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BendFilm 2014: Documentaries 

The field of documentary submissions to this year's film festival is particularly strong—and surprisingly varied—from a gay football league to wholesome country music. Yet, in spite of the varied topics, there did seem to be strong theme weaving throughout; that is, many of the films are stories about unique individuals unwavering in their personalities and convictions. Our staff caught up with a few directors of some of our favorite documentaries at this year's festival.

F(l)ag Football

While Michael Sam has raised the profile of gay men in football, he's not the first gay guy to play in the NFL. Sam is the first to enter the league openly (currently on the Dallas Cowboys), but six have come out since retiring and no doubt countless other remain closeted. Until the out defensive end Sam came along, many players felt they had to choose between being themselves and playing football.

F(l)ag Football goes behind the scenes of the National Gay Football league—a highly competitive amateur league including former NFL players and others who likely could have gone pro—as teams across the United States prepare to compete in the 2010 Gay Bowl. The teams are a diverse mix of beefy dudes you'd never guess were gay, clean cut guys who look like they belong in a boardroom, and players who aren't actually gay—including straight men and a transgender woman. (Rules hold that 80 percent of a team's rooster must be gay.)

The film, directed by Tony Award-winning producer Seth Greenleaf (a straight man who was invited to play quarterback for the New York team), hinges on a rivalry between the New York Warriors and the LA Motion. The New York teams comes into the season looking to reclaim victory after its three-year winning streak was cut short by the LA Motion. It's particularly personal because the former captain of the New York team moved to LA and took the winning mojo with him. But the Warriors are hardly left high and dry. Their team includes former NFL player Wade Davis and a cast of dedicated athletes.

Though Greenleaf, who comes from a musical theatre background, makes his documentary film debut with F(l)ag Football, he nails the character development and narrative arch to create a feature-length film with all the drama and suspense of a close Super Bowl game—all while deftly weaving in the players' experiences with identity and discrimination on and off the field.

The film explores the tension between a hyper-masculine sport and a presumably feminized identity, but first and foremost, it's about football.

Source Weekly: Why did you decide to make this film?

Seth Greenleaf: I was very moved by the stories I saw in the league. So many people deeply affected by playing, winning, losing, and growing together. I thought there was courage and conviction that needed to be shared. I also thought it was important that people see this different side of gay culture.

SW: What was your perception of LGBT athletes before you joined a team and made the film?

SG: That they were wimpy, girly, and not athletic.

SW: What was the most surprising thing you learned making the film?

SG: That a lot of them can kick my ass! That they're men, just like me. Athletes, masculine, and not at all weak.

SW: How was producing a documentary different from—and similar to—producing a musical?

SG: It was exactly the opposite of what I'm used to. In theatre, there's a lot of solitude and a small group of people working in preparation for a long period of time and then you eventually come together with a large group of people and everything comes together. Here, I was very quickly with a large group of people with things happening all over the place, and then suddenly it was a very small group of people working in solitude for a very long time. There's also much less feedback in filmmaking and you have to rely on your own instincts within a vacuum. Luckily I had a great team and we came to a lot of decisions together.

SW: As a straight man in musical theatre, you're bucking stereotypes. Does that experience help you relate to your gay teammates?

SG: Totally. I think contradictions are wonderful, and one thing you'll notice about the athletes in the film is that they are anything but dumb jocks. They're bright, articulate guys who have pulled together extreme cultures to find a place where they can be all of themselves. I feel that way with my relationship to musical theatre and the arts as I did growing up, when I was primarily an athlete.

SW: How is playing football with LGBT folks different from playing with straight dudes?

SG: The only difference is less fights. I never sense that deep down gay men want to hurt one another. Straight men can be dicks in sports. Not that the gay guys don't get competitive and nasty at times, but they don't do it as violently, which is a good thing.

SW: Do you have a favorite moment that didn't make it into the film?

SG: Yes, when Edmund Shockey, one of the NY players, says, "Sometimes in the gay community it feels like you have to give up your sense of masculinity to fit in." That was surprising to me, a kind of reverse discrimination. (ER)

Freeload

An incredibly compelling documentary about modern train riding culture, Freeload follows a group of young travelers living off little to nothing, seeking the answers to their fractured upbringings on the road.

Dan Skaggs started shooting the film in June of 2011, traveling with groups of drifters, hopping trains, flying signs and scavenging the country coast to coast. The results of Skagg's empathy for his subjects are honest and touching interviews, and a genuine connection to the travelers, who reveal their life stories without reservation. The kids turn into unlikely protagonists, normally ignored or antagonized.

