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last update 19.Jan.18
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The Final Year
dir Greg Barker
prd John Battsek, Julie Goldman, Greg Barker
with Barack Obama, John Kerry, Samantha Power, Ben Rhodes, Susan Rice, Michael Hoza, Madeleine Albright, Gloria Steinem
rhodes, power, kerry and obama
release US/UK 19.Jan.18
17/US Magnolia 1h29

london film fest
The Final Year Filmmaker Greg Barker had unprecedented access to President Barack Obama during his final year in office. The resulting film feels carefully crafted, skimming through the months and touching on huge issues while, far in the background, the American election changes everything. It's involving and revealing but also thoroughly reverent, safe and "approved" rather than journalistic.

When he first took office, Obama's goal was to improve America's standing on the world's stage. Seven years later, he has 12 months to secure his legacy, so he focusses on foreign policy, including significant work on relations with Cuba and Iran. In addition to the president, this documentary focusses on Secretary of State Kerry, UN Ambassador Power and National Security Advisor Rhodes. The cameras follow them through emotional events like a visit to the Hiroshima memorial and attempts to improve thorny messes in Asia, Syria and West Africa.

The film is skilfully shot and edited in a smooth-flowing style that feels effortless. It's almost as slick as a reality TV show, complete with offhanded moments and comical asides that show off the various personalities. Archival footage is woven in to provide the background on both the people and the situations, while backstage scenes offer insight into how these people work together to approach a variety of complex situations. The range of issues is almost overwhelming, and the team's thoughtful, compassionate approach is inspiring.

It's fascinating to watch these people in action. Power uses her background as a journalist as she hits the road, travelling around the world to get properly involved in the projects she is passionate about. Kerry is an ex-soldier who wants to make his past count toward the future, leaving the world better than he found it. Rhodes was planning to become a novelist but decided to so something more important. It's engaging to watch them set priorities and dive into some difficult situations. And the heavy blow on election day is sobering, as Obama's dream of a more united, fairer, more empathetic world is pushed further into the future.

Even so, the film never escapes its brief to document the experiences of these senior officials over their final 12 months in office. The approach is over-structured, especially as it misses the seismic shift happening off-camera, as Donald Trump diverts the public agenda from serious issues to rant-based twitter wars. The film never quite addresses this, but it does show the stark difference between a serious-minded approach to the world and its people and what we're experiencing now.

12 themes, some imagery
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The Freedom to Marry
dir Eddie Rosenstein
prd Eddie Rosenstein, Jenni Olson, Todd Robinson, Amie Segal, Sidney Sherman
with Evan Wolfson, Mary Bonauto, Marc Solomon, Brian Brown, April DeBoer, Jayne Rowse, Tim Gill, Thalia Zepatos, Ward Curtin, Joan Wolfson, Jerry Wolfson, Mel Solomon
rosenstein and bonauto release US 3.Mar.17,
UK 1.Nov.17
16/US 1h26
The Freedom to Marry With a straightforward style, this documentary traces the path of the gay marriage issue in America. Filmmaker Eddie Rosenstein gives this a narrative through-line that's gripping to watch, even if it feels like a story that's been told from many angles already. But seeing it through the eyes of the campaigners working behind the scenes adds a personal touch. And it's fascinating to hear tapes of the actual Supreme Court arguments.

The film opens 100 days before the court begins considering the issue of same-sex marriage, after 37 states had already guaranteed the right in courts, legislatures and at the ballot. The legal team's task is to prove that this is a freedom that needs to be protected, and that not protecting it deprives people of fundamental civil rights. Leading the case are charity founder Evan Wolfson, lawyer Mary Bonauto and activist Marc Solomon, ordinary people who believe the nation is ready for a ruling on this issue.

The doc includes home video of Wolfson 32 years earlier, as he began to think about the inequality and injustice in the way America deprived gay citizens of everyday rights. He grew up in a strong Jewish family, raised to be a nice guy who respects everyone. But there was little understanding of what it meant to be gay, and Wolfson argued in his university thesis that marriage was the best way to show that gay people have the same goals as everyone else. This leads into an exploration of attitudes toward homosexuality over the past 50 years.

Using newsreel footage, Rosenstein details the dramatic shift in public opinion from dismissive hatred to majority acceptance. But the path wasn't smooth. In the late 2000s, laws banned same-sex marriage in several states, creating the need for a national resolution in the Supreme Court, and Wolfson's Freedom to Marry charity took the lead role to help the public understand that gay people, like everyone else, just hope to live a positive, meaningful life.

The point is clear: equal marriage is the right thing to do. And this is what the campaigners worked to communicate. This was never about taking away traditional marriage, it was about saying no to bigotry and discrimination. And the key to changing minds was the realisation that this was affecting children too. Frankly, once people have a personal conversation, the controversy disappears. And future generations should be able to take this freedom for granted.

