Review: ‘Olympia,’ starring Olympia Dukakis

July 13, 2020

by Carla Hay

Olympia Dukakis in “Olympia” (Photo courtesy of Abramorama)

“Olympia”

Directed by Harry Mavromichalis

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States, Greece and briefly in Canada and Cyprus, the documentary “Olympia” interviews an almost all-white group of people talking about Oscar-winning actress Olympia Dukakis, including entertainers, other colleagues, family members and Dukakis herself.

Culture Clash: Dukakis battled against sexist stereotypes and ethnicity biases by founding a theater company and not limiting herself to one type of outlet for acting.

Culture Audience: Besides the obvious target audience of Olympia Dukakis fans, “Olympia” will appeal primarily to people who like biographies about entertainers who refuse to be pigeonholed.

Louis Zorich (far left) and Olympia Dukakis (second from right) in “Olympia” (Photo courtesy of Abramorama)

The documentary “Olympia” is a lot like the Oscar-winning actress Olympia Dukakis herself—opinionated, funny, candid, foul-mouthed, sometimes rambling, but never boring. Directed by Harry Mavromichalis (in his feature-film debut), this up-close and personal biography of Dukakis will delight her fans as an updated companion piece to her 2003 memoir “Ask Me Again: A Life in Progress.” People who didn’t read the book might discover many things about Dukakis that they didn’t know but will probably end up liking.

This movie clearly was not a rushed job, since a lot of the “new” footage is obviously several years old. The movie begins with Dukakis in California to get her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame—an event that happened in 2013. There’s some other footage of Dukakis (who was born in 1931) celebrating her 81st birthday in 2012. And in one of the movie’s funniest segments, she’s in San Francisco, as a grand marshal for the 2011 San Francisco Pride Parade. As she’s perched in an open car and waves to the parade crowd, she chuckles and makes this self-deprecating comment through her smile, “Some people don’t know who the fuck I am.”

The documentary will give viewers a pretty clear of idea of who Dukakis is because it’s fairly comprehensive in the access that director Mavromichalis had to Dukakis, her family, friends and colleagues, as well as her personal archives, such as photos and videos. She’s perhaps best known to the general public for her Oscar-winning role in 1987’s “Moonstruck,”  but Dukakis is also a longtime theater star and has several other roles in movies and television, including the 1989 film “Steel Magnolias.”

While in San Francisco for Gay Pride Weekend, Dukakis was honored for her memorable role as transgender woman Anna Madrigal in the 1993 PBS miniseries “Tales of the City,” based on the book series by Armistead Maupin. “Olympic knew she was part of something historic,” Maupin says of Dukakis’ “Tales of the City” role. “And she knew that what she was saying through that character had not been said before [on TV], not with such affection and clarity.”

“Tales of the City” executive producer director Alan Poul says of Dukakis as the Anna Madrigal characters: “It was a fearless and groundbreaking portrayal at a time when that kind of imagery in entertainment media didn’t exist.” The documentary also includes some hilarious footage of Dukakis having dinner with Maupin in a hotel room with some other friends. What’s in the movie makes people wish they could’ve been a fly on the wall to hear the entire dinner conversation.

Most people familiar with Dukakis already know that she was never an overnight sensation and had to pay her dues for decades. She says in the documentary that from an early age, she was “rebellious,” “independent” and resistant to conform to the strict gender roles that were expected of people in her generation.

Dukakis (who was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, and went to Boston University) talks about clashing with her strict mother, Alexandra (nicknamed Alec), when Olympia was growing up. She describes her mother as a disciplinarian who used sticks and belts—behavior that would be considered abusive by today’s standards. Olympia says about her mother: “Her job was to to keep shame from the family,” and Olympia’s independent streak “scared” her mother.

One of the ways that Olympia defied stereotypes was by becoming a Junior New England Fencing Champion when she was a teenager. Her cousin Michael Dukakis (the 1988 Democratic nominee for U.S. president) says in the documentary: “How many Greek kids were fencing champions or even fenced?”

Joyce Katis Picard, one of Olympia’s former Boston University classmates, remembers that she and Olympia stood out for their non-Anglo ethnicities, in a student body that consisted primarily of people of Anglo Saxon descent. Katis Picard says of her college friendship with Olympia: “We bonded as a way of protection.” She adds that even in her college days, Olympia was a feminist and nonconformist: “She moved beyond the messages of the time.”

In the documentary, Olympia talks about going through a period of time when “I was the queen of the one-night stand,” and having casual flings was a way of life for her. But that all changed when she and actor Louis Zorich fell deeply in love with each other. They married in 1962, and stayed married until his death in 2018. They had three children together: Christina (who declined to be interviewed for the documentary), Peter and Stefan, who are both interviewed in the film.

Although Olympia ended up taking a traditional path of getting married and having kids, that doesn’t mean that she was a traditional mother. In the documentary, she expresses remorse over some of her parenting skills: “I regret that I wasn’t able to handle my children better. I didn’t create boundaries and discipline. I did the best I could.” She also says she’s horrified by the memory of forgetting to pick up her son Stefan from school one day. He had to wait 45 minutes at the school while all the other kids had already left.

Peter says of his childhood growing up with two busy actors as parents: “At the time, I kind of wished my parents were more normal. They weren’t doing any gender roles in their marriage. At 8 years old, I was doing my own laundry.”

Although Olympia and her husband were married for 56 years (a rarity in a showbiz marriage), that did mean that they didn’t have some rough patches. She mentions that Louis was having an affair when she was pregnant with her first child, Christina. He made the decision to end the affair and stay with Olympia, who co-starred with her husband in multiple off-Broadway plays, including 1963’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and 1980’s “The Cherry Orchard.”

In the documentary, Louis says that he didn’t expect to get married until he fell in love with Olympia. He remembers falling in love with her was the first time that he felt that way about anyone, even though he jokes that when he proposed to her, he couldn’t quite get the word “marry” out during the proposal. And he comments, “If someone says on my deathbed, ‘What do you remember about Olympia, it’s those two or three incredible [acting roles,” which he says include her starring role in the 2013 off-Broadway production of “Mother Courage,” which he says brought him to tears every time he watched her perform in the play.

“It’s one of my favorite relationships I’ve ever known,” actor Austin Pendleton says of the marriage of Olympia Dukakis and Louis Zorich. “They embrace each other in every sense of the word. They recognize each other on such a deep level.”

Olympia also opens up about a dark period in her life when she says she was addicted to “uppers and downers” for about two years. She decided she was going to quit one day when she looked in the bathroom mirror, and she heard a voice inside herself say, “You’re trying to kill yourself.” Olympia also mentions that there were other times in her life when she was suicidal, including an incident when she deliberately stepped in front of a truck, but a woman pushed her out of the way and saved her life.

In retrospect, Olympia says of her drug addiction: “A lot of these drugs were about trying to run ahead of everything.” Olympia also opens up about her thoughts on dying, by admitting that she’s afraid of death for this reason: “It’s a loss of what little part of myself is separate from everything else.”

She also admits to lifelong insecurities about not fitting in and being judged by her looks. “It never goes away, that thing of being ‘outside,’ that thing of being ‘different.'” She adds that at some point in her life, she found a way to fight the urge to fix herself and instead figured out how to accept herself for who she is instead of trying to change herself to please other people.

One of the obstacles she faced early in her career was being told that she was “too ethnic” for many roles. Instead of giving up, Olympia decided to create her own opportunities, by founding the Whole Theater Company in Montclair, New Jersey. Thomas Kean, who was governor of New Jersey from 1982 to 1990, comments in the documentary: “Olympia had high standards. Her feeling is, ‘Only the best.’ They [the Whole Theater Company] took chances.”

Carey Perloff, former artistic director of the American Conservatory Theater, has this to say about Whole Theater: “They did all kinds of crazy stuff … And they really talked to the audience,” in order to get their feedback.” Olympia is also seen in the documentary in rehearsals for Shakespeare and Company’s 2013 production of “The Tempest,” with Olympia in the role of Prospero.

And, of course, the documentary includes plenty of praise of Olympia from her colleagues and friends. Olympia’s “Tales of the City” co-star Laura Linney says of Olympia’s ability to move seamlessly between the worlds of theater, movies and television: “She was one of the first people to do that … [which was] very brave of her, because at the time, it was looked down on.”

Lynn Cohen, an actress who passed away in February 2020, affectionately describes Olympia as “generous,” “totally open” and “crazy.” Whoopi Goldberg adds, “She’s like a summer storm … Her range is frightening and wonderful to watch. It’s what every actor wants.”

Olympia’s longtime actress friend Diane Ladd says, “She’s a total professional. She doesn’t play diva or mademoiselle or goddess. She doesn’t pull any rank. She’s all heart. She’s a perfectionist. I like that.”

Other people interviewed in the documentary include Olympia’s actor brother Apollo Dukakis; Shakespeare and Company artistic director Tony Simotes; playwright Leslie Ayvazian; actress Lainie Kazan; former HBO executive Kary Antholis; and actor Rocco Sisto. The film has footage of Dukakis doing a Q&A of “Moonstruck” with director Norman Jewison, during a retrospective tribute to Jewison at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival.

There’s also some great behind-the-scenes footage of Olympia getting ready for the 1988 Academy Awards, where she won the prize of Best Supporting Actress for “Moonstruck.” There’s also video of her family members’ reactions to her winning the award, including her mother who burst into tears at this victorious moment.

The documentary has some slices of humor, such as showing Olympia fumbling with a Siri device (you can tell how old the footage is from the version of Siri that’s seen in the film); going grocery shopping and interacting with star-struck fans while she vacations in Cyprus; and dictating an email message to her personal assistant Brenda Low-Kamen to send to actress friend Brenda Fricker and going off on a humorous tangent in the message.

One of the highlights of the film is when Olympia goes back to her family’s original hometown in Greece. (Her daughter Christine and some of her grandchildren are also there for the trip.) It’s in this footage that Olympia is not treated as a famous actress, but as a nostalgic, almost wistful person who’s rediscovering and finding a new appreciation for her family’s history. After she talks with a quartet of female villagers in her age group who’ve been lifelong friends, Olympia is so emotionally moved by the experience that she breaks down and cries when she thinks about how her life could have turned out differently if her parents had stayed in Greece.

Is “Olympia” a perfect film? No. Some of the documentary’s production values, such as the cinematography and editing, probably would’ve been better with a more experienced director in charge. For example, some of the non-archival footage looks like shaky outtakes from home movies. And some of the interior scenes could’ve benefited from better camera  lighting.

However, this unpolished look to some of the movie isn’t too much a hindrance, considering Dukakis’ unpretentious nature. She certainly wouldn’t want a documentary about herself to look too slick or ostentatious. As for the “new” footage that’s several years old, that isn’t too much of a problem either, since Olympia’s personality probably hasn’t changed in the years since that footage was filmed. “Olympia” is a movie that understands that a documentary about a celebrity shouldn’t really be about just chronicling a lifestyle but instead should be more about opening up a window, however briefly, into someone’s soul.

Abramorama released “Olympia” in select U.S. virtual  cinemas on July 10, 2020.

Review: ‘Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado,’ starring Walter Mercado

July 8, 2020

by Carla Hay

Walter Mercado in “Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado” 

Directed by Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch

Some segments in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Puerto Rico and Miami, the documentary “Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado” interviews a predominantly Latino group group of people about famous astrologer Walter Mercado, including Mercado, his relatives, colleagues and fans.

Culture Clash: Mercado, who died in 2019, experienced homophobia and devastating lawsuits in his life.

Culture Audience: Aside from the obvious target audience of Mercado’s fans, “Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado” will appeal primarily to people who like documentaries about larger-than-life personalities.

A photo of Walter Mercado in the 1980s in “Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

Famous astrologer Walter Mercado had a public persona of being effusive and upbeat in his long life (he died in 2019, at the age of 87), and that’s also the emotional tone of the documentary “Much Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado.” This biographical film, which has Mercado’s participation, definitely takes a “fan” perspective, without going overboard on being sycophantic worship, but also without any probing investigations either.

Directed by Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch, “Much Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado” doesn’t uncover much about Mercado that hasn’t already been reported elsewhere. However, the documentary is a fascinating look into the last months of his life, when he came out of seclusion after a decade out of the public spotlight.

Mercado is an icon to Latinos, but he also became world-famous in other cultures, thanks to his TV shows and psychic hotlines that gave him an international empire worth millions in the 1980s and 1990s. He dressed like Liberace and had a hairstyle like Joan Rivers, but his uplifting way of entertaining and motivational speaking was all his own.

Born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, on March 9, 1932 (that would make him a Pisces in Western astrology), Walter Mercado Salinas was one of three children of José María Mercado and Aída Salinas, who was a native of Spain. Mercado grew up in a rural area of Puerto Rico. And, as he says in the documentary, he knew he was “different” from an early age.

“I was a dreamer,” Mercado remembers. He also tells a story about how when he was a child, he helped heal a wounded bird and then began to have a reputation as a child prodigy who was a spiritual guru. He says that people came from all over Puerto Rico to visit him, and he was given the name “Walter of the Miracles.”

It’s unknown if all of that is really true or perhaps exaggerated, since this documentary’s filmmakers didn’t seem to make any attempt to verify Mercado’s stories about his childhood. However, several of Mercado’s nieces are interviewed in the documentary: Ivonne Benet Mercado, Betty Benet Mercado, Dannette Benet Mercado, Bibi Benet Mercado, Carmen Mercado and Charita Mercado. Not surprisingly, they all praise their uncle Walter, but none of the nieces really comments on what their parents told them about how Walter was in his childhood.

Walter, who describes himself as a mama’s boy, says that his mother was overprotective but very loving and supportive of her unique son. He remembers that his mother liked to tell him: “To be different is a gift.” At the University of Puerto Rico, he studied pedagogy, psychology and pharmacy, but he ended up having a career as an entertainer, first as a dancer and actor and later as a TV personality/astrologer.

Walter had been making a living doing stage plays and TV appearances (including lots of telenovelas) when he made a guest appearance on Elín Ortíz’s Telemundo show in 1969. Walter was on the show to promote his starring role in the stage play “Triptico Del Amor, Del Dolor y De La Muerte.” During a segment, Walter ad-libbed some horoscopes, and the response from the TV audience was so immediate and positive, that he ended up getting his own astrology show on Telemundo called “Walter, the Stars and You.”

He later starred in the TV series “Walter y Las Estrellas” (which is Spanish for “Walter and the Stars”) and had his own radio show that was syndicated around the world. His radio and TV empire eventually expanded to psychic hotlines, which had their peak popularity in the 1980s and 1990s.

