Review: ‘Casa Susanna,’ starring Katherine Cummings, Diana Merry-Shapiro, Betsy Wollheim and Gregory Bagarozy

November 26, 2022

by Carla Hay

Susanna Valenti (sitting in the front, on the floor) in an archival photo featured in “Casa Susanna” (Photo courtesy of PBS)

“Casa Susanna”

Directed by Sébastien Lifshitz

Culture Representation: The documentary “Casa Susanna” features an all-white group of people discussing Jewett, New York-based Casa Susanna, a popular gathering place for transgender women and cross-dressing men from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s.

Culture Clash: The transgender women and cross-dressing men who frequented Casa Susanna had to hide their true selves during a time in America when trans women, drag queens and male transvestites could get arrested for dressing as women.

Culture Audience: “Casa Susanna” will appeal primarily to viewers who want to know more about a specific transgender community gathering place that most people are not widely aware of in LGBTQ history.

Diana Merry-Shapiro in “Casa Susanna” (Photo courtesy of PBS)

From the late 1950s to the mid-1960s, a bungalow camp/rural resort named Casa Susanna in the Catskills city of Jewett, New York, was a safe haven for members of the LGTBQ community who wanted to dress and live as women, regardless of the gender identities of the people who were at Casa Susanna. The documentary “Casa Susanna” tells the history of this resort from the perspectives of two transgender women, who frequented Casa Susanna, and two cisgender people, who had family members with strong connections to Casa Susanna. It brings a noteworthy spotlight to a meaningful community-gathering place for transgender women and cross-dressing men. There’s respect given in the documentary, but viewers will sense that more of Casa Susanna’s individual stories could have been told.

French filmmaker Sébastien Lifshitz, who has directed numerous LGBTQ-focused documentaries and narrative feature films, directed “Casa Susanna” with the tone of trying to make the movie as personal as possible, rather than being a comprehensive historical film. Lifshitz’s previous movies about transgender people include the narrative feature film “Wild Side” and the documentaries “Bambi, A French Woman,” “Little Girl” and “Bambi.” His previous movies have taken place in France or Algeria. “Casa Susanna” is his first movie that’s set entirely in the United States.

“Casa Susanna” had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival and has since made the rounds at other film festivals in 2022, such as the Toronto International Film Festival and DOC NYC. “Casa Susanna” won DOC NYC’s U.S. Competition Grand Jury Prize in 2022. In awarding the prize, DOC NYC’s 2022 U.S. Competition jury issued a statement that says, in part: “‘Casa Susanna’ is a beautifully crafted film featuring hauntingly exquisite archival footage. Both cinematic and intimate, it offers a unique way into the trans experience by contrasting nostalgic and past stories through contemporary characters. This approach allowed us to understand how laws and perspectives have changed over the years.”

It’s a great way to describe the movie, but “Casa Susanna” isn’t without some flaws, such as how the documentary doesn’t offer any perspectives on what transgender people of color experienced as guests at Casa Susanna. The documentary also doesn’t address why only two former Casa Susanna patrons were interviewed for the movie. Viewers can only speculate why. Many of Casa Susanna’s customers and patrons have no doubt passed away, but many were still alive at the time this documentary was filmed. It’s why having only two former Casa Susanna patrons interviewed in the documentary makes it look like the filmmakers didn’t do enough to include interviews with more former Casa Susanna patrons.

However, the good news is that the people who are interviewed in the documentary are thoroughly engaging and tell compelling stories that will give viewers an idea of what Casa Susanna was like from transgender and cisgender perspectives, even if the interviewees can’t tell the entire story of this special place. “Casa Susanna” also has some great scenes where the interviewees go back to the former site of Casa Susanna and have heart-to-heart conversations with each other that are exclusive to this documentary.

These are the four people who are interviewed in “Casa Susanna”:

Katherine Cummings, a transgender woman born in 1935, was a frequent patron of Casa Susanna from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s. Cummings was born in Scotland, was raised in Australia, and lived in Canada (mostly in Toronto) when she would go to Casa Susanna. During her previous life living as a man named John, Cummings was married to a woman and had three daughters during this marriage. (Cummings passed away in 2022. The documentary includes an end credit stating, “In memory of Katherine Cummings.”)

Diana Merry-Shapiro, a transgender woman born in 1939, grew up in a conservative farming community in Iowa but has spent much of her life as a resident of California or New York. She was a frequent patron of Casa Susanna in the early-to-mid 1960s. Just like Cummings, Merry-Shapiro previously lived her life as a cross-dressing man (she used the name David), was married to a woman, and had gender affirmation surgery after the marriage ended in divorce. After her gender-affirmation surgery, Merry-Shapiro married a man and became a homemaker, but that marriage also ended in divorce. Merry-Shapiro then became a computer programmer who had a long career at Xerox when she was living in California. She and her third spouse, a woman named Carol, live in New York City, and have been married since the early 1990s.

Betsy Wollheim, born in 1952, is president, co-publisher and co-editor-in-chief of Daw Books, a New York City publishing company whose specialty is science fiction. She is the cisgender daughter and only child of sci-fi author Donald Wollheim (also know as Doris Wollheim), who presented himself as a cross-dressing, cisgender man. Betsy says that her mother not only knew before the marriage that Donald wanting to dress as a woman but her mother also usually went with Donald to Casa Susanna. However, it was a family secret until Betsy’s widowed mother was on her deathbed and told her.

Gregory Bagarozy, born in 1951, is the cisgender grandson of Marie Tonell, the cisgender woman who co-owned Casa Susanna with her spouse. Bagarozy tells the story about how Tonell used to own a wig shop in New York City, where one of the shop’s customers was an immigrant from Chile named Tito Arriagada. Tonell quickly figured out that Arriagada was a cross-dresser, she completely accepted it with no hesitation, they fell in love, and they got married in 1958. For years, Arriagada (who was a radio announcer) lived separate lives as a man and as a woman named Susanna Valenti (Casa Susanna’s namesake), but eventually lived life openly full-time as a transgender woman. (Valenti and Tonell are now deceased. They sadly died a week apart from each other in November 1996.)

All of this background information unfolds throughout the documentary in memories and anecdotes shared by the interviewees. Not surprisingly, Cummings and Merry-Shapiro have the most interesting stories to tell, since they were actually part of the Casa Susanna community. Bagarozy and Betsy Wollheim were children when Casa Susanna existed, so they only have second-hand knowledge of what it was like to be in this adult environment. However, Bagarozy and Betsy Wollheim both say that they found out later in life that many of the Casa Susanna regulars were people they already knew as friends of their respective families.

Cummings says that she remembers Casa Susanna as a place of “total freedom” to be who she was at the time, which was someone figuring out which gender to live as permanently. In the documentary, Cummings says from as early as she could remember, she never felt quite right living as a male. Cummings remembers being 5 years old and loving the feeling when her older sister would let Cummings wear her clothes. Cummings says that going to Casa Susanna was a “necessity” because “I needed to know what it was like to live as a woman for an extended period.”

Merry-Shapiro talks about childhood memories of being in the third or fourth grade and praying that she would wake up as a girl. “It was a secret that I had,” Merry-Shapiro says of this feeling. “I kept thinking that I would grow out of it. It never did go away.” She also talks about being fascinated with news about actress Christine Jorgensen, who became America’s first famous transgender woman when she had gender affirmation surgery in 1952. However, Merry-Shapiro remembers being afraid to talk to anyone about it, because she knew people in her community would shun or bully her for being interested in transgender issues.

When Merry-Shapiro was an adult and eventually came out as a transgender woman, her mother (whom Merry-Shapiro describes as “a serious Lutheran”) was much less accepting than her father. One of the most poignant scenes in the documentary is when Merry-Shapiro tearfully describes what happened when she visited her parents for the first time after having her gender-affirmation surgery. Still, her father’s acceptance only went so far. Merry-Shapiro says of her parents’ overall attitude: “I was an embarrassment to them. It was just as well that I disappeared.”

“Casa Susanna” gives detailed descriptions of the secrecy involved in Casa Susanna’s history. Because of homophobic laws and beliefs in society, Casa Susanna (which was originally located on a 288-acre property and later relocated to a 188-acre property) started off being marketed as an entertainment destination where heterosexual couples could go to watch shows featuring “female impersonators.” In those days, being a transgender woman or a drag queen was acceptable as entertainment, but not as a way of life.

According to the documentary, these “female impersonators” were really transgender women, drag queens and transvestites who already considered Casa Susanna a community gathering place but went along with the idea that they could also be part of the Casa Susanna’s entertainment for paying customers. The bungalows were where visitors and semi-residents stayed at Casa Susanna. Although Casa Susanna publicly presented these entertainers and other cross-dressing guests as heterosexual men, Bagarozy says that it’s highly unlikely that most of the people at Casa Susanna were heterosexual men.

Bagarozy comments on the transgender women and cross-dressing men at Casa Susanna: “These people were major film directors, attorneys, airplane pilots—all sorts of professions where people reached the pinnacle of their careers. They risked a lot for doing what they wanted to do.” Bagarozy adds, “It’s not like they wanted to be [pinup model] Bettie Page, or someone like that. They wanted to be an acceptable person of the female persuasion in society.”

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, identifying as any sexuality that wasn’t heterosexual was dangerous and (in many places) illegal in the United States. And that’s why Casa Susanna could not advertise in mainstream media that it was a place for transgender women and cross-dressers. Therefore, the community that grew from Casa Susanna mainly heard about it through word of mouth.

However, a lot of credit for creating awareness about Casa Susanna is given to Tranvestia magazine, which was founded in 1960, by a scientist named Virginia Prince, who was a transgender activist. Prince also created the Foundation for Personality Expression (FPE) for transgender people. Cummings says in the documentary that Prince got the idea to launch FPE at Casa Susanna, where Prince was a regular visitor. After Casa Susanna relocated to a smaller 188-property, it stopped offering “female impersonator” shows and became only a business of resort lodging.

Bagarozy paints a rosy picture of Casa Susanna’s transgender and cross-dressing people, whom he remembers as being cheerful and friendly to him when he was a child. He also acknowledges how rare it was to have a grandmother who was immediately accepting of having a transgender spouse. By contrast, Bagarozy says his mother Yolanda, who was Tonell’s daughter, never approved of Tonell’s marriage and Casa Susanna.

Although Casa Susanna was a happy place where people could be themselves, the reality was much bleaker for people who had to hide their true selves in their everyday lives. Cummings and Merry-Shapiro say that they struggled for years with shame, confusion and indecision over whether or not to have gender affirmation surgery. Cummings says she came to the decision to have the surgery because too many of her transgender friends were committing suicide, she didn’t want to die that way, and she wanted to be happy as her authentic self.

Cummings and Merry-Shapiro both admit that the women they were married to during their Casa Susanna years were okay with cross-dressing (and often accompanied them to Casa Susanna), as long as Cummings and Merry-Shapiro identified as cisgender men who just happened to dress as women in secret. Merry-Shapiro’s first wife Julie knew about Merry-Shapiro’s fashion preferences before they got married, when they were college sweethearts. Cummings’ then-wife didn’t find out until about a year after they were married, and the wife eventually didn’t want to go to Casa Susanna anymore.

Cummings and Merry-Shapiro say that their respective marriages eventually fell apart when Cummings and Merry-Shapiro decided they wanted to live openly as women and eventually have gender affirmation surgery. Cummings says that while one of her daughters completely accepts her as a woman, her other two daughters chose to remain estranged from her. The documentary doesn’t mention if the two estranged daughters made peace with Cummings before she died. Merry-Shapiro does not have children.

Merry-Shapiro and Cummings both say in the documentary that they have no regrets about having gender affirmation surgery. “I felt marvelous,” Cummings says of how she felt after getting the operation. “I felt for the first time in my life, I was the real person, that I had discarded bits of me that weren’t necessary, and I had gained bits of me that were [necessary].”

Merry-Shapiro says that she got her surgery with the help of a friend/benefactor named Gloria, who offered to pay for this medical procedure and went on a road trip with her to Mexico, where the procedure was done, because it wasn’t legal in the U.S. at the time. Merry-Shapiro admits, “That is a very isolating experience for any human being, I think, when who you are is against the law. There’s still a little bit of anger in me, even now, that I had to leave the country to have the surgery done.”

Donald Wollheim and his wife stayed together until he died, but daughter Betsy isn’t so sure if it was a marriage that ever had romantic passion. She says in the documentary that she was very surprised to read in her father’s memoir that he was in love with his wife. Betsy comments, “I knew he loved my mother deeply, but I didn’t see the ‘in love’ part.” She says that her parents would send her away to summer camp as a child when the parents would take their secret trips to Casa Susanna.

Betsy also remembers that her father had a favorite women’s nightgown when she was a child, but it wasn’t until she was about 12 years old when she really began to understand that her father was a cross-dresser. She describes how on Halloween Eve in 1964, her father wanted to dress as his sister for a Halloween party. He spent about five hours in the bathroom getting ready. She recalls thinking that he looked “very ghoulish” with all the makeup on, but she was suddenly struck by being fully aware for the first time that her father was “really into this [cross-dressing]—I just didn’t know to what extent.”

As for Donald Wollheim’s sexuality, Betsy says that all she knows is that her father was a “very isolated introvert” who “had no relationship with women until he met my mother.” She adds, “His childhood was very complicated and gothic,” because Donald Wollheim’s urologist father, whose specialty was in treating sexually transmitted diseases, taught his children to have a fear of the human body and spreading germs.

Betsy also shares painful memories of her father being verbally abusive to her, which she says got worse when she reached puberty. He would tell her she was ugly and wrongfully accuse her of being a liar and a fraud. She says it took her years to understand that her father was projecting a lot of his self-hatred onto her, considering how much he wanted to look like a woman. Betsy also says that even though her father could be cruel to a lot of people, she’s convinced that he was never cruel to his friends at Casa Susanna, which she believes is the only place where he was truly happy.

“Casa Susanna” has several photos of people at Casa Susanna in its heyday, but it’s also mentioned in the documentary that people at Casa Susanna were very cautious about who was taking photos and where these photos might end up. Cummings says, “We were all a little bit paranoid of: ‘Who’s going to find out? Am I going to lose my job? Am I going to lose my family?’ Which is what happened back then.” The documentary doesn’t mention Robert Swope and Michel Hurst’s 2005 photo book “Casa Susanna,” which inspired playwright Harvey Fierstein’s 2014 Broadway play “Casa Valentina.”

Even though “Casa Susanna” offers a very limited number of perspectives, it’s a documentary that still gives a vivid portrait of a community of people who found each other and thrived in a society that wanted this community to hide in shame or be punished. It’s an inspiring story about human connections and camaraderie that made a lasting and positive impact on people’s lives. But it’s also a sobering reminder that homophobia causes human rights violations that are still going on today and aren’t just history from a past century.

The PBS series “American Experience” will premiere “Casa Susanna” on a date to be announced.

Review: ‘All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,’ starring Nan Goldin

November 25, 2022

by Carla Hay

A 1970s photo of Nan Goldin (pictured at left) in Boston, with her then-roommate Bea, in “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“All the Beauty and the Bloodshed”

Directed by Laura Poitras

Culture Representation: The documentary film “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” features a predominantly white group of people (with one African American and one Asian) discussing the life and career of New York City-based artist/photographer Nan Goldin, who became an activist speaking out against the wealthy pharmaceutical Sackler family’s role in creating the opioid epidemic in the United States.

Culture Clash: Goldin (who is a recovering opioid addict) led protests and boycotts to remove the Sackler family name from prominent buildings, to have Sackler family donations rejected, and for the Sackler family to be held accountable for flooding the marketplace with prescription opioids, while also using her art and celebrity to express her greatest passions. 

Culture Audience: “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in learning more about Nan Goldin and how artists become activists.

Nan Goldin in a 1978 self-portrait in “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” (Photo by Nan Goldin/Neon)

The documentary “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” is a fusion of a revealing biography of photographer Nan Goldin and an impressive chronicle of her activism against pharmaceutical moguls, especially Purdue Pharma’s Sackler family, whom she blames for the opioid crisis. Goldin is very candid about being a recovering opioid addict and about other struggles in her life, including her mental health issues, her turbulent love life (such as being a domestic violence survivor of an ex-boyfriend), and her still-unresolved turmoil about the suicide of her older sister Barbara. “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” which was filmed mostly from 2017 to 2021, shows what happens when an artist does more than just talk about making a difference in social justice issues but actually becomes an agent for change in these issues.

