By Melissa Arnold
Movie buffs, rejoice! After a long and dreary winter, it’s time to explore politics, health care, pop culture and more with a new season of the Port Jeff Documentary Series.
This month will mark the beginning of the 23rd season for the PJDS, which has brought compelling and award-winning documentaries of all kinds to our area in the spring and fall since 2005. The festival is sponsored by the Greater Port Jefferson-Northern Brookhaven Arts Council, the Suffolk County Film Commission and the New York State Council on the Arts.
It’s a labor of love for the “film ladies,” the six board members who plan the festival from the ground up twice each year. They include co-directors Barbara Sverd and Lyn Boland, as well as Wendy Feinberg, Honey Katz, Phyllis Ross and Lorie Rothstein.
Each year, the film ladies travel to some of the biggest film festivals in the area, among them the Tribeca Film Festival in Lower Manhattan, the Stony Brook Film Festival and the Hamptons Film Festival. They also closely follow online buzz for film festivals they can’t attend.
“Everyone on the board searches for films independently and brings them back to the group. This way, we get a lot of variety because we all like different things,” said Boland.
While each board member has her own opinions, they’re all looking for those films that generate a lot of interest and offer wide appeal. All of them are fresh off the circuit, and you won’t be able to see them on TV or other outlets, Boland explained.
Boland has always loved documentaries, and the series was born out of the desire to see them closer to home. She said those first films were chosen sitting around a kitchen table with the help of her late friend and law partner, Sondra Brooks. “I would hear about these great documentaries nominated for Academy Awards, but there was absolutely nowhere around here to see them. We wanted to change that,” Boland said.
These days, documentary film is one of the most common entry-level styles, leaving more titles and themes to explore than ever.
Each film lady selects two of her personal favorite documentaries to bring back to the group for discussion. Then, they write letters to directors and production teams of their favorite films, asking them to consider sending the group a copy for screening. Once the films arrive, everyone gets a say; 5/6 of the group must love the film in order for it to make the festival’s short list. It also has to fit well with that season’s other selections and budget. The final list features seven films, one for each board member and a seventh unanimously chosen by all the ladies.
Boland admitted that her two favorites for this season are the films she chose, which she affectionately calls “her babies.” They are “The C Word,” an eye-opening expose into cancer treatment and its many flaws, and “Speed Sisters,” which follows the unexpected experiences of five female race car drivers in Palestine.
During the series, each film is followed by a Q-&-A session or discussion with someone on the film’s production team, usually the director. It is an opportunity for audiences to delve deeper into the film’s development and themes.
Boland said that putting the series together twice each year is a lot of work, but there’s never bad blood in the group when they make the final selections.
“[The board members] volunteer to do this and it’s really like a year-round job,” Boland said. “I can’t even say how many films I see each year, but I watch several every week. All but one of us have been involved from the beginning and it’s such a respectful environment. We do this because we’re passionate about it.”
In addition to showing the films at Theatre Three, the festival has recently added the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook as a co-host. The film ladies approached the museum after its former co-host, Stony Brook University’s Wang Center, could no longer participate.
The museum works with the Greater Port Jefferson-Northern Brookhaven Arts Council on a regular basis, which made them a perfect fit. They’ve recently obtained a new projector and sound system, and Boland is looking forward to showing films there.
“Film is a vibrant artmaking medium, and the museum will be adding even more films to see as we move forward with our expanding public programming,” said Neil Watson, executive director of the Long Island Museum. “Partnering with the Port Jefferson Documentary Series is the perfect opportunity to extend both of our organizations into this rich and diverse community.”
The documentary series wouldn’t be possible without the support of numerous volunteers. Every season, help is needed for each part of the process, from distributing flyers and running the ticket booths to tracking down directors and even recommending new films. A contact page for volunteers and board members can be found at the festival’s website, www.portjeffdocumentaryseries.com.
The film ladies encourage hesitant viewers to try even one of this season’s films. Boland said that documentaries offer an extra touch of magic you just won’t find in a fictional movie.
“When you see a moving documentary, it shakes you the way a feature film does, but you have that extra level of emotion in knowing it’s all real,” she said.
