Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project


Worshiping at the video altar.

(2019) Documentary (Zeitgeist/Kino-LorberMelvin Metelits, Richard Stevens, Frank Heilman, Anna Lofton, Michael Metelits, Maurice Borger, Mizzy Stokes, Anthony Massimini, Anne Stokes-Hochberg, Roger McDonald, Marion Stokes. Directed by Matt Wolf

 

There is a very fine line between obsession and compulsion. We can take a hobby or something that we enjoy doing and allow it to take over our lives to the exclusion of all else. Sometimes, good things may come of it. Most often, however, it takes a toll on our relationships and the state of our own minds.

Marion Stokes was by all accounts a brilliant woman, an African-American Philadelphia librarian who leaned towards socialism, but after marrying Michael Metelits, became involved with the Communist Party of America, which she eventually grew to disdain for its lack of action. She and Metelits at one time wished to emigrate to Cuba but was denied an entry visa by the Cuban government.

Disillusioned, she returned home to Philadelphia where her marriage quickly crumbled. She eventually became involved with a television show on a CBS affiliate in Philly called Input, a Sunday morning talk show hosted by John Stokes, who as a contractor had become well-to-do and eventually, she and Stokes fell in love and were married.

The Iran hostage crisis fascinated Marion. She intuited that the way news was being presented to the masses was changing. Wanting to document that change with a librarian’s zeal for preservation and organization, she started recording news broadcasts. With the advent of CNN a year later, the project became much more of a life.

Marion and John became virtual recluses and Marion, whose personality had a strident tone to it, became very possessive of her husband’s time. Their children were virtually shut out from their lives (although they never had children together, they each had children from previous marriages) and Marion took complete control of John’s life. Meanwhile the taping went on, several VCRs taping anywhere from three to eight channels at any given time, with assistants changing tapes (on those rare occasions when Marion went out for any length of time, her limo driver Richard Stevens would be sent home just to change the tapes on the VCR.

Time passed, and so did John. Marion lived in virtual seclusion, with a nurse and an assistant providing companionship, as well as assistance with her project. The momentous events of the end of the 20th century (and the beginning of the 21st) were captured on Marion’s videotapes; the fall of the Berlin Wall, the royal wedding of Charles and Diana and her death years later, 9/11, the election of Barack Obama (which had special resonance for Marion) and also the minutiae – a local woman who decided to be buried in her Cadillac – and was, for example. Stories that captivated for a time and were quickly forgotten, all preserved.

When she died in 2012, she left behind more than 70,000 videotapes even though towards the end finding blank videotapes to record on had become increasingly difficult. Many of them were identified only with Post-It notes and all of them were on a type of medium that wasn’t meant to last forever. As we speak, her collection is being digitized and cataloged, something the librarian in her would no doubt approve of. One day, her incredible project will be available for everyone to peruse.

The big elephant in the room (or on the film) was Marion’s mental state. There was no doubt a bit of a hoarding mentality to her; at her death she had collected not only the videotapes but more than 50,000 books (she was a voracious reader), furniture she never used and an uncountable number of newspapers. She had gone from a single apartment in the swanky Barclay building in Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia to seven, all full of her collections. Although her personality was generally prickly – she didn’t take to being disagreed with at all – one gets the sense that beneath that disagreeable facade there was a genuinely caring heart. We see that mostly through her son, who was estranged from his mother for a good number of years but managed to reconcile with her shortly before she passed.

While I wouldn’t say this is an essential documentary, it is a fascinating one and it’s told in simple fashion without a whole lot of bells and whistles. Fans of docs in general are going to like this; it’s the kind of film you find at your local film festival and leave deciding that if you’re going to find films like this there, you’ll have to come back the following year for more.

REASONS TO SEE: Stokes is not always likable but one has to admire her intelligence. The dizzying array of news stories she recorded is mind-boggling.
REASONS TO AVOID: The score gets a little bit annoying in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stokes was a lifelong admirer of Steve Jobs and to support him bought a massive amount of Apple stock at $7 per share. Already moderately wealthy at the time, this elevated her to a different level of rich.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/1/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews: Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grey Gardens
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Mission: Impossible – Fallout

Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton


Jim Carrey channels Andy Kaufman.

