Friday, December 22, 2017

Sex Crimes and Virtual Reality: Best VR Storytelling of 2017, Gina Kim’s Bloodless

Nabbing Best VR Story at Venice, Bloodless is veteran filmmaker Gina Kim’s (perhaps best known for 2007’s Vera Farmiga-starring Never Forever) 12-minute immersive stunner. The US-South Korea coproduction was also selected as part of this year’s IDFA DocLab Digital Storytelling program, which is where I experienced it, having gone into the VR Cinema without even bothering to read the synopsis. And because of my cluelessness, the story’s climax packed a punch I never saw coming — one that shook me to the core. This is another way of saying that if you plan on experiencing the project on a future headset near you, consider bookmarking this interview for later.

For those who can’t wait to hear more, read on at Filmmaker magazine.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Doc Stars of the Month: Christopher 'Quest' and Christine'a 'Ma Quest' Rainey, Jonathan Olshefski's 'Quest'

Premiering at Sundance — and subsequently going on to win top honors at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, among other high-caliber fests, and an IDA Pare Lorentz Documentary Fund grant — is Jonathan Olshefski's Quest, a gorgeous portrait of a loving American family and their close-knit community. Filmed over an astonishing ten years, the doc follows Christopher "Quest" Rainey and his longtime wife, Christine'a, aka "Ma Quest," as they work hard, raise their kids right — and also find time to run a home music studio that simultaneously serves as a sanctuary in their hardscrabble North Philadelphia neighborhood.

I reached out to the Raineys the week before the film's Los Angeles premiere. Fortunately, they were able to break from their hectic press schedules to speak with Documentary about living their lives on camera for ten years; coping with racist, inner-city stereotypes; and enduring the grim reality of the current US president.

To read the interview visit Documentary magazine.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Outsiders In: Four Veteran Documentarians on Covering Communities Not of One’s Own

When it comes to social issues filmmaking, are there any advantages to being an “outsider” to the community one is documenting? I recently put that question to a diverse group of award-winning filmmakers – Pamela Yates (The Resistance Saga Trilogy), Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail), S. Leo Chiang (Mr. Cao Goes to Washington, Out Run) and Andrés Cediel (longtime producer for PBS’s Frontline) – and got a wide range of thought-provoking responses.

To read the rest (of my conversation that started at Documentary magazine) visit Global Comment.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Viewer Beware: Doubting the Documentary “Truth” Onscreen

“Fake news” think pieces have been all the rage since Donald Trump took hold of the media spotlight (and never let go), yet far less has been written about questioning the documentary “truths” we see onscreen. While it doesn’t take a genius to spot the alt-right bias in Steve Bannon’s oeuvre, too often subtler – nonpartisan and nonpolitical – filmmaking is simply given an inexplicable pass. So with this in mind I thought I’d offer a few handy tips over at Hammer to Nail for increasing viewer vigilance.

Friday, December 1, 2017

The Year of the Woman: The 30th International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam

Though it’s been half a decade since I’ve covered Amsterdam’s International Documentary Film Festival, this year’s 30th edition was a welcome reminder as to why IDFA is often heralded as the crème de la crème of doc fests. First there’s its sheer size and scope — this year, a whopping 319 documentaries were presented over the festival’s 12 days. Fortunately, these nonfiction projects of every stripe were helpfully divided into a surprisingly navigable 20 sections — everything from your standard competitions (and not-so-standard, as IDFA DocLab has both a Competition for Digital Storytelling and a Competition for Immersive Non-Fiction) to specialty programs such as “Shifting Perspectives: The Arab World” (a series of films and debates viewed through a non-Western eye) and “The Visual Voice.” For that specific 30th year celebratory section, 18 top-notch directors were invited to screen their personal faves, which made for some unexpected selections. Frederick Wiseman, for instance, chose Marcel Ophuls’s Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie, while The Yes Men presented Josh Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing.

To read all about my visit visit Filmmaker magazine.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Ask the Sexpert: Can a gynecologist's advice column change Indian culture?

Ask the Sexpert is a fascinating portrait of Mahinder Watsa, a 91-year-old former gynecologist who writes the “Ask the Sexpert” column for the Mumbai Mirror. From the start, we learn that India’s Dr. Ruth is a beloved figure in his conservative country, but abstinence activist Pratibha Naithani is taking him to court to “preserve the nation’s morality.” She believes his column is akin to pornography and “debases” Indian society. Many conservatives believe a moral line has been crossed when children can read a column that discusses everything from masturbation to golden showers.

To read the rest of my review visit Bitch magazine.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Spotlight on UXdoc at The 20th RIDM (Montreal International Documentary Film Festival)

Running November 9th-19th, this year’s 20th edition of RIDM (or the Montreal International Documentary Film Festival for us non-Québécois) once again proved that big things come in small(ish) packages. Though not nearly as big as that other international doc fest directly on its heels, RIDM’s charm lies precisely in the fact that it’s both wide-ranging and easily navigable. In other words, a docuphile can relax and focus on the inspiring work in front of their eyes at any given moment instead of lamenting over the dozen other screenings, panels and events they’re inevitably missing.

Which is not to say there isn’t a wealth of activities to choose from. In addition to the opening and closing night flicks (both helmed by women — Quebec native Céline Baril’s world-premiering 24 Davids and Sonia Kronlund’s Nothingwood, respectively) RIDM features an Official Competition, Panorama and Retrospectives sections, UXdoc for interactive work plus assorted art exhibitions, master classes, parties and more. Also, in its 13th year is Doc Circuit Montreal (DCM), Quebec’s only documentary market, which runs for five concurrent days during the fest.

