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2021 SXSW Film Festival Review ‘Demi Lovato: Dancing With The Devil’ in its World Premiere

Demi Lovato in 'Dancing With The Devil,' directed by Michael D. Ratner in its World Premiere at SXSW FF (courtesy of the film)
Demi Lovato in ‘Dancing With The Devil,’ directed by Michael D. Ratner, World Premiere at SXSW FF (courtesy of the film)

What takes Demi Lovato: Dancing With The Devil beyond the interest of pop music fandom is its unabashed honesty without pandering to sensationalism. Directed and cobbled together with interviews of friends and family, Ratner creates a film which succeeds as an intense biopic of Lovato’s addiction crisis. With input from icons like Elton John, Christina Aguilera, and work colleagues like Will Farrell, Ratner shows a women in revolution and evolution. Assuredly, covering all bases the filmmaker grills her creative team, rehab coach, trainers, new manager Scooter Braun. Then Ratner blows up the celebrity image and brand to shatter the Lovato myths. If teens follow her as a role model and advocate for mental health, eating disorders and sobriety, Lovato’s revelations take her mission to a new level of relevance.

Demi Lovato in 'Dancing With The Devil,' directed by Michael D. Ratner in its World Premiere at SXSW FF (courtesy of the film)
Demi Lovato in ‘Dancing With The Devil,’ directed by Michael D. Ratner in its World Premiere at SXSW FF (courtesy of the film)

The film hits it out of the park by showing Lovato’s pathos in picaresque. Ratner divides the action in four, non-linear, acutely edited segments. And in a heightened alert, he begins with the months in 2018 when it all went wrong. Of course during the course of the film the full poignancy is that Lovato affirms it had gone wrong for a long time. However, she, her friends, family and team had bought into the “devil’s dance” that obsessive control answered her internal problems. Thus, her determination and teamwork convinced her that as long as she stayed slender and sober, she remained healthy. Sadly, she fooled everyone, especially herself. Her choices belied her ability to handle deep-rooted emotional and psychological issues. Past trauma whether conscious or unconscious bled into the present and tortured her.

Demi Lovato in 'Dancing With The Devil,' directed by Michael D. Ratner in its World Premiere at SXSW FF (courtesy of the film)
Demi Lovato in ‘Dancing With The Devil,’ directed by Michael D. Ratner in its World Premiere at SXSW FF (courtesy of the film)

Distress intensified to overwhelm Lovato with misery and the need to self-medicate. As these internal pressures pushed her to open the floodgates, Lovato suffered a drug relapse. Each of Ratner’s segments touch upon her addictive OCD personality. The documentary’s overarching themes about the fatal flaws that come with celebrity deification crash into the human factor. Inevitably, Lovato believed her own BS. Vulnerable, her unresolved life and death problems infiltrated her daily struggles.

Friend Sir Elton John in 'Dancing With The Devil,' directed by Michael D. Ratner in its World Premiere at SXSW FF (courtesy of the film)
Friend Sir Elton John in ‘Dancing With The Devil,’ directed by Michael D. Ratner in its World Premiere at SXSW FF (courtesy of the film)

Ratner selects various clips of Lovato commentary. In the more salient ones she discusses how she lived on the edge seeking destruction in secret silence, despite being surrounded by loving individuals. Examples abound. Lovato’s discusses regrets about her father’s ignoble drug death alone, his body found decomposing. And she relates that she never worked through sexual traumas (a rape by a co-celebrity, etc.). Though the “me” aspect of the documentary sometimes slogs from “reveal” to “reveal” without variation, Ratner keeps Lovato’s story uplifting. In the final analysis Lovato moves to summarize what she’s learned. And we find comfort in empathizing with her journey into a hell of her own making to emerge into healing.

Friend Sir Elton John in 'Dancing With The Devil,' directed by Michael D. Ratner in its World Premiere at SXSW FF (courtesy of the film)
Friend Sir Elton John in ‘Dancing With The Devil,’ directed by Michael D. Ratner in its World Premiere at SXSW FF (courtesy of the film)

Ratner nearly completed an earlier a documentary on Lovato in 2018. Filmmakers employ the footage of the earlier film to compare Lovato’s state of mind. As highlights of her Tell Me That You Love Me World Tour shine the shimmering Lovato, current footage reveals the truth of her condition during that time. Especially after her overdose, the filmmaker contrasts her promises and affirmations against her current truthful revelations. Even in this age of lying her statements shock. So many of her statements resound as obfuscations as she points out her hidden misery, pain and anger. Amidst this backdrop of illusions about being well when actually heading forward on a collusion course, her voice sounds incredible. Ratner includes a sound clip of her mother Dianna De La Gaza in June 2018, one month before Demi’s overdose. De La Gaza tells Demi, her voice is “the best ever.” At the height of her talents, death comes knocking and nearly takes her.

