Review: ‘Lover, Stalker, Killer, starring Dave Kroupa, Nancy Raney, Jim Doty, Ryan Avis, Tony Kava, Amy Flora and Chris LeGrow

February 19, 2024

by Carla Hay

Dave Kroupa in “Lover, Stalker, Killer” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Lover, Stalker, Killer”

Directed by Sam Hobkinson

Culture Representation: Taking place in Nebraska and Iowa, the documentary film “Lover, Stalker, Killer” features an all-white group of people representing the working-class and middle-class discussing a case involving stalking and murder.

Culture Clash: A bachelor, who works as an automative employee, looks for love online and has the nightmarish experience of getting involved with a woman who stalked him and his loved ones and committed murder. 

Culture Audience: “Lover, Stalker, Killer” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in true crime documentaries that have an uncluttered, cohesive storytelling style.

Dave Kroupa and Amy Flora (both in back row) with their two children in an undated archival photo from the 2000s in “Lover, Stalker, Killer” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Lover, Stalker, Killer” is a skillfully told true-crime documentary that keeps its perspective centered entirely on the victims, their loved ones and law enforcement. It’s a bizarre and fascinating case that doesn’t glorify the perpetrator. The perpetrator’s point of view isn’t really needed since there are no legitimate excuses for the heinous crimes committed in this case.

Directed by Sam Hobkinson, “Lover, Stalker, Killer” has an uncluttered, easy-to-follow style that is gripping from beginning to end, even if viewers already know the answers to the mystery and how the case ended after it went to trial. The documentary does not have interviews with the perpetrator, the perpetrator’s friends or family, or any defense attorneys. These omissions might irritate some viewers who want to know more about the perpetrator, but the more important takeaway from this documentary is how the survivors of these crimes coped with their ordeals and sought justice.

“Lover, Stalker, Killer” is told mainly from the perspective of Dave Kroupa, a longtime mechanic/automotive technician in Nebraska, who became one of the targets of a homicidal stalker. He is the main narrator of the documentary, which is formatted like a “whodunit mystery” to keep viewers in suspense if they don’t know the whole story. Kroupa’s online dating activities were the catalyst for the perpetrator to cause the murder and mayhem that damaged many people’s lives.

The problems started in 2012, when Kroupa had recently moved to Omaha, Nebraska, after a breakup with a former co-worker named Amy Flora, who was his live-in partner. Kroupa and Flora became a couple in 2000, and had two children (a son and a daughter) together. Flora and Kroupa both say in the documentary that their breakup was because they eventually grew apart.

Kroupa describes how his love life was in 2012 this way: “I was wild and free at 35, and I was determined to enjoy it.” He went on multiple dating websites, including Plenty of Fish, which is the only dating website mentioned in the documentary. Through these online dating sites, he met several women. Early on in his online dating experiences, he dated two women (both single mothers) around the same period of time. Both women were about the same age as Kroupa was at the time.

Kroupa says in the documentary that he made it clear to both women from the beginning that he didn’t want to be in a committed or monogamous relationship and he was only interested in casually dating them. He says that both women willingly agreed to this arrangement. Kroupa describes his relationships with both women as fun and compatible in the beginning.

The woman he dated first was Shanna “Liz” Golyar, who had a son and a daughter and owned a cleaning company in Omaha. When things started to cool down between Kroupa and Golyar, Kroupa began dating Cari Farver, an office worker with an interest in computers and who had a son. Farver lived in Macedonia, Iowa, but she worked in Omaha, near the automotive company where Kroupa had been working at the time.

Shortly after Kroupa began dating Farver (about two weeks), Golyar unexpectedly came over to Kroupa’s house to pick up something that she left behind. Kroupa and Farver happened to be on a date at Kroupa’s place at the time. Farver also sometimes stayed overnight at Kroupa’s home since it was close to her job. The two women were briefly introduced, and then Golyar left.

It wasn’t long after this incident when Kroupa began getting harassing messages by text and email from someone identifying herself as Farver. The messages would have insults and other derogatory remarks about Kroupa and Golyar. Kroupa ended the relationship with Farver, but the harassment escalated and eventually included stalking; arson of Golyar’s home; a break-in and burglary of Kroupa’s home; vandalism of Kroupa’s car and Golyar’s car; and violent threats to Kroupa, Golyar, Flora, and the children of Kroupa and Flora.

Meanwhile, Farver couldn’t be located after the harassment began, even when law enforcement did extensive stakeouts and investigations. Farver’s mother Nancy Raney (who is interviewed in the documentary) reported to law enforcement that she received messages by social media, email and text from someone identifying as Farver who was using Farver’s phone and accounts for email and social media. The messages said that Farver had taken a job (with an annual salary of $100,000) in Nebraska and that she didn’t want anyone looking for her. The messages also said that Farver expected her mother to look after Farver’s son.

Farver had bipolar disorder, but Raney insisted to investigators that this mental illness was not the reason why Farver disappeared. Raney also firmly believed that Farver was not doing the harassing and had a feeling that something bad must have happened to Farver, who would not willingly abandon her son. Raney reported Farver as a missing person to authorities, because Raney had not seen or spoken to her daughter by phone after getting these written-only messages.

The news media and investigators at the time could only point to Farver as the main suspect in the harassment, which continued over the course of three years. Farver still could not be located, and there was no proof that she was still alive. It’s at this point in the documentary that it’s easy to figure out who the culprit is and the real motives for these crimes.

By 2015, the case took a turn through the diligent efforts of three people working at the Pottawattamie County Sheriff’s Office in Iowa: Jim Doty, a sergeant; his best friend Ryan Avis, an investigator; and Tony Kava, who worked in the information technology department. What’s even more remarkable is that Kava did most of his work while having a brain tumor, but he decided to delay having brain surgery until an arrest had been made in the case. Doty, Avis, and Kava are interviewed in the documentary to given an inside account of how they were able to solve the case.

Other people interviewed are Chris LeGrow (who was a detective at the time for the Omaha Police Department) and Brenda Beadle, a chief deputy at Douglas County Attorney’s Office in Nebraska. All of the interviewees in the documentary give their crucial views and their step-by-step process in this disturbing case. Ultimately, “Lover, Stalker, Killer” is a compelling story about how crime victims and law enforcement can work together to get justice.

Netflix premiered “Lover, Stalker, Killer” on February 9, 2024

Review: ‘Apolonia, Apolonia,’ starring Apolonia Sokol

January 14, 2024

by Carla Hay

Apolonia Sokol in “Apolonia, Apolonia” (Photo courtesy of Grasshopper Film)

“Apolonia, Apolonia”

Directed by Lea Glob

Some language in French, Danish and Italian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Filmed in Europe, the United States and Asia, from 2009 to 2022, the documentary film “Apolonia, Apolonia” features an all-white group of people discussing the life and career of French Danish painter artist Apolonia Sokol.

Culture Clash: Sokol has various struggles in her personal and professional lives, including occasional poverty, self-doubt, and difficulties breaking into the male-dominated art world to become a paid professional. 

Culture Audience: “Apolonia, Apolonia” will appeal primarily to people who are interested documentaries about struggling artists from a female perspective.

Apolonia Sokol in “Apolonia, Apolonia” (Photo courtesy of Grasshopper Film)

What does it really take to be an artist who struggles for years to get industry respect and professional wages? “Apolonia, Apolonia” gives viewers an insightful look at one such artist. Filmed between 2009 and 2022, this sprawling documentary is as much about painter artist Apolonia Sokol as it is about her friendship with director Lea Glob. These blurred lines sometimes give the film an uneven tone, but it’s still a fascinating watch.

“Apolonia, Apolonia” has its world premiere at the 2022 International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. Throughout 2023, the movie made the rounds at several film festivals, including the BFI London Film Festival and DOC NYC. “Apolonia, Apolonia” also made it on the shortlist for the 2024 Academy Awards in the category of Best Documentary Feature.

The movie opens with a scene taking place in Paris in 2013. Sokol is shown in front of a bathroom mirror as she cuts her bangs and wears shaving cream where a moustache and a “soul patch” would be on her face. It’s the first indication that that Sokol is an unusual person.

Glob who is the documentary’s narrator, explains in a voiceover in the beginning of the documentary the reason why she decided to devote so many years to chronicling the life of Sokol: “For as long as I can remember, I’ve seen the world through my camera. But no motif has caught my eye as she did.” Glob also says she began filming Sokol from the day that she met Sokol in Paris in 2009, on Sokol’s 26th birthday.

Sokol, who is the only child of her parents, was born in Paris in 1983 to unconventional, artistic parents. Sokol’s mother Aleksandra Tlolka was a Polish immigrant whose parents were displaced under the rule of Joseph Stalin. Sokol’s father Hervé Breuil was a native of France. Long before social media existed, Tlolka and Breuil filmed themselves and their lives, which they kept archived on videotapes for Sokol watch as she grew up.

One video that her parents didn’t want her to see until she turned 18 was the sex video that her parents made that showed her being conceived. Snippets of some of these archived videos are shown in “Apolonia, Apolonia,” including the video of Sokol being born. It’s an example of how Sokol was literally born to be on camera. Her parents raised her among “artists, dissidents and activists” and continued to film their lives.

At the age of 8, Sokol’s life changed when her parents split up. Because her father’s name, not her mother’s name, was on the lease for the family home, Tlolka found herself and Sokol homeless when Tlolka moved out and took Sokol with her. They eventually found a place to live, but living in poverty had a profound effect on Sokol. Tlolka and Sokol moved to Denmark, where Sokol spent the rest of her childhood and part of her young adulthood

Years later, in 2009, the documentary shows Sokol once again on the verge of homelessness. She had moved back to Paris to live with in the Chateau Rouge area, a working-class neighborhood, in a ramshackle art theater called Lavoir Moderne Parisien, which used to be a laundromat. Her parents, although no longer a romantic couple, were business partners in the theater, which was on the verge of shutting down because the business was losing too much money. The parents were selling furniture and appliances in the building in an effort to raise money.