Walter describes his type of horoscope predictions as a combination of astrology and various religious philosophies: “I realize that all religions have a point of convergence. I call it interfaith religion.”

Guillermo “Bill” Bakula, who was Walter’s manager during the height of Walter’s career, comments in the documentary about his role in Walter’s life: “I was the coach for one single purpose: Walter’s message to get out to as many people as possible.”

However, the documentary makes it clear that greed eventually became the driving force behind Bakula’s motivations. Through his company Bart Enterprises International, Bakula had Walter sign over the rights to the Walter Mercado name, as well as past, present and future rights to Walter’s work, in perpetuity. Walter claims that he was duped into signing the contract.

Walter severed ties with Bakula and Bart Enterprises in 2006, the last year that Walter starred in a TV series. The lawsuits and countersuits weren’t resolved until 2012. The final outcome of the lawsuits was covered in the media and is mentioned in the documentary, but won’t be revealed in this review, in case people want to see the documentary to find out what happened. Two days after the lawsuits were resolved, Walter had a heart attack.

Walter’s former publicist Jody Vialy explains what went wrong in the relationship between Walter and former manager Bakula: “Walter was not about business … Walter expected good things and ran into a world of trouble that he never saw coming.”

Vialy adds, “Bill almost became like a son to him … I do believe that Bill broke his heart. I do believe that in the beginning, Bill was his angel. And towards the end, Bill was his devil.”

In the documentary, Bakula has this to say about what happened: “I’ve never regretted anything in my life.” His arrogant and dismissive tone don’t make him look sympathetic at all. And, with pain and heartbreak still etched on his face, Walter describes the falling out with Bakula and subsequent lawsuits as “a nightmare.”

Bakula comments on Walter: “He never says anything negative. That’s probably the key ingredient to his success and his ability to communicate.” And true to that positive nature, Walter doesn’t have anything bad to say in this documentary about anyone who might have hurt him. All he will say in the documentary is: “I’ve had very, very difficult problems. I suffered a lot. I lost a lot.”

Some of the interviewees in the documentary hint that Walter’s people-pleasing ways made him too nice—almost to a fault. Univision’s “Primer Impacto” creator Maria Lopez Alvarez comments: “I don’t ever remember hearing Walter say no. He’s not that type of personality. Inside, he’s a little boy that wants to be loved and respected.”

And this documentary shows that Walter got an abundance of love and respect in return, since he gets no criticism or unflattering stories in this film. Some of the praise he gets is a little over-the-top: LGBTQ activist Karlo Karlo calls Walter a “superhero,” while singer Nydia Caro calls Walter a “warrior.” But considering that Walter was so nice—not just for the cameras, but in real life—it’s not surprising that he was so beloved and people only have good things to say about him.

“Mucho Mucho Amor” (which gets its title from Walter’s signature signoff) also prominently features Walter’s longtime personal assistant Willie Acosta, who is definitely the person who is closest to Walter. Acosta is sassy, funny and a joy to watch when he and Walter are together. It’s kind of sad to think about how lost Acosta must feel now that Walter is gone, but this documentary shows how vibrant Walter was and how special his relationship was with Acosta.

The documentary also mentions but doesn’t pry too much into Walter’s sexuality and love life, which he always avoided talking about in public. Because of his flamboyant and androgynous physical appearance, Walter (who never married and did not have children) was widely presumed to be somewhere on the “not heterosexual” spectrum. However, he never publicly confirmed or denied his sexual orientation. Some people have speculated that he was not “queer” but asexual.

When asked about his love life, Walter says coyly in the documentary: “I have sex with life.” If Walter had any past lovers, they have never gone public. As for Acosta, he says in the documentary that he knows that people assume that he’s Walter’s lover, but Acosta insists that he and Walter have a strictly platonic relationship that’s “like family.” Walter’s nieces don’t have much insight, except to say that they don’t really know the full truth of Walter’s love life because that’s the way he wanted it.

Regardless of what his true sexuality was, LGBTQ activist Karlo says that Mercado was a role model for queer people: “Growing up as a queer boy and watching Walter Mercado gave me hope … He broke barriers. It goes beyond coming out.”

Mercado’s flamboyant persona was parodied by many comedians (including Eugenio Derbez, who’s interviewed in the documentary), and many of those imitations were homophobic and hurt his feelings, say his confidants. “He was embraced and ‘othered’ at the same time,” Mireya Lacio, a self-described “witch” who’s a Walter Mercado fan, says of those parodies. But because Walter never declared his sexuality in a public manner, he wasn’t fully shunned by the Latino community, especially during the years when the Catholic Church had more restrictive policies about homosexuality than it does now.

As for his plastic surgery, Walter is also vague and coy, saying that he’s had “a little arrangement” and that he’s had “Botox, like Nicole Kidman.” He admits that looking glamorous and youthful has been an obsession for him, which is why he jokes, “I’m just like Dorian Gray.” (It’s no surprise then that Walter has a portrait of “Dorian Gray” author Oscar Wilde in his home, like one would display a portrait of a family member.)

The documentary, which has several interviews of Walter in his home, also has Walter giving a grand tour of his extensive wardrobe and memorabilia collection. Acosta opens up the kitchen cupboards to show all the vitamins that Walter takes. Walter also explains that his background as a dancer has helped him keep active and fit.

One of the highlights of the documentary is when Lin-Manuel Miranda goes with his father Luis Miranda to meet Walter. The mutual admiration between these two celebrities is very sweet and endearing to watch. And their meeting shows how someone as famous as Lin-Manuel Miranda can get star-struck.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, who’s been a Walter Mercado fan since childhood, is shown commenting at the beginning of the documentary: “Growing up with Walter Mercado, I remember thinking how dramatic he was, how fabulous he was. I can’t think of an English-language astrologer who could command the attention of millions of households … I think he’s this positive force.”

Other people interviewed in the documentary include radio producer Tony Hernandez; TV host Mauricio Zeilic; Wilma Torres (Walter’s secretary); Carlos Velazquez (Walter’s former attorney); and actor/influencer/fan Curly Velasquez.

And to demonstrate how Walter has permeated into pop culture, the documentary interviews Matt Kascher, owner of Stephen’s Deli in Hialeah, Florida, where the stalls in the ladies’ room are decorated with Walter Mercado images. Kascher says that sometimes male customers have to  be stopped from going into the ladies room because the men want to see the Walter Mercado decorations. Bobby Gilardi, the beverage director for Ariete Hospitality Group in Miami, says that they’ve crated a Walter Mercado drink that has a “smoky, floral note.”

The documentary culminates with Walter attending the 2019 opening of HistoryMiami Museum’s retrospective exhibit tribute to him. It’s a testament to his far-reaching popularity that a diverse group of fans attended the event. His entrance is every bit the over-the-top spectacle that you would expect it to be.

“Mucho Mucho Amor” might not have any surprises for longtime fans of Walter Mercado. And for people who know very little or nothing about him before seeing this film will come away with an appreciation for what kind of entertainer he was, in this day and age when nasty celebrity feuds on social media have become too common. The documentary is a true reflection of its subject, by accomplishing the intended goal of making people feel uplifted and entertained.

Netflix premiered “Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado” on July 8, 2020.

Review: ‘Welcome to Chechnya,’ starring Maxim Lapunov, David Isteev and Olga Baranova

July 1, 2020

by Carla Hay

“Bogdan” and Maxim Lapunov (also known as “Grisha”) in “Welcome to Chechnya” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“Welcome To Chechnya”

Directed by David France

Russian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Russia and other parts of Europe, the documentary “Welcome to Chechnya” interviews white and Arabic middle-class people about the deadly persecution of LGBTQ people in the Russian republic of Chechnya, and the documentary follows a group of activists who smuggle LGBTQ people in Chechnya to safe locations.

Culture Clash: The documentary reports that several LGBTQ people in Chechnya have been tortured or killed because of their sexual orientation, while Chechnya officials ignore these hate crimes or try to silence witnesses.

Culture Audience: “Welcome to Chechnya” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in compelling documentaries about human rights.

A scene from “Welcome to Chechnya” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

It’s not a secret that there are many countries and communities in the world that openly endorse or enable the persecution and murders of LGBTQ people. These crimes and human-rights violations are usually committed under the guise of religious beliefs. The documentary “Welcome to Chechnya” takes a harrowing, up-close look at Russian LGBTQ people (and some of their family members) who have suffered from hate crimes in the Russian republic of Chechnya and are trying to escape. The film also focuses on leaders of a group of activists who provide shelter and relocation services for LGBTQ people who want to leave Chechnya and start new lives in countries that outlaw discrimination against LGBTQ people.

For people who don’t know anything about Chechnya, the documentary gives a brief overview. Chechnya, which has about 1.4 million residents (many of whom are Muslim), is a republic that was formed in 1993, and is part of Russia, but operates independently from Russia in many ways. Ramzan Kadyrov, the current prime minister of the Chechnya, was appointed to the position in 2006. He is the son of former Chechen president Akhmad Kadyrov, who was assassinated in 2004.

Ramzan Kadyrov, who is a close ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin, has openly expressed contempt for LGBTQ people and believes that the Chechen government shouldn’t interfere if families want to kill LGBTQ family members for religious reasons or to protect the family’s “honor.” The documentary includes footage from a TV interview where Kadyrov (who projects an overly macho, swaggering image) denies that LGBTQ torture prisons exist in Chechnya. In the interview, he also denies that LGBTQ people even exist in Chechnya, but at the same time he says that if LGBTQ people are in Chechnya, then they should be sent away.

“Welcome to Chechnya” director David France (who is American) has experience doing documentaries about how discrimination against LGBTQ people can literally be life-threatening. In his Oscar-nominated 2012 documentary “How to Survive a Plague,” he examined how homophobia caused the AIDS crisis to be mishandled for years by the U.S. federal government. In his 2017 Netflix documentary “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson,” he chronicled what happened to LGBTQ activist Marsha P. Johnson, a New York City transgender woman whose death in 1992 at the age of 46 was officially ruled an accident, but many people suspect that Johnson’s death was really a hate-crime homicide.

“Welcome to Chechnya” is not the type of investigative documentary that most American viewers are used to seeing about human-rights issues. Most American filmmakers who do investigative documentaries about human-rights violations have dramatic “justice must prevail” type of music throughout the story, while there’s at least one “larger than life” personality (usually someone who’s the chief investigator, an activist or an attorney) who’s presented as the “star” of the film.

Instead, “Welcome to Chechnya” shows how Russian culture is very different from American culture, because there are no over-the-top, outraged histrionics in this movie. Emotions are very suppressed in “Welcome to Chechnya,” compared to how many Americans would act if this documentary had been made about Americans. Everyone in the movie is an “ordinary citizen,” and there’s no “larger than life” hero who’s coming to their rescue.

“Welcome to Chechnya” wisely chose to focus on only a handful of people in presenting their stories for this documentary, in order to make the film easy to follow. Two LGBTQ activists are featured in the film: David Isteev, a former journalist, is a crisis response coordinator for the Russian LGBT Network. Olga Baranova, a former advertising employee, is director of the Moscow Community Center for LGBT Initiatives.

Isteev and Baranova are both heavily involved in helping LBGTQ people in Russia get visas to move to countries where there are laws against discriminating against LGBTQ people. Both of these activists experience exhaustion and burnout because of their work. By the end of the film, one of them will quit, while the other one continues.

The hate-crime survivors who are featured in “Welcome to Chechnya” all have aliases to protect their identities, although they fully appear on camera without any disguises. One of the survivors initially goes by the alias “Grisha,” but he later goes public with his real name—Maxim Lapunov—for reasons that are explained in the film.

Lapunov, who was 30 when this documentary was filmed, never lived in Chechnya, but he visited there because of his job as an event planner. He says he was kidnapped and put in a secret prison in Chechnya, where he and other LGBTQ people were tortured just because of their sexual orientation. Lapunov was eventually released, he sought shelter in a house in Moscow for survivors of LGBTQ hate crimes, and he made plans to move out of Russia. He says that before this horrific turn of events, he had always thought that Chechnya was a great place full of friendly people.

“When the gay persecution began, it was a huge shock for me,” Lapunov comments in the film. “Being abducted and tortured changes you. That period of time broke me hard.” It’s mentioned in the documentary that the secret imprisonment and torture of LGBTQ people in Chechnya is believed to have increased sometime in 2017.

During a drug raid in 2017, police found explicitly gay messages on the phone of one of the men arrested. He was tortured and forced to identify other LGBTQ people in Chechnya. This raid is believed to have set off a firestorm of persecution attacks and abductions of LGBTQ people in Chechnya and other parts of Russia.

The documentary includes disturbing undercover video of some of these attacks. “Welcome to Chechnya” also mentions openly gay Russian pop singer Zelim Bakaev, who disappeared in Chechnya in 2017. Bakaev is believed to have been abducted and killed because of his sexual orientation.

During the course of the film, Lapunov is reunited with his boyfriend, who goes by the alias “Bogdan” and who was 29 when this movie was filmed. At the time Lapunov and “Bogdan” reunited, they had been in a romantic relationship for about 10 years. “Bogdan” left his family behind to move with Lapunov to a country that can give them asylum. Because Lapunov’s immediate family members accept his sexual orientation and because he is a key witness to the Chechen prison torture of LGBTQ people, his family members are also in danger of persecution, so they all plan to make the same relocation.

Another hate-crime survivor featured in the documentary is “Anya,” a 21-year-old Muslim whose uncle threatens to tell her family that she’s a lesbian. In exchange for his silence, he demands that she have sex with him. “Anya’s” father is a powerful government official, and “Anya” is certain that her father will have her killed if he finds out that she’s a lesbian. The documentary shows how the LGBTQ activist group helped “Anya” escape to an undisclosed location, but there are unexpected problems that occur with this rescue mission.

“Akhmad” is a 30-year-old hate-crime survivor who relocates to Canada. Out of all the survivors featured in the documentary, he gets the least amount of screen time, because the film shows him toward the end of his shelter stay and how he eventually leaves the shelter to move to Canada. It’s mentioned in the documentary that each shelter resident can stay for a maximum of 14 or 15 days. Although the Russian LGBTQ activists get help from LGBTQ activist groups in many other countries, not having enough money is a constant challenge in being able to continue the work.

Isteev is very clear about what’s at stake for LGBTQ people in Russia: “Being gay, lesbian and transgender in Russia can get you killed or maimed. And no one will be held accountable for it.” Although it’s not explicitly stated in the movie, Isteev and Baranova being filmed for this documentary with their real names can put their lives in danger.

