documentary

Vimeo of the Week: Through The Middle

Vimeo of the Week: Through The Middle

Through the Middle from Clouded Vision on Vimeo.

Clouded Vision’s Through the Middle is a wonderful and short documentary showing a barber shop and its decline. It is a bittersweet goodbye letter to another time and another place where industry and prosperity once thrived. It’s a perfect snapshot of what it’s like being a small business owner during a recession. Simon James Lane and Tom Sweetland’s film is profound and pint-sized. More on the film:

The Fresh Kills landfill comes to film

The Fresh Kills landfill comes to film

A couple of year ago, I took a look at New York City’s 20+ year plan to transform the closed Fresh Kills landfill into the city’s largest park. That plan represents the end of the story: for years, residents and leaders on Staten Island worked to get the landfill closed… with some even threatening “secession” from the city over the health hazards and sensory displeasure created by the US’ largest dump.

BLACK RODEO – bucking broncos with the Queen of Soul

BLACK RODEO – bucking broncos with the Queen of Soul

Last night we sat down around the boob tube to watch the recently-released documentary BLACK RODEO. (What can we now call our flat screens to disparage them and our mildly comatose activity staring at them? The Bean Screen? It just doesn’t have the same ring.) BLACK RODEO is a 1972 doc on an all-black rodeo in NYC – it delves into the history of black involvement in building the ranch-laden West, and boasts some amazing footage of cowboys gone crazy on bulls gone wild, all to an amazing soundtrack of James Brown and Aretha Franklin. It’s not your typical red neck “That is one rank bull!” commentary … it’s bucking broncos with the Queen of Soul! Now that’s awesome.

Young filmmakers challenge viewers to "Find Your Footprint"

Young filmmakers challenge viewers to "Find Your Footprint"


The last time I mentioned young filmmakers, I was discussing college students. Turns out they’re not the youngest people making environmentally-themed documentaries: the National Geographic and P&G Future Friendly “Find Your Footprint” contest solicited short films from elementary school classes in which the kids shared their ideas for conserving natural resources.

Gay self-hating re-examined in new film

Gay self-hating re-examined in new film

Mart Crowley’s landmark play The Boys in the Band was first produced in 1968, a year before the Stonewall rebellion changed the face of modern gay movement with defiance and pride.

In its bitchy and witty portrayal of a group of friends sharing dangerous New York party games that often verge on the sadistic and self-loathing, it represents a darker moment in gay identity—one the LGBT community has long wanted to turn its back on in shame.

But enough time has passed that people are more willing to embrace the play (and the 1970 film version, directed by Wiliam Friedkin) as an important step forward in gay representation and catharsis.

In fact, Boys has engendered so much new lovin’ that it’s the subject of a documentary, Crayton Robey‘s Making The Boys, coming out this month in an attempt to put the work in its proper historical place.

As one of the talking heads in the film—along with Crowley, Edward Albee, Tony Kushner, and many more—I’m qualified to make several defenses of the original play.

WASTE LAND turns garbage into gold

WASTE LAND turns garbage into gold

Lucy Walker’s Oscar nominated Waste Land is just another documentary about a Brazilian-American artist who travels to his birthland to create portraits of garbage pickers out of recyclable materials.

But it’s much more than that. Waste Land is about hope, collaboration, the environment, finding dignity through poverty, and the redeeming qualities of trash. (All those human spirit-y things I never like much under less felicitous circumstances—though I do like trash.)

85-year-old Victor Kaufmann's legacy: a forest

85-year-old Victor Kaufmann's legacy: a forest

Most of us probably view our “golden years” as a time in which we’ll enjoy the fruits of a lifelong labors, and perhaps try to make sense of our lifetimes and our legacies. At the age of 75, though, Victor Kaufmann decided to start a project: the reforesting of a parcel of land he’d recently purchased in Lyle, WA. Unfazed by the notion that he would not witness the full fruition of his project — a healthy, mature forest — Victor set out to plant ten thousand trees on his land.

This Spring, ten years after starting, Victor will put that ten thousandth tree into the ground… and a team of student filmmakers, which includes his granddaughter, will be there to witness and record the event.

