Tag Archives: documentary film

Sundance 2018: Nothin’ but Docs!

Sundance is even better than I anticipated. I watched nine documentaries in three days, met a hero of mine, braved the cold, boxed for photos, and soaked up Main Street life in the snow.

Main Street, a little tomfoolery

I arrived Tuesday excited. Sundance is, after all, atop the pantheon of North American film festivals for documentaries, along with Tribeca, SXSW, Full Frame, New York Film Festival, True/False, and Hot Docs.

For years, I was hoping my first time would be with my own doc. Being invited to a festival with your film is awesome, because you mingle with other filmmakers and share your work with a live audience! When Volcanic Sprint played at the Jackson Hole Film Festival, it was unforgettable! And when Shattered Sky premiered at the DC Environmental Film Fest, it was the culmination of four years of passion, labor, and learning. It was epic.

But before I’m a filmmaker, I’m a huge fan of documentary, and now that I live in Los Angeles, it was just a hop over to Park City, Utah. I snapped up a cheap Jet Blue flight out of Long Beach and took an Uber to my AirBnB near downtown. 

Update: Here’s Sundance winners. Now, loosely in order of how I liked them, what I watched:

Minding the Gap, directed by Bing Lui, was the first film I took in, and my favorite. I like how it evolved from a buddy movie to a mystery to an indictment of toxic masculinity. Structurally, it’s some of the best storytelling I’ve seen. Much more than a skateboarding picture, Minding the Gap has really stuck with me. Just go watch it; I can’t do it justice in words.

America to Me is Steve James’ new 10-part episodic documentary series that was acquired by Starz for $5 million during the festival. In a feat of endurance and patience—which James himself alluded to jokingly, before, during, and after the 6-hour session—we watched the first five episodes. It was stellar, and to be honest I could’ve easily stayed another five hours to watch the final five episodes! Like you’d expect from a James production (he is the director of Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters), you get strong, authentic characters navigating issues of class and race. It was a huge pleasure to talk with James afterwards. When organizers kicked us out of the theater for the next screening, he invited us all to keep chatting nearby. No trace of self-importance, James took all questions and earnestly answered. Likeable, smart guy. Legendary documentary professional. This is why I love going to festivals.

With a hero of mine, Director Steve James

Shirkers is a one-of-a-kind entertaining documentary by Sandi Tan. It’s quirky first-person filmmaking at its best. In the early 1990s, Tan makes Singapore’s first indie flick, but then her mentor and professor steals the footage. More than 20 years later, she gets her hands on the footage again, which sends her on a journey of memory and belonging. Tan announces herself as a new voice.

Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. is the story of the global hip hop artist. It pieces together raw home movies revealing the vulnerable, ernest activist behind the famous star. I definitely would’ve liked to see more about how she became such an accomplished writer, beat-maker, and dancer, but that’s a credit to Director Steven Loveridge’s storytelling. The artist comes off as a very likable, normal person, with a big heart and a legitimate desire to help her people. I read in Billboard that M.I.A. wasn’t sure she liked the movie. Well, I like her a lot more now that I’ve seen it.

Kailash won the Sundance grand jury prize, but it wasn’t even in my top three. The issue it highlights is important (child slavery), and the film was very well done, particularly for a first-time filmmaker. But it’s hard to elevate hagiography, particularly when most of it is in the past tense. This was a solid and motivating film, but you sort of knew where it was going.

Hal celebrates the under-appreciated 1970s director Hal Ashby, who made 7 films in 9 years, including the enduring Harold and Maude, Being There, Shampoo, and others. I really enjoyed this one.

Sundance featured a slew of documentaries. They seemed to fall into three categories. First, personal stories with strong points of view: Minding the Gap and Shirkers. Second, famous people doing big things: Kailash and Hal. Third, legendary filmmakers coming back to Sundance: America to Me.

I watched nine in three days, and was in hog heaven. I’m a little ashamed that every doc in this blog I gave four out of four stars! Hey, I’m not a critic: I’m a lover of documentaries!

See you next year!

Hamming it up with Michael Aisner, eating some Olomomo nuts between films …

Film @ Egypt: Ahmed, Ambulance-Beater + 5 Videos

steve-liftRockEgypt, for me at least, is not one of those places you can parachute in and feel at home. It’s intense, with its own pronounced contours and customs.

A Washington, DC-based organization hired me to go to Cairo and film for four days. As DP and director, I’d pick up a unit producer and driver in country, (When I’m back home, I’ll write and edit a short documentary film).

Here’s a 1-minute clip from some stuff I shot on day 3 on a nature preserve. Check out the underwater clips!

Day 1 starts early. After a couple interviews, it gets fun. Khalil runs the agribusiness unit of a large company, so I decide to put us on motorbikes, winding through the vineyards on the way to his staff. Anytime you can ride on the back of a motorcycle, filming, and get paid for it, it’s good times . . . What a blast! Here’s a quick clip:

I decide to do Khalil’s interview in the greenhouse, since it’s quieter and there’s some shade. I get set up, using my Litepanel LED, then wait a bit until the golden hour is just right. Here’s a still (no color grading):

kstill-2

Anytime I can complete three interviews and some creative b-roll on day 1 in a new country, it feels great. This rosy feeling of accomplishment takes a hit, however, when my “unit producer” informs me she needs to “spend some time in the office” on day 2. She’ll be leaving me with the driver for beauty shots Tuesday around Cairo.

