"Films for the curious" is the motto of Ironweed, a movie club that offers a monthly DVD selection to subscribers around the United States and Canada. The concept of a film club is not new in the United States, but Ironweed doesn't feature Hollywood blockbusters. Instead, it chooses films that encourage Americans to learn more about important social issues, mostly in other parts of the world.
"I want our films to be surprising," says Ironweed president Adam Werbach, "and for people not to think that they're left or right or up or down. They're interesting films that make you think.'
"I want our films to be surprising," says, "and for people not to think that they're left or right or up or down. They're interesting films that make you think.'
Werbach looks for what he calls "socially relevant" films that try to make faraway issues compelling for viewers in the United States. "They're films that represent issues going on in your everyday life or things you maybe know might be happening halfway across the world, but you haven't had a chance to actually see," he explains. "So, we're looking to bring those films into peoples' homes, and give them a chance to see the rest of the world."
Take, for example, Ironweed's featured film for February, Seoul Train. The title refers to the Underground Railroad, a secretive 19th century network in the United States that smuggled slaves from the South to freedom in the North. Only, in this documentary, the Underground Railroad is the path of North Koreans who want to flee their country, to the south.
Over scenes of police bursting into refugee hiding places and trying to prevent their escape, activist Tim Peters says, "When you come face to face with the realities of what the refugees have to tell us, suddenly, that two million dead or three million dead in North Korea starts to penetrate to your heart and your conscience, and you realize that you have to do something."
The introduction to Seoul Train is given by U.S. Senator Sam Brownback, an outspoken champion of human rights around the world, who tells viewers, "Yes, we're concerned about nuclear weapons in North Korea and what it means to the rest of the world. But the North Korean people need us, advocating for them and their human rights."
Senator Brownback quotes a Biblical verse that urged believers to feel, themselves, the chains of those who are bound. He says, in the same way, he wants the audience to not only feel empathy with North Korean refugees, but also be inspired to take action. "Please," he says, "join in the cause. Advocate for the freedom of those who do not know freedom, whose chains continue to bind them today. As you view this film, feel those chains. I invite you now to sit back, to view, not to relax, but to get involved, in Seoul Train."
The film club began in December with Wetback: The Undocumented Documentary. It told the story of two friends who journey from Nicaragua, planning to get into to the United States. January's selection, the documentary Power Trip, focused on an American company's efforts to take over the electric system in the former Soviet republic of Georgia.
Werbach says this month's selection, Salt of the Earth, is set closer to home. The film was made in 1954, but he says Ironweed chose to distribute it because it was not publicly shown when it first came out. "It was banned in the 1950s by the House (of Representatives) Un-American Activities Commission, and it was banned in the fear of Communism at the time. But it's this extraordinary film about a labor uprising in New Mexico, the New Mexico mine workers' strike."
While this docu-drama looks back in time, the Ironweed president says there is no shortage of current material to keep the club going. He says new digital technology makes it easier and less expensive for more people to make films, which means there are many more stories out there that can reach an audience.
The name Ironweed comes from a saying by American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson: 'a weed is a flower whose virtues are not yet recognized.' Werbach says "we just love the instinct, that there are these amazing films out there, by these fearless filmmakers that yet haven't gotten the type of acclaim they deserve."
Ironweed currently only has several thousand subscribers in the United States and Canada. But Werbach says he is surprised at the expressions of interest he has received from Asia, and hopes soon to make the film club more international. In the meantime, he says, people who are interested can visit the group's website ironweedfilms.com