[Editor's Note: the post below appears today on the front page of The Huffington Post.]
By Jason Apuzzo & Govindini Murty. Steven Spielberg’s Falling Skies has unexpectedly become one of the best sci-fi TV shows in years – a dark, gritty and emotional look at an American society struggling to survive after an apocalyptic alien invasion.
The show’s third season debuts on TNT this Sunday, June 9th on Father’s Day, which is appropriate, given the show’s focus on fathers and their responsibility toward their children. The series has already been a ratings bonanza for TNT – Falling Skies was last summer’s top-rated drama on basic cable – and having seen the first five episodes of the upcoming season, we can tell you that Season 3 looks to be an even bigger hit.
So why would the success of Falling Skies be unexpected, especially given the involvement of executive producer Steven Spielberg and series creator Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan)? Possibly because when the show first debuted in the summer of 2011 – the long, hot sci-fi summer that gave us Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Super 8 and Cowboys & Aliens – the idea of another movie or TV show about alien invasion seemed redundant.
And after getting their tails (or robot parts) kicked on-screen in recent years by Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise and the U.S. military, you’d think aliens would know better than to invade by now, anyway.
Starring Noah Wyle and Moon Bloodgood, Falling Skies (Season 2 of which arrived this week on Blu-ray) has carved out its own niche, however, largely by doing basic things well – telling a classic American story of the fight for freedom, and of families struggling to stay together in wartime. And with its populist vibe and focus on civic duty, Falling Skies is also the sci-fi show for audiences who don’t usually watch sci-fi. Indeed, the series often feels inspired as much by American Westerns as by science fiction.
And, of course, there’s always the magic touch of Steven Spielberg.
“Steven Spielberg is the master of science fiction, and of drama,” Noah Wyle told us recently at Zoic Studios in Culver City, where Falling Skies‘ visual effects were being completed. Series showrunner and writer Remi Aubuchon agreed: “Steven actually is very involved in our show … he certainly reads all the scripts and watches all the dailies, and he’s intricately involved in the design of the creatures and the cool things.”
Season 3 of Falling Skies picks up where the previous two seasons left off, with former history professor Tom Mason (Wyle) and his extended family trying to pick up the pieces of civil society in the wake of a devastating alien attack. Like some grizzled, bearded patriarch out of the old West – and now serving as the acting President of the United States – Mason tries to hold it all together, as his provisional government in South Carolina forges a dubious alliance with a new alien species encountered at the end of last season.
On the home front, Mason also welcomes an unusual new daughter into the world, born to Dr. Anne Glass (Moon Bloodgood), his longtime lover and the show’s emotional center. Meanwhile, Mason’s son Hal (Drew Roy) struggles to keep himself from being used by enemy aliens as a spy, all while juggling the two edgy blondes in his life (Sarah Sanguin Carter and Jessy Schram) – one of whom just happens to be the enemy aliens’ new commander.
Such is family life in Falling Skies.
LFM’s Jason Apuzzo & Govindini Murty at The Huffington Post: Voices Raised in Resistance: Powerful Defiant Requiem Premieres on PBS Sunday, April 7
[Editor's Note: the post below appears today on the front page of The Huffington Post.]
By Jason Apuzzo & Govindini Murty. If a hallmark of great art is its ability to transcend the limited circumstances of its creation, then there is no more heartbreaking realization of this than the 1944 performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Catholic Requiem by Jewish prisoners at the Nazi concentration camp Terezín. The story of Terezín and of the Requiem is told eloquently in director Doug Shultz’s powerful new documentary Defiant Requiem, which premieres this Sunday, April 7, on PBS at 10 p.m. ET/PT (check listings for additional screenings on local PBS stations).
It was at Terezín in 1944 that imprisoned Czech conductor Rafael Schächter led a chorus of his fellow Jewish prisoners — most of them doomed to the gas chambers at Auschwitz — in brazenly performing Verdi’s Requiem before the very Nazis who had condemned them to death. One of the most complex and demanding of chorale works, Verdi’s 1874 Requiem was originally intended as a musical rendition of the Catholic funeral mass. Rafael Schächter took Verdi’s music and transformed it into a universal statement, one proclaiming the prisoners’ unbroken spirit and warning of God’s coming wrath against their Nazi captors.
Defiant Requiem tells two parallel stories: the first takes place during World War II, when Jews throughout Europe were rounded up by the Nazis and sent to Terezín as part of an elaborate deception to convince the world that Germany treated its prisoners humanely. Among those arrested and dragged to Terezín in 1941 was the young Rafael Schächter, a courageous and steadfast Czech opera-choral conductor.
Distinguished American conductor Murry Sidlin, who discovered the history of Schächter and the Terezín performers in the ’90s, and who went on to found and conduct the Defiant Requiem concerts, notes in the film that “Schächter would have emerged as a great conductor” had his life not been cut short by the Nazis.
Within the confines of Terezín, Schächter lifted the spirits of his fellow inmates by creating a musical program for them to perform — a program that inspired an astonishing outburst of cultural activity, which would eventually include almost a thousand different performances of chamber music and operas, oratorios and jazz music, theatrical plays, and some 2,300 different lectures and literary readings. Included in this were 16 performances of Verdi’s emotional and musically challenging Requiem. As Terezín survivor Zdenka Fantlova explains in the film: “Doing a performance was not entertainment. It was a fight for life.” She later adds, “If people are robbed of freedom, they want to be creative.”
