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Russian Doll and The Johari Window, a transcendent review.

Between the flu hitting my household and the cold weather, I got a chance to watch a few Netflix shows. Which, these days with my schedule felt like a luxury. LOVED Netflix’s Russian Doll so much, I had to write about it. 

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I think you should walk in cold, like don’t even watch the trailer below. Just start. The less you know the better. This blog clearly marks those spoilers. Go, watch and then come back to read. Also, the soundtrack is fire. You should listen to it while reading this blog. There is much debate about the ending and what it means. This is my take on the point of the series. 


First and foremost, this is a female produced, written and directed show. I have a massive crush on the line up. Leslye Headland, Jamie Babbit, Amy Poehler and Natasha Lyonne. I swoon. Female lead production houses make me jump up and down with joy. It’s about damn time. The stories they are producing are the kind of stories I have been waiting for. Female characters who are complex and defy the tropes of the gender on screen. Russian Doll has much to love.  The premise is simple. A woman stuck in a time-loop searching for a way out. It’s a complex version of Groundhog Day and Happy Death Day. That’s really all you need to know. 


I profess my undying adoration for Natasha Lyonne’s performances. She is one of the few female actresses that I have seen that can tow the line between masculine and feminine on screen. She can make you laugh and cry all in the same breath. Cynical, sharp, sarcastic and vulnerable. She’s the kind of woman I would want on my team. Dishing out hard earned truths with humor. When all was said and done, I can’t imagine anyone else playing the role as brilliantly and she rightfully deserves the moment she is having. 

If you love Chicago Fire, you’ll be happy to see Charlie Barnett in a new role. He is also wonderful. A few OITNB cameos here too. Best left unspoiled. 


So let’s dive right in. Philosophical and psychological references are woven into the writing leading the plot like a heartbeat. This undercurrent makes the writing a treat to indulge. You’ll be smacking your lips wanting more. It’s smart enough for the people who like that sort of thing and if it isn’t your bag, you will still love the story. Brush up on your Johari’s window and you’ll enjoy the plot even more.  

Russian Doll becomes a modern day Devine Comedy, repetition and time manipulation explore human nature. This series nails those elements in ways that Bandersnatch didn’t. There is substance over device. Each cycle, each repetition, taking you deeper into it’s characters. The short length of the episodes make this an easy watch. It’s adult content, so if you have little ones watch after they are in bed. I highly recommend. 


Gotta get up, gotta get out. Here be spoilers ahead. Proceed at your own risk. 


Russian Doll starts by throwing you into a birthday party for Nadia. She’s wild, sharp and having a hard time with her birthday. It’s messy, feminine and sassy. Female characters are allowed to be sexual without being overly sexualized. The space, the look, the costume design, I love it. It reminds me of the wild bohemian parties I attended in my 20s. We are thrown head first into the plot and given our first clue with the line: “Alright, Let’s make some choices.” Wonderful clues like this make it a writers delight. 

Love the duality here.

Love the duality here.

Our first death comes as a shock and begins the cycles. We meet Alan, a control freak reliving a break-up with his childhood sweetheart. He is also experiencing the same death loop. This is where the plot takes off. Alan and Nadia debate the morality of their situation, in some of the best moments of philosophical banter between two characters. The actors pull of the complexity of these age old questions with ease. As things heat up and the world they are living in starts to decay and disappear Nadia delivers the theme of the series, Johari’s Window. She explains the concept to Alan.

I first learned about Johari’s window in Psychology 101. In class, we used a set of adjectives that describe our personalities. We then select the ones that we feel represented our public and private selves. Our peers do the same. The results are arranged into a grid that resembles a window. Hence the name. 

The four areas represent a view of ourselves. 

  • Open: The words that both myself and others choose. 

  • Hidden: the words I did selected by my peers didn’t.  

  • Blind: The words my peers selected and I didn’t. 

  • Unknown: The rest of the words. They either do not apply or represent there collective ignorance of these traits by both subject and peer. 


You might have seen a version of this pop up in self help seminars, corporate retreats or the like. I’ve experienced versions of this myself in all the above. It’s a useful tool of reflection and has helped me uncover much about myself. I also LOVE using it in writing to develop characters to understand motivations and behaviors in writing. 


