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Shaping Black Panther: An interview with Costume Designer Ruth Carter

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Ruth Carter has been breaking barriers and building her reputation in the film industry for over 30 years. She is the first woman of color to be nominated for an Academy Award in best achievement in costume design, for Malcolm X, and has also been thus recognized for Amistad, She has worked with some of the best directors in Hollywood, including Joss Whedon, Ava DuVernay, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Lee Daniels, Steven Spielberg, but she has a special place in her heart for her mentor and friend, director Spike Lee, with whom she got her start, and with whom she has collaborated on over ten movies.

In creating costume designs for historical figures like Martin Luther King, her attention to detail and commitment to research has been so intense, she attends to elements as small is the tilt of a hat, or the way a scarf is tied. She has now turned that passion for detail and interest in historical accuracy to the mythical world of Wakanda. I spoke to Ruth about her work helping build the world and characters of Black Panther, and the benefit of collaboration.

Leslie Combemale: I know research is a very important part of your work. It also means once you’ve done a project you’re changed from being engrossed in so much history. In researching for Black Panther, and learning about the tribes you wanted to represent, what were a few surprises you found after you’d gone deep into your research?

Ruth Carter: I’ve always used African art and images of indigenous African tribes to inspire for color and design, even on modern films, but most of my other films were dealing with West Africa, where the Africans were taken for slavery. Sierra Leone for Amistad, and the countries on the coast. This was the first time where we really dealt with all areas of Africa, from Kenya to Mali down to South Africa so what it did was give me an opportunity to see regionally what the tribes were doing. If they were sub-Saharan, like the Tuareg tribe, it was one look. We noticed that with the Touring tribe the women, who are Muslim, don’t cover their faces, the men do. In the Ndebele, we saw the neck rings, but we also saw the neck rings on a tribe that was a little bit to the Northeast. What it did was give me a sense of the map and how everything is set and how diverse the continent is. We always want to look at the West African side, to Nigeria and Ghana, that’s important too, but that’s not all Africa.

Most of the tribes are gone because everyone wants to move into the city and you know pop culture is universal, so you might see a Himba girl (of Namibia) walking with a leather drape, and then have the red clay and be walking a cow, but she’ll have a cell phone.

LC: Speaking of research, it all leads to the details present in your designs and finished garments. More than many other films, the costumes in Black Panther really expand our understanding of the characters. Can you tell us a few things to look for that are some favorite elements we might miss?

RC: I implore anyone who wants to, to pick the movie’s costumes apart and analyze them, because there was so much that went into them! I would say to look for the talismans on the front of the tabards for the Dora Milaje, their tabards have these protective ornaments. You could look for the Okovango pattern that’s on the Black Panther suit, it’s a triangular pattern that represents the sacred geometry and makes him an African king. You can look for the design pattern in Lupita’s dress in the casino scene, it has a raised supplemental pattern created with a Kente cloth. We extracted the line work on the Kente cloth and made the pattern and printed it.

Marvel Studios' BLACK PANTHER..Black Panther Conceptual Character and Costume Design Sketch..Costume Design and Art: Ryan Meinderding and VisDev Team..©Marvel Studios 2018
Marvel Studios’ BLACK PANTHER..Black Panther Conceptual Character and Costume Design Sketch..Costume Design and Art: Ryan Meinderding and VisDev Team..©Marvel Studios 2018
Marvel Studios' BLACK PANTHER..T'Challa Conceptual Character and Costume Design Sketch..Costume Design: Ruth Carter.Concept Artist: Keith Christensen..©Marvel Studios 2018
Marvel Studios’ BLACK PANTHER..T’Challa Conceptual Character and Costume Design Sketch..Costume Design: Ruth Carter.Concept Artist: Keith Christensen..©Marvel Studios 2018
Marvel Studios' BLACK PANTHER..Nakia Dora Milaje Conceptual Character and Costume Design Sketch..Costume Design: Ryan Meinderding and VisDev Team working w/ Ruth Carter..©Marvel Studios 2018
Marvel Studios’ BLACK PANTHER..Nakia Dora Milaje Conceptual Character and Costume Design Sketch..Costume Design: Ryan Meinderding and VisDev Team working w/ Ruth Carter..©Marvel Studios 2018
Marvel Studios' BLACK PANTHER..Nakia Conceptual Character and Costume Design Sketch..Costume Design: Ruth Carter.Concept Artist: Keith Christensen ..©Marvel Studios 2018
Marvel Studios’ BLACK PANTHER..Nakia Conceptual Character and Costume Design Sketch..Costume Design: Ruth Carter.Concept Artist: Keith Christensen ..©Marvel Studios 2018

LC: I was going to ask you about the Kimoyo beads which make up the bracelets everyone wears. They serve so many purposes and yet straddle costume and special effects. I find that fascinating.

RC: Everybody wanted to be the person that came up with the Kimoyo bead and what it looked like. I created a bead in our meetings, and Hanna Beachler, our production designer brought one too. She’s the one that won the Kimoyo bead contest, if you will. So her design was used and the prop guy was also part of it, because it’s actually like a prop. There’s a phone there, there’s a hologram there. The serve many purposes. They are the way that people in Wakanda communicate so their look and design was really important, even though of course they had to have an organic look as well.

LC: Can you talk about the collaboration that was required for this film, from the costuming to production design, to hair and makeup and special effects? They all have to be tightly integrated!

RC: Moviemaking can be so disjointed. The production designer comes on before the costume designer, and the costume designer comes on before the makeup and hair designers, who come in with just a tiny bit of prep and are often having incredibly tough deadlines, so sharing is hugely important for a film like this. If you’re the first one out of the gate, you’re having conversations with the director about the sets about the coloring and the atmosphere and environment. That gets designed, and then the costume designer comes on. Then the production designer talks to the director about how the costumes will live in this world. Ryan had particular ideas about how costumes and my job is to take those ideas and figure out how to compose them in this atmosphere. So I start doing research, from tribes around Africa, historical information, what people look like now, Afro-futurism, Afro-Punk, and I organize them in a way that communicates what I think speaks of this world and is what all of our collective ideas represent, as well as my own. Then hair and makeup come to the table and usually they are a little panicked because on a film like this they may only have a few months of prep to create tattooing and scarification, it’s important for me to share my ideas and my work with them and bring them up to the point of where our conversations have been so that they don’t feel like they have to go back and have the same conversations or ask the same questions over and over again. Our sharing involved on this project them coming to my office, which was completely littered with images. You could sit at the break table for hours before you even talk to me and just absorb the world of Wakanda. They bring their cell phones and take pictures of what they see because i’ve already done the work of sorting so if I’m going to say one set is the royal family, one is the Jabari tribe..they are all laid out so all they have to do is drink it all in to know what direction i’m going in with color and textures and costumes and they also get to walk through the workshop and see how things are coming along and see what we’re working on. We are working closely with them. Visual effects are less involved with that part but they’re connected. The FX supervision Jeff in this case was active every day on set and he and his team are looking at the way things are lined up but for our collaboration, he would say, “ if there’s something you don’t like, let me know, and we’ll fix it!” so I love visual effects! Also they scanned every background person, every costume, they scanned the costumes on the background, on the actors, and off. If there was an item that they needed more detail on, they came to our department, and they brought it to wherever their scanners are, and they scanned them. Once they go into post, they can actually craft things, and have all the information that they need.

LC: The look of the film is universally timeless, which I love.

RC: That was intentional. When we think of African representation in films of the past, we could actually date it. You think of the films Shaka Zulu, Coming To America, anything that had to do with the African Diaspora, there’s a date on it. Anything you look at in film history that has futuristic tech, you can date it. I was uncomfortable with wearable tech because once it’s produced, it’s already obsolete. For that reason I didn’t want to create costumes that looked like they would do something. Like you get close to a door and your costume would open the door for you. I didn’t want to do that because it just felt corny to me. There are fashion designers that I have seen throughout the ages that were forward thinkers, and they didn’t have kitch-y gimmicks. A lot of them were Asian designers, like Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto, and also the Brits have a good handle on that. I have always loved Rick Owens , and I’m wearing a piece of his right now. Also Gareth Pugh . They were my favorites and my go-to’s. Stella McCartney was doing some things with recycled materials where she made it into fabrics, and I thought those were much more interesting ideas and were timeless and I didn’t want to put a lot of African prints because I thought it was expected. Those prints only live in one region of Africa and they are appropriated and were sent by the Dutch, so it was important for me to create an aesthetic that was timeless and that we can look at this film and it would stay relevant and beautiful and say “hey that was in the 2000s!” When we look at Roots or some of the ones that were produced and we look back we realize we are much better at that now.

LC: I know you do mentor and It’s important to you. Can you speak to that? For example, I love the work Douriean Fletcher did on the jewelry, and I know you brought her on to the film.

RC: I worked hard to get her on that, she was not in the union so she actually worked on the balcony of my house in the back, set her up with a table, then we got her 30 days of work at our craft house, they totally embraced her and guided her on how to do the patterns for the designs so she worked diligently, alone a lot of the time, and hammered away, fired up her torch. I felt like it was nothing she couldn’t do, and what she produced was so well done that was a joy to help a young artist like her to come into this industry and this genre of superhero films.