Directed by Laura Poitras, “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival, where it became a rare documentary to win the Golden Lion, the festival’s top prize. “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” has since made the rounds at several other festivals, including the Toronto International Film Festival, New York Film Festival, the Austin Film Festival and DOC NYC. It’s a documentary that covers a lot of issues, sometimes in a way that’s jumbled and messy, but no one would ever describe Goldin’s life as neat and tidy.

Goldin, who was born in 1953, is the narrator of the documentary, which jumps around in the timeline of her life story. Goldin has a gravelly voice that comes from years of smoking cigarettes, fast living and surviving traumatic experiences that would kill many other people. She comes across as jaded but hopeful, world-weary yet determined to fight for the causes that mean the most to her. The scenes of Goldin being an activist are interwoven with her telling stories about her personal life.

“All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” opens with a visually striking scene of a Goldin-led protest at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City on March 10, 2018. In this scene, dozens of protestors have gathered in a museum atrium to throw empty prescription bottles in a water fountain while chanting, “Temple of money, temple of greed!” and “Sacklers lie, people die!” The atrium is in a section of the museum named after the Sackler family, the wealthy American clan that owns Purdue Pharma and Mundipharma. Purdue Pharma is the manufacturer of OxyContin. The protesters have gathered to demand that the museum remove the Sackler family name from anywhere in the museum.

The protesters lie down on the floor to represent the people who died from overdoses of OxyContin and other prescription drugs. As far as the protestors are concerned, any the Sackler family’s donations and philanthropic actions are tainted by “blood money” generated from the millions of lives destroyed by addictions to OxyContin and other opioids manufactured and marketed by the Sackler family’s pharmaceutical businesses. The protesters are eventually escorted out by the museum’s security personnel, but the documentary shows what eventually resulted from these kinds of protests.

In 2017, Goldin and some of her colleagues founded Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (P.A.I.N.), a group dedicated to preventing and reducing harm from prescription drug addiction, as well as shaming the greedy people who over-sell and over-prescribe these highly addictive drugs to vulnerable people. “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” documents how P.A.I.N. staged protests at museums in various international locations, including the Louvre in Paris; the Victoria & Albert Museum and the National Gallery in London; and the Guggenheim in New York City.

P.A.I.N. put pressure on these museums and other institutions to refuse donations from the Sackler family and to remove or prevent the Sackler name from anything associated with these institutions. This activism created worldwide awareness about the Sackler family putting the Sackler name on philanthropic causes, in the family’s attempts to deny or avoid responsibility for the opioid crisis. Goldin comments in the documentary about the Sackler family: “We will target their philanthropy. They have washed their blood money through the halls of museums and universities around the world.”

The U.S. government’s legal prosecutions of certain members of the Sackler family have been well-documented, but “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” puts a spotlight on Goldin and P.A.I.N.’s grassroots work in getting this prosecution to even take place. This behind-the-scenes look has the added benefit of Goldin’s participation, because her narration gives a very personal and touch that would be missing if she had not been actively involved in making the documentary. Goldin and Poitras are among the producers of “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed.”

Early on in the documentary, Goldin comments: “It’s easy to make your life into a story. It’s harder to sustain real memories. The difference between the story and the real memory: The real experience has the smell and is dirty and is not wrapped up in simple endings. The real memories are what affects me now. Things can appear that you don’t want to see. You’re not safe.”

In “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” Goldin dredges up a lot of unsafe memories, beginning with her childhood, which she describes as living in a “claustrophobic suburb.” Goldin was born in Washington, D.C., but spent most of her childhood living in the Boston suburbs of Swampscott and Lexington in Massachusetts. Her father was Goldin’s father worked in broadcasting and was the chief economist for the Federal Communications Commission. Her mother was a traditional homemaker.

Goldin’s older sister Barbara, who was seven years older than Nan, was a lesbian and was shamed by their parents about her sexuality. It was during a time when homosexuality was considered a mental illness, so Barbara was forced into a psychiatric institution for a certain period of time. Goldin believes this institutionalization caused further damage to an already mentally fragile Barbara, whom Goldin says had depression and anxiety. Goldin remembers that their mother used to say about Barbara’s sexuality: “Don’t let the neighbors know.”

Goldin shares fond memories of Barbara, whom she considered to be more of a mother figure to her than their own biological mother. “Barbara had a wildness to her,” Goldin says. “You couldn’t hold her back … She trusted me with all of her secrets.”

Goldin also remembers Barbara’s talent for playing classical music on the piano. “You could always tell how she felt by how she played,” Goldin says. “I felt very close to her, but she was in and out of institutions for most of her childhood.”

Tragically, Barbara committed suicide in 1964, at the age of 18. Goldin says with some bitterness, “I heard my mother say, ‘Tell the children it was an accident.’ She didn’t want us to know the truth. That’s when it clicked.” Goldin says in the documentary that Barbara probably wouldn’t have committed suicide if Barbara had a support group for LGBTQ teenagers and other young people. Those support groups didn’t exist in most places in 1964.

By the age of 13 or 14, Goldin left home. At 16 years old, she was enrolled at Satya Community School in Lincoln, Massachusetts, when a school employee introduced Goldin to photography. Thus began Goldin’s lifelong passion for telling visual stories through photos. She began documenting her life in photos, long before it became a common way of life for people in the era of the Internet and social media.

By the time Goldin was in her late teens, she was living in Boston as part of an avant-garde artist scene that she chronicled in her photography. Long before drag queens became part of mainstream media, Goldin had a particular affinity of taking photos of drag queens and transgender women, many of whom were friends of hers. In the documentary, Goldin talks about being in awe of a transgender woman named Bea, who became Goldin’s friend and roommate. Goldin’s first solo exhibit in Boston was in 1973, when she was 20 years old.

Goldin eventually relocated to New York City, the center of the art world in the United States. Life wasn’t glamorous at all in those early years when she was a a struggling artist. Goldin talks about living in New York City’s seedy Bowery district and having a drug-fueled lifestyle that included abuse of cocaine and methamphetamine. To pay her bills, Goldin says she became a nightclub go-go dancer then later became a brothel prostitute.

Goldin says, “Sex work is one of the hardest jobs you could ever have.” She also mentions that she wanted to talk about her past as a sex worker in this documentary, in order to get ride of the stigma and shame that is often associated with sex work. Eventually, Goldin became a bartender at the women-controlled nightclub Tin Pan Alley, whose owner hired people who wanted to transition out of sex work. Author/playwright Darryl Pickney says that Tin Pan Alley was very racially integrated and cut across social class boundaries.

One of the people in the New York City art scene who had a bg influence on Goldin was Cookie Mueller, whom Goldin describes in the documentary as “the center of downtown life. “The mid-1980s was when I was closest to Cookie.” Their friendship changed somewhat after Mueller married Italian artist Vittorio Scarpati in 1987. Tragically, Mueller and Scarpati died of AIDS-related illneses, just two months apart in 1989.

The documentary includes footage of Goldin’s activism in AIDS causes, including working with fellow activist/artist David Wojnarowicz. They were both heavily involved in the AIDS activist group ACT Up. In the documentary, Goldin describes Wojnarowicz as “my spiritual guide, my political guide.” (The 2021 documentary “Wojnarowicz,” directed by Chris McKim, has more information.)

Goldin and Wojnarowicz worked on an AIDS-themed artist installation that was scheduled to be at the Artist Space Gallery in New York City’s Tribeca neighborhood from November 1989 to January 1991. However, the National Endowment of the Arts controversially cancelled its grant funding for the project after getting pressure from conservative religious groups. Goldin says of the AIDS installation: “It was about the loss of community and trying to keep people’s legacy alive.”

She describes her history of drug abuse in matter-of-facts terms. Goldin says that she went to rehab for the first time in 1988. For a period of time that she does not fully disclose, she says she was addicted to OxyContin, a drug that went on the market in 1996. Goldin says that she is now clean and sober, but she firmly believes that she and an untold number of OxyContin addicts were deliberately not properly informed by medical professionals about how addictive OxyContin is, because too many people were and still are getting rich from OxyContin sales.

Goldin, who identifies as queer, also opens up about her love life. She talks about being in an abusive relationship with a man called Brian, whom she says she dated from 1981 to 1984. “I fell in love with him,” Goldin comments. “We had very good sex, and that can keep people together for a long time. And then, we started fighting.” Their troubled relationship included domestic violence.

Goldin describes a trip that she and David took to Provincetown, Massachusetts (a popular vacation spot for LGBTQ people), and jealousy issues arose because Goldin says she fell in love with a woman during this trip and photographed this woman constantly. Goldin, who does not name the woman, describes her as an “oddball” who would wear pearls at the beach. Goldin says about the early-to-mid-1980s: “It was a time of freedom and possibility. That’s when I did my first slide shows.”

Although Goldin’s career was on the rise in the early-to-mid-1980s, her relationship with David wasn’t getting any better. Goldin says that David broke up with her because he found out “I’d been with this girl.” (Goldin does not name this other lover.) She goes on to say about David, “He punched me in the face repeatedly.” To add insult to injury, David burned a lot of Goldin’s photos.

Most victims of domestic violence would hide this abuse, but Goldin made the very bold and unusual decision to do a photo exhibit showing her bruised and battered face from the injuries that David inflicted on her during this vicious attack. These photos were included in her ongoing photography collection “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” which started out as a slide show exhibition and film in 1985, and then became a published book in 1986.

More than 700 photos are in “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” which Goldin describes in the documentary as “the struggle between autonomy and dependency.” “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” includes many samples of Goldin’s work over the years, including photos from “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency”; “The Other Side,” a photo collection of drag queens from 1992- 2021; and “Sisters, Saints and Sibyls,” a photo collection from 2004 to 2021. The photos showcase Goldin’s penchant for documenting herself and other eccentrics in ways that can be gritty, glamorous or both.

In the documentary, Goldin gives a reminder that back in the 1970s and 1980s, she got a lot of resistance to her art because of sexism. She says many people told her, “Nobody photographs their own life.” And it was even rarer for women to want to make a living from this type of photography. Goldin says for some people who were born after the 1970s and 1980s, “It’s hard to understand that could’ve ever been radical.” Long before Instagram was even invented, Goldin was ahead of her time.

Because “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” weaves in and out of telling Goldin’s stories about her personal life and her activism, the film editing sometimes gives the movie a rambling tone, but it never derails too far off course. One of the documentary’s highlights is a videoconference call in which Goldin and other people affected by OxyContin addiction confront David Sackler and his aunt Theresa Sackler (two of the Sackler family defendants named in many lawsuits) to give a victim/survivor statement. Even though the Sacklers were not allowed to respond to these statements during this conference call, it’s a powerful moment that contrasts the Sacklers’ emotional aloofness with these survivors’ emotional pain.

Goldin, who has never been married and doesn’t have children, has this to say about her personal life: “The relationships that have mattered the most to me for probably my whole life have been my friends.” The documentary gives the impression that most of Goldin’s closest friends are also her P.A.I.N. colleagues.

Some of the P.A.I.N. members interviewed in the documentary include P.A.I.N. deputy Megan Kapler, artist Maria Berrio, P.A.I.N. deputy Harrison “Harry” Cullen and psychiatrist Annatina Miescher. The documentary includes a segment about how some of the P.A.I.N. activists believe that they were stalked and spied on by people hired by the Sackler family. Kapler shares footage of an unidentified middle-aged man who followed her and photographed her without her consent. He also staked her out in his car outside of her home.

Other interviewees in the documentary include Ad Hoc Committee of Accountability attorney Mike Quinn, who does a lot of pro bono work for P.A.I.N.; Robert Suarez of the Urban Survivors Union, a non-profit support group for drug addicts; Artforum International magazine editor-in-chief David Velsaco; TruthPharm executive director Alexis Pleus; set designer/interior decorator Noemi Bonazzi; actress Sharon Niesp; writer Patrick Radden Keefe; and actress Maggie Smith.

“All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” also shows the next big initiative for P.A.I.N. is removing the stigma of doctors treating opioid addicts who are in clean needle programs. And one of the final scenes in the film shows P.A.I.N. raising $35,000 for Urban Survivors Union to purchase a machine that gives drug users an analysis of the content in their drugs. This machine does not encourage drug use but is aimed at preventing deaths when people unknowingly ingest drugs with lethal content.

People who know about Goldin before seeing “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” might not be as surprised by her unique personality, her artistic talent and her unwavering commitment to the causes that she cares about the most. However, what will resonate with viewers the most is how someone who has experienced as many highs and lows as Goldin has can take those experiences and turn them into something positive that can help other people. No matter what type of backgrounds that people have, “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” is an inspirational story that shows the true meaning of persistence and hope.

Neon released “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” in New York City on November 23, 2022. The movie’s U.S. release expands to Los Angeles and San Francisco on December 2, 2022, with more cities added on December 9, 2022.

Review: ‘The Invaders’ (2022), starring Coby Smith, John B. Smith, Calvin Taylor, Juanita Thornton, Jim Netters, Lance Watson and Clarence Christian

November 24, 2022

by Carla Hay

Coby Smith in “The Invaders” (Photo courtesy of 1091 Pictures)

“The Invaders” (2022)

Directed by Prichard Smith

Culture Representation: The documentary film “The Invaders” features an all-African American group of people discussing the rise and fall of the Memphis, Tennessee-based militant Black Power group the Invaders, which formed in 1967 and disbanded a few years later.

Culture Clash: Former members of the Invaders say that were wrongfully blamed for a riot that broke out in Memphis in March 1968, during a protest in support of a labor strike by the city’s African American sanitation workers. 

Culture Audience: “The Invaders” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in documentaries about the U.S. civil rights movement in the late 1960s.

John B. Smith in “The Invaders” (Photo courtesy of 1091 Pictures)

When most people think of the Black Power movement that gained momentum in the U.S. in the late 1960s, they think of the Black Panthers. Many people don’t know about the smaller, grassroots Black Power groups that had similar ideals and made an impact. “The Invaders” documentary tells the story of one such group formed in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1967. This traditionally made documentary gives insight into the Invaders and their contributions to the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1960s. It’s an important reminder that the Black Panthers weren’t the only Black Power group making history.

Directed by Prichard Smith, “The Invaders” had its world premiere at DOC NYC in 2015. The movie’s release was in limbo for several years because of funding and licensing issues, according to a 2022 interview that Prichard Smith did with the Memphis Flyer, a local newspaper. Seven years after its world premiere at DOC NYC, “The Invaders” has now been released. The documentary is a conventionally structured mixture of archival footage and more recent interviews with former members and associates of the Invaders. What’s been added since “The Invaders” made the rounds on the film festival circuit is voiceover narration from Nasir Jones (better known as rapper Nas), who signed on as an executive producer for the documentary.

“The Invaders” opens with archival footage of Invaders co-founder Coby Smith (no relation to Prichard Smith) being interviewed by an unnamed media outlet in the late 1960s. He says, “We don’t organize burnings, essentially. We organize people. If people burn, they burn. We are black, and we’re proud of it.”

Much of “The Invaders” explores the theme of how there were two types of philosophies for the U.S. civil rights movement, when it came to race relations: One was the philosophy of non-violence, espoused by civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther Ling Jr. The other was the philosophy of violence in self-defense, espoused by civil rights leader Malcolm X and later the Black Panthers. What a lot of people don’t know is that King sought out the Invaders to be a bridge between these two philosophies.

Among the people who tell the story in “The Invaders” documentary are Invaders co-founders Coby Smith and John B. Smith, who are not related to each other and not related to director Prichard Smith. Coby Smith and John B. Smith share vivid memories of meeting and forming the Invaders in 1967 with co-founder Charles Cabbage, who died in 2010, at the age of 66.

At the time the Invaders launched, Coby Smith and Cabbage were students and intellectuals who yearned to make a difference in African American communities in Memphis and beyond. John B. Smith was a disabled Vietnam War veteran who became disillusioned with the U.S. government after he came back from the war.

