g The Film Panel Notetaker: January 2009

Friday, January 30, 2009

DocuClub - "The Hand of Fatima" - Jan. 28, 2009

The Hand of Fatima
New York, NY
January 28, 2008

Wednesday night I attended my first ever DocuClub screening, thanks to Pamela Cohn’s post on her blog, Still in Motion. Pamela moderated a discussion after Wednesday's work-in-progress film, The Hand of Fatima by Augusta Palmer. DocuClub, a screening series of works-in-progress documentaries, is run by the non-profit organization Arts Engine, which supports, produces, and distributes independent media of consequence and promotes the use of independent media by advocates, educators and the general public.

This was a very different experience for me because it was not your typical post-screening Q&A, where the director responds to questions from the audience about his or her finished film. This was more of a workshop where the filmmaker can listen to constructive criticism and comments from the audience on aspects of the film that did work versus what may have been unclear and could be improved. The filmmaker can walk away with suggestions that he or she may or may not take into consideration when working on the final cut. I think this is an affective exercise and I applaud DocuClub for providing such an outlet for filmmakers to gain such valuable criticism.

I won’t give away too much of what was said at Wednesday’s discussion due to the fact that it is a work in progress, but will give you some general observations to at least provide you with an example of how this process works so that you may one day submit your documentaries in progress for consideration.

First, here’s a brief description about the film. The Hand of Fatima “follows filmmaker and new mother Augusta Palmer from Mississippi to Morocco on a search for her rock critic father's ideal mystical family, the Master Musicians of Jajouka. Animated sequences based on the late Robert Palmer's writing for Rolling Stone lead his estranged daughter to the people William Burroughs called ‘the world's only 4000 year-old rock band.’"

Pamela, who spoke with Augusta prior to the screening, found out that Augusta’s main issues to deal with during the workshop would be the weaving together of all of the strands with her father’s story, her story, the story of the musicians and how that all comes together in the film's ending.

One audience member commented that she liked how there was a juxtaposition between Augusta and her father giving the film a nice arc. Another woman said she liked the film and Augusta’s voice in it, but she wanted to like her father more in order to care about his journey to Morocco.

One woman said she loved the animation, but the first part of the film had a lot of animation, whereas the second half had far less and felt more like a travel guide, therefore she would have felt the film was more even if there was more animation throughout.

And one fellow said that he did feel there was some level of clarity in the beginning of the film and Augusta did a good job with the structure and the voiceovers, but towards the end it wasn’t quite clear to him what the audience was supposed to take away. He suggested she add a little bit more obviousness and step closer to being explicit about what she was thinking and experiencing.

After the discussion, Pamela introduced me to Augusta who told me that she expects to complete the film sometime this spring, so I look forward seeing what, if any, changes she makes.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Stranger Than Fiction - "The Education of Shelby Knox" - Jan. 20, 2009

Stranger Than Fiction
The Education of Shelby Knox
Q&A with Marion Lipschutz, Rose Rosenblatt and Shelby Knox
IFC Center
New York, NY
January 20, 2008

(L to R: Hugo Perez, Marion Lipschutz, Shelby Knox, and Rose Rosenblatt. Photo by Brian Geldin.)

Marion Lipschutz’ and Rose Rosenblatt’s 2005 documentary, The Education of Shelby Knox, that centers on then teen Shelby Knox’s advocacy for better sex education programs at her Lubbock, Texas, high school as well as compassion for a gay-straight student alliance, was the second screening of the spring season of Stranger Than Fiction at the IFC Center Tuesday night. Shelby, a teen with a liberal view on life, despite her parents’ conservative background, comes-of-age in this funny and poignant story, that’s told in a verité structure without being preachy. A now grown Knox who lives and works in New York and travels across the country speaking about youth feminism, responded to questions from the audience about the film together with Lipschutz and Rosenblatt. Hugo Perez, who was pinch-hitting for Thom Powers who's currently at Sundance, moderated the discussion. Below are highlights from that discussion.

Perez: (To Shelby) What was it like to be filmed, and four years later looking back at the film, what are your thoughts?

