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  • Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

    Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

    The story of Theo Padnos, an American journalist captured in 2012 by the Nusra Front (Syrian branch of Al Qaeda), Theo Who Lived is not quite like other hostage accounts, of which there have (sadly) been many. Yes, David Schisgall’s documentary concerns an idealistic do-gooder who puts himself in danger and it includes the familiar details of captors who veer from friendly to cruel, as well as the grim specifics of interrogation and torture, of terrible deprivations and conditions. Theo Who Lived, however, consists almost entirely of Padnos reliving his ordeal by revisiting various locales of his 22-month captivity, as he narrates his story with good humor, even wit.

    A genial, often rather naïve-seeming sort, Padnos was a struggling writer from Vermont who thought he’d kick-start his journalism career by writing a story about Syrian refugees for The New Republic. In the film, he acknowledges being a lifelong risk taker, but also questions why he ever put himself in such a dangerous situation. He walks us through Antakya (Antioch), Turkey—a city where journalists, fighters and other interested parties gathered before crossing the border into Syria and shows us the house he shared with several roommates as well as the house where his kidnappers lived (and may still live). In Syria Padnos shows us the very room where he interviewed young men he thought we members of the Free Syrian Army, until they suddenly began beating him, declaring him their prisoner. Remarkably, he is able to provide the details of this horrific moment with candor and relative composure.

    In Vermont, we meet Theo’s mother Nancy, as well as his cousin Viva, who—with other relatives—launched into the long, often frustrating search for an American hostage in the Middle East.

    theo-desert

    After an escape attempt, Padnos was tortured both physically and mentally, with constant threats of immediate execution. (Because he speaks Arabic, it was assumed he’s with the CIA.)  Somehow, he always sees the humanity in his captors, acknowledging that the families of the boys who take part in his beatings had probably been through hell. He also gets what many don’t—that these young guys were having “the time of their lives” in groups like Nusra, with free weapons, camaraderie, and the awesome prize of an American hostage.

    At one point he asked for a cellmate and got Matthew Schrier, who turned  out to be a less than ideal companion. Though they both planned an escape, only Schrier made it. We see the interviews he subsequently gave on CNN and 60 Minutes, probably also seen by Padnos’s captors, who amped up the torture. We visit the tiny cell in which he was then kept for 200 days. He describes, almost jokingly, how he would sit against different walls to break up the monotony. To stay sane, he began writing a novel on paper and pens supplied by his young captors who were fascinated and entertained by his readings from the work, like a modern-day Arabian Nights. “It soothed the poison out of them,” he notes.

    Around this time, James Foley was kidnapped and Nancy befriended his mother, a fellow New Englander, as they shared a terrible burden. Nancy describes how she unsuccessfully tried to bargain with her son’s captors who demanded an exorbitant sum for Theo’s release. (Unlike other countries, the U.S. government refuses to negotiate with terrorists.)

    Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

    Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

    At one point, with Al Qaeda competitors ISIS threatening his captors (another interesting complication), Padnos was moved to another location and gained the favor of the group’s chief. Taking advantage, he tried another escape, only to be brought back to his captors once again. Just when it seemed like the end, Foley was executed on videotape to the horror of the world, and everything changed for Theo.

    Though some may be annoyed by Padnos’s blithe idealism and seemingly blind willingness to put himself in danger, one can’t help but be moved by his humanity. (After his release, he continued to advocate for Syria, volunteering to help refugees on the island of Lesbos.) The fact that he still harbors any good will seems miraculous, but his obvious need to connect with other human beings undoubtedly helped keep him alive in the first place. Though we will (and should) never be as reckless, we could all learn something from Theo.

    Theo Who Lived opens on Friday at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

    Marina Zogbi

  • Slothrust, band, NYC

    We recently caught up with Brooklyn based band Slothrust, who are releasing their long awaited third album, Everyone Else on Dangerbird Records October 28th.

    1)   Are you native New Yorker’s or transplants?

