Tag Archives: Documentary

Jesus Camp

Country of Origin:
Running Time: 87 min

jesustitleIn their film, directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady offer their audiences a glimpse into the experiences of some of the people who form the radical Christian Evangelical subculture. Jesus Camp follows a group of children as they participate in a summer camp called “Kids on Fire,” run by Pastor Becky Fischer. The footage documenting events, and interviews of the participants and their parents at the summer camp, are framed by excerpts of a radio talk show hosted by Mike Papantonio. Papantonio represents the voice of dissent in a film whose subjects purport a very singular religious-political ideology.

The film begins with images of the road and towns in Missouri, while the sound track switches between radio stations reporting the news of Sandra Day O’Connor’s resignation from the Supreme Court and those on which talk show hosts say things like, “We are engaged today in what they call a Culture War. We didn’t start it, but by His grace we’re going to end it. Say, ‘Yes, we want to reclaim America for Christ.’” From here the film goes into Papantonio’s studio where we see him critiquing the religious-right’s role in the political arena. The directors use the first four minutes of the film to establish a political framework through which interpret the events that will unfold.

Most of the remainder of the documentary consists of shots of camp activities and interviews with camp participants Levi (age 12), Tory (age 10), and Rachael (age 9), their parents, and Fischer. Through these interviews we learn that many of the children are homeschooled by their Evangelical Christian parents and are taught things like creationism and that science is untrustworthy. The camp activities range from the more common Christian camp activities like group prayers in which participants beg forgiveness for their sins to seemingly very political activities like praying over a life-size cardboard cutout of George W. Bush.

Given the controversial nature of many of the things shown and said (at one point Fischer compares her summer camp to Palestinian militant training camps for child soldiers), the directors tried to keep their presentation as objective as possible. They expressly desired to keep their own bias out of the film and accomplished this through some interesting documentary techniques. For example, the directors are never seen in the film; the audience only ever hears the answers and the questions posed during interviews. Following the first screening of their film in New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, the directors changed the musical score because they “felt that it was too judgmental-sounding and [they] were painfully trying to come to the film with a neutral eye.”

Despite their efforts to be objective documentarians, Ewing and Grady expressed not being able to resist placing the story of “Kids on Fire” into a national context by putting it in conversation with liberal-Christian Papantonio’s radio talk show. This occurs very literally when, at one point, Fischer calls in to the show and the two hold a debate on the matter of indoctrinating children. Even with the political framework that the directors explicitly create for the story of the camp, the film does manage to present all opinions expressed with respect and in such a way that leaves the audience to come to their own conclusions and question their beliefs.

Nw York TImes review: http://movies.nytimes.com/2006/09/22/movies/22camp.html?_r=0

Interviews with filmmakers: http://www.nycmovieguru.com/rachelgradyheidiewing.html



Conjure Women

“The work is about life. It’s about experience. It’s not about academics and it’s not about theory. And it’s not about processing out who you are. It’s very much about personal experience. And so if I want to talk about personal experience and I have to talk to those people who are interested in that and who live it. Not people who are interested in it, but those who live their experience. You know, those who don’t use theory as a sort of chart  or gauge by which to monitor their lives.”             -Carrie Mae Weems

Conjure Women highlights the work and careers of four African-American female artists: choreographer Anita Gonzalez, performance artist Robbie McCauley, photographer Carrie Mae Weems, and singer Cassandra Wilson. The film explores the complex identity of African-Americans and the positionality of women within this identity. Each woman portrays African American culture in arenas it which is hasn’t typically been acknowledged. Their work is a way to teach, but also to find their place within and connection to the community from which they originate. For example, Anita Gonzalez performs a piece about handling African-American’s hai, emphasizing attempts to suppress kinky curls in favor of straight hair or braids. The performance not only becomes a look at black hair, but also at what African-American women do in order to feel beautiful, no matter how damaging the process.

Each artist uses her work to explore the African diaspora on a global level. African-American women’s experiences are connected to men’s, but the distinctions are often not tackled. These four women are striving to tell the narrative surrounding African-American women by reclaiming their history and the stories of their families. They are keeping African-American history and traditions alive, while modernizing them to inform the current generation. Conjure Women is a beautiful documentary exploring the experience of not just African-American women, but all women. Unfortunately, the documentary hasn’t received the attention it deserves, but each artist featured is well established and easy to explore individually.


