Celebrating its fifth year, the DocLands Documentary Film Festival has been working to build an active, involved, and fully supportive community around documentary film since its launch in 2017. In a year where Covid-19 could have easily thrown a wrench into the works, we applaud festival director Joni Cooper for pulling off this event despite a global pandemic.
This non-competitive, non-juried, inclusive festival presented by the California Film Institute will showcase 24 films, plus a number of shorts, streaming from May 7–16. One of the festival’s main goals is to promote gender equality, and since May is a month about women, we have selected three participating films to highlight that are either about women or directed by women. Grab your popcorn and settle in for some good home viewing!
Women Behind, and in Front of, the Lens
Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir
Directed by: James Redford | Produced by: Karen Pritzker
In 1989, Amy Tan’s first novel, The Joy Luck Club, was published to great commercial and critical success. With the blockbuster film adaption that followed as well as additional best-selling novels, librettos, short stories and memoirs, Ms. Tan has firmly established herself as one of the most prominent and respected American literary voices working today.
Born to Chinese immigrant parents into 1950s America, it would be decades before Ms. Tan would come to fully understand how her mother’s battle with suicidal tendencies was rooted in a legacy of suffering common to women who survived the ancient Chinese tradition of concubinage. An interweaving of archival imagery, artful animation and live performances from Ms. Tan form the basis of this documentary, allowing the audience to journey through Ms. Tan’s life and career in vivid, living colors.
Director/Producer:Sachi Cunningham| Writer/Director/Producer:Vayabobo(aka Chandler Evans)
Two decades of exclusive access, plus a lifetime of archival footage, depict Bill Shannon from his early years to his rise as an award-winning dancer and cutting-edge performance artist whose work finds outlet at prestigious venues worldwide
Crutchdocuments Bill’s extraordinary journey: the history of his medical odyssey and his struggles with chronic pain, the evolution of his crutch dancing and skating, his rise to become a world-renowned performance artist, and his transformation from an angry skate punk to an international hero.
Crutch also dives into Bill’s provocative street performances, in which he exposes the hidden world of assumptions disabled people encounter in public, on a daily basis. While the film questions his early exploitation of strangers’ good Samaritan impulses, it also marvels at Bill’s ability to create solutions and empower other to navigate similar challenges.
From childhood “cripple” to international provocateur,Crutchis an emotional story of a one-of-a-kind artist’s struggle to be understood.
Big Versus Small
Writer/Director: Minna Dufton
When filmmaker Minna Dufton started her documentary about an elite big wave champion surfer, the “tiny fighter” Joana Andrade, famous for riding the powerhouse waves at Nazaré, Portugal, little did she know Joana harbored a deep secret. By way of explaining the safety equipment big wave surfers use, Joana shared her deep fear of drowning, something many big wave surfers share. In that one extraordinary moment, remarkable cinematic serendipity unfolds and brings together the tiny Portuguese surfer with Finnish world champion free diver Johanna Nordblad for the most unusual of training sessions. BIG vs SMALL is a modern-day fairytale stretching from the raging monster waves in the south to the dark stillness of a far-north, frozen Finnish lake. It’s about trust, it’s about letting go, and it’s about what happens when two elite female champions share their extraordinary talent with each other.
Spotlight: Crutch Director/ Producer Sachi Cunningham
Sachi Cunningham is a filmmaker and professor at San Francisco State University.
- How did you learn about Bill Shannon (from Crutch)?
I learned about Bill when I was in the first grade in Pittsburgh, PA. He was a few years older than me, but would always stand at the top of the stairs during recess watching everyone play. He had the big clunky leg braces that you see him wearing in archival photos in the film. I always thought to myself, “I wonder what his story is?” I didn’t have the nerve to ask back then, but we eventually became friends in high school and spent 20 years documenting his life and work to find out that story.
- Was he hard to track down?
I started the documentary after Bill called me to tell me he had been hired to choreograph for Cirque du Soleil. I was working in feature films for MGM, but looking for a documentary project. The first interview I did over 20 years ago opens the film. Lots of people have wanted to make films about Bill over the years, but I know that he let me in to do the documentary before I even knew how to make them, because he trusted me as a friend and knew I would not take the easy route and do a typical “triumph over adversity” disability narrative.
- Was there something you learned from him while making the film?
I learned about the prejudices that people with disabilities face, and about the assumptions that I and most people make about people who are different than ourselves. I also learned how to be an artist from Bill’s relentless and unapologetic pursuit of his work, and that following your own unique path is everything.
- What was the highlight of the experience?
There were lots of highlights, but one that stands out was when we were filming Bill at the camp for kids with Perthese, the rare disability that he has. Bill did a late-night dance/skate improvisational jam session with them that appears at the end of the film thatz was pure magic.
- Why should we see the film?
We documented Bill for 20 years, and I think the time that we devoted to his story pays off for the viewer. You get to know his story intimately and are able to understand his art in a way that you can’t do by watching his performances alone. Bill’s life-long history with his disability also coincides with the rise of hip hop and skateboarding culture in the US, so it serves as a mini urban history of those subcultures. Finally, you should also see it, because Bill’s dance and art are truly one of a kind.
Success: Mind the Gap
After decades of supporting the work of women filmmakers, California Film Institute formally launched Mind the Gap in 2015, an initiative dedicated to achieving gender equity in the film industry. Zoë Elton comments on the success of the project:
“It’s always been a priority for me to seek out films directed by women — and others whose work may be overlooked — for MVFF. When I realized that nothing was changing in the industry for women in film, launching Mind the Gap became essential. Because, yes — we do mind the gender gap! Committing to 50/50 by 2020 — 50% women directors at MVFF — was a distinctive way to draw attention to the industry (where women directors run at around 7%) and draw attention to our work. And I’m happy to say we surpassed our goal: we reached 57% at the festival in 2020.”
Get in on the conversation with @doclands on Instagram.
For more from Marin:
- Support the Power of Filmmaking — Your Donation to CFI’s DocLands Film Festival Will Have Twice the Impact
- How CFI Makes Change With the Power of Film
- MVFF: Doclands
Mimi Towle is a Marin-based writer and editor. Currently the editor of Marin Magazine, she enjoys the various perks of her job, which include meeting chefs, winemakers, and inspiring characters. As a volunteer philanthropic advisor for the EACH Foundation, she focuses on needs in her home state of Hawaii. Some of her favorite nonprofits include City Beat, Hawaii Land Trust, and the University of Hawaii Cancer Center.