Category Archives: General

Hot Docs: The Fest

What a great festival, what a great city. My eyes have been opened to a new level of urban coolness and engagement with documentary. I mean, this place has the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema – a gigantic year-round all-doc theater. On the last day of the festival, there was a line around the block to pack the place on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

The Bloor Hot Docs Cinema - a year-round docs-only theater (photo from

AND there is the TIFF Lightbox. This is like an art house and a Cineplex had a kid, then fed it steroids, and then sent it to boarding school at MoMA. When they are not hosting film festivals, they are doing stuff like this.

The University Toronto is like a city unto itself and the interplay of old and new architecture here is endlessly entertaining. In general, I found the mixtures and juxtapositions of this city extremely endearing. On the last Saturday of the film festival, there was a giant pot festival in Queen’s Park. Hundreds upon hundreds of tokers, puffing away with alacrity. On Sunday, in the exact same place, dozens of bagpipe players were honoring a fallen police officer in an intricate memorial ceremony.

I got to really spend some time in all parts of the festival, pitching at the forum, and hanging around to catch a bunch of films and parties, talking with a lot of filmmakers and delegates. It was a great show. Bravo to Programmer Charlotte Cook, who programmed her first festival and wrote a great piece about it, Forum Director Elizabeth Radshaw, who made the impossible look effortless, and everyone who helped put on this extraordinary festival.

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Hitchcock Theme

It was high time to redo this site, but why steal the image from Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest for the header?

Well, mostly because I thought it looked cool and Hitchcock inspires me. (Though, I’m am hardly alone in that of course).

I’ve always liked the film and especially that scene. Cary Grant still has no clue what is going on and then suddenly, he is being mowed down by machine gun fire from a bi-plane!

I see it as symbolic: we all go through life without the slightest knowledge of the forces that can strike us down at any moment.

There are some cool optical effects used in the scene also. The plane is actually shot by itself, then projected on a screen. Cary Grant runs in front of the screen and then they shot the two together for the final composite. Looks realer than Lord of the Rings AFAIC.

The opening sequence of the film is also groundbreaking in terms of technology and design.

As I was researching this a bit, I ran across another Hitchcock frame that worked well in a banner. However, there is SO much written about Rear Window, voyeurism and the etc. that I went with my first idea.

Still this one makes a pretty cool banner too.

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SilverDocs 2010 Day 1

On day 1, I saw three intense and provocative films:

SECRETS OF THE TRIBE is a new classic. So well-aimed and well-executed. I have had Jose Padilha’s films recommended to me, but this is the first one I have seen. I will definitely be checking out his other work.

WAR DON DON is the first in the “Building Peace Strand.” It is a heavy-duty film, and the panel was extraordinary – the main subjects just continuing to battle the war-crimes case. Sky, the festival director introduced the film and also the building peace series which will all have top-notch panels – this is really unique stuff and I think it will be a highlight of the festival for me. I also got to watch this and discuss with one out our international documentary fellows from Kenya and Uganda, which gave me a whole different perspective on this film.

PRESUMED GUILTY was probably the least sophisticated of the films I saw, but the most emotionally compelling. I spent most of the film on the edge of my seat just wanting with all my heart for things to work out for this beautiful kid in the worst of circumstances. I am one who can do without the activist call to action (let the audience make their own conclusions, I say), but still a great film.

I saw THE KIDS GROW UP at FullFrame, but it was great to be around another screening night with Doug, his family and the D-worders. It occurred to me how much in contrast Doug’s film stands to all three that I saw yesterday. Specifically, the root metaphor of all three of those films is a fight between traditional adversaries (a trial, a war, an academic battle . . ), and it is in an adversarial way that each film engages with its audience – a sort of intellectual sparing that is a current trend in documentary.

It is the idea that audiences are distrustful by nature and rather than snow them, a smart filmmaker engages in a mental duel of reveals and you-decide moments designed to provoke consideration and anxiety. This is effective. I like these docs, and aspire to do this in my own work.

Doug’s film is fundamentally different. It is not a fight; It’s a big hug.

All three of the films I saw seem to have the underlying message: the world is fucked up (which surely it is). Doug’s film seems to be saying: if we are brave, and we care for each other, we can make it ok (which is important to remember, in light of the first point).

On to day 2!

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THE OATH at FullFrame 2010


One of the most buzzed about films at the 2010 FullFrame Documentary Film Festival was THE OATH – and rightfully so. I can think of no rubric for documentary to put against this film that it does not come up winning.

A character-driven drama? Check.

Artfully shot? Definitely.

Takes us somewhere we have never been? Indeed.

Enlightens a social/political issue through a human lens? Ah, yeah –  and then some.

I could go on  – this is a really superb piece of filmmaking.

