FC is proud to have been a fiscal sponsor for “Canary” which will begin a limited theatrical run on September 15, followed by a one-night-only special nationwide screening on September 20. The film’s co-directors, Alex Rivest and Danny O’Malley recently joined us on Making Media Now,(MMN) the FC podcast. Here are some excerpts from our chat!
MMN: What was it in the story of Dr. Lonnie Thompson that felt so compelling to you?
Danny O’Malley: Lonnie always talks about his youth in West Virginia, and he grew up in coal country. So he’d listen to the miners talk. And one thing that I think we’re all familiar with is people brought canaries into the mine. And when the canary died, it meant there was gases that could kill you. There was something bad happening and you needed to get out. At the heart of this film, there’s all these warnings.
Lonnie is a climate scientist who is warning the world about climate change. His doctor tells him he needs a heart transplant. And there’s this question of will we respond when we’re warned or will we find out the hard way?
My whole thing with documentaries is you wanna find a character and a story where you don’t have to put spin on the ball. Working in documentary television, there’s a lot of half-baked ideas and things where people pitch something but the story’s not there and it’s heartbreaking to work on. So I’m just always looking for a story where you just find out what happens and you’re like, this already feels like a movie like this already.
We have a hero, we have stakes, and there’s something that it’s trying to tell us the story. And then the job becomes how do you bring out the truth, bring out the power, and bring out the universal feelings of that story so that everyone feels it.
MMN: And Alex, you come from a very different professional and academic background. Share with a bit of your story and how the story of Dr. Lonnie Thompson came on your radar.
ALEX: I grew up in science. My dad is a professor at MIT in computer science. I grew up kind of in the shadow of academia. I fell in love with neuroscience at college and ended up going to MIT to do a PhD in neuroscience, studying memory systems.
We would genetically engineer mice to turn off and on very specific parts of their brain and look how it affected memory acquisition and recall. So I was doing that on the academic track, finished my PhD, did a postdoc.
But during the whole time, I had a love to get out and adventure and go to places as far off the map as I can get. And I always saw that as far as I was off the map and reporting back from that, there was always a group of people that were a little bit further away. And I started realizing that those people were scientists and that their curiosity had brought them to places that were very hard to reach, very unique, very beautiful, very tough environments.
And I realized that there was something that this was not being communicated right. That that curiosity alone can make
you one of the explorers on the frontier. And there was something, there was just a magic to that, that I felt like was missing.
And, and like Danny said, I grew up watching science television. I try to watch as much as I can of it. It always feels a little bit like homework. Hmm. And, and it, and it, as I, as I got into science and I met more scientists and I worked with ’em, I realized that the, the, the essence of who the human is has been completely removed from a lot of science television.
And I came across Lonnie’s story in New York Times article and reached out to him and said, we’d like to talk to you about this, this kind of TV show idea we’re developing.
So we got on a Skype with Lonnie and within five minutes he had us totally pulled into this adventure story that he was telling us. Within 40 minutes he had us both crying on the Skype call just about his, his life and, and how close to to death he actually came. And then at the end of it, we hung up. It was about an hour long Skype call I, I turned to Danny and I said, if there’s a single story we ever tell in this world, it has to be this one. And reading about Lonnie Thompson, I heard him described as the closest living thing to Indiana Jones.
MMN: Danny, tell me what you saw in the opportunity to tell his story and trying to strike that balance between charismatic figure and actual hard science.
DANNY: When me and Alex first talked and he was talking about these charismatic scientists and he’s never seen them represented the way they are in real life. One of the things that came to mind was Indiana Jones. And I was like, well, Indiana Jones, has car chases and gunfights and all this cool stuff. We may get cool stories but we’ll never get that.
But when we went and actually talked to scientists, a lot of them had been kidnapped, had been caught in civil wars, we met one scientist who negotiated a peace treaty between war tribes so he could dig up skull with the oldest child skull found in discovery. So I was like, yeah, there’s no limit on how cool these scientists are gonna be and how great their stories are gonna be.
And like Lonnie has no exception.
MMN: How old was Lonnie roughly when you andmet him and how far along in his career was he?
ALEX: I think when we first got in touch with Lonnie, he was 69 or 70, I believe he’s 75 now. And as we’re speaking up at 18,000 feet.
MMN: He’s up there with, not to throw a spoiler at anybody, but he is up there with his second heart.
ALEX: Yes, he got a heart transplant. He was the only heart transplant recipient ever to go to these altitudes. A year after his heart transplant he, he was back up at 20,000 feet. And I think that’s an important story about what is possible. I mean, Lonnie’s story is always about taking the seemingly impossible and making it possible.
MMN: I think typically, and maybe it was just me, but when I hear glaciers I’m thinking of the Arctic. And can either of you talk to me a little bit about what is specific and specifically compelling about the evidence that’s being found in glaciers in South America?
ALEX: It may be good to just step back for a second and say when they study ice and study glaciers, what they do is they pick a site on the ice and they drill a hole into the ice and then recover a cylinder of that ice. And as you go down from the very top of the ice to the bottom, you’re going back in time. So whatever snow fell last year will be near the top ever. Snow fell 10 years ago will be a little bit further down. Whatever snow felt 4 million years ago will be at the bottom of the ice core.
