Category Archives: AFIDocs

AFI DOCS Film Review: Maria Finitzo’s Cliteracy-exploring DILEMMA OF DESIRE Shouts For More

Posted by Larry Gleeson                                                                                      June 29, 2020

Watching the opening scene of the cliteracy-exploring documentary, The  Dilemma of Desire, I was intrigued watching a woman, neuroscientist Stacey Dutton, Ph. D., in an office present-day, walking across the screen and opening a Gray’s Anatomy Textbook, while a voice-over narration informs the viewer. What happens next befuddled me. I could not believe my eyes. Here is a woman in 2020 with an anatomy book that has no picture or information on the female clitoris. Unbelievable right? Well, apparently, the edition being discussed was published in 1858. A sleight of hand so to say. The intent is crystal clear in today’s protest language, “Let’s get emotional people! This is pussy power were dealing with here!!!”

But, the best was yet to come as the film’s most intriguing characters were introduced. One, a Brooklyn-based artist, Sophia Wallace, has a routine of going to the gym listening to “work-out” music then taking lyrics and reframing them with the clitoris in mind. From there, prints are created celebrating the “clit,” and the hundred laws of cliteracy. To accentuate, a revealing text title poses the question with dramatic flair, “Can you draw a clit?” Pulsating music accompanies the next segment, Womanhood: The Clitoris Chapter, introducing “Critical Thinking – The Best Work of Sophia Wallace” – a very thought-provoking art exhibit celebrating the female “joy button.” More importantly, Wallace is a compelling force on the screen as she shares her experience, strength, and hope in navigating desire as she expresses her truth as Director Maria Finitzo captures mush of it in Verite’ style.

In today’s world, we often hear somewhat crude and vulgar terms such as “bumping uglies” or “doing the nasty.” Wallace’s phrases, in juxtaposition, are framed in glitteringly gold letters – a beautiful and highly respectful manner and miles away from “bumping uglies” or “doing the nasty.” After Wallace’s whirlwind world, Finitzo goes on to highlight Linda Diamond, PH. D., Professor of Psychology and Gender Studies, a monthly newsletter for women interested in “pleasure in a practical everyday sense,” an industrial engineer manufacturing elegant female vibrators as well as a stunning Chicagoan woman, Coriama, who proudly postulates she has the will to negotiate for what she needs sexually.

Interestingly, Finitzo, a Peabody Award-winning director, spouts themes from Audrey Lourde’s feminist-leaning essay, Uses of the Erotic, that women have been suppressed from power and information by the male world. To prove her point, Finitzo adds a black and white still photograph of a woman suffering from what Dr. Sigmund Freud referred to as hysteria. Today, “hysterical” women in Decatur, Georgia, have formed a female support group. Here women create a sacred, safe space to explore the bounds of their sexuality. Adeptly, Finitzo managed to score footage from a meeting of the “mine’s.” as the women from Decatur openly share intimate feelings about their clitorises.

Nevertheless, “the little man in the boat” remains the misunderstood, “shuntive” part of the female anatomy, keeping women suppressed, as they are systematically warned against the dangers of eroticism and the resulting information. In one especially memorable scene, Finitzo mixes a driving, non-diegetic musical score culminating in a crescendo with a voice-over narration describing the clitoris as a powerful provocative force, a replenishing force. Some top-notch burlesque sequences, both archival performances as well as current-day performers, add an exquisite, erotic vibe.

The Dilemma of Desire, executively produced by Academy Award-winning Barbara Kopple, is an exceptionally well-executed film advocating that women are sexual beings with the right to live fully in the expression of their desires. The craftsmanship in gathering footage, in editing, informative narrative voice-overs, and musical score support and add timely emotionality in underscoring Finitzo’s sharply-pointed direction. My hat comes off to the cast and crew.

Probably most surprising was Finitzo’s ability to add tongue-in-cheek scenic elements underscoring the buffoonery surrounding the massive dismissal of the “devil’s doorbell” – in my opinion, a very serious oversight. But in the end, though the coverage seemed somewhat excessive, I found it wholly conceivable to view the clitoris as a replenishing, provocative force after viewing The Dilemma of Desire. A bit long, however, with a runtime of 109 minutes. Highly recommended.




AFI DOCS FILM REVIEW: Ron Howard’s Gripping “Rebuilding Paradise” Uplifts and Inspires

Posted by Larry Gleeson

Academy Award-winning filmmaker Ron Howard’s Rebuilding Paradise, a blistering Verite-style, National Geographic documentary, captures the devastation of the 2018 Camp Fire and the resiliency of Paradise, Calif., residents in the fire’s aftermath. Howard, one of Hollywood’s most popular directors, also directed the 1991 fire drama Backdraft. Other Howard films include the Oscar-winning dramas A Beautiful Mind and Apollo 13, the hit comedies Parenthood and Splash, and the critically-acclaimed documentaries Pavarotti and The Beatles: Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years. Following the Rebuilding Paradise screening, Howard and Paradise residents, Michelle John and Woody Culleton, participated in a Q & A moderated by broadcast journalist Katy Tur, an NBC correspondent and anchor for MSNBC Live. Howard confided Rebuilding Paradise was his first venture into Verite-style filmmaking while the residents echoed the unimaginable magnitude of the fire’s devastation and that the images don’t reflect the fire’s “uncomprehendable” nature.