We all have blind spots. Our perceptions and projections of reality are deeply woven into our own Johari’s windows. Much like our characters Nadia and Alan. One can not see one’s own blind spots without others. This is where the symbiotic relationship between our two characters begin to dance. The goal of using Johari’s window is to understand who your true self is. If one can free oneself from the trappings of a false self, one can be seen more accurately by others and begin the process of self acceptance, peace and awareness. These concepts arose out of transcendentalism. Emerson, Thoreau, those guys. For this series, the concepts of true self versus false self are worth looking at through our characters, Nadia and Alan. 

Whoah, did I go too deep for ya? Stay with me. 


True self vs False self.

Interpersonal conflict is the tug of war between true and false self. It goes like this: Your false self is the self you’ve built out of a set of mistaken beliefs, family structures and societal influences. It’s the self you “think,” you need to be in the world. For most of us, breaking this “false self,” requires hard work, reflection and deep community with others. The beauty of Johari’s Window is ever-changing as we grow.

The concept was introduced in the 1960s by Donald Winnicott in a post transcendentalism exploration. His version is similar to the debate of nature versus nurture. He claims that your false self is deeply rooted in infancy by your parents or care givers. Your parents expectations and wishes for you become the fabric of that false self. It isn’t until you are old enough to examine those expectations and wishes that you can begin to test those old theories about yourself and form your own personality. For most of us testing these boundaries happens many times over the course of childhood development and bleeds into adulthood. If one is self aware enough to continue the journey it can become a life long reflection. This idea was picked up by Carl Jung, Jean-Bertrand Pontalis, ect ect. All interesting reads if you want to go deeper into this concept. Rather than give you a phycology lesson, let’s continue. Deep Breath, we got this. 

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This is where Johari’s window comes into play in Russian Doll. Nadia and Alan are forced into a cosmic time loop and the only way out, is to work through a version of Johari’s window. We see it clearly in the final episode with this moment:


A literal Johari’s window. 4 timelines. How fucking brilliant is that? Each timeline is an attempt at self acceptance. Timeline one and two: The characters die. Timeline three and four: They save each other. The characters move from their unknown selves to accepted selves using friendship in the process.

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Through repetition, they are able to look at the perceptions they have about themselves versus the truth. They can examine their pasts and look at what is true or untrue. I love the idea of friendship as a tool for transcendence. The best demonstration of this in action is with the orange.

Nadia asks: “What do time and morality have in common? Relativity. They are both relative to your experience. Our universe has three spacial dimensions. It is hard for us to depict a four dimensional world. But you know, computers do it all the time. Lucky for you, I have the capacity to think like a computer.”

She holds out the rotten orange, we’ve seen this before. The fruit in the series has been slowly decaying over time. This orange, looks moldly.

“In a two dimensional world, its a circle. In a three dimensional world its a sphere. In a four dimensional world.” 

She splits the rotten orange down the middle. Alan exclaims “It’s still ripe!” 


The ripe orange represents the unknown quadrant of Johari’s window. Unless we cut the orange open, there was no way to know it was ripe. If we judged it by the rind, we would assume it was rotten. To see that it is ripe, requires a person to slice it in half. Pretty cool huh? 

Nadia continues explaining the theory of relativity. I wont’t go down that rabbit hole today, but love the reference. I think that theory and projection psychology go hand in hand.

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Such beautiful writing. In the end, you’ll be left with more questions than answers. Plenty of room for your own analysis. Do Nadia and Alan live? Do they get to start over? What does that last shot mean? What is the point?

I think to answer those questions, we need to look back at one key line of dialogue from the beginning.

“Let’s make some choices.”

That line stands out for me. I think that’s the point. What if you could know your death? What if that brought your life meaning? What if you could make choices without death as a consequence? What might you learn about yourself in the process?

I loved the final parade sequence. Reminded me of the day of the dead. I think that’s a clue. One last stop in purgatory before they transcend. There is no ending because in real life there are no answers about where we go when we die. It’s a ghost story and a damn good one.

