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

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.

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 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 Emmy-winning 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.

My Mother Was Here Gets Nod In The North

Still from Rustin Thompson’s short My Mother Was Here.

Intimate Doc Revealing Oft Invisible Aspects of Elderhoood 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!

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 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 Higher Grounds Productions (co-founded by Michelle and Barack Obama) is available to stream now.

See Trailer Now!

Revisiting Hillbilly


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

Despite Hillbilly Elegy’s relative ubiquity in 2016 as the voice of “real” America, a plurality of voices, from academics and filmmakers to cultural critics, economists and historians, among many others, took issue with the way Vance’s book, in particular its emphasis on personal responsibility as the root cause of conditions that are the direct result of long-term, systemic impoverishment and economic neglect, and its implicitly conservative narrative of class mobility, which is almost by definition an experience of privilege. In fact, if there was one thing that mainstream media outlets frequently neglected to mention early on in Hillbilly Elegy’s life in public discourse and popular culture, in early election, pre-Charlottesville days, it was Vance’s whiteness, which is significant given whiteness’s centrality to the book’s media currency.

By the time of the film’s release in Fall of 2020, straightforward discussions about stereotypical, reductive representations of race, class, gender and sexuality had become far more mainstream following a summer of almost non-stop nationwide protests against structural racism and violent white supremacy in America, which coincided with increasingly obvious income inequality thrown into sharp relief by the pandemic. Though it’s production and initial release preceded this zeitgeist, Rubin and York’s hillbilly meets the moment, takes a deep dive into the history and functions of the hillbilly archetype in American media and political discourse, and is an excellent primer on the emergence of the hillbilly as an American icon with political valences that continue to impact those living in Appalachia, from the rural South to the Rust Belt. The film is also part of a growing, and increasingly visible, counter-narrative of Appalachia’s historic diversity, which has been so well whitewashed that the region’s denizens have become synonymous in pop culture with the specifically white, rural figure of the hillbilly.

To some extent, the documentary’s relevance and (hopefully) evolving critical attitudes towards stereotyping and the importance of unpacking problematic representation is evident in Variety’s decision to give hillbilly co-director Ashley York a guest column, “How ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ Proves the Need for More Diverse Stories About Appalachia” to respond to Hillbilly Elegy’s release. Rather than raking Howard’s adaptation over the coals, York takes the opportunity to reflect on her own work, and what she perceives as its shortcomings from her current perspective. She writes:

Our movie is far from perfect. It is a glimpse into a broad range of intersectional issues, ideas, coalitions, movements, and conversations, that are all equally deserving of attention in the media space. I will forever regret its inability to interrogate racism on a deeper level and to examine the consequences of capitalism on communities like the one where I grew up in eastern Kentucky. I recognize how whiteness informed our perspective and how we could have been more inclusive in our effort to involve Black and indigenous collaborators.

-Ashley York, hillbilly co-director, Variety*

While York expresses regrets about elements of the documentary that could have more deeply examined how race informed filmmaking and the cultural and political work done by the figure of the hillbilly, the film nonetheless spends a significant portion of its time showing people obscured by the whiteness and implicit heteronormativity of the hillbilly stereotype. Aside from being reductive, and frequently offensive, this figure also works to exclude black, brown and indigenous people from being represented at all, much less those who aren’t easily discerned visually like LGBTQIA+ folks or feminists. All are erased by a public and political discourse that not only prioritizes white voices, but is also so fixated on the “authenticity” of a stereotypical figuration of whiteness that it erases everyone else from public discourse at a pivotal time in regional and national history.

One of the ways hillbilly clearly interrupts the ubiquitous, homogenizing view of Appalachians is in its depiction of Appalachian Black folks, from intersectional feminist powerhouse and poet bel hooks to poet and spoken word artist Crystal Good, who has penned an excellent response to Hillbilly Elegy,Behind the Scenes in Black Appalachia, to author Silas House and “the always brilliant” Frank X Walker, who coined the term “Affrilachia”  to describe the pervasiveness and importance of Black people and culture in the region.

While York and Rubin depict a diverse, artistic version of Appalachia, the filmmakers do not present an overly florid picture of the region, nor do they shrink from representing the economic devastation the region has weathered. Instead, they prioritize explaining social and economic conditions, their history, and their relationship to representations of Appalachia in general, and of the hillbilly stereotype in particular. One of the more effective historical points recounted in hillbilly explains how the figure of the hillbilly proliferated during the Depression, becoming iconic in the photos of Dorothea Lange, which were then put to political use, creating public pathos for the New Deal. The film shows how iconography from that period has seen surprisingly little change over the years, remaining a constant in America’s cultural imaginary, from Deliverance to the 2016 conservative fantasy of an all-white, rural working class. Explains co-Director Rubin,

In the case of Appalachia, over a century of regional stereotypes (many of which are explored in our film, hillbilly) has worn deep grooves into the psyche of many Americans; the pre-formulated stereotypes are so ingrained they’re almost imperceptible. That’s where those stereotypes get so dangerous, when we don’t even know they’re there. Unraveling these stereotypes and rebuilding in their place more nuanced and multi-dimensional perceptions of the region takes time and conscious, pointed messaging. This is certainly what we aimed to do with hillbilly; to put a multi-faceted and diverse set of faces on a formerly homogeneous and simplified stereotype of the region, while simultaneously unraveling and teasing out how that stereotype had been so solidly constructed.

-Sally Rubin, co-Director, hillbilly

It’s not just that the mobilization of this imagery is exploitative. It is. But, the insistence on its authenticity is also a way of negating the experiences of Appalachian people who do not fit that mold exactly, most egregiously, the experiences and lives of Appalachian black folks.