    Will and I are from Boston and Kyle is from New Jersey.

    2)   How would you describe your sound?

    Blues / jazz influenced rock music with a lot of dynamics and time signature changes 😉

    3)   How has the crowd responded to the new music from Everyone Else?

    Crowds we have performed to have responded really positively to the new music. We are very excited to tour and share it with more people.

    4)   Was there a particular story you wanted to tell or message you wanted to send with Everyone Else?

    There is not one story in particular that I am trying to tell with this record. Thematically, it deals a lot with water and dreams. I like thinking about different states of consciousness and things infinitely larger than the self.

    5)   What do you enjoy most about touring and performing live?

    I like seeing new cities and the exchange of energy that happens between performers and difference audiences.

    6)   Tell me about your creative process. Do you work remotely or do you go off to the woods to write together as a group?

    It’s a combination of a lot of things. Generally songs come to me in pieces and we go about executing them in a variety of ways. In the past there hasn’t been a particular formula for us.

    7)   Where do you find your inspiration as artists?

    The ocean, the sky, dreaming, feelings, other artists that we admire and make us want to push our playing and song-writing.

    8)   Are you also planning a European tour for this album?

    We would love to go to Europe. We have never been and are really hoping that the opportunity presents before too long.

    9)   What does the phrase “art for progress” mean to you?

    Art that aims to spread awareness.

  • On September 24, the National African American Museum opened its doors to public. And while the museum’s timed passes are sold out for the rest of the year,  it’s still a great time to learn about what’s currently on exhibit.

    And if you are wondering if there’s a showcase at the museum that relates to the world of fashion, you’re in luck. The museum will be showcasing a selection of Ann Lowe’s dresses, and they are a must-see!

    Ann Lowe — a highly sought after designer in her day —  is the first world-renowned black designer who created dresses for socialites and brides. She created looks for families including the Auchinclosses, DuPonts, Kennedys, Posts, Rockefellers, and Roosevelts. She is also the first black designer to own a boutique on Madison Avenue. And her stunning creations were also sold at Henri Bendel, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Neiman Marcus.

    Pink satin and organza ball gown, designed by Ann Lowe, 1959, once owned by Patricia Penrose Schieffer, wife of CBS News’ Bob Schieffer. Gift of the Black Fashion Museum founded by Lois K. Alexander-Lane. Photo courtesy of NMAAHC

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    Famously, Lowe designed Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding gown in 1953. Lowe crafted a dress made up of fifty yards of ivory silk taffeta for the Bouvier-Kennedy nuptials, and cost approximately $700  — roughly $13,000 factoring today’s inflation, according to Racked’s Danielle Kwateng-Clark .

    And as Kwateng-Clark deftly sums up, Lowe “did the impossible in the Jim Crow-era by making a name for herself solely from her talent.”

    Designer Ann Lowe and the famous Kennedy wedding gown. Photo courtesy of Alchetron

    ann-cole-lowe

    Sadly, Lowe was never openly credited for designing Mrs. Kennedy’s gown. As Alchetron points out, the gown was “described in detail in New York Times‘ coverage of the wedding.” However, the dressmaker was never mentioned.

    And even publications like Vogue Magazine featured Lowe’s work, but did not credit her for her work.

    The great-granddaughter of an enslaved woman and a plantation owner, Lowe was born in Alabama in 1898. By 16, Lowe made four gowns for her state’s First Lady, Lizzie Kirkland O’Neal, after her mother, a seamstress, died suddenly.  Some time later, Lowe was in high demand, making over 1,000 dresses and year, and grossing over $300,000 a year.

    And then Lowe experience financial setbacks that eventually shuttered her once thriving business: “One morning I woke up owing $10,000 to suppliers and $12,800 in back taxes,” Lowe said in an interview with Ebony Magazine, after having to eventually declare bankruptcy.

    As Kwateng-Clark reports, Lowe’s IRS bill was mysteriously paid for by an unknown benefactor. “It’s believed that Jackie Kennedy found out about Ann’s troubles around the time the bill was settled,” she writes.

