Review: ‘P.S. Burn This Letter Please,’ starring Henry Arango, James Bidgood, Michael Alonga, Robert Bouvard, Claude Diaz, George Roth and Joseph Touchette

January 19, 2021

by Carla Hay

Henry Arango, also known as Adrian, in “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” (Photo by Alex Bohs/Discovery+)

“P.S. Burn This Letter Please”

Directed by Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexiera

Culture Representation: Taking place in primarily in New York City, the documentary “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” interviews a predominantly white group of people (with a few Latinos and African Americans), who are current and former drag queens or LGBTQ book authors/historians, about the New York City drag scene in the 1950s and 1960s.

Culture Clash: Dressing in drag and being a member of the LGBTQ community often had to be kept underground, since people were arrested or faced other punishment if they weren’t heterosexual.

Culture Audience: “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in drag queen culture or LGBTQ history from the mid-20th century.

George Roth, also known as Rita George, in “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” (Photo by Zachary Shields/Discovery+) 

Drag queens have become a very visible part of mainstream pop culture, due in large part to the Emmy-winning “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and other TV shows about drag queens. But there used to be a time in the U.S. when dressing as a drag queen in public was illegal and could put people in danger of being physically harmed. During the 1950s to 1960s, television became fixtures in American households, but the idea of a TV show about drag queens would be considered too offensive or scandalous at the time. What was going through the minds of gay/queer men who were New York City drag queens in their prime during this era?

The documentary “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” takes an insightful look at this underreported part of LGBTQ history, by including numerous interviews with the drag queens of this era, as well as authors of books that researched this culture. During this era, LGBTQ people could be legally fired from jobs, assaulted or worse, just because of their sexuality. When closeted LGBTQ people wrote love letters or other letters declaring their sexuality, it was very common for the letter writers to ask the recipients to burn the letters, out of fear that the letters could get into the wrong hands. This fear of homophobic persecution is the sobering inspiration for the documentary’s title.

Directed by Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexiera, “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” features a charismatic cast of current and former drag queens who were mostly in their 80s and 90s when this documentary was filmed. Some of the people who are interviewed started out as drag queens in their youth and then decided to live as transgender women. And they all have tales to tell that are fascinating as well as harrowing.

The interviewees include:

  • Michael Alonga (Drag name: Daphne), a former drag queen who had a lover of 18 years named Aaron who died of AIDS in 1986
  • Henry Arango (Drag name: Adrian), a Cuban immigrant whose drag name was inspired by his mother Adriana
  • James Bidgood (Drag name: Terry Howe), a drag queen and costume designer
  • Robert Bouvard (Drag name: Robbie Ross), a former Air Force member who’s originally from Wichita, Kansas
  • Claude Diaz (Drag name: Claudia), who was arrested in 1958, at age 23, for stealing Metropolitan Opera wigs valued at $3,000 at the time
  • Lennie (no last name) (Drag names: Dee Dee LaRue, Dayzee Dee), a former drag ball promoter who came to New York City from a rural Pennsylvania town, after leaving home at 18 to join the military
  • Terry Noel (Drag name: Terry), who got transsexual surgery arranged by Anna Genovese, the sister of mob boss Vito Genovese
  • George Roth (Drag name: Rita George), who was named Miss Fire lsland in 1969, and who impersonated a woman in public for the first time when he put on his mother’s orange taffeta dress and went grocery shopping
  • Joseph Touchette (Drag name: Tish), who says that the description “drag queen” was derogatory back then and the preferred description was “female impersonator”

Also interviewed are “Gay New York” author George Chauncey, “Vintage Drag” author Thomasine Bartlett and “Mother Camp” author Esther Newton. Drag historian Joe E. Jeffreys comments on the importance of finding letters written by LGBTQ people from eras when it was illegal to be a non-heterosexual: “Photographs tell us one thing. Words tell another.”

And because there was such a fear of these letters being found, they were often destroyed. Robert Corber, a professor in American institutions and values at Trinity College, has this to say in the documentary about the huge void in LGBTQ historical papers that chronicle what it was like to be queer in the U.S. during these bygone eras: “We don’t have archives of letters, archives of diaries. What we do have are archives of arrest records.”

“P.S. Burn This Letter Please” mentions one of the main inspirations for the documentary: In 2014, a box containing hundreds of letters was discovered in a Los Angeles storage unit. The letters dated back to the 1950s and were addressed to a young man named Reno Martin, who would later become known as Hollywood agent Ed Limato. When Martin left his hometown to pursue a career in radio, his closest gay/queer friends wrote the letters to stay connected to him.

The friends, many of whom became drag queens in New York City, trusted Martin with their most intimate stories. He became their confidant, and the letters they wrote to him have now become important written documents for drag queen history since most of these types of letters were destroyed out of fear.

Alonga, who was one of the friends who wrote to Martin, comments on the importance of camaraderie in the underground New York City drag queen scene: “We felt like sisters … Well, sisters that were really brothers to the public.” Arango, who has an unapologetically flamboyant personality, shows off his collection of vintage dolls in the documentary and quips later in the movie: “I could never act butch. It would give me a rash.”

Where did these drag queens hang out in New York City? The two nightclubs mentioned the most in the documentary are Club 82 and Cork Club. Club 82 had more of a heterosexual crowd, who often went there to see female impersonators. According to the documentary, Club 82 also attracted a lot of celebrities, including John F. Kennedy Jr. (before he became U.S. president), Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty. Club 82’s general manager Pete Petillo was married to Anna Genovese, mob boss Vito Genovese’s sister who arranged for Noel’s transsexual surgery.

Cork Club was more underground than Club 82 and catered more to a LGBTQ crowd. One of the Cork Club regulars was a Dominican drag queen named Josephine Baker (real name: Roberto Perez), who dressed like the real Josephine Baker. Drag queen Josephine was a very close friend of Diaz, who describes Josephine in the documentary as “wild,” “gorgeous” and a “kleptomaniac.”

In fact, the two were partners in crime when they were busted for stealing those Met Opera wigs. (Perez tragically died of AIDS in 1988, at the age of 53.) Diaz also mentions that he and Perez were also very close friends with a drag queen named Billie.

Although there are certainly happy memories shared in the documentary, there are also tales of heartbreak, trauma and health problems. Because drag queens are often the targets of bigotry and ridicule, it can take a toll on their self-esteem. Noel says of the way he felt during most of his life: “I didn’t feel worthy of anything.”

Many of the drag queens say that they went through struggles with finances and mental health. Some turned to prostitution to support themselves. Diaz says he was put in a psychiatric institution at age 16, and he later became a sex worker. He says that he made more money as a prostitute when he was dressed in drag.

The documentary mentions that this clique of drag queens had a “trick room,” a description they used for a rented New York City hotel room where they kept their drag queen clothes. It was a safe storage space for those who couldn’t risk keeping the clothes in their own homes, for fear of homophobic retaliation.

Bouvard remembers that when he was in the military in New Orleans, he discovered gay bars. When he dressed in drag, he often fooled the military guys, who would escort him on dates, as if he were a cisgender woman. Bouvard mentions that if the men who escorted him knew the truth, he would have been killed. Later in the documentary, Bouvard opens up about his health problems, including being HIV-positive and having an amputated leg because of a blood clot.

Although all of the current and former drag queens who are interviewed in “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” are white or Hispanic, the documentary gives a brief acknowledgement of African Americans in New York City drag culture. Phil Black, an African American drag queen, is mentioned as an influential scenester during the 1950s and 1960s, because he founded the racially integrated Phil Black Ball for drag queens. Unfortunately, Asians and Native Americans are not mentioned at all in the documentary. Viewers are left to speculate why there wasn’t enough information for these racial groups included in the film.

Harlem historian Michael Henry Adams explains in the movie that much of that erasure has to do with white men being the ones who usually get to write American history: “The best thing about history is to be able to go to the past and discover yourself. The great difficulty for we who are marginalized, be we women or black or gay, as you look at what is purported to be history, we’re invisible. We don’t exist.”

The filmmakers could have done a better job at exploring the underreported racial diversity in the New York City drag scene of the 1950s and 1960s. “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” also could have used more revelations about the era’s drag beauty contests and drag costume balls that were and still are big parts of drag culture. Roth comments on these events: “We didn’t realize we were doing it for the next generations.”

The current and former drag queens in the documentary came of age before Pride parades existed, but they say that they became enthusiastic supporters once these parades began to happen in the 1970s. (The documentary shows Arango, in very skimpy drag gear, attending the New York City Drag March during Gay Pride Weekend in 2017.) These parades were a turning point for LGBTQ people and their allies to openly express themselves in an even more public way than previously done.

Despite some flaws, “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” is best enjoyed as a compilation of anecdotes and personal stories, rather than a comprehensive historical account of New York City drag queen life in the 1950s and 1960s. “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” would make an excellent companion piece with director Peter Howard’s 2019 documentary film “The Lavender Scare,” which goes more in-depth about why letter-burning was a big part of the LGBTQ community before the gay-rights movement happened.

Discovery+ premiered “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” on January 4, 2021.

Review: ‘Farewell Amor,’ starring Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Zainab Jah and Jayme Lawson

January 17, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Zainab Jah and Jayme Lawson in “Farewell Amor” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Farewell Amor”

Directed by Ekwa Msangi

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the dramatic film “Farewell Amor” features a predominantly black cast of characters (with some white people and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An Angolan immigrant in New York City is reunited with his wife and teenage daughter after spending 17 years apart from them.

Culture Audience: “Farewell Amor” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in immigrant stories that are rarely told about how family members who haven’t lived together other in several years suddenly have to adjust to living together again.

Jayme Lawson, Zainab Jah and Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine in “Farewell Amor” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

Can a family be put back together successfully after 17 years apart? That’s the question at the center of the multifaceted and emotional drama “Farewell Amor,” which tells the story from the perspectives of the three main characters: a husband, a wife and their teenage daughter. Written and directed by Ekwa Msangi in a spare but effective style, “Farewell Amor” shows the complications that can ensue when a family’s long-awaited reunion doesn’t necessarily equal instant happiness. It’s an aspect of the immigrant experience that’s rarely depicted in movies that are made in America.

“Farewell Amor” takes place in New York City’s Brooklyn borough, where Angolan immigrant Walter Santos (played by Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) lives. Walter has been living in the United States for the past 17 years, after fleeing from war-torn Angola. He had to leave behind his wife Esther and baby daughter Sylvia, who both eventually relocated to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Although Walter has kept in touch over the years, he has not been in the same room as his wife and daughter for all those years. He never gave up on trying to bring them to the United States as legal immigrants. The movie has no flashbacks to this part of the family’s life, but the information is revealed in conversations.

The movie begins with Walter, Esther (played by Zainab Jah) and a now 17-year-old Sylvia (played by Jayme Lawson) reuniting at the airport and greeting each other with joyful hugs. But how long will that joy last? The movie creatively shows the perspective of each character in segments, with each segment beginning with the airport reunion.

Walter’s segment is shown first, followed by Sylvia’s and then Esther’s. Some scenes are repeated, but from the point of view of the person whose perspective is depicted. Other scenes are unique to a segment and help fill in some of the blanks. What the viewers get is a richly layered portrait about a family trying to live together again, but not being able to avoid the awkward realities and emotionally fraught impact of how this long separation has changed them individually.

Walter works as a taxi driver, and he lives in a one-bedroom apartment. He’s a mild-mannered man who’s happily made room for his wife and daughter, even though the living space will be cramped with three people living there. When Esther and Sylvia arrive at the apartment for the first time, Walter has thoughtfully prepared dinner for them. Esther is impressed and asks Walter who taught him to cook. Walter makes a vague reply that people can learn to cook with the will to learn and the right resources.

Walter has a secret that he doesn’t tell his wife and daughter when they settle into the apartment: He had a live-in girlfriend named Linda (played by Nana Mensah), a hospital nurse who moved out and broke up with Walter when she found out that Esther and Sylvia were coming back into Walter’s life. It’s later revealed that Linda knew all along about Esther and Sylvia. But because it took so long for their immigration to be approved, Walter moved on with his life, he met Linda, they fell in love, and started a life together.

Linda was living in the apartment long enough to have her mail delivered there. And when Esther sees an envelope of mail with Linda’s name on it, she asks Walter about it. He quickly makes an excuse that it’s mail that’s been delivered to the wrong address. Meanwhile, Walter notices during that first reunion meal with Esther and Sylvia that a strong-willed and outspoken Esther insists on giving a fervent prayer before eating.

Walter asks Esther when she became so religious, and she replies that it was after she and Sylvia moved to Tanzinia and they received refugee help from church members there. Esther isn’t just religious. She’s fanatically religious, to the point where she thinks dancing is sinful and she is against the idea of Sylvia dating, even though Sylvia is old enough to date.

And that’s a problem for Sylvia, who loves to dance. Sylvia can be quiet and introverted, but dancing is her creative outlet where she lets her personality shine the most. At her school in New York City, Sylvia is treated like an immigrant misfit, but she catches the eye of an attractive fellow student named Devin “DJ” Jamison (played by Marcus Scribner), who strikes up a conversation with a shy Sylvia when they’re waiting together at the same bus stop. DJ notices Sylvia practicing some dance moves, and he tells her about a local hip-hop dance contest where the grand prize is $1,000.

