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To me, I find it seemingly hard for people in life to gain influence or to have a perspective on one particular area of life. Temple Grandin, it would appear, was known in two aspects: for her work in creating a more humane system of slaughterhouse in America (in which we learn in the end that half of all slaughterhouses today uses her system); and, more importantly, for her work in autism, as she herself is autistic. This is especially important, cause at the time (60s and 70s), very little was known about autism. If it weren’t for her mother, she would have been institutionalized, and her eventual life’s work would have never occurred.

Not that it was easy. Temple did not like physical human interaction, which upset her mom deeply when all she wanted from her daughter was a hug. She was prone to “go wild”, to put it mildly, in that it only took a slight disturbance in her life to set her off. She only ate jello and pudding, the reason of which she did explain but I couldn’t remember what it was.

But Temple was extremely gifted too despite her autism. She thought in pictures, often times in very literal ways (early on, a mention of walking on water brings an image of Jesus walking on water). She used this to help build her hugging machine, among other things that she constructed in her life, and she did quite a lot of building.

Of equal importance was an empathy that she gained when interacting with animals. She was able to sense when animals were angry or upset, and sought out ways to alleviate their suffering. This became the source of her graduate thesis, and the creation of a system that created a more efficient, but also humane way, of bringing cattle through a slaughterhouse before it was stun-gunned.

By the way, she also has a doctorate.  For a woman with a disability like hers, that is very impressive.

The film covers the whole of her life story, from when she begins college until she completes her graduate thesis and becomes a spokesperson for autism.  Flashbacks are used to help flesh out the story – early childhood, boarding school, etc. – that help give meaning to who Temple is, plus add to the overall story.  There are little animations that accompany some of the instances that Temple sees pictures: most of it is used effectively and doesn’t distract.  It often helps, actually, in showing how Temple views the world.

The film is a little manipulative at times, especially since it doesn’t need to be (do we really need the shot at the end of Temple’s mom crying?).  It occurs rarely though, which is good, compared with other made-for-TV shows (I’m looking at you Lifetime).

Probably the greatest aspect of the movie is Claire Danes at Temple.  She is hardly recognizable, between the bushy hair and the acute walking style she exhibits.  Comparing her voice and demeanor during the film with the making of feature  is astounding.  I do believe she won awards for this role, and rightly so.

The film is available on DVD, so definitely check it out.  Very inspirational and uplifting.

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After seeing Please Give, my friend Liz asked an almost impossible question: is there any good in this world?

This documentary offers an answer that yes, there is some good in this world.

Hilde Back, a Jewish woman living in Sweden after fleeing Germany during the start of World War II, makes a small monthly donation through a program at the elementary school she teaches at to a student in Kenya, Chris Mburu. Chris is at the top of his class, but he can’t attend secondary school on a regular basis because his family is too poor to send him there. The money – only $15 a month – got Chris through school and off to university. He gets his law degree in Kenya.  He goes to Harvard and gets his masters.  He works for the United Nations. He goes back home and decides to start a fund to help other kids to get through school.  The fund would become the Hilde Back Education Fund.  Unfortunately, he hasn’t heard from her in the form of donations in over twenty years.  He decides to track her down through the help of the United Nations.  She is flown to Chris’ home village and a day is dedicated to her.  She is speechless and amazed.

The scholarship fund is awarded to gifted individuals in Kenya in order for them to attend secondary school.  A $40 scholarship, as explained, would be enough for a year of school.  If the the students can get to secondary school, they’re almost guaranteed to get to a university (the University of Nairobi, at least when Chris went to college, was free), but if not, the chances of them being able to escape the poverty they live in becomes almost nothing.  Boys become drug runners and guerrilla soldiers.  Girls are married off and are have an average of 3-4 children, with no possible way to be able to feed so many mouths.  Lack of education would only add to the vicious cycle of violence and poverty, and Chris looks to change that, at least for as many as he can.

The documentary follows three kids: Kiami, Ruth and Caroline.  All three live in poor conditions.  Caroline seems to have it the worst, simply because her family lives on the school property (she is constantly ridiculed for her family having no land).  All three though are brilliant, constantly in the top three of their class, hardly letting their poverty bring them down.  They have nothing, and yet, they have everything.

Their ranking, it would seem, wouldn’t matter when it came to the national achievement tests.  Chris uses a high standard – 380 marks – to determine who would receive the scholarship.  The year will be difficult: presidential elections are looming, and tensions are high between ethnic groups.  The tests look impossible: some of the questions, a mix of English, math, history, and geography, confused me greatly.  Yet this kids are required to know them at twelve and thirteen years old.

