Saturday, September 29, 2012

Patagonia HQ and the Double Bottom Line

A couple weeks ago, while in Southern California for the Westdoc Documentary Conference, I was lucky enough to get a  private tour of Patagonia Headquarters in Ventura, California.  Although I've never actually worn anything made by Patagonia, the tour turned me into a huge fan of the company.  I admire the way they treat their employees, their commitment to making ethical products, and their dedication to a larger social mission.

The first room I saw at the sunny, breezy HQ was quite literally a surfboard library, where any employee could just grab a board and return it at their earliest convenience.  They had the same thing for bicycles.  There were child care facilities, a beach volleyball courts, electric-car chargers, and a refrigerator stocked with organic, local produce for employees to purchase at subsidized prices.  

As I walked through the company's product design offices, color research lab, and eventually the retail store, I noticed a common thread.  There were posters, programs, and signs everywhere reminding employees, customers, and suppliers that Patagonia does not simply exist to make money.  It exists to make money AND help tackle the global environmental crisis.  

The Patagonia mission, in fact,  is carved in wood on top of the door frame that greets everyone that walks into their offices:

Patagonia is pursuing what is known as a "Double Bottom Line," doing well (financially) and doing good (socially).  They have registered as a B-Corp, a new movement and legal status for companies that want to be known for something more than just their commitment to profit.   They have created metrics for ensuring make their products are made ethically and sustainably.  They have a long laundry list of impressive environmental initiatives that are affecting real change.  

I believe that this model is the key to answering many of the challenges we face as a society.  The private sector typically addresses only market-driven problems.  Government is overly bureaucratic, slow, and nationalistic by nature.  Philanthropy does not often think about self-sufficiency and scale.  I think business may hold the key to making sweeping global changes.  I, for one, am really inspired by this idea.  I am also now the proud owner of a new orange, down Patagonia jacket.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Great Documentaries

Friends, see these docs when you can.  Most are either on Netflix or HBO.

I recommend all of these highly:

The Artist is Present- You should see this because Marina Abramovic is a rad performance artist who is totally dedicated to what she does. 

Jiro Dreams of Sushi -  Here's another person totally dedicated to his craft.  Watch this one on a full stomach, or better yet, with lots of fresh fish in front of your face.  I am ready to reserve at Jiro's restaurant right now.  If I get a reservation, I may just fly to Tokyo for it.

Client 9 - All about former politico Eliot Spitzer and his downfall.  Same old story we've heard countless times.  But somehow documentarian Alex Gibney makes it seem like a crime/mystery movie.  Up and coming politician, beautiful family, everything going for him, you know the rest...

A Tale of Two Escobars-  Fascinating weaving of two seemingly disparate tales that are not so disparate after all.  How coincidental that the soccer star and drug lord, besides having the same name, were also killed by the same people.  Amazing footage, interviews, and editing in this one.

One Nation Under Dog- This one had me in tears after about 15 minutes. Some of the most graphic animal abuse footage I've seen.  Dog lovers beware:  This film is a tough one, but an important one to see.  Nobody should buy their dogs from pet stores and the inhumane puppy mills that supply them. Adopt!

Strangers No More - This is the most uplifting doc I've seen in a while, about a truly remarkable school in Tel Aviv, Israel. Just do yourself a favor and see this.  It will restore your faith in humanity. 

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

The Kaizen of Storyhunter

The time has finally arrived.  Storyhunter launched this week, and I can not express how excited I am. For those of you know me well, you know that this has been many, many years in the making.  About five, to be exact.  I have had countless investor meetings, hundreds of rejections, four intro videos, three company names, and a handful of people who have called me insane.

I long ago embraced the Japanese concept of Kaizen (改善), "improvement", or "change for the better".  I have always been fueled by rejection, and in a strange way, I have come to enjoy it.  It forces you to tweak your concept and business model to make it stronger and more foolproof.  It toughens you and makes you fearless.  Kaizen has become a life practice.  When you know that change is constant and possible, it makes you less critical of yourself and others, and more likely to adapt for the better.  For both my new job as CEO of Storyhunter, and in all my relationships, I constantly ask myself, "How can I be better today than yesterday?" 

Storyhunter started out as an idealistic dream: to empower my heroes, the freelance video journalists of the world to tell important, entertaining, and true stories. 

