“Human Flow”: Ai Weiwei’s panorama of the worldwide refugee crisis

Ai Weiwei is known for his work for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and then for his subsequent troubles with Chinese authorities over dissent (the subject of more than one film).

His “Human Flow” is a monumental and lengthy (140 min) collage of refugee experiences all over the world.  The film starts with a shot over water reminding one of a similar shot in “The Master” (2012), leading to presentation of refugees on flotillas across the Mediterranean.

The film soon shows us long shots of refugee camps in Iraq, Jordan, Thailand, Bangladesh  Turkey, Kenya, Greece, and even farther north in Calais (which gets dismantled).

There’s a scene in Turkey where the people first look like ants from above until the drone camera gets closer.  There’s a scene inside a hangar in Germany where families like in cubicles.

Some of the most stunning footage occurs around Mosul, with the oil fires deliberately set (like the 1992 “The Fires of Kuwait”).

Near the end of the film the expected scenes along the US Mexico border appear.

Ai Weiwei often appears in many scenes, assisting individuals personally.

The film does not go into detail into the programs that countries have to house refugees in regular apartments and have sponsorship with regular families (as in Canada), and it doesn’t get into the difference between asylum seekers and refugees.

The film, at the end, does comment on global wealth inequality, climate change, and that people with different personal and communal cultures will have to learn to live together on one climate.

US-Mexico border Wiki picture.

Weiwei biographical history.

Review of “Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case” (2014).

Review of “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” (2012)

Name: Human Flow
Director, writer:  Ai Weiwei
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Landmark E-Street, 2017/10/14, near sellout
Length:  140
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  Amazon Studios original film, Participant Media, AC Films
Link: Hollywood Reporter director QA 

(Posted: Sunday, Oct. 15, 2017 at 10 AM EDT)

CNN’s “The Reagan Show” looks like an oldie

CNN Films offered the collage “The Reagan Show” on Labor Day evening, directed by Sierra Pettengill and Pacho Velez.

The film, running 74 minutes (allowing commercials to fit into a 90 minute format), written with Francisco Bello and Josh Alexander) is placed in the old 4:3 aspect ratio of television in the 1980s, and comprises many of Reagan’s speeches and appearances, particularly in relation to relations with the Soviet Union.

A highlight is Reagan’s 1983 Star Wars speech, which attracted some degree of ridicule;  nevertheless, that idea (34 years later) seems to be the buttress strategy for handling North Korea’s grandiose and acceleration of development of missiles and now thermonuclear weapons.   You would think that in this many decades, NORAD ought to be good at this.  Yet, I recall the film “War Games” (1982) and the two “Red Dawn” films.  We all know about the exchanges with Gorbachev, leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall after Reagan left office, and eventually the collapse of the Soviet Union as we knew it.

There’s one spot where Reagan says “Make America Great Again”.

There’s also some footage from all of his old black and white movies from the 1940s…

There is some coverage of the Iran contra with Oliver North (who would later have his own radio talk show in the 1990s).  But there is no mention of the AIDS crisis, or even of the 1981 assassination attempt.

Name:  “The Reagan Show
Director, writer:  Sierra Pettengill, Pacho Velez, Francisco Bello Josh Alexander
Released:  2017
Format:  1.37:1 TV
When and how viewed:  2017/9/4 CNN
Length:  74
Rating: NA
Companies: Gravitas Venturas, CNN
Link:  official

(Posted: Tuesday, September 5, 2017 at 2 PM EDT)

“Austerlitz” shows Nazi concentration camp tourism

Austerlitz”, by Sergei Loznitsa, provides a curious film concept. In a 94-minute exercise in trolling people in black and white, the filmmaker portrays tourists to visit the museum-exhibits of the Nazi Holocaust concentration camps Dachau and Sachsenhausen.

The first ten minutes of the film portrays nothing but a people-watch of tourists entering the gates near a sign reading “Arbeit macht frei”. We notice many are carrying phone headsets to listen to commentary. Then we do start hearing some tour guide content.  One of the most interesting is that the early camps were set up for intelligence purposes: to interrogate possible dissidents against Hitler, and even intercept plots to kill Hitler.  Only later did the Jews, as well as gypsies and homosexuals, become recognizable populations.

