Brooklyn Film Festival’s 21st Season Delivered Its Finest Cinema To Date!

The 10-day Brooklyn Film Festival Wrapped up its 21st Season. And its festival slogan: “Bad times make great art” undoubtedly established a theme for an array of sentimental, political, satirical, activist, and unflinchingly honest films projected on screens all throughout Brooklyn. What was glaringly different from last year’s festival? Filmmakers commanded the audiences’ attention with their eye-opening subject matter: global female exploitation and oppression, political strife – domestically and internationally, mental illness, prison reform, terrorism and racism. Yes, there was some comedic relief in the mix – worthy of artistic recognition, but 2018’s films I mention below will grab hold of your sensibilities and perceptions of the world with a winding rollercoaster ride of emotions.

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Photo: Courtesy of Brooklyn Film Festival

Winner of Best Documentary, “Afghan Cycles” takes you on a journey with the first National Cycling Team for girls in Afghanistan. It’s heart-wrenching to learn, watch and try to fathom the obstacles these girls, featured in the film, endure to be free – to enjoy their favorite hobby: cycling, all while succumbing to oppressive conditions placed on them by their country. It’s often said, that you don’t know what you have until it is gone, is fitting to describe the sacrifices the subjects make to live out their life’s dreams. Director, Sara Menzies seamlessly captures this poignant narrative and makes the audience sympathize and root for these girls.

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Photo: Courtesy of Brooklyn Film Festival

Two films about prison life, albeit with starkly opposite narratives are “Hidden BluePrints: The Story of Mikey” and “Prison Logic.” “Hidden Blueprints,” a documentary short by prisoner turned filmmaker, Jeremy Lee Mackenzie is auto-biographical and describes his time in a Kentucky prison as a teenager, after a bank robbery and drug-trafficking charges put him there. The jail that housed Mackenzie burned to the ground after a riot. The director illustrates his time in prison through intricate art and a praying mantis named Mikey – both cathartic outlets to get him through the trials and monotony of life in jail– which later fate manifests into creative professional endeavors. It’s a refreshing perspective on prison life, emphasizing a willingness and fortitude a person can muster to turn their life around. With hope and creativity – anything is possible. The narrative feature “Prison Logic” by multi-talented actor, writer, and first-time director, Romany Malco Jr. gives us the story of Tijuana Jackson, a character he’s been playing on-and-off on the web since 2007, now immortalized on screen. Tijuana Jackson has a dream of becoming a motivational speaker, but his penchant for not following the rules, coupled with his ball-busting, by-the-book parole officer, played by the supremely talented and ageless actress, Regina Hall, present many obstacles in his quest for stardom. We see many stereotypical nuances and gags in this film genre, but Romany Malco Jr. does a great job to inflect humor, evoke laughter from the audience at the right time, and make these scenes memorable. “Prison Logic” won the Best Actor, Male and Best Editing Awards.

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Photo: Courtesy of Brooklyn Film Festival

Three female directed films about female oppression that made a huge impact at this year’s festival are: experimental short, “That Part,” narrative features “Are You Glad I’m Here?” and “Can Hitler Happen Here?” Directors Mia Sorenson and Catherine Delaloye’s experimental short “That Part” is a 4-minute spoken word film exploring adversity, inequality, and the ongoing challenges women face in everyday life; voiced by women from different backgrounds and captured visually by dancers expressing the words’ intensity through choreographed dance. This film’s powerful message to women to champion and persevere for their rights – to live freely and happily – on their own terms, is necessary.

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Photo: Courtesy of Brooklyn Film Festival

When a curious-yet-naive 20-something American (Kristin) teaching English in Beirut crosses paths with a resilient, yet unhappy 30-something Lebanese housewife (Nadine) – an unusual friendship forms that will compromise each woman’s moral beliefs, we have the film: “Are You Glad I’m Here?” Director, Noor Fay Gaharzeddine does a wonderful job of developing these two characters’ friendship organically, as each woman attempts to learn more about the other’s culture. Tensions rise and each must face a shocking truth about Nadine’s abusive husband that will determine their future. Awarded the Audience Award for Best Original Score, this film addresses complex female relationships we need to see more of in cinema.