LC: Now she’s the first jeweler in the costumer’s guild.

RC: it’s thrilling and it’s a triumph and I feel it’s what we are here to do. Not suck up all the attention and think that we’re the superheroes… we really do work with a team.

When I started in the business there was no costume designer that looked like me that I could ask for an internship. It didn’t really even matter if they looked like me, to be honest. I studied (Oscar-Winning costume designer for The English Patient) Ann Roth and loved the way her palettes came together. I just felt like it was my responsibility because I had done some work in the opera and on the stage as an intern and I had some incredible people that supported me in whatever I wanted to do in costume. In opera, I was the only person of color there at the time, I guess it was around 1985 at the Santa Fe opera. I just figured this is a field that people of color probably know very little about. When I get resumes or letters and I have from aspiring costume designers, I have evaluated them. It’s not like it’s an open door policy, and just I’m here to train everyone, but I have trained quite a few who were aspiring and are costume designers now. Rita McGhee is one of them, and it’s something that when I was working with Spike Lee at Forty Acres and a Mule, he was big on internship programs, he’d go into LIU (Long Island University) and find those young filmmakers and when you start a film at Forty Acres you’re going to meet a group of young people that are aspiring. That’s just the landscape there. Coming from working on 12 films with that guy, I too have that same mindset. As they say, EACH ONE TEACH ONE.

See Black Panther in theaters starting Friday, February 16th, and read all about Ruth Carter’s adventures in costuming on her blog, which you should do because it’s fascinating.

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Greta Gerwig Talks Lady Bird, the Great New Coming-of-Age Film: Film Review and Interview

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If I were making a movie with two women playing mother and daughter, Oscar nominated Saoirse Ronan of Atonement, and Brooklyn,  and Emmy and Tony Award winner Laurie Metcalf of Toy Story, Roseanne, the Steppenwolf Theater and at least 14 Broadway and off-Broadway plays, would be on my dream list.  Apparently Greta Gerwig agrees.

Before the beloved Indie actress, writer and now first time director Gerwig called her new movie Lady Bird, she dubbed it Mothers and Daughters.  That was back when her first draft was over 300 pages long.  The finished screenplay is blessedly shorter, and both it and the film as a whole is an unqualified delight.

Christine, (Ronan) is a 17 year old girl, going through her last year of high school, who calls herself Lady Bird.  She is straining against the confines of her middle class life going to Catholic school. She believes anything is better than Sacramento, especially the East Coast. She relates that to her mother repeatedly, along with all the other complaints about her life. Her mom Marion McPherson (Metcalf) only wants the best for her daughter, for whom both she and her husband have worked overtime to allow for her expensive Catholic education.

Christine spends her time with her best friend Julie (the awesome and luminous Beanie Feldstein) and the both of them are at best on the outskirts of popularity.  Christine tries in a variety of ways to break in to the popular cliques, first by dating buddy Danny in her drama group (Lucas Hedges) and then by dating mysterious musician Kyle (Timothy Chalamet).  Things work, or don’t work, exactly as you’d expect for a girl trying too hard to fit in. It is often as awkward as real life. Lady Bird, as it happens, is funnier, and the frequent interactions with her mom, for better or worse, allow for a familial authenticity many will recognize from their own lives.

The name harkens back to the nursery rhyme, “Lady bird, Lady bird, fly away home”. Audiences will be called to consider what home means for young people considering the bigger world and their place in it. For her own part, Gerwig says she didn’t realize she was pulling words from a popular children’s rhyme when she named the movie.  Still, the character of Lady Bird feels shame around her own class, as her family is struggling financially. She believes inhabiting a new name and going to a new place will fulfill her, or change her into who she wants to be. This film, and Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson’s progression, is about finding her way back to who she is, and where she comes from, including the shifting position she holds in her family. Taking the trip with her is a joy, and the cast and filmmaker taking us there create a singular, authentic experience that will place Lady Bird on the list of most memorable, enjoyable coming of age films.

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I asked Gerwig a few questions when she came to the Middleburg Film Festival, and before LADY BIRD became one of the top rated films on Rotten Tomatoes, hopefully placing her as a frontrunner for a Best Director Oscar nomination.    

Cinema Siren: When I think of Lady Bird, I think of the nursery rhyme.  “Lady bird, lady bird, fly away home.  Your house is on fire and your children are gone”..I’m interested in the idea of home and what it means to identity and how it plays into the film.

Greta Gerwig: It’s funny, I didn’t consciously understand why I chose the name Lady Bird, I just was working on the script and writing different scenes and I felt like I kept hitting some sort of block around it. I put everything aside and wrote on the top of the page, “why won’t you call me Lady Bird? you promised that you would.”  and I thought, “Who is this person? Who is this person who makes people call her by this name?” and in retrospect I also remembered that rhyme, and I also thought about the act of re-naming, and what that means and how it can be both a religious act and a secular act.  At confirmation, you choose your saint name. You choose the thing that you’re trying to emulate and the space that you’re trying to occupy.  Or if you want to become a rock star or movie star and you choose a name, Marilyn Monroe or David Bowie, those aren’t their names, they chose bigger things than themselves before they were able to step into it.  What’s interesting to me is that it has a double meaning which is that you sort of have this supreme confidence in yourself that you can be bigger than you are, and it also has a deep insecurity imbedded in it, which is that you are not enough. I think for me being able to grapple with home, and what home means, and it only being able to make sense as it retreats from you, or you leave it, is so much a part of that because i think accepting where you are from and incorporating that into who you become is complicated, especially for teenagers. I don’t know very many teenagers that think, “I’m great just as I am, and where i’m from is awesome”.  There’s all this stuff built into you at that age where you think that you’re wrong, the place is wrong, the certainty that life is happening somewhere else, and you just have to get to the life that actually happening in another place, and then once you get there, you realize life is going on all the time.  So that’s not exactly an answer but it’s a collection of thoughts around what that means.

CS: My experience with talking to female filmmakers is they are very centered in collaboration, although you’re in charge of bringing it all together.  Can you talk about your perspective on collaboration as a woman in film and how it influenced your first experience directing?

GG: I think film is one of most deeply collaborative arts, whether you’re a man or a woman, it just is, like the theater, where everyone comes together.  If what you want is total artistic control, you should be a novelist. That’s what you should do, because you can control it from beginning to end and it’s all yours.  Film even people who seem to be ruling over things with what seems like an iron fist, there’s just no way you can, and I don’t think there’s a reason you’d want to.  For me, I always had a very clear idea of how it looked and sounded and would be put together, and I think most films you have to know your true north, and your own compass, because really everyone can only bring their collaborative efforts to you if you know what you’re going for.  Ultimately what you do is you kind of get everyone to dream the same dream you’re dreaming.  So you collaborate to hypnotize everyone to the same place so that we’re all making the same film.  It’s this combination which is a paradox, because that certainty that gut feeling and that true north comes from you, and that is what makes it collaborative.  So it’s both and, it’s not either or.  I love people bringing their whole selves to it.  For example, with the actors, I’m a very involved director, and in terms of the script, we don’t change any of the lines, and I do a lot of takes and give a lot of feedback, but also I feel like there’s this very important moment early in the rehearsal process where I give the flame of the character to them, and it’s theirs.  It’s their job to take care of it, and at that point, I don’t know more about that character than they know.  You have to give your actors that trust, otherwise they’ll never be able to fully inhabit it, if you keep it too close to yourself.  It’s this thing of giving it away and trusting that it’ll come back.

CS: It is about trust.

GG: Oh yes, hugely.  That’s why I take a long time building my creative team, because these are the people you’ll be making the movie with and the actors of the ones everyone sees onscreen but every single person involved in the production, down to the P.A.s are the people who contribute to what that movie is and how it feels and every single person has to be a storyteller.  Even the people in accounting, even the people making the schedules every day, everyone has to be a storyteller.  Otherwise you could do that in any other kind of job.  It’s about this kind of storytelling. This is a small example, but the first assistant director is responsible for how each day goes.  what scene we start off with and where we go before lunch and after lunch, and they do it for the entire schedule. My first A.D. was so sensitive to what the story was and where the actors would be and what the experience of making it is, because that’s the way he is and that’s his way of storytelling. It’s essential to have a team of storytellers that choose together to tell this particular story.

Lady Bird, after breaking records for the highest gross in limited specialty release, is opening wide across the country.

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The Glorious Labor of LOVING VINCENT; film review and interview with the co-directors

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Loving Vincent is the first fully oil painted feature film.  The brainchild of two filmmakers who have worked in animation, special effects, and live action, the film breaks new ground, while being visually stunning and driving a story about the last few weeks in the life an artist who died penniless but is now one of the most famous in history. All the characters in the film are performed by real actors, either on special sets or in front of green screens, and their work is combined with computer animation and painted animation. There are over sixty-five thousand frames in the film, and at the end of each shot, they were left with the painting of the last frame of the shot.  There are eight hundred and ninety-eight shots in the film.

Clearly Loving Vincent is a labor of love for co-directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, both of whom are award-winning animators. They, like so many animators before them, are reaching, experimenting, and creating something more for the art form.  To do it with the story and art of one of the most famous and misunderstood artists in history made perfect sense to them.

