Above and Beyond: Exclusive Deleted Scene and Interview with Nancy Spielberg

“Stan Andrews gave his life in the cause of the creation of the Jewish state.”

In an exclusive clip from the new documentary Above and Beyond, author Craig Weiss movingly reads from Andrews’s letters explaining his motivation for fighting in the 1948 war to help defend the newly created nation of Israel.

The film, which has won thirteen awards  on the festival circuit, drops on VOD April 28.

Combining interviews with survivors and archival footage and photographs, Above and Beyond chronicles the near miraculous formation of a fighting unit that, while small, was instrumental in winning  a seemingly hopeless confrontation.

Even some of the pilots themselves doubted their contributions would be enough. One reports he thought he would be back in the United States in a matter of weeks because the new Jewish state would be overrun.

Volunteer pilots_1948
Volunteer Pilots in 1948 Source: Above and Beyond Documentary

As amazing as the story of the military maneuvers is, the back story of how it came to be is equally fanstastic. Al Schwimmer coordinated efforts to buy surplus planes with private dollars and smuggle them out of the United States. (President Truman had an embargo on all shipments to the Middle East.) Recruiters skimmed personnel logs for pilots with Jewish sounding names.

How to convince men, some how had just returned from one war, to volunteer for another military tour? The interviewees paint a portrait of a nation that still faced anti-Semitism. Airlines, it is claimed, would not hire Jewish pilots. Those thinking about volunteering for the war were threatened with the revocation of  citizenship. In such a climate, the flyers’ motivations had to extend beyond the political. “I didn’t understand Zionism,” say one pilot, “but I knew what they did in Europe.” Another is more blunt: “I didn’t like being a Jew.” What changed him? “Knowing what Hitler did to the Jews.”

In an interview with 1More Film Blog, producer Nancy Spielberg emphasized, though, that the film was not exclusively directed to Jewish audiences:

I really believe that this is a great American story. There were many volunteers that went over that were not Jewish. They simply felt it was the right thing to do — to help a brother in need. Isn’t that the American Spirit? Aren’t we known as the first to run to the aide of others in need? That is a universal theme that transcends religious beliefs but maybe that should be our religion: helping others.

For those who did not live through the period, some of the historical nuggets are interesting. One volunteer is from South Africa. The Israelis had one country willing to break the trade embargo and allow them to stage a landing field for planes in transport: Czechoslovakia.

Nancy Spielberg and Harold Livingston. Source: Above and Beyond Documentary.
Nancy Spielberg and Harold Livingston. Source: Above and Beyond Documentary.

And there are times where, for all its focus on the past, the film attempts to contextualize policy decisions of the present. Israel, we are told, accepted a two state solution in 1948, only to be met with an invasive war. The newly preserved Jewish state came out of the war facing a problem with Palestinian refugees that it continues to face today.

Mostly, however, this is a personal history, with men fighting unapologetically for their Jewish identity as much as for a Jewish state. Stan Andrews said:

As you know, the Jew has always been known as an intellectual, not a fighter.  A turner of cheeks, a beggar for help against oppression. Always the victim, never the victor. That can be pretty frustrating, and a hell of a label to carry around with you.

He decided to do something about that label. To hear more, check out the clip below:

[youtube]http://youtu.be/o46WdxBm870[/youtube]

 

When “No” Means “Hell Yeah!”: Why I’ll Pass on Pitch Perfect 2

If you’re like me, you haven’t exactly been waiting for the Pitch Perfect 2 trailer to drop with the same heart palpitations that accompanied the anticipation for teasers  for Star Wars or Batman vs. Superman. Continue reading “When “No” Means “Hell Yeah!”: Why I’ll Pass on Pitch Perfect 2″

2015 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, Day 2: Afghan Soldiers, Evel Knievel, and an Unconventional Marriage

Tell Spring Not to Come This Year is courageous artistry of the highest order.  After experiencing this movie covering a year in the life of an Afghan National Army (ANA) brigade, I was overwhelmed by a cascade of feelings and thoughts.  It took me a while to sort them out.

First, I felt awe and appreciation for the co-directors and their crew.  Saeed Taji Farouky and Michael McEvoy were the first filmmakers allowed to embed with the ANA, at that time preparing for the departure of U.S. and other NATO military forces from Afghanistan.  When their unit comes under fire, the cameramen must run for cover and hide in courtyards, too.  Considering that their brigade is serving in a hotly contested region of the Helmand Province, the danger is considerable for both soldiers and film crew.

