A freelance writer and copywriter for over fifteen years, Helene has written for publications and brands all over the world and couldn’t imagine herself in any other job. A shameless film freak, her first onscreen experience involved a trip to Avondale’s Hollywood Theatre at the age of five to see Yul Brynner in The Ultimate Warrior and she hasn’t looked back since. A big fan of documentaries, she has interviewed subjects as diverse as Henry Rollins, Jimmy Choo and Beyonce Knowles, and also has her own beauty blog - which can be found at www.mshelene.com - for the purpose of raving about red lipstick, big hair and other essential indulgences.

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On BARISTA… and the coffee geek as rockstar

Posted on Thursday 4/20/2017 April, 2017 by

Merriam-Webster defines a barista as “someone who makes and serves coffee and coffee drinks (such as cappuccino) to customers”, but when it comes to many of the bean pullers I’ve encountered around the world, they view their occupation as close to god. And god help you if you actually order a cappuccino in Auckland or Wellington, but that’s another story!

In an editorial role for a trade magazine, I once attended a coffee “symposium” and also a local coffee awards that necessitated that the organisers fly in an international specialist in the field who, naturally, went by just one (invented and absurd) name. Both events were quite pretentious but also surprisingly enjoyable, and I came away with a new level of admiration for what it takes to make the perfect cup o’ joe.

Most people think the – often bespectacled and bearded - men and – ironically tattooed - women behind the counter at their local cafe are just university-bound kids and unemployed actors working for a bit of extra pocket money. Many definitely are but for plenty of baristas, this is their chosen career. They are serious and they are dedicated, and their role in society these days has pretty much surpassed the bartender as a harbinger of scorn and hipster-by-numbers cool. Ignore their Breton stripe-wrapped attitude at your peril – these guys are seen by many as the rockstars of the hospitality industry with good reason.

Which brings me to tonight’s documentary, BARISTA. As the title suggests, it’s about people who make coffee. But these are not just any people who make coffee, they are the (at time of filming) top five baristas in the US, and cameras follow their journey as they work their way through the highly respected National Barista Championship. So how, exactly, does one take part in a barista competition? Well in this case it’s an intense, cutthroat competition wherein competitors get 15 minutes to prepare 12 drinks. That’s just 15 minutes to prepare a trio of beverages for a four-person judging panel - one espresso, one cappuccino, and one specialty drink of their own devising – all the while keeping up a steady chat about barista-important topics such as the origins of their coffee and their own espresso-pulling philosophies. The stress is palpable as we reach the specialty beverages stage, with competitors experimenting with the likes of liquid nitrogen and moonshine-style coffee distillery to impress and hopefully, take home the crown.

Thankfully director Rock Baijnauth keeps things light, and despite some of the characters he shines his light on being insufferably pious in the extreme, his filmmaking style is fast and refreshingly choppy. The sight of not one but two absurdly solemn competition judges stooping down in unison to closely observe how evenly a barista tamps down on his coffee grounds has been called more than a little comical, and Baijnauth knows just when to pull back on the superlatives and get back to the action. The obsessive techniques and hilarious-sounding tasting notes the baristas talk about are no sillier than what I have heard on the regular in the wine world, which seems to get a lot more respect.

Anyway, it would be too easy to compare BARISTA to Christopher Guest’s awesome mockumentary “Best in Show” - one of the film’s subjects does so herself – but it has a similar vibe and is an easy watch as a result. I wouldn’t say I loved this but it was a nice way to while away just over an hour and a half, and you might just learn a little more about what makes your local barista tick.

BARISTA premieres Thursday 20 April at 8.30pm on Rialto Channel  

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DAN AND MARGOT and the stigma of mental illness

Posted on Thursday 4/13/2017 April, 2017 by

During my twenties I had a long-term partner who was a big, athletic guy (an ex-Olympian even) but a real sensitive soul, and he struggled with life at times. A couple of years after we split I heard that he had married, moved overseas and begun “hearing voices”, eventually returning to New Zealand and plunging into what I now know is full blown schizophrenia. On the outside he apparently looks exactly the same, but the voices in his head have rendered him incapable of work and most relationships. At worst he imagines that his phone is bugged and there are cameras in his shower, at best he has a short fuse with his friends and family, many of who have struggled to watch his transformation over the years.

