Archive for June, 2006

Blogging from Hay Street

I arrived safely in North Carolina this afternoon and am blogging from my new favorite coffeehouse in downtown Fayetteville (hooray free wifi!), next to the city’s one art house theater, which is currently playing An Inconvenient Truth. I’m still adjusting to my new location, but the coffeehouse’s website has links to a number of places I want to check out once I’m settled into my new digs. So far, though, it seems that the downtown area is a little livelier than I had been led to believe, so that’s pretty cool. Hopefully I’ll return to a normal blogging schedule soon, but right now I’m pretty much exhausted from moving boxes and furniture–including several mammoth bookcases–from one apartment to another.

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Pre-Moving Day Distractions

Moving day tomorrow so I don’t have time for a longer post right now, but while doing some procrastination blog surfing, I learned that one of my favorire film critics, Jami Bernard, has joined the burgeoning ranks of film bloggers. Her blog, The Incredible Shrinking Critic, looks pretty cool. Thanks to Risky Biz for the tip. While I’m linking, Risky Biz also reports that Natalie Portman may be cast as Rosa in the much-anticipated film adaptation of Michael Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay (probably my favorite novel of the last decade, so I’ll admit that I’m ambivalent about seeing it adapted for the big screen). The source for the news on Portman? Michael Chabon, of course.

Update (seven hours later): Just came cross the news that Henry Jenkins now has a blog (thanks to creativity/machine for the tip). I’m just coming down from a late night of saying good bye to my CUA colleagues at Domku, one of DC’s best-kept secrets, a great little restaurant/cafe in Petworth, so I’ll write more about Jenkins’ blog later, but I’ll be interested to see how he uses his blog to talk about convergence culture in the context of blogworld.

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P.O.V. Preview

Because of Sujewa’s discussion of the ongoing ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka a few months ago, I’ve been paying a little more attention to what’s going on there. Now Agnes is reporting that the PBS series P.O.V. will be inaugurating its new season tonight (Tuesday) with a documentary about this ongoing conflict in Sri Lanka, No More Tears Sister (as always, the episode’s website is loaded with useful information), which focuses specifically on “the courageous and vibrant life of renowned human rights activist Dr. Rajani Thiranagama. Mother, anatomy professor, author and symbol of hope, Thiranagama was assassinated at the age of 35. This documentary recounts her dramatic story.” I’m a big fan of PBS and P.O.V., so I’m very much looking forward to the new series. P.O.V. typically airs in most cities at 10 PM, but local broadcast times often vary considerably. You can enter your zip code here to find out the schedule for your PBS station.

While I’m blogging, I think I’ll also throw a link to this recent CNN article on this year’s documentary crop, which I found thanks to Sarah Jo at Documentary Insider. Christy Lemire’s article is a mid-year review of the most critically-acclaimed films of the year thus far, a list that includes several documentaries including The War Tapes, An Inconvenient Truth and The Heart of the Game.

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The Grey Lady Watches YouTube

Peter and Nick have both recently mentioned Virginia Heffernan’s new blog, Screens, which focuses on viral videos, vlogs, video podcasts, mashups, and other web-based visual media, hosted by the New York Times. Because I’ve written about these topics from time to time, so I will certainly be interested in what Heffernan has to say. I’m in the midst of packing up my library for The Big Move, so a quick pointer to Screens will have to suffice for now.

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Jesus Camp

My previous entry on Ava Lowery’s “What Would Jesus Do?” reminded me that I haven’t written a longer review of Jesus Camp (IMDB), which I caught at Silverdocs a few days ago. As I mentioned in my initial review, I found myself watching Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s documentary about an evangelical children’s camp through the lens of my own childhood experiences of attending similar evangelical churches and church youth camps, something that makes writing about this film somewhat more difficult. I do think that Ewing and Grady have crafted an insightful documentary that will provide its audience with a compelling depiction of evangelical culture, especially as it lays out in terms of educating children into that culture, but I would have liked to see a little more consideration of how children process–often in vastly different ways–what they learn from their pastors, their parents, and their Sunday School teachers.

