Food Stamped, The Singularity is Near, Transformation — movie reviews — SF IndieFest 2011
Posted on January 24, 2011 by Chris Nelson
SF Indie has always been a great source for documentaries from off the beaten path. And this year’s SF Indie Fest is no different. In addition to the previously reviewed Gold Diggers, this year’s fest sees a number of documentaries totally worth seeing. We’ll take a look at three additional titles here.
Directed by real-life husband and wife, Shira and Yoav Potash, Food Stamped takes a look at the harsh reality of not only living on food-stamps, but living healthy. A professional nutritionist and educator by day, filmmaker Shira Potash cameto the disturbing revelation that the school children she was teaching about healthy eating might not have the economic means to actually follow her advice. So she and her husband decided to do something about it: live on a food-stamp budget – roughly one dollar per person, per meal — for two weeks, and to do so with organic, healthy foods the entire time.
Now, I won’t come out and tell you if they make it, but suffice it to say, the challenge proves even harder than they initially thought. The film augments the couple’s journey with interviews with food and school industry professionals, organic farmers, food-stamp recipients, and looks at how government subsidies have relegated healthy foods to the realm of luxury, and fast/junk foods to the realm of the norm. And while the topics discussed are pretty intensely depressing, the film illustrates its points with a fair amount of humor and levity. In fact, unlike other more shocking food documentaries, this picture prompted me to really think about my eating habits.
Being that the film is relatively short, I’ll wrap it up here. I really loved this doc, and would highly recommend it. A wonderful companion to other important food flicks, such as Food Inc, Food Stamped is a SF Indie Fest must see.
The Singularity is Near
The second true Geek-Doc to play at the festival, The Singularity is Near does its best to lay out a roadmap for the future of artificial intelligence, leading up to the super-technological epiphany known as The Singularity (read the link. There’s too much to explain here). An adaptation of the book by futurist Ray Kurzweil, the film sees a series of interviews with academic and industry experts, on topics as varied as applications of AI in robotics, health-care, nanotechnology, biology, sexuality, and interpersonal communications; the effect of such new technologies on the environment, the potential for hostile artificial intelligences, and the prospects of even seeing a Turing test-passing AI within the next 30 years.
Participants include Bill Joy (co-creator of the Java programming language), Cynthia Brezeal (head of the Personal Robots Group at MIT), Alvin Toffler (author of Futureshock), Bill McKibben (climate change expert, and one of the first scientists to study Global Warming), Mitch Kapor (co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and creator of Lotus 1-2-3), and many many others.
The discussions are fairly technical, but for the most part provide a genuinely accessible survey of the various technologies and facets of society that will be touched and changed by corresponding advances in technology. That said, it certainly helps to have at least some grounding in computer science to grasp some of the briefly-mentioned concepts, and thereby do additional research on your own.
What is decidedly refreshing about the picture is just how varied the opinions and philosophies presented by the interviewees prove to be. Some subjects, such as Cynthia Brezeal and Mitch Kapor, come across as passionately looking forward to the technological change, while others such as Bills Joy and McKibben express both skepticism at the far-reaching hypothoses, and caution in their study and actualization.
But I know this all can get a bit intimidating for the less technical crowd. Never fear, there’s entertainment to be had! Taking a page from What the Bleep Do We Know?, the film actually interweaves a sci-fi tale of an emerging AI (complete with decently rendered CG special effects), from her origins as a paper doll, growing to a Second-Life bot, and onward to a Turing-passing, AI-Complete entity, legally bestowed with the rights of a living, breathing person. The story, while a bit cheesy, does a decent job of tying the various topics and discussions together, and prevents it from spinning too far into the realm of academic geekdom (or awesomeness, depending on your situation).
You can probably tell how much I enjoyed the picture from the length of this “capsule”, but I’ll make it explicit. If you have any interest in AI, you’ll want to check out The Singularity is Near. It’s probably not in-depth enough for persons already working in the world of artificial intelligence, but for the techno-nerds, sci-fi fans, and weekend enthusiasts, there’s enough to get you excited about, researching, and potentially working on in the future. Go see it.
Transformation: The Life and Legacy of Werner Erhard
I was born too late to hear anything about the est phenomenon, so I’m wasn’t able to jump on the nostalgia trip the film attempts to provide… but at the very least it educated me about the origins of the self-help industry. Transformation documents the foundation of the 1970′s est (Erhard Seminars Training) movement. Like a brash Tony Robbins, est founder Werner Erhard promised personal improvement through a series of exercises and seminars, themselves largely confrontational in nature, with participants being scolded and yelled at to confront their own inadequacies. I won’t detail all the particulars here (check out Erhard’s Wiki entry instead), but suffice it to say, a lot of what went on wouldn’t fly today. Yet surprisingly, people responded in droves. His 4-day, 60-Hour weekend seminar was attended by roughly one-million people.
Erhard has seen criticism due to his lack of formal academic training, and in the picture he does come across as more the evangelical preacher than the introspective philosopher, but the film really doesn’t stop to meditate on such topics all that much. Instead it’s more of a Dogtown and Z-Boys style, self-congratulatory retrospective. “Those were the days, man, and weren’t we awesome?” But again, for someone old enough to remember est, this treatment could be a lot of fun. Definitely not for everyone, but nostalgia trippers and psychology majors will probably find something to enjoy.
You can find showtimes and information for these films and more at The SF IndieFest website.