Some language in Arabic and Kurdish with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place mainly in Clarkston, Georgia, the documentary film “Refuge” features a racially diverse group of people (Asian, white and African American) who are working-class and middle-class residents of Clarkston and nearby cities.
Culture Clash: A former Ku Klux Klansman and Muslim doctor of Syrian Kurd heritage become friends in Clarkston, a city that has a large population of immigrants from Asia and Africa.
Culture Audience: “Refuge” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in documentaries with frank discussions about racism and how former racists can be redeemed.
“Refuge” is an inspiring story of how a community can heal from hate and how it’s never too late for people who’ve been terrible bigots to genuinely seek redemption. This documentary is centered in Clarkston, Georgia, but its life lessons are universal. The movie doesn’t shy away from difficult and uncomfortable conversations about racism. “Refuge” had its world premiere at DOC NYC in 2021.
Directed by Erin Bernhardt and Din Blankenship, “Refuge” mostly follows the story of the friendship between a former Ku Klux Klansman and U.S. Army veteran named Chris Buckley and a Muslim doctor of Syrian Kurd heritage named Heval Kelli. At the time that this documentary was filmed Buckley lived in Lafayette, Georgia, but he visits Clarkston often, since Kelli lives in racially diverse Clarkston, and Buckley has befriended many people in the Clarkston community.
In the documentary, Kelli describes Clarkston as having so many refugees from other countries, “It looks like a United Nations refugee camp.” It’s exactly the type of place that Buckley would’ve hated when he was a hardcore racist. Buckley was in the U.S. Army for 13 years, where he fought in the war in Afghanistan, which he says added fuel to his already existing hatred of Muslims and people who aren’t white. He was motivated to enlist in the Army after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Buckley says of his war experiences: “Every injury I sustained was by a Muslim.” he watched one of his best friend die in front of him. Buckley says that all he could think at the time was, “I hate the people who did this. All I know is that they’re Muslims.”
After getting out of the Army, Buckley became a leader in the Ku Klux Klan (one of the oldest white supremacist hate groups in the U.S.), which ordered him to get KKK tattoos. Buckley explains, “When I took over for the [KKK] head of security for the state of Georgia, they [KKK officials] said, ‘Look, you need to brand yourself.'”
Like many people who join hate groups, Buckley says he came from an abusive background. His alcoholic father used to beat him, and he was raised primarily by his grandmother. Buckley has also struggled with drug abuse, which is also a common trait of people who join hate groups.
Later in the documentary, Buckley reveals that what set him on a path to drug addiction was after her broke his back in a car accident. He was discharged from the military and got addicted to painkillers. “Opiates led to crystal meth,” he says. “In retrospect, I was alienating everyone who cared about me and was just ruining my life.”
What turned Buckley’s life around? He says that after we was arrested on drug charges, he went to court-ordered rehab. And he became a more devoted family man. His wife Melissa Buckley and their two children—son C.J. Buckley and daughter Miera Buckley—are also featured in the documentary. However, Melissa said the last straw for her was when Chris joined the KKK.
Through research on the Internet, Melissa found Arno Michaelis of the Forgiveness Project, a foundation devoted to helping people get out of hate groups and fostering healing relationships in communities that have been harmed by hate. Michaelis, who says he has been an ex-white supremacist since 1994, also describes himself as an extremist interventionist. He helped stage an intervention on Chris and continues to be in contact with the Buckley family.
Chris says about his current life as a former racist who has gotten clean and sober: “I’m the byproduct of someone’s act of kindness. I was undeserving of that. It set off a series of changes in my entire life.” Heval adds, “Chris is a reflection of the forgotten America.”
Chris’ military background has spilled over into how he raises his children. Chris says he taught his kids how to have tactical survival skills in the woods. But something he regrets doing now is taking his son C.J. to KKK meetings. Chris and his wife Melissa are teaching their children that Chris’ involvement in the KKK was a terrible mistake.
As for Kelli, he immigrated to the U.S. from Syria when he was 12 years old in September 2001, which was one of the worst months to be a Muslim in the United States. But even with anti-Muslim hate in America reaching new heights after the 9/11 terrorists attacks, Kelli says that there were many other Americans who proved that not all Americans are racist, xenophobic and Islamophobic.