Between Women: Trauma, Witnessing, and the Legacy of Interracial Rape in Robbie McCauley’s Sally’s Rape

Cassandra Wilson on NPR

Anita Gonzalez’s Website

Carrie Mae Weems’ Photography Website

Kinda Sutra, The

Country of Origin:
Running Time: 8 min
The Kinda Sutra (2009)

An unnamed girl speaks to the camera
© The Kinda Sutra 2009

Jessica Yu (In the Realms of the UnrealPing Pong Playa) turns her attentions to explore a universal yet simple question of childhood: Where do babies come from? Produced by Nonfiction Unlimited, The Kinda Sutra became an official selection of both the 2010 LunaFestival as well as 2009 Sundance Film Festival. And while the premise may be simple, Yu’s documentary touches on the complex social structures that continue to shape the social discourse on this scientific phenomenon. Through a series of interviews with people of various ages and races, Yu set out to document the countless stories that misrepresent the process of reproduction. Yu makes clear that regardless of social background, adults have created intricate stories, albeit age-appropriate, on this process. Ranging from the story of the stork to a simplified model of preformism, many stories have little to do with the actual event. In some cases, an explanation is not given at all, leaving kids and their endless imagination to piece it together. Coupled with all of this, Yu uses vibrant animations (by Stardust Studios) to illustrate the tales of misguided youths.

Most interestingly, the film ends with a handful of interviews with various children all that have been told the scientific explanation of the sperm and the egg. While surely more accurate, the grammar used across the board reproduces the underlying cultural assumptions about the event of the reproduction. It remains clear that the medical culture has pervaded the popular culture, in seeing the metaphor of the female reproductive system as a machine designed to produce. Quite literally, one interview relates the womb as a mechanized oven. Moreover, extending the metaphor of birthing as labor, such interpretation maintains unnecessary rhetoric of positivity in discussing the maturation and role of the sperm. One interview says that after the “connection” is made, the man “makes the baby.” Undoubtedly, through Yu’s various interviews, we are able to hear the consequences of the current lexicon. As a whole, The Kinda Sutra can act as a vehicle to highlight how people often do not notice the obviousness of everything that is said around them.

Further Readings:

Martin, Emily. “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles.” Signs 16.3 (1991): 485-501. JSTOR. Web. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3174586>.

Martin, Emily. The Woman in the Body: A Cultural Analysis of Reproduction. Boston: Beacon, 1992. Print.


Martin Mathay ’15

Jasad & The Queen of Contradictions

Filmmaker: Amanda Homsi-Ottosson
Year: 2011
Country of Origin: UK, Lebanon
Format: Color, DVD
Running Time: 40 minutes
Languages: English, Arabic (subtitled)

This documentary from Lebanese director Amanda Homsi-Ottosson explores the controversy surrounding Jumanah Sallum Haddad’s magazine Jasad. Published quarterly, Jasad is an erotic cultural magazine that aims to educate and provide and outlet for Arab sexuality.  Haddad, a writer herself, decided to create an outlet for other Arab men and women to read, write, and discuss arts and literature surrounding ideas of the body.

Contradiction mostly focuses on the debate that has sprung up around Jasad, both between those who view the magazine as beneficial and those who find it to be inappropriate and shameful and between those who believe that it is not serving women in the way it should be. The documentary focuses mainly on interviews with Haddad herself, those who read (or wish to ban) her magazine, and various professionals whose lives are touched by the issues in covered in Jasad, such as a sexual health counselor.

Contradictions paints an interesting portrait of Haddad and her magazine.  The documentary begins with Haddad explaining why she was motivated to create Jasad and continues with street interviews about perceptions of the magazine. Reactions are predictably polarized, ranging from religious denunciations of the magazine to endorsements of the work by young men and women hoping to spread awareness and acceptance of sexuality.

The most interesting part of Contradiction comes when various Jasad readers explain the importance of having such a publication in the Arab world.  It is explained that it is common for Arab men and women to use French or English words for genitalia and sex acts, because the most common equivalent words in Arabic are either offensive or nonexistent. Jasad is portrayed as bringing back ownership of not only the body but the language surrounding the body to Arabic speakers.  The narrative of Jasad can be written as one of decolonization and reclamation.

Contradictions, although unconditionally supportive of Haddad and Jasad, does allow alternative opinions to be expressed through interviews. One in particular offered a valid and interesting critique of the magazine. Two Muslim feminists – one veiled and one not – argue that Jasad is pushing a certain kind of liberation on society. The women explain that there should be no shame in wearing a veil, and that they are “not represented in this ‘revolutionary magazine'”.