This flurry of activity within the walls of the prison camp — achieved under the most trying possible circumstances of starvation, disease, and abject cruelty — would culminate in a performance on June 23, 1944, of the Requiem in front of the camp’s Nazi brass, visiting high-ranking SS officers from Berlin, and gullible Red Cross inspectors brought in to verify that the prisoners were being well treated.
It was at this point that Verdi’s Requiem, with its dark, apocalyptic Dies Irae (“Day of Wrath”) choral passage — evoking the Last Judgement — and equally harrowing Libera me (“Deliver me”) passage took on connotations that Verdi could hardly have imagined. Serving as both a spiritual catharsis for the prisoners, and as a prophecy of the Nazis’ ultimate fate, the Requiem was immediately transformed by Schächter and his fellow prisoners into an anthem of divine supplication and retribution. Indeed, shortly after this final performance, both Schächter and most of his choir would be sent to Auschwitz.
Defiant Requiem’s second, parallel story takes place in 2006, as Murry Sidlin brings a full orchestra and the Catholic University of America’s chorale ensemble — along with surviving members of Schächter’s chorus — back to Terezin to perform the Requiem once more, this time in tribute. (Sidlin continues to conduct such tribute performances of the Requiem, with concerts scheduled for The Lincoln Center on April 29 and Prague’s St. Vitus Cathedral on June 6.)
The journey to Terezín is clearly a spiritual quest for Sidlin (who has since founded The Defiant Requiem Foundation), who views the modern performance of the Requiem at Terezín as the completion of something begun seventy years before. As Sidlin says at one point in the film: “I brought the Verdi here because I want to assure these people [Schächter and the deceased prisoners] that we’ve heard them.” Sidlin’s staging of the Requiem in the now unassuming confines of Terezín is powerful and gripping — and serves, one senses, as the perfect tribute to Schächter and his fellow performers.
Highlighting the role that individuals can play in keeping important cultural history alive, it was Sidlin’s discovery of the book Music at Terezín in the late ’90s, and his subsequent championing of the concert series, that has brought the otherwise forgotten history of Rafael Schächter and the Terezín Requiem performances back to life. It is a culmination both of Sidlin’s passion for music and of his own personal history; Sidlin’s grandmother and many of her closest relatives were murdered outside Riga, Latvia by Nazi SS assassination squads during World War II.
This June, Sidlin will be awarded the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Medal of Valor for his efforts to commemorate Rafael Schächter and the Terezín prisoners.
LFM’s Govindini Murty appeared on HuffPost Live today to talk about the issue of women filmmakers being left out of the Oscars, and also about women in the film industry, in general. The entire 25 minute segment is available above. Thanks to HuffPost Live for inviting her on.
Yesterday Govindini had a piece in The Atlantic on women filmmakers breaking into the mainstream film world through Sundance and independent film.
Posted on February 22nd, 2013 at 2:54pm.
[Editor's Note: the post below appears today at The Huffington Post.]
By Jason Apuzzo & Govindini Murty. Freedom must thrive for the arts to flourish. It’s therefore an encouraging sign that so many of 2012’s most acclaimed films – such as Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, Les Misérables, or Skyfall – should explore the centrality of freedom to our civilization. As we celebrate 2012 in film, it’s fitting that we honor movies that affirm the very liberty that makes our art, our traditions of free speech, and our democratic form of government possible.
Whether depicting historical figures like Abraham Lincoln, or pop-culture icons like James Bond and Katniss Everdeen, or contemporary dissidents like China’s Ai Weiwei and Russia’s Masha Drokova, the movies below illustrate how freedom only survives when brave individuals are willing to risk their lives fighting for it. These films also depict the virtues that accompany such bravery: a strong individual conscience and empathetic feelings of responsibility toward one’s fellow human beings.
Many of this year’s best pro-freedom films also portray the bravery of women. In a refreshing development, movies like Zero Dark Thirty, Barbara, The Hunger Games, and Putin’s Kiss all feature complex, independent women as their leads – while Skyfall, in the character of “M” (Judi Dench), features a strong woman in a pivotal leadership role. This is another way in which these movies powerfully affirm the democratic spirit.
Here then are our ten best pro-freedom films of 2012:
1. Zero Dark Thirty
A taut and intense account of the almost ten year hunt for Osama bin Laden, director Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty captures the emotional and ethical complexity of the War on Terror – while unfolding a vast, investigative mystery that takes audiences from secret CIA bases in Afghanistan, to the corridors of power in Washington D.C., to the urban mazes of Pakistan. Leading this historic manhunt is an indomitable young CIA analyst named Maya, played with steely resolve by Jessica Chastain, who for nearly a decade tracks down bin Laden’s courier on the way to locating the terrorist mastermind. Scrupulously non-partisan, Zero Dark Thirty gives primary credit for bin Laden’s demise not to any politician – but to sober career intelligence professionals as well as military personnel, a tragic number of whom gave their lives in pursuit of Al Qaeda’s leader. Telling their story with a refreshingly understated realism, Zero Dark Thirty honors these largely anonymous men and women who protect our freedom in an increasingly dangerous and chaotic world.
Germany’s official Oscar entry and winner of the Silver Bear for Best Director (Christian Petzold) at the 2012 Berlin Film Festival, Barbara is the most compelling depiction since The Lives of Others of day-to-day life in a modern surveillance state – in this case the communist East Germany of the early 1980s. Nina Hoss gives a complex, Oscar-worthy performance as a pediatric surgeon whose desire to leave East Germany puts her under the watchful eye of the Stasi (the secret police), and of a conflicted, would-be lover played by Ronald Zehrfeld. Austere and suspenseful, Barbara is one Germany’s best dramas since the 1970s, and an indictment of any society in which allegiance to a political system overwhelms common humanity.
