Own the Room


Rehearsing the pitch.

(2021) Documentary (National Geographic) Henry Onyango, Daniela Blanco, Alondra Toledo, Santosh Pandey, Jason Hadzikosas, Miguel Modestino, Fernando Toledo, Maria Blanco, Patricia Castillo, Tyler Olson, Kunda Divit, Huston Malande, Eddie Alvarado, Gustavo Fuga, Alberto Soto-Benitez, Damarie Toledo. Directed by Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster

 

It is indescribably difficult to get a business off the ground, particularly one that is operating with ideas outside the box. As television shows like Shark Tank show, most of these businesses fail within the first year because of a lack of capital to bankroll the operation. When you’re a young person without a history of innovation and business experience, it is doubly hard. That’s why there is an international competition known as the Global Student Entrepreneur Award.

This award annually gives $100,000 to the student whose idea and business plan impresses the judges the most. For many of the students that participate, the money means the difference between survival and closing the doors of the nascent business they’ve started.

This documentary, currently streaming on the Disney Plus service, focuses on five entrants into the competition; Santosh Pandey from Nepal has a business that allows ex-pats from Nepal (who have lost a high number of workers who have emigrated all over the world to find work to support their families back home) to surprise loved ones in Nepal with impromptu celebrations of birthdays, anniversaries and so on. Daniela Blanco is an immigrant from Venezuela who left her native land when government crackdowns on student protesters made conditions too dangerous for her to continue her studies at home; utilizing a scholarship at New York University, she used her electrical engineering degree to invent a method of using solar power to create the materials to make nylon as opposed to the fossil fuels that the industry currently uses. Her company, Sunthetics, is the key to her remaining in the United States. Jason Hadzikosas is from Greece and has developed an application that uses artificial intelligence to translate the cries of infants and translate them into what the baby is really asking for. His company, Cry2Talk, could revolutionize parenting.

Henry Onyango is a student in Nairobi, Kenya who discovered that there was a serious student housing shortage throughout Kenya and indeed, throughout Africa. An expert coder, he created an app called Roometo that allows students to find housing close to their universities, a kind of Air BnB for the college crowd. Finally, Alondra Toledo from Puerto Rico has developed an application that allows deaf patients to communicate with doctors who don’t understand sign language. Her company is called UnderstHand and given the island’s difficulties following Hurricane Maria, seems to be an important idea that deserves further exploration.

The documentary sticks with the five contestants through the preliminary rounds in their home countries and gathers them in Macao, where the global finals are to take place. We get to know what drives them, what inspires them and how their idea came to fruition. We meet some of their co-workers and family members, and discover that all five are engaging, intelligent and driven to make the world a better place.

There is unexpected drama when one of the contestants is denied entry into Macau initially due to not having enough cash to enter the casino-heavy “Las Vegas of the Orient” but also possibly because of other factors, not the least of which was the candidate’s overly casual style of dress. With the possibility of being deported back to their home country and not being able to present their idea to the judges, the contestant scrambles to find a means of getting into Macao and making it to their presentation slot on time.

The various contestants are all inspiring but the film is pretty much a typical competition documentary in presentation and execution. Still, there’s enough inspiration and innovation from the candidates to make this worth your while and non-fiction cinema enthusiasts will no doubt find this to be of interest.

REASONS TO SEE: Impressive ideas delivered by young people who’ll give you hope for the future.
REASONS TO AVOID: Pretty typical competition documentary.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for the entire family, although there is a brief reference to potential racism.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Own the room” refers to a public speaking truism that to be successful in a presentation, the presenter must be in complete charge and seem knowledgeable and confident, also known as “owning the room.”
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Disney Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/17/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING:Science Fair
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Long Live Rock: Celebrate the Chaos

My Life in China


Father knows best.

Father knows best.

(2014) Documentary (Killer Bunny) Yau King Eng, Kenneth Eng. Directed by Kenneth Eng

Florida Film Festival 2015

Everyone comes from somewhere and nowhere is that more true than the United States. Even the Native Americans migrated over the land bridge from Asia to get here. All of us have a history that begins somewhere else.

Yau King Eng’s story began in China where he grew up under a repressive communist regime. In 1966, he made the decision to leave his impoverished village, his beloved family and everything familiar in his life to make a new and better life for himself in America. The journey was a dangerous one, involving a swim from the mainland to Macau and avoiding Chinese soldiers who weren’t above killing anyone who had the gall to want to leave.

But leave he did and to Boston he did go. At first, finding work was difficult but like many Chinese immigrants he found work in Chinese restaurants, washing dishes and sweeping floors. He worked two and sometimes more jobs, trying to make a better life for his family, eventually saving up enough to buy  a restaurant of his own.

Unfortunately, the American dream didn’t work out the way he thought it would. The restaurant business is a capricious one and a difficult one to find success in. He didn’t find that success, and the restaurant went bankrupt. To this day he continues to work for others in the restaurant business, but deep down he considers himself a failure because his restaurant didn’t make it.

In the meantime, China has prospered and the economic situation there is in many ways better than it is here. Yau decided that he would live the rest of his life out in the land where he was born, but first he would pay it a visit to make sure that this decision was a sound one. His visit back home, to the places that mattered to him, would be chronicled by his son Kenneth, a documentary filmmaker. The two of them together would experience modern China – Kenneth through fresh eyes, his father through the eyes of 1966. Their varying perspectives don’t really constitute the subject here; rather, it is more a journey of discovery for Kenneth as the tales of his father’s struggles in his homeland come to life and he develops a new perspective – and a new respect – for his dad.

Some of the film is quite heartwarming as we witness father and son develop new and stronger bonds between them. Some of the film is a bit harrowing as we are treated to the story of Yau King Eng’s defection and the courage and perseverance it took for him to make the journey. Much of the film, however, is a bit like watching home movies as we see relatives and friends gather, some of whom have found success and even wealth at home, another dagger in the heart of the prodigal son who left. The old men, smoking in kitchens while the women prepare feasts of welcoming, the elders reminiscing about times gone by. In short, very much what happens in YOUR living room when an out-of-town relative visits.

The home movie feel I think is deliberate as Eng not only makes his father’s story an individual one, but connects his family’s story with our own. Yes, ostensibly Eng is trying to tell a singular story but what makes this film successful is that he is able to relate much of it to our own situations, our own families, our own lives.

This isn’t the kind of movie that trumpets thunderous anthems from mountaintops (although the music in the film is quite beautiful), but rather quietly works its way into our hearts and finds the common ground that binds us all. Every family has stories; watching this movie prompting me to ask my mom about hers. Yes, I’m a child of immigrants as well so the movie hit home a lot closer than it might those who are farther removed from their own family’s immigrant experience. Even so, it is the stories of our mothers and fathers that are part of our own stories; understanding those stories help us understand who we are and where we’re from. For that alone, this is must-see viewing. While the movie is just starting to show up on the festival circuit, hopefully it’ll soon play at a film festival near you, or eventually make it onto a broadcast medium. I sure hope so; I’d love to see this movie again.

REASONS TO GO: Nicely illustrates the dichotomy of culture in China. Tells a moving and compelling story. Heartwarming.
REASONS TO STAY: Has a bit of a home movie feel to it, although I think that’s appropriate.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all members of the family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Eng’s last feature-length film, Kokoyaku: High School Baseball received an airing on PBS’ POV series.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/17/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Romantico
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Infini