Since the start of summer, there have been at least 16 sizeable film festivals held in the US, from Maui to Nantucket and points in between. Although the range of programming is as varied and unique as the cities that host these festivals, a few films always rise to the top, often receiving recognition at multiple fests. Documentaries are no exception, and as the festival frenzy slows down briefly before the fall marathon begins, we've highlighted a handful of the many standout films that were lauded by audiences and jurors alike.
The Seattle International Film Festival kicked off the summer circuit with several notable doc selections, ultimately awarding their Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary to Walter Stokman's "Based on a True Story," which also won several awards overseas. This fascinating film tells the tale of John Wojtowicz and his botched attempt to rob a Chase Manhattan bank in 1972. In a 14-hour stand off that involved 8 hostages and dozens of cops, Wojtowicz revealed that he had committed the robbery to pay for the sex change operation of his lover. This remarkable incident was the basis for Sidney Lumet's 1975 film "Dog Day Afternoon," adding to the criminal's notoriety. As Wojtowicz attempts to construct his own version of what happened that day, "Based on a True Story" becomes an exploration into the very nature of truth itself, and how individuals can shape that truth through the media be it a hit movie or the evening news.
As Seattle concluded on the west coast, the east coast saw Newfest wrapping up another successful run as New York's leading gay and lesbian festival, handing Nicole Conn's "Little Man" the award for Best Documentary Feature. The "little man" in the film is Nicholas, born 100 days early and weighing a frightening one pound, but he manages to bring an entire family to its knees. Nicholas' parents are the filmmaker and her partner of seven years, political activist Gwen Baba, and as Conn documents her son's heartbreaking struggle for life, her companion is terrified that her family is disintegrating before their eyes. One of the most celebrated docs on the festival circuit, the film also won the HBO Audience Favorite at the Miami Gay and Lesbian fest, Best Documentary at the Philadelphia International Gay and Lesbian fest, and the Audience Award for Best Doc at Outfest.
Outfest gave the jury award in the documentary category to Susan Kaplan's "Three of Hearts: A Postmodern Family," which will be released by THINKFilm in late October. This fascinating film follows Steven, Sam and Samantha, who are all very much in love with each other. Feeling no need to conform to what others perceive as "normal," what seems to be the ideal relationship ultimately is challenged by the realities of living in this world, as Kaplan painstakingly captures the threesome's journey over a period of eight years. "I never intended to shoot the doc over eight years," Kaplan told indieWIRE, "but when you start a documentary you have an idea of where you think the story will go, and idea of the themes that you'll tackle, but then life happens and you have to flow with the people who you're documenting."
Kaplan, who premiered the film at Toronto last year, was thrilled by the audience reaction at festivals along the way. "It was enormously rewarding because it did what we were hoping it would do," she said, "which is to make people look at something a little differently, and at themselves a little differently... some parents came up to us after screenings and said that their child had just told them they were gay, and after seeing our film they had a whole new understanding of the meaning of family. I'm so thankful to Outfest for accepting the film, supporting it, and giving us the award... it was such a nice way to end our festival journey."
"The Boys of Baraka" is also enjoying quite a journey, and was especially well received at the Atlanta Film Festival last month, where it was awarded Best Documentary Feature. Beautifully directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, the film follows twenty at-risk boys, all of them 12 years old and from inner-city Baltimore, as they leave home to attend Baraka, an experimental school in Kenya. The main focus is on Montrey, Devon, and brothers Romesh and Richard, who face tremendous obstacles in a society that has given up on them, but forge ahead with humor and optimism. "The Boys of Baraka" also took home a Special Jury Award at SXSW, the Audience Award at Silverdocs, and Best Documentary at the Newport International Film Festival.
Perhaps the biggest festival winner, at least in terms of cash, was Beth Bird's "Everyone Their Grain of Sand," which had its US premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival, taking home the Target Documentary Award that includes an unrestricted prize of $50,000. A fascinating document of grass roots activism, the film tells the story of a poor community outside of Tijuana, and its citizens' struggle for their basic rights, including running water, electricity, and schooling for their children. All of these essentials are being withheld by the state of Baja California del Norte in a greedy attempt to force out the locals to make way for multinational factories, but these citizen's are not going down without a fight.
Bird documented their struggle for four years, including the unjustified imprisonment of one community leader, who is still being held to this day. "By spending so much time over so many years in the community," Bird told indieWIRE, "I became close friends with many people in Maclovio Rojas. I was able to develop a real intimacy with my characters, and... to get a sense of daily life, telling the story through the accumulation of detail over time. I commit to shooting my subjects over long periods, developing a deep and complex understanding of their lives and viewpoints, so that as much as possible I can tell the story from their perspective."
That kind of patience has certainly paid off, and Bird was overjoyed that her film was recognized by LAFF with such generosity. "I was completely blown away," said Bird. "For Target to award $50,000 to the winner of the documentary competition helps all documentary filmmakers, even those not in the festival, by promoting documentary and putting it on an even footing with fiction filmmaking, rather than having it occupy a secondary place as it often does... It changed my life."