Director Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln brings the story of The Great Emancipator to life in a way that is both respectful of our 16th President’s achievements and alive to his humanity. In perhaps the richest depiction of Abraham Lincoln since Henry Fonda’s in John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Daniel Day-Lewis brings warmth, interiority and conviction to a man charged with the weightiest responsibilities in American history – as both slavery and the fate of the Union hang in the balance. Lincoln also highlights the value of eloquence in free societies; in recounting the sometimes baroque political backstory behind passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, Spielberg suggests that it was Lincoln’s poetic oratory as much as any other factor that ended slavery in America for good.
4. The Other Dream Team
One of the best sports documentaries in recent years, and a highlight of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, director Marius A. Markevičius’ The Other Dream Team tells the emotional story of the 1992 Lithuanian Olympic basketball team – a symbol of freedom and Lithuanian national pride after decades of Soviet rule. The film tells the improbable tale of how Lithuanian basketball talents like future NBA stars Arvydas Sabonis and Šarūnas Marčiulionis came to dominate Soviet basketball in the 1980s (even defeating Team USA in the 1988 Olympics) – only to face off against Russia in the ‘92 Barcelona Games, wearing tie dyed uniforms provided by The Grateful Dead (!), after Lithuania had just won its hard-fought independence. A moving and uplifting piece of Cold War history, The Other Dream Team is as much a tribute to the courage of the Lithuanian people in the face of communist tyranny as it is to the inspirational power of sports.
One of the best James Bond thrillers since the 1970s, director Sam Mendes’ Skyfall reinvents 007 as a hero for the War on Terror era – and thoughtfully affirms the value of our intelligence agencies in the post-9/11 world. In Skyfall, information pertaining to NATO penetration of worldwide Islamic terror cells has been stolen in Istanbul, and Bond must retrieve the data before Western agents are exposed and killed – the opening act of an elaborate revenge plot orchestrated by the sociopathic Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem). In a film rife with references to Winston Churchill and his legacy, Bond and his colleagues are depicted as reflexively selfless in the cause of freedom – and Dame Judi Dench’s quotation of Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses,” as both she and Britain come under attack, packs an unusually stirring punch for a Bond film.
[Editor's note: the post below appears today on the front page of The Huffington Post.]
By Govindini Murty. As we celebrate the holidays, many of us are taking digital photos and videos of our loved ones, thinking that these digital files will be saved forever. The same thinking applies to our movies, books, songs, and stories – we save all of our creative works to the digital cloud, assuming they will be safely stored there. But between continual tech upgrades that make our digital files obsolete, and UN agencies that now seek to censor the internet, the question must be asked: are any of our cultural memories really safe in the digital age?
Recent developments are making it clear that control of digital information, and in particular of online artistic content, is the new front in the twenty-first century war of ideas. The UN’s International Telecommunications Union recently voted to allow individual nations to censor the free flow of the internet. This move was welcomed by authoritarian governments like China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Russia – and condemned by democracies like the U.S., the U.K., Canada, and Australia.
Combine this alarming development with the fact that many people now store their photos, videos, writing, and other creative works in online clouds, without ever creating hard copies or backing up their data – and the result is the potentially explosive ability of authoritarian forces to erase vast areas of our cultural memory at the push of a button. Without physical copies, no longer does a dictator have to go to the trouble of staging public burnings of art and books, as in 1930s Nazi Germany or 15th century Florence under Savonarola.
The freedom of the individual artist to speak out is more important now than ever, as today’s authoritarian nations seek to silence artists at every opportunity. Russia’s jailing of the women’s punk rock group Pussy Riot, China’s jailing of dissident artist Ai Weiwei, and Iran’s jailing of filmmaker Jafar Panahi are all examples of modern autocracies crushing citizens’ rights to creative expression. Apparently nothing is more threatening to today’s political fanatics than a free, creative individual.
And now the UN is going to give these authoritarian nations official sanction to censor the online work of artists, filmmakers, writers, and creative thinkers. This is a worldwide cultural catastrophe in the making.
Yet this isn’t the only danger that faces the preservation of our cultural memories; a new form of techno-utopianism poses a serious challenge to the preservation of our creative works. The problem in technologically advanced cultures like America is that we sometimes value technology for its own sake more than we do content. We equate advanced technology with greater value, so we rush to upgrade software, devices and formats without making any corresponding effort to ensure that prior digital files and formats can still be used.
Obviously it’s important that we progress technologically. As a filmmaker I embrace digital filmmaking tools for their ability to democratize the movies, and as a writer I wouldn’t even be writing this post if it weren’t for the freedom of speech enabled by the internet. But as the digital revolution matures, we must give thought to how we manage and protect the enormous new quantity of digitally-created works.
This holiday season we’re celebrating blockbuster movies like Les Misérables and The Hobbit, but the irony is that these films are based on classic novels by Victor Hugo and J.R.R. Tolkien that were written in the pre-digital age – and are still around today because they’ve been widely distributed in paper hard copies. But what about fresh artistic and literary works created today? Where will they be fifty or a hundred years from now if they only exist in digital form? Even if they are classics, who will have the chance to adapt them into tomorrow’s movies or other, future forms of storytelling if they are erased within a few years by government censors – or are unreadable because tech companies have upgraded tablets/e-readers to the point that they can’t read prior digital books?