And so you can reconstruct the exact atmosphere of that part of the planet by getting an ice core. So that’s kind of a fundamental feature here. So in Antarctica and Greenland and in the Arctic where we, where we think of ice, there’s these massive ice ice sheets and they are kind of far away from human populations for the most part.
Now there’s this whole thing and people didn’t know the term tropical glaciers, right? You don’t think of glaciers in the tropics, right? But there are lots of glaciers in the tropics. They just are have, have to be in places that are cold enough. And to be cold enough you have to be kind of above 16,000 feet. Most of ’em are above 18,000 feet. Peru has a huge majority of glaciers. And the thing that’s kind of beautiful about ice cores in places like the Andes: they contain these local histories too.
DANNY: Yeah. One more thing to mention about tropical glaciers is like Alex said, it’s where the people live. You know, when we think about melting glaciers, we think about sea level rise, but there’s this other factor where there are cities that depend on the runoff from these tropical glaciers in the mountains. Like the rivers create hydropower, they fuel whole cities and towns during the dry seasons.
And when these glaciers melt, there’s going to be agriculture that can’t grow food anymore. There’s going to be cities that don’t have power. And part of what’s important about Lonnie’s work is shining a light on that issue because if we don’t figure out how to globally support these places that are gonna be losing water, those people are gonna have to move. And you know, there are estimates of climate change that go from like a hundred million to a billion climate refugees.
And there’s no political infrastructure, there’s no treaties, there’s no anything that’s prepared for that. And I think part of the hard work that we have with climate change is getting the world together to prepare for those outcomes so people don’t have to move or people can, we can find a way to find new places for people that are equitable and don’t lead to political backlashes and things like that.
Our guests on a recent episode of Making Media Now (MMN), the Filmmakers Collaborative podcast, were Eamon Little (EL) and Christopher Lydon (CL). They are part of the team behind a documentary in progress called “Born That Way,” for which Filmmakers Collaborative is the fiscal sponsor.
“Born That Way,” directed by Eamon Little documents the final year in the life of Patrick Lydon, in which Patrick looks back on his fascinating life, lays the ground for posthumous green shoots projects, and prepares for his death Director Eamon Little promises that the film will be an unflinching journey to the end of an exemplary life, probing otherness in our society, and asking, searching questions about the future we want to create.
Joining Eamon to talk about the life and work of Patrick Lydon were Joan Pratt, his friend from his days at Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and Patrick’s brother Christopher Lydon, who covered politics for the New York Times from its Washington bureau in the 1970s hosted the Ten O’ Clock News on WGBH TV in Boston in the 1980s, and co founded and hosted The Connection on WBUR in Boston in the 1990s.
Christopher Lydon is currently the host of Open Source, the world’s longest running podcast, having been established in 2003.
For more information about Born That Way and the Born That Way Project, please check out its page in the projects section.
Here’s an excerpt from our conversation.
Making Media Now: Chris, as the person who knew Patrick the longest and knew Patrick first—given that you were siblings—tell us about Patrick’s role in the Lydon family.
Chris Lydon: He was an afterthought. There were five Lydon kids and who would’ve thought of another. And then my mother announced at dinner one night, “We are going to have a baby!”Because we were four boys already and one girl, that had to be a girl, and he was known as “Constance” for no very good reason until he was born, of course, a boy.
He was a complete darling in the family even before he was born. And then immensely afterward. He was adored before he was born. And afterward, when he was a tiny tot in his playpen, we used to race off the school bus to see who could be the first to get a smile outta Patrick.
He was adored. And this is very profound, and I think it has everything to do with his life. He was just inundated in affection and conversation from an early age.
He used to say funny things: If you bumped his highchair and say sorry, he would say, “Sorry means don’t do it again.” But he was a presence. He was a sort of ageless character when he was just a teenager. My college friends loved him.
He’s always been a kind of man out of time and place, and a completely adorable person. But there are two stories here. There’s the life of Patrick and the afterlife of Patrick.
So many people have said to me, learning about his life, “God, and I thought that was gonna be my life.” A life not for self, a life for other people. Soaked in literature, soaked in fantasy, soaked in fun, and it gets bigger and bigger. He was the most extraordinary man.
I’ll say this, Eamon is calling the movie “Born That Way,” and you’ll see why, to my mind, it’s something like a portrait of the saint, a modern saint as a growing boy or a social activist, a social visionary. And it’s very, very remarkable. He was a doer. He held the flag very, very high of living a purposeful, meaningful life.
MMN: I was lucky enough back in January of this year, Chris, to be listening to your podcast, Open Source. And I came away from that conversation feeling as if the ethos of the Lydon family was fully embodied in your brother.
CL: Our family ethos was formed around the fact that my father was disabled by Parkinson’s disease and we knew that it was a disease that was untreatable essentially and would ultimately be fatal. So he had to stop working. He and my mother had an incredible courage and imagination to say, “No, this is not the end. We’re gonna start fresh on a small homestead with five kids.” I was milking a goat when I was eight years old and then went on to a cow. My sister looked after the sheep. Little kids looked after the chickens. But there was a kind of, this sounds weird and I’m just discovering it in my old age, but there’s a sort of celebration of voluntary poverty.
We had no choice. My father had a phone company pension. The miracle was that first of all, my parents were madly in love with each other till my father died.
And even afterward, my mother would poke me and say, “Christopher, I hope you hadn’t forgotten. Your father was a great man.” And she meant it.