But to make ideals turn into reality, I had to morph them into a realistic plan.  As my team and I have tweaked our business model, we have had to re-tweak it to the quickly changing video technologies and web video distribution tools.  Internet video audiences have also matured quickly, and now people are watching a lot more than pornography on line. I believe we are entering into a golden age of web video, for both information and entertainment.
This is a good thing.  Politicians and the old media have been misrepresenting reality for too long, and it's time for the entire world to have access to more truth.  We hope to be on the vanguard of this fight.  So yes, we are still idealistic, and we will either succeed or fail with our ideals intact.  We are fighting to change perceptions of reality, to make people care more about the planet, and to bring people together through internet video. 

We want to help lead the transition from the age of information to the age of wisdom.  We live in a world over-saturated by content.  Just like we watch what we eat, we need to watch what we watch.  Ask yourself before re-tweeting, "Is this content really good for me? For others? For the planet?"  Your clicks are your votes, so clicking on something means you're likely to get it again.  Equally important is watching what you comment on, share, tweet, blog, pin, or whatever the next social media verb is.  Media companies call this engagement, so don't engage with bad content or you're going to be married to it for life.
As globalization and tech innovation drive people towards global sameness, we want to help make video journalists the ambassadors of this new digital world.  We want to empower the men and women risking their lives and limbs to help us understand the world. Storyhunter was created to help such people, who I still call my heroes. So if you're a video journalist, multimedia storyteller, or documentary filmmaker, who wants to help spread global truth, whether you've made 1000 videos or just a few, come join us at And yes, you may re-tweet this. 

Storyhunter's New Intro Video

Monday, April 30, 2012

High Tech High Life

Another 3-doc day and I'm pooped.  Today I saw films on beauty pageants in India, fishermen in Kenya, and wrestlers in Seattle.  
There were some AMAZING docs this year at Tribeca, and I'll be writing about some of them on the Storyhunter blog.
The real highlight for me was meeting a citizen journalist/blogger in China who goes by the name Zola.  After watching the documentary by Stephen Maing, "High Tech Low Life" about Chinese citizen journalists, I feel like I have a new appreciation for what journalism is.  In China, there's no such thing as freedom of the press, and before it was something that most Chinese people didn't even realize they're missing.  But I get a sense that the genie's out of the bottle, and the Chinese internet police will never be able to put it back in.
Official Movie Art "High Tech Low Life"
Enter a young twenty-something former vegetable hawker from the Chinese countryside named Zola, (Real life name is Zhou Shuguang 周曙光) who has discovered a passion for journalism . He refers to himself as a blogger to sound less serious. He changes the DNS server to a foreign host in order to get around the "Great Firewall" of China.  He becomes a voice of the poor who faced the destruction of houses in Beijing just before the Olympics.  He investigates an alleged murder by a Chinese official that was labeled an "accident."
Zola says at one point in the film, “The truth is, I don’t know what journalism is. I just record what I see.” And that's what is so endearing about him; how natural he is about his work.  It seemed like he was born to be a reporter, and that nothing in life could give him the satisfaction it gives him (I know the feeling).  He disobeyed his family and traditions and the law to do a job that he didn't get paid for. But he sees himself as a patriot responding to the call of duty, putting civic responsibility ahead of his own personal safety.  
It made me wonder about the nature of this thing we call journalism.  What is this need to know the truth and to share that truth with others? If it doesn't exist, would we need to invent it? Perhaps it is as natural to humankind as love, war, and civilization itself, a necessary byproduct of community?  Or is it simply a natural reaction to corruption and crime?  If a society was perfect, then journalism would not need to exist, right?  But of course that's impossible. 
Zola did face repercussions for his actions.  He wasn't allowed to leave the country at one point.  And now he is based in Taiwan, where he can work much more freely.  I told him after the movie that he is a hero for doing what he's doing.  Knowing that people like him exist make me feel better about the state of journalism, and humanity.  

Me and Zola after the film

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

60 Minutes Christians Controversy

As a huge fan of Bob Simon and 60 Minutes, I was a bit surprised at the focus of his story on the Christians in Holy Land.   The disappearance of West Bank Palestinian Christians is a well known tale, done by nearly every reporter who's ever stepped foot in the West Bank, including yours truly.

Simon's Story

I don't really have any issues with the content of the story, including his grilling of Ambassador Michael Oren for trying to interfere with 60 Minutes editorial position before the story was published.  I thought that was fascinating.  Simon revealed the prickly relationship between the "Mainstream media" and the Israeli government.  Nothing he said in the report was untrue, but perhaps it's what he left out of the report that is the problem.  His critics are correct to point out that you can't do an entire report blaming Israel for its West Bank policies without showing that Christians in Israel proper are doing pretty well.

