Gasland I, Josh Fox, 2010

Gasland I, Josh Fox

Gasland I [2010, 104 minutes]: The largest domestic natural gas drilling boom in history has swept across the United States. The Halliburton-developed drilling technology of “fracking” or hydraulic fracturing has unlocked a “Saudia Arabia of natural gas” just beneath us. But is fracking safe? When filmmaker Josh Fox is asked to lease his land for drilling, he embarks on a cross-country odyssey uncovering a trail of secrets, lies and contamination. A recently drilled nearby Pennsylvania town reports that residents are able to light their drinking water on fire. This is just one of the many absurd and astonishing revelations of a new country called GASLAND. Part verite travelogue, part expose, part mystery, part bluegrass banjo meltdown, part showdown.

Gideon’s Army, Dawn Porter, 2013

Gideon’s Army

Gideon’s Army [2013, 98 min] follows the personal stories of Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander and June Hardwick, three young public defenders who are part of a small group of idealistic lawyers in the Deep South challenging the assumptions that drive a criminal justice system strained to the breaking point. Backed by mentor Jonathan “Rap” Rapping, a charismatic leader who heads the Southern Public Defender Training Center (now known as Gideon’s Promise) they struggle against long hours, low pay and staggering caseloads so common that even the most committed often give up in their first year. Nearly 50 years since the landmark Supreme Court ruling Gideon vs. Wainwright that established the right to counsel, can these courageous lawyers revolutionize the way America thinks about indigent defense and make “justice for all” a reality?

Additional resource: Democracy Now!, “Gideon’s Army”: Young Public Defenders Brave Staggering Caseloads, Low Pay to Represent the Poor. 24 January 2013.

Hearts and Minds, Peter Davis, 1974

Hearts and Minds, Peter Davis

Hearts and Minds, 1974, 112 minutes: The film is a compilation of newsreel and documentary footage, as well as original interviews, about the Vietnam War and its aftermath, including the following scenes: in Hung Dinh Village, Vietnam, peasants toil in the fields, guarded by armed soldiers; an aide to former U.S. President Harry S. Truman, Clark Clifford, reflects that America felt an elevated sense of entitlement after WWII, which translated into a desire for world domination; in the 1950s, the U.S. funded seventy-eight percent of the French war in Indochina, fearing a Communist uprising. According to retired French Foreign Minister Georges Bidault, U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles suggested the use of two atomic bombs in Vietnam. In the early days of the war, future President Lyndon B. Johnson tells a news conference that the success of the war depends on the “hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese people. At a homecoming ceremony, prisoner of war Lt. George Coker tells a cheering crowd that faith in God and country kept him alive. However, an aide to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Johnson, Walt Rostow, admits that the administrations had no evidence to prove that the Vietnamese people wanted a Communist government. Rostow claims that the U.S. was involved in the war only to protect the country from outside forces and says that the Soviet Union was perceived as a greater threat after the launch of Sputnik, on 4 Oct 1957. Arkansas Senator J. W. Fulbright concedes that in 1964, Johnson relied on false information about supposed North Vietnamese naval attacks against the U.S. in the Tonkin Gulf to rally the country to war.

Former U.S. Capt. Randy Floyd reminisces about his youth, when he and his schoolmates were indoctrinated with John Birch Society literature and learned to loathe Communism. Other veterans explain their desire to prove their manhood and their patriotism; hatred of Communism proved a convenient outlet for aggression. On the streets of Saigon, Vietnam, U.S. soldiers are solicited by prostitutes and by impoverished children. Back in the U.S., former Defense Department aide and RAND Corporation executive Daniel Ellsberg states that the Vietnam War was approached with benevolent assumptions that were pervasive in WWII, but these ideals were the underpinnings of imperialism, not compassion. Veterans Capt. Floyd and Lt. Coker discuss the thrill of piloting bombers, while Vietnamese peasants Nguyen Van Tai, and sisters Vo Thi Hue and Vo Thi Tu, share stories of their immense losses on the ground. Religious leader, Father Chan Tin, describes Vietnam’s history of fighting foreign invaders and argues that the war with the U.S. was genocide; the Vietnamese were fighting for independence against imperialists, not unlike Americans during the Revolutionary War. According to Senator Fulbright, Vietnam President Ho Chi Minh was familiar with the U.S. Constitution and originally thought that America would act as an ally.

Back in Vietnam, coffin maker Mui Duc Giang reports that he constructs up to 900 caskets a week for children alone and seven of his own offspring have died from napalm. Army deserter, Former Sec. 5 Edward Sowders, visits his mother, who begs him not to return to Vietnam. As the war continues, young men prepare for enlistment, playing high school football. Others, who are already stationed in Vietnam, recreate with prostitutes while their comrades capture prisoners and set fire to peasants’ homes. Vietnam businessman Nguyen Ngoc Linh explains how capitalism can benefit the country. Presidential advisor Clark Clifford describes Gen. William Westmoreland’s appeal for a surge of troops in 1968, noting that there was no plan to end the war and the Vietnamese had not exhibited a desire to cease fighting. Meanwhile, Americans demonstrate against the war, but according to Daniel Ellsberg, the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy provoked a pervasive sense of hopeless. Veterans describe loss of faith in their country and Ellsberg explains from his perspective the lies advocated by U.S. presidential administrations from Truman, in the 1950s, to Richard Nixon, in the early 1970s. Ellsberg argues that although the Vietnam conflict was portrayed as a civil war, it was entirely financed by the U.S. government and casualties on both sides were a consequence of failed American foreign policy, not Communist aggressors.