[Editor's note: the post below appears today at The Huffington Post.]
By Jason Apuzzo. It’s by far the biggest, best and most surprising entertainment news of 2012, yet still no one knows quite what to make of it: starting in 2015 we’re getting a new Star Wars trilogy, beginning with Episode VII, supervised by George Lucas and produced by Disney.
As Darth Vader might say, there’s “a tremor in the Force.” The question is: what will this new Star Wars look like, now that we don’t have Emperor Palpatine to kick around any more?
There’s certainly been nothing like this news in Hollywood in years, with rumors swirling around about the new Star Wars films almost on a daily basis. What will the new storyline be? Who will direct the films? Will Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher or Harrison Ford make a cameo? Did Boba Fett survive the Sarlacc Pit?
And will SPECTRE or the Miami Heat be the new villains?
It seems incredible that overnight Star Wars has managed to reinvent itself – again – and become the biggest, most talked-about sci-fi franchise around. (Imagine what James Cameron must be thinking right now.) The question on everyone’s mind, though, is what exactly a new Star Wars trilogy will look like with limited involvement from George Lucas, the original cast having hit retirement age, many crucial characters gone, and having to pick up where 1983’s Return of the Jedi left off – i.e., with Ewoks playing victorious drum solos on Stormtrooper helmets.
In other words, what is the ‘essence’ of a Star Wars film now that the series can’t lean on standbys like Yoda or Obi-Wan Kenobi or exploding Death Stars anymore?
For clues to this mystery, it’s best to go back to the 1970s, the fabulous era – at least, for science fiction fans – when Star Wars was born.
Although the 1950s are justifiably regarded as science fiction’s Golden Age, the era of the 1970s easily rates a close second. It was the period when science fiction finally replaced the Western as the great American movie genre.
To be fair, what we’re calling ‘the ’70s’ here probably began around 1968 with the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes, and didn’t end till around 1984, with the release of The Terminator. So maybe we should call this sci-fi’s ‘modern’ era – or simply ‘the Star Wars era.’ Science fiction had a distinctive flavor during this period – it was darker, more realistic, and also more emotional – and Star Wars set the tone for the time.
It was also during this era that science fiction became more popular than ever – more popular even than comic book movies are today – dominating both the box office and prime time television.
Of the top 15 highest grossing movies of all time adjusted for inflation, four are sci-fi films from this period: the original Star Wars trilogy, plus Steven Spielberg’s E.T. A host of other films from this time – Alien, Blade Runner, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, just to name a few – are similarly regarded as classics. Plus, television series like The Six Million Dollar Man (and its spin-off, The Bionic Woman), Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century were huge hits – with the Galactica franchise still around with us today.
So how did they do it back then? What made sci-fi of this period so wildly popular?
The key thing to understand about ’70s or Star Wars-era sci-fi was how it revised and updated a genre that had gotten old and slightly creaky (think Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea). It did so in three major ways:
1) Science fiction became more realistic.
The big leap forward in sci-fi ‘realism’ came in 1968 with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which Kubrick made after consulting with scientists and engineers at NASA and MIT, and after devising new visual effects techniques like front projection. After 2001, which played out like a Cinerama documentary shot in space, sci-fi films couldn’t afford to look anymore like they were shot in your parents’ garage (even if they were).
[Editor's Note: the post below appears today on the front page of The Huffington Post and AOL-Moviefone. I had the opportunity to see Skyfall at a screening of the recent AFI Festival in Hollywood, and wish to thank the AFI Festival for making that possible.]
By Jason Apuzzo. How does James Bond do it? He barely seems to have aged a day. The famously overworked British Secret Service agent, drinker of vodka martinis, and seducer of dangerous women (why are Bond’s girlfriends always pointing guns at him?) is now 50 years old in the movies — yet it hardly shows.
With Skyfall, the latest 007 thriller opening this weekend, it’s now been five decades since the Bond character debuted on screen in 1962’s Dr. No. Since that memorable first film, in which Sean Connery saved the world from a megalomaniac with metal hands — while rescuing Ursula Andress from the confines of a white bikini — James Bond has saved the world from nuclear bombs and space lasers, cheated death using jet packs and exploding cigarettes — and even found time to romance women with names like ‘Plenty O’Toole’ and ‘Xenia Onatopp.’
It’s been a busy, full life for the world’s most famous secret agent — which begs the question of why, as currently embodied by Daniel Craig in the latest film, the character suddenly seems so fresh and relevant to the world of today.
The question arises because the James Bond of Skyfall no longer seems like an exhausted relic from another era, as he often did during the ’90s and early 2000s. Instead, he now feels like a character who has been fully and (for the most part) successfully reinvented as a merciless, sardonic and lethal warrior for our age of terror.
And although Skyfall isn’t quite the classic some critics are making it out to be, it’s easily one of the best Bond films since the 1970s.
On this point, I must confess to having given up on Bond long ago. Until recently 007 was looking like a tired hero — a guy in a middle-age crisis, a character to put in the next Expendables. M needed to send Bond into retirement — maybe ship him off with a fifth of vodka and a Russian mistress (I recommend Anya Amasova, aka Agent XXX from The Spy Who Loved Me) to James Bond Island off the coast of Thailand. Even SPECTRE would probably leave him alone.
After all, with the Cold War long over (despite Vladimir Putin’s best efforts), Great Britain no longer the force it once was, and with women less eager to play characters named ‘Kissy Suzuki’ or ‘Dr. Molly Warmflash,’ you’d think 007 would be quietly boxed away in the attic by now along with vinyl records and your parents’ fondue pot.
