Tag Archives: Doc Edge Festival

DocEdge 16 | A Billion Lives

The documentary A Billion Lives is the satirical novel-turned-movie Thank You for Smoking brought to life.

Director Aaron Biebert turns a microscope on the history of the tobacco industry, from it’s obscure roots as a ceremonial cleanser used only by Incan priests to the massive leap in popularity during the industrial revolution that turned tobacco into the mushroom cloud estimated to cause a billion people to die early this century.

More than a boring timeline of history though, A Billion Lives delves into the politics, corruption and dirty spin tactics of the fight to keep the public addicted to smoking. The documentary features illuminating interviews with former Executive Director of the World Health Organisation Derek Yach and former President of the World Medical Association Dr. Delon Human, which reveal that even in the early twentieth century studies from the tobacco companies themselves demonstrated that cigarettes were causing death.

Particularly interesting is the interview with David Goerlitz, the man who was the face of Winston Tobacco for years, but became an outspoken opponent of tobacco when his older brother died of cancer. Goerlitz provides an inside look at the massive marketing machine that is Big Tobacco and the vulnerable segments of the population that they targeted. A hint at damning information the tobacco companies were hiding can be surmised from Goerlitz recalling the day he realised that none of the senior tobacco executives smoked. When he asked why, they replied, “We don’t smoke the shit, we just sell it!”

The second half of the documentary focuses on vaping, the revolutionary new alternative to smoking. While Hon Lik, the inventor of vaping, discusses his hopefulness that the invention will save lives, the documentary goes on to investigate in detail all the misinformation being spread about vaping being harmful. A Billion Lives reveals that the anti-vaping lobbies are all funded by companies, and even governments, who have substantial interests in the money made from tobacco.

Public health comes second to capitalism in this documentary that encourages you to question the information you are sold.

The 11th DocEdge Festival takes place in Wellington 4-15 May and Auckland 18-29 May www.docedge.nz

DocEdge 16 | Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise

From the opening scene, this documentary captivates. Viewers are confronted with a mash-up of black and white images and video clips from key moments in the African American Civil Rights Movement of the Twentieth Century – the lynching of fourteen year old Emmett Till, who was murdered for whistling at a white woman in Mississippi, the Greensboro sit-in of 1960, Rosa Parks riding a bus, President Obama and more. It is instantly powerful, and just as captivating for those who know little or nothing about the movement or Angelou.

The first documentary about Angelou, And Still I Rise covers the iconic African American’s life chronologically. Directors Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack seamlessly blend together filmed footage, rare photos and commentaries from those who had known Angelou to create a coherent and interesting film. What is best about this documentary is that Angelou herself is given the primary voice – having only passed away in 2014, Angelou was able to tell her life story first, so we get to hear it in her own words. In a way, this is Angelou’s departing gift to us all – for as those that knew her declare, she was not just a poet, an author, a singer or an actress, but a storyteller.

Angelou’s story beings as a young child in Los Angeles. When her parents separated, Angelou and her brother were put on a train and sent to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. “It was terrible rejection,” Angelou remembers, and goes on to describe life in the South as a young African American girl. Angelou’s childhood was dominated by abuse, both racial and sexual. The Ku Klux Klan made regular visits to the village, and at just seven years old she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. Her attacker’s subsequent murder caused Angelou to become mute for five years, certain that her speaking out was the reason for his death. At sixteen, she became pregnant, and after giving birth to a son, Guy, Angelou began to dance and sing in bars to earn money.

Poetry was next on the cards, and Angelou’s literary journey saw her move to Harlem, the African American cultural hub of New York. During the fifties and sixties Angelou met many famous and influential African Americans, including poet Langston Hughes, author James Baldwin, and civil rights activists Martin Luther King Junior and Malcolm X. Angelou describes her respect for both King and X, praising their different approaches to black equality. Angelou worked with the New York branch of King’s organisation the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and later became an advocate for X’s black nationalist rhetoric after meeting him in Ghana. “I loved him so much,” she recalls, recounting her devastation at his assassination in 1965 and King’s just three years later.