Knox: You know when you hear yourself talking on the answering machine, and you’re like…do I really sound like that? That’s the same experience and I do regret a lot of those outfits…At the time, it didn’t seem all that odd…At 15, you don’t really know what’s normal and abnormal…The really fantastic thing about Rose and Marion and Gary (Griffin, cinematographer) as artists is they included us in the process…They told us everything that was going on and I had a lot of trust in them. I never felt exploited and I never felt really exposed because I really trusted what they were doing. I do think the one way it has affected me is it did make me more introspective at a very young age because you have to think of yourself as I am being looked in the lens of this camera and people are going to judge me. At 15, you’re thinking about how the high school quarterback is going to judge you, but I was thinking about how nationwide audiences were going to judge me…I think I went through all the existential and all of those phases a little before college more than most young people do.

Perez: (To the filmmakers) How did you come to the subject matter of sex education…and how did you meet Shelby?

Rosenblatt: This was an outgrowth of the last film we did called Live Free or Die. It tracked an OB/GYN in New Hampshire who was one of the few OB/GYNs who was doing abortions. He was also teaching sex ed in a local school. The Right to Lifers who had infiltrated the school board went after him and tried to get him kicked off. We tracked that story. We learned very quickly about the sad state of affairs about sex education. Post that film, we thought we’d try to find a place, a town where there was a fight between those parents who wanted better sex ed and those that wanted abstinence. We knew that the federal government was pouring a lot of money through faith-based groups for this abstinence-based program…We thought we would find a town pretty rapidly, but it took us a year. It was a horrible search. There was no such town where one side was against the other…Finally after a year of looking, we got a call from...‘Cowboy’ Fred Ortiz who was in Lubbock, Texas…He heard we were looking for a story…He was the adult advisor of a group of about 36 kids who were trying to advocate for better sex ed and he wanted to get the publicity, so he contacted us…We were pretty desperate for a story…Shelby didn’t present immediately…It’s kind of complicated what happened, but there was a group of other kids who were getting very frustrated with the town because they had been empowered to work on teen issues, but as soon as they wanted to do sex ed, the town started distancing itself from them…Corey (Nicholls) and Shelby kind of came forward and they did this dance around who would become mayor of this Lubbock Youth Commission…Shelby always showed up on time…Shelby’s parents were really into it and saw that she was, so she came forward and we started filming her.

Perez: Can you talk about how outreach and activism has worked into the distribution of the film?

Lipschutz: Very often the films we’re doing are on a political subject…you’re filming activities. You train a camera on an action and you tend to sometimes exaggerate…bring attention to it in ways that either exacerbates or hinder a particular situation. It’s kind of inevitable. You’re there and you’re working with people, so for example if Shelby is doing something with the youth commission and we need to film something, there’s an incentive for Shelby to plan in a certain way to make it better…By now we have a network of people nationally. Whenever you go into a town, one of the things I always do is find who’s going to disagree with us, because we do have a point of view that’s obvious…I usually try to find a reporter, somebody who’s on some kind of political group, find out basically who the players in town are…Then when it’s done, kind of the same thing, but less so. Usually when it’s done, things come to us. At that point, you’re just meeting opportunities.

Audience Question: (To Shelby) Was there a particular moment or event in your life that influence your call to action and advocacy?

Knox: Let me preface this by saying that I think that our culture tells young people to over and over again, yes you can do whatever you want, you can grow up and be president, but your opinion doesn’t matter quite yet. Keep in mind, I was a very good Southern Baptist girl and sort of had that idea, but what I thought wasn’t going to be valid to older people. When (the youth commission) decided to work on sex education, we really decided we wanted to lower the rates of teen pregnancy and STDs. We really didn’t know it had to do with sex education. It wasn’t until we started doing research that we found out what a political issue it was, that the federal government was funneling so much money to abstinence only, that it wasn’t working, that the school district was playing into that. It was very clear to me that the people who were supposed to be taking care of me and standing up for my interests were playing politics with our lives…It wasn’t a particular moment, it was this aggregation of knowledge about how much we were actually being screwed over and that no one was going to stand up for us.

Audience Question: How did you gain the trust of the pastor (Ed Ainsworth) who served as Shelby’s ideological counterpart?

Knox: The Jews that needed to be converted.

Lipschutz: He centered on a mission to convert us.

Knox: He said that their souls were my responsibility; because I might be the only Christian that they ever met, so it was my responsibility as a Christian to save them from burning in hell, and I tried in earnest…it didn’t work.

Lipschutz: Ed also was smitten a little bit with the cameras...We wanted to film a lot more with him than we did. In the end, I think he was a little upset because he thought it was going to be a film about him and Shelby…The worst thing someone can do is to a filmmaker…is say you won’t talk. Most of Lubbock refused to talk to us. To Ed’s credit, he was willing to talk to us.

