"It Is A Love Story": Son's Long Struggle To Free Incarcerated Parents Told In HBO's '40 Years A Prisoner'
Mike Africa Jr.'s mom and dad were convicted as part of Philadelphia's violent campaign against unorthodox MOVE group
American history can be read as one long effort to control or eradicate Black people. In the antebellum era they were exploited as free labor; in the post-Civil War period they have been subjected to mass incarceration, lynchings, spasms of white terror (Tulsa race massacre of 1921, Rosewood in 1923), and police killings (George Floyd, Oscar Grant, Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald, Philando Castille, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, Stephon Clark, Tanisha Anderson, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, to name a few).
Another chapter in that ugly history came in 1985 when the city of Philadelphia deployed a helicopter to drop a bomb onto a home occupied by members of MOVE, a mostly African-American group of people who espoused unorthodox "back to nature" practices. The resulting fire killed 11 people, including five children.
But there was an earlier incident, also violent, involving MOVE in 1978, one that's the crux of the new documentary 40 Years a Prisoner. The film directed by Tommy Oliver premieres on HBO today and streams on HBO Max.
It is very hard to know what happened. It is a very complicated situation.
When the documentary begins we are introduced to a man in his late 30s, Mike Africa Jr., son of MOVE members Debbie Sims Africa and Mike Africa Sr. (members of the group followed the example of MOVE's founder, John Africa, taking Africa as their surname). Mike Jr., we learn, was born in prison in 1978 after both his parents were arrested following a violent confrontation at MOVE headquarters in August of that year.
Mike Jr. spent the first week of his life behind bars with his mother and was then taken from her arms. For 40 years he would only see his mother and father on occasion at the separate penitentiaries where they were held. As Mike grew into an adult, he never gave up hope of seeing his parents free.
"Here's a guy who has every reason to be bitter, who has every reason to be an unpleasant person, yet there's not a shred of bitterness about him," Oliver marvels. "He is just a positive guy who has an indomitable will."
40 Years a Prisoner draws on archival sources including old television news reports to investigate the incident that landed Debbie, Mike Sr., and seven other MOVE members in prison. To understand the circumstances requires an appreciation for the intense antagonism MOVE stirred among the city's white power structure, who, it can be argued, became obsessed with annihilating the group.
MOVE's sin, it might be said, was not respecting the norms of society. They wore their hair in dreadlocks -- rare for that era -- allowed their small children to go unclothed, believed in self-defense and met criticism from city officials with verbal defiance. Oliver says MOVE's very lifestyle offended city elders.
"How dare you do such a thing. How dare you eat raw foods, buy raw foods, raw vegetables," the director says of the ire stirred by MOVE. "How dare you compost. How dare you have your hair in dreadlocks. How dare you have a home birth."
For months the city under Mayor Frank Rizzo and the police force had waged a campaign against MOVE and its headquarters, at one point laying a siege intended to starve the occupants into submission. After that attempt ultimately failed, heavily-armed police surrounded the headquarters in early August, readying to storm the building. Firefighters flooded the basement with water cannon and then a ferocious gun battle broke out. One police officer wound up dead, with a gunshot to the back of the neck.
A total of nine MOVE members -- Mike Jr.'s parents among them -- were charged with third degree murder. They were convicted and sentenced to 30-90 years each despite the strong possibility the officer had been killed by "friendly fire." Furthermore, crucial evidence was bulldozed when Mayor Rizzo ordered the immediate razing of the MOVE building, which was torn down within hours of the shootout. What's more, although MOVE members had been armed, a previous police investigation had found the weapons were not functional.
"It is very hard to know what happened. It is a very complicated situation," Oliver tells Nonfictionfilm.com about the fatal shootout. "What I don't think happened at all is that there was beyond reasonable doubt. I think there are a hundred instances that kind of have contributed reasonable doubt."
Oliver concludes about the trial, "Guess what? That is the system working specifically and exactly as it was designed, to punish you."
Oliver interviewed journalists who covered the shootout and police officers who were on the scene that fateful day.
"A big part of what I endeavored to do," Oliver notes, "and I made very clear that I wanted to tell an honest, unbiased story. I wanted to include all sides of what happened accurately and completely."
Apparently put at ease by Oliver (he was a crew of one -- handling the camera and audio, and asking the questions), the officers revealed great contempt for MOVE and repugnance for their manner of living. Damningly, they also papered over a clear case of police brutality from that day when police brutally beat MOVE member Delbert Africa, almost costing him his life.