As Blackbird, Ponyboy and Rachel, brothers Skrappe and Christmas, and Dice crisscross the country riding rails, the audience is forced to relive the uncertainties of youth and the danger and exhilaration of the road.

Source Weekly: Why did you want to make Freeload? What is the film's intention?

Daniel Skaggs: I wanted to make a movie about train riders for a while. I had been hopping trains and traveling for nearly a decade when we started production. Throughout my years of traveling I met some very interesting people. The stories I heard, the people I met, I started to realize there was a modern train riding culture I knew very little about. I have always been obsessed with everything train and the idea of making a movie about this topic became my priority.

The intention of the film is to allow these shunned members of society to share their stories with the world. Plain and simple, Freeload does not have an agenda.

SW: Was it challenging to get the subjects of the film to trust you and connect with you? How did you find the folks you talked to in the film?

DS: Because I was a train rider, it wasn't that difficult to gain the trust of the subjects. Some people were skeptical in the beginning, but it did not take long to prove my legitimacy. Most of the guys and gals are five to ten years younger than me, so there was that gap, but we all share commonalities. After living with someone on boxcars and under bridges, it doesn't take long to develop a solid bond.

To find the subjects of Freeload, I just approached riders on the street and outside train yards. I told them I was making a documentary and asked if they wanted to participate.

SW: Have you kept in touch with anyone you met on the road?

DS: I still talk to most of the guys. I was with Blackbird a couple weeks ago up in Montana. He was on his way to do sugar beet harvest. I talk with Ponyboy and Xmas on the regular as well. Phones and Facebook make staying in touch with anyone easy. (BB)

Add the Words

While civil disobedience typically brings to mind sit-ins and lunch counter protests from the 1950s and 1960s, direct action is very much alive today, and still being used to further civil rights causes. In Idaho, one of the 28 U.S. states that does not provide legal protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, activists are using these tactics to push for an amended non-discrimination ordinance.

This movement, led by the direct action group Add the 4 Words Idaho, is the subject of the feature-length documentary Add the Words. Directed by Michael D. Gough and Cammie Pavesic—two straight filmmakers who initially conceived a short film—Add the Words captures a pivotal and still unfolding moment in the fight for social justice in Idaho.

It's that unresolved quality that makes the film particularly compelling. There is not (yet) a happy ending. LGBT Idahoans continue to risk arrest and worse to take a stand for what they believe in—and to inspire newfound allies such as Gouge to document their struggle. The film went from concept to creation in fewer than four months, allowing the filmmakers to use the documentary in service of the continued activism.

Source Weekly: Why did you decide to make this film?

Michael D. Gough: I had worked at Idaho Public Television for many years covering the Idaho State Legislature.... As crazy as things have been over the years, I had never seen people being arrested, let alone a former legislator. This was enough to tell me there was an interesting story beginning to emerge.... I personally had no opinion or really that much knowledge about what Add the Words was until we got there.

SW: How has the film been received in Idaho?

MG: It has been extremely rewarding to see how this has helped to motivate people into action. The day after we screened in Lewiston, the city council held a hearing on adding the words "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" to the city ordinance.

Many people testified due in part to their having seen the movie.

That right there is enough to feel very good about the work we've done.

SW: You've talked about how making the film was a transformative experience for you. Was there one person's story that really stuck with you?

MG: I don't think it was just one story. It was all of them. The whole movement. As a straight white male, I have not had to endure discrimination. But once I was disowned for my involvement in making this film, I decided to really open my heart up to what was truly going on. Once I was in the homes of the people we interviewed, I discovered that fear was the number one thing that keeps people from being at peace in their own existence. Once I let go of the things that once made me feel "uncomfortable," I was able to make some amazing new friends. In regards to the transgender issue, I was not only able to finally have understanding, I was able to accept people for who they truly are. I will also say that after we interviewed the Mother of Ryan Zicha, who committed suicide back in 2011, I realized that what we were doing was important and that I needed to put my attention to this on a whole different level.

SW: What did you learn from making this film that you hope to share with others?

MG: I learned that people are people. We are all flawed, we are all beautiful and that we all deserve to be treated fairly, with kindness, compassion and understanding. I discovered within myself that I had a certain amount of fear and bigotry left in my soul. However, I also recognize that I had the courage to take on myself and see if I could become a better person. The process of making this film has done that. I hope that it can do the same for the people that see the film. I believe it also has the ability to give hope to those that are still trying to find their way in life. Interestingly enough, my transformation is still continuing. Every time we show the film I meet new people with amazing stories and amazing hearts. I will always be grateful to have been exposed to this movement and for what it did to improve my life.

