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"Sick Around The World": Lessons to learn from other health care systems

Last night I joined activists, health care professionals, and interested New Yorkers at a screening of “Sick Around The World,” hosted by NYC for Change. In the upstairs party lounge, all the attendees sat down and introduced themselves to the group before the film began. It was nice to get a feel for my audience mates: among them were doctors, lawyers, Obama campaign vets, and social workers.

I first heard about the film in relation to the screening. The quick synopsis read: “*FRONTLINE* teams up with veteran *Washington Post* foreign correspondent T.R.Reid to find out how 5 capitalist democracies *the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany, Taiwan and Switzerland* -- deliver health care, and what the United States might learn from their successes and their failures.”

I couldn’t help but think, despairingly, “Is this going to be like Sicko?”

Not that I didn’t like Sicko; I cried at least once when I watched Michael Moore’s similarly structured take on U.S. health care. But, liberal me, I was a convert before I rented the DVD. And I found all my conversations about health care with non-converts to be just as frustrating as before. After all, Moore is notoriously biased, tending to engender knee-jerk dismissal of all his ideas from conservatives. Their biggest complaint - that he didn’t show any downsides to the health care systems in Canada, the U.K., France, and Cuba - was perfectly viable.

So I was delighted that “Sick Around The World” addressed these concerns. T.R. Reid, a veteran foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, frequent commentator on NPR, and author of nine books, is the film’s guide. In each country he visits, he examines the health care system more objectively. He speaks with more than one health care expert. He asks for budgetary figures. He specifically solicits criticisms of each system by patients, doctors, and company executives. He gives the audience a realistic idea of each system, refusing to idealize them.

My favorite case was Taiwan: the story of starting a health care system from scratch, going from over half uninsured to universally insured. While we may not be able to do the same thing in the U.S., the idea is certainly appealing: it shows us that re-imagining things actually is possible.

My biggest problem with the film was that it assumed the audience knew how broken the U.S. health care system is. Sure, a few facts were thrown in (we’re ranked 37th for health care internationally). But it would have been nice to get at least the same level of inspection of the U.S. system as the other countries. Otherwise, my conservative friends get to continue saying “I don’t see anything wrong with the system we have.” One Swiss woman at the gathering, for example, told us that her husband’s health care (provided by his U.S. job) is better than the Swiss coverage they previously had.

So if people have jobs, they have little reason to worry about health care? That’s not what NYC for Change thinks. That’s not what I think. What about you?

Watch the film online, rent/watch it on Netflix, and tell us what you think!

The Price of Pleasure - How porn affects us all

I have never watched porn, but it deeply affects my life.

Yours, too.

How? Chyng Sun’s documentary, The Price of Pleasure: Pornography, Sexuality & Relationships, showed me. Through its elegant and engaging examination of mainstream pornography, the film vividly showed me how my most frustrating personal and political battles as a woman are illustrated in and perpetuated by the way in which most pornography depicts sex.

Presented by the filmmakers on Wednesday at The Brecht Forum, the film explores pornography as part of a larger structure: a capitalist, white, heterosexual, male dominated culture. As an industry that generates more revenue in the United States than professional sports, porn certainly fulfills a need: it allows people to explore fantasy and sexual fulfillment without judgment or rejection. So what does it mean that the vast majority of top-selling pornographic films depict verbal and physical abuse toward women?

And women are just the most commonly exploited group; Sun points out that pornography is full of all kinds of discrimination, including entire specialized markets for overtly racist porn.

But… it’s okay to fantasize, right?

Not really. The thing about porn is that it reflects our existing attitudes about gender, sexuality, and relationships. And it shapes them, too. As mainstream media increasingly adopts pornographic images (within advertising, music videos, television, and film) these ideas become more prevalent and acceptable.