It was under these grim circumstances that Sokol met Glob, who gives her own personal background on what led her to become a filmmaker. Glob says that as a child, her grandfather was a painter artist who would pay her one euro and hour to let him paint her portrait. Instead of becoming interested in painting, Glob says she became interested in filmmaking.

While in film school, Glob was assigned to do a documentary about someone. She heard about an unusual aspiring painter who grew up in an art theater in Paris and who “wanted to walk in the footsteps of the great painters.” That aspiring painter was Sokol.

The documentary gives a raw and often intimate look at the highs, lows and everything in between in Sokol’s quest to become a professional artist. Sokol, whose specialty is painting portraits of people, experiences many expected roadblocks and uphill battles, including sexism, her own self-doubt, and trying to get gallery showings of her work without an agent.

Sokol’s journey takes her to various cities other than Paris, such as Copenhagen, New York City, Los Angeles, Istanbul and Rome. She enrolls in the elite École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. When Sokol moves to Copenhagen, she has mixed feelings about returning to Denmark. Just like her mother, Sokol says that she feels more comfortable as an artist in Paris.

Things take an interesting turn when Sokol moves to Los Angeles and gets investment money, use of an art studio, and encouragement from art benefactor Stefan Simchowitz, who is introduced to Sokol by Sokol’s friend Isabelle Le Normand. Emmy-winning writer/producer Mike White (of HBO’s “The White Lotus”) makes a random appearance in the movie when Le Normand introduces him to Sokol.

At one point in the conversation with White, Sokol mentions that she and Simchowitz will be meeting with Harvey Weinstein. (This particular footage was obviously filmed before disgraced entertainment mogul Weinstein’s scandalous downfall in 2017.) The meeting with Weinstein is not mentioned again in the documentary.

Simchowitz becomes Sokol’s mentor, but there’s something a little “off” about this mentorship, because Simchowitz seems to be the type of investor to seek out young, attractive female artists and show them off like arm candy. When he and Sokol are at an event together, an eager young female artist approaches Simchowitz asks if her remembers her. Their conversation is brief and polite but slightly awkward. You can almost hear the other woman thinking about Simchowitz: “So this is your latest pretty young protégée.”

Sokol is completely financially dependent on Simchowitz during her stay in Los Angeles. He gives her constructive advice and introduces her to important people in the art world. But the underlying question that astute viewers will have but isn’t said out loud in the documentary is, “What does Simchowitz really want out of his relationship with Sokol?”

Sokol presents herself as a free spirit who doesn’t have any hangups about nudity in her art or by being naked herself on camera. Later, during her stay in Los Angeles, she spontaneously takes off all of her clothes and posing next to giant inflatable butt plug at an outdoor art exhibit, even though she risked getting arrested for indecent exposure.

For a while, Sokol seems caught up in the glitz and glamour of the Los Angeles art scene. She also gets an important gallery exhibit (with Simchowitz’s help) and learns the importance of having the right connections. But then, the movie shows her back in Copehagen again. What happened to Simchowitz and his enthusiastic support? The documentary never goes into details, so it can easily be assumed that Sokol and Simchowitz parted under uncomfortable circumstances that Glob chose not to put in the documentary.

That’s not the only information void in “Apolonia, Apolonia.” The movie takes a harrowing turn when Glob turns the camera on her own personal life, when she documents her recovery from a near-death experience that left her in a coma while she was pregnant and had to undergo an emergency C-section. Fortunately, her baby son Luca was born healthy and unharmed. Her recovery took months, but the documentary never gives details on what caused Glob’s serious injuries.

Sokol’s personal life also goes through a series of ups and downs. During the hardest times of her struggling artist years, her roommate and best friend was Oksana Shachko (born in 1987), an artist who was a refugee from Ukraine. In Paris, Sokol and Shachko were part of a tight-knit circle of feminists who supported each other and practiced left-wing politics. However, throughout their friendship Sokol expresses concern for Shachko’s mental health, because Sokol thinks Shachko has depression and anorexia.

Because “Apolonia, Apolonia” is primarily focused on Sokol as an artist, her love life doesn’t get much screen time. Early in the movie, a boyfriend named Max Lanos Plaquer breaks up with her o camera when she’s living in Paris. After much moving around in different countries, Sokol is seen with another boyfriend in Paris. At one point in the movie, Sokol and Shachko both say that they don’t want to have children.

As for Sokol as an artist, judging her talent is subjective, and she constantly grapples with her own insecurities and how other people perceive her. The documentary has some lingering shots of Sokol starting a painting and then showing the finished art, but the movie doesn’t take much time to explore how and why Sokol chooses the people whose portraits she paints. The people in her paintings are not interviewed either.

Despite the questions that remain unanswered by “Apolonia, Apolonia,” the documentary is a very compelling story of commitment to being an artist when facing much resistance, criticism and adversity. It’s a career where the odds are stacked against most people to get enough financial rewards to become full-time, professional artists. Sokol is the type of artist who doesn’t have a “backup plan” to switch careers if things get too tough for her. “Apolonia, Apolonia” shows the pain and tragedy as well as joy and hope during this 13-year period of Sokol’s life, which is not the kind of life that a lot of people would want to have, but it’s a life lived authentically.

Grasshopper Film released “Apolonia, Apolonia” in New York City on January 12, 2024. The movie was released in Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Spain in 2023. Documentary+ will premiere “Apolonia, Apolonia” on a date to be announced.

Review: ‘Occupied City,’ a historical documentary of Nazi-controlled Amsterdam, narrated by Melanie Hyams

January 11, 2023

by Carla Hay

A street procession in “Occupied City” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“Occupied City”

Directed by Steve McQueen

Culture Representation: Filmed in Amsterdam, in 2020 and 2021, the documentary film “Occupied City” features a predominantly white group of people (with some black people and Asians) of various social classes in cinéma vérité footage.

Culture Clash: The documentary visits locations and tells (through a narrator) what each location was like in Nazi-controlled Amsterdam from 1940 to 1945, to contrast with what the location looked like at the time the documentary was filmed in the early 2020s. 

Culture Audience: “Occupied City” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in Holocaust-themed documentaries, but viewers will either like or dislike the bloated runtime and the movie’s bland textbook style.

A family at a bar mitzvah ceremony in “Occupied City” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“Occupied City” is tedious and repetitive, due to this documentary’s excessively long runtime (nearly 4.5 hours) and pretentiousness. It’s like being stuck in a rambling academic lecture with travelogue visuals. It’s also an endurance test to stay awake. Most people who watch this entire movie probably won’t remember many of the overload of facts that this movie soullessly spews out like an artificial-intelligence machine on autopilot. It’s why the total runtime of “Occupied City” is not justified at all, because most of the movie will be quickly forgotten because of its mind-numbing monotony.

Directed by Steve McQueen, “Occupied City” is based on Bianca Stigter’s 2019 non-fiction book “Atlas of an Occupied City (Amsterdam 1940-1945),” a location guide to historical locations of Amsterdam when the city was controlled by Nazis. McQueen and Stigter, who are romantic partners in real life, are two of the producers of “Occupied City,” which had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. The movie is like the cinematic version of an oversized atlas with narration that sounds like it’s from a very stodgy textbook. No one in the 2020s footage is interviewed. Everyone who’s seen talking in the movie is not identified at all.

The problem with “Occupied City” is it looks like the filmmakers decided to just film the locations and have a narrator read excerpts from Stigter’s book, with no further insights that a great documentary would have. The movie also shows some footage without narration that looks like something a tourist would film when the tourist doesn’t know what to film. It looks like extraneous footage that director McQueen couldn’t bear to edit out of a documentary that desperately needed better film editing to keep viewers fully engaged.

The narrator for “Occupied City” is actress Melanie Hyams, who has the plodding task of reading factoids about the approximately 130 locations shown in “Occupied City.” Hyams, who is British, reads the script in a tone that is borderline robotic. Most people who know World War II history also know about the horrors of the Holocaust, but the way that these facts are delivered in “Occupied City” really diminish the impact of this history. The visuals focus on mundane life in Amsterdam, while the real people who suffered during the Holocaust are reduced to detached and dull sentences recited in narration.

Want to know where was the first Amsterdam pub that was supposedly the first in the city to ban Jewish people? “Occupied City” will show you that where the pub used to be is now a non-descript G-Star office or factory, which the documentary filmed from the outside. In the narration, Hyams says a few things about the antisemitic rules posted in the pub. And then concludes the short summary of the location by saying what happened to this antisemitic pub: “demolished.” (Expect to hear the word “demolished” a lot in this documentary.)

“Occupied City” gives very brief summaries of some of the atrocities that took place in each location during any year between 1940 to 1945. Whether it’s the Rijksmuseum, a kindergarten classroom, or a brothel in the 2020s, the documentary will tell viewers what types of Nazi-related activities took place in those locations during those Nazi-controlled 1940s years. Because there is no archival footage in “Occupied City,” there are no “before” and “after” photos or images of these locations. And that deliberate omission isn’t necessarily a flaw.

But what’s missing from “Occupied City” is any real effort to get viewers to remember the human stories of the people who were part of this history. Their photos are never shown. Their descendants are not interviewed. Instead, viewers who watch “Occupied City” are more likely to remember how much the documentary shows lingering footage of how Amsterdam was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, or footage of left-wing political rallies where people rant against fascism and environmental corruption.

And really, it isn’t all that surprising when “Occupied City” tells you that the current town squares in Amsterdam that existed during the Nazi occupation were used for Nazi rallies back then. It isn’t shocking that many of the houses where Amsterdam residents currently live used to be the houses of Nazi officials or persecuted Jewish people. But these are the types of facts that “Occupied City” repeats over and over, as if it’s uncovering groundbreaking information. Ironically, the National Holocaust Museum in Amsterdam is given only a few short minutes in “Occupied City,” probably because the museum is so much more informative than this puffed-up documentary that thinks it’s more important than it really is.

