Category Archives: Film Reviews

Tribeca FF 2018, Hamptons FF 2018 Review: ‘To Dust,’ Starring Matthew Broderick

To Dust, Matthew Broderick, Gheza Rhoeig

(L to R): Matthew Broderick, Géza Röhrig  in ‘To Dust,’ directed by Shawn Snyder (photo courtesy of the film)

For atheists death is a macabre subject if they fear oblivion. For the religious death is an inevitable part of life and nothing to fear because there is something beyond. Those of various religious persuasions believe that as the mortal body turns “to dust,” the immortal spirit is in the loving embrace of a God of light, forgiveness and joy. The conundrum occurs for the religious who have a crisis of faith: 1)in a loving God; 2)in a spiritual dimension beyond the physical plane. When that siege of doubt appears and embraces the coffin of a loved one as a cemetery caretaker lowers it into the ground, depending upon the ability of the individual to “bury” fears and doubts, death and the mourning process can be catastrophic. In the instance of the Hasidic Cantor, Shmuel, (played by the wonderful Géza Röhrig of the Oscar winning Son of Saul), death turns him inside out and upside down. And it is his “turning” that creates the wonderful comedic situation of To Dust.

Tribeca FF 2018, Shawn Snyder, Jason Begue, Matthew Broderick Géza Röhrig, To Dust

(L to R): Shawn Snyder, Jason Begue, Matthew Broderick, Géza Röhrig, ‘To Dust,’ Tribeca Film Festival 2018 Q & A (Carole Di Tosti)

Part of the charm of To Dust, written by Jason Begue and Shawn Snyder and directed by Snyder lies in the superb casting of Röhrig and Matthew Broderick. as research buddies getting a handle on the rate of body decomposition after death. Röhrig has the right measure of intensity and frenzy as he attempts to confront the stark and unsettling images of what has happened to his wife’s soul and body. She died suddenly and unexpectedly leaving him with two young children. Broderick is his perfect foil. He portrays the dead pan, unassuming, steady, science professor (Community College, upstate New York), who Shmuel seeks out for information about the progress of his dead wife’s physical decomposition. Clearly, Shmuel cannot confront the emotional impact of his wife’s absence so he obsesses about her burial underground. He worries that she must suffer for a long the time until she finally turns “to dust,” an injunction of the scripture. In his own logic Shmuel imagines when her body arrives at its final “dust” phase, she will have arrived at peace.

There is no reasoning with him that the contrary might be true, that at the point of death, she entered realms of joy. And though Broderick attempts to shake Shmuel from his obsession, there is no stopping a man addicted to tormenting himself with emotional devastation handily submerged by a preoccupation with precise facts about decomposition. There is only the opportunity to extend one’s kindness, befriend the tormented one and help him relieve his misery going down the path of least resistance. And that is what Broderick does.

Hamptons International Film Festival, Tribeca FF, Matthew Broderick, Géza Röhrig, To Dust, Shawn Snyder Jason Begue

(L to R): Matthew Broderick, Géza Röhrig, ‘To Dust,’ Tribeca Film Festival, Hamptons International Film Festival (photo courtesy of the film)

Cleverly, the writers and the director quickly pass over the logic of the circumstance that anyone but Albert would dump Shmuel, ignore him, or call the police on him. However, the haunted Shmuel is a wandering ghost who does not know that his “deadness” outside covers up his raw bleeding wounds inside. Thus, if Broderick doesn’t help him with this scientific experiment, Shmuel’s state is such he will be haunted forever. Who knows what he might do? Thus, the kind teacher/helper, gradually allows himself to be persuaded to partner with Shumel on this secret adventure. Their friendship and rapport becomes the humanity and beauty of To Dust and the emotional payoff in satisfaction points is huge.

Broderick’s impeccable comedic timing and his fabulous intuition for what can get a laugh comes from his extensive experience acting on Broadway and Off Broadway. It is this pacing garnered from years of sensing audiences that he translates humor flawlessly to the screen. The comedy of the situation bounces back and forth on Shmuel’s and Albert’s journey of discovery. Broderick’s Albert becomes hooked out of curiosity, compassion and the fact that he has nothing much else going on in his life. And besides. He’s an open-minded stoner, not an uptight evangelical Christian.

Jason Begue, Shawn Snyder, Géza Röhrig, To Dust, Tribeca FF, Hamptons FF

Géza Röhrig in Tribeca FF Q and A after the screening of ‘To Dust,’ directed by Shawn Snyder, written by Shawn Snyder and Jason Begue (Carole Di Tosti)

Tribeca FF Q and A, Matthew Broderick, To Dust, Shawn Snyder, Jason Begue

Matthew Broderick at the Tribeca FF Q and A for ‘To Dust,’ directed by Shawn Snyder, written by Shawn Snyder and Jason Begue (Carole Di Tosti)

The adventures they encounter involve grave robbing, but for a good purpose, research, and a visit down South to a “Body Farm” and other experiences. Many of the scenes at the grave or woods dealing with the wife’s shrouded body are hilarious and the ironies abound. The scenes with the pig are hysterical. The very idea that they would experiment and even touch the animal considered filthy among the Jewish orthodox who do not eat pork indicates the extent to which Shmuel is beside himself in horror at her death. His shuddering torment is worse than touching the porker a 5000+ year-old tradition of banning the cloven-hoofed from the Jewish Orthodox diets and presence. How Broderick and Shmuel deal with the unclean or ” trade”  —  האַנדל (טמאis beyond the pale riotous.

Also, there is the apprehension that they could be stopped and questioned by the police for their secret deeds. How would they answer for themselves? Making rational sense of what they are doing with Shmuel’s wife’s body to the legal authorities conjures all sorts possibilities. This alone is priceless sardonic humor.

The dialogue is exceptional because these actors are so authentic in their attempts to deal with the absurdity of death from their perspective as citizens of life. The concept of death taken to its existential extreme is one we all must confront. What happens to us after our hearts stop and our brain function completely ceases? Does consideration of what is beyond and of what we will look like 10 years after death terrify? Certainly, we identify and empathize with Shumel. So does Albert. We have to because we are mortal. And how fast do we decompose if we are not embalmed? The Jewish tradition stipulates burial before sundown of the day of death.

Jason Begue, Shawn Snyder, Géza Röhrig, Tribeca FF, Hamptons FF, Matthew Broderick

Géza Röhrig in ‘To Dust,’ directed by Shawn Snyder, Tribeca FF, Hamptons FF 2018 (photo courtesy of the film)

If the actors and the situation created by Snyder and Begue weren’t so humorous, we would be as frightened as this husband is every time his imagination resurrects his wife. She torments him with the only thing left of her, her body. If not for the situational absurdity and humor, we would be saddened for this husband’s emotional debility in not being able to get over her loss.

That would be a different film. As a result, there is not even an affirmation that there is a life after death or that she resides in another dimension, or has achieved a God consciousness. In all that these Orthodox Jews have sacrificed in their lives to uphold their religious culture and folksways, one would think that there would be much consideration and comfort available to the living as they mourn the passing of their beloved. However, introducing the concept of the sweet hereafter would throw in an inappropriate twist based upon religious tradition. And it would change the tone of this film. Its richness in moving between surprise, comedy and sardonic jokes forces us to shift on a dime and follow along. The fact that the director and writer have engaged us in this very dark subject, then made us laugh about it is sheer perfection.

Also, another irony is not lost on us as aa truism in life: those who readily help others cannot easily help themselves. Here is a religious cantor who sings at funerals and helps others grieve by stemming their sorrow with his beautiful, anointed voice. In his own life he is incompetent at helping himself grieve and mourn. Indeed, the religion to which he has devoted his life and purpose is insufficient until he confronts his loss in real time and doesn’t disassociate from it. Albert’s friendship and camaraderie is crucial for Shmuel. And then occurs a brief intervention by his young children which forces him into the realization that he and his wife are in different mediums. One way to engage with her is to be present for his children and shake off the concept that she experiences soul torment based on a material/empirical time constraint.

To Dust works on many levels. It captivates, entertains and enthralls us with unanswerable questions that we will never answer in our bodies. And that’s the rub of it. Thankfully, laughter, too is  a part of the mourning process. To Dust reminds us of this with bucketfuls of humor. For that and the adroit way the writers and directors negotiated this particular and inventive story with grace, humanity and love makes it a must-see.

This film screened at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival and 2018 Hamptons International Film Festival. It won the audience award at the Tribeca Film Festival. It opens on 8 February 2019.

 

 
 

HIFF 2018 Coverage and Film Review: ‘Border,’ Special Jury Prize For Acting

 Eero Milonoff, Eva Melander, Border, Ali Abbasi

(L to R): Eero Milonoff, Eva Melander in ‘Border’ directed by Ali Abbasi (photo courtesy of the trailer)

Once again the Hamptons International Film Festival 2018 sparked interest and traffic during Columbus Day weekend. Crowds lined up in East Hampton, Southampton and Sag Harbor for film screenings, celebrity talks and special events. The 126 films hailed from around the world. And a number of them had previously won prizes at other festivals. “We are thrilled that these diverse, unique, and entertaining stories resonated with our audience,” said HIFF Artistic Director David Nugent.

Though I screened other films on Friday, fellow movie lovers told me that The Hate You Give astounded them. The Hamptons panel selected Amandla Stenberg as one of their Breakthrough Artists. She and director George Tillman Jr. gave a powerful introduction on Friday night for The Hate You Give. This film screens this weekend. An important film for our times, the film unsurprisingly garnered a post-screening standing ovation. This HIFF Audience Award Winner for Narrative Feature was the only film to receive such an accolade.

My screening coverage of the films included one unique and memorable multiple award winner. Border, “GRÄNS”, directed by Ali Abbasi, received the HIFF 2018 Special Jury Prize for acting for the two lead actors, Eva Melander and Eero Milonoff.  Border, selected as Sweden’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, also received a Cannes Film Festival award. The “Un Certain Regard” 2018 prize evinces the striking and memorable elements of this fantastical feature narrative that haunts with ironic, thematic truths. Thus far, Border received 6 wins and 9 nominations. Before it completes its screening cycle, it surely will win more awards. What a novel and extraordinarily compelling film!

Eva Melander, Border, Ali Abbasi, HIFF 2018

Eva Melander in the award-winning ‘Border’ by Ali Abbasi (photo from the film trailer)

Border

The screenplay adapted from John Ajvide Lindqvist’s “Let the Right One in,” mixes fantasy, horror, drama, mystery, romance and magical realism with scenes of banality. Screenwriters Ali Abbassi, Isabella Eklof, John Ajvide Lindqvist distill tension and gyrate it throughout the arc of plot and character development. They accomplish this by moving back and forth between static scenes and frighteningly realistic glimpses into the world of eerie phantasmagoria.

Invariably, the mundane static occurs in the scenes of city life. The mysterious environs of the forest, the lakes and streams and “wildness” of nature convey the fantastic, beautiful and ethereal. As the conflict increases and events unfold with fearful intensity, the natural elements, rocks, woodlands, streams predominate. The forest becomes a notorious symbolic playland. The themes speak to rejuvenation and abiding in the sanctuary of nature. This balanced haven is free from cultural conformity, stereotypical, fascist definitions (borders), of gender, appearance, class, and societal strictures.

