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LA Fest documentaries reviews

Feuding Anthropologists, an Elephant who got away, The abuse of Vlast, and Rich space cadets

This year's LA Film Festival had a particularly strong slate of documentaries.
and the following are a few mini-reviews of the creme-de-la-creme.

"SECRETS OF THE TRIBE" compiled and directed by Brazilian filmmaker José Padilha,
is a very thought-provoking documentary focusing on the interference of academic anthropologists in the life of an extremely primitive tribe in the Amazon jungle, the Yanomami, in ways that has threatened the very survival of these people. It is also about the squabbles and scandals among these so-called social scientists, arguing over the authenticity of their "findings", with some soul-searching thrown in as regards the irreparable damage they have been inflicting on the people they are theoretically investigating in the name of "the advancement of science".
One French anthropologist, a gay disciple of the famous French anthropological theoretician, Levi Strauss, spent 25 years among the Yanomami, apparently teaching the young boys of the tribe the fine points of European paedophilia. An American scholar went down to the Amazon and came back with a Yanomami wife with whom he has fathered three children who can't count past two -- the highest number in the Yanomami language. However he was black-balled from the academic community and couldn't find a teaching job. (You ain't supposed to marry these people --you're just supposed to write papers about them...) -- Made me shudder since I was once an "anthro" major myself!

"One Lucky Elephant"
"ONE LUCKY ELEPHANT" is a unique documentary starring elephants, one female in particular, who will break your heart if nothing else. The fortunate elephant in question is Lorna, a lovable pachyderm who was released from a life sentence as a St. Louis circus slave at the age of seventeen by her keeper and trainer who had fallen deeply in love with her -- and turned over to an Elephant refuge where she could live out the rest of her days free to roam greener pastures in the company of other four legged creatures of her own kind. The film is mainly about the separation that broke the former keeper's heart -- David, now aging and wheel-chair bound -- because the refuge decided that Lorna was suffering from post captivity trauma and needed to unbond from her two-legged companion in order to resume normal elephanthood -- therefore, no visiting privileges! In all seriousness, this is a truly touching, one-of-a-kind film, and obviously a labor of love as well as a plea for intelligent animal rights,
by lady director Lisa Leeman, who took ten years to film it. To be seen ASAP, and Lorna should get some kind of special Oscar. One wonders what Sabu would think about all this ...

"Vlast" (director/producer Cathryn Collins) means "power" in Russian and this review of the persecution, high profile trial, and eventual imprisonment of a Jewish oligarch-entrepreneur, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, makes the case that the new Russia, under the power of Vladimir Putin, former ace agent of the dreaded KGB, is now worse off than it was under Communism.
Following the regime change in the early nineties Khodorowsky, along with many others, became an overnight billionaire when he took over the petroleum giant Promos. When he got a little too big for his boots and started making noises about true political reform, even suggesting that he might run for office -- he and his followers were either hounded into exile or put into prison. Interviews with his defense lawyer, now living in the US, are particularly telling about the new Russian abuse of power at the highest levels, and the entire tenor of the film is set at the very beginning by an elderly Russian lady in a protesting crowd who exclaims "Vote for Putin? --Are you kidding! --We knew what would happen if the KGB ever got back in power..."
Director Cathryn Collins had no filmmaking experience before this, but did have a long term interest in the Soviet Union, and the result is a remarkably professional, informative, and rather terrifying piece of documentary filmmaking.

"Space Tourists", is a Swiss documentary directed for HBO by Christian Frei
on the recent trend to ultra high-end commercial tourism into space. The film takes us to the middle of nowhere in central Asia, to the decaying Russian Space complex at Baikanur, Kazakhstan, where launches up to the orbiting International Space Station, ISS, are staged. In 2004 an American woman of Persian heritage was the first female Space Tourist at Baikanur.
Anushka Anisin, an Iranian-American engineer, grew up with the dream of going up into space from early childhood in Iran, and was accepted by the Russians as the first female space tourist. Says Anushka, "Even it were a one-way trip I would still do it and give up my life for the experience". She sees a need for the human race to expand into space (as a Backup File) if it is to survive, as conditions on earth become more and more threatening to the species. The details of Zero Gravity living in space are shown in graphic detail, including the intake of floating liquids and the use of the space toilet -- obvious, says she pointing to the familiar contraption, where one has to be strapped down to perform the function in question -- if it's number two. She is so enthralled by the experience that she wishes it would never end and is reluctant to return to earth, but meanwhile back down on earth scattered pieces of the launch rocket -- fairly valuable space junk -- are found, cut up, utilized as dinner utensils, or sold off for their rare metals content by the local people out there on the endless tundra.
Hungarian-American Billionaire Charles Simonyi is also in there, but only in a minor role tacked on toward the end. It mostly shows him bycicling around in the snow in the Star City training center near Moscow, while preparing for his first space shot, which took place later.
The morale of the tale: You too can spend a week orbiting weightlessly on the International (i.e., Russian) Space Station (ISS), as long as you can handle a $20,000,000 dollar tab and can endure a rigorous physical training program

Alex Deleon in L.A..

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