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Tag Archives: documentary

Death Row Stories, Bari Pearlman and Keith Davis. Photo credit – Bethany Dettmore.

I have been dying to write a blog about the growing demand for True Crime stories. From Serial, to The Jinx, to Making of a Murderer, nearly every outlet has an episodic investigative series. And now my friend Bari Pearlman and I have organized a panel discussion dedicated to the genre!  Bari, who has directed and produced two episodes of CNN Death Row Stories, will be joined by Kelly Laudenberg, creator of the Netflix series The Confession Tapes, and Stephanie Steele VP of current Production for Oxygen Media for an in-depth conversation about making crime stories that matter.  The panel will be moderated by journalist Andrea Marks. For more information about True Crime Stories: Relationships and Responsibilities on Wednesday Oct 25, 2017 at the Tribeca Film Center and to register, click here.    *This Q&A is published simultaneously on Huffington Post. Read More

I Am Not Your Negro – Review

James Baldwin, Associated Press.

James Baldwin, Associated Press.

The Oscar-nominated “I Am Not Your Negro” is a piercing film about writer, poet, and social critic James Baldwin. He was one of our most critical advocates for equality, and his work holds an essential place in the canon of American literature. The film finds its structure from Baldwin’s own words. Read by Samuel Jackson in the most understated performance of his career, those words have a renewed relevance today.  Back-to-back shows have run at the Film Forum this month. It’s one of the most important films you’ll see all year. Read More

“How to Dance in Ohio”  – Review

Marideth Bridges, right, in “How to Dance in Ohio” on HBO.

Marideth Bridges, right, in “How to Dance in Ohio” on HBO.

There’s a story I was told recently about a boy with autism. One summer, his mother took him to the community pool every day, and every day people would avoid him or stop and stare. The mother worried that this would be his life, playing alone at the opposite end of the pool, suffering the gaping of strangers. One day, towards the end of the summer, a girl about eight years old tried to talk to the boy but got silence in return. She marched up to the mother and asked, “Does he have autism?”

The mother replied, “Yes, he does.” With that the girl turned on her heel, returned to the boy and changed her dialogue to make it much more direct. She said, “Get on the float, and I’ll pull you.  I’ll throw the ball, and you’ll catch it.” And for 20 blissful minutes, the mother saw her baby boy laughing and playing with another child for the first time all summer. Joyful, hopeful tears ensued.

It is with this story in mind that I watched the documentary “How to Dance in Ohio,” a portrait of young adults with autism preparing for a spring formal dance.  (Full disclosure, it was produced by my dear friend Bari Pearlman. )  Well-deserved praise has followed the film since its premiere at Sundance this year, and now it is widely available on HBO. Read More

Thoughts on “Listen to Me Marlon”

“Listen to Me Marlon” Showtime, 2015.

“Listen to Me Marlon” Showtime Films, 2015.

Last month I broke my own rule – only comment on storytelling that moves me in some positive way –  to write about what I see as a dangerous trend in documentary filmmaking: when unprecedented access to a subject veers into exploitation.  Just because filmmakers have “never before seen” footage, it doesn’t mean that they need to use all of it.  Exercising a little restraint is not only respectful of the subject matter, it makes for better storytelling.

In the case of “Montage of Heck” and “Amy,” documentaries about the downward spirals of Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse respectively, I felt both films were irresponsible in their capitalization of tragedy.  With “Amy” in particular, the use of very disturbing self portraits left on Winehouse’s personal computer, crossed a line, in my opinion.  As I wrote earlier, I highly doubt that Winehouse would have wanted to share those private photos with anyone, much less the public at large. By including them, it was an invasion of her privacy, and it made me as an audience member complicit in that invasion.  I mention it now as a segue to another recent biographical film with unprecedented access that actually gets it right.