Isteev’s personal life is not shown at all in the film, but Baranova is filmed with her son Filip (who looks to be about 5 or 6 years old when this movie was filmed) and some of her LGBTQ friends. Baranova says that she wants Filip to know that there are other LGBTQ families like theirs, so he won’t grow up with the same feelings that other people have that LGBTQ people are “abnormal” and should be hidden away in shame.

Because most of the documentary is in the Russian language (with translated subtitles) and because the people in “Welcome to Chechyna” speak in calm, measured tones, some viewers might think the movie is “boring,” compared to other movies that would cover the topic of LGBTQ persecution. But if you have the patience and interest in looking at the movie for what it really is, there’s a quiet desperation that people have in this documentary that is no less impactful than Americans who loudly shout about their own rights and are ready to file complaints if they feel their rights have been violated.

“Welcome to Chechyna” accurately shows the repressed social behavior in a culture that’s ruled by a government that doesn’t allow street protests, legal recourse or freedom of speech for certain issues in the same way that other countries do. The only real moment of emotional hysteria in the documentary comes when one of the male residents of the LGBTQ shelter attempts suicide by cutting his wrist with a razor blade, and the panicked residents react to this suicide attempt in various ways. The shelter leaders make the agonizing decision not to get professional medical help because it would expose the location of the shelter.

Even though the emotions in “Welcome to Chechnya” are more muted than if this movie had been made about Americans or other Europeans, that doesn’t mean that the Russian people in this documentary are less passionate about fighting for their rights. They face more uphill battles than they would in many other countries.

And the documentary shows how much survivors have to sacrifice if they take the chance of starting new lives in other countries: They almost always have to leave their families and other loved ones behind. And they usually have to cut off contact with their families and other loved ones permanently, since the families left behind in Russia will be under government surveillance to track down the LGBTQ families members who escaped.

“Welcome to Chechnya” is nothing short of sounding the alarm that there is a modern-day holocaust of LGBTQ people. Baranova puts it bluntly when she says: “A group of people is identified without charge or trial. [Ramzan] Kadyrov and his people openly say that they are cleansing the republic.”

HBO premiered “Welcome to Chechnya” on June 30, 2020.

Review: ‘Ask No Questions,’ starring Chen Ruichang, Jason Loftus, Lisa Weaver and Liang Zihui

July 1, 2020

by Carla Hay

Chen Ruichang and Jason Loftus in “Ask No Questions” (Photo courtesy of Lofty Sky Entertainment)

“Ask No Questions” 

Directed by Jason Loftus and Eric Pedicelli

Culture Representation: The documentary “Ask No Questions” interviews a racially diverse (Asian and white) group of people about how China’s government-controlled media handled the 2001 story of five people who appeared to set themselves  on fire in Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

Culture Clash: Several people interviewed in the documentary say that the self-immolation incident was staged by the Chinese government in an effort to discredit the religious practice Falun Gong.

Culture Audience: “Ask No Questions” will appeal primarily to people who  are interested in documentaries that explore conspiracy theories about governments.

A photo still from “Ask No Questions” (Photo courtesy of Lofty Sky Entertainment)

On January 23, 2001 (Chinese New Year’s Eve), five people caught on fire in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, in an apparent suicide pact among seven people. This horrifying incident made worldwide news and then faded from public consciousness. However, the documentary “Ask No Questions” (directed by Jason Loftus and Eric Pedicelli) revisits this tragedy by coming to the conclusion that the Tiananmen Square self-immolation incident of 2001 was probably staged by the Chinese government, in order to make the religious practice Falun Gong look like a dangerous cult belief.

“Ask No Questions” co-director Loftus (who is the film’s narrator and on-camera investigator) admits up front that he is very biased, because he’s a longtime practitioner of Falun Gong (also known as Falun Dafa), which he describes as a spirituality-based belief system that encourages meditation-oriented exercises. Loftus believes that Falun Gong is a misunderstood religion that the Chinese government has unfairly banned in China. Therefore, this documentary isn’t really an objective investigation as much as it is the “Ask No Questions” filmmakers trying to prove a conspiracy theory.

The Chinese media reported that seven Falun Gong believers had traveled from the Henan province to Beijing and were involved in this self-immolation incident: Wang Jindong (adult male), Liu Chunling (adult female), Liu Siying (Liu Chunling’s then-12-year-old daughter), Hao Huijunl (adult female), Chen Guo (Hao Huijunl’s then-17-year-old daughter), Liu Yunfang (adult male) and Liu Baorong (adult female).

Liu Chunling died on the spot, while Liu Siying died a few months after being hospitalized. Liu Yunfang and Liu Boarong, who did not set themselves on fire, faced very difference consequences: Liu Yunfang was named as the mastermind of this self-immolation incident, and he was sentenced to life in prison, while Liu Boarong denounced Falun Gong and escaped punishment.

Three other people who were not at Tiananmen Square that day were charged with helping the group, and they were sentenced to prison: Wang Jindong got a 15-year sentence, Xue Hongjun received a 10-year sentence, and Liu Xiuqin got a seven-year sentence.

Loftus asks this question about himself in the beginning of the film: “How does a small-town Canadian kid get involved in a struggle between the Chinese government and an Eastern spiritual group that was largely unknown in the West?” He then explains his background: Loftus became interested in Eastern religions and philosophies when he was a teenager. He read numerous books on these subjects, and he discovered Falun Gong at the age of 16.

By 1998, Loftus was practicing Falun Gong. By 1999, the Chinese government had banned Falun Gong. And by the time Loftus reached college age in the early 2000s, he was in China protesting the Chinese government’s ban on Falun Gong. It’s important to know this background because Loftus didn’t just do this documentary on a whim, since he’s been a pro-Falun Gong activist for many years.

There are two people interviewed in this 79-minute documentary who have the most compelling things to say. The first is Chen Ruichang, who was a high-ranking programmer at Guangdong TV (one of the four government-controlled TV networks in China), from 1987 to 2013. Chen’s main job was to gather research to make government propaganda more convincing on television.

Chen is a Falun Gong believer, but he says when the government banned Falun Gong, he was arrested several times, put into detainment centers and work camps, and tortured as a way to get him to denounce his Falun Gong beliefs. He refused. Chen says that the Chinese government staged the 2001 Tiananmen Square self-immolation incident.

In the documentary: Chen says of the Chinese government’s actions to suppress Falun Gong: “Their purpose was to sustain the persecution. So they carefully planned the self-immolation to incite hatred in people’s hearts.” Later, Chen says of his role in creating government propaganda for Chinese television: “I fell guilty because I helped them deceive people.”

The second person who has the most interesting things to say in “Ask No Questions” is Lisa Weaver, who was a CNN reporter in Beijing from 1999 to 2003. She was at Tiananmen Square during the self-immolation incident in 2001, and she smuggled out video footage of the incident. (The video footage is included in the documentary. )

Weaver says in the documentary about getting this footage: “We were in the right time at the right place.” However, Weaver claims that the Chinese government-controlled media showed close-up footage of the Tiananmen Square self-immolation incident and falsely claimed that it was CNN footage.

The reason why Weaver says she’s certain of this is because she was there with the CNN camera crew, and they were too far away from the burning bodies to get the kind of close-up video footage that the Chinese media claimed was from CNN. Weaver also claims that China’s Xinhua news agency misquoted her account of what she saw that day in Tiananmen Square.

And according to Weaver’s eyewitness memories, she saw three people set on fire, but not at the same time, as reported by the Chinese media. She remembers that some of the burning people shouted Falun Gong slogans, but she got the impression that they weren’t true Falun Gong believers, since Falun Gong strongly disapproves of suicide. Did the Chinese government force the people who were set on fire to commit these acts and coach them in advance to chant Falun Gong slogans?

It’s a theory that “Ask No Questions” unabashedly claims is probably what really happed. The problem with this documentary is that it doesn’t really interview enough people from both sides of the issue to come to a well-rounded conclusion. The other people interviewed are mostly those who support in some way the documentary’s conspiracy theory.

The other interviewees include some of Chen’s relatives—his wife Liang Zihui, who says she was also detained and tortured by the Chinese government; his brother Richard Chen; and Richard’s wife Celia Ou. Other people interviewed include Falun Dafa Information Center director Levi Browde; Sarah Cooke, Freedom House senior research analyst for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan; “The Less You Know, The Better You Sleep” author David Satter; and “Falun Gong’s Challenge to China” author Danny Schechter, who died in 2015, which gives you an idea of how long ago he was interviewed for this film.

“Ask No Questions” also interviews Hollywood stunt man Tom Comet (also known as DangerBoy) to demonstrate how someone can be set on fire and not get seriously injured. And there’s also an interview with Dr. Alan Rosers, a surgeon at Ross Tilley Burn Center, who examines the 2001 Chinese TV news footage of the Tiananmen Square burn victims being interviewed by government-sanctioned news reporter, with a nurse having an up-close conversation with the Liu Siying in the hospital bed. (Former CNN reporter Weaver says that no other media outlets, other the Chinese outlets controlled by the Chinese government, were allowed to interview the Tiananmen Square burn survivors.)

Rosers notices several oddities in the footage, including how all of the surviving victims were placed in the same hospital room, which he says is unusual hospital procedure because severe burn victims are supposed to be kept away from as many people as possible during recovery, in order prevent infections. Rosers also says that’s also why it was very unusual for the nurse and reporter to not wear any protective masks or gloves while speaking up close with Liu Siying while she was interviewed on camera.

The doctor also notices that Liu Siying’s appeared to have a severely burned hand with a lot of bandages wrapped at the wrist, but the victim’s exposed arm for that hand looks perfectly fine, which is not consistent with someone whose whole body was set on fire. Rosers says that although he can’t prove it, the burned hand looks like a hand from a corpse, and it appears to be a prop that was tied by bandages at the wrist. Rosers comes to the conclusion, based on watching some grainy TV footage, that most of the surviving burn victims had real burns, while some could have been faked.

Loftus believes that it’s no coincidence that the Tiananmen Square self-immolation incident of 2001 has eerie parallels to Wang Liviong’s 1991 novel “Yellow Peril,” which describes how the Chinese government staged a self-immolation incident in order to make propaganda. Loftus also takes a closer look at the seven people named as participants in the alleged suicide pact and found that none were known to be ardent followers of Falun Gong.

In addition, “Ask No Questions” also floats a long-held theory that Liu Chunling might have died to a blow to the head, instead of by burning, based on grainy footage of what looks like a man aiming a large object at her head while she was on fire. Other conspiracy theorists have noted how unusual it was for police at Tiananmen Square that day to be carrying around fire extinguishers, as if they were anticipating having to put out fires.

And how far does the Chinese government go to punish conspiracy theorists and their supporters? Loftus says that while he was making this documentary, his Chinese wife had to delete her Chinese social media accounts out of fear that her relatives in China would be targeted by the Chinese government. Loftus also mentions that his Toronto-based production company Lofty Sky Entertainment had a contract with a Chinese company to make video games, but that contract was cancelled with no real explanation. However, that’s not too surprising, because even in non-Communist capitalist countries, some companies just don’t want to do business with a company involved in controversial political activism.

Much of the investigation in “Ask Now Questions” recycles a lot of the investigative work that Washington Post reporter Philip Pan began in 2001. The filmmakers acknowledge that Pan did a lot of the groundbreaking investigations into this conspiracy theory. Loftus says in the film’s voiceover narration that he and the “Ask No Questions” filmmakers reached out to several journalists (Chinese and non-Chinese) who were working in Beijing in 2001, but they all declined to be interviewed for the documentary.

However, why not dig deeper? There’s no indication that the “Ask No Questions” filmmakers ever attempted to interview the politicians, attorneys or other officials who were responsible for helping Chen and his wife Liang gain asylum in the United States. The main reason why Chen was able to immigrate to the U.S. was because his imprisonment got a lot of media coverage, after his relatives went public with Chen’s story.

And what do ambassadors to China think about Chinese citizens who seek asylum in other countries by claiming they are being persecuted for their Falun Gong beliefs? The documentary leaves out the perspectives of government officials involved in international relations with China.

In the documentary, Chen gives a harrowing account of the type of torture that he endured, such as being forced to watch the 2001 self-immolation incident and other horrific things on a TV screen for eight hours a day, with the volume turned up to full blast. He says that the psychological torment, more than physical abuse, is what breaks torture victims: “And once a crack forms in your logical thinking, they will drill into it until they break your will.”

Unlike her husband, Liang did eventually denounce Luong Gong while she was detained and tortured in a “brainwashing center.” She says that the prolonged torture and forced separations that she and Chen went through almost caused them to get divorced. When they fled to the United States, the couple had to make the heartbreaking decision to leave their son behind in China. Although their son wanted to them to get asylum in the U.S. so that they could be safe, the documentary shows that the pain of being separated from him is still palpable.

“Ask No Questions” has some compelling interviews, but the documentary does not present anything new that hasn’t already been reported about this conspiracy theory. Loftus admits that without indisputable evidence (which he believes has been suppressed by the Chinese government), there’s no way to prove that the Chinese government staged the Tiananmen Square self-immolation incident of 2001.

It’s not a secret that the Chinese government has banned Falun Gong and punished Chinese citizens who profess to be Falun Gong believers. (And that topic could be an entirely different documentary.) Therefore, “Ask No Questions” is an echo chamber that sets out to prove a conspiracy theory and, by its own admission, falls short of getting widespread evidence. If the main purpose of the documentary is to make more people aware of the conspiracy theory, then “Ask No Questions” succeeds in that goal.

1091 released “Ask No Questions” on digital and VOD on June 30, 2020.

Review: ‘Desolation Center,’ starring Stuart Swezey, Sonic Youth, Meat Puppets, Einstürzende Neubauten, Red Kross, Perry Farrell and Mark Pauline

June 30, 2020

by Carla Hay

Einstürzende Neubauten in “Desolation Center” (Photo courtesy of Passion River Films)

“Desolation Center”

Directed by Stuart Swezey

Culture Representation: Taking place in various locations in Southern California, the music documentary “Desolation Center” interviews a racially diverse group of people (white, African American, Latino and Asian) talking about the notable 1980s rock concerts promoted by the independent team Desolation Center, with commentaries from artists, fans and behind-the-scenes industry people. 

Culture Clash: Desolation Center concerts, which rejected anything that was corporate, often operated outside the law by not filing permits and by being held in unconventional places.

Culture Audience: “Desolation Center” will appeal primarily to people interested in the non-mainstream Los Angeles rock scene in the 1980s and stories about music festivals.