Jesus Camp opens with a car driving down an interstate highway somehwere in “flyover country,” the sides of the road littered with fast food restaurants and chain stores while on the radio, we tune in to various AM radio talk shows where the hosts are conversing about national politics, notably the announcement that Sandra Day O’Connor had retired from the Supreme Court, with the radio hosts enthusiatsically hoping that an anti-choice candidate will be nominated in her place. The radio broadcasts establish the idea that these evangelical children’s camps cannot be separated from the larger “culture wars” that, for better or worse, have remained a major theme ever since the 2004 elections. Eventually we are introduced to the documentary’s central subjects, Pastor Becky Fischer, a children’s pastor who creatively teaches children Bible lessons using toys and other props, and three children, Levi, Rachael, and Tory, who plan to attend Fischer’s Kids on Fire summer camp in Devil’s Lake, North Dakota. Fischer has a charmismatic stage presence, and the children who attend her services are clearly spellbound as she narrates Bible stories and tells the children about her camp. During these scenes, Levi, especially emerges as a central figure. Articulate and pleasant, Levi–shown in the middle photo on the film’s official website–responds to many of Fischer’s questions, expressing enthusiasm for attending the camp so that he can become a more dedicated member of “God’s army.”

Fischer’s summer camp provides the backbone of the film, but we also encounter Levi, Rachael, and Tory in a variety of learning contexts. In several scenes, we see the children being home-schooled by parents who want to shield their children from public schools, with one mother teaching the creation story and dismissing evolution as “just a theory,” adding that “science doesn’t prove anything.” Elsewhere, we see another pastor instructing the children to reach their hands towards a life-sized cardboard cutout of George W. Bush so that they can pray for him in ways that are clearly politically inflected (though to be fair, it was not uncommon for the churches I attended to pray for political leaders regardless of party, although this was well before the emergence of the Christian Coalition as a political force). This pastor is especially interested in recruiting “warriors,” metaphorically speaking, in the fight against abortion, and in fact, later in the film, we see many of these children on the steps of the Supreme Court handing out fliers calling for the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Children also emulate their leaders by “witnessing” to others–Rachael somewhat nervously walks up to a stranger in a bowling alley to share her faith–or by learning to preach, with Levi delivering a short sermon at the camp. We also see Tory who enjoys dancing to Christian rock but worries about the sin of “dancing for the flesh.” All of these scenes suggest that the children are absorbing their lessons without really questioning them, and many of the children seem very eager to please the adults in their world, but to a degree they also seemed to suggest the children were trying on a role, figuring out something about themselves while participating in the camp and its related activities.

The only opposing voice to the conservative evangelical subjects of Jesus Camp belongs to (liberal) Air America host and Christian Mike Papantonio, who is shown taking phone calls and commenting broadly on evangelical Christianity. The scenes with Papantonio are beautifully filmed, showing him in a darkened Air America studio, the camera panning across to show him in the room broadcasting alone, while an on-air exchange between Papantonio and Fischer effectively tied the two worlds of the documentary together. While Papantonio’s comments about the sometimes troubling mix of religion and politics are helpful, the scenes also had the effect of implying that Papantonio was himself alone in his more progressive version of Christianity, which is, of course, hardly the case, but I’m also unsure what would have worked better here. During a Q&A at Silverdocs, one of the filmmakers addressed a similar question and explained that they conisdered showing a progressive church but felt that it would have provided a distraction from the specifics of the Kids on Fire camp, and I think they’re right about that. But at the same time, I did find myself wondering exactly how the children were processing their experiences at “Jesus Camp,” because in my experience what you see at the camp is probably significantly different than what you would see at soccer practice, say, or in some other context. Like Andrew LaFollette, commenting on IMDB, the most compelling scenes for me were the ones when we see the children alone. We see glimpses of that when a group of children are talking about Harry Potter (before they are reminded that Harry Potter “would have been stoned to death” if he’d lived in Old Testament times), and I wanted to see more of these moments where children were making sense of their world outside the “Jesus Camp” context because I think we’d see a much different picture of evangelical culture, one that is far more complicated and far less homogenous than what we see in the film. I would have also liked to have seen Jesus Camp depict other aspects of the Kids on Fire camp. Like most evangelical summer camps, Bible lessons only entail one (significant) part of the camps, and some of my strongest memories of the camps are playing softball and participating in other outdoor activities. On the whole, however, despite some reservations, I think that Jesus Camp raises some important questions in its depiction of these evangelical children’s camps and their relationship to political activism.

