AFI DOCS Film Review: Under the Wire (Martin, 2018): USA

Posted by Larry Gleeson

Viewed by Larry Gleeson as part of the 2018 American Film Institute’s AFI DOCS.

Screen Shot 2018-06-21 at 12.54.35 PMUnder The Wire tells the story of a daring entry on 13 February 2012, into war-ravaged Syria by two journalists. One of them was celebrated Sunday Times war correspondent, Marie Colvin. The other was photographer, Paul Conroy. Their aim was to cover the plight of Syrian civilians trapped in Homs, a city under siege and relentless military attack from the Syrian army and report on the untold suffering of women and children who were the kept secret of Assad regime’s assault on dissenters. Under the cloak of combating terrorism, the regime was effectively silencing the call for democracy…

The film opens with footage Conroy at one of his darkest moments in Baba Amr, a city-district in southwest Homs, in central Syria. Much of the opening sequence gives a feel of an expose. However, that soon gives way to a non-linear narrative that juxtaposes, at first Conroy, and later fellow journalists, recollections of those two and a half weeks they spent together attempting to tell the world what was happening to the women and children in Baba Amr. At the center of the story is their martyr, Marie Colvin, an American war correspondent, regarded as one of, if not the finest, combat journalist of her generation. Colvin came to fame through her reporting in East Timor in 1999. Without Marie’s reporting the UN said the people of East Timor would have perished.

In 2012, despite the exodus of virtually every Western journalist, Colvin, felt compelled to tell the world what was really happening in Syrian towns, especially the 28,000 civilians who were in Baba Amr. So much so, Colvin risked her life until finally paying the ultimate price when a precision bombing attack successfully neutralized its target, what was known in Baba Amr as the media center which in reality was a concrete “shithole” room on the 6th floor of an evacuated building.

Meanwhile, the United Nations and the world looked on helplessly as the Assad regime continued its daily bombing assault beginning first at 7:00 A.M. and later moved up to 6:30 A.M. According to French journalist, Edith Bouvier, who suffered a serious and potentially life-threatening leg injury when the targeted bomb hit the “media center” – as many as fifteen shells would hit in the first thirty seconds of the precision bombing.

Eventually, the wounded, surviving journalists would make a last-minute escape. Having been told a Red Cross ambulance would be coming to take her and her co-journalists  to safety during the first-ever cease fire, the journalists were warned by a man from the Red Crescent not to get in the vans waiting outside. Following his heeding the group refused to leave. Soon after, a group of rebels shepherded the correspondents to safety only asking that the journalist tell the world what was really happening in Baba Amr.

Under the Wire is a story of international fear and apathetic response from the global community. Despite numerous videos surfacing from Colvin and what many describe as a miracle worker, Dr, Mohammad Mohammad, pleading for the international community to halt the slaughter of innocent civilians whose only crime was a want for a more democratic way of life, nothing happened. Conroy’s life was saved. His mission has been to tell the world what happened in Syria. Utilizing archival news reports from the BBC and CNN (with Anderson Cooper), personal footage and photos from his times with Colvin, Conroy has set out to tell the world what happened.

Under the Wire is the story of Marie Colvin’s passionate commitment to tell the world the story of the women and children in Baba Amr and their shared experience of the “widow’s basement,” an underground shelter for women and children crammed with thin mattresses, little food and without basic medical assistance. This is not an easy film to watch. Part expose’ part action/adventure while booming sound, partial profile shots, fuzzy footage, along with some shaky, point-of-view, hand-held shots create tension and unease. Nevertheless, this is a story that needed to be told and now it needs an audience. The world needs to know the truth of what really happened. Highly recommended.

 

 

Mr. Soul! AFI DOCS 2018 Audience Award Winner for Best Feature, Earthrise wins Best Short

Posted by Larry Gleeson

AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE ANNOUNCES
AFI DOCS 2018 AUDIENCE AWARD WINNERS
Best Feature Goes to MR. SOUL!
Best Short Goes to EARTHRISE

Chaz Ebert, Steve James, Rory Kennedy, Barbara Kopple
and More Celebrate Documentary Film at the 16th Edition of AFI DOCS

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Larry Gleeson, left, of HollywoodGlee hams it up with Chaz Ebert after the screening of Mr. Soul! at the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Oprah Winfrey Theatre during the 2018 American Film Institute’s 2018 AFI DOCS. Mr. Soul! received the Audience Award for Best Feature. (Photo by Larry Gleeson/HollywoodGlee)

 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE — JUNE 19, 2018, WASHINGTON, DCThe American Film Institute has announced the AFI DOCS 2018 Audience Award winners, concluding the five-day festival supported by Presenting Sponsor AT&T in Washington, DC, and Silver Spring, MD. This year’s Audience Award for Best Feature went to MR. SOUL!, directed by Melissa Haizlip and Sam Pollard. This year’s Audience Award for Best Short went to EARTHRISE, directed by Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee.