But there was a sense that life was a privilege. This was prosperous post-World War II time. There was opportunity. We knew there would be opportunity for us if we did well in school, and we worked our little butts off, but it was a happy little thing, and we were poor. That was conditioning the whole thing. And along comes Patrick this pure gift again. It was never, “Oh my God, another kid.”
MMN: Eamon, in the synopsis of the film and what the film is going to be, you referred to Patrick as a social artist. That was a really interesting turn of phrase. What does a social artist mean to you?
Eamon Little: Well, in my use of that expression, and Chris kind of touched on that earlier when he was trying to find a definition. I mean, Patrick was somebody who was very creative with human relations.
He had a great gift for seeing potential in people and in situations and in connecting up things that seemed disparate to anybody else.
It was funny when I met Patrick first I didn’t understand what it was that attracted me to him. But it was this thing that he was somebody doing a lot of good in the world, and yet he was not a do-gooder. You know, he was doing this because this was his art.
MMN: The title of the film, “Born That Way”—when you use that phrase, what are you referring to? Born what way?
EL: It’s actually a straight from the horse’s mouth: Patrick shares an anecdote in the film where a woman with special needs sees this welder and the welder is working away, but he only has one hand that’s functional. And she says, “What happened to your hand?” And the guy says, “Well, I was born that way.” And she goes, “Interesting: Born that way.” And then Patrick is very passionate when he goes, “Yeah!” You know, in that moment he saw something about it. And we use the word disability all the time, but Patrick did not like that word.
What Patrick liked to do was to see the ability or the potential in everything, in people. And, and it’s that lens that we’re trying to look at the world. Making a film with Patrick was an opportunity to look at the world through a kind of unique lens that he had.
He was a great champion of people who with so-called disabilities and their citizenship and their rights and their potential over their disability. In fact, in one of the interviews I did with him, he said, “I was talking to a woman recently, and she said that her greatest disability is the fact that everyone c says she has a disability.”
This film is essentially, it’ll take the course of one year in which Patrick has been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease or ALS and talking to him about doing some piece of work around the fact that Camp Hill was 50 years in Ireland when he got the diagnosis. And he said, “Look, whatever you want to do, let’s do it soon.” And very quickly, I realized I gotta make a film with Patrick.
MMN: And that very unfortunate news was brought to your attention, Christopher, in the summer of 2021, correct?
CL: Patrick and I talked all the time on the phone. He said to me one evening, he said, “Chris, I’ve aged more in the last 10 weeks than in the last 10 years.” And I thought, oh my God, he works too hard. He needs a physical therapist or something. And, but I think he knew already there was some profound neurological thing gone wrong. And, and then very quickly he had a diagnosis, oddly enough, from a doctor in Dublin who had trained at Mass Massachusetts General Hospital. Anyway, it was diagnosed and there was no help in the way. There was nothing to be done about it.
MMN: So I know, Eamon, that you’ve got some travel coming up in the spring of 2023 as we’re talking right now for your purposes, what would you like listeners of this conversation today to come away with?
EL: I would like them to know that this is happening. I think that one of the things that this film will be important for, as well as telling a story, but for the anonymous viewer, I think that the film will be also an oblique critique of kind of Western society in the light of the 2006 UN Convention on the Rights of a Person with a Disability. We’re forever not seeing the potential, but looking at the disability.
Presenting a WEBINAR on Film Festival Strategizing with Marga Varea of Twin Seas Media. So many film festivals, so little time and money to spend submitting to them! How can you determine which event might be the best fit for your project? How likely is it that they will lead to a distribution deal for my film? These questions and more are answered here.
RECORDED: Thursday, May 25, 2023
Presenting a WEBINAR on Visual Effects for Independent Filmmakers with Jimi Simmons. Filmmakers often use visual effects to enhance a story by bringing to life believable characters, worlds, and stunts. How can we do that on time and on budget as an independent filmmaker?
Jimi will present VFX techniques demonstrated in today’s most popular software tools as well as draw from his years of experience working on films such as RISING SUN, SPAWN and DECEPTION.
RECORDED: Tuesday, April 25, 2023
Making Media Now, the FC podcast, recently featured a conversation between host Michael Azevedo and director Josh Seftel, an FC member. . Josh and his team at Smarty Pants films have received an Oscar nomination in the category of best documentary short for their film “Stranger at the Gate,” (for which Filmmakers Collaborative was the fiscal sponsor) a riveting story of redemption about Richard “Mac” McKinney, a former U.S. Marine, suffering from PTSD, who had fought in Afghanistan after 9/11.
Following his discharge from the military, McKinney returned home to Muncie, IN where he began to construct a plot to blow up the local mosque. “Stranger at the Gate” tells the remarkable story of what happened when McKinney set out to put his plan into motion.
What follows is an edited excerpt from that conversation.
Making Media Now: Welcome Josh and let me extend congratulations to you and your team for your Oscar nomination in a category of best documentary short for your film Stranger at The Gate.
Josh Seftel: Thank you. We’re very excited about it.
MMN: Give our listeners sort of a synopsis of the film and how the story came to you or how, how you found out about the, this, this story of Richard Mack McKinney.
JS: I’ll give you a quick summary of the story. So the film tells the story of, of Mack McKinney, a US Marine comes back from 25 years overseas fighting combat. He’s a broken person when he comes back, he’s PTSD, he’s filled with hatred, especially hatred toward Muslims, and he decides that the best thing he can do for his country is to bomb the local mosque in his hometown in Indiana.
