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Documentary Review


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.* 



Samsara: I wish I had seen in theaters.

Samsara: A film I wish I had seen in theaters. Now streaming on Netflix. 

At times the message feels a little heavy handed with its carefully crafted images and content. This is not the type of film I would recommend if you are looking to escape. It is similar to a Pink Floyd’s The Wall kind of “I dare you to watch this stoned out of your mind,” kind of way. There are several sequences that will make you tweak out of your mind even sober. There is no dialogue. This film makes you think. Which is why it is refreshing. 

Chances are if you can’t make it through the first fifteen minutes, you will hate the film. Just fast forward to my favorite part I mentioned below and turn it off. Come back to it only after your curiosity has peaked. 

I think it is overly touted as a Buddhist meditation. While the film references direct concepts in Buddism / Nirvana it is moreover a visual essay. A commentary on life through the eyes of our filmmakers. 

If you are versed in the symbolism of Tibetan imagery you will enjoy the thoughtful circle of life. Most notably the Mandala sand painting in the beginning. The clever use of eyes, hands and arm positions. My art history friends will be thrilled. Everyone else has no clue what I am talking about. 

What I love is the focus on your experience of the film and what happens when you put two images side by side without language. The juxtaposition is the dialogue. This is a beautiful, well paced film with interesting commentary on technology, farming and human interaction. 

Best part to watch: The sequences in a Japanese robot factory that are making life sized sex dolls.Bet I got your attention now! I was beyond curious watching the cutting between the dolls and other mechanized processes. A not so subtle focus thought the film is eye contact. Eye contact with both humans and human made objects. Desire for connection. Widows to the soul. Each desire creates an action then a consequence. Desire, create, repeat. Not all desires are received well in this film. The mechanized meat process plants, sex industry, plastic surgery, bullet factories are all products of said circle.

It seems to come to a climax when you reach this part of the film, pun directly intended. The dolls sat with me the most. In our quest for fulfillment of desires to create the perfect body, we create an artificial one to fulfill the desires of men. The feminist in me was outraged, the filmmaker in me was curious and the woman in me was upset. The dolls are amazing. They are also disgusting. They do actually exist. 

In any respect this is a must see film. I have watched it twice already and see something new each time. It got my wheels turning. 

Watch and tell me what you think! 


(in Tibetan called ‘khor ba (pronounced kɔrwɔ [IPA] in many Tibetan dialects), meaning “continuous flow”), is the repeating cycle of birthlife and death(reincarnation) within HinduismBuddhismBönJainismTaoism,[1] and Yârsân. In Sikhism this concept is slightly different and looks at one’s actions in the present and consequences in the present.



    Notes on the most haunting film I have ever seen. Oscar Nominated Documentary: The Act of Killing.

    I have so much to say about this film, I don’t even know where to begin. I have seen many unsettling documentaries, but this one transcends the genre in a way I can not articulate yet. So excuse my attempt here, I am merely trying to collect my thoughts. 

    If you have seen Twelve Years a Slave then you know the feeling I am about to describe. The funeral like procession you had when you walked out of the theater. No words, head hung low struggling for the right words to utter after the work you just experienced. I sat in silence through the credits. It is my pick for the Oscars. One of the strongest directed films. My love for the work was overshadowed by my experience of it. Twelve Years a Slave is painful. It hurts to watch. It is an important experience. It is importance to see the dark side of our human nature. 

    Enter The Act of Killing. Imagine asking a war criminal, known for aiding in the genocide of millions to make a film that reenacted his crimes and then documented the process. For humor sake since i have no smarter comparison, if Hitler made an art film. 

    Joshua Oppenhimer originally sent out to make a documentary about the victims of the communist purging in Indonesia in 1965. In seeking out survivor stories, he failed in getting clearance and the support he needed. He then directed his cameras to the perpetrators. Finding it easier to document the “heroes” of the country, the youth gang that aided the government in the extermination. 

    I know very little about this period in history. In fact it was complete news to me. I had to look it up. Tucked away under a victory over communism at the height of the cold war, is one of the largest mass murders of our history. I will just let that little nugget sit with you for a moment. It happened in Indonesia, executed by the government through gangs in 1965. Before human rights violations was international law. I sometimes forget that the human rights movements became the laws as we know them today within my lifetime. A fact that the perpetrators in the film repeat. Perspective. 

    The dynamics of this documentary are compelling and utterly terrifying. This is by no small device from the filmmakers. The idea is brilliant. The images that come out of the “film” within the film create so much internal conflict with the audience that I am surprised this isn’t being talked about more widely.

    Unlike the “shock doc craze,” The Cove or Blackfish, documentaries made to shock people into action by sharing graphic images, The Act of Killing opens the door for a unique peek into the minds of men who committed murder without ever showing you the evidence. 

