Tag Archives: documentary

VIFF 2015 Review: A Syrian Love Story

A Syrian Love Story focuses on a Syrian couple from the start of 2011's Arab Spring to the present.

A Syrian Love Story focuses on a Syrian couple from the start of 2011’s Arab Spring to the present.

I saw quite a few documentaries at this year’s VIFF. A Syrian Love Story was one documentary that gets one thinking.

This is a documentary filmed year by year over five years. It starts in 2010 while Syria is going through its start of political turmoil. It had been under turmoil since the 1970’s when Hafez Al-Assad took power and any reforms promised by his son Bashar, who succeeded Hafez in presidency after his death almost ten years earlier, doesn’t deliver in the reforms he promised. Images of protest met with a violent response from government forces are too common. Caught in the middle is a married couple of Amer Daoud and Raghda Hasan. They have four sons from 6 to 22. Amer is living in Damascus being a father to the children. Raghda is in a prison for publishing a book about their relationship of all things. Amer and Raghda are no strangers to political oppression in their home country. Raghda has face imprisonment because she’s a communist revolutionary and Amer was once imprisoned with his ties to the PLO. In face they both first met in prison and fell in love through communicating through a prison wall.

Sean McAllister is in Syria looking for something about Syria’s crisis to film but something out of the ordinary. He finds it in Amer and Raghda. McAllister also shows us their four sons. The first year he films Amer’s phone conversations with Raghda while she’s in prison. He gets her sons to talk with her as well. McAllister was even imprisoned for a few days for a journalism crime and was able to listen first-hand to the torture in Syria’s prisons. He even meets the older son who broke up with his girlfriend because she was pro-Assad. Despite all this, McAllister does show a case of hope for the future, for all.

In 2012, Raghda is finally free. She is reunited with her husband, sons and the rest of her family. But they can’t stay in Syria, not while there’s civil war that started once Syrian people revolted against Assad during 2011’s Arab Spring. The family move to a refugee area in Lebanon. They do it not simply for the sake of themselves but their sons too. McAllister is nervous for the couple’s future since he knows behaviors of prisoners after they’ve been freed. He hopes Raghda doesn’t exhibit behavior that will hurt their marriage.

In 2013, they find themselves in Paris, France. Things are definitely better for the two youngest children Kaka and Bob. Bob is in a good school and Kaka is able to become a disc jockey at his high school. Things appear to go well for Amer and Raghda as they’re able to make a living for themselves but there’s a sense that something’s wrong. The children sense it.

In 2014, we get a good sense of what’s wrong. Amer and Raghda’s marriage is crumbling. Amer feels distant from Raghda and has a French girlfriend of his own. It upsets Raghda to the point she changes the password on his laptop. She even attempts suicide by cutting her wrists. No doubt it upsets everyone. She them admits she never had the chance to find herself and she feels that despite her  political freedom in France, she still feels she can do more for Syria or for others hurt by war.

The film ends in 2015. They two youngest sons have a promising future in France. Their older son reveals his pro-Assad former girlfriend was killed. Asad runs a chicken farm in France and is without Raghda. He wishes her well in whatever she does. Raghda is now in Turkey in a city 20 miles from the Syrian border. She works with refugees and is happier with her life now.

This is a unique story of love that starts with one hoping for a happy ending. We know Syria won’t turn out for the better but we hope that Raghda will be free and will return to her family and they’ll live happily ever after. We all want that storybook ending. Unfortunately it doesn’t end up that way. McAllister knows the problems prisoners exhibit after they’re free and he lets Amer and all of us know it. Over time, it shows after the moves, after Syria’s continued strife and after one senses the love between the two fading over time. It was unfortunate. The moment of hope doesn’t end up being when Raghda is free but rather when Amer is still in France and Raghda is in Turkey. That’s where the true scene of hope for the better is present.

The story is not just about the couple. It’s also about the surrounding family. This is especially noteworthy of the two youngest sons, Kaka and Bob. Bob is six at the beginning and the youngest. He tried to be a carefree child but the hurt of knowing his mother’s in prison is evident. Kaka is ten at the start and familiar with the realities in Syria. He’s able to tell Sean in good enough English his feeling of the situation, and of how he’d either like to fight or kill Assad. As they grow, the changes are present. Bob is getting bigger but has difficulties fitting into his school in Paris because his long hair causes other boys to call him a girl. Kaka is getting a better education but can’t ignore what’s happening to his parents. He can sense what’s happening and has his own opinions on what he feels should happen. Although the two are not the main protagonists, their presence in this story is vital.

One thing about this documentary is that the story focuses more on the fading marriage than it does in the strife in Syria from civil oppression to public outcry to a civil war to the eventual crisis with ISIS. However it does focus on the couple as they were fighting their own war with each other. They go from loving each other and having a closeness while Raghda’s in prison to the love fading over time after Raghda is free and they’re together again. It’s sad that they were closer together when Raghda was in prison. It’s even hard to pinpoint who’s the bad guy. Is it Amer for his fading commitment? Or is it Raghda for her inner strife? Amer appears like a jerk not even willing to try when he says things like “Syrians love prisoners,” but Raghda’s suicide attempt gets you wondering was she thinking of her family at the time?

