Archive for the ‘Documentary’ Category

SXSW: Wrap-up

Tuesday, March 18th, 2008

Last year I think I spent as much time posting thoughts on films I was seeing at South by Southwest as I did actually attending films and panels. This year I chose to err in the other direction. There were simply too many movies to see, panels to attend, people to meet, and parties to drop by.

Highlights (in the order I saw them):

Nights and Weekends by Joe Swanberg & Greta Gerwig
Wellness by Jake Mahaffy
Paper Covers Rock by Joe Maggio
The New Year Parade by Tom Quinn
Present Company by Frank V. Ross

All make use of handheld digital video, feature naturalistic performances, and were made with small (or no) crews and budgets. Despite the superficial sharing of neo-neo-realistic qualities, it would be tough to compare them. Suffice to say that all are worth seeing.

As good as those films were, perhaps my two favorites of SXSW were two very polished documentaries, Second Skin and At the Death House Door.

Second Skin digs into the world of MMORPGs, and how these online games create new lives and identities — on both sides of the computer screen — for the people playing them. Not being a gamer, I wondered how much I would care about the film’s subject, especially in light of the fact that 90% of the audience I viewed it with seemed to be there to see a film about their lives. Happily, the film finds some dynamic people to follow and it does superb job of chronicling their lives, both on- and off-line. I suspect this will have a healthy life on DVD, and perhaps theatrically.

At the Death House Door was the most emotionally gripping film I saw at SXSW. A somewhat conventionally shot documentary featuring lots of interviews, it reminded me that no single documentary style has a monopoly on greatness. The film follows Carroll Pickett who, during his 15 years as the house chaplain to a Texas prison, presided over 95 executions, including the very first lethal injection done anywhere in the world. The film also tells the story of Carlos De Luna, one of those 95 prisoners executed, and one that Pickett believed to be innocent. This is a movie that had me in tears — both at horrific things, and also in admiration at the remarkable heroism of ordinary individuals. Emotions aside, it did bring some nuance to arguments for and (especially) against the death penalty. The fact that it was premiering in Austin — that is, in the capital of the state where these executions took place — made the screening experience all the more poignant. At the Death House Door was co-produced by IFC, so look for it there (and, perhaps, theatrically).

As for panels, not all of the ones I attended have been posted (nor do I know if they will) but here are the festival’s recordings of some for those of you that couldn’t be there.

Documentary Film Festival for Students

Tuesday, March 4th, 2008

I usually don’t post film festival calls for entries — there are just far too many of them — but this is one I couldn’t pass up: The Reality Bytes Film Festival is Northern Illinois University’s student film documentary film festival. As most of you know, NIU was the site of a mass shooting on their campus a couple of weeks ago.

I received a bulk email from their PR director on Sunday. Here it is in full:


First, we want to thank everyone who has called or e-mailed with messages of support over the past few weeks. We are still coming to terms with the tragedy that occured on our campus Thursday, February 14, and it will be a long journey. However, the journey does begin with the first steps and in that spirit, the Reality Bytes Film Festival is still taking place, but with a change in the deadline and screening dates.

With that said, I am writing to you on behalf of Northern Illinois University and the Reality Bytes Student Documentary Film Festival. The festival is currently in its eighth year under the directorship of Dr. Laura Vazquez and is continuing to grow. The event prides itself on being open only to students and being affordable with only a $20 entry fee.

We have already started to receive films from schools all across the country and the outlook for this year’s festival is excellent. Our goal each year is to continue to have a venue where students can showcase their amazing documentary filmmaking talents against their peers.

The submission deadline for students is now March 8, 2008 and the documentaries must be under 30 minutes length. Any style or genre of documentary will be accepted. The application form for this year’s festival can be viewed and printed as a PDF file by visiting the Reality Bytes website at the following URL:

http://www2.comm.niu.edu/~realitybytes/index.html

The screening event will be held on April 4th and 5th and cash prizes will be awarded on April 5th. The best of festival winner will receive $200 and Avid video editing software, second place will receive $150 and third place will receive $100.

Thank you. We are looking forward to seeing all of the great student work coming out of your university.

Sincerely,

Kathy Giles
Public Relations Director for Reality Bytes
Northern Illinois University

 

 

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If you’re a student filmmaker with a documentary, send it on in. It sounds like a neat festival, it’s an affordable entry fee and, in some way, however small, by submitting your film you’ll be helping the NIU community move forward after a terrible tragedy. I imagine this edition of the festival will be pretty special.

An Oscar Antidote for Documentaries

Monday, January 7th, 2008

Today, Thom Powers, Documentary Programmer at the Toronto International Film Festival, and AJ Schnack (filmmaker of Kurt Cobain: About a Son and blogger of All These Wonderful Things) announced the launch a new award for nonfiction filmmaking, to be held in March at the IFC Center in New York.

Nominees in eight categories will be announced in Park City on January 20.

The new awards are a direct response to the Oscars. From recent debates over confusing (and shifting) eligibility guidelines, to its long history of jaw-dropping omissions (e.g., neither Hoop Dreams nor The Thin Blue Line were even nominated their respective years), the Academy’s treatment of the genre has long been a source of consternation and disappointment for many within the documentary community. That’s not to say that many worthy films haven’t been nominated and awarded over the years… but clearly the AMPAS doesn’t give documentary the attention that it does to fictional feature films.

