Like so many in the business of film making, curating, critiquing or just consuming, I’m feeling a little overstimulated after 11 days of movie-going at the Toronto International Film Festival, but in a good way. I managed to catch 46 films of the 296 features on offer this year, 19 of which were docs, many of which were outstanding. I managed to log a trio of reviews over at IONCINEMA, while an avalanche of doc coverage was amassed at outlets like Nonfics, POV Magazine, and Cinema Scope, among countless others. Found in the mix was Amy Kaufman’s extensive takes on RATS and AMANDA KNOX, and Steven Zeitchik‘s review of BEFORE THE FLOOD, all for the LA Times, while The Guardian’s Benjamin Lee also ruminated on AMANDA KNOX. At Realscreen, Jonathan Paul spoke with Errol Morris about his latest, THE B-SIDE: ELSA DORFMAN’S PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHY, while Kevin Ritchie asked Werner Herzog about INTO THE INFERNO. At yesterday’s closing awards ceremony Raoul Peck’s I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO was given the People’s Choice Documentary Award, while Fisher Stevens’ BEFORE THE FLOOD and Steve James’ ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL were named the second and first runners up, respectively.
In the midst of the action, our own Thom Powers hosted TIFF’s annual one day Doc Conference, featuring live panels and discussions on a wide range of non-fiction filmmaking related topics. If you weren’t able to make it, most of the events are now available to stream on TIFF’s YouTube channel, including conversations with Steve James, Jonathan Demme and more. Meanwhile, VR made its prescence known at the festival this year with its POP VR event reports Realscreen’s Jonathan Paul. Looking at the many films that scored distribution at TIFF, Kate Erbland wrote an overview of the sales for IndieWire, including Magnolia’s pick up of I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO and Syndicado’s purchase of IN EXILE.
Here at Stranger Than Fiction, we’ve revealed that our Fall Season is devoted to the documentary work of Jonathan Demme. The series features a six film retrospective with live director Q&As at each screening, beginning on September 27th with his legendary Talking Heads concert doc, STOP MAKING SENSE. Season passes and individual screening tickets are available.
Anyone without their head buried in the sand is well aware of the shocking news that the people of the United Kingdom have voted to leave the European Union, causing mass confusion and panic among the filmmaking community. In a shower of stories listing the potential consequences for the financing and development of future films (see European Documentary Network‘s recent survey on the “Current Cost of Making Documentaries in Today’s Audiovisual Market” for a look at that situation before the Brexit)
and the overall distribution processes currently in place, amongst others. Variety’s Leo Barraclough published the first, followed by similarly alarming pieces from The Guardian’s Andrew Pulver, The Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Roxborough, The Verge’s Sam Byford, and the Los Angeles Times’ Rebecca Keegan and Ryan Faughnder. Essentially, it’s not looking pretty. Perfectly timed, Artsy posted a beautiful feature by Tess Thackara on the Ghana-born, British filmmaker John Akomfrah and his new doc-based, migrant focused show at the Lisson Gallery in Manhattan that directly comments on the current Brexit situation.
Days before all of that went down, the Cinema Eye Honors revealed their 2017 Television Nonfiction Shortlist, including obvious choices like Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos’ MAKING A MURDERER and some pleasant surprises such as Steven Okazaki’s HBO doc HEROIN, CAPE COD, USA and the Netflix release MY BEAUTIFUL BROKEN BRAIN by Lotje Sodderland and Sophie Robinson. Paula Bernstein reported on the announcement for Filmmaker Magazine.
This past weekend saw the conclusion both NYC’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival and AFI Docs kicked off and finished in a matter of four short days. Daniel Walber listed his top five favorites seen at Human Rights Watch over at Nonfics, while Basil Tsiokos previewed the AFI Docs offerings and the Washingtonian staff recommended 14 films to see at the festival, including Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer’s LGBT-gang doc CHECK IT and the BEST IN SHOW-flavored film CHICKEN PEOPLE by Nicole Lucas Haimes.
While this past week we saw the Dubai International Film Festival kick off with Basil Tsiokos writing a preview of the doc offerings screening both in competition and out at his What (not) To Doc blog and Porto/Post/Doc wrap up and award their top prize to Zhao Liang’s BEHEMOTH, the Sundance Film Festival continues to hog headlines with its latest wave of title announcements. Included in the festival’s newly announced 2016 Documentary Premieres program is a slew of exciting new works by the likes of Werner Herzog, Spike Lee, Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady, Stephanie Soechtig, Liz Garbus, Chris Hegedus, and D.A. Pennebaker, according to reports by Kate Erbland at indieWIRE and Justin Chang at Variety. Additionally, the make up of the festival’s doc shorts program, including new work from Jason Reitman and AJ Schnack, was also released this week. In related festival news, the 66th annual Berlin International Film Festival also announced their first five competition titles and amongst them is the ever prolific Alex Gibney with his new film ZERO DAYS.