Watching this documentary, I believe that this isn’t the type of documentary meant for the big screen. With the camera quality, editing and McAllister’s voice over, it fares much better as something for television broadcast. I’m sure that’s what it intends to be. I have to give McAllister credit for having the ability to do all this filming over time and to present a unique story. I also give Amer and Raghda credit for McAllister willing to film them while their marriage was hitting rock bottom and they were showing terrible behavior such as Amer threatening to smash his laptop and Raghda slitting her wrists. It surprises me that they were willing to show things that personal on camera.

A Syrian Love Story may not be a documentary meant for the big screen but it’s a very revealing story that reminds us not all love story has the fairytale ending. despite the hardships they show, it does end on a hopeful, if not happy, note.

VIFF 2014 Review: New Boobs

New Boobs is a documentary by Dutch film director Sacha Polak pursuing a revolutionary breast operation that isn't simply cosmetic. It's to prolong her life.

New Boobs is a documentary by Dutch film director Sacha Polak pursuing a unique breast operation that isn’t simply cosmetic. It’s to prolong her life.

At first when you hear the title New Boobs, you’ll think it’s about trying to conform to an idealized body types. However you shouldn’t misjudge it as such. It’s a lot more than that.

This is an autobiographical documentary by Dutch film maker Sacha Polak. Not even 30, Sacha has established herself as a rising director in the Netherlands with numerous shorts and films to her credit including one film, Hemel, which won her a FIPRESCI Prize at the 2012 Berlin Film Festival. However not even 30, she’s also hindered by a health problem of her own. Her mother died of breast cancer at the age of 29 just months after Sacha was born. Sacha goes for gene testing if she possesses the BRCA1 gene. The gene poses as a huge threat to contracting breast cancer before the age of 40 and increases the threat of ovarian cancer by 40-60%. She gets the doctor’s results. It’s a positive.

There are a lot of things running through Sacha’s mind upon hearing the news. First is how long she’ll live. Second is whether she’ll be able to have a child with her boyfriend before she gets her ovaries removed: something she wants to do before she turns 35. Third is about her next production. However the one that stands out is what to have done with her breasts. Removal of both? Surgery with implants? An operation will greatly improve her odds of avoiding breast cancer. She goes to one plastic surgeon and learns of the implants that would be used in their operation. However she soon hears of a plastic surgeon in Ghent, Belgium who performs a unique breast operation that would involve removing the breast tissue and filling it with body fat. That operation becomes Sacha’s focus.

Things are frustrating as the surgeon moves her consulting from November to March. Finally she does have the consultation and she learns of the surgery and what it entails. She agrees to it. During the waiting time she tries to conduct her life as usual doing filmwork and keeping the relationship with her boyfriend intact. She eventually does have the first operation. She shows the outcome and talks over time how she’s felt about it and how others including her boyfriend have felt about it. She then has her second operation and is happy with the end result. The film ends with her talking about her thoughts on the future, about her next film, about having a child in time. However she’s happy that she has solved one problem in the meantime.

The film wasn’t strictly about a cosmetic operation. It was also about a woman fearing for her health and hoping that this operation that would prolong her life will come out well in the end. It’s also about the mother she never knew. Frequently the film shows images of her mother and even the book her mother wrote to Sacha before she died. It’s also about family relations such as the support she receives from her boyfriend that isn’t immune to friction. Even the fears from both her father and her stepmother are showcased. The father himself is especially concerned as his wife just fell ill, entered the hospital and died. It still upsets him to this day and it especially bears down on him sensing that it could happen to Sacha. This documentary is as much about the human factor as it is about the medical factor.

The theme about being born with a bad gene is very present in the movie. This was definitely a theme that would stick in a lot of audient’s heads especially after they had just seen a documentary short of a close friend of Jason Ritter and Bryce Dallas Howard learn of her positive diagnosis for a Huntington’s gene. After seeing that short before, we’re reminded of the hard luck and the physical threats people that have genes that make them prone to certain illnesses face.

This documentary is not meant for the big screen. This is mostly filmed with minor technical cameras and even Skype footage. This is a documentary that’s more meant for broadcast on a television channel like BC’s Knowledge network.

New Boobs is an intriguing documentary that is more than just about an operation. It’s about dealing with illness-prone genes and even family relations surrounding it. A reminder that the person doesn’t fight this alone.

NOTE: For those interested in Sacha’s next film, she had just finished filming Zurich and is due for release in the Netherlands in February 2015.

VIFF 2014 Review – The Other One: The Long Strange Trip Of Bob Weir

The Other One is a documentary of Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir who often gets overlooked forJerry Garcia.

The Other One is a documentary of Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir who often gets overlooked for Jerry Garcia.

