DOCSDF 2010, the 5th iteration of this doc fest in Mexico City has announced its call for entries. The festival takes place October 21 - 31, 2010. There are many categories in which to enter your project(s): for best long feature, there are the international, Ibero-American and Mexican competitions; in the short doc film section, there are competitions for international, Ibero-American and Mexican; and in the best TV doc category, there are competitions for best international and best Mexican selections.
An online entry form must be filled out here, and then you send your entry to Mexico--more details on the web site. The deadline for all international categories is April 30th (soon!) and the deadline for all Mexican categories, July 15th. Suerte!
Kirsten Johnson has traversed the globe as a film director, and as one of the most acclaimed and sought-after cinematographers working in nonfiction filmmaking today. She just shared the 2010 Sundance Documentary Competition Cinematography Award with Laura Poitras for The Oath, and shot the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival Best Documentary winner, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, directed by Gini Reticker and produced by Abigail Disney, two women she is currently, once again, collaborating with for an extended project in Congo. She also shot Ted Braun's Darfur Now (2007), and has collaborated with directors such as Raoul Peck, Barbara Kopple, Michael Moore and Kirby Dick. A chapter on her work as a cinematographer is featured in Megan Cunningham's The Art of the Documentary: Ten Conversations with Leading Directors, Cinematographers, Editors and Producers. She has also directed the cinematography on films such as Throw Down Your Heart, Lioness, Motherland, Election Day, This Film Is Not Yet Rated, Farenheit 9/11, Derrida, The Two Towns of Jasper, My Generation, and many others.
Her feature script, My Habibi, was selected for the 2006 Sundance Writers' and Directors' Labs and is the recipient of an Annenberg Grant. Her film, Deadline, co-directed with Katy Chevigny, premiered at Sundance in 2004, had its national broadcast on the NBC television network, and received the Thurgood Marshall Award.
As is the case with most people I talk with who have been devoted to making independent films for a long time, Johnson's career trajectory was far from a traditional one. The beginning of her film career was spent living in Dakar, Senegal, and then seven years were spent in Paris, France, where she attended La Fémis, the French national film school, receiving a degree from the Cinematography Department. Her work has taken her to close to fifty countries, and she is fluent in French, Portuguese and Wolof.
Just a week before
departing for Colombia to shoot part of Reticker's long-form new project, Johnson and I spent an afternoon
chatting together at a café near her home in the Williamsburg section of
Brooklyn. Here's our
Still in Motion (SIM):So you’re
off soon on another adventure and working again with Gini
Reticker and Abigail Disney.I’m
assuming they want to work with you on every single thing they do for the rest
of their lives, or something like that?
Kirsten Johnson (KJ):Well, Gini
and I have a collaboration that dates all the way back to Asylum [shot in Ghana, 2001,
nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short], a film we did with [director]
Sandy McLeod.That was the first
time we had worked together.Gini had strong story ideas but she wasn’t confident about her
visual ideas at that time.Now, of course, she’s a very
visual director.It was one of
those things where we got on that shoot and it just was kind of remarkable how
we were all seeing and wanting to shoot the same things.We call it the “stop the car” shoot
where all three of us, simultaneously, would shout, “Stop the car!There’s something we want to
film!”I think that that
collaboration was one of those things where we found a way to talk about ideas
together that has continued throughout the years.We’ve done two Wide Angle shoots together, one in Rwanda and
one in Morocco, and then Pray the Devil Back to Hell.When Abby came on board, we all realized, too, that we could
play Speed Scrabble together [laughs].
Right now, they’re doing this very ambitious thing, a
four-hour series, done in co-production with WNET.But it’s a Fork Films production, which is Abby and Gini’s
company.There will be a broadcast
of the whole thing, accompanied by a broadcast of Pray the Devil as a part of the series.
you’ll take this next question in the right spirit because some people we know
and love sort of balk at this subject matter, but you’re a white woman, or a
group of white women, and you tend to shoot in locales where, as a female and as
a white person, and one with a camera,
you distinctly don’t blend in.You’ve been doing this for decades now, so I’m assuming you’ve come up
with ways to negotiate that.Both
you and Gini, I know for sure, are incredibly open people and it wouldn’t
appear as if it’s that difficult for people to trust and open themselves to
you.But do you encounter
suspicion or mistrust, wariness?And when you do, how do you counteract that?
that’s a great question and it’s an important one.For anyone who knows me, they know that thinking about race
has been a part of my life, actually, since my childhood.I grew up going to a Seventh Day
Adventist school that was incredibly racially diverse but there was a lot of
70s confusion about race and a lot of racism.I really picked up on that as a kid and I was very concerned
and very confused and wanted to understand it.So I would say that I’ve been thinking about race since the
I always think “whiteness” matters, being an American
matters and it’s really important to understand that you represent something to
other people and that those affiliations have an impact when you go
somewhere.The question is always,
how can you be aware of that and yet deal with people where they are? I was just talking about this with the sound person we’re with on this trip, Wellington Bowler;
he’s African American.He’s one of
my steady collaborative partners. I also work a lot with Judy Karp, who is a
tiny white woman--as opposed to me, a giant white woman.I think all of us are really aware of
what our presences mean in a certain place.What does it mean to have a man in a maternity ward,
etc.?I think all of these factors
go into my presence.
thought of in the same way in those places?
different wherever you go.Wellington, sometimes, will be seen as a white person because he’s
that’s interesting, and kind of weird.
KJ:Right?Or we will be seen as urban people in
rural places.There’s no
question:I’m 6’2”; I am white; I
am someone, in these situations, who can be very communicative, comfortable.I try and engage with a lot of
humor.I have a presence; it’s a
big presence in certain ways.There’s no missing me in these contexts.But it’s also how you behave, what level on which you give
people the respect they deserve.One of the things I found early in my life through traveling in African
countries is, because of this history of colonialism, as a white person you
have unexpected privileges, and whether or not you use those privileges, how
you use them would be the better thing to say, dictates how things
go.Rather than being shut out,
you’re actually given access to things that are almost inappropriate for you to
be given access to.I’m constantly
reminded of the kind of privilege you experience as a white person.It comes back to you, how meaningful
that is.I clearly remember being
in Mali and there was a group of people gathered in the central square of this
village, all sitting under a tree waiting to meet with us.They had brought out chairs for us and
there were a lot of older men and women sitting on the ground.I just gestured to them and gave up my
chair.An older man took the chair
and I sat on the ground.It wasn’t
what they expected me to do at all.Who knows really how appropriate it was?I saw a hierarchy I respected and that was the
hierarchy of age.
Being attentive to those cues is what makes it possible for
any documentary filmmaker, no matter what their skin color or what country
they’re working in, to gauge things. To gain a little respect from the people that are working or
living where you’re shooting is really important.But you have to earn the respect they, in turn, give you by
allowing you to be there, a white person in a brown world.There’s a lot of bad history under the
things being done by filmmakers, however, in the guise of being “sensitive,”
kind of concern me sometimes. It’s tricky. People don’t realize all the nuance involved, particularly
filming people’s stories.The
respect definitely comes from the person behind the camera, the person telling
the story. It’s
an innate quality, perhaps—in the true sense of that word, they just know how to do it.
KJ:There is an
innate thing going on. Sometimes, you’re in a sophisticated city, like Kampala, where everybody’s making music videos, for example.Or you’re in a village where they’ve
never seen a camera before.That’s
one thing people might forget: how technologically fluent the world is
now.Cell phones, video cameras,
all these things exist in the developing world.Respect for other human beings is just something you keep
learning your whole lifetime.
cameraperson really does put you in particular quandaries where your idea of what’s
respectful is often challenged.It’s not so much the apparatus, the camera, that is perceived to be this intermediary
between me and the subject; that quickly falls away. For me, it’s always,
“Who’s holding the camera?How do
they move?”I feel like I’ve done
the same kind of work with a ridiculously huge camera and a teeny,
tiny one I can hold in the palm of my hand.But you often find yourself in these moments of total
Gini and I were
shooting in Rwanda on a project that was to talk about a lack of infrastructure
in the country.We were driving
and we saw a group of people carrying a screaming woman on a litter.We could see them and hear them from
down the hill.Gini quickly
realizes that this scene completely conveys our theme and decides also that we
are going to help them. There was a silence and I said, "Are we going to film
them, too?"[laughing]It was like this little moment.Obviously, if we had stopped the car
next to them and said, “May we film you?,” they would have put the litter down,
the woman would have been in pain.We would have had to put her in the car immediately.So we decided that we would pass them,
go up the hill.I was going to get
out, be with the camera, and film them walking up the hill towards us.I know I’m not there as an aid worker;
I’m not there as a doctor.I’m
there as a filmmaker.But this
thing of having to ask people’s permission—they’re in an urgent situation,
etc.This stuff is just going
through your head as you’re standing at the top of the hill while people are
walking up to you.The woman was
in labor and had been for seven hours.We put her in the car and it was another hour and a half to the
clinic.She ended up naming the
baby after our driver!But there
was that moment that wasn’t quite right.But I got the shot and that wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t done that.That dimension is
constantly with you.Those are
split-second decisions.As a
cameraperson, I feel that you are certainly a collaborator with the
director.But, you are also
responsible for maintaining your own ethical boundaries.
seem like you’re working with filmmakers, for the most part, that have strong
ethical boundaries, as well.But
there can easily be a sense of confusion when your crew is in the thick of
something and you just roll.
KJ:It can be
confusing. There’s always this
moment of, “This world makes no sense!” when I’m filming beside workers that
make a dollar a day hauling huge sacks of rice with a camera that costs more
than they make in several years.
trained at La Fémis, the French national film school in Paris.Why did you decide to take yourself
there?What were you going to get
KJ:I had kind
of a peculiar career trajectory.It wasn’t about going to France.I went to West Africa and that’s where I started, in Senegal.I was really interested in African
filmmakers.It was purely the
discovery of filmmaking and I thought, I might want to write about film or be a
critic.I really didn’t know.
it about the filmmaking tradition there that was so enticing for you?
KJ:I think it
was the pace of it and the world that was being described in it.I had seen some of Ousmane Sèmbene’s
films, a couple of Cissé's films.I saw that there was just a whole other thing going on. I was really
curious about it, probably stemming from my focus on race.I had this elaborate plan my senior
year of college [Brown University, Providence, RI].There was a
possibility of getting something called a Watson Fellowship that would grant
someone $20,000 for the year and you could go anywhere in the world and do
anything you wanted.I wanted to
go to West Africa and be on set with filmmakers there—and to Brazil and to
Paris and to London.And think
about blackness in all these different places.I made it to the finals but didn’t get it.I didn’t have any back-up plan.At all.I sent some letters to various people, bought a one-way
ticket, and went and knocked on Sèmbene’s door.
KJ:Yeah.I got there and I lived there and just
loved it.I got to work on a film
and discovered I really liked production.I worked as an intern on a film directed by Clarence Delgado based on a Sèmbene novel, Niiwam. He was Sèmbene’s assistant director. There was this whole crew of Senegalese
filmmakers from a very particular era.Despite the sometimes crazy difficulties of shooting there, I loved
being on set.I had this
Senegalese boyfriend who was a photographer.I was realizing that I really needed to learn something
about how filmmaking worked.He
asked me why I didn’t go to the film school in France—it was free.So that was how I ended up there.But in talking to people, I was told
that there was no way they were going to let me into the directing department,
not being French.No American had
been accepted into that program.I
was told to try for a technical department and by default, I went for camera
because I didn’t know how to do anything, but I’d taken some photographs before
and that’s how I got into cinematography and fell in love with the camera.
I can give a lot of credit to the French and the way in
which they train people for the way I work.The films
I saw during my time there and some of the people we got to work with were
extraordinary—people like Raoul Coutard and Michel Fano, who’s an unbelievable
sound guru who taught everybody how to do documentary sound.Sound, in many ways, is the missing
piece in so many people’s documentary filmmaking.The level of sophistication and intent was displayed in some of the films I saw and what we strove for in our own work.A strong contextual base is really, I think, where I come
from and that has a lot to do with sound. That’s why I work with people like
Judy and Wellington.When I first
started shooting, I didn’t hear at all; I was so concerned with composition.Little by little, I’ve become more and
more quiet; I listen more and I realize how much more of the story is in the
ear than through the eye.That’s
been an evolution for me.
Initially, my instincts certainly weren’t bad.Especially in relation to people, they
were pretty decent.But for a long
time, I was moving too fast.I
wasn’t thinking about how to recognize a scene in the middle of a moment.All those things I’ve learned through
the back and forth of working and watching other people’s films, and those films that are
made with the footage I shoot.It’s
surprising sometimes [laughs].