At the end of the screening, director Chyng Sun, co-writer Robert Wosnitzer, and their guest speaker Tess Fraad-Wolff kicked off the discussion by divulging their personal relationships to the film and its content. Audience responses to the film ranged from activist questions to healthy debate about censorship. But the comment that really stuck with me was from a young man who simply told the entire room of people his incredibly personal, poignant story about how porn affected his attitudes about sex and his relationships with women. Perhaps it resonated so much because, as the filmmakers suggest, the best way to combat skewed sexual depictions is to have honest conversations about them.

Both the film and discussion were thoughtful, useful, and meaningful. If you missed the screening and you want to watch the film, I will gladly host another one.

The Day The Earth Caught Fire: the press and global panic in 1962 and now

The small library on the fifth floor of the New York Society for Ethical Culture was filled with several rows of chairs. A microwave in the back popped corn on a table full of little goodies while people guarded quickly disappearing seats. At the front of the room, the projector sat on a small table, showing us the DVD menu for Val Guest’s 1962 sci-fi film The Day The Earth Caught Fire. After a brief introduction, the lights were extinguished and the film began.

In a sepia prologue, a sweaty reporter stumbles through a nearly deserted world to his desk, where he dictates a story, transporting us to fourteen days earlier. In the same – now busy – newsroom, we follow the reporter, Peter Stenning. Bit by bit, we learn that two nuclear tests conducted simultaneously by the Soviets and Americans have altered the earth’s orbit and axis, and the world is moving towards the sun.

Peter aspires to write for the paper, London’s Daily Express, but his wishes are constantly ignored and he is given more menial fact-finding missions. On a day off, he runs into Jeannie Craig, a comely switchboard operator at the paper. His obvious advances are interrupted by a sudden fog that covers London, and the pair focus on making it back to Jeannie’s place safely. As soon as they do, Peter continues his blunt, forceful attempts to bed Jeannie, which she roundly rejects, banishing him to sleep the bathroom. Then, the second he stops trying, she inexplicably changes her mind.

Days later, Jeannie calls Peter to arrange a secret meeting, where she reveals to him off the record that she has overheard confidential phone calls confirming that the earth’s changes are the fault of the scientists testing the bombs. Betraying her trust, Peter reveals the secret and Daily Express prints the news.

The government responds to the crisis with loudspeaker announcements by the Prime Minister. As water supplies disappear, the government enforces rations and many urbanites flee to the countryside. Eventually the scientists decide to orchestrate additional blasts in Siberia in an attempt to return the earth to its natural orbit. The film ends moments after the new blasts occur leaving us to wonder whether they have worked - both versions of the story are at the press, ready to be printed.

While we’re now used to more sophisticated special effects, the winds, temperature surges, fog, melting ice caps, droughts and flooding certainly strike a modern chord. The drastic changes in weather are so close to our current global warming predictions that I don’t feel entirely comfortable calling the film science fiction. (Just last week, I read more frightening reports of droughts happening worldwide.) The film imagines government regulation of water, while in fact we currently have a water crisis essentially regulated by corporations (see documentary films like 2008 Sundance favorite Flow

After the film, our host led a discussion about the ethical dilemmas presented by Val Guest, naming freedom of press and confidentiality issues the most important. “Was it right for Peter to print what Jeannie said off the record?” She compared the situation to Deep Throat, the pseudonym given to the anonymous informant in the Watergate investigation. Many people concurred that Peter’s breach of trust was excusable because of the information’s importance: the world was ending. Okay, true. But what if the world wasn’t ending? Would the public deserve that information any less? That black-white line is rarely present in journalism, which is why Peter’s dilemma is so important.

One audience member actually disagreed, but on the grounds that they wouldn’t want to know if the world was ending. “I would be panicked for the rest of my time on Earth,” they explained. So, ignorance is the answer? I have noticed that many people – myself often included – prefer a general sense of doom to specific, identifiable terror. But that attitude is precisely what stops us from mobilizing to correct injustices; apathy and lack of information certainly make me feel ineffectual.

