Documentary Review : Let The Fire Burn (2013)

IMSB Score – 7.4
Rotten Tomato Score – 97%

Directed By – John Osder

A documentary that looks back to May 13, 1985 – the day Philadelphia police exploded the home occupied by the radical group MOVE, and the resulting fire that killed five children and six adults, while destroying sixty-one homes in its wake.

First off, I’m back everybody. I decided not to write a post about it but I recently moved to Fort Lee, New Jersey over the last week. Between my regular person job, packing, and various other social activities, I just haven’t been able to sit down for an extended amount of time and watch a film. Luckily, I am now pretty much all settled in my new apartment where I’ll be spending some good time trying not to run out of money. I have a plan for that. I will hole up in my place and spend my evenings watching various things until I save up enough money to actually go outside and have fun. There should be some posts coming your way now.

My initiation back into writing mode could not have been a better one. Having redirected my Netflix account to my new address, “Let the Fire Burn” made its way to my mailbox just in time for a lazy Sunday. Ever since I read about the film I wanted to see it due to my infatuation with new things. I had never heard about the events that happened on May 13th, 1985 and this surprised me. I usually know, at least in gist, about events such as these. I’m familiar with Waco, Texas, Jonestown, Oklahoma City, all those various events that captured the nation by storm and turned us into zombies glued to the television. The fact that I have never even heard about the fires that destroyed 61 homes or even heard mention of the MOVE organization strikes me strange. I was instantly interested form the go and what I ended up witnessing was a haunting, fantastically edited debut film from directer John Osder. Let’s get the details of what happened out of the way.

The MOVE organization is a cult. There is no doubt about this Interviews with members try to paint a different story in that they are only abiding by our constitutional right to freedom of religion but when you have punishment for sneaking in forbidden items, you have the making of a cult. MOVE members do not engage in anything related to technology besides a few items that could potentially aid in their movement. They have a telephone yet not running lights or entertainment such as televisions or radios. They live basically off the land with an abundance of food such as watermelon, mangoes, onions, and anything that can be grown in the ground. For protein they eat raw meat from chicken to beef to fish. They are forbidden from eating cooked meat and punishment for doing so can be as extreme as beatings. This is where the cult forms. All of these rules and ways of life stems down from founder and leader John Africa. Members, who all done the last name of Africa, look at their founder as a Jesus Christ figure, even comparing him to Christ for his ideals and even his carpentry. The carpentry part is important as we’ll find out later.

I wanted to set up the details of the organization because of how unique it was. This is not an organization that bass their headquarters in some remote location in the Midwest. This is in the heart of West Philadelphia. It’s like if an African American/Amish community raided the streets of “Do the Right Thing”. Kids are playing on the street while members are schooling young children in their compound in the next yard. It’s a very surreal sight that I just didn’t realize could happen in such an urban city. What everything ended up culminating to was basically a militarized compound smack dab on a street with regular Philly people trying to go about their lives. It’s the escalation of the cult that was so fascinating to me. Small confrontations with police grew into gigantic standoffs with deadly repercussions. It was a wild ride punctuated by some talented editing involving home movies, interviews with members, video footage of committee depositions after the events, and live footage from news outlets. All of this culminated into a riveting story, and ultimately a tragic one.

What the film ended up doing for me, without giving away details, was change my support from the police, back to the cult, back to the police, and so on and so on. What ended up happening on May 13th was a culmination of ignorance from the cult cherry topped with complete negligence from the Philadelphia police department. In simpler terms, it was a shit show of major proportions. The way the film attacks this story however is one of immense dedication to being as unbiased as possible and letting the viewer decide for their selves. I personally was riveted during the entire film. I was on the edge of my seat in disbelief until the credits began to roll and if any of you reading this have had no prior knowledge to this event like I did then it is safe to say that you will as well. It was one of the best documentaries I’ve seen that chronicled an event such as this. It was as I was watching it with an unbiased opinion as it was happening but in realty the whole thing went unnoticed over twenty years ago. It’s a superb film and I’m glad to be back everybody.


Suggested Viewing – Bus 174, The Central Park Five, West Memphis Three, Burma VJ

Film Review : The Waiting Room (2012)

IMDB Score – 6.6
Rotten Tomato Score – 100%
Netflix Instant Watch

Directed By – Peter Nicks

Go behind the doors of an American public hospital struggling to care for a community of largely uninsured patients.

I’ve been on a bit of a documentary binge recently. Luckily Netflix has had a great couple weeks recently in which they have made some great documentaries available on Instant Watch, including this one which has only been getting a smallish buzz. I remember watching the hit television show “ER” when I was a kid and being captivated by what takes place in an emergency room. While the show was a wonderful drama, what really happens in an emergency room couldn’t really be further from what happens in the show. Having family members that are routinely going to the hospital for various reasons, I have only just scratched the surface on what it takes to run a successful hospital. Peter Nicks directs a film that tries to show an unbiased light on the health care system in our country.

