Monday Memo: Sundance 2018 In Full Swing


Sundance is upon us once again. The documentary films primed to make the most impact in the coming year are having their world premieres in Park City as the rest of us wait in anxious anticipation. In preparation for this year’s edition of the fest, our own Thom Powers interviewed Tabitha Jackson, the head of the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program, for the latest edition of Pure Nonfiction, while Basil Tsiokos, the Documentary Programming Associate at Sundance, wrapped up his own preview of the festival’s new doc offerings at What (not) To Doc. At Variety, Addie Morfoot wrote at length about how the doc funding group Impact Partners are making an impact on this year’s Sundance.

Reviews for a handful of docs are already rolling in: Maxim Pozdorovkin’s found footage OUR NEW PRESIDENT is fielding a mixed response from folks like Matthew Panzarino at TechCrunch (“too long”)and April Wolfe at Film Comment (“his film tells a thrilling, scary, mind-bending, and often-hilarious story of Russian propaganda’s role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election”), while Sam Adams spoke with Pozdorovkin over at Slate about the film, noting its journey from Field of Vision short to full length feature. Daniel Fienberg was a bit lukewarm on Don Argott’s exploration of LGBTQ acceptance in the Mormon church within THE BELIEVER in The Hollywood Reporter (“The story is good and important enough that those things come through even if the movie around them is rarely memorable”), while at Collider, Adam Chitwood found Tim Wardle’s nature vs. nurture film THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS to be “shocking, poignant, and surprisingly touching.” Similarly, Eric Kohn, writing for IndieWire, dubbed Morgan Neville’s “touching and insightful survey of Rogers’ decades-spanning career” in WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR a “a powerful reminder that he was either way ahead of his time, or too late.” Charlie Phillips of The Guardian found Marina Zenovich’s ROBIN WILLIAMS: COME INSIDE MY MIND to be “filled with genuine affection and remarkable archive footage, but there’s a frustrating hesitance to go deeper,” as Nicole Sperling reported on Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s crowd wowing doc RBG, on associate Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for Vanity Fair.

Out in the greater world, Matt Zoller Seitz reviewed Greg Barker’s “engrossing documentary about the last year’s worth of foreign policy work during the Obama administration,” THE FINAL YEAR for RogerEbert.com as it finally reached theaters this week. Concluding at Nonfics, Brad Gullickson pins it down: “THE FINAL YEAR is a funeral of a film. Barker may not have set out to process our mourning, but in recording the slow revelation of Trump’s possible/inevitable presidency in the hearts and minds of Obama’s cronies, we are forced to grieve for what might have been.” Dmitrii Kalashnikov’s controversial Russian dash cam mish-mash THE ROAD MOVIE also found its release this past week, gleaning mixed takes from Richard Brody in The New Yorker, Vikram Murthi at RogerEbert.com, and Nick Schager of The Daily Beast.

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Monday Memo: STRONG ISLAND Tops 11th Annual Cinema Eye Honors


Director Yance Ford and his remarkable heart-wrenching debut STRONG ISLAND received a trio of major awards at the 11th annual Cinema Eye Honors in Queens on Thursday evening, including Outstanding Direction, Outstanding Debut and Outstanding Nonfiction Feature Film. Additionally, Brett Morgen’s JANE was honored with the Audience Choice Prize and the award for Outstanding Score, while Jonathan Olshefski’s QUEST won Outstanding Editing, Kareem Abeed, Stefan Kloos and Soren Steen Jespersen won Outstanding Production for LAST MEN IN ALEPPO, Andrew Ackerman and Jeff Orlowski won Outstanding Cinematography for CHASING CORAL, and Stefan Nadelman won Outstanding Graphic Design for LONG STRANGE TRIP.

Earlier in the week, the Directors Guild of America revealed its nominees for Best Documentary of 2017 – THE VIETNAM WAR, ICARUS, CITY OF GHOSTS, ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL & WORMWOOD – as did the British Film Academy Awards (BATFAs) – CITY OF GHOSTS, I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO, ICARUS, AN INCONVENIENT SEQUEL & JANE. Leading the way in its support of women nonfiction filmmakers, Chicken & Egg Pictures, via Rachel Montpelier at Women and Hollywood, announced that the recipients of their annual Breakthrough Filmmaker Awards are Natalia Almada, Ramona Diaz, Laura Nix, Kimi Takesue, and Nanfu Wang. Each filmmaker is to recieve a $50,000 unrestricted grant and a year of professional mentorship.

