Interview

Interview with Director Sam Pollard

BUILDING ON LEGACIES: INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR SAM POLLARD

Editor-turned-director latest work features late Mayor Maynard Jackson

Sam Pollard on set

There’s something synchronistic about a trailblazing African-American mayor, who paved the way for a trailblazing African-American president, having his story told by a talented editor-director, who himself came up through the influence of a legendary African-America director.

Pollard, left, and Spike Lee with their Emmys

Sam Pollard’s timely documentary Maynard, then, is an exemplar of black legacy all around—in front of and behind the camera. We read frequent reports of the current presidential administration on a quest to erase the legacy of the country’s first black president. Pollard’s film asserts that Barack Obama’s legacy, in part, is a continuation of strides began from folks like Maynard Jackson.

“Listen,” Pollard says, “looking at Maynard in hindsight is a breath of fresh air.”

CHECK OUT MY REVIEW OF MAYNARD

Maynard Jackson Jr.’s story is long overdue for the screen. In 1973, the charismatic, unflappable politician was elected mayor of the city of Atlanta, becoming first African-American to lead a major southern city. Jackson held the post for three terms and by the time of his death had changed the course of politics.

Maynard Jackson

Pollard’s film illuminates a political terrain fraught with racial discord, political in-fighting, complex alliances, both black and white. Sound familiar to today’s politics? And yet, Maynard inspires hope. Our nation’s been through this before, it says, and we have come through the other side.

Even before becoming a longtime editor of the films of director Spike Lee, Pollard had winding career in editing. Before Lee, Pollard spent 20 years doing low-budget work with vanguards like the late Bill Gunn. But working with Lee for more than 20 years provided Pollard with “a sense of how to tell a story,” he says. “Being an editor has had a very positive impact on my directorial career.”

The Emmy winner (his “Slavery By Another Name”), four-time Peabody Award winner and Academy Award nominee has produce films on playwright August Wilson, singer Marvin Gaye and author Zora Neale Hurston.

In Maynard, Pollard’s command of his material—with assistance from his editor Jeff Cooper and cameraman Henry Adebonojo—is on display. The documentary vibrates with a sense of the era—its roiling racial politics, its music, the clothes. Maynard Jackson, tall and broad, uses carefully chosen words, commands audiences with his articulate speeches and forthright assertions. Sound familiar? We see Jackson, successful in high school and college, grandson of famed civil rights leader John Wesley Dobbs, primed for greatness.

There would be stumbles along the way. Facing defeat after a run for the Georgia senate, a young Jackson dusted himself off, and turned the experience into a successful campaign for mayor.

Pollard uses archival footage to great effect. I was gobsmacked by footage of a portly Jackson in the ring with Muhammad Ali for a promotional boxing match. News footage and interviews of the Atlanta child murders that rocked Jackson’s second term remain potent. And Jackson’s legacy-burnishing renovation of the Atlanta airport into an international hub truly speaks to his lasting accomplishments.

Pollard with Shirley Franklin, former mayor of Atlanta

But it’s the talking heads that give weight to Pollard’s film and Jackson’s story. Famed mayors Andrew Young and Shirley Franklin. Civil rights heavy-hitters Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Former President Bill Clinton. Attorney Vernon Jordan. Pollard gets them to speak personally about Jackson. The voices of Jackson’s family wring true intimacy from the proceedings. Jackson’s son, daughters, ex-wife and widow bring the Jackson legacy into focus. Their contributions went beyond speaking in front of the camera, though. It was the Jackson clan that brought Maynard to life. Pollard says he was sought out by the family to bring the story of the late mayor to the screen.

“The family reached out to me,” he says. “They were looking for someone to help produce a film about their father.”

The family understood its patriarch’s place in history. A quote by Jackson’s daughter Bunnie Jackson Ransom—“He was the Obama before Obama”—has been used in some promotional materials.

Maynard is not a perfect mayor. He belatedly contends with a corrupt cabinet member, and seems to lose his zest for politics during his apprehensive third term. Pollard intended to create a full portrait of the man.

“The easy part would be to not have complexity,” he says. “I wanted a very rounded perspective.”

Bill Clinton on Maynard Jackson

To that end we see former mayors still touched Maynard’s influence, Bill Clinton’s eyes brighten as he relates a Jackson anecdote as only he can. And the scene in which the news of Maynard’s untimely death reaches each of his family members is masterfully filmed and edited.

The documentary gained from what Pollard calls the “benefit of living witnesses.” The film boasts participation from other trailblazers of the era.

“They are still alive. All these former mayors touched by him,” he says. “You can hear directly from people who pass on his legacy.”

