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.
Another of Proudfoot’s OpDoc shorts with The Times, Almost Famous: The Lost Astronaut, was shortlisted for the 2020 International Documentary Association Awards. The 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.