Becoming Jane Goodall
Jane Goodall has long been admired for her tireless work on behalf of animal conservation in general, and specifically for chimpanzees. It is largely because of her that any of us know what we know about the primates, their behavior, their plight at the hands of poachers, and their link to humans. Because Goodall has always put her studies, subject and causes in the forefront, we have had little insight into her personally or how her work commenced. Thanks to the recently released film, “Jane” and its treasure trove of never-before-seen video footage, audiences have a luscious glimpse into what makes this champion of animal behavioral research and nature who she is today and how she began her crusade. Writer-director Brett Morgen in conjunction with National Geographic explore Goodall’s early field work in Gombe, Africa with chimpanzees in 1960. She was one of the first to ever have close contact of the kind, and thee first with such groundbreaking observations. Just as revelatory is the fact that she was a mere 26-years-old at the time and with no college degree. Furthermore, not only were there few people working in such specialized profession, but there were virtually no women.
“Jane” is also a deeply personal portrait, giving insights into Goodall’s childhood, marriage and eventual divorce. Working in nature, with animals and in Africa was a life long passion. She was determined to navigate her way there no matter what, and navigate she did. The world is better for it. The film is not a “talking heads” documentary, or merely photos with voice over, this is a surprisingly active film, capitalizing on National Geographic archival video, coupled with newly found footage from Goodall’s early field work days and underscored by the resonating sounds of original music from Phillip Glass.
Goodall’s initial assignment was solo, but soon financial backers gave her the support of a videographer, Hugo van Lawick. The two hit it off professionally, discovering a shared passion for nature, Africa and the chimps. Their shared work interests grew to a personal connection and love. The results were hundreds of hours of footage in the jungle, marriage and a family. Although over the years, their love could not withstand their work conflicts and long separations, the partnership proved invaluable in the lens of history.
Proving to be a “must see” movie for 2017, “Jane” works on several levels as a nature documentary and a character study.
A Stunning Examination of the World’s Migrant/Refugee Crisis
This is the most important movie you’ll see this year. It may also be one of the best you’ll see, as it is a documentary that is both insightful and informative, and beautiful and poignant. Artist and activist Ai Weiwei went to 23 countries over 1 year to document the plight of refugees around the world. The film successfully captures the enormity of the human migration crisis that includes 65 million people worldwide, while managing to convey the situation with personalized stories. Refugees by definition are those who have been forced to leave their country to escape war, persecution, famine and other natural disasters. For example, as pointed out in the film, Burma is pursuing ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims, according to a UN official. As a result, 500,000 Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia. About 1.3 million Syrians have crossed into Jordan seeking shelter from the Syrian war. In a cry for help, African refugees say Syrians are not the only ones in need of help. More than 210,000 African refugees arrived in Italy since 2015. All of their epic journeys from one place to another, from countries such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, France, Greece, Germany, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Kenya, Mexico, and Turkey is what makes “Human Flow.”
The film opens with migrants from Afghanistan making their way to Southern Greece on small boats. They are greeted by volunteers and coast guards who help them off their boats and to temporary safety. Ai is also there, with warm tea to hand out and a consoling presence. It is clear from the start, that this project is personal as well as professional. This group of migrants eventually make their way from one end of Greece to the Northern border, on foot. It is there that they expect to cross the European border, with hopes of accessing Germany since Angela Merkel has offered her country as a safe haven. When they arrive at the border, a fence has been put up and the gates are closed at the Greece/Turkey border. Although Germany is willing to take the migrants in, other European countries are unwilling to have them sojourn through their land. They are stuck for weeks on end without shelter, food and other necessities. “Migrant chaos mounts while a divided Europe stumbles for a response.” (New York Times)
Later, in a refugee camp elsewhere, a middle-aged father who has lost several family members in their flight from their country, recounts the horror of burying loved ones, and the guilt of surviving. He breaks down in tears when describing the attitudes of others towards displaced refugees. They are victims of disdain, considered less than. Like him, your heart breaks. You want to look away, but it is impossible. Mr. Ai has drawn you in with facts and figures, wide-sweeping shots of beautiful, yet harsh lands, lingering, unflinching close-up shots on refugee after refugee, heart-wrenching stories of love of country and family and loss, abject poverty, squaller, but on the other hand, hope, determination and the human spirit. The camera work is superb, with aerial and wide shots of both rugged topography and beautiful seas and skies.
Intermixed throughout the film are interviews with refugees, camp guards and politicians, including Dr. Dana Ashrawi, head of the PLO department of Culture and Information. Her pointed comments on the status of refugees capsulize their plight. “Being a refugee is much more than just a political status. It is the most pervasive kind of cruelty that can be exercised against a human being by depriving the person of all forms of security.”
In “Human Flow” filmmaker, artist, activist, Ai has not only once again given us art to appreciate, but a shrinking world to think about. You may be tempted to avoid such bracing reality altogether or look away when confronted, but do not do so. Look, embrace, ponder and maybe even act upon what is presented.
