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Waste Land & Inside Job

The last two Oscar nominated docs on my list are Waste Land and Inside Job. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to watch them both before tonight’s Oscars because they aren’t available on DVD. So instead, here are brief synopses of each film so you’ll have a little bit of background before the big show!

Waste Land:
Directed by Lucy Walker (The Devil’s Playground), Waste Land spans over nearly three years
as renowned artist Vik Muniz travels to his native Brazil and Jardim Gramacho, the world’s largest garbage dump. There he photographs a group of “catadores,” or pickers of recyclable materials. As Muniz gets to know these people he begins to recreate images of them with the materials they use every day — garbage.  “That a beautiful film could be set in the world’s largest garbage dump sounds like an oxymoron, but acclaimed documentarian Lucy Walker has pulled off precisely that feat in her profoundly moving “Waste Land,” says the Los Angeles Times

View the trailer here:

Inside Job:
Directed by Charles Ferguson and narrated by Academy Award winner Matt Damon, Inside Job takes the viewer “inside” the economic crisis of 2008. The research and interviews that shape the film reveal the relationships that have corrupted politics. Inside Job was named one of the Top 5 Documentaries of the Year by the National Board of Review and won Outstanding Directional Achievement in Documentary by the Directors Guild Award.

View the trailer here: 

– Laura Reeve



Filmmaker Josh Fox stumbled upon the subject of Gasland, today’s featured Oscar nominee, when a natural gas company offered him almost 100,000 dollars if he leased his family’s land in Milanville, Pennsylvania. Before accepting the offer, he went to Dimock, Pennsylvania (the closest town where similar gas drilling was taking place) to investigate.

In Dimock, he heard stories of tap water bubbling, hissing, turning colors, and even setting on fire. Neighbors told Fox about family sickness and family pets who lost their fur. After this visit, Fox rejected the company’s offer and started a cross-country road trip that would take him through Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Wyoming, Utah, and more. In each of these states he heard similar stories of water and air contamination due to hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” (the drilling process that releases the natural gas). Throughout the film, one (seemingly simple, yet unanswerable) question was continually asked: why is no one doing anything about this? Unfortunately, under the 2005 energy bill pushed by former Vice President Dick Cheney, these natural gas and oil companies are exempt from regulation by the Safe Drinking and Water Act, Clean Air Act, and Clean Water Act. Although the film ends with Fox in a congressional subcommittee meeting about the introduction of the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act, which would amend the Safe Drinking Water Act, the film confesses an inability to answer what the future holds, not only for the people in the movie, but also for the country and world at large.

It may possibly be the most traditional (in terms of subject matter) of the three documentaries I have viewed so far; however, it is also, by far, the most visually stunning. Largely filmed by Fox himself, the film really captures America — both its serene and idyllic forests, planes, and creeks and the industrial toll that we have imposed onto these landscapes. Fox ends the documentary commenting on how this journey has cemented his love for America, and that love clearly reveals itself in its visual images. Despite the fact that this film talks about the country at large, it is clearly a personal project near to Fox’s heart as his voice narrates the entire film.

Gasland, like Exit Through the Gift Shop, is not without its controversy. Energy in Depth (EID), a group representing the natural gas and oil producers, has sent a letter that says Gasland should be ineligible to win because of its numerous inaccuracies. Fox has written a response to this letter which defends his film that EID calls Gasland “an expression of stylized fiction.”

We’ll have to wait until Sunday to see if EID’s efforts are in vain; however, Gasland definitely asks its audience to both question and take action about what we are told by large corporations and the government officials that stand by them.

– Laura Reeve


Documentary Q&A with UPenn Lecturer Ellen Reynolds

As my Oscar nominated documentaries blog-extravangaza comes to a close, I wanted to get an outside and more knowledgeable perspective on these films that I’ve been watching. I was lucky enough to get in touch with Ellen Reynolds, a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania, who specializes in documentary film. A filmmaker, Ellen has taught film and video at both the University of the Arts and UPenn. Here is what she had to say about the Oscars, a few of her favorite docs, and her love for the genre as a whole.

