallowing and resting in mud.
Because this movie takes place on a farm, not an animal sanctuary, these animals are being raised for one main reason: as meat for humans. One of the exceptions is an elderly female cow that’s shown in the documentary. Because there are no humans talking in the movie, it’s never explained why this female cow was lucky enough to survive and wasn’t killed for meat.
“Gunda” director Kosakovsky was inspired to make the film because of an experience he had in his childhood. He describes it in his director’s statement in the “Gunda” production notes: “Growing up I was very much a city kid, but at the age of 4, I spent a few months in a village in the countryside, where I met my best friend Vasya. He was much younger than me—just a few weeks old when we met—but over time he became my dearest friend and the times we spent together are some of the most cherished memories from my childhood. One day, when we were still young, Vasya was killed and served as pork cutlets for a New Year’s Eve dinner. I was devastated and immediately became (probably) the first vegetarian kid in the Soviet Union.”
It should be noted that Oscar-winning actor Joaquin Phoenix, who is a well-known vegan and animal rights activist, is an executive producer of “Gunda.” Is the movie a vegetarian/vegan propaganda film? No, because it doesn’t preach about how these animals should be treated. It just shows a “slice of life” view of what it was like for these particular animals on this particular farm.
In that sense, “Gunda” is like any other documentary about farm animals that will give people more thought about animals that are killed for human consumption. Almost every up-close documentary about animals will show that animals have emotions and form family bonds with each other. It’s not revelatory to anyone who’s seen a lot of animal documentaries or has experienced living with domesticated animals.
“Gunda” is at its best when it shows the relationship that Gunda has with her piglets. The cinematography brings an intimacy to how this relationship evolves as the piglets become more independent. The ending of the movie is not surprising, but it will still tug at people’s heartstrings.
If “Gunda” could be described in terms of independent cinema, it’s the type of movie that’s like a mumblecore documentary for farm animals. There’s no specific, exciting narrative, because viewers are basically watching farm animals live their lives. It’s the type of movie best appreciated if viewers have no distractions and can see the movie on the largest screen possible. It’s hard to imagine “Gunda” holding people’s interest for very long if they watch the movie on a phone.
“Gunda” also isn’t recommended for people who get irritated by constant sounds of pigs grunting and squealing. It’s sounds obvious that you’ll hear these noises when watching this movie, but without any music to drown out the animal sounds or to manipulate emotions, the sounds of pig grunts and squeals become even more pronounced. People will either tolerate it or be turned off by it.
As a technical feat, “Gunda” isn’t very mindblowing, but it gets the job done in all the right places. This is a movie that might bore people who prefer animal documentaries that were filmed in exotic and difficult-to-film locations. But for people who want an intimate look at the common ground between the emotions in animals and humans, “Gunda” offers an immersive experience that requires patience to watch the entire movie.
Neon released “Gunda” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on December 11, 2020. The movie goes into wider release on April 16, 2021.
Culture Representation: Taking place in New Jersey, the documentary film “Mallory” features a predominantly white group of people (with a few African Americans) discussing the life and legacy of 12-year-old Mallory Grossman, who committed suicide in 2017, after being bullied some students at her school.
Culture Clash: Mallory’s parents (Dianne and Seth Grossman) have sued the school district for not doing more to stop the bullying, while the bullying students were not punished.
Culture Audience: “Mallory″ will appeal primarily to people want to learn more about what to do to help with protection from and prevention of childhood bullying and suicide.
The documentary film “Mallory” should be essential viewing for anyone who cares about helping prevent bullying that can lead to suicides. It’s not an easy film to watch for people who are triggered by these issues. And the documentary doesn’t pretend to have all of the answers. But “Mallory” is a raw and very personal look at how one family experienced tragedy from these issues and is doing their best to that heal through educating people on what to do before it’s too late.
Directed by Ash Patiño, “Mallory” tells the story of 12-year-old Mallory Grossman, who committed suicide on June 14, 2017, by hanging herself in her bedroom closet at her home in Rockaway Township, New Jersey. Her suicide came after several months of Mallory experiencing vicious bullying at school. She wasn’t getting physically assaulted. She was being verbally harassed and cyberbullied by some female students at her school. And on at least one occasion, one of the bullies told Mallory that she should kill herself.
On the surface, Mallory seemed to have an idyllic childhood. Her parents Dianne Grossman and Seth Grossman were happily married. They lived with Mallory and their older daughter Carlee in a comfortable, upper-middle-class home in a safe neighborhood. Carlee is not interviewed in the documentary, but she is seen in footage at events for Mallory’s Army, the non-profit anti-bullying organization that Dianne and Seth Grossman founded in 2018, in Mallory’s honor. Mallory excelled in gymnastics. And for a time, Mallory was also a cheerleader.
Several people who knew Mallory—including family members, schoolmates, teachers and other kids’ parents—describe her in the documentary as a happy-go-lucky, compassionate child who always knew how to make other people smile. Mallory’s mother Dianne also says, “Mallory connected with nature.” The documentary includes several clips of Mallory in home videos where she appears to be a well-adjusted, happy kid.
Sounds perfect, right? Well, perfect isn’t reality. As Mallory’s parents say in the documentary, Mallory seemed to be a happy child to many people. But the happiness was often a façade that hid her inner turmoil, especially in the last several months of her life.
Mallory had a best friend named Bianca Marchese, who is interviewed in the documentary. Bianca and her mother Katee Petro speak highly of Mallory and share a lot of fond memories of her. Some of the home video clips include Bianca and Mallory goofing off together. And yet, Mallory would often complain to her mother that she had “no friends” at Copeland Middle School, where she had transferred in the new school year.
Why was Mallory being targeted by these bullies? (Mallory’s alleged bullies and their parents are not interviewed for the documentary.) Dianne says she believes that the bullies were jealous of Mallory because they perceived her to be a privileged rich girl even though the Grossman family isn’t wealthy. Mallory was also bullied over her gymnastics accomplishments, and the harassment got so bad that Mallory quit her gymnastics team.
Bullying doesn’t just come in the form of insulting people or assaulting them. It can also come in the form of making people feel like an outcast by refusing to let them sit next to you and excluding them from social gatherings where they should be included. It happened to Mallory a lot at school, according to what she told her parents. Students and teachers at the school witnessed Mallory being mistreated in this way, according to several people in the documentary. And still, nothing was done to help Mallory by anyone at her school.
It’s one thing to have social cliques. It’s another thing to cruelly go out of your way to let everyone know why someone is being excluded from a group, to gang up on someone to maintain the exclusion, and to pressure other people to exclude that person too. Some people handle bullying better than others. For those who are mentally or emotionally fragile, it can be too much and can lead to self-harm.
Dianne comments in the documentary about the deep emotional pain that Mallory hid from her family. On the day of the suicide, “All she said was, ‘Hey, I had a bad day. When are you coming home?’ The sadness must’ve been overwhelming.” Seth adds of Mallory’s tragically short life: “We’re definitely lucky we got 12 years … There was a special uniqueness about her, from when she was a year old.”
In some parts of the documentary, Seth and Dianne are interviewed in Mallory’s room. And in one heartbreaking scene, they describe the day that Mallory died. Seth found her non-responsive in the closet. Dianne was in New York City with Carlee that day to see the Broadway show “Waitress,” but they rushed home when they heard that Mallory had hurt herself. It wasn’t until Dianne and Carlee saw the emergency medics and police at their house that they knew how bad it was.
In the months before Mallory’s death, Dianne and Seth Grossman repeatedly brought their concerns about the bullying to school officials and to the parents of the bullies. And the Grossmans say that nothing was done by the school or the parents. Dianne and Seth also say that although they noticed Mallory was sometimes sad about the way she was treated in school, they had no idea that she could be suicidal.
And that’s why the Grossmans filed a lawsuit against the Rockaway Township Board of Education, Rockaway Township and employees of Copeland Middle School, who are all accused of failing to protect Mallory from the excessive bullying. The Grossmans have received a lot of national media attention for this lawsuit, which has not yet been resolved, as of this writing. Any of the defendants who publicly responded have denied the allegations, but they are not interviewed in this documentary.
After the lawsuit was filed, Greg McGann resigned as Rockaway Township school district superintendent. The documentary includes commentary from a teacher (and obvious friend of the Grossman family) named Karin Kasper, who was not an employee of Copeland Middle School. However, she has this opinion of what happened in how the school handled the bullying of Mallory: “The school made it look like it was Mallory’s fault. There’s a huge amount of victim blaming going on in how they treated her.”
Since Mallory’s death, Dianne has made speaking appearances at many schools to educate people about bullying and suicide prevention. The documentary includes some emotionally powerful clips of her speaking at schools and sharing her personal story about what happened to Mallory. Dianne sums up one of the main messages that she wants to get across in her speaking engagements and with her Mallory’s Army work: “If this can happen to Mallory Grossman, it can happen to any one of our kids.” After one of these speaking appearances, Dianne comments in a documentary interview that the students who tend to cry the most at her speaking appearances are the bullies and the students who are being bullied.
The documentary also includes footage of several Mallory’s Army charity events, including a 5K running marathon, a hockey game, and a motorcycle ride. There’s also footage of student workshops where students act out scenarios of how they can prevent bullying and how to protect other students who are being bullied. It’s repeated several times in the documentary that bullying realistically won’t go away, but schools, parents and students need to be held more accountable in how bullying is handled.
Several people are interviewed in this film, but the documentary isn’t too overstuffed with talking heads. The interviewees include Dianne Grossman’s sister Angela Piazza; Diane Grossman’s mother Teresa Toella, and family friends Heather Gallagher and Meredith Lutz, whose son David Lutz was a friend of Mallory’s who says that he if had been able to see the bullying himself at the school, he would have tried to protect her.
Also interviewed are North Star gymnastic coaches Melissa Jones and Christian Campitiello, who have high praise for Mallory; Grossman family attorneys Diane Sammons and Bruce Nagel, who are partners at Nagel Rice Law Firm; licensed professional counselor Emily Ryzuk; Mallory’s Army member Jenn Stillwell; Inez Barbiero of Core Growth Strategies, which helps small businesses; and Teresa Reuter and Todd Schobel, co-directors of anti-bullying for STOPit Solutions, a Holmdel, New Jersey-based tech group aimed at stopping cyberbullying. There are some people (children and adults) interviewed who have experienced childhood bullying, including Daniel Mendoza, Keisha Johnson and Briana Beuselinck.
The Grossmans don’t just want change in the Rockaway school system through their lawsuit. They also want legislative change that can better protect school children from being bullied, even if they’re not in the Rockaway school system. Because the public educational system in the U.S. is controlled by individual states, the Grossmans are starting with their home state of New Jersey.
The documentary shows Dianne meeting with New Jersey state senator Joe Pennacchio of District 26 to talk about passing a New Jersey law to hold the state’s schools and parents of bullies more accountable for bullying that takes place in these schools. In the meeting, Pennacchio expresses his support for a possible bill proposal that parents of bullies have to go to court if their children who are accused of bullying. As of this writing, nothing has been changed in New Jersey laws about bullying in New Jersey schools since Mallory’s death.
The “Mallory” documentary has some minor post-production flaws that don’t take away from the movie’s overall message. Some of the editing in “Mallory” could have been fine-tuned better. And the sound mixing is very uneven at times. However, most people who watch this documentary would agree that the movie is very effective in its intention and that watching this film is both heartbreaking and inspiring.
Gravitas Ventures released “Mallory” digital, VOD, Blu-ray and DVD on February 23, 2021.
Culture Representation: The documentary “Wojnarowicz” features a nearly all-white group of people (and one African American), mostly from the U.S. avant-garde/experimental art community, discussing the life and legacy of New York City-based artist/activist David Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS in 1992, at the age of 37.
Culture Clash:Wojnarowicz battled against homophobia, HIV/AIDS bigotry and right-wing conservatives who thought that his art was too obscene to be displayed in mainstream galleries.
Culture Audience: “Wojnarowicz” will appeal primarily to people interested in the history of the New York City art scene from the 1980s to early 1990s, as well as stories about influential AIDS activists.
Some artists want to keep politics out of their work. But the late artist/activist David Wojnarowicz believed that every work of art is some kind of political statement. The illuminating documentary “Wojnarowicz” tells his life story in a way that would have gotten Wojnarowicz’s approval: by crafting the movie like a cinematic version of an art installation retrospective. Directed by Chris McKim, much of the foundation of the “Wojnarowicz” documentary comes from Wojnarowicz’s diary-like audio recordings, journals, photos and Super 8 films that he made from his early 20s until his tragic death from AIDS in 1992, at the age on 37. Many of Wojnarowicz’s loved ones, friends and associates provide commentary, but their interviews (with a few exceptions) are voiceovers only in the movie.
If people put together a list of 20th century visual artists from New York City’s avant-garde art scene who were controversial and unapologetically presented gay/queer erotica in their art, then Robert Mapplethorpe and Wojnarowicz would definitely be on the list. Wojnarowicz wasn’t as famous as Mapplethorpe, who preceded Wojnarowicz and broke barriers for LGBTQ-themed art in the 1970s. However, Wojnarowicz was more versatile (Mapplethorpe’s main art form was photography, while Wojnarowicz created art in many forms), and Wojnarowicz was a lot more outspoken about his political views than many of his contemporaries.
Because much of the “Wojnarowicz” documentary is told in Wojnarowicz’s voice from his personal recordings, it gives viewers an insightful look into his personality and his innermost thoughts. He had a lot of anger and cynicism, but he could also be very sensitive and empathetic. The documentary includes some audio from media interviews that he did, but they aren’t as interesting as the private recordings that he made to document his life.
The movie also reveals a treasure trove of mementos and previously unreleased footage that undoubtedly make this documentary the definitive visual biography of Wojnarowicz. It’s an impressive historical perspective of the New York avant-garde art scene in the mid-1980s to early 1990s. Based on who’s interviewed in “Wojnarowicz,” director McKim wanted to include, with few exceptions, people who knew Wojnarowicz personally to give their comments for the movie. You won’t find Wojnarowicz’s critics or talking heads who never met Wojnarowicz taking up too much of the documentary’s time with any of their opinions.
Those interviewed in the documentary include retired social worker Tom Rauffenbart (who was Wojnarowicz’s boyfriend from the late 1980s until Wojnarowicz’s death) and Wojnarowicz older brother Steven. Also interviewed are Cynthia Carr, author of “Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz” and art critic Carlo McCormick. Other commentators include David Kiehl, curator emeritus of the Whitney Museum of American Art; Stephen Koch, author/director of the Peter Hujar Archive; gallery owner/curator Barry Blinderman; Anita Vitale, formerly of the New York City AIDS Case Management Unit; and Dr. Bob Friedman, who was Wojnarowicz’s physician when Wojnarowicz was living with AIDS.
But the people who have the most to say in the documentary are those who were Wojnarowicz’s contemporaries in New York City’s avant-garde and bohemian artists scene. They include writer Fran Lebowitz; filmmaker Richard Kern; Civilian Warfare gallery co-founder Alan Barrows; artist/collaborator Kiki Smith; filmmaker/photographer Marion Scemama; photographer Dirk Rowntree; curator Nan Goldin; artist Judy Glantzman; Gracie Mansion Gallery founder Gracie Mansion; former Gracie Mansion employee Sur Rodney Sur; P.P.O.W. Gallery co-founders Wendy Olsoff and Penny Pilkington; and former 3 Teens Kill 4 bandmates Jesse Hutberg, Doug Bressler, Julie Hair and Brian Butterick.
Wojnarowicz’s critics are not interviewed in the documentary, but their perspectives are shown through archival news footage. Wojnarowicz’s controversies are not glossed over in the movie, and he exposed a lot of unflattering information about himself. For example, Wojnarowicz spent much of his teens and early 20s as a sex worker. He also freely admitted that he was psychologically damaged from growing up with a physically and emotionally abusive alcoholic father.