So he builds a bomb getting ready to, to do the deed, and he ends up having an argument with his daughter. His daughter is eight years old, and she has a Muslim friend, and he finds out about this and he flips out on her and they have a huge fight, and they’re yelling at each other, and he runs to his room and he’s weeping, and you know, the guy’s a mess. And he decides that what he needs to do is he needs to go to the mosque to do some reconnaissance, to get proof of how evil these people are prior to doing the bombing.
So he goes to the mosque when he arrives, the people at the mosque, the congregants who are, you know, a blend of different people. There’s a, there are some Afghan refugees, there’s an African American convert, and they welcome him into the mosque and they show him incredible kindness even though they, what they see in front of them is this hulking scary guy who’s covered in tattoos, is flush in the face, is, is, is shaking.
They can see there’s something wrong with this guy. And they, they show him compassion and, and they welcome him in. And at that point, the story takes a, a dramatic turn. Now, whether or not you want me to, I’m happy to, to spoil the ending.
MMN: Let’s not spoil the ending. I don’t know that this is necessarily a spoiler, but in, in multiple headlines regarding the film, there’s a description where it is a, a a story of hope and love overcoming conflict and, and hate. So I don’t think that qualifies as a spoiler. I hope it qualifies as an enticement to, for people to watch the film.
JS: Another headline that I really liked that kind of captures the spirit of the film is something like, he came, he came to kill them, they ended up saving his life.
MMN: How did you find out about this story?
JS: I was working on a series of short films called Secret Life of Muslims, and whole idea behind that was to create a platform to share stories about American Muslims that I felt were important to tell because there weren’t enough stories being told about American Muslims that were accurate, that that captured the spirit of, of, you know, what, what it is to be Muslim in America right now. And the reason I was drawn to this was that, you know, I grew up in upstate New York, and when I was a little boy, I got picked on for being Jewish.
And you know, kids called me names, they called me Duke Hike threw pennies at me to remind me that, you know, Jews are cheap. And, you know, those, those things stayed with me. And after nine 11, when I was working as a filmmaker in, you know, I saw my Muslim friends facing that similar kind of hate, and I felt a connection to them and felt as a filmmaker, maybe there’s something I can do. So I, I started the making these films, and in the process we came across this story, the story of Mac McKinney and the mosque in Muncie, Indiana.
One of my producers, Anna Rowe, found the story in USA Today University Edition. And we decided this story is incredible. We went and found the people who were involved and met them and we were just blown away by the how inspiring they are.
MMN: Was it a difficult process for you to establish trust and a rapport with, with Mac McKinney? Because there’s a segment in the film where you can be heard off camera asking him, “How did killing people change you?” And it’s such an abrupt direct question. He almost loses his breath. He has to take a beat or two, and he says, “I never really told that.”
And from the viewer’s perspective, we still don’t know what his decision was when going to the mosque at the, at the time you posed that question. And as a viewer, I’m thinking, are you referencing killing people in the military or killing people in the aftermath of what was going to be a domestic terrorist event? I would imagine you’ve gotta feel pretty secure in your rapport with a subject to come at them with a question like that.
JS: We had talked a lot, we knew each other well at this point. And, and I made a point of spending time with him and talking to him a lot before the interview. The way that I approached it was I wore a microphone as well because I wanted to make sure that with this film, I just knew that there were gonna be moments in the interview that would be really important. This film is very interview based.
So by wearing a microphone and by interacting with my subjects in a way that at times might feel a little provocative, I was looking for moments where the character of these people would be revealed not just through words, but through their reaction to my questions.
MMN: Do you know if Max sought treatment for PTSD when he ended his military career? Did he think of himself as somebody who had PTSD?
JS: I know he is done a lot of therapy. I think more so in recent years. At that time he was drinking a lot. At the time when he was thinking of bombing the mosque, he was drinking, I think, two gallons of vodka every couple days or something. It was a bad time and he was crying a lot and just not well. And I think that was around the time when he was building the bomb and thinking about doing this horrible act.
MMN: Did you have a sense that Max’s psychological makeup would allow him to easily develop a hate for groups he considered being part of “the other”?
Or was that a byproduct of his military training?
JS: I don’t know how someone develops that level of hatred. I think when you’re on the battlefield and people are shooting at you, and they all seem to be from one group, you know, in the space, many of them were Muslim, they become the enemy. I think in Mac’s case, he did not think of them as being human. I think that was the foundation of his hatred.
MMN: Your film is nominated for an Oscar in the category of best documentary short. When you decided that you wanted to tell this story, what were the what was the decision making process around deciding on length.
JS: That’s a good question. We always went into it thinking it was a short, and partly that was because of that was about how much funding we had.
We knew we had enough to make it short, but not a longer film.
What happened was there was a moment where you have a cut and it’s like 50 minutes. And you’re kind of like, “Oh, maybe this is a feature.” So we did toy with that for a moment, but we quickly realized that as the film got shorter, it kept getting better.
MMN: Tell me about what the morning was like when you found out that your film had been nominated for an Oscar.
JS: The Academy asked us all to record our reactions on video, like selfie video. I had very little interest in doing this. In fact, I was not going to participate. And then some of the people on my team said, no, let’s just do it. We’ll all do it together on Zoom and if we don’t make it, we’ll just trash the video and if we do make it, we’ll have it.
