We stand in solidarity with people of color and anti-racists protesting police violence and other forms of state-sanctioned white supremacy. In support of this ongoing movement, and in-keeping with our belief in the power of documentary to help us look beyond ourselves and to foster critical thinking, we’re adding a permanent, evolving section to this website, dedicated to social justice in documentary media, Click Here to see the beginning of that page–a selection of documentary suggestions about racism in the U.S.

SDFF Partners with
DA Films for
New Series,
Streams Workhorse

SDFF is partnering with DA Films America to stream Workhorse (Cliff Caines, 2019, 82 mins) as part of the platform’s “Recommended By… Festivals” program from March 1-21. The program is comprised of 12 films handpicked by 11 highly regarded film festivals from across the American continents, including Full Frame, DocFest, DocsMX, Big Sky, DOXA, TransCinema, etc. DA Films is an international Video on Demand platform that streams an array documentary films shown in festivals around the world. Using festival curation, DA Films is able to present films with artistic and social values from all over the world, exposing subscribers to a truly diverse selection films.

SDFF Interviews Workhorse Director
Cliff Caines

SDFF co-Director and Lead Programmer Jean McGlothlin interviewed Director Cliff Caines about his film Workhorse, which will be streaming on  DA Films America from March 1-21 as SDFF’s pick for the platform’s “Recommended By… Festivals” program.

JM: What brought you to the subject?

CC: I had just finished my first documentary A Rock And A Hard Place in late 2014 when I happened upon my first ever horse pull at the Kinmount Fair, one of the many annual Fall Fairs held locally in the rural farming area of Haliburton County in Southern Ontario, Canada.

My chance encounter with the heavy horse pull left an indelible impression. It was the main event on closing night of the Kinmount Fair, attracting hundreds of spectators who surrounded the track. Emerging from darkness, approaching a sled weighing over 10,000 lbs, a team of massive workhorses were gracefully driven into position by their teamster. As the horses were ‘hitched’ to the sled in one continuous motion, they exploded in a breathtaking display of muscle, power and dirt. I was hit with a kaleidoscope of emotions, from wonder to sorrow. In that moment, the whole history of the horse’s central but now largely forgotten role in human history flashed before me. It was this moment that inspired me to make Workhorse.

Hunger Ward Gets Oscar Nod, MTV Pick-up and Puts Empathy at the Center of Humanist Filmmaking

Hands of grandfather Horace Bowers from Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers’s short A Concerto Is A Conversation, one in a series of New York Times OpDoc collaborations, available to stream here.

A heartfelt congratulations to SDFF alum Skye Fitzgerald, whose deeply humanistic observational doc, Hunger Ward: The Last Hope Against War and Starvation, was recently shortlisted for an Academy Award® for live-action documentary short. A visceral and intensely emotional document of a doctor and nurse attempting to save starving Yemeni children, the film gives a human aspect to six years of war and famine. The film is the third in Fitzgerald’s “Humanitarian Cinema Trilogy,” which also includes 50 Feet from Syria (2015, 39 mins), a film focused on doctors working on the Syrian border, and SDFF 2019 selection Lifeboat (2018, 34 mins), which showcased the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean by following search and rescue operations off the Libyan Coast. The uncompromising commitment to empathy as a filmmaking practice that defines this trio of films appears in its fullest aspect in Hunger Ward, which renders its subjects emotionally legible and ineluctably human.

As with the other films in Fitzgerald’s Humanist Cinema Trilogy, Hunger Ward has not only met with critical enthusiasm, it has also found itself in excellent company after being picked up by MTV Documentary Films in late February…

Trio of SDFF Alum Receive Oscar® Nom for Animated, Hybrid Narrative of Hidden, Third-Gender History

Kapaemahu Becomes First Hawaiian Film in Animated Short Category

Tahitian healers with dual female and male spirits greeted by Hawaiians. Still from Kapaemahu animated by Daniel Sousa, and co-written/co-directed by Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson.

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts released its most recent crop of 2021 nominees, Kapaemahu became the first Hawaiian film to be shortlisted in the animated shorts category. The film is co-directed and produced by a trio first-time Oscar nominees—Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson—whose work is already much-beloved by SDFF audiences. Like the trio’s last SDFF film, Leitis In Waiting (2018, 62 mins) and the earlier Lady Eva (2017), Kapaemahu focuses on indigenous third-gender identity. While the films have strong thematic resonances, Kapaemahu departs from conventional documentary form, bringing a hidden history to life through Daniel Sousa’s striking animation and Wong-Kalu’s narration in Olelo Niihau, a pre-colonial Hawaiian language.