Gradually, and with great care, the screenwriters reveal the true nature of the characters and lead us to their unexpected, extraordinary outcomes. To the director’s and writers’ credit, their storytelling precision artfully gives nothing away. They lead us to surprise twists, shock, delight and the strange acceptance of beauty in ugliness. The scenes, compactly shot and effected, do just enough to forward the action and suspense. When the revelations come, they unfold in the organic fury of the characters. And their rage spirals into dangerous, increasingly mystical events. Eventually, we understand how the thread of circumstances unfolds in a final overall truth laden with profound themes. These are further interwoven with preternatural threads of Norse mythology.

Border, Ali Abbasi, HIFF 2018

‘Border’ directed by Ali Abbasi, HIFF 2018 (photo from the trailer)

Especially in its characterization Border suggests that civilization and cultural norms demean and destroy uniqueness and particularity. And the societal emphasis on the empirical and materialistic nullifies an entire species of beings whose very preciousness is made anathema by cultural obtuseness and limitation.  This is superb writing and a superior adaptation perfectly infused by the brilliant, empathetic acting turns of Eva Melander and Eero Milonoff.

Initially, the director introduces us to protagonist Tina (Eva Melander), in her sterile, uninspiring work environment as a customs official. However, as a border agent, Tina’s talents display a preternatural gift of smell. Notably, she targets drug addicts and illegal substances simply by sniffing individuals who come across her path. Her gifts extend to inanimate objects. For example, Tina sniffs out sealed bottles of alcohol.

But when she sniffs a micro disc that has pornography, we note the acute strangeness of this behavior. Tina tells her bosses that she senses and feels the fear and guilt associated with the object. By this juncture in the film, the second and third gyrations of character development have taken place. By then she has encountered a mysterious stranger, Vore (Eero Milonoff). His smile menaces. And he could be her brother in his unusual resemblance. He intrigues her and appears to be the most fascinating event that occurs in her tiresome existence. Also, the micro disc turns up later and ties in all the mysteries of character and conflict Tina confronts on her road to self-actualization.

Eero Milonoff, Eva Melander, Border, Ali Abbasi

L to R): Eero Milonoff, Eva Melander in ‘Border,’ directed by Ali Abbasi (photo from the film trailer)

Succinctly, the director sets up Tina’s lifestyle and environs. And these suggest subtle elements which guide her evolving journey as she discovers her true identity. Before meeting Vore, her monotonous days pass uneventfully in the atmosphereless unit at Passport and Border Control. And her evenings with cute Roland (Jorgen Thorsson), whom we initially believe is her partner, are equally purposeless. She doesn’t appear to have interests. Her lifestyle manifests a disordered order. And though Roland cages fighting dogs on her property which he exploits for gambling elsewhere, she could care less.

Because they don’t have an intimate relationship, though he wants one despite her unusual, homely appearance, we question why Roland remains with her. Finally, during a conversation with her father, we get it. Roland makes little money and must live off her largesse. In a quid pro quo she appreciates companionship, so she allows him to stay in the house she inherited from her disabled father whom she visits in a nursing home.

Eva Melander, Border, Ali Abbasi

Eva Melander in ‘Border’ directed by Ali Abbasi (photo from the film trailer)

Ali Abbasi ingeniously and believably sets up Tina’s “quiet life of desperation” emptiness, isolation and loneliness to enhance themes. Tina’s life mirrors the lives that many lead, i.e. a circumscribed, hateful existence, defined by nullifying social mores. Also, the tedious monotony of her days sets up the contrast to the new life introduced by the eerie, preternaturally appealing Vore.

Tina can’t forget Vore’s weird, repulsive attractiveness. This mystery leaves the questions initially unanswered until the end of the film. Perhaps, it is because of her own life of cruel banality and her disinterest in sex with Roland? Nevertheless, we cannot forget a comment a colleague confessed to her when he frisked Vore whose gender appalled him.

So when Tina runs into the sinister Vore in a shopping area and he mesmerizes her, we fear for her. Eventually, this encounter results in an invitation to rent a place on her property where she rents to another family with a baby. Roland, creeped out by Vore, like us, questions why she takes in a stranger. He makes an excellent point for the macabre embraces Vore. And indeed, we anticipate that Vore’s wild, naked romp in the woods where he screams with violence and pain signals that he will destroy Tina and the others if he stays. Unless, of course, Tina becomes intimate with him.

There is no spoiler alert. You will have to see how Tina makes her way through the horror and adventure to decide what path she will choose. Does she select a road toward defining her own contentment throwing off cultural shackles in the process? Or does she pick the well-traveled road of futility because she has become accustomed to it? Or perhaps she may be the one to merge both roads to attain a higher goodness?

The ambiguity presents delicious possibilities and leads to a fascinating conclusion. It reminds us that all of us for as long as we live on this planet are immigrants. And in carrying the metaphor of the film one step beyond, we may exist on the border of our own lives until we find ourselves home.  Border is psychic dynamite! Spellbinding with suspense, the film remains an award-winning standout that will haunt your imagination, if not forever, for a long while.

 

Tribeca FF 2018 Review: ‘The American Meme’ Documentary With Paris Hilton, Emily Ratajkowski, Brittany Furlan

Tribeca FF 2018, Bret Marcus, Paris Hilton, Josh, The American Meme, Social Media fandom

(L to R): Paris Hilton, Bret Marcus, Josh Ostrovsky in ‘The American Meme,’ directed by Bert Marcus at Tribeca Film Festival 2018 (photo courtesy of Tribeca FF)

What does it take to become a Social Media giant? Is Donald Trump a Social Media giant or does he buy Twitter followers as one might do and has been reported? And how easy is it to be exploited online by malign actors from adversarial  countries? When documentary director Bert Marcus began to investigate the online habitats created by wannabe celebrities capitalizing on creating their own brands from their individual styles and ethos, he wasn’t concerned about politics. He wanted to explore whether the Social Media “giants” determined by their hits and followers were happy. What did it take to command an army of millions and turn them into cold hard cash? Notoriety is celebrity these days. And the individuals he chased down gladly opened their doors for additional publicity in his documentary. And one hand washed the other in The American Meme the documentary that attempts to get to the bottom of the phenomenon that inspires American Social Media personalities but only scratches the surface.

Himself capitalizing and riding the coattails of Social darlings like Paris Hilton, Emily Ratajkowski, Hailey Bieber, Brittany Furlan, The Fat Jew, and Kirill Bichutsky to name a few, in the guise of “going behind the scenes,” Marcus attempts to examine these individuals’ personal lives and the impact of sustaining their memes on the digital universe. Yes, they are human beings, not two dimensional screen figures. What were/are the sacrifices of seeking celebrity? How obsessed must one be to have a legion of followers? How clever? How creatively brilliant? It is possible to then take that notoriety and become one’s own entrepreneur garnering angel investors and/or others willing to share in the glory for a profit-making investment? Of course.

Bert Marcus,Tribeca Film Festival 2018, Brittany Furlan,

Brittany Furlan in ‘The American Meme,’ directed by Bert Marcus, Tribeca Film Festival 2018 (photo from the film)

Marcus is strongest in his examination as he begins to scratch the surface of psychological and emotional burn out. How tough is it to top yourself from your last next “best thing” that your followers “loved?” And indeed, the moment one tries to find some down time from all of the frenzy of hits, the followers drop off.  You can’t be away from the screen too long. You have to promote yourself. So another question he looks at is to what extent can an uber Social Media celebrity cool it and take a vacation from their phone? Instant success is instant oblivion online, even though the trails on Vines, Instagram and Youtube videos remain. In the instance of Krill whose branding is insanity, can he and others like him looking for their digital landescape afford to stop the sensationalism or stop pushing the envelope of outrageousness? What happens when enough is enough. And is enough ever enough?

I guess one can put it this way. Can Donald Trump afford not to tweet or be controversial? Well, thankfully, Marcus’ subjects are not in the presidential hot seat. On the other hand, the same chronic indulgence in self-exploitation and selfishness disguised in the form of selflessness to entertain one’s fans, in other words, narcissism, is present. The most affective celebrities online are the ones whose craziness turns on making fun of themselves.

Bert Marcus, Paris Hilton, The American Meme, Tribeca FF 2018

Paris Hilton and Bert Marcus, Tribeca FF 2018, ‘The American Meme, (photo courtesy of Tribeca FF)

The documentary highlights the individuals stated above and also Josh Ostrovsky and Kirill Bichutsky. I particularly found the latter funny horrible and one reason why the #MeToo movement came into being. Women and men need to be educated toward what sadism, masochism and soul-destroying crowd behavior does to the culture. As a factor of The American Meme  which does not judge, it attempts to humanize yet poke fun at these Social Media stars while riding their outrageousness. Thus, the tone and purpose of the film got misdirected somehow. In exposing such a phenomenon, it is important to take a position. I found that the film tries to but fails and gets bogged down in revealing the pain and torment of self-victimization, itself victimization of those who have the strength not to. Methinks the film protests to much in the wrong areas and doesn’t protest at all what it should.

Thus, the “celebrities” exhaustion, depression and upset that they created this branding image monster that is devouring them piecemeal is a vital point. But on the other hand, that their perspective is infantile is paramount. There is so much that we should be apprised of including Climate Change, institutional and governmental discrimination, the outrageous abuses occurring at our Southern border with children imprisoned in camps without proper supervision and attention, the threat of citizens being thrown off their healthcare.

Hailey Bieber, Bert Marcus, The American Meme, Tribeca FF 2018

Hailey Bieber and Bert Marcus, ‘The American Meme,’ Tribeca FF 2018 (photo courtesy of Tribeca)

To my febrile, ancient mind this documentary is as indulgent as its subjects. Hopefully, once these Social personalities grow up, perhaps they will do something purposeful in the world. Some of them like Amanda Cerny have. But she is not one of those who clawed to the top of the Social Media platforms amassing followers through either looking stupid good or appearing arrogant and clueless and lovely or with the guys like Kirill doing the opposite and being disgusting for disgusting sake. That to me rings too much of the current political media mogul that has usurped the seat of power to brand himself and the nation. The question is, what exactly do you want to do? And if you end up killing yourself or destroying your career, do you care?

But again The American Meme is not political. However, it does highlight self-victimization and feeling victimized by one’s fans and the relentless gorging of the media on the outrageous and controversial. In any case, many will find Marcus’ revelations and/or the celebratory comments and behaviors fascinating. Indeed, this film is for those who believe that Social Media is revolutionary by bringing the American Dream right onto one’s phone camera and using one’s creativity to grab the attention of millions. That is a feat. But as Andy Warhol stated, everyone has their 15 minutes of fame. Ironically, his criticism of this in the culture, most people missed. Also, the crowd mentality around celebrity and the rabid and misguided search for the American Meme/Dream theme, if it amuses, was beautifully stated in a 1939 novel by Nathaniel West which is about Hollywood as a devouring fiction. The novel is The Day of the Locust. And West reveals the same type of frenzy driving humanity. The novel was also made into the 1979 titular film which was a barely recognizable, loose adaptation of the novel about a few of Hollywood’s failed dreamers.

As an expose, Marcus documentary is lukewarm. Would that he had gone deeper, for the idea is a fascinating one that needs exploration, certainly. As a documentary that informs with appropriate edits and Social Media intercuts, it does its job. As a position piece, it is obvious and bland. Citing more details, facts and highlighting the Social celebrities who are making it across platforms and whose creativity does rock might have been more trenchant. But then again, riding the tail wind as this film does, followers of these stars will enjoy The American Meme. As a future historical piece, Marcus has laid the groundwork for others to go beyond the surface to the psychology behind the memes. Just do it!