When you think of the Grateful Dead, who’s the first person that comes to mind? Jerry Garcia, right? Even though Jerry is the most famous member, rhythm guitarist Bob Weir is also a key part of the band. The Other One: The Long Strange Trip Of Bob Weir is a documentary focusing on Weir both as a member of the Grateful Dead and his own personal life.

Bobby weir was born in San Francisco in 1947 and was adopted by a well-to-do family. He had an adopted brother and a sister born to his adoptive parents. However Booby grew up a very restless boy. He was expelled from schools within a matter of months. However he developed a passion for the guitar at a young age. There’s even mention of how excited he was when he got a guitar for Christmas. At a young age, he caught the attention of a band playing in the back alley of a Palo Alto spot. They were the Grateful Dead. They took a liking to Booby and the rest is history.

The funny thing about Bobby is that he was a bit of an oddity with the Dead. The other members of the Dead describe themselves as ‘uglies’ and Booby as a ‘cutie’ and they describe the Grateful Dead in its early days as ‘Bobby and the four uglies.’ It seemed like a good break to be welcomed into a band at such a young age but his parents were firm on his education and reminded the other dead members of that.

Over time the San Francisco music scene of the 60’s would rise and eventually become a permanent fixture on pop culture and even definers of the counterculture of that period. The Grateful Dead themselves would become synonymous with the psychedelia of that time. But even before that happens, the documentary pays attention to the band’s first few years trying to make a name for themselves. It reminds you they had to struggle with small gigs just like many other bands before them. Then they signed onto a big label. Then they went from playing in bars to playing in concert halls. Then came the Deadheads: a group of people that stayed loyal to the band year after year, decade after decade. A loyalty not seen before in rock ‘n roll.

Even despite playing music and hitting the big time, the documentary shows of the friendship Weir had with the band. It was of a family nature to the point that Weir almost ignored his own family. The family relation with the other bands did take challenges of their own. The first sign was in the 1980’s when they made a comeback which included a chart-topping album for the first time with 1987’s ‘In The Dark’ and the single ‘Touch Of Grey.’ There was the focus of Jerry Garcia’s cult-of-personality: something Jerry didn’t really welcome in his life. There were even times Bob took personal vacations. Then there was the time Jerry was going through rehab and Bobby acted as a support for him up until his dying day.

It doesn’t stop there. It also focuses on how Weir decided to finally settle down after decades of womanizing with Natascha Munter. The two wed when he was 52 and they have two daughters. Even then the trip wasn’t over. Weir tried to learn of his birth parents. He learned of his mother after she died that she had gave birth to 12 children. He was able to meet up with his birth father and the two have been close ever since.

This documentary is definitely one for people who like biographies of musicians or biography shows in particular.  No question Deadheads young and old will want to see this. In fact I remember seeing a wide range of people in the audience watching this documentary. It’s possible some of the seniors in the audience may have been amongst the first generation of Deadheads. If you only care about musicians and their star power, this is not for you. Also if you’re a Deadhead simply because of Jerry Garcia, this will remind you that you’re not a true Deadhead. It’s not just a biography but gives you a feel of the music Bob helped create and continues to play whenever he performs with surviving members of the Dead. The mix of biography with live performances of his music really adds into the feel of it.

The documentary doesn’t really offer anything original as far as documentary film making goes. What it does is showcase a musician’s life that is a life less ordinary. The stories of how he was adopted and how he got into a lot of trouble as a kid will surely raise eyebrows and even a giggle or two. However seeing how he was able to settle down in his older years and even meet up with his adoptive father in recent years shows this is no ordinary life. The intimacy of the biography doesn’t stop with his personal life. It also shows how Bob treated the other Dead members like family even more than he treated his own. In fact hearing from Jerry’s daughter how Bob was like a brother to Jerry up until his last days shows how much the other members meant to him.

The are some flaws with the documentary. Most noticeably, it focuses almost exclusively on his music with the Grateful Dead and hardly ever focuses on his music with his other bands like Kingfish, RatDog, Booby and the Midnites and Furthur. Also the documentary made him look like he was a swinger all his life before Natascha. There’s no mention of his seven-year relationship with Frankie Hart back in the 70’s.

The Other One: The Long Strange Trip Of Bob Weir is a very good documentary to watch even if you’re not a fan of the Grateful Dead. It was time well spent for me. It reminds you there are a lot of great rock ‘n roll musicians that contributed a lot to the genre but don’t get the star status as many others.

Documentary Review – Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon

DISCLAIMER: I admit this review is one month old since I saw it back in June. However as you noticed, I’ve been very active in World Cup blogging and I’ve been taking a break from movie reviewing. I’m back to reviewing movies but there’s still one or tow World Cup blogs yet to come.

Entertainment mogul/promoter Shep Gordon (left) is the subject of Mike Myers' documentarian debut Supermensch: The Legend Of Shep Gordon.

Entertainment mogul/promoter Shep Gordon (left) is the subject of Mike Myers’ documentarian debut Supermensch: The Legend Of Shep Gordon.