Demi Lovato's new syle in 'Dancing With The Devil,' directed by Michael D. Ratner in its World Premiere at SXSW FF (courtesy of the film)
Demi Lovato in ‘Dancing With The Devil,’ directed by Michael D. Ratner in its World Premiere at SXSW FF (courtesy of the film)
Demi Lovato in 'Dancing With The Devil,' directed by Michael D. Ratner in its World Premiere at SXSW FF (courtesy of the film)
Demi Lovato in ‘Dancing With The Devil,’ directed by Michael D. Ratner in its World Premiere at SXSW FF (courtesy of the film)

During the tour Lovato fronted all the positives to maintain the good girl sobriety image. She fooled those closest to her. But the tour documentary of 2018 never got off the ground with the exception of salvage clips. Instead Ratner and Lovato split open her guts and set the record straight bravely and boldly in Dancing With The Devil. Lovato confesses she did drugs unbeknownst to her friends and team. After celebrating her choreographer Dani Vitale’s birthday, Demi called a drug dealer. Early morning, when none of her friends or team were around, Lovato sabotaged herself, her life, her career, her self-love and her agency. She overdosed on a mega combination of crack cocaine, heroin and OxyContin laced with Fentanyl. These she chased with alcohol. Meanwhile, she remembered later that the drug dealer had non consensual sex with her and abandoned her. Ten more minutes from discovery, she would have died.

A room in Demi Lovato's new digs in 'Dancing With The Devil,' directed by Michael D. Ratner in its World Premiere at SXSW FF (courtesy of the film)
A room in Demi Lovato’s new digs in ‘Dancing With The Devil,’ directed by Michael D. Ratner in its World Premiere at SXSW FF (courtesy of the film)

In this first part of the four part series, we understand how driven and obsessed Lovato pushed her beyond her limit for wellness. Ironically, her abstemiousness actually fueled her desire to jump off the merry-go-round of sobriety. Ratner even includes the physician who saved her life. And he discusses just how miraculous her recovery was, but not without costs. Lovato’s overdose caused brain damage: she had a heart attack and three strokes. And the twenty-four hour period after she was found by an assistant was touch and go with her fans, family and friends praying for her.

Sobriety friend Sirah in 'Dancing With The Devil,' directed by Michael D. Ratner in its World Premiere at SXSW FF (courtesy of the film)
Sobriety friend Sirah in ‘Dancing With The Devil,’ directed by Michael D. Ratner in its World Premiere at SXSW FF (courtesy of the film)

Now, she is able to laugh with friends. But the film is also revelation to fans that Dani Vitale who fans blamed for Demi’s overdose was wrongfully blamed. Vitale received death threats and lost her career, teaching jobs and everything that was meaningful to her because of the rumors she had given Lovato the drugs. A lie. So in setting the record straight, those who worked for Lovato and her new manager like Scooter Braun also go on record to do right by her after this incident.

Christina Aguilera in ‘Dancing With The Devil,’ directed by Michael D. Ratner in its World Premiere at SXSW FF (courtesy of the film)

However, from her sisters Madison and Dallas, her mother Dianna and her step father as well as her friends, all agree Demi has to want to be sober and drug free. It is up to her. And appointing monitors to make sure she didn’t eat any cake or cookies and didn’t do alcohol was not a balance she could live with. Indeed, it sent her in the opposite direction. Meanwhile, friends Matthew Scott Montgomery and Sirah have been through Demi’s hell with her, suffering their devastation wondering if she would make it to the next day. Now they joke that at least she is 28; she made it past the curse of the twenty-seven year olds of Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain and, Jim Morrison, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Amy Winehouse.

Demi's parents, the De La Garzas in 'Dancing With The Devil,' directed by Michael D. Ratner in its World Premiere at SXSW FF (courtesy of the film)
Demi’s parents, the De La Garzas in ‘Dancing With The Devil,’ directed by Michael D. Ratner in its World Premiere at SXSW FF (courtesy of the film)

The documentary is a cautionary tale for all those who start out in beauty pageants. If they as child stars possess the talent to parlay their success to accomplish world wide tours at twenty-five, the exposure can be treacherous. The overriding question becomes emotionally and psychically can they withstand all that the music industry siphons out of its celebrities? Lovato is back on course with her career. However, she considers her unconscious flirtation with suicide. Importantly, she recognizes she must confront herself during the journey of reclamation and accept herself as her own best friend.

Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil airs on YouTube from 23 March.