"I think in their case, it was just sort of trading war stories where they [the officers] felt as though we had nothing to hide," Oliver observes. "It's the same sort of story they've probably told a dozen times over forever how long they've been telling these stories. It was just them talking."
Oliver also interviewed former Governor Ed Rendell, who as Philadelphia's district attorney in 1978 prosecuted officers accused of beating Delbert Africa. That trial ended with the accused getting off scot free..
"The judge... unilaterally, despite it being a jury case, decided to find the Philly cops not guilty, despite unambiguous evidence," states Oliver. "Guess what? As a judge it's his prerogative. That was within what is legal and there was no recourse."
The film recounts how Mike Jr., raising his own family, continued to search for ways to win his parents' release. The best opportunity was for them to earn parole, a decision that lay with parole boards that repeatedly denied the request. A helpful development came with the election of Lawrence Krasner as Philadelphia D.A. in 2017, who ran on criminal justice reform.
With support from Krasner's office, first Mike's mother was freed on parole, in 2018, and then his father in 2019. The documentary shows scenes of the family being reunited, and Debbie and Mike Africa Sr. resuming their lives together, their relationship remarkably seeming as strong as ever although they had been kept apart for 40 years.
I told Oliver, a Philly native, that to me the film is really a love story.
"That's how I've been describing this. It's very much a love story. It is, as you said, a son's love," he says, adding, "It is [also] romantic love. Two people who have been apart for years yet they still love each other madly. It's also a love letter to Philly. This one's is probably a bit counterintuitive. I love my city, but my city needs to do better. Part of that is the willingness to hold up a mirror and look at it and have those tough conversations. Because if you don't, you don't get past them. You don't get better. You are spot on when you say that it is a love story or a love letter because that's what it is."
Mike Africa Jr. with Mike Sr., on the day of his father's release from prison. Photos from MikeAfricaJr.com
"The Best Footballer Ever": 'Diego Maradona' Director Asif Kapadia Reacts to Argentine Soccer Star's Death at 60
Oscar winner conducted 10 hours of interviews with Maradona for his 2019 documentary
Director Asif Kapadia is reacting with shock to the death of Argentina football great Diego Maradona, the subject of the Oscar winner's 2019 eponymous documentary.
"Can't quite believe DM [Diego Maradona] is gone," Kapadia tweeted Wednesday after news broke that Maradona had died of a heart attack in Buenos Aires Province at the age of 60. Maradona underwent brain surgery only a few weeks ago.
"Hard to process. He always seemed indestructible," Kapadia continued. "We did our best to show the world the man, the myth, the fighter he was. The greatest."
The tweet included a photo of Kapadia with Maradona, who in his late 50s still appeared powerfully built, if struggling with his weight and other health issues.
Kapadia's documentary was based on multiple hours of interviews he conducted with Maradona, as well as 500 hours of footage of the star that had never been seen before. The film explores Maradona's origins in a rough neighborhood of Buenos Aires, his emergence as world class talent and leading Argentina to the World Cup title in 1986. It zeroes in on his time in Italy playing for the once-lowly club in Naples, which he lifted to championships. During his time in Napoli Maradona became entangled with the city's crime underworld and developed a ruinous drug habit, an addiction that would lead to his downfall as a player and eventual disgrace.
"What an amazing character," Kapadia told me when I interviewed him for a piece about the film for the Documentary magazine website. "So much drama. It's like so much chaos."
Sixty is young but 60 for Diego Maradona is a really long life.
In an interview with Britain's Channel 4 today, Kapadia characterized Maradona as soccer's GOAT.
"For me or a person of my generation he’s the best footballer ever because of what he did and how he did it," Kapadia observed. "But he’s famous also because of the way he existed and the way he lived."
He added, "Sixty is young but 60 for Diego Maradona is a really long life and he’s lived a few lives. He had a full one, you know. There’s a lot of stories and there’s a lot of legacy and there's a lot of things that will come out. And I guess our film is a very small part of the kind of legacy of trying to understand the guy, understand the man and understand what he achieved, particularly in Italy which is the place that we ended up focusing on… He affected you. It’s very difficult to be indifferent to Diego Maradona. He’s emotionally going to affect you one way or another, and I think that’s what makes him special, that’s the legacy. You can’t see him play or you can’t see him do something or hear him do an interview and forget him."
Kapadia's film may have prompted a reevaluation of Maradona in the director's native Britain. Many Britons have nursed a grudge for decades after Maradona's Argentine squad ousted England in the quarterfinal of the 1986 World Cup by a score of 2-1. The contest was played in the wake of Britain's defeat of Argentina in the Falklands War a few years earlier.
