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last update 27.Jul.13
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4/5     MUST must see SEE
dir Gabriela Cowperthwaite
scr Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Eli B Despres
prd Manuel Oteyza
with Dean Gomersall, John Hargrove, Dawn Brancheau, Samantha Berg, Mark Simmons, Carol Ray, David Duffus, Howard Garrett, Lori Marino, John Jett, Jeffrey Ventroe, Eric Walters
tilikum release US Jan.13 sff,
UK 26.Jul.13
13/US 1h23

sundance london festival
Blackfish This eye-opening documentary should make every viewer so angry that they see zoos and animal shows through a new light. It's not a comprehensive look at animal mistreatment; instead, it explores the life of a single orca that at the centre of a series of horrific fatal incidents, most likely caused by his mistreatment. And the fact that no one accepts the blame is frankly revolting.

Captured in the Pacific, Tilikum was taken from his family and locked in shoebox-sized quarters at a Vancouver aquarium, where he was abused by both his trainers and two female orcas living there. After he killed a young trainer, he was sold to SeaWorld in Orlando, where his history was whitewashed and he went on to injure or kill several more people. But SeaWorld spun these incidents as human error, maintaining Tilikum's value as both a sperm-donor and the big-whale finale of its shows. And they never told prospective trainers about his unbalanced past.

The fact is that orcas aren't actually killer whales. They live in lifelong family units, communicate with a complexity humans can't even comprehend and experience profound emotions. All of this has been carefully documented and is outlined lucidly in this extremely well-assembled film, which features insightful commentary from a number of Tilikum's former trainers as well as workers from a variety of sea parks. Tellingly, SeaWorld refuses to comment.

Every comment is accompanied by archival footage, including home movies and news clips that thankfully cut away from the most horrific moments. Although one sequence in which Tilikum repeatedly drags an experienced trainer to the bottom of his tank is harrowing to watch. Each anecdote is terrifying, as the film traces incidents over several decades during which the "experts" continually refuse to admit that anything might be wrong.

Every ex-trainer interviewed comes to the same conclusion: that orcas should never be penned into small tanks and separated from their families. These huge mammals are born to swim long distances in the open sea, where they live more than twice as long as in captivity. Even someone who knows nothing about marine biology can see that Tilikum isn't a bad whale: he's been systematically traumatised since he was a child, and lacks social skills to behave properly. So he acts out in frustration and confusion. And the fact that SeaWorld refuses to retire him is unthinkable.

12 themes, violence
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My Father and the Man in Black
dir-scr Jonathan Holiff
prd Jonathan Holiff, Tanya Lyn Nazarec, Jennifer Phillips
with Jonathan Holiff, Saul Holiff, Johnny Cash, June Carter, Joshua Robinson, Gary Holiff, Norman Singer, David Disher, Dan Champagne, Elli Hollands, Jarrod Schroll, Michael Pesce
saul and johny release Can Jun.12 nxne,
US Oct.12 gsff, UK 2.Aug.13
12/Canada 1h29

raindance film festival
My Father and the Man in Black This fascinating story about one of the most important people in Johnny Cash's career has a strongly personal father-son kick. So it's rather frustrating that the filmmaking approach is somewhat self-indulgent and awkward. Even as writer-director Holiff documents the iconic singer's story from a new perspective, his narration makes it feel pushy and somewhat corny.

After his father Saul's carefully planned suicide, Jonathan decided to find out more about the dad he only barely knew. The only clues were in an archive of professional files about Saul's work managing the career of Johnny Cash. And Jonathan is astounded to discover not only that Saul and Johnny were lifelong buddies, but that as a very young child he travelled on tour with Cash. The most important discoveries, though, are audio diaries in which his father talks about him in ways he never did face-to-face.

Frankly, Cash is the Maguffin in this movie. We do trace his life and career, including his descents into both drugs and Christianity, but the film is actually about Saul's perfectionist, workaholic life. And more specifically Jonathan's feelings toward him. So the superb rare performance footage, home movies and intimate stills of Cash and June Carter are basically bonus materials in a documentary about a boy's search for his dad.

Frustratingly, while filmmaker Holiff uses several actors to play Cash, Carter, his father and himself over the years, he narrates the movie himself, trying far too hard to punch the "important" bits and as a result making nothing feel important at all. Thankfully, this doesn't belittle the value of the archival material or the story itself, which works both as a sideways exploration of Cash's life and as an interesting look at one man's difficult relationship with his family. But it does make the film feel somewhat amateurish.

That said, the film is full of impressive touches, with clever effects to bring the photographs to life and just enough music to satisfy Cash fans. It's also a detailed exploration of the music scene of the 60s, 70s and 80s, when country struggled to cross over, blew the doors off, then was chased back into its ghetto. So even if it's not satisfying across the board, it's well worth a look.

