Select Festivals: DOXA, Encounters, Durban, CinemAfrica, NY African Diaspora
About: The director seeks to unearth the story of an aunt she’s never heard of before.
After Tamara Mariam Dawit, the daughter of an Ethiopian man and Canadian woman, moves to her father’s homeland to reconnect with her father’s side of the family, she learns of the existence of a long-absent aunt, Selamawit, known affectionately as Sally. While Sally’s sisters are surprised by Dawit’s claims that they’ve never spoken about Sally in front of her, it’s clear that their lost sister’s story is a painful one. Interviewing each of her aunts, as well as other family friends, Dawit delves not only into Sally’s story, but that of Ethiopia’s tumultuous history. Though presented as something of a mystery, Sally’s story is well known, up to a point, by her family, the offspring of a respected diplomat for Emperor Haile Selassie’s government. Sally was involved in the student movement that opposed Selassie as well as the more radical Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party that was targeted as an enemy by the repressive military junta that forced the emperor from power in 1974. Sally went into hiding, but the family eventually learned of her death, though they never knew the exact circumstances. To her credit, the filmmaker’s investigation uncovers this missing part of the story, bringing closure to Sally’s sisters. While Dawit’s filmmaking is very basic and conventional, and especially marred by slow, unengaging, and too present expository narration, she does manage to broaden an intimate personal story through a wider consideration of Ethiopia’s fraught history.
Select Festivals: DOC NYC, New Orleans, Human Rights Watch, BlackStar, Los Angeles Asian Pacific, San Diego Asian, Montclair, Hot Springs Doc, Milwaukee, Ashland,
About: A death in a Brooklyn housing project sets off a complex fight for justice by two marginalized communities.
The film screened as part of DOC NYC, for which our program notes read: In 2014, Peter Liang, a Chinese-American police officer, shot and killed an innocent, unarmed Black man named Akai Gurley in the dark stairwell of a Brooklyn housing project. In the midst of high racial tension surrounding police conduct, Liang becomes the first NYPD officer to receive a guilty verdict in such a case in over a decade. The highly publicized incident polarizes New York’s Asian and African American communities in this insightful look into the complexities of police reform.
About: The offspring of the same sperm donor form an alternative family when they discover each other’s existence.
The subjects of director Michael Rothman’s affectionate film were all conceived via sperm donated by the same individual, the anonymous and prolific donor 5114, at a cryobank in California. Using easily accessible DNA information and the connectivity of social media, these half-siblings found one another – and keep finding more – and start to develop an unusual bond. Over the course of eight years, Rothman profiles the photogenic kids and their moms, and follows them as they organize meet-ups, discover similarities and differences, and consider their unusual connection through donor 5114. As time passes, the first of the half-siblings turns 18, and thus is legally able to attempt contact with the donor through the sperm bank, leading to further contemplation about nature vs nurture. As a whole, the film is strengthened by its longitudinal approach, moving from a simply curious story to something more measured and thoughtful.
About: Best friends with Down syndrome rally their entire town to help them make a film.
Sam Suchmann and Mattie Zufelt met at the Special Olympics and became best friends. They long dreamt of making their own movie – an over the top, bloody horror film called Spring Break Zombie Massacre – and solicited the help of Sam’s brother Jesse, who brought in his friend Bobby. Together, they sought funding on Kickstarter, and, eventually, drew in basically their entire community, with Sam and Mattie making all of the creative decisions. While producing that film, Jesse and Bobby also chronicled the process, resulting in this sweet but messy making of doc, which also includes the full 45 min SPRING BREAK ZOMBIE MASSACRE. Sam and Mattie are charismatic and funny, making it easy to understand how their mission went viral, got them booked on CONAN, and found celebrity supporters like Peter Farrelly. That said, the doc, like Sam and Mattie’s own film, struggles in its pacing and length, underlining that the filmmakers were so close to the material that they failed to kill some of their darlings. Still, as a whole, the project is appealing and successfully captures the joy that the young filmmakers felt in realizing their project, as well as the goodwill of all of those who showed up to work with them.