End of an Era for Doc Festival Circuit

Two long-time, fabled festival directors have moved on in the last two months. After many tireless years at the helm, Hot Docs Executive Director Brett Hendrie and Full Frame’s Director Deidre Haj are both leaving their respective leadership roles, having accomplished groundbreaking work. Their impact will remain, but their absences will be felt as documentary festivals try to find a way forward after a year that has turned movie-watching in general, and festivals in particular, on their heads.

Hendrie has been part of Hot Docs for 20 years, spending the last 8 as Executive Director. In that time, he has grown the festival’s audience and the value of its awards and prizes. He has also expanded the festival’s “Docs For Schools” education program, and launched the Netflix-supported Canadian Storytellers Project, which supported filmmakers from underrepresented communities.

SDFF Alum Ben Proudfoot’s Collab with Award-Winning Composer Kris Bowers & NY Times OpDocs Shows at Sundance, Adds Ava DuVarnay as EP in Lead-up to Oscars

Hands of grandfather Horace Bowers from Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers’s short A Concerto Is A Conversation, one in a series of New York Times OpDoc collaborations, available to stream here.

Ben Proudfoot, whose SDFF 2020 entry That’s My Jazz, was a fan favorite, is seeing his ongoing collaborations with the New York Times OpDocs celebrated across the film world, in particular his collaboration with Emmy-winning film composer and co-Director Kris Bowers on A Concerto is a Conversation. A Concerto is a Conversation is showing at  Sundance 2021 until Feb 3, and has picked up wildly brilliant filmmaker Ava DuVarnay as an Executive Producer, according to Variety, which is also calling the film an early contender for the 2021 Oscar for Documentary Short.

A Concerto is a Conversation is part of  a NY Times series, “Can’t be with your grandparents? Watch this instead,” which was released around Thanksgiving 2020, a family holiday many people endured in isolation due to pandemic-related safety precautions. You can still watch it there for free. The film tells the story of a virtuoso jazz pianist and film composer Kris Bowers, who also a co-directs the film, and his relationship with his grandfather Horace. The titular concerto refers to the mirrored conversations tracked by the film—one between soloist and orchestra, the other between grandfather and grandson, as Kris traverses his family’s lineage through his 91 year-old grandfather, from Jim Crow Florida to the Walt Disney Concert Hall. In conversation, Kris draws a personal tale from his grandfather that seems to encompass the history of 20th Century racism in America as it goes, from the explicit segregation of the deep south to the implicit bias and quiet bigotry that compelled Horace to conduct business via mail to obscure his skin color after he’d moved west. Told in the warmly lit spaces of the family home, the short is as much an homage to the relative safety and support of family and the complex beauty of intergenerational relationships as it is about the harsh social spaces Horace has occupied throughout his life. The film is lovingly rendered and feels deeply appropriate to a moment in which so many are losing their family elders. See Proudfoot talk about the film and its upcoming Sundance appearance in this Nashville Noise interview.

Hands of grandson Kris Bowers from Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers’s short A Concerto Is A Conversation, one in a series of New York Times OpDoc collaborations. 

My Mother Was Here gets Nod in the North

Intimate doc revealing oft invisible aspects of Elderhood continues to resonate in COVID times

Filmmaker/author Rustin Thompson recently received a nod for Best Documentary by a Seattle filmmaker at the upstart Seattle Film Festival for his challenging, but deeply moving film My Mother Was Here. The relevance of this SDFF 2019 official selection has only grown during the COVID crisis, as the harsh economic and emotional realities of many elders, and their differential exposure to risk have been thrown into sharp relief. While Thompson’s film speaks to these larger issues, it is an intimate portrait of his mother in her later years, and his changing relationship to her. In this sense, it is also a cathartic and reflective film to watch as so many people have found their parents and grandparents taken from them without warning, leaving open so many loose ends.

My Mother Was Here is available to stream now through Vimeo-on-Demand, while Thompson’s website is home to some of his other film work and writing, including reviews of documentaries like the recently honored Dick Johnson Is Dead,(Kirsten Johnson and Nels Bangerter, 2020) and SDFF 2020 Best Feature Midnight Family (Luke Lorentzen, 2020).

