Tag Archives: documentary

What Separates “Home Game” is its Social Awareness

“Home Game” has something special going for it. The docu-series presents sports from around the globe. They’re each unique to a particular place and tradition. If you’re in the U.S. or Europe, you’ll have heard of a few of them: the Highland Games and Roller Derby are both profiled. A number of them may be unfamiliar. Take Kok Boru, for instance. It’s like rugby, but on horseback, and the ball is a dead goat.

As a docu-series, “Home Game” shines when it’s discussing why these sports have survived and how they’re evolving. In the U.S., any sport that becomes popular is quickly devoured by capitalism. We understand that any sport has the ability to create change and impact our social perspective, but we also understand that this will most often be dictated by money.

Colin Kaepernick kneeling through the national anthem at football games mattered the moment he did it, but the biggest step in its normalization in white society may have been Nike signing him to a marketing contract. That doesn’t take away from anything he did, or the pressure he and other players continue to apply to the National Football League and society at large – but the unfortunate truth is that normalization of social change in the U.S. through sports is deeply tied to marketing.

“Home Game” offers something very different, and often forgotten. Sports themselves – and not just the marketing – can be a way of standing up to colonizing forces, or of protecting elements of a culture so that they can’t be assimilated.

“Home Game” doesn’t always focus on this aspect, but it does so more often than not. Sports documentaries are hardly rare these days, but ones that focus on their subjects through a socially aware, inclusive lens – and that often come to their sports primarily through that lens – these aren’t as common.

Take one early episode. In “Freediving”, a competitor enters to spur pride in his indigenous community. The Sama are looked down on in the Philippines. They’re considered thieves, despite being the original inhabitants who’ve had their land – and nearly their way of life – stolen from them. Imam Eldio Gulisan enters the competition in order to remind his Sama community to feel pride, to legitimize his people in the eyes of others, and also to keep freediving alive in his culture.

While he lacks the years of more codified training other divers have, he maintains a tradition of spear hunting underwater. This demands deep dives and long periods of holding his breath – perfect for a freediving competition. His entering the competition is an act of trying to keep a key aspect of his culture alive, and pass it down as something viable to the next generation.

“Home Game” is most powerful when it introduces you to the competitors that episode has chosen to follow. Each episode focuses on a different sport – it translates the rules quickly, so it can get on to the more important job of translating the different motivations people have for participating. We see the everyday lives of these athletes, their day jobs, and what they sacrifice to take part in sports that are rarely professional or paid. They incur injuries and risk death…for what? Sometimes it’s personal pride, or the pride of their city. Sometimes it’s their means of escape from a life that hasn’t offered many opportunities. And sometimes it’s because that sport offers a conduit to keep a key aspect of their culture strong.

There are episodes about evolving a culture, too. “Roller Derby” and “Pehlwani” translate how sports can be a front in feminism. Pehlwani is a traditional Indian style of wrestling, and growing acceptance that women compete in it – often against men – is spearheading both cultural and religious reform.

The series finds a pretty good balance of discussing the change this inclusivity spurs without losing the ground-level view of what that means in athletes’ own words. Ultimately, the athletes know they’re making a difference, and they also just really want to compete. Sometimes they have to make that difference in order to compete in the first place. Sometimes they compete in order to make that difference.

“Home Game” leans into telling these stories through the perspective of each athlete, rather than trying a top-down approach. While not providing a full picture, it does supply an emotionally resonant one that squarely sides with the athletes and their fights for inclusion and equality.

The series is smart about following both experienced and newer competitors, to show steps along the way of expertise. Sometimes we forget how difficult it is to step into a sport. For instance, free diver Wei Zosa is going for a personal best of 37 meters. That doesn’t sound all that far, does it? That might be the distance of walking a couple houses down the street. Then the narrator reminds us that it’s the height of a 12-story building. Suddenly it seems immense.

This also shows us just how wide a world the idea of sports encompasses. The first episode, “Calcio Storico”, focuses on an Italian sport that mixes concepts of rugby and bareknuckle boxing. Adrenaline is key to facing down opponents and ignoring the pain of severe injuries. An athlete couldn’t last long in a competition without adrenaline powering them through.

In “Freediving”, the athletes remind you that any adrenaline will immediately sabotage you. To have a chance of competing, you need to stay absolutely calm. Adrenaline makes you use your oxygen up far too fast, undermining your dive and endangering your life. An athlete can’t free dive if they can’t control their calm and deny that adrenaline spike.