As a religious Sunday night viewer, I have definitely come to expect more from 60 Minutes.  Why not use the budget and production potential of the program to explore the plight of Christians in the Greater Middle East?  60 minutes needs to be at the vanguard of journalism, not recycling the same old story. While people are still obviously suffering, nothing really new has happened since the wall went up 7 years ago, which is a prerequisite for using the word, "news" to describe your program.

I wholeheartedly empathize with the plight of Palestinian Christians AND Muslims who are suffering more or less equally under Israeli occupation.  It's true that there were incidents of Muslims harassing Christians in the past, they are not really occurring today with any frequency.  The reason Christians are fleeing is the Israeli Occupation, and mainly, because of its economic impact.  They leave the West Bank because they are used to living better, and are more likely than Muslims to have relatives abroad who they can join.   But what about the troubled Christian populations in Syria, in Egypt? What does the world know of them? Not much.  Which is exactly why we need great journalism programs to go to these places.

In case you're curious, here's my story on Bethlehem's complications, from a few years ago.  I had a slightly different angle, but ended up telling the story on the plight of West Bank Christians, Muslims, and Jews who all try and come to worship in Bethlehem.  My most horrendous memory from that report, which didn't make the final cut since I had no footage to show, was riding in the bus along with the Jerusalem-based choir after Midnight mass.  We were stopped at the main Bethlehem-Jerusalem checkpoint by the IDF, and then harassed and threatened by the rudest Israeli soldiers I ever came across.  I pretended not to know Hebrew, but of course understood every nasty word they used to describe a church choir on their holiest and most special night of their year.  I was frisked from head to toe despite showing my journalist credentials, and was nearly assaulted for trying to film.  When they finally let us pass, after an hour, at 3AM, some of the choir members were heaving hysterically, broken down, in tears.  They had gone from pure ecstasy to pure misery, ion Christmas Eve.  Yes, this is what the West Bank Christians often must go through, which makes Simon's story important, but certainly not the whole story.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Perspective on #StopKony Campaign


I’m one of the few people who didn’t find out about the Kony video through social media. My girlfriend nearly attacked me as I walked in the house one night last week.  “You have to watch this video on Youtube right now!”

I could tell from the tone of her voice that this was something important, and not “David After the Dentist,” the sequel.

So I succumbed and watched the video.   Here’s the conversation that ensued between me, my girlfriend, and my internal monologue:

Me: 30 minutes? Are you kidding me? I don’t have time for this.
Girlfriend: Argh. Just watch it. You’ll like it.
Monologue: If I do this now, I may not have to do dishes later.
Visuals: Outerspace shots of earth with melodramatic music and bold type font stating, “There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”
Monologue: You mean like Mark Zuckerberg’s idea to rate girls from his college dorm room?
Narrator: We share what we love and it reminds us what we all have in common.
Me:  Am I insane or are these are the exact same visuals used in those soppy Google commercials?
Narrator: The next 27 minutes are an experiment but in order for it to work you have to pay attention.
Monologue: (Bemused, I proceed to close my other 10 windows, turn off the TV, IPAD, Iphone, and stop fantasizing about the IPAD3) Wow. Incredible. They just have to ask for my attention, and they get it.  Am I that easy?
Video: Shots of a child being born.
Me: Oh, this is that Ricki Lake documentary you’ve been begging me to see.
Girlfriend: No, that’s our Friday night plan.
Monologue: Darn
Video: Shots of what we presume are dead Africans with Schindler’s List style music in the background
Monologue: How did we go from Ricki Lake to dead Africans?  Wait, I just saw one move. They’re not dead.  Why am I starting to get emotional over sleeping Africans? It’s the music, silly. It gets you every time.

What proceeds is a propaganda film so great that Leni Reifenstahl just saluted Russel from her grave. It tells not a story about Africa, or Uganda, or even Joseph Kony, but of filmmaker Jason Russel and his highly marketable and downright adorable kid.  I won’t bore you with the details because chances are if you’re reading this online, you’ve seen the video.  Kony 2012 has precious little to do with what’s happening in Uganda today.  That would be way too boring.

Russel constructs a narrative so simple that his toddler could even understand.  Good American (White) Man tries to save Poor African (Black) Kids from Evil African (Black) Man because Good American Man had the realization that his Privileged American (White) Kid could have also been a victim of the Evil African Man if he was born in Africa.  So Good American Man makes a video which he puts on the Internet and hopes Good Internet People of the World will share it.

