This past week in New York, Canadians shared both their culture and their cultural tensions with audiences at MoMA, and a precious artifact from the former Soviet Union that helped spawn a Cold War was casually displayed at the IFC Center. The much-anticipated Cinema Eye Honors reflected some anxiety in New York and the world's documentary community (but also addressed a longstanding grievance), and Cinereach's young philanthropists expressed far more hope.
MoMA seemed even more polite than usual on Thursday night, during the opening of its annual Canadian Front series, which showcases the work of our subdued, cerebral neighbors to the north.
"Film is a wonderful thing, that allows one culture to understand the culture of another country," introduced Daniel Sullivan, Consul General of Canada. "We certainly hope to show New Yorkers Canadian culture over the next week, and the wonderful filmmaking that takes place in Canada."
The cultural lesson included Bruce McDonald's "The Tracy Fragments," featuring Ellen Page, Denys Arcand's "L'Age de Tenebres" (Days of Darkness), and the opening night film, Clement Virgo's "Poor Boys Game," which had a five-day theatrical run at the museum. The latter is a tough, powerful little film about racial tensions in Halifax, which reach a boil after a boxer is released from prison after an allegedly racially motivated attack ten years prior. The characters are complex and ambiguous in a way altogether more human than its closest U.S. counterpart, "Crash," and the story manages to keep just this side of melodrama throughout its duration.
"I made a film in Halifax 10 years ago, and it really affected me, being there" said Virgo after the screening, explaining that the city has one of the oldest and most expansive black populations in the country. "I wanted to make a film that I thought really captured the feeling there, the unique tensions and community."
Besides Halifax, the other revelation of the film is Sutherland, an attractively brooding sort able to suggest a good deal without trying. "We had all these Hollywood men try out, and they were very male, very masculine" said Virgo. "And then we had this guy who did not look like a boxer. He was 30 pounds heavier then. He was husky...but he had a vulnerability I liked."
Sutherland, who lost 30 pounds for the part, says "All I did was train and sleep and train and sleep. But the emotional journey of the film was so difficult for me, that getting to throw a punch was a relief." The film is currently available on DVD.
Friday night saw the premiere of David Hoffman's affable space panic documentary "Sputnik Mania" at the IFC Center. The film, narrated by Liev Schreiber (who has a future narrating planetarium specials, if this week's economic meltdown threatens his day job), is a zippy little number about the USSR's launching of the first man-made satellite, and the resulting shock of the U.S. that helped fuel both the space race and the arms race for decades.
"History has so many great stories," said an animated Hoffman (who has a future doing standup in the Catskills, if the meltdown threatens his day job) after the screening. "I'm a documentary guy, I have to film these stories, or find someone else's film."
"It had all the classic subjects, good guys, bad guys, America. The really lucky part was that there was good footage there... It didn't start out that way, I originally had the same footage everybody else has, but that changed due to eBay, and a bunch of Russians who stole footage after the wall came down and began selling it for a lot of money."
Also from eBay: the Sputnik (one of six existing originals) on display in the IFC Center's Waverly bar for the duration of the film's theatrical run.
"These documentaries are glorious to make," concluded Hoffman. "I've made things for the History Channel, but this is something else, to make a movie that gets a theatrical release. It's just glorious."
Tuesday night's Cinema Eye Honors, much discussed on indieWIRE already, was notable not only for its laudable mission but for the airing of many anxieties pervasive throughout the documentary community, which deserve highlighting. To whit:
Thom Powers (event co-chair): "At the end of last year, as I reflected on how much great documentary filmmaking I'd seen in 2007, I had that feeling again, that the general public had missed a lot."
A.J. Schnack (event co-chair): "When I see all of the amazing filmmakers who are here tonight, I don't see journalists, I don't see activists. I see filmmakers, I see artists... Great films are not always about 'issues'."
Esther Robinson (filmmaker, "A Walk into the Sea"): "I know so many producers and directors on the verge of dropping out...there is no support system for lyrical, experimental documentaries, only funding for those that are political in nature."
Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg (filmmakers, "The Devil Came on Horseback"): "We want to be farmers. Then we'd get subsidies."
Reach out and mentor someone
"Issues" were not quite as taboo on Wednesday night at the swanky Gramercy Park Hotel, where the inaugural Reach Film Fellowship held a screening and reception for its young filmmakers hosted by Mira Nair. The fellowship awarded four New York-area undergraduates $5,000 and the chance to work with one of four mentors -- Al Maysles, Rachel Grady, Sandi DuBowski and Afia Nathaniel -- in creating short, socially conscious films (three are documentary, and one is narrative). The final films, by Nicholas Bruckman, Suel Kim, Annie Waldman, and Pilar Zaragoza, tackled issues ranging from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to the stories of children in prison.
"This premiere tonight was really about having a fun, attractive fellowship for undergraduates," said the event's organizer, Priya Sanghvi. "The whole point of this program has been to support young filmmakers who are just entering into their careers, figuring out where they fit in the industry, and really encourage them to create socially conscious, relevant films."
The Reach Film Fellowship is the cornerstone project of Cinereach, a fledgling philanthropic organization that aims to fund and champion socially relevant filmmaking, both narrative and documentary. "The organization's been so terrific for me, I wanted to help out with the fellowship," said Dubowski, whose current project, "A Jihad For Love," was partially funded by the organization. "They're just so young, and innovative, and committed to finding different funding structures. It's exciting."
"The response has been overwhelming," said Sanghvi. "Tonight, people have been talking as if we've done something heroic by deciding to take a leap of faith on undergraduates based on treatments and a few pieces of past work."
Cinereach hopes to make the Reach Film Fellowship an international program within the next few years.