Maradona scored both goals against England -- one by illegally using his hand to drive the ball into the goal; the referee apparently didn't missed the foul (Maradona at first denied touching the ball with his hand, but later attributed the goal to a divine act -- "the hand of God."). A few minutes after the hand ball Maradona scored the difference maker, weaving through the English defense in brilliant fashion in what is widely considered the greatest goal in World Cup history. In his Channel 4 interview, Kapadia defended Maradona over the controversial "Hand of God" goal.
"The guy was the greatest. There's no denying it, right. He's a footballer. His job is to win football matches," Kapadia said. "And if you can win a football match against a team that humiliated you in a war four years earlier and do it by being the best player in the world and scoring essentially the greatest goal ever scored in the World Cup and scoring one with your hand and getting away with it -- and so that kind of very cheeky, Latin way of playing where if you can get someone sent off that's shows your cunning -- if you can score a goal against England with your hand and do it in such a way that nobody saw it... it's only in the replays that we all saw it... that kind of is a measure of who he was, two sides of the genius."
Kapadia added, "It just shows the importance of him culturally and to Argentina and to everyone... The guy was a brilliant footballer. He was a great guy, he was a really interesting character. A lot of people are boring now. He lived to excess and he did things and he somehow got away with it for a long time and I think there's been a turning, a change in how people think of him."
Softie, Collective, Gunda, Time, Crip Camp among films nominated for Best Feature Documentary
An exclusive group of nonfiction filmmakers is celebrating after the announcement of the nominations for the 36th annual IDA Awards.
"We are elated by this news!" tweeted the account for Crip Camp, the documentary about the rise of the disability rights movement that scored five nominations Tuesday, including Best Feature Documentary and Best Director for Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht. Crip Camp was also nominated for Best Editing (Eileen Meyer and Andrew Gersh), Best Writing (Newnham and LeBrecht), and the ABC News VideoSource Award, a category that recognizes archival-driven films.
"Celebrating 3 @IDAorg Documentary Awards nominations for #TimeTheMovie," noted the Twitter account for Time, Garrett Bradley's documentary about a woman seeking the release of her long-incarcerated husband. Time will compete for Best Documentary Feature, Best Director (Bradley) and Best Cinematography (Zac Manuel, Justin Zweifach, and Nisa East).
The nominees present an inspiring and urgent range of stories from around the globe.
The Best Documentary Feature nomination for Softie prompted producer Toni Kamau to tweet, "Aaaaa. Crying... Incredible to be on this list, that's selected by our global peers. Aaaa!" Softie, directed by Sam Soko, tells the story of the Kenyan photojournalist Boniface "Softie" Mwangi, who ran for office with the ambitious goal of changing his country's political culture.
"I have screamed until my lungs are sore," added Soko in his own tweet.
The list of films receiving multiple nominations includes MLK/FBI, directed by Sam Pollard, a contender for Best Documentary Feature and for Pollard's direction. The documentary about the FBI's persistent harassment of Martin Luther King Jr. also earned a nomination for the ABC News VideoSource Award. Pollard will be honored with the previously-announced Career Achievement Award. He was also nominated Tuesday for his work directing the multi-part documentary series Atlanta's Missing and Murdered.
The Truffle Hunters, a whimsical and poetic film set in Italy about the quest for truffles conducted by wizened men and their dogs, earned nominations for Best Documentary Feature and Best Cinematography for Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, who also directed the film.
The other nominees for Best Documentary Feature are Collective (director/producer Alexander Nanau, producer Bianca Oana); Gunda (director Victor Kossakovsky, producer Anita Rehoff Larsen); The Reason I Jump (director Jerry Rothwell, producers Jeremy Dear, Stevie Lee, and Al Morrow); Reunited (director Mira Jargil, producer Kirstine Barfod), and Welcome to Chechnya (director/producer David France, producers Alice Henty, Joy A. Tomchin, and Askold Kurov).
The IDA announced the awards will take place as a virtual ceremony on Saturday, January 16, 2021.
“The nominees present an inspiring and urgent range of stories from around the globe," IDA executive director Simon Kilmurry commented in a statement. “The broad range of subjects and approaches to storytelling underscores that documentary is our most exciting form of cultural expression, a vital art form and a crucial element of democratic dialogue.”