To read all about it visit Filmmaker magazine.

“I Don’t Think Movies are Old-Fashioned”: James N. Kienitz Wilkins on His RIDM Retrospective (and Making Art in the Internet Age)

For this year’s 20th anniversary of RIDM, the Montreal International Documentary Film Festival teamed up with Visions, the city’s experimental documentary film series, for a truly cutting edge retrospective titled “James N. Kienitz Wilkins: Vessels/Containers.” Wilkins, a 25 New Face” of 2016, was honored with four programs containing seven of his works, created from 2012 through 2017. This includes 2012’s nearly two hour Public Hearing, a 16mm, B&W-filmed performance of the transcript from a town hall debate about replacing a Walmart with a Super Walmart, all the way to 2017’s 38-minute Mediums, a medium-length movie made up entirely of medium shots in which actors play potential jurors passing the time outside a courthouse (using actual words from material such as a Dunkin’ Donuts franchise contract and a Volkswagen car manual. This might be my favorite Wilkins work).

So it was with great pleasure that I was able to catch up with Wilkins once again to discuss his delightfully unorthodox approach to the documentary form.

To read the rest visit Filmmaker magazine.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

IDA Emerging Documentary Filmmaker Award: From Gatekeeper to Storyteller--Yance Ford on 'Strong Island,' and a Decade at 'POV'

Strong Island is Yance Ford's cinematic nonfiction exploration of racial injustice in the Long Island suburbs, told through the murder of the filmmaker's 24-year-old brother at the hands of a 19-year-old white mechanic 25 years ago. Nabbing the Special Jury Award for Storytelling at Sundance this past January, the film is as unconventionally riveting as it is emotionally searing. It's also been long in the making, having been on the indie film radar for over half a decade (or at least since Ford made Filmmaker magazine’s annual "25 New Faces of Independent Film" back in 2011).

Nonetheless, after entirely scrapping the first version of his film and returning to the editorial drawing board (in Copenhagen, guided by the folks at Final Cut for Real, rendering the doc a Danish co-production), Ford is now the rightful recipient of the IDA Emerging Documentary Filmmaker Award.

To read the rest visit Documentary magazine.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

“A Horror Film in Slow Motion”: Greg Barker on His DOC NYC Opener The Final Year

Opening this edition’s DOC NYC on November 9th is Greg Barker’s The Final Year, a truly up-close-and-personal, behind-the-scenes look at the Obama administration and its foreign policy team during its last 12 months. To say that Barker gained unprecedented access to the president’s men (and one woman) during that period is an understatement. The veteran documentarian (Homegrown: The Counter-Terror Dilemma, Manhunt: The Inside Story of the Hunt for Bin Laden, etc.) managed to shadow three heavyweight insiders — Secretary of State John Kerry, Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, and “Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting” Ben Rhodes — across multiple time zones and deep inside White House offices (one literally bugged — the sight of a dead cockroach actually disrupts a strategy meeting). And all before the trio had any inkling of the biggest unconventional threat to come.

To read my interview visit Filmmaker magazine.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Y’allywood Babylon: The 20th Savannah Film Festival’s Docs to Watch Roundtable

This year’s 20th anniversary edition of the SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) Savannah Film Festival, which lays claim to being the largest university-run film fest in the world, continued its two-decades-long tradition of mixing Hollywood wattage with downhome southern hospitality. Once again the fest honored an eclectic mix of celebrity guests of all ages (elder statesmen and women included Richard Gere, Sir Patrick Stewart, Aaron Sorkin, Salma Hayek Pinault, Holly Hunter, and Kyra Sedgwick, while the “youngsters” featured the likes of John Boyega, Zoey Deutch, Robert Pattinson, Andrea Riseborough, and Willow Shields). The festival also played host to a number of buzzy independent filmmakers, such as Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch, who were on hand to present a discussion titled “Scribble to Screen: The Florida Project” prior to their film’s screening later that night.

To read all about the dazzle and the docs visit Filmmaker magazine.

Friday, November 3, 2017

'FU'! Jay Rosenblatt and Ellen Bruno on their Omnibus (Trump-inspired) Project 'Filmmakers Unite'

Merely a week after 9/11, San Franciscans Jay Rosenblatt and Caveh Zahedi teamed up to address the national crisis, putting out a call to 150 of their fellow filmmakers to create short films or videos as a response to the mainstream media coverage. The result, Underground Zero, a feature-length omnibus consisting of 11 short works, went on to play on both HBO and the Sundance Channel (and with the participating filmmakers receiving an honorarium, along with $10K of the proceeds going to charity).

Now, over a decade and a half later, a new national crisis has emerged in the form of "a real threat to our democracy, to freedom of speech, and to civil rights," as Rosenblatt and collaborator Ellen Bruno put it in their recent call to (filmmaking) action. Reaching out to over 200 media-makers, the duo selected 13 shorts from more than 50 submissions to create Filmmakers Unite, a project that "documents diverse thoughts and feelings about the current state of our union," as they explained in their description of the project.

To read all about it visit Documentary magazine.

Thursday, October 26, 2017


Sissy Spacek still radiates youth and innocence when she enters a room.

In May, Spacek’s Bloodline, a well-received Netflix drama, wrapped up after three seasons. She’s now filming Castle Rock, Hulu’s ten-episode series based on the characters of Stephen King.