Perhaps the most conventional thing about “Wojnarowicz” is that it’s told in chronological order, which helps give the movie a coherent narrative. In his own words, through his personal audio diaries and media interviews, Wojnarowicz talks about his unhappy childhood, which led him to be a frequent runaway, beginning at the age of 11. Born on September 14, 1954, Red Bank, New Jersey, Wojnarowicz grew up with two older siblings: brother Steven (who was two years older) and their sister Pat. Wojnarowicz’s New York Times obituary lists two other siblings named Linda and Peter, but they’re not mentioned in the documentary.
When he was 11, Wojnarowicz’s mother Dolores separated from her violent, alcoholic husband and moved with her children to New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. Moving to New York City would have a profound effect on David as an artist, since much of his identity would come from being a New York artist, specifically from Manhattan’s Lower East Side/East Village. However, at one point in his childhood, perhaps because he was a frequent runaway, he ended up as a ward of the court in an orphanage, where he says his father temporarily kidnapped him.
David’s brother Steven says that David didn’t show any real interest in art when they were children: “We were too consumed with trying to survive.” However, Wojnarowicz biographer Carr says that Wojnarowicz developed his artistic tendencies as a teenager, when he discovered the work of French writers Arthur Rimbaud and Jean Genet. Carr explains why Wojnarowicz felt a kinship with Rimbaud and Genet: “They are outlaws and rebels. And he always identified with outsiders his whole life, and these were the outsider writers.”
Wojnarowicz was no child prodigy, because it took a while for him to find his identity as an artist. By his own admission, he spent most of his teen years and early 20s living on the streets and being a hustler. It’s made pretty clear that Wojnarowicz knew from an early age that he was gay. What isn’t detailed in the documentary is Wojnarowicz’s coming out story or how his parents reacted when he began living openly as a gay person. Based on what’s said about Wojnarowicz’s abusive father, one can assume that the father’s reaction wasn’t a good one.
At the age of 21, Wojnarowicz took a hitchhiking road trip across several U.S. states with his friend John Hall. This 1976 road trip inspired the first-known audio diaries that Wojnarowicz kept. The documentary includes a clip from one of his audio diary entries, where he describes in vivid detail a visit they made in Jamestown, North Dakota.
In September 1978, at age 23, Wojnarowicz and his sister Pat moved to Paris. He submitted a written collection of monologues called “Sounds of Distance,” but it was rejected by all the publishers he sent it to in Paris. According to Wojnarowicz, one publisher told him “the people in the monologues were wasted lives and a waste of time to write about them.” He took this criticism as a badge of honor for this collection: “Everything she said just reinforced my belief that it’s important.”
In June 1979, Wojnarowicz moved back to New York City because he says he missed the city’s unique energy. He describes Paris as a city that gives people a sense of security, and he preferred the edginess of New York City. Upon his return to New York, Wojnarowicz really began to find his identity as an artist. And ironically, it somewhat started with him paying tribute to one of his idols.
He made a face mask of Rimbaud and would wear it around the city. The documentary includes photos of him wearing the Rimbaud mask while on the street, in a diner or on the subway. This mask would later become one of Wojnarowicz’s most famous art pieces. But in a city with a lot of eccentric artists, Wojnarowicz needed more than just a Rimbaud mask to stand out.
Wojnarowicz began experimenting with different art forms, such as painting, stenciling, silk screening, sculpting and photography. He was also lead vocalist of an alternative rock band that wasn’t so much punk as it was spoken word anarchy set to music. That band was 3 Teens Kill 4, which got some recognition in the local music scene, but Wojnarowicz quit the band in 1982 over creative differences.
It was while he was a struggling artist that Wojnarowicz met the most influential person in his life: photographer Peter Hujar, who was well-known in the New York artist scene but always remained on the fringes of the upper echelon of portrait photographers in New York. Wojnarowicz and Hujar (who was 20 years older than Wojnarowicz) started out as lovers and then eventually settled into being best friends, with Hujar also being a mentor to Wojnarowicz.
Lebowitz said that even though she knew that Wojnarowicz and Hujar were once romantically involved with each other, they always gave her the impression of having a father/son relationship. Koch of the Peter Hujar Archive describes the Wojnarowicz/Hujar relationship as “more interesting than Van Gogh and Gaugin—very special and unique.” Wojnarowicz’s boyfriend Rauffenbart says when his own romance with Wojnarowicz began to get serious, he had to find a way to adjust to the close friendship that Wojnarowicz had with Lujar, because Wojnarowicz made it clear to everyone that Lujar would always be his best friend.
Wojnarowicz met some influential people in the art scene through Lujar. And when he was in 3 Teens Kill 4, Wojnarowicz also started to get some recognition, but not all of it was for the music. In the early 1980s, the band would often hang out at a nightclub called Danceteria (also hangout for artist Keith Haring and Madonna), which got raided for violation of a liquor license.
A small riot broke out and Wojnarowicz threw a molotov cocktail at a police car. He and some other band members were arrested, and they later threw a benefit show to raise funds for their legal defense. Butterick says that they didn’t really need to do the benefit concert because “the mob paid for the lawyers to get our cases dismissed.”
It was during this time of youthful rebellion that Wojnarowicz decided he wanted to stand out as not just unusual but also controversial, with art that some people might find disgusting. In an audio clip, he describes going to the city’s meatpacking district, finding discarded cow parts, and using those parts to create sculptures. He says that he also poured cow blood on stairs as part of his art.
At this particular time in the 1980s, there was no “hip” art gallery scene on the Lower East Side. As Sur describes it: “There were no resources like now, where you can go to the Lower East Side, where there are a dozen galleries you’ve never heard of showing stuff. There was nothing! There was SoHo, there was uptown and there were these established galleries. We didn’t feel we had entree into there, so we created space so we could show our work and have fun!”
This burgeoning alternative art scene was different from the type of scene that Andy Warhol led in the 1960s. Warhol and like-minded artists always maintained a level of glamour and more than a bit of fascination with celebrities. The art scene that Wojnarowicz came from wanted to shun the establishment for as long as they could, with art that was intentionally designed to be rudely provocative.
A lot of their work was literally created from garbage and other filthy throwaway items. The erotica in their art was unapologetically raw and could easily be described as pornographic. And because Wojnarowicz was known for putting a lot of male homosexuality in his art, it was automatically deemed not acceptable for certain galleries and other venues that showcase art.
Civilian Warfare, Gracie Mansion Gallery and P.P.W.O. Gallery were some of the places that launched to showcase art that other galleries would reject. Wojnarowicz found a home for a lot of his art at these galleries, before and after his art became accepted by more mainstream New York City art venues, such as the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art. Civilian Warfare co-founder Barrows says: “We were really drawn to David’s militaristic imagery.”
The year 1982 was a pivotal one for Wojnarowicz. He left 3 Teens Kill 4 that year. His monologue collection “Sounds of Distance,” which had been rejected by publishers in Paris, was published. And 1982 was the year that Wojnarowicz and artist Mike Bidlo began making art in abandoned piers along the Manhattan side of the Hudson River.
Wojnarowicz’s frequent collaborator Smith (who took a well-known photo of Wojnarowicz posed as a bloodied assault victim) says in the documentary that the abandoned piers, which were the sizes of warehouses, had piles of discarded files from Bellevue Hospital. Bellevue had thrown away a lot of illustrations made by the patients in the hospital’s psychiatric facilities. Wojnarowicz used a lot of those illustrations in his art that he created at the piers. The piers were eventually demolished after city officials found out that the property was being illegally used by artists as creative spaces.
In 1983, Wojnarowicz’s first solo exhibition at Civilian Warfare led to another turning point in Wojnarowicz’s career. New York Times arts journalist Grace Glueck did a feature article about East Village artists, and the article prominently featured Wojnarowicz. After that New York Times article was published, Wojnarowicz became a darling of trendy art collectors. As described in the documentary, people began showing up in limousines to buy Wojnarowicz’s art.
Blinderman, who was the owner of New York City’s Semaphore Gallery at the time, remembers paying $3,000 for what would turn out to be one of Wojnarowicz’s most famous and controversial art pieces. The art piece’s title includes a homophobic slur that won’t be repeated in this review. But Wojnarowicz chose the title and the content of the art (which has homoerotic images) as an “in your face” response to homophobia.
In 1985, Wojnarowicz reached another milestone: He was chosen to be part of the Whitney Biennial. And he was commissioned to do an installation for the Mnunchin Gallery. (The gallery was founded Robert Mnuchin, the father of future Donald Trump political ally Steve Mnuchin, who served in the Trump administration as U.S. Secretary of the Treasury.)
In an audio clip Wojnarowicz says that because he “despises rich people,” he purposely made the installation as disgusting as possible, with a lot of insect-infested garbage. Robert Mnuchin’s wife Adriana was reportedly repulsed by the bugs crawling around in the pristine gallery. However, Wojnarowicz was a hot brand name at the time, so he got away with doing what he wanted for the installation.
Wojnarowicz also dabbled in filmmaking, including collaborating with Kern on a short independent film called “You Killed Me First.” Wojnarowicz’s role in the film was as an abusive father. In a disturbing re-enactment of what his father did when Wojnarowicz was a child, there’s a scene in the movie of him sadistically killing a rabbit in front of his children, who are portrayed in the movie by adult actors. The rabbit wasn’t killed for food but out of pure cruelty.
Considering Wojnarowicz’s abusive childhood, his history of being a sex worker, and being a part of an art scene awash with illegal drugs, it’s not surprising that Wojnarowicz was a drug abuser. In the documentary, it’s mentioned that Wojnarowicz became addicted to heroin (he used needles), but Hujar got Wojnarowicz to quit heroin by issuing an ultimatum: If Wojnarowicz didn’t stop using heroin, then Hujar would cut Wojnarowicz out of his life. The documentary doesn’t mention if Wojnarowicz ever received any therapy for his problems with drugs or mental health. You get the feeling that he never did.
Rauffenbart, who says in the documentary that he met Wojnarowicz at a gay porn theater called the Bijou Theater, describes himself as someone whose life was transformed by Wojnarowicz. Before he met Wojnarowicz, he was used to hanging around very conventional people. Rauffenbart gives credit to Wojnarowicz for opening up his world to more variety and more fascinating people.
However, Wojnarowicz’s world was about to be rocked by a tragedy: At the age of 53, Hujar died of AIDS in 1987, just 11 months after he was diagnosed. It was also the year that Wojnarowicz and Rauffenbart found out that they were also HIV-positive. These diagnoses and the discrimination experienced by AIDS patients motivated Wojnarowicz to become an AIDS activist.
As for his career, Wojnarowicz learned the hard way how fickle the art world could be when his “Four Elements” show, which was dedicated to Hujar, flopped with audiences. The show had art with the themes of Earth, Water, Fire and Wind and included photos of Huhar on his deathbed. Toward the end of the documentary, there’s a poignant scene of Rauffenbart, accompanied by friend Vitale and P.P.O.W. Gallery co-founders Olsoff and Pilkington, attending a preview of the Whitney Museum’s 2018 Wojnarowicz retrospective.
It’s mentioned in the documentary that although Wojnarowicz and his sister Pat remained fairly close, his relationship with brother Steven was a lot more strained. They were estranged from the mid-1970s until they reunited in 1985. However, after Wojnarowicz was diagnosed with AIDS in 1987, he and Steven had a major falling out over what Wojnarowicz perceived to be Steve’s homophobia, and they never saw or spoke to each other again. Wojnarowicz audio recorded their final argument, part of which is included in the documentary.
As an AIDS activist, Wojnarowicz participated in many protests about how the U.S. government and the health industry were mishandling the AIDS crisis. At a protest outside of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) headquarters, Wojnarowicz wore a hand-made jacket that read on the back “If I Die of AIDS—Forget Burial—Just Drop My Body on the Steps of the FDA.” That jacket became a symbol for AIDS activism.
Wojnarowicz’s “Tongues of Flame” exhibit would turn out to be his most controversial. Blinderman was now the director of University Galleries of Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois, and he got a $15,000 government grant from the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) to commission the exhibit. It would lead to a lawsuit and divisive opinions on both sides. Around this time, Wojnarowicz had angered political and religious conservatives with an AIDS activist essay titled “Postcards From America: X-Rays From Hell,” which was published in the 1988 “Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing” catalogue for Artists Space.
In the essay, Wojnarowicz used insulting language about U.S. Congressmen Jesse Helms and William Dannemeyer and Cardinal John O’Connor (New York’s Archbishop at the time) who were all openly opposed to LGBTQ rights. The essay was accompanied by a photo of a Wojnarowicz art piece with an illustration of Jesus Christ injecting a needle in his lower arm, with a tube tied around his upper arm, like a junkie. Wojnarowicz said the art depicted Jesus taking on the burdens of society, including drug addiction.
It wasn’t long before Donald Wildmon of the conservative American Family Association and other anti-Wojnarowicz people got involved in a campaign to get Wojnarowicz banned from major art venues. These Wojnarowicz critics distributed photos of Wojnarowicz’s most controversial art and called Wojnarowicz a threat to decency. Under political pressure, the NEA then withdrew its grant money from the “Tongues of Flame” exhibit.
Wojnarowicz filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against Wildmon and the American Family Association for distributing photos of his art without permission and for trying to damage his reputation. Wojnarowicz won the lawsuit, but was granted an award of just $1. University Galleries of Illinois State University ended up launching the “Tongues in Flame” exhibit in 1990 to enthusiastic crowds. In an audio clip, Wojnarowicz says he was expecting picketing and protestors outside the gallery, but no such pushback happened.
Toward the end of his life, Wojnarowicz began experiencing AIDS-related dementia, which is described in heartbreaking detail by Scemama. She remembers taking a road trip with Wojnarowicz to California’s Death Valley in May 1991. During the trip, it was the first time that she saw Wojnarowicz seem to forget who he was in a brief moment of memory loss. Seeing him in that condition stuck with her because it was then she knew how much he had deteriorated.
During this trip, Scemama took some visually striking photos of Wojnarowicz buried in the dirt, with his face partially peeking out from the ground. It was eerily symbolic of knowing that he would end up in an early grave by dying so young. It was also Wojnarowicz’s last photo shoot. Scemama says that every time she collaborated with Wojnarowicz, he came up with the ideas.
You don’t have to be a fan of Wojnarowicz’s work to appreciate his impact on the art world or on AIDS activism. You don’t have to agree with his political beliefs. What the “Wojnarowicz” documentary does so effectively is show that he overcame a lot of personal struggles in his life to express his truth, even if that truth made a lot of people uncomfortable. And that raw and open honesty is a legacy worth noting.
Kino Lorber released “Wojnarowicz” in U.S. virtual cinemas on March 19, 2021.
Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, New York City and various other U.S. cities, the documentary “Hysterical” features a group of well-known North American female stand-up comedians (who are mostly white, with a few African Americans, one Asian and one Latina) discussing their lives and careers.
Culture Clash: All of the women say that rampant sexism is the biggest problem with “gatekeepers” in stand-up comedy.
Culture Audience: “Hysterical” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in a candid look at what it’s like to be a female stand-up comedian.
It’s no secret that stand-up comedy is a male-dominated business where men get paid much more than women overall, and men get the vast majority of jobs available at venues and media outlets that book stand-up comedians. And whenever there’s a documentary about stand-up comedians, women are also usually in the minority. The admirably insightful documentary film “Hysterical” puts women front and center, by having the entire movie be about well-known female stand-up comedians telling their stories through interviews, performances and some footage that follows them as they hang out with other comedians.