In the documentary, John B. Smith has this to say about what Memphis was like before the civil rights movement: “Segregation wasn’t just laws on the books. It was a state of mind. Black people understood what their place was, and they accepted that.” Calvin Taylor, former minister of information for the Invaders, adds: “When we were growing up, if you were black, that meant you were in the [racism] problem. It didn’t mean you had any opportunities not to be part of the problem.”

John B. Smith tells a story about the turning point when he decided to become a civil rights activist. He had returned from the Vietnam War and considered himself to be very patriotic about America. One day, he was at a gas station, minding his own business, when he saw a white man steal the gas cap from John B. Smith’s car. The alleged thief then tried to sell the gas cap back to John B. Smith.

John B. Smith responded by calling the police, who immediately took the white man’s side and believed the white man’s denials of stealing the gas cap, according to John B. Smith. The white man then accused John B. Smith of harassing him. A crowd gathered and defended John B. Smith, but the police theatened the crowd with arrest if they didn’t leave. John B. Smith says he refused to leave until the matter of the theft was resolved. And as a result, John B. Smith was arrested.

Influenced by Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael, the Invaders aimed to empower African Americans, beginning in Memphis, with fundraisers to help underprivileged people in the community. The Invaders were involved in the Black Organizing Project, which offered assistance in education and food for the African American community. Black Organizing Project also launched the Community Unification Program.

As the civil rights movement became more dangerous for activists and protestors, the Invaders also believed that black people were better off learning to arm and defend themselves against racist attackers. Juanita Thornton, one of the former Invaders interviewed in the documentary, says of this philosophy: “If you hit me, I should be able to hit you back without a whole lot of bullshit. I loved it.”

It was this militant stance that caused some civil rights leaders to mistrust the Invaders, while other civil right leaders wanted to align themselves with the Invaders. Reverend James Lawson, a civil rights activist who believed in non-violence, came from Nashville to Memphis and interacted for a time with the Invaders. Civil rights leader King became another ally of the Invaders, but he was assassinated (shot to death) on April 4, 1968, before his plans to create a formal alliance with the Invaders ever became a reality.

The Memphis sanitation strike, which lasted from February to April 1968, was the Invaders’ highest-profile protest campaign, for better or for worse. About 1,300 African American male sanitation workers from the Memphis Department of Public Works went on strike to demand higher wages and safer work environments that were the same given to the white sanitation workers who did the same jobs. Reverend Malcolm Blackburn, a white pastor of Clayborn Temple in Memphis, was an ally of the striking workers, and so were the Invaders.

Contrary to a mythical stereotype, Black Power activists such as the Invaders were not against working with white people in the civil rights movement. Coby Smith comments in the documentary: “We never would’ve gotten through the civil rights movement without an awful amount of whites who came and said [about racist laws/policies], ‘Wait a minute, that does not make sense.'”

On March 28, 1968, King and Lawson led a protest march in downtown Memphis, in support of the sanitation workers who were on strike. The march started out as peaceful but descended into chaos, as the mood turned angry. Some people in the crowd started looting and causing vandalism at nearby businesses. (King and Lawson left the protest soon after it became violent.) Police responded with aggression, including using mace and guns. In the resulting pandemonium, an unarmed 16-year-old African American named Larry Payne was shot to death in the stomach by a white cop.

The Invaders were blamed for inciting the riot, but it’s an allegation that the people in the documentary vehemently deny. Still, the riot tainted the Invaders’ reputation, and they say that key members of the Invaders became the targets of FBI surveillance, just like King was targeted by the FBI. Rather than distance himself from the Invaders, King sought them out for protection when he was at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, on that fateful day of his death. (James Earl Ray, who had a long criminal history of being a thief, pleaded guilty to the murder, and he was sentenced in 1969 to 99 years in prison. Ray died in 1998, at the age of 70.)

Still reeling from the damage and increased racial tensions caused by the riot and Payne’s death, about 15 members of the Invaders met with King for a few hours, at his request, at the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968. About half an hour after the Invaders left the motel, King was murdered. John B. Smith and Cabbage were among those who met with King, who told them that he wanted the Invaders to be the security personnel for the next planned protest in support of the Memphis sanitation workers on strike.

John B. Smith says that King confided in them about being under surveillance by the FBI because then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had a personal grudge against King. In the documentary, John B. Smith remembers that King told him about the famous private meeting that King and Hoover had in December 1964, after Hoover had publicly made this statement in November 1964: “Dr. Martin Luther King is the most notorious liar in the country.” (The December 1964 meeting was the only time that King and Hoover ever met face-to-face.)

According to John B. Smith, King went into the meeting with Hoover thinking one way and came out of the meeting thinking another way: “He [King] thought that they could actually come to a meeting of the mind. But once he met with him [Hoover], he realized that Hoover was out to destroy him.” King also said that the racists that King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference group encountered were worse in the Northern states than in the racially segregated Southern states.

Thornton says in the documentary that King wanted to take “the cream of the crop” of African American militants, such as the Invaders, and “put them into a training program that was non-violent.” Later in the documentary, Thornton says, “I believe economic power for poor people was one of the main reasons why Dr. King got assassinated. He was talking about poor people power.”

“The Invaders” is very no-frills when it comes to its editing and cinematography, but the interviewees are compelling and offer some valuable first-hand insights about their perspectives of the U.S. civil rights movement. Other people interviewed in the documentary are Reverend Jim Netters, who was on the Memphis City Council in 1968; Clarence Christian, who was a student activist at LeMoyne-Owen College in 1968; Mad Lads lead singer John Gary Williams, a former member of the Invaders; David Acey, who was a student protester in 1968; and Lance Watson, also known as Sweet Willie Wine, who led the Invaders’ security personnel. Watson later changed his name to Suhkara A. Yahweh. (Williams died in 2019, at the age of 73.)

As interesting as these stories are in “The Invaders,” this documentary doesn’t really reveal anything new. Some of the interviewees have talked about the same things in other media interviews before this documentary was made. John B. Smith also wrote a memoir titled “The 400th: From Slavery to Hip-Hop” (published in 2021), which covers many of the same things that are covered in the documentary.

“The Invaders” doesn’t go deep enough in taking a critical look at why a civil rights group such as the Invaders had very sexist attitudes in not letting women have leadership roles. Thornton (who was never a leader in the group) is the only woman interviewed in the documentary. The small percentage of female representation in this documentary is indicative of problems that the group had with sexism against women that the documentary completely ignores.

“The Invaders” also could have had perspectives from at least a few people who were involved in the civil rights movement in the late 1960s, but were not necessarily fans of the Invaders. The documentary seems to be a little too much of a praise fest for the Invaders and doesn’t offer any constructive criticism of the group, which eventually drifted apart and disbanded a few years after King’s assassination. Even with these flaws, “The Invaders” documentary is worth watching for history enthusiasts or anyone interested in a getting an inside story of an African American activist group that has often been relegated to being a footnote in U.S. civil rights history.

1091 Pictures released “The Invaders” on digital and VOD on November 1, 2022.

Review: ‘Hold Your Fire,’ starring Harvey Schlossberg, Shu’aib Rahim and Jerry Riccio

July 4, 2022

by Carla Hay

A 1973 photo of Shulab Abdur Raheem (now known as Shu’aib Rahim) in “Hold Your Fire” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Hold Your Fire”

Directed by Stefan Forbes

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Hold Your Fire” features a group of African American and white people from the working-class and middle-class who were in some way connected to a kidnapping/hostage standoff that lasted from January 19 to January 21, 1973, in New York’s City’s Brooklyn borough.

Culture Clash: There was racial tension in this crisis because the hostage takers were four young African American men, almost all of the police officers were white, and there was disagreement among law enforcement on how to handle this crisis. 

Culture Audience: “Hold Your Fire” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching true crime documentaries that go deep in discussing racial issues and hostage negotiations tactics.

A 1973 photo of New York Police Department officers in “Hold Your Fire” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

The compelling documentary “Hold Your Fire” has lessons that go beyond this chronicle of a notorious hostage crisis that happened in New York City in 1973. The movie shows how dangerous situations can be de-escalated with the correct communication. Directed by Stefan Forbes, “Hold Your Fire” takes the view that how this hostage crisis was handled was a turning point in getting the New York Police Department (NYPD) to rethink the “shoot first, ask questions later” automatic reaction to hostage takers. “Hold Your Fire” had its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival and made the rounds at some other film festivals, including the 2021 edition of DOC NYC.

Almost everyone who’s interviewed in “Hold Your Fire” was directly affected in some way to this hostage-taking incident, which lasted from January 19 to January 21, 1973, in New York’s City’s Brooklyn borough. It all started when four African American men—ranging in ages from 22 to 26—went into a store called John and Al’s Sporting Goods, with the intention of robbing the store of firearms and ammunition. John and Al’s Sporting Goods was located in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, which in 1973 had a reputation for being a crime-ridden, low-income area. (Bushwick is still mostly working-class, but it has since been gentrified and “cleaned up” its “on the decline” image that it had in the 1970s.)

The four men who invaded the store were Sunni Muslims, who wanted the firearms and ammunition for what was later described as a “holy crusade” and for self-defense against recent attacks from Black Muslims. The robbers were Shulab Abdur Raheem (now known as Shu’aib Rahim), who was 24 years old at the time; Yusef Abdallah Almussadig (now known as Mussidiq), who was 23; Dawud A. Rahman, who was 22; and Salih Ali Abdullah, who was 26. Although all four men have been identified as being members of the Black Liberation Army (BLA) when this crime happened, in “Hold Your Fire,” Rahim (who was the leader of the robbers) claims he was not a BLA member when this crime occurred.

Contrary to what perceptions might have been, these four men were not career criminals at the time of this robbery and hostage-taking crisis. Rahim was a transit toll-booth worker. Mussidiq was a carpenter. Rahman was a college student. Abdullah was a TV repairman. Rahim and Rahman are the only two of the four robbers interviewed in “Hold Your Fire.” The movie’s epilogue explains what happened to Mussidiq, Abdullah and a few other principal people involved in the hostage crisis.

During the robbery, things quickly spiraled out of control. The police were called to the crime scene; there were shootouts between the police and robbers; and the robbers initially refused to surrender. Instead, the robbers stayed in the store, where they took 11 people as hostages during the standoff. In “Hold Your Fire,” Rahman says he wanted to surrender immediately, but he was outvoted by his other three cohorts, who at first wanted to flee the scene, but then decided to take people hostage inside the store when they found out that many cops were surrounding the store.

Not everyone made it out of this crisis alive. NYPD officer Stephen R. Gilroy was killed during the shootouts. The NYPD, much of the media and the state of New York blamed the robbers for the death. All four men were convicted in New York Supreme Court of murdering Gilroy, kidnapping and armed robbery. But to this day, the bullet that killed Gilroy was never matched to any guns. Some people in the documentary speculate that Gilroy was killed by an accidental gunshot from someone in the NYPD and that the NYPD covered up the evidence.

Much of “Hold Your Fire” includes vivid memories of what happened inside the store and outside the store, from the people who were there during this hostage crisis. The people who were inside the store who are interviewed in “Hold Your Fire” include hostage takers Rahim and Rahman; hostage Rosemary Catalano, who was 16 years old in 1973; and Jerry Riccio, owner of John and Al’s Sporting Goods, who says the robbers’ first big mistake was trying to steal more firearms than the robbers could carry. The police officers who were outside of the store who are interviewed in “Hold Your Fire” (and who are all now retired) are Al Baker, former NYPD captain; Jack Cambria, former NYPD lieutenant/sergeant; Al Sheppard, former NYPD patrolman; and Brian Tuohy, former NYPD police officer, who was a 27-year-old rookie at the time.

In addition, “Hold Your Fire” has archival interviews with NYPD commissioner Ben Ward and NYPD Commissioner Patrick Murphy. A few academics and legal experts weigh in with their perspectives, such as criminal defense attorney Gerald Lefcourt and Dr. Antoinette “Toni” Collarini-Schlossberg, who is chair of the criminal justice division of St. John’s University in New York City. And there’s an interview with Alice Buckner, the daughter of the late Fonnie Bucker, who was one of the hostage victims. Alice says that as a result of the hostage trauma, Fonnie (who was pregnant at the time) had a nervous breakdown and a miscarriage shortly after she was released.

In interviews to promote “Hold Your Fire” and in the movie’s production notes, “Hold Your Fire” director Forbes says that the biggest hero of this crisis was Harvey Schlossberg, a NYPD officer who had a Ph.D. in psychology and who was the chief negotiator on behalf of the NYPD. Schlossberg is interviewed in “Hold Your Fire,” where he gives a step-by-step account of why he felt that the best tactic was for the NYPD to not storm into the store and shoot the robbers, which would have been standard procedure. Instead, the three-day standoff consisted of tense negotiations, which resulted in many of the hostages being released and no one else being killed before the robbers surrendered.

Schlossberg comments on his philosophy in resolving conflicts: “I believe in talking. Everything is resolvable by talking.” But as the documentary details, this tactic was very controversial in the heat of the moment. Schlossberg got a lot of pushback, complaints and threats from the NYPD, members of the media, loved ones of the hostage victims, and other people in the general public, who all thought that verbal negotiations would take too long to resolve the crisis. Many people thought that the robbers needed to be immediately killed by the police.

This standoff between the cops and the robbers happened just two years after the notorious Attica Correctional Facility crisis in Attica, New York. Attica’s male prisoners (mostly African American and Latino), who demanded more humane living conditions and better health care, took over the prison and held several prison employees hostage from September 9 to September 13, 1971. Negotiations fell apart, and then-New York governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered state and local police (almost all who were white men) to employ war-like tactics to take back control of the prison. In the end, 33 inmates and 10 correctional officers and employees were killed in the violent standoff.

“Hold Your Fire” doesn’t gloss over the racial context of the very divisive debate over how the hostage crisis should have been handled at John and Al’s Sporting Goods on those fateful three days in 1973. Rahim comments in the documentary: “New York City has always had a hard, ugly relationship between the police and the community of color. All my life, the police have been killing black people.”

Baker has this counter-remark: “I know for a fact that cops aren’t racist, yet there was this perception that cops were going to brutalize blacks. Police are seen as oppressors, corrupt, brutal.” Sheppard, who was one of the cops on the scene of this hostage crisis, says that the kidnappers/robbers were looking for a violent fight: “They want a physical confrontation.” As for kidnapping/robbery leader Rahim, Sheppard adds, “A guy like that needs his ass kicked.”

Rahim does not try to excuse his heinous actions that day, but he does say that he never intended for anyone to get killed during this robbery and kidnapping. In the documentary, Rahim also denies reports that he was heard saying about slain NYPD officer Gilroy: “I killed that pig.” In “Hold Your Fire,” Rahim comments on Gilroy’s death: “I don’t know what happened. But it don’t really matter at the end of the day, because none of that would’ve happened if we weren’t there.”

Store owner Riccio refutes the NYPD claim that the cops aimed high when shooting into the store. “The police department won’t admit to a lot of things they did,” Riccio comments. Mussidiq, whom Rahim describes as the “loose cannon” of the four robbers, ended up being shot during the standoff, but he survived his gunshot wounds.

As the leader of the robbers, Rahim gets the most scrutiny and is the only one of the four robbers whose background is talked about in-depth. Rahim describes his mother, Gloria Robinson, as his “mentor” but also as an “alcoholic.” During hostage negotiations, Robinson wanted to talk to her son, but Schlossberg advised against it. Schlossberg says in the documentary that it’s generally not a good idea to involve family members or other loved ones of hostage takers in the negotiation process. “If they had a healthy family, they wouldn’t be in here [taking people hostage],” Schlossberg explains.

Rahim gets the most emotional and remorseful in the documentary when talking about Fonnie Buckner, especially when thinking about how her hostage ordeal resulted in her pregnancy miscarriage. He says that Fonnie Buckner had a chance to be released with some other hostages during the standoff, but she refused. “She didn’t trust the police,” Rahim remembers. “She wanted to stay with us.”

In hindsight, Rahim says in the documentary that he has come to understand over the years that what he and his cohorts did during those three days caused lifelong damage: “People who are hurt, injured and suffer—even oppressed—can become blinded by their own hurt and destroy the lives of so many people who did you no harm. That’s the tragedy of it all: when the victim becomes that which they fear.”