Congratulations to SDFF Alumni on IDA Award Wins!

Congratulations to Jim LeBrecht and Sara Bolder for Crimp Camp’s wins! Crimp Camp won the International Documentary Association Awards for Best Feature and ABC News VideoSource Award. It also garnered an honorable mention for he Pare Lorentz Award. The film was directed and produced by LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham and produced by Sara Bolder. It is a movie that we cannot recommend highly enough for the story it tells about how disability rights became common parlance in the U.S., and how to make social change. With over 170 film credits to his name, LeBrecht is a Bay Area film luminary, who founded Berkeley Sound Artists (BSA), which specializes in post production audio for documentaries and has operated for over 20 years. He was added to SF Film’s Essential List, honoring Bay Area film luminaries in 2017, has penned and published articles on sound in documentary, and given master classes in sound design for institutions like the International Documentary Association. LeBrecht has been a supporter of SDFF for many years, appearing on numerous panels, guiding and encouraging new filmmakers. He’s also composed music and done sound design on more films than we can name. His credits include the Academy Award-winning The Blood of Yingzhou District (Ruby Yang, 2006) and Emmy/Academy Award-winning shortform doc, 4.1 Miles (Daphne Matrziaraki, 2017), which is available to stream on PBS’s POV. Recent SDFF films include The Pushouts, Bathtubs Over Broadway and From Baghdad to the Bay. On top of all of his film ventures, LeBrecht has been a lifelong, ardent disability rights advocate, and it is this purpose and passion that Crip Camp captures.

Crip Camp was produced by Netflix and is available to stream now.

See Trailer Now!

The warmest digital applause to East Bay filmmaker Nels Bangerter for collecting a best editing award at IDA, along with a nod for best writing with co-writer/director Kirsten Johnson for Dick Johnson Is Dead. The film also won Sundance’s Special Jury Award for Innovation in Nonfiction Storytelling, and Independent Lens’ New York Times Critic’s Pick. Bangerter edited SDFF Selections Out In The Silence and Kuma Hina, both of which were written and directed by filmmaking partners and festival regulars Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson. Bangerter was also a consulting editor on SDFF 2016 mini Best of Luck with the Wall (Dir. Josh Begley), a 7-minute voyage across the US-Mexico border, stitched together form 200,000+ satellite images. In addition to engaging with audiences at his films, Bangerter has been a lively figure at SDFF, consistently giving feedback at Peer Pitch and making himself available to new filmmakers. Bangerter and Johnson previously collaborated on Cameraperson (2016), another imaginative and complex piece of work that met with critical acclaim. While Dick Johnson Is Dead shares a self-reflexive quality with Cameraperson, it is also a deeply personal piece of work in which daughter/filmmaker Kirsten Johnson explores how movies can be used to grapple with some of life’s most profound experiences. Dick Johnson Is Dead was produced by Netflix and is available to stream there now.

Watch Trailer!

Congrats to SDFF Alums on their IDA 2021 Nominations!

Congratulations to Jim LeBrecht (director/producer) and Sara Bolder (producer) whose groundbreaking directorial debut Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution has been nominated for best feature film and best director. Crip Camp reflects on a summer camp located close to Woodstock, which galvanized a group of teens with disabilities, becoming activists who would take the Country by storm, forging a path that has made the world a more equal place for everyone. LeBrecht and Bolder have been a longtime friends to SDFF, with LeBrecht designing sound, composing and scoring more of our films than we can possibly count. Crip Camp is available to stream right now on Netflix, check out the trailer here.

Congratulations to Jaime Meltzer and Chris Filippone, whose film Huntsville Station is up for Best Short.  Huntsville Station is a meditative look at a moment of major transition as inmates released from Texas State Penitentiary encounter the small pleasures of everyday life waiting for the bus. Meltzer’s film Informant won SDFF’s jury prize in 2012. We also highly recommend True Conviction, which speaks to the present moment. See Huntsville Station here.