With 92 films from 22 countries, this year’s AFI DOCS presented films and discussions on topics ranging from the environment and sports to politics and art, along with profiles of extraordinary individuals. Among the attendees were filmmakers and notables including House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (MD), Congressman Donald Beyer (VA), U.S. House of Representatives Chaplain Fr. Patrick J. Conroy S.J., Chaz Ebert, Steve James (AFI DOCS 2018 Charles Guggenheim Symposium honoree), Rory Kennedy, Barbara Kopple, photographer Joel-Peter Witkin and poet Nikki Giovanni.

This year’s festival included a number of panels featuring engaging discussions between filmmakers, film subjects and audience members — with conversation and examination of issues led by some of the nation’s top journalists: Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips; NBC News’ Tom Costello, Ken Dilanian and Anne Thompson, and “Meet the Press” moderator and NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd; Variety’s Senior Editor Ted Johnson; and The Washington Post’s reporter Nicole Ellis, Chief Film Critic Ann Hornaday, Foreign Affairs reporter Ishaan Tharoor and National reporter Vanessa Williams.

The AFI DOCS Forum and VR Showcase explored unique topics with keynote presentations, conversations, panel discussions, VR demonstrations and micro-meetings. Programming for the Forum and VR Showcase was made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and NBC News’ “Meet the Press.”

The fourth edition of the AFI DOCS Impact Lab provided participating filmmakers with professional development in preparation for advancing their causes and meetings with policy leaders and advocates.

Ten films with AFI Conservatory alumni credits were included in this year’s festival: ABOVE AND BEYOND: NASA’S JOURNEY TO TOMORROW; BATHTUBS OVER BROADWAY; DARK MONEY; HAL; HESBURGH; INVENTING TOMORROW; LOVE, GILDA; MATANGI/MAYA/M.I.A.; ON HER SHOULDERS; and PICK OF THE LITTER.

MORE ABOUT THE AUDIENCE AWARD-WINNING FILMS:

MR. SOUL!
An in-depth look at the late 1960s WNET public television series SOUL! and its producer Ellis Haizlip. The series was among the first to provide expanded images of African-Americans on television, shifting the gaze from inner-city poverty and violence to the vibrancy of the Black Arts Movement.

EARTHRISE
In 1968, the first image of Earth was captured from space. The world would never be the same.

AT&T is the Presenting Sponsor of AFI DOCS 2018. Official Sponsors include the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and VIZIO. Screen Sponsors are Audi, Discovery Communications, HBO, Netflix and Showtime Documentary Films. Official Media Sponsors include Deadline, Here TV, “Meet the Press,” Screen International, Variety, Washington City Paper and WHUT-TV. The DC Office of Cable Television, Film, Music and Entertainment; IMDbPro; and Maryland Film Office returned this year as Major Sponsors, joined by CuriosityStream and 202Creates. The Contributing Sponsor is International Documentary Association. This year’s Supporting Sponsors are Downtown Silver Spring and the Greater Silver Spring Chamber of Commerce. Cultural and Community Sponsors are the Danish Film Institute, DC Filmmakers, Docs in Progress, Embassy of Australia, TIVA-DC, Producers Guild of America, The Video Consortium and Women in Film & Video.

About AFI DOCS
AFI DOCS is the American Film Institute’s annual documentary festival in Washington, DC. Presenting the year’s best documentaries, AFI DOCS is the only festival in the U.S. dedicated to screenings and events that connect audiences, filmmakers and policy leaders in the heart of our nation’s government. The AFI DOCS advisory board includes Ken Burns, Davis Guggenheim, Chris Hegedus, Werner Herzog, Rory Kennedy, Barbara Kopple, Spike Lee, Errol Morris, Stanley Nelson, D A Pennebaker, Agnès Varda and Frederick Wiseman. Now in its 16th year, the festival took place June 13–17, 2018, at distinguished Washington, DC, venues, the Landmark E Street Cinema and the historic AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, MD. Visit AFI.com/AFIDOCS and connect on twitter.com/AFIDOCS, facebook.com/AFIDOCS, youtube.com/AFI and instagram.com/AmericanFilmInstitute.

About the American Film Institute
The American Film Institute was established by presidential proclamation in the White House Rose Garden, and launched its national mandate on June 5, 1967 — to preserve the heritage of the motion picture, to honor the artists and their work and to educate the next generation of storytellers. AFI’s founding Trustees included Chairman Gregory Peck, Vice Chairman Sidney Poitier, Francis Ford Coppola, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Jack Valenti and George Stevens, Jr., as Director.

About AT&T
AT&T is proud to be the Presenting Sponsor of the 2018 AFI DOCS. We help people connect in ways that improve lives – every day. Through DIRECTV, DIRECTV NOW and AT&T U-verse, we deliver the kind of entertainment people love to talk about. And you can watch almost anytime, anywhere. For 10 years, we’ve supported AFI’s commitment to honor the heritage of film and the artists who make them. And through a variety of programs, we’re focused on giving amateur and underrepresented filmmakers the support they need to succeed.

*Featured photo: Mr. Soul panel (Photo credit: Larry Gleeson/HollywoodGlee)

AFI DOCS

(Source: AFI Press Release)

AFI DOCS Film Review: Hesburgh (Creadon, 2018): USA

Posted by Larry Gleeson

Viewed by Larry Gleeson as part of the 2018 American Film Institute’s AFI DOCS.