I was glad, then, that the film’s hero is a reporter: Peter and his coworkers represent an ideal public in that they are neither in power nor apathetic. I’ve noticed that many end-of-world films are told from - or heavily feature - the perspective of those in a position of power (Armageddon, for example, is told from the perspective of NASA and its recruits). Instead, we are kept out of this loop and experience the government from the citizen’s perspective: through the Prime Minister’s announcements and governmental regulations. And while those at the Daily Express are not making the decisions, they strive to unearth facts and inform others.

Another key issue brought up by the film lies in its premise. The series of events leading to Earth’s certain destruction is caused not by nuclear warfare, but nuclear testing. Without intending to, the world’s superpowers compromised the entire planet with both their weaponry and their rivalry. This victimized perspective is more strongly felt since the consequences are explored in London, where no tests were being performed. Is it ironic that the solution is to set off another bomb? Maybe. But it doesn’t detract from Guest’s suggestion: the world-saving blasts in the end are organized through international collaboration. The collectivism is driven home through a montage of the countdown occurring throughout the world. The point, then, is that technology can be used for good or bad, and depends on our intentions.

It was strange to see that there was never total chaos. Even after the papers began reporting the story, panic remained relatively contained. There was no protest to the government hiding facts; nobody seriously questioned the water rationing; what little chaos we saw was devoid of politics (young people throwing water around, looting, and looking pretty carefree). But the news reports did have some major impact: the government began speaking directly to the people, and the final blast countdown was broadcast to everyone.

That’s all well and good. What troubled me in the end was the way the newspaper dealt with the situation. As the paper prepares to take the story public, the editor tells the reporters to keep their tone positive. I chuckled, recalling mainstream media’s coverage of our current economic situation in the early fall: It’ll turn around soon, Don’t worry, Keep buying, It’s a fluke, It’s a recession not a depression…

And, more sinister was the ending. Sure, the bombs would work or they wouldn’t. Sure, the paper had to be ready. But how could they already know what they were going to say about it? Obviously the media, even then, had decided what the story was and how it affected the people before it even happened.

Waltz with Bashir


Cartoon documentary? Does that even make sense? With a film like “Waltz with Bashir” it does. I went down the escalator into the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas with no knowledge of the film. I did not even know the film was a cartoon when I entered the popcorn-smelling foyer. But for those of you who are turned off by the idea of sitting in front of a screen watching drawings float around for ninety minutes like I was; please, give this movie a chance.

I do not claim to be an expert on the Middle East conflict, or cartoons for that matter. But the great thing about this film is that you do not need to be. It is not about factual data from the war; it is about human emotion and how people deal with grief. The film is also strikingly unbiased: there is no Zionist propaganda and it is not a war cry for Palestinians.

The film follows the director, Ari Folman, on his journey to remember his experience as an Israeli soldier during the 1982 Lebanon War. Folman knows that he was in Lebanon, but he cannot recall specific memories of the war. He has a recurring dream of seeing the destroyed buildings of Beirut from the Mediterranean Sea, but no one else can recall this memory. This scene is shown throughout the film as an homage of the failed memories of soldiers. To spark his memories he visits his fellow infantrymen, asking about their memories and find that many have the same sorts of loss of memory. Folman recorded audio interviews throughout his journeys and they are the real documentary substance of the film. But the medium of animation allows for half-memories and dreams to become a reality for the viewer. Folman uses animation because it is the only possible method to show poorly remembered dreams and realities. The animation allows Folman and his interviewees to view their memories objectively and to accept their past.

When the credits began I knew I had just seen something of great importance not only for the understanding of past horrific events, but also for the entire filmmaking community. But during my walk up the broken escalator, all I could say was “wow.”

Small Town Values in "Crawford"

"Screening Liberally Big Picture
by Jen Johnson

"Small Town Values." It's big time politics' winning slogan. But what exactly does that mean? And is it even possible for the political machine, so desirous of this wholesome image, to actually value the small town itself?

"Crawford", David Modigliani's documentary about the Texas town of the same name, attempts to answer that question by examining the aftershocks of then-Governor George W. Bush's wholly artificial move to the small hamlet as he prepped for the 2000 election.

