‘Come for the film, stay for the talk’
By Kevin Redding
It began more than 15 years ago with a group of film lovers gathered around the television on Oscar night. Lyn Boland, a former lawyer and adjunct professor from Setauket, was among them, and as she and her friends gushed over clips from the year’s Best Documentary Feature category, she wondered: Why can’t we ever see any of these powerful films?
Around this time, she was called on by her law partner, and a fellow cinephile, to help rebuild the Greater Port Jefferson-Northern Brookhaven Arts Council’s faltering film program. Boland had just recently watched “Spellbound,” the Academy Award-nominated doc about a group of eight young students competing in the Scripps National Bee; it was exciting, artistic, moving and it made Boland cry. It seemed obvious what to do with the local cinema program.
“Let’s make it a documentary series,” she recalls saying to her friend. While the initial concept was to hold screenings around the work primarily of local filmmakers, this proved to be difficult and limiting. So, members of the program’s board decided to pluck documentaries straight from the source: high-profile film festivals, from the Hamptons International Film Festival to DOC NYC to Tribeca Film Festival to Stony Brook Film Festival, and more, where new, important works are debuted, and the voices of blossoming filmmakers are heard for the first time.
And thus, in the fall of 2005, the first Port Jefferson Documentary Series was born. “The idea was to make a place where we can actually see these films while they’re still very current,” Boland, one of three co-directors of the now-14-year series, said. “I think that this particular area on Long Island has a well-educated population, people who want to stay up-to-date, and, for some people, watching a documentary is a great way for them to go into depth on an important issue for a couple hours.”
She continued, “We used to travel to Cinema Arts Centre [in Huntington] to see documentaries, and it seems like there was this giant hole in our ability to see independent films like these in this area. Our criteria now is that the film is new and not available elsewhere, has critical acclaim, and tells an important story.”
Sponsored by the Greater Port Jefferson-Northern Brookhaven Arts Council and the Suffolk County Office of Film and Cultural Affairs, the spring 2019 season of the award-winning documentary series begins March 4 and will run until May 20. The seven-film lineup will be spread across several local venues, including Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson; the Charles B. Wang Center at Stony Brook University, 100 Nicolls Road, Stony Brook; the Long Island Museum, 1200 Route 25A, Stony Brook; and Robert Cushman Murphy Junior High School, 351 Oxhead Road, in Stony Brook.
Each of this year’s emotional and thought-provoking films will be followed up by a Q&A session with guest speakers involved in the documentary, like directors, producers, the movies’ subjects and outside experts.
They include the compelling journalism-focused “The Panama Papers”; “Under the Wire,” about a heroic Sunday Times correspondent who was killed while covering the war in Syria; “Weed the People,” in which medical cannabis is posed as “a human rights issue”; as well as “Liyana,” “City of Joel,” “Horn from the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story” and “Emanuel,” about the Charleston church shooting.
As is the case every year, the documentaries are selected by the series’ seven-member film board, or “The Film Ladies,” as they are called — made up of Boland, fellow co-directors Barbara Sverd and Wendy Feinberg, as well as board members Honey Katz, Phyllis Ross, Lorie Rothstein and Lynn Rein.
Each member sees upward of 100 documentaries during the preliminary film festival blitz, and whittle their favorites down to 10 or less to present to the board. Out of that batch, seven films, one from each person, are selected to be screened. From the get-go, the board member assumes responsibility for “her” film, presenting it to the board, writing press releases and making sure the venues have all the right equipment for a proper screening.
“The earlier we get the film, the better it is for us because then we can actually help the filmmakers and expose their film — we like getting them early in their emergence,” said Boland.
“There’s also the discovery aspect of it. For example, we just saw a film we’re considering for the fall that hasn’t been anywhere, no film festivals so far, but we saw it and it was great. The idea that you could see somebody’s first documentary, really help them along in the huge process [is rewarding],” she said.
Because of the series’ longevity, its members have developed a relationship with the many distributors of the films, as well as their directors, most of whom are just pleased to have more eyes on their work.
Last summer the Port Jefferson Documentary Series held a special screening of “RBG,” which focused on the life and career of Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and which was recently nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards.
In the early years of the series, they showed “Taxi to the Dark Side,” a film that went on to win the Oscar in 2008, and in 2017, Daniel McCabe, the director of “This Is Congo,” an immersive, and brutal, examination of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, discussed his film after the screening.
The board, supported by ticket receipts and a grant from Suffolk County, routinely pays filmmakers to come out and discuss the film in their Q&As, but McCabe actually donated his fee back to them that night, saying “You are the people that really make this happen … You’re the ones who really deserve this money.”
“We have a responsibility to curate really well,” Boland explained. “Because we get public funds, we can’t just run anything … it’s a high bar to get to be one of the seven documentaries we select.”
Among the upcoming films, Boland is particular excited about “The Panama Papers.”
“Our series reflects the value of journalism,” she said. “[The director] is very good at taking a complicated topic and turn it into a very exciting film. It has you on the edge of your seat in anticipation of what’s going to happen next.”
Sverd’s favorite is “Under the Wire,” which will be shown at Stony Brook University and will involve the college’s School of Journalism.
“Over the years, the documentary has become an extremely important and effective tool for information and social change,” she said. “All of these are very special films to whoever chooses them.”
