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Every month, Utne Reader previews a selection of current and upcoming independent film and documentary releases. This sampler was curated by editor in chief Christian Williams. 


Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning
PBS: “American Masters”
(streaming online)

This documentary about influential photographer Dorothea Lange was directed by Dyanna Taylor, Lange’s granddaughter, which gives the film unique access and insight. Taylor traces Lange’s career back to when she was a young girl in New Jersey living with a limp after contracting polio. Despite the slight disability, Lange grew up to be an adventurous woman who landed in San Francisco where she opened a portrait studio and became part of the artistic community which included painter Maynard Dixon. They married and had two kids, and the film explores Lange’s deep battle in finding a balance between her work and her family.

The beginning of the Depression marked her foray into documentary photography. Being on the street gave Lange a different perspective than the portrait photography she was accustomed to, and she soon found herself in the middle of breadlines and protests. Labor economist Paul Taylor noticed her images at an exhibit and hired her to document the labor conditions in California (under the guise of a typist). Working together they produced a report on migrant labor—and fell in love. Lange divorced Dixon and married Taylor with whom she worked to document the Dust Bowl and western migration. The poverty they witnessed astounded Lange and along with her photos, she began taking extensive captions and quotes from the people she captured. She and Taylor were awarded funding by the Farm Security Administration, which is how she came to take her best known photo, Migrant Mother. Of the image Lange comments, “I see it printed all over, prints I haven’t supplied, but it doesn’t belong to me anymore, it belongs to the world.”

She went on to document Japanese internment camps (a job the military hired her for and then fired her for after seeing the images she was making) and the construction of the Monticello dam in California, a project that illustrated the destructiveness of progress. Her journal entries expand on an intense desire to document despite many health problems as well as the personal struggles (and victories) she bore a as wife and a mother.

Throughout the film, as Lange’s black and white images flash across the sky, her process, style, and the meaning of the work take shape. She composed people within the frame, many of whom were living in desperate conditions, in a way that was simultaneously representative of an era and timeless. The photos also exhibit a sense of dignity towards her subjects and many contribute to her legacy as both an artist and activist. Reflecting on her work, Lange comments, “I believe I can see, that I can see straight and true and fast.”

The documentary is airing as part of the “American Masters” series on PBS and can be streamed online. —Katie Moore


First Run Features
(on DVD and VOD)

Altina is the provocative portrait of an American trendsetter whose free spirit defied convention. A woman ahead of her time, Altina Schinasi was born in 1907 in New York City; the daughter of a tobacco tycoon and decedent of Sephardic Jews, she upended the expectations that accompanied her position. Altina was a paradox: simultaneously seductive and reserved, her genteel upbringing was in sharp contrast to the bold sexuality of her art and her life.

In addition to creating whimsical works of art and sculpture, Altina invented the glamorous Harlequin 'cat's-eye' eyeglasses, worn by the likes of Lucille Ball and Peggy Guggenheim, and as well directed an Oscar-nominated documentary about Nazi brutality told through the drawings of German expressionist artist George Grosz. Altina's life was anchored in the social and political issues of the time: helping Jewish refugees escape the Holocaust; providing aid and shelter to friends who were targeted by Joseph McCarthy's Un-American Activities campaign; and being involved early on in the struggles of Martin Luther King Jr. (Distributor summary)

First Run Features
(on DVD)

How did you first learn about sex? Maybe it was a book with colorful illustrations, a talk with Mom or Dad, a corny classroom film, or just a random encounter with a dirty magazine?

Sex(ed): The Movie offers a revealing, occasionally awkward, and often hilarious look at how Americans have learned about sex from the early 1900s to the present. Using clips from an astounding array of sex ed films, this entertaining documentary captures what it was like for the kids—confusion, shock, embarrassment—and as well for those doing the educating (often with moral agendas front and center). (Distributor summary)

The Last Season
First Run Features
(in theaters) 

Directed by Sara Dosa and produced by Josh Penn (Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Great Invisible), The Last Season tells the story of two war veterans—an American sniper who fought in the Vietnam War and a Cambodian Khmer Freedom Fighter who battled the Khmer Rouge—whose lives intersect in the bustling world of Oregon’s wild mushroom hunting trade. While searching for the elusive matsutake mushroom, the two men instead form an unexpected friendship and a means to heal the scarring wounds of war. (Distributor summary)

Miss Hill: Making Dance Matter
First Run Features
(in theaters)

Miss Hill: Making Dance Matter tells the inspiring and largely unknown story of Martha Hill, a visionary whose life was defined by her love for dance, and who successfully fought against great odds to establish modern dance as a legitimate art form in America.

In a career spanning most of the 20th century, Martha Hill became a behind-the-scenes leader of the dance world as the founding director of The Juilliard Dance Division, a position she held from 1952-85. Stylistically weaving together over 90 years of archival footage featuring Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Jose Limon, Pina Bausch, Merce Cunningham, George Balanchine, Antony Tudor and more, the film is a celebration of dance and an examination of the passion required to keep it alive. (Distributor summary)

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