Crawford: a documentary from Crawford: The Movie on Vimeo.

Remember Crawford? The quaint Texas burg where Bush publicized his brush-cutting, ranch-walking "roots"? In this film, Modigliani introduces us to the real town and its full-time residents. "Crawford" begins by introducing the audience to the town and a sampling of its residents. Each tells us when they moved to Crawford and why they're there, revealing a bit about themselves and the town: 10 years, good school district. 24 years, loving community. 44 years, Crawford native with six generations buried in the graveyard.

Then we cut to the newest Crawford resident, George Bush. And I couldn't help but wonder, along with the town, "Why?"

Whatever his motives, many townspeople saw his arrival as an opportunity to revive their flailing local economy, long suffering since a severe drought in the 1950s. And as the administration continued, business did pick up as the town experienced tourists of all kinds: political, gawkers, and eventually thousands of protesters.

By focusing on the people of the town rather than pundits or visitors, "Crawford" offers a unique perspective on the Bush administration, media, protests, and political awareness. We find out just where that typical news image of Crawford – the hay bales and farm equipment – is located, and examine whether it misrepresents the town or George W. We hear from fervent Bush supporters, like Crawford's souvenir shop owner, and from his critics, like the school's supposedly "blasphemous" history teacher.

Modigliani's editing heightens the audience's understanding of the residents' emotional journeys, at one point layering protest audio with residents' faces, at another cutting from a packed street to an empty town. Through the film, I felt each character's convictions, confusions, frustrations - whether I agreed with their politics or not.

"Crawford" wisely unfolds from the vantage point of the townspeople, favoring no single view or group. What does become clear is how difficult – and important – it is to be politically aware and active in a community, especially when you have a minority opinion. How does Crawford's history teacher wake up each day, knowing that most of her student's parents do not support her? How should we rise to our own political challenges? "Crawford" will inspire you to consider this, long after the Bush years are but a bitter memory.

Milk, The Biopic and The Lesson

Screening Liberally Big Picture
by Josh Bolotsky

We know what's going to happen almost from the very beginning, because the film tells us: Dianne Feinstein, long before she becomes a Senator, back when she was President of the Board of Supervisors for San Francisco, will speak at a press conference on November 27th, 1978, and announce that City Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man in the United States elected to a major public office, has been shot and killed by former City Supervisor Dan White, along with the Mayor, George Moscone. The crowd moans in shock, disbelief, anger. Cameras flash. This use of archival footage occurs maybe 90 seconds into Gus Van Sant's "Milk," and it's followed by a shot of Milk himself (Sean Penn), maybe a week before the shootings, sitting at his kitchen table alone, recording a tape to be played in the event of his assassination. Cue title card.

"Milk" somehow manages to balance the needs of two very different films for its running time. It is, first of all, an absolutely superb biopic which allows us to feel like we knew Harvey on a first-name basis, helps us to understand what others found so important about him and his work beyond the permanently-earned title of First Openly Gay Office Holder; and a very different film, a meditation on the responsibility activists have to the people who elevated them to position of influence, whether it be via the ballot box, the work of a concerned group of citizens or just the readers of a blog community.

Screening Towards Victory

Sometimes defeat is victory.

That will be the story when California's vile Proposition 8 gets defeated, leaving marriage equality in place in that state.

The folks on No On 8 are working hard to promote awareness of why Prop 8 is such a bad idea. But a political campaign isn't the only way to tell a story.

Films like Freeheld -- which tells the story of a police officer dying of cancer and her partner being denied benefits because they are the same sex -- help. It won the Academy Award, and now screenings around the country are calling attention to discriminatory laws and how they affect people in real ways.

San Francisco's Screening Liberally hosted a showing of Freeheld this weekend. Check out the trailer.

Discussing this film is one more way to remind people to vote No On 8.

Trapped in Section 60: An Interview with the Directors of "Section 60: Arlington National Cemetery"

Screening Liberally Big Picture
by Katie Halper

(Disclaimer: Katie's interview subject, director Matt O'Neill, is also a co-founder of Living Liberally.)

