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Time for the Rocky Mountain Womens Film Festival

click to enlarge One of the stars of Shelter Dogs, a documentary about a small animal shelter in upstate New York
  • One of the stars of Shelter Dogs, a documentary about a small animal shelter in upstate New York

A sure sign of autumn, following the time change every year, is the Rocky Mountain Women's Film Festival, held the first weekend in November beneath the golden elms of North Cascade Avenue, at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center and Colorado College's Armstrong Theatre.

This year, the festival features 23 films ranging from The Ball, a five-minute short from Australia, to Risk/Reward, an 87-minute exploration of women working in the high-powered world of Wall Street.

Following are previews of six of the festival's featured films, all documentaries.

Ashtanga, NY
(40 minutes)

A brisk and informative look at the intersection of modern life in New York City and the ancient practice of Ashtanga yoga, this film was shot over four weeks in September 2001, when Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, better known as Guruji, came from Mysore, India, to New York City to teach, possibly for the last time, at a SoHo studio. Among his students were actors Willem Dafoe and Gwyneth Paltrow, who are interviewed in the film.

Ashtanga, NY provides a colorful glance into the vigorous physical practice of Ashtanga, and switches gears when the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 draw practitioners to the studio for spiritual guidance and comfort.

The students' affection for Guruji animates the film. Paltrow describes him as "really cute," and many scenes feature the elder teacher counting aloud and helping his devotees attain difficult postures. After Sept. 11, his presence becomes a soothing balm. "He would make sure that he touched everyone," says one of the students.

Amazing footage of Sharath Rangaswamy, Guruji's grandson, a sixth-level Ashtanga master whose postures defy the mere fact of bones. KCE

The Day My God Died
(70 minutes)

This is one of those documentaries that grab you with the juxtaposition of cold, hard numbers and close-ups of beautiful human faces. The subject is the sex slave trade in Nepal, where an estimated 2,500 young girls disappear daily and are transported to brothels in Bombay, India, where they are raped, beaten and tortured if they refuse to provide sexual favors that will profit their captors. Years later, many of them are released and sent home, usually infected with AIDS, but hundreds of thousands remain in Bombay.

Meena, Anita and Maile are three of those Nepalese girls. Meena attends a local fair, is offered a ride on a bus and ends up in a Bombay brothel. Anita accepts a ride, supposedly to Katmandu, and is transported to the same place. Maile, seeking medical help for her sick daughter, accepts a train ride to India that culminates in Bombay where she is sold for 50,000 rupees.

Narrated by Tim Robbins, the film offers disturbing data, including the fact that 50,000 sex slaves are brought into the United States each year, according to an FBI report.

The film and the women are redeemed by the final scenes where we are introduced to Maili Lama, a woman sold at 19 who now goes into the brothels to rescue captive girls, and Anuradha Koirala, founder and director of Maiti Nepal, an organization formed to abolish child sex slavery. We see startling footage of a raid that shows the secret passageways where girls are hidden, and we see a hospice established by Koirala where girls can come and die with dignity, surrounded by others like them who love them and don't pass judgment.

Shocking and heart-wrenching, The Day My God Died wisely focuses, in the end, on grass-roots efforts to warn Nepalese to watch out for their daughters, and on the strength and resiliency of the girls who come home, including Maile, escapee turned activist, who, we are told, recently received a major human rights award. -- KCE

The Day My God Died producer Geralyn White-Dreyfous will introduce her film and will participate in the Filmmakers' Forum.

MAMA/M.A.M.A
(100 minutes)

In her director's statement, Nonny de la Pea writes: "The investigative story is all about the cost -- to the environment, to animals, to people. In my films I try to convey what the reality looks like, even when it exposes a terribly painful place."

As an investigation of three families accused of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, de la Pea's film exposes a terribly painful place -- a world where women are accused of deliberately making their children sick in order to gain the sympathy and interest of the medical establishment.

De la Pea is trained as a journalist and it shows. Piece by piece, she tells the stories of three families, two in the United States and one in Britain, who are accused of this disorder and have their children taken from them. Through interviews with the parents, with medical examiners, with the accusers and with credible professionals who doubt these diagnoses, de la Pea shows the difficulty that women have in combating this nebulous diagnosis.

