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The New Doc Crop: Surveying the Standouts at Three April Fests

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By Jonny Leahan/indieWIRE

When it comes to documentary film festivals, April has evolved into a key month, featuring some important festivals around the globe, among them the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in the United States, Hot Docs in Canada, and the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival in Greece. Since its launch in 1998, the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival has been one of these, and seems to outdo itself every year. Centered around the historic Carolina Theater in Durham, North Carolina, the festival is removed enough from the big cities to allow for a laser focus on non-fiction filmmaking, while still providing enough culture and youthful energy to make for a truly enjoyable time.

With 55 features in competition at Full Frame, in its relatively short April 7-10 run (kicking off tonight), it’s hard to say what audiences are looking forward to most, but there are a handful of world premieres that seem to have a heightened buzz surrounding them. Among these is Dani Menkin’s “39 Pounds of Love,” which follows the fascinating life of Ami, a man born with a rare form of muscular dystrophy that caused his doctor to predict he wouldn’t live past the age of six. Now 34 years old, and weighing only 39 pounds, Ami has stunned everyone by surviving, even though he can’t move any part of his body — except for one finger. What starts out as an attempt to document his extraordinary life as a 3D animator in Israel becomes a quest to track down and confront the American doctor who predicted his early demise.

Another highly anticipated debut at Full Frame is Holly Paige Joyner’s “Pack Strap Swallow,” which enters the tragic world of the women’s prison in Quito, Ecuador. Many of the inmates are there because they were caught smuggling drugs, either by packing them, strapping them to their bodies, or swallowing them. There are even European and American women, some who got involved in crimes unwittingly, who tell of their struggle to survive behind bars for years in this real life version of “Midnight Express.” The film’s U.S. pay TV rights were recently acquired by Sundance Channel.

In another kind of struggle entirely, Marshall Curry’s “Street Fight” documents a heated political battle in Newark, New Jersey. In 2001, City Councilman Cory Booker challenged incumbent Mayor Sharpe James for leadership of one of Jersey’s toughest cities. “Street Fight” follows the contentious race from start to finish, exposing the complicated connections between identity politics and electoral politics in modern American life. This flat-out barroom brawl of a race is the perfect microcosm for campaigns at the highest level, exposing just how dirty politics can get.

Also wrapping up April 10 is the ten-day Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, which is considered Greece’s top event of its kind. In its 7th year, the festival is again focusing on “Images of the 21st Century,” featuring 125 films in over a dozen special sections. Standouts include Austrian Director Hubert Sauper’s “Darwin’s Nightmare” and Bulgarian Director Andrey Paounov’s “Georgi and the Butterflies.”

In “Darwin’s Nightmare,” a strange 1960s Africa is revealed, where a new animal was introduced into Lake Victoria during a scientific experiment. The predatory Nile Perch destroyed nearly all the indigenous species of fish, but the new fish reproduced so quickly that it’s sold in seafood markets around the world to this day. The huge industry that has built up around it has become tangled in arms sales, and the area has mutated into a bizarre culture of World Bank agents, homeless children, Tanzanian prostitutes and Russian pilots.

Perhaps equally as strange is “Georgi and the Butterflies,” which recounts the story of Dr. Georgi Lulchev, a man with a singular vision. The good doctor is not only a psychiatrist and neurologist, but also the Director of the Home for Psychologically Challenged Men. His dream is to create a farm on the grounds of the compound where patients can raise things like ostriches, snails, and soybeans. In a country where 80 percent of the people are poor, Georgi tries all manner of methods to raise funds for his projects, and even in the face of failure he’s unrelentingly enthusiastic.

Later this month, the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival takes Toronto by storm for its 12th year, running April 22 – May 1. Many of the 100+ films featured in the festival are world premieres, and although there isn’t space to cover all the gems here, a small selection of the more anticipated docs include “The Cross and Bones,” “Homemade Hillbilly Jam,” and “Malfunkshun.”

In “The Cross and Bones,” Canadian director Paul Carrière explores the origin of life as seen by the residents of Drumheller, Alberta, home to the richest dinosaur graveyard in the world. The bones buried here prove that dinosaurs roamed the area millions of years ago, but a group of local Christians aren’t buying that theory. As hometown pastor and real estate agent D’Arcy Browning puts on an elaborate Passion Play (including lepers), paleontologist Paul Johnson dismisses them as he continues to unearth evidence of evolution. In the middle of it all, a gang of bikers rolls into town to party for the weekend, adding a third ring to this already absurd circus.

In another curious look at rural life, this time in the Ozarks, director Rick Minnich (“Heaven on Earth”) explores the lives of mountain musicians in “Homemade Hillbilly Jam.” Focusing on the Bilyeu family, the film follows a brother, his sister and their cousins as they form the band Big Smith. Armed with only a guitar, a mandolin, a bass fiddle and a washboard, they create music true to their roots while bringing the house down around them. As their music evolves, so does their audience, but they never forsake their hillbilly DNA on this rich journey through a cultural legacy.

In another highly anticipated music documentary, Scot Barbour’s “Malfunkshun” serves as a love letter to obscure musician Andrew Wood. As the charismatic lead singer of Mother Love Bone, Wood was a huge influence on the Seattle music scene, but died of an overdose in 1990, just before the band’s debut album was to be released. Band members Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament went on to form Pearl Jam, but Barbour makes sure that Wood’s story is not forgotten — told here with captivating home movies, unreleased songs, and heartfelt interviews with family and friends.

Copyright 2005 indieWIRE.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.