And once again it was a huge day for HBO Documentary Films. The network - which traditionally dominates this category - was responsible for at least five of the eight shortlisted titles, including a film that will air on the network this coming week - a profile of children's book author/illustrator Maurice Sendak by WHERE THE WILD THINGS auteur Spike Jonze and his frequent collaborator Lance Bangs.
Also happy? Us. Three of our CONVENTION collaborators - Steven Bognar, Daniel Junge and Julia Reichert - were amongst those announce today. Bogner and Reichert for their HBO Labor Day premiere doc THE LAST TRUCK: CLOSING OF A GM PLANT (above) and Junge for his THE LAST CAMPAIGN OF GOVERNOR BOOTH GARDNER. Congrats to them and all on this year's shorts shortlist, 3 to 5 of whom will be making the voyage to the Kodak Theatre as Oscar nominees in March.
After the break, the skinny on this year's potential nominees:
Directed by Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill
Alpert and O'Neill were multiple Emmy winners for the HBO doc BAGHDAD ER Their latest film for the network examines the aftermath of the earthquake that struck the Sichuan Province last year, specifically looking at communities in mourning for children killed in the quake. The film aired in May on HBO.
Say Washington Post critic Tom Shales:
"Considering its brief running time of only 39 minutes, it might pack more power per moment of any documentary in recent memory. But you can learn, ponder and appreciate a great deal as you watch this stunning portrait in sorrow, loss and bureaucratic indifference. There are insights into ways Chinese culture differs from the Western world and ways it seems not only similar but also virtually universal...
Artful but never artsy, as direct and natural as a conversation with a friend, "Unnatural Disaster" is a uniquely powerful piece of work, typical of what we've come to expect from Sheila Nevins's documentary division of HBO but even more moving than most."
THE LAST CAMPAIGN OF GOVERNOR BOOTH GARDNER
Directed by Daniel Junge
Junge's THEY KILLED SISTER DOROTHY was shortlisted for the feature documentary Oscar last year. The film, which examines the efforts of former Washington State Governor Gardner to legalize assisted suicide.
The NY Times Magazine profiled Gardner in 2007:
THE LAST TRUCK: CLOSING OF A GM PLANT
""This will be my last campaign,” Booth Gardner said. “This will be the biggest fight of my career.”...
The campaign he was starting, when I spent time with him this summer and fall, goes by the name of “death with dignity,” and the statewide law he hopes to enact by popular vote on Election Day of 2008 would allow for “physician-assisted suicide” or, as the death-with-dignity movement prefers to call it, “hastened death” or “aid in dying.” The law would let doctors prescribe lethal doses of narcotics to terminally ill patients who ask to end their own lives. It would be modeled closely on a statute in Oregon, the only state where the movement has been successful. In all others, suicide is not illegal, but in nearly all it is a crime to help someone kill himself. (The law in a few states doesn’t address the issue of such assistance, which leaves the one assisting exposed to possible prosecution.) The movement has put measures like Gardner’s directly before voters once already in Washington, in 1991, and in California, Michigan and Maine in the years since, and it has tried several times to turn its vision into law through state legislatures. Some of the failures have been narrow. The referendum in Washington was defeated 54 percent to 46 percent; in Maine 51 percent to 49 percent. With Gardner giving voice to its cause, the movement hopes for momentum."
Directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert
Bognar and Reichert won an Emmy for their recent film, LION IN THE HOUSE. Reichert has twice before been nominated for an Oscar, for UNION MAIDS and SEEING RED. THE LAST TRUCK - which details the closing of the GM plant outside Dayton - had its world premiere at this year's Telluride Film Festival, which was followed by a Labor Day television premiere on HBO.
From the NY Times review:
"(C)arries an emotional charge way out of proportion to its bare-bones style and 40-minute running time. It’s heartbreaking, in an unassuming way that reflects the personalities of the autoworkers it observes.