Listen to Me Marlon” is a biography of Marlon Brando, one of the most influential film actors of all time, as told uniquely in his own words.  Commissioned by Brando’s estate, director Stevan Riley had access to over 300 hours of audio tapes recorded by Brando himself over the course of his life.  Musings on his childhood, his conflicted feeling about acting and the business of Hollywood, his involvement in civil rights during the sixties, and later his desire to remove himself from the spotlight are woven together to create an intimate and layered portrait of the enigmatic man.  Though it’s not a perfect film, it is wildly creative with its use of animation, giving the effect of the actor speaking beyond the grave.  Brando recorded these audio tapes for the purpose of a future biography, so in a sense, this film, which was blessed by the family, is posthumously authorized.

“Listen to Me Marlon” is being shown now in select theaters in New York City and Los Angeles and will air on Showtime after its theatrical run.

Thoughts on “Montage of Heck” and “Amy”

Kurt Cobain  (Kevin Mazur/WireImage).         Amy Winehouse  (AP Photo/Matt Dunham).

Kurt Cobain (WireImage/Kevin Mazur). Amy Winehouse (AP Photo/Matt Dunham).

Let me begin by saying that music docs are my favorite form of story telling when they explore the creative process, the complicated dynamics among talented people, and how life influences the music.  “Some Kind of Monster” is a remarkable look at the inner workings of Metallica as the aging band records a new album and struggles with the pressure to exceed the expectations of their fans.  “I’m Trying to Break Your Heart” chronicles the making of the band Wilco’s fourth album and the subsequent break up of two long-time collaborators.  In my favorite film of all time, “Gimme Shelter,” the audience rides along with the Rolling Stones during their 1969 US tour and is not only privy to intimate moments in the studio with the band but also bears witness to the exact moment the free-loving hippie sixties ended.

That said, I’m having a problem with the alarming trend of posthumous documentaries about troubled artists.  Last week I watched both “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” from director Brett Morgen and “Amy” from director Asif Kapadia (who also did the terrific “Senna” doc in 2010) about Amy Winehouse.  Watching these films back-to-back, the paths of the two subjects are undeniably similar.  Both Cobain and Winehouse were extremely talented young artists who wrote songs that were intensely personal.  Both defined success as being able to play music for a living, and both shunned the media machine that thrust them in the spotlight.  Both suffered troubled childhoods and addictive personalities, and as a result, neither had the tools to properly insulate themselves from the stress of celebrity.  They both slid into the depths of drug abuse as a way to escape the clutches of public eye.  Tragically, both died at the age of 27.

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"Buffalo home on the Range"  Jackson, WY.  2013.

“Buffalo Home on the Range” Jackson, WY. 2013.

What do you get when you hold 500+ filmmakers, funders and network executives in a lodge in the middle of Wyoming?  Well, you get one hell of a party compliments of National Geographic, stimulating panel discussions about the future of nature documentary, and impromptu speed pitching sessions throughout the week long event.  If you’re really lucky, you spy Jane Goodall holding court to a rapt audience in front of a roaring fire.

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(Pussy Riot/Live Journal)

(Pussy Riot/Live Journal)

Pussy Riot is a female punk rock political collective based in Moscow known for their provocative guerrilla performances in well known public spaces.  In February of 2012, they staged a demonstration to protest the union of church and state on the altar of the Russian orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Savior, for which they were arrested and held for 6 months without bail during a trial that many considered a sham.  No one was hurt during the demonstration, and the actual performance was shut down by security within 40 sec.  And yet the three young women, Nadia Tolokno, Masha Alyokhina and Katia Samutsevich, on trial were convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” and sentenced to two years each in a labor camp. 

Much has been covered in the press both inside and outside of Russia.  Governments of the European Union as well as the United States have called the sentencing disproportionate.  Amnesty International has labeled the women “Prisoners of Consciousness.”  Public figures from Aung San Suu Kyi to Madonna have championed Pussy Riot’s commitment to freedom of expression.  The directors of the documentaryPussy Riot: A Punk Prayer,”  Mike Lerner and Maksim Pozdorovkin have put together a film from court footage and interviews with the family in this story about about the group and the case.  It premieres on HBO tonight at 9pm (June 10).