2021 SXSW Film Festival Review ‘The Oxy Kingpins’

The documentary The Oxy Kingpins currently screening online at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival is an important film which highlights the Opioid Crisis and more importantly defines the medical industrial complex’s role in addicting the US. to its toxic, lethal drugs. Within the Oxy network are the pharmaceutical manufacturers, distributors, retailers, hospitals, doctors, pain clinics and street dealers who ride the OxyContin train for its mega profits.

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‘The Oxy Kingpins’ directed by Brendan Fitzgerald, 2021 SXSW Film Festival (courtesy of TYT Productions)

The documentary emphasizes that the big pharma corporations who are responsible for killing Americans, have walked between the raindrops and not been brought to task, criminally or civilly. In their cool towers above the fray, the CEOs are the unseen criminals. Meanwhile, it is the users, dealers, doctors and pharmacists, like little fish in the wide net, who are caught, tried and convicted for their abuse and often illegal and unregulated distribution of OxyContin (oxycodone). Nevertheless, the pharmaceutical companies have encouraged the distributors to find loopholes in regulations for distribution. In not adhering to the regulations, opioid use has run amuck and the towns where this has been felt the most have been devastated.

Co-directed and produced by Brendan Fitzgerald and Nick August-Perna, the excellent documentary lays the blame where it should be placed. It advocates for criminal as well as civil penalties leveled on the knowing perpetrators who seek to addict their clients then absolve themselves of any guilt or responsibility while raking in their ill-gotten gains. Again and again, the theme of profits over people comes to the fore. Also, as a sub theme we note that a conservative government reduces the need for regulations and their enforcement at the behest of lobbyists. The filmmakers remind us that political parties who eschew enforcing regulations, only hold the “little people” accountable. This is doubly destructive for it punishes by abusing the public with harmful chemicals it should protect it from. Secondly, it expects that they foot the bill cleaning up the mess the unregulated corporations caused to begin with.

The filmmakers get on the inside of the crisis by elucidating the trail of evidence from dealer all the way up to manufacturer revealing that at the highest levels the willful, deceitful and criminal negligence of corporations are directly responsible for the Opioid Epidemic. Fitzgerald and August-Perna state at the end that 700,000 Americans from 1999 -2019 have lost their lives to opioid overdoses or attenuating deaths.

‘The Oxy Kingpins,’ directed by Brendan Fitzgerald, 2021 SXSW Film Festival (courtesy of TYT Productions)

The documentarians reveal the most salient information by interviewing attorney Mike Papantonio and shadowing him cinema verite style as he collects information for the case he is bringing against pharmaceutical companies and distributors. He is joined with a legion of attorneys who are working the case along with Nevada attorney Bob Eglet who is trying the case in Nevada because the laws are more favorable to obtaining documents as part of a public health crisis. If they can win it in Nevada, that will open the doors to win similar cases in other states.

Through interviews, brief cinema verite shots of the Nevada courtroom with plaintiffs and defendants, interviews with various dealers and one former user, we understand what is at stake with the “Big Three” corporations who are the OXY Kingpins of the title. These are drug makers McKesson, AmeresourceBergen and Cardinal Health. Along for the ride are CVS, Walgreens and perhaps others like Walmart may be added.

These are the invisibles one wouldn’t readily associate with the opioid crisis because initially it was Purdue Pharma owned by the Sackler family that has been sued and held civilly liable, though there is a disagreement about the amount of the penalties and whether the company should operate in another form. Nevertheless, like the “Big Three” the Sackler family has not been charged with any criminal penalties associated with their pushing their formula of OxyContin and heavily marketing it to doctors emphasizing that it was a non-addictive pain reliever. Unsuspecting doctors and pharmacists initially believed that the drug was non-addictive. In other words, the Sackler family has not been criminally convicted or even charged with the fraud they perpetrated to addict and kill for the sake of billions.

OxyContin, OXY Kingpins, Brendan Fitzgerald, SXSW
‘The Oxy Kingpins,’ 2021 SXSW Film Festival, Brendan Fitzgerald (courtesy IMBD)

By the time those in the business of pain relief discovered OxyContin’s properties, they became addicted to the profits. Sadly, the cost to cities, towns and rural communities across the nation has been in the trillions of dollars. The corporations responsible for the crisis expect the American taxpayer to clean up their toxic disaster and have lied in hearings to congress as tobacco CEOs lied with practically the same rhetoric. When asked about accountability, the CEO OF McKesson, John Hammergren, the CEO of Cardinal Health, George Barrett, and the CEO of AmeresourceBergen, Steve Collis, to a man said they “did not believe their company contributed” to the opioid epidemic.

