Category Archives: Recommendations

Special Screening: THE FARM: ANGOLA, USA

The-Farm-530x317Coming to NYC’s Stranger Than Fiction series tomorrow, Tuesday, March 3: THE FARM: ANGOLA, USA

Jonathan Stack and Liz Garbus’ exploration of life and death in the notorious Louisiana prison debuted at Sundance in 1998, where it won the Documentary Grand Jury Prize. Its festival run also included San Francisco, Full Frame, Santa Barbara, and Florida, among several others. The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, and won two Emmy Awards.

Stack and Garbus, working with co-director Wilbert Rideau, then a death row inmate at Angola and the editor of the prison’s investigative journalism magazine, profile the lives of six other inmates in what is know as the country’s largest and most dangerous maximum-security prisons, once the site of a large slave plantation named after the African nation from which its labor was procured. Ranging from first timers just arriving to serve out their sentence to forty-year veterans, the men candidly discuss the realities of life behind bars as they reveal the circumstances that brought them there and the ways they’ve coped with the realization that, for 85% of its population, Angola will be their last stop before death – whether by execution or other causes. Starkly addressing the latter statistic, one subject, convicted for murdering his wife, is followed in his last months as he succumbs to lung cancer, while another man, who has already served 20 years of a 100 year sentence for rape, doggedly maintains his innocence but is perfunctorily denied parole consideration despite credible doubt. While the filmmakers don’t sugarcoat the crimes that many of their subjects have committed and admitted to, they powerfully point out the hypocrisy and injustice of a system that denies even the possibility of the rehabilitation that it’s supposed to support – rehabilitation that is demonstrable in several of the men whose stories they follow here, but who are doomed to live out the rest of their days behind bars.

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On TV: OUT IN THE SILENCE

out in the silenceComing to PBS’s America ReFramed series tomorrow, Tuesday, March 3: OUT IN THE SILENCE

Joe Wilson and Dean Hamer’s personal confrontation with small town homophobia has been screening extensively at festivals, universities, conferences, and community events since 2009. Among the festivals it’s appeared in are Human Rights Watch, Nashville, Rhode Island, aGLIFF, ImageOUT, Reel Affirmations, and Reeling. The film has also received an Emmy Award.

After longtime partners Wilson and Hamer decided to place their wedding announcement in Wilson’s rural hometown newspaper, the simple act sets off virulent homophobia within the community of Oil City PA, with anti-gay activists like Diane Gramley, the heartless and humorless head of the local American Family Association, denouncing gay marriage. A local resident, Kathy, takes note of the controversy, and, with no one else to turn, reaches out to Wilson to somehow help her her teenage son, CJ, the victim of regular bullying at school. Moved by her plea, the filmmaking pair returns to Oil City to explore why the conservative community has reacted so strongly against their declaration of love and commitment, and why Kathy has had such difficulty finding support for CJ’s plight. Believing that commonality trumps difference, they seek out an illuminating dialogue with opponents, forming an unexpected friendship with an Evangelical preacher who criticizes their union, while they also serve as role models for young CJ, providing compassion and hope that he will make it through this challenging time.

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In the Works: KURT VONNEGUT: UNSTUCK IN TIME

A portrait of a beloved, influential American author, and the story of the more than three decade odyssey to complete it.

vonnegutIn 1982 documentary filmmaker Robert Weide contacted Kurt Vonnegut, proposing that he make a documentary about his life and career. Securing the author’s permission, the project commenced in 1988 – but what was intended to be completed in short course carried on until Vonnegut’s death in 2007. Over the intervening decades, the filmmaker and his literary idol became close – so much so, that the meta story of their friendship eventually found its way into the project, spurring Weide to complete the film with the assistance of filmmaker Don Argott.

Weide and Argott are nearing the end of a Kickstarter campaign to allow them to finish the long-gestating project. At the time of this writing, they’re closing in on their goal, having received over 80% of their $250,000 target so far. With just over a week and half to go before the deadline, there’s time for interested readers to contribute. For more information about the project, check out its website.