Tonight’s film DAN AND MARGOT follows a similar trajectory as it takes an intimate look at a seemingly together young woman called Margot, who spent years being stalked and tormented by a person who never really existed. Beginning like an art house horror movie you haven’t caught yet, it’s a sensitive but fascinating watch and a very sympathetic portrayal of mental illness by filmmakers Chloe Sosa-Sims and Jake Chirico.

The protagonist is a friend of Sosa-Sims, a smart, sassy woman who just happens to also be schizophrenic. The exact cause of schizophrenia isn't known, but a combination of genetics, environment and altered brain chemistry and structure may play a role. Schizophrenia is characterised by thoughts or experiences that seem out of touch with reality, disorganised speech or behaviour and decreased participation in daily activities, and it can affect someone for a few years, or the duration of their life. Treatment is usually life-long and often involves a combination of medications, psychotherapy and coordinated specialty care services, and it has been known to make its presence felt when sufferers are at a very vulnerable time in their lives. Unlike virtually every other mental illness, schizophrenia is fairly unique in that its first onset is nearly always in young adulthood - not childhood or as a teen, and rarely after one’s 30s. Most people who are diagnosed with schizophrenia have their first symptoms and episode in their 20s — early to mid-20s for men, a little later (late-20s) for women.

This is, in part, is what makes it such a devastating disorder. Just as a person is finding their way in the world, exploring their relationships with others and whatnot, schizophrenia strikes. This is definitely the case for Margot, as we watch her struggling to take back the three years of her life that she lost to schizophrenia. During those years she was stalked, sexually harassed and tormented by a person who never really existed, ending in a deep depression until finally, she was hospitalised and diagnosed.

In the film we see Margot trying to gain back the years she lost during her episodes. She wants four things: to move out of her parent's house, to meet others like herself, to find satisfying work and ultimately to fall in love. As she gets closer to achieving what she wants, she continues to grapple with her illness. Schizophrenia is a life-long condition and the chance of relapsing is ever-looming.

The fearlessly introspective protagonist at the heart of DAN AND MARGOT is a great subject, making for a compelling watch. Her supportive network of family and friends are also wonderful people, and their observations on the mystifying changes in her behaviour are heartbreaking. I think it’s important to say that Margot gives a voice to the many stories of mental illness as she struggles to live with past traumas but still has hope. Lastly, the film asks questions about the deep-seated stigmatisation of mental illness around the world and what ways we can better understand – and support - those in its grasp.

DAN AND MARGOT premieres Thursday 13 April at 8.30pm on Rialto Channel

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THE EMPIRE OF THE SCENTS

Posted on Thursday 4/6/2017 April, 2017 by

As a sometime beauty editor for the past 15 or so years, I have written about a lot of fragrances – and the people behind them. These special talents are revered and their work talked about using the most insane, seriously poetic language, and their success stories can make or break a major luxury brand’s fragrance division. We as scent consumers know what we like, and those that hit the jackpot by meeting that are paid handsomely.

Nobody knows for sure what makes our noses work the way they do, not even the USD $20-billion-a-year perfume industry's legions of chemists, whose jobs depend on appealing to those noses. Scent is such a delicate sense, and sensorial memories powerful – be they good or bad.

In tonight’s beautifully crafted documentary THE EMPIRE OF THE SCENTS (in French, ‘Le Nez’ AKA ‘the nose’), acclaimed Canadian filmmaker Kim Nguyen makes his debut in the documentary genre with an exploration of the importance of our sense of smell. It is a sense so crucial that those that lose it have been known to fall into deep depression and even suicide, and Nguyen honours it accordingly. The key role that olfaction plays in our everyday life is carefully analysed by sommeliers, perfume creators, truffle hunters and other people whose lives and careers are intimately linked to the nose.

I love that the film gives us what has been called an almost “kaleidoscopic portrait” of what is the sense of smell, exploring the most rare of saffrons, exotic perfumes and more. It is incredible to watch the like of astronaut Chris Hadfield attempt to describe the smell of space, while food molecule expert François Chartier talks about the “sound” of flavours. I was particularly amused by the enigmatic German Guido Lenssen, a truly metaphysical perfumer who claims to have created the scent of a woman of a woman’s crotch (“Vulva”, I kid you not), as he explains how his perfume came to be. 

