For Your Consideration: Ten Great Docs from the Last Year

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science honored the highest achievements in film  last night at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles.  The academy has been handing out awards since 1929.  Since 1942, with the exception of 1950,  the academy has recognized the top documentary film of the year.  I was pleased as punch that music based documentaries won in both the long and short form categories last night.  Having spent the last few years of my life writing, directing, and producing a musical documentary, that can only be a positive.  20 Feet from Stardom won in the Best Documentary feature category.  The film, produced by music industry executive Gil Friesen along with Caitrin Rogers and directed by Morgan Neville.  The film follows career back-ups singers, including Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill, Jo Lawry, Darlene Love, and Tat Vega.  The film has been universally praised, beating out docs that deal with much more life-or-death situations.

It is quite an amazing time for documentary film all-around.  Digital technologies and the relatively low cost of camera equipment have made it more affordable than ever before for filmmakers to shoot and edit.  Stories that would require huge investments in both equipment and personnel a generation ago can now be told with a camera, computer, and the tenacity of the engaged filmmaker.  It is for this reason that so many good documentaries are now being produced.  Here are ten films from 2013 that I think deserve to stay in the public consciousness:

The Act of Killing: In this disturbing doc by Denmark-based director Joshua Oppenheimer turns his lens on death squad leaders from Indonesia’s communist purge in the 1960’s.  The men, some of them revered in Indonesia, reenact their killings for the camera.  The results are surreal and unsettling.

Cutie and the Boxer: This well-crafted work by newcomer Zachary Heinzerling tells the story of the charming and tumultuous 40-year marriage between Japanese Neo-Dadaist artist Ushino Shinohara and his wife Noriko.

The Square: No film on the list epitomizes the power of modern storytelling techniques and technologies to tell a complete story than “The Square.”  Jehane Noujaim’s film tells the first-hand account of the Egyptian Revolution from 2011 to 2013 in amazing detail and scope.

Dirty Wars: Jeremey Schahill is somewhat of an anachronism in my eyes–an old-school investigative journalist in the form of a Gen-Xer.  “Dirty Wars” explores the U.S. involvement in military actions in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia.  based on Schahill’s book of the same name, the film was both written and narrated by Schahill.

After Tiller: I wear my journalism/historian credentials as a badge of honor.  This makes it difficult for me to stand in the rather large banner of partisan documentary film making.  In fact, I usually have little time for any documentary with a political agenda.  Sometimes, however, a partisan documentary succeeds in capturing a historical moment in such away that it transcends politics.  “After Tiller” does that by documenting the four U.S. doctors still performing late-term abortions in the wake of Dr. George Tiller’s murder in 2009.  Partisan?  Yes.  A document of our times?  For certain.

Gideon’s Army: In 1961, Clarence Gideon was convicted of stealing a can of soda in Panama City, Florida.  Gideon had defended himself at trial.  he appealed his case to the Supreme Court.  The end result was a ruling that everyone had the right to legal representation.  “Gideon’s Promise” brings us into the Southern Public Defender Training Center, an organization tasked with supporting young public defenders.  The real story, though, is the lawyer’s themselves: broke, tired, and endlessly willing to fight for the right’s of their almost exclusively impoverished clients.

Blackfish: Perhaps no film from 2013 was as controversial as “Blackfish.”  The film tells the story of a killer whale named Tilikum, held by SeaWorld Entertainment.  Tilikum is notable for not only being the most prodigious killer whale father in captivity, siring 21 offspring, but also for being responsible for the deaths of three people since 1991.  The film makes a stark case against the captivity of killer whales, which SeaWorld vehemently disputed.

Our Nixon: My favorite histories tell the stories of the unknown and forgotten.  My second favorite histories tell the story of the fampus in new and interesting ways.  “Our Nixon” does just that, telling the story of President Richard M. Nixon’s White House years from 1969-1974 entirely from archival footage.  This is not just any stock footage, though.  This is Super 8 footage recorded by Nixon’s chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, domestic affairs adviser John Ehrlichman and special assistant Dwight Champman.

God Loves Uganda: Much like “After Tiller,” “God Loves Uganda” places itself unabashedly at the center of the culture wars.  The film draws parallels between  evangelical Christianity in the United States and Uganda, going as far as to suggest that the link between the two is the reason for the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Bill.  The bill, which is currently table in Uganda’s parliament, prescribes the death penalty for gays and lesbians.  Again, another partisan film that manages to document a moment in time.

Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Story: We live in an era of partisan hackery that is sweeping away the last vestiges of real journalism and paving the way for generations of elivision news personalities that are part political wonk, part P.T. Barnum.  Evocateur comes closer than any film I have seen in capturing the genesis of this modern phenomenon in the guise of 1980’s syndicated talk show host Morton Downey Jr.  The man’s name is unknown to Millennial, but he was the godfather of sensational political discourse and the ringmaster of uncivilized debate.