Hesburgh is a biographical account of Father Theodore Martin Hesburgh, an ordained priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross. Hesburgh is widely known for his tenure, from 1952-1987, as President of the University of Notre Dame, located in South Bend, Indiana. Others knew Fr. Hesburgh as a confidante and as an advisor to American Presidents including, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard “Dick” Nixon. But, Director Patrick Creadon and Producer Christine O’Malley get behind the public persona and weave a story of mythic proportions.

Beginning with his ambitious plan to transform Notre Dame from an average academic institution with a great football team into a leading university for personal examination, exploration and learning, Hesburgh began wooing captains of industry for financial support and invited Fr. John Courtney Murray to lecture on the highly controversial tome The Catholic Church in World Affairs, at the University of Notre Dame. The voice-over narration and black and white still photos add a sense of historical significance and deification of what Hesburgh was engaging in. The Roman Catholic Church responded with an order to cease and desist from teaching such books ending with a formal “Roma locuta; causa finita est” (Rome has spoken; the cause is finished). Hesburgh defied the order arguing that it was the institution saying no and not him personally (as he had taken a vow of obedience to the Pope). According to Creadon, this sets a precedent for how Hesburgh navigated the world of power politics including the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the student protests of the Vietnam and Cambodian Wars as well as his graceful transition from the University of Notre Dame.

Beginning with the International Atomic Energy Agency, Father Hesburgh emerged in Vienna, Austria, as a free-thinking clergyman who was respected by both sides of the Cold War without stirring up controversy. Hesburgh had a penchant for schmoozing with bourbon and cigars resulting in a detante allowing both sides to sit in a room at the same table.

Afterwards, Hesburgh was named to President Eisenhower’s federal Commission on Civil Rights. As the University of Notre Dame was struggling to find a commencement speaker, Hesburgh called in a mark – President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered the 1960 Commencement Address with Cardinal Giovanni Montini (later to be named Pope Paul VI and leader of Vatican II) in tow! Cardinal Batista and Hesburgh would become close friends in the ensuing years sharing a love for space travel during the Apollo era of the United States Government’s accelerated Space Program in the 1960’s.

Sensing formidable opposing positions on the Civil Rights Commission, consisting of three democrats, two republicans, and Hesburgh, an independent priest. Hesburgh utilized his human touch, and the resources of a well-heeled Notre Dame philanthropist, to smooth out differences and gain a consensus resulting in a twelve point report recommendation to Congress. Hesburgh continued to serve on the Civil Rights Commission and was appointed chairman by his old friend, Richard “Dick” Nixon.

Uncharacteristically, however, Hesburgh dealt a stunning blow to Notre Dame student body curtailing student protests during the Vietnam and Cambodian Wars as he felt the protesting interfered with student learning. Later, Hesburgh would lament his decision to limit protesting feeling he had made an unfortunate decision that actually inhibited a student’s experience but at the time felt it was necessary and proper to institute it in an effort to curtail violence and also to guarantee the rights of other students who wanted to partake in their own education. Meanwhile, Dick Nixon praised the move and used it as propaganda.

Nixon would later pressure Hesburgh to resign from the Civil Right Commission as part of Nixon’s Southern Strategy. So, Hesburgh turned his focus full force into the campus life of Notre Dame declaring it a co-educational institution in 1972 with overwhelming approval from the male students. On May 17th, 1987, Father Theodore M. Hesburgh received the University of Notre Dame’s highest honor, the Laetare Medal, an annual award given to honor and recognize an individual who has given outstanding service to the Catholic Church and society.

While I did find the historical moments of the film enlightening, what really caught me by surprise were the human elements; the relationships cultivated, the emotional warmth expressed, and the joy and love expressed by those who knew Hesburgh. What I was left with was a powerful human interest story that served as both a testimonial to a life well lived for the noble causes of justice and freedom and a welcome addition to the national historical archives.

Employing present-day narratives from family members, fellow clergy members and a highly effective first person voice-over narration, interspersed with an up-tempo musical score and flashing images, and coupled with historical black and white photos, archival film footage and newsreels, Creadon sets the tone, mood and pacing for nothing-short of a miraculous life. Highly recommended.

AFI DOCS Film Review: The Cold Blue (Nelson, 2018):USA

Posted by Larry Gleeson

Viewed by Larry Gleeson as part of the 2018 American Film Institute’s AFI DOCS. The film was screened in the National Archives Museum in Washington, D.C.

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The Cold Blue, a Vulcan Production, is a gripping story of the bravery of youth and a meditative reflection by the surviving members of WWII bombers, directed by Erik Nelson. Nelson based The Cold Blue on footage shot by William Wyler (The Best Years of Our Lives) and three cinematographers flying with the 8th Air Force during WWII bombing missions over Europe and into Germany for a documentary on the Memphis Belle, a B-17 bomber.