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What Would Jesus Do?

Via Agnes, I just learned about 15-year old Ava Lowery’s powerful video, “What Would Jesus Do?,” which features heartbreaking photographs of wounded Iraqi children and quotations from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount to the children’s hymn, “Jesus Loves Me.” The disjunction between the hymn and the photographs is striking, so much so that this CNN interviewer’s only response seems to be mild condescension, although as Movie City Indie points out, Lowery likely has a better undertsanding of montage than the CNN anchor (thanks to Green Cine for the pointer to the CNN footage). Lowery has posted over 70 animations to her website, Peace Takes Courage, despite receiving multiple death threats. Also check out her “What Will You Do?,” played to Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt.”

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The Road to Guantanamo

Most reviews of Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross’s innovative documentary, The Road to Guantanamo (IMDB) have focused on the film’s use of re-enactments and its use of news footage about Guantanamo to depict the stories of the Tipton Three, the three young men of Pakistani descent who had traveled to Pakistan for a wedding but were detained for two years in Guantanamo when they were released without charge. The film raises important questions about the role of dramatizations in getting at the truth of what is happening in Guantanamo when we have so few visual images and even relatively limited testimony as journalists have been provided with little to no access to the detainees.

According to their accounts, the three men, Asif, Rhuhel, and Shafiq (a fourth friend, Monir, went missing in Afghanistan and is believed to be dead), were basically apolitical before their experiences in Guantanamo. They were, as Nick Pinkerton of IndieWIRE puts it, an “innocuously laddish bunch of young dudes,” who were essentially tourists in Pakistan when they visited there in September 2001 for Asif’s wedding. In fact, several days after the group had journeyed into Afghanistan, one of the men still wears a sweatshirt from the Gap. While their reasons for traveling into Afghanistan are never made completely clear by the film (to provide humanitrian aid in Afghanistan? to see the country for themselves? to find some “really big naan?”), it is clear that they are not the hardened criminals, the “bad people,” described by Donald Rumsfled, George W. Bush, and others. Instead, when the bombing starts, they are rightfully frightened and attempt to find their way back across the border, instead finding themselves in Kunduz, a Taliban stronghold, where they are picked up by the Northern Alliance.

While housed in Guantanamo, the three men are kept without legal process, repeatedly interrogated, and frequently tortured under the assumption that they are members of Al Qaeda. The interrogators deploy a variety of techniques, often falsely claiming that one member of the group had turned against the others or feigning offense that a British citizen could turn against his country (several of the interrogators seem almost offended by the fact that the Tipton Three speak English). The detainees in Guantanamo are initially locked in outdoor cages at Camp X-Ray, where they are physically assaulted and prohibited from speaking to each other, and later in Camp Delta, they are forced to endure screeching heavy metal music and brightly flashing strobe lights among other forms of abuse. Of course, the Tipton Three have been released, without any charges, after being held for two years, in part because at least one member of the Tipton Three had been visiting his probation officer in Tipton when he was supposedly in an Al Qaueda training camp. The film culminates in Asif’s long-delayed wedding, but even with this ending, it’s impossible not to feel a little unsettled about the allegations raised by the film (via Altercation, you can read their version (lPDF) of these events).