(2017) Documentary (NetflixJim Carrey, Andy Kaufman, Bob Zmuda, George Shapiro, Danny DeVito, Carol Kaufman, Judd Hirsch, Paul Giamatti, Stacey Sher, Milos Forman, Ron Meyer, Carol Kane, Bill Corso, Peter Bonerz, Michael Stipe, Jerry Lawler, Courtney Love, Gerry Becker, Elton John, Lynne Margulies, Linda Hill, Angela Jones. Directed by Chris Smith

 

Sometimes an actor will get so lost in their role that it’s nearly impossible to tell where the character ends and the actor begins. Is it art or is it simply self-indulgence?

Jim Carrey notoriously went through this when he was playing the late cult comic Andy Kaufman in Milos Forman’s Man in the Moon back in 1999. Carrey refused to break character during filming, even allowing the notorious lounge lizard/obnoxious jerk character Tony Clifton to take over, sometimes to uncomfortable lengths. Universal kept the backstage footage in the vaults for nearly 20 years before they finally allowed it to be shown in this documentary.

We get a sense of the method here and Carrey candidly discusses the strain of playing Kaufman and the way it effected his career. You get the sense that Carrey doesn’t enter any role lightly but this one did a number on him, as he admits to feeling the emotional after-effects for years afterwards. The documentary is well-filmed, utilizing footage filmed by Smith in 2016 as well as the backstage footage from the shoot in 1998 shot by Kaufman’s writing partner Zmuda and his girlfriend Margulies. Members of Kaufman’s family even came on set to commune with their deceased loved one (Kaufman passed away from lung cancer in 1984) in the form of Carrey.

I wasn’t a big fan of Man in the Moon when it came out but the documentary does give a better appreciation of the film. I wish that someone had asked Carrey the question that stays with me after seeing the doc: was the performance worth the pain? I suppose that’s a question for posterity to figure out.

REASONS TO SEE: Carrey comes off more thoughtful than you’d imagine. A portrait of a man lost in his role.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t ask some important questions.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of profanity and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Kaufman and Carrey share a birthday (January 17th).
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews: Metacritic: 767/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lost in La Mancha
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Radioflash

Return to Mount Kennedy


There are all sorts of ways to conquer peaks.

(2019) Documentary (1091Bob Whittaker, Chris Kennedy, Eddie Vedder, Malcolm Taylor, Senator Robert Kennedy, Jim Whittaker, Mark Arm, Bruce Pavitt, Matt Lukin, Steve Turner, Leif Whittaker, Dan Peters, Dave Hahn, Blanche Montbroussous, Eric Becker, Brian Jones, Dr. Michael Ross, Rich Hayward. Directed by Eric Becker

 

Often, we compare the greatest obstacles in our lives to mountain peaks. Scaling those peaks is used as a metaphor for overcoming those obstacles. Like our own limitations, the loftiest peaks are often the ones in our own mind; once we get around to climbing them, we find they aren’t so tall after all.

Bob Whittaker lived under an enormous shadow. His father Jim was the first American to scale Mt. Everest and was a national hero. He also co-founded the REI sporting goods chain and was the CEO there until he retired a few years ago. He is named for one of his father’s closest friends; Senator Robert Kennedy, the brother of the former President and former Attorney General during his brother’s administration.

In 1965, the tallest unscaled peak in North America was Mount Kennedy in Canada. As the peak was named for his brother, then-Senator Kennedy thought that it would be fitting if he were to accompany the first team to scale the peak. Even though he had no previous mountain climbing experience, the Senator was in safe hands as one of the leaders of the expedition was Jim Whittaker. It was there that the two formed a bond that would last until the Senator’s tragic assassination in Los Angeles just three years later. Bobby Kennedy’s son Chris speaks affectionately of Jim Whittaker taking on some of his late father’s duties, helping guide the young boy into manhood.

But Jim was away a lot during Bob’s childhood and the two grew estranged. Bob became a part of the grunge scene in Seattle in the 80s and 90s, becoming road manager for the indie rock legends Mudhoney. A somewhat wild and personable young man, he became the face of the Seattle scene for many. To this day he counts among his friends such luminaries as Eddie Vedder. Bob would eventually become road manager for REM for a dozen years before moving on to all sorts of other bands.

But rock music is a young man’s game and as Bob grew older, he began to pull away from the glamour of the music scene. He began to appreciate the joys of the wilderness. He became active in creating and maintaining green spaces in and around Seattle, and then in Washington state. Like his father before him, he became an avid conservationist and outdoorsman.

