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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

New Year's DVD Reviews

by Angela Pressburger

Helen's War: Portrait of a Dissident, North Korea: A Day in the Life; Power Trip; The Road to Guantánamo

Classics on DVD: Reds

Helen's War: Portrait of a Dissident
2004, Australia/Canada, 58 min.,
TV, documentary.
Director: Anna Broinowski
Recognitions: Best Direction in a Documentary and Nominated for Best Documentary, Australian Film Institute Award, 2004

"They can lock me up in Guantánamo Bay if they want to, I don't care. It will be great publicity for the book."
Dr Helen Caldicott

A documentary about Australian physician and successful author, Dr. Helen Caldicott, who became a globally- recognized fire-brand in the anti-nuclear movement. In 1980, Caldicott left her high-profile medical career to concentrate on focusing international attention on what she perceived as the insanity of the world’s increasing supply of nuclear weapons and national stockpiling.”

An icon for the cause, she has been awarded 19 honorary doctoral degrees; was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling; was awarded the Lannan Foundation Prize for Cultural Freedom in 2003; and received the inaugural Australian Peace Prize, in 2006 "for her longstanding commitment to raising awareness about the medical and environmental hazards of the nuclear age." And, as if all that were not enough, the prestigious Smithsonian Institution recently named her one of the most influential women of the 20th century.

In 2003, Caldicott’s skeptical and inquisitive filmmaker niece, Anna Broinowski, asked her Aunt Helen if she would be willing to be the subject of a documentary: the result is this film. Anna believes that nukes are inevitable and questions whether a straight-talking dissident like Helen really can make a difference in George W. Bush's 'Land of The Free,' and make a dent in the Star Wars sequel.

Starting from that viewpoint, she follows her Aunt on a roller-coaster tour from Baghdad to Washington, via Kabul, as she vies with spin-savvy neo-conservatives for airtime, courts celebrity backers for her DC think-tank, and battles to stop the bombing of Baghdad. In the course of the journey, we discover a humorous, passionate, sometimes vulnerable, woman and learn something of what it costs, in human and emotional terms, to fight for peace.

DVD available in the US from: and from (rent-by-mail) or http:// (sales) in Canada.

North Korea: A Day in The Life
2004, The Netherlands, 48 min., subtitles, documentary
Recognitions: Nominated for the Golden Calf for Best Documentary Short, Nederlands Film Festival, 2004
Director: Pieter Fleury

This film may be shorter than feature-length, but it is one of the best introductions to North Korea, the most secretive country in the world. The substance of the film is a day in the life of Hong Sun Hui, a female textile factory worker. Under the watchful eye of “Beloved Leader” Kim Jong Il, we follow Hong to work, her daughter to nursery school, her brother to English class and meet her father-in- law who teaches his compatriots to hate Americans. The endless and relentless assault of state propaganda, indoctrination and control comes across as both ridiculous and truly frightening so that we might well ask: is this the belligerent Eastern outpost of the “axis of evil”, or a brave nation that has been misunderstood?

Since there is no voice-over narration, you will have to let the landscape and images speak for themselves.

Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos
2006, USA, 97 min., documentary
Directors: Paul Crowder and John Dower

The story of the meteoric rise and catastrophic fall of the New York Cosmos, a star-studded team that was supposed to introduce soccer to America — except that things didn’t quite follow the plan. It all started in the summer of 1977, in New York City. It was sweltering hot and there were blackouts, riots, the Son of Sam serial killer scare and the dawn of Studio 54, when Warner Communications Chairman, Steve Ross, set out to build the world’s most famous and successful soccer team. The stars included Brazil’s Pelé, who was coaxed out of retirement with the help of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Ross’s millions. However, the core of the film is the relationship between Ross and volatile Italian striker Girogio Chinaglia.

The directors use newsreel footage and interviews — intercutting who-said-what-to-whom anecdotes with the players and businessmen who made it happen — to maximum advantage. Amazing footage of 'best moves' by Pelé and other soccer legends vie with fascinating portraits of American high-rollers and a fabulous soundtrack of funk, soul and disco classics to create an utterly compelling story that will entertain even those of you are not sports fans. As The New York Times said: “it plays like the Dynasty of sports documentaries. There’s even a little soccer.”

Power Trip
2003, USA/Georgia, 85 min., subtitles, documentary

: Best International Documentary, HotDocs, 2003, Grand Jury Award for Best documentary, Florida, 2003; Nominated for the Independent Spirit Award, 2004
Director: Paul Devlin (SlamNation)

The story of the dire situation brought on by the politics of electricity in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, when multi-national AES Corporation of Arlington, Virginia, added the Georgian state power authority, Telasi, to its global power portfolio. Clearly, management had no idea what they were facing in trying to move a former Soviet Union state-controlled provider of free power into an efficient Western-style profit- making corporation. With the Enron scandal unfolding back home and Georgian resistance on their doorstep, the fate of AES-Telasi unfolds with all the drama of a dramatic thriller.

