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Docurama Film Festival, Vol. 4 [10 Discs] [DVD]

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Overview

Synopsis

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: Beyond the Steps
Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?
Using an underdog congressional bid as a springboard, director Frank Popper explores the dangers of political dynasties in this documentary that aired as part of PBS's Independent Lens series. In 2004, 29-year-old political unknown Jeff Smith decided to make a run for an open congressional seat in Missouri, and soon found himself facing off against a political Goliath. With only a passionate grassroots group of volunteers behind him, Smith's candidacy serves as a true test of the efficacy of the little guy in modern American politics. ~ Matthew Tobey, Rovi

The First Year
Davis Guggenheim directs The First Year, a documentary about five rookie teachers in the Los Angeles public school system. George Acosta teaches English as a second language, Genevieve DeBose teaches middle school language arts and social studies, Joy Kraft-Watts teaches high school history, Nate Monley teaches fifth-grade bilingual education, Maurice Rabb teaches kindergarten, and Andrew Glass teaches elementary special education. Guggenheim investigates how and why the subjects became teachers as well as the struggles they encountered during their first year of teaching. The First Year was broadcast on PBS in 2004. ~ Andrea LeVasseur, Rovi

Building Bombs
Narrated by Jane Alexander, Building Bombs is a disturbing documentary about atomic energy industry's ongoing lack of concern for the public and its safety. In 1956, the Savannah River Plant was built near Aiken, Georgia. Most of the townsfolk were "invited" to leave by the Atomic Energy Commission to accommodate the plant. According to this film, one family refused to leave. The government solved this dilemma by having the family declared insane and institutionalized. This is but one of many dirty little secrets uncovered by Department of Energy engineer Bill Lawless, who along with physics engineer-turned-antinuclear activist Art Dexter augment the political slant of Building Bombs. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi

I Like Killing Flies
Long a cultural fixture of New York's Greenwich Village, Shopsin's is explored in this documentary feature from music video director and filmmaker Matt Mahurin (1996's Mugshot). Facing the prospect of shutting down after years as one of the area's best-loved restaurants, owners Eve and Kenny Shopsin reflect on the eatery's beginnings and history. Along with demonstrating some of Shopsin's specialties in the kitchen, the eccentric Kenny waxes philosophically about love, life, politics, and everything in between. I Like Killing Flies screened in competition at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival. ~ Matthew Tobey, Rovi

Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea
As co-directed by Jeff Springer and Chris Metzler, the documentary Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea travels to the titular body of water for an idiosyncratic look at a decidedly odd locale. An inland ocean with a close proximity to the urban areas of southern California, the Salton once clocked in as a veritable paradise - many tagged it "The California Riviera." By the early years of the 21st century, however, the Salton had dwindled to a decrepit ecological catastrophe. Plagues and Pleasures visits The Salton and meets many of its colorful residents, including an elderly nudist, an Eastern European man with revolutionary fervor in his blood, and a devout fellow who sees it as his mission to build a monument to God near the location - all of whom seek peace and harmony with one another. John Waters narrates. ~ Nathan Southern, Rovi

The Chances of the World Changing
Eric Daniel Metzgar's human interest documentary The Chances of the World Changing hones in on the eccentric Richard Ogust, a former writer whose towering obsession with rescuing various species of turtle has consumed his life. Ogust spent years amassing literally hundreds of turtles - including many rare and endangered species purchased from food markets in the Asian tigers - which he housed and cared for in his New York City apartment. In time, he counted over 1,600 turtles. Intrigued by Ogust's story, Metzgar filmed him over the course of two years, a period that saw Ogust's difficulties mounting; his turtle population ballooned, and he thus found it necessary to rent a New Jersey warehouse to ultimately function as a terrarium. Meanwhile, the New Jersey Department of Fish and Wildlife began to file various charges against Ogust, for (among other accusations) poor care of the turtles. Yet Ogust continued to import the animals at the expense of his own personal well-being. Metzgar sheds light on the value of Ogust's mission, its inherent difficulties, and the preservationist's sad inability to solicit help from outside parties as turtle populations decline. ~ Nathan Southern, Rovi

The Panama Deception
Barbra Trent's Oscar-winning documentary takes a harsh look at a black period in 20th-century democracy, the late '80s and early '90s when during "Operation Just Cause," the U.S. invaded Panama, ostensibly to oust dictator and known arms and drug kingpin General Manuel Noriega, whom the U.S. aided for over a decade. Basing her information on eyewitness accounts, Trent alleges that U.S. troops killed up to 4,000 Panamanian men between the ages of 15 and 55, buried them secretly in mass graves, and then reported back home that only 250 civilians died. She also alleges that the troops destroyed untold amounts of buildings. Shocking photographs back up her stunning allegations. Trent spares neither the U.S. government nor the media -- that blindly accepted and reported anything released by the White House -- from blame in keeping the horror a secret. The film begins with a history of the U.S. relations with Panama, beginning with Panama's fight for independence from Colombia -- something the U.S. backed so it could build the Panama Canal -- to President Carter's 1977 treaty that would give control over the vital shipping lane back to Panama in the year 2000. One of the most shocking aspects of the story is that according to Trent, "Operation Justice" was really launched so that the U.S. could renege on the treaty and retain control. She also suggests the U.S. military used the invasion to test out sophisticated new weapons in preparation for the Gulf War. The photos and violence depicted are not for the squeamish. Elizabeth Montgomery narrated the events. ~ Sandra Brennan, Rovi

Pictures From a Revolution
In 1978, new photographer Susan Meiselas just happened to be in the country of Nicaragua as the government of Anastasio Somoza was being overthrown and the nationalist and (mildly) socialist Sandanistas were assuming power. Some of the photos she took then were used for propaganda by both sides in the civil war that followed shortly thereafter. Ten years later, after years of counter-revolutionary civil war by U.S.-backed insurgents, the country reached something like an accommodation with all the factions involved, and here the photographer returns to interview those involved. It becomes clear that, no matter what the actual situation in the country was, the U.S. crudely acted in support of its perceived interests -- usually closely allied to commercial concerns. In addition, the unfortunate factions in Nicaragua's civil war became pawns in the Cold War between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. In this documentary, filmmakers have sought out exiles in the U.S. and Canada to get a fuller picture of the story. ~ Clarke Fountain, Rovi

Wanderlust
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