Casino Royale in 2006 seemed to change all that, but director Sam Mendes’ Skyfall really confirms it; Bond now absolutely works as a hero for the 21st century. The question is: why?
There are three reasons, in my opinion:
1) Bond has been fully reinvented for the War on Terror era.
This process began in Casino Royale, but Skyfall digs much deeper into the purpose and mentality of our intelligence agencies in the post-9/11 world — and strongly reaffirms their value. Without giving away too much of Skyfall’s plot, suffice it to say that the entire purpose of the film is to re-invent the James Bond mythology to fit the current war, which as Judi Dench’s M memorably states is fought primarily “in the shadows” — with our enemies less likely to be nation states with massed armies than shadowy, sociopathic operators working within hidden networks.
And it’s precisely in this environment that Bond thrives.
As Skyfall opens, information pertaining to NATO penetration of worldwide Islamic terror cells has been stolen in Istanbul, and Bond has to get the data back before Western agents are exposed and killed. As the story unfolds, Bond’s value as an experienced field agent — able to make human judgments in murky situations and act, where technology alone is inadequate — is constantly reinforced, even when his physical and emotional resources are depleted.
Bond and his colleagues are also depicted as patriotic and reflexively selfless, to the point of being subtly associated with Winston Churchill and his legacy. (Look for references to Churchill’s wartime bunker along with visual cues of a vintage British bulldog.) In the midst of this, the tone of the film is more sober — and befitting of wartime — than what we’ve seen from the Bond series in a long time.
LFM’s Govindini Murty & Jason Apuzzo at The Huffington Post: A Conversation With Fashion Icon Ozwald Boateng on Style, Africa, and His New Film A Man’s Story
[Editor's Note: the article below appears today at The Huffington Post.]
By Govindini Murty & Jason Apuzzo. During his meteoric career, Ozwald Boateng’s been called the coolest man on Earth, and the fashion world’s best-kept secret. Yet the candid new documentary A Man’s Story, opening this weekend in New York and Los Angeles, makes certain that the British fashion designer and style icon no longer remains a secret.
In a career already spanning two decades, the 45 year-old Boateng has outfitted celebrities from Will Smith to Russell Crowe, from Jamie Foxx to Mick Jagger. At age 28, he became the youngest tailor – and the first of African descent – to open a store on London’s legendary Savile Row. Boateng’s also designed menswear for Givenchy and bespoke costumes for films like The Matrix and Ocean’s Thirteen, and he’s even been the subject of his own Sundance Channel TV series, House of Boateng. He’s also the recipient of an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for his contributions to the clothing industry.
Throughout all this, however, Boateng’s private side – such as his quiet struggles in the rarified world of British fashion, or his efforts to foster entrepreneurial investment in Africa – have taken a back seat in public to his style innovations.
Director Varon Bonicos’ new documentary, A Man’s Story – for which Bonicos filmed Boateng from 1998 through 2010 – reveals much about Boateng’s personal life: from the challenges of growing up as a young man of African descent in London of the ’70s and ’80s, to the abiding influence of his father on his life and career. The result is a warm and often poignant film that humanizes Boateng, while doing full justice to the glamorous place he occupies in the world of men’s fashion.
We spoke with Ozwald Boateng and Varon Bonicos in Los Angeles, where they are promoting A Man’s Story. The interview has been edited for length.
GM: What is your passion for film – and in particular, how are you inspired by the intersection of film and fashion?
OB: Film has always been a really good tool for me to communicate emotion about why I create a collection. I’m probably one of the first designers to make short films. The first time I did it was back in 1994. The invite for my first fashion show was a VHS cassette. And it kind of became part of the language of my designing collections – I was always putting together short films.
Apart from that, I think fashion designers are directors anyway. We spend a year designing a collection for a fashion show that lasts maybe fifteen minutes. We have to design the look of the catwalk, cast the model for each look, work up the sound, the lighting – it’s a lot of work that goes into that fifteen minutes.
JA: Film has been so important in terms of influencing men’s style, men’s self-perceptions. I was curious whether there were film icons, movie stars who have influenced your sense of style?
OB: Sean Connery, of course, since I was a kid – you know, James Bond. Or The Thomas Crown Affair – you can’t beat those three piece suits. The Italian Job with Michael Caine – again the suits. If you’re a designer, there’s got to be some films that you’ve seen that have inspired you creatively. There’s no escaping that. Film is such a very good tool for communicating emotions, and all designers and creative people look to inspire an emotional response.
JA: You mention Connery and Bond, and he was so crucial in selling the Savile Row style here in the States.
JA: You yourself have become an icon on behalf of that style. Was that something you planned from the outset as a designer – to be so out front selling the look yourself?
OB: No, actually, I tried to stay out of it. In the early years, it was because I was a very young guy working in a very old discipline – so really, that’s tough to begin with. And then I was trying to do it in a very modern way – so again, that’s tough. Add me, visually, into the mix of all that, and that just complicates things. So for the first few years, I didn’t let anyone take any pictures of me. Basically, a lot of people had no idea what I looked like. And because my name did not necessarily sound African, a lot of people … just thought I was some kind of middle aged white guy [laughs]. So no-one actually knew what I looked like, and that was the best thing – because it allowed everyone to focus on the work.
[Editor's Note: the post below appears today on the front page of The Huffington Post.]
