Top Docs:  Award-Winning Documentary Filmmakers
”Sirens” with Rita Baghdadi

”Sirens” with Rita Baghdadi

May 13, 2022

In “Sirens”, Rita Baghdadi (“My Country No More”, “City Rising”) joins to Mike to discuss her portrayal of the all-women Lebanese heavy metal band Slave to Sirens, with a focus on Sherry, the virtuosic lead guitarist, and Lilas, the rhythm guitarist who is the charismatic center of the band.  As much a coming of age story as a rock doc, “Sirens” explores not only their music, but the lives, relationships, and loves of their young lives.  In this highly layered film, the backdrop is the revolutionary Beirut of 2019 and beyond, and the impact of that country’s ever-hopeful and ever-tragic fate can be felt in their views of the past, present, and future.

 

Hidden Gem: 

Fraud

 

“Sirens” screenings at the Minneapolis Saint Paul International Film Festival

Friday, May 13 | 9:45 PM | The Main

Wednesday, May 18 | 7:00 PM | The Main

For more information about the Festival, go to: https://mspfilm.org/festivals/mspiff/ 

”Exposing Muybridge” with Marc Shaffer

”Exposing Muybridge” with Marc Shaffer

May 9, 2022

“He's not a dusty antique from the past; he's the beginning of now”  That’s how Marc Shaffer describes the subject of his film, Exposing Muybridge.  Mike and Marc explore the strange and varied career of Eadweard Muybridge (just one of the many versions of the name he gave himself over the years).  Born in Britain, he moved to New York to sell books, and then to San Francisco to become an early photographer of the American West as well as its native inhabitants.  He then had the fortune (both good and mis-) to garner Leland Stanford, rail tycoon and Californian politician, as a patron.  He started with photographs of Stanford’s family, but then moved on to the series of pictures that would make him a known worldwide:  Proving the long-argued notion that at some point in full gallop, all 4 of a horse's hooves leave the ground. 

Disavowed by Leland Stanford just as he was about to be honored by the Royal Society of his home country, Muybridge returned to America and supported by the likes of painter Thomas Eakins, took up residency at The University of Pennsylvania.  Here he continued his motion studies, but as Shaffer and his experts demonstrate, in a manner that revealed as much about the mores and prejudices of his day as they do about the nature of motion.

Aided by the exemplary explanatory mode of none other than Muybridge fan and collector Gary Oldman, Schaffer reveals much about Muybridge’s life, technique, and art.  And he demonstrates the impact on our culture from Francis Bacon, to The Matrix, to Jordan Peele.

“Exposing Muybridge” screenings at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival

  • Monday, May 9 | 4:40 PM | The Main
  • Tuesday, May 10 | 1:45 PM | The Main
  • Friday, May 13 | 1:50 PM | The Main

For more information about the Festival, go to: https://mspfilm.org/festivals/mspiff/

 

Hidden Gem:

Hearts of Darkness

”Free Renty” with David Grubin

”Free Renty” with David Grubin

May 9, 2022

In 1976, a curator at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnography discovered a long-forgotten item stored away in the museum’s collection: a series of stark but stirring daguerreotypes taken in 1850 that are believed to be the oldest photographs of enslaved Africans in the U.S. While the discovery made headlines across the country, they did not prompt a serious inquiry by Harvard to find out more about the photographic subjects, who included a man called Renty and his daughter Delia. David Grubin’s soul-searching documentary “Free Renty: Lanier v. Harvard” reveals the story behind the people in the photographs and the long, heroic quest of Tamara Lanier, Renty’s great great great granddaughter, to convince Harvard to turn over what she considers to be her family pictures.

 

Joining Ken to talk about “Free Renty”, director David Grubin describes how this film journey began with a conversation with his cousin Michael Koskoff, one of Tammy’s lawyers in her lawsuit against Harvard. How did Tammy also get Benjamin Crump, one of the nation’s most prominent civil rights attorneys, to take on the case? What happened to make the legal team, all of a sudden, pivot from avoiding the word “reparations” in its legal argument to embracing the term with gusto? And how did the plot thicken when Tammy came face-to-face with the descendants of Louis Agassiz, the renowned but racist Harvard professor who originally commissioned the daguerreotypes? Whatever the legal case’s ultimate outcome, this eloquent documentary makes it clear that, by telling Papa Renty’s story, Tammy has finally given voice to her enslaved ancestors and re-claimed the true power and the humanity behind these cruel images.

Our Top Docs conversation with David Grubin is part of our partnership with the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival (May 5 – 19, 2022) to spotlight the more than 40 documentary feature films screening at this year’s festival.