And so I was like, all right, fine. So there’s six of us on Zoom, and we’re all watching, and they get to the best, best documentary short, and they read the first name. It’s not us, second name, not us. And now we’re all starting to like shrink a little bit in our seats, get a little lower, you know, third name, not us.
Some of us are starting to put our faces into our hands and fourth name, not us. And we’re like, “Oh, well we didn’t make it.” And suddenly the fifth one was us and all of us in unison, just all six of us just popped up! We just did not expect it at that point. And we were delighted.
It means that this film will be seen by so many more people. This message that love conquers hate, which we is something I think we need right now. Since we were nominated you can just watch the YouTube views. They’re going up by thousands and thousands of views every day. And that’s really exciting to us.
MMN: Nobody going to the Oscars can get away with not being asked this question. Who are you bringing and who are you wearing?
JS: Ha ha! I’m bringing my wife Erica Frankel, who’s also a filmmaker, and I’m also bringing Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel Peace Prize winner She’s also an executive producer on the film. Malala really believes in this film and it’s exciting to have that kind of endorsement and that kind of support because I think in many ways Malala is the human embodiment of the message of our film. She represents compassion, education and also forgiveness. That’s, that’s what our film’s about.
MMN: Well sincere congratulations from everybody at Filmmakers Collaborative. The film is Stranger at The Gate. You can see it on YouTube, you can go to the New Yorker website and see it there. And I’ve been speaking with the director of the film, Josh Seftel. Thanks so much, Josh. And we will be watching and eagerly anticipating the outcome of the category award at the 95th Academy Awards on March 12th.
JS: Thanks Michael. And I just wanna say a thank you to Filmmakers Collaborative for being our partner on this film and for being our fiscal sponsor. We love working with you all and we wouldn’t be here today without you. So thank you for your partnership.
As 2022 fades into the rear-view mirror and 2023 looms on the horizon, let’s quickly scan which films, particularly documentary films, garnered the most raves from the year just past while we glance ahead at what the new year may hold.
We generally avoid any discussion around which films were “best,” seeing whereas that definition is highly subjective. But it’s always interesting to learn which films captured the spotlight and the accolades. As we reviewed “best-of” lists from the closing days of 2022, we were happy to have been reminded of several entries that we’d been meaning to see (many are now available to stream or via VOD).
Variety introduced their faves by saying their “…list of the year’s best documentaries is a testament to the range of what nonfiction cinema has become. It’s history, it’s activism, it’s portraiture, it’s personal, it’s about science and music and literature and politics and royalty and family… and Pez.” One film on their list, “Hello Bookstore…follows the life and fate of a beloved independent bookstore in Lenox, Mass., so you might expect it to be the sort of movie that expands into a larger statement about the cherished and precarious state of independent bookstores in the digital/corporate/chain-store era. Yet it does that only by implication. For 86 reverent minutes, A.B. Zax’s film, without ever leaving the premises, traces the daily existence of one deceptively quiet bookstore — which is called, incidentally, The Bookstore — and its missionary owner, Matthew Tannenbaum, a jaunty boomer who curates the place as if it were a library, a cocktail party and a projection of his literary dreams.”
Meanwhile, the folks over at the AV Club maintain that “while the merits of streaming and its impact on the theatrical exhibition marketplace can be debated, there’s no doubt that the advent of digital streaming has contributed to a boom in nonfiction filmmaking. Viewers who would never have seriously considered getting in their car, seeking out a theater, and plunking down $10 or $15 to watch a documentary have indulged curiosity in the genre at a massive scale.” Among their favorites are “Fire of Love,” “Three Minutes–A Lengthening,” “Cow,” and the David Bowie bio-doc, “Moonage Daydream.”
In rolling out their top selections from 2022, Esquire provides some context; they contend that “…Sometime, during the great Documentary Boom, we lost our way. HBO pioneering a wave of deft, uber-journalistic true crime documentaries gave way to the Dahmerification and Bundyification of Netflix. (Read: regurgitating serial-killer-obsessed stories and re-traumatizing victims along the way.) The glory days of ESPN’s 30 for 30 feel long gone, as documentaries like Tom Brady’s Man in the Arena—where the athlete all but lords over their portrayal—become more commonplace. Their rundown goes to say, however, that “…the very best of 2022’s slate of documentary films shifted back toward good-intentioned, impartial filmmaking—which feels a bit insane to even have to point out. But here we are, There’s Trish Adlesic’s A Tree of Life: The Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting, which put the focus squarely on the victims of the tragedy at its center. Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues is can’t-miss ode to a man who transcended jazz music. And Good Night Oppy? Well, that little space rover simply made our hearts melt.”
If you’re curious what films resonated with The Boston Globe’s film critic, Odie Henderson, check out our year-end chat with him on the Making Media Now podcast.
So what does 2023 hold in store for documentary film fans? Over in Netflix-land, the first half of January’s documentaries will be dedicated to Bernie Madoff’s ponzi scheme (Madoff, The Monster of Wall Street), Mumbai cops who killed their targets in order to rein in the unchecked power of a crime boss in the ’90s (Mumbai Mafia: Police vs. The Underworld), and a viral sensation’s road from fame to imprisonment (The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker), which “…chronicles a happy-go-lucky nomad’s ascent to viral stardom and the steep downward spiral that resulted in his imprisonment”.