Nevertheless, as Alex, former dealer who landed in prison insists, the CEOs of these pharmaceutical companies are the biggest drug pushers of OxyContin. Not only should the companies be held accountable civilly for the devastation leveled on families, the CEOs should be tried criminally. The intent for the suit in Nevada is to do just that on April of 2021.

Alex, now a legal businessman, ran his OxyContin business from Miami, the drug capital of the US. Alex provides the background information of how dealers like him moved from weed to heroin to OxyContin and back to heroin. And he discusses how addicted patients get fake scripts that pharmacists fill. And doctors write scripts like dispensing candy. Alex was on the lowest level in the network of how OxyContin manufacturing, distribution and retailing exploded to the point of abuse. He, the other former dealers who went to prison, Jay, the Cowboy, and user Anne affirm that it is always the “little people” the DEA is interested in. Federal agencies avoid dealing with the manufacturers and distributors who are in effect “legal” drug pushers.

The OXY Kingpins provides a valuable perspective, revealing the impact of corporations on our society’s ill-health and how willing they are to addict and destroy us for billions of dollars. This is made all the more egregious if they can put amoral, hedonistic and wanton CEOs who are concerned only about the corporation’s bottom line at the power points of the company. Look for this documentary at 2021 SXSW screening platforms and when it comes live.


SXSW 2019 Documentary World Premiere: ‘I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth Vs. Michelle Carter’

Michelle Carter, ' Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth Vs. Michelle Carter,' directed by Erin Lee Carr, SXSW 2019 Documentary World Premiere, Michelle Carter, 'I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth Vs. Michelle Carter, Erin Lee Carr, HBO

Michelle Carter, ‘I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth Vs. Michelle Carter,’ directed by Erin Lee Carr, SXSW 2019 Documentary World Premiere (courtesy of HBO and the film)

The documentary I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth Vs. Michelle Carter in its World Premiere at SXSW 2019 is a provocative and compelling look at a case which stunned New England. Directed by Erin Lee Carr, presented in the Spotlight Section, the filmmaker examines two different perspectives of the case against Michelle Carter who the court found culpable in the death of her friend/boyfriend Conrad Roy III. Carr features the prosecutions arguments, replete with video clips taken from the courtroom. Also, the filmmaker features the arguments presented by the defense in the courtroom. She does some follow-up interviews of the witnesses on both sides.

The eighteen-year-old, Conrad Roy III, was found in his pick up truck asphyxiated by carbon monoxide at his own hand. He had purchased a generator which trapped the carbon monoxide from his car’s cabin as he sat parked behind a local K-Mart. He didn’t leave a suicide note. Instead, he and Michelle Carter left 60,000 text messages of their relationship, feelings for one another, their mental states, fantasies about being like Romeo and Juliet and more.

However, as the texts made clear, Roy III was in pain and wanted to commit suicide. He was being treated for depression and he was on the medication Prozac which has been tied to suicide deaths. Whether as a friend, help-meet, or as a self-serving, dastardly and willful individual looking for attention as the prosecution painted her, some of Michelle Carter’s final text messages encouraged him to finish his goal to end his life. What was never recorded was the final phone conversation they had together. Whether this was up until the moments of his death is unclear. Only the text messages remain as evidence.

In the first segment, Carr presents an outline of the backstory of the texting relationship between Carter and Conrad Roy III who only saw each other face to face around 5-6 times, but in teenspeak were “talking” which meant they were close. Indeed, Michelle Carter referred to him as her boyfriend. In the first segment Carr includes many of their texts, out of order in following the prosecution’s case to hone in on various arguments. They often texted that they loved each other. Carr culled through the approximately 60,000 texts between the two individuals. She uses their texts and sound effects on a black screen for full effect in both segments of the HBO presentation.

Carr uses video clips from the public hearings during the case. She interviews Conrad Roy III’s family members. There was difficulty between his parents who were divorced and were with other individuals. Clearly, Conrad Roy III didn’t have an idyllic home life, however, the extent to which this contributed to his pain and wanting to commit suicide was only alluded to by Carr briefly in the film. Michelle Carter’s family life was not covered, but her parents are together and supporting her throughout the ordeal and civil lawsuit by Conrad Roy III’s family.

Interestingly, there was no jury trial, but three judges decided the case. Since the media had garnered such an outcry spiking controversy against her, the Defense decided no jury trial was in her best interests. In Part II of the series which is an HBO Showcase and scheduled to air some time in the summer, the documentarian presents the Defense’s perspective why Michelle Carter should not be held accountable for Conrad Roy III’s suicide..