I met Spacek at last year’s Florida Film Festival, which she’d attended on the occasion of a screening of Badlands. Spacek reflected on working with “real” artists from Malick to Lynch to Altman, and also looked back on the one long learning experience that’s been her career.

To read my (long-awaited) interview visit The Rumpus.

Grappling with Qualms over A Gray State Before Moderating a Festival Q&A

As a film critic who also serves as a festival programmer I sometimes find myself in awkward positions. Such was the case recently at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival in October, where A Gray State screened, along with the film’s director Erik Nelson and its executive producer Werner Herzog in attendance. Though I’d seen the film on screener, I didn’t have a strong opinion about it one way or another (and as I was only helping out with the international features this year my indifference didn’t much matter).

Of course, asked to moderate the post-screening Q&A I jumped at the chance. What cinephile passes up the opportunity to probe the mind of Herzog? (Albeit in a very public setting, and with the fest’s honorary chair, Kathleen Turner, sitting in the front row. Things tend to get a bit surreal in Hot Springs.)

To read the rest visit Filmmaker magazine.

A Conversation with Camille Thoman (NEVER HERE)

“I want to entertain and titillate, but also ask questions of the viewer“ – Camille Thoman on Never Here

Premiering at this year’s LA Film Festival, Never Here marks the narrative debut of writer-director (and performance artist and editor and doc-maker) Camille Thoman. It also marks the last screen performance of the late Sam Shepard, who is unsurprisingly riveting alongside Mireille Enos (The Killing) in the starring role of Miranda Fall, an installation artist whose art dealer and secret lover Paul Stark (Shepard) witnesses a violent assault from her apartment window. Which leads to Miranda giving Stark’s account to the police – while lying about being the primary witness – in order to simultaneously nab the perpetrator while keeping her lover’s identity concealed. Thus begins a detective story, that turns into a psychological thriller, that soon becomes a mood-induced meditation on voyeurism, identity, morality – and ultimately reality itself.

I spoke with Never Here’s unconventional director for Hammer to Nail prior to the film’s Oct. 20th theatrical release.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Doc Star of the Month: Jane Goodall, 'Jane'

"Going to Africa, living with animals—that's all I ever thought about," Jane Goodall discloses in Oscar-nominated director Brett Morgen’s latest doc, Jane, which employs over 100 hours of never-before-seen footage (recently discovered in 2014) shot in Tanzania's Gombe Stream National Park half a century ago. Back then, the 20-something female scientist, whose main qualification seemed to be her love of animals over the comforts of human civilization, was at the very beginning of realizing her lifelong dream come true. So it seems nearly preordained that the cameraman that National Geographic would send to document the young Goodall's astonishing interactions with a community of chimpanzees, Hugo van Lawick, would end up falling in love with the extraordinary woman in front of his lens.

Documentary had the privilege of speaking with one of nature's true protectors about these early days and more right after the release of the film that bears her name.

To read my interview visit Documentary magazine.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Burnsided: Why I Can’t Watch The Vietnam War

I’m a longtime doc aficionado, and yet I’ve never understood the appeal of Ken Burns. The limelight-loving director – most recently of the encyclopedic PBS series The Vietnam War (alongside his spotlight-sidelined yet frequent co-director Lynn Novick) – has at this stage in his long (too long?) career become the Norman Rockwell of nonfiction filmmaking, a treasure of cinema Americana. (Albeit working in the factory mode of Andy Warhol, churning out Burns-branded content with various teams.)

To read the rest (and discuss!) visit Hammer to Nail.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Sterlin Harjo on the Dos and Don'ts of Filming in Indian Country

“If I had a dollar every time a white guy asked me to b a 'producer' on their standing rock doc I'd be able to fund my own standing rock doc"

That quote is a tweet from veteran indie filmmaker (and one of the founders of Native comedy troupe The 1491s) Sterlin Harjo, a member of the Seminole Tribe with Muskogee heritage, who has been asked a lot of Indian questions lately. He's been asked to produce three or four docs on Standing Rock, and to suggest Native casts for two current TV shows, but not once to write or direct—even though his résumé from the past decade includes three narrative features and one doc, all of which were acclaimed Sundance premieres. So it's with heartfelt gratitude — and a bit of trepidation — that I reached out to him to ask just a few more.

To read the interview visit Documentary magazine.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Whose Story?: Five Doc-Makers on (Avoiding) Extractive Filmmaking

From Black Lives Matter to Standing Rock, the question of who has the "right" to tell a community’s story has been endlessly debated this year, with no clear answer in sight. Sure, everyone can pretty much agree that "drive by" doc-making—usually involving a white journalist/filmmaker swooping down on a community of color, nabbing some sensationalistic footage over a few days, then quickly returning to an editing home base far, far away—is not the way to go about getting to any sort of deep truth surrounding an issue.

But exactly how much on-the-ground time is required to be a so-called "insider"? And who counts as an outsider anyway? As Erik Ljung, debut director of The Blood Is at The Doorstep—a harrowing look at one victim's family's struggle in the wake of the killing of black and unarmed Dontre Hamilton by a white Milwaukee cop—puts it, "I am a white man living in Milwaukee, and my experience is very different from that of the Hamilton family, who live just a mile from me." While Ljung takes care to emphasize that he's a Caucasian male who's never been racially profiled, he also happens to live down the street, so to speak, from his protagonists. In other words, the range of possibilities between what's come to be debated as "extractive" storytelling and a powerful, POC-shot, Ferguson-immersive film like Sabaah Folayan and (St. Louis homeboy) Damon Davis' Whose Streets? is anything but black and white.