Who is Shep Gordon? Even I didn’t know until I saw the documentary. Nevertheless I decided to give Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon a try after someone gave me passes. Wikipedia lists Shep as a talent manager, Hollywood film agent and producer. The film however presents a more closer look at what he’s done and the life he’s had.

Shep may have a degree in Sociology from back in 1968 but as far as talent and entertainment go, he was the right person at the right time. He was around with some of the biggest names of the late 1960’s. However it was his work as a promoter with Alice Cooper that things really got off the ground. The ‘chicken incident’ of 1969 was what kicked Alice’s fame off but it was Shep who brought the chicken there. Did he know Alice would throw it off?

The thing is Shep always had a way of picking them. His next promotion was Anne Murray once Alice started an alcohol problem. It was unusual for Shep to go from promoting a shock rocker to an innocent Canadian country girl but she worked out too. He also knew of next waves on music as he helped promote Blondie into the limelight. He also helped promote soul singer Luther Vandross to R&B success and even helped him cross over to pop successfully.Interesting how he was able to promote so many musicians from so many genres to stardom.

Another aspect of Shep’s success was not just about his success in music. He also had a hand in working on some of the more critically renowned films. He helped produce The Duellists which was director Ridley Scott’s first feature length film and that catapulted Scott’s directing career that included three Best Director Oscar nominations. Another film he helped produce, the Brazilian-American production Kiss Of The Spider Woman, helped William Hurt win the Oscar for Best Actor and was nominated for Oscars in three more categories. Gordon also created Alive Productions, the first independent film production company in the U.S. He’s also helped on some popcorn movies too like Wayne’s World which is where Mike Myers who directs this documentary first met Shep. In addition to movies and music, he also helped catapult the wave of cooking celebrities in the past couple of decades including Emeril Lagasse with his company Alive Culinary Resources. It seemed like he not only knew how to pick winners but how to make them winners. He could rank up there with the likes of Saul Zaentz or David Geffen.

The interesting thing of this documentary of Shep is that it’s not all about entertainment. It’s also personal too, especially coming from a man who saw a lot of people either damage themselves over success or even destroy themselves. Shep also was known for being quite the debaucherous one. In fact he had a lot of involvement with a lot of showbiz debauchery back in the 1960’s and 1970’s, back when debauchery was possibly the most shameless. However Shep does have a spiritual side. Born Jewish, he devoted himself to Buddhism in the past few decades and has even been a private guest of the Dalai Lama. Another aspect the documentary showcases is that despite his hand in debauchery, and boy was it legendary to those who knew him, he has had a deep desire to be a family man and father a child of his own. He shows that he has it in him to be a father when a female he worked with died young and willingly fathered her children to adulthood. His desire to be a father also had a lot to do with why his two marriages didn’t last long: conflicting feelings with the wife. The film ends with him speaking his desire to be a father of his own.

One thing about this documentary is that it portrays many sides to Shep. One minute he’s this typical brutal conniving Hollywood bigwig doing whatever it takes to get his acts famous. Another minute, he’s a family man to others. Another minute, he’s out starting the celebrity chef craze. Another minute, he’s being spiritual. It shows Shep’s complexity in a unique manner. We see that and we hear it from those who’ve worked with him and with those whom have had him as part of their life.

Another thing about this documentary is that it does show a lot of sides to Shep but it does not piece the puzzle together or weave together in a straight manner. There are times when I felt the documentary bounced around from Shep being a showbiz exec to being this family man to focusing on his desire to have a child. It didn’t really string together to well and it felt like it shift topics too often. Even seeing at the end how Shep talks about wanting to be a father one day makes me wonder what the whole point of the documentary is. Like what’s the main point? Is it about Shep? About his entertainment pursuits? Or his desire to have a family? It was either too much for a biographical documentary or it was unevenly done. I know this is Myers’ first documentary but he could have been done more organized.

I also confess that I first thought this documentary was more of a mockumentary along the likes of This Is Spinal Tap. There were times I questioned: “Was Shep the one behind the whole Alice Cooper chicken incident?” or “Did Shep really discover them or promote them?”I especially questioned Anne Murray because I thought she was Bruce Allen’s promotion. Later on I learned more so I’m more comfortable with believing what I saw.

Supermensch is an interesting and intriguing documentary about the life, times, successes and even the heart of Shep Gordon. However it was not unevenly organized and didn’t make sense to what the whole point of the documentary was about. Sure it had lots of points, but what was the whole point?

VIFF 2012 Review – High Five: An Adoption Saga

The Wards and their five adopted children are the focus in the documentary High Five.

High Five is a documentary filmed over a five-year period. It’s a story about international adoption and about a couple’s iron will to let their heart win out over politics, finances, and inter-family strife in their attempt to adopt and parent five Ukrainian siblings. We don’t get what we expect to have but we do get an eye opener on the subject of international adoption and the lives of all seven.