Conrad Roy III, 'I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth Vs. Michelle Carter, directed by Erin Lee Carr, SXSW 2019 Documentary World Premiere

Conrad Roy III, ‘I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth Vs. Michelle Carter, directed by Erin Lee Carr, SXSW 2019 Documentary World Premiere (courtesy of the film, HBO)

Michelle Carter never gave voice to her own feelings testifying before the judges in court. Nor was she interviewed for the film. Her testimony, the missing piece of the puzzle, may never be revealed now that she is serving her prison sentence after she lost her appeal.

Carr chronicles the events mirroring each perspective. The film is structured precisely to allow the audience to decide where they land, in support of Michelle Carter or in favor of the prosecution. I found both arguments riveting, but the situation is extremely complex and the film does not evidence the complexity. One must “see” between the lines.

The femme fatale image of Carter whipped up by a media hungry for clicks and viewers tragically skewed the case beyond a proper examination of the mental background related to both Conrade Roy III and Carter. Carr includes the Defense testimony of the doctor who discusses Conrad Roy III’s mental state. Also this witness ties in the effects of Prozac which in some individuals create suicidal tendencies. However, in this area, the film and perhaps the defense’s medical strategy doesn’t go far enough.

Michelle Carter, Criminal Defense Attorney Jeff Kroll, 'I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth Vs. Michelle Carter, HBO, Erin Lee Carr

Michelle Carter and her Criminal Defense Attorney Jeff Kroll, ‘I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth Vs. Michelle Carter, directed by Erin Lee Carr (courtesy of the film, HBO)

I know of at least three individuals who were on Prozac who either attempted or succeeded in committing suicide; these were adults. Conrad Roy III was 18-years-old and it is unclear the extent to which this drug exacerbated his pain on his young mind.

Nevertheless, the focal point of the prosecution’s argument became Michelle Carter’s encouragement of Conrad Roy III in the last hour and one–half of his life to choose death, not life. The Defense strategy used a freedom of speech argument saying Michelle Carter’s speech was protected, and couldn’t be used against her, even though it was morally reprehensible to encourage someone else to commit suicide.

The judges ruled against Carter using as evidence her texts of encouragement. She urged Conrad Roy III to get back into the truck and finish what he set out to do as the carbon monoxide was filling up the cabin. Because she did not encourage him against killing himself, she was given the sentence she received. The Defense could disprove the prosecution’s faulty logic, however, there was no answer for what the judges deemed in their opinions indefensible, which was her encouragement to suicide.

Obviously, Conrad Roy III had doubts the last hour of his life whether to kill himself or not. Interestingly, he sought out Michelle Carter precisely for what she gave him: support in his endeavor. He did not call his parents, his sister, or go on youtube where he would have been discouraged. His parents notified? He would have been put in the Psych Ward. His will to choose one who would support him kill himself is clear: indeed, in that he holds the ultimate responsibility, the ultimate choice of texting her, of phoning her and not someone who would stand in the way and prevent his wishes.

However, in that the judges obviated and ignored his obvious, willful selection and damned her. Her texts were used as the weapon to kill him, not his own will, determination, previous texts, treatment for depression, known wishes to commit suicide and the youtube video he posted about “social anxiety.” The evident misogyny in not looking at Conrad’s ultimate selection of Michelle Carter to get what he needed in the last moments of his life is apparent. It was his choice; the responsibility was his, and he took her down with him.

Michelle Carter, "I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth Vs. Michelle Carter, Erin Lee Carr, SXSW 2019 Documentary World Premiere

Michelle Carter, “I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth Vs. Michelle Carter, Erin Lee Carr, SXSW 2019 World Documentary Premiere (courtesy of HBO, the film)

Indeed, the judges and prosecution believed that Michelle Carter should have “gone on record” inspiring Conrad Roy III toward life, though clearly the fact that Conrad Roy III purchased the generator and sat in the pick-up and eventually stayed in the cabin to inhale enough of the poison to kill himself, ultimately revealed that his will was toward death, as heinous as that may seem. The tragic irony is that the text messages “appear” to reveal what happened. However, not even Michelle Carter knew what was going on in the final moments with Conrad Roy III. She only responded to what he told her. Only he knew what he did, for only he was present. Thus, though her Defense didn’t enforce this argument, Carter was swept up in what is largely circumstantial evidence.

Following the judges’ logic, examine the instance of a jumper at the top of a building who is cursed at and screamed at with encouraging phrases to jump by the crowd below. If he jumps, all in the crowd should be held responsible for his death. They are not. Ultimately, the choice whether to jump or not is in the mind/will of the jumper.

The filmmaker by the very nature of her selection process cannot be objective, though she tries. She includes some trial clips over others and interviews of Conrad Roy III’s parents and Michelle Carter’s friends over others. She also interviews the reporters who covered the case.