On a side note, when I began making the film some people told me that I shouldn't because it would hurt my business as a freelance. I took the risk because I chose to ignore fear. Because of that one thing, my income has never been better. Businesses should not fear supporting our fellow citizens. Businesses should stand up for what is right. If they do so out of fearlessness they will be rewarded and their leadership and voice will make all the difference inside our Legislature. No doubt in my mind. (ER)

While civil disobedience typically brings to mind sit-ins and lunch counter protests from the 1950s and 1960s, direct action is very much alive today, and still being used to further civil rights causes. In Idaho, one of the 28 U.S. states that does not provide legal protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, activists are using these tactics to push for an amended non-discrimination ordinance.

This movement, led by the direct action group Add the 4 Words Idaho, is the subject of the feature-length documentary Add the Words. Directed by Michael Gouge and Cammie Pavesic—two straight filmmakers who initially conceived a short film—Add the Words captures a pivotal and still unfolding moment in the fight for social justice in Idaho.

It's that unresolved quality that makes the film particularly compelling. There is not (yet) a happy ending. LGBT Idahoans continue to risk arrest and worse to take a stand for what they believe in—and to inspire newfound allies such as Gouge to document their struggle. The film went from concept to creation in fewer than four months, allowing the filmmakers to use the documentary in service of the continued activism.

Source Weekly: Why did you decide to make this film?

Michael Gouge: I had worked at Idaho Public Television for many years covering the Idaho State Legislature.... As crazy as things have been over the years, I had never seen people being arrested, let alone a former legislator. This was enough to tell me there was an interesting story beginning to emerge.... I personally had no opinion or really that much knowledge about what Add the Words was until we got there.

SW: How has the film been received in Idaho?

MG: It has been extremely rewarding to see how this has helped to motivate people into action. The day after we screened in Lewiston, the city council held a hearing on adding the words "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" to the city ordinance.

Many people testified due in part to their having seen the movie.

That right there is enough to feel very good about the work we've done.

SW: You've talked about how making the film was a transformative experience for you. Was there one person's story that really stuck with you?

MG: I don't think it was just one story. It was all of them. The whole movement. As a straight white male, I have not had to endure discrimination. But once I was disowned for my involvement in making this film, I decided to really open my heart up to what was truly going on. Once I was in the homes of the people we interviewed, I discovered that fear was the number one thing that keeps people from being at peace in their own existence. Once I let go of the things that once made me feel "uncomfortable," I was able to make some amazing new friends. In regards to the transgender issue, I was not only able to finally have understanding, I was able to accept people for who they truly are. I will also say that after we interviewed the Mother of Ryan Zicha, who committed suicide back in 2011, I realized that what we were doing was important and that I needed to put my attention to this on a whole different level.

SW: What did you learn from making this film that you hope to share with others?

MG: I learned that people are people. We are all flawed, we are all beautiful and that we all deserve to be treated fairly, with kindness, compassion and understanding. I discovered within myself that I had a certain amount of fear and bigotry left in my soul. However, I also recognize that I had the courage to take on myself and see if I could become a better person. The process of making this film has done that. I hope that it can do the same for the people that see the film. I believe it also has the ability to give hope to those that are still trying to find their way in life. Interestingly enough, my transformation is still continuing. Every time we show the film I meet new people with amazing stories and amazing hearts. I will always be grateful to have been exposed to this movement and for what it did to improve my life.

On a side note, when I began making the film some people told me that I shouldn't because it would hurt my business as a freelance. I took the risk because I chose to ignore fear. Because of that one thing, my income has never been better. Businesses should not fear supporting our fellow citizens. Businesses should stand up for what is right. If they do so out of fearlessness they will be rewarded and their leadership and voice will make all the difference inside our Legislature. No doubt in my mind. (ER)

Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere

For this murder mystery, director Dave Jannetta finds a particularly gripping tale—about a local math professor who disappears the evening of a lightning storm—but it is perhaps how he tells the story that is equally captivating. What easily could have been a standard "Dateline" episode of a murder in a small town instead transports the viewer into the tenor, texture and poetry of the story and place. The film is loosely narrated and led by the quirky and curious essayist Poe Ballantine, who was the victim's neighbor and wrote a memoir about the incident.

SW: It is such an interesting mystery that is at the core of the film, but thank you for not taking on the "Dateline" style. In fact, at times, I forgot that the film was about a mystery and not about the characters and the town and all the other additional elements.  Can you point to some styles or previous films that you perhaps used as a guide or inspiration for this structure and style?

