“Unrest” is a very personal story of the misunderstood and underestimated disease of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Filmmaker Jennifer Brea was a Harvard PhD student soon to be engaged when she was struck down by a mysterious fever that left her bedridden. As her illness progressed she lost even the ability to sit in a wheelchair, yet doctors insisted it was “all in her head.” Unable to convey the seriousness and depth of her symptoms to her doctor, Jennifer began a video diary on her phone that eventually became the powerful and intimate documentary. Once Jennifer was diagnosed with myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), commonly known as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), she and her new husband, Omar, were left to grapple with how to shape a future together in the face of a lifelong illness.
Follow the hashtag #UnrestPBS and add your own story.
A Community, a Drive-In, and Some Movie Magic: Jan 3 at Alamo Drafthouse in Virginia
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In the 1950s, there were over 4000 drive-in theaters across the country. There are only about 330 left today. Don’t miss “At The Drive-In,” the award-winning true story of the Mahoning Drive-In Theater (@MahoningDIT), with a live Q&A with director Alexander Monelli (@Monellifilms), January 3, 2018 at 7:20pm.
A year ago today, film crews across the country followed Americans as they voted and worked to get others to vote, as they wrote the news and watched the news, as they explained what issues mattered most to them and why, and as they participated in our quadrennial, Constitutionally-mandated Presidential election process. Pretty much everyone, Trump and Clinton supporters alike, optimists, pessimists, experts and amateurs, thought that Hillary Clinton was going to win. Pretty much everyone was surprised by the results. A new documentary, “11/8/16” brings those stories together.
Though we know the outcome, it is a gripping story, frustrating, sometimes sad, but ultimately very hopeful in the level of engagement, passion for progress, and willingness to work for change shown in almost every community.
Joe Berlinger on Armenian Genocide and Efforts to Suppress the Story
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The word “genocide’ was created to describe the massacre of 1,500,000 Armenians by the Turks, a century ago. And yet, the story has all but been eliminated from our understanding of the 20th century, a more devastating erasure of history than the genocide itself because it erased the story, and because it erased any hope for justice.
A new documentary from director Joe Berlinger is the story about the story, about what happened, and about the efforts to prevent what happened from being told. “Intent to Destroy: Death, Denial, and Depiction,” in theaters November 10, 2017, has three chapters: behind the scenes in the filming of “The Promise,” starring Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale, an exploration of the denial that it ever took place, and the deception that led to repression of efforts to tell the truth and creation of a false counter-narrative.
Why start a documentary with the behind the scenes of a production about a fictional version of the event?
There are a couple of reasons why. From an aesthetic standpoint, this is complex and dense history and you want to make it digestible for a modern audience. I’m not a historical filmmaker who normally does things with talking heads and archival footage. From a practical standpoint it put me in a familiar place to tell an unfolding story and that gave me the dramatic structure to then hang all of this history.
From a thematic standpoint, there have been other documentaries about the facts of the genocide itself but what’s more interesting to me, what I actually wanted to make a film about, was the mechanism of denial, the aftermath of the denial and how denial operates. There is a checkered history of movie making on the theme of the Armenian genocide in Hollywood because any prior attempt to do a mainstream movie has been basically shut down. The Turkish government complains to the State Department and the State Department twists the Hollywood studio’s arm and it drops the project. As early as 1935 that’s what happened to Irving Thalberg when he was trying to make “Forty Days of Musa Dagh” and so when I heard a film was actually being made independently financed by Kirk Kerkorian, an Armenian, so clearly this was private money but it involved a lot of Hollywood people, an A-list director, I saw “The Promise” as a historic event.
So it wasn’t just embedding with the film to get some visual eye candy of behind the scenes of a movie. It was the perfect way to express what to me is the more important aspect of the film which is not just the history of the genocide but the actual hundred years of denial and how all that happened. I can tap into that thing that I think is the most interesting aspect of this story, how the narrative has changed. In 1915 when the genocide was beginning there were 145 articles in the New York Times and it was the largest humanitarian relief effort up until that point ever mounted to help people in a foreign country. Babe Ruth’s 50th home run bat was auctioned off to raise money so it was a shining moment in American history and yet today we have lost that vision of our past because it’s been systematically repressed and a counter narrative has been put out there. So what better way to talk about dueling narratives than by making a film about filmmaking?
A really special moment in the documentary is where we see them filming a character finding all the dead bodies because it’s where all the scenes kind of come together. You have Terry George trying to present an atrocity for a PG audience intercut with the actual survivors’ testimony so that it’s real for them while it’s a movie for these people, intercut with the archival footage of the day showing those gruesome photographs just to give an inkling to an audience of what it’s really like in a way that could never be shown in a mainstream motion picture and then we have the true behind the scenes with tender moment with Christian Bale working with a child.
Part of what made the third chapter so powerful was the way that it resonates with the era of fake news, Nazis being called “good people,” fights over Civil War statues and climate change denial.