The comedians interviewed in the documentary represent multiple generations. There are those who started in stand-up comedy in the 1980s (Kathy Griffin, Margaret Cho, Judy Gold and Wendy Liebman); the 1990s (Sherri Shepherd, Rachel Feinstein, Marina Franklin, Bonnie McFarlane, Jessica Kirson and Lisa Lampanelli); the 2000s (Nikki Glaser, Carmen Lynch, Iliza Shlesinger and Fortune Feimster); and the 2010s (Kelly Bachman). They are all very different from each other but share a lot of similarities in their struggles and triumphs as female stand-up comedians. “Hysterical,” directed by Andrea Nevins, had its world premiere at the 2021 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival.
The documentary is raw, real and, of course, funny. But it also presents a brutally honest look at how society’s stereotypes of how women should act in public are entrenched in the sexism that withholds opportunities from female stand-up comedians and gives these opportunities to men instead. The movie also gives first-hand accounts about the dangerous realities of being a female stand-up comedian, whether it’s staying in unsafe areas while on tour, dealing with sexual harassment, or defending themselves from physically aggressive audience members and colleagues. These female comedians are not expecting pity when they tell their stories, but it’s clear that they want people to understand what they’ve been through to get to where they are.
Think about how people generally react when women curse out loud, compared to how people react when men say the same curse words, and you have an idea of how this double standard affects the careers of female stand-up comedians. Male comedians with an “angry” persona are generally more accepted than female comedians with an “angry” persona, which is why so many female stand-up comedians often smile during their stand-up act, even when they’re saying the angriest things. And because working stand-up comedians have to frequently travel, female stand-up comedians are judged more harshly if they’re parents away from home on tour, compared to male stand-up comedians who are parents away from home on tour.
“Hysterical” is a perfect title for this documentary because it has a double meaning: Hysterical can mean “hilarious,” or it can mean the word’s original definition of “someone losing control of their emotions or sanity,” which was a trait that originally (and unfairly) attributed to women in the days when this word was invented. (For example, the word “hysterectomy” is related to the word “hysterical.”) “Hilarious” and “crazy” are how most female comedians are described at some point if they want to be considered successful.
The “crazy” label is one that many of these comedians wear with a badge of honor when it suits them, but they also know it can come at a price. All of the women in the documentary say, in one way or another, that being a stand-up comedian is a line of work that you have to be a little crazy to want to do. It’s a profession where people of any gender constantly get rejections, low pay (or no pay) at the bottom of the career ladder, and exploitation from all kinds of people. However, the women in the documentary say they know (because they’ve have experienced it) that whatever negativity that the comedy industry can throw at people, women get it worse overall then men do.
Just like their male counterparts, female comedians were often bullied as kids, they come from dysfunctional families, and/or they’ve suffered some type of past trauma. Depression, addiction and divorce are very common among stand-up comedians. But the women in this documentary say that women are more likely to be stigmatized for these issues than men are, simply because there are too many people who expect more perfection from women than they expect from men.
Over and over, the women share eerily similar stories of feeling inadequate or feeling like misfits in their childhood and adolescence. (Almost all come from middle-class or working-class families.) Being funny gave these comedians a sense of purpose and an identity. And laughter from telling jokes helped these comedians feel accepted in some way.
Liebman says she has a history of being clinically depressed, and comments on her family dynamics: “It gave me an identity to be the funny one.” Kirson says that her parents had a very unhappy marriage, her father was very tough on her, and she was often bullied by boys. “I was not a happy kid,” she remembers.
Glaser, a recovering anorexic/bulimic who describes having lifelong insecurities about her physical appearance, says her decision to become a comedian came early in her childhood: “I realized I wasn’t as pretty as my sister, and the pretty girls were the ones getting the roles in the plays.” Instead of trying to be a glamorous actress like other girls were doing, Glaser decided to become a comedian first. In the documentary, Glaser admits that she still feels insecure when comparing herself to her sister.
Feinstein says that her she got bad grades in her childhood due to a learning disability. At 17, she moved to New York City and ended up pursuing stand-up comedy as a career. Shlesinger describes her childhood as growing up with a single mother in a Dallas suburb where they were Jews in a very Christian environment.
McFarlane, a Canadian who grew up on an Alberta farm with no running water, remembers that she felt out-of-place in her own family: “To my family, I was a very strange person. I liked things they didn’t like. I found humor in things they didn’t find funny.”
Lampanelli, who has retired from stand-up comedy, says that she grew up with an emotionally abusive mother: “My mother was a big yeller. She had a lot of rage … And I think I was that middle child who could make mom laugh to diffuse the tension in the house. I, as a comic, was doing jokes to shut everybody up before they got to me.” Lampanelli is shown in the documentary hanging out pleasantly with her mother, so it seems they’re in a good place now with their relationship.
Bachman found fame in 2019 through a viral video of her performing at the New York City club Downtime and did some ad-libbed heckling at someone she didn’t expect to be in the audience: disgraced entertainment mogul Harvey Weinstein, who was at the show the year before he went on trial and was convicted of rape. In “Hysterical,” Bachman says that she’s a rape survivor, and seeing Weinstein triggered her to make comments directed at him.
While Bachman was on stage during that show, she mentioned being a rape survivor, called Weinstein “the elephant in the room,” and then said about him being at the club: “I didn’t know we had to bring our own mace and rape whistles.” At first, she got some boos from male-sounding people, while one unidentified man in the audience shouted at Bachman to “shut up.” But Bachman continued by saying “fuck you” to all rapists. Anyone who disapproved of what she was saying was drowned out by mostly female cheers from the audience.
Bachman’s rebuke of Weinstein and all other rapists got a lot of media attention and was widely praised by other comedians. In the “Hysterical” documentary, Glaser comments on this defining moment for Bachman: “That was fearless. One of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.” Griffin, who is no stranger to controversy, says with admiration about Bachman’s takedown of Weinstein and rapists: “That was nothing less than an act of civil disobedience.”
Just like some of the other comedians in the documentary, Bachman says comedy is a form of therapy for her: “Everyone in [my] family has touched trauma. It’s not something we talk about, so we chose to at funerals, we choose to laugh when somebody is getting divorced. Someone has the job to make thins funny. We look to that person, and it helps. And I made the choice to be that person in my family.”
Women of color have the added burden of dealing with racism. Franklin, Shepherd and Lynch (who is a Latina) all tell stories about experiencing racist bullying when they were children and other racism when they became adults. Lynch, who spent part of her childhood in Spain before her family moved to the U.S. , says she was often ridiculed because of her Spanish accent when she talked.
Franklin says of the racism she experienced in her childhood, “Back then, you had to learn how to live with it. And one of the ways I did was by being funny.” Shepherd comments on her career: “As a black woman, I had to fight for a spot. I really, really had to prove that I was funny.”
Cho repeats some of her well-known stories of how her Korean American heritage and her body size were used as reasons to demean her. A low point for her was when TV executives pressured her to lose a dangerous amount of weight when she starred on the 1994-1995 sitcom “All-American Girl.” Cho says of her experiences with being body-shamed: “I have achieved more peace in my body as I’ve gotten older, but it took a long time to get there.” She has also experienced a lot of prejudice from people who think all Asian women are supposed to be quiet and submissive.
Although female entertainers are often expected to look as attractive as possible, Cho says that female comedians have a double-edged sword because people often have this attitude about women in comedy: “Don’t be too pretty. A beautiful woman is a threat.” Glaser adds, “You can be very pretty and funny. The only requirement is that you feel ugly on the inside.”
Feimster, who identifies as a lesbian, also talks about what it’s like to be a female comedian who proudly doesn’t fit into a stereotypical mold of female gender conformity or body size. She admits there have been many times when she’s been insecure about it, but ultimately, her differences make her stand out from many other female stand-up comics. Much of her stand-up comedy act talks about these issues.
Gold, another openly lesbian comedian, says that the bullying and awkwardness that she experienced in her youth had a lot to do with her tall height (she’s 6’3″) and being a “tomboy” as a child. And when she started to become taller than most of her peers, she turned any insecurities about her height into eventual jokes that made their way into her stand-up comedy act.
Feimster also echoes what many people interviewed in the documentary say about their comedy material coming from a place of emotional “damage.” She laughs when she explains why women want to become stand-up comedians: “There’s probably a lot of us that’s filling some sort of void.”
Kirson says something similar in this comment: “I say this on stage: No matter how much you clap, you’ll never fill the hole. We’re just trying to fill this hole and get attention that we’ve always wanted and can’t get.”
Don’t mistake “Hysterical” for a non-stop whinefest. It’s not. The comedians also frequently say what they love about doing stand-up. That type of passion is what keeps them going in their toughest times. And there’s quite a bit of laugh-out-loud footage of all of the comedians doing what they do on stage as examples of why they’ve achieved a certain level of fame.
All of the comedians, in one way or another, say that doing stand-up comedy is not something they chose but something that chose them. For Shepherd, stand-up comedy is about “the joy I get from getting on stage and being able to take people on a journey to a place where they can forget what they’re going through.” Feinstein says what she gets out of stand-up: “I have control. I’m a storyteller. I get to tell my tale.”
Feimster comments, “The beauty of comedy is I have a voice, I have a microphone, and I can go out and do my thing.” Later in the documentary, Feimster says, “I was a cautious kid, so it’s weird that I ended up in this job that has such a lack of stability, and you’re having to take risks all the time.”
Cho adds, “It’s mostly people’s biggest fear to get up in front of others and try to make them laugh. But, for me, when I was very different and very young, I also had to convince people that I had something important to say.”
Franklin comments, “The best experience on stage is when the whole room is with you, and you feel like you’re truly sharing a story that you can connect with.” Shlesinger says that stand-up comedy has a unique rhythm like no other form of entertainment: “It’s almost melodic. It’s almost like singing, like you can just riff and knowing that you can take them [the audience] anywhere.” Lynch says, “The very first time I performed on stage was for two minutes. And right then, I felt like I’d just married and had a baby.”
Speaking of marriage and children, the documentary fortunately doesn’t seem preoccupied about asking details about what type of family planning these women might or might not have. It’s a line of questioning that female entertainers are asked a lot more than male entertainers. Shepherd and McFarlane talk briefly about the challenges of raising kids while being a traveling stand-up comedian. (McFarlane takes her daughter Rayna Lynn, who was born in 2007, on the road with her.)
The documentary also mentions the hazards of being an up-and-coming stand-up comedian who doesn’t have the luxury of security guards or other people as protection against crazy audience members, stalkers or other potential dangers to safety. Many female stand-up comedians travel alone from city to city. And sometimes, promoters will put them in the same hotel room or condo with other comedians (almost always male) whom the women do not know.
Franklin is shown having a conversation with a male comedian friend and telling him about a bad experience she had where she stayed at a hotel on his enthusiastic recommendation, but the hotel and the surrounding area turned out to be very unsafe. The more she described the unsafe conditions, the more the male comedian began to understand that from his perspective as a man, the place wasn’t so bad. But from a female perspective, it was not a good place to be alone.
Sexual harassment and/or sexual assault seem to be experienced by the majority of female stand-up comedians in relation to their job. Most of the women don’t go into details, but some of the women describe the derogatory comments, sexual groping without consent and other unwanted touching that they’ve experienced as stand-up comedians. The general attitude is that these degrading experiences come with the territory, but more women now are more likely to report misconduct than they were in the past.
The movie makes a passing mention of how female comedians are often put in tricky #MeToo situations by people who can later claim that their offensive comments or actions were “just a joke” that a comedian should be able to take. Some of the women interviewed in the documentary hint that they feel pressure to be like “one of the guys” and have “thick skin” when sexual degradation is in their presence. The documentary should have asked this question: Is a woman who has a lot of sexually explicit raunchiness in her stand-up comedy act more likely to be considered “fair game” to be targeted for sexually explicit offensiveness?
If the offender is a comedian, the documentary could have used more exploration of the complicated issue of how comedy is used as an excuse to justify offensive things that aren’t illegal. There also should have been some discussion of “cancel culture” and how far back in someone’s life should offensive comments or actions be used to “cancel” that person. There are no easy answers, but the documentary could have asked more of these questions to get the perspectives of these female comedians, many of whom have a lot of sexually explicit content in their comedy acts.
Being a stand-up comedian, regardless of gender, is hard on a stand-up comedian’s love life. Almost all of the women talk about their love lives as part of their stand-up comedy act. And there’s an appreciation for how far things have changed from the days when it was scandalous for female stand-up comedians to talk about sex. However, gender double standards remain. Comedians vary when it comes to how raunchy or politically outspoken they want to be in their stand-up comedy acts.
The documentary mentions the 2017 controversy over Griffin posing for a photo while holding up a fake, bloodied head of Donald Trump, who was president of the U.S. at the time. The backlash was swift and far-reaching: Griffin was blacklisted from performing in most of the U.S., and she was put on a government watch list. Griffin’s 2019 documentary: “Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story” chronicled this controversy and her comeback tour outside the United States. In “Hysterical,” Griffin doesn’t really say anything new that she didn’t already say in her own documentary about this subject.
“Hysterical” has a compilation of footage of male entertainers (such as the rock band Gwar) who depicted the beheading or mutilation of Trump as part of their stage acts but never got the type of backlash and career damage that Griffin did. Glaser says of the Griffin controversy: “It was all so much bullshit. She got so railroaded.” Cho adds, “They would never treat a male comedian that way.”
Even with gender double standards, many of the comedians in “Hysterical” say that stand-up comedy is still a form of entertainment where people have true freedom of expression. (However, comedians still face career consequences if their material is considered too offensive.) Glaser comments, “I used to feel like ‘ugh,’ when comedians would pat themselves on the back and say that we are the last bastions of free speech. It’s like we kind of are. When someone tells me I can’t talk about something, I want to do it more.”
“Hysterical” has a brief overview of influential female stand-up comedians over the years. Moms Mabley, Sophie Tucker, Totie Fields, Bella Barth, Jean Carroll, Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers are all mentioned as being pioneers in their own ways. Franklin mentions Wanda Sykes as being a personal inspiration to her when Franklin started out in stand-up comedy.
But for many of the women interviewed in this documentary, being a stand-up comedian was not something they were taught to believe was a realistic career choice for a woman. Schlesinger is the only one in the documentary who says that it never occurred to her that she couldn’t be a stand-up comedian because she was a woman. And almost all female stand-up comedians have had plenty of naysayers in their lives who told them that they shouldn’t be stand-up comedians.
On average, women tend to have shorter careers in stand-up comedy than men do, because they’re more likely to experience age discrimination and more likely to stop touring for family-related reasons. But regardless of where a female stand-up comedian is in her career, she’s more likely to lose out on job opportunities to men. And this gender discrimination causes a lot of women to get discouraged and give up.
A large part of this self-doubt and insecurity comes from long-held sexist practices of booking women in only one or two slots in a stand-up comedy lineup where men get not only the majority of the slots but also the best (headlining) slots in most cases. It’s mentioned repeatedly in the documentary that female stand-up comedians have been so accustomed to these limited opportunities, it was hard to for them to feel camaraderie with female comedians because they saw each other as competition.
Griffin says of women trying to get booked into a lineup of comedians: “There was a time when it seemed like there really was only room for one.” McFarlane agrees: “It was hard to like another woman [comedian] because you felt threatened because only one person is going to get the job.”
That’s not to say that stand-up comedy is any less cutthroat for women. Nor does it mean that women are not immune to jealous rivalries. But nowadays, female comedians say they’re much more likely to reach out and support other female comedians. More venues and promoters are becoming open to booking more than just one woman in a comedy lineup. And a few places sometimes host all-female comedy lineups.
The female comedians in the documentary say that things have gradually improved as there’s slowly been progress in job opportunities for women in comedy. However, it’s up to women to join forces and create supportive networks for each other, which is something that male comedians have been informally doing for years. Franklin comments, “I never understood sexism until I got into the comedy scene.”
Shlesinger adds, “Men have always gotten to do things first, whether it’s owning property or freedom of speech or anything fun. By sheer numbers, men have been doing comedy for longer [than women have].” The general consensus that the female comedians have is that the best way to change the outdated mindset that men should always dominate in comedy is for the public to vote with their wallets and by making more requests for diverse lineups of talented comedians.