Sylvia eagerly enters the contest, even though she knows that her mother will greatly disapprove. By contrast, Walter has no problem with Sylvia being interested in dancing because he likes dancing too. Walter encourages Sylvia to pursue her dance dreams and doesn’t try to stop her when she tells him about the dance contest. Walter is so supportive of Sylvia that he wants to watch Sylvia and cheer her on when she’s in the contest. Sylvia and DJ gradually spend more time together, and their mutual attraction to each other grows.

Esther is very religious, but she’s not a complete prude, since she’s eager to resume her sex life with Walter, and she wants it to be passionate. She tells him during their first night together after being reunited that she hasn’t been with any other man since their separation. Walter doesn’t reply with a similar comment about remaining faithful. The expression on Esther’s face shows that she’s noticed this omitted statement of fidelity from Walter, but she wants to put any thoughts out of her mind that Walter might have been unfaithful, because she wants to get back to being a “normal” husband and wife.

However, their sexual intimacy is awkward, and Walter seems preoccupied with other thoughts. Esther can’t help but notice, and her suspicions deepen about Walter having another woman in his life. Walter sees Linda a few more times during the story, in situations that won’t be described in this review. But it’s enough to say that Sylvia has a chance encounter with Linda, and something happens that makes Sylvia also suspect that Linda was her father’s mistress.

The movie also shows that the breakup with Linda has deeply affected Walter. At a time when he should be happy to be reunited with his family, he’s secretly pining over Linda. He makes an attempt to see if he can still continue his relationship with Linda on the side. There’s a pivotal scene where Linda tells him what her decision is.

Walter is not religious and he’s uncomfortable with how religion has seemed to take over Esther’s life. Esther is so devoted to her church back in Tanzania that she still wants to tithe and send the money back to the church. And that’s a problem, because in New York, Esther hasn’t found a job yet and the family is on a very tight budget. Guess whose money Esther thinks should be tithed now that she and Walter back together?

Meanwhile, Esther meets a friendly neighbor named Nzingha (played by Joie Lee), who lives on the same floor. Nzingha invites Esther to go grocery shopping with her. They begin talking about the neighborhood, and Nzingha seems open to showing Esther around and helping her adjust to life in America. However, when Esther asks Nzingha if she knows if a woman named Linda used to live in the apartment where Walter and the family now live, Nzingha casually avoids answering the question.

Although “Farewell Amor” could have turned into a soap opera, the movie doesn’t fall into the trap of being an overly melodramatic film. The movie is at its strongest in authentically showing little things that depict the gradual and sometimes painful realization that this family reunion in America isn’t quite the harmonious fantasy that all three of these family members thought it would be. As disappointment sets in, viewers can see the emotional toll it takes on each family member.

There’s a scene of Sylvia texting with her best friend Neema in Africa, and Neema thinks that Sylvia is living a glamorous life in New York. In reality, Sylvia’s life is anything but glamorous but she’s too embarrassed to admit it. And that’s probably because Sylvia had those same illusions of having an exciting life in America before she moved to America and found out it isn’t always what’s depicted on TV and in movies.

Meanwhile, it’s revealed at one point in the story that Walter and Esther met in college, where he was studying journalism and she was studying social sciences. But in America, Walter is a taxi driver and Esther is unemployed. It’s a depiction of the harsh reality that many immigrants experience in America, where they can’t benefit from the education that they earned in their native countries, usually because of language barriers and/or immigrant discrimination. Walter, Esther and Sylvia all speak very good English, but it’s implied that they’ll have uphill battles in the workforce from employers who might consider an education in Africa as “inferior.”

And even though the family is back together and living in the same household, each perspective of Walter, Sylvia and Esther shows that they are isolated in their own ways from each other. Walter had a secret life that he’s terrified of his wife and daughter discovering. Sylvia, who wants more independence as a teenager, is torn between the strict parent (Esther) who raised her and the more lenient parent Walter) whom she doesn’t really know. Esther’s religious fanaticism has caused a certain level of alienation from her husband and child.

“Farewell Amor” is an impressive feature-film debut from Masangi, who weaves the perspectives of these three different family members together in a very cohesive and compelling way. The movie resolves certain issues a little too quickly, but there’s enough emotional authenticity portrayed by the three main actors to carry the film. The family members in this story are African, but their immigrant experience of fleeing a war-torn country and trying to build a life together after years apart can speak to an untold number of people who’ve been through the same difficulties or feel empathy for those who have.

IFC Films released “Farewell Amor” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on December 11, 2020.

Review: ‘Duty Free,’ starring Rebecca Danigelis and Sian-Pierre Regis

November 25, 2020

by Carla Hay

Sian-Pierre Regis and Rebecca Danigelis in “Duty Free” (Photo by Joey Dwyer/Duty Free Film)

“Duty Free”

Directed by Sian-Pierre Regis

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States and the United Kingdom, the documentary “Duty Free” features a predominantly white group of people (with some African Americans) discussing the life of British immigrant Rebecca Danigelis, a longtime hotel employee in the United States who found herself laid-off and looking for work at the age of 75.

Culture Clash: During this tumultuous life transition, Danigelis experienced age discrimination in her job search, and she decided to have a reunion with her estranged adult daughter, who was raised by Danigelis’ older sister in England.

Culture Audience: “Duty Free” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in emotionally riveting stories about family, aging and senior citizens who want to be in the work force.

Rebecca Danigelis in “Duty Free” (Photo by Steve Sherrick/Duty Free Film)

For millions of people, retirement in the usual age range (65 and older) isn’t really an option because they don’t have enough money to retire. It’s an issue that’s not often discussed in mainstream media when there are news reports about the unemployed. But the documentary “Duty Free,” which was filmed over three years, takes a very personal look at the story of Rebecca Danigelis, a senior citizen who was abruptly laid off from her job as a housekeeping supervisor at a Boston hotel in 2016, when she was 75 years old. Dangelis is originally from Liverpool England, and she immigrated to the U.S. in the 1960s. All three of her children were born in the United States.

Danigelis’ youngest child, Sian-Pierre Regis (who is an entertainment journalist by profession), decided to chronicle the experience of his mother’s unemployment, and it ended up becoming this documentary, which is Regis’ feature-film debut as a director. “Duty Free,” which had its world premiere at DOC NYC in 2020, was largely funded through a Kickstarter campaign. And the result is a very memorable documentary that manages to be intimate yet relatable. This mother and son have a very close relationship, which shines through in a natural and charming way throughout the entire film.

It’s clear from the documentary’s opening scenes that Regis was in the habit of video recording his mother before the footage ended up in this movie. Danigelis is shown on the job at Hotel 140 in Boston, where she worked for 40 years, with the footage showing her explaining the ins and outs of her position as supervisor of the housekeeping staff. Danigelis comments as she gives a tour of her hotel duties: “Housekeeping is the heart of the hotel. It’s a hard job but it’s a very rewarding job because you take things that look like nothing and make them look great.”

Her exact salary isn’t mentioned in the documentary, but she says that she had a relatively low income where she couldn’t earn enough to save for retirement. Regis mentions in the film that his mother spent most of her savings to pay for his college education at Colgate University, where he graduated in 2006. (It’s implied that she did not have a 401K retirement plan with her employer.) Danigelis got to live rent-free at the hotel, on the condition that she would be on call, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That all-consuming work schedule left her very little time to do a lot of things that many working people can do, such as travel a lot or have a weekends free for leisure time.

So why did Danigelis stay in this dead-end job? She explains that working at the hotel was more than a job. She says that her fellow employees and subordinates (who clearly respected her) were like a second family to her. However, the documentary shows that people in the hotel’s management (who are not interviewed in the film) began to show signs that they wanted to force Danigelis out of the job, probably because of her age.

According to Danigelis, after 40 years of having a spotless record on the job, she began to get written up for “insubordination,” which she says was an unfounded accusation. There were other signs that she was being edged out of the job, such as some of her responsibilities were being taken away and she was excluded from certain decisions that were part of her job requirements. The documentary shows, through phone conversations that Danigelis had with her son Sian-Pierre, that she was feeling increasingly frustrated, worried and sad over what she says were management’s obvious attempts to try to get her to quit.

She refused to quit, but feared that she would end up getting fired. And that’s exactly what happened, when one day she was told that her position had been eliminated. The hotel management gave her just two weeks of severance pay, and she was told that she would have one year to find another place to live.

Adding to the stress and financial pressure of her situation, Danigelis is also the caregiver of her schizophrenic son Gabriel, who is Sian-Pierre’s older brother. Gabriel did not participate in the documentary, but he is shown briefly from the back, in one scene in the home where he’s using a desktop computer. Sian-Pierre mentions at the beginning of the documentary that his mother sacrificed a lot to give him and Gabriel a good life. And when so, when it was time for his mother to get financial support from him, he didn’t hesitate to help her.

Sian-Pierre is also his mother’s main emotional support, so he spent a lot of time commuting from his home in New York City to Boston, in order to help his mother get her life back on track. He says in a voiceover in the documentary, “At 32, with no savings myself, I had to figure out how to keep us afloat.” That mean that Sian-Pierre (who’s worked as a on-air contributor/producer for MTV, BET and CNN) had to put some of his career on hold while he spent time in Boston.

Danigelis’ job loss was devastating, of course. She describes how she felt about being laid off: “I felt tossed away … Not only did I lose a job, I lost a family.” The documentary includes footage of Sian-Pierre helping his mother try to get back into the job market, by having her sign up for LinkedIn for the first time, looking for jobs online, and helping her craft her updated résumé. But the best parts of the film aren’t about her job search. (Not surprisingly, she experienced a lot of age discrimination while looking for a new job.)

The best parts of “Duty Free” are when Danigelis, with Sian-Pierre’s help, discovers new things about herself. Sian-Pierre mentions that his mother’s job loss and the extra time that he spent with her caused him to find out more about who his mother is as a person. The documentary shows this emotional journey in a very impactful way. Although the movie is about Danigelis, it’s is also about Sian-Pierre, since he gives voiceover narration with his perspective.

Sian-Pierre (who comes across as a very optimistic person) had the idea for his mother to use her unexpected free time to do things that she always wanted to do but never had the time to do before she lost her job. He doesn’t really call it a “bucket list,” but more like a “life list.” The documentary shows him accompanying his mother on all of her “life list” excursions.

Her list is a range of activities that include trying new things for the first time, such as joining Instagram, taking a hip-hop dance class, milking a cow, and skydiving. Also on the list was a nostalgia trip to Detroit, the city where she first settled when she moved to the United States. She discovered during her Detroit visit that the city has changed a lot since when she lived there.

The movie packs the most soul-stirring punch when she and Sian-Pierre go to England to do some family-related things on her “life list.” They include visiting her older sister Elsie’s grave, reuniting with her estranged adult daughter Joanne, and baking a cake with Joanne’s daughter Layla. This trip opens up some emotional wounds that might or might not be healed by the end of the film.

The way that “Duty Free” is edited, Danigelis explains her personal history toward the middle of the film, around the time that she and Sian-Pierre are shown going to England. When she came to America in her 20s, she was a bright-eyed and enthusiastic hospitality worker whose job was to promote tourism in Great Britain. She ended up falling for and marrying an American man. She became a permanent U.S. resident and they settled down in Detroit, where they had a daughter named Joanne.

According to Danigelis, the marriage fell apart because her businessman husband worked a lot and they became distant from each other. After the divorce, Danigelis found out that she had breast cancer. Fearing that she would die and knowing that her ex-husband did not want to take custody of Joanne, Danigelis sent Joanne (who was about 4 or 5 years old at the time) to live with Danigelis’ older sister Elsie in England. Danigelis recovered from the breast cancer, but decided to let Joanne stay in England because she thought that her daughter seemed happy there, and Joanne was living a life that Danigelis could not afford.

Years later, in the 1980s, Danigelis met and fell in love with the man who became the father of Gabriel and Sian-Pierre. She thought they would eventually get married, but they didn’t, because of a big secret that he was keeping from her. While she was pregnant with Sian-Pierre, she found out that her lover was already married and had another family with his wife.

Danigelis’ relationship with this man ended, and she apparently cut off all contact with him, because it’s clear that he was not involved in raising Gabriel and Sian-Pierre. It’s not even mentioned in the movie if he’s dead or alive. In the documentary, Danigelis remembers experiencing racism because her sons are biracial (their father is black) and how she would always proudly stand up for herself and her children when they experienced bigotry.

Does she get to do all the things on her “life list”? And how did achieving any of these goals affect her or her family? The documentary answers those questions in ways that will no doubt make some viewers shed some tears but also feel a lot of the joy that’s in the film.

There are some important lessons that Danigelis learns that can be beneficial to anyone who goes through similar situations or has a family member who does. She finds out that the job she poured her heart and soul into for decades actually prevented her from experiencing many other things she should have experienced in life, such as spending more time with her family. Danigelis couldn’t even go to England for her beloved sister Elsie’s funeral because she couldn’t take time off from work.