By staying glued to their unit for a full year, we get a gritty sense of the soldiers’ daily life.  Whether washing down a carpet in their Spartan concrete quarters, horsing around on an antiquated foosball table, or threatening suspected Taliban supporters, we feel that we, too, are there for the mundane and the hair-raising.

Second, I felt helpless rage over history’s heartless repetition.  Just as in Vietnam, America’s foreign policy makers have chosen to prop up a vile kleptocracy in its fight against a totalitarian insurgency.  Can’t we do better than this?  Will we ever learn from our past mistakes?

I was angry, too, that these U.S.-backed soldiers at one point hadn’t been paid by their superiors for nine months (what a swell morale booster!).  They were also making do with antiquated weaponry, used cloth rags for handcuffs, and lacked a stretcher to carry a grievously wounded soldier.

Third, I recognized the universal struggles of existence in a war zone.  For the average combatants, they have no clue about any overarching strategy, while resenting chickenshit officers who lead from the rear.  For civilians, harassment comes from both opposing sides, while they just want to earn an unhassled living, which in this case involves harvesting opium.

The sole flaw of Tell Spring Not to Come This Year is that the Afghan soldiers are scarcely distinguished from one another.  In many cases, we don’t even learn their names, so these young men stay anonymous in their frustration and frequent deer-in-headlight helplessness.

Nervous soldiers, in "Tell Spring Not to Come This Year"
Nervous soldiers, in “Tell Spring Not to Come This Year”

Despite this omission, this is truly brave, immersive filmmaking by Farouky and McEvoy.  Tell Spring Not to Come This Year deserves and demands viewing by a wide audience, for those who want to understand the consequences of Western foreign policy and military choices, once we leave the nations we’ve tried to help.

Being Evel was a no-brainer choice for my second film of the day.  As a kid in the mid-1970’s, I loved playing with my windup Evel Knievel motorcycle and action figure.  I was keen to learn more about the man who tried to rocket across the Snake River.

Evel Knievel, just before attempting to rocket across the Snake River
Evel Knievel and his rocket, in “Being Evel”

Daniel Junge directs this biographical documentary with a flash and kineticism befitting a grand self-promoter who dressed like a pimp caricature when making the rounds on Johnny Carson and other talk shows.  The Beach Boys and Peter Frampton soundtrack also suits this man whose heyday meshed with the prime of these musicians.

Being Evel comprehensively covers the life of the man born Robert Craig Knievel.  We learn of his abandonment by his parents in hardscrabble Butte, Montana.  Townspeople and relatives recount the adolescent petty theft and racketeering that foreshadow his adult narcissism and sociopathic behavior.

Of course, we also see the footage of his greatest stunt achievements and debacles, narrated as it should be by oldsters from ABC’s Wide World of Sports, as well as contemporary stuntman goofball Johnny Knoxville.  Be prepared to cringe and wince aplenty at some of Knievel’s painful wipeouts.

...And the agony of defeat.
The agony of defeat:  one of Knievel’s smash-ups.

In this age of “Behind the Music” idol-smashing, I shouldn’t be surprised that my childhood hero was a mess of a human being.  What is distressing about the film craft of Being Evel, however, is the dissonance between the chuckling, dismissive “boys will be boys” storytelling by Junge’s interview subjects, as contrasted with the late-life regret and revulsion that Knievel himself felt for his abundant screw-ups and betrayals.

Daniel Junge also tries too hard for social relevance and a profounder meaning to Knievel’s life story.  I can buy that Knievel’s wheelies and jumps across 14 buses paved the way for today’s extreme sports.  I’m far less sold on the notion that Knievel was a savior figure for malaise-ridden, beaten-down-by-Vietnam America.

Sharon Shattuck and her father Trisha, in "From This Day Forward"
Sharon Shattuck and her father Trisha, in “From This Day Forward”

Happily, the last film of the day was not only another must-see film, but a life-affirming smile inducer.  From This Day Forward is director Sharon Shattuck’s first full-length movie, and what a debut it is!

In the Q&A following today’s screening, Shattuck divulged that she initially intended to make a general documentary about rainbow families, until friends nudged her to tell her own family’s story instead.  Happily, she followed their advice.

