By Tara Mae
Documentaries are artistic passion put into practice. They require the fervor and drive not only of subjects and crew but also of those who seek to share their stories.
The Port Jefferson Documentary Series (PJDS) has been honoring and matching such moxie since 2005 and advances the plot this season with the seven films on its spring roster. Held at 7 p.m. on every Monday in March, from the 6th to 27th; April 10 and 17; and May 22, each showing is followed by a Q&A session featuring either the director or producer of the project.
Emceed by Tom Needham, executive producer and host of “Sounds of Film” on WUSB, the Series is a labor of love for all involved, giving both filmmakers and festival organizers the opportunity to revisit what initially drew them to these stories and share it with an attentive public.
“I like seeing the films again. With most of these films, we have been working on arranging the screenings for at least 3 months. I really do enjoy being in the audience, seeing the films again, thinking about them for the Q&A, and noticing what the audience reacts to. And then, meeting the documentarians and hearing their stories is one of the most exciting parts of the whole process,” said PJDS co-director Lyn Boland.
This season starts with Dr. Tony Fauci, which explores the professional and private life of a man striving not to be blinded by the spotlight as he does his job.
Immediate Family highlights the harmonies of five star session musicians whose notes, if not their names, are famous.
A House Made of Splinters chronicles the efforts of intrepid social workers on the front lines of the war in Eastern Ukraine as they endeavor to create an orphanage oasis for children displaced by war and woe.
I Am Not follows the journey of Oren Levy, a young adopted Israeli man who travels back to Guatemala in search of his identity.
Lift illuminates the invisible story of homelessness in America through the experiences of a group of young homeless and home-insecure ballet dancers who are selected to study their craft at the New York Theater Ballet.
Bobi Wine: The People’s President traces the career evolution of a man from musician to politician as he heralds the opposition to Uganda’s 35-year regime.
Lastly, Unfinished Business offers an inside look at the creation and legacy of the WNBA, as exemplified through the champion New York Liberty’s dramatic 2021 season.
“We try to balance it between serious and entertaining documentaries,” explained PJDS co-director Wendy Feinberg.
Screenings, held either at Theatre Three in Port Jefferson or John F. Kennedy Middle School in Port Jefferson Station, are arranged and organized by PJDS’s co-directors: Boland, Feinberg, and Barbara Sverd. Known as the “Film Ladies,” they are dedicated both to spotlighting the art form of documentary filmmaking and the often lesser-known stories that they champion.
“When I choose a film to be reviewed by the film board, I feel it must tell a story, have an emotional connection and appeal to a general audience. When I view a documentary for the first time, regardless of its subject matter, I want to feel like I am taking a class and learning something new,” Sverd said. “The greatest pleasure is sharing this experience with our audience and having the director, producer or someone from the film there for the Q&A to enhance the learning experience.”
Such an opportunity for more informed dialogue is part of the appeal for the documentarians as well; it acts as an avenue for deeper understanding between audience and artist.
“A smaller series or festival offers a unique and intimate connection with those who come to a theater and watch your film. It’s not about the publicity, or agents, or distributors. It brings us, as filmmakers, back to the fundamental reason we made this work: to listen for an answer back,” said David Peterson, director of Lift.
In addition to personal, there are also practical reasons that the PJDS and other such events are vital to the endurance of documentaries, a genre that generally has far less star power and thus less funding than its cinema siblings.
“These films would never have a chance if it was not for festivals and documentary series…to get distribution is really hard. That is where PJDS and other festivals can help. You have to show distributors that you have an audience,” said Denny Tedesco, director and executive producer of Immediate Family.
After each viewing, audience members are given the opportunity to rate the documentary: Excellent, Very Good, Good, or Poor. At the end of the season, the votes are tallied and the Audience Award winner is announced.
The members of the Film Board, which in addition to Boland, Feinberg, and Sverd, includes Honey Katz, Lynn, and Lorie Rothstein, then chip in money to donate to an organization of the winning director’s choosing.