Parting Thoughts

  1. The haircut sequence made me laugh. This writer is aware of the female haircut transformation trope. I see you … I see what you did there and the LOVE IT.

  2. Taboo behaviors are treated with kindness. Our main characters have sex, do drugs, commit suicide. All things society historically deemed as immoral or bad. Our writers say, “Hey! No good or bad. It’s all relative.” A literal breath of fresh air.

  3. Mental health issues treated with kindness too. That’s hard to do.

  4. No romance between our lead male and female characters. Thank god. I am so over romance as a character development tool for characters. They treat the hook up as a normal thing. Good.

  5. I am 36. Same age as Nadia. Girl, I feel you.

  6. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE, make more stuff. Don’t do a season two with these characters but write me more beautiful, complex and funny things that break old tropes and forge new ground.

  7. Mirrors, reflections, duality - all in abundance and used well.

    Leave a comment below and let me know what you thought of my analysis. I know people are reading from my analytics … but it’s a lonely comment section. Be a pal and drop even a high five below eh? 



What to watch during the polar vortex. *UPDATED*


It’s going to be -54 degrees in Chicago this week. Everything is shut down, even in a rate twist, Chicago Public Schools. If you don’t live here, that’s a local joke. CPS rarely closes. This means most of us, hopefully, will be inside looking for something to binge. Here are a handful of my favorites for streaming that you may have missed. I’m skipping the obvious choices and giving you some of my personal favs. This list leans toward the genres of : thriller, science fiction, action adventure and documentary scale. Genres that you won’t find too much on Oscar or Golden Globe lists but should be. In any respect, enjoy and stay warm!



What is it like living in Antartica? Meet the people who live there. This doc explores human nature in places where you spend most of your time in darkness. Herzog adds his poetic commentary and thoughtful interviews in conjunction with gorgeous footage. It’ll make you appreciate winter in ways you haven’t thought about yet.


A nail biter from beginning to end. The best reenactments I have seen on film for a story like this. It’s a harrowing tale that will have your heart pounding. By far my favorite of the mountaineering gone wrong documentaries.

THE THING: Rent it

Classic horror, also takes place in Antartica. I miss these old monster movies. I love the props and old school movie make-up. Created before everything was computer generated. This icy thriller is a great cold weather view.


This takes the best things about The Thing and puts it into modern times. Shot in Iceland … my hubby and I actually went to the town that this was shot in. The scenery is sure to go with our frigid weather but the mystery will have you guessing till the end. Wonderful performances. Highly recommend this one.

SNOWPIERCER; ITUNES on sale this week

This one is really good. I love me some Tilda, she is fantastic as a bad guy. It’s an action movie on a train that uses every action movie on a train trope but it does so in surprising ways. We ended up buying it after watching it on amazon last year. They took it off amazon, so you’ll have to rent it but it’s a great cold weather watch.


If you feel like you’ve got cabin fever … this movie is for you. Imagine being on the moon, isolated and alone. The desolate and cold atmosphere and stellar perforce of Sam Rockwell makes this a must watch. It’s SOOO GOOD.


Want to see what it takes to live in the Alaskan wild? These guys are doing it off the grid. They hunt and grow their own food, gather wood for fuel and heat, they trade with each other. It’s crazy to see what it takes to live off the grid in winter. Makes me appreciate my modern amenities.


This show seemed to go under the radar. I have no clue why. It’s super fun, cerebral and weird. I would call it a strange psychological thriller set inside a highly designed universe that is a mash up of the 70s, 80s and 90s nostalgia. Imagine the set from Aliens, the technology from war-games and the strangeness of an ayahuasca trip mashed up with a few noir genres that is kinda like Vanilla Sky meets 12 Monkeys.

If you are struggling to follow, that’s because Maniac is hard to put in a box. If you can make it through the flashiness, underneath is a really beautiful and painful truth about human nature. That there is no easy fix for the darkness of life. We all need help, community and love to pull through. Perhaps that sounds a little hokey, but I promise this show delivers and may require multiple viewings. 