Rebuilding Paradise opens in dramatic fashion with narrative voice-over providing a weather update informing the viewer of a windy day and PG&E contemplating a pre-emptive decision to shut down the area’s power grid. Large, fast-moving fire breaks out in the Feather River Canyon with four dozers, two water tenders, and four strike teams are deployed. Emergency calls are heard. School and hospital evacuations are taking place. Audible prayers are heard. And then, dashcam footage of a vehicle racing through the haze and fiery embers with diegetic radio communications juxtaposed against footage of a raging, massive wildfire (imagine Lord of the Rings Mountain of Fire) fueled by dry timber and blustering forty mile-per-hour winds reveal the genesis of a perfect firestorm. Non-diegetic music from the master composer, Hans Zimmer accompanies haunting, apocalyptic slow-motion frames of horses seeking freedom or at least a free-range amidst a claustrophobic smoke and death-seeking fire patches. The scene closes tinged in hope as a family escapes the area in their vehicle with exclamatory verbiage.

For me, this opening scene captured the essence of Rebuilding Paradise. As devastating as the fire and the footage were, the family breaks out and into blue skies with a redemptive foreshadowing. Howard latches on to a group of Paradise residents who have a deeply rooted sense of place and home as they take the journey to rebuild Paradise one day at a time. There were plenty of setbacks and details of electrical equipment dating to 1921 still in use were trying and quite frustrating as the lawyers for PG&E managed to beat down a wrongful death case to manslaughter with a 3.5 million dollar fine for the lives of 85 Paradise residents who perished in the massive fire. Adeptly, Howard captures the real Erin Brockovich speaking to a group of Paradise residents. Brockovich was the subject of a 2000 bio-drama directed by Steven Soderbergh, starring Julia Roberts that dramatized Brockovich’s relentless and successful pursuit of justice for families who were victims of PG&E polluting their water supply.

Interestingly, Howard chose to tell the story in linear segments beginning with one month, then to three months, six months, culminating with nine months. On top of the eighty-five deaths, fifty thousand lives were displaced. One of the film’s most compelling characters turned out to be the school psychologist, Carly Ingersoll, a young thirty-something, married woman who had decided to start a family with her husband. But due to contaminants being absorbed into the groundwater, she and her husband were advised by their physician not to have a baby. In her professional capacity, she was fully engaged in trauma counseling with students and despite having nearly perished in the fire herself managed to see beyond the devastation and find a sense of hope for the future.

Rebuilding Paradise is a gripping, well-executed film with top-notch photography, driving musical score and inspirational, narrative story-telling and it covers the trials and tribulations of a community facing an assured annihilation who turn their devastation into a mythic Phoenix as their town rises from its ashes in warm and hopeful tones. Very highly recommended.


AFI DOCS FILM REVIEW: Jimmy Carter, Rock & Roll President Brings Down The Curtain for 2020 With Hope And Love

Posted by Larry Gleeson

The Virtual World Premiere of the 2020 Virtual AFI DOCS Closing Night Film, Jimmy Carter, Rock & Roll President, directed by Mary Wharton, provided an artistic view into the influence of music on Jimmy Carter’s upbringing and its influence on the Carter Presidency. The work also provides an intimate look inside the former United States President who made peace, human rights, and healing the nation a priority after the Vietnam War and the Watergate debacle. Director Wharton also won the 2004 Grammy Award for Best Music Film for her documentary feature Sam Cooke: Legend. Other feature film credits include Joan Baez: How Sweet The Sound, the platinum-selling concert film Phish: It and Farrah Fawcett Forever.

Jimmy Carter, Rock & Roll President featured testimonial interviews, poetry readings, and archival performances from musical legends Bob Dylan, Nile Rodgers, Roseanne Cash, Chuck Leavell, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Dizzie Gillespie, Sarah Vaughn, Ray Charles, Mihaela Jackson, Tom T. Hall, Jimmy Buffet, Bono, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Trisha Yearwood, Garth Brooks, Charlie Daniels, and Gregg Allman and the Allman Brothers Band. Moreover, Ambassadors to the United Nations, Madeline Albright and Andrew Young, as well as Special Assistants to the President, Jim Free and Tom Beard, shared their respect and admiration for President Carter with direct interviews. Chip Carter, son and Presidential driver, added verisimilitude to the film’s revelatory narrative.

Following the screening, Wharton and Producer Chris Farrell participated in a Q & A moderated by Ken Jacobson and with President Carter calling in from his home in Plains, Georgia. Unfortunately, due to low bandwidth, the call was mostly inaudible. Nevertheless, the Q & A proved enlightening. While Farrell was researching and gathering artifacts for an Allman Brothers documentary, he was referred to a “bunch of guys” who began sharing stories of Gregg Allman and Jimmy Carter. Then Bob Dylan. Then Willie Nelson. And so it went. Ad Infinitum. Interestingly, Allman was the first guest of President Carter to dine in the White House. The two had become friends during Carter’s years as the Governor of the State of Georgia. In an archival interview, a clean and sober Allman tells the story of Jimmy coming out and claiming the Presidency was his for the winning. Mr. Allman claims the pronouncement came as the two heavyweights put a large dent in a bottle of J & B Scotch Whiskey. Carter contested Allman’s claim as Jimmy limits himself to one drink a day at most!