It would have been easy for someone to create a talking-heads documentary about the experiences of the Tipton Three, but I think Winterbottom and Whitecross have accomplished something far more innovative with their approach to this material. Interviews with Asif, Rhuhel, and Shafiq are mixed with re-enactments of the events they describe, as well as news reports showing George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and Tony Blair describing the detainees at Guantanamo as hardered criminals. It’s tempting to compare these sequences to Paul Greengrass’s obsessively authentic re-creation of the 9/11 hijacking in United 93, as Nick Pinkerton does, but I found these scenes to be a little too stylized, and as Kristi Mitsuda notes in the same indieWIRE article, the actors who play the members of the Tipton Three don’t precisely resmble the persons they represent, producing a “distancing effect” that I think is important to the film. To some extent, these re-enactments stand in contrast to the lack of reporting on the conditions in Guantanamo, which Donald Rumsfeld, provoking uncomfortable laughter, described as being “consistent with the Geneva Convention…for the most part.” In this sense, I think the hybrid of documentary and dramatization raises some important questions about representation, and while suspicious viewers may be able to “nibble at the factual edges of this film,” as Andrew O’Hehir of Salon puts it, I believe it’s almost impossible to shake the larger argument of the film that–in Guantanamo at the very least–the United States is not living up to the values of human rights and justice that it claims to be promoting in the Middle East.

The film’s depiction of Guantanamo was made all the more poignant as news became public that three detainees had committed suicide in what the camp commander cynically described as an act of “asymmetric warfare,” and what others have described as a “good PR move” by the detainees. As my review also implies, it’s impossible to write about Winterbottom and Whitecross’s film without also writing about Guantanamo, about the conditions of the prison, and about the fact that many of the detainees still haven’t been charged with a crime.

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Entertainment Empire

The Nation recently devoted a special issue to the topic of entertainment and politics. The special issue featured a chart that lists (PDF) all of the media properties of the major media empires (Disney, News Corporation, Viacom, Time Warner, and CBS). It’s an eye-opening chart in terms of illustrating where and how most Americans get their news. As the authors point out, the lnadscape has changed considerably since they produced their original chart ten years ago in part due to the rise of new media, but because television remains the primary source of news for most Americans, this chart remains an important resource.

I’ve only had time to skim a few of the articles in the entertainment issue, but Rebecca MacKinnon’s ” The Self-Expression Sector” is a useful analysis of the popularization of self-expression tools such as blogs and podcasts, and Robert McChesney continues to raise important points about media deregulation, while Mark Crispin Miller and Amy Goodman describe the continued threats to real reporting presented by corporations primarily interested in the bottom line. While Markos (Daily Kos) Moulitsas Zuniga and Robert Greenwald are slightly more optimistic, the overall picture is rather dire (with good reason).

For this reason, I find Richard Morin’s Washington Post column to be deeply misguided. Morin argues that “Jon Stewart and his hit Comedy Central cable show may be poisoning democracy,” pointing to a study that viewers who watched The Daily Show were more likely to view both 2004 Presdiential candidates negatively than people who watched the CBS Evening News. He goes on to cite the argument that the negative perceptions of the candidates “could have participation implications by keeping more youth from the polls.” While I think it’s important to note that watching TDS or CBS does not take place in isolation (which I believe deeply complicates the result of this study), isn’t it also important to speculate about why these negative perceptions persist and what it says about the political process itself. It’s not Stewart that’s poisoning democracy. Instead, his appeal–not to mention Stephen Colbert’s–grows out of the fact that so many of us feel alienated from a democratic process that is already deeply flawed.