It’s mentioned several times in “Hold Your Fire” that one of the barriers with the NYPD that Schlossberg had to face in this hostage negotiation was he did not fit the image of being a macho cop. Baker comments on Schlossberg: “He didn’t look like a cop. He didn’t act like a cop … He was seen as fruity. Not a back slapper, ‘Let’s go for a beer’ guy.”

Baker continues in describing Schlossberg as “socially incompetent, academic, quirky. He has the Jewish sense of humor. A consummate Jew. He was a genius oddball, psychobabble type of guy.” In an archival interview, then-NYPD commissioner Murphy says Schlossberg “was hated, a bookworm, not a warrior.” Another reason why Schlossberg didn’t have the respect of many NYPD officials: He was mainly a traffic cop, which is a position that’s considered the wimpiest and least-demanding position possible for a police officer.

Whatever negative opinions that many influential members of the NYPD had of Schlossberg at the time, he stayed the course in the negotiations. And many people believe that he helped save the lives of the people who didn’t die in this crisis. Sadly, Schlossberg passed away in 2021. He was 85.

In “Hold Your Fire,” Schlossberg says that law enforcement officers often have this mentality during a hostage crisis: “They all believe that if you give me the right gun with the right bullet, I can put everybody out. But I don’t think it works that easily. That’s a Hollywood thing.” There is no Hollywood fantasy in “Hold Your Fire,” which is a no-frills, raw and impactful documentary that effectively shows how the right negotiations can prevent a bad situation from getting worse.

IFC Films released “Hold Your Fire” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on May 20, 2022.

Review: ‘Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America,’ starring Jeffrey Robinson

November 28, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jeffrey Robinson, Hank Sanders and Faya Ora Rose Touré in “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” (Photo by Jesse Wakeman/Sony Pictures Classics)

“Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America”

Directed by Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler 

Culture Representation: The documentary “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” features a predominantly African American group (with a few white people) of civil rights activists, entrepreneurs, historians and authors discussing the racial prejudices and challenges experienced by people of color, particularly African American men, in the United States.

Culture Clash: The documentary, led by civil rights activist/attorney Jeffrey Robinson, has the premise that people cannot truly be honest about racism in America without acknowledging that America was built on white supremacy that oppresses non-white people in entrenched systems that still exist today.

Culture Audience: “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” will appeal primarily to people interested in historical accounts of racial bigotry in America that have a personal touch (due to Robinson’s on-camera narration and interviewing), but don’t expect there to be much discussion about racism against people who aren’t African American men.

Jeffrey Robinson in “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” (Photo by Jesse Wakeman/Sony Pictures Classics)

“Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” is partly a filmed lecture by scholar Jeffrey Robinson, partly a historical account and partly a personal journey taken by Robinson to retrace past experiences with racism and race relations. The movie features compelling interviews and information but puts an overwhelming emphasis on bigotry inflicted on black men. The documentary should have been more inclusive of other people of color who experience racism too.

For example, the documentary has almost no acknowledgement of the genocide of Native Americans that allowed white Europeans to take over the land that is now known as the United States of America. You can’t have a truly comprehensive discussion about racism in America without including the brutally honest but necessary history explaining how white people became the dominant race in a part of North America where Native Americans were the dominant race for centuries. The documentary also does not cover the well-documented and shameful examples of U.S. government-sanctioned racism and other forms of bigotry experienced by Latinos and Asians in America.

“Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” (directed by sisters Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler) is nevertheless a well-intentioned film and addresses many important topics about racial discrimination. The title is just a little misleading though. A more accurate title would be “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism Against Black Men in America.” That’s because almost all of the examples of racist hate crimes that are examined in this documentary are crimes in America against black men. This documentary packs in a considerable amount of information in its 118-minute running time, but the vast scope of what this documentary intended would have been better-suited as a docuseries instead of a feature-length film.

“Who Are Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” made the rounds at several film festivals, including the SXSW Film Festival, Hot Docs, AFI Fest and DOC NYC. It’s the type of movie that is supposed to make people uncomfortable because it covers uncomfortable truths that many people want to deny or forget. The documentary sounds an alarm that there’s still a lot of work to be done in healing from and preventing the damage of racism that is still pervasive today.

If it seems like “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” has a well-articulated and methodical tone of attorneys presenting a case, that’s because several attorneys or people with legal backgrounds were involved in the making of this film. Jeffrey Robinson, the movie’s on-screen narrator and interviewer, is an attorney who founded the Who We Are Project non-profit group to combat racism. Proceeds from this documentary will go to Who We Are Project. He has a background working as a deputy legal director and the director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Trone Center for Justice and Equality, as well as a public defender and an attorney in private practice.

Robinson, Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler are among the producers of “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America.” Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler (who co-founded the social-justice film production company Off Center Media) are two of the daughters famed civil rights attorney William Kunstler. Sarah is a practicing attorney. Emily’s mother is attorney Margaret Ratner Kunstler.

When white directors make a documentary or any project about white supremacist racism, some people will automatically question the validity or authenticity of the project. Emily Kunstler responded to this skepticism by making this statement in the “Who We Are” documentary’s production notes: “Throughout the making of this film, one of the questions we often get is why are two white women making this film? Our answer is that the history of slavery in the United States is not Black history, it is American history; a history of white supremacy and white complicity as well as a history of Black oppression and resistance. Growing up, Sarah and I were taught that it was our moral responsibility to stand up against racism and fight for justice. This responsibility includes learning and sharing our country’s painful history.”

“Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” has three distinctive types of footage that are all interwoven seamlessly throughout the film:

  • (1) A filmed speaking appearance about American racism that Robinson did in June 2018 at New York City’s Town Hall. This footage was directed by Gbenga Akinnagbe, who is one of the producers of this documentary.
  • (2) Archival footage of many of the people, places and events discussed in the documentary.
  • (3) Interviews about racism in America that Robinson conducted in various U.S. cities.

Robinson has an engaging style of public speaking that is partly like a scholarly history teacher, partly like an intellectual sociologist and partly like an impassioned civil rights activist. He infuses his recitation of alarming statistics and data about racism with his own personal anecdotes, in order to make the information more relatable. He sometimes cracks sarcastic jokes to lighten the mood. Other times, his facial expressions show the emotional pain of remembering being the target of racism and feeling empathy to others who’ve also experienced this type of hatred and discrimination.

In the documentary’s opening scene, Robinson is seen on stage at the Town Hall appearance addressing a common argument that some people have when trying to minimize the damage caused by slavery in America. Robinson says that these deniers often say, “‘Slavery is not our responsibility.’ But it’s our shared history. And when we try to turn it into something that it’s not, when we try to make more light of what it was, then we are denying who we really are and are impeding our ability to move forward as a community and as a nation.”

As an example of how divisive people’s opinions are about how slavery in America should be remembered, the documentary mentions the ongoing debates of whether or not certain slave owners in American history should be celebrated. Controversies over which public statues should be removed or which architectural structures should be renamed indicate that this is a hot-button topic that won’t be going away anytime soon. Oftentimes, when people talk about not removing these statues or other tributes, they say it’s about “being patriotic.” But does “being patriotic” mean embracing historical racists as heroes?

In the documentary, Robinson shares his opinion on where people should draw the line: If a historical figure (especially a slave owner) is best known for doing things that advocated for keeping slavery and/or racial segregation legal, then those historical figures should not be celebrated with public statues, structures or any government-funded institutions named after them. If a historical figure’s accomplishments consist mainly of progress for the United States that’s greater than the fact that the historical figure participated in enslaving people when it was legal in the United States, then it’s best to not remove the statue or tribute. Robinson cites former U.S. presidents who were slave owners (George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, to name a few) as examples of historical figures who shouldn’t be “erased” or “cancelled,” because their legacies for what they did in U.S. history far outweigh the fact that they owned slaves.

Several of the flashpoint events in civil rights history are mentioned during Robinson’s Town Hall speaking appearance, which includes a Power Point-type visual presentation on stage. These tragedies include the 1921 massacre and burning of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma; the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmitt Till, who was brutally slaughtered by two white men in Money, Mississippi, after Till was wrongfully accused of whistling at a white woman; and the 1968 assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis. For many of these tragic events, Robinson goes to the scene and/or interviews people who were associated in some way to the victims of these hate crimes.

In Tulsa, Robinson interviews Lessie Benningfield Randle, one of the last known survivors of the Tulsa massacre. Even though she was a little girl when the massacre happened, she still has horrific memories of this tragedy. She witnessed people being shot and bodies piled up on the street. “I never want to see anything like that again,” she says with a haunted look in her eyes.

Also in Tulsa, Robinson visits Dr. Tiffany Crutcher, the twin sister of Terence Crutcher, an unarmed college student who was killed in 2016 by a white police officer named Betty Jo Shelpy, who claimed self-defense. Dr. Cruther says that her brother was not identified as a suspect when Shelpy arrived on the scene and that the media “dehumanized” him as a criminal when in fact he was not a criminal. “He laid on the street like an animal,” she says bitterly about how her brother’s dead body was unattended to for hours.

While in Memphis (Robinson’s childhood hometown), Robinson visits the Lorraine Motel, the site of King’s assassination. Robinson describes his own father as someone who was involved in the civil rights movement, and he has vivid memories of being taken to protest marches as a child. Also in Memphis, Robinson has an emotional reunion with Robert “Opie” Orians, a former classmate and friend of Robinson’s when they both attended St. Louis Catholic School and were on the school’s basketball team. Jeffrey Robinson and his older brother Herbert Robinson (who appears briefly in another part of the documentary) were the first black students at the school.

Opie’s father Richard Orians is also part of the reunion with Opie and Jeffrey. Richard, who used to coach the school’s basketball team, talks about an incident when the St. Louis team was barred from entry for a game at a rival school because a black student (Jeffrey) was on the St. Louis team. All three men get emotional, with eyes tearing up and voices cracking, when Richard says that, out of principle, he removed the team from the premises because he didn’t want to the team to be associated with a school that would make this racist decision. At the time, Richard says that he protected the team by not telling them the real reason why they were withdrawing from the game.

Jeffrey also remembers another racist incident he experienced as a child during a basketball game, when someone on the other team called him the “n” word. Jeffrey’s father was watching the game nearby, so Jeffrey went to his father to complain about the racist insult. Jeffrey remembers his father’s empathetic but stern response: “What do you want to do about it?”

His father asked Jeffrey if he would rather quit the game and let the racist feel superior, or stay in the game to prove to the racist that a racist slur wasn’t going to stop Jeffrey from playing the game. Jeffrey decided to stay in the game. He said it was an early lesson in not letting racists get what they want when they using racist insults and other forms of racism to make the targets of their hate feel inferior or defeated.

Jeffrey shares another personal story when he meets up with Kathie Fox, whose mother-in-law Mildred was the realtor of the Robinson family. The family—Jeffrey’s parents Herbert Sr. and Lameris; older brother Herbert Jr.; and younger brother Larry (who appears briefly in this documentary); and Jeffrey—couldn’t move into a mostly white neighborhood until Mildred enlisted her married white friends Lib and Pat Smith to buy a house in the neighborhood and then transfer the deed to Herbert Sr. and Lameris. Jeffrey remembers the look of shock on some neighbors’ faces when his family moved into the neighborhood. It was not uncommon for African American families to have to ask white allies to be their proxies to buy a house in a white neighborhood, because racist realtors would not sell houses to black people.

Also in Memphis, Jeffrey meets up with Tami Sawyer, a Shelby County commissioner of District 7, who led the charge to take down a statue in Memphis of Nathan Bedford, a Confederate Army general and the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Sawyer says there’s no legitimate excuse for any past or present member of the KKK to be honored with a publicly funded statue that makes that person look like a hero. Still, the people who successfully lobbied to have the statue removed got a lot of resistance from those who say statues like that represent “Southern pride.” To other people, these types of statues are symbols of racist white supremacy.

While visiting Clayborn Temple in Memphis, Jeffrey interviews Carolyn Payne, whose unarmed brother Larry Payne was shot to death by a cop when Larry was 18 years old. Larry was unfortunately in the wrong place at the wrong time, since there was no evidence that he did anything wrong. Nothing ever happened to the cop who killed Larry. Carolyn says that she and her family will probably never know what really happened because she thinks there was a racist cover-up by the police who were involved. Sadly, there are too many other incidents like this to put into just one documentary.

In Alabama, Jeffrey visits author Josephine Bolling McCall, whose father Elmore Bolling was murdered in 1967, for being “too successful to be a Negro,” according to a newspaper report that she reads out loud and which is shown in the documentary. She describes how her family found her father shot to death in a ditch. “It’s ingrained in my memory,” she says with heartbreak. No one was indicted for this crime.

While in Selma, Alabama, Jeffrey speaks with retired Alabama senator Hank Sanders and activist Faya Ora Rose Touré, who are part of a group of citizens who want the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma to be renamed the Freedom Bridge. Edmund Pettus was a Grand Dragon in the KKK. Considering the historical significance of Selma in the civil rights movement, many people think it’s an insult that there’s a bridge in Selma (or anywhere, for that matter) named after someone who was proud to be a racist.

While in Charleston, South Carolina, Jeffrey visits the Old Slave Mart Museum, where operations manager Ista Clarke gives a harrowing, detailed description of what it was like for slaves to be bought and sold there. Also in Charleston, Jeffrey accompanies Sights and Insights Tours owner Al Miller on a trip to the Ashley Avenue Oak Tree, which was the site of numerous lynchings, mainly of African American men. It’s mentioned that in almost all of these lynching cases, the victims were lynched not for doing anything wrong but for not being white.

African Americans are the vast majority of people who are interviewed in this documentary, but one white person is interviewed who represents people who think that the Confederate flag is not a symbol of racist hate. In Charleston, Jeffrey talks to one of three white men standing outside on the street while holding the Confederate flag. The three men are from a pro-Confederate flag group called Flags Across the South. It should be noted that although these men claim to be proud to stand up for their cause, they’re all wearing hats and sunglasses, as if they don’t want their faces to be fully exposed.

Jeffrey talks to Flags Across the South chairman Braxton Spivey on the street. And what Spivey has to say can only be described as being making excuses for slavery. Spivey comments, “Slavery had nothing to do with the [Civil] War. It was about money.” Spivey adds, “Slaves were treated like family,” and he believes that enslaved people “chose to stay” in captivity.

Jeffrey looks visibly disgusted at Spivey’s historically inaccurate rhetoric and blatant racism. When Spivey is asked if he would ever want to be owned as a slave, he admits he would not. But the subtext of what Spivey believes is that he thinks that white people shouldn’t be the slaves in society. Jeffrey shakes his head as he walks away and comments on Spivey: “Facts are not important to that gentleman.”

While in New York City, Jeffrey talks to law student Darren Martin, who had the cops called on him when he was moving into his apartment. Apparently, an unidentified neighbor assumed that because Martin is African American, his moving activities were thieving activities. Martin says that six police officers responded to the complaint as if he were a criminal, even though he showed proof that he was a new resident of the building and he was moving in. Like many people who experience this type of racism, Martin took out his phone and video recorded the incident. His video went viral and made the news.

Also in New York City, Jeffrey interviews Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, an unarmed African American man who died in 2013 after a police officer put Garner in a chokehold and Garner repeatedly yelled, “I can’t breathe!” The cop acted with this type of force in response to seeing Garner illegally selling loose cigarettes. That incident was captured on video, made international news, and became a touchstone tragedy that fueled the Black Lives Matter movement.

Carr describes her slain son: “He was a gentle giant.” She also says that she went into a deep depression after his death but then had a spiritual awakening: “The Holy Spirit spoke to me one evening” and asked if she was going be dead like her son, or if she was “going to get up, lift up his name, and let people know exactly who he was, and not let the media demonize him. Even though it’s too late for my son, we have to save other lives.”

While in New York City, Jeffrey interviews Inside Out Tours managing director Stacey Toussaint, who talks about how slave labor was the backbone of New York City, which was a financial hub for insurance and financing of the slave trade. Toussaint says that she wants more people to understand that even though Southern states are often singled out as the worst states in America for racism, the reality is that racism can be anywhere.

Other people interviewed in the documentary are Chief Egunwale F. Amusan, president of the African Ancestral Society in Tulsa; Reverend Dr. Robert Turner, pastor of Historic Vernon Chapel A.M.E. Church in Tulsa; Kristi Williams, a Historic Greenwood/Black Wall Street historian; and Jeffrey’s nephew Matthew Liam Brooks, whom Jeffrey raised as a son after Brooks’ mother died.