But, Jimmy Carter did become President. The road wasn’t easy. He struggled immensely until musicians like the Allman Brothers and Jimmy Buffet put on concerts in Rhode Island and Oregon respectively, galvanizing the youth vote. Even gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson was impressed with Jimmy Carter. Thompson was covering Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy’s national campaign for the Democratic Party nomination when he witnessed the verve of Carter. Carter would go on to win the nomination and the election. Kennedy would go on to have one of the longest and most influential careers in the history of the United States Senate championing a wide-range of legislative issues including the civil rights of the disabled, immigration, education, and health care reform and would bear the moniker, Lion of the Senate, for his Senatorial prowess,

Once Jimmy Carter became President, White House Lawn gatherings became regular events organized by the First Lady Rosalynn Carter. And Wharton provides spot-on footage, voice-overs, and montages of stills photographs to perfection. Yet, all was not perfect in the Camelot of the South. The longtime U.S. friend and ally, the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, had been facing opposition demonstrations and civil resistance when he fled the country leaving the opposition party’s Prime Minister in charge. The Shah had cancer and sought exile and treatment in the United States. This would become the defining moment of the Carter Administration. Carter, the humanitarian, allowed the Shah into the U.S. for treatment. The Iranian government fell and was taken over by the religious Grand Ayatollah Khomeini. The country quickly became an Islamic republic with a theocratic-republican constitution while student radicals took 52 American hostages at the US Embassy in Tehran. Former President Richard Nixon and Republican foreign policy hawks wanted swift military action against Iran. President Carter chose peace and dialogue in negotiating a release.

The U.S. economy had inflation, exorbitant interest rates, and gasoline shortages that resulted in huge lines at the pumps when gas was available. The country was in a spiritual malaise. Carter would lose his re-election bid in a landslide to Ronald Reagan, the movie actor, and Governor of California. Carter states on camera if he had it all to do over again, he’d do it the same way. The day Reagan was sworn in all the hostages were released after being held captive for 444 days. Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter said their goodbyes, boarded Air Force One (where they received word of the hostages leaving Iranian airspace) and returned to small-town life in Plains, Georgia. The Carter Administration had significant foreign policy and domestic achievements with the Camp David Accords, the Panama Canal Treaties, humanitarian work around the world and new energy policies at home, environmental protection, and major educational programs under the new Department of Education.

Jimmy Carter, the Naval Officer, author, poet, a nuclear physicist, and a peanut farmer from small-town Plains, Georgia, would go on to lead a life of service negotiating peace deals (winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002), advocating for voter rights, and building homes for the less fortunate. He continues to this day with the love of his life, Rosalynn. Jimmy Carter, Rock & Roll President is one of the most fascinating biographical documentaries, I have ever seen. While many might feel compelled to say, “I like Jimmy Carter, the man, but not Jimmy Carter, the President.” I say, “Well…you need to watch Jimmy Carter, Rock & Roll President.” Highly recommended!

JIMMY CARTER Rocks the 2020 Virtual AFI DOCS to a Resounding Close

Posted by Larry Gleeson

AFI DOCS Wraps Up its First-Ever Virtual Film Festival


The 2020 AFI DOCS went virtual for the first time ever. The scheduled Opening Night Film, BOYS STATE, an up-close and personal look inside the American Legion’s annual political summer camp, was postponed for me due to technical issues. Consequently, A Thousand Cuts became the first film I viewed. I was able to circle back with an extended Boys State viewing window thanks to AFI DOCS. In the words of former President of the United States, Jimmy Carter, in the Closing Night Film, Jimmy Carter, Rock & Roll President, “If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

The AFI DOCS offerings for its 2020 edition featured 59 films from 11 countries and 12 virtual World Premieres, with 61% of the films directed by women, 25% by POC directors, and 14% by LGBTQ directors. AT&T returned as Presenting Sponsor. Eventive provided the virtual space for viewings.

Rebuilding Paradise
Rebuilding Paradise


Some of my favorite films and events included: the Closing Night Film, Jimmy Carter, Rock and Roll President, an artistic view into the influence of music on the Carter Presidency featuring musical legends Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Dizzie Gillespie, Jimmy Buffet, Trisha Yearwood, Garth Brooks, and Gregg Allman while providing an intimate look inside the former United States President who made peace, human rights, and healing a priority (highly recommended viewing); Ron Howard’s Rebuilding Paradise, a blistering Verite-style documentary capturing the devastation of the 2018 Camp Fire and the resiliency of a group of Paradise, Calif., residents in the aftermath; Sing Me A Song, a “beautiful observational portrait” on the influence technology has on a Bhutan monastery and the life of its monks; and, the Guggenheim Symposium with Lee Grant, a conversation moderated by Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday, that focused on Grant’s second career behind the camera after an Oscar-worthy acting career. Grant spoke of Barbara Kopple’s groundbreaking work, Harlan County, U.S.A., and the profound influence it had on her decision to make her 1986 Best Documentary Oscar-winning Down and Out in America – Grant’s exploration of homelessness, foreclosures, and food insecurity across the country during the Reagan-era recession.



Academy Award ® -winning actor and filmmaker Lee Grant, left, and the Washington Post’s Ann
Hornaday during the 2020 Guggenheim Symposium at AFI DOCS.