Perez: Has he seen the film? What was his reaction to it?

Lipschutz: At first he liked it. We usually prep people ahead of time with what’s in the film. When he saw it alone, he actually though it was fair. We got his message out and he wished it hadn’t been told so much from Shelby’s point of view. I think then after he starts getting feedback, you can say what he thinks now.

Rosenblatt: We’re doing a little update. He agreed to be interviewed again. Shelby goes to his house now after all these years and talks to him…He tried to explain that tolerant thing.

Knox: As he got negative media attention, he then started to feel as if he’d been exploited, but the real truth of the matter was he was always there. He was always eager to be there in front of that camera…About the tolerance thing, when I went back, he had started his own church…I asked him about, because we’re looking into using the film to do anti-homophobia trainings in California, I asked him about gay congregants and if gay people came to his church. He said we would tolerate them, we would accept them into the congregation because it is our responsibility as Christians to tell them that they are committing a fatal sin. So I said, you would tolerate them to tell them that they’re going to hell? He said, I wouldn’t put it exactly that way, but they are welcome in order to hear the word of Jesus Christ. His thing about tolerance is basically you tolerate people in order to tell them that they’re wrong. I think in the gay community, that term is whether you’re tolerated or accepted. Now when a lot of people see the film, that term brings up a lot of issues.

Audience Question: How do you consider yourself religiously now?

Know: I consider myself a spiritual person. I would not consider myself a practicing Christian. The reason is I’ve come to a point in my life where I can’t belong to a faith that does not see me as divine. The Christian faith does not see woman as holy and does not see them as equal. While I do believe that Jesus Christ as a historical figure was one of the first community organizers, we can learn a lot from going back to his example. I say now that feminism is my new religion. My fellowship, my spirituality, how I get my energy and give my energy is by speaking to young woman and telling our stories and finding power in our shared experience.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Cinema Eye Selects 2nd Annual Nominees at Sundance

At Sundance yesterday, nominees for the 2nd annual Cinema Eye Honors for Nonfiction Filmmaking were announced. The Film Panel Notetaker will bring you coverage of the ceremony taking place March 29 in New York. In the mean time, here's various reportage from Stranger Than Fiction blog, All These Wonderful Things and indieWIRE from the nominations ceremony. And for a look back at last year's #2 panel discussion from the Cinema Eye Roundtable Discussion, click here.

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The Absentee Panel Notetaker at Sundance

While The Film Panel Notetaker did not make it out to Sundance, we've gathered a menagerie of links to other people's coverage of the panels taking place there. Hope everyone enjoyed the inauguration today, and see you tonight in New York at Stranger Than Fiction for The Education of Shelby Knox.

Responding To Prop 8: Cooper, Rich Defend Sundance and the People of Utah

Thompson on Hollywood:
Sundance Update: Tyson, Directors, IFC Day-and-Date

Stranger Than Fiction Blog:
Journalist Kristof and Power speak at Sundance

Some Big Questions for 2009 (in response to Sunday's panel, 'Models & Experiments in Indie Distribution' )

New York Times:
Sundance Dispatch: Inside the Church of Independent Film

The WIP (Women's International Perspective):
Sundance Day 4: Celebrity Is a Funny Thing

CNet News:
At Sundance, Web pioneers see 'on-demand revolution'


Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Stranger Than Fiction: "Upstream Battle" - Jan. 13, 2009

Stranger Than Fiction
Upstream Battle
Q&A with director Ben Kempas
IFC Center
New York, NY
January 13, 2008

(Upstream Battle director Ben Kampas and STF's Thom Powers)

Tuesday night was the first screening of 2009 and new season of Stranger Than Fiction at the IFC Center. It’s been since last spring that I last reported from STF. Upstream Battle is story of the battle over the use of the Klamath River, where Pacific salmon have swum up to their spawning grounds and the people of four Native American tribes there (the Hoopa Valley, Yurok, Karuk and Klamath) struggle against a multinational corporation (PacifiCorp) that threatens this beautiful and natural phenomena. Director Ben Kempas (and co-host of D-Word) does an excellent job telling all sides of this open-ended story. “It was important to me that you get to know all these various parties that are involved and then make up your own mind,” Kempas said during the Q&A. Below are highlights from the rest of the discussion led by STF’s Thom Powers.

Powers: How did you get connected with the tribes?

