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Author: Leslie Combemale

Oh Lucy! Film Review: Messy Change Makes for Great Film

The new indie release Oh Lucy, from Japanese-American writer/director Atsuko Hirayanagi, examines the life of Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima), a lonely, chain-smoking woman of a certain age.  It’s the sort of film that captures well-crafted characters undergoing real change, with all the messiness, hilarity, and unpleasantness attached to it.

After being confronted with mortality, Setsuko says yes to taking over one-on-one English lessons being conducted by unorthodox instructor John (Josh Hartnett).  On the very first day of class, he places a platinum wig on her head and creates for her the American alter-ego Lucy.  Her interactions with John start Setsuko on a strange personal journey that forces change, largely as a result of a series of very bad choices, not least of which include her following him to LA under false pretenses.

Oh Lucy! has been called a Japanese-infused Hello My Name is Doris, and they do share a number of qualities, the most obvious of which is the largely unlikeable, yet compelling lead character.  Actress Shinobu Terajima is a big star in her native Japan, and she brings an authenticity and what appears to be depression and a genuine struggle with internal conflict and chaos to Setsuko.  She seems ever reserved and calm, but based on her decisions, she must be screaming on the inside.  Hartnett’s John, as with nearly everyone in the film, vacillates between being someone for whom the viewer feels compassion and disgust.  It’s the writer/director ability, through the action and dialogue, to yoyo the audience on an emotional string, that makes Oh Lucy! so fascinating and watchable. For a first feature, Hirayanagi had the great fortune to have master thespian Terajima bringing her cinematic vision to life.

I spoke to Hirayanagi about getting Terajima for her first feature:

“she is a big deal! The script won the Jury Prize at Sundance, so NHK, Japan’s Public Broadcasting Corporation, wanted to be involved in producing, and they were a huge help in casting.  They have a huge pool of talent for casting because of all the great productions they work on in Japan. They make so many epic historical dramas they basically know everyone in the entire film and television industry. They gave me a list of actresses and since I don’t live in Japan, that was a great help, and when I saw Shinobu on the list I couldn’t believe it. The minute I saw her name I knew it was her. I came to the US when I was 17, so I haven’t seen enough Japanese film to really know, but she was very famous even outside Japan because of the movie Vibrator, which an American friend showed me when I was in film school. I felt really ignorant at the time about Japanese movies, and that was one everyone knew and recommended. I loved the rawness and honesty in her performance.  I sent her the script and the short and after meeting me she said yes. I think she was and is perfect as Lucy.”

Clearly, the partnership between Hirayanagi and Terajima worked, and they captured something magical, albeit melancholy onscreen.  In the end, though, Oh Lucy! is about peeling back layers, revealing what’s behind the masks we all wear everyday, and showing what’s behind them to not only those around us, but ourselves. In watching Setsuko as she drops away mask after mask, we can consider doing that for ourselves.  That’s great catharsis, and worth two hours in the dark.


Shaping Black Panther: An interview with Costume Designer Ruth Carter


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.

A Fantastic Woman Film Review & Interviews: This Historic Oscar Nominee is a Gorgeous Study in Grief


It is true the Academy Awards are not the ultimate arbiter of quality and longevity of a film.  You need but look to the history of winners and losers to confirm that.  However, the Best Foreign Language Films is one category where the Oscars gets closer.  Nearly all nominees are multiple award winners with buzz that has carried them through the festival circuit, and led to their distribution in specialty movie houses.  Director Sebastian Lelio’s genre-busting meditation on grief and change, A Fantastic Woman, is one of them.  One of 2018’s five foreign film Oscar up for an award, it is not only worthwhile viewing, it represents the first time in Oscar history a film with a trans lead is nominated.  It joins another historic first, the trans director Yance Ford being nominated for his documentary film Strong Island, showing this year at the Academy Awards as a step forward for acceptance of trans individuals in front of and behind the camera in the film industry.

A Fantastic Woman is the personal odyssey of one trans woman moving through the first days of loss.  Aspiring singer Marina is in love and planning a future with her lover Orlando.  They live joyfully together in his apartment. One night after celebrating Marina’s birthday, Orlando is stricken with a sudden illness, and Marina rushes him to the emergency room.  He dies just after reaching the hospital.

As Marina tries to process the news, she is treated with suspicion by all around her.  The doctors, the police, and Orlando’s family, don’t understand why Marina, whom some insist on calling by her dead name, would be living with a man 20 years her senior.  Did she do something to cause his death? Inappropriate questions, pervasive mistrust, and rejection from his family, who see her as a perversion, invade Marina’s waking life as she struggles to make sense of her loss.