The real success, however, came by taking a page right out of Steve Jobs marketing playbook.  If you want to reach millions of slacktivists, tweeps, and meme spreaders (yes, baby boomers, these are real words now), you better make something that is not only user friendly, but looks really cool.  It doesn’t matter if the idea’s time has come, the idea won’t be so powerful if it’s not in the right packaging. The fonts, cutting edge CGI’s, and the hot, new Kony logo all contribute to the success.  The video ends with a best practice well known to internet marketers, a call to action.  Once you’ve engaged someone, you must get them to buy something, click on something, or do something.  Otherwise you’ve lost an opportunity.

Share this and you too can save Poor Black Kids.  Along with countless others, I responded to the call:  I bought the product that should be named “Guilt Alleviator (Intended for White People but Suitable for All).”  And why not? I don’t have to donate a penny or pull a trigger.  With just a click of my mouse, I can do something important today.  I can instantly and virtually help stop an evil man.  Isn’t social media grand?

It would be interesting to know who really wants to stop Kony and who is doing it just to trend on Twitter, so I have devised a test. I will launch a Kickstarter campaign to help fund a vigilante group that will go after Kony and bring him to justice and/or kill him.  We can call the group the Kony Cyber Commandoes (KCC). Sounds intimidating, right?

Now here’ the kicker.

The prize for donating 100 USD to the campaign, Official #Kony2012 handcuffs.

Ok, here’s the real kicker.  The prize for donating more than 1,000 USD to Kony Cyber Commandoes:  If we catch Kony and he gets the death penalty, you will be eligible to participate in the first ever crowdfunded execution!

Just imagine Brian Williams on the nightly news: “Tonight at midnight 100million people around the world simultaneously clicked “Dislike” and injected .00001 milliliters of poison per click into Joseph Kony’s veins, ending his life.”

To be honest, I’m not sure I’d participate in that campaign.  Death penalty qualms aside, as critics and Ugandans have stated, what Uganda desperately needs right now is post war economic recovery, not vigilante squads tracking down a washed up warlord who’s not even in the country. Sorry KCC members. You can extinguish your Twitter torches now.

While I doubt this video will affect foreign policy in Africa in the short term, and I really do wonder what will happen with this Kony campaign when Kim Kardashian gets married again, the truth is that after watching the video, I became a fan of Invisible Children.  Not just on facebook, a real fan.  Yes, I willfully drank the Kool Aid. While I disagree with the timing, tactics, and action plan, I believe in the message. African kids matter, and we should all be more conscious of atrocities abroad, whether they happened in Uganda five years ago or are happening in Syria right now.  #StopAssad2012, perhaps?  Anyone know a good logo designer?

Russel must feel giddy that he got millions of people to  watch a video on Central Africa that isn’t the Lion King.  What’s even more remarkable is that he successfully tapped into the heart of internet culture, and found that it was not so dark after all.  So what if he used his cute blond toddler to do so?  I guess this is the magic that Russel alludes to when describing his company as the “Pixar of Human Rights videos.” If that’s what it takes to get millions of people to pay attention to human rights violations, then the end justifies the means.

My greatest hope for the Kony video is that it will lead to a larger media appetite from the darkest corners of the world, before the killing has been done.  We have the technology now to transmit reliable, local knowledge and share it with the world instantly.  We clearly have a network of social media activists who can serve as a mouthpiece for getting out the information.  We need Kony-like campaigns to occur in real time, supplemented with more truthful video journalism and viable, locally sanctioned action plans for people worldwide.  Yes, I was serious about #StopAssad2012.  There are invisible children being killed there right now.


Good White Man

Evil African Man

Poor African Kids

                               Privileged American Kid

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Free Hug for Storyhunter Alpha Testers

We are nearly done building out our first iteration of the Storyhunter platform and are looking for Alpha testers!

I know this sounds scary, but I promise you we will not need to take your blood or any other bodily fluids. 

This is just a process for us to have a small sample of early adapters in the video journalism/doc film/multimedia space to help us create the best possible product and user experience.  

We will benefit immensely from your participation and feedback, and you will benefit from an enhanced user experience.

Also, as an Alpha user you will get first dibs on producing video journalism for some amazing publishers, worldwide recognition, and a free hug from me should you ever make it to our new DUMBO office space (more on that in a couple weeks).  

Go to for an invite.