The year after King’s assassination, Angelou’s first autobiography was published. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings covers the early years of Angelou’s life and went on to become hugely successful. She was the first female African American to write about her experiences in such a way, opening the door on ‘hidden’ issues like sexual abuse which many young black girls had experienced.

And Still I Rise covers the next decades of Angelou’s life, during which time she continued writing, acting and speaking, and also married and later divorced British author Paul de Feu. In 1993, Bill Clinton asked Angelou to write a poem for his presidential inauguration. Angelou’s poem, On the Pulse of the Morning, was “an eternal gift to America,” Clinton remarks. “And it’ll read well a hundred years from now.”

When Angelou died in 2014, she left a mark on everyone who had ever met her. It was not just the films she had starred in or directed, the poems and books she had written or the songs she had sung, but her demeanour, her personality and the vision she had shared. There was no one like her, this documentary asserts – and there won’t be another. As actress and friend of Angelou, Alfre Woodard says, “nobody is guna talk like she talked, and nobody is guna walk like she walked.” Do yourself a favour and watch this documentary so you can understand why.


The 11th DocEdge Festival takes place in Wellington 4-15 May and Auckland 18-29 May – www.docedge.nz


DocEdge 16 | Gabo: the creation of Gabriel García Márquez

With Gabo: the creation of Gabriel García Márquez, director Justin Webster does a masterful job of exploring the personal life and formative moments of one of the most influential authors in Latin America and, indeed, the world.

Gabo contains intimate and humorous conversations with his siblings, close friends, colleagues, and even former President of the United States Bill Clinton. The picture they paint is of a man with Caribbean flair and a penchant for wearing colourful clothes. A man with a wry sense of humour who was unfailingly kind. A man who dreamed of winning the Nobel Prize for literature even in his twenties and realised that ambition in 1982.

In fact, it turns out that Clinton is a massive fan of the Nobel Laureate. If you needed any convincing, Clinton describes 100 Years of Solitude, García Márquez’s most famous novel, as “the greatest novel written in any language since William Faulkner died. It told eternal truths of human nature, human motivation, how we’re driven up and down by love and hate, greed and generosity, hopes and fears.”

The documentary charts the life of García Márquez from the forbidden romance of his parents, his childhood in Aracataca, his career as a journalist and struggling writer, to his death that elicited a collective cry of grief from an entire continent. In particular, it focuses on the experiences, places and people he drew his inspiration from. For example, his superstitious grandmother for whom the extraordinary was as much a part of everyday life as the ordinary, something which influenced his literary style of magical realism.

García Márquez was present for and personally affected by many seminal events in Latin American politics. From the assassination of Colombian Presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán, to the American embargo on Cuba and the terrorism that the drug lord Pablo Escobar inflicted on Colombia. Although he did not wish to be a politician, it is without doubts that his life was very much intertwined with the politics in Latin America. Gabo even explores the author’s controversial friendship with Cuban leader Fidel Castro, which he used to gain freedom for dozens of imprisoned writers and artists in Cuba.

This documentary will make you want to read this larger than life author’s books immediately. And if you only loved García Márquez for his literary works before, after watching this you will love him for the man he was as well.

The 11th DocEdge Festival takes place in Wellington 4-15 May and Auckland 18-29 May www.docedge.nz

DocEdge 16 | Monterey

Lisa Burd | Feature Film

Directed by Lisa Burd, Monterey follows Kiwis Paul and Mira as they open their dream café in Grey Lynn. The couple want to create a café different to the array of minimalist eateries populating Auckland, instead providing something cosy and familiar. The first step is finding a chef, and this comes in the form of Samoan Jacob, or J as they refer to him. J makes this doco, hands down. He is funny, charming and dedicated to his job, grateful to be given the opportunity to work as a head chef despite having no formal training whatsoever. As Paul and Mira both point out, J is what Monterey is all about – he is the heart and soul of the homely cafe.