Daniela Vega, who plays Marina, is in nearly every scene of the film.  For an actress who has newly discovered a passion for the craft, she portrays her character in A Fantastic Woman with a level of intensity and authenticity that proves essential to its success. For those in Hollywood who continue to use the excuse that there isn’t enough talent within the trans community to cast them in trans roles, or indeed any roles, need but look to Vega.  Truth be told, her triumph as Marina should simply reaffirm they could look in their own back yard, hire the many talented trans members of AFTRA-SAG, and help them rise to the Hollywood A-list.

Director and co-screenwriter Lelio has said A Fantastic Woman is not simply a cause film. It is a film meant to transcend genre.  In fact, he is quoted as saying he wanted to make a trans-genre film about a transgender woman.  In A Fantastic Woman he incorporates elements of a fantasy, a thriller, a character study, and a ghost story. There are several scenes where Marina breaks with reality and imagines herself moving beyond the limitations the situation has created for her. They are among the film’s most beautiful moments.

In A Fantastic Woman, It is through imagination and strength that Marina finds freedom from within a very dark situation.  The film may be groundbreaking in terms of getting attention for community that continues to be misunderstood, but it is the truth with which grief, which is universal, is represented, that audiences will find the greatest, and lasting, connection.


I sat down with both director Sebastian Lelio and lead actress Daniela Vega, to ask them each a few questions about making A Fantastic Woman:


LC: Was there a conscious decision to parallel the in-between world we experience when grieving with the in-between world of a trans person that too struggles to live between worlds?

Sebastian Lelio: Yes, because I wanted to make a film that was more than a “cause” film, with a political statement.  That’s part of the polymorphic aspect of the film, it’s part of the DNA of the film.  It has different layers and faces.  I just was trying to find ways to add more complexity to it. In that sense, this “in-between worlds” that you mention is really accurate, because the entire film is based on that premise. Everything is in-flux and somehow the mourning process that she’s going through provides an exceptional moment which allows many things to happen. It’s an open door towards freedom.

LC: the fantastical scenes capture what it feels like to live in that in-between place.  The shock and confusion of grief, the jolt of not being here or beyond, but having lost someone to that place.  There are a number of genres into which one could place the film…

SL: The concept of making a trans-genre film about a trans-gender person was very important, so the film combines and flirts with different tonalities and different traditions, like thriller, romance, ghost story, character study, a film about a woman, and these fantasy moments the movie has an enhanced reality, or a trance reality. While I was writing the script, I was following very closely the mourning process of someone very close to me, my sister, and that was super important. It made it’s way into the script. The paradox is that the story pure artifice.  It’s not a documentary, and it doesn’t want to be realistic.  It’s really about fiction mechanisms that make a story work. The result, the effect, is,  “Wow I’m watching someone real, it feels real!”,  but if you analyze it as a device, it’s pure artifice.  That tension is one of the sources of the film’s identity, precisely because it’s about a trans-genre film about a trans-gender person, interpreted by a beautiful, talented force of nature called Daniela Vega.

The film explores the question What is a woman? from many different angles. I am a filmmaker. That’s my cause. The film itself wonders, “What am I? What is a film?” In that sense, the film’s quest or search for it’s identity is deeply connected with it’s main subject of study, Marina, who’s identity is, as well, not easily graspable.  It operates in a realm where labels are not enough. That’s interesting, because if there’s anything that this film is against, it’s against labels. A Fantastic Woman is trying to make labels explode.


LC: You’ve said in playing Marina, you see problems as possibilities, you built the character from there. Can you speak to that in terms of this role, and how you see her as universal?

Daniela Vega: I see my job as actress as a very serious job. When a character, comes into me, I like to pull from many elements around me. It’s very interesting and very important for me to build that character in a way that she becomes really relatable to people around the world, but also be unique and individual, and yet I see Marina as a universal woman for three very simple reasons. Everyone is going to fall in love, everyone has been rejected or at some point treated badly, and everyone is going to lose people they love and ultimately die. These three very important aspects of being human for me acted as an umbilical cord, or a way of connecting to the rest of the world.

LC: Grief strips away layers. it’s what makes grief so terrifying and so numbing.  This experience requires Marina to almost redefine herself moment to moment as she travels through grief.  That is what makes her character so universally compelling, I think.  How did you translate her in terms of that as an actress?

DV: that was the hardest part for me, because nobody I’ve been close to has died. I studied how death and grief effects people in their bodies and in their heads, especially right after loss. This is a story that only takes place over three days.

LC: What would you say the ghost of Orlando mean to your character in the film?

DV: He’s saying where he is. She isn’t allowed to go to his funeral, so he’s saying “if you want to say goodbye, I’m here.” That’s the reason she sees him. She’s trying to figure a way forward in the situation. The family wants her to go away, to stay away, but she feels she has a right to say goodbye, so there’s a big conundrum. She feels she and Orlando are not separated, not apart. His conviction is an invitation to strength and a way forward for her.

LC: In the US there’s a huge issue with studios hiring straight people to play gay characters, and cis-gendered people to play trans and queer characters.  Can you comment on that.

