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.
The Wild still of Bristol Bay from above. Photo by Mark Titus.
As we sat down for a Q&A with director Mark Titus in late July 2020 to discuss The Wild, the threats to Bristol Bay’s environment, bio-diversity and culture, which his film depicts as “a race against time,” appear to be accelerating under the current industry-friendly administration, as detailed in this recent NY Times piece. The film tracks efforts to block potentially catastrophic mining operations that have gained momentum under the Trump administration, which has dismantled EPA safeguards. Those safeguards have been protecting Bristol Bay, a “wild place that is the last of its kind on earth,” the keystone species of salmon that run in the area, and the people who have made their life in the area, including commercial, sustainable fishers and regional tribes. Unsurprisingly, the mining operation would counter a consortium of native tribe’s collective claim to the land and subsurface rights, and threatens both the survival of a keystone species of sockeye salmon and a “wild place that is the last of its kind on earth.” The threats detailed in the film have been ratcheted up and moved forward with the recent release of an Army Corps of Engineers Study that minimizes the potential damaging impacts of turning two of the Bay’s watersheds into open copper mines.
A follow-up to the 2014 film, The Breach, The Wild depicts the conflict over Bristol Bay as a battle for Alaska’s soul that mirrors the filmmaker’s own struggle to reclaim himself from addiction. In doing so, it raises a series of larger questions about human being’s relationships to the natural environment, our perception of ourselves as somehow separated from the natural world and the dire need to change course if we are going to avert the worst impacts of climate change. In our exclusive sit-down with Titus, he elaborates on these vitally important connections, which may help us find a path forward by understanding ourselves and our connection with the world.
For more on this complex and vitally important issue, look for SDFF co-Director Jean McGlothlin’s interview with Mark Titus, which is streaming for free as an SDFF Exclusive. While Titus’s visually stunning and emotionally stirring film, The Wild, is no longer streaming free, but can be accessed on the film’s website for a fee, along with a supplementary virtual tours. The film’s website is an excellent resource, and includes testimonials from those impacted by the proposed mine and a number of ways to get involved in the fight.
The Wild was shown as part of a Docs Make House Calls Environmental Film Program, which also includes L’eau Est La Vie: From Standing Rock To The Swamp (Sam Vinal, 2019), and Eye of the Pangolin (Bruce Young, 2019), featuring another SDFF exclusive interview with filmmaker Bruce Young.
Filmmaker Attempts to Shed Light on Navajo Nation’s COVID Crisis and Monumental Effort to Protect its Most Vulnerable
After visiting the Navajo nation earlier this month, filmmaker Karney Hatch (Overdrawn, Plant This Movie!) was overcome by the staggering number of cases and the scale of the loss facing the community and decided to volunteer in hopes of helping the Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund raise money by shooting some footage for their gofundme campaign. The Navajo Nation has been among the hardest hit by the virus and had lost over 4,000 people as of May 14. The cause, and Karney’s footage, were circulated internationally by news sources like PBS, ABC, and Al Jazeera, with the PBS News Hour eventually hiring Karney to shoot a full story.
Tragically, the news cycle has moved on while these communities and their members are left fighting for their lives. And, although there has been some press, nothing in the mainstream really goes to the heart of what’s happening and the ways in which native folks have experienced of this pandemic is part of a complex, traumatic, recurring history. For that, Karney is turning to documentary in hopes of crafting a more dynamic, deeper representation of the impacts of a loss that is both historic and part of an ongoing cycle of violence against, and disregard for, Native communities by the U.S. government. Writes Karney,“History is being written right now, can’t pass it up.”
For some context on how the COVID-19 crisis has taken shape among Native populations, a film from last year’s festival, Dodging Bullets—Stories from Survivors of Historical Trauma (Bob Trench, 2018), is a thoughtful, complex, and detailed look at Historical Trauma as a unique and insidious part of the genetic code that conditions life across a large and variable swath of resilient Native American populations, which is thrown into sharp relief by episodes like the one unfolding in the present day.
Congrats to SDFF 2020 selection That’s My Jazz on Webby!
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.
