High Water

In his second full-length documentary, High Water, surf journalist Dana Brown composes a love letter to Hawaii’s North Shore by chronicling the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing big wave competition. Home to the largest rideable waves on the planet and nicknamed “The Seven Mile Miracle,” this stretch of sand is the place where legends are made; a natural Mecca for those who worship the sea and a place where one wave can change your life. The son of famed surf photographer and documentarian Bruce Brown, whose 1966 documentary The Endless Summer was the first to bring attention and awareness to surfing, Dana Brown grew up on beaches around the world, saturated in surf culture. Concerned that surfing has been eroded into a competitive sport and lucrative commodity, Brown was inspired to capture what he fears are the final glory days of a lifestyle choice rooted in love for the planet and a deep commitment to community.

Perhaps the most obvious difference in the changing surf landscape is the proliferation of female bodies on the North Shore, where the women’s pro-tour garners nearly as much attention as the men’s, both in sponsorship and spectators. Brown relates this point via the development of women’s surf clothes, currently a billion dollar industry that was nonexistent twenty years ago. There is a loyalty among surfers that is unique to a competitive sports environment, and an absence of traditional social markers like race and gender. Surprisingly, all of the men interviewed by Brown were receptive and supportive of the growing participation of women, though the sport has been historically male dominated and testosterone fueled.

Local legend and infamous badass Sunny Garcia grew up on the North Shore, where surfing is a private and personal relationship to your environment and your community with distinct places of belonging. If you’re not getting your ass kicked by the ocean, you have just as good a chance getting it kicked on shore. The contrast is that these hyper-masculine bodies who punch each other’s lights out over a wave are the same bodies that channel the energy of the sea and navigate the movement of the most powerful waves on the planet.

The submission to and respect for something much larger than humanity is what makes Brown’s film as inspirational as it is educational. Interviews with surfers, lifeguards, photographers, parents, and craftsman all with their own personal anecdotes, mythical stories, and life philosophies form a collective voice paying homage to the supreme authority of the ocean. The most powerful example of this is illustrated by the response to the death of competitor Malik Joyeux, one of the best big wave riders of his generation. Taking to the water, friends, family, and competitors sit on their boards in a giant circle, splashing laughing and crying out “Malik” as a helicopter rains flowers from above.

Whether you’re a surfer, an ocean lover, or neither of the two, High Water is an emotional tribute to “meaningful meaninglessness” and a reminder of what awesome beauty exists in our own backyard.

Cross-posted at Elevate Difference

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Picture Me

There is a moment in Picture Me, a documentary about the fashion industry, where model Sara Ziff’s father recalls hearing his daughter’s look described as the girl next door. The camera closes up on Ziff in a two page Tommy Hilfiger ad. “I guess that depends where you live,” her father quips, flippantly alluding to the exclusive world of high fashion. Filmed largely by Ziff and then boyfriend Ole Schnell, Picture Me documents Ziff’s developing modeling career from her first trip to Paris at eighteen to her eventual burn out at twenty-three and, along the way, exposes the human side of an industry built on solely on image.

Picture Me began as a homemade video diary and it maintains that feeling throughout. Adorable, sometimes cynical, animation by The Boos punctuates the various themes of the film. The visuals of notebooks and grade-school graffiti offer a consistent reminder of disrupted youth and the choice to forgo education; many of these models are simply schoolgirls, invited into this world as young as twelve and aged out by their mid-twenties.

I commend Ziff’s bravery for sharing her personal experience; however, I was disappointed by the lack of attention given to the privileged position she was in, especially in regards to physical appearance. “Modeling just happened to me,” Ziff states as she recounts being approached on the street as she walked home from school on day. Yeah, it happened to you because you’re tall, skinny, and blonde and you were walking down the street in New York City. Turns out Ziff’s ambivalence is rooted in deeper emotional issues such as putting off college. She also struggles with the age-old dilemma of using her body as a commodity by comparing modeling to stripping and when shortly into her career she begins to out earn her father, a college professor, Ziff wonders why she should make so much money for being “pretty and on time.”

This film is rife with contemporary social issues, especially around work and women’s bodies. Most interesting were the admissions by the models who share everything from being sexually assaulted by photographers to being told they are fat in a host of different languages. The models interviewed are cognizant of the way they are being treated, like a “robot” or a “prop” but are unaware of how to resist or respond. Ziff offers many of the most poignant insights herself—“Skinny is power. And it’s the one thing you can control.”—and her relationships with the other models are refreshingly sincere and drama-free. Unfortunately, the filmmakers missed an opportunity to connect their story to a broader social context and the many feminist issues are either ignored or under-developed.

Nonetheless, Picture Me is an excellent platform for discussion and would serve well as an educational tool, especially for media entrenched teens.

Cross-posted at Elevate Difference

Afghan Star

Directed by

One of my favorite bands, The Avett Brothers, have a lyric in one of their songs claiming, “May you never be embarrassed to sing.” Since viewing Havana Marking’s documentary, Afghan Star, this lyric has been on repeat in my brain, reminding me, as Star aptly illustrates, if embarrassment is all that we have to risk, then we are risking very little. In her feature length directorial debut, Marking journeys into recently independent Afghanistan to explore the newly created television program “Afghan Star.” Following four contestants as they compete for the $5000 prize, Marking exposes the inspiring and passionate citizens of a country shrouded by war, violence and tyranny. The film opens with a close-up of two little boys. One, whose face and eyes appear to have been violently damaged, sings sweetly into the camera and when he finishes the other states simply “If there was no singing the world would be silent.” From this point on Star weaves a complicated narrative that instigates dialogue about the power of having a voice, and the ideologies that determine what voices are heard and by who.