DV: That’s the world. It’s everywhere I think. Some places far worse than others, of course. In Chile they don’t accept us, but in the Middle East it’s even worse. It’s very dangerous.  As to trans actors being accepted and hired, It’s certainly a natural progression and it has to happen.  As to why it hasn’t happened before, I don’t have an answer.

Sebastian Lelio: I’d like to add that since this is art, and in art we are all free to express without rules, I’m not trying to say this is the way it should be. If anyone wants hire a cis-gender actor to play a trans character, and the film touches beauty, of course they are welcome. This is not a fascist thing. We are not doing this to say this is a turning point. I’m not being moralistic, I’m just being ethical. That has nothing to do with art.

In honor of being invited to join AWFJ, the Top 10 Movies of 2017, as directed by women!

On this first day of 2018, I’m thrilled to announce my addition as a member of AWFJ, the Alliance of Women Film Journalists.  An official invitation and close scrutiny of my work was required, and I’m quite thrilled I made the cut, and that I’m now part of such a great, talented group of female writers.  My reviews will appear on their site throughout the year, and I’ll be a voting member, which means I get to vote in their annual EDA Awards. This non-profit women-focused organization hopes to expand awareness and shine a light on women both in front of and behind the camera, so I couldn’t be more aligned with their goals!

In celebration of this wonderful honor, this first post by Cinema Siren in 2018 will be the Best Films of 2017, but ONLY include films directed by women.  It’s thrilling to say most of these would already be on my top ten, and that is definitely a sign of the times.  There are several films that were released from within the Hollywood studio system, and that’s also good news. Still, women are smart, so they know that often it’s better to go the independent route, not least because their vision, as often both the writer and director of their films, is not only kept firmly intact, but celebrated by their collaborators.

Congratulations to Netflix, who are leading the charge in supporting woman creators, and who backed both First They Killed My Father and Mudbound.  Remember, as I’ve mentioned before, they also promote women’s vision for the small screen, with, for example, the all-female directed second season of Jessica Jones coming up, as well as the all-female led show Harlots, which has female stars, writers, creators, and directors.

Here is my top ten list of 2017, in no particular order.  Watch them all.  You will not be disappointed!  Now, can we depend on the Academy to celebrate these great films, which landed in what was dubbed “The Year of the Women”?  Only time will tell.

(if I’ve reviewed the film, you can click on the title for my review on CinemaSiren.com)

Lady Bird

Greta Gerwig wrote and directed this coming-of-age film about a girl entering adulthood with Catholic guilt and big dreams in tow.  The movie didn’t suffer from the significant edits required of Gerwig’s over 800 page original draft.  Saoirse Ronan embodies the awkwardness and bruised optimism of the lead character with such authenticity, we are all thrown back into our own 17-year-old bodies.  In theaters now.


It feels like Dee Rees can do no wrong.  How long before Hollywood hands someone with her talent a huge project along the lines of Star Wars? Perhaps she’s just happy creating achingly beautiful portraits of family struggle, as in the wonderful film Mudbound, which she co-wrote.  Expect every bad thing to happen to the two families, one black, one white, both poor, each dealing with the PTSD their beloved child returns with from WW2.  Racism, since it’s the South, plays an important, and awful part.  On Netflix now.


Need a cheerful, intense, and deeply heartfelt documentary about cats and how much they inspire?  Kedi, from producer/director Ceyda Torun will be a perfect fit.  Did you know that cats have been an essential part of the fabric of Istanbul for thousands of years?  Find out why and be moved in watching a film that will start your year off with optimism.  On YouTube and GooglePlay now.

A United Kingdom

If like me, you daily sing the praises of actors David Oyelowo and Rosemund Pike, the biopic in which they starred in 2017 A United Kingdom is for you.  Even if you don’t, Amma Asante’s feature about the real story of Seretse and Ruth Khama, who forever changed Botswana with their unwavering love for each other and their country is a film that will remind you standing up for your beliefs can ultimately lead to lasting changes.  For rent on Vudu, iTunes, and Amazon Video now.


Released under the title “Grave”, writer/director Julia Ducournau proves once again that the horror genre has ample room for powerful, fearless women. It’s always been a place where outsiders could find a voice and make statements of political and social significance, and the film Raw is a successful example of that.  Starring relative newcomer Garance Marillier, it examines the pressures of young adulthood, matriculation, and finding acceptance.  also there’s cannibalism.   For rent online on Vudu, iTunes, and Amazon Video.

Wonder Woman

For those of you who have lived under a rock in the last year, one of the top grossing films of 2017 was a little movie called Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins. It’s just one of a number of movies centered around a female lead that rocked the box office, but this film in particular broke all sorts of records for women directors.  Good news?  Sure…but what took Hollywood so long?  Those of us in the know are well aware of the talented female directors who want a chance directing a blockbuster. Hey, DC! Here’s what happens when you hand it over to a woman.  Will it change things for women in Hollywood? They did sign Jenkins to the sequel, but not before a long, drawn-out negotiation.  Gal Gadot as Diana Prince shows she can save the world just as well or better than any male superhero, and do it with a dash of compassion.  Available for purchase on DVD and now playing on HBO.