We first meet Cathy and Martin Ward, a couple from Surrey, BC who’ve always wanted children. A car accident to Cathy ten years earlier to which she constantly needs operations for even now makes pregnancy very risky. They first decided to play host to a 7 year-old Ukrainian orphan named Alyona in 2006. During the visit, they learn that Alyona have additional siblings. They bring Alyona with her next oldest sibling Snezana the next year. The following year they visit all five at the orphanage in Gorodnya, Ukraine. They decide to adopt all five but laws allow them to only adopt two at the time. They first adopt Alyona and Snezana but promise the other three–Older siblings Yulia and Sergey and youngest sibling brother Sascha–that they will adopt them the following year. Politics delay the adoption of the other two siblings for years. After much struggle–political, financial and emotional–the three other siblings are finally adopted. Problem solved, right?

Not completely. Even before the full adoption process we learn of potential problems that could arise. The five come from an abusive household in Ukraine where their mother died and their stepfather was an abusive alcoholic. It took the courts to remove the children from the stepfather and put them in the orphanage. All five remember the abuse very well. The gap between the two adoption periods also has an effect on the siblings too as there’s a sense Yulia has lost some feelings to the two others. One thing to keep in mind is that Yulia, the oldest daughter of the five, acted as the mother figure to her four younger siblings in the orphanage. There are also the health problems of the two. Martin is a nurse at the BC Children’s Hospital but Cathy needs frequent surgery from her car accident and Martin has a bout of the flesh-eating virus. Sergey himself has a growth stunt that has slowed his growing down to which he’s only 4’6″ at the age of 17. The adoption process is also a financial risk. The process was very costly and Martin would have to take a nursing job in the territories to help make finances more manageable. Then there’s the fact that the siblings are growing up. There’s always growing pains and approaching adulthood for some. Even Sergey returns to Ukraine temporarily for better job opportunities.

The biggest difficulty appears to be the relationship of the family with Yulia. Yulia has always been a sensitive and emotional girl. Since the adoption, Yulia would now have to go from the mother-figure to the parented. This does not fit well with her as she’s so used to being the mother figure. Her relationship with Martin is mostly unaffected but it’s sour with Cathy. The bad vibe also doesn’t go well with the other siblings as they find her hard to stand, even Sergey whom she’s always been the closest with. On top of it, she’s a growing girl who’s graduating from high school, working a job, has a boyfriend and is entering adulthood. She had made two trips to Ukraine both for employment purposes and to meet with another sibling of theirs who was adopted by a Ukrainian family.

The documentary ends with Yulia still in Ukraine. She still has a negative attitude: “I have no mother.” The other four are still seen being parented by Martin and Cathy. The documentary ends with the six on a local snowboarding trip. As Martin looks out to them as they’re having fun, we’re left wondering what he’s thinking about as he watches them. As for the documentary’s ending, it ends with a ‘to be continued’ ending. It leaves off in the present as the continuing story that it is and leaves one asking questions. Will Yulia return to the family? Will the five be one again? Will any of the other sibling try to pursue opportunities in Ukraine? Those are questions only time has the answers for.

This documentary is a good example of international adoption and how it doesn’t always worked out as wished. It didn’t have a completely happy ending nor did it have a tragic ending. It just presents the story as is and is able to balance the positive aspects with the negative aspects. As I just said, this documentary ends without a real ending. It’s a story that continues to this day with the cameras no longer rolling and will have changes to the lives of all seven over the years. Nevertheless I wish the Wards and the five all the best in the future.

Directors Yulia Ivanova and Boris Ivanov did a very good job of filming this story which appears to be like a daily or yearly chronology of the adoption story over the five-year period. Even though most of the documentary is narrated by Martin, the story is seen through a wide variety of angles: both the parents and the siblings themselves. There are moments when it’s about the family and moments when it’s about one individual. They give the right focus for each situation. Sometimes they try to be mediators in this situation by attempting to help the interviewed subjects by giving advice behind the camera. That doesn’t become a weakness for the documentary. This documentary does give a feel of being like a reality show but this is not a ‘reality show’ as one would commonly associate with popular reality TV. There’s no sensationalism or explosive brattitudes. This is a real situation with real human emotions present and real problems and crises arising in the adoption process.

This is another documentary that’s meant more for the television than for the big screen. The fact that it’s produced in association with the Knowledge Network is the best example of why. From what I heard at the screening, it will be shown on The Knowledge Network in British Columbia in December. I have no information about whether there will be a DVD release for it. I feel it’s worth a DVD release since this is good teaching material. Those interested in international adoption will get a good experience to what it’s like and the potential risks that lay ahead.

High Five is as much a documentary that tells a story as it teaches. It presents a common story of international adoption that presents the viewer with the stories of the individuals as much as it does with the family. It’s worth watching.

Documentary Review: First Position

Rebecca Houseknecht gets ready something more than a dance competition in First Position.

“You have five minutes of stage to prove why you deserve this chance.”

I went to see First Position a week or two back because I wanted to finally make use out of movie tickets for a certain cinema I won during an Oscar party. I’m glad I did. It’s a unique outlook on the art of ballet dancing, the children that aspire to excel, and the Youth America Grand Prix competition which is a potential ticket for many futures in the dance. It left me with a surprising outlook and I now know more.