Nguyen travels the world in the documentary, and has said that making a foray into non-fiction was a real challenge for him. The director is most famous for the film REBELLE (AKA ‘War Witch’), a Berlin Film Festival-winning French war drama that tells the story of Komona, a girl kidnapped at the age of 12 by rebel soldiers and enslaved to a life of guerrilla warfare in the African jungle. Forced to commit unspeakable acts of brutality, she finds hope for survival in protective, ghost-like visions (inspiring a rebel chief to anoint her 'War Witch'), and in a tender relationship with a fellow soldier named Magician. It is the most emotive watch and beautifully crafted, and I highly recommend you search it out.

THE EMPIRE OF THE SCENTS is a very different beast but also a beautiful one. There was the challenge of making a series of talking heads interesting, but the subject matter does that all on its own I think. They are all trying to explain something that is at once ineffable and invisible, and the director has said that at times that led to a moment of panic. “Very early on … I started feeling insecure,” Nguyen told a local Canadian newspaper. “I was scared we wouldn’t be able to produce an hour and a half of screen time and still entertain people”. He went on to contact Joe Bini, an editor for the legendary Werner Herzog to ask for help. He read the script and reportedly said, “I think you should be worried. Smell is not a character you can relate to”… cheers!

Everything changed for the director however when he found writer Molly Birnbaum, a New York-based writer whose struggle to deal with losing her sense of smell is heartbreaking. “She has this great charisma,” he said. “There’s something magnetic about how she looks on screen. It was a turning point. I felt relieved, knowing (the film) could have a structure.”

Another unifying element to the story is the nothing-but-strange substance known as ambergris, a dark, solid matter produced in the digestive tract of sperm whales. The catch? It has an oddly enchanting, often polarising odour that captures the imagination of Nguyen’s interviewees. Basically whale crap, it is a rare and expensive substance that gives perfumes their seductive animalistic odour.

In conclusion, a totally fascinating doco, especially if you love scent as much as I do.

 THE EMPIRE OF THE SCENTS premieres Thursday 6 April at 8.30pm on Rialto Channel

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WEINER – it’s (unfortunately) all in the name

Posted on Thursday 3/30/2017 March, 2017 by

 

I believe we all have that one friend – in some cases, maybe more – who dates and then marries an utter dickhead. You endlessly hope that the aforementioned idiot will change, or that your friend will one day and wake up, hit themselves on the forehead and yell: “what they HELL have I done?”

That person for many of her friends is the clever, sassy and gorgeous Huma Abedin, key aide to Hillary Clinton and wife to the appropriately named Anthony Weiner. Yes THAT Anthony Weiner, sender of both solicited and unsolicited dick pics, and the subject of tonight’s BAFTA-nominated documentary, WEINER.

A good friend and political ally to the Clintons and once a highly respected member of Congress, Anthony Weiner is a man often painted as that guy on the inside who is always proudly sticking up for the everyday person, and a career politician of the highest order. Passionate about what can be achieved in office and a true social activist, he’s the kind of person I would have dreamed of having as my own MP… until one day when it all went horribly wrong. It all changed in June 2011 when he was forced to resign in disgrace after admitting that yes, he did tweet lewd "headless" (phnar phnar) photos of himself from his public Twitter account to women he met online, and that it was not the work of a hacker or that the photos were of someone else. At the time, wife Huma Abedin was pregnant with their first child, and stoically decided to stand by her man.

Weiner and Abedin married in July 2010 in a glamorous, celebrity-attended ceremony that was officiated by Bill Clinton and covered in the pages of US Vogue. The couple was not even a year into their marriage when the aforementioned news broke that Weiner had been sexting women online after he tweeted out a photo of his erect penis that he had “meant” to privately send to a woman on the social media site. He resigned from Congress soon after, and in December of that year Abedin gave birth to their son, Jordan.

Fast forward to 2013, when with much counseling under his belt Weiner decided to run for mayor of New York City and also agreed to be filmed for a documentary about his return to politics. That documentary was tonight’s WEINER, and it is one hell of a ride. With Abedin still by his side and knowing other lewd photos from that era that may also come to light during the campaign, Weiner is a man on a mission, putting his political agenda first and attracting many supporters along the way, As we all now know, it once again went horribly wrong… as the man can clearly not keep it in his pants.

