Exclusive: Trailer Unveiled for 'The Penny Black', "Documentary Noir" Premiering at Slamdance Film Festival
Joe Saunders' investigative thriller centers on estranged son of a conman, entrusted with a multi-million dollar collection
Mystery pervades the story told in The Penny Black, the investigative thriller set to make its world premiere next week at the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.
Why would a shady Russian guy ask a neighbor he barely knows to hold onto a multi-million dollar stamp collection for him? Why would Will, the neighbor, agree? What is the deal with Will anyway--an inscrutable fellow who's the son of a conman and may have inherited some of his dad's dodgy traits? And how did a big portion of the valuable cache suddenly turn up missing?
These tantalizing questions cohere in the "documentary noir" directed by Joe Saunders and produced by Alexander Greer. The title, as any dedicated philatelist can tell you, comes from one of the rarest and most prized of stamps, first issued in the U.K. in 1840.
He's the kind of guy that you never know if he's laughing with you or at you. But you like him.
"I first met Will through [my producer] Alex," Saunders explains in a director's statement. "He was charming and smart, and always needed to be one step ahead of you. He's the kind of guy that you never know if he's laughing with you or at you. But you like him. So when he told an outlandish story of a Russian giving him a million dollar stamp collection, it sounded like he was challenging the table to believe him so that he could later mock us for doing so."
Saunders continues, "I, of course, took the bait. Either the story is real, and it’s fascinating on its own, or the story is fake, and it’s fascinating to watch this son of a con artist spin a web of lies to a table of friends."
The trailer for The Penny Black premieres today in this Nonfictionfilm.com exclusive. Watch it below.
The Penny Black debuts Saturday, January 25 at Slamdance headquarters at the Treasure Mountain Inn, with an encore screening set for Tuesday, January 28.
Saunders' documentaries have appeared on HBO, Fox, ABC, CBS, ESPN, the NFL Network and the BBC. His credits include Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound, Coach Snoop and the Emmy-winning Big Charlie's, produced by NFL Films.
"The aim of this documentary was not to pursue a journalistic truth or to catch Will in a lie," Saunders notes of The Penny Black, "but rather to present the events of his world as they came to light. Will was ultimately the one steering the ship on this journey, so we as filmmakers were left to follow his path, however slippery or deceptive it might have been.”
Oscars: Documentary Shorts Nominations Go to 'Life Overtakes Me,' 'Learning to Skateboard In a Warzone...,' 'St. Louis Superman' and More
In the Absence, Walk Run Cha-Cha also earn Oscar nominations Monday
Stories from Sweden, South Korea, Afghanistan, Southern California and St. Louis earned recognition Monday as the Motion Picture Academy revealed the Oscar nominations for Best Documentary Short.
Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You're a Girl), the film directed by Carol Dysinger and produced by Elena Andreicheva about a school in Kabul, Afghanistan where girls study academic subjects and skateboarding, earned one of the five nominations. Learning to Skateboard... won Best Documentary Short in December at the IDA Documentary Awards in Hollywood and the jury award for Best Documentary Short at the Tribeca Film Festival last April. [The movie can be seen via the A&E streaming portal]
"After 15 years of filming in Afghanistan I am humbled by the indelible spirit of the young women at the heart of this film," Dysinger commented in a statement. "Their determination in the face of great odds to get an education gives hope for a better future. They are truly inspiring and I'm grateful that this recognition may in some way shine light on their story. My thanks to the Academy."
In the Absence, the short film about the tragic sinking of a South Korean passenger ferry in 2014 that claimed hundreds of lives including more than 250 high schoolers, earned a nomination for director Yi-Seung Jun and producer Gary Byung-Seok Kam. [Watch the film here]
When we started to make this film, the victims' families asked us for only one thing: to share the story with as wide an international audience as possible.
Cinetic Media says the nomination for In the Absence -- coming on the same day as nods for Bong Joon Ho's Parasite -- mark the first Oscar recognition ever for South Korean films.