Added to the mix is J’s brother, Tausaga, or Ti, fresh out of prison for armed robbery. Not long after his arrival, J’s cousin Aosoli joins the team. The three Samoan’s work smoothly together, always remaining calm and keeping the kitchen fun and lighthearted with the laid-back, cheeky humour common of the Pacific Island community. They are “the three core” of the business, as Paul calls them.

Monterey is best in its examination of these three men’s lives and relationship with each other. The doc becomes about much more than food – rather, it focusses on the people brought together by food. J, Ti and Soli are proud of their Samoan culture and heritage, and appreciate their positions at Monterey and the ability to provide for their families. J talks about the poor upbringing he had and how his children are able to enjoy simple things he did not, such as having shoes and lunch to take to school each day. The men are content and happy with their lives, striking a chord in the viewer as one thinks of the many dissatisfied New Zealanders who have come from far more privileged backgrounds.

The harmony in the Monterey kitchen is suddenly disrupted with the arrival of British chef Dan. Realising that money is tight, Paul decides to try something new and add a dinner menu to the cafe, making it slightly more up-market. Now with Dan as head chef, J, Ti and Soli are forced to reconsider their positions at Monterey. The new kitchen dynamic is interesting to watch – Dan is a nice guy, and a skilled chef who is essentially just doing his job – but we are attached to the Samoan family by this point and it is hard to see them grow disheartened.

The lowering in moral leads Paul and Mira to reconsider their decision and redefine the heart of the business. Is it about making money, is it about the vibe, is it about family? The documentary’s resolution is poignant and leaves one considering the role of cafes in New Zealand, the position of cafe staff and our country’s Samoan community. In all, a well-formed documentary that provides an interesting insight into New Zealand’s unique culture and makes for an enjoyable watch.


The 11th DocEdge Festival takes place in Wellington 4-15 May and Auckland 18-29 May – www.docedge.nz

DocEdge 16 | Miners Shot Down

The opening sequence features a hail of bullets, followed by rising smoke and dust, briefly camouflaging the bodies of dead and injured miners strewn on the ground. The documentary Miners Shot Down, directed by Rehad Deshai, is a haunting, moving and informative account of the Marikana massacre that took place in 2012– the deadliest protesting clash with police to occur in South Africa since the Sharpville massacre during the darkest days of Apartheid.

The bluntness of the documentary title speaks to the weight of the event – thirty-four miners were killed unnecessarily. Despite repeated communications from miners that they had no wish to fight, the intent of the police force and the politicians that controlled them are laid bare. Before the fight even begins, the police order four trucks from a nearby morgue. After the fight, footage can be seen of policemen bragging about the shooting skill it took to take down the miners.

Miners Shot Down is not an emotive compilation without direction or substance. The documentary contains clips from the Marikana Commission of Inquiry and enlightening interviews with key figures from the event such as Lonmin Mining director and Deputy President of the ruling political party (the African National Congress) Cyril Ramaphosa, mining strike leaders Tholakele Delunga and Mzoxolo Magidiwana, and Pulitzer award winning photojournalist Greg Marinovich. These are interviews that would never be shown on public television in South Africa, given that the South African Broadcasting Corporation is firmly controlled by the government.

Miners Shot Down above all portrays a story of political betrayal. Apartheid has ended, but the majority of black South African citizens are still living in poverty, fighting for a living wage. The struggle heroes who had once rallied miners and organised strikes against Apartheid, but who are now wealthy politicians in the African National Congress (ANC), had abandoned those they fought with and sanctioned the police brutality against the miners. The ANC, who had liberated South Africa from Apartheid, had turned into the oppressors they had deposed. The documentary depicts a major turning point for the young democracy of South Africa. The battle for equality and freedom, both economical and political, is not yet won.