Monday, February 27, 2012

NY Video Journalists

I thought this would be an appropriate first logo

I'm excited to announce the creation of NY Video Journalists.  I decided to create this real life group to because I noticed that my NY based video journalist and doc filmmaker friends were constantly looking for people to collaborate with but had no idea how to find them.  

So I posted this invite on as an experiment to see if people would be interested:

Video journalists, documentarians, and multimedia storytellers, let's hang out one night a month, bring an exotic beverage of your choice and one to share, and talk about the art/profession/hobby we all love. We're here to have a good time, learn some things, screen some things, make connections, collaborate, talk about projects, ideas, or do whatever the hell people want.
First meetup will be in late March.  Send some ideas.  Let's do this !

I was pleasantly surprised to see 31 members join in less than 24 hours without any marketing whatsoever.  In today's virtual world, clearly people see there is value to real-life face to face interaction with our peers and colleagues. So I decided that this is a worthy cause and to go for it, but I want other people to get involved and help shape the direction of the group.   I'd like to make the content of the group an exercise in democracy.  So if you're an NYC VJ, doc filmmaker, and/or multimedia storyteller who wants to help plan a monthly meetup with me or has some ideas for programming, let me know.

You're invited to join the group here:

First meetup will be in late March.  I'm stoked !

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Heroes of Journalism

This has been a devastating week.  Two of the world's finest and most courageous reporters, Anthony Shadid and Marie Colvin, are no longer with us.  I saw Marie once in Gaza during the Disengagement in 2005, but never met her.  Anthony I did meet.  We worked under the same roof for about two weeks covering the revolution in Egypt for the NYT.  At the time, the Cairo bureau had so many reporters, photographers, producers, and stringers buzzing through it that it felt kind of like an ant farm.  From morning to well after midnight, we were all so busy with deadlines and writing and editing that we barely had time to eat.  While waiting for a piece to upload to NY very late one evening, I noticed Anthony smoking a cigarette out on the balcony, so I joined him. We chatted about the day's affairs.  I don't remember exactly what we spoke about, but I remember getting this amazing vibe from him.  Sometimes you can understand someone's essence in an instant and  I felt that way with Anthony.  We had just one conversation, but I felt like I knew him.  His voice, which I heard for the first time, seemed eerily familiar.  Maybe its because I have been listening to it in my internal monologue for so many years through his stories.  My gut feelings about  him have since been confirmed by the outpouring of letters from people who knew Anthony well.  I have learned through some of these tributes that Anthony's writing voice represented the man that he was.  Genuine, humble, full of empathy.  He didn't care for attention, but rather used his soapbox to raise awareness for the the ordinary man.  While we can't emulate talent, we can all try to work as compassionately and diligently as Anthony did.  He was a great role model and I  wish I could have known him better.  My heartfelt condolences go out to the families and loved ones of Marie Corvin and Anthony Shadid.  Two extraordinary beacons of light may be gone, but their words and examples will shine on forever.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Doc Review: Chasing Ice

National Geographic photographer James Balog feels that climate change is the defining issue of our time.  He says that every era has its illusions and the illusion now is that climate change is not real or not a real threat to our planet.  In Balog's view, nothing anyone is doing right now matters as much as solving the climate problem.  He believes we are approaching a sixth extinction, caused by the first world, but largely impacting the third world.  Many species will die out. There will be large scale global flooding, which will cost the first world trillions.  In other words, our grandkids will need their Ipads to be waterproof.  Future app designers should create an app for remembering animals of the 20th century, and perhaps one that automatically transmits spiteful messages to their grandparents for destroying the planet.

Finding and showing the evidence of climate change is Balog's life mission.  Before Chasing Ice, nobody was able to tell the story of climate change in such a powerful visual way.  Al Gore used charts in his film which we all know now has very little effect on people who despise charts.  Balog realized the key to telling the story of climate change is to tell it as simply and visually as possible.  The story, he discovered, was in the ice.  So Balog founded an organization called the Extreme Ice Survey, hired a team of young, brave assistants, and together they set up time lapse cameras trained on glaciers all over the world.