The Breadwinner

Directed by the co-director of The Secret of Kells, Nora Twomey, The Breadwinner follows the strong, determined Afghan girl Parvana as she disguises her in boy’s clothing so she can work to provide for her family.  Visually stunning and culturally meaningful, it is written for film by Deborah Ellis, who also wrote the book.  Animation can and does make political statements and it does open the eyes of its audiences to life’s struggles. Look for this film to make a splash at the Oscars.  It won’t win against the Pixar behemoth, but you should still see this awards-worthy feature. In Theaters now.

First They Killed My Father

Directed by Angelina Jolie, who is becoming increasingly known for the director part of her actor-director-producer hyphenate, First They Killed My Father is a biographical narrative that takes place in 1975 and follows 7 year old Cambodian girl Loung Ung as she gets trained as a child soldier.  Co-written by Jolie and Ung, and is based on Ung’s memoir of surviving the Khmer Rouge regime.  The film is the official Oscar submission by Cambodia for Best Foreign Film.  It is heartbreaking, gorgeous to look at (after all, Cambodia was quite a tourist destination before it got ripped apart by war) and fascinating.  On Netflix now.

The Wedding Plan

I had no idea what to expect when I started watching this film, which is in Hebrew and directed and written by Rama Burshtein, and is about a woman who gets jilted one month before her nuptials, but plans it anyway, expecting God to bring her the man of her dreams before the wedding. What Israeli-American director Rama Burshtein offers is a great education in what independent, free-thinking Orthodox Jewish women in Isreal experience as they search for love. Lead actress Noa Keller won the Isreali equivalent of an Oscar playing 32-year-old Michel, and she is aided by two delicious Israeli superstars, actor Amos Tamam and musician Oz Zehavi.  This is a rom-com for the ages. Available for rent on YouTube, Amazon Video, and Vudu.

I am Not a Witch

Welsh-Zambian director Rungano Nyoni had her feature debut with I Am Not a Witch, about 8-year-old girl Shula, in Zambia, who gets accused of witchcraft and after a quick trial gets carted off to a traveling witch camp.  She is threatened with being turned into a goat if she tries to escape.  This modern magical realist fable is all about misogyny, gender, and superstition. It is strange, wonderful, and will captivate you completely.  See it now. Available online in the UK and Ireland. http://www.iamnotawitch.com/watch-at-home/

Watch this fascinating interview with director Nyoni at the British Film Institute Festival.


There are two films that were co-directed by women, and I wanted to mention them here, because they are both wonderful and should be seen:


Co-directed by beloved filmmaker Agnes Varda and JR, this documentary won the L’Oeil d’or award at Cannes. Varda and JR travel around France creating portraits of people they encounter. It is charming and poignant in equal parts, and you will be moved.  Still playing in festivals, coming soon online.

Loving Vincent:

This animated feature was created by building it, painting by painting, until the sum of its parts, oil paintings, became a complete film.  Co-directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman invented a number of techniques in order to complete this passion project, which is a mystery based in the last several weeks of Van Gogh’s life.  Invention and creativity should always be rewarded, especially when they glean such spectacular results. Available to pre-order on Amazon, releasing on January 16th, 2018.

Also, if I were including films directed by men in this best of list, it would definitely include Blade Runner 2049, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and Call Me By Your Name, which are my three favorite films of the 2017.

I’ll be writing about the films to put on your radar in 2018 that will be female-focused and/or directed and written by women, so stay tuned for that.  In the meantime, let’s all celebrate creativity in all its forms, and hope 2017 built the groundwork FINALLY for women to be given a seat at the table when major studios in Hollywood consider who to hire to direct and work on the films that have huge profiles.  All successful studio films help the directors and crew create the other films that live in their hearts.

Best of 2018 to us all, and keep watching movies!


Cinema Siren

The real-life Heroines of the Netflix Short Documentary Heroin(e)


Sometimes it just takes seeing people actively making a difference, approaching what they do with a balance of realism and tenaciously optimism, to remind us we really can change the world, even if it’s in some small way.  The women of the documentary short Heroin(e) are saving lives and helping people change their circumstances every day.  Watching them is inspiring, and will move you to take action to help your part of the world heal, be better, find peace or create lasting change. 