The Mill Valley Film Festival Ushers In An Impressive Line Up For 2017
Despite the devastating fires taking place just north of Marin County, where the Mill Valley Film Festival takes place, this year’s festival forged ahead to celebrate its 40th anniversary. They also made a valid point to remember their neighbors facing hardships in nearby Napa and Sonoma counties. Each screening was proceeded with words of solidarity and empathy, as well as an invitation to help those effected. As a hallmark year for the festival organizers promised a particularly special line up of films, stars and honorees, and in all that, they did not disappoint.
I only got a small sampling of the dozens of festival films that fell into several categories, including US cinema, world cinema, shorts and documentaries, but it was enough to appreciate what’s coming to the cinematic landscape. Not least of which is Ai Wei Wei’s powerful and stunning documentary “Human Flow.” The renowned artist and activist turns his camera to the plight of refugees throughout the world. Covering migrants in 23 countries over a year’s time, he captures the unique challenges facing millions of people fleeing their homeland in hopes of security and a better life. This is both a large story of political and social crises, as well as personal stories of human dignity. This is a film that should not be missed. A documentary on a much smaller scale, but also noteworthy is “Kim Swims” by director Kate Webber. Open water swimmer Kim Chambers takes on the daunting challenge of swimming 30 frigid miles from the shark-infested Farallon Islands to the Golden Gate Bridge. This is a gripping film of athletic determination and endurance. I found myself wanting to view it more than once, and not be so whiny when the pool I use for laps isn’t like warm bath water.
In the foreign film category, director Luca Guadagnino weaves another mesmerizing and sensual tale in his latest film, “Call Me By Your Name.” It’s the summer of 1983 when American graduate student Oliver stays with his professor and his family at their vacation home in Northern Italy. It eventually becomes a summer of love as the professor’s young son, Elio, becomes smitten with the older charming, attractive and seemingly womanizing, Oliver, who soon takes notice. This is new territory for Elio, new to sex and any kind of love, let alone with a man. Every performance in this film is captivating, and the story is sweet and pure, but there is one specific scene/dialogue towards the end, that alone is worth the price of admission. Does “Call Me By Your Name” achieve masterpiece status that Guadagnino’s debut film, “I am Love” did? Maybe not quite, but it sure is close.
I wish I could give such high praise to Claire Denis’s new film “Let the Sun Shine In” featuring Juliette Binoche, but I cannot. This film of middle-aged angst and love loss, falls short of expectations. Binoche plays a recent divorcee who starts and stops a series of love connections, leaving her - and the audience - frustrated and forlorn. Denis, who is better known for meditative dramas, is taking a stab at her version of a romantic comedy. While Binoche is always a pleasure to watch perform, her talent is not enough to salvage this movie. A unique entry from the UK is actor-turn-director Danny Huston’s “The Last Photograph.” This is an obvious small budget independent film that was a labor of love, winning the hearts of festival goers. When a father and son host a Christmas dinner at their house the night before the son takes off for the New York to spend the holidays with his girlfriend, little did they know it would be their last time together. The photo taken of them together that night would added value when the son was among the dozens of people tragically killed in the 1988 Lockerbie disaster. Huston gives a moving and believable performance of grieving father 15 years after the tragedy and desperate to find that last photograph of his son after a thieving duo steal his briefcase.
One of the stand outs from the U.S. cinema section that I was lucky enough to gain access to is Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut film, “Molly’s Game.” As it turns out, and to no surprise, Sorkin directs as well as he writes. No doubt, this will be one of “thee” hot tickets this year at the box office, and an Oscar contender for writing and acting categories. The movie is based on the true story of Molly Bloom, an Olympic competitive downhill skier who ran the world’s most exclusive high stakes private poker games then got entangled in a legal web. Jessica Chastain embodies the role of Bloom, and she along with Idras Elba who plays her attorney, handle Sorkin’s dense, rapid fire dialogue with aplomb. The movie is fast paced, going from Molly’s past, including childhood, athletic life and poker career, to the present in which she is dealing with her case. This is a gripping drama, with moments of humor and featuring an unlikely, but undeniable heroine.
From the mind and mastery that gave us “Pan’s Labyrinth,”Devil’s Backbone” and “Hellboy,” comes “The Shape of Water” starring Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Sencer and Michael Shannon. Director Guillermo del Toro weaves a bizarre, yet charming fairy tale set in early 60s post war era. Hawkins plays a sweet, lonely woman who does custodial work in a government laboratory. Her life changes when she stumbles upon a top secret “asset” being held captive. This is not your typical prisoner-turn love interest, but then again, this is not your typical writer/director. Think “Amalie” meets “Creature from the Black Lagoon” ... sort of.
All in all, MVFF 2017 was well curated, well-run, getting much local participation and praise. It’s understandable why it’s thrived for 40 years, and probably will continue to do so.