Once again the SXSW Film Festival 2018 encompassed what one would imagine. Amazingly in its 25th Edition, the festival included 136 feature films. And these numbered 89 World Premieres, 13 North American Premieres, 6 U.S. Premieres, and 49 feature films from first-time filmmakers. The slate also included 171 Short Films, Music Videos, Independent Episodics, Title Sequences, and Virtual Reality projects. So many films, so little time! However, since I love documentaries, I always make time for them.
Take Your Pills
The documentary Take Your Pills, directed by Alison Klayman, brilliantly shines an exhaustive and frightening light on stimulant prescription drugs. It screened at SXSW as a World Premiere. Indeed, stimulants now surreptitiously trend toward cultural mega abuse. Adderall and Ritalin are the primary medications that doctors prescribe for children or teenagers with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). These achieve skyrocketing numbers of abuse in our uber competitive society. Taken under the proper circumstances, children may be helped, but this remains a slippery slope. Drugging children so that they might fit in and adapt to a tenuous educational environment remains controversial. Often, doctors over-diagnose and over-prescribe. As such stimulants have become problematic over the last two decades.
Consequently, the over-prescription and abuse of both drugs has reached epidemic proportions. Some doctors in the film suggest Adderall will reach an equivalent abuse level with opioids. Why isn’t this known and prevented? And why are adults without ADHD taking Adderall?
In her documentary Klayman identifies the differences between Adderall and Ritalin, both stimulants. Basically, the reason why doctors prescribe them for children is that both help control the levels of two chemicals in the brain. The drugs noticeably improve concentration, focus, and feelings of well being. However, Adderall’s chemicals include amphetamine and dextroamphetamine. The milder Ritalin lacks amphetamine and requires a higher dosage than Adderall. Adderall’s effects last longer.
To her credit, Klayman’s documentary provides vital information through interviews with Adderall users. She cites facts and statistics. Through interviews, she includes doctors’ commentary about the Adderall epidemic. Also, she indicts the socioeconomic culture which promotes intellectual performance enhancing medications.
In her film Klayman’s key themes pinpoint important questions. To compete adults and students (high school and college), convince themselves Adderall helps them best their competitors. Studies have shown this may not bear out. The belief system of users, their faith in the drug, creates a placebo effect.
Sadly, faith in the drug’s ability helps them achieve that competitive edge, and this occurs with teenagers competing to get into great colleges to adults looking to maintain performance levels on their jobs. Adderall has become the choice stimulant. Doctors liken it to speed. Klayman compares the past banning of amphetamines with the present acceptance of them in Adderall. She asks how did we arrive where we are? Then she examines the cultural arc light of social devolution.
Notably, Klayman interviews students, doctors, parents, and others. She reveals how this “faith” in the “miracle” focus drug has exacerbated the Adderall crisis. Believing they cannot do well without it, adults and students become addicted. They reach highs and inevitably crash, and the side effects become dangerous. Chemical dependence always brings with it the lure of hope. Yet, a down side results: depression and self-imprisonment. Thus, Klayman suggests. Is what students and adults emotionally sacrifice in addiction worth it? Indeed, the interplay of physical illness, decrease in self-esteem, and confidence nullifies the times of enhanced concentration. Again and again the eye-witness testimony reveals the powerful, cogent argument, and through information, facts, and medical assessments, we learn the truth of Adderall.
Though Klayman’s interviews initially reveal the positive attributes of the medication (focus and attention becomes heightened), she investigates Adderall disasters. Whether they get prescriptions from their own doctors or buy Adderall from “feel good” doctors or friends, the Adderall effect destroys. Klayman parallels the cultural ethos of “getting ahead” at any cost to individuals’ rapacity for Adderall. She forms the picture in a country distracted by the opioid crisis. Millions of pills of Adderall are being taken by individuals believing it makes them “smarter.” And as word spreads, they influence their friends to take Adderall. Indeed, doesn’t everyone want to be “at their best.” Klayman’s efforts to expose the Adderall culture in Take Your Pills are monumental. This film is a must-see.
Half The Picture
For those of you unfamiliar with the place and power of women in the film industry, U.S. Premiere Half the Picture will open your eyes. Director/screenwriter Amy Adrion’s feature length documentary skewers the white male patriarchy in the film industry. Whether men have wittingly kept women out, believing their skills inferior, or have just hired men because of the shared “camaraderie” of the boys’ network, women’s showings have been abysmal. The low numbers of women represented as directors, as actors in lead roles, as tech people, in sound design, etc. speak volumes.