Photos of select IDA Awards nominees
In the Best Documentary Short category, 10 films earned nominations including Abortion Helpline, This is Lisa directed by Barbara Attie, Mike Attie, and Janet Goldwater; All That Perishes at the Edge of Land directed by Hira Nabi; John Was Trying to Contact Aliens directed by Matthew Killip, and To Calm the Pig Inside directed by Joanna Vasquez Arong.
Best Multi-Part Documentary Series nominees include Asian Americans, directed by Leo S. Chiang, Geeta Gandbhir, and Grace Lee; Atlanta's Missing and Murdered directed by Sam Pollard, Maro Chermayeff, Joshua Bennett, and Jeff Dupre; City So Real directed by Steve James; Hillary directed by Nanette Burstein, and Lenox Hill directed by Adi Barash and Ruthie Shatz.
The full list of IDA Awards nominations:
2020 IDA Documentary Awards Best Feature Nominees
Collective (Romania / Magnolia Pictures, Participant. Director/Producer: Alexander Nanau. Producer: Bianca Oana)
Crip Camp (USA / Netflix. Directors/Producers: Nicole Newnham, Jim LeBrecht. Producer: Sara Bolder)
Gunda (Norway, USA / NEON. Director: Victor Kossakovsky. Producer: Anita Rehoff Larsen)
MLK/FBI (USA / IFC Films. Director: Sam Pollard. Producer: Benjamin Hedin)
The Reason I Jump (USA, UK / Kino Lorber. Director: Jerry Rothwell. Producers: Jeremy Dear, Stevie Lee, Al Morrow)
Reunited (Denmark. Director: Mira Jargil. Producer: Kirstine Barfod)
Softie (Kenya / POV. Director/Producer: Sam Soko. Producer: Toni Kamau)
Time (USA / Amazon Studios, Concordia Studio, The New York Times. Director/Producer: Garrett Bradley. Producers: Lauren Domino, Kellen Quinn)
The Truffle Hunters (USA, Italy, Greece / Sony Pictures Classics. Directors/Producers: Michael Dweck, Gregory Kershaw)
Welcome to Chechnya (USA / HBO. Director/Producer: David France. Producers: Alice Henty, Joy A. Tomchin, and Askold Kurov)
2020 IDA Documentary Awards Best Director Nominees
Garrett Bradley (Time, USA / Amazon Studios, Concordia Studio, The New York Times)
Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw (The Truffle Hunters, USA, Italy, Greece / Sony Pictures Classics)
Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht (Crip Camp, USA / Netflix)
Sam Pollard (MLK/FBI, USA / IFC Films)
Jerry Rothwell (The Reason I Jump, USA, UK / Kino Lorber)
2020 IDA Documentary Awards Best Short Nominees
Abortion Helpline, This is Lisa (USA / TOPIC, Woman Make Movies. Directors/Producers: Barbara Attie, Mike Attie, Janet Goldwater)
All That Perishes at the Edge of Land (Pakistan. Director/Producer: Hira Nabi. Producer: Till Passow)
Huntsville Station (USA / New York Times Op-Docs. Directors/Producers: Jamie Meltzer, Chris Filippone)
Hysterical Girl (USA / New York Times Op-Docs. Director: Kate Novack. Producer: Andrew Rossi)
John Was Trying to Contact Aliens (USA / Netflix. Director/Producer: Matthew Killip)
The Lost Astronaut (USA / New York Times Op-Docs. Director: Ben Proudfoot. Producers: Abby Lynn Kang Davis, Gabriel Berk Godoi)
Mizuko (USA, Japan / TOPIC. Directors/Producers: Kira Dane, Katelyn Rebelo)
sống ở đây (USA / University of California, Santa Cruz. Director/Producer: Melanie Ho)
To Calm the Pig Inside (Ang Pagpakalma sa Unos) (Philippines. Director/Producer: Joanna Vasquez Arong)
Unforgivable (El Salvador. Director/Producer: Marlén Viñayo. Producer: Carlos Martínez)
2020 IDA Documentary Awards Best Curated Series Nominees
30 for 30 (USA / ESPN. Executive Producers: John Dahl, Libby Geist, Rob King, Erin Leyden, Connor Schell)
American Experience (USA / PBS. Executive Producers: Susan Bellows and Mark Samels)
American Masters (USA / THIRTEEN Productions, LLC. Executive Producer: Michael Kantor.)