As we wait for Sundance to kick off later this week, Akiva Gottlieb reported for IDA on UnionDocs‘ “weekend workshop called ‘Speculations in the Archive,’ a sold-out gathering that explored the archive’s potential to spur imagination and invention.” The verdict? “If there’s something that links the new practitioners of what might be called speculative archival filmmaking, it’s the conviction that documentary can be the product of solitude, and that communion with inanimate materials can generate the most thrilling, immediate forms of direct cinema.”

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Monday Memo: First Look of a New Year


After two weeks off for the holidays and a relative lack of doc news, we return in 2018 to a rather slow stream of reportage outside of the lead-up to Sundance and a few more award season announcements. With Sundance scheduled to kick off next Thursday, the festival has been rolling out its annual YouTube series, Meet The Artists, in which we get a taste of what’s to come at this year in Park City. Meanwhile, Basil Tsiokos, the Documentary Programming Associate at Sundance, has been writing up his own thorough previews of each of the docs to have debuts at the festival over at What (not) To Doc. And at IndieWire, Anthony Kaufman put forth his well researched forecast of this year’s doc market, writing, “The bulk of this year’s nonfiction releases had a rough time in theaters, but hope is not lost.”

While we wait for Sundance to commence, the Museum of the Moving Image is currently in the midst of First Look 2018, “the Museum’s acclaimed festival of innovative new international cinema” that runs through January 15th. In Artforum, Tony Pipolo writes that “the strongest entries in both nonfiction and the avant-garde at this year’s First Look series overshadow the few narrative films included,” noting Anna Zamecka’s COMMUNION, which Caroline Madden also covered for Reverse Shot, and Ziad Kalthoum’s TASTE OF CEMENT, which Eric Hynes, Associate Curator of Film at the museum singled out in his overview of his favorite screenings of 2017 for Film Comment.

Authorities in Singapore have officially banned Jesse Roberts’ documentary RADIANCE OF RESISTANCE, which was scheduled to screen at the Singapore Palestinian Film Festival last Thursday, reports Variety’s Patrick Frater. “The Info-communications Media Development Authority gave the film a Not Allowed for All Ratings classification, which means it cannot be shown in any circumstances in Singapore. The IMDA said that the film had a “skewed narrative” and could cause disharmony among races and religions in Singapore.”

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Monday Memo: Nevins to Leave HBO After Nearly 40 Years


After a week off, I’ve returned to a short stack of doc news that packed quite a punch over the last few days. Most notably, Sheila Nevins, the 78-year-old president of HBO Documentary Films, has revealed that after 38 years of devout service she has decided to leave HBO, reflecting, “I have deprived my life of a life. All I did was work. I was, like, born at HBO and I don’t have to die there. If I stayed any longer, I probably would have died at my desk. I just regret that there’s so little time left.” In Maureen Dowd‘s revelatory feature in The New York Times, she notes, “With a storytelling style that grabs viewers by the throat, Ms. Nevins helped change the image of documentaries from stodgy to provocative. And she helped HBO amass such a pile of Emmys, Peabodys and Oscars that there’s a roomful of glittering laurels at headquarters that’s known as the Holy Shrine of Sheila. She received the first Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award given to a documentarian.” In a separate piece, Dowd played Confirm or Deny with Nevins.

Another sudden departure came as a surprise when filmmaker Morgan Spurlock published a confessional piece titled “I am Part of the Problem,” in which he reveals that in his past a women he had a one night stand with believed that she had been raped, and a former coworker was paid a settlement to keep silent about his history of verbal sexual harassment toward her. Christine Hauser reported the news in The New York Times, while at Realscreen, Daniele Alcinii followed the aftermath of the revelations, seeing Spurlock exit Warrior Poets, the New York-based studio he founded with producing partner Jeremy Chilnick, and NBA superstar LeBron James and Maverick Carter’s SpringHill Entertainment cutting ties with the filmmaker on a planned docuseries focusing on the opening of James’ “I Promise School” — a new public school dedicated to supporting at-risk children in his hometown of Akron, Ohio.