In preparing for marriage, Shattuck feels motivated to learn the history of her mother’s and father’s 35 year relationship, for theirs is not a typical one.  When the director and her younger sister Laura were in elementary school, their father Michael began gender reassignment, eventually changing her name to Trisha.

Candor with plenty of love is the name of the game in From This Day Forward.  Both Shattuck and her sister disclose that for some time as children, they hoped their parents would divorce, allowing them to escape the mortification and community judgment that commenced when their father began leaving their home in women’s attire.

Their mother Marcia openly discusses the intense marital turmoil in the aftermath of Trisha’s choice to act on her inescapable gender identity.  Trisha speaks insightfully of her bind, feeling suicidally depressed in a male body, yet terrified of losing the woman she deeply loves.

If this sounds too grim, fear not.  In the Shattuck family, love truly conquers all, with a prevailing attitude of nonjudgmental curiosity.

The personalities of both parents, too, are irresistible.  Physician Marcia emanates determination and grit.  Painter and musician Trisha is exuberant and quick-witted.  In one hilarious scene, Trisha relates how she’s an erstwhile landscape architect given to planting trees in her neighbors’ yards, “sometimes with their permission.”

Marcia and Trisha Shattuck, in "From This Day Forward"
Marcia and Trisha Shattuck, in “From This Day Forward”

Abetting the cheery spirit of Shattuck’s film is her use of a consistently bright color paletteSettings are luminous, both inside the Northern Michigan parental homestead and outdoors in forests or along the waterfront.

The frequent closeups of her father’s artwork immeasurably enhance From This Day Forward.  With echoes of Chagall, van Gogh, Renoir, and Picasso, the paintings are a symbolic diary of Trisha’s relationships and internal battles.  Titles such as “Tightrope Walker” and “Conflicted” would’ve made this evident, even without Trisha’s explanations of her lovely, evocative images.

As a mental health professional, I treasure the depth of insight contained in the Shattuck family’s commentary.  The significance of gender pronouns and the fluidity of sexual identity are smartly covered here.  Anyone who gives a damn about transgender concerns will benefit from viewing this film.

I wish, too, that defenders of “family values” who froth over the perils of marriage equality would take a look at Shattuck’s documentary.  I can’t think of a better recent film about the love, perseverance, and hard work that go into an enduring marriage, not to mention the joy and enrichment that result from such a commitment.

Tell Spring Not to Come This Year:  4.5 out of 5 stars

Being Evel:  3.5 out of 5 stars

From This Day Forward:  5 out of 5 stars

Revisiting Ben-Hur (1959) in Anticipation of a Remake

benhurposter

Of all of the late Roger Ebert’s maxims, none do I subscribe to more more strongly than that you don’t (or shouldn’t) remake good movies, you remake bad (or flawed) movies to make them better. Continue reading “Revisiting Ben-Hur (1959) in Anticipation of a Remake”

Second Chance Giveaway — Win The Battle of the Five Armies on Blu-Ray (CLOSED)

Last week we gave away a free digital copy of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. Continue reading “Second Chance Giveaway — Win The Battle of the Five Armies on Blu-Ray (CLOSED)”

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies Giveaway — CLOSED

 

Would you like a chance to win a free digital copy of the final episode in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy? We’re happy to once again offer a free prize to one lucky reader. For fun, take the embedded quiz below and post your result in the comments section. What is your Middle-Earth weapon of choice? Alternately, check out the trailer below and let us know your favorite scene. Continue reading “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies Giveaway — CLOSED”

The Thin Place #52: The Jones Family Will Make a Way at SXSW

On the road at the 2015 SXSW Film Festival, Ken and Todd report back on the documentary The Jones Family Will Make a Way. Continue reading “The Thin Place #52: The Jones Family Will Make a Way at SXSW”

SXSW — David Gordon Green, John Cusack, Sally Field, Brian Wilson, and Ex Machina

Ever wonder what a press conference or Q&A session is like at a major film festival. Here’s a taste of what it’s like:

Continue reading “SXSW — David Gordon Green, John Cusack, Sally Field, Brian Wilson, and Ex Machina”

The Mind of Mark Defriest (London, 2014)

In 1979, at the age of 19, Mark Defriest was arrested for the seemingly trivial offense of stealing tools from his father. He was sentenced to four years in prison. So began Defriest absurdist, tragic experience with the criminal justice system. For the last 35 years, Mark Defriest has been under the supervision of the Florida Department of Corrections. Last December, a Florida parole commission voted to reduce Defriest’s potential release date from 2085 to March 2015. With continued good behavior, Defriest is expected to become a free man in a matter of weeks.

