By Heidi Sutton
Soul music, Asperger’s syndrome, circus life, terrorism, race in America — these diverse subject matters and more will be explored at length as the Port Jefferson Documentary Series (PJDS) kicks off its spring 2017 season Monday evening, March 13. Sponsored by the Greater Port Jefferson Northern Brookhaven Arts Council, the Suffolk County Office of Film and Cultural Affairs and the New York State Council on the Arts, the PJDS, now in its 11th year, will present seven award-winning documentaries from March 13 to May 1, alternating between two venues — Theatre Three in Port Jefferson and The Long Island Museum in Stony Brook. Each screening will be followed by a Q-and-A with guest speakers.
The documentaries are chosen by a six-member film board, affectionately known as “the film ladies,” who each choose one film to present and then a seventh film is chosen unanimously by the group. The ladies, who include co-directors Lyn Boland and Barbara Sverd, Wendy Feinberg, Honey Katz, Phyliss Ross and Lorie Rothstein, recently found out that the PJDS was chosen by Bethpage Federal Credit Union’s Best of Long Island survey as the Best Film Festival on Long Island for 2017. The series beat out the Stony Brook Film Festival, the Hamptons International Film Festival and the Gold Coast Film Festival.
“Ecstatic would not be too mild a description,” said Boland. “We were really delighted [about the news].” Sverd added, “We never found out who had nominated us, but we are very grateful to that person!”
According to Sverd, the group started out 11 years ago sitting around a dining room table at the late Sondra Edward’s home “brainstorming about how to improve the Greater Port Jefferson/Northern Brookhaven’s existing film series. It was there that the idea of a documentary series began to emerge.” Back then, Sverd said, “We knew that documentaries were an emerging art form and that our community was missing opportunities to see them, as they mostly played in New York for a limited time. We now face new challenges in an age of streaming and HBO, but our mission [to present new documentaries] has remained the same.”
This past fall, the group traveled to the Tribeca Film Festival and the New York Documentary Film Festival in Manhattan and attended the Stony Brook Film Festival, searching for documentaries that generated a lot of interest and offered wide appeal.
This season, both Boland and Sverd are most excited about presenting “I Am Not Your Negro,” which is narrated by Samuel L. Jackson. Based on the writings of James Baldwin, it tells the story of race in modern America. One of the scheduled guest speakers, Prof. Michael Theiwill, was a colleague and friend of Baldwin. “It’s an exciting film, it’s very, very sophisticated and it’s so on point,” said Boland. “It’s a little demanding in terms of what it asks the audience to listen to and to be aware of, but it is very on point for what’s going on. You realize how you thought everything was changing, but there is still this basic unyielding racism that we find very difficult to understand.”
Boland is also looking forward to showing “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” on March 27. “It’s such a great story about this little bank in Queens that the district attorney decides to pick on for financial irregularities” and how the family that owned the bank fought back and won.
The co-directors encourage the audience to stay after the screenings for the Q-and-A part which can get quite spirited. “A documentary is like taking a college course,” said Sverd, adding, “I believe that the reason documentaries have become so popular is because people love to learn about other people, places and things. Having a director for an up-close and personal Q-and-A after each screening makes it an even more special classroom experience.” “For me it is much more exciting to get a little bit of the backstory after the movie. Having the director or someone from the film there to answer questions right away was something that we really wanted,” said Boland. The group is always looking for volunteers to help distribute posters and flyers, taking tickets and program assistance. To sign up, please call 631-473-5200.
The Port Jefferson Documentary Series will be held at 7 p.m. every Monday from March 13 to May 1 at Theatre Three, 412 Main Street, Port Jefferson or The Long Island Museum, 1200 Route 25A, Stony Brook. Tickets, sold at the door, are $7 per person (no credit cards please). For more information, visit www.portjeffdocumentaryseries.com.
▶ The spring season will kick off with a screening of “Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing” at Theatre Three on March 13. The dramatic story of the April 2013 terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon is recounted through the emotional experiences of individuals whose lives were forever impacted. The film follows events as they unfolded that day and over the next two years, to the death penalty sentence for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Winner of the Audience Award Best Documentary at the Woodstock Film Festival, “Marathon” shows how cities and communities come together and find strength through dark times. Guest speakers will be directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg.
