CASTING JONBENET (2017): Sneak Peek by Jan Lisa Huttner

In 1996, the body of a charismatic 6 year old girl was found in the basement of her parent's elegant mini-mansion... one day after Christmas! The nation was transfixed by the investigation. Everyone had a theory. Nothing ever came of it. Twenty years later, the death of JonBenet Ramsey -- an elfin blonde beauty queen on the child pageant circuit -- remains unsolved, and there is no reason to believe it will ever be solved.

Rather than tackle the gory details in the now familiar style of a "ripped from the headlines" Law & Order episode, filmmaker Kitty Green has devised a novel meta-documentary structure. She plants her cameras in Boulder, Colorado (site of the murder) and interviews local actors who hope to star in her recreation. Totally engrossing! Brava! (JLH: 4/5)

© Jan Lisa Huttner (4/28/17) FF2 Media

Top Photo: One of the auditioning couples act out a scene of JonBenet's parents in their daughter's bedroom after the murder.

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OBIT (2016): Review by Georgi Presecky

Vanessa Gould’s Obit is a thoroughly captivating documentary about the New York Times obituary department. Its writers and their work capture the nuance and beauty of people’s lives in 800 words or less. Gould masterfully tells the story of how they tell stories, and it’s a fascinating tribute to writing, reporting and the incredible lives that people live while no one is paying attention. (GEP: 5/5)

Review by Social Media Manager Georgiana E. Presecky

How do you boil down an entire life in a newspaper clipping? It isn’t easy, but the New York Times obituary writers and editors make a living by speaking to loved ones, doing research and summing up a person’s entire history in print, allowing others to honor their legacy. According to writer William Grimes, “You’re trying to tell a story, not just deliver a résumé.” And the amount of stories they’ve told are truly interesting, from the inventor of the wireless remote to the last surviving plaintiff in Brown v. Board of Education. Other names are more recognizable, but you might already know those stories.

The featured writers are likable and interesting, representing everything I love about old-school journalism - something I miss, and hope never goes away. As long as obituaries exist, I hope people like this exist to write them, but even the formula of their job has changed with time. People assume that their job is morbid or macabre, but they quickly deny it. “In an obit of 800 words or so, maybe a sentence or two will be about the death, and the other 90 percent is about the life,” according to senior writer Margalit Fox. “Obits have next to nothing to do with death, and in fact, absolutely everything to do with the life.”

Most newspapers don’t have entire departments devoted to obituaries anymore (as opposed to death notices, which are completely different). Not only are writers featured, but also archivists and researchers who have unbelievably extensive knowledge and are essentially historians in their own right. Guys like news-morgue worker Jeff Roth might not get the byline, but they are just as important to the story - the obituary itself, but also the story Gould is telling.

These writers and researchers have to talk to people in grief, but they get to ask about their lives, histories, jobs, children. They are there when loved ones paint the picture of a life, answer questions and reflect on everything the bereaved accomplished, experienced and did in their lives. Their jobs are not depressing, and neither is Obit.

As a student journalist, the daughter of a veteran reporter and a repeat viewer of Spotlight, the straightforward nature of Obit did not prevent me from being incredibly moved by it. It plays like a no-frills tribute to storytelling, to the art of finding the facts and forming them for the public. Journalism has been a topic of hot debate lately, often being called “more necessary than ever.” Obit is about lives - not about politics, spin or bias. It’s refreshing to see a film about the Times that has nothing to do with modern technology or the current presidential administration, but just about the challenges and process of excellent reporting.

© Georgiana E. Presecky (4/29/17) FF2 Media

Top Photo: Jeff Roth has worked in the news morgue since 1993.

Middle Photo: Pulitzer Prize-winning desk editor William McDonald has published three books of NYT obituaries.

Photo Credits: Green Fuse Films

Q: Does Obit pass the Bechdel-Wallace test?

Not really. But Fox addresses the obituary department's criticism that they don't cover enough women and minority deaths by explaining that older white men who are dying now were unfortunately the only prominent figures in their time. That changed with the passing decades, so she says, "come ask me [about it] in a generation."