In assembling his film, Nelson effectively employed restored, archival footage, textual overlays, still photography and present day voice-over narration from surviving members of the 8th Air Force. Sadly, one of the original Wyler cinematographers perished during the WWII footage collection when his plane went down over France. Interestingly, more men died flying missions in World War II than were killed fighting as United States Marines. In all 135,000 men flew over three million missions over Europe.

A B-17 formation, often referred to as a flying fortresses, was capable of carrying two tons of bombs over a distance of a thousand miles. During WWII, the flying fortresses would make their runs into Germany and after releasing their bombs, the aircraft would turn around and fly another five hours to return home. An average mission took eleven hours.

The crews’ bombing accuracy placed approximately one-third of their payloads within 1,000 feet of their intended targets. Adverse weather conditions would negatively impact their accuracy, however. The men who piloted and crewed these aerial war ships lived together, ate together and flew together on a minimum of 25 missions. The age range for most of the men were 19-25 years old. Most, if not all, were family men and feared daily for the loss of their lives. The odds of surviving all 25 missions was 25%. Roughly one million Germans, with an estimated 40,000 guns, laid in wait for these men and their planes.

By 1945, 12,731 B-17 had been built with 5,000 being lost in the war over Europe during the same time frame. In late 1944, the Allies decided, in order to bring the war to a close, to transition from a precision bombing campaign to a pattern bombing campaign that destroyed  3.6 million German homes, killed over 700,000 thousand Germans and wounded another 780,000. Moreover, 7.5 million Germans were made homeless. Pattern bombing succeeded in bringing about the German surrender and shortened the war by a full year.

In closing the film, the surviving members of the 8th Air Force downplayed their hero status and expressed why they wanted their story to not only be told, but to be heard – so that young men and women would not have to endure what they experienced in the cold blue where temperature inside their ships ranged from 20 degrees on a warm day to -60 degrees on a cold day. The film was dedicated to the 28,000 men of the 8th Air Force and to Cinematographer Harold Tannenbaum who gave their lives in service.

While The Cold Blue lacks some of the cinematic overtures of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, Director Nelson weaves a powerful, linear, human interest narrative. David Hughes adds an excellent sound design mixing diagetic and non-diagetic elements that add to and augment the evocative story line. In addition, the cameras inside the plane offer an unparalleled access to a live, combat air mission with a death-defying mise-en-scene. The restored, footage quality is quite good after being in storage for 70 years.

The Cold Blue is a warmly recommended film and, as with the award-winning Dunkirk, The Cold Blue is best experienced on a large screen.

Rory Kennedy’s Above and Beyond takes the audience into NASA’s Journey to Tomorrow

Posted by Larry Gleeson

Quite a day getting an opportunity to sit down with documentary filmmaker, Rory Kennedy, before the screening of her AFI DOCS 2018 Centerpiece film, Above and Beyond: NASA’s Journey to Tomorrow.

 

Following my interview, I gathered my gear and waited for the evening’s festivities. A brief reception was held before the screening in the Space Museum with some light appetizers and refreshments.

National Air and Space Museum Director Ellen Stofan discusses ABOVE AND BEYOND_ NASA'S JOURNEY TO TOMORROW during AFI DOCS 2018. Credit_ Gediyon Kifle
Dr. Ellen Stofan, the former Chief Scientist of NASA (2013-2016) and current Director of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, makes introductory remarks on June 15, 2018, at the  Mueum’s Lockheed-Martin IMAX theater before the screening of Above and Beyond: NASA’S Journey to Tomorrow. (Photo credit: Gediyon Kifle)

The screening was held in the Lockheed-Martin IMAX Theater. Introductory remarks were made by Dr. Ellen Stofan, the former Chief Scientist of NASA (2013-2016) and Director of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, who served as principal advisor to the NASA Administrator on the agency’s science-related strategic planning and programs. Stofan glowingly praised Kennedy’s work before bringing George Stevens, the American Film Institute’s (AFI) Founding Director, to the podium to make Kennedy’s formal introduction. And, after informing the audience of Kennedy’s nearly 50 films and that Kennedy’s middle name, Elizabeth, was in honor of Stevens’ wife, Stevens introduced Rory Kennedy.

ABOVE AND BEYOND_ NASA'S JOURNEY TO TOMORROW Discussion at the National Air and Space Museum during AFI DOCS 2018. Credit_ Gediyon Kifle
Rory Kennedy, second from left, speaks on making her newest film, Above and Beyond: NASA’S Journey to Tomorrow, during a panel discussion moderated by Ted Johnson, Senior Editor and Washington Bureau Chief for Variety, at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Lockheed-Martin IMAX Theater on June 16, 2018. Panel members seated left to right: Ellen Stofan, Director of the Air and Space Museum; Rory Kennedy; Charles Bolden, NASA Administrator from 2009-2017; William “Bill” Barry, NASA Chief Historian; and, Ted Johnson. (Photo credit: Gediyon Kifle)

 

Kennedy thanked the Discovery team, as well as several other notable figures, including John Hoffman, for their support and stated what a great honor it has been to make the film. And, without further adieu Above and Beyond was screened. A lively panel discussion followed the screening on the NASA mission and the future safeguarding of Planet Earth.