Reel Midwest (USA / Illinois Public Media. Executive Producer: Moss Bresnahan)
Reel South (USA / PBS, World Channel. Executive Producers: Don Godish and Rachel Raney)
2020 IDA Documentary Awards Best Episodic Series Nominees
Cheer (USA / Netflix. Director and Executive Producer: Greg Whiteley. Producers: Adam Leibowitz, Arielle Kilker, Chelsea Yarnell. Executive Producers: Andrew Fried, Dane Lillegard, Jasper Thomlinson, Bert Hamelinck)
Hip Hop: The Songs That Shook America (USA / AMC. Executive Producers: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter, Shawn Gee, Alex Gibney, Stacey Offman, Richard Perello, Shea Serrano, Angie Day, One9, Erik Parker, Isaac Bolden)
Last Chance U (USA / Netflix. Director and Executive Producer: Greg Whiteley. Executive Producers: Joe LaBracio, James D. Stern, Lucas Smith, Andrew Fried, Dane Lillegard)
Seven Planets, One World (United Kingdom / BBC America. Directors: Fredi Devas, Emma Napper, Giles Badger, Chadden Hunter. Executive Producer: Jonny Keeling)
We’re Here (USA / HBO. Executive Producers: Eli Holzman, Aaron Saidman, Stephen Warren, Johnnie Ingram, Peter LoGreco, Erin Gamble)
2020 IDA Documentary Awards Best Multi-Part Documentary Nominees
Asian Americans (USA / PBS. Directors: Leo Chiang, Geeta Gandbhir, Grace Lee. Producers: Renee Tajima-Peña, Mark Jonathan Harris. Executive Producers: Jeff Bieber, Sally Jo Fifer, Stephen Gong, Jean Tsien, Donald Young)
Atlanta's Missing and Murdered (USA / HBO. Directors and Executive Producers: Sam Pollard, Maro Chermayeff, Joshua Bennett, Jeff Dupre. Executive Producers: John Legend, Mike Jackson, Ty Stiklorious, Nancy Abraham, Lisa Heller)
City So Real (USA / National Geographic. Director and Producer: Steve James. Producer: Zak Piper. Executive Producers: Jeff Skoll, Diane Weyermann, Alex Kotlowitz, Gordon Quinn, Betsy Steinberg, Jolene Pinder)
Hillary (USA / Hulu. Director: Nanette Burstein. Producers: Isabel San Vargas, Timothy Moran, Chi-Young Park, Tal Ben-David. Executive Producers: Ben Silverman, Howard T. Owens, Nanette Burstein, Sierra Kos, Laurie Girion)
Lenox Hill (USA / Netflix. Directors and Executive Producers: Adi Barash and Ruthie Shatz. Executive Producer: Josh Braun)
2020 IDA Documentary Awards Best Short Form Series Nominees
Almost Famous (USA / New York Times Op-Docs. Producers: Abby Lynn Kang Davis, Gabriel Berk Godoi and Jeremy Lambert. Executive Producer: Adam Ellick. Director: Ben Proudfoot)
Guardian Documentaries (United Kingdom, Iran / The Guardian. Producers: Shanida Scotland, Natasha Dack Ojumu and Nikki Parrott. Executive Producers: Charlie Phillips. Lindsay Poulton, Jess Gormley. Directors: Irene Baque, Laurence Topham, Sara Khaki, Mohammad Reza Eyni, Rebecca Lloyd-Evans, Laura Dodsworth, Dan McDougall)
Last Call For The Bayou: 5 Stories from Louisiana's Disappearing Delta (USA / Smithsonian Channel Plus. Producer: Nadia Gill. Executive Producer: Gina Hutchinson. Director: Dominic Gill)
POV Shorts (USA / PBS. Executive Producers: Justine Nagan and Chris White)
Run This City (USA / Quibi. Director: Brent Hodge. Producer: Prince Vaughn. Executive Producers: Mark Wahlberg, Stephen Levinson, Archie Gips, Brent Hodge)
2020 IDA Documentary Awards Best Audio Documentary Nominees
Crosses in the Desert / Cruces en el desierto (Chile, USA / Las Raras Podcast. Reporter: Dennis Maxwell. Producers: Catalina May, Martín Cruz. Executive Producer: Martina Castro)
Fiasco: Bush v. Gore (USA / Luminary. Producers: Leon Neyfakh, Andrew Parsons)
Girl Taken (United Kingdom / British Broadcasting Corporation. Reporter: Sue Mitchell. Producer: Richard Hannaford. Executive Producer: Philip Sellars)
Heavyweight - The Marshes (USA / Gimlet Media. Reporter, Producer and Executive Producer: Jonathan Goldstein. Reporter and Producer: Kalila Holt. Producers: Stevie Lane, Jorge Just, BA Parker, Bobby Lord)
Somebody (USA / iHeartRadio. Reporters and Producers: Alison Flowers, Bill Healy. Reporters: Sam Stecklow, Ellen Glover, Annie Nguyen, Kahari Blackburn, Rajiv Sinclair, Henri Adams, Matilda Vojak, Dana Brozost-Kelleher, Frances McDonald, Diana Akmajian, Andrew Fan and Maddie Anderson. Producers: Shapearl Wells, Sarah Geis. Executive Producers: Jamie Kalven, Maria Zuckerman, Christy Gressman, Leital Molad)
2020 IDA Documentary Awards Best Music Documentary Nominees
