Thursday, June 8, 2017

From Race to Resistance to Refugees: The 28th Human Rights Watch Film Festival

The 28th edition of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, running June 9-18 at NYC’s Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center, will be showcasing 21 feature docs and panel discussions (and no fiction films – a smart programming move as the fiction films in past years inevitably ended up the weakest links in the lineup).

Glancing through the program there looks to be a whole lot of timely stuff to choose from, including a “From Audience to Activist” discussion in which “filmmakers, journalists and activists share best practices on how to hold powerful institutions accountable safely and effectively,” and “The Resistance Saga,” an entire day dedicated to Pamela Yates’s award-winning trilogy (1984’s When the Mountains Tremble, 2011’s Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, and this year’s 500 Years: Life in Resistance) that follows the Mayan citizens of Guatemala from their fight for basic rights right through to the first trial in the Americas prosecuting the genocide of indigenous people.


To read my personal picks visit Filmmaker magazine.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Doc Stars of the Month: Davonte 'Dada' Harrell, Reginald 'Junior' Askew, David 'Bud' Perry, 'Raising Bertie'

Margaret Byrne's Raising Bertie (executive produced by J. Cole) is an intimate, six-year journey into the lives of three young, African-American men. Like others their age, Davonte "Dada" Harrell, Reginald "Junior" Askew and David "Bud" Perry face such daunting tasks as finishing high school, finding steady employment and navigating the rollercoaster ride into adulthood. That they attempt to do all this in rural Bertie County, North Carolina—where every odd is stacked against them—is both admirable and enlightening (at least to those of us residing in our urban and coastal bubbles). And it’s what makes these three determined southerners this June’s "Doc Stars of the Month."

Documentary had the honor of speaking with Dada and Junior (between work shifts) and Bud (still recovering from a car accident!) prior to the film’s June 9th theatrical premiere at Maysles Cinema in New York City, through Gunpowder & Sky Distribution and Kartemquin Films. The film also airs on POV on August 28.


To read my interview visit Documentary Magazine.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Doc Stars of the Month: The Sung Family, 'Abacus: Small Enough to Jail'

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail - which has been garnering accolades on the festival circuit ever since its Toronto debut, and was the opening night flick at this year's Full Frame Documentary Film Festival - is equal parts riveting and rage-inducing. Master documentarian Steve James's latest film lays bare the five-year legal drama of the Sung family, Chinese immigrant owners of (NYC) Chinatown’s Abacus Federal Savings Bank, which was accused of mortgage fraud by the limelight-seeking Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance Jr., rendering this community-serving, family-owned-and-operated shop the sole US bank to face criminal charges in the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis. (And despite, ironically, having one of the lowest default rates in the country. Indeed, Fannie Mae even continued to do business with Abacus after the indictment!)

So needless to say, it was a privilege for me to chat collectively by email with this heroic and tight-knit family of six (Abacus founder and patriarch Thomas; his wife, Hwei Lin; and daughters Vera, Jill - both bank executives - Chanterelle and Heather) prior to the film's opening at NYC's IFC Center on May 19 through PBS Distribution.


To read the interview visit Documentary Magazine.

Monday, May 15, 2017

“The Film Gives Viewers Plenty to be Angry About…”: Steve James on Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

Steve James’ documentary, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, is at once a heartfelt portrait of a close-knit family facing overwhelming adversity and an infuriating indictment of our U.S. justice system gone seriously awry. The film follows the Chinese immigrant Sung family, founding owners and operators of the Abacus Federal Savings Bank down in NYC’s Chinatown, who in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis found themselves locked in a half-decade battle with spotlight-loving Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance, Jr. Though the bank had one of the lowest default rates in the country (with only nine out of 3,000 loans defaulting!), the overzealous prosecutor nevertheless decided to pursue charges — giving the low-income-community-serving institution the dubious distinction of being the one and only bank indicted for mortgage fraud in the fallout.


To read my interview with the legendary Hoop Dreams director visit Filmmaker magazine.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Fighting the Power at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival’s 20th Anniversary

Injustice seemed to be a running theme during the 20th anniversary edition of the always-stellar Full Frame Documentary Film Festival (April 6-9) down in Durham, NC.

Which seemed quite fitting since the state had recently repealed the morally and economically loathsome bathroom bill – while still leaving LGBTQ folks open to discrimination statewide. (And leaving cynical lawmakers to pat themselves on the back for making that NCAA deadline in the knick of time.) So if fighting the powers-that-be is your thing, here are four alternately inspiring and infuriating docs I caught – and you should keep an eye out for in 2017.


