Y’allywood Babylon: The 20th SCAD Savannah Film Festival’s Docs to Watch Roundtable
This year’s 20th anniversary edition of the SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) Savannah Film Festival, which lays claim to being the largest university-run film fest in the world, continued its two-decades-long tradition of mixing Hollywood wattage with downhome southern hospitality. Once again the fest honored an eclectic mix of celebrity guests of all ages (elder statesmen and women included Richard Gere, Sir Patrick Stewart, Aaron Sorkin, Salma Hayek Pinault, Holly Hunter, and Kyra Sedgwick, while the “youngsters” featured the likes of John Boyega, Zoey Deutch, Robert Pattinson, Andrea Riseborough, and Willow Shields). The festival also played host to a number of buzzy independent filmmakers, such as Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch, who were on hand to present a discussion titled “Scribble to Screen: The Florida Project” prior to their film’s screening later that night.
And in between all the topically diverse talks (SCAD even inaugurated a Wonder Women Panel Series this year, focusing on female directors, producers and below-the-line talent) and glamorous awards-accepting — and yes, in case you’re wondering, Kyra Sedwick and Holly Hunter are still smarter and hotter than the majority of today’s ingénues half their age — I was able to catch up on all the narrative Oscar bait I tend to inevitably miss in theaters. This ranged from the topnotch (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s Battle of the Sexes, Paul McGuigan’s Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, which most likely just sealed Annette Bening’s fifth Academy Award nomination); to the guilty pleasure (Woody Harrelson having a blast performing the 36th president’s Machiavellian moves in Rob Reiner’s LBJ); to the seemed-like-a-good-idea-with-great-casting-until-it-went-completely-off-the-rails (Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying, which feels as uncomfortably cheesy as an indie Grumpy Old Men, and Molly’s Game, Aaron Sorkin’s ode to both his own wit and Kevin Costner’s power to still command unnecessary screen time).
Though, truth be told, the main reason I miss most big-budget films like the aforementioned is because I’m a dedicated (low-budget) docuphile. Which also happens to be the reason for my putting the Savannah Film Festival on my must-attend fall festival list. Though only in its fourth year, the fest’s Docs to Watch Roundtable, presented by The Hollywood Reporter and always deftly moderated by journalist Scott Feinberg, is an impressive, two-hour, conversational event that could easily go on for an entire evening. If you’re looking for critically acclaimed documentarians expounding on the nitty-gritties of filmmaking process, Georgia — nicknamed Y’allywood for its ranking as the number one destination state for film production (something I learned through the catchy, pre-screening promos) ––in October is the place to be.
And this year’s panel proved especially diverse — in the subject matter of the films, that is, if not with regards to the filmmakers themselves. (Unfortunately, out of the 10 participants only three were women, two of color, and though my gaydar may be off, two at most from the LGBTQ community). Docs on the discussion table ran the gamut from the uplifting, with Ceyda Torun on hand for Kedi and Amanda Lipitz for Step, to the desperately urgent, with Jeff Orlowski chatting about Chasing Coral and Evgeny Afineevsky about Cries from Syria. Then there were the fraught-for-the-filmmakers-themselves flicks, with Laura Poitras giving us glimpses into the production of Risk and Bryan Fogel into Icarus. John Ridley and Yance Ford — the only two filmmakers of color onstage — let us in on how their docs, Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992 and Strong Island, respectively, presented necessary revisions to a (white-centric) historical narrative. Finally, there were the “star” starring docs, with Greg Barker representing The Final Year and Brett Morgen Jane.
Smartly, Feinberg began by asking participants questions tailored to each of their individual films. For example, Ridley was asked how he transitioned from winning an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for 12 Years a Slave to his nonfiction directorial debut. He explained that the idea for Let It Fall began years ago, when Spike Lee approached him about tackling the subject. He remarked that he felt that the traditional narrative approach was just too hard to pull off as there were no “heroes and villains” for him to work with. When Feinberg queried Barker about how he got access to the Obama team the longtime documentarian joked, “I just knocked on the door to the White House.” Feinberg noted that prior to Icarus Fogel, like Ridley, had no experience as a nonfiction filmmaker, and was best known up to that point as the man behind the play/book/film Jewtopia. Fogel mentioned that he was very much looking to reinvent himself when he started on his strange doc-making journey.
Feinberg then turned to Poitras, and the fact that the Oscar-winning filmmaker actually began work on Risk before Citizenfour. Poitras explained that she’d started filming Julian Assange two years prior to Edward Snowden contacting her and that she thought it was all one film up until she entered the editing room. Only then did she realize she had two separate docs. After Poitras spoke Feinberg addressed Morgen, who, after enthusing that his first reaction to seeing the footage of Goodall that makes up the bulk of Jane was like watching the moon landing, interrupted himself to say how truly excited he was to be sharing the stage with such a diverse group (with regards to “approach to the documentary form”).