 

Tribeca Film Festival Review: ‘Netizens’

Carrie Goldberg, Anita Sarkeesian, Tina Reione, Cynthia Lowen, Netizens, Tribeca FF premiere, and Q and A

(L to R): Carrie Goldberg, Anita Sarkeesian, Tina Reine, Cynthia Lowen, premiere screening ‘Netizens,’ Tribeca FF Q & A, moderated by Lauren Duca (Carole Di Tosti)

Women’s place in the culture as second class citizens viewed as sex objects and predatorized has never been more apparent with the #MeToo movement. Of course Hollywood tradition, the film industry, television and corporate business are notorious for predation of women which appears under the guise of adoration of women. Men just can’t keep their hands away from nor keep their sexual organs outside of beautiful women. They can’t control themselves. What a canard! Nothing could be further from the truth. Any form of sexual predation, rape, abuse, harassment, violence, molestation is misogyny, not adoration. There are no sexual components that apply, though men almost universally characterize such behavior as sexual and not violence. The documentary film Netizens which premiered at Tribeca Film Festival, directed by Cynthia Lowen, identifies this canard, as it focuses on three women who have had to confront such abuse and its attendant misogyny online.

The battles of these women to gain justice with legal representation coincide with the #Me Too movement. Theirs has been a lonely and humiliating walk until justice arrived on their doorsteps. Various online Social Media habitats provide a way for Incells and others to band together in a cultish, vituperative fan club of twisted men, who, with anonymity and impunity, stalk, harass and insult women they deem  noxious and vulnerable. Such mentally disturbed guys with an axe to grind against females lurk behind a cyber avatar. Social media is largely un-policed by law enforcement. Nor do Social Media companies accept responsibility for such abuses which they dismiss. Law enforcement and Social Media companies are proportionately empowered by men. Conveniently due to gender bias, most do not perceive sexual harassment as a cyber crime. With regard to law enforcement, unless there is bodily harm and a name, cyber cretins easily remain beyond the justice system.

Carrie Goldberg, Netizens, Tribeca FF premiere and Q & A

Carrie Goldberg in ‘Netizens,,’ premiere screening Tribeca FF and Q & A (Carole Di Tosti)

Cynthia Lowen’s insightful documentary follows lawyer Carrie Goldberg’s frustrations and revelations about our justice system’s (during Obama, now it’s conceivably worse), ineffectuality when dealing with cyber harassment. In this era of Russian interference on Social Media and Facebook’s “unwitting” participation with Cambridge Analytica’s handing over of user information, the potential for abuse has skyrocketed even more. Though Lowen’s film does not delve into the 2016 election aftermath and the Russian hacking, the online abuse of individuals supporting Hillary/Obama against Trump has been legion. Thus, the Social Media landscape is ripe with rotten fruits from corrupted trees that need to be cut down or burned.

Lowen’s work intimates such cyber attacks and propaganda by focusing on the elements which allow individuals to abuse and stalk. The key is anonymity and/or the ease with which poseurs may create a fictitious identity and use it as a means to insult and character assassinate.

Netizens deals with the female/male dynamic. Through the testimony and comments of Carrie Goldberg, Tina Reine and  Anita Sarkeesian, their video interviews reveal an intense personal struggle with online bullies and predators. Through her interviews primarily with these women and others of similar experience, Lowen’s documentary creates a discussion forum for activism. These three represent what happens to thousands of women daily who are attacked and bullied publicly without adequate judicial recourse in the face of Social Media companies who dismiss their complaints or tell them to “log off.” Sadly, such harassment often spills into life, especially if the warped anonymous abuser projects all of their rage and mental illness onto their hapless targets.

Not only does Lowen include interviews with advocates, experts both male and female, she incisively indicates all the forms digital harassment and cyber violence take during her interviews. Her intake of comments by teenagers and the key subjects provide vital mentoring information for women young and old. Some cyber violence tactics include non-consensual pornography, revenge porn, duress rape, and privacy invasion. The documentary’s revelations coincide with countless stories of tween abuse where male teenagers for merriment put rape videos of alcohol comatose young girls online. One such case is documented in Roll Red Roll.

Anita Sarkeesian, Netizens, Tribeca FF and Q & A

Anita Sarkeesian in ‘Netizens,’ Tribeca FF premiere and Q & A (Carole Di Tosti)

The consequences are often horrendous. In the instance of those who intend to maintain their business careers, stalkers and harassers often spend hours conniving to destroy the individual and her career via Social Media using online character assassination. In the case of teens violated through bullying their character destroyed on Social Media via pictures and demeaning, denigrating insults, (though Lowen doesn’t deal with suicide per se), such cyber assaults may end up in teen suicide. Only because the women Lowen highlights sought out Goldberg’s legal representation, and in the case of Sarkeesian only because of her powerfully voiced feminist activism does the film have a more satisfying conclusion. Indeed, Reine, Goldberg, Sarkessian and others rely on their inner power to thrive and step above victimization.

However, others have not been as successful. And one reason this film is vital is to educate and inspire young women to empower themselves, speak up and express their voice refusing to back down when cyber attacked, bullied, or sexually cyber predatorized online.

Lowen shadows Lawyer Carrie Goldberg and the others via cinema vérité with superb edits to effect a fascinating and at times disturbing picture of the underbelly of cyber violence. Through interviews with Goldberg and others she dissects a justice system that largely refuses to acknowledge digital abuse as a prosecutable crime. Indeed, New York State is remiss and Goldberg points this out at a speaking engagement that Lowen captures in video clips. Lowen also follows Goldberg in discussion with various clients (a young women who remains anonymous) who seek relief from being terrorized online via their photos being used to strip them of dignity and sanctity as insult upon insult violates their privacy and peace.

Cynthia Lowen speaks at Tribeca FF Q & A after the screening of Netizens.  L to R:  Lauren Duca (un pictured moderator) Tina Reine, Carrie Goldberg, Cynthia Lowen

Lowen’s interviews and shadowing of celebrity Anita Sarkeesian, a media critic, feminist, blogger and activist are particularly enlightening. Sarkessian, an outspoken feminist has taken down the gaming culture and has been threatened, excoriated and vilified for it. Sarkessian reveals the typical day of threats she receives, including bomb threats and death threats. Sarkeesian, a Canadian American is the founder of Feminist Frequency, a website that hosts videos and commentary analyzing portrayals of women in in popular culture. She hit the mark and received some of the most vile cyber harassment with her video series Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, which examines tropes in the depiction of female video game characters.

Anita Sarkeesian, Tribeca FF premiere screening ‘Netizens,’ Q & A

Sarkeesian’s impact may be gauged in that she needs an armed escort when she fulfills public speaking engagements. Interestingly, Lowen reveals the power of her message when she is surrounded by young women who recognize her as an influencer and want her autograph because they’ve been enlightened about the superficial and denigrating objectification of women in Video Games. In her speaking engagements, she has acknowledged the challenge of attempting to improve gender inclusivity in gaming culture and the media.

Sarkeesian has  taken on the ambivalent response of Silicon Valley companies to the threatening behavior they enable. But in their predominately male mind, money talks and BS walks. And they prefer for Sarkessian to walk out of their spaces and let “boys and men be boys and men.” Personal evolution, growth apart from infantile sexual fantasy, and obsession with video games is what drives their profits. Only until someone comes along to mine the finer angels of human nature will this subtle and accepted gender oblivion of women’s power and distinction end.

Tina Reine, Netizens, Tribea FF premiere and Q & A

Tina Reine in ‘Netizens,’ Tribeca FF premiere and Q & A (Carole Di Tosti)

Lowen also focuses on Tina, a successful businesswoman. After a fateful relationship which the male refused to let go of, Tina was cyber harassed in the most debilitating way. The individual used revenge porn and lies to discredit her career record. Using his own money to effect a psychological, emotional campaign of hate against her, he attacked her ability to make a living. Each time Tina would go to interviews, the few that she was invited to, the false background and lies would then appear. How she finally achieves a realm of peace, confronts the individual with legal means and regains control of her emotions and career is inspiring.

 

Cynthia Lowen’s Netizens was produced before the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, a faux attempt moderated by President Trump/Republicans to appear to examine Kavanaugh’s sexual abuse of Christine Blaise Ford in response to the clamor of the public to do so. In April 2018 however, the screening at Tribeca Film Festival and the Q and A afterward gave great occasion for the audience to feel uplifted about these women who were succeeding against online abuse and bringing their character assassins to task. After the Kavanaugh hearings, the entire culture  resumed its status quo and the concept was that once again, women “doth protest too much” and should just “shut up,” or “log off.”

Also, the watershed moments of the #MeToo Movement appear to have stalled after the onrush of women came out in force against their rapists, abusers, molesters and harassers and the men, in many instances celebrities, had their careers upended from the revelations. However, after Kavanaugh there appears to be a swing of the pendulum. Indeed, power and money talk as do the Republican conservative think tanks and societies, like the Federalists.

Another set back occurred when Jeffrey Epstein’s (accused of running teenage orgy parties that touched the lives of male officials and celebrities like Donald Trump and Bill Clinton) charges were shuttered and the testimony that should have been made public of the women he sexually abused when they were teenagers, never saw the light of day. Cover-ups of predation continue, sex-trafficking continues, bullying online via Social Media continues. Each case must be fought and won on its own merit and broadcast to the world.

Kavanaugh and Epstein push backs reveal that it is not enough for women to speak out and seek justice. Cultural mores and folkways must change; this includes for men, women and LGBTQ individuals. And for that to happen, mothers and fathers in parenting their sons and daughters must change. Women and men in their approach and relationships with each other must change. And the culture’s attitudes toward sex and love must become more fluid and tolerant. Sexuality and profitability, fueled by the infantile idea that sex is “forbidden” must die a death. Amsterdam, The Netherlands may have a healthier attitude in that they legalize prostitution and cut off the idea of predation for profit at the knees. Paying for Sex is legal. Enough is enough.

In any case, change is process. Whether face-to-face or online, sexual predation of women and men is a daily war that must be fought in homes, businesses, frat parties, dorms and online to change the culture. The change must go beyond the artificiality of political correctness down into the loins and hearts of young men and boys and the minds and understanding of young women and girls. Regardless, it will happen. It’s only a matter of time and critical mass leveled by the public.

2018 Tribeca Film Festival Review: ‘Disobedience,’Starring Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, Alessandro Nivola

Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, Disobedience, 2018 Tribeca FF US Premiere Screening

(L to R): Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams in ‘Disobedience,’ 2018 Tribeca FF US Premiere Screening (photos from the film)

Disobedience directed by Sebastian Lelio, written by Sebastián Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz received its US Premiere at Tribeca Film Festival 2018. Based on the titular novel by Naomi Alderman, the film is striking for its dynamic and profoundly rendered performances by Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams and Alessandro Nivolo who are caught in an unwitting love triangle. Within a matter of three or four days, as long as it takes to say goodbye to a beloved rabbi, the three must reconcile the truth and establish the deepest kind of love for each other in the form of forgiveness and self-love that brings healing and acceptance.