To read my list visit Global Comment.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Friday, April 28, 2017

A Conversation With Reggie Watts

The German-born, Montana-raised son of a French mother and an African-American father, Reggie Watts’s worldliness seems bred into his genes. So it should probably come as no surprise that this much-lauded comedian and musician – his latest Reggie Watts: Spatial recently hit Netflix to rave reviews – once used a foreign land to form the basis of a theatrical collaboration.

Produced in partnership with writer/director Tommy Smith, Dutch A/V is a “live-edited environmental film” culled from over 26 hours of footage shot through spyglasses, immersing the viewer in the sights and sounds of Holland. Recipient of the MAP Fund Award, Dutch A/V was work-shopped at IRT Theatre, debuted at the Under the Radar festival back in 2011 – and currently can be sampled on YouTube (I urge all Watts fans to check it out!)



To read my blast-from-the-past chat visit Hammer to Nail.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

“We Need to Stop Patting Ourselves on the Back”: Speakeasy Spotlight at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival’s 20th Anniversary Edition

There was much reason for celebration at the 2017 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival (April 6-9) down in Durham, North Carolina. The state had just (kinda sorta) repealed the ridiculous bathroom bill – which had had me scrambling to cover all the queer films I could find at the 2016 fest – and this year’s 20th anniversary inspired artistic director Sadie Tillery to create “DoubleTake,” a wide-ranging retro program featuring 19 films, one from each year. This diverse selection included everything from Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen’s 2001 Benjamin Smoke, to Linda Goode Bryant and Laura Poitras’s 2003 Flag Wars, to Gary Hustwit’s 2007 Helvetica, and more.

But the one aspect of the fest that most surprised and thrilled me were the forward-thinking – and always free and open to the public – A&E IndieFilms Speakeasy panel conversations, which the festival has been hosting for the past seven years (and which provide a nice intimate break from the rock concert lines for the often sold-out films — these are some rabid doc audiences down in Durham!).


To read all about 'em visit Filmmaker magazine.

Monday, April 24, 2017

A Conversation with Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya (THE CINEMA TRAVELLERS)

One of the standout films I caught at this year’s 19th RiverRun International Film Festival (March 30-April 9) was Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya’s The Cinema Travellers, at once a love letter to movie-going and a gorgeous portrait of a dying art (not to mention a 2016 Cannes award-winner). The duo follow three men – a showman, an exhibitor and a projector technician – as they struggle to continue the 70-year tradition of bringing cinema caravans to rural India. Satellite TVs be damned! Or as the gentle and wise projector fixer puts it, “Life is not just a game of machines, but a game of the imagination.”


To read my interview visit Hammer to Nail.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

A Conversation with Amman Abbasi (DAYVEON)

The 19th RiverRun International Film Festival (March 30-April 9) truly stepped up to the plate this year. With over two-dozen local sponsors, and a lineup that included quite a few Cannes and Sundance-premiering flicks, the residents of Winston-Salem, NC had much more to brag about than the recent (halfhearted) repeal of the state’s embarrassing bathroom bill.

One of those Sundance darlings (which opened the NEXT sidebar) was Amman Abbasi’s striking debut Dayveon. Recently acquired by FilmRise and set for an upcoming spring release, the film is a refreshingly non-sensational portrait of life in impoverished Arkansas. Abbasi, an Arkansan who also co-wrote the script and composed the score, follows the titular teen as he struggles to find his place in the world after the recent murder of his older brother, vacillating between the lure of the local Bloods and the loving embrace of his sister and her family.


To read my interview visit Hammer to Nail.

Monday, April 3, 2017

CPH:DOX 2017: The Inaugural Spring Edition

The “something for everyone” film festival is a rarity these days. While most fests like to think they’re providing a wide array for a curious cinephile to choose from, what they usually end up showcasing is a large selection of subject matter. In other words, the films themselves often look and feel very similar in style. (Indeed, I can often spot a Sundance film ten minutes in, and from a last row seat.) That makes CPH:DOX, “the third largest documentary film festival in the world,” something truly special. This was only my second time attending Copenhagen’s premiere nonfiction fest, but the combination of sincerely welcoming vibe and cozy screenings made me feel like I was part of a global doc geek family. I mean “cozy screenings” literally: this year’s sponsor, Normann Copenhagen, created Denmark’s first “pop up designer sofa cinema” inside the new festival headquarters at the Kunsthal Charlottenborg, a year-round contemporary art gallery.


