Hot Docs 2021 Review: The Big Scary “S” Word

Written by Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde

50/100 

The Big Scary “S” Word, is Yael Bridge’s first full length documentary feature. This documentary is incredibly timely given Bernie Sanders’ recent promising presidential campaigns,  the rising stars in the progressive-wing of the democratic party including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and IIhan Omar,  Amazon’s recent union busting campaign at warehouse workers in Alabama, the 2018 Oklahoma teachers strike, and the role of big money in politics. There is a laundry list of items and examples that the documentary provides. The premise here is that capitalism is not working just fine and, in fact, it is creating a less humane society.  

On the other hand, you have conservatives, moderate democrats, journalists, and pundits that insist that capitalism is the only way forward for America. In a clip featured in the documentary, MSNBC contributor Donny Deutsch states “I find Trump reprehensible as a human being, but a socialist candidate is more dangerous to this country as far as the strength and well-being of our country than Donald Trump.” How is it possible that Americans are so scared of socialism? How is it possible that there is so much inequality in the richest country in the world? These questions inform the crux of this doc as Bridge explores what socialism means for ordinary people, scholars, and politicians. 

There is nothing incredibly innovative to see here. Although, I have to admit that, a quarter of the way through, we are provided with beautiful visuals that trace the history of capitalism, the transition of capitalism into an economic system and a way to organize the production of goods and services, up to its modern form. In the end, it asks more questions than provides answers. This approach is completely okay but at times it “reads” a bit too academic.

The Big Scary “S” Word Trailer

The Big Scary “S” Word screened as part of the Hot Docs 2021 Film Festival. You can visit their website to check for a screening near you.

You can follow Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde on LetterboxdTwitter, or Instagram and view more of what she’s up to here.

Hot Docs 2021 Review: The Face of Anonymous

Written by Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde

50/100 

What is an information terrorist? The Face of Anonymous (2020) directed by Gary Lang provided an inside look into the work of cyber-activism through the eyes of Anonymous hacktivist Christopher Mark Doyon also known as Commander X. Christopher appears to resent the information terrorist moniker and instead asks how can I terrorize the world with the truth? Visually there is nothing extraordinary to see in this documentary. What somewhat makes it work is the story told by a compelling and questionable set of Anonymous activists allies, and Doyon crisma in particular. The throughline in this story starts with 4chan in 2004 or as defined in the documentary the crucible for Anonymous. 

What started off as a joke and protest against Scientology grew into something bigger as hacktivists set their sights on bigger targets. The first Anonymous operation that gained significant notoriety happened in 2010 and was a DDoS attack on Visa and Mastercard websites in response to donation denials for Wikileaks payment in response to leaked video footage that showed a US military strike against civilians in Iraq. One of the motivations for Anonymous’ anger was that Visa, Mastercard, and PayPal still authorized donations on websites like the KKK and Westboro Baptist Church but would not allow them to continue on Wikileaks. The documentary also detailed how Anonymous allegedly helped protesters in Tunisia and Egypt during the early stages of the Arab Spring.      

This documentary is also the story of big egos and FBI raids that curtailed Anonymous progress and made US hacktivism move underground. Christopher Mark Doyon, however, is an Anonymous true believer to the bitter end. As of today, he has received political asylum and emergency refugee status in Mexico where Doyon claims he refound his freedom. I finished this documentary itching for more. Particularly I wanted more details about how online activism occurs and how it is then translated online. By itself this documentary does not add a lot to the discourse on hacktivism and cyber intelligence. Nevertheless, this documentary would make a good double feature with the HBO series Q: Into the Storm which offers a much more detailed account of the rise of another online movement who, coincidentally, also started on 4chan. 

I would recommend this documentary with a small caveat: do some prior research or reading going in. I’d suggest starting with a piece by David Kushner featured in the New Yorker called The Masked Avengers

The Face of Anonymous Trailer

The Face of Anonymous is currently screening as part of the Hot Docs 2021 Film Festival. You can purchase a ticket to view it here.

You can follow Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde on LetterboxdTwitter, or Instagram and view more of what she’s up to here.