Ford was next to speak, poignantly discussing how the death of his brother William changed him as both a person and as an artist – and that as an artist he feels a responsibility to tell this story. One death doesn’t kill one person, he noted; it takes out the whole family as well. When Feinberg asked Lipitz, seated beside Ford, how she became involved with a Baltimore high school dance team, the white Broadway producer disclosed that the first time she saw step was on A Different World (which cracked up Ford). Lipitz, though, also happens to be a native of Baltimore. And like Ford, after filming for years she tossed out the initial version of her doc and started from scratch — in her case, in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray.
Feinberg then addressed Afineevsky, Oscar-nominated for Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, wondering how he went from covering the Euromaidan protests to the Syrian catastrophe. Afineevsky brought up the fact that the USSR and Syria had a long historical connection and that he’d actually seen Syrian doctors at the protests in Ukraine. Being a filmmaker he felt he had the opportunity to dig “comprehensively,” starting in 2011 before the refugee crisis. He also adamantly expressed his belief that the refugees are the “end of the story,” not the beginning.
Next Feinberg wondered about filmmakers getting too close to their subjects. He asked Fogel the million-dollar question: if he thought that Grigory Rodchenkov, head of the Russian anti-doping lab, was trying to manipulate him. Fogel responded that he’d initially started as his own subject and that Rodchenkov was strictly his adviser. Rodchenkov only turned into a subject later on when he asked for help. Fogel also emphasized that he put friendship before the film, calling the doc a “bromance.” Turning to Barker Feinberg wanted to know whether the Obama team set any “ground rules.” Barker admitted that he wanted to be in the “small cramped offices,” that he wasn’t interested in any formal interviews, and that he told the administration as much. That said, his access was made easier since he already knew the former US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power as her book Sergio: One Man’s Fight to Save the World had been the basis of his 2009 doc Sergio. (He also acknowledged that Trump’s election was a surprise twist that was ultimately good for his movie, while taking pains to note that, “As an American I’m thinking, Oh my God!”)
When Feinberg asked Ford about pushback — i.e., if anyone refused to be interviewed for his film — Ford recalled that only the assistant DA wouldn’t speak on camera. Everyone else Ford approached came onboard, mostly due to the “silos of silence and protection” that had been constructed in the wake of William’s murder. In other words, after so many years family and friends were anxious to break their self-imposed silence. Ford then admitted that his agreeing to be in his own film was actually the hardest interview to get. And also that his approach to probing others boiled down to “point the camera, ask the question, and get out of the way.”
The subject of race specifically came up when Feinberg asked Lipitz what it was like to be a white person filming black teenage girls. Lipitz readily credited gaining the trust of the girls’ mothers as the key to all her access. And that she attempted to bond with her young protagonists by being an open book, by offering as much about herself as she was asking them to share on camera. Feinberg then turned to Afineevsky and the subject of crowd-sourced footage. He too discussed the necessity of building trust with his characters — who were using “cameras as weapons” — and that he went even further by building trust with different outlets as well. Interestingly, he noted that though he’s Russian born, it was his status as an American citizen that made it harder to garner the confidence of the average Syrian.
On a lighter note, Feinberg wondered how on earth Torun managed to build trust with a dozen street cats. Joking but clearly in awe, he compared her camerawork to a “Goodfellas tracking shot.” Torun responded that she knew the cats because she’d grown up with them and that she was easily able to reconnect with both the felines and the people of Istanbul even after living abroad for so long. As an afterthought she added, “If I approached a cat and it ran away it wasn’t giving consent” (which prompted laughs from both panel and audience). Her MO, she said, was not to plan scenes, but to just “allow the action to take place.”
Feinberg then asked Poitras about how her relationship with Assange had evolved over the seven years she spent working on the film. Without getting into too much detail, she noted that she had begun with “optimism” but now no longer speaks to her subject. Things changed dramatically when Snowden and his archive arrived in her life. Poitras explained that she had made an agreement to show Assange the completed film but that he was not allowed any say in its editing. This prompted the Wikileaks founder to threaten a lawsuit over the footage of his “discussing the women” (who accused him of rape). Feinberg then asked if anything like that had ever happened to her before. “Uh, no,” Poitras replied, seeming a bit taken aback by the question.
Turning to Orlowski, and the topic of climate change in Chasing Coral, the moderator noted, with an anti-fact flourish, “You can’t deny what your eyes are seeing — unless you really want to.” Orlowski readily agreed, mentioning that the “making of” is the film itself. In other words, he’d struggled throughout production with how exactly to visualize what’s happening to our planet when so much of it is “out of sight, out of mind.” Also out of sight (from the accepted L.A. riots narrative) were Ridley’s characters, so Feinberg was curious to know how exactly the filmmaker went about tracking them down. When asked about the partially black juror he found who’d served on the Rodney King “all white” acquittal jury, the Wisconsin native explained that it all depended once again on gaining trust as most of his introductions came through word of mouth. He then noted that it was actually much harder to get the different communities (i.e., black, Korean, LAPD) to trust one other. In other words, many of his interviewees worried that someone else would be seen in the more favorable light.