“Free Renty Lanier v. Harvard” screenings at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival:

  • Sunday, May 15, 4:00 PM CT, Capri Theater, Minneapolis
  • Wednesday, May 18, 2:00 PM CT, MSP Film at the Main (formerly the St. Anthony Main Theatre), Minneapolis

David Grubin will be attending both screenings.

The film is also available to be screened virtually during the Festival and is accessible throughout the U.S.

For more information about the Festival, go to: https://mspfilm.org/festivals/mspiff/

 

Hidden Gem:  

Listening to Kenny G

”Boycott” with Julia Bacha

”Boycott” with Julia Bacha

May 2, 2022

While over the decades, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has periodically been front page news in America, for the most part, the issue has not taken center stage in U.S. politics. But what if it turned out that, unbeknownst to the vast majority of Americans, state legislatures throughout the country have been approving bills that not only took a stand on the conflict, but actually penalized some Americans for expressing an opinion on the issue? In her revelatory and thoroughly gripping documentary “Boycott”, director Julia Bacha has uncovered a widespread and deeply disturbing effort over the last several years to punish individuals or companies that support the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) Movement against Israel — or even refuse to sign an oath stating that they have not participated in any such boycotts.

 

Ken sat down with Julia to find out more about this vastly under-reported and troubling story and to hear about the creative challenges involved in reaching audiences that may not have heard much — or anything — about the issue. What drew her to the three central characters in the film and their uphill legal challenges to the law? How did she react, when, suddenly, out of the blue, she ran into an Arkansas state senator who had some surprising revelations to share about his vote on the state’s anti-BDS measure? How did Julia connect the dots between the Israeli government, the U.S. Christian fundamentalist movement and the Democratic and Republican Parties? As the facts pile up and the revelations keep coming, it becomes clear that the issues raised by “Boycott” are sure to make us stand up and pay attention. Nothing less than the First Amendment is at stake.

 

Our Top Docs conversation with Julia Bacha is part of our partnership with the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival (May 5 – 19, 2022) to spotlight the more than 40 documentary feature films screening at this year’s festival.

 

Information about the “Boycott” screenings at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival:

“Boycott” screens in-person at The MSP Film at The Main Theatre in Minneapolis:

Wednesday, May 18, 6:30 PM CT, The Main 2

Thursday, May 19, 12:30 PM CT, The Main 2

Julia Bacha will be attending both screenings.

For residents of Minnesota only, the film also can be screened virtually during the Festival.

More information about the screenings can be found here.

Hidden Gem:

Elena

Anatomy of a Scene from ”Ailey”

Anatomy of a Scene from ”Ailey”

March 23, 2022

In this installment of Anatomy of a Scene, “Ailey” director Jamila Wignot describes the creative process behind a key sequence in her remarkable portrait of American dance legend Alvin Ailey. After building his hugely successful dance company from scratch, Ailey felt an ever-increasing amount of pressure and eventually broke down. Jamila and her team, guided by Ailey’s point of view, figured out how to “mirror and imagine” Ailey’s overwhelming sense of disorientation during this crisis. Creating a montage of clips of New York City culled from the avant-garde films of Jonas Mekas, Jamila and her editors play with time – speeding things up, slowing them down, running shots in reverse. Added to that are layers of sound and music in rhythm with Ailey’s own recorded words. Cut together very early on, the sequence helped the filmmakers to “arrive at the language of the film,” which they would then “carry through, in all parts of the film.”

Note: We recommend that, if possible, you follow along with us. The scene takes place from 1:12:07 – 1:14:47, timed from the beginning of the movie. “Ailey” is available for streaming on Hulu.

To listen to our previous conversation with Jamila about “Ailey”, check out the episode on Top Docs.

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@jamilawignot

@topdocspod

Anatomy of a Scene from ”Attica”

Anatomy of a Scene from ”Attica”

March 16, 2022

In this powerful Anatomy of a Scene featurette, “Attica” director Stanley Nelson, recently awarded the DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary, focuses on a climactic sequence near the end of the Oscar-nominated film. Stanley takes us inside the prison yard at Attica after authorities have re-taken control of the yard and proceed to systematically humiliate, torture, and exact revenge against the prisoners and their leaders. He discusses the thinking behind individual shot selection, the impact of having the composer write one continuous piece of music in different movements, when to use talking heads vs. voice over and the potentially controversial decision not to blur photos or only show prisoners from the waist up when they are paraded completely nude through the prison grounds.

