SHORT: Body Team 12 (2015)

This 12 minute short is a heartbreaking look at Body Team 12, a team of Liberian Red Cross workers who removed the bodies of those that died from Ebola at the height of its outbreak. I didn’t go into this documentary expecting it to hit quite as hard as it did, purely because of its short length, nor did I anticipate the reveal of the push back that the team faced. It profiles the only female member of the body collection team, Garmai Sumo, who discloses the stigma she faces: friends and family no longer want anything to do with her upon learning what she does. At their own risk, these people removed the bodies from grief stricken families, who often didn’t want to let go. We see several men go so far as to threaten the group with arson when the team tries to remove their loved one’s body. This is a necessary portrayal of a thankless and immensely important job and one that I am grateful for.

Meru documentary with Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin

Meru (2015)

Meru documents the attempts of three climbers to become the first to scale the “Shark’s fin” route on Meru Peak in the Garhwal Himalayas of India. A little perspective because, if you’re like me, you know fuck all about mountaineering: Meru Peak is widely considered by climbers to be among the most challenging ascents in the world. Many attempts had been made to scale it, but none were successful. The mountain demands a high level of competency in every type of climbing and has no ground to pitch a tent on, requiring the use of portaledges – the hanging tent that we see the climbers holed up in during the first scene in the film.

Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk are in that tent. Anker is the highest profile climber among them, having completed many successful ascents and having found George Mallory’s body on Mount Everest. Adding to the incredulity of the adventure, Chin and Ozturk film the documentary themselves. I don’t need to tell you how gorgeous (and/or nauseating depending on your tolerance for heights) the cinematography is – it is a mountain climbing documentary, after all. There are also interwoven interviews with the climbers’ family and Jon Krakauer, author of Into Thin Air, who provides a lot of history and perspective on alpinist climbing.

There are a lot of aspects to this film and events that occur that I don’t wish to spoil here. It’s enthralling. And horrifying. And really, it’s pretty personal – it’s a privilege to be able to see the full scope of their endeavor, to be with them on the mountain, and to witness their total dedication to the task and to each other.

ed note: I checked out Meru on Amazon Prime because Tim Ferriss has been pretty excited and vocal about it and had Jimmy Chin on his podcast, which I recommend checking out also.

After Tiller documentary

After Tiller (2013)

Dr. George Tiller, one of the few doctors in the United States able to perform third-trimester abortions, was murdered in 2009. An anti-abortion activist gunned down Tiller while he was ushering during a church service. I don’t need to remind you that these people call themselves pro-life. After Tiller, released in 2013, shares what day to day life is like for the four remaining late-term abortion providers after Tiller’s assassination. It’s as maddening and grim as you would expect.

We learn about how a third-trimester abortion is performed. It can sometimes be a four day long procedure. After counseling, the woman is given a drug to dilate her cervix, injected abdominally with a euthanizing drug, and then through induced labor delivers a stillborn. Then she receives more counseling. These abortions constitute less than 1% of all abortions in the country.

The remaining doctors are Warren Hern, Susan Robinson, Shelley Sella, and LeRoy Carhart, the latter three of whom worked with Tiller in his Wichita clinic. We watch them counseling women in grief, the camera lens lingering on their hands rather than their faces, and I wonder how anyone could think these women are doing this on a whim. Many of them desperately wanted to have a child, but discover late into the pregnancy that the baby isn’t viable. Fetal abnormalities mean that the baby would have a short, painful life.

There’s a moment where Dr. Robinson says, “I can’t retire, my god, there aren’t enough of us,” echoing what I had been thinking throughout the film up until that point. We see a conversation between Dr. Hern and his mother, where she expresses her hopes that one day someone else can take up his practice and he can move on and live out the rest of his life. His mother receives death threats. They all do – not just the doctors, but the families of those doctors. Someone shot five bullets into Dr. Hern’s clinic in 1988. 21 of Dr. Carhart’s horses died when someone set fire to his barn and his home in 1991. I don’t know how they have the strength to continue.

After Tiller is a thoughtful, oftentimes enlightening film that humanizes both doctors and patients. It feels very necessary as we continue to have the abortion debate long after Roe v. Wade.

SHORT: Battle of the Baristas (2015)

Battle of the Baristas is a ~20 minute documentary following three baristas competing in the 2015 U.S. Coffee Championships, the “Olympics of coffee.” In this annual competition the baristas are given three tasks: to prepare four espressos, four cappuccinos, and four signature beverages of their own creation, all while giving a good presentation to the judges.  The winner goes on to represent the U.S. in the World Coffee Championship.

