Select Festivals: Athena, BFI Flare, Oxford, Kansas City
About: A profile of a pioneering Black transwoman.
Growing up Black and gender nonconforming on the South Side of Chicago in the 1950s, Gloria Allen suffered dearly in her early years, facing brutal violence and rape in high school. Despite this, she found support and acceptance from her mother and grandmother, as well as from the vibrant community of the city’s drag ball culture, and professional fulfillment as a nurse. In more recent years, recognizing her relative good fortune and the serious challenges faced by her trans sisters, Allen began offering charm school classes for young homeless trans women, passing on the lessons she learned from her mother and grandmother to instill self-confidence and pride. As an older trans woman of color, Allen is a notably worthwhile subject for a portrait, but one wishes the film were stronger as a whole. Feeling at times like a filmed oral history, Luchina Fisher’s doc lacks polish and visual interest, and is buoyed primarily by Allen’s positivity and charm.
About: A look at stand-up comedy from the perspective of female comedians.
Stand up comedy has long been a boy’s club. Women in the field have been dismissed as just not being funny, frequently are pitted against each other, and subjected to sexual harassment or worse. This and more is covered in filmmaker Andrea Nevins’ survey, which gathers the perspectives of 15 or so female comedians, ranging from vets like Margaret Cho and Judy Gold to more relative newcomers like Kelly Bachman. Separated into loose chapters – unfortunately complete with that over-used convention, the definition entry heading – the film explores the real obstacles that have been in the way of woman in comedy, but ultimately embraces an affirming tone that celebrates its subjects achievements. The comics featured are funny, candid, and vulnerable, making the project worth the watch, but the film suffers from the basic problem of surveys: in attempting to profile so many subjects, and cover so many topics, it can only scratch the surface before moving on to the next funny lady or the next serious point.
Select Festivals: Full Frame, Nashville, Milwaukee, Virginia, Guanajuato, Mill Valley, BendFilm, Tallgrass, Portland, Sound Unseen
About: A portrait of the legendary TONIGHT SHOW bandleader.
Doc Severinsen entered the homes of American audiences nightly for three decades as the eccentrically-dressed bandleader of Johnny Carson’s TONIGHT SHOW. While the musician left the show upon the host’s retirement in 1992, he never stopped performing. Now, in his nineties, Severinsen maintains a grueling touring, performance, and teaching schedule, working out multiple times a week to maintain his health and strength. Filmmakers Kevin S Bright and Jeff Consiglio compose a loving tribute to the performer, exploring both his past and his present-day activities. While they address some heavier elements – notably the impact of Doc’s career on his personal life, including some infidelity – the filmmakers generally keep the proceedings fairly light and entertaining, resulting in a solid portrait with considerable nostalgic appeal.
Select Festivals: Docville, Docaviv, Nederlands, Docs Barcelona, Full Frame, Chicago, One World, Thessaloniki Doc, Washington DC Environmental, Beldocs, SF Green, Mountainfilm
About: A portrait of Bolivia’s only ski lift operator as he contemplates his future after climate change causes the permanent closure of the ski resort.
Samuel operated Chacaltaya’s ski lift like his father did before him, before the latter’s death years ago. He still manages the ski lodge, hosting small groups of tourists and making them tea, though he does not get paid anymore. Instead of skiing, tourists take in the views. Samuel and his wife contemplate what the future holds if he can no longer do his job. Meanwhile a small group of climate scientists record data in their lab near the ski resort, noting the rate of glacier melting, and worry about the seemingly irreversible temperature shift which may likely lead to drought in the region. Filmmaker Pieter Van Eecke takes a strictly observational approach and benefits from the photogenic scenery, but, as a whole, constructs a quiet, low-energy film that feels longer than it actually is.
About: A violent instance of white supremacist police brutality serves as a spark to undo Jim Crow.
Sergeant Isaac Woodard served valiantly in WWII, but it was upon his return home that he would face grievous bodily harm that would cost him his eyesight. In 1946, after being honorably discharged from service and traveling home by bus to reunite with his wife, he was forcibly removed from the vehicle by police after an argument with the driver, beaten so severely with billy clubs that he suffered permanent damage to his vision, and arrested and fined for disturbing the peace. After the NAACP learned of the story, they enlisted the efforts of Orson Welles to create public awareness via his popular radio program, eventually succeeding against all odds to locate the perpetrator and to put him on trial. Though the trial ended in acquittal, Woodard’s story had unforeseen impact, awakening a moral mission in both US President Harry S Truman and federal Judge J Waties Waring that would see great strides in civil rights in the 1940s and ’50s, including, ultimately, the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v the Board of Education decision. Though named after Woodard’s case, Jamila Ephron’s film is really about Jim Crow in a much wider sense, and efforts to return the focus to Woodard feel strained at times. Still, the textbook PBS project is informative and sadly all too timely, as recent efforts demonstrate the continued attempts parts of the country have taken to undermine civil rights, particularly voting rights.