Balog's determination is awe inspiring.  He battles sub-arctic weather conditions, technical problems, and a bum knee to climb up to impossible perches that yielded the best possible views of the ice. What he and filmmaker Jeff Orlowski show us is absolute proof of climate change in the form of some of the most beautiful shots of the natural world that I've ever seen.  On the big screen at the Temple theater in Sundance, I was treated to hues of blues and greens that made Park City seem like a black and white world.  The time lapse videos showed years of ice melting compressed into seconds.  I saw gigantic glaciers disappearing before my eyes.  Finally, and most epically, audiences sat mezmerized as we watched the largest ever recorded  ice calving event.  Balog's crew had to wait nearly 3 weeks to capture a glacier larger than Manhattan breaking off into the sea.  At that moment, the documentary morphs into a kind of natural horror film.  We hear a creepy cacophony of cracking noises until the ocean digests the ice block in one thunderous gulp.

If you're still doubting that climate change is real, make sure you see this film. To see a prehistoric glacier ice receding faster than a man's hairline in a Rogaine commercial is scary.    National Geographic channel just bought the TV rights, so try and catch it on the small screen.  I hope it gets a theatrical run, since watching glaciers the size of cities fall into the sea is definitely big screen material.  

Check out these stills from the film:

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Doc Review: How to Survive a Plague

This film is a fascinating look at a struggle I admittedly knew very little about.  In the 80's a group called Act Up emerged as a force to be reckoned with.  Their mission: to increase funding and improve research methods for AIDS medications. The main character of "How to Survive a Plague" is Peter Staley, a gay man who contracted HIV in 1987 and was given just a couple years to live.  What ensues is a heroic, entertaining battle to pressure the US government health bureaucracy, including the FDA, into action.  This is no easy task.

The coalition Act Up, which eventually splinters into another group called TAG (Treatment Action Group), uses some of the most brilliant and creative civil disobedience methods to get their message out.  They disrupt a church service by lying down in the entrance.  They heckle Bill Clinton as he is campaigning for president.  They even wrapped a giant condom on Jesse Helms house.

Peter Staley

Some of their tactics had me cracking up in the theater.  Other tactics left me in tears.  Watching the group spread the ashes of their loved ones on the White House lawn was a particularly gut wrenching moment.  This film takes the audience through the range of emotions Act Up must have experienced exponentially greater in their uphill, deadly battle to get Aids medications to the general public.  Some of them lived to see their victory.  Many were not so fortunate.

Director David France does an extraordinary job of editing together a film that uses only original cinema verite footage.  Somehow he got through over 700 hours of stock footage to make this 2 hour cut.  Luckily, the technology gods graced us with a recording tool that did the job of documenting this era in history. Remember Handicams from the early 1980's?  That's what this documentary was made with. Without them, we wouldnt have such an intimate portrait of a group that changed history.  Act Up not only survived the plague, they helped bring it to its knees.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Documentary Film Review - Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry

This documentary takes us inside the life of Chinese artist and dissident Ai Wei Wei.  We first meet him in his Beijing compound, talking about a cat.  He lives with more than 50 cats, but has a special affinity towards one of them.  "Only one cat has the ability to open doors,"  recounts Ai Wei Wei  (Cut to a broll shot of the special cat jumping 5 feet off the ground and on the way clipping the doorknob, landing on four paws, and sleekly sliding through the open door).  "If I didn't have this cat, I would never have known that cats could open doors."

That cat, of course, symbolizes Ai Wei Wei.  There are many Chinese people, but not many who dare to challenge the regime the way he has.   There is definitely only one Chinese person with the courage to create an internet meme called, "Fuck You Motherland."

In his gigantic, fortress like art/living compound with surveillance cameras honed in on him and government agents lurking constantly, Ai Wei Wei seems as happy as can be.  He mocks the authorities by making fake surveillance cameras as pieces of art.  He drops ancient and priceless pieces of pottery or spray paints the Coca Cola symbol on them.  He makes documentaries that travel beyond the "Great Firewall of China" to report what is actually happening there.  He is a rebel after my own heart.

His mother worries about his safety and in one candid scene she breaks down and weeps for her son, imploring him to subdue his antics. Yet, Wei Wei possesses the same quality that all freedom fighters and truth tellers seem to possess.  A sublime calmness and confidence in what he does and how he lives.  He is well aware that he could lose his life and/or freedom at a moment's notice.  But why would that get in the way of pursuing a righteous cause?

Ai Wei Wei is a superhero among men, one of the greatest human rights heroes of our generation, and a brilliant communications professional.  His rabble-rousing and rebellious artworks are broadcast to his loyal legion of social media followers on Twitter and elsewhere.  He knows just how and when to use the medium to promote his cause, get messages out, or just to say "Fuck You" to the Chinese government.