Our friend Abedin’s attempts to survive the mayhem are excruciating to watch, and infuse the film’s tragic core. As she gives a performance worthy of a Best Supporting Actor award, we see her stand by her man no matter what – even when lewd images are released from his Twitter account that feature their sleeping toddler son in the background. She’s constantly on the margins of the documentary’s cameras, looking at her pathetic husband with a mixture of contempt and abject sadness. It is a tough watch – and bizarrely, as horrified I was by his behavior I also felt pity for him, and what is clearly a compulsion that he just can’t control.

In a press conference during Weiner’s ill-fated mayoral campaign, Abedin finally spoke publically to plead that her family’s private life is just that - but the documentary makers were there to film her speech in all its glory, or lack thereof. Directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Sternberg captured the pair’s losing battle in extraordinary detail, invoking sympathy for Weiner as passionate defender of working-class values, as well as his wife as passionate defender of her doomed relationship. Like a car crash, it’s difficult for many of us to look away. From his self-destructive narcissist to her doomed wife and loving mother, it makes for compulsive viewing.

I have been following Abedin’s ups and downs since, her separation from Weiner following his second scandal to her forays into the dating world and now, their rumoured reconciliation. WEINER ended up being just a part of that, but a very private look into their compelling tale all the same. Don’t miss it.

WEINER premieres on Thursday 30 March at 8.30pm on Rialto Channel

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WHERE TO INVADE NEXT – and some more Moore you may not have seen

Posted on Thursday 3/23/2017 March, 2017 by

At Rialto Channel we love us some Michael Moore, and tonight’s documentary WHERE TO INVADE NEXT is a stellar example of what the American author, political activist and documentarian does best.

The goal of the film is to show what the USA can learn from rest of the world, and director Moore playfully visits various nations in Europe and Africa as a one-man "invader" to take their ideas and practices for America. Whether it is Italy with its generous vacation time allotments, France with its gourmet school lunches, Germany with its industrial policy, Norway and its prison system, Tunisia and its strongly progressive women's policy, or Iceland and its strong female presence in government and business among others, Moore discovers there is much that American should emulate. The myth of the "American dream" which now only the top five percent have any realistic chance of achieving is front and centre, and it’s interesting to see how many of the aforementioned positive moves actually began in the United States.

Moore is at his best when he tackles political or social subjects close to his heart in a brash manner, and when he challenges the political establishment and puts an unashamed liberal spin on his work it always comes across as 100 percent authentic.

We’ve all seen his big “hits” like FAHRENHEIT 9/11 and BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE, but I thought I’d round up a few of the lesser-know works by the controversial filmmaker….

SLACKER UPRISING

One of his earliest outings, in this film we see Moore travelling across the country to various college and university campuses to get the goddamn slacking kids off of their sofas, and into the voting booths to get George W. Bush out of office. Part documentary, part-infomercial and part concert, it has live performances and appearances from the likes of Eddie Vedder, Roseanne Barr, Joan Baez, Tom Morello, R.E.M., Steve Earle, and Viggo Mortensen, and although it feels a little dated now it is okay as a record of a moment in time. It has been called unashamedly propagandistic (even by Moore’s standards), but it’s interesting to note that it was one of the first feature-length films made by a known director to be released as a free and legal download online. It was freely available to those in the U.S.A and Canada to encourage voting and urge people to take part in the democratic process and it is also available on Youtube.

THE BIG ONE


This is another on the road outing, which documents Moore’s comings and goings as he travels around America on a book tour. This time he’s taking a look at the economic practices of the then Clinton administration and how economic failings had affected American workers. Extremely critical of several large companies' labour practices, he tries to hunt down and interview several heads of major corporations but only succeeds with one of them. Roger Ebert put it really well (funny that!) when he said that the movie is smart, funny and edited cleverly - which helps conceal the fact that it's mostly recycled information. There is little here that the hugely successful ROGER & ME didn't say first, and more memorably. It is interesting to see a book tour in action though: one city a day, no sleep, endless talk shows and book signings… looks like hell!