PG themes, some language
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Terms and Conditions May Apply
dir-scr Cullen Hoback
prd Cullen Hoback, Nitin Khanna, John Ramos
with Mark Zuckerberg, Ray Kurzweil, Chris Soghoian, Barrett Brown, Siva Waidhyanathan, Ellen Corbett, Joe Lipari, Margaret Atwood, Orson Scott Card, Moby, Eli Pariser, Zeynep Tufekci
release US 12.Jul.13
13/US 1h19
Terms and Conditions May Apply With an intriguingly low-key approach, this documentary takes us through the ways our privacy has been eroded by the terms and conditions we agree to without reading them. But then it also notes that it would take us a whole month to read everything we click "agree" to in just one year.

Every time we join a website or use an app, we click a button saying we've read the terms and conditions, agreeing to all kinds of things without even knowing it. Website and app privacy policies aren't written to protect our privacy: they allow our personal information to be shared and sold. This data obviously helps companies target their ads at us, but it's the way governments and law enforcement agencies use our data that should worry us.

This fast-paced film is softened by nicely offhanded narration by filmmaker Hoback, who even attempts a comical Michael Moore-style surprise interview at the end. Along the way, he carefully traces how we got into this position, as internet privacy laws were abandoned after 9/11, paving the way for the Patriot Act, which essentially eliminated our anonymity forever. Using snappy graphics and animation, he carefully explains exactly what has happened every step of the way, accompanied by telling interviews, TV news footage and several shocking Congressional discussions.

The argument is that a law-abiding person has nothing to fear, but Holback shows examples of innocent people caught in terrifying legal nightmares because of a silly tweet or Facebook update. In some cases, people have been arrested Minority Report-style before they even commit a crime, simply because police believed they might do something disruptive. And the ease at which analysis can incorrectly connect the dots is the scariest thing about this film.

As is the fact that governments use this data to silence protests and outlaw whistleblowing, essentially making America more repressive than China or the Soviet Union. The film even traces the NSA's notorious Prism programme as it's developed over the years, with Facebook replacing the CIA's surveillance operation because it monitors civilians far more efficiently. The film's final message may seem a little simplistic ("we need terms and conditions that are reasonable" and "we want our privacy protected"), but the way it shows how we have allowed privacy to vanish bit by bit is deeply chilling.

12 themes, language, some violent imagery
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We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks
dir-scr Alex Gibney
prd Alexis Bloom, Marc Shmuger
with Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, Michael Hayden, Adrian Lamo, J William Leonard, Nick Davies, Kevin Poulson, Philip J Crawley, Heather Brooke, James Ball, Iain Overton
assange and his team release US 24.May.13,
UK 12.Jul.13
13/US Universal 2h10

we stealk secrets With this superbly assembled documentary, which already feels somewhat out-of-date, Gibney fills in the story behind headlines about Julian Assange and Bradley Manning. He portrays both men as patriots uncovering secrets people have a need to know. But he refuses to paint them as saints, and his dirt-digging threatens to unbalance the film.

In 1989 hackers broke into Nasa's launch system quoting the Australian band Midnight Oil: "You talk of times of peace for all, and then prepare for war." One of these young hackers was Melbourne student Assange. After 9/11, the US President vastly increased the information he kept secret from the citizens (and from Congress), from reports of detainee abuse to images of soldiers' coffins returning from war. To use truth to clean up the world, Assange set up WikiLeaks in 2006 so information can be anonymously released and never removed.

Assange is described as a "humanitarian anarchist" who honed his skills in the days before the internet and continues to speak out against what he sees as "not democracy but encroaching privatised censorship". By contrast, Manning is a computer nerd who was picked on mercilessly by his colleagues in Iraq, who all knew he was gay. He was so distressed by what he saw going on around him that he systematically released hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks, which is essentially a run by one man on a cheap laptop.

Gibney articulately blends new interviews, archive footage and eye-catching graphics while keeping the focus on the people. This is a lucid, fast-paced film that almost blinds us with densely packed information and a snappy connect-the-dots narrative. Although Gibney also gets distracted by tabloid fodder such as the shocking video footage of Iraqi civilians being gleefully murdered by American soldiers and intensely personal details about Assange (relating to his sex-assault charges in Sweden) and Manning (his transgender status).

The real question is when it's not patriotic to stand up to your government when it does something wrong. These illegal actions are being taken by officials the citizens have elected and funded. Exposing them doesn't damage national security: it embarrasses unethical officials. So they spin it as treason and terrorism, even though whistleblowing has put a stop to torture and murder. And this film already feels eerily obsolete, as it was made before Edward Snowden's even more shockingly important revelations.

15 themes, language, violent imagery
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© 2013 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall