Read my latest interview with the directors of October Country here.
Read my latest interview with the directors of October Country here.
David Redmon and Ashley Sabin, filmmakers extraordinaire and co-directors of Carnivalesque Films, their distribution company, have added another title to their growing catalog of independent films. In October of this year (appropriately enough), they will be releasing Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri's multiple award-winning film, October Country.
The reason I'm writing about this now is that, at this juncture, it's imperative that all you fans of the film out there add October Country to your Netflix queue to maximize overall interest for the film since they pre-order DVDs based on the amount of requests in a film's queue. You can click here to add it.
Also, the new DVD package will include some great added bonuses in the extras! And in yet another bid at shameless self-promotion (and isn't that the whole reason Facebook exists--that's enough about me, what do you think about me?), I am honored to say that one of the two critical essays included in the package for sale is written by moi, the other stellar one written by the brilliant Dodie Bellamy.
But only a thing or two. Now on newsstands, the issue also features articles by associate editor, Tamara Krinsky, producer, David Becker, filmmaker, Adrian Belic, and curator, Kathy Brew. Documentary.org has kindly reprinted my article that leads the section called "Rethinking the Film Festival" where I talk to many of the top programmers about the current fest landscape.
So having just returned from True/False (coverage on Hammer to Nail in a bit, as soon as my jet lag abates--from Europe still, I think!) and heading to SXSW next week, and also working on distribution strategies and theatrical runs for a few more films this season, it's something with which I occupy a great deal of my time. Why we don't know; but I like it. So enjoy--here's the link. Unfortunately, the web version doesn't include all the pretty pictures, but happy reading, anyway.
At last year's SILVERDOCS, I saw a real beauty of a film called Let's Be Together. This small family story out of Denmark and Brazil, directed by the über-talented, Nanna Frank Møller, really impressed me with its sensitivity and grace. You can read my impressions about it here. (BTW, submissions are now open for this year's SILVERDOCS fest--see website for details.)
I will be bringing this film, and a lovely short film from Finland / Russia called Between Dreams directed by award-winning filmmaker, Iris Olsson, with gorgeous cinematography by Natasha Pavlovskaya ( a nominee for best short for the European Film Awards 2009) to the Brooklyn Independent Cinema Series this Monday, the 1st. The screening starts at 7:00 p.m. and is free--but get there early since it's a very intimate space at the back of the Barbès bar in Park Slope (376 9th Street at 6th Avenue).
I am writing from the presidential suite at the Regency Hotel in downtown Columbia, MO where I'm attending the 7th True/False Fest, feeling damned lucky to have been on one of the last flights out of blizzardy New York City yesterday morning--whew! It's lovely here, no snow and plenty of sunshine and lots and lots of fabulous nonfiction fare on offer. After marching in the March March this afternoon with the Mucca-Pazza band, I will be totally and utterly reverting to the five-year-old inside me.
Hope to see you in the BK Monday evening.
New York-based distributor, First Run Features, is set to theatrically début six new American-made documentaries this winter.
Opening Friday, January 8 at the Cinema Village is Waiting for Armageddon, directed by award-winning filmmakers, Kate Davis, David Heilbroner and Franco Sacchi. This 2009 release, which premiered at the New York Film Festival, is about America's 50-million strong Evangelical community. This population, which spans most of the country, is convinced that the world's future is foretold in Biblical prophecy. The filmmakers explore, among other things, the politically powerful alliance between Evangelical Christians and the State of Israel and how Armageddon theology has had profound consequences both politically, and between various faiths, in the US and Israel. Armageddon, the film, is handled with a determinedly, non-judgmental approach; there is no narration, nor do the filmmakers seek to demonize anyone, allowing the subjects to speak for themselves. This is an extremely important document for dialogue and, in fact, the night before the film premieres at Cinema Village, an interfaith roundtable will be presented, in conjunction with New York University, at the Puck Building on the 7th of January. There will be influential community leaders, religious leaders and other interfaith-based organizations coming together for discussion. Clips from the film will be used as a catalyst for conversation. (Keep checking this site and the film's Facebook page for upcoming info.) The event will be open and free to the public; seating is limited to 120, including press. Filmmakers and other special guests will also be on hand at most theater screenings in New York throughout the week. The film will then head to Boston and Providence, RI, later in January. Also, co-director, David Heilbroner has a first-person guest blog post on the Huffington Post today about the film. Check it out here. Thus far, there are over 200 comments attached to that post! The film is supported, in part, by the Foundation for Jewish Culture, with outreach support from the Fledgling Fund.
On January 29th, Nicole Opper's Off and Running will premiere at the IFC Center, with special guest hosts almost every night and the filmmaker present at the theater for Q&As. Set in Brooklyn, Opper's feature début is a collaboration with her main subject, Avery Klein-Cloud (pictured above); the partnership garnered them the Writers Guild of America Documentary Screenplay Award at this year's SILVERDOCS and the film also received jury prizes for Outstanding Doc at Outfest and Philadelphia's Q Fest. The film premiered at the '09 Tribeca Film Festival (where it was a top-ten audience fave) and will have its national broadcast début on PBS' P.O.V. 2010 series, airing next November. There is already quite a groundswell of excitement and support for this film in many different communities throughout the nation, particularly here in New York City, and many of independent film's most prestigious and important organizations have been behind it from the start--Tribeca All Access, ITVS, P.O.V., the IFP, DocuClub and New York Women in Film and Television, among others. Opper was also named one of FILMMAKER Magazine's 25 New Faces of Independent Film this year. Off and Running tells the story of the Klein-Cloud family, a white female couple who are raising three children in a loving Jewish household. Before meeting, they had each adopted a child, Tova adopting Rafi, a mixed-race boy, Travis adopting Avery, an African-American girl; after many years together, they also adopted, Zay-Zay, a Korean boy. As Avery nears the end of her high school career and is getting ready for college, she starts to have an urgent need to contact her birth mother, curious about the African-American roots she's never explored. This begins somewhat of a rocky journey, one familiar to us all, as she searches for her true north and tries to gather together all the disparate elements of her identity--African American, Jew, transracial adoptee, athlete, sister, daughter. Click here to see the trailer and read more. Also check back on this site for other up-and-coming extracurricular activities associated with the film. Also coming soon, an extended interview with Opper to add to my arsenal of chats with kick-ass female directors. (There is a book coming, I promise.)
Opening across the country beginning February 5 is Judith Erlich and Rick Goldsmith's The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. This doc is the co-winner of this year's Freedom of Expression Award from the National Board of Review and was one of their picks for five best docs of the year. It also won a special jury prize at the IDFA and is a contender for this year's best doc Oscar prize. Daniel Ellsberg, a high-level Pentagon official and Vietnam War strategist leaked 7,000 pages of top secret documents to the New York Times in 1971 when he concluded that the war was based on decades of lies and falsehoods perpetrated by the US government. This was a watershed moment in history that led directly to the Watergate scandal, Nixon's resignation from the presidency, and the end of the Vietnam War. It was then-Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, who called Ellsberg "the most dangerous man in America."
Opening in New York on February 26 at the Cinema Village and then in San Francisco, Berkeley, Seattle, Washington, DC, Boston, Philadelphia, Denver and Atlanta beginning on March 5, Prodigal Sons will launch its nationwide theatrical run. This film, since its festival opening in Telluride in September 08, has had a really magical festival run, and the film's director, Kimberly Reed, has had a chance to see first-hand how audiences respond to her riveting and open-hearted personal documentary story. The film breaks fresh ground in almost every way. Like Opper's family story, this one is so distinct and individual, dealing with issues most of us might feel we're very far away from, but in fact, transcends its boundaries of circumstance to leave us feeling like we've met another family we can admire and love, a family closer to our own than we would have first thought. Journalists and juries and audiences have adored this film from all corners of the globe. There's a full press archive on the site here if you want to link and read some items (or all of them). Reed, a transgender woman, returns to the small town in Montana where she grew up. She initially took a camera in tow with DP and co-producer, John Keitel, because the trip home was to go to her high school reunion--the first time her classmates would meet her as Kim, instead of the young Paul McKerrow who graduated with them, star athlete, honor student and all-around stud. But the story goes to the heart of the matter very quickly when she comes back together with her estranged brother, Marc, a man who's gone through many changes in as many profound ways as Kim has, and whom she hasn't seen in almost 10 years. Look for Reed and the film to be featured in an article in the February issue of Details Magazine with an essay written by Rick Moody. There will be several press and media events surrounding this film leading up to its run with social engagement and outreach partners, including a Film Talk interview with Reed in mid-February. (Carol McKerrow, Marc McKerrow, Kimberly Reed, pictured.)
Opening in New York on March 12 will be Tales from the Script, Peter Hanson's from-the-horse's-mouth ode to screenwriting, with encounters and anecdotes from Shane Black (Lethal Weapon), John Carpenter (Halloween), Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption), William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver), and others. Sharing never-before-told behind the scenes stories, the writers describe their collaborations (or lack thereof) with the likes of Harrison Ford, Morgan Freeman, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. There will be a companion book published by IT Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, that will be in stores in late January.
Lastly, opening on the 26th of March in New York and, then, nationwide in April is Dancing Across Borders, a new feature doc which chronicles the story of Sokvannara Sar, a dancer discovered by arts patron, Anne Bass, on a trip to Angkor Wat, Cambodia in 2000 and brought to the ballet stage here in America. The film explores Sy's relationship with his new milieu, the world of American ballet, and his new culture. The film was directed by Bass and was photographed by Bob Elstrom, Anthony Forma and Tom Hurwitz.
Wunnerful, wunnerful that all these independent docs are getting a crack at getting their name on a movie marquee. Good start to the new year.
Last week, Jenna Rosher's nonfiction feature directorial début, Junior, took the Audience Award at the Sheffield Doc / Fest, its international premiere. (It also won Best Feature Doc at this year's Woodstock Film Festival in New York last month, following its world premiere at SILVERDOCS.)
Junior profiles the complex and intertwined relationship of 75-year-old Eddie Belasco and his 98-year-old mother, Josephine. Despite three failed marriages, and three lovely daughters, the alpha woman in "Junior's" life has always been "Ma," and Rosher deftly stitches together crackling and vibrant direct cinema scenes between the two of them, sweet archival family footage, and luminous glimpses of the larger world of the city of San Francisco where they reside, to create a nuanced and deeply moving look at this most primal of human connections. (Pictured, Eddie standing proudly by Josephine's side as she receives her high-school diploma.)
If at first Junior appears to be some Grand Guignol-style Punch and Judy show with Junior and Ma barking at one another and sniping and fussing about, it soon turns into a story of two people connected by a decades-long bond helping one another find his or her way through illness, debility, and critical life (and death) decisions. We watch as Eddie turns from a screaming goomba with a cutting tongue into a vulnerable and frightened man who is losing his sight, and a lost little boy who is about to lose his precious mother. Josephine, like most people who make it to 98 years of age, is her own woman, taking shit from no one and living life on her own terms. And she deals with her own mortality in much the same way. Once Eddie expresses to her that he will be okay without her, she embarks on her own journey to meet her maker with him by her side. Rosher's camera lingers patiently and persistently as they gently and lovingly say goodbye after sharing a lifetime together. Really beautiful stuff.
Belasco was Rosher's mother's first husband and she first met Eddie when she was nine years old. At that time, he was a sharp-suited showman, promoting the all-girl topless rock band, the Ladybirds, and raising havoc in Vegas with his polyester-suited, cigar-chomping cronies. Twenty years later, Rosher finds him in the last couple of seasons of heading up a musical theater for children in San Francisco, aging quickly, going blind from complications caused by a woefully lax healthcare regime for his diabetes (he still drinks like a fish and doesn't eat right), but still full of piss and vinegar, viscerally angry at his own degenerating face and body, and looking into the maw of a potentially very lonely dotage. Instead of a mother bringing him a piping-hot plate of freshly-cooked pasta and paper-thin veal cutlets, he's got a very pissed-off daughter shoving a candy bar into his mouth when he goes into diabetic shock during a rehearsal after a night of drinking.
Rosher, a long-time producer and cinematographer (Jesus Camp), has a keen eye for the telling detail and is adept at creating an intimacy with her subjects that provides a level of insight and understanding that makes this piece resonant and rich. Her shooting mixed with Mark Binder's nuanced and layered sound design and Mark Wike's fantastic score, along with deft editing by Johnnie Spence, makes for a delightful, memorable and heartwarming story of a son's undying love for his mother.
Another prize-winner at Sheffield tells a story of yet another mother/son bond that just won't quit, even though from the beginning of the piece, the mother, Jolana Remová (the filmmaker's grandmother) expresses a bit of concern that at the age of 40-something, her son, Lubomír, still shows no signs of joining the real world, let alone considering doing anything remotely normal for a man his age like making a living or looking for a wife. Miro Remo's 24-minute Arsy-Versy is an exceptionally accomplished (and hilarious) piece of work and walked away with the Wallflower Press Student Doc Award at Sheffield (among a very strong group of films.) It also recently garnered a Special Jury Prize at Jihlava in Czech Republic this past month.
Remo is a student in the Film and Television program at the Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts in Bratislava, Slovakia and for this film he profiles a man who has decided to forgo the day-to-day world of meaningless work and robo-people that he finds so full of hypocrisy and banality, and decides to live in nature's world, flying away to a land "where only butterflies live." What's so brilliant about Remo's style is that he also invites himself and his crew into Lubos' world and, together, they cinematically create this alternate universe with its upside-down point of view for the rest of us. You can see a bit of it here.
Being the mother of an anarchist, no matter how mild and goofy, can be a trial, but Jolana perseveres in her hope that one day Lubos will normalize somehow and join the rest of us in our robo-world. But it's not very likely, and she's more or less okay with that.
I'll have more from Sheffield's great program in later posts.
For a limited engagement, this beautiful documentary will play at the IFC Center here in New York for one week only starting tonight and going through Tuesday the 17th. Visit the IFC's site for showtimes and ticket information. Read Ella Taylor's laudatory review published today in the New York Times. Also, read the great interview director, Andrew Jacobs, did for the Tribeca Film blog.
Because the 8:00 p.m. screening tonight is reserved for the Lodgers and their families and friends, it is sold out; however, there are many other screenings today and throughout the week and weekend. Director, Andrew Jacobs and other special guests will be on hand all week for post-screening Q&As and discussion. Throughout the week, we will have special co-hosts for the 8:00 p.m. screenings--Thursday, Reboot, Friday, Shooting People, Saturday afternoon at the 1:00 p.m. show will bring in the folks from UnionDocs and Saturday evening, composer Eric Lewis will be in the house, Sunday afternoon The Catskills Institute will host two screenings along with special panel discussions at a local eatery, and Sunday evening will be hosted by Felix Endara of DocuClub. On Tuesday night, from 5:30 to 8:30, there will be a party and fundraiser thrown by Jackie Leitzes, granddaughter of Lodger, Genya Boyman, at The Dove Parlor on Thompson Street.
For those in Los Angeles and Boston, FSL opens on the 11th of December at the Coolidge Corner Theatre (there is an advance members-only free screening, Sunday, December 6 at 11:00 a.m.), and at the Laemmle Music Hall 3 in Beverly Hills and the Laemmle Town Center 5 in Encino. More cities might be added soon. The film is being distributed by First Run Features; visit the FRF website for more information, to request a screening of Four Seasons Lodge in your town, and to order an advance copy of the DVD.
Hello from Sheffield, where I'm knee-deep in the hoopla of a very bustling festival and market. Last night at the big party at the local roller skating rink (fast becoming a Sheffield tradition), the 2010 Cinema Eye Honors announced their nominees for the ceremony that will take place at the Times Center in NYC in January. Visit the site to read about all the nominees, and the latest and greatest on the best of nonfiction.
Umbilically connected to New York wherever I happen to go, I wanted to say "hey," and mention a few things coming up:
I've been part of the "getting butts in seats" brigade, aka Outreach Producer, for Four Seasons Lodge, a beautiful documentary film opening at the IFC Center this coming Wednesday, November 11. The director, New York Times' journalist, Andrew Jacobs, some of the subjects of the film, and other crew and special guests, will be there for Q&As throughout the week, and some of our best indie film orgs will be on hand to co-host and join in the festivities for after-screening drinks shindigs. Shooting People will host Friday night, Arts Engine / DocuClub will be with us on Sunday night, and UnionDocs will host on Monday evening. Visit the website to get all the info you need, watch the trailer, and meet the extraordinary subjects, the last living generation of Holocaust survivors (two of them, pictured above). Don't let the "H" word keep you away--it's an exceedingly heart-warming, uplifting and life-affirming film. You can also visit the First Run Features site to keep abreast of where else the film will be opening across the nation. Next up on December 11, Four Seasons Lodge will run in Los Angeles and Boston. If you live in those cities, contact me to learn how you can help us get the word out and plan some special events around the screenings there. The IFC Center puts up showtimes very close to the opening, so keep checking there and buy your tickets in advance. There are discounts for groups of 10 or more.
Also on the 11th, which is Veteran's Day, The Way We Get By will have its national broadcast début on P.O.V. The film is now also available for purchase on DVD--probably will become one of the top 10 stocking stuffers of all time, I would wager.
Rooftop Films sends news that their 2010 submissions have opened and they are welcoming entries for their summer series next year. You can find downloadable information here or submit through Without A Box. The superb series runs from May to September and will feature more than 200 films in various outdoor screenings throughout New York City. All genres, formats and lengths are welcome.
On Monday, November 9, The Flaherty has a hot animation program on tap at Anthology Film Archives in the East Village. "Experiments With Animation" will feature short works by such talents as Phil Solomon, Martha Colburn, Signe Baumane and Jeff Scher. Go here for more info.
Okay, gotta pull myself back into the fray here. I will be having lunch shortly with filmmaker Geoffrey Smith, director of the glorious The English Surgeon and co-director of Presumed Guilty which débuted at Toronto in September and is playing the fest here before moving on to CPH:DOX in Copenhagen next week. It's a tremendous film and it will be fascinating to see the furor it will cause in Mexico where the story is told. I'll have a full review soon, but watch for this one. It will be one of the most important films of 2010.
I will have much more from Sheffield in the next couple of weeks, but back to just taking it all in--seeing great nonfiction films and getting to visit and converse with new filmmakers bringing groundbreaking talent and expertise to the field. It's so awesome to be in the company of thousands of others who are as equally rabid about nonfiction cinema as I am. Right now, off to Digital Bootcamp with Ingrid Kopp--woo hoo!
This weekend, UnionDocs in W'burg, Brooklyn, will present two great programs. On Saturday the 17th, guest curator, Rachael Rakes of Doctruck, will bring three wonderful pieces on contemporary China: the marginalized Turkic-Muslim community of Ughyurs in Deborah Stratman's Kings of the Sky from 2004, Sam Green's haunting short film, Utopia: Part 3, The World's Largest Shopping Mall (2009), and Yin-Ju Chen and James T. Hong's 11-minute, Dogs of Straw (still from film, pictured), a profile of the streets of Taiwan right before the 2008 elections. Great filmmakers, great films! Special guests will be on hand; the screening will begin at 7:30 p.m.
On Sunday the 18th also at 7:30, UnionDocs is partnering with the African Film Festival New York to bring in documentary filmmaker, Mamadou Niang to present a short work-in-progress cut of his new piece on Ousmane Sembene, the father of African cinema. Following this, the multiple award-winning Pray the Devil Back to Hell will play. Devil presents the story of the powerful struggle of a group of Liberian women who band together to end a violent and long-standing civil war in their country. Their methods of peacemaking are a sight to behold. After the screening, I will moderate a conversation with the film's producer, Johanna Hamilton, and its cinematographer, Kirsten Johnson.
It's supposed to rain for the next several days, so it's the perfect weekend to get your ass to a movie. Come join us!
Still deep into this jewel of a festival called Camden International in Maine and will be writing more in the days to come, but wanted to mention that Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri's award-winning film will be screening at a special Stranger Than Fiction evening on Monday night, the 5th.
Palmieri and Mosher will be there for a Q&A and drinks gathering in the West Village afterward . Do not miss this opportunity to see one of the best films of the year.
With the recent tragic passing of filmmaker John Hughes (dubbed the "bard of teen angst" in one obit headline), I thought this an optimum time to write about a film I saw at SILVERDOCS back in June. I haven't quite figured out why this is so, but certain films, like this one, that affect me very deeply and profoundly with their beauty and truth--well, it takes me forever and a day to write about them. While one part of me wants to shout to the skies and tell everyone and their mom about it, another part wants to savor it privately, clandestinely, like a delicious secret.
But then, seemingly, everything else I see and read and take in makes the experience resonate even more and, eventually, helps me to form coherent thoughts about why this small nonfiction piece called Let's Be Together by Danish filmmaker (the Danes!!) Nanna Frank Møller, thrilled me so much. Maybe it's my own particular version of a film reviewer's angst, I guess, since I don't believe in the excuse of writer's block--much.
Clinically speaking, waking up as a cockroach one morning, 14-year-old Hairon, the main subject of Møller's fine film, seems to be morphing into a being entirely of his own making--not fully boy, not fully girl, not fully child, not fully adult, not fully Brazilian, not fully Danish, and entirely uncertain about how he wants to present himself to the world. The only thing he's certain of is his searing need for 250 euro Dior sunglasses and Baby Phat mules with rhinestones. Typical teenager.
can be a kind of free-floating anxiety, often accompanied by depression or a profound disorientation in the face of a meaningless existence. Our teen years are rife with that kind of stuff--at least mine were. Instead of
The biggest problem for the family that loves and cherishes and accepts this capricious cross-dressing creature, of course, is that he is well on his way to being a target of sadistic bullies and perpetrators of hate crimes, people who would take one look at him and lash-out mostly out of sheer terror that another human being is wearing his insides on the outside--outrageous and unacceptable, meant to be destroyed, my god, it might be catching!
These three parents--his mother, Creuzina Gomes Jensen, his birth father, Marchello Pretti, and stepfather, Jimmy Jensen--adore this boy and want the best life possible for him. They are also afraid for him, and so do the best they can to go about waking him up a bit to what the real world might have in store for someone like him, despite his crabby, bratty protestations that he can do what he wants and they can all sod off. Typical teenager.
Hairon is a soon-to-be 15-year-old Brazilian boy who has lived most of his life in Denmark in a small provincial town with his Brazilian mother and Danish stepfather. But it is only to his birth father, Marchello, whom he goes to visit in Brazil after not seeing him for several years, that he can say, "Now that I've started this, I don't know where to draw the line. Or when to stop. I'll have to learn." And it is Marchello who becomes his teacher and mentor in the ways one can gracefully navigate between inner and outer lives. For it is Marchello who knows better than most what it is to live a dual existence; for almost his entire life, he is someone who has had to traverse the dicey territory between being true to himself and protecting himself from those who would destroy him if they knew the truth. It is a harsh, but honest, lesson in self-preservation, rendered in the most gentle and loving way a parent can teach a child something they'd prefer that child never had to face.
I am reticent and slow to reveal all the fascinating layers this film has in store because I think I'm simply trying to mirror the tantalizing and patient way that Møller reveals the details of this family story. With refined camera work and infinite patience that pays off big, with not one whit of exposition, narration, explanation--not a peep--she gazes from behind her lens and waits for the riches she knows she will be able to mine with her subjects. It is such a rewarding, exhilarating viewing experience, and sadly, so damn rare in this verbose, tele-crap, play-to-the-dumbest-guy-in-the-room, world. If you're a human being, you get what's going on. And I like it when filmmakers make films for human beings.
In his interview with Mary Zournazi in her wonderful book, Hope: New Philosophies for Change (2003, Routledge), Greek/Australian writer, Christos Tsiolkas, says, "One of the tasks of anyone who finds themselves writing or producing film or ideas in our culture at the moment is to describe exactly, as best as we can, what alienation is and to give it a voice, and then turn it into the idea of hope and faith--that is, how to go beyond those experiences of alienation." The shared commitment and the shared responsibility of every member of Hairon's family ensure that this will be a nurtured human being, someone who will be able to truly believe the words in the song that runs over the final credits as he and Marchello dance together ecstatically under a summer sky: No beauty is greater than the one we're born with.
While it's always illuminating and inspiring to talk to filmmakers about the craft of making great nonfiction and experimental cinema, as an independent producer, I thought it would be equally as illuminating and inspiring (at least for me) to talk to one of the most prolific nonfiction producers working today. Julie Goldman is one-third of Cactus Three Films based here in New York City. Six years ago in 2003, Goldman and partners, Krysanne Katsoolis and Caroline Stevens, hung out their shingle offering a combination of production and co-production expertise. They develop projects, as well as secure funding and distribution for a full slate of films at various stages. They've produced works such as Easy Riders Raging Bulls, Doubletime, Once in a Lifetime, Darkon, What Remains and The American Ruling Class, among many others. They have also produced hit television series for HBO (Family Bonds) and the Sundance Channel (Office Tigers).
Goldman, Katsoolis and Stevens are currently developing a Neil LaBute film based on his play, "Autobahn," and an animation series from Ken Petti. Currently in production, post-production and release are several feature films such as Marion Barry: Not Down for the Count for HBO, Michel Negroponte's I'm Dangerous With Love, Goth Cruise, New World Order for IFC, CBGB's, Sons of Perdition, and 21 Below. If you click on their names above, you can see their full list of credits, individually and collectively. Prolific is the word that will certainly come to mind.
I had a chance recently to sit and have a weekday breakfast with Goldman, a New York native, in the midst of her everyday madness. She was also waiting to hear about the latest addition to her family about to be born in Argentina to one of her brothers and his partner (a healthy baby boy, it turned out). Goldman has a crackling sense of humor, an acute intelligence and an open, friendly demeanor. It's also apparent after talking to her for about five minutes that she absolutely loves what she does. Here's our conversation:
Still in Motion (SIM): How long have you and Krysanne and Caroline known one another?
Julie Goldman (JG): We've known one another for quite a while. We all worked together at Wellspring. (Goldman pictured right with another indie power hitter, Judith Helfand, at Hot Docs in Toronto, courtesy Ingrid Kopp.)
SIM: So many amazing people came out of that place.
JG: Yeah, it’s a riot, really. Wendy Liddell who runs International Film Circuit, Michael Thornton and Sheri Levine who now run Forward Entertainment, Richard Lorber, so many. That’s just from the last few years the company was around. I ran the production division with Caroline, Krysanne did acquisitions and Krysanne and I worked together on co-productions. The three of us started taking a look at the model that was forming then for most independent productions. In the meantime, mind you, the company kept going bankrupt; Winstar [the parent company] tried to spin us out to keep us out of the bankruptcy. It was a nightmare, a bad couple of years for the company. Professionally for me, however, those years were great; there was a lot of dot.com phony money to play with that was floating around, and that enabled us to get lots of projects off the ground.
We were doing these various projects and what would happen was that we’d get the funding through third parties, but then the company would, once again, go bankrupt. We also had to work within a very bureaucratic structure. So if the home video people didn’t like the project, it didn't matter that you had raised the money independently. You couldn’t take it and try to sell it elsewhere. It was a really strange time, actually, very frustrating.
What the three of us noticed was this kind of gap in the works. We were looking for gaps in the models within which we were working; we wanted to see if we could insinuate ourselves into one of those gaps. Where was there a chance for us to be creative producers? Filmmakers, in an ideal world, did not really want to go out and try to source finances for their projects themselves. They would, and could, if they had to, but it was a real burden. We knew that we had really deep relationships with a wide array of people in the business, both domestically and for international co-productions. We could put all that together and take the business onus off the filmmaker so he or she could focus on what he or she wanted to focus on, mainly the creative work. We also participate creatively when asked; we work in a liaison capacity between funders—financier, end-user, whomever—and filmmakers.
SIM: Is it as complicated as it seems, getting funding for an independent feature, be it narrative or nonfiction?
JG: It can be. You could have two financial participants that aren’t really interested in seeing the same final film. That gets really complicated—you have to make another version, deal with making everybody happy. But we know people really well, their tastes, what their needs are, the changing needs, the endless changing needs. We can anticipate those things. Whatever entity they work for, we can tailor a development deal in a way so that we don’t end up with that problem at the end of the day. Maybe we have to cut a film with a shorter running time, but we don’t have to make an entirely different version because we'll rarely, if ever, promise that. When you’re a filmmaker and somebody is telling you that they’re giving you this wad of dough. . .
SIM: Are we talking about potential broadcasters as the ones who are asking for different versions?
SIM: That must be tricky to navigate.
JG: It is. But it becomes easier when you’ve been doing it for a long time, as we have. You can cut through a lot at a certain point, the morass of whatever current thing is going on [laughs].
SIM: As far as your personal aesthetic about cinematic documentary—of which I can’t think of one you’ve produced that doesn’t have a substantive cinematic imperative—
SIM: Yes, ideally. What first sparked your attention or informed your sensibility to that way of telling nonfiction stories?
JG: Well, I started my career at First Run/Icarus. I worked for both Jonathan [Miller] and Seymour [Wishman]. [Miller bought out Wishman in 2008 and renamed the company Icarus Films.] So I learned the ropes under some pretty knowledgeable taskmasters. I was there for five years. I worked more directly for Jonathan, but we all worked in the same office so we had a lot of interplay with Seymour, as well. At the time, I was fascinated by the whole idea of the semi-theatrical release and knew I was working with some revolutionary minds in that regard. It was a fertile learning ground for a young girl [laughs]. Then I went out on my own and worked as an independent producer for many years—doing documentaries, some narratives, some music videos, pretty much everything, commercials, etc.
SIM: I come from that world, too, and you look at the budgets for the higher-end commercial projects and the end result—
JG: You think about what you could have made with that kind of money—two or three films, at least.
SIM: At the end of the day you have this hot-ass 60-second spot with all kinds of CG and all that jazz, having had something like eighty people working on it. When I did start to make films myself, more "art-based" projects, let’s call them, I realized what people were doing with so little and it just blew me away. I was so impressed and continue to be.
JG: On what amounts to the craft services budget for a commercial, yeah.
SIM: Exactly. And they’re such beautiful pieces of work, even more beautiful because you know that individual who created it took every penny they had really seriously, made a lifetime endowment in their project.
There’s this whole notion that every producer’s job is to raise money, that that’s a really key role for a producer. At this point in your careers, I think you’re well-positioned to do that, very fluid in the way you do that—bring in the money while also imbuing the project with all your creative contributions, connections and knowledge of production and distribution flow.
JG: It takes an enormous amount of time; the three of us have decades invested in doing this work. I went to Winstar / Nonfiction Films, which eventually all morphed into Wellspring, one of the many companies that Winstar was buying up. One of these places was expanding into making theatrical docs; that’s why I went there. We’d just finished this film called Mob Law [:A Film Portrait of Oscar Goodman, 1998]. They were also doing this film called Munich ’72 which was renamed One Day in September. [The film won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, 1999-2000.] So I was so excited to work there. The first thing I had to do was to get on the phone with John Battsek, someone I work with now but didn’t know at all then, and tell him that he needed to cut his budget in half. It was horrible! Then, for whatever corporate reasons, sadly, the company pulled out of the project. I then went on to work on a project called Gunfighters of the West. Eventually, though, the inmates started taking over the asylum and the more we learned, the more power we had to negotiate and finance some really great projects.
SIM: A group with good taste, thankfully.
JG: Yes, a nice group of inmates—it was a "King of Hearts" kind of coup.
SIM: Cactus Three has an incredible roster of films to its credit. Some kind of creative inspiration must be a difficult thing to go without if you don’t have to; that might be your company’s unofficial motto.
JG: We live with these films a long time—at least a year, in most cases, longer. You have to maintain your passion for the project and the only way you can do that over a long period of time is to love that project or the filmmaker that’s making it or, at the very least, have a strong belief in the filmmaker. It isn’t the subject matter that will sustain that necessarily, although sometimes it can be the subject that does. There’s no science to it: some of the films we’ve done have been very weird.
As an example, we did Orthodox Stance about an Orthodox Jewish boxer and that boxer, that guy, was incredibly charming and riveting and lovable. He drew us in right away. And then we’ll have something like Black Sun, which also captivated us in a different way. Sometimes it's a very ineffable factor. There's something like Once in a Lifetime [: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos], which isn’t really about characters but says so much about a certain era in New York. Our catalogue is very broad in that way. For three women, we have a lot of sports films. There’s something immediate about sports docs: you get what's at stake right away. That’s why When We Were Kings [Leon Gast, 1996] and Hoop Dreams [Steve James, 1994] are some of the greatest docs ever made. It’s not necessarily about the sport.
SIM: It always plays, to me, as a really grand metaphor for life—becoming victorious over every obstacle, even if that victory is a mixed bag. Incredibly inspiring.
JG: Exactly. It’s a story of someone playing "against the odds" but in a very different way than we generally encounter. I’ve seen abysmal sports docs as well, ones that take all that's given with the subject matter and still, somehow, manage to make a staggeringly boring piece. Which means the storyteller also needs to bring that same passion. A film like Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo—
SIM: I’m a huge Bradley Beesley fan—he has one of the best eyes and instincts in the business.
JG: He really does. His Flaming Lips doc is one of my favorites. He has a great sense of how he wants to tell a story. Sweethearts is about the rodeo--but it’s really not about the rodeo.
SIM: This is a filmmaker who definitely falls in love with his subjects and they, in turn, fall in love with him. There’s a relationship there, one beyond “getting the story.”
JG: That was exactly the case here. There was a lot of trust and that was important, especially because he was a guy insinuating himself into a female world, a tough one at that.
SIM: Have you ever had directing ambitions?
JG: No, I can’t imagine directing anything. I’m very locked into my producer duties, paying attention to details, watching over the whole production. No way; I couldn’t do it.
SIM: How do you see the independent film landscape right now? Are you optimistic about things, in general, despite the economic downturn, hard times, etc.?
JG: It’s always been hard. Yes, it’s particularly hard now but it comes in waves. Sometimes it’s harder when distribution dries up as it’s doing now and it’s a shitty period. Sometimes, despite everything, it flows and you have a number of good films at once and doors start to open. But it’s always going to be on one side of that curve. Right now we’re on the downswing. However, as more funding sources dry up, there are new ones that crop up unexpectedly, as well. You have to be creative and clever and really work at finding those sources.
SIM: What about the filmmakers who won’t do that, who refuse to look for money themselves? They’re fine being on the fringe and doing their own work, self-funding, just getting by. Mind you, at the same time, they’re complaining about it all and how hard it is.
JG: It’s not unlike any business or industry in that way. There are always going to be people that have a lot of incentive and initiative, that really make things happen. And, there are going to be the people who just want to talk about how everything sucks or who feel entitled to something without doing the work, just assuming that a fabulous idea is enough to get funders to come running. Some artists are too insecure or nervous to try to delve into that, convinced that that’s not what they do. A lot of people really feel that you are either a creative or you’re a businessperson. The most successful people are those that find a way to meld the two. And the two do go together—it’s essential. But there’s a fear, a real turn-off for some to spend the time and energy learning how to do that. But this business is one of relationships. You have relationships in a creative way and you have relationships in a business way and they mix and mingle.
SIM: Talk a bit about the producer/director relationship and the aspects of that relationship that you enjoy the most. What brings you a lot of satisfaction in these relationships?
JG: It’s exciting when someone comes to you and tells you, “Look, this is what I want to do.” It’s a blank slate; that's where you get to begin. We love that. The ideas of how we're going to help create something out of nothing and support that effort from inception to completion—just that concept alone is what makes it exciting and challenging. It’s actually the best part of it for us. It starts with the question, what do we need to do to get this from right here to distribution, to getting it seen? I love clean slates. Once it’s out there, that’s when I just get kind of nervous, even though I’m confident in the work. I know it’s a good film and I know that it’s a matter of taste whether audiences like it or not. There can be a wide array of arbitrary factors. We love the films but we're also not blind to the fact that there are going to be criticisms and we can agree with those criticisms sometimes, in fact.
SIM: In a film like The Cove, for instance, where you’re credited with a consultancy role, what does that kind of involvement entail, where you’re not necessarily there from the clean slate-stage but asked to come in at a certain point to help a film find its true north?
JG: It could be anything: helping to raise more funding, any number of things. In the case of The Cove, they had shot the majority of it and Fisher Stevens had come on as a producer and brought us on as consultants. He and I have worked together before and he was just completely devoted to this film. It’s a tough film in its complexity; the cut at the time that we came on board was pretty messy, not at all close to completion. Look, Louie [Psihoyos, the first-time director and a world-renowned photographer] wants to save the oceans; that's his explicit agenda. This film is only one step in a very ambitious agenda. At that time, everything had to be pulled together to carve out the story; it was all over the place in trying to showcase this crazy group of people who got together to go off and make this film. The first question was, who would be a great editor? And that’s how Geoffrey Richman was brought on. Extra research was also needed. We needed to find someone who was willing to go out and live in Colorado and work out there for a time. So it was finding all these elements, pulling them in and getting everything organized so there was a workflow in place. We also arranged lots of test screenings in New York and LA for feedback since it was changing so rapidly at that point.
SIM: What about our domestic film festivals, particularly documentary-centric ones, and the transformations we’re seeing there?
JG: I think festivals here are trying to be part of the distribution chain. With all the specific festivals, as well, like the Jewish ones, gay/lesbian, etc., a filmmaker can get a pretty healthy run for a film. The really sad thing, for me, is that I rarely get to see films at festivals. It’s the singular biggest disappointment about the festival experiences I get to have. I mean I go to my films. But sometimes we'll have three or four at a festival and with two screenings each, maybe more, I’m always in those screenings with the filmmakers. It doesn’t leave time for much else with everything else I’m doing there.
SIM: I’m lucky enough to make that a priority and see quite a lot since I love sitting in the theater with the local audience. There are sophisticated audiences outside of New York and LA, really hungry for great documentaries and strong small independent narratives with wonderful scripts, stellar performances, etc. Festivals are also the only places where there is a real interplay between filmmakers and audiences--probably the most impactful.
JG: I think a pretty sophisticated film language, in general, has become common everywhere you go. People "get it" in different ways.
(Goldman pictured with Hamptons International Film Festival director of programming, David Nugent, courtesy Ingrid Kopp.)
SIM: At Cactus Three, you have this hands-on philosophy where all three of you spend inordinate amounts of time on each project. Do you see that changing as you might grow in future years? Do you have ambitions for the company to become more like a mini-studio, so to speak?
JG: It’s always been the three of us with a great, but small, support staff. We beef up when we have to. We have talked about growing into something bigger and becoming more of a mini-studio. But becoming more removed from the hands-on process is a concern. A big part of who we are is in the relationships we have and having that day-to-day contact and connection with filmmakers. I think, most likely, I will always stay in that kind of role, no matter what happens. We’ll continue to split up things in different ways but I don’t see that aspect changing.
SIM: Talk more about this threesome that has formed over the years. Three is a very strong number; there are lots of possibilities for dividing and conquering.
JG: Well, Krysanne was a lawyer for many years and concentrated on acquisitions, co-productions, the business side of things. Caroline has a production background and I have a combination of the two. So it’s a very good balance in that way. We can take up the slack for one another, but we really complement one another's skills. All three of us are executive producers for about ninety percent of the productions Cactus develops. Sometimes, we do projects individually, as was the case with me and the Sergio film—our solo albums, so to speak. But to your point, on every project, there is one of us that takes the lead role. But then sometimes it shifts organically. If it’s something with music clearance, Krysanne is likely to take the lead on that. Caroline works on production-oriented issues. I tend to deal with the broadcasters. Projects flow very organically between the three of us.
SIM: What’s a comfortable slate for you in terms of numbers of films you complete in a year?
JG: Currently, we’re finishing, on average, about eight to ten projects a year. But that means that eight to ten films happen to be finishing at the same time—some projects may have been started several years ago, another might wrap up quite quickly, within a year’s time. Just this past year, we happened to have had four films go out into the world simultaneously. You can never predict when a documentary will actually be finished, no matter how much of a soothsayer you are.
SIM: How do you navigate with broadcasters who do have definitive deadlines? That must be difficult in terms of timing since you don't want to rush or compromise a project in any way. Perhaps there’s a financier that’s expecting his or her returns by a certain date and it’s taking a year longer than it’s supposed to.
JG: Oh yeah, that’s natural [laughs]. Happens all the time. Having said that, we are pretty good at staying on track. What I’m saying is you can’t predict the glitches that crop up, or you can't predict that a film will get into a certain festival in which you expected it to be in—those kinds of things present challenges, certainly. Deadlines and dealing with deliverables is complicated.
I love delivering to HBO; I love working with them. Everyone there is wonderful, in particular, Nancy Abraham, an amazingly supportive person and a center of calm. Even if they’re just on the acquisition end of things on certain projects, they’re so incredibly easy to deal with. They try and help you figure it out, a true partner, as opposed to some of the more corporate-minded entities with which one has to deal. We work with them a lot—I’m currently delivering the Marion Barry film and Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo. I deal with the same group so we’ve been able to develop a fluid working relationship. Plus, we did a series there called Family Bonds, a very long-term project. Over the course of those couple of years, we were able to develop very deep relationships. We know what to expect from one another. When I’m dealing with a filmmaker, I can advise him or her in a very clear way about where we go for E&O insurance and the costs attached to that, for instance, and we can work out the whole thing clearly and easily. Believe me, it’s rarely that way. And getting to work with Sheila Nevins is a dream. We were really lucky—during Family Bonds we got to meet with her for a whole day once a month going through footage, working on scenarios we wanted to develop. It was an absolute treat. Like a laser, she can pinpoint things that no one else is paying attention to. Just a really wonderful talent, so incredibly supportive.