Note: We recommend that, if possible, you follow along with us. The scene takes place from 1:41:13 – 1:46:47, timed from the beginning of the movie. “Attica” is available for streaming on Showtime and on Amazon Prime.

To listen to our previous discussion with Stanley about Attica.

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”The Queen of Basketball” with Ben Proudfoot

”The Queen of Basketball” with Ben Proudfoot

March 10, 2022

It starts like a modern day fairy tale:  from the cotton fields of Mississippi, to three national collegiate championships, to scoring the first basket in Olympic history.  But despite all her plaudits, when all that had passed, Lusia Mae (Lucy) Harrison felt she could pursue the game no further.  In his Oscar-nominated short, “The Queen of Basketball,” director Ben Proudfoot (nominated just last year for “A Concerto is a Conversation”) puts Lucy front and center to tell her own story, while he skillfully illustrates it with both a compelling contemporary portrait as well as well-chosen archival footage.  It’s a story of pride–both for her career and her for her family of 4 outstanding children–but also one of athletic potential halted in its path.  

Join Mike as he and Ben explore the history behind both Lucy’s life and women’s basketball, as well as the choices Ben made in creating this engaging film. And then watch “The Queen of Basketball” on the New York Times site or on YouTube!

Follow on twitter:

@bgproudfoot

@topdocspod

”When We Were Bullies” with Jay Rosenblatt

”When We Were Bullies” with Jay Rosenblatt

March 2, 2022

After a series of highly improbable coincidences, filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt (“The Smell of Burning Ants”) finds himself back in his old elementary schoolyard making a film about a bullying incident from 50 years ago. Building on Jay’s own hazy recollections and those of his former 5th grade classmates, “When We Were Bullies” brilliantly pieces together a highly personal story that masterfully evokes universal themes and excavates a shared emotional terrain.

 

Ken recently spoke with Jay on “Top Docs” to discuss how he landed upon just the right animation technique to tell the story, what it was like for him to meet up decades later with his former 5th grade teacher, and how Jay, unexpectedly, came to connect the bullying incident with a separate personal trauma that he had tried to keep hidden from his classmates. A thoroughly original and deeply touching film, “When We Were Bullies” is one of five documentary shorts nominated for this year’s Oscar for Best Documentary Short.

Follow us on twitter @topdocspod

 

”Best Documentary Oscar Nominees” with Clayton Davis

”Best Documentary Oscar Nominees” with Clayton Davis

February 22, 2022

Now that the five Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Feature have been chosen, the final countdown to see who will win the coveted statuette is underway! Variety’s Film Awards Editor Clayton Davis, who’s been following the race closely for months, joins Top Docs to discuss each of the nominee’s’ chances, handicaps the race (as of the taping date!), and offers his own early prediction for a winner. He also addresses how the Academy’s Documentary Branch, which chooses the five nominees, differs from the general Academy voters, who control the fate of the nominees. And don’t forget the shorts! Clayton sounds off about how he'd like the Academy to step up when it comes to promoting the Oscar-nominated shorts.

 

Clayton Davis is Variety’s Film Awards Editor. He is also one of the hosts of the "Variety Awards Circuit Podcast" and the video web series, "The Take." He's been an awards, film and television analyst and critic for more than 15 years and has co-hosted the Oscars Pre-Show on ABC. Clayton is also co-founder and president of the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association and is a board and active member of the Critics Choice Association.

Follow on twitter:

@ByClaytonDavis

@topdocspod

Hidden Gem:  Who We Are

”The Automat” with Lisa Hurwitz

”The Automat” with Lisa Hurwitz

February 18, 2022

Nostalgia isn't all bad.  That’s one of the themes of our conversation with Lisa Hurwitz, director of “The Automat”, which charts the rise and fall of a uniquely American institution–though one with surprising roots in Northern Europe.  Despite what you might have seen in the pictures, The Automat was more than brass, nickels, and glass windows.  It was an inclusive, and for many, magical place, one from which luminaries such as Colin Powell, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Howard Schultz drew important personal and professional lessons.  Find out what advice Mel Brooks gave Lisa–and check out the film to hear him sing a song he composed about the Automat with a full orchestra!

"The Automat" will be shown at the Film Forum in NYC starting February 18th, as well as the Laemmle Royal, Laemmle Town Center, and Laemmle Playhouse in the LA area starting February 25th.

Screenings:  automatmovie.com

Follow on twitter

@topdocspod

@AUTOMATmovie

 

Hidden Gem:  AKA Doc Pomus

 

Books Mentioned:

Trapped behind the Automat 

The Automat

 

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