Oliver Sacks: His Own Life

Posted on September 22, 2020 at 5:52 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drugs
Violence/ Scariness: References and some archival footage of illness and disability
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 23, 2020

Copyright Zeitgeist 2020
I wonder what kind of case study Oliver Sacks could write about himself. The author of many books about neurological issues including The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat would make a fascinating subject for clinical assessment himself. It was that book that really transformed my thinking about the highly individualized ways we perceive and process information. While he wrote about extreme cases, from the man with brain damage who lived in an eternal present, with no capacity to create new memories to the post-encephalitic “locked-in” patients portrayed in the movie “Awakenings” and Temple Grandin, who has written so eloquently herself about her autism.

Oliver Sacks has, by any measure, an unusual brain. He has face-blindedness, for example, the inability to recognize even the faces of people he knows very well. And he has an exceptionally unusual combination of the kind of deep humanity that often accompanies empathy that can make it difficult to maintain observational objectivity. But what makes him unusual is that he also has the objectivity to be an exceptional clinician. The post-encephalitic patients had sad for years without any effort to help them before Sacks, who was coming for research, not clinical practice, came up with the idea of treating them with new medication that was being used to help people with Parkinson’s. He has, one commenter tells us, “the moral audacity to think something is alive in there.”

Very significantly, we learn in this film, Sacks revitalized the concept of the medical case study, which was considered outdated in a world driven by data. The case study is like a little novel. It is about the person, not the symptoms. Early in the film, Sacks tells us that he is equally a writer and a doctor, and we can see how each plays a part in his understanding of his patients. He says the primary diagnostic question is, “How are you?” He saw the symptoms as a reflection of cognition and perception, not just a reflection of brain damage or dysfunction. And framing the patient’s experience as a story is in itself therapeutic, making the case for sympathy and imagination. “His attention would release people.” They would be “storied back into the world.”

Sacks, who sees the patients with such wholeness and compassion, is compartmentalized himself. There is not only the writer/doctor split. His middle name is Wolf, and he sees himself as both Oliver and wolf, a yin/yang brain/body divide. He has been criticized for being an observer rather than a theorist, but as Grandin points out, without observation there is nothing to theorize about. Many people had the chance to observe the post-encephalitic patients, but Sacks observed something in them no one else did, and that observation included possibility of change.

In one of his books, Sacks wrote about a patient who could “hear” words spoken but not the inflections that reveal context and emotion, so very concrete and literal, and one who was the opposite, unable to comprehend language but acutely sensitive to tone and expression, who was thus in some ways better at discerning meaning. Sacks’ own superior observational skills were in part made possible by the deficits that eliminated distracting data.

Sacks relies on the support of others in his own life, outsourcing many tasks and even emotions and relationships. He has been in psychoanalysis for half a century. He took a lot of risks and abused drugs in his 20s. He gets help from his editor and close friend on some of life’s mundane details. After a one-night-stand on his 40th birthday, he did not have sex again for 25 years, and it was not until his 60’s that he had a close, intimate romantic relationship. And. we learn, early on in the film, he has been told he has only months left to live. With the same clinical distance he showed toward his own medical issues in A Leg to Stand On, he observes himself as a patient as he creates for us “a master class in how to die.” But it is also a master class in how to live, as he says, how to live with what can’t be changed and frame it as a story to give it meaning.

Parents should know that this movie includes frank discussion of drug abuse and sex as well as depictions including archival footage of people who have serious medical challenges. There is also a reference to Sacks’ own recovery from a serious accident.

Family discussion: How did Sacks’ experience as a child affect his decisions in his career? How did being a writer and a doctor help him be better at both?

If you like this, try: “Awakenings” and Sacks’ books

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The Way I See It

Posted on September 18, 2020 at 11:01 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Historical events, including military action and school and church shootings
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 18, 2020

Copyright 2020 Jaywalker Films
Pete Souza proves and exemplifies two perennial adages: If a picture is worth a thousand words, the photographs of Pete Souza, are as eloquent as a whole library. And if journalism is the first draft of history, Souza not only reminds us of how much of our sense of events is formed by images like his, and in his new documentary, “The Way I See It,” like the photographs he took, reward a deeper look.