In the “Hysterical” documentary, Kirson mentions New York City venues such as Comedy Cellar and The Stand and Los Angeles venues such as The Comedy Store and The Improv as having welcoming communities for comedians of any gender: “There are certain clubs were people really become family and close and hang out.”
Feinstein, Glaser and Kirson are shown hanging out together at Comedy Cellar. There’s also some footage of Franklin spending time at Comedy Cellar with some comedian friends, including Jeff Ross. There’s also archival footage of comedians Amy Schumer, Glaser and Bridget Everett in a car and speaking words of support and encouragement to Griffin during Griffin’s scandal.
The support for each other isn’t all just lip service. Liebman produces a show for up-and-coming comedians called Locally Grown Comedy at the Los Angeles-area nightclub Feinstein’s at Vitello’s. The documentary includes footage from one of these shows. Liebman says that she personally looks out for young talent whom she can mentor, especially women, since she knows how much harder it is for women than men to break into stand-up comedy.
Some of the women in the documentary believe that the #MeToo movement is a major factor in this shift toward more female comedians having more solidarity with each other than in previous decades. Bachman says, “Once you stand up to power, the narrative changes.” Women in stand-up comedy are also starting to verbally push back, on stage and off, on certain people trying to dictate what beauty standards are, since these beauty standards can affect how people are treated in society.
One of the best and most emotionally touching parts of the documentary is how it covers Franklin’s journey in going public with having breast cancer. There’s footage of Franklin telling some of her comedian friends about it and revealing that she’s going to go on stage and try out some jokes about her cancer for the first time. After the friends get over the shock of Franklin having cancer and see her performance (which got a standing ovation from the audience), Franklin is shown being somewhat overwhelmed by all the love and support. And fortunately, she is now in remission from the cancer.
The women in “Hysterical” expose a lot of insecurities about themselves on stage and in the documentary. But they also show a lot more strength than they might give themselves credit for, because not too many people would have the courage to turn their personal pain into something that will make people laugh. By allowing these comedians to tell their stories, without “gatekeepers” (agents, managers, comedy promoters, talent bookers) and other talking heads interrupting and drowning out their voices, director Nevins gives each woman the chance to shine in her own way in the documentary. It’s a film that’s worth watching by anyone who enjoys talented stand-up comedians and people who speak their own truths unapologetically.
Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in rural Piedmont, Italy, the documentary “The Truffle Hunters” features an all-white group of people, from middle-aged to elderly, who are involved in the business of harvesting, selling and buying truffles.
Culture Clash: The truffle hunters, who are set in their traditional ways and live without modern technology, are part of a dwindling group of people whose livelihoods are threatened by climate change, pollution and construction that destroys forest trees.
Culture Audience: “The Truffle Hunters” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in a rarely seen Italian community that knows where to harvest coveted delicacies such as white Alba truffles.
The cinéma vérité-styled documentary “The Truffle Hunters” (which was filmed during a three-year period) is the type of movie that people will either find fascinating or dull. There’s no really no in-between, because viewers’ interest in watching this movie will largely depend on how much they want to peek into the secretive world of how the rare delicacy of white Alba truffles are found in Piedmont, Italy. It’s a very niche subject that isn’t supposed to be a blockbuster movie for generic audiences.
Directed by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, “The Truffle Hunters” takes place primarily in rural Piedmont, Italy, where several middle-aged and elderly men are continuing their traditions of truffle hunting in the forests. It’s a very competitive and mysterious tradition, where truffle hunters do not like to share information with anyone over where they find their truffles. The only real loyalty that they have in their truffle hunting is to their beloved dogs that they rely on to sniff out the truffles.
That doesn’t mean that friendships can’t be formed among the truffle hunters. It just means that even among close friends, it would be bad for an individual’s business to reveal secret truffle locations or ways that they find these locations. When they get together to talk business, they often lie about what they found so that they can mislead their competitors.
As a result of this cutthroat mentality, the dark side of truffle hunting is mentioned several times in the documentary: The hunting dogs are often at risk of ingesting poison that competing hunters put in the woods. No one is seen in the documentary actually planting the poison. But as soon it’s mentioned that truffle hunter dogs get poisoned, you just know that it’s probably going to happen to someone’s dog in this movie.
Because of all the deceit and dog murders involved in truffle hunting, truffle hunters can be very solitary and paranoid when they do their work. When they do gather in duos or groups, it’s usually so they can try to get information that will be in their own best interests. But they can’t really completely trust each other because of all the risks of sharing valuable information with rivals, many of whom don’t hesitate to murder dogs for the sake of trying to get ahead of the competition. Muzzles are placed on the truffle hunting dogs to try to protect them from poison, but these muzzles aren’t always effective in preventing a dog from ingesting something deadly.
In some of the scenes in “The Truffle Hunters,” cameras were placed on the dogs, so that there’s literally a dog’s eye-view during the truffle hunt. As expected, these are the part of the movie where there’s a lot of shaky cam footage. It’s an eye-catching technique that gives more of an adrenaline-pumping perspective of what it’s like to be on the hunt for truffles, since the dogs often run during the hunt, while their elderly human masters do not.
As shown in the documentary, the truffle hunters who are staunchly traditionalist refuse to go “high-tech.” The truffle hunters featured in the movie live in homes without computers, Internet access, cell phones or even televisions. And it should come as no surprise that truffle hunting in this part of Italy is not a job that is very welcoming to women. You get the feeling that the men involved in truffle hunting think of it as an exclusive fraternity, and they want to keep it that way.
The documentary is often very slow-paced, but it allows the viewers to have a sense of how lifestyles in this isolated rural area are stuck almost in a time warp, and people are reluctant to change. Truffle hunting is also a job that is having difficulty attracting young people, who are inclined to want jobs that pay more money or are located in more populated areas. None of the truffle hunters featured in the documentary has anyone in younger generations of their families who are willing to continue these traditions of finding truffles.
That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a demand for white Alba truffles. In fact, demand has risen, as these types of truffles have become increasingly harder to find. That’s partly because of the changing landscape/terrain affected by climate change, pollution and urban development that cuts down forest trees for wood or to make way for buildings. And it’s partly because there are less truffle hunters available to find and harvest truffles.
“The Truffle Hunters” might frustrate viewers who prefer documentaries that identify people by showing their names on screen when the people are speaking or first appear on screen. There are no “talking head” interviews, so viewers will find out an individual’s name if someone else says that person’s name in the movie. The people who are featured the most in the movie are:
Sergio Cauda, who was 68, when this movie was filmed, is the most adventurous and social one in the group. He hunts every day with his dogs Fiona and Pepe.
Aurelio Conterno, who was 84 when this movie was filmed, is a never-married bachelor with no children and has no humans living with him. He treats his female dog Birba like a kid who is his best friend.
Gianfranco Curti is an ambitious, middle-aged truffle dealer who buys from the truffle hunters and and sells to local and international merchants and restaurants.
Angelo Gagliardi, who was 78 at the time this movie is filmed, is an eccentric poet/farmer who wants to get out of the truffle hunting business because he thinks it’s become too corrupt. Just like Conterno, he’s the only human in his household and treats his dog (Nina) as his most trusted companion.
Egidio Gagliardi, who was 83 when this movie was filmed, is Angelo’s cousin and a truffle hunter/salesman who works with scientists to find the right trees and conditions to cultivate and harvest truffles.
Carlo Gonella, who was 88 at the time that this movie was filmed, sneaks out at night to find truffles, much to the disapproval of his wife Maria Cicciù, who fears for his safety when he’s truffle hunting.
Paolo Stacchini, who was 78 at the time that this movie was filmed, is a truffle authenticator/judge whose job is to determine the quality and value of individual truffles.
A great deal of the documentary shows what happens in the transaction phase of the truffle business. Truffle dealer Curti has taken over the family business from his father, but Curti is shown to be someone who is not as well-respected by the local truffle hunters as his father was. The hunters feel that Curti’s father was more polite and more understanding in dealing with the truffle hunters.
If there’s a “villain” in the movie, it would be Curti, who tries to lowball the hunters on purchase offers. At one point in a sale negotiation, he offers €150 for 100 grams of truffles. He’s a tough negotiator who puts up a lot of resistance to buy at a suggested higher price. In another scene, he has an argument with an elderly man named Franco, who accuses Curti of coming into his territory and buying truffles from his hunters.
And it’s shown later in the movie that Curti only sees truffles as a way to make as much money as possible, not as a food delicacy that he personally enjoys. In one scene, he has dinner with his daughter (who’s about 7 or 8 years old) and smugly says that it’s ironic that he sells so many truffles because he and his family don’t even eat truffles.
Because the dogs are so important to truffle hunting, they are exalted more than a typical household pet. Cauda takes a bath with his dog Fiona in his bathtub. Conterno thinks Birba is the best truffle-hunting dog in the area, and he cooks special meals for her and has conversations with her as if she were human. Gonella gets his favorite dog Tritina blessed by a local priest during a church service.
Conterno and his dog Birba are probably the ones who are considered the most successful truffle hunters in this group. And they appear to be sought-after by people who know the reputation of this dynamic truffle-hunting duo. In one scene, an unidentified man in his 30s has a meal at restaurant with Conterno and tries to entice the truffle hunter into sharing some the tricks of his trade.
The younger man says to Conterno: “You’re 84 years old. You have no wife, no children. You’re the best truffle hunter. Can you show me your secret spots? Or can I go truffle hunting with you?’
Conterno replies, “Never! Never! We can go truffle hunting, but in your place or in a place where neither of us knows. We can go to a new place.”
“The Truffle Hunters” also shows some of the disillusionment and strained relationships that can happen with people involved in truffle hunting. According to the “Truffle Hunters” production notes, cousins Angelo Gagliardi and Egidio Gagliardi didn’t speak to each other for 10 years, even though they lived only two miles from each other. Curti’s often-abrasive manner has caused tension because he’s aggressively positioned himself as the truffle dealer who wields the most clout with these truffle hunters.
Farmer spouses Gonella and Cicciù seem to have an overall happy marriage, but nevertheless bicker about his truffle hunting. She often gets exasperated and worried when he sneaks off to truffle hunt and she can’t find him. She doesn’t think it’s safe for him to truffle hunt in his advanced age. The spouses do have some harmonious moments together, such as a scene where he helps her sort and clean tomatoes in their kitchen.
And the dog poisonings have caused a certain distrust in the truffle-hunting community, because fellow truffle hunters who can be outwardly pleasant to each other can also secretly plot to murder each other’s dogs. The situation is compounded because it’s hard to prove who’s been poisoning the dogs. Even if there were eyewitnesses, you get the feeling that the people in this community wouldn’t snitch or go to the trouble of having anyone arrested for this crime.
Angelo Gagliardi also expresses why he wants to quit truffle hunting, by saying that “there are too many greedy people. They don’t do it for fun or to play with their dogs or to spend some time in nature. They only want money … People use poisons to kill the dogs.”
The die-hard truffle hunters who want to continue truffle hunting until they’re dead or physically unable to walk in the woods are clearly doing it as a passion, first and foremost. They don’t see it as a hobby or fleeting interest but as a way of life. They’re also truffle hunting because they like the competition aspect of this type of work. Truffle hunting is embedded in their identity, and they all naturally want to be considered “the best.”
Greed and egos certainly factor into truffle hunting. However, the documentary shows that these hunters are not the ones making the most money from truffle sales. The hunters seem to be happy with making enough money to live comfortably, because they’re definitely not getting rich from truffle hunting.
A certain part of the documentary also shows the process of preparing white Alba truffles at an auction house. They’re treated almost like rare jewels, with inspectors, deluxe displays and media photographers taking pictures. During an auction shown in the documentary, one truffle sold for $110,000.
The pomp and circumstance of truffle auctions are quite the contrast from the modest and simple lives led by the truffle hunters who go in the woods to find these treasured items. And that seems to be the whole point of this documentary: The people who harvest luxurious white Alba truffles probably have fascinating stories to tell and take pride in a custom that’s so rich in tradition that you can’t put a price tag on it.
Sony Pictures Classics released “The Truffle Hunters” in select U.S. cinemas on March 5, 2021.
Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Los Angeles, the documentary film “Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free” features an almost all-white group of people (and one black person) in the music industry, in this chronicle of the making of Tom Petty’s 1994 album “Wildflowers.”
Culture Clash: While recording the album, Petty was going through personal problems (such as a failing marriage), he battled with Warner Bros. Records over songs that he wanted on the album, and he fired longtime Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch.
Culture Audience: Fans of Petty are the obvious target audience, but “Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free” will also appeal to people who like classic rock music and behind-the-scenes stories about making albums.
“Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free” has the look and feel of many other documentaries that focus on the making of a specific album. There’s nothing really groundbreaking about this documentary, and it’s not the type of movie that people should feel like they need to see in movie theaters. The documentary is a must-see for Tom Petty’s fans and other people who are inclined to like classic rock. And it could be entertaining to people who are interested in the art of creating songs. Everyone else might think this movie is a little boring.
“Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free” chronicles the making of Petty’s 1994 “Wildflowers” album, which he said in many interviews was the best album he ever made. The album was recorded at the Los Angeles recording studios Sound City and Ocean Way Recording. And musically, it was a departure for Petty because it didn’t have as much of the signature jangly guitar sound that’s on his previous albums. Instead, “Wildflowers” included a full classical orchestra and had songs with a more somber or pensive mood than his previously released tunes.
Petty died of an opioid drug overdose at age 66 in 2017. Years earlier, he revealed that he was addicted to heroin from 1996 to 1998. Therefore, Petty’s drug addiction is not an issue that’s brought up on this documentary, since the most serious years of his addiction happened after “Wildflowers” was made. In the documentary, there is some mention in Petty’s own words about how unhappy he was in his marriage to his first wife Jane at the time he made “Wildflowers.” The former spouses were married from 1974 to 1996.
Directed by Mary Wharton, “Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free” (which premiered at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival) consists primarily of archival footage of Petty in the recording studio that was originally filmed in color but is, for the most part, presented in black and white in the documentary. A prologue in the documentary explains that the archival footage from these “Wildflowers” recording sessions and the subsequent tour were filmed on 16mm film between 1993 and 1995 by Petty’s longtime videographer Martyn Atkins. The footage was discovered in an archive in early 2020. The documentary
Also in black and white is more current documentary interview footage of surviving members of Petty’s band The Heartbreakers, as well as music producer Rick Rubin, who all worked on “Wildflowers” and share their fond memories of those recording sessions. The documentary mostly sticks to celebrating Petty’s music and the camaraderie that he had with his band members, Rubin and other people involved in making the album. There is some but not a great deal of insight into the drama that went on behind the scenes with Petty battling MCA Records (his former record label) and starting fresh with Warner Bros. Records, with “Wildflowers” as his first album released by Warner Bros.
“Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free” is at its best when viewers get to see how the “Wildflowers” songs were crafted and recorded. There are the hits, of course, such as “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” “You Wreck Me” and “It’s Good to Be King.” But there are also several album tracks (including “Harry Green” and “Climb That Hill Blues”) that didn’t make it on to the original release of the 15-song “Wildflowers,” because Warner Bros. disagreed with Petty’s wishes to release “Wildflowers” as a 25-song double album. In 2020, the deluxe package album “Wildflowers & All the Rest” was released with the original “Wildflowers” album, plus previously unreleased studio tracks and live recordings from the “Wildflowers” era.
Even though the Heartbreakers were part of the recording sessions for “Wildflowers,” the album was officially a Petty solo record, and it was the follow-up to his wildly successful 1989 solo debut album, “Full Moon Fever.” Jeff Lynne, the mastermind of Electric Light Orchestra (ELO), produced “Full Moon Fever” and the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ 1991 album “Into the Great Wide Open,” as well as several albums from other artists. Lynne was also a bandmate of Petty’s in their all-star supergroup the Traveling Wilburys, whose other members were George Harrison, Bob Dylan and Roy Orbison.