2018 Tribeca Film Festival US Premiere Screening and Q & A, Alessandro Nivolo

Alessandro Nivola, 2018 Tribeca Film Festival US Premiere Screening and Q & A (Carole Di Tosti)

The title is an extreme irony for on the one hand no one in the film outside of the culture of the community  where the action takes place commits any wrongdoing. However, based upon the perspective of the strict, religious Orthodox community of Jews in North London where the characters play out their drama, love between two women is forbidden. And it is here that the film launches into one of the most poignant and uplifting of LGBTQ films that has been filmed to date.

Tribeca Film Festival 2018, US Premiere Screening, Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, Alessandro Nivola, Disobedience

(L to R): Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, Alessandro Nivola in ‘Disobedience,’ 2018 Tribeca Film Festival US Premiere Screening (photo from the film)

Ronit, a New York photographer who has been estranged from her rabbi father returns home for his funeral to pay respect and gain closure, if possible. She discovers that the Orthodox Jewish congregation holds little interest for her nor demonstrates conviviality. Even her relatives are cold. Indeed, her lifestyle and freedom living as an independent free-wheeling woman in the US has transformed her since she has shed the strict upbringing under which she was raised, though she is still Jewish. As she attempts to negotiate the services for her father, she meets old friends with whom she grew up and is shocked to discover that Esti (Rachel McAdams) has married Dovid (Alessandro Nivolo). When she discusses their relationship with them, she discovers that Esti is miserable with Dovid who has worked closely with Ronit’s father in the synagogue and most probably will take over the congregation now that the rabbi has died.

Alessandro Nivola, Rachel McAdams, Disobedience, 2018 Tribeca Film Festival US Premiere

Alessandro Nivola, Rachel McAdams in ‘Disobedience,’ 2018 Tribeca Film Festival US Premiere (photo from the film)

The film progresses slowly, profoundly and painstakingly and this is where the three actors shine in their almost second to second precision as they react to one another in measured, careful beats. We note the underpinnings and feelings that the women suppress in public. The air between them is heavy with meaning, and Dovid is sensitive enough to divine that the two have feelings for each other that transcend the ordinary relationship of childhood friends.

Eventually, the filmmaker reveals that Ronit (Rachel Weisz in a dogged and measured performance) and Esti (Rachel McAdams is the perfect foil playing off Weisz’s inner peace with a yearning grace of her own) had an affair and were intimate in complete contravention of the mores of the Orthodox community.

Ronit’s father, a rabbi, expects strict adherence to Jewish folkways for his children, and when he was apprised of Ronit’s behavior, they argued. The film is fascinating in that the father’s presence makes itself felt, though we never see him. The estrangement reveals that her father adheres more to the role of rabbi and fears the disapproval of his congregation than demonstrating the perfect law of love and grace which as a rabbi he is supposed to exemplify. Hypocritically, the rabbi wants nothing to do with his daughter. Their estrangement and his unforgiveness carry through to the disposition of his possessions and his house. He has disinherited Ronit and has given everything to charity.

Rahel Weisz, Rahel McAdams, Alessandro Nivola, Disobedience, 2018 Tribeca Film Festival US Premiere

(L to R): Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, Alessandro Nivola in ‘Disobedience,’ 2018 Tribeca Film Festival US Premiere and Q & A (Carole Di Tosti)

Ronit left her father, the Orthodox Jewish folkways and culture, and sought the freedom of the US. However, it is apparent she has not left her love of God though she is free from Orthodoxy. Ronit is a sterling individual. Courageously, she carves out her own life confronting her sexual orientation as second nature for she is intimate with both men and women.

Rachel McAdams, Alessandro Nivola, 2018 Tribeca Film Festival US Premiere and Q & A Screening

Rachel McAdams, Alessandro Nivola in ‘Disobedience,’ 2018 Tribeca Film Festival US Premiere and Q & A (Carole Di Tosti)

On the other hand, Esti has had to live under the strictures that Ronit discarded. And as a married woman and a lesbian which the community considers anathema and “unclean,” she despises herself  and her hypocrisy that she has chosen a life of shame, though on the surface she is a pious, good wife to her husband. Nevertheless, like the Rabbi who has a daughter whom he cannot forgive, Esti stays in a marriage which is false and the intimacy between her and Dovid is false and truly unfair to him.

Rachel McAdams, Disobedience, 2018 Tribeca FF US Premiere

Rachel McAdams in ‘Disobedience,’ 2018 Tribeca FF US Premiere (photo courtesy of the film)

Though the film concentrates on the relationships of Dovid, Ronit and Esti, in the shadows, we understand that the Orthodox Jewish culture nullifies and pushes individuals further from God rather than closer to him in love and forgiveness. Out of all of the characters in the film, Ronit best exemplifies God’s love and it is through her loving example with Dovid and Esti that the married couple are made free to leave one another and in the case of Dovid allow himself to be free of the position of rabbi. For as a result of Ronit’s visit and the revelations that occur, he realizes he must not take up the mantle of hypocrisy that Ronit’s father has worn in front of his congregation, looking like the martyred saint, while being unforgiving to his daughter.

One of the most important themes in Disobedience cannot be overstated enough.The strict mores and unforgiving Orthodox Jewish community like any orthodox religious community creates misery and torment. The religious mores work in the reverse. They do not free. Instead, they chain the congregation to an obedience which is not loving of God who forgives. It chains them to behavior which is unforgiving its acceptance of a false obedience to the orthodoxy which discourages love and forgiveness. Thus, when Ronit first visits, we see how the congregants respond to her. Indeed, Ronit’s example is frightening to the community who rejects her rather than attempts to understand who she is.

Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, Disobedience, Alessandro Nivola, 2018 Tribeca Film Festival US Premiere and Q & A

(L to R): Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, ‘Disobedience,’ 2018 Tribeca Film Festival US Premiere and Q & A (Carole Di Tosti)

The conundrum Esti’s character faces becomes clear to us and to Ronit when she tells Ronit that she wanted to see her and though Ronit didn’t know who sent word, Esti admits that it was she who sent word her father died. Indeed. The complexity of their relationship, one being free and the other living in bondage and lies reveals the secret intimacy between them is a freeing one for Esti. However, before Ronit visits, Esti is incapable of seeing a way out because Dovid is a lovely, kind individual and there is external security in being with the community, though the security is a prison.

Only when Ronit and she are intimate in a hotel room and she is able to express her passion as a gay woman to one she loved in the past, does she set herself free. For her part, Ronit is settled in who she is and her own freedom kindles the love in Esti to set her at ease with her decision to leave Dovid.

By the end of the film, Ronit is a beacon to Esti and Dovid. Esti wants to be free of her shame, her hypocrisy and her unhappiness with Dovid whom she loves, but not in the fullness of expression as she loves Ronit. Ronit helps her achieve freedom to forgive herself and move on away from Dovid and the congregation.

The most poignant one in this threesome is Dovid. But he, too, overcomes the shackles of the congregation’s stultifying mores. He forgives both of the women and understands that to command Esti to stay with him or love him is unloving and hateful of her true nature. His character beautifully portrayed by Nivola is the one who evolves and accepts the challenges of discovering what love and forgiveness should be for one in a position to lead others in God’s laws of love.

The film’s pacing is particularly interesting in the beginning. All is subtext and it keeps one considering what is happening between and among the three friends. It is a must-see for the superb acting, the excellent adaptation of the script and the measured cinematography which serves characterization and theme. Kudos to all involved, especially the actors and the director who elicited their performances.

 

Tribeca Film Festival 2018 World Premiere: ‘Stockholm,’ Starring Ethan Hawke

Ethan Hawke, Stockholm, Stokholm Syndrome, Tribeca FF 2018, Spotlight Narrative Film

Ethan Hawke and Noomi Rapace in ‘Stockholm,’ A World Premiere at 2018 Tribeca Film Festival Spotlight Narrative Film, (photo courtesy of the film)

Stockholm, written and directed by Robert Budreau and starring Ethan Hawke as the American who intends to swap millions and a friend for the largest Swedish banks’ hostages is a humorous thrill ride which almost has you rooting for the “wild and crazy” poseur Lars Nystrom/Kaj Hansson that Hawke assiduously portrays. The World Premiere slated as a Spotlight Narrative Film at Tribeca Film Festival 2018 is based on the incredible true story of how a charismatic criminal lures his victims to not only allow him to hold them hostage, but also elicits their help as he attempts to escape from the circumstances which irrevocably close in on him.

Ethan Hawke in a long haired wig, cowboy hat and dark sunglasses (for the film’s beginning) is perfect for the role as the maniac  “Lars” whose bravado and energy take over the mild-mannered male and female clerks as he predatorizes their emotions, yet entertains them with his singing. Generally, he is an outrageous and likeable character and is more terrorized himself when he has to browbeat them into corners and submission with a gun.

Robert Budreau, Ethan Hawke, Tribeca FF 2018 World Premiere Spotlight Narrative Film screening

Director Robert Budreau introducing ‘Stockholm,’ Tribeca FF 2018, World Premiere Spotlight Narrative Film screening, (Carole Di Tosti)

 

When the minutes turn into hours with no resolution in sight, an incredible situation unfolds. Himself cornered by police and bank officials who refuse to give him the money he wants and other items for his escape,, Lars depends upon the support of teller Bianca Lind (the fine Noomi Rapace) and others. Lind becomes enthralled and even swept up and attracted to him. Lars negotiates a key point, in getting law enforcement to bring over Gunnar Sorensson (Mark Strong) a former friend whom Lars intends to free as a condition of releasing the hostages. To create conflict, Budreau portrays Gunnar as more menacing, though in real life, he was released and not charged possibly because he helped law enforcement catch “Lars” who was sentenced to ten years for this escapade.

Jan-erik Olsson, Ethan Hawke, Stockholm, Stockholm Syndrome, Tribeca FF 2018 World Premiere, Spotlight Narrative Film screening

Jan-erik Olsson responsible for the bank robbery in Stockholm, decades later. Ethan Hawke portrayed a fictional character based on the robbery events in ‘Stockholm.’ Tribeca FF 2018 World Premiere Spotlight Narrative Film screening (from the site)

With changes in name and characterizations, the film is primarily based on the true events which happened in 1973 in Stockholm, Sweden known as the Norrmalmstorg robbery. It was this robbery when Jan-Erik Olsson took hostages and their response to the situation originated the clinical symptoms known as “Stockholm Syndrome.” Specifically, the syndrome occurs when the alleged victims of a criminal predator identify with him, feel sorry for him and actually aid and abet his escape and/or commit criminal acts with him. Whether this is a survival mechanism response to fear is opaque. But the syndrome has been the subject of debate as other hostage crises have gained notoriety, For example in the sensational Patty Hearst case which occurred a year later than the Norrmalmstorg robbery, in 1974, Hearst was kidnapped by the wacked Symbionese Liberation Front who forced her to participate in a bank robbery which was filmed on camera. Hearst’s emotions became compromised to protect herself and mislead her captors. Nevertheless, her identification with criminals is not easily understood.

Budreau’s film gives rise to a number of psychological questions which he raises and attempts to answer. First, why does the attractive Bianca Lind go along with Lars and not resist him? Is it because he is not dangerous or because she is frozen in fear? Lind is the fictional character perhaps most similar to real life Kristin Enmark. Enmark in a conversation with officials said she believed the two hostage takers to be less dangerous than the police who were trigger happy. Likewise, in the film Lind cites the quote which Budreau included about the police being more likely to injure and kill the hostages in a fire fight, because civilian lives are less important than “getting the criminals” or preserving the banks funds.