To read the rest of my article check out the fall issue of Documentary magazine.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Doc Star of the Month: Oakland Police Department Deputy Chief LeRonne Armstrong, 'The Force'

The second part in a trilogy exploring interrelated systems within the wider Oakland community, The Force, for which Peter Nicks nabbed the Best Directing, US Documentary award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, is a riveting cinema vérité look inside the Oakland Police Department as it struggles to implement the reforms deemed necessary to lift it out from under federal oversight. Filmed over an adrenaline-fueled two years, the film is also, unfortunately but honestly, a powerful portrait of best-laid plans gone dangerously awry.

Documentary was lucky enough to catch up with the OPD's own Deputy Chief LeRonne Armstrong, a caring and surprisingly candid Oakland native, en route from his northern hometown to the film's LA premiere.

To read my interview visit Documentary magazine.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Tone and Form: Elvira Lind on 'Bobbi Jene'

I first met the Danish director Elvira Lind at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival (where I help program the features). This was back in 2014, the year before she won the CPH:DOX New Talent Award, before she launched her queer docuseries, Viceland's Twiz and Tuck. Lind was at the spa town to present Songs for Alexis, her extraordinarily nuanced portrait of Ryan Cassata, a teenage musician transitioning into adulthood (and into another gender. Ryan also happens to be trans—and in love with the titular Alexis, his cisgender girlfriend). When Ryan treated the audience to a post-screening concert, the cheers from his proud mom were rivaled only by those of the doc's director—who was simultaneously cheering and shooting, of course. In other words, Elvira Lind is a documentarian who invests as much in her flesh-and-blood subjects as in the films themselves—a trait that often separates the good storytellers from the great.

To read the rest visit Documentary magazine.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

“Women Are Often Seen as a Risk while Men are an Investment”: Ingrid Veninger on Porcupine Lake and her pUNK Films Femmes Labs

Porcupine Lake is the sixth feature from pUNK Films founder Ingrid Veninger. It’s also the first from the pUNK Films Femmes Labs, which started as a DIY idea of gathering six Canadian female filmmakers to work on their six screenplays for six months to reality — courtesy of Oscar-winner Melissa Leo, who happened to hear Veninger’s pitch for funding at the Whistler Film Festival and immediately sign on as sponsor.

The film itself feels like a throwback to the early heady (not to mention pre-tech, as there’s not a smartphone-glued character in sight!) days of low-key/low-budget independent film. It’s a cinematic coming-of-age tale that follows two preteens, Bea from Toronto and Kate from the summer cottage town in rural Ontario where the film is set, as they navigate everything from sex and sexuality and troubled parents who often act like children to older siblings with troubles of their own. In other words, it’s a small story that captures life’s momentous changes and adult consequences. Filmmaker was fortunate enough to catch up with the Slovakian-Canadian actor/producer/writer/director prior to the flick’s TIFF premiere.

To read my interview visit Filmmaker magazine.

Fighting MS and Big Pharma: Matt Embry on Living Proof

A journey both personal and political, Matt Embry’s Living Proof follows the Canadian filmmaker on his quixotic quest to get some answers to a medical mystery. If no one knows the causes or cures for multiple sclerosis, then why are so many MS charities touting drugs (with considerable side effects) that don’t work in the long term? And why does the FDA drag its feet on approving promising non-pharmaceutical cures? And why won’t the powers that be in the MS establishment listen to the director himself, diagnosed with the disease over two decades ago, and who through only strict diet and exercise (and Vitamin D and a drug-free procedure called CCSVI), remains healthy and surprisingly asymptomatic? For Embry, the obvious answers lie buried in the bottom line of Big Pharma — a risky diagnosis to make. Filmmaker caught up with the Calgary native shortly before the film’s TIFF premiere.

To read my interview visit Filmmaker magazine.

Monday, September 11, 2017

“I’m Tired of this Appropriation of Stories by Filmmakers from the West:”: Violeta Ayala and Dan Fallshaw on Cocaine Prison

Part of IFP’s 2013 Project Forum slate, Cocaine Prison is the latest completed work from indigenous Latina filmmaker Violeta Ayala, who’s long been an outspoken critic of the War on Drugs, which not only disproportionately affects low-income folks here in the States, but especially our impoverished neighbors south of the border, from Mexico on down. For this follow-up to 2015’s The Bolivian Case (another tale of South American coke smuggling and its consequences, but with a Norwegian teenagers twist), Ayala, along with filmmaker partner/husband Dan Fallshaw (a producer, cinematographer and editor on Cocaine Prison), have headed back to her birth country of Bolivia, and to the heart of the fallout: the dangerously overcrowded San Sebastian prison (where inmates who can’t afford to buy their own cells sleep outside).

The pair focus on a trio of “foot soldiers,” a teen drug mule named Hernan and his equally young sister Deisy fighting for his release, along with a low-level cocaine worker called Mario, incarcerated while the drug bosses above him remain untouchably free. Compellingly Kafkaesque, Cocaine Prison puts three remarkable faces on a too often abstract web of international injustice and systemic corruption. Filmmaker spoke with Ayala and Fallshaw prior to the film’s TIFF premiere.

To read my interview visit Filmmaker magazine.

Friday, September 8, 2017

“The Industry of Big Game Hunting and Breeding is Such a Closed and Secretive World…”: Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau on Trophy

Trophy, directed by longtime photo-journos Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau, has been garnering buzz and sparking debate ever since its Sundance premiere. The film is a meticulously researched look at every possible angle of the “wildlife industry versus conservation” showdown, taking place in some of the most majestic parts of our world. Undeniably riveting, it’s also the only film I’ve seen all year that made my blood boil to the point of tossing all critical objectivity aside.

