The following post includes reviews of three documentaries I screened before this year’s Nashville Film Festival. All three films are social issue documentaries that I wrote up in Nashville’s street newspaper, The Contributor. For non-locals the street paper is written and sold by Nashville’s homeless community and includes selections from freelancers like myself as well as articles and news items by the paper’s editor and staff writer. These docs all deal with the kind of human rights issues I like to focus on in the cultural coverage I often provide for the paper. If you can’t get to the fest, look for these films to pop up in various formats over the next 24 months. If you live in Nashville, click through to the fest site at the end of the article and check out the schedule as at least two of these films are still screening through the end of the event this Saturday.
Here we go!
Every spring the Nashville Film Festival brings Hollywood to Music City, giving both celebrity watchers and cinephiles plenty to stare at. This year’s documentary films look particularly strong and movies about racism, war, mental illness, civil rights, poverty and democracy will strike a familiar chord for readers of The Contributor.
Growing up isn’t easy and the social challenges of adolescence can be confusing, awkward and disorienting. Milestones like a first dance or a first kiss are the rites of young adulthood, and How to Dance in Ohio shows the humor and the hardships shared by a group of budding young men and young women whose tales and troubles are revealed in their autism therapy group sessions, at their schools and in their homes.
“It’s one of those things where once you see it you have to fall in love with it,” says Nashville Film Festival Artistic Director Brian Owens. “The filmmaking is fantastic, but the stories are so moving. You rarely get to see young people like this struggling to strike out on their own. This is a universal story, but there’s a layer to their struggles that makes this film so unique.”
Ohio is special because it makes an eloquent statement on the behalf of it’s subjects who – by definition – find communicating to be so difficult. Welcome to Leith speaks the unspeakable on behalf of the citizens of a small town who are dumbfounded when white supremacists attempt to turn their community into a haven for contemporary neo-Nazis.
“One thing that was fascinating to me is that the filmmakers got on the ground and in the middle of it,” says Owens. “You are there. You feel the danger and the threats. It’s a documentary, but it plays almost like an existential horror film.” Ohio and Leith demonstrate the particular power of cinema: We can read books about mental illness and radio and television broadcasts are full of stories about race in America. But when it comes to non-fiction storytelling nothing communicates like the best documentary films.
“In a really good documentary, there’s not a reporter between you and the subject,” says Owens. “All they’re doing is holding a camera and letting these people tell their own story. It puts you in other people’s shoes in a way that other mediums can’t.”
If Leith is a film about how racism can tear a community apart, Rosenwald is a movie about how the experience of racism might also bring unconnected cultures together through their shared understanding of violence, injustice and loss.
This documentary tells the story of Julius Rosenwald, a first generation American Jew who becomes the head of the Sears and Roebuck chain and transforms it into an empire. Rosenwald’s a tough business man who makes profits a priority, but privately he’s a religious Jew who feels a sacred duty to share the rewards that his endeavors create.
“I had a minor in African-American studies in college,” says Owens. “As much as I’ve studied that period that lead to the Civil Rights Movement there are still stories that pop-up and surprise you.” Rosenwald tells the story of a hard working man who makes good and does good by partnering with Booker T. Washington to build schools for African American’s all over the South.
“The filmmaker found such a big number of interviewees – it’s such a wide range of people we learn this story from,” says Owens about the surviving students from the Rosenwald schools who are this film’s primary narrators. But, the real genius of the movie is how its subject simultaneously illuminates the wider social, historical and geographical phenomena that preceded the Civil Rights Movement: the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the Jim Crow-era South, the Great Migration and the compassionate connections between Midwestern Jews and Southern African-Americans.
Another don’t miss film tells the story of Agel, a former child soldier who flees the Sudanese Civil War for a new life in Australia only to return to the country as a basketball star when South Sudan gained its independence in 2011.
“He was such a great subject,” says Owens of Agel, “strong enough and charismatic enough to carry a film. He’s probably the only human being who’s ever lived that story.” But with a movie like this any human being can be moved by it. We Were Rebels will make its North American debut at the Nashville Film Festival.
Find a full schedule online here…
As a teaser, here is an interview with the directors of Welcome to Leith talking about their film for the Sundance Film Festival…