    They offer up their stories like national heroes. Justifying their actions in eerily similar ways to recent events. Glorifying their actions. They are not much different then us. Think about it. Zero Dark Thirty, Any WW II movie made about Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Vietnam, Dessert Storm, The War on Terror. Before you go pointing fingers and think, “What Monsters!” Remember that our history is littered with these acts. The sooner we start looking at them thoughtfully from a new perspective with compassion for all parties the better. 

    That is what this film offers us. A chance to see what happens from the other side. This is often the theme of any project Werner Herztog touches. Into the Abyss, argues for the humanity of our criminals while positioning the pain of the victims together. Creating an unsettling experience. One that leaves the audience with more questions then answers. It is a complex argument for human rights.

    What is justice? 

    There are two moments in The Act of Killing that will haunt my dreams. The first is the “scene” where the group is reenacting a torture sequence. The perpetrators are dressed in silly costumes and make-up. They are cartoons of themselves discussing the scene at hand. They are concerned about making sure they tell the truth even if it means finally admitting that the people they executed were less brutal then they are. In an act of bravery the actor playing the “communist” offers up the story of his stepfather as an idea for a scene to add realism. He then begins to tell this heart wrenching story of how his stepfather was murdered and how he was witness to it at ten years old. The group brushes off the story, it was too uncomfortable for them to handle. The “actor” side steps the interaction to avoid conflict and they all move on to filming the scene. During which, the actor is then “tortured.” I clutched my heart through the whole thing. For the actor, this was not just a play. This was real. The group likens their behavior to Guantanamo Bay, saying that during the war on terror it was justified for Americans to torture their captives. Now that the fear of 9/11 has subsided, this behavior is frowned upon. “How is that any different then us?” he says.

    The second is the final scene in which our main protagonist pulls back his facade and takes us to the site where he committed murders. He finally shows vulnerability. He goes into shock on camera. The full weight of his actions hitting him. He then walks out and the film fades to black.  

    This film is a bold statement. The device of the film within a film works in ways I don’t think our director even dreamed up. In any respect it will leave you clutching you heart with more questions then answers. That same upset, funeral like procession from the theater as 12YAS is how I felt after watching this one. Right now this is my front runner for best documentary. It is on Netflix. Be brave and watch it. 



    Three Things Chicagoland Failed to Deliver for Chicagoan's

    I grew up on the Southwest Side of Chicago. I moved north after college to be closer to an opportunity I got to work for a small production company. Since then I have been building a career as a director that tells stories for the clients we serve. I fully understand the challenges of producing media within government and corporations. I was excited to see how another team from a large studio would represent Chicago in this series. Later, I was disappointed when it turned out to be another “reality” TV show. 

    That is not to say that some of the stories or production was bad. It just failed to deliver Chicago as I know most Chicagoans see it.

    Here are three things I think the producers missed. 

    1. Three stories. This morning a story is cycling the news: “Controversy,” around the CNN documentary on Chicago. Emails between the producers and the mayors office reveal the struggles producers had in gaining access to our mayor. No big surprise here. Those of us living in Rahm’s Chicago know how carefully cultivated his images is. This is true for almost every client I have worked with. We ALL cultivate our images. Getting people to be themselves on camera is a REAL skill. Like Goodhart’s Law, once you measure something you change it, people change when the camera’s come out. Don’t believe the “controversy,” this is a challenge all producers face. The tension between the stories they want to tell and the access they can get to those stories is part of the job. That being said I think the choices they made on how those stories are told fell flat. Too much time hunting for the sensational and not enough of good storytelling. 

    We never see our three “heroes,” in the environments they call home. We only see them working in the roles the show presents. As a documentarian I am always interested in learning about “when the cape comes off.” When our heroes sit down to collect themselves. These are the vulnerable and beautiful moments of life that add breadth to stories.

    It’s solid work. But it’s one sided without much intelligence to it’s own bias. There seems to be little collaboration between subject and director and it feels like there is more footage missing. Someone chopped the s*!% out of the series in the editing room. 

    2. The voice over. Can I tell you how much I HATE the voice over? I loathe the voice over choice. Voice is key in any production. I sometimes spend months selecting a voice for projects. The tough Chicago accent and deep bold sound is a nod to “Da Superfans.” Not only is it a bad choice but the tone it sets for the show tells me a lot about the people who made it. It’s authoritative, slick, lacking in empathy and “in your face.” It’s laughably bad. The voice is reminiscent of Mayor Daly’s red faced rants to the media. I cringe at the round sound and bad pronunciation.

    If the show were to be progressive I would have selected a high school student from Dossier to be the voice of the show. A youthful sound that is currently living through the challenges the show talks about would have created a completely different feel. This voice feels like it has no connection to the images. This makes the experience of the show tough to swallow. It is the difference between allowing someone to emerge as a voice and slapping a sticker on a pretty package. The voice they selected is a sticker. 