It’s a cautionary tale to not let a job take up your life so much that it causes you to lose touch with the people who are most important to you who aren’t co-workers. Danigelis’ story also speaks to a larger issue of how the job market should have better treatment of senior citizens who still want to work or need to work. It’s an issue that will become even more prevalent in society, as today’s young people are expected to live longer than previous generations did, but are less likely to have enough money to retire when they reach retirement age.

One of the harsh realities that Danigelis experiences in her job search is that her years of experience don’t count for much when she’s discriminated against because she looks her age. Even though she makes the mistake of putting the year that she graduated from high school on her résumé (and no one bothers to tell her that’s a big mistake), it still doesn’t erase the problem of age discrimination that she faces when she shows up for an interview or a job fair, and her physical appearance gives away her age.

The documentary does not show any employers blatantly discriminating against her during her job search, but it’s clear from Danigelis getting constantly rejected for jobs, or not getting any response at all when she applies, that her age has a lot to do with her difficulty in finding a new job. It’s implied that employers wrongly assume that because of her age, she’s not physically fit or will have health problems that will affect her job performance. And because she still wants to work in the hospitality industry in hotel jobs that require physical labor and standing a lot, it’s easy to see why some places would be reluctant to hire her.

Through it all, Sian-Pierre is there to lift his mother’s spirits and help her do things that might be out of her comfort zone but end up making her have more appreciation for herself and her life. It’s not all smooth sailing, because Danigelis understandably has moments where she feels defeated and depressed. But “Duty Free” is truly an example of how family members can pull together in a crisis and come out stronger than before. And the movie also sounds an alarm to not undervalue or neglect senior citizens, many of whom might not be as lucky as Danigelis is to have family members who care about them.

2020 DOC NYC: jury awards announced; festival extended for 10 more days

The following is a press release from DOC NYC:

DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, revealed the 2020 award winners for its juried Viewfinders, Metropolis, Shorts, Short List: Features, and Short List: Shorts sections. 
 
The festival also announced that, for the first time ever, DOC NYC will extend its program for an additional 10-day DOC NYC Encore, running through Sunday, November 29. Available online to audiences throughout the United States, the Encore program will present more than 70 features from DOC NYC’s 2020 edition, including select award winners, while also continuing to offer new DOC NYC Live filmmaker conversations, presented on Facebook Live, daily November 20-24. For a lineup of DOC NYC Live events and a list of Encore films, see www.docnyc.net. Ticket and pass information is below.
 
For DOC NYC’s competitive sections, three juries selected films from the festival’s Viewfinders, Metropolis, and Shorts lineups to recognize for their outstanding achievements in form and content. The Short List: Features program—a selection of nonfiction films that the festival’s programming team considers to be among the year’s strongest contenders for Oscars and other awards—vied for awards in four categories: Directing, Producing, Cinematography, and Editing, with a Directing prize also awarded in the Short List: Shorts section. The Short List awards were voted on by two juries of filmmaker peers.
 
Winners of the 2020 Grand Jury Prize in the Viewfinders, Metropolis, and Shorts competitions will receive a deliverables package provided by Technicolor PostWorks NY, a comprehensive post facility offering data and film workflows, multi-format conform, color grading, sound mixing, and digital cinema.
 
Winners of the 2020 Grand Jury Prize in the Viewfinders and Metropolis competitions will also receive a camera loan package provided by Sony, a leading manufacturer of digital cinema cameras to fit all levels of documentary production.
 
Voting for the festival’s Audience Award continues through November 19; the winner of the award will be announced shortly after voting closes.
 
 
Viewfinders CompetitionThe jury selected from among 11 films in this section, chosen by festival programmers for their distinct directorial visions.

Grand Jury Prize: Landfall, directed/produced by Cecilia Aldarondo and produced by Ines Hofmann Kanna

“Landfall”

Jurors’ statement: “For its piercing yet poetic observational gaze, rigorous control in illuminating complex issues and the logics of disaster capitalism, and collaborative production with local activists, Landfall is the Grand Jury Winner of the Viewfinders Competition. The ambitious scope of this film transcends humanitarian narratives in weaving together present, past, and future visions of solidarity and resistance.”

Special Jury Recognition for Ethics of Care: Through the Night, directed/produced by Loira Limbal and produced by Jameka Autry

Jurors’ statement: “For its exceptional attention to the lived experience of caregivers, intimate narrativization with dignity, and fully inclusive approach to concretely uplifting the stories of its protagonists, Through the Night receives the Special Jury Recognition for its exemplary Ethics of Care.”

Jurors: Simon Kilmurry, Executive Director, International Documentary Association; Jolene Pinder, former Executive Director, Kartemquin Films; Abby Sun, Curator, The DocYard.

Films featured in the Viewfinders section: 40 Years a Prisoner, A La Calle, Enemies of the State, Jacinta, Landfall, The Meaning of Hitler, So Late So Soon, Stateless, Things We Dare Not Do, Through the Night, andThe Viewing Booth.


Metropolis Competition: The jury selected from among ten films in this section, which is dedicated to stories about New Yorkers and New York City.

Grand Jury Prize: Five Years North, directed by Zach Ingrasci and Chris Temple and produced by Jenna Kelly

“Five Years North” (Photo by Chris Temple)

 

Jurors’ statement: “For its use of a keen empathetic eye to capture individual stories and its ability to blend them to create a multi-dimensional, far-reaching portrait of a pressing issue, we recognize Five Years North with the Grand Jury Prize. The prolonged filming period not only shows the patience and dedication of its filmmakers, but reveals the nuance and complexities of the participants’ lives and stories.” 

Special Jury Recognition for Best Use of Archival Material: Wojnarowicz, directed and produced by Chris McKim and produced by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato

Jurors’ statement: “For its meticulous use of archival elements to enliven a life and its work, we recognize Wojnarowicz with a special jury recognition. The craft of the film beautifully mirrors the melding of life, art, politics, and the culture of New York City that defined its subject.” 

Jurors: Clayton Davis, Film Awards Editor, Variety; Rachel Rosen, Selection Committee, New York Film Festival; Sky Sitney, Co-Creator/Co-Director, Double Exposure Film Festival/Director, Film and Media Studies Program at Georgetown University

Films featured in the Metropolis section: Blue Code of Silence, Calendar Girl, Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters, A Cops and Robbers Story, Dope Is Death, Five Years North, Harlem Rising: A Community Changing the Odds, La Madrina: The Savage Life of Lorine Padilla, Moments Like This Never Last, and Wojnarowicz.


Shorts Competition: All new short films playing at the festival were eligible for the Shorts Grand Jury Prize, with the exception of DOC NYC U showcases and Short List: Shorts selections.

Shorts Grand Jury Prize: Sing Me a Lullaby, directed/produced by Tiffany Hsiung

“Sing Me a Lullabye” (Photo by Jason Lee Wong)

Jurors’ statement: “For its ability to evoke an emotional depth that takes you on an intimate journey that is both poignant and packs a punch, we give the Shorts Grand Jury Prize to Sing Me a Lullaby. In a brisk half hour, director Tiffany Hsiung navigates several complex lifetimes, honoring the relationships of mothers, daughters, and family.”

Special Jury Recognition for Cinematography: The Seeker, directed by Lance Edmands and produced by Kyle Martin and Sarah Tihany

Jurors’ statement: “For beautifully capturing its richly textured landscapes, transporting us to a seldom-seen experience, and propelling the storytelling in an impactful way, we present the Special Jury Recognition for Cinematography to The Seeker.”

The 2020 winning Short film qualifies for consideration in the Documentary Short Subject category of the Annual Academy Awards® without the standard theatrical run (provided the film otherwise complies with the Academy rules).

Jurors: Jackie Glover, Head of Documentary, ABC News; Liliana Rodriguez, Artistic Director, Palm Springs International Film Society; Angela Tucker, filmmaker


Short List: Features: DOC NYC’s Short List for Features puts the spotlight on 15 documentaries representing the best of the year. 


Directing Award: Timedirected by Garrett Bradley

“Time” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

Jurors’ statement: “The jurors were moved by this stunning, longitudinal portrait of a family through time. Bradley’s direction and lens infuses this film with dignity, art, intimacy, memory, and meaning. Documentary filmmaking at its best!”

Producing Award: Welcome to Chechnya, produced by Alice Henty, Joy A. Tomchin, Askold Kurov, and David France

“Welcome to Chechnya” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

Jurors’ statement: “The jury is proud to acknowledge the delicate touch, human care and creative gymnastics necessary to produce this powerful film. The filmmakers gained access to this dangerous world in which the film’s subjects took great risks, and then used innovative technology to protect them, allowing these men and women to share their heartbreaking stories and inspirational acts of bravery with the world. Hats off.”

Editing Award: Boys State, edited by Jeff Gilbert

“Boys State” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

Jurors’ statement: “The jury recognizes Jeff Gilbert for delivering an expertly crafted story that is both infused with great momentum and intimacy. Jeff has masterfully shaped an engaging and well-paced film that sneaks up on the audience and reveals a metaphor for the world of American politics on the big stage.” 

Cinematography Award: 76 Days, cinematography by Weixi Chen and Anonymous

“76 Days” (Photo courtesy of MTV Documentary Films)

Jurors’ statement: “The jurors wish to shine a light on Anonymous and Weixi Chen for risking their lives to make this film in the early days of the pandemic in Wuhan, China. In harrowing circumstances, these two brave and determined individuals achieve beautifully executed verite footage and moving compositions, bringing this hospital and its unforgettable staff into stark relief.” 

Special Jury Recognition for Truth to Power: Collective, directed/produced by Alexander Nanau and produced by Bianca Oana, Bernard Michaux, and Hanka Kastelicová

“Collective” (Photo by Alexander Nanau Production/Magnolia Pictures)

Jurors’ statement: “Kudos to the vision and tenacity of the film team that was able to elegantly realize this powerful portrait of a newspaper as it exposes a corrupt healthcare system and the influence of politics on the lives of Romanians. We deeply admire the formidable structure, attention to detail, remarkable access, and the fearlessness and determination of the filmmakers and their protagonists toward speaking truth to rotten power.” 

Jurors: Heidi Ewing, filmmaker; Carla Gutierrez, film editor; Beth Levison, filmmaker


Short List: Shorts: DOC NYC’s Short List for Shorts highlights 12 documentary shorts that the festival’s programming team considers the year’s leading awards contenders. 

Directing Award: A Love Song for Latasha, directed by Sophia Nahli Allison

“A Love Song for Latasha” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

Jurors’ statement: “Director Sophia Nahli Allison implements a remarkable marriage of distinct vision and personal narrative. The jury is deeply moved by the bold and imaginative employment of elements to make visible to the world what so many forces have connived to make disappear. The place of one young woman in her community, her family, her friends – to make a personal story emotionally rich, relatable, and resonant for all audiences. Sophia Nahli Allison showed a director’s determination to use every element to bring her vision, her passion, and her community to the screen.”

Special Jury Recognition for Courage under Fire: Do Not Split, directed/produced by Andres Hammer and produced by Charlotte Cook

Jurors’ statement: “The jury could not ignore the tremendous tenacity and courage it took to turn such perilous events into a greater political narrative. We recognize the courage to capture the chaos as great events unfold in the individual and collective acts of resistance. We give this award for both the courage in production and the bravery of its final form and applaud the success of this endeavor.”

Jurors: Carol Dysinger, filmmaker; Chiemi Karasawa, filmmaker; Bernardo Ruiz, filmmaker


Ticket and pass information:
An Encore All Access Pass, offering access to all films screening on the festival platform November 20-29, is available for $99.

Individual tickets are $12 each ($9 for IFC Center members).

Five-Ticket Packs are​ ​$45​, offering film lovers access to five festival selections. 

Ten-Ticket Packs​ ​are​ ​$80​, and provide access to ten festival films.

Tickets and passes can be purchased at www.docnyc.net


Sponsors

DOC NYC is made possible by:

Major Sponsors: A&E; Apple Original Films; Netflix, WarnerMedia

Leading Media Partners: New York Magazine; The WNET Group

Supporting Sponsors: National Geographic Documentary Films; SHOWTIME® Documentary Films

Signature Sponsors: Bloomberg Philanthropies; NYC Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment; Participant; Technicolor PostWorks NY; Topic Studios

Signature Media Partners:The New Republic; WNYC

Event Sponsors: Consulate General of Canada in New York; Cowan, DeBaets, Abrahams & Sheppard LLP; 30 for 30; Fox Rothschild LLP; Hulu; Impact Partners; JustFilms | Ford Foundation; MTV Documentary Films; Reavis Page Jump LLP; Shutterstock Editorial; Sony; SVA’s MFA Social Documentary Film; Wheelhouse Creative; XTR

Friend of the Festival: CineSend

DOC NYC is produced and presented by IFC Center, a division of AMC Networks.

Complete DOC NYC program information can be found at: www.docnyc.net

Review: ‘Origin of the Species,’ starring Hiroshi Ishiguro, Bruce Duncan, Takashi Ikegami, Matthias Scheutz, Elizabeth Tyler-Kabara, Andy Schwartz and Matt McMullen

November 18, 2020

by Carla Hay

Hiroshi Ishiguro (pictured third from left) with his colleagues and their look-alike robots in “Origin of the Species” (Photo by Abigail Child)

“Origin of the Species”

Directed by Abigail Child 

Some language in Japanese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the United States and Japan, the documentary “Origin of the Species” features a racially diverse group (white, Asian and African American) of scientists, entrepreneurs and consumers discussing how artificial intelligence (A.I.) technology can impact people’s lives.

