Norman Nawrocki: Anarchist, Artist, Educator, Writer.

(c) 2003, Steven Lee

(c) 2003, Steven Lee

I first heard about Norman Nawrocki (pronounced na-Vrot-ski) in 2003, at a conference of the Canadian Organization of Campus Activities, also known as COCA, an organization whose mission is to assist in the development of quality campus programming through education, information and resource sharing. At the time, I was the Events & Clubs Coordinator for the Kwantlen Student Association (KSA), a non-profit student organization that provides advocacy, events and services for over 19,000 students at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. As the Events and Clubs Coordinator, a full time staff position I held at the KSA while completing my business and marketing studies, I was responsible for assisting clubs and elected officials in the development and execution of on campus events. And that’s why Lisa Coan, the elected Director of Events and myself, were at COCA that year.

Norman Nawrocki, Artist

Specifically, Norman Nawrocki (b 1959) is a multi-disciplinary artist whose writing lies at the heart of his artistic endeavours, providing a base-line through which one can examine his creativity. He markets himself as a Montreal based author, actor, violinist, cabaret artist, community organizer, educator and performer. In a 2017 interview with Bill Brownstein of the Montreal Gazette, Nawrocki described himself as a “prolific rebel wordsmith” (Nawrocki). And prolific he is, having written over a dozen books of poetry, a novel, monologues, one-man shows, plays and screenplays.

Beginnings

On the biography posted on Norman Nawrocki’s official website, Nawrocki notes how he was “…born a ‘PUKE’ to Polish/Ukrainian Canadian parents in the immigrant, working class East End of Vancouver” (Nawrocki). By dubbing himself a ‘PUKE',’ I think Nawrocki is working on several levels. First, it allows Nawrocki to poke a bit of fun at the importance some place on their lineage, holding it up as sort of a status symbol. And second, it also allows Nawrocki to remind his audience about the shame and prejudice that can be encountered with one’s heritage. Speaking with Jon Milton of Concordia’s Link newspaper in 2017, Nawrocki explained how:

My grandparents came from the old country—from Ukraine… They were poor peasants, they were looking for a better life. When they came here, they faced a lot of discrimination (Nawrocki).

And in the same article, Milton also noted how Nawrocki:

…as a child… was discouraged from announcing his Ukrainian background, for fear of prejudice. He only learned the correct pronunciation of his own family name as a young adult. It’s actually pronounced “nav-rots-kee,” but he was raised pronouncing it “now-rock-ee” (Milton).

Observing the challenges, hardships and opportunities that came with growing up in the rich immigrant and working class experience of East Vancouver, served as a lens that shaped Nawrocki’s worldview and activist roots that would form a thread across much of Nawrocki’s work.

In February 2019, I interviewed Nawrocki with an eye towards exploring both his creative and writing processes. Nawrocki attended elementary and secondary school in Vancouver, where his interest in the arts had its roots. Specifically, when I asked if he could pinpoint a time in his youth where he first became aware that he had an interest in expressing himself creatively, Nawrocki replied:

A kid, a kid! It was always in me. I could have been three or four years old and I started playing around. I discovered I wanted to do something, I wanted to act, I just had fun playing, performing, pretending, play acting – even as a child. That’s when it first started and you don’t think of it, it’s part of your play experience (Nawrocki).

I liked the honesty in Nawrocki’s response, and found that it highlighted the importance that we all should place in valuing play as a part of our routines. Sometimes, this play can be self-directed, and at other times it can be directed by others, as Nawrocki noted how:

…then, I guess, I started taking violin lessons, not because I really wanted to, because I was forced to by my parents. I didn’t enjoy that, but I did it. I started writing poetry at a young age and didn’t take it seriously. I guess I started play acting when I was six, seven or eight, a young child in school. But not formally, not in classes or anything, I didn’t sit down to write a play, I just said – “ok, I’m going to put on a show, with my sisters, I’ll put on a show with my friends. So, it started at a very young age (Nawrocki).

In the early 1980s, Nawrocki would relocate, noting how: '“…it wasn’t until I moved to Montreal and got drunk and ended up on stage when I realized that oh, okay, I’m going to start to take this seriously“ (Nawrocki).