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FREE FIRE (2016): Rant by Jan Lisa Huttner

Rant by FF2 Editor-in-Chief Jan Lisa Huttner

Wanna know what happens when a terrific actress like Jennifer Jason Leigh gets her one and only Oscar nomination for playing a punching bag in Quentin Tarantino's execrable film The Hateful Eight? Garbage like this!

Free Fire supposedly stars Brie Larson -- who received a Best Actress Oscar in 2016 for her terrific performance in a low budget Indie called Room -- but that's B******T. There are no "stars" in Free Fire, just a bunch of fish trapped in a barrel by writer/director Ben Wheatley (aided & abetted by his co-writer Amy Jump).

I refuse to waste your time with any discussion of "plot" and "characters" since Free Fire frankly has neither. Sure there's some obligatory blather on IMDb about how Free Fire is supposed "set in Boston in 1978," and supposed about "a meeting in a deserted warehouse between two gangs," but the only thing to actually pay attention to on IMDb is the part about "turns into a shootout and a game of survival." 

Since the film is set entirely inside the deserted warehouse, it could be anywhere at anytime, although the specification of the date -- 1978 -- gives the costume designers permission to outfit everyone in cool retro clothes, and gives the casting director permission to find name actors with cool accents. Thus we get Cillian Murphy as "Chris" (the guy from the IRA who wants to buy guns) and Sharlto Copley as "Vernon" (the guy from South Africa who wants to sell guns), but it's all just pretext. None of it matters.

Shoot, Shoot. Quip, Quip. Snooze, Snooze. At least The Hateful Eight -- which really was hateful -- had great cinematography by Robert Richardson (which was nominated for an Oscar) and a terrific score by Ennio Morricone (which won an Oscar).

Because IMDb told me that Free Fire screenplay was co-written by a woman, I dutifully sat in my seat for the full 88 minute runtime, even though I was ready to flee after the first 5.

So Readers: Consider this my gift to you. I went and I sat there and I watched the whole thing so YOU don't have to. Avoid this "film" like the plague! (JLH: 1/5)

© Jan Lisa Huttner (4/19/17) FF2 Media

Photo Credit: © 2017 - StudioCanal UK

Q: Does Free Fire pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

Of course not!

There is only one female in this film, but she is not a "woman" let alone a "character." She is just fodder for the marketing machine 🙁

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THE PENGUIN COUNTERS (2017): Review by Giorgi Plys-Garzotto

Antarctica is known as the continent most hostile to human life, second only to Australia and so uninhabitable that most people forget that it is a continent at all. It is to this frozen tundra that has claimed so many lives that Ron Naveen travels with his crew to track the health of Antarctica’s most populous resident: the penguin. Director Harriet Gordon Getzels delivers an informative, though at times unfocused, account of his expedition. (GPG: 3/5)

Review by FF2 Contributor Giorgi Plys-Garzotto

Ornithologist Ron Naveen's primary study is of the population and overall health of the penguins living on Deception Island, which lies a ways off the Antarctic Peninsula. His main activity there, and the origin of the title of the film, is to take a count of about how many penguins live there, and keep track of changes in the population. He and his crew spend months traveling to Deception Island just to count the penguins for a few days, when they congregate for their mating season.

His research doesn't just monitor the health of the penguin population, though. The condition of the penguins speaks to the health of the entire ocean’s ecosystem. This is why the penguins’ diet is another big concern of his: as krill start to die off due to increasingly polluted waters, scientists need to know if the penguins will be able to find other food sources. His research is a measurement of how penguins, and more broadly, oceans, are responding and adapting to climate change--a high stakes question for every life form on this planet, whether aquatic, amphibious, or completely terrestrial.

As the crew is journeying to the Antarctic, they catch a ride on a ship with a number of other explorers. Among them are historians studying the Ernest Shackleton expedition, including Shackleton's own granddaughter, and an author writing a book about Shackleton's second in command, Frank Wild. Naveen cites Shackleton as a major factor in the genesis of his obsession with the Antarctic, so he takes us along to the author’s memorial service for Wild, where we see his ashes being ceremonially interred next to his captain Shackleton's.

