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.


JM: What was the film’s impact on those in the film?

CC: When I first encountered the horse pull at the Kinmount Fair, I had just come from filming with gold miners 7000ft underground. I was thinking a lot about labor, resource extraction, and our relationship with nature. I started drawing connections between the mining, logging and farming industries in Canada from this perspective. These connections represented a history of colonialism and capitalism, yet one of the connections that I had not considered was the horse. I discovered Ann Norton Green’s excellent book Horses at Work: Harnessing Power in Industrial America. In it, Green convincingly argues that horses were central to commercial and industrial development in nineteenth-century America. At their peak, horses were bred and maintained as living machines essential to both everyday life and commercial development, but their numbers and importance eventually declined with the emergence of the steam and combustion engines. If nineteenth-century America was dominated by a society of horses and humans living and working together, I was interested in what became of that relationship now.

In the making of Workhorse I found that there were very few people still working with horses today. In Ontario, only a small number of teamsters remain and this number continued to decline even as we filmed. A common theme that emerged was the question of succession. Each of the teamsters that we meet in the film had inherited their skills from a previous generation, and they had since accumulated some 30 to 40 years of experience working with horses. The question of whether or not the next generation would carry that knowledge forward loomed large. Each of the chapters in our film represents a unique history and lineage of working with horses, and the question of succession for each teamster we meet results in a different fate.


JM: Why did you choose to shoot the film in black & white?

CC: The decision to present Workhorse in black and white was there from the beginning. I wanted the film to immerse the viewer in the sensorial world of the horses and their teamsters. For my cinematographer Ryan A. Randall and I, black and white photography was the only way to faithfully express the rich tones, textures and detail of this world. From the hair of the horses, to the leather of the harnesses, to the soil of the land, this world presented in black & white somehow felt more real to us. We employed this rich aesthetic approach in our sound design as well.

For me, the black and white photography of the film also seemed to convey a past, present and future of horses all at once. This satisfied a conceptual desire to reference specific representations of horses and rural life found in the history of cinema and documentary film. Horses were not only central to commercial and industrial development in the nineteenth century, they also played a central role in the emergence of cinema. The connection between cinema and industry emerged with the early motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge and Étienne-Jules Marey, and our film Workhorse makes reference to this.

Thinking further about the history of documentary film, I was interested in exploring the history of representing rural life and settler culture in Canada. Through the cinematography of Workhorse, I was specifically interested in referencing the 1958 film Les raquetteurs (The Snowshoers) by Michel Brault and Gilles Groulx. Les raquetteurs is a landmark film of the Cinéma Direct documentary movement that emerged from the National Film Board of Canada in Quebec in the early 1960s. Key to the Cinéma Direct movement was a mobile camera that plunged into the action of rural life and culture to aesthetically and politically address its subject. I was interested in exploring this idea in the cinematography of Workhorse.


JM: This is superb.  Thank you so much for the depth of your conversation with us, your audience. I had forgotten the Muybridge reference.  Of course, those of us in the lower 48 have an entire history tied to the labor and service of horses; a lot of it shameful and exploitative. It is your film, however, that brings intimacy to the fore between men and animal partners.




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.


Workhorse (Cliff Caines, 2019, 82 mins) is an SDFF 2020 official selection. The film is a visually stunning ode and essay on horse-powered labor through the contemporary experiences of three teamsters whose work and lives are intertwined with their stoic equine partners. Writes SDFF co-Director and Programmer Jean McGlothlin, “Gorgeously filmed in black and white which gave it a richtone. Remarkable animals whose existence impacts  their environment and caretakers. This film is mesmerizing. Its pace is an extension of the characters’ respect of one another and the land.” See McGlothlin’s interview with Director Cliff Caines here. is powered by Doc Alliance, a creative partnership of 7 key European documentary film festivals. Our aim is to advance the documentary genre, support its diversity and promote quality creative documentary films.

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: Spin Film
Thu 3/4, 9pm EST Museum of Tolerance (L.A.)
Mon, 3/8, 1pm EST email to: Spin Film


A mode of representation defined by its relationship to reality, documentary has a troubled history in connection with race and racism. It is a genre that for a number of reasons is tightly bound-up with science, and developed alongside, and as evidence for, racial pseudo-science. From the motion studies of Félix-Louis Regnault to the commercial ethnography of Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, the first documentaries were tethered to racial pseudo-science and early, racist forms of ethnography that were used to bolster and justify the colonial project. At the same time, documentary films have also long been concerned with progressive social values, and are frequently used as a way to explore or uncover the truth of a problem in hopes of spurring political action and/or changing its audience’s perceptions. In the present day, the online archive of documentary evidence of videos of young, black men being murdered by police perform a function that is completely antithetical to the racist purposes of early documentary, while at the same time functioning as evidence, as an inscription of reality that defines this genre of media-making.

Our news page has always attended to the impact SDFF films and filmmakers have had on the world. But at this pivotal time in which image-making, identity, ideas about truth and their relationships to reality are crucial, we have decided to add a second news page focused on the relationship between documentary media and social justice. You can find it right here.