Truthfully, there were so many excellent films, presentations, panels, and forums, I’m somewhat dumbfounded virtually. A film deserving of special mention, however, is The Fight, produced by Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman, Eli Despres, Maya Seidler, Peggy Wexler, and Kerry Washington, and tracked four American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) cases beginning with archival footage of a crowd of peaceful protesters outside the Brooklyn, New York, office building. The gathering came together following the newly inaugurated (seven days old) United States President’s public declaration on national television of Donald J. Trump’s Muslim ban. The Muslim ban’s third iteration was upheld by the United States Supreme Court. In the other three cases, the ACLU prevailed revealing military sex-orientation discriminatory policy, census misinformation perpetrated by the Commerce Department, and the denial of constitutionally granted reproductive rights by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. All three issues were strongly supported publicly by President Trump. An exceptionally well-constructed film. Essential viewing.

The Fight
The Fight

Congratulations to this year’s AFI DOCS Award Winners. The Audience Award for Best Feature went to TRANSHOOD, directed by Sharon Liese. The Audience Award for Best Short went to BLACKFEET BOXING: NOT INVISIBLE, directed by Kristen Lappas and Tom Rinaldi. The Grand Jury Prize for Short Films went to ABORTION HELPLINE, THIS IS LISA, directed by Barbara Attie, Janet Goldwater, and Mike Attie. The jury said of the selection, “For its simple yet profound approach to a polarizing political issue, we have selected a film which puts humanity ahead of an agenda.” The Shorts Grand Jury Prize is a qualifying award for Academy Award eligibility. The jury also awarded an honorable mention to DO NOT SPLIT, directed by Anders Hammer.

This year’s voting jury for the competitive Short Films slate was comprised of Opal H. Bennett, festival Programmer for DOC NYC and Athena Festival and Shorts Producer for POV; filmmaker and curator Cameron Yates; and Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Smriti Mundhra.

In addition to the films and the Guggenheim Symposium, AFI DOCS offered a plethora of panels featuring engaging discussions between filmmakers and film subjects, led by some of the nation’s top journalists: NBC News’ Meet the Press moderator and NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd; NBC News Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Andrea Mitchell; MSNBC correspondent Trymaine Lee; CNN anchor and correspondent Juan Carlos Arciniegas; NBC News correspondent and MSNBC anchor Katy Tur; NBC News correspondent Jacob Soboroff; NBC News’ Meet the Press senior producer Allie Sandza; CNN history correspondent Douglas Brinkley; author and journalist Lois Romano; activist and journalist Tre’vell Anderson; journalist Soledad O’Brien; and The Washington Post’s chief film critic Ann Hornaday, Global Opinions writer Jason Rezaian, on-air reporter Nicole Ellis and deputy editorial page editor Ruth Marcus.

Moreover, The AFI DOCS Forum explored unique topics with keynote presentations, conversations, panel discussions, and micro-meetings that covered developments affecting our world and documentary filmmaking. Programming for the Forum was made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts. NBC News’ Meet the Press and The Washington Post returned to host and moderate sessions, with Netflix and ITVS joining to host sessions as well.

Until next time, I look forward to seeing you at the movies!




Showcasing the best in documentary programming from the US and around the globe in the heart of the nation’s capital, AFI DOCS is the nation’s premier documentary film festival.

AFI DOCS offers a unique opportunity to connect audiences with inspiring documentarians, film subjects, national opinion leaders, public policy experts, and changemakers. With insightful screenings, industry panels, and creative workshops you won’t experience at any other film festival, the festival harnesses the power of this important art form and its potential to inspire social change.

Throughout the year, the AFI DOCS Film Series brings audiences in the nation’s capital the best in nonfiction filmmaking.

“The nation’s leading documentary film festival.” – The Washington Post

AFI DOCS Advisory Board

Ken Burns

Davis Guggenheim

Chris Hegedus

Werner Herzog

Rory Kennedy

Barbara Kopple

Spike Lee

Errol Morris

Stanley Nelson

Frederick Wiseman

* Featured photo: President Jimmy Carter, left, and musician Willie Nelson.




The AFI DOCS Interview: ALONE IN THE GAME Creator/Executive Producer David McFarland

Posted by Larry Gleeson

ALONE IN THE GAME exposes the outdated ideas and outright prejudices that make competitive sports one of the gay rights movement’s final frontiers, and shows how a new generation of queer and transgender athletes are scoring victories on and off the field by standing up for their rights and demanding a chance to compete.

Athletes featured include NBA center Jason Collins; soccer stars Megan Rapinoe and Robbie Rogers; Vanderbilt football player Riley Tindol; high-school athlete Trevor Betts; and Layana White and Haley Videckis, who found love on the Pepperdine Christian University women’s basketball team and lost their scholarships.

AFI spoke with creator/executive producer David McFarland about the film, which plays AFI DOCS Friday, June 15. Get tickets here.

AFI: What led you to pursue documentary filmmaking?

DM: The advocate in me was called to action, and the creative in me couldn’t be left behind. For me, documentary storytelling is about bringing a hidden world to audiences to help create change and make a real difference in the lives of others.

AFI: What inspired you to tell this story?

DM: I have the privilege to examine these issues at the highest levels of sport — live these issues, really — up close and in person, and these experiences have given me a true and factual understanding of just how serious these problems are for LGBT athletes and how great an impact the world of sport can make when the right decisions are made by those in positions of power. When there is no current out gay male professional athlete actively playing in the Big 5 major leagues, you know we have a serious problem that affects the future of sport and the well-being of our LGBT athletes.