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Photo: Courtesy of Brooklyn Film Festival

The third female-directed film by Saskia Rifkin awarded the Best Female Actor award is “Can Hitler Happen Here?” Rifkin shoots the film in black and white and her female lead is 74 years old – a reclusive artist played by Laura Esterman (Miriam Kohen) with candor and conviction. Rifkin allows us to enter Miriam’s mind while she endures endless harassment by her neighbors who insist she conform to societal norms and presentation, when Miriam refuses and holds her ground, we enter her shifting psyche’s interpretation of her neighbors’ motives, her sexuality, and creative persona – all clashing to make sense of her current situation. “Can Hitler Happen Here?” explores taboo subject matter through the eyes of a septuagenarian – that is captivatingly eccentric – and we are here for it!

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Photo: Courtesy of Brooklyn Film Festival

Lastly, a film that explores the universal themes of family and loss are present in “My Country.” The film about two brothers, one American, one Italian – who’ve never met – take a road trip together to spread their late father’s ashes in the small town (Molise, Italy) where he was born. As the brothers get to know one another, cultures collide, and each find faults in the other, they contemplate their situation and wonder whether they should continue their journey together. The beautiful Italian countryside, its warm and inviting residents, the bittersweet interactions between actor/director, Giancarlo Iannotta and his on-screen brother (Antonio Palumbo) will make you hug your sibling and forget your rivalries – for good!

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Photo: Courtesy of Brooklyn Film Festival

Brooklyn Film Festival’s 21st season has come to end, but the extraordinary films they showcased and hosted will not. To learn more about the Brooklyn Film Festival’s line-up and the films featured in this article, click here.

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The Brooklyn Film Festival’s 21st Season is Upon Us: Get Ready for Love, Loss, Triumph and Controversy

The Brooklyn Film Festival is back with a vengeance – an artistic, thought-provoking reprisal – in the form of documentaries, features, narrative and animated shorts meant to strike a nerve, inform and leave audiences with a welcomed or unwelcomed – shock to the system. The film festival kicked off its 21st season at the Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn with a treasure trove of documentaries produced by The New York Times and a mix of animated and experimental films from the Brooklyn Film Festival. The 10-day festival is comprised of approximately 125 features and shorts from 30 countries spread over all continents, except Antarctica. The lineup includes 19 world premieres, 21 from the USA – 37 east coast debuts and 30 first-time screenings in New York City. The festival will present in total 36 short narrative films, 16 short documentary films, 25 animated films and 20 experimental films. There is bound to be a film for all tastes in this roster of diverse presentations from around the globe.

I’m a film buff and constantly seek out new and exciting films – especially independent films that will stake a claim on my brain and will leave me deep in thought for days. Two films that have ambushed my psyche so far: “Lieutenant of the Alt-Right” and “The Story of Esraa.” As the title suggests, “Lieutenant of the Alt-Right” is about one of the members of an extremist, white nationalist group. At first, I scoffed at this documentary, but as I was watched the film’s subject, Eli Mosley, a rising white supremacist leader, whose deep-rooted white male inadequacies was becoming the focus of his drive to spew hate and present himself as an American hero – was quickly challenged in the film. Bravo! To filmmakers, Emma Cott and Andrew Michael Ellis for letting the narrative take shape and expose Eli Mosley and his group’s false, albeit dangerous beliefs, and shed light on to an unfortunate rising movement.

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Photo: Courtesy of Times Documentaries

The second film that left a lasting impression on me is: “The Story of Esraa” – a young 20-something woman who challenges Egypt’s system by attempting to live her life free of her country’s constraints on family, religion, and personal freedoms as she embarks to rent an apartment with her like-minded friends, only to find obstacles and disappointment. This film will resonate with everyone who’s struggled to find their identity and establish themselves on own their own terms. I felt sorrow and hope for this woman, and as I chatted with one of the filmmakers, Mona El-Naggar, Mark Meatto, and Yousur Al-Hlou, I learned about Esraa’s story further. It made me question the freedoms and choices I currently have in the U.S., but for how long? With this administration at the helm chipping away at our Democratic freedoms daily, who’s to say, we can’t find ourselves like Esraa one day?

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Photo: Courtesy of Times Documentaries

The accompanying films on opening night were fantastic as well. The animated short from Italian director Fausto Montanari, “Weird” about girls being different and perceived as odd is a painstaking glimpse of society’s judgmental lens on how we see each other and ourselves. “Deportation Deadline’s” subject matter, by directors Brent McDonald, John Woo, and Jonah M. Kessel is straight from our current news cycle, as many families are continuously torn apart by ICE agents with deportation orders enforced by the Trump administration. The relevancy is strikingly accurate and telling of the injustices currently happening to undocumented immigrants in our country.