    Jacqueline Colette Prosper, yummicoco.com

  • Brooklyn natives Chayse Schutter (vocals), Justin Flores (guitar), Don Scherr (drums) and Dan Hernandez (bass) make up the borough’s newest metalcore punk band Pocketsand. While juggling jobs and touring, the guys have managed to begin recording an EP and drum up a small following despite having only formed earlier this year. Listen to their song “Blinding” below and check out what Chayse and Don have to say about their latest musical endeavor:

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  • Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

    Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

    A documentary that presents one of the most preposterous true-life scenarios ever connected with the movie business (or any business), Rob Cannan and Ross Adam’s The Lovers and The Despot also provides yet more evidence of North Korea’s bizarre sociopolitical culture and the oddity that was Kim Jong-il.

    In 1978, Kim—then heir apparent to North Korea’s leadership and a major film buff—arranged for the kidnap of South Korean director Shin Sang-ok and his ex-wife, actress Choi Eun-hee. Kim was envious of South Korean cinema’s originality, unlike the stilted fare that was coming out of his artistically backwards nation, and he wanted the renowned couple to be his personal filmmakers. The Lovers and the Despot uses interviews, footage from Shin’s movies, propaganda film clips, and reenactments, underscored by Nathan Halpern’s dramatically ominous music, to show the couple’s plight and their eventual escape. The resulting documentary unfolds like an artsy international crime thriller, albeit one with a few plot holes. It’s a striking and effective approach, though just about any film covering this material would be fascinating for the story alone.

    The Lovers and the Despot begins with a press conference given by Shin and Choi after their escape. It then travels back to the beginning of their relationship, as Choi recalls their initial meeting on the set of one of his films. (She provides much of the narrative; Shin died in 2006.) Scenes of the couple’s subsequent success as a top director and leading actress, respectively, are intercut with familiar, but no less jaw-dropping footage of the massive, intricately choreographed political rallies taking place in North Korea, along with the rise of Kim Jong-il in the shadow of his revered father, Kim Il-sung. Shin and Choi’s now-grown adopted children talk about their parents’ careers, including Shin’s obsession with filmmaking and his overspending on production. Eventually he would take up with a younger actress, after which he and Choi divorced.

    Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

    Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

    Soon after, Choi disappears from her hotel in Hong Kong, where she has traveled to meet with prospective film producers. Later, while searching for her, Shin also vanishes. His career having been in decline, there are rumors that he defected to North Korea.

    Though their abductions and captivity are traumatic—he is kept at a detention center for years—Kim treats them both with respect and good humor, as we hear in conversations that they somehow recorded (one wonders how they managed this). These tapes, once they reached the West, would be the first time that anyone in the U.S. heard the supreme leader’s voice, according to one State Department operative. Declaring their loyalty to North Korea, both Choi and Shin gain Kim’s trust and are allowed to attend film festivals in Russia and Europe, albeit under heavy guard. Eventually the couple, who have been held separately, are reunited.

    Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

    Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

    Shin would make 17 films for Kim, including the first love story ever seen on North Korean screens; smiling photos of the couple with the despot appeared in South Korean newspapers, cementing the idea that they defected. Just as The Lovers and the Despot uses clips from Shin’s feature films to illustrate aspects of the couple’s life and ordeal, Shin relies on a wealth of famous movie scenes to plot their eventual getaway. This life-imitating-art motif is one of The Lovers’ most interesting—and sometimes, amusing—aspects. Though various fascinating facets of Choi and Shin’s story are unfortunately skimmed over, the film still packs a considerable punch.

    A mix of crime thriller, love story and movie biz doc, The Lovers and the Despot is an amazing story that begs to be made into a feature narrative or even a mini-series. Too bad Shin isn’t around to do the honors.

    The Lovers and the Despot opens on Friday, September 23, at Landmark Sunshine Cinemas and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, and will also be available On Demand and through Amazon Video.

    Marina Zogbi