The documentary short had its world premiere at the 2017 Telluride Film Festival, and is produced in collaboration with the Center for Investigative Reporting.  It began playing on Netflix on September 12th.  The film, which is directed by Peabody-award winning director and West Virginia native Elaine Sheldon, shows three women facing the opioid epidemic head-on in what is essentially the epicenter, Huntington, West Virginia, a town that has been called the “overdose capital of America.” Fire Chief Jan Radar, Drug Court Judge Patricia Keller, and Christian activist and realtor Necia Freeman, who started a “Brown Bag” ministry through her church, are tirelessly working to combat the crisis, each in their own way. The film doesn’t show any overdoses from start to finish.  It doesn’t follow the “scared straight” model, or mark the low ebb of an addict’s experience.  It shows what Radar, Keller, Freeman are doing to make a difference in a town with 10 times the national average of opioid overdoses.  They all believe and live by the idea that compassion and kindness, as well as the unflagging hope for longterm recovery in the population they serve.

The film, which clocks in at just under 40 minutes, follows these women in their daily experiences.  Jan Radar is the only woman in a fire department with nearly 100 firefighters, and has risen through the rank over her over 20 years of service to fire chief.  Judge Keller is the judge of the Cabell County drug court.  Freeman, who began her ministry feeding children who would otherwise go hungry in her county, began a ministry for sex workers, many of whom can point to addiction as a leading cause of their circumstances.  I sat down with director Sheldon, and the three women featured in the film, to ask them about their experience.

Leslie Combemale to Sheldon:  What drew you to this particular subject matter?

Sheldon: I’m from West Virginia, so that part of the country is part of my experience, as someone who left and returned. I had classmates that I’ve lost to this issue, so it’s a topic that’s been haunting me as a native to want to do something about it for a while, and it wasn’t until I met these women that I found a way into it that was more hopeful and allowed me to face my fears about what we were going to do about the future.  Meeting these women really inspired the film.

LC: How did you discover these women?  Did you have some idea what they were doing?

ES: I’d seen Jan in a piece or two about Huntington in the past.  She’s pretty public.  I met Jan and she introduced me to these other two women and then we spent about a week together filming.  About six months passed, and then it was just sitting on my hard drive while my husband and I started working on another documentary about four men going through recovery from heroine addiction.  While this was sitting on the hard drive, the Center for Investigative Reporting put a call out for the Glass Breaker Initiative, which is films about women making change, so we finally found a way to put that footage to good use and went back and shot more and shot 5 or so more days over the course of a year.

LC: So many docs come out, and there’s such a push for this movie. 

ES: Yes, Netflix is very powerful. I think Netflix is starting to get behind shorts in a big way. Which is great to see.  This is less of a short film and more of a featurette at 40 minutes. It’s half of a feature.  It has enough meat to start a conversation.  We created a companion guide to accompany it to make an hour-long experience where you can look at your own community and this issue. It’s an easy access point for people, being not too short and not too long. Netflix is putting a lot of power behind short docs, because they’ve had a lot of success getting to Academy Award nominations last year with Extremis and White Helmets so I think they’re seeing there’s a demand for these longer shorts.

LC: What is the main thing you learned from these women?

ES: Their stamina and resilience surprises me, and the fact that every person they touch they can have an impact on. That’s really inspiring to me. When you look at this problem from a larger view, it seems insurmountable, and unsolvable and never-ending.  Seeing them through their daily interactions with people making change, even through their ups and downs, their setbacks, seeing them persevere through that, that’s what we need to get through this.  That’s what surprised me the most, was I kept expecting for them to get disappointed to the point of giving up, but they have it within themselves to keep going.  They never give up. I admire so much that very day they never give up. 

LC, speaking to Jan Radar: One thing that will strike everyone who sees the film, as Elaine says, is your tenacity. One scene you are in a car driving by locations where multiple overdoses have taken place. How do you stay optimistic?

Jan Radar: Well, I’m the only woman in my fire department, and I have been since 1995.  So, I learned through a lot of heartache, is the only opinion that matters is my own.  That was a hard lesson for me to learn but I learned it.  You get nowhere when you wallow in negativity.  One of the issues that we’ve had in dealing with this epidemic is it’s all negative.  You go on an overdose and it’s bad for everyone from the first responders to the people who have overdosed to friends and family.  I’ve watched and observed and treated people badly.  It’s happened over the years and I figured we needed to try something different.  I thought “what if we treat them differently?”  You start learning people’s back stories and you have no idea how they have survived or where they get their resilience from, and it’s very humbling. It reminds me every day to be grateful for how I was raised and everything I have because it can disappear in a second.  We are all one step away from being embroiled in the middle of this epidemic.  It’s amazing how if you just show kindness and understand that your words are very powerful either in a negative way or a positive way. We are dealing with people who are very fragile, and who have no self esteem.  Our words can either lift them up or tear them down further.  I just can’t imagine treating them any other way than how I’d want my family members to be treated if they were in that situation.

I have always believed there is a way around every barrier.  It might take you over 20 years to find it, but you’ll find it.  I’ve got to believe the glass is half full because if I don’t I’ll destroy myself along with the folks I meet who are struggling.  I think it’s a personal choice to be positive in the response to this.