However, in presenting the clips, to my mind questions are raised about the adequacy of the defense and the adequacy of the testimony of the mental health professionals in the cross examination of the prosecution’s medical professional. There should have been more health professionals testifying about Conrad Roy III’s mental health, the side effects of Prozac, and Michelle Carter’s mental health, etc.

In attempting to organize the series into two parts and “leaving it up to the viewer to decide” the approach is a quick and dirty way to further sensationalize this tragedy and “involve” folks in the “harmless” game of having an “opinion” about Michelle Carter. To actually dig deeper and approach the subjects from another angle would have been more profound and elucidating. The question remains. Where is Michelle Carter’s viewpoint, opinion and testimony in all of this?

Michelle Carter, 'I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth Vs. Michelle Carter,' SXSW 2019 Documentary World Premiere, Erin Lee Carr

Michelle Carter, ‘I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth Vs. Michelle Carter,’ SXSW 2019 Documentary World Premiere, directed by Erin Lee Carr (courtesy of the film, HBO)

Though this isn’t a focal point, the film does raise additional questions philosophically as to whether it is “right” to assist someone else in their wish to commit suicide to escape extreme mental anguish. If the person appears to aver, should one encourage them in support, or take the opportunity to help them stop their plans, knowing they will try again, perhaps until they succeed? Indeed, teen rates of suicide are increasing as suicide rates overall are increasing in our nation, and especially for those veterans who have PTSD. What is the law’s stance regarding suicide? Did Michelle Carter know? Or is this a matter of human rights and one’s autonomous decision?

Suicide is a slippery slope. Taking into consideration the ages of these individuals (Conrad Roy III was of age), Michelle Carter at the time was younger, the teen mind set, the teen subculture, the lack of communication with parents and siblings of both families, the effects of Prozac, many variables need to be examined to understand better what may have happened. However, Conrad Roy III enacted all of the steps he needed to kill himself, even elected to use carbon monoxide and not a gun or pills. Michelle Carter a supportive friend/girlfriend reacted to what he told her with her texts. But no one was present except Conrad Roy III.

Carr’s work is intriguing in relaying teen social constructs that are current. She focuses on raising the specter of suicide that haunts our culture. The clips of Roy speaking on social media are particularly gut-wrenching. Did his parents see these? Now, more than ever, parents need take note and make sure lines of communication are always open with their children. If this had been the case, would Conrad Roy III have taken the ultimate path he choose for himself?.

The organization of the documentary is sufficient for what the filmmaker’s intended purpose may be, to “have the audience decide.” Another approach might have yielded much more information. The documentary will air in the summer on HBO.

 

 

 

 

 

Johanna Hamilton, An Interview With The ‘1971’ Director

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‘1971’ directed by Johanna Hamilton. Photo taken from the film website.

The documentary ‘1971’ screened in a World Premiere at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival. I screened the film and later reviewed it giving it 5 stars. The amazing documentary chronicles a time in our history that has tremendous currency and importance for us today. In fact, Laura Poitras (she directed CitizenFour which is about Edward Snowden’s revelation of the US massive surveillance program), is one of the co-executive producers of the film. As Snowden’s revelations were coming out, Hamilton (who also produced), her co-writer and editor, Gabriel Rhodes, producers Katy Chevigny, Marilyn Ness and others were stunned to see that the events of 1971 were being played out but this time on a global stage with Snowden. The chilling question was, since technology had gained huge strides that few comprehended, was it even possible to know how long and to what extent the government’s security programs were covertly vitiating American citizens’ constitutional rights? Snowden’s revelations and the events in 1971 (revealed for the first time in the film), are most likely the “tip of the iceberg.”

Hamilton’s documentary is a superb and thrilling true account of how 8 very ordinary and very brave American citizens, calling themselves The Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI, risked their lives, their family’s well being, and their freedom  to expose the unconstitutional, covert surveillance program COINTELLPRO. In the film Hamilton explores how and why The Citizen’s Commission felt there was a moral imperative at stake: they esteemed the principles of freedom in the Bill of Rights. Their beliefs and our American principles were held in the balance when they went to the Washington Post with FBI files that they had taken, files that were “secret,” and revealed surveillance of average Americans who did not adhere to the politics and philosophy supporting the Viet Nam War. Would the Washington Post prevent publication, in effect censoring the files? Or would they publish the damning documents? Hamilton reveals the fascinating account of what happened in its entirety and includes the identities of the 8 heroic and unassuming Americans who wanted to uphold the constitutional foundations of the country they believed in.

Johanna Hamilton, director of '1971.' Photo taken from the website.

Johanna Hamilton, director of ‘1971.’ Photo taken from the website.

I had the opportunity to interview Johanna Hamilton via email and ask her about the film which is opening on February 6th in Cinema Village in New York City and on March 13th in Los Angeles.