Before I go into reviewing First Position, I’d like to explain the Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP) competition. The competition was created in 1999 by two former dancers of the Bolshoi Ballet. The competition is not just a top dance competition but a potential ticket to futures in dance. Many dancers are awarded scholarships to various renowned dance academies from around the world. The total value of scholarships are estimated to be $250,000 annually and they range from summer intensives to full-year schooling. Dancing jobs are also offered from renowned ballet ensembles worldwide. Many dance companies have considered this competition a ‘game-changer in dance’ or a ‘dancer’s marketplace’ ever since it began.

As for the YAGP competitions, they consist of semifinals contested in twelve American cities and five foreign cities and the finals in New York. The individual competitions are divided into three age divisions: pre-competitive (11 and under), junior (12-14) and senior (15-19). The junior and senior divisions have Grand Prix awards and the pre-competitive division has a Hope Award. Medals are awarded in each age division with men and women separately. There are also competitions in Pas de Deux and Ensembles with medals awarded. There are also special awards given out at the end.

The YAGP may start with an annual total of 5000 dancers competing in the semifinals and almost 300 dancers in the finals in New York City annually but the movie focuses specifically on six in the 2010 competition:

-Rebecca Houseknecht, 17: The Maryland teen is a self-described ‘princess’ and has an obsession with the color pink. She’s been dancing and competing her whole life. Now that she’s on the verge of graduating high school she wants to dance professionally. Competing at the YAGP could open the door for opportunity. Nevertheless she’s nervous since she knows chances are slim.

-Joan Sebastian Zamora, 16: A Colombian so good at dancing, he had to move to the renowned The Rock Dance Academy in Philadelphia to improve his skills. Ballet is his passion. He receives a lot of support from his family and frequently talks with them from thousands of miles away. He’s hoping to become a professional dancer but is now chasing a scholarship from a top academy.

-Michaela DePrince, 15: A refugee from Sierra Leone who was shunned in an orphanage as the ‘devil’s child’ for vitiligo discoloring her skin. She carried a picture of a ballerina with her during her days in the refugee camp and dreamed of being that woman. Adopted by a white American family at age 4 along with another girl from the refugee camp, she looks back at her past saying: “It’s a miracle I’m even here.” She’s come this far training at a top professional school but wants to take things further.

-Miko Fogarty, 12: The daughter of a Japanese mother and British father, her mother was a dancer in her native Japan and she took to the love of dance instantly. Unlike most children who are either influenced or forced into things by their parents, she shares the same love of dancing as her mother and a special bond with her.

-Aran Bell, 11: A real-life Billy Elliot. It’s a surprise that this ballet prodigy is the only dancer in his family. An American boy living in Naples, Italy where his military father is stationed, Aran trains at a renowned school in Rome. Being 11 doesn’t excuse him from training over 30 hours a week, but Aran loves ballet enough to commit himself to it.

-Jules “J.J.” Fogarty, 10: Miko’s younger brother. He too is very skilled of a dancer but he doesn’t seem to be the dancer type his sister and mother are. He lacks the passion shared by his mother and sister but will he continue on or give out?

Throughout the documentary, there are many factors about the life of a young ballet student. One starts when a judge says “Kids who are pursuing ballet as a career give up their childhood.” Even Michaela will acknowledge: “You’ve been working your body to death since five.” We see the childhoods of all six. All six may train an excruciating number of hours a week but they all have time for fun, even those that are home-schooled or take correspondence learning. Rebecca points out she has fun with friends and a boyfriend: “I feel I lead a pretty normal life”. We see Michaela talking and eating with her friends. We see Aran play catch and skate on his skateboard. He has a BB gun, toy cars and many teddy bears. Miko herself says: “I think I’ve had the right amount of childhood and the right amount of ballet.” Maybe children pursuing dancing do have a childhood. Just a different one than most of us.

Other themes about ballet enter the picture in the film too. One is the importance of the family dynamic in supporting the child chasing their dream of dancing. They may be lucky like Michaela and Rebecca to live near a top notch school or they may be like Joan Sebastian’s family whom Joan only sees a few times out of the year. Nevertheless the support is evident for all in an art that involves a lot of time and a lot of money. Another is the difference between loving dance and liking it. It becomes evident with J.J. as he admits that he likes dancing but doesn’t love it enough to devote the huge number of hours any longer. Viewers may have even sensed that at the beginning. Another element included is race and gender. Michaela talks about the flack she hears like: “blacks lack the grace to excel in ballet.” Joan Sebastian mentions of an African-Cuban ballet dancer as his idol and inspiration. Aran keeps his dancing private from his classmates: “A lot of men think ballet is not what it is.” On the other hand Joan Sebastian’s six year-old little brother wants to be a dancer just like Joan.