Most Americans have never heard of Section 60, let alone visited it. But tonight, thanks to filmmakers Jon Alpert and Matt O’Neill, you can get a glimpse of the area in Arlington National Cemetery where the men and women who have died fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq are buried. Section 60: Arlington National Cemetery is the third of a trilogy of collaborations between the filmmakers and HBO that capture the costs of the current wars. Section 60, in fact, picks up where Baghdad ER left off. The tragic death from shrapnel wounds of 21-year-old Lance Cpl. Robert T. Mininger comes at the unforgettable end of Baghdad ER. Their latest documentary opens with a mother visiting the grave of her son “Bobby.” Unlike like the action-packed Baghdad ER or the stylized Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq, Section 60 offers an almost unmediated view into the lives of the men and women, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, husbands and wives, who, week after week, day after day, find solace, community, and a place to grieve visiting their lost loved ones in Section 60.

The Emmy Award-winning directors are based in NY out of DCTV. Yesterday they were in Washington D.C. to attend a special TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors) screening of their film at the Navy Memorial. I caught up with Alpert and O’Neill over the phone as they got ready for the screening and talked to me about why Section 60 matters now, how making this film affected them in a way no other documentary has, and what it’s like feeling “trapped in Section 60.”

Check out Section 60 on HBO at the screening times linked here.

The Reason Many Of Us Are In Politics

Exciting news -- next Tuesday, October 14th, Screening Liberally invites you to the NY premiere of W. - the Oliver Stone flick about the man who brought so many of us into politics.

We promise it won't be a lame night as we roast this lame duck. Come and join us.

You will need a pass -- and to get it, you've got to come to us.

Get your complimentary pass for two by coming to:
- Drinking Liberally - Thursday Oct 9th - 7:30 onward at Rudy's on 9th between 44th & 45th
- Laughing Liberally - Monday Oct 13th - 8pm at The Grisley Pear on MacDougal between Bleecker and West 3rd.

We'll be giving out 50 passes at each event. And passes don't guarantee admission -- you'll still need to get there a little early. While we can't yet tell you where it will be, we can say it will be at a midtown Manhattan theater at 7:30pm.

We will have a happy hour post-film TBA.

More about "W.":

Whether you love him or hate him, there is no question that George W. Bush is one of the most controversial public figures in recent memory. In an unprecedented undertaking, acclaimed director Oliver Stone is bringing the life of our 43rd President to the big screen as only he can. W. takes viewers through Bush's eventful life -- his struggles and triumphs, how he found both his wife and his faith, and of course the critical days leading up to his decision to invade Iraq.

How Choke Chokes

Screening Liberally Big Picture
by Josh Bolotsky

If you went to a public high school, then you've met this kid before. It's that simple.

You know the one - trying so hard to sell himself as the pervy class clown with a secret heart of gold. The routine is simple enough: he makes a few unsavory wisecracks cracks about gonorrhea during health class, but, when lunchtime rolls around, he can be found sitting alone at the table towards the back of the cafeteria, writing feverishly in a mead composition journal, trying so hard to look pained and, well, sensitive, earnest, quietly perceptive and bittersweetly melancholic without seeming too lugubrious.

In other words, hoping against hope that someone will ask him what, exactly, he's writing, so he can half-smile, blush as he looks at the floor and stage-mutters, "just some poem, it's not, I mean, it's nothing special." Hoping against hope that the inquisitor will let out a wide-eyed and wide-grinned non-ironic "Really...?" and beg to read it. And when, after much further faux-protestation, he gives in and does read a verse, the whole school, nay, the whole town will see what a vibrant, insightful heart he really has, will see that he's not just this joker in an 80s metal t-shirt - it just takes one poem read out loud in a cafeteria and they'll all overlook his awful remarks about his female classmates' bodies, all the gym class "joking" that really constituted a minor reign of terror, and just, somehow, write all of it off as a self-defense mechanism, will just know that he means well and is so inconceivably lonely.