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 www.storyhunter.tv 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 Meetup.com 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.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Gasland Director Arrested on Capitol Hill

I'm reposting the letter Josh Fox wrote after getting arrested for filming a hearing related to "fracking" on Capitol Hill.  He's trying to make a sequel to his Academy Award nominated documentary, Gasland. If you haven't seen Gasland yet, make sure you do.

Here's the trailer:

Here is the letter in its entirety.

I was arrested today for exercising my First Amendment rights to freedom of the press on Capitol Hill. I was not expecting to be arrested for practicing journalism. Today's hearing in the House Energy and Environment subcommittee was called to examine EPAs findings that hydraulic fracturing fluids had contaminated groundwater in the town of Pavillion, Wyoming. I have a long history with the town of Pavillion and its residents who have maintained since 2008 that fracking has contaminated their water supply. I featured the stories of residents John Fenton, Louis Meeks and Jeff Locker in GASLAND and I have continued to document the catastrophic water contamination in Pavillion for the upcoming sequel GASLAND 2. It would seem that the Republican leadership was using this hearing to attack the three year Region 8 EPA investigation involving hundreds of samples and extensive water testing which ruled that Pavillion's groundwater was a health hazard, contaminated by benzene at 50x the safe level and numerous other contaminants associated with gas drilling. Most importantly, EPA stated in this case that fracking was the likely cause.
As a filmmaker and journalist I have covered hundreds of public hearings, including Congressional hearings. It is my understanding that public speech is allowed to be filmed. Congress should be no exception. No one on Capitol Hill should regard themselves exempt from the Constitution. The First Amendment to the Constitution states explicitly "Congress shall make no law...that infringes on the Freedom of the Press". Which means that no subcommittee rule or regulation should prohibit a respectful journalist or citizen from recording a public hearing.
This was an act of civil disobedience, yes done in an impromptu fashion, but at the moment when they told me to turn off the cameras, I could not. I know my rights and I felt it was imperative to exercise them.
When I was led out of the hearing room in handcuffs, John Boehner's pledge of transparency in congress was taken out with me.
The people of Pavillion deserve better. The thousands across the US who have documented cases of water contamination in fracking areas deserve their own hearing on Capitol hill. They deserve the chance to testify in before Congress. The truth that fracking contaminates groundwater is out, and no amount of intimidation tactics --either outright challenges to science or the arrest of journalists --will put the genie back in the bottle. Such a brazen attempt to discredit and silence the EPA, the citizens of Pavillion and documentary filmmaking will ultimately fail and it is an affront to the health and integrity of Americans.
Lastly, in defense of my profession, I will state that many many Americans get their news from independent documentaries. The hill should immediately move to make hearings and meetings accessible to independent journalists and not further obstruct the truth from being reported in the vivid and in depth manner that is only achievable through long form documentary filmmaking.
I will be thinking on this event further and will post further thoughts and developments.
I have been charged with "unlawful entry" and my court date is February 15.
Josh Fox
Washington D.C.