While interesting and informative, caveats such as the memorial service distract from the film's main purpose, weakening its effect. The film also, confusingly, spends almost half its length on the journey to the research site! While stops at other penguin habitats gives the viewer ample time to see different types of penguins than the type Naveen studies on Deception Island, that time might have been better spent on film's main topic. Distractions aside, though, the views of the Antarctic landscape covered with penguins, combined with the knowledge that these views may soon be gone forever, are breathtaking and give this film more than enough to recommend it.

© Giorgi Plys-Garzotto (4/21/17) FF2 Media

Top photo: Change we can believe in!

Middle photo: Some of the penguins Naveen counts.

Bottom photo: Promotional material for The Penguin Counters.

Photo credit: Getzels Gordon Productions.

Q: Does Penguin Counters pass the Bechdel test?

No. There’s only one female crew member and she doesn’t get a lot of screen time.

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THE PROMISE (2016): Review by Lindsy Bissonnette

When an ambitious medical student has his entire life torn apart, he must unite his fellow Armenians in hopes that they will all survive the genocide. The Promise, written by Terry George and Robin Swicord and directed by George, is set in the early 20th century at the beginning of the Ottoman Empire’s destruction of the Armenian culture and people. With beautiful cinematography and amazing performances, this narrative film is an absolute must-see this spring.  (LMB: 4/5)

Review by FF2 Associate Lindsy M. Bissonnette

“Mikael Pogosian” (Oscar Isaac) is a medial student who wants to continue his studies. With the blessing of his mother, “Marta” (Shohreh Aghdashloo), and soon to be wife, “Maral” (Angela Sarafyan), he travels to Constantinople to begin class and stay with his uncle. He meets “Ana” (Charlotte Le Bon), his nieces’ schoolteacher, and her lover, “Chris Myers” (Christian Bale), an American photographer. Immediately sparks fly between Mikael and Ana, which do not go unnoticed.

As time goes by, Mikael proves to be an extremely bright student and is well on his way to becoming a promising doctor. Unfortunately, fate has other plans, and so do the Turkish. The Ottoman Empire begins eliminating the Armenian population in Constantinople, first by asking them to join the military, which turns out instead to be camps where they are forced into hard labor until they die of exposure, dehydration, or injury. As the story unravels the future looks bleak for the Armenians. Chris, seeing that they are on the brink of disaster, wants to take Ana back to France or to America, but she refuses to leave her people when they are in danger.

Devastating and moving, The Promise is a film you will not want to miss. Oscar Isaac gives an absolutely stunning and gripping performance. I won’t give anything away, except to say that his emotional depth and connection to his character is moving, poignant, and profoundly honest.

The film has received an enormous amount of negative feedback on IMDB, but mainly by people who have never seen the film. Please do not let any reviews deter you from seeing The Promise, politics should never inform art, and this film will not be stopped by anyone claiming the genocide was not real. The film is beautiful and powerful, is a story that needs to be told, and more importantly, seen and heard by people who know nothing about the Armenians and their near extinction. The Promise refuses to allow anyone to silence the Armenian voice, and keeps the promise to never forget what happened to the Armenian people.

© Lindsy M. Bissonnette (4/13/17) FF2 Media

Top Photo: "Mikael" (Oscar Isaac) and "Ana" (Charlotte Le Bon) share a tender look.

Middle Photo: Mikael in a moment of pure shock.

Bottom Photo: Ana, Mikael and "Chris" (Christian Bale) at a party, as tensions rise.

Photo Credits: José Haro © 2017 Open Road Films

Q: Does The Promise pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

YES.

There are scenes between Anna and her two female students. They discuss education and dance, but also worry about the safety of their father. There are scenes between Marta and Maral. They talk about children, the genocide and their village.

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BY THE TIME IT GETS DARK (2016): Sneak Peek by Jan Lisa Huttner

True Confessions: I went into the Francesca Beale Theater at Lincoln Center wanting so much to love this film, but I must confess that when the credits finally started to roll, I packed up and left feeling baffled, confused and disappointed.

By The Time It Gets Dark purports to be about a young Thai woman who wants to make a film about student protests at Bangkok’s Thammasat University in 1976 (protests which resulted in the deaths of dozens of demonstrators). To accomplish her goal, she asks to interview one of the survivors, a woman who is obviously much older than she is, but was approximately her own age in 1976.

