Jun 20, 2009


Soul Power. That´s the title of one of the best musical documentaries I've seen in years. The soul is not only in the title and in the soundtrack, it´s at the heart of a movie made by Jeffrey Levi-Hinte that will make you wish the seventies were still here. I can't forget a marvelous scene in which Celia Cruz takes her shoe in her hand and uses it against the ceiling inside a plain to keep rhythm with musicians such as James Brown, Bill Withers and BB King during the 13 hours trip (that become a 13 hours musical party) that brought the best of African-American musicians to play in Zaire in 1974 just days before the famous boxing fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.

Levi-Hinte worked as an editor in the documentary 'When we were kings', that amazing film about that powerful "rumble in the jungle" fight that got an Oscar award in the nineties. He had seen all the footage and painfully had to leave aside the three days concert because it didn't fit in that movie. Now, thanks to David Sonenberg (who also produced 'When we were kings') Levi-Hinte has been able to bring back to life a soul festival that will make you wish you were born black (Tom Waits said to me once during an interview: "When I saw James Brown for the first time the only thing I wanted from then on it was to be black!" After watching Soul Power, I definitely understand him.

On Friday Levi-Hinte was at a screening of Soul Power at Silverdocs Film Festival in Washington DC. He brought with him Fred Wesley, one of the musicians that played that festival and who confirmed that The Crusaders, The Spinners, Big Black, Celia Cruz and the long list of performers -including many Africans such as Miriam Makeba- played "above their performance level" and that it´s definitely in the movie.

For years there were legal disputes that prevented any body to touch the concert footage. When those were finally over, Levi-Hinte approached Sonenberg with the idea of cutting a movie to be released in DVD. "But when I looked at the footage again after ten years, I realized it was too good to waste it in a quick editing so I ended working on it for three years". The result is worth the wait.

Nobody except the Zaire people (now Congo) who attended the concert had seen it until now. The power of Soul Power is not only in the performances. There's the details about how the concert came to life -the fight was delayed but they couldn't delay the festival- there's the incredible clothing of the times - and the hairdo's, specially Miriam Makeba's African-punk style-. Even better, there were the conversations they had... remember: it´s the time of black power, it´s the time of James Brown' funky tune " I'm black and I'm proud'". All those little moments in the movie are priceless.

Almost none of the musicians had been in Africa before. "There was the excitement of going to find our roots" said Wesley after the screening (where he playes a couple of tunes too!). None of them was aware, though, that Zaire was run at the time by a bloody dictator called Mobutu Seseko who blessed their performance. That part is not in the movie. But you won´t care because the film it's not about politics, it's about music. On July 10th Soul Power will be in the theaters. Whenever is available on DVD I will throw a soul party at home!!!!! Jose Castillo, I will wait for you to dj after the concert!!

Jun 10, 2009


I wrote already about the trial that should have started in New York last week against Royal Dutch Shell for the killing of seven Nigerian activists, including the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa. It was suddenly suspended and then... magically... settled. Shell didn't want to go to court, it would have been too dangerous for its reputation to have Nigerians revealing dirty details of its activities in the Niger Delta. It was easier to pay 15.5 millions and avoid witnesses to explain openly how oil companies pollute, destroy and kill in almost every country they operate in. After more than a decade struggling, the plaintiffs consider the settlement a real victory: "This shows that corporations cannot act without accountability” said Jennie Greene, a lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights, which brought the case on behalf of the plaintiffs. I am not so sure about it. The 15.5 million dollars are peanuts for a company as big as Royal Dutch Shell and it won't make any difference in the polluted and violent landscape in the Niger Delta. Although it's true that it's a symbolic precedent in the fight against corporate impunity, I agree with El malcontento, "it's a scandal that they sign a check and get free of responsibilities" (in Spanish).

picture by Dolores Ochoa, AP

But maybe there is hope. Another similar case is actually in development in Ecuador against Chevron-Texaco. An Ecuatorian lawyer representing 30,000 people is fighting alone against the monster. The battle between the indigenous communities in the Ecuadorian Amazon (nearly destroyed by oil drilling) and Chevron started 16 years ago. The lawsuit alleges that Texaco, which was acquired by Chevron in 2001, unleashed 18 billion gallons of toxic wastewater across an estimated 1,700 square miles of rainforest (check ChevronToxico web for details) . Plaintiff's lawyers say Texaco's dumping represent 30 times more than the crude spilled in the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska. Hundreds of people have died of cancer and thousands are sick. According to a report by a court-appointed expert, Chevron could face $27 billion in damages. That's not only real money, it would be an unprecedented victory for environmentalists and local communities alike. Unfortunately, Chevron has also the money to make this process as long and as tortuous as possible so the sentence could still take years.