CANADIAN BACON


Moore’s first – and hopefully, only – foray into feature film, most critics have panned this but I reckon it’s still worth a watch (if you’re a fan). At the time of the film’s release, jobs in the USA were being shipped offshore, and Moore readily displays his opinion on the unjust treatment of recently laid-off workers. It follows the story of a group of ex-employees (portrayed by actors John Candy and Rhea Perlman) from a defunct weapons manufacturing plant that are forced into the collecting dead bodies of those jumping off Niagara Falls for cash. Alongside these job losses the fictional President (portrayed by Alan Alda) is losing his popularity in the polls as a result of America ending the Cold War. The President therefore decides to start a faux-war with Canada to reclaim his lead in the polls and make the average American fear their Canadian neighbours.

ROGER & ME

Michael Moore’s debut is laden with all the trademarks he will become known for and is a brilliant watch. His preference to personalise the macro issue is top of mind as he focuses on his hometown of Flint, Michigan. The film sees Moore examine the socio-economic impact that General Motors had on Flint, from the comfortable living his father made working there pre-1980s, to the urban poverty that has set in during the years following its foreclosure. To find answers Moore seeks the company’s CEO Roger Smith, but to no avail. The plot hinges on this David vs. Goliath narrative for its effect; the now-familiar dismissive nature of CEOs towards the little man (or woman). Introducing his family and stating that his father worked in one of the factories, the film has a far more personal touch than many of his other films. It’s interesting to note that in 2013 the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

WHERE TO INVADE NEXT is premiering at 8.30pm on Rialto Channel SKY TV39

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IVORY TOWER – is an education worth the crippling debt?

Posted on Thursday 3/16/2017 March, 2017 by

When I was at university the average fee total per year for most students – and it was royally lambasted! – was around the princely sum of $1400. And no, I didn’t miss out any zeros. Education was relatively affordable and scholarships plentiful, but despite this many students I know still racked up massive debts… usually due to road trips, nice cars to complete said road trips in and reluctance to enter into part-time work in case it interfered with the aforementioned long weekends. But I digress! It was a messy situation then and the impact of student loan debt even more so now, but it pales in comparison to the situation in the United States, as outlined by tonight’s documentary, IVORY TOWER.

As tuition rates spiral beyond reach in North America and student loan debt passes an insane USD$1 trillion (more than credit card debt), the film asks: is college worth the cost? Filmmaker Andrew Rossi travels to everywhere from the halls of Harvard, to public colleges in financial crisis, to Silicon Valley, in order to paint a pretty grim portrait of a great American institution at breaking point. It emerges that colleges, long regarded as leaders in higher education, have come to embrace a business model that often promotes expansion over quality learning… and students are indeed suffering.

The film is thought-provoking, and includes some interesting situations and scenarios that I really would have liked to see explored more than they were, with a few less stats flying across the screen. Its look at Harvard University, the first American college, as the “source of DNA” for all colleges was fascinating. The famous university’s influence on pretty much every single higher education institution in the United States is second to none, and it appears that it cares. One thing that Harvard does that few other schools do is provide full-need scholarships to anyone it deems to need financial assistance. It appears only 1.25 percent of colleges in the country offer full need-based scholarships, which is quite astounding. Even more interesting is the fact that it effectively means that a middle-class student can expect to pay more at a public university than at Harvard. 

In less philanthropic news, it was interesting to observe the wild competition between learning institutions when it comes to what can only be called “added extras”. When one school offers an amenity, the rest follow, one-upping each other at every turn. So when the University of Missouri and the University of Alabama have fancy swimming pools, others think about adding them to their campus. Incredibly, some schools even have tanning beds available for students wanting to get that golden glow – I mean, COME ON.

One of the most fast-paced parts of the film concerned Cooper Union, a renowned Manhattan college that was founded on the radical model of free education and continued to provide this tuition-free learning for decades. Then it all changed. Dramatically. Along came a new President, Jamshed Bharucha, who concluded that the school could no longer survive without charging students to learn there. Unsurprisingly, chaos ensued. Critics were quick to point out the debt amassed by the construction of a very expensive new building on campus and the $800k+ salary of their new leader, who in all honesty seems like a right tool. Amazingly, its students did what so many critics of millennials claim they no longer do: they staged a proper protest. In the form of a sit-in in the President’s office, no less! I won’t give away what happened next, you’ll have to tune in tonight and find out.

In conclusion, although the film is a little flawed itself, IVORY TOWER raises a number of fascinating questions about the current, deeply messed up state of the American system of higher education. It gets the conversation started and also serves as a warning to other countries around the world falling dangerously close to a similar model.