All three of these stories are shocking. In the story of the Jones family, the mother was accused of administering unneeded insulin to her baby and then taking the child to the hospital. After a diagnosis of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy was entered with the court, she not only lost that baby and her older son to social services, but when she was pregnant again, the Department of Social Services and the police took her into custody, induced her labor four and a half weeks early, then took the newborn baby away as well. De la Pea's investigation, however, sheds serious doubt on the physical evidence used against Brittany Jones, and whether physical evidence alone can reasonably be used for a diagnosis of MSBP.

In the case of the Alexanders in the U.K., within days of filing a malpractice lawsuit by a mother against a doctor who overdosed her son with Demerol during an operation, the accused doctor began to accuse the mother of "odd" behavior. The child was transferred to a hospital under the care of a doctor who specializes in cases of Munchausen by Proxy and who has experimented on children without their parents' consent to determine what happens if a child has its oxygen supply cut off for short periods of time. Rather than investigating the doctor, the Alexander case turned into a witch hunt where the family lost custody not only of their young son but also of their healthy older daughter. The mother, father and grandmother and advocate for the family were sentenced to prison time, and an investigative journalist looking into the case was accused of aiding the family.

De la Pea shows her most skillful journalistic investigation in the case of the Patrick family, where a baby with multiple birth defects and suffering from severe reflux was brought into the hospital and given the drugs cisapride and metoclopramide for the reflux. Baby Philip gets worse and worse as the doctors struggle to comprehend what could be causing his multiple symptoms, including seizures. Finally, unable to come up with a comprehensive diagnosis, they accuse Philip's mother of Munchausen by Proxy and take the baby away from her. The primary accuser was a prominent gastroenterologist who never examined the child and who has strong ties to the drug manufacturers of metoclopramide. That drug, which was developed for psychotic disorders and has never been tested on children, has side effects similar to those experienced by Philip and many other babies whose mothers are accused of Munchausen by Proxy. The child died some six weeks later. The mother was exonerated but is haunted by the medical examiner's report that the child had bedsores on the back of his head, indicating that he hadn't been moved or held in the weeks before his death.

MAMA/M.A.M.A. is a documentary with strong journalistic integrity, and one that becomes all the more powerful for its careful examination of the facts surrounding the cases. Although it is difficult to watch, this is an authoritative film on a critically important subject -- all that you could hope a documentary could be. -- AL

Partners of the Heart
(58 minutes)

In 1944 the first "blue baby" heart surgery was performed at Johns Hopkins University. Performing the surgery was Dr. Alfred Blalock, the chief of surgery at the University. Standing on a stool above him was his most important assistant -- Vivien Thomas, a black man who had only a high school education and was trained as a carpenter. Thomas had worked together with Blalock for years, performing this operation on laboratory animals, developing the instruments used for the operation, and finally guiding Blalock through the procedure.

Despite the immense barriers of race and class, this team forever changed surgery as we know it in the United States and the world.

Although these two men revolutionized medicine, they did not revolutionize race relationships. While Blalock was celebrated at Johns Hopkins, Thomas was not allowed in the cafeteria. While Blalock grew wealthy in his pursuits, Thomas took a second job bartending to make ends meet. Nevertheless, it was Thomas who trained two generations of heart surgeons, now running the most prestigious medical centers in the country.

Partners of the Heart is part documentary and part docu-drama. Producer, director and writer Andrea Kalin works with a good team, including actor Morgan Freeman who authoritatively narrates the film. Ultimately, the work is most fascinating for the tender understanding of both men, united in their love for and skill in medicine while divided in their worlds beyond the lab. Without being over-sentimentalized, Partners of the Heart makes it abundantly clear that people can accomplish remarkable feats within deep social constraints, and that we owe a debt of gratitude to these two men for their partnership. -- AL

click to enlarge Heroines of the Civil Rights movement and stars of Standing on My Sisters Shoulders.
  • Heroines of the Civil Rights movement and stars of Standing on My Sisters Shoulders.

Partners of the Heart director Andrea Kalin will introduce her film and will participate in the Filmmakers' Forum.

Shelter Dogs
(73 minutes)

As no-kill shelters for animals have grown in popularity in the United States, thousands of dogs end up spending their lives in chain-link kennels surrounded by other barking, psychotic dogs. This documentary follows three years of a small nonprofit shelter in upstate New York as its owner and staff grapple with the problem of how to deal with unwanted, unadoptable or downright dangerous dogs.

There are several important characters in this documentary, and only a few of them are human. The most critical is the shelter's owner, Sue Sternberg. As the one with the final responsibility for the dogs, it is she who decides which dogs must be euthanized or whether an animal is safe to be put out in society again.