As the 50th anniversary of his father’s trek up Mount Kennedy with his good friend Robert Kennedy loomed, Bob began to think about that accomplishment and what it meant to his family. He decided that it would be a good opportunity to reconnect with his brother Leif, who had followed in his father’s footsteps and become a respected climber. Chris Kennedy was also invited and the son of the late Senator jumped at the chance even though he, like his father before him, had no mountain climbing experience.

The documentary tells the parallel stories of the two expeditions to the mountain in alternating fashion, entwining the story of the elder Whittaker and the late Presidential candidate with that of their sons. Legacy plays a big part in the movie’s theme; for all three of the men, their father’s achievements are inspiration to do something important with their lives. While at times it is a burden to them – as it is to most sons – it is also a source of pride to them as well – as it is to most sons.

The movie has almost a schizophrenic nature; there are the serene, wild places of the mountains and the Pacific Northwest and there’s the loud grunge, rock and roll excess of the music scene. Both make up different sides of Bob Whittaker and both are equally valid, even if he is emphasizing the mountains more than the music these days. It couldn’t have been an easy path from one to the other; it certainly isn’t the path most take in that direction but it seems to have worked for Whittaker.

But it isn’t Bob Whittaker’s movie alone, even if he is in most respects the central character. It is about family, first and foremost; for sons paying tribute to fathers. Its friends gone but not forgotten. It also gives us a glimpse at Bobby Kennedy and even as brief and superficial a glimpse as it is, it makes one sad to think of all the good he might have accomplished had he not been murdered for no real reason.

I don’t know that this is necessarily inspirational. I didn’t feel moved to recreate my father’s greatest triumphs by watching this but I was given a certain feeling, one of knowing that like Bob Whittaker, Leif Whittaker and Chris Kennedy, I’m walking in the footsteps on the trail my own father blazed. Being reminded of that may not necessarily set the world on fire, but it is important – and comforting – nonetheless.

REASONS TO SEE: Bob Whittaker’s enthusiasm is infectious. The stories from the first climb are fascinating.
REASONS TO AVOID: Loses a bit of focus during the last third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a bit of drinking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mount Kennedy lies in the St. Elias Mountain Range located in Kluane National Park, in Yukon, Canada. The peak was named for the slain U.S. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy in 1964 as a tribute by the nation of Canada.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/15/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Free Solo
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Warrior Queen of Jhansi

The All-Americans


(2017) Documentary (AbramoramaAlfred Robledo, Mario Ramirez, Sammy Hernandez, Javier Cid, Chuy Hernandez, Stevie Williams, Fran “Simba” Saucedo, Lorenzo Hernandez, Joseph “Spike” Silva, James Wicks, LaVada Williams, Huero Navarro, Lorraine Sauno, Ernie Sauno, Kathy Lopez, Lynn Cain, Yellow. Directed by Billy McMillin

 

There is something peculiarly American about high school football rivalries. The Big Game, whether it’s played in a big city or a small town, is something that helps define entire communities. It can make or break an entire season; one can count themselves a success if they lose every other game that season except the one with their bitter rivals; conversely, a championship season can lose its luster if the only loss is to those rivals.

In East L.A., that game is El Classico, the game pitting the James Garfield High School Bulldogs and the Theodore Roosevelt High School Rough Riders. Both schools, like East L.A. itself, are predominantly Latino. Many of the students from both schools speak English as a second language; many of the students have undocumented family members or are themselves undocumented. Throughout the film, we hear a litany of complaints from right wing radio commentators about how the flood of immigrants from South of the Border are changing the make-up of America and not for the better. The racism in the remarks is so thinly veiled as to not be veiled at all.

That’s what these kids face in addition to all the things high school kids face; romance, fitting in, feelings of inadequacy, studying hard for a future that is uncertain. As any person who has played high school football will tell you, the demands of practice and commitment to the team also put pressure on kids already overburdened from pressures just trying to make it through the school day.

The movie documents that, focusing on Coach Javier Cid from Garfield who is trying not just to make a competitive football team but to make sure that every kid graduates – he is more proud of their 100% graduation rate than their won-loss record, which a lot of parents will appreciate. One of his players, wide receiver Mario Ramirez, is doing more than graduating; he has a 3.97 GPA and letters of recruitment from Harvard, Yale and his school of choice, Princeton. He wants to be the first from his family to graduate college but lives in a small apartment with 14 other family members.

