November 8. 2017. Director Paige Goldberg Tolmach’s fascinating and unsettling documentary, “What Haunts Us,” could not have come at a more appropriate time, which can be fortunate or unfortunate, depending on how one looks at it. The film is part of DOC NYC, which runs from November 9 – 16.
In the college sociology classes that I teach, we discuss the concept of deviance. I make the point that what, at one time, might not have been thought of as deviant behavior, now, as society progresses, is seen as deviant. The recent revelations about sexual harassment that dominate the news, including testimonies from those who knew what was going on but chose to say nothing, until now, are great examples of this.
“What Haunts Us” concerns Charleston, South Carolina’s Porter Gaud School, the high school attended by Goldberg Tolmach. Alarmed by the number of suicides of male students in her graduating class, from 30 years ago (six suicides out of a class of 49), the filmmaker delves into what was going on, beneath the surface, particularly with a popular teacher named Eddie Fischer. Fischer sexually abused male students for years and was protected by a wall of silence, from both administrators and students. As one former, now middle aged, student puts it, “You’re dying to tell someone about it, but you’re scared as hell someone will find out.” In addition, the film makes the point that the very culture of South Carolina society – respectable, upper crust families not wanting to taint their reputations with something so ugly – also contributed to this silence.
“What Haunts Us” employs very effective montages of year book pictures, home video, modern day interviews with former faculty and students, archival photographs and tastefully done animation providing nice juxtapositions to experiences recalled by the film’s interviewees. Intercut with all of this are Goldberg Tolmach’s attempts to interview former teachers and school administrators – some willing, some not.
Fischer himself is seen in a modern day interview at various points throughout the film. I assume that this footage is from a police video made after his arrest. Fischer answers questions about the sexual abuse he committed as casually as if he was having a conversation about weekend plans with a neighbor across a suburban hedge. There is no regret, or even real understanding of the damage he has caused. What is so sobering about this footage is that Fischer comes across not as evil, but simply amoral.
“What Haunts Us” will be screened on Monday, November 9 at 7:30 at IFC Center, 323 6th Avenue at West Third Street. For more information, on this and other films, visit http://www.docnyc.net.
September 8, 2017. I have to admit that I usually do not care for observational, cinema verite, style documentaries. The truth is that I want to be guided. I need title cards and/or a narrator to tell me where I am and what is going on. I want all characters to be identified. I also want to know what motivates them. Yes, even documentaries have characters…and the good ones have great characters. Mood and atmosphere are all well and nice…but I need a structured story – three acts if you please. Right or wrong, this is what I require for a documentary to hold my attention. My point of view on this may seem simplistic and reductive to some, as I am a film critic and, possibly, should be expected to have a wider range for film appreciation…but there it is.
Bearing all of this in mind, I have to ask myself, why then did I so enjoy “School Life”? “School Life” is an observational, “fly on the wall” documentary about a boarding school in Ireland. I know, from the film’s press notes, that the school is called Headfort and was founded in the 18th century. It is very much a story about teachers and students. Full disclosure, I too am a teacher, and so very much related to what this film depicts. Read the rest of this entry
June 6, 2017. The 2017 Human Rights Watch Film Festival Film Festival, co-presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center, will run from June 9-18. This will be the festival’s 28th edition.
John Biaggi, the festival’s creative director said, “In these trying times for human rights, this year’s festival lineup champions activism – from people demanding accountability and major reform in the US police and justice institutions, to Chinese workers battling an electronics giant’s unsafe working conditions, to Mayan women at the forefront of political accountability and change in Guatemala, to the remarkable work of digital activists in Brazil and Tibet. The festival highlights the outstanding work of activists at home and around the world, presenting a broad array of urgent human rights issues beyond those that command today’s headlines.” Read the rest of this entry
May 16, 2017. Last October I wrote an article about
“Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,” a documentary which was
shown as part of the New York Film Festival. While I
realize most readers might not have been able to
make it to the festival, how fortunate it is that this
excellent documentary will start a run at IFC Center
on Friday, May 19. Read the rest of this entry
In my experience the best parts of any film festival are the documentaries. Stick with the documentaries, as opposed to the narrative films, and you will almost always see something great. This is not to take anything away from fiction filmmakers, but at film festivals the documentaries dominate. So, how fortunate we are that DOC NYC is right in our area.
DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary film festival will run from November 10 – 17 at IFC Center (323 6th Avenue), Chelsea’s SVA Theatre (333 West 23rd Street) and Cinepolis Chelsea (260 West 23rd Street). The 2016 edition of DOC NYC will include 111 feature length documentaries, 102 shorts and will showcase over 250 films and events. More than 300 documentary filmmakers and special guests are expected to be in attendance. Read the rest of this entry
September 28, 2016. ”Danny Says” is an incredible document and an important chronicle of pop culture. The documentary is an entertaining and meticulously made rock and roll biography about rock manager and entrepeneur Danny Fields.
Beginning in 1966, Fields played a crucial role in music, managing groups such as MC5, the Ramones and the Stooges. Fields worked with and for Nico, Judy Collins, Iggy Pop, Jann Wenner, Lou Reed, the Doors, Velvet Underground, Nico, Modern Lovers and many others. In addition, Fields was also director of publicity at Elektra Records as well as having been a pioneer of the punk rock movement. Director Brendan Toller perhaps sums it up best when he says that, “Fields created a platform for the outsider to exist in the mainstream.” Read the rest of this entry
“The Dog” is one of the best documentaries I have seen in quite some time. The film covers everything you could possibly want to know about the famous (or should I say “infamous?”) “Dog Day Afternoon” bank robber, and hostage taker, John Wojtowicz, immortalized by Al Pacino in director Sidney Lumet’s brilliant, scorching, 1975 film “Dog Day Afternoon.” It is also a fascinating and highly entertaining documentary, to be enjoyed even if you have not seen “Dog Day Afternoon.”
However, if you love “Dog Day Afternoon” the way I do (and I’ve been a fan ever since seeing it at the age of 13 – my God, what were my parents thinking?) “The Dog” is a fascinating and compelling compendium of things we know, and many things we do not know, about the actual events that transpired before, during and long after that blistering hot afternoon of August 22, 1972, in Brooklyn, when two men held up a branch of the Chase Manhattan Bank.
Watching “The Dog,” it is very interesting to see how much of the story “Dog Day Afternoon” got right. I had the privilege of seeing Lumet speak on many occasions. He always said that the story telling emphasis in “Dog Day Afternoon” was on the fact that this event really happened. Read the rest of this entry
“The Children next Door” is one of the most striking short films at DOC NYC, the documentary film festival running from November 8-15 at IFC Center and the SVA Theatre. The documentary was photographed and directed by Stuyvesant Town filmmaker Doug Block. The 36-minute-long film is an intimate look at the Waldroup family, one that is recovering from a horrible act of violence committed by their father and husband, Brad Waldroup.
Doug, who has mined his own family relationships involving parents and children so successfully in his personal documentaries “51 Birch Street” (2005) and “The Kids Grow Up” (2009), now explores a darker aspect of family relationships. In “The Children Next Door” he looks at a family disrupted by violence and attempting to heal. Read the rest of this entry
Ross McElwee, one of my favorite documentary filmmakers (next to Stuyvesant Town’s own Doug Block, of course), has returned to the screen with “Photographic Memory,” a personal documentary about the passage of time, how we capture it, the reliability of how we remember it and what it all may mean.
The passage of time has long been a theme of McElwee’s documentaries especially in such films as “Time Indefinite” (1993) and “Bright Leaves” (2003). The latter is my favorite of McElwee’s work. “Time Indefinite” (which I also like) deals with McElwee’s relationship with his father, a prominent surgeon. Read the rest of this entry
David France’s documentary “How to Survive a Plague” is a riveting and harrowing account of the formation, protests and achievements of the AIDS activist group ACT UP. The group emerged in 1987, six years into the AIDS epidemic, as a response to the government’s lack of response to AIDS research and the glacially slow path to finding a cure. ACT UP raised awareness about AIDS and forced it into the political conversation, prompting then presidential candidate Bill Clinton’s famous quote, “I feel your pain.”