A Most Unlikely Collector


Words and videography by Joseph Schroeder, who has managed the production of highly acclaimed educational and informational programming for networks such as PBS, A&E and National Geographic for over a decade. Currently the Vice President of Production and Operations of The Independent Production Fund. Follow him on Twitter and see more of his work on his website.

“It was supposed to be all thrown away and forgotten, but we played a trick on history and saved it.”  So opens the first entry in Stranger Than Fiction’s Fall 2018 Season, Bathtubs Over Broadway.  The film immediately introduces us to Steve Young, a self-described ‘comedy-damaged’ writer for the Late Show with David Letterman.  Steve realizes he doesn’t have many interests outside his day job, but a new show segment starts him on an unlikely journey.  His job for this one particular segment is to find obscure songs from industrial musicals. Yes, you read that correctly… industrialmusicals.

Following the rise of musical theater to immense popularity in the 50s and 60s, many large corporations – General Electric, McDonald’s, Ford, DuPont, Xerox, among others – started staging full fledged musical productions at their regional annual sales meetings.  This in turn launched the broadway careers of some of the most recognizable names of that era – Chita Rivera, Kander & Ebb, Florence Henderson, and Bob Fosse. Steve, an admitted non-Broadway fan, became transfixed by these recordings, and thought to himself, “I should have them all.  I will have them all eventually.”  He’s clearly excited, but not just excited about collecting something – he’s experiencing the joy we all have in connecting to the things we hold dear.

What follows is both a hilarious and heartwarming journey of Steve discovering an entire world that he, and admittedly most of America, knew nothing about. As he dug deeper, he found that “these weren’t jingles, these weren’t commercials, these were full fledged broadway shows for an audience.”  These musicals included songs about almost anything you can think of – polyester, spark plugs, even pasta.  One musical, The Bathrooms Are Coming, contains what Steve describes as the ‘gateway drug’ to this world, the song ‘My Bathroom.’  Steve gushes that it is “perfection on vinyl.”  (You can hear it here.)  It’s clear to the audience that he’s no longer just a collector, but is entirely consumed by this magical world he’s discovered.

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The Strangest Stranger Than Fiction


Words by Maggie Glass, a New York-based film editor and writer.

 

If any documentary has earned its rightful place in the Stranger Than Fiction series, it might be “Wild, Wild Country” — one of the more bizarre stories to appear in STF’s fourteen year history. Featuring a staggering amount of unearthed archival footage, the 6-part Netflix original documentary traces the origins of the Indian spiritual guru Bhagwan Rajneesh and the journey that brought him and his followers to create an unlikely home in a rural, isolated region of Oregon.

Directors Chapman Way and Maclain Way conduct extensive interviews with both the original Oregonians and the commune members, as they explore the cultural clashes that ensued after the Rajneeshees moved to town, first by the hundreds, then by the thousands, in the early 1980s. As one person said, before the arrival of the guru’s followers, “the biggest problem was the rotting floor in the fire station.” With their strange rituals, hints of free love, and eerie all-red wardrobe, the Rajneeshees were not particularly welcome in the tiny, conservative town of Antelope: population 40.

The Rajneeshees, on the other hand, felt that they posed no threat. Their goals were peaceful and utopian: to create a new city, built on the harmonious values of the Bhagwan. In the post-Vietnam age, many of the followers felt disillusioned by Western society and were seeking out different ways to exist in the world. “Everybody felt that they were there at the beginning of the great experiment,” said Swami Prem Niren, the Bhagwan’s attorney. “We really did feel like we were the chosen people.”

Led by Ma Anand Sheela, the Bhagwan’s fierce spokesperson, the Rajneeshees created a massive, ever-expanding city in the desert, prompting outrage from the displaced townspeople. During one archival interview, Sheela indicated that the commune members would not be intimidated by any amount of bad press or protest. “We’re not going anywhere,” she said calmly. “I will paint their bulldozers with my blood.” What follows is a tangle of violence, criminal charges, federal government involvement, and, as the series progresses, much, much more.

In the Q&A after the screening, directors Chapman Way and Maclain Way, along with Executive Producer Mark Duplass, joined STF founder Raphaela Neihausen in discussion of how this unusual story came to be told in the first place. “We were given 300 hours of archive footage,” said Maclain. “Most of which had never been seen before. As soon as we began transferring the footage, we just kind of fell in love with it, and the characters and the conflict and thought it would make for an incredible documentary.”

