If you’ll allow me, I will be brief this week. I’ve spent the last five days laid up, feverish and full of yuck, but I’m on the upward swing and there are some interesting bits of news to report. First and foremost, after weeks of teasing with podcast playlist tweets, Thom Powers’ Pure Nonfiction podcast has gone live, both on the web and iTunes, where you can get a brief hint of the documentary goodness to come. Be sure to hit up the site, subscribe via your favorite podcast service and leave him a review to get the new program some much needed exposure. The first three episodes featuring interviews with Kahane Cooperman, Dawn Porter and the filmmakers behind MAKING A MURDERER roll out this week.
Second on the agenda is the online release of AJ Schnack’s shocking Sundance short SPEAKING IS DIFFICULT, which was published this week by Field of Vision. To compliment the film’s release, The Intercept ran a disconcerting piece by John Thomason titled “What We Know and Don’t Know About Mass Shootings and Gun Deaths,” while The New York Times published Mekado Murphy‘s extensive take on Schnack’s film, noting its potential growth as further violent acts are committed. I also discussed the film with Schnack for IONCINEMA.com after it screened as part of the shorts programs at True/False.
This week at Stranger Than Fiction we’ll be screening David Van Taylor’s timely 2012 documentary ADVISE & DISSENT, the first documentary to go behind the lines and into the trenches of the judicial confirmation wars. The film tracks two opposing lobbyists and two lions of the Senate through three contested nominations, each of which inflames passions and provokes surprising conflicts and shifting alliances. Director Van Taylor will be on hand for a post-screening Q&A and tickets are still available here.
You probably already saw, but the biggest news on our radar this week is Stranger Than Fiction’s own Spring Season schedule announcement (if you missed it, I urge you to read the announcement here). To celebrate 11 years of Stranger Than Fiction, hosted by Thom Powers and Raphaela Neihausen and presented by IFC Center, we’ve squeezed in extra films and special events to take our 8 week program up to 11 screenings. Tickets for Stranger Than Fiction screenings are $16 for the general public and $13 for IFC Center members. A Spring Season Pass, good for admission to all 11 events from April 5-May 31, is also now available for $99 ($80 for IFC members).
Elsewhere in there doc world, the Tribeca Film Festival came under fire after it announced that it would be showing a single screening of VAXXED: FROM COVER-UP TO CONTROVERSY, a film co-written and directed by Andrew Wakefield, a discredited British physician whose high profile 1998 report claiming that he’d discovered “a correlation between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism and bowel disorders” was subsequently fully retracted. First, Laura June asked, “Why Is an Anti-Vaccine Documentary by a Proven Quack Being Taken Seriously?” in NY Magazine’s The Cut. Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams followed that by calling out the festival, reasoning that a “discredited doctor’s documentary about ‘the long-debated link between autism and vaccines’ doesn’t belong in respected festival.” Then filmmaker Penny Lane, director of the new film NUTS! which highlights “just how easy it is to fall for a quack, especially one cloaked in the authority of a documentary film,” wrote an open letter to the festival via Filmmaker Magazine asking them to reconsider for the sake of filmmakers everywhere. Kate Erbland of indieWIRE and Michael Hiltzik of The Los Angeles Times joined the chorus of outrage, each outlining the various through lines of dialogue between the press and the festival.
As it turns out, Robert De Niro himself, co-founder of the festival, selected the film for very personal reasons. In his public initial response to the backlash he was quoted by Pam Belluck and Melena Ryzik in The New York Times, “Grace and I have a child with autism, and we believe it is critical that all of the issues surrounding the causes of autism be openly discussed and examined. In the 15 years since the Tribeca Film Festival was founded, I have never asked for a film to be screened or gotten involved in the programming. However this is very personal to me and my family and I want there to be a discussion, which is why we will be screening VAXXED.” Finally, after nearly a week of outcry, Stephanie Goodman of The New York Times reported that the film had been pulled from the festival. Following the announcement, Tom Roston wrote a poignant piece at Doc Soup titled, “Why We Hold Film Festivals to High Ethical Standards,” summarizing that he’s “greatly relieved that De Niro and Tribeca chose to reverse their decision. It’s the right call.”
