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“We’ve become a good place to launch your campaign and make sure Oscar and Emmy notice,” says Chuck Todd, the moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press, host of MSNBC’s MTP Daily and NBC News’ political director, as we discuss the upcoming fourth annual ‘Meet the Press Film Festival at AFI,’ a documentary shorts focused sidebar of the American Film Institute’s AFI Fest, which will be all-virtual this year and run from Oct. 15 through Oct. 22.
Indeed, last year’s best documentary short Oscar winner Learning to Skateboard in Warzone (If You’re a Girl) screened as part of the Meet the Press Film Festival, as have some 70 other doc shorts which have collectively garnered more than a dozen Oscar and Emmy noms. “It’s a thrill,” continues Todd. “And I’ll be honest, that’s not what I envisioned four years ago. I wanted to just essentially learn the industry and the [documentary] business because I wanted us to get into it.”
Below, The Hollywood Reporter is pleased to exclusively share our conversation with Todd (lightly edited for clarity and brevity) and the 2020 fest’s full lineup, which includes 19 films — several of which will be available post-fest on NBC News’ OTT apps — and seven panels moderated by Todd and NBC colleagues Andrea Mitchell, Hallie Jackson, Kasie Hunt, Jo Ling Kent, Cynthia McFadden and Morgan Radford. (Tickets go on sale Wednesday, Oct. 7 at FEST.AFI.com.)
* * *
What led Meet the Press and AFI to enter into this collaboration four years ago?
It was a brainchild of mine. We had the 70th anniversary of Meet the Press coming up at the time and I wanted to do something substantive to honor it, not just throw a party. I’d been wanting to break into documentaries — I’d always thought it was the next place for Meet the Press to expand because the popularity of documentaries had been growing; the barrier to entry when it comes to making documentaries had been lowered; and I think streaming has had a huge impact on making documentaries more appealing to mainstream audiences. When I was growing up, there was one theater in Miami that showed those types of movies, one theater in Washington D.C. where you could see those kinds of things. So I thought, ‘This could be a really good place for us.’
When we went to AFI, AFI goes, “This is great, and in fact the space that could really thrive with this are documentary shorts, 40 minutes or less, which are always a bit more news-driven.” So that’s how we got started. And the reception we got that year from all the documentary filmmakers — all of them said the same thing: “Oh my God, it’s our first film festival where we’re not relegated to the corner of the theater!” [laughs]
We were making them stars, in that sense, and it was just one of those things where we realized, ‘Hey, we shouldn’t stop doing this.’ And now — and I say this positively — I almost feel obligated to keep this up, because I feel like we’ve become a good place to launch your campaign and make sure Oscar and Emmy notice. It’s a thrill! And I’ll be honest, that’s not what I envisioned four years ago. I wanted to just essentially learn the industry and the business because I wanted us to get into it. And we are now producing our own stuff.
How do you select films for the fest? And once you do, it seems like you group them thematically. Is that because you seek out films about specific themes, or do those themes only become apparent after they have been selected?
This year, given that it’s so close to the election, there’s an election theme to it, if you will. But this is where AFI has really done a good job helping us out. They’ve helped us with the submission process. They’ve really educated us. We, as a staff, decide what makes the festival and what doesn’t. We, as a staff, decide what makes sense editorially. Look, at the end of the day, we’re not ‘endorsing’ every one of these documentaries, but we’re also not going to put ourselves next to something that we think is schlock. AFI does a good job of weeding out the stuff that there’s no way we would consider, and then we, as a team at Meet the Press, take 40 or 60 and whittle it down to 20.
How, other than attending the fest, can someone see these films?
At AFI Fest we have a discussion about the film after it screens and all of that. But we know many folks can’t participate there. Every film has their own contractual obligations, but usually we’re pretty good at getting a showcase [on an NBC platform] for a good three to four weeks after.
I think it is obvious why this partnership is appealing to AFI. What is its value to NBC and Meet the Press?
