LICENSE TO CREATE: TV Lab’s Radical Take on Public Television


STF Artistic Director Thom Powers discusses NAM JUNE PAIK & TV LAB: LICENSE TO CREATE with the director of the film, Howard Weinberg.

STF Artistic Director Thom Powers discusses NAM JUNE PAIK & TV LAB: LICENSE TO CREATE with the director of the film, Howard Weinberg.

In a shocking moment of clairvoyance, a collective of artists realized that television did not have to be taken at face value. It was a medium as pliable as paint and as immediate as film, and in the 1970s, its creative potential seemed nearly limitless. The late 1960s saw the rise of cinema verite and experimental filmmaking, but television was still ruled by big broadcasting and the mainstream media. But under the bright lights of New York City’s WNET public television studios, the entire format was being dismantled, reimagined, and radically rearranged.

TV Lab was an incubator of early video art that would come to foreshadow the current state of media saturation and fragmented imagery that we now know as social media, information sharing and ceaseless video streaming. There are an abundance of ways to interact with video now, but in the 1970s and early 1980s, the technology associated with television broadcasting was inaccessible to the average, creative types who wanted to try something different. TV Lab gave them that chance.

In what Stranger Than Fiction Artistic Director Thom Powers called “a relentless effort to excavate an era of TV history,” director Howard Weinberg’s NAM JUNE PAIK & TV LAB: LICENSE TO CREATE documents the rise of early experimental television through the people who paved the way. With Paik and executive producer David Loxton at the forefront, and with funding by the Rockefeller Foundation, WNET essentially turned their studios into a rotating, artist residency program, where for the first time artists and early video hackers had access to equipment, and to a community.

Paik, along with fellow artists Russell Connor, Bill Viola, and William Wegman, experimented with both the form and function of television by dismantling cameras and bending signals to create fascinating visual puzzles that were broadcast to the small masses who tuned in to WNET in New York. By turning television sets inside out and reprogramming them, they created tools the other artists could use in their own projects and programs, and they did, often to outrageous and powerful effect.

Journalists and documentarians hopped on board too, and saw an opportunity to tell stories that mainstream media outlets left untold. From gritty crime docudramas like THE POLICE TAPES (screening at STF on May 12), to political satire and socio-economic travel diaries, TV Lab was a platform that launched the careers of dozens of artists and filmmakers, and changed the way people looked at television.

“If you’re lucky in life, you will encounter some magic moments in time when you know what you’re doing is exciting, and to some degree, is needed,” filmmaker Jon Alpert says in in of the film’s many revealing and insightful interviews. “That’s what TV Lab let us all do.”


Writing and photography by Krystal Grow, an writer, producer and photo editor based in New York City. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @kgreyscale.


Monday Memo: SEVEN UP Director Paul Almond Passes, Tribeca Film Festival Kicks Off


Paul Almond in 1971 (Photo by Norma James, Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Paul Almond in 1971 (Photo by Norma James, Toronto Star via Getty Images)

With so much attention being paid to Richard Linklater’s twelve year project BOYHOOD last year while other (possibly more deserving) long term doc equivalents like Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson’s AMERICAN PROMISE fly confidently under the radar, it’s important to remember where the seed for these projects was originally planted: Michael Apted and Paul Almond’s half-century spanning UP series. Sadly, this passed week Paul Almond died of complications of a recent heart attack at the age of 83. Margalit Fox of the New York Times wrote a profile of the man’s life and work, as did David Colker of the LA Times and Mike Barnes of The Hollywood Reporter. The Guardian’s Ben Beaumont-Thomas and Realscreen’s Kevin Ritchie also reflected on Almond’s filmmaking career.

We at Stranger Than Fiction are playing host to a pair of film screenings this week in Tuesday’s work-in-progress showing of director Howard Weinberg’s NAM JUNE PAIK & TV LAB: LICENSE TO CREATE, which explores the collaborative collisions of the TV LAB through the prism of one of the giants of 20th century video art, and Thursday’s showing of director Nick Broomfield’s AILEEN: LIFE AND DEATH OF A SERIAL KILLER, the follow-up work to his clear-eyed profile of America’s first female serial killer and the greed and paranoia that surrounded her case in AILEEN WUORNOS: THE SELLING OF A SERIAL KILLER. Both filmmakers will be on hand for Q&As at the IFC Center for their respective screenings.