Filmmaker Anocha Suwichakornpong begins to weave her spell with considerable skill, focusing on the faces of the two women and allowing them to talk unhurried, with long pauses and intriguing flashbacks. I was drawn in, eager to learn more about what had happened before, during, and after 1976. 

But no... Suwichakornpong chooses instead to veer off into artsy images that, while beautiful, seem minimally connected -- at best -- to the story I thought she wanted to tell.

By The Time It Gets Dark (Dao Khanong in the Thai language) won multiple awards in 2017 from the Thailand National Film Association including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Editing, and has also done well on the international film festival circuit, so I am ready to believe the fault is all mine. That said, the actual watching of By The Time It Gets Dark made for a very long 105 minutes, therefore I cannot recommend it. (JLH: 3/5)

© Jan Lisa Huttner (4/15/17) FF2 Media

Character names? Actor names? I am sorry to say, I am not sure since IMDb provides minimal information. Photo Credits? Production Company = Electric Eel Films.

Q: Does By The Time It Gets Dark pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test? 

Happily this is one question about By The Time It Gets Dark that I can actually answer, and the answer is a resounding yes.

At least at the beginning, the young woman (the filmmaker) is asking the older woman (the protester) how she came to be involved in the protests, what she actually did as a student activist, and how she felt after the crackdown. I am so sorry the film did not continue to explore these questions because I really wanted to know the answers 🙁

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GLORY (2016): Sneak Peek by Jan Lisa Huttner

"Glory" is the name of a watch company, and "Tzanko Petrov" (Stefan Denolyubov) is the proud owner of a Glory watch. In fact, it is his one prize possession, given to him by his father (with an inscription on the back to prove its uniqueness).

But "glory" is also the ironic subject of this new film from Bulgaria, written and directed by Petar Valchanov and Kristina Grozeva. Like their first film The Lesson, it is a fictionalization of a Bulgarian news report, a meditation on a tale well-known there equally resonant here. (JLH: 4.5/5)

NYC SHOUT-OUT: Glory is not playing at the Film Forum. See it. You'll be glad you did!

Top Photo: Stefan Denolyubov as railway worker "Tzanko Petrov."

Bottom Photo: Margita Gosheva as "Julia Staykova," ace representative of the Ministry of Public Information.

Photo Credits: Courtesy of Film Movement.

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HEAL THE LIVING (2016): Review by Rachel Kastner

I was fortunate enough to see Katell Quillevere's third feature film, Heal The Living at this year's Rendez-Vous with French Cinema festival in New York City. It is an incredibly moving medical drama surrounding the issue of organ donation: how difficult of a decision it is to decide to donate organs, and how it changes the lives of those who receive them. Both cinematically and with regards to the soundscape, Quillevere's film was beautiful. (RAK: 4/5)

Review by FF2 Intern Rachel A. Kastner

Heal the Living opens with three young French boys embarking on an early morning surfing adventure. It seems they’ve done this hundreds of times before. But this particular morning, one of the friends is a bit too tired as they drive home. The consequence: a fatal car crash in which one of the youngest boys (Gabin Verdet), almost loses his life. Even though he is only active in a short segment of the film, Verdet plays "Simon," the accident victim (prior to his accident) with heart-rending innocence.

The trouble comes when his parents, "Marianne" (Emmanuelle Seigner) and "Vincent" (Kool Shen), who are separated, are informed of his awful condition. Their son has lost too much blood, and will likely remain comatose forever. The film truly begins when the doctor asks the parents the most difficult question: would they consider making him an organ donor. He is, after all, a surfer. He’s young, and his heart is so healthy; someone could really use a heart like his.

While the parents debate and philosophize about what they believe their son would have wanted, we are introduced to another family unit. A single French mother, "Claire" (Anne Doval) with a degenerative heart disease, who desperately needs a heart transplant. Although she’s terrified, she adds her name to the transplant list at the encouragement of her longtime doctor. 

