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.

Will The Real Rick Please Stand Up?

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.

If you heard the name Rick Crom, it might not ring any bells.  And that ’d probably be just fine with him.  In the fifth week of its 2018 Winter Season, Stranger Than Fiction featured Oh, Rick!,the new film featuring the titular actor, singer, composer, lyricist, and comedian.  The film focuses on the nearly 20 years that Rick spent as the emcee of the renowned Comedy Cellar in New York’s East Village, a club that has launched the careers of many of today’s prominent comedians. 

Though not a household name by any means, Rick’s comedic evolution closely mirrors that of the genre itself.  Inspired by variety acts such as Steve Martin, Martin Mull, Tom Lear, and The Smothers Brothers, Rick joined the group Chicago City Limits and quickly became known as the comedian with the golden voice.  When the group made the decision to move to New York in 1979, Rick found his particular combination of music and comedy set him apart from his peers. Early in the film, it’s remarked by his fellow comics that “Rick Crom is the father of musical improv.  Well, the illegitimate father.”

Shortly after arriving in New York, he brought these unique talents to an ideal partnership with Bill Grunfest as a co-emcee at the famed Comedy Cellar.  Founded only two years prior, Rick and Bill truly put the venue on the map.  Bill handled most of the typical emcee duties, while Rick found himself behind the piano just outside the stage spotlight.  Their natural rapport, “a real old time relationship,” as Judy Gold remarks in the film – made both audiences and fellow comedians flock to the Cellar.  Jeff Ross remembers fondly that Rick “would sing a whole song to cleanse the palate” after each act, enabling each new comic to start with a fresh audience – something unheard of in those early days.  

As Rick became the mainstay of the Cellar through the 1980s, however, comedy was beginning a revolution of its own.  In the stand-up circuit, comics like George Carlin and Richard Pryor were moving the focus to straight talk only, and variety acts like Rick’s were quickly losing popularity.  Rick himself explains in the film that “I thought more was more, not that it was hiding behind things.”  It was around this time that Rick sought out other outlets for his creativity, landing a role in The Goodbye Girlon Broadway when the show came calling for not only a comedian, but a comedian who could sing. 

As the 90s wore on, Rick found more success moving down that path, writing more musicals, reviews, and parodies, and he found that Broadway would come calling again, first with a two year stint in Footlooseand four years as a major cast member in Urinetownshortly thereafter.  It was then he knew he had to leave the Cellar behind.  In the film, Rick says he thought to himself around this time, “Holy shit, I’m not gonna make it.  And by making it, what I meant was Letterman, Carson, sitcom.  That was the trajectory.” 

After the broadway years, Rick and comedy’s evolutions aligned once again, when television sketch shows like Chappelle’s Showgained tremendous popularity.  Many younger comics still revered Rick as a mentor and friend, and chose to bring him on their shows repeatedly.  Throughout the 2000s, he appeared on episodes of Chappelle’s Show,Louie, andInside Amy Schumer, and it was clear Rick was still a tremendous influence on the younger stars.  As Tom Papa remarks in the film, “The guy gives a shit.  He really, really cares.”  Because of this, it only made sense that he would return to the Cellar – not as its emcee – but as one of its first instructors of stand-up.  And Rick found the students gave him new purpose. “Suddenly I was useful again.  I could help them grow in a positive way.”

In the Cellar’s comedy class, directors Dustin Sussman and Aaron Rosenbloom immediately took to Rick because of this quality.  Speaking in the Q&A as to how the film got started, Sussman explained, “Here is a man who has never asked for anything, never called in any favors, and I just wanted to do something nice for him.”  During the project, Sussman and Rosenbloom also took an active role in staging a reunion performance at the Cellar for Rick and Bill Grundfest.  What began as a modest afternoon show ended up including prominent comics such as Ray Romano and Jon Stewart, as well as members from their old crew like Mark Cohen.  As the night closed, Rick emotionally shares, “This was probably my best night in show business.  You get what you get and sometimes that’s better than what you wanted or deserved.”  

It’s clear that Rick Crom deserves this spotlight that eluded him for so many years, as he adds ‘compassionate instructor’ to his list of varied talents.  Oh, Rick!is currently being featured in festivals around the country and is seeking further distribution.


Monday Memo: SXSW Award Winners in a WILD WILD COUNTRY

It doesn’t seem possible, yet SXSW has swiftly come and gone, with the festival’s award winners having been announced on Tuesday of last week. Hao Wu’s PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF DESIRE won the Grand Jury prize for in the documentary feature competition, while Charlie Tyrell’s MY DEAD DAD’S PORNO TAPES took home the Jury Award in Documentary Shorts, and TRANSMILITARY by Gabriel Silverman and Fiona Dawson took home the Audience Award. Meanwhile in Denmark, CPH:DOX is just getting started, and unsurprisingly, Basil Tsiokos whipped up a rundown of all the new docs making their debut at the festival over at What (not) To Doc, including those in its international competition for the Dox:Award and its regional competition for the Nordic:Dox Award.

Looking forward, Hot Docs has revealed another wave of titles in its Special Presentations program, bringing the total up to 32 films “showcasing high-profile premieres, award winners, and works by masters or featuring star subjects.” The festival, which runs April 26 through May 6, also revealed the 20 projects set to compete at this year’s Hot Docs Forum. Those that made that cut include new work by Brett Story, Nanfu Wang, Liz Marshall, and Lyric R. Cabral, reports Pat Mullen of POV Magazine. Additionally, the San Francisco International Film Festival unveiled its generous documentary program for this year’s edition, featuring lots of imports from Sundance, TIFF and SXSW.

Tomorrow at IFC Center, our 2018 Winter Season rolls on with Ian Olds and Garrett Scott’s 2005 Falluja doc classic, OCCUPATION: DREAMLAND. Co-director Ian Olds will be in attendance for a live Q&A following the screening. Tickets are still available here.

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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.