In the documentary, Rubin talks about how he was flatly turned down by MCA when he offered to produce Petty’s second solo album. “I was told that Tom worked exclusively with Jeff Lynne, and there was no chance that I’d ever get to work with him [Tom Petty]. It was a cold brush-off.”
Up until that point, Rubin was mostly known in the music business for working in hip-hop (he co-founded Def Jam Records) or producing rock artists who were younger than Petty, such as Red Hot Chili Peppers. In the late 1980s, Rubin left Def Jam and founded Def American Recordings, later renamed American Recordings. Def American’s biggest successes in the early 1990s were the bluesy rock band the Black Crowes and the thrash metal band Slayer.
And so, by the early 1990s, Rubin wasn’t exactly the first person people had in mind to produce Petty’s second solo album. By his own admission, Rubin says in the documentary that he wasn’t even a fan of Petty’s music until he heard the “Full Moon Fever” album and became obsessed with it.
But three things happened that helped Rubin to become the producer of the “Wildflowers” album.
(1) Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers left MCA Records and signed to Warner Bros. Records, the record company for Red Hot Chili Peppers, a funk-influenced rock band had its first major breakthrough success with the Rubin-produced 1991 album “Blood Sugar Sex Magik.”
(2) Petty, as he says in the documentary, was ready to make some big musical changes.
(3) Heartbreakers lead guitarist Mike Campbell recommended Rubin to Petty, and they all genuinely liked each other from the start. Rubin, Petty and Campbell are all credited with producing the “Wildflowers” album.
As Petty describes it in the documentary’s archival footage: “I love Jeff Lynne dearly, but I thought I should do something else. Mike Campbell suggested Rick. He said, ‘I think you’ll like him.’ So I called him [Rubin] up.”
It’s mentioned more than once in the documentary that Rubin and Lynne couldn’t be more different from each other as producers. Lynne is a multi-instrumentalist and a meticulous recording craftsman who likes to take pieces of songs and build them in layers. Rubin barely knew how to play guitar during the “Wildflowers” sessions, and he prefers to make records with all the band members present at the same time and recording live.
Petty explains Rubin’s producing style in the documentary: “Rick Rubin really loves music, and that’s why I decided to work with him. It’s not because of his technical skill. He plays no instrument, really. He’s learning to play guitar … He’s not a corporate man … In a way, he’s guided me back to a musical place where I feel comfortable.”
In an archival interview from the “Wildflowers” recording sessions, Rubin says, “What I have to offer is as a fan. I can come in and say what I like and what I don’t like. And I don’t necessarily know why, but just trying to be true to [Petty’s] own taste and try to steer it in a direction that feels natural and good to me.”
The documentary also has a more current interview with Rubin Campbell and Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench sitting down together. They further discuss the contrast between Lynne and Rubin as producers. Tench comments, “The records with Jeff are beautiful pop records. And my participation was minimal on both the records. Because, you know, Jeff had an idea, and there’s a keyboard, and he’s going to play it, and that’s great.”
Tench states how Rubin’s style of producing affected the “Wildflowers” recording sessions: “This is almost like taking what you learned from Jeff and setting it free. It’s very focused on song craft and record craft, but there’s also a freedom in it that’s very cool.” Campbell adds that Rubin put more emphasis on live performances in the recording studio and by recording songs as “organic tracks and not one thing at a time.”
Also present for these recording sessions were orchestrator/conductor Michael Kamen (who died of a heart attack in 2003, at the age of 55) and George Drakoulias, a music producer who made a name for himself working as a producer and A&R executive for Def American acts such as the Black Crowes. At the time of the “Wildflowers” recording sessions, Drakoulias was still doing A&R for Def American. Unlike his then-boss Rubin, Drakoulias was a longtime fan of Petty’s by the time Drakoulias was included in the recording sessions for “Wildflowers.”
In the documentary, Drakoulias (who’s described as a “musical contributor” to “Wildflowers”) remembers with a laugh his experiences with Petty during those recording sessions: “He tolerated me. He found me amusing. Tom was a hero, and idol. ‘Damn the Torpedoes’ [the 1979 Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album] was the record that really changed my life.”
Also interviewed in the documentary is Heartbreakers drummer Steve Ferrone, a Brit who replaced original Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch in the “Wildflowers” recording sessions. Ferrone later became an official member of the Heartbreakers and remained in the band until the group broke up after Petty’s death in 2017. In 1994, Ferrone was living in New York City as a session musician when he got a call about a “top-secret” audition. He didn’t know it was for the Heartbreakers until he arrived at the studio and saw Petty and Campbell there. Just like Rubin, Ferrone was recommended by Campbell to be brought into Petty’s musical inner circle.
Tench comments on how Ferrone was crucial to helping Petty achieve the sound that’s on “Wildflowers,” as exemplified by the bluesy cadence that the drums have on “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” “Ferrone was the key to cracking the code to sound different,” Tench says. In archival footage, Petty says why he decided Ferrone should be in the band: “He played instinctually. He played perfectly the first time through. And I liked him.”
As for Lynch’s ouster from the band, Petty says in voiceover commentary that it was because Lynch wasn’t fully on board with Petty’s new musical direction, and Petty got tired of what he describes as Lynch’s mercurial temperament: “He had a real explosive personality. He could be really sweet and very loving, and then he could be the biggest problem.”
Campbell says of Lynch parting ways with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: “We were in a quagmire of disharmony, like a marriage. It happens.” Lynch is shown briefly in archival footage, but he is not in the documentary for any new interviews.
Heartbreakers bassist Howie Epstein (who died of a heroin overdose in 2003, at the age of 47) is also seen in archival footage. Epstein comments in archival footage: “Tom and I get along real good. I’ve never had one weird moment with him.” Meanwhile, Petty says about Epstein in footage from the Wildflowers” sessions: “I really appreciate him being my friend. It’s so hard to find people like Howie in the world who are so pure of spirit.”
Even though the Heartbreakers played on “Wildflowers,” why was it labeled a solo album from Petty instead of a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album? Petty explained it years ago, but it’s repeated in the documentary. As he puts it: “I wanted the freedom. I really wanted to be free of the democratic process, but I think it was time to turn the corner and find another place to go. And that was ‘Wildflowers.'”
Just like on a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album, Petty wrote the majority of the “Wildflowers” songs himself, with Campbell getting co-songwriting credit on a few songs. Petty might not be remembered as the greatest singer or guitarist, but there’s no question that he’s considered one of the greatest American rock songwriters in music history. In new interviews in the documentary, Tench and Campbell share their thoughts on Petty’s songwriting talent.
Campbell says, “I’ve worked with a lot of people—good writers and great singers—but I’ve never seen anybody who could do that like he could. He could just pull things out of the air in the moment.” Tench adds, “Tom was a great songwriter. I had always appreciated it and know that this is incredible to be in this band. But you almost take it for granted that Tom is going to come in with a great song.”
Two of the more personal songs on “Wildflowers” is “To Find a Friend” and “Don’t Fade on Me,” which Petty says were about his crumbling marriage. “I was becoming disenchanted in my marriage at the time,” which he says in a voiceover from archival footage. At the time, he says that he didn’t consciously write about this disintegrating relationship. “But when I hear [the ‘Wildflowers’ album], I can see it was working in the back of my mind somewhere.”
Petty and Jane’s daughter Adria Petty, who is an executive producer of the documentary, comments in an interview: “At the time that ‘Wildflowers’ was being written, he was definitely going through therapy for the first time. And that was an interesting door of perception that was opening.”
Adria Petty adds, “I think that feeling of confidence and self-examination at that time made him make a lot of different decisions about his life. He did it slowly, methodically and carefully. And they were painful for him.”
One of the big changes was Tom Petty’s split from MCA. Alan “Bugs” Weidel, the equipment/clubhouse manager for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, says that Petty was “never really happy with MCA. He really wanted to be on Warner Bros., and when that opportunity presented itself, he jumped on it.” The documentary includes new footage of Weidel reuniting with Campbell at the “clubhouse,” where the band’s instruments were kept.
And there’s archival footage of Petty, Rubin and Kamen in a room together and eating a small cake with a Warner Bros. logo on it. As they dig into the cake, Petty remarks jokingly, “We like to record for Warner Bros. because they taste good.” Rubin and Kamen are smiling and they seem amused too.
In a separate footage, Petty is heard saying in a voiceover about parting ways with MCA and moving on to Warner Bros.: “We had a long run at MCA and a very successful one. It just felt like time in life … I really just went to work for people I know. And I trust their instincts.”
However, the disputes that Petty had with Warner Bros. over how many songs should be on the “Wildflowers” album are mostly alluded to but not completely exposed in the documentary. The movie doesn’t show any screaming arguments with record company executives or lawyers. In fact, there are no “suits” shown or interviewed in this movie. And keeping out the corporate types from being in this film is probably the way that Petty would’ve wanted it.
Rather than getting into all the recording contract issues involved with the length of the “Wildflowers” album, the documentary footage puts more emphasis on Petty having a hard time deciding which songs he wanted on the album in the first place. The feeling that the documentary wants to convey is that Petty and the rest of the musical team ended up recording a lot more songs than originally expected because of Petty’s creative output and because they were having such a great time recording the album.
In new interviews for the documentary, Campbell chokes up a little when he says that listening to the songs on “Wildflowers” after Petty’s death is “emotionally hard … but other times it’s joyous. This is a whole plethora of experiences on the record.” Tench adds, “When you lose a great artist, you appreciate them more.”
“Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free” shares part of its title with Christopher McKittrick’s unauthorized biography “Somewhere You Feel Free: Tom Petty and Los Angeles,” which was published in 2020. In the documentary, it’s mentioned that the “Wildflowers” song “California” best summed up how Petty (who was a Florida native) felt about how California (specifically the Los Angeles area) changed his life. His daughter Adria says that after he moved to California, Petty was able to reinvent himself early in his career and became a success with the Heartbreakers.
People watching the documentary might feel that the black and white imagery makes the movie look dull and washed-out. Others might think having the movie in black and white gives it a classic look. There’s only one part of the documentary where it changes from black and white to color in the middle of the song. And that’s in studio footage of “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” which was recorded during the “Wildflowers” sessions but was not on the album. Instead, the song (the last Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers song recorded with drummer Lynch) was released on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ 1993 “Greatest Hits” album.
The documentary’s color footage (mostly of the band performing on stage) definitely livens up the movie, but the black and white palette probably gives the movie a more consistent look and the ability to hide some of the color footage’s flaws. One of the constant themes in the movie is how much fun it was to record the album. But for anyone who knows what it’s like to record an album, it’s not the same energy as doing a live performance.
Creativity in a recording studio is captured in stops and starts, so people watching this documentary should not expect the movie to be like a nonstop adrenaline rush. It’s more like a respectful stroll into the dynamics of Petty and his musical team. It’s not going to interest people who like to see band conflicts in music documentaries. But for people who appreciate Petty’s music and talent, this documentary gives a worthwhile peek into his creative process.
Culture Representation: The four-part docuseries “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” features a racially diverse group of people (Latino, white and African American) of mostly people in the entertainment industry, including Demi Lovato, discussing her life and career, particularly from 2018 to 2020.
Culture Clash: Lovato, who is a recovering drug addict, relapsed and had a near-fatal overdose in 2018, and she says that she no longer believes that complete drug abstinence is the best method of recovery for her.
Culture Audience: “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in stories about how celebrities cope with addiction and trauma.
Singer/actress Demi Lovato is well-known for revealing a lot of painful and unflattering aspects of her life, so it should come as no surprise that her four-part YouTube docuseries “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” has a confessional tone to it. The docuseries had its world premiere at the 2021 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival. Among other things, Lovato goes into details about what she experienced before and after her near-fatal drug overdose at her Los Angeles home in July 2018. (She has since moved from that house because of the bad memories.) She also reveals publicly for the first time that she’s a rape survivor and how the COVID-19 pandemic quarantine led to her very quick and ultimately failed engagement to actor Max Ehrich.
Directed by Michael D. Ratner, “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” has much more disturbing revelations than Lovato’s 2017 YouTube documentary film “Demi Lovato: Simply Complicated.” There’s a trigger warning at the beginning of “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” because it contains graphic talk of sexual assault, her drug use and eating disorders. She goes into details about what happened before and after her overdose of heroin laced with Fentanyl.
Lovato says that the drug dealer who supplied the drugs also sexually assaulted her and left her for dead. She also reveals that when she was 15, she lost her virginity by being raped by someone she worked with in her Disney Channel days. Lovato doesn’t name either of her alleged rapists, but she says that when she reported her underage rape to adults, nothing happened to her alleged rapist. And she claims that she’s managing her addiction problems by drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana. That’s not a good sign that she’s on the road to a healthy recovery.
It’s a big contrast to “Demi Lovato: Simply Complicated,” where her most personal revelation was that she’s openly living her life as a member of the LGTBQ community. (The movie had scenes of her discussing her attempts to find love on online dating sites.) Lovato refuses to label her sexuality, and she will only describe herself as “queer” or “not straight.” “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” shows that although Lovato claims to be in a much better emotional place than she was in 2018, she’s still struggling with the idea that her recovery from addiction means that she has to completely abstain from drugs and alcohol.
She admits to drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana “in moderation,” even though she’s said in many interviews that she’s an alcoholic and drug addict. Although she talks a lot about the drugs that she’s used and/or been addicted to over the years, in “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” she leaves out any mention of her alcoholism. And that omission is probably because she keeps repeating in the documentary that she’s tired of other people controlling her life and telling her what she can and cannot put in her body.
Ever since former Disney Channel star Lovato first went to rehab in 2010, at the age 18, she has publicly talked about her recovery from a variety of issues, including drug addiction, alcoholism, eating disorders (anorexia and bulimia), self-harming (cutting) and bipolar disorder. In “Demi Lovato: Simply Complicated,” she repeated the claim that she was clean and sober since 2012. And in 2018, during her “Tell Me You Love Me” tour, she was filming another documentary about herself, until her drug overdose resulted in shutting down production of that untitled documentary, which was permanently shelved.
“Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” has some clips from that never-seen-before 2018 documentary that shows a seemingly happy Lovato on tour. But as is often the case with entertainers who are drug addicts, they are very skilled at hiding dark sides of their lives. In “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil,” Lovato says of her shelved 2018 biographical film: “In that documentary, I was allowing the cameras to see the tip of the iceberg.”
“Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” opens with Lovato backstage during that 2018 tour, in footage that was taken one month before her overdose. She’s on the phone with her mother, Dianna De La Garza. Her mother gushes, “Demi, that was the best show you’ve ever done! It’s only going to get better from here.” Lovato gives a small smile but there’s some sadness in her eyes.
There’s also a clip from that a concert earlier on that 2018 tour, with the footage showing Demi being congratulated on stage by opening acts DJ Khaled and Kehlani for her sixth “sober birthday,” to celebrate her being clean and sober for the past six years. On the surface, Lovato looked healthy and happy. But in “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil,” she now confesses that she relapsed later that night.
Lovato says, “I picked up a bottle of red wine that night and it wasn’t even 30 minutes before I called someone that had drugs on them … I’m surprised that I didn’t OD that night. I ended up at a party and ran into my old drug dealer from six years before. That night I did drugs I had never done before.”
According to Lovato, she did a dangerous mix of methamphetamine, Ecstasy, alcohol and OxyContin. “That alone should’ve killed me,” Lovato adds. She also confesses that during this relapse that lasted for months, she tried crack cocaine and heroin for the first time.
The first time she went to rehab in 2010, Lovato says that she was addicted to cocaine and Xanax. Years later, when she turned to crack cocaine and heroin (which she usually smoked, not injected), Lovato says in the documentary that she was trying to get the same “upper/downer” combination feeling that she had with cocaine and Xanax. “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” includes a photo identified as Lovato on crack for the first time and a photo of her while she was smoking heroin.
