"Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox;" "Ten Canoes"

Dennis Harvey July 10, 2007

Getting in a lather with Dr. Bronner

At least since the 19th-century days of travelling “Medicine Show” quacks, hucksters have promoted cure-all substances that could do everything short of curing cancer while washing your dishes. How many actually lived up to their promises?

One did: Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap, the liquid I slap (in original pepperminty form, diluted as instructed) on my bathing body every day. This all-natural stuff is good for all it claims, far as I know — and it claims plenty. Facial packs, deodorant, mouthwash, soothing body & scalp rub, cleanser equally suitable to floors, babies, pets, clothing, and other miscellaneous household items. Why, it’s practically as all-purpose as that other ecologically kind and endlessly useful thing, hemp. In fact, Dr. B’s “Pure Castile Soap” sports organic hemp oil as a major ingredient. Don’t try to smoke it, though.

All this would be nice but not terribly interesting if it weren’t for an additional fillip: Each fully-recycled-plastic bottle of Dr. Bronner’s comes wrapped in a label whose tiny script is like the mutterings of some insane guy muttering about UFOs and Jesus Christ on a street corner.

“Essene and other birth control methods must reduce birth or Easter Island type overpopulation destroys God’s Spaceship Earth!” “Thank God we don’t descend down from perfect Adam & Eve to sinful sinner, brother’s keeper, divided slave!” Etcetera.

Actually most of the sentiments aren’t all that crazy, if you can grasp their gist beyond the ranting surface. But it’s a very distracting surface. And in Sara Lamm’s documentary “Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox” (which plays this week at the Red Vic Movie House), you get a full gander at the slightly loopy Bronner legacy. Allegedly Albert Einstein’s nephew — but then his take on reality isn’t automatically trustworthy — Emanuel Bronner was a German Jew who emigrated to the U.S. in 1929. Back home, his parents were killed and family soap factory destroyed by Nazis.

Declared psychotic, he escaped an Illinois insane asylum twice, finally launching his own peppermint soap with hand-scrawled labels proclaiming his philosophy of “ONE EVER-LOVING GOD! ALL-ONE!” A nudist eggshell eater paranoid about Communism, the FBI, and water fluoridation, Emanuel (who died a decade ago) found moments of clarity to check on the children he’d abandoned in Wisconsin.

Among them was now 68-year-old Ralph Bronner, who’s carried on the family tradition and then some. He’s a fascinating subject — scarred by terrible memories yet an obstinate, borderline manic proselytizer for his father’s causes.

“Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox” occupies a realm similar to recent “Crazy Love,” another documentary profiling people grown certifiably “eccentric” following great travails.

Age-withered yet vigorous Ralph remains an extrovert whose sunny message to the world may seem naive, even a bit cracked. Nonetheless its simple hopes for uniting the human race are potent stuff. He’s a wacky old guy — but compelling company in this absorbing documentary. Not to mention an inspiration to anyone who enjoys his “Magic Soaps” not just as household convenience but an ergonomic exercise of mild anti-consumerist rebellion.

Story, telling: Rolf De Heer’s “Ten Canoes”

[SF360.org editor’s note: This review, from Reverse Shot, was published in indieWIRE originally on May 31, 2007.]

I’m usually left slightly anxious by those works of western filmmakers that take as their subjects the nature and stories of indigenous peoples. The potential for exploitation — artistic, commercial, moral — runs so deep in these instances of cultural intersection that it’s amazing such films don’t all turn out like the garishly insensate “Apocalypto” which, if not for its bloated running length, might have worked perfectly as part of a “Grindhouse”-style tribal-exploitation double bill. We can point to films like “Walkabout,” “Where the Green Ants Dream,” or “The Fast Runner” (interesting in how it adopts an Inuit media workshop ground-up approach) as genuine attempts to render the experience of an indigenous culture cinematically, but those are like needles in a haystack – more often you’ll find something like “Geronimo” instead.

Enter Dutch-born Australia-raised Rolf De Heer’s “Ten Canoes” which casts its glance on the traditions of the Yolgnu peoples of Australia. De Heer’s a festival favorite (a Cannes and Venice regular) who hasn’t achieved a tremendous amount of notoriety in the States, so hopefully “Canoes,” a positive, nuanced representation of native culture, isn’t just a lucky exception to an otherwise unflattering rule. Instead of the worst cliches about noble natives invested with quasi-mystical powers, a deep relationship with the land, and the tendency to speak in Yoda-worthy riddles, De Heer’s Yolngu are conflicted, jealous, earnest, horny, and often terribly funny (especially around scatological themes) — in short, all too perfectly human. De Heer developed the screenplay in conjunction with the Yolngu community in Ramingining, on the northern tip of Australia, so this probably accounts for the sensitivity and richness of the experience.

De Heer’s intricate, but never convoluted, narrative layering finds David Gulpulli (from “Walkabout” and “The Last Wave” — he’s Australian cinema’s answer to Wes Studi) supplying gently comedic conversational narration throughout the film’s two major sections. The first, in crisp black-and-white and meant to evoke famous anthropological photographs taken by Dr. Donald Thompson in the ’30s, follows Gulpulli’s son Jamie Dayindi as he embarks on his first goose hunting and canoe building experience with nine others from his village; the second, marked by lush nature photography that calls to mind both “The New World” and “The Wind Across the Everglades,” tracks Jamie Dayindi again as he adopts the role of Yeeralparil in a historical legend as it’s related to the present-Dayindi of the black-and-white sections. In both, the younger Gulpulli is single and interested in his older brother’s young and beautiful third wife. The legend, full of warring factions, mysticism, and sorcerers skirts the line of the expected tropes, but in the end, De Heer’s frame sets the color sections up as a surprising, hilarious cautionary tale about a covetous nature-the utterly deflating concluding joke undercuts the potentially staid, tentative traditionalist bent that’s often a hallmark in this arena. The best praise I could level at “Ten Canoes” is that it reminds me most of Ousmane Sembene’s seminal historical fiction “Ceddo,” which felt at once ancient and wholly modern, a bridging of gaps — for all the differences between the viewers and those viewed, it was the kind of film that brought all involved in the experience just a hair closer.

[Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and currently works for Magnolia Pictures. Reprinted with permission, copyright Jeff Reichert, indieWIRE 2007.]