Norman Nawrocki, Anarchist

First and foremost, Nawrocki describes himself as an anarchist, and in a 2010 interview with Jean Smith, Nawrocki described how this interest in anarchism began:

I walked into my high school library one afternoon, and found a called THE ANARCHISTS on the bookshelf by Irving Horowitz, and I thought ‘what’s an anarchist?’ … so I picked up this book, took it home and I started reading. And I didn’t stop reading all night, my Mom came and knocked on the door, ‘Norman, it’s time to go to bed!’ … ‘I’m going to bed Mom, I’m just doing my homework!’ … and I just kept reading, reading, and reading. I probably read till like three in the morning. Went to school the next day, rushed home to continue the book, and finished the book in about three or four days, one of those thick, paperback books. And I realized that ‘…yes! That’s me! I’m an anarchist!’ And from that point on, I identified myself with anarchism as a movement for collective liberation, for the collective freedom for everyone. And I decided from that point on I would dedicate my life to trying to gain freedom for everyone, trying to ensure the world was a place where everyone had access to freedom. Where everyone was healthy, with a roof over their head, and there would be no poverty, no misery and no injustice (Nawrocki).

Nawrocki’s interest in anarchy stems from a desire to see an end to all forms of oppression where his artistic endeavours exist as a means for expressing his anarchist beliefs. To that end, Nawrocki explained to me how, as a writer:

You have to be curious, you have to want to know, you have to be asking questions all the time. What is going on? Why is this happening? Why is this being said? Who is behind this? Where is the truth? How to separate truth from the nonsense and the lies, that’s my job as a writer is to focus on – can I extrapolate the truth in this situation? And can I retell it in such a way that makes it obvious but also makes it interesting and engaging for whoever is going to read it or watch it (Nawrocki).

Nawrocki’s interest in anarchism and social justice continued from high school and into his post secondary studies, as his website’s biography described how he:

…attends Langara college and Simon Fraser University sporadically, preferring to drink beer with campus newspaper staff. He co-edits SFU's 'The Peak,' gets bored and drops out of school to edit a radical neighbourhood newspaper. He becomes a community organizer, edits an international anarchist newsjournal, The Open Road, free-lances for Vancouver's Georgia Straight, is arrested and given a suspended sentence for helping striking immigrant women luggage workers (Nawrocki).

Ultimately, understanding Nawrocki’s interest in anarchy and activism is the key to understanding Nawrocki’s artwork.

Norman Narocki, as featured in the  short documentary film, LESSONS FROM A 7ft PENIS , by Lydia Anderson et al.   (c) 2016, Norman Nawrocki & Lydia Anderson

Norman Narocki, as featured in the short documentary film, LESSONS FROM A 7ft PENIS, by Lydia Anderson et al.

(c) 2016, Norman Nawrocki & Lydia Anderson

Norman Nawrocki, Educator

Okay, I think I’ll stop right now, because, to be blunt, I didn’t specifically hear about Norman at COCA. I heard about some guy dressed in a seven foot penis costume, running around the conference, providing information to attendees about a series of sex education comedy shows. that student unions could bring on campus. I like to think I met him there at some point, but nevertheless I do know that we did come away from that conference knowing that his show was something we wanted to bring to Kwantlen, and we did just that, in 2004, and later in 2007 and 2011.

Since 1993, Nawrocki has written and performed in four one-man sex education comedy shows, at over a hundred campuses across Canada and the United States, as well as in clubs, libraries, theatres, community centres and even prisons. Each show is designed to specifically focus in on different topics (from common myths and preconceptions about sex and sexuality, to sex toys, safe sex, sexual identity, dating, sexually transmitted diseases, date rape, and sexual harassment) through a wide range of dozens of characters that Nawrocki performs.

In a 2010 YouTube interview with Jean Smith, Nawrocki described how the idea for his sex education comedy cabarets germinated in a conversation he had with his girlfriend about the oppression she experienced as a result of the male gaze:

In a 2000 interview with Philip Fine of the Globe & Mail, Nawrocki described his methodology behind how he addresses these sensitive topics, saying how:

My shows are trying to reach those people who can't be reached. You are not going to attract too many engineering students to a workshop on date rape… I have a responsibility to address questions that need to be addressed in my role as a socially aware artist (Naworcki).