SIM: At this point, you must have tons of filmmakers wanting to work with you.
JG: We’re pretty open to hearing from people. We get everything from cold calls to recommendations from people with whom we’ve worked in the past or people who know those people—again, established relationships, some kind of personal connection. We’re also actively looking; we’re at the markets, conferences and festivals. Our body of work is essentially our calling card for the kinds of projects we’re looking for. We had a period where we were working with a lot of first-time filmmakers and I think we’re going to streamline that process a bit [laughs]. An amazing idea, incredible passion and all of those things are great, but it’s really time-consuming and stretches you very thin. We’re running a company, not a mentorship program. It has to be irresistible, that's the bottom line, whether it's from a first-timer or a seasoned director.
SIM: Have you ever had to make a decision to extricate yourselves from a project you've taken on and if so, what was the reason?
JG: There have been a couple of instances where we really love and respect the filmmakers tremendously; however, the project starts to go in some direction that is really untenable for us, becoming a very different film from what we understood it would be. There was one instance where Caroline and I watched a cut of something we wanted to be involved in very much. But after viewing it, we decided that we couldn’t do it. It had gone in a direction we didn't anticipate and really became more about the filmmakers struggling to make the film and the personal issues inherent in that. It made sense for those filmmakers to make it that way but we had to tell them how we felt and we parted ways. It was really hard and somewhat awkward given the insularity of the community. I had never done that before; it was very painful.
I’ve also had instances where the financier is the one letting go of the filmmaker mid-way through a project and we had to switch to a different director—another very difficult situation, hard on everyone, but ultimately it worked out great for the film. In one certain case, it was a film company that was the financier. These days, especially, we try and find money where we can find it—sometimes the financier is in the film business, sometimes they're not. There can be a pretty wide range of financing sources. I still think television is the steadiest source of funding for documentaries.
SIM: What would your recommendation be to a mid-career filmmaker who’s done a couple of projects, essentially out of his or her own pocket, they’ve had a modicum of success, perhaps making a bit of their money back, at least enough to do the next project, but they’re ready to kick it up a level? They want to have seed money, a pot from which to begin pre-production and production, a good producer attached who can help oversee everything through distribution and sales.
JG: The first thing I would do as a filmmaker is research producers out there who have done projects you admire and respect, and that have done fairly well commercially.
SIM: But what does the filmmaker need to bring to the table in order to work with producers such as yourselves?
JG: If someone comes in with a great story, total and complete access to the story and/or subjects, something written up, and, ideally, something shot from which a reel or trailer can be created—that’s the best-case scenario.
SIM: And a prepared budget or something to show they’ve addressed the dreaded business side of things?
JG: If, in fact, there's interest on our part, we can look at the budget together and review costs at that point. Those other factors are the important ones. There’s no need to come to me with a budget. It’s always either ridiculously low and the maker is not anticipating what the real costs are going to be, or it’s ridiculously high and you just can’t get those budgets anymore unless you’re Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock or a name talent like that.
SIM: Of the filmmakers with whom you’re familiar, who are you keeping your eye on? Who do you think will go the distance and make a career of note? Who would you like to work with again that you’ve worked with before?
JG: I think Jeremiah Zagar is definitely someone to watch. Gary Tarn is another really interesting guy; he’s got another really wonderful film to follow Black Sun. I know what he’s working on and it’s very ambitious. He’s determined and talented. Of course, now I’m blanking when you ask me to come up with names—the usual suspects that most people are watching, I guess. Eva Weber is an interesting filmmaker; it’ll be great to see what she’ll do in the future. Gemma Cubero and Celeste Carrasco have a really fantastic film in Ella Es el Matador (She Is the Matador)—I loved it; I think it's gorgeous.
In terms of people I’ve worked with before, I really like Matthew Galkin. We’re finding something to do together. He did the Pixies film and we worked together on Family Bonds for HBO. He’s super solid and very smart. And I would definitely want to keep tabs on Brad [Beesley] and whatever he might be working on next. I would also love to continue to collaborate with producers John Battsek, Nikki Parrott, Ryan Harrington and Amy Dotson.
SIM: What kind of stock do you put into the modern-day pitch session? To me, even though the projects are interesting and there are a number of intelligent and adventurous commissioners sitting around the table, it smacks of more of a floorshow than anything else.
JG: Yeah, they kind of remind me of watching the high school archetypes playing out their destined roles. It’s kind of funny. What I do very much like is what Sheffield does which are the Meet Markets—one on one meeting sessions.
SIM: IFP does that, as well.
JG: They do and they get better and better every year with the Independent Film Week and the labs, etc. It is exciting to see emerging talent be fostered in that way. They also have great instructional sessions where they take documentary filmmakers through absolutely every stage from pre-production to distribution. They bring in great people. I was really impressed—they presented what amounted to “Documentary Filmmaking 101.” Knowing how to deliver a film is so key and no one ever teaches how to do that. It’s invaluable information. Also, knowing who key players are is essential. So many filmmakers send their films to the wrong people; it’s a waste of time on everyone’s part. Save relationships and connections for the appropriate time and the appropriate project. Don’t show someone an hour-long cut when you should be showing five or ten minutes, just really practical stuff like that that could make all the difference.
SIM: What would you say to independent producers who are constantly approached by first-time filmmakers who a) want you to work for free because they don’t have any money, also known as “working deferred,” and b) want that producer to, essentially, do all of the fundraising work for them? I’m obviously asking this from personal experience and, I have to tell you, as a creative, independent producer, it’s a challenge. I’m talking about something that goes beyond consultative or advice-driven meetings. It’s watching cuts and doing the detailed work that helps to get a piece into watchable shape. I think there’s a gross misunderstanding of what a producer-director relationship entails to a large extent.
JG: It’s difficult. We all come across projects that we don’t want to get away. And also the opportunity of being part of the initial creative process is important for some, having a role in putting together the creative team—editor, composer, etc.
The bottom line is that life is short and, as producers, we want to do the best work we can with the best people out there. There’s so much talent out there to be tapped into. If you know exactly what it is you want, it means you’re apt to come across it sooner rather than later. And, in turn, when a filmmaker is serious about finding a good producer, he or she will find the resources to hire one. Believe me, when someone needs to find a publicist or someone to do PR and marketing, they find the money. They need to realize that if that money can be found, then finding resources to hire a producer shouldn’t be a problem either. It doesn’t make sense to expect a producer to work for free, particularly if that person is instrumental in helping to find funding for the project. It took me a long time to be firm about that but if someone is serious about working with you and it’s really meant to be, and they need you and they realize that, then they’ll find the money to hire you. It’s important to legitimize these relationships.
This Friday and Saturday, July 10 and 11, Rooftop Films will be showcasing two wonderful documentaries in Brooklyn as part of their '09 summer screening series.
First up, on Friday night, Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly will present their inspiring and award-winning film, The Way We Get By. Through greeting troops at the Bangor International Airport in Maine, a major US military deployment hub, three senior citizens not only transform their own lives, but touch thousands of others' lives, as well. I've dropped into several Q&As for this at various festivals and audiences are always just completely over the moon--not a dry eye in the house. Gaudet's and Pullapilly's first feature project has had a bountiful festival run and this will be the second time it has exhibited in the Big Apple. (Thom Powers showed it as part of his Stranger Than Fiction series this past spring.) You can read my laudatory review on the film here. Festivities will be on the lawn of Automotive High School in Williamsburg. Doors open at 8 for the regular drill: fabulous crowd, great live music from a local band, great film, after party with free drinks at Matchless on Manhattan Ave. Click here to order tickets.
Gaudet and Pullapilly are also gearing up for the film's theatrical release débuting at the IFC Center here in New York on Friday, July 17, with the filmmakers in attendance at selected screenings throughout opening weekend. Visit their website for more information and to read about the other special events throughout the week-long run with one of their outreach partners, Operation Homefront. They currently have dates set for runs in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Music Hall (August 14) and in Boston at the Museum of Fine Art (August 27). Repeat after me: a successful New York opening weekend will enable the film to exhibit at more theaters across the nation!!
On Saturday night, Rooftop will present Bill Ross and Turner Ross' feature début, 45365, winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at this year's SXSW festival in Austin (the film's premiere), recipient of an honorable mention nod for the HBO Emerging Filmmaker Award at Full Frame, and a special jury prize at the Newport International Film Festival. Many, many people think this is an exquisite movie-going experience. I would be one of them. A grandly cinematic piece, it's meant to be seen on a big screen. So here's your chance to go see it on one.
Over the course of nine months, the brothers Ross shot this graceful and colorful portrait of their hometown of Sidney, Ohio--the title is the town's postal code. We, as viewers, get to sit back and let imagery, from the sublime to the mundane, wash over us in a sensorial kaleidoscope of sound and vision. It's a strangely relaxing experience with small jolts of exhilaration and glee. There is no omniscient voice intoning inane (nor poetic) recitations about life in a small town on the soundtrack; there are no talking head interviews; there is really no discernible plot line. What the film does contain are snapshots crafted to make the most of the mood and timbre and rhythm of a place and its inhabitants.
Even if one was raised in the middle of a big, bustling city, there is some weird kind of universal nostalgia evoked through the lens of these native small-town sons. Like the place it photographs, the camera's gaze is wide-open and friendly, most times keeping a polite distance while picking up intimate details in an oblique way (except for scenes like the full-on smooch in a bar, which is unabashedly voyeuristic, and the pulse-pounding physicality of the running-with-the-bulls shots at the football game). The sound design is quite sophisticated, providing a contrapuntal element in both rhythm and harmony to the visual panorama, the passing snippets of vérité interwoven with transcendent sequences of flight and fancy. There is a whole sequence shot on an amusement park ride that is absolutely thrilling in its beauty, creating an integration between "real life" and "art" that is evocative of first crushes and first drunken kisses and first rollercoaster rides and all those other seminal and intense human experiences we all hope we can recall over and over again, even into our dotage. I can't think of a better summertime movie.
45365 will be distributed through 7th Arts Releasing. The film will also be exclusively screened for one week starting Friday, July 31st on the SnagFilms.com Distribution Network, the second film of its online summer fest.
Because you get to wake up in a Polish neighborhood in Brooklyn that's a throwback to 1978 Krakow, but with better shoe stores. On the carpet in front of you are the two biggest, fattest, laziest cats to greet you with a blank morning stare, which uncannily matches their blank afternoon stare and their blank evening stare. One of them (the female) has woken you up at some ungodly morning hour by trying to pounce on your head, but you've found the spiritual space in which to forgive her.
You then shuttle your way into the city with a coffee of Stumptown in your hand from the Variety Café on Graham, and arrive early enough at your first meeting point to breakfast alone with your book--a brioche and a cup of coffee, both the approximate size and heft of one of those aforementioned cats.
About an hour later, some absolutely lovely woman, who has taken a chunk out of her busy day to talk with you, sits across from you, orders some food and beverage and we then proceed to have the most wonderful conversation, gabbing like we chicks do. That interview, with Cactus Three's Julie Goldman, will be posted here soon, so that's something to look forward to. I learned a lot; I hope you will, too.
Then on to visit some of my favorite peeps in New York and get my bag filled with DVDs to view--the good, the bad, the ugly. Again, I learn lots. And sometimes, I'm lucky enough to see an entire film, finished by the grace of whomever, a year after my last viewing of said film when it was just a few minutes long, dubbed a "work-in-progress," but, nonetheless, wrenched my sensibility around pretty good about my naïve relationship with history and the repercussions of what that naïveté might entail. I'm obsessed with history right now for some reason and have luckily been asked to expound upon those thoughts for some articles--I'll keep you posted on that. But suffice to say, that this imperative of nonfiction filmmakers today seems to be, not unsubtly stated, that we must take over where the world's corporate media stops short. And it's stopping shorter and shorter lately, have you noticed that?
Then I met up with a filmmaker with whom I'm working who makes it possible for me to have a living, breathing model of what a graceful creature a human being can be. That's a good thing to aspire to, I think; especially when I'm twisted up like a pretzel in all kinds of ways about my life right now. It'll all be okay; we'll get through this. Sentiments not spoken out loud, but expressed in the ways that she trusts you and has confidence in you and sees the worth that's hiding under a bushel. I'll stop here 'cause I'm welling up.
Suffice to say that I did the pretentious, incomprehensible art opening bullshit and then went to have a lovely meal in a French outdoor bistro (where actual French people eat) with two of the most interesting people I've met in awhile, most interesting because they're so open and so enigmatic, simultaneously. If the company you keep is any indication of your view of yourself, then things are looking kind of okay.
Social conservatives in today's society often express concern over the purported decay of the traditional family and read ominous signs that this is leading to the crumbling of contemporary society. They feel that family structures of the past were superior to those of today where families were more stable, much happier and healthier when they did not have to contend with illegitimate children, divorce, drug abuse, child molestation, domestic violence, and other Jerry Springer staples. You know, those low class issues with which the traditional, normal family unit never, ever has to contend.
In their feature film début, October Country, writers, producers and directors, Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher collaborate with members of Mosher’s family to create a portrait of a family that “wouldn’t know normal if it fell on us,” in the words of patriarch, Don. And yet there is bottomless strength, raw honesty, sardonic humor and fierce love on display from the first frame to the last as each member grapples with their personal demons, standing vigilant over the ghosts of their pasts, hopeful that they will prevail, while simultaneously cognizant of the fact that, at any moment, they can be pulled under by forces so strong that their lives will disintegrate into vapor. I believe this film represents such a healing force, not only for this family, but for us all, that that vigilance has a damned good chance of prevailing, even upon the most hurtful, damaging moments of our lives.
Shot over the course of one year, from Halloween to Halloween, in a town in Mohawk Valley, New York—where like so many working-class towns in this country, the only place of employment is the local plant or factory (in this case the Remington Arms Company) and the only place left to shop is the WalMart—Palmieri and Mosher and the Mosher clan show us, in exquisite and painful ways, that the modern-day family is holding strong despite contending with every social ill in the book, thank you very much. As matriarch, Dottie, says at the beginning of the film: “If you don’t have family, then you don’t have anything. Family is everything.”
