Still from Director Jenny Carchman's THE FAMILY BUSINESS: TRUMP AND TAXES
September was a busy, hectic and exciting month for me. I made my annual pilgrimage to the Toronto International Film Festival, I visited Cincinnati for the first time for a friend’s wedding, and I bought my very first house, which, it turns out, is not easy to do while traveling around and trying to get work done. So, I had to take the month away from the Memo to get my life back in order, but with the coming of fall I’m back and ready to round up the best in documentary reporting once again!
At the top of the list is Ann Hornaday‘s controversial claim in The Washington Post that argues against NBC’s Chuck Todd assertion that, “We have to consider [documentaries] journalism,” with her headline reading, “Documentaries aren’t journalism, and there’s nothing wrong with that.” Meanwhile at IndieWire, Chris O’Falt reported on “How Showtime Made a Secret Documentary About the New York Times’ Big Story on Trump’s Tax Evasion,” which centers around Jenny Carchman’s short THE FAMILY BUSINESS: TRUMP AND TAXES and “The Times story by Russ Buettner, Susanne Craig and David Barstow calls into question President Trump’s image as a self-made billionaire, revealing that he received the equivalent today of $413 million from his father.” The Intercept, which published Jon Schwarz‘s extensive feature on DARK MONEY this week, seems to make quite an argument for the importance of journalism in documentary filmmaking. Isn’t there room for both non-journalistic and journalistic documentaries?
This week at Stranger Than Fiction, we are showing another investigative film in Oscar winner Alex Gibney’s NO STONE UNTURNED, which sees him turn his gaze to the “1994 Loughinisland massacre, a cold case that remains an open wound in the Irish peace process.” Gibney himself will be in attendance for a live Q&A at tomorrow’s screening at IFC Center.
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.
“It was supposed to be all thrown away and forgotten, but we played a trick on history and saved it.” So opens the first entry in Stranger Than Fiction’s Fall 2018 Season, Bathtubs Over Broadway. The film immediately introduces us to Steve Young, a self-described ‘comedy-damaged’ writer for the Late Show with David Letterman. Steve realizes he doesn’t have many interests outside his day job, but a new show segment starts him on an unlikely journey. His job for this one particular segment is to find obscure songs from industrial musicals. Yes, you read that correctly… industrialmusicals.
Following the rise of musical theater to immense popularity in the 50s and 60s, many large corporations – General Electric, McDonald’s, Ford, DuPont, Xerox, among others – started staging full fledged musical productions at their regional annual sales meetings. This in turn launched the broadway careers of some of the most recognizable names of that era – Chita Rivera, Kander & Ebb, Florence Henderson, and Bob Fosse. Steve, an admitted non-Broadway fan, became transfixed by these recordings, and thought to himself, “I should have them all. I will have them all eventually.” He’s clearly excited, but not just excited about collecting something – he’s experiencing the joy we all have in connecting to the things we hold dear.
What follows is both a hilarious and heartwarming journey of Steve discovering an entire world that he, and admittedly most of America, knew nothing about. As he dug deeper, he found that “these weren’t jingles, these weren’t commercials, these were full fledged broadway shows for an audience.” These musicals included songs about almost anything you can think of – polyester, spark plugs, even pasta. One musical, The Bathrooms Are Coming, contains what Steve describes as the ‘gateway drug’ to this world, the song ‘My Bathroom.’ Steve gushes that it is “perfection on vinyl.” (You can hear it here.) It’s clear to the audience that he’s no longer just a collector, but is entirely consumed by this magical world he’s discovered.
Stranger Than Fiction, the weekly documentary film series hosted by Thom Powers and Raphaela Neihausen and presented by IFC Center, curates an eclectic fall season in its 14thyear, covering musicals, scandals, murders, and rodents of unusual size. Each screening features a Q&A with the filmmaker or other special guests. “STF provides an experience you can’t get at home to engage in a lively conversation with the people behind the film,” said STF Artistic Director Thom Powers.
The six-week season mainly takes place on Tuesday nights, but kicks off with a Wednesday special of BATHTUBS OVER BROADWAY (Sept 19), a crowd-pleasing look at the hidden history of Broadway composers who created secret musicals for corporate events. Week Two looks at the rise and fall of New York’s legendary discotheque in STUDIO 54 (Sept 25) with the club’s famous doorman in attendance. Week Three has a twofer with the Monday night special of STUDENT ATHLETE (Oct 1); and the Tuesday screening of WHEN THE BEAT DROPS (Oct 2) on the underground dance movement of bucking. Week Four brings Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney to discuss the recent UK legal actions taken against his collaborators on the film NO STONE LEFT UNTURNED (OCT 9). Week Five bring director Rudy Valdez to discuss the deeply emotional look at his sister’s imprisonment in THE SENTENCE (Oct 16). The season concludes with a truly stranger than fiction focus on residents of Louisiana battling giant swamp rats in RODENTS OF UNUSUAL SIZE (Tues, Oct 23). The fall season is co-presented by New York Film Academy.
The regular STF fall season takes place at the IFC Center every Tuesday nights at 7:30pm for six weeks including one Monday night screening and one Wednesday night screening, starting Sept 19. Opening night will start at 8:00pm to accommodate Yom Kippur. Each event includes a discussion with the filmmaker or special guests, followed by a gathering at a nearby bar. Full season schedule appears below.