By Govindini Murty. They’re among the most iconic faces of the second half of the twentieth century. Isabella Rossellini, Beverly Johnson, Paulina Porizkova, and their supermodel sorority helped to shape public perceptions of beauty and womanhood at a time of rapid expansion in the mass media. Their faces graced thousands of magazine covers and they were role models to millions of young women.
But was the rise of the supermodel a sign of female empowerment, or of female objectification?
About Face: Supermodels Then and Now, an insightful new documentary by director and photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders available on HBO on-demand through September 3 and HBO Go through 2013, interviews sixteen of these supermodels about the true nature of beauty in an age of consumerism and mass media.
As alluded to in About Face, the irony that underlies the modeling profession is that it should lead to both the empowerment and objectification of women. On the one hand, the mass distribution of images of female models through fashion magazines, ads, and other media in the past century has led to women becoming quite literally more visible in today’s world – with that visibility being an affirmation of their femininity and right to exist as women in the public sphere. In contrast to this, from the Puritans to the Taliban, misogynistic societies through history have restricted sensual or beautiful images of women as a prelude to denying their basic right to participate in public life, citing women’s beauty as a “corrupting” influence on social morality. The predominance of beautiful images of women in Western culture has thus affirmed the broader right of women to exist in public as feminine and not as neutered beings.
On the other hand, modeling has also had the effect of objectifying women by focusing on external surfaces, and at times unnatural standards of beauty. In About Face, Isabella Rossellini asks of the pressure for women to undergo plastic surgery: “Is this the new foot-binding? It’s misogyny to say that older women are unattractive.” Objectification can also lead to racism by dehumanizing people and imposing narrow standards of ‘beauty’ or ‘normalcy.’ Model and agent Bethann Hardison describes in About Face trying to book African-American models for runway shows in the ’70s and ’80s, only to be told by the casting agents that such models weren’t their “aesthetic.” As Hardison explains “‘Aesthetic’ is borderline for racist.”
I spoke with director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders about some of these issues at the LA Film Festival’s screening of About Face. The interview has been edited for length.
GM: What drew you to these ladies? I know you met them initially at a party in New York, but what did you find so magical about them?
TGS: I think when I met them at that party … I immediately got a sense of how smart they were. You know, the cliché is that you either have brains or beauty, but you don’t have both. Well, they seemed to have both. It really makes it an interesting film. And I thought that people weren’t aware of that. I have two young daughters who knew who they were. But many young people today who are so interested in fashion, they don’t know the history of it and of these iconic women.
GM: What has changed about modeling? You mentioned in the screening that these models were so unique, whereas today the models and their careers seem more transient. Why is there this disparity today versus back then?
TGS: I think that it was a smaller world then. I think there was a warmer relationship between the models and the designers and even the businesspeople involved. It was not so cut-throat and not so corporate. And I think today it’s just big business and big money, and I don’t think the human relationship is there as much. I think it’s very changed.
GM: Do you think a big part of that is the issue of covers – that the actresses are taking over magazine covers?
GM: It’s such a striking change. What has that done to the morale of the models? Does it make a big difference behind the scenes?
TGS: I’m not sure I can answer that because it’s not my world, exactly. But I know certainly it was huge in those days to have covers, because covers were the definition of success. And the cover of Vogue was the ultimate success. So when Beverly Johnson got on the cover of Vogue – the first black woman to do so [in August, 1974], that was a big deal. And today – that doesn’t happen for models.
GM: I thought it was very interesting what Dayle Haddon said that it wasn’t just that she thought she was the prettiest – in fact she didn’t quite fit into the physical type that was popular at the time, but that she brought something else to the picture.
TGS: She brought something else. And Dayle Haddon had to struggle because she wasn’t the look of the moment. She was a very smart woman and she figured out a way to add something more to the picture.
GM: Do you think the reason that those models from that era were so powerful – we’re talking the ’70s and ’80s, was because they were often muses for the designers they were working with?
TGS: Yes, exactly.
GM: I think of Yves St. Laurent and models like Khadija Adams, or even Catherine Deneuve in the ’60s who was dressed by St. Laurent for Belle de Jour. I think of Calvin Klein and Brooke Shields, they were so intimately tied together.
LFM’s Jason Apuzzo & Govindini Murty at The Huffington Post and AOL-Moviefone: Basketball Diplomacy: An American Point Guard Becomes a Symbol of Freedom in The Iran Job
By Jason Apuzzo & Govindini Murty. NBA fans know that two-time MVP point guard Steve Nash recently joined the Los Angeles Lakers. Fans are buzzing, because the addition of Nash could soon result in a return to championship glory for the league’s most glamorous franchise. As big as Nash’s impact on the Lakers might be, however, it can’t possibly match the impact that flashy point guard Kevin Sheppard — the former Jacksonville University star and Virgin Islands native — had in 2008 on A.S. Shiraz, a professional basketball team in Iran’s Super League.
The reasons for this go beyond sports, however, because over the course of one gripping and emotional season — a season documented by director Till Schauder and producer Sara Nodjoumi in their extraordinary new documentary, The Iran Job — Sheppard becomes one of Iran’s most popular athletes, and brings a ray of hope into an increasingly repressive and isolated society.
The Iran Job screened last week in Washington, D.C., and had its world premiere recently at the Los Angeles Film Festival, where we had the chance to talk to the film’s creators.