There is a chilling scene where a guide with a British accent explains how the victims were told to expect a shower, before getting gassed with Zytron.  One couple has a picture taken in front of a black crematorium.

As for the tourists, many are attractive, slender, young white males, ironically what you expect in a gay bar. You will see the same people, with recognizable T-shirts, based on companies or sports teams, more than once.

I was not aware of this massive level of tourism. I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau on a Tuesday morning in late May, 1999, having arrived on the night train to Krakow from Berlin, and then taking a taxi to the site (about $60 for the day).  I don’t recall that there was any crowd, maybe a few other tourists walking around at some distance from me.  I did visit rooms with shoes and skeleton remains, and dorms.  I walked along the notorious railroad tracks.  I don’t recall having a headset.

In the first chapter of my novel “Angel’s Brother”, a “part time” CIA agent, married and living a normal life of a history teacher in Texas, visits Birkenau the way I did, and in a light crowd, meets a mysterious college student and rides back with him.  Why both are there develops with the story.  There was one scene in the film of a young man off by himself, on a cell phone, sitting near a wall, who looked like the college student in my novel.  There may have been one other person from the US that I recognized, appearing twice with the camera going blurred the second time, a rather strange effect.

Wikipedia picture of Dachau.

Auschwitz-Birkenau visiting information.

Name:  “Austerlitz”
Director, writer:  Sergei Loznitsa
Released:  2016
Format: 1.85:1, black and white
When and how viewed:  MICA Brown in Baltimore, 2017/5/7, fair audience
Length:  94
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Imperativ, Deja-vu
Link:  official

(Posted: Monday, May 8, 2017 at 1 PM EDT)

“Human”: People around the world tell their stories, which add up, against alien-looking scenery

Human“, the project of Yann Arthus-Bertrand, alternates interviews with ordinary people from all over the world with aerial images of people in collective actions, or sometimes scenery that is so abstract in design and non biological colors that it looks alien.

The first interview presents a convicted murderer who meditates on learning what love and forgiveness mean. In time, other interviews present what makes humans tick, and some of it is chilling. A couple young men present what makes them want to fight an enemy in a brotherhood (jihad). Others talk about being socialized to sacrifice themselves to overcome common enemies. But as the film progresses, the interviews open up. In the middle section, several gay people speak, starting with a woman who had sex with a man under family pressure and got HIV from heterosexual activity. The religious objection to homosexuality, especially within Islam, is briefly explored. So is immutability.

Then the interviews move back toward a bigger vision of social justice.  One speaker (an Aborigine) mentions that earlier cultures did not have words to indicate personal ownership of anything. There is a lot of attention to the enslavement of low-wage workers overseas in quasi-dorm life.

The intervening photography is stunning.  One of the first images is of people playing soccer on a mountain plateau.  There are mass crowds with human columns and waves.  There are odd images of gas and water that look like they come right out of Christopher Nolan (“Interstellar”).  There is a shocking scene of manual labor in a mine in Russia.  Near the end there is a shocking scene of the slums in Senegal. There are over 60 filming locations.  There is an interesting abstract of Manhattan at night with the reflected light manipulated to look like fire.

The music score, by Armand Amar, resembles the music of Philip Glass.

A possible comparison would be “Koyaanisqatsi“, by Godfrey Reggio (1982).

Senegal scene similar to film, Wiki.

Name: Human
Director, writer:  Yann Arthus-Bertrand
Released:  2015
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Filmfest DC, Landmark E St, 2017/4/24, large auditorium, full
Length:  143  (full theatrical is 190)
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Kino Lorber
Link:  official, Filmfest

(Posted: Monday, April 24, 2017 at 11 PM EDT)

“Dream Big: Engineering Our World”: outstanding young female engineers make wonders for professional tourists

As it gets more taxing and risky to travel around the world, IMAX 3-D documentary films offer a surrogate opportunity.

Dream Big: Engineering Our World”, directed by Greg MacGillivray and produced by his own film company, now shows in Imax science museum theaters, and it offers in its 42 minutes a large number of sightseeing opportunity, a chance to play professional tourist.

The narrative (spoken by Jeff Bridges) is seen largely through the lives of female minority engineering students, and their teachers.