Kelli remembers when he was 18 years old, “Southern Christians came knocking on our door. They came to welcome us to America. I knew then there was something special about this country.” Kelli had his own troubled history with his father. Heval Kelli’s mother Saaida Kelli describes Heval’s father as a lawyer who lived with depression.”
“Refuge” has footage of Chris and Heval doing speaking appearances together to talk about their friendship, as proof that it’s possible for bigots to stop the hate inside of themselves and get to know the types of people they used to hate. The documentary also takes a broader look at how Clarkston is an example of the changing demographics of the United States, a country that has had growing population of people of color.
The white supremacists who hate these changing demographics often like to ignore historical facts, such as the genocide of Native Americans, who lived on the land centuries before white colonialists invaded and took over the land. And most people in the U.S. who aren’t Native Americans can trace their ancestries back to people who immigrated to the United States. The city of Clarkston is a reminder that the United States is a country of immigrants from all over the world, so it’s fallacy to believe that only one race or one ethnicity should be superior to everyone else.
Ted Terry, who was mayor of Clarkston from 2014 to 2020, says in the documentary that he’s proud of Clarkston being so welcoming of immigrants, particularly refugees: “Less than one percent of refugees get invited to settle in one of the 17 countries in the developed world. It’s like winning the lottery.”
New American Pathways resettlement manager Safia Jama says, “An immigrant chooses to come here, but you never choose to be a refugee.” One of the more memorable Clarkston residents in the documentary is Amina Osman, a Somalian immigrant who was in her 90s at the time she was filmed for “Refuge.” She has the nicknames Ambassador of Clarkston, Queen of Clarkston and Mama Amina. “I like to be the mama of everyone,” she quips.
Also interviewed in the documentary are Rabbi Joshua Lesser of Bet Haverim in Atlanta and Pastor Crispin Ilombe Wilondja of Good Samaritan Lutheran Ministry at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia. They talk about the horrific mosque shootings that happened in New Zealand in 2019. The “Refuge” filmmakers made a misstep by not having a Muslim clergyperson as part of this discussion, since so much of the documentary is about battling against anti-Muslim bigotry.
With a total running time of 80 minutes, “Refuge” tells its story clearly and concisely without feeling too rushed. Viewers will get a vibrant look at the multiculturalism that makes Clarkston a reflection of what so many other communities in America are or will become. And the message of “Refuge” is obvious: Bigots who want to go back to the shameful era when racial segregation in America was legal, or think that people should be persecuted for their religious beliefs, will continue to be in miserable denial. “Refuge” shows that those who have lives of racial tolerance (through actions, not just words) are more likely to have a healthier and happier outlook on life and are more likely to make positive impacts in their communities.
Shout! Studios released “Refuge” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on March 24, 2023.
Culture Representation: In the documentary film “Ellis,” a predominantly African American group of people (with some white people), who are all connected in some way to jazz musician Ellis Marsalis Jr., discuss his life and career.
Culture Clash: Marsalis overcame obstacles in a racist music industry to become an influential jazz artist and producer.
Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of Ellis Marsalis Jr. fans, “Ellis” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching an easygoing but not particularly exciting documentary about a famous jazz musician.
Although “Ellis” often looks like a unchallenging tribute film to a music icon, it can maintain viewer interest because of the people interviewed in the documentary and for offering some enjoyable performance footage. This documentary about jazz legend Ellis Marsalis Jr. plays it very safe, but it’s an insightful look into his professional and personal life. He participated in this documentary, which was his last film project before he died at age 85 of COVID-19-related pneumonia in 2020. “Ellis” is also the first feature-length documentary specifically about him.
Directed by Sascha Just, “Ellis” lets the movie’s namesake do much of the talking in telling his life story. His memories and stories (which sometimes ramble and could have used tighter editing) shape the narrative of the documentary, which has the expected mix of interviews, archival footage and exclusive footage that is new to this film. “Ellis,” which is Just’s feature-film directorial debut, had its world premiere at DOC NYC in 2022.
“Ellis” is told mostly in chronological order, with Ellis starting off by talking about his childhood and how he got into music. His parents (Ellis Marsalis Sr. and Florence Robertson) came from fairly different backgrounds. Robertson was a Creole from New Ellis, Louisiana. Ellis Sr. was a non-Creole from Summit, Mississippi. Ellis Jr. was born and raised in New Orleans, which has long been considered the American city most associated with jazz.