▶ “The Uncondemned,” the second film in the series, will be screened at Theatre Three on March 20. Both a real-life courtroom thriller and a moving human drama, the documentary tells the gripping story of a group of young international lawyers and activists who fought to have rape recognized as a war crime and the Rwandan women who came forward to testify and win justice for the crimes committed against them. The film won the Brizzolara Family Foundation Award for a Film of Conflict and Resolution and the Victor Rabinowitz and Joanne Grant Award for Social Justice at the Hamptons International Film Festival. Co-sponsored by the Africana Studies Department at Stony Brook University. Guest speaker will be director Michele Mitchell.
▶ On March 27, The Long Island Museum will host a screening of “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail.” Directed by Steve James and produced by Julie Goldman and Mark Mitten, the film tells the fascinating David and Goliath story of the government’s decision to prosecute a small, immigrant-owned financial institution, Abacus Federal Savings of Chinatown owned by the Sung family, of mortgage fraud while overlooking far more egregious behavior at much larger institutions. The Sung family spent over $10 million in a five-year battle to save the family business, their honor and to stand up for their community. Producer Julie Goldman, Associated Producer Sean Lyness and bankers Jill and Vera Sung will be the guest speakers for the evening.
▶ The fourth film, titled “I Am Not Your Negro,” will be screened at The Long Island Museum on April 3. Built around James Baldwin’s unfinished 1979 book about the lives and successive assassinations of his friends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, the film, directed by Raoul Peck, delves into the complex legacy of those three lives and deaths that permanently marked the American social and political landscape complimented by archival footage, photographs and television clips. Winner of the Audience Award at the Chicago International Film Festival, Best Documentary at the Hamptons International Film Festival, People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, short-listed for the Academy Awards and countless other accolades, “I Am Not Your Negro” has been called “One of the best movies you are likely to see this year” by the New York Times. Guest Speakers will include Prof. Zebulon Miletsky, African American Studies, SUNY, and Author/Prof. Michael Thelwell, U. Mass, Amherst. Co-sponsored by the Africana Studies Department at Stony Brook University.
▶ The series continues on April 17 at Theatre Three with “Circus Kid.” A ring of daring, danger, spirit and lunacy can lead many a young child into a romantic fantasy of running away to join the circus. But for Lorenzo Pisoni, director of this autobiographical documentary, and guest speaker for the evening, the reality of growing up as the golden child in his family’s cult classic Pickle Family Circus, his dreams were about running away from it. Archival footage of vaudeville-style acts and interviews include Pickle Family participants, including parents Larry and Peggy, daughter Gypsy and Pickle member Bill Irwin.
▶ “Bang! The Bert Berns Story” will be screened at Theatre Three on April 24. Music meets the Mob in this biographical documentary, narrated by Steven Van Zandt, about the life and career of songwriter and record producer Bert Berns whose hits include “Twist and Shout,”“Tell Him,” “Hang on Sloopy,” “Here Comes the Night” and “Piece of My Heart.” Berns helped launch the careers of Wilson Pickett, Van Morrison and Neil Diamond and produced some of the greatest soul music ever made. Filmmaker Brett Berns, who will be the evening’s guest speaker, brings his late father’s story to the screen through interviews with Ronald Isley, Ben E. King, Solomon Burke, Van Morrison, Paul McCartney and Keith Richards and rare performance footage. Co-sponsored by the Long Island Music Hall of Fame.
▶ The final film for the spring 2106 series, to be screened at Theatre Three on May 1, will be “Off the Rails,” the remarkable true story of Darius McCollum, a man with Asperger’s syndrome whose overwhelming love of transit has landed him in jail 32 times for impersonating New York City bus drivers and subway conductors and driving their routes. Winner of Best Documentary at the DocUtah Film Festival, the Newport Beach Film Festival, the Woods Hole Film Festival and the Buffalo International Film Festival, to name just a few. Director Adam Irving will be the guest speaker via Skype.