As a very proud member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, I am delighted to announce this year’s documentary film awards. This was an extraordinary year for documentary films and I wish we could have given out a dozen more prizes. But it was a genuine honor to be able to pay tribute to these outstanding films.
A momentous achievement, both a statement on where we are right now in terms of race and how we need to work together to get somewhere better. As he has with films like “Hoop Dreams,” “Life Itself,” and “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,” James and his team find a way to place their empathetic, individual stories against a larger backdrop of social issues across the country. James is one of our most humanist filmmakers—someone who not only knows how to draw out the most interesting aspects of his subjects’ lives but seems to honestly care about who they are and where they’re going. He’s a cinematic listener, someone who gets comfortable enough with his subjects that he allows their best selves to come out on-screen, and allows us the optimism to think that there are people like the kids and teachers in “America to Me” all around this country—people just trying to get through the day, have their voices heard, and maybe make a difference.
On Thursday, September 27, the 10-city America To Me: Real Talk campaign is coming to Washington, DC with a powerful screening and discussion about race and bias in schools across America and in DC in particular, with leaders including former Secretary of Education John King. The America To Me: Real Talk campaign had its auspicious beginnings in DC – the result of a brainstorm between former classmates Jacquelyn Davis, an attorney turned education reformer and Partner at Education Forward DC, and Holly Gordon, Chief Impact Officer at Participant Media. To attend on the 27th, click here.
Produced by Participant Media and Starz, the America To Me: Real Talk 10-city campaign is galvanizing a movement nationwide, with thousands of high schoolers, teachers and administrators embracing the series to confront hard questions, address implicit bias, and take action to create more equitable and inclusive schools. So far, more than 1,000 people have attended America To Me: Real Talk screening events, while 590 individual citizens are leading watch groups and 7,083 more have signed up to participate. Kartemquin has more information here..
Rated R for language and some disturbing material/images
Some strong language
Some graphic and disturbing scenes of military violence
A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters:
September 21, 2018
Maybe around the time that professional provocateur Michael Moore shows Donald Trump’s voice coming out of Adolf Hitler’s mouth in his latest film, “Fahrenheit 11/9,” you might think he has gone over the top. But Moore would probably tell you that it’s our world that’s gone over the top; he’s just highlighting it so that we can understand what is happening in the midst of a constant barrage of outrage and partisanship.
Fourteen years ago, Moore released “Fahrenheit 9/11,” the title inspired by Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, about the September 11 attacks and the aftermath. This film’s title is a reference to another event Moore considers pivotal, the election of Donald Trump in 2016. It begins with dozens of predictions by experts that Hillary Clinton would win the election, and then the stunned reactions when she lost. (Moore himself was one of the very few who predicted a Trump victory.) But he does not spend any time after that on the past. He is not interested in the Mueller investigation or whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. He is interested in the indicators of a weakening of our democracy, as, for example, when a survey of Republicans shows that a majority would support delaying the next Presidential election if President Trump says that it is an emergency, and, an even more sobering example, when so many Americans do not vote.
Moore’s 1989 film, Roger & Me was set in his home town of Flint, Michigan, a once-thriving community with lots of good jobs at the local General Motors plants. As the plants closed or replaced workers with non-US workers and robots (unforgettably, the film included footage of a animatronic display with a human worker singing to the robot that replaced him), the community was devastated economically and psychically bereft. The film, now on the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, revolutionized documentary storytelling with its arch tone, quirky characters, and wild stunts, like Moore’s efforts to confront then-GM CEO Roger Smith about Flint.
Almost 20 years later, Moore returns to Flint in this film for an even worse disaster. A new governor, a businessman with no previous government experience, ordered that the water supply in Flint be redirected from Lake Huron to the toxic Flint River, according to Moore so that his business friends could build — and make money from — an unnecessary second pipeline. Lead levels spiked, putting the residents, especially the children, at great risk. Even those who have been following this story will be shocked by some of what Moore reveals here, including a nurse who shows the blood lead levels in the children she tested — before she was directed to alter the results to show them at an acceptable level. General Motors complained that the Flint River Water was harming its remaining production facilities, so they were switched back to Lake Huron while the residents were not. There is dispiriting footage of then-President Obama’s visit to Flint, when his efforts to be reassuring (Look! I’m drinking your water!) make him seem out of touch and condescending. Of course there’s a stunt, with Moore trying to see the governor and then spraying Flint water on the Governor’s grass.
But what hits home hardest is a story that had almost no national coverage, without any notice, the Army scheduled training exercises — with no notice to the residents — with shooting and explosions that made it seem that the town was under attack. Moore also points out that the heroic doctor who exposed the crisis is an immigrant who exemplifies the most aspirational American dream of opportunity and service. And he suggests that the lack of attention from politicians, including Obama, led to the poor voter turnout in a state where mere thousands of votes could have swung the election.
