Thursday, May 28, 2009

The news is...

Thanks to major funding from ITVS, "The Promise of Freedom" is coming to PBS! Sean and I had a phenomenal time in San Fransisco last week for ITVS Orientation - thanks Cheryl, Richard x2, Matt, Annelise, Jorge and the rest of the ITVS family! We also had the pleasure of eating the best dessert ever: cheese-based sorbet with olive oil and sea salt. Phenomenal. Now we just have to make a movie!

The Rumors are True...

We do have BIG news to share... soon.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Hell of a Day

(Pictured: Beth Murphy and Sean Flynn at the TDF pitch table. Photo courtesy of Christian Pena.)

Our project, The Promise of Freedom, was the first and only one at TDF to receive on-the-spot funding (for both production and outreach) at the pitch table.** Thank you Judith Helfand, Julia Parker Benello and Wendy Ettinger! (Read my blog entry on Chicken & Egg Pictures site, too.) We also received a commitment for distribution and support for making a pre-sale. It is phenomenally exciting, and I'm looking very forward to our follow up meetings tomorrow with some commissioning editors.

There was really only one way to celebrate: meal seven of sushi. And the Ryan Harrington fan that I am, I couldn't miss the International Premiere of P-Star Rising. I didn't want it to end.

P-Star and her Dad showed up after the film, and, surrounded on the sidewalk under a full moon, P-Star entertained us with one of her new hip-hop songs. We all agreed that this 14-year-old girl is more mature than we could probably ever hope to be.

**There were thirty films pitched here (25 as part of TDF, and 5--including ours--as part of TDF's Good Pitch). The four other films that were part of the Good Pitch were - Sean & Andrea Fine’s Resilient (signs of hope in women’s stories); Mona Nicoara’s Our School (Roma children in Transylvania); Nic Dunlop’s Burma Soldier (a Burmese soldier who becomes a pro-democracy activist); and Marco Williams’ Untitled Immigration Project (a community torn apart by immigration issues).

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Lucrative, Easy and Meaningful

Producing documentaries is not easy. In large part because it is not inexpensive. We mused over drinks that it would be nice if every once in a while a film could fit this description: "lucrative, easy and meaningful."

I was celebrating the world premiere of "21 Below" at the Toronto Hyatt with the film's creators and supporters. In the film Sharon, the oldest and most stable of three sisters, returns to her dysfunctional family to help her 21-year-old sister, Karen, who is pregnant with her third child. The baby's father is an older black man who sells drugs and teaches Karen's older son (fathered by another man) that Jay-Z has 4000guns. The diapproval from Sharon and Karen's Jewish mother creates the tension and drama that drive this intensely personal film. Karen also has a 15-month-old daughter who is dying of a rare degenerative disorder. I nearly found myself hyperventilating during sections of the film. It was remarkable after the film to meet the Mom and see her satisfaction with it. It cannot be easy to have a packed theater watch your most intimate family drama on display.

I finally saw "Sergio" today. What can I say? Only that I have one wish: that I had never seen it so that I could walk back into the theater this second to watch it for the first time. And Director Greg Barker may have a through-the-roof resume, but there's no ego accompanying it. Here's the trailer:

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Toronto Tales

Judith Helfand and Robert West, co-founders of Working Films, continue to prove why they're the best at what they do! As they listened to and helped tweak each of the five pitches (inluding ours) that will be given on Thursday in front of hundreds of people, good pitches evolved into great ones. Their mission to link non-fiction film to cutting edge activism is gaining even more momentum now that they're partnering with Channel 4 BRITDOC Foundation and the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program to have the "Good Pitch" here in Toronto.

Most of the day was spent in this three hour workshop and an invite-only Doc Mogul lunch honoring Sheila (as Nick Fraser points out, HBO's Sheila Nevins is a one name wonder in the docu world).

The films I saw today were as heart-wrenching as yesterday's. Children of God tells the story of a 12-year-old Nepalese boy and his two siblings who eke out an existence by finding gold, coins and food used for cremations along the banks of the sacred Bagmati River. And Rough Aunties focuses on an amazing group of women in South Africa who care for abused children. Together the films left me emotionally exhausted.

They both also brought back a flood of memories. I visited Pashupatinath in Kathmandu in 1999, and was as struck then as I was today by the seamlessness between life and death there. I remember watching family members carry the deceased to the edge of the river, bathe the body in the river's holy waters(nevermind that it is 90%sewage today), build a funeral pyre (a ghat) stuffed with ghee (butter) balls to help it burn, and then sweep the ashes into the river. That's when the kids come in - diving into the water to recover anything of value, and pulling magnets along the river bottom to snatch any coins. It really is a bit like the edge of heaven here because Hindus believe that once the ashes reach the water, the soul leaves the body to be with God.

On the lighter side...

I'm loving the fact that every other storefront in Toronto seems to be a sushi restaurant. This is fitting in nicely with my plan to eat nothing but edamame and rainbow dragon rolls all week! I was hoping to start each morning with some laps, but the pool here (sorry Sutton Place Hotel) stinks. It's small and square, and my circular swim this morning left me so unsatisfied that I grabbed my running shoes and hit the streets. It is perfect running weather here, and I'm looking forward to heading down to the waterfront in about 7 hours.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Dismal Illumination & Empathy

In my next life, I want to come back as Nicholas Kristof. His writing for the NYT is done with such humanity and insight, and I loved watching him in action tonight at the International Premiere of Reporter. The film follows Kristof on a mission of (as the director calls it) "dismal illumination" to the Congo.