Presented without narration, the film consists almost entirely of workers talking to the camera through the last six months of the plant’s life. We see them at home, at local hangouts and, most characteristically, sitting in their trucks and S.U.V.’s after their shifts. Some context is provided by clips of television newscasts, but otherwise the point of view is entirely the workers’: this is their story.It’s a story balanced between sorrow and anger, but when the anger comes out — at inept management, or misleading claims about union wages — it’s blunted by resignation and apprehension. The notion of “reinvention” mostly inspires derision. One middle-aged man gestures to the community college catalog on the seat beside him and says, sourly, “Education for us guys that don’t feel like getting any more education.” Asked whether he thinks that not owning a computer will hurt his job search, his eyes shift away from the camera. “Hope not,” he says."
Although there have been a number of documentaries that have examined the case of Ehren Watada, the US Army First Lieutenant that refused to fight in the Iraq War, we haven't been able to find specific information about this project, nor about the listed production company, Chanlim Films.
The Nation provides backdrop on Watada's story:
"In 2006, Watada, an infantry officer based at Fort Lewis, Washington, refused to be deployed to Iraq on grounds that the war was illegal and immoral and that to participate in it would make him complicit in war crimes. The Army court-martialed him, but at the last minute Military Judge John Head declared a mistrial. The Army attempted to retry him, but civilian US District Court Judge Benjamin Settle barred the retrial as a violation of the Constitution's ban on double jeopardy. The Army then appealed the decision, but last week Solicitor General Elena Kagan ordered the appeal withdrawn...
Watada's stand was not the conventional conscientious objection to all wars; it was based on his belief that this particular war was illegal. He maintained that it violated the Constitution and the War Powers Act, which "limits the President in his role as commander in chief from using the armed forces in any way he sees fit.""
Anyone with further info should contact us.
MUSIC BY PRUDENCE
Directed by Roger Ross Williams
Another of the HBO documentaries on the film is William's look at the Zimbabwe musical group Liyana and their lead singer, Prudence Mabhena. From a Billboard profile:
"Music as an uplifting force takes on new meaning after hearing and watching Zimbabwe's Liyana perform. Despite physical challenges ranging from spina bifida to congenital joint impairment, the eight-member group-ages 17-23-offers up a stirring and joyful mix of Afro-fusion that melts away their disabilities as soon as the first notes ring out.
Together as a group since 2003, the members of Liyana first met as students at the King George VI School for the disabled. Serving as the group's mentor is school director Inez Hussey. Specializing in the marimbas, African drums, shakers, keyboards and piano, Liyana fuses various genres from gospel and reggae to traditional Zimbabwean Shona music. One of the group's most popular songs is "Umntwana weQhawe (Son of a Hero)."
Self-taught musically and writing most of their songs, the group not only performs in the Shona and Ndebele languages but five others as well: English, Dutch, German, Hebrew and Spanish.
Crystal-voiced lead singer Prudence Mabhena is the group's most experienced member. The multi-talent-singer, songwriter, arranger, choreographer and lyricist-was a member of the award-winning Inkonjane group in 2002 and has performed with Mexican opera singer Encarnacion Vazquez. Mabhena suffers from joint-impairing arthrogryphosis, able only to move her head and a hand.
Despite the physical setbacks, "music changes everything," says Mabhena. "Singing brings joy and I feel honored to be doing it. Ms. Hussey showed us that disability does not mean inability.""
Williams' previous credits include writing and producing for Michael Moore's TV Nation.
RABBIT A LA BERLIN
Directed by Bartek Konopka
One of the films in this year's IDA DocuWeeks showcase, the German/Polish short RABBIT A LA BERLIN also screened at this year's Hot Docs, which gave the following synopsis:
"It's an important lesson of history that a system of order intended to produce one result will often give birth to something entirely unexpected. So it was with the Berlin Wall, which was, in fact, two separate walls, one on the east and one on the west with a 120-kilometre strip of land between them. The enclosed patch was unintentionally converted into a kind of rabbit reserve as the walls encircled the lush green meadows of Potsdamer Platz and cut its rabbit population off from both escape and predators. But then one day the walls came down and the rabbits were suddenly freed from a restrictive system, albeit one to which they had become accustomed. Told in the style of a nature documentary, with a captivatingly dreamy tone and a tongue-in-cheek nod to the story's allegorical significance, Rabbit à la Berlin provides a fascinating history lesson told through the eyes of animals."