It’s a way for us at Meet the Press to expand our aperture a bit, if you will. There are always frustrations that we don’t get to some topics in-depth on the show; to me, this is an opportunity to surface them on our airwaves, especially if the issue feels like it needs more coverage. So there’s an editorial aspect that sort of scratches an itch for me. But also, content is king, man. And I’ve always believed that one of the reasons we get a ton of support internally for this idea is that I think our bosses — all the way up — see the value in bringing a whole bunch of content creators into the NBC family. I mean, we’ve already created relationships that have benefited other parts of the network for other content creation. You might have heard of this little thing called Peacock? [laughs] I do think one of the value-adds for us is we’re getting content — that’s a big deal these days. We’re also an attractive place for these documentary filmmakers to be associated with; they see an opportunity to elevate themselves, because we like to feature as many of these documentary filmmakers on our airwaves, MSNBC and NBC, so there’s certainly benefit there.
How do you guys match an NBC reporter with a themed panel to moderate? Do you guys call dibs for the panel involving the film you are most excited about?
We create the groupings and then we think about which one of our colleagues would animate that panel the most. I’ll tell you, even though I’m not the one who’s going to be moderating the panel with this one, one of the films that I’m looking forward to — it’s hard to say ‘looking forward to’ — is When The News Hits Home: A Year Inside The Capital Gazette [about a 2018 shooting at a local newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland]. One of the themes we have not touched on until this year is the press getting dragged into all sorts of disputes all the time. And while it was, in some ways, a locally-driven motivation, as far as what happened there, it hits close to home for a bunch of us because, you know, it was in Annapolis — it was right around the corner — and it hits close to home because we have been on the receiving end of death threats a lot more in the last four years than many of us experienced in our careers before 2016. And so that one, I think, is going to have an impact on me personally. My heart just breaks for what happened to those folks.
* * *
Here is the full lineup for the 4th annual Meet the Press Film Festival at AFI…
PROGRAM 1: When the News Becomes the News
- When The News Hits Home: A Year Inside The Capital Gazette
2019, USA, 21 min Directed by Moises Saman
The 2018 shooting at the Capital Gazette newspaper left five people dead, exposing not only the danger many journalists face but reminding the public of the essential role local journalism plays in communities large and small.
- Sustained Outrage
2019, USA, 26 min Directed by Gabriela Cavanagh
For more than 100 years, the family-owned Charleston Gazette-Mail has been a relentless watchdog over West Virginia’s most powerful. But just eight months after winning the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting, the Gazette-Mail grappled with a painful reality: bankruptcy ahead of a sale. The film gives an intimate look inside the paper, following its lead journalist and executive editor as the future of the paper is decided.
Panel discussion moderated by NBC News chief White House correspondent Hallie Jackson.
PROGRAM 2: Native Stories
- Blackfeet Boxing: Not Invisible
2020, USA, 29 min Directed by Kristen Lappas and Tom Rinaldi
As the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women epidemic affects tribal communities, a group of Blackfeet women tackle the threat head-on by practicing and training in self-defense.
- Games Of Survival: A Culture Preserved In Ice
2019, USA, 16 min Directed by Nicholas Natale
The events at the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics — like the Four Man Carry and the Knuckle Hop — won’t be familiar to most Americans in the Lower 48, but they are both rooted in traditional Eskimo culture and pure Americana.
- Oil & Water
2020, Canada, 14 min Directed by Anjali Nayar
Facing imminent takeover of their ancestral lands, the women in the Turkana region of Kenya stand up against oil giant Tullow. Despite resistance from the men in their community, they continue to fight for their way of life.
Panel discussion moderated by NBC News correspondent Jo Ling Kent.
PROGRAM 3: Black in America
- The Lost Astronaut
2019, USA, 12 min Directed by Ben Proudfoot
In 1963, Ed Dwight Jr. was poised to be NASA’s first African-American astronaut, until suddenly he wasn’t. The film looks back at pivotal moments in Ed’s career and touches on themes of fame and systemic racism.
- Tangled Roots
2020, USA, 19 min Directed by Samantha Knowles
Tangled Roots follows Kentucky State Representative Attica Scott as she fights to pass a bill that would dismantle a system of discrimination against Black people who are penalized for something seemingly innocuous — their hair.