Right now, I’m working with this German-Swiss director named
Mirjam von Arx. She and I are working on a film about the father/daughter
Purity Ball in Colorado Springs. The ball is an event staged to celebrate the father's role in the daughter's commitment to sexual abstinence and virginity until marriage. It’s in lieu of a prom since most of
these kids are home-schooled.We’re shooting in one family’s home for one year, from ball
to ball.Mirjam is coming from a
European sensibility; you hold a shot a really long time and look. I was trained in France; I have that
sensibility, and yet it’s still a whole other level. I would shoot for about three minutes and start to move away and
she'd lean over and say, “No, no, stay.”And it actually felt really wonderful to have permission to do
I felt that way working on Laura's film, too [The
Oath]. She's a director that says, “Yes, we have the time.Yes, take the time.”Knowing that that kind of care and attention was going to be put into
the film was exhilarating. There’s a lot of expediency we’re dealing with
in camerawork a lot of the time.If you do end up working on things that are going to be made into
television programs, it’s about getting the coverage and you may only have one
day in a place with a subject. [Poitras and Johnson accepting their cinematography award, Sundance Film Festival, 2010.]
distinctly not in the American tradition of how films get edited and pieced
together.If the time was taken on
the shoot, we can’t really ever tell since we’re given such a rapid series of
cuts to take in at any given moment.We aren’t usually given this luxurious sense of spending long, extended
moments with a subject or character.Scenes clip along so rapidly.
enough moments where there is action—and by action, I might mean just emotional
action happening between people. You can see it all in a wide shot and have a
chance to sit and look at what’s going on.A lot of times, you’re in a space that’s so small and you’ve
got one character on one side of the room and one on the other.The camera operator has to make the
choice.If we’re going to see two
people in this shot, I have to move, I have to change positions when I’m
cutting from one person to the next.Thank goodness we’ve got the continuous sound to make us feel like it’s
all cohesive.But you’re still
making these choices.The mind
space that I’m in is going to decide when I choose to move and on whom to put my
focus.I try to develop those
things with the director in conversations where we’re discussing what we
want. What do we really care
the first time you worked together with Laura?
usually has done all the shooting on her films.What was different about this project, about this situation,
where she decided to bring on a DP? Making this film was difficult on many levels.
Country, My Country, her naivéte and inexperience shooting in a place like
Iraq stood her in good stead, one might say. Meaning, I don’t think she really fully realized what
she was stepping into and needed to just go by herself to figure it out.This was before she met Dr. Riyadh,
this was when she was preparing to embark on that trip not really knowing what
story she’d find there.
The way The Oath is put together, working closely with you
and Jonathan [Oppenheim, co-producer and editor], the level of craft is so
deliberate and fine, with uncompromising intention, as in her other work. We move moment by moment
through this film and we see and hear exactly what’s intended for us to see and
hear.But we’re never told how to
feel.The collaboration involved
really speaks to that, I think.We
see the outside world of the city of Yemen; we’re out in the streets.And we’re in incredibly intimate
spaces, as well.When you first
discussed this project with her, what were her concerns, especially as they pertained
to shooting Abu Jandal, Guantánamo, and the possibility, at least at the beginning,
of getting footage of Salim Hamdan, Jandal’s brother-in-law?
KJ:I actually saw the
film for the very first time at its premiere at Sundance in January.I could not be more honored that I was a part of making this
film.I think it’s
extraordinary.I think that Laura
and Jonathan did a mighty work in the edit room.I will say that I think that Laura had the vision in the
beginning.From the moment she met
Abu Jandal, I think she understood what a complex person he was.She knew she would have to calibrate
the film with that kind of razor-sharp attention and elegance.She also knew she needed these
counterpoints.Her initial impetus
for making this film was to do a story about a detainee returning from
Guantánamo. Her interest in
Guantánamo was there; it’s a place she feels very strongly about
politically.She wanted to
represent it in a way that translated the energy of the place. [Pictured, Abu Jandal driving his taxi in The Oath.]
We did everything we were supposed to do in relation to the
military’s restrictions. We asked, every day, if we could film the prison but were never given permission.We kept asking and kept asking.We were allowed access, as most of the journalists are, to very specific
things.And yet, we were also
given access to all the public places of the base.The places that you can go, you go with a
military escort.The prison,
itself, is off in another place.I
just filmed everything I was allowed to film and I filmed it with the energy
borne by sitting in the courtroom everyday.That’s what’s so extraordinary about Laura as a director and
producer.She couldn’t be in
Guantánamo because she was filming in Yemen.She said to me and Jonathan that she wanted us in the
courtroom as much as we could be there [during the trial of Salim Hamdan].Now, mind you, we couldn’t film in the
courtroom.It’s an eight-hour day,
time she’s paying for us to be there. And listen.And
take in the story.We were there a
total of five weeks.
really incredible.I didn’t know
KJ:Yes, amazing. So, basically, when I was
shooting the exchanges between the journalists and the lawyers, I knew, from
being in the courtroom that day, what the key moments were.
profound contextualization, in other words.
very few people would feel confident enough, in both their collaborators and the
subject matter, to say the important part of your shooting is for you to sit in a
courtroom and listen. That
speaks volumes about Laura.It was
absolutely engrossing to be a part of that event, the first military commission trial of
SIM: Did you experience a good amount of frustration that
you couldn’t film?
able to shoot in the courtroom?It
killed me!I feel like I have this
personal vision of Hamdan.I was
sitting very close to him watching his emotional reactions to all kinds of
things.He would say these
incredibly cinematic things.At
one point, he was describing becoming slightly delusional after being in
solitary confinement for so long and he said that he felt like he had eyes all
over his body because he was constantly being watched by the guards.What I would have given to have him say
that on film, you know?
What’s so interesting, and I think is often true with
documentaries, is that your constraints are part of the story.The more you have to find a way to
embody them filmically, the better off you are.It’s a great thing in the case of The Oath that you don’t
ever see Hamdan except in that footage at the very beginning.
SIM:It is very
powerful.You’ve just articulated
what we can do creatively with nonfiction storytelling.I did not know about the situation you
just described when I watched that film and I’ve seen it twice now.But in thinking about those scenes with
the journalists and the lawyers doing their post-mortem sessions, there was
something ineffable and palpable in the way in which those interactions were
filmed and interpreted.You can feel the import of it from all sides, this vital
line of communication.There’s
almost a secret language being spoken but, as a viewer, you really get a very
nuanced understanding of what’s happening—it’s subtle, instinctual, anchoring.As opposed to the scenes where Jandal
is holding forth and talking incessantly, rapidly, about so much.In juxtaposition to the post-courtroom
footage, it’s quite disorienting, the wall of sound coming from this man who is
providing a boatload of exposition.I always felt so off-center and that’s one of the things I love about
thrilled that you picked up on that secret language going on between the
lawyers and the journalists.I
felt like that was something on which I had to quickly get up to speed. There is this roomful of amazing
investigative journalists, people like Carol Rosenberg and William Glaberson,
who’ve been following Guantánamo from the beginning.They understand all the legal intricacies.Then you’re there, listening to all of
these lawyers, many working pro bono, some of the very top attorneys in the
country and all of these military experts.You’re really dealing with three or four languages that are
unfamiliar to you.It was
stimulating and absolutely gripping. I would come down to the debriefing room after a day in the courtroom, anxious
to hear about how a lawyer would address what had happened.
I mean there were moments when you, literally, could see the
judge trying to decide, “Do I say this court is invalid?”It was the first trial of these
military commissions [on Guantánamo] and there was no precedent for any of it.
There were at least four times where the judge was faced with an ethical
decision, more about his role than anything else.“Am I the judge that goes down in history as the person who
recognizes this as something legitimate, or do I take a stand and say it’s
not?”Those were stunning moments.
The journalists would ask questions of the prosecution and
watch the prosecutor set his jaw and insist that it was all working fine.To paraphrase one of the military prosecutors, he said something like, “We want the public to relate to these trials like they do to the Space Shuttle. Shuttles are constantly going up into space and people know that they are, but they aren't really paying attention." That was his hope--that these kinds of trials
should become so commonplace.And
yes, I would be shooting in my head and visualizing all these powerful shots of
these people making these moment-by-moment decisions.But it’s nice to know that is all
getting through on some level.You do put in all that time of understanding the context of what’s going
on—it’s really important, understanding the deeper narrative.And then you do your best on the fly to
tap into that.That’s what’s so
amazing about filming real things; it’s all there,
all the complexity, the power balances.Can you let the viewer see them?
flat so many times about capturing vérité?A lot of times it really has very little dimension.The fanciest cutting and other
production values are not going to hide the fact that one has captured less
than compelling footage.
incredibly challenging job to be tuned into what matters and to find the way to
film it.It’s exhausting.Often, you’re in for eight, ten, twelve
hours in a day.You can get in a
mode of shooting too much, obviously.But staying on point and staying focused on what really matters in the
story takes a huge amount of concentration, a physical flexibility in
space.It’s a thing that a
director gives you.They give you
what you need.I need twelve
bottles of water a day [laughs].They give you what you need in order to stay in that zone, able to
film.If a director gives you the
support and allows you to stay in the zone, then sometimes, you can
actually start watching the film while it’s being made.It doesn’t happen very often but when
it does, it’s extraordinary.
SIM:And when a
director is, distinctly, not giving you what you need, or any of the other crew
for that matter?You also take on
the role of director and have a whole body of work you’ve directed. How does that inform the way you handle yourself on set?
something I bring to a shoot, my experience as a director, my thinking as a
director.I do think about what
happens in the editing room.I’m a
really active partner in the whole collaboration.I almost never would say to a director, in the moment, that
things aren’t okay, that they aren’t working.There’s too much going on.But every night, I’ll come back with my input, letting him
or her know that we needed more support in this regard; something was great in
the way it was executed; we’re not giving this character enough time, etc.Sometimes, I really will push directors
in terms of blind spots I feel they have.We all have them.I expect
to be pushed on mine.Once in a
while, I will encounter someone who’s not interested in the elephant in the
room and for whatever reasons, it’s scary territory for them and they start
putting up all these subconscious obstacles to actually getting at it.I’m definitely not a silent partner at
the end of the day.I will do what
I can do in the course of a filming day and won’t call into question any of the
director’s choices. But at night, over dinner, I will talk about missed
opportunities and want to know why.A lot of directors don’t really realize what you might be going through
unless you speak up.People forget
about the physicality of holding the camera, shooting.It’s the obligation of the crew to tell
the director what they need and how and when they need it.
I like to talk about themes with the director so I can watch
more for those elements that speak to those themes.That way when we’re filming something relatively interesting
but I see something going on that really is the embodiment of what we’re trying
to capture, I can just say it and be able to turn and start shooting what
should be shot.They get what I’m
doing because we’ve discussed it.That’s the art of catching things on the fly.There should be a good amount of preparation so you can do
that.You have to know what you’re
looking for and you have to have the freedom to get it.Not communicating well about these
things can be disastrous, both for the film and the relationship.Hopefully, it becomes an unspoken thing
after a while.That’s how you
become really alive and light on your feet.
background, your training and these locales that keep drawing you—can you talk
about light and texture in the way you see things?There’s a luminous quality to your work that’s very
particular.In those places you
shoot, in Africa, for instance, there’s a particular light that doesn’t exist
anywhere else.Is that part of
what draws you subconsciously, perhaps?This is more a curious question more than anything since I’m obsessed
with light and reflection and how those things can cause emotional resonance
just on their own, doesn’t matter really what the image is.Is that something you think about?
something I’m absolutely interested in.It’s hard to tease it out in some ways.Senegal was the place I went as a young person.It was the first place I was truly
free, in many different ways.I
have a strong, nostalgic engagement in that particular environment and it
speaks to why I love West Africa so much.Absolutely I’m turned on by the madness of color there and the quality
of light on the equator.
Admittedly, though I’ve been slow in my developmental relationship to
what light can do.I understood
composition much more.Again, my
teachers were extraordinary—I had an opportunity to learn from Raoul Peck on a documentary that he
did here in New York.It was a
transcendent experience.It was an
essay film called Profit and Nothing But  set in Paris, Haiti and New
York.He had planned to go to many
different places in New York to express these different ideas.We’d go somewhere and nothing would be
happening with the light and he’d say, “We’re out of here.”I’d never experienced that before from
a documentary filmmaker.He had
been a taxi driver and he took over from the AP who was driving slowly through
New York traffic and he drove us up and down the city chasing the light.He went where the light was.Something changed in me from that
experience.He also has an
incredible compositional eye.We
had a lot of locked-off shots and he’d have me set something up, come and look
at it and he would just move the lens incrementally, just a smidge and that
would be it, so much better.It
became my quest to set up as many shots as possible to please his aesthetic,
shots Raoul would keep.Certain
things really matter to me from that experience; I was so inspired by him.
another seminal filming experience that inspired you in that same
way—to notice something you never paid much attention to, yet, somehow, now
it’s a signature way in which you shoot?
mentioned reflection, too.I was
shooting a film, Derrida , for Amy Kofman and Kirby Dick. Initially, we had all these great
conceptual discussions about how we were going to film things.One of the ideas was that we were only
going to film Derrida in reflection.Which proved to be impossible, among many things, although it’s great to
try and push yourself.I always
love having to stay too long because once you stay too long, you get
through all of the “stock” shots, the obvious things to do.You get to a place of slight boredom
because you think you’ve seen every possible angle from which to shoot. Then,
suddenly, you’re finding things.That was my experience in the courtroom in Deadline [co-directed with
Katy Chevigny, 2003].I started
shooting reflections in the table, filmed the clock seven times, people’s hands
in a moment of grief or agitation.You start to see differently because your eye gets tired of seeing the
same thing.You start to
search.You learn that there are
always more shots.
when you realize there are two directorial minds—that of the director and that
of the cinematographer.It’s a
distinct advantage, especially in documentary.
experience, everyone I work with in documentary, including the sound people,
thinks like a director.Your whole
team has to be thinking that way, respecting the director as the primary
person.When you don’t have that
in documentary, stuff just falls off the edge.That’s what it demands.It demands this team of people totally engaged in making the
ever lone-wolfed it—did your own directing, shooting, sound, with no one else
KJ:I did that
this past summer in Afghanistan and I have to say I kind of loved it.It’s something I hadn’t done in
years.This was more of a
scout situation and it was in a place where there’s a lot of danger so it wasn’t wise
to bring too many people.There
was a clinic opening and a lot of people were making speeches.If I’d have been there with a director,
I might have felt obligated to “cover” the scene, the crowd watching, the
people speaking.I was perfectly
disinterested in that but what was amazing was that every person there was
completely stressed, everyone was
worrying their prayer beads, all in a state of deep agitation.I felt a lot of that in Afghanistan,
people are worried, stuff is churning.I spent the entire opening of this clinic just filming people’s
hands.It’s gorgeous footage; I
have no idea what I’ll do with it. But, to me, it said a lot about the
emotional state of these people. Instead of that being a cut-away in a sequence in a scene of the
opening of that clinic, because I was by myself, I filmed what I wanted to.