LC: You’ve been doing this for how long?

JR: 23 years. 

LC: In that time, new drugs have become available that have made a huge difference. 

JR: Yes.  Narcan.  It saves lives.  The whole goal is to save lives for long enough to get them into longterm recovery.  If it takes multiple doses, if it takes multiple times treating them with Narcan to reverse a possibly fatal overdose, then we need to do it because you can put a price on human life and people do recover.  They become productive, tax-paying citizens.  It’s good economics, but even more than that, it’s the morally and ethically right thing to do because i have no right to decide who lives and who dies.  Nobody does.  As a first responder I took an oath to save and protect life and property.  Nowhere in that does it say that I have the right to judge. As a society we judge.  I’m trying not to judge and trying, through modeling, to show other first responders that it’s ok not to judge and do the right thing.

LC: Have you found you’ve been able to shift some of those working with you?

JR: I think people are shifting.  Just like the gentleman in the documentary who questioned whether we have to give Narcan or not. He has a back story too, and it’s not pretty.  He has a right to his opinion, but I have documentation that he has actually administered Narcan, and he’s a very good firefighter.  I understand the frustration around this, because i’ve been there, too, but when push comes to shove and the bell goes off, my guys do their job.

LC, speaking to Patricia Keller: You seem to play against the type we all imagine as a judge in drug court.  Where do you come from personally that cause you to take that approach and how do you see yourself standing as example?

Patricia Keller: I was raised in a wonderful family.  I’m very fortunate to have had lot of positive encouragement and support and when I deal with folks in drug court, I almost think of them as family, as my kids, because I’m almost 60 now and they could well be my kids or grandkids.  You know I find that people respond to positives than they do to negatives.  That’s one of our principals with our drug court, we want to give four positives for every negative, and I don’t want to mean necessarily a positive like a financial reward like a gift card, but just affirmation like saying “You’ve had a really good day and I’m really proud of you for nine months clean.  You’ve made really good grades in college today.” Whatever that may be.  We really try to be positive.  These folks have reached the bottom and we’re trying to lift them up.  They don’t see it in themselves, so we have to try to help them see that.  That’s what’s so important as my role as the drug court judge.  Unfortunately, I also have to be firm sometimes, and they have to know, NO BULLSHIT! I have expectations, and I want you to rise to those expectations.  I’ll be honest with you, most of those that don’t make it in drug court are those that abscond.  Showing up is one of the most important things.  It’s going to take a while to change your head.  It takes a while for the lightbulb to go off.  It’s so exciting for our team when we have one of those AH-HA moments from one of our participants.  When the lightbulb goes off and they really understand what we’re doing and they’re making that change and making that progress.  We’re with them to help them get to that point, and we’re with them after that point to keep them focused. 

Drug courts really work.  We have a great success rate. Of our folks that graduate from drug court, our recidivism rate is about 8% after two years.  For drug offenders that just go to prison, the recidivism rate is more like 80%. 

It costs so much less. In West Virginia we spend about $7,000 a year on a drug court participant.  If we send that same person to prison, we spend $24,000 a year.  We don’t have the money just to lock them, for them to be unproductive.  I can spend less to change their lives and keep them in the economy, keep them with their families. It’s a no-brainer.  It’s one of those things that we are a criminal drug program, so people don’t get to our program unless they’ve done a felony so it’s not just a drug treatment program for people who have come in off the street.  We are trying to combat recidivism, and substance abuse, and we’ve found it to be very successful.

LC: It’s like “scared straight, with love”. 

PK: I love that!  One of our judges said they described me as “hammer and a hug”.  We hug a lot and we care a lot, but we have expectations and they know it.

LC: It seems like you are rebuilding the trust in themselves by your trust in them.

PK: I think that’s a very good description of the process.

LC, turning to Neica Freeman: Although I was raised that way, I am not Christian, but I certainly respect and love your brand of Christianity.

Neica Freeman: I truly believe, if you’re going to talk it, you’ve got to walk the walk.  I mean, they hold me accountable.  Whoever they is, be it the drug court participants, the prostitutes, if I believe I’m standing for Jesus, I have to be held accountable for my actions, both civic and otherwise.

LC: How did you start the ministry?