 

Perry Farrell and Aaron Sherer (both facing camera) in “Desolation Center” (Photo by Mariska Leyssius)

Imagine a well-attended music festival that takes place in the California desert. Event permits weren’t filed, people were transported by school bus to the festival, and most attendees were so excited about going that they didn’t think about bringing sunscreen, water or food. And there wouldn’t be any vendors at the festival to sell anything. This festival obviously isn’t Coachella.

The documentary film “Desolation Center” is a nostalgic and fascinating look at five of the biggest concerts staged by a Los Angeles-based independent promotion team called Desolation Center. In its relatively short existence (1983 to 1986), Desolation Center influenced several festivals that ended up becoming corporate behemoths, including Burning Man, Lollapalooza and Coachella. The five Desolation Center concerts that get the spotlight in the documentary are Mohave Exodus, Mohave Auzug, Joy at Sea, Gila Monster Jamboree and Solstice.

“Desolation Center” director Stuart Swezey, who also appears on camera for his commentary, is the best person to helm this documentary, since he founded Desolation Center and had hands-on involvement in every show presented by the team. His deep history with Desolation Center serves this film well, since it’s packed with a lot of great archival photos and video footage, as well as an extremely well-rounded set of interviews from artists, fans and behind-the-scenes industry people who usually have first-hand accounts of Desolation Center shows.

Artists interviewed include the members of Sonic Youth (except for Kim Gordon), Meat Puppets, Minutemen, Red Kross and Einstürzende Neubauten. Also giving an artist perspective are Perry Farrell (co-founder of Lollapalooza Festival and the band Jane’s Addiction); Aaron Sherer (who was in Psi Com, Farrell’s pre-Jane’s Addicition band); Kurt Schellenbach of Nip Drivers; Suzi Gardner of L7; Michael Gra of Swans; Dan Bolles of the Germs; Chuck Dukowski of Black Flag; Steve Housden of Lawndale; Ian Rakow of Valley Punk; F.M. Einheit; artist Anthony Ausgang; noise musician Boyd Rice; performance artist Ron Athey; poet John Tottenham; and performance artists Mark Pauline and Matt Heckert of Survival Research Laboratories.

Unlike many music documentaries that shun or limit perspectives of non-famous fans, “Desolation Center” gives almost as much screen time to fans as it does the artists. Among the fans who share their fond memories of Desolation Center shows are poet Maw Shein Win; musician Sean DeLear; community organizer Linda Kite; costumer designer Nancy Steiner; Sandy Glaze; Lisa Derrick; Janet Housden; Easter Seals COO Bev Mendes; artist Kristine Kryttre; Bertell Ferguson; Skip King; ML Compton; Mike Guerena; Fourway Cross bandmates Courtney Davies, Steve Gerdes and Tom Dolan; and married couple Joy and Ken Abbott, who’ve been together since the ’80s.

Also giving their insight are Goldenvoice founder Gary Tovar; Burning Man co-founder John Law; indie music operative Carmel Conlin; SST producer Spot; photographer/musician Mariska Leyssius; sound engineer Ed Cirino of Gold Sound; Re/Search Publications editor/publisher V. Vale, music publisher Adam Wolf; and journalists Chris Morris, Simon Reynolds, Joseph Bien-Khan.

“Desolation Center” begins with a contextual backdrop of what was going on in the Los Angeles music scene during the 1980s that laid the groundwork to form Desolation Center. If there’s any villain of this story, it’s Daryl Gates, who was chief of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) from 1978 to 1992. DeLear calls Gates “rotten” and “creepy” in the documentary.

And several people who comment in the film, including Swezey, describe the LAPD under Gates’ leadership as an oppressive force that targeted punk rock musicians and fans for harassment and arrests. Bolles says, “The LAPD freaked out about punk rock, like it was the second coming of the Black Panthers.”

Therefore, nightclubs and bars in Los Angeles that booked punk artists frequently had those shows shut down or heavily enforced by the LAPD. Meat Puppets lead singer/guitarist Curt Kirkwood adds, “It seems like they [the LAPD] were going through the newspaper and finding bands that sounded punk rock and making sure they didn’t happen.” Performance artist Athey comments on Los Angeles: “I grew up here. I wasn’t enlightened that you could live in a non-police state, so you figured out how to skirt around it.”

The good news is that in the early 1980s, the alternative/underground music scene was very diverse, in terms of race, gender, sexuality and economic backgrounds. Kite, who was the fiancée of Minutemen singer/guitarist D. Boone, comments on the Los Angeles punk/underground music scene during this era: “There was just as much people of color in it as there were white kids. Bands were multicultural, as well as the scene was multicultural.”

This diversity was in stark contrast to Los Angeles’ heavy metal scene and classic rock scene, which pretty much excluded musicians who weren’t straight white males. Another big difference between the punk scene and communities for other rock genres was that punk was all about rejecting conformity and corporate greed.

Swezey comments in the documentary: “In the early ’80s, I think the rest of the world saw L.A. as this brain-dead, sun baked, smoggy sprawl—which it kind of was. For those of us who grew up here, the early ’80s was actually a really vital and interesting time.”

Before Swezey founded Desolation Center, he was a 21-year-old college dropout doing phone sales for a municipal broker in 1982. Although he was a fan of punk music and went to a lot of shows, he wasn’t inspired to become a show promoter until he saw a Throbbing Gristle concert and later met its promoter Michael Sheppard. Swezey says of that fateful Throbbing Gristle show: “Their sonic assault changed the way I thought of music and performance forever.”

He took the plunge to form Desolation Center in 1983, as an independent collective to promote “alternative” rock and performance artists. At the time, Swezey was living in a very seedy and run-down part of downtown Los Angeles. He says he came up with the name Desolation Center “because that’s how I was feeling about my environment at the time.”

Desolation Center was born out of nonconformity, not just because of punk ideals but also out of financial necessity. The tiny start-up didn’t have the budget to book artists at established nightclubs and advertise those types of shows. Therefore, Swezey and Desolation Center had the great idea to do the opposite of what most concert promoters were doing.

Desolation Center booked shows in abandoned warehouses and other under-the-radar places. The shows also didn’t follow industry norms: Guests lists weren’t allowed, everyone had to pay to get inside, and the shows didn’t sell alcohol (which would get the attention of the police), but people of legal drinking age were allowed to bring their own alcohol. Desolation Center also didn’t advertise its shows and did not court publicity.

Having these shows in non-traditional venues also allowed Desolation Center to not have to deal with Ticketmaster or city permits to put on these shows. And finding about these shows, not through advertising or media publicity, but through word of mouth, gave Desolation Center a cool, underground reputation with fans. Nowadays, with insurance liabilities being more of a concern for artists and promoters, an outfit like Desolation Center wouldn’t have been able to stay in business for as long as it did.

It wasn’t long before Desolation Center wanted to do something bigger than just a small show in a warehouse, without having to go to a traditional large venue. After taking a road trip through the Sonora Desert in Mexico, Swezey was inspired to have the first Desolation Center festival in the desert. He approached Savage Republic band member Bruce Licher, who came up with the idea to have the show in the Mohave Desert, about three hours east outside of Los Angeles.

That show ended up being a mini-festival called Mohave Exodus, which took place on April 24, 1983, and featured performances by Savage Republic and Minutemen. Licher had access to a printing press, so he was essentially in charge of making the tickets and signage that were used for the show. Farrell says of Licher: “He was like the Benjamin Franklin of our scene.”

Getting to the concert site was unconventional. There was a secret place in downtown L.A. where ticketholders were told to meet. From there, rented school buses took them to the remote area in the desert. Many of the fans were completely unaware of how hot the desert heat would be and were decked out in full-on heavy punk gear.

Kryttre, an artist who attended the event, remembers how driving to the concert site was a challenge because some of truck stop managers would lock their restrooms when they saw all the “alternative”-looking young people coming out of the buses to use the restrooms. The way these fans looked back then wouldn’t be considered a big deal today, but it was a big deal back then.

The concert was so bare-bones and do-it-yourself that nothing was set up in the middle of the desert except for the band’s equipment and sound system. There was no stage separating the band from the audience. Most concertgoers had to sit on the hard desert ground, although some people thought of bringing lawn chairs. And forget about places to eat, drink and use toilets at the concert site. There weren’t any.

And they weren’t prepared for the forceful desert winds in the area. Sound engineer Cirino remembers that socks had to be put on microphones, and the buses had to be parked behind the bands to form a wall that would be a wind barrier. It was about as unglamorous and uncomfortable as you can imagine. But looking back on it, the concertgoers and band members interviewed in the documentary say they loved the experience.

Win comments, “I felt we were these young people creating this great, alternative world for ourselves out in the desert.” Guerena says, “There was no violence, no weirdness. It was like everybody was in this one cool group.” Joy Abbott adds, “I just remember thinking, ‘This is one of the coolest things I’ll ever do in my whole life.'”

After the Mohave Exodus show, Swezey quit his day job and went backpacking around Europe. While he was in West Berlin, he saw German industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten perform for the first time and was completely awed by the experience. It was around this time that Swezey saw director Werner Herzog’s epic 1982 movie “Fitzcarraldo,” which also gave Swezey the idea for the next big Desolation Center festival.

In “Fitzcarraldo,” a European opera fan becomes obsessed with building an opera house in the Peruvian jungle. Swezey explains how Einstürzende Neubauten and “Fiztcarraldo” inspired him: Instead of bringing opera to the jungle, he wanted to bring industrial music to the desert.

And that led to the Desolation Center show Mohave Auzug, held in Mecca, California, on March 4, 1984. Einstürzende Neubauten headlined the show, which was more elaborate—and crazier and more dangerous—than Mohave Exodus. A pacifist percussion group Djemaa-El-Fna greeted concertgoers as they arrived.

But that peaceful atmosphere was quickly destroyed by Survival Research Laboratories, a rebellious group of performance artists (whose most famous member is Mark Pauline), who loved to literally blow things up. And the desert was their playground at the show, as they set off explosives in a cave, as well as other places outside, despite the objections of Djemaa-El-Fna and some concertgoers.

Luckily, no one was hurt at Mohave Auzug by these explosions. Pauline and the rest of the anarchists look back with no regrets and say the explosions were all in the name of fun and performance art. Lawndale band member Housden remembers that at this industrial-oriented concert, power tools were used as musical instruments and other playthings: “They were giving a hard time to our dad’s power tools … They ruined them.”

With two well-received desert concerts under his belt, Swezey decided that the next big Desolation Center concert would be at an opposite location: on the water. The Joy at Sea concert was held in the San Pedro Harbor in California, on June 15, 1984. The headliners were San Pedro hometown band Minutemen and Arizona-based band Meat Puppets. Meat Puppets bass player Cris Kirkwood says of the experience: “It was one  of the highlights of my musical career in a lot of ways—just magical as crap.”

Then, it was back to the California desert. Gila Monster Jamboree was Desolation Center’s biggest event yet, and is probably considered the most important one for Desolation Center. Taking place on January 5, 1985, the bill included Sonic Youth (in the New York City band’s West Coast debut), Meat Puppets, Red Kross and Psi Com, which was Farrell’s band before he formed Jane’s Addiction.

In the documentary, Farrell admits that Psi Com got the gig because he was Swezey’s roommate at the time. “It was really cool, so I thank you for that,” Farrell says. Meat Puppets frontman Curt Kirkwood remembers that everybody at the concert seemed to be in a good mood because most people were flying high on LSD. Montgomery, one of the fans at the concert, says: “There were very few people who weren’t tripping.”

Unlike previous Desolation Center concerts in the desert, where the concertgoers could only get there by Desolation Center’s provided buses, Gila Monster Jamboree gave concertgoers the option to take their own transportation to the concert site, although bus transportation was still provided for those who wanted it. There were was still none of the commercial trappings (merchandise booths and food vendors), sanitary facilities, or safety precautions that are presumed for today’s music festivals. Because, just like other Desolation Center concerts, the promoters didn’t have a permit to hold the event.

Steve and Jeff McDonald, the brothers who co-founded Red Kross, remember the nerve-racking experience of having a driver who got lost for hours, making the band very late for the concert. Red Kross was the first “glam rock” band to perform at a Desolation Center festival. And ironically, the band was so late, the members of Red Kross didn’t have time to change into their glammed-up stage clothes and instead performed in jeans and sweatpants, which was outside their comfort zone for their stage wardrobe.

Desolation Center’s permit-avoiding ways eventually caught up to the team, which was fined $400 for the Gila Monster Jamboree show. Swezey says that $400 was a lot of money to them at the time. So, in true D.I.Y. fashion, Desolation Center held a Trespass Benefit show to raise funds to pay off the fine. Minutemen and Nip Drivers performed at the fundraising concert, which was held at the Anti Club on Augusts 4, 1985.

Desolation Center’s last big hurrah was the Solstice concert on December 21, 1985. Sonic Youth and Swans topped the bill for the show, which had the unusual distinction of being partially funded by the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA). Swezey says that a friend who received NEA grant money approached him to do the show.

But tragedy struck on December 22, 1985, when Minutemen lead singer D. Boone was killed in a car accident that injured his fiancée Kite and permanently disabled Kite’s sister. It was an end of an era. Swezey says in the documentary that Boone’s death and the stricter laws being enforced for concert promotion led to the decision to say goodbye to Desolation Center and move on to other things. Swezey then founded Amok Books, an alternative publishing company.

“Desolation Center” isn’t just for people who remember what it was like to be a fan of alternative music in the early ’80s. It’s the type of documentary that people of many generations can enjoy if they like the bands in the film and if they want to get a meaningful historical time capsule of a specific subculture of the Los Angeles music scene in the early-to-mid-1980s.

It might also make people wistful for a bygone era when people went to concerts and festivals and lived in the moment, instead of worrying about how things were going to look on social media. Remarkably, no one was killed or maimed at a Desolation Center concert, which is in stark contrast to all the concerts that have happened since the ’80s that have experienced mass shootings, bombings and other weapons of war against innocent concertgoers.

Desolation Center wasn’t exactly about “peace and love” all the time, but one of its greatest legacies that’s been largely abandoned by most big concert promoters is that the shows embraced people from all sorts of backgrounds, by not excluding people through ticket prices that are too high for certain people’s budgets. Those days might be long gone for music festivals, but this documentary is a significant reminder of how it was possible back in the ’80s and how well it worked.

Passion River Films released “Desolation Center” on digital, VOD and DVD on June 23, 2020.