He also points to the one person who is ultimately responsible for electing Donald Trump. SPOILER ALERT: pop star and Voice coach Gwen Stefani.
Like all Moore movies, this one is uneven and polemical as well as illuminating, enraging, and — this is the great secret of Moore — ultimately hopeful. He spends time with young candidates of intelligence and integrity. He shows us the West Virginia teacher’s strike. It is deeply stirring to see the teachers, told to go back to work after their union leaders abandoned the school bus drivers and lunch workers, refuse to stop the strike until their fellow school workers were given a raise as well. We see the Parkland kids turn unthinkable tragedy into purposeful action. “We must have done something right,” Moore says, “We raised you.” “No,” one responds immediately. “Social media raised us.”
She may not realize it, but she was raised by Moore as well, with films like this one.
Parents should know that this film has some strong language and some disturbing images, including violence and peril.
Family discussion: Who in this film do you admire and why? Is this film a form of journalism?
If you like this, try: Michael Moore’s other films, including “Roger & Me” and “Sicko”
Fair warning. It was about ten seconds into this film when the first “Hello, darling” dissolved any critical distance I could muster, and by the time about five minutes later when we got to a “How ghastly,” as only Dame Maggie Smith can say it, I melted into a little puddle of pure happiness. So if seeing four of the greatest actresses in the world talk about their decades of experience and friendship is not for you, then ignore my gushing about how much I love them and how much I loved this film.
Dame Judi Dench, Dame Maggie Smith, Dame Joan Plowright, and Dame Eileen Atkins all came of age in the late 1950’s, beginning in theater and then movies and television. Director Roger Michell (“Notting Hill”) gives us a chance to eavesdrop on one of their get-togethers “to gossip, to remember, and to laugh.” They talk about acting, of course, but also about navigating show business and what they think of critics, and about husbands (everyone agrees that Dame Joan’s husband, Lord Oliver, was the most difficult), beauty, fear, competition, awards (we see each of them being Dame-d, by either Prince Charles or Queen Elizabeth II), Americans, Shakespeare, and aging, with the advice each of them would give their younger selves, though Dame Maggie (I would not dream of any other form of address, given the disdain they show for American clumsiness with titles) admits that her younger self would never have listened. And they do it all with such impeccable diction and classically trained technique in the exquisite timing of le mot plus juste.
In the early days, “you went to reps and you stayed in digs and things,” Dame Judi remembers. And if the landlady was unkind, “you nailed a kipper under the table.” Dame Joan Plowright talks about joining her first company, where another actor warned, “She can’t play queens, you know,” and the director replied, “I should think the last thing we want in a theater for contemporary writers is girls born to play queens.”
The Dames began acting as the “Kitchen Sink” era of postwar Britain was evolving into the swinging 60’s. There are some knowing looks and nostalgic smiles as they recall that era. There is a marvelous camaraderie and warm memories of working together that is unmarred by a continuing competition. Everyone remembers that Judi Dench was the first to be Dame-d. (When Dame Maggie got the word of her award, Dame Judi assured her that “It won’t change anything; you can still swear.) And the octogenarian Dame Maggie makes the kind of pointed comment that only the portrayer of the Dowager Duchess can master; her agent assures her that “We’ll look around for a nice little cameo that Judi does not have her paws on.”
Dame Eileen is less well known in the US, and I hope very much that this film and the marvelous archival clips will inspire American audiences to learn more about her. All of the Dames are exceptionally well represented with a remarkable range of clips, showing once again that one of the key differences between US and British actors is the British actors’ willingness to weigh in with equal enthusiasm to everything from classic dramas to avant garde to sitcoms. The glimpses of their work also provide a subtle but clear contrast between their delicious inability to take themselves seriously in real life and their obvious, visceral commitment to their performances, their characters, and the scripts and screenplays they bring to life.
None of them was willing to play Cleopatra (Shakespeare’s version), though all were asked repeatedly. Dame Judi challenged the director Peter Hall: “Do you really want a menopausal dwarf?” (But she did it.) Dame Maggie did it, but in Canada. But Cleopatra is a rare role that is the center of the play. Dame Joan describes “that rare exhilaration when you know you’re in charge.”
They talk about aging, and about fear, not of illness or death but, endearingly, enduringly, about the very thing they have devoted their lives to, acting. “Are first days still scary?” Michel asks, off camera. “All days,” Dame Maggie says immediately. But it is their relish for exactly that challenge that keeps them so vibrant. “Fear is petrol,” says Dame Judi. “It generates such an energy. If you can somehow handle it, it can be a help.”