Every person in this film touched me in some profound way.  Hilde gave her money (and at 85 years old, continues to do so).  Chris contributed his efforts to bring peace, not just to Kenya, but to everyone around the world.  The kids saddened me, and yet made me hopeful in their drive to succeed.  I won’t give away the ending to the documentary, but is again both sad and hopeful in the same perspective: there is not enough money to send kids to secondary school, but even a small amount will help in getting more and more students the education they need.

This documentary proves the obvious: a small and simple act can have the greatest of consequences for many people.

(While writing this review, I went through the Kristof and Wu Dunn book “Half the Sky” to see if they had anything regarding the Hilde Back Fund.  They didn’t, I would think because of everything else they had to put in their book.  I do plan on sending a tweet to Kristof about this film – hopefully he’ll get it – and he can spread the word to get other people to watch this film (currently on HBO On Demand through September I believe), more so than I can with the few people who read/listen to me.  In the meantime, I found the fund online – http://www.hildebackeducationfund.com/about-us.html – so you can go there and decide for yourself what you want to do.)

The scariest movies, in reality, are not horror movies (especially horror movies today), but are, in my opinion, documentaries, at least ones that focus on a specific individual or group of people that are up to no good.  I’m sure you know the answer why.

Earlier documentaries from this year prove this point: Daniel Ellsberg revealed the ignorance of a properly informed America and how that resulted in the loss of nearly 60,000 military personnel in the Vietnam War, the Art of the Steal showed just how easy it was for politicians and power players to pick apart an individual’s will, and Casino Jack showed us an America ran by money, not by actual thinking men and women.

GASLAND?  This one is scary, and definitely a wake up call, in trying to figure out what America needs to do with its energy crisis.

Josh Fox, the creator of said film, receives a letter from a gas company, asking if they could pay him for the rights to drill the natural gas from his land.  Not sure if $100,000 is worth it, he does some investigating of local towns and counties that have natural gas drilling, in this instance, called hydraulic fracturing, or frakking.  What he finds is devastating: local water supplies ruined because of the natural gas seeping into them; running water that lights up in a pyre of flame; families reporting headaches, animals losing their hair, etc.  It’s enough to make him say no.

The process of hydraulic fracturing, he shows, involves drilling a mix of water and nearly 600 various chemicals – some of them being known carcinogens and harmful to human health – into the ground, causing mini earthquakes that fracture the earth, releasing the stored natural gas for extraction.  A site can be fractured up to eighteen times; the amount of water needed for one fracturing at one well is anywhere from 1-7 million gallons of water.

There are tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of these wells all across the country in various natural gas fields.  You can do the math.

Fox’s journey takes him from his home in northeastern Pennsylvania to across the southern portion of the United States, stopping in places like Forth Worth, Texas, where a new well springs up almost overnight.  He ends up back in Pennsylvania talking with a state senator about what to do about this problem.  The senator was right to peg him about being behind the camera asking questions; Fox’s response is a simple “I’m from Pennsylvania, and this affects me.”

He ends up in Washington, D.C. for a Congressional hearing from various gas companies about the effects of hydraulic fracturing and their effects on the environment – they either feign ignorance or outright say no to questions about their effects.  Fox is quick to point the camera repeatedly on the bottled water that the gas company employees are drinking (one repeated mentioned throughout the film by distressed homeowners about their water is asking these same people to drink it, to which they politely decline as best they can).  Fox, prior to this hearing, is in New York, learning more about a water basin that serves 20 million people that remains untouched but is part of the largest natural gas vein in the eastern half of the country.

That 20 million people, by the way, lies along the Delaware River valley, stretching from southern New York State all the way into Delaware.  Most of my readership (if I have one) lives along this 100-mile length of land: the water we drink comes from this basin.

Fox himself is admirable in his quest for answers.  His narration comes off as stilted, which is bothersome at first but becomes more focused as the film moves forward.  His has a dark humor that emerges – the scene with him playing banjo would be funny if public lands and a gas well weren’t behind him, as well as what he’s wearing as well when he plays – but he’s also serious, and his angered response comes at an appropriate time, when continued disbelief of the stories he hears gives way to “what can we do about this”.

This film is definitely a wake up call.  Well made, informative, and downright scary.  Like all documentaries about the real world should be.

Note: this film is playing on HBO On Demand through September, in their Documentaries section.  Watch it.