Up next for Pollard is a feature film on the life of Bert Williams, a black entertainer from the Vaudeville era. The Bahamas-born Williams rose to become one of the most popular comedians of his day. Pollard’s film, sure to be as provocative as Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, is in the fundraising phase.

Maynard debuts Nov. 16 at DOC in NYC.

Official site here

Sam Pollard’s filmography here

 

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Talking with director Elina Psykou

AWARD-WINNING DIRECTOR ELINA PSYKOU TELLS UNIQUE STORIES

There’s a clear-eyed focus concerning Elina Psykou filmmaking outlook. Yes, she a female director—underrepresented, lauded—and as a Greek director she’s gaining ground on her auteurs peers like legends Theo Angelopoulos and Costa-Gavras, and rising-star Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth and The Lobster). But she seems less interested in being analyzed as a female or Greek director than telling insightful stories not confined to one country or nationality; she’s busy honing her craft.

When making films, Psykou says, “I prefer not see everything as black or white. Everything depends on the point of view.”

Her latest film, Son of Sofia, had its U.S. debut in April at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it received the prize for the Best International Narrative Feature. Her sophomore effort is set in 2004, but its clash of Russian and Greek cultures seems acutely timely as current immigration issues provide searing headlines around the globe.

CHECK OUT MY REVIEW OF THE FILM HERE

Son of Sofia is the tale of 11-year-old Misha, a Russian boy who arrives in Athens during the 2004 Olympics in Greece. Two years prior, his mother relocated to the country following the death of her husband and now Misha joins her. There reunion, to say the least, is awkward. Attempts by mother and son to reconnect are hindered by bitterness, deception and culture clash. Misha’s faced with many changes, including gaining an unexpected stepfather.

To hear Psykou talk is to hear her appreciation for cultural variety.

“It makes no difference wherever you are from,” she says. There’s a commonality in our yearning, our fears. Whether it’s a Russian kid or Greek kid. “When you are a kid you are the same,” she says.

Steficon SA

Psykou is an alchemist of sorts: she mixes Greek sensibilities in with Russian folklore, then stirs in a bit of dry humor, social commentary and suspense.

Particularly, it’s the fantasy elements that subtly, then boldly run through the film. “I believe kids love fantasy,” she said. So it made sense that Misha turns to fantasy in the face of his confusion. It is a way for the quiet, isolated boy to give voice to his fears and anger. But, Psykou notes, Misha isn’t the only character who looks to fantasy. Each of the main character—Misha, his mother and his new stepfather—use some level of fantasy to cope.

“The film is an opportunity to explore fantasy,” Psykou says. “The three main fantasy scenes in the film all occur during turning points in the film.”

Like her awarding-winning “New Wave” first film, 2013’s The Eternal Return of Antonis Paraskevas, Son of Sofia invests in clever observation, off-beat characters and deliberate pacing. Son builds upon Psykou’s eye for detail and steadicam work and her abilities to mesh the surreal and the concrete.

She finds influence in Austrian auteur Michael Haneke (Funny Games, Amour) and American indie great Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette). Haneke’s cold, creepy intellect is evident, and so is Coppola’s doggedly atonal uniqueness.

What’s next for the talent director? A planned documentary that features people who travel to other countries to receive services—abortion, cremation—not available to them in their native lands. A third film will follow the documentary.

It’s all about staying focused on her craft. Ultimately, Psykou wants to be in a position to create films on a regular basis.

“I’d like to make films every three years,” she says.

 

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Age of Consequences Interview

DOCUMENTARY PRODUCER SEES PURPOSE IN DIRE WARNINGS

Sophie Robinson, executive producer of The Age of Consequences/PF Films

It is not your father’s global warming documentary, or even your former vice president’s. The Age of Consequences is a stark analysis of the faltering care-taking of the planet and of the resulting horrific consequences that have occurred and that lie ahead.

Director Jared P. Scott’s film positions itself outside the expected framework of liberal lecturing and scientists’ admonishments as it reaches for a broader audience by using hard-hitting visuals, unnerving data and, most critically, support from military experts. To be sure, its tone is bleak. While introducing the doc at a screening, executive producer Sophie Robinson warned viewers that they were about to see a horror film.

CHECK OUT MY REVIEW OF THE DOCUMENTARY HERE

Professionally assembled, Scott’s film doesn’t simply highlight the environmental hazards from climate change, but also examines dangers that cascade from them.

“It’s called a threat multiplier,” Robinson says. There term, used in the documentary by military officials, explains how a cluster of catastrophes—international conflicts, mass population migration, resource scarcity and even terrorism—emerge from the escalating threat of global warming.

Before she spent a year and a half producing the searing documentary for PF Films, Robinson got her start as a grassroots climate change organizer in Massachusetts. She was involved in a statewide network battling the environmental crisis. She also spent time as a science teacher.