The film just won the Grand Jury Award for Best US Feature at SILVERDOCS this past weekend and is up for the big doc prize at the Los Angeles Film Festival this week, where it should have an exceedingly good chance of winning, for Palmieri and Mosher have created a small and quiet masterpiece of transcendent filmmaking. The movie is based on Mosher’s essays and photographs of his family and the town in which they reside. Palmieri, as the cinematographer and editor, gorgeously captures the shattered fairytales of Americana and the family unit that is supposed to reside within those fairytales, seemingly waiting for the most highly prismatic light at every moment with which to frame it all. I have not often seen too many other instances where visual, aural and emotional instincts are so delicate and clean and pure. That delicacy and purity is in Palmieri and Mosher’s photography and in their musical score. It is also in their deep sensitivity to the liminal world around them, their subtle innate understanding of human emotional strength, and in their flawless cinematic craftsmanship. I was utterly transported.
Their storytelling partners are the shuttered, yet eloquent Don; the stoic, emotionally resonant Dottie; the wry and weary Donna and her two daughters, pain-filled young mother Daneal, and the young Desi (pictured) who provides both uproarious comic relief and the wisdom of the ages; Don’s outcast and lonely sister, Denise, our guide into the spirit world (“Every family has its ghosts. You just have to figure out how to live with them.”); and the damaged foster kid, Chris, an outsider’s outsider, shunted aside since he was five by his birth family and out for revenge ever since because of it, even against the people who have shown him nothing but love and forgiveness. It’s quite a crew, and I fell madly in love with every single one of them.
Every aspiring filmmaker should watch this, for it will teach you everything you need to know about the craft of making great nonfiction cinema, one where the complicity of directors and subjects creates epic eloquence and poetry and grace. In this case, the devil will definitely not be taking the hindmost for He has been called out for the weakling that He is. It is the “weak” that are strong and fiery, and they will survive—as will their descendants.
[Note: This review also appears on the Hammer to Nail site.]
Havana Marking, director of Afghan Star, her feature directorial début, walked away with the Best World Cinema Documentary Director and World Cinema Documentary Audience Awards at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Beginning this Friday at Manhattan's Cinema Village, in advance of its national theatrical roll-out, New York audiences will get to see this highly entertaining and deeply moving story of a country trying to awaken and normalize itself from decades of foreign invasion and brutal civil war--not to mention the banishment of music, dance, film and television since 1996 by the strictest faction of the Taliban regime.
When those restrictions were lifted in 2004, Tolo TV in Afghanistan, among hundreds of others, jumped into the broadcast fray and produced a talent show called "Afghan Star," now in its fifth season, a wildly popular phenomenon where singers of every ethnicity could compete for the top prize in an "American Idol"-type weekly showdown, a vast majority of the audience casting votes for their favorite by mobile phone. Marking's film focuses on the four finalists competing for cash prizes and a record deal. Two of the finalists happen to be female and their participation caused a national uproar, particularly when one of them, in an act of defiance and rebellion when she was voted off the show, uncovered her head and danced around the stage with approximately 11 million of her countrymen and countrywomen watching.
Originally commissioned by Sandra Whipham, formerly of More 4, and Maxyne Franklin of the Britdoc Foundation, Afghan Star is an Afghan / British co-production, exec produced by Jahid and Saad Mohseni's Kaboora Productions / Tolo TV (which produces an astonishing 14 hours a day of programming), and Mike Lerner and Martin Herring of London-based Roast Beef Productions.
Go to the Zeitgeist site and click on "where to see the film" for more information on the 12-state national roll-out. You can also watch producer Saad Mohseni's wonderful interview from earlier this month with Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show" by clicking here.
Broken record time, but the first weekend is always, always so key for an independent film's theatrical success. Flood that theater, people!
Sorry I haven't posted in a bit but festivals are always such a whirlwind. Today, the 7th AFI Discovery SILVERDOCS Documentary Film Festival comes to a close and I've seen a multitude of great films here (stellar programming) and encountered some of the makers who crafted these wonderful pieces of cinema. I'll be writing commentary here on SIM and on H2N and, perhaps, some other spots throughout the week, so stay tuned for that. I'm looking forward to catching up on all the things happening back home in NYC, as well. (Film still from Nanna Frank Møller's gorgeous film from Denmark, Let's Be Together.)
In the meantime, you can read who won the big prizes at the awards ceremony yesterday afternoon on the FILMMAKER site. And a very special thanks to my hot little spinner of a friend, Ionic, for making my last night in Silver Spring bearable; bless you, my brother.
Two, two, two mints in one: On the IDA site, a wonderful chat between SILVERDOCS' artistic head, Sky Sitney, and IDA's Tamara Krinsky. There's also a fresh post from moi on the FILMMAKER site about the upcoming fest (starts Monday, in fact, damn). More and more friends keep writing me that they'll be there and that makes me quite happy. And most of those friends are filmmakers with films in the fest so I'm keeping good company, apparently. Very brilliant work out there, boys and girls, thank you from the bottom of my black little heart.
If you really want to delve deep, you can also read my interview with Sky on this blog. I'm really looking forward to this. See you in Discovery Land. Lots of reasons for drinking there.
Just blew back in from the countryside where I did nothing but eat, sleep and swim for four days so am still blissfully flatlining. However, wanted to mention, since it's sneaking up fast, that the deadline for entering your nonfiction project for the Good Pitch at Independent Film Week has been pushed to June 1.
The call for entries is now open for the Good Pitch's third forum in North America--the first was at Hot Docs in Toronto last month at the Toronto Documentary Forum; next up will be the one at SILVERDOCS (check the entire program, up since last Thursday, and the projects that have been chosen for the Good Pitch by clicking here); the third one will be in September at the 31st Annual Project Forum in New York City's Chelsea district.
In accordance with the UN's Millennium Development Goals, the round table format is designed to maximize the "powerful convergence of interests between issue-based organizations, documentary storytellers, broadcasters/funders/distributors, and audiences hungry for relevant, moving stories of our current realities."
I attended a packed-to-the-rafters screening of this film in Toronto. I can only imagine the response it got at its début in Austin, Texas at SXSW back in March. The director and one of his producers are (adopted) native sons of the town, first off. And secondly, SXSW audiences love their movies and music like nobody's business, according to the fest's new director, Janet Pierson, who spoke eloquently about her newly-adopted beast of a child and the intensity of the audiences in Austin at a panel on film festivals during Hot Docs. (Director Ben Steinbauer and subject Jack Rebney at their SXSW premiere Q&A, courtesy Ingrid Kopp, From the Hip blog.)
There was much love in the house when the filmmakers came up for the Q&A, let's put it that way. And in a town that loves documentaries like Toronto does, that's high praise because Torontonians represent a discerning, sophisticated audience that can think for itself, thanks very much. I haven't seen so many people stay for Q&As at any other festival, really, so that's kind of impressive, and a very generous and precious gift to filmmakers, to bask in an audience's glow after they've seen one's film. Director Steinbauer, producer Joel Heller, and producer, writer, and editor, Malcolm Pullinger, did their Q&A in the dark instead of a basking glow, thanks to a lazy theater grip (there were lights set up, but inexplicably they never got turned on). But, no matter. There was love in the house.
Winnebago Man surprised me in many ways, all of them delightful, and in much deeper ways than one might anticipate when watching a movie about an Internet phenom, merely famous for his RV (recreational vehicle) sales videos, or the outtakes thereof, to be precise. The protagonist, Jack Rebney, the WM of the title, has had his life play out like a Zen koan. In other words, the different aspects or "personalities" his life has taken on are inexplicable, not given to rational understanding; but intuitively, you know you're watching a life lived like a motherfucker. (I know "motherfucker" is not really a Zen kind of word, but I'm speaking Jack's language now--a language of honesty and sheer, human rage at the indignities to which we sometimes have to subject ourselves for our own damned good. Or something like that. I get impatient with Zen stuff.)
And then a nice, clean-cut boy shows up and, politely but obstinately, pulls him out of the obscurity to which he's fled. I was conflicted about how to feel about the relationship between Steinbauer and Rebney for much of the first half of the film, I must say. But that's as it should be since the relationship turns out to be very rich and substantive and complicated and throws curve ball after curve ball beyond your expectations of what kind of relationship these two people could possibly have besides the predictable one. The story arc is highly satisfying thanks to crack dramaturgical work and graceful editing by Pullinger. The story ebbs and flows in a way that makes you relax and sit back and know that you're in the hands of supreme storytellers. And it is definitely a team effort: Steinbauer, as the driver (literally) of the film has a sure authorial voice and an unmitigated comfort in front of the lens, so that part works well. But then, besides the aforementioned Heller and Pullinger, Steinbauer also has Bradley Beesley shooting for him most of the time and Beesley's one of the best cinematographers out there right now--he's a sensitive lensman with an eye for the real McCoy, able to frame almost everything with a deep pathos and understanding and humor, helping a viewer see things in a bit of a more profound way, let's say, than he or she normally would. Talented guy.
This film is currently on its festival run and it'll be a good one. The humanity of this story can certainly touch the lost part of our souls, but it can also revive our sense of mission in living an uncompromising life--no matter the complications one creates for oneself along the way.
My favorite moment of the film (among many)? Jack Rebney getting shooed off the premises of a WalMart property by a scared-shitless store manager already on the phone to the cops before he's within shouting distance of Jack. It's worth the price of admission to hear what Mr. Rebney has to say about that little scenario.
Go see this when it comes to a theater near you. You'll have the time of your life and shed a tear or two. That, and a bag of popcorn and you've died and gone to heaven, right?
The Good Pitch is the brainchild of the Channel 4 BRTIDOC Foundation, headed up by Jess Search, Katie Bradford and Elise McCave. The Good Pitch utilizes the traditional pitching forum to bring together documentary filmmakers, not only with commissioning editors, broadcasters and funders from the international independent film community, but with other potential contributors and partners in audience-building, as well, underlining the fact that nonfiction cinema is a powerful tool for creating social change on a global level. With the opportunity to pitch to ideal outreach partners--expert participants from foundations, charities, NGOs, campaigners, distributors, advertising agencies, and other third sector organizations--a selected group of filmmakers can maximize the impact of their films by forming powerful alliances with the likes of the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International USA, World Organization for Human Rights USA, Save the Children Canada, WITNESS, and many others.
Partner, Cara Mertes, director of the Sundance Institute Documentary Program, says that "The Good Pitch is a new evolution in the pitch forum format. It absolutely fits our focus on supporting human rights and social issue documentary films with broad impact. The Channel Four BRITDOC Foundation has been a great innovator in the social issue documentary sector and we are enthusiastic partners in bringing the Good Pitch to North America." The Toronto Documentary Forum, which runs concurrently with the Hot Docs festival, was the first stop on its North American tour; the TDF celebrated its 10th anniversary this year with new leadership by the dynamic Elizabeth Radshaw. The Good Pitch will also be staged at the upcoming SILVERDOCS (entries are now closed; click here to see the final selection); and, in the fall, they will also be at the IFP's Independent Film Week (the deadline is May 25; click here to apply).
The emphasis of The Good Pitch is not on "advocacy," so much as on global social transformation. With funding partners The Fledgling Fund and Working Films, The Good Pitch folks aim to help facilitate fruitful partnerships between artists and viable (and quite powerful) entities with hefty international constituencies. (Pitch training and outreach consultancy was provided by Judith Helfand of Chicken & Egg and Robert West of Working Films.) In fact, Search displayed marvelous skills straight from the yenta tradition in the form of relentless matchmaking, taking an enthusiastic response from an organization representative willing to talk about financial and other types of aid on a film project as a sign that there was about to be cause to plan a wedding. Using their "pent-up idealism," as one representative from the American Bar Association Center for Human Rights put it, to her best advantage, Search made sure there would be follow-up meetings once the pitch session was over: "You're going to go out in the hall and talk some more after the session breaks, right? You're going to give this project some of your money, right?" With fewer and fewer funding options for making and finishing feature documentaries, the Foundation team is hell-bent on finding other ways to support groundbreaking projects. Ryan Harrington of the Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund and IndiePix Studios says that it's the "most, worthwhile, uplifting and productive pitching forum I have ever taken part in."
The five projects pitched were: Untitled Immigration Project by Marco Williams which examines the state of US immigration policy by documenting three facets of the immigration story beginning with the deaths that happen along the US/Mexican border and the effort to identify the bodies and then send them back home; the trend of local municipalities that create laws to stem the flow of Latino immigrants; and the impact of the deportation of those with proper working papers who have committed crimes in the US. The Promise of Freedom by Beth Murphy, director of the powerful Beyond Belief, (presented with producer, Sean Flynn) focuses on the work of Kirk Johnson, a 27-year-old American aid worker trying to save thousands of Iraqis whose lives are in danger because they worked for the US during the war. Our School by Mona Nicoara is a story of Roma ("Gypsy") children struggling against intense segregation in a small Transylvanian town. The film follows three schoolchildren as they fight racism and hatred from their teachers and struggle for a good education that will break the cycle of poverty and cultural rejection by the rest of society. Burma Soldier by Nic Dunlop (presented with producer, Julie leBrocquy) tells the story of Myo Myint, who left his refugee camp on the Thai/Burma border to be reunited with his family in the US after 20 years. He was a soldier who turned against his own commanders, was blown up in a landmine, became an activist against the war and suffered imprisonment and torture. Photojournalist Dunlop's powerful trailer brought tears to my eyes; his physical and emotional access to Myint is incredible, making for a very powerful personal story. Lastly, there was Resilient by Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine (presented with producer Yael Melamede), Academy Award-nominated filmmakers for their War/Dance. The film (gorgeously shot, unsurprisingly) is a celebration of women from all over the world who have lived through and triumphed over intense trauma and found an inner strength that motivates them into becoming activists with a vengeance. Journalist, Mariane Pearl, will be the conduit that guides viewers through four profiles of women who are making positive change in their communities.