I spoke with the duo, cofounders of Reel Peak Films, which aims to bring the cinematic nonfiction treatment to journalism, prior to the doc’s September 8th release (through The Orchard and CNN Films).

To read the interview visit Filmmaker magazine.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Doc Star of the Month: Chief Judge Abby Abinanti, 'Tribal Justice'

An eye-opening documentary about restorative justice on the rez, Anne Makepeace's Tribal Justice should be required viewing for anyone involved in running the US court system, from local lawmakers to (especially) US Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The film follows two remarkable ladies, Chief Judges for tribes on either end of California, who are implementing traditional solutions (i.e. tackling criminal behavior's causes and not just its symptoms) to keep their community members out of jails and state foster care, and on a healthy, law-abiding path.

So it's quite an honor that the Honorable Abby Abinanti, Chief Judge of the Yurok Tribe on the North Coast of California - and the first Native American woman to pass the California Bar Exam (whose long résumé also notes that she's the founder of the "first tribal-run clean-slate program in the country to help members expunge criminal records, and focuses on keeping young people out of jail, in school and with their people") - found time in between court sessions to speak with Documentary.

To read my interview visit Documentary magazine.

Monday, August 7, 2017

A Conversation with Sherng-Lee Huang and Livia Ungur (HOTEL DALLAS)

Named in 2016 to Filmmaker magazine’s annual “25 New Faces of Independent Film,” artistic and life partners Sherng-Lee Huang and Livia Ungur are at the forefront of the doc/fiction revolution. As I wrote last summer, their Berlinale-premiering, debut feature Hotel Dallas “tells the true story of how the soapy series Dallas — the only American program allowed to be aired in Romania because the authorities believed it a cautionary tale about the evil capitalist West — became must-watch TV that influenced an entire generation. It also tells the fuzzier tale of how Livia, who fell in love with Patrick “Bobby Ewing” Duffy as a youngster, and her father Ilie, who fancied himself a wheeler-dealer like J.R., pursued their Dallas dreams after the fall of the regime. While Ilie built Hotel Dallas (a Southfork replica and a means to embezzle millions in taxes), Livia left for America, only returning years later to revisit her adolescent obsession through the prism of the “new” — although ’80s-inspired — Romania. (And yes, Duffy actually agreed to be in the film, compensated with only a bottle of wine.)”

And after you wrap your head around that whopper of a synopsis, read on to learn more. I spoke with the counterintuitively down-to-earth couple before the film’s Vimeo/Amazon/Google/Fandor streaming debut.

Thursday, August 3, 2017


As a Jewish chick who identifies as genderqueer, has never lived in Bed-Stuy, and is a generation older than African-American millennial Brandon Harris, I am most certainly not the target audience for his remarkable debut Making Rent in Bed-Stuy: A Memoir of Trying to Make It in New York City. And yet I’ve long been in awe of Brandon’s writing. Back when we were colleagues at a now-defunct film site years ago, I considered him some sort of cinephile prodigy. (And now that we’re both contributing editors at Filmmaker magazine I remain steadfast in that belief.)

To read my interview with my Renaissance man friend visit The Rumpus.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017


Josie Swantek Heitz’s and Dave Adams’s The Wrong Light, theatrically released in NYC through Cinema Guild on July 14, is disturbing on several levels. First, there’s the story itself. The filmmakers set out to create a portrait of the Children’s Organization of Southeast Asia (COSA), a nonprofit boarding school of sorts founded in 2005 by Mickey Choothesa. Choothesa is a self-proclaimed war photographer (with no background in child services) whose mission in life seems to be to save Northern Thailand’s girls from being sold into the country’s sex trade. Through the eyes of two “rescued” adolescents, whose parents had allegedly sold them to traffickers, the filmmaking team hoped to celebrate a tale of resilience, courage, and redemption. If all this sounds too good to be true, you’re probably not part of the rich, white philanthropy establishment.

To read my review visit The Rumpus.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Hulk Hogan Body Slams Gawker in Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press

Brian Knappenberger’s Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press, which just hit Netflix, originally held the more sensational (and unwieldy) working title Nobody Speak: Hulk Hogan, Gawker and Trials of A Free Press upon its Sundance premiere. Shot during the run-up to the 2016 election, the film takes as its starting point the salacious Florida trial pitting the now disgraced, titular WWE hero against bad boy Nick Denton’s Gawker Media (a site that none other than the New York Times’s David Carr likens in the film to the “mean girls in a playground” – while copping to reading it).

And to read my review visit Global Comment.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Reagan Show is a masterful look at the past

“How could you do the job if you hadn’t been an actor?” is what Ronald Reagan claims he often wondered (when asked by David Brinkley if anything he learned as a thesp was applicable to the presidency) in a telling clip from the start of Pacho Velez and Sierra Pettengill’s engrossing The Reagan Show, an all-archival doc from CNN Films that hits theaters in NYC and LA on June 30th (and on VOD, appropriately enough, July 4th).

An editing tour de force, the film is crafted entirely from 80s network newscasts and “White House Television” – what the Reagan administration dubbed its recordings of all the president’s daily activities – alongside clips from many of the 53 Hollywood movies Reagan acted in prior to his presidency. Indeed, there was quite a bit of stage-managed history for the filmmakers to choose from. As a title card notes, the Gipper’s team “used film and video five times as much as all previous administrations combined.” Which left Ted Koppel to ponder whether that shining city on the hill would be real or a “vacant Hollywood set?”