This isn’t a talking heads film. What is essentially being shown is a raw look on a typical night at Highland Hospital located in Oakland, California. The film describes that in a period of 24 hours, the emergency room had a total of 241 patients walk through the doors, most of whom did not have health insurance. The severity of the illnesses and symptoms ranges from serious tumors, throat conditions, gunshots, and chronic pain, but also incorporates people trying to get a little Tylenol. Throughout the entire film, the staff at Highland never rests as they are trying to figure out which patients need attention more than others, where they can put them, and whether or not the hospital is going to be getting paid. That last part is important. Hospitals need money to run efficiently but not everybody can pay the crazy amounts of money that is required to see a doctor for serious conditions. It’s a double edged sword that really nobody is comfortable with but is a reality facing our nation. Canada has free healthcare but the waits are long. America requires insurance to avoid near impossible bills…and the waits are long. Some people interviewed in the film waited hours to be seen. Some of their conditions worsened during the wait. These are the problems facing our country and a film like this is a great way to understand what we are trying to fix.

Political comments aside, the film was very engaging. As I said before, the film is presented in a raw fashion, going from patient to patient and experiencing their diagnosis right along side them. Some patients are angry, some are sad, some just want to go home, and the camera pays them justice by telling the truth on what it is like going to the Hospital when you’re sick. The fact that it’s in such a polarizing area such as Oakland only helps people realize what inner city hospitals are like.

It’s a short watch and loads better than anything you’re likely to find on any network television shows. I hope it gets more attention.


Documentary Review – The Act of Killing (2013)

IMDB Score – 8.3
Rotten Tomato Score – 95%
Netflix Watch Instant
Academy Award Nominee for Best Documentary

Directed by – Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and Annonymous
Starring – Anwar Congo, Herman Koto, and Syamsul Arifin

A documentary that challenges former Indonesian death squad leaders to reenact their real-life mass-killings in whichever cinematic genres they wish, including classic Hollywood crime scenarios and lavish musical numbers.

What makes a great documentary? I used to think it was just the ability to find great footage and develop the story around it. Lately it has been the ability to portray humanity for what it really is…a continually evolving machine of good and evil. It helps when the subject matter is interesting to the viewer but what I want most in a documentary is a view of life on this planet that is not normally seen and certainly not understood. Joshua Oppenheimer knocked the genre on its ass this year when he released “The Act of Killing”.

The film centers are Anwar Congo, a former deathsquad leader who claims to have killed over one thousand people from 1965 to 1967. Over one million people were murdered during this time period. They were killed when the military took over the government and claimed that anybody practicing communism would be put to death without trial. Some of these people were actually communist but most were killed on the slightest whim by a death squad/youth member if they thought they were a communist. Some Chinese residents were killed on the spot just because they were Chinese. These killings were not only allowed but completely backed by the national government. Villages were burned down, women were raped, and the murders were of brutal and sadistic fashion. The people who carried out these murders are not behind bars. They were not put to death. They are the stars of this film.

When I used to watch the History Channel before it became a reality television network for rednecks without teeth or clothes that fit, documentaries and mini series would run constantly of WW2. Nazi’s marching up and down streets with hate in their eyes backed by the screaming lunatic that was Adolf Hitler filled the screen. We all know about the Nazis and what they did. I’m not going to explain that. I bring this up because what is happening in Indonesia right now is the little brother to what happened in WW2. The big difference here is that the Nazis are no longer in control. The same regime that put these murders into effect is still in charge today and the general public still laud these murderers as heroes. This backwards ass fantasy world is alive and well and brought to light by Openheimer and his crew. They follow Congo, a charismatic old man, and his partner Herman, a younger and more chaotic man as they recall their past and bizarrely reenact these stories on camera. They have convinced themselves that they are going to be on the big screen flaunting their stories of murder for all to see and appreciate. Bizarre is not a good enough word to describe these reenactments. They are completely surreal and whacked out fantasy garble unfolding before Oppenheimer and his crew. The crew, who are being told these stories of murder as if they were daily anecdotes occurring on the way to work, have to shut off their intuition to interfere and keep the camera focused on their subjects. The end result is one of best collection of truly terrifying real characters that even the great fiction writers of our day couldn’t come up with.