Ellis says of his early years as a musician: “I was learning the craft by way of bebop.” He took up playing the clarinet because he admired Artie Shaw. In high school, he listened to R&B, but jazz would eventually become his passion. However, because music education at the time was focused on European-based music (classic music or opera), Ellis remembers he couldn’t play jazz around the Catholic nuns who taught at the schools he attended. His mother bought him a tenor saxophone, but he also started playing the piano, which became his favorite instrument.
Instead of becoming a professional musician after graduating from high school, Ellis decided he would get a college education first at Dillard University. He graduated in 1955. His father paid for the tuition, even though Ellis says that his father (who owned a hotel on property that he owned) was skeptical that a college education would be beneficial to a black man in America at the time. Ellis Jr. saw things differently: “Being in the classroom was the closest thing between not having to pick up that mop and broom.
Ellis says of his father: “He didn’t want to work for anyone,” and Ellis Jr. inherited some of that entrepreneurial spirit by becoming an independent musician for hire. And his appreciation for education served him well when he became music teacher to help pay the bills when he wasn’t making enough money as a musician. He comments, “People who understood the economics of the situation could put a hustle together.”
Growing up in racially segregated Louisiana had an effect on him too, but Ellis doesn’t dwell on the negative experiences in this documentary. He says of spending a great deal of his life living with racist segregation: “It affected lots of stuff: the way you talked, the way you dressed, the way you studied in school.”
Ellis’ mentor at Dillard University was Harold Battiste, who would go on to found All for One (AFO) Records. As poet Kalamu ya Salaam says in the documentary about Battiste: “He had a vision that was just broader than playing music. He wanted to produce music. He wanted black people of his time and place to control and own their music.” Ellis Jr. was one of the artists who recorded music for AFO.
In the documentary, Ellis’ son Jason remember discovering an AFO Records box set at the age of 10 and hearing his father’s music and being surprised that it was so different from what he expected: “II couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I was hearing the music that is not the kind of music that people think of when they think of the city of New Orleans, to this day.”
Ellis tells some entertaining stories about his travels as a young musician, when he would go on the road with Battiste and drummer Edward Blackwell. For a while, he lived in New York City, but eventually returned to New Orleans. Except a period of time (1986 to 1989), when Ellis and his family lived in Richmond, Virginia, he would live in New Orleans for the rest of his life.
Ellis met his future wife Dolores Ferdinand at a racially segregated beach in Louisiana called Lincoln Beach. He asked for her phone number, and one of his friends said to him: “Why do you want to do that? You’re not going to call her.” Ellis quips in the documentary: “He was wrong.”
The courtship of Ellis and Dolores was somewhat interrupted in 1957, when Ellis enlisted in the U.S. Marines. He comments on his military experience: “In the Marine Corps, they look for normal people they can teach how to kill people.” He also remembers that he didn’t write too many love letters to Dolores while he was in the Marines.
After getting out of the military, he and Dolores married and would go on to have six sons together: Wynton, Branford, Jason, Delfeayo, Ellis III and Mboya Kenyatta. All of them (except for Mboya Kenyatta, who has autism) are professional musicians who have performed as solo artists and as members of the Marsalis Family band. Wynton, Branford, Jason, Delfeayo and Ellis III are all interviewed in the documentary.
Ellis describes his marriage to Dolores (who died in 2017) as generally happy but sometimes strained due the financial pressures of raising a large family on a musician’s salary that wasn’t always steady a income. Ellis comments, “I never developed a defeatist attitude about it. I always figured somehow it would work out.”
Even though money was often tight for the Marsalis family, Ellis says that Dolores told him never to give up on being a musician, even when he contemplated quitting music to become a taxi driver. To supplement his income, Ellis continued teaching music. In the 1970s, he was a teacher at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, where his students included Terence Blanchard, Harry Connick Jr. and actor Wendell Pierce. (Ellis would later be the jazz program chairperson at the University of New Orleans, from 1989 to 2001.)
In the documentary, Pierce shares his memories of having Ellis as a teacher. Pierce says that his first impression of Ellis was that he was “a wise sage with a great sense of humor … He put you at ease, and gave you a sense that you were going to figure it out.” At the same time, “He was a touch teacher and a tough mentor.”