As depicted in the film, Kevin Sheppard’s Iranian odyssey begins in the fall of 2008, when he’s offered a spot on A.S. Shiraz’s roster. Having already played professional basketball in South America, Europe, China and Israel, the voluble Sheppard is unfazed by the prospect of playing overseas — but is understandably nervous as an American traveling to Iran. Coming in the midst of a 2008 election in which Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain all had sharp words for Iran and its nuclear program, Sheppard nonetheless decides to take the plunge out of a spirit of professionalism.
It was a decision that would change his life, as well as the lives of everyday Iranians — and in particular, those of three young Iranian women.
One of the most compelling aspects of The Iran Job is the way it captures the casual details of life in today’s Iran — a closed society that clearly harbors some unusual stereotypes about the outside world. So for example, the moment Sheppard arrives in Iran and meets up with his Serbian roommate (the team’s 7-foot center, and the only other non-Iranian allowed on the squad), Sheppard learns that his cable TV has been custom-provided with hundreds of pornographic channels — the assumption being that because he is an American, he must be sex-obsessed. The irony that such programming is even available in a “strict” Islamic society, of course, is not lost on Sheppard — who can’t help but laugh at Iranian officialdom’s awkward notions of diplomatic courtesy.
Such ticklish moments aside, however, Sheppard immediately begins bonding with average Iranians. A natural show-off with a wicked sense of humor, Sheppard dazzles everyone around him — even when they barely speak English, and are only able to respond to his warm smile and playfulness. The camera follows him early on as he goes out to grab dinner, and we see regular Iranians high-fiving him and snapping pictures with him before he’s even picked up a basketball. His enthusiasm and dynamic personality ignite smiles everywhere.
We asked Sheppard about the rock-star treatment he received from average Iranians:
“The funny thing about it is, once I got over there — people really love America. The government would say, ‘Down with America.’ They have all kinds of signs — ‘America is the Devil,’ ‘Down with the U.S.A.’ — but once you get to the people, they love American culture, they know everything about America, they love all the American sports. So it was a little bit ironic and crazy for me at first. I was like, how can you have all these signs around? But yet, when you speak to the people it’s totally different. So I know it [hostility toward America] was not coming from the mass of the people in general. This was all pushed upon them by the government.”
As The Iran Job proceeds, however, Sheppard’s innate enthusiasm is challenged by his lackluster basketball team, A.S. Shiraz a new and untested squad in Iran’s Super League, and a team sorely lacking in the kind of talent or winning attitude to which Sheppard is accustomed. Viewers basically get the sense that Sheppard has just joined The Bad News Bears of Iranian basketball, and his first task will be to shake up the underwhelming squad.
It’s worth noting here that The Iran Job follows the usual parameters of sports documentaries in depicting how one inspirational player can turn the fortunes of a franchise around by getting his teammates to believe they can win. That’s precisely what Sheppard does, due in part to his on-court heroics (we watch him win several games with buzzer-beating shots), but mostly due to his cocky swagger and high standards. The intense, demanding point guard simply hates to lose — and refuses to let his teammates ever be comfortable accepting defeat.
[Editor's Note: the post below appears today at The Huffington Post.]
By Govindini Murty. Egypt’s government announced on Sunday that an Islamist has won Egypt’s first competitive presidential election. The superb new documentary Words of Witness, screening at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York through June 26th, sheds much needed light on how Egyptians got to this point. Directed by Mai Iskander, the film depicts the complex reality of an Egypt in which long-suffering citizens genuinely desire democracy, but must deal with the less than ideal reality of having to vote either for the Muslim Brotherhood or for remnants of the former Mubarak regime – with the military looming over any choice they might make.
Against this backdrop, Words of Witness makes the smart decision to focus its story on a young Egyptian woman, journalist Heba Afify. The documentary follows the 22 year-old Afify, a reporter for the English-language newspaper Egypt Independent, as she covers Egypt’s transition to democracy – from the heady days of the revolution in early 2011, through Egypt’s chaotic year and a half under military rule, to the recent months of buildup to Egypt’s first free presidential election. Completed in just the last few weeks, Words of Witness has a remarkable timeliness and immediacy in depicting the contending forces that are challenging Egypt’s journey to democracy.
Like her fellow citizens, Heba Afify finds herself torn between tradition and progress. Her traditional Muslim family worries about her career and her safety, while Afify’s chief concern is reporting the truth of the Egyptian revolution so that she may contribute to her nation’s democratic future.
As Afify poignantly says: “I can’t abide by the rules of being an Egyptian girl if I want to be a good reporter.” And if she can’t be a good reporter, the implication is that she can’t help her country, as a free press and democratic liberty go hand in hand. Afify adds, “It’s hard to live under a dictatorship – if you say the wrong thing, they will knock on your door and take you away forever.”
The film documents the remarkable degree to which Afify and other young Egyptians like her are willing to buck authority in order to bring about freedom and progress. It is her faith in these ideals that leads Afify to volunteer to cover the most dangerous demonstrations, despite the fears of her family. Afify’s conviction and her willingness to put her ideals on the line are what ultimately make her such a compelling protagonist.
In one extraordinary scene, Afify hears that there is a protest taking place outside the State Security headquarters. This is the home of the hated secret police who have been arresting (and reportedly torturing) thousands of pro-democracy activists. Even though it is nighttime, and reports indicate that the situation is dangerous, Afify doesn’t hesitate to join the demonstration. What follows is shocking footage, shot by Afify herself, in which the demure young woman dives right into the crowd of protesters in the dark – joining them as they break into the building. They’re hoping to free political prisoners, but as they turn on the lights in the building, they discover something even more surprising: boxes of surveillance files kept by the secret police on government employees, media, public figures, and countless ordinary Egyptians. A colleague of hers hands Afify boxes of files, saying “This happens only once in history, Heba.” Afify shakes her head at the magnitude of the surveillance, commenting: “The number of files is unbelievable.”