Stay tuned for more on the panel discussion. In the meantime, keep an eye out for Above and Beyond. For your reading pleasure, I’m including a review of the film!

REVIEW: ABOVE AND BEYOND: NASA’S JOURNEY TO TOMORROW

Documentary Filmmaker Rory Kennedy delivers a powerful payload of stunning and breathtaking imagery in her latest film, Above and Beyond: NASA’s Journey to Tomorrow. Kennedy has made a slew of award-winning and critically acclaimed films including American Hollow (1999), The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib (2007), Ethel (2012), and Last Days in Vietnam (2014). In, addition, Kennedy has been nominated for both the Oscar and Primetime Emmy – winning an Emmy with Last Days in Vietnam (2014). Above and Beyond, a Moxie Firecracker film, might be the film that puts her over the top when it comes to Oscar.

The film opens with an aerial shot of the Challenger Rover landing on the planet of Mars. Non-diagetic music aids in adding to the suspense of the momentous occasion. The  archival footage shows the final moments of the landing with a voice-over narrator informing the audience the module had entered the atmosphere at 1100 miles and slowed to a final descending speed of one and a half miles an hour. A nice transition is made to a loud, cheering operations room at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Jet Propulsion Laboratory leading into the title and rolling credits. Various space images of NASA machinery accompany the opening and set the mood for the film’s narrative.

Kennedy provides a good portion of the  film’s voice-over narration and reads some poignant words her uncle, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK), spoke in the early, transformative years of NASA. President Kennedy believed the Space Program and NASA offered America its greatest opportunities for its best and brightest minds as well as its able and fit bodies and tripled NASA’s budget from 1961 to 1962. Filmmaker Kennedy expertly crafted the words with complementary imagery. Archival footage of President Kennedy purveying an early rocket launch site as well as his wise and inspirational speech at Rice University as to why America would go to the moon, “not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills…” signifies the advent of the Space Race between the United States and Russia. Kennedy wanted to see space used for knowledge and understanding rather than a place for the deployment of weapons of mass destruction.

Over the course of the next six decades NASA would lead the way in space exploration. There were budgetary setbacks and unfortunate mishaps resulting in untimely deaths that temporarily halted some exploration efforts. But, more importantly, there were massive strides made and Rory Kennedy manages to weave them into the complex history of NASA with some inspirational words of her own at film’s end. Surprisingly, while NASA has been known predominantly for its space exploration it has also engaged itself in the exploration of the earth. And, Kennedy manages to keep pace with this duality through a precise curation of NASA archival clips.

Having been approached by The Discovery Channel about making a documentary on NASA, Kennedy answered the call and incorporated numerous interviews with astronauts and leading NASA officials, coupled with stunning visuals and copious amounts of research materials as she delved into the known and unknown dealing with a simple philosophical premise:

“Human beings, more than any other species, are driven by an insatiable curiosity, a remarkable ability to wonder. It is a need to know that lies deep within our DNA as we seek to answer some of time’s most fundamental questions: Where do we come from? Are we alone? What will become of us?”

And, much like her famous uncle, JFK, Rory Kennedy rallies NASA with its plans for space exploration and throws down the gauntlet with a call to action to moviegoers to safeguard our Planet Earth.

Above and Beyond is an ambitious film containing a wild and dangerous universe while inherently addressing the earth’s fragility and our place in it. One of the year’s most important films. Highly recommended.

*Featured photo: Rory Kennedy (Photo credit: Gediyon Kifle)

AFI DOCS

 

 

AFI DOCS Charles Guggenheim Symposium

Posted by Larry Gleeson

Documentary filmmaker, Steve James (Hoop Dreams (1994), The Interrupters (2011), Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (2016)), the 2018 American Film Institute’s (AFI) AFI DOCS Charles Guggenheim Symposium honoree, pleased a large audience at the Smithsonian Museum of American History’s Warner Bros. Theater with his candor and openness. James had plenty of help with the affable, Chicago Tribune critic, Michael Phillips. The AFI DOCS Charles Guggenheim Symposium honors masters of the non-fiction art form who inspire audiences by documenting and exploring the human experience.

Phillips gently led the conversation, after opening remarks from AFI President and CEO Bob Gazzale, from James’ personally poignant documentary, Stevie (2002), through to James’ latest work, America to Me, a twelve part series set in Oak Park, Illinois, an older, racially diverse, liberal-minded community, four blocks away from the boundary of the City of Chicago. James along with camera man, Bing Liu (Minding the Gap), spent a year following a group of high school students as they deal with and navigate life issues including the explosive Black Live Matter movement. The twelve-part series will premiere on Starz this fall.

Surprisingly, the conversation drifted from areas of ethical issues to camera movements to how a subject is chosen to make a documentary film with James work as the back drop. According to James he may have crossed the line with possible exploiting and manipulating people in Stevie to tell the story. The outcome, the public understanding how such a personality developed and how society deals with it, made making the film worthwhile and rewarding. Stevie had been a troubled youth for whom James had been a Big Brother Advocate.