“Home Game” is wise to avoid choosing favorites. It profiles athletes on both sides of a match, usually before some form of championship or record-setting attempt. It gives a little background on each team or athlete, how they’ve done that season, and what the match means to them. As a docu-series, it’s much more invested in the athletes themselves than their teams. This works because it makes us want to see particular people do well in a final match. I often found myself rooting for athletes on both teams.

In each half-hour episode, there’s a good sense of rising tension and genuine excitement for the outcome. Many episodes mirror what a good sports movie will do in leading up to that final, meaningful match.

The series isn’t perfect. The strongest moments are in the show’s interviews, cut together with training and gameplay. Yet when home life is shown, some conversations are presented verite style – these can occasionally feel a bit staged. Even if they aren’t, athletes and their families may feel awkward around cameras and not behave as naturally as these scenes would ask.

You can see “Home Game” figure out its strengths as the 8 half-hour episodes progress, leaning further into the interviews so that athletes can describe their lives, priorities, and motivations in their own words. The verite bits become much more selective, or focus more on presenting training regimens later in the series.

Episodes have a pretty wide range in quality, but they’re all worth watching. The “Highland Games” episode comes off as the worst, but it’s not bad. It feels OK and pleasant, but it lacks the heart-in-mouth moments of the “Calcio Storico”, “Freediving”, or “Kok Boru” episodes.

The show is at times a beautiful and gracious celebration of cultures. There are very touching moments about the meaning of all these sports to their communities. While the sports here may be new to many viewers, that feeling of investment and belief is universal. Sharing it with others, and understanding how others feel it given what’s happening on the field in front of them, is remarkable.

I never thought I’d get wrapped up in water buffalo drag racing across flooded rice fields in “Makepung Lampit”, but the magic of “Home Game” is that by the end of a half hour, I’m right there with the fans in that rush of excitement. What makes “Home Game” special is that by the end of that episode, I don’t just see it as a sport – I see it as an expression of safeguarding cultural elements in the face of colonialism. I see it as a place where a woman can beat men while other men cheer for her. For all the resourcing, marketing, and media that we put into Western professional sports, we still can’t even manage that.

There’s a great deal to learn when looking at the sports other cultures value. “Home Game” approaches each with respect, and a desire to share the sport and what’s fascinating about it. It’s not a perfect series, but it is a unique and needed one. It’s a hell of a lot of fun to watch, and it reminds you that enjoying sports can feel different and mean more when all the marketing, fantasy leagues, and constant speculative coverage are stripped away.

You can watch “Home Game” on Netflix.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, consider subscribing to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

New Movies + Shows by Women — April 3, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has redirected some of what this feature covers. Originally, it was meant to highlight new movies by women in the theater and on streaming. As theaters are nearly entirely closed, I started covering new series as well.

The original scope was more limited, and it made sense to list recent titles that were a few weeks old as well. Since that scope has opened up, the list is ballooning. That’s good; it provides a great chance to cover more work by women. At the same time, it also means I’ve got to keep articles more concise.

I’ll focus on covering what’s new this week, of course. Unlike past weeks, I won’t be listing what’s been out for 2-3 weeks in a “recent releases” category. There’s a ton of great work that’s recent, and if you want to see what else is out there from past weeks, click on “New Films by Women” just above the title of this article, or click on “new movies and shows by women” at the end of the article. You can get to every single week’s new movies and shows by women from there.

Financial accessibility is also important. Is a new movie on streaming best featured when it’s $20 to rent, or when it’s $5? My approach is I’ll feature it both times as “new”, at least as long as the pandemic is collapsing those different release phases into each other.

I also want the list to be as practical as possible. The goal isn’t to just list work by women, it’s to get you to watch it. It’s easy enough to list what service a new show is on, but if it’s a movie you can rent in different places, I’ll make sure at the end of each film or show’s write-up that you know where you can rent it, and what the best rental price is.

Thanks for bearing with some notes. As a new feature, this will go through some evolution. That’s enough of that; let’s get to new movies and shows by women.

The Other Lamb (digital rental)
directed by Malgorzata Szumowska

IFC Midnight doesn’t have the cachet of an A24 or Bleecker Street. It has done solid work platforming horror and drama films by women lately. 2019 saw them acquire a range of independent films by women, including Jennifer Kent’s period revenge tale “The Nightingale”, Emma Tammi’s supernatural western “The Wind”, Claire McCarthy’s Hamlet-by-any-other-name “Ophelia”, Mary Harron’s examination of Charles Manson victims “Charlie Says”, and Jennifer Reeder’s surreal vaporwave thriller “Knives and Skin”, just to name a few.