The obvious intention of “Occupied City” is to show how life has continued in Amsterdam, with many people seemingly blissfully unaware that the very spaces they are enjoying are the same spaces where brutal antisemitism and other evil bigotry occurred. For example, there’s a fairly long scene filmed during an unknown month in a 2020s winter, showing children and their families ice sledding in an outdoor space where Jewish people used to be rounded up and abused by Nazis. Another example is the documentary showing two women having a love partnership ceremony at the same location where there used to be a Jewish bookstore whose books were destroyed by Nazis.

But when “Occupied City” shows these “everyday happy life” scenes with narration of dark and depressing Holocaust facts, it’s with the unspoken and condescending tone that maybe these people being filmed don’t know or don’t care about these facts. But because “Occupied City” doesn’t bother to interview anyone for this documentary, the fact is that viewers just don’t know how much history about Nazi-occupied Amsterdam is known or cared about by the people being filmed. The movie ends in a very predictable way: by showing an interracial family whose son is having a bar mitzvah ceremony, which is the type of footage that Nazis would hate.

“Occupied City” is a long-winded documentary about locations and random footage of anonymous people in those locations, not a well-rounded story about people (past and present) who are part of the history that this documentary attempts to tell. Stigter’s Holocaust-themed 2022 documentary “Three Minutes—A Lengthening” (whose centerpiece was long-lost, three-minute footage of Polish residents in 1938) made the most of out of this short footage to create a meaningful feature-length documentary. Unfortunately, “Occupied City” does the opposite: It does very little with the overabundance of location footage in this overstuffed documentary that drains the humanity from the people affected by this very human history.

A24 released “Occupied City” in select U.S. cinemas on December 25, 2023.

Review: ‘Bitconned,’ starring Ray Trapani, Nathaniel Popper, Jacob Rensel, Kerri Hagner and Robert Farkas

January 1, 2024

by Carla Hay

A 2017 photo of Sam Sharma, Raymond “Ray” Trapani and Robert Farkas in “Bitconned” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)


Directed by Bryan Storkel

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Bitconned” features an almost all-white group of people (with one Latin person) talking about their connection to Centra Tech, a Miami-based cryptocurrency company that turned out to be a scam that swindled millions of dollars out of its victims.

Culture Clash: The Centra Tech leaders took advantage of an unregulated cryptocurrency industry to commit widespread fraud. 

Culture Audience: “Bitconned” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in true crime documentaries that explore the dark sides of technology and finance.

Raymond “Ray” Trapani in “Bitconned” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

The documentary “Bitconned” takes a riveting look at the cryptocurrency con artists behind the scam company Centra Tech. The story will leave many viewers feeling repulsed by the outcomes of these crimes. The film editing heightens the absorbing narrative.

Directed by Bryan Storkel, “Bitconned” is the type of documentary that—thanks to some clever editing—leads viewers on a seemingly straightforward path that doesn’t reveal its first big twist surprise until the movie is about halfway over. For people who don’t know all the details before seeing “Bitconned,” it will feel like one outrageous reveal after another by the second half of the movie. “Bitconned” has some re-enactments, but the vast majority of the story is told through interviews given exclusively for the documentary.

“Bitconned” begins by showing the most controversial person interviewed for the documentary: Raymond “Ray” Trapani, one of the co-founders of Centra Tech. He’s seen getting fitted for a designer suit by two tailors while surrounded by mirrors and answering interview questions. It’s quite apt that Trapani is surrounded by mirrors in the movie’s very first scene, because the documentary shows him to be (by his own admission) an unapologetic narcissist.

Trapani and people who know him well repeatedly say in the documentary that ever since he was a kid, he wanted to be a millionaire criminal. He says in the opening scene: “I don’t mind being looked at as a criminal, really. It’s tough. I was doing crimes my whole life—scamming, shit like that.”

He adds, “Times have changed. It’s not that easy to work hard and buy a house. Nowadays, you’ve got to figure out some sort of way to finesse the system. That’s the modern-day American Dream.”

Of course, anyone with common sense can see that housing affordability is a very fake excuse to go into a life of crime. Trapani makes it clear that he decided from a very young age that he wanted to get rich quick through illegal ways. He can’t blame it on things like a housing market being less affordable than it was in previous decades.

When he’s asked how much money Centra Tech scammed, Trapani smirks when replying, “On paper: $32 million. But in reality, we made a few hundred million.” And this is what Trapani says when he’s asked if he would do the same thing all over again: “I would take the risk.”

Trapani (who grew up in Atlantic Beach, New York) first got into major trouble with the law as a teenager in the late 2000s/early 2010s, when he and a close friend named Andrew Aguirre sold prescription painkillers that they got through fake prescriptions. Aguirre, who is interviewed in the documentary, says that he and Trapani were full-blown drug addicts (OxyContin was their drug of choice) during their crime spree. Aguirre describes how Trapani was in their teenage years: “He was trying to be someone from the streets, but he’s not from the streets.”

Trapani actually grew up in a middle-class household, where he and his two brothers were raised by a single mother. Trapani describes his absentee father, who left the family, as “a fucking loser.” The names of Trapani’s father and brothers are not mentioned in the documentary, nor are these three men interviewed.

However, Trapani’s mother Kerri Hagner and her mother Ann Hagner are interviewed. (They are his only family members to be interviewed for the documentary.) Kerri is more willing than Ann to admit knowledge of Trapani’s criminal ways, but Kerri is fiercely protective of him. Kerri is seen on camera essentially threatening the filmmakers that there will be “trouble” if the documentary makes her son look bad. Anyone who sees how Trapani brags about his crimes will know that he’s the one who makes himself look the worst.

Trapani and other people interviewed say that Kerri’s father William “Pop” Hagner (who died of cancer in 2018, at the age of 79) had a tremendous influence on Trapani, who relocated to Miami as a young adult. This grandfather was not only like a father figure to Trapani, but he was also the first investor (reportedly investing $500,000 as seed money) in Trapani’s company Miami Exotics, which was a business that rented luxury cars. Trapani liked to give people the impression that his grandfather was a mafia boss, but Kerri says her father was actually a hard-working man in the elevator-making business.

Bert Feldman, a former friend of Trapani’s, co-founded Miami Exotics and gives details in the documentary about what it was like to work with Trapani and what ruined their friendship. One of the less scathing remarks that Feldman has to say about Trapani is: “He’s always been fascinated with money. He’s obsessed with it. It’s his one true love.”

Another business partner in Miami Exotics was Sam “Shorbee” Sharma, who was an enemy of Trapani’s when they were high school. However, Sharma and Trapani ended up working together as adults because they both shared an obsession with getting rick quick, and they needed each other’s different skills in this partnership. Trapani says that Sharma was good at working on technical details, while Trapani says his own skills were about coming up with business concepts and networking with business colleagues. And although Sharma is not interviewed in “Bitconned,” it’s obvious that their real skills were in being con artists.

Miami Exotics ended up being a disastrously failed business, where Feldman was ousted before things were at their worst with Miami Exotics. Trapani says in the documentary that many of his family members invested in the business, so the success or failure of the business was very personal to him. It’s easy to know why Miami Exotics flamed out, even before the details are talked about in the documentary. Various people blame each other for the demise of Miami Exotics, but it’s obvious that it wasn’t the fault of just one person.

Trapani says it was Sharma’s idea to start a cryptocurrency company in 2017, due to Bitcoin being a hot commodity at the time. And that’s how Centra Tech was born, with Trapani as chief operating officer and Sharma as chief technology officer. Centra Tech claimed to be a company that made bank-affiliated debit cards for cryptocurrency, but it was all a scam.

One of the many lies that Centra Tech told to lure investors was that it was working with Visa on these debit cards. Centra Tech also had LinkedIn accounts with fake work experiences and fabricated academic credentials for Trapani, Sharma and other company executives who went along with the lies.

As an example of Centra Tech’s “fake it ’til you make” it way of doing business, the company’s chief financial officer was hired not because he had a background in finance but because he was the brother of Sharma’s girlfriend. (The girlfriend is not interviewed in the documentary.) Centra Tech’s CFO was Robert Farkas, who describes Sharma as a “genius.”

By contrast, Farkas has almost nothing good to say about Trapani, whom he describes as a mostly incompetent drug addict who spent more time partying, gambling and spending money than doing work. “I don’t remember Ray contributing much of anything,” Farkas says in the documentary. “He had a little mafioso vibe. He loved gambling, and he loved money. And the whole time, he was medicated.”

New York Times reporter Nathaniel Popper, who wrote a pivotal article in 2017 on Centra Tech, says he was intrigued by the cryptocurrency industry because it was filled with “get rich quick” stories, but the truth was much different. “There were scams and frauds everywhere … Centra Tech was the archetype of what went wrong with cryptocurrency.”

Other people interviewed in “Bitconned” include former Centra Tech Jacob Rensel; former Centra Tech developers Martin Pejkov and Filip Burcevek; University of Manitoba professor Andrew Halayko, who has a bizarre connection to the story; a man with the name Jonny B Good, who describes himself as Tapani’s best friend; Securites and Exchange Commission investigator Robert Cohen; federal prosecutor Samson “Sam” Enzer; and attorney Paul Petruzzi.

Although there are obvious villains in “Bitconned,” the documentary also puts a lot of blame on “get rich quick” greed that lures gullible investors into these scams. Rensel admits that he had this type of greed when he decided to invest in Centra Trech, and ths greed blnded him to some warning signs that eventually became too big to ignore. The movie also shows fake images on the Internet and celebrity endorsements can also play a role in getting people to think a scam is legitimate.