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Monday Memo: Sundance 2018 Lineup Revealed


There wasn’t a ton of things happening in the doc world this week, but the unveiling of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival lineup was undoubtedly the most notable. Nate von Zumwalt spoke with Trevor Groth, the festival’s director of programming, about this year’s selections, “A lot of these documentary subjects are so impactful in the fields they come from, but they all faced great struggle on the way to becoming trailblazers. That includes names like Joan Jett (Bad Reputation), Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG), Gloria Allred (Seeing Allred), Jane Fonda (Jane Fonda in Five Acts), and M.I.A. (MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A.).” Festival director John Cooper pushed further, “More broadly, in a year that has rejuvenated the idea of television journalism covering every scandal and every political detail, documentaries are the last bastion of uncovering the truth. Many of the films in these documentary categories serve to provide a deeper dive into these stories – they slow things down so that we can understand the ramifications in our world.”

While Sundance ruled the roost this week, award season rolls on regardless. With a strong and varied field, there hasn’t been any single front runner just yet, as Yance Ford’s STRONG ISLAND won Best Documentary at the Gotham Awards, Brett Morgen’s JANE was named Best Doc by the National Board of Review, and Agnès Varda and JR’s FACES PLACES received the same honors from both the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the New York Film Critics Circle.

Each year the International Documentary Association‘s “Amicus Award goes to an individual who has been a great supporter, financially or otherwise, of documentary filmmaking. The recipient of this year’s award is Abigail Disney, producer, funder and director of many of the most distinctive and influential recent documentaries.” Meanwhile, Disney herself wrote a public plee in USA Today, begging Congress, “Don’t cut taxes for rich people like me.”

Writing this column each week, it’s become increasingly obvious that things have radically shifted when it comes to which new releases are gleaning substantive coverage and which are not. Unsurprisingly, when a film like Myles Kane and Josh Koury’s VOYEUR forgoes a domestic theatrical release in favor of an international Netflix release, nearly every single one is met with a wave of coverage in the form of warm reviews from Charles Bramesco of The Guardian, Christy Lemire of RogerEbert.com, and David Ehrlich of IndieWire, as well as lavish features in The Atlantic by Sophie Gilbert and Vogue via Bridget Read. Meanwhile, worthy new theatrical releases like Oren Jacoby’s SHADOWMAN, Adam Bhala Lough’s THE NEW RADICAL, and Hope Litoff’s 32 PILLS: MY SISTER’S SUICIDE each received capsule reviews in The New York Times and little more. How do filmmakers get the word out about their films without the help of the press?

Other doc related pieces worth noting included Morena Duwe‘s feature at HuffPost on Andrew Novick’s feature debut JONBENÉT’S TRICYCLE, Phil Concannon‘s appreciation of Orson Wells’s slippery F FOR FAKE found appropriately at Little White Lies, John Anderson‘s look at the making of Leonard Retel Helmrich’s THE LONG SEASON for The New York Times, and J. Hoberman‘s take on the Film Society at Lincoln Center’s new season, The Non-Actor, in The New York Review of Books.

Our own Thom Powers released a new episode of Pure Nonfiction featuring STRONG ISLAND director Yance Ford, while FilmWax Radio host Adam Schartoff is attempting to raise funds to help build a larger audience and expand awareness about the program via a Kickstarter campaign that ends this coming Thursday.

Three docs to watch online this week include GRAVEN IMAGE by Sierra Pettengill, a Field of Vision production published over at The Atlantic, Adam B. Ellick, John Woo and Jonah M. Kessel’s ominous FROM NORTH KOREA, WITH DREAD, showing in The New York Times, and a film I was looking forward to seeing and just discovered it actually made its way online over the summer and I had missed it – Nathan Truesdell’s funny and horrifying BALLOONFEST.

I’ll leave you this week with IndieWire critic Eric Kohn‘s list of top films of the year (including plenty of docs). As always, if you have any tips or recommendations for the Memo, please contact me via email here, or on Twitter, @Rectangular_Eye.