In a 2010 YouTube clip, Nawrocki pinpoints how his shows use “…humour to address serious questions” (Nawrocki). And in Nawrocki’s 2015 book, No Masters! No Gods! , Nawrocki uses his poem, Dry Love, to express some of the issues he raises in his shows, with lines such as: “I asked a woman friend / how she was doing / and she said, ‘OK,’ / except for her boyfriend troubles / in the bedroom” and “He thinks he’s such a fantastic lover / but I dread making love with him / He says it’s my problem / and I should see a doctor’” (Nawrocki).

334806568_f04f8e322f_o.jpg

For the 2004 show I helped bring to Kwantlen, Nawrocki performed Lessons from a 7ft Penis, where he portrayed over a dozen different characters. Overall, Nawrocki’s 2004 performance at Kwantlen was educational, energetic, and sidesplittingly funny. And more importantly, Naworcki performed from the heart, packing his delivery with soul and a genuine interest in relaying information he believes everyone needs to hear. Some of his shows do have props and costumes (did I mention his seven-foot penis costume, which is also pictured above?), but this show had none, which made it more cost effective and easier to organize.

Nawrocki has recently been working with documentary filmmaker Tamara Scherback to adapt Lessons from a 7ft Penis into a web series called Sextapes: Lessons from a 7ft Penis & Friends., which is now in post-production. You can see the trailer for that here:

In addition to his sex education workshops, Nawrocki also teaches independent workshops on a variety of subjects such as his creative resistance workshops. Nawrocki has also been an instructor in the School of Community and Public Affairs at Concordia University since 2005; and in 2018, he joined Concordia’s Department of Theatre as a part time Theatre instructor. His courses deal with the arts as a vehicle for social change.

Norman Nawrocki, Musician & Spoken Word Artist

Nawrocki also has a successful musical career that’s seen the production of numerous solo and collaborative albums. His musical approach is always captivating as it consists of a variety of intertwined approaches, from singing to spoken word to the use of a variety of musical instruments as well as a plethora of sounds found in both natural and manufactured landscapes.

Norman Nawrocki, Writer

Process


Collaboration

For as long as I’ve known Nawrocki, he’s always been an enthusiastic collaborator when it comes to his artistic endeavours. Whether it’s getting feedback on his writing, or working with an artist on illustrations for a book, or developing a new musical album or the script for a play —- collaboration forms a huge part of Nawrocki’s work, which he expressed to me, saying: 

I thrive on feedback and bouncing ideas off other people. For example, whenever I have a manuscript for a book, I’ll send it around to friends and say hey what do you think, what are your comments? Once upon a time I would do focus groups here in my apartment and invite people to come over for breakfast discussions about this or that, and review some of my work together as a small group of people to give me feedback. It always strengthens the work.

This kind of feedback is invaluable for any artist. In education, a fine arts or creative writing student will often get this kind of feedback through critiques, both in the classroom, and if they are lucky, through a network of friends they learn and grow with. Of course, with any kind of artistic expression, once an artist puts their work out there for consideration and critique, a part of them has to let go of any defensiveness they may have over the work. To this, Nawrocki reiterated how:

I’m not somebody who is entirely possessive of everything I write as a writer.  I’m not territorial about it. I’m open to other ideas, to feedback and criticism and suggestions, then I choose what I’m going to use. But most definitely, anything I’ve ever worked on has always benefited from outside eyes, outside opinions, outside critiques. Some of the best writers throughout history, among recent times, without editors, their work wouldn’t read the same way. People work very closely with editors to make their work read better.  But I bounce ideas off people all the time.

Nawrocki also spoke to this idea of collecting feedback in a short 2010 YouTube video with Jean Smith:

YouTube Playlist

I started a Playlist on YouTube, which I’ve been adding videos featuring interviews with Nawrocki as well as recorded performances by him. I’ll be continuing to add stuff as I find it in the months to come:

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL9epOVZg7VIjZJY4un_uwZ-AM17nb4WCn


Works Cited

Anderson, Lydia. “Montreal's Norman Nawrocki Launches AGITATE!” The Concordian, 20 Oct. 2015, www.theconcordian.com/2015/10/montreals-norman-nawrocki-launches-agitate/.

Bontempo, Mirella. “Romani, Love and Italy: On Reading Nawrocki's Cazzarola.” Montral Serai, 6 Mar. 2014, www.montrealserai.com/article/cazzarola/.