AFI: How did you find the subjects in your film?

DM: Being immersed in the world of sport and the LGBT community for the past three decades, combined with my professional experience, I have developed a trusted and confidential network that often leads me to closeted athletes, athletes in crisis and/or athletes who have faced head-on a culture of exclusion from sport.

AFI: What was a particular obstacle you faced while making the film? 

DM: One of the biggest obstacles in making the film was getting certain key power parties in sport to show up and participate. This begs a very serious question for our leaders in sport: are we living in a time when equality and inclusion truly exists for LGBT athletes?

What do you want audiences to walk away with after screening your film?

DM: I really want the audience to understand that even though America’s cultural, social and political climate is becoming increasingly accepting of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) citizens, competing and participating in sport is still considered to be an unsettling and unsafe environment for many LGBT athletes, coaches and sport administrators on and off the field. I hope that communities all across this country will see this important film and take action to ensure that the opportunities and dreams are the same for all athletes, coaches and those who participate in sport regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The obligation is on us all, regardless where in the sports power matrix you reside, or even in society as a whole.

AFI: Why are documentary films important today?

DM: They allow us to walk in the shoes of others, building a sense of shared humanity through real-life experiences, that give voice to the truth and strives to hold those in power accountable. In a time of uncertainty and “alternative facts,” telling stories in the documentary form matters more now than ever. Documentary films can and do inspire change, and while that change may be incremental, it is nonetheless real. They engage the heart and the mind with evocative, inspiring and emotional storytelling that can make a significant difference in the lives of others.


(Source: AFI DOCS Press Release)

Six Documentary Projects to Receive AFI DOCS/NBCUniversal Impact Grants

Six documentary projects that screened at AFI DOCS 2016 in Washington, DC, have been selected to receive funding from the AFI DOCS/NBCUniversal Impact Grants.Now in their second year, the grants will support the outreach and social action campaigns for these six documentary projects that participated in the AFI DOCS 2016 Impact Lab, a two-day filmmaker workshop sponsored by NBCUniversal and presented in partnership with Picture Motion.

The 2016 Impact Lab took place in Washington, DC, from June 21–22, 2016, during AFI DOCS, the American Film Institute’s international documentary film festival held annually in the nation’s capital — with the goal to inspire change by bringing together the nation’s leaders and leading artists. Led by Heidi Nel (formerly with Picture Motion in Washington, DC), the Lab introduced participants to policymakers addressing a range of issues from the moral injury of American military veterans to caregivers, LGBT youth, gun violence, education and juvenile incarceration, and imparted filmmakers with the skills to engage with those policymakers at a grassroots level to catalyze lasting social change.

Spanning some of the most critical and urgent problems facing the world today, the projects supported by these grants demonstrated their ability to leverage distribution in 2016. The documentary projects receiving a total of $75,000 in support from the 2016 AFI DOCS/NBCUniversal Impact Grants are:


Michael Collins, Director

Two young Iraq War veterans hike a 2,700-mile course from the Midwest to the California Coast to raise awareness for those like themselves who struggle with memories of combat. Along the way, they meet other vets and supporters and talk through their traumas in this inspiring journey toward healing.

"Care" Documentary

Deirdre Fishel, Director

Millions of elderly Americans depend on compassionate caregivers to provide the support they need to age in place. These health care workers offer love and kindness to the elderly, but often don’t earn enough to keep a roof over their heads. With compelling stories of caregivers and those in need, CARE opens our eyes to the fragile human infrastructure that supports an aging America.


Toby Oppenheimer, Director
Dana Flor, Director

In the heart of the nation’s capital, the Check It is a street gang comprised of gay and transgender teens who support each other in the face of outside bullying, attacks and discrimination. The group struggles with an existence underscored by violence, poverty and prostitution, but when a young mentor comes into their lives, he endeavors to help them find a more productive outlet: through the creative world of fashion. Finally faced with a better option, the Check It members must now attempt to beat the odds by getting off the street and working toward lives of purpose and accomplishment.


Kim A. Snyder, Director

On December 14, 2012, a 20-year-old gunman forced his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and murdered 20 schoolchildren and six educators. In the aftermath of the killings, filmmaker Kim Snyder traveled to Newtown and trained her lens on a grieving community, following several families who came face to face with tragedy. NEWTOWN reveals both the indelible scars gun violence leaves behind and the resilience of people who come together to heal.


Margaret Byrne, Director

Filmed over the course of seven years, RAISING BERTIE is a sensitively made portrait of three African American teen boys living in the rural community of Bertie County, North Carolina. When the supportive community school they attend is forced to close, the boys must navigate a path of their own, which they hope will lead them away from the cycles of racism and poverty that threaten to engulf their lives.


Ben Lear, Director

This fresh look at juvenile justice follows three Latino teens awaiting sentencing for violent crimes as a legal debate rages on imposing life sentences for minors. The young men find their voice thanks to a teacher who helps them write, cast and produce a film based on their life experiences. The boys are complex, surprisingly lovable characters whose paths diverge as they enter a capricious court system, making a strong case for juvenile justice reform.