But I do feel like I have relationships with directors where
I can say to them that I know which shots are going to give us what we need in
terms of capturing the emotional temperature of a situation. I ask them to allow me to
do my thing.I am comfortable
taking the initiative if I see something like that. But to not even have to discuss it was really fun.One thing I did find difficult working by
myself was not having a producer.Having to decide where to stay, where to find food, all the logistical
stuff you take for granted when a good producer is just taking care of all
that—I missed that very much [laughs].Half the time I’m shooting, I’m completely disoriented, since I’m so
present in the action around me.
kinds of stories haven’t you had an opportunity to explore, thus far?
interested in having the time and space to tell really complex stories.
what way?The stories you’ve told
have a complexity to them.
KJ:I feel like
something like The Oath has the kind of complexity I mean.I feel like we’re in a time where a lot
of “issue” documentaries are supported and expected.I’m supportive of that kind of work, certainly, but they
trap you in certain ways.They
might allow you to go into structural complexity, but not necessarily human
complexity.It’s sometimes too much
to get in, somehow.Where I’m
headed right now is that I’m feeling like I have a couple of ideas and a couple
of places I want to be where I can tell those complex stories.One of the things that I admire about
The Oath is that it manages to function on a complex level both in a human way
and in a political way, addressing something that’s really important to us
all.You have to take the time to
make the choices you’re making.To
do most things well it takes years of commitment, to not get sidetracked by
things that are less critical.There are a lot of critical things to think and talk about right
now.Finding the way at them is
One of the things that interested me about my time in
Afghanistan—and I don’t quite know what to do with this yet—was my interest in
photography and filming in Afghanistan.There are all kinds of restrictions on who can be filmed and who
cannot.There’s an amazing group of
female videographers who film weddings.The wedding parties are all single-sex and women dress completely
differently than they dress out in the street. It becomes illicit material that
everyone wants to look at and it can be dangerous, as well, if the video images of women dancing get outside the family and passed from cell phone to cell phone, for instance.Women
can get into trouble.That’s
fascinating to me, what can be photographed, what can’t be; there’s a lot to
explore there.This entire history
of imagery is hidden or purposely destroyed.I saw a lot of interesting stuff there and there would be
something interesting to make there, although right now, I don’t know how or
what it would be.I can get very conceptual
like that and realize, that’s not a movie!
could be.It’s always captivating
to discover narratives hidden in these types of “archaeological finds.”I like it when people make up stories
on evidence left behind where not much is explained anyway.There’s an archive, but of what we
don’t know.The baseline of the
story is rooted in reality.I
think you’ve earned your creative stripes to try on something like that if you
feel like it.
glad to hear you think I’m entitled to that [laughter]. I’m
definitely interested in doing work that’s formally sophisticated and
emotionally true and is complex.I’m trying to find ways in which I can do that with other people or on
my own.I realize now that takes
time and strong choices about subject matter and intense commitment.Again, I think of the work Laura does
and her commitment to the material on a number of levels.
there also needs to be a willingness, I guess, to be in that tortuous phase
where you’re really lost.Where
you do say, I don’t have a movie.
don’t feel that way, you’re probably not making a movie, especially a
nonfiction one.It’s in those
moments, I think, where the work of discovery is being done.It certainly creates anxiety for me as
a director, but as a cameraperson, I really like being in that place where I’m
something interesting going on, you just have to find out where it is.
making work these days that really excites you?
gorgeous.They really reached a
creative pinnacle with this film.It took them many years to get there.It’s filled with so many incredible moments.
much happening on so many levels—it’s visually stunning and they tap right into
the dreams of those boys.
I can watch that movie with Gini or Judy or Wellington and we all know what it takes.You see that film and respect it for what it represents
which is the complexity of that relationship between those subjects and the
filmmakers. They were living with
them for months and negotiating their involvement with them day by day.That’s a high emotional risk, such
difficult terrain to journey through. Being in those kinds of situations for a long period of
time is a big deal.And in seeing
Duret’s film, I knew how many levels on which those filmmakers were
operating.It’s such an exciting
thing to see.You don’t look at a film like that and just take it in as
something stylistic.No.It is an approach, it’s time spent,
it’s understanding how a camera works, understanding how a story works.The choice of filming two little boys
who can talk to one another—all those things speak to a lot of experience.You see it all there.That’s the kind of thing to which I’m
embarrassed to say this out loud, but I call it love.It sounds kind of dopey to say that, but that’s what you feel
when you watch a film like that.It doesn’t speak well of my critical chops but that’s what it is and I
twist myself around trying to find a more academic word for it.It’s the energy created from the
people behind the camera and the people in front of it that supersedes circumstance; all have a hand in creating
something utterly unique and singular and I don’t understand how that cannot be
a thrill.You feel it in your
KJ:Absolutely.Listen, some of
the situations that these people are in, the subjects of our films, are egregiously
horrible.And they’re still human
beings who are funny, who have hope, who are open. Truly, we have to honor
them.Filmmaking becomes a form of
honoring people, honoring the tradition of filmmaking, as well, stretching that
far, and further.It’s a mutual
gift documenting the truth that happens between director and subject.Laura did that with Abu Jandal.She surprised him.
such a bad thing to sometimes be underestimated. Low expectations give you a
lot of leeway, a distinct advantage [laughter].
sometimes you need to own up, too, and show right away that you’re a high-level
player.A really great example for that, to me, was St. Claire Bourne, someone I miss terribly.Saint did not let anyone, I mean
anyone, sleep on the fact that he didn’t have a sharper question, was searching
for a better answer.He was always
on, always bringing up the level of expectation for everyone. He wouldn't let an interview subject off the hook. That’s especially important in interviews.
especially when you have agendas which are in opposition to one another.It is the filmmaker’s responsibility to
weigh that, not the interviewee’s.
KJ: Yes, if
you let someone sleepwalk through an interview, they will.It’s our job to get at it.I know I’ve said this a couple of times
in the course of this conversation, but sound people are so underestimated in
the documentary world.I have
these incredible conversations with the sound people I work with.They are the people listening the
most.It doesn’t happen very
often, though, that the director is turning to them for input into what’s
happening.One of the things I try to ask of a director with whom I’m working, if he or she is okay with it, is
to give both me and the sound person an opportunity to ask a question at the
end of an interview. The director is caught up in the interview and we’re
there the entire time watching and listening.It can be tricky because sometimes it is inappropriate to ask and
the crew needs to stay out.But
most of the time when this is allowed to happen and the director is willing to
give it a shot, there will come Wellington or Judy, or whoever has been recording,
with a question that sends it out of the ballpark, the question that nails the
interview.I like to set up a
dynamic where that kind of thing is possible, reminding everyone in the room that we’re all filmmakers
together. [Soundman, Wellington Bowler, pictured.]
recall a particularly profound moment while filming that shifted your molecules
around, made you look at the world a bit more openly, perhaps, than you had
KJ:I can say
I’ve had many, many of those moments.I can think of a lot of extremely
emotional experiences, particularly interviews, as we were talking about.The experience that always comes to
mind, however, is that of shooting Derrida (1930 - 2004).Basically, he was very ambivalent about us filming him.He’d constantly cancel shoots.One day, he’d kind of had it and was in
the mood to call everything off.He
said he just couldn’t have all of the distraction going on; he needed to get
things done.He just needed to be
there in his house.He told us
that if it was just me who stayed and I didn’t say a word all day, we could stay there with
I was incredibly intimidated, very respectful of who he
was.He made you feel as if your
speech was so superfluous; he thought people talked too much, like so many of my words were superfluous because he used words so carefully.He was so precise and rigorous.So I was left in Derrida’s house and I
vowed not to talk all day and went into this place where I just moved around
and filmed him doing what he was doing.I opened the door, went out into the backyard, filmed him from outside
when I got too much of being around him [laughs].I just kept moving around and doing my thing in complete
silence.It was quite liberating.I’m obviously quite a
I wanted to prove to him that I was smart.That mattered to me, you know, that
Derrida should know that the cameraperson wasn’t dumb.To have him tell me what he needed from
me, which was utter silence and for my presence to allow everything to happen
for him, was revelatory.
I’m currently working with a filmmaker named Kathy Leichter
on a personal documentary about her mother’s suicide [Motherland].We’ve been working on it for a long time and it’s usually
just her and me in the room.She’s
let me know that, filming with me, she feels like she can display any type of
emotion—even intense anger—and it’s okay.I feel like I learned I had that ability that day with Derrida.Kathy says she can feel it, that she
can feel from me that it’s okay.People always have the right, after the fact, to request that something not be used in a film. But if there is trust established, it allows the subject emotional freedom. Kathy says she's actually willingly gone to very dark and difficult places because she feels like she's safe to do that with me. I’m not sure I’d know how to let myself emotionally go to certain points
with someone standing by.It was
thrilling to me to see someone allow herself to do that.
Can I ask you a question?Do you feel, in general, excited about what’s happening
formally in documentaries right now?
SIM:For the most part, I do.It’s a way of telling stories I’ve been
fascinated by for a long time, even before I became a maker or started
celebrating in rapturous prose all the incredible work I see. I want to
concentrate on people pushing the form in exciting ways, not the horror stories of elusive funding and how hard it
is to make films and how we can monetize all this in some way. I’m bored by all that. I see too many instances where people make their films on their
own terms using money they scraped together somewhere and made a beautiful,
personal piece of work.
It’s interesting that in this particular form—in most
creative endeavors, but particularly this one where you are investing years and
years of your precious life and it’s hard to keep the mechanism going, and
there’s so much mystery involved!—well, the most extraordinary people are drawn
to do this.Documentary filmmakers
are the most fascinating people to be around, they just are, mostly because the best ones tend not to be filmmakers. They're coming at cinema from another vantage point; they've been out in the world and lived a bit, traveled, learned languages. So yes, I have hope that the work of making nonfiction cinema is just
going to get better and better and better if my reading of the pulse and vigor
of this particular community here in New York is anything to go by.The aesthetic imperatives are becoming
something important to acknowledge and that’s a big leap, I think, and an important one.
can take hope, on a certain level, is that there are many films that do exist
where the craft is so strong, it cannot be denied.I think we just have to keep speaking publicly, indulging in active discourse and honing our unique sensibilities. But that
aesthetic imperative should be more of a baseline. I care about social justice as much as
the next person; I’ve spent my entire adult life filming stories that push that
agenda, right?But we have to be
careful about these alliances we make that can, if we’re not careful, create
literalism, reduce craft.I’ve
seen it happen.A lot more of the
funding is there for that than it is for other kinds of films.
I try to save certain periods or
opportunities where I can work for free or for very little money and have
blocks of time where I earn some money so I can take on these kinds of projects
that I know are never going to get funded.I worked on Kathy’s film for years because I knew it
wouldn’t be getting into any funding loop.Or something like Lisa Collins’ film about the Oscar Micheaux festival
in South Dakota [Festival of the Unconquered, 2004, currently in post-production].She can’t take
that project to the Good Pitch, or whatever.And it’s the most complex film about race there is. It’s about this
crazy town in South Dakota where they hold a festival and celebration of Oscar
Micheaux because he lived there for a short period of time.There are Indians coming from the
reservation, old ladies talking about race problems in Denver—it’s a wild film,
the funniest and most complex discussion about race you’ll see.That doesn’t fit a category; there’s no
NGO for that.And did I mention
definitely need to be more comedic docs.
KJ:I need to make more of
them, too.The important thing is
to allow for the surprises that happen in a story.A story isn’t necessarily “character-driven” if its main
protagonist is chosen because he or she fits in a slot that serves the
explication of the issue.And we
don’t let people talk and tell their own story outside of the context of
illustrating a problem, especially if they’re “problematic” people like
criminals or terrorists.It’s
always got to be in this context of explaining the political issues
involved when, in fact, it could
just be the weirdness of a certain person [laughs] and how they got to this
fascinating.There should be a
space for films like that to be supported.Those kinds of things are very hard to predict in terms of
all live for the going-down-the-rabbit-hole episodes of our lives and that’s
always what it is.