Why It Matters: This film is a reminder that the basic services we take for granted in North America and Western Europe are often luxuries elsewhere. It also underscores the fact that political power and the distribution of energy are intimately connected — as we learned so painfully at the height of the Enron scandal. In presenting a story that poses more questions than answers, the director requires us to think about a number of hard questions; however, the film certainly gives new meaning to the current buzz that ''we're all connected.''

Note: Be sure to get the documentary directed by Paul Devlin; there are other movies with this same title.

The Road to Guantánamo
2006, UK, 95 min., (English/Urdu)
Directors: Michael Winterbottom (Wonderland, Welcome to Sarajevo) and Matt Whitecross
Recognitions: Silver Bear for Best Director, Berlin, 2006; Nominated for Golden Bear, Berlin, 2006

"[This film] does not tell us anything new. It is nonetheless a wrenching and dismaying account of cruelty and bureaucratic indifference, a graphic tour of a place many citizens of Western democracies would prefer not to think about."
The New York Times

A first-hand account (part documentary and part dramatization) of the trials and tribulations of the Tipton Three, three young Muslim British citizens, who set out from their West Midlands home-town of Tipton, for a wedding in Pakistan, and ended up in the American military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where they were held, without charges, for two years, before being released and returned to the UK.

Why It Matters: This film is not easy viewing: The story is repugnant and will provoke strong feelings of helplessness and dread for the viewer; nonetheless it is testament worth seeing. The subject matter feeds directly into renewed public concern about the mistreatment of detainees and the policy of holding suspected terrorists in detention camps. As a movie release, it has already provoked significant controversy for its critical stance towards the American and British governments. And it certainly brings to the fore the question of whether prisoners, innocent or not, should be treated in such a morally inferior way.

Note: We understand that the Tipton Three in October 2006 filed a suit against former US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, and ten members of the American military, under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. Shortly after the commercial release of the film, the US Supreme Court indicated that the lack of due process afforded to the detainees amounted to a violation of Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions. For additional information see the film’s official website:

1981, USA, 194 min., some subtitles, (25th anniversary edition)
Director: Warren Beatty
Recognitions: Oscars for Best Director, Best Cinematography and Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Maureen Stapleton), plus nine nominations, 1982; Golden Globe for Best Director, 1982; and nearly every Critic’s award in America

Note: This film has been called the greatest romantic epic since Gone With the Wind, but when it was first released theatrically many North Americans didn’t know what to make of it. It was long: three hours with an intermission, unheard of in movie palaces at the time; the hero was an American Communist who became the only American to be buried within the Kremlin walls; and the timing — it was made at the height of the Reagan administration’s cold-war — was not auspicious. Public opinion was sharply divided among critics and audiences alike, and the film didn’t make it onto VHS tape until 1998.

The true story of radical American journalist John Reed (played by director Warren Beatty) and his love affair with fellow journalist, photographer and feminist Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton). During the heady days of World War I, they found themselves at the center of a group of radical thinkers, poised in a moment of a creative ferment when American society seemed open, impassioned and up for anything. In 1917, when the Russian Revolution began and the US entered World War I, they went to Russia to witness the making of history first-hand. The result was an impassioned love-affair with both each other and the societal opportunities promised by communism. Reed’s subsequent book, 10 Days That Shook the World, has never been out of print since.

Why It Matters: Inspired casting, superb performances, impressive cinematography, an intelligent script and the use of real survivors of the day as “witnesses” make this a marvelous recreation of a 'great moment in history.' Not the communist propaganda film it might have been, but more a great big juicy vista of an era when American optimism was in its prime, ideas flourished, and everything seemed possible. It’s about the sort of great romance that hits you like a thunderbolt and colors everything for the rest of your life.

Note: You can watch another multi-Oscar winning romantic epic set against the background of the Russian Revolution, but told from the other side, in David Lean’s 1965 film Doctor Zhivago (197 min.), based on the Nobel-prize-winning novel of the same name by Boris Pasternak.

Angela Pressburger grew up in the film industry (father Emeric Pressburger made The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus and Stairway to Heaven). She has been been an international program consultant at the Vancouver International Film Festival for the past ten years, and has spoken about film and sat on festival juries in both Europe and North America.  She has recently written Show It in Public! — a grassroots guide to showing film in public ( and keeps busy writing reviews for her home video for discerning viewers website,

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©2006 Angela Pressburger for SeniorWomenWeb

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