Pete Souza tells us he served as White House photographer to the most iconic Republican President, Ronald Reagan, and the most iconic Democratic President, Barack Obama, and that his inspiration was the work of his predecessors, including Cecil William Stoughton, John F. Kennedy’s photographer, and Yoichi Okamoto, who was Lyndon Johnson’s photographer. We see how revealing the photographs are, not just the images themselves but the way they reflect the Presidents, their personal style, their sense of history, their era, and what today we might call their brand. Presidents Reagan and Obama might both be iconic, but their approach to the photographs was very different. Reagan, coming from Hollywood, was acutely aware of image and messaging. In behind-the-scenes archival footage we see him with Nancy, coming up with what he thinks will be an appealing pose.

Obama, on the other hand, was more interested in an authentic portrait to bring Americans into his life. The one time he wanted to make sure a moment was captured for posterity was a very personal one; a successful block in a one-on-one basketball game with Reggie Love, his body man and friend, who was bigger and more experienced but not as competitive. Obama not only wanted a “jumbo” (the constantly updated photos selected for display through the White House); he wanted a signed admission from Love.

Souza did not think of himself as political, especially during his first stint at the White House. But after President Trump took office, Souza began responding to his most provocative tweets via Instagram posts from his archive of Obama images. He thus learned for the first time the term “throwing shade,” an understated but devastating counterpoint. His pictures took on a whole new meaning, leading to a book called Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents. A telling example is the well-known image of Obama and his advisors, including Hillary Clinton, in the situation room during the raid on Bin Laden’s hideout. The are all looking intently and with their full attention at the screen so they will not miss a second. The image Trump released from his situation room is posed, with him and his advisors facing the camera.

We hear from Obama-era advisors and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin but this is really Souza’s story, especially when we get to Obama’s pushing him to propose to his long-time girlfriend. “He wants everyone to be married,” Souza says, clearly reflecting on the warmth of the Obamas’ own relationship. Finally, the President made Souza an offer he could not refuse: a wedding in the Rose Garden, with Obama himself as an officiant. He does not say so, but he’s probably wishing he could have been the photographer as well as the groom.

This is a moving story of what it is like to be in the room where it happens, and to share that with the people who entrust the President with our lives and our freedom.

Parents should know that this film includes depiction of real-life tragedies, including school shootings and military actions.

Family discussion: What do we learn about each President’s personality and priorities in the photographs of the White House photographer? Did this movie change your mind about any of the Presidents it covered?

If you like this, try: Souza’s books

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Doc5 Middleburg: 5 Highly-Anticipated Documentaries Premiere at the Middleburg Community Center, September 22 – 26, 2020

Posted on September 4, 2020 at 12:05 pm

CMP has announced its inaugural ​Doc5 Film Festival will take place at the Middleburg Community Center (200 W. Washington St., Middleburg, Virginia 20117) from Tuesday, September 22 through Saturday, September 26, 2020.

Doc5 is the traveling “little sister” to CMP’s flagship Doc10 Film Festival, which launched in Chicago in 2015 and has continued its reign as the taste-making festival in the Midwest, with dozens of titles earning Oscar nominations and trophies. CMP’s mission with its festival series is to celebrate independent documentary filmmaking and the filmmakers who tell those stories. Doc5 Film Festival is more intimate, bringing these incredible films on the large screen so film lovers in smaller communities and locales can watch them in a festival experience.

“We’re so proud of the success of our Doc10 Film Festival and we want to share the experience across the country,” said CMP’s ​Co-Founder and Board Chair, Steve Cohen​. “We’re really excited to launch Doc5 with a slate of film premieres especially curated for the film-lover community of Middleburg, Virginia.