"This is incredible news, and we are honored and excited to receive this nomination," Jun and Kam told Nonfictionfilm.com in a statement. "The victims' families are still in severe pain, because the story has not ended. Because their beloved ones could have been saved, and the people who are responsible for the tragedy have not been brought to justice yet." [See the filmmakers' full statement below]
Director-producers John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson earned an Oscar nomination for their short film Life Overtakes Me, which explores a strange phenomenon taking place in Sweden. In recent years, hundreds of children of refugee families there have fallen into a mysterious coma-like state lasting many months or more, perplexing the medical community. The condition has been dubbed 'Resignation Syndrome.'
"It’s pretty clear that it's some sort of a psychosomatic reaction to trauma," Haptas told us when we interviewed him last month. Samuelson added, "We were just simply stunned that we live in a world where children are so traumatized. They literally withdraw from the world as if they're dead. So [the film] just seems like a very important way to be showing and thinking about the crisis these kids are in."
Life Overtakes Me is streaming on Netflix.
In a statement to Nonfictionfilm.com, the filmmakers reacted to the Oscar nomination news: "We are thrilled that Life Overtakes Me has been recognized by the Academy. This honor will bring further attention to children whose lives are scarred by trauma. We believe that Resignation Syndrome is just one manifestation of the impact of fear and anxiety on refugees, including children held in detention on our own borders."
The nomination for St. Louis Superman recognizes a film about Bruce Franks Jr., a "battle rapper" who became a prominent activist in the wake of protests in Ferguson, Missouri over the police killing of teenager Michael Brown. Franks was later elected to the Missouri legislature, where he became a forceful advocate for his community. The documentary short was directed and produced by Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan and represents the first Oscar nod for the recently-formed MTV Documentary Films unit under executive Sheila Nevins.
“We’re absolutely thrilled to receive an Oscar nomination for St. Louis Superman. The film’s success exists solely because of the storytelling superpowers of Bruce Franks Jr. and we are profoundly grateful to have been able to work with Bruce to tell his story," Mundhra and Khan said in a statement. "We share this honor with Bruce and our whole filmmaking team including our champions at MTV Documentary Films and AJE Witness. At a critical moment for our democracy, Bruce’s activism couldn’t be more urgent. We’d like to thank the Academy for recognizing our film and Bruce’s work. We’d also like to congratulate our fellow nominees for their incredible films.”
[We will update where St. Louis Superman can be screened once we receive that information]
Walk Run Cha-Cha, a New York Times Op-Doc film, focuses on Paul and Millie Cao, refugees from Vietnam who became passionate participants in the ballroom dancing scene near Los Angeles.
"On the face of it, a film about middle-aged people dancing might not seem political," director Laura Nix wrote in an essay for the New York Times. "But my decision to tell a story about Paul and Millie’s life in the present, and not solely focus on their past, was intentional. Films about refugees and immigrants are often focused on the point of entry, when the newly arrived are at their most vulnerable. But it’s essential for us to hear stories about what happens next."
"I am beyond thrilled that Walk Run Cha-Cha has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject," Nix said in a statement. "Yesterday we celebrated the day Paul arrived in America as a refugee from Vietnam, exactly 40 years ago, and today we’re celebrating an Oscar nomination. I am deeply grateful to Paul and Millie Cao for giving me access to their community over six years of filming. At their dance studio, we see Eastern Europeans teaching Latin dance to people from the Chinese community in suburban Los Angeles, reminding us of the beauty of America’s rich cultural diversity in a moment challenged by anti-immigration policies and sentiment.
"I am so grateful to the Academy for recognizing this film, and deeply honored to be in the company of such incredible filmmakers. We share this honor with The New York Times Op-Docs and Concordia Studio without whose support we couldn’t have made this film."
Watch Walk Run Cha-Cha here
This is the full statement from In the Absence director Yi-Seung Jun and producer Gary Byung-Seok Kam reacting to their Oscar nomination:
This is incredible news, and we are honored and excited to receive this nomination.