To read my review visit Global Comment.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

From Race to Resistance to Refugees: The 28th Human Rights Watch Film Festival

The 28th edition of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, running June 9-18 at NYC’s Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center, will be showcasing 21 feature docs and panel discussions (and no fiction films – a smart programming move as the fiction films in past years inevitably ended up the weakest links in the lineup).

Glancing through the program there looks to be a whole lot of timely stuff to choose from, including a “From Audience to Activist” discussion in which “filmmakers, journalists and activists share best practices on how to hold powerful institutions accountable safely and effectively,” and “The Resistance Saga,” an entire day dedicated to Pamela Yates’s award-winning trilogy (1984’s When the Mountains Tremble, 2011’s Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, and this year’s 500 Years: Life in Resistance) that follows the Mayan citizens of Guatemala from their fight for basic rights right through to the first trial in the Americas prosecuting the genocide of indigenous people.

To read my personal picks visit Filmmaker magazine.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Doc Stars of the Month: Davonte 'Dada' Harrell, Reginald 'Junior' Askew, David 'Bud' Perry, 'Raising Bertie'

Margaret Byrne's Raising Bertie (executive produced by J. Cole) is an intimate, six-year journey into the lives of three young, African-American men. Like others their age, Davonte "Dada" Harrell, Reginald "Junior" Askew and David "Bud" Perry face such daunting tasks as finishing high school, finding steady employment and navigating the rollercoaster ride into adulthood. That they attempt to do all this in rural Bertie County, North Carolina—where every odd is stacked against them—is both admirable and enlightening (at least to those of us residing in our urban and coastal bubbles). And it’s what makes these three determined southerners this June’s "Doc Stars of the Month."

Documentary had the honor of speaking with Dada and Junior (between work shifts) and Bud (still recovering from a car accident!) prior to the film’s June 9th theatrical premiere at Maysles Cinema in New York City, through Gunpowder & Sky Distribution and Kartemquin Films. The film also airs on POV on August 28.

To read my interview visit Documentary Magazine.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Doc Stars of the Month: The Sung Family, 'Abacus: Small Enough to Jail'

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail - which has been garnering accolades on the festival circuit ever since its Toronto debut, and was the opening night flick at this year's Full Frame Documentary Film Festival - is equal parts riveting and rage-inducing. Master documentarian Steve James's latest film lays bare the five-year legal drama of the Sung family, Chinese immigrant owners of (NYC) Chinatown’s Abacus Federal Savings Bank, which was accused of mortgage fraud by the limelight-seeking Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance Jr., rendering this community-serving, family-owned-and-operated shop the sole US bank to face criminal charges in the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis. (And despite, ironically, having one of the lowest default rates in the country. Indeed, Fannie Mae even continued to do business with Abacus after the indictment!)

So needless to say, it was a privilege for me to chat collectively by email with this heroic and tight-knit family of six (Abacus founder and patriarch Thomas; his wife, Hwei Lin; and daughters Vera, Jill - both bank executives - Chanterelle and Heather) prior to the film's opening at NYC's IFC Center on May 19 through PBS Distribution.

To read the interview visit Documentary Magazine.

Monday, May 15, 2017

“The Film Gives Viewers Plenty to be Angry About…”: Steve James on Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

Steve James’ documentary, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, is at once a heartfelt portrait of a close-knit family facing overwhelming adversity and an infuriating indictment of our U.S. justice system gone seriously awry. The film follows the Chinese immigrant Sung family, founding owners and operators of the Abacus Federal Savings Bank down in NYC’s Chinatown, who in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis found themselves locked in a half-decade battle with spotlight-loving Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance, Jr. Though the bank had one of the lowest default rates in the country (with only nine out of 3,000 loans defaulting!), the overzealous prosecutor nevertheless decided to pursue charges — giving the low-income-community-serving institution the dubious distinction of being the one and only bank indicted for mortgage fraud in the fallout.

To read my interview with the legendary Hoop Dreams director visit Filmmaker magazine.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Fighting the Power at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival’s 20th Anniversary

Injustice seemed to be a running theme during the 20th anniversary edition of the always-stellar Full Frame Documentary Film Festival (April 6-9) down in Durham, NC.

Which seemed quite fitting since the state had recently repealed the morally and economically loathsome bathroom bill – while still leaving LGBTQ folks open to discrimination statewide. (And leaving cynical lawmakers to pat themselves on the back for making that NCAA deadline in the knick of time.) So if fighting the powers-that-be is your thing, here are four alternately inspiring and infuriating docs I caught – and you should keep an eye out for in 2017.

To read my list visit Global Comment.

Friday, April 28, 2017

A Conversation With Reggie Watts

The German-born, Montana-raised son of a French mother and an African-American father, Reggie Watts’s worldliness seems bred into his genes. So it should probably come as no surprise that this much-lauded comedian and musician – his latest Reggie Watts: Spatial recently hit Netflix to rave reviews – once used a foreign land to form the basis of a theatrical collaboration.

Produced in partnership with writer/director Tommy Smith, Dutch A/V is a “live-edited environmental film” culled from over 26 hours of footage shot through spyglasses, immersing the viewer in the sights and sounds of Holland. Recipient of the MAP Fund Award, Dutch A/V was work-shopped at IRT Theatre, debuted at the Under the Radar festival back in 2011 – and currently can be sampled on YouTube (I urge all Watts fans to check it out!)