Some viewers of “Bitconned” won’t like that two of the former Centra Tech leaders are given so much screen time in this documentary. Farkas tries to portray himself as a victim of Trapani, who openly gloats about the crimes he committed. And the documentary could have used more perspectives from people who survived Centra Tech scams. However, “Bitconned” does not glorify the criminals and exposes them for what they are and how they were able to commit these crimes. It’s the best type of cautionary tale that can help educate people on how not to get fooled by these types of con artists.

Netflix premiered “Bitconned” on January 1, 2024.

Review: ‘Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare,’ starring Debbie Cartisano, Lance Jaggar, Chris Smith, Sharon Fuqua and Charles Brofman

December 29, 2023

by Carla Hay

An archival Challenger Foundation photo from “Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare”

Directed by Liza Williams

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” features an almost all-white group of people (with one Asian person) talking about their experiences with controversial entrepreneur Steve Cartisano and the high-priced “wilderness therapy” camps that he founded for troubled juveniles.

Culture Clash: Cartisano, who died of a heart attack in 2019, at the age of 63, was sued several times and had many allegations that his camps illegally abused the children who were forced to be there. 

Culture Audience: “Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in documentaries that show how abuse and exploitation are excused or covered up, but some questions remain unanswered by the end of the movie.

An archival photo of Debbie Cartisano and Steve Cartisano from “Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” succeeds in being a cautionary documentary about the dangers of boot camps that claim to be “tough love” rehab for juvenile delinquents. But the movie needed better investigative journalism about the sexual abuse allegations mentioned near the end. Sensitive viewers, be warned: This documentary is disturbing in its details of child abuse. It’s also the type of documentary that will be infuriating to anyone who thinks the perpetrators exploited the system to get away with horrible acts of violence and other crimes.

Directed by Liza Williams, “Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” begins with an awkward mention of celebrity socialite Paris Hilton going public in 2020 about experiencing physical and emotional abuse at various group facilities that she was sent to when she was a “wild child” teenager. At the beginning and end of the documentary, there’s archival footage of a 2021 press conference where Hilton and Ro Khanna (a U.S. Representative from California) made statements, after a congressional hearing to introduce a bill to protect children from abuse in group facilities. After showing this footage in the beginning, the documentary mentions that the documentary actually isn’t about Hilton’s experiences but about the “wilderness therapy” camps founded by Steve Cartisano, who is considered to be the “godfather” of this controversial way of dealing with troubled kids. (In 2019, when he was 63, Cartisano died of a heart attack while he had cancer.)

The mention of Hilton is the documentary’s way of saying that if this abuse could happen to a wealthy heiress, it can happen to anyone. However, it comes across as just using a celebrity name to hook people into watching the movie. The fact of the matter is that “Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” is about the types of experiences where children were isolated and deprived of food and bathroom facilities for long periods of time and forced to do strenuous physical activities outdoors in extreme weather conditions. This not the same type of abuse that Hilton said she experienced at a boarding school such as Provo Canyon School in Utah, where she says she was treated like an indoor prisoner and deprived of sunlight for long periods of time.

“Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” places much of the blame for “wildnerness therapy” camps on Cartisano, who is considered to be the first person to take this concept and market it into a business that can generate millions of revenue every year. These camps do not operate like juvenile detention facilities, where kids are sent by the court system. These camps have the kids’ parents or legal guardians sign over the right for the kids to be forcibly taken to these camps, with the intent of punishing the kids enough to scare them out of their troublemaking ways.

Cartisano was a former U.S. Air Force instructor and military special forces officer who had a troubled childhood himself. As mentioned in the documentary, his biological parents gave him up for adoption, and then took him back when he was 2 years old. His biological mother was a heroin addict who died when he was 17. His biological father was reportedly physically abusive.

“Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” has horrific stories from survivors of programs founded by Cartisano, who was mostly based in Utah. And even though he was sued and faced numerous allegations of child abuse in these programs, he would just shut down a program when it had too many legal problems and then start a new business under a different name and in a different location. According to the documentary, rather than toning down the extreme methods used in each program, Cartisano made each subsequent program worse than its predecessor.

First, there was the Challenger Foundation, which Cartisano founded in 1988. The Challenger Foundation sent kids to an isolated area in Utah and made them go on 500-mile hikes to get food. The children were also deprived of bathroom facilities and indoor sleeping quarters. The Challenger Foundation’s biggest controversy was the death of Kristen Chase, a 16-year-old who died in 1990, after she hiked a long distance in extreme heat while enrolled in the Challenger Foundation. Chase’s tragic passing resulted in a wrongful-death lawsuit, whose outcome is detailed in the documentary.

Legal and financial problems led to the demise of the Challenger Foundation, but that didn’t stop Cartisano from being in the “child reform” business. In the early 1990s, he moved on to founding HealthCare America, based in St. Thomas and later in Costa Rica. Instead of making the kids hike in a Utah desert, the kids had to live in harsh conditions on sailboats that went to various places in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America.

Pacific Coast Academy, based in Samoa, was Cartisano’s business in the 2000s. He often used the alias Steve Michaels during his Pacific Coast Academy years. Pacific Coast Academy had plans to build a massive facility and used many of the kids in the program as unpaid and untrained workers to do the construction. Critics of Cartisano say that he intentionally misled desperate parents into thinking that the kids enrolled in his programs would be in a safe and healthy environment.

The Challenger Foundation had a 63-day program, but people interviewed in the documentary say that it was not unusual for kids enrolled in the program to stay longer than 63 days if they were being “punished” for not complying with the rules. Other kids stayed longer than 63 days, simply because their parents didn’t want them to come home after the 63 days. Of course, there was an obvious incentive for the camps to extend the enrollment: more money could be made from the people paying to have the kids at the camp.

The documentary makes it clear that it’s not a coincidence that after the scandals that Cartisano had in the United States, he took his operations to countries or territories that had less restrictive laws about the type of business that he was doing. “Hell Camp” also has stories of how Cartisano’s employees would dodge authorities who would investigate complaints about Cartisano’s businesses. A disclaimer at the end of the documentary mentions that any businesses that currently have the names Challenger Foundation, HealthCare America and Pacific Coast Academy have nothing to do with companies founded by Cartisano.

Several survivors of Cartisano’s “hell camps” are interviewed in the documentary. The survivors are identified by their first names only, but their faces and voices are undisguised. The survivors who are interviewed were sent to Cartisano’s camps as teenagers, usually ages 13 to 16. Almost all of them say that the reasons they were sent to the camp were because they had drug problems. Some enrollees had other issues too, such as committing petty crimes, skipping school, or running away from home.

All of them describe experiencing physical abuse from Cartisano’s employees, including assaults, lack of medical care for injuries, food deprivation, sleep deprivation, and basic hygiene deprivation. And they say there was constant verbal and emotional abuse. All of them also say that they’ve had long-term trauma from these terrible experiences.

Challenger Foundation survivors interviewed in the documentary are Nadine, who was in the program in 1989, at the age of 15; a woman named Kinney, who was in the program in 1988, at the age of 13; and Matthew, who was in the program in 1990, at age 15. HealthCare America survivors interviewed are Adam, who was in the program in 1993, at the age of 13; and Ashley, who was in the program in 1993, at the age of 15.

The Pacific Coast Academy survivors who are interviewed are Kurt, who was in the program in 2000, at age 15; and Amber, who was in the program in 2000, at the age of 14. Kurt and Amber knew each other as friendly acquaintances before being in the program, but that all changed when Kurt and other teens in the program were ordered to torture some of the enrollees, including Amber. Kurt admits to it in the documentary, but he says he was just following orders and was too afraid to say no.

Adam’s stoic father Larry is also interviewed and doesn’t seem to have much regret about sending Adam to the HealthCare America program, although he does get a little emotional when he watches an old video of him making a surprise visit to a sobbing Adam in Costa Rica. Larry also says he didn’t know how brutally Adam was treated until it was too late. Larry is one of two parents of a camp survivor to be interviewed in the documentary.

By contrast, Matthew’s mother Kari expresses regret about putting him in the Challenger Foundation program. She remembers thinking at the time about the Challenger Foundation: “I didn’t know what else to do, but this sounds good.” Sharon Fuqua, who sued Cartisano for the wrongful death of her daughter Kristen Chase, is also interviewed, along with Fuqua’s son David, who is Kristen’s younger brother.

Cartisano’s family members and close associates who are interviewed in the documentary don’t really deny the abuse, but they go out of their way to downplay his responsibility in being the leader of a business that enabled or encouraged the abuse. His ex-wife Debbie Cartisano is the one who does the most to push the narrative that Steve was a “good guy” who “meant well” with these programs, but the way his employees behaved was “beyond his control” when he wasn’t at the camps. She also seems more interested in talking about the financial hardships that she had to go through every time Steve had shut down another one of his businesses, rather than Debbie acknowledging any suffering that any child victims experienced because of those businesses.

Also interviewed are Debbie and Steve’s daughter Catie, who openly talks about her troubled teen years of drug addiction and how she recovered from it. Her brother Dave also had the same problems and was sent to Pacific Coast Academy. (He is not interviewed in the documentary, which mentions what happened to Dave.)

Catie says in the documentary: “My dad was brilliant.” But she admits that the scandals and controversies took a toll on the family, and she wanted him to change careers: “I wanted him to do something different. I wanted our family to be normal.” Debbie also says that she wanted Steve to get out of the “child reform” business, but he refused.

The only former Cartisano camp employee interviewed in the documentary is Lance “Horsehair” Jaggar, who says that he immediately bonded with Steve because they were both veterans of the U.S. Air Force. Jaggar is unapologetic about the harsh tactics that were used on the children at these camps. Jaggar says that he doesn’t believe in beatings as punishment, but he thinks spankings are perfectly acceptable. The documentary has archival footage of Jaggar yelling insults at some of the Challenger Foundation kids. You get the feeling that whatever was on camera was very tame compared to what wasn’t on camera.

