Joe Berlinger on Armenian Genocide and Efforts to Suppress the Story

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Copyright Falkun Films 2017

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.

Originally published on Huffington Post.

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Directors Documentary Interview

Rory Kennedy on Laird Hamilton and Her New Movie “Take Every Wave”

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Copyright 2017 Moxie Firecracker

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?

A great story.

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Dolores Huerta and Peter Bratt on the New Documentary “Dolores”

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Dolores” is a new documentary that tells the story of activist icon Dolores C. Huerta, president and founder of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America. If Ginger Rogers is known for matching Fred Astaire’s steps backwards and in high heels, Huerta was as responsible as the better-recognized Cesar Chavez for bringing the attention of the world to the rights of immigrants, women, and farm workers while raising eleven children as a single mother and constantly being marginalized and underrated because of her race and gender. I spoke to Huerta, who was awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor by President Barack Obama, along with the director of the documentary, Peter Bratt.

In the film, we see you begin by sitting down in living rooms or talking to farm workers in the fields to encourage them to insist on fair treatment. What did you say to them?

Dolores Huerta: When you are organizing a group of people, the first thing that we do is we talk about the history of what other people have been able to accomplish; people that look like them, workers like them, ordinary people, working people, and we give them the list. These are people like yourself, this is what they were able to do in their community. And then we talked about the issues that they’re facing in their own community and then we would say to them, “Well, just like these other people did, they were able to accomplish all these great things. You can do the same thing. But the thing is that you got to do it because if you don’t nobody else is going to do it for you; nobody else is going to come into your community and solve your problems. So you have to take on the issues yourself. You’re the ones who have to volunteer to make the work happen.”

So we do a whole series of these little house meetings and you probably get a hundred and fifty people together and out of that group then you have a cadre of them that will come up and they’ll volunteer to do the work that needs to be done and that’s how the leaders are developed. When you go into a community you’ll never know ahead of time who the leaders are going to be. The leaders come up from the volunteers that do the work and it’s amazing because then they do these incredible things in their community that they never thought they had the power to make that happen. Basically, the message is: you have power, the power is in your person and you can make this happen but you can’t do it alone; you’ve got to work with other people to make it happen, you have to make a plan and you have to volunteer. And it works; it’s like magic.

You go out there and you find those people that have this burning passion that they want to change things and you basically are just giving them the tools. This is the way that you do it: you come together with a group of people, you pass petitions, you go to the city council, you go to the board of supervisors and you can make it happen.

Peter Bratt: She actually was telling me a story that she hopped on a Greyhound to northern central California, throughout the bus ride was expecting sixty to seventy people at a house meeting which had only one person, and she said she gave it her all because one person can be the most incredible leader that can change thousands of lives. That was a great lesson.

Why was it important to you to tell this story?

Peter Bratt: Dolores in my view challenges the three pillars of society. She’s challenging patriarchy and yes, that’s part of gender discrimination but it’s also racial. She’s also a Chicana; she’s a woman of color. The third one is as a labor activist she’s challenging the institution of capitalism, and I think those are the three great threats and that made her dangerous. I think those complexities combined to keep her in the margins.

The people who appear in the film are very candid and sometimes very emotional. How do you as a filmmaker develop a sense of trust so that they will share those memories and feelings?

Peter Bratt: I have some history with Dolores. I’ve known her for a little while and I think there was initially a great amount of trust between her and myself and Carlos Santana whose idea this was, and I also knew a few of her daughters from years back. So I think initially there was trust but you still have to prove yourself and earn even more trust. The most important thing as a director is you have to create a safe environment where you make the person feel safe enough to open their heart and reveal the soul; that’s ultimately where you’re trying to get. We interviewed probably about fifty people and the ones that we selected for the film were the ones who we felt truly opened their hearts and spoke their truth.

What has surprised you in terms of how far we’ve come and what has been the most persistently frustrating?

Dolores Huerta: Women are now 50 percent of the law schools and medical schools, so we can look at all the progress that we’ve made, but we can see all the progress that we still need to make and now with the voter suppression going on and with the racism rearing its ugly head we know that we’ve got to really step up our game on the progressive side and get people to vote because a lot of people aren’t voting. They’ve taken civics out of our high schools. People were asleep but I think they’re waking up now. Trump has given everybody a good kick and people are waking up and realizing they’ve got to get involved. That’s the message that we want to send with the film; for people to get involved at the local level, at the community level, at the state level and international level because we can’t afford to let the right wing take over our country. My son Emilio is running for Congress to continue the fight for social justice.

Peter Bratt: Sometimes I just want to put the covers over my head and stay in bed and I feel like no matter what I do it’s ineffectual and I get depressed. So for me having spent these last few years with Dolores, to see her not just doing the work but impassioned about doing the work and getting out there at the grassroots level and she still goes out into the fields in 100 degrees to organize this farm operation, she’s still doing it in the school boards, on water boards, she’s been getting people involved and to see her so engaged and relentless. The fortitude is awe inspiring and yet there is this joy and this passion while continuing to do the work, It encourages me to like quit feeling sorry for myself and get back out there. To me as a filmmaker that’s the biggest reward, to see people lift themselves up and recommit themselves.