NC: I’ve always had this bold personality, and I went to this Christian school, from 8th to 12th grade. My favorite teacher Mr. Smith always called me a rebel with a cause. He said I went against the grain for a reason. I do have a cause.  When we were in school, back in the 80s, it was thought sinful to wear pants because the bible says not to wear men’s apparel.  I said to the principal and the other teachers,  “I don’t wear men’s apparel.  I’m a girl, and I’m shaped like a girl, and I don’t wear boy jeans, I don’t wear my brother’s jeans, I have my own.  The bible says not to wear their apparel, and I’m not wearing their jeans, I’m wearing my own.”  This didn’t go over very well, but I did stay at that school…Don’t take it out of context if you’re going to preach it.  The bible teacher there had a street ministry called Lincoln Ministry in Huntington and he’s the one who started the river ministry and he called me one day and he asked me if I wanted to go to the hood in 2010, and I said “absolutely, what are we doing?”  There was a Sunoco station that had to be torn down because of all the bad things happening around there, so we drove around in about a one mile radius of the station that was in a bad part of town and we’d see what we could do in that small bit of land because it was an attainable goal to focus on that and in that one mile radius there was an elementary school that happened to be where my daughter teaches, so we went to the principal and we asked what we could do to help them, and she said there were children that didn’t eat on the weekends, so we said we’d be happy to take care of that.  We started out with about 18 kids our first year, and we followed them all the way from pre-K to high school, and now we’re up to 74 as of last week and we provide them dinner on Friday, breakfast, lunch and dinner on Saturdays and Sundays.  We drop it off at their schools and they take the food home.  Some of it is because the parents just can’t afford to feed them and some of it is they just aren’t because they are selling their food stamps for drugs. You can’t hold children accountable for their parents’ behavior.  Through that, I got in that neighborhood, and then a woman who was a prostitute was killed there and it seemed like nobody cared, and I found out a few weeks later it turned out to be the mother of one of the kids we worked with who was being raised by grandparents.  I wanted to make a difference there, so I just started a prostitution ministry.  I don’t think deep, because I think sometimes when you think deep you calculate things or worry over things too much.

LC: I’d say you’d have to think rather deeply to be inspired to make a difference they way you are attempting to do.

NC: I try to live deep, but I don’t think deep.  If you sit around and analyze things and figure out how something is going to be done, maybe nothing would ever change.

LC: Oh, you mean you’re a woman of action!

NC: Yes.  I’ve never thought of it that way, I just say I don’t think deep.  But, yes, I just immediately start with a plan, let’s say plan A, and when that doesn’t work, I move on to Plan B without spending too much time thinking.  So yes, a woman of action. I knew where some prostitutes were. My friend who got me into working in the neighborhood told me to be careful, but I told him the lord was telling me to do it, so I was going to do it.  We ended up around the Sunoco and one day it was raining, and I was stuck not doing some of my ministry work and had brown bag lunches in my car.  There was an apartment complex I suspected had prostitutes in it, and I called him and asked if we could have the property manager take us door to door with brown bag lunches.  We had 12 bags and passed out 11. I just said, “Hi, I’m Necia and I’m here to offer you friendship and food.”  That’s our opening line.  When we were done, we had one bag left, and I gave it to a girl standing on the street. She took the food and the next day she called the landlord and asked who were were and if she could meet us.  We went to lunch with her and she spent the next 2 1/2 hours telling us about the life of a prostitute, and about addiction,  We give each girl we ever talk about fake names so we can use their stories as inspiration, and her fake name is Hope. I asked her what made her call.  We put a gospel track in each bag, and in hers it said, “There’s hope in this bag and I’m taking it.”.  It will be 6 years tomorrow that I’ve known her and now she’s a very dear friend. I trust her with my home, my children, and anything I have.  We’ve come a long way. She got married at my house.  She’s got a full time job now that she’s very happy with and that changes everything.  It changes everything when you go from a job like working at McDonalds to working somewhere at a factory or building things making more and getting raises. 

LC: And that must be motivating or inspiring to other women that they too can make changes, and have longterm recovery.

NC: For months and months she rode with us when we were brown bagging.  She would tell us who was prostituting and who wasn’t, who might be willing to go into recovery or get off the street. She was teaching me how to help.  Unintentionally she taught me how to love them, too, because I didn’t see her any differently. 

LC: Lastly, to all three of you, what would you say to those reading this interview who are inspired to make a difference?

Jan Radar: I’ll give the answer I often give when asked this, and it’s very simple. Be kind to each other. Talk to somebody, learn their backstory and don’t automatically write them off because they suffer from substance abuse. We have to get rid of the stigma because it could be any of us or one of our family members.  Words matter. You can make it better or you can make it worse by a simple hello. 

As to those who might want to donate, first responders need Narcan.  They can always use funding there.  First responders are struggling, there’s a lot of PTSD there because of the negativity they see.  Hug a firefighter.  Bake cookies for us. We love that. 

Patricia Keller: I think Jan is right.  We need to spread kindness and positive energy.  Listen to people’s story, find out who they are, and look them in the eye. There are so many little ways you can help, whatever your interest or passion might be.  We have so many kids that are lost in this process, when parents are dealing with addiction or have overdosed.  They need somebody to help them.  Play a game with them, help with school work. If there’s somebody in your neighborhood you see that’s lost like that, extend a hand.