As the competition progresses from the semifinals to the finals, we also see other aspects of ballet come to light. One is highlighted in a conversation with Rebecca and her dancing friends about the competitiveness of the dancers. She mentions how when she gives a compliment, many react to her with suspicion. The funny thing is while many people believe ballerinas to have snobby catty personalities, all the dancers profiled in the movie have very likeable personalities. Another aspect is dancers and eating. To the surprise of many, all the dancers featured have big appetites and admit to eating a lot. There’s been a lot of talk about dancers and eating disorders but the dancers’ eating reminds us that a dancer with an eating disorder like anorexia won’t have the energy to train or perform well. So good eating is necessary. Another aspect is dancing injuries. They range from blisters to pulled muscles to inflamed toe joints to popped knees to the unspeakable. It shouldn’t surprise you with training 30 or more hours a week. What would surprise you is that dancers are expected to perform with the injuries and still make it look pretty. That could lead to further aggravation. Many dancing careers have been cut short because of injury. Surprising how watching ballet performances are beautiful but the training part has a lot of ugliness.

Yes, the film shows a lot of themes and aspects of ballet as it goes from showcasing the training to the home life to the competition. Competition has some aspects of its own. First is the semifinals held in the various cities. As I mentioned, a total of 5000 dancers try out in the semis to become amongst the 300 that qualify for the finals in New York. They show all six competing in their own semifinal competitions but the most eye-catching were that of Miko, J.J. and Aran. Miko falls during the first performance in her semifinal. Her mother always blames herself whenever Miko falls. Nevertheless we’re made aware that the judges like a good recovery. Miko performs well during the second performance and she qualifies. J.J. also qualifies as he’s given special consideration for his age. Even though Aran is American, he competes in the European semifinals. We’re also introduced to Aran’s friend from Israel. Her name is Gaya Bommer and she’s a dancer trained by her mother. They form a special friendship even though they’re miles apart and Gaya can’t speak any English.

One thing we should remember is that the semifinals are held anywhere from two to six months before the finals. A lot can happen within that time. That’s the time when J.J. decided to quit ballet. This breaks his mother’s heart as he quits before the finals. Miko and the other dancers continue on. Nevertheless some face their own pressures. Joan Sebastian returns to visit his family in Colombia. It’s a warm homecoming visit. The family is from modest means. They know dancers have a short career life but they encourage Joan to chase his dream. Rebecca still hopes for the YAGP to be her chance for a dancing job with a company but we hear from her mother that many companies have either hired less new dancers or let go of some existing ones. We’re even told by a judge at the beginning that there are many dancers but few will get good work dancing. Then Michaela faces an aggravated foot injury. It’s starting to flare up shortly before the Finals. She’s uncertain if she will perform well.

Then the 2010 YAGP finals take place. There are anywhere from 200 to 300 dancers from around the world competing in both individual and group competitions. The film focuses solely on the individual competitions. Two things the film showcases about the finals outside of the featured dancers’ performances is firstly how international the competition is. There are dancers from a multitude of countries competing here even though most of the semis were held in the US. Another is how even in a tight competition like this, bad steps, stumbles and falls do happen. Reactions from the dancers are not pleasant at all. One teen male was seen backstage walking silently angry over his fall. Another girl’s instructor reacts with frustration after her fall. Another young boy bursts into tears at the end of his performance. We’re also told by one of the dancers that hitting or missing at the YAGP could actually hurt one’s chances of getting their career. A reminder that while the YAGP has become a game-changer as a dancer marketplace, it’s also a game-changer for one’s reputation in the world of dance. Yes, the YAGP is a competition a lot like a sports competition but it included the same cruel unforgiving attitude of showbiz mixed in.

Then it’s time for the featured dancers to perform. Both Aran and Gaya are magnificent. Rebecca also dances well. Joan Sebastian flies brilliantly. However the performances with the biggest interest were Miko and Michaela. Miko displays the confidence and the flawlessness that was missing from the semifinals. And Michaela performs excellently and gracefully as if the injury wasn’t there. After the dancing is over, it’s time to award the prizes and the scholarships. You can find out the results of those over at the YAGP website. I’ll just say some were rewarded with prizes and some were rewarded with scholarships to renowned academies. Those with scholarships looked forward to a new life and for better things to come. Those that won prizes continued on dancing preparing for next year’s competition. J.J. had since been pushed into academics. His mother told him if he won’t shoot high in dancing, he’s left to shoot high in his schooling. As for Rebecca–SPOILER WARNING–she was the only one of the featured dancers who left the competition without a prize, scholarship or a job offer. We learn in the epilogue she was later offered a job at a Washington Dance Ensemble.

One of the best qualities of this documentary is that it doesn’t just simply take you into the lives of the participants but makes you want each of them to achieve. We see in front of our eyes how much dance means to them. It’s a given. If they’re born to do it and they love it enough to work hard at it, it’s natural for one to want them to excel at it. Even though we’re reminded of all the odds, we still want them to succeed in the end because we feel they deserve it. Director Bess Kargman is a former dancer herself so she has first-hand knowledge of all the odds and ends of training and competing in dance. The YAGP started long after her childhood ended but she still knows of all the right elements to place in the movie such as the training, the outside factors, the semifinal highlights, the time in between and the finals.