Why does Lind passively go along with Lars to the point of assisting him? Surely, he is more hot air than serious killer as Hawke superbly portrays him to be. The longer the hostages and he remain together, the more they believe he has their interests at heart, while the bank is more interested in safeguarding their money. Interestingly, the manager and negotiators do not take “Lars” seriously. Only when the hostages help him with a plan and he pretends to injure Bianca is there some movement regarding giving him what he wants.

Robert Budreau, Ethan Hawke, Noomi Rapace, 2018 Tribeca FF World Premiere Spotlight Narrative screening Q & A

Director Robert Budreau, Noomi Rapace (2nd from left), cast, Ethan Hawke, far right at the 2018 Tribeca FF World Premiere Spotlight Narrative screening of ‘Stockholm, the Q and A (Carole Di Tosti

For her part Rapace’s Lind reveals a character who is more passive female than fiesty rebel. However, when we see her relate to her husband and family, Budreau offers up a tantalizing possibility. In the brief conversation she has with her husband, she appears steady and unemotional. Does she not want to upset him? Couldn’t she emotionally cry and manipulate her husband to more forcefully pressure the bank into settling with the bank robber? Instead, Budreau offers another look into a marriage and home life that may indeed be unsatisfactory and banal. Certainly, this interlude with the exciting and dangerous Lars stimulates another part of her seemingly untouched by her married life with the rather cold husband as portrayed by  Thorbjørn Harr.

Budreau’s take on the “Syndrome” in the titular film Stockholm is varied and reveals elements that we may not have considered before because we are unfamiliar with the fascinating events that coined the phrase “stockholm syndrome” based on the symbiotic relationship between predators and their hostages. The film engages primarily due to the pacing, the tight, authentic revamping of the events in a believable way, and the fine performances, especially the high-flying wildness of Hawke and his exchanges and counter-play with Lind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

directed and written by Robert Budreau. Produced by Nicholas Tabarrok, Robert Budreau, Jonathan Bronfman. (Canada, Sweden, USA) – World Premiere. In 1973, an unhinged American outlaw walked into a bank in Sweden demanding millions in cash in exchange for his hostages. The events that followed would capture the attention of the world and ultimately give a name to a new psychological phenomenon: Stockholm syndrome. With Ethan Hawke, Noomi Rapace, Mark Strong, Christopher Heyerdahl, Bea Santos, Thorbjorn Harr.

2018 Tribeca Film Festival Review: Chekhov’s ‘The Seagull’ Starring Annette Bening, Corey Stoll, Saoirse Ronan, Elisabeth Moss, Mare Winningham

Annette Bening, Jon Tenney, The Seagull, 2018 Tribeca Film Festival World Premiere

Annette Bening, Jon Tenney in ‘The Seagull,’ 2018 Tribeca Film Festival World Premiere, (photo from the film)

Annette Bening, The Seagul, Anton Chekhov, Michael Meyer, 2018 Tribeca FF World Premiere

Annette Bening, 2018 Tribeca FF World Premiere, Anton Chekhov’s ‘The Seagull,’ directed by Michael Mayer (Carole Di Tosti)

Michael Mayer’s valiant attempt to bring a freshness to The Seagull with a script based on Anton Chekhov’s titular work by Stephen Karam (Tony winner of The Humans-2016) shines for a myriad of reasons. Yes, many critics dunned it or found that it fell short of its monumental task to bring Anton Chekhov’s four act, three hour play to the screen. Indeed, Chekhov is not easy and the script has been paired to emphasize the humor and highlight the salient speeches and actions, leaving the more unwieldy dialogue behind.

Annette Bening, The Seagull, Anton Chekhov, Michael Mayer, Stephen Karam 2018 Tribeca FF World Premiere

Annette Bening in Anton Checkhov’s ‘The Seagull,’ directed by Michael Mayer, adapted by Stephen Karam, 2018 Tribeca FF World Premiere, (photo courtesy of the film.

At its first time out in 1895, The Seagull flopped. The play requires superb acting and directing so that the ponderous tones are submerged and the comedy comes to the fore. I have seen a number of productions that left me with a yawn and a nod. Not so for this film. Forgive me fellow sojourners with a critical eye. My pen is blunted from razor sharp barbs directed to slice into this fine feature which made its World Premiere at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

Saoirse Ronan, Corey Stoll, The Seagull, 2018 Tribeca Film Festival World Premiere

Saoirse Ronan, Corey Stoll, ‘The Seagull, 2018 Tribeca Film Festival World Premiere (photo courtesy of the film)

Mayer brings the action into the breathtaking settings of the lake and environs of the estate. He carries this striking beauty into his grand and lush interiors signifying the wealth and class status of the Pjotr Nikolayevich Sorin estate. Sorin (Brian Dennehy) is Irina’s (Annette Bening) brother. Interior and exterior settings are visually stunning. Against this gorgeousness Mayer unleashes the characters foibles and tragedies. The irony that luxury and the exquisite beauty of things has little power over emotions thematically resonates throughout. The principals’ (Irina-Bening, Trigorin-Corey Stoll, Nina-Saoirse Ronan, Masha-Elisabeth Moss, Konstantin-Billy Howle) interactions form the meat of the drama which ends in  tragedy. None of the characters appear to be self-aware (Trigorin excepted with caveats) to the point where they can make decisions which are life-affirming. Chekhov and Mayer’s iteration of his version of The Seagull places the human condition in its humor and sadness front and center. To his credit Mayer’s understanding and perception continually serve his fine cinematic intuitions, skills and efforts.

Saoirse Ronan, 2018 Tribeca FF World Premiere and Q & A

Saoirse Ronan, 2018 Tribeca Film Festival World Premiere Screening and Q & A (Carole Di Tosti)

The vitality of the settings that move back and forth from outdoors to interiors ground us in the landed wealth and social order of the Sorin family who also boasts a celebrity, the actress Irina who visits her brother Sorin and her son Konstantin each summer. The settings, always a subtle reminder of the time and place in Russia before the revolution (twenty years or so later) seem a particular irony. The upper class social elites and celebrities (Irina, Trigorin, etc.) whose physical needs are answered by the serving class, remain surreptitiously unhappy and in a constant state of displacement by the major facts of life: love-loss, aging and death. Their sturm und drang, whimsies, self-absorption and discontents are the luxuries of their class which harbor the seeds of tragedy because their cavernous, selfish desires blind them to the encroaching realities. Unless they self-correct, they will face tragedy and loss after tragedy and destruction, muting their soul’s enrichment until little of worth is left.. Inevitably, this class in the coming decades will lose all they take for granted.

Annette Bening, Billy Howle,2018 Tribeca FF World Premiere Q & A,Annette Bening, Billy Howle,The Seagull, Anton Chekhov, Michael Mayer,

Annette Bening, Billy Howle in Anton Chekhov’s ‘The Seagull’, 2018 Tribeca FF World Premiere and Q & A, (Carole Di Tosti)

Irina (Bening is authentic and stunning as the aging diva racing one step ahead of oblivion, and the end of celebrity and youth) brings the successful novelist Trigorin (Stoll in a superbly realistic performance) into the summer festivities of the family on their estate. Trigorin’s presence is the catalyst that puts the human dominoes in motion and sends them careening off a cliff with humor and irrevocably pathos. Konstantin, a passionate, unconventional writer is devastated after his mother Irina and the others find his play, performed by his unrequited love Nina, to be laughable and esoteric. Too self-absorbed with their own greatness Irina and Trigorin dismiss his yearning for success and recognition. His need for his mother’s love and acceptance has fallen at the shores of his depressive state for years. Almost in a revenge against his plight and in a self-curse of not achieving success, he shoots a delightful, beautiful seagull in a wanton act to release his anger. He gives the seagull to Nina who rejects it. It is a symbolic act, as if as refuses to acknowledge that her unrequited love wounds him. This act reverberates and symbolizes additional themes. One is that human being’s selfish desires and passions loosed upon the natural world and others, if not moderated, harm and destroy.

Elisabeth Moss, The Seagull, Anton Chekhov, Michael Mayer, Stephen Karam, 2018 Tribeca FF World Premiere,

Elisabeth Moss in Anton Chekhov’s ‘The Seagull,’ written by Stephen Karam, 2018 Tribeca FF World Premiere, directed by Michael Mayer (photo from the film)

For her part Nina (who lives on a neighboring estate) is entranced by Trigorin and dismissive of Konstantin’s love. She seeks fame as an actress and wants Trigorin’s love which he finds flattering for his ego is wounded in his relationship with Irina and the encroaching years of waning masculinity. Nina may be his last, greatest passion, and if not that, a distracting plaything to notch on his belt and then discard. When he notes the dead seagull, he shares that he may use it as a symbol in a work he will write. These poetic notions seduce Nina with the enticement that she may be his seagull. Nina is blind to the danger of what he says, innocently trusting him with her love and being.

Stoll as Trigorin is convincing especially in his self-justification of why he must take Nina’s love, if even for a season, when she offers it quoting from a passage in a work of his. This speech in particular is superbly delivered by Stoll. And even if it is not graceful, we empathize with his fear of aging and the limitations of his mortality with which we all can identify. Neither money, nor success nor celebrity can answer death. However, being pursued by two women a beautiful younger one and a celebrated actress who is a drama queen will suffice in the meantime, though it requires the humility and wisdom to negotiate their war against each other to “get” him. Trigorin’s pride and fear do not allow him to balance the two women so that they don’t care about his concern for the other in competing jealousies. They do care and they compete for him.

The Seagull, Michael Mayer, Stephen Karam, Saoirse Ronan, Brian Dennehy, 2018 Tribeca FF World Premiere

Saoirse Ronan, Brian Dennehy, Anton Chekhov’s ‘The Seagull,’ adapted by Stephen Karam, 2018 Tribeca FF World Premiere (photo from the film)

Irinia discovers Nina’s hopeless infatuation and must then approach Trigorin with clever wiles to get him to return with her to Moscow. If they stay at the estate, in front of her he will fulfill his lustful passion for Nina, for Nina is relentless. Irina refuses this humiliation.Though Trigorin and Irina leave together, in the short term she knows she must let him go.

Bening’s and Stoll’s interplay is smashing. In their portrayals, they reveal that neither character loves the other, but the passion for keeping their successful images by using each other’s status is familiar territory. Ultimately that will bind them together, despite any interfering love by encroaching inferiors like Nina or even Irina’s son Konstantin.

The Seagull, Corey Stoll, Red Carpet, 2018 World Premiere, Tribeca FF, Michael Meyer, Anton Chekhov, Stephen Karam

Corey Stoll, Red Carpet, 2018 Tribeca FF World Premiere, Anton Chekhov’s ‘The Seagull,’ directed by Michael Mayer, adapted by Stephen Karam (Carole Di Tosti)

These intricate matters of the heart are further complicated by the unrequited love of Konstantin for Nina whom he adores, and Masha’s (the daughter of Sorin’s baliff) unrequited love of Konstantin. The only stable one appears to be Doctor Dorn (Jon Tenney) who sees the value in Konstantin’s symbolistic, maverick play. However, he is having an affair with Polina behind her husband’s back, not embarrassed to cuckhold an inferior. Thus, with this selfish and wanton weakness, he fits the ethos of the other disturbed, dismantling characters.