Vonnegut was the first author whose work I became obsessed with as a teenager, so, on a personal level, I’m extremely curious about the insight Weide gained about the author’s life and work through their decades-long collaboration. The fact that Weide was also behind Larry David’s CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM as a director and executive producer promises a knowing appreciation of Vonnegut’s sense of humor and satire. While I’m typically extremely wary of meta elements to nonfiction projects, it’s a welcome sign that Weide has brought in Argott, himself an accomplished documentarian (LAST DAYS HERE, THE ART OF THE STEAL, and ROCK SCHOOL, among others), to oversee this element, who will hopefully providing some distance. At the same time, it’s the rare project that is crafted over such a lengthy period of time, so in this case, focusing some attention on the story behind the story seems justified, and, as the filmmakers note, at least in the case of Vonnegut, meta-textuality is a defining characteristic of his work, so this aspect should have a direct resonance with the film’s ultimate subject.

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On VOD: ACTRESS

actressComing to VOD this coming Tuesday, March 3: ACTRESS

Robert Greene’s look at a woman uncomfortably performing a domestic role debuted at True/False last year. Other festival engagements included Hot Docs, Nantucket, AFI Docs, Art of the Real, Sarasota, DMZ Docs, Camden, CPH:DOX, RIDM, and IDFA, among others.

I previously wrote about the film here.

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On Cable: FREEWAY: CRACK IN THE SYSTEM

Freeway-530x317Coming to Al Jazeera America in two parts on Sunday, March 1 and Sunday, March 8: FREEWAY: CRACK IN THE SYSTEM

Marc Levin’s look at the rise and fall of a crack kingpin debuted at Los Angeles’ Pan African Film Festival. It was also shown in a sneak preview earlier this month in NYC’s Stranger Than Fiction series.

I previously wrote about the program here.

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On DVD: WEB JUNKIE

web junkieComing to DVD next Tuesday, March 3: WEB JUNKIE

Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia’s behind-the-scenes look at Internet addiction rehab debuted at Sundance last year. It went on to screen at Miami, Dallas, Melbourne, Traverse City, One World, Hong Kong, ZagrebDox, Göteborg, and DOXA.

My pre-Sundance profile of the doc may be found here.

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Special Screening: OCCUPATION: DREAMLAND

occupation dreamlandComing to NYC’s Stranger Than Fiction series tonight, Tuesday, February 24: OCCUPATION: DREAMLAND

Ian Olds and Garrett Scott’s portrait of US soldiers stationed in Fallujah debuted at Rotterdam in 2005. It went on to screen at SXSW, Full Frame, Palm Springs, Vienna, New Zealand, Atlanta, and Portland Doc, among others. It also won the Truer Than Fiction Award at the Independent Spirits. Scott sadly passed away just days before the Spirit Awards. The Garrett Scott Documentary Development Grant was established at Full Frame after his death to help emerging filmmakers receive mentorship as they work on their debut nonfiction features.

Embedded within the US Army’s 82nd Airborne during the Winter of 2004, Olds and Scott record the daily grind faced by the young soldiers as tensions continue to mount in the Iraqi city of Fallujah. Though set up in a once-luxurious elite resort locally nicknamed “Dreamland,” the squad’s vocalized frustrations and thankless missions reveal it to be more of a nightmare. Tasked with the seemingly contradictory jobs of both maintaining security and trying to improve US/Iraqi relations – in essence, scaring the locals with aggressive raids by night, then trying to gladhand the understandably suspicious residents by day – the soldiers are surprisingly frank about their views of the quagmire the war has quickly become. While the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the experiences of various soldiers, have been amply documented over the past decade plus, the film retains an understated power and poignancy as it draws the audience in to empathize with the troops on the ground, even if neither the viewer, nor the soldiers themselves, necessarily understand the ultimate point of the war they’re waging.

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