- Gloves Off
2020, USA, 15 min Directed by Ugonna Okpalaoka and Nadine Natour
Gloves Off follows the story of Tiara Brown, a young police officer who forges new ways to serve her community by day, then laces up and fights to make a name for herself in the boxing ring by night.
Panel discussion moderated by NBC News correspondent Morgan Radford.
PROGRAM 4: MeToo and Beyond
- Church And The Fourth Estate
2020, USA, 32 min Directed by Brian Knappenberger
A reporter uncovers a file that reveals a shocking series of child-abuse allegations in Idaho’s Boy Scouts, which rattle the community and implicate the Mormon church. The story reveals long-running crimes that threaten to bankrupt the Boy Scouts.
- Breach Of Trust
2019, USA, 24 min Directed by Mishal Mahmud
Breach of Trust explores the University of Southern California’s institutional cover-up involving the sexual misconduct of former full-time gynecologist George Tyndall. The story is anchored by the survivors, who after being wronged by the university continue their fight for institutional change.
Panel discussion moderated by NBC News senior investigative correspondent Cynthia McFadden.
PROGRAM 5: Justice For All
- My Brother’s Keeper
2020, UK, 21 min Directed by Laurence Topham
My Brother’s Keeper is about the remarkable friendship between former Guantánamo detainee, Mohamedou Ould Salahi, and his one-time American prison guard, Steve Wood, who gradually became convinced of his innocence.
- The Torture Letters
2020, USA, 12 min Directed by Laurence Ralph
One of Laurence Ralph’s first memories of the police is when a plainclothes officer harassed his family. Now a Princeton anthropology professor, Ralph traces his story to the entrenched practices of torture by the Chicago Police.
- Lions In The Corner
2019, USA, 9 min Directed by Paul Hairston
In Virginia, ‘Scarface’ started a fight club, ‘Streetbeefs’, in his backyard to combat gun and knife violence in the area. Soon, it turned into something much more. ‘Scarface’, a former convict turned community leader, believes that by bringing conflicts to the ring and off the streets, he can save lives.
Panel discussion moderated by NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell.
PROGRAM 6: Culture Clash
- A Prayer For Joshua Jackson
2018, USA, 21 min Directed by Ryan Heffernan, Grayson Schaffer and Khalil Hudson
Race car driver Joshua Jackson went through something that would break even the toughest of souls, but Jackson managed to come out even more determined.
- United States Of Joe’s
2019, USA, 21 min Directed by Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen
In rural Utah, a valley of world-class bouldering is nestled among a conservative community of Mormons, cowboys and coal miners. When punk rock climbers show up, the two cultures inevitably clash. After years of antagonism, a group of climbers work with locals to build a more harmonious future.
- Tall Tales With True Queens
2020, USA, 10 min Directed by Kristina Budelis and Leandro Badalotti
Drag Queen Story Hour features drag queens reading stories to kids in libraries and schools. Amidst a building controversy, we learn that kids and drag queens have more in common than you might think.
Panel discussion moderated by NBC News political director and Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd.
PROGRAM 7: All Politics Are Local
- Status Pending
2020, USA, 26 min Directed by Priscilla Gonzalez Sainz
Five first-generation immigration lawyers, who call themselves “The Tribe,” strive to help immigrants obtain safety and status in the United States.
- Vote Neil
2020, USA, 18 min Directed by Honora Talbott
Marine Neil Rafferty is a first-time politician running for State House, Mike Rudulph is his fiancé and campaign manager searching for purpose. The film explores an intimate portrait about politics, the Southern LGBTQ experience, and one incredible love story.
- Do Not Split
2020, USA | Norway, 20 min Directed by Anders Hammer
The story of the 2019 Hong Kong protests, narrated through a series of demonstrations by local protesters that escalate into conflict when heavily armed policemen arrive on the scene. The film features extensive footage of the protests and takes viewers inside the tense atmosphere seen through the eyes of the protesters on the ground.
Panel discussion moderated by NBC News Capitol Hill correspondent Kasie Hunt.
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