A catalysis for her work on The Age of Consequences was another PF Films: Do the Math. That 2013 documentary, directed by Scott and Kelly Nyks, detailed the hazards of the fossil fuel industry. Its against-the-grain style got noticed, Robinson says.

“It got people excited.”

The film drew Robinson to PF Films, where she worked with Scott and his team fashion a unique take on the issue of global warming.

“We decided to make a film for people sick of seeing the same climate change films,” she says. “We wanted a ‘conversation opener.’ We asked ourselves what are some new angles?”

PF Films

A new angle was to seek a bipartisan one. Along with scientists and environmentalists, Age looks to admirals, generals and veterans to bolster its theme that environmental abuses and neglect can spiral into civil conflict, migration catastrophes, food shortages, terrorism recruitment—all while overwhelming humanitarian efforts.

Does Robinson think the matter-of-factly scary tone will be a liability for the film? She laughs. “Luckily, people don’t know how scary it is before they watch it.” It’s frightening stuff, she says, but that’s necessary to convey the seriousness of climate change.

One could think such a documentary would receive pushback in conservative circles, but interestingly the film’s strong representation of the military ruffled some feathers in liberal corners, Robinson says. “Some environmental groups thought we were too soft on the military.” But the military and security community are strong believers in the importance of taking serious climate change and its consequences. Those experts lend gravity to the film in a way a dozens of scientist cannot.

Despite its bleak presentation, the film’s ultimate aim is to encourage a positive change.

“We try to leave people with hope,” Robinson says. “There is an opportunity to change things. I actually feel lucky: I can make a difference in the outcome of our future. This is an opportunity to step up.”

The film debuted on Jan. 27.

 

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Apparition Hill Interview

EXPERIENCES ON THE HILL KEEPS BRINGING DIRECTORY BACK

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Sean Bloomfield

Before he made a film that follows seven strangers as they travel to a spiritual village in Bosnia-Herzegovina to investigate its miracles, Sean Bloomfield made the journey himself. “Something there moved me,” he recalls.

The filmmaker and author has explored religion and spirituality in previous works, but his experiences in the village of Medjugorje remained with him. In 1981, the Virgin Mary reportedly appeared before six local youths there. In the years since, thousands seeking miracles and enlightenment walk the village’s jagged hillside to the spot marked with a statue of Mary.

“It was either the biggest hoax or a miracle,” Bloomfield remembers thinking. He would make more trips there.

In returning last year to Apparition Hill—the name given the sacred spot and the title of his new documentary—Bloomfield wanted to make the experience as authentic as possible for viewers.

READ MY REVIEW OF THE DOCUMENTARY

Bloomfield, a Florida native, selected his cast from a slew of video submissions. He settled on seven from the United States and London: two atheists; a widowed father of nine; a Catholic latecomer; a terminally ill wife and mother; an on-and-off drug abuser; and a man suffering from the debilitating disease ALS.

Bloomfield’s camera watches these volunteers as they embark on a two-week pilgrimage, each seeking something—a renewal of faith, a pull into something beyond secular security, self-awareness, a life-saving miracle.

Besides peeking into the lives of the cast, Bloomfield’s camera allows us to peer into a specific place, this small village, which seems to glow in its spirituality. As we watch, we get accustomed to the village’s geography and the rhythms of the community—priests, tourists, visionaries and filmmakers alike move through Medjugorje with a sense of intimate purpose.

“There are so many stories there,” Bloomfield says. “There’s something about this place, but more so the people.”

In addition to the cast, the documentary weaves in a tapestry of locals: an area physician who begins to believe in a power beyond her medical training; a recovering addict who makes the place his home and now helps others; a tour guide and mentor who lends a sense of history; and of course the “visionaries” who first claimed to see the Virgin Mary.

One such visionary, Mirjana Soldo, is significantly featured in the documentary. Sixteen at the time of her visitation, Soldo has devoted her life to her pilgrimages and to bringing a message of hope to the world-weary. Her story captivated Bloomfield.

“As a teen she was persecuted,” he says.

apparition-hill

Stella Mar Films

It wasn’t easy being a person claiming to have met the Virgin Mary, much less so when that person is a teenager. In the documentary, as Soldo communes with Mary, a look overtakes her, tears stream down her cheeks, she begins to smile like she’s tapped into something profound. She has told her story in a book; Bloomfield feels there is more to tell. “I would like to continue her story,” he says.

How will a film so unapologetically spiritual be received?

“We tried to make it objective,” Bloomfield says. “We just tried to record the story. We didn’t want to impose on the audience what to take away from the film.”

Audiences seem to be responding positively. It’s gaining a word-of-mouth following on social media and is selling out limited screenings.

And what about his cast? Most seem changed by the experience.

