Did you know that Boston has an incredibly rich, cross-pollinating documentary filmmaking community? As with artists' open studios, the Independent Film Festival Boston is a time to discover amazing things about your neighbors. (The fest runs from Wednesday, April 25 through Wednesday, May 2.) Maybe one has spent the last decade hauling a video camera halfway across the world to document a story she absolutely had to tell, all while working three or more jobs.
You can’t watch a film get made during IFFBoston, thank goodness (although there is a work-in-progress screening of “Life Without Basketball”), but after many screenings you can hear from filmmakers about how and why they embark on their often audacious journeys.
Premieres for local documentaries will be jam-packed with the family, friends and colleagues who’ve supported a filmmaker’s process for sometimes more than a decade. That’s why even though there are dozens of films worth seeking out this year, I’m shining a light on seven documentaries with local ties, listed in alphabetical order. (If you're looking for a preview of the feature films, my colleague Sean Burns has you covered.)
'Black Memorabilia' | Sunday, April 29 | Somerville Theatre
Director Chico Colvard, on faculty at MassArt, gained widespread acclaim for his 2010 documentary, “Family Affair.” He should for this film as well. “Black Memorabilia” is a thoughtful, beautifully-crafted study in three parts of the manufacturing, sale and re-interpretation of racist American images and artifacts. The film opens with examples, like the mammy image on syrup bottles, and follows with three sections that develop a distinct storytelling approach through three different women. The stakes for each woman — and the larger interests they represent — veer in and out of focus. We may be used to heroes and villains, the film suggests, but it refuses to deliver either. Even with flashes of moral reckoning, the iconography retains its value. The images cannot be unseen. “Black Memorabilia” lends itself to many reads, some more hopeful than others, all of which resonate with our country’s struggle to acknowledge its racist past and present. The director and producer Madison O’Leary will answer questions after the film.
'Dawnland' | Saturday, April 28 | Somerville Theatre
The trauma caused by turn-of-the-20th-century acculturation policies and practices that separated native children from their families, placing them in boarding schools where their hair was cut and they had to speak English, for example, has not completely disappeared. That’s because, to varying degrees, the bias continues. When the state of Maine realized this, just six years ago, it became the first government-sanctioned truth and reconciliation commission in the U.S. Carrying out the mission is a delicate process and it’s cautiously and respectfully captured by Adam Mazo and Ben Pender-Cudlip. The film shares emotionally raw testimony from Wabanaki people as well as clips from people who represent state child welfare agencies. The Boston-based filmmakers wisely give the process room to breathe on screen, pausing along the way on images of waves lapping the coast or the sun rising over what once was native-only land. After the screening, composer Jennifer Kreisberg will be on hand to perform her original score and the co-directors and other crew will answer questions.
'Dianna Goes To The Free Speech Rally' | Friday, April 27 and Sunday, April 29 | Somerville Theatre
When a friend of mine moved from Boston to Dallas, she told me she was moving from one state where her vote doesn’t count to another. This short documentary by Dan Albright tackles that perception. In this instance, he follows Trump supporter Dianna Ploss onto Boston Common for the August 2017 "Free Speech" rally planned just after the Charlottesville protest. As this even-handed film reports, more than 40,000 counter-protesters showed up and the speakers left an hour early. Ploss is genuinely perplexed by the day’s events (She wonders: Are they really here because of Trump?) and the political situation of her country at large. The film is part of a larger project to document unlikely Trump supporters through his presidency.
'Let The River Run' | Saturday, April 28 and Sunday, April 29 | Somerville Theatre
What is more joyful than learning to sing? Perhaps it’s watching a child do it. This 27-minute portrait of the Boston’s Children’s Chorus re-opens the conversation about the benefits of arts education in a far subtler manner than “Mr. Holland’s Opus.” (Was that really made 23 years ago?) We meet fired-up choral conductors, zoom in on a trio of curious kids and get a lesson in proper choral footwear. Ultimately, Mary Jane Doherty’s “Let The River Run” is a witness to what’s wonderfully inexplicable about music. As one young singer tries to explain, it goes to her brain, her brain calculates it, then it goes to her heart. “Let The River Run” expands on this Boston University professor’s study of children in the arts, as she's explored in two previous films about Cuba’s young ballet students.