Related readings:
I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions of an Angry Arab Woman, by Jumanah Sallum Haddad, creator of Jasad

Southern Comfort (Dir: Kate Davis, 2001)

Country of Origin:
Format: ,
Running Time: 90 min

Robert Eads and Lola Cola


Subject Headings: documentary, transsexual identity, health care, human rights

Southern Comfort is divided into the last four seasons of the life of Robert Eads, a cowboy from the Toccoa, Georgia backcountry.  Director Kate Davis spent one year living with Eads and filming his daily struggle with ovarian cancer.  More than a dozen doctors denied Eads treatment because he was a female-to-male transsexual.  Unable to receive treatment, the cancer ultimately claimed Eads’ life shortly after he spoke at the 1999 Southern Comfort conference in Atlanta, GA.  Southern Comfort, an annual conference for people affected by trans issues,

During the last year of his life, Eads pursued a close relationship with Lola Cola, a male-to-female transsexual. Davis documented their life together, as well as the tensions that resulted within Eads’ “family of choice.”  After bearing two sons, a period that he described as both the best and the worst in his life, Eads divorced his husband and lived as a lesbian before undergoing gender reassignment surgery to live as a woman.  At the time Davis was filming, Eads lived near several other transsexuals who came out publicly for the first time in the film.  Fiercely protective of one another, each member of the family sought to help Eads, who was a father figure and mentor to each.  Eads’ biological family, including his parents, son, and grandson, makes a brief appearance, but they still see him as a daughter and father and are unable to relate to the person he has become.  The loss of his biological family clearly pains Eads deeply, and he often mentions his grandson, to whom he has always been a man.

Davis highlights the frustration and anger felt by Eads and his friends over the medical establishment’s unwillingness to offer transsexuals parity. Those who underwent gender reassignment surgery shared stories about the expense and the doctors who did a poor job.  Footage of Southern Comfort reveals men and women discriminated against and threatened by a system ill equipped to address difference.  But as much as the film is about the difficulties faced by transsexuals in America, it also emphasizes the beauty and normalcy of transsexual relationships.  By showing both the unity and the divisions within Eads’ chosen family, Davis demonstrates that they are as human as her audience.  The film received numerous awards and critical acclaim, including a grand jury prize at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival.

Will Hopkins 2011

Further Reading:

Official web site: http://www.nextwavefilms.com/southern/

Southern Comfort web site: http://www.sccatl.org/

World Professional Association for Transgender Health: http://wpath.org/

Meyer, Carla. The transsexual life, Southern style / HBO documentary explores fascinating ‘chosen family’. SFGate.com. 2002. < http://articles.sfgate.com/2002-04-12/entertainment/17538451_1_transsexual-southern-comfort-ovarian>

Mitchell, Elvis. Genders That Shift, but Friends Firm as Bedrock. The New York Times. 2001. < http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9B01E5DC1639F932A15751C0A9679C8B63>

Carmen Miranda: Bananas Is My Business (Helena Solberg, 1995)

Country of Origin: ,
Running Time: 91 min

Carmen Miranda

Carmen Miranda: Bananas Is my Business tells the story of Carmen Miranda from birth to death and legacy.  It follows Miranda as a Portuguese immigrant to Brazil who found fame both locally and in the United States as a Samba singer, dancer and actress.  Helena Solberg, who is also the director of the film, narrates the documentary.  She places Miranda’s story into a more personal context, exploring the impact that the star has had on her own life and perception of the world while keeping the focus on the progression of the biography. There is a particular authenticity to Solberg’s storytelling that creates an immersive viewing experience.

The film contains many interviews with characters that were relevant to Carmen Miranda’s life, ranging from fans and journalists to her musicians and family members.  Solberg interweaves these interviews with archive footage of Miranda (both staged and real), movie clips and musical performances.  She shows both the public perception of Miranda as a star in Brazil and the United States, and reflects on the cultural and domestic conflicts with which Miranda had to deal with behind the scenes.  It is fascinating to see Miranda’s choices in music, performance, film and beauty influence the trends of her time and leave its mark in entertainment history.  One of the most remarkable things about this documentary is that even if you do not start out a Carmen Miranda fan, you cannot help but get caught up in her story.