To read all about it visit Filmmaker magazine.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Propellor Film Tech Hub Brings Business Innovation to CPH:DOX

Launched at this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, the Propellor Film Tech Hub is an ambitious, country-spanning, joint initiative from the IFFR, the Berlinale’s European Film Market (EFM), the Copenhagen International Documentary Festival (CPH:DOX), and the "innovation studio" Cinemathon (based in Berlin). Basically, the idea behind Propellor is to transfer start-up world ideas to the film industry, upending cinema's barely functioning, stodgy old business models in the process.

To learn more, Documentary reached out to Cinemathon's Erwin Schmidt, one of the founders, who graciously demystified this newfangled tech enterprise prior to the CPH:DOX event.


To read my interview visit Documentary Magazine.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Power to the Priya: Ram Devineni on his Augmented Reality Comic Book Series

I first met Ram Devineni, creator of India’s first augmented reality comic book, Priya’s Shakti, at the FilmGate Interactive Media Festival in February, where he was presenting the graphic novel’s follow-up, Priya’s Mirror. (This work ended up taking the FilmGate Special Jury Award). With the series Devineni and his co-creators have revolutionized the comic book form, and not just technologically but also culturally. A survivor of gang rape in the first installment, Priya joins forces with acid attack survivors in the second, rendering the titular super-heroine tougher than your average Western badass chick.

Devineni is participating in the Art, Technology & Change discussion at this year’s CPH:DOX, and Filmmaker was able to catch up with the AR artist prior to the fest for a brief chat that ran the gamut from comic cons, to the Sistine Chapel, to creating sociopolitical art for a global audience.


To read my interview visit Filmmaker magazine.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Following The Money Shot: Ovidie on Her SXSW Investigative Doc Pornocracy

Originally trained in philosophy, and known as the “porn star intellectual” since the publication of her book Porno Manifesto in the early aughts, feminist pornographer Ovidie can now add hard-hitting investigative journalist to her CV. The French icon’s latest documentary Pornocracy, debuting at SXSW (and later in the month at CPH:DOX), is a stunning exploration of the dark underbelly of online porn — a shadowy world in which a single faceless multinational corporation, with numerous offshore accounts, controls what we see while exploiting the performers whose very livelihood it shamelessly steals. Filmmaker spoke with Ovidie prior to the doc’s March 12th premiere.


To read my interview visit Filmmaker magazine.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

No Way Out: Brent and Craig Renaud on Their SXSW Doc, METH STORM: Arkansas USA

World premiering March 11th at SXSW is METH STORM: Arkansas USA, the latest HBO doc from the Peabody (and Edward R. Murrow and Columbia Dupont and Overseas Press Club) award-winning Renaud brothers. Unsurprisingly, the Arkansan siblings have taken a deeply humanistic approach to the meth epidemic with this film, following a soft-spoken DEA agent struggling to stem the flow of (cheap and extremely potent) Mexican cartel “ice” into his rural community. They parallel this narrative with that of a close-knit family of impoverished addicts, led by a no-nonsense matriarch who just can’t seem to catch a break.


To read my interview visit Filmmaker magazine.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

“Porn is Everywhere, Almost Like a Collective Unconscious”: Bruce LaBruce on his XConfessions Short Refugee’s Welcome

Bruce LaBruce is one busy renaissance man. The queercore icon — director of 11 features (not to mention numerous short films and music videos, and several theater works), visual artist and author — has now teamed up with Erika Lust’s XConfessions to release Refugee’s Welcome. The story of a Syrian refugee in Berlin who both suffers a hate crime and finds a poetic (and explicitly sexual) connection with a Czech punk, the short will be available on Eroticfilms.com (NSWF link, obviously!) on March 9th. (And for free — use the code BRUCE).

Filmmaker spoke with LaBruce — who makes mainstream and hardcore versions of his films — fresh off the Berlinale premiere of his most recent feature, The Misandrists.


To read the rest visit Filmmaker magazine.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

MIT Open Doc Lab Showcases its Storytelling Prowess at the FilmGate Interactive Media Festival

One of the highlights of this year's FilmGate Interactive Media Festival (February 3-5 at the University of Miami School of Communication) was a panel titled "MIT Open Doc Lab Presents: Interactive and Non Linear Storytelling." It featured Beyza Boyacioglu, project manager at MIT Open Doc Lab (whose latest project, Zeki Müren Hotline, a "participatory telephone hotline and interactive web experience," premiered at IDFA DocLab and was nominated for a Digital Storytelling Award), and Doc Lab fellow Jeff Soyk (who was the UI/UX designer and architect on Elaine Sheldon's 2013 Peabody-winning Hollow, as well as the creative director and UI/UX designer on PBS Frontline's 2016 Emmy-winning Inheritance). Though the two work together at MIT — and collaborated on Boyacioglu's Zeki Müren Hotline — their backgrounds couldn't have been more different.


