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last update 18.Jan.09
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The Betrayal
3.5/5   Nerakhoon
dir Ellen Kuras
scr Ellen Kuras, Thavisouk Phrasavath
with Thavisouk Phrasavath, Orady Phrasavath, Santi Phrasavath, Sethy Phrasavath, Phoummy Phrasavath, Khaysy Phrasavath, Savanhnaly Phrasavath, Bounnhang Phrasavath, Obma Phrasavath, Mok Senmany, Chaiphet Phrasavath, Keoduangchai Phrasavath
thavi and his mother
release US 21.Nov.08,
UK Oct.08 lff
08/US 1h36

betrayal Filmed over 23 years, this lyrical documentary not only tells of a remarkable journey for one family, but it also outlines the story of their war-torn home country in a way we've never seen on film.

Thavisouk is a young man who had his childhood fractured by war. Born in Laos during the conflict, his father was an American-trained operative while his mother raised 10 children. When the fighting ended, his father was arrested as an enemy of the state, and his mother fled the country with the eight children she could take. They eventually end up in New York, where the kids are completely infected with Western culture, much to their mother's horror.

The film's title refers not only to the father's betrayal of his family and home country, but also the government's betrayal of him, as well as the way the children have turned their backs on their culture. And it goes much further than that; as Kuras spends more than two decades with Thavisouk, she's able to reveal these people in all their complexity, flaws and all. This is a young man who grew up believing that "killing and dying were normal things", and events in his later life are twisty and perplexing.

The wide timeframe also lets Kuras fill in the story in remarkable ways, such as when their father makes a surprise return to their lives or when they can finally return to Laos to look for the two sisters left behind. All the way, the film benefits from Thavisouk's intimate involvement in the production (he's also credited as co-director). As it continues, it taps into universal themes about families, children, coping with the past, dealing with poverty and living with fragmented families.

It's also elegantly shot and edited, with a fascinating range of old photographs, home movies and newsreel footage. The narration by mother and son is introspective and often poetic, accompanied by Howard Shore's lamenting score. It's somewhat undisciplined as a documentary, trying to include too many details and dipping into overwrought emotions. But it's a seriously wrenching story, made all the more powerful by the scope of the storytelling.

12 themes, language, violent images
29.Oct.08 lff
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The End of America
dir Ricki Stern, Anne Sundberg;
scr Naomi Wolf
with Naomi Wolf, David Antoon, Vincent Cannistraro, James Cullen, Nicholas Kristof, Maria LaHood, Michael Ratner, Barry Steinhardt, Josh Wolf, James Yee, David Zirin
wolf release US 3.Dec.08,
UK 19.Jan.09
08/US 1h13
the end of america By invoking emotive images of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, journalist Naomi Wolf gives fuel to critics who believe her observations are merely alarmist. But what she has to say is too important to ignore.

Like An Inconvenient Truth, the film is structured around one of Wolf's lectures, in which she outlines the 10 steps that move a society from democracy to facism. Through careful research, she notes that each of these 10 steps has been put into place during eight years of the Bush presidency, from fear-mongering to the use of paramilitary groups (like Blackwater) to a subversion of the balance of power that makes sure the presidency is still accountable to the law. All of this is backed up by carefully detailed research, video footage and interviews.

From democracy to facism in 10 easy steps:

1. Invoke a terrifying internal and external enemy
2. Create a prison system outside the rule of law
3. Develop paramilitary groups
4. Set up an internal surveillance system
5. Infiltrate and harass citizens' groups
6. Engage in arbitrary detention and release
7. Surveil key individuals
8. Control the press
9. Equate dissent with treason and criticism with espionage
10. Subvert the rule of law

Where some may feel that Wolf oversteps the mark is in her comparisons to Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and others. But what she is doing is noting that these are the same steps taken by dictators throughout history to slowly close down their societies. (She never mentions Mugabe, but could have.) And it's in this juxtaposition that the skills of directors Stern and Sundberg (The Devil Came on Horseback) come to bear so strongly: none of this is presented with sensationalism.

It's a fiercely eye-opening approach that, while saying nothing new, encapsulates what we've come to realise in a sharp, clear, vital way. Wolf message isn't doom and gloom, and she forcefully makes her case that the very foundations of the American republic are being chipped away quietly while the population is too busy being frightened of an unknowable enemy and government retaliation against whatever they define as dissent.