Necia Freeman: And to follow up on what Judge Keller says, we need foster parents that want to do it for the soul of the child and not the paycheck.  If you’re a baseball coach, find a kid in a poorer neighborhood and ask to involve them, pick them up, drop them off, and feed them. You can tutor in school.  Schools have been consolidated so much, you’ve got the poor kids and rich kids going to the same school, so go to your neighborhood school and find who has a need. If you have a talent, it’s not to be kept to yourself.  If you can basketweave, show somebody how to basketweave.  Can you imagine an ADHD kid that learns how to basketweave and that’s how they calm themselves? There’s always some way you can help, whether it’s through your finances, your talents, or words, and always always through your actions.

You can see Heroin(e) now on Netflix.

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


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.


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.

Animation Insiders Demand an End to Sexism and Harassment in the Animation Industry Today


A letter was sent today by 217 women and non-gender conforming folk to over a dozen studios demanding change and an end to sexual harassment and sexism in the animation industry.  Included on the list of recipients are executives at Disney, Sony Pictures Animation, Cartoon Network, DreamWorks Animation, and Warner Bros.

Signatures are from people working across the industry, including producers, directors, and show creators. The problem is widespread, although as in live action, has been kept largely secret and discussed only between trusted colleagues and friends.

I personally have heard a number of stories of misconduct and sexism, which have sometimes been reported, but often left in the interest of job safety.  Perhaps with the proclamations happening now in other parts of the film industry, those with experiences or knowledge of improprieties in animation will be able to make the studios enact permanent, important changes.  All of us involved in animation as fans, journalists, and industry insiders should support and commit to the demands as written in this letter.  Just talking about it isn’t enough.  The human resources departments of all the studios, executives, and colleagues must take this seriously and consider the next steps.  As both a journalist, and a friend to a number of people working in the world of animation, I will always defer to when they want to tell their own stories, and amplify when possible. I am in complete support of them and the need for change.

See the letter below:

An Open Letter to the Animation Community

We, the women and gender non-conforming people of the animation community, would like to address and highlight the pervasive problem of sexism and sexual harassment in our business. We write this letter with the hope that change is possible, and ask that you listen to our stories and then make every effort to bring a real and lasting change to the culture of animation studios.

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, many of the women who work in animation have begun discussing more openly issues that we have dealt with quietly throughout our careers. As we came together to share our stories of sexism, sexual harassment and, in some cases, sexual assault, we were struck by the pervasiveness of the problem. Every one of us has a story to share, from tossed-off comments about our body parts that were framed as “jokes” to women being cornered in dark rooms by male colleagues to criminal assault.

Our business has always been male-dominated. Women make up only 23% of union employees, so it’s no surprise that problems with sexism and sexual harassment exist. Sexual harassment and assault are widespread issues that primarily affect women, with women of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community and other marginalized groups affected at an even greater rate.

As more women have entered the animation workforce, it seems that some men have not embraced this change. They still frequently make crass sexual remarks that make it clear women are not welcome on their crews. Some have pressed colleagues for romantic or sexual relationships, despite our clear disinterest. And some have seen the entrance of more women into the industry as an opportunity to exploit and victimize younger workers on their crews who are looking for mentorship. In addition, when sexual predators are caught at one workplace, they seem to easily find a job at another studio, sometimes even following their victims from job to job. We are tired of relying on whisper networks to know who isn’t safe to meet with alone. We want our supervisors to protect us from harassment and assault.

This abuse has got to stop.

The signatories of this letter demand that you take sexual harassment seriously. We ask that:

1. Every studio puts in place clear and enforceable sexual harassment policies and takes every report seriously. It must be clear to studio leadership, including producers, that, no matter who the abuser is, they must investigate every report or face consequences themselves.

2. The Animation Guild add language in our constitution that states that it can “censure, fine, suspend or expel any member of the guild who shall, in the opinion of the Executive Board, be found guilty of any act, omission, or conduct which is prejudicial to the welfare of the guild.” To craft and support the new language, we ask that an Anti-Harassment and Discrimination Committee be created to help educate and prevent future occurrences.

3. Our male colleagues start speaking up and standing up for us. When their co-workers make sexist remarks, or when they see sexual harassment happening, we expect them to say something. Stop making excuses for bad behavior in your friends and co-workers, and tell them what they are doing is wrong.

It has not been easy for us to share our stories with each other. Many of us were afraid because our victimizers are powerful or well-liked. Others were worried that if they came forward it would affect their careers. Some of us have come forward in the past, only to have our concerns brushed aside, or for our supervisors to tell us “he’s just from a different era.” All of us are saddened and disheartened to hear how widespread the problem of sexual harassment still is in the animation industry, and how many of our friends had been suffering in secret.

It is with this in mind that we resolve to do everything we can to prevent anyone else from being victimized. We are united in our mission to wipe out sexual harassment in the animation industry, and we will no longer be silent.

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


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.



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.


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.

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


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.


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


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.