The film is shot through mostly steadicam shots fixated on the subjects at hand. There are no talking heads dictating what the viewer is going to experience. The film travels through one nightmare to the next as these men are paraded around town by governing officials and asked to be on television talks shows where they boast about their countless murders to cheering fans and adoration. Reenactments occur in the streets with actors being cast on the spot and who seem to be forced into portraying the victims of these murders during their last moments. Children are crying and some are laughing during these “scenes”. It’s as if the children don’t know how to feel since they were not around to witness the actual horror but are instead told through stories. The emotion on their faces goes completely unnoticed by the youth leaders and former gangsters as most of the children are asked why they are so upset. I mean, it was only an act!

Like the Nazis before them and their northern neighbors, the North Koreans, the entire population of Indonesia is either completely brainwashed into thinking this genocide was essential to their history or are scared to mention the fact that their government is made up of a bunch of war criminals. I asked what is essential in a good documentary and the answer is still up for debate, but there is no doubting that “The Act of Killing” is a one of a kind look into a culture that is centered around killing and yet sees no problem with it at all. It’s a chilling film that must be seen and can be seen if you have a Netflix account.


Documentary Review : Stories We Tell (2013)

IMDB Score – 7.7
Rotten Tomato Score – 95%

Directed By – Sarah Polley

A film that excavates layers of myth and memory to find the elusive truth at the core of a family of storytellers.

I’ve always been a fan of Sarah Polley. I really enjoyed her work as a director and writer for Away From Her which got her a nomination from the Academy Awards and her acting has always been enjoyable. Stories We Tell is a documentary about Sarah Polley…sort of. Her mother Diane Polley who died before her time of cancer is the focal point of Sarah’s inquiries to her family, all of which is documented by Sarah herself. What starts to develop is a story which then becomes the main theme of the film in which the origin of how Sarah entered this world comes into question. I’ll leave it at that. It’s a wonderful thing to watch unfold and I don’t want to spoil it.

This film hit me pretty hard. I feel comfortable saying that I am currently in therapy for some issues that involve my family. While that is as far as I’m willing to disclose, I can say that the stories that are told from each family member are ones that I constantly find myself telling to my doctor. I mean that in a way that we all tell people stories of our family. Our family is what we have known since our earliest memories. Until we eventually move out on our own, our families are what we wake up to and fall asleep with. This film was one of the most intimate things I’ve ever watched because The Polley family was talking about Diane Polley with such emotion and love that I felt like I was a close friend giving somebody comfort. It was an emotional ride told with precision and heart from Sarah. It also happened to be a gripping and captivating story with twists and turns that go on up until a shocking reveal in the films closing credits. It was as I was in the rooms with these people as they laughed and cried as they recalled their lives growing up with their mother. It was a connecting experience.

The film isn’t going to be for everybody. It’s made of talking heads and reenactments using super 8 footage but it really hit home for me. We’re going to be telling stories of our lives with our families for years to come. Some will be good and some will be bad but they are the stories we know best and the ones that mean the most in the end.


Documentary Review : Big Boys Gone Bananas!* (2011)

IMDB Score – 7.2
Rotten Tomato Score – 75%
Netflix Instant Watch

Directed By – Fredrik Gertten
Nominated for Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema Documentray

Dole Food Company wages a campaign to prevent a pair of Swedish filmmakers from showing their documentary about a lawsuit against the company.

Yes. I’m aware that the title of this film is misleading. I can assure you that the film I’m about to review is REALLY about a lawsuit Dole filed against a film claiming defamation and not a film about a bunch of dudes going crazy on film with each other. As a lover of film it is my duty to remain unbiased towards certain titles and to never judge a book or film by its cover or title but I assure you that I read up on this film before I watched it. Now that I got that off my chest, let’s get to the film on hand.

So basically what this is is a documentation of the legal proceedings that followed the creation of Bananas!*, a film by Swedish director Fredrik Gertten about the legal battles and dangers that banana pickers/workers were going though at that time. Dole, the biggest manufacturer of fruit and vegetables in the world was mentioned in the film but not focused as a direct cause for these problems. The film is to be screened at the LA Film Festival and before it can do so, Gertten receives a cease and desist letter in the mail claiming that if the film is shown at the festival that a lawsuit will follow. The letter was sent by Dole. What follows is a document of how propaganda and direct violation of freedom of speech is rampant in US legal proceedings and that if you want to sue somebody you basically can as long as you have the money to back it up.

It’s kind of a weird concept. The film is about a film, one of which is readily available to the public now, but in order to take a side I feel like I should have seen this film in question. I haven’t and my opinion of the film only differs in a small sense but you should really see the film in question before watching this documentary. I feel it’s more fun that way. Even without doing so I enjoyed this. They show things through an ultimately biased but grounded viewpoint that becomes more factual and poignant as the story starts getting picked up by national news programs. It’s a great look into corporate dealings and operations and that if a company is big enough, they can basically do or say what they want as long as they have the funding for it. It’s a true David and Goliath story that sheds light on commercial industry and its treatment towards the bill of rights.