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Programmer Roundtable: Returning Documentary Filmmakers

TFF Director of Programming David Kwok sat down with some returning TFF documentary filmmakers, including Racing Dreams' Marshall Curry, to talk about their Festival experiences and what inspires their stories.

Out of 88 directors, this year's Tribeca Film Festival was able to count over 20 filmmakers as repeat attendees. Tribeca Director of Programming David Kwok talked to five returning documentary filmmakers (Liz Mermin, The Beauty Academy of Kabul, TFF '04; Cathy Henkel, The Man Who Stole My Mother’s Face, Best Documentary TFF '04; Marshall Curry, Street Fight, Audience Award Winner TFF '05; and Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman, Nanking, TFF '07 [Guttentag also directed the feature Live!, TFF '07]) about their previous Festival experiences, TFF '09 projects, and the future of documentary filmmaking.


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The Burning Season

David Kwok: How was your first experience at Tribeca and what have you been working on since then?

Cathy Henkel (The Burning Season): Coming to Tribeca in 2004 was one of the highlights of my life. The Festival treated me so well, I loved New York, I got to meet and have dinner with Glenn Close, and I was hugged by Robert De Niro. Being one of the winners was just a big bonus.

Liz Mermin (Team Qatar): It was my first real film festival experience, and therefore will probably always be my favorite.  Since then I’ve made two more feature docs—Office Tigers & Shot in Bombay—and an hour-long doc for PBS (a gig I got directly out of Tribeca).  I’ve been making another doc about the character and experiences of Irish racehorses, and am also working on an adaptation of a novel for a feature film.

Marshall Curry (Racing Dreams): Showing Street Fight at Tribeca was an amazing experience for me.  It was a movie I’d made on an old Mac in my apartment, and it was my first feature-length documentary, so I really had no idea what to expect. And then when it won the Audience Award—which helped launch it toward the Oscar nomination—it was pretty disorienting and a lot of fun.

Bill Guttentag (Soundtrack for a Revolution): I had a fantastic experience at Tribeca, as I was fortunate to have two films in the Festival. Along with Soundtrack for a Revolution, I recently completed my first novel, entitled Boulevard, which will be published this winter.

Dan Sturman (Soundtrack for a Revolution): Since my last Tribeca screening a couple of years ago, my focus has been on making Soundtrack for a Revolution. Since January, I’ve been in production on a new one about aspiring child actors in Hollywood.

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Team Qatar

David Kwok: How did you end up working on the new film that you’re premiering at Tribeca this year?

Cathy Henkel: I had just seen An Inconvenient Truth and when I saw the satellite images of the smoke [from Indonesia’s burning season], I just knew it had to be bad for the world’s climate. Then by sheer coincidence I met Dorjee [Sun] at a Christmas party in Sydney [Australia] .For the next seven months I followed him across four continents and filmed him pull off the carbon trading deal of the decade.

Liz Mermin: I received a call last spring from a producer with the Doha Debates, who was looking for someone to film the experiences of Qatar’s first national high-school debate team. As soon as I met Alex [the debate coach] and the kids, I knew there was a great film to be made. 

Marshall Curry
: Before I started making Racing Dreams, I didn’t really know anything about NASCAR, and I didn’t understand the appeal.  I’d say that attitude is pretty typical in New York. NASCAR is the second biggest spectator sport in the country after football.I began to think about that: New Yorkers think of ourselves as so worldly and broad minded, but we don’t know anything about a sport that’s a huge part of our own country’s culture.  And then one day I read about the World Karting Association—a series for 11 and 12 year olds who race karts that go 70 mph.

Bill Guttentag
: I’ve had a great interest in the subject for some time, and in 1998 I made a film entitled Assassinated: The Last Years of Kennedy and King, which was about the last year in the lives of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. It was a profoundly moving experience to make this film. And I was eager to revisit this incredibly important time in our history.

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Racing Dreams

David Kwok: How do you feel coming back to Tribeca and premiering your new film? Does it feel any different from the first time? Any expectations?

Cathy Henkel: I’ve been to many festivals, but my 2004 Tribeca experience was my favorite. I do think this one will be different. I think I was a bit overwhelmed last time. My expectations are high, but realistic I think, and I am just so excited to see how New York audiences will respond to this story.

Marshall Curry: It’s great to be coming back to Tribeca.  It’s different to have a film which had a whole team and a legitimate budget behind it.  But my feelings are basically the same—excitement, nervousness.  It’s probably similar to dropping your kid off at college—you raised her as best you could, instilled good values, but now you have to turn her loose in the world on her own. You love her and just hope other people will appreciate her too.

David Kwok: Why and how did you get into documentaries in the first place?

Cathy Henkel: My father was a filmmaker, and I grew up on film sets. He made features and documentaries and was one of South Africa’s best editors. I think it was in my blood. There are so many big issues I want to explore, and films, particularly documentaries, seem to me the ideal medium.

Liz Mermin: When I took NYU’s crash course in 16mm I was totally hooked: it was one of the hardest and most mesmerizing things I’d ever done. I was just stunned by how difficult documentary filmmaking was, on every level.. I think what kept me doing it was never a political agenda so much as the challenge of the form. I also think there’s a tremendous social value in making docs, and I’m glad of that, but it’s not the main reason I do it.

Dan Sturman: I took a documentary filmmaking class from Robb Moss—a truly inspiring teach and transformative experience for me. I was hooked after my first day of shooting in New Hampshire on my classmate and mine’s 16mm documentary about Gary Hart on the primary campaign trail as he tried to recover from the “Monkey Business” scandal.

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Soundtrack for a Revolution

David Kwok: There was a time just a few years ago when documentaries were riding a wave of success theatrically. That seems to be slowing down. Do you think there will be another wave? What do you think the future of documentaries will be in terms of exhibition?

Liz Mermin: I know that digital distribution is all anyone’s talking about these days but I find it kind of scary and depressing to imagine that all my work will be watched on tiny screens by people who are only half paying attention (if that).  There’s a disposition & experience that goes with watching something in a cinema that I always have in mind when I’m cutting a film, & I don’t want to give that up. Maybe watching docs about other parts of the world will make up for the fact that people can’t afford to travel?  That’s my best shot at finding a silver lining.... 

Marshall Curry: I have no idea what will happen in the film industry—what’s the William Goldman quote, “nobody knows anything”?  It’s probably safe to say that documentaries will always be the underdog—But I think it will happen from time to time, and as long as people make documentaries that feel like movies—that are emotional, or funny, or just surprising—audiences will watch them.

Bill Guttentag: I think it’s the proverbial big tent. As with any film, a documentary has to give an audience a reason to leave their homes and go to the theater—and with the right film, audiences have definitely shown they will attend, and be glad they did.



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