KJ:It's so important that we be surprised by what we find.
My beautiful Iranian friend, Neda Sarmast (with whom I've had many surreal experiences in Dubai), sends word that she has started a new online destination for cross-cultural discourse, debate and understanding. Once you log onto the site, you can create your own group, as well as join in on the larger chats. Her home base lives on Facebook here.
There's a lot of interesting stuff to dive into. You can choose to visit Iran and talk about Persian culture, or click the USA button for discussions on American culture. There are also existing communities for faith-based cultures, Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist, with more to be added soon. On Neda's blog, you can read more about who she is, her personal journey, and why she decided to start this venture. Here's the link.
Well, the general thing I can say after my first SXSW experience is that I feel like I've gone through a blender. I am, undoubtedly, spoiled by kinder, gentler nonfiction festivals, with manageable programs, a highly-navigable experience (meaning convenient to get from place to place, preferably on foot or plenty of free transportation to get a visitor from hotel to films, parties, etc.), and easy access to everything, especially film screenings. (Pictured, the ultracool Highball--restaurant, bowling alley, karaoke lounge--modeled on the spot in the Coen brothers' The Big Lebowski, adjacent to the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar, a main festival venue.)
I would say that I spent about fifty percent of my time at this festival waiting on line. For coffee, for food, for films, for parties, for rides, everything. Even as a first-timer, I knew this was due to growing pains. The staff and volunteers were trying their valiant best to accommodate the floods of people at their festival, and I mean floods. I almost fainted when I saw the line at registration which was about a mile long.
In her intros to films, festival producer, Janet Pierson, after the event had kicked off in earnest, took to asking audiences if people were having trouble getting into films. After hearing a resounding yes!, she courteously suggested people make an alternate plan and to really make space for line-standing time into their schedules. Not all of the cinemas suffered from this glut, but the smaller main venues certainly did. "A good problem to have," as Pierson said, but hard going when one is trying to see as many films as possible every day. After desperate suggestions from guests that have been attending for a while to provide a shuttle service (which they charged for), there were only two vans making the main loop, which meant waits of up to 30-45 minutes to get to another spot in town. The only other option was a taxi ride and a few of those a day really add up and make your pocketbook empty out pretty damn fast.
Anyway, enough bitching, it was fun and fabulous and a great new experience. With enough sunshine, margaritas, great Tex Mex food, loads of parties, friendly, hospitable Austin-ites, music pouring out of every orifice on 6th Street, and lots of lovely programming comrades on tap, it wasn't half bad. I'm sure they'll be better prepared for next year and I hope they get the same kinds of crowds they did this year. It was heart-warming, I tell you, to see lines snaking around the corner for films nobody knew anything about except from a description in a catalog or on the web site. A personal thanks to new programmer, Jim Kolmar, (also film conference coordinator and web content), a man with great taste, for including The Living Room of the Nation in the SX Global section for its North American premiere.
I, admittedly, didn't see as much as I had planned due to above-described circumstances, but I tried my best. And as at most festivals, I did see one film, in particular, that no one's ever heard of and that played exactly once at the smallest venue there (thanks, Mark Rosenberg)--and it's my fave, oddball that I apparently am. I also attended panels and conferences, the trade show, etc., so I wasn't a total slacker. Although I did spend a lot of time in the sun drinking beer and munching on chips and salsa. I've been living in Finland; I was overdue for some sol. So, without further ado, a few cinematic things worth mentioning:
Futurestates: ITVS commissioned eleven filmmakers to make short narrative films that examine current events by extrapolating them into the future. SXSW world premiered six of them, including films by Greg Pak, Garret Williams, Ramin Bahrani, Tze Chun, Aldo Velasco and Annie Howell. Standouts were Bahrani's Plastic Bag with Werner Herzog as the rapturous, yet ultimately disenchanted, title hero; Tze Chun's Silver Sling about a struggling career surrogate--a woman who is hired to produce babies for high-ranking female workers of a corporation--who has to decide to give away yet another child or keep it, her last chance at motherhood; and Annie Howell's Tio & Marco, about a pregnant border patrol agent who finds an illegal immigrant child hiding in her house. See more Season 1 selections here.
Tiny Furniture: This was the only film I manged to see in the narrative competition of eight films. It also walked away with the jury prize at Tuesday night's ceremonies. As well, its creator was bestowed with Chicken & Egg Pictures' Emergent Narrative Director award. There is no doubt that 23-year-old filmmaker, Lena Dunham (fellow Hammer to Nail contributing writer) has a very bright future. This accomplished feature which Dunham wrote, directed and stars in, had one of those crazy lines where not one pass holder got in since the badge holder line was so long. Meaning the audience consisted mostly of industry supporters and friends, so there was a lot of excitement. The story is about the recently college-graduated, heartbroken and very confused Aura, played by Dunham, returning to the nest and trying valiantly to live comfortably in the (very antiseptic) family homestead, a giant loft in Tribeca peopled only by her mother, Siri (played by Dunham's real mom, renowned photographer, Laurie Simmons in a fine performance) and her sister, Nadine (played by Dunham's real sibling, Grace). Taking a dead-end job as a day hostess in a small restaurant around the corner from where she lives, she meets and courts two ne'er do wells, Jed (played by filmmaker, Alex Karpovsky in a sly, subtle performance) who moves into her house and refuses to touch her, and Keith (David Call who gives a superb and, oddly, endearing performance) who fucks her in a huge pipe in a playground. Dunham creates precocious characters who interact with one another in that numb, detached way people do when all, to a person, are disaffected and lost in some way, their own pain or preoccupations making them only partway "there" for their loved ones. Or they live a life completely in an alternate universe, like that of her "best friend" since childhood, Charlotte, played by the luminously beautiful and very quirky, Jemima Kirke, in the film's most charming performance. Dunham has the writing chops for good television and the film has a patina that isn't really conducive to dark and depressing themes. This left me somewhat emotionally detached, but perhaps I could also say that this is possibly the film's strongest point. Like Woody Allen, she can easily find humor in painful angst and presents her plump, misshapen body and hangdog expression to great affect. The scene where she sits on a deflating mattress staring off into the middle distance says it all. You do want to cuddle her and tell her everything will be all right. But you also want to slap her pretty hard. Jody Lee Lipes steps in as DP and does his usual glorious work--he shot the whole film on a still camera. This might be one of those festival breakout films that will do decent box office given the right marketing spin. I just hope it doesn't take a bloody year or more--get it out in theaters this summer would be my recommendation. It's a great seasonal film and millions of graduating college seniors will find the movie that speaks directly to them.
With extraordinary expediency and ambition, this event, which takes place in Warsaw, Poland May 7 - 16, has become a destination festival in just seven years, with intrepid leadership by the inexhaustible, Artur Liebhart. With an extraordinary program of the best of nonfiction cinema from around the world, the Planete Doc Review Film Festival brings world-class films to a country with many top festivals, including the Krakow Film Festival, which will be celebrating its jubilee--fifty years!--just a couple of weeks after Planete, May 31 - June 6. Many filmmaker friends have told me that Planete Doc is in their top five favorite festivals to attend.
This year offers an extraordinary array of hefty filmmaking talent. First up will be Werner Herzog's three-hour master class for professionals taking place Saturday, May 8th at 3:00 p.m. in the Kinoteka cinema, hosted by Polish arts and culture critic extraordinaire, Michal Chacinski. And me. (Yes. Me. It's published on the website if you don't believe me. This is how I finally realized this might really be true, as well.) Warsaw audiences will have a chance to meet with the director on May 8th and 9th after the screenings of his films. A DVD box set in the Planete Doc Review series, with fifteen of Herzog's documentary films and a book--a collection of essays on his cinematic art published in the Krytyka Polityczna Reader--will be published as supplements to Herzog's master class.
Last year, the fest had a very popular Animadoc film section devoted to documentary animation. This year, another special guest will be Martin Strange Hansen from Denmark, winner of the 2003 Oscar for his short narrative, This Charming Man. Strange Hansen, a pioneer in the use of new media, will share his experience and expertise in a lecture on May 9th. The "Pinly and Flau" film series will be screened beforehand. These 3-minute-long animations for mobile phones were created on the basis of one hundred intimate stories from the lives of teenagers.
Friday, the 14th, will bring a three-hour workshop with the French filmmaker, Nicolas Philibert whose To Be and To Have was honored with the European Film Prize in 2002. His latest film, Nenette, about a 40-year-old orangutan, played at this year's Berlinale. The festival will also screen several of his films.
Lastly (but not leastly!), Saturday the 15th, Michal Chacinski and Jean Perret, the director of the Visions du Réel festival in Nyon, France, will host a talk with Alan Berliner, renowned American filmmaker, photographer and video artist, three-time winner of the Emmy Award, and recipient of the 1997 Film Critics' Award at the Berlinale. Berliner teaches a course entitled "Experiments in Time, Light and Movement" at the New School in New York. All five of his wonderful films will be screened at the fest.
Quite the lineup, jestem prawo? (I don't really speak Polish.)
The full program of the 7th edition will be published on the 5th of April and the program of workshops and panel discussions will be announced later this month. During the first weekend of the fest, films will be screened in twenty cinemas in Poland on the same day at the same time; select films will be available by streaming straight to screening rooms around the country. At ten of those locations, there will be panel discussions after the screening of Erik Gandini's award-winning, Videocracy. Stay tuned for more news.
Programmer, Hussain Currimbhoy, sends word that you (wherever you happen to be in the world) are hereby invited to enter your new films for this year's Doc/Fest at Sheffield, UK--shorts, features and in-betweens. Last year's Youth Jury, Special Mention and Innovation Award winners were all chosen from the 1400 submissions received last year.
This year, the fest will be accepting film submissions on DVD and, for the first time, via online platforms like Vimeo and Daily Motion. Special strands in the program include music, sports, LGBT, and arts docs, as well as the "Anti-Docs" category (you figure out what that's supposed to be). As well, the programmers are especially on the lookout for innovative cross-platform nonfiction projects.
Plenty of prizes and competitions to enter. Get the full skinny on the website and keep checking back here for updates in the next couple hundred days. This is a significant marketplace, growing in importance every year--don't miss this essential destination.
The Spring 2010 issue of Documentary magazine, the publication of the International Documentary Association, focuses on festivals and film distribution--two things of which I know a thing or two.
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.
I'm really tired, but show no signs of flagging. I just experienced three festivals in a row (two of them ginormous), each in a different capacity (curator, film rep, and journalist, respectively) and I'm about to do the re-entry thing back to NYC with a gazillion things going on there, as well.
But I haven't posted here in a while and, while I wish blogging didn't require as much energy and discipline as it does, I feel a bit of remorse when I haven't visited my own (virtual) homestead, like I've left a sulky spouse at home while I'm out gallivanting, and she's getting sick of being ignored, once again the first to be neglected when something else comes along that needs my attention. This is a picture of me taken in Helsinki at the DocPoint festival way back in January by filmmaker, Mike Palmieri, at the opening night party and, I must say, I look pretty happy. Complacent one could even say, a girl living the life she wants to live, common sense and practicality be damned. I've met so many cool people from all over the world, and had many wonderful experiences, worked my fanny off, and partied like a frat boy. Not bad for a middle-aged broad with ever-burgeoning ambitions. I also landed one hell of a gig in another foreign land which I will wax rhapsodic about soon.
So in the midst of writing my wrap-up posts from the 60th Berlinale Film Festival for Hammer to Nail, my SIM siren called me over and said, "Write on me, you big brute." Be back very soon with lots of news out of New York, more (domestic) travels and adventures, and a few choice essays on films I've seen recently that I love, although HTN will get the lion's share of those since more people pay attention to me over there for some reason.
I will miss Helsinki very much--it's been a great home for a while. Back to the cockroaches and rats and the sound of thundering garbage trucks gallivanting in the streets at 4:00 a.m. Can't wait.
Today begins the 60th iteration of this most impressive of fests. I leave Helsinki tomorrow for Berlin and will be covering the event for Hammer to Nail. Am I a bit overwhelmed at the prospect? Yes. But also very excited.
Throughout the following ten days, the festival will present films from around the world in a truly staggering program. The fest officially opens tonight with the world premiere of Wang Quan'an's Tuan Yuan (Apart Together) in the Berlinale Palast. The film program is divided into seven sections: Competition (major international films made for the big screen), Panorama (independent and art-house cinema with a deeply personal point-of-view), Forum (considered to be the most experimental section, offering a chance to discover highly original, provocative pieces), Generation (cinema aimed at young audiences), Perspektive Deutsches Kino (thematic and stylistic trends in German cinema), Berlinale Shorts and Retrospective (rediscovered classics in a program run and curated by the Filmmuseum Berlin - German Cinematheque). I'm happy to say that documentaries have now moved into areas once dominated by narratives and documentary film is becoming increasingly important in the Panorama and Forum sections, according to the festival directors. There are also numerous lectures and special presentations, the Berlinale Talent Campus, the European Film Market, the Berlinale Co-Production Market and the World Cinema Fund. Dizzying. So, on the advice of many, I will be exploring as many different sections, genres and events as possible and also taking in the city of Berlin, itself, since I'm a first-time visitor there.