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The Big Buy: Tom DeLay’s Stolen Congress

Mark Binbaum and Jim Scherbeck’s The Big Buy: Tom DeLay’s Stoen Congress (IMDB) plays like an agitprop border-state film noir, with witnesses often shrouded in heavy shadow describing in detail how a once unknown Congressman in Texas conspired to transform the Republican Party into what DeLay himself described as a “permanent majority.” Many viewers of the documentary will be familiar with the basics of DeLay’s tactics having seen them played out in the nightly news, but Birnbaum and Scherbenk’s documentary places this information ina coherent narrative that gave me a much more precise understanding of how the former House Majority Leader sought to undermine democratic process in his efforts to reshape government. As DeLay himself put it in a remarkably candid 1994 speech, “By the time we finish this poker game, there may not be a federal government left! Which would suit me just fine.”

Birnbaum and Scherbenk make their case carefully, avoiding many of the easy laugh lines that might make The Big Buy seem too partisan. In fact, the film opens with a conversation between two Texas Republican activists in their car, discussing the contempt that DeLay showed Repbicans who didn’t completely adhere to the party line. Intercut with this conversation, we see snippets of a 1994 interview with DeLay in which he stated his goal to eliminate the Department of Education, the NEH and NEA and to dramatically reduce the scope of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, OSHA, and HUD.

The documentary only stops briefly here, however, focusing instead on how DeLay sought to achieve this very limited vision of government, and this is where the crime drama elements really pick up steam, as local Texas politicians and political observers describe DeLay’s tactics, including his use of the Texas state house to redraw the state’s Congessional districts in order to create a larger Republican majority, in part by using illegal corporate money to fund Republican candidates for the Texas state house of representatives. In particular, Travis County DA Ronnie Earle offers a clear explanation of how DeLay’s scheme violated the law, bringing indictments not just against the former Congressman but also dozens of corporations (including Cracker Barrell, Bacardi, and others) who stood to benefit from DeLay’s scheme. We also hear from Jim Hightower who vividly illustrates how the redrawn districts have little to do with democracy. Standing at one busy intersection where three Congressional districts meet, Hightower explains that these districts stretch for hundreds of miles out from this point, illustrating the ways in which the redrawn districts had little to do with the values of represnting a specific community of voters.

It would be impossible to detail all of the relevant information Mark Binbaum and Jim Scherbeck have complied in this 90-minute documentary, but the film is rather sobering in its depiction of how DeLay used a variety of illegal tactics to reshape Congress and government in the image he wanted. With his redrawn districts, DeLay managed to add five reliably Republican seats and as we learn from the film, those five votes have made the difference in a number of close decisions (see teh discussion at the Big Buy website). The Big Buy is a sobering account of how easily democracy can be hijacked by a small, but powerful, group, raising important questions about our political process. As I watched it, I couldn’t help but think about Frank Popper’s Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?, in part because both films raise so many important questions about the process by whcih our representatives are elected.

Update: I forgot to mention that The Big Buy is being distributed by Robert Greenwald and Brave New Films. I saw the film last night at the Wednesday night DC Drinking Liberally event at Mark & Orlando’s (sadly, my last Drinking Liberally in DC before The Big Move), but you can order the film from its official website.

Update 2: About a week after the “premiere” of The Big Buy, the Supreme Court ruled that some of the new boundaries drawn by DeLay’s redistricting efforts violated the Voting Rights Act but upheld the state’s right to reshape Congressional distrcits, not just once a decade as the Texas Democrats claimed. Full story via the Washington Post.

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Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?

I originally wrote a short review of Frank Popper’s exciting new documentary, Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? (official site), a few days ago immediately after seeing it at Silverdocs, but the review has been generating so much traffic–thank you, Arch City Chronicle–that I thought I’d expand my original review into something longer. Mr. Smith also won the Audience Award at Silverdocs, and after thinking about it the last few days, I think the film can offer a significant contribution to our ongoing conversations about politics and civic participation.