Doc5 opens on Tuesday, September 22 with ​OTTOLENGHI AND THE CAKES OF VERSAILLES, ​which ​follows famous chef Yotam Ottolenghi on his quest to bring the sumptuous art and decadence of Versailles to life in cake form at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Director Laura Gabbert’s film credits include feature length ​No Impact Man and the popular Netflix series ​Ugly Delicious. ​OTTOLENGHI AND THE CAKES OF VERSAILLES perfectly captures the heights of human achievement and the frailty of decadence, adding taste as one more sense with which to experience the Met.

The festival closes on Saturday, September 26 with ​DEAR MR. BRODY, a story about how a 21-year-old hippie heir to a margarine fortune announced to the world that he would be giving away his $25-million inheritance to anyone in need. Set in 1970, Michael Brody, Jr. and his wife Renee were soon flung into a psychedelic spiral of events and overwhelmed by the crush of personal letters responding to their extraordinary offer. Fifty years later, an enormous cache of these letters are discovered–unopened. In this riveting follow-up to his acclaimed ​Tower, award-winning director Keith Maitland reveals the incredible story of Michael Brody, Jr. and the countless struggling Americans who sought his help.

The full slate of films featured at Doc5 include:
● 9/22: OTTOLENGHI AND THE CAKES OF VERSAILLES ​ (Dir. Laura Gabbert, U.S.)
● 9/23: THE SIT-IN: HARRY BELAFONTE HOSTS THE TONIGHT SHOW (Dir. ​Yoruba Richen, U.S.​)

● 9/24: TIME ​(Dir. Garrett Bradley, U.S.)
● 9/25: WHIRLYBIRD​ (Dir. Matt Yoka, U.S.)
● 9/26: DEAR MR. BRODY​ (Dir. Keith Maitland, U.S.)

CMP’s Chicago-based Doc10 Film Festival is known for its ancillary programming, including special talk backs with filmmakers and subjects, so audiences can expect some surprises during Doc5 Middleburg.
All screenings will be held outdoors to a capacity of 75 guests who will find it very easy to maintain a safe social distance in the venue’s large amphitheater. In case weather conditions force an indoor event, the festival will be moved indoors to a 50-person capacity ballroom that will still easily adhere to social distancing guidelines. Attendees will each receive swag bags with hand sanitizer, masks, and bug spray at the entrance.

Admission to each film is $25, or guests can purchase a pass for all 5 films for $100. These will be available online at doc5filmfest.org, and guests can also purchase tickets onsite at the venue’s concessions.

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Documentary Festivals

American Bar Association: Documentaries about Crimes That Change Lives

Posted on August 3, 2020 at 8:32 pm

The American Bar Association’s magazine has an article about “documentaries that swayed criminal cases.” Documentaries can be a very effective form of journalism, advocacy, or both. One example in the article is Joe Berlinger’s Paradise Lost Trilogy, three films over a period of fifteen years about three teenage boys accused of the May 1993 murders and sexual mutilation of three prepubescent boys. Because the accused boys listened to heavy metal music and had been in trouble for various petty offenses, the prosecution alleged that they killed the young boys as a part of a Satanic ritual. The filmmakers originally assumed that the boys were guilty. One of them confessed. But as they talked to the families of the murdered boys and reviewed the evidence, they concluded that they were not guilty. The documentaries, the attention brought to the case by celebrities including some rock musicians, and the review of DNA evidence that showed no connection between the boys and the murder, led to their being released from prison, though not a full exoneration.

The article also discusses Surviving R. Kelly, which gave women who had been sexually abused by the singer the opportunity to tell their stories. “Days after the premiere, Georgia and Illinois opened criminal investigations and encouraged more victims to come forward. By the next month, Kelly had lost his record deal and been charged by the Cook County state’s attorney in Chicago with sex abuse. In July 2019, he got hit with federal sex abuse charges as well. At press time, he sits in a Chicago jail awaiting trial.” He had managed to avoid responsibility in an earlier trial. The evidence in the documentary provided a path to holding him accountable.