To read my blast-from-the-past chat visit Hammer to Nail.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

“We Need to Stop Patting Ourselves on the Back”: Speakeasy Spotlight at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival’s 20th Anniversary Edition

There was much reason for celebration at the 2017 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival (April 6-9) down in Durham, North Carolina. The state had just (kinda sorta) repealed the ridiculous bathroom bill – which had had me scrambling to cover all the queer films I could find at the 2016 fest – and this year’s 20th anniversary inspired artistic director Sadie Tillery to create “DoubleTake,” a wide-ranging retro program featuring 19 films, one from each year. This diverse selection included everything from Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen’s 2001 Benjamin Smoke, to Linda Goode Bryant and Laura Poitras’s 2003 Flag Wars, to Gary Hustwit’s 2007 Helvetica, and more.

But the one aspect of the fest that most surprised and thrilled me were the forward-thinking – and always free and open to the public – A&E IndieFilms Speakeasy panel conversations, which the festival has been hosting for the past seven years (and which provide a nice intimate break from the rock concert lines for the often sold-out films — these are some rabid doc audiences down in Durham!).

To read all about 'em visit Filmmaker magazine.

Monday, April 24, 2017

A Conversation with Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya (THE CINEMA TRAVELLERS)

One of the standout films I caught at this year’s 19th RiverRun International Film Festival (March 30-April 9) was Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya’s The Cinema Travellers, at once a love letter to movie-going and a gorgeous portrait of a dying art (not to mention a 2016 Cannes award-winner). The duo follow three men – a showman, an exhibitor and a projector technician – as they struggle to continue the 70-year tradition of bringing cinema caravans to rural India. Satellite TVs be damned! Or as the gentle and wise projector fixer puts it, “Life is not just a game of machines, but a game of the imagination.”

To read my interview visit Hammer to Nail.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

A Conversation with Amman Abbasi (DAYVEON)

The 19th RiverRun International Film Festival (March 30-April 9) truly stepped up to the plate this year. With over two-dozen local sponsors, and a lineup that included quite a few Cannes and Sundance-premiering flicks, the residents of Winston-Salem, NC had much more to brag about than the recent (halfhearted) repeal of the state’s embarrassing bathroom bill.

One of those Sundance darlings (which opened the NEXT sidebar) was Amman Abbasi’s striking debut Dayveon. Recently acquired by FilmRise and set for an upcoming spring release, the film is a refreshingly non-sensational portrait of life in impoverished Arkansas. Abbasi, an Arkansan who also co-wrote the script and composed the score, follows the titular teen as he struggles to find his place in the world after the recent murder of his older brother, vacillating between the lure of the local Bloods and the loving embrace of his sister and her family.

To read my interview visit Hammer to Nail.

Monday, April 3, 2017

CPH:DOX 2017: The Inaugural Spring Edition

The “something for everyone” film festival is a rarity these days. While most fests like to think they’re providing a wide array for a curious cinephile to choose from, what they usually end up showcasing is a large selection of subject matter. In other words, the films themselves often look and feel very similar in style. (Indeed, I can often spot a Sundance film ten minutes in, and from a last row seat.) That makes CPH:DOX, “the third largest documentary film festival in the world,” something truly special. This was only my second time attending Copenhagen’s premiere nonfiction fest, but the combination of sincerely welcoming vibe and cozy screenings made me feel like I was part of a global doc geek family. I mean “cozy screenings” literally: this year’s sponsor, Normann Copenhagen, created Denmark’s first “pop up designer sofa cinema” inside the new festival headquarters at the Kunsthal Charlottenborg, a year-round contemporary art gallery.

To read all about it visit Filmmaker magazine.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Propellor Film Tech Hub Brings Business Innovation to CPH:DOX

Launched at this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, the Propellor Film Tech Hub is an ambitious, country-spanning, joint initiative from the IFFR, the Berlinale’s European Film Market (EFM), the Copenhagen International Documentary Festival (CPH:DOX), and the "innovation studio" Cinemathon (based in Berlin). Basically, the idea behind Propellor is to transfer start-up world ideas to the film industry, upending cinema's barely functioning, stodgy old business models in the process.

To learn more, Documentary reached out to Cinemathon's Erwin Schmidt, one of the founders, who graciously demystified this newfangled tech enterprise prior to the CPH:DOX event.

To read my interview visit Documentary Magazine.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Power to the Priya: Ram Devineni on his Augmented Reality Comic Book Series

I first met Ram Devineni, creator of India’s first augmented reality comic book, Priya’s Shakti, at the FilmGate Interactive Media Festival in February, where he was presenting the graphic novel’s follow-up, Priya’s Mirror. (This work ended up taking the FilmGate Special Jury Award). With the series Devineni and his co-creators have revolutionized the comic book form, and not just technologically but also culturally. A survivor of gang rape in the first installment, Priya joins forces with acid attack survivors in the second, rendering the titular super-heroine tougher than your average Western badass chick.

Devineni is participating in the Art, Technology & Change discussion at this year’s CPH:DOX, and Filmmaker was able to catch up with the AR artist prior to the fest for a brief chat that ran the gamut from comic cons, to the Sistine Chapel, to creating sociopolitical art for a global audience.