In his new documentary, The Mind of Mark Defriest (★★★½), director Gabriel London painstakingly documents the case of Defriest, bringing to light numerous troubling aspects of our prison system. The story consists of two interconnected narratives. First, London explores the life of Defriest and his infamous escape attempts. Then, with more reflection and persuasion, London shows us the procedural struggles of lawyer John Middleton and psychologist Dr. Robert Berland, who sought to atone for past failures of justice and restore hope to the despondent Defriest.

MarkinPrison-copyLike many in America’s prison-industrial complex, Defriest never seemed destined for imprisonment. He grew up obsessed with electricity, guns and explosives, interests that were cultivated by his ex-military father. Defriest married Brenda (who he would divorce in prison) young and nurtured an adolescent love for rock music and his truck. The death of Defriest’s father, who he was particularly close to, was a traumatic experience that shaped Defriest’s life. His attempts to claim the tools that his father bequeathed to him led his step-mother to call the police. From there, Defriest entered legal purgatory.

Much of Defriest’s extended stay in prison can be attributed to a record number of behavioral complaints and his many escape attempts (13, including seven “successful” ones). London is fascinated by these various tales, told energetically by Defriest himself. Earning the name the “Prison Houdini,” Defriest once memorized the pattern of a key carried by guard, constructed a duplicate and freed himself from his cell. In another memorable moment, Defriest secretly poisoned the guards’ and warden’s coffee with acid, only to be thwarted when his cell block was locked down. “My file is two-and-a-half feet thick and reads like a 007 James Bond spy novel,” Defriest brags.

As amusing as Defriest’s stories may be, they indicate the psychological profile of a genius troubled by mental illness. In the 1980’s, Berland, the psychologist, ruled Defriest fit to face trial, accusing him of making up his stories about frequent headaches. Decades later, he meets Defriest again, candidly admitting that his diagnosis was mistaken. “What can I say?” he asks Defriest. “There are things you do when you’re young that you later decide were wrong.” If Defriest had mental problems in 1981, then they only multiplied over time. Beating by guards were handed out with regularity. Stuck in solitary confinement, Defriest went ten years without being able to go outside to a prison yard. A report tells us that “conditions seem to be more descriptive of a North Vietnamese prison.”

DeFriest_Still_08Unfortunately, the pain and horror of prison life isn’t properly conveyed by some of London’s filmmaking techniques. London depicts violent beatings and a gang rape in the form of animated cartoons that lack the seriousness and form to express their intended function. Even if London felt he had few other options (After all, if these atrocities had been filmed, they probably would have ceased long ago), the animations take away from the more intimate and emotionally raw interviews that anchor the documentary.

However, The Mind of Mark Defriest is more than redeemed by its morally powerful core. Recounting his gang rape, Defreist says “I’m already dead. I was a walking dead person. Nothing mattered.” This erasure of identity extrapolated across the entire American prison environment shows a system that is implicitly dedicated to mass violence. In a recent article for The Nation titled “Why Americans Don’t Care About Prison Rape,” Elizabeth Bruening notes that nearly 200,000 Americans were sexually violated in detention facilities in 2011. Particularly vulnerable are the 500,000 prisoners who have a history of mental illness before they were incarcerated. While the film isn’t specifically dedicated to solving the crisis of violence in our prisons, it features the the testimony of Ron McAndrew, a former warden at Florida State Prison, where Defriest was held for many years. “At Florida State Prison, you get punished day after day after day,” he says. London’s film makes the personal suffering of Defriest a universal call for accountability and reform.

Towards its end, The Mind of Mark Defriest remains steadfast in its pursuit of justice, but never triumphant. London makes an appearance on camera, showing how the documentary has mobilized people in favor of Defreist’s early release. However, Defriest’s story will always be a cautionary one of a man who has his potential wasted by a machine-like bureaucracy that treats prisoners as numbers instead of human beings. “I’ve been in prison for thirty years,” Defreist tells us in his last interview of the film. “I’m tired. I want to live some semblance of a normal life.” With the help of London’s empathetic film that dream is closer than ever.