I’d never heard of barista competitions or of the U.S. Coffee Championships prior to finding this short documentary. I wasn’t surprised to learn of it,  given the national obsession with coffee, but I was surprised to see that the competing baristas heavily skewed male. After all, women tend to be the face of service work. s Also, yes, these guys look about how you would expect: brown-haired, bespectacled or tatted up, clad in button-downs and sporting neatly trimmed facial hair situations. I’m avoiding the H word here.

I’ve seen a lot of folks criticizing the competition and dismissing it as frivolous, but I’m willing to bet they enjoy something that someone else out there finds trivial. Who are we to decide what other people should care about? (That said, I do sometimes question the merit of rock paper scissors competitions…)

I’d file this documentary under “mildly interesting.”

Ed. note #1: No more documentaries about drinks for a while, I promise!

Ed. note #2: Take a look through Zagat’s channel. There’s some good, short food-related content there. Here’s a recent one about coffee shop etiquette.

SHORT: Obsessives: Soda Pop + Obsessives: Tea

Check out the full list of “Obsessives” mini-documentaries over at Chowhound

Obsessives: Soda Pop is a 12 minute documentary profile of John Nese, owner of Galcos Soda Pop Stop in Los Angeles. This guy really, really knows his soda, and it’s always awesome to see someone speaking passionately and knowledgeably about something they love regardless of what that thing is, really. I almost never drink soda, but I wouldn’t mind taking a visit to this shop. Nese touches on topics of nostalgia, glass bottles vs. plastic bottles and how they affect carbonation, the bullshit that is corn syrup and energy drinks, whether there’s such a thing as good diet soda, small business, etc.

I’ll have a cucumber soda, thank you.

Obsessives: Tea

Even briefer than Obsessives: Soda Pop, this short video just barely touches on the subject of tea, my personal beverage of choice. James Norwood Pratt shows us how to prepare tea in a gaiwan, notes how important filtered water is in producing a quality tea (spoiler: very important, obviously, TEA IS WATER) and ruminates on how “no luxury is cheaper than tea.”

indie game: the movie

Indie Game: The Movie (2012)

Indie Game: The Movie follows a handful of independent video game designers as they struggle to develop and release their games under deadline. We follow Phil Fish, the infamous creator of Fez; Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, creators of Super Meat Boy, and also meet Jonathan Blow, the guy behind the mega popular Braids and (recently released) The Witness. It’s a film less focused on the details of indie game development itself, less of an educational film and more of a personal profile on these particular (extremely flawed) creators. I liked this movie just fine, but in the same way that I can find myself enjoying, say, a TV show where all the characters are complete asshats. Everyone profiled is a smug asshole, save for maybe Edmund McMillen, who still manages to make an inane “I’m in a concentration camp” comparison “joke.”

I enjoy watching documentaries about passionate people and/or about people in their occupation, ranging from Jiro Dreams of Sushi to the less highbrow The Parking Lot Movie. This is like that. Everyone profiled is in various stages of completion on their game; Braids has already been a success for Jonathan Blow, “Team Meat” Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes have finished Super Meat Boy by the documentary’s end, and Phil Fish continues work on Fez.

Phil Fish in particular gets a lot of flack, for good reason – he gradually becomes more and more melodramatic and unsympathetic throughout the film and in his social media presence. I felt for him on one issue, though. About 15 minutes in, he talks about the backlash he receives from an “army of assholes online” re: Fez’s long development process. He notes that teams of 1,000 take years to release a game and his team is a team of two. Between the wait for the 4th and the 5th A Song of Ice and Fire novels, Neil Gaiman responds to someone that feels entitled and let down by G.R.R.M’s slower pace, and it seems apropos here: “George R. R. Martin is not your bitch.” 

So overall, if you have any interest in video games, give this one a shot if you haven’t.

Twinsters (2015)

Twinsters is an absolutely adorable documentary about identical twins Samantha Futerman and Anaïs Bordier, two mid-twentysomethings who were separated at birth and raised in different adoptive families – on different continents, even! A friend of Anaïs discovered Samantha (an actress) on YouTube, noted how similar she looked to his friend, and together they set out to get Samantha’s attention. That’s where this documentary comes in. We see their story in real time as it’s unfolding; it’s a diary-like chronicle starting with their initial texts and Skype chat to their DNA test and eventual first time meet up in London, where Samantha travels from LA to meet Anaïs. Both sisters are charming and have a great dynamic with each other, which makes for a rather pleasant watch. I won’t summarize their entire journey here, ’cause that’s what the film is for, but I will say I’m happy to have experienced part of their journey.


Tiny: A Story About Living Small (2013)

I’ve been meaning to watch Tiny: A Story About Living Small for quite some time now. I discovered the tiny house movement while it was still in its infancy – around 2008-2009 when I first started neurotically reading personal finance blogs and the minimalist blogs that were popular at the time. I was a senior in high school as the recession hit and the idea of these affordable tiny homes made me feel more secure in my future. That, and they’re just pretty damn ingenious.

