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Review: Documentaries ‘The Lavender Scare,’ ‘Ghost Fleet’ and more

A photograph featured in “The Lavender Scare” of Frank Kameny leading a picket line in front of Inde
Frank Kameny leading a picket line in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia on July 4, 1965, from the documentary “The Lavender Scare.”
(Full Exposure Films)

‘The Lavender Scare’

A shameful chapter in American history gets a much-deserved close-up in “The Lavender Scare,” a gripping, nimbly assembled documentary examining the decades-long campaign to excise homosexuals from all corners of government.

Based on the book by David K. Johnson, the film tracks how, in the early 1950s, the Cold War and our nation’s roiling fear of communism inspired insidious efforts by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the FBI, a then-newly installed President Eisenhower and others to systematically root out, shame and fire gay and lesbian federal employees. The pretext: These “deviants” were targets for blackmail — and, thus, national security risks.

The result was countless job losses and much personal devastation. This policy persisted until 1995 when President Clinton reversed Eisenhower’s 1953 antigay executive order.

Director Josh Howard also stirringly spotlights the late Frank Kameny, the “grandfather of the gay rights movement.” The onetime government astronomer was the first worker to challenge his firing (in 1957) for being gay and the first openly gay person to testify before Congress. He’s a hero to honor this Pride Month — and every month.

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A wealth of archival footage and stills, candid chats with victims of this harrowing era (and a few unapologetic victimizers) plus effective voiceovers by Glenn Close, Cynthia Nixon, David Hyde Pierce and others combine for a vivid, disturbing and rousing picture of specious government intrusion at its worst.

—Gary Goldstein

‘The Lavender Scare’

Not rated

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Running time: 1 hour, 14 minutes

Playing: Starts Friday, Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills

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‘Ghost Fleet’

Patima Tungpuchayakul in a scene from “Ghost Fleet.” Credit:
Patima Tungpuchayakul in the documentary “Ghost Fleet.”
(Vulcan Productions)

Thai fishing companies, hurt by their own indiscriminate excess, now illegally operate on foreign shores after depleting the supply at home. To satisfy the demands of their illicit business, these entities entice workers with false employment prospects and enslave them once they are in their grasp.

“Ghost Fleet,” a nonfiction work filmed across Southeast Asia by directors Shannon Service and Jeffrey Waldron (also the doc’s cinematographer), tackles the horrors of the modern slavery that corrodes the region’s billion dollar seafood industry with a humanistic gaze.

The directing duo follow the staunch Patima Tungpuchayakul, co-founder of an organization, LPN (Labour Rights Promotion Network Foundation), dedicated to rescuing these men who’ve been tortured, drugged, mutilated, and kept at sea for years, even decades, as disposable labor. Although she is the guiding force of the piece, her portrayal rings undeveloped.

Alternating between testimonials from escapees who’ve relocated to Indonesia and breathtaking vistas courtesy of Waldron, the film relies on its subject’s inherent pathos to deliver genuinely affecting moments: long-awaited family reunions, or the men’s realization that they’ve forgotten their native tongue over the course of their real-life nightmare.

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Being so single-mindedly focused on human suffering, the doc fails to dive deeper into the environmental consequences, the political stances of the countries where these activities occur, or even the intricacies of the Thai judicial system, which on occasion grants financial compensation to victims who can provide witnesses.

Statistics displayed in its final frames offer some answers to these basic inquiries but little context, leaving one wishing for a more holistically constructed view on the issue.

—Carlos Aguilar

‘Ghost Fleet’

In Thai and English with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Playing: Starts Friday, Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica

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‘Free Trip to Egypt’

Brian Kopilec in a scene from “Free Trip to Egypt.” Credit: Maged Nader
Participant Brian Kopilec in the documentary “Free Trip to Egypt.”
(Maged Nader)

As a Canadian Egyptian and a Muslim, entrepreneur Tarek Mounib has a lofty goal: to unite Muslims and those Americans who fear them. The documentary “Free Trip to Egypt” offers no judgment of anyone on either side; instead, it celebrates the opportunity for the two groups to find common ground.

Mounib’s strategy is to offer Americans an all-expenses-paid vacation to Egypt, where they will meet Muslims and challenge the ideas they’ve learned from the U.S. media — as well as to introduce the Egyptians to people who may differ from those they’ve seen in exported American content.