A briefer version of this interview originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

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California Typewriter

B +

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Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Not rated, no adult content
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 18, 2017
Copyright 2017 American Buffalo Pictures

A couple of years ago, I stayed at a hotel that had a vintage manual typewriter in the lobby, with a pristine stack of paper placed neatly beside it.  I could not resist.  I rolled in a piece of paper and began to hit the keys, enjoying what pianists call the action of the machine and the memories it brought back.

Then I got to the end of the line and waited.  Although I learned to type the summer before my freshman year in high school and typed my school papers through high school, college, and law school and then used increasingly sophisticated typewriters in offices for the next five years, I had completely forgotten that it was up to me to hit the carriage return.  I reached up and swung the lever, and very much enjoyed reviving the memory of that feeling of satisfaction, accompanied by the little bell.  A computer will wait, sometimes impatiently, for you to continue.  A typewriter will congratulate you for what you have accomplished.

This captivating documentary pays tributes to typewriters and the small but passionate group who still love and repair them.  It is filled with delightful characters, and if they sometimes edge into Christopher Guest territory with their rhapsodies about the percussion and the ink flying onto the paper (the late Sam Shepard, adding an extra sense of loss to the film), or how typewritten words are “almost what thoughts look like” (John Mayer), they are still endearing and insightful.  And, as ever the voice of decency and civilization, Tom Hanks shows up because he is a serious collector of vintage typewriters and he likes to give them to friends and urge them to use them.

Indeed, I am now guessing that the Greg Kinnear character in “You’ve Got Mail” who loves his analog typewriters so much may in fact be based on the real-life passions of the man who gets the girl in the film, played by Tom Hanks.

California Typewriter is the name of the Berkeley, California typewriter repair shop that may have to close as its owner is turning 70 and business is pretty much eclipsed by computers, except for the collectors and John Henry-types.  The film alternates between the people at the store and typewriter aficionados, from a collector who literally dreams of owning one of the very first typewriters made by the man credited with inventing them to a sculptor whose medium is typewriter parts.  Ever wondered about the odd QWERTY arrangement of letters on your computer keyboard?  Did you know that typewriters created a whole new category of jobs for women, bringing them for the first time into workplaces other than schoolrooms and hospitals?  The women themselves were called “typewriters.”  There’s a music group that uses typewriters as their instruments.  And historian David McCullough, who writes his book on his old Royal typewriter, mourns the loss of typed letters, speeches, and diaries, with cross-outs and inserts. “There is value in mistakes…You see the process.”

There is a bittersweet quality to the film, which has brief glimpses of people standing in long lines in the rain to get the new iPad, and tech conference presenters chirping about algorithms.  We see the last typewriter manufacturer in the world close down, and its final 100 machines turned into a sculpture.  But the very scarcity creates bonds. “I collect typewriters,” a man with a veritable museum in his home says. “But better than that, I collect typewriter friends.”  And it is not a spoiler to note that the failing store of the title gets new access to customers from the very technology that disrupted its industry: a website.

Parents should know that this movie has some brief art images of bodies.

Family discussion: Have you ever typed on a typewriter?

If you like this, try: “The Shocking Miss Pilgrim,” with Betty Grable as a “typewriter” (secretary), and the delightful French film “Populaire,” a romantic comedy about a champion typist and her boss/coach

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New Documentary: BANG! The Bert Berns Story

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If you like behind-the-scenes-of-the-hits films like “20 Feet from Stardom,” “Muscle Shoals,” and “The Wrecking Crew,” you will enjoy “BANG! The Bert Berns Story.” Like “Wrecking Crew,” this is a love letter from a son to his father. You have not heard the name Bert Berns, but you have heard — and I am sure, you have sung — the songs he wrote or produced include “Twist and Shout,” “Brown Eyed Girl,” Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart,” “Hang on Sloopy,” “I Want Candy,” “My Boyfriend’s Back,” “Under the Boardwalk,” and many, many more.

Berns had a weak heart, the result of rheumatic fever. He knew his time was limited. And so he lived hard and fast, to get everything he could in the time he had. As a young man, he fell in love with mambo and the Latin rhythms that were popular at his local dance clubs. He brought some of that sound to the early days of rock music, creating hit after hit as songwriter and producer, working with some of the biggest stars in the business, helping many of them get there.

The film has some great interviews and details, especially some unexpected anecdotes from Berns’ best pal from the mob, who stepped in “Godfather”-style to help out now and then, dragging one singer from his sister’s funeral to make sure he didn’t miss a recording date. There are stories of rising and falling, business partnerships and betrayals, and Bert’s romance with a tough cookie of a blonde go-go dancer who became his wife. Great characters, great music — and a lot of fun to watch.

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