Jaggar makes this not-very-believable comment about how the kids were treated in these camps: “We broke them down, but we didn’t break them down to hurt them. We didn’t break them down to punish them. We broke them down to get rid of the old crap and help them be a better and more positive person.”

He adds with a sadistic smirk, “Some of the kids were so scared, they’d almost pass out. And that was fine by me. I wanted them to have a little fear. [For] a lot of these kids, this was it, or they were going to jail.”

Also interviewed in the documentary are reporter Chris Smith, who investigated and did news reports of Cartisano camp operations and scandals; attorney Charles Brofman, who represented Steve in several lawsuits; Max Jackson, former sheriff of Utah’s Kane County; and a former U.S. Embassy worker who is only identified by her first name: Mary Lou. The documentary includes a lot of archival footage, such as news reports, interviews that Steve did, and grainy-looking video recordings that were taken at the camps.

Although there is a variety of people interviewed for the documentary, what’s missing is more investigation into the sexual abuse allegations that aren’t mentioned until the last 20 minutes of the movie. Amber says she was sexually abused by a “chief of the village” during her time at Pacific Coast Academy, but the documentary doesn’t mention if the filmmakers followed up on this allegation to try to find this accused abuser to get his side of the story.

And there’s another sexual abuse allegation against someone else that isn’t too surprising, but this allegation is shown so late in the film, it seems like it was mainly put there for shock purposes. The documentary does not give any indication if this allegation is isolated or possibly the tip of the iceberg. If the allegation against this person is true, it’s highly likely that there are many more victims of the same type of sexual abuse, but the “Hell Camp” filmmakers didn’t seem to want to do more investigating.

Even with some noticeable flaws, “Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” is a searing look at this unsettling fact: Even when so many people speak their truths about being abused, there are still others who deny or excuse the abuse. This documentary is also a wake-up call about why these types of programs are thriving in a society that should have better ways of dealing with child delinquency. Of course, there are no easy answers, but it should be easy to know when discipline crosses the line into unacceptable and illegal abuse.

Netflix premiered “Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” on December 27, 2023.

Review: ‘Anselm,’ starring Anselm Kiefer

December 10, 2023

by Carla Hay

Anselm Kiefer in “Anselm” (Photo courtesy of Sideshow and Janus Films)


Directed by Wim Wenders

German with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in primarily in France, the documentary film “Anselm” features an all-white group of people telling the life story of German painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer.

Culture Clash: Kiefer has a reputation for being controversial because he often does art about taboo subjects, such as the sordid history of Nazi Germany. 

Culture Audience: “Anselm” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Kiefer, filmmaker Wim Wenders, and artsy documentaries that don’t stick to the usual formulas.

Anselm Kiefer in “Anselm” (Photo courtesy of Sideshow and Janus Films)

Don’t expect a traditional biographical documentary of Anselm Kiefer when watching “Anselm.” It’s an unconventional showcase of a collection of his notable art on display in warehouses and outdoor settings, mixed with archival footage and his recollections. “Anselm” had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival and then made the rounds at other film festivals in 2023, such as the Telluride Film Festival.

Directed by Wim Wenders, “Anselm” is unlike most documentaries, because there isn’t a lot of talking in this movie. Interspersed with the majestic views of Kiefer’s art, he occasionally makes comments about his life. He is known for making art that is always unque, often provocative, sometimes controversial. (He got a lot of criticism when he was younger for being seemingly fixated on doing art about Nazi Germany.)

The documentary also has re-enactments of his life, with Anselm’s son Daniel Kiefer portraying Anselm as a young man. Anton Wenders portrays Anselm as a boy of about 5 or 6 years old. The depictions of Anselm as a boy also showed he liked to spend time alone drawing and having a vivid imagination n which he would tell stories to himself.

Anselm was born in 1947, in Donaueschingen, Germany. Since 1992, he has lived in France, where he has a 200-acre property (in southern France’s Barjac) that is like a museum of his artwork. “Anselm” has multiple scenes of Anselm riding a bicycle through the massive warehouses on the property. He says he likes living in isolation.

He’s seen occasionally smoking a cigar during his interview commentary, which isn’t particularly revealing, because it’s obvious he doesn’t really like talking about himself too much. (His personal life is not discussed at at all in the documentary.) He gets more animated when talking about an artist he admires: Paul Celan, a Romanian poet and translator, who died in 1970, at the age of 49. Anselm comments that it must have been difficult for Celan to be Jewish in Nazi Germany.

Viewers also get a peek into Anselm’s creative process. The documentary shows him making the piece “Sky Painting Earth,” which involves him torching large swaths of straw on massive panels. There are a few workers occasionally shown assisting him, but no one else is interviewed in this documentary except for Anselm.

“Anselm” opens with sweeping views of Anselm’s 1999 installation “The Women of Antiquity,” which features sculptures of wedding dresses on display outdoors and in warehouse spaces. As the camera glides over the sculptures, a chorus of imaginary women’s voices can be heard whispering things, such as “We may be homeless and the forgotten ones, but we don’t forget a thing.” This installation is seen as visual bookends to the movie, which has many stunning images of Anselm’s inventive art.

“Anselm” was originally released in cinemas as a 3D-only film, which enhances the impressive cinematography by Franz Lustig. The camera work for this documentary doesn’t evoke “fly on the wall” filmmaking; it’s more like a soaring bird. Leonard Küßner’s elegant musical score helps take viewers on this carefully curated but still immersive journey into Anselm Kiefer as an artist. It’s a journey worth taking for viewers who are open-minded enough to go with the flow and expect the unexpected. As a documentary filled with inspired art, “Anselm” is a distinctive portrait unto itself.

Sideshow and Janus Films released “Anselm” in select U.S. cinemas on December 8, 2023.

Review: ‘Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé,’ starring Beyoncé

December 9, 2023

by Carla Hay

Beyoncé in “Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé” (Photo courtesy of AMC Theatres Distribution)

“Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé”

Directed by Ed Burke and Beyoncé

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2023, in various locations around the world, the documentary film “Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé” features a racially diverse group of people who are connected in some way to Beyoncé’s “Renaissance” tour.

Culture Clash: Music superstar Beyoncé reflects on the obstacles and challenges she has faced in her life and addresses some of the criticism she has received.

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of Beyoncé fans, “Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé” will appeal primarily to people who want to see a fairly comprehensive documentary of what Beyoncé was like during her mega-successful Renaissance Tour in 2023.

Beyoncé in “Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé” (Photo courtesy of AMC Theatres Distribution)

“Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé” is a candid and immersive look at a superstar who wants to be both iconic and relatable. Beyond the glamorous stage show, Beyoncé reveals various sides of herself offstage, with gratitude to her influences and fans. The movie, which was filmed during Beyoncé’s 2023 “Renaissance” world tour of stadiums, could have easily been a pure vanity project. Instead, this is a “flaws and all” documentary that includes footage of what happened when a power outage on stage cause the sound to temporarily be unavailable during a concert.

Directed by Ed Burke and Beyoncé, “Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé” is the type of celebrity documentary where many people seem to be very aware of the cameras being there, but nothing that’s shown off stage looks overly contrived or faked for the cameras. “Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé” will get inevitable comparisons to the documentary “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour,” which was released nearly two months earlier, in October 2023. Both documentaries were filmed during the artists’ respective blockbuster tours of 2023 and bypassed traditional movie distribution to be released in theaters by movie theater company AMC Theatres Distribution.

Whereas “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour” is focused almost exclusively on Swift as a performer on stage, “Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé” gives a much more personal view of Beyoncé in many aspects of her life. Beyoncé hasn’t done an interview in years, but she does a lot of voiceover commentary in the documentary, where she discusses her feelings about her life and her career. “Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé” is the closest thing that fans will get to a Beyoncé public confessional in 2023.

Beyoncé’s Renaissance Tour (in support of her 2022 album “Renaissance”) was not a greatest-hits retrospective, such as Swift’s The Eras Tour. Much of the setlist on the Renaissance Tour consisted of songs from “Renaissance.” There is some nostalgia and archival footage in “Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé,” but the tone of the film is very much a “here and now” portrait of Beyoncé in 2023. Just don’t expect to see anything gossipy or scandalous.

Many people who’ve never been to a Beyoncé concert wouldn’t be surprised that the documentary is filled with high-energy stage performances, dazzling costumes and stunning production design that includes video imagery inspired by Fritz Lang’s futuristic 1927 sci-fi classic “Metropolis.” (One of the Beyoncé’s more memorable stage costumes for the tour looks like a Beyoncé version of the Maschinenmensch robot in “Metropolis.”) Beyoncé struts and dances on stage, but she also has moments where she stands still (especially during power ballads) to channel the full impact of her emotion-filled delivery of a song.

Expect to see not only a lot of booty shaking in this movie but also cutting-edge artistry in the stage design and video projections. The choreography (by Fatima Robinson, who’s seen briefly in the movie) expertly showcases Beyoncé’s concert stage persona of being showbiz royalty at a dance party. Beyoncé says in the movie about the Renaissance Tour: “It took four years to create the show … This tour is a machine.” She says of the elaborate stage design: “You have people risking their lives to build this sculpture.” Beyoncé also talks about how she’s somewhat obsessed with how to use lighting in her work.

“Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour” kept the cameras focused almost entirely on Swift, but “Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé” has a generous amount of screen time given to fans in the very diverse audiences who flocked to this “Renaissance” concert tour. One of those fans is actress Tracee Ellis Ross, whose mother Diana Ross (one of Beyoncé’s acknowledged influences) is also in the movie as a guest performer. Diana Ross leads the crowd in singing “Happy Birthday” to Beyoncé, who looks ecstatic and in awe that one of her idols is singing to her.

