Each of our ten shows examines a big idea through the lens of speakers, film and performance.
SHOW 1: THIS IS WHERE WE COME TOGETHER
The Big Idea: Significant breakthroughs in ideas, understanding and human progress often come from the simple act of being in the same place.
SPEAKERS: Roland McCook, Jedidiah Jenkins & Wally Green
FILMS: The Tables - Directed by Jon Bunning | The Talk - Directed by Alain Dellanoy
We’re more polarized than ever, with powerful economic, technological and political forces widening that chasm and adding to the divide. When we don’t engage with anyone outside our own self-chosen silos — on social media or in our everyday — that creates communities without diversity of race, socioeconomic status or thought.
About to turn 30, writer Jedidiah Jenkins set out to bike from Oregon to Patagonia, a 10,000-mile ride that would take 18 months. As he rode south, he learned to connect with all kinds of people, but the hardest person to find common ground with was his own mother. Jenkins’ parents had a long sojourn themselves, crossing America on foot in service of Jesus, but his mother’s devout Christianity meant she deeply disapproved of her son’s homosexuality. Eventually, he learned to come to terms with her on his lengthy ride, a challenge that’s explored thoughtfully and powerfully in his new memoir, To Shake the Sleeping Self.
Sexuality is particularly tricky territory for families, something that is explored in the short, animated documentary The Talk. The film examines the struggles fathers have explaining sex to their sons, revealing how elusive shared space can be when it comes to this topic.
Ping pong is an unexpected venue for connection, but in New York City’s Bryant Park, a pair of all-season tables have created a community of people who otherwise would never have found each other. The short documentary, The Tables, chronicles the odd — and wonderful — relationships that result from being in the same place. If we are going to retain any sense of community and ultimately humanity, it’s ever more essential that we come together.
SHOW 2: HAMSTERS IN A DIAMOND STUDDED, GOLD WHEEL
The Big Idea: How does the influence of affluence and the aspiration to wealth affect our identity and understanding of the American (now global) dream?
SPEAKER: Lauren Greenfield
FILM: Generation Wealth - Directed by Lauren Greenfield
Stables of exotic cars, $20,000 handbags, magnums of champagne, yachts parked in Caribbean waters, plastic surgery for pets and a generation of kids who were raised knowing more about the Kardashians than their actual neighbors. Even America’s president is a former reality television star known for ostentatious displays of wealth and a proclivity for gold.
Over the last few decades, the American Dream has transformed. What was once a desire to make a good life for one’s family is now a limitless hunger to be rich. Values have shifted toward wealth, fame and status, while startling amounts of money are lavished on modern-day palaces, cosmetic surgery and the commodification of sex. The stigma around showing off has diminished; social media and reality television only amplify it. And as excess becomes both more coveted and craven, the dream is turning toxic.
Photographer Lauren Greenfield has been on the front lines of this kind of decadence for 25 years, chronicling everything from the children of affluence in 1980s Beverly Hills to real estate moguls, disgraced hedge fund managers, plastic surgery addicts and porn stars. And what she’s found is that instead of attaining contentment, strivers only crave more as they feed their addiction. Some of Greenfield’s subjects are wealthy beyond imagination; others are working class. But few find what they are ostensibly seeking: happiness. Greenfield doesn’t spare herself either, turning the mirror on her own family as she probes the aspiration gap between what we want and what we can afford.
Now, Greenfield has woven her work together into an epic narrative that offers a startling picture of America’s obsession with wealth. Generation Wealth, a film, retrospective book and art exhibition, is more than an excavation of conspicuous consumption — it’s an indictment of American values and a cautionary tale about the human costs of greed.
SHOW 3: REMEMBER US PLEASE
The Big Idea: How does the capturing of an image affect our understanding of history?
SPEAKERS: Keris Salmon & Jane Rule Burdine
FILMS: Under Her Skin - Directed by Kelsey Bennett & Rémy Bennett | Into My Life - Directed by Ivana Hucíková, Sarah Keeling & Grace Remington
History is skewed by how it’s recorded and of course, by who records it. As a result, the stories of poor and marginalized people are often overlooked if told at all. Artists may not be historians, but what they choose to frame their work around can create indelible portraits that endure despite their omission from history books.