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Monday Memo: A Return – Lumière Exhibition, the Cinema of Evidence, Full Frame & Art of the Real


My wife, Valerie Rettberg-Smith, and I at the Lumière! Inventing Cinema Exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris

My wife, Valerie Rettberg-Smith, and I at the Lumière! Inventing Cinema Exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris

I hate to brag, but the last few weeks have been quite lovely, with getting married to my partner in life, Valerie Rettberg-Smith, and our subsequent honeymoon to Paris and Amsterdam and all. That said, I have returned, not quite rested, but full of hope, love, fresh perspectives and just now getting back into the swing of things. While I was away, Rachel Donadio of The New York Times wrote a piece on the Grand Palais’s Lumière! Inventing Cinema exhibition which opened March 27th, just in time for me to investigate. The exhibit, put together in partnership by the Grand Palais and the Institut Lumière, features an incredible history of film technology and the impact the Lumières continue to wield in artifacts and copious amounts of newly restored Lumière productions, some on film and others in various interactive displays. Celebrating over a hundred years since the Lumière brothers brought cinema as we know it into being, the exhibition runs now through June 14th.

Most of the Lumière films were in fact brief documentaries, running no more than a few minutes at most. The format continues to be more than relevant, as the stark cell-phone documentation of Walter Scott’s horrifically unjust murder by officer Michael T. Slager proves this past week. Writing for Time, Errol Morris commented on the necessity of documentation in terms of sorting out the truths in such a situation, while Ty Burr of The Boston Globe wrote at length on what he calls, “the cinema of evidence” and its essential pivot point in the battle against abuses of power in America. One would think such blatant injustices would have been curbed after this past year’s outrage in the wake of Michael Brown and Eric Garner’s murders by overzealous police, but alas, the preposterous bloodshed continues.

On a lighter note, tomorrow marks the start of the Spring ’15 season of Stranger Than Fiction with KING GEORGES, Erika Frankel’s documentary on the fiery French chef Georges Perrier and his crusade to keep his 40-year-old landmark restaurant, Le Bec-Fin in Philadelphia, relevant. Both director Erika Frankel and film subject Georges Perrier will be on hand for a post screening Q&A. Info on the film and tickets are available here.

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THE MUSES: Isaac Bashevis Singer’s harem of translators


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Isaac Bashevis Singer (יצחק באַשעװיס זינגער) was a Nobel Prize-winning Polish author and a celebrated leader of the Yiddish literary movement in America. Although he was married to Alma Singer, Tuesday’s documentary, THE MUSES OF ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER, shows that he had many women in his life.

Muses is a biopic that tells the story of Singer’s “harem” of female translators and proofreaders who he picked up with firm confidence, charmed and beguiled, and often bedded during his 85-year lifetime. These women served as the inspiration for the characters in his novels, which were charged with lustful desire.

Singer wrote and published dozens of collections of short stories in addition to 18 novels, 14 children’s books, several memoirs, and numerous essays and articles. He wrote them all in Yiddish and then sat with women who translated them line-by-line into English, and many more languages. One of the translators says in the film that he was a tireless worker with a remarkable ability to concentrate on one story for however long it took to finish it. “We will polish it until it will shine!” he would exclaim. Even bathroom breaks were frowned upon during the translation process.

Another translator in the film reads from the book, The Art of Translation, “A good translator must be both a sage and a fool.” His translators were loyal to him and many adored him, but he did not share the benefits of his fame with them. At the Q&A session with co-director, Asaf Galay, one of Singer’s fifty translators, Carol, was a surprise showing in the audience. She told some of her personal experiences with him and admitted that he only ever wrote her one check for her labors, which was a pittance that you couldn’t buy much of anything with.

Galay explained that he tried to edit the film like one of Singer’s stories. He constantly felt like Singer was behind him, watching over his shoulder, and he wanted to make a story that would have satisfied him. The film attempts to pose more questions than it does give answers in a similar style to a Singer story. And yet, the film reveals Singer as a controversial figure.

In 1983, Singer’s story, Yentl, was adapted into a film that starred singer, Barbara Streisand. In the Q&A session, Galay said that Singer didn’t get along with Streisand because he did not like the Hollywood movie adaptation of his novel. She would not participate in the documentary, because she did not want to rehash turbulence of the past.

Galay said that Singer was also very much at-odds with the Orthodox Jewish community, because of the morally precarious themes that permeate his writings. In an archival interview with Singer in the film, he was asked if he was a good Jew, to which he replied, “I’ve been a good man, so how could I be a good Jew? I’d like to be a good man and a good Jew, but who knows how you do that?”