To read the rest visit Documentary Magazine.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Tech Talks: The FilmGate Interactive Media Festival

The 2017 FilmGate Interactive Media Festival, which took place February 3-5, was a bit different from prior editions I’ve attended. For one thing, the fest was now headquartered in the heart of Hurricanes-land — over Super Bowl weekend no less — at the University of Miami School of Communication (rather than in trendy South Beach). For another, accommodations this time included a lovely historic house rented in Coconut Grove, where I found myself one of four born-and-bred Americans, along with three other artists originally hailing from India, Serbia and Turkey. Very Real World meets virtual reality.


To read the rest visit Filmmaker magazine.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Movies About Museums

“A process in which no one wants to take a risk is too Dutch for me,” laments one of the embattled Spanish co-architects in Oeke Hoogendijk’s The New Rijksmuseum, a 2013 doc I caught up with over the holidays. The film follows the epic bureaucratic struggles inherent in reimagining one of Amsterdam’s most beloved buildings, home to works by every master Dutchie from Rembrandt to Vermeer.


And to see which other films I visited head over to Hammer to Nail.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Five Things to Catch at the FilmGate Interactive Media Festival

This year’s FilmGate Interactive Media Festival – “solely dedicated to new technology-driven production companies, actors, filmmakers, journalists, advertising and marketing agencies, gaming companies, and curious audiences interested in interactive media, virtual reality, and mixed reality projects from around the world,” as its ambitious mission states – will be held February 3-5 at the University of Miami School of Communication. Among the wide-ranging selection of interactive screenings, specialty workshops, parties and panels to choose from, several stand out as not-to-be-missed experiences.

Glancing through the program, the following are just five – the first three art installations (two with a local flavor), the last two panels – that have made my must-catch list.


To read my sneak peek visit Filmmaker magazine.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Doc Star of the Month: Michelle Smith, 'Best and Most Beautiful Things'

Editor's Note: Some of the greatest documentaries of all time would be inconceivable without their protagonists to drive the stories and keep us viewers enthralled. From the Beales to the Friedmans, from Bob Dylan to Bob Flanagan, these real-life people were transformed, through the dynamic collaborative processes with their respective filmmakers, into indelible and engaging characters of cinema. And it's thanks to the access and intimacy that these protagonists granted to the filmmakers that these films were made in the first place.

So when writer Lauren Wissot proposed a column in which she would interview a documentary subject every other month, we welcomed the idea. So, here is the inaugural Doc Star of the Month (even though it's every other month): Michelle Smith of
Best and Most Beautiful Things.


To read my interview with one of the brightest stars of 2016 visit Documentary Magazine.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Casey Affleck’s Bad Behavior Be Damned (or Why You Should Not Boycott “Manchester by the Sea”)

To call Manchester by the Sea writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s masterpiece is not an exaggeration. This is a near-flawless film. (And further proof that HBO needs to give Lonergan his own limited series a la Lisa Cholodenko’s Olive Kitteridge or Todd Haynes’s Mildred Pierce.) It features a no-weak-link ensemble cast headed by controversial actor Casey Affleck – who, after being accused of sexual misconduct and harassment by I’m Still Here producer Amanda White and the film’s cinematographer Magdalena Gorka, settled out of court back in 2010. It also stars the luminous Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights, Bloodline) and Lucas Hedges (best known to Wes Anderson fans from his turns in Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel), who together bring to vivid life Lonergan’s tale of an uncle (Affleck) haunted by his own demons suddenly forced to look after his fatherless nephew.



To read the rest of my op-ed visit Hammer to Nail.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Do You Need to Premiere at a Major Festival to Qualify your Doc for an Oscar? Roger Ross Williams on the Shortlist Process

One of the most intriguing aspects of this year’s Savannah Film Festival’s Docs to Watch Roundtable, which I wrote about a couple months back, was the lively back-and-forth that occurred when the subject of the Oscar shortlist came up. From all appearances it seems that a documentarian’s chances of making that Holy Grail cut are “predetermined” — i.e., if your film didn’t debut at one of a narrow number of A-list fests, well, forget about it.

However, Roger Ross Williams, a member of the Documentary Branch of the AMPAS board of governors, took vigorous issue with that assessment. Which intrigued me even more. So Filmmaker decided to follow up with the multitasking, Academy Award-winner a few weeks after the fest, as he was preparing for the UK release of his latest nonfiction artwork Life, Animated. (Which, yes, subsequently made the Oscar shortlist.)













To read my interview visit Filmmaker magazine.