Review: ‘No Small Matter,’ starring Rachel Giannini, Andrew Meltzoff, Myra Jones-Taylor, Deborah Phillips, Geoffrey Canada, Matthew Melmed, and Nadine Burke Harris

June 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Rachel Giannini (pictured at right) and a student in “No Small Matter” (Photo courtesy of Abramorama)

“No Small Matter”

Directed by Danny Alpert, Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel

Culture Representation: The documentary “No Small Matter,” about children’s learning abilities before kindergarten age, interviews a racially diverse group of people (white, African American, Latino and Asian) who are educators, academics and parents representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A child’s ability to learn can be hampered by poverty, abuse, and a lack of caring adults in the child’s life, and it’s become increasingly harder for middle-class parents to afford childcare for pre-school children.

Culture Audience: “No Small Matter” will appeal primarily to parents, educators and other people who are concerned about how to teach children under the age of 6.

Larry Johnson, Wahnika Johnson and their daughter Laryn in “No Small Matter” (Photo courtesy of Abramorama)

The documentary “No Small Matter” tackles two different but related topics, and handles one topic better than the other. The first topic (which is the one that’s handled better) is an exploration of children’s learning abilities from birth to the age of 5. The second topic is about the increasing struggles for non-wealthy parents in the United States to give their pre-school children the best possible education and learning experiences.

“No Small Matter” directors Danny Alpert, Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel do a very good job of balancing interviews with experts and footage of real middle-class/working-class parents and pre-school children. The documentary gives a fairly comprehensive overview of children’s learning abilities before they reach school age. The movie also advocates for better support systems for parents of pre-school children, as affordable childcare become increasingly difficult for parents who have to work outside the home.

The best scenes in the film are with childhood educator Rachel Giannini, who was working at the time at Highland Park Community Nursery School and Day Care Center in Highland Park, Illinois. Her infectious enthusiasm for teaching kids and giving them positive encouragement to be themselves in their learning process are inspiring for anyone who wants to know how a good pre-kindergarten teacher should be.

Narrated by Alfre Woodard (who is also the documentary’s executive producer), “No Small Matter” covers subject matter that a lot of people might already know. For example, it’s fairly common knowledge that babies can start learning from birth. Andrew Meltzoff, co-director of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, tells a story of interacting with a baby who was just 42 minutes old. He saw that when he stuck out his tongue, the baby immediately did the same, which is an indication of how quickly newborn babies can learn imitation skills.

The documentary also mentions the new technology that’s available to study babies’ brain activities. Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences co-director Patricia Kuhl declares that it’s possible to see what’s going on in a baby’s brain before the baby can talk. However, the documentary could have used a little more discussion about how devices such as smartphones and tablets can affect brain activity for pre-school children.

One of the best aspects of “No Small Matter” is that the film has an impressive and diverse list of experts who are interviewed. The academics include University of California at Berkeley psychology professor Alison Gopnick; Georgetown University psychology professor Deborah Phillips; Temple University psychology professor Kathy Hirsh-Pasek; University of Wisconsin pediatrics professor Dipesh Navsaria; and University of Wisconsin psychology professor Seth Pollak.

There are also several leaders of children-oriented nonprofit organizations, such as Center for Youth Wellness founder/pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris; Zero to Three executive director Matthew Melmed; Harlem Children’s Zone founder Geoffrey Canada; Child Care Aware of America executive director Lynette Fraga; National Association for the Education of Young Children CEO Rhian Allvin; ReadyNation co-founder Robert Dugger and AVANCE executive director Jessica Atlas.

One interview that seems a little out of place is with Sesame Workshop senior vice president of curriculum and content Rosemarie Truglio, because during the interview, she’s interrupted by “Sesame Street” character Cookie Monster, who does a comedic skit with her. It’s supposed to be funny, but it comes across as too staged, awkward and perhaps some kind of sponsorship deal that the filmmakers made with Sesame Workshop. If people want to watch “Sesame Street” skit, they can watch “Sesame Street.” It doesn’t need to be in this documentary during what’s supposed to be a serious interview.

Several people in the documentary say things are already well-known: There’s a direct link between poverty, lack of education and crime. People who end up in prison are more likely to be poor and uneducated (not completing a high-school education) than people who not poor and not educated. Aside from the fact that prisons are filled with poor people who can’t afford good legal representation, poor and uneducated people are less likely to get jobs that can pay a living wage, thereby increasing the possibility that they will turn to crime to make money.

It’s a vicious cycle that experts say has the greatest chance of being broken by giving poor people the education that can increase their chances to climb out of poverty. Pennsylvania Department of Corrections secretary John Wetzel says, “True criminal justice reform is investing in early childhood education.” Arthur Rudnick, a former economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, adds: “You won’t find a better return than investing in early childhood education.”

But the rising cost of that early education is something that’s become increasingly difficult for working-class and middle-class families. Shea Gattis is named in the documentary as an example of someone who benefited from early education as a way to prevent some of the negative lifestyle circumstances and choices that plague low-income communities. Gattis is part of the Carolina Abecedarian Project, launched in 1972, which has been tracking him for more than 40 years since his childhood. He came from a low-income community, but received early education through the project and has been thriving as a law-abiding citizen with a good career.

The documentary shows three families who are struggling with making ends meet and having affordable child care for their pre-school children.

  • A married couple in Yorktown, Virginia—special-education teacher Wahnika Johnson and systems administrator Larry Johnson—have to put their daughter Laryn in day care after Wahnika’s maternity leave ends and she has to go back to work. The movie shows that how this transition has an emotional effect on Wahnika.
  • A married couple in Henderson, Nevada—nail technician Shannon Poff and security guard Donnie Poff—work two different shifts so that one can be home to take care of their son Daymean, who was born with a heart defect. Daymean’s medical bills have put the couple heavily in debt.
  • A single mother in Waco, Texas—Maria Hernandez—uses the nonprofit AVANCE program, which provides free child care for low-income families in the area.

It’s not exactly news to report that many families struggle with being able to afford childcare. What the documentary could have explored better is how a program like AVANCE works and is able to get funding and how a program like AVANCE can be implemented in other communities who need these programs the most.

Melmed comments that the U.S. military has “the best family support system in the United States.” It’s a belief confirmed by U.S. Army first-class sergeant Keacha Simmons, a mother who is interviewed kin the film. That’s great, but considering that most families in the U.S. don’t get military benefits, “No Small Matter” could have taken a closer look at people and organizations that are doing something about the problem of making good childcare affordable to families.

People already know that teachers/educators of children are grossly underpaid in the United States. With most budgets of cities, counties and states already stretched to the limits, it seems as if the future of early childhood education has to rely more on private funding. Where are all the billionaires who can help? And if a lot of wealthy people are helping, where is the money going? No one seems to ask these questions in the documentary.

Melmed has this to say about one of the best ways to rethink childcare and to make it more fun and educational for kids: “It’s not babysitting. It’s brain building.” “No Small Matter” is a good documentary that examines the issues of problems of educating pre-school age children in the United States. However, the documentary would have been much better if it also focused on realistic and attainable solutions.

Abramorama released “No Small Matter” on digital and VOD on June 26, 2020. The movie’s DVD release date is June 30, 2020.

Review: ‘Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things,’ starring Ray Brown Jr., Tony Bennett, Smokey Robinson, Margo Jefferson, Judith Tick, Kenny Barron and Jim Blackman

June 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Ella Fitzgerald in “Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things” (Photo courtesy of Eagle Rock Entertainment)

“Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things” 

Directed by Leslie Woodhead

Culture Representation: The documentary “Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things” features a racially diverse (mostly African American and white) group of people (mostly music artists and writers) discussing the life and legacy of singer Ella Fitzgerald.

Culture Clash: Fitzgerald experienced damaging racism, and her love of touring took a toll on her personal life.

Culture Audience: “Ella Fitzgerald: One of Those Things” will appeal mostly to people who are fans of jazz and biographies of legendary singers.

Ella Fitzgerald in “Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things” (Photo courtesy of Eagle Rock Entertainment)

Ella Fitzgerald left a unique legacy in music that can be compared to very few artists. She mastered the genres of swing, bebop, American standards and, of course, jazz. The well-made documentary “Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things” (directed by Leslie Woodhead and narrated by Sharon D. Clarke) is perhaps the definitive biography film of Fitzgerald, who died in 1996 at the age if 79. Although the film does not reveal anything new about her, it does have some great archival material and a well-rounded group of people who are interviewed.

Fitzgerald was born in Newport News, Virginia, but she was raised primarily in New York state. Her family moved to Yonkers, New York, in 1919, when she was 2 years old. Although she grew up in poverty, she discovered a love of the arts at an early age, and she helped earn money for her family as a dancer and as a singer.

Her teenage years were very turbulent. When Fitzgerald was 13, her beloved mother Tempie died. Ella Fitzgerald biographer Judith Tick says in the documentary the death of Ella’s Fitzgerald’s mother was “a devastating blow, because her mother had been the continuity in her life, and Ella was lost.”

Fitzgerald was sent to reform school in 1933, where she was beaten and experienced other forms of abuse, which people in the documentary say was doled out the harshest to the black kids in the reform school, compared children of other races. Her experiences at the reform school were so traumatic for her, that Fitzgerald never spoke publicly about what happened. However, the documentary shows records from the school with hand-written notes by school authorities that describe Fitzgerald as “ungovernable”—an indication that, despite any abuse she suffered there, her spirit could not be broken.

Yonkers is in close-enough in proximity to New York City that Fitzgerald was able to go to the big city and experience the culture of New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, which was the epicenter for African American music in the Northeast. In November 1934, Fitzgerald made her Apollo Theater singing debut on Amateur Night. And, as the famous story goes, she was was initially booed by the audience, but then she won them over with her voice.

The documentary includes an interview with dancer Norma Miller, who was in the audience for Fitzgerald’s fateful Apollo Theater debut, which was the first time that a very nervous Fitzgerald had ever sung in public. “We booed her,” remembers Miller. “They were introducing somebody we didn’t know. We were a bunch of rowdy teenagers in the balcony … Can you imagine? We booed Ella Fitzgerald!”

Fitzgerald’s son Ray Brown Jr. adds, “It was one of those defining moments, like ‘I’m here. I have to do something. Something has to be accomplished.’ And to be able to pull something out of yourself that’s so magical, that’s pretty amazing.”

Miller remembers the turning point when the audience’s reaction went from jeers to cheers: “We heard a sound [her voice]. It was so perfect. She shut us up so quick, you could hear a rat piss on cotton!”

From that Apollo stage debut, Fitzgerald then began hanging out in New York City even more. She would meet two of the people who would have a major impact on her  early music career: Louis Armstrong (who was a big inspiration for her) and drummer/band leader Chick Webb, a dwarf-sized hunchback who didn’t let his unusual physical appearance deter him from being a larger-than-life force in the music business.

Webb had an all-male band and was very reluctant at first to let Fitzgerald in the group. He had two concerns over including her in the band: Her safety and her sex appeal. On the one hand, Webb wasn’t sure if Fitzgerald would be the target of sexual misconduct  as the only woman in a group of randy men. On the other hand, Webb thought that Fitzgerald wasn’t attractive enough to appeal to the band’s audience. It’s mentioned in the documentary that Webb cruelly called her “ugly,” and he and other people would sometimes taunt her over her weight.

In the end, talent won out, and Fitzgerald became part of Webb’s band. It was the big break that led to her first mainstream hit “Mr. Paganini.” She experienced even bigger success with the classic “A Tisket A Tasket,” one of her signature songs.

Smokey Robinson says that “A Tisket A Tasket” was the first Ella Fitzgerald song her remembers hearing: “My sisters used to play that all day long, every day.” The massive crossover success of the song led to Fitzgerald making her film debut in the 1942 movie “Ride ‘Em Cowboy.” In the film,  she sang “A Tisket A Tasket” on a bus where all the people on the bus except for Fitzgerald were white. The irony is that in real life in that era, she would’ve been relegated to the back of the bus in many places in the U.S., where racial segregation was legal at the time.

This segregation affected Fitzgerald’s life in many different ways. In terms of her career, she (like other black entertainers) could not perform in certain venues that refused to have black performers. She also wasn’t allowed on certain TV programs and radio shows. And even the music she performed early in her career (swing and bebop) was considered “race” music at the time.

Her physical appearance was also harshly judged in other ways. Female entertainers were expected to be thin, glamorous and sexy (not much has changed since those days), and “Ella did not fulfill those expectations,” says writer Margo Jefferson. Her success is testament to how Fitzgerald was a groundbreaking nonconformist in her field, Jefferson adds.

Fitzgerald was also a trailblazer when, after Webb died at the age 30, she took over his band and became the leader, and the band was renamed Ella and Her Famous Orchestra. The documentary mentions that some of the band members resented having a woman as their leader, so there was some inevitable friction. After the group disbanded during World War II, Fitzgerald’s popularity waned.

But she was a master reinvention, so Fitzgerald transitioned from swing to bebop music. It was by performing bebop that she was able to showcase her brilliant ability to have her singing voice do solos on the same level as musical instrument solos. Jazz pianist Kenny Barron comments, “She had a great ear [for music].”

She started hanging out with Dizzy Gillespie and eventually toured with Gillespie and his band. It was while touring with Gillespie that Fitzgerald fell in love with Gillespie’s bass player Ray Brown. Fitzgerald and Brown married in 1947, and adopted the son of Fitzgerald’s half-sister and named him Ray Brown Jr.  (The documentary does not mention Fitzgerald’s first husband, Benny Kornegay. Their 1941 to 1943 marriage ended in an annulment.)

Fitzgerald’s marriage to Brown ended in divorce in 1953, but the former couple still worked together for many years afterward. It’s mentioned several times in the documentary that Fitzgerald was a workaholic who loved to perform and travel. That heavy touring schedule, which she kept up for several decades, took a toll on her personal life. By her own admission, she could never be the type of wife and mother than many people expected her to be, so it was difficult to find a love partner who could understand how devoted was to music.

Another transitional period in Fitzgerald’s life and career was when Norman Ganz became her manager in the mid-1940s. He wanted Fitzgerald to cross over to an even broader audience, so it was his idea to have Fitzgerald perform standards from the Great American Songbook. Ganz also launched Verve Records, as a showcase for Fitzgerald. It allowed her to appeal to a more affluent and sophisticated audience, which opened the doors for her to perform at venues that were traditionally off-limits to black performers.

And sometimes those doors could only be opened because the venues were shamed into doing so. The Mocambo nightclub refused to book Fitzgerald, until Marilyn Monroe, who as a big fan of Fitzgerald, famously said that she and other celebrities would boycott the club unless Fitzgerald was allowed to perform there.

Granz was also a tireless advocate in pushing for desegregation not only for Fitzgerald but also for other people of color. Granz’s biographer Tad Hershon comments on Granz: “He saw the evils of segregation, and was determined to campaign against segregation in jazz music.” When Fitzgerald moved to Beverly Hills in California, she couldn’t buy a home there, due to racial discrimination, so Granz had to buy the home and put it in his name.