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Photo: Courtesy of Brooklyn Film Festival

The Brooklyn Film Festival’s (BFF) theme this year is: “Bad times make great art.” And I for one can’t wait to see what’s in store for the duration of this provocative festival that has been staging international and competitive films and independent production of films and drawing worldwide attention to Brooklyn as a center for cinema. BFF promotes artistic excellence and creative freedom without censure, and has done so since 1998. To see an encore of The New York Times produced documentaries and the Brooklyn Film Festival’s stellar films, click here for ticket info, venues, dates and times. Viva la Cinema!

 

Jonathan Baker Discusses The Resilience of Filmmaking in his New Documentary: ‘Becoming Iconic’

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Photo: courtesy of Jonathan Baker

Jonathan Baker isn’t new to the Hollywood scene. In fact, the writer, producer, entrepreneur and first-time director has immersed himself in show business for the last two decades – one interesting venture at a time. His appearance in “Amazing Race” season 6 along with his then wife, Victoria, sparked controversy, but that didn’t deter him from pursuing worthwhile opportunities and make his artistic mark in entertainment. Serving as writer/producer on Warner Bros.’s Through Scavullo’s Eyes, a documentary on fashion photographer, Francesco Scavullo and the comedy, Dirty Tennis, starring Dick Van Patten and Nicolette Sheridan – earned Baker The VSDA and the New York Film Festival Award for Best Comedy Video of the Year.

Back in the film festival circuit with his new documentary: Becoming Iconic, premiering at the Manhattan Film festival, April 21st, Baker presents audiences with a captivating look at what it’s really like to be a first-time director and directing a feature-length Hollywood film. The documentary chronicles Baker’s experience making his first feature film, Inconceivable – released June 2017, and interjects interviews with industry titans: directors, Jodie Foster (Money Monster, Little Man Tate, Netflix’s “Black Mirror”), Adrian Lyne (Fatal Attraction, Jacob’s Ladder), Taylor Hackford (Ray, Dolores Claiborne) and John Badham (Saturday Night Fever, Short Circuit) on their experiences with directing – particularly the struggles and rewarding moments they endured. Inconceivable is billed as a “sexy dramatic thriller” and is about an unhinged woman (Nicky Whelan) escaping her abusive past that moves to a new town and befriends a mother (Gina Gershon) with fertility challenges and supporting husband (Nicholas Cage). Whelan’s character becomes obsessed with Angela’s (Gina Gershon) daughter. There really isn’t anything “sexy” or “thrilling” about women not being able to conceive naturally or the process of egg donation, but I was intrigued to discover the impetus behind the making of this film and what led to it’s production. The screenplay, penned by Chloe King (“Red Shoe Diaries”, Poison Ivy II) is the daughter of Zalman King, who made erotica films popular with 9 ½ Weeks and Wild Orchid. As I watched Becoming Iconic, I quickly stopped to think about the nuances of making a film, Baker’s painstaking challenges in the film depicted with candor and put my thoughts about Inconceivable to the side. I recently chatted with Jonathan Baker on his journey to filmmaking, lessons learned, and what the future holds for this eclectic risk taker.

DSMC: What was the defining moment you knew you wanted to be a director?

Jonathan Baker: It wasn’t about being a director. Directing became part of my journey. Because I’m a control freak, I didn’t want to work on a project and leave final say up to someone else. I wanted to do it myself. I want to own it from beginning to end. Two directors that influenced me are Robert Evans and Warren Beatty. I was playing poker with Robert Evans once and he said: “Jonathan, if you don’t own your content they’ll run you over.” And, that scared me to the core. That was 20 years ago. He said, “You either write it or you buy it. Because if not, you’ll never have the control you want.” I kept that under my hat for a long time. Wanting to be a creator, but not necessarily a director. Then I ran into Warren Beatty and he said “Jonathan, if you can write and produce and do all this stuff, you might as well direct. I told Warren that there are other people out here who can do it better than me. Beatty said, “If you don’t direct your own pictures you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.” These are all monumental moments that you’re absorbing. Whether you get what you want or don’t. You’re still scared shitless! It doesn’t matter. I’m a filmmaker, and I love all aspects of this business. I love to touch every point of it and that’s why I put myself in as an actor in the film.