Other guests performers in the movie include Megan Thee Stallion (who looks just as starstruck by Beyoncé as Beyoncé looked starstruck by Diana Ross) for the hit “Savage” in Houston, as well as Kendrick Lamar for the remix of “America Has a Problem” during a Los Angeles concert. Beyoncé also pays tribute to Tina Turner (who died in May 2023) by doing a cover version of “River Deep Mountain High,” one of Turner’s best-known songs.

Several times in the movie, Beyoncé talks about being at a place in her life where she feels content and happy. Early on in the documentary, she says on stage: “I feel so full. My heart is full. My soul is full.” She adds, “I am so thankful. I’m so thankful to be alive. I’m so thankful to be on stage … I’m so thankful to be able to provide a safe space for y’all … I’m thankful that we all have the ability to make lemonade out of lemons.”

And although all of this sounds like a sentimental litany of thanks, there are plenty of moments (on stage and off stage) where Beyoncé lets loose with some occasional raw language of curse words. It’s all part of the personality and public image that Beyoncé puts forth to the world: She can be sweet, and she can be sassy. She is also comfortable expressing her sexuality without letting it overwhelm the reasons why people might be interested in her. As shown many times in the documentary, Beyoncé is aware of being seen as a “superwoman” by millions of admirers, but she’s also quick to remind people she has flaws and failings, just like everyone else.

“Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé” is a movie where Beyoncé gives a lot of props and praise to other people, many who are featured in the documentary. They include her parents Mathew and Tina, whom she thanks for all of the sacrifices they made for her. Beyoncé’s family life with husband Jay-Z is shown in brief snippets backstage, on private planes, and on family vacations. Beyoncé and rapper/business mogul Jay-Z (real name: Shawn Carter)—who’ve been a couple since 2000 and married since 2008—have three children together: daughter Blue Ivy, born in 2012, followed by twins born in 2017: son Sir and daughter Rumi. Sir and Rumi are seen briefly in the documentary and are not interviewed on camera.

Many of Beyoncé’s backup dancers (called The Dolls) are shown commenting in the documentary, with transgender woman Honey Balenciaga and dance captain Amari Marshall as two of the standouts. Beyoncé’s massive entourage, tour staff and film crew also get respectful acknowledgement, although there are a few tense moments when a male member of the film crew dismisses Beyoncé’s knowledge of the cameras needed for certain shots. Even with all of her accomplishments and as a co-director of her own movie, Beyoncé experiences condescending prejudice.

Beyoncé comments frankly in the documentary that people communicate differently with her because she’s a black woman: “It’s always a fight … Eventually, they realize, ‘This bitch will not give up.’ If I’m honest, it’s exhausting. I’m a human, not a machine.”

Being emotionally strong in the midst of criticism and conflict is something that Beyoncé is teaching her children, although Sir and Rumi are deliberately not featured in the documentary as much as Blue Ivy is. Beyoncé’s mentorship of Blue Ivy is a significant part of the movie. Beyoncé talks about the difficult decision to let Blue Ivy perform on stage with her, after Blue Ivy begged her. Beyoncé was reluctant at first because she thought Blue Ivy was too young and because she didn’t want Blue Ivy to get hurt by the inevitable criticism.

The original intention was for Blue Ivy to do a guest appearance at one Beyoncé concert, but it turned into guest appearances at several concerts. Blue Ivy’s entry into the world of performing for stadium-sized crowds was well-received overall, but it didn’t come without harsh backlash from some people who think she has it too easy because of nepotism from rich and famous parents. Beyoncé says that the insults that Blue Ivy received for becoming a performer motivated Blue Ivy to work even harder on practicing, until it was obvious that she had the talent worthy of being on stage with Beyoncé. “She was ready to take back her power,” Beyoncé says of Blue Ivy’s determination to prove her haters wrong.

Beyoncé acknowledges that her children are very privileged, but it seems as if she doesn’t want them to grow up spoiled and disrespectful. There’s a backstage scene in the movie where Blue Ivy is very opinionated in saying on what songs should be in Beyoncé’s set list. Beyoncé politely but firmly tells Blue Ivy that she appreciates the input but “You need to take it down a notch.”

As for Beyoncé’s fans (nicknamed the Beyhive) and what she wanted to them to experience on this tour, she says in the documentary: “There are so many bees in this hive. It’s more than a concert. It’s a state of mind. It’s a culture. It’s a fantasy come true.” Many of the fans wore silver on the tour, as a tribute to Beyoncé wearing silver on the cover of the “Renaissance” album. Beyoncé is on a silver horse statue on the album cover, and part of the tour’s concerts included her on a silver horse statue.

Even with any fantasy elements, Beyoncé repeatedly says in the documentary that she wants all of her concerts and her work environment to be places where people can be “real” and be themselves. As a testament to what type of inclusve and understanding boss that Beyoncé is, trumpet player Crystal Torres says she was somewhat nervous to let people know before the tour started that she would be very pregnant on the tour. According to Torres, Beyoncé encouraged Torres to be proud of her pregnancy while performing. The documentary has footage of Torres on stage wearing outfits that expose her pregnant belly.

A significant part of the documentary is devoted to the LGBTQ+ people who have influenced Beyoncé or made a difference in her life in some way. The queer/transgender ballroom culture (including “voguing” as a form of dance) is celebrated on stage and off stage on the tour. Ballroom pioneer Kevin JZ Prodigy gets his due respect as a icon on the tour. Beyoncé and her mother Tina also express immense gratitude to Johnny Rittenhouse Jr. (nicknamed Uncle Johnny), an openly gay close friend of the family who designed many of Beyoncé’s stage clothes early in her career. Rittenhouse died of AIDS-related complications in 1998.

There’s also footage of Beyoncé returning to her childhood hometown of Houston, which she calls a “gumbo of black cultures.” During a ride on a private plane, Beyoncé looks out a window and points to the parking lot of a shopping mall where she used to perform before she was famous. It’s a moment where she seems to be reflecting on all the hard work it took to get to where she is now, but she still remains humble and grateful.

Another “past meets the present” moment is some quick footage of Beyoncé reuniting backstage in the same room with former Destiny’s Child group mates Kelly Rowland, Michelle Williams, LaTavia Roberson and LeToya Luckett. They are shown giving each other emotional hugs. Roberson and Luckett exited Destiny’s Child in the 2000, under contentious circumstances, but that feuding has clearly been put behind them and resolved. (Destiny’s Child was formed in 1990 and disbanded in 2006.)

“Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé” has some great film editing that shows Beyoncé performing a song but with quick-cutting edits of her wearing different outfits at different concerts’ performances of the same song. It’s difficult to do these types of edits, because body movements must be precisely matched, in order for the edits to look seamless. The movie’s cinematography is also done very well.

The documentary is a visual treat but it’s also admirable in showing what happens when there’s a big technical glitch during a concert. While Beyoncé was performing “Cozy,” the sound abruptly was cut off because of an unexpected power outage. Many artists would have had a temper tantrum or panicked, but Beyoncé briefly halted the concert in a composed manner and quickly went backstage to find out what could be about the audio problem, which was eventually corrected when the power came back. She handled everything like a true professional.

Beyoncé also shows a vulnerable side when she talks about the physical injuries that affected her career. When she was a teenager, strenuous singing for hours in a recording studio caused her to have a vocal injury where she was under medical orders not to speak for several weeks. She also had knee surgery in 2023. Some of her medical treatment and recovery from the knee surgery are shown in the documentary.

Toward the end of the movie, Beyoncé talks about the many sides to herself. She says that being a wife and mother is the core of who she is. Being a determined business person is a side of her that’s been influenced by her father, who was her manager during her time with Destiny’s Child and in her early solo career. And being a performer is the confident side to her. “I’m not responsible for that person,” she says jokingly about being a performer. “Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé” presents all these sides to her in ways that seem to be authentic but still leaves enough mystery about Beyoncé to preserve her privacy and dignity.

AMC Theatres Distribution released “Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé” in U.S. cinemas on December 1, 2023.

Review: ‘You Were My First Boyfriend,’ starring Cecilia Aldarondo

December 4, 2023

by Carla Hay

Xander Black and Cecilia Aldarondo in “You Were My First Boyfriend” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“You Were My First Boyfriend”

Directed by Cecilia Aldarondo and Sarah Enid Hagey

Culture Representation: Taking place in Florida and in New York, the autobiographical documentary film “You Were My First Boyfriend” features a Latino and white group of people representing the working-class and middle-class and who are connected in some way to filmmaker Cecilia Aldarondo.

Culture Clash: Aldarondo reminisces about her teenage years and confronts some of her personal demons by re-enacting some of her best and worst teenage experiences and memories.

Culture Audience: “You Were My First Boyfriend” will appeal primarily to viewers who are interested in movies that explore how adults can still be affected by angst that they had when they were teenagers.

An archival photo of Caroline Baker and Cecilia Aldarondo as teenagers in “You Were My First Boyfriend” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

If you had a chance to re-enact some of your most memorable teenage experiences (the good, the bad and the in between) in a documentary, would you do it? Most people wouldn’t, but the unconventional “You Were My First Boyfriend” shows what it was like for a filmmaker to revisit her past on camera. The film is a mixture of re-enactments, interviews with people who knew her when she was a teenager, and hindsight-fueled personal introspection.

Even though “You Were My First Boyfriend” is steeped in 1990s nostalgia, the themes in this documentary can be relatable to people of many generations. Filmmaker/narrator Cecilia Aldarondo gives an emotionally honest look at her self-esteem struggles. “You Were My First Boyfriend” had its world premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film & TV Festival.

Aldarondo and Sarah Enid Hagey directed and wrote “You Were My First Boyfriend,” but this is Aldarondo’s life story—specifically, about how Aldarondo is still dealing with insecurities that have affected her since childhood. Aldarondo (whose family is of Puerto Rican heritage) spent most her childhood in Winter Park, Florida, where she and her family were among the minority of Latino people in their predominantly white neighborhood.