    3. Hunting vs. Gathering. I can tell the production crew was “hunting” for a story. They tried to bridge stories by forcing interactions between the casted people and by sending crews out to “find” material. The B-roll of violence was sought after. It didn’t emerge from the story. This is why it feels upsetting, there is little connection to the actual violence. That is not to say that violence is not a real challenge for our city. It is. But they didn’t do their homework.

    This is the difference between a crew that gathers material and those who hunt for it. Gathering is harder. It requires patience. But the result of gathering material is that you end up with a more genuine picture of why something happens. If you want to see what gathering looks like, watch The Interrupters. This is where I have a problem with most “documentary” shows on TV. It is still TV. This was not PBS or the BBC. This was CNN. A news network that hunts for stories. Case in point: The month long coverage of the missing jet in the indian ocean.

    They missed the boat on making any real statement that could help change policy or help the issues Chicago faces. It’s a fancy PR trick that tried to be cool, disguised as a documentary. Oh, by the way … It’s sponsored by Allstate. 

    Overall, it’s worth a watch to gather your own opinion. I do enjoy seeing anything from Chicago in mainstream national media, even if I know how biased it is. At least this show has people like myself talking. That is all  you can really ask for. 






    6 Upsetting Documentaries you have to see and Why

    I read the news every morning over coffee. By the time I finish my cup, I can not read any more.

    The world is too upsetting. 

    Sometimes I can’t tell if it’s our media pumping out the worst of the world for ratings or if things really are that bad. This does not stop me from reading. 

    In fact, I do it because it upsets me. I think if more people paid attention this way, our world might be a better place. Not because I am going to run out and become an activist for every cause that upsets me, because that is imposible. It is because I am open to experiencing the upset of the world that it changes me.

    I know there is no way I can solve every problem, but that does not mean I should ignore them. When the times comes, I find that my education on topics such as this help me make compassionate decisions. 

    When discussing the recent events that lead to our nation’s topic on gun control, a friend of mine was telling me how “shocked” she was at how horrible mass violence has become. I laughed and said, to her dismay, that I was not shocked at all. 

    When she inquired why I told her this: 

    "We all have the capability to do horrific acts of violence and unspeakable evil to one another. To deny that part of yourself is to deny our nature. Under the right circumstances, you too could make a choice you currently see as horrific. Whether premeditated or impulsive it does not matter. The evil in our world does not simply go away because you choose to ignore it. It exists, pulsing through your viens. I am not shocked to hear the awful things that happen because I know that I myself am wholly capable of doing the same. It is that awareness of this truth that allows me to make that choice. We have yet to evolve to a place where we can see that some people are not aware of the difference. We treat the body, not the mind. Until we strive to understand ourselves more deeply - these acts will continue." 

    So buck up, open your heart and watch one of these. Don’t be shocked the next time something happens. This is also why I love documentary. It has the power to change, educate and open your heart and mind. Netflix is full of amazing documentary work. Brave filmmakers who dare to enter these spaces so that you can learn about them. 

    They are phenomenally courageous films, and I highly recommend you watch them. 

    1. Mugabe and the White African. 

    A farmer and his family fight a corrupt government to save their South African farm in Zimbabwe. This film is beautifully shot and heartbreaking. This documentary got short listed for an Oscar and beat out by Burma VJ (Also on Netflix). Between the two, I think this one is stronger. When the last slide comes up before the credits, I broke into tears. More people need to know this story. It will challenge how you view race, government and the traditional hero.  

    2. The Cove

    I am sure you have heard of this one. You may have even been cautioned to watch it. It documents what happens in a cove in Japan. Illegal fishing of dolphins. You need to see this. Then understand that we do this to animals on our home turf. This is not ok and has to stop. 

    3. Dark Days

    Beautiful black and white fllm about a homeless community that set up camp in the NY subway system. This movie will change the way you see your city and how you treat the man asking you for help in the subway. 

    4. Cry of the Snow Lion

    Forget that our history is littered with instances of people wiping out people. We still live in that world. This documentary follows the people of Tibet in exile. Here is a leadership corageous enough to call for peaceful means a world where others might take up arms. *cough* like us? 

    5. Radio Bikini

    This 1988 documentary literally blew my mind. Releasing declassified military footage of the 1946 atomic bomb tests on Bikini Atoll. You get to see the tests cut to interviews of those that were there. I sat with my mouth open the whole time, wanting to believe that what I saw was fake. I just… you have to see it. 

    6. The Interrupters. 

    I saved this one for last. Because it is happening on home turf. Want a bold inside look at what Chicago’s real problems are with youth violence? Then you have to see this. Forget Obama’s speech and gun law regulations. This will help you understand why none of that will work. I have never seen a filmmaker get closer and more raw honesty then this in Chicago. It is DVD only, but so worth it.