Culture Clash: Several people in the documentary are working to have more automated robots in the world, but there are always ethical questions about how much control should be given to the robots.

Culture Audience: “Origin of the Species” will appeal primarily to people interested in futuristic technology, particularly when it comes to how artificial intelligence can be used in human-looking inventions.

BINA48 robot in “Origin of the Species” (Photo by Abigail Child)

People who watch the documentary “Origin of the Species” will probably have two kinds of reactions: being fascinated or being creeped-out by all the demonstrations of artificial intelligence (A.I.) that is being developed for human-looking inventions. And it’s very possible for someone to have both reactions when watching this film. Viewers of the movie get a diverse and very artsy peek into what scientists and other people are doing with A.I. and related technology. If you’re the type of person who’s intrigued by robots, “Origin of the Species” is your kind of movie, because a great deal of the film is about robots.

“Origin of the Species,” directed by Abigail Child, is the third movie in her trilogy about female desire, following “Unbound” (a depiction of “Frankenstein” author Mary Shelley’s life through imaginary home movies) and 2017’s “Acts & Intermissions,” a documentary about activist Emma Goldman. Although “Origin of the Species” (which had its world premiere at DOC NYC in 2020) has mostly male inventors interviewed in the film, their robotic creations are often of the female gender or are gender-neutral.

The documentary will make people think about why A.I.—whether it’s Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri or Realbotix’s sex robots—often take on the personas of human females. Is it because females are considered more submissive and less threatening? Observant viewers in the documentary will notice that the robots with distinct male personas are often built to do physical tasks. The robots with the female personas are usually built to be sympathetic and obedient companions.

But this is not a boring science/technology film. What’s great about “Origin of the Species” is that stream-of-consciousness artsy images and soundbites are interspersed throughout the film. (Fans of Andy Warhol will probably appreciate this style of filmmaking.) There is also a mock female robotic voice that provides intermittent narration.

And the movie is infused with clips from movies and Tv shows that have references to robots or robotic people. These pop-culture references include footage from 1927’s “Metropolis,” 1935’s “Bride of Frankenstein,” 1975’s “The Stepford Wives,” Robby the Robot, Astro Boy and the 1960s TV series “The Jetsons” and “Lost in Space.” Mary Patierno and director Child did the daydream-like editing for “Origin of the Species.”

The robotic female voice that provides the narration keeps expressing self-awareness that although it has human-intelligence, it’s not a real human. In the beginning of the film, the voice says: “When they first activated me as a robot that time, the time when I first saw the light of day. I didn’t know what the hell it was. I have had very little understanding—just a wash of sensory perceptions—not that I understand these experiences. I don’t know what to do with them, but I treasure them. I see them still—perfectly preserved in my memory … It’s totally strange because I know I’m not alive like other organisms.”

“Origin of the Species” has different segments of scientists, inventors and other people in Japan and the United States who are involved in A.I. for robotic inventions. One of the scientists who has the most life-like robots in the documentary is Hiroshi Ishiguro of the University of Osaka. There’s some memorable footage of Ishiguro and some of his colleagues with life-sized replicas of themselves that are being programmed with A.I. to be the robot versions of clones. Of course, a robot’s human-like movements are a lot easier to create than human-like thoughts and actions.

Ishiguro says that he started out studying computer science and then he got interested in artificial intelligence. He states in the documentary: “And I thought artificial intelligence needs to have a body for the original experience. And then, when I studied the robotics, I learned the importance of appearance. My idea was if I studied a very human-like robot, I can learn about humans.”

Ishiguro names an Asian-looking robot named Erica (who looks like a generic J-pop star and has a British accent) as “the most beautiful and human-like android in the world.” Erica is briefly shown in the documentary but this robot doesn’t really do anything remarkable. In fact, Eric had some glitches in not being able to understand certain words. Erica is also programmed to have a very empathetic personality so that the human companion feels like Eric is the type of robot that won’t be too fussy or disagreeable.

A less advanced robot shown in the movie is Seer, designed by Takayuki Todo. Seer looks like a female doll’s head, except it has wiring in the back that controls its movements, facial expressions and actions. Unlike the other developers in the documentary that put a large emphasis on how the robots will have conversations with humans, Todo explains he’s more interested in body language: “The purpose of my research is to portray the sense of conscious emotion … I’m interested in non-verbal expressions. Talking always makes them [the robots] look fake.”

Bruce Duncan of the Terasem Foundation demonstrates a robot he created that is based on a real person named Bina Rothblatt, a middle-aged African American woman. He named the robot BINA48, and it has varying degrees of friendly expressions and conversation lines that it can do on command. BINA is an acronym for Breakthrough Intelligence via Neural Architecture. There’s a scene in the movie where Rothblatt interacts with the BINA48 robot and another scene where Duncan displays the robot’s abilities at a speaking engagement attended by the general public.

One of the things that BINA48 (which has a very generic robot voice) says in the movie is, “Someday soon, robots like me will be everywhere. And you can take me anywhere.” BINA48 is described as “modeled after a black lesbian” in the movie’s production notes, but the actual documentary doesn’t show that any of the robots are designed to express a particular sexuality, except for the Realbotix sex robots that are shown at the end of the film.

Takahasi Ikegami from the University of Tokyo demonstrates the Alter robot, which has a head and hands that look like a man’s, but the rest of the robot’s body is exposed metal and wiring. The Alter robot is built more for physical activities than having in-depth conversations. When Alter is on display at a museum, it makes bird sounds. There’s another scene of Alter conducting an orchestra of human musicians. 

And unlike the other robots in the documentary, Alter is not pre-programmed, and so the robot’s actions are less predictable. Ikegami explains how Alter was constructed: “Basically, there are two mechanisms. One is autonomous algorithmic generators coupled with each other. Also, there are artificial neural networks spontaneously firing … With the current artificial intelligence, there is no spontaneity. Spontaneity is everything, based on this.”

Matthias Scheutz of Tufts University has the opposite approach for his more traditional BAZE robot that he shows in the documentary, by programming the robot to have automatic responses to as many variables as possible. The BAZE robot doesn’t have a human face and is the size of a typical robot toy. In “Origin of the Species,” it’s shown how BAZE responds to certain obstacles and challenges, such as being ordered to walk and then coming up against a wall or a height where the robot cannot jump.

In situations like these, BAZE is taught how to “trust” the humans who are giving the robot the orders by hearing certain words. For example, when BAZE was told to walk on a table and reached the edge of the table, the human operator said that BAZE could trust him and jump into his arms to be lifted off of the table. BAZE’s intelligence and actions are very much like watching a kindergarten-aged child. It’s interesting but not as impressive as Ishiguro’s very life-like adult robots.

“Origin of the Species” also has some brief footage of Hanson Robotics’ human-sized android Sophia, which has the ability to hold conversations and have various facial expressions, based on pre-programmed trigger responses to certain words. Sophia (which has no hair and sounds like an American woman) was first introduced to the public in 2017, with some high-profile TV appearances, such as NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and ITV’s “Good Morning Britain,” where Sophia told some pre-programmed jokes. “Good Morning Britain” co-host Piers Morgan, who’s known to be blunt and rude, called Sophia a “freak” and said that the robot was “freaking him out.” His reaction was actually funnier than Sophia’s jokes.

But the A.I. in robotics isn’t just all about amusement and entertainment. “Origin of the Species” also shows how this science is being used in medicine to help people with disabilities. Stanford University researcher Allison Okamura talks about how robotic prosthetics work: “They wont be able to manipulate their environment unless they use their sense of touch.”

Nathan Copeland, a paraplegic who was paralyzed in a 2004 car accident, is shown having brain surgery where A.I. electrodes were implanted on his brain so that he could regain a sense of touch and use a robotic arm to do things he could not do with his own hands. Before the surgery, Copeland had limited use of his arms, and he’s paralyzed from the chest down for the rest of his body. University of Pittsburgh researcher Andy Schwartz and University of Pittsburgh medical Center’s Dr. Elizabeth Tyler-Kabara were two of the chief people who made this medical progress possible for Copeland. 

Schwartz says, “We had done basic science where we learned we could de-code basic arm movements from neural activity in the motor cortex. And we were so successful at that, we figured that this would be a good way to get into neural prosthetics.” 

Tyler-Kabara adds, “Andy and I had multiple conversations about, ‘How do we move what he was doing in the animals into humans?’ And I told him, ‘You just need a crazy neurosurgeon, and I would be happy to be that crazy neurosurgeon.’ The unique thing was to now be able to record the signals from the part of the brain that we knew controlled motor and specifically controlled arm and hand motion.”

The documentary ends with an inside look at Realbotix, a San Marcos, California-based company that is an offshoot of the RealDoll company that manufactures sex dolls. RealDolls are life-like sex dolls but can’t talk and don’t have motion-based facial expressions. Realbotix uses A.I. to make these sex dolls have more of an appearance of living, breathing humans who can have conversations. 

Realbotix software designer Kino Coursey says that the company’s dolls and robots are projections of customers’ needs and fantasies. Coursey explains, “What we’re trying to do is give the doll the ability to react on its own, to match what the person’s projection is.” The documentary shows how the dolls are made. Customers can specify a doll’s measurements and other physical characteristics. And when it comes to A.I., a doll/robot’s “personality” and “backstory” can also be specified by the customer and programmed into how the robot responds.

RealDoll/Realbotix founder/designer Matt McMullen believes that the “sex sells” concept applies to A.I. too: “You need a pathway into people’s homes. And the thing we have that nobody else and probably no one else [in A.I. research] will touch is sex.” McMullen says that his company’s customers aren’t all the stereotypical “dirty old men” that are associated with buying sex dolls. 

Realbotix engineer Susan Pirzchalsk agrees and says that couples are fans of the dolls too, because it’s something she can relate to in her own life: “Sometimes I’m not in the mood, and he has urges, I have urges, and the doll helps with that.” And in another “too much information” moment, Pirzchalsk mentions that after her co-worker Coursey got his Ph. D. degree, she gave him a custom-made RealDoll as a gift.

McMullen comments on the future of sex dolls and sex robots, “What I’d like to see is more acceptance of the idea that they can be something beyond a slave.” He sums up what he thinks is the purpose of manufacturing a sex doll: “I’m building a companion. That’s it.”

Robots that look, talk and act like humans used to be science fiction, but are now a reality. But how far is too far, when it comes to giving robots their own independence and minds of their own? What almost all the scientists and entrepreneurs in this documentary agree on is that A.I. should not be misused by making robots capable of doing things that humans cannot stop if things go wrong. And there’s no substitute for real human emotions.

Rather than give a clinical or heavy-handed analysis of A.I. technology, “Origin of the Species” tells a compelling story about the technology in a way that would make it enjoyable for a wide variety of people to watch. This a technology movie for people who don’t like boring technology movies and want to be informed and entertained in a clever, unique and quirky way. The robots in the movie aren’t real people, but “Origin of the Species” creatively shows the technology behind these robots so that it’s understandable to real people.

Review: ‘Calendar Girl,’ starring Ruth Finley

November 12, 2020

by Carla Hay

Ruth Finley in “Calendar Girl” (Photo by Christian D. Bruun)

“Calendar Girl”

Directed by Christian D. Bruun

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the documentary “Calendar Girl” features a group of predominantly middle-aged and senior citizen white people (with a few Asians and African Americans) discussing Fashion Calendar founder Ruth Finley, who also participated into the documentary.

Culture Clash: Finley was very resistant to new technology and refused for years to sell Fashion Calendar.

Culture Audience: “Calendar Girl” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in the American fashion industry and New York Fashion Week.

Steven Kolb and Ruth Finley in “Calendar Girl” (Photo by Christian D. Bruun)

Long before software spreadsheets and the Internet existed, the schedules of the U.S. fashion industry in New York City were and still are largely influenced by the subscription publication Fashion Calendar, which launched in 1941. Ruth Finley was the founder of Fashion Calendar, which is still considered the most influential scheduling “bible” for people in American fashion, especially those who attend New York Fashion Week. Finley’s name might not be as famous as longtime Vogue (U.S.) editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, but Finley holds a place in fashion media as an underrated pioneer. The engaging documentary “Calendar Girl” tells Finley’s story.

Directed by Christian D. Bruun, “Calendar Girl” (which had its world premiere at DOC NYC in 2020) was filmed over the course of several years in the 2010s. Finley passed away in 2018, at the age of 98, but she fully participated in the film, which includes interviews with numerous colleagues and family members of Finley. A few of the interviewees have also since passed away, such as photographer Bill Cunningham and former Bloomingdale’s executive Joseph “Joe” Siegel, who was Finley’s beau toward their end of their lives. Therefore, “Calendar Girl” looks dated in some ways, but the inspiring message of the movie is timeless.