Lovato says she quickly became addicted to crack and heroin, but she was able to hide these addictions from most of the people who were close to her. Her immediate family members are interviewed in the documentary: mother Dianna De La Garza; stepfather Eddie De La Garza; older sister Dallas Lovato; and younger half-sister Madison De LaGarza. All of them say some variation of how Lovato is very good at keeping secrets and pretending that everything is just fine. “There’s a lot that the public don’t know,” says her stepfather Eddie, who is interviewed while sitting on a couch with his wife Dianna.
Demi’s parents got divorced when she was 2 years old. For years, she has been open about how her biological father Patrick Lovato struggled with mental illness (bipolar disorder, schizophrenia) and drug addiction, and their relationship was fractured for a very long time. Patrick died of cancer in 2013.
In “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil,” she talks about how she still feels trauma over her troubled relationship with her father, whom she says abused her mother Dianna. Demi also says that she feels terrible about how her father died alone. His body, which wasn’t discovered for several days, was so decomposed that there couldn’t be an open casket at his funeral. Demi says that her biggest fear was that he would die alone, and she says she’s still haunted by guilt over it.
As for what led to her relapse and overdose in 2018, Demi comments: “Anytime you suppress a part of yourself, it’s going to overflow. Ultimately, that’s what happened to me in a lot of areas of my life. And it led to my overdose, for sure.” She adds later in the documentary: “I was miserable. I snapped.”
In addition to the issues of abandonment that she had with her father, Demi says she believes that the beauty pageants she entered as a child also had a negative effect on her: “My self-esteem was completely damaged by those beauty pageants.” Demi says that her eating disorders began as a direct result of the pressure she felt to be thin and pretty for the pageants.
Her mother Dianna says in the documentary about Demi’s childhood traumas: “I didn’t know that she needed to work with a professional to work through some of that.” In a separate interview, Demi says, “I crossed the line in the world of addiction. It’s interesting that it took a quarantine to work on this trauma stuff I’ve never really taken the time to dig deep and do the work on.”
To her credit, Demi doesn’t sugarcoat the very real and permanent health damage that her overdose caused: “I had three strokes. I had a heart attack. I suffered brain damage from the strokes. I can’t drive anymore. I have blind spots in my vision. When I pour a glass of water, I’ll totally miss the cup because I can’t see it anymore. I’ve also had pneumonia because I asphyxiated and multiple organ failure.”
What happened the night of the overdose has been reported in many media outlets, but the story in this documentary is told by Demi and some other people who were with her in the 24-hour period before and after her overdose. On the evening of July 23, 2018, Demi had been celebrating the birthday of Dani Vitale, who was Demi’s choreographer/creative director at the time.
Demi, Vitale and some other friends went out to nightclubs before heading back to Demi’s house. (The documentary includes phone footage of Vitale and Demi doing a choreographed dance routine on the rooftop.) Vitale, who is interviewed in the documentary, says that she didn’t know that Demi had been using drugs at that time.
That night, Demi begged Vitale to stay overnight at the house, but Vitale declined because she had to go home and feed her dogs and had to get up early the next morning. However, Vitale says as she was driving away from the house with a friend, she told the friend that she had a strange feeling that something wasn’t right. Ultimately, Vitale says that she didn’t stay because of her other obligations and she didn’t want to treat Demi like a child who needed a babysitter.
Demi says that when she was alone in the house, she called her drug dealer and spent the rest of the night doing drugs with him. The documentary includes blurry video surveillance footage of him leaving her house that morning, a few hours before Demi was found unconscious and the ambulance was called. Police later decided not to arrest him for his involvement in this overdose.
Jordan Jackson, a woman who was Demi’s assistant at the time, was the one who found Demi naked, unconscious and surrounded by vomit in Demi’s bed the next morning on July 24, 2018. “There was one point where she turned blue. Her whole body turned blue. I was like, ‘She’s dead for sure,'” Jackson says in the documentary. “It was the craziest thing I had ever seen.”
When Demi woke up at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, she was legally blind for a short period of time. She didn’t even recognize her younger sister Madison, who chokes up with emotion in the documentary when she remembers that moment: “She looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘Who is that?’ That’s something you never want to hear your sister say.”
Cedars-Sinai neurologist Dr. Shouri Lahiri, who sits next to Demi while he’s interviewed in the documentary, remembers that her oxygen levels were “dangerously low and trending down.” Demi also was put on dialysis to clean her blood, and the tubing had to be stuck through her neck. “It was like a horror movie,” as Dianna De La Garza describes it.
Demi is seated next to Dr. Lahiri when he talks about her hospital treatment. He says he didn’t know she why she was famous until about a week after he became her doctor, when he looked her up on the Internet. In the documentary, Dr. Lahiri mentions that he avoided looking up the information earlier because he didn’t want Demi’s celebrity status to affect his medical decisions about her. It’s kind of hard to believe that while she was in the hospital, he didn’t know for the first several days why she was famous, considering all the media coverage about her overdose.
Demi’s stepfather Eddie De La Garza gives a lot of praise to the hospital doctors who helped Demi with her recovery. But no one (not even Demi) is seen or heard in the documentary explicitly thanking Jackson, the person who found Demi and made the crucially important decision to call 911. Jackson admits in her documentary interview that she was afraid that calling 911 would bring a lot of negative publicity for Demi, but Jackson did the right thing and called anyway. Part of the 911 call is played in the documentary, and Jackson is heard asking the 911 operator if the ambulance could not turn on any sirens when it arrived at the house. However, the operator said that there would be ambulance sirens, and 911 operators have no control over that.
Demi says in the documentary, “I’m really lucky to be alive. My doctors said that I had five to 10 minutes [to live before I was found]. Had my assistant not come in, I wouldn’t be here today.” It would’ve been nice for Demi to directly and publicly thank Jackson in the documentary. If Demi did thank her while filming this documentary, it didn’t make it into the movie. And based on the “bare it all” tone of this film, a moment like that wouldn’t be edited out of the film if this thank you really happened while filming.
The documentary also shows that Vitale’s career and reputation were damaged by this overdose, because she was wrongfully blamed for it and wrongfully identified as being a drug buddy of Demi’s. Vitale says she doesn’t do drugs, but she was bullied and harassed by many of Demi’s fans who believed that Vitale was the one who supplied the drugs that Demi took that night. Vitale lost clients because of the overdose scandal. Demi says that her fans who harassed Vitale went too far.
In the documentary, while Vitale is getting her hair and makeup done for the interview, Demi is shown going into the room, hugging Vitale, and telling her that she’s sorry that she didn’t come forward sooner to clear Vitale’s name, but she was still in recovery at the time. Demi also says that she hopes that the documentary will help Vitale set the record straight that Vitale had nothing to do with Demi’s overdose. They seem to be friendly with each other, but it’s clear that Vitale doesn’t want to risk going through this experience with Demi again.
During her interview, Vitale tears up with emotion when she talks about the fallout from Demi’s overdose: “It was the hardest thing I ever had to deal with in my life. I just wanted [Demi] to live … I lost all my teaching jobs. No one wanted to bring their kid to an apparent heroin dealer teacher. I lost all the artists I was working with. No one wanted to deal with the drama … I had to rethink my whole future, all because of someone else’s decision.”
After recovering from her overdose, Demi says she decided she no longer wanted to have a team of people controlling what she ate or people checking up on her as if she would relapse at any moment. As an example, she says that for her birthdays, her previous management team would only allow her to have watermelon cake. After she fired that management team, Demi says one of the ways she celebrated her freedom from other people telling her what to eat was by having three cakes on her birthday.
After getting rid of her previous management, Demi asked Scooter Braun (who’s most famous for being Justin Bieber’s manager) to become her personal manager. Braun, who is an executive producer of “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil,” is interviewed in the documentary and says that he was skeptical about representing Demi until he met her in person and she won him over. During contract negotiations, Demi says she relapsed and was truthful about it to Braun. Demi says she was sure that after this confession, Braun wouldn’t want to represent her.
But the opposite happened. Braun says that rather than distancing himself from Demi because of the relapse, he wanted to help her. He says his reaction was, “As long as you tell me the truth, we’ll work through it.” Braun also says, “She didn’t need a manager. She needed a friend.”
Demi didn’t get rid of everyone on her business team after the overdose. She gives a lot of credit to her longtime business manager Glenn Nordlinger and head of security/chief of staff Max Lea for helping her through tough times. Nordlinger and Lea are both interviewed in the documentary. Nordlinger says it was his idea to get Demi checked into the Cirque Lodge addiction treatment center in Orem, Utah, for her post-overdose rehab. Demi is seated next to Lea and Nordlinger during some of her interviews, and she often keeps her head lowered, as if she’s still ashamed of what they know about her.
Two other people who’ve remained in Demi’s inner circle and are interviewed in the documentary are Sirah Mitchell (a hip-hop artist) and Matthew Scott Montgomery (an actor), who are each described in the documentary as Demi’s “best friend.” Mitchell is also described as Demi’s “former sober coach.” Mitchell and Montgomery, who were not with Demi on the night that she overdosed, profess unwavering loyalty to Demi. They both say that they knew that Demi was doing heroin and other drugs in the weeks leading up to the overdose, but they say that Demi ignored their concerns and there was nothing they could do about it.
Mitchell and Montgomery seem to be among Demi’s biggest cheerleaders, but they also come across as enablers who will say what she wants to hear so she won’t cut them out of her life. For example, Mitchell and Montgomery make vague excuses for why they’re going along with Demi’s plan to drink alcohol and smoke marijuana as part of her “recovery” from alcoholism and drug addiction. By now, these friends should know that when drug addicts/alcoholics think they can handle drugs and alcohol, that’s still being in the sickness of denial.
As for Demi’s family members, they all say that based on their experiences with Demi, they know that an addict can only truly recover when the addict is willing to stop what’s causing their addiction of their own free will, not because other people are pressuring them to do it. Demi says that the first time she went to rehab, she was forced to go because she was told that she wouldn’t be able to see her sister Madison again if Demi didn’t get rehab treatment. In the documentary, Demi notes the “full circle” irony that after she woke up from her overdose, she literally couldn’t see Madison because of Demi’s temporary blindness.
Demi’s case manager Charles Cook is the one of the few people interviewed in the movie to warn viewers that Demi’s way of handling her addiction is not going to work for everyone. He chooses his words carefully, so as not to offend her, but it’s pretty obvious that he’s conflicted in endorsing Demi’s decision to continue to drink alcohol and use marijuana. Cook and Demi both say that addiction recovery doesn’t have a “one size fits all” solution, and Demi is trying to figure out what works best for her.
The documentary includes interviews with some celebrities who know Demi and have worked with her, including recovering addict/alcoholic Elton John. He is blunt when he comments on addicts/alcoholics who think they can still use their addiction substances as part of their recovery: “Moderation doesn’t work.” However, he praises Demi by saying: “She’s human and she’s adorable and she’s brave.”
Christina Aguilera and Will Ferrell also say good things about Demi. Aguilera says, “She’s just no bullshit when it comes to her spirit and her energy and her laughter.” Lovato and Aguilera teamed up for the duet “Fall in Line,” which was on Aguilera’s 2018 album “Liberation.” The song was also released as a single.
Ferrell says he was inspired to put Demi in his 2020 Netflix comedy movie “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” after seeing her emotionally perform “Anyone” at the 2020 Grammy Awards. The Grammy show was her first high-profile performance after her overdose, and she followed it up with another critically acclaimed performance at Super Bowl LIV, where she sang a powerful rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Clips of both performances are in the movie, as well as snippets of her performing on tour in 2018 and in the recording studio. Demi says that she wrote and recorded “Sober” while she was in the throes of addiction to crack and heroin. And she mentions that her song “Dancing With the Devil” is one of the rawest, soul-baring songs she’s ever written about her addiction. Braun says, “In the studio, Demi is in her happy place.”
Demi describes her brief engagement to Ehrich in 2020 as part of their whirlwind and unconventional romance. Most of their courtship happened when they moved in with her mother and stepfather to quarantine with them during the coronavirus pandemic. Demi and Ehrich dated for just six months before calling it quits. After the breakup, he went on social media and gave interviews saying that he was blindsided and treated unfairly by Demi.
In the documentary, Demi says that she and Ehrich probably wouldn’t have gotten engaged so quickly if they hadn’t quarantined together. And although she doesn’t divulge the full details of their breakup, Demi reiterates what she’s already said publicly: She says she found out that Ehrich didn’t have the right intentions in their relationship. The documentary has selfie video footage of a forlorn-looking Demi after the breakup, fretting to the camera that she won’t find anyone to love her.
Demi has this to say about her love life at the time she filmed this documentary: “I feel like I’m too queer in my life to marry a man right now.” She describes her outlook: “Life is fluid, and I’m fluid, and that’s all I know.”
In addition to dealing with her physical health problems as a result of the overdose, Demi says she has the psychological trauma of being sexually assaulted. She has this to say about the sexual violation from her drug dealer: “When they found me, I was naked, blue. I was literally left for dead after he took advantage of me. I was literally discarded and abandoned.”
“When I woke up in the hospital, they asked if I had consensual sex,” Demi says in one of her documentary interviews. “There was one flash that I had of him on top of me. I saw the flash, and I said, ‘Yes’ [in answer to the question if the sex was consensual]. It wasn’t until a month after my overdose that I realized, ‘Hey, you weren’t in any state of mind to make a consensual decision.’ That kind of trauma doesn’t go away overnight, and it doesn’t go away in the first few months of rehab either.”
Demi reveals that instead of staying away from the drug dealer that she says raped her, she actually contacted him again when she relapsed after her overdose. And she says that when they had sex again, she wanted to be the one in control. Instead, Demi says this “revenge sex” made her feel worse.
And she also says it was history repeating itself because something similar happened with the person she says raped her when she was 15: “When I was a teenager, I was in a very similar situation. I lost my virginity in rape. I called that person back a month later and tried to make it right by being in control. All it did was make me feel worse.”
In the documentary, Demi doesn’t name her alleged rapists, but the drug dealer who admitted he was the one who supplied the drugs on the night of the overdose already gave tabloid interviews after he found out that he wouldn’t be arrested for supplying her the drugs. His name is already out there in the public. And in at least one of his interviews, he claimed that Demi was his sex partner in a “friends with benefits” situation.
As for the guy whom Demi says raped her when she was 15, she drops some big hints about who he is. “I was part of that Disney crowd that publicly said they were waiting until marriage.” She says in the documentary that this virginity image was a lie for her and her alleged rapist, which obviously implies that he was part of that “Disney crowd” too.
Commenting on how she lost her virginity, Demi says: “I didn’t have the romantic first time. That was not it for me. That sucked. Then I had to see this person all the time so I stopped eating and coped in other ways.”
Then she takes a breath and says, “Fuck it. I’m gonna say it.” She says that her #MeToo moment came when she reported the rape to adults (whom she does not name in the documentary), but her alleged rapist “never got in trouble for it. They never got taken out of the movie they were in. I always kept it quiet because I’ve always had something to say. I don’t know, I’m tired of opening my mouth. Here’s the tea.”
Just like many people with #MeToo stories, Demi says she’s going public with her truth to help give other people the courage to do the same. “I’m coming forward with what happened to me because everyone it happens to should absolutely speak their voice.” She also says, “At the end of the day, I’m responsible for my life choices and only hold myself accountable. And the last two years have been about me doing the work to identify and confront those traumas, so I can be my best self and truly be happy.”
The problem with these types of “confessions of a famous addict” is that they usually have the celebrity confessing that in the past, they put on a fake front of being happy and/or sober in public, but they were really miserable and/or relapsing in private. Then they usually end the documentary by saying they’re doing much better now. But it can be hard for people to believe that, when the celebrity has already admitted that they’re skilled at pretending that their life is better than it really is.