Picture of Bryan Patrick from his award winning series The Devil's excrement for the Sacramento Bee (Ecuador, 2003)

If you are curious about this case you should see the documentary Crude, (playing in New York on June 13 at the Human Rights Watch Festival) by director Joe Berlinger (director of great titles such as Paradise Lost and Metallica: that kind of monster). Crude is quite good although it probably pays too much attention to Trudi Styler, one of the celebrities who has embraced this cause. In the other hand, the involvement of stars in this fight has brought lots of attention to their lawsuit and recently even 60 Minutes did a story on it. I don't know how to feel about celebrity-activism but it seems that lately journalists take an interest in forgotten stories only when there is a famous face behind so, I guess in this case we have to thank Sting???

Jun 8, 2009

A new cult movie is born: STINGRAY SAM

Stingray Sam is a name every film lover should know by heart. If the director of this surreal, smart and wonderful movie was named Robert Rodriguez, Stingray Sam would be already a cult movie. Don't worry, cult followers like myself are already working on it. The director's name -and main actor- is Cory McAbee. He might have a budget 100 times smaller than the one of the famous ex-indie director and none of his popularity but even if McAbee could eventually envy his pal budget, he has no need to envy his talent: he's got tons of it. And sooner or later the film world will know it.

Talent means to be able to transform any plot, even the most impossible one, into a very good movie. Get this: (as it says in its website) "A dangerous mission reunites STINGRAY SAM with his long lost accomplice, The Quasar Kid. Follow these two space-convicts as they earn their freedom in exchange for the rescue of a young girl who is being held captive by the genetically designed figurehead of a very wealthy planet".

You could expect everything from a synopsis like that one. Choosing that plot for a Saturday night movie it's a risky bet for a moviegoer. I wouldn't have seen it last weekend at the Rooftop Film Festival in Brooklyn if it weren't because my friend Scott Miller was the DP and I know he always chooses interesting projects. I trusted him but I never thought I would be falling in love with a space-cowboy, laughing out loud for over an hour, and even singing along - yes, and I hate musicals!-. I was amazed and entertained by a film that is uplifting, ironic, sweet, clever and fun in a way movies are not any more. This space-cowboy-musical-action film is a little treasure filmed in black and white (good job, Scott! I heard your work will be featured in the next issue of American Cinematographer!)- and features a series of exquisite collages (by John Borruso) that serves to illustrate part of the plot: planets have turned into prisons, wealthy men get pregnant, greed bankrupts financial investors, Stingray Sam is a lounge singer living in Mars...

It's format it's interesting too: it's done in six chapters that are independent from each other, but whose connection follows the style of serials of the 50's. Small screenings like mobile phones will be perfect recipients for Stingray Sam.

It almost won the Audience Award in the last Imagine International Film Festival of Amsterdam -'Let the right one in' won over it by a few votes only- and it definitely won over the whole audience that was at the Rooftop Film screening with me. Stingray Sam made it to Sundance but people was too busy looking at the official competition movies to pay any attention to it. That kind of thing happens too often at any film festival, though... Any way, if distributors are smart, Stingray Sam will be traveling soon to a theater near you. Or even to your phone! You can catch it on June 8 in New York at the Brooklyn International Film Festival. Here a review. This is the trailer:

Jun 4, 2009


To be fair, I have to confess that the line is not mine. "Hugo Chavez is the Oprah of the left" was the only interesting quote that Lawrence Weschler, a journalist from The New Yorker, said last week during a conversation -it should have been called a monologue- with Eduardo Galeano at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. The encounter was organized to mark the publication of Galeano's new book, Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone. Since Hugo Chavez recommended to Barack Obama to read Galeano's classic title 'Las venas abiertas de America Latina' (and gave him the book), the Uruguayan writer has become a best-seller in the USA. The same thing happened after Chavez recommended to the whole world to read Noam Chomsky´s Hegemony of Survival during a speech at the UN in 2006. That book, published three years earlier, climbed best-seller lists at Amazon overnight.

'It's the best way to sell books, to have them featured in the Oprah show', said recently Carolyn Reidy, CEO of Simon and Schuster. Hugo Chavez is definitely taking Oprah's place when it comes to left-wing writers. So, in part thanks to Chavez, Galeano visited New York and before a full house of his readers, the writer read a few fragments of 'Mirrors...'. Then, he was unsuccessfully 'interrogated' by Weschler. Early on it became quite clear that Weschler questions didn't seem to please Galeano. "If you had to recommend to Chavez or Obama one book, which one would you choose from all the books that you have read?" The answer: "It's very dangerous to read only one book".

It was a real pleasure to listen to Galeano. He was, in fact, the conductor of a conversation that was mainly a sharp, sweet, tough and ironic monologue about all the things he is been always concerned with: inequalities, injustice, Latin America, the underdogs... I would rather give you Galeano himself than trying to reproduce what he said. The video up there is just Galeano reading a timeless piece in Spanish sometime ago .

This one is a link to the New York event I talked about, good sound, bad image (but we are talking about words, right?), in English. Courtesy of Hugo Chavez. Dear Hugo, who's next?