In an effort to add some variety to the deluge of “best film” lists, I’ve approached the exercise a bit differently. In chronological order, here are my favorite personal documentary memories from the year…
1) January: FULL BATTLE RATTLE work-in-progress at STF – Before this film headed off to its premieres at Berlin and SXSW, directors Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss gave a special screening for their friends and STF Winter Season pass holders. Those enterprising viewers were the first to discover this surreal take on the war in Iraq. When the film later opened in the summer, David Edelstein wrote in New York Magazine, “The film is freaky, amusing, and sickening in equal measures – part fly-on-the-wall verite, part multiple-perspective Altmanesque tragicomedy.” Visit the film’s web site.
2) March: Cinema Eye Honors – Four months earlier, AJ Schnack called me with the idea of launching a documentary award. I thought he meant for the next year’s films. But he wanted to pull the trigger immediately. Indiepix Films jumped in as a sponsor and we benefited from the generous support of many others. From such modest beginnings, I think it’s fair to say the event at the IFC Center exceeded everyone’s expectations including my own. The presenters included documentary luminaries such as Barbara Kopple, Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky and Alan Berliner. The night was topped off by an unforgettable speech by Jason Kohn, accepting the best documentary award for MANDA BALA (SEND A BULLET). You can watch here. After the show, AJ and I indulged ourselves with two-fisted drinking, pictured above.
3) March: Garrett Scott Documentary Development Grant – The filmmaker Garrett Scott died much too young in 2006 . But his spirit lives on in this grant that enables directors working on their first film to attend the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. This was the second year that I joined Ian Olds and Rachael Rakes in judging the applications. It was my pleasure to make the calls informing three aspirants of their success. I later got an email from one of the recipients Rebecca Richman Cohen, the director of WAR DON DON set in Sierra Leone. She wrote, “The call was a triumphant moment – it was the first time that someone (who hadn’t known me for years) validated the project. It was a vote of confidence that assured me that I wasn’t alone in this wild endeavor.” The deadline for next year’s grant is Feb 6.
4) April: Doc Aviv –Serving on the jury for this Tel Aviv festival was a chance to plunge into Israel’s deep and varied documentary scene. I was fortunate to get a tour on the Occupied Territories by Oren Yakobich of B’Tselem. I wrote about the experience for Indiewire: “We walked through an area in Hebron’s city center documented on B’Tselem’s web site where settlers supported by Israel Defense Forces have forced the closure of a once bustling Arab market and the evacuation of over 1,000 Palestinian homes. In response to such aggressive force, B’Tselem started a project called “Shooting Back” that gives cameras to Palestinians in high conflict zones to document settlers’ violations. B’Tselem’s video footage was used in “To See if I’m Smiling,” the documentary about Israeli women soldiers that won the Audience Award at the 2007 International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. Yakobovich is eager to make footage available to other filmmakers.” Read the full article here.
5) May: THE AGRONOMIST at STF – Even when a film is a few years old, that doesn’t stop it from making an impact on new audiences. That was abundantly clear when Jonathan Demme brought his 2003 doc THE AGRONOMIST to STF, co-presented by the Woodstock Film Festival. He was joined by his producer Peter Saraf and exec producer Daniel Wolff. The actor Danny Glover even joined in the Q&A. But the real star of the night was Michele Montas, the widow of Haitian radio host Jean Dominique whose life is celebrated in the film. She received the first ever standing ovation at STF.
6) September: Toronto International Film Festival – This year’s festival showcased a whopping 41 documentary projects. Several of those titles later showed up at STF including AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD, BLOOD TRAIL, EXAMINED LIFE, DUNGEON MASTERS, plus – coming in the 2009 Winter Season – UPSTREAM BATTLE and AMERICAN SWING. Many others will be hitting theaters next year. The STF archives have recently been updated to include my catalogue entries for the festival. You can easily sort them in the archives by setting the “select category” function to “TIFF.”
7) September: Nuptials – If this list were in order of importance, rather than chronological, then of course I’d place getting married to Raphaela at the top. The wedding took place at Toronto’s Eglinton Grand movie theater and we were treated to a special video edited for the occasion by John Walter, the director of HOW TO DRAW A BUNNY and THEATER OF WAR. For an extra filmy touch, the presiding rabbi was named Goldfinger. Meanwhile, Raphaela has become the Executive Director of STF, bringing several notable upgrades to the series, including this web site.
8) October: OF ALL THE THINGS at STF and Joe’s Pub – Dennis Lambert, the songwriter and music producer of hits such as “Ain’t No Woman Like the One I’ve Got” and ‘Night Shift,” visited STF for this film about his comeback tour in the Philippines. The screening was co-presented by SXSW where the film premiered. The following evening, Lambert performed at Joe’s Pub for his first New York show in many years, pulling it off like a Rhinestone Cowboy.
9) November: CHISHOLM 72 at STF on Election Night – In planning the STF Fall Season, we had the daunting task of picking a film in the summer that would hit the right tone for the night of the Presidential election. After the dashed hopes of 2000 and 04, I had a hard time feeling optimistic. Shola Lynch’s film about the 1972 campaign of Shirley Chisholm, the black Congresswoman from Brooklyn, turned out to be a perfect choice. This was also the first time STF held its after-party at the bar 99 Below which has become our favorite new hangout.
10) December: The Autobiography of Richard Leacock at STF – You could feel a lot of love in the room as the 87-year-old Ricky Leacock presented three works spanning his career, from his first silent film CANARY BANANAS (1935) to the gripping civil rights reportage of THE CHILDREN WERE WATCHING (1961) to a sampling his most recent work MUSICAL ADVENTURE IN SIBERIA (1996). The audience included his former colleagues D.A. Pennebaker, Robert Drew and Al Maysles. Ricky started out apologizing for his memory, but he had no trouble recalling the name of every pretty schoolgirl he’d met in the ‘30s!
Honorable Mentions: Every one of the 35 STF presentations in 2008 had something memorable. I can’t resist citing the rare screenings of SHOWMAN with Al Maysles, SELLING OF THE PENTAGON with Peter Davis, THE BURGER AND THE KING with James Marsh and TRACKING DOWN MAGGIE with Nick Broomfield. Then there’s the night that Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed came to see THE BEST OF THE ORPHANS FILM SYMPOSIUM or when Eric Latek presented his debut SWEET DREAMS for a screening that helped place him in Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film. Finally, a very special thank you to the anonymous angel who supplied me a ticket to the Academy Awards. Let’s do that again!
Tell us your favorites: Leave a comment describing your best documentary memories from 2008.