During his Town Hall speaking appearance, Jeffrey says that dealing with racism means dealing with the ugly fact that many people are too heavily invested in keeping white supremacist racism in the economy and other systems that affect people lives. And when it comes to stopping racism, he makes this pointed observation: “A lot of people say they want change. They just don’t want the change to cost them anything or require them to change anything about the way they are living.”

One of the best ways to sum up the point of this documentary is from something that Jeffrey says in his Town Hall speaking engagement: “America has demonstrated its greatness time and time and time again, and America is one of the most racist countries on the face of the earth. Those two things are not mutually exclusive. It is not an either/or. And the reason I’m asking us to think about this is that literally, the future is at stake.”

Sony Pictures Classics will release “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” in select U.S. cinemas on January 14, 2022.

2021 DOC NYC jury winners announced

November 17, 2021

The following is a press release from DOC NYC:

 

DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, revealed the 2021 award winners for its juried U.S. Competition, International Competition, Metropolis, Kaleidoscope, Shorts, Short List: Features, and Short List: Shorts sections. Winners of the inaugural IF/Then Shorts x Redford Center Nature Access Pitch competition were also announced. A complete list below.

The in-person portion of the festival’s hybrid 12th edition continues through November 18 with screenings and panels at New York’s IFC Center and Cinépolis Chelsea, along with a special closing night presentation of The First Wave at The Beacon Theatre. DOC NYC’s online screenings run through November 28, with some 100 features available to stream across the United States, including almost all the award winners. Select winners also have in-theater screenings during the festival’s final two days in person in New York.

Online DOC NYC Live conversations, presented on Facebook Live, will take place on November 22 with the filmmakers from the Short List: Shorts section, and on November 23 with talent behind the films in the festival’s Short List: Features section. For a full schedule of films and events, see www.docnyc.net. Ticket and pass information is below.

For DOC NYC’s competitive sections, five juries selected films from the festival’s new U.S. Competition, International Competition, and Kaleidoscope sections, as well as its long-running Metropolis and Shorts lineups, to recognize for their outstanding achievements in form and content. The Short List: Features program—a selection of nonfiction films that the festival’s programming team considers to be among the year’s strongest contenders for Oscars and other awards—vied for awards in four categories: Directing, Producing, Cinematography, and Editing, with a Directing prize also awarded in the Short List: Shorts section. The Short List awards were voted on by two juries of filmmaker peers.

Winners of the 2021 Grand Jury Prize in the U.S., International, Kaleidoscope, Metropolis, and Shorts competitions will each receive a deliverables package provided by PostWorks New York.

Voting for the festival’s Audience Award continues through November 18; the winner of the award will be announced on November 19.

U.S. Competition: The jury selected from among twelve new American nonfiction films in this section.
Remaining screening: Wednesday, November 17 at 9:40pm at Cinépolis Chelsea.

Grand Jury Prize: Once Upon a Time in Uganda, directed by Cathryne Czubek, co-directed by Hugo Perez, and produced by Gigi Dement, Cathryne Czubek, Matt Porwoll, Hugo Perez, and Kyaligamba Ark Martin.

Alan Hofmanis and Isaac Nabwana in “Once Upon a Time in Uganda” (Photo courtesy of Blue Finch Films)

Juror’s statement: “We choose Once Upon a Time in Uganda for illustrating the transformative capacity of film to bridge cultures and change lives. We are inspired by the charming, original method the filmmakers took in documenting the creative joy of Wakaliwood, a community that relies on ingenuity and imagination to overcome the economic obstacles of global audiovisual production; and we appreciate how Once Upon a Time in Uganda demonstrates the connective power of international film festivals in asserting that ‘the audience is our family.'”

Special Mention: Refuge, directed/produced by Erin Berhardt and Din Blankenship.

Jurors’ statement: “We give an honorable mention to Refuge for addressing one of the U.S.’s most urgent problems — the lack of civil dialogue, or any dialogue, between our warring cultural factions.”

Jurors: Jaie Laplante (Executive Director, Miami Film Festival); Amy Nicholson, filmmaker; Valerie Torres (Director of Theatrical Sales and Exhibitor Relations, Shout! Factory)

Films featured in the U.S. Competition section: Anonymous Sister, Be Our Guest, Boycott, Exposure, Grandpa Was an Emperor, Newtok, Objects, Once Upon a Time in Uganda, Refuge, The Slow Hustle, A Tree of Life, United States vs. Reality Winner.

International Competition: The jury selected from among twelve new international productions in this section.

Grand Jury Prize: On the Other Side, directed by Iván Guarnizo, produced by Jorge Caballero.

Beatriz Echeverry in “On the Other Side”

Jurors’ statement: “With its exquisite directorial vision and restraint, On the Other Side deeply affected us, the jury. The film is testament to a courageous, emotional, and deeply personal endeavor by filmmaker Iván Guarnizo, elegantly bypassing the heavy handed tropes of trauma and violence to instead craft a work of art that is poetic and profound. In a world increasingly polarized, where constant battlelines are being drawn, the nuances of this film’s journey and care towards its participants show us the power and hope of redemption, forgiveness, and humanity.”

Special Mention: After the Rain, directed by Jian Fan, produced by Richard Liang, S. Leo Chiang.

Jurors’ statement: “We would also like to recognize After the Rain by Jian Fan, a standout among a strong group of international contenders. The jury appreciated the dedication to the story over a decade and the steady, observational lens of the filmmaking team to craft a deeply intimate and haunting film.”

Jurors: Samara Chadwick (Executive Director, The Flaherty); Aseem Chhabra (Festival Director, New York Indian Film Festival); Bao Nguyen, filmmaker.

Films featured in the International Competition section: After the Rain, Be My Voice, Comala, The Bubble, Come Back Anytime, The Devil’s Drivers, [email protected] This Job, The Forgotten Ones, Go Through the Dark, The Mole, On The Other Side, Young Plato.

Kaleidoscope: The jury selected from among seven films in this section, which showcases essayistic and formally adventurous documentaries.

Grand Jury Prize: Nude at Heart, directed by Yoichiro Okutani, produced by Asako Fujioka, Eric Nyari

“Nude at Heart”

Juror’s statement: “The jury awards its top prize to a film of risky and decisive filmmaking, a film that documents with confidence an insular world, and builds an intelligent, purposeful distance between the filmmaker and the characters. This is a film that trusts its own images to lead us into a complex world and community of work and collective support—a film that doesn’t moralize, sexualize, or objectify its subjects, but instead models a careful gaze, offers a subtle entry into a fascinating universe, and gives space and presence to its inhabitants.”

Special Mention: Nothing But the Sun, directed by Arami Ullón, produced by Pascal Trächslin

Juror’s statement: “The jury would also like to award a Special Mention to a film that provides a gateway to a diverse and complex history, and helps to salvage and give a form to a common memory. This is a choral film, one full of speaking that prioritizes the collective, rather than an individual voice, and explores the fragility of media in preserving oral histories, encounters, emotions, and the residue of trauma.”

Jurors: Daniela Alatorre, producer; Cíntia Gill (Festival Director, formerly of Sheffield DocFest, Doc Lisboa), Leo Goldsmith (The New School)

Films featured in the Kaleidoscope section: Cow, Edna, Invisible Demons, Nothing But the Sun, Nude at Heart, The Man Who Paints Water Drops, Three Minutes: A Lengthening.

Metropolis: The jury selected from among seven films in this section, which is dedicated to stories about New Yorkers and New York City.

Grand Jury Prize: Hold Your Fire, directed by Stefan Forbes and produced by Tia Wou, Fab Five Freddy, and Amir Soltani.

“Hold Your Fire”

Jurors’ statement: “The filmmaker elegantly and impactfully uses the past to illuminate the social and political issues that are still critical to consider today. The black and white archival footage comes colorfully to life with masterfully edited sequences and music that pull you into the moment. The interviews highlight their emotionally conflicted responses and challenge us to consider the differing points of view. In this contemporary contemplation of violence and race relations in our culture, we are left to consider the possibility of redemption and hope.”

Special Mention: Charm Circle, directed and produced by Nira Burstein and produced by Betsy Laikin.

Available online through Sunday, November 28.

Jurors’ statement: “The honesty and bravery of the filmmaker are powerfully felt in approaching the subject of family dysfunction in a candid and uncensored way. With strong character development, the narrative patiently/lovingly unfolds with moments of humor and creativity to build compassion for a family’s hopes and dreams as well as a profound sense of loss.”

Jurors: Beth B, filmmaker; Denise Greene (Director of Programs, Black Public Media); Lucila Moctezuma (Program Director, Chicken & Egg Pictures).

Films featured in the Metropolis section: Charm Circle, End of the Line, Hold Your Fire, Mimaroğlu: The Robinson of Manhattan Island, Mr. Saturday Night, The Photograph, The Reverend.

Shorts Competition: All new short films playing at the festival were eligible for the Shorts Grand Jury Prize, with the exception of DOC NYC U showcases and Short List: Shorts selections.

Shorts Grand Jury Prize: NASIR, directed by Nasir Bailey and Jackson Kroopf and produced by Jackson Kroopf.

“NASIR”

Jurors’ statement: “For its lucid and lyrical portrait of an artist as a young man, the 2021 DOC NYC Shorts Grand Jury Prize is presented to Nasir Bailey and Jackson Kroopf’s exquisitely crafted NASIR. The film finds its soulful subject in a state of transition, proudly granting the audience permission to witness his slow, steady, hard-won glow up. Energized by the subject’s effortless charisma and potent musical gifts, the film emerges as a deeply human study of self-actualization and personal evolution. Intimately assembled with an eye for luminous, delicate imagery and direction, the film unfurls with a quiet confidence, flowing elegantly between moments of pathos and poetry—ultimately standing tall as a beacon of transmasculine resilience and joy.”

Special Mention: American Scar, directed and produced by Daniel Lombroso, and produced by Yara Bishara, Melissa Fajardo, Stephania Taladrid.

Jurors’ statement: “American Scar turns a well-mined, seemingly completed Trump-era story into a compelling call-to-action by creatively cataloging the environmental impact of the abandoned US-Mexico border wall. Startling images capture the destruction caused by humanity’s hubris and serve as a harbinger of things to come. The film presents a stark reminder of the devastating impact of human action on the natural world and offers a rousing and immediate call for change.”

The 2021 winning Short film qualifies for consideration in the Documentary Short Subject category of the Annual Academy Awards® without the standard theatrical run (provided the film otherwise complies with the Academy rules).

Jurors: Faridah Gbadamosi (Artistic Director, Outfest); Robin Robinson (festival programmer, True/False); Robert John Torres (festival programmer, Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival).

Short List: Features: DOC NYC’s Short List for Features puts the spotlight on 15 documentaries representing the best of the year.

Directing Award: In the Same Breath, directed by Nanfu Wang

“In The Same Breath” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

Jurors’ statement: “Nanfu Wang cracks open the story of the global COVID-19 pandemic using an incredibly personal and political lens to reveal China’s propaganda machine — and America’s. The jury celebrates Wang’s unwavering, skillful and persistent command of the documentary craft that it takes to make such a complex and emotional film.”

Producing Award: Flee, produced by Monica Hellström, Signe Byrge Sørensen, Charlotte De La Gournerie. 

“Flee” (Image courtesy of Neon)

Jurors’ statement: “Among the many strengths of Flee, the jury recognizes the enormous task of producing the film. Whether securing funding for expensive animation, fostering groundbreaking creativity, or managing an intricate post-production phase, the producing team’s critical role made Flee the vital, touching, artistic achievement it is.”

Editing Award: Ascension, edited by Jessica Kingdon

A livestreamer for Yiwu Siwen Shoe Company in “Ascension” (Photo by Jessica Kingdon)

Jurors’ statement: “Ascension never stops surprising, despite its leisurely pacing and seemingly straightforward construction. The jury applauds Jessica Kingdon’s patient and astute editing that weaves striking imagery of China’s gaping social divides into a poetic reflection on — and quiet critique of — consumption and capitalism.”

Cinematography Award: Faya Dayi, cinematography by Jessica Beshir

“Faya Dayi” (Photo courtesy of Janus Films)

Jurors’ statement: “Jessica Bashir’s cinematography in Faya Dayi is both an aesthetic and spiritual achievement. Bashir has a bare awareness that holds wisdom, her visual translation so elevated it feels as if operating from the subconscious. The cinematography in Faya Dayi reminded the jury how much we can learn from simply watching.”

Special Jury Prize for Cultural Treasures: Summer of Soul (… Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, produced by Joseph Patel, Robert Fyvolent, David Dinerstein

Sly Stone in “Summer of Soul (…Or, The Revolution Could Not Be Televised”) (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

Jurors’ statement: “For its directorial vision, fantastic editing, and overall funky beats that weave history and culture into the colorful fabric of one summer festival in Harlem, the jury awards a Special Jury Prize for Cultural Treasures to Summer of Soul. If we could, the jury would travel back in time to release this film 50 years ago so it would have informed our collective memory. Instead, we hope this award will encourage audiences to imagine the collective history we should have had.”

Jurors: Nadia Hallgren, filmmaker; Kimberly Reed, filmmaker; Hao Wu, filmmaker.

Short List: Shorts: DOC NYC’s Short List for Shorts highlights 12 documentary shorts that the festival’s programming team considers the year’s leading awards contenders.

Directing Award: Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma, directed by rubberband, Topaz Jones, produced by Luigi Rossi

“Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma”

Jurors’ statement: “For its innovative structure and immediacy, we selected Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma as our winner. The playful editing combined rich visuals, moving personal archival material, and thought-provoking interviews to give audiences a full sense of the filmmaker and his community. The storytelling successfully nails both personal experience and political history.”

Special Jury Mention: The Queen of Basketball, directed by Ben Proudfoot, produced by Elizabeth Brooke, Abby Lynn Kang Davis, Gabriel Berk Godoi, Brandon Somerhalder, Sarah Stewart

Jurors’ statement: “We also chose to recognize The Queen of Basketball with a Special Mention. Viewers fall in love with Lusia because the filmmakers deftly convey her deep strength and fragility at the outset. We are immersed in the experience of a pathfinding woman athlete whose remarkable career was cut short by the racial and gender barriers of her time. Bringing the film full circle to the next generation – a little girl shooting hoops in Lusia’s driveway – opens this storytelling to the future.”
Jurors: Mirra Bank, filmmaker; Kirstine Barfod, producer; Alison Klayman, filmmaker.

IF/Then Shorts x The Redford Center Nature Access Pitch: The Redford Center and IF/Then Shorts announced Between Earth and Sky as the winner of the inaugural IF/Then Shorts x The Redford Center Nature Access Pitch event at DOC NYC, celebrating stories that spotlight the benefits of time spent outdoors.

Between Earth and Sky, directed by Andrew Nadkarni and pitched by Nadkarni and producer Swetha Regunathan, will receive a $25,000 production grant and a year of wraparound mentorship from IF/Then Shorts. Also selected as honorable mentions by the jury of the Nature Access Pitch were Fruit of Soil and Makana o ke Mele (Gift of Song), each of which will receive a $5,000 grant and distribution consultation from IF/Then Shorts. Upon their completion, all three films will be featured as part of The Redford Center’s Nature Films Program.

After announcing the winning films live at DOC NYC Festival, Jill Tidman, Executive Director of The Redford Center shared, “This day reminded me that there’s so much vital work taking place that most people don’t know about. Amazing individuals and communities are working to solve the problems of nature access, and their stories are just incredible. I am so inspired and honored to have these new documentaries as part of The Redford Center family of films. We are going to support them, in many ways, to make sure their work is shared with the world. I couldn’t be happier with the outcome of this inaugural Nature Access Pitch, our partnership with IF/Then Shorts, and the platform of DOC NYC.”

TICKETS AND PASSES:

Festival tickets and passes may be purchased at docnyc.net/tickets-and-passes or at venue box offices. Online tickets and passes are available for purchase online only.

In-person Screenings: $19 General Admission/$17 Seniors & Children/$16 IFC Center Members, unless otherwise noted.