Before you get all smart-assy on me, no, I did not pose for that sculpture. It's an extract from a photo I took on a hot summer's day in a park in Prague filled with weird and wonderful art work by local artists. The piece is highly evocative of how I aspire to live my life: naked* under the sun and a deep blue sky on a high roof with an unobstructed view, desired by those who also spend inordinate amounts of time daydreaming or going to see films, which pretty much amounts to the same thing, doesn't it? (*Consider the
word "naked" a metaphor, please; I only take my clothes off in public
for cash or multi-colored bead necklaces.) Designer and filmmaker, Eliane Lazzaris, did me a kindness, so obrigada minha cara menina. On with the show:
When you go to a big international documentary festival like Hot Docs, you notice certain trends that are engaging the entire documentary community. Not just the little insular one we have here in New York, fabulous though it is, but the larger community out in the world interested in pushing this fascinating art form to its limits. There are seemingly higher and higher stakes involved for doc makers, creatively, narratively, cinematically, idealogically. What you have in Toronto, as well, (twice a year, yet!) is some interesting force fields coalescing when you bring what amounts to one of the most sophisticated film audiences in the world together with some of the best and brightest cutting-edge filmmakers, smart people engaged in crafting work that truly speaks to the zeitgeist. Even our 22-year-old waitress at dinner one night rushed us along, telling us we needed to go see (Audience Award-winner) The Cove or Winnebago Man or Episode 3: Enjoy Poverty, or something equally as wonderful in just a half hour, so she'd better bring us our check straight away. That did my heart good, let me tell you.
The parties and various industry gatherings, too, bring an international flavor to North America. We live on giant land masses here; we tend to get a bit myopic about the rest of the world. Hot Docs was where I first met friend, Massoud Bakhshi, filmmaker and director of the new Iran International Documentary Film Festival which I was privileged to attend last year. Through that connection, I met Orwa Nyrabia, filmmaker and director of the new DOX BOX in Damascus, Syria, which I also had the privilege of attending in March because I re-met Orwa in Helsinki, Finland at the DocPoint festival where I was a guest this past January because of meeting festival coordinator Helena Mielonen in Tehran. And like that. This is not unusual since festivals are the places where unique and exciting collaborations emerge: between filmmakers, filmmakers and producers, programmers and artistic directors, funders and fundees, and other industry folk who work to keep nonfiction, or factual programming, alive and flourishing. And then you have Mr. Sean Farnel, one of the most talented programmers out there who also rockets around the planet making discovery after discovery so that Hot Docs can keep providing the wealth of riches it's been known for for the past sixteen years. (Farnel, pictured, announcing this year's fest line-up, courtesy James McNally and photographer, Jay Kerr.)
So without further ado, in the next few posts, I'll talk about some of the films I saw there that left a particularly deep impression, starting with my two faves--two films that, upon first blush, seemingly have very little in common. What they both do provide are some of the most fascinating threesomes I've come across in cinema. The triangle is fast becoming my favorite geometrical shape; when something is "triangulated," both the fixed baseline, as well as the angles that radiate from it, form a pretty damned accurate survey of certain systems and relationships. Interestingly, one film takes place in the rural hinterlands of South Korea (I know next to nothing about South Korean cinema), the other in the dystopic urban nightmare of Pyongyang, North Korea (and no one really knows about North Korean cinema, do they?) which has gone out into the world as a Danish film, but it is very much a North Korean one, as well, a chilling and fascinating glimpse of that clandestine place. One film is presented as a touching pastoral fairytale but turns out to be pretty much wall-to-wall laughs; the other a seemingly Python-esque charade played for laughs manages to provide plenty of fiercely sobering moments due mostly to a brilliant script master-minded by its director.
The Red Chapel's shorthand log line, if it needed one, would probably be something along the lines of "The Yes Men do North Korea." (Take a look at part of it here.) Shown in the International Spectrum, aptly-named Danish director Mads Brügger's wild adventure takes us into the maw of Kim Jong-il's secret empire. How these Danes got permission is anyone's guess but we'll chalk it up to kismet since this filmmaker does not squander a moment of his time there to explore and extrapolate upon the nature of this country that has cut its population off from the rest of the world while eating hundreds of thousands of its own through mind control, starvation, torture and life-long imprisonment. In other countries, one can be labeled a dissident and still go home and have dinner with the kids. Not in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. You're "disappeared" permanently. Enough of what goes on has been leaked over the decades to know that to, not only get in there, but to get in there with cameras, is an impressive feat, indeed.
The chilling brilliance of this film shows itself in its leadership on both sides of the fence. On the official site of Denmark, there is an essay on the personality of the Danes by journalist Victor Andersen that says, "Common to all Danes is their tendency to take the ups and downs of life with a touch of irony, often self-irony. . . . They tend to say the opposite of what they think, in keeping with the nature of [that] irony." In other words, they could make great spies and get away with a hell of a lot in a place that doesn't know what irony is.
However, it says that over the years, "there have also been traces of local insularity, snobbery and conformity. It was best not to be different or odd." So a Dane might feel a certain sympathy with the North Koreans, perhaps, conformists par excellence? Brügger brings some friends with him, namely, two young Korean comedians, both raised from a young age in Denmark; they consider themselves Danish, not Korean. They are there to stage a comedy revue for a select audience in the capitol. One is a big strapping, tattooed young lad called Simon, the other an 18-year-old spastic with a severe central nervous system disorder which affects his physical movements and speech, making most people think that he's retarded when he's far from mentally deficient. He finds himself in a place where children like him are given away or hidden from the rest of society, or as is intimated more than once, done away with completely.
He is the deepest thinker, the most intensely emotional, most adversely affected subject in this whole shebang, incessantly articulating why following an ironical conformist into a conformist society with no irony can be a bloody dangerous thing. And so young Jacob turns out to be the steadfast baseline of this particular, oddly-shaped triangle. While Brügger is unscrupulously giving the North Koreans a run for their money, Jacob is questioning the evil nature of his own leader, the man who brought him there to help perpetrate a fraud on a grand scale. This is not a highly nuanced film for the most part; it is broad and slapstick in nature, delivering punch after comedic punch while exposing the underlying dis-ease of an oppressed people.
To Brügger, who constantly compares current-day North Korea with Hitler's reign (the title references a communist spy cell that operated in Nazi Germany), the mad clapping and smiling and crying and puppeteering that go on like a mass case of Tourette's amongst its citizens connotes sheer terror, a terror these people live with day in, day out with no respite since everyone is watching everyone else for the slightest sign of unrest or unacceptable actions and thoughts. His earnest wish that the local people accompany Simon singing the Oasis song "Wonderwall" is his own idea of not-so-subtle thought control: "And all the roads we have to walk are winding / And all the lights that lead us there are blinding / There are many things that I would like to say to you / But I don't know how. Because maybe / You're gonna be the one that saves me / And after all / You're my wonderwall." Like the Yes Men and others like them, Brügger is a ferocious cultural insurgent, the camera his most potent weapon. I'm anxious to see what land he'll infiltrate next. I'd actually love to see him focus the lens on his own culture. Wouldn't that be ironic?
The love triangle in Lee Chung-ryoul's Old Partner involves a man, his wife and the man's best friend, an ox that's worked beside him for forty years. The first South Korean film to compete for the Grand Jury Prize in Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, the film played to enthusiastic crowds in Toronto, as well. It also happens to be the most popular documentary ever in its native land, creating a groundswell of a fan base, many of whom troop out in a daily touristic mass to the quiet, rural land of farmer Choi Won-gyoon (which is kind of horrifying, actually). In this film, which also exhibited in the International Spectrum, Chung-ryoul captures the last year of the ox's life as it limps out the last days of its existence as a beast of burden alongside his master, also a beast of burden. 80-year-old Choi steadfastly and stubbornly tills his plot of land no differently than a farmer of centuries ago would have done (albeit without the beat-up radio tied to the ox's harness). He and his wife have put nine children through school and university with sheer, backbreaking labor, ensuring, of course, that none of their offspring will be farmers.
The funniest moments occur mostly because the ox and the old man display such similar personality characteristics. When a creature, human or otherwise, nears the end of its life, it's not unusual to find that it's become somewhat intractable, unwilling to veer from a proscribed and deeply circumscribed course, especially if that course has been pretty consistent for decades. A certain fortitude is displayed which trumps physical limitations and in this mutually faithful partnership of animal and master, we see true kindred spirits. Choi says more than once that the ox is "his karma." The foil comes in the figure of Choi's wife, Lee Sam-soon, a perpetually complaining shrew of a woman who cannot for the life of her understand why they don't deep-six the ox and use more modern conveniences for farming like machinery and insecticide sprays. Through all of this, daily life on the farm, intrepid visits to the small nearby city (by ox cart) to get checked by doctors (the old man's been diagnosed with cancer) and have their funeral portraits taken, Chung-ryoul creates a deeply personal portrait of a dying way of life in Korean culture.
Crafting a beautiful screenplay to accompany his gorgeous cinematography, the film does falter at moments due to scenes that are awkwardly contrived (versus gracefully contrived). They're funny as hell, but obviously set up for the laugh or to force a particular emotive response as when he shoots a close-up of a tear falling down the ox's face when Choi attempts to sell him at the market. The thing is old; it has rheumy eyes that spill water regularly. This is romantic cinema-making at its best with lingering shots filled with transcendent light that speak volumes about the silent bonds between ourselves and the natural world that can never be severed, even after one's mortal coil is shrugged off for greener pastures.
In my next post, Conference Session 4: What's Next for Film Festivals and the first North American Good Pitch at the Toronto Documentary Forum.
A little bit of this, a little bit of that whilst I'm in the midst of Hot Docs in Toronto, fast becoming my favorite nonfiction film fest (although T/F has a special place in my heart):
Last week, I experienced my first Tribeca Film Fest since moving to New York a bit less than two years ago (missed it last year since HotDocs overlapped) and I think it'll probably be my last unless I have a film exhibiting there or go as a spectator to catch a flick or two. The filmmakers were, of course, thrilled to screen in New York and vie for the big cash prizes, but the whole thing left me rather cold as a journalist (the press office really needs a lot of work, folks) and rather ambivalent, truth be told, as an industry guest looking for great fare to program elsewhere. But I gave it a fair shake in my wrap-up on IDA's e-zine which will be posted soon. I also have a couple of reviews posted on Hammer to Nail if you care to take a gander--both films, Defamation (which opens DocAviv this week) and Antoine--are also playing up here in Toronto. Also, look for my interview soon on Shooting People with Beadie Finzi, director of Only When I Dance, a Top-10 audience fave at its Tribeca premiere.
I'm currently working on the transcription of my wonderful interview with Alanis Obomsawin; my first stop yesterday morning was to meet with her at the National Film Board of Canada's (NFB) offices. The 77-year-old Obomsawin is receiving Hot Docs' Outstanding Achievement Award this year for her decades-long career working in conjunction with the NFB to shine a spotlight on the stories of her people, the Abenaki Nation. For over forty years, she has directed documentaries that chronicle the lives of the First Nations people. There will be a retrospective of her films shown here this week, as well. Thank you to the NFB's Melissa Than for facilitating this meeting.
Filmmaker and producer, Ron Mann, is also having a retrospective here, curated by New York-based filmmaker and writer, Astra Taylor. Last year, Mann produced her fantastic Examined Life. As usual, most of my festival coverage, interviews and film reviews will happen post-fest since I will be running from screening to screening every day this week (and some parties, too) to gorge on the best of international nonfiction--there is a wealth of riches here for the documentary film lover and this town is also full of people who adore going to the movies, with the long lines and packed cinemas any time of day or night to prove it.
In other news: congratulations to AJ Schnack. indieWIRE reports today that his new film Convention will world-premiere at this year's SILVERDOCS as its Centerpiece screening (June 15 - 22 in Silver Spring, MD). Schnack led a superstar team of filmmakers as they captured last year's Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado. Schnack was joined by Laura Poitras, Paul Taylor (pictured with Schnack), Julia Reichert, Steven Bognar, Daniel Junge, Nathan Truesdell and David Wilson to capture the experience in grand vérité style through the eyes of the convention's organizers, reporters, police force and other denizens of the city. I was privileged to see a bit of this at True/False a couple of months ago and I'm very excited to see the finished film and listen to the accompanying talk with all the filmmakers in attendance at the fest in June.
I'd also like to mention one more item before I go submerge myself in films again: Greenhouse has just opened their submissions with a deadline of June 1. Now in its fourth year, the Tel Aviv-based Greenhouse is a program for the development of documentary films crafted by Mediterranean filmmakers from Jordan, Algeria, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Israel, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey. The program hosts between ten and twelve projects a year and the selected filmmakers are invited to participate in a year-long program, which meets three times annually, to develop an international production file and project trailer which, in turn, are presented at a pitching forum for international commissioning editors, funders, producers and distributors. Greenhouse founders, Sigal Yehuda, Yair Lev and Sarah Assouline have shown really stellar results in a very short amount of time and have gathered together some pretty high-profile partners. To learn more about entry requirements and submission information, click here.
More coming soon from HotDocs. And, James McNally, we will hook up one of these days!
Last night at Thom Powers' Stranger Than Fiction spring season opener, director Geoffrey Smith (pictured) and his subject, Dr. Henry Marsh, were there to talk about their superb collaboration in making one of the top nonfiction films of '08, The English Surgeon. Smith reported that the evening was "brilliant, just brilliant. Packed house and the most amount of love and awe you can imagine. We will definitely be having a week in NYC at some point. John Vanco [GM of the IFC Center] wants it, he just has to find a slot, so I will keep you posted."
Smith and Marsh were also fêted at Sunday night's Cinema Eye Honors with two nominations for the film, Outstanding Achievement in Music Composition by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, and Outstanding International Feature. (Cave and Ellis will be releasing a two-CD compilation of their soundtrack music for The English Surgeon, The Proposition and The Assassination of Jesse James this summer.)