Ellis’s children say in the documentary that he was not the type of father who pushed or pressured his children into following in his footsteps. Branford remembers that his father didn’t force him to practice music. Delfeayo adds, “Yeah, he was very laid-back. Wynton comments, “he didn’t make me play in his band,” but “I loved and respected him so much.” ” Branford adds, “He wasn’t materialistic or ambitious. He just wanted to play.”
Ellis also talks about how he and Dolores were civil rights activists who were very outspoken about their rights, and they taught their children to be the same way. Wynton says, “She was very direct about any of the issues.”
The performance footage in “Ellis” includes him performing at Jazz Fest in 1994, a Marsalis Family performance at Jazz Fest in 2001, and a 2019 solo artist performance at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City. His songs that are featured in the movie include “Nostalgic Impressions,” “Canadian Sunset,” Magnolia Triangle,” “Basic Urge,” “Tell Me,” “After and Monkey Puzzle.” As for his favorite recordings that he’s done, Ellis narrows it down to the Ellis Marsalis Trio music that he recorded on Blue Note Records and the 1996 “Loved Ones” album that he recorded with son Branford.
Other people interviewed the documentary are Ellis’ colleagues. They include pianist David Torkanowsky, trumpeter Ashlin Parker, saxophonist Derek Douget, pianist Tom McDermott, drummer Helen Riley, guitarist Steve Masakowski, former Musicians Village director Michele Brierre, and two of his former students: saxophonist John Ellis and pianist Jesse McBride. All of their comments are essentially praise-filled soundbites that don’t offer anything truly revealing.
“Ellis” is perfectly pleasant, but the movie might come across as a bit bland for people who have no interest in jazz music. The documentary could have used more meaningful stories about how Ellis Marsalis Jr. got inspired to write certain songs, or how he felt being the patriarch of a family of musicians. The movie’s production values are adequate. Mostly, “Ellis” tells his story in a simple but effective way, even if the movie doesn’t have anything new or surprising to reveal.
Culture Representation: Taking place in 2021, in various parts of the United States, the documentary film “Santa Camp” features a group of predominantly white people (and some African Americans) from the working-class and middle-class who are connected in some way to the annual Santa Camp and the business of dressing up as Santa Claus and his wife.
Culture Clash: While many people embrace more diversity in what Santa Claus can look like, other people are very much against having a Santa Claus who isn’t presented as a white, heterosexual, cisgender man.
Culture Audience: “Santa Camp” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in getting a behind-the-scenes look at how people are trained to be a professional Santa Claus and how this business is adjusting to having more diversity.
“Santa Camp” is a delightful and interesting documentary spotlighting diversity issues in the business of being Santa Claus. The movie could have easily ignored these issues and just been a superficial film that focuses only on the lighthearted aspects of performers who dress as Santa Claus or his wife as a way to bring Christmas holiday cheer to the public. Those upbeat characteristics are very much a part of the movie, but “Santa Camp” is also a real-life reflection of larger, serious issues in American society, when it comes to diversity, inclusion and representation.
Directed by Nick Sweeney, “Santa Camp” (which had its world premiere at DOC NYC in 2022) was filmed mostly in 2021, when the New England Santa Society’s annual Santa Camp (held in Greenfield, New Hampshire) had three very different types of newcomers: an African American Santa; a Santa with spina bifida who uses a speech-generating device to talk; and a transgender male Santa. “Santa Camp” also features gender equality issues, as performers who portray Santa Claus’ wife demand equal pay and equal treatment.
“Santa Camp” shows the Santa Claus angle of show business. But on a larger level, “Santa Camp” also shows that how people feel about what Santa Claus should look like is really a microcosm of how many people react to those in top leadership roles who don’t fit the description of being a white, heterosexual, cisgender man, usually someone who is the age of a grandparent. The issues of diversity, inclusion and representation in relation to portraying Santa Claus speak to larger issues of how people feel about diversity, inclusion and representation in American society.
This historical fact is pointed out multiple times in the documentary: St. Nicholas (the third-century saint on which Santa Claus is based), also known as Nicholas of Bari, wasn’t white Anglo Saxon or Aryan but was actually of Greek heritage. St. Nicholas was born and lived in an area of the Middle East that is now known as the country of Turkey. However, by the 1800s, a different version of Santa Claus became popular in Europe and North America: a German character named Kris Kringle, who had distinctive Aryan features and was made to look like a jolly old man.
