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Beauty reimagined at the Miss Black America pageant. The legacy of a radical LGBTQ artist. A Riz Ahmed-exec produced animated documentary. A pivotal moment in Black music history resurrected.
Those are some of the stories told by these documentary filmmakers breaking out in the U.S., many with their feature debuts, selected for tackling tough subjects with storytelling prowess, festival recognition, critical reception and innovative techniques. Their names might not (yet) be known, but their work speaks volumes.
Jessica Beshir ('Faya Dayi')
Shot in cinematic black-and-white with layered, otherworldly sound design, Beshir’s feature documentary debut, Faya Dayi, is a dreamlike ode to the filmmaker’s hometown of Harar, Ethiopia, and its spiritual underpinnings. “It is the time that I spent having this relationship with the people and the place — that’s what gave the film the depth that it has,” she explains of the passion project, which took 10 years to make.
The Brooklyn-based Ethiopian Mexican director, who immigrated to the U.S. as a teen amid political strife, centered the story on khat, a stimulant leaf important to the Sufi religion and now Ethiopia’s largest cash crop. From harvest to market, she follows its story, revealing larger societal issues. “You enter that world and what it feels like to be there, spending time and realize the passage of time and what that signifies,” she says.
There are no talking heads or exposition framing the film in a geopolitical context. Instead, the topic of migrants in search of a better life is shown in human terms. “I used the power of cinema, image and sound,” she says, “to explore concepts of love and fear and light and darkness.”
Accolades Fest run includes Sundance 2021; MoMA’s New Directors, New Films; True/False; and SIFF.
Reps Beshir currently reps herself. Cinetic is handling sales of Faya Dayi, which was acquired by Janus Films.
Inspirations Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror; the films of Maya Deren and Apichatpong Weerasethakul
What’s next In development on another Ethiopia-set film, which Beshir intends to be “genre-free.” — KATHERINE MCDONALD
Isabel Bethencourt and Parker Hill ('Cusp')
Cusp literally starts out with a bang, where, in a seemingly tranquil meadow bathed in magic-hour light, a kid in his late teens in NRA country fires off several rounds from an assault rifle. But Cusp is not about that boy, it’s about the underage teenage girls he and his buddies are trying to impress.
Recently acquired by Showtime Documentary Films, Cusp focuses on three adolescents, Aaloni, Autumn and Brittney, roughly 16 years old, during the waning days of summer in a rural Texas town. Their main pastimes are boys, booze and blunts. In this context, questions of sexual consent become murky and the phrase “no means go” barely raises eyebrows. Their surroundings appear both pastoral and bleak, and free-floating anxiety seems to hang in the air like cigarette smoke.
Filmmakers Bethencourt and Hill — both photographers making their feature directorial debut — met the girls by chance on a road trip and embedded themselves in their lives, capturing them at their most emboldened and vulnerable. “We gained mutual trust through time, genuine curiosity and, most of all, bonding over our shared experiences of girlhood,” explain Bethencourt and Hill, in an email.
Honesty and candor prevail, given that it was a crew of two, with one shooting while the other recorded sound, trading duties as need be, using mostly natural light and a minimal filmmaker presence. “We wanted it to feel like it was all from their world,” they said, “so we leaned in to what was already available.”
Accolades U.S. Documentary Special Award for Emerging Filmmaker, Sundance 2021
Reps Hill: Hayley Hashemi, WME; Jennifer Levine, Untitled Entertainment; Bethencourt: Emily Rose, Mosaic
Inspiration “We were especially drawn to [photographers] who have captured girlhood and scenes in interesting and distinct ways, like Melissa Ann Pinney, Lauren Greenfield, Justine Kurland, Nan Goldin and so many others.”
What’s next Both filmmakers are working on separate narrative projects. — STEVE CHAGOLLAN
Jennifer Holness ('Subjects of Desire')
In Subjects of Desire, the 50th Miss Black America pageant provides a springboard to explore a cultural shift from past stereotypes of Black womanhood — the “Mammy,” “Jezebel” and “Sapphire,” as categorized in Holness’ feature documentary debut — to today’s Black girls and women embracing African aesthetics, from Black natural hairstyles to skin tone. “The film is saying some of the things Black women were ashamed of actually are really special and wonderful,” says Holness of her film, which had its world premiere this year at the Sundance Film Festival.
As a seasoned writer, producer and director, Holness has relished tackling prickly issues and untold narratives around Black stories. “I’ve never chased money,” she says. “I’ve chased artistic voices.”
Her doc producing credits include CBC and PBS’ Badge of Pride, about gay cops, and CBC’s Speakers for the Dead — a co-directing effort with fellow Black Canadian helmer and business and life partner Sudz Sutherland — which reveals the hidden Black history of Ontario.
A self-taught indie producer who has shared the risks and rewards of her profession with Sutherland, Holness has seen her brand soar with Subjects of Desire. “I’m at the top of my game,” she declares.