A global warming documentary even a greedy bastard could love

A global warming documentary even a greedy bastard could love


Tried arguing climate change science with someone who doesn’t buy it? Yeah, it’s tough… and getting tougher. Even as the science itself becomes more clear, fewer people are concerned about global warming and its effects. It’s enough to make a good greenie bang his/her head against the wall, or just move to a cave.

Or… we could just stop arguing about it.

Sundance documentaries get no love

Sundance documentaries get no love

An image from Andrew Rossi’s Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times

One thing that has been nagging us as we consider this year’s Sundance, now that we have time to gather a bit of perspective, is this: for all the talk of movie deals; and all the hooplah made over more commercial-minded films like My Idiot Brother, which, though a very good film, and a very fun film, is not by no measure a great film; why was there so little discussion about the documentary entries at the festival? A category, which in our humble estimation, was exceedingly superior to the feature film category.

Sundance Film Festival: Surveying the Documentaries

Sundance Film Festival: Surveying the Documentaries

Many worthy non-fiction films are vying for attention at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, tackling subjects as wide-ranging as extreme environmentalism (Marshall Curry’s IF A TREE FALLS: A STORY OF THE EARTH LIBERATION FRONT), pre-Web viral culture (Matthew Bate’s SHUT UP LITTLE MAN!: AN AUDIO MISADVENTURE), terminally ill people who legally choose to end their…

7 minutes with The Sartorialist

7 minutes with The Sartorialist

This is a thoughtful and beautifully executed (much like his photos) 7 minute documentary and behind the scenes with Scott Schuman aka The Sartorialist. It’s a treat for any fan of his work. I especially liked the moment in the short film when he asked to take a photo of a fashionably dressed woman. You…

Sundance Watch List: HOT COFFEE

Sundance Watch List: HOT COFFEE

You know the famous court case in which a woman won $2.7 million (later reduced) after she spilled a cup of burning-hot McDonald’s coffee in her lap? Yeah, I’ve joked about it, too. But lawyer-turned-filmmaker Susan Saladoff has made a movie to help us understand that by ridiculing this case, we’re playing right into the…

Two end-of-year docs as antidote to holidays

Two end-of-year docs as antidote to holidays

Are you craving to counteract all that holiday cheer with some good old-fashioned documentary depression? Never fear, two hard-hitters are still in theatres and soon to be on-demand or in your queue. I saw them both in recent weeks and while both hold their end of the bargain to keep up the doc-is-downer reputation, one is a far more complex experience than the other. (By the way, doc had a good year – with CATFISH, EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP, I’M STILL HERE – filmmakers soon may be able to ditch the downer syndrome and engage nonfiction for what it should be – more diverse in approach, content, tone and negotiation with ‘truth.’) I’m speaking here of INSIDE JOB (Charles Ferguson) and WAITING FOR SUPERMAN (Davis Guggenheim).

Searching for sustainable community… by bike

Searching for sustainable community… by bike

It might be tempting to label the “journey across America in search of ______” motif a cliché… except it still resonates powerfully. From 19th-century travelogues to Kerouac’s On the Road to Albert Brooks’ Lost in America, the idea of traveling the US as a quest for meaning captures out imaginations, and gives us space for a bit of introspection.

Ryan Mlynarczyk and Mandy Creighton went beyond the dreaming about such adventures most of us do, and decided to set out on their own quest across the country… this time in search of sustainable community. In 2008, they ditched almost everything, and set off across the US on bikes to explore ecovillages, communes, collectives… every form of simpler, more sustainable communities they could find. They’ve visited over 100 communities across the country, and are now pulling footage of their journey into a feature-length film titled WITHIN REACH.

CATFISH

CATFISH

I saw the nonfiction film CATFISH last week and it was the first time in a good long while that when the lights came up, I looked around … and I said out loud, “I loved it.”

Cinema, cinema, cinema. AO Scott said the movie looks like crap and is ethically suspect, and guess what? He’s wrong. New York Magazine said it’s a scam and guess what? Who cares! It’s an incredibly compelling story, real or imagined. And isn’t that the point? Our real and our imagined selves, due to media saturation, are getting closer and closer together; they’re overlapping, so that lives are part performance, part “time off” (that’s the “real”). We perform for Facebook; we perform because someone in the room just turned on a video camera. We perform. That’s not news; we humans have been doing this forever. It’s simply more prominent now that social networking provides the 24 hour stage. THAT’s the point, not where the film falls on the scale of “real.” But I digress.

