By Heidi Sutton
Autism, pyramid schemes, the mental health system, the game of chess, gay rights, the Syrian refugee crisis — these topics and more will be explored in depth as the Port Jefferson Documentary Series kicks off its fall 2016 season on Monday, Sept. 12. 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 will present seven award-winning documentaries this season at 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 session with a guest speaker.
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 is chosen unanimously by the group. The ladies, who include co-directors Lyn Boland and Barbara Sverd, Wendy Feinberg, Honey Katz, Phyllis Ross and Lorie Rothstein, are celebrating the festival’s 11th year this month.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Lyn Boland about this local cultural gem and about this season’s exciting lineup.
Can you believe it’s been 11 years?
Yes, it’s amazing. We are very grateful to our audience and also to the directors and distributors we have gotten to know who are willing to share their films with us. This fall will be our 23rd season and longevity has its rewards. For example, for the upcoming fall season, I was emailing a producer and I could honestly write that I was one of his biggest fans because I realized, when I checked his bio, that we had previously run at least three of his films. He was impressed enough by our record to give us his newest film.
How many choices does each film lady bring to the table initially?
I would say each film lady brings five to 10 films to the first meeting, but they have probably gone through a winnowing process even before the first programming meeting.
What film festivals did the film ladies attend this year?
We went to our usuals — Tribeca, Hamptons, Stony Brook. We follow a lot of other festivals from a distance. Toronto will be coming up in a few weeks, and we will watch what happens with the films there or the films at Sundance in January. The festivals announce the films they have chosen to show about a month before they start screenings. Once the films are announced, we are busy reading about them and trying to contact the directors. Fortunately, although we can’t get to some festivals, Tribeca has become an important focus for documentaries. Several of our fall films are films we saw at Tribeca last spring — “Betting on Zero,” “Strike a Pose,” “Life Animated,” “After Spring,” and “Magnus.” It was love at first viewing with those films and then the chase was on.
I understand that you have some extra help these days?
Our initial group is still intact but we have had some great new additions. We have four new volunteers: Lynn Rein, who has contributed tremendously to creating our posters and fliers; Emily Sobel, our agent on the ground at Stony Brook, making sure our public service announcements get on the air; Irene Berman, who brings a fresh perspective after a long career of teaching; and Kathryn Hunter, a charming jack-of-all trades.
In the spring of this year the PJDS formed a new partnership with the Long Island Museum. How is that working out?
Working with LIM has been delightful. They have a great staff there, very competent and open to new ideas. Lisa Unander, the administrator we work with, is calm, understanding and knows how to make things happen. So far the size of the venue has not been an issue although we came close this summer with our special event screening of ”The Witness.” We filled up all 128 seats! The film, which we screened at the same time as it opened in NYC, was a huge success and a great tie-in with the museum’s Long Island in the Sixties exhibit. Our guest speaker, director James Solomon, loved the museum’s exhibit and the perfect tie-in with his film.
Which documentary are you most excited about?
I think one of the most riveting documentaries is ”Tower.” Using animation, the film brings the audience right into the crisis at the University of Austin where a shooter occupied the tower and held the campus prisoner. There are heroes and villains in the film and the point of view is mesmerizing. It is also the 50th anniversary of the shooting which gives all of us pause when we contemplate how frequent these tragedies have become since that horrifying beginning. I am also in love with “Betting on Zero,” the film I am presenting.
Why did you choose to present ‘Betting on Zero’?
I am fascinated by the financial world and I think most of us have become more cognizant of how much we are impacted by stocks, banks and investors since the Great Recession. The story in “Betting on Zero” is particularly dramatic because it involves two financial titans, Carl Icahn and Bill Ackman. Icahn, whose name is familiar to many, is a big shareholder in Herbalife, a well-known company. Ackman, less well-known outside of financial circles, believes Herbalife is a Ponzi scheme and has bet a fortune on bringing the company down. The billionaire battle is set against the backdrop of the many Herbalife small business owners who are caught up on the conflict. So you have humanity, money, and the hint of a Madoff-like shell game.
Which guest speaker are you most excited about meeting?
I am very excited about bringing the director of “Betting on Zero” Ted Braun in from LA. It is also a great privilege to welcome the producer of “Life Animated,” Carolyn Hepburn, since she is a Long Island native and because “Life Animated” is a film that has had a great impact all over the country. I look forward to meeting Steph Ching and Ellen Martinez, the directors of “After Spring,” and I know they will be audience favorites as will Salim Gauwloos, the dancer in “Strike a Pose,” who I met briefly at the screening at Tribeca. However, I think I am most excited about bringing back Todd and Jedd Wider, the directors of “God Knows Where I Am,” because they grew up in Setauket and have been wonderfully generous to the series. We have shown five of their previous films, including the Academy Award-winning documentary “Taxi to the Dark Side,” and we look forward to seeing them again (and again!)
What do you feel is so special about documentaries?