So I wrote a super long blog on this movie after seeing it in the theaters. It is by far the best horror film created in the past 15 years. It doesn’t have jump scares or flashy special effects. It’s a trauma based horror film. One that should have gotten an Oscar nomination for it’s lead actress. I LOVED this film for it’s brave and brazen portrayal of female vulnerability and power while exploring extreme grief. But be warned. You may need therapy after. You can read my blog about it here. 


Why this one wasn’t nominated for an Oscar, I don’t know. I certainly liked it better than Lady Bird. It’s awkward, weird and adorable. Yes, it captures a midwest white suburban girl experience of 8th grade that we see on screen all the time- but it does so extremely well. While culturally, it doesn’t push any boundaries, it was the first film I’ve seen that tackles awkwardness without trying to overly transform the leading lady into a modern beauty. My favorite part, was that it painted young girls the way I knew myself to be: average, awkward, weird and smart. It brought back all the squirmy feelings I had growing up. I loved the script. I always feel like this girl when I put something out on the internet with my blogs or social media. Totally relatable.


This anthology is really really good. The stories are solid and the writing is on point. My only wish was that they diversify the cast a bit more. I think this would have been even better if they branched out and added some people of color. Having been to New Mexico recently, I also dig the scenery. It’s beautifully shot.


Travel to the weird places, do the weird things. That’s the premise of this one. I wish the host was more Bordain like, in that I sometimes think he can be a little disrespectful in the way that white tourists can be annoying BUT he does some weird things that I wanted to see. Like a trip to Fukushima or a tour that attempts to give you an experience of crossing a border illegally. Easy watch and can break up any of the above if they are too serious. 


Yes, he can put you to sleep. But if you want a really great history lesson this one is amazing, comprehensive and more woke than your typical history doc. I learned so much about America’s past. WAY more that I was ever taught. It really shifted my view of the typical white “western,” story. Which is why I think Buster Scruggs missed out on a crucial casting step. I appreciated how the interviews with Native Americans were handled, they really lead the story and I think thats important. It’s long. So it could take you a few days to finish this one. I’ve been watching it a little bit here and there for a few months. 



Join the long list of people throwing their hat into this ring. It was a crazy party that never happened. It’s stupidity and criminality that was made for reality TV. Also wrote a blog about these. Where I offer a more critical look at the two docs. You choose. Netflix or Hulu. 


Speaking of choice. Have you Bandersnatched yet? You may want to watch season 3-4 of Black Mirror too but Bandersnatch is clever. You’ll enjoy your choices and seeing them play out. I love how they involve you in the story with the writing and can’t imagine plotting out a story like this. It reminds me of video games but with more cinematic cut scenes. You’ll need a device that allows you to make the choices. Apple TV won’t work but several others do. My favorite gem happens in the therapists office.


If you like true crime, this one is at the top of my list. Start one episode, you’ll watch them all. This case is full of so many twists and turns but what I really loved about it was watching a family deal with grace under horrible circumstances. I am still on the fence on where I stand as an audience juror. The filmmakers do a nice job of keeping you guessing. Its a great alternative to Making a Murderer. 


See how the FBI started the behavior profiling division of serial killers and coined the term. It’s macabre true crime drama at it’s best. The actors were given the real tapes from the serial killers to use to develop their characters and the performances are spine chilling. Season 2 will include a few infamous men and the Ted Bundy series is sure to “T," that up nicely. The last episode had me on the edge of my seat. It’s the real life Silence Of The Lambs that will make you question why you like it so much. I was surprised that I didn’t hear more about this show. It was like a good book. Couldn’t put it down. 


Killer Mike from Run the Jewels is hilarious. Episodes 1-4 are amazing. You’ll laugh and question things in new ways. Really like this approach to cultural problem solving. The humor only points out the seriousness of the issues he presents, which is what makes this pretty progressive. My favorite episode is the Crips and Bloods soda. I’ve always said that gangs have marketable skills, they just need help learning legal forms of business. Killer Mike tackles that in the best way and the focus group is important to see. I wasn’t crazy about the last episode but the first 4 is great TV. 


This is one of my favorite dystopian films. Made before dystopian was hip in that young adult novel way. It was feminist long before The Handmaids Tale. If you don’t remember much about it, I highly recommend a repeat viewing. With our current climate, this one suddenly feels fresh again. Directed by the same man who directed Roma. I actually think this is his best film.