Indeed, Amy Adrion’s film pinpoints through interviews with women in the industry that there are women who have shown their mettle, and Adrion indicates their under-representation is less unwitting. In fact, it may be “benign” neglect or willful obtuseness. Sadly, women become swept up in not completely supporting their sisters. This occurs for many reasons, i.e. for lack of know-how, no power, or for fear of taking a stand. In the predatory case of Weinstein’s abuses, women have allowed themselves to be bullied and sexually demeaned to get work, and we have not heard the last of the predators. Other whistleblowers will come forward when the time works for them to do so.
Key interviews which Adrion exhaustively includes remain telling. Participants include Ava Duvernay, Lena Dunham, Jill Soloway, Karyn Kusama, Catherine Hardwicke, Miranda July, Kasi Lemmons, and others. Each shares her fascinating experiences, and we walk away realizing those who have gone before have made a way as they endured. However, the slow going frustrates. For Adrion’s citation of statistics undergirded by, Melissa Silverstein’s (Artistic Director of Athena Film Festival), commentary indicates women will have to push back and push hard to increase their numbers. Not just once, but again and again and again. Women supporting women remains key. Those interviewed revealed they attempted to bring in more women when the opportunity arose. Their stories heartened.
Nevertheless, for the most part as Adrion’s interviews suggest, women, not in many positions of power, take the crumbs given to them. They tread water without asking too many questions or making too many demands. Importantly, the more power they gain at the box office and the higher they fly, the more they can demand. Without power, they become the fish in the barrel. The sexual predation of the Weinstein types who control, offer untenable conditions which they take to keep up their resumes and get work.
Who knows the extent to which many women have had to “put out and shut up” for their jobs? Their oppression has served men in power well: less salary, more favors, objectified to boost male egos, etc. Actresses we have heard about. What of those behind the camera? Adrion’s documentary deftly makes the point that unless women are placed in positions of power, such behavior will most probably continue. Certainly, once the spotlight of the #metoo movement is off, conditions will again worsen. Predators know upon whom to prey and exclude from key positions in revenge.
The film industry and other industries are about power. Frances McDormand used her powerful position after winning the Oscar in Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri to mention “inclusion rider.” Such a rider which demands there be parity and equity in film hiring (before and behind the camera), has been around for decades, and women who have achieved prominence in the industry could have requested it be placed in film contracts. The sad fact remains that this was absent from Adrion’s film. One can surmise that before McDormand clued in everyone on Oscar night, few knew or used such a rider.
McDormand, whose husband and brother-in-law are in the industry, didn’t know about this for thirty-five years. Hence, Adrion points out through the experiences of those she interviews, this pathetic lack of women’s inclusion as directors and even as storytellers smacks of witting intention. In a few instances perhaps, hiring men instead of women because women lack the skill or ability makes sense. However, what of other women who have proven themselves? What of women who have the skill and ability to have their product make money? Not hiring them speaks to unconscionable intention for malignant reasons.
Shouldn’t more women be given the chance? This remains an overriding theme that surfaces in interview after interview, commentary after commentary of Adrion’s documentary. Again and again when women are given the chance, they shine. A key example remains Wonder Woman which did not receive any Oscar nominations. This smacks of the very mind set that has persisted for decades. That women don’t really count and can be used as sex objects becomes the subterranean drive. Indeed, men must come first.
As Half the Picture asserts, women filmmakers like Patty Jenkins, when given the chance, can outshine men, do an incredible job, and even bring in equivalent or even greater profits. To date, according to Mark Hughes contributor of Forbes, Wonder Woman is the highest–grossing superhero origin film.
Will the money “men” give more women directors a chance as a result of Wonder Woman? Or will they just consider this a lucky win (profit-$672.9 million), in the long list of male winners who bring in the bacon? Since those in power are only seeing “half the picture,” they need to wake up. If they do, all will benefit as Adrion surely proves in her excellent film.
Ali & Cavett: The Tale of the Tapes
Ali & Cavett: The Tale of the Tapes directed by Robert S. Bader (screenplay by Bader and Dick Cavett), use as a basis the interviews of Muhammad Ali conducted by Dick Cavett on The Dick Cavett Show. The documentary received a World Premiere showing at SXSW. Bader and Cavett measure out the historical record of Muhammad Ali and the times of his life with brio, humor and gravity. Not only is this documentary a fervent chronicle of two great men, two great minds, it lovingly records their relationship as unlikely as it was. More like brothers, they were kindred spirits internally. Externally, they remained as disparate as two men might be.
Both Ali and Cavett revered one another and even loved one another. They accomplished this at a time when few upper crust white Anglo Saxon protestant men seriously listened to black men. This was a time when it was dangerous for black men to have the audacity, enthusiasm, and intelligence to speak with articulate power the courage of their convictions. It was unheard of for a black man to speak this was to a white man on a public TV station.