All screenings in the Short List: Features, Short List: Shorts, Winner’s Circle and DOC NYC U sections, as well as all Monday-Friday screenings starting before 5:00pm: $12 General Admission/$10 IFC Center members

Online screenings:

$12 General Public/$9 IFC Center Members

Passes and Ticket Packs:

Online Film Pass $250

Grants access to all the films screening on the festival’s virtual platform, November 10-28.

Five-Ticket Package for Online Screenings $45

Ten-Ticket Package for Online Screenings $80

A package of 5 or 10 online tickets at a special discount price.

Sponsors

The festival is made possible by:

Leading Media Partners: New York Magazine; The WNET Group

Major Sponsors: A&E; Apple Original Films; Netflix; WarnerMedia

Supporting Sponsors: discovery+, National Geographic Documentary Films; SHOWTIME® Documentary Films

Signature Sponsors: Amazon Studios; Bloomberg Philanthropies; Cquence; Hulu; National Geographic; NBC News Studios; NYC Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment; Participant; PostWorks; Sony; XTR

Signature Media Partners: IndieWire; The New Republic; WNYC

Event Sponsors: 30 for 30 / ESPN Films; Cinépolis Luxury Cinemas; Consulate General of Canada in New York; Cowan, DeBaets, Abrahams & Sheppard LLP; Fox Rothschild LLP; Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz PC; IF/Then Shorts; Impact Partners; JustFilms | Ford Foundation; MTV Documentary Films; Reavis Page Jump LLP; SVA’s MFA Social Documentary Film; The Redford Center; TIME Studios; Wheelhouse Creative

Friends of the Festival: Agile Ticketing; Cinesend; Essentia, Ptex; Shiftboard; Telefilm Canada

DOC NYC is produced and presented by IFC Center, a division of AMC Networks.

Complete DOC NYC program information can be found at: www.docnyc.net

To inquire about sponsor or partnership opportunities for DOC NYC, please contact Raphaela Neihausen, Executive Director, at [email protected]

Review: ‘Once Upon a Time in Uganda,’ starring Isaac Nabwana and Alan Hofmanis

November 16, 2021

by Carla Hay

Alan Hofmanis (front row, center) and Isaac Nabwana (front row, far right) in “Once Upon a Time in Uganda” (Photo courtesy of Blue Finch Films)

“Once Upon a Time in Uganda”

Directed by Cathryne Czubek; co-directed by Hugo Perez

Some language in Swahili with subtitles

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Once Upon a Time in Uganda” features a mostly African group of people (with some white people) in a chronicle of Ugandan indie filmmaker Isaac Nabwana’s ventures with his Ramon Film Productions and the alliance that Nabwana forms with American filmmaker/actor/publicist Alan Hofmanis.

Culture Clash: Nabwana gets volunteer help from Hofmanis, who moved from New York to live with Nabwana and Nabwana’s family in Uganda, but Hofmanis and Nabwana sometimes disagree on Hofmanis’ role and decision making for Ramon Film Productions.

Culture Audience: “Once Upon a Time in Uganda” will appeal primarily to people interested in how independent filmmaking works in Uganda, and how relationships can be affected when friends do business together.

Harriet Nabwana and Isaac Nabwana in “Once Upon a Time in Uganda” (Photo courtesy of Blue Finch Films)

The title of “Once Upon a Time in Uganda” might have been inspired by Quentin Tarantino’s Oscar-winning 2019 film “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” because this documentary is ostensibly about Isaac Nabwana, a Ugandan independent filmmaker whose work has been inspired by Tarantino. However, the narrative of the film is from the perspective of Alan Hofmanis, an American filmmaker/actor/publicist. Hofmanis does the voiceover commentary in describing his experiences of getting involved with Nabwana and Ramon Film Productions, the company founded by Nabwana in 2005. It’s a mostly engaging and realistic look at the challenges of independent filmmaking in Uganda, as well as the highs and lows of two friends doing business with each other.

“Once Upon a Time in Uganda” was supposed to have its world premiere at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival, which was cancelled as an in-person event due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, the movie had its U.S. premiere at the 2021 edition of DOC NYC in New York City. [UPDATE: “Once Upon a Time in Uganda” won DOC NYC’s inaugural U.S. Competition Grand Jury Prize.] Directed by Cathryne Czubek and co-directed by Hugo Perez, “Once Upon a Time in Uganda” tells a compelling story, but at times it’s too much of a personal showcase/platform for Hofmanis. More of the spotlight should have been on Nabwana, whose films are the reasons why this documentary exists.

Hofmanis explains in the beginning of the documentary that he first discovered Nabwana when someone showed him a trailer for Nabwana’s movie “Who Killed Captain Alex,” a zany action comedy filmed gonzo-style, which is how you could describe Nabwana’s other movies too. Hofmanis says he was so intrigued with “Who Killed Captain Alex” (a movie that went viral on YouTube), he knew he had to go to the rural town of Wakalisa, Uganda (where Nabwana is based), to meet him in person. However, Hofmanis didn’t know Nabwana’s address or phone number and couldn’t find that information. He went to Wakalisa anyway, with the hope of tracking down Nabwana.

The documentary has a somewhat cheesy scripted segment that’s supposed to be a re-enactment of what Hofmanis experienced when he got to Wakalisa. If you believe this part of the movie, Hofmanis was in an outdoor market where he happened to see a man wearing a Ramon Film Productions T-shirt. He ran after the man and asked him if he knew Nabwana. The answer was “yes,” and that’s how Hofmanis was eventually introduced to Nabwana.

In “Once Upon a Time in Uganda,” Nabwana mentions that he’s 44-year-old married father of three children. He’s a brick layer/brick maker for his day job. But his real passion is filmmaking, especially in the action genre. Nabwana cites his earliest influences as Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone as Rambo. To hone his filmmaking skills and raise money for his independent films, Nabwana does part-time work filming music videos, TV commercials and wedding videos.

Nabwana began making short films around 2005. He became a one-person creative team, as the writer, director, cinematographer and editor for all of his earliest work. His wife Harriet (who is also in the documentary) says that soon after they got married, he told her that he wanted to be a filmmaker. She’s completely supportive of his goals.

Harriet is also a valuable member of Ramon Film Productions. She handles many production assistant duties on the set, as well as the marketing and packaging of the company’s products. Harriet does all the catering for the cast and crew. (The company doesn’t have the budget to pay cast members, who are all volunteers.) All of this is shown in the documentary.

It’s mentioned several times that Isaac Mabwana and Ramon Film Productions are largely responsible for building a film community in Wakalisa called Wakaliwood. Ramon Film Productions even has its own theme song. Wakalisa is economically deprived, so the Wakaliwood nickname is a source of pride to the people in the community. In the documentary, Hofmanis comments that he likes being involved in African movies that are not about poverty and war. “My argument is that this is a different narrative of Africa,” he says of Ramon Film Productions movies.

But there’s one big problem, which the documentary also shows many times: Ramon Film Productions, although it ends up getting a lot of publicity with Hofmanis’ help, is struggling to make a profit. Isaac describes the audiences for his movies as “peasants. They are the majority.” Not long after Hoffmanis meets Isaac, he offers to help take Ramon Film Productions to the next level of become a world-renowned (and hopefully profitable) independent film studio.

Ramon Film Productions is literally a “mom and pop” business, so what made Hofmanis think he could get involved to the point of moving in with the Nabwana family in Uganda? There’s more to the story of Hofmanis wanting to help as a fan of Isaac’s work. What emerges is a portrait of a well-meaning but somewhat desperate person who ditched his life in New York to try to re-invent himself as a movie wheeler dealer in Uganda. The results were decidedly mixed for Hofmanis.

In the documentary, Hofmanis (who was in his 50s and a bachelor with no children at the time this film was made) describes himself as a movie nerd and a jack of all trades in the film industry. Based for years in New York City, he says that his work experience is being a director, producer, cinematographer and editor of short films, commercials and music videos. Hofmanis also says that he helped program film festivals and has done film publicity. You get the impression that Hofmanis is the cliché of “jack of all trades, master of none.”

If someone does something as extreme such as leaving behind the comforts of a middle-class life in the United States to live in a poverty-stricken area of Africa, it’s usually for personal reasons, not for career advancement. And sure enough, Hofmanis says that when that he decided to sell all of his belongings and gave up his apartment so he could move to Africa, it was around the same time that his fiancée dumped him. He says the day that he bought the wedding ring was the same day that she left him. “It was the perfect storm,” Hofmanis says of the breakup and his decision to move to Uganda.

After this heartbreak and with nothing left to lose, Hofmanis says he decided to pour his energy into helping Isaac. It’s never really explained whose idea it was for Hofmanis to live with the Nabwana family. However, viewers will get the impression (based on what’s said in the documentary) that Hofmanis just showed up to offer his services for free, Isaac accepted the offer, and Isaac let Hofmanis live in his home because he knew that Hofamnis was homeless in Uganda and didn’t know anyone else.

Isaac also seems to be very aware that Hofmanis’ breakup with his ex-fiancée (who’s only identified as Maria) was a big reason for this drastic move: “I don’t know what Maria did to Alan,” Isaac says when he tries to explain why Hofmanis moved to Uganda to do volunteer work for Isaac. The personalities of the two men are quite different from each other: Isaac is laid-back and focused, while Hofmanis is high-energy and neurotic.

Over a period of at least three years that are chronicled in this documentary, Hofmanis lived in a home with no indoor plumbing, unreliable Internet service and electricity that could malfunction at any moment’s notice. It’s mentioned that filmmakers in Uganda often have the problem of computer hard drives that get electrical burn damage because of sudden surges in electricity. Hofmanis spent countless hours promoting Isaac as a filmmaker to anyone who would listen and many people who wouldn’t listen.

Because his diet in Uganda was drastically different from his diet in the U.S., Hofmanis lost weight almost to the point of being emaciated. In the documentary, he occasionally gripes about the discomforts of living in this type of poverty. And there are expected problems in the filmmaking process, such as technical mishaps and running out of money. However, Hofmanis also makes it clear that what he gained—priceless friendships and experiences—far outweighed anything that he considered a “down side.”

The documentary shows how Hofmanis became part of the Ramon Film Productions team, albeit with a role and job title that were never clearly defined. He and Isaac form a genuine friendship, but the vagueness of Hofmanis’ business relationship with Isaac ends up frustrating Hofmanis. It’s hard to feel too sorry for Hofmanis though when he obviously didn’t have the business sense to get a contract about his role in the company.

Hofmanis doesn’t come right out and say it, but it soon becomes very apparent that he was hoping that Isaac would eventually offer him partial ownership of Ramon Film Productions. That offer doesn’t happen. And you can’t really blame Isaac for that decision, because Isaac is the one who founded the company, he created the films, and he got funding for his movies—long before he ever met Hofmanis, who volunteered his services with no contract. If someone professing to be an ardent admirer offered to do all this work for free, most people would not turn down that offer.

Hofmanis is shown being an actor and occasional crew member for the Ramon Film Productions movie “Bad Black,” where he is the only white person in the movie. There’s not much of a plot. He’s shown being hunted by people in combat gear. The action scenes include a lot of martial arts, an area in which Hofmanis admittedly says he is very unskilled, but he learns a little as he goes along. Hofmanis jokes that Isaac’s movies could invent a new “beating up the white guy” genre with Hofmanis as the star.

The documentary shows how Ramon Film Productions has a martial arts training program for children who might want to be in the company’s movies someday. The kids are called Waka Starz. Ramon Film Productions also has video jokers, also known as VJs, who provide running commentary and jokes when the company’s movies are screened to live audiences. (It’s similar to what RiffTrax does in the United States.) The documentary also mentions that most people see Isaac’s movies online or on DVD. The company’s mail-order business includes the sales of DVDs and branded merchandise, but Harriet is seen lamenting that they haven’t been able to turn a profit from these sales.

Through his connections in the media and in the film industry, Hofmanis is able to get major media outlets to give editorial coverage to Ramon Film Productions. CNN, PBS, the Wall Street Journal, Esquire and Vice are among those media outlets. Hofmanis gives the impression that it was his idea to label Isaac as “the Quentin Tarantino of Uganda,” as a hook to get the media interested.

Isaac’s movies are nowhere near as slickly filmed as Tarantino’s movies. Ramon Film Productions movies have comedy that’s juvenile, and the dialogue is bare-bones basic. And due to the very low budgets of Ramon Film Productions movies, the visual effects are cheap-looking and amateurish. However, there’s a love of moviemaking that comes through that is appealing. The comedy is goofy enough to bring some laughs. It’s why Ramon Film Productions has a fan base that Hofmanis thinks deserves to grow on a massive level.

Isaac’s visa/passport issues prevent him from traveling where Hofmanis ends up going to promote Isaac’s work. At various points in the documentary, Hofmanis is seen traveling to Antwerp, Belgium; Seoul, South, Korea; Cannes, France; and Austin, Texas. During these travels, Hofmanis is often present at Ramon Film Productions movie screenings that he arranged to be viewed by the public as limited engagements/specialty screenings at independent cinemas. Over time, Hofmanis begins to think of himself as the spokesperson for Ramon Film Productions.

The documentary shows how Hofmanis met with Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) programmer Peter Kuplowsky to pitch Isaac’s feature film “Crazy World” as a selection for the festival. “Crazy World” ended up screening as part of TIFF’s Midnight Madness program in 2019. The documentary shows whether or not Isaac was able to work out his passport problems to attend the screening.

“Once Upon a Time in Uganda” is so focused on Hofmanis telling his own story and his own perspective, it might be easy to assume that he’s one of the documentary’s producers, but he’s not. Being a film producer means that you need to have money to pay for a film. “Once Upon a Time in Uganda” makes it abundantly clear that Hofmanis’ lack of money (multiple times in the movie, he says that he’s broke) becomes a point where Isaac and Hofmanis start to diverge.

For all the publicity that Hofmanis was able to generate for Ramon Film Productions, it didn’t lead to any offers from major investors. However, one potential investor began talking to Isaac (this investor is not seen in the documentary), and Isaac didn’t include Hofmanis in the discussions, because Isaac is the sole owner of the business. When Hofmanis finds out he wasn’t included in these discussions, he reacts like a lover who’s been cheated on, and he says he feels betrayed.

Hofmanis and Isaac stop communicating with each other for a while, even though Hofmanis still continues to live in the Nabwana family home. His hurt feelings turn into bitterness. And then, Hofmanis jets back to New York to figure out what to do next because he doesn’t know if he can trust Isaac. When Hofmanis sees his parents again, he acts like Isaac is being the difficult one. It’s at this point in the documentary that Hofmanis and his “woe is me” attitude start to get irritating.

Viewers will probably think Hofmanis has a “white savior” complex, because he thought he could swoop in and show a native Ugandan how to become a financially successful filmmaker. When things didn’t work out the way Hofmanis wanted (he didn’t get the credit and glory he thought he deserved), he began acting like a kid with poor sportsmanship who wants to quit the game and go home just because he’s not the center of attention. Apparently, Hofmanis doesn’t understand that volunteering for a full-time, unpaid job in exchange for a free place to stay does not entitle someone to a partnership or equal decision making in the company.

Early on in the documentary, Isaac brings up the issues of race and social class, when he says that in the film industry, “the white man is king” and “the corporate class is skeptical” that Isaac can make a movie because Isaac is “poor.” And so, it’s very likely that even though Isaac and Hofmanis became friends, Isaac was probably using Hofmanis for white privilege, just like Hofamnis was probably using Isaac to feel like a white savior. It’s important to remember that Hofmanis volunteered to do all of this work for Isaac without being paid. Therefore, Isaac shouldn’t be made to look like a disloyal villain for accepting the help and wanting to retain sole ownership of his company.

And really, what did Hofmanis expect? For all of his lofty plans, nothing that Hofmanis did in this documentary helped Ramon Film Productions become profitable. At one point, Harriet started a cake-making business because the family was losing money on the film production company. At no point in the documentary is Hofmanis shown working at any “regular” job in Uganda to help raise money for the company, or even to help the family with household expenses. Maybe he thought that getting a “regular” job in Uganda would be too “beneath” him, since he wanted to be perceived as a hotshot American filmmaker.