Worth renting: MAD MAX FURY ROAD

Speaking of dystopian. You guys, this movie got added to my favorite films of all time the second I saw it in theaters. Don’t let the trailer turn you off, it’s badly cut. I could have done better. A good chase sequence is hard to film, so I respect the craftsmanship. Fury Road was the first action film I’ve seen with a male lead that stepped aside for the females. Furiosa became my spirit animal. It’s an allegorical high octane dystopian rock opera on crack. It’s about feminism, war, capitalism, climate change and toxic masculinity without saying any of those words. I loved how the writers mashed up language and developed a theology created by a dictator that borrows from history, pop culture and rock and roll. The stunts were all filmed live in the desert and they will have you scratching you heads on how they did it. It takes the best of the old Mad Max films and improves the purpose. I think .. that might be my next blog. It’s so fun to pick apart all the symbolism. 

That’s it. What would you add to the list?



A Tale of Two FYRE Documentaries.

Which unfinished camp do you fall into? Netflix or Hulu? Here is a quick review of both and my personal preference. 



First thing to note about this documentary, it’s created by the marketing company behind the festival, F$@!Jerry. That’s important to know as an audience member so you can understand the bias of the film. Documentaries are inherently biased. This is hotly debated among creators. I think understanding the creators is almost as important as the documentary itself. So what does that mean for FYRE? 

An exclusive behind the scenes look at the infamous unraveling of the Fyre music festival. Launching globally on Netflix on January 18, 2019. Created by Billy McFarland and rapper Ja Rule, Fyre Festival was promoted as a luxury music festival on a private island in the Bahamas featuring bikini-clad supermodels, A-List musical performances and posh amenities.

I think the most interesting thing about this documentary is the victimized stance of anyone involved in the creation of the festival. Everyone seems to point fingers at Billy. Especially the marketing company. They even take the stance that by not paying Billy for an interview, they are not contributing to the madness any further. Yet, that are ok with profiting off the story. Yeah, ok guys.

It just falls flat.

While this documentary is shot really well. It’s flashy, it’s funny and feels outrageous because the story is outrageous. It takes no stance on the subject or the depth of it’s characters. The narrative is: “Look at this train wreck story, isn’t it crazy?”

To me, it feels like one long marketing video for F@!$Jerry. They position themselves as the geniuses who made FYRE huge and then watched it burn to the ground without taking any responsibility for it’s creation. I imagine a big corporate client watching this and going “Hey, we should hire them!” They don’t dive into any real discussion about the responsibilities of marketers in our digital time. That is a huge, deep and interesting topic. One that influences elections, money and power in ways that we are only really starting to understand.

I did love hearing the story of the initial promotional video. I’ve been there. Unreasonable expectations by a client to create the MOST EPIC VIDEO OF ALL TIME, while going around every filmmaking process that ensures great results. But we glossed over a major dynamic on this shoot. The use of the girls. The toast JaRule gives says it all “Here’s to living’ like movie stars, partying like rockstars and F$!@ing like porn stars.”

No one talked about the ethics of what they were doing while filming the promo. They show interactions between Billy, JaRule and the models and it made me want to cringe. Men with power, filming women on a deserted island with no structure. They came up with ideas that would be “cool,” and ask the models to participate in the fantasy. It’s gross. A rich boys club gone wild. I kept waiting for some of the interviews to point out the ethics of it all. Not just the creation of the marketing, I wondered where the responsibility of everyone involved. Seriously, what was with the “take one for the team,” story. Borderline harassment. If my boss ever told me to give a blow job for the good of the team, I’d report him. Tone deaf to include that and gloss over it like it was a locker room story. Ick.

The “characters," keep moving the project forward, claiming to be on an almost unstoppable train. I wondered, why? No one really answers that question. 

As a director, I wonder why we don’t go here. It’s the most interesting exploration of human behavior. Why did people continue to play along when there were clear red flags in every direction? The filmmakers never ask this. The best interviews were from the workers on the islands. That community had the most substance simply because they had the most to loose out of this situation.