For further reading:

A piece by Gary Morris from The Bright Lights Film Journal

A review of the documentary in the American Historical Review (pages 1162-1164)

Serra Kornfilt 2011

Arresting Ana (Dir. Lucie Schwartz, 2009)

Country of Origin: ,
Running Time: 26 min

Format: Color, DVD

Arresting Ana is a film that, despite its short running time, grapples with a number of serious and troubling issues concerning the intersections of body image, free speech, and the Internet. The film centers around the pro-anorexia cyber movement, and follows Sarah, an 18 year-old college student with a “pro-Ana” blog called “In Search of Perfection, ” and Valerie Boyer, a legislator seeking to making websites like Sarah’s, illegal. The film describes “Ana” as a way for those struggling with the illness to personify the disease. In the film, Sarah describes “Ana” as a supportive and motivating force and even, a friend. The film depicts both the political and personal sides of this struggle, posing questions concerning free speech, along with the danger and efficacy of such websites. It considers both how these websites function for those suffering from the disease, and also what the impact of the Boyer Law might have on young women like Sarah.

The film, which takes place in France, also deals with how women living in a society so obsessed with food and thinness, might grapple with such opposing pressures. The film is interspersed with images of Paris—of it’s restaurants and markets alongside the advertisements of super-thin fashion models that permeate the country’s visual culture. The film, which focuses on Sarah’s perspective, shows how these websites, whose message can easily be construed as “morbid and perverse,” also serve as communities and outlets for those suffering with eating disorders to connect with others facing similar struggles. However, the film also includes screen shots of these blogs and sites, revealing the troubling imagery and ideology they often seem to promote.

Although the film focuses on the French legislation trying to ban “pro-Ana” websites, which would include up to two-years in prison and a 30,000 Euro fine, it also addresses the universal pervasiveness of this growing trend. As stated in the film, such websites exist in every language and every culture, a fact that underscores the disturbing growth and omnipresence of this disease. By providing the viewer with Sarah’s perspective, the film conveys a more complete sense of how these individuals view themselves, and how these online communities function for individuals struggling with eating disorders and body image.

For further information:

Film’s official website: http://arrestingana.com/

Overbeke, Grace (2008), “Pro-Anorexia Websites: Content, Impact, and
Explanations of Popularity”, The Wesleyan Journal of Psychology 3: 49–62

Norris, Mark L; Boydell, Katherine M; Pinhas, Leora; Katzman, Debra K (2006), “Ana and the internet: A review of pro-anorexia websites”, The International journal of eating disorders 39 (6): 443–447

Morris, Bonnie Rothman (2002-06-23), “A Disturbing Growth Industry: Web Sites That Espouse Anorexia”, New York Times, http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9F00E4DB123CF930A15755C0A9649C8B63&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all

Harris, Misty (2007-09-15), “Online anorexia videos prompt call for website restrictions”, Edmonton Journal, http://www2.canada.com/edmontonjournal/news/story.html?id=8e8d21e0-c8da-4af1-b05c-01422ab6136d

(in French) Proposition de loi visant à lutter contre les incitations à la recherche d’une maigreur extrême ou à l’anorexie, Assemblée nationale, 2008-07-02, http://www.senat.fr/rap/l07-439/l07-439_mono.html

Schwartz, Lucie (2009-12-22), Outlawing Ana: French lawmakers battle eating disorders (http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/rough/2009/12/france.html), PBS Frontline

On the Eighth Day: Making Perfect Babies (dir:Gwynne Basen, 1992)

Country of Origin:
Running Time: 102 min

Written by Erna Buffie

Subject headings: reproductive rights, in vitro fertilization, documentary, eugenics, biotechnology