As Christmas and Santa Claus became more commercial in the United States and other parts of the world, the Kris Kringle version of Santa Claus became the dominant image in the United States. Coca-Cola is mentioned as a company that helped promote this image through TV commercials. And for many people, this is the only image of Santa Claus that they accept, because it’s the only image they know from their childhoods.
“Santa Camp” shows how people are adjusting to and sometimes resisting anything that doesn’t fit this dominant image of Santa Claus. The people in the documentary (and viewers watching the documentary) are faced with questions that, by their very nature, sometimes make people uncomfortable: Who gets to decide if this dominant image of Santa Claus is the only one that should be presented to the public? Who is it really helping or hurting if someone who doesn’t fit that image wants to dress up as Santa Claus? And where do you draw the line in defining what Santa Claus should look like and who has the right to look that way?
Most of the people who are interviewed in the documentary are not identified by their last names, perhaps as a way to give them an air of Claus performer mystique. The movie begins by showing a casual gathering of about six New England Santa Society men, who have decades of experience of being hired to perform as Santa Claus. One of them is Dan Greenleaf, also known as Santa Dan, who founded this group and is the co-founder of Santa Camp. He says early on in the film that the group took the initiative to reach out to more diverse people to portray Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus, after he got a request for an African American Santa Claus and realized that all of the members of the New England Santa Society are white.
Another person who’s shown at this meeting is Richard “Dick” Marshall, also known as Santa Dick, who was a member of the New England Santa Society since the beginning. Sadly, Marshall died at the age of 90, during the filming of this documentary, which includes some footage from his memorial service. “Santa Camp” shows that Marshall was a highly respected and beloved member of the group, and he believed that the image of Santa Claus should be more diverse and inclusive.
At first, the men in the group are shown laughing and joking about some of the awkward experiences they’ve had when performing as Santa Claus. Santa Dick mentions meeting a boy who was so excited to meet Santa, the boy defecated in his pants. A retired advertising executive only identified as Santa Jack talks about his standard response when some kids would ask him to guess their names as “proof” he was the real Santa: “I only know the names of children on the ‘nice list.””
The mood of the conversation becomes more serious when the issue of diversity comes up. Santa Dick has this response: “For my generation, as a group, it was a little more difficult to accept. God created no junk, so [the controversy over having different types of Santas] doesn’t matter.”
Santa Dan adds, “I think the issue we run into is that people just have a specific idea of what Santa should look like. And I think, a lot of times, it’s their childhood Santa, the one they remember as kids.” When a retired communications manager named Santa Dave says that Santa Claus originated in Europe, Santa Jack quickly corrects him and says that Santa Claus was originally based on Saint Nicholas, a Turkish man.
Even with diversity issues over what Santa Claus can look like, people still have certain expectations of what a traditional Santa Claus costume should look like when someone is hired to portray Santa Claus. A suit and hat that are red and white are considered essential elements of a Santa costume. A black belt and boots are also considered requirements for a traditional Santa Clause costume.
To a lesser degree, people also expect Santa Claus to have white hair and a white beard. (According to some of the professional Santas, a long beard is more desirable than a short beard because people like to pull Santa’s beard.) And a Santa Claus who looks chubby or overweight is often expected, even if people have to wear things that make them look like they are of a heavier weight than they really are.
Beyond physical appearances, those who are successful “Santas for hire” usually have to be of a certain personality type. They have to be comfortable meeting a wide variety of strangers and dealing with unexpected or unusual situations. Some of the Santas interviewed in the documentary say that the hardest part of the job often includes how to handle unhappy children or children who make demands for Christmas gifts that they won’t realistically get. The Santas who go to Santa Camp are trained on how to deal with various difficult situations.
The “Santa Camp” documentary could have used more footage of this behind-the-scenes training, but the movie is more focused on showing the experiences of the three “non-traditional” Santas who experience Santa Camp for the first time. In addition to offering the expected workshops and discussion panels, Santa Camp has leisure activities, such as swimming and competitive “Reindeer Games,” where the participants do things like try to assemble gifts without using sight. The documentary gives some screen time to the movement of treating performers who depict Santa Claus and his wife as equals in public and behind the scenes—and having work contracts reflecting this equal treatment accordingly. In real life, Santa Camp has training for people who perform as Santa’s elves or Santa’s helpers, but these Santa assistants are not the focus of the documentary.