The Panorama section, directed by Wieland Speck, will prove to be the most interesting for those of us who want to find and celebrate pieces of cinema that toy with boundaries between fiction and reality. The Generation program, in particular, highlights this effort to showcase how documentary and fiction, fantasy and reality transcend storytelling boundaries and genre. You can read an interview with programmers, Maryanne Redpath and Florian Weghorn, here.
As well, the Berlinale Shorts program, with 30 films, also sheds the conventional language of film with a diversity of forms and mixed media to tell short-form stories in fresh ways. You can read what section curator, Maike Mia Höhne, has to say about this year's program here.
The Berlinale Forum celebrates its 40th year and its retrospective is, well, spectacular. Retrospective was curated by film critic, David Thomson, and section head, Rainer Rother, says that, "Worldwide, he [Thomson] is considered to be one of the most respected film critics, not only among cinephile readers, but also amongst his fellow critics. . . . We knew that he was up to the task and would still make unique decisions."
More on SIM and HTN from Berlin soon. If anyone out there has any suggestions for me on not-to-be-missed films, I welcome that, too.
I know there's still the Berlinale to experience next week, but I just booked my MO-X airport shuttle from St. Louis to Columbia and am very excited to be attending my third True/False Fest in a row. This year's the 7th iteration and they have a stellar new website up, as usual, with the fab program on view; you can take a look here. (That's me and director, Havana Marking director of Afghan Star, from last year's fest, taken by the lovely Ingrid Kopp.)
In 2007, T/F started their SWAMI Program to mentor new nonfiction filmmakers. Select filmmakers meet with industry professionals to get advice on everything that happens after they finish their final cut. The 2010 program will be sponsored by Chicken and Egg Pictures and The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The seven directors chosen this year are Aaron Schock, Circo; Andy Wolff and Stefanie Brockhaus, The Other Side of Life; Charlotte Glynn, Rachel Is; Fatima Geza Abdollahyan, Kick in Iran; Nuria Ibáñez, The Tightrope; and Pippa Robinson, The British in Bed.
The seven SWAMIs to guide these artists will be Andrea Meditch, creative consultant and exec producer of Oscar winner for Best Feature Doc, Man on Wire, and Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World; Esther Robinson, director of A Walk Into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory, and former director of film/video and performing arts for The Creative Capital Foundation; Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, producers/directors of A Lion in the House and The Last Truck: Closing of a G.M. Plant; Lisa Heller, VP of original programming at HBO; Sandi Dubowski, director of Trembling Before G-d and producer of A Jihad for Love and Budrus, and grassroots distribution guru extraordinaire; and, Yance Ford, series producer and lead programmer for PBS' P.O.V. series. Participation in the program is by invitation only and is open solely to first-time filmmakers.
This year's True Vision Award recipient will be Laura Poitras. The award is given annually to a filmmaker whose work shows "a dedication to the creative advancement of the art of nonfiction filmmaking," and Poitras certainly fits the bill perfectly. Both My Country, My Country and The Oath will be shown as part of the program. (The Oath is at Berlin, as well.) With just three completed films (these two, plus Flag Wars, which premiered on P.O.V. in 2003 and was co-directed with Linda Goode Bryant), Poitras has already garnered a Peabody, an Emmy, and an Oscar nomination, along with awards at the SXSW, Full Frame and Sundance festivals.
Vadim Jendreyko’s gorgeously shot documentary feature, we meet the indomitable
85-year-old Svetlana Geier, a woman considered to be the greatest translator of
Russian literature into German. She is a woman acutely aware of the echoes and
reflections that bounce back to us when we really see, when we really listen,
when we really absorb what surrounds us.And that the exact right words, somehow, contain the ability to say
something wordlessly.“I believe
that each spiritual experience leads us to treat one another better, to not
strike others dead.Quite
elementary. And I believe that language is a very effective remedy.”
meet her, she has just completed new translations of 19th-century
literary genius Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s five great novels, the “elephants” of the
title:Crime and Punishment, The
Idiot, The Devils, A Raw Youth, The Brothers Karamasov. Before Geier came
along, the tome known as Crime and Punishment was known in German as
"Guilt and Atonement,” and the different emphasis takes on extra
significance as we gradually learn details of Geier's complex biography. The heft of her life is just as substantive, just as heavy with hidden detail, as each of these seminal literary works.
Her life is ordered,
peaceful, purposeful in every way, from the type and variety of vegetables she buys at the town
market (everything she cooks is made from scratch) to the way she irons her handmade linens, explaining to Jendreyko that
the fabric being caressed under her hands, the warp and weave of each thread,
creates a distinct texture and could only have been made in this particular way by its maker; the soft, flowing, beautiful piece of cloth
wouldn’t be able to exist without each and every thread laid together just so. There is a wonderful sensuality to her life that is reflected in Jendreyko's filmmaking, a luxurious sense of time passing, each moment an inspired one when life can change forever because of a gesture, a glance, a lifting of the eyes. Geier has extraordinary eyes and a riveting presence. She constantly reminds us that there is enough beauty in the world if you can just see beyond your own circumscribed view. She offers Jendreyko, a consummate listener himself, a multitude of intelligent reflections and he takes them in in the spirit in which they're given, always gently probing, questioning, building a quiet maelstrom of emotion, never afraid to meet her challenging gaze. It's an exciting collaboration and she grows more and more beautiful before his lens. I'm hard pressed to remember the last time a woman in her 80s was represented so in film.
razor sharp, a fierce light emanating from laser-beam blue eyes, Geier is
introduced in her home office where she continues her meticulous translation
work, aided, in scenes loaded with droll humor, by collaborators who
are themselves exacting and precise in everything they do, one of whom is a
musician who is tasked with reading her translations to her out loud.The rhythm of language and the exact
right word are held to impossible standards, argued over vociferously, he always
valiantly conceding to her final decision. She notices when things are “ridiculously
ugly” and she is determined that language, above all else, “works.” Punkt.
Ukraine, Geier's teenage precocity and facility with languages brought her to
the attention of the country's Nazi occupiers during World War II. Some fellow
countrymen saw the Germans as saviors after the excesses of Soviet Communism.
While she doesn't apologize for her youthful collaboration with the fascists--and is clearly still bereft when recounting the massacre at Babi Yar,
where one of her closest friends was killed—it’s telling that she left her
homeland for good when the Germans were driven out in 1943. She describes her
life's work as repaying her "enormous debt to Germany."
“Right from the start, it is clear to Dostoyesvsky that the most important
characteristic of a human being is his need for freedom.And this freedom expresses itself in self-determination. One does what
one wants to do.And our intelligence
plays a fatal role here because our reason constantly offers us reasons, when
we want to justify something.We
can offer a reason for anything, in fact.. . . Here, Dostoyevsky is in sharp contrast to all the potentates of
this world.And for him, there is
no doubt: there is no end that could ever justify a wrong means.”
her son suffers a serious head injury and is confined to hospital, this sets
off memories of her ill father whom she cared for in Russia after he was
released from one of Stalin’s death camps and she drops everything to care for
him.This also unleashes an
impulse to return to Ukraine, a place she has not returned since she left as a young girl. When we
enter Kiev on the train, we become aware of how and why beauty and function
have become so vital to her existence.The light in her eyes, the aura around her, dims a bit as she looks out
the window of the train.She tells
her granddaughter, at one point, that the Russian and German languages are
incompatible while the filmmaker slyly
illustrates this by filming the gauge change for the trains that will travel
The film interweaves the
story of Geier’s life during this journey, her chosen dedicated vocation to
literature, and the secrets—some very dark and painful—of this inexhaustibly
hard-working and exacting woman who possesses a love of language that outshines
everything else. “One cannot exhaust an excellent text, and that is probably
the sign of the most superb quality.”In his exceedingly intimate portrait, Jendreyko shows us a human being
living an inexhaustible life, a life that celebrates the beauty of each small moment and, more importantly, the spaces between them.
Another week, another fest, one could get used to this. The Göteburg International Film Festival, January 29 - February 8, is the biggest film festival in Scandinavia and one of the biggest audience festivals in the world. The program is chalk-full of the best of international cinema, both fiction and non. You can take a look at the astoundingly diverse program here. Highlights for me will be the chance to see new films from Fatih Akin, Nanna Frank Møller, and Sally Potter. Potter will also be conducting a master class there this Friday.
However, the biggest highlight of all will be representing the international début of Nicole Opper's first feature doc, Off and Running. As I write, the film and its makers, just experienced an amazing, sold-out opening weekend at the IFC Center in New York. The week-long engagement ends tomorrow; however, the film will be held over at the theater with two screenings a day, at least for another week. This Thursday's the night to go, though, if you want to meet the director (at the 8:05 show) and then join co-hosts IFP, Shooting People, FILMMAKER Magazine and Chicken & Egg Pictures for a party afterward at the Dove Parlour. Buy your tickets here.
The film will have three screenings at the GIFF, one Thursday night, one Friday late afternoon, and one late Saturday night. I'm very honored to be able to represent one of the very few American documentaries exhibiting there, plucked right out of the Tribeca festival last year at its premiere by one of the programmers in Sweden.
I still owe my millions of readers some reviews of some really stellar films I got to see at DocPoint, so that's to come. And, of course, impressions from Göteburg to come soon, as well.
Hello from snowy, snowy Finland. It has been lightly snowing now for almost two days straight and it is truly a winter wonderland here. Hard as hell to get around and, unfortunately, audience attendance for screenings took a bit of a dip yesterday because of it, but the weekend promises to be full of fun things to do and see and the weather will be a bit warmer.
Personally, my afternoon today will be spent in one of the oldest saunas in the city, followed by a "big, noisy dinner" hosted by our dear friends at Mouka Filmi Oy at Ravintola Martta's, run by the Pesunkestävä martta, a Finnish home economics organization founded in 1899 (wow!) to promote the quality and standard of life in the home. Their ethos: to enhance the use of nutritious food, take care of the home and garden kitchens, and help families manage their household budgets. And after that healthy, eco-friendly meal, everyone will move to Café Moskva to drink vodka. Also tonight, the American Ambassador to Finland, Bruce Oreck and his wife, Cody, will host a small party at a local restaurant. At 9:00 p.m., Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher will have their national premiere of October Country (débuting their new 35mm answer print) at the Maxim theater.
Also on tap tomorrow, we go international: DocPoint Tallinn in Estonia starts today and goes through Sunday. In Helsinki, films start at 1:00 p.m., including Nicolas Philibert's Louvre City at the Maxim 1, Frederick Wiseman's La Danse--The Paris Ballet Opera at the Maxim 2, Lucy Gaffy's Century Witness and Vadim Jendreyko's The Woman With the 5 Elephants, Michael Madsen's Into Eternity, and Renzo Martens' Episode 3--Enjoy Poverty all at the Kiasma, José Padilha's Garapa at the BioRex, another repeat performance of Miesten Vuoro (Steam of Life), the opening night film, at 7:00 p.m. at the Bristol (don't miss it!), Nicolas Philibert's classic To Be and To Have at the Maxim 1, more selections from Robert Flaherty at the Orion, and Peter Liechti's challenging The Sound of Insects: Record of a Mummy at 9:30 p.m. at the Bristol. All of the visiting American filmmakers and I are taking a trip to Tallinn, a two-and-a-half-hour ferry ride across the sea, to be hosted there by the festival staff and Kimberly Reed will be screening Prodigal Sons at 6:00 p.m. at the KUMU, Art Museum of Estonia. Field trip!
Sunday, the last day of the fest, brings many great films to catch and Philibert's Master Class from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. at the Media Centre Lume (and who wouldn't want to look at that smile for six hours?). Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith's The Most Dangerous Man in America plays at the BioRex (and plays in Tallinn this day, as well), October Country has its second screening at 1:00 p.m. at the Maxim 1, Mehran Tamadon's Bassidji plays at the Ateneum, Visa Kolso-Kanttila's new film, Miehen Kuva, plays at the Bristol, Mads Brügger's brilliant Red Chapel plays at the BioRex and Lixin Fan's Last Train Home (which I'm very excited to see) plays at the BioRex, as well, at 9:00 p.m.
Due to a full schedule of events and hosting duties, reviews and other blogging delights will be a bit delayed until early next week, I'm pretty sure. Check the DocPoint web site for times and theaters and more news from Helsinki and Tallinn.
Mid-week, next week, I depart for the festival in Göteburg, Sweden to (very proudly) represent Nicole Opper's international début of Off and Running (opening TONIGHT IN NEW YORK CITY at the IFC Center). The filmmaker and her subject, and lots of other special guests, will be there for afternoon and evening screenings this weekend. You can read my newly-posted conversation with Nicole on Hammer to Nail here. Yes, I've been a busy girl. More news from Helsinki soon.