Visual artist Keris Salmon decided to delve into a story that is well-known but in a way, still invisible. The African-American artist is married to a white man whose family owned the largest tobacco plantation in the Antebellum South. When they went down to the “family farm,” she was struck by the beauty of the landscapes and started taking photos. Then she discovered the banal but horrifying remnants of the slave trade bureaucracy: paperwork that explained how families would be torn apart. She juxtaposed the images and scraps of text to create a stunning show titled We Have Made These Lands What They Are.
The people who inhabit a more contemporary but still impoverished Deep South are the lifelong focus of legendary Mississippi photographer Jane Rule Burdine, who stars in the short documentary Under Her Skin. Burdine could have followed the traditional path of a well-to-do Southern debutante, but that bored her. Instead, she channeled her energy into chronicling the people who captivated her, many of whom were poor and African-American. Through images of life both quotidian and significant, her work has captured a way of life.
Beginning in 1965, Elaine Bromfield started filming her family and people in her Brooklyn housing complex. Bromfield’s daughter Cassandra continued this work, and co-directors Ivana Hucíková, Sarah Keeling and Grace Remington have melded their captivating footage into the wondrous short documentary, Into My Life. Cassandra realized that her mother was determined to make sure that her camera did more than just record footage. As she says, “It’s about a life and that’s how I think my mother felt. These are lives. These are people who mattered. Who they are. They matter. She wanted to say we were here. Remember us please.”
SHOW 4: Appetite for Destruction
The ever-deepening assault on our microbiomes is severing the ability for our stomachs to talk to our brains.
SPEAKER: Dr. Zach Bush
FILM: Surprise Screening
If we are what we eat then each of us is, at least a little bit, Roundup. Monsanto’s notorious weed killer, made from the herbicide glyphosate, has sold nearly 19 billion pounds worldwide. Who knows how much each of us has ingested?
Now, there are a series of serious lawsuits winding their way through the courts, using a number of scientific studies that show the link between glyphosate and a host of diseases. One of those studies found unsafe traces in a variety of breakfast cereals, including Cheerios.
Dr. Zach Bush has been looking closely at glyphosate and its impact on human health and is deeply concerned by the rising rates of chronic disease in the U.S. over the last twenty years. A triple-board certified physician, Dr. Bush believes that glyphosate’s harmful impact is just beginning to be understood and that we need to reduce our dependence on farming with these chemicals. For him, the key is what’s happening in our microbiome and that reflects so many other issues throughout our health system.
How we farm is critical to the future of our health so Dr. Bush has begun trying to understand how there can be a resurgence in regenerative agriculture that is chemical-free. He has waded into a raging international debate around glyphosate so it’s not an easy road or without controversy as Monsanto proudly stands by their product, saying that hundreds of studies have validated the safety of Roundup as has the federal government. It is something we need to understand better as this is a massive issue with real ramifications for our global health.
SHOW 5: THE METABOLISM OF RESILIENCE
How we grapple with the challenges of our lives tells us everything that we need to know about ourselves.
SPEAKERS: Ron Suskind & Prince Amponsah
FILM: Prince’s Tale - Directed by Jamie Miller
When Owen Suskind was three, he stopped communicating and was diagnosed with severe autism. Doctors told his parents Ron and Cornelia that this was how life was going to be with their little boy as he aged — cut off and isolated from the world and his family. Fortunately, the story had a happier twist. As it turned out, through repeated deep viewings of Disney films, Owen was learning to build the moral architecture of his world and used the animated fables to reconnect to the real world. The touching story of this remarkable family was told in the brilliant documentary, Life, Animated but what wasn’t really explored in the film was how the Suskinds used the challenges of their own son to impact others.
The Suskinds have become real leaders in the nascent Neurodiversity Movement, which argues that people whose brains are wired differently — autism spectrum, Aspergers, etc., — should not just be medicated and marginalized. One in four Americans are considered to be neurodiverse, and the movement argues that they should be celebrated and utilized for their unusual faculties and capabilities that can contribute so much to society. Through the experience of his own family, Ron Suskind has looked closely at resilience and how people actually use tragedy or hardship to become better people.