2018 Guggenheim Honoree Steve James and Chicago Tribune Film Critic Michael Phillips. Credit_ Gediyon Kifle
The 2018 American Film Institute’s AFI DOCS Charles Guggenheim Symposium honoree, Steve James, right, shares with the audience at the Smithsonian Institute of American History Warner Bros. Theater his experience as a documentary filmmaker on June 15th, 2018. James’ films include Stevie, The Interrupters and Abacus:Small Enough to Jail. (Photo credit: Gediyon Kifle)

James’ candor in how he dealt with returning to reconnect with Stevie segued into Phillips next question revolving around how a key relationship with a subject can change from the beginning of filming. According to James, much of what the person is experiencing in their own interpersonal world in a specific moment is what he finds to be of genuine interest.

One question that seems to surface with any human interest documentary is what affect the camera has on the subject. James experience is no different. Jokingly, James frankly quipped without having access to an alternate universe, we will never know what the filmic experience would look like without a camera. One thing James is certain of, however, is that in the end the film shows that the force of human emotions is so powerful that the presence of the camera makes little difference in the telling of the story.

James’ breakthrough film, Hoop Dreams, followed two inner-city, African-American high school basketball players recruited to play at the prestigious, suburban high school, St, Joseph’s in outlying Westchester, Illinois. James said as recently as last year he’s been posed with the question, “So what have you done since Hoop Dreams?” that brought a big chuckle from the audience. James said his wife, whom he initially followed to Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, where he studied film in the graduate program, is an intuitive bounce. While working on America to Me, James had the impetus for his most recent film about a small Chinese-American banking institution, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, that was the only company to be criminally indicted in the United States mortgage crisis of 2008. He wasn’t sure with his already full workload about taking on another project simultaneously. Thankfully, his wife told him he had to make the film!

Bringing the conversation to a close, Phillips brought to light James’ penchant for Chicago grassroots films. Seemingly hesitant at first, James responded while that may be the case, his films also deal with issues any large metropolitan area might have such as injustice and urban violence. Admittedly, James feels a great pride in being a Chicagoan and then dropped the bombshell that his next work, based in Chicago (which he calls the most racially divided city in America), Race in America.

With final remarks James thanked numerous people for their support, including Chaz Ebert who was in the audience. James also made it quite clear, Hoop Dreams would not have received the recognition it did without the help and support of long-time, Chicago film critic, Roger Ebert.

Following the discussion, the first episode of America to Me was screened.

*Featured photo from left to right: Michael Phillips, critic for the Chicago Tribune, and Steve James, documentary filmmaker and 2018 American Film Institute’s AFI DOCS Charles Guggenheim Symposium honoree. (Photo credit: Gediyon Kifle)

AFI DOCS

The Santa Barbara International Film Festival Announces 2019 Dates

Posted by Larry Gleeson

 

The Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) will return for the 34th edition January 30 – February 9, 2019. Official festival screenings and related events will be held throughout Santa Barbara, including the Arlington and Lobero Theatres.

roger-durling-photo-by-clint-weisman-studio-200x300
SBIFF Executive Director Roger Durling.

“It’s extraordinary and a cause for celebration that SBIFF is heading into its 34th edition. We love that after this past difficult year, Santa Barbara is anxiously ready to welcome once again more world-class filmmakers – and putting together our popular and insightful panels and tributes. Join us.” – SBIFF Executive Director Roger Durling.

Last year’s Tribute Honors were bestowed upon artists including Allison Janney, Margot Robbie, Jordan Peele, Guillermo Del Toro, Saoirse Ronan, Sam Rockwell, and Timothée Chalamet. The festival’s acclaimed Panel Series will return highlighting the year’s most accomplished producers, writers, and women in the entertainment industry.

SBIFF passes are offered at 25% off beginning August 1. For more information, please visit www.sbiff.org.

About the Santa Barbara International Film Festival
The Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit arts and educational organization dedicated to discovering and showcasing the best in independent and international cinema. Over the past 30 years, SBIFF has become one of the leading film festivals in the United States – attracting 90,000 attendees and offering 11 days of 200+ films, tributes and symposiums, fulfilling their mission to engage, enrich, and inspire people through film.

SBIFF continues its commitment to education and the community through free programs like its 10-10-10 Student Filmmaking and Screenwriting Competitions, Mike’s Field Trip to the Movies, National Film Studies Program, AppleBox Family Films, 3rd Weekend and educational seminars. In June 2016, SBIFF entered a new era with the acquisition of the historic and beloved Riviera Theatre. After a $5 million dollar capital campaign and renovation, the theatre is now SBIFF’s new state-of-the-art, year-round home, showing new international and independent films every day.

 

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*Featured photo: Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) Executive Director, Roger Durling, right, and SBIFF Board President, Lynda Weinman, speaks to television field reporter, Alys Martinez, left, at the SBIFF Closing Night red carpet, as SBIFF Board President, Lynda Weinman, looks on, February 10th, 2018, at the historic Arlington Theatre in Santa Barbara, Calif. (Photo credit: Larry Gleeson/HollywoodGlee)

(Source: sbiff.org press release)

 

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AFI DOCS 2018 Film Review: Dark Money

Posted by Larry Gleeson

Viewed by Larry Gleeson as part of the 2018 American Film Institute’s AFI DOCS, Director Kimberly Reed (Prodigal Sons, Paul Goodman Changed My Life), weaves and bobs through a heavyweight political fight with Dark Money.