It’s Always the Quiet Ones: Harold Ramis and the Children of the 80’s

I was surprised to hear of the death of Harold Ramis today at the age of 69 after a long illness.  I took some today to look at Mr. Ramis’ filmography.  I knew he had written such iconic films as “Caddyshack,” “Ghostbusters,” and “Groundhog Day,” but I had never truly stopped and thought about how his body of work impacted me on a personal level until today.

I was born at the beginning of the 1980’s, a decade when the writing talents of Mr. Ramis were in full flower.  By the time I was born, he had already co-written “Meatballs” and “Caddyshack,” as well as made his mark on the television series SCTV.  SCTV not only launched the careers of John Candy, Martin Short, Eugene Levy, and Catherine O’Hara, but influenced future writers such as “Simpsons” creator Matt Groening.  Mr. Ramis’ work became some of my first exposure with cinema and storytelling–and certainly the most compelling to me at an early age.  I was far too young for the Baby Boomer political comedy of “Stripes,” but Mr. Ramis’ later films became important touchstones to my generation.  “National Lampoon’s Vacation” gave us the term “Wally World,” which we applied to big box behemoth Wal-Mart in later years.  “Ghostbusters” was one of the first films that ever resonated with me personally.  Mr. Ramis, who co-wrote the film with Dan Aykroyd, managed to blend comedy and action into a what is at heart a ghost story.  Then, of course, there was the merchandising of Ghostbusters.  The toys were ubiquitous in the toy boxes of my generation, not to mention The Real Ghostbusters cartoon, which ran from 1986-1991.  It may be difficult for early generations to understand, but for my age group, films like “Caddyshack” and “Ghostbusters” might as well have been “The Wizard of Oz” or “Gone with the Wind.”  We never really knew a time when they weren’t a part of the collective American cinema experience.

In 1993, “Groundhog Day” was released, which Mr. Ramis co-wrote with Danny Rubin.  I was just then approaching my angst-fuel teenage years.  I remember watching the film for the first time one evening on cable, alone in my bedroom.  I am not certain if I was actually watching it during a particularly gray patch of Midwestern winters, but the fate of Bill Murray’s character resonated with me.  One man repeating the same day over and over until the end of time–caught in an uncontrollable loop of the same people and places, his actions having no impact on the future.  For an overly-dramatic writer-type with the urge to see the world, the film hit home.  The film didn’t just resonate with me alone, though.  It’s solidified a place in pop culture for the foreseeable future.  The film was selected for preservation by the National Film Preservation Board for preservation in the Library of Congress in 2006.  The term “groundhog day” has entered into the lexicon, too.  The term is used in military circles to describe the monotony that active duty sometimes entails.  The films existential nature has been lauded by Buddhists and Catholics alike.   I won’t dwell too much on it here, but a quick internet search for “groundhog day movie” and “Buddhism,” “Catholicism” or “Christianity” will turn up quite a few interesting articles.

For me, Harold Ramis’ stories were catalysts for some of the most engaging cinematic times of my early life.  They provided a backdrop and language to the way we experienced pop culture and, for me personally, the ways in which I learned to tell stories.  He was a comedic writer whose stature will only grow with time now that he is gone.

14 Things You Didn’t Know About the Winter Olympics

It has been a busy week here as my documentary “Dixie” moves through the editing process. I have had time to take in the Winter Olympics, though. There is snow piled a foot and a half high outside my window as I write this, so you can probably guess that I enjoy winter sports. The winter games are a particular treat when they roll around every four years. In honor of the 2014 Olympics, here are 14 things you didn’t know about the Winter Olympics.

 I. The predecessor to the Winter Olympics were the Nordic Games, an international winter sporting event held eight times between 1901 and 1926 in Sweden and Norway.

 II. The Nordic Games were the brainchild of Victor Gustaf Balck, a Swedish military officer and the “Father of Swedish Sports.” He also had a fantastic handlebar mustache. I know a lot of you are into those these days.

 III. The man responsible for the first Winter Olympics was an Italian count, Eugenio Brunetta d’Usseaux. As Secretary of the International Olympic Committee, he pushed for a winter program to be added to the 1908 Olympics. He managed to get a winter sports week added to the games in 1916, but these were cancelled due to the outbreak of World War I. The count never lived to see the first Winter Olympics in 1924. He died in France in 1919.

 IV. The first Olympics in 1924, held in Chamonix, France were not Olympics at all. The games, called International Winter Sports Week, were held by the French Olympic Committee . They were retroactively named as the first Winter Olympics.

 V. The last medal of the 1924 Winter Olympics was awarded in 1974. American skier Anders Haugen was given a bronze medal when an error in the score of the original bronze medalist was discovered.

 VI. Equestrian skijoring was demonstrated in the 1928 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland. The event features a horse guided by a rider pulling a skier, sans poles, holding onto a tow rope.

 VII. Skijoring is not the only winter event sent to the land of defunct sports. Sled dog racing was demonstrated in the 1932 Lake Placid, New York games.