Prince Amponsah, a Canadian actor and dancer, had an entirely different hardship to deal with as he was horribly burned and maimed in a fire in his home. The thoughtful and elegant documentary Prince’s Tale tells the story of how he had to dig deep to relearn the norms of society and engage in new rules of attraction. Eventually, he re-emerges as a performer, scars and all, a stunning testament to the power of resilience.
SHOW 6: FIRST YOU SHOULD KNOW
Telling your own story can help you heal.
SPEAKERS: Vianuppo Avegalio, Sareen Hairabedian, April Harris, Joe Merritt, Seema Reeza, Timothy Ryan, Valerie Sternac, Patmore Lewis & Jeffrey Wright
FILM: We Are Not Done Yet - Directed by Sareen Hairabedian
“We have swallowed so many pills, our blood type should be benzo,” says a veteran in the affecting documentary, “We Are Not Done Yet.” A group of American veterans carefully and painfully craft a collective poem in a defiant and brave act of self-medicating as last resort when the resources promised them when they signed up so clearly fall short. And not just a little short, but we see how these men and women are left alone, and in some cases, actively discarded, by the military after giving themselves completely to country and cause.
With each passing year, America’s ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan roll on as political leadership has actively sought to protect U.S. civilians from the effects of actually being at war. Veterans meanwhile are made to bear the full burden of these seemingly endless conflicts without the public’s help.
“We Are Not Done Yet” shows the powerful ways art can heal not just the makers but an audience, a child, or a nation that’s lost its way. Both gripping in the harsh reality of these characters’ deeply personal struggles to cope and astoundingly hopeful in seeing the creative act of healing personally and collectively; story can and does heal.
SHOW 7: THIS IS HER COUNTRY
How to smash the global patriarchy one story and one voice at a time?
SPEAKERS: Jane Ferguson, Leslie Chang, Yael Lavie & Kathryn Everett
FILM: Girls Section - Directed by Kathryn Everett
From the factory floors of Guangzhou to the ravaged streets of Sana’a, This Is Her Country is a tour of our tumultuous world through the women who are shaping it, pulling the most critical stories from a sea of marginalized voices, and refusing to let cultural norms, the patriarchy, or unforgiving governments stop their march to a more just and equal world.
Hosted by acclaimed Israeli journalist and filmmaker Yael Lavie, This Is Her Country begins with young women high in the Pakistani mountains, who stop at nothing to get an education in Kathryn Everett’s debut film, Girls’ Section. And we’ll hear firsthand from Jane Ferguson who, as a PBS special correspondent, has dedicated her life to bringing the stories and voices that tell the tale of war-ravaged and broken countries from Yemen to Somalia. Leslie Chang, who lived for a decade in China, where she wrote her stunning book Factory Girls, which chronicles the lives of young female Chinese migrant workers who toil away in China’s massive factories far removed from the often-rural life they’ve previously known, joins us as well to add her deep perspective.
Women have been speaking for eons, and far too often have not been heeded. It’s here. It’s coming. We can feel it, we can hear it roaring, rattling the teacups in the cupboard and the powerful in their dens: A world lead by women, a world in which women’s voices rebuild and reshape the stories and the states and declare this is our country.
SHOW 8: THE TREE OF LIFE IS NOT A TREE
Evolution is trickier and much more complicated than we thought it was.
SPEAKER: David Quammen
FILMS: Sartre vs. Camus & Freud vs. Jung - Directed by Andrew Khosravani
Charles Darwin’s theories on evolution could largely be boiled down to the famous metaphor of the “tree of life,” which presented an image of common origins and divergence over time. However, this widely accepted perspective on the history of life has been challenged by scientists who believe evolution is actually quite different from what we thought and wildly more complicated. There has been extensive research in the field of molecular phylogenetics that shows genes are doing something entirely unexpected and engaging in a phenomenon called Horizontal Gene Transfer. Genes don’t just move downward from parents to their offspring but actually sideways across species — even from one kingdom to another, which was supposed to be impossible.