Dave Jannetta: I think there are stylistic parallels to Errol Morris' early work (Vernon, FloridaGates of Heaven, et al) and a bit of what Herzog does in some of his docs (Into the Abyss) but Love and Terror's universe was equally inspired by the things I didn't want to emulate. I don't watch much television but the rare occasion I happen upon a reality based crime procedural I'm nauseated by the flashy style and ostentatious tone. Poe and his story are what initially attracted me to the project, but when I began to get a sense of everything I hoped to cover I knew I wanted to show a side of the mystery and town that would have been overlooked by the 30-minute, neatly packaged, sells-lots-of-advertising programming. In terms of structure, it was extremely difficult trying to get all the disparate pieces and themes to fit and flow as an intelligible narrative. I'm still not sure I got it right. But Poe was having some of the same issues with his memoir and because my film and his book were being created concurrently I was able to use the manuscript and our many lengthy discussions as kind of blueprint.

SW: Like a director like Herzog, the film really seemed to get the "characters" to open up and talk, and be candid (sometimes to their own fault).  How much time did you spend with them?  How did you put them at ease? 

DJ: Nothing gets people to open up like a few shots of good whiskey. Kidding, of course. But I'd be remiss if I didn't give Poe his due. He served as my conduit to the town and, at least at the time (because his memoir hadn't been published), he seemed to be universally admired and trusted. On my initial scout trip I was introduced to many of the main players so I had a rapport with some subjects before showing up in their living rooms with lights, crew, and a camera (though keeping people and equipment to a minimum was a priority). I also made multiple trips and tried to make their durations as long as possible. I wanted people to know that I wasn't simply parachuting into town to scavenge the remains of their particularly alluring mystery. I have a genuine affection for Chadron and everyone I know there and I hope that's conveyed in the documentary. (PB)

Little Hope was Arson

When 10 churches were burned to the ground in east Texas in one month in 2010, the impact was immense on the community, and captured short filmmaker Theo Love's attention. His first feature length documentary is well-paced and smart—and often tense—discussion about church, religion, and community.

Source Weekly: How did you first hear about the fires?  And why did they interest you?  

Theo Love: I first read about the fires in an article in Texas Monthly. I don't think it was initially the fires or the crime that interested me as much as how the church community would respond to these events.  In many ways church buildings have come to represent faith itself, and I wanted to know what would happen if you took that away. As I dug deeper into the story, however, my heart broke for the personal stories that led two young men, both raised within the church, to commit arson.  

SW: It seems as if you have produced some short films before this, but why jump to a documentary?  And what was most difficult about that leap?

TL: Ha!  I really hope you didn't watch any of my short films! I never had the privilege of going to film school so my story-telling education came through making a lot of really, really bad short films. At a certain point I realized that I needed to graduate to a longer form, mostly because you can't make a living with shorts. The hardest part about that transition was the patience needed to craft a feature documentary. This thing wasn't going to be shot and edited in a week like most of my short films. Sustaining an artistic vision for a story over a course of a few years is difficult, let alone sustaining my family during that time. My amazingly supportive wife and I actually had to move into a tiny apartment with a friend just so we could afford the long editing process!  

SW: I read that originally you planned to use the research as material for a screenplay, but changed to make a documentary. Is that right? Does this change the course of your career? Will you go back to narratives, or are there more documentaries in the future for you?

TL: You really did your research! Yes, originally we approached this story as a narrative feature; in fact, we are still pursuing that idea, but during our research phase when we were meeting everyone who was affected by these fires, in suddenly clicked that they should be given a chance to tell their story before anyone else does.  

Making this documentary has been the creative high point of my career so far and I am anxious to relive the process again on my next film whether that is another documentary or a narrative feature. I am a fairly controlling person and simply observing a scene unfold in the traditional documentary form is tough for me. I like to know the story being told from the get-go and build a creative vision around that particular story.  It makes no difference to me whether I use scripted actors or I use real people in their natural environment to bring that story to life. At the end of the day it is all just storytelling. 

SW: It sounds like you gained some sympathies during the process of research and filming.  Did these "biases" make it more or less difficult to shape the story?  

TL: I'm not sure I would describe it as sympathy, but I certainly grew in my understanding of where these people came from and why they held their particular beliefs. After hearing their stories and sitting in their homes, of course my perspective and biases changed. I started to care about them as people! That is why it is so important to tell stories like this.  Whether you love church or hate it, whether you are a Baptist or a Buddhist, stories like these allow for understanding and conversation to develop. That is my little hope anyway. (PB)

Little Hope Was Arson Trailer from Theo Love on Vimeo.

SlingShot

This is a documentary that is equal parts about the main character—Dean Kamen, a prolific inventor—and about a cause—clean water, and those two elements add up to create a film that is way bigger than the sum of its parts.