Five Ways to Build a Powerful Financing and Distribution Network for Your Film

Posted by Larry Gleeson

Written by Christopher Rufo and Keith Ochwat

You’ve heard it said before: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”

As an independent filmmaker, your network — the relationships you forge with individuals, institutions and media in your niche — is what will drive every step of your film’s distribution. After all the hard work of getting your film made, you’ll need a tight-knit group of supporters and evangelists who believe in your work and will help you build an audience.

For our documentary Age of Champions, which tells the story of five competitors up to 100 years old who compete in the Senior Olympics, our network was the engine that powered our success. It allowed us to spend more than two years distributing our film and helped us generate more than $1.5 million in revenues.


Networking involves much more than attending cocktail receptions or shaking hands at festivals. It’s about actively connecting with the people and organizations who share a passion for your work. It’s about creating partnerships throughout the entire process of funding, marketing, and distribution. In short, your network is the catalyst that will make things happen for your film.

As we cover in our Filmmaker.MBA online course, here’s our five-step guide to building your network of partners to help you maximize your film’s exposure and impact:

1. Focus on Your Niche

Your niche is the smallest, most passionate, and highest impact core of people who would love your film. These are the people who will watch your film for free on Netflix, then buy a DVD, host a screening in their community, and spread the word to their friends.

You’ll want to pinpoint the smallest niche audience you can find based on the subject matter of your film. For example, with our Senior Olympics documentary, Age of Champions, we discovered our audience by reaching out to nonprofits and businesses in the senior health community. We made phone calls to organizations, attended conferences, and started selling DVDs and community screening kits to senior centers, retirement homes and hospitals. They loved the film and wanted to share it with their local communities. Eventually, we discovered that our core audience was “female professionals ages 40 to 65 who worked in the senior health.” You should be as specific as possible — and it’s important to keep in mind that your core audience might not be what you thought when you started your project.

2. Reach Out to Institutions

Getting an institution to partner with you and promote your film can be one of the most powerful ways for getting your film out into the world. As soon as possible, you should make a list of all the important nonprofits, educational institutions, companies, and foundations in your niche.

Pay particular attention to mission-driven institutions that have connections to a potential audience with an interest in the same topic as your film. For example, if your film is about endangered whales, you’ll want to target organizations that are involved in marine conservation, animal rights, and environmental issues, and marine biology. The simplest way is to gauge their interest is to call and ask if they’d be interested in sharing your film with their members.

Age of Champions

3. Attend a Conference

Conferences are the secret shortcut to building your network quickly and efficiently. Although they can be a little awkward, you’ll be able to network face-to-face with the most influential people in your niche. The process is simple: do some research and find the biggest annual gatherings of people in your niche, book your ticket, and set up as many meetings as possible in advance.

For our upcoming documentary about three failing American cities, America Lost, we attended three public policy conferences and made connections with potential funders who eventually donated more than $500,000 towards production of the film. Our process was simple: we contacted the conference organizers six months in advance and pitched them on participating on a panel and sharing the trailer for our work-in-progress film. Six weeks before the conference, we asked the organizers for a complete attendee list and reached out to potential funders to set up coffee meetings during the event. We met one funder at Dunkin’ Donuts across from the Convention Center in Denver, and he committed to writing a $100,000 check on the spot.

By participating as a speaker, the conference organizers usually waived the attendance fee, so we just had to book our own transportation and accommodations. Despite the time and expense of attending these conferences, they paid out one-hundredfold. Making connections in person was extremely important in solidifying relationships and opening doors. We could have never raised our full production budget without participating at conferences.

4. Reach Out to Influencers

You can partner with an influential person in your niche who’s passionate about your film’s message. This could be a thought-leader, author, speaker, or celebrity. The goal is to tap into their devoted network of fans and start a discussion of your film online. You can ask your celebrity to host an online screening of your film, appear in bonus content, or promote your film on social media—whatever’s the best way to engage their fanbase.

Stacy Peralta, the filmmaker behind the skateboarding documentary Bones Brigade, rallied the pro skateboarders in his film (including Tony Hawk) to promote Bones Brigade to their millions of followers on Twitter and Facebook. After two months of a sustained social media campaign, Stacy added 46,000 fans to his mailing list and made nearly four times as much money as he was offered for a conventional distribution deal at Sundance.

Don’t worry if you aren’t already as connected as Stacy Peralta — with a little sleuthing and hard work, you can track down almost anyone. For Age of Champions, we connected with “stars” like author Dan Buettner (Blue Zones) and tennis great Andre Agassi by cold-calling their organizations and finding advocates within them who wanted to help promote our film. These advocates talked with their bosses and helped us secure social media posts on their behalf that drove awareness and traffic to our website.

5. Reach out to media

You can create buzz around your film by pitching your story to media in your niche. This could mean blogs, websites, podcasts, or video sites. Approach it like a typical PR campaign — reach out to the publications, provide them with a good story, and give them relevant content from your film. You’ll find that niche media are always looking for stories and can connect you with their readers.

The filmmakers behind Indie Game: The Movie, a documentary about the making of video games, launched a niche media campaign well before they even finished their film. They created more than 150 blog posts over the course of two years and shared content with video game websites and fan pages. By the time they were ready to release the film, they had built an email list of more than 30,000 people and sold $150,000 in DVD pre-orders.