It doesn’t seem quite possible, but summer is sadly winding down. But as most of you know, this means that the season of excellent cinema going is upon us. Later this week I’ll be making my annual pilgrimage to the Toronto International Film Festival for my fall fill of the year’s best films, with a focus on documentaries (obviously). Looking at the fest’s doc slate, Daniele Alcinii and Frederick Blichert collected every trailer currently available for the films in a pair of posts over at Realscreen. Meanwhile, on Tuesday TIFF “announced the appointment of Joana Vicente as the new Executive Director & Co-Head of TIFF, effective November 1, 2018. Vicente, who previously served as Executive Director of the Independent Filmmaker Project (IFP), joins Cameron Bailey, who was previously announced as the Artistic Director & Co-Head, effective October 1, 2018.”
As TIFF is gearing up and the BFI London Film Festival revealed its own doc competition lineup, the Telluride and Venice Film Festivals are already underway. As is Telluride‘s tradition, just before the festival’s start it unveiled its A-list lineup, featuring world premieres of FREE SOLO, ANGELS ARE MADE OF LIGHT, WATERGATE and GRAVES WITHOUT A NAME, among others. From the cloistered mountain festival, Richard Lawson of Vanity Fair reports that “FREE SOLO is a dizzying, fascinating rock climbing documentary,” while David Ehrlich of IndieWire notes, ‘FREE SOLO thaws into a riveting character study during its second half, but the film is first and foremost a peerlessly visceral depiction of what it’s like to scale a 3,000-foot rock.” Ehrlich also reports on Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg’s REVERSING ROE, strongly summing it up, “REVERSING ROE isn’t as probing or profound as LAKE OF FIRE, as moving as AFTER TILLER, as grounded as 12TH & DELAWARE, or as curious as VESSEL (to compare it to just a few of the other recent abortion docs), and it takes some time for its legislative concerns to come into focus. A creatively unadventurous study that never risks being clever at the expense of being clear, the film starts from a macro perspective before zooming in closer.”
Looking at the Venice doc offerings, Basil Tsiokos outlined the films over at What (not) To Doc, “The festival once again relegates nonfiction outside of its competitive sections. While last year’s event saw four of these slots go to docs, this year, only one title, Roberto Minervini’s exploration of race in America, WHAT YOU GONNA DO WHEN THE WORLD’S ON FIRE?, appears out of 21 contenders in the Venezia 75 Competition, and not a single doc is among the 19 films of the forward-looking Orizzonti.”
Festival season is now in full swing and as further confirmation the New York Film Festival revealed its 13 film lineup for its Spotlight on Documentary. Highlights include world premieres of Mark Bozek’s THE TIMES OF BILL CUNNINGHAM and Tom Surgal’s FIRE MUSIC, as well as a new restoration of William Wyler’s THE MEMPHIS BELLE: A STORY OF A FLYING FORTRESS. Following the close of this year’s Locarno Festival, the festival announced “Lili Hinstin will be the new Artistic director of the Locarno Festival, replacing Carlo Chatrian who is leaving Locarno to take over the artistic direction of the Berlinale. Hinstin will take up her appointment from December 1st 2018, while already devoting part of her time to the preparation of the next edition of the Locarno Festival.” And while it is more a doc professional conference than a film festival, IDA’s Getting Real ’18 also listed its full schedule and boasts of a keynote from Michèle Stephenson, a masterclass with Frederick Wiseman, and a closing night screening of a newly restored SALESMAN on 35mm. The event will take place in Los Angeles from September 25-27.
A few festival hits reached audiences this past weekend, most notably CRIME + PUNISHMENT, another big Hulu release following the success of MINDING THE GAP. The film was selected by our own Raphaela Neihausen and Thom Powers as WNYC’s Documentary of the Week, noting that it “plays like a modern day SERPICO” as it “follows the case of the NYPD 12, who spoke out against biased policing.” In The New York Times, A.O. Scott deemed it a NYT Critics’ Pick, while in Vogue, Julia Falsenthal called it “a blood-boiling look at systemically racist policing” in her feature on the project in which she spoke at length with the film’s director, Stephen Maing. It should be noted that over at Nonfics, Christopher Campbell has acknowledged Hulu as a new documentary powerhouse with a list of 50 of the best films currently streaming on the service, with CRIME + PUNISHMENT sitting at #2.
Next up was Steve James’s new Starz doc series AMERICA TO ME, which also has a connection with MINDING THE GAP, as the film’s director Bing Liu worked as a cinematographer on the series. Sam Adams called the project a “panoramic portrait of racial inequality at one Illinois high school” and a “worthy follow-up to HOOP DREAMS” at Slate, as Jake Nevins joyously unpacks the series in-depth in a lengthy feature that appeared in The Guardian. He comprehensively regales, “Like many of James’s films, AMERICA TO ME is about one thing, a high school, and so much more: those tumultuous, formative years of pubescence; the intersections between race, class and sexuality; the rich but often fraught relations of teachers and students; cafeteria banter; spoken word class; administrative oversight; homecoming and the football team; the amorphous politics of the high school food chain; and one relatively progressive school’s failure to adequately address the achievement gap between its white students and those of color.”