Our friends at GBH/PBS’ American Experience bring us “The Lie Detector,” (premiering January 2) and available to stream via their website. Here’s the film’s log-line: “In the 1920s, as law enforcement began to develop more scientific methods, researchers claimed they could tell whether someone was lying by using a machine called the polygraph. Popularly known as the ‘lie detector,’ the device transformed police work, seized headlines and was extolled in movies, TV and comics as an infallible crime-fighting tool. Husbands and wives tested each other’s fidelity. Corporations tested employees’ honesty, and government workers were tested for loyalty and “morals.” But the promise of the polygraph turned dark, and the lie detector became an apparatus to frighten and intimidate millions of Americans.” Directed by Rob Rapley, the film is a tale of good intentions, twisted morals and unintended consequences.” Hook us up!
Roberta Flack gets the American Masters treatment in film debuting on PBS on January 24. According to its press materials, the doc “illuminates where reality, memory and imagination mix to present music icon Roberta Flack, a brilliant artist who transformed popular culture, in her own words. With exclusive access to Flack’s archives of film, performances, interviews, home movies, photos, hit songs and unreleased music, the film documents how Flack’s musical virtuosity was inseparable from her lifelong commitment to civil rights.”
Independent Lens closes out the month with “The Picture Taker, which tells the story of Memphis-based Ernest Withers whose Memphis studio held nearly 2 million images and were a treasured record of Black history, but his legacy was complicated by decades of secret FBI service revealed only after his death. Was he a friend of the civil rights community or an enemy — or both?”
Filmmaker and friend of FC, Eric Stange, recently joined us on Making Media Now, the Filmmakers Collaborative podcast to chat about his latest film, “Pony Boys.”
Eric’s film will be shown as part of the 2022 Boston International Film Festival.
Here is an excerpt of our conversation. To hear the full conversation, listen here or via your favorite podcast app.
Making Media Now: On this episode, we’re joined by filmmaker Eric Stange to discuss his latest film, Pony Boys, which is now streaming online as part of the New York Times OpDoc film series. About a dozen years ago, Eric had a conversation with a neighbor of his in Arlington, Massachusetts. The neighbor told him that another neighbor, Jeff Whitmore, had related a story that seemed impossible to believe in 1967 when Jeff was nine, he and his 11 year old brother Tony left their home and need a mass in a homemade two wheeled horse cart being towed by a tiny 10 year old Shetland pony named King and made their way alone on a 27 day, 350 mile journey to Montreal to attend Expo 67 This was a story Eric Stange just had to tell.
Pony Boys is just the latest entry in Eric’s impressive filmography as a documentary filmmaker who specializes in history and science films for the likes of PBS, National Geographic and the BBC. Eric has produced and directed film such as “Edgar Allen Poe, Buried Alive,” “Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making us Sick,” “The War That Made America” and “Murder at Harvard,” among many others.
MMN: How did this story come to you?
Eric Stange: Well, about 10 years ago, I was at a neighborhood barbecue and a neighbor across the street asked if I had ever heard the story of another neighbor’s childhood adventures, a mutual friend and neighbor, and I said, No. And she told me, “Well, you oughta talk to Jeff one of these days. Ask him what he did in the summer of 1967.” And so the next time I saw Jeff Whittemore, who I, I didn’t know well, but you know, we’re neighbors and see each other at neighborhood functions. So I said, I heard you have a good story to tell.
And he told me with total modesty and sort of no recognition that this was all that unusual about how he spent the summer of 1967, when he was nine years old and his older brother was 11, driving a Pony cart from Needham, Massachusetts to Montreal.
And I said, “Well, you mean with with your parents or your older brother or something?” He said, “No, no, no, just the two of us, Tony and me, nine and 11.” And he said, “My mother wrote ahead to the Boards of Selectmen to tell them we’d be coming through town and to watch out for us. And we did it.”
I told him I’ve been a documentary filmmaker for a long time, and I told him, one of these days, I’m gonna come back to you and I wanna make a film about this. And he laughed. He never really believed that I would do it, but about 10 years passed and I did come back.
So he came over to my living room and sat down and we did a long interview and he told the whole story. A couple days before, he’d given me a family scrapbook that his mother had kept about the whole trip. So I was able to see a ton of newspaper articles and things. I learned a lot about the story just from that. Sure.
I really wanted to hear his take on it, and it was a great, wonderful interview. What was best about it, really, in some ways is that he really hadn’t told the story to anybody in any depth for a long, long time. And so it was almost as if he was remembering a lot of the details just as we went.
And then literally four days, five days after that interview, the world shut down with Covid. I mean, it was just at the beginning of March, 2020. And there I was with this 90 minute interview and the whole scrap book, which was full of photographs and newspaper clippings. I couldn’t leave the house or I could, you know, how it was. And so I decided, well, I guess I’ll just edit with what I have. And it became my Covid project.
MMN: How closely aligned were there memories of the two brothers of the adventure?
ES: That’s a good question, because there were definitely things that they remembered very differently. This was an oral history. It’s not journalism, it’s not academic history. So I have to confess that I didn’t always take the trouble to try to pin down exactly who was remembering it correctly. I mean, they, they certainly were in agreement on all the important things.
MMN: How far into your consideration of the story were you before you decided on what your approach was gonna be in telling this story?
ES: I knew I wanted it to be as immediate as possible, and that’s why I shot it with both of them looking directly into the lens. I wanted it to feel like they’re telling the story to the viewer directly.