Looking back at 2015, the awards continue to stack up. At the 28th European Film Awards, Asif Kapadia won Best Documentary for AMY, while the Online Film Critics Association (whom I am admittedly a proud member of) has named Joshua Oppenheimer’s THE LOOK OF SILENCE the Best Doc of 2015. Though it’s been decades since the Golden Globes acknowledged non-fiction features, at Nonfics, Christopher Campbell imagined what this week’s nominations might have looked like had they decided to reinstate the Best Documentary category, noting that under seen crowd-pleasers like Ethan Hawke’s SEYMOUR: AN INTRODUCTION would most likely make the cut. This week Cara Buckley debated the potential final five Oscar nominations in The New York Times, while at indieWIRE, Anthony Kaufman pulled back the curtain on the ugly wheeling, dealing and dining that makes up the Oscar race. And while not specifically dealing with a 2015 release, the Cinema Eye Honors announced that their 2016 Legacy Award would “be presented to Chris Smith’s beloved 1999 documentary, AMERICAN MOVIE, the unforgettable story of a filmmaker pursuing his passion project.”
Just months after The Dissolve, a gleaming example of online film criticism, shuttered its digital doors, ESPN has pulled the plug on Grantland, its own well respected outlet for cultural commentary that has been a great supporter of documentary film, going so far as to sponsor a series of shorts by Errol Morris and beyond. In a statement released Friday, ESPN wrote, “Effective immediately we are suspending the publication of Grantland. After careful consideration, we have decided to direct our time and energy going forward to projects that we believe will have a broader and more significant impact across our enterprise.” Both the public and the media has responded in a fit of critical outrage, with The Huffington Post going so far as to run a piece by Justin Block that leads with the headline, “ESPN Closing Grantland Is The Dumbest ‘Smart’ Business Decision.”
Reacting to the news, Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post wrote on why Grantland mattered to journalism, while Laura Wagner collected the backlash from social media for NPR. Writing for New Republic, Alex Shephard and Mark Krotov wrote an in-depth eulogy for the beloved outlet, complimenting a similar autopsy Jack Dickey at Time that looks at “Why Grantland Couldn’t Outlast Bill Simmons’ Exit From ESPN.” Richard Sandomir of The New York Times, David Sims of The Atlantic and Julia Greenberg for Wired each reflected on Grantland’s sudden closure as well.
On the bright side of things, Stranger Than Fiction continues tomorrow at the IFC Center with Johanna Hamilton’s illegal surveillance doc, 1971. Hamilton, along with the film’s subject, Betty Medsger, and special guest, filmmaker Laura Poitras will be on hand for a post-screening Q&A! Details on the film and tickets can be found here.
Laura Poitras at the Cinema Eye Honors podium flanked by D.A. Pennebaker (left) and Albert Maysles (right). Photo by Spencer Worthley.
With the heavyhearted departure of Rahul Chadha, whose been handling the Monday Memo here at Stranger Than Fiction for several years now, a large pair of soundly tuned shoes was in need of filling. So, with the blessing of Rahul, Thom and Raphaela, I will be attempting to serve as his dutiful replacement, shepherding this weekly roundup I’ve personally found quite useful and enlightening for the foreseeable future. Let me introduce myself: My name is Jordan M. Smith – the M. being necessary so I don’t get lost amongst the other millions of Smiths floating through cyberspace. You may know me from my film and festival coverage over at IONCINEMA.com where I’ve served as a staff writer for a few years now, or from my running commentary on life and cinema on Twitter. Most recently, I’ve been creating content and curating films for the recently launched Influence Film Club. I’m hoping with my experiences tracking the film festival circuit and watching upwards of 400 films a year, I could be of some use here at Stranger Than Fiction. So, without further ado, this week’s Monday Memo:
Among the big stories in the documentary world, nothing topped the disbursement of the 8th Annual Cinema Eye Honors, where CITIZENFOUR took home four of the major awards, including Outstanding Achievements in Nonfiction Feature Filmmaking, Direction, Editing and Production. Sarah Salovaara reported on the event for Filmmaker Magazine, as did Steve Pond for The Wrap, Nigel M. Smith at Indiewire, Adam Benzine for Realscreen, and Basil Tsiokos at his What (Not) Not To Doc blog. Before the honors were awarded, the filmmakers were taken on a surprise tour of New York City by none-other-than Timothy “Speed” Levitch, the legendary double-decker tour guide and star of “The Cruise,” on which Steve Dollar of the Wall Street Journal bore witness. Meanwhile, over at Indiewire, director Marshall Curry took the time to reflect on not only the tour, of which he happily took part in, but the Cinema Eye Honors themselves.
Next Monday the 19th, at the IFC Center, Stranger than Fiction will be hosting a screening of director Brad Bernstein’s FAR OUT ISN’T FAR ENOUGH: THE TOMI UNGERER STORY. Taking advantage of the fact that Tomi Ungerer himself will be in town for a retrospective of his work at the The Drawing Center in SoHo, both Brad Bernstein and Tomi Ungerer will be in attendance for a post screening Q&A. In light of the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, this should prove to be a timely and moving event.