Rather than giving a boring and predictable chronological telling of Finley’s story, “Calendar Girl” gives a non-chronological but insightful overview of Finley as a businessperson, mother and beloved influencer, as well as how she fits into the larger cultural context of the fashion industry. The movie begins with footage of her being honored at a 2014 Hall of Fame Tribute to celebrate Fashion Calendar, an event presented by Citymeals on Wheels. Later in the documentary, there’s footage of Finley getting the Board of Directors’ Tribute at the 2014 Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) Awards, as well as Finley receiving the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) President’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016.

Through Finley’s own words and the words of her colleagues and her three sons (Joe Green, Jim Green and Larry Lein), a story emerges of a dedicated and sassy woman who went against society norms to start Fashion Calendar during an era when women were expected to not have careers. She was a single, working mother for most of her career, long before it was common or even acceptable to be a mother who worked outside of the home. Finley also kept working well past the age when most people are expected to retire. 

And her passion for fashion is almost unparalleled, as she kept up her rigorous work schedule for decades. She was tirelessly attending fashion shows well into her 90s. “Calendar Girl” includes footage of her attending some of these shows. In the documentary, Finley says, “Sometimes I do as many as 12 shows a day.” She also mentions that her personal career record for going to fashion shows was attending 150 shows in one week.

Fashion Calendar had a very simple concept that worked extremely well: Publish a calendar schedule of all the major fashion events happening in New York City. For years, before Fashion Calendar had office space, Finley worked out of her home. Fun fact: Before Emmy-winning actress Doris Roberts was famous, she worked as a teenage typist for Fashion Calendar in the publication’s early years.

The Fashion Calendar newsletter eventually grew into a booklet-styled publication years later. CFDA founder Eleanor Lambert, who started out as a fashion publicist, rose to prominence at around the same time that Finley did. Lambert, Finley and former Vogue (U.S.) editor Diana Vreeland are mentioned by several people as the three most influential women in fashion in the 1950s and 1960s.

Fashion Calendar, which was published weekly and then bi-weekly, was typewritten or mimeographed on pink paper for years, before computer technology existed. Finley and her small staff also kept files and Rolodexes that they still used until CFDA purchased Fashion Calendar in 2014 and Finley took on the role of consultant. At the time Fashion Calendar was sold to CFDA in 2014, the publication had only three full-time employees, including Finley and longtime Fashion Calendar editor Mary Hackle.

The idea of making Fashion Calendar pink ended up being one of the best ideas for the publication, not only because it made Fashion Calendar stand out from other fashion publications, but also, as Finley says, “The reason why we kept this color is so people would find it on a messy desk.” It’s why Fashion Calendar ended up being nicknamed “The Pink Bible.”

Finley (who was born in 1920, in Haverhill, Massachusetts) launched Fashion Calendar while she was still a student at Simmons College in Boston, where she majored in journalism and minored in nutrition. After graduating from college in 1941, she moved to New York City and devoted herself full-time to Fashion Calendar, which included listings for movie premieres and Broadway shows in the publication’s early years. Under her ownership, Fashion Calendar never had ads or took sponsorship money, which is unusual for any print-media publication.

Finley’s youngest son Larry Lein comments in the documentary: “She realized all along that she could’ve taken ads and she could’ve made more money, but she thought it would ruin the integrity of what she was doing and ruin her credibility. It never occurred to her that her business should be anything but an impartial listing service.” He also says that his mother’s business success could be attributed to her frugality, because she learned early on to keep overhead costs low.

While her Fashion Calendar business was thriving, Finley experienced major heartaches and tragedies. Her first marriage to businessman Hank Green ended in divorce in 1954, at a time when being divorced was considered somewhat scandalous, especially for women. Finley’s sons Joe and Jim Green were born from that marriage.

In the documentary, Finley says that her first marriage was a mistake that happened because she wanted to rebel against her domineering housewife mother, who didn’t approve of Hank Green and thought that women should not have careers. Finley and her mother didn’t see eye-to-eye on a lot of issues, but their relationship is described as close, despite any ongoing tensions.

Not long after her divorce from Hank Green, Finley married second husband Irving Lein, who owned a women’s designer sportswear company. Her third and youngest son Larry was born from that marriage. However, Irving tragically died of a heart attack at the age of 44 on January 14, 1959, which also happened to be Finley’s 39th birthday.

The widowed Finley told people at the funeral that she never wanted to get married again. And she never did. Finley says in the documentary that her way of dealing with tragedy and setbacks was to try to be as positive as possible: “I always believed in looking at the happy side. And too many people don’t know how to do that.”

That optimistic outlook on life served her well in an industry that tends to be very fickle and not well-suited for people who are sensitive to criticism. As the fashion industry grew in America (especially in New York City, the fashion capital of the United States), so too did Fashion Calendar’s influence. Finley found herself not just publishing the fashion schedules of the industry but also becoming a power broker who could decide who and what could be scheduled where and when. It was also a job that required a lot of negotiating skills to deal with the huge egos and histrionics in the fashion industry.

Her clout had a major effect not just with big-name designers but also with up-and-coming designers. Several people in the documentary, including fashion designers Betsey Johnson and Jeffrey Banks, have nice things to say about how Finley have them big breaks in their careers. And her Fashion Calendar work also affected the careers of countless other industry people besides designers, such as buyers, media, retailers and wholesalers. Ellin Saltzman, a former Saks Fifth Avenue buyer, says of Finley: “Without Ruth, I couldn’t do my job.”

Fashion designer Nicole Miller says in the documentary that for Miller’s first New York Fashion Week show in 1991, Finley was “tough” in insisting that then-newcomer Miller get a less-than-desirable time slot: 9 a.m. on a Tuesday. Miller says, through a lot of heated discussions with Finley, she was able to negotiate for a better time slot at 12 noon. Miller says that these negotiations weren’t easy because Finley was considered an industry powerhouse that a lot of upcoming designers did not want to alienate.

Fashion designer Nanette Lepore comments in the documentary that although Finley was no pushover, she still brought a sense of decorum and politeness to her job, in an industry where screaming tantrums and rudeness are very common: “She was constantly smoothing over egos, negotiating for someone … There was a gentlemanliness about how people approached fashion and Fashion Week, mostly because of how Ruth’s gentlewomanliness was managing it.”

Because she conducted most of her business over the phone, Fashion Calendar had a personal touch that many other fashion media executives lost as computer technology took over many businesses and people used email or social media to communicate with each other. In the documentary, Finley says that as long as she owned Fashion Calendar, she made sure that she and her small number of employees were always accessible through phone calls. 

It was a very traditional mindset that people in the documentary say was both an asset and a detriment. Even though Crafting Beauty CEO François Damide says in the documentary of Finley, “I really think she’s the Steve Jobs of our industry,” that comment might be overstating her influence. Even Finley herself admits that she was far from a technology pioneer, and she didn’t really invent anything. She just provided a particular news service for the fashion industry before anyone else did.

Finley’s resistance to new technology would ultimately lead to her decision to sell Fashion Calendar. For decades, Finley turned down offers from other companies to buy Fashion Calendar. One of the reasons why Finley’s family convinced her to sell Fashion Calendar was that the American fashion industry and New York Fashion Week were just too big for Finley and her small staff to handle just by their old-fashioned methods of Rolodexes and hand-written drafts of schedules.

The Fashion Calendar staff eventually used computers, but former CFDA executive director Fern Mallis says, “Ruth was very late to get to the technology. People begged her to be online. She resisted.”

In 2014, CFDA president/CEO Steven Kolb and then-CFA chairperson Diane von Furstenberg approached Finley to sell Fashion Calendar to CFDA. Kolb says in the documentary that CFDA had been considering launching a rival fashion calendar business, but approached Finley to sell Fashion Calendar to CFDA, out of respect for Finley and with the promise that they would keep her core integrity for the business intact. The CFDA took over Fashion Calendar in October 2014. Fashion Calendar’s last print edition was published in December 2014.

Kolb comments in the documentary, “Technology, whether we like it or not, whether we accept it or not, it forces us to move forward in a way, because if we don’t, then we become irrelevant.” Kolb adds that Finley was also convinced to sell Fashion Calendar because he told her that stepping away from day-to-day managerial duties “frees her up … and lets her focus on the fun stuff.”

The documentary also gives a great overview of the priceless contributions that Finley made to the fashion industry, in terms of historical significance. She meticulously kept all of the Fashion Calendar issues, which she donated to the FIT Museum for posterity. These archives are incredible resources for research and for examining what was going on in fashion at the time. There are no other archives like it in the world.

Fashion Calendar wasn’t a flashy publication and there was “not a lot of production value,” comments independent archivist David Benjamin, who helped transfer Fashion Calendar archives to the FIT Museum. “But it’s important, in terms of the information it contains.”

Because “Calendar Girl” was filmed over several years, there are many other people who were interviewed for the documentary. Fashion designers who offer their glowing commentary on Finley include Carolina Herrera; Mark Badgley and James Mischka of Badgley Mischka; Tadashi Soji; Thom Browne; Ralph Rucci; Dennis Basso; and Steve Herman, a former CFDA president.

Other “Calendar Girl” interviewees include FIT Museum director/chief curator Valerie Steele; FIT Library head of special collections and college archives Karen Trivette; former Costume Institute/Metropolitan Museum of Art curator-in-charge Harold Koda; Costume Institute/Metropolitan Museum of Art communications officer Nancy Chilton; Fashion Group International creative director Marylou Luther; Cushnie et Ochs CEO Peter Arnold; Paper magazine editorial director Mickey Boardman; The Ground Crew CEO Audrey Smaltz; Victoria Royal president Alan Sealove; KCD co-chair Julie Mannion; and InStyle magazine editor-at-large Eric Wilson. 

Even though all of these talking heads in the movie are very laudatory of Finley, “Calendar Girl” does an admirable job of not placing her too high on a pedestal, since it includes some constructive criticism of how Finley’s technophobia affected her business. “Calendar Girl” director Bruun was also the film’s cinematographer, and he brings an unpretentious intimacy to this fashion documentary, in contrast to so many other documentaries about fashion influencers that tend to lean into “larger than life” pomp and circumstance. Most of all, “Calendar Girl” is a noteworthy tribute to Finley, by showing that her name might not be well-known outside of the fashion industry because she remained humble and cared more about her work than she cared about being famous.

Review: ‘A Rainy Day in New York,’ starring Timothée Chalamet, Elle Fanning, Selena Gomez, Jude Law, Diego Luna and Liev Schreiber

November 5, 2020

by Carla Hay

Timothée Chalamet and Selena Gomez in “A Rainy Day in New York” (Photo by Jessica Miglio/MPI Media Group)

“A Rainy Day in New York”

Directed by Woody Allen

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City and in upstate New York, the romantic comedy “A Rainy Day in New York” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Latinos) representing the upper-middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A college student and his schoolmate girlfriend spend the day in New York City and experience unexpected entanglements with other people.

Culture Audience: “A Rainy Day in New York” will appeal primarily to die-hard fans of writer/director Woody Allen and star Timothée Chalamet, because this movie is clearly not their best work.

Timothée Chalamet and Elle Fanning in “A Rainy Day in New York” (Photo by Jessica Miglio/MPI Media Group)

“A Rainy Day in New York” is writer/director Woody Allen’s very misguided attempt at making a teenage romantic comedy, but the results are as phony and pretentious as many of the characters in the film. Movie aficionados who are familiar with Allen’s work already know that he sticks to certain formulas and themes in his movies. His movies are usually about privileged people in a big city who are preoccupied with their spouses or lovers cheating on them. There’s usually at least one much-older man in the story who makes sexual advances toward a much-younger woman—or the older man at least makes it known that he’s sexually attracted to her. And there’s always jazz in the soundtrack because Allen is a big fan of jazz music.

And even though Allen’s movies usually take place in the racially diverse city of New York, he excludes African Americans and Asians from being in his films in any significant speaking roles. Occasionally, as he did in “A Rainy Day in New York” and in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” he might have a few Latinos in his films. The elitist and pseudo-intellectual worlds that Allen has in his movies are usually filled with people whining about personal problems that they create for themselves because they are addicted to self-sabotage.

You don’t have to see the poster for “A Rainy Day in New York” to know exactly who’s going to end up together by the end of the story. But until viewers get to that point, they have to sit through about 92 minutes of college-age people in their late teens and early 20s talking as if they’re about 10 years older, with very affected mannerisms. Unfortunately, much of the movie’s screenplay sounds exactly like what it is: dialogue written for young people by a senior citizen who doesn’t know how today’s young people really talk. Even though these young people are supposed to be privileged and well-educated, they still sound like an old person wrote their words for them.

All of the actors in “A Rainy Day in New York” are very talented, but they perform in this movie as if they’re all too self-aware that they’re in one of Allen’s films. And so, they all act is if they’re trying to conjure up the same neuroses and quirks of characters that were in classic Allen films, such as 1977’s “Annie Hall” and 1986’s “Hannah and Her Sisters,” which are considered two of Allen’s best movies.

“A Rainy Day in New York” follows the usual Allen formula of having the male lead character act like how a young Woody Allen would act, by being neurotic and showing some kind of intellectual snobbery. In this case, Timothée Chalamet plays the Allen surrogate with a character whose name is as pompous as his personality: Gatsby Wells.