This history of problematic and pervasive representation hillbilly tracks not only diminishes the region’s culture and history, and degrades its denizens in the national imaginary and in political discourse, it explores the how these stereotypes are reflected back at Appalachian communities and people in extremely damaging ways. York describes the shame she experienced while watching her home reflected back at her for the first time on television at 9 years old. This experience was the impetus for making hillbilly decades later. She recalls watching Dan Rather host a 1989 special edition of 48 Hours Another America,” which was filmed one town over from where she lived:

Everything about that program — from the images of the broken-down cars to the condescending tone of the faceless narrator — made me feel shame. The program even added banjo to the “48 Hours” theme, a familiar cue for the viewer signaling they are entering a place that exists outside of place and time.

-Ashley York, hillbilly co-director, Variety*

York’s description of the imagery and the program’s presentation as a whole, including its terrifying timelessness, resonates with the ways in which the hillbilly stereotype she and Rubin excavate appears to have an almost mythological temporality, permanent and absolute. The sense of time York describes feels essential to the complicated way that a symbol intentionally fashioned to be derogatory and dismissive can be, and has been, positioned as America’s most authentic expression of citizenship. At the same time, this damaging stereotype has also worked to occlude difference and render vibrant, diverse communities in Appalachia invisible in popular culture and public and political discourse. The work of media excavation and analysis done in hillbilly is one way of restoring temporality to a stereotype that has been made to appear permanent, giving it a history and context that defy its apparent intransigence, and in doing so, begin to render it vulnerable to change.

*Quote used with the permission of the author. Full Variety column can be found here.

Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival is moving to June.  In light of ever changing COVID-19 conditions, and the impact on our industry, audience and bottom line we’re moving forward on the 2021 calendar.  

We all miss the interaction of being together to make a memorable event … the energy of gathering for shared experience.  

Already in the works are plans for our hybrid SDFF 2021 festival.  If current regulations at that time permit, there will be live screenings.  Some exciting opportunities for program partnership are being explored. Ticketed events are in development to fill the gap between now and the Festival. The website is evolving into a robust hub for our audience, fans, filmmakers and sponsors. 

Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival #15 intends to resume its March dates in 2022.  

Thank you for all your enthusiastic support during this chaotic time.

The team at Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival – SDFF 2021 

The Wild Wins! Bristol Bay, Last Fully-Intact Salmon System
& Subject of SDFF 2020 Doc Preserved, as Proposed Mining Operation Denied

Tragically, Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Reserve Opened to Oil Drilling by Trump Administration at 11th Hour


The fight to halt a mining project in the Alaskan Tundra, which would destroy the largest existing natural sockeye salmon habitat, has likely come to an end. According to this Nov. 25 New York Times piece, the mining project, which sought to extract large copper and gold ore deposits, has been dealt a likely “death blow.” This issue came onto SDFF’s radar when The Wild (Mark Titus, 2019) became an official SDFF 2020 selection, which streamed as part of Docs Make House Calls. Read more on this ongoing issue on our News page or watch an SDFF exclusive interview with filmmaker Mark Titus.

Unfortunately, this same luck did not hold for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as plans to open this rare Alaskan habitat to oil development are proceeding on Weds. Jan. 6 when the Bureau of Land Management will be auctioning off drilling rights. The drilling will proceed as part of the BLM’s plans for the National Petroleum Reserve (NPR-A), a 23 million-acre tract of land, 80% of which will be open for oil development.

OUTwatch 2020 – Looking Back, Moving Forward

Features Four Docs on the History and Ongoing Struggle for LGBTQIA Civil Rights, Streaming Oct. 16-25

SDFF partner fest, OUTwatch calls attention to the history and future of civil rights with its 2020 fest theme “Looking Back, Moving Forward.” Held virtually this year due to COVID-19, OUTwatch will feature four outstanding docs that elucidate distinctive perspectives, ranges of experience and points in time. At a time when civil are embattled, festival organizers hope the films they’ve selected will honor LGBTQIA folks who have fought for civil rights, and shed light/inspire ongoing struggles to maintain and expand human rights to the entire community.

The festival will stream from Oct. 16-25, tickets are $12/household at www.OutWatchFilmFest.orgThis year’s virtual festival showcases four enlightening, empowering and entertaining documentaries:

Tongues Untied (Marlon Riggs, 1989). Two top Black Gay artists, a filmmaker and a poet, created this film in the late 1980s. The film seeks, in its author’s words, to “…shatter the nation’s brutalizing silence on matters of sexual and racial difference.” Tongues Untied combines political statement, spoken word and dance. Unfortunately, this film is as relevant today as it was in the ’80s and ’90s. If you believe Black Gay Lives Matter, you need to see this film.

Transmilitary (Gabriel Silverman, Fiona Dawson, 2018). This 2018 documentary chronicles the lives of four individuals who put their careers and their families’ livelihoods on the line by coming out as transgender to top brass officials in the Pentagon in hopes of attaining the equal right to serve. The ban was lifted in 2016, but with President Trump now trying to reinstate it, their futures hang in the balance again.

Ahead of the Curve (Jen Rainin, Rivkah Beth Medow, 2020). In 1990, Franco created a safe place for lesbians in the form of Curve magazine. Her approach to threats and erasure in the ’90s was to lift all kinds of lesbians up and make them beautifully visible. The magazine helped build a foundation for many intersectional movements being led by today’s activists in the face of accelerating threats to the LGBTQ community.

Cured (Patrick Sammon and Bennett Singer, 2020). This powerful new documentary by Bennett Singer illuminates the campaign that led the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses in 1973.