While this setup may seem like your average medical show drama, Quillevere’s film is extremely new and groundbreaking in multiple ways. In story, she introduces us to hosts of secondary characters whose lives are touched, scratched, scarred and ruined by the events unfolding. There are small, quiet details that haunt the screen and those watching. We meet the young victim’s girlfriend who is experiencing the strongest pain imaginable; we learn about Claire’s two sons, who are worried their mom might never see them to adulthood. Quillevere introduces us to the host of hospital characters involved in both Simon’s life and death, and Claire’s “rebirth” when she eventually does receive a transplant. We witness Simon’s parents’ goodbyes. The tender nature that each character simultaneously embodies and is treated with, ropes audiences in. We care so much about Simon. We also want Marianne to live more than anything. The questions are hard.

Quillevere makes life and death ebb and flow both in story and on camera; her cinematography is beautiful. She brings us into the ER in a way that few films ever have before. She does not shy away from the most gruesome moments of the physical surgery. We are present the entire time, as life is transferred from one body to the next. The music composition mimics this ebb and flow of life and of the ocean, wrapping the film up in the most beautiful way. While it is no surprise that the surgery takes place, the arc of how Quillevere takes us there is the real journey of her film.

If you have the chance, go see Heal the Living. It is an extraordinarily beautiful and touching film; simultaneously dreamlike and nightmarish, light and heavy, gruesome and hopeful.

© Rachel Kastner (4/16/17) FF2 Media

Top Photo: Simon moments before his transplant.

Middle Photo: Anne Dorval as "Claire."

Bottom Photo: Tahar Rahim stars as a transplant coordinator in Quillevere's large ensemble cast.

Photo Credit:  A Les Films du Bélier

Q: Does Heal The Living pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

Yes.

Claire has been in a lesbian relationship in the past, and during this tenuous time in her life, she finds comfort with her old girlfriend. They rekindle their relationship after Claire bumps into her at a musical performance.

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LITTLE BOXES (2016): Review by Jessica Perry

Written by Annie J. Howell and directed by Rob Meyer, Little Boxes follows an interracial family as they move from the diverse and bustling city of New York, to a small town in Washington State. The film highlights their struggles, both familial and racial, while serving as a sort of coming of age transition for their son “Clark” (Armani Jackson). (JEP: 4/5)

Review by Executive Editor Jessica E. Perry

“Gina” (Melanie Lynskey) is uprooting her family, from their comfortable and familiar home in New York City, to a small town in Washington State where she’s landed a new job teaching at a university, effectively putting herself on the tenure track. Her husband, “Mack” (Nelsan Ellis), is extremely supportive of his wife, but is also wary of what the move means for their interracial family.

Gina, Mack, and their son “Clark” (Armani Jackson) say goodbye to their friends in New York, pack up the small apartment they’ve always called home, and make their way to the other side of the country. Their new home is a small town where the population is predominantly white, and although their neighbors mean well, the new addition of a biracial family to the neighborhood is clearly somewhat of a shock for the people of the town; out of place in the land of white picket fences.

Mack, an author, is struggling to write his next novel. With Gina consumed by the demands of her new job, and Clark making friends with two neighborhood girls, “Ambrosia” (Oona Laurence) and “Julie” (Miranda McKeon), Nelsan becomes consumed with tracking down their missing furniture and uncovering the mold that lies hidden in the walls of their new home. But through it all, and through the struggles of small town perception, Mack remains a great father and strong advocate for his son, as Clark approaches teenage hood and navigates all that comes with it; including his first crush on a girl and fitting in in a new town.

Coming from an interracial family myself, I found Little Boxes to be honest and grounded in its portrayal of both the complexities, and even struggles, that can present themselves from both internal and external forces, while also highlighting that when it comes down to it, a family is a family, no matter the color of your skin. Moreover, that all families, black, white, and interracial face the same challenges, and are also all capable of painting those different then their own as “other:"

Clark sneaks out of the house in anger after Ambrosia “breaks up” with him for being biracial and not “all black” as she had thought. Her mother, “Joan” (Christine Taylor), confronts Clark’s parents, accusing him of being the perpetrator who threw a rock through the window of her family’s home. Mack is enraged that Joan has seemingly profiled his son. While Gina looks down upon Ambrosia’s family as less educated then her own, insinuating that Joan, as a single mother, is not able to provide her children with the example she and Mack have set for Clark. Each party holds a form of racial and/or classist prejudice over the other, coming from that place in anger, instead of trying to understand one another.