SW: It is interesting using a documentary film as a means of communicating about clean water. Why the choice of this medium to get out the message? Why not a health campaign through TV ads? Or, magazine ads?

Barry Opper (Producer): First of all, we are filmmakers. Paul Lazarus (the film's director and my fellow producer) and I had worked together for many years. When Paul first heard that Dean Kamen was working on a device that could clean water, could be set down in the tiniest of villages throughout the world and could immediately save lives, he knew that there was an important story to be told. We quickly learned that Dean Kamen was a modern day Thomas Edison and that his story and his life in science was wonderfully inspirational. A feature length documentary was the right medium for us.

SW: There seems to be some of the same appeal from this film that a TED talk has—that is, the combination of a good idea and optimism. It is interesting, though, as many documentaries are more about uncovering some bad truth (like, say, The Cove and dolphin fishing) or a more strident tone of Michael Moore crusading for a cause. This topic could easily have been addressed in that manner, but there seems to have been a clear choice to be more optimistic. Do you remember any of the preproduction discussions that lead to this tone?

BO: This is an interesting question because we do see so many documentaries that are about dire problems. These documentaries often win awards but are hard pressed to get the kinds of audiences that would be needed to feed a movement for change. We were lucky with SlingShot that the movie as it was developing offered a bold solution and a very uplifting story. SlingShot became as much about innovation in our society as about water. It has become a call to action. We are getting people in our audiences telling us: "I fought coming to this movie tonight because it was a documentary and I thought it would do nothing but bring me down....I am so glad I let myself be dragged here." Water in our world today is something we are going to have to deal with; a whole lot of people after seeing SlingShot want to be like Dean: a modern day Don Quixote whose windmills are the important crises of our time. (PB)

SLINGSHOT | Paul Lazarus from Focus Forward Films on Vimeo.

The Winding Stream

Boston-bred, current-Portland resident Beth Harrington has her own history as a musician, as a member of the seminal, prototype punk band The Modern Lovers. But with her documentary, The Winding Stream, she captures an entirely different sense and sensibility of music history, of The Carter Family, perhaps the prototype of country music families.

SW: For starters, I really enjoyed the film, especially as a fan of rock documentaries, of which so many are either about "discovery" (like Searching for Sugarman), or about how a band rose to fame and then imploded. But this documentary really isn't either of those. The Carter family is well known, and they are pretty wholesome. Did you worry about getting an angle into telling their story because it was fairly straightforward?  

Beth Harrington: No, not really. I knew there was lots of drama in the Carter and (Johnny) Cash stories. The real challenge was weaving over seven decades of a family story into one film. That took a lot of effort—identifying the right people to do the storytelling and crafting it into something that had a shape and flow.

SW: What is it that first drew you to the Carter Family? I mean, Boston isn't necessarily a hotbed of country music, and it would seem like your music tastes were a bit harder than that.

BH: You're right about Boston not being a country music hotbed and you're right that my tastes lean more to rock & roll than country. But Boston was the home of a progressive rock radio station in the late '60s and early '70s called WBCN, one of the first stations in that era playing a completely eclectic music format. As a teenager I was a listener and then later a volunteer at the station (it had a corps of young volunteers who answered phone lines and helped the DJs with record filing, etc.). It was a place that cemented my love of all kinds of music and in those days a very popular album was the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" LP which featured a lot of the greats of country and roots music including Mother Maybelle Carter. Now I was also a Johnny Cash fan then and when this album came out I realized the connection between the Man and Black and Maybelle; she was his mother-in-law.  And then I realized that a lot of the folkies (like Dylan and Joan Baez who were also played on 'BCN) were influenced by the Carters.

SW: You have created quite a number of documentaries about Oregon, and seem to have really been taken by the state's history, with a movie about 1880s gold rush and Chinese immigration, and "Beervana" about why Oregon is home to such a big beer industry. Do you think that it sometimes takes a transplant to recognize what is interesting about a place?

BH: When I first moved here I thought I'd have a hard time connecting to the history of the Northwest. I have a masters degree in American Studies but we didn't spend much time on what happened out here in my academic program, I'm sorry to say. But I do love history, and I'm curious about things like how immigrants make their way in a new place (like the men of Kam Wah Chung in John Day) or how industry and culture collide to form something new (like the microbrew "revolutionaries"). So those topics weren't such a huge leap. And yes, sometimes an outside perspective is really useful in re-telling history because you don't come with a lot of preconceived notions about a place. Hopefully it makes for fresher and more accurate storytelling? (PB)

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