Photo by Shane Epping of Mizzou News
As you may have noticed, there was no Monday Memo last week thanks to the remarkable celebration of non-fiction cinema that is True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri, which I had the pleasure of attending for the second year in a row. My thoughts on this year’s edition can be found over at IONCINEMA, as well as a trio of interviews that will follow shortly. Despite the festival’s rather small line-up, with each passing year it seems to garner more international attention thanks to its intelligent curation, community focused outlook and baseline fun factor. Steven Zeitchik of The Los Angeles Times wrote no less than four dispatches from the fest, outlining what sets it apart from other festivals, noting formal trends and thematic through-lines, as well as the game-shows and other carnivalesque happenings that only happen at True/False.
A whole host of other True/False round-ups were logged by indieWIRE’s Sam Adams, Hammer to Nail’s Jim Brunzell, AV Club’s Noel Murray, Alissa Wilkinson at RogerEbert.com, and Vadim Rizov, who posted a pair of dispatches at Filmmaker Magazine that focus “on the thorny subject of what happens when documentaries do — or antagonistically don’t — try to serve as compassionate ambassadors to the world on behalf of their subjects.” More specifically, indieWIRE’s Chris O’Falt reported on the emotionally charged premiere of CONCERNED STUDENT 1950, as well as exactly why a handful of filmmakers choose to have their films shown as a one of True/False’s fabled secret screenings before their world premiere at a festival geared more toward sales and distribution deals.
Here at Stranger Than Fiction, our winter season continues this week with a pair of screenings in Gabriel London’s THE MIND OF MARK DEFRIEST, about the legendary escape artist on Tuesday, and on Thursday, a special 10 Year Anniversary screening of the cult-hit documentary DARKON, by Luke Meyer & Andrew Neel, about American LARPers. The filmmakers of both films will be present for post-screening Q&As at each of their respective screenings. Tickets to both screenings are still available and can be purchased here.
Phew. I’ve returned, a bit winded from another rather joyous outing in Toronto, having copiously feasted on the year’s biggest and best selection of films just about anywhere. And in my relative absence from the happenings of online cinema news, a tsunami of exciting announcements, festival coverage and more has hit the net – most essentially, The Intercept’s launch of Field of Vision, a new documentary unit co-created by filmmakers Laura Poitras, AJ Schnack and former Hot Docs Director of Programing Charlotte Cook. Variety’s Dave McNary had the exclusive on the arrival of the group, while Eric Hynes interviewed the creative trio about their intentions for Field of Vision at The Intercept itself. Paula Bernstein of indieWIRE also spoke with them about how the project hopes to impact documentary filmmaking, as did Manori Ravindran for Realscreen. According to Varun Nayar at Tech Times, “2015’s inaugural season is set to begin on Sept. 29, where Poitras will look at the man behind Wikileaks, Julian Assange, documenting his progress and his time spent in political asylum in London’s Ecuadorian embassy.”
Still riding the waves of CITIZENFOUR, Laura Poitras won the Emmy Award for Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking, alongside Andrew Jarecki, who won the Emmy for Outstanding documentary or nonfiction series award for THE JINX, and Alex Gibney, who took home the prize for Outstanding documentary or nonfiction special for GOING CLEAR, reports Stephanie Merry in The Washington Post. Last week also saw the release of the European Film Awards’ first doc shortlist, which includes Asif Kapadia’s AMY, THE LOOK OF SILENCE from director Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean McAllister’s A SYRIAN LOVE STORY, according to Scott Roxborough of The Hollywood Reporter. Similarly, Manori Ravindran of Realscreen reports that Cinema Eye Honors also announced their doc shorts finalists, naming David Darg’s BODY TEAM 12 and Kitty Green’s THE FACE OF UKRAINE: CASTING OKSANA BAIUL amongst others.
The film WE ALWAYS LIE TO STRANGERS premiered at this year's SXSW festival.
It’s far too easy for jaded cynics from the coasts to think of the U.S.’s “heartland” (a conception that itself is a complicated one) as a monolithic culture of guns, jingoism and intolerance. A studied rebuke to the dismissive idea of the flyover state, WE ALWAYS LIE TO STRANGERS from directors AJ Schnack and David Wilson challenges any number of these presumptions in its investigation of Branson, Missouri–a town with a population of about 10,000 that channels some 7.5 million tourists through it on an annual basis.
Branson, situated in the highland region of the Ozarks, appropriates the neon flash of Broadway and Vegas, but promises an ideal of wholesome entertainment bereft of uncouth language or nudity–essentially anything that could easily be considered offensive by social conservatives. In the tradition of much escapist entertainment, performances in Branson’s theaters seem infused with a Stepford-esque aesthetic that belies complicated realities: a saccharine ode to the American flag and the U.S. armed forces is presented without consideration for the terrible costs of war.