Brownstein, Bill. “'Rebel Wordsmith' Norman Nawrocki Forever Fighting for the Underdog.” Montreal Gazette, 2 Feb. 2017, montrealgazette.com/entertainment/music/rebel-wordsmith-norman-nawrocki-forever-fighting-for-the-underdog.

Fine, Philip. “How to Lure the Insensitive with Sex Toys.” The Globe and Mail, The Globe and Mail, 12 Oct. 2000, www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/how-to-lure-the-insensitive-with-sex-toys/article4168182/ .

Milton, Jon. “Norman Nawrocki Explores Migrant Justice Through His New Album.” The Link, 13 Feb 2017, https://thelinknewspaper.ca/article/norman-nawrocki-album-launch-music.

Nawrocki, Norman and Lydia Anderson. “Lessons from a 7ft Penis.” 16 Mar 2016, https://youtu.be/F7L8j77MHmQ.

Nawrocki, Norman, and Jean Smith. “Norman Nawrocki -- Sex Shows 11.” 19 Aug. 2010, http://youtu.be/ocXNTiczHcU?t=18.

Scherbak, Tamara. “In Development.” Tamara Scherbak, 4 May 2018, www.miksang.ca/in-development/.

Scherbak, Tamara, and Norman Nawrocki. “Trailer for Sex Tapes: Lessons from a 7ft Penis & Friends.” Vimeo - Sex Tapes: Lessons from a 7ft Penis, 8 Mar. 2019, www.vimeo.com/299295610.

Wosick, Kassia. “Sex Positive Reflections on Norman Nawrocki's One-Man Comedic Cabaret ‘Sex Toys.’” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 2013, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0160597613493749 .

On the power of an awkward silence...

On July 11, 2018, I took part in a presentation on comedy and we started our presentation with a two-minute silence, which created an awkwardness to everything and a lot of nervous laughter. Following the presentation, I decided to craft this journal post as a brief overview of some of the best examples of how silence has been used in comedy and comedic performances.

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Ron Long and the art of flower photography

Tonight I attended the first Thursday Night Artist Talk of 2018, as hosted by held the Surrey Art Gallery Association at the Surrey Art Gallery. These talks take place on the first Thursday of each month, and the Association’s website describes the events as being a:

...monthly program of illustrated talks and demonstrations by local and regional artists. The talks provide an opportunity for artists to expose their work and ideas to the public, and offer the public a chance to see work in a variety of media by artists in their communities.

February's featured artist was Ron Long, whose discussion was titled: The Art, Technique and Challenge of Flower Photography. The description of the artist talk read:

It takes more than a pretty flower to take a good flower picture. Join professional wildlife photographer Ron Long for an illustrated talk to learn tips to improve your own pictures, whether you've been snapping away for years or are just starting out.

The presentation took place in a small conference room of the Surrey Art Gallery. About 35-40 people were in attendance, seated in comfy black stackable chairs facing a large white screen onto which Long's images were projected.

On Photography...

Long began his talk with a brief introduction to himself. He had been a photographer with the Simon Fraser University Biology Department for over thirty-six years before he retired in 2004. And during this time, Long developed his passion for photographing flowers, something he started doing in the 1970s, first with flowers you might find around the house and shortly thereafter with wild flowers.

Long finds that one's photography skills improve as one takes more photographs. "My objective is to make the best pretty pictures of wild flowers that I can." His experience has led him to always want to "...find the best option, as the best shot might not always be obvious. Take the time until you get the shot." For Long, this is particularly important with rare, hard to find flowers:

The more rare the plant, the more time you need to take in photographing it. Take lots and lots of photos. Ask yourself, how can it be better? Always look for different options... explore all the way around a flower, from every angle you can think of. Keep photographing until you can't think what might make a better photo.

For Long, the most interesting compositions are ones where:

  • time is taken to find the best shot;
  • the flower fills the frame, eliminating most empty space; and
  • the most interesting part of the plant is isolated.

In terms of dealing with the composition of a photograph's background, Long discussed how he works to ensure that:

  • any distracting elements in the background are removed;
  • the background is blurred in order to make the flowers look sharper; but
  • allowance is made to let some background details pop (as you don't always want to go for a completely black background).