There’s still ample room to improve (I look forward to the day when one of these indie darlings distributes more films by women than men), but it is one of the better places to look right now for horror films by women.

Director Malgorzata Szumowska has mostly worked in the Polish film industry, and often tackled issues of identity, the culturally taboo, and the viral spread of religious cults.

Writer C.S. McMullen has been widely regarded as an up-and-coming screenwriter, with placement on Hollywood’s “Black List” of best unproduced screenplays. “The Other Lamb” is her first full-length screenplay that’s been produced.

Currently, “The Other Lamb” can be rented through Amazon Prime for $6.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always (digital rental)
directed by Eliza Hittman

When social distancing started, this was the film I was most disappointed I’d have to wait to see. The trailer doesn’t over-communicate and tell you the whole story. It just paints the premise: a teen gets pregnant and leaves her hometown with her cousin in order to get an abortion.

I don’t know that much about writer-director Eliza Hittman. This is the first time a film of hers has broken big. There are a few musical artists I enjoy involved – Sharon Van Etten has a role and Julia Holter composed the score. I can’t quite tell you what it is about this film that sits there as a landmark on the calendar for me. The trailer alone already stands as a poignant and overwhelming two minutes. It utterly strikes me as something I haven’t seen told this way before, and need to.

Films that would otherwise be in theaters right now are getting at least several weeks at a $20 rental (to watch within 48 hours) before going to a more reasonable price that’s closer to what you’d expect after a theatrical run. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is no exception to this, and I’ll share it again here when it hits an individual rental price point. You can currently rent it through Amazon or iTunes.

How to Fix a Drug Scandal (Netflix docuseries)
directed by Erin Lee Carr

34,000. That’s the number of criminal cases that were affected when chemist Annie Dookhan was found to have falsified drug lab results. She had tested just a fraction of the samples she said she did, a fraction of the samples about which she testified in court. Those cases impacted as many as 40,000 people. The state of Massachusetts ended up dropping more than 21,000 pending criminal charges, not to mention facing the innocent people who had already been convicted on Dookhan’s falsified evidence. It was a disturbing view into how innocent lives could be ruined by one person in a flawed justice system that’s more interested in filling jail cells than it is in fair justice.

Sonja Farak was arrested six months after Dookhan. She was another chemist serving the Massachusetts legal system, and she was getting high on the drugs she was supposed to be testing. The docuseries tells the story of both chemists, as well as the impact on the tens of thousands who faced wrongful arrests and convictions. It also investigates the possible cover-up by former state AG Martha Coakley’s office.

Director Erin Lee Carr digs into subjects of crime with a reporter’s tenacity, and has averaged a documentary a year over the last six years. Perhaps her most famous was last year’s “At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal” for HBO.

Vagrant Queen (SyFy)
showrunner Jem Garrard

I reviewed the premiere of “Vagrant Queen” earlier in the week. It’s a colorful, irreverent sci-fi romp that’s erratic on quality, but still fun. Based on the comic series by Magdalene Visaggio, it features a queer will-they/won’t-they relationship and Tim Rozon of “Wynonna Earp” fame. You can read my full review, and my takeaway is this:

“For those who enjoy cult movies, consciously B-grade sci-fi, cheese-fests, YouTube or community production sci-fi, it’s a messy refuge that’s at times bad, but that also celebrates and enjoys a lot of what we love.

“For those who are looking for something to scratch their ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’, ‘The Fifth Element’, or perhaps even their ‘Jupiter Ascending’ itch, it gets the job done – but perhaps not satisfactorily.

“For others, I just don’t know. Part of watching something like this is the glee you get from it existing in the first place. That makes up for a lot of shortcomings. If you don’t have that starting interest and investment, the show might just be really, really bad.”

You can watch the full first episode for free on YouTube right here. You can also watch it on SyFy, after episodes air on cable and satellite services, with a YouTube TV or FuboTV subscription, or purchase it (at $2 an episode) to watch on Amazon, GooglePlay, or Vudu.

Home Before Dark (Apple TV+ series)
showrunners Dana Fox, Dara Resnik

The show about a child reporter who investigates a cold case is “inspired by” reality. The reality is that Hilde Kate Lysiak started a newspaper in Selinsgrove, PA in 2014. Its first story was about the birth of her sister, but soon she was covering stories about vandalism. In 2016, she broke a news story about a murder.