Before leaving on the trip, one participant says, “I’m so racist now I can’t stand myself,” and it’s immediately clear that the journey will be more than just a physical one. Profound change happens as the diverse travelers encounter an equally diverse group among the Egyptians with whom Mounib has paired them.

There’s nothing particularly sophisticated about the filmmaking in “Free Trip to Egypt,” but first-time feature director Ingrid Serban succeeds in telling a simple story in a simple fashion, and it’s an effectively moving effort. The documentary skims over some details and gives far more time to the Americans’ stories than their Egyptian counterparts, but the film is sincere and features some truly poignant moments, particularly in how the trip affects the Americans both while they’re abroad and in the months following.

—Kimber Myers

‘Free Trip to Egypt’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes

Playing: Starts Friday, Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; also June 12 only, Fathom Events screenings in various theaters

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‘Loopers: The Caddie’s Long Walk Home’

Bill Murray in a scene from “Loopers: The Caddie’s Long Walk.” Credit: Gravitas Ventures
Bill Murray narrates the documentary “Loopers: The Caddie’s Long Walk.”
(Gravitas Ventures)

According to an old golfing adage, “there are only three rules for caddies: Show up. Keep up. And shut up!”

Taking exception to that philosophy is Jason Baffa’s “Loopers: The Caddie’s Long Walk,” an affectionate documentary examining the lifelong bond between the golfer and the trusted individual whose job description entails more than whispering advice from the shadows.

Travelling from Ballybunion, Ireland, to Pebble Beach, Calif., the production takes on the genial, laid-back tone established by narrator Bill Murray, himself a former caddy who incorporated some of his acquired wisdom for the role of greenskeeper Carl Spackler in “Caddyshack.”

Along the way, director Baffa tees up profiles of the “Godfather of Caddies,” Willie “Pappy” Stokes, who logged five Masters wins with four different champions; and of Mid-Amateur champ Greg Puga, the pride of Boyle Heights and former Bel Air Country Club caddie.

At the film’s tender heart, however, are those palpably loyal golfer/caddy partnerships, notably those of Arnold Palmer/Nathaniel “Ironman” Avery and Jack Nicklaus/Willie Peterson, as well as Nick Faldo/Fanny Sunesson (the barrier-breaking female of the bunch) and Tiger Woods/Steve Williams, whose ratings-boosting reign would put the once humble caddy in a whole new tax bracket.

While it may not put a fresh spin on the sports documentary format, “Loopers” gives the bag-carrying faithful a well-earned moment in the sun.

—Michael Rechtshaffen

‘Loopers: The Caddie’s Long Walk’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Playing: Starts Friday, AMC 30, Burbank; AMC Citywalk Stadium 19, Universal City; also on VOD

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‘Arrangiarsi: Pizza … and the Art of Living’

“Arrangiarsi: Pizza … and the Art of Living” may attempt to focus on newbie Bay Area filmmaker Matteo Troncone’s trips to Naples to reconnect with his southern Italian roots, but this diverting concoction — more DIY video diary than polished documentary — is all over the proverbial map.

It’s nothing that a savvy editor couldn’t have fixed. However Troncone, who starred, directed, shot, wrote, composed the music and, yes, edited, was pretty much a one-man band here. Yet the movie’s energy, ebullience, vivid scenery and pizza porn keep us watching, even when it loses its thematic way — which is often.

The film and, it seems, Troncone’s whirligig life, follow the concept of arrangiarsi: the Neapolitan art of “arranging” or, as one observer puts it, “making do with little — and doing well.” Pizza, we learn, is a prime example of this, which Troncone explores via mouth-watering visits to Naples pizzerias plus to area farms that raise tomatoes, wheat, olives and buffalo (the last to make mozzarella).

The camera-friendly, if hapless, Troncone also packs — at times overpacks — his portrait with Neapolitan color and background, forays into his shoestring existence over five-plus years of shooting, and lessons in the human condition. But as a filmmaker, his endgame, messaging and true persona feel a bit blurry. Still, that pizza!

—Gary Goldstein

‘Arrangiarsi: Pizza … and the Art of Living’

Not rated

In English and Italian with English subtitles

Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills

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