New Zealand’s history has its own memories of Apartheid in South Africa, having been part of the worldwide protests against it. If you enjoy history and global politics, this documentary is ideal and will remind you to never stop fighting for what you believe in.

Buy tickets to see it here.

The 11th DocEdge Festival takes place in Wellington 4-15 May and Auckland 18-29 May – www.docedge.nz

seen | Reportero

The closing shot is of veteran journalist and protagonist Sergio Haro behind the wheel of his car. It is nighttime, but it is more likely he is driving to a story or to the office than home. He says, “For the rest of my life, I only want to be a reporter.” The question is, when you are a reporter in Mexico exposing drug trafficking and the corrupt people behind it, how long is your life?

Reportero, a documentary by Bernardo Ruiz, follows Sergio Haro as he works for Semanario Zeta, a Tijuana newspaper known for its confrontational editorial stance on drugs and organized crime. It charts the history of Zeta and the past murders of colleagues that weigh heavily on the minds of those still practicing investigative journalism.

The journalists equivocate for only a nanosecond, verbalizing the secret temptation to just make life easier and self-censor, ignore certain stories or even change profession completely. However, the steely resolution always returns to their spines. They will not be complicit. They will fight for freedom of speech. They will risk their lives for truth. The bravery of and within the documentary is inspiring to say the least.

In 1988, one of the co-founders of Zeta, Héctor “El Gato” Félix Miranda, known for mocking politicians and the elite, was murdered. The mastermind behind his murder was never investigated, and was even elected mayor of Tijuana. After publishing the photo of a drug lord of the Félix Cartel, the other co-founder of Zeta, Jesús Blancornelas, managed to survive an assassination attempt on his life. A beloved editor of Zeta, Francisco Ortiz, was murdered in front of his children after publishing the photos of hit men for the Félix Cartel. Again working for Zeta, Sergio Haro had left at one time to start another publication called Siete Días with Benjamín Flores, who is described as principled, daring and audacious. However, the next frame is a headline with the title “Bullet-ridden journalist!” and the sudden loss of such ideals and promise merits an intake of breath.

Zeta stands as a prime example of what investigative publications face in Mexico, caught in the crosshairs of the drug cartels. More than 40 journalists have been murdered or gone missing since December 2006, when President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa came to power and launched a government offensive against the drug cartels. However, the deaths of slain journalists are not thoroughly investigated. Of Flores’ murderer, who was arrested for another crime and subsequently set free, Haro laments that “They [the broken Mexican judicial system] might as well have asked for his forgiveness.”

Despite the demoralizing deaths of colleagues and moments where even the most steadfast want to give up, the most important message Reportero communicates is one of perpetual hope. This is represented by Haro, whose wife says that no matter how dangerous it gets she could never ask him to stop doing what he loves and whose editor says he constantly fights to cover socially significant stories. The documentary also shows Zeta training new journalists, reassuring the audience that there will always be someone willing to fight for justice.

Reportero is a solid documentary made with conviction. The voices in it are not sensationalist nor dramatic, but honest and tempered. The journalists featured in it are professionals who believe in their vocation. Documentaries that juggle between past and present can end up unbalanced, but Reportero manages the act perfectly.

Although Reportero will be particularly resonant with people in the journalism profession, it is also an inspirational portrayal about what it means to stand up for your beliefs, even in the face of death.


Awards and Festivals:

  • IDF Amsterdam 2012
  • Los Angeles FF 2012

Screening at the Documentary Edge Festival 2013 in Auckland and Wellington

seen | The Invisible War

“Join the military!” scream the advertisements, “… to be raped,” they mumble. “It is an honour for women to serve!” trumpet the commanding officers, “… as nothing but objects of sexual abuse,” they whisper in hushed tones.

