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Essential Doc Reads: Week of February 22, 2021

By Tom White

KIMBERLÉ CRENSHAW, Professor, UCLA and Columbia Schools of Law. She is an African-American woman, wearing a red blouse under a navy blue blazer; she is seated against a blue backdrop. From episode 3 of 'AMEND-The Fight for America.' Credit: Courtesy of Netflix/NETFLIX©2021

Essential Doc Reads is our curated selection of recent features and important news items about the documentary form and its processes, from around the internet, as well as from the Documentary magazine archive. We hope you enjoy!

IndieWire’s Steve Green talks to writer Sasha Stewart about the process of creating the Netflix docuseries Amend: The Fight for America, which tells the story of the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution—the foundation for due process and equal protection.

Picking each word for each episode was incredibly challenging. But having those words as our North Stars was so helpful in building the story and the narrative,” Stewart said. “Going back and forth with the editors and story producers, figuring out what is actually happening to those monoliths as they’re going through, it was just so rewarding. They really help anchor you as a viewer throughout the episodes. We’re always coming back to not just the 14th Amendment, but what the 14th Amendment means to actual human beings as they’re living their lives.”

Hammer to Nail’s Bears Rebecca Fonte talks to filmmakers Tony Zosherafatain and Trace Lysette about their Topic documentary series Trans in Trumpland, which takes viewers to conservative-leaning states to get a sense of the trans experience there.

So essentially, I was like, “Am I going to be part of this? Am I just going to direct it? Or am I going to host?” And I thought to myself like, “Well, there’s got to be some glue there that connects the four characters. They’re all in different states, they’re all different trans identities, what have you.” And I realized that I could glue this thing together with my personal story and just my journey through America.

POV Magazine’s Sandi Rankaduwa interviews filmmaker Ben Proudfoot about his short docs, including the IDA Documentary Award-nominated Almost Famous series.

The series took off as something that was a great flavour combination of history that we’re all interested in, and something that looks tasty and salty and gossipy, but in the end is really about values and who you are as a person. And these are people who really have to be extraordinary to get as far as they did, so they’re just naturally wonderful documentary subjects and usually very good storytellers. We’ve released four so far, but we’ve shot four more and we plan on continuing to make them.

Essence’s Aramide Tinubu talks to filmmaker Melissa Haizlip about her IDA Documentary Award-winning Mr. SOUL!, which is currently streaming on Independent Lens.

“We wanted to give the film, and the history that we were exploring, the weight that it deserves and the gravitas that it deserved as well,” she explains. “We wanted it to be evergreen, something that every generation could enjoy. I like to say that Soul! is the greatest show you’ve never heard of. So much of our Black culture jumps off from the Soul Train era because that’s when Black culture was assimilating into the mainstream. But Soul! jumped off before that. We’ve always been excellent, and I think Ellis Haizlip knew that. He was trying to show this extensive view of Black culture as a way of reimagining ourselves so that we weren’t defined by what we were seeing on TV and the negative images of Black people and the disempowerment of the Black woman."

Slate’s Jessica Cullen contends that Netflix’s true crime boom is at a dangerous crossroads.

True crime fandom is rife with ethical quandaries, but most fans are attracted to the subject because of their fascination in the why, rather than the how. The gore and mystery are, let’s be honest, intriguing elements, but they’re not the priority. It puts me at ease to know that ultimately, I get more enjoyment from learning about the good (the survivors and those who solve the cases) than the bad (the killers and the crimes themselves). There is a thin line between honoring a victim’s story and capitalizing on it, and the more recent Netflix true crime documentaries fail to stay on the right side of it.

IndieWire's Chris Lindahl and Dana Harris-Bridson take stock of Amazon Prime Direct's recent decision to stop accepting documentaries and short films.

Amazon’s decision to halt all documentary content submissions without so much as a heads up suggests that relationships with these long-term partners are not a primary concern. And with the surging popularity of nonfiction content well established, it also feels like the amputation of a healthy limb — as if Apple Music decided it would no longer carry country or R&B.

Writing for OVID.TV’s Metafilm blog, dGenerate Films’ Karin Chien discusses future scenarios for exhibition.

Let’s ignite the entrepreneurial energy, nimbleness, and rebelliousness of those of us who make indie films, and bring it into conversations about distribution and exhibition, so that we can participate in shaping our future. American film exhibition can feel stuck in two choices – expensive movie theaters or watching at home alone. The space in between is where indie filmmakers and audiences may further thrive. Shouldn’t we explore it? I’m interested in what we can imagine together. 

Writing for the Dear Producer blog, Liz Manashil unveils the 2021 Distributors Fact Sheet, factoring in the major disruptions and changes of 2020.

In the meantime, for better or worse, teaming up with a distributor is the most common way to get your film in front of an audience and who you partner with is one of the most important decisions you will make for your film. While the top priority is almost always to receive a MG (minimum guarantee) sizable enough for your investors to recoup, there are many other aspects to consider when looking for a distributor — Will this distributor deliver on their promises? Do they clearly communicate? Is their fee too high for the services they are providing? Is their delivery list stuck in the 1990s? 

From the Archive, Winter 2021 issue: “Putting Trans Power into Action”

There is not a singular cause-and-effect relationship between visibility and violence. But how we see others impacts how we treat them. So, we have to consider the fact that 80% of Americans say the only trans people they know are the ones they see in films and on TV. And these images, over the past century, have been deeply distorted and dehumanizing. 

In the News


Big Sky Documentary Film Festival Names 2021 Competition Winners


Slamdance Announces Prize Winners


MOMA Announces Doc Fortnight Lineup


Netflix, FWD-Doc, Doc Society Launch UK Disability and Inclusion Toolkit


Film Independent Unveils 2021 Project Involve Fellows


CPB Increases Annual Funding to Public Television’s Multicultural Alliance


MTV Documentary Films Acquires Skye Fitzgerald’s Hunger Ward


Amazon Nabs My Name is Pauli Murray


Focus Features Acquires The Sparks Brothers


Netflix Slates Operation Varsity Blues from Chris Smith


Amazon Studios Boards Jesse Moss’ Mayor Pete


Lisa Cortés To Direct Documentary about Ebony & Jet Magazine from One Story Up


Hot Docs Executive Director Brett Hendrie To Step Down


Pat Mullen Appointed Publisher of POV Magazine


Brigid O’Shea To Depart from DOK Leipzig


Judy Irola, Cinematographer and USC Professor, Dies of COVID