Over at Roosevelt, coach Lorenzo Hernandez’ day job is as a patrol cop for the LAPD. He sees the results of kids making bad choices every shift, and is determined that his charges develop the self-discipline and self-respect to make it in life. Linebacker Joseph “Spike” Silva has two absent parents; his dad is in jail and his mom is a junkie lost to the streets. He himself has fathered a baby daughter and works before school in a bakery. On the field, he is a coiled spring of rage. Quarterback Stevie Williams is an outsider; he is an African-American student who takes city buses to school every day from South Central, hoping that football will take him further away from that part of Los Angeles.

The stories of the kids and their coaches are compelling enough that the big game itself is almost anti-climactic which is a good thing because the game isn’t terribly exciting or ever much in doubt. McMillin is forced to concentrate on how the football team affects the players and in doing so we are treated to many of the clichés that coaches love to espouse at the high school level.

What I would have liked to have seen more of is how the game effects the community; it is clearly a big deal in East Los, as natives call it – the game has been played for well over 80 years and many of the players are second and third generation at their schools. In this documentary, the kids and their coaches exist in a vacuum and an opportunity is lost to really share much of the culture and pride of East L.A. with a wider audience.

Still, there is a lot to be gained here. We’ve seen high school football stories before and this one definitely has a bit of an accent, which is a good thing – we are made to realize that these kids are no different than the ones playing the game all over the country, other than the pervasive specter of immigration woes, and racism directed their way, more than perhaps at any other time in the history of East L.A. In an era where “Build that wall” is regularly chanted by those who follow our President blinded, it is well we are reminded what that wall is intended to keep out.

REASONS TO SEE: A realistic look at the Latino experience circa 2018.
REASONS TO AVOID: Looks a little bit more at the individuals involved rather than at the overall effect on the community.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and teen partying.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Initially, the game was known as the “Chili Bowl” but the name was changed to the East Los Angeles Classic because the two schools felt it was more dignified and reflective of the neighborhood overall.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/13/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pahokee
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Return to Mount Kennedy

I’m gonna make you love me


Brian Belovitch contemplates a life well-lived.

(2019) Documentary (Bernstein DocumentariesBrian Belovitch, Michael Musto, Nelson Sullivan, Andy Anderson, Tabboo, Gabriel Rotello, David Belovitch, Jim Belovitch, Gloria, Jeffrey Belovitch, Todd Belovitch, Sheila. Directed by Karen Bernstein

I’m gonna make you love me, which had its World Premiere a few days ago at DOC NYC (and will be playing there again shortly), covers the fascinating life of Brian Belovitch, a man whose life has taken him to a wildly diverse array of places and lives. He for many years came out as a transitioning woman and lived as an Army wife for several years, hosting Tupperware parties in Germany as Natalia.

Following the dissolution of that marriage, he returned to New York City as club performer Tish in the 80s, one of the most famous club and lounge performers of the time. He went through the rigors of local fame (and in New York that can be truly intoxicating) with the drug addiction that sometimes accompanies celebrity, which in turn led to an HIV-positive diagnosis and deep depression.

Brian came to the conclusion that life as a woman wasn’t really what he wanted and so for the second time in his life, he came out, re-transitioning back as a gay male. These days, he’s married to Jim, pushing 60 and for the first time in his life, truly comfortable in his own skin.

There is plenty of archival footage of Brian’s days as Tish, both performance video as well as home movies. Tish’s friendship with journalist/raconteur/rock star Michael Musto helped expand her notoriety but it seemed that her career was beginning to run out of gas, which was part of what seemed to lead to the depression that Brian suffered from.

We hear from several of Brian’s siblings – he had seven – and there is varying degrees of acceptance among them. I know from first-hand experience it’s not an easy thing always to accept that someone you knew as one gender has become another; it takes time to let go of the person that was and accept the person who is. Some, sadly, are never able to do it; as I said, it’s hard but not impossible unless you are bound and determined not to accept that person’s transition. Although Brian seemed fairly devoted to his mother, their relationship was certainly complicated; she wasn’t very supportive of him and there appeared to be some emotional abuse going on. Brian as a young teen frequently ran away from home.

Brian himself has one of those personalities that just fills a room whenever he’s in it. He is proudly – even defiantly – gay and there is no mistaking his sexuality for a moment. He is a great storyteller, and boy does he have a ton of stories to tell! Bernstein could have just sat him down in a chair, turned the camera on him for an hour and a half and she would have had an entertaining movie.