Bastards’ Road

Written by Taylor Baker

77/100

While Bastards’ Road lacks a formal dazzle, it’s footage seems to contain the marrow of America. Jonathan Hancock walks 5,800 miles around the United States as a way of coping with his feelings after the experiences of his deployment in Ramadi. His unit the 2nd Battalion 4th Marines, are equally challenged by their experiences overseas. Jonathan ventures on foot, from one Marine’s home, to another. Across state lines, and through challenging weather conditions. There is footage of him singing Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake It Off’ before recounting a story of meeting a family of skunks, as well as him looking directly into his phone camera explaining how he happened on a handgun and doesn’t want to touch it since he’s essentially a transient.

The footage consists largely of standard shots, a man walking down a road, an interview subject sitting in their home recounting a story, and lot’s of cellphone footage wherein Jonathan is recording a sort of diary shot vertically. There’s also a collection of landscape shots that could be directly lifted off the Discovery Channel or History Channel. I often thought the footage reminded me of American Pickers. The beauty of the film is it’s story, and like the men it’s about it’s not particularly sleek or new. It’s sturdy, reliable, and enough to complete the job. Watching Jonathan cry with Caleb Power’s family over his pickup truck, or watching him try to spend time with one of his friends’ young daughters is equally affecting.

Bastards’ Road Trailer

Bastards’ Road comes out on May 11th and will be available to rent or purchase on most major platforms.

Hot Docs 2021 Review: Dark Blossom

Written by Taylor Baker

62/100

Often staring into a screen or mirror as they billow out more vapor there is an unsatisfied anger intertwined with a yearning at the heart of primary subjects in this Danish Documentary. Dark Blossom begins with quick cuts of skulls, and people in black running between vibrant flowers up to a dead and decomposing fox covered by a common plastic bucket piled with bricks. Not more than a few minutes later we see Jay, one of our main subjects, request to listen to Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” while getting a stick and poke tattoo, notably it’s his first tattoo. The music fades as he answers a phone call from his Mom and deceives her as to what he’s up to.

The assembled footage in Dark Blossom primarily shows the activities and social situations that our three subjects navigate through. Their predilections and aversions. With a constant focus toward the asymmetry of their outcast-like experience and temporary intimacy as a group. Elucidated by voice over, stark images, and their general behavior. The discomfort in their own skin is physically apparent in how often we see them applying makeup, modifying their bodies, and dying their hair. All while they continue to grow.

Repetition. Josephine, Jay, and Nightmare(Mareridt) repeat physical actions, sentences, and emotions. A smaller repetitive moment occurs midway through the film where after a long day lugging around outfits and caked in makeup they’re brought the wrong soda at a restaurant. Which ensues a debate about whether to complain, Jay is experiencing fatigue and eventually the argument peters out. This scene is later followed by a quieter scene in Jutlund where Coke is being surreptitiously drunk in the far corner of the table. It’s a small creative choice but in the context of the film it’s a moment that lingers and speaks volumes about the dispersion of these friends. Dark Blossom narrowly shows the broadness of a small group of young adults disaffected with life in their small town and the status quo.

Dark Blossom Trailer

Dark Blossom is currently screening as part of the Hot Docs 2021 Film Festival. You can purchase a ticket to view it here.

SXSW 2021 Capsule Review: Fruits of Labor

Written by Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde

70/100 

In Fruits of Labor, directed by Emily Cohen Ibanez, we are introduced to 15-year farm workers and high school student Ashley Solis who was born in California but whose family originally immigrated from Mexico. At its core this is a documentary about the human experience, told through the eyes of a girl, as she navigates life and the blessings that come with being from an immigrant family in the United States. The more I watch stories about immigrants the more in awe I am of those who made that journey. They remind me of my own immigrant experience and how it made me who I am today. 

What made this documentary work wasn’t the horrific and cruel images of child separation and ICE raids that overlap with Ashley’s story. We know the US immigration system is broken. Instead, this narrative works because it tells a story of a girl coming into her own and finding her own voice so she can tell her story in her own words. Even though the odds are stacked against her Ashley perseveres, often unnoticed, putting her future on hold, and, at the same time, preserving her family’s tradition of curandera (healing) and storytelling. It is hard not to be moved by Ashley’s journey.

Fruits of Labor is currently playing at the SXSW 2021 Film Festival.

You can follow Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde on LetterboxdTwitter, or Instagram and view more of what she’s up to here.