“We stay in touch,” Bloomfield says. The group maintains a private Facebook page to stay abreast of each other’s lives. “We’re like family,” he adds.

Up next for the director are plans to document the experiences of a youth festival on Cross Mountain in the same village. It was shot by a second crew at the same time Bloomfield was filming Apparition Hill.

In this time of a bruising presidential campaign and a divided nation Bloomfield believes the film is timely.

“There are things that transcend human problems,” he suggests.

Check here for screening dates and locations.

 

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The Killing Season Interview

‘KILLING’ DOC’S DUO PLUNGES INTO ABYSS SEEKING JUSTICE, HUMANITY

killingseason_q-a

Nietzsche warned that when fighting monsters, beware not to become one. Josh Zeman and Rachel Mills warn that when hunting killers, take care to not to forget their victims.

The New York-based producers undertake the daunting task of hunting serial killers and puzzling through the horrors and sorrows left in the aftermath in A&E network’s The Killing Season. The eight-part docu-series bows Nov. 12 and is as relentless in giving voice to forgotten victims and knitting together coalitions to study killers as it is in actually hunting for them.

READ MY REVIEW OF THE SERIES.

The Killing Season begins simply enough, though, as a look into the unsolved murders of four prostitutes on Long Island. Zeman and Mills throw themselves into this case in their back yard, detailing the crimes, interviewing law enforcement officials, dropping in on family and friends of the victims, and following leads.

The trail of clues to the initial crimes, which originated in 2010, has long since gone cold, complicated by law enforcement bureaucracy and a lack of cohesive shared evidence and information.

“We are drawn to the idea of helping when police get stuck,” Zeman says. He has experience with the subject matter, having produced and codirected another serial-killer-themed work, Cropsey, in 2009. He and Mills turn to cyber-sleuthing, websites and blogs dedicated with varying degrees to hashing out facts, creating serial-killer profiles and propagating theories. Websleuths.com stands out as a one of the more-credible resources.

As we watch, the team’s scope steadily widens.

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A&E

“Alex Gibney (the documentary’s executive producer) encouraged us to look at bigger issues,” Zeman says. So Zeman and Mills began drilling down deeper into their investigation of victims—they are nearly all prostitutes and/or drug-addled low-income women on the fringes—as well as the fractured methods to share data among law enforcement and a disturbing patterns of long-haul truckers. In theory, some of these long-haulers target prostitutes while crisscrossing the nation. It’s a job, we are told, “perfectly suited for picking up a woman in one state and dumping her body in another.” We also learn how the Internet becomes a deadly tool used by killers to target female escorts.

Zeman notes that in this era of social media, smart-device technology and web-savvy citizen across the nation, it was startling to learn that despite the wealth of information at our fingertips, there remains hurdles to unifying these resource into a comprehensive database that can be shared by law enforcement agencies.

“It’s called linkage blindness,” Zeman says. There’s the FBI’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (ViCAP) that makes data available to law enforcement agencies, but information is entered into ViCAP voluntarily, Zeman says. The input of data is not mandatory or consistent. While many law enforcement agencies collect data in their regions, the information is not typically connected with systems from other regions.

A powerful element of The Killing Season involves watching Zeman and Mills knit together information from this agency and that agency and match it with information gleaned from fastidious websleuths and geologists who can pinpoint possible burial sites and professors programing algorithms that deduce the hunting grounds of serial killer and amateur profilers who give their FBI counterparts a run for their money.

“Citizens have the most extensive databases we can access,” Zeman says.

Meeting with victims’ family and friends was about more than gleaning information about the cases, Mills says. It offered insight into the lives of often-invisible victims of these crimes. It was a difficult, but rewarding experience, she says. The love ones often emerged as keepers of the flame for the victims.

“Sisters in particular, they continue to tell these stories, keep the memories (of the victims) alive,” says Mills, executive producer at Jigsaw Productions, whose work includes the documentary Killer Legends (2014).

The duo often appears fearless in documentary, whether calling up possible serial killers, or confronting a suspect directly at his home, or taking rides with supposed informants, or meeting clandestinely with mysterious characters.

“Josh was gung-ho,” Mills says. “I had to work up bravery.” But there she is right beside Zeman, journeying into potential danger. At times, the two had to haul around bulletproof vests, Zeman says.

“Of course we got nervous,” Mills says, “but to make our point we had to be bold, to try to give theses women justice.”

“These families were braver than us,” she adds.

All told, the duo spent 175 days on the road in an emotionally draining experience.

“We’ll see how people respond,” Zeman says. “Our goal is not to solve one crime, but to solve a whole lot of crimes.”

Take a look into the abyss on Nov. 12 at 9 p.m. ET on A&E.

 

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