Green documentary maker asks "What does sustainability mean?".. after failing to live it

Green documentary maker asks "What does sustainability mean?".. after failing to live it

“Young, creative, passionate college student wants to save the world…” Having been in this line of work for years now, I’ve received multiple emails that could’ve used some variation on those words for a subject line. So, when Caroline Savery first got in touch with me in 2008 about her Sust Enable project, a documentary series that would feature her efforts to live in a 100% sustainable manner, the usual two conflicting thoughts arose: “How inspiring!” and “Good luck with that…”

National school lunch program comes to the big screen

National school lunch program comes to the big screen

LUNCH: THE FILM may sound like a spoof of some kind, but filmmaker Avis Gold Richards, and her team at Birds Nest Productions couldn’t be more serious about their exploration of the National School Lunch Program, and its potential connections to childhood obesity, and the illnesses related to it.

Online gonzo documentary SOUTHERN TIER explores environmental attitudes… on bikes

Online gonzo documentary SOUTHERN TIER explores environmental attitudes… on bikes

Project: Southern Tier PROMO from Jeff Hyland on Vimeo.

Traveling cross-continent by human power isn’t new: Peter Jenkins walked across the US in the seventies, and Terry Fox attempted a run across Canada in 1980. Producer Jeff Hyland, along with long-time friend Mike Tryon set out on January 1, 2008 to do something similar: cross the continent by bike along the Southern Tier of the United States. And just as Jenkins and Fox set out on their journeys to answer questions and support causes, Hyland and Tryon’s nearly four month bike ride was dedicated to exploring the question “In a world of environmental change, where are we at?”

Support grows for CRUDE team

Support grows for CRUDE team

More organizations have come forward to voice their support for documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger. The director was ordered by a judge earlier this month turn over 600-plus hours of footage shot for his film CRUDE to the oil giant Chevron, which hopes to use the footage to defend itself from the litigation efforts chronicled in the film. Berlinger’s lawyers have argued that the filmmaker’s material should be protected under journalistic privilege and that, by turning over the footage, he would be violating an understanding of confidentiality with his subjects.

Last week, as Berlinger sought to appeal the court’s decision, the Writers Guild of America, East, threw its support behind the director, just as the Independent Documentary Association and 20 Oscar-winning directors had done before it. “To accede to such a demand is tantamount to a reporter being told to turn over all of his or her notes and to violate confidentiality agreements with sources,” the Writers Guild wrote in an open letter. “As with the members of the IDA, our WGAE members working in the documentary field ‘hold ourselves to the highest of journalistic standards in the writing, producing, and editing of our films.’ Those standards include the protection of our outtakes, script drafts, research and sources.”

Documentary: What happened to the $%!#ing Winnebago Man?

Documentary: What happened to the $%!#ing Winnebago Man?

For YouTube’s 5 year anniversary celebration, guest curator Conan O’Brien selected the Winnebago Man (see above) as a noteworthy video. With over 1.6 million views to date on YouTube, this (hilarious) video compilation of profanity laced outtakes from a 1988 Winnebago commercial starred a very frustrated salesman Jack Rebney, or better known as the Winnebago…

Will CRUDE director be forced to surrender his footage?

Will CRUDE director be forced to surrender his footage?

As the world struggles to absorb the devastating implications of the oil spill currently glugging untold barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico, while the companies involved point fingers at each other and decline to fully admit their mistakes, another oil-related drama has been playing out in a federal court in New York.

Chevron, the oil giant at the center of Joe Berlinger’s documentary CRUDE, which opened at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2009, has petitioned the court to allow it to subpoena more than 600 hours of footage shot for his film. The film tells the story of a group of Ecuadoreans who are suing the oil company, contending that it poisoned their people by dumping 18 billion gallons of toxic oil waste into their rivers and onto their land in what has become known as “Amazon Chernobyl.”

Chevron is seeking a dismissal of the suit, which has dragged on for years, and believes that the footage may help its case. But Berlinger’s attorneys have argued that the director should be offered the same privileges that all investigative journalists receive, allowing them to protect confidential sources and information. They insist that forcing him to turn over the footage would violate his rights under the First Amendment and constitute a breech of the confidentiality agreements he’d established with the people who appear in the film.