Documentaries are your specialty. Why do you like studying this particular genre? What do you think makes it interesting?
Real life is just more interesting to me than fiction, though I do admire the craft of fiction storytelling very much. I am fascinated with how people live their lives and make choices, and the unceasing variety of human experience, even as it exists with it’s timeless aspects and constraints. It is extremely demanding to be inside life and looking at aspects of it as a filmmaker that provides a lot of challenges that appeal to me. There are serious ethical questions of representation which I like grappling with. Personally, in my work, I feel a calling to represent with respect the stories of the unheard and unseen, for the historical record but also to serve as an affirmation, a guidepost, for anyone who’s interested. The (old fashioned?) idea that documentaries matter also moves me, I am at heart a keeper of that flame.

Can you weigh in on what “kinds” of  documentaries usually win the Oscars? Is the content and the subject matter more important than how the documentary is actually made?
The content is very important, naturally. But what seems to be “in vogue” are documentaries that follow a clear three-act structure. Everyone loves a good story. New forms of documentary (essay, or a blurry blend of fiction and non-fiction that calls into question “reality”) are not quite mainstream enough to be popular, though innovations in the form and asking the hard “inside” questions are super exciting to makers.

The movie that comes to mind with this next question is Restrepo. It’s clearly about a very touchy and emotional topic. Do you think that will effect its chances of winning (either positively or negatively)?
I think that personal stories that emerge out of situations a lot of people care abut are very attractive to the jury, and to anyone! I haven’t seen Restrepo but I think I will admire it, even though I hate the subject (war, warriors, unwinnable and tragic situations).

Do you think Energy in Depth’s attack on Gasland will effect its chances of  winning?
Not sure. I hope not. Other things might – it’s not very innovative in form nor demanding for the maker – it’s kind of a folksy story about a guy on a quest for knowledge who finds out more than he bargained for – a similar theme to King Corn that I loved too and is also very solidly made and important, but won nothing.

Exit Through the Gift Shop is another Oscar nominated doc that has been accused of being “fake.” What are your thoughts on that controversy? How do you feel about documentaries that might not be as  truthful as they appear (especially since, I believe, the majority of people go into a documentary expecting to be told the “truth”)?
Tricky question. Sometimes “the truth” is the subject (Capturing he Friedmans for example), so to manipulate the truth to show the possibilities of manipulation is interesting but requires a somewhat sophisticated viewer. The “truth” of “reality” is a big subject now in our “reality tv” dominated media landscape so it’s a very legitimate subject in my view. Otherwise, I think the maker has an obligation to show their allegiance transparently. This is the basic reason why I don’t see Michael Moore’s work as propaganda – we know exactly what side he’s on, he’s just making the best case possible for it which I believe is his right. Editors know well the practice and possibilities of manipulation – it is therefore incumbent upon them (and their directors) to be sure that they treat this responsibility ethically.

What was your favorite documentary you saw this year (even if it wasn’t nominated for an Oscar) and why?
I love Wasteland. Lucy Walker made The Devil’s Playground a few years ago as well, an amazing piece of documentary work. Wasteland does what Docs (I think) should do- connects contemporary events to transcendent themes.

The Last Train Home was astonishing. It’s an incredible, beautiful, film, though not American.

Gasland was amazing. The personal voice really works on this one, gives urgency and locality to a huge scientific and controversial subject. It has the power to effect change, without resorting to propaganda – the old fashioned ideal of all documentary makers. But I doubt it will win.

I’m interested in 12th and Delaware. I haven’t seen it yet. It’s by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing who made the phenomenal Jesus Camp.

I loved, as an Editor, the Art of the Steal about the Barnes Foundation. It’s a great local story, but this film would be dry as toast without the great editing job.

Of the few that you have seen, do you have any idea which documentary will win this year?
Restrepo probably. It’s nonpolitical about a political subject, centers on a personal story, and obviously a very difficult film to make. (But I haven’t seen Exit Through the Gift Shop. It depends on if the jury wants to stay nonpolitical as it sometimes does.)