Where the movie fails is in continuity. People that are important to Brian – like his only friend as a teen, Paul whose mother Gloria he is still close to – fall out of the narrative. Brian alludes to Gloria “losing” him, but that’s not spelled out. Did he pass away? Or did they have a falling out? Something similar also happens with Natalia’s husband David; he just fizzles out of the story. It would have been nice for the filmmakers to spend a few moments just explaining what happened to these people who at one time were important to Brian’s life.

Other than that, the story is a fascinating one. Jim describes his relationship with Brian thusly; “I try to be a rudder for him. Brian is all sail” and that seems like an apt way to characterize him. Brian is larger than life and while Jim is much more laid-back, the affection between the two is without question. There’s more love between these two guys than in a lot of hetero relationships I’ve known. They are poster boys for why gay marriage is a necessary right, one which still remains under threat given the conservative nature of the Supreme Court these days.

But I digress. I wouldn’t say this is essential viewing; it’s basically the story of one guy and while it’s a fascinating story, it isn’t a story that will change your life except maybe to help you realize that it is never too late to change your life completely. Not every life we choose for ourselves is the one we were meant to lead; Brian Belovitch is living proof that the most important thing when it comes to choosing a life is that you choose the one that makes you happy.

REASONS TO SEE: This is a story about a very different journey.
REASONS TO AVOID: A lot of story lines are left dangling.
FAMILY VALUES: The thematic content is very adult; there is also some profanity, brief nudity and plenty of graphic sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Brian works today as a drug abuse counselor; Jim works as a botanist.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/11/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: XY Chelsea
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The All-Americans

To Be of Service


Taking a walk with your best friend on a snowy day.

(2019) Documentary (First RunGreg Kolodziejczyk, Sylvia Bowersox, Tom Flood, Greg Wells, Terry Henry, Susan Kolodziejczyk, Brandon Lewis, Dr. Frank Ochberg, Caleb White, Jon Bowersox, Dr. Larry Decker, Amanda Flood, Walter Parker, Phil Bauer, Tom Tackett, Kellen Dewey, Dr. Edward Tick, Jamie Kolodziejczyk, Maggie O’Haire, Lu Picard, Trisha Knickerbocker. Directed by Josh Aronson

 

Something like half a million veterans currently suffer from some form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Most go through the VA system and are given a dizzying array of medications; one vet described receiving 31 different pills a day to combat his mood changes. Another discusses matter-of-factly his suicide attempt that left him in a coma for 19 days.

We’ve seen films that discuss alternative treatments for those suffering from PTSD but one alternative treatment is surprisingly simple; man’s best friend. Service dogs can be a tremendous gift for someone in the throes of the disorder. Not only do they provide constant companionship and unconditional love, they can actually smell mood changes in their handlers and help alert them (and those around them) that something’s wrong.

=Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker looks at how veterans affected by PTSD can have their lives virtually turned around by the presence of a service dog. The film primarily follows three veterans suffering PTSD; Greg Kolodziejczyk, Sylvia Bowersox and Tom Flood, showing how their PSD affected their lives, their families and their ability to function before showing how service dogs helped them become functional again.

The movie appears to be somewhat haphazardly put together; one of the veterans isn’t identified until nearly halfway through the film after he’s appeared several times. We start to follow the story of one vet who lost a leg in Afghanistan and then his story just seems to stop. There are also way too many interviews with clinical psychologists telling us how dogs are beneficial to their human patients. It takes up way too much time and distracts from the stories of the vets who we really want to know more about.

The vets talk candidly about some of the things they witnessed, the feelings they had; a clearly distraught Bowersox says “That’s what happens in war; people cease to be…and there’s nothing left.” She also urges people who thank her for her service to engage her in conversation; “Ask me what I did for my service,” she says, starting to cry, “I really want to talk to you.” The anguish that these people are suffering is heartbreaking, the lives absolutely devastated by the war that they fought.

Each service dog costs around $30,000 which is much more than most vets can afford; the bulk of them have to go through charitable foundations like the Patriotic Service Dog Foundation or Paws for Vets (links to those organizations and others like them can be found at the movie’s website which you can access by clicking on the movie still above). We don’t see much about how the dogs are trained; we come into the process essentially at the point where the new handlers are trained to properly use the dogs.

There are some great stories here and Bowersox, Kolodziejczyk and Flood all make compelling subjects. I would have liked to have seen a steadier hand in the editing bay and a bit less background information. More vets, more pets, less heads; that’s my take on this.