IN THE ABSENCE is about a ferry sinking disaster which occurred on 16 April 2014 in South Korea. 304 passengers and crew members, including more than 250 high school students were killed. The victims' families are still in severe pain, because the story has not ended. Because their beloved ones could have been saved, and the people who are responsible for the tragedy have not been brought to justice yet.
When we started to make this film, the victims' families asked us for only one thing: to share the story with as wide an international audience as possible. We are pleased that we can keep the promise we made to them, and being nominated for an Academy Award will help us share the story more widely.
Working together with Field of Vision was a great experience, and we are truly grateful for every effort our Field of Vision colleagues made to make this film possible. We also would like to express our appreciation to the Korea Communication Agency, which also supported this project from the beginning, and to the 416 Documenting Group who shared the valuable footage with us.
We made this film not to win prizes, but to share the story. The truths of the disaster have not been fully disclosed yet. Many things have to be solved, and many questions have to be answered.
We hope that more and more people around the world will share this story, letting victims' families know that the world is with them.
The year 2019 was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Korean cinema so it is especially meaningful for us to be a part of the proud moment of film history of Korea.
American Factory and The Edge of Democracy also make the cut but Apollo 11 a surprise omission
Honeyland made history Monday morning as the Oscar nominations were announced, earning recognition in two categories.
The film by Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska scored a nomination for Best Documentary Feature -- by no means a surprise there, given the many awards it has won beginning at last year's Sundance Film Festival. But it also claimed a nomination for Best International Feature Film, the category that until this year was called Best Foreign Language Film. It's the first time a nonfiction film has earned nominations for Best Documentary and Best Foreign Language (aka International Film).
In the Documentary Feature race, Honeyland will go up against two films about the Syrian civil war -- For Sama, directed by Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts, and The Cave, directed by Feras Fayyad. It was the second Oscar nomination for Fayyad, whose 2018 film Last Men in Aleppo also earned an Academy Award nod.
Fayyad's nomination came despite his inability to represent his film in the United States in the run-up to the nomination announcement; the U.S. State Department rejected his most recent visa application to enter the country, citing his Syrian citizenship. Fayyad came to the U.S. in the fall, but hasn't been able to return since.
It is a moment that we had never imagined on a journey spanning 9-years - from near death to new life.
In a statement to Nonfictionfilm.com, For Sama's directors expressed their thanks for the Academy recognition.
"We are so delighted and honoured to be nominated for an Oscar, alongside these incredible films and filmmakers. It is a moment that we had never imagined on a journey spanning 9-years - from near death to new life," al-Kateab and Watts wrote. “We hope that the nomination will encourage as many people as possible to go and see the film and learn the true story of the Syrian conflict. And we ask them to remember that what they see in the film is still happening today in Idlib, the last part of Syria outside the control of the Assad dictatorship, where hospitals, schools and children are being bombed by the regime and its Russian allies every day.”
Joining For Sama, The Cave and Honeyland in the Best Documentary Feature race are American Factory from directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert and The Edge of Democracy, directed by Petra Costa. Both of those titles are from Netflix. American Factory also marks the first film executive produced by Higher Ground Productions, the company established by President Obama and Michelle Obama, which has a distribution deal with Netflix (the Obamas came on board American Factory after it had been completed).
The biggest surprise in the Best Documentary Feature category was the absence of Apollo 11, Todd Douglas Miller's film about the NASA mission to land the first astronauts on the moon. It was snubbed, despite winning numerous awards, including Best Documentary at the Critics' Choice Documentary Awards, and earning more money in theatrical release than any other nonfiction film in 2019.
In the Best International Feature Film category, Honeyland will face the heavily-favored Parasite, Bong Joon Ho's celebrated film about class struggle in South Korea, along with Pain and Glory from Pedro Almodóvar, Corpus Christi, directed by Jan Komasa, and Les Misérables from director Ladj Ly.