Congratulations to our longtime Premier Venue Partner (and local treasure!) Rialto Cinemas® on their 20th Anniversary! While we all have our fingers crossed that we’ll be enjoying movies together at the theater soon enough, we encourage everyone to check out Rialto virtual cinemas, which is offering a host of first run art house and independent films, including one of SDFF 2020’s top official selections, The Booksellers. The virtual cinema is also a way to continue to support our local art house theater while sheltering in place. Rialto owner Ky Boyd is also giving daily film recommendations which are (unsurprisingly) fantastic and a great way to be adventurous and sample something that may fall outside of your usual film fare.
Happy Earth Day!
Yarrow: The Virtues of Monochrome
A striking short of fine artist David Yarrow capturing South Georgian wildlife
Yarrow: The Virtues of Monochrome is an official selection of SDFF 2019, which the filmmakers let us stream for free on Earth Day! This breathtaking mini doc follows the creative process of fine art photographer David Yarrow as he steps ashore the beaches of South Georgia, in an attempt to capture the beauty and scale of this awe-inspiring natural wonder in just a single image.
SDFF 2018 Environmental documentarian helps Confront Extinction through free live lesson on Earth Day
SDFF 2018 filmmaker and conflict photographer Kate Brooks participated in a live, online education event for Earth Day, “Confronting Extinction,” which is now available via free streaming. The Last Animals filmmaker and conflict photographer Kate Brooks spoke on filmmaking/journalism as methods activism and conservation during an Earth Day presented by The Last Animals Foundation and Encounter.edu. The event was hosted by 17 year-old British activist Bella Lack, and includes two 40-minute panels. Kate appears in the first, “Confronting Extinction,” but a related and quite topical panel “Impacts of Illegal Wildlife Markets,” is also streaming for free now, and focuses on the impacts of poaching and wildlife market. Organizers recommend watching The Last Animals in preparation for the live lessons.
The Last Animals (Kate Brooks, 2017) is about an extraordinary group of people who go to great lengths to save the planet’s last animals. This documentary follows the conservationists, scientists, and activists battling poachers and trafficking syndicates to protect elephants and rhinos from extinction. The Last Animals follows the struggle on Africa’s front lines, behind the scenes in Asian markets, and here, the U.S. The film takes an intense look at the global response to this slaughter and the measures to genetically rescue the Northern White rhinos from the edge of extinction.
Oscar-winning short by SDFF 2010 Alum Streams Free!
Marshall Curry, whose film Racing Dreams was an SDFF 2010 Official Selection, won the 2020 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short with his remarkable and unexpectedly moving short, The Neighbors Window. Curry’s acceptance speech (above) is also incredible. The film was making the rounds nationally, along with all of the other short films nominated for Oscars until the Corona Virus made that impossible. So, he has made it available for free, right here. And, while it diverges completely from the intimacy of The Neighbors Window, his chilling 2018 piece A Night At The Garden, comprised entirely of footage from a 1939 American Nazi Party rally at Madison Square Garden, is also well worth watching, and is available to stream, here.
SF Gay Men’s Chorus Dedicates Original Piece to COVID-19 First Responders
While COVID-19 has so far prevented us from bringing you the excellent feature documentary and SDFF 2020 Official Selection Gay Chorus, Deep South (David Charles Rodrigues, 2019), it hasn’t prevented us from sharing this beautiful original composition of Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” by the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. The piece is dedicated to COVID-19 first responders and you can find it right here. Keep an eye out for the film and show the SFGMC some love for such an elegant and moving piece of work!
Keeper of the Creek Free Screening and Online Q&A with subject and filmmaker!
Bay Area filmmaker Dan Goldes, whose first feature, 5 Blocks, is an official SDFF 2020 selection, will be holding a Q&A on his 2018 short Keeper of the Creek at 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 11. Both 5 Blocks and Keeper of the Creek focus on people actively working to maintain and improve very different environments. Keeper of the Creek focuses on Dan’s brother, Joel, who adopted and stewarded a forgotten creek and watershed near his suburban Los Angeles home, while 5 Blocks is a long-form documentary about changes to San Francisco’s Central Market Street, a neighborhood whose residents are fighting to keep the neighborhood’s identity and community as it undergoes its most dramatic change in 50 years. Both films examine the relationships between people and their environment, and show that even in an era of cynicism and divisiveness, people can act independently and collectively to make tangible differences in their environment.