Despite the drama and tabloid-esque intrigue that surrounded the Rajneeshees, the directors were committed to depicting their subjects as nuanced and complex individuals. “As soon we started getting to know the characters, we came across these thoughtful, intelligent people who had had a lot of success, but weren’t fulfilled for whatever reason and joined this spiritual movement. So that was kind of an eye opening experience,” said Chapman. The directors had similar experiences with the ranchers, who appeared uniformly right-wing and starkly different from the filmmakers themselves. And yet, as the Way brothers gained deeper access, it was clear that the Oregonians came from many walks of life and had varying perspectives on the situation and the Rajneeshees themselves. “We couldn’t really pigeonhole either side,” said Maclain.

The series took many years to research and film, especially since most of the interview subjects were initially reluctant to tell their stories on screen. When asked about what conclusions they came to, after gaining such intimate knowledge of the conflict, the Way brothers found that they ended up with more questions than answers. “It was like detective work,” said Chapman, “where you draw your own lines between cult and religion.” Mark Duplass agreed that the beauty of the film lays in its exploration of these themes. “There’s an elegant cultural context,” he said. “There’s a bigger story than just the things you are going to see, which are exciting – the weapons and the bombs – but there’s something larger at play.”

The six-part series is available now on Netflix.

Videography by Joseph Schroeder, who has managed the production of highly acclaimed educational and informational programming for networks such as PBS, A&E and National Geographic for over a decade. Currently the Vice President of Production and Operations of The Independent Production Fund. Follow him on Twitter and see more of his work on his website.


Into The Night at Stranger Than Fiction


Film still from Into The Night (Part 1), a documentary film by Helen Whiteny

Words by Maggie Glass, a New York-based film editor and writer.

The theater at IFC Center was packed and vibrant for the screening of INTO THE NIGHT: PORTRAITS OF LIFE AND DEATH, a new documentary by Helen Whitney. Whitney distills an admittedly vast subject into interviews with people who all approach death in remarkably different ways. Some, like mortician Caitlin Doughty, have spent their careers learning about death as a way to face their fears. Others use religion, ritual, music, or literature to help them understand their own mortalities. Astrophysicist Adam Frank, who lost his brother at a young age, finds a comforting certainty in the world of mathematics and logic. And others, like cryonics proponent Max More, view death as a potentially optional fate in the future. In the Q&A after the film, Whitney discussed her fascination with the responses she got during filming. “It’s riveting,” she said. “These are rare conversations.”

With such a sensitive and raw topic, an audience member wondered, what drew Whitney towards it in the first place? “You can’t come to this point [in life] without thinking about it,” she said. She said she was drawn to the idea that we use stories to sustain us as we navigate concepts like death, which is so overwhelming and unknowable. As a filmmaker, Whitney was able to delve deep into these stories — with the camera as her shield: “Camouflage permits you to ask all the questions,” she laughed. As she came to know them deeper, her interview subjects opened up about the most intimate moments of their lives. Pastor Vernal Harris openly sobbed as he recalled the loss of his two young sons to sickle cell anemia. Phyllis Tickle spoke frankly about the near-death experience that left her profoundly changed as a person; it was an experience she could barely even discuss with her husband.

After the screening, Whitney described how the process of making the film itself was an investigation into these tough questions about life and death. Her longtime friend and collaborator, Ted Winterburn, became extremely sick during filmmaking, which unexpectedly brought the process that much closer to home. “Denial is powerful,” she said. Despite working on a film that explored these very issues, she said, “we couldn’t talk about it. We found it very difficult to talk about his sickness.” Winterburn eventually passed away and Whitney dedicated the film to his memory.

Now in the aftermath of reviewing countless hours of footage and experiencing her own painful loss during the process, an audience member asked Whitney what she ultimately learned about life and death. She reflected on the opening scene of the film, which depicts a dying woman’s dream of boats anchored in a dark harbor. While the boats are technically isolated, they are linked by their tiny lights illuminating the sky. The film posits that death is a process that we all go through alone — but also, strangely, together. Working on the project, Whitney said, didn’t make her less afraid or anxious about death. “However,” she said, “it did make me feel less alone.”