The story takes place in France, in the summer of 1891.  A character names Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) is given a letter by his father Joseph (Chris O’Dowd) to deliver to Theo, Vincent Van Gogh’s brother. When he discovers Theo died shortly after Vincent, he becomes curious about the artist’s suicide and embarks on a search as to why the artist, who was just on the cusp of success, would commit suicide. He travels to the village of Auvers-sur-Oise, the location where Vincent passed, to meet Doctor Gachet (Jerome Flynn) who cared for him in his last days.

Many people don’t know that Vincent survived the bullet wound he sustained to his abdomen in the fields where the shot took place, only to die several weeks later from a tortuously painful infection. This film considers what may have taken place on the day he was shot, and the subsequent time he spent suffering to his death.  The characters portrayed in the film are all those found in paintings by the artist.  This film weaves the story around the paintings and the figures who were part of Van Gogh’s life.

The plot is definitely the weak spot in this glorious film, but it isn’t really the point, I suppose.  It is just the anchor for the stunning artistry represented onscreen.

There are two art styles used in the film.  One is very much like rotoscope, where the actors are filmed and the paintings are created directly from their actions, making the scenes like very close to real life.  These are created in black and white, and are not directly designed to look like Van Gogh paintings.  The other style is taken from Van Gogh’s style, to the degree that a number of his paintings are re-created as part of the film. The rest of those sequences are done in the Van Gogh style, while revealing the plot.  It’s a colossal undertaking that required 125 professional painters who worked in several countries, and had to be trained how to create these frames through a slow process of changing their paintings shot by shot.

If only for curiosity’s sake, if not for the gorgeous end result, those who love animation should seek out Loving Vincent.  It’s a testament to the fact that animators continue, after all these years, to continue to experiment and expand the art of animation.  Equal parts cinematic drug trip and visual artistry, Loving Vincent represents a landmark in the genre.

A*

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The Glorious Labor of LOVING VINCENT: An Interview with filmmakers Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman.

Cinema Siren spoke to the directors about their experience creating the film, which has already won the audience award at the Annecy Film Festival and Best Animated Film at the Shanghai International Film Festival.  They discuss how they are premiering the film in a number of museums around the world, selling the original art used in the film, and the Painting Animation Work Stations (PAWS) they designed for the project.Leslie Combemale: Can you describe a little of how you designed PAWS?

Hugh Welchman: Basically the idea is to have the painting animators concentrate on painting and nothing else. Not to worry about lights, computers, and only focus on their own painting.  So we bolted everything to the floor, put it out their sightline so they could just walk in, sit down, and start painting.  We wanted to give them as much references as possible, so the way that we created reference was different for each shot, pretty much it was either CG animation reference material or it was live action combined with matte paintings, or it was blank space they had to fill in, based on Vincent’s paintings. sometimes they just had a blank for the sky and they had to animate the sky, so one end of the spectrum was the black and white footage which was pretty much live action realistic footage, although always made up of matte paintings and materials with the effects done, so we didn’t have to do fancy effects so that was more rotoscope.  The other end of the spectrum was the painting transitions where there was just one or two frames and the animators had to paint between them but all of the Van Gogh material essentially they have a live action reference but then they have to paint it as a Van Gogh painting and they had to animate each brushstroke, frame by frame.  The thicker the brushstrokes the more precisely they had to animate them.  In the black and white it’s more like animating on glass, you could smooth the paint around the canvas, whereas with the very definite brushstrokes you actually had to move very deliberately frame by frame by frame, like stop-motion.

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LC: Not like an in-betweener in 2D animation, though…

Dorota Kobiela: No, because with an in-betweener you’ve got a keyframe and another keyframe and you go from one to the other, knowing what’s coming.  In this, the artist is doing all on one canvas and doing the keyframes and the art in-between.

HW: What we had for them was outlined reference, so that they could project it on the canvas and use it as a starting point, but it had none of the detail on there.

LC: So that’s more like an illustrator would work. So many different disciplines mixed together!

DK: Yes!

HW: In terms of our background, we’ve done CG animation, for example, our last film was purely pencil drawing animation, and then the other film she did before that was actually painting animation in 3D.  My last film was stop-motion, and we’ve both done visual effects, so we used and combined all of that in Loving Vincent, and the thing with Van Gogh’s paintings is they’re all different and some of them abide by the laws of physics, and some of them don’t.  Some of them he used a wide or a long lens, and some of them were more like a set, so we took them one by one, those we used.  With the portraits it’s pretty straightforward, in terms of shooting the portraits and then they have to be basically repainted in the Van Gogh style, and the big challenge was obviously not to lose the performance of the actors. One of the things that you very often get with rotoscoping technique is that you lose the performance you get a layer between you and the actor. On thing we did was we paid a lot of attention to the eyes. That’s the thing that animation can often fail at in creating realistic performances, so hopefully we found a way past that.

LC: How did you choose the artists you worked with?

DK: We received around 5000 applications. We first went through their portfolios, and based on that, we would invite artists to do a test, and this took around 3 days, which included painting in the Van Gogh style. Based on that test, they would go to another training.

HW: From 5000 applications, we invited 500 people to do a 3 day audition, of those we selected 113 for training, and pretty much all of those went on to do at least one shot in the film, with 125 painters, although a lot of those came on towards the end.

DK: The main crew was around 55 painters.

HW: A lot of the time we had around 20 painters, that was our core group.

LC: Dorota, you started out thinking you were going to paint the whole thing, did you paint any of the it?

DK: I painted one shot. The boy throwing the stone. It has a kind of shaky camera portrait. I picked it because I thought it was just the beginning for me, and I wanted a challenge and to do something I hadn’t done before, and to train on it.  I thought after that one i’d do a lot more fun ones with color, and then it didn’t happen!  I mean, it was 4 hours per frame, and I could only start in the evenings after going through a day of directing so that would be after 6pm and then i’d have to work till 2pm and then start over at 8am, so you know, I didn’t think it would be wise!

LC: You can’t really tell where art ends and animation begins.  When I read someone’s review, who clearly doesn’t know much about the history of animation, they said what a labor of love and how extraordinarily work intensive it must have been.  The whole span of the history of animation is filled with work intensive projects!  Even just the example of the Queen in Snow White and the amount of airbrush and hand-inking on each cel…

DK: Exactly!

DK: I realize that we’ve been told we are crazy for how involved this project was, and so i’m glad you brought that up.   

HW: Snow White is a great one to bring up, because there were far more cels used for that film than paintings or frames used for our film.  Of course on Snow White they had drawings, and concept art, and cels, and on our film we had paintings that we change and destroy as we go along.

DK: Each painting is used for one shot, and there are around 900 shots in the movie, and each painting ends up as the last part of the shot. Sometimes the painting remained intact through the whole shot, sometimes we would scrape off the paint completely. Like with the moving camera shots… the first in the movie, you have Starry Night, then it moves to another image, and that shot was 10 seconds and painted over 7 months, put together with a number of painters who had different specialties.  One was great with stars, another was best with tiny details of landscapes.  It’s 12 frames per second, so it can take between 30 minutes for the easiest for up to 8 hours. Sometimes we would just scrape everything off and start again just to make sure and compare and get each image just right so they worked together.

LC: How is it photographed, from above?

DK: We had a camera mounted behind the painter, and they just would need to click. They could also see how they were doing and get a preview and see how it looked. They could export their image immediately, so I could look and check every frame, not in every single case, but for a long time we had an every frame approval system. They would have to check with the supervisor.  And all the artists are getting paid per frame so waiting was an issue in terms of budget.

HW: The whole schedule and budget was based on timing, so we had to get fast approval. Also we had people in different parts of the world all working at the same time.

LC: How did financing come about for the film?

HW: It was very difficult.  Every time we showed the film we had made to explain what the feature would look like, we would be asked to give examples of other films done in the same way.  We said the fun thing about this is it’s something new, and people will like it because it hadn’t been done before. At that point they disappeared! We thought the hardest part would be to hand-paint the film or to train the artists who are used to being individuals and working in their own studios, and putting them all next to each other and that was the easy part.  The hard part was the financing.

LC: Dorota, you are quite open about your own depression, that you’ve had it your whole life, can you talk about that and your connection to Van Gogh and what depression means to art.

DK: I guess I always made the connection, and even wrote my thesis about it at university, how art and depression effect each other.  I thought it was very interesting so many writers, philosophers, and painters had it, and specifically Van Gogh. I have always been curious about the passion and vulnerability of artists makes them more sensitive or maybe it’s the other way around, the illness opens up a part of you that allows you to see things in a different way and offers a unique insight.  I don’t know which comes first. I was very interested in Van Gogh’s letters. I strongly believe that he was very intense and just worked too much, he was painting two paintings a day and writing all night. Writing 820 letters.

HW: Surviving letters.  Maybe way more existed.  We don’t know.

LC: I am particularly interested in the fact that, as a woman in animation, you have chosen to do something that’s never been done before, that required an immense amount of work, and a great deal of passion, that you put your whole heart into, that is so personal.

HW: 75% of our painters were women. I have always tried to have women directors and heads of departments, but in Loving Vincent, it was a lovely surprise for us to have such a high percentage of women.  In this case, it was purely because of skill and ability that it turned out that way.

DK: This project required a lot of patience, and the women seemed to have that.