Throughout his talk, Long emphasized again and again how a photographer should always ask how a plant can be photographed from more interesting angles and viewpoints.

Camera Settings...

A correct combination of exposure settings – shutter speed, lens aperture, and ISO sensitivity – will give bright, contrasting pictures. Long noted how he likes to primarily use an 85mm macro lens, although he does use other lenses from time to time. Long never uses a polarizer on flowers but does use them when photographing other subjects. Finally, Long noted that he never uses vibration reduction as he finds it doesn't work well with macro lenses. 

Long noted that he uses shutter priority as "...a proper shutter speed will give you the beautiful photos you desire." In terms of lighting, Long revealed how he tries to keep this consideration as simple as possible. Long doesn't use any reflectors or any other lighting devices as they are difficult to deal with when you're by yourself out in the field. Long sometimes uses a built in flash to help make the flower visually pop, but noted that it must be balanced with the available ambient light. Sometimes he will turn the camera upside down to help aim the camera's built in flash to the areas where he wants it. Long never uses a ring flash as it can produce a ring of white light on his subjects. Long also described how he never uses exposure compensation, choosing instead to expose for the lightest, brightest petal in the photo frame to ensure he captures a detail throughout the image.

Long generally sets his ISO at 400, but if it's nice and bright he select an ISO of 100 as he never uses auto ISO. "With today's cameras you can go up to ISO 9000 or higher and still get good results." 

Calochortus howellii

Research...

Before heading out to an area to photograph, Long noted that he will research what kind of flowers might be found in an area he is visiting  so he will know what to look for, especially when it comes to searching for rare flowers. He always knows the names of the kinds of flowers he might encounter as he's found that helps dictate the kind of compositions he will create (his examples included flowers known as a steer's head, and another known as a monkey orchid). For Long, over time similar types of plants from different parts of the world make for an interesting series that he's always looking to expand.

Delphinium nudicaule

On Computers...

Long approaches his photography in such a way as to produce images that require little to no post processing, "...so I don't have to do anything on the computer... on a recent trip to Africa I shot over 10,000 photos but none needed any post processing as I made sure I had what I needed in camera, especially making sure I had a uniform exposure throughout, as you must have something you can work with."

When Long does use the computer he only does so to crop any distractions that may be taking away from the main subject. He also crops to create a panorama that again helps to provide more focus for the main subject. But when cropping, Long noted that he only crops to either the top or bottom of a photograph or to the sides, but never to both. Nevertheless, Long continued to emphasize that life is much easier if you can do all of this in camera.

Finally, Long discussed how he has adopted photo stitching techniques to combine, for example, four rows of ten exposures from a telephoto lens in order to make a large photograph of certain scenes. 

Closing thoughts...

Long encouraged his audience to always have fun. "Enjoy every second of it. Stay with it and keep exploring a flower until you can't think of anything that can be done. The longer you spend increases the possibility of producing interesting photographs." Long ended his talk with a brief question and answer period, which allowed the audience to ask him questions on a range of topics from technical to creative considerations, from appropriate clothing in the field to dealing with changing weather conditions. Finally, Long noted that he also photographs landscapes in addition to florals.

Overall, it was a very interesting artist's talk that had a strong focus on a very specific subject matter. I personally haven't photographed many flowers but I do try to photograph the various things I plant in my own yard, so his talk definitely gave me new ideas for how I approach that. His thoughts on composition will also be helpful as I have taken photos of flowers in the pttast with the intent of drawing or painting them later in my studio, using my photos as a reference. If I can ultimately produce more interesting compositions in camera, it should translate to more interesting compositions for my drawing and painting. Long’s enthusiastic passion for flower and wildlife photography as well as with travelling was contagious and I found I wanted to start photographing again right away. And I would love to hear him talk again!

Brillo Box (3¢ off) (2016)

Last fall, I was wasting time channel hoping when I stumbled onto an HBO Documentary Films title called Brillo Box (3¢ off). More than anything else, what immediately jumped to mind was, “Oh! Andy Warhol!” and after watching it for a few moments my suspicions were confirmed as this was indeed a film about Warhol and his famous artwork sculptures. But as the film was more than half over when I stumbled onto it, I decided to use my PVR’s feature to “view upcoming times for this title” to find a future airing which I set my PVR to record. And like so many things I record, I then promptly forgot about it.

