SDFF is co-Presenting the gorgeously cinematic doc Overland at IndieFest’s launch of the Livable Plant Film Fest, which will stream online from April 22-May 2.

Overland (Revere La Noue and Elisabeth Haviland James, Czech Republic 104 mins) is a visually stunning film that travels across four continents, and too many cultural, personal and emotional landscapes to name. The film tells a trio of stories, each of which shows the critical roles birds of prey and their human partners play to keep the primal wild present in modern life. The film follows three passionate falconers—an Oklahoma Anthropologist rehabbing injured eagles, searching for lost falconry practices; a solitary Italian man living in the countryside with hawks, wolves and a horse; and a man in Dubai training to be the world’s foremost falcon racer. The film is a particularly beautiful and thoughtful look at the natural world after months of pandemic lock-down.

SDFF is co-presenting the film with IndieFest, which is launching the Livable Planet Film Fest, which is kicking off on Earth Day (April 22). Livable Planet is poised to fill the void left when SF’s Green Film Festival, which came to a permanent stop in 2020. The new fest is organized (with some flare) around a broad concept of “environmental films,” including  docs and narrative features with environmental themes, including themed sections on Radical Females, LGBTQIA  stories and more “traditional” fare with fun twists, like “Animals Wild, Weird and Wonderful).

A Concerto is a Conversation, SDFF alum Ben Proudfoot’s much-celebrated collaboration with film composer and co-Director Kris Bowers and The New York Times OpDocs is nominated for Best Documentary Short.

Read Full Story  l Visit Breakwater Studio Films  l  Watch The Film


The final film in SDFF Alum Skye Fitzgerald’s “Humanitarian Cinema Trilogy,” the short observational doc, Hunger Ward: The Last Hope Against War and Starvation, was nominated for a best documentary short Academy Award.

Read Full Story  l Visit Hunger Ward Website  l Watch Trailer


An innaugural release from the Obama’s Higher Ground Productions, Crip Camp marks debuts from SDFF alumni composer and sound designer Jim LeBrecht and Sara Bolder, debuts respectively. The film is up for Best Documentary Feature.

Read Full Story  l Visit Crip Camp Website  l Watch Trailer

Worsens Conditions for Many Filmmakers Relying on Streaming During Pandemic

In late February, a number of independent documentarians found the already difficult tasks of accessing new audiences at home and making ends meet in a pandemic even more arduous when their films were expelled from Amazon Prime Video Direct as part of a blanket policy change that removed unsolicited non-fiction and short-form content. While independent filmmakers have a number of other streaming platforms left open to them, such as Vimeo, YouTube, Google Play, etc., Amazon Prime’s subscription-based service had the most potential in terms of reach and revenue generating potential. Journalists Chris Lindahl and Dana Harris-Bridson’s coverage of this situation for IndieWire is among the few journalistic accounts to focus on what this policy change has meant for filmmakers, and describes the pre-purge relationship between Amazon Prime and those who used the platform to stream their work. Filmmakers and distributors were able to make docs and shorts available to an enormous potential audience via an already-familiar platform, which, in turn, helped Amazon Prime amass the country’s largest catalog of streaming film and contributed to its image as a home for independent film. This mutually beneficial relationship, Amazon’s emphasis on its relationship to independent film, and a total lack of warning, meant many filmmakers were caught off guard when their films suddenly disappeared from the platform in what filmmaker Robert Steven Williams calls “The Prime Pandemic Purge.”

 

At first glance, the policy change is so broad that the plight of indie documentaries feels almost incidental. The policy is generalized to include all unsolicited non-fiction uploads, which encompasses award-winning independent documentaries but also content of debatable value, from filmed conferences to slide shows to monologues and “toy play.” Because Amazon gave no explanation for the expulsion, the reasons for it are speculative, and therefore difficult to contend with. Chris Lindahl and Dana Harris-Bridson point to the glut of “lesser” content (slideshows, conference videos, etc.) and complaints about the streaming service’s “clunkiness.” There’s also the possibility that content was expelled as part of an overarching concern with questionable user-generated content, some of which is detailed in a January Vox article about “Amazon Prime’s dark underbelly,” which was published at a moment of increased public pressure to de-platform problematic content across the Internet in early 2021. So, the decision to remove some of this content is unsurprising. What surprised many filmmakers is the apparently indiscriminate application of the policy, which lumped quality independent film together with a morass of non-fiction content and swept it out the door. The blanket policy was enacted in a way that ended up removing films of unquestionable social and aesthetic value, and did so after 5 years of courting indie filmmakers and making them central to Amazon Prime’s brand, at times seeking out and rewarding the very same types of film (as in its 2017 Festival Stars acquisition program that offered $200,000 for some film fest titles) that would be unceremoniously dropped by the expulsion of unsolicited films.