LC: Well, of course most of the ink and paint department at Disney was made up of women and in addition to skill, there was a great deal of patience required for that.

HW: I think the men found it to be too hard.

DK: For the women it was fun because they were challenging each other.

HW: They all wanted to be the best in the studio and became very competitive. In Poland our painters were divided equally between men and women, but in Greece, all our painters were women.

LC: Talk to me about how you are selling the paintings used to make the film. It’s a great way to get back some of the budget before you’ve even released the movie…and you’re also having an exhibit of the art?

HW: We have around a thousand paintings, from the film itself and also design paintings, because we spent six months doing design paintings before we started, re-imagining Vincent’s work.  People were taking a full day or even a week to do those. One particular painting took a month! Of the thousand, a hundred and fifty we used for the financing of the film. Sometimes with the financiers and the actors, art was part of the deal. Each of the main actors got a painting of themselves and it was part of their contract.  A hundred more we sold to the public along the way. We put them on our website and they would sell quite quickly..and we have an exhibition opening at the Noordbrabants Museum in Holland on October 13th which will have one hundred nineteen paintings of our favorite paintings from the film. That runs till the 28th of January. We’d like to license that exhibition to America after it closes there. We are doing smaller exhibits elsewhere, including the Kroller-Muller, which has the second largest collection of Van Gogh collection in the world. In the film, we reimagined twelve paintings of theirs, so we are doing a collaboration with them and it will tour around Europe and Asia and then it will go into the Kroller-Muller Museum, which is great for us, next year, for about three months. All of the art will be sold at some point, all of it will go for sale, but much of it will be in exhibits first.  Of course they won’t all be very expensive, there are some of them that are less.  For example, when the film fades to black, we painted that, and now we have these canvases that are black and some are really nice because they have thick paint.  They won’t be much, but a fan will want them, I hope!

All the money made from selling the art goes into recouping the film, because we have an investors pool and a talent pool for painters, we have a talent pool for actors, and for Dorota and I as directors.  Still, we only really make any money if people go and see the film.

LC: You have lots of great premieres planned!

DK: Yes, we have a premiere with the National Gallery in London and the Musee D’Orsay in Paris. We are doing many of our national premieres in museums. With the National, it’s going to be broadcast in over 200 cinemas. We are doing an introduction that’s a walk through the National Gallery going to all the Van Gogh paintings and talking about them, which is about five or ten minutes, then we show the film, and then after the film we have a Q&A with all of the actors. For the Musee D’Orsay it is going to be in the big hall.  The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has a great space in their new building where we’ll have an event.

LC: So you got Clint Mansell as the scoring artist for the movie. What a coup, and he adds a lot to the film!

DK: He was involved in the film without even knowing about it.  I would write the script listening to his scores, like The Fountain, Moon, and Black Swan.  I wanted him, I built the story in my head with his music, so I really wanted him to be a part of it. To me this was important.

LC: He is also very outspoken about depression and is a strong advocate as an artist who has it.  I would imagine he’d be all over this project.

DK: The truth is his music for me represents what I was looking for absolutely perfectly for the movie.

HW: He said no five times.  He wasn’t taking on any new projects. We first approached him in 2012 and each time he said no.  I told Dorota it was time we started discussing other people or adding more than just one person to her list. She said she really wanted him, so we asked again and he said he’d meet us in person to say he wouldn’t be doing the project. We met him in person.

DK: His agent called and said he would be in London the next day so we jumped on a plane so we could talk to him in person. We met with him and showed him a few shots we had from the film. Not even painted, but live action. Three hours later he invited us out to dinner, and then he said yes.

HW: There is an absolutely wonderful quote from him on the record that Dorota designed of the score.  It says, “I’m not sure…..came into focus”

LC: As a woman in animation how do you feel you informed the film?

DK: To be honest what I’m really proud of and what I’m always getting a hard time for is how sensitive I am. How much pain and hardship I have to go through to deal with certain things. So many people say “Come on! Deal with it! Stop being so emotional!” It’s a part of me as a director, being empathetic and sensitive. I just think this is a part of me that needs to be that way. I am not going to be one of those directors, or women in business for that matter, who think they need to act like what some men are like on-set, shouting and cursing at people, because it’s not my nature. I think that my emotional, sensitive nature is really good for communicating with people.  One time on the set, my male co-worker said something me, because he’d done lots of movies before. This was in Poland, and in Poland, there are so many men working in movies. There are no women apart from makeup and costume. The men dominate the production and are very aggressive. Very different than the UK.  Anyway, he said, “You’re doing this all wrong. You have to shout at them, otherwise they won’t respect you.” I just don’t want to be respected by trying to be something I’m not.  I am sensitive, but also my approach was to be really really prepared.  That has always worked for me before and it worked on this.

LC: What is your next project?

DK: Well, this movie has been such a learning curve for us.  But now we have some amazing painters and we want to do it again and continue to expand the style. We are a little bit obsessed with horror films, and we want to do a painted horror movie.

HW: The thing about animation horror films is they are either funny or scary, but we think in our style we can do both.

LC: Well, good luck with that, it sounds great.  Good luck also with Loving Vincent.  It’s a beautiful movie and I hope you have great success with it!

DK: Thank you so much.

*You may have noticed there are far more A grades on my site.  I have slowly transitioned to interviewing almost exclusively people from films that I find very impressive.  Also, I’m here to “guide film lovers through a sea of celluloid”…in a sea of releases, I’m working to focus more on films I think are worthy of your time.  There will of course still be the occasional mediocre film represented here, but for the most part, I want to guide you all towards films that are worth getting up out and away from your chair/bed/computer.

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Professor Marston and the Wonder Women Review: Great Hera, it’s Hot!

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Such timeliness!  Such hotness! Such consent!  Yes, the story of the man and women behind the making of Wonder Woman, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, written and directed by Angela Robinson, is being released this weekend. Wow, is it a fun, fascinating look at folks in the 1940s getting their freak on!  Well, not really. It’s true that it’s fun and fascinating.  It’s also just a true, partly sweet, partly heartbreaking story of a polyamorous relationship, wherein bondage and roleplaying play a part.  It just so happens that out of that relationship, the iconic heroine we all love, Wonder Woman, was born.

Wonder Woman was invented and written by Professor William Moulton Marston, who had also a significant role in the invention of the lie detector test. At the time, and through the rest of his life, he was in a relationship with two women, both of whom bore him children. The three lived together.  After Marston died, these two women lived together for the rest of their lives. Marston created Wonder Woman inspired by his wife Elizabeth and their domestic partner, Olive. At her inception, the super heroine Wonder Woman’s storyline had many elements of bondage, strong statements of women’s liberation, and what Marston believed represented female empowerment. It was criticized by the board of censors as sexually perverse. This film shows, as imagined by writer/director Robinson, what the polyamorous life these three people shared together might have been like, including the experience of Elizabeth and Olive falling in love with each other. As you might expect, there is seduction, and lots of steamy sex.

With all this aforementioned sex, you’d think the film would be lurid. I suppose that’s a matter of perspective. I walked away from the Marston movie, which stars Luke Evans as William Moulton Marston, Rebecca Hall as his wife, Elizabeth, and Bella Heathcote as Byrne, feeling like the love scenes were integral to telling their story, not at all gratuitous, and quite tastefully done. I say this even as I remember the three actors trussing each other up in varying degrees of undress while one of them is roleplaying a nurse.

It takes a lot to keep relationships healthy, however constructed they may be, especially in a time when there was little room for opinionated women to express themselves inside or outside the home. The arc of this movie shows just how difficult that can be, especially when not two, but three people are involved, and two of them are powerful women of substance. How beautiful and rare to see women in a sexual relationship together on film that isn’t approached from the male gaze! Sometimes you don’t truly know how badly a subject is represented in Hollywood until you see it done correctly. I can count on one hand the number of films that have lesbian relationships that are complicated, deep, and loving, as well as sexual in a positive way. For that alone, Robinson gets a big, gold star.  Or maybe a red one on a gold tiara. I can’t remember a time when I felt so happy seeing a romantic relationship brought to life onscreen.

Robinson, in one of her interviews, inadvertently taught me a new word.  She said in portraying the Marstons, she didn’t want to “other-ize” their experience.  It’s sad we need a word like that these days, but other-izing in this case would mean making the real-life characters inhabiting this story feel separate, unreachable and unrelatable. It would mean making the film more about their sexuality and less about the love they feel for each other.  She and the actors certainly don’t do that.  If those who see the film don’t approach it as “Fifty Shades of Superhero”, but rather, they imagine three unorthodox, complicated people who genuinely care about each other, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women can be seen for what it is; a love story.

It is also a study in consent. When Angela was on my panel “Women Rocking Hollywood” at San Diego Comic-Con this summer, she said she became obsessed with it, pouring over research to make sure it was represented correctly. Since she shows the Marstons experimenting with bondage within the context of a loving, healthy sexual relationship, she wanted to be clear when someone was playing at submission, they did so without reservation, and entirely by choice. While the BDSM community has griped in the past about misrepresentation in film, they have had nothing but positive things to say about the Marston movie.