Mr. Smith focuses on Jeff Smith’s campaign in the 2004 Democratic primary for the House of Representatives seat being vacated by the retiring Dick Gephardt. When Smith, a 29-year old adjunct professor at a local university with no political experience and few (if any) political connections, decides to run, even his parents discourage him, in part to shield him from the disappointment of losing. Running in a crowded field of eight candidates, including Russ Carnahan, the son of Mel and Jean Carnahan (a former governor and Senator respectively), Jeff would seem to have little chance of winning. Others dismissed Smith’s chances because he looked too young or didn’t look the part of a political candidate, but Smith, whose progressive politics and youthful enthusiasm are utterly infectious, leaps into this improbable campaign, and Frank Popper’s film takes us on the journey of Smith’s campaign, capturing the energy of a political campaign that seems to be capturing lightning in a bottle.

When thinking about this film, it’s the energy of Smith and his campaign staffers that I’ll remember most. Riding the revitalized grassroots energy born out of the Howard Dean campaign, Jeff and his staff emphasize connecting personally with the voters of his district, going door-to-door to actually talk with the voters, and throughout the film we see Jeff with a cell phone on each ear, somehow managing to hold two conversations at once as he works to solicit campaign contributions or even a few more votes. In addition to going door-to-door, Smith’s capaign emphasized yard signs (giving his name further visibility) and informal coffees hosted by suporters to give him a chance to talk about his politics in a more conversational situation. Jeff’s strategies clearly work as polls show him going from being “an asterick,” getting around 2-3% of the vote, to being a major contender for the nomination.

Of course, these strategies wouldn’t work if Smith didn’t have the support of a tireless campaign staff of volunteers subsisting for weeks on cold pizza and little sleep, and while Mr. Smith bears a strong resemblance to the behind-the-scenes campaign film, The War Room, it also offers a glimpse of a much more accessible campaign on a much smaller level, unlike the highly polished Clinton campaign led Carville and other Beltway professionals. These strategies also wouldn’t work if Jeff didn’t know how to connect with the voters, but Jeff proves to be an eloquent and thoughtful candidate, shining in the debates between the Democratic candidates, but also connecting on a personal level with individual voters, particularly in the African-American community which constitutes a major part of the district. And this is where Mr. Smith raises some important questions about our political process. Several voters seem to acknowledge to Jeff that they prefer his positions on the issues but worry that he won’t be able to beat the more powerful candidates. The major newspapers, including the most prominent African-American newspaper in the community, choose to line up behind Carnahan, laregly because they have an eye only on fielding what they believe will be the most likely candidate to win. As Skinner’s Democratic Underground review points out, “it was extremely frustrating to watch as almost all the jaded establishment types in our party and in the media threw their support behind the safe choice, rather than take a chance on the talented newcomer.”

Possible spolier: As many readers will know, Carnahan won the primary by the narrowest of margins (Jeff Smith has now set his sights on getting elected to the Missouri state senate), and yet, as Skinner notes, it’s hard not to walk away from Mr. Smith without feeling at least a little hopeful. While candidates like Smith face major obstacles, his campaign clearly electrified members of his district, and even though he received few endorsements from local newspapers, his grassroots techniques captured the imagination of many members of the local media. At the same time, the film depicts many of the problems with a system that strongly favors powerful insider candidates. As I mentioned in my original review, I don’t think Mr. Smith offers any easy answers to the question implied in its title, and I think that’s what makes Popper’s film such a vital, important document for conversations about our political process.

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Wordplay

I have to admit that I’m not a fan of crossword puzzles, which probably makes me less than an ideal audience member for Wordplay (IMDB), the new documentary about Will Shortz, editor of The New York Times crossword, and the crossword enthusiasts who tackle the puzzle on a daily basis. I’m not patient enough to learn the lingo of crossword clues, and while at least one crossword enthusiast makes reference to an innate human need to solve problems, to “fill in all the empty boxes,” I can rarely remain interested long enough to solve a puzzle, even on a Monday when they’re supposed to be easier. But Wordplay manages to convey to some extent why so many people are addicted to the Times crossword and regard puzzle editor Will Shortz as a mini-celebrity, as well as the sense of community that has developed among puzzle enthusiasts. In fact, the larger community of crossword fans appealed to such an extent that I found myself wishing that I could become interested in crossword puzzles.