One other note of interest -- veteran documentary filmmaker Marshall Curry (Street Fight; A Night at the Garden) earned an Oscar nomination in the Best Live Action Short category, for his film The Neighbors' Window.
In a statement provided to Nonfictionfilm.com, Curry commented, "I’ve always thought of myself as a documentary filmmaker so I was nervous to leap off of the cliff and try writing and directing fiction. But I had an amazing team of collaborators – a brilliant cast and crew -- and it’s a huge thrill to have the film receive this attention.”
Oprah Winfrey Pulls Out of Kirby Dick-Amy Ziering #MeToo Documentary: 'I Feel It's Best to Step Aside'
Untitled film about Russell Simmons accuser yanked from Apple TV+ schedule, but will still premiere at Sundance: 'The film is a beacon of hope for voices that have long been suppressed'
Oprah Winfrey has pulled her name off the high profile Untitled Kirby Dick-Amy Ziering Documentary about minority women and the #MeToo movement, saying she doesn't think it's ready to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in two weeks.
The film focuses on several African-American women who allege they were sexually abused or assaulted by powerful men in the music industry, but kept silent about it until the #MeToo movement took hold. The documentary's main character is former record executive Drew Dixon who accused hiphop mogul Russell Simmons of raping her in 1995. After Winfrey's role as executive producer of the film came to light, Simmons and rapper 50 Cent criticized her on social media.
"First and foremost, I want it to be known that I unequivocally believe and support the women," Winfrey insisted in a statement. "Their stories deserve to be told and heard. In my opinion, there is more work to be done on the film to illuminate the full scope of what the victims endured and it has become clear that the filmmakers and I are not aligned in that creative vision."
The statement continued, "Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering are talented filmmakers. I have great respect for their mission but given the filmmakers’ desire to premiere the film at the Sundance Film Festival before I believe it is complete, I feel it’s best to step aside."
The #MeToo experiences of Black women deserve to be heard, especially against powerful men, so we will continue with our plans to bring the film to The Sundance Film Festival.
Winfrey also said the documentary won't air on Apple TV+, where she has a production deal, as originally announced.
Dick and Ziering won acclaim for investigating sexual assault in the military in The Invisible War (2012) and the epidemic of rape on college campuses in The Hunting Ground (2015). After news of Winfrey's departure from the film came out, the filmmakers issued a statement of their own in which they say they are going forward with the Sundance premiere.
"Revealing hard truths is never easy, and the women in our documentary are all showing extraordinary strength and courage by raising their voices to address sexual abuse in the music industry," Dick and Ziering wrote. "While we are disappointed that Oprah Winfrey is no longer an Executive Producer on the project, we are gratified that Winfrey has unequivocally said she believes and supports the survivors in the film.
"The #MeToo experiences of Black women deserve to be heard, especially against powerful men, so we will continue with our plans to bring the film to The Sundance Film Festival. This film, more than two years in the making, will be our eighth film to premiere at Sundance.
"The film is a beacon of hope for voices that have long been suppressed, and an inspiration for anyone wanting to regain their personal power.”
Sundance extols the film in its online catalogue.
"Untitled Kirby Dick/Amy Ziering Film is a gripping, complex study of race, gender, and the shared feelings of helplessness and terror that come from abuse," according to the festival program. "Through her bravery, Dixon inspired many previously silenced women to share their stories. These incredibly strong silence-breakers discuss their reluctance to add to the dangerous mythology and vilification of black men, resulting in their refusal to make those allegations public for decades. Untitled Kirby Dick/Amy Ziering Film is a well-needed impetus for broad positive change—not just in the music industry but throughout the world."
Dixon was an executive at Def Jam, the record label co-founded by Simmons. She told the New York Times in 2017 that Simmons sexually harassed her repeatedly during her time at the company, then raped her at her apartment in 1995. Three other women have accused Simmons of rape. In a statement to the New York Times for the 2017 article, Simmons wrote, "I vehemently deny all these allegations. These horrific accusations have shocked me to my core and all of my relations have been consensual.”
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.