Are you a Wonder Woman fan who wants to experience something new and interesting? Let me suggest Professor Marston and the Wonder Women. It certainly acts as a powerful distraction from our current reality. If it happens you find the leads pleasing to the eye, (and who wouldn’t?) all the better. It will surely add a layer to your understanding of the most beloved female superhero of our time. Regardless of all that, as a film that offers a sex positive portrayal of BDSM and women in love, it is a wonder, indeed.

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TROPHY: A Great but Gut-Wrenching Documentary Explores the Complicated, Controversial World of Trophy Hunting

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Trophy, an exploration of the economics and conservational impact of big game hunting, recently released in theaters, is not easy viewing. This is especially true for those predisposed to having a strong opinion on the subject. Co-directors Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau aim, however, to get a conversation going with conservationists and animal lovers around the world with their film. They hope it may lead to solutions, or at least more concern for and interest in the worldwide challenge of saving thousands of species at risk of going extinct.

As a lifelong animal rights and rescue advocate, I had little interest in watching Trophy, but I’m glad I did.  I discovered it is possible trophy hunting might be one of the only ways to save a number of species. It may help the world keep ever-diminishing populations of a number of species from disappearing altogether.

I spent much of the film enraged at watching the big game hunters, including Texan rancher Philip Glass.  He speaks passionately about his kills, and the dream of hunting “the Big Five”, which includes an elephant, rhino, lion, leopard, and buffalo. I’ll stick by my belief that there is no nobility in his or any trophy hunter’s quest.  However, there are now hundreds of companies and outfitters in Africa that raise populations of these animals on farms, and sell the right to kill them to the highest bidder.  The rarer and closer to extinction a species is, the bigger the price tag to the hunters. Members of this trophy hunting industry claim to be a critical force for protecting and building the population of these endangered animals. The hunts support the local population, who often struggle with encroachment, as in the case shown in the film of a village where a hungry lion repeatedly entered their huts and killed goats that represented their livelihood. The survival of the human and animal population are increasingly at odds.

This has led to the expression being coined “if it pays, it stays.”  In South Africa, the commodification of endangered animals has led to some populations thriving, but at the cost of some of the biggest, oldest, most majestic creatures being snapped up at auction to be killed as a status symbol.  It’s the ultimate good news/bad news scenario.

The issue of poaching is also a major problem in keeping a species from extinction.  I spoke to Zimbabwean wildlife officer Chris Moore, who is in the film, about working with the local communities to curb the rampant poaching going on there. He said there are literally no rhinos left in his territory.  They’ve all been killed. In nearby South Africa, there were 13 rhinos poached in 2007, but by 2014 there were 1215. He said he is a reluctant convert that legal trophy hunting could make the difference for both survival of local communities and survival of animal populations.

As to rhinos, there’s a man profiled in Trophy named John Hume, who is the world’s largest private rhino breeder, with a ranch that is home to over 1500 rhinos in South Africa.  He has used his entire real estate fortune into raising and protecting these animals.  He advocates trimming the rhinos’ horns every few years, because it keeps them from being killed by poachers.  He is fighting to lift the 2009 moratorium on the sale of rhino horns, because he has a huge stockpile from trimming the horns of his own population, and the sale would allow him to keep his rhinos safe and continue breeding. Conservationists argue it will just empower the dangerous poachers, who are armed to the teeth, and killing not only rhinos, but the people who get in their way. Hume wants to teach communities how to trim the horns of their own rhino populations, so the poachers have no access to their horns.  

The film goes through interviews with the various perspectives, and follows those profiled in their experiences.  We watch Hume supervise a rhino having his horn removed. We also watch him get very emotional about his animals and their protection. Emotions also get the better of Philip Glass, as he shoots and kills the lion he’s bought the right to hunt. It’s unclear why he’s crying, although it appears it’s relief and pride. Christo Gomes, owner of Mabula Pro Safaris, which is a one-stop-shop for hunting, lodging, and safari experiences, is shown auctioning to his clients in the US, a country with one of the highest number of trophy hunters in the world.

What makes the film work so well is Schwarz and Clusiau’s ability to maintain both objectivity and sensitivity in their filming and interviews. The fact that they are both photojournalists clearly gives them an advantage with the subjects.  The landscape and environments are beautiful, even as the events unfolding may be difficult to watch. There are some complicated issues happening in our world that can’t and shouldn’t be ignored.  It behooves those of us with curiosity, a conscience, and a desire to find solutions to pay attention. The documentary Trophy asks us to consider one such issue, and as such is worth a little discomfort.

A

Birthright

BIRTHRIGHT: A WAR STORY Review and Exclusive Interview

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Coming to an art house near you this weekend is the documentary Birthright: A War Story.  It is directed by award-winning journalist and filmmaker Civia Tamarkin, and co-written and produced by award-winning filmmaker Luchina Fisher.  Why do we need another documentary on what seems to be about the pro-life verses pro-choice argument?  Tamarkin, when I spoke to her, said she had set out to make the “Inconvenient Truth of Reproductive Rights”. Based on information in the film, it is very much needed. Birthright aims to expose just how much more is at stake in terms of reproductive rights than abortion, and does so to such a degree that it borders on terrifying, even for those well-versed in the subject. It makes clear how attempts by the religious right to chip away at Roe v Wade, under the guise of fetal rights and what is put forth with the label  “personhood”, are creating an ever more dangerous environment for all women, regardless of political affiliation.

The main question posed by the film is why, if the vast majority of the public supports a woman’s right to choose and Roe v Wade remaining in place, are states around the country passing laws making it nearly impossible to end a pregnancy safely?  Why are they putting more limits on women making their own decisions about care during pregnancy and childbirth?

Director Tamarkin includes interviews with advocates on both sides of the issue.  Women are profiled who have had experiences that highlight the changes happening across the country putting the safety and wellbeing of women at risk. Birthright: A War Story depends heavily on these first-hand accounts that includes a variety of economic situations and ethnicities. These are stories in which women’s rights were placed beneath the rights of their fetuses, even when they themselves were in imminent danger of death.

Particularly shocking and eye-opening is one scene with casual interviews of young women being asked to define Roe v. Wade. None of those questioned knew the answer.  Several say it is some sort of legislation passed a long time ago that has little bearing on the present.  They couldn’t be more wrong.  Additionally, many interviewed were women of color.  The reproductive justice movement is about protecting all women, as women of color and poor women are further marginalized by the expansion of restrictions.  One woman featured talks about the fact that to end her pregnancy, she would have to go several states away, and it would cost thousands of dollars. It’s no exaggeration to say we are headed back to a time when women without financial means will resort to making the sorts of life-threatening choices best left in the past.  This country has one of the highest birth-related mortality rates of any developed country, and these state-based law changes will only make that worse, although the right-to-life advocates don’t say that.  Though they position themselves now as focusing on women’s health, they are really only representing fetal rights, which they inadvertently or not, are placing above the mother through the language of the laws. President of the National Right to Life Committee Carol Tobias, who is a significant contributor to the film, says so directly and unapologetically.

Tamarkin clearly shows that complacency and trust in federal and state laws where keeping women safe is of the highest priority when pregnant has led us to an alarming place for all women. We are once again made secondary citizens, this time to an unborn fetus.   One story shared is of a woman who is against abortion, but wanted natural birth. She was first told to either get a C-section or leave the hospital, and was subsequently given a cesarean without her consent, which led to complications.  It isn’t just women who declare themselves pro-choice with their rights at stake.

Did you know the Catholic church is buying up hospitals, and changing the policies about pregnant and sexually active women? Between 2001 and 2016, the number of acute care hospitals that are Catholic owned or affiliated grew by 22%, while the overall number of acute care hospitals dropped by 6%, and there are 5 states where over 40% are operating under Catholic health restrictions, and five more have between 30% and 40%.

Birthright covers this change, and some of what it means for women now. I remember my own mother telling me she gave birth to me in a Catholic hospital. When there were complications, they told my father I would be the one they would save, should it require a choice. I’m glad everything turned out ok, but should they then or now have the power to make any decisions that compromise women’s bodily autonomy? It’s the height of systemic misogyny.  In doing research, I’ve discovered that current Catholic directives for healthcare don’t value one life over the other, and that would be a relief, if the language of the directive wasn’t open to such interpretation. Do you want your hospital to decide what reproductive emergency constitutes a direct threat to the mother, such that it calls for terminating a pregnancy?

I did also find that they can’t and won’t end an ectopic pregnancy unless it is an imminent threat to the mother, that their directives on fertilization are less than ideal, and they will not offer any contraception, including inside marriage.  There are many other directives that point to healthcare directly influenced by the laws of Catholicism, which, and I’m speaking as a former Catholic, isn’t exactly woman-friendly.

Why is it subtitled ‘a war story’? Based on the interviews these women, in is clear we are part of a real war, fighting for bodily autonomy.  It was begun and is now spearheaded by the right-to-life movement, and aided by the conservative right they helped place in office.

Tamarkin says she was partly motivated to make this documentary when the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court ruling, which said the company could deny coverage for contraceptives to their female employees, didn’t set off alarms for women across the country.  The fact that staunch anti-abortionist Tom Price and former president of Americans United for Life Charmaine Yoest have both been placed at the head of Health and Human Services by the new administration should only reaffirm the desperate times in which all of us who believe in reproductive justice find ourselves.