Although Granz was undoubtedly a loyal champion for Fitzgerald, he’s also described in the documentary as “nasty” and “controlling.” Not only did he want a tight grip on Fitzgerald by dictating what she could and could not do, he also alienated other artists (such as Gillespie and Sinatra) because of his bossy ways. When Sinatra refused to take Granz’s orders, Granz spitefully told Fitzgerald that she couldn’t work with Sinatra anymore.

Granz stood by Fitzgerald when she and members of her entourage were arrested in Houston in 1955, just because some members of the entourage were shooting dice in her dressing room. The documentary includes a snippet of an audio interview from Fitzgerald where she said that even though the arrest was an obviously racist set-up and a humiliating experience, the irony is that people at the police department still asked for her autograph. Granz later sued the Houston police department for reimbursement of the bail money.

One of the rare gems in the documentary is a never-broadcast clip from a radio interview that Fitzgerald did in the 1960s, when civil-rights protests were very much at the forefront of African American struggles for equality. In the interview, Fitzgerald talked about how it bothered her that when she traveled outside the U.S., particularly in Europe, people couldn’t understand why the U.S. was so segregated and that even someone as famous as Fitzgerald would be treated like a second-class citizen in certain parts of the U.S.

In the interview, Fitzgerald also said that die-hard racists probably won’t change their minds, but younger generations might have different beliefs about race. And  Fitzgerald mentioned that she had to speak out about these issues, because she felt it was the right thing to do, even though some people think that entertainers shouldn’t talk about politics.

At the end of the interview, Fitzgerald asks where the interview will be heard. When the interviewer tells her it will be heard across many states, she replies that she might get in trouble for what she said, but she needed to say it. Perhaps her comments were considered too “radical” at the time, and maybe that’s why the interview never aired.

Tony Bennett comments in the documentary about Fitzgerald: “She never made a political statement, except when I heard her say three words. And it was the most complete definition of the complete ignorance of the world and the way they treat African Americans. She said, ‘Tony, we’re all here.’ In three words, she said the whole thing.”

In addition to her problems with racism, Fitzgerald was experiencing issues as a mother who was frequently away from home. Her relationship with her son Ray suffered, especially during his rebellious teen years, when he was shipped off to Catholic military school. When Ray moved out of the family home in the 1970s, he was estranged from his mother for about 10 years afterward. Fortunately, they reconciled, and he speaks of his mother in very loving ways in the documentary.

Other people interviewed in the film (who all predictably praise Fitzgerald) include music artists Patti Austin, Johnny Mathis, Jamie Cullum, Laura Mvula, Cleo Laine, Andre Previn (who died in 2019), Itzhak Perlman and drummer Gregg Field. Also weighing in with their thoughts are jazz writer Will Friedland, Newport Jazz festival founder George Wein and Jim Blackman, a longtime Fitzgerald fan who was her last tour manager.

During the course of her influential career, Fitzgerald won almost every possible prestigious award for music. She earned the nicknames First Lady of Song, Queen of Jazz and Lady Ella. But this documentary also beautifully shows that her greatest accomplishment is how she paved the way for so many other artists and created a legacy that will continue to influence countless generations.

Eagle Rock Entertainment released “Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on June 26, 2020.

Review: ‘The Ghost of Peter Sellers,’ starring Peter Medak

June 24, 2020

by Carla Hay

Peter Sellers, Peter Medak and Spike Milligan on the set of “Ghost in the Noonday Sun,” as seen in “The Ghost of Peter Sellers” (Photo courtesy of 1091)

“The Ghost of Peter Sellers”

Directed by Peter Medak

Culture Representation: Taking place in England and Cyprus, the documentary “The Ghost of Peter Sellers” features director Peter Medak and an all-white group of other senior citizens talking about his disastrous 1973 experience making the comedy film “Ghost in the Noonday Sun,” starring Peter Sellers.

Culture Clash: Several people in the documentary say that Sellers was a nightmare to work with and that he deliberately sabotaged production of the movie.

Culture Audience: Aside from obviously appealing to Sellers fans, “The Ghost of Peter Sellers” will also appeal to people who are fans of 1970s European cinema and behind-the-scenes stories about difficult filmmaking experiences.

Peter Medak in “The Ghost of Peter Sellers” (Photo courtesy of 1091)

In 1973, director Peter Medak had such a traumatic experience making the comedy film “Ghost in the Noonday Sun,” starring British actor Peter Sellers, that he made a documentary four decades later to talk about what went wrong. That documentary is “The Ghost of Peter Sellers,” which is part therapy session, part quest for redemption and part cautionary tale about what can happen when a director of a movie loses control to a mentally unbalanced movie star. Sellers has been dead since 1980 (when he passed away at age 54), but it’s clear from watching this aptly titled documentary that the self-pitying Medak is still haunted by Sellers and won’t let go of the past.

Medak begins the documentary (which mixes new interviews with archival footage) by giving a brief background about himself and then describing how he got to direct “Ghost in the Noonday Sun.” When Medak met Sellers in 1972 at Alvaro restaurant (a celebrity hotspot) on King’s Road in London, Sellers was riding high as one of the biggest comedy stars in the world (he was best known for the “Pink Panther” movies), and Medak (who was born in Hungary in 1937) was a director whose career was on the rise, thanks to his breakout 1972 film “The Ruling Class.”

Sellers asked Medak if he wanted to direct a comedy film called “Ghost in the Noonday Sun,” which would star Sellers and co-star Spike Milligan, a frequent collaborator of Sellers. Milligan (who died in 2002, at the age of 83) was a well-known comedic actor/writer, whose credits included previous collaborations with Sellers, such as “The Goon Show,” “The Idiot Weekly, Price 2d,” “A Show Called Fred” and “Son of Fred.”

“For a director, it was irresistible,” Medak remembers of being offered this opportunity. But in hindsight, he says, “Like an idiot, I said yes.” What could possibly go wrong? Well, almost everything.

For starters, “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” was greenlighted for production based mostly on a concept rather than a well-written screenplay. Evan Jones and Milligan were credited with writing the screenplay, while co-writer Ernest Tidyman was uncredited. Jones’ previous film screenplay credits included 1963’s “The Damned” 1966’s “Funeral in Berlin” and 1971’s “Wake in Fright,” also known as “Outback.”

Here’s the gist of the very convoluted, messy plot of “Ghost in the Noonday Sun”: In the 17th century, on a pirate ship, an Irish cook named Dick Scratcher (played by Sellers) and three accomplices kill the pirate captain Ras Mohammed (played Peter Boyle), and Scratcher takes over the ship as the new captain. Scratcher and his crew then go on a quest to find the treasure that was buried by the murdered captain, using a treasure map as their guide. A series of misadventures ensue for the treasure hunters, including landing in the wrong country; kidnapping a boy who can see ghosts; threats of mutiny; and encountering Scratcher’s old friend Billy Bombay (played by Milligan).

What the filmmakers did not plan for and severely underestimated was how difficult it would be to make a movie that takes place on an unsteady boat. The film production in Cyprus was plagued by bad weather, a boat that kept breaking down (including an incident when a drunk navigator crashed the boat), and worst of all, according to people interviewed in the documentary: a star of the movie who went out of his way to ruin the film because he didn’t want to do the movie anymore.

In “The Ghost of Peter Sellers,” Medak revisits a lot of the people and retraces a lot of the steps to places in England and Cyprus that were part of the torturous process of making “Ghost in the Noonday Sun.” Medak is accompanied to many locations by his screenwriter friend Simon Van Der Borgh, who seems to have no real purpose in the documentary, other than as emotional support for Medak.

In London, Medak shows Van Der Borgh the location were Alvaro used to be. They also visit Norma Farnes, who was Milligan’s agent. Medak and Farnes hadn’t seen each other in about 42 years, but their reunion looks a little rehearsed and staged. (In fact, the beginning of the movie shows Medak asking someone to reshoot a scene where they’re supposed to greet each other.)

And there are also meetings/interviews with some members of the cast and production team of “Ghost in the Noonday Sun,” including producer John Heyman, who helped financed the movie but was not given producer’s credit; Film Finances managing director David Korda; actors Murray Melvin, Costas Demetriou and Joe Dunn (who was Sellers’ stunt double); boat recovery operations worker Costas Evagoru; and costume designer Ruth Meyers. (Heyman died in 2017, which gives you an idea how long ago some of these interviews must have been filmed.)

Also interviewed are several people who knew Sellers well, including personal assistant Susan Wood; his daughter Victoria Sellers; his American agent Maggie Abbott; and his London agent (from 1964 to 1968) Sandy Lieberson. Victoria Sellers was only 8 years old when “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” was made, but she seems to be in this documentary only so Medak can have an additional person in of a long list of people talking about how Peter Sellers was a difficult and deeply unhappy person.

Medak even includes an interview with Rita Franciosa, widow of actor Tony Franciosa, who co-starred in “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” as Pierre Rodriquez, the only gentlemanly pirate on the ship. She says that Tony took the movie more seriously than Peter Sellers did. There’s no mention of Rita actually being on the film set, so her observations are second-hand at best. It’s just another example of Medak trying to gather a chorus of people in the documentary to validate the narrative that Peter Sellers was horrible, unprofessional, and largely to blame for the movie being a nightmare.

Medak also has a three-way commiserating session with director Piers Haggard (“The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu”) and director Joe McGrath (“The Goon Show”), where they talk about how working with Peter Sellers was an unpleasant experience for them. Robert Wagner, who co-starred with Sellers in 1963’s “The Pink Panther,” also says in the documentary that Sellers was a terrible co-worker.

In a separate interview, John Goldstone of Monty Python Productions weighs in with his opinion (even though Peter Sellers wasn’t affiliated with Monty Python) by saying that the way Medak was treated by Peter Sellers was awful and not how a comedy film set is supposed to be. This echo chamber of Peter Sellers bashing is Medak’s way of saying, “See, I’m not the only one who feels this way.”

Besides having extreme mood swings, being very fickle, and demonstrating a huge ego, Peter Sellers is described as someone who went out of his way to make life miserable for the cast, crew and other people on the team of “Ghost in the Noonday Sun.” Things got off to a bad start because the first day of filming in Cyprus was shortly after Sellers had ended his tempestuous engagement to Liza Minnelli. “He was catatonically depressed,” Medak remembers.

Some of the people in the documentary speculate that Peter Sellers probably had an undiagnosed mental illness. He would go through extreme emotional “ups” and “downs.” And he would change his mind on a whim, by being in love with an idea one minute and then hating it the next minute. Regardless of what was going on in his personal life or mental health, Sellers made it clear to everyone after filming started that he didn’t want to do the movie.

According to Medak, Peter Sellers resorted to various tricks, such as not showing up for work for several days, by claiming he had a serious medical problem requiring him to be bedridden, and he had a doctor’s letter to “prove” it. But Medak remembers finding out that the illness was a lie when he saw a newspaper article with a photo of Peter Sellers gallivanting around London with Princess Margaret on a day that Sellers claimed to be sick in bed at home. In the documentary, Medak interviews Dr. Tony Greenburgh (Sellers’ personal doctor), who admits that writing a fabricated letter is something he probably would have done for Sellers at the time. “He was a good friend,” says Greenburgh.

Peter Sellers also began acting as if he, not the director or producers, were running the show, according to Medak. He demanded that producer Thomas Clyde be fired. (Clyde got to keep his producer’s credit, along with producer Gareth Wigan.) Robin Dalton, who was Medak’s agent from 1968 to 1975, says in the documentary: “It’s the only time I ever remember where the producers got sacked after the first week [of filming] by the star.”

Medak remembers one day on the film set that Peter Sellers began barking orders at people and declaring that he was now in charge. Medak says that the way Peter Sellers was acting was very much like the domineering Fred Kite character that he played in the 1959 comedy film “I’m Alright Jack.” Needless to say, Medak and Sellers clashed on the film set.

But Peter Sellers also had problems with co-star Milligan. Medak says that Sellers and Milligan had an intense rivalry with each other, with each one trying to outdo the other to prove who was funnier. Things got so bad between Sellers and Milligan that Sellers demanded that he not share any scenes with Milligan. Certain scenes had to be rewritten and reshot because of these demands.

And why didn’t Medak quit? He says in the documentary that he couldn’t afford to quit because his wife was expecting their second son, and the family needed the money at the time. If Medak had quit, not only would he have to give up his director’s fee, but there would also be a possibility that he would be sued for breach of contract.

But it wasn’t just about the money. Medak admits that he was also thinking about his reputation, and he felt that he had something to prove by finishing this disaster of a movie. Peter Sellers was so desperate to get out of filming “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” that he offered Medak half of his actor’s fee if Medak quit the film. Sellers hoped that Medak quitting would shut down the film for good. Medak refused to quit, which no doubt fueled even more of Sellers’ resentment toward Medak.

In the middle of all this turmoil about the movie, there was a bizarre interlude when Peter Sellers filmed a series of cigarette commercials directed by Medak. Antony Rufus Isaacs, a producer of the commercials, is one of the people briefly interviewed in the documentary. After they filmed the commercials, they went right back to the torment of getting “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” completed.

Medak’s quest in reliving this trauma comes across as earnest but a little pathetic. He has a large scrapbook for “Ghost in the Noonday Sun,” which he carries around in the documentary like someone who had a love/hate relationship with high school would carry around their high-school yearbook. And more then once, some people in the documentary (such as Heyman and Farnes) essentially tell Medak: “Get over it.”

Multiple times in the movie, Medak breaks down and cries when he talks about how the experience of making “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” scarred him for life. But it’s hard to feel complete sympathy for him when he later admits that he walked off the job on several other movies that he was hired to direct after “Ghost in the Noonday Sun.” Medak blames this unprofessional behavior on the bad experience that he had with Sellers.

In the beginning of the documentary, Medak makes it sound like Sellers and “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” ruined his career. In reality, which he admits toward the end of the film, Medak had a long career in directing movies and TV shows after that negative experience. There’s even a photo sequence during the documentary’s end credits showing Medak on the sets of many of these subsequent projects.

And this is where Medak’s privileged blind spot is on display. Despite having his own history of being difficult and unprofessional on jobs that had nothing to do with Peter Sellers, Medak still continued to get opportunities to direct movies and TV shows for decades. If a director who’s a woman or a person of color ever behaved in the same way, they wouldn’t be given as many opportunities as Medak was given.

