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Doc Talk: bearing witness, creating Oz, watching whales

From "Ayouni."Nick Cobbing

In Yasmin Feddas’s subdued and devastating “Ayouni” a Syrian woman approaches Londoners with leaflets about the more than 100,000 people in her country who have disappeared — most at the hands of the Assad government. Most of the passersby turn away. “It’s an interesting story!” she insists to no avail.

Fedda follows two such interesting stories in the film. Unobtrusively and artfully she weaves together cellphone videos, news reports, and her own footage as she traces the fates of Bassel Safadi, a fearless Internet reporter, and Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, an Italian Jesuit at a 6th-century Syrian monastery who refused to remain silent when confronted with injustice and oppression. She also accompanies Bassel’s fiancée, Noura Ghazi, and Dall’Oglio’s sister Machi Dall’Oglio as they search for answers after their loved ones have vanished.


In better days, during the optimistic and idealistic beginnings of the rebellion against Assad, Safadi and Ghazi are seen joking among friends in a café and then seriously declaring their love and engagement. Meanwhile at the monastery Dall’Oglio leads an interfaith group of Christian and Muslim men in a discussion about the rebelliousness of the younger generation. Dall’Oglio suggests that they might have a genuine cause for rebelling.

Determined to expose the ongoing atrocities, Safadi ignores warnings from friends and his fiancée; and despite the torture and killings of other Internet reporters expands his coverage. His videos of the police and military’s ruthless suppression of demonstrations is graphic and horrifying. Dall’Oglio similarly ignores the advice of others to use caution and openly declares his solidarity with the revolutionaries as he addresses a crowd in a briefly liberated Raqqa. Inevitably both are taken prisoner with no clues as to where they are or whether they are alive.

Filmed over the course of six years and in several countries, the film follows the fiancée and sister as they search for answers and try to drum up international support. “Ayouni” takes its title from the Arabic word “my eyes,” which is both a term of endearment and in this case also a reference to the burden of bearing witness when the rest of the world has turned its eyes away.


“Ayouni” can be streamed starting April 16 at True Story. Launched last October, True Story is a subscription streaming platform dedicated to documentaries.

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Cover of the first edition of L. Frank Baum's "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz."Library of Congress

Baum not in Gilead

Though celebrated in Ken Burns’s recent documentary and despite his literary achievements Ernest Hemingway did not have nearly as much cultural impact as the author profiled in “American Oz,” Randall MacLowry and Tracy Heather Strain’s comprehensive documentary provides an illuminating, engaging, and Burns-like examination of the life and genius of L. Frank Baum, author of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”

Baum (who died in 1919, at 62) was a restless, ambitious soul who took his wife and growing family across the country in search of the big score that would bring him fame and fortune. His resumé included chicken breeder, actor, marketer of petroleum products, shopkeeper, newspaperman, and traveling salesman. As the film points out, each new experience might not have fulfilled his dream of success but did present him with material for what would turn out to be his magnum opus.

In South Dakota he opened a novelty store. It failed when a drought struck, but he remembered the people, the bleakness, and the cyclones when he wrote about Dorothy Gale’s turn-of-the century Kansas. In Chicago he earned a living as a salesman at a crockery firm but his imagination was inspired by the visionary and tawdry wonders of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 — a model for the Emerald City. And perhaps he drew on himself in creating the Wizard, a fabulous huckster and illusionist who cons everyone for their own good.


Ultimately, Baum decided he was destined to be an author, and after a few critically praised but commercially negligible children’s book he hit pay dirt in 1900 with “Oz.” He transformed the property into a brand, turning out numerous sequels, a traveling multimedia show, and a musical stage version. Only when he tried to adapt it to the new medium of cinema did he fumble. Not until 1939, when Judy Garland first serenaded the world with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” did “The Wizard of Oz” triumph on the screen and enter American mythology.

Baum, who was an amalgam of progressive ideals (he was a pioneering feminist) and regressive prejudices (shockingly, he wrote editorials in favor of exterminating indigenous people), comes off in the film as a kind of flawed myth himself, embodying many of the best and some of the worst aspects of the American dream.

“American Oz” premieres April 19 at 9 p.m. on PBS’ “American Experience” and can be streamed on and via the PBS Video App.

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An orca swimming off the coast of New Zealand. From "Secrets of the Whales."National Geographic for Disney+/Kina Scollay

Pod casting

National Geographic takes whale watching to a new level in its four-part documentary series “Secrets of the Whales.”

Directed by Brian Armstrong and Andy Mitchell, “Episode 1: Orca Dynasty” dazzles with its extraordinary footage of killer whales in locations from Antarctica to Norway. You might question the film’s anthropomorphizing (“Whales are just like us,” Sigourney Weaver declares in the voice-over) but it would be hard to argue with such a point of view after watching some of the behavior demonstrated by these giant apex predators.

That includes mourning the dead — a mother orca is shown carrying the corpse of her calf, which she continued to do for several days. Or simple hospitality — an orca offers the scuba-diving photographer Brian Skerry a yummy stingray carcass (somewhat churlishly Skerry declines). And though fans of cute baby animals might object, the film captures fascinating footage of an old matriarch teaching a new generation of orcas how to snatch a lion seal pup from off a beach.

“Whales have culture,” says Weaver. That’s more than you can say about some humans.

All four episodes of the series premiere on April 22 (Earth Day) on Disney+.

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Peter Keough can be reached at