Watch Keeper of the Creek here! Free, donations encouraged!
Register for a zoom Q&A with Keeper of the Creek subject Joel Goldes and filmmaker Dan Goldes here on Saturday, April 11 at 2 p.m.! Free, requires registration.
Keep an eye out for 5 Blocks, as SDFF 2020 is rescheduled!
Citizen Journalist, Research & News Collective featured in SDFF 2020
Release Short on COVID-19 & Media Environment Teeming with Disinformation
While SDFF 2020 may have been postponed, our commitment to encouraging nuanced analyses and public discussion of the current media environment and the relationship between truth and representation that has been focalized in popular discourse. To that end, we hope you’ll take a look at this a clear-eyed, sharp examination of the outbreak of disinformation that has accompanied and compounded the damage of COVID-19 worldwide, “Breaking Down The Disinformation Ecosystem Around Coronavirus.” The piece is the work of investigative journalist Robert Evans and Bellingcat, an international collective or researchers, investigators and citizen journalists that partnered with video news source, Newsy for the short piece. Evans has been slated to speak on citizen journalism at SDFF 2020, after a screening of the feature Bellingcat: Truth in a Post-Truth World (Hans Pool, 2018), which tells the story of the collective’s rise and its truly revolutionary potential. The video we’ve posted here is just a small piece of Bellingcat’s diverse coverage of the pandemic.
Although the talk and screening are on-hold until we can reschedule the festival, we hope to continue to bolster the work of Bellingcat, Evans and other filmmakers and journalists affiliated with the festival who remain engaged in the rigorous processes of finding and representing truth, the life-or-death effects of which have been focalized over the past several years, and have been thrown into the sharpest possible relief by the spread of COVID-19 and the variegated responses to it.
SDFF2020 Official Selection The Great Toilet Paper Scare
Makes It’s Mark In An Unexpected Way
SDFF 2020 programmers selected Brian Gersten’s The Great Toilet Paper Scare in the Fall, for its effective, humorous take on an early iteration of “fake news.” The film’s titular event, a toilet paper shortage, took shape following a Johnny Carson joke in 1973, and can be seen as prototypical of present day fake news that inundates social media. What neither SDFF nor filmmaker Gersten could ever have anticipated was that his story’s specific subject—a paucity of toilet paper—would be repeated in a more literal way, as consumers hoarded toilet paper and other essential items when COVID-19 made landfall in the U.S. earlier this year. Although the circumstances leading to these two shortages couldn’t be more different—a one-off Johnny Carson joke in one case, a global pandemic in the other—both arise and take shape in relationship to specific forms of media in contexts marked by distrust in institutions and reliance on word-of-mouth.
In Director Gersten’s words:
As I worked on the film over the past year I could have never imagined how bizarrely relevant this documentary would become. I have fairly mixed emotions about it all to be quite honest. While it’s nice to get your hard work out into the world, it’s also overwhelming to see what’s unfolding and to see history repeat itself in certain ways. The goal with this project from the very beginning was to simply make a film about a bizarre and forgotten piece of history that people would ideally find funny and entertaining. I think my goal now is for people to use the film as a mirror of sorts. A fun-house mirror perhaps. There are hopefully plenty of lessons to be learned, and chuckles to be had, from watching it and reflecting on it.
Despite the Coronavirus-based postponement and/or cancellation of most upcoming U.S. and International film festivals, where smaller independent films typically gain visibility and distribution, Gersten’s short has gained national notoriety. The short’s growing notoriety is due, at least in part, to its irreverent, humorous approach approach to a problem that has not only persisted, but has also morphed with the media through which it is spread. The Great Toilet Paper Scare is the subject of a March 19 column in The Atlantic, “What Misinformation Has to Do With Toilet Paper,” is currently streaming on SDFF’s homepage and is also slated to screen as part of SDFF2020, the revised dates of which have yet to be announced.