The former President of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, is praised by President Johnson, but later assassinated in 1963. Similarly, Diem’s successor, General Nguyen Khanh, was coerced into resigning, even though the American Ambassador to South Vietnam at that time, General Maxwell Taylor, publically claimed to embrace Khanh’s leadership; Khanh plays a tape recording in which Taylor confirms an order for Khanh to step down. President Nixon appoints a new leader to South Vietnam, Nguyen Van Thieu, and funds his government with $2 billion annually, but Father Chan Tin reports that the country is a police state, where citizens are arrested, tortured and imprisoned without trial. Former political prisoner Nguyen Thi Sau describes how she was beaten and held captive by Thieu’s soldiers. According to Father Chan Tin, anyone who advocated for peace was considered a Communist; however, the government’s actions backfired as citizens increasingly associated Communism with liberty and justice.

Back in the U.S., government official Walt Rostow makes no apologies for the war. David Emerson, who lost his son in Vietnam, insists that the sacrifice was not too great for preserving American ideals and he finds solace and faith in President Nixon. At a May 1973 White House dinner for returned prisoners of war hosted by Bob Hope, President Nixon is applauded for his decision to extensively bomb North Vietnam in December 1972. However, the campaign was devastating to North Vietnam; a farmer describes the death of his family and calls Nixon a murderer, while children clutch photographs of their deceased parents and mourners wail in agony at a cemetery. Back in the U.S., Gen. Westmoreland claims that Eastern religious philosophies do not value human existence and therefore “life is cheap.” Veteran Randy Floyd admits that the suffering of the Vietnamese people did not effect him at the time of the war and reflects that Americans have never endured the same kind of violence in their own country. Attempting to hold back tears, Floyd contends that Americans are in denial about Vietnam and argues that people who are fighting for freedom can never be constrained by violence or foreign oppressors.

(Additional resource: Hearts and Minds: The Right Side of History. Judith Crist, Criterion Collection, 2002.)

How to Survive a Plague, David France, 2012

How to Survive a Plague, David France

Faced with their own mortality an improbable group of young people, many of them HIV-positive young men, broke the mold as radical warriors taking on Washington and the medical establishment. HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE [2012, 109 minutes] is the story of two coalitions—ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group)—whose activism and innovation turned AIDS from a death sentence into a manageable condition. Despite having no scientific training, these self-made activists infiltrated the pharmaceutical industry and helped identify promising new drugs, moving them from experimental trials to patients in record time. With unfettered access to a treasure trove of never-before-seen archival footage from the 1980s and ’90s, filmmaker David France puts the viewer smack in the middle of the controversial actions, the heated meetings, the heartbreaking failures, and the exultant breakthroughs of heroes in the making.


Inside Job: The Shocking Truth Behind the Economic Crisis of 2008, Charles Ferguson, October 2010

Inside Job, Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times, 15 October 2010.

Inside Job [2010, 108 minutes] After watching Charles Ferguson’s powerhouse documentary about the global economic crisis, you will more than understand what went down — you will be thunderstruck and boiling with rage. For this smart and confident film, thick with useful information conveyed with cinematic verve, lays out in comprehensive but always understandable detail the argument that the meltdown of 2008 was no unfortunate accident. Rather, the film posits, it was the result of an out-of-control finance industry that took unethical advantage of decades of deregulation….

In the United States, Ferguson explains, after more than 30 years without a financial crisis, things began to change in 1981. A group including Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan (who was ideologically opposed to regulation) and both Republican and Democratic Treasury secretaries including Donald T. Regan, Robert E. Rubin and Lawrence H. Summers made deregulation the way things were going to be.

When complex, potentially dangerous financial instruments called derivatives came into vogue, unsung heroes, like government official Brooksley Born, pushed strenuously for their regulation, but the powers that be were so opposed that in 2000 Congress passed a bill specifically prohibiting that from happening.

Derivatives made it possible for banks that made housing loans to minimize their risk if there was a failure to repay, which helped fuel the boom in subprime mortgages. Then financial institutions combined these risky loans and made them seem as reliable as government securities, which of course they were not. Using the notorious credit default swaps, these firms were able to both sell those unreliable securities to gullible clients and also bet that they were going to fail.