Acclaimed science writer David Quammen has written for many magazines, including National Geographic, and has penned the essential The Song of the Dodo as well as other books. Now his attention turns to big and unsettling questions about evolution in an essential new book called The Tangled Tree. The main character is a microbiologist named Carl Woese, whom Quammen calls “the most important biologist of the 20th century that you’ve never heard of. “ What Woese left behind in his work is critical to our understanding of who we are and what we are to become. Life’s history is not shaped like a tree.
Woese was accomplished and respected, but also labored in relative obscurity, never getting the recognition he felt he clearly deserved, and he died embittered. He had a particular agitation about all the acclaim around Darwin, which drove some of his anger. Interestingly enough, geniuses — and Woese clearly was one — often have other brilliant minds that they rail against. Paired with Quammen’s talk about molecular phylogenetics and the legacy of Carl Woese are a couple of short animated films that chronicle two other feuds between famous intellectuals: Freud vs. Jung and Sartre vs. Camus. It’s not easy being brilliant.
SHOW 9: THAT WAS THE BRAVE PART
We all have something to say and just have to find a way to express it.
SPEAKERS: Roopa Gogineni, Brigid Kaelin, Jane Ferguson
FILMS: I am Bisha: The Rebel Puppeteers of Sudan - Directed by Roopa Gogineni | These C*cksucking Tears - Directed by Dan Taberski
People who choose to speak their truth do so at ever more peril. Journalists who take on the essential job of reporting the news are routinely threatened and increasingly attacked. Athletes who speak out beyond the sidelines to call out injustice are often vilified. Artists are told to shut up and sing. Across the world, it’s become increasingly risky for individuals to express themselves.
Roopa Gogineni is a filmmaker and photojournalist based in Nairobi who has worked in hotspots across Africa and her short documentary, I Am Bisha - The Rebel Puppeteers of Sudan, profiles a satiric TV show that mocks Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir by using a puppet to portray him and his outrages. Gogineni spent a lot of time with the artists who created the puppet as well as other truth-tellers across the continent and will share her perspective on the dangerous risks these people are taking to do their work.
Interspersed into this program are other guests from the festival expressing themselves about the power of expression and what that simple act means to them.
Country and Western performer Patrick Haggerty certainly struggled with speaking - or singing his truth - and the film, These C*cksucking Tears, tells his compelling story. It’s poignant and profane and a simple reminder that we all need to find our voice and sing our song. At least metaphorically.
SHOW 10: THE BIG IDEA
Can each of us change the way we see the world?
SPEAKERS: Joe Tanner, Vainuupo Avegalio, Dr. John C. Hausdoerffer, Joe Merritt, Valerie Stemac & Prince Amponsah
FILM: Earthrise - Directed by Emmanuel Vaughan Lee
Fifty years ago, three astronauts embarked on a voyage to go “round the moon and back.” The three men who comprised the second manned trip to space, Apollo 8, were Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders. Their mission achieved much, but surely, its most lasting and impactful accomplishment wasn’t the science or the technology but a simple photo, which came to be known as Earthrise, and showed the earth coming up over the full moon. The astonishing image inspired the sharp, short documentary, Earthrise, which tells the story of how these men came to take the most duplicated photo in human history.
The story of how it all unfolded is surprising in a number of ways, including how fully unanticipated it was by the astronauts who were hurtling through space. First of all, they didn’t know that this astonishing moment was even going to happen, something that astronaut Joe Tanner will explain from the perspective of the mission and the men on board. Furthermore, they had no idea that this work and their image was about to change the way we saw the world — literally.
Can we create something that is unexpected, unanticipated and unprecedented? In a world spiraling out of control, we can certainly bring a fresher and healthier perspective to life here on earth. After the film, several speakers from the weekend will share their own big idea on how to make this world work for everyone. Interspersed with those conversations will be poetry performed by the veterans from We Are Not Done Yet and a dance performance by Prince, from Prince’s Tale.