What of the irascible and reflexive Sorin (Dennehy) who allows the visitors to descend on the estate each summer with aplomb and takes care of his nephew Konstantin while his sister indulges her passions for the dramatic life? He appears to be the most balanced, but he has two sick feet on a banana peel, and if he moves too suddenly, he appears ready to slip out of life. Only the servants/peasants whose needs we cannot see remain solid even heroic as they attend to their sometimes “infantile” charges and judge their actions accordingly.

The beauty of the film is its muscularity. The director focuses on the performances in the highly charged scenes between Bening’s Irina and Stoll’s Trigorin and between Trigorin and Saoirse Ronan’s Nina and between Nina and Howle’s Konstantin.

Anton Chekhov, The Seagull, Saoirse Ronan, Michael Meyer, 2018 Tribeca FF World Premiere

Saoirse Ronan in Anton Chekhov’s ‘The Seagull,’ directed by Michael Meyer, adapted by Stephen Karam, 2018 Tribeca FF (photo from  film)

The succinct script entices us toward believability. We know these individuals and are fascinated by their rationale for behaving as they do. Though not very admirable or honorable, they are like us as they “hang themselves and each other out to dry.” When Nina returns in her dishevelment and dislocation of self and presents what she “is” to Konstantin, he sees her identity ravished and torn by Trigorin and the vicissitudes of her mediocre acting career. From his love for her and out of his own depths of despair, he willfully kills himself ending his misery and torment.

The ending is particularly poignant. Saoirse Ronan, appears like a ghost to revisit and haunt the scene as if transferring her great wounds to Konstantin who again kills a seagull in his empathy with it. This time it is himself. Representatively, symbolically his act shows that though Nina’s physical life continues, for all intents and purposes, her beauty and innocence are dead. Both have allowed themselves to be consumed by others whose great, dark abyss of self-torment seems limitless in its rapacity to devour all who attempt to love them.

See the film for the performances: all are wonderful, and kudos to Elisabeth Moss who manages always to be funny in her despair and angst. Mare Winningham, Jon Tenney and Brian Dennehy relay solid performances.

Mayer has found an approach to putting difficult classics onscreen. Perhaps he will continue this trend; fine directors should work with the classics to acquaint the current generation with great playwrights and authors. Actors surely will jump at the opportunity, to portray humorous and profound characterizations like the ones Chekhov has delineated in The Seagull.

 

 

 

Tribeca Film Festival Review 2018: ‘Every Act of Life,’ Looking Into the Brilliant Terrence McNally

Terrence McNally, Jeff Kaufman, Every Act of Life, World Premiere Special Screening and Q & A, Tribeca FF 2018

(L to R): Director Jeff Kaufman, Terrence McNally, ‘Every Act of Life,’2018 Tribeca FF World Premiere Special Screening and Q & A, Moderator Frank Rich, unpictured (Carole Di Tosti),

Terrence McNally is a theatrical force of nature, though with his incredible humility in an age of self-promotion, he would be the last to admit it. With a career spanning six decades and major, ground-breaking successes on Broadway and Off, in film and television, and multiple theater awards every decade, the man is a dynamo, beloved by actors whose careers he has vaulted, actors whom he collaborates with in a symbiotic relationship again and again. At 80, he is still working, attending productions (I saw him in the audience of the musical production of the most Tony nominated musical SpongeBob SquarePants this summer.) and launching off into new projects, even as I write this.

The World Premiere Every Act of Life directed and written by Jeff Kaufman was given a special screening at Tribeca Film Festival 2018, with luminaries, actors and McNally himself attending for the Q and A afterward. In this formidable documentary about a formidable American playwright, Kaufman presents McNally’s career and personal life. From start to finish Every Act of Life is an intriguing and well-thought-out chronicle cobbled together with interviews, archived photos, video clips, well-researched facts, details, memorabilia and well-placed commentary by actors, directors, producers and McNally himself. The documentary is especially revealing in its presentation of how one individual’s love and passion for the theater, opera, music and art has impacted our culture and brought us together in a forward momentum of shared communication and understanding.

Tyne Daly, Nathan Lane, 2018 Tribeca Film Festival World Premiere and Special Screening and Q & A (Carole Di Tosti)

Tyne Daly (‘Mothers and Sons’ and ‘Master Class’), Nathan Lane (‘Love! Valor! Compassion!’ ‘The Lisbon Traviata,’ ‘ It’s Only a Play’)2018 Tribeca FF World Premiere and Special Screening and Q & A (Carole Di Tosti)

Beginning with his early plays and traveling right up to his most recent work, Kaufman lays out the seminal moments and turning points that have slowly fostered the personality and character of this mild-mannered and charmingly authentic persona that McNally is today. Early influences on his life McNally credits to his English teacher in Corpus Christi who encouraged him to write and attend schools outside of the area. But his love of musicals and Broadway, were initially inspired by his parents, transplanted New Yorkers, who brought him all the way from Texas to New York to see a few smash musicals with towering figures like Gertrude Lawrence in The King and I and Ethel Merman in Annie Get Your Gun.

Terrence McNally, Tribeca FF 2018, World Premiere and Special Screening and Q & A, Every Act of Life

Terrence McNally, ‘Every Act of Life,’ 2018 Tribeca FF World Premiere Special Screening and Q & A (Carole Di Tosti)

The excitement and enchantment of live theater musicals were imprinted on his memory. And this love abides with him to this day as he continues to collaborate on  musicals writing the book for numerous hits like The Kiss of the Spider Woman (1992), Ragtime (1996), The Full Monty (2000), The Visit (2001),  Catch Me If You Can (2011), Anastasia (2017). He has also sharpened his wits and taken up collaborating on opera, for example in 2015, the production of Great Scott  (music by Jake Heggie), premiered at Winspear Opera House in Dallas, Texas. He is a veritable tornado when it comes to writing new plays and collaborating with composers on musicals and operas.

Chita Rivera, LPTW, The Visit, Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Rink, Terrence McNally, Every Act of Life

Chita Rivera appeared in McNally’s ‘The Rink,’ (1984) ‘The Kiss of the Spider Woman,’ (1992, 93, 94) ‘The Visit,’ (2004). Tribeca FF 2018, World Premiere Screening and Q & A, ‘Every Act of Life.’Chita Rivera appears in Kaufman’s film about McNally. Here Chita Rivera appears at a 2018 LPTW event (Carole Di Tosti)

Following his English teacher’s advice, McNally attended Columbia University and was further shepherded by professors like Lionel Trilling for literature and Andrew Chiappe who steered him in the basics by having McNally and others read every work by Shakespeare in the order of their composition. After Columbia, McNally through a serendipitous introduction via The Actor’s Studio, cruised with John Steinbeck and family around the world as he tutored Steinbeck’s two young sons. This was another incredible experience which was to shape McNally’s writing career and broaden his horizons as well as establish his relationship with Steinbeck who inspired his writing. From these adventures he later fashioned the first act of And Things That Go Bump in the Night. Additionally, Steinbeck asked him to write a libretto for a musical adaptation of his novel East of Eden. One doesn’t know what one can do until a great American novelist like John Steinbeck asks you to do it.

F. Murray Abraham, Every Act of Life, 2018 Tribeca FF World Premiere and Special Screening and Q & A

F. Murray Abraham, ‘Every Act of Life,’ 2018 Tribeca FF World Premiere and Special Screening and Q & A (Carole Di Tosti)

Back in New York City, McNally used his connections at the Actor’s Studio to begin to workshop his nascent one-act plays. And it was in New York that he met the brilliant playwright Edward Albee who was just coming into his own. After a four-year tempestuous relationship during which Albee wrote The American Dream and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, they parted ways and McNally’s career began to take off gradually in theater, television and in film as he wrote screenplays for versions of his works first performed on Broadway and Off Broadway.

2018 Tribeca FF World Premiere Screening and Q & A, Terrence Mcnally, Edward Albee, Every Act of Life

(L to R): Terrence McNally, Edward Albee, ‘Every Act of Life,’ 2018 Tribeca FF World Premiere Screening and Q & A (Carole Di Tosti)

Various tidbits appear in Kaufman’s documentary that fascinate. Some of the impressions are telling. He became addicted to alcohol and at a time when no one could admit to being gay, McNally confronted the oppressions of the culture and created some of the most insightful, poignant and endearing works related to the LGBT community and relatives confronting the AIDS epidemic. These include the TV miniseries Andre’s Mother for which he won an Emmy and later his Mothers and Sons starring Tyne Daly based upon the miniseries. Additionally, Lips Together, Teeth Apart, as well as an inside look at gay relationships for which he won his second Tony Award, Love! Valor! Compassion! also feature topics about confronting gender prejudice.

Joe Mantello, Every Act of Life, Terrence McNally, 2018 Tribeca FF World Premiere Screening and Q & A, Terrence McNally

Joe Mantello, ‘Every Act of Life,’ 2018 Tribeca FF World Premiere Screening and Q & A (Carole Di Tosti)

Always concerned about the deep side of the human condition and striving above it, McNally first landed on the map when he was recognized for his portrayal of female-male relationships among the working classes (Frankie and Johnnie in the Claire de Lune) which was adapted into a screenplay starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer. McNally’s versatility and humanity encompasses play topics that run the continuum. What is most important to him is human connections and the realization that we are together in this “thing” referred to as life. The beauty of our ability to connect, express love, overcome personal issues and adversity, with an assist from art and theater makes all the difference in discovering our purpose and fulfillment.

McNally’s dogged fight for LGBTQ rights at a time when it was most unfashionable and nearly anathema is an incredible achievement, considering the forces and money behind the attempt to liquify LGBTQ rights in the noxious march toward inhumanity and darkness led by the political conservative right-wing. Kaufman highlights the struggle. He also reveals how McNally overcame his addiction to alcohol and on that subject includes an amazing anecdote. Angela Lansbury’s love and honesty prompted her to speak directly to McNally to the effect that he must stop destroying himself. Indeed, she feared this most talented playwright, librettist and screenwriter would die an early death. Her influence and other factors eventually sent him down the road to wellness, where others were not as willfully fortunate.

What I appreciate in the film is McNally’s candor in discussing his “flops.” Of course, one might say that there are no flops in a playwright’s repertoire, only stepping stones which help them achieve their hard won success.

2018 Tribeca FF World Premiere Screening and Q & A, 'Ever Act of Life,' Jeff Kaufman, Terrence McNally, Tyne Daly, Nathan Lane, Joe Mantello, F. Murray Abraham

2018 Tribeca FF World Premiere Screening and Q & A, ‘Every Act of Life,’ (L to R): Jeff Kaufman, Terrence McNally, Tyne Daly, Nathan Lane, Joe Mantello, F. Murray Abraham (Carole Di Tosti)

Kaufman highlights McNally’s award-winning work (the musicals- The Kiss of the Spider Woman-1992 and Ragtime-1997 and his plays, Love! Valor! Compassion!-1994, Master Class-1995 and Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams-2005). The most incredible feature of this segment of the documentary is the commentary by living legends and McNally friends and collaborators, Chita Rivera, Nathan Lane, John Glover, Tyne Daly, John Kander, F. Murray Abraham, Joe Mantello, Angela Lansbury, Christine Baranski, Audra McDonald and many more. Indeed, the film is a who’s who of McNally’s posse, as well as a chronicle of his prodigious work ethic and love of theater, opera, ballet and music. His talents and breadth of knowledge about the Arts are absolutely staggering. And Kaufman gives us a historical perspective that is continually fresh and exciting.

