Monday Memo: Sundance Institute Announces Documentary Edit and Story Lab Projects


It will be a busy week for film festival goers, with New York’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival, Sheffield Doc/Fest and the long running Sydney Film Festival all having begun late last week and running though the end of this weekend. Basil Tsiokos outlined the new non-fiction offerings for each festival over at his What (not) To Doc blog, just as Joshua Brunsting previewed the films at the 28th edition of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival and Tom Roston spoke with the festival’s senior programmer, Leah Sapin, about this year’s curatorial focus on empowerment for Salon. Writing for The Star, Graham Walker listed twenty things to see and do this year at Sheffield Doc/Fest, while Matt Turner looked at how a trio of docs are challenging the narrative around the Syria crisis for Little White Lies. Covering the Sydney Film Festival, the fine folks at 4:3 have already published Ivan Čerečina‘s review of AUSTERLITZ and Anders Furze‘s take on KING OF THE BELGIANS.

Last Thursday, the Sundance Institute “announced the eight projects selected for its annual Documentary Edit and Story Labs, taking place in two sessions at the Sundance Resort in Utah from June 23-July 1 and July 7-15.” Projects selected include IMPEACHMENT by Brazilian director Petra Costa and editor Jordana Berg, and PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF DESIRE by director Hao Wu and editor Nanfu Wang. IndieWire’s Kate Erbland dissected the announcement, noting that projects “explore such timely themes as modern day lynchings, the Dakota Access Pipeline, impeachment, immigration detention centers, and more.” Looking back at the Sundance Documentary Film Program and the Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellowship’s 3rd annual Contemplating the Cut series, which took place back at the beginning of April, Colin Nusbaum outlined his tips and takeaways for doc editors over at the POV Blog.

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Monday Memo: Laura Poitras’ RISK Hits Theaters, Sheffield Doc/Fest Lineup Unveiled


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.

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Monday Memo: CAMERAPERSON Comes Out On Top (again) At Sheffield Doc/Fest


Being that this past week we wrapped up another successful season here at Stranger Than Fiction, there was much less doc news than last week’s jam packed agenda, and it just so happens to be my birthday, I’m going to attempt to keep this week’s memo brief. That said, the most reported on event this past week was the Sheffield Doc/Fest, which wrapped up Wednesday evening, unsurprisingly awarded Kirsten Johnson’s CAMERAPERSON with the Grand Jury Award, and gave HBO’s Sheila Nevins the Creative Leadership Award for making “an essential contribution to the international documentary industry.” Alongside Nick Fraser, commissioner for BBC’s Storyville, Nevins also took part in an ‘In Conversation’ event at the festival, which Realscreen’s Manori Ravindran dutifully covered. At IndieWire, Chris O’Falt spoke with six doc filmmakers who have successfully pitched projects at the Sheffield Doc/Fest MeetMarket in the past about what worked and what didn’t. Taking a broader look at the fest, Ros Cranston reflected on the formal and technical aspects of filmmaking that were on display in Sheffield for the BFI.

Just as Doc/Fest wrapped, Brooklyn’s BAMcinemaFest was gearing up. Touching on the festival’s offerings, including the various high profile docs lining the program, A.O. Scott wrote a preview feature of the fest in The New York Times, as did Calum Marsh in Village Voice, Matt Prigge for Metro, the staff at IndieWire and Basil Tsiokos at What (not) To Doc. Tsiokos also previewed the Edinburgh International Film Festival, which began the same day as BAMcinemaFest, and San Francisco’s Frameline, which concludes Sunday, June 26th.

A few weeks back, Robert S. Boynton of The New York Times reported that The Museum of Modern Art had “wrongly canceled the New York debut of UNDER THE SUN, a documentary about North Korea that has been criticized by that country and Russia,” which was previously scheduled to screen as part of the Doc Fortnight festival back in February. According to reports from Graham Winfrey at IndieWire and Artforum, in seemingly reactionary fashion MoMA has fired Assistant Film Curator Sally Berger, who has been with the museum for 30 years and made the decision to pull the film. In Filmmaker Magazine, Howard Feinstein has lionized Berger, lovingly stating that “nothing can take away from Berger’s record of nonconforming achievements, ahead of their time in an environment hardly known for its artistic courage, especially before MoMA’s acquisition of P.S. 1.,” while reminding that she was a driving force in the development of Doc Fortnight and the promotion of postmodern and avant-garde non-fiction.

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Monday Memo: Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA Becomes Next Binge Watching Doc Phenom


A couple months back, Anthony Kaufman predicted that Ezra Edelman’s towering five-part ESPN series O.J.:MADE IN AMERICA would follow in the footsteps of THE JINX and MAKING A MURDERER to become the next media hyped documentary phenomenon. This week, that forecast came to fruition as the series has gleaned twice as much (or more) rave coverage as any other doc released this year to date, and the series has yet to have been released in full. There seems to be no shortage of rhapsodic quotes coming in like Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir proclamation, a “magnificent work of journalism and storytelling from producer and director Ezra Edelman, which now belongs on the short list of the greatest television documentaries ever made,” or Slate’s Jack Hamilton who aims to soften one’s doubts, “Forget your O.J. Simpson fatigue—ESPN’s 7½-hour documentary is a revelation.”