The film tells a fascinating story of individuals who broke the law. It is revelatory about our segments of the government which in effect exceeded their powers to push forth a political agenda that was damaging to our country. Why/how is this story especially relevant for us today?

Sometimes people have to do things that are courageous and even controversial in order to stimulate conversations about checks and balances that are the lifeblood of democracy. I think this film is relevant today because a number of people acknowledge that post-9/11 we have lost a lot of those check and balances. And that was perhaps understandable in that moment but, perhaps, in hindsight we lost too many and maybe it’s time for a fresh look. That was true even before the Snowden revelations; and then he gave us empirical proof just as the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI did back then.

Is the country in better or worse shape than it was in 1971, politically, ethically? Today, do you think that citizens might be less likely to take a stand as these individuals did as a collective group remaining quiet about their actions? Why or why not?

There is so much to say and this subject has filled many books; I feel like you’d need a dissertation to encapsulate the first part of the question! Without doubt, the country is very different than it was in 1971; that was pre-Watergate. Today it is probably more politically polarized than it was then. The Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI is unusual in that it was a relatively large group who all had to work together and then keep a secret for a very long time. Back then this type of collective political action was less unusual. Most often people who are leaking information work alone, precisely to minimize the risk to others. I’m not sure a group of people would do it today. Then it was very easy to feel very directly affected by the Vietnam War, for example, because of the draft. You wondered whether the person next to you was an informant. Today, there’s no draft and although in this Digital Age the surveillance capabilities are much more vast they are also more ephemeral. It’s much more difficult for the general public to feel directly affected by surveillance. It’s more personally invasive today, but you don’t necessarily feel it.

Johanna Hamilton director/producer/writer of '1971.' Photo courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival.

Johanna Hamilton director/producer/writer of ‘1971.’ Photo courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival.

How did this film evolve? Where did you receive the impulse to dig deep to find the people and recreate the events?

I consider myself very fortunate to have known Betty Medsger, the journalist at the Washington Post, to whom they leaked the documents in 1971 and who wrote the first stories. She and I have been friends for a long time, long before this professional collaboration. She was writing and researching her book that is now The Burglary: the Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.

(In her Director’s Statement, Hamilton says, “…we agreed to share all our primary research materials. I benefited enormously from her many years of research, including access to the 34,000 pages of the FBI investigation.)

I implored her to let me know when she was ready to make the film! Several years went by and one day she asked me if I was serious, whereupon she helped arrange a meeting with several of the members of the Citizens’ Commission and their lawyer David Kairys. We met and a couple of days later they let me know that were ready to go on camera. In terms of the recreations, I immediately thought to recreate the events of that night. Cinema is an immersive experience and I wanted people to be able to put themselves in their shoes. Plus, they left nothing from that night, no notes, no photos, nothing, just memories. I loved the sense of being able to create a nonfiction heist movie or film noir. Without them, it might have been a short film.

In what way did making this film impact you? What did you learn?

I learned a lot about civic courage. And I learned an enormous amount of the inner workings of both the protest movement in the late 60s and early 70s as well as the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover.

Friends, Johanna Hamilton director/producer of '1971,' and Laura Poitras, Co-Executive Producer. Photo courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival.

Friends, Johanna Hamilton director/producer of ‘1971,’ and Laura Poitras, Co-Executive Producer. Photo courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival 2014.

Laura Poitras is a co-producer of the film. In what way did the making of this film have an impact on her making CitizenFour? The two films have similar concepts. In what way are they very different? What would you like audiences to see and understand about that time (1971) and our time now?

Laura is a Co-Executive Producer on the film. She and I have been friends and colleagues for a long time. She was one of the very first advisers on the film. She was already making a film about contemporary surveillance when I started working on 1971. So my film did not influence her, but she did know the story. Then in March 2013, she sent me an email asking me how I was doing on the film and reiterated her willingness to help. I found out about Edward Snowden with the rest of the world in June of that year. She was already in touch with Ed when she sent me that email in March; clearly she was drawing the analogy between the two stories and the two eras. Our films are similar in that they deal with people who have taken a stand at great risk to themselves by leaking information (in analogue and digital ways), but that ended up benefiting democracy. They both have a thriller element. But they could not be more different in that CitizenFour unfolds in real time; much of it is cinema verite. 1971, a story in the past, had to be reenacted in order to bring it to life.

In her director’s statement, Hamilton solidifies the wide ranging nature of what The Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI accomplished for the country.

“The break-in is a little-known but seminal event in contemporary American history. The decision by the Washington Post to publish the documents was a defining moment for investigative journalism. We know about COINTELPRO, and the FBI’s dirty tricks targeting Martin Luther King, the Black Panthers, and many others, but we only know about them because of the stolen documents and the actions of The Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, as the burglars called themselves. They didn’t look for the spotlight. Their mission a success, they returned to their normal lives.”

