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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.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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