Category Archives: Controversy & Conversation

Controversy and Conversation Resources: “The Apple Pushers”

The April 1 meeting of “Controversy and Conversation” discussed issues raised by the film “The Apple Pushers,” a documentary featuring New York City’s Green Carts Program, an initiative intended to bring greater access to fresh fruits and vegetables to neighborhoods with little opportunity to purchase fresh produce.

HI’s program coordinator, Dr. Melissa Biggs, a food studies scholar, began the discussion. While the film used the terms “food desert” and “food swamp” to describe the neighborhoods served by the Green Carts, she suggested the concept of “food apartheid.” Introduced by activist Karen Washington, “food apartheid” refers to the systems of economic inequality and racial and environmental injustice that permeate our food system.  Biggs asked participants to consider perspectives critical of the “obesity epidemic” framework. The inequities that create food apartheid  contribute to health problems of many kinds.

The introduction served as a starting point for a conversation that touched on the food ecosystem of Austin, changes in shopping and eating due to the COVID 19 epidemic, and food insecurity in rural areas and on college campuses. Zach Shlachter, one of our Austin Public Library partners, described his work with the Eating Apart Together Initiative, a city-sponsored program that came together during the pandemic to help feed unhoused people.

Lucas Alvarez, also of the APL, compiled a list of resources available through APL for those who would like to explore these topics further: APL Resource List “The Apple Pushers”

Below are other resources mentioned during the discussion

City of Austin Food Resources:

Some Local Food Organizations

Austin-Focused Readings and Resources

UT Campus Resources and Initiatives

Readings on Food Justice and Food Systems

“Toni Morrisson: The Pieces I Am” opens Fall Controversy and Conversation series

The first Thursday of the month usually finds Controversy and Conversation meeting at the Terrazas branch of the Austin Public Library to watch and discuss a documentary film. This fall, however, we’re gathering virtually through Zoom to discuss films selected for our theme of “Racial and Social Justice.” The series began with “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” a powerful documentary about the life and work of the celebrated author. For our conversation, Dr. Helena Woodard shared her insight on Morrison’s work. Dr. Woodard’s expertise and passion guided an illuminating discussion.

In our virtual version of Controversy and Conversation, participants screen the film on their own, ahead of the discussion. The virtual format makes it possible for people outside of the Austin area to participate. One participant joined us from Australia!

On September 3, we’ll be discussing Ava DuVarney’s film, 13th. We hope you’ll join us, whatever part of the globe you’re on.

Controversy & Conversation Staff Selections: Earth Month Documentaries Available on Kanopy

By Zack Chatterjee Shlachter (Austin Public Library), Louis Gill (C&C Volunteer), and Kathryn North (UT Humanities Institute).

Since 2015, the Austin Public Library has partnered with the University of Texas Humanities Institute to present the Controversy & Conversation Documentary Film Series. On the first Thursday of each month, an award-winning documentary film on a controversial social topic of the day is screened at the Terrazas Branch of the Austin Public Library and is followed by a community discussion of the issue. Each season, the APL/HI team chooses 5-6 films to screen, and directors of the documentaries or community leaders are frequently present to participate in the discussion and answer questions. Now in its sixth year, the Controversy & Conversation Program has shown over 50 films and has featured guest speakers from local and international organizations such as Austin Justice Coalition, Circle of Hope International, Common Cause Texas, the Environmental Defense Fund, Keep Austin Fed, People’s Community Clinic, SAFE Austin, Sierra Club, and Texas After Violence Project.

In this collaborative blog post, the organizing team of the Controversy and Conversation Documentary Film Series has compiled a list of recommended environmental films available to view through Kanopy, an on-demand video streaming platform for public and academic libraries. With thousands of titles, Kanopy is available to Austin Public Library cardholders and to University of Texas students, staff and faculty.

To sign up through your Austin Public Library account, follow the instructions here. You will need your library card number and pin/password. Don’t have a library card, or need to renew your account? You can still apply for an eCard in order to obtain access to the Austin Public Library’s Virtual Library at If your card has expired, you can renew it at

To access Kanopy through the University of Texas Libraries, visit with your UT EID and password ready.

Once you have accessed Kanopy through either your APL account or UT EID, you will then create an account on Kanopy itself. Kanopy is presently providing APL cardholders 5 viewing credits a month, in addition to a slate of “credit-free viewing” titles; folks with access via the University of Texas have unlimited streaming.

C&C Staff Selected Environmental Films (alphabetical order):

Angry Inuk (2016)
(English, Inuit)
This documentary complicates our understanding of mainstream animal welfare and “environmental” campaigns by looking at sealing bans from the perspective of the Inuit. Filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril simultaneously paints a loving portrait of her multi-generational community, bears witness to its ongoing activism, and makes us consider the anti-indigenous racism and misleading impact of feel-good, consumer-oriented campaigns. Angry Inuk is the winner of a Top 20 Audience Favorites Award and the Canadian Documentary Promotion Award at Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival.