Beastie Boys Story (USA / Apple TV+. Director/Producer: Spike Jonze. Producers: Jason Baum and Amanda Adelson)
Billie (United Kingdom / Greenwich Entertainment. Director: James Erskine)
Crock of Gold (USA / Magnolia Pictures. Director/Producer: Julien Temple. Producers: Johnny Depp, Stephen Deuters, Stephen Malit)
Los Hermanos / The Brothers (USA / PatchWorks Films, PBS. Directors/Producers: Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider)
Universe (USA. Directors: Sam Osborn and Nicholas Capezzera. Producers: Esther Dere and Leah Natasha Thomas)
2020 IDA Documentary Awards David L. Wolper Student Documentary Award Nominees
Bananas (United Kingdom / National Film and Television School. Director/Producer: Sara Montoya Sepúlveda)
Isle of Us (United Kingdom / National Film and Television School. Director: Laura Wadha)
Na Luta Delas (Brazil / UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Directors/Producers: Orion Rose Kelly and Pedro Cota)
People Like Me (USA / University of California Santa Cruz. Director/Producer: Marrok Sedgwick)
Susana (USA / Stanford University. Director: Laura Gamse. Producer: James Davis)
Trees (United Kingdom / National Film and Television School. Director: Rosie Morris. Producer: Jesse Romain)
2020 IDA Documentary Awards Best Cinematography Award Nominees
Acasă, My Home (Romania, Germany, Finland / Manifest Film, HBO Europe. Cinematographers: Radu Ciorniciuc and Mircea Topoleanu)
Boys State (USA / Apple, A24. Director of Photography: Thorsten Thielow)
The Earth is Blue as an Orange (Ukraine, Lithuania. Cinematographer: Viacheslav Tsvietkov)
The Truffle Hunters (USA, Italy, Greece / Sony Pictures Classics. Cinematographers: Michael Dweck, Gregory Kershaw)
Time (USA / Amazon Studios, Concordia Studio, The New York Times. Cinematographers: Zac Manuel, Justin Zweifach, Nisa East)
2020 IDA Documentary Awards Best Editing Award Nominees
Boys State (USA / Apple, A24. Editor: Jeff Gilbert)
Crip Camp (USA / Netflix. Editors: Eileen Meyer and Andrew Gersh)
Disclosure (USA / Netflix. Editor: Stacy Goldate)
Dick Johnson is Dead (USA / Netflix. Editor: Nels Bangerter)
Through the Night (USA / ITVS, POV. Editor: Malika Zouhali-Worrall)
2020 IDA Documentary Awards Best Writing Award Nominees
Crip Camp (USA / Netflix. Writers: Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht)
Dick Johnson is Dead (USA / Netflix. Writers: Nels Bangerter and Kirsten Johnson)
I Am Not Alone (USA / Netflix. Writer: Garin Hovannisian)
My Octopus Teacher (USA / Netflix. Writers: Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed)
Socks on Fire (USA. Writers: Max Allman, Bo McGuire)
2020 IDA Documentary Awards Best Music Score Award Nominees
Dancing with the Birds (USA / Netflix. Composer: David Mitcham)
David Attenborough: Life On Our Planet (USA, United Kingdom / Netflix. Composer: Steven Price)
Hope Frozen: A Quest to Live Twice (USA / Netflix. Composer: Chapavich Temnitikul)
My Octopus Teacher (USA / Netflix. Composer: Kevin Smuts)
Rising Phoenix (USA / Netflix. Composer: Daniel Pemberton)
2020 IDA Documentary Awards ABC News VideoSource Award Nominees
#Unfit: The Psychology of Donald Trump (USA / Dark Star. Director/Producer: Dan Partland. Producer: Art Horan)
Bully. Coward. Victim.: The Story of Roy Cohn (USA / HBO. Director: Ivy Meeropol. Producers: Julie Goldman, Christopher Clements, Carolyn Hepburn)
Crip Camp (USA / Netflix. Directors/Producers: Nicole Newnham, Jim LeBrecht. Producer: Sara Bolder)
Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America's Elections (USA / HBO. Director: Sarah Teale. Directors/Producers: Simon Ardizzone and Russell Michaels. Producers: Michael Hirschorn and Jessica Antonini)
MLK/FBI (USA / IFC Films. Director: Sam Pollard. Producer: Benjamin Hedin)
The First Rainbow Coalition (USA / Independent Lens, PBS, Latino Public Broadcasting, ITVS. Director/Producer: Ray Santisteban)
2020 IDA Documentary Awards Pare Lorentz Award Winner
WINNER: My Octopus Teacher (USA / Netflix. Director: Pippa Ehrlich, James Reed. Producer: Craig Foster)
HONORABLE MENTION: Crip Camp (USA / Netflix. Directors/Producers: Nicole Newnham, Jim LeBrecht. Producer: Sara Bolder)
2020 IDA Documentary Awards Honorary Awards Recipients
Amicus Award: Regina K. Scully
Career Achievement Award: Sam Pollard (MLK/FBI)
Courage Under Fire Award: David France, David Isteev, and Olga Baranova (Welcome to Chechnya)