Other documentaries mentioned include The Central Park Five, Making a Murderer, The Staircase, and documentary podcasts In the Dark and Serial.

The “documentary” footage taken by amateur observers has had an enormous impact recently, in tragedies like the death of George Floyd and in angry disputes over racist comments and wearing masks. Footage like that will certainly have an increasing impact on criminal and civil cases.

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A New Documentary Channel from PBS

Posted on July 29, 2020 at 10:53 am

Copyright PBS 2018

For 50 years, PBS has been America’s trusted home for documentaries. The PBS Documentaries Prime Video Channel is another way for curious viewers to access PBS content outside the PBS Video App.

The PBS Documentaries Prime Video Channel will include a robust library of critically acclaimed, thought-provoking programs including the entire Ken Burns collection as well as films from NOVA, FRONTLINE, AMERICAN MASTERS, NATURE, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, INDEPENDENT LENS, POV and many independent producers. Subscribers will be able to explore various topics or take an in-depth look at the people, traditions and events that mold our world—all carefully curated for “viewers like you” by America’s most trusted home of documentaries: PBS

“PBS is the leader of high-quality, compelling nonfiction entertainment, and the PBS Documentaries Prime Video Channel is a natural addition to our current streaming offering on Prime Video Channels—PBS MASTERPIECE, PBS LIVING AND PBS KIDS.  This channel will not only help bring engaging stories about life in all corners of our country to a new audience, it will provide needed revenues to sustain public broadcasting’s public-private partnership model for the benefit of all stations and the communities they serve,” says Andrea Downing, Co-President of PBS Distribution.

Copyright PBS 2018
“We had long hoped to be able to have all of our films available in one place so the public would have access to the body of work,” says Ken Burns. “We’re thrilled that this is now possible thanks to the efforts of PBS Distribution and Amazon to launch the PBS Documentaries Prime Video Channel and also through PBS’s Passport initiative that allows viewers to support their public television stations. Both will also contribute to the larger mission of PBS.”

“FRONTLINE was founded on the belief that longform documentaries could inform, educate and inspire public television’s audiences — and during these historic times, deeply reported and easily accessible journalism is invaluable,” says FRONTLINE Executive Producer Raney Aronson-Rath. “Through this new Channel, we’re excited to see our documentaries reach new and existing streaming audiences.”

At launch, the channel will feature nearly 1,000 hours of award-winning programming for subscribers to enjoy, including Ken Burns’s landmark series THE CIVIL WAR and COUNTRY MUSIC, Stanley Nelson’s THE BLACK PANTHERS: VANGUARD OF THE REVOLUTION, and Academy Award-Nominated films like FRONTLINE “For Sama” and AMERICAN EXPERIENCE “Last Days in Vietnam.”

Copyright PBS 2019

Stanley Nelson comments, “I’m thrilled to see that my work will find a new home on this channel. PBS has become a premier destination for documentary programming in the U.S. and has been hugely invested in giving films by diverse storytellers and emerging filmmakers much-needed national exposure. I’m so glad that my film on the Black Panther Party, which can inform communities in our current historical moment, will be able to reach different audiences on this new service.”

The subscription rate for the PBS Documentaries Prime Video Channel is $3.99/month with an Amazon Prime or Prime Video subscription via Prime Video Channels and is available in the US only. Every purchase helps support public television for all.

The entire Ken Burns collection will also be available via PBS Passport, a member benefit available within the PBS Video App that gives viewers extended access to high-quality content. The PBS Passport library is also full of public television’s acclaimed drama, arts, science, history and lifestyle programs (contact your local PBS station for details).

The PBS Documentaries Prime Video Channel is a subscription video on demand channel exclusive to Amazon launching August 2020. This new streaming channel will feature nearly 900 hours of the highest quality factual programming, including the full catalog of films from Ken Burns and award-winning documentaries from NOVA, FRONTLINE, AMERICAN MASTERS, NATURE and AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, in addition to programming from other independent producers.

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