By Tara Mae
A Holocaust survivor’s complicated connection to the SS officer who nursed her through typhoid. An heir to a margarine fortune determined to give away his $25 million inheritance. A whistleblower whose patriotism leads to prison. These are just some of the stories explored when the award-winning Port Jefferson Documentary Series (PJDS) kicks off its Fall 2021 season on Sept. 20.
Since 2005, the film series has been providing audiences access to films, artists, and stories that may otherwise not be as available to the general public.
Sponsored by the Greater Port Jefferson-Northern Brookhaven Arts Council, the Suffolk County Office of Film and Cultural Affairs, Maia Salon Spa and Wellness, and Covati and Janhsen, CPAs, the PJDS will present seven intriguing documentaries at Theatre Three, located at 412 Main Street in Port Jefferson.
The documentaries were handpicked by a six-member film board that includes co-directors Lyn Boland, Barbara Sverd and Wendy Feinberg along with Honey Katz, Lorie Rothstein and Lynn Rein. Although the final selections are made by the board, the screening committee also includes four longtime volunteers Denise Livrieri, Yvonne Lieffrig, Debbie Bolvadin, and Mitch Riggio.
“We run the documentary series as a real democracy. Every film has a showrunner; you pick a film that you are particularly excited about, and everyone votes it in,” explained Lyn Boland.
The films include Love It Was Not, Claydream, Dear Mr. Brody, United States vs. Reality Winner, Not Going Quietly, In Balanchine’s Classroom, and Mission Joy — Finding Happiness in Troubled Times. Screenings will take place 7 p.m. on Mondays, September 20 and 27; October 4, 11, 18, 25; and November 15. (See sidebar).
With the exception of Claydream, the films will be also offered virtually the following day. In addition, an eighth film, Torn, will be only offered virtually on Nov. 8.
Each screening will be followed by a Q&A with the documentary’s director or producer, who will join the event via personal appearance, Skype call, or, in one case, a pre-recorded Zoom interview. Tom Needham, host of The Sounds of Film on WUSB, will act as emcee.
“Tom is the consummate interviewer. We are so lucky to have him. He chooses his own very interesting questions which really gets to the heart of each film and the filmmaker’s reasons for making the film,” said Wendy Feinberg.
Boland believes that this series may be the most diverse series yet. “This season is the most varied season I can remember us presenting. It covers a huge range of topics,” she said. Love It Was Not, a film by Maya Sarfaty, was Boland’s recommendation to the panel.
“It’s a Holocaust story about a prisoner who had an SS officer fall in love with her; a remarkable story,” Boland said. “He secretly nurses her through typhoid, decades later his wife calls her to testify at his Nuremberg trial. Of course this is a dilemma for her…”
Boland is excited to see all the films, especially Dear Mr. Brody, directed by Marc Evans and United States vs. Reality Winner directed by Sonia Kennebeck.
“Dear Mr. Brody is such a nostalgia piece from the 70’s, a period I loved, and it was a story I had never heard. I thought it was very unique and it was sparked by finding the trove of letters sent to him from that period.”
United States vs. Reality Winner stood out to the co-director for how it explores the difficult decisions individuals in fraught situations may be forced to make. “It is important that the missed stories be told, the stories that really define their times,” she said. “I thought what Reality did was so brave, so right and what she went through for it shows how twisted up motivation and rules can be.”
It’s that sort of authenticity that Boland believes makes documentaries so arresting and engaging. “I think what makes documentaries special is the extra dimension of knowing that they are true…there is no forgetting about the camera, like you do in a feature film. You are really aware that someone had to be there, in that situation, with a camera, and even if it is not dangerous or daring, it is still access, and with access you can make the film. Documentarians don’t always know how a story is going to unfold, but finding the story arc, that makes it a really riveting documentary,” she said.
Everyone associated with the series is first and foremost a fan of the genre, according to Boland. And while many of the works are discovered by board members at festivals such as the Tribeca Film Festival, they are also being contacted by film distributors.
“Distributors are reaching out to us more often. We’re not a festival, so we don’t solicit entries the way festivals do. We really feel that we are picking from an already selective group of films when we see them at a film festival. We used to absolutely require that a film had to have won an award or gotten rave critical review; we now trust our own judgement more,” she said.
A labor of love for all those involved, holding the live screenings and Q&As at Theatre Three is an ongoing partnership.
“We’re providing an opportunity for an arts organization in our community. It is very valuable to screen films that people wouldn’t necessarily get to see in movie theaters; many of them noncommercial. The series offers a truly wonderful service,” said Theatre Three’s Artistic Director Jeffrey Sanzel.
■ The season begins with a screening of Love It Was Not on Sept. 20. Flamboyant and full of life, Jewish prisoner Helena Citron found herself the subject of an unlikely affection at Auschwitz: Franz Wunsch, a high-ranking SS officer who fell in love with her magnetic singing voice. Their forbidden relationship lasted until her miraculous liberation. Thirty years later, a letter arrived from Wunsch’s wife begging Helena to testify on Wunsch’s behalf in an Austrian court. She was faced with an impossible decision: should she help the man who brutalized so many lives, but saved hers, along with some of the people closest to her? Follow her journey in Love It Was Not. Guest speaker, recorded via Zoom, is Director Maya Sarfaty. This film is sponsored by Temple Isaiah and North Shore Jewish Center.