I was lucky enough to see the film at last year's Hot Docs in Toronto where it took the top international prize for Best Feature. Here's what I wrote after seeing it there:
The first thing I viewed was Geoffrey Smith's The English Surgeon (the subject of this beautiful piece, the brave Dr. Henry Marsh, pictured, and one of his patients, Marian Dolishny, pictured with his beloved cat). Winner of the Best International Feature Documentary at Hot Docs, this film's assured storytelling craft serves its magnificent subjects well. Emotionally and visually rich, the film tells the story of Dr. Marsh, an esteemed neurosurgeon based in London, his dark humor tinged with an unrelenting sense of mission and the lusty joy of, as he describes it, "the bloodsport of brain surgery." There is obviously a profound and deep respect between director Smith and his subjects and they offer up their humanity in all its raw and glorious aspects.
Henry Marsh has been going to Kiev for over 15 years to offer what assistance he can to doctors working within an antiquated, crumbling medical establishment, one that ends up killing more people than it aids or saves, particularly when it comes to brain surgery. We learn that due to negligence, by the time most people come for evaluation, there is absolutely nothing that Marsh and his Russian colleague, the beleaguered Dr. Igor Kurilets, for whom Marsh is both a mentor and benefactor, can do, the scans portending the inevitable news that these people are, indeed, living on borrowed time. The scenes where the doctors have to sit and tell the person sitting across from them that they only have a little while to live are devastating--quiet, intense, hopeless. Refusing to give false hope, the doctors must deliver the worst news possible to a long line of people that wait outside their offices to hear their fate.
The scene where we get to witness, from start to finish, the brain surgery on the young and devout Marian is beautiful. Described as "horrible" and "gruesome" by some, I watched this scene with awe. It reminded me of the ear reconstruction scene in Manda Bala and the open heart surgery scene in All That Jazz--certainly not as stylized and operatic as those, but fascinating in its portrayal of a collaboration between doctor and patient. As Marsh says, his patients help make him "brave." Marsh feels it's essential for the success of the operation that Marian stay awake throughout the entire process (including the first drill into the skull), so Marian can communicate with his surgeons as they work to remove the massive tumor in his brain. We are privileged to sit and watch a small miracle happen before our eyes. And, odd to say, there are many laughs in this scene, as well.
Marsh is haunted by one failed case, in particular, and in the climax of the film, accompanied by Kurilets, pays a visit to the mother of a young girl he tried to save several years ago. She greets the two doctors with a houseful of relatives gathered around her for emotional support, and a table laden with food. As they share a meal (no one can really eat anything), the doctor lets her know how devastated he still is that his efforts to save her daughter, Tanya, caused more damage to the already sick little girl, violating, in his mind, medicine's most precious oath--to do no harm. I can't even think about that quietly powerful scene without welling up.
Incredibly, Smith shot this over just two weeks in the winter of '07 and manages to tell a deeply moving story of pathos and redemption, every shot illustrating with delicacy and grace (and loads of humor), a portrait of a true humanitarian. Nick Fraser, the editor of BBC Storyville and with Greg Sanderson, the executive producer of the film, says, "There are very, very few films I love quite as much as this one." I loved it, too.
For those in DC, you're in luck this week: there will be a special screening of The English Surgeon presented by SILVERDOCS this Thursday, April 2 at 7:00 p.m. with Geoffrey Smith in person at the AFI Silver Theatre. Click here for more info and to buy tickets.
Sky Sitney is the Director of Programming for SILVERDOCS, one of our premier documentary festivals which takes place every June at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring, Maryland. She has held this position since the fall of 2005, and is recognized as one of the key contributors in helping the festival become one of the leading film events of its kind. Sitney's role will expand even further this year, as she also takes over a lot of the duties that former festival director, Patricia Finneran, who departed last year to join the Sundance Institute, left in her wake.
Formerly, she was Programming Director at The Newport International Film Festival, and also served as a programmer at the (now, sadly, defunct) New York Underground Film Festival. She is the co-founder and curator of the on-going series, "Fresh Film" at the Anthology Film Archives in New York City.
Sitney is also a doctoral candidate in Cinema Studies at New York University, where she has taught film courses on a variety of genres. She is completing a dissertation on the subject of documentary film, a section of which has been recently published in the journal Grey Room, and the book Captured: A Lower East Side Film & Video History.
I've had a chance to run into Sky several times at various festivals and film events and we always have such wonderful and exciting conversations. I meet a lot of people passionate about documentary film and the nonfiction genre, but Sky's infectious enthusiasm and immensely savvy take on it all, always delights, surprises and inspires me. Recently, I had a chance to talk to her more formally and in-depth about her work at SILVERDOCS and the current landscape of film festivals, film juries and what we can look forward to in Silver Spring this coming June for the festival's seventh iteration. Here's our conversation:
Still in Motion (SIM): Film festivals in general, but particularly our domestic festivals, have become this incredible phenomenon in the independent film community. I think their importance is just peaking, actually, as the landscape continues to change for media makers. I want to talk with you, in particular, about this domestic scene from your vantage point. There seems to be a sense of cooperation, if you will, between many of our most successful festivals, with the major programmers of those festivals working together to build some sort of archive of the best of what’s coming out year after year. Is that a conscious effort or is that something that’s just happening organically because you tend to run into one another on the circuit and support one another’s festivals in various ways? What’s your take on that?
Sky Sitney (SS): That’s a complicated question. On the one hand, festival professionals, and particularly programmers, do view one another as colleagues. It’s a very unique job that has incredible joys and incredible challenges. There are very few people who really understand that as fully as your fellow programmers. I do think that we often look to one another to understand the ever-changing landscape, to brainstorm about certain challenges and ideas. But the bottom line is that we all have to focus on our own events and deal with the challenges of making them unique, something that isn’t a complete replication of what someone else is doing. But you do want to always recognize that you're part of the same culture. In terms of whether or not we actually go so far as to do "collaborative programming" or consciously select films that can function as this archive, as you put it, I don’t think that’s a conscious decision.
Great work tends to naturally find its home in these festivals. Any strong festival programmer who really loves film is not going to want to deprive their audiences of these great films simply because they've played at another festival. Now, what I’m saying actually opens up a tremendous can of worms or complications because there are those premiere-oriented festivals that exist; it's a very important part of their identity and their agenda, and that’s fine. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s their mandate. But for SILVERDOCS, certainly, and for many of what I consider to be my peer festivals, I think that we all want to try to have some discoveries and we all do have those discoveries. We all act as launching pads for new film work in greater or lesser degrees. Each festival has its own ratio, or proportion, of new work to other films that play the circuit. I think that in any given year, there are natural standouts; films that feel absolutely essential.
SIM: When you do discover something that you realize no one else has tapped into just yet, will you go ahead and ask a filmmaker if he or she would be willing to forego exhibiting at other festivals in order to have a premiere at SILVERDOCS?
SS: It all depends on timing. The Garden, for example, had its world premiere at SILVERDOCS last year. Not only did it go on to win the Sterling Award at the festival, but it's now one of the five nominees for the Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary. That film came to me at the very tail end of the screening review process. We looked at a very strong rough cut but it wasn’t really finished when it came to us. I could see that this film was extremely special. It had an extraordinary narrative story arc, fantastic cinematic values. It had already missed its opportunity to be at Sundance, SXSW, etc., so it really was a very easy negotiation. Every film that we look at is considered holistically. We’re looking at the big picture of what that film’s life has or what it will be.
Right now, we’re still fairly early in our submissions and review process. I’m extremely aware that many of the films that are coming to us have also gone to Austin [SXSW], Durham [Full Frame] and other places. Personally, I try to be as collaborative as I can with the filmmakers in terms of respecting the choices they feel they need to make for their film. As we get closer to our deadlines, I naturally am looking at work that I’m aware has missed those other opportunities. Many filmmakers come to me to negotiate a world premiere here; it’s not always me doing the negotiating. They see SILVERDOCS as the place that would be the best launching place for their work, be it because of the production schedule’s timing, or the subject matter of the film. It’s a combination of all those things.
The bottom line is that I do look at each film holistically and I have to balance when our final program is set; I have to look at how many films have been at these other wonderful festivals and how many are new launches and I try to create a balance. That balance has to happen for a lot of reasons, not necessarily centered around the “press opportunity” something might afford. When people think of a festival and launching new work, sometimes they forget that not only is it good for the festival to be able to launch these new titles, but it’s also hugely beneficial for filmmakers, as well. There’s an enormous amount of content out there and I don’t think a festival really serves the filmmaking community by simply regurgitating the same films that every other festival is showing. It’s important to have a mandate to try and use the platform that you have to recognize new work. There’s always a higher volume of great work that will not find a festival home. There is more terrific content than there are opportunities to showcase it.
SIM: Many festivals from year to year go at programming from a thematic point of view. For you, do organic themes emerge from the work? Or do you work from a top-down approach starting with a thematic concentration for the festival, as a whole, and then go out and try to find the best work that speaks to that theme or idea?
SS: As each year passes, and every year I gain more and more experience in programming a major festival, I move further and further away from an interest in thematic programming, for a number of reasons. That is not to say that we don’t, ultimately, discover themes that inherently have percolated. But I do sometimes feel that if, in my mind, I set myself up to have this certain idea, I then start going out of my way to seek out films that fulfill that idea rather than keeping myself extremely open to the strong work that’s out there, listening to the natural collective unconscious that is being articulated when I look at a variety of films.
What I like to do is respond to the work that’s already out there and to showcase the very best of that. If I intellectually, in an isolated way, get excited about a particular thematic program and then go out there and try to seek something that fulfills that predetermined idea, I’m not really approaching the work fairly. You can make big compromises when you try and fulfill this intellectual idea in terms of content. With each passing year, we’ve moved into having a kind of structure that actually resembles something along the lines of Sundance or Toronto; that is to say that we set extremely wide parameters, creating sections of the festival that are not specifically thematically organized. Like Sundance, we want to have a section devoted to world documentary and US documentary and something like their Frontiers section which showcases films more on the cutting edge. We want to have a tremendous diversity of work showcased.
Having said all that, it’s amazing that you do see certain themes emerge and you can’t help but recognize them as such. That’s to be expected. If there is really strong work and we feel that an interesting dialog is emerging, we might want to call attention to that and steer people to experience or delve deeply into certain subject matter through a group of particular films. Some interesting discussions can be organized in that way and we’re happy and delighted to do so. But that has to come naturally from the work and it has to be an organic response to the work that’s out there.
SIM: As a programmer, as a film lover, as someone who’s in the driver’s seat for a major nonfiction festival that in a very short amount of time has become a destination festival for both domestic and international product, can you tell me what your overriding challenge in all this would be? You come to a certain time every year—maybe it’s right now—when you’re really deep into it. How do you stay focused on the end result, which is creating a massive program over the course of several days? And how do you keep loving film? The inundation factor must be pretty high at this point with your intense screening schedule.
SS: Well, in response to your question of how I keep loving film: parents often tell their kids to try and do something that they love and there’s always a bit of a danger with that. When you develop a career that is really deeply connected to your greatest passion, there is a certain danger of it being tainted. I feel very, very lucky; I’m such a cinephile that my work has done nothing to dissuade me from this passion. There was an instance not too long ago where I had spent, as I often do, an entire day from early in the morning to mid-evening (especially as the time gets closer and closer to locking this program) watching films back to back. Around eight o’clock at night, I thought to myself, “Gosh, I really need a break. Maybe I’ll go out to the movies.” [laughs]
What’s interesting for me is because the work I do is in documentary, it actually does allow me, in a certain way, to preserve that place of fantasy that watching fiction provides, a real escape. I love the fact that the work I do is in documentary because it allows a real concentration. At this point, I understand and am able to have a real comprehensive sense of the genre and what’s happening in the field. I can recognize that it’s fairly focused. I feel like the community is that much more focused. It does make it a bit more manageable than programming for a comprehensive festival, as I’ve done in the past.
It’s hard to put the various challenges of this work on a scale in terms of what the biggest challenge might be. Every year, there are unexpected challenges. The shifting landscape of distribution and exhibition certainly keeps things in flux. You started off the conversation talking about how you think festivals, especially in this kind of climate, have an even more important role and I hope you’re right. I bank on the fact that you’re right. I’m not seeing extraordinary signs of something different, but one does have to stay on one’s toes. Even before we hit this particular time and place in independent film, there was always a sense that one was on a fast-moving stream and that from year to year, things are changing. You can never really rest on your laurels or sit back and assume that your festival, or any festival, has a fixed role in this universe. Part of the bigger challenge is being able to respond in the moment to all the changes that are happening.
Our festival serves quite a number of different needs. On the one hand, we are in that kind of universe where we’re both a festival for our community and for our region and the people who live here; by that I mean the mid-Atlantic region of the US. But we’re also an industry festival. In many ways, we don’t think of ourselves as a regional festival, but as a national one, with a bigger mission. Serving these various constituencies is important. But you don’t want to serve so many competing constituencies that you lose your identity, your distinction, and end up with something diluted. There are a variety of different needs that must be met and those needs can be contradictory.
Someone in our local audience might be thrilled to know that the Grand Jury Prize-winner from Sundance is here. That’s a huge selling point to attend the festival. For some of our industry folks who’ve been at Sundance and have already seen these films, they expect and want something new and fresh to make it worth their while to invest their time to come out here. For filmmakers who are launching their films here, they want to be assured that there are people in the audience who can help take their film to the next step, acquisitions people, exhibitors, etc. I have to make sure that the festival continues to serve all these needs, balance the program with the great work that’s out there and to be able to launch new work never seen before.
SIM: It’s a tall order, indeed. Let’s shift a bit and talk about the changing forms and the changing vocabulary of documentary. The word “nonfiction,” which I tend to use more than the "d-word," opens the focus a bit in this genre in terms of how we tell true stories. I want to know what that means to you, what speaks to you cinematically as a viewer? The subject matter, the importance of the story is always relevant; but, artistically, aesthetically, how is that impacting what you’re seeing out there?