Picked up by TVO and Crave, Subjects of Desire will receive a special presentation at Sundance’s Hot Docs, which runs April 29 to May 9.
Accolades 2021 Indiescreen Producer of the Year
Inspirations Ava DuVernay, Spike Lee, Darnell Martin
What’s next BLK: An Origin Story, for History; No Harm, a feature documentary about Black women dying in the medical system, for CBC. — ETAN VLESSING
Chris McKim ('Wojnarowicz: F**k You, F*ggot F**ker')
McKim’s poignant documentary on the life and times of gay East Village artist and AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992) holds up a mirror to the sociopolitical climate of the 1980s but also echoes a more recent era.
McKim, whose producing credits include Freedia Got a Gun (2020), Out of Iraq (2016) and RuPaul’s Drag Race series, says he was drawn to his subject after Donald Trump’s election to office. “The artist’s keen observations of corruption, greed and hypocrisy in his lifetime could’ve just as easily been said at any point over the last four years,” says McKim of the film that was released by Kino Lorber in March. “Throughout his journey, he constantly challenged himself and his work to speak truth to power. David’s life was a constant call to action, which became the message of the film.”
The filmmaker used Wojnarowicz’s audiotape journals and extensive personal archives to build the film from the sound out, without talking heads. “That opened a world of creative opportunities,” he explains. “I never expected David’s archive to be as deeply personal and intimate as it was. Creatively, it was blessing and privilege to spend so much time listening to his hopes and dreams, fears and anxieties, stumbling through life as we all do and trying to make work that matters.”
Accolades “[McKim] effectively removes the distance between observer and subject, often emulating the mixed-media techniques the artist used.” (THR review, Nov. 9, 2020)
Rep Josh Levenbrown, UTA
Inspirations “Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro was a big early influence on the film,” he says. Also: Harmony Korine, Gregg Araki, Jane Campion, Luca Guadagnino, Alfonso Cuarón, Wong Kar-Wai and Marlon Riggs.
What’s next “I’m developing potential doc features and series as well as a possible scripted adaptation of a ’90s queer transgressive novel.” — RAMIN ZAHED
Questlove ('Summer of Soul … Or, When the Revolution Could Not be Televised)'
Thompson, better known as Questlove, is a self-admitted “pop culture junkie” with a sixth sense for unearthing rare cultural artifacts. But when he was presented with more than 40 hours of mostly never-seen footage from a series of concerts that made up the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969 — dubbed the “Black Woodstock” — he couldn’t believe his eyes and ears.
“I went from shock to jealousy to inquisitive rage,” recalls Thompson, “like, why doesn’t the world know about this?”
Thompson’s stirring chronicle of the event, Summer of Soul — with performances by Stevie Wonder, The Chambers Brothers, Nina Simone and The 5th Dimension, among many others — initially was conceived as a concert film, but the COVID-19 shutdown gave him time to reframe it in a sociopolitical context: “When we went back to the drawing board, the first thing that [producer Joseph Patel] and I discussed was, ‘Isn’t it crazy that everything happening now was the exact reason why this concert was put on?’ “
In the movie, police brutality, racial tension and a divisive war in Vietnam had fueled a year of political unrest. The Black Panthers were recruited for the opening weekend to keep the NYPD honest. Sly and the Family Stone would make an unannounced appearance, a warm-up to their breakout set before a massive Woodstock crowd in upstate New York a few weeks later.
“Where I grew up, Black people didn’t have access to therapy the way that we do now,” says Thompson. “And this music scene was almost the safest way to [alleviate] the anger and the sadness that was felt. So it was super important that I’d get that point across — that a lot of the time, music was a catharsis for us.”
Accolades Sundance Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award winner, documentary
Reps Susan Weaving, Amir Shahkhalili, Benjamin Simone, WME. Management: Shawn Gee, Maverick
Inspirations Wattstax (directed by Mel Stuart, 1973), Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (Michel Gondry, 2005)
What’s next Feature doc on Sly Stone being produced by Thompson’s banner, Two One Five Entertainment. — S.C.
Jonas Poher Rasmussen ('Flee')
Writer-director Rasmussen first met the subject of his powerful animated documentary Flee when they were both teenagers. The film chronicles the harrowing life of a gay Afghan refugee who leaves his home to escape the Mujahideen and the Taliban, only to be victimized by corrupt police in Russia before finding a new life in Denmark.
“I had asked my friend [permission] to make a live-action documentary about his experiences for many years, and he kept saying no,” recalls the Danish filmmaker. “Finally, when I decided to tell his story as an animated documentary, he agreed to let me do it since animation offers a certain level of anonymity.”
The upcoming Neon release grabbed attention for adding Riz Ahmed and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as executive producers and voice actors for the English-language version earlier this year. Flee also has been lauded for the way it used the medium to explore how traumatic events can alter the way a victim remembers the past. “This is a story about memory and trauma, which are difficult to explore in live action, where you are a slave to what footage you can get from a shoot,” says Rasmussen. “But in animation, you can fill in the missing pieces by simply drawing them.”