Emerging Documentary Filmmaker Award: Garrett Bradley (Time)
Pioneer Award: Firelight Media
Truth to Power Award: Maria Ressa and Rappler (A Thousand Cuts)
RJ Cutler's documentary on John Belushi premieres on Showtime Sunday night
Some losses you just don't get over. For American culture, one of those is the death of John Belushi at the age of 33, a tragedy that deprived the country of one of the most gifted comedians it ever produced.
I was traveling abroad in March 1982 when I heard the news of Belushi's fatal overdose, and to this day I can't think of it without getting a pit in my stomach. What he contributed to the culture and what his life meant to those closest to him comes through in the new documentary Belushi, directed by RJ Cuter (The September Issue, The World According to Dick Cheney). The film, premiering on Showtime this Sunday (November 22), draws on audio recordings made decades ago with an array of people who worked with Belushi, on Saturday Night Live, Animal House, and The Blues Brothers. The luminaries include his buddy Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, SNL creator Lorne Michaels, Carrie Fisher, Harold Ramis and Ivan Reitman.
I wanted to make a film about how did John Belushi live.
Cutler also did new interviews with the comedian's widow, Judy Belushi Pisano, who had kept those recordings as well as other rare materials used in the film, among them letters Belushi wrote to his wife that reveal hopes, dreams, struggles to become recognized for his talent, the later explosion of fame, and a ruinous addiction to drugs.
When I spoke with Cutler he told me about the origins of the documentary and how the audio recordings informed his approach.
RJ Cutler: When I was first working on the film I spent a fair amount of time [chatting] with folks who had known John and I started to feel like the stories they were telling me were kind of lost in the foggy haze of memory and they felt a little [like], "These are the stories I tell when I tell stories about John Belushi." What they didn't have was a kind of raw immediacy and presence, the very things that I felt strongly a movie abut John Belushi would need. I didn't want to make a film that was about remembering John Belushi four decades hence. I didn't want to make that film anymore than I wanted to make [a film] about how did John Belushi die. I wanted to make a film about how did John Belushi live.
I wasn't sure quite what I was going to do until Judy Belushi invited me up to Martha's Vineyard with my producing partners on the film and welcomed us to look through the archives she'd kept of John's belongings, all of the things from his life. Included in that several boxes of audiotapes were material that she and [author] Tanner Colby had collected in what they had decided, in the wake of John's death, to conduct an oral history. And those tapes had never been heard by anybody. So we took them and we listened to them and we found the foundation for our film.
Part of what is poignant about the film is that a number of the people we hear talking about Belushi have since died.
Cutler: [The tapes] gave us access to those to whom we otherwise would not have had it. Carrie Fisher, Harold Ramis, Penny Marshall, so important to be able to hear their words and their reflections and their insight and their wisdom.
What are some of the things we learn from the tapes?
Cutler: We learn so much. We learn about John's childhood from [his brother] Jim Belushi and his childhood friends. We learn about the origins of Saturday Night Live from Lorne Michaels and so many of the people who were around them -- Alan Zweibel and others, Rosie Shuster and Tom Schiller. We learn about John's years in National Lampoon from Matty Simmons. We learn about the early years of John in New York from Ivan Reitman. We learn about the movies, The Blues Brothers and Animal House, from John Landis. We learn about John as a human being from Penny Marshall. We learn about the burdens of addiction and the unique kind of nature of John's struggles with addiction from Carrie Fisher, and we learn about his whole life from Judy Belushi, who was kind of enough to allow me to interview her multiple times over a two year period and whose insights really make the film I think something special.