La Ciudad, David Riker, 1998/99

La Ciudad, David Riker

La Ciudad [1999, 88 minutes] “is as relevant today [2015] as it was 16 years ago because, for undocumented immigrants in the United States, almost nothing has changed. They still live under a kind of informal apartheid, enduring the most miserable conditions without complaint, for fear of deportation…. Each of the film’s four short sections took more than a year to make because, rather than simply write a script and cast actors, Riker spent months building trust with, say, undocumented restaurant workers and collaborating with them to make a short film about their lives.” From “Immigrant Dreams: The Enduring Power of David Riker’s ‘La Ciudad’ by Marcela Valdes, published in The Intercept on 6 June 2015.

League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis, Michael Kirk, Mike Wiser, Steve Fainaru, and Mark Fainaru-Wada, 2013

League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis.”FRONTLINE reveals the hidden story of the NFL and brain injuries.”

Excerpt from documentary:

NARRATOR: The league[NFL] had its own doctor review [Mike] Webster’s [Pittsburgh Steelers legend] case.

BOB FITZSIMMONS: The NFL had not only hired an investigator to look into this, they also hired their own doctor and said, “Hey, we want to evaluate Mike Webster.”

NARRATOR: Dr. Edward Westbrook examined him.

MARK FAINARU-WADA, FRONTLINE/ESPN: Dr. Westbrook concurs with everything that the four other doctors have found and agrees that absolutely, there’s no question that Mike Webster’s injuries are football-related and that he appears to be have significant cognitive issues, brain damage, as a result of having played football.

NARRATOR: The NFL retirement board had no choice. They granted Webster monthly disability payments.

DOCUMENT: —”has determined that Mr. Webster is currently totally and permanently disabled.”

NARRATOR: And buried in the documents, a stunning admission by the league’s board— football can cause brain disease.

DOCUMENT: —”indicate that his disability is the result of head injuries he suffered as a football player.”

BOB FITZSIMMONS: The NFL acknowledges that repetitive trauma to the head in football…can cause a permanent disabling injury to the brain.

NARRATOR: The admission would not be made public until years later, when it was discovered by the Fainaru brothers.

MARK FAINARU-WADA: And that was a dramatic admission back in 2000. And in fact, when you talk about that later with Fitzsimmons, he describes that as the sort of proverbial smoking gun.

NARRATOR: It was now in writing. The NFL’s own retirement board linked playing football and dementia. At the time, it was something the league would not admit publicly. And Webster felt he’d never received the acknowledgment that his years in the NFL had caused his problems.

PAM WEBSTER: Mike would call this his greatest battle. He’d say it was like David and Goliath, over and over, because it was. He was taking on something that was bigger than him. He took on this battle for the right reasons. He was the right person to do it. Unfortunately, it cost us everything.

NARRATOR: Just two years later, in 2002, Mike Webster died.



Life and Death in Assisted Living, A. C. Thompson and Jonathan Jones, 2013

A.C. Thompson and Jonathan Jones, Life and Death in Assisted Living. ProPublica and FRONTLINE, four-part series and documentary, 29 July-1 August 2013. “This FRONTLINE co-production with ProPublica features investigative reporter A.C. Thompson, who goes behind closed doors in assisted living facilities across the country to reveal how this multibillion-dollar industry is putting seniors at risk with little or no official scrutiny or regulation. Assisted Living has been marketed as a safer, more humane alternative to nursing homes, but Thompson uncovers just how far this is from the truth. In lively interviews and with unprecedented access, Thompson makes a strong case for tougher oversight and regulation of the facilities that house 750,000 seniors in America.” Sharon Tiller, an executive producer at The Center for Investigative Reporting.

[Read more…]

Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media, Mark Achbar & Peter Wintonick, November 1992

Manufacturing Consent

Manufacturing Consent [1992, 167 minutes]: This film showcases Noam Chomsky, one of America’s leading linguists and political dissidents. It also illustrates his message of how government and big media businesses cooperate to produce an effective propaganda machine in order to manipulate the opinions of the United States populous. The key example for this analysis is the simultaneous events of the massive coverage of the communist atrocities of Khmer Rouge regime of Cambodia and the suppression of news of the US supported Indonesian invasion and subjugation of East Timor.

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, Alex Gibney, 2012

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, Alex Gibney

Mea Maxima Culpa [2012, 107 minutes] investigates and exposes the atrocious crimes of a Milwaukee priest who sexually abused more than 200 deaf children in a school under his control. Through this disquieting story and others, Alex Gibney’s documentary explores the secret cover-up and the procedures enacted by the Catholic Church in light of thousands of sexual abuse accusations all around the world. The accounts and facts incriminate prominent and powerful figures within the Church, including Marcial Maciel Degollado and His Holiness, Benedict the 16th. Using photos, video and first-person interviews, the film pieces together past events to empower four courageous deaf men – Terry Kohut, Gary Smith, Arthur Budzinski and Bob Bolger – in their quest to denounce the actions of their abuser and protect other children from harm. Their stories, the first known public protest against clerical sexual abuse in the United States, are vividly told through sign language and voice-over. For providing a harrowing story of clerical sexual abuse, empowering long-silenced victims and unveiling clandestine Church practices around accusations, Mea Maxima Culpa receives a Peabody Award.