In our experience with Age of Champions, niche media delivered a much bigger audience than mainstream media. For example, we appeared on NPR’s Tell Me More and in the Alzheimer’s Association newsletter — to our great surprise, we received only a few hundred website visitors after our national NPR segment broadcast, compared to more than 10,000 visitors after the Alzheimer’s Association newsletter went out to their list. Remember: you don’t have to be in the New York Times to have a successful PR campaign, just “the New York Times of your niche.”


Four Documentary Projects Receive First-Ever AFI DOCS/NBCUniversal Impact Grants

AFI announced the four documentary projects that will receive funding from the first-ever AFI DOCS/NBCUniversal Impact Grants. The grants will support the outreach and social action campaigns for the projects, which screened at AFI DOCS 2015 and participated in the inaugural AFI DOCS Impact Lab, a two-day filmmaker workshop that engaged participants with policymakers pursuing social change across a range of issues.

The documentary projects receiving a total of $75,000 in support from the 2015 AFI DOCS/NBCUniversal Impact Grants are:

Blair Foster (Director/Producer), Geeta Gandbhir (Director/Producer), Jessica Jones (Impact Producer)

THE CONVERSATION, a series of short films, uses powerful personal narratives to elevate shared experiences about race and equality that are often only discussed in the confines of like-minded communities. The series aims to foster a deep dialogue around racial tension and polarization in the United States as well as serve as an outlet for more personal and intimate discussions about race relations in America. Each film will be a conversation from a different personal perspective, experience and racial lens within our society.

Greg Whiteley (Director/Writer/Producer), Ted Dintersmith (Executive Producer), Daria Lombroso (Director of Campaign Strategy)

The American education system was developed during the Industrial Revolution to help prepare young people to take on standard jobs of the era, which no longer exist. So why has that system remained virtually unchanged for more than 100 years when our culture and economy have dramatically shifted to an age of information and technology? Filmmaker Greg Whiteley explores this paradox and examines the future of education through experimental schools such as San Diego’s High Tech High, where students, teachers and parents embark on a new path that aims to spark an education revolution.

Scott Christopherson (Director/Producer/Cinematographer), Brad Barber (Director/Producer/Cinematographer), Corinne Bourdeau (Engagement Campaign Strategist)

As a sheriff in the 1970s, William “Dub” Lawrence founded Utah’s SWAT team. Thirty years later, when a police standoff ends with that SWAT team killing his son-in-law, Dub launches a personal investigation into the case. As the scope of his investigation grows to include several chilling cases of excessive force and questionable techniques used by law enforcement, he finds himself confronting a startling nationwide trend of increasing militarization of police forces.

Chris Temple (Director/Producer/Campaign Director), Zach Ingrasci (Director/Producer/Campaign Director), Salam Darwaza (Producer/Campaign Director)

Across the Jordanian border from Syria lies the world’s second largest refugee camp. In an effort to understand the growing crisis, a film team spends one month living in Za’tari. The Syrian families they meet aren’t just displaced, they have no promise of a future with sufficient food, security, education or peace. SALAM NEIGHBOR offers personal insights into the complexities of refugee life and challenges audiences to express neighborly love for people in crisis.

Pictured above: SALAM NEIGHBOR



Zero Days

Zero Days, the latest film by acclaimed documentarian, Alex Gibney, details claims that the US and Israeli governments conducted covert cyber warfare operations against the Iranian government and the Iranians’ nuclear enrichment program.

(From left to right) Alex Gibney, writer and director of Zero Days, alongside actors Eric Chien and Liam O’Murchu, on the red carpet at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., before the Opening Night Film screening of Zero Days at the 2016 AFI DOCS June 22, 2016. (Photo credit: Larry Gleeson/HollywoodGlee)

A former employee of the US Nuclear Regulatory Agency went on camera to say that he knew of one or two nation-states that were using cyber weapons for offensive purposes. However, when asked who the states were and were the states involved using Stuxnet, a dance of denial ensued with the former employee back peddling while reiterating he did not mention names of the existence of Stuxnet often uttering “I can’t comment on that” when pressed to name names or the existence of Stuxnet.

Gibney has done his homework with Zero Days as he provides a historical backdrop of the Iranian nuclear program disclosing the US gave Iran its first nuclear reactor under the Shah of Iran’s rule. In addition, he shows the pride the Iranian people have in their nuclear program demonstrated by their national celebrations for Nuclear Enrichment Day, a national nuclear day that has galvanized the republic of Iran. Furthermore, Gibney shows a clip of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu comparing contemporary Iran to Germany during the time of Adolph Hitler. 

This is a must-see film. Zero Days is screening as part of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s Showcase series tonight, Tuesday July 19 @ 5:00pm and tomorrow, Wednesday July 20 @ 7:30pm at the Riviera Theatre – 2044 Alameda Padre Serra in Santa Barbara, Calif.

See you at the movies!


AFI DOCS 2016 Wrap Up

With ninety-four films from over 30 countries the 2016 AFI DOCS had something for just about every documentary film lover. The Opening Night film dazzled the at-capacity audience at the Newseum with Alex Gibney’s North American Premiere of Zero Days,a detailed account of claims the US and Israeli governments unleashed a sophisticated virus to thwart the Iranian nuclear enrichment program. The film also addressed the issue of retaliation and made for a lively conversation and Q & A following the screening. Highly recommended.