Laura Poitras (MY COUNTRY, MY COUNTRY) has rendered the parallel stories of two brother-in-laws: Abu Jandal, former bodyguard to Osama Bin Laden, and Salim Hamden, prisoner at Guantanamo Bay. In do so with utmost subtlety, she has reflected the entirety of post 9/11 politics anew.

One point of comparison is TAXI RIDE TO THE DARK SIDE, Alex Gibney’s 2008 academy award-winner that also parallels two post 9/11 detainees. The strength of Gibney’s film is the visceral depiction of torture and the nuanced exploration of how it came to happen under US authorities.

However, Gibney does little if anything to challenge people who are already sympathetic to the idea the torture is a bad policy. In contrast, THE OATH is a much more complex work, completely willing to challenge us all to see extremists as people with the contradictions intact.

In this sense, a more interesting comparison is FOG OF WAR, Errol Morris’s 2004 academy award-winner about the life of Robert McNamara. The beauty of Morris’s film is that it taps into the general liberal sentiment of a generation of Americans that McNamarra is (and is only) an arch villain of history. Morris then proceeds to show us a side of McNamarra is charming and thoughtful and all too human for us to continue to see him as a caricature.

But Morris performs his frame-shifting critique from the safety of a 30-year historical bubble. Feelings about 9/11 certainly run as deep as feelings about Vietnam, but they are much fresher, more raw, and less set into cultural tropes.

Therein lies the true courage in Poitras’s film: she is willing to ask the most difficult questions of both subject and audience, and she does it not with a long historical lens, but with a magnifying glass that reveals the world as it is today . . . and tomorrow.

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NO CROSSOVER: THE TRIAL OF ALLEN IVERSON (1st edition of my 2010 doc review series!)

I have plans to see a lot of docs on the big screen this year, and I thought it would be fun to start reviewing them.

I believe that film, documentary in particular, is political. There is something special about seeing a film with a public audience, especially if there is a panel or Q&A. One of the highest ideals we can aspire to is to make media that engenders real discussion of issues.

My goal is not to review every single film I see, but I’m going to limit myself to those I see at public screenings: no DVDs, no cable or Netflix.

First up is NO CROSSOVER: THE TRIAL OF ALLEN IVERSON by Steve James, the director of HOOP DREAMS. On March 29, SilverDocs sponsored a special screening with the filmmaker at the AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring. The film is part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series and will air on the network in April.

Hoop Dreams is a  special film to a lot of people. If you are my age, and you are into documentary, it is  likely that this film made an impression on you when it came out 15 years ago. Perhaps more than any other film of it’s era, Hoop Dreams seemed to teach us the potential for documentary to get at the emotional heart of a story.

So my anticipation level was high for Mr. James to cover the controversial 1993 trial of provocative NBA star Allen Iverson. As a Philly native, I have been a fan of Iverson’s game for a long time, but I knew only a bit about his legal troubles as a celebrated (and vilified) high school athlete in coastal Virginia.

On the surface, this may look like a familiar story: a “racially charged” incident, a young black male railroaded through the justice system, and a community divided . . . but there is more here, and much of it less familiar and more challenging.

How does race divide not just a community, but also a family and even an individual? Are Americans, as attorney general Eric Holder said, cowards about race? And perhaps most striking to me personally: can a white filmmaker justly tell the story of a black subject?

This film goes there, and to a lot of other places that are complex and vital. Iverson himself would not sit for an interview, but James still delivers new insights into what is a perplexing public personality. Toward the end of the film, we see an 18-year-old Iverson receive his GED with obvious pride at a homemade ceremony. This is juxtaposed with the same man, 10 years later and now a millionaire, moved to tears as he is thanked for a scholarship.

But this is far from a hagiography.  We are asked to ponder still deeper questions: has Iverson transcended his circumstances, or does he still carry those wounds deep in his psyche? And to what extent are his injuries self-inflicted?

I liked this film a lot, but I might have liked the QA even more. One way you know your film really worked is when viewers feel the need to give an extended introduction about their own identity to preface their question. If you have been to many Q&As, you have probably witnessed this phenomenon. An audience member comes to the mic, and before she or he can actually get a question out, there is the need to explain where they are from, how race was talked about in their family growing up, and maybe something about their own racial or ethnic identity.

This makes for a slow panel, but it is a sign that the film has touched people in a deep place. They cannot help but reveal these things because the film has forced them into self-examination . . . powerful.

James himself was self-effacing and rather brilliant, and journalist Kevin Blackistone was erudite and provocative. Comparing Iverson to Mohammed Ali, he rightly identified representations of black masculinity as one of the most vexing aspects of American racial history. This led to some disagreement from audience members and some more very smart analysis from the panel and the audience  alike.

And there we were, a relatively diverse  group of over one hundred, talking about race. REALLY talking about it. Agreeing and disagreeing, pushing on points, relenting, listening, and maybe even (at least partially, at least for a moment) understanding.


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