Although this is one sequence in the film, it is especially relevant today in what it has to say. However, while race is undoubtedly a focus of the narrative, it is also extraneous to the story’s familial core. A family is a family, no matter what. Screenwriter Annie J. Howell must be applauded for the subtly of Little Boxes, a film with such a small story, that is still able to say so much.

©Jessica E. Perry (4/18/17) FF2 Media

Top Photo: Melanie Lynskey as “Gina.”

Middle Photo: Gina, Mack, and Clark sit together eating breakfast the day after Mack discovered mold behind the wallpaper.

Bottom Photo: Trapped outside their house due to the mold, the movers are forced to deliver their boxes only as far as the front yard.

Photo Credits: FilmBuff

Q: Does Little Boxes pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

Yes!

Gina talks with colleagues “Helena” (Janeane Garofalo), “Maya” (Nadia Dajani), and “Sarita” (Veanne Cox) about her eye for art, the ins and outs of the university program, and the rules of saving face in a small town.

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MAURIZIO CATTELAN: BE RIGHT BACK (2016): Review by Giorgi Plys-Garzotto

On the occasion of his Guggenheim retrospective, first-time director Maura Axelrod walks us through Maurizio Catellan’s tumultuous career in a documentary that is pitch-perfect in its embracing of his art’s irreverent tone. The result is a delightfully fun and educational watch for admirers of Catellan’s work, as well as for viewers who have never heard of him. (GPG: 4/5)

Review by FF2 Contributor Giorgi Plys-Garzotto

There was a Vogue profile done on Catellan in the 80’s entitled “The Lying Game.” This is an apt title for an artist who takes delight in playing cheeky pranks on his audience, from creating fraudulent copies of a top art magazine with his own artwork on the cover, to falsely reporting a non-existent work of art as stolen to the police and then exhibiting the police report in a gallery showing. A series of playful animations in the first part of the film depicts a young Cattelan getting started in the art world with these and other pieces; these caveats are extremely helpful for viewers less knowledgable about conceptual art!

Once he had entered the art world, Catellan had a lot to say about the culture he found—the first time he was invited to participate in the Venice Biennale, he didn’t make a piece, but rather rented out his space to a billboard company, who put up a perfume ad. Later, he organized his own “Caribbean Biennale,” which patrons found had no art on exhibition at all, except for a bunch of artists getting very drunk. These pieces, by offering no art to occupy the viewer’s attention, bring the excesses of the art world into focus—the extravagant galleries, the critics, and of course, the auctions where Cattelan's pieces pull millions of dollars.

Catellan is known for the controversies his work provokes—it has happened not once but several times that a viewer of his art has found a piece so offensive that they take it upon themselves to vandalize it to remove the transgression from public view. His most famous piece, a statue of the pope being hit by a meteorite, was destroyed when a visitor took the meteorite off the pope and tried to stand him up. When a piece in which he hung three statues of children from a tree was shown in a park in Italy, a local ended up cutting the children down, injuring himself in the process. Catellan finds these acts of vandalism funny, as it proves he is testing the limits of what an audience will tolerate being shown.

All in all, a fascinating lesson on one of conceptual art's most important figures!

© Giorgi Plys-Garzotto (4/18/17) FF2 Media

Top photo: A statue of a middle finger displayed in front of a stock exchange in Italy.

Middle photo: An assortment of Cattelan's pieces being prepared for his Guggenheim retrospective.

Bottom photo: Cattelan making one of his pieces.

Photo credit: Bow and Arrow Entertainment.

Q: Does Maurizio Cattelan: Be Right Back pass the Bechdel test?

No.

Since there are no dialogues, there is no opportunity for any of the women in the film to speak to each other. Even if they did, they would talk only about a man -- Maurizio Cattelan. However, I was refreshed to see a selection of women art critics and collectors being interviewed alongside the more traditional old white men.

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