  • Anti-Racist Media Resources
  • Monthly Media Recommendations:
    • Film Selections, including links where available.
    • Film Columns + Media Criticism
  • Documentary Recommendations
  • Growing Reading Lists on a range of topic
  • Links to a curated list of recent criticism about racism, police violence and the media.
  • Relevant film reviews

See filmmakers’ acceptance speeches:

The Whale by Iza Pajak

Night Cleaners by Hanna Nordenswan

Midnight Family by Luke Lorentzen

Full List of SDFF 2020 Selections

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 was 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. 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.

Deej documentary to show on PBS from Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival 2019

SDFF 2019 Official Selection, America ReFramed: DEEJ, is streaming for free this month and will be rebroadcast on World TV (KQED) on July 14 at 8 p.m. as part of a month-long commemoration and celebration of the 30th Anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act and the #MoveToInclude initiative. The film is an SDFF 2019 Official Selection, and its filmmaker Robert Rooy is a long-time SDFF alum. The film ended up winning a Peabody and an Emmy nomination.

DEEJ is the story of DJ Savarese (“Deej”), a gifted, young writer and advocate for nonspeaking autistics, whose work proves he’s far from silent. Though directed by Rooy, Savarese is both a commentator and co-producer of DEEJ, not merely its subject.

Once a “profoundly disabled” foster kid who was perceived as already on a fast track to nowhere, the Deej of the film is a first-year college student who insists on standing up for his peers: people who are dismissed as incompetent because they are neurologically diverse. He argues forcefully they are too often “housed in classrooms of easy lessons.” DEEJ tells a coming-of-age story that showcases a young man’s resolve and creativity in forging strong bonds with his parents, his devoted extended family, and a community of close friends. Profound and unflinching, the film reveals what it takes to make the goals of “inclusion” and “disability rights” a reality. Will Deej be able to find freedom in his own life and for others like him?

To learn more about the World Channel’s Commemoration of the ADA’s 30th Anniversary and the #Move To Include, Click Here.

To learn more about the film Deej, Click Here.

Sebastopol film festival

We’d like to congratulate That’s My Jazz for their Webby win in editing! That’s My Jazz is an SDFF 2020 Official Selection and one of the more recent projects to come out of Breakwater Studios, which is also responsible for Life’s Work, honored by SDFF in 2017.

Breakwater’s oeuvre of documentary shorts is well worth seeking out, particularly given its background in creating branded content, which may be at first glance appears to be at odds with documentary filmmaking. While the proliferation of branded content has been a hallmark of the era of spreadable media, Breakwater’s shorts are visually striking and emotionally compelling in completely unexpected ways. That’s My Jazz is one of Breakwater’s newer offerings, and has appeared as part of the Tribeca Film Festival and hotdocs. The film is unexpectedly moving and beautifully shot (and edited!) and has been followed by a lauded collaboration between Ben Proudfoot/Breakwater and the New York Times, Almost Famous, which focuses on people who are just slightly adjacent to history.

Almost Famous is directed by Breakwater founder, Nova Scotian filmmaker Ben Proudfoot, who started the studio with an eye towards the “return of original and handmade filmmaking, to explore and evangelize the idiosyncratic power of the short.” The studio’s collection of documentary shorts tends to celebrate individuals or places in poetic fashion, and mix contemporary sensibility and subjects with the exploratory impulse and celebration of the film medium that defined early actualities. The studio also hearkens back to the studio era, working out of Disney’s original business offices while looking to update the creative studio campuses of the 1930s. This engagement with the past is part of what makes the studio’s thoroughly modern content stand out.

In addition to nods from traditional film festivals like Tribecca, hotdocs, or our own SDFF, Breakwater has also been in the running for newer honors like the Webbies. In 2018, they received a Webby nomination for their first original, Kunstglaser, and in 2019, they were honored in the Long Form category and the Youngest Captain winning the Best Branded Entertainment Documentary Webby. This year, Breakwater received three nods, two for That’s My Jazz, which won for Best Video Editing. Proudfoot and Breakwater have also been honored by SDFF on two occasions, most recently for That’s My Jazz, which was a 2020 Official Selection.

In That’s My Jazz Milt Abel II, a world renowned pastry chef, reflects on his relationship with his deceased father Milton Abel Sr., famed Kansas City Jazz musician. Milt longed to follow in the fortuitous footsteps of his father, but on a different stage. From a young age he found his passion in the culinary arts, working his way from being a dishwasher in diners to the head pastry chef at Thomas Keller’s prestigious restaurant, The French Laundry, and sous pastry chef at the two-Michelin-star Noma. But while Milt II was rising to the top in his career, his father’s was slowly coming to an end. That’s My Jazz follows Milt II at the peak of his career yet facing the realization of his own limitations. Finding himself at a critical crossroad of life, Milt II pushes the button to turn back time, reflecting on the rise of his star and its intersection with the sunset of his father’s.