Demi says in the “Dancing With the Devil” documentary that when she made the “Simply Complicated” documentary, she was really miserable and pretended at the time that she happy. Is there eventually going to be another “confession” from Demi where she will say that she was lying in this “Dancing With the Devil” documentary too? It’s a vicious cycle where people aren’t going to know what to believe.
Another problem that people tend to have with these celebrity “tell-alls” is they usually come out at around the same time that the celebrity has a new project to promote. And it makes people wonder how much of this pain is being used to market something that the celebrity wants to sell. Sure enough, the documentary includes studio footage and video clips to promote Demi’s seventh studio album “Dancing with the Devil … The Art of Starting Over,” which is due out on April 2, 2021, the same week as when this docuseries’ last episode is released on YouTube.
Most addicts and alcoholics don’t get to profit from selling their stories. And there’s a lot of denial going on in the documentary when Demi, who spent years telling the world that she’s an alcoholic, now says she can handle drinking alcohol in moderation. Did she not learn anything in rehab?
Although there are website addresses and hotline phone numbers listed in the documentary as resources for people who want to get more information on how to get help for addiction or surviving sexual trauma, the mixed messages that Demi gives in her “Dancing With the Devil” documentary can actually confuse people. She does briefly acknowledge that she’s luckier than most addicts, because she can afford top-notch rehab treatment and a team of people who can get her whatever she asks for because she’s paying them to do it. But that acknowledgement rings hollow because she’s basically saying, “I know I can afford to go to the highest-priced rehab centers in the world, but I’m going to indulge in my addictive substances anyway, just because I feel like it.”
However, people who are not gullible fans can see the documentary for what it is: It shows the difficulty of overcoming addiction and how celebrities are surrounded by “yes” people who will say what the celebrity wants to hear so that they can stay in the celebrity’s inner circle. If there’s any meaningful takeaway from “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” it’s that if celebrities want to tell the world their truth, they should summon the courage to have people in their lives who will tell them the truth. And when it comes to addiction to alcohol and drugs, they can start with the basic fundamentals of rehab, which is that an alcoholic/drug addict isn’t doing enough real work to get clean and sober if that alcoholic/drug addict is still drinking and drugging.
YouTube Originals will premiere “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” on Demi Lovato’s YouTube channel on March 23, 2021.
Culture Representation: Taking place from 2017 to 2019, in Istanbul, Turkey, the documentary “Stray” follows the lives of a select number of stray dogs in the city.
Culture Clash: Syrian refugee teens who are homeless take care of some of the dogs, but their vagrant and unstable lifestyles make their ability to care for the pets very dubious.
Culture Audience: “Stray” will appeal primarily to people interested in watching a documentary about dogs that live on the streets and how the city of Istanbul handles these homeless pets.
People who’ve seen director Ceyda Torun’s 2017 documentary “Kedi” (about stray cats in Istanbul) can view director Elizabeth Lo’s documentary “Stray” (about stray dogs in Istanbul) as a great companion piece. You don’t have to see one documentary to enjoy the other, but it’s worth comparing and contrasting the two films. “Stray” is a more heart-wrenching movie than “Kedi” because homeless dogs in Istanbul seem to have it much harder than homeless cats.
Whereas “Kedi” focused on seven cats (male and female) and gave each about the same amount of screen time, “Stray” features three dogs (all female) in the spotlight, but one dog in particular gets the majority of the screen time. Her name is Zeytin, a tan Labrador Retriever mix with a personality that’s utterly endearing. She is friendly, smart and independent. And even in harsh circumstances, she maintains her dignity. A lot of humans could learn from a dog like Zeytin.
“Stray” begins with a prologue stating: “Turkish authorities have tried to annihilate stray dogs since 1909, leading to mass killings of Istanbul’s street dogs for the last century … Widespread protests against the killings transformed Turkey into one of the only countries where it is now illegal to euthanize or hold captive any stray dog.”
What does that mean for stray dogs like Zeytin? They are allowed to roam free on the streets, but there doesn’t seem to be the type of organized system for animal adoptions that other countries have. Stray dogs in Istanbul wear government tags on their ears to indicate if they have been spayed or neutered. The documentary (which was filmed from 2017 to 2019) is cinéma vérité style, from the point of view of the dogs, with no interviews and no background information on Istanbul’s animal shelters.
Zeytin has a close female companion named Nazar, a beige Labrador Retriever mix with a darker-toned face than Zeytin. Nazar also has blue pen markings all over her fur. By comparison, Zeytin looks remarkably well-kept for a stray dog.
Zeytin’s fur looks clean and doesn’t show any signs of mange or flea infestations. And she doesn’t look injured. The ages of Zeytin and Nazar are unclear, but an unknown person in the movie mentions that Zeytin looks young.
There’s a scene in the movie that shows the dogs near the beach. And although there’s no scene in the movie of the dogs swimming in the water, you get the feeling that Zeytin knows a place where she can wash herself on a regular basis. She’s smart and resourceful. If you believe that dogs have souls, then she has a good one.
Zeytin and Nazar begin following a group of Syrian refugee teenage boys (who look to be about 13 to 16 years old) who are also homeless. The dogs end up staying with the boys in an abandoned building. A few of the boys’ names are heard here and there. One is named Jamil. Another one is named Halil. They make money by asking for handouts or selling random items.
There’s a core group of about four or five of these refugee teens who hang out together and take care of Zeytin and Nazar. In the abandoned building, one of the boys talks about how he went to an immigration office with his family to apply for a refugee work permit, but the government only had a record of his family members, not him.
The personal stories of the other boys are not told in the documentary. But they all habitually sniff glue in plastic bags to get high, which is an indication of their emotional pain. The teens are eventually kicked out of the building by the apparent owner, who threatens to have them arrested for trespassing and loitering. The kids beg him to let them stay there and say they won’t make any trouble, but he refuses. He also scolds them about sniffing glue.
One of the things that people might dread in watching a documentary like this is the sight of any dogs being abused. Fortunately, there is no animal abuse in the movie, but it doesn’t sugarcoat how rough life on the streets can be for these dogs. The teen refugees often talk about how hungry they are, so it’s probably the same for the dogs. When a charity food truck comes by during its scheduled stop, the refugees run to it and get enough food for themselves and the dogs.
Zeytin and other stray dogs also get food by rummaging through garbage or by hanging out near restaurants and street food vendors. There’s a scene of Zeytin sleeping outside near tables at a café. And like clockwork, Zeytin is shooed away by an employee about the same time every day until she finds somewhere else for her daytime nap.
Food vendors will usually chase the dogs away, but a few will give the dogs their scraps. And on rare occasions, a random stranger will stop to give the dog some store-bought food. But most people on the street ignore the strays.
Some people with their own pet dogs are afraid to let their pets near the strays. One woman who’s walking her Jack Russell Terrier named Bella reacts to seeing Zeytin by nervously scooping up Bella and saying about Zeytin, “She might kill you,” even though Zeytin is harmless and shows no signs of aggression.
Zeytin and Nazar have an overall congenial relationship, but they show their contrasting temperaments in two different scenes. Nazar is more ill-tempered and has a tendency to be greedy and possessive, compared to Zeytin who tends to be calmer and more generous. However, Zeytin is not afraid to defend herself if necessary.
In one scene, some meaty bones are discarded on the street. Nazar growls and snaps at Zeytin to prevent Zeytin from getting near the bones, because Nazar wants all the bones to herself. Zeytin is able to sneak off with one of the bones though. In another scene, Nazar playfully greets another dog named Zilli, but Nazar (who is nearby) seems to get jealous and starts a vicious fight with Zeytin. The teenagers have to separate the two dogs, and one of the boys comforts Zeytin, who looks sad that her friend turned on her for no good reason.
Zeytin’s demeanor with other dogs is so approachable and friendly that the documentary shows that she can win over dogs who look mean and tough. She encounters a pack of about 10 to 12 dogs, and some of them try to bully her. But when she defends herself, she earns their respect, and they let her hang out with their pack for a while. Zeytin is never seen instigating a fight.
She also has an independent streak because she doesn’t seem to want to stay with one pack for too long. In the production notes for “Stray,” director Lo commented: “Zeytin quickly emerged as the focus of our production because she was one of the rare dogs we followed who did not inadvertently end up following us back. To the very last day of shooting, she remained radically independent.”
When strangers approach Zeytin on the street, she is curious and amiable. A man with a daughter who looks about 3 years old encourages his daughter to pet Zeytin. In another scene, a passerby remarks that Zeytin is a beautiful dog.
And in one of the film’s scenes that can be considered laugh-out-loud funny, Zeytin and some other dogs are wandering in the streets while a feminist protest is happening, with women holding signs and shouting about their rights. In the middle of this protest, a male dog mounts Zeytin and starts having sex with her. One of the women in the crowd shouts jokingly to the dogs, “Not now, guys! Please!” Another woman says to the male dog about his sexual intercourse with Zeytin, “Do it only if she wants to! Ask her first!”
Another dog that’s featured in the documentary, but not as prominently as Zeytin and Nazar, is a black and white pitbull mix puppy named Kartal, who’s about four or five months old. Zeytin first meets Kartal when Zeytin and some other dogs walk near a family home where Kartal is outside with another puppy from the litter and Kartal’s mother. Zeytin approaches as if to greet the other dogs, but Kartal’s mother growls protectively and doesn’t let the other dogs get too close.
Later in the movie, some of the teenage refugees go back to the house and beg the dog’s owner to let them take one of the puppies. The owner refuses but hints that they can come back at night and steal the puppy they want. The boys end up stealing Kartal, whom they rename Sari. The puppy often looks confused, but the boys make sure that she’s kept safe, and there’s a moment when Kartal/Sari finds another puppy as a temporary play companion.
Zeytin seems to have mixed feelings toward Kartal/Sari as a new arrival to this pack. Zeytin is not hostile to Kartal/Sari, but she’s not overly welcoming either. When Kartal/Sari tries to snuggle up to Zeytin or try to play with her, Zeytin moves away, as if she’s uncomfortable being a babysitter. Kartal/Sari’s time with this group of homeless teens doesn’t last long though. (Don’t worry, she didn’t get hurt.)
You don’t have to be an animal enthusiast to enjoy “Stray,” although it certainly makes a difference in how you might look at and remember this film. Even though the dogs in the movie do not have an ideal life, they are protected under Istanbul law. And that probably gives them a better chance not to be openly abused and murdered by people on the streets.
There’s a resilience to these dogs but also a constant sense of worry about where and how they are going to get their next meal, as well as how they are going to stay safe. Life on the streets means these strays can belong to anyone and no one at the same time. Unlike homeless humans, homeless dogs can’t sign up for emergency shelters or apply for government aid. But the last five minutes of “Stray” (which has the best scene in the movie) is a clear indication that dogs can have feelings and reactions just like a lot of humans do. And they also deserve to be seen, heard and treated with kindness.
Magnolia Pictures released “Stray” in U.S. virtual cinemas on March 5, 2021.
Culture Representation: The documentary “Attack of the Murder Hornets” features a predominantly white group of people (with one of Indian heritage and one of Native American heritage) who were involved in some way in the 2020 high-profile case of tracking down a deadly Asian giant hornet nest in Washington state.
Culture Clash: Handling this problem takes the work of private citizens and the government, which sometimes conflict with each other.
Culture Audience: “Attack of the Murder Hornets” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in nature/environmental documentaries that are told in an engaging, storytelling style.
The documentary “Attack of the Murder Hornets” is styled very much like a true-crime documentary about authorities trying to track down a serial killer. But instead of a human murderer that’s being hunted, it’s a pack of Asian giant hornets that can massacre thousands of bees at a time. You don’t have to be a scientist or someone who normally watches nature documentaries to enjoy this movie, because it’s told in a very appealing way that anyone can understand.
Directed by Michael Paul Stephenson, “Attack of the Murder Hornets” gives a brief overview of why these hornets, which have been nicknamed “murder hornets,” are dangerous for the environment. Asian giant hornets can wipe out entire colonies of bees, by biting off the heads of bees and eating their torsos. Bees are necessary for the pollination that helps keep the environment healthy and productive. These hornets don’t just sting; they also release poisonous venom. And yes, humans can die from a serious attack by these hornets.
No one really knows how the hornets got from Asia to North America, but enough of them have been found that governments have put together task forces to eradicate the hornets before these deadly insects can cause a serious plague. “Attack of the Murder Hornets” focuses on one such “hornet hunt” that took place in Blaine, Washington, in 2020. The documentary is riveting and insightful in showing how everything was planned and how the task force dealt with some unexpected setbacks.
“Attack of the Murder Hornets” begins by showing an example of the type of damage that Asian giant hornets can cause. Ted McFall, a beekeeper in Blaine, is interviewed about the time in December 2019, when he got the shock of his life: He found about 60,000 of his honey bees (including the queen bee) dead. All of the bees’ heads were bitten off.
As McFall tells it, he didn’t know what to think at first. Was it a cruel prank? Was it some kind of freak accident? Or was it an animal attack? McFall, whose father was a beekeeper and passed on the family business to him, comments in the documentary about how he felt about seeing so many of his bees dead: “It’s kind of like finding a family pet or maybe a family member that got killed, and you have no idea who did it or what did it or what the heck happened.”
McFall gets choked up and emotional when he thinks of this devastating loss. He remembers the reaction of his wife Dorothy, who has a business selling arts and crafts made from beeswax: She said, “It was like a murder scene.” And just like anyone who experiences this kind of loss, Ed McFall wanted to find out what happened and punish the perpetrators.
It wasn’t long before Ed McFall got the answer to the mystery. That same month, a Blaine resident named Jeff Kornelis, who lives two miles from what the documentary calls the “murder scene,” found a dead Asian giant hornet on his property. According to what Kornelis says in the documentary, he took a photo of the hornet, posted it on Reddit, and asked people if they knew what this mystery insect was.
He was advised to take this information to the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) and the Washington Invasive Species Council (WISC). WISC referred the case to WSDA. The documentary includes interviews with WSDA employees, such as hornet hotline operator Jessica LaBelle, chief entomologist Sven-Erik Spichiger and lab technician Quin Baine.
Spichiger remembers the first time he saw the hornet that was found on Kornelis’ property, he was taken aback by the large size of the hornet: “It was quite shocking because it looked like a child’s toy. It was so much larger than the other hornets that we dealt with.”
The documentary also interviews Japanese scientist Ryouta Sakamoto, who talks about the deadly effects that Asian giant hornets can have on humans and other animals if the population of these hornets is not kept under control. Sakamoto mentions that bees in Japan have learned how to kill these hornets on their own (by surrounding the hornets and causing the bees’ body heat to cook the hornets alive), but bees in North America have not learned how to defend themselves against Asian giant hornets.
Another beekeeper named Ruthie Danielsen, who lives six miles from the McFall family, heard about the bee massacre and became alarmed that the hornets would kill other bees in the area, including her own. She and Eric McFall decided to join forces when they found out that government agencies were too underfunded and understaffed to take care of the problem. Danielsen and other beekeepers in the area began setting up their own homemade traps specifically for the hornets. (Rancid rice water is a popular lure.)
Danielsen says in the documentary that taking a grassroots, private-citizen approach to the problem was not only necessary but also in her nature: “I don’t think it’s okay to say, ‘Let someone else take care of it.'” She formed a task force to deal with Asian giant hornets and implemented a system where people could volunteer to drop off dead Asian giant hornets at a designated place. Many of the hornets were deliberately trapped, while others were not. The dead hornets were then given to WSDA for research.
Also interviewed in the documentary is New York Times reporter Mike Barker, who broke the story in the newspaper about the Asian giant hornet being found in Washington state. The story became international news to the point where the Washington state government was pressured to put more funding into decreasing the Asian giant hornet population in Washington state. And so, the hornet hunt that’s chronicled in this documentary was ultimately a hunt that was a government-funded operation.