The Port Jefferson Documentary Series will be held at 7 p.m. every Monday from March 14 to April 25 at Theatre Three, 412 Main Street, Port Jefferson, and the Long Island Museum, 1200 Rt. 25A, Stony Brook. For the first time this year, moviegoers can purchase their tickets in advance. General admission for each film is $7. To learn more about the PJDS, this season’s films or to purchase advance tickets, call 631-473-5220.
■ The spring season will kick off with “Sweet Micky for President” at Theatre Three on March 14. Winner of the Grand Jury Award and Audience Award at the Slamdance Film Festival and Best International Director Award at the Documentary Edge Film Festival, the film recounts the story of Pras Michel, Grammy Award-winning rapper and founder of The Fugees, as he returns to his homeland of Haiti postearthquake and finds a corrupt government in paralysis. Wanting desperately to turn the tides there, he becomes the backbone of a presidential campaign for Michel Martelly, aka “Sweet Micky,” Haiti’s most popular and outlandish pop star. The film is presented in English, Creole and French with English subtitles. Guest speakers for the evening will be Director Ben Patterson and Pras Michel.
■ The second film in the series, “Janis: Little Girl Blue” by Amy Berg, will be screened at Theatre Three on March 21. It follows the life and career of renowned classic rock musician Janis Joplin prior to her sudden and tragic death in 1970 at the age of 27. The film explores the private side of Joplin’s life with new intimacy. Joplin’s own words tell much of the film’s story through a series of letters she wrote to her parents over the years, many of them made public here for the first time. The screening will be followed by a live performance of Joplin’s music by Amber Ferrari and a Q-&-A moderated by Norman Prusslin, director of the Media Arts Minor at Stony Brook University, co-founder of The Long Island Music Hall of Fame and founding general manager of WUSB 90.1 FM in Stony Brook.
■ On March 28, the Long Island Museum will host a screening of “The Anthropologist,” a film that tells the stories of anthropologists Margaret Mead and Susie Crate through their daughters’ perspectives. The film highlights how people all over the world, from Siberia to the Chesapeake, deal with changes in culture and the environment. The documentary won the Best Environmental Film award at the Nevada International Film Festival. The film is presented in six different languages. Director Daniel Miller will speak after the screening.
■ “Waiting,” to be screened on April 4 at the Long Island Museum, explores the cultural experiences and adjustment of three Italians from varied backgrounds immigrating to middle-class America. The film won the Big Apple Film Festival Cityscape Award and a 2015 Spotlight Documentary Film Award. Presented in English and Italian with English subtitles, guest speakers will include Director Cristian Piazza and one of the subjects followed in the film, actor-turned-opera-singer Paolo Buffagni.
■ On April 11, you’ll rethink your perspective on cancer treatment when Theatre Three screens “The C Word.” Narrated by Morgan Freeman, the film asks one pointed question: “With all of the resources and efforts in the war on cancer, why are we still losing?” It also exposes the multilevel, systematic problems in cancer care — the habits that predispose us to disease and a fixation on treatment instead of on the root causes of our ailments. The film is presented in English and French. “The C Word” was directed by one of its subjects, cancer survivor Meghan O’Hara, who will be on hand as the evening’s guest speaker.
■ “Karski and the Lords of Humanity” will take you back in time to World War II on April 18 at Theatre Three. This film tells the little-known and amazing story of Jan Karski, a highly intelligent and multilingual Polish man who was once a prisoner of war. He then goes undercover into Hitler’s concentration camps to bear witness to the Nazi atrocities and expose them worldwide. The film received the Best Polish Film award at the The Jewish Motifs International Film Festival in Warsaw, and Jan Karski was awarded a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. The evening’s speaker will be Director Slawomir Grunberg.
■ The final film in the series, “Speed Sisters,” will be shown at Theatre Three on April 25. Set in Palestine, it follows five female standouts in a thriving car racing scene. Held at improvised tracks — a vegetable market, an old helicopter pad, a security academy — the races offer a release from the pressures and uncertainties of life on the West Bank. These women are setting a precedent in a male-dominated sport in a male-dominated country, and people everywhere are taking notice. “Speed Sisters” was awarded Best Documentary at the Adelaide Film Festival and the Audience Award at the IFI Documentary Festival. It is presented in Arabic and English with English subtitles. Director Amber Fares will speak after the film.