 

Prior to the “purge,” Amazon Prime was the only major subscription service that accepted unsolicited docs. The sudden loss of such a significant platform, particularly at a time when streaming is more or less the only game in town, has come as a blow to filmmakers for whom the platform meant easier access to a larger pool of potential viewers and sometimes a significant source of revenue as well. Lindahl and Harris-Bridson’s piece explains how, even prior to the pandemic, streaming through Amazon Prime became vital to many filmmakers “as a kind of next-gen ancillary market that helped fill a gap once filled by DVDs.”   Although signs of Amazon’s waning interest in indie filmmakers were appearing as early as 2019, the platform remained vital to some independent filmmakers, particularly as the pandemic hit and more traditional means of finding audiences ground to a halt.

 

Amazon Prime’s importance to many independent documentarians and the impact of its recent policy change are given voice in a recent column Williams penned for  Documentary Magazine, which recounts the release of his doc Gatsby in Connecticut: The Untold Story, online and during the pandemic. Williams describes how the pandemic created circumstances in which festivals, university screenings, art house cinema and other ways of reaching audiences were no longer viable, making independent filmmakers even more reliant on streaming platforms. For most small filmmakers, particularly during an era in which entrepreneurship has become as crucial as filmmaking talent, there is at least some degree of self-funding involved in producing and marketing their work, which makes these losses even more devastating to individual filmmakers. So, although Williams’ film has a distributor, was doing well on TVOD platforms (Vimeo, GooglePlay, etc.), he’d paid out-of-pocked for large newspaper ads promoting his film’s availability on Amazon Prime just days before the film was purged from the site. Prior to the film’s expulsion, Amazon Prime Video Direct had actually been working well for him, but his film’s growing, platform-specific popularity was cut short. So, in addition to losing a revenue stream and thousands of dollars of advertising, he’ll also never know how big his audience may have been if it had continued to grow on Amazon.

 

Williams’ story and sentiments are echoed by filmmakers, some of whom responded to his column on social media. Many have voiced frustration with the way Amazon carried out its policy—films “purged” without warning, explanation or recourse. The policy and its enactment evince an apparent lack of regard for independent film and filmmakers, suggesting that the company’s investment in, and alignment with, independent film was principally a means of branding, differentiating the streaming service and positioning it among its rivals. Williams, the IndieWire authors and filmmakers who have responded to Amazon’s new policy also voice deep concern that the expulsion will result in decreased diversity, as it relegates many independent documentaries to streaming platforms with which the general public is less conversant. In other words, while Amazon could reach a general audience that may happen to scroll by a film and select it, other streaming platforms that allow unsolicited uploads more or less rely on viewers already seeking out a given film. In this sense, the expulsion recreated significant barriers to entry and diminished the possible reach of independent documentaries to audiences already primed to seek them out, and ready to pay for them individually. And, while there is some hope that Amazon may reverse its decision and bring unsolicited documentaries and shorts back online, it would still put filmmakers in a position where they were dependent on an outlet in which they are not the priority.

 

We encourage our readers to check out our resources!

Chris Lindahl and Dana Harris-Bridson’s excellent reporting can be found in the article “Amazon Prime Video Direct and the Dystopian Decision to Stop Accepting Documentaries,” which is up on IndieWire. You can read it here.

“The Amazon Prime Video Direct Purge: A Filmmakers View” by filmmaker Robert Steven Williams is available on IDA’s Documentary Magazine, read it here. His film is Gatsby in Connecticut: The Untold Story, and you can watch it here (look for the buy/rent button at the top of the right-hand column).

 

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. He has also helped the festival respond to changing conditions in the industry, forging partnerships with digital and cable entities such as iTunes and Encore Plus. Hendrie will be leaving Canada’s Hot Docs for a new role at the University of Toronto.

Like Hendrie, Haj left her mark on Frameline over the course of her tenure, creating a number of public education programs, such as the Speakeasy conversation series, School of Doc filmmaking courses for teens and Teach the Teachers documentary literacy program. Haj helped grow the Festival, establishing a permanent home in downtown Durham, and raising the profile of the festival through it’s Academy Award® qualifying status.

Thank you to Brett Hendrie and Deirdre Haj for your contribution to documentary film. You will be missed!

KAPAEMAHU BECOMES FIRST HAWAIIAN FILM IN ANIMATED SHORT CATEGORY

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, Kapaemahudeparts 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.

A descendent of Hawai’i’s original inhabitants who also identifies as mahu (third-gender), Wong-Kalu writes that the survival of indigenous peoples depends on self-representation, knowing and practicing cultural traditions, speaking in one’s own language, and forging practical links to history. Her own trajectory evinces this imperative as she moved from documentary subject, to producer and finally to co-director/co-writer.