Filmmaker Alison Klayman @awwneversorry uses Ai Wei Wei's Twitter feed @aiww as a storytelling device.  We see him typing and then the film progresses, showing us the real-life drama that ensues before, during, and after typing those 140 characters.  The film ends with a brilliant piece Wei Wei made for the Tate Art Gallery in London, importing tens of millions of sunflower seeds and filling up the gallery showroom with them.  He said the piece was inspired by Twitter itself, and the tens of millions of free voices that can not be suppressed.

Check out the official film trailer here and make sure you follow @aiww on Twitter.

艾未未: Never Sorry 纪录片预告片   (中文字幕) from Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry on Vimeo.

Film Swag included Chinese take out boxes with fortune cookies inside.
My fortune read, "Once you've tasted freedom, it stays in your heart and nobody can take it from you.
Then you can be more powerful than a whole country." -Ai Wei Wei

The film's PR people even stamped our hands 

Me doing my best Ai Wei Wei impression

Monday, February 06, 2012

DIY Grand Jury Prizes

It is now time to present my favorite documentary films at Sundance this year.  I didn't see all of them, so please accept my sincere apologies if you're not on the list because I didn't see your film.  I'm sure all the Sundance docs were superb, but these are the ones that made me the most pissed off, most inspired, and just made me glad to be alive.

Drumroll please.....

My top 3 in no particular order were: Chasing Ice (Directed by Jeff Orlowski), Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry (Directed by Alison Klayman), and How to Survive a Plague (Directed by David France).

Read my Full Reviews of these films on subsequent blog posts.

The Jaron Prize for Best Music Doc goes to: Under African Skies: Joe Berlinger's new doc about Paul Simon's return to South Africa 25 years after recording Graceland.  I got the feeling that Joe needed to make a film like this after being so immersed in the grisly Paradise Lost saga for such a long time.  The film eloquently tells the story of the creation, legacy and controversy of one of my favorite albums of all time, Graceland.  Oh, and a little birdie told me there might just be a reunion tour.

Treat yourself to this clip from what looked like an epic concert in Harare, Zimbabawe, 1987.

The Jaron Prize for Best Short Subject Doc goes to: The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom: Director Lucy Walker deservedly got another Oscar nomination for this poetic short film.  The film juxtaposes the larger than life, horrific destruction of the tsunami with the "metronome" of Japanese life, the Cherry Blossom.  With an imaginative score by Moby underlying melancholic tsunami stories, the film asks viewers to do what is not possible, to put ourselves in the shoes of these subjects who had their lives swept away by an instant act of nature at its most cruel. Yet, just as we can no longer bear it, the film saves us from this arduous emotional burden by focusing on an act of nature far less savage but no less stunning, the blossoming of this amazing flower.  We learn that the cherry blossom is the symbol of the Samurai warrior because it is equally graceful in life and in death.   As we see the flowers dying and getting blown away by the wind, the metaphor comes full circle, the music becomes more hopeful, more grandiose, and we get put into our proper place as humans, mere specks of life in a universe where there are many more questions than answers.

Official Trailer:

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Two Amazing People, Organizations, and Films

At Sundance, I attended an event sponsored by the Skoll Foundation and Sundance Institute called "Skoll Stories of Change." The Egyptian Theater was jam packed for the panel moderated by Skoll Foundation President and CEO Sally Osberg.  It featured two incredible social entrepreneurs who told us their stories.  We also got to see pre-release screeners of the two films highlighting their efforts.  The teasers left me feeling emotionally agitated and inspired, exactly what a good doc should do.

So what did these two great social entrepreneurs, Bunker Roy and Joia Mukherjee, have in common?  Well, many things, but one thing stood out in particular to me.  They both came from upper class backgrounds and drastically changed the course of their lives after visiting slums in India.

Just some food for thought.  Now, onto these amazing social entrepreneurs and their causes:

Dr. Joia Mukherjee (Partners in Health Medical Director) - I have been following PIH since reading the book about Dr. Paul Farmer's health project in Haiti, Mountains Beyond Mountains (Highly, highly recommended).  This organization provides free health care to 1.5 million Haitians, with similar projects all over the world now.   I love PIH's core philosophy represented by their motto, "Whatever it takes." Development organizations, and regular organizations, can all learn from this approach. Having Joia, a senior leader in the organization in the room was a special treat. She said one of her fears in working in the developing world is appearing as the "Great White Hope." She made sure to selflessly direct any praise for her efforts towards the people she calls the "real heroes," the local doctors and nurses who they partner with on the ground in these health care deficient countries.  They become the first line of defense when diseases break out.