As marvelous as they are playing other people, it is pure delight to see them as themselves.
Parents should know that the ladies use some frank and salty language and there are some sexual references.
Family discussion: What advice would you give to your younger self? Why didn’t they want to play Cleopatra?
If you like this, try: the films starring the Dames
Pick of the Litter Directors on Five Adorable Puppies Training to be Guide Dogs
Posted on September 12, 2018 at 9:31 am
Pick of the Litter was one of the highlights of Washington DC’s AFIDocs documentary film festival. It follows five puppy siblings, all with names beginning with P, as they go through the extensive training and rigorous tests over two years to become guide dogs for the blind. Only a fraction of the dogs bred for the program have the temperament and skills for the job. We follow Patriot, Poppet, Primrose, Phil, and Potomac from birth to their ultimate place in a film that is exciting, funny, and always heartwarming.
In an interview, directors Dana Nachman and Don Hardy, Jr. revealed their own favorites and described some of the behind the scenes choices and challenges.
Before we even meet the puppies, we get to hear from people whose lives have been saved by guide dogs. Why did you want to start with that?
DH: It’s really a life and death thing and what these dogs do is really extraordinary. So if you start there, then you can go back to the little bundles of fur and the people.
DN: It was very important to us to show what was at stake before we get to the cuteness of the puppies. It is essential to set that tone.
Your camera work was really impressive. At some points you had us at dog level. And for some essential conversations, you had us at both ends of the phone calls.
DH: It’s something we talked about from the very beginning, trying to tell it from that point of view of the dog. So we’re on the ground a lot. We’re trying to just stay in that world.
DN: Typically you see a lot of dog stuff just shooting down at the dog and we just didn’t want that. It really diminishes them if you’re coming from the upper angle whereas if you’re down low then you’re in their world and experiencing it like they do.
DH: We started with the big shoulder mount camera that is typical. It was fine when the dogs were small and didn’t move a lot but then once they got big they got faster. And they train the dogs really fast. There was no way to keep up. So we developed this little steadicam-like system, a small camera on a gimbal. And then I plug that into a monopod so then I could swing it down very low to get the dog’s eye level and then go up really high to to almost look like a drone.
And they’re inexpensive cameras so we ended up with a couple of them and so for a few key sequences Dana was shooting too. It just would all pair together well but it was a big undertaking to make this thing look like cohesive.
So much of the training of the dogs has to do with focusing their attention and not letting them get distracted. How did you get all the footage you needed without getting in their way?
DH: That was a big concern early on and we thought it would be maybe prevent Guide Dogs for the Blind from allowing us the access that we needed. We’re always going to be in the way. So that was another reason we had to develop this lightweight camera system to be able to not interrupt anything; there was no stopping to say, “Can you do that again?” We just had to keep up. But their response is interesting. They said that we’re just another distraction that these dogs have to deal with and it’s just part of life. We did a lot of the shooting ourselves so they just got to know us and I think we were just part of the training in a way.
DN: At one point one of the dogs was really tanking in some of his tasks like he wasn’t doing well and that particular dog liked Don a lot and so I think we even felt more nervous. We wanted to hang back because we didn’t want him to be out on our account. But they said, “If he can’t deal with Don being there then what’s he not going to be able to deal with if he’s with a visually impaired person?”
DH: It’s important in whatever story you’re telling to remember that the life the real events going on is more important than you.
How did you get started on this story?
DH: We worked together at the NBC station in San Francisco. We were both dog lovers and we did several pieces together on Guide Dogs for the Blind and so we always knew that they were just the tip of the iceberg. Pretty much coincidentally my mom was a newspaper reporter and she did a series in New York following a litter from birth until if they made it. We were like, “Oh well it’s great for a newspaper but so much better if it’s on camera.”
The dogs are wonderful, but the people are pretty wonderful, too, so dedicated and kind. I love their euphemism for the dogs who don’t make it all the way through the program: career changed.
DN: And some of the best parts in this film. They take it all very seriously. It’s almost a quasi Best in Show. It’s not even that you’re making fun of that. They own it. It is an earnestness that really resonates with me.
Did you each have a favorite? Were you sad for the dogs who were “career changed?”
DN: I’m #teampatriot.
DH: I’m #teamphil. They really say and it turns out to be true that the dogs choose. If you think of it that all of these dogs are doctors but only a few of them can be brain surgeons. They’re all like very incredible animals but only a few can do this job which is has life and death stakes.
DN: And I hope one of the things that people take away from the film too is that anybody who has a dog or has had a dog — it is a profound relationship. Even just for a regular person who has nothing wrong with them per se, it really is a life-changing relationship and we all know that.