The three “non-traditional” Santas whose journeys are chronicled in the “Santa Camp” documentary are in their 30s and are passionate about having the portrayals of Santa Claus (and Santa Claus associates) be more diverse and inclusive, even if they experience a lot of bigotry and rejection. They all have supportive family members who are featured in the documentary. “Santa Camp” shows what happens after all three of these Santa Camp newcomers graduate from the program.
Chris Kennedy, also known as Santa Chris, is an amenities coordinator from North Little Rock, Arkansas. He says he was motivated to get professional training as a Santa Claus for hire because his daughter Emily Kennedy (who was about 7 or 8 years old when this documentary was filmed) didn’t see any African Americans as Santa Claus, and he wanted to be that role model for her and other kids. His wife Iddy Kennedy (who sometimes dresses up as Mrs. Claus) is shown as being completely supportive of what Santa Chris wants to do, with both spouses being proud of their African American heritage as they live in a predominantly white neighborhood.
Santa Chris also talks about being further motivated to go to Santa Camp after receiving a hateful, racist letter in the mail from an anonymous neighbor who objected to the Kennedy family having an inflatable, brown-skinned Santa Claus in the family’s own front yard. At first, Santa Chris doesn’t want to read the letter on camera because he says it’s too upsetting. “It was 100% an attack on me,” he comments on the letter. But then later, he reads the letter out loud during a Santa Camp gathering where the participants share their personal stories. It’s a very powerful moment in the film that moves some people to tears at the gathering.
Finbar “Fin” Chiappara, also known as Santa Fin, is from Barre, Vermont. He has dreamed for years of being a Santa Claus, especially in a parade. He has spina bifida and uses a speech-generating device to talk out loud. His constant companion is his single mother Suki, also known as Mama Claus, who says in the documentary that when Santa Fin was a baby, doctors told her that he would never walk and that he was better-off living in a healthcare facility. She didn’t take their advice and became his caretaker, while Santa Fin defied expectations and can walk. His sister Rose is in the documentary as another person in his support system.
Levi Truax, also known as Trans Santa Levi, is a transgender man from Chicago. His wife Heidi Truax often makes public appearances with Levi as Dr. Claus, and she accompanies Levi to Santa Camp. Out of all the Santa Camp newcomers, Levi and Heid are the most likely to tell jokes as a way to cope with any discomfort at being perceived as “outsiders.” Levi and Heidi experience the most blatant bigotry shown in the documentary—not from people at Santa Camp but from people who objected to an advertised event where people could meet Trans Santa Levi and Dr. Claus.
One of these events, which is featured in the documentary, had to be moved to another location because of hateful harassment and other threats, but some members of the extremist right-wing Proud Boys still showed up at the new location with protest signs to condemn the event. An unidentified woman is also shown doing a social media livestream of herself in the event’s parking lot, where she says people involved in the event are doing the devil’s work. In the documentary, Heidi says she prefers to be known as Dr. Claus instead of Mrs. Claus because she wants people to know that this Santa spouse has a Ph.D. and is the complete equal of her husband.
Throughout the documentary, it’s very apparent that those who welcome diversity in the Santa Claus community believe that diversity doesn’t mean forcing people not to believe in a Santa who isn’t a straight, white, cisgender, able-bodied man. Rather, the belief in this diversity is that if people want to see a Santa Clause who’s different from the dominant image of Santa Claus, then those options should be available. Problems and controversy usually arise when people insist that Santa Claus can only be presented in one way for everyone.
“Santa Camp” also shows the reality that how people feel about having more diverse types of Santas has a lot to do with how people feel about diverse types of people getting the same socioeconomic opportunities that white, cisgender, able-bodied men often get in preferential treatment. After all, Santa Claus and related matters have become a big business. What does that mean if people other than white, cisgender, able-bodied men get some of these Santa Claus performer jobs?
The documentary shows that Santa Camp will welcome anyone who wants to pay the fee, but Santa Camp isn’t going to guarantee any paying gigs to any of its graduates. The prevailing attitude with the white, cisgender, male Santas is that they don’t feel worried about being replaced anytime soon by a large influx of people who don’t look like them. And because being hired to portray Santa Claus is seasonal work, very few people can really live on their Santa Claus earnings alone. Some of the interviewees in “Santa Camp” include Santa Bob (a retired truck driver), Santa William (an ESL teacher), Santa Daniel (a broadcast engineer), Santa Louis (a retired fire alarm salesperson) and Santa George (a retired mold maker).