It also may have indirectly eased the way for the Washington Post to adopt a prominent investigative role during the Watergate scandal which too, began with a break-in, and ended with the resignation of a President.

This interview first appeared on Blogcritics.

4th Annual Athena Film Festival Documentary Film, ‘Rebel’

Rebel, directed by Maria Agui Carter. Photo from the trailer of the documentary.

Rebel, directed by Maria Agui Carter. Photo from the trailer of the documentary.

The Athena Film Festival 2014, which ran from February 6th to February 9th, offered an amazing array of documentary films. Women are known to direct and helm more documentaries than narrative features. It is clear that their patience, meticulous research skills, and creative brilliance shine in this complex niche, which lends itself to revelation. Documentaries best dive into the underbelly of historical events and enlighten us about men and women whose life stories have hithertofore been obscured, “wiped out,”  or discredited because their content was deemed dangerous or a fiction.

Rebel, directed by Maria Agui Carter, exemplifies such a documentary; the story of real-life heroine Loreta Velazquez was discounted and nearly eradicated from our history. Was the primary reason because Velazquez was a remarkable woman who transcended the limitations and mores placed upon her sex during the Civil War and afterward? Carter is to be lauded for painstakingly portraying Velazquez’ life on film despite the obstacles she faced to mount the project. Overcoming these issues took time, but Carter engaged her skills, and with her phenomenal effort crafted a jewel. The intensity of the result was well worth it, as evidenced by the audience’s enthusiastic response and their rapt, probing questions during the Q & A. With Rebel, Carter achieves her goal to beautifully relate the story of this courageous and clever woman who is an inspiration for us today..

Rebel directed by Maria Agui Carter. Photo from the trailer of the documentary Rebel.

Rebel directed by Maria Agui Carter. Photo from the trailer of the documentary Rebel.

Velazquez’s story begins in Cuba where she was educated and raised to be the woman of the house in time when paternalism and patriarchy ruled the lifestyles and actions of the promulgators of culture. Testing the limits of her father’s love and seeing the gross inequities in the treatment of women, Velazquez attempts to equalize her status with males, eschewing the easy “role” of a demure woman. Finding this behavior worrisome, her father sends her to relatives in New Orleans where she eventually continues to throw off her father’s choices of husbands and “women’s duties.” Clandestinely, she marries an American soldier who is sent to the frontier, comes back, and then returns to prepare to fight for the Confederacy.

By this point husband and wife have buried three children and Loreta considers her place to be by his side. He leaves and word comes that he’s been killed. She decides she has nothing to lose and will follow him to fight where he would have fought and kill who he would have killed. She cuts her hair and puts on a confederate uniform. She is alone, but finds comfort having taken his place. And in his place, she learns war, soldiering, and living in hardship with the rough men as well as having her eyes opened to many other things.

The film elucidates more including the risks that Velazquez takes in passing as a Confederate soldier. Carter follows Velazquez with details about her learning curves and discoveries about the rotten elements of war profiteers and currency calculators. From the soldier’s vantage point like never before, Velazquez is able to understand what they are fighting for and the nature of slavery. All of these events, Carter encapsulates with compelling detail and interest. However, this is only the beginning of Velazquez’s adventures. How she ends up fighting for the North and how she ends up as a spy is a fascinating experience. Carter shows that hers is an outer and inner journey. Certainly the nature of the war in the South and all of its ramifications helped to win Velazquez to the other side.

Maria Agui Carter, director of Rebel, the documentary film.

Maria Agui Carter, director of Rebel, the documentary film.

Carter’s film is compelling and engaging. This credible storytelling is at its best in relating Velazquez’s experiences by also highlighting extremely important historical details that shine a probing light on women’s involvement in soldiering during the Civil War. This is an aspect that is not well known. Nevertheless, Velazquez was not alone in picking up the cause and hiding her sex in trousers. The men simply would never have thought it possible; the folkways of feminine identity and behavior simply beggared their imagination to even think it. The women easily were able to dupe the men.

The truth Carter brings to bear in Velazquez’s story enhances our understanding of a time that perhaps is still too uncomfortably close for some to view with perspicacity, wisdom, and integrity. These elements and traits Carter admirably demonstrates in showing us another type of soldier who fought during the bloodletting time to preserve an economic lifestyle perpetuated by the extremist cruelty and degradation. Because her story is so amazing, one hopes that Carter will be able to shepherd the adventures of this courageous, enlightened, and forward thinking woman into a narrative feature film.

This review first appeared on Blogcritics.

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