The attractions include the Burj  Khalifa Dubai, the Shanghai Tower (with its twists to make it storm resistant), a rail bridge in southern France, an earthquake resistant skyscraper in San Francisco, the University of California Santa Barbara campus (which I visited in 2002 in connection with my books), rural Haiti, and a temple area in Katmandu, Nepal during an earthquake.  (Katmandu is said to have inspired the fictitious city L’Himby in the Third Dominion in Clive Barker’s novel “Imajica”.)    There is a desert prototype for a 700mph maglev train, and stunning subway sequence in the opening (I think in Tokyo).

There is an interesting “middle section” explaining the construction of the Great Wall of China (using rice-based mortar) which runs along the top of a ridge.  I have not seen “The Great Wall” yet, but the mention of the Wall is here is politically coincidental, to say the least.  Yes, I would have used Asian cast and leads in making the big budget monster movie (for authenticity).  And I think that Donald Trump’s idea of a Great Wall poses more an issue of actual practical effectiveness than engineering (or ideology).

There is a climactic science fair scene (at UCSB), after high school engineers drive their solar-powered jalopies through the Australian outback (starting at Darwin and going to Adelaide).  I thought it would have been nice to cover the inventions of Taylor Wilson (fusion nuclear reactor) or Jack Andraka (new cancer test).

The film was financed in part by Bechtel Corporation, which was on my list of possible first employers back in 1970 when I was getting out of the Army.

Name:  “Dream Big: Engineering Our World
Director, writer:  Greg MacGillivray
Released:  2017
Format:  IMAX 3-D  1.44:1
When and how viewed:  Smithsonian Air and Space, 2017/3/2, morning, small audience
Length:  42
Rating:  G
Companies:  MacGillivray
Link:  Bechtel

(Posted: Thursday, March 2, 2017 at 7:45 PM EST)

“I Am Not Your Negro”: sneak preview at a Washington DC high school this evening

I Am Not Your Negro” was previewed tonight at Ballou High School (sponsored by AFI Docs) in Washington DC before a full auditorium, three levels.  The film is based on the unfinished book “Remember This House” by James Baldwin, based on Badlwin’s account of his interaction with Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Dr. Martin Luther King.

The film is directed by Haitian born Raoul Peck, who was present for the QA with an assistant principal of the high school.  The evening felt like a reprise of my own days as a substitute teacher ten years ago.  The principal said that 92% of the senior class, mostly African-American, has been accepted to college.

The film is narrated by actor Samuel L. Jackson, with the script entirely taken from the writings of Baldwin.  Peck said that he had to produce the film himself and control it, and making it took ten years.  He did raise some money from European sources, especially in Belgium.

The film takes on the mantra, “white is a metaphor for power”, and shows how, from the late 1940s until the 60s, white people really had benefited from the sacrifices of blacks – with the lingering segregation and combative attitudes – without taking moral responsibility.  During the QA, the need for personal involvement and then trend toward personal apathy by most “successful” whites was mentioned.  The film is viewed as timey given Trump and Bannon, but their names weren’t mentioned.

The film shows a great deal of the civil rights activism, especially revolving around desegregation orders and then the Selma march, leading to the deaths of the civil rights leaders. There were many scenes of riots and police activity, with some modern scenes of the Ferguson, MO riots.  The deaths of young black men (such as Treyvon Martin) gets covered.  There was one metaphorical scene shot with images from the surface of Mars.

The film also covered Baldwin’s time in Paris, and mentioned (showing typing of memos) J. Edgar Hoover’s view of him as a security risk and a “homosexual” (as Hoover was covering up for himself).  Baldwin says he came back to the US “to pay my dues”, a favorite moral catch phrase of mine.

The film has excerpts of many other films, including “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “In the Heat of the Night“, as well as “The Pajama Game” (white values), and even Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” (2003, a school shooting by disenchanted, perhaps bullied white boys, somewhat similar to Columbine.)

Name: I Am Not Your Negro
Director, writer:  Raoul Peck, James Baldwin (book manuscript “Remember This House“)
Released:  2016
Format:  1.85:1   sometimes black and white
When and how viewed:  Ballou High School Washington DC AFI Screening, opens at Landmark E St. Feb. 3
Length:  95
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  Amazon Studios, Velvet Film, Magnolia Pictures
Link:  official

QA video



During the QA I mentioned Gode Davis’s unfinished “American Lynching“.  This new film seems to have at least one image in common.