Accolades Sundance Grand Jury Prize Documentary winner
Reps Houston Costa, Nick Shumaker, UTA; Management: Anonymous Content
Inspirations Once Upon a Time in the West, The Karate Kid, I Lost My Body, Waltz With Bashir
What’s next Writing a movie based on three graphic novels by Danish author and artist Halfdan Pisket (Deserter, Cockroach, Dane). — R.Z.
Samantha Stark ('Framing Britney Spears')
Few directors spark a cultural moment with their debut feature, but that’s exactly what happened for Stark. In early February, it felt like Stark’s Framing Britney Spears — part of FX on Hulu’s New York Times Presents anthology series — was the only thing anyone was talking about.
A sobering work that brought the #FreeBritney movement into the public realm, the documentary instigated scrutiny of legal conservatorships and prompted a widespread conversation around the media’s misogynistic treatment of the pop star.
Among the millions to react to the film — which saw “We are sorry Britney” trending on Twitter — were a vast array of stars, including ex-boyfriend Justin Timberlake, who publicly apologized after segments alleged that he had capitalized on their breakup to further his own career.
For Stark, who had been making short docs for the Times for nine years — often focusing on “outsiders and people who are misunderstood” — having people admit their complicity in the media’s narrative around Spears was extremely moving. “My entire goal in life,” she says, “is for an audience to watch something I make and come away kinder.”
Accolades A 93 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. “Expertly underlines the cruelty of celebrity culture and asks serious questions about the way young women are treated as fair game.” (The Independent, U.K.)
Inspiration Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Jesus Camp: “I was so floored by the way my perceptions changed watching it.”
What’s next Stark continues to report on the Spears story for the Times. “But it’s my dream realized to direct feature docs,” she says, “so will definitely continue that route.” — ALEX RITMAN
Palin Wedel ('Hope Frozen: A Quest to Live Twice')
Thai American filmmaker Wedel had worked as a journalist in Southeast Asia for more than 15 years before making her feature doc debut with Hope Frozen: A Quest to Live Twice.
“As a reporter, I’m often covering things in Thailand like political turmoil and human rights abuses,” she says, “but after doing that important work for so long, I wanted to also tell stories that allowed Thai people to connect with the wider world rather than being othered.”
Hope Frozen follows a young Thai couple, both accomplished scientists and also practicing Buddhists, who decide to have their 3-year-old daughter’s body cryogenically preserved after she dies tragically of brain cancer. The film touches upon profound questions of faith in science versus religion — but it was primarily praised as a deeply relatable and surprisingly inspiring portrait of a family’s passage through grief.
After screening at more than 20 festivals, the film was picked up by Netflix, which provided Wedel with resources to shoot and edit some additional sequences ahead of a worldwide streaming premiere in September 2020.
“[Wedel’s] a best-in-class filmmaking talent,” says Adam Del Deo, vp original documentaries at Netflix, “precisely what we’re always hoping to discover and support.”
Accolades Best International Documentary Feature, HotDocs 2018
Reps Kellen Alberstone, Lucia Liu, UTA
Inspiration “Themes of faith, trauma and the clash between the East and the West,” says Wedel.
What’s next Wedel continues producing freelance video journalism for The New York Times, National Geographic and The Washington Post and has several feature documentary projects in development at her production banner, 2050 Productions. — PATRICK BRZESKI
Hao Wu ('76 Days')
For his fourth feature documentary, 76 Days, which has seen Wu break through into the awards-season conversation, the director collaborated remotely with his two co-helmers in Wuhan, China: first-timer Weixi Chen and an anonymous journalist-filmmaker. Shot in four hospitals, the film kinetically captures the chaos and panic of the novel coronavirus pandemic’s first weeks.
The U.S.-based director, 49, intentionally edited 76 Days without news clips or score and stripped away all commentary. “We wanted to keep it a very raw historic document for future generations,” he explains. The team followed a revolving cast of medical workers and patients, shooting as much footage as possible.
“I wanted viewers to focus on the emotional journey during this lockdown,” he says of the film’s visceral impact. Wu’s background as a molecular biologist and Silicon Valley executive working in China and the U.S. allowed him to bridge the cultural divide.
Wu’s previous documentaries were character-driven stories that shied away from heavily covered news events (His People’s Republic of Desire, about Chinese internet stars, was the 2018 SXSW Documentary Grand Jury Award winner). Although 76 Days is more topical, his keen storytelling instincts show through despite the limitations of filming on the front line of the pandemic, 7,500 miles from the editing suite.
“My intention,” he says, “was to highlight what was universal among all our experience dealing with COVID.”
Accolades Shortlisted by the Film Academy; Rotten Tomatoes’ top-ranked doc of 2020; two Gotham Award noms; 2020 AFI Fest Audience Award
Reps Rena Ronson and Lucia Liu, UTA
Inspirations Ang Lee, Christopher Nolan and Frederick Wiseman.
What’s next In development on a feature doc and two narrative projects. — K.M.
This story first appeared in the April 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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