Sponsored the Greater Port Jefferson-Northern Brookhaven Arts Council, Maggio Environmental, Port Jeff Storage, Inc., and Covati and Janhsen, CPAs, with funding from Suffolk County, PJDS is seeking volunteers to assist with screenings, marketing, and social media.
Theatre Three is located at 412 Main Street, Port Jefferson. John F. Kennedy Middle School is located at 200 Jayne Blvd, Port Jefferson Station.
A season pass for all seven documentaries is $56; single tickets are $10 online or at the door. To purchase passes, tickets, or for more information, visit www.portjeffdocumentaryseries.com.
■ The season begins with a screening of Dr. Tony Fauci at Theatre Three on March 6. This intimate film chronicles Fauci at home, in his office and in the corridors of power as he battles the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the political onslaught that upends his life and calls into question his 50-year career as the United States of America’s leading advocate for public health. Guest speaker is Director Mark Mannucci. Sponsored by Danfords Hotel & Marina and The Waterview at Port Jefferson Country Club.
■ Immediate Family will be screened at Theatre Three on March 13. If you listen to 1970s pop music, you’ve undoubtedly heard these guys play, but do you know their names? The documentary highlights five talented men—Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar, Leland Sklar, Russ Kunkel, Waddy Wachtel and Steve Postell—who shunned the spotlight for themselves, yet enjoyed decades of success as session musicians on iconic tracks. Guest speaker is Director Denny Tedesco. Sponsored by Danfords Hotel & Marina and The Waterview at Port Jefferson Country Club and the Long Island Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame in Stony Brook.
■ Next up is A House Made of Splinters at JFK Middle School on March 20. As the war in Eastern Ukraine takes a heavy toll on poor families living near the frontlines, a small group of strong-willed social workers works tirelessly in a special kind of orphanage to create an almost magical safe space for kids to live in while the state decides the fate of the child and family. The film is nominated for a 2023 Oscar in the documentary film category. Guest speaker is Director Simon Lereng Wilmont via pre-recorded Zoom.
■ I Am Not will be screened at JFK Middle School on March 27. Oren Levy, a young Israeli man, who is an adopted child with Asperger’s, faces challenges adapting. Suddenly, his life changes with the help of the camera, which becomes an extraordinary therapy tool assisting him on a long journey which takes Oren and his family to Guatemala in search of his identity. Guest speaker via Live Zoom will be Ehud Levy, Oren’s father and subject in film. Sponsored by North Shore Jewish Center in Port Jefferson Station and Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook.
■ The season continues on April 10 at Theatre Three with Lift which shines a spotlight on the invisible story of homelessness in America through the eyes of a group of young homeless and home-insecure ballet dancers in New York City. The story centers around ballet dancer and mentor Steven Melendez, who was a seven-year-old boy living in a Bronx homeless shelter who had his life turned around when he was the recipient of the New York Theater Ballet (NYTB) Project LIFT’s generosity. Guest speakers will be Director David Petersen and Steven Melendez, Principal Dancer & Artistic Director at the New York Theatre Ballet and subject in the film.
■ Bobi Wine: The People’s President heads to JFK Middle School on April 17. First-time co-directors Christopher Sharp and journalist Moses Bwayo tell the story of Bobi Wine, the musician-turned-politician leading the opposition to the 35-year regime in Uganda. Withstanding arrests, torture, and violence from the government, Bobi Wine and his wife Barbie risk their own lives and the lives of their children to lead their country towards freedom. Bobi Wine: The People’s President is a brave exposition of an authoritarian government that highlights the power of documentary journalism. The film won the Hamptons Film Festival 2022 Best Documentary Audience Award. Guest speakers via Zoom will be Co-Directors Christopher Sharp and Moses Bwayo.
■ Unfinished Business, the final film of the season, heads to Theatre Three on May 22. An intimate look at the formation and legacy of the WNBA, and its flagship team, the New York Liberty’s, dramatic 2021 season, as they play for acceptance, respect, and the future of basketball. The film is named for a song “Unfinished Business” written for the New York Liberty basketball team in 2001 by Joan Jett, a Liberty super-fan who appears in the film. Guest speaker is Director Alison Klayman.