For women who believe they are the masters of their own fate, who watch A Handmaid’s Tale and believe it is fiction and always will be, Birthright: A War Story will be either galvanizing or motivating to get more involved and learn more about how we are losing rights for our own bodies every day.  Many who see Birthright will ask themselves questions, and many will find themselves afraid. Some people may even get involved. Based on Birthright, there’s a lot of fighting to do.

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Cinema Siren interview with Birthright director Civia Tamarkin and writer Luchina Fisher

Cinema Siren: I had no idea so many Catholic hospitals were cropping up. Can you talk a bit about how that has had and continues to have an impact on reproductive rights?

Civia Tamarkin: It has happened over the last decade. When faced with econonomic problems, so many public and private hospitals faced insolvency and became primed for merger and takeover. Catholic healthcare, although there are several types of Catholic healthcare, but they all fall under the umbrella, has aggressively moving into communities, as the white knight, taking over these hospitals.  One reason is it’s advantageous for them for tax breaks, but it certainly is a way of offering services to the community, while at the same time, being able to promulgate their religious doctrine.  In the film the head of Catholic healthcare says even the pope considers it an important part of their mission. What has happened over the years is one in 6 acute care hospitals in this country are connected to the Catholic church, which means they are beholden to their directives. What’s so terrifying about that, is when the merger first takes place, not on the radar of many communities, many of the doctors do not realize the implications of it, and most of them think nothing is going to change.  Then the merger happens and they begin receiving notices that they can no longer, in the OBGYN department, administer contraceptives, they can’t do in-vitro, or vasectomies, or prescribe the morning-after pill in cases of rape, or do tubal ligations at the same time as a C-section.  But the worst involves miscarriage mismanagement, and the inability to terminate a non-viable pregnancy. What’s important about that is it’s the perfect example of the “fetus first” mentality, which is just exploding across this country.  It’s entrapping women who are carrying a much-wanted pregnancy in many cases, not just those who wish to terminate, but those who are carrying a pregnancy, the mentality in this country, and we see it playing out in these Catholic hospitals, is that every woman capable of becoming pregnant, and 6 million women a year become pregnant in this country, is at risk.  Whether she personally apposes abortion or not. It is a problem for the birthing process as well, because you now have this intervention by the Catholic church, and indeed by legislators, in the process of pregnancy and birthing.  That’s what’s frightening.

CT: It’s open for interpretation but it’s very specific in the doctrine as laid out by the conference of catholic bishops.

CSiren: What is concerning is that what constitutes a clear and present danger to the mother is so subjective, and if the doctrine stipulates to only wait until then to offer care, it means much more stress and potential problems for the pregnant woman.  Who decides when a woman is sick enough to terminate a pregnancy?

CT: Exactly. In our film, a doctor says “The question is at what point do you decide a mother’s life is at risk?”  Of course also women are at risk of being arrested or prosecuted if they take any action to save themselves, under fetal endangerment.  It’s really a matter of extrapolating child endangerment laws and manipulating them, in order to establish the personhood of the fetus.  Women carrying a much-wanted pregnancy are caught up in this.  It’s a frightening situation because there’s an agenda here. What started out as laws that were well-intentioned and necessary, in terms of child protection, are being distorted and manipulated, and are leading to women’s autonomy being taken away.

CSiren: Can you talk a little about personhood and how it is diametrically opposed to women’s autonomy?  and again, great name—it even sounds noble.

Luchina Fisher: The opposition wanted a name that would work to make their cause resonate like women’s rights, or gay rights, as as you say, sound noble, but it’s impossible to, constitutionally, protect two individuals in the same body equally. What personhood does is establish the personhood of a fetus or the rights of the unborn and that causes by its very nature a number of serious problems for the woman carrying that fetus. It interferes with her own autonomy, of her ability to make decisions, and it means the government is intervening into her pregnancy and her body from the very start. From the moment that she conceived. There are all sorts of issues of establishing personhood, which is why no matter where the laws have been tried, it’s been defeated, because once people understood what “personhood” meant for the woman carrying the fetus, it was clear that it would remove all her rights of a living person.  It’s impossible balancing act.

CT: They don’t stop trying.  There are legislators right now drafting legislation that abortion would be aggravated homicide.  With the strength of 33 Republican governors just waiting to sign bills, the opposition will keep trying to take the rights away from women.  Personhood means that ultimately any decisions by a woman carrying a fetus can be analyzed and judged by the government as endangerment.  There’s no limit to where that can go in terms of removing the constitutional rights of women.  Beyond it being all that, it’s also a potentially life-threatening situation.  As one of the doctors in our film says, “at what point do we say yes, you’re sick enough? at what point do we thing you are in danger of dying enough so that we will assist your body in evacuating this non-viable pregnancy?”

Why must a woman wait to become septic, why does she has to wait until she’s at death’s door, which is what has happened all across the country? It’s a public health issue.  Yes of course, it’s a constitutional issue, and a human rights issue, but what people don’t address is, it’s a public health issue.  There is a direct correlation between the states with the number of reproductive restrictions and high maternal and neonatal mortality.  The maternal mortality rate is highest in the entire developed world in Texas, and it’s not surprising given how many more restrictions there are in that state.  

I didn’t want to do an abortion film, I wanted to do a wake-up call to every woman, that shows every woman, regardless of her view on abortion, and regardless of her political leanings is at risk.  There’s an extreme public health crisis attendant to all these restrictions.  You start defunding family planning, and women who cannot safely carry a pregnancy for health reasons don’t have access to contraceptives or prenatal care or sterilization, so you are dealing with a fallout and collateral damage that is far-reaching.  The reason people should sit up and take notice is that it’s not about abortion.  Yes, it’s about a woman’s fundamental right to bodily autonomy, but it’s about a nation’s public health crisis.  It’s outrageous that the US ranks 50th among developed countries.  That our maternal mortality rate is higher than Iraq.

It’s so important for people to realize what’s happening.  We set out to make the “Inconvenient Truth” of reproductive rights. It isn’t easy to know what’s happening, or to know how far the opposition has gotten in implementing their strategy to remove women’s rights, but we have to come together, unified, to take back and assure our autonomy.

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Battle of the Sexes Movie Review: Learn How Billie Jean King Changed Tennis Forever

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The film about the famed Riggs vs. King match shows how little has changed:

This week brings Battle of the Sexes, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the team that brought us the Oscar-winning Little Miss Sunshine, about the 1973 tennis match between the best female player in the world at the time, Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), against a hustling player and former Wimbledon champ, Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell).  Many younger folks, even tennis fans, don’t know Billie Jean King, although she’s an important figure in the history of sports, as well as for women’s and LGBTQ history.  Battle of the Sexes shows a time when women may have been working for equality, but were still seen as “the little lady”, and an adjunct to men, especially in sports.  When 55 year old gambler and attention junkie Bobby Riggs challenged Billie Jean King, who was at the top of her game, to a match to essentially prove any male player could beat any female player, she saw it as an opportunity to prove women in tennis were an important, vital part of the sport. This film goes through the events leading up to the storied match, and the match itself.

What is by far the best about the movie is the acting. Although Steve Carell is meant to be broad and flamboyant, he carries it off with some surprising subtlety.  This is not a cast that showboats.  Both he and Stone portray their characters ably, working chiefly to service the story. I think of a number of other actresses with more emotional heft could have cast before Emma Stone to play King, but she does rise to the challenge. In fact, Andrea Riseborough would have been a fascinating, compelling choice instead of Stone to play King.  Riseborough co-stars as King’s hairdresser and real-life lover Marilyn Barnett, and she is one of many great costars that add to the film, including Alan Cumming, Bill Pullman, and Sarah Silverman. Directors Dayton and Faris are known for great ensemble casts that genuinely work as a unit to bring a film together, and Battle of the Sexes is no exception. It is a shame, though, that the plot follows such a traditional trajectory. It loses the quirk for which the directors are known.

As to the larger issue of gender equality touched on by the film, if you know recent history, they show how little has changed. Thank goddess for Billie Jean King founding the Women’s Tennis Association in 1973, which pioneered gender equality in sports, but we haven’t really come a long way, baby.  While, in no small part due to her, the US Open offered equal prize money starting in 1973, the same year as her famed match with Riggs caused such a stir, the rest of the Grand Slam tournaments only followed suit in the 2000’s, with the Australian Open doing so in 2001, the French Open in 2006, and Wimbledon in 2007.  Venus and Serena Williams still agitate for equality in tennis, and they are definitely the most famous American players currently in the field, male or female. They have to have been inspired, in multiple ways, by Billie Jean King.

Last year, 5 top players on the US Women’s Soccer Team filed a wage discrimination lawsuit after winning the World Cup and bringing in millions more in revenue than their male counterparts.  The lawsuit claimed the female players were making 40% less. They negotiated a new and better contract this year, but they still won’t make as much as the men, even if the men have a another horrible season.

It’s also only days since Beth Mowins became the first woman to call a nationally broadcast football game in the US, doing the NFL play-by-play for Monday Night Football.