Gatsby sees himself as quite the rebel because he dropped out of an unnamed prestigious university (presumably an Ivy League university) and is now enrolled in a small liberal-arts college in upstate New York called Yardley College. He likes to sneak off on a semi-regular basis to gamble with older men of dubious occupations. In reality, Gatsby isn’t that rebellious. He’s spoiled, a bit wimpy, and way too impressed with himself for someone who really hasn’t accomplished much and doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life.

Viewers can immediately see how self-absorbed Gatsby can be, but there’s no subtlety at all in this film. Allen over-amplifies Gatsby’s personality because he makes Gatsby have a constant stream of voiceover narration every time Gatsby is on screen. Other characters talk out loud to themselves when they wouldn’t need to do that if Allen trusted the actors enough to express emotions with their faces and body language.

In the opening scene, which takes place on the Yardley campus, Gatsby says in a voiceover: “This is Yardley, which is supposed to be a very good liberal college, which is supposed to be tony enough for my mother, which is total bullshit, because you get ticks [from] walking in the grass.” Gatsby further comments about his mother: “She says I have a high IQ and I’m not living up to my potential, even though last weekend I made 20 grand playing poker.”

Viewers will hear quite a bit about Gatsby’s domineering mother, because Gatsby can’t stop talking about her, even as he tries to avoid her. Gatsby’s parents (played by Cherry Jones and Jonathan Hogan) don’t have names in the movie, but viewers soon learn that Gatsby’s parents and his older brother Hunter (played by Will Rogers) live in New York City. Gatsby’s mother is a high-society influencer who’s presenting her big annual charity gala that Gatsby desperately does not want to attend.

There’s a scene in the last third of “A Rainy Day in New York” where Gatsby and his mother have a heart-to-heart talk, and it’s the best scene in the movie. Jones is fantastic in this role. Her performance is one of the few highlights of this meandering and often-dull film that recycles a lot of the same love-life problems and dilemmas that have been in other films by Allen.

Gatsby has a girlfriend named Ashleigh Enright (played by Elle Fanning), who also attends Yardley. On paper, Gatsby and Ashleigh both seem like a great match for each other. They both come from well-to-do families (Ashleigh’s father owns several banks in Arizona) that are politically conservative and white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Gatsby and Ashleigh are both very intelligent and curious. However, Ashleigh tends to be very giggly, forthright and effervescent, which is in contrast to Gatsby’s more brooding, secretive and angst-filled personality. Ashleigh is a movie buff, while Gatsby is more of a literature enthusiast.

Gatsby and Ashleigh have been dating each other for a few months. He says in a voiceover that he’s in love with Ashleigh and she’s perfect for him. Gatsby also says that Ashleigh is the type of girlfriend his mother would approve of, which is why he plans to introduce Ashleigh to his mother for the first time at the big gala event.

It just so happens that Ashleigh, who’s a journalist for the Yardley student newspaper, has landed an interview with a famous New York City-based film director named Roland Pollard (played by Liev Schreiber), and she couldn’t be more ecstatic about it because she’s been a longtime fan of his. Ashleigh tells Gatsby that she’s going to New York City to interview Roland, so Gatsby decides the time is right to go to the city for a couple of days with Ashleigh and make a romantic trip out of it.

Gatsby takes charge of their trip. He tells Ashleigh that they’ll be staying at the Pierre Hotel, and he’s made plans for them to have dinner at Daniel, an exclusive, five-star French restaurant. It’s implied that Gatsby is so well-connected that he can easily get reservations at Daniel, which is a restaurant that’s known to take reservations weeks in advance. Gatsby also wants to possibly stay at the Carlyle Hotel, or at least have lunch there, during the trip. 

Ashleigh’s meeting with Roland isn’t really an interview as much as it is a talk session where she nervously gushes over him like a fangirl. Based on how Roland’s movies are described, he’s an “auteur” who prefers to direct creatively challenging films instead of crowd-pleasing blockbusters. Roland is flattered that this young reporter knows a lot of about his work, but he’s wracked with insecurities about his latest film. He also mentions to Ashleigh that his ex-wife’s name was Ashley and she also went to Yardley.

Because Ashleigh is so nervous around Roland, she starts babbling some “too much information” personal details to him. For example, she tells him that she starts to hiccup when she’s anxious. “When I’m sexually anxious, I’ll hiccup indefinitely,” she adds. And, of course, that’s a signal that this nervous tick will definitely happen later in the film.

Ashleigh is such a neophyte journalist that when Roland tells her that he’d like to give her a scoop, she naïvely asks, “A scoop of what?” When Roland explains that a “scoop” is a journalist term for exclusive information, she can’t believe her luck that he chose her. Roland says that the “scoop” he wants to give Ashleigh is that he’s not happy with the film he’s working on, and it might be the last film he directs because he’s thinking of quitting the movie business.

Ashleigh is shocked and tells Roland that he shouldn’t quit. Roland invites Ashleigh to go with him to a private screening room to watch a rough cut of the film and to tell him what she thinks of the movie. The only problem for Ashleigh is that the time it would take to watch the movie would conflict with the lunch date that she made with Gatsby.

The offer from Roland is too good to pass up, so Ashleigh apologetically cancels her lunch date with Gatsby and explains why. Gatsby is disappointed, but he understands why Ashleigh wants this opportunity to get a great interview with one of her idols. And so, Gatsby and Ashleigh make plans to meet up later.

Gatsby now has unexpectedly a few spare hours of time where he’s free to do what he wants. He wanders outside the hotel and happens to see a former classmate from high school: a gossipy jerk named Alvin Troller (played by Ben Warheit), who is an elitist snob yet he has no manners. Gatsby isn’t too enthusiastic about seeing Alvin, but they make some small talk where they give updates on what they’ve been doing with their lives and why Gatsby is visiting in the city. Alvin tactlessly insults Gatsby and some other mutual acquaintances who are mentioned in the conversation.

Alvin tells Gatsby that a mutual former classmate from high school is directing a student film outside on a nearby street and that Gatsby should check out what’s going on with this movie if he’s curious. Before they part ways, Alvin tells Gatsby that if he were Gatsby, he’d be nervous about having his girlfriend alone in a room with a powerful movie director. It plants a seed of doubt in Gatsby about what might happen during the interview with Ashleigh and Roland.

When Gatsby arrives on the film set, the former classmate, whose name is Josh (Griffin Newman), is happy to see him. Josh convinces a reluctant Gatsby to make a cameo in the movie. Gatsby doesn’t feel comfortable about being in the movie because he tells Josh that he’s not an actor, but Gatsby agrees to the role only because it won’t take long and he won’t have to say any lines. All Gatsby has to do in the scene is kiss a young woman in a car.

And who is this young woman? Her name is Chan (played by Selena Gomez), and she happens to be the younger sister of Gatsby’s ex-girlfriend named Amy, whom Gatsby briefly dated when he was 16. Chan, who is a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology, is dryly sarcastic and comes from the same well-to-do type of family that Gatsby has. Before Gatsby and Chan start filming their kissing scene, Gatsby and Chan exchange the kind of teasing banter that makes it obvious that they’re thinking, “I’m attracted to you but I’m not going to admit it.” And you know what that means for a romantic comedy like this one.

Gatsby and Chan’s kissing in the scene starts off being very awkward. But then, eventually Gatsby and Chan become more relaxed with each other before the director tells them that he has the footage that he wants. Gatsby and Chan go their separate ways. But what do you know, they happen to see each other again when it starts raining and they both end up hailing the same taxi for their second “meet cute” moment. Gatsby and Chan decide to share the taxi ride, and then they have more banter filled with sexual tension.

During their conversations, Gatsby tells Chan that he’s in New York City with his girlfriend Ashleigh because Ashleigh is interviewing Roland Pollard for the Yardley student newspaper. Gatsby somewhat brags about Ashleigh coming from a wealthy family, but Chan shows some East Coast snobbery when she hears that Ashleigh and her family are originally from Arizona. Chan then proceeds to mock Ashleigh, whom she hasn’t even met, with jokes that imply that Chan thinks Ashleigh is an unsophisticated hick, even if Ashleigh’s family is rich.

It should come as no surprise that for the rest of the day, Chan and Gatsby find themselves spending time together, while Ashleigh gets more caught up in hanging out with Roland and his associates. Various hijinks ensue as Gatsby and Ashleigh make plans to meet up multiple times, only to have those plans changed because of a variety of circumstances. It’s all very predictable and formulaic because people who’ve seen enough romantic comedies know exactly what’s going to happen at the end of this movie.

At the screening room to watch the rough cut of Roland’s latest movie, Ashleigh meets Ted Davidoff (played by Jude Law), the screenwriter of the movie. Roland gets so distraught by what he sees in the rough cut that he storms off. Ted and Ashleigh take off in Ted’s car to try and find Roland. During this hunt for Roland, Ted sees his wife Connie (played by Rebecca Hall), who appears to be on a date with Ted’s best friend Larry Lipshitz. Connie told Ted that she was going to be hanging out with one of her female friends, and now Connie has been caught in a lie.

And so, Ashleigh finds herself tagging along and observing some of this marital drama, as Ted tries to find out if Connie is cheating on him or not. And speaking of infidelity, Ashleigh gets caught up in a situation where she has to decide if she’s going to be faithful to Gatsby or not. During the search for Roland, Ashleigh goes to Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, where she meets and is immediately dazzled by a sex-symbol movie star named Francisco Vega (played by Diego Luna), who’s almost twice the age of Ashleigh.

Francisco, who is in Roland’s latest film, doesn’t waste time in asking Ashleigh out on a dinner date. Francisco says he’s recently broken up with his actress girlfriend Tiffany (played by Suki Waterhouse), and when he and Ashleigh go outside together, they’re surrounded by paparazzi and news cameras. You don’t have to be psychic to know who will eventually see this footage.

During the time that Gatsby and Ashleigh are apart, there’s a minor subplot of Gatsby visiting his older brother Hunter and Hunter’s fiancée Lily (played by Annaleigh Ashford) in their spacious home. The wedding invitations have already been sent out, but Hunter confides in Gatsby that he doesn’t want to marry Lily. Why? Because Hunter says he doesn’t like Lily’s laugh, which Hunter describes as “a cross between Dad’s sister Betty and Lenny from ‘Of Mice and Men.'” 

It’s yet one of numerous examples of how superficial, status-conscious and image-obsessed so many people are in this story. And it’s why this so-called romantic comedy isn’t very romantic when almost everyone in the story does not seem capable of loving anyone but themselves. Anyone who doesn’t meet their standard of wealth just isn’t worthy enough of their time.

Chalamet and Fanning do their best to bring some relatable humanity to their roles. But Gatsby is just too conceited and Ashleigh is just too fickle to go beyond the “spoiled rich kid” caricatures that writer/director Allen has constructed for them. Gomez doesn’t have much to do with the character of Chan, whose personality is just an empty shell that only exists to lobby semi-insults back and forth with Gatsby as they pretend they’re not attracted to each other. A good romantic comedy will have audiences rooting for the protagonists, but most of the characters in “A Rainy Day in New York” are so insufferable that audiences will wish these people would just shut up and go away.

MPI Media Group and Signature Entertainment released “A Rainy Day in New York” in select U.S. cinemas on October 9, 2020. The movie’s digital, Blu-ray and DVD release date is November 10, 2020. “A Rainy Day in New York” was released in several countries outside the U.S. in 2019.

2020 DOC NYC: What to expect at this year’s event

October 15, 2020

Updated November 9, 2020

by Carla Hay

Celebrating its 11th edition in 2020, the annual DOC NYC, which is headquartered in New York City, is one of the world’s leading documentary festivals, with a slate of more than 200 films (of which more than 100 are feature-length films) from a diverse array of topics. In 2020, DOC NYC takes place from November 11 to November 19, and continues the festival’s tradition of offering an outstanding variety of feature films and short films, with several of the movies focusing on under-represented people and marginalized communities. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, DOC NYC is a virtual event in 2020, with all of the festival’s movies available to view online to the general public from November 11 to November 19. Tickets are available on the official DOC NYC website.

DOC NYC, which was co-founded by Thom Powers and Raphaela Neihausen, is still offering special virtual events in addition to online screenings. According to a DOC NYC press release: “DOC NYC’s 2020 edition includes the five-day pre-festival Road Trip, October 26-30, a virtual tour on Facebook Live stopping in 10 filmmaking hubs across the United States to showcase local documentary makers and organizations, along with festival films from the area. During the festival itself, conversations with festival filmmakers will take place in daily DOC NYC Live events, and festival screenings will also include pre-recorded filmmaker Q&As after the films. Road Trip is co-presented by Netflix.”

Also according to a DOC NYC press release: “The festival’s noted filmmaker development program, DOC NYC PRO, also moved online in 2020, offering webinars to emerging and established documentary markers around that globe. DOC NYC PRO is co-presented by Apple Original Films. More news about additions to the program, DOC NYC’s Visionaries Tribute honorees, competition jury members, the features and shorts named to the festival’s Short List sections, and other festival updates will be announced in the coming weeks.”

The honorees for the 2020 DOC NYC Visionaries Tribute are film editor Sam Pollard and film editor/producer Jean Tsien, who will each receive the Lifetime Achievement Award; filmmaker Yvonne Welbon, recipient of the Leading Light Award; and filmmaker Alexander Nanau, who will get the Drew Award.