Screen Shot 2018-06-18 at 9.41.15 PMDark Money opens with a gaggle of geese and a news report stating the number of dead geese is higher than thought followed by some interesting aerial shots of a large swath of strip-mined land. With some montage editing, the mise-en-scene changed to black and white with an assortment of old mining photos, including the Anaconda Copper Company operations what seems to be a familiar voice-over (I thought it was Jesse Ventura – I was wrong).

To me, the opening seemed a little choppy as the next sequence revealed a farmer lamenting some malfunctioning plow implement – only the farmer turned out to be a U.S. Senator, Jon Tester, from the state of Montana. Well, that got my attention. His description of the way he carries out his vocation sounded as though he were the legendary Roman statesman, Cincinnatus. This was not a very flattering portrait of Senator Tester. Fortunately, Senator Tester, like the film, looked and got better as the film progressed.

Reed lays down some nice background material with archival photos and overlays before getting into the essence of Dark Money. Several Montana state officeholders hold ordinary jobs and share their advocacy for political engagement. Another political candidate laments his inability to respond to a series of political ads that flooded mailboxes and media three days before the election linking the candidate to John Wayne Gacy, an American serial killer and rapist. The ads were run by Mothers Against Child Predators and ran in a predominantly Catholic area. Upon inquiry, no one could determine who Mothers Against Child Predators were. After extensive investigation, it was determined that two women sent out the ads as part of a political process to gain access to seats in state government offices and the state judiciary.

I noticed a nice non-diagetic score mimicking a racing heart as a narrative voice-over from Ann Ravel, a Federal Election Commissioner, who uncovered how groups like Mothers Against Predators operate while hiding where their money comes from. Reed moves the setting from rural Montana to the nation’s Capital. Seemingly, Reed is alluding to the real seat of power and then juxtaposes the Capital with a little house with a sign that reads “Commissioner of Political Practices.”

Interestingly, Montana presently has a Citizen Legislature after a corrupt political past primarily associated with the Anaconda Mine. The Anaconda Mine site is one of the largest Super Fund cleanup sites in the world. According to a diagetic docent the Anaconda financed the Industrial Revolution. Yet, the trade off is that it is home to the greatest potential disaster threatening the Northwest as the toxic waste water sitting at the head of the Columbia River is so acidic that a gaggle of geese who lost their way and settled onto the Anaconda pit perished.

In 1912, Montana passed Corrupt Practices Act. This law was held in place until the United Citizens decision by the United States Supreme Court allowed dark money into elections. Proponents celebrated the decision as a win for free speech.

Later, Reed supplies footage of a Russian-style town hall meeting called by American Tradition Partnership.The goal is to get rid of all disclosure, all regulation and all truth-in-advertising mandates so corporations can dictate policy and influence government by manipulating the voting populace just as the Anaconda Mining Company had done a century earlier.

Thanks to a laid off investigative reporter, John Adams, who lost his job when the state news bureau was disbanded, corruption is uncovered in a series of American Tradition Partnership emails with evidence of illegal direct mailings. A trial is held pinning a state legislature with violations of the Montana Disclose Act. He is fined. And, much like the Trump Administration Cabinet appointees, he claimed during the hearing he didn’t know anything about the  coordinated in-kind contributions he received from dark money groups.

Fortunately, Reed doesn’t stop here. A link is made between the inaction of the Federal Elections Commission and its failure to require foreign government political contributions to be reported. Also, Reed  slips in a call to action in the form of followthemoney.org.

Dark Money is an interesting film as it delves into what dark money is, how it can affect political campaigns and how foreign governments are using it to influence the outcome of electoral processes – until ultimately controlling the United States Supreme Court. Highly recommended.

 

FILM REVIEW – Hale County, This Morning, This Evening

Posted by Larry Gleeson

Viewed by Larry Gleeson as part of the American Film Institute’s 2018 AFI DOCS Film Festival.

Hale County, This Morning, This Evening written, directed and produced by RaMell Ross, and Winner of a Special Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Ross tells the story of two African-American males, Daniel and Quincy, born in Hale County, Alabama, and the diverse paths their lives take.  Hale County, This Morning, This Evening breaks the mold of a traditional documentary with its cinematic language and use of montage.

In the film’s opening sequence, an immediate distrust of the camera is highlighted in a bold directorial choice regarding one of the film’s subjects, Quincy, who works at a catfish plant to support his young family. “What is the orbit of your dreams?’ sneaks into the lower left-hand corner of the film in a title, textual overlay. A transition is made revealing a small-town street lined with black folks sitting on they cars. Nice non-diagetic music accompanies the camera as it glides down the street. Apparently, them folks is impervious to what is going on ’round them. Welcome to the Deep South where race is constructed and dreaming is an everyday part of existence. RaMell Ross is a philosopher, a photographer, a teacher a high-school basketball coach and now a filmmaker.

