Category Archives: Controversy & Conversation

“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.


A Vicious Cycle of Corruption: Vigilantism, Power, and Morality in Cartel Land

After our November 1st Controversy ad Conversation screening of Matthew Heineman’s Cartel Land, guest speaker Dr. Jake Dizard, Postdoctoral Fellow with the Mexico Security Initiative at UT’s Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, stated one of his major takeaways from the film: power corrupts and attracts. Dizard made this observation based on Cartel Land’s intimate and, at times, disturbing footage of the rise and fall (if not from power then certainly from grace) of José Manuel Mireles Valverde’s Michoacán-based anti-cartel vigilante group, Autodefensas. That watching Cartel Land, a film about (at least initially) victimized, fearful, and/or exasperated citizens striving to obtain and use whatever power they can to combat the activities of Mexican drug cartels, inspired Dizard to make this observation speaks to the film’s ability to highlight the moral ambiguities and failures of the vigilante enterprises it documents.

Tim “Nailer” Foley, the leader of Arizona Border Recon, a group of American vigilantes who patrol the U.S.-Mexico border to catch drug traffickers, helps Cartel Land comment on these moral ambiguities and failures by claiming early on in the film that a clear dividing line exists “between…good and evil.” He indicates that he and his group are firmly on the side of good fighting the forces of evil in the form of Mexican drug cartels. As Dizard’s observation suggests, Cartel Land’s documentation of vigilante and drug cartel activity encourages its viewers to question the notion that good and evil are easily identifiable and discrete and to become skeptical of those who pursue or hold power while proclaiming good intentions.

Given that Mireles and other members of Autodefensas ostensibly strive to bring unlawful but moral justice to those law-breakers whom they consider truly immoral, they too would have considered themselves on the side of good. The film’s moving scenes of working class families in Michoacán mourning more than a dozen victims, including women and children, of cartel violence suggest that the members of Autodefensas had good reason to believe they were taking up arms against evil. Cartel Land not only documents the impact of cartel violence on survivors but also shows some grisly images of those victims, images which compelled some audience members to look away and, for those watching, reified the deadly violence carried out to protect or grow cartels’ financial interests. Thus, Cartel Land gives viewers reason to sympathize with, if not outright approve of, the citizens who arm themselves to regain control of and protect their communities. However, as we watch Autodefensas’s ranks swell and their power grow under Mireles’s charismatic leadership, we also see them invade homes to confiscate property, arrest and torture men whose affiliation with cartel activity is uncertain, and hear Mireles tell one of his men to “get everything you can out of [a suspected cartel member], and then put him in the ground.” That these men appear to steal, torture, and kill within the communities their group initially intended to protect eliminates any possibility of easily classifying their organization as morally “good.”

Despite his claim to goodness and his earnest desire to be seen as morally justified, Cartel Land reveals that Nailer’s Arizona Border Recon’s moral status is quite murky as well. Though one might argue that Nailer’s goal of hampering cross-border drug trafficking is morally justifiable, his organization functionally provides its members with an opportunity to arm themselves, hunt, threaten, and detain Mexican citizens who have illegally crossed the border with apparently very little oversight from U.S. Border Patrol. As Dizard pointed out in our discussion, this makes Arizona Border Recon an attractive organization for blatant racists such as one member whose involvement is motivated by the belief that we should not “put two races in the same nation, and expect them to get along.” Though Foley’s motivations have the semblance of moral justification, that moral justification is compromised to increase the organization’s power and resources.

These vigilante organizations’ failure or inability to control membership is perhaps one reason why Dizard’s observation that power corrupts and attracts applies well to them. We find out in the film that Autodefensas compromises its own values by secretly partnering with a drug cartel to obtain weapons and money, becoming blatantly corrupt and quite similar to the criminal organization from which it sought to protect local communities. Autodefensas’ success attracted those who sought to abuse its recently acquired power, and the organization slowly takes on the values and practices of a cartel.

By the film’s end Autodefensas has been made an official police force by the Mexican government even though its criminal tendencies and connections are an open secret, and while this legitimization of a corrupt police force may surprise many American viewers, it did not surprise Dizard. This decision to throw the ineffectual band-aid of legitimacy on a vigilante force too powerful to be stopped without significant military intervention is characteristic of, to use Dizard’s phrase, the Mexican governments’ ineptitude and indecisiveness. Ironically the government’s ineffectual legitimization of Autodefensas reveals part of the reason such a vigilante group was founded: the Mexican government cannot be relied upon to effectively protect or act in the best interest of its citizens. The Mexican government is another ostensibly “good” entity, one meant to ensure the safety of its people, with corrupt elements, and its ineffectuality allowed Autodefensas to obtain power and subsequently become corrupt itself.

The final scene of Cartel Land  (which I opt not to spoil here) left those of us watching in the meeting room of the Terrazas Branch of the Austin Public Library with the impression that the events it documents reveal a cycle of corruption frequently, if not inevitably, driven by individuals’ and organizations’ attempts to obtain political, economic, and social power. It is perhaps through its portrayal of the persistence of this cycle of corruption and violence that the film makes its most persuasive critique of Nailer’s conception of vigilantes as “good” fighting “evil”. That neither of the film’s vigilante groups make any lasting progress in their fight against evil suggests that arming citizens to allow them to pursue potentially swift, indiscriminate (or racially motivated), and violent “justice” is more likely to drive the cycle of corruption and violence forward than break it.