For co-directors Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, their 13-years-in-the-making “American Promise” may have fulfilled every indie filmmaker’s American Dream. Since winning the Jury Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the doc – which trails this upper-middle-class black couple’s own son Idris and his friend Seun as they learn to navigate the majority white world of NYC’s prestigious Dalton School – has nabbed prize after prize, including the top award at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, and most recently, at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. It was there in Hot Springs that I finally got to catch the flick – and, as good luck would have it, moderate a Q&A via Skype with the Brooklyn duo. And since there’s rarely enough time post-screening to adequately address questions in depth, I asked the filmmaking couple for a repeat performance here at Global Comment. (“American Promise” will premiere on PBS in February – but if you simply can’t wait, go to www.americanpromise.org to request a screening near you.)
Recently racking up awards from the Berlin Film Festival to Toronto’s Hot Docs, Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall’s “Call Me Kuchu,” which follows a group of Ugandan LGBTI activists in Kampala (led by the recently murdered David Kato, the kuchus’ – Ugandan slang for queers – answer to Martin Luther King, Jr.), is one of those rare docs that manages to enlighten, uplift and enrage in equal doses. It’s a sweeping portrait not just of the heroic gays and lesbians who often literally put themselves in the line of fire each and every day just to demand basic human rights, but also of a disturbingly self-righteous Ugandan society, which bans homosexuality and openly advocates for the death penalty for HIV-positive men. I got a chance to speak with the film’s own fearless co-directors as they were preparing for “Call Me Kuchu” to close the Human Rights Watch Film Festival at NYC’s Film Society of Lincoln Center Walter Reade Theater on June 28th.
The International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam is the Cannes of nonfiction filmmaking, so just nabbing an invitation anoints a doc amongst the best of the best. Don Argott and Demian Fenton’s “Last Days Here” not only screened the prestigious event this past November, but beat out a handful of other stellar flicks to win the IDFA PLAY Competition for Music Documentary. None of which came as a surprise to this critic who’s been following the two since their riveting doc “The Art of the Steal” – about the dirty battle over the Barnes Foundation’s 25 billion dollars in art – rocked my world back in 2009. Now the Philadelphia homeboys have trained their lens on another Pennsylvania subject, Pentagram lead singer Bobby Liebling, a hard rock legend and hardcore addict who, as one of Liebling’s friends puts it, sold his soul a long time ago – and is now fighting like hell to get it back, one piece at a time. I spoke with the gung ho co-directors prior to the film’s NYC opening on March 2nd.
As the world’s largest doc fest the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam is jam-packed with nonfiction gems from around the globe. Yet one of my most delightful and surprising finds at the 24th edition this past November was a small film from the heart of the host city itself. “Meet the Fokkens” is a nuanced portrait and loving celebration of 70-year-old twins Martine and Louise Fokken, two vivacious ladies of the night who’ve been selling sex in Amsterdam’s infamous red light district since 1961 (though Louise, suffering from arthritis, is now retired). Prior to the latest “Meet the Fokkens” screening at February’s Berlinale, I spoke with the doc’s Dutch co-directors, who gave me the scoop on many-splendored things, including Martine’s green fingers, corruption in the red light district, and the history of older professionals in the oldest profession in the world.
Dutch director Matthijs van Heijningen, Jr. may not be a household name, though the shape-shifting alien of his first feature, the big-budget “The Thing,” a prequel to John Carpenter’s cult classic of the same title, is. Starring Joel Edgerton (last seen in Gavin O’Connor’s “Warrior”) the movie also marks the filmmaker’s first foray into Hollywood. Prior to the film’s release in Holland I spoke with the engaging studio newbie about everything from making art from commercials, to taking inspiration from Polanski, to why the next big thing might not be emerging from his homeland anytime soon.