The praise continues to mount, with reviews from the likes of gushing reviews coming in from Noel Murray of AV Club, Brian Tallerico of RogerEbert.com, and Scott Tobias at Vulture. The Washington Post published a lavish profile of Edelman by Eric Hynes, who astutely distills the series as “a heady, five-part, half-century-spanning epic that…posits the story of O.J Simpson as a Rorschach test for the American psyche. Hero or villain, creator or creation, denier or exemplar of his race, how we view O.J. says as much about ourselves as it does the enigma currently languishing in a Nevada prison,” while Hank Stuever called it “nothing short of a towering achievement” in his review for the same publication. Also in the Post, Connor Schell and Aaron Cohen have composed a syllabus of other O.J. related materials to check out, just as Vanity Fair’s Laura Bradley listed five other docs on Simpson to watch in the wake of Edelman’s production.

Even various publications typically unrelated to documentary films published serious criticism on the series, like Brian Raftery‘s essay at Wired, Sarah Weinman‘s piece at New Republic, and Edwin Rios‘ reflection at Mother Jones. Other worthwhile pieces included James Andrew Miller‘s “Why ESPN Gave Director Ezra Edelman Nearly Eight Hours for O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA,” found at Vanity Fair, Stephen Battaglio‘s feature in The Los Angeles Times, NPR’s pair of pieces by Eric Deggans and Linda Holmes, as well as Alan Pergament‘s interview with Edelman in The Buffalo News. Flavorwire’s Lara Zarum may have been the most critical by running the headline, “Yes, O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA is a Triumph of Documentary Storytelling — But it Has a Troubling Blind Spot Around Domestic Violence in the NFL.” And let’s not forget, Stranger Than Fiction’s own Thom Powers spoke at length with Edelman in the latest episode of his new documentary focused podcast, Pure Non Fiction.

While O.J. may be the hot topic on small screens everywhere this week, on Wednesday on the giant screen at IFC Center we here at Stranger Than Fiction will really wrap up our spring season with a very special screening of COUSIN BOBBY, at which Oscar winner Jonathan Demme will appear to present his long unavailable 1992 documentary. Tickets for the show are currently available here.

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Monday Memo: Wiseman Takes the Plunge Into Crowdfunding for IN JACKSON HEIGHTS


Among the deluge of festival reports and theatrical reviews that came in this past week, the most interesting tidbit may be the announcement that docu legend Frederick Wisemen has taken to Kickstarter in hopes of raising funds to complete his 40th feature film, IN JACKSON HEIGHTS. The campaign page features a short video of the director himself pitching his project, as well as the first trailer for the film. Manori Ravindran reported on Wiseman’s first foray into the crowdfunding over at Realscreen, as did Sarah Salovaara for Filmmaker Magazine.

Though the Sheffield Doc/Fest having wrapped a couple weeks back, both Cineuropa’s Naman Ramachandran and Realscreen’s Manori Ravindran reported early this past week that Joshua Oppenheimer’s THE LOOK OF SILENCE took home the festival’s Audience Award, while Sean MacAllister’s A SYRIAN LOVE STORY, reviewed by Camillo De Macro at Cineuropa, took home the Grand Jury Prize. De Marco also wrote a piece on the awards handed out at this year’s Bologna Biografilm Festival, including the Unipol Award for Best Film which was given to Patricio Guzman for THE PEARL BUTTON. Back stateside, as reported by Kevin Ritchie at Realscreen, Mo-Young Jin’s MY LOVE, DON’T CROSS THAT RIVER won the LA Film Fest Documentary prize. Ritchie also covered the 10 films shortlisted for next year’s Cinema Eye Awards for television projects, which include Alex Gibney’s GOING CLEAR, Alex Winter’s DEEP WEB and Jose Antonio Vargas’ DOCUMENTED.

AFI Docs kicked off Wednesday and wrapped up last night in Washington, DC. In The Washington Post, Ann Hornaday wrote a substantial preview of the festival that was marked by its truthful, but accusatory headline, “In the Golden Age of documentaries, the medium could use more artistry”. At Keyframe, David Hudson kept a substantial round-up of the festival’s press coverage, while Chad Gracia’s Sundance prize winner THE RUSSIAN WOODPECKER received some attention from Manori Ravindran in Realscreen and Camillo De Marco at Cineuropa. Prior the fest, Basil Tsiokos previewed the non-fiction offerings at not just AFI Docs, but BAMcinemaFestFrameline and the Edinburgh International Film Festival, each at What (not) to Doc.

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