SXSW 2021 Review: Hysterical

Written by Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde

80/100

Featuring well-known and up and coming comedians Hysterical is Andrea Nevins’ inside look at the world of stand-up comedy and the women taking over the industry. Admittedly before this documentary I wasn’t well versed in the world of comedy or stand-up for that matter, but this documentary made me want to learn even more about comedians and the strides women are making to reshape this industry. Told through a series of vignettes, childhood pictures and videos as well as stand up segments this piece was remarkable.   

Women have been in comedy for so long and not given their due respect. It was perplexing, but not surprising, that women were largely ignored by the comedy world. The sexism and misogyny they experienced and this idea is exclusively for men is what this doc pushes back on. As the comics in the documentary describe, women have been dabbling in feelings for so much longer than men, making them perfect for comedy. 

What I enjoyed most while watching this is this emphasis is nothing more than telling a story that connects with people. Many of the comics featured in Hysterical said their itch for comedy started in their childhood and a lack of being seen and heard drove them to this profession. As cliche as it sounds, comedy was the medium that propelled them forward and allowed them to break for their shell. 

Being a comic was also a story of ups and downs for the comedians featured in this picture. This struggle brings a universality that allowed me to connect with it in a way that I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to. Descriptions of assault, insecurity, and the belittlement these women faced really resonated with me even though we are in completely different worlds. I would highly recommend this documentary to any one that is interested in comedy. 

Recommended. 

Hysterical Trailer

Hysterical is currently playing at the SXSW 2021 Film Festival.

You can follow Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde on LetterboxdTwitter, or Instagram and view more of what she’s up to here.

SXSW 2021 Review: The Hunt for Planet B

Written by Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde

65/100

The Hunt for Planet B, directed by Nathaniel Khan, explores big questions about the early universe, cosmos, and exoplanets. This documentary takes on a journey of discovery and reflects on the big questions, and makes us question the worlds that may be out there. Lead by a team of remarkable female scientists including Dr. Seager (MIT) and Dr. Batalha (USC) this doc was the perfect viewing for women’s history month and to explore the contributions of women in science. 

On the surface, this documentary tells us the story of the James Webb telescope which is 100 times more powerful than the Hubble telescope and will allow us to explore outer space unlike ever before. The James Webb telescope as depicted here seems to indicate the rediscovery of the American Frontier that started in the 1980’s with the space shuttle program. But this documentary is so much more than just another documentary about science. 

Instead, what we witness is a story about the power of human connection and the loneliness a lack of connection brings. This need to explore what’s in outer space is fueled by our need to fulfill our need for connection. Undoubtedly the James Webb telescope is an act of collective genius. But the throughline that really stuck with me is the human need for connection and the longing to discover what else is out there while trying to stay grounded in our collective humanity.  

The Hunt for Planet B Clip

The Hunt for Planet B is currently playing at the SXSW 2021 Film Festival.

You can follow Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde on LetterboxdTwitter, or Instagram and view more of what she’s up to here.

SXSW 2021 Review: WeWork: or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn

Written by Taylor Baker

75/100

With a lengthy title like WeWork: or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn I was worried that the film may be unfocused and absent of vision, rather than a complete work. However Jed Rothstein did much to assuage my concerns in the first thirty minutes. He lets people that experienced WeWork do the talking for his film, that is when Adam Neumann isn’t. Though Jed is far from a household name at this point you may have heard about or seen one of his previous excellent works, The China Hustle. In which he provides a deep dive look at the manipulation of value in different markets orchestrated by the CCP. A clear building experience for this later work. 

WeWork opens with footage of Adam Neumann attempting to record a pitch video. This footage in essence allows Adam to speak for himself and the film to speak at a deep level quickly. This is a narcissist lost in his own vision, with no one to hold him in check. The timing of the footage is not made clear to the viewer until the end of the film, a brilliant choice by Jed. The documentary relies heavily and exclusively on talking heads and interviews when it’s not showing previously shot footage. As someone who had no interest in the fiasco of WeWork as it was happening this documentary served as a great and comprehensive educational piece. That doesn’t lean heavily on a message it wants to impart to you. 

The cleverness of Jed is in allowing the footage to speak for itself in conjunction with interviews, with voice blending from before the interview begins and switching to a new scene before the audio cuts. Though the pace dips around two thirds of the way in, I think for material is dry as a real estate fraud scheme he did an admirable job with editor Samuel Nalband. They portray multiple voices to provide a cohesive takeaway with an under two hour runtime. Something rare nowadays. The anecdotes of a janitor at an event asking if WeWork was a cult, hearing that one of Gwyneth Paltrow’s cousins is at the center of a scheme to sell people bullshit, hearing about how words change meanings around Alex because he can’t handle being wrong, all this put together and passively presented is a delight. It also pokes at bigger questions philosophically about the marketplace and communism, something Jed’s film The China Hustle also did. Rather than express my takeaways, I’ll let you decide for yourself.