The point is, Battle of the Sexes is unfortunately well-timed, even if the events of the film happened over 40 years ago, which is galling.  Still, it points to the power of women standing up for what they believe is right, and as entertaining and fun as the movie is, that should be the takeaway, especially with our current political climate. That is could have gone deeper into the experience of a famous female athlete coming to terms with her sexual orientation may be true, but that would have been a different movie. It might have included the lawsuit between her and Marilyn Barnett some years later, and the very clear struggle Billie Jean had coming out as gay, having grown up in a homophobic family. Doing research on the movie sent me down a rabbit hole that was so fascinating, I had to work hard to pull myself out of it. That’s a film I would have preferred, however entertaining Battle of the Sexes might be, but Battle of the Sexes is about one event, the circumstances surrounding it, how it came about, and how it went down.  As such, it captures time and place, offers a diverting two hours, and asks us to consider how much or little things have changed for women in our own time.

B

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Kathryn Bigelow’s DETROIT elicits equal parts rage and heartache

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Director Kathryn Bigelow not only excels at leaning into difficult subjects from the recent past, she thrives on it.  With both The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, she knew she would be courting controversy by bringing to light aspects of the Iraqi War and the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and she did it anyway.  Here she goes again, this time shining a spotlight on the events of the Algiers Motel incident during the Detroit riots of 1967. The film premiered in Detroit on its 50th anniversary. Written by Zero Dark Thirty’s Mark Boal, and starring John Boyega and Anthony Mackie as well as Will Poulter and John Krasinski, it explores what happened that night and fills in the blanks as much as possible through interviews and transcripts and copious amounts of research.  The filmmakers used a team of six full-time researchers, led by Pulitzer Prize-winning Detroit reporter David Zeman.

During the riots in July of ’67, there was a police raid at the Algiers Motel that led to the murder of three black men and the beating of of nine other victims.  There are conflicting reports and testimony as to what happened, and that in part is how those responsible were not found guilty.

Much like the work Bigelow did on Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker, the director wanted to put the audience inside the events, at the Algiers Motel, and play them in nearly real time.  As a result, the tension and intensity is difficult to experience as an audience member. Bigelow has always been a director who tells a story, albeit from a specific point of view, but in a very straightforward way, as if just reporting the truth.  There is a decided “slice of life” quality to her movies, although those slices are always of very heightened, decisive moments in history. Kudos to writer Boal, who was able to weave a number of real-life profiles and experiences together without the whole thing falling apart.  He does leave a few dangling threads, although likely it is by design, not by accident.

The film begins with some historical context, created by blending panels of images by the great African American artist Jacob Lawrence, whose work chronicled the urban migration of the early 20th century.  As an art gallery owner and lover of 20th century art, I loved how Lawrence’s work introduced the story, and set the scene.

Detroit is best at representing the entire spectrum of morality, from good to apathetic to amoral or purely evil. No doubt in the real situation, too, there were people exampling all of those traits.  There are several characters who come off as morally ambiguous, or very complicated, most notably security guard Melvin Dismukes as portrayed by John Boyega.  Boyega was assisted for his role by the real Dismukes, who acted as consultant, speaking and referencing the incident for the first time in many years. Dismukes found himself at the center of a situation where people were being mistreated, punched, struck with rifle butts…so he stayed and tried to help diffuse the situation, only to be accused of murder, and dragged through a trial. He felt helpless at the time, and is now relieved the truth about that night is being told.

Will Poulter’s character, who is an amalgam of a number of real-life policemen implicated in the events, doesn’t reduce the truly hateful, wretched Krauss to a caricature.  In his performance, he is able to embody this man who believes in his actions and why he does what he does, however heinous they may appear to those of us watching them. Poulter revealed in the press notes that the role took its toll, as when after a particularly long shoot of his interrogating and abuse, he broke down, with other cast members following suit.  Bigelow quickly wrapped for the day.

I make no secret of my love of Annapurna, a studio that takes risks with female directors and releases films with controversial subject matter such as the upcoming Professor Marston & The Wonder Women, the edgy Spring Breakers and The Bad Batch, and award winners Her, American Hustle, and Foxcatcher. With Detroit, they are choosing to stir the reasoned unrest bubbling up around the country.  With all the publicized, filmed shootings currently continuing unabated, and largely unaddressed in urban centers, as well as the imbalance of incarcerated people of color, this film couldn’t be more timely.  That’s what will cause the rage, as not enough as changed in the last 50 years. The heartache is from the recognition of the bigotry that caused countless men and women of color to be gunned down by those in power, and the fact that it continues. It’s certainly an important film, reminding us we are traveling down the same road as the one 50 years ago. That makes the film both essential viewing, and nearly impossible to watch.

B

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Women Rocking Hollywood SDCC 2017 panel with Cinema Siren ROCKED HARD!

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Women Rocking Hollywood 2017 was Victoria MahoneyAurora GuerreroTina MabryRosemary RodriguezAngela RobinsonGina Prince-Bythewood, and Kirsten Schaffer. All Hollywood Powerhouses!  Such graciousness and talent. It’s incredible to me that at SDCC, in an environment full of famous people and A-listers, I would not trade for anyone within a 5 mile radius, the female directors I spent a day with and featured on the 2nd annual panel of Women Rocking Hollywood. I also can’t imagine most male directors working today being so complimentary and supportive of each other.  In fact, Victoria Mahoney said “When one of us rises, we all rise.”  That sentiment was reaffirmed and embodied repeatedly by all the panelists.  It was an honor to highlight their work and the importance of changing the status quo in Hollywood.

If we have more talented women being hired across all the genres of film and television, we will get more diverse art on screens both large and small.

We had a full house, in fact, we had many people outside who couldn’t get in to the panel.  We hope to have a larger room next year, and will also be posting the panel on YouTube and Amazon for those who want to hear the inspiring, positive, and very articulate commentary from these women.

Women Rocking Hollywood was covered by some great outlets both before and after the convention.

The point of this panel and why I wanted to have it at San Diego Comic-Con, the mecca of all things pop culture, is that SDCC is for the fans. It gets fans of all genres and all subjects excited about what’s coming, celebrates what they love, and allows contact with the filmmakers and stars they love.  I believe fans can and will have a huge impact on moving us toward a 50/50 balance of women directors, writers, and artists below the line.  Fans can force Hollywood and the extended film industry to consider the Bechtel Test and how women are represented. They can do it by voting with they pocketbooks and by word of mouth.  SO…follow these women on twitter, see their shows, (like Queen Sugar, which has ALL female directors), support Women in Film:LA, which is doing amazing work towards changing the industry, go out to see new movies created by women at the theater, and promote their projects.  For myself, I take it far enough that I don’t see movies without female representation in the crew, unless the film offers some other aspect of diversity, although interestingly, diversity and acceptance/hiring of women for the crew often goes hand in hand (but not always)…

DO I SOUND LIKE A BROKEN RECORD? Well, something more important is broken, and we have to fix it. We can do it together.  We don’t have to support crappy untalented directors, either.  Every woman on my panel is exceptional and is well-regarded by critics and film academics, and that is just a small sample of the great talent out there.

Here was the panel description:

Women Rocking HollywoodWomen Directors Changing the Face of Film and Television Wonder Woman broke all records in Hollywood for a film helmed by a female directors.  Now What? While there’s still a long way to go to equal the number of women behind the camera with women, who make up 51% of the population, shows like Jessica Jones, Queen Sugar, and The Leftovers are making a huge difference by committing to the inclusion of female directors. This 2nd annual panel at SDCC focuses on the incredibly talented, successful women expanding opportunities for women in film who have made noise and winning awards with their work on both the big and small screens. Scheduled to appear: Kirsten Schaffer (exec director, Women in Film: LA) Tina Mabry (writer/producer/director: Queen of the South, director: Dear White People) Rosemary Rodriguez (writer/director: Silver Skies, director: Jessica Jones, The Walking Dead) Victoria Mahoney (director: Queen Sugar, Gypsy, American Crime) Aurora Guerrero (writer/director: Mosquita y Mari, director: Queen Sugar) Angela Robinson (writer/director: Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, True Blood) and Gina Prince-Bythewood (writer/director: Love & Basketball, Beyond the Lights), the first woman of color hired to helm a superhero film for the upcoming Silver & Black.. Moderated by Leslie Combemale (Cinema Siren)

Here are some of the great articles written about it:

Pre-con:

SDCC Unofficial Blog “Spotlight on Behind-the-Scenes panels”

Nerdist “Guide to Best San Diego Comic-Con Panels”

LA Times “Must-see Panels at SDCC”

Huffington Post “Highlights you may have Overlooked”

The Week “Comic-Con 2017 Top Shows and Films taking part”

Fox5 “What Not to Miss Saturday”

Glaad “Guide to LGBTQ-inclusive programming at Comic-Con”

Nerdophiles “Ladies Love Comic-Con”

Post-con so far:

Good.is “Women had their Best Showing Ever at this year’s Comic-Con” (shared over 800 times and counting)

LA Times “Gina Prince-Bythewood Discusses Landing the Spider-Man Spinoff”

Huffington Post “Highlights Beyond the Highlights”

The Game of Nerds “Women Rocking Hollywood: SDCC puts female directors front and center”

Paste “Gina Prince-Bythewood is One of the Women Rocking Hollywood”

YES IT WAS A SUCCESS, BUT…women in film have a mountain ahead of them to climb, whether they are directors, or below-the-line crew.  Just look at this video, which gives just a tiny look into the experiences they routinely go through:

If you want to see all the “Flip the Script” shorts, go here.