Kief Davidson (Director, The Devil's Miner) is directing the film.  His cut looked amazing, with great access to Dr. Farmer and PIH employees.  The grisly scenes in Haiti post earthquake were hard to watch.  And the teaser ends with Dr. Farmer speaking in Creole Haitians crammed into a sweaty, desperate church that "We are here.  We are standing beside our people."  The scene sent chills down my spine.  I can't wait for the film.

Dr. Joia Mukherjee

Bunker Roy (Director, Barefoot College) is the pioneer of a brilliantly simple program. 30 grandmothers from 4 continents will get selected to go to India to become solar engineers at the Barefoot College.  Why grandmothers? According to Bunker, a man will give up too quickly and leave the village to find a job. A grandmother has no need to go find a job and leave the village behind.   Over the last 6 years, the Barefoot College has trained over 230 grandmothers from 27 countries.  Many of them become the first female solar engineers in their country.  As Bunker puts it, "They come as grandmothers and leave as tigers."An Afghan grandmother went on to power 100 villages with the skills she learned from Bunker.  What is the value of that? Huge.  It is a boon for both economics and education.  For the first time ever, people can be productive at night.

Jehane Noujaim (Control Room) will be directing the film.  The teaser has a great scene of Bunker showing up to a tiny village in the middle of nowhere in Jordan, trying to recruit a woman into his program.  The film will surely produce some comical, cross-cultural moments, and will tell an inspiring tale of how one man (and many grandmothers) can change the world.

Bunker Roy

Friday, February 03, 2012

Slice of Heaven

I came to Sundance Film Festival this year for the first time and fell in love with the festival and Park City.  When there were no great documentaries to see, I went snowboarding. (Sadly this scenario never really occurred so I convinced myself the doc slate wasn't so great the two days I went snowboarding when in the back of my head I knew I was lying to myself). When the snow wasn't so great, I watched documentaries.  (This scenario did occur). For a doc film addict and competitive sports junkie and agnostic nature lover rolled into one, this is as close to heaven as it gets.

Yes, that is Hipstamatic and yes I am happy

As far as docs go, I went hunting for my usual fare: a hearty mouthful of gut wrenching, fever inducing, life altering, political, environmental, and social documentaries to send me on another drugless acid trip through a dimension of reality I never thought existed.

Disclaimer: If you've come here to learn about the celebs who made it out to Sundance this year, you're on the wrong blog.

Here you will read about the films I believe make Sundance truly special, the independent docs that first introduce the most important, untold stories to the world.

I was really glad to see no red carpets, publicists, or paparazzi at my first Sundance event, a panel sponsored by the Skoll Foundation called Stories of Social Change.  As I made my way into the Egyptian Theater and saw the etchings of the Pharaohs, I realized that I had come full circle: Exactly a year ago I was in the state of Egypt witnessing and documenting the beginning of a revolution in Tahrir Square.

As a human it is only natural that I look for the connection between these two seemingly disparate life  experiences, separated by a continent of space and a year of time.  Tahrir Square 2011 and Sundance 2012.  What's the connection?

In my view, the best docs do more than just tell a story that's never been told before.   A well made doc, like a revolution, has the ability to lift masses of people from a state of inertia.  Once you see it and experience it you are forever changed.  You are, internally, a different person.  Just as a nation in revolt is forever a different nation.

Unlike dramatic films, which have its roots in theater, documentary's roots lie in journalism.  But with 90 minutes of running time on one issue, docs can get deeper than any news piece.  They can explore issues conventional news bureaus wouldn't dare cover.  Long, complicated stories are not conducive to a 24 hour news cycle, and often these stories are the most captivating.  Docs appeal not just to the lizard brain, but to the limbic brain.  Moving pictures and sound are the keys to unlocking a deeper, more emotional truth than black and white print on a page.

Think of Bowling for Columbine, Paradise Lost, The Cove, Food Inc.  All of these films not only entertained and educated, they MOVED people. They inspired a new way of thinking about guns, revoked a Death Sentence, pressured the whaling industry, and made people more conscious about the food they ate.  It's not far fetched to imagine a well made and poignant documentary one day causing a Revolution.  A great doc screams out to the world something that people desperately need to hear but were previously deaf to.  Often the result is "people power."  And just like a Revolution, that call for change can fall onto deaf ears, lose steam, or, profoundly triumph.

My next few blog posts will talk about the docs I saw at Sundance that I believe are stories worth spreading.