That’s not to say that Hofmanis didn’t genuinely want to help, but an objective observer can see that he was somewhat using this relocation to Uganda to escape from a life that was making him unhappy in New York. No one was forcing him to live in poverty and volunteer his services to a struggling film company in Uganda. It was all of his own free will. You also have to question the “business savvy” of an admittedly financially broke person who does all of this full-time business work without a contract.

It would be wrong to assume that “Once Upon a Time in Uganda” is only about gonzo filmmaking in Uganda. The documentary is also a lesson in what can happen when friends work together without a contract and with the naïve assumption that no one will ever get greedy or selfish in making business decisions. If Hofmanis had an ulterior motive to be made a partner in Ramon Film Productions (and it sure looks like that was his ulterior motive), Isaac made the right decision to not give up any stakes in the company to someone who came along as a volunteer. And in that respect, Isaac Nabwana has a lot more business intelligence than maybe some people think he has.

Review: ‘Objects,’ starring Rick Rawlins, Heidi Julavits, Robert Krulwich, Jad Abumrad, Josh Glenn and Rob Walker

November 14, 2021

by Carla Hay

A scene from “Objects” (Photo courtesy of Semicolon Pictures)

“Objects”

Directed by Vincent Liota

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Objects” features a mostly white group of people (with a few Asians and one African American) discussing how objects are kept because of sentimental value.

Culture Clash: Most of the people in the documentary believe in the theory that someone’s trash could be someone else’s treasure.

Culture Audience: “Objects” will appeal primarily to people interested in a breezy but somewhat limited overview of why people hold on to things that other people might think are worthless and should be thrown away.

Rick Rawlins in “Objects” (Photo courtesy of Semicolon Pictures)

Everyone owns an object that might not have much monetary value, but there’s no price tag that can be put on how much that item means to the owner. The documentary “Objects” (which had its world premiere at the 2021 edition of DOC NYC in New York City) takes an entertaining look at sentimental attachments to possessions, with an emphasis on giving anecdotes instead of giving deep analysis. The documentary is charming but not very innovative in its presentation. Overall, the movie capably demonstrates how stories about possessions are not just reflections of people’s personalities but also how people have lived their lives.

Sentimental attachment to objects seems like a broad topic that’s too unwieldy to cover in a feature-length documentary. However, “Objects” has a total running time of just 63 minutes. That’s because “Objects” director Vincent Liota kept the narrative spotlight on three different items owned by three different people. The reasons why these three items have emotional value to their owners are explained in the documentary, which weaves these personal stories in between various commentaries and anecdotes about the pros and cons of holding on to mementos.

The three participants who get the memento spotlight are:

  • Rick Rawlins, a graphic designer in Massachusetts, has kept a sugar confection that looks like half of a yellow egg, since 1970. The sugar egg has sentimental value to him because it was given to him by a childhood acquaintance on the day Rawlins and his family moved away.
  • Heidi Julavits, a writer/professor in New York City, became obsessed with collecting the clothing of semi-famous French actress Isabelle Corey (who made movies from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s), when many of Corey’s personal items went up for sale on eBay after Corey died in 2011. Julavits has worn the clothes and is particularly fond of a cardigan sweater that used to be owned by Corey.
  • Robert Kurlwich, a National Public Radio (NPR) correspondent in New York City, has held on to a clump of grass that he took from New York City’s Central Park in 1962, when he was 15 years old. The grass is a memento of a teenage romantic experience that he had in the park with his girlfriend at the time.

Rawlins’ story about his beloved sugar egg is probably the tale that will pull on viewers’ heartstrings the most. He talks about how when he was a child, he came from a loving family, but his family moved around a lot from Washington state to Idaho because of his father’s job that required frequent transfers between the two states. Rawlins, who is soft-spoken and mild-mannered, describes himself as socially awkward as a child. All of the moving around that his family did made it harder for him to make friends.

In 1970, Rawlins was an 8-year-old in second grade when his family had to move again, from Washington state to Idaho. Rawlins says that one of the few kids who seemed interested in being his friend at the time was a classmate named David Turley, who invited Rawlins to his birthday party. The problem was that the birthday party was going to be on the same day that the Rawlins family was moving.

As Rawlins tells it, on the day of the move: “I just took off to say goodbye to David.” But when he got to the front door of the Turley family’s house, he remembers feeling at a loss for words, and he wouldn’t go inside. Turley came to the front door, and he gave Rawlins the sugar egg, which was obviously from the candy being served at the party.

Rawlins says he can’t remember if or what he said during that goodbye. But he ran back home and held on to the egg. And during the car drive when moving away, Rawlins says, he still held on to the egg, almost like it was a good luck charm. He adds,”I put it in the drawer, and it has lived in various places for all these years.” The wooden box where Rawlins keeps the egg has its own special story, which Rawlins shares later in the film.

Rawlins comments in the documentary about why this sugar egg means so much to him: “It was immediately clear to me, the moment I got this egg, I knew exactly what it meant, and it hasn’t changed. It was proof—physical proof—that I had been invited to a birthday party, and there was hope of making a friendship. And I held on to it because I needed that proof.”

Rawlins is very laid-back in how he expresses himself. By contrast, Julavits has a lot of restless energy, She’s an admitted eccentric who likes being a pack rat, but she’s not a dangerous hoarder. Of the three memento keepers who get the spotlight in this documentary, she’s the one with the best sense of humor, which can be sarcastic and self-deprecating. She gives a tour of her cluttered home, where she proudly admits she has a hard time throwing items away that remind her of things she’s done and people she loves or admires.

Julavits thinks that every object, no matter how seemingly insignificant, has a story behind it. For her, clutter is not clutter but “narrative history.” For example, she keeps an office desk full of random things, such as ticket stubs and drawings made by her daughter, in addition to the usual office supplies. Nothing is arranged neatly. She also doesn’t like the idea of putting her collection of books in any particular order.

More than once, Julavits mentions that she likes the thrill of going hunting for things because she usually ends up finding something else that she wants more than the thing she was originally seeking. She talks about how she once lost a sweater in a public outdoor area. She was so sure that someone would sell it on eBay, she spent hours looking for it on eBay. This search led to her discovering other things she wanted to get on eBay, including Corey’s collection of clothes and other personal items.

There’s a very funny section of the documentary where de-cluttering guru Marie Kondo is brought up in the conversation. Julavits (who obviously doesn’t believe in de-cluttering) talks about Kondo and then spends a significant amount of time trying to find Kondo’s bestselling self-help book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” in her home. It’s quite a challenge because Julavits keeps books in boxes and bags in addition to having them on bookshelves. Kondo wouldn’t approve of this clutter, but Julavits doesn’t care. Julavits says her own way of “sparking joy” (a phrase that Kondo likes to use) is to collect things, not throw them out.

As for Julavits’ fixation on French actress Corey, she says that she literally got so wrapped up in wearing Corey’s wardrobe, Julavits admits that there was a point in time when she would only wear Corey’s clothes. Some items from this wardrobe are shown in the documentary. Corey also tried to find other items Corey owned when Julavits was in Europe. And she wanted to solve the mystery of why Corey’s career as an actress suddenly stopped after the early 1960s.

Julavits also says she became determined to find out the identity of the person who was selling Corey’s possessions on eBay, which had it listed as an estate sale. The seller initially ignored Julavits’ personal email inquiries to find out the seller’s identity. However, Julavits eventually got a reply and discovered who the seller was, as well as more about Corey’s personal history.

Why does she have fixation on this relatively obscure actress? Julavits doesn’t give a direct answer, but it has a lot to do with just liking Corey’s personal style and being intrigued that this actress just abruptly dropped out of showbiz. Julavits says that in trying to find out more information about Corey, she imagined all sorts of scenarios about Corey’s life, and that made the “treasure hunt” more fun for Julavits.

Krulwich’s story about his memento grass is the least-interesting of the three stories, probably because it just begins and ends with a vague retelling of how he was in love with a girl at 15 (he doesn’t name her in the documentary), and they had a special moment on that grass. “It was a genuinely deep thrill to me as a 15-year-old,” Krulwich says. He talks about how seeing and holding this dead grass can bring back the euphoric memories of being a 15-year-old in love.

Krulwich is a former host of NPR’s “Radiolab” series, where he and “Radiolab” host Jad Abumrad (who’s also in the documentary) would talk about random objects owned by people and the sentimental reasons why people would keep these objects. In the production notes for “Objects,” director Liota says the idea to do this documentary was inspired by a 2014 conversation that he had with Krulwich about the topic. “We mused about how we had saved objects for years that seemed precious to us, yet had no intrinsic value,” Liota comments in the “Objects” production notes.

“Objects” could have used more diversity in the types of people who were interviewed. Most of the people interviewed are college-educated, middle-aged or elderly white people, mostly from the East Coast. It seems like Liota limited the participants to people he knows or people who were recommended by people he knows. The documentary appears to have been made for people who listen to NPR and read The New Yorker.

There’s a somewhat contrived part of the documentary that shows NPR staffers gathered in a meeting to discuss bringing in Rawlins’ sugar egg to do a 3-D print replica, so he could have a “backup” egg. Things don’t exactly go as planned. It’s enough to say that something goes awry with these plans. How this problem is handled is one of the best parts of the movie.

“Objects” has some dramatic re-enactments (with actors) of the childhood stories of Rawlins and Krulwich. And the documentary has some quick comments from people such as anthropologist Arianna Huhn, author Margaret Bynum Hill and professor Eri Yasuhara, who share their opinions on sentimental objects. As a counterpoint, there are videoclips from news and entertainment shows of people talking about how clutter makes people’s lives messier and worse. Many of these comments seem to be filler and don’t add much to the overall documentary.

However, there’s an interesting segment with Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker, who co-founded the Significant Objects Project. It’s an experiment where Glenn and Walker bought 100 items that each cost $4 or less. They contacted several well-known writers (including Neil LaBute, Meg Cabot and Tom McCarthy) to come up with a story about any of these items. (Julavits was one of the writers too.) And then, the items were sold with the story.

The point of the Significant Objects Project is to show that when people think an item has a meaningful story behind it, the item increases in value in many people’s minds. As proof, Glenn and Walker say that the 100 items they bought for a total $128.74 ended up being sold for a total of $3,612.51. The item that made the biggest profit was a ceramic figurine of a man wearing traditional Russian garb. The figurine (whose story was created by writer Doug Dorst) was purchased for $3 and sold for $193.50, according to Glenn and Walker.

“Objects” could have gone a little further in its exploration of the three treasured mementos that get the spotlight in the documentary. For example, whatever happened to David Turley, who gave Rawlins the sugar egg? And what about the unnamed girlfriend who had that amorous encounter with Krulwich in Central Park? If they’re still alive, what would they think about Rawlins and Krulwich holding on to these mementos for so many decades? It would’ve been interesting to track them down and see their reactions, if possible.

As it stands, “Objects” is mostly delightful to watch because of the storytelling aspect of the movie. Don’t expect to see any data for psychology or sociology, because this movie is more about celebrating the subjective aspects of life. The documentary is narrowly focused on certain types of people sharing their stories, but there’s something in each story that most viewers can find relatable.

2021 DOC NYC: What to expect at this year’s event

October 19, 2021

by Carla Hay

Celebrating its 12th edition in 2021, the annual DOC NYC, which is headquartered in New York City, is one of the world’s leading documentary festivals, with a slate of more than 200 films (of which more than 100 are feature-length films) from a diverse array of topics. In 2021, DOC NYC takes place from November 10 to November 28, and continues the festival’s tradition of offering an outstanding variety of feature films and short films, with several of the movies focusing on under-represented people and marginalized communities.

After being a virtual-only event in 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, DOC NYC is now a hybrid event in 2021. DOC NYC is returning to in-person screenings at IFC Center, SVA Theatre and Cinépolis Chelsea. The in-person screenings will take place from November 10 to November 18. In accordance with New York City’s COVID-19 policies, all in-person festival attendees ages 12 and older must present proof of being fully vaccinated and a photo ID, in order to be admitted into the venue. People under the age of 12 who aren’t old enough to be vaccinated must wear masks, which are required for everyone inside the festival venues at all times, except when eating and drinking. All of the festival’s movies will be available to view online to the general public from November 19 to November 28. Tickets are available on the official DOC NYC website.

In 2021, DOC NYC is debuting three new competitive categories for DOC NYC awards: “a U.S. Competition for new American non-fiction films; an International Competition for work from around the globe; and the Kaleidoscope Competition for new essayistic and formally adventurous documentaries,” according to a DOC NYC press release. These new competitive categories join DOC NYC’s awards program that includes Metropolis Competition (for feature-length films with a New York City focus); Viewfinders Competition (for feature-length films with a disintinctively unique directorial vision); Audience Award (voted for by DOC NYC attendees); and Shorts Competition for short films. All competitive awards are voted for by appointed juries, except for the Audience Award.

DOC NYC’s annual Short List spotlights movies (features and shorts) that are considered top contenders to get Oscar nominations. The movies on the 2021 Short List are to be announced.* The Short List: Features jury gives awards in the categories of Director, Producer, Editor and Cinematographer. The Short List: Shorts jury gives a Director Award.

*October 26, 2021 UPDATE: This year’s Short List feature films are “Ascension,” “Attica,” “Becoming Cousteau,” “Bring Your Own Brigade,” “Faya Dayi,” “Flee,” “Homeroom,” “In the Same Breath,” “Introducing, Selma Blair,” “Julia,” “Procession,” “The Rescue,” “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain,” “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised” and “The Velvet Underground.” This year’s Short List short films are “Audible,” “The Bree Wayy: Promise Witness Remembrance,” “A Broken House,” “Camp Confidential: America’s Secret Nazis,” “Coded: The Hidden Love of J.C. Leyendecker,” “Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma,” “Eagles (Águilas),” “Joe Buffalo,” “Lynching Postcards: Token of a Great Day,” “Nothing to Declare,” “The Queen of Basketball,” “A Ship from Guantánamo,” “Snowy,” “They Won’t Call It Murder” and “What You’ll Remember.”

“Anonymous Sister”

DOC NYC’s selections for the festival’s inaugural U.S. Competition are “Anonymous Sister,” “Be Our Guest,” “Boycott,” “Exposure,” “Grandpa Was an Emperor,” “Newtok,” “Objects,” “Once Upon a Time in Uganda,” “Refuge,” “The Slow Hustle,” “A Tree of Life” and “The United States vs. Reality Winner.”

The movies in the International Competition are “After the Rain,” “Be My Voice,” “The Bubble,” “Comala,” “Come Back Anytime,” “The Devil’s Drivers,” “[email protected] This Job,” “The Forgotten Ones,” “Go Through the Dark,” “The Mole,” “On the Other Side” and “Young Plato.”

The selections for the Kaledeiscope Competition are “Cow,” “Edna,” “Invisible Demons,” “The Man Who Paints Water Drops,” “Nothing But the Sun,” “Nude at Heart” and “Three Minutes: A Lengthening.”

“Young Plato”

DOC NYC, which was co-founded by Thom Powers and Raphaela Neihausen, also has special events in addition to screenings. DOC NYC Visionaries Tribute returns as an in-person invitation-only event, set to take place at Gotham Hall, on November 10, 2021. The honorees for the 2021 DOC NYC Visionaries Tribute are cinematographer Joan Churchill and filmmaker Raoul Peck, who will each receive the Lifetime Achievement Award; filmmaker Peter Nicks, who will get the Robert and Anne Drew Award; and Ford Foundation’s JustFilms senior program officer Chi-hui Yang, recipient of the Leading Light Award.

For the third year in a row, the festival is presenting DOC NYC’s Winner’s Circle collection, which spotlights movies that have won awards at other film festivals, but might be underrated or overlooked for Oscar nominations. Winner’s Circle documentaries this year are “All Light, Everywhere,” “Children of the Enemy,” “A Cop Movie,” “Mr. Bachmann and His Class,” “A Night of Knowing Nothing,” “Option Zero” and “Writing With Fire.”

Even though most of the movies at DOC NYC have had their world premieres elsewhere, DOC NYC has several world premieres of its own. Here are the feature films that will have their world premieres at DOC NYC. A complete program can be found here.

DOC NYC 2021 WORLD PREMIERE FEATURE FILMS

All descriptions are courtesy of DOC NYC.

“14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible” 
Directed by Torquil Jones

In 2019, Nepalese mountain climber Nirmal “Nims” Purja set out to do the unthinkable by climbing the world’s 14 highest summits in less than seven months.

