A week has passed since the curtains closed on Hot Docs 2017, but coverage of the festival continues to roll in. Both Anthony Kaufman and Anne Thompson reported on the twenty projects that were proposed to funders and broadcasters at the Hot Docs Pitch Forum for IndieWire, noting their favorite projects of prior iterations (STRONG ISLAND, BILL NYE: SCIENCE GUY) and promising projects from this year’s edition (Elan and Jonathan Bogarín’s 306 HOLLYWOOD, Robert Greene’s BISBEE ’17), while Corey Atad‘s festival dispatch turned up at Vice and my report on the under-covered highlights of the festival was published over at Nonfics.
Tel Aviv’s19th annual Docaviv and Ecuador’s EDOC (Encuentros del Otro Cine) are both currently underway, as Basil Tsiokos reminds at What (not) To Doc, but stateside doc lovers have their attention focused on the fact that AFI DOCS (running June 14-18) and the LA Film Festival (June 14-22) have revealed their 2017 lineups. Meanwhile on the other side of the globe, the Sydney Film Festival (running June 7-18) also announced their 2017 program.
After taking home the Special Jury Prize for inspirational documentary filmmaking, Amanda Lipitz’s STEP is getting a sneak peak screening tomorrow at IFC Center as part of our spring season! Director Lipitz will be on hand for a live post-screening Q&A. Tickets for the event are on sale here.
Maggie Glass is a New York-based film editor and writer.
In the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008, a vast amount of blame was directed at the large banks for their irresponsible and legally questionable practices. And yet, few of these institutions faced any criminal repercussions – with the odd exception of a small family bank in Chinatown. Steve James’s latest film, “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,” focuses on the Sung family and their journey through the legal system as they defend themselves against an outsized – and ultimately unproven – litany of felony charges. A Chinese immigrant who thought he had achieved the American dream, bank founder Thomas Sung and his family instead find themselves vulnerable to abuse of power and prejudice in James’s moving and personal portrait.
The film tracks the beginning of the Sungs’ legal trouble when their community bank, Abacus, discovers financial misdeeds by its employees. Instead of the usual fines or increased oversight, the bank instead finds itself indicted for massive crimes in the wake of the financial crisis. The small, immigrant-serving institution was a strange target for such a large-scale investigation. Far from being the largest bank, or tenth largest bank, or even hundredth largest bank, Abacus occupied the lofty distinction of being the 2,651st largest bank in the United States. And unlike the titans of finance who were able to slink away quietly from their crimes, the employees of Abacus were handcuffed and led through a humiliating parade of media.
Please forgive my tardiness – it’s been a bit of a busy week for me, trekking from Hot Docs to Rochester’s Nitrate Picture Show at the George Eastman Museum, one of the few venues in the world still able to screen nitrate film prints (now in its third year, the festival showed four docs this year, including Georges Franju’s controversial 1949 short BLOOD OF THE BEASTS). As I type this week’s memo, I’m currently riding shotgun down the interstate on the way to pick up my dog, who had a week long getaway at my mom’s out in rural western New York. Thus, on to doc news!
As Hot Docs began to wind down, this year’s award winners were revealed. Charles Officer’s UNARMED VERSES won Best Canadian Feature, Pau Ortiz’s THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WALL was named Best International Feature, Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana’s RUMBLE: THE INDIANS WHO ROCKED THE WORLD took home the Audience Award, Asaf Sudry and Tali Shemesh’s DEATH IN THE TERMINAL won Best Mid-Length Doc, and Best Short went to Tamta Gabrichidze for SOVDAGARI. At Doc Soup, Tom Roston outilned his festival finds and the Hot Docs Pitch Forum, while Eli Brown live blogged this year’s pitches at The D-Word and Selina Chignall reported on the ins and outs of Hot Docs funding applications for Realscreen.
Tonight we here at Stranger Than Fiction return to the IFC Center with the latest film from HOOP DREAMS director Steve James, ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL, which tells the incredible saga of the Chinese immigrant Sung family, owners of Abacus Federal Savings of Chinatown, New York, the only U.S. bank to face criminal charges in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Jill Sung, Vera Sung and Chanterelle Sung, several of the subjects featured in the film, will appear for a live Q&A following the film. Tickets for the event can be purchased here.
I’m currently writing to you in between Hot Docs screenings from the Luma cafe inside Toronto’s beautiful and overwhelming TIFF Bell Lightbox (see Basil Tsiokos‘ thorough preview of the festival at What (not) To Doc). With that in mind, this week’s memo will be condensed, forgoing theatrical coverage to focus on the bigger stuff. Tragically, the most notable news this week is that Jonathan Demme, filmmaker and friend of Stranger Than Fiction, has died at the age of 73 of complications from esophageal cancer. Last fall, we devoted our entire fall season to an extensive retrospective of his documentary work, just after DOC NYC honored Demme with their Visionaries Tribute Lifetime Achievement Award (watch his acceptance speech here).
Following Demme’s passing, an outpouring of remembrances appeared online. At the Toronto International Film Festival webpage, our own Thom Powers‘ lamented that documentary filmmaking had became Jonathan Demme’s oxygen, while at RogerEbert.com, Matt Zoller Seitz wrote that he believed “Demme was at his purest when his films were the most stripped-down, when he was making documentaries or performance-driven nonfiction,” noting that “Demme made 15 feature-length nonfiction films; seven were documentaries about musical performers, including his final directorial credit, JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE + THE TENNESSEE KIDS.” David Byrne, the subject of Demme’s breakthrough STOP MAKING SENSE, composed a touching tribute, writing, “The documentaries are pure labors of love. They tend to be celebrations of unsung heroes—an agronomist in Haiti, an activist (cousin) and pastor and an ordinary woman who does extraordinary things in New Orleans post-Katrina.” Other tributes came in from Bilge Ebiri at the Village Voice, David Sims in The Atlantic, Brent Lang and Carmel Dagan at Variety, Bruce Weber of The New York Times, Sam Adams at Slate, Glenn Kenny at Vanity Fair, and The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw.
Tomorrow Strangers Than Fiction returns to the IFC Center with Morgan Pehme, Dylan Bank and Daniel DiMauro’s GET ME ROGER STONE, an up-close look into the rise of the infamous Roger Stone and the transformation of American Politics. The directorial trio, along with executive producer Blair Foster, will all be in attendance for a live post-screening Q&A. Tickets are available here.
Writing 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.
Stranger Than Fiction opened its Spring 2017 season with a 50th anniversary screening of the landmark film, A Time for Burning, and a Q&A with its director, Bill Jersey. What followed was not only a master class on a documentary filmmaking, but an exploration of race relations back in 1967 and right now in 2017.
A Time For Burning portrays the leaders of the Augustana Lutheran Church in Omaha, Nebraska, struggling with how to integrate African-Americans into their parish in 1965. The congregation is led by a charismatic young preacher, Bill Youngdahl, who believes the only way to move forward is to integrate fully, starting with a number of home interracial exchange visits with nearby Hope Lutheran Church. He is determined to create a place where “People can take different sides of the issue and still forgive each other.” Many members agree, including Ray Christensen, who believes “The world is going to pass us by on the biggest issue of our lifetime.” But a divide soon presents itself, most notably through council leaders of the church, who repeatedly state that “the timing is not good” regarding the issue.