For many of these people that history is still present today and if we discount those histories, if we don’t understand what we do when we blow up Iraq and unleash the wave of the ethnic strife as a result, we will keep getting it wrong. I’m not saying Saddam Hussein should have remained in power; it’s too complex to go so deeply into that. The Armenian Genocide is like the quintessential example of history that’s not been reckoned with and accounted for and beyond that you see how techniques are used to invalidate a historical reality.
Much smarter people than me have said that the final stage of genocide is denial. It’s absolutely essential that we recognize the historical realities of a situation and I find it morally reprehensible that the United States does not recognize the genocide because we’re afraid of losing our strategic allies because they have air force bases where we can launch missions from. Even if we do lose our strategic air force bases. I just believe that we have to be accountable to our history and as Serj Tankian says so eloquently in the film genocide should not be bargained as political capital and that goes for our own reckoning with history. These are all painful aspects of history that we have not fully dealt with and that’s why we’re seeing the repercussions that we saw in Charlottesville so the lesson of the movie is that you have to respect the history and account for it and hold people accountable.
Rory Kennedy on Laird Hamilton and Her New Movie “Take Every Wave”
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Rory Kennedy usually makes documentaries about complicated issues, with more than 30 films on topics like poverty, political corruption, domestic abuse, drug addiction, human rights, and mental illness. Her latest film is something different. Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton is the story of a man who became one of the world’s most accomplished sports figures even though he does not compete in organized events.
Your cinematography of the surfing scenes is remarkable. I kept asking myself as I watched, “Where is the camera? And how can it be so steady?”
To capture Laird on these ginormous waves was certainly something that I had never come across before in my own career. I explored using a drone or jet-ski or somebody in the water but they all had their own limitations and ultimately I really leaned on the helicopter shot. The thing is about these waves that is funny and interesting is that you can have a really huge wave and if you shoot it at a certain angle it looks teeny. And what I found is actually being below the wave looking up at it with a little bit of distance was the most dramatic shot but of course that means the helicopter needs to be below the wave. Don King has worked extensively with Laird and Don Shearer has also worked with him as a helicopter pilot.
You assembled an extraordinary collection of archival footage with some rare and very personal material. Where did it all come from?
It’s a bit of a scavenger hunt really trying to find the best footage. We went to Laird and Gabby first and foremost but there was also footage through the archive houses at NBC, ABC, and CBS, who had some archives that we used. Then reaching out to friends and family and really asking people to go deep into their garages and their basements to retrieve some of the footage, a lot of which has never been seen before. The footage of Laird rescuing his friend came from the production company that they had because that was something that they were filming as it happened. We were able to track it down and it was pretty dramatic.
Laird is married to a world-class athlete who competed in the Olympics, Gabrielle Reece. He is covered by sporting journalists but he does not participate in conventional competition.
He has a comfort in competing in say a foot race where there’s an objective winner but what bothers him in surfing competitions was the sense of judgment. Laird is probably one of if not the most competitive person that I know and there are pretty extreme stories about him in that respect but I think ultimately he didn’t want to bring that to his surfing experience. Part of what he loves about surfing is being out on the water and being in touch with nature and being up against these gigantic waves. And I think that you’re up against your own kind of personal chatter in your head that’s telling you to get off the wave and that you might die. You know that’s a pretty intense adrenaline moment, right? So then you add on other things to that like competition and judgments and all the rest of it and it might feel a little deflating or less interesting.
He is an extraordinary athlete and a big part of that is his exceptional mental focus and drive.
That was part of a huge part of what drove me to make this film. Surfing is really the backdrop of the film but the story is what you’re tapping into which is what drives a guy to surf and go up against 80-foot waves. He has the personal drive towards water. I think that manifests at his very young age. I think he was exposed to some of the biggest waves in the world and he was surrounded by surfers. From age two, three; he was in the ocean every day and going out into water that most of us would never even dream of going into even as adult. He had a childhood that was a broken home. He’s lived in poverty. He had an abusive family situation and I think the outside environment was also difficult where he was one of the only white guys in Hawaii at the time. There was a lot of anger towards people who were not Hawaiian and who were white who had brought a lot of disease and devastation to the island though. Because of all those factors he ended up really focusing and finding refuge in the water.
Even though he doesn’t have much formal education he and the other surfers have really PhD level understanding of the properties of water; the physics of it.
Their level of knowledge is striking. One of the scenes that we have in the film is Laird working with the Oracle team, Jimmy Spithill who is the captain of the America’s Cup because they really looked to him for expertise in terms of foil boarding. And these are guys are engineers and they’re analyzing with computer technology the most efficient way to get a boat to move across a lot of water and they’re looking at Laird for his personal expertise in that and I think there’s a good reason for it. When you have spent that much time as a human being engaging in something, you have kind of an instinctual understanding of it that they’re able to translate in pretty beautiful ways both in terms of the language that they use and the poetry and the beauty of it but also on a very technical level in terms of how it works and how a wave is formed. He’s incredibly articulate and knowledgeable about that.
Would you say that there’s a common theme in your films?