Little Companies That Bring You Films That Matter


Fifteen years ago when I began posting film reviews on the Internet, I sought to do for film what I had already been doing for politics, namely to draw people’s attention to what was undeservedly neglected. Whether it was a low-budget but hard-hitting documentary that was in and out of NY theaters in the blink of an eye or some sharp critique of American foreign policy that was unlikely to make it into the New York Times or the New Yorker magazine, that’s what I would write about. With that perspective in mind, here’s a survey of some films from three different “alternative” outlets that CounterPunch readers would be well advised to look into.

Bullfrog Films

A few months ago Counterpunch editor Jeff St. Clair put me in touch with the good people at Bullfrog who were looking for somebody to review a documentary titled “Sun Kissed”, a documentary about an epidemic of a rare genetic disease called Xeroderma Pigmentosum (XP) that affected the children of Navaho Indians. This, of course, was exactly the kind of film that I sought out. If there were to be a division of labor in the film review business, I’d let others write about the latest Jude Apatow flick and leave fare like “Sun Kissed” to me.

As someone who has written dozens of articles about American Indians and spent time on Blackfoot reservations in Montana and Alberta, this was a film that I had a keen interest in. Despite the seemingly arcane subject matter, “Sun Kissed” is a film that gets to the very heart of indigenous concerns and is one of the finest I have seen about native peoples.

The film focuses on the plight of Dorey and Yolanda Nez who have already lost a son to XP and are now looking after a daughter who is virtually a quadriplegic because of the same disease. XP causes neurological breakdown similar to ALS once a child is exposed to the sun, a terrible irony given native peoples’ worship of the heavenly body that makes life possible. As people committed to Navaho identity (they speak the language throughout the film), their first impulse is to contact medicine men. When they are told that the sickness is punishment for having tortured ants with a magnifying glass when they were young, they decide to look elsewhere for help—starting with a local clinic that has seen far too many cases. For the general population, XP occurs one in a million. For the Navaho, the incidence is one in thirty thousand.

Further investigations reveal that the Long Walk that drove their ancestors out of their Arizona homeland into New Mexico in 1864 and left the tribe reduced by 25 percent also reduced the gene pool drastically. The risks of XP, which is tied to a regressive gene, became magnified because of this genocidal attack led by the filthy Kit Carson.

Besides dealing with the problems of looking after children with XP, the film is a sensitive and very aware treatment of the general problems facing indigenous peoples. The Navaho were not only victims of Kit Carson’s ethnic cleansing. They were also the targets of Mormon missionaries. “Sun Kissed” is difficult material but essential.

Two other documentaries from Bullfrog that I had a chance to see shed light on organic farming. The first is titled “The New Green Giants” and is the definitive examination of the pitfalls and promise involved with organic farming. It shows how this increasingly lucrative sector of agriculture is drawing in megacorporations like Kellogg and Coca-Cola that have no interest in adhering to the strict guidelines put down by organic farming licensing boards.

The film draws attention to the takeover of Silk, a brand of soymilk products, by Dean Foods. Once they gobbled up an honorable company, Dean began putting out products that were not based on soy but on dubious other products. Furthermore, they no longer put organic on the label but natural, a term that is not subject to industry scrutiny.

The film makes the case for protecting organic farming from such predatory practices but I am afraid that given capitalism’s insatiable desire for profits over and above human needs, this is an uphill battle.

One doubts that Dean Foods will ever have any interest in the Grenada Chocolate Company, whose founder Mott Green is featured in “Nothing like Chocolate”. Green was an anarchist in his twenties who got involved in building squats and other community-based activism. Somewhere along the line, he discovered that the Ivory Coast chocolate plantations used child slave labor. This upset him so much that he decided to create an alternative in Grenada, a place that he had always loved for its revolutionary past as well as its widespread network of organic farmers, including those growing cacao. For chocolate connoisseurs, Grenada is the Burgundy of the bean. The film gets into the history of chocolate as a stimulant, a product that like tea, coffee and gin helped to get wage workers to produce more effectively in the early days of the industrial revolution—a practice that continues to this day.

Bullfrog films are ideal for classroom use and even give teachers the option of playing the full-length or a shorter version geared to the classroom. They do outstanding work and would help progressive-minded teachers in college or high school get the message across about global warming, food safety, and indigenous peoples to their students.

Icarus Films

I have been a huge fan of the film distributor  Icarus for as long as I have been reviewing films. It was through Icarus that I learned of the work of Chris Marker, the unrepentant Marxist director of many fine documentaries including “The Last Bolshevik”. Icarus symbolizes the uncompromisingly noncommercial, bless their hearts.

Recently I had the opportunity to watch three films from Icarus that would be of huge interest to CounterPunch readers.