The IDA interviewed Konopka for its website during DocuWeeks:
"IDA: What inspired you to make Rabbit à la Berlin?
BK: Information that thousands of rabbits were living free and happy, enclosed between the Berlin Walls. I realized it is a unique chance to tell about the history of communism and about the fates of my parents and friends, in a very surprising and meaningful way.
IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?
BK: Nobody had done this kind of documentary before. We had to invent this fairy tale-allegory-docu genre, and it had to find its own language--and it took us four years to complete.
IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?
BK: Our first idea was to make a fairy tale docu narrated by the Esterhazy Rabbit, an animated character taken from a book famous in Germany. Then we changed it into the story about the GDR [German Democratic Republic--East Germany], with people talking about their lives. Finally, we came up with the purest idea--a kind of nature film about rabbits living in very special conditions. All the rest became clear for the audience... "
TELL THEM ANYTHING YOU WANT: A PORTRAIT OF MAURICE SENDAK
Directed by Lance Bangs and Spike Jonze
HBO will premiere this profile of the Where the Wild Things Are author and illustrator this coming Wednesday, October 14. Jonze, one of the most widely praised music video directors of the 1990s, was nominated for a Best Director Oscar for his first film, BEING JOHN MALKOVICH. His movie version of WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE opens next Friday. Bangs was a Jonze protege at the height of Satellite Films' dominance of the indie/alternative video scene. He's gone on to make a staggering number of videos, shorts and documentaries. You can find a 2004 RES Magazine profile of Bangs here.
From the HBO synopsis:
"In 2003, filmmakers Lance Bangs and Spike Jonze arrive at the Connecticut home of legendary children's book author and illustrator Maurice Sendak. For 50 years, 80-year-old Sendak has written and/or illustrated over 50 books including The Sign on Rosie's Door, In the Night Kitchen, A Hole Is to Dig and perhaps his most famous work, Where the Wild Things Are, winner of the prestigious Caldecott Medal in 1964. His work has been heralded as "magical," "enchanting," "sublime," "timeless" and "masterful." As the camera first captures Sendak, he is a frenetic ball of energy, excited to meet Jonze, but when Jonze asks him if he has any advice for young people, Sendak says, "Quit this life as soon as possible. Get out, get out," revealing his macabre side...
Jonze's interviews reveal Sendak's strange obsession with death, a subject he talks about almost constantly. Sendak feels that death has always been a part of his life, and talks about the profound effect seeing a picture of the corpse of the Lindbergh baby had on him as a young child. He included a likeness of the baby in his book, Outside Over There. Sendak also recounts the traumatic story of witnessing a childhood friend die from being struck by a car while chasing a ball Sendak threw. Realizing that children could die, not just older people, was a terrible insight for Sendak, and it may also be the thing that invested him in writing about childhood."
Directed by Kiran Deol
From the film's synopsis on the website:
"40% of the rebel army—almost half of the rebels that were fighting for ten years in the small mountainous country of Nepal—were made up of women.
These women believed they were fighting for their right to an education, to own property, to seek justice in domestic abuse cases, and to become equals in village governments. They believed they were fighting for a better Nepal for themselves and their children.
Now with the dawn of peace and the first national elections since the takeover of the King, many of these same rebels are running for public offices as high as Parliament—and winning."
The film was Executive Produced by veteran documentary producer Robert Richter, a three-time Oscar nominee in the Documentary Short category for GODS OF METAL, SCHOOL OF ASSASSINS and THE GIFTS.