 IVORY TOWER premieres on Thursday 16 March at 8.30pm on Rialto Channel SKY 039

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ZERO DAYS – the very real next world war is here, now

Posted on Thursday 3/9/2017 March, 2017 by

I think I’ve confessed on this blog before that I am a proud Luddite, a late adopter if ever there was one and someone whose eyes often glaze over when it comes to all things ‘puter-related. I can type and navigate my Mac quite well though thank god, or I wouldn’t be talking to you now!

But enough about me, and more about tonight’s documentary ZERO DAYS, some of which went way over my head but still had me on the edge of my seat. The film has been called “investigative journalism meets conspiracy thriller”, and the deft hand of the amazing Alex Gibney (Going Clear) has ensured that even an idiot like me can get the gist of what it’s all about – enough to be very, very afraid.

A chilling and challenging documentary, it has as its primary central focus Stuxnet, a piece of self-replicating computer malware that has famously been used against Iranian centrifuges. Where the conspiracy part comes in is the fact that it has claimed by many to have originated as a joint effort between America and Israel, and initiated by none other that George W. Bush. Following the invasion of Iraq, Bush faced an Israel that was threatening to bomb Iran, which it claimed was developing nuclear weapons with the express aim of destroying the Jewish state. The then-president felt trapped between a rock and a hard place: a nuclear Iran, or Israel starting a war that the U.S. would inevitably be drawn into. Offered a third way, he okayed the development of the aforementioned cyber-warfare campaign against Iran that linked the NSA, the CIA and the Defense Department with Israel and Mossad.

The ease at which this all plays out is where the film’s secondary focus comes in – cyber warfare as the bigger picture. The threat of compromised cyber security has become our planet's new weapon of mass destruction, a fact that is clear even to the likes of me. ZERO DAYS explores the growing concern that the disintegration of online safety has set the stage for potential physical dangers as well, and that is no less than terrifying. "Our entire power supply can be cut off," a chilling we voiceover emphasizes near the beginning of the film. "Our systems can be taken over. Hospitals deprived of power would cease to function. It's not if, it's when. "It paints a frightening portrait of a cyber world that is growing far too large and expanding too rapidly to contain, and god knows where it can end up. "The bottom line is we are putting so much vulnerable, hackable, connected technology into so many places that this makes us prone to the willpower of any potential adversary or foe," says interview subject and computer security activist Joshua Corman, a man who knows what he’s talking about.

So in conclusion, ZERO DAYS is an essential watch, especially in light of the Trump/Russia connection and in the face of a terror that makes the nuclear war threat of old look like child’s play. Gibney is a documentary-maker who isn’t afraid to go where other filmmakers dare not, and this makes for one hell of a ride. I was interested to read that he is currently developing a “Zero Days” miniseries, working with Universal’s Carnival subsidiary with a screenplay by “The Americans” writer and executive producer Stephen Schiff. For now however, the reality is compelling enough on its own.

 ZERO DAYS premieres Thursday 9th March at 8.30pm Rialto Channel.  Click here to remote record

NATIONAL BIRD: the personal cost of impersonal warfare

Posted on Thursday 3/2/2017 March, 2017 by

Drones are fun, right? They go where you can’t when you want to take some awesome footage to load up to Facebook, they even deliver pizzas thanks to the lovely people at Dominos! Well love 'em or hate 'em, they're here to stay. And as well as being a pretty cool toy (if you’re that way inclined) they can do some serious stuff. They serve a serious purpose in the form of military drones, which can eliminate enemy threats without placing boots on a battlefield, and with minimal fallout. Or so we’re told.

You’ll find a very different take on drones in tonight’s documentary, NATIONAL BIRD - a sinister one, as recounted by people who know them well. Using the testimony of three courageous whistleblowers who worked on the US drone programme, this documentary uncovers some disturbing truths about modern American warfare, and doesn’t make for easy viewing.

The film follows the dramatic journey of the three aforementioned courageous people who are determined to break the silence around one of the most controversial current affairs issues of our time: the secret U.S. drone war. Plagued by guilt over participating in the killing of faceless people in foreign countries, the three have decided to speak out publicly… and despite the possible consequences.