I didn’t know when I started that we were gonna find this wonderful trove of news reel footage shot by Associated Press in those days. The AP had a news reel unit that went and spent some time with the Pony Boys. It took us a while to find it. Our archival film researcher, Heather Merrill, did an amazing job and found that footage.
And I’m sure there were other TV crews that went up and stayed with them for a day or two. They (the brothers) have no real memory of that. They just know there were tons of reporters all the time. They don’t remember specifics.
MMN: It’s such a formative experience, you know, two brothers, and it wasn’t like they were six and four, they were eleven and nine at the time. And it’s kind of hilarious how in the film where they talk about, “Gee, I can’t remember. Did I change my clothes? Did I have shoes when we started?”
ES: Yeah. I mean, and a lot of times in the interviews when I’d ask them a question, they would just shrug, say, I don’t know, I was nine. I have no memory of any of that. Or, I was 11. I don’t know. It didn’t seem important. They did remember quite a bit, but there were plenty of things they had no memory of at all.
MMN: The boy’s mother really comes through as the unsung hero or perhaps the semi-sung hero of the film. I believe it’s Tony who says that she ended up having the most effect on them being who they became. Tell me a little bit about the boys’ relationship with their mom and the impact she had on them.
ES: Unfortunately, she’s passed away. I would’ve loved to be able to talk to her. I’ve talked to all the siblings, or all but one. And they all talk about how their mother was just this adventurous person who really believed in learning by doing, as the older sister Wendy says in the film. And they had all sorts of adventures. I mean, this probably was the most out of the ordinary adventure that they had, but they did other things too. Their mother just encouraged that sort of attitude.
And as Wendy says in the film, their father was maybe not quite as on board with it, but he would go along with it. And they learned an awful lot from her or from those experiences. And I think they brought it to their own parenting practices as well. I mean, both Tony and Jeff have two kids of their own. Of course, I had to ask them both: “Would you have let your nine and eleven year old do this? Neither one would say yes.
MMN: We would be remiss if we didn’t talk a little bit about, about their means of transportation. That would be via King, the Shetland Pony. His role, of course, was a huge role. And I found it really interesting that even then there was a bit of a controversy over whether King was being subjected to treatment that he maybe shouldn’t have been subjected to.
ES: Yeah, there were a lot of letters coming into the house, which the kids weren’t aware of cuz they were off on the trip. But their sister, Wendy and the father and the mother were getting these letters, lots of them complaining that they were abusing the pony. That no one should make a pony do that kind work. Shetland ponies were bred for hauling coal out of coal mines. That’s why they bred small and strong. Hauling a very small pony cart with two quite small boys was not a struggle for King.
And King was examined right before they left Needham. Then he was examined again in Southern New Hampshire. Then I recall he was examined at when they got to Montreal. And he passed with flying colors every time.
MMN: And, well, not to reveal any spoilers, but I was very happy to learn that not only did King make the journey with flying colors, he went on to live another 20 years thereafter.
ES: He had a very busy life all through Jeff. The younger brother was nine at the time of the trip. All through Jeff’s teenage years, he and King would go do birthday parties on weekends and that was Jeff’s summer job and even weekends during school. So yeah. King kept very busy.
MMN: So we know how King and the boys got to Montreal. I wasn’t clear on how they got home.
ES: Yeah. It goes by fast and it was too complicated to explain. There’s a little bit of a headline that says arriving home by truck. What happened is the family that ended up putting them up in Montreal was a farm family. They stayed usually on farms because it was just outside of Montreal. And the farm family very had a dump truck and rigged up the dump truck to the pony truck and they drove King and Tony, the older brother, home. The trip up there took 27 days. The trip back of course took probably six hours.
MMN: How did your film find its way to the New York Times OpDocs?
ES: Well, we, we submitted it. They have a submission process online. Someone involved with the film kind of knew someone there, which may or may not have helped. But it was really about going through the process. And I think, who knows; with these things so much is luck, Maybe if we’d submitted it a week later, they wouldn’t have hit that moment. It was around the back to school time. You know, these things—it’s like you, you cross your fingers and you hope for the best.
MMN: Have you been going on in a regular interval and reading the comments? There are hundreds of them.
ES: Oh yes. Yeah. I love the comments.
Rachel St. Pierre recently joined Filmmakers Collaborative as a Program Director for FC Academy. We’re so happy to be working with Rachel and wanted to allow her to introduce herself to FC members, friends, and visitors!
Welcome to FC, please tell us a bit about your background,
I obtained my Bachelor’s in Fine Arts in filmmaking from Savannah College of art and Design. I then went on to get my Master’s Degree at Lesley University in Arts Education. While attending Lesley, I began working at Raw Art Works in Lynn as an instructor, and then manager, and began honing my skills as a teacher of youth filmmaking and a leader in the Northshore youth filmmaking and arts community.
Prior to coming to work at FC, what was your relationship with the organization?
I became aware of the Filmmakers Collaborative about 5 years ago. I met Laura while working to submit my students’ films to the Boston International Kids Film Festival. After several years of acting as a panel judge for the festival, my strong belief in the work FC does lead me to become a board member and help assist in the early stages of developing FC academy. Each year that has passed has renewed and strengthened my passion and focus for the work that FC and FC Academy do year in and year out. The festival provides a platform for youth filmmakers to be treated like serious artists while putting a premium on access to kids from all walks of life.