A City of Two Tales


Two men are handcuffed by the local police after they were found asleep in their car in the middle of the road. The men had taken some painkillers and passed out with the car in the street. Once woken up the officers, one of the men showed his scar from a recent shooting. He repeatedly asked the officers to call a detective in the department because the man was acting as a witness in the shooting.

Words and videography by Joseph Schroeder, who has managed the production of highly acclaimed educational and informational programming for networks such as PBS, A&E and National Geographic for over a decade. Currently the Vice President of Production and Operations of The Independent Production Fund. Follow him on Twitter and see more of his work on his website.

In the fourth week of its 2018 Winter Season, Stranger Than Fiction held a sneak premiere of the Netflix docuseries Flint Town, featuring the first two episodes of the eight-part series. What followed was more than enough to whet the audience’s appetite to binge watch the entire season the following weekend upon its release.

Directed by Zackary Canepari, Jessica Dimmock, and Drea Cooper, the eight-part series focuses on members of the police department in Flint, Michigan, a city that once stood as the absolute pinnacle of middle-class idyllic living, and now, only a few short decades later, sits as one of the most unsafe and unprofitable cities in the entire country. It experienced a fall like no other city in the United States, taking an incredible tumble when General Motors closed up its automotive plants in the mid-1980s. The residents who remain have experienced extreme poverty, a recent water crisis, and an extreme uptick in violence. As one might expect, this perfect storm of deficiencies causes tensions to run high between the community and those tasked with protecting them. One of the members of the police force, Brian Willingham, explains the challenge early in the series by saying “Show me another group of officers anywhere in America that’s having to police under those set of circumstances. I don’t think it exists.”

The directors, however, aim to show Flint not as a city meant to be abandoned, but rather one worth saving, in particular by those who serve as part of its police force. The first episode introduces us to two of those members, Bridgette Belasko and Robert Frost. In one of her first scenes, Belasko mentions that she “hasn’t seen a dead body that’s bothered me in a long time.” Frost remarks soon thereafter that the officers are just “scraping the bottom of the barrel, trying to keep up.” Even though the situation is dire, belief still exists that things can turn around. Chief James Tolbert remarks that “we have to find a new way to police, we can’t police the same way we did twenty years ago, we can’t police the same way we did five years ago.”

That imperative incites a number of the events of the first two episodes, which witness the election of a new Mayor, Karen Weaver, in November 2015. Weaver immediately embarks on several municipal reforms, one of which is to install a new Chief of Police, Tim Johnson. Johnson aims to completely restructure the department to an earlier iteration, and employ “proactive units, going out there and looking for crime.” Johnson believes the Flint Police Department has “got to be held accountable. That’s the only way the city is going to survive.” As the first episode closes, however, it remains to be seen how the members of the department will react to this severe transition in policing style.

Willingham opens the following episode by remarking, “In one of America’s most dangerous cities, the people who secure the city are less secure than they’ve ever been.” At this point the series takes us home with a number of members of the department, where they confide in the filmmakers their truest trepidations. We see Belasko’s potential promotion removed due to the change in leadership; we also see her share that frustration with Frost as we learn the two are in a serious relationship. Frost, a divisive character who, by Belasko’s assessment, “comes off as kind of asshole,” is actually deeply in love, saying “I have no idea how I am pulling this off. No idea. It’s awesome.” We also see a mother and son, Maria and Dion Reed, go through police academy training together. They share a close bond, and she explains, “He’s always been my sidekick, my little rock. He depends on me, I depend on him.” Dion isn’t as convinced, saying “I feel like I’m going to bump heads with my mom more than anybody else.”

By taking us home with these characters, the opening of the series not only gives us a complete view of the people who protect and serve Flint, but a broader picture of the city itself. In the Q&A after the two episodes, Cooper remarked “When you live in a place like Flint, where joblessness is through the roof, you’re gonna have a situation where it’s so dire, and it’s so intense, that it puts all this pressure on this relationship. So to try to understand that from the point of view of the people tasked with keeping the city safe, so to speak, I think can provide some insight.” Dimmock continued, “When you watch the community feel distrustful of the police, it’s in part because other systems that are there and are supposed to work don’t. So when you have water that’s poisoned, when your schools are shutting down, when the factories that were there abandon you – those are all systems that you should be able to rely on and you can’t. So of course that very much played into the psychology between community and police relationships and that was the thing that we felt like was important to keep there so that people could understand that.”