As Kristof searches for the one person who will illuminate the massive suffering of millions caused by war in the Congo (5.4 million killed in the past decade), filmmaker Eric Daniel Metzgar distastefully comments that hunting down the saddest stories "doesn't feel very good." (There were moments when I couldn't help but think of the book, Anyone Here Been Raped and Speak English?) But, Metzgar admits, the worst stories will exist whether Kristof finds them or not.

When Kristof meets Yohanita, a woman so thin from starvation she is mistaken for a bundle of rags, his next column begins to take shape. His methodology is similar to my own (just without world leaders paying close attention!): tell personal stories that highlight larger political, historical and ethical issues. What I wasn't aware of is the "psychology of compassion" that informs Kristof's method.

One scientific study mentioned in the film is really fascinating: Subjects were shown three pictures... one of a starving 7-year-old girl, one of a starving 7-year-old boy, and one with both the boy and girl. People looking at the photos felt the same level of compassion for both the girl and boy in their individual photos. But when the two were pictured together, psychic numbing began to take hold, and viewers didn't feel as compassionate. And that's just two people suffering! How will the human mind comprehend 5.4 million??

In the end, Krisof says emotions are too unreliable to allow people to care about those suffering in our world. We need laws. But years of international inaction in Darfur prove that laws aren't enough either. That's why Kristof makes galvanizing public opinion and inspiring public outcry one of his primary missions--and his ability to achieve it is unparalleled in the field of journalism.


"I know I'm different than my mother," says the main character in the wrenching film, About Face: The Story of Gwendellin Bradshaw, "because I feel empathy." Gwen's mother, a drug-using schizophrenic, threw her into a campfire when she was 9-months-old, leaving her with even more internal scars than external ones. The film follows Gwen through much of her 20s as she searches for her mother and battles her own mental and substance abuse demons. Tracking her mother takes Gwen to homeless shelters and psychiatric facilities across the United States, and when her search ends on a bench outside a bus station in New Hampshire, her mother insists on seeing her ID--as if the burns that have disfigured her face and hands aren't proof enough. Instead of finding the love and family she has craved her entire life, Gwen discovers a selfish, angry, mentally unstable woman who seems to believe that she is the victim who needs to be rescued. Fortunately, Gwen does find a real sense of family with her half sister, and as the film closes, the two of them create a photo album together--the first photo album Gwen has ever had in her entire life. (I must mention - the original score was beautiful - great job Joel Goodman!)


I have several "must see" films on my HOT DOCS schedule, but topping the list is Sergio, based on Samantha Power's Pulitzer-winning biography, Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vierira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World. A career diplomat whose calm, suave style and good looks earned him a reputation as equal parts James Bond and Bobby Kennedy, Sergio answered the call to duty one final time in Iraq. You can watch the Sergio trailer here.

No time to read Power's book? Her New Yorker article (The Envoy: The United Nations' doomed mission to Iraq)is an excellent read.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Pakistan's Islamic Schools - Hotbeds of Militancy

See article in today's NYT.

I've just started reading Ahmed Rashid's new book, "Descent Into Chaos." It is an incredible analysis of why Pakistan, unstable and armed with nuclear weapons, is terrorism's ground zero. In the book, Rashid questions how NATO can survive as the West's leading military alliance if the Taliban is not defeated and bin Laden remains uncaptured. He goes on to say:

What is at stake in Pakistan is even greater. A nuclear-armed military and an intelligence service that have sponsored Islamic extremism as an instrinsic part of their foreign policy for nearly four decades have found it extremely difficult to give up their self-destructive and double-dealing policies after 9/11, even under the watchful eye of the CIA...

President Bush's embrace of (Pakistan President) Musharraf and the military, rather than of the Pakistani people and the development of state institutions and a democratic process, has created immense hatred for the U.S. Army and America, hatred that penetrates all classes of society. Ninety percent of the $10 billion in aid that the United States has provided Pakistan with since 9/11 has gone to the military rather than development... When the Bush administration continued to back Musharraf in late 2007...Pakistan's middle class was overtaken by feelings of anti-Americanism, making it impossible to persuade Pakistanis to resist the extremists.

...the U.S. attack on Iraq was critical to convincing Musharraf that the United States was not serious about stabilizing the region, and that it was safer for Pakistan to preserve its own national interest by clandestinely giving the Taliban refuge.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

On the Road Again

It is a beautiful sunny day here in Boston as I make the final preparations for our trip to Hot Docs. My biggest concern the last few days has been making sure Beth and I have all the materials we need to pitch The Promise of Freedom both in the Good Pitch forum and at the many informal networking events offered by the festival. On the packing list right now are 50 DVDs of The Promise of Freedom trailer and sample scene, 30 DVDs of our previously completed work Beyond Belief , 3 copies of the 4-minute screener we'll be using during our pitch, and a whole armload of proposals and budgets. Our schedule for the week is packed with film screenings, Rendezvous meetings, panel discussions and of course the big pitch on Thursday, May 7. I'll try to report back with notes from as many of these events as possible.

Alright, time to hit the road!