At the end of the day, F$!@Jerry made a documentary on Netflix that got us all to watch, point our fingers and go “man how messed up is that!” But the real underbelly of the story isn’t explored. This documentary barley touches on consequences of the fraud of the festival or what happened to the islanders afterward. It ends almost abruptly. The most interesting footage at the end is the business meeting where Billy and JaRule try to convince employees to stick with them. They attempt to share the story about VIP NYC but I didn’t fully understand it till I saw the Hulu documentary. Then, like the festival, the documentary ends. With a whimper and a cheese sandwich. 


The documentary attempts to poke fun at the fact that the world loved seeing the festival fail and that’s the most interesting stance it takes. It lacks a meta voice. An outside perspective to place the story within social and cultural context. I wanted more zeitgeist. Fyre is a documentary created by a marketing company and it feels like just that. 


The best thing to come out of this one is what happened after it’s release. The owner of the catering company that lost tons of money on the island, Maryann Rolle, raises over 100K on go fund me as a result of her tearful interview and Jerry Media donated over 30K of that.

So good for you guys.

The real victims of this whole story are the islanders and none of the documentaries attempt to tell their story with the depth that it deserves and cost of that deception. This tearful interview is all you will get between both docs. I think we could do better.


FYRE FRAUD is a true-crime comedy exploring a failed music festival turned internet meme at the nexus of social media influence, late-stage capitalism, and morality in the post-truth era. The Fyre Festival was the defining scam of the millennial generation, at the nexus of social media influence, late-stage capitalism, and morality in the post-truth era.

Right out of the gate, the title and description should clue you in. The tone is different than the Netflix documentary. A true-crime comedy. They secretly drop their documentary the night before Netflix. Sneaky, sneaky guys.

Worth noting, Hulu’s documentary paid for an interview with Billy. So this story has Billy as a main character in it’s structure. Hotly debated is paying for that interview. People are paid for interviews all the time. We pay criminals for their stories all the time. So personally, I don’t care that they paid him. It does add a nice element to the story. 

This documentary takes a stronger stance on that meta voice that I felt was missing from the Netflix version. I really liked how they dove into Billy as a character. They hit the fraud harder. They place the instagram campaign in social context in ways that helps me think about the bigger picture. It’s not a home run. Some of the themes I mentioned above don’t get a deep dive, but this documentary tries a little more to have a meta voice and structure.

Fyre Fraud takes more of a stance on story.

Fyre Fraud takes the position that the festival and Billy were fraudulent from the beginning. It seeks to tear down the “We tried something so big, we got in over our heads and failed,” narrative that the lawyers for Billy have spun. It paints Billy as a con artist from the get go. It’s not as flashy as the Netflix version. It’s not as funny. But it feels more like a documentary to me. There is more research. More outside perspective interviews and a larger point that they are trying to prove.

Billy’s interview tips the scales for me. I am really interested in how the Billy’s of the world are created and perpetuated by society. I loved the millennial lens. The connection to escapism and fantasy selling. Discussion of wealth and power. But we still don’t talk to the islanders enough. I don’t think the consequences of the story are as clear as they could be. 


The closer we get to people arriving on the island, the more the footage is the same. It’s almost like both documentaries were working with the same batch of collected footage with a few new surprises. Cutting back and forth to Billy, who looks like he is shrinking in his seat, is more compelling than the Netflix version. From here, we get a closer look at the lawsuits and issues that arise after the attempted festival. 

The new information we get here is what Billy did in the hours and months after the festival, his conviction and, the depth of his delusions. They pose the question about his six year prison sentence, was it enough?

Finally some one says what I’ve been thinking: “Don’t just focus on Billy. There are lots of people who helped Billy create fraud so they could make money too.”

Was that enough to satisfy my point? Not really. I would have loved to see the creators ask people about their responsibility in a deep and critical way. A credit sequence reveals that the workers on the island were never paid, Grant was fined, JaRule distances himself from the backlash and they point out that F@1$Jerry made the Netflix documentary and they pose the question about marketers responsibility. I didn’t like that we waited till the end to do so, but I’ll take it.