On the way on the Green Line in rush hour, I was the only white person on a crowded Metro car toward SE Washington and the Congress Heights station on Alabama Ave (one mile from the school).  Residual de facto segregation by economics is all too real.  There were a number of white college students at the reception before.

(Posted: Wednesday, February 1, 2017 at 11:45 PM)

“Theater of War”: documentary about staging Brecht’s “Mother Courage” and a meditation on war and political systems

Theater of War” (2008, directed by John W. Walter), attracted my attention since it depicts Meryl Streep’s role in a 2006 production of Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage and her Children”  (1939). Streep got a lot of attention for her criticism of Donald Trump’s narcissistic behaviors at the Golden Globes Sunday night – although whether Trump really mocked a disabled person (which he denies) is a matter of factual dispute, given how you interpret his body language in a particular speech during the primaries.

That particular play (“Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder”) depicts a mother who tries to profit from businesses created by the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) but loses all three children to the war.

The film gives us a biography of Brecht , including his escape from Nazi Germany shortly after Hitler took power (first through Denmark, eventually through Russia), arriving in Los Angeles in 1941.  But  (like Trumbo) he would wind up interrogated by the House Unamerican Activities Committee which really believed that Hollywood “propaganda” could be exploited by the Soviet Union to support communism.  But, ironically, with the whole “Russian-hacker-gate” and the 2016 election, we’re seeing a lot of theories of propaganda being born out.  The film adds a lot of history, such as FDR’s speech presenting the damage to war torn Germany after WWII as “punishment” for the German people for putting Hitler into power.

Tony Kushner (“Angels in America”) appears as the playwright converting Bertold’s work to a new adaptation at the Delacorte Theater in New York City in 2006.  (Actor Kevin Kline also appears.)  Kushner relates his concern over the draft as a teenager during Vietnam, but he was young enough to escape it before Nixon ended it.  The film shows many Vietnam-era anti-war protests.  Kushner notes how easily the state can manipulate young men into sacrificing themselves, exploiting their sense of fungibility until they belong to a group or mass movement. Gradually, it gets into the philosophy of Marxism, and the idea that without a communal context for society, wickedness tends to prevail over virtue when people act at just the self-interest level.  I don’t necessarily agree with this, but the film really shows where this point of view comes from. There is the idea that you can live through being treated unfairly if you belong to “the group”, and a whole theory about how under capitalism, workers surrender power when they “sell” their labor.  There is mention a scene in the play where a soldier is flayed, even more brutal than the tortures in the film reviewed yesterday.  There is also presentation about how theater has power.

The music score includes Charles Ives’s “The Unanswered Question“.

Name: “Theater of War” (incorporates “Mother Courage”)
Director, writer:  John Walter (Bertolt Brecht)
Released:  2008
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix DVD, 2017/1/12
Length:  95
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Kino Lorber
Link:  official

(Posted: Friday, January 13, 2017 at 12:30 AM EST)

“Now More than Ever: A History of ‘Chicago'”, and practically all of the music in a CNN documentary

Now More than Ever: A History of ‘Chicago’”, directed by Peter Pardini, and from FilmRise, aired on CNN Films Sunday night January 1, 2017 with showings at 8 om and 10 pm EST.

The film traces the history of the Chicago rock band from 1967 until present day, and covers its recent honors at the Rock and Roll Museum in Cleveland.  In the early days the band was known as “Chicago Transit Authority”.

The film is talky, and consists mostly of older band members reminiscing about what their lives on the road, often sharing cramped quarters (even refrigerators) communally, was like.

There is some footage from the Vietnam war and of protests, but no real mention of having to deal with the draft.

The music style had a lot of progressive dissonance, but would break out into lyrics that became familiar in my car radio in the early days of my work career.  I think I first heard their music in the barracks at Fort Eustis, VA around the end of 1968, during my own time with the draft.

Here were a few of the songs featured: “I’m a man” “I’m so happy” “Waiting for the break of day”, which is  “writing a song about writing a song”, Hard to same I’m sorry (like Scarlet O’Hara apologizing to Rhett before his famous line), and “I mean exactly what I say, but when I don’t.”   Chris Christie once repeated the “I mean what I say and say what I mean” idea, which also appears in Train’s short film vide “Bulletproof Picasso”.