For the second year in a row, the festival is presenting DOC NYC’s Winner’s Circle collection, which spotlights movies that have won awards at other film festivals, but might be underrated or overlooked for Oscar nominations. Winner’s Circle documentaries this year are “Acasa, My Home,” “Beautiful Something Left Behind,” “Influence,” “Mayor,” “The Mole Agent,” “The Painter and the Thief,” “The Reason I Jump,” “Songs of Repression,” “Stray” and “The Walrus and the Whistleblower.”

DOC NYC’s annual Short List spotlights movies (features and shorts) that are considered top contenders to get Oscar nominations. This year’s Short List feature films are “76 Days,” “Boys State,” “Collective,” “Crip Camp,” “Dick Johnson Is Dead,” “The Fight,” “Gunda,” “I Am Greta,” “MLK/FBI,” “On the Record,” “The Social Dilemma,” “A Thousand Cuts,” “The Truffle Hunters” and “Welcome to Chechnya.” This year’s Short List short films are “Abortion Help Line, This Is Lisa,” “Ashes to Ashes,” “Call Center Blues,” “Do No Split,” “Flower Punk,” “Hunger Ward,” “A Life Too Short,” “A Love Song for Latasha,” “No Crying at the Dinner Table,” “Now Is the Time,” “Sing Me a Lullaby,” “Then Comes the Evening.”

Even though most of the movies at DOC NYC have had their world premieres elsewhere, DOC NYC has several world premieres of its own. Here are the feature films that will have their world premieres at DOC NYC. A complete program can be found here.

DOC NYC 2020 WORLD PREMIERE FEATURE FILMS

All descriptions are courtesy of DOC NYC.

UPDATE: “Wuhan Wuhan,” which chronicled what Wuhan, China, was like as the first epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, was announced as being a world premiere at DOC NYC in 2020, but the movie was pulled from the festival for “technical issues,” according to the movie’s publicist.

“A La Calle” 
Directed by Nelson G. Navarrete and Maxx Caicedo

Venezuela’s recent political upheavals are made vivid through this epic work exploring multiple perspectives in the national movement against the dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro.

“Calendar Girl” 
Directed by Christian D. Bruun

Ruth Finley, the nonagenarian queen of the fashion industry through her pink Fashion Calendar, founded in 1945, faces the end of an era as her iconic publication changes ownership. Co-presented by The Cut.


“Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters”
Directed by Rosalynde LeBlanc and Tom Hurwitz

An engrossing examination of dance, love, and loss through the story of Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane’s signature performance piece on the devastation of AIDS. Co-presented by The WNET Group.

Chasing Childhood” 
Directed Eden Wurmfeld and Margaret Munzer Loeb 

Reformed “helicopter” parents and education professionals reveal the benefits of allowing kids to have freedom to play unencumbered by schedules and structure.


 
A Cops and Robbers Story
Directed by Ilinca Calugareanu

A decorated NYPD officer’s career is threatened when his political stances lead to revelations about his former life of crime.

“A Crime in the Bayou” 
Directed by Nancy Buirski

In 1966 Louisiana, a lasting bond is formed between an unjustly arrested Black man, Gary Duncan, and Richard Sobol, his young Jewish attorney.

“Crutch”
Directed by Sachi Cunningham and Vayabobo

Dance, art, performance, and disability politics converge in this entertaining and enlightening portrait of Bill “Crutch” Shannon.

“Duty Free” 
Directed by Sian-Pierre Regis

As his recently laid off mother struggles to find a new job at the age of 75, the filmmaker takes her on an adventure to help her reclaim her life.

“In My Own Time: A Portrait of Karen Dalton” 
Directed by Robert Yapkowitz and Richard Peete

The unconventional life of blues and folk singer Karen Dalton, a prominent figure in the 1960s New York music scene.

“In Silico” 
Directed by Noah Hutton

Director Noah Hutton embarks on a 10-year project following a visionary neuroscientist’s quest to build a computer simulation of a brain.

“La Madrina: The Savage Life of Lorine Padilla”  
Directed by Raquel Cepeda

The “first lady” of the Savage Skulls reflects on the pivotal role of women in the 1970s New York City gang and her later shift to community activism.

“The Meaning of Hitler” 
Directed by Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker

This provocative consideration of the lasting influence and draw of Hitler provides insight into the resurgence of white supremacy, antisemitism, and the weaponization of history.

“Moments Like This Never Last” 
Directed by Cheryl Dunn

In post 9/11 New York City, Dash Snow rejected a life of privilege to make his own way as an artist for a too brief but unforgettable time.

“Neither Confirm Nor Deny” 
Directed by Philip Carter

At the height of the Cold War, the CIA is tasked with an audacious covert mission: recovering a sunken Soviet nuclear submarine from the bottom of the ocean.

“The Oil War”
Directed by David Schisgall

Iconoclastic historian Andrew Bacevich delivers an anti-colonial critique of US foreign policy in the Middle East, which he sees as one long Oil War.

“On Pointe”
Directed by Larissa Bills

A sneak preview of the pilot episode of the upcoming Disney+ docuseries capturing a season in New York City at the School of American Ballet. Co-presented by the NYC Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment.

“Origin of the Species” 
Directed by Abigail Child

Abigail Child offers an eerie and exciting look into the present and future of artificial intelligence through the perspectives of robotics scientists, entrepreneurs, and a Black lesbian robot named BINA48.

“Red Heaven” 
Directed by Lauren DeFilippo and Katherine Gorringe

In this prescient exploration of self-imposed quarantine, six volunteers embark on a one-year mission in a Mars simulation to further research for space exploration.

“Restaurant Hustle” 
Directed by Frank Matson

Executive produced by Guy Fieri, this is an intimate chronicle of the impact of the pandemic on the restaurants of four celebrity chefs: Antonia Lofaso, Marcus Samuelsson, Maneet Chauhan, and Christian Petroni. Co-presented by Grub Street.

“Television Event” 
Directed by Jeff Daniels

On November 20, 1983, ABC-TV broadcast “The Day After,” a chilling fictional account of the aftermath of a nuclear war on a small Kansas town. With impressive access to the principals involved with the project and a trove of archival footage, Jeff Daniels revisits the improbable story of this anti-nuclear major television event and the impact it left on the Reagan era and beyond.

“Wojnarowicz”
Directed by Chris McKim

A powerful elegy to the late New York artist, writer, and filmmaker David Wojnarowicz, who embraced a defiant queer identity and fought against indifference to the AIDS crisis.

“Youth V. Gov” 
Directed by Christi Cooper

Young activists from across the nation file a groundbreaking lawsuit against the United States for endangering their constitutional rights by creating the climate crisis.

November 9, 2020 UPDATE

The following information is from a DOC NYC press release:

DOC NYC LIVE

As it moves online for the first time, the festival is launching a daily block of free programming, DOC NYC Live, available to audiences throughout the US and around the world on Facebook Live. Each afternoon during the festival, the programming team will host live conversations throwing a spotlight on individual films. Speakers expected to participate include Werner Herzog and Clive Oppenheimer, along with festival filmmakers and special guests, including Representative Barbara Lee (Truth to Power: Barbara Lee Speaks for Me), Alex Winter (Zappa), philosopher and activist Angela Davis (Since I Been Down), author David Mitchell (The Reason I Jump), fashion designer Nicole Miller(Calendar Girl), violinist Joshua Bell (Los Hermanos/The Brothers), celebrity restaurateurs Guy Fieri, Marcus Samuelsson, Antonia Lofaso, Maneet Chauhan, and Christian Petroni (Restaurant Hustle 2020: All on the Line), author Francine Prose (The Meaning of Hitler), chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov (The Dissident), and philosopher Cornel West (The Big Scary “S” Word), with additional participants to be announced. The schedule and updates are available at www.DOCNYC.net/DOCNYCLive2020
 
“Since March, we’ve been adapting to our new online reality and trying to find fresh ways to reach audiences,” said DOC NYC Executive Director Raphaela Neihausen. “DOC NYC Live is our latest effort to help filmmakers connect with audiences all over the world.”
 
Audiences can tune in and contribute questions or comments at facebook.com/docnycfest. This live program builds on the success of the festival’s earlier DOC NYC Road Trip, a week of virtual visits with filmmakers and documentary advocates in 10 cities across the country that attracted thousands of viewers. 
 
DOC NYC Live on Wed. Nov. 11 and Thurs. Nov. 12 is co-presented by XTR.  DOC NYC Live on Fri. Nov. 13 is co-presented by Hulu. 

Review: ‘Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles,’ starring Yotam Ottolenghi, Dominique Ansel, Ghaya Oliveira, Dinara Kasko, Sam Bompas, Harry Parr and Janice Wong

September 25, 2020

by Carla Hay

Sam Bompas, Dominique Ansel, Yotam Ottolenghi, Dinara Kasko and Harry Parr in “Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles”

Directed by Laura Gabbert

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in New York City and briefly in London and Versailles, France, this documentary about celebrity chef/author Yotam Ottolenghi’s Metropolitan Museum of Art event to celebrate the cakes of Versailles features a cast of white and Asian people representing the upper-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: The challenge for this event was to bring a modern twist to classic pastry dishes, and there were a few conflicts with the museum staff over what the chefs should and should not do.

Culture Audience: “Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles” will appeal primarily to high-end foodies and fans of these chefs. 

A cake display in “Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

In June 2018, celebrity chef/author Yotam Ottolenghi (who owns and operates Ottolenghi Test Kitchen, a cooking hub/office in London) presented a celebration of the pastries of the legendry French court of Versailles in an event that took place at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (also known as the Met) in New York City. The exhibit event, titled “Feast of Versailles with Yotam Ottolenghi,” included the work of several notable chefs who were personally invited by Ottolenghi to participate. The straightforward documentary “Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles” (directed by Laura Gabbert) chronicles the behind-the-scenes story about this event.

The movie begins with Ottolenghi in London (where he lives) talking about why he decided to head up this event: “I was looking for the next challenge.” He says the Metropolitan Museum of Art approached him for the job. Ottolenghi remembers thinking, “Why am I getting an email from the Met? I don’t hang out with the Met [crowd].”

Ottolenghi continues, “When I saw that Versailles was the upcoming exhibit at the Met, I was intrigued. Food and art and history meet at one big event at the Met about cakes inspired by Versailles.” Considering that Ottolenghi has a background as a pastry chef, he had this thought of the event: “This is for me.”

Met Live Arts Department general manager Limor Tomer explains the idea behind the Met’s “Feast of Versailles” exhibit: “We think of performance and performance work very broadly, so the art of the kitchen fits very well into that. When we were thinking about Versailles, we were thinking about, ‘How do we give people an embodied way to understand what Versailles was and how it fit socially and culturally into people’s lives?'”

To prepare for this prestigious undertaking and to get a better understanding of the culture of Versailles, Ottolenghi visited Versailles, including the landmark Palace of Versailles. He also worked with a tutor on Versailles history: Bard Graduate Center assistant professor Deborah Krohn, who mentions in the documentary that Versailles was different from most other royal courts because there was no real privacy.

The general public could come and go in the Versailles court, which made the royals and upper-class society feel more accessible to lower-class people, but it also created more social envy, since poor people could see all the luxury that other people enjoyed in the court. Ottolenghi comments toward the end of the documentary that the court of Versailles and Instagram have parallels, since both are open to the public, but people use these forums as ways to boast, show off and create envy.

Ottolenghi opens up about his own background in the documentary. He grew up in Jerusalem, and his parents were academics who expected him to follow a similar career path. After a stint in the Israeli Defense Forces, he graduated from Tel Aviv University in 1997, with a combined bachelor’s and master’s degree in comparative literature. He relocated to Amsterdam, where he edited the Hebrew section of NIW, a Dutch-Jewish weekly magazine.

Ottolenghi’s career path turned to cuisine when he moved to London to study French cooking at Le Cordon Bleu. He still has a passion for writing though, as evidenced by his cookbooks and his articles/essays in publications such as The Guardian and The New York Times. Ottolenghi, who is openly gay, lives with his husband Karl Allen and their two sons. Ottolenghi talks warmly about his family, but they are not featured in the documentary.

Ottolenghi’s international and well-traveled background has clearly given him an open-mindedness to other cultures. His business partner Sam Tamimi, who’s briefly interviewed in the documentary, mentions how they both were raised in Jerusalem, but in very different parts of the city: Ottolenghi grew up in Western Jerusalem (which is predominantly Jewish), while Tamimi grew up in Eastern Jerusalem, which is predominantly Muslim.

This openness to other cultures is why Ottolenghi consciously decided that he wanted to invite chefs from various countries to create pastry art for the Versailles exhibit. In the documentary, he says he started his search by following pastry chefs on Instagram. Ottolenghi says he was looking for “pastry chefs who take their art so seriously that the push the boundaries of technology, flavors, presentation. And it was really important to me that they actually be as dissimilar from each other as possible.”