Kapaemahu tells the story of the four mysterious stones that still stand on Waikiki beach, imbued with the healing energy of dual male and female spirits. In a director’s statement, Wong Kalue explains that telling the story is part of a project of reinvesting third-gender identities with respect and showing young people the joy and strength that can come from embracing male and female aspects of themselves. Telling that story in an authentic way meant not only speaking a pre-colonial tongue, but crafting the story in a situated way that diverges from eye-of-god-style documentary filmmaking. Hamer writes of the format, “Kapaemahu is a moolelo—a Hawaiian term that bridges the divide between myth and history, fact and fiction,” and notes that this hybrid format so important across the Pacific island cultures.

Kapaemahu has been lauded across the festival circuit, and won top honors at Animayo: The International Film Festival of Animation, Visual Effects and Video Games, and making the Oscars short list for best animated short, a first for all three co-directors. This is the second Oscar nomination for the short’s animation director, Daniel Sousa, who was up for his film Feral in 2012.

Watch Kapaemahu’s Trailer, visit the film’s website, or check it out on Facebook and Instagram @kapaemahu, or on Twitter @kumhinaLeitis In Waiting is available to stream/rent on VimeoAmazonYoutube and Google Play.

A heartfelt congratulations to SDFF alum Skye Fitzgerald, whose deeply humanistic observational doc, Hunger Ward: The Last Hope Against War and Starvation, was recently nominated 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. While such a sobering, difficult piece of work may seem like an odd match for MTV at first glance, the music giant’s documentary filmmaking department has begun acquiring an impressive slate of films over the past year, from SDFF fave Gay Chorus Deep South (David Charles Rodrigues, 2019), to much-anticipated short A Life Too Short (Safyah Usmani, 2021) to Oscar contender 76 Days (Hao Wu, 2020), which was shot inside Wuhan hospitals during the early COVID days. Hunger Ward is set to premiere on ViacommCBS digital linear streaming platform Pluto TV on March 1, where it will join a growing roster of compelling documentaries. In addition, Hunger Ward will continue to stream at film festivals and special events, many of which include panel discussions and/or Q&As. The details for these upcoming screenings are available on the film’s website under “See The Film.”

 

Fitzgerald’s “Humanitarian Cinema” films, Hunger Ward included, have been honored by critics, appearing on Academy Awards® shortlists, garnering nominations for Emmy’s®, and IDA awards. However, while his artistry as a filmmaker has been critically acclaimed, his work is also hugely important in calling attention to humanitarian issues by capturing the emotional stakes of his subjects without losing sight of the political, economic and systemic issues that produce human suffering and desperation in the first place. The humanitarian issues at the center of his films emotionally palpable, immediate and actionable. To that end, the Hunger Ward website includes supplemental information on the crisis in Yemen and ways to get involved.


Watch Hunger Ward Trailer  l  Visit Hunger Ward Website
Hunger Ward Screening Events (below)

 

Date How to RSVP Hosted By
Tue 3/2, 6pm EST email to: hungerward@tcdm-associates.com Spin Film
Thu 3/4, 9pm EST https://gathr.us/screening/31762 Museum of Tolerance (L.A.)
Mon, 3/8, 1pm EST email to: hungerward@tcdm-associates.com Spin Film

MORE STREAMING DATES

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. which was recently nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short.  A Concerto is a Conversation showed at  Sundance 2021 and picked up wildly brilliant filmmaker Ava DuVarnay as an Executive Producer, according to Variety.

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 grandfather Horace Bowers (top) and 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, available to stream here.

Another of Proudfoot’s OpDoc shorts with The TimesAlmost Famous: The Lost Astronaut, was shortlisted for the  2020 International Documentary Association AwardsThe Lost Astronaut is a film that renders systemic and spectacular forms of racism visible and examines how they shape the life of black astronaut Ed Dwight Junior in a historic context. Although Dwight Jr. should have been the first black man on the moon, his story  is emblematic of how systemic racism and individual bigotry combined to keep him grounded despite excelling in virtually every relevant field. When NASA made this decision, Dwight Jr. had already completed the gauntlet required for astronauts, an extraordinarily taxing regimen, the difficulty of which was compounded by openly hostile racism. After resigning from the Air Force, Dwight would become a successful entrepreneur, an engineer, and, eventually, a vaunted artist and sculptor. Earlier this year, SDFF featured this film and the educational material that accompanies it from The Learning Network Film Club earlier in the year, which provides material for families to help address cultural issues with their children. The film has been shortlisted for IDA’s 2020 awards.

Proudfoot and The New York Times OpDocs collaboration has also been responsible for  the profoundly moving “Cause of Life,” a set of five short films made as the US death toll hit 318,00, which attempts to understand the gravity of America’s shared loss by celebrating the gifts people who lost their lives to coronavirus left behind.

 

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).

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.

Congratulations to Jim LeBrecht and Sara Bolder for Crimp Camp’s recent Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature, and for the flurry of wins that led up to it! 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 Higher Grounds Productions (co-founded by Michelle and Barack Obama) is available to stream now.

See Trailer Now!