Kempas: I have a good friend who does environmental PR work…He got asked by these tribes from North America to help them reach the British media while they were about to confront Scottish Power at their annual general meeting. I heard that and it instantly sounded like this David and Goliath-like story. I went with it and met these people and instantly connected with them and it kept me busy for the next three years.

Powers: When approaching a story dealing with Native Americans, you’re approaching a story dealing with layers of history, an indigenous culture that’s not even that well-known in our own country. What were the things you had to go through to get yourself into that world? What were the challenges?

Kempas: Just listen…I met them in Scotland and they invited me over…at the time of their annual renewal ceremony, which you actually don’t get to see in the film because it’s so sacred that you shall not take any pictures of it…That was there most important time of the year that they shared with us. We got to know all the people before we even got our camera…I think that was part of the getting access thing. Of course the corporation was much more difficult to than the tribes.

Powers: How was that negotiated? How skeptical of you were they and given you had spent so much time with the tribes…what was it like for you to open yourselves to the other point of view?

Kempas: I just focused on what I was interested on. There’s so many more parties in the basin that are involved in these settlements…there’s environmental organizations, there’s all the government agencies…I really just wanted to focus on the tribes mostly because I coming from Germany didn’t have a clue about Native Americans at the time. There was so much to be said about their culture, other than there all drug-addicted and that they run casinos now, all these kind of media clichés. The corporation…was interested in references, they wanted to see previous films. They actually wanted contacts of protagonists in previous films so they could inquire if they had been treated fairly…Also at the time, they were in a transition period where they already knew that they were going to be sold to Warren Buffett, but they still had to report to their bosses in Scotland (who) didn’t have a problem to say yes to this documentary, because they knew they would be getting rid of the company soon anyway….David Kvamme, the spokesman over at PacifiCorp, who you briefly see in the film, he does corporate videos for the company and considers himself a filmmaker as well, so I think he just wanted to support me in that way.

Powers: Has he commented on the finished film?

Kempas: They’ve regretted that we didn’t put in some footage of a dam that he showed us on the other river that they actually agreed to having removed as an example…We had it in the film for a long time, but then people got too confused because it seemed like they were going to remove a dam on the Klamath River…Toby (Freeman, the relicensing manager for PacifiCorp) liked the film. Toby would have like to come to Toronto but at the time that these confidential settlement negotiations were at such a delicate stage they felt they couldn’t do that. I know the film has gone quite high up in the corporate ladder. The CEOs of PacifiCorp and MidAmerican, their parent company, have seen it. Somebody told me that they wouldn’t be surprised if it had gone all the way up to Warren Buffett.

Powers: There’s an agreement now to remove the dams theoretically. Are the stakeholders in this optimistic that’s going to happen? What do they see as other challenges making that happen?

Kempas: The next big challenge is to get Congress to say yes to all of this, which is going to be tough in a time of the energy crisis. Can you really let go of a renewable resource? All parties have agreed upon that on the river. In the basin, you’ve got this new level of people that needs to be convinced.

Audience Question: Can you talk a little bit more about where your sympathies lay?

Kempas: I just really don’t like these black and white documentaries, these activist videos that tell you what to think. It was important to me that you get to know all these various parties that are involved and then make up your own mind. Obviously you can tell from the film which side my heart is on.

Audience Question: As a European, was it easier for you to make this film than if you were an American director?

Kempas: Yes…these guys, they’ve come all the way over from Germany, we should at least listen to them kind of thing…I think that was the same with the tribes and the corporation…It was this curiosity thing. They recognized that someone had come from that far to look into the story. Maybe that gives you a different level of respect of something. Maybe because I’m not a white U.S. filmmaker, I wasn’t so much perceived by the tribes as a white person as maybe others are. I can only guess at that. I don’t know.

Audience Question: How do you approach shooting scenes? Everything seems to be at the right place at the right time.

Kempas: I often was surprised myself that I happened to be in the right place at the right time. (I asked) FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, about when exactly they were going to release a certain document and they would tell me. So I knew what day I had to be with certain people…When the decision by the judge came out…I phone Craig (Tucker, the environmentalist in the film)…and asked him before you call Wendy (George, wife of Merv George in the film)…can you wait until we’re there? I did these kind of little manipulations. He would have called her anyway, but I wanted to make sure we were in the room with the camera before the phone call would come.

Powers: When you started off, did you know you were getting into something that would be open-ended or did you have some kind of sense the story could be told quickly?

Kempas: I thought it was going to be told more quickly. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I originally thought I’d do a half-hour reportage for German television. It just became bigger and bigger.

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