■ Up next on Sept. 27 is Claydream which follows the story of Will Vinton, a modern day Walt Disney who picked up a ball of clay and saw a world of potential. Known as the “ Father of Claymation,” leading a team of artists and writers, Vinton revolutionized the animation business during the 80’s and 90’s. But after thirty years of being the unheralded king of clay, Will Vinton’s carefully sculpted American dream came tumbling down. The film takes us on an exciting journey, rich with nostalgia and anchored by a trove of clips from Vinton’s life work, including his iconic, classic California Raisins. Guest Speaker is Director Marq Evans via Skype. *Please note, this film is not available virtually.
■ Next up on Oct. 4 is Dear Mr. Brody. In 1970, hippie-millionaire Michael Brody Jr., the 21-year-old heir to a margarine fortune, announced to the world that he would personally usher in a new era of peace and love by giving away his twenty-five million dollar inheritance to anyone in need. Instant celebrities, Brody and his young wife Renee were mobbed by the public, scrutinized by the press, and overwhelmed by the crush of personal letters responding to this extraordinary offer. Fifty years later, an enormous cache of these letters are discovered – unopened.
In this riveting follow-up to his acclaimed film, TOWER, presented by the PJDS in 2016, award-winning director Keith Maitland reveals the incredible story of the countless struggling Americans who sought Brody’s help. Guest Speaker is Melissa Robyn Glassman, Producer and subject in the film.
■ United States vs. Reality Winner will be screened on Oct. 11. A state of secrets and a ruthless hunt for whistleblowers, the documentary tells the story of 25-year-old NSA contractor Reality Winner who leaked a top secret document to the media about Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections. Guest speaker will be Director Sonia Kennebeck.
■ The season continues with Not Going Quietly on Oct. 18. When 32-year-old activist and father Ady Barkan is diagnosed with ALS and given four years to live, he finds himself in a deep depression, struggling to connect with his young son, whose presence reminds him of the future he will miss. But, after a chance confrontation on an airplane with Senator Jeff Flake goes viral, Ady decides to embark on a tour of America, using his final breaths to fight for healthcare justice, and ultimately discovering that collective action and speaking truth to power can not only inspire movements, they can offer personal and emotional transformation as well. Guest speaker will be Director Nicholas Bruckman.
■ Up next on Oct. 25 is In Balanchine’s Classroom which takes us back to the glory years of Balanchine’s New York City Ballet through the remembrances of his former dancers and their quest to fulfill the vision of a genius. Opening the door to his studio, Balanchine’s private laboratory, they reveal new facets of the groundbreaking choreographer: taskmaster, mad scientist, and spiritual teacher. Today, as his former dancers teach a new generation, questions arise: what was the secret of his teaching? Can it be replicated? This film will thrill anyone interested in the intensity of the master-disciple relationship and all who love dance, music, and the creative process. Guest speaker is Director Connie Hochman.
■ Directed by Max Lowe, Torn will be screened virtually only on Nov. 8. On Oct. 5, 1999, legendary climber Alex Lowe was tragically lost alongside cameraman and fellow climber David Bridges in a deadly avalanche on the slopes of the Tibetan mountain, Shishapangma. Miraculously surviving the avalanche was Alex’s best friend and climbing partner, renowned mountaineer Conrad Anker. After the tragedy, Anker and Alex’s widow, Jennifer, fell in love and married, and Anker stepped in to help raise Alex’s three sons. The film will follow Max Lowe in his quest to understand his iconic late father as he explores family’s complex relationships in the wake of his father’s death.
■ Mission Joy — Finding Happiness in Troubled Times, a profound and jubilant exploration of the remarkable friendship between Archbishop Desmond Tutu and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, closes out the PJDS Fall season on Nov. 15. Inspired by the international bestseller, The Book of Joy, the documentary welcomes viewers into intimate conversations between two men whose resistance against adversity has marked our modern history. Co-Directed by Louis Psihoyos and Peggy Callahan, the documentary reflects upon their personal hardships as well as the burden both men carry as world leaders dedicated to bringing justice to and fighting authoritarianism in their communities. Guest speaker is Co-Director Peggy Callahan via Skype.
The Fall 2021 Port Jefferson Documentary Series will be presented at 7 p.m. on select Monday nights from Sept. 20 to Nov. 15 at Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson and virtually the following day.
Please note COVID-19 protocols will be fully enforced at Theatre Three. All ticket holders must show proof of vaccination status at the door, where it will be checked by two physician volunteers. Minor children too young to be vaccinated must be accompanied by a vaccinated adult, and all audience members must wear masks.
Live screenings are capped at 100 people while virtual screenings are capped at 50 people. Tickets are $10 per person online or at the door. A film pass to see all the documentaries is $56. To purchase tickets, please visit www.portjeffdocumentaryseries.com. For more information, call 631-473-5220.