The Invisible War, directed by Oscar and Emmy nominated director Kirby Dick, exposes the American military’s violent culture of rape against their own, dismantling the wall of silence built from the misguided sense of camaraderie fostered by the institution.

Rape is an occupational hazard of military service. This was the ruling of a federal court in 2011 when it dismissed a lawsuit brought by 18 men and women, all survivors of the rape culture within America’s military, alleging that former Secretaries of Defence oversaw a system that deprived rape victims of their constitutional rights. The ruling at once encapsulates the normalization of rape in the military and the indifferent attitude of authorities portrayed by The Invisible War.

Most documentaries only focus on a small handful of people and cover their stories in minute detail. The Invisible War subverts that audience expectation to great effect. The opening shots introduce the majority of the women. Name after name rolls by. You think it will end after about five are introduced, but it just keeps going… the Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard… until it dawns on the audience that these multitudes of women from every military sector are all the victims of sexual assault. Drugged, knocked unconscious, raped while asleep, impregnated from rape, held at gunpoint while raped, threatened with death by their rapists (often the commanding officers that rapes are meant to be reported to) if they tell a soul… the endless wave of horror just keeps crashing over the audience until the full extent of the epidemic leaves you with your jaw on the floor.

Or how about leaving you with barely any jaw at all, like former Coast Guard Seawoman Kori Cioca, whose jaw was dislocated when a commander punched her before raping her? Worse than the acts of sexual assault inflicted upon the female officers is what they face afterwards. With a higher rate of posttraumatic stress disorder than males who have seen combat, women raped during military service suffer a lifetime of mental illness as well as severe physical injuries incurred during their rape.

The prejudices and skeptical attitudes exhibited towards victims of rape exposed in this documentary do not just apply to the American military. The attitude of “just suck it up” when someone makes a complaint, the interrogation of victims as if they were the criminals, blaming females for inviting the sexual assault by their behavior or dress, accusing them of fabricating the story or “crying wolf”, charging the female victims with adultery when it was their assailant who was married, demoting or even discharging them from duty completely if they so much as tell an authority… These are the attitudes that contribute to an estimated 80% of sexual assaults being unreported. And they are global.

However, to think that The Invisible War is just an unbalanced feminist rant about victimization within a patriarchal military is incorrect. Although it is slanted towards females, the documentary makes it clear that the military rape culture claims its share of male victims, too. As Captain Anu Bhagwati points out, this is not an issue of sexual orientation. It is one of power and violence. Former Marine Corps Officer Amando Javier describes the destructive nature sexual assault during duty has had on his entire life when he says, “They live in my head.” Often, the subjects come from a long lineage of military service. Just as gut wrenching as the victims’ own testimony is that of their fathers and husbands, who despair that such an act was perpetrated upon their loved ones by the institution they so treasure. The sense of helplessness, and even guilt for encouraging the victims to join the military, is palpable.

The Invisible War gives ample opportunity for military officials to explain what actions they are taking to stop the prevalence of rape, and the officials fail miserably. Inquiries are met with the empty rhetoric of a “zero tolerance policy” for rape. While Rear Admiral Anthony Kurta (Director of Military Personnel, Plans and Policy) firmly maintains that “Any report of sexual assault is fully investigated in the US Navy”, former Navy Officer Hannah Sewell’s case was delayed for a year and a half, after which she was told the evidence of her sexual assault was “lost”.

Although this documentary deals with a complex issue and therefore covers a lot of ground, it is structured well and the juxtaposition of accounts from victims against the official line from military authorities is effective at shattering any delusion that the problem is being solved. The mark of a great documentary is that despite being about a topic that has never personally affected you, it stays with you. The Invisible War has been lingering in my mind for days now.


Awards and Festivals:

  • Nominee Best Documentary Feature Academy Awards 2013
  • Audience Award Sundance FF 2012
  • HotDocs Toronto 2012

Screening at the Documentary Edge Festival 2013 in Auckland and Wellington.