Therefore, all of Medak’s whining about Peter Sellers in the documentary makes Medak look like a schmuck. Peter Sellers was never a longtime collaborator of Medak’s. They did just one movie together, so Medak’s career wasn’t as intertwined with Sellers as he would like viewers of this documentary to think it was.

Heyman put it best in the documentary when he comments on making “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” and how it really affected people’s careers : “I don’t know how many nails there are in a coffin, but this [“Ghost in the Noonday Sun”] is a very small nail. We’re all to blame.” In other words: Yes, the movie was a disastrous flop, and other people besides Medak were affected too, but it didn’t ruin anybody’s career.

Therefore, Medak really can’t blame any subsequent career decline on Peter Sellers, whom Medak seems obsessed with on unhealthy level. During one of Medak’s crying bouts in the film, he admits that one of the reasons why he feels so hurt is because he was and still is a huge fan of Sellers, whom Medak calls a “genius.” Yes, but you only worked with Sellers on one movie all the way back in 1973. Move on.

And this is the other problem with the documentary not being entirely truthful and very slanted to make Medak look like a “victim.” At the end of the documentary, it’s mentioned that Columbia Pictures thought “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” was such a mess that the studio shelved the film. While it’s true that “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” was never released in cinemas, it was eventually released in 1985 on home video.

This home-video release is never mentioned in the documentary, because the documentary misleads viewers into thinking that “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” is locked away somewhere, never to be seen by the public. Because the documentary omits that “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” was released (just not in cinemas, as Medak had hoped) and is available to be seen by the public, it’s just another example of how Medak has a “poor me” attitude that is unrelenting and ultimately very annoying.

In the beginning of the documentary, Medak gripes about “Ghost in the Noonday Sun,” by saying, “For 43 years, I covered up this very dark spot on my life. I carried this grudge against myself … for all these years.” Now that Medak has directed this documentary and aired out his grievances about Peter Sellers, perhaps he can find better use of his time, by appreciating the good things in his life instead of blaming his career problems and self-identity on a dead one-time co-worker and a little-seen bad movie he made decades ago.

1091 released “The Ghost of Peter Sellers” on digital and VOD on June 23, 2020.

Review: ‘Athlete A,’ starring Maggie Nichols, Rachael Denhollander, Jamie Dantzscher, Steve Berta, Marisa Kwiatkowski, Mark Alesia and Jennifer Sey

June 24, 2020

by Carla Hay

Maggie Nichols in “Athlete A” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Athlete A”

Directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk

Culture Representation: The documentary “Athlete A” interviews an all-white group of people to discuss how officials and survivors handled the crimes of convicted sex offender Larry Nassar, the disgraced former doctor who worked for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University.

Culture Clash: The documentary examines how Nassar’s crimes were actively covered up by officials and how a team of Indianapolis Star investigative reporters exposed the Nassar scandal in 2016.

Culture Audience: “Athlete A” will appeal primarily to people who like true-crime documentaries, but the movie doesn’t uncover anything new and leaves out some important details.

Rachael Denhollander in “Athlete A” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

There will be inevitable comparisons of Netflix’s 2020 documentary film “Athlete A” (directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk) and HBO’s 2019 documentary film “At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal” (directed by Erin Lee Carr), because both documentaries essentially cover the same topic. Neither film uncovers anything new about the 2016 scandal that exposed Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse of hundreds of female patients while he worked as a doctor for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University. “Athlete A” takes a different angle from “At the Heart of Gold” by giving more of a spotlight to the Indianapolis Star newspaper team that broke the story.

“Athlete A” gets its title from the alias that was given to gymnast Maggie Nichols when she filed a formal complaint with USA Gymnastics in 2015 to report that Nassar had sexually abused her numerous times, in the guise of administering “medical examinations.” Nichols’ complaint was one of several that USA Gymnastics actively covered up and did not report to police. Michigan State University also did the same thing when it received numerous sexual-abuse complaints about Nassar, whose known abuse spanned more than 20 years.

Maggie Nichols is among the survivors of Nassar’s abuse who are interviewed in “Athlete A,” which also interviews former gymnasts Rachael Denhollander, Jessica Howard and Jamie Dantzscher, who are also survivors of Nassar’s abuse. “Athlete A,” which focuses more on how the scandal went public, has a much smaller number of people interviewed, compared to “In the Heart of Gold,” which has a broader look at the aftermath of the scandal. And ultimately, taking a much narrower view might be why “Athlete A” provides a less complete picture than “At the Heart of Gold.”

The Nassar scandal exposed the culture of cover-ups, abuse, silence and intimidation that many female gymnasts (who are usually underage when the abuse starts) have had to endure in their quest for athletic glory. Several media outlets and documentaries have already done in-depth investigations and reported their findings of the Nassar scandal, but the Indianapolis Star was the first to break the story.

“Athlete A” gives a lot of screen time to the Indianapolis Star team members who broke the story: investigations editor Steve Berta and investigative reporters Marisa Kwiatkowski, Mark Alesia and Tim Evans. They all give a step-by-step replay of how they uncovered how deep the scandal was and how far back the cover-ups were, as more and more women started coming forward to the Indianapolis Star with their Nassar horror stories.

Berta says of the culture of female gymnastics: “What the culture was like was new to me, and we were sort of plunged into it.” Kwiatkowski explains that the Indianapolis Star (which is nicknamed the Indy Star) somewhat stumbled onto the Nassar story when the newspaper was investigating a broader story on why people don’t report sexual abuse in schools.

The Indianapolis Star got a tip to look into USA Gymnastics, and that led the reporters down the path to find out about Nassar’s sex crimes and what officials did to cover up the complaints against him. (Nassar has now been stripped of his medical license. In 2017 and 2018, he received numerous prison sentences that will ensure that he will die in prison.)

Curiously, “Athlete A” paints an incomplete picture by focusing mostly on USA Gymnastics as the chief perpetrator of the cover-ups, and the documentary largely ignores Michigan State University’s similar cover-ups of Nassar’s crimes. Several officials from USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University have since been fired or have resigned because of the Nassar scandal. Many of these disgraced officials are facing criminal and/or civil cases because of their involvement in the scandal.

As many people who are familiar with the scandal already know, USA Gymnastics had a policy to not report a sexual-abuse claim to the police unless the alleged victim, the alleged victim’s parents and/or an eyewitness signed the complaint. Most of the accusers were underage children, so this policy goes against most U.S. state laws that require companies and organizations to report complaints of underage sexual abuse to police.

Nassar certainly wasn’t the only one to be accused, and when his sex crimes were exposed, the media also uncovered that over a period of 10 years, USA Gymnastics had received sexual-abuse complaints against approximately 54 coaches (most of the crimes were against underage girls), but those complaints were never reported to police. USA Gymnastics often transferred many of those coaches to other locations.

Steven Penny Jr., who was president/CEO of USA Gymnastics from 2005 to 2017, is portrayed in “Athlete A” as the king of the Nassar cover-ups. The documentary includes some brief commentary about him, including people who say that Penny abused his power and that his marketing background caused him to give more priority to image and sponsorship deals for USA Gymnastics instead of the safety and well-being of the athletes.

Berta says, “They [USA Gymnastics] were so busy trying to sell that brand that the didn’t have time for these girls.” The documentary also includes archival news footage of Penny’s pathetic appearance in a 2018 U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing, when he invoked the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution in his refusal to answer any questions.

Gina Nichols and John Nichols, the parents of Maggie Nichols, say in “Athlete A” interviews that they had trusted Penny when he told them that USA Gymnastics would be handling Maggie’s sexual-abuse complaints against Nassar. The Nicholas parents say that when Sarah Jantzi, Maggie’s coach at the time, first reported the abuse to USA Gymnastics in 2015, the company ordered the Nichols parents and Jantzi not to go to the police and were told that the matter was going to be handled internally by USA Gymnastics.

A human-resources consultant hired by USA Gymnastics interviewed Maggie, but when her parents followed up to find out the status of the investigation, they were stonewalled by USA Gymnastics and told that they couldn’t reveal any details because it was an ongoing investigation. Meanwhile, Nassar continued to be a USA Gymnastics doctor, and several gymnasts later testified that he abused them before, during and after the 2016 Olympics.

Maggie Nichols eventually went public in 2018 about how Nassar abused her. But her experience is strikingly similar to others who survived his abuse. (Nassar is believed to have sexually abused at least 500 female patients.) All of his survivors, and even people who weren’t abused by Nassar, say that he easily fooled people into thinking he was the “nice guy” in a sea of gymnastic coaches and officials were were tough and openly abusive to athletes.

If people are wondering why all these parents of underage kids didn’t take it upon themselves go to the police after finding out about the abuse, it’s explained in “Athlete A” (and other documentaries/news reports about the Nassar scandal) that USA Gymnastics had the power to decide who would be selected to go to the Olympics. These parents naïvely trusted that USA Gymnastics would do the right thing in handling the abuse complaints, but there was also fear of upsetting Penny and other people at the top who could make or break their daughters’ Olympic dreams.

Gina Nichols and John Nichols believe that Maggie was blackballed from being on the Olympic team because she was a “whistleblower.” Maggie was a bronze medalist at the 2014 USA Gymnastics National Championships and a silver medalist at the 2015 USA Gymnastics National Championships. She was considered a top contender to be chosen for the USA Gymnastics women’s team for the 2016 Olympics.

Despite a having a knee injury at the 2016 Olympic tryouts, Maggie performed well, but didn’t make the Olympic team, while some Nationals team alternates were chosen instead. Gina Nichols and John Nichols say in the documentary that they saw signs that USA Gymnastics had blackballed them because the organization treated them differently after Maggie’s abuse was reported to USA Gymnastics, but the complaint against Nassar hadn’t been made public yet.

After the abuse was reported, Gina Nichols and John Nichols say that at the 2016 Olympic tryouts, they didn’t have reserved seats and there weren’t TV cameras following them, as there normally would have been for all the other USA Gymnastics televised events where star gymnast Maggie previously participated. The Nichols parents don’t come right out and accuse anyone specific for causing this blatant snubbing, but it’s obvious that they believe several people’s claims that Penny demanded it. The good news is that Maggie went on to achieve gymnastic championships in the National Collegiate Athletic Association, while she was a student at the University of Oklahoma.

“Athlete A” includes archival video footage of Denhollander being interviewed in 2016 by the Indianapolis Star when she came forward to expose Nassar, 16 years after he abused her. She says at one point: “I wish I had dealt with it 16 years ago. I don’t think I could’ve dealt with it, but I can now.”

The documentary also shows the toll that this abuse took on the survivors, many of whom were ridiculed and not believed when they first came forward. Denhollander, who looks painfully thin in her 2016 interview with the Indianapolis Star, says that she had trouble eating because of all the stress. Dantzscher, who was on the USA Olympics team in 2000, says that gymnastics was her “first love,. but she tearfully admits that it took her years to proud to be an Olympian because Nassar abused her at the Olympics and she associated the Olympics with the shame of the abuse.

“Athlete A” also delves into the history of women’s gymnastics to explain how it went from being a sport that had mostly regular-sized adult women prior to the 1960s but it eventually changed into a sport dominated by underage girls, and a height of 5’4″ was considered “tall” for female gymnasts. This “little girl” aesthetic for female gymnasts coincided with the rise of Romanian gymnastic coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi, a husband-and-wife duo whose Karolyi Ranch training facility in Texas was where Nassar committed a lot of his sexual abuse.

Beginning with Russian gold-medalist gymnast Olga Korbut at the 1972 Olympics and especially with Romanian gold-medalist gymnast Nadia Comăneci at the 1976 Olympics, the trend moved in the direction of underage, very petite girls being pushed to compete in gymnastics at the Olympics. Comăneci was only 14 when she became a gold medalist at the 1976 Olympics. Her victory made her coaches Béla and Márta Károlyi highly in demand to train female gymnasts.

In 1981, the Károlyis defected to the United States with their choreographer Geza Poszar, who is interviewed in “Athlete A.” The Károlyis also went on to coach Olympic gold-medalists gymnasts Mary Lou Retton and Kerri Strug. “Athlete A” spends a little too much time going off-topic by rehashing the Olympic victories of Comăneci, Retton and Strug. These gymnasts had nothing to do with Nassar.

Poszar says that the Károlyis’ method of working with gymnasts was “total control over the girls.” He says that Károlyis (and coaches just like them) often abuse the gymnasts verbally, emotionally and physically. It was common for the gymnasts to be slapped and be told that they were fat animals, says Poszar. That type of abuse was “acceptable” in his native Romania, he says, and it apparently was acceptable in the United States too.

Károlyi Ranch, a training facility near Hunstville, Texas, closed in 2018. The Károlyis are no longer USA Gymnastics coaches (Béla retired in 1997, while Márta retired in 2016), and they have both been sued for being part of the Nassar cover-up. “Athlete A” includes a clip from a videotaped deposition of Márta Károlyi admitting that she knew about complaints of Nassar’s abuse that was happening at the ranch.

People familiar with Károlyi Ranch describe it as an oppressive, isolated compound where parents weren’t allowed to visit, gymnasts were forbidden to call people outside the ranch (where cell-phone reception was difficult anyway), and people were punished for reporting abuse. The Károlyis, just like everyone else accused of covering up for Nassar, are not interviewed in “Athlete A.”

Giving her perspective on coaching techniques is former U.S. Nationals Team gymnast is Jennifer Sey, author of the 2008 memoir: “Chalked Up: Inside Elite Gymnastics’ Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders, and Elusive Olympic Dreams.” Sey, who competed as a gymnast in the 1970s and 1980s, says that coaching methods for female gymnasts haven’t changed much over the years: “You could be as cruel as you needed to be to get what you needed out of your athletes.”

Sey adds, “The line between tough coaching and abuse gets blurred.” She and other people in the documentary (including Dantzscher) mention something that’s commonly known in the gymnastics world: Gymnasts are often forced to compete with serious injuries, including fractured or broken bones. As an example, “Athlete A” shows Strug’s 1996 Olympic victory, which happened despite her severely injuring her ankle during the last stretch of the Olympic match.

Tracee Talavera, who was on the USA Women’s Gymnastics team at the 1984 Olympics, says she remembers how the Olympic gymnasts from Eastern Europe always looked scared and they never looked happy. Mike Jacki, who was president of USA Gymnastics from 1983 to 1994, adds his perspective, by saying that the popularity of Mary Lou Retton and more American female gymnasts starting to win at the Olympics, was the start of USA Gymnastics becoming a bigger business.

“Athlete A” clearly discusses Olympic gymnasts from the 1970s and 1980s, as a way to put into context to the culture of abuse that enabled Nassar. But this detour into the history of female gymnastics ultimately takes up too much time in the documentary, which should have kept its focus on the Nassar cases.