Anytime you can ride on the back of a motorcycle, filming, and get paid for it, it’s good times . . . What a blast!

This is well and good, except I speak no Arabic and Ahmed, my driver, speaks about 57 words of English.

Ahmed driver
Despite a language divide, Ahmed and I become fast friends

Now, I’ve shot city b-roll in some crazy places before, from Harare to Baku and Manila to Mexico City, but nothing compares to Cairo. Old lady drivers make Manhattan cabbies look like Zen Buddhists. It’s manic. Somehow things function, but it’s tight, chaotic, and extraordinarily loud.

After a lengthy argument, my unit producer relents—only to call at 10:30pm. She’s not coming; driver to pick me up at 7am.

I feel abandoned, but there’s work to be done. This is what it’s like to be an independent documentary filmmaker — you move forward, you solve problems, you do it all: shoot, run audio, direct . . . and I was ready to learn some Arabic along the way!

The next morning, Ahmed and I head to the pyramids. Without a unit producer, I wing it. Fortunately, Ahmed knows a guy who knows a guy. Because it is virtually impossible (and prohibitively expensive) to bring film equipment in the main tourist gate, I should get a horse and go around back where I can film the pyramids from a hilltop in the desert.

Good plan, right? Except the stable owner tries to get me to name the first price. Having lived in Cameroon—where people approach haggling with the vigor of Olympic athletes—I knew enough to wait.

“2,400 Egyptian pounds,” he offers. I laugh out loud. Stable owner wants $350. The next 20 minutes is a legendary back-and-forth where I feign disinterest, act like I’m walking away, and eventually settle on about $64. I immediately have this sinking feeling in my stomach that I could have gotten it for much cheaper, but I can’t haggle the whole day. I have a job to do.

A fence encircles the entire Giza pyramid area. It is reportedly 22 kilometers long. It probably helps the state capture more tourist dollars, because everybody has to enter the main gate, paying some 60 pounds.

Skirting the pyramid fence from the slum side is a start contrast. Dilapidated storefronts advertise horse tours or all-terrain vehicles. I pass a dead horse, a cemetery. Then we enter the desert:

mohammed-donkey
Muhammad knows no English, but is a nice boy who carries my slider to our destination. Thanks!

My guide, Ali, complains how tourism is way down since the revolution. He has a winning smile, and fortunately for me, a background in TV. When we finally reach the distant hilltop, and I capture the footage I want, Ali takes my camera and directs me with the confidence of a commercial director:

steve-hold-pyramidsteve-jump steve-liftRock

What saves the rest of day 2 is Ahmed, the driver. Every time I want to get out of the van and film, he makes it happen. Alternately, he charms security guards, tips people to watch our van, and finagles our way behind locked gates. Thank you Ahmed! You are a lifesaver.

At Muhammad Ali Mosque at sunset, Ahmed and I capture a stunning silhouette of this historic building:

Day 3 promises adventure. We’re accompanying the CEO of the company to an innovative pilot project where they’re raising seabass in a saline lake, Al Fayyum. The drive is only 150 kilometers, but because we start in central Cairo, it takes four hours.

Despite the 95-degree heat, this is my favorite day. Any time you can film on a wooden rowboat and underwater with a GoPro on a monopod, it’s cool. The clip posted up top is from this day.

The rest of the afternoon we take our time heading back to Cairo. At golden hour, we come across a family harvesting wheat. While my unit producer (back with us today) stays in the van on her phone, Ahmed jumps out with me. He spreads some small tips around to the grandfather and the children just to say “thanks,” as I film the family in action:

We continue down a rural road. The light is so nice, I jump out. Soon, outgoing young men gather around. They’re curious. Ahmed explains what I’m up to, and they enjoy hamming it up for the camera:

Day 4, I do an interview, spend some time with the company, and then spend an afternoon getting broll around the city. At sunset, Ahmed invites me for “koshari.” It’s yummy, and a fitting end to an intense week.

Because my flight departs at 4:35am, I awake at 1am, and Ahmed picks me up at 1:30. What we don’t count on is a big accident on a bridge, and I’m dangerously close to missing my flight. We’re going nowhere. And what’s not helping is a sea of gawkers who arrive on motorbikes, park them on the only functioning lane, and start directing traffic of their own accord. Where’s the police? Where’s emergency services?  . . . At a snail’s pace, we creep forward to the scene, which has the vibe of a democracy demonstration more than a traffic accident. At that moment, Ahmed spies an opening. An ambulance breaks free from the scrum. Ahmed reacts. We are hot on its tail, and race through the city at breakneck speed.

Eventually, even the ambulance is going too slow. Ahmed, with commentary, leaves the ambulance in his dust!

I make my flight! And head back to Washington, D.C. Thanks my friend . . .