A man identified as Santa Tom comments on the idea that Santa Claus always has to be a white cisgender man: “I don’t know if it’s a diversity problem, or just that people have accepted Santa as a certain way.” George McCleary (also known as Santa George), president of the Connecticut Society of Santas, has this point of view: “Over all of the years I’ve done this, I’ve never been asked by a child, ‘How come you’re white? How come Santa isn’t black like me?’ Kids don’t see color.”
While the statement “Kids don’t see color” might not apply to all children, many people of all ages actually do see color—and that’s not a bad thing if people are celebrated and included for their differences, not insulted or excluded because of those differences. As mentioned in the documentary, some people do request Santas that don’t fit the usual mold. “Santa Camp” shows how this event is at least making some attempts to respond to interest in having more diverse Santas.
“Representation is a big thing for our family,” says Santa Chris. He later adds as he arrives at Santa Camp for the first time, “Black Santas are not widely celebrated.” In a later scene, he says, “Being the only person of color here, it’s definitely lonely and awkward, to say the least.” The documentary shows at the end if Santa Chris thinks his Santa Camp experience has been beneficial and positive to him.
Meanwhile, Trans Santa Levi also talks about the importance of representation in portrayals of Santa Claus. He starts to cry a little when he says, “If I saw a trans Santa as a kid, it would be comforting … and empowering.” His wife Heidi adds, “It would’ve made a difference for you.”
People also want more flexibility in how the wife of Santa Claus is perceived. A Mrs. Claus performer identified only as Dianne, who is a retired spacecraft engineer, firmly believes that Mrs. Claus should be treated as an equal, not as a subservient sidekick, to Santa Claus. She says she’s against the rigid idea that Mrs. Claus can only wear dresses, and Mrs. Claus performers should have the option to wear dresses or other types of clothing.
Dianne comments, “I think everybody wants to be treated equally. How pushy do you have to be about it? I’m pushy!” All the Mrs. Claus performers interviewed in “Santa Camp” use Claus as their stage surname. They include holiday performer Bonnie Claus, nurse Mary Beth Claus, retired computer programmer Theresa Claus and box office manager Susan Claus, who says that there shouldn’t be a fantasy that Santa and Mrs. Claus have a perfect marriage: “Santa and Mrs. Claus don’t always get along.”
The documentary shows Levi and Heidi looking uncomfortable when attending a Mrs. Claus discussion panel. Heidi and Levi say that they didn’t like how the panel’s narrative was that Mrs. Claus’ main purpose is to make Santa happy and to be an example of traditional marriage as the “right” way to live. They both say that they wish they could have spoken up with their own viewpoints during this panel dicussioon. Later, during a smaller group discussion, Heidi asserts herself and says why she’s proud to be called Dr. Claus and to have a transgender partner in a relationship where they treat each other as equals. The people in the group applaud in support of what Heidi says, but it’s hard to know how much being on camera affected their reactions.
Although the “Santa Camp” documentary doesn’t do go too in depth over age issues, another minority at Santa Camp is anyone under the age of 50 who portrays Santa Claus or Mrs. Claus. It’s another reason why Santa Chris, Santa Fin, Trans Santa Levi and Dr. Claus all stand out from the vast majority of the people at this event. The age issue for Santa performers isn’t as big of a controversy because people can look older through makeup and wigs. When it comes to Santa Claus diversity, issues regarding race and non-cisgender identities seem to be the most controversial.
Regardless of how people feel about diversity in the Santa Claus image, “Santa Camp” does a very good job of showing how these issues aren’t going away anytime soon (especially in America, which has become more racially diverse over time) and that the people in the business of selling Santa Claus have to respond in one way or another to these issues. Many people who attend Santa Camp say that the Santa Claus performer community is like a “family.” As “Santa Camp” shows in endearing and sometimes tension-filled ways, the real test is how people want to define that family, who will be invited to join, and how they will be treated.
HBO Max premiered “Santa Camp” on November 17, 2022.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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, F@ck 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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.”
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
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
$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.
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].
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.
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.
UPDATE: Yellow Veil Pictures and Drafthouse Films will release “Once Upon a Time in Uganda” in select U.S. cinemas on July 4, 2023. The movie will be released on digital and VOD on July 25, 2023.