By 2019, her family had moved to Arizona. In stories investigating the Border Patrol, she was threatened with arrest for videoing a town marshal. She posted the story online anyway. I wouldn’t mind seeing a series about this kind of reporter handling stories that make an impact that way.

“Home Before Dark” looks like it follows very little of this, but that’s why it’s “inspired by” instead of “based on”. (I worked as a reporter, so I get a bit tense over those delineations and what they suggest.) Lysiak never investigated the disappearance of her father’s friend and wasn’t wrapped up in the kind of conspiratorial intrigue “Home Before Dark” suggests.

My grain of salt spoken, it’s fair to take “Home Before Dark” on its own merits. It seems like good family fare that can speak to and inspire a future generation of women reporters, as well as normalize the idea of women as reporters among young men. It looks interesting, and maybe it will inspire young women and men to support Lysiak and other women reporters as they speak truth to power.

Kabukichou Sherlock (Hulu series)
directed by Ai Yoshimura

It’s hard to dig up a ton of information on this, but I’m already hooked on the idea of an anime Sherlock Holmes digging into crime in a wild, neon-strewn Shinjuku, Japan. Also called “Case File no.221: Kabukicho”, the show finds Sherlock competing with other detectives over cases, including the pursuit of Jack the Ripper. It’s somewhere between a comedy and mystery series.

Ai Yoshimura has been directing anime episodes since 2010.

Violet Evergarden: Eternity and the Auto Memory Doll (Netflix movie)
co-directed by Haruka Fujita

“Violet Evergarden” is an exceptionally well-reviewed anime series that follows an ex-child soldier who becomes a letter writer. The job is to assist and even ghostwrite for those who can’t write on their own, whether through disability or other circumstance. It’s been on my list to watch for a while, as it looks like a rare blend of atmospheric animation and philosophical storytelling. In particular, I keep an eye out for series and movies that suggest the melancholic patience and peacefulness that anime can at times accomplish better than any other art form.

“Violet Evergarden: Eternity and the Auto Memory Doll” is the first movie in the franchise, and acts as a side story to the series. It finds Violet becoming a tutor at an all-women’s school. (A separate movie that continues the series will be coming later in the year.)

Haruka Fujita directs alongside Taichi Ishidate. The pair directed every episode of the first season of the series, often alongside other directors.

“Violet Evergarden: Eternity and the Auto Memory Doll” is also the first production from Kyoto Animation since an arson attack in July 2019. The attack resulted in the deaths of 36 people, of the 71 who were in the building at that time.

Elephant (Disney+)
co-directed by Vanessa Berlowitz

Disney+ added a host of documentaries on April 1 to celebrate Earth Month. “Elephant” and “Dolphin Reef” are the new debuts. Their past Disney Nature documentaries will be joining them on the streaming service. This includes “African Cats”, “Chimpanzee”, “Born in China”, “The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos”, “Monkey Kingdom”, “Wings of Life”, and “Penguins”. Most are fairly self-descriptive.

A range of National Geographic documentaries will join these, so keep your eyes out. Don’t forget the calm and peace that nature documentaries can bring you. They can be a balm as you and your loved ones weather the anxiety and stress that social distancing can introduce. Disney’s tend to join remarkable documentary cinematography with stories that interest adults and children alike.

The Iliza Shlesinger Sketch Show (Netflix series)
directed by Laura Murphy

Iliza Shlesinger is a stand-up comedian who’s done five specials with Netflix. Considering the popularity of some of her shows, “The Iliza Shlesinger Sketch Show” seems to be coming in somewhat under the radar.

Director Laura Murphy has a long history on these kinds of shows, first as a segment director on “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” and more recently as a director on “Adam Ruins Everything”.

Take a look at new movies and shows by women from past weeks.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, consider subscribing to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

“Under the Dome” — Best Films of 2015

by Gabriel Valdez

One of the most important films of the last year is one that most Americans don’t even know exists. Chai Jing’s “Under the Dome” was a call to action for Chinese viewers much the same way “An Inconvenient Truth” was for the American public a decade ago. Hopefully, it will fall on more receptive ears.

What is the film itself? Chai connects the dots between pollution, the Chinese government, and a range of health concerns, addressing a live audience. This is interspersed with some remarkably brave (and often risky) investigative journalism into China’s polluters and corrupt bureaucracy. She exposes a range of government regulations as effectively toothless, and highlights both key departments and individuals who have been left powerless by the government to enforce the law.