The verdict: I think FYRE FRAUD attempts to tell a fuller story and at least booked you into that villa on the island. So it gets my vote as the better doc. 

I think that the FYRE Festival is a great zeitgeist of our time. A reflection of the power and influence that marketing can have to create big things while at the same time exploiting others for financial gain. We LOVED seeing rich white kids fail. The meme’s were hilarious. I think everyone likes a good train wreck story. I also wonder why.


The perception of white collar fraud in our country is flawed to say the least. I think most people see these documentaries and don’t fully understand the depth of the crime. We poke fun and make a joke without understanding the real consequences beyond sunburn and delayed flights. We create the perfect martyr in our con artist Billy persona and watch him fail with delight. We gloss over the racial and social justice topics. It doesn’t bother anyone that they essentially exploited a poverty stricken island for the festival and then didn’t pay them? What happened to the islanders? Why do we tell Billy’s story and not theirs? Where is the responsibility of everyone involved? How do we prevent the Billy’s of the world from creating more situations like this? If it were me, I would have told the story from the perspective of the islanders first. That would have been compelling.

Honestly, wasn’t crazy about either of them. It’s a great story but both lack depth. Ironically, like the almost-festival that they document, they disappoint.

Good documentaries entertain us, Compelling documentaries ask great questions and challenge our perceptions.

Neither of these are compelling by those standards. They do entertain though. I am curious, what did you think?



Female Filmmaker Friday | ELAINE MCMILLION SHELDON

My new female documentary director crush is Elaine McMillion Sheldon. She's an academy award nominated documentary director based in West Virginia. Her work largely focuses on the Heroin(e) epidemic affecting our country. Her first film to make it to Netflix got my attention long before it was nominated for an academy award. It's a stunning piece of work and is still on Netflix. I highly recommend you add it to your list. 

In the face of the opioid epidemic in a West Virginia town, three women are giving their community a fighting chance. Heroin(e), only on Netflix September 12.

As a documentary filmmaker myself, I know how hard it is to craft relationships and stories within a complex backdrop. The topics Elaine explores are presented with compassion for its subjects. Something I feel very strongly about in my own work. I think it is easy to present a shocking story about drug addicts. It's easy for an audience to gawk voyeuristically, say "how horrible," and move on. I think we larlgey have our news outlets and reality television to thank for that. Elaine's work does the opposite. She dives in deep with her subjects and presents them to her audiences with a tender curiosity. 


I just finished her new film Recovery Boys and am equally inspired by the work. It's emotional, heartbreaking and compassionate. Her complicated subjects are treated with respect by her lens and it pays off in her ability to dive in with people and get them to reveal their true selves on camera.  


I won't reveal much about the "boys," here. I'd rather you see the film. Social issue documentaries have the power to heal, create change, inspire and influence our society in ways that our media outlets can not. It's why I love it so much. I have spent a large part of my career helping non-profits fundraise through documentary films with my peeps over at fig media. I take great care to let my subjects be the voice as much as possible. That is not easy. Personal bias, the desires or my clients and the audiences who donate money to such causes make navigating the stories I tell difficult. So when I see work that I can relate to in this way, I get excited.  

Elaine brings the human element of her stories into spaces that we only hear about in negative contexts in our news. She takes your hand and guides you through these spaces with her camera. She strays from being an essayist and lets her message evolve through the people she follows. This gives her subjects the chance to be the voice versus her directing being out front.

A quick look at her website, made me giggle. She and I use the same website template, we both shoot photography. I didn't realize that one of my favorite Frontline episodes is hers and damn it - she's six years younger than me.  So, Elaine, I am officially a big fan. If you are ever in Chicago, let's have lunch. I promise not to gush too much.

I got some work to do to catch up. 