The first is “Marx Reloaded”, a film directed by Jason Barker that draws on the Matrix movie icons after the fashion of “Lenin Reloaded”, the Verso collection edited by Slavoj Zizek. Just as the Verso book is a collection of articles about the relevance of Lenin, so is Barker’s film an argument for Marx’s. This case is obviously a lot easier to make in 2013 than it was in 1993 when Francis Fukuyama was high in the saddle—so much so in fact that Verso impresario Perry Anderson proposed him as a model for Marxists to follow at least in terms of his rigor and clarity. As things turned out, of course, Fukuyama was rendered obsolete by the cruel logic of the capital accumulation cycle.

Barker has managed to line up the same sort of Marxist celebrities who spoke at the London conference that begat Zizek’s collection. The film includes a virtual who’s who: Norbert Bolz, Micha Brumlik, John Gray, Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, Nina Power, Jacques Rancière, Peter Sloterdijk, Alberto Toscano, and Slavoj Zizek. Even though I try to keep track of what the big guns are up to, I had never heard of a number of these figures. I suppose that reflects more on my insufficiencies than theirs.

Although everybody interviewed is for Marx, the film amounts to a debate within Marxism about a number of important issues, including the key one for our modern (or postmodern) epoch—namely whether the working class can be the primary agency of socialist revolution. As might be expected, Negri and Hardt harp on the importance of immaterial labor such as the kind involved with software development while others try to defend the classical brick-and-mortar perspective.

I can’t recommend this film highly enough for college professors who are fortunate enough to be able to introduce Marxist ideas into a sociology, political science, or history classroom. The film is a fast-paced and even exciting treatment of what might induce a yawn on the printed page. You can buy the film for $395, justifiable for such a valuable asset for any academic department.

As a perfect complement to “Marx Reloaded”, there’s “Future Markets”, a devilishly funny documentary about the real estate bubble in Spain that depicts one sleazy realtor after another hyping a condo to some unsuspecting rube. It concludes with a 20 minute or so segment with a 92 year old junk dealer who seems more interested in conversation than sales in an open-air market. He is the polar opposite of the sharks that preceded him and proof that civilization still has a basis in Spain. The film can be bought for $398. As the case with “Marx Reloaded”, it might get picked up by Netflix one day but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Finally, there’s “Last Summer Won’t Happen”, a film made in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1968 and now available once again. Directed by Tom Hurwitz and Peter Gessner, it features Abbie Hoffman, Paul Krassner and Phil Ochs in their prime.

The directors decided to make this film out of a sense that the “Sixties” were about to implode. Woodstock would be eclipsed by Altamont and the apple-cheeked SDS’ers would soon be building bombs.

There’s one priceless scene in which Krassner and Hoffman sit around talking about the prospects of buying guns. Krassner said he would be about as comfortable going into a gun shop as he was buying condoms in a drug store when he was in his teens.

The film is about as good an introduction to the sixties as I can think of and is only $29.98 from Icarus’s Homevideo series. A bargain at twice the price.

Vyer Films 

If it is unlikely that Netflix will be picking up Bullfrog or Icarus titles any time soon, but there’s always hope that Vyer might. Vyer is an online streaming service like Netflix but devoted to those neglected masterpieces that will never show up there.

The ‘about Vyer’ page states:

Vyer Films believes great films matter.

We bring the best films from around the world previously undistributed in the U.S. directly to the viewers that want them: audiences looking for something new, unique, and unlike anything available at the local theater.

I had a chance to look at Vyer’s latest this week, a documentary titled “North From Calabria”, that their film curator describes as following:

“Time’s running, infinity’s coming.”

It’s a statement made as the sun sets on the horizon outside Chełmsko Śląskie, a small Polish town right on the border with the Czech Republic. The words are said casually enough it’s easy to read them as a small-town colloquialism about the end of the day. This statement encapsulates what it is that North From Calabria does to its audience: it lets moments of gravity flow past us, unnoticed and yet fully absorbed.

Little of this film’s drama is carried on its surface. Sunlight filters in through lush foliage, tall grass lazily waves in a quiet breeze, summer rain forms a light rhythm, locals make easy conversation. These sights and sounds make for a warm viewing experience, an observation of an idyllic rural town, where residents of all ages partake, even revel, in the simpler pleasures of life. The most heated conversation is a mild chat over whether a carpenter is qualified to build a stage for an upcoming town festival, after he as already built it.

The only thing I could add to this is that the film is about as Fellinesque as any I have seen in decades. Although the title evokes Fellini’s “Nights of Calabria”, it is much more in the spirit of “Amacord”, a comedy about the quotidian charms of a small town.

The film is as light and refreshing as gelato, just the sort of thing that the Calabrian chef visiting the small Polish town might prepare. Although my orientation is to those grim class-struggle documentaries that I write about most often, this one will bring a smile to your face whatever your politics as it did to mine.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.wordpress.com and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.


Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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