Thanks so much to Ellen Reynolds for taking the time to answer my questions. Tell us your Oscar doc pic in the comments. And don’t forget to tune into the Academy Awards this Sunday, February 27, at 8 PM on ABC!

– Laura Reeve

You Can Be My Friend

Last night we brought home and deflowered a virgin who is 20 years younger, came clean and saved the lemurs, and evaluated the true cost of a $200 zippo at our “Deception” StorySlam at L’Etage. But the winning “Deception” story came from our long-time StorySlam judge turned winning storyteller.

Meet Jake. A sweet southern Baptist who is really nice to everyone no matter what. Ever ask yourself, “who needs boundaries when you’ve found the perfect candidate for friendship?” Check out Jake’s story and find out! After watching the video of Jake’s winning performance, you’ll want to be Jake’s friend (and possibly long-lost triplet) too. It’s no wonder he was voted Audience Favorite. Jake now works as a social worker — obviously.

Congratulations Jake! Special thanks to all of our amazing storytellers and everyone who came out to last night’s Slam.

Have you, like Jake, been secretly storing up storytelling savvy? Don’t miss your chance to come unload your family baggage, slam out your blood lines and enjoy a night full of stories at the next StorySlam March 14 at World Cafe Live. The theme is “Family Ties.” Doors at 7:30, Slam starts at 8:30. All ages.

-Becca Jennings


Memorial Mementos

A ratty old headband, a commemorative ring, military dog tags — these objects have more than just fashion sense — they also carry memories and stories for the people who wear them. Cherished objects can help us remember the loved ones we have lost. Get stylin’ with this week’s featured stories from the First Person Museum online gallery from our three storytellers Megan, Sarah and Mike whose stories all represent the reminders we wear. Check out their stories below!

Read stories by other Museum contributors or upload your own along with media including images and video at firstpersonmuseum.org. Choose from story themes like “To Remember You By” and object types including “Stuff I Wear.” Next week’s featured story could be yours!

Headband Love
Megan, Philadelphia
Theme: To Remember You By
Object Type: From Long Ago

i have a ratty old headband,
cut from an even older ratty shirt,
that my first boyfriend gave to me.
he used to wear it all the time
and i always commented on how much i liked it.
after all the hints, he finally gave it to me.
his signature look became my signature look.
sadly, a couple years later,
he was killed in a car accident.
ten years later i still have that headband
kicking around my sock drawer
and it still, faintly, smells like him.

Read Megan’s official entry.

E Familia Vires
Sarah, New York City
Theme: To Remember You By
Object Type: Stuff I wear

One day shy of All Saints Day, my uncle, my godfather passed away in 2005 to leukemia. My uncle was the core of our family, one of a kind and brought humor into every situation. He made family a priority, which in return we all did. To remember his love for family, my cousins and I had silver rings made in his memory. The inscription in the interior reads: ” E Familia Vires” translated to “in family we trust”. Our rings were fitted for our ring fingers to represent love.

I wish I could thank my uncle for all that he has done for us and for showing me what true love is.

Read Sarah’s official entry.

Untarnished Legacy
Mike, Philadelphia
Theme: To Remember You By
Object Type: Stuff I Wear

When my father passed I lost every item in his house and on his person. I was once going through some trash and noticed a dog tag (military identification tag) in a small box I was going to throw away. It was my father’s dog tag and the only item I have in his memory.

Read Mike’s official entry.



I was not emotionally prepared for Restrepo, a documentary that tells the story of a platoon of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. The next movie on my series about the Oscar nominated documentaries, Restrepo focuses on a 15-man outpost “Restrepo,” named after a medic killed in action. Considered one of the most dangerous outposts in Afghanistan, the men see action constantly as they build the outpost.