Name:  “Now More than Ever: A History of ‘Chicago'”
Director, writer:  Peter Pardini
Released:  2016
Format:  2.35:1  (why?)
When and how viewed:  CNN, 2017/1/1
Length:  113
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  FilmRise, CNN Films
Link:  CNN  Band  Cleveland Rock Hall

Wikipedia link for band image.

On Thursday, Jan. 5, the Washington Post ran a story “Why did CNN air a documentary about band Chicago produced by band members?“, Style section, by Paul Farhi. The suggestion of the story is that CNN is getting away from journalistic objectivity with showing a film produced by the subject.  That suggests that there is something inherently wrong with self-authored memoirs (like mine), not written by third parties.  It’s a dangerous idea, to me at least.

(Posted: Monday, January 2, 2017 at 12 noon)

“Before the Flood”: Leonardo DiCaprio narrates NatGeo documentary about climate change


Name: “Before the Flood”
Director, writer:  Fisher Stevens, with Leonardo DiCaprio
Released:  2016
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  YouTube 2016/11/4
Length 95
Rating G
Companies: Ratpac Docs, National Geographic
Link: official

Friday, Ellen De Generes hosted Leonardo DiCaprio, who introduced the new National Geographic documentary that he narrates, “Before the Flood”, presenting the latest case for meeting climate change.

The film (directed by Fisher Stevens) is available free on YouTube until Sunday, after which it is the National Geographic Channel.

The opening sequence shows an animation of an Indian mural about the creation story, where, after the first Flood and then eons of civilization, the Earth goes dark and eventually is in ruins, looking like Mordor.

The film produces spectacular cinematography all over the world, with the most striking shots probably the aerials of the oil shale mines in Alberta, as the film makes its well-known points about fossil fuels.

The film focuses on low-lying island nations like Kiribati  and on far flung coastal cities like (Patagonia) Argentina’s Ushuaia

The filmmakers visit the melting ice caps at the North Pole, and show the “sunny day flooding” in south Florida.

The film does get to the subject of consumer behavior, such as buying so many everyday products that use palm oil.  It also argues for a “voluntary carbon tax”.

(Posted: Saturday, Nov. 5, 2016 at 11 AM EDT)

“Cameraperson”: Kristen Johnson tells parallel stories from her lifetime of camerawork, emphasis on Bosnia war crimes


Name: Cameraperson
Director, writer:  Kristen Johnson
Released:  2016
Format:  1.85:1 (sometimes 1.37:1)
When and how viewed:  Landmark E St, 2016/10/17, small audience
Length 102
Rating NA
Companies: Janus
Link: link

Cameraperson” plays like a Smithsonian film that you want to see in Imax. It is a collage of the camerawork of Kristen Johnson from many provocative documentaries she worked on.  It also seems to include other material she took herself.

The most important location in the film is Bosnia-Herzegovina (Foca and then Sarajevo), where she revisits the sites of ethnic cleansing in the 1993 war, and especially focuses on Muslim families.  There is one spectacular sequence where she drives in a mountain canyon through three successive tunnels, to locate a mass grave.

Bosnia becomes interspersed with several other narratives telling their own stories.  One is an amateur prizefighter in Brooklyn. Another is a prosecutor explaining the graphic evidence book for the murder of James Byrd in Jasper, TX by White supremacists (for “The Two Towns of Jasper”).  Still another is her own mother’s coping with early Alzheimer’s while still functioning on the family ranch in Wyoming.


Other snippets are more localized.  There’s a bizarre “location unknown” spot from “Citizenfour” showing destruction of NSA data.  An overweight girl in Alabama (“Trapped”) talks about ending her pregnancy while the camera dawdles on surprisingly hairy thighs through torn jeans.   In a few of the segments, the camera stays focused on the person, and the screen narrows to 1:37:1.  There’s a brief shot of Michael Moore from “Fahrenheit 9/11”.  There’s a shot of the first football game at Penn State after it’s allowed back in to the NCAA after the Jerry Sandusky scandal in “Happy Valley”.

Here’s a supplementary article from “The Moveable Fest”,

Kristen says he is addressing “what it is to film, and to be filmed”.

Compare this to “Koyaanisqatsai, Life our of Balance” (1982) by Goeffrey Reggerio.

(Posted: Tuesday, October 18, 2016 at 11:45 AM EDT)