Anthropocene: The Human Epoch – How Humans Have Impacted the Planet (2018)
A cinematic meditation on humanity’s massive reengineering of the planet, Anthropocene: The Human Epoch is a four-years-in-the-making feature documentary film from the multiple-award winning team of Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier and Edward Burtynsky, the award-winning team behind Manufactured Landscapes and Watermark. The film follows the research of an international body of scientists traveling to six continents and 20 countries to document the impact humans have made on the planet. Narrated by Alicia Vikander, Anthropocene has been nominated for 14 awards with 7 wins including the Robert Brooks Award for Documentary Cinematography, the Toronto Film Critics Associations’ Rogers Award, and the Vancouver Film Critics Circle’s Best Canadian Documentary Award. 

Behemoth – A Mediation on China’s Coal and Iron Industries (2015)(Chinese, w/ subtitles)
Behemoth is a  gorgeous and ugly look at the impact of China’s rapid industrialization on the environment and people of Inner Mongolia.  Minimal and poetic narration that pushes the film closer to a tone poem than a traditional documentary, but you won’t see these scenes in any other movie.  Directed by Zhou Liang. Screened at the 2015 Venice International Film Festival; banned in China.

The Island President (2011)
A month before this film’s theatrical release in 2012, Mohamed Nasheed resigned under gunpoint as president of the Maldives. (He has subsequently returned from exile and last year resumed office as the speaker of the Maldives’ legislature.) Repeatedly arrested in the 1990s for his human rights journalism, Nasheed later came to international prominence for his work in the fight against climate change and to hold wealthy countries accountable for the disproportionate impact that will be felt across the Global South. The Island President won the Sundance Institute Hilton Lightstay Sustainability Award and the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Landfill Harmonic – A Symphony of the Human Spirit (2015)
Landfill Harmonic follows the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura, a Paraguayan musical group that plays instruments made entirely out of garbage. When their story goes viral, the orchestra is catapulted into the global spotlight. Under the guidance of idealistic music director Favio Chavez, the orchestra must navigate a strange new world of arenas and sold-out concerts. However, when a natural disaster strikes their country, Favio must find a way to keep the orchestra intact and provide a source of hope for their town. Winner of a number of film festival awards including the SXSW Audience Award, the film is directed by Brad Allgood, Graham Townsley, and Juliana Penaranda-Loftus.

Right to Harm – The Public Health Impact Caused by Factory Farming (2019)
Through the riveting stories of five rural communities, Right to Harm exposes the devastating public health impact factory farming has on many disadvantaged citizens throughout the United States. Filmed across the country, the documentary chronicles the failures of state agencies to regulate industrial animal agriculture facilities known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). Fed up with the lack of regulation, these disenfranchised citizens band together to demand justice from their legislators. Directed by Annie Speicher and Matt Wechsler, the film was nominated for the Best Global Health Film at the Cleveland International Film Festival.

Films Selected for Controversy and Conversation:

Minimalism: A Documentary about the Important Things (2016)
We will be holding a virtual Controversy & Conversation screening of Minimalism on Thursday, April 23. (Details can be found HERE.)
How might your life be better with less? Minimalism examines the many flavors of minimalism by taking the audience inside the lives of minimalists from all walks of life—families, entrepreneurs, architects, artists, journalists, scientists, and even a former Wall Street broker—all of whom are striving to live a meaningful life with less. From director Matt D’Avella, Minimalism had the largest indie documentary box-office opening of 2016.

RiverBlue (2017)
Riverblue was originally scheduled to be screened on April 2 at the Terrazas Branch of the Austin Public Library. We plan to screen the film in a future season.
Following international river conservationist, Mark Angelo, RiverBlue spans the globe to infiltrate one of the world’s most pollutive industries, fashion. Narrated by clean water supporter Jason Priestley, this groundbreaking documentary examines the destruction of our rivers, its effect on humanity, and the solutions that inspire hope for a sustainable future. Directed by David McIlvride and Roger Williams, RiverBlue won Best Feature Documentary at the Raindance and Madrid International Film Festivals as well as Best Environmental Film at the Eugene International Film Festival. 

How To Change The World – The Story of Greenpeace (2015)
This film was screened at the Terrazas Branch on April 6, 2017.
This astonishing documentary chronicles the adventures of an eclectic group of young pioneers – Canadian hippie journalists, photographers, musicians, scientists, and American draft dodgers – who set out to stop Richard Nixon’s atomic bomb tests in Amchitka, Alaska, and end up creating the worldwide green movement. From filmmaker Jerry Rothwell, the film won the Editing Award and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival. 

Sushi: The Global Catch (2011)
This film was screened at the Terrazas Branch on April 7, 2016.
In this meticulously researched documentary, filmmaker Mark Hall traces the origins of sushi in Japan to its status today as a cuisine that has spawned a lucrative worldwide industry. This explosion in demand for sushi over the past 30 years has brought with it problems of its own, as fish stocks have steadily depleted, threatening the balance of the ocean’s ecosystems. Directed by Mark Hall and winner of the Special Jury Prize at the 2011 Seattle International Film Festival, the film raises some pressing questions that all sushi lovers should seek to address.