Kudos to director Jerry Rothwell  whose film The Reason I Jump won the 2020 Sundance World Cinema Documentary Audience Award. A cinematic adaptation of a book written by 13 year-old Naoki Higashida, it seeks to create an immersive experience evocative of the lived experiences of nonspeaking autistic people. The film fuses Higashida’s insights with intimate portraits of 5 exceptional young people, each of whom experiences reality in a remarkably different way. The film evokes Rothwell’s early film and SDFF 2009 audience sneaker hit, Heavy Load, about a group of people with learning disabilities who start a punk band. Rothwell’s Sour Grapes (2017) and How To Change The World (2016) have also graced SDFF’s screens.

SDFF Alum Win AFI Grand Jury ‘Short Abortion Helpline, This is Lisa’ as Supreme Court Passes New Women’s Health Restrictions

Abortion Helpline, This is Lisa by SDFF alums Barbara and Mike Attie and Janet Goldwater won the AFI Docs 2020 Grand Jury Short Award  and is shortlisted in IDA’s Best Short category. This documents an abortion helpline in Philadelphia, through which counselors field urgent calls from who people seek to end a pregnancy, but can’t afford to. “Abortion Helpline, This Is Lisa” reveals the brutal impact of the Hyde Amendment, designed to prevent those struggling financially from access to abortion. The short has particular resonance this week, as the U.S. Supreme Court banned women’s access to the “abortion pill” without an in-person physician visit. Given travel restrictions around COVID 19, the ruling makes the pill almost inaccessible to women who live in health care deserts, rural areas and states with strict abortion restrictions. All three filmmakers have shown work at SDFF. Mike Attie’s Moment To Moment was an SDFF 2020 Official Selection, In Country showed in 2014, and Mr. Mack’s Kitchen in 2010. Barbara Attie and Janet Goldwater have worked together on multiple projects, including Bob’s Knee, which showed as part of SDFF 2009.

If the surprise Supreme Court decision and Abortion Helpline, This Is Lisa  piqued your interest in the relationship between women’s health, self-determination and citizenship, you should also take a look at SDFF2020 selection Personhood: Policing Pregnant Women In America (Jo Ardinger, 2019). Personhood tells a story that ripples far beyond the right to choose and into the lives of every pregnant person in America. It focuses on Tammy Loertscher, whose fetus was given to an attorney, while the courts denied Tammy her constitutional rights. In this timely documentary, we see her sent to jail, and then forced to challenge a Wisconsin law that eroded her privacy, her right to due process, and her body sovereignty. Personhood reveals the danger of fetal rights laws which now exist in thirty-eight states. These little known laws encourage the surveillance and criminalization of pregnant women, while disproportionately targeting lower income women and women of color. These laws lie at the intersection of the erosion of women’s rights, the war on drugs, and our mass incarceration complex. Personhood is available to stream on Amazon Prime and Apple TV.

Revisiting hillbilly

2018 Doc Resonates in the Present Day, Provides Context for Hillbilly Elegy Adaptation, and the Critical Discourse Around It

Behind-the-scenes. Production still from the making of hillbilly (Ashley York and Sally Rubin, 2018), an SDFF 2019 Official Selection that is currently available to stream on both Netflix and Amazon Prime.

When Netflix delivered Ron Howard’s film adaptation of J.D. Vance’s bestseller Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family in Crisis to the small screen after the 2020 election, it returned the autobiographical work and the ways in which it had been used during the 2016 election to heavy public scrutiny. Though Vance has been critical of the Trump administration, the book was released amid a contentious national election, and became almost omnipresent across a diverse array of media and news outlets. In general, both book and author as “authentic” voices of the rural, working-class, conservative, white Americans whose votes put President Donald Trump into office. Ironically, the veracity of the hillbilly archetype that Vance both perpetuates and criticizes was purposefully developed and maintained across American popular culture since the 1870s. That history is made tangible in Sally Rubin and Ashley York’s 2018 documentary hillbilly, the relevance of which has only grown in the years since its release. The documentary poses questions about the relationship between representation, perception and systemic oppression that have become central to understanding American cultural and political life and personal experiences within it. As Sally Rubin, co-Director of (Sally Rubin and Ashley York, 2018) wrote to us in December:

Pop culture helps to bridge divides of all kinds (regional, socio-economic, and political divides are just a few) by helping people from different backgrounds to understand viscerally the experiences of others. Pop culture, including documentary, has the potential to bridge divides deeply and quickly, through providing examples of real people living in ways that may be unfamiliar and based on mere caricatures and stereotypes.

-Sally Rubin, co-Director, hillbilly