Recommended.

WeWork: or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn will release on Hulu on April 2nd and is currently playing at the SXSW 2021 Film Festival.

SXSW 2021 Review: Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror

Written by Taylor Baker

11/100

“I think”, this preface can be found preceding dozens of assertions in Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror. It’s unfortunate that something as juicy and spanning as the occult and it’s expression in film is used as a scaffold to assert these talking heads ideals, feelings, and personal experiences. Rather than an accurate historical examination of the origins and the journey into its expression in the visual medium. At 3 hours and 13 minutes Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror rarely arrives at the heart of any origin of the various topics it discusses; which wouldn’t be quite so enraging if it wasn’t such a fascinating topic. 

As someone with only cursory knowledge of the occult through the works of historians and art historians such as Edgar Wind, Joseph Campbell, Brian Muraresku, and Harold Bloom it was frustrating to see assertions about specific topics such as the history of witches framed so poorly. There can be no doubt of Kier-La Janisse’s sincerity toward the source material. She’s clearly spent time with the depicted films and has a tender place for them in her heart. The ill advised over-reliance of archival footage and talking heads exclusively is at it’s (very brief) best when discussing historical fact. Unfortunately this often devolves as I previously mentioned into assertions of contemporary views and oft repeated messages being hammered again and again. These vain assertions do a great disservice to a project that could have been highly informative and durable.

It’s complete lack of interest in interrogating the iconography, direct source referencing, and history of symbolism seems unfathomable. Though it’s clear that Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror prioritizes it’s message over it’s substance it’s unclear why those fascinating and universal pieces of interest are almost completely avoided. I’m not unwilling to give Kier-La Janisse another try, but I’m not convinced that I’ll see much growth in a new entry. Were she to pick up the camera in the future and tackle this subject again, I’d like to see her attempt a more in depth investigation into a single one of the sub-genres she covers here and really dive deep. Limit her runtime to 90 minutes and be more precious and strategic in her use of archival footage. One of the largest misses in a documentary film I’ve seen in 2021 so far.

Not Recommended.

Slamdance 2021 Review: Holy Frit

Written by Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde

75/100

Who knew stained glass could be so interesting? Justin Monroe’s documentary tells the story of artist Tim Carey and Judson Studios who were commissioned by the Church of Resurrection in Kansas City to craft a 400,000 sq foot stained glass window which would be the largest installation known to date. In this process, I developed an entirely new appreciation for the art of glass making, the history industry that is over 1000 years old, and the personal growth that occurs when an artist discovers and reinvents himself.

In this doc, we learn about the history of glass making of the 120-year LA based glass making Judson Studios and the artists who work there. Our “protagonist” is Tim Carey who is the lead artist on the stained glass window commission. Even though I am not an artist I really identified with Tim who had these conflicting notions of perfectionism and impatience about his work and purpose as an artist. It was also a story about a man who underestimates himself and the need of words of affirmation to carry out his work.

This story about innovation relied heavily on a remarkable stained-glass master called Narcissus Quagliata. Tim, Narcissus, and the rest of the team at Judson Studios had a seemingly impossible task at hand; they had 24 months to complete 161 stained glass panels that would form the installation. Time wasn’t on their side. Traditional stained glass window techniques where single-color glasses pieces were individually bound together by lead would not be possible. Instead, they incorporated a new fusion glass staining technique that would allow them to fuse together multiple colors into a single piece of glass.

You will need to watch the documentary to see the final result. In the end, this was a story about finding your light through art and innovation. It was this passion for art and the commitment of the artists that possibly saved a dying industry and one of the last stained glass studios in the US who’s commissions increased after the Church installation. To quote Narcissus, “this window is going to be part of the history of glass.” I, for one, think they successfully accomplished this goal.

Recommended.

Holy Frit Trailer

Buy a ticket to see Holy Frit at the Slamdance 2021 Film Festival

You can follow Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde on LetterboxdTwitter, or Instagram and view more of what she’s up to here.