SS: I think different programmers have different priorities when they screen documentary. I try not to have too fixed of an idea of what kind of films to program. It’s too limiting. I want to make sure that the films that are here are not solely governed by my own personal taste. That’s why I surround myself with a very strong and very diverse screening committee. The films need to reflect the wide variety of audiences that are out there—that’s key.
SIM: Does your screening committee consist of non-professional film people, as well as industry-related people or experienced filmmakers?
SS: The majority, definitely, do have relationships to film, albeit sometimes in an oblique way. They all have some sort of proven film sophistication. We do have some “civilians,” so to speak.
For me, ultimately, film is a cinematic language. If I’m reading a book, I expect the written word to have some eloquence. There are so many different kinds of styles. I just finished reading [Pulitzer Prize-winner] The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. It’s wonderful. It’s got its own vernacular that is singular, particular. There’s a consciousness, a control, a sophistication, even if the language is very rough. The artist behind it is totally in control of that material.
I expect films to be articulate in that same way. I expect them to be well versed in cinematic language. People misconstrue how experimental filmmakers or abstract expressionists, if you will, make art. They might say how easy it is for Jackson Pollock to stand before a canvas and throw dashes of paint on it. But Pollock could make, if he was interested in doing so, a perfect, meticulous image or representation. This is a choice coming from someone who understands the vocabulary, understands the language of painting and is taking it to another level of individual expression. I have the same expectation from filmmakers. First and foremost, the tool that’s being used to articulate a certain story is cinema and the goal is to recognize cinematic excellence. How that excellence is achieved or articulated has a huge array of possibilities—whether it’s through strict vérité storytelling, animation, etc. There might be a film from a first-timer in Afghanistan who expresses a very particular point of view. There is incredible diversity of storytelling in this genre. Ultimately, you want to get a sense that the piece is coming from an artist that has an understanding of the form. You know it when you see it. In some ways, I don’t want to know what I’m looking for for that very reason.
SIM: I’m sure there are lots of things you see that you would love to program but, for one reason or another, simply can’t.
SS: Definitely. The bottom line is that we only have about 65 feature slots. We receive about 2,000 submissions. I will say this if it helps shed any light: you kind of program in two ways, simultaneously. Each film, on a case-by-case basis, is dealt with on its own terms. Each film is its own universe and it’s judged based on that. But then, you also have to step back (more and more as you get closer to locking the program) and ask yourself how the program, as a whole, is forming. That’s not to suggest that you need to have every film have some kind of relationship with any other film. But if, in fact, we’re saying that we’re an international festival, then one does eventually have to start making conscious decisions. You have to step back and figure out what kinds of themes are being represented. What’s missing? What kinds of stories are we not expressing at this point? Are we seeing films that are coming from a true global perspective? Who’s making these films? You can say you’re representing 50 countries and that might be true. But you might realize that almost all of those films are made by white, male, American artists and that's, obviously, problematic. So if you just closed your eyes and programmed based on what you love and that’s the only piece of criteria you’re utilizing, you could find yourself with a very unbalanced program. Strategy does come into play at some point where you begin to recognize absences or, even, abundances. If we have five strong films already that are dealing with very similar subject matter, then unfortunately, that sixth film that we just came across that’s just as good and just as timely may go by the wayside. The bottom line is that we really need to think about preserving the remaining “real estate” of the festival’s program for something that expands the conversation in a new direction.
Navigating this kind of complexity of looking at each film on its own terms and then stepping back and looking at the program as a whole is really key. What films are going to make people laugh? We certainly have the 45 films that are going to make someone cry, but is there one that will make someone laugh? Are there films to which one could take someone under 16 years of age to go see? Are there films here that are pushing form or more experimental in nature? Are we covering all the key issues that people are concerned about—environment, gender issues, etc.? You really have to work to make sure you’re culling diversity in all those regards.
SIM: SILVERDOCS, like many festivals, has a fairly traditional submission process where people submit through Without a Box or tag a film appropriately and follow the guidelines off the festival web site, etc. There’s a period between opening and closing that submission process where you get a huge influx of films. Yet, you travel extensively and probably run into people all the time who want to hand you their film or someone else’s film. How do you control that tide? How do you manage expectations, more importantly? There are many filmmakers (most, actually) who would never have that opportunity to meet you personally on the circuit or be able to personally hand you something, who don’t have that kind of access to programmers or industry people.
SS: It’s fantastic to be part of a community where I do meet other programmers and they tell me that they have something really amazing I need to see. That’s helpful. Same with hearing from a trusted colleague or a friend who flags a film for me. But part of the genuine goal for any festival is to find those discoveries. Every single film that’s submitted, ultimately, is on an even playing field. The value of having that kind of discovery is equal to the value of that personal recommendation. We do receive films in such an enormous variety of ways. We have a lot of relationships with international cultural institutions, some of which submit films. They’re on the ground in these various regions and cull submissions for us. We waive fees in those instances a lot of the time when it’s coming from places like Afghanistan or wherever those films might be coming from. We’re trying to encourage receiving work from underrepresented regions.
And yes, obviously, I’m out on the festival circuit. As soon as a festival announces their line-up, I contact the documentary filmmakers and ask them to submit. Any festival programmer does that where we track those kinds of things. Every day I read the trades, trying to keep track of everything that’s going on out there, keeping it on my radar. Every time I hear of a new grant being given a film in development or something that's gone into production or post-production, that goes on the tracking list, as well. I want to make sure I’m casting as wide and vast a net as possible. The blind submissions, however, are where the real surprises come through. When all is said and done, however the films get here, they get here. Every single film, whether it’s been invited to submit because it played at Sundance to a film that’s never been on my radar in any way, shape or form, all ultimately become democratized through the same rigorous process.
If a filmmaker has been to the festival many times or I know a particular filmmaker’s work, I have a particular curiosity to see their new film, of course. Not only do I see every film that winds up going through this rigorous submission and screening process, but I also see the films that are flagged for me in other ways. It’s not unusual for me, personally, to watch about 700 films over the course of the review process. That’s not all 2,000 but that’s why I have trusted people around me—I can’t see all of them. But that brings a tremendous amount of integrity to the process.
SIM: I want to talk about something that I’m curious about and has to do with that sense of integrity and that is the process of casting juries for the various competitions within the festival. SILVERDOCS has quite a few different competitions that award prize money and other in-kind support. What I’ve noticed in the last couple of years, in particular at domestic festivals, is that the juries consist of a lot of the same folks, as do the panels, for that matter.
SS: The same people or the same archetypes?
SIM: Both. This has been a bit of a concern, to be perfectly honest, that no one really seems to want to address, so I’ll take the watchdog stance and ask why this seems to be the case? Because it is such a tight-knit community, I was wondering when those juries are built or assigned, and those particular films are chosen for competition, how all that shakes down? Can you shed some light on how this works?
SS: I’m sure every festival has its own set of criteria. There is no rulebook or an across-the-board method or category of what falls into the competition track. It also depends on what the festival wants to put a priority on for recognition or wants to push for validation—a debut, or a first- or second-time filmmaker or a premiere, for example. And certain films that qualify are chosen because they fall within those parameters and because we think they're the best in that category. With these broad categories, there are many sub-competitions, as well, such as music films, a competition we have at SILVERDOCS. I know Full Frame has a tremendous amount of different kinds of competitions.
For us, it’s premiere-oriented rather than thematically oriented, things that are new on the circuit or haven’t received much attention. Right now, in order to quality, a film cannot have screened in more than two US festivals prior to ours. But that’s not to say that a film meeting these criteria will automatically qualify for competition. It’s not about the premiere status; I don’t want that to be the overriding determining factor as to whether a film gets to compete or not. I want these films to really be deserving.
In terms of the jury, that’s an interesting question and one I’ve never really been asked about. Perhaps it’s just something I’ve taken for granted. We try to make sure that the people on the jury represent leaders in the documentary arena. Now, simply by asking me that question makes me wonder if that’s too rigid. Maybe it doesn’t have to be leaders of the documentary arena; maybe there’s a whole variety of interesting people that fall outside those strict parameters, that still work in documentary but that could bring a fresh take. I think our juries are diverse in the roles people play in this arena, made up of filmmakers, programmers, distributors, etc. in the various juries. But yes, all of them share being part of this proven "cognoscenti" in this field. Your question does provoke an interesting challenge and, again, makes me question whether that’s too limited. Is that part of what you’re suggesting? Do you feel like maybe there should be more outsiders sitting on these juries?
SIM: I’m not talking, necessarily, about “outsiders.” But I do think there is more diversity within the industry and within the community than is being represented. There are sectors of that community that are not being asked or recognized as viable candidates to judge these competitive strands. Obviously, this also speaks to availability and the possibility of people being able to get to the festival and have the time to screen everything; it’s very time-consuming and an intense endeavor. But yes, I think I would like to see more diversity on the various juries. I rarely see anybody new or anyone outside of the usual suspects sitting on most domestic juries. It’s a concern that makes for an insularity that might be limiting, limiting to the form, limiting to what’s getting exposed. Let’s face it—those competition winners, those big prizewinners create a domino effect. Yes, the film might be absolutely superb but is it really worthy to win every single competition it enters at every single festival? And then when you look at those people jurying at those festivals, a lot of them are the same people. It’s raised a flag for me.
SS: I identify people that I feel are taste makers and contributors, people who are thinkers in this arena. But you certainly raise an interesting point in that this, again, may be a very narrow view. It’ll be something I’ll think about.
SIM: Having said all that, I know there are film events and festivals, particularly nascent ones, that are trying to carve out a niche for themselves and in doing so, cast their juries with recognizable names, whether they know anything about film or not. I’ve heard filmmakers complain that they’ve served on juries with people who have absolutely no understanding of cinema and yet are in positions to judge works of cinema. That’s a danger, too, obviously. You absolutely don’t want neophytes or “taste makers” in other fields, judging an art form in which they really don’t understand the nuances in this kind of storytelling or can't begin to dissect it in any critical, articulate way.
SS: You have to recognize, first of all, that you’re creating a compatible team of people. Not compatible in terms of people sharing the same point of view; that would be very dull and incredibly non-stimulating for a jury. I want to make sure I’m casting a group of people together who can offer a challenging, expansive and intelligent discussion about the films they’re watching. I’ve been so lucky because all of the jurors that I’ve ever had at SILVERDOCS, in my experience, have just been so thoughtful and committed to the process. I’m not saying that they are people who don’t fit into this inner circle of documentary film leaders. But they’ve all been such committed and passionate people who’ve taken these roles very seriously. Last year, we had people like Steve James and Sandi DuBowski, extraordinary, extremely loving people who bring a passion about film that’s unbelievable. They take this responsibility extremely seriously. I want to make sure that I’m bringing people together who will all bring that level of commitment, integrity and passion. It’s challenging to think about bringing someone who might be an extraordinarily interesting person but not necessarily well-versed in documentary. And is that necessary? Again, something to think about.
SIM: Where do you want to take this year’s iteration of SILVERDOCS? What are some overarching goals? This year, you have a more expanded role that goes beyond the programming aspect. I know you’ve always looked at this event holistically, but now that needs to happen even more so. You have an even more substantive leadership role, becoming “the face” of SILVERDOCS, if you will. What are your top-of-mind ideas and goals?
SS: We’re not in a vast, expansionist mode. I think that there’s always the sense that every year, we have to be bigger and better, in a constant state of growth in a major way. I feel we’ve come very far. There’s nothing wrong with an interest in maintaining the excellence we’ve already achieved. Now, that doesn’t mean that we’re not an organic, living, breathing thing that needs to continue to evolve. But we’re not sitting here figuring out how we can take this to “the next level.” We want to have a festival that’s extraordinarily consistent in its excellence and we’re looking to continue to build upon the foundation we’ve created. You build this foundation and you run it proficiently and do everything you possibly can to ensure that it runs smoothly. The truth of the matter is half the festival becomes the unexpected, organic energy of all the people who come that year—their synergy with one another and their connection with audiences. What winds up being the true life of the festival is completely and utterly unpredictable. We provide the stable environment for all these wonderful things to happen.
Because I’m deeply in the trenches of programming, I believe we’ll be able to create a more holistic festival experience because I will have a really deep understanding of the kind of content that we’ll be presenting. That, in turn, will inform the other areas like the Conference and other events that happen concurrently. I think we can create a lot more synergy between what’s happening in the film program, on the screens, and connecting that to a more refined festival experience.
SIM: I think the festival is really strong in that regard already. You’re well on your way to being able to refine that, definitely. You’ve done that in a very short amount of time.
SS: Patricia [Finneran] is no longer here but the rest of the staff and the department heads, Conference producer, Diana Ingraham [pictured] and festival producer, Cindy Miller, are here. There’s a tremendous amount of consistency and continuity. We have a great deal of optimism that we’ll continue to build upon what we have. The pressure to grow by leaps and bounds is always there but I don’t know if that’s necessarily the right thing.
SIM: I think we’ve seen that festivals like Sundance and Tribeca, for instance, made huge missteps in that regard.
SS: We expanded by two days last year; we expanded the competitions and included two new awards. It was a tremendous success last year. But there’s a point where you have to recognize when the size and scope of your event is right. Now we want to settle into that. We want to deliver consistency and that’s where we are right now. Obviously, the flavor will be different every year; we’ll have a different Guggenheim honoree, different films—the people who attend will bring this unique thing that will happen and that’s, truly, what I love most about this work. I’ve never had a child, but I suppose you give birth to something and you nurture it and work to keep it healthy. But, ultimately, it’s not yours. You’re there to guide it, certainly, but this wonderful “being” has a life of its own and you share in that life. That’s how I feel about the festival. The reality of the experience is ours to share with the people that participate in it. The endless possibilities provide an excitement that no one can anticipate. Including me.
The SILVERDOCS AFI/Discovery Channel Documentary Festival will take place in Silver Spring, Maryland, June 15 – 22, 2009.