'Lovesick' | Sunday, April 29 | Somerville Theatre
“Lovesick” offers a window onto lives rarely included in fictional movies and television — those who are chronically ill. And yet living with HIV/AIDS, for example, impacts people in a distinct way and can be a barrier to partnering, especially in India where the disease is taboo. Dr. Suniti Solomon discovered the first AIDS case there in 1986. Then she saw a way to help her patients beyond drug therapies. She started match-making. Boston-based filmmakers Ann S. Kim and Priya Giri Desai shrewdly decided to follow her process. Their upbeat film features two endearing characters who are matched not by horoscope but by science (CD4 counts to be specific). Just as shrewdly, the filmmakers reveal Solomon’s strength of character and her own touching love story. I’ll facilitate a post-film conversation with the filmmakers.
'Nothing Is Truer Than Truth' | Sunday, April 29 | Brattle Theatre
So what if Shakespeare isn’t the man we think he was? This film is part polemic, part dissertation and part playful recap of how a “bad boy” member of the royal court, Edward de Vere, may actually be the most revered English language playwright. For nearly a decade, Cambridge-born director Cheryl Eagan-Donovan has been retracing de Vere’s steps and tracking down his supporters, including the eloquent and convincing actor, Derek Jacobi. Some familiar faces, like A.R.T. artistic director Diane Paulus, speak to Shakespeare’s influence at large, and not to the authorship question. But that’s the beauty of this hard-fought gem. It threads an intricate conversation among Shakespeare devotees with a band of believers who posit, among other things, that having access to books, wealth and a tenure in Italy are enough to set the story straight. I’ll facilitate a post-film conversation with Eagan-Donovan, editor Zimo Huang, and other crew members. (Full disclosure: I donated to this film's Kickstarter campaign a few years ago.)
'The Limits Of My World' | Saturday, April 28 | Somerville Theatre
This is a film that does more showing than telling. What it shows is the daily life of 21-year-old Brian as he’s adjusting to life in a newly-created residential program for adults with autism. It’s shot and directed by his sister, Emerson faculty member Heather Cassano, and at times shifts to her point of view for a personal exploration of their relationship. But even more, it’s a portrait of Brian’s entire web of support. In lengthy scenes his caregivers help him bathe, teach him to swim, take him to the stables, teach him how to plot a point on a graph. They show compassion, respect and hope. It’s a wonder this program exists. In turn, Brian begins to relax and the "limits" of his world expand, as do the worlds of everyone close to him. The director and editor Sean Dolan will answer questions after the screening.
And Many More …
There are several other films worth seeking out, especially if we expand our idea of local just a tad (c’mon over Lil' Rhody). For a quartet on the criminal justice system (or in lieu of), see the short documentaries “Community Patrol” and “No Jail Time” along with “Crime + Punishment” and “Tre Maison Dasan.” Boston’s Ian McFarland brings "Godfathers Of Hard Core" -- about the hardcore band Agnostic Front — home after a November premiere at DOC NYC. New Hampshire-based director Dan Habib will present “Intelligent Lives” as the festival’s Centerpiece Documentary Spotlight. Executive producers Chris Cooper and Marianne Leone Cooper, whose story of their son, Jesse, is part of this film about adults with intellectual disabilities, will also attend.
Regardless of what you choose, if you go local, you’re guaranteed to expand your notion of neighborhood. On that note, the closing night film, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” is a documentary about the one and only Mister Rogers. He may not have hailed from these parts but he frequently visited Nantucket. And he considered us all neighbors, anyway. Academy Award-winning director Morgan Neville (“Twenty Feet From Stardom”) will be on hand to send this year’s festival off in style.
The Independent Film Festival Boston runs from Wednesday, April 25 through Wednesday, May 2 at the Somerville, Brattle and Coolidge Corner theaters. WBUR is a presenting sponsor of the festival — and you could see what screenings WBUR team members will be at here.
This segment aired on April 25, 2018.