Feinberg, a retired teacher who joined the board in fall 2014, recognized a highlight for her this year: the closing night music film “Horn from the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story,” an “interesting, educational, heartbreaking” film about a blues harmonica player who formed an interracial band.
“Other than being a cinephile, I love music and love music of such varying genres,” Feinberg said. “I try to always push for one music documentary, and I’m usually successful when I see that the audience really responds to the film. I remember we had one gentleman say to me, ‘Every time you screen a film, every one is better than the one before, I don’t know how you do that.’ Feedback like that warms my heart, and confirms that we’re doing something good and lasting.”
Boland agrees and encourages community members to show up and help grow the series. “These films compel us and can introduce you to a powerful, personal story you might not ever have heard,” she said.
The Port Jefferson Documentary Series will be held at 7 p.m. on select Monday nights from March 4 to April 15 and at 7:15 p.m. on May 20 (see sidebar for locations). Tickets, which are sold at the door, are $8 per person. (No credit cards please.) If you would like to volunteer, please call 631-473-5200. For more information, visit www.portjeffdocumentaryseries.com.
■ The spring season will kick off with “The Panama Papers” at Theatre Three on March 4. Leaked by an anonymous source to journalists in 2015, the Panama Papers were an explosive collection of 11.5 million documents, exposing the use of secretive offshore companies to enable widespread tax evasion and money laundering. Director Alex Winter speaks to the journalists who worked to ensure the release and examines how it reshaped our understanding of corruption in the highest tiers of government. Moderated by Tom Needham, host of “The Sounds of Film” on WUSB, guest speaker will be Kevin Hall, chief economics correspondent and Pulitzer Prize-winning senior investigator for McClatchy newspapers in Washington, D.C.
■“Under the Wire,” the chilling and inspiring documentary about Marie Colvin, the celebrated Sunday Times correspondent, and photojournalist Paul Conroy as they enter war-ravaged Syria in February of 2012 to cover the plight of trapped and slaughtered civilians in Homs, a city under siege by the Syrian Army, heads to the Charles B. Wang Center at Stony Brook University on March 11. Deliberately targeted by Syria’s top leaders, Colvin was killed in a rocket attack that also gravely wounded Conroy, who eventually managed to escape. Co-sponsored by the Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism’s Marie Colvin Center for International Reporting, guest speakers include Catherine Colvin (Marie Colvin’s sister) in person and Paul Conroy, photojournalist (via Skype).
■ The season continues on March 18 at The Long Island Museum with “Weed the People.” Through the emotional stories of children fighting cancer, the documentary educates mainstream audiences about medical cannabis as a human rights issue and begets the unsettling question at the heart of the film: If weed is truly saving lives, why doesn’t the government want people to access it? Guest speakers include director Abby Epstein and cancer survivor and co-founder of NYC Botanics, Jill Fagin. Screening will be held in the museum’s Gillespie Room, located in the Carriage House Museum.
■ “Liyana,” which will be screened at Robert Cushman Murphy Junior High School on April 1, is a touching and unique film set in Swaziland (now Eswatini). Told by five children who were orphaned by the AIDS epidemic, this extraordinary film uses animation and narrative to illustrate their plight. Ultimately hopeful, this is a visually beautiful and unforgettable film presented in a poetic and creative style. “Liyana” has recently been nominated for the prestigious 2019 Cinema Eye Honors Award for Nonfiction Filmmaking for the Outstanding Achievement in Graphic Design or Animation Award. Guest speaker will be executive producer Susan MacLaury.
■ The series continues with “City of Joel” at Theatre Three on April 8. The town of Monroe, which lies 50 miles north of New York City and deep within the Hudson Valley, is one of the fastest-growing Hasidic communities in the country. Shot over several years with seemingly boundless access, Emmy-winning director Jesse Sweet’s documentary observes the simmering tensions that have come to define the community, and the myriad ways in which the town’s divide echoes the country’s as well. Co-sponsored by Temple Isaiah of Stony Brook, the guest speaker will be the film’s subject, B.J. Mendelson.
■ In collaboration with the Long Island Museum’s Long Road to Freedom: Surviving Slavery on Long Island exhibit, “Emanuel” will be screened on April 15 in the museum’s Gillespie Room. The documentary highlights the mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015 and is a poignant story of justice, faith, love and hate. Featuring intimate interviews with survivors and family members, this film examines the healing power of forgiveness. Sponsored by The Law Offices of Michael S. Ross in Smithtown, Building Bridges in Brookhaven, the Bethel AME Church and the Multicultural Solidarity Group, guest speaker will be producer Dimas Salaberrios.
■ The series concludes with “Horn from the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story” at Theatre Three at 7:15 p.m. on May 20. The documentary follows the complex story of a man many call the greatest harmonica player of all time. The film features Butterfield’s music and words, along with firsthand accounts from his family, his band mates and those closest to him, with appearances by David Sanborn, Bonnie Raitt, B.B. King, Bob Dylan and more. Co-sponsored by the Long Island Blues Society and the Long Island Music Hall of Fame, the evening will be moderated by WUSB’s Tom Needham with guest speaker executive producer/producer Sandra Warren. A prefilm blues concert with Kerry Kearney, Frank Latorre, Gerry Sorrentino and Mario Staiano will be held at 6 p.m. (Combo concert, film and Q&A ticket is $15.)