REASONS TO SEE: Clearly shows the bond between service dogs and their handlers.
REASONS TO AVOID: Way too many talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of profanity, as well as discussion of some horrific incidents during war.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jon Bon Jovi recorded a song for the soundtrack and is also releasing it as a single; the proceeds will go to benefit the Patriotic Service Dog Foundation.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/6/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: From Shock to Awe
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Crown Vic

Saudi Women’s Driving School


The world’s scariest profession: driving instructor.

(2019) Documentary (HBOSarah Saleh, Shahad al-Humaizi, Amjad al-Amri, Laijad al-Hathioul, Prof. Madawi al-Rasheed, Amal al-Jaber, Manal al-Sharif, Aziza al-Yousef, Fadia al-Amri, Adel al-Jubeii.  Directed by Erica Gornall

 

Saudi Arabia is a country that many have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, it has been one of the staunchest allies of the United States in the Middle East. On the other hand, the 9/11 terrorists all hailed from there. On the negative side, women have been subjugated to a large degree. On the positive side, there are signs that this could be easing.

For years it was illegal for women to drive an automobile in Saudi Arabia. To get where they wanted or needed to go, they had to rely on male family members, taxis or Uber drivers. One woman describes the fear she felt; her husband was frequently away on business and they had a daughter who suffered from Type 1 diabetes and for whom severe medical issues were a real possibility. However, that ban was lifted in 2017 by order of King Salman, taking effect in June of 2018.

The effect of the lifting of the band was just about immediate. Young Sarah Saleh, who worked at a Ford dealership in the capital city of Riyadh, was immediately moved to the sales floor, the male managers feeling that she would better understand the needs of women who would come to the dealership to buy their own car. She decided to get a license herself and to do that she enrolled at the Saudi Women’s Driving School. There is an unintentionally hilarious moment when Saleh admits that her dream car is a Ford Taurus.

The school is one of the largest of its kind in the world; over 700 female instructors utilizing a fleet of 250 cars are trying to get through the backlog of women who are clamoring to qualify for a license of their own. Gornall often uses drone cameras to show overhead shots of the complex which is massive.

Gornall mainly focuses on three women whose lives are profoundly affected by the new-found freedom. In addition to Saleh, we meet Amjad al-Amri, an aspiring race car driver as well as Shahad al-Humaizi, an Uber driver who often picks up male clients who have varying reactions to being driven by a female driver. Some are clearly uncomfortable; Saudi society has largely been segregated for decades and some men feel that’s the way things should be. Amal, an instructor at the driving school, sits quietly alongside her husband as he speaks for the both of them; it is something he is clearly used to and takes for granted. She just as clearly doesn’t agree with his pronouncements and the moment is a little awkward.

Gornall was given unprecedented access to the driving school in Riyadh as well as to a variety of women (and men) commenting on the new changes. Many men are unhappy with it but resigned to accept it because the King has decreed it. One police officer in an audio-only interview flat out states that he won’t allow his wife to drive, essentially because he doesn’t want other men looking at her, although in full burka and hijab there really isn’t a whole lot to see.

I also couldn’t shake the feeling that in this attempt at transparency that there was more than a little spin control going on here. Following the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Kingdom could use some good press and I couldn’t help but wonder if this was an effort to distract from that black eye to the Saudi reputation

Gornall also notes that several activists who had been pushing for restoring the right of Saudi women to drive were abruptly arrested just weeks before the ban was lifted; they all remain jailed with reports that some of them have been tortured. All were recently branded as traitors by the Saudi government, which feels a bit excessive considering all they were doing was advocating for a change that was already going to take effect – or at least, that’s how it’s presented. We don’t get any comment from a representative of the Kingdom on the matter.

Nonetheless, there is a lot of value here, particularly in seeing how this one thing we take for granted has such an extraordinary effect on the lives and self-images of these women. Yes, they have a very long way to go (the film spends a bit of time on the repressive Guardianship laws, in which women cannot marry, travel or attend school without the permission of a guardian, usually a family member and always male and despite continued calls for the laws to be repealed, there’s no sign that’s going to happen anytime soon. While I get the sense that the Saudi government allowed a certain amount of questioning of policy, I don’t think the filmmakers got as deep into the subject as they would have liked to.

REASONS TO SEE: A look at Saudi Arabia few ever get to see.
REASONS TO AVOID: Feels a little bit like spin control.
FAMILY VALUES: There is nothing here you couldn’t show to the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Saudi Arabia is a monarchy with absolute power invested in the king; it was King Salman who made the decision to rescind the ban on driving for women in 2017.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/4/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Soufra
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Badland