The other major characters in the documentary are four dogs -- one who is difficult to adopt out because she cannot be with other dogs or with cats, one who is aggressive about toys and food, a gorgeous young Doberman with a serious spinal condition, and an elderly dog who no one wishes to adopt because she is 10 years old. The fate of each dog is different, although three-quarters of the stories end happily. And even the dog who gets euthanized is treated with as much kindness as possible -- he gets to have McDonald's treats as a last meal, a special way of sending him off to the great beyond, and is stroked, petted and comforted to the end.

The struggles that Sternberg and her staff undertake while trying to be as kind as possible to the animals are the kinds of moral dilemmas that only a saint would seek. As the shelter owner notes at one point: "If I have to go to purgatory and all the dogs I've had euthanized are there, will they thank me, or will they hate me?"

With these stories being repeated literally millions of times annually in the United States, this microcosm story is a powerful look at a dirty little problem that we're mostly happy to let happen behind closed doors. -- AL

Shelter Dogs producer Heidi Reinberg will introduce her film and will participate in the Filmmakers' Forum.

Standing on My Sisters' Shoulders
(60 minutes)

Standing on My Sisters' Shoulders is a big, gospel experience of a film -- jubilant, proud and built on suffering. It celebrates the unsung heroines of the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi in the 1950s and 1960s, the everyday women who emerged as the movement's grass-roots leaders and changed American history forever.

"Joan Sadoff (producer) really started it," said Laura Lipson who directed, wrote and co-produced the film. "She had seen a documentary on the Civil Rights movement and the image of a burning bus, and decided she wanted to learn more about the movement."

Sadoff, a former social worker, and her husband Robert, a psychiatrist, traveled to Mississippi and first shot a documentary on the town of Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil rights activists were murdered in the early '60s. There, in search of local women who were involved in the movement, they found someone who said, "If you have a tape recorder, we've got stories."

Lipson was brought in to shoot more footage, and to give dramatic shape to the film. The result is riveting -- portraits of women raised in poverty, sharecroppers and servants brave enough to risk their lives in the struggle for the right to vote.

Their words are daggers, spoken barely 40 years ago, a fact hard to comprehend but so important to remember. As Annie Devine, one of the founders of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party put it, "I said, 'America, you need to look at your soul.'"

June Johnson, who was 14 years old when she attended a movement workshop in Winona, Miss., tells the terrifying tale of joining activist Fannie Lou Hamer in an act of civil disobedience and being arrested and beaten for writing down the license plate number of a state highway patrol car. "A man slipped a card in my hand," she says. "It said, 'The Eyes of the Klan are upon you. You have been identified by the Knights of the KKK. '"

The film has drawn awards at the Atlanta Film Festival, the Savannah Film Festival and at the Ojai Film Festival in California where it received the "Enriching the Human Spirit Through Film" theme prize.

But Lipson says the most gratifying moment for her came with a student who screened the film.

"He said he's never voted before," she said, "But he said he would now because [after watching the film he knew that] people had died for his right to vote." -- KCE

Standing on My Sisters' Shoulders director/co-producer Laura Lipson will introduce her film and will participate in the Filmmakers' Forum.

capsule

Film Schedule:

Ashtanga, NY

Saturday, Nov. 8, 8-10:15 a.m. block, Fine Arts Center

Sunday, Nov. 9, 11:10 a.m. to 12:40 p.m. block, Fine Arts Center

The Day My God Died Saturday, Nov. 8, 8-10:15 a.m. block, Fine Arts Center

Shelter Dogs Saturday, Nov. 8, 10:40 a.m. to 12:35 p.m. block, Fine Arts Center Sunday, Nov. 9, 3:20-5 p.m. block, Fine Arts Center

Standing on My Sisters' Shoulders Saturday, Nov. 8, 8-10:15 a.m. block, Armstrong Theatre

Mama/M.A.M.A. Sunday, Nov. 9, 9-10:55 a.m. block, Fine Arts Center

Partners of the Heart Sunday, Nov. 9, 1:40-3:05 p.m. block, Fine Arts Center

Tickets for the RMWFF may be purchased in person at the box office at the Fine Arts Center, 30 West Dale St., or by calling 634-5583.

For ticket prices and a full festival schedule, go to www.rmwfilmfest.org.

  • Time for the Rocky Mountain Womens Film Festival

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