Where “An Inconvenient Truth” focused on a holistic scientific view, “Under the Dome” bites into a far more journalistic approach. It’s more boots on the ground than PowerPoint presentation, and it has a more accessible emotional undercurrent because of it. This makes the film more immediate and gives us some of the best journalism of the past year: the film includes at least one midnight trespass into a factory and a sting operation organized with police.

What makes the film work is Chai’s own story – her daughter was born with a tumor and she worries about the health effects of growing up in China. Chai also connects it to her long history as a reporter, seeing landscapes change before her eyes and the here-today, gone-tomorrow nature of local industrial economies. Chai creates a story that is about China as a whole and about her own personal concerns as both a reporter and a parent. This makes “Under the Dome” a very human documentary.

Though a great deal of information is conveyed, the film isn’t dry. Chai does a masterful job of telling the story of how corruption is a bureaucratic invention just as much as it is a symptom of greed. It’s not just about fixing something that’s broken; it’s about changing entire ways of life.

Chai released the film at no cost. Within three days of its February 28 release, “Under the Dome” had been viewed 150 million times. Chinese censors took action – on March 2, 2015, Chinese media was instructed to stop reporting on the film. In less than a week, the film was completely removed from Chinese websites, after more than 300 million views.

It’s still freely available in many other countries, including the U.S. You can watch the entire film on YouTube at the top of this article, all at once or in episodic chunks. Either way, I encourage you to do so.

Under the Dome smog

The Awesome Power of Journalism — Chai Jing’s “Under the Dome”

Under the Dome Chai Jing 1

by Gabriel Valdez

I may have just watched the best film of 2015. It is certainly the best job of pure reporting I have ever seen. It is Chai Jing’s Under the Dome, a documentary on China’s air pollution disaster.

The easiest comparison would be An Inconvenient Truth, but while the presentation is similar, Under the Dome is a different animal. Despite being loaded with even more information, it’s less science lecture and more personal journey. Chai takes you along the path an investigative reporter takes when following a story. She translates the excitement of discovery to her audience. Even when what she – and you – discovers is horrifying, she ties two pieces of information together, two threads of plot suddenly becoming one, and in doing so often reveals new information about how China’s government cheats its own rules and regulations.

After the self-financed film exploded – hundreds of millions of views in China in just a few days – China’s government effectively banned it. The sheer extent of investigative journalism Chai has undertaken, essentially dismantling the hypocrisy of whole sections of China’s government, is both staggering and audacious. This is reporting, this is a documentary, yes, but it’s also the most exciting thing I’ve seen this year.

Chai is an expert at using research to trap and evoke emotional responses from her interview subjects. This isn’t the baffled, bloviating mutterings we’re used to getting from the likes of Wolf Blitzer, Don Lemon, and Sean Hannity here in the U.S. This is reporting boiled down to its essentials – it’s striking how exciting journalism can be when it’s based on factual research, and not just the product of talking heads shouting at each other.

Essentially, Chai constructs a film – as director, host, and investigative reporter – that is one of the most nerve wracking yet enthralling journeys that I’ve had watching a movie in some time. She hits on all fronts – emotional, narrative, factual – but always relies on information to do it. Watching the film takes on a “just one more minute” feel. I intended to break it into two chunks when I saw it, but I just kept watching. One more minute. One more minute. I couldn’t take my eyes off. I had to know where Chai went next, what she uncovered next, what quote would get an official into trouble next.

There are artistic moments – a cute superhero cartoon illustrating how carcinogens in the air fight off our body’s immune system, an overwhelming photo collage that combines dozens of photographers taking pictures of dozens of cities’ smoggy skies every day for a year.

There are brave investigative moments – going undercover to record the pollution at an illegal steel plant, or setting up a road block to test illegally made trucks.

There are pointed yet fairly handled interviews in which Chai deftly corners officials with the sheer amount of research she’s done. This is a tremendously informative, artful, and skillfully made movie.

Under the Dome is freely watchable on YouTube. It is a staggering documentary achievement. I know the sun’s out this week. Much of the U.S. is enjoying its first glimpse of Spring after a bitterly tough Winter. But watch this film. Find the time.  At once, in chunks, I don’t care. Find a way. It might be the best film you’ll see this year. The YouTube video posted in the middle of this article – that’s the whole film. It’s free, it’s needed, it’s important.

Some films are undeniable. Under the Dome is already having an impact, sending ripples throughout China. All because one woman decided to be a good reporter in a world where that’s undervalued.