Both the filmmakers and Netflix sincerely hope audiences do, and that Flint Town will stand beside Making a Murder and The Keepers as yet another impressive docuseries from the streaming giant. All eight episodes are now available on the service.

 


THIS IS CONGO at Stranger Than Fiction


Writing by Lacey Beattie. Lacey is a graduate student at the Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema, pursuing a Masters of Cinema Studies. She is also a publicity intern at entertainment public relations firm ID PR and previously interned at Picture Motion, the leading marketing and advocacy firm for issue-driven films. Lacey was on the judging committee for the documentary category of the 2018 Peabody Awards, and is a volunteer at DOC NYC, New York Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival and Rooftop Films. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @lacey_bead.

From the frontlines of one of the world’s longest wars, the documentary This Is Congo captures the region’s tumultuous history spanning through decades of corruption that has left the Congolese living in poverty and desperately trying to survive. Right from the opening scene, beautiful panoramic shots of the mountain ranges and idyllic farms are quickly disrupted by shots of gunfire as a voiceover lays out the simple truth that growing up in the Congo equals misery. From there, director Daniel McCabe, who initially started the film as a look at the ongoing problem of mineral smuggling across the border, takes the audience on a journey throughout a complex political and economic history and reveals the struggles and fears within the daily lives of the people who call the Congo home.

The documentary covers the ongoing turbulence in the region and unveils a lot of historical context, including background on the colonial past and an overview of the conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi resulting in the Rwandan Civil War. In turn, viewers are given the whole picture of how this present came to be. Today, we’re witnessing the power struggle between the national army and the rebel group M23 over the control of Goma, the capital city of the Northern Kivu. This conflict stems from the rebel forces’ fight against President Joseph Kabila’s corrupt government, and the fact that though the country is full of rich minerals and resources the people are condemned to live in poverty and displacement camps.

New York-based photographer turned Director McCabe and Producer and Editor Alyse Ardell Spiegel joined the audience for a post-screening Q&A that delved deeper into the ongoing problems affecting the region and the Congolese people and how they were able to make such an in-depth film. McCabe gained access to the national army from a chance encounter where he and his crew were arrested by one of the film’s central subjects, Colonel Mamadou. The two struck up a bargain that McCabe would be allowed to film the army if he produced some propaganda films for the government. This seems like a small price to pay for the over 500 hours of film that McCabe walked away with after three and half years and the level of proximity and intimacy he gained. Between deaths and explosions, McCabe and his team were on the ground to capture an unfiltered look at the brutality of war.

The subjects hail from all walks of life, and the documentary weaves their storylines into the complex nature of the Congo. McCabe takes time to focus on each individual story; how their lives have been forever altered by the conditions of the Congo and how they are working to make a change for the country. Mama Romance, the only female perspective to the film, has turned to the illegal practice of mineral smuggling in order to feed her starving children. Often relying on truck drivers to transport the stones across borders, Mama Romance is often unsure if her cargo will make the journey or be confiscated or stolen while in transit. Colonel Mamadou is also featured heavily throughout the film and emerges as a hero for the people after leading the Congolese national army in the fight against M23 rebels. Dutifully dedicated to both his troops and his country, one scene shows Mamadou proudly displaying the numerous bullet wounds spread across his body as seemingly badges of honor.

The film succeeds in teaching us that the Congo is full of contradictions; the wealth of resources and prosperity that is constantly hindered by ongoing strife and poverty. The people are both united by faith yet divided as a society. However, despite all he’s witnessed, McCabe admits that he sees a silver lining that leads back to where the film first started: the minerals. While their high value is essentially part of the problem, they can also be a part of the solution. Only time will tell whether the spirit of the Congolese people can help make this solution a reality and build the road to peace or if the combat and struggles witnessed in the film have become just too much to overcome.

 

videography by Joseph Schroeder, who has managed the production of highly acclaimed educational and informational programming for networks such as PBS, A&E and National Geographic for over a decade. Currently the Vice President of Production and Operations of The Independent Production Fund. Follow him on Twitter and see more of his work on his website.