The audiotapes certainly reveal how special the relationship was between Belushi and Aykroyd.
Cutler: Dan's description of it is "love at first sight" and in all of my research I found nothing that contradicted that and only confirmations of it, that the moment these two men met they recognized in each other, as Dan says, a potential for a great friendship. I think they recognized in each other the potential for a lifelong friendship and working partnership. It was a very beautiful thing and we were all the beneficiaries of it.
Belushi's relationship with Lorne Michaels was rather more fraught. [Ed. note: the film explores Belushi's initial reluctance to join the SNL cast, Michaels' "skepticism" about him, as well as Belushi's frustration that he didn't get as many moments to shine on the show's first season as he had hoped]
Cutler: It shouldn't surprise us that two men of extraordinary vision, when first brought together, needed to find a way to accommodate each other. And to Lorne's credit he ultimately embraced John and to John's credit he had the patience to wait for his moment, as difficult as that was through the first season of Saturday Night Live... It's easy to understand how they locked horns at first just as it's easy to be grateful for the fact that they found a way to accommodate each other that ultimately benefitted them both.
There are examples in the film when Belushi's behavior was, one might say, less than admirable. Jane Curtin, for instance, says Belushi "didn't respect" the women on SNL.
Cutler: We humans are complicated and John certainly represented that aspect of humanity well. I try not to judge.
In the film, someone describes Belushi as pure id. It made me think of Trump, who is sometimes described that way too.
Cutler: John Belushi was a great artist and a visionary who changed the nature of comedy and whose work remains vital to this very day. Donald Trump is somebody who the sooner we forget the blight he's put upon the world the better off we'll all be.
How do you think Belushi changed the nature of comedy?
Cutler: Guess who put that first season cast [of SNL] together before Lorne Michaels? Don't guess -- you know the answer. Who collected them from Toronto and Chicago and New York and brought them together to be his cast members on the National Lampoon Radio Hour? That was John Belushi. And who got them all to work together for the first time under his direction? That was John Belushi. Who had the vision that they would all be able to work together and be able to accomplish great things and who hosted them all for Thanksgiving and partied with them and in the critical moment grew up with them before they emerged as national figures as the cast members of Saturday Night Live? That was John Belushi. Then he went on from there... He went on kind of to change the nature of comedic film performance, to presage performance art with the Blues Brothers in a way that achieved at a level that was never eclipsed by the performance art movement, but also was a decade ahead of its time. This guy was pure visionary.
Where do you think Belushi might have taken his career had he not died so young?
It's a little like asking if Tom Seaver were pitching today would he be a Cy Young candidate? It's one of our favorite parlor games as sports fans. And I always err on the side of talent and genius and that's the side I want to err on with John. He showed us through his life that he was a visionary and an artist who was always pushing himself to stretch in new directions and take on new challenges. And the one thing I think we can be certain of is that he would have continued to do that throughout his life.
Durham, North Carolina-based festival accepting entires from December 1, 2020 to January 8, 2021
The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival is shifting dates for its 2021 festival.
The event was previously planned for April 2021, but today the festival announced new dates: June 2-6, 2021. In a press release, Full Frame noted, "Organizers cite the [Covid-19] pandemic’s impact on industry calendars, audiences, and the documentary filmmaking community for the date change."
“Our priority continues to be the safety of our audiences and our filmmakers,” commented festival director Deirdre Haj. “We plan to build upon what we’ve learned from [2020's] online festival and the virtual programs we’ve produced throughout the summer and fall to create a safe event that celebrates the spirit of Full Frame in a new way.”
The coronavirus emergency forced the cancellation of the physical edition of the 2020 Durham, North Carolina-based festival, but Full Frame adjusted by launching a virtual screening room and a filmmaker Q&A series.
“We recognize the incredible impact the pandemic has had on filmmakers and the documentary industry,” artistic director Sadie Tillery said in a statement. “In this unsettling and uncertain time, it feels especially important to highlight new films and support artists through our programming. As we reimagine our 2021 event, we are committed to serving this community.”
Full Frame also announced it will accept submissions from filmmakers beginning December 1 and ending January 8, 2021.
Click here for more photos from the 2019 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, including two filmmakers who would go on to win the 2020 Academy Award for documentary feature.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.