Terrence McNally, 2018 Tribeca FF World Premiere Screening and Q & A, Jeff Kaufman

Terrence McNally, ‘Every Act of Life,’ 2018 Tribeca FF World Premiere Screening and Q & A, (photo courtesy of the film)

I loved this film. I am familiar with McNally’s work having seen a number of his musicals and comedies on Broadway and Off. I split my sides enjoying them. However, Kaufman digs deep into the revelation of the anointed genius of this most wonderful of playwrights who connects the heavens to humanity with his words, impressions and inspirations, and joins us  together in what can be compared to a holy act of communion in the theater. The film is a must see, and you will especially enjoy hearing how McNally and friends worked together to create some of the finest, most enduring works of  American theater which in the future will surely be identified as classics.

Every Act of Life, Tribeca FF 2018, Jeff Kaufman, Terrence McNally, Tyne Daly, Nathan Lane, Joe Mantello, F. Murray Abraham

‘Every Act of Life,’ Q and A, Tribeca FF 2018 with (L to R) Jeff Kaufman, Terrence McNally, Tyne Daly, Nathan Lane, Joe Mantello, F. Murray Abraham, moderated by Frank Rich who is not pictured (Carole Di Tosti)

Epilogue

After the World Premiere Screening there was a Q and A moderated by Frank Rich, who was a longtime critic of theater at The New York Times. McNally made an incredible admission during the Q and A. Even though he has a prodigious body of work trailing in his wake, he never really considered himself a playwright or a successful one at that, until a few years ago. I was gobsmacked. Such is the talent and evolving genius of this artist.

That Frank Rich was moderating individuals he has sometimes dunned in his previous job as New York Times Theater critic was a bit of an irony. He long held sway as THE Times CRITIC until 2011. Often he was acerbic and unwieldy in his self-aggrandizement and pretensions to be THE VOICE of theater, backed by the “heft” of The Times.  After I accomplished some gentle research for this review, I discovered a note in Wikipedia on Kiss of the Spider Woman (musical) that bears sounding since the main subject of this film is American Theater and Terrence McNally as one of the fountains where we might go for a revitalizing drink..

It seems that in 1990 Kiss of the Spider Woman was being workshopped at “New Musicals” at the Performing Arts Center SUNY at Purchase. New Musicals‘ goal was to create, develop and provide a working home for sixteen new musicals over four years. When New York critics heard that the play was being workshopped in its initial production, they wanted to see it. Unfortunately, they couldn’t be persuaded not to review it despite the fact that producers, etc., were testing the waters to see what needed ironing out. Frank Rich and other critics filed “mostly negative reviews” of this initial workshopping of Kiss of the Spider Woman. Sadly, New Musicals, whose mission was honorable and vital for American theater and especially New York Theater, blew out and folded after the fiasco with Kiss. Don’t get me started on the state of American Theater and why it is that way.

Thankfully, two years later a producer developed Kiss of the Spider Woman. It went on in Toronto and The West End where it won An Evening Standard. It finally came back to the US where it received 7 Tony Awards and 3 Drama Desks and ran 904 performances, despite Rich’s reviews. Ultimately, the American public became the arbiter of the production.

American Theater has lost ground for many reasons and indeed, the gatekeepers, critics and money people have, for all intents and purposes, shot it to hell and drained its lifeblood. With the rise of Social Media, for good or ill, digital platforms and word of mouth continue to lift up productions so that their lasting value might be revealed to give them staying power. But it is enough? Rich went on to feather his own nest. Kiss of the Spider Woman found its audience. New Musicals is no more. And so it goes.  In light of these events Every Act of Life is an important documentary about the history of American theater, and a master creator who has thrived in spite of changing times.

 

 

 

 

‘I Am Evidence’s’ Trish Adlesic and Geeta Gandbhir, Interview Part I

Geeta Gandbhir, Trish Adlesic, I Am Evidence, Tribeca Film Festival World Premiere, HBO, backlogged rape kits, Mariska Hargitay

(L to R): Geeta Gandbhir, Trish Adlesic, directors of ‘I Am Evidence.’ Interview at HBO Offices after Tribeca Film Festival World Premiere screening and Q & A. (Photo Carole Di Tosti)

Tribeca Film Festival held the World Premiere and screening of I Am Evidence, a compelling documentary which follows the story of four survivors of rape as they attempt to gain justice over a period of many years. During the process that they contact and work with law enforcement, they and filmmakers highlight the fate of what at one point amounted to 400,000 untested rape kits filled with evidence that various police departments left forgotten on storage unit shelves because rape is a low priority, high complexity crime. Behind each of the 400,000 + kits is the DNA of a woman who was sexually assaulted and who waits for her perpetrator’s DNA to be cross-matched with known criminals, serial rapists, murderers, through the federal database, CODIS.

Rape victims often hear nothing from the police departments for years leading to miscarriages of justice and an unfettered crime spree. Research has shown many rapists are serial rapists and some serial rapists murder. In one example in the film a serial rapist raped 10 women until he was picked up. The egregious negligence of  various police departments across the nation, who allow criminals to run free, is one of the many issues directors Trish Adlesic and Geeta Gandbhir examine and explore during their journey shadowing the four women survivors.

Filmmakers show there is hope as the backlog of rape kits is slowly being addressed. More states are passing laws to enforce the testing of the kits. The film focuses on the backlog issues, the causes and solutions and the heroes in the fight, like Kym Worthy, Detroit prosecutor, whose untiring work to have Detroit’s 11,000 kits + tested is resulting in prosecutions that get rapists off the streets. The shining moments of the film reveal the survivors who are overcomers: they remain unapologetic about the miscarriages of justice that have occurred and have become advocates to change the laws so that every rape kit is tested, matched up in the criminal data base nationwide and followed up. They inspire hope as they encourage other women to come forward and join the fight to end this systemic institutional injustice of backlogged rape kits..

I met with directors Trish Adlesic and Geeta Gandbhir at the HBO offices a few days after the film screened.

I loved the film. Could speak to what the title refers to and what the film is about?

Trish: Well, the title came very organically through the process of understanding the journey for women who have been through this violence of sexual assault. In pursuing subjects for the film, I wanted to find someone who had not had their rape kit tested yet in Detroit because Detroit had a backlog of over 11,000 untested rape kits. I thought that it would be incredible to find someone who was still looking for their kit and still looking for justice. There was an organization called The Sasha Center which is geared toward the needs of African American women because the church is predominately African American. The Sasha Center (it provides sexual assault services for holistic healing and awareness) had someone they were working with who was still looking for her rape kit. She agreed to speak with me. When she walked into the room, she had this phenomenally beautiful pink hair and this beautiful skin. Then I look down and see, “I Am Evidence” on her T-shirt. I immediately got chills. I thought, I’m about to have a profound experience.

Ericka?

Geeta: Yes. And what is interesting is that Ericka is deeply involved in her church. That statement is used in her church and it is sort of a traditional saying, “I Am Evidence,” a statement about being a witness. So she took it and basically we reprised it in the sense of talking about her rape kit. It’s a powerful statement. And she makes statements about this in the film. She says that she is evidence that a rape kit is not just a rape kit. It’s not just DNA, there’s a person behind it. It’s also evidence of being able to overcome the struggle that goes along with the violence she experienced as her personal experience. So this background about Ericka was a big part of the decision for I Am Evidence to be the title.

Mariska Hargitay, Sheila Nivens, Trish Adlesic, I Am Evidence, Tribeca Film Festival World Premiere Red Carpet

(L to R): Mariska Hargitay, Sheila Nivens, Trish Adlesic, Tribeca Film Festival World Premiere Red Carpet, ‘I Am Evidence’ (photo Carole Di Tosti)

Trish: Yeah. It’s incredible because it’s a double entendre. The body is a living, breathing crime scene. We are evidence. But the poetry around her is that we are the evidence that we can heal and grow and we can get beyond this, because this kind of violence is so debilitating for people. I found it so inspirational that she had the ability to say those words. I mean anyone can relate to the fact that we are evidence of the lives we live and how we handle trauma and challenges in our lives. I thought that would be something everyone could relate to.

Did she help to evolve the film’s uplifting tone. Could you talk about the extent to which she may have influenced that?

Geeta: I think she did. But there’s an arc, is there not Trish? I think with the subjects that we follow, the women that we follow have an arc and that over a period of time, this was her organic journey. Obviously, her journey was ultimately uplifting. She’s a powerful person.

Trish: Yes, she is very spiritual and that’s the case. She did have challenges. Her kit was found. It was tested and there were really hard days for her to undergo in that process. Ultimately, she came to a place of acceptance characterized by the word that she uses for it in the film: “unapologetic.” In other words we don’t have to apologize for the things that have happened to us. It’s OK to feel that pain and to want to have some satisfaction out of being hurt and you really have justice. And the arc is the unapologetic moment and the moment of acceptance that while I may not get a victory in court, I was heard. That’s what matters most to all of the victims of this kind of violence: the fact that they actually are given the opportunity for justice.

Geeta Gandbhir, Helena, Tribeca Film Festival, World Premiere screening, Q & A, I Am Evidence, backlogged rape kits, rape culture, serial rapists

(L to R): Geeta Gandbhir, Helena (film subject) TFF World Premiere screening and Q & A, ‘I Am Evidence’ (Photo Carole Di Tosti)

You helped in that arc. You helped to inspire her journey. Could you talk a little bit about that and how long the process was as she really was at the forefront of your expose.

Trish: It was about two and one-half years from the moment I interviewed her. I began to contact the prosecutor to find out if there could be some way in which they could try to locate her kit. She simultaneously had met with Ms. Worthy at a fund raising event for the backlog through an organization called the 490 Group. It’s a group of African American women in Detroit who are raising funds to test the kits. Both efforts converged and her kit was located. I think that certainly her participation in the film brought this opportunity. Eventually, her kit would have been found because they are continuing to test all the kits, but it wouldn’t have happened necessarily in the timeline that it did.

Geeta: I have to say that the film had a profound experience on the women because of Trish. Trish is the producer and co-director, and Trish had a profound impact on the women because she was there from the inception. I came onto the film a little bit later, but Trish was there from the beginning. I think that the idea, the thought that someone is working with you, that someone wants to hear your voice, gives you a sense of empowerment. That’s not to decry the fact that these women in their own right are very powerful. But I think that when someone holds out their hand to support you, it makes a big difference.

In our presence at the World Premiere after the film screening in the Q and A, Ericka sang to a packed audience in the theater, which takes courage. And she announced that she’s running for office.

Trish: Yes. City Council. How about that? (she laughs). She’s smart, she’s very smart.

Geeta: She’s an incredible force, I mean with or without us and the film.

So there was a convergence of events which reveals a kind of synchronicity. This leads me to ask this question. Did this project choose you or did you choose it? How did the film evolve?

Trish: That’s a great question and it’s a question we’re always asked. I want to give the backstory so it’s clear. I had worked on the television show Law and Order: SVU for 14 years with Mariska Hargitay, and we became friends through that work together. I began to produce documentaries because I was potentially going to be affected by the issue of fracking in my community in upstate New York. That led me to do these films that had a profound effect on my life (Gasland and Gasland II). I saw the power of the medium and I thought, well, I’m not getting any younger. How do I want to spend my time? I feel like for me this opportunity has been a dream come true to do this work. It’s honestly gratifying.