PG themes, language
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100 Men
dir Paul Oremland
prd Vincent Burke
with Paul Oremland, Chris Woods, David Tillinghast, Chris Graham-Bell, Norman Powell, Karl Wilcher, Panos Tsikos, Janusz Heller, Nathan Joe, Alan, Raglan, James, Brogan, Douglas, Ian, Ben, Tom, Richard, Andy, Mike
oremland and friends
release NZ Jul.17 nziff,
US 16.Jan.18
17/New Zealand 1h34
100 Men With bracing honesty and a quick pace, this documentary uses a personal perspective to explore gay life over the last several decades. Skilfully assembled with terrific archival footage plus new interviews, the film's structure begins to feel a little repetitive and perhaps strains to touch on all aspects of the scene, but this makes it an important, comprehensive document.

Filmmaker Paul Oremland grew up with surfers in New Zealand, but knew that he could never share their straight lives. Now thinking about his own journey, he thinks about 100 men he had sex with over the decades. Many of them are anonymous, guys he met in the usual places, even as he went to seminary to become a preacher. Then he moved to London, where he eventually helped pioneer gay television and cinema. His reminiscences include the first time, the first boyfriend, the skinhead period, the first big breakup and all manner of of experimentation.

Oremland approaches this without flinching. As a teen he hooked up through letters written to addresses in the back of magazines, always hoping that one day he might become straight. These were days when the popular belief was that homosexuality was curable, as if it was a disease. But Oremland always knew this wasn't a phase. Of course, the film's narrative traverses the Aids epidemic, making some moving observations. And along the way, it also explores the impact of the gay equality movement.

Instead of dwelling on sex, the film offers a wider look at changing attitudes toward sexuality and masculinity in New Zealand and the UK, and elsewhere. Oremland weaves together involving stories that echo off each other with telling details and provocative meaning. And the most telling revelation is how the filmmaker changed along with society itself, from a yearning for like-minded lovers to a desire to connect with someone regardless of sexuality.

The film also meaningfully explores how gay men struggle to develop socially because they've had to hide who they are. So Oremland's tendency to brag about how hot his conquests were says a lot about attitudes among gay men. It's fascinating to hear his interviewees speak about how they felt compelled to make traditional life choices despite it feeling so illogical. And they also talk about the ongoing psychological inequality that prevails, the sense that they're still not who people want them to be. In other words, this film's simple premise brings out a much deeper conversation.

15 themes, language, imagery

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Out of Iraq: A Love Story
dir Eva Orner, Chris McKim
prd Randy Barbato, Fenton Bailey, Eva Orner, Chris McKim
with Nayyef Hrebid, Hayder "Btoo" Allami, Michael Failla
hrebid and allami release US 13.Jun.16,
UK Mar.17 flare
16/US 1h21

flare film fest
out of iraq This documentary tells the story of two young Iraqis who take a journey together in very different ways. It has two basic narratives, a romance and an immigration odyssey, and both are so compelling that the film becomes utterly gripping. It also packs a strong emotional kick as these young men struggle against cultural realities that are difficult to imagine.

After the Iraq invasion in 2003, recent Baghdad university graduate Nayyef took a job as an interpreter for the American forces. Based in Ramadi, he met Iraqi soldier Btoo, and they fell for each other. Both are from religious families that would never accept their homosexuality, but as the war rages they are allowed to have a secret romance. In 2009, Nayyef's situation turns dangerous, so he is given an American visa and moves to Seattle. Unable to migrate, Btoo is trapped with his family, who are figuring out his secret. In desperation, Nayyef asks refugee worker Michael to help Btoo escape to Lebanon.

What follows is a mind-spinning journey through United Nations bureaucracy, as Btoo and Nayyef spend years trying to get back together. Since each has a different background, they take distinct routes to escape the threat of death back home. But they maintain their relationship with regular video chats over years of separation, never giving up hope that some day they can start a family together. Their tenacity in remaining a couple through this ordeal is impressive.

Both guys are so likeable that it's impossible not to root for them. The filmmakers play on this fact, letting their overwhelmingly positive personalities drive the story, which brings out an emotional resonance in almost every event they face, from the horrors of the war to the frustration of political incompetence. Once Nayyef manages to escape local vengeance, it's Btoo whose life is in jeopardy at every step of the way. And the officials seem oblivious to the fact that he will be killed if he's sent back to his family.

What this film depicts so vividly is that it is immoral to place a blanket ban on refugees. People are in real danger in their home nations; they aren't leaving by choice, but because they will be violently tortured and killed if they remain. And they need someone with compassion to hear their story, reach out and help. The brutal fact is the Nayyef and Btoo are the lucky ones, because the vast majority of people who share a similar story don't get out alive.

15 themes, language, violent imagery

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