On tap Thursday, my picks for a don't-miss viewing opportunity. Well, lots:
The inaugural DocPoint Encounters program will take place in the morning and afternoon at the Atheneum. (I'll be there for the morning session of pitches.) Starting at 2:00 p.m., there is a free screening of Marcel Lozinski's classic Poste Restante at the Kiasma and there's a chance to take another look at what's coming out of the Finnish film schools with a screening of five fiction and nonfiction pieces at the Maxim 2. At 5:00 p.m., the Lozinski retrospective continues (with the director present) with five of his short works, and Darius Marder premieres Loot at the Bristol. I'll be conducting the Q&A with this whip-smart American filmmaker on the rise (still from film pictured). The tribute to Kiti Luostarinen continues at the Maxim 1 (her speech last night was charming, even though it was mostly in Finnish, and she recited a long poem she had written about the joys and vagaries of being a documentary filmmaker to a very appreciative audience at the opening ceremonies upon accepting her Lifetime Achievement Award). Erik Gandini's award-winning (and infuriating) Videocracy plays at the Maxim 2. Moana and Twenty-Four Dollar Island by Robert Flaherty plays at the Orion.
From 6:00 - 7:00 p.m. at Painobaari, Finnish filmmaker, Iris Olsson, will host American filmmakers, Samantha Buck and Kimberly Reed, at the nightly Meet the Filmmaker chats.
At 7:00 at the Bristol, Samantha Buck débuts her film, 21 Below (still from film, pictured), a particular favorite of DocPoint artistic director, Erkko Lyytinen's, with a Q&A to follow with Buck and co-creator and producer, Jenny Maguire, moderated by New York-based producer, Danielle DiGiacomo, currently community manager of the IFP. At 9:00 p.m., Kimberly Reed's Prodigal Sons plays at the Bristol followed by a Q&A with moi. This film is about to launch its national run all across the US at the end of February with Reed slated to appear on Oprah very soon--stay tuned! (We will have just come from a filmmaker dinner and sauna excursion on the island of Uunisaari, so forgive us if we're too relaxed.)
Friday the 29th: At 2:00 p.m., visit The Story Tent (free entry and they'll be there all afternoon) at the Kiasma and come contribute your story to the hundreds of voices already collected in this traveling installation. The Bristol will play Jukka Kärkkäinen's Matkalla Vanhuuteen, Tomorrow Was Yesterday (love this film!) and Arthur Franck and Oscar Fotstén's twelve-minute, Ruuhka. Kärkkäinen's brilliant The Living Room of the Nation opened the DocPoint fest last year and has had a very successful international festival run. At 5:30 p.m., Virpi Suutari premieres her latest, Auf Wiedersehen Finnland at the BioRex while Nicolas Philibert's Animals and More Animals plays at the Maxim 1 (with the director present). At 7:00, Philibert's Every Little Thing plays the Maxim 2 and Robert Flaherty's Man of Aran plays at the Orion. At the Maxim 1, Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher will be present for their first screening in Finland of October Country (still from film pictured). I'll be chatting with the filmmakers post-screening. They are set to open at the IFC Center in New York the 12th of February. If you miss this, another screening will take place Sunday afternoon at the same theater.
Up next, my thoughts on the exuberant and emotional opening night screening at the BioRex yesterday of Miesten Vuoro (Steam of Life), a film dedicated "to the men of Finland."
The 9th DocPoint fest starts the day after tomorrow, so I thought I'd share my picks of top films to see (in my humble opinion) for Helsinki-ans. Definitely try and catch the Finnish film student program right before the opening night film at the BioRex on Tuesday. Four selections will be screening at the Ateneum from 5:00 - 6:00 p.m. (There's another student program screening at the Maxim 2 at 2:00 p.m. on Thursday the 28th.)
At 6:30 p.m., the opening night film, Miesten Vuoro (Steam of Life) will screen after what I'm sure will prove to be a fresh (and weird) opening night ceremony, if it's anything like last year's--and I hope it is. Also this same evening, Robert Flaherty's Man of Aran will play at the Orion, the first of a week-long program of his films, Erik Gandini's Videocracy plays at the BioRex, and Topaz Adizes' Americana, one of the selections in the US program, will screen at the Maxim 1.
On Wednesday, don't miss Aho & Soldan Life Achievement Award recipient, Kiti Luostarinen's Sanokaa Mitä Näitte and Marcel Lozinski's How to Live (directors will be present). Simultaneously at the Maxim 2, Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly's The Way We Get By will exhibit for the first time in Finland. Unfortunately, Gaudet and Pullapilly were one of the few American feature film directors not able to come to Helsinki, but their film is not to be missed--it's gorgeous. Join me and filmmakers, Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher, for a discussion and program of American short films at the Kiasma at 7:00, or attend the 8:00 p.m. silent film concert at the BioRex with the Five Corners Quintet. (When we're done at 8:30 at Kiasma, I'm going to zip over there to catch the last part!) At 9:00, definitely go see Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith's superb The Most Dangerous Man in America, one of the strongest and most deeply moving documentaries on America I've seen in a while. Look for a review of this film soon on this blog (and in the pages of the next issue of DOX Magazine coming out in March). For New Yorkers, this will open at the Cinema Village on Friday. Don't miss it. (But also go see, and don't miss, Nicole Opper's Off and Running at the IFC Center that weekend, too!) Roberto Hernandez and Geoffrey Smith's pulse-pounding and artfully-told real-life thriller Presumed Guilty plays at the Maxim 1 this evening, as well. A plethora of cinematic riches.
Later this week, I will post my don't-miss list for the rest of the fest, a very packed remaining four days, including more from Flaherty and the Lozinskis, and masterclass guest, Nicolas Philibert (still from his Etre et Avoir (To Be and To Have), pictured above). I'm also hoping to make it to Tallinn, Estonia on Saturday for Kim Reed's screening there of Prodigal Sons (playing in Helsinki on Thursday at the Bristol at 9:15 p.m.)
On Thursday morning, I will be participating in the inaugural DocPoint Encounters that takes place at the Ateneum Hall the 28th and 29th. This is the launch of this festival's foray into a distribution, funding and networking project for Finnish nonfiction filmmakers. They're starting small with five Finnish projects, a unique opportunity for these filmmakers to present their works-in-progress to some of the top professionals in international documentary. (I did a whole lecture series on this stuff at the TaiK this past week and hope my students will come and see things in action. I urge all of you to introduce yourselves to these very important commissioning editors. Bring samples of your work. You can do it!) The aim, of course, is to increase knowledge and visibility of Finnish documentary films abroad (and they should have that exposure; superior work is made here). The five projects are From Next Door by Tuija Halttunen, Elokas Cooperative, Love is Enough by Mia Halme, Avanton Productions, Once I Dreamt of Life by Jukka Kärkkäinen of Mouka Filmi Oy, Reindeer Spotting by Joonas Neuvonen, Bronson Club, and Red Forest Hotel by Mika Koskinen. Special industry guests will include Claire Aguilar from ITVS, Peter Jäger from Autlook Filmsales (also here representing the excellent Enjoy Poverty: Episode 3 by Renzo Martens playing in the festival), Esther van Messel from First Hand Films, Greg Sanderson from BBC, and Anne-Laure Negrin from ARTE. Click here for more info and to see the rest of the Encounters program.
Tomorrow, my review of the Ellsberg film and more, stay tuned.
The Helsinki-based DocPoint festival will kick off this Saturday with a screening of Dreamland by Iceland's Thorfinnur Gudnason and Andri Snaer Magnason at the beautiful Maxim. (Photo: a nighttime game at the ice rink in my neighborhood of Kallio just north of the city center.)
The 9th iteration of the fest will take over the cinemas of Helsinki from the 26th to the 31st. This year, DocPoint will be celebrating the pioneers of Finnish documentary film, producers Aho & Soldan. This year marks the 85th anniversary of this company and in honoring the occasion, the festival will feature a major Aho & Soldan retrospective, curated in association with the National Audiovisual Archive. At the opening ceremonies Tuesday night, documentary film director Kiti Luostarinen will receive the Aho & Soldan Lifetime Achievement Award which comes with a 5,000€ prize sponsored by the Finnish Broadcasting Company.A pioneer in Finnish color photography, Claire Aho, will be on hand to bestow the honor. Also as part of the A&S festivities, the festival’s traditional silent film concert presents films by Aho & Soldan accompanied by the renowned Finnish jazz group, The Five Corners Quintet. The celebrations will take place at the BioRex. Can't wait!
DocPoint 2010 will world-premiere Auf Wiedersehen Finnland by Virpi Suutari and Steam of Life by Joonas Berghäll and Mika Hotakainen. Both films will have national theatrical distribution following their festival premieres. The fest will also feature films that have garnered notice at other international festivals and several directors from this year’s theme countries, the US and Poland, will attend, among them, the renowned Polish father-son team of Marcel and Pawel Lozinski, American director and actress Samantha Buck (21 Below), Mike Palmieri and Donal Mosher (October Country), Kimberly Reed (Prodigal Sons) and Darius Marder (Loot). There will also be a program of American short films presented, hosted by me, with special guests Palmieri and Mosher at the Kiasma Museum. To see the full program, click here. (Photo: one of several sex shops on my street--tervetuloa! Love my 'hood.)
Other filmmaker guests include French director and DocPoint Masterclasslecturer, Nicolas Philibert, and Ross Whitaker, director of Saviors, as well as Vadim Jendreyko, director of The Woman With the 5 Elephants. Both films are featured in the "From One Generation to Another" program. Also, the new sister fest, introduced for the first time this year, DocPoint Tallinn, Estonia, a two-hour ferry ride from Helsinki, will begin on Friday the 29th. More impressions, reviews, etc. from the fest very soon.
Also, just finished my first day of lectures at the TaiK--what a gorgeous facility--wow! Will post pics soon. I learned as much from my Finnish students as (hopefully) they did from me. My host professor, filmmaker Kanerva Cederström, sent me home with a bagful of student films to watch and I'm looking forward to seeing what's coming out of the documentary program there. (In fact, Cederström and six of her students will be visiting New York in early February. Contact programmer Steve Holmgren at UnionDocs if you'd like to meet them.) I was deeply impressed by the student films I saw in last year's program.
I'm also sure you will be able to find many scandalous photos on Facebook when the other Americans descend. Challenge to self this year? A roll in the snow straight from the sauna. :)
Long radio silence since I haven't posted anything since mid-December!, so apologies for being out of touch. It happens from time to time. That is not to say that there hasn't been a hell of a lot happening, with much more in store on another continent starting, gulp, in less than a week. Sometimes, just trying to keep up with your own life is a full-time endeavor.
This Thursday, the 8th, in conjunction with my outreach and social engagement work for filmmakers David Heilbroner, Kate Davis and Franco Sacchi for their film Waiting for Armageddon (opening at the Cinema Village this Friday), there will be an interfaith roundtable at the Puck Building's Rudin Auditorium at 295 Lafayette Street that is free and open to the public starting at 6:30 p.m. The filmmakers will be joined by panelists, Richard Cizik, an influential, left-leaning Evangelical leader; Professor David Elcott, Taub Professor of Practice and Public Service and Leadership, Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at NYU; Rabbi Justus Baird of the Auburn Theological Seminary; Minister Galen Guengerich of the All Souls Unitarian Church, NYC; and Sabeeha Rehman, director of Interfaith Programs at the American Society for Muslim Advancement. The panel will be moderated by journalist Michelle Goldberg, author of Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. Should be a fascinating talk with select clips from the film being shown to galvanize discussion. A small reception will follow in the Rudin hosted by our partners, The Fledgling Fund and The Foundation for Jewish Culture. (Pictured, filmmakers Kate Davis, David Heilbroner and Franco Sacchi at the film's premiere this past fall at the New York Film Festival.)
In other news you might find interesting / pertinent: the Full Frame Garrett Scott Documentary Grant applications are now being accepted. This grant funds first time doc makers for travel to and from, as well as accommodations at, The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, April 8 - 11, 2010. For four days, grant recipients will be given access to the full film program, participate in master classes and be mentored by experienced filmmakers. Two filmmakers will be chosen for the grant which is now in its third year. It was started by filmmaker, Ian Olds (Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi) and Garrett Scott's family in memory of Scott who passed away suddenly in 2006 at the age of 37. Previous grant recipients include Elinyisia Mosha and Cameron Yates (2009), Rebecca Richman Cohen, Nathan Fisher and Mai Iskander (2008), and Robin Hessman and Lee Lynch (2007). Click here for more info. The deadline is the 5th of February.
Also: the 2010 Flaherty Seminar is now open for registration. They are now accepting applications for the 56th seminar taking place June 19 - 25 at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York. You can find all the details about the upcoming seminar and info about registering here. Media makers should take advantage of attending this; it's really an essential event to experience at least once. And, Dennis Lim is on board as the curator this year which is another strong reason for considering going. Space, however, is very limited, so making your decision early is wise.
I'll be slipping out of New York in just a few days to spend the next month in Helsinki, Finland to teach some film seminars in the documentary program at the TaiK, the national art and design school, and will also take a trip out to Lahti, one hour outside of Helsinki, to teach at the Folk High School there. Amongst other activities, I will be attending the DocPoint Film Festival representing all the wonderful American short and feature-length films that will be playing at the fest in a special strand of this year's program (the "Family Chronicles") and welcoming American filmmakers to Helsinki, including Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher, makers of October Country; Kim Reed, director of Prodigal Sons; Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly, makers of The Way We Get By; and Darius Marder, director of Loot, among others. Visit the site to find out about more info on this year's program. Also look for more information coming soon for special events in New York in support of DocPoint's 10th anniversary next year.