And for a documentary about the investigation of a sexual abuser who had hundreds of victims, “Athlete A” has a surprising scarcity of interviews from people in the fields of law and law enforcement. Only one personal attorney is interviewed: John Manly, who is Dantzcher’s lawyer. From law enforcement, Michigan State University Police detective lieutenant Andrea Munford and Michigan state assistant attorney Angela Povilaitis are interviewed, and they describe their involvements in the Nassar case. (Again, nothing new is revealed here.)

“Athlete A” also includes the expected news archival footage of the survivor impact statements that were read during Nassar’s 2018 sentencing hearings, after he pleaded guilty to numerous charges. Denhollander and Dantzscher were among the survivors who read their statements while a shamed Nassar sat in the courtroom. Maggie Nichols did not attend these hearings, but her mother Gina read Maggie’s statement in court. “Athlete A” does not have interviews with Nassar’s most famous survivors, including Olympic gold-medalists Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas and McKayla Maroney.

Former USA Gymnastics president/CEO Penny was arrested in 2018 on charges of  evidence tampering. His criminal case is pending, as of this writing. Video footage of his arrest is included in “Athlete A.”

But in an apparent myopic zeal to make Penny look like the top evil overlord of covering up for Nassar, “Athlete A” oversimplifies and overlooks the fact that a cover-up of this magnitude and length wasn’t just orchestrated by mainly one person. “Athlete A” fails to mentions two of the toxic enablers who were given some scrutiny in “At the Heart of Gold”: John Geddert (former USA Gymnastics coach) and Kathie Klages (former Michigan State University gymnastics coach). Geddert is under criminal investigation, as of this writing. In February 2020, Klages was convicted of two counts (one felony and one misdemeanor) of lying to police.

There have been other people who’ve been accused of actively covering up for Nassar’s crimes, including former Michigan State University president Lou Anna Simon, who resigned in 2018. In 2019, Simon was charged with lying to the police, but in May 2020, those charges were dismissed. In 2018, Scott Blackmun resigned as CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee. That same year, Alan Ashley was fired as U.S. Olympic Committee chief of sport performance over his involvement in the Nassar scandal. Simon, Blackmun and Ashley are not mentioned in “Athlete A” or in “At the Heart of Gold.”

“Athlete A'” does mention Rhonda Faehn, who was a USA Gymnastics vice president at the time that Maggie Nichols filed her complaint against Nassar, but Faehn did not go to police with the complaint. In yet another example of omitting information, “Athlete A” never mentions what happened to Faehn: She testified against Nassar in 2018 in grand-jury proceedings, then she was hired by the University of Michigan in 2019 (and then fired after one day, due to public backlash), and later that year, Faehn was given a temporary job as an international team coach at Waverley Gymnastics Centre in Australia.

“Athlete A” certainly has good intentions to put the spotlight on the serious issue of abuse, as it pertains to American female gymnasts. However, the documentary ultimately just recycles information that other people already reported. The documentary’s interviews are compelling, but the filmmakers’ lack of original investigative reporting and omission of crucial details are ultimately a letdown for this important subject matter.

Netflix premiere “Athlete A” on May 24, 2020.

Review: ‘Dads,’ starring Ron Howard, Will Smith, Conan O’Brien, Ken Jeong, Jimmy Fallon, Neil Patrick Harris and Jimmy Kimmel

June 20, 2020

by Carla Hay

Bryce Dallas Howard and her father Ron Howard in “Dads” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

“Dads” 

Directed by Bryce Dallas Howard

Culture Representation: The documentary “Dads” has a racially diverse group of people (white, black, Asian and Latino) representing the middle-class and wealthy and talking about fatherhood.

Culture Clash: Some of the fathers interviewed in the film talk about defying traditional masculine stereotypes, by being more involved in raising their children than previous generations of fathers were expected to be.

Culture Audience: “Dads” will appeal to anyone who likes nonfiction films about parenting issues, even though it shuts out any perspectives of fathers who are poor or have negative attitudes about being fathers.

Robert Selby (pictured at right) and his son RJ in “Dads” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

The documentary “Dads” puts such an unrelenting positive and happy spin on fatherhood that it has a strange dichotomy of being a nonfiction film that isn’t entirely realistic. Bryce Dallas Howard (the eldest child of Oscar-winning filmmaker Ron Howard) makes her feature-film directorial debut with “Dads,” which devotes considerable screen time to members of the Howard family talking about fatherhood. “Dads” is ultimately a very uplifting “feel good” movie, but it doesn’t do anything groundbreaking or reveal any new concepts of fatherhood.

There are no deadbeat dads or bitter fathers who’ve lost child custody in “Dads.” Instead, the documentary focuses only on fathers who love being dads and have good relationships with their children. There are several celebrities interviewed in the film (all of whom have a background in comedy), such as Judd Apatow, Jimmy Fallon, Neil Patrick Harris, Ron Howard, Ken Jeong, Jimmy Kimmel, Hasan Minhaj, Conan O’Brien, Patton Oswalt and Will Smith.

“Dads” has three kinds of footage: soundbites from the celebrities, with Bryce Dallas Howard as the interviewer (she sometimes appears on camera); clips of home movies (the clips from random, unidentified people give the documentary an “America’s Funniest Home Videos” look); and six in-depth profiles of seven middle-class fathers from different parts of the world.

Although the celebrities offer some amusing anecdotes, many of their stories seem rehearsed or their comments are made just to crack a joke. Smith, in particular, seems to have memorized way in advance what he was going to say in this documentary. With the exception of Ron Howard, the celebrities are not shown with their children in this documentary, which is why the celebrity segments in the film are pretty superficial. The best parts of the documentary are with the people who aren’t rich and famous, because that’s the footage that actually shows “regular” fathers (who don’t have nannies) taking care of the kids.

The seven non-famous fathers who are profiled in the movie are:

  • Glen Henry (in San Diego), an African American who became a “daddy vlogger” to document his experiences as a stay-at-home dad.
  • Reed Howard (in Westchester, New York), who is Bryce Dallas Howard’s youngest sibling and was a first-time expectant father at the time the documentary was filmed.
  • Robert Selby (in Triangle, Virginia), an African American whose son survived a life-or-death medical crisis.
  • Thiago Queiroz (in Rio de Janeiro), a Brazilian who started a podcast and blog about fatherhood and who advocates for longer time for paternity leaves.
  • Shuichi Sakuma (in Tokyo), who is a Japanese homemaker.
  • Rob Scheer and Reece Scheer (in Darnestown, Maryland), a white gay couple who adopted four African American kids.

Glen Henry used to work as a sales clerk at men’s clothing store, but he was so unhappy in his job that his wife Yvette suggested that he quit his job and become a stay-at-home father. (At the time “Dads” was filmed, the Henrys had two sons and a daughter.) Glen Henry, who has a blog called Beleaf in Fatherhood, began making videos documenting his fatherhood experiences.

Glen admits that he thought at first that it would be easy to take care of the kids by himself, but he found out that he was very wrong about that. “I felt like an imposter,” he says of his early years as a homemaker. Even though his wife Yvette says she wasn’t thrilled about Glen putting their family’s life on display for everyone to see on the Internet, she says it’s worth it because Glen is a much happier person as a stay-at-home dad.

Echoing what many of the fathers say in the documentary, Glen Henry comments: “The role of father has shifted in a major way. We went from providing, being there for holidays and disciplining to being all the way involved—and you kind of look like a dork if you’re not.”

He continues, “I feel like being a father made me the man that I am. My children taught me to be authentic and honest with myself. Fatherhood has given me a whole new identity.”

Reed Howard, who was expecting his first child with his wife when this documentary was being filmed, talks about the home videos that his father Ron filmed of all of his children being born. (Clips of some of those videos are included in the documentary.) Reeds says half-jokingly that since all of Ron’s kids were forced to watch the videos, it was “traumatic” to see part of his mother’s body that he never wanted to see.

Ron Howard’s father Rance (who died in 2017) is also interviewed in “Dads.” Rance says that when Ron was a co-star on “The Andy Griffith Show,” Rance suggested to Andy Griffith to not have Ron’s character Opie written as a brat. Griffith took the advice, and the father-son relationship on the show was modeled after the relationship that Rance had with Ron in real life. (Rance Howard and Ron Howard are the only grandfathers interviewed in the movie, by the way.)

Most of the dads interviewed in the documentary get emotional and teary-eyed at some point in the film. Ron Howard’s crying moment comes when he says that his greatest fear as a father was that he wouldn’t be as good as his father was to him. Reed (who is Ron’s only son) expresses the same fear about not being able to live up to the great experiences that he had with Ron as his father.

Selby has perhaps the most compelling story, since his son RJ was born with a congenital heart defect. Selby describes years of stressful hospital visits and medical treatments in order to help RJ live as healthy of a life as possible. This dedicated dad had to make many sacrifices, such as taking unpaid time off from work and forgo paying some bills in order to pay for RJ’s medical expenses. “There was no doubt in mind: I would forever be his protector,” Selby says of his outlook on being RJ’s father.

Selby is also the only father interviewed in the film who isn’t financially privileged, since he says that he often didn’t have a car during his son’s ongoing medical crisis. And when he did have a car, it was repossessed  multiple times because he couldn’t make the payments. He ended up working a night shift because it was the only way he could have a job (he doesn’t mention what he does for a living) while also going to school and taking care of RJ during the day.

Chantay Williams (who is RJ’s mother) and Selby were never married and didn’t have a serious relationship when she got pregnant with RJ. Selby breaks down and cries when he remembers that when he found out about the pregnancy, he didn’t want Williams to have the child and he didn’t talk to her for two months. But he changed his mind, asked for her forgiveness, and is now a very involved father.

However, Selby says that he still feels shame over his initial reaction to the pregnancy, and he comments that he’ll probably spend the rest of his life trying to make up for that mistake. Williams says in the documentary that Selby is proof that someone can change, and that he’s truly a devoted father and that his devotion isn’t just a show for the documentary cameras.

Quieroz (a married father of two sons and a daughter) knows what it’s like to not have a father raise him, since his dad wasn’t in his life for most of his childhood. He says that it’s one of the reasons why he vowed to always be there for his kids. Quieroz’s day job is as a mechanical engineer, but he also started a fatherhood podcast with two other Brazilian fathers, and he has a fatherhood blog. It’s through the blog that Quieroz’s estranged father got in touch with him. The outcome of that contact is revealed in the documentary.

Sakuma talks about how, in Japanese culture, men who don’t work outside the home are considered “society dropouts.” When he was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder 20 years ago, Sakuma could no longer work outside the home. He became so depressed that he contemplated divorce and suicide, until his wife begged him: “Please continue living for me.”

After Sakuma regained his health, one of the first things he wanted to do was become a parent, but his wife didn’t want to have kids. He says in the documentary that he began a personal campaign that lasted two years to get his wife to change her mind. She changed her mind when he told her that men can do anything when it comes to raising a child, except for pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding. He convinced her that he would make a great stay-at-home dad, which he is to their son.

Rob and Reece Scheer didn’t expect to become parents to four kids in a short period of time (less than a year), but that’s what happened when they fostered four children, whom they eventually ended up adopting. Rob and Reece have three sons and one daughter; two of the sons are biological brothers. Rob (the older husband) says he knew that he wanted to be a father since he was 6 years old. Rob describes how he grew up with an abusive father, but that traumatic experience helped him know that he wanted to be the opposite of abusive when he became a dad.

The four kids adopted by Reece and Rob also come from troubled backgrounds, so Rob believes surviving his own abusive childhood helps him relate to his kids in that way. As for Reece, he was working two jobs when he decided quit those jobs to be the couple’s stay-at-home partner. They had to make the sacrifice of having a lower household income, but now the family lives happily on a farm, which the dads say has been beneficial for the emotional well-being of their kids.

Rob Scheer says that sometimes people say unintentionally ignorant things  about gay couples who are parents. “People ask, ‘Who’s the mom and who’s the dad?’ We’re both dads, but the one thing that we do is that we both partner. That’s what parents should be doing.”

One of the questions that Bryce Dallas Howard asks the celebrities is to define what a father is in one word. Fallon says “hero,” while Minhaj says “compass.” Many of the celebrity fathers in the documentary make obvious comments that are similar to each other, such as: “There’s no instruction manual/rulebook to being a father.”

And although Kimmel and Jeong briefly mention the medical scares they went through with their children (a heart defect for one of Kimmel’s sons, a premature birth for one of Jeong’s children), the documentary doesn’t show them opening up about these issues in a meaningful way. Instead, most of the celebrity soundbites are meant to elicit laughs. Several of the celebrities make references to their busy careers when they talk about how their work keeps them from spending more time with their kids, but they know that they’re working hard to provide very well for their children.

Although the non-famous fathers who are profiled  in “Dads” seem to be a diverse group because they’re from different countries and racial groups, they actually have more in common with each other than not, because they’re all middle-class fathers with children who were under the age of 13 at the time this documentary was filmed. It seems like these fathers were selected because they have young children who are in the “cute” stages of life—no kids who are teenagers or adults—thereby creating more documentary footage that was likely to be “adorable.”

Apatow and Smith are the only fathers who talk about how fatherhood became less fun for them when their children became teenagers. They mention that they had to learn to give their teenage kids space, adjust to their kids’ growing independence, and allow them to make their own decisions on issues, even if those decisions turned out to be mistakes. But since the documentary doesn’t do any up-close profiles of non-famous fathers who have teenagers, the only commentaries about raising teenagers come from rich and famous guys, and it’s questionable how relatable these celebrity dads are to the rest of the public.

For example, Smith has said in other interviews (not in this documentary) that he and his wife Jada don’t believe that their kids should be punished in their household when they do something wrong, their kids never had to do household chores, and he and Jada allowed their kids to drop out of school when the kids didn’t feel like going anymore. Apatow admits in the documentary that he’s also a permissive dad who never really punished his kids if they did something wrong. Is it any wonder that many celebrities are perceived as raising spoiled kids who are out of touch with the real world?

One of the other shortcomings of “Dads” is that, except for Selby, the documentary completely ignores major financial strains that parenthood can cause. It’s as if the documentary wants to forget that financially poor fathers exist in this world too. And even though Minhaj is the only one in “Dads” to mention the immigrant experience, “Dads” could have used more fatherhood stories from an immigrant perspective.

However, if you want a heartwarming look at famous and non-famous dads who say that parenthood is the best thing that ever happened to them, “Dads” fulfills all those expectations. This documentary is more like a series of love letters instead of a thorough and inclusive investigation.

Apple TV+ premiered “Dads” on June 19, 2020.