She succeeded in giving the audience a look at the struggles, the ugliness, the stresses and the triumphs from the dancers’ points of view. It will surely open a lot of people’s eyes about what it’s like to be a young dancer. Also it’s interesting how a lot of moviegoers got a perception of the ballet world after seeing Black Swan. The movie had some truth to it but not all of it is completely true. Even with the dancers shown here, none of them appeared to be as insecure as Nina. They all had their own issued but they were all likeable, confident and exhibited high self esteem. This documentary sure changed what I thought about kids in ballet. The film also got me interested in next year’s YAGP.

Another thing that’s unique about this documentary is that it’s one of few that one can bring their children to see. There were children in the audience when I attended and that’s a good thing. I feel any child who sees this will learn a lot about dance and competing. Most girls dream of being ballerinas. This will show them that to be successful in ballet you not only have to dance as light and pretty as a swan but have a body of steel and a will of iron to make it. Most girls dream of being it. Few are willing to put in the hours and years to achieve it. Also it shows that boys who want to make it not only have to have the same iron will but a thick skin to the common negative stigma associated with boys in ballet not just from other boys but some adults too. It’s the Billy Elliot story all too often. All the boys shown here love it too much to quit over any teasing. The father of The Rock dancer Derek Dunn, who’s a former YAGP winner, said: “I have to say I never expected my son to be a dancer but I couldn’t be prouder.” Here’s to those boys.

First Position is not only an eye-opener of a documentary but it’s engaging to the audience and even exciting especially when the audience shares the same passion as the dancers. Definitely a documentary worth seeing.

Also in case you’re interested in the Youth America Grand Prix itself, the official website is at: http://www.yagp.org/ YAGP 2013 semifinals have already started with the first semis, the South American semis, being held in Santos, Brazil as I speak. Also next year’s finals will be held in NYC on April 12th to 17th. A good chance to catch the future of dance.

From Summer Movie Sizzle To September Slump

We’ve already seen the latest summer movie season come and go. The excitement, the hits, the blockbusters, the special effects, the stars, the flops, the sleeper surprises. It all shaped the summer movie season of 2011, which I will elaborate on in a future article. The Labor Day always opens the movie month of September up on a bright note.

What happens in the next three or four weeks should be known as the September Slump. Now that all the big movies had the summer to reap in the money, it’s now quieter fare during September. That usually makes for a low box office month. In fact September has the lowest box office gross of any month of the year. For the record, the highest grossing September was back in 2007 with $554.7 million. Also for the record, the highest opening weekend for a September release is Sweet Home Alabama way back in 2002 with $35.6 million. Pretty paltry compared to other months, eh?

So you think that the month of September should have some drab fare, right? Wrong. There are lots of reasons to go see a movie in September even though you’re no longer on vacation and back at work or back to school. Look what the month has:

THIS WEEKEND:

Contagion: Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law. Medical drama about trying to stop an airborne virus from spreading into an epidemic.

Warrior: Tom Hardy, Nick Nolte, Joel Edgerton. Could this be the first hit movie about Mixed Martial Arts?

Bucky Larson: Born To Be A Star: Nick Swardson, Don Johnson, Christina Ricci. An over-the-top comedy with an over-the-top scenario.

The Black Power Mixtape 1968-1975 Excellent for those who are into documentaries.

Main Street (limited): Colin Firth, Ellen Burstyn, Patricia Clarkson. Colin Firth plays an American! A Southern one!

September 16:

Drive: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston. A Hollywood stuntman who moonlights with the underworld is on the run.

I Don’t Know How She Does It: Sarah Jessica Parker, Pierce Brosnan, Kelsey Grammer. A businesswoman who can juggle her career, family and marriage until she meets her business associate.

Straw Dogs: James Marsden, Kate Bosworth. When an L.A. Screenwriter relocates to his wife’s Southern hometown, it leads to some Southern discomfort.

Restless (limited): Mia Wasikowska stars in a dark ropmantic drama directed by Gus Van Sant.

September 23:

Moneyball: Brad Pitt, Robin Wright, Jonah Hill. Can a computer design a winning baseball team on a budget? You be the judge.

Abduction: Taylor Lautner, Lily Collins, Alfred Molina. Can Taylor Lautner be bankable with something other than Jacob? And with his shirt still on? Stay tuned.

Machine Gun Preacher: Gerard Butler, Michelle Monaghan, Michael Shannon. A true story of a reformed bad boy becoming a crusader for Sudanese children.

Killer Elite: Jason Statham, Clive Owen, Robert de Niro. A kidnapping drama that will capture the action movie crowd.

Puncture (limited): A legal drama starring Chris Evans.

Dolphin Tale: A family movie starring Morgan Freeman.

You may have noticed I left out September 30, right? And for good reason. That weekend has more days in October than September. So there you go. Some good movie choices for the month of September. Even movies already out like The Help and The Debt make for good choices about this time. I’m sure even in your hectic schedule or workload, overtime, or homework or family business, you can find time for a movie.

SOURCES CITED:

Box Office Mojo

IMDB