I will also be attending the DocPoint festivities in Estonia where the festival will be held for the first time in Tallinn. Estonia hasn't ever had a festival that focused only on documentary film and since the Estonian and Finnish cultures are so similar, Erkko Lyytinen, the artistic director of DocPoint, felt like it was a natural collaboration when approached by the folks in Tallinn. I will be attending with filmmaker, Kimberly Reed, whose film will play in both Finland and Estonia. Much, much more to come on the Prodigal Sons front very soon. The film will open at the Cinema Village here in New York on February 26th, and then open widely at Landmark Theatres across the country through March and April. Visit the First Run Features site for more info and play dates.
I will then be headed to Sweden to attend my very first Göteberg International Film Festival, its 33rd iteration, January 29 - February 8. I will be representing Nicole Opper's début feature doc, Off and Running. One of their programmers saw it at its festival premiere at Tribeca last year and snagged it right away. It will be the film's international premiere. And why will I be there and not the filmmaker? Well, I'll be next door in Finland (and I've been collaborating on outreach and social engagement for the film) and the director will be busy with the New York theatrical run at the IFC Center which starts the 29th of January. Keep checking the site and here and here for updated info on special events happening this month leading up to the run, as well as news on special co-hosted evenings at the IFC that week. Also, look for my interview with Nicole soon on the Hammer to Nail site as part of our "In Conversation With" series. Good stuff.
Let's see, what else? Oh yes, after Sweden, the plan will be to attend my first Berlinale (their 60th), as a journalist and critic for Hammer to Nail (thanks, Ted). Look for daily postings from Berlin on HTN and SIM in mid-February.
Okay, that's the latest and greatest. I have duly blogged and promise to be a bit more vigilant. Back to work.
Today in the Miami Herald's Theater section, reporter, Jordan Levin, covers the story of a groundbreaking multimedia theater performance piece created from an unprecedented collaboration between US and Cuban artists that world premiered at the Havana International Film Festival last week and will have its US premiere at the Global Cuba Fest in Miami Beach, March 11 - 14, 2010. Last week, the show played three times at the 1,600-seat Teatro Mella in Havana, with a ticket price of just five Cuban pesos (about 20 cents).
La Entrañable Lejania tells the story of an American man in love with a Cuban woman and the show breaks new ground artistically, politically and technologically, with American actors performing onstage while Cuban cast members appear on large video screens, metaphorically representing the political separation of the two countries. The show evolved over eleven years as 30-year-old California composer, Sage Lewis, traveled half a dozen times between the States and Havana, building the show with many of Cuba's most prominent artists with the idea of using technology to overcome practical and political barriers to collaboration. He and his company traveled to the island using a US government license for artistic and academic research and garnered grants from various foundations to keep them going, including pro bono legal services and individual donations solicited online. Audiovisual equipment was donated and brought to the island by Pastors for Peace.
Ever Chavez, the director of FUNDarte, and Beth Boone, artistic and executive director of the Miami Light Project (who exec produced the documentary I made in Cuba with Lisandro Pérez Rey in 2005 called La Fabri_K) came on board and connected the creators with official Cuban sponsors and will present the show's US premiere in Miami in March. Both artistic organizations specialize in US-Cuba cultural projects. Lewis emailed Boone a year and a half ago, just as she and Chavez began to hear about the project from friends both here and in Cuba.
Says Boone, "What I find significant about this piece right now, given the context of change, is that, as we've known all along in the arts community, art and artists are the most powerful agents of change. I think people who take the time to experience Entrañable will be able to see firsthand that artificially imposed political barriers are folly. Regular people have been making contact for years, whether physical or not, via telephone, the Internet and the making of art."
Lewis says that, "Our generation has a different point of view. We don't really ignore history, but we just want to go back and forth, make art, have a normal healthy relationship." The title The Closest Farthest Away is evocative of the fact that, "We're so close geographically [just 90 miles] and have so much in common culturally, yet Cuba is the farthest country from the US, the hardest to talk to, to travel to. So it's this paradox."
You can watch a preview of La Entrañable Lejania, and also see the exhaustive documentation of its creation on the website.
In early September, I posted Episode One of my nascent blog series, Projects On the Brink. Considering it's now December, we'll say I'll be doing this quarterly. (Photo by Julie Shiels.)
For a quick review, I am highlighting and celebrating independent nonfiction directors in post-production / finishing / distribution phase that have, for the most part, micro-budgeted their way through making their films and are continuing to intrepidly DIY it as they move their newly-finished works out into the world.
So without further ado, I'd like to introduce you to filmmaker, M.T. Silvia, and her film, Atomic Mom. I met M.T. at the Sundance Producers Conference in the summer of 2007, both of us there, basically, to learn at the knee of the top producers and filmmakers in independent film and to just have the opportunity to bask in the Sundance glow. I remember her telling me about this very special project she was creating about her mother, scientist, Pauline Silvia, and her work as a Navy biologist in the 1950s when the government started nuclear experiments at the Nevada Test Site, where she witnessed, first-hand, five detonations of atomic bombs.
Through a series of serendipitous events, this also became a personal story of M.T.'s and that of a Japanese woman named Emiko Okada, a Hiroshima survivor who was eight years old when the US dropped an atomic bomb on her city in 1945. M.T. becomes the physical olive branch and peacemaking conduit between these two extraordinary women and starts to resolve her own issues about the decades-long silence between her and her mother, a profoundly haunted woman. Having always relied on her brains and scientific acumen to parse out the ways and means of her life, including that of being a single mom in the 50s raising two daughters, decades later, Pauline found herself in a crisis of conscience about the work she did during her military service, including animal testing where dogs were purposely exposed to radiation poisoning and severe skin burns so the scientists could study and log the effects in a laboratory of how quickly it took them to die.
I talked with M.T. on the phone from her home in Oakland, California a couple of weeks ago. She had just finished up the musical score, was in the midst of writing yet more grants and planning more fundraisers, working on the final touches of the film and brainstorming about her festival and outreach strategies with her production team and various advisers. As you'll hear, her company moniker, Smartgirl Productions, is quite apt. She certainly had lots of help along the way from various quarters. But, as was apparent to me as she told me the story of the creation of her film, her instincts and willingness to "just walk through the door" when extraordinary circumstances presented themselves to move things forward, was what made the difference between capturing some footage of her mother for the family archives (as was her initial intent), and making a feature-length film which took her five years to finish that tells a multi-layered and complex story.
The personal documentary is delicate territory to traverse. Somehow, the very personal and particular needs to transcend into something universal. Wanting to document her mother's incredible story was the launch point. Then, in 2002, M.T. went to the Nevada Test Site and took a tour there. Being in that place dredged up a lot of the moral complexities of what went on and her mother's involvement there; it was something they had never spoken about. (M.T. has been a life-long peace activist and war protester, and has even been arrested a time or two in the course of that activism.) At that point, she knew she wanted to return there with Pauline. The Atomic Testing Museum had opened in Las Vegas and M.T. asked Pauline if she'd be willing to go there and be interviewed by Mary Palevsky, author of Atomic Fragments: A Daughter's Questions. Both of Palevsky's parents worked on the Manhattan Project and she was conducting interviews for the Nevada Test Site Oral History Project. Palevsky was thrilled to meet M.T. and hear about Pauline since, after close to a hundred and fifty interviews, she had yet to talk to a female scientist.
Pauline agreed to talk to Palevsky in 2005 and M.T. filmed that interview. Pauline really started opening up, especially after meeting, and talking with, some of the other scientists who had worked there, too. On the way home from that shoot, M.T.'s director of photography, Rick Butler, and her sound engineer, Lauretta Molitor (both dear friends) convinced her that she had to be in the film. She vehemently refused over and over, but they persevered, going so far as to show up at her house one Sunday morning with equipment in tow. M.T. sat for a two-hour interview with them and that, ultimately, became the narrative spine of the film.
The confessional aspects of this kind of material can be rife with bathos. But, Pauline is an extremely stoic woman from a generation that showed absolutely no weakness or anything really personal to, or in front of, their children. She felt especially vulnerable since she was a single parent and a working mother at a time when that was unusual. In this film, she just as stoically opens up about her very private spiritual journey and all the things that have been bottled up for so long. She shares her deep and abiding faith that has stemmed from a practice of daily prayer, something she's been doing since the early 90s.
What the story offers up so beautifully is a portrait of a mother and daughter, polar opposites in many ways, most notably politically and philosophically. M.T. always struggled with the fact that what happened to Pauline was wrong; her employer, the US military, knowingly put her in physical danger every day and M.T. is convinced that Pauline's many health problems stem from that period of (negligent) exposure. But, to this day, Pauline doesn't see it that way. She was a loyal officer, never questioning orders, never doubting her superiors in any way, doing as she was told. Most of her abounding guilt stems from the fact that she feels that she was the perpetrator of negligence and bad practices by putting young soldiers in danger. We see one piece of extraordinary archival footage (among many astounding pieces that will make your jaw drop) that shows squads of young men standing out in trenches in the middle of the desert in direct contact with the fallout from the exploding bombs; they have absolutely no protective clothing or protection for their eyes whatsoever, washing off the radioactive dust with soap and water in the latrines afterwards. Pauline's quiet, but still potent, devastation at those memories make for really compelling, and at times quite uncomfortable, viewing. But it is so deeply moving because we acknowledge that this woman is willing to share her pain, not only with her daughter privately, but as public testimony in front of a camera, not quite cognizant of the impact these interviews are likely to have on an audience. It's very brave.
M.T.'s day job is as an audio-video engineer for Pixar. Working for Pixar is what enabled her to get to Japan where yet another important piece of a larger story took hold. This is where M.T. takes on the role of a spiritual emissary, or conduit, between her mother and the Japanese family she finds, carrying written letters of love, forgiveness and healing back and forth between the US and Japan. There is no victimhood on either side; in fact, neither woman, American or Japanese, talks in terms of reparations or anything remotely like that, which in this day and age is rather rare. (M.T. standing at the Hiroshima memorial, Japan, pictured)
In discussing the structure of the film, M.T. told me that "it was a completely organic process. The whole film has had a life of its own. The fact that I ended up in Japan for work sent everything in a whole new direction." Pixar sent her to Japan for an art exhibit that was opening there. M.T. had been part of the team that had built a media piece for the exhibit. She decided to take a couple of extra vacation days while in Tokyo and took the train down to Hiroshima. In a sort of magical chain of events, three weeks before leaving on this trip, she had emailed the Hiroshima Peace Museum, asking for permission to shoot inside the museum with the idea of juxtaposing the footage between that memorial site and the museum in Nevada.
The museum put her in touch with Tomoko Nishizaki, a member of the Hiroshima Film Commission who gave M.T. carte blanche to film not only at the museum, but also in the city of Hiroshima itself, waiving any location fees, enabling her to shoot in Peace Park and the city's environs. Then Nishizaki asked M.T. if she'd like to interview a survivor and, if so, what kind of person did she want to speak with? This made M.T. feel "uncomfortable and kind of weird," and she'd honestly never considered that possibility before. Before she left California, she got some interview coaching from some journalist friends, one of whom suggested she find a mother and daughter to talk with and that's how M.T. met Mrs. Okada. She also met Dr. Hida, a 90-year-old physician, who as a young man, had treated patients directly after the blast. He took the train from Tokyo to Hiroshima, a three and half hour train ride, to meet this American woman who had come on a peace mission and shared stories and photos with her. (M.T. and Mrs. Okada walking in Peace Park, pictured)
And thus began her journeys back and forth carrying paper peace cranes and letters from Mrs. Okada to Pauline and returning with missives from Pauline to Mrs. Okada and Dr. Hida. Through a series of unfortunate events, the two women never met in person. After M.T. pushed hard for that for several months, she decided not to force the issue and let it go. That's ultimately when she decided to "get in the film more, knowing that this was my journey, too--being 'Harriet the Spy' and finding out about my mom and investigating her past, and connecting her with a place of healing."
I asked M.T. about when she might have realized that this was going to be "a film," and not an anecdotal episode of her mom's life for the family archives. "Actually, I realized it was a film that very first shoot in Nevada when my mom was being interviewed for the oral history archive. I saw the potential for the bigger story. I knew it was going to be a years-long endeavor, and since I'd never made a film of this magnitude before, I would have to rely on my instincts and also would have to self-fund it." (M.T. did make another very low budget film previous to this one in 2001 called Picardy Drive about a neighborhood in East Oakland which aired on KQED in San Francisco.) She quickly learned a lot about grant writing and received a couple of small grants from the Nevada Humanities and the Rhode Island Humanities (where the Silvias are from, and where Pauline still resides). The Pacific Pioneer Fund kicked in a bit of money and the rest was raised by holding fundraising house-parties, hosting a special evening with all her musician friends, individual contributors and soliciting donations off her website. To date, she's spent about $110,000, raising about fifty percent of that. (M.T. traveling through the city of Hiroshima, pictured)
In terms of the film's transformation into its unique and eloquent structure, M.T. lauds her editor, Jennifer Chinlund, who "really brought out the story in its current incarnation." In line with the mother/child relationship theme, Chinlund's experience brings an incredibly tragic stroke to this piece. Ready to head into final edit, M.T. had been wanting to work with Chinlund very badly, but Chinlund remained unavailable for a long time due to commitments on other projects. Then, three weeks after finally being able to join the project and begin the intense work of narrative story structure, Chinlund's adopted 24-year-old son died unexpectedly the day after returning home from the hospital after knee surgery. M.T. was certain she was to lose Chinlund again, this time to bottomless grief; instead, the editor dove in to all the footage (about 80 hours' worth) and, somehow, used her own tragedy and pain to tell this mother and child story of M.T. and Pauline.
