The planets have realigned and America is no longer at the center of the Hollywood universe. Imaginative outsiders are heading west to mine California gold, and in true Invasion of the Body Snatchers style, foreigners now pull the artistic strings inside the behemoth studio system. Take for example that feat of spectacular special effects and cinematography prowess known as Gravity, an Avatar-rivaling blockbuster helmed by the Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón, which draws a line in the sand, giving us a glimpse into what the future marriage of art and commerce will look like.
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.)
Mere miles from El Paso, Texas, one of the safest cities in America, lies Ciudad Juárez, ground zero for the drug war – only conventional wars have rules of engagement. The battle raging within our neighbor to the south is something far more disturbing since Juárez is at heart a no man’s land, where rhyme and reason do not exist. Enter veteran photojournalist Shaul Schwarz. With honest artifice-free filmmaking and gorgeous lush cinematography – that allows us to viscerally experience the surreal nature of life on either side of the U.S.-Mexico border – the Israeli director has created a debut feature equal parts elegant and eye-opening. Shifting from the tale of a hugely popular, Los Angeles-based musician whose “narcocorridos” celebrate the drug lord lifestyle, to a Mexican crime scene investigator who puts his life on the line everyday sifting through the chaos, Schwarz gives us a glimpse through a looking glass filled with contradiction, frustration and ultimately death. After having played to great acclaim at this year’s Sundance and Berlin film festivals, “Narco Cultura” opens in NYC in November with a national rollout to follow.
Suffice to say that by now – thanks to Amnesty International and/or Madonna – you’ve probably heard of Pussy Riot, the feminist punk rock collective that burst onto the international scene after a guerrilla performance at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior led to the arrest and conviction of three of its balaclava-sporting members. Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s HBO documentary “Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer” furthers the trio’s tale, taking the viewer behind the scenes of the well publicized story and right into the Russian courtroom where Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich made their show trial literal. I spoke with co-director Maxim Pozdorovkin prior to the film’s NYC festival premiere at the 2013 Human Rights Watch Film Festival.
“Fiercely intelligent” is the phrase used by a recent acquaintance, whose husband worked on “Shadow Dancer,” to describe the film’s director James Marsh. It’s a spot-on assessment that I couldn’t agree with more. The Oscar-winning filmmaker behind “Man On Wire” – who I last interviewed for Global Comment in 2011 about his follow-up doc “Project Nim” – is an artist drawn to exploring the complexities and puzzles in life, rather than to providing grand conclusions or even any solutions. Such is the case with Marsh’s latest narrative feature, a nail-biting, Belfast-set thriller (starring the dynamite duo of Andrea Riseborough and Clive Owen) about a single mom forced to choose between going to jail for her involvement in an IRA bomb plot, or turning government informant and spying on her hardliner family. I spoke with the British-born, Denmark-based director prior to the flick’s NYC theatrical release on May 31st. (“Shadow Dancer” will also be available on iTunes and On Demand everywhere else.)
Academy Award Best Foreign Language Film nominee “Kon-Tiki” is a fictionalized account of the Norwegian experimental ethnographer (and subsequent Oscar Award winner) Thor Heyerdahl’s trans-Pacific journey in a balsa raft over 65 years ago. It’s also a Scandinavian box office sensation and the first Norwegian film to nab nominations from both Oscar and the Golden Globes. I spoke with the film’s co-directors, slated to helm a major Hollywood movie next, about their own trip from Norway to L.A.’s wild west.
Iepe Rubingh is a Berlin-based, Dutch performance/visual artist whose last foray into filmmaking involved designing a large-scale installation for Tom Tykwer’s cinematic love triangle “3”. (Tykwer, along with the Wachowski siblings, is also one of the forces behind the long-awaited adaptation of David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas,” premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival later this month.)
And like a character left on the cutting room floor of “Run Lola Run,” Rubingh himself happens to be the founder of the World Chess Boxing Organization, a real fight club that sprang from fiction – in this case from the French graphic novel “Froid Équateur” by Enki Bilal. In what might be the ultimate gladiator showdown, chess boxing alternates four-minute chess rounds with three-minute rounds of boxing – with only one-minute breaks in between – until a winner is declared via checkmate, knockout or a decision by the judges after eleven rounds. Since its debut in 2003 the WCBO has expanded internationally and now includes branches from Siberia to LA. I caught up with the current light heavyweight champ Iepe “The Joker” at the bustling café of De Balie, a massive cultural center in the heart of Amsterdam.
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 word “punk,” like the word “independent,” has been so oversold and misused it’s practically meaningless. So when a film bills itself as “the saga of the last true punk rock band in the world” you have to sigh and wonder whether it’s just more marketing hype. Fortunately, there’s not one false note in “The Punk Syndrome,” co-directors Jukka Kärkkäinen & J-P Passi’s thrilling portrait of Pertti Kurikka’s Name Day, a socially minded and politically incorrect quartet of kick-ass musicians – who just so happen to be mentally disabled, and the real rebellious deal. Prior to the film’s Hot Docs premiere I spoke with Finnish director Passi about redefining “normalcy” and upending preconceived notions, and got the scoop on shooting in arts-supportive Scandinavia.
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.