Kicking off the first full day, I had the good fortune of seeing seven short documentaries under the guise of Shorts: Outside In; Tracks, The Great Theatre, Rotatio, Neige, Fundir and Chocolate Mountain Metal, Shorts: Outside In. Warmly recommended.

Winding up a busy Day 2 at the Newseum, an interactive museum of news and journalism in downtown Washington, DC, Newtown, an emotionally, powerful look at the local community two years after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre from acclaimed director Kim Snyder, and Audrie & Daisy, a story of two high school girls who were sexually assaulted in indefensible states and their vilification on social media with tragic consequences, were shown. Both are must-see films. Highly recommended.


Day 3 brought  After Spring, a telling tale of the relocation of Syrian refugees and the challenges they face at the Zaatari relocation camp inside the Jordanian border. Directors Steph Ching and Ellen Martinez attended the screening and made themselves available to discuss the making of the film. Recommended.

Almost Sunrise, explores an alternative approach to the traditional diagnosis and treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Director Michael Collins chronicles the journey of two Iraq War veterans as they share a 2700 mile hike from the Midwest to the state of California to create an awareness of their trauma. Along the way, the two are warmly greeted and supported by fellow veterans and communities alike. Warmly recommended.


Unfortunately, due to an overwhelming demand for seats at the Guggenheim Symposium and Screening, I was not granted a place for the evening’s conversation with Werner Herzog and Ramin Bahrani including clips from Herzog’s storied career and a screening of his latest work, Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World. Nevertheless, I made my way over to Silver Spring, MD, AFI Silver Theater for Cinema, Mon Amour, a wonderful story of a Romanian family and their ‘never say quit’ spirit as they work determinedly to keep open the last of Romania’s grand movie palaces.

Day Four began with a visit to the AFI DOCS Lounge for the Filmmakers Forum and the making of short documentaries. Quick and to the point, storytellers and the movers and shakers of the industry engaged in an informative format as filmmakers and producers provided guidance and probed the issues in today’s filmmaking environment.

Full of vigor, the featured Command And Control,directed by Robert Kenner, recounted a 1980 nuclear accident with surreal details. Highly recommended.command-and-control-tribeca

Next, I dropped in on Vanessa Gould’s Obit, an insider’s guide to the world of who’s who in the annals of lives lived through the eyes of the legendary New York Times obituaries desk. Obit reveals a unique form of journalism and the idiosyncrasies of the writers and editors who create and compose these celebrations of extraordinary lives lived. Warmly recommended and my personal favorite!

Closing out the evening again at the Newseum with a Spotlight Screening of Check It.  Check It, a mesmerizing look at an inner city, Washington DC, gang composed of gay and transgendered teens who allied themselves together for protection and survival out on the streets of the nation’s capitol over a three year period, was directed by Toby Oppenheimer and Dana Flor. Over the course of the film, the Check It gang comes to the realization that while surviving is critical so is leading a productive and useful life. Warmly recommended.


Day 5 kicked into gear with another visit to the AFI DOCS Lounge for Part Four of the Filmmakers Forum. I arrived early and met Discovery’s Gina Scarpulla. Unbeknownst to me, Ms. Scarpulla and her team at Discovery are pioneering virtual reality in film. Virtual headsets, known as lunchboxes were made available before and after the forum. See my full write up here: AFI DOCS Filmmaking Forum on Virtual Reality










Next came the Chicken People, directed by Nicole Lucas Haimes. Chicken People delves into the worlds of the contestants and their contenders, pure bred chickens,  as they vie for best fowl at the Ohio National Poultry Show and the title of Super Grand Champion. Warmly recommended and A Don’t Miss!


Doc & Darryl, a soon-to-be-aired ESPN 30 for 30 film, depicts the trials and tribulations of the 1986 Major League Baseball World Champions New York Mets and the meteoric rise and setbacks of the team’s two most talented players, Dwight ‘Doc’ Gooden and Darryl Strawberry. The film was co-directed by Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio. See my write up: Doc & Darryl

Closing out the 2016 AFI DOCS was Norman Lear: Just Another Version Of You, directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. This is a masterpiece of television history. Breathtaking images of actors, writers and directors watching clips from  All In The Family, The Jeffersons, Maude and Good Times juxtaposed against their commentaries, highlight this cinematic gem. Another must see film! And I know Norman Lear wouldn’t have it any other way. Highly recommended.

NormanLear (1 of 1)
Norman Lear , center, on the red carpet with filmmakers Heidi Ewing, right, and Rachel Grady, left, before the screening of the 2016 AFI DOCS Closing Night film, Norman Lear: Just Another Version Of You, June 26, 2016, at the Newseum in downtown Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Larry Gleeson)

This was my first AFI DOCS. Set in our nation’s Capitol, the festival ran smoothly. Two venues were in downtown Washington, DC, and were within walking distance of one another. Also, both venues were easily accessible by the Metro and had plenty of shops, coffee bars, sports bars, and restaurants nearby. The third venue was in Silver Spring, Maryland, home of the AFI DOCS Silver Theater and Cultural Center. Again, plenty of shops and nearby eateries and fairly easy to get to by Metro. The Washington Post calls AFI DOCS “The nation’s leading documentary film festival.” I couldn’t agree more.

AFI DOCS 2016 (1 of 1)

Until next year, I’ll see you at the movies!