To read my interview visit Filmmaker magazine.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Following The Money Shot: Ovidie on Her SXSW Investigative Doc Pornocracy

Originally trained in philosophy, and known as the “porn star intellectual” since the publication of her book Porno Manifesto in the early aughts, feminist pornographer Ovidie can now add hard-hitting investigative journalist to her CV. The French icon’s latest documentary Pornocracy, debuting at SXSW (and later in the month at CPH:DOX), is a stunning exploration of the dark underbelly of online porn — a shadowy world in which a single faceless multinational corporation, with numerous offshore accounts, controls what we see while exploiting the performers whose very livelihood it shamelessly steals. Filmmaker spoke with Ovidie prior to the doc’s March 12th premiere.

To read my interview visit Filmmaker magazine.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

No Way Out: Brent and Craig Renaud on Their SXSW Doc, METH STORM: Arkansas USA

World premiering March 11th at SXSW is METH STORM: Arkansas USA, the latest HBO doc from the Peabody (and Edward R. Murrow and Columbia Dupont and Overseas Press Club) award-winning Renaud brothers. Unsurprisingly, the Arkansan siblings have taken a deeply humanistic approach to the meth epidemic with this film, following a soft-spoken DEA agent struggling to stem the flow of (cheap and extremely potent) Mexican cartel “ice” into his rural community. They parallel this narrative with that of a close-knit family of impoverished addicts, led by a no-nonsense matriarch who just can’t seem to catch a break.

To read my interview visit Filmmaker magazine.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

“Porn is Everywhere, Almost Like a Collective Unconscious”: Bruce LaBruce on his XConfessions Short Refugee’s Welcome

Bruce LaBruce is one busy renaissance man. The queercore icon — director of 11 features (not to mention numerous short films and music videos, and several theater works), visual artist and author — has now teamed up with Erika Lust’s XConfessions to release Refugee’s Welcome. The story of a Syrian refugee in Berlin who both suffers a hate crime and finds a poetic (and explicitly sexual) connection with a Czech punk, the short will be available on (NSWF link, obviously!) on March 9th. (And for free — use the code BRUCE).

Filmmaker spoke with LaBruce — who makes mainstream and hardcore versions of his films — fresh off the Berlinale premiere of his most recent feature, The Misandrists.

To read the rest visit Filmmaker magazine.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

MIT Open Doc Lab Showcases its Storytelling Prowess at the FilmGate Interactive Media Festival

One of the highlights of this year's FilmGate Interactive Media Festival (February 3-5 at the University of Miami School of Communication) was a panel titled "MIT Open Doc Lab Presents: Interactive and Non Linear Storytelling." It featured Beyza Boyacioglu, project manager at MIT Open Doc Lab (whose latest project, Zeki Müren Hotline, a "participatory telephone hotline and interactive web experience," premiered at IDFA DocLab and was nominated for a Digital Storytelling Award), and Doc Lab fellow Jeff Soyk (who was the UI/UX designer and architect on Elaine Sheldon's 2013 Peabody-winning Hollow, as well as the creative director and UI/UX designer on PBS Frontline's 2016 Emmy-winning Inheritance). Though the two work together at MIT — and collaborated on Boyacioglu's Zeki Müren Hotline — their backgrounds couldn't have been more different.

To read the rest visit Documentary Magazine.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Tech Talks: The FilmGate Interactive Media Festival

The 2017 FilmGate Interactive Media Festival, which took place February 3-5, was a bit different from prior editions I’ve attended. For one thing, the fest was now headquartered in the heart of Hurricanes-land — over Super Bowl weekend no less — at the University of Miami School of Communication (rather than in trendy South Beach). For another, accommodations this time included a lovely historic house rented in Coconut Grove, where I found myself one of four born-and-bred Americans, along with three other artists originally hailing from India, Serbia and Turkey. Very Real World meets virtual reality.

To read the rest visit Filmmaker magazine.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Movies About Museums

“A process in which no one wants to take a risk is too Dutch for me,” laments one of the embattled Spanish co-architects in Oeke Hoogendijk’s The New Rijksmuseum, a 2013 doc I caught up with over the holidays. The film follows the epic bureaucratic struggles inherent in reimagining one of Amsterdam’s most beloved buildings, home to works by every master Dutchie from Rembrandt to Vermeer.

And to see which other films I visited head over to Hammer to Nail.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Five Things to Catch at the FilmGate Interactive Media Festival

This year’s FilmGate Interactive Media Festival – “solely dedicated to new technology-driven production companies, actors, filmmakers, journalists, advertising and marketing agencies, gaming companies, and curious audiences interested in interactive media, virtual reality, and mixed reality projects from around the world,” as its ambitious mission states – will be held February 3-5 at the University of Miami School of Communication. Among the wide-ranging selection of interactive screenings, specialty workshops, parties and panels to choose from, several stand out as not-to-be-missed experiences.

Glancing through the program, the following are just five – the first three art installations (two with a local flavor), the last two panels – that have made my must-catch list.

To read my sneak peek visit Filmmaker magazine.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Doc Star of the Month: Michelle Smith, 'Best and Most Beautiful Things'

Editor's Note: Some of the greatest documentaries of all time would be inconceivable without their protagonists to drive the stories and keep us viewers enthralled. From the Beales to the Friedmans, from Bob Dylan to Bob Flanagan, these real-life people were transformed, through the dynamic collaborative processes with their respective filmmakers, into indelible and engaging characters of cinema. And it's thanks to the access and intimacy that these protagonists granted to the filmmakers that these films were made in the first place.

So when writer Lauren Wissot proposed a column in which she would interview a documentary subject every other month, we welcomed the idea. So, here is the inaugural Doc Star of the Month (even though it's every other month): Michelle Smith of
Best and Most Beautiful Things.

To read my interview with one of the brightest stars of 2016 visit Documentary Magazine.