*Opens a new tab and 'Googles' Documentary grants.* 


Currently Watching: Ellis


Currently Watching: Ellis

This is the trailer for ELLIS, a short film starring Robert De Niro, written by Eric Roth, directed by JR. The short narrative film, ELLIS, awakens our collective memory. Leaving their past behind them, immigrants fleeing poverty, discrimination, dictatorship arrived there. Ellis Island was the gateway to the United States for millions of immigrants. Upon arrival, they were processed, approved or denied access. Due to sickness or simply tiredness, many were placed in the hospital. A purgatory of sorts, in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, where thousands of men, women and children awaited their fate. ELLIS tells the forgotten story of these immigrants who built America while questioning about those who currently seek the same opportunities and safety in this country and other parts of the world. The short film stars Academy Award Winner Robert De Niro, was written by Academy Award winner Eric Roth and directed by the artist JR whose Unframed art installations in the abandoned Hospital complex serve as the set for this powerful and timely film.

The past few years I have discovered a deep desire to learn more about my own genealogy and cultural identity. Up until recently, when asked, I told people I was a blend of many European cultures. So blended, in fact, that I don't have any cultures I identify with. Being an artist this was a topic I often explored. Feeling invisible among my diverse peers. It has taken me years to be able to articulate the feeling of being removed from ancestral traditions. I know this plays into my desire to work with and capture stories of all peoples. 

It is not that I don't have a form of cultural identity but for whatever reason, it wasn't a currency in my family system. It has been lost. I have no religion that I feel deeply connected to, I study all of them. I have no traditions that stem from generations. I have a few stories of farming and growing up in the depression but beyond that, there is a void. 

Since as long as I can remember, I longed to see the world and learn about different cultures. I purposely seek out worldly people to fill my life with. I reasoned that if I didn't have a specific culture I identified with, that I would become a student of all of them.

Art allowed me to do that. 

I had been casually looking up french street art, you know, as one does, when I came across JR's work. His talk, "How art can change the world," won the TED prize in 2011. JR is a French street artist who had some beautiful ideas about how art could shape a community. After being in Paris and getting to see their street art first hand, I can tell you, they do it better than anything I have seen in the states. It's sassy and on point in a way Banksy could never touch. If you haven't seen the talk yet, please watch it below. It is amazing. I would LOVE to see something like this in Chicago. 

Ellis is not a new piece of work. It features JR's installation, Unframed. The installation was created in 2014, the short film came out the following year. It feels more relevant to me now given our current events. I remember reading Anne Frank in school and having my eyes opened to the horrors of oppression and immigration. I hope to never know such peril in my life. Truth is America was founded by immigrants who fought their way across the land and conquered it. Unless you are Native American, you are the product of immigration. In Ellis, JR attempts to bring you face to face with these ghosts. These stories of immigration. The people who fled discrimination, war and poverty to seek a better life. A staggering number of people living in the United States can trace their roots back here. Millions came through the island on their way to a better life.

It is estimated that 40% of people alive today can trace their roots back to a family member coming through Ellis Island. 

The film is beautifully written. I love me some De Niro, and think he gives the material justice. Personally, I would have loved to hear it in different languages. The photography of Unframed is haunting. It sits among the dilapidated buildings giving story to it's walls. Simply breathtaking.

When immigration became a political hot topic this year, my brain became interested in this project again. Our modern day immigrants don't look like this. They are no longer the European ancestors we see in our history books, they come from all over the world. When I began traveling I was embarrassed that I didn't speak another language. Everywhere I went, people were bilingual. They never made me feel bad for not knowing the native tongue but I had this deep desire to join them. Travel breaks down walls. The biggest wall it breaks down is fear. Fear of others, fear of other cultures, fear of those who are different than "us." 

I think it is more important now than ever that we see the faces of everyday people from all walks of life doing every day things. 

It is important to know our history. I think of our modern day Ellis Islands. The ones that sit on our borders and detain people. They have the same desire as those who came before. They are looking for a better life. They don't want anything they haven't earned. They just want a shot at creating something better for themselves. I can't imagine having to leave it all behind and start over in another country. One that is hostile towards me. What bravery and courage that takes. 

I am headed to New York for the first time this spring. Ellis Island was the first place on my list to visit. I want to stand there. On the steps of what was hope for so many and gaze at lady liberty. Some never made it beyond the hospital. Others were detained for years, living in limbo. Before the island was opened to the public, it was used for deportations. A crazy full circle. 

You can watch Ellis on Netflix or Amazon Prime.