The film follows a young couple building their first 128 sq ft tiny home in Colorado. The main subject, Christopher Smith, and his girlfriend, Merete Mueller, have no experience building houses and little money to work with. There are long shots of him working and struggling with building the house within his time constraints. It brings in lots of familiar faces from the tiny house movement – Jay Shafer of Tumbleweed Tiny Houses, Tammy Strobel of Rowdy Kittens, and Deedee Willliams, for example. My favorite parts of the film are when these folks share what drove them to downsize and show off their homes.

It’s a slow burn of a documentary and feels just a smidge too long clocking in at about an hour. It has the bones of what could be a lengthier feature film on the subject, ideally one with the focus on people already living in a tiny house. Expect: lots of building shots, lots of relaxing shots of Colorado landscape, some interviews and pictures. Don’t expect: a super-engaging subject in Chris.

Undrinkable: The Flint Water Emergency (2016)

Undrinkable is a short student project that I came across by way of r/documentaries. The doc takes five minutes to hit its stride, but overall does a good job of reporting the Flint water crisis and detailing how it came to get as bad as it is (spoiler: government inaction.) The water in Flint, Michigan has been officially contaminated with lead since September at least, but has been undrinkable for nearly two years due to the government’s denial that the water became contaminated after the city’s switch in water source. Thousands of children have been exposed to lead and will go on to experience severe health problems that will affect them for the rest of their life. The government so far has not gotten its act together enough to supply all Flint residents with non-charity donated bottled water and filters, never mind fixing the actual problem of lead in the water source or the problem of corroded lead pipes in residents’ homes. Interviews with Flint residents are a large part of the documentary and show just how outraged and jaded the whole city feels, and rightfully so.

Unfortunately the crisis is still ongoing, so the documentary isn’t the end all be all on this issue, but a sobering look at what’s happened so far. Since the documentary came out, the National Guard has stepped up and the number of cases of Legionnaires disease has been reported to have increased since the switch to Flint River water.

Watch it here.

in defense of food, michael pollan

In Defense of Food (2015)

In Defense of Food is a recent PBS documentary based on Michael Pollan’s book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. Having read the book, I can assure you: it’s perfectly okay to watch this film in lieu of reading the book. This isn’t Harry Potter. (I know, right)

This documentary makes the information from his original work even more condensed and memorable. It’s not teaming with new knowledge – it’s mostly about the fundamentals: eat vegetables, avoid processed food, etc., the stuff most of us know but may not follow through on. It’s a great primer for those struggling with the kind of dietary information overload that’s so pervasive. Pollan interjects throughout the documentary, breaking down what we should be eating at its most basic level and offering simple guidelines to eating healthy.  It’s not just for nutrition newbies, though, it offers more than that: It touches on the history of food processing in the U.S., how other countries eat and what it is that they’re eating, addresses the history behind the discovery of vitamins, the psychology behind eating, “Nutritionism” and food marketing, and so on.

One of my favorite historical tidbits was when Pollan addresses the nutrient Big Bad of yesterday: protein. He describes how in the early 1900s, Dr. Kellogg launched a crusade against protein using pseudoscience, believing meat to release toxins in your gut and cause cancer. He would prescribe dangerous diets and attempt to dethrone protein in the classic American breakfast with what he and others believed to be the One Nutrient to Rule Them All: carbohydrates. And thus, cereal was born.

School lunches naturally become a point of discussion in the last third of the film and they share some interesting experiments with food placement in lunch lines. As it turns out, if you put, say, a basket full of fruit up near the register in a lunch line at school, fruit sales go up 100% – it’s essentially the same sort of impulse decision that people make when confronted with candy in a checkout line. (Which, just to digress, I’ve seen a lot – I work in retail. People like to say things like “if people wanted candy, they would have gotten candy.” Well, actually, you don’t understand psychology or impulse merchandising. I once upsold 110 Butterfingers in a single shift. 60 of them were to two coworkers who lost a bet to me, but still.)(Don’t impulse buy candy is what i’m saying, steal some kid’s lunch instead)

Some key points:

  • “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” (Sound familiar?)
  • If it came from a plant, eat it. If it was made in a plant, don’t.
  • Eat only foods that will eventually rot.
  • If your great grandparent wouldn’t recognize it as a food, don’t eat it.
  • Everything in moderation. Including moderation.

I’ll leave you with this quote out of context:

“And the FDA said: You can’t do that. You can’t promise immortality with your products.”

Guess you’ll have to watch to find out what product that’s referring to, hey? Watch the full documentary on PBS here.

If you like this documentary, you might like:

literally any of the 5,000 documentaries on the subject of food and agriculture – take your pick. (Food, Inc. is an obvious choice and similarly based on a book, Fast Food Nation)