Mariska saw that journey for me and I knew that backlog was at the forefront of her focus for her foundation (The Joyful Heart Foundation) and we kept saying let’s do a project together. Let’s do something. And it led to doing this film. You know it’s her first documentary. I was excited to do everything I could to give it its best shot and bring it into the light and to bring in all the best people I knew in the documentary world to help complement the work we were doing. So that’s how the film came about.

I brought Geeta on the project. I knew Geeta from working with her before. I trust her work and knew that Geeta would understand and care greatly as I do, and so she was someone that I really wanted to bring in on the film.

Ericka Murria, Trish Adlesic, Geeta Gandbhir, Helena, Maritska Hargitay, Kim Worthy

(L to R): Ericka Murria, Trish Adlesic, Helena, Geeta Gandbhir, Helena, Mariska Hargitay, Kim Worthy in a Q & A, after the TFF World Premiere screening ‘I Am Evidence’ (photo Carole Di Tosti)

Geeta: It was such an honor for me when Trish and I worked together. Obviously, I really respect her and what she’s done. We were talking about doing this film for a long period of time.

Trish: I was serenading her (Trish laughs).

Geeta: I wasn’t able to. I had other things. Then finally there came the time. So it was Trish who brought me on. Also, I had worked with HBO for a long time; I started with them when the levees broke in New Orleans. That was when I became hooked on Social Justice issues similar to Trish, and I realized that these documentaries gave my life meaning. With this work you feel like you’re making some kind of impact, some kind of a difference.

Then, finally, it felt like the time was right. I think Trish and the project and Sheila Nivens (President of HBO documentaries) had something to do with it. Once they all say, it’s time…

Trish: She’s the Goddess (referring to Sheila Nivens).

Geeta: …you come on board. Honestly, it’s been incredibly rewarding and meaningful.

You knew through Mariska that there was a problem.

Trish: I did. We had done an episode at SVU about an untested rape kit. One of the women who actually is in our film, Helena, had an episode written for her. It’s called Behave. That’s when I first learned about the rape kit backlog. I saw what she he had been through with law enforcement being re-victimized by not being heard.

I think for a lot of the women whom I’ve spoken with, that very re-victimization almost felt worse for them than the assault itself. These were the very people who had been set up to be there for them. Yet, these very people in fact were blaming them and not believing them. Rape survivors felt so violated by that. First, it’s incredible that they have the ability to come forward with such a traumatic experience. It is so hard to tell your story. Then for them to go through the re-victimization with the police?

So I learned about the untested rape kits that way and learned more and more when Detroit broke in 2009. And I saw the heroism of Kym Worthy and thought, this has got to be a documentary. It’s amazing to be in this moment at this

Look for Part II of the interview with Trish Adlesic and Geeta Gandbhir.

For my review of the film CLICK HERE.

For the link to the website I AM EVIDENCE, CLICK HERE.

To see how your state is dealing with the backlog of untested rape kits, CLICK HERE.

 

‘I Am Evidence,’ World Premiere at Tribeca Film Festival, Review

I Am Evidence, Tribeca Film Festival World Premiere, untested rape kits, backlogged rape kits, rape, serial rapists

Untested rape kits moldering on shelves. ‘I Am Evidence,’ Tribeca Film Festival World Premiere (photo from the film)

I Am Evidence is one of the most important documentary films to come out of Tribeca Film Festival. It is a groundbreaking criminal and social justice documentary about women, rape, and the folkways that allow this crime to fly under the radar. The film centers around rape survivors and the process of rape crime evidence collection, sealed in a rape kit which then is sent off to be tested. Central to I Am Evidence is the egregious miscarriage of justice that happens in a predominance of states in the U.S. Rape kits, loaded with critical evidence, languish sometimes for years in police storage untested, forgotten, trashed. Is this institutional misogyny, the banality of evil or something else?

With meticulous, clearly organized information, the filmmakers answer these questions and examine how and why this unconscionable backlog of known untested kits (once numbered 400,000 nationwide) happened. The number was probably even greater if one considers those thrown away, negligently stored, lost, displaced. Rape victims are loathe to file a police report; most probably the number of rapes is greater. The backlog exacerbates our culture of sexual violence (every 98 seconds an American is sexually assaulted).

Through salient interviews of rape survivors (i.e. Ericka, Helena, Amberly), journalists, investigators, law enforcement, researchers, and other experts (Mariska Hargitay identifies the substantive issues at the outset as she interviews Wayne County prosecutor Kym Worthy), directors Trish Adlesic and Geeta Gandbhir cogently examine why the testing of rape kits needs to be a nationwide law enforcement priority. The filmmakers’ approach is winning; the documentary is a heartfelt and human drama told through the uplifting testimony of rape survivors like Ericka Murria. Murria shares her triumph over psychological and physical trauma as she seeks justice and takes a stand to advocate for others. As Ericka, Helena Amberly and others share the arc of their journeys from chaos and depression into the light, filmmakers outline the breadth of the problem about untested rape kits.

Adlesic and Gandbhir establish that every untested rape kit represents a victim. The kit contains material DNA evidence. Once the evidence is tested in a lab, the results can be placed in a data-base (CODIS) which matches rapes, crimes and murders nationwide with the DNA evidence from perpetrators. If the evidence is never tested, the kits left to molder on a shelf in a storage unit, that crime and the potential match-up with criminals (especially serial rapists/murderers), and other crimes they’ve perpetrated will remain unsolved.

Mariska Hargitay, I Am Evidence, Tribeca Film Festival World Premiere, rape kits, backlogged rape kits, rape, serial rapists

Mariska Hargitay at the Tribeca Film Festival World Premiere screening of ‘I Am Evidence,’ (Carole Di Tosti)

Through the testimony of investigative teams and prosecutors, the filmmakers reveal the endemic nature of the problem. Each ignored kit means that a rape is not going to be investigated, even though a victim has emotionally steeled himself/herself to go through the shame of filing a report that takes 4-6 hours for evidence collection and placement in the kit. The message inadvertently sent to rapists and serial rapists/murderers is that they are permitted to to rape and/or kill again.

The message sent to victims is that their rape doesn’t matter and they don’t matter. Ultimately, the victim, traumatized by the sexual assault and battery, is further abused by the negligence of their un-investigated crime. Humiliation is compounded by the silence of injustice. An additional noxious side effect of untested rape kits is that word gets around that no one called about the rape investigation. Other victims are less likely to file a report. Rapists are emboldened. A significant point the filmmakers underscore from the research on rapists is that many rapists are serial rapists. They continue to rape until they are stopped. And some of those serial rapists also murder. Sadly, there is no way to gauge how many women are raped and how many serial rapists/potential murderers have committed multiple crimes.

When one considers that an untested rape kit that sits for years (the filmmakers reveal this occurred in places like Detroit, Los Angeles, see END THE BACKLOG), might empty even one cold case file, one begins to understand the staggering negligence that is multiplied as untested rape kits mount up in the thousands. (see your state’s numbers on END THE BACKLOG). In a lurid example of the impact of just one untested rape kit (sitting over a decade), filmmakers show how serial rapist Charles Courtney (a truck driver who committed crimes in various states along his driving route), was free to rape again and again. (click here for Helena’s story)

Mariska Hargitay, Sheila Nivens, Trish Adlesic, I Am Evidence, Tribeca Film Festival World Premiere Red Carpet

(L to R): Mariska Hargitay, Sheila Nivens, Trish Adlesic, Tribeca Film Festival World Premiere Red Carpet, ‘I Am Evidence’ (photo Carole Di Tosti)

 

If kits had been tested, law enforcement could have checked the databases, identified Courtney’s multiple rapes and gotten him off the streets, never to rape, threaten her family, and traumatize Amberly, one of his victims who filmmakers interview. From that rape, Amberly suffered PTSD that sent her life spiraling downward into addiction, a devastation which she is turning around. Indeed, one of the investigators who helped get Charles Courtney off the streets stated that if all the kits nationwide were tested, she would bet that his DNA would match up with a few unsolved murders.

I Am Evidence incisively, humanly directed by Trish Adlesic and Geeta Gandbhir, is an extremely valuable work of social justice. The filmmakers make a precise, clear, and thorough examination of how this holocaust of abuse has been allowed to continue fueled by our culture’s mores, folkways and prejudices leveraged by institutional racism, negligent law enforcement, misogyny. The clips that reveal this are devastating. Though the documentary is a painful and frustrating look into the egregious criminal negligence committed by various police departments with an incredible number of backlogged rape kits (over 100,000 nationwide), I Am Evidence is also an unforgettable journey of hope, healing, redemption, and activism.

I Am Evidence, Tribeca Film Festival World Premiere, rape kits, rape, serial rapists, backlogged rape kits

Sealing a rape kit filled with DNA evidence, ‘I Am Evidence’ (photo from the film)

I cannot praise this film enough for its solid story-telling, its unabashed strength in unspooling the themes that inspire one to advocacy. From the outset, with empathy and poignancy, filmmakers elicit the soulfulness of the survivors who have gone through the hell of rape and reporting, and have attempted to deal with the psychological and emotional trauma of what they experienced only to then confront the truth that they may never receive justice. The documentarians also highlight the heroes-the investigators and prosecutors who have gone through the stressful frustration of dealing with the monumental backlog of untested rape kits.

Along the journey we watch specific examples of effectively functioning teams who are getting things done, pitted against interviews with former law enforcement officials who make dismissive comments about lack of funding and the terrible difficulty of prosecuting rape cases. Rather than admit the tragedy behind each and every untested rape kit, there remains a dilatory lack of accountability to problem solve or acknowledge that rape correlates with murder and other crimes.

What is particularly uplifting is that filmmakers show successes: they follow a team’s painstaking work to tackle the backlog that eventually results in successful prosecutions. They focus on undaunted heroes like Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy (Detroit, Michigan had 11,000+ untested rape kits that had been placed in an abandoned, wrecked building, home to nesting birds and other creatures). When Worthy takes Mariska Hargitay to the site of the abandoned building to view where the kits had been left, we are shocked knowing that each kit is a person. When Worthy discovered this (2009), despite the insurmountable problems including lack of funding, she went into action, got kits tested, and criminals off the streets (some serial rapists had raped 10-15 times).

Survivors, law enforcement icons, The Joyful Heart Foundation, and End The Backlog are in the forefront of overturning the systemic criminal negligence perpetrated by the dilatory law enforcement agencies and their sub rosa misogynistic, racist behavior which deems rape a low priority crime, especially in ethnic communities. Some states are reforming their laws. Others are not. Why not? Is it because some law enforcement and prosecutorial departments don’t want to “waste” time, effort and finances on rape kits while there are other “more important crimes” to investigate? Indeed! By not testing rape kits, they are promoting more felonies instead of stopping them.

I Am Evidence is the filmmakers’ incredible work of hope and progress. Yet, it reveals we are not out of the labyrinth of unawareness and egregious systemic negligence. This must-see film is a clarion call for the public to  demand all rape kits be tested as a matter of safety and security. Our criminal justice system must be accountable, especially now as the political winds shift.

This is a film everyone should see. For screenings check HBO and the film website.

 

 

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