Stranger Than Fiction begins again on Tuesday April 14 for its 27th season! STF Spring 2015 opens with KING GEORGES, followed by a Q&A with director Erika Frankel and film subject Georges Perrier. The line-up includes sneak previews of highly anticipated docs such as SUNSHINE SUPERMAN and THE WOLFPACK along with revivals of classic docs such as Alan and Susan Raymond’s THE POLICE TAPES (1977) and Nick Broomfield’s AILEEN: LIFE AND DEATH OF A SERIAL KILLER (2003). The series takes place each Tuesday night at the IFC Center.


Writing by Maya Albanese, a New York City based multimedia reporter, writer, producer, and filmmaker covering social and environmental sustainability as well as innovation in the arts, food, and technology worlds. Maya has produced content for print, digital, and broadcast media, including The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, NBC Nightly News, The Today Show, GreenBiz.com, Fresh Cup, Coffee Talk, Heritage Radio and TellurideTV. In 2015, she is producing two documentary films and will receive a Masters degree with an emphasis in Documentary Filmmaking from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Twitter @mayaalbanese.

Videography and photography by Steff Sanchez, a filmmaker and designer based in New York City. Twitter @steffsanchez.


A DANGEROUS GAME: “Trump by nature” luxury golf courses


dangerousgame-qa

The picturesque sand dunes of Aberdeenshire, the ancient walls of Dubrovnik and the suburban sprawl of Bedminster, New Jersey may not have all too much in common at first glance. Yet for some they share an unexpected foe. Golf.

Stranger Than Fiction welcomed director Anthony Baxter and a host of guests at the screening of A DANGEROUS GAME, Baxter’s second film documenting the construction of luxury golf courses and their high environmental and personal cost to local residents.

The film is a follow-up to Baxter’s first documentary, YOU’VE BEEN TRUMPED. Released in 2011, the film documented the construction of Donald Trump’s, ‘Trump International Golf Links’ course, in an environmentally protected rural area on the coast of Scotland. Following characters such as local farmer and fisherman Michael Forbes, the film exposed their struggle against the billionaire mogul. A DANGEROUS GAME continued following the same characters, with highlights including Forbes’ receipt of the ‘Top Scot Award’ in the wake of the film, whilst also expanding to other examples of the problem in parts of the world such as Dubrovnik, Dubai and Las Vegas.

Though “they may not be Trump by name,” Baxter said in his introduction to the film, they are “Trump by nature.”

Combining compelling personal narratives and interviews with experts and celebrities such as Robert Kennedy Jr. and Alec Baldwin, A DANGEROUS GAME wove together touching tales of personal struggle enthused with geopolitical and environmental themes. Throughout, Baxter’s simple yet direct line of questioning to political leaders, and even Trump himself, evoked a strong response from the audience.

In the Q&A after the film, Baxter was joined by producer, Richard Phinney; executive director of the Raritan Headwaters Association, Cindy Ehrenclou and activist Justin Wedes, one of the organizers of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

A consistent theme in the Q&A and in the film was the golf courses as a manifestation of wealth inequality across the world. “I think it is revealing, especially in the second film, just how pervasive the notion of the 99% and the 1% has become in the mindsets of people in this country, but also around the world,” said Wedes. “It is this universal symbol now.”

Baxter also echoed this sentiment, referring to the disconnect between people living in a “Trump Tower” environment in comparison to ordinary people. He spoke with affection and reverence for the local people he had met along the way during his two films, referring particularly to the Scots in Aberdeenshire. “They did not ask for this fight,” he said. “They have shown huge courage and determination to stand up for their environment. And Donald Trump just does not seem to recognize that.”

Writer and producer on both of the films, Richard Phinney, also pointed out that there is a need to not only hold the financial figures pushing for these golf courses accountable, but also the political leaders responsible for approving them. “As societies, we really have to respond,” he said.

Stranger Than Fiction begins again on Tuesday April 14 for its 27th season! STF Spring 2015 opens with KING GEORGES, followed by a Q&A with director Erika Frankel and film subject Georges Perrier. The line-up includes sneak previews of highly anticipated docs such as SUNSHINE SUPERMAN and THE WOLFPACK along with revivals of classic docs such as Alan and Susan Raymond’s THE POLICE TAPES (1977) and Nick Broomfield’s AILEEN: LIFE AND DEATH OF A SERIAL KILLER (2003). The series takes place each Tuesday night at the IFC Center.


Writing by Chloe Mamelok, a multimedia journalist currently studying at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Originally from the UK, Chloe graduated from Queen Mary’s University in London in 2013 before spending time in South America. Chloe is currently producing a short-form documentary and hopes to combine documentary production and investigative journalism in the future. Follow her on Instagram @chloemamelok and Twitter @chloemamelok.

Videography and photography by Steff Sanchez, a filmmaker and designer based in New York City. Twitter @steffsanchez.