They need fans and film lovers to act as support sherpas on their way up the Everest that is patriarchal Hollywood. It’s up to all of us to help them in all the ways we can by following them on twitter, supporting their films, and loudly echoing each other to become one the voice for equality.

We will be back next year, and will cover women-centric and female written and directed projects throughout the year, both on Cinema Siren and WomenRockingHollywood.com.

Read us, and also other great sites supporting women like Women in Film: LA, and Women and Hollywood.

We’ll write more about the experience when we post the video of the panel!!

MEGAN LEAVEY

CINEMA SIREN INTERVIEW: Director of Megan Leavey Gabriela Cowperthwaite talks about female directors, female soldiers, the freedom of documentaries, and the gift of animal loyalty.

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CINEMA SIREN INTERVIEW: Director of Megan Leavey Gabriela Cowperthwaite talks about female directors, female soldiers,  the freedom of documentaries, and the gift of animal loyalty.

Coming this weekend is a film based on the real-life experience of a female marine and her canine companion. Review is HERE.  I spoke to director Gabriela Cowperthwaite about her experience:

Leslie Combemale for Cinema Siren: Kate Mara recommended you to direct this film.  Would moving to narrative feature films been a natural progression for you, or is documentary work always going to be your focus, with occasional features?

Gabriela Cowperthwaite: I thought of myself as a documentary filmmaker forever, and as a result of Blackfish, I got interest for me to work in features. It was agent-driven. My agent and manager came forward and asked if I would be interested in doing features.  I said, “Yes! of course!”  I love movies, it wasn’t something I had ever thought of but it was brought to me and I thought it sounded amazing. I started getting scripts, and became attached to another film and then this script arrived via Kate and she said she would love to recommend me to the producers, and I loved it and it all went super fast.  We were on a plane.  They were green-lit, they were ready to go, they just needed a director. It was very very quick.

CS: You directing this story seems perfect, since not only had you directed Blackfish, but you’d also worked as an embedded filmmaker with the military in several countries at war.  Having had those experience, what surprised you in making the film?

GC: I tell people i wanted all my previous worlds to inform this one, so it was almost more in technique.  What I love in documentary and what I’ve always loved is was not knowing what was going to happen.  You show up with your camera and everything, you can plan and hope it will go a certain way, but it just never does. You just have to be so spry and so ready to recalibrate at a moment’s notice.  The adrenaline that comes with that is a rush, but also when that thing happens it feels amazing. IT feels like a piece of magic. Going into narrative, I was like “how am going to find those moments?” I found myself engineering moments of spontaneity and letting actors ad lib and saying “forget about the lines, let’s just be”…that was an interesting challenge for the actors but they’re so good at a number of things and they were excited to have that freedom and be able to go off script so I think it worked.  It definitely came from my documentary.

CS: Are there examples of some of the ad libs that led to something inventive?

GC: One thing very much was Common.  Gunny Martin.  His humor.  Totally deadpan but it’s totally him. A lot of that isn’t scripted. Discovering that he, this larger than life, musician Oscar winning human is actually hilarious. He really was having fun with it.

CS: I know he had done a lot of research about the way people become marines and how it influences their personality…

GC: exactly. Gunnary sergeants aren’t just going to drill into you. It’s not going to be serious discipline and being dressed down. Or yelling at people. In that kind of position you have to find ways to inspire people. For him it was humor and messing with people. But it came from him! It came from the research but he thought, “I can mess with these guys…”

CS: Working with dogs and having them be so much a part of the story had to be interesting.  You are so much an activist and so concerned about the safety of the animals. I know there are explosions and stuff and rightly lots of fans who love animals are concerned about them.  Can you talk about that?

“The dog rules.  Dog is number one on set.  They don’t choose to be there. You’ve got to know that and make sure you make them comfortable in every way you possibly can.”

GC: A lot of the explosions are enhanced by sound design so it doesn’t scare the dogs. That’s all post production for safety.  There are loud noises on set, that’s for sure. What it would mostly be is loud noises would happen, the moment they heard them the first time, the second time, they weren’t startled as much. For me it was most important to do as few takes as possible with them. There are a number of dogs, so you never use one dog more than you need to or more than you should. But for me it was like, and everyone agreed with me on this, Kate, me, the producers, the trainers, they all knew he’s going to deliver. He’s the one you don’t need worry about. Kate is an animal person, she read him and they became buddies and bonded—professional actors that became friends…she knew what to do with him, he knew what to do to deliver, so it was just a matter of us being together and on top of it all. Are we rolling at the time? There’s no time to adjust the light. This is happening right now, and we’re not going to make him keep doing it. We’ve got to remember that. I gave a big pep talk about that even before we started shooting. The dog rules.  Dog is number one on set.  They don’t choose to be there. You’ve got to know that and make sure you make them comfortable in every way you possibly can.

CS: What about this particular story really hooked you? What made you so passionate about wanting to do it?

GC: I would say it was a full blown character and such a unique opportunity that you think you’ve heard before, a war story about someone being transformed by being at war and coming home. It was done through two completely unique agents, two completely unique access points.  A female, a marine, we don’t hear about women in war very often and certainly not in movies, and a canine.  It’s like a brothers-in-arms story, but there’s not a brother anywhere in sight.  She felt fresh to me and cool and someone I could know. I liked that there were female writers behind it so she had some comebacks and things to say, and an authentic perspective.  She was someone who you could tell was written by a woman. and honestly it was greenlit.  What I’ve come to learn is with a documentary, I just get up and go.  I find a story and grab a few shooters and we go do it. That is an amazing freedom that comes with documentaries.  In the narrative feature world, you are asking permission to tell stories a million times over. It’s this dance you’re doing, it’s so strange and so new. You’re pitching it, you’re like but I know how to do this and this is how I’m going to go about it.  It’s strange because to you it has been taken for granted that you just get up and go out and make a movie. When you find one that’s ready to push the go button, you’re finally let’s go!  Really having it be “go time” was a huge factor.

CS: as someone who has focused on documentaries, and as a woman, do you think it IS the freedom, and the fact that you don’t need permission, something we often struggle with as women, is the reason there are so many women in the field?

GC: I think for sure we can’t underscore enough that you don’t have to have permission, you just go do it. I think that we are adept at paying attention to things that other people overlook. We aren’t going always for or driven to the shiny thing, the big thing, the thing that makes all the money.  The obvious thing…we are driven to give a platform to someone that nobody’s paid attention to, an issue that nobody seems to care about, like unsung heroes.  I do think women search for nuance and subtlety and we find beauty in those things.  There are certainly men in documentaries that do that, and spectacularly well. We in the narrative world, I think we are still fighting this belief that we female directors are this big risk.

CS: Wonder Woman is helping to change that, I hope.

GC: It’s a huge deal, and it’s Patty Jenkins, and I will say this. She’s a phenomenal filmmaker and someone I’ve been aware of since Monster. If she was allowed not only to be the director of this film, but be listened to, and if her aesthetic and her work onscreen, and her creative mind they hired and checked off that box that they got a female film director…when they checked that box are you taking her creative mind with you? if that’s the case, if they have, it is gonna slay. If it doesn’t slay, it isn’t a Patty Jenkins issue. I’m going on record saying that.  If they let her do her thing, it’s going to be amazing.

CS: What is next for you?   

GC: I want to always do narrative and always do documentary. It would be amazing to play in both sandboxes. It’s just story-dependent.  I have to love that story and feel like I’m the agent for it.  Is a documentary the way in, or is narrative the way? It’s totally story-dependent.  The next thing shifts all the time. Yes, there are piles of scripts I see, but they aren’t necessarily what i’m being considered for, but stories I’d go to the mat for. That’s the different between being a “FANCY” narrative director, and a new narrative director.

CS: What are you hoping people are going to get out of this movie?

“We say “thank you for your service”, but what does that mean?”

GC: You know, a few things. I do think it’s a love story, a relationship story.  The themes are loyalty and friendship and what having a bond means and how it changes you. I hope at some level people get that and are inspired by that. Those are the themes in real life that transform people every day. I also hope a couple of things: the third act was really important to me, her coming home and what it means to come home, and this was a very specific of that. Maybe if we can crack open what it means to come home through, that would be great.  We say “thank you for your service”, but what does that mean? We say that, I think of that all the time. I have no idea what the veterans coming home have experienced or the depth of their service. I don’t know what they experienced.

CS: with animals used in combat, you take that a step further, because they can’t tell you.

GC: That’s right. You say thank you for you service and I want people to think about what service means. People come home and there are many times when they come home broken. How do we equip ourselves to help them get what they need? In Megan’s case, it was to partner her back with her dog.  In their case, neither of them were whole without each other, and both were healed by being together. Hopefully it gives us a peek into how we can do that for everyone, and how to feel compassion for them.

Animals and dogs are loyal and companions and I know that stuff in a general way, but when I learned about the canine unit, and I learned about the extent to which they sacrificed for hundreds of years by our human sides during wars fighting along side us and they don’t choose it the way we do. Showing them the respect and appreciation for what they have done, through their loyalty, is the least we can do for them.