No doubt, much of the appeal comes from the charming folks who talk about doing and making crossword puzzles. Celebrities such as Jon Stewart and the Indigo Girls illustrate how engaging with a crossword puzzle can spark the creative process, with Emily Saliers in partciular noting how a crossword puzzle can even help her to overcome writer’s block. Daniel Okrent, the former NYT public editor, admits that he has kept track of how quickly he solves the Times puzzle for years, competing against himself and in many ways, against time itself. Other celebrities, such as New York Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns also offer intriguing explanations for their crossword addictions. Meanwhile Bill Clinton and Bob Dole recall a particulalry noteworthy Times puzzle that punned on both candidates’ names during the 1996 election (Clinton, in particular attests to the therapeutic aspects of a good crossword).

Clinton and Dole’s discussion of this puzzle sets up a compelling discussion of how crossword puzzles are produced, with Merl Reagle letting us in on his creative process for a puzzle based on the film’s title. Watching Reagle shape the puzzle gave some insight into the appeal of crosswords and the fact that crossword puzzles are, in fact, authored (something I didn’t really think about as an outsider). But I was somewhat surprised to learn that in most cases the letters are arranged first and the clues are often written afterwards (Reagle even looks in the dictionary to ensure that “redtop” is a word and to come up with the clue for that word).

Along with this narrative, Wordplay builds towards the national crossword championships, held annually in the same Marriott hotel in Stamford, Connecticut. We are introduced to the major contestants, Al Sanders, who manages to finish third every year, Trip Payne, who is the younget past champion (at age 24), and Tyler Hinman, a 20-year old college student. Unlike most competitive documentaries, Wordplay depicts all of the finalists generously, and while the film managed to keep the viewer in suspense about who would win, it does so without creating villains. Instead, the crossword players seem to have a genuine sense of community, as many of the players have returned annually since the tournament began in the 1970s. I’m still not likely to pick up the Times crossword anytime soon, but the subjects of Wordplay consistently charm and entertain, and based on the reactions of the DC audience, I’m guessing that crossword fans will likely enjoy this film.

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Documentary and Fair Use

Via an email tip, a pointer to this Wired article reporting on a comic book by three Duke University law professors on the difficulties that documentary filmmakers face in dealing with copyright law. The entire comic book is available for free online at Duke University’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain and provides a good overview of the ways in which copyright law can both promote and inhibit good documentary work. As the book illustrates, fair use protections do give filmmakers a lot of freedom, but uncertainty about what constitutes fair use still leads to a lot of confusion. The book also points to useful resources such as the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse that may be useful to filmmakers and other artists who are engaging with (or even passively capturing) copyrighted material or even trademarks that hapen to be visible in the background.

Update: While you’re in the neighborhood, Duke’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain looks like an incredibly useful resource for the topic of documentary and copyright, including this collection of films and videos that explore “the tensions between art and intellectual property law, and the intellectual property issues artists face, focusing on either music or documentary film.”

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Debating Guantanamo

With the Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross documentary Road to Guantanamo, which focuses on the story of the Tipton Three, hitting DC theaters this weekend, I’ve been tracking down a few reviews and commentaries to prepare for the film. While I agree with Eugene Robinson that Guantanamo should be closed, I know a little less about the specifics of the story of the Tipton Three. I’ve been planning to link to David Lowery’s review of the film for several days, in particular because of David’s discussion of Winterbottom’s decision to mix interviews with the Tipton Three and re-enactments of their treatment in Guantanamo. David argues that the mixture renders the re-enactments less effective as rhetorical devices. Also worth noting: a dialogue between two IndieWIRE reviewers about Guantanamo. I’m planning to see teh film Friday when it opens, and if I’m not too busy with the move, I’ll write a review then.