The high school that Aldarondo and her two older sisters attended also had a predominantly white population. Aldarondo says of Winter Park: “People say it’s a nice place to grow up, but it always felt like a foreign place to me.” (Aldarondo is currently based in New York.)

In the beginning of “You Were My First Boyfriend,” Aldarondo says in a voiceover: “Imagine you had a nightmare where you had to relive your adolescence. My memories shine almost like a diamond. But not because I love them but because I hate them.”

Aldarondo doesn’t hold back in letting viewers know what her insecurities are that she says have plagued her since she was a child. In high school, she was socially awkward, had very few friends, and didn’t date anyone. Aldarondo says that she always felt inadequate and less attractive, compared to her two older sisters, whom Aldarondo feels got more attention and admiration from people inside and outside the family. It didn’t help that Aldarondo vividly remembers a few of her older female relatives making insulting remarks about Aldarondo’s weight.

Aldarondo’s sister Laura Gallegos is in several scenes in the documentary. And although Gallegos is a loving and supportive sister who gives Aldarondo pep talks and constant encouragement, there’s still a little bit noticeable tension between the sisters. Aldarondo comes across as somewhat jealous that Gallegos has a “perfect” life of domestic stability, while Gallegos seems a little envious that Aldarondo has a career that’s about creative freedom.

It’s also interesting to see how the two sisters sometimes have very different memories of the same childhood experiences. Not surprisingly, Gallegos doesn’t remember or says she wasn’t fully aware of all the emotional pain that Aldarondo says she was going through at the time in their childhoods when Aldarondo often felt invisible or sidelined in their own family. The documentary has some very raw emotions that show the complicated dynamics between the two sisters as they sort through their past and present.

Early on in the movie, there are scenes of Aldarondo (who graduated from high school in 1994) at her 25th high school reunion. As she drives to the reunion location, she says out loud, “I feel like I’m returning to the scene of an invisible crime, but the masochist in me tells me, ‘You must go [to this reunion].'”

At the reunion, Aldarondo engages in friendly conversations, but she still looks slightly uncomfortable. She says in a voiceover she feels like the people and the atmosphere have lot of the same elitist “country club” attitude that she experienced in high school. When an unidentified male former classmate comments on Aldarondo’s curly hair, there are some racial undertones when he asks her, “What did you channel for your hair?” She replies sarcastically, “Puerto Rico.” Perhaps realizing that his comment could be taken as an insult, he adds, “Your hair is amazing.”

Aldarondo tells documentary viewers up front that a big reason why she wanted to go to the reunion was to see a classmate named Joel, whom she says she had an intense crush on, from when they were in 6th grade to 12th grade. Aldarondo says she was too shy to ever flirt with Joel, or make it known that she wanted to date him, because she felt that he was out of her league. Before going to the reunion, Aldarondo reads some of her lovelorn journal entries about Joel, who never dated her and didn’t know that she had such a huge crush on him.

However, according to Aldarondo, Joel’s high school girlfriend knew about this crush and set up Aldarondo to have a potentially humiliating moment at a high school dance. Aldarondo says that this girlfriend told Aldarondo that Joel wanted to dance with Aldarondo, so Aldarondo approached Joel at the dance. He seemed confused when Aldarondo told him what his girlfriend said, but he politely asked Aldarondo to dance.

Joel didn’t know it at the time, but that dance (as awkward as it was for both of them) made a big impact on Aldarondo. On the one hand, it was like a dream come true for her. On the other hand, Aldarondo knew that she was only dancing with Joel because his girlfriend at the time intended it to be a prank. This experience is one of many from her teenage years that Aldarondo says still “haunt” her.

It should come as no surprise that Aldarondo meets up with Joel in the documentary to confess that she had a secret crush on him. She even goes as far as reading some of the things she wrote in her journal about him. What makes “You Were My First Boyfriend” different from most other documentaries that would have this type of reunion scene is that Aldarondo takes it a step further and recreates this fateful high school dance, by hiring real teenage actors (Xander Black has the role of Joel) and Aldarondo portraying the teenage version of herself.

If all of this sounds like some kind of therapy, Aldarondo freely admits that it is. (Hired actor Black even points out that these re-enactments must be like therapy for Aldarondo.) Aldarondo’s live-in partner Gabriel “Gabe” Kristal is shown in the documentary as being very supportive of what she’s doing in the documentary.

Kristal also gamely participates when Aldarondo asks him to recreate a scene from the high school drama series “My So-Called Life,” one of her favorite shows from her teenage years. In these “My So-Called Life” recreations, Aldarondo is protagonist Angela Chase (originally played by Claire Danes), and Kristal portrays Angela’s hard-to-get crush Jordan Catalano (originally played by Jared Leto). These “My So-Called Life” recreated scenes are intended to be amusing.

The title of “You Were My First Boyfriend” is somewhat misleading because the documentary isn’t completely focused on Aldarondo’s teenage obsession with Joel (who was never her boyfriend) and her reunion with him. A much more meaningful part of the documentary is about Aldarondo coming to terms with how her insecurities cost her a close friendship. With hindsight comes a lot of regret.

Before and during high school, Aldarondo had a best friend named Caroline Baker. The two girls had many interests in common (such as watching movies and TV shows), but Baker was much more open and secure about being a nerd than Aldarondo was. Aldarondo says in the documentary that there was a time in her high school years when some of the school’s popular girls began to pay attention to Aldarondo and invited her to join them in some of their social activities. As a result, Aldarondo ended her friendship with Baker, because she thought that the popular girls wouldn’t think she was very cool if she continued to hang out with Baker.

The documentary also shows Aldarondo confronting an ugly truth about her teenage past. As much as she felt shunned by many of her classmates because of snobbery, Aldarondo did some shunning of her own in how she treated Baker for the same snobbish reasons. The documentary shows whether or not Baker reunites with Aldarondo. In the teenage re-enactment scenes, Trinity Soos has the role of teenage Baker. The documentary includes footage of Aldarondo’s difficult audition process to find the right actress for the role.

Aldarondo also acknowledges her failings and flaws in being a passive part of the bullying among her fellow students. She describes an incident that took place at a girls’ summer camp when she saw two girls bully another girl, and Aldarondo did nothing to stop it. The guilt of being a bully enabler weighed on Aldarondo, and what she decided to do about it is shown in the documentary. It’s one of the most emotionally powerful moments in the movie.

Not everything in “You Were My First Boyfriend” is about Aldarondo reliving painful memories. One of the more light-hearted (but bittersweet) sections of the movie is when Aldarondo and her sister Gallegos do a re-enactment of Tori Amos’ 1992 “Crucify” music video. It might sound self-indulgent and a little dorky, but in the movie, it comes across as sweet and endearing for Aldarondo to recreate this music video that is special to her. The teenage friendship scenes with Aldarondo and Soos (as Baker) are also delightful to watch.

Documentary filmmakers who make themselves the stars of their movies often do so because they’re seeking recognition for monumental achievements that they want to put in the documentary. Aldarondo did not make “You Were My First Boyfriend” with the intention of winning a Pulitzer Prize. However, by exposing herself in such a candid and truthful way, she has made a very personal documentary that might help give insecure people more confidence to show who they really are and go on a path toward healthy self-acceptance.

HBO premiered “You Were My First Boyfriend” on November 8, 2023.

Review: ‘To Kill a Tiger,’ a documentary about a family seeking justice for an underage rape

December 1, 2023

by Carla Hay

Kiran (alias) in “To Kill a Tiger” (Photo courtesy of Notice Pictures Inc. and National Film Board of Canada)

“To Kill a Tiger”

Directed by Nisha Pahuja

Hindi, Nagpuri and Khortha with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in India, from 2016 to 2018, the documentary film “To Kill a Tiger” features an all-Indian group of representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: In a legal system where it’s difficult for people to get convicted of rape, a farmer leads the fight to get justice for his daughter, who was gang raped when she was 13 years old.

Culture Audience: “To Kill a Tiger” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching a real-life story about family loyalty and about persistence in a legal case, against the odds of winning.

Ranjit, NGO activist Amit Singh and Jaganti in “To Kill a Tiger” (Photo courtesy of Notice Pictures Inc. and National Film Board of Canada)

Even though “To Kill a Tiger” shows the devastating aftermath of a heinous crime, the more important takeaway from the film is that it’s an inspiring story of perseverance and love from a family seeking justice. Because this documentary is about a case of an underage girl being gang raped, the subject matter in “To Kill a Tiger” will be difficult for some viewers to watch. However, it’s a meaningful chronicle of what it takes to go up against a justice system where rape victims are often shamed and blamed, while rapists are rarely convicted in a court of law.

Directed by Nisha Pahuja, “To Kill a Tiger” (which takes place mostly in Jharkhand, India) had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. The movie was mostly filmed from 2016 to 2018. The rape survivor, who has the alias Kiran in the movie, was 18 at the time the documentary was filmed, but she was 13 when the rape happened. “To Kill a Tiger” shows the long process of her case making its way through the legal system in India. (The trial lasted 14 months.)

Although Kiran’s face is shown in “To Kill a Tiger,” and she gives interviews for the documentary, “To Kill a Tiger” includes this caption at the beginning of the film: “Out of respect for her and her family’s privacy, we ask that any identifying images of her not be shared outside the viewing of this film.” The last name of Kiran and her family members is also not revealed in the movie. Her personality is polite, quiet and reserved.

In “To Kill a Tiger,” the parent who does most of the talking is Kiran’s father Ranjit, a farmer who fought tirelessly to get justice. He says when his wife Jaganti was pregnant with Kiran, he was sure that the baby would be a girl, while Jaganti thought the baby would be a boy. Ranjit describes Kiran as a “daddy’s girl.”

Ranjit comments in the documentary, “She was our first child, so I’ve spoiled her … The amount of love have her, I wasn’t able to give to any other child. I think she received all my love, and there’s nothing left for anyone else.”