As Afify later examines the files in her office, she finds a transcript of an actress’ phone call; Afify wonders why the state police felt the need to write down every word of this woman’s personal phone conversation. As the film suggests, such an abuse of authority engenders a moral corrosion that is an important reason why authoritarian societies have such trouble adapting to freedom. It can take generations to overcome the cynicism, paranoia, and bad faith created by a system in which the government spends more time repressing its own people than in serving them.
Another important point made in the film is the need for religious tolerance. Afify shows concern when the unity between Muslims and Christians – that had largely prevailed in the early days of the revolution – breaks down in the wake of attacks on Christians. When a church is burned down in the village of Atfeeh, leading to riots in Cairo, Afify goes to the village herself to find out what has happened. When she gets to the village, she finds a curious scene – the kind of scene that often doesn’t make it into the Western media. A local Muslim leader addresses a large group of villagers, telling them that they should show support for their Christian brothers and work to have the church rebuilt. However, a large army presence watches the scene, and Afify is prevented from visiting the site of the church. Indeed, no-one is allowed to go near the church site, and the rumor ripples through the crowd that it is the State Security apparatus itself that burned the church down in order to inflame religious tensions in Egypt and justify the old regime hanging on to power.
LFM’s Govindini Murty at The Huffington Post and AOL-Moviefone: “We’ve All Been Brainwashed”: China’s Dissident Bloggers Speak Out in High Tech, Low Life
By Govindini Murty. Even as Chinese dissidents like Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo and artist Ai Weiwei suffer physical imprisonment, hundreds of millions of their fellow Chinese citizens are suffering a form of mental imprisonment thanks to their nation’s system of internet censorship. For example, the Chinese government recently blocked on-line searches for words relating to the 23rd anniversary of the June 4th, 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, censoring the terms “Tiananmen square,” “June 4th,” the number twenty-three, the words “never forget,” and even images of candles. The award-winning documentary High Tech, Low Life, currently screening at film festivals in the U.S., UK, and Australia, profiles two dissident Chinese bloggers who are working to challenge this Orwellian system.
Directed by Stephen Maing, High Tech, Low Life was in part funded by a Kickstarter campaign publicized on The Huffington Post and was an official selection of the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival. High Tech, Low Life documents the work of 57-year old blogger Zhang Shihe (known as “Tiger Temple”) and 27-year old Zhou Shuguang (known as “Zola”), two of China’s best-known “citizen reporters.” Even as the Chinese government uses internet technology to stifle dissent, these brave bloggers find creative ways to circumvent “The Great Firewall of China” and publish the truth about human rights abuses to the world. Along the way, Tiger and Zola suffer official harassment, familial disapproval, eviction, and arrest.
Blogger Zola describes in the film the vast apparatus of internet censorship that exists in China:
“There are 440 million netizens in China, 40,000 internal police monitor them, and 500,000 websites are blocked in China.” [Despite this,] “if an incident happens anywhere, netizens and citizen journalists will flock to the scene from all over the country. The censors might stop some of us, but they can’t stop all of us.”
Tiger Temple expands on the morally corrosive effect of the government’s censorship: “We’ve all been brainwashed. We’ve been listening to lies for too many years.” Although material prosperity may have improved in China, Tiger argues that life today is as bad as it was under Mao’s dictatorship. As Tiger puts it, the Chinese people are “complacent because they feel powerless.”
Tiger Temple and Zola could not be more different in style. The older, more experienced Tiger is a writer and former publisher living in Beijing who becomes closely involved in his subjects’ lives, bringing them food, money, and legal help. Tiger’s father was a high official in the Communist Party, but the family was persecuted by Mao during the Cultural Revolution in the ’60s. Tiger recalls how he and his family were beaten, evicted from their home, and exiled to the countryside. It was then, as a 13-year old, that Tiger says he started “roaming the country.”
Tiger’s entry into blogging was almost accidental. Returning home one day from viewing an exhibition of Monet paintings in Beijing, he saw a woman being stabbed to death on the street by a man as bystanders watched. Horrified but unable to prevent the murder, Tiger grabbed his camera and documented its aftermath instead. He notes that when the police showed up, they were angrier at him for taking the photos than at the murderer himself, because such scenes would normally be censored from the press. Tiger went on to publish the photos online and caused a sensation, becoming known as China’s first “citizen journalist.” Tiger adds that he calls himself a “citizen” and not a “citizen journalist” because that way the government can’t ban him.
Years later, Tiger makes lengthy journeys on bike through the countryside to report on the lives of the rural poor who have suffered in the rush to urbanization. He is even on occasion tailed by agents of the government. In one trip documented in the film, Tiger bicycles 4000 miles to Er Loa, a village devastated by the illegal flooding of toxic waste by the local government. The floods of waste have caused the farmers’ homes to collapse and have made farming impossible. Villagers tell Tiger that local officials have warned them that if they complain too much they will be arrested. Not only does Tiger take photos and video of the environmental devastation, he also brings the villagers flour and noodles to feed them and tells them he has forwarded their information to a university in Beijing where law students are working to file a legal complaint with the authorities. Tiger interests an NGO in their case, and the farmers are ultimately brought to Beijing to speak at the Civil Society Watch’s Environmental Protection Conference.