Ridley went on to emphasize that there is a “mass psychosis” when it comes to subjects like race, gender and sexuality. And that people “unlearn behavior” first. “The system must fall before people can rise,” he stressed, referencing his film’s title, before optimistically concluding that even though the system will “fail us” we still have choice. When Feinberg turned to Morgen to ask about his film’s also wary interviewee — and Jane Goodall’s “rules” for participation — Morgen admitted that she certainly wasn’t eager to do “yet another doc.” And also that she wasn’t familiar with any of the Academy Award-nominated director’s prior work. As Morgen put it, “She would rather be talking to kids and saving the world” (than sitting for a camera). That said, Morgen went on to describe his film as one about “observing Jane, not the chimps,” and “a love story about a woman and her work.” He was pleased when he later learned — through a journalist’s interview — that Jane, after seeing the final cut, was suddenly able to discern why she and the celebrated wildlife photographer Hugo van Lawick had split up. They both had “higher purposes,” she’d deduced.
Feinberg then brought up the journalism of the NY Times, wondering why Fogel had gone to The Grey Lady with his tale of a Russian doping cover-up during the Sochi Olympics. Didn’t he want to save that bombshell for his own film? Fogel explained that his focus was always squarely on, “How do we prove this?” – deciding that the Times, with all its resources, could allow the story to “prove to be true.” He added that he felt “ethically correct” in this decision, that he very much needed to get institutions involved.
On that ethical note, Feinberg turned to Afineevsky’s decision to include highly disturbing images in Cries from Syria, paralleling this choice with Eisenhower’s determination to show the concentration camps uncensored to the public. Did the idea of “shock effect” factor into the decision making process? Afineevsky replied that he actually possessed footage he felt was too graphic to put onscreen that he’d “calibrated to 60%.” He made a point of adding that what he saw in Syria “can happen anywhere in the world.” (And thus, the morally minded need to protect our values not just at home but around the globe.)
As the discussion began to near the two-hour mark, the moderator posed a tricky question to the panel at large, “How do you know when your documentary is done?” (While also kidding that any of these docs could be “like a Charlie Kaufman movie and you wake up 40 years later.”) Ridley answered pragmatically, that he needed to have his release timed to the anniversary date of the LA riots. Orlowski, on the other hand, discussed structure, recommending that once you have your climax you can “reverse engineer” your doc, placing the puzzle pieces around that climactic scene.
Fogel didn’t hesitate in his response. “The day I brought Grigory into protective custody” was when he knew he was done. In response to Feinberg half-jokingly asking what would happen if he decided to take a vacation to Russia, Fogel then earnestly admitted that he really likes Russia (which elicited an immediate reaction of mock horror from Afineevsky). Thus said, Fogel also expressed with near certainty that if he took that vacation he wouldn’t make it back to the U.S. The moderator then inquired about the welfare of his main character. Fogel seemed distraught as he recounted that all of Rodchenkov’s assets had been seized in Russia, and that his family had been threatened with jail time. He added that with an international arrest warrant still out for him, Rodchenkov is currently in U.S. protective custody. Then Fogel stressed that to this day he’s still fighting to get his subject political asylum. (And as an activist extension, even set up a site called Fairsport.org to protect all whistleblowers in sports.)
For Poitras the decision to wrap came with “Comey discussing the election” but also with Assange sending a threatening text. Morgen called finishing “painful,” then admitted that he was still mixing post the Toronto premiere. Ford noted that he delineated between two endings — the end of principal photography, and the end of editing. Afineevsky, for his part, answered that time was not on his side, and that he needed to get his film out as quickly as possible. He had to get his story to the world. Like Ford he viewed his doc as an “obligation” — in his case to the Syrian people. (Afineevsky also mentioned that he was able to finish editing in a mere 11 weeks, which prompted a look of horrified shock from Morgen.)
In closing, Feinberg brought up a very Hollywood obsession rarely discussed in doc-making – box office. Torun’s $450K Kedi, he noted, took in a whopping $3 million at the box office after Oscilloscope came onboard. Lipitz’s Step, meanwhile, sold to Fox Searchlight for $4 million — with a narrative remake attached. Lipitz then offered, to loud applause, what was perhaps the most heartwarming tidbit of the night: she had used the sale to set up scholarship funds for all her talented young characters. It suddenly struck me that if there’s one trait these doc-makers all shared it was an uncompromising investment in both subjects and subject matter. What makes the Docs to Watch Roundtable so riveting year after year is the engagement of the participants, with filmmakers every bit as captivated as the audience members. For the best of the best also have another thing in common — they are as enthusiastically curious about their peers’ projects as they are about their own.
Photo: Laura Poitras, Ceyda Torun, Brett Morgen, Bryan Fogel, John Ridley, Yance Ford, Greg Barker, Amanda Lipitz, Evgeny Afineevsky and Jeff Orlowski pose backstage at Docs To Watch Panel during the 20th Anniversary SCAD Savannah Film Festival on October 29, 2017 in Savannah, Georgia. (Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for SCAD)