Directed by Sonia Kennebeck and executive-produced by Wim Wenders, NATIONAL BIRD carefully weaves together the stories of Lisa, Daniel and Heather, and it makes for affecting viewing. Heather, a former drone imagery analyst, suffers from chronic PTSD after watching remote video of people carrying away the body parts of loved ones. Daniel, a former signals intelligence analyst turned political activist, chooses his words carefully to protect himself from prosecution, but in the process learns that the US government is in fact investigating him under the Espionage Act. Lastly Lisa, a former tech sergeant on a drone surveillance system, is shown returning to Afghanistan to meet civilians victimised by U.S. strikes in truly incredible footage. 

We travel to meet the maimed survivors of a mistaken drone strike on unarmed civilians in February 2010, which killed 23 people. As they describe what happened when they were attacked we hear the words of the drone operatives at work at the time, re-enacted from a transcript of the event. The juxtaposition of their almost gleefully casual attitude and raw footage of the likes of dead bodies of children being returned to their families makes the blood boil. Lisa has made a point of visiting countries her unit once surveyed from above looking for targets with drones, wanting to see for herself just what happens to those affected by a strike that was initiated a world away.

The power of the film is down to the subjects and to the incredible work of Sonia Kennebeck, a super talented independent documentary filmmaker and investigative journalist who has worked for CNN and ARD German public television's highest-rated current affairs program, Panorama. She lives in Washington, D.C., where she runs her own production company Ten Forward Films and makes films about international politics and human rights, and has clearly done her research well. She artfully weaves in drone footage from an innocent American street to really push the point home that strikes can be easily applied to any location, and by any government.

Kennebeck also cleverly juxtaposes then-POTUS Barack Obama’s speeches about drones – in which he claims that they are able to take out insurgents without harming those around them – with the testimonies of those who know that this is untrue. By examining the tales of three very broken individuals, National Bird shows that war will always be hell, even for those who aren't on the battleground.

Amazingly, under the US 1917 Espionage Act, the film and the three whistleblowers are severely restricted in what they can say, but its images haunt the audience and bring a faraway issue close to home. In the words of one reviewer, NATIONAL BIRD shows us the personal cost of impersonal killing.

 NATIONAL BIRD premieres Thursday 2nd March 8.30pm on Rialto Channel

TICKLED – most definitely no laughing matter

Posted on Thursday 2/23/2017 February, 2017 by

Shown at Sundance and picked up by HBO in the States, tonight’s New Zealand-produced documentary TICKLED may not have picked up that many Moas last weekend but damn, it’s good.

Critically acclaimed worldwide and funded by Kickstarter and the NZ Film Commission with help from the likes of Stephen Fry, the film follows ex-TV3 staffer (and generally wonderful person IMHO) David Farrier as he stumbles upon online film clips showing the phenomenon of “competitive endurance tickling”. Think athletic young men, suitably attired, sitting astride each other, tickle fingers and feathers at the ready. So far, so funny yes? Want to know more?

Well, Farrier did too...delving a little deeper until he found an online ad recruiting “male athletic and fitness models (aged 18-25)" for "situations in which attractive, ticklish, and masculine guys are actually tickled in two different restrained formats”. Naturally, his curiosity was piqued. Still ensconced at the New Zealand television network’s Eden Terrace media factory at the time, Farrier thought it looked like a bit of giggle (and might get him a free trip to LA) and decided to write a lighthearted feature about it. Prolific on social media, he sent the group behind the videos a cheeky DM asking what they were all about.

Mates of his like me followed the story with much delight; all set for many a LOL moment, and then some. But the response to his request for an interview was so unexpected – a barrage of emails and DMs spiking with vitriol, legal threats and homophobia – that Farrier decided to dig deeper, and the dark, twisted story that began to emerge was definitely worth more than a three-minute late news clip.

It turned out that sinister forces are at work in the world of recreational tickling, and TICKLED takes us on an unmissable, increasingly dark journey. In fact, many of us warned Farrier to back off as things became increasingly nasty at a level beyond what was included in the finished product, and even without that, the film becomes akin to watching a car crash happen. I liken the tale to the truly disturbing FOXCATCHER, the brilliant movie telling the true story of wealthy heir John du Pont (played creepily by Steve Carell), who invites Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) to move to his estate and help form a wrestling team for the 1988 Olympics. Both FOXCATCHER and TICKLED examine what happens when obsession, creepy personas and extreme wealth come together. In the FOXCATCHER tale, Schultz soon realised that he was just another one of the millionaire's collectibles (Du Pont owned some of the world's rarest stamps, and had a collection of two million shells and 100,000 stuffed birds), whilst many of the boys popping up online in competitive tickling videos feel completely violated.