Note on Austin Connection: the film focuses on the ecological collapse through the lens of the sushi industry, but is also from a local Austin Director who takes a broader scope than its premise suggests, swirling through overfishing, the ethics of hatcheries, and the power of consumer demand.  All this, plus a thoughtful appearance from the Executive Chef of Uchi.

Blue Gold: World Water Wars (2009)
Blue Gold was screened at the Terrazas Branch on February 5, 2015.
This award winning documentary directed by Sam Bozzo is based on the book BLUE GOLD: THE FIGHT TO STOP THE CORPORATE THEFT OF THE WORLD’S WATER by Maude Barlow and Tony Clark. The film examines the problems created by the privatization and commoditization of water.

About the Controversy and Conversation Team:

Zack Chatterjee Shlachter is a library associate at the Terrazas Branch of the Austin Public Library. Still teased by friends for helping start a recycling club in high school, Zack is involved these days with social justice and mutual aid projects in town. He is currently reading The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin.

Louis Gill is a professional analyst, former mathematician, and long-time volunteer for Austin Public Library, working with C&C since their second screening.  He gets his love of books from a long line of rural Oklahoma librarians and his love of cinema from moving to Austin. He is still upset about Vulcan Video.  

Kathryn North is the Administrative Program Coordinator of the UT Humanities Institute. Prior to joining UT, she was an ESL teacher in New York and then a teacher trainer in New Delhi. Working for 5 years in India and experiencing resource scarcity first hand, Kathryn’s interest in environmentalism grew, and she strives to maintain a sustainable lifestyle. Kathryn graduated from Wellesley College with a BA in Cinema Studies and is pleased to revisit her love for documentary films as part of the C&C team.  

For a list of previous films and speakers and to find out about upcoming screenings, please visit the Humanities Institute website. Information about upcoming films can also be found on the APL’s event page

Getting Back to Abnormal: Politics, Narrative, and Rhetoric in Filmmaking

By Sarah Schuster, HI Graduate Research Assistant

Dr. Paul Stekler, Professor in the Department of Radio, Television, and Film and the Wofford Denius Chair in Entertainment Studies, led the Faculty Fellows seminar on September 19th, beginning with a short overview of what brought him to politics, and more specifically, what brought him to making documentaries like Getting Back to Abnormal (2013). Dr. Stekler credited his family for his lifelong interest in politics, stemming back to conversations with his grandfather on Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his first job working for a Republican congressman, among other things. Stekler has worked in a variety of political contexts since then, from the George McGovern campaign in 1972 to working with pollsters from The New York Times. His family spanned both sides of the aisle–his father, a Republican, helped him to get his first campaign work, while his mother is a lifelong Democrat. Stekler earned a doctorate degree in Government from Harvard University, and after working in academia as a political scientist for a number of years, he found his calling as a full-time filmmaker with a focus on politics.

Stekler showed the Fellows a series of clips from an NEH-funded film he made in 2000, titled George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire. The film allowed him, he explained, a new context in which to apply his political knowledge and background, but the challenge was presenting this information in a narrative appropriate to a broader audience. George Wallace, for Stekler, represented a transition point for American politics, and a documentary presented a unique opportunity to bring his conversations within academia into the mainstream.

Participants asked Stekler about his methods, from how he finds his subjects and characters to his methods for mapping the trajectory of a documentary film. Stekler emphasized narrative fundamentals, such as conflict, but he also noted the importance of finding an accessible subject–someone who would not only be open with the filmmaker, but who would be compelling to watch on the screen. Though crafting a story is of the utmost importance, Stekler explained that as a documentarian he seeks to balance storycraft, accuracy of representation, and visual interest. Several Fellows pondered what exactly could be told best in the context of documentaries and other projects for public audiences, and what academic and discipline-specific projects offers alongside more popular works. Participants agreed that although some work can be translated into popular projects, teaching also offers a venue for transmitting one’s research to the public.

Participants also raised questions about Stekler’s development as a documentarian. Much of his knowledge about filmmaking, and more generally, narrative, Stekler said, was learned through collaboration with other creatives. Stekler credited the producer of Eyes on the Prize, one of his first films, for teaching him some of the fundamental aspects of filmmaking–mainly, that the goal was to keep the audience watching. Overall, he admitted, he learned much of what he now knows about story from experience.

The conversation turned more specifically to Getting Back to Abnormal, and the variety of New Orleans documentaries that had been made in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Having lived in New Orleans himself, Stekler explained he had found many documentaries of post-Katrina New Orleans lacking what he identified as the city’s true character. Stekler told the group that he and his collaborators wanted to tell the story of whether or not New Orleans had changed, capturing something of what he saw to be New Orleans’ contradictory nature. Stekler shared that at the Controversy & Conversation screening of the film the week before at the Austin Public Library, he had the chance to rewatch it with a number of engaged audience members. During the discussion he led, a member of the audience asked what the film would look like if he had made it in 2019. Although Stekler felt that his connections to the city have grown more distant, making him “not the right person” to make a present-day version of the film, he believes that the sway between the joys and sorrows of the city are unlikely to have changed.

Looking towards the future, Stekler stated he was working to raise funds for a film on the McDonald Observatory and astronomy–moving from the politics of the city to the stars.

See Dr. Stekler’s career reel here.