Hats off to AJ and the others behind this initiative.

indieWIRE has the first report.

Fundraising Tips: Money Trees and House Parties

Thursday, January 3rd, 2008

I was speaking with a fellow filmmaker the other day who was asking me for tips on finding grants for fiction films. I’ve been successful at finding grant-based funding for my work (“Gina, An Actress, Age 29” was supported by the sadly now-defunct Aperture Film Grant), but I had to break the disappointing news that those sources are few and far between for fiction work these days.

Having said that, if you’re developing a not-for-profit film/video project — say, a social-issue documentary or a youth video project — there is money out there. A great introduction to finding money is Morrie Warshawski’s Shaking The Money Tree, 2nd Edition.

I read Shaking the Money Tree years ago when it was still in its first edition. Since then I’ve probably raised close to $100,000 in grant monies for various projects (my own and others’) since reading it. Documentarians will probably benefit from it the most, but I strongly recommend it to filmmakers that need help raising funds for their films, or fund-raisers new to film and video production, regardless of film genre.

One fundraising strategy that’s discussed briefly in Shaking The Money Tree is given its own extended treatment in Warshawski’s newly revised The Fundraising Houseparty, 2nd Edition.

As Warshawski points out in this slim volume’s introduction, individual donors account for 87% of all non-profit endeavors. Fundraising houseparties are a way to bring such individuals together and introduce them to a project that might deserve their support.

I’ve never hosted a houseparty (nor had one hosted for my work), but I have attended a couple, so I have a decent grasp of what works and what doesn’t. Warshawski’s guide is the best I’ve seen on what can be an intimidating process for the uninitiated. The basics are spelled out in easy-to-read prose, with straightforward diagrams and illustrations helping to walk you through the process. The appendix even includes sample invitation letters and a worksheet. Yes, some of this stuff is common sense (“Thank People as They Leave” states one heading), but other topics aren’t (“taxes”).

As the saying goes, you gotta spend money to make money. At $20 (or less) each, these books are a pretty good investment for anyone considering or pursuing the not-for-profit realm of moviemaking. If you have other tips or reading suggestions, share them in the comments below.

The 25 Greatest Documentaries of All-Time?

Thursday, October 4th, 2007

IndieWire reports today on the International Documentary Association’s list of the “25 Best Documentaries.” As an introduction to the genre for people who have never seen more than one or two non-fiction films (including, say, March of the Penguins) it’s a serviceable list. On the other hand, it will probably upset a lot of people, if the comments after the IndieWire article are any indication.

It’s not worth getting too worked up over these things. Like those AFI best-of lists, they’re not so much a serious study as a marketing tool for the sponsoring organization. Still, I was pretty surprised (and a little sad) to see just how historically short-sighted and Americentric this list is, particularly coming from a group that is comprised of filmmakers and bills itself as an international association.

Almost all the films on the list are American, English-language films. As for representation throughout the decades, the last seven years are represented by ten movies; the ’80s and ’90s are represented by seven more. The other eighty years of cinema are represented by a mere eight films.

I can put aside the fact that lesser-known, esoteric personal favorites (like, say, Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad, Godmilow/Farocki’s What Farocki Taught/Inextinguishable Fire, Jorge Furtado’s Ilha das Flores, or Wiseman’s High School) didn’t make the cut. But a list claiming to represent the “Greatest Documentaries of All Time” that doesn’t feature a single film by Robert Flaherty, Dziga Vertov, Jean Rouch, Michael Apted, Chris Marker, Agnes Varda, much less Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah ? Well, it’s curious, to say the least.

Ok, I said I wasn’t going to get worked up. So I’ll stop.

Here’s the list. Continue the debate in the comments, if you want….

1. “Hoop Dreams,” directed by Steve James, Peter Gilbert and Frederick Marx
2. “The Thin Blue Line,” directed by Errol Morris
3. “Bowling for Columbine,” directed by Michael Moore
4. “Spellbound,” directed by Jeffery Blitz
5. “Harlan County USA,” directed by Barbara Kopple
6. “An Inconvenient Truth,” directed by Davis Guggenheim
7. “Crumb,” directed by Terry Zwigoff
8. “Gimme Shelter,” directed by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin
9. “The Fog of War,” directed by Errol Morris
10. “Roger and Me,” directed by Michael Moore
11. “Super Size Me,” directed by Morgan Spurlock
12. “Don’t Look Back,” directed by DA Pennebaker
13. “Salesman,” directed by Albert and David Maysles
14. “Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance,” directed by Godfrey Reggio
15. “Sherman’s March,” directed by Ross McElwee
16. “Grey Gardens,” directed by Albert and David Maysles, Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer
17. “Capturing the Friedmans,” directed by Andrew Jarecki
18. “Born into Brothels,” directed by Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski
19. “Titticut Follies,” directed by Frederick Wiseman
20. “Buena Vista Social Club,” directed by Wim Wenders
21. “Fahrenheit 9/11,” directed by Michael Moore
22. “Winged Migration,” directed by Jacques Perrin
23. “Grizzly Man,” directed by Werner Herzog
24. “Night and Fog,” directed by Alain Resnais
25. “Woodstock,” directed by Michael Wadleigh