Trailer for the 2016 HBO Documentary Films short documentary film, Brillo Box (3¢ off).

I'll be honest that I didn’t know anything about this film before I sat down to watch it. But after a quick Google search I learned from Wikipedia that Brillo Box (3¢ off) was a 2016 documentary short film written and directed by Lisanne Skyler. Specifically, her film was made to basically follow the provenance (the history of ownership) for the Warhol Brillo Box sculptures her family had owned.  

Even if you’re not a huge fan of modern art or have never taken an art history course, you’ve nevertheless probably heard of Andy Warhol. Warhol was one of the major players in the pop art movement that swept the art world during the late 1950s into the 1960s. Pop art became attractive to emerging artists as it was new and marked a pushback to the kind of artwork that had been produced before it, such as work by American abstract expressionist artists like Jackson Pollock. Specifically, the movement was famous for appropriating and playing with imagery from popular culture such as advertising, comic books, packaging and other objects of ordinary or banal origins. 

Popular, witty, sexy, glamorous - this short video provides an introduction to how pop art exploded onto the cultural scene in the early 1960s. 

In viewing Brillo Box (3¢ off), I was looking forward to learning more about a more personal history behind what has become one of the pop art world’s most famous works.

Film still from the 2016 HBO Documentary film  Brillo Box (3¢ off)

Film still from the 2016 HBO Documentary film Brillo Box (3¢ off)

The film opens with a short segment that quickly introduces the audience to the themes of the film and its main players. A catchy score plays over imagery of Brillo metal scouring pads being produced and packaged on an automated factory production line. It then immediately cuts to an image of Andy Warhol, who Lisanne Skyler, the film’s narrator says in “…1964 shocked the artworld by making hundreds of replicas of supermarket cartons and presenting them as art. His most notorious were the Brillo Boxes (1964)” (Skyler).

Skyler then introduces the audience to her parents, Martin and Rita Skyler, who got engaged that same year and started to collect artwork. One of the first artworks starting with one of the Brillo Boxes. Her mother Rita gives some insight into why they acquired it, “It was the fact that it was so out of context and it was a new form of art. I loved it. I absolutely loved it” (Skyler). She also says how her Father didn’t hang onto the Brillo Box very long, choosing instead to trade it for a work by another artist “…and the Brillo Box left our living room and went on a journey of its own” (Skyler). The introductory segment then ends by moving 40 years later to show how “…the same yellow Brillo Box (that) my parents acquired for $1,000 went on to sell for over $3 million” at a Christie’s auction in 2010. The film then plays out this story in greater detail over the course of the next forty-five minutes by interviewing various players in the history of their Brillo Box.

The film is great in how it concisely presents both the story of the Brillo Box alongside the context in which it was created and alongside the context of the ever changing artworld and art market of the 1980s to the present. For example, terms like Appropriation are introduced and defined by various experts, such as Eric Shiner, the director of the Andy Warhol Museum, who explained how: 

Appropriation is a term that we use in art history to talk about how an artist will borrow something from mainstream culture or from a book or from another artist or from something. How it differs from the term copy I think when you appropriate something you tend to change it in some way. Warhol by far and away was the biggest and most successful appropriation artist. And we have cease & desist letters from Campbell’s and Coca-Cola but they realized very quickly that these were the most talked about artworks in the entire country and they should back off. (Shiner)

It was also amazing how Skyler was able to trace the sculpture's impressive provenance, as it passed from the hands of prominent collectors such as the UK advertising executive Charles Saatchi to Robert Shapazian, the founding director of the Gagosian Gallery in LA, among others. Further, Skyler was able to track down and interview many people who knew the different owners of the piece over time. Each interviewer was able to add to the tapestry of the story being told, and reveal the importance of the piece to a number of its owners. It's nicely done and it helped keep me captivated as the film moved along at a quick, crisp and steady pace to its poignant conclusion.

Overall, Brillo Box (3¢ off) is a great, short introduction to not only the history and importance of Warhol and his work, but of the larger art world and art market as it's existed over the last sixty years.

Grade: A

Brillo Box. Dir. Lissane Skyler. Perf. Lissane Skyler, Rita Skyler. HBO Documentary Films.

2016. Documentary.