The film, which spans from May 2007 to July 2008, begins with home movies made by Doc Restrepo and his fellow soldiers a week before their deployment begins. They laugh and make jokes, all of them excited for the adventure ahead of them. The story is completely told through the eyes of these 15 men. The individual interviews, zoomed into the soldiers’ faces, explain life both in the valley and their lives after their deployment. The viewer is taken into the fighting — gun shots, swearing, and the emotional roller coaster of combat (both the adrenalin highs and the emotional breakdowns as soldiers see their friends wounded and killed). “I prefer not to sleep, not dream about, than sleep and see the picture in my head. It’s pretty bad,” a soldier, Cortez, says in his interview.

“The war in Afghanistan has become highly politicized, but soldiers rarely take part in that discussion. Our intention was to capture the experience of combat, boredom, and fear through the eyes of the soldiers themselves,” directors Tim Hetherington and Sebastion Junger explain. This intention is fully realized, as the images of Afghanistan, the civilians, the soldiers’ families, and the Army experience are completely filtered through the eyes of the soldiers, making the film’s perspective especially unique and emotional. The film makes the war feel less like a far away, abstract concept. The war becomes something real and tangible, especially with the men who lived it, staring at and speaking to the viewer through the screen.

Already a winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, Restrepo will definitely be a contender on the 27th. It is currently streaming on Netflix and can be downloaded on itunes.

– Laura Reeve


An “Ex”ceptional Valentines Day

First Person Arts cracked open the “Ex-Files” at last night’s anti-Valentine’s Day Slam where we learned ex husbands mean ex homes and girlfriends don’t get turned on by getting flipped off.

Load up your Uhaul and scavenge through the classified ads with last night’s winning StorySlammer, Sarah for a new home fitting for a recent divorcee. Oh, and be sure to steer clear of mobile homes rendered in brick where plumbing is irrelevant. But you probably knew that already.

Find out what happens when the lights go out during a sexy power surge in this self proclaimed “Romance Engineer’s” chemistry class. Check out the video from Steve’s performance that won him the title of Audience Favorite below.

Congratulations Sarah and Steve and special thanks to all of our Valentines who came out to celebrate with us last night. Stay tuned for more videos of all of our “ex”ceptional storytellers.

Mark your calendars. The next StorySlam is Tuesday, February 22 at L’Etage (6th and Bainbridge Sts.) The theme is “Deception.” 21+, $4 well drink specials.

-Becca Jennings


Traveling Talismans

Straight from the First Person Museum online gallery, this week’s featured story comes to us from Adam from Philly. I first met Adam at the First Person Museum table at Outfest this past October organized by Philly Pride Presents, Inc. Adam traded his story “Talismans” about his 19th century portraits of his maternal ancestors for one of our First Person Museum tote bags! Now his 19th century portraits are taking on the new age at firstpersonmuseum.org where they are on display to a world-wide audience. Check out Adam’s story below.

Theme: Generation to Generation
Object Type: From Long Ago

These are 19th century portraits of some of my maternal ancestors. They symbolize the journey of this family of French, French Huguenot, Spanish, and West African ancestry from then St. Domingue (Haiti) through Louisiana and South Carolina, onward to Philadelphia. They enshrine old family values around culture, leadership, heritage, and dignity. They empower me on a daily basis.

Read Adam’s official entry.

Inspired by the heritage theme? Put down on paper your family baggage, write out your blood lines and join popular First Person Arts StorySlam host and guest storyteller, Katonya Mosley this spring for our upcoming storytelling workshop, TELL IT! Heritage.

This class will focus on how socio-cultural identities frame and weave stories and will include guided explorations of each participant’s unique cultural identity. Participants will use what they discover, however common or controversial, to shape and flesh out their own stories. Click here for more information or to register for this storytelling workshop today.

Visit firstpersonmuseum.org to read through stories by other Museum contributors or upload your own story about an object that is meaningful to you.


