Cleveland 2015: Documentary Overview

imagesThe 39th Cleveland International Film Festival kicks off tonight, Wednesday, March 18, and runs through Sunday, March 30. One of the nation’s best regional film events, the festival takes over the Ohio city with an impressive showcase of nearly 200 feature films and more than 200 shorts. The following offers a brief overview of the event’s feature documentary slate, broken down by the many competitions featured in the fest. Continue reading

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1201x782-Key-IMAGE-_DeFriest-Courtesy-of-Found-Object-Films-and-Thought-Café-copy-1160x652Coming to Showtime tomorrow, Thursday, March 19: THE MIND OF MARK DEFRIEST

Gabriel London’s look at the surprising case of a legendary prisoner had its world premiere at Hot Docs last year. Other screenings have included DOC NYC, Los Angeles,, Denver, and Lone Star, among others.

I previously wrote about the doc upon its theatrical release here.

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forgotten plagueComing to DVD today, Tuesday, March 17: THE FORGOTTEN PLAGUE

Chana Gazit’s historical chronicle of tuberculosis debuted as part of PBS’s American Experience last month.

I previously wrote about the doc here.

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New Directors/New Films 2015: Documentary Overview

nd nfThis year’s New Directors/New Films, a collaboration between the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, kicks off this Wednesday, March 18, and runs through Sunday, March 29. 2015’s 44th edition of the Spring favorite showcases 26 features from emerging filmmakers. Sadly, the nonfiction offerings, which never make up a large percentage of the event’s programming, have been halved relative to last year, with only two documentaries and one hybrid making the cut:

westernTwo made their debut at Sundance this past January: The Ross Brothers’ WESTERN (pictured), which looks at the way two border towns deal with the threat of cartel violence; and Stevan Riley’s LISTEN TO ME MARLON, a textured biographical portrait of Marlon Brando. The third, Simone Rapisarda Casanova’s hybrid THE CREATION OF MEANING, which was awarded at its premiere in Locarno, focuses on a Tuscan shepherd’s struggle with the encroachment of modernity on his way of life.

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180-days-hartsvilleComing to PBS tomorrow, Tuesday, March 17: 180 DAYS: HARTSVILLE

Jacquie Jones and Gerald McLaurin chronicle of a year in South Carolina’s elementary school system makes its debut this week as part of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s “American Graduate” initiative.

Ranked 45th in the nation in education, South Carolina’s educators are under the gun to make improvements. On a practical level, this means raising student performance as measured by standardized tests. On a personal level, for the school officials featured in Jones and McLaurin’s profile, it means doing right by their students and their parents, recognizing the challenges they face due to poverty, and finding a way to instill a desire to learn – all in the 180 days they have to work with in a single school year. The filmmakers spent this year in the small town of Hartsville, focusing primarily on two elementary schools: West Hartsville, led by principal Tara King in her first year in the position; and Thornwell, overseen by veteran principal Julie Mahn. These school administrators take center stage in the proceedings, even engaging in some friendly inter-school rivalry to encourage school pride from their charges. King finds herself facing lower test scores than expected, as well as an unengaged parent base, while also having to deal with Rashon, a bright student whose bad behavior threatens to lead to expulsion and a continuation of the cycle of poverty that has held back his mother, Monay. Mahn, meanwhile, a white principal in the school with the highest concentration of African American kids being raised in poverty, knows the stakes – as the daughter of sharecroppers, she was the first in her own family to break the cycle through education, attending college and paving the way for her son to do the same. Joining them are other representatives of the education system, including Pierre Brown, a teacher who tries to serve as a male role model for Rashon; and Harris DeLoach, a local businessman who has invested millions into improving the school system. While the film briefly addresses the national controversies around Common Core, and South Carolina’s own response, this is one area where it overextends itself, and ends up feeling too cursory. When they stick with their engaging central subjects, Jones and McLaurin successfully show, in microcosm, the challenges to our education system, and how they are compounded in underserved communities.

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dreamcatcherComing to theatres today, Friday, March 13: DREAMCATCHER

Kim Longinotto’s intimate look at a woman on a mission debuted at Sundance earlier this year, where it picked up the World Cinema Documentary Directing Award. Other fest engagements have included Rotterdam, Glasgow, ZagrebDox, and the upcoming Thessaloniki and One World.

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

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Rafea-Solar-Mama-Key-Image-Photo-by-by-Neil-Davenport-580x300Coming to The WORLD Channel’s Strength of Women series today, Friday, March 13: SOLAR MAMAS

Jehane Noujaim and Mona Eldaief’s look at female empowerment through solar energy made its feature debut at Toronto in 2012. It also screened at DOC NYC, IDFA, Sheffield, Montclair, and Human Rights Watch, among others. This shortened broadcast version debuted as part of Independent Lens the same year.

The central figure in Noujaim and Eldaief’s film is Rafea, a compelling Bedouin woman from a small Jordanian desert community. Despite, or perhaps because, she is illiterate, she is selected to participate in Indian visionary Bunker Roy’s Barefoot College, a six month training program that specifically targets mothers from the developing world. His reasoning: In contrast to men, woman have more patience to learn, and, significantly, their family ties lead them to stay in their home communities to pass on their newfound knowledge rather than escape to urban settings after they return from training. Rafea, together with her cousin, joins an international group in India to learn how to construct and install solar panels. The Jordanian governmental minister who has arranged for them to participate expects that they will be able to open their own training center, giving otherwise out of work Bedouins a way of making a living, while significantly contributing to the betterment of their community with the introduction of solar power. Rafea is up for the challenge, but, once in India, she faces incessant harassment from back home, with her shiftless husband in particular threatening to divorce her and take their daughters. The film captures the possibilities of – as well as the barriers to – gender equality in traditional societies, offering an eye-opening look at the shifting power dynamics that have a profound impact on women’s lives in these settings.

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