In 1996, the Taliban rule in Afghanistan created a ban on music, dancing, and singing. The ban was lifted in 2004, but as history has taught us all to well, a change in politics doesn’t always result in changing people. Most of those interviewed in the film, from the shows producers to townspeople, equate singing with freedom; however the concept of freedom is abstract and intangible. It is defined within the boundaries of Afghan politics and Islamic religion, leaving little room for the inclusion of Western liberties and autonomous behavior. This is most evident in the subtle, yet disturbing, fulfillment of traditional gender roles. Both of the male contestants whom Marking chooses to focus on are met with great hope and respect by their communities. But when interviewing the families and supporters of the female contestants the responses are overwhelmingly concerned and fearful, or rife with ulterior motives. As the male contestants campaign openly in public and receive adoration from fans, the women are hidden by their burqa’s, unable to be reacognized. The contradiction is striking, yet the women are complicit and seemingly unaware of their alienation. However, the most drastic display of sexism occurs when Setara, one of the two female finalists and by far the most dynamic of all the contestants, is eliminated. While performing her final song, Setara “dances” on stage while also allowing her head scarf to fall revealing her hair. The result is scorn from her fellow competitors, eviction from her apartment and death threats so fierce and overwhelming, she fears returning to her hometown.

For those of us in the West, Afghan Star presents a thoughtful exploration of the life we so often take for granted: freedom of speech, the privilege of choice and the unnecessary luxury of television and its star making programs. But, above all, this film is a riveting reminder of the power, freedom and endless possibilities we hold in our voice and that no matter how we  may use it, we must never be embarrassed to sing.

Cross-posted at Elevate Difference

The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo

The Carolina Film and Video Festival returned to Greensboro this weekend, with its spotlight aimed at women and documentaries. Prior to an evening of documentary films, I attended what I was sure would be the highlight of the festival, a two hour presentation by Debra Zimmerman, Executive Director of Women Make Movies (WMM) – the largest distributor of films by females. Looking forward to an engaging a thoughtful dialogue on her years of experience working with women in the film industry, I was disappointed that Zimmerman spoke only briefly – and from a podium so large I could barely see her face – about the realities of being an independent filmmaker. She used the bulk of her time slot to surprise the audience with a sneak preview of the most recent documentary distributed by WMM:

The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo

In one of the most beautiful and resourceful regions of the world, power and dominance are being abused and manipulated in a genocide so fierce it is the deadliest battle since World War II. For the past 10 years, civil war has ravaged the Democratic Republic of the Congo killing over four million people and that doesn’t count the estimated 200,000 women who have been murdered emotionally, spiritually and socially as their mutilated bodies are left to deteriorate. It is these women who filmmaker Lisa F. Jackson, seeks out hoping find; “If I tell my story will she break her silence?”

Winner of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize, this full length documentary is a brave attempt by Jackson to call attention to the realities of girls and women struggling to survive in a devastated nation. Jackson herself was a victim of gang rape – right here in our nation’s capital – at the age of 25 and it is this experience that she cites as inspiration for her journey to the Congo. From off screen Jackson recounts her personal history with rape and briefly ponders the differences between two cultures, both of which exploit women and their bodies for political and economic gain. Yet, as the film progresses, she fails to elaborate any of the political, economic or emotional issues she seeks to explore.

As a filmmaker and activist, Jackson’s motivation is compelling. As a researcher, however, she often falls short. Her attempt to dialogue with a group of male soldiers about why they rape only illustrates her naiveté and the soldiers own ignorance of their actions. No reference is made to the systematic and historical ideologies that have encouraged sexual violence and Jackson stays far away from her own country’s complicity in the Congolese conflict – Diamonds are a girl’s best friend, you know. While the film gives a brief yet informative history of Congolese violence and is heavy with statements on the political nature of rape, Jackson neglects to take the discussion any deeper. There is no commentary on why rape is used as a systematic tactic of war and her soft spoken voice-over serves only the echo what the women themselves are saying.

Visually, Jackson’s choices catapult from captivating – just outside a village a line of school girls walk by singing, in bold red head wraps, white shirts and deep blue skirts, to confusing – does the camera really need to be in the operating room as a young, scared girl receives treatment? Thankfully she steers clear of violent images, but the recollection of their rapes by the Congolese women are rife with imagery and it is in these interviews where the true magnitude of this story lies.

The most poignant moments come when Jackson is silent and the camera finds the women telling their stories in their own voice. Each woman Jackson interviews clearly and eloquently recounts the memory of her rape and the events of her life since. In a small room of one of the only hospitals available to rape victims in the Congo, twenty women, ranging in age from pre-pubescent to elderly, are crowded. They have been rescued from deep in the forest where they had been left for dead by the soldiers who raped them all. One woman stands tall among the group and challenges the way they have been treated, clearly identifying her own self worth and that of all humans. Her voice is strong, clear and filled with emotion. When she is finished she moves away from the group and turns toward the wall, sobbing quietly into the cloth of her dress.

Originally funded by Jackson herself, The Greatest Silence, is a testament to the individual filmmaker and the tremendous possibility that holding a camera yields. She struggles however to take this story further than it context and misses an opportunity translate what is being recorded through her viewfinder into a deeper social commentary with the possibility of creating tangible, global change.