Staff Picks: Best Break-Up Songs

With our Ex-Files StorySlam coming up, we’ve had break-ups on the brain. Inspired by the fabulous song choices submitted on our Facebook page, the FPA staff put together shared their fave tunes for when they’re in the dumps post-dumping. Apparently, we share an old soul in this office, because our top tunes include lots of hits from the 60s through 70s. The Supremes, Bill Withers, a couple Nina Simones… picks and videos are below.

Share you best break-up songs in the comments.

Tiffany’s Picks
Ne Me Quitte Pas- Nina Simone and Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone- Bill Withers
“’This house ain’t no home.’ I think those lyrics are sweet, sad and powerful. Poor ol’ Bill. And I like the Nina Simone song because she is not shy in showing her desperation and sorrow. It’s all part of the healing process and she does it so poetically as an artist only truly knows how.”

Becca’s Pick
Breaking Up is Hard to Do- The Carpenters
“It’s a great song with its simple and direct message. Yup, breaking up is hard. Can’t argue with that.”

Dan’s Pick
I’m Gonna Leave You- Nina Simone
“It’s not all sappy and woe is me. She’s standing up for herself and doing what has to be done.”

Karina’s Pick
You Keep Me Hanging On- The Supremes
“Well, the intro is just awesome, has this relentless drive that feels like the ex-lover’s grip on the relationship. And there is such pathos and strength in the lyrics. Who hasn’t had (or hasn’t been?) that ex who can’t let go? I love that she’s just calling him out on his bullshit, but it’s clearly difficult.”


Exit Through the Gift Shop

As the 2011 Oscar’s approach (February 27), I’ll be taking a closer look at each of the five documentary films nominated this year: Exit Through the Gift Shop, Gasland, Inside Job, Restrepo and Waste Land, ultimately making my own prediction for which one will come out the winner.

First up on my to do list was Exit Through the Gift Shop. The nomination of which maybe puts to rest the mystery surrounding the film as pure documentary or a hoax. At its core, hoax or no, it’s a film about street art, a hybrid form of graffiti that uses stickers, stencils, posters, and sculptures to create art that captures one moment. It is art so momentary that it can be painted over or taken away moments or days later. It’s art that street artist legend Banksy, the sort-of subject of the film, explains as being in a “legal gray area.” However, once seen as a nuisance, thanks to artists such as Banksy, street art now sells in the most presitgious auction houses. 

Exit Through the Gift Shop begins by introducing Thierry Guetta, a French immigrant who cannot put his film camera down. He films everything, from his family to celebrities he encounters in Los Angeles. He finally finds a focus when he starts to film his cousin, Space Invader, a street artist famous for his mosaic pieces. Through Space Invador, Theirry begins to film artists all around the world including Shepard Fairey (an artist most famous for his OBEY stickers depicting the famed wrestler Andre The Giant. See below.) and, eventually, Banksy. Guetta is given an intimate inside look at Banksy’s secretive world and documents his art projects from London to Disneyland. 

Starting out as merely a film about street art, Exit Through the Gift Gift Shop takes an interesting and unpredictable turn when the two men switch roles, Banksy becoming the director of the film and Thierry the subject of the film. It is actually through this role reversal and the creation of Thierry’s alter-ego, Mr. Brainwash, that we learn the most about this world and the public’s perception of the art this world produces. 


Thierry Guetta

As a director, Banksy shows his creativity by weaving together the story of an art movement and a man who gets sucked into it. Not only does the film bring the viewer into a secret world that really is all around us (literally pasted onto the sides of buildings, mailboxes, and stop signs), but the documentary also poses pertinent questions about art as a commodity, hype, and worth. However, what I think sets this documentary apart from others I have seen, is how it is told; because the artists themselves are telling the story (and directing it), the film becomes remarkably introspective.

View the trailer below and definitely check out this film (especially if you want to predict which documentary will be taking home the big prize). It’s also streaming now on Netflix.

– Laura Reeve

Upcoming Events
  • May StorySlam – Grand Slam
  • Date: May 22, 2018
  • Time: 8 PM
  • Venue: Fringe Arts Building
  • Location: 140 N Christopher Columbus Blvd, Philadelphia, PA 19106