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Other Silverdocs Coverage

I’m still processing all of the films and talks that I attended at Silverdocs and while digging around in the blogosphere found some other blog reports on the festival, incluicng Lauren Feeney’s report on Al Gore’s keynote address, which I now deeply regret skipping. Feeney notes that Gore cited critical theorists Jurgen Habermas and Theodor Adorno in his talk, and that his talk was not only intellectual but also witty and inspiring. His concluding remarks convey much of what I find valuable about documentary cinema: “we have an opportunity to fix the democracy crisis and restart the conversation in America, to recreate a marketplace of ideas through documentary film.” Lauren’s review of Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s compelling documentary Jesus Camp, which I plan to revisit over the next few days, is also worth checking out, as is her discussion of JL Aronson’s Danielsons documentary.

Also check out Cynthia’s read of Walking to Werner and the documentary I most regret missing, The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief.

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Sunday at Silverdocs, or Screened Out

After four long days of film screenings, I was only able to attend two films today on the last day of Silverdocs. I managed an early afternoon screening of Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos, a documentary about the notorious 1970s soccer team led by colorful stars Pele and Giorgio Chinaglia. The film describes the team’s brief flash of popularity in the 1970s, their appearances at Studio 54, their famous fans, including Mick Jagger and Henry Kissinger (the film implies that one of the motivations behind Pele’s career with the Cosmos is that it would improve relations between the US and Brazil), and the packed stadiums where the Cosmos played, complete with cheerleaders and Bugs Bunny mascots (the Cosmos were owned by Warner chief Steven Ross).

In general, Lifetime was a fun film about the meteroic rise and fall of US soccer enthusiasm in the 1970s, one that could have been even more playful and fun had the directors played up the team’s nightlife activities even further. That being said, it’s impossible to deny the impressive amount of work that went into compiling the interviews and archival materials, not to mention all of the music clearances, that went into making the film. Lifetime also seems to show virtually every goal Pele scored on US soil, which I think will make the film especially enjoyable for longtime soccer (football) fans. It also shows the long-term impact of the New York Cosmos and the North American Soccer League on today’s US soccer fans, noting that many of the fans who attended Cosmos games are now among the biggest stars on the U.S. World Cup teams (Mia Hamm in particular), while the Cosmos and other soccer ambassadors also helped promote the idea of youth soccer in the late 1970s. Lifetime wasn’t spectacular, but US soccer fans and people curious about the 1970s will likely find it relatively interesting.

I followed Lifetime with Linas Phillips’ Walking to Werner (IMDB; official site), a film very much in the spirit of the director who inspired it, Werner Herzog. Learning that Herzog once walked from Munich to Pris to visit a dying friend, Linas decides to journey on foot from his home in Seattle to the director’s residence in Los Angeles, a distance of over 2,100 miles. Phillips exchanges emails and plays phone tag with Herzog, eventually learning that Herzog will be in Thailand to shoot a film, but Linas decides to continue his journey, confronting all manner of obstacles (speeding cars, narrow bridges, physical exhaustion) and friendly eccentrics along the way. While I enjoyed Walking and found Linas charming, his story was perhaps a little too earnest and sentimental in places. In fact, Herzog’s attempts to direct the film from afar come across as far more intereting, with Herzog at first refusing to meet Linas at the end of his journey because the film should be about Linas and not Herzog and later (as Phillips mentioned during the Q&A) giving Linas his blessing to use audio from an interview Herzog recorded for the DVD version of Fitzcarraldo, telling Phillips that good filmmakers “have to steal.”

Because Walking ran longer than I anticipated, I decided to skip Road to Guantanamo for now (it’s playing at the E Street starting this weekend), but by that point I was pretty much exhausted, screened out, after something like ten movies and three shorts in four days. But before I wrap coverage on Silverdocs 2006, I just wanted to congratulate the Sterling Feature Award Winner, Jesus Camp, which I liked quite a bit (and hope to discuss further in the next few days) and the Audience Award Winner, Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?, which I also liked quite a bit. Now, with Silverdocs coming to a close, I’m going to have to return to my normal life, or at least some version of a normal life before I leave for Fayetteville at the end of the month.

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