 VIII. The man responsible for bringing the 1932 Winter Olympics to Lake Placid was Godfrey Dewey. Dewey was the son of Melvil Dewey, the inventor of the Dewey Decimal System. Melvil also founded the Lake Placid Ski Club in 1895.

 IX. American Eddie Eagan is the only athlete to win a gold medal at both a Summer and Winter Olympics in different events. Eagan won a gold in boxing during the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium and won gold again as a bobsledder during the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York.

X. The 1936 Winter Olympics, hosted by Adolph Hitler and Nazi Germany, awarded the largest medals ever for any Olympics. Medals were 100 millimeters in diameter, 4 millimeters thick, and weighed 324 grams.

 XI. All three Axis Powers of World War II were awarded Winter Olympics during the war. The 1940 games were to be hosted by Japan, but were canceled after the Japanese invasion of China. In spring of 1939, the IOC gave the games to Germany, but Germany’s invasion of Poland put an end to those plans and the games were canceled. The 1944 games, scheduled for Italy, were canceled in 1941 due to World War II.

 XII. The 1976 games had trouble finding a host site, as well. The games were originally awarded to Denver, Colorado in 1970. Colorado voters, worried about the cost and environmental impact of the games, rejected a $5 million bond to fund the games. The games were then given to Whistler, British Columbia. Whistler, too, declined to host. The games were eventually held in Innsbruck, Austria.

 XIII. Taiwan is the only country to ever boycott a Winter Olympics. The island nation sat out the 1980 games when the IOC declared the country must compete as Chinese Taipei in international sporting events.

 XIV. Warm weather at this year’s Sochi games have been a topic of much discussion. These games are not the first to deal with unseasonably warm weather. The 1924 opening ceremonies in St. Moritz, Switerland were held in a blizzard. Later in the week, temperatures as high as 77 degrees caused cancellation of one event. In 1964, The Austrian army carried 20,000 ice bricks to Innsbruck for the luge and bobsled runs due to a lack of snow.

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Eddie Eagan.

Pete Seeger and Dixie

I have had the chance to interview a number of the famous and infamous in my life.  Despite all of the fascinating people I have had the pleasure to talk to, I always wonder about those that I never had the chance to sit down with face-to-face.  Of all of the misses and near-misses in my life, none has affected me like the death of Pete Seeger.  Seeger died Jan. 28 in Manhattan at the age of 94.

Seeger’s death leaves a void in American music.  It cuts a direct tie to an earlier age of both American history and American music.  Seeger knew both Huddie Leadbetter, aka Lead Belly, and Woodie Guthrie.  Lead Belly and Guthrie, along with Seeger himself, are the three luminaries of 20th Century folk music.  Seeger and Guthrie met in 1940 during a concert in California for migrant workers.  

If that story was not Steinbeckian enough, Seeger’s early life resonated with the force of the American artist.  We see him leaving Harvard and riding the rails, trading songs and stories with hobos all along the American landscape.  We see the American leftist of the mid-Century, performing pro-labor and pro-Communism songs.  We see the recording star of the 1950’s with his group The Weavers.

Seeger’s career faltered in the 1950’s.  Seeger was not a member of the party by the early 50’s, but his earlier ties were a non-starter in the era of Joseph McCarthy.  Like many American artists with leftist sympathies, Seeger was called before McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee.  Seeger was indicted on 10 counts of contempt of Congress and sentenced to a year in prison.  He was sentenced to a year in prison.  The conviction was eventually thrown out.  By then it was the early 60’s, and a decade spent touring coffee houses and colleges had made him a folk hero.  His songs brought fame to a whole new generation of folk singers, and became a virtual soundtrack to the Civil Rights movement, songs like “Where Have all the Flowers Gone,” “If I Had a Hammer,” and “We Shall Overcome.”  It was this last song that made me want to interview him.

I have spent the last four years working on the independent documentary “Dixie.”  The film tells the story of the minstrel song, written by Daniel Decatur Emmett in 1859.  The song has a controversial past–one reason is due to it’s use as a counter-protest anthem by southern segregationists.  “We Shall Overcome” and “Dixie” battle head-to-head during many confrontations and I wanted to know Mr. Seeger’s thoughts on the song.  I had the pleasure of speaking with Mr. Seeger’s representatives and plans were in the works, but alas, as Mr. Seeger’s tune “Turn, Turn, Turn,” with words borrowed from Ecclesiastes, would say: ‘To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven, a time to be born and a time to die.”

I was never able to sit down and speak with Mr. Seeger about “Dixie” and “We Shall Overcome.”  Pete Seeger, perhaps more than anyone, knew the power of a song.  As my work on “Dixie” draws nearer to completion, I am looking back on the film, on the people I’ve interviewed with a myriad of opinions on “Dixie.”  I have certainly learned the power of a song during these last four years.  My thoughts are with Mr. Seeger’s family and I feel fortunate that, when the singer dies, they leave a bit of themselves behind–their voice, their power, their song.

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Library of Congress