Documentaries are real. Granted, they often represent the director’s point of view, but what you see on the screen actually happened and it is amazing how dramatic and moving real life is. Also, most documentaries are works of passion and dedication. Many of these directors spend years following their subjects, devoting endless hours to stories that need to be told. Documentaries can bring change to our way of life while bringing tears to our eyes. There is a special insight that you get from seeing the real thing.
Why should people come out on a Monday night to see these films?
In addition to seeing films that they might not get to see otherwise and hearing the inside story from a director or cast member that they might never meet, the doc series is a great community event. Our Q-and-As are lively and provide an opportunity to hear from one’s neighbors, near and far. The PJDS audience is a fascinating and ever-changing cross section with whom a film enthusiast can enjoy a unique and often bonding experience. Plus, it’s the best bargain around: film and live speaker for $7!! Finally, the films provide a fantastic learning experience. For example, I had no idea who Magnus Carlsen was before I saw “Magnus” but I soon learned that every chess player from dilettante to devotee knows and follows him.
Are you looking for volunteers?
Yes, very much so. We need people to do imaginative PR, anything to get the word out for a series that operates on less than a shoestring budget. We need grant writers, film enthusiasts, and tech people to create our posters, math people to work on the budget, anything and anyone you can imagine. See you at the movies!
The first and last documentary will be screened on Mondays at the Long Island Museum, 1200 Route 25A, Stony Brook. All others will be screened on Mondays at Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson. All films begin at 7 p.m. and doors open one half hour before show time. Tickets for all films are $7 and will be sold at the door. For more information, call 631-473-5220 or visit www.portjeffdocumentaryseries.com.
▶ The fall season will kick off with a screening of “Life, Animated” at the Long Island Museum on Sept. 12. Winner of the Sundance Film Festival Director Award for a U.S. Documentary and the Audience Award at the Full Frame Festival and San Francisco International Film Festival, the film follows the life of Owen Suskind, who stopped speaking at the age of 3 and withdrew from his family and the world. Diagnosed with autism, he developed his own language skills after repeated viewings of Disney classics like “The Lion King” and “The Little Mermaid.” Guest speaker will be co-producer Carolyn Hepburn.
▶ “Betting on Zero,” (Arts & Lifestyles cover photo) the second film in the series, will be screened at Theatre Three on Sept. 19. The financial docu-thriller, which made its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, follows hedge-fund titan Bill Ackman as he seeks to expose global nutritional giant Herbalife as the largest pyramid scheme in history in this deeply emotional dive into the world of money, fraud and the American Dream. In English and Spanish. Guest speaker will be director Tim Braun.
▶ Through archival footage and home movies, “Magnus,” to be screened at Theatre Three on Sept. 26, tells the story of 26-year-old Norwegian chess champion Magnus Carlsen’s rise to the top. A hit at several international festivals and winner of the Ray of Sunshine prize at the Norwegian International Film Festival, the documentary also gives the audience a peek inside the isolated world of the chess community. In English and Norwegian. Sponsored by the Long Island Chess Club. Guest speaker, via Skype, will be the director, Benjamin Ree.
▶ The fourth film, titled “Strike a Pose,” screened at Theatre Three on Oct. 10, features Madonna’s seven backup dancers from her Blond Ambition Tour in 1990, whose journey was captured in the rockumentary, “Truth or Dare,” The documentary follows the lives of Kevin Stea, Carlton Wilborn, Luis Xtravaganza Camacho, Jose Gutierez Xtravaganza, Salim Gauwloos and Oliver S. Crumes III since the tour. The seventh, Gabriel Trupin, died from complications due to AIDS in 1995 and is represented in the film by his mother, Sue Trupin. In English and Spanish. Guest speaker will be Salim Gawloos.
▶ The series continues on Oct. 17 at Theatre Three with a screening of Jon Stewart’s heartbreaking “After Spring,” a feature documentary about the Syrian refugee crisis that has affected millions since the conflict began six years ago. Filmed in Jordan, the audience will experience living in Zaatari, the second largest refugee camp in the world. In Arabic, English and Korean. Guest speakers will be directors Steph Ching and Ellen Martinez.
▶“God Knows Where I Am” will be screened at Theatre Three on Oct. 24. Winner of the Special Jury Prize at Hot Docs, the documentary, using 16mm and 35mm cinematography, tells the story of Linda Bishop, a homeless woman who was determined to stay free of the mental health system, documenting her experience in a diary before her tragic death. It has been called by critics “a film for the ages, great cinema and certainly a contender for one of the best documentaries of the millennium that features some of the most beautiful cinematography ever to be seen in a documentary.” Setauket natives and directors Jedd and Todd Wider will join the audience for a Q-and-A after the screening.
▶ The final film for fall 2016, “Tower,” will be screened at the Long Island Museum on Nov. 7. Combining archival footage with live-action animation, “Tower” tells the story of America’s first mass school shooting at the University of Texas in 1966. “Tower” was the Grand Prize Winner and Audience Award Winner at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas. Guest speaker will be co-producer and animation director Craig Staggs.