Al Helm: Martin Luther King in Palestine
Offering a fresh perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “Al Helm” (Arabic for “The Dream”) follows an African-American Christian gospel choir as they team up with a troupe from the Palestinian National Theater to perform a play about Martin Luther King, Jr., and spread the concept of equality through non-violence to the people of the West Bank. Filmmaker Connie Field captures the power of art to change the way people think as both the Americans and Palestinians find they have much to learn from each other in this unique cultural exchange, providing new insight into life in Palestine under occupation and how a young generation is changing the political conversation through non-violent acts of protest.
Louis Ortiz was an unemployed single father living in the Bronx when his fate changed for the better: after shaving off his goatee, people noticed he was a dead ringer for President Barack Obama. Capitalizing on his resemblance to the POTUS, Ortiz honed his Obama act with the help of a casting agent who manages a group of political impersonators (including Mitt Romney and a sleazy Bill Clinton), and hit the road in pursuit of an unlikely version of the American Dream. First time director Ryan Murdock follows Ortiz’s story with humor and heart, charting his transformation and the obstacles he overcomes alongside the changes taking place in America during Obama’s first two terms in office. Along the way, we discover something interesting about what it means to be someone you’re not.
The Case Against 8
In 2008, the passing of Proposition 8 revoked marriage rights for same-sex couples in California just months after the state Supreme Court legalized it. Here’s your all-access pass behind the scenes of the five-year journey to overturn Proposition 8, a landmark legal battle over one of the most vital civil rights issues of our time. This rousing Sundance award winner by filmmakers Ben Cotner and Ryan White follows history in the making from the very beginning of the battle to the climactic moment when two LGBT activist couples and their larger-than-life lawyers from opposite sides of the political spectrum (who had previously butted heads in the 2000 Bush v. Gore case) team up together to beat the right wing, in front of a right wing Supreme Court.
In the Badlands of South Dakota in the summer of 1990, a team of amateur paleontologists led by Peter Larson made the discovery of a lifetime: the world’s largest and most complete T. Rex fossil, which the team named “Sue” after the volunteer who first spotted the dinosaur. But Larson’s joy was short lived- an epic legal battle soon began over the rights to Sue, with Larson’s team, the US government, and Native American tribes each claiming ownership of the fossil. Director Todd Douglas Miller’s compelling documentary follows this stranger-than-fiction David vs. Goliath story over the course of a decade, as working class dreams are attacked by governmental and corporate powers.
The German Doctor (Wakolda)
A fictionalized account of a missing chapter in the life of one of the 20th century’s most notorious war criminals, this gripping drama opens in a German community in Patagonia in 1960. Josef Mengele (the “Angel of Death”) is hiding there following revelations of the cruel and inhumane experiments performed on concentration camp inmates at his behest. We meet Mengele through the eyes of twelve-year-old Lilith, whose family is unknowingly hosting the fugitive in their hotel. During their time together, Mengele takes a sinister interest in naïve Lilith, who proves a willing party to his new experiments to help make her taller. Argentina’s submission for Academy Award Nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, “The German Doctor” is a provocative thriller tinged with mystery and suspense.
Expanded from her short film of the same name (TCFF ‘12), writer/director Kat Candler’s hard-hitting family drama explores adolescent angst through the eyes of 13-year-old hellraiser Jacob. In a small rural town in southeast Texas, single father Hollis (Aaron Paul of “Breaking Bad”) has withdrawn to boozy depression following the death of his wife, and doesn’t have much in the way of fatherhood to offer his two boys. Left unattended, Jacob’s wild antics threaten to bring the family to collapse when his latest stunt draws the attention of Child Protective Services, and Jacob’s younger brother is removed from his father’s custody. A breakout hit at Sundance, this authentic and haunting family drama offers the very best of American indie cinema, including masterful performances by Aaron Paul and teenage newcomer Josh Wiggins.
With college tuition fees skyrocketing, student loan debt passing the trillion dollar mark, and recent graduates struggling to find employment, where are the young adults of today to turn for a worthwhile higher education? Filmmaker Andrew Rossi (“Page One: Inside the New York Times”) traverses the country to provide a panoramic view of education in America during a period of monumental change, profiling traditional universities as well as online courses, free schools, and other alternatives to the standard model. A must-see for anyone with an interest in our country’s education system, “Ivory Tower” questions the increasingly outrageous costs of college education and the burden that business-driven university administrations place on our society.
Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere
In 2006, Dr. Steven Haataja had just settled into his new post as a math professor at the local college in the sleepy town of Chadron, population 5,600, in the far western plains of Nebraska. Later that year, he would disappear without a trace until his body was discovered three months later, burned beyond recognition. The gruesome discovery sets the town reeling, with conspiracy theories running rampant and locals eager to weigh in with their suspicions. Following the lead of author Poe Ballantine- whose acclaimed memoir inspired the film—filmmaker Dave Jannetta smartly leads us through the “Twin Peaks” –like community of Chadron and the unsolved mystery of Haataja’s bizarre death, with morbid humor and a keen eye for eccentric characters.