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Photo: courtesy of Jonathan Baker, Jodie Foster with Jonathan Baker

DSMC: How did your relationship with Warren Beatty come about? How did you first meet? I know he was very influential in the work that you’ve done with Inconceivable, Becoming Iconic?

Jonathan Baker: Warren was introduced to me through Hugh Hefner. I would play cards with him every Wednesday. Every Sunday, Hugh would have movie night at his house. I was peripherally hanging out and was able to get to know him. Ten years later, we were still friends and Warren was looking to sell his house. He had never sold a piece of property ever. I convinced him to sell me his house. Reluctantly, he did. It’s kind of him passing the torch, from old Hollywood to new Hollywood.

DSMC: While making Becoming Iconic, you were also directing your first feature, Inconceivable – which wasn’t the film you initially wanted to direct. When everything was said and done with the production partners, Emmett/Furla, and the studio, Lionsgate, what was the outcome of these relationships?

Jonathan Baker: I wanted to make Fate and Icon simultaneously. Lionsgate just sat by and let everything unfold. They were more interested in protecting the entity instead of protecting the film and me. Emmett/Furla and I have run into problems. Sometimes you say what you do and do what you say. And, when that doesn’t happen, I don’t take that lying down pretty quickly. I’m a force to be reckoned with. I got the job done. You take the high road in this business. Because of the relationship with Inconceivable and me owning 50% of the copyright – I only had half the say. Going forward, I will own the full copyright. That’s where the real problems came about. At the end of the day you make your decisions and have to live with the decisions you execute. As a director, I’m responsible for the content. I worked with Emmett/Furla because they brought in 50% of the financing, but I didn’t let our disagreements get in the way of making the film.

DSMC: How did you connect with documentary filmmaker Neil Thibedeau to make Becoming Iconic?

 Back when I was with CAA (Creative Artists Agency) and talking to Warren Beatty, I went on a quest to interview all these directors; the love of them, the love of their work. For me, the greatest part of learning is getting these commentaries. The commentaries are fascinating. I loved it! The things that you don’t know – that you don’t understand about movies. I thought would be great to start with Warren Beatty. And, work my way down the list. It was a journey for me. Many of the greats didn’t make it into the documentary: Mel Gibson, Sylvester Stallone, Kevin Costner. When I was in the midst of collecting all this information, Lionsgate had asked me to direct. And, I had all this footage of these interviews. I thought, maybe I can juxtapose these interviews with my stories. I got Neil to come in and tell my story. In the middle of telling the story we ran into issues with Inconceivable. I sugarcoated it pretty well. It was interesting to say the least. I thought I was going insane, but when I called up these directors, they confirmed that all these obstacles were part of the filmmaking experience. It was just really worse for me.

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Photo: courtesy of Jonathan Baker, on the set of Inconceivable, Nicolas Cage and Jonathan Baker

DSMC: Were you discouraged as a first-time filmmaker by the negative reviews Inconceivable received? Did these affect you? Is this par for the course?

Jonathan Baker: I read them. When you have an ego, and put yourself in a movie, make a documentary and you want to write and direct it, the haters are out there. I get it. The thing is this: if they’re not writing about you then you’re in worse shape. Inconceivable is popcorn movie for women. With this film, the substance was cornered by the performances and that’s what we all had to work with. What I would disagree with is all the people’s commentary. I read them too. I don’t fight their reviews. As long as people actually saw the movie and have something to say about it. For me, the journey of reviews is taken with a grain of salt. Given the options, limitations, and pressures I was put under by the studio, I’m happy with the results of Inconceivable.

DSMC: What do you want emerging filmmakers to take away from Becoming Iconic?

Jonathan Baker: First of all, like Project Greenlight, this documentary needs to be shown in all the colleges and film classes. It’s a 101 requisite for this business. I give complete insights into not making an independent film, but a studio film. What it takes. How hard it is to hold your vision because it’s extremely easy to be derailed from your vision by producers, studios or even production staff. You have to be completely malleable, but still a leader. These are the most important elements from Becoming Iconic. What I hope people can relate to. I get to step alongside these iconic directors that have made a difference and convey their knowledge to others. The greatest gift each of us can offer one another is education, understanding, and guidance. That’s how we are human.

Becoming Iconic will premiere at the Manhattan Film Festival Saturday, April 21, 2018 at the Cinema Village. For more information on the screening and to get tickets, click here. To learn more about Jonathan Baker’s new films and fashion projects, click here.