A little more than a week ago, the ruling came back.

1989 NYU student documentary, "Who is Chris Rock?"

1989 NYU student documentary, "Who is Chris Rock?"

From the documentary vault, the Internets uncovered possibly the earliest documentary profile on then up-and-coming, but relatively unknown controversial comic and occasional actor, Chris Rock. This 12 minute-long 1989 NYU student film interweaves clips from his (bitingly hilarious) stand-up performances with street interviews with random pedestrians. You also gets to meet his proud mother who…

Behind Burlesque With Leslie Zemeckis’s Fleshy New Film

Behind Burlesque With Leslie Zemeckis’s Fleshy New Film

Behind the Burly Q, a look back at the glory days of burlesque from writer/director/producer Leslie Zemeckis, fascinatingly strips away at the myths surrounding the most popular American entertainment form of the first half of the 20th century. On the eve of the documentary opening in New York on April 23 en route to other cities, I phoned Leslie (whose husband, Robert Zemeckis of Forrest Gump fame, executive produced the doc) for some burly talk.

MM: Hi, Leslie. How was Behind the Burly Q born?

LZ: I’m an actress and did a show that had elements of burlesque in it. I started to research it and realized no one had done a comprehensive documentary about burlesque, told by the performers. I thought, ‘I’ve got to record this for posterity.’

MM: When you interviewed the former strippers—many of them now in their 80s–did some of them start re-enacting their old competitive patterns?

LZ: Not really. But some wanted to strip again! I thought, ‘I’m not sure where you’re gonna find a job, but God bless you.’ For a lot of them, it was the high time of their life and they wanted to recreate that.

YOUSSOU N’DOUR – Everyone is bringing love

YOUSSOU N’DOUR – Everyone is bringing love

Chai Vasarhelyi’s documentary YOUSSOU N’DOUR: I BRING WHAT I LOVE was released on DVD recently, and the film opens widely today in France. I had a chance to sit down and screen this hit doc on the Senegalese mega-star, although admittedly I was longing for a big theatre with big speakers, in order to revel in the singular sound of Youssou’s voice.

Of course I’m a dumb American and all I can do since I saw the film is sing Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” over and over and over in my head, thinking of Youssou’s great back up riff. (If you’re over 30, it’ll come to you – you know, right after one of the many “the light and heat’s” – Youssou comes in strong – and I’m transported instantly to my small liberal arts college self, blasting it out my dorm room window.) Vasarhelyi’s film is rich, rich, rich – and as is usually the case, also has problems. But who doesn’t these days, really?

Interview with Cynthia Wade, director of LIVING THE LEGACY: THE UNTOLD STORY OF MILTON HERSHEY SCHOOL

Interview with Cynthia Wade, director of LIVING THE LEGACY: THE UNTOLD STORY OF MILTON HERSHEY SCHOOL

Oscar-winning documentary director Cynthia Wade.

On May 17th, Sundance Channel will screen LIVING LEGACY: THE UNTOLD STORY OF MILTON HERSHEY SCHOOL which follows three young students as they separate from their parents and enroll in Milton Hershey School, a residential school in Pennsylvania. The film follows the children during their first school year – a turbulent, dramatic and eye-opening experience for the students and their families. Director Cynthia Wade speaks with Sundance Channel about her experience working on this film.

SUNDANCE CHANNEL: What first drew you to the story of Milton Hershey School?

Wade: I’d recently finished FREEHELD, a 38 minute film (which won the Academy Award for Best Short Documentary in 2008 and 15 other film festival awards). I was directing another short documentary in Cambodia (BORN SWEET, which won Honorable Mention at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival). With those two short films as my latest endeavors, I was eager to move back into long-form documentary and direct another feature-length film.

It’s a completely different experience directing a feature-length film, as it demands so much more material, time, patience, and energy — think “marriage” as opposed to “long term relationship.” I was ready for another “film marriage.” When I was approached by the Milton Hershey School as a director for this project, I jumped at the chance. It was exciting to think about staying with a project on a long-term basis, following characters over an extended period of time.