Forget what you know about Colombian drug trafficking movies. Executive produced by Spike Lee and shot entirely on location in the violent epicenter of Colombia’s drug trade, director Josef Kubota Wladyka’s airtight drama grabs you early on and doesn’t let go. We meet estranged brothers Jacobo and Delio, who have little in common: stern Jacobo is an experienced drug runner whose young son was murdered after he mouthed off to a paramilitary gang, while the uninitiated young Delio has an infant son at home and dreams of being a rapper. Reunited by coincidence and tasked with towing millions of dollars worth of cocaine behind a fishing boat to Panama along the dense jungle coastline, the brothers must come together to avoid certain death when the inevitable trouble arises.
Majestic underwater photography and an essential environmental message make this compelling portrait of a true American pioneer one of the most enlightening, stunning, and inspiring documentaries we’ve seen this year. Dr. Sylvia Earle is a living legend; as an oceanographer, explorer, and eco-activist, she broke barriers as a scientist in a community that had a hard time seeing her as more than a pretty girl in a swim suit. Feeling most at home underwater, Earle’s exuberant exploration of the deep seas has led to unprecedented discoveries. And now nearing 80 years old, with 7,000+ hours spent underwater, Earle is one of the foremost advocates for our imperiled oceans, whose poor conditions portend potentially disastrous implications for human life. Join Dr. Earle on her globetrotting mission to create “Hope Spots” protected from human interference, and her infectious passion will leap off the screen and into your heart.
Allowed unprecedented access to Michigan-native Mitt Romney on the campaign trail—and complete creative control over the resulting documentary, provided no footage was released until after the 2012 presidential election—filmmaker Greg Whiteley delivers an amazingly candid portrait of the life of a major presidential hopeful. With a fly-on-the-wall approach, this fascinating documentary downplays the politics in favor of showing the man behind the public figure, capturing small moments between Romney and his close-knit family with home movie-like intimacy over the course of six years and two failed campaigns- from his besting at the primaries by John McCain in 2008 to the eventual loss to Barack Obama in 2012. Both revelatory and humanizing, this absorbing documentary will show you Mitt in a whole new light.
The limits of “Love Thy Neighbor” and the American Dream are tested in this superior, richly layered, searingly American documentary about a small town turned boomtown after hydraulic fracturing uncovers a rich oil field in North Dakota. Tens of thousands of unemployed men descend on the state, only to find slim work prospects and nowhere to sleep. Meanwhile, in the nearby small town of Williston, Pastor Reinke believes it is his duty to turn his Lutheran Church into a makeshift dorm and counseling center for the migrants each night. Much of the community opposes his approach, and even want to deny the homeless any services. Filmmaker Jesse Moss spent two years embedded in Williston to make this devastating masterpiece, complete with a twist ending you probably won’t see coming.
In the not-so-distant future, failed efforts to halt global warming have left the Earth frozen in a second ice age. Thanks to the vision of a benevolent billionaire, the last surviving members of the human race are confined to a state-of-the-art train that acts as a sort of Noah’s Ark, kept on a perpetually speeding journey around the globe. The train’s first class passengers enjoy all the luxuries of a lavish life; for the lower-class workers trapped in the rear of the train, things aren’t quite so rosy. Tired of being confined to the bottom caste, Curtis (Chris Evans) rallies his ragtag comrades to rebel against the ruling class, which is led by an evil prime minister tasked with maintaining the status quo (Tilda Swinton, in a scene-stealing role). One of the best sci-fi films in years, the first English-language film from Korean director Bong Joon-ho (“The Host,” TCFF ‘07) is a thrilling, action-packed dystopian vision.
Sneak Preview: Stations of the Cross (Kreuzweg)
As a pious Catholic in modern Germany, fourteen-year-old Maria won’t let anything get in the way of her devotion to her faith—even if it means being picked on at school and missing out on the social life the other kids around her get to enjoy. Told in 14 chapters mirroring the 14 stations of the cross (the stages of Christ’s condemnation to death), this film follows Maria as she takes on the impossibly heavy burden of expectations from her overbearing mother and extremely strict priest. But her zealous approach to religion and desire to do the right thing leads her down a dangerous path of self-sacrifice. A carefully crafted and darkly comic arthouse masterpiece about the dangers of religious conservatism, this absorbing film from acclaimed director Dietrich Brüggemann took home Best Screenplay at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, and is at the top of the must-see list for this year’s Traverse City Film Festival.
Summer of Blood
Part Woody Allen-esque self-deprecator, part schlubby-but-loveable Judd Apatovian man-child, writer-director-star Onur Tukel is a force to be reckoned with in this outrageously hilarious and goofy comedy. Tukel plays Eric, an egotistical and unambitious complainer who doesn’t have the good sense to say yes when his far-too-good-for-him girlfriend proposes. With limited career prospects, an inability to commit, and severe shortcomings in the bedroom, Eric is just about every Match.com-er’s worst nightmare. But just when our bumbling antihero seems to have hit rock bottom following a bizarre encounter one night, he wakes up with a new lease on life—and an insatiable thirst for blood. Transformed into a literal lady-killer, Eric embarks on a quest to win back the one that got away in this freewheeling Brooklyn love story.