The rape of Kiran happened on the night of the wedding of Ranjit’s nephew. Kiran stayed out past midnight. Three young men were taken to custody as suspects for the rape: Kapil Munda, Langra Munda and Iswar Munda. They all pleaded not guilty.

In the documentary, Ranjit says that the rape was so violent, it caused internal injuries for Kiran. He also expresses guilt over the circumstances of the rape, even though it wasn’t his fault: “As her father, I deeply regret that I didn’t protect her. I feel I wasn’t vigilant enough, and so this [rape] happened.”

Ranjit continues, “All the other days when she’d go out, I’d tell her how long she could play for and what time to be home. But on that day, I didn’t tell her, and that’s my mistake. That’s what I regret the most.”

Jharkhand is in the Bero district. Ranjit says in “To Kill a Tiger” that after the rape was reported to authorities, the district chief suggested that Kiran marry one of the accused rapists. Other people in the village pressured Ranjit to compromise so the accused rapists wouldn’t have to spend any time in jail while waiting for this serious legal issue to be resolved.

Ranjit has supportive allies, who make a positive difference in getting legal help and counseling for Kiran and her family. These allies include women’s rights activist Mahendra Kumar, public prosecutor Ashok Kumar “A.J.” Rai, Srijan Foundation lawyer Jopha Laka and legal advisor Lakhan Lala Shah.

Kumar says that in his line of work, he all too often sees the backlash against women and girls who come forward to report being sexually assaulted. He says that more men need to be included in the conversations and actions that advocate for women’s rights. Kumar comments that people often mistakenly think men are automatically excluded from feminism or fighting for women’s rights.

Public prosecutor Rai says that his job as a prosecutor is to fight for underage victims under India’s Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POSCO) Act, but laments that he is overwhelmed with all the rape cases he has to handle. At the time that Rai was interviewed for this documentary, he said he had 400 to 500 cases in his current workload.

The three men accused of raping Ranjit are not interviewed in “To Kill a Tiger,” but the documentary includes an interview with their defense attorney Juhi Chaudhry, who blames Kiran for being out past midnight when Kiran was 13 years old. She says of her clients who were arrested for raping Kiran: “If I thought they were guilty, I wouldn’t have taken the case.”

One of the more unsettling scenes in “To Kill a Tiger” is when the documentary shows a group of male villagers talking about the case. One of them, who is only identified by his first name Muthalik, says about sexual assault allegations: “A boy will only be naughty if a girl encourages it.” It’s a stark example of the inherent misogyny of people who are quick to blame female rape victims instead of blaming the rapists.

Of course, in India’s legal system and other legal systems, people are innocent until proven guilty. Cameras were not allowed in the courtroom for the trial of Kiran’s accused rapists, but “To Kill a Tiger” adeptly chronicles the trial through the news media and through the perspectives of Ranjit and other family members who talked about it on camera.

As for how Kiran is recovering from her ordeal, the trial comes to an end (the outcome won’t be revealed in this review), but interviews with her indicate that emotional scars remain. She worries about how being a rape survivor will affect her chances of finding love. “I keep thinking, ‘Will I fall in love or not?’ I think about that a lot. And if I do, how do I tell him what happened to me?”

“To Kill a Tiger” is an impactful documentary about how ordinary people can survive trauma and the experience of an extraordinary legal battle. Although Ranjit is no doubt a hero, and he gets most of the documentary’s screen time, Kiran has a special type of bravery that is the fuel to her father’s fire. Kiran’s story is heartbreaking, but more importantly, it is inspiring.

Notice Pictures released “To Kill a Tiger” in New York City on October 26, 2023, in Los Angeles on October 26, 2023, and in San Francisco on November 4, 2023.

UPDATE: Netflix will premiere “To Kill a Tiger” on March 10, 2024.

Review: ‘After Death’ (2023), starring Mary C. Neal, John Burke, Michael Sabom, Jeffrey Long, Don Piper, Howard Storm and Dale Black

November 28, 2023

by Carla Hay

A scene from “After Death” (Photo courtesy of Angel Studios)

“After Death” (2023)

Directed by Stephen Gray and Chris Radtke

Culture Representation: The documentary film “After Death” features a predominantly white group of people (with one African American, one Latino and two Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Various people give their testimonials about having near-death experiences where they believe they went to heaven or hell, even though these spiritual experiences are not considered to be provable through science.

Culture Audience: “After Death” will appeal primarily to people who want to watch a documentary that promotes one-sided Christian teachings along with stories of near-death experiences.

Don Piper in “After Death” (Photo courtesy of Angel Studios)

“After Death” is essentially a series of scenes of people talking about experiencing what they believe to be heaven or hell when they came close to death or were considered to be clinically dead. The movie has some re-enactments with actors. The testimonials of near-death experiences seem sincere, but the documentary’s filmmakers only chose to interview people with Christian points of view, ignoring other religions. Most of the interviewees have authored books, so there’s a sales agenda too.

Directed by Stephen Gray and Chris Radtke, “After Death” is from Angel Studios, a faith-based company that is focused on Christian content. Even so, the movie could have done a much better job of acknowledging that these spiritual experiences don’t only happen to Christians. Instead, the movie gets very preachy in presenting these Christian points of view as the “right” way to think about issues pertaining to life after death.

There isn’t much diversity in the types of people who were selected to be interviewed in this documentary. Most are upper-middle-class white Americans who have “doctor” as part of their titles. The stories are fascinating, but “After Death” has erratic film editing that has a frustrating tendency to interrupt someone’s story and then revisit it later in the movie. It’s meant to keep viewers in suspense to hear the rest of the story, but it just comes across as sloppy filmmaking.

Dale Black, a former airplane pilot, nearly died in plane crash in 1969, in Burbank, California. He describes having an out-of-body experience where he could see himself and two other pilots on the ground within five feet of each other after the crash. He says that this experience convinced him that he has a spirit that’s separate from his body.

Dr. Michael Sabom, a cardiologist, says he was initially a skeptic about life after death until he talked to resuscitated patients. He adds, “There’s a process of dying,” but that medically, death cannot fully be measured.

Howard Storm was a 38-year-old professor and an atheist who was living in Paris with his wife in 1985, when he began experiencing severe abdominal pain. He was rushed to a hospital, where he didn’t get immediate care because a doctor wasn’t available to treat him right away. Storm says he fell into a coma and had a near-death experience that he describes in the movie as a miraculous recovery.

Dr. Jeffrey Long, an oncologist and researcher, says that common near death experiences are people saying that they felt they left their bodies and watched people or things on Earth, such as the place where they died. Other common experiences include seeing a light, hearing music, and seeing the spirits of dead people.

Don Piper, an author, says that his own near-death experience happened when he was in a car accident in Huntsville, Texas, in 1989. During the accident, the car’s steering wheel went into his chest. Also interviewed are district attorney investigator Swen Spjut and Anita Onarecker Wood, an eyewitness at the scene of Piper’s accident. Wood doesn’t have much to add except to confirm that Piper looked like he was dead, and she was shocked that someone could survive the injuries that he had.

Dr. Mary Neal, an orthopedic surgeon, describes her own near-death experience that happened when she was kayaking in Chile while she was on a trip with her husband. During this kayaking trip, she fell down a waterfall in an accident. She says that while she was unconscious, she never felt more alive, and she felt like she was being held by Jesus Christ.

Not all of these near-death experiences are stories that resulted in bliss and happiness. Don Piper says that after he got a glimpse of what he believes is heaven, he didn’t want to go back to his life on Earth. He says that this led him to experience depression and wishing that he had died in his car accident so that he could be in heaven. Don’s wife Eva Piper says she felt confused over why Don had a period of time when he didn’t seem to be happy to be back to his life after the car accident.

Steve Kang, a former Buddhist who converted to Christianity, describes a life-changing moment that doesn’t seem like a near-death experience but more like a drug-induced hallucination. Kang, a South Korean immigrant, says he felt like an outsider in school when he was a kid. As a teenager in high school, he was heavily involved in drugs. In 1998, when he was a teenager and a self-described “stoner,” he became suicidal and cut himself with a knife, but he saw a vision of a “grandpa spirit” telling him not to kill himself. Kang says he turned his life around after that incident.

Paul Ojeda, a recovering cocaine addict and founder of Austin Powerhouse Church, says his near-death experience came during a drug overdose. He says he didn’t see a bright light but saw a dark tunnel. He sensed that he was in some kind of hell, and when he tried to justify his life in his mind, the tunnel sped up faster and faster. Ojeda says he pleaded for God’s help and obviously ended up coming out alive from this experience.

Howard Storm, a minister, says his near-death experience was also hellish. He describes feeling like he was in a tunnel where people were sadistically trying to tear him apart. Storm describes being rescued by a light force that he believes was God. Storm says that at the time he had this experience, he had family relationships that were “troubled.”

Storm says he had an unhappy childhood, when his father was abusive to him, which caused Storm be in the habit of numbing his emotions. After his near-death experience, Storm says he became a religious “zealot” (his words), and this life change led to the end of his marriage. He adds that his wife left him and “poisoned” their kids against him, but he eventually reconciled with his father.

Also interviewed are neurologist Dr. Ajmal Zemmar and neurosurgeon Dr. Karl Greene, two after-life believers who share a few experiences that they had with patients which convinced these doctors that there is another state of being after death. The International Association of Near-Death Experiences is mentioned as a group that provides support and other resources for people with these experiences. The documentary does not interview any skeptics to provide any counter-arguments.

If someone believes that human death is final, watching “After Death” probably won’t change that person’s mind. However, the anecdotes and stories presented in the movie can be considered compelling arguments. It’s too bad that many of these stories end up being lectures about Christianity instead of being presented as universally relatable to all people, regardless if they are religious or not.

Angel Studios released “After Death” in U.S. cinemas on October 27, 2023.

Copyright 2017-2024 Culture Mix