M.T. has also hired expert strategist for social change initiatives, Lina Srivastava, to work on some goals for pushing it out into the world, and she's busily learning about the marketplace, the educational opportunities and overall festival and exhibition strategy. She's started her submissions process by hitting all the usual suspects--Sundance, Slamdance, SXSW, Tribeca Film Festival, San Francisco International. Interestingly, she was invited to début the film at the Global Peace Film Festival in Hiroshima which, of course, would have been phenomenal. In fact, the festival took place on the evening of our phone conversation (November 20). "They wanted it even though it wasn't finished. But I had to decline the invitation and it was a really hard decision to make. But I knew it would negatively alter my chances on the festival circuit in the States where premieres are still vital for exhibition consideration. It would have also been hard for me to show it in its current form at such a prestigious festival, so I feel like I made the right decision. The festival, however, kindly gave me a raincheck."
Post-production and finishing stages are the most intense time for a film in terms of budget. M.T. is waiting for one more significant grant to come through. But whether that money comes in or not, she is determined to finish it this year. "I'm not willing to go into debt, but, fortunately, I am in a position where I can go into my 401K. I feel grateful that I have the option to do that." However, she's still fundraising away and raised $3,000 just from her latest newsletter release.
And how does Pauline feel about the film? "She's seen all the raw footage along the way and I showed her a fully assembled cut for the first time in September. It was really, really hard for her to watch. She got so upset at one part of it, that she really didn't see the ending. I ended up taking out some things in the versions she reviews that were too upsetting for her [including the photos of Pauline in the lab with the burned animals, something she still weeps over]." But M.T. feels those photos are important testimony and so she has kept some of them in the final cut.
Needless to say, audiences will experience an intense journey that both mother and daughter embark upon, individually and together. But, really, the most remarkable journey is that of Pauline, a woman who blindly contributed a life of service to her country for decades and then transformed into a woman with a deep abiding faith, a faith that has challenged her in her mighty struggle with her conscience, with the things she witnessed and participated in, and the reconciliation of the things she did in duty to that service. She is a much more emancipated woman today, yet as forgiving as she is to everyone and everything, she still struggles with forgiving herself. In one powerful scene, she says to M.T., "I never would have thought to say 'no' to anything I would be asked to do back then. 'No' would be the first thing out of my mouth if asked to do those things today."
Like the extraordinary Pray the Devil Back to Hell, a film that has deeply impressed M.T., she feels her film, too, represents this theme of women's peacekeeping work. Pauline and Mrs. Okada are two women looking back at their respective pasts and making peace with what happened fifty years ago. Says M.T., "It's really about telling the truth and it's about forgiveness and acceptance of difference. It can only help to support women in the peace movement today. Peace is possible; forgiveness is possible. Resolution can happen between a mother and a daughter. It's also about secrecy--people during the time of the Cold War didn't talk to one another. It's about revealing the truth behind that secrecy. . . . The other important component, and the one that's most meaningful to me, and I think to my mom, too, is that there was healing. In terms of nuclear testing, we're all downwind of this story. Over 300,000 people have died from the testing of atomic weapons."
M.T. acknowledges that this story could go on forever. But she is very protective of her mother whose health is very fragile, and as much as she'd like to continue documenting her journey, she also knows this aspect of it is over. "I'm floored by what she's already given." (M.T. and Pauline, pictured)
M.T.'s ultimate exhibition goal, festival circuit aside, would be to do a multi-city one-night screening of Atomic Mom (à la The Age of Stupid and Pray the Devil Back to Hell) and play in 450 theaters across the US on Mother's Day. If the funding doesn't materialize for something along that scale, she is also thinking about streaming it online for free that day and has, in fact, started collecting what she calls "Momisodes," where mothers and daughters film themselves talking about peace. There is a space on the site for them to upload their stories.
Look for more updates on Atomic Mom in the coming months.
The folks at FIDMarseille send word that their call for applications for the FIDLab is now open until the 15th of February. The FIDLab is an international platform for co-production support and was developed just last year to promote film works at any stage of development from any place in the world.
The second edition of the Lab will be held July 8th and 9th, 2010 during the 21st edition of FID Marseille (July 7 - 12), and they invite projects with no particular requirements in terms of format, length and subject matter--fiction, documentary, or something in between--making this a wide open opportunity.
They will choose 10 projects whose creators will get to meet with co-producers, distributors, production funding entities and other fund providers for post-production and finishing. A visual presentation of all the chosen projects will be exhibited before an audience of industry professionals, along with an awards presentation.
Visit the website for more details and application documents. You can also contact the FIDLab's director with any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The program will include a comprehensive retrospective of Lozinski's work; he's been making films since 1972. His oeuvre highlights portrayals of people living under a socialist system and his works often question the prevailing conditions of his own society. He lectures at the Andrzej Wajda Master School of Film Directing, influencing and inspiring several generations of young Polish filmmakers. There is a shocking amount of great nonfiction work coming out of this country.
French filmmaker, Nicolas Philibert will also be honored with a small retrospective of his work, which will include his new film about a 40-year-old orangutan raised in captivity named Nénette. His wonderful cinéma vérité piece, To Be and To Have (Etre et Avoir) (2002) garnered a huge amount of success around the world.
Also, as part of this year's program, carrying on the tradition of visiting a country in a themed way, DocPoint will present a selection of short and feature-length American films called "The Family Chronicles," co-curated by yours truly. I'm very excited to be bringing these films to Finnish audiences. More details soon on the program and other special Yankee guests.
In preparation for my work with them this year, I was invited as a guest of the festival last year. Read my coverage here, here, here, here and here. More news from Helsinki in the coming weeks.
Today, DOX BOX festival co-founder and co-director, Orwa Nyrabia, sends word that the 3rd iteration of the Damascus, Syria-based event is ON. There is a new website and the call for submissions is open. The festival will take place in Damascus from 3 - 11 March with select films, including the Audience Award-winner, traveling to the nearby cities of Homs and Tartous.
DOX BOX is looking for creative documentaries that have a "unique and organic point of view from filmmakers about their lives, families and societies." Click here for rules and regs and to download the entry form. The deadline for entries is the 20th of December 2009. If you're a North American filmmaker, contact me for a personal recommendation. Read my coverage from last year's festival here and here and here and here.
This is a festival in need of endowment and support; they are working miracles with very small budgets and very little in the way of resources. I'm sure they would welcome any financial help they can get from the international film community.
The DOX BOX organizers also offer a small Documentary Campus from the 3rd to the 8th and they are calling for applications--six days, ten international tutors, twenty-five participants. The deadline is 5 January and regulations and application forms can be downloaded here. For more info, you can send an email query to email@example.com.
This morning at 10:30, fueled by sweet rolls and pastries, an audience gathered in one of the Showroom cinemas here in Sheffield to attend the awards ceremony that officially closes this edition of the Sheffield Doc/Fest.
Once again, it was said, as it has been many times, that since taking over the running of this market, festival director Heather Croall has done an incredible job of putting Sheffield on the map as a highly important destination for media makers and media professionals. Croall, in turn, celebrated the programming work of Hussain Currimbhoy, by saying that she heard from many jury members how appreciative they were to be able to judge such across-the-board inspiring and important work.
Roger Graef hosted the ceremonies, assisted by the lovely AJ Schnack, where members of the juries presented the nominated films and the award-winners. Halfway through, at 11:00 a.m., there was a two-minute silence to honor soldiers everywhere in observance of Remembrance Day.
The Sheffield Green Award honors the documentary from the program that best addresses major environmental challenges on our planet. Nominees were The Blood of the Rose, The Cove, Earth Days, Haynesville, Petropolis, Shelter in Place, and A Time Comes. The Blood of the Rose received the award.
The Wallflower Press Student Doc Award was given to the best student documentary made as part of course work from UK and other international universities. I took the time to see most of these films (I make it a point to check out student work at any festival or film event) and everything I saw was exciting, exceedingly well-crafted, original storytelling. Arsy-Versy, a 24 minute film from Slovakia directed by Miro Remo won the prize. I absolutely adore this film. It is imaginative, funny, and artfully told. I was astounded at the proficiency and sophistication of the shooting. The rest of the selections, particularly, Presidio Modelo, Time Within Time and Tsirk, were impressive.
The Sheffield Innovation Award, given to a film that exhibits originality in approach to form and radical manifestations in story delivery presented pieces ranging from art installations to solely web-residential work, running the gamut from video mapping in Palestine to the stunning and singular cinematic passion plays of Finnish filmmaker Jukka Kärkkäinen's The Living Room of the Nation. An honorable mention was given to The Big Issue from France, and the award was given to LoopLoop from Canada.
The Sheffield Youth Jury Award is given to a film that engages a young audience judged by a jury consisting of young adults from 16 - 21. In extremely eloquent fashion, they gave the award to Andrew Lang's gorgeous Sons of Cuba. I did do a really wonderful interview with Andrew several months ago for the Shooting People site and it's gone missing, somehow, which we're both a bit puzzled by. I hope it gets published somewhere soon. Lang just won another well-deserved prize at the Rome International Fest in October, as well. A theatrical distributor should grab this straight away.
The Special Jury Award, Sheffield's very first, honors a film that displays excellence in style, substance and approach. The jury consisted of US filmmaker, AJ Schnack, ITVS's Claire Aguilar (US), UK filmmaker, Kim Longinotto, UK filmmaker, Nick Broomfield, and US filmmaker, RJ Cutler. The nominees were Horses, I'm Dangerous With Love, Junior, Men of the City, October Country, Petition, Until the Next Resurrection, and the prize-winner, Erik Gandini's Videocracy.
The Sheffield Doc/Fest Inspiration Award, again an inaugural honor here, celebrated the work of journalist, Adam Curtis, a man who has championed documentary (although he never really considered himself a documentary filmmaker until recently) and his decades-long contribution to groundbreaking television work. A filmmaker who is embracing the digital future utilizing a multi-platform approach to projects, his latest is a collaboration with Punchdrunk called "It Felt Like A Kiss." He gave a very short, but eloquent, speech on the muddy terrain between journalism and documentary filmmaking, and how the ascendancy of nonfiction storytellers is usurping a once robust, but now dangerously ineffectual, news media.
The Audience Award will be announced tomorrow, Monday the 9th. I will, unfortunately, be in that disorienting twilight zone of all-day travel getting myself back to the States for an onslaught of work. I'm looking forward to posting more about Sheffield--look for more impressions, film reviews and articles over the coming months.
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!
Darius Marder's award-winning début nonfiction feature has a one week run planned at the IFC Center starting November 20, but if you're fast on your feet, you can grab a ticket for tomorrow's sneak peek at 8:00 p.m. courtesy of Stranger Than Fiction. Marder will be in the house for a Q&A and post-screening fest at MacDougall Street's own 99 Below, home to many a drunken doc lover.
Loot won the grand jury prize for best documentary feature at last year's Los Angeles Film Festival, a fine validation for a new artist on the scene--one this writer hopes will make many more films. Marder's past incarnation as a chef served him well in making his first film, for Loot serves up a really complex and memorable (narrative) dish, resonant with ingredients and flavors that one recognizes, certainly--the eccentric characters, the quixotic quests, haunted pasts, and the serendipitous meeting of souls from different generations that resonate so strongly with one another that viewers intuit that an emotional crescendo of some import is likely. But what Marder is really adept at capturing (along with his cinematographer, Anson Call) are the nuanced ways in which his subjects deal with shaky memory, denial of epic proportion and unbearable emotional pain, each helpless in the face of their guilt and remorse for what transpired in a time when they were young and brash WWII soldiers trying to do anything they could not to get killed. And in finding themselves all in one piece at the end of a long and brutal time of it, they rewarded themselves with war booty.
Darrel stole 20 pounds of jewels, hid them in the attic of an Austrian farmhouse
and returned home to Utah. Andy looted Samurai swords and jewels, burying them in the Philippines before returning to Arizona. Sixty years later, infirm and facing the end of their lives, Lance Larson comes into the picture. Larson is a Utah-based, Mormon used-car salesman, inventor,
entrepreneur and second-generation treasure hunter; in two separate storylines, he offers to help them recover their long-ago buried treasures, despite the apparent apathy and ambivalence both men feel about going back to uncover, or re-cover, that part of their lives. In the interim, the ferociously violent, inhuman memories of war rise to the surface and we slowly realize the toll that all of that inherent, irrevocable and life-altering damage has had on these men and what finding this elusive treasure will bring to the surface--a recapitulation of their lives, a true reckoning with their mortality and, above all, the confrontation of the wounded love they have for their lost sons, both victims of mortal drug addictions.
It is a compelling, poignant and universally relevant moral fable that will surprise you and move you deeply.