Ross utilizes his photography skills to great effect capturing simple, elegant moments that juxtapose other images like a grown man heaping a large truck tire onto a fire while off-screen voices provide commentary on the color and density of the smoke rising up into the air. This telling scene was proceeded buy the title textual overlay, “What is done when all the cotton is picked?’ Ross is not sugar-coating the environment. This type of call and response brilliantly forms the crux of the film’s narrative. In another scene a young girl who really hasn’t learned to speak is being questioned by a semi-literate grown woman. First she asked the young girl her name (though i couldn’t comprehend the pronunciation of the word name). When the girl didn’t reply she asked a few more time with each rendering becoming more intelligible only to be followed up with a “How old you is?”

As a basketball coach, Ross has access to the film’s second primary character, Daniel, a strong, physically fit basketball player longing to escape the confines of his environment. Part of the beauty of Ross’s cinematography and consequent cinematic language is the tight framing of Daniel as he practices his jump shot. While Daniel might be confined for now, this (basketball) is his way out, his way to freedom from confinement.

In my opinion, the film ended rather abruptly evoking a feeling of wanting something more and left my pondering what I had just experienced. The montage of imagery alone makes this film worth seeing. But Ross adds a deep, visceral element, coupled with philosophical interjections, that creates a work of art transcending the confines of the theatre. It begs to be experienced. The result is a highly compelling, experimental film seemingly influenced by Melvin Van Peebles’ spawn of the Blaxploitation era, Sweet SweetBack’s Baadasssss Song. And, with a run time of a fast seventy-six minutes, it’s one you don’t want to miss! Highly recommended.

AFI DOCS

 

 

 

Film Review: The Providers (Green and Moot-Levin, 2018):USA

Posted by Larry Gleeson

Viewed by Larry Gleeson as part of the American Film Institute’s 2018 AFI DOCS.

The Providers, recently selected for the AFI Impact Lab was directed, produced and photographed by Laura Green and Anna Moot-Levin. Green and Moot-Levin follow the movements and activities of Matt Probst, Chris Ruge and Leslie Hayes, three health care providers working for a small network of clinics, El Centro, in northern, central New Mexico. El Centro clinics cover an area of 22,000 square miles and treats all patients regardless of insurance, condition or ability to pay. This area is in the top five for heroin overdoses in the United States. Moreover, approximately 70,000 deaths occurred last year in rural areas due to a lack of health care access – ten times the number of deaths in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.

After introducing the three characters, The Providers kicks into high gear, as Green and Moot-Levin begin capturing footage of the medical workers as they treat their patients and deal with their own individual life issues on life’s terms. Probst’s father, an opioid addict dies and his sister is arrested for buying drugs with monies fraudulently obtained via identity theft with a gang of five. Ruge receives a letter indicating his Echo Care funding will probably not be renewed and struggles with an imbalance between his obsession for work and a wife at home. Meanwhile, while Dr. Hayes continues to manage her workload quite well and worries what will happen if the Echo Care funding dries up.

In addition to the work these three “country doctors” perform, each one has an extraordinary backstory and history that not only informs them but also inspires them to keep providing care to their own community that is so absent in far too many communities across the land. Green and Moot-Levin provide sharp cinematography and make effective use of traditional documentary filmmaking techniques with testimonials, voice-over narration, still photography, text overlays and non-diagetic music. Paul Brill provides a mesmerizing musical score and sound composition and the cinematography provided by Green and Moot-Levin is exquisite. Most importantly, the narrative is quite compelling as the protagonists make life a little brighter, a little better and a lot more hopeful for those they care for.

Screen Shot 2018-06-18 at 4.11.36 PM
Matt Probst, a physician’s assistant, highlighted in Laura Green and Anna Moot-Levin’s The Providers, serves as the Director of El Centro, a small network of health clinics in north-central New Mexico. El Centro treats all patients regardless of insurance, condition or ability to pay and covers an area of 22,000 square miles. (Photo credit: theprovidersdoc.com)

Matt Probst, a physician’s assistant, serves as the Director of El Centro and laments to a group of recruits that by the end of the summer El Centro will have a shortage of eight positions. Chris Ruge, a former truck driver who wanted to feel more connected, is  a nurse practitioner and has been funded for one year through a pilot program called Echo Care which allows Ruge to visit the sickest individuals in the region 24 hours a day. Leslie Hayes is a family doctor who treats her patients with compassion as they struggle with everyday, real-life problems and was in the first training session for treating opioid addiction in a primary practice. Dr. Hayes was recognized by the White House as a Champions of Change for her work in advancing the treatment, prevention and recovery for the opiate-addicted.

One thing becomes tantalizingly clear by the film’s end, The Providers is a heart-warming, soul-affirming documentary and it provides a deep insight into small-town America while confronting the challenges of keeping those in poor, rural communities safe. Warmly recommended with a run-time of an hour and twenty-four minutes.

*Featured photo: Chris Huge ((Photo credit: theprovidersdoc.com)

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