It's actually an intriguingly level-headed approach to a hugely emotive issue. Viewers who get lost in the hyperbole miss the point; Wolf's comments should get the blood boiling in outrage at what's happening in America (and indeed around the world), all in the name of a manufactured "war on terror". And a new ending, added in the wake of Obama's election, notes that while some issues mentioned in the film have already been addressed (such as the removal of Nelson Mandela from the terror watch list on his 90th birthday!), there's a long way to go.

PG themes
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‘Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris
dir-scr Raymond De Felitta with Jackie Paris, Raymond De Felitta, Anne Marie Moss, Stacy "Sissy" Paris, Ruth Price, Harlan Ellison, Will Friedwald, Joan Paris, Jeanie Paris, Michael Paris, Frank Whaley, Peter Bogdanovich
parker with paris release US 7.Dec.07,
UK 21.Nov.08
06/US 1h40

tis autumn An intimate portrait of an artist who never quite hit the big time, this expertly assembled documentary may not have the most compelling subject matter, but it's thoroughly involving.

Filmmaker De Felitta first heard jazz singer Jackie Paris on the radio in 1991 and was fascinated by the old record. So he did some research and discovered that Paris was a favourite musician of most of the jazz legends, and that he died at age 51 in 1977. But that wasn't true, and when De Felitta saw him listed as performing in New York in 2004 at age 79, he went along and befriended him, filming Paris as he talked about his life and career, and then digging into the story to find out more.

The film really captures both Paris' and De Felitta's passion for music, and especially De Felitta's burning desire to tell the story. And he gains our interest by uncovering all kinds of lost information. It helps that Paris is such an engaging storyteller, and De Felitta punctuates the film with a remarkable collection of old stills, archive footage and interviews with family, friends and experts. What emerges is a fascinating look a man who was widely loved by critics and his peers. He made the first recording of the jazz anthem Round Midnight, and his version of Skylark is considered the best. Everyone expected him to have a career like Nat King Cole or Johnny Mathis. But fame eluded him.

In his mind, he was clearly successful simply because he was so loved by the likes of Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie. But questions persist about his private life, such as whether he ever had a child (we find out at the end). In the end, De Felitta struggles to get beneath the surface, but the film is still funny, moving and packed with big personalities and great music. It's a bit long for non-fans, but it's also a terrific story about someone with talent who was in the right place at the right time, and knew all the right people, and yet never quite made it.

15 themes, language
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Trouble the Water
dir Tia Lessin, Carl Deal
with Kimberly Rivers Roberts, Scott Roberts, Brian Nobles, Jerome Baham, Kendall "Wink" Rivers, Larry Simms, Julie Chen, Mike Brown, Ray Nagin, George W Bush
Kimberly and Scott Rivers release US 22.Aug.08,
UK 5.Dec.08
08/US 1h34

trouble the water Scruffy and rambling, this documentary highlights shockingly important issues about American society far beyond the central subject matter. And as it continues, it really cuts to the heart of the issue.

In September 2005, Kimberly and Scott Rivers couldn't get out of New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina approached. They didn't have a car, and there was no public transportation, so they tried to ride out the storm in their house. They recorded the experience on videotape, including the rising floodwaters pushing them up into their attic. And they were just two of more than 100,000 people stranded in the city.

This documentary combines Rivers' story with other interviews and news footage that clearly show gaping holes in the system before, during and after the hurricane hit. The police flee before the storm, federal agencies are "prepared for the worst but hoping for the best", the US President tells people to wait for further information (none came). There were no rescue teams, and the military threatened to shoot anyone who came near their base.

This catalogue of horror is presented matter-of-factly; Filmmakers Lessin and Deal know that they don't need to rant. They tell the narrative out of sequence, which is extremely jarring, but they also build real intensity as the storm approaches and as we see footage we've never seen. Just as harrowing is the aftermath, when people return to their neighbourhoods two weeks later and try to figure out what to do next. And this is where the film takes on an even more relevant tone, as we see people reaching out for help.

And what they discover is incredibly strong, most notably the harsh disconnection between the haves and have-nots in America. Is it no wonder that these people begin to believe that only God cares about them? "I don't want Louisiana to play games with my life any more," someone says. And Kimberly's rap performance is a stunning expression of frustration and despair. At the end, a series of chilling statistics proves that the disaster started long before Katrina and is only getting worse. "Rich people are being prepared for the future; we're being prepared for prison."

15 themes, strong language
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