Gwynne Basen’s documentary On the Eighth Day offers a look into the world of artificial insemination through a close examination of the methods of in vitro fertilization (IFV) as well as the social and ethical consequences further development of these methods would have. The film opens with a case study of a woman who chose to have children knowing that her genetic disorder would most likely be passed on to her offspring. With this personal perspective, the film immediately dives into the question of whether it is morally right to control which children are born by pre-selecting which fetuses are fertilized. The film gives the history of the development of the study of genetics and how IVF was developed. Consequences of new technological advances in the field of genetics are explored through the voices of several researchers as well as non-medical personnel such as patients suffering from genetic disabilities and women who have used IVF. Although much of the film is dedicated to informing the public about these biotechnological advances, the viewpoints used of the researchers clearly shows the film’s intent to show the negative consequences of these techniques that may occur in the future. Reproductive services available at the time this film was made already were significant outside of providing alternative means of contraception. The availability of pre-implantation diagnostics raises ethical questions about whether it is right to choose only certain kinds of fetuses to carry to term or to abort fetuses with genetic disorders.
Throughout the film, Basen attempts to fairly present the debate over the moral line between researching genetics for the pursuit of knowledge and researching it in search of methods to genetically engineer a more perfect baby, as the name of the film implies. The most moving arguments were those discussing the most extreme case to date of an attempt to use genetics to perfect the human race: the Nazis. Basen makes this point emotionally as well as intellectually. Not only do the researchers draw strong parallels between recently developed reproductive technologies and the possibility of these methods being used for a racially determined genocide, but also makes the argument emotionally powerful by inter-cutting the researchers on screen testimonies with images illustrating the destructive toll of the Holocaust. Here Basen demonstrates her ability to incorporate several mediums of representation and perspectives from unique sources of information. Her pursuit of covering every angle of the discussion over biotechnology is clear in the film and enhances its appeal as an educational and academic tool. Her film manages to go in-depth into the topic while still offering explanations for the basics of genetics for viewers who do not have backgrounds in science.
Through the emotional exploration of the implications of genetic research and biotechnology, Basen presents the facts of the science as well as an argument for why it is important for women to know the facts she presents. Her emphasis on the very real possibilities that can come from these technological advances, both positive and negative, and their future effects on women make watching this film a truly eye-opening experience.

Further Information:
Women Make Movies listing — http://www.wmm.com/filmcatalog/pages/c145.shtml
American Society for Bioethics and Humanities — http://www.asbh.org/
National Center for Biotechnology Information — http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/
Gomez, Adriana, Meacham, Deborah. “Bioethics and Biotechnology: Marking the Boundaries in a Brave New World.” Women’s Health Journal n.2 (1997).

Girls Like Us (Dir: Jane C. Wagner and Tina DiFeliciantonio, 1997)

Country of Origin:
Running Time: 57 min

Color, Video

Synopsis: Girls Like Us is an observational documentary that explores the ideologies young girls develop about their sexuality and how gender norms imposed by their family and/ or society shape their experiences. The film documents four years in the lives of four working-class teenage girls from diverse ethnic backgrounds residing in South Philadelphia. By following the girls between the ages 14 and 18, the film depicts the transitions that take place during each girl’s journey to womanhood. The documentary provide a multi-faceted view of teenage sexuality and presents themes such as coping with teen pregnancy, adhering to religious ideals, being treated differently than the males in their families, and either achieving or failing to reach educational goals.
First, we are introduced to Raelene (European/ American Indian descent) through a series of interviews and candid footage. Raelene’s story is the saddest of them all. During the four years, Raelene becomes pregnant twice starting at 14 years old and has numerous boyfriends, some of whom abusive. After giving birth to her first child, Raelene drops out of school at 15. Between the ages of 16 and 17, while getting a check-up during her second pregnancy, she explains that she has never experienced an orgasm. This statement was interesting because it made me question Raelene’s incentive for sleeping with many different men and paying the consequences by getting pregnant if she did not enjoy the experience? By 18 years old, a tired and weathered Raelene, moves to live the Pocono Mountains with her fiancé, her two children by two different men, and his children.
Anna (Vietnamese-American), a good student who hopes to one day attend medical school, is between with her parents’ traditional ideas of how she should use her sexuality and the desire to fit in with the more promiscuous American cultural expressions of sexuality. Although some of her friends are not so lucky, she achieves her goal of attending college by the end of the film. Lisa (Italian-American) is also a dedicated student who starts romantically experimenting with boys at the tender age of 12. She soon learns that some men can be unfaithful. By18 years old, Lisa also attends college. De’yona (African-American) attends a performing arts school and is a gifted singer who aspires to have a profession in music. But after De-yona’s closest cousin dies, her grades decline. She unexpectedly becomes pregnant and her dreams are derailed.
Girls Like Us provides a realistic snapshot of sexuality through the eyes of adolescents. Although it explores many important themes, the film allows the viewers to make their own conclusions.

IMDB listing
McRobbie, Angela. Top Girls? “Young Women and the post-feminist sexual contract” Cultural Studies 21, no. 4/5 (Jul, 2007).
Official Website, Women Make Movies, “Girls Like Us” Review.
Sweeney, Kathleen. “Maiden USA: representing teenage girls in the ’90s”. Afterimage (United States) 26 Jan/Feb (1999): 10-13
The Austin Chronicle Website, “Girls Like Us” Review.