What Bader and Cavett have achieved with this amazing and wonderful work astonishes, and for those who lived outside the shadows of the decades when Ali championed the black cause with grace, dancing over the corpse of hypocrisy with his incredible boxing skills and poetic persona, you are in for a treat. The documentary acquaints and reacquaints us with the record of movement of Ali’s and Cavett’s crashing force of love and humanity. Both greatly appreciated each other. Cavett listened non-judgmentally and encouraged Ali in his honesty, though at times it became painful for him to watch. Ali grew to trust Cavett, as much as it hurt him to look at this individual, knowing he was a one-of-a-kind, a rare breed of white man who listened and cared.
The documentary edits the most salient of the Ali-Cavett tapes, and with them Cavett’s astute skills. Bader and Cavett form the arc of the historical relationship against the backdrop of Ali’s incredible boxing career. We view the mind blowing history of the civil rights movement via Ali’s name change from Cassius Clay as a turning point in his career. Also, we learn about his initial friendship with icon Malcolm X. Finally, the film references the usurpation of Ali’s persona by Elijah Muhammad as Malcolm X drew away from the Nation of Islam’s leader because of his sexual predations.
The filmmaker uses the tapes of Cavett’s interviews with Ali after he won the championship defeating Sonny Liston. Bader and Cavett include the interviews of Ali’s discussion of his beliefs about “the white man.” In effect, the tapes follow the chronological order of Ali’s career, and we see how Cavett and Ali made a great team in their interplay of humor and good will.
The documentary follows interviews before and after his bouts against Joe Frazier and George Foreman, and the trash talking between the two when Frazier and Ali sit across from one another is absolutely amazing. Of course, as a part of the record, we see portions of the interview after Ali loses to Frazier. We note his graciousness, humility, and humorous quips about the fight with commentary from Cavett taped years later.
The interviews and commentary run concurrently with his activism against the Viet Nam War (he was arrested as a conscientious objector for draft evasion). His biographers and others point out that he lost to Frazier because the boxing commission punitively banned him from the ring. He appealed to the Supreme Court and won. Out of touch for almost four years, when he came back against Frazier, Ali didn’t practice as he could have and lost. Then they had a rematch and he won. Always the activist, Ali represented African Americans at this most crucial time in the civil rights movement.
Bader and Cavett include commentaries from Cavett as he gauges the interviews through the lens of time. Also included are archived news clips of protests, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and more. Interspersed to round out the information, we see interview clips of observations and opinions from Ali biographers and those who knew Ali and Cavett: Rev. Al Sharpton, Larry Merchant, Ilyasah Shabazz (Malcolm X’s daughter), Juan Williams, Thomas Hauser, Randy Roberts, and more. The Cavett tapes, news clips, and current commentaries explore the arc of Ali’s career and activism as “The Greatest.” Above all they showcase his humanity, an icon of the twentieth century not only for African Americans, but for all Americans.
Likewise, the Ali/Cavett interviews reveal how Cavett’s truthful brilliance brought out Ali’s genuine and likeable inner core. He bravely shined a light of dignity on a stellar human being. As a result, both brothers in spirit strengthened our culture propelling it in the direction of kindness and understanding. But for who Cavett is now and in the past, the American people would not have fully comprehended or appreciated Ali’s uniqueness, his courage, his humility, his beauty.
As the ebullient, maverick interviews brought Ali’s genuineness into focus for all Americans then, so does this documentary now. When Cavett scheduled Ali on TV, American values became uplifted. This intelligent, irreverent white man brought this outrageous and controversial black champion into American living rooms (only three TV channels). Most Americans were fans or skeptics. Others were outright racist rednecks. But even the KKK watched.
Those KKK members who sat in front of the TV listening to Ali one day, may have lynched a black person for no cause, the next, or maybe because of Ali, they didn’t lynch or harass a black man as they might have before. This was because Ali was real, human, alive, not a stereotype. And his honesty, intelligence and sheer athletic prowess, prompted by Cavett’s non-judgmental concern and love, encouraged people to give Ali a hearing.
As brought out by Ali in one of their interviews, Ali knew he appealed to all, whether his fans loved or hated him. They had to appreciate his boxing greatness and be amused at his humor even though they might despise his skin color.
What the tapes and this documentary reveal above all is extremely important and current for us in this divided America today. People of color and white people, formerly suspicious of one another, can sit down and form a consensus together. Ultimately, with understanding and empathy, they can love each other and can appreciate the common human threads that bind us all regardless of religion, race and beliefs. Indeed, not even unjust laws can separate Americans for long, who value the principles of the constitution and better angels of our democratic ethos.
The documentary is a must-see. I can’t recommend it enough. It’s just great!