What will your role at FC entail?
I am the program director of FC Academy. I’m in charge of further developing our network of film instructors and expanding our programing. This expansion will put an emphasis on providing premium programming for all students who attend FC Academy classes. This will all be from a top down lense of equity in access to our programming.
What are you most looking forward to?
What I am looking forward to most is building relationships with filmmakers from Massachusetts.
I look forward to building relationships on both the macro and micro level. In the micro: individual relationships are the heart of any program. I look forward to meeting and creating symbiotic relationships with filmmakers, town admins, teachers, parents, students, and any creatives who can contribute to our mission. In the macro: I look forward to expanding FC Academy’s brand and recognition. My end goal is to see FC Academy become a pipeline and creative hub for homegrown and local filmmakers!
Any additional fun facts about yourself that you’d care to share?
My favorite film is Tim’s Burton’s “Beetlejuice.” My three passions in filmmaking are: set design, location scouting, and photography. I have two dogs, one cat, and was born and raised on the North Shore of Massachusetts.
On a recent episode of Making Media Now, the Filmmakers Collaborative podcast, we welcomed back filmmaker, television producer, and FC member Roberto Mighty to talk about “World’s Greatest Cemeteries,” his new series currently airing on PBS. On the show, Roberto travels to some of the world’s most renowned burial sites, touring masterpieces of landscape gardens and culture. Each episode includes a stunning visual tour of one of the world’s greatest cemeteries.
What follows are some excerpts from our chat. Take a listen to the podcast episode for the full conversation.
MMN: Remind me of the genesis of this project. How did the idea come to you and how did you decide to take the approach that you did take, which is almost kind of like a magazine format in the sense that each of the six episodes you visit notable cemeteries in places far-flung and wide ranging.
ROBERTO: So in 2014, I was appointed America’s first artist in residence at a national historic landmark cemetery, that was the Mount Auburn cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And at that time, you know, I, I didn’t know that I was the first one in the country to be doing this. I just thought, man, I’m really honored, you know, to have been asked to be their artist in residence.
MMN: And what does the artist-in-residence do?
ROBERTO: So it does vary depending on the terms of the appointment, but in this case, they knew that I was a filmmaker and a multimedia artists. And so they asked me if I would be interested in doing a films and multimedia about their historic cemetery. And I was like, are you kidding me? Of course. And so what I did was over two years, I made 29 original short films about people that are interred or buried in that cemetery. And some of those films were also simply about the landscape and the history of the cemetery itself.
Prior to that, I had just come off of an 18-month artist residency at Harvard forest, where I did a piece about the certain area of Massachusetts in the 17th century. I did a piece about the clash of cultures of treating the Puritans and the indigenous peoples or the native Americans. And so I had a whole lot of background and landscape land use and so forth. So this was a beautiful natural progression.
MMN: And how did you go about choosing which cemeteries you wanted to feature in the series?
ROBERTO: Well, after 2016, after I finished my two year residency at Mount Auburn, I was pretty well steeped in cemetery culture before that I was just a regular civilian, you know, so after two years of probing around there and hanging out with historians, archivists, and cemetery people, I learned that there were these beautiful cemeteries all over the world, many of which most of which were actually built around the same time, which is the early 19th century.
So I was really fascinated by that history. And then going back, of course, there were these wonders of the world that we don’t, I don’t think we think of as cemeteries, but they are. So for instance, King Tut’s tomb, that’s a cemetery, right? The Taj Mahal in India, that’s a certain kind of cemetery that we call a mausoleum as a structure that’s built generally for one person and that person’s family. So these are all places which are in fact world landmarks. And there also burial places.
MMN: As a storyteller, as a filmmaker, did these storytelling possibilities around cemeteries immediately come to mind for you or did it take some reflection?
ROBERTO: I think it started when we were kids, our parents would tell us about reciting poetry in the cemetery near where they went to college. So our parents met in college at, at a historically black college in Ohio called Wilberforce University. They met there and apparently they used to go and recite poetry in that cemetery. And what’s funny is that our parents were of that generation where, you know, they were the kind of people who recited poetry all the time, you know? And so I, when I was a kid, I thought that the word cemetery meant place to go to recite poetry. So I was disposed to having a very positive view of them.
MMN: Did you script the programs yourself?
ROBERTO: I would script myself ahead of time and you know, like in the hotel room or something, but to be honest, the vibe would often dictate. I mean, these cemeteries are designed landscapes. Every single one of them is a design landscape. And the design is to make people feel better, is to make them feel calm and relaxed, to comfort the grieving and all that. But also these places, even from the very beginning were massive tourist attractions, right? And so, as a result of the gently rolling hills, the placement of some spectacular monuments, the fact that they left these incredible mature trees.
And in fact, many of them are certified arboretums, you know, for their city or for their country. Then of course, as you pointed out, the horticulture Is outstanding. I mean, these are truly horticultural show places as well. And so a place like Mount Auburn cemetery, which gets up to a quarter of a million visitors per year.
Presenting a WEBINAR on Sound Recording with Ian Black and Steve Drown.
Ian’s career started as a guitar player/songwriter from a young age and he has been composing, performing, recording and producing music ever since.
Steve has been an independent recording engineer for the last 21 years and a professional musician for nearly 30.
RECORDED: Wednesday, April 6, 2022