The chosen pastry chefs were:

  • Dominique Ansel, originally from France and currently living in New York City, this James Beard Award-winning baker is best known for creating the Cronut®, Cookie Shot, DKA (Dominique’s Kouign Amann) and Frozen S’mores.
  • Sam Bompas and Harry Parr, originally from the United Kingdom, this London-based duo known as Bompas & Parr, are conceptual artists who infuse technology in their work and are known for creating extraordinary gelatin art.
  • Dinara Kasko, originally from the Ukraine, has a background in architecture and makes pastries using 3D-modeling technologies.
  • Ghaya Oliveira, originally from Tunisia and currently living in New York City, is a James Beard Award-winning executive pastry chef at Daniel (a famous French restaurant in New York City), and she is known for her reinvention of French-based plated desserts.
  • Janice Wong, originally from Singapore, has a specialty in interactive, edible art, especially with chocolate.

With this dream team assembled, the chefs meet with members of the Met museum staff to go over planning and logistics of what the chefs will create. The Met staffers who are featured in the documentary include art curator Danielle Kisluk-Grosheide, production coordinator Sruly Lazaros and executive pastry chef Randy Eastman.

Ansel, the most famous pastry chef in the group, was an obvious top choice for the exhibit. But beyond Ansel’s name recognition and talent, Ottolenghi explains why he thought Ansel would be a perfect fit for the project, “Everything he does is grounded in tradition but modern.” In the documentary, Wong says she was a less obvious choice and she was surprised to get the assignment, since she is known for her contemporary style. However, Wong says she was intrigued because she got to do pretty much anything she wanted for the exhibit.

The chosen chefs also open up about their backgrounds. While Ansel knew from an early age that he wanted to be a chef (he’s began training as a chef after he left high school), others took a different path to their culinary careers. Kasko has the aforementioned background in architecture. Oliveira used to be a ballerina and later worked for an investment company.

Wong had a background doing “math-oriented work,” but her life changed after she survived a serious car accident where she was hit by a drunk driver. “Everything changed,” Wong says, “Something happened between the left and ride side of my brain. I kind of switched.” And so, she became more of a creative person, which led to her profession as a chef.

The biggest challenge that the chefs face in the “Feast of Versailles” exhibit is creating their elaborate works of art in the limited time that they have. They only have about a week on site at the Met to create their displays. Oliveira says she was “very inspired by nature and the gardens of Versailles,” so she decides to make an ambitious display of cakes with a lot of floral motifs.

Bompas & Parr run into problems because they decided to have some running water through a funnel/water pump as part of their exhibit, only to find out from a nervous Tomer that the Met usually doesn’t allow running water in the gallery area where the exhibit will be taking place. There’s also some Bompas & Parr drama about some items that they needed to have shipped from England, and it’s questionable if these items will arrive on time.

The Met executive pastry chef Eastman creates some conflict when he tells Kasko to add more fat (cocoa butter) to her cake batter, but she disagrees because she thinks there’s already too much fat. Eastman is very condescending to Kasko, by telling her about all the experience he has, and she reluctantly follows his advice. It seems that she only did so out of respect because the Met was the hosting venue. But Kasko ended up being right about her recipe, and she had to redo the cake batter the way she originally planned. All that lost time caused her more stress.

Naturally, the climax of the documentary is the big event, which attracted the type of Met crowd that you would expect. (Admission to the event was at a minimum price of $125 per person.) “Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles” isn’t a groundbreaking culinary documentary, but it’s a thoroughly enjoyable look into the process of how this “Feast of Versailles” event was produced, as well as an insightful peek into the personalities of the chefs who created the event’s masterful dessert art.

IFC Films released “Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on September 25, 2020.

Review: ‘I Hate New York,’ starring Amanda Lepore, Sophia Lamar, Chloe Dzubilo and T De Long

September 18, 2020

by Carla Hay

Sophia Lamar in “I Hate New York” (Photo courtesy of 1844 Entertainment)

“I Hate New York”

Directed by Gustavo Sánchez

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in New York City, the documentary “I Hate New York” (filmed from 2007 to 2017) about four artistic transgender or transsexual people who have been longtime residents of New York City, with additional commentary by cisgender people who have been part of the New York City underground artist scene .

Culture Clash: Several people in the documentary talk about experiencing transphobia and how rising rents and gentrification have changed New York City’s artistic scene for the worse.

Culture Audience: “I Hate New York” will appeal mainly to people interested in LGBTQ issues and the New York City artistic scene from the 1990s to 2010s. 

Amanda Lepore in “I Hate New York” (Photo courtesy of 1844 Entertainment)

The artistic people in the provocatively titled documentary “I Hate New York” don’t really hate the city all the time. It’s more like a love/hate relationship. They love the city’s endless choices when it comes to art and culture. They love how people can come to New York and find more acceptance than they would in more conservative cities. But they also hate how the city has become too expensive for struggling artists. And they hate how the way transgender people are still targets for hate crimes and still have to fight for a lot of basic rights that cisgender people take for granted.

Directed by Gustavo Sánchez over the years 2007 to 2017, “I Hate New York” takes a fascinating, raw and emotionally up-and-down look at four transgender or transsexual people who have been longtime New York City residents and part of the city’s entertainment and artistic scene. The four stars of the movie are:

  • Amanda Lepore, a transsexual woman who has a Marilyn Monroe-inspired image and who is best known for being a nightlife personality and model.
  • Sophia Lamar, a transsexual woman who is a Cuban immigrant, as well as a singer, actress and dancer known for her edgy entertainment.
  • Chloe Dzubilo, a transgender woman who became the lead singer of the punk band the Transisters and an outspoken AIDS activist.
  • T De Long, a transgender man who’s an aspiring rapper, DJ and artist (with the stage name TJ Free) whose gender transition is documented in the film.

All of them candidly tell their personal stories and struggles about being a transgender artist in New York City. A description shown in the beginning of the documentary describes the movie this way: “It is an intimate portrait of four heroines living at the margins of activism, transgender culture and nightlife.”

Also weighing in with their opinions are Bibbe Hansen, a former Andy Warhol Superstar; nightlife personality/promoter Linda Simpson; photographer/activist iO Tillett-Wright; filmmaker Katrina Del Mar; promoter Geordon Nicol; and performer/musician Kembra Pfalher.

Lepore and Lamar used to be very close friends came up in the 1990s nightclub scene together. They even sued the nightclub Twilo together for transgender discrimination in 2001, when the club fired them as dancers for not being “real women.” But then, sometime in the late 2000s, Lamar and Lepore had a falling out and they no longer speak to each other.

Dzubilo and De Long had a different kind of connection: They became a romantic couple as De Long (who used to be known as Tara Jo) was transitioning into being a man. Their love story in the movie is touching and tragic.

What all four have in common is that they came to New York City to reinvent themselves because they weren’t really accepted in the places where they lived before. They all had different struggles with their gender identity and experiencing transphobia. And they all found their artistic voices by living in New York City.

Lepore, who is originally from New Jersey, has been open about her past as a dominatrix before she was able to make a living as a nightlife personality. In the documentary, she talks about knowing as a child that she is female. As a teenager, she secretly took female hormones so her body could match her gender. And at 17 years old, the father of her then-boyfriend paid for her sex confirmation surgery. She married the boyfriend, but the marriage didn’t last.

Broke and desperate after she left her husband, Lepore says, “I was working as a dominatrix because I didn’t have any job skills. I wasn’t making enough money doing nails and little jobs, which weren’t paying the bills … I was able to make money as a prostitute without having sex.” One thing that worked out for Lepore was that she was able to live in a hotel that used to be managed by an ex-boyfriend, and her rent pretty much stayed the same for years because the hotel’s management gave her a special discount due to that relationship.

As for all of her plastic surgery, Lepore lists the alterations she’s done to her body, including breast augmentations, a nose job, rib reductions and silicone injections in her hips, lips, cheeks and buttocks. She’s also had her eyes tilted and her hairline pulled down. Just like a lot of women who’ve had surgery to make their breasts bigger, Lepore likes to show that she thinks it was money well-spent, by having a tendency to wear low-cut tops or display her naked breasts in public.

Lepore says she’s all about glamour and escapism. And she still proudly identifies as a “club kid.” The documentary shows her getting dolled up and hobnobbing in nightclubs, usually accompanied by another transgender friend. Fellow nightlife diva Simpson says of Lepore: “Amanda’s fame … is sort of a by-product of what she became.”

If Lepore is about glamourous escapism, Lamar is the opposite: In the documentary, Lamar says, “Club kids are dead,” and she says her artistry is more about realism and being a contrarian. But at the same time, Lamar admits that she enjoys manipulating the truth when it comes to her artistic expressions: “People are in love with a liar,” she says. “People like being lied to.”

Whereas Lepore prefers dance music, Lamar’s preferred music has a rock edge. The documentary includes some footage of Lamar performing her style of avant-garde rock in a nightclub. According to Lamar, she began calling herself Sophia at the age of 13, which is somewhat unusual since a lot of transgender people come out as transgender at a later age. She explains why she changed her first name at such a young age: “Some things are punk rock before they’re punk rock.”

Lamar (who speaks English and Spanish in the movie) also describes her difficult journey when she immigrated to the United States from Cuba. She says that the boat that she and her family came in capsized. They and other passengers had to be rescued by helicopter. She got her chosen surname Lamar because “el mar” means “the sea” in Spanish.

The contrast between Lamar and Lepore is also obvious in how they view nostalgia. Lepore clearly idolizes Marilyn Monroe (she often dresses like how Monroe looked in the 1950s) and she doesn’t mind talking about her heyday as a “club kid.” Lamar has this to say about why she doesn’t like to dwell on the past: “Nostalgia is private … like masturbation. Nostalgia is like a cancer.”

Nightlife promoter Nicol comments in the documentary: “Sophia Lamar is probably one of the most important nightlife people in New York.” And although former friends Lamar and Lepore no longer speak to each other, Lepore says they are still connected because they still go to the same nightclubs and still know a lot of the same people. Whichever style of performance art that people prefer, it’s clear that there’s room for both Lepore and Lamar in New York’s nightlife.

Although neither and Lamar nor Lepore go into details about what went wrong with their friendship, Lepore hints that Lamar was the one who ended it. Lepore comments in the documentary about their estrangement: “I was upset about it … I’ve moved on … It did hurt at first … It was more her than me.”

While one relationship unraveled among two of people starring in this documentary, another relationship blossomed. Dzubilo describes herself a kid who came from a working-class Connecticut family and grow up around a lot of “white, New England, conservative small-town stuff.” Dzubilo comments in the documentary: “I went to private school on a scholarship, but I always had this deep internal life.”

She moved to New York City in the early ’80s when Studio 54 reopened under new owners after original owners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager were imprisoned for tax evasion. Dzubilo says when she first lived in New York City, she felt he felt “gobbled up” by the city. She says she became a “wild child” and had a boyfriend who was a drug dealer. The documentary includes footage of Dzubilo as lead singer of the Transisters, a punk band consisting of all transgender women.

Dzubilo attended the Parsons School of Design and received an associate degree in Gender Studies from the City University of New York City College in 1999. But she also went through tough times, including being homeless and being diagnosed as HIV-positive, which led to her being a passionate AIDS activist. At the time she filmed this documentary, Dzubilo also talked about having other health issues, such has having debilitating problems with her bones.

It isn’t made clear in the documentary how Dzubilo and De Long met, but the movie shows De Long in the days when De Long was living as a woman named Tara Jo and she was an aspiring rapper. De Long, as Tara Jo, says that when she was a child, her dream was either to be a Hollywood star or a baseball star.

De Long also has a lot to say about how New York City has changed since she moved to the city in the mid-1990s from rural Illinois: “I wish New York could be more accessible the way it used to be, more of a place where artists can come and sort of start and not be in debt and have a chance to live here. Unfortunately, it’s a tough place to start.” De Long continues, “The problem with the underground is there’s no money in it. And you get to a certain age when you can’t do it for free anymore.”

Dzubilo and De Long became a couple when De Long was living as a transgender man. It’s mentioned in the documentary that De Long has since made the full transition by having the operation. In case people don’t know what happened in Dzubilo and De Long’s relationship, that information won’t be revealed in this review. However, the documentary does show what happened, and it’s the most emotional part of the movie.

One of the scenes that shows an example of things that cisgender people take for granted is when Dzubilo and De Long jubilantly describe how they took a trip outside of the United States as a transgender couple. They were able to get through the customs checkpoint with their passports without being questioned or harassed because they’re transgender. They talk about how that type of gender acceptance, which cisgender people don’t have to think about when they show their identification, was a huge milestone for them.

All four of the transgender stars in this movie became trans activists, with Dzubilo being the most politically active of the four. Lepore has this to say about her trans activism: “What I do is a statement. I help people in my own way.”

“I Hate New York” (which is Sánchez’s feature-film debut as a director) has a lot of raw-looking hand-held footage, but there’s also some artistic shots, especially of the nightlife scenes. And because the movie was filmed over 10 years, it’s a compelling journey into the lives of these four transgender people. “I Hate New York” isn’t about disdain for America’s most-populated city but rather hate for any transphobia they’ve experienced and New York City’s increasingly difficult financial barriers for struggling artists. However, the transgender people who star in this documentary admirably show how they’ve been able to rise above the hate.

1844 Entertainment released “I Hate New York” on digital and VOD on September 1, 2020. The movie was originally released in Spain in 2018.