Two places became crucial in the hornet hunt that’s documented in this movie: First was the WSDA’s Natural Resources Building Entomology Laboratory (described in the documentary as Hornet Hunter Headquarters) in Olympia, Washington. And the second place (in Seattle) was the University of Washington’s Insect Robot Lab, which provided the miniature tracking devices that were placed on the trapped hornets. A University of Washington Ph. D. student named Vikram Iyer explains in the movie how the tracking device works. The tracking devices, which could be attached to the hornets by glue or by string, would give the investigators the ability to let the hornets loose and then hopefully be able to track the hornets back to their well-hidden hornet nest.
Leading the task force is WSDA scientist Chris Looney, who describes himself as being suited for a job where he doesn’t have to sit in an office all day and take orders. He also says he’s the type of person who’s more inclined to think that things will go wrong instead of going right, so that he doesn’t lose his cool when something doesn’t go according to plan. And mishaps and unexpected problems do indeed happen during this hornet hunt.
Someone who is part of the hunt is Conrad Bérubé, who is credited with being the first person to kill a colony of Asian giant hornets in North America. He found the deadly hornets in Nanaimo, British Columbia, in 2019. Bérubé, who is longtime insect expert, exterminated the hornets by gassing them with carbon dioxide. He didn’t walk away unscathed, since he was injured by several hornet stings.
And, as shown in the documentary, Bérubé is a hero to Ted McFall, who is extremely eager to get revenge on the hornets that killed his bees. (“They’re going to be sent back to hell, where they came from,” Ted McFall sneers about the hornets at one point in the movie.) In a lighthearted moment, the documentary shows Ted McFall meeting Bérubé and acting almost like a star-struck fan, as he happily takes selfies with Bérubé. There’s also footage of Bérubé, who’s an outdoor hippie type, trying to find the hornet nest on his own, although he doesn’t have the advantage of the tracking device.
Another person who played an important part of the hunt is Philip Bovenkamp, a private citizen who found more than one Asian giant hornet on his property and was able to singlehandedly catch them and hand them over to the WSDA for research purposes. His family and neighbors are shown taking video footage with their phones during the hunt. And his daughter (who looks like she was about 9 or 10 when this documentary was filmed) expresses some sadness that these hornets will be killed when they’re found.
And then there’s farmer Jamie Pollander, who owns the property where much of the hunt takes place. The documentary shows how Pollander made a controversial decision that didn’t sit well with several members of the team, such as Looney. There’s some foreshadowing of this decision when someone tells Pollander that finding a hornet’s nest for this team would be like hitting the lottery, and Pollander says that he wishes he could hit the lottery.
Given that this hunt took place during the COVID-19 pandemic, there are scenes where people have to wear masks and social distance. And there are other scenes where people who don’t live in the same household aren’t wearing masks but are standing next to each other. (Maybe they tested negative for COVID-19 and felt safe in going maskless.)
Considering how deadly these hornets are, viewers might be surprised at how little protection many of the people have on the hunt. For example, Looney often handles the hornets without wearing anything on his hands. The beekeepers wear more protection (such as a full-body beekeeper suit) in their line of work than the scientists do on this hornet hunt, even though the hornets they’re looking for are a lot more dangerous than bees.
“Attack of the Murder Hornets” is accessible viewing for non-scientists and, at times, the movie is very suspenseful in telling this interesting story. Under the direction of Stephenson, the documentary achieves the right mix of being informative and entertaining. The film’s editing by Samantha Smart and music by Julian Cisneros are very effective in adding levels of tension and urgency to what the task force ends up doing.
This isn’t a nature documentary with people droning on and on, as if they’re giving a lecture in a science class. Nor is it a documentary that relies heavily on gimmicks such on re-enactments or animation. The movie takes viewers out into the places where all the action is happening in real time for this hornet hunt.
“Attack of the Murder Hornets” was obviously made with the filmmakers not knowing what the final outcome would be. And so, that level of the unknown makes the suspense more genuine. The movie succeeds in showing a more human side to the scientists and beekeepers who have to deal with this hornet problem directly. And it’s a cautionary tale about the delicate balance of protecting the environment without destroying too much of a species that’s needed to keep the environment stable.
Discovery+ premiered “Attack of the Murder Hornets” on February 20, 2021
Culture Representation: “Ruth: Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words” features a predominantly white group of people (with one African American and one Asian), mostly with law backgrounds, discussing the life and legacy of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who died in 2020, at the age of 87.
Culture Clash: Ginsburg faced discrimination issues because of her gender and for being Jewish, and her politically liberal viewpoints conflicted with the viewpoints of many political conservatives.
Culture Audience: “Ruth: Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words” will appeal to primarily to people who are admirers of Ginsberg who tend to be liberal or progressive when it comes to social justice issues.
Although not as intimate or insightful as the Oscar-nominated 2018 documentary “RBG,” the documentary “Ruth: Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words” can still be considered a worthy overview of the life and legacy of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2020, at the age of 87. She became a U.S. Supreme Court Justice in 1993 (the second woman to hold this title), and she never retired.
Directed by Oscar-winning documentarian Freida Lee Mock, “Ruth: Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words” is comprised mostly of archival footage of Ginsburg. There are also exclusive documentary interviews with some of her former colleagues, her “Notorious RBG” unauthorized biographers, and two people whose lives were directly affected by U.S. Supreme Court decisions made by Ginsburg. Fortunately, the documentary isn’t overstuffed with talking heads and doesn’t lose sight of Ginsburg’s words being the focus of the film.
The biggest difference between “RBG” (which was directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West) and “Ruth: Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words” is that the latter film does not have the participation of Ginsburg or her family. It’s a big void that “Ruth: Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words” tries to fill by taking an in-depth look at the most well-known cases that Ginsburg was involved with in her long and illustrious career. Therefore, “Ruth: Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words” has more audio clips of Ginsburg speaking in court during these cases, especially when voicing her deciding opinion. The documentary includes some simple animation to illustrate scenes from her life where video footage doesn’t exist.
“Ruth: Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words” was filmed when Ginsburg was still alive but battling her health problems. (It’s why everyone in the movie refers to her in the present tense.) But her legacy looms large and will be felt for generations to come. This documentary hits a lot of the same beats and uses a lot of the same archival footage that “RBG” used. Therefore, people who saw “RBG” probably won’t learn anything new about Ginsburg, except maybe seeing some archival footage that they might not have seen before.
For example, a clip that’s in “Ruth: Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words” that isn’t in “RBG” is of Ginsburg appearing on a Columbia University Law School discussion panel for mothers and daughters who are lawyers. Ginsburg was on the panel with her daughter Jane Ginsburg, and it’s mentioned that they were the first mother and daughter to become professors at a U.S. law school. (Ruth and Jane both taught at Columbia University Law School, their alma mater.)
There’s also footage of Ruth going back to her childhood schools in her hometown of New York City (she was born and raised in the Brooklyn borough) to attend dedication events when they named a part of a building for her. At her former elementary school (Public School 238), the library is named after her. In the archival footage, Ruth says it was always her favorite room in the school when she was a student there. And at James Madison High School, they named the moot court after her.
And there are segments of her answering questions over the years from various U.S. students who came to visit at the U.S. Supreme Court building. In this archival footage, Ruth comments that meeting with students is one of her favorite things to do and she wishes that she could do it more often. There’s also expected archival footage of her U.S. Senate confirmation hearings in 1993, with Joe Biden as a prominent figure because he was a member of the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary at the time. In archival footage, Ruth graciously gives credit to Sandra Day O’Connor for paving the way as the first female U.S. Supreme Court Justice and for being so welcoming of Ruth.
The documentary doesn’t do too much in-depth coverage of Ginsburg’s life before she graduated from law school. It’s mainly because she didn’t publicly talk too much about her what her life was like before she went to college, and this documentary relies entirely on her public statements for any of her comments that are in the movie. Ruth’s beloved mother Celia (who encouraged Ruth to be a strong, independent woman) died when Ruth was 17, the day before Ruth graduated from high school. And Ruth’s older sister died when Ruth was a baby. In the documentary, Ruth’s unauthorized biographer Irin Carmon (co-author of “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg”) mentions that these family tragedies probably affected Ruth’s resilience and ability to deal with other adversities that Ruth experienced later in her life.
Ruth’s courtship with husband Marty is described through archival clips that were also in “RBG.” They met while they both were undergraduate students at Cornell University. Ruth and Marty were married in 1954, the year that she graduated from Cornell, and the couple remained happily married until Marty’s death from cancer in 2010, at the age of 78.
Ruth and Marty attended Harvard University Law School, where she was one of the few women in her class. Marty graduated from Harvard, and Ruth later transferred to Columbia University Law School when Marty got a job in New York City. They had two children together: daughter Jane (an attorney/law professor) and son James (a music producer).
It’s also repeated how Ruth and Marty had opposite personalities: She was introverted and serious, while he was extroverted and a constant jokester. What isn’t mentioned in “Ruth: Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words” but is detailed in “RBG” (and in the 2018 Ruth Bader Ginsburg feature film “On the Basis of Sex”) is that Ruth and Marty experienced a major health crisis early in their marriage.
While they were both attending Harvard Law School and when Jane was a baby, Marty was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1957. He was given a very slim chance to live. Fortunately, Marty recovered from the cancer, but the couple had the enormous challenge of dealing with his recovery while they were both enrolled in school and taking care of a baby. Ruth had to attend Marty’s classes as well as her own to take notes for him while he was in recovery.
The “Ruth” documentary repeats the well-known story of how Ruth faced gender and religious discrimination after graduating at the top of her law-school class in 1959, but no law firm would hire her at the time. In job interviews, she was sometimes told that the firm didn’t hire attorneys who were women, Jews and/or mothers. In an archival clip, Ruth said that she fit all three of those descriptions when she tried to get hired at a law firm, so she had “three strikes against her.”
Of course, blatantly telling people in a job interview that they won’t be hired because of things such as gender, religion, race, etc. is illegal now in the United States, but there was no law against it back then. Most people who watch this documentary might already know how Ruth was one of the driving forces in the legal profession that helped make these discriminatory practices illegal. “Ruth: Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words” doesn’t dwell too much on Ruth’s time as a Columbia law professor and instead keeps most of the focus on her work as an attorney and judge.
Kathleen Peratis was the director of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project from 1975 to 1979, so she and Ruth worked together during this period of time. Peratis comments in the documentary: “The ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] was at the beginning of doing women’s rights work and was really at the beginning of the forefront of big-time gender discrimination legislation. And Ruth was at the head of it.”
The year 1976 was a milestone for Ruth. The documentary mentions three major cases in 1976 which helped define her career when she was an ACLU attorney. She won all of the cases. The Craig v. Boren lawsuit was an Oklahoma gender discrimination case that gave women the legal right to buy alcohol at age 18, while men had to wait until they were 21.
In archival commentary, Ruth said that a turning point in her career was winning the Reed vs. Reed case in 1976 in the U.S. Supreme Court. It was a case where Ruth represented Sally Reed, who had been prevented from being the administrator of her late son’s estate because she was a woman. In a 9-0 vote, it was the first time that the U.S. Supreme Court decided that gender discrimination was unconstitutional. Peratis comments, “Ruth spent the next 10 years just busting the doors open.”
M.E. Freeman, who would go on to become an attorney in New York, was a Columbia law student and ACLU volunteer when she worked with Ruth. Freeman remembers that in the Duren v. Missouri lawsuit in 1976 (a case arguing for women to have the same rights as men to serve on a jury), Ruth gave Freeman the privilege of sitting in during the U.S. Supreme Court proceedings as Ruth was making her arguments in the case. Freeman says it’s the type of mentor generosity that was rarely given to ACLU volunteers.
Freeman further comments on Ruth: “She was an amazing writer. Her expression was ‘If you can get the briefs to sing …’ And hers sang. They were powerful.” Goodwin Liu, who is a California Supreme Court associate justice, was a clerk for Ruth in 2000. He calls her an “independent thinker” and someone who was “an incredible mentor” to him, not just when he was in law school but also after he graduated and eventually became a judge. He says that even when Ruth was outvoted in U.S. Supreme Court cases, “She dissented with a purpose.”
One of the most well-known U.S. Supreme Court cases that had Ruth in the majority vote (7-1) was U.S. v. Virginia, which gave women the right to be allowed as students at the previously all-male Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in 1996. Jennifer Carroll Foy, who was one of the few women to graduate from VMI’s first co-ed class, comments in the documentary how this U.S. Supreme Court decision changed her life.
“There’s nothing that can prepare you for that experience,” Foy says of being in this groundbreaking co-ed VMI class. “My grandmother always told me: ‘Be the change you want to see.”
Foy adds, It’s very difficult to know where I would be right now without Justice Ginsburg and her opinion. She laid the foundation for all of us, especially me as a woman, to be able to attend the Virginia Military Institute. And I think it helped me reach the place I am today.”
Foy became a delegate for the 2nd district of the Virginia House of Delegates, a public defender and a 2021 candidate for governor of Virginia. Her personal life was also affected by her VMI experience, because VMI is where she met her husband Jeffrey Foy, and they are the parents of twin sons.
Also interviewed is Lilly Ledbetter, the plaintiff in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, which went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2006. Ledbetter sued her employer Goodyear for being paid almost half of what male employees with equal or less experience were being paid for similar jobs in her department. In the documentary, Ledbetter says that she was a good, hardworking and loyal employee who was emotionally crushed when she found out about the pay discrepancy. She says she couldn’t afford to quit her job, so she found an attorney who would work on a contingency fee and she sued Goodyear to fight for her rights.
Although Ledbetter lost the case by a narrow 5-4 decision, Ruth was on the dissenting minority side and gave an eloquent courtroom speech explaining why. (Parts of that dissenting opinion are included in the documentary.) Ledbetter believes that this dissenting opinion helped pave the way for Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, which Barack Obama made the first act that he signed after he became president of the U.S. in 2009.
The documentary also mentions another U.S. Supreme Court case that was a tough blow for Ruth. In 2013, Shelby v. Holder repealed the progress made in the Civil Rights Voting Act of 1965. Ruth was in the minority dissenting opinion in the 5-4 vote.
Just like in “RBG,” Ruth’s unlikely friendship with politically conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in 2016 at age 79, gets some screen time. (One of the few things they had in common was they both loved opera.) There’s archival footage of Ruth attending the Castleton Festival’s “Scalia/Ginsburg” parody musical and commenting to a reporter afterward about how the musical portrayed the real-life Scalia/Ginsburg relationship: “The song they sang ‘We Are Different, We Are One’ captures it. We each understand the way the other thinks.”
Also covered (as it was in “RBG”) is Ruth’s soaring popularity in her later years, including The Notorious RBG memes that resulted when she was satirically compared to rapper The Notorious B.I.G., another Brooklyn native. “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg” co-author Shana Knizhnik, who founded The Notorious RBG blog, provides additional comments about Ruth becoming an unexpected icon in pop culture. And there’s archival footage of Ruth describing her workout routine and mentioning her personal trainer Bryant Johnson, although this recycled footage doesn’t have the same impact as the exclusive “RBG” footage of her actually doing the workouts.
Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of University of California at Berkeley Law School, says in the beginning of the “Ruth” documentary: “There’s remarkably little knowledge among college students about the [U.S] Supreme Court … I’ve seen opinion polls that more people could name the Seven Dwarfs than can name justices on the Supreme Court.” Ruth Bader Ginsberg is certainly an exception to the idea that U.S. Supreme Court Justices don’t have well-known names. And more importantly than being famous, as this “Ruth” documentary reaffirms, she’s left an important impact on U.S. law and inspired countless people, regardless of their personal politics.
Sanders & Mock Productions and American Film Foundation released “Ruth: Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on February 12, 2021. Starz premiered the movie on March 1, 2021. The movie’s VOD release date is on March 9, 2021.