As it goes on, the film explores possible legal and ethical issues with certain individuals making the videos, and Farrier is told by associates of the man supposedly behind the empire that he is putting his “head in a blast furnace”.  As a result of accusations made in TICKLED, Farrier and his producers are still facing a barrage of legal threats from powerful figures their film accuses of being behind the videos, which increase in their ferocity almost by the day. One even attended a Sundance screening of the film, loudly taking notes. “The audience around him are watching him onscreen, and he’s sitting next to them, and that created a certain uncomfortable atmosphere in that part of the cinema. It was a 4D experience for them, almost,” Farrier told the press at the time. Private investigators were thrown out of another screening after being caught with cameras in a coffee cup with which they were trying to make a copy of the film, lawsuits were filed on the filmmakers at another. Utter madness.

The Guardian said of TICKLED “the fetish documentary goes from giggly to grim", but it is so much more than that – it’s a work in progress, if you will. Watch it now, and make up your own mind.

TICKLED premieres Thursday 23 February on Rialto Channel SKY TV 039

JIM: THE JAMES FOLEY STORY

Posted on Thursday 2/16/2017 February, 2017 by


“I wanted to protect Jim's legacy. I think - I hope - that he would be proud of it." Brian Oakes, director of JIM: THE JAMES FOLEY STORY

You may not recognise the name James Foley straight away, but if you’ve been following current affairs for the last few years then chances are you may have watched him die. You've almost certainly seen a still image from the day of his death, when the 40-year-old freelance war correspondent knelt at the foot of a hooded executioner in a stretch of desert somewhere in northern Syria. It was an image that became famous all over the world, and the amount of people who actually watched his beheading – captured on video and made public – is quite sickening.

In tonight’s documentary, JIM: THE JAMES FOLEY STORY we find out more about the man behind that shocking image, which one of his colleagues has called “the second-most iconic” image of the 21st Century. Only the planes flying into the World Trade Centre on 9/11 could top it for sheer terror and brutality.In August 2014, the video execution of Foley by ISIS exposed the world to the new face of terror. Even in the age of reality TV it shocked – and for those who watched the killing unfold, it is something they will never forget.

When I was given the screener of the film to watch for this week’s blog I steeled myself for the worst – surely the footage would play a large role in the tale, and the doco would not be for the faint-hearted. How wrong was I. JIM: THE JAMES FOLEY STORY is indeed powerful and gut wrenching, but directed by his childhood friend Brian Oakes, it takes a very different approach. And therein lies it strength as a piece of great filmmaking. Instead of opting for the lowest common denominator, it tells Foley's tragic story through interviews with his family, friends and colleagues, while his fellow hostages reveal the chilling details of their time in captivity. It becomes Oakes’ personal attempt to reclaim a man he loved from the annals of the sensational, and the film is called "Jim" because that's what the director always called his childhood best friend.

An experienced motion graphics artist who has worked on high-profile documentaries like FINDING VIVIAN MAIER (which aired on Rialto Channel last year to much acclaim), Oakes was reportedly so intent on telling his own story of Foley that he decided to get behind the camera for his first feature-length film. It has been said that in order to disentangle Foley from the shackles of his brutal death, Oakes decided from the get-go that his portrait couldn't include the video of his subject's execution, or even still frames from the footage.

JIM is particularly heartbreaking not only because we all know how the very personal look at Foley’s life ends, but because we get to directly witness the director’s sense of loss and remorse. "Maybe I have guilt that I haven't even thought of yet," Oakes has admitted. "Maybe I should've spent more time with him or talked to him more about what he was doing. But this film for me was my way of carrying on Jim's work that he was doing in Syria, and letting people who are interested in his story know who he was.”

A celebration of the life of a man best known for his death, it definitely does a fine job of exactly that.

 JIM: THE JAMES FOLEY STORY premieres on Thursday 16th February at 8.30pm on Rialto Channel, SKY TV 039

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