Nirmal “Nims” Purja in “14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Adrienne” 
Directed by Andy Ostroy

The death of acclaimed actress/filmmaker/screenwriter Adrienne Shelly sends her husband on a search for answers.

Anonymous Sister” 
Directed by Jamie Boyle

Filmmaker Jamie Boyle turns the camera on her own family when her mother and sister become dependent on opioids.

“Be Our Guest” 
Directed by Diane Tsai

A family in a small New Hampshire town learns to balance their needs with their unconventional home life when they open their doors to those recovering from addiction.

“Boycott” 
Directed by Julia Bacha

Award-winning filmmaker Julia Bacha looks at the recent explosion of laws designed to penalize Americans who push boycotts against Israel.

“Boycott”

“The Business of Birth Control” 
Directed by Abby Epstein

Filmmaker Abby Epstein and executive producer Ricki Lake re-team after “The Business of Being Born” to explore the controversial secret history of the birth control pill.

“The Cannons” 
Directed by Steven Hoffner and AJ Messier

Legendary youth hockey coach Neal Henderson, an institution in the Washington, D.C., community, shepherds a new group of teens toward manhood through the game he loves.

“Dean Martin: King of Cool” 
Directed by Tom Donohue

This in-depth biography explores Dean Martin’s varied career, including his complicated relationships with Jerry Lewis, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and others.

“DMX: Don’t Try to Understand” 
Directed by Christopher Frierson

An intimate look at Earl “DMX” Simmons’ final year, highlighting the complex man, father and musician behind the raucous rapper persona.

DMX in “DMX: Don’t Try to Understand” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“Exposing Muybridge” 
Directed by Marc Shaffer

A complex look into the compelling life and times of the father of cinema: Eadweard Muybridge.

“Go Through the Dark” 
Directed by Yunhong Pu

A blind boy in China being raised by a struggling single father displays great skill at the ancient board game Go.

“Grain” 
Directed by Alex Contell and Tommaso Sacconi

Featuring professional and amateur photographers, film lab technicians, community organizations, ICP educators, and even Kodak and Lomography representatives, “Grain” explores the stories of those committed to using real, physical film in the digital era.

“Grandpa Was an Emperor” 
Directed by Constance Marks

Yeshi, great granddaughter of famed Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, investigates what happened to her beloved father after the 1974 coup that landed most of her family in prison.

“Hockeyland” 
Directed by Tommy Haynes

Two competing high school hockey programs fight for the pride of their communities and a coveted state championship.

“Hockeyland”

“Inhospitable” 
Directed by Sandra Alvarez

Filmmaker Sandra Alvarez follows patients and activists as they band together to fight a multi-billion dollar nonprofit hospital system that limits vital care for vulnerable patients.

“The Invisible Shore” 
Directed by Zhao Qi

The audacious tale of Guo Chuan, the first Chinese man to embark on a solo, non-stop circumnavigation of the world—and went missing.

“The Job of Songs” 
Directed by Lila Schmitz

Next to the breathtaking cliffs of an Irish coastal village, a tight-knit group of musicians finds joy and community through traditional Irish folk songs.

“Kevin Garnett: Anything Is Possible” 
Directed by Daniel B. Levin and Eric W. Newman

Over the course of a Hall of Fame NBA career, Kevin Garnett transformed from a brash kid fresh off the prep circuit into a grizzled veteran lauded for his trademark passion for the game.

“Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time” 
Directed by Don Argott

Decades in the making, this biography of Kurt Vonnegut covers his years as a struggling writer to his eventual superstardom. The film makes its world premiere on what would have been his 99th birthday on November 1.

“Let Me Be Me” 
Directed by Dan Crane and Katie Taber

Kyle Westphal grows up as an isolated autistic boy whose life is transformed by his fascination with fabric, leading him to become a fashion designer.

“McCurry: The Pursuit of Colour”
Directed by Denis Delestrac

Unravel the world through Steve McCurry’s eyes and discover what these journeys can teach us about our place in the universe.

“Messwood” 
Directed by Emily Kuester and Brad Lichtenstein

Two Milwaukee area high schools—one black and urban, the other white and suburban—combine their football programs, and tensions rise as the disparities between them become increasingly apparent over the course of the season.

“Mr. Saturday Night” 
Directed by John Maggio

The untold story of Robert Stigwood, the impresario behind “Saturday Night Fever” and its record-breaking disco soundtrack.

Robert Stigwood and John Travolta in “Mr. Satuday Night” (Photo by Brad Elterman/BuzzFoto/FilmMagic, courtesy of HBO)

“Newtok” 
Directed by Andrew Burton and Michael Kirby Smith

As the effects of climate change become ever more apparent throughout the world, the Yup’ik people and their lands on the western outskirts of Alaska face a much more imminent threat.

“Objects” 
Directed by Vincent Liota

An NPR correspondent, a literary author and a graphic designer let us in on the secret life of the special objects they keep as a way to preserve memories, conjure experiences and find meaning in their lives.

“Omara” 
Directed by Hugo Perez

Omara Portuondo, internationally beloved grande dame of Cuban music best known from the Buena Vista Social Club, continues to delight audiences on her final world tour.

“Refuge” 
Directed by Erin Berhardt and Din Blankenship

In a small, uncommonly diverse town in Georgia, a successful Kurdish doctor and a Muslim-hating white supremacist form an unlikely and healing friendship.

“Refuge”

“A Tree of Life” 
Directed by Trish Adlesic

Survivors of the deadly white supremacist attack at a Pittsburgh Synagogue in 2018 recount their harrowing experience.

“Young Plato” 
Directed by Neasa Ní Chianáin and Declan McGrath

A visionary headmaster at a Catholic primary school in Belfast teaches ancient Greek wisdom as an antidote for pessimism, violence and historical despair.

“Yung Punx: A Punk Parable” 
Directed by Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger

The Color Killers, a hard-rocking punk group of tweens, must overcome infighting and jealousies to ace their biggest live-performance ever.

“Yung Punx: A Punk Parable”

Review: ‘Duty Free,’ starring Rebecca Danigelis and Sian-Pierre Regis

November 25, 2020

by Carla Hay

Sian-Pierre Regis and Rebecca Danigelis in “Duty Free” (Photo by Joey Dwyer/Duty Free Film)

“Duty Free”

Directed by Sian-Pierre Regis

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States and the United Kingdom, the documentary “Duty Free” features a predominantly white group of people (with some African Americans) discussing the life of British immigrant Rebecca Danigelis, a longtime hotel employee in the United States who found herself laid-off and looking for work at the age of 75.

Culture Clash: During this tumultuous life transition, Danigelis experienced age discrimination in her job search, and she decided to have a reunion with her estranged adult daughter, who was raised by Danigelis’ older sister in England.

Culture Audience: “Duty Free” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in emotionally riveting stories about family, aging and senior citizens who want to be in the work force.

Rebecca Danigelis in “Duty Free” (Photo by Steve Sherrick/Duty Free Film)

For millions of people, retirement in the usual age range (65 and older) isn’t really an option because they don’t have enough money to retire. It’s an issue that’s not often discussed in mainstream media when there are news reports about the unemployed. But the documentary “Duty Free,” which was filmed over three years, takes a very personal look at the story of Rebecca Danigelis, a senior citizen who was abruptly laid off from her job as a housekeeping supervisor at a Boston hotel in 2016, when she was 75 years old. Dangelis is originally from Liverpool, England, and she immigrated to the U.S. in the 1960s. All three of her children were born in the United States.

Danigelis’ youngest child, Sian-Pierre Regis (who is an entertainment journalist by profession), decided to chronicle the experience of his mother’s unemployment, and it ended up becoming this documentary, which is Regis’ feature-film debut as a director. “Duty Free,” which had its world premiere at DOC NYC in 2020, was largely funded through a Kickstarter campaign. And the result is a very memorable documentary that manages to be intimate yet relatable. This mother and son have a very close relationship, which shines through in a natural and charming way throughout the entire film.

It’s clear from the documentary’s opening scenes that Regis was in the habit of video recording his mother before the footage ended up in this movie. Danigelis is shown on the job at Hotel 140 in Boston, where she worked for 40 years, with the footage showing her explaining the ins and outs of her position as supervisor of the housekeeping staff. Danigelis comments as she gives a tour of her hotel duties: “Housekeeping is the heart of the hotel. It’s a hard job but it’s a very rewarding job because you take things that look like nothing and make them look great.”

Her exact salary isn’t mentioned in the documentary, but she says that she had a relatively low income where she couldn’t earn enough to save for retirement. Regis mentions in the film that his mother spent most of her savings to pay for his college education at Colgate University, where he graduated in 2006. (It’s implied that she did not have a 401K retirement plan with her employer.) Danigelis got to live rent-free at the hotel, on the condition that she would be on call, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That all-consuming work schedule left her very little time to do a lot of things that many working people can do, such as travel a lot or have a weekends free for leisure time.

So why did Danigelis stay in this dead-end job? She explains that working at the hotel was more than a job. She says that her fellow employees and subordinates (who clearly respected her) were like a second family to her. However, the documentary shows that people in the hotel’s management (who are not interviewed in the film) began to show signs that they wanted to force Danigelis out of the job, probably because of her age.

According to Danigelis, after 40 years of having a spotless record on the job, she began to get written up for “insubordination,” which she says was an unfounded accusation. There were other signs that she was being edged out of the job, such as some of her responsibilities were being taken away and she was excluded from certain decisions that were part of her job requirements. The documentary shows, through phone conversations that Danigelis had with her son Sian-Pierre, that she was feeling increasingly frustrated, worried and sad over what she says were management’s obvious attempts to try to get her to quit.

She refused to quit, but feared that she would end up getting fired. And that’s exactly what happened, when one day she was told that her position had been eliminated. The hotel management gave her just two weeks of severance pay, and she was told that she would have one year to find another place to live.

Adding to the stress and financial pressure of her situation, Danigelis is also the caregiver of her schizophrenic son Gabriel, who is Sian-Pierre’s older brother. Gabriel did not participate in the documentary, but he is shown briefly from the back, in one scene in the home where he’s using a desktop computer. Sian-Pierre mentions at the beginning of the documentary that his mother sacrificed a lot to give him and Gabriel a good life. And when so, when it was time for his mother to get financial support from him, he didn’t hesitate to help her.

Sian-Pierre is also his mother’s main emotional support, so he spent a lot of time commuting from his home in New York City to Boston, in order to help his mother get her life back on track. He says in a voiceover in the documentary, “At 32, with no savings myself, I had to figure out how to keep us afloat.” That mean that Sian-Pierre (who’s worked as a on-air contributor/producer for MTV, BET and CNN) had to put some of his career on hold while he spent time in Boston.

Danigelis’ job loss was devastating, of course. She describes how she felt about being laid off: “I felt tossed away … Not only did I lose a job, I lost a family.” The documentary includes footage of Sian-Pierre helping his mother try to get back into the job market, by having her sign up for LinkedIn for the first time, looking for jobs online, and helping her craft her updated résumé. But the best parts of the film aren’t about her job search. (Not surprisingly, she experienced a lot of age discrimination while looking for a new job.)

The best parts of “Duty Free” are when Danigelis, with Sian-Pierre’s help, discovers new things about herself. Sian-Pierre mentions that his mother’s job loss and the extra time that he spent with her caused him to find out more about who his mother is as a person. The documentary shows this emotional journey in a very impactful way. Although the movie is about Danigelis, it’s is also about Sian-Pierre, since he gives voiceover narration with his perspective.

Sian-Pierre (who comes across as a very optimistic person) had the idea for his mother to use her unexpected free time to do things that she always wanted to do but never had the time to do before she lost her job. He doesn’t really call it a “bucket list,” but more like a “life list.” The documentary shows him accompanying his mother on all of her “life list” excursions.

Her list is a range of activities that include trying new things for the first time, such as joining Instagram, taking a hip-hop dance class, milking a cow, and skydiving. Also on the list was a nostalgia trip to Detroit, the city where she first settled when she moved to the United States. She discovered during her Detroit visit that the city has changed a lot since when she lived there.

The movie packs the most soul-stirring punch when she and Sian-Pierre go to England to do some family-related things on her “life list.” They include visiting her older sister Elsie’s grave, reuniting with her estranged adult daughter Joanne, and baking a cake with Joanne’s daughter Layla. This trip opens up some emotional wounds that might or might not be healed by the end of the film.

The way that “Duty Free” is edited, Danigelis explains her personal history toward the middle of the film, around the time that she and Sian-Pierre are shown going to England. When she came to America in her 20s, she was a bright-eyed and enthusiastic hospitality worker whose job was to promote tourism in Great Britain. She ended up falling for and marrying an American man. She became a permanent U.S. resident and they settled down in Detroit, where they had a daughter named Joanne.

According to Danigelis, the marriage fell apart because her businessman husband worked a lot and they became distant from each other. After the divorce, Danigelis found out that she had breast cancer. Fearing that she would die and knowing that her ex-husband did not want to take custody of Joanne, Danigelis sent Joanne (who was about 4 or 5 years old at the time) to live with Danigelis’ older sister Elsie in England. Danigelis recovered from the breast cancer, but decided to let Joanne stay in England because she thought that her daughter seemed happy there, and Joanne was living a life that Danigelis could not afford.

Years later, in the 1980s, Danigelis met and fell in love with the man who became the father of Gabriel and Sian-Pierre. She thought they would eventually get married, but they didn’t, because of a big secret that he was keeping from her. While she was pregnant with Sian-Pierre, she found out that her lover was already married and had another family with his wife.

Danigelis’ relationship with this man ended, and she apparently cut off all contact with him, because it’s clear that he was not involved in raising Gabriel and Sian-Pierre. It’s not even mentioned in the movie if he’s dead or alive. In the documentary, Danigelis remembers experiencing racism because her sons are biracial (their father is black) and how she would always proudly stand up for herself and her children when they experienced bigotry.

Does she get to do all the things on her “life list”? And how did achieving any of these goals affect her or her family? The documentary answers those questions in ways that will no doubt make some viewers shed some tears but also feel a lot of the joy that’s in the film.

There are some important lessons that Danigelis learns that can be beneficial to anyone who goes through similar situations or has a family member who does. She finds out that the job she poured her heart and soul into for decades actually prevented her from experiencing many other things she should have experienced in life, such as spending more time with her family. Danigelis couldn’t even go to England for her beloved sister Elsie’s funeral because she couldn’t take time off from work.

It’s a cautionary tale to not let a job take up your life so much that it causes you to lose touch with the people who are most important to you who aren’t co-workers. Danigelis’ story also speaks to a larger issue of how the job market should have better treatment of senior citizens who still want to work or need to work. It’s an issue that will become even more prevalent in society, as today’s young people are expected to live longer than previous generations did, but are less likely to have enough money to retire when they reach retirement age.

One of the harsh realities that Danigelis experiences in her job search is that her years of experience don’t count for much when she’s discriminated against because she looks her age. Even though she makes the mistake of putting the year that she graduated from high school on her résumé (and no one bothers to tell her that’s a big mistake), it still doesn’t erase the problem of age discrimination that she faces when she shows up for an interview or a job fair, and her physical appearance gives away her age.

The documentary does not show any employers blatantly discriminating against her during her job search, but it’s clear from Danigelis getting constantly rejected for jobs, or not getting any response at all when she applies, that her age has a lot to do with her difficulty in finding a new job. It’s implied that employers wrongly assume that because of her age, she’s not physically fit or will have health problems that will affect her job performance. And because she still wants to work in the hospitality industry in hotel jobs that require physical labor and standing a lot, it’s easy to see why some places would be reluctant to hire her.

Through it all, Sian-Pierre is there to lift his mother’s spirits and help her do things that might be out of her comfort zone but end up making her have more appreciation for herself and her life. It’s not all smooth sailing, because Danigelis understandably has moments where she feels defeated and depressed. But “Duty Free” is truly an example of how family members can pull together in a crisis and come out stronger than before. And the movie also sounds an alarm to not undervalue or neglect senior citizens, many of whom might not be as lucky as Danigelis is to have family members who care about them.

UPDATE: Duty Free LLC will release “Duty Free” in New York City on April 30, 2021. The movie’s release will expand to more cities and virtual cinemas on May 7, 2021.

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