Documentary Feature


The Dog, directed by Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren, is ten years in the making. You can find it in theaters on August 8th and on VOD August 15.

An intimate portrait of the vivacious John Wojtowicz, the inspiration behind Al Pacino’s character in Sidney Lumet’s Oscar®-Nominated Dog Day Afternoon.

Coming of age in the 1960s, John Wojtowicz took pride in being a pervert. His libido was excessive even by the libertine standards of the era, with multiple wives and
lovers, both women and men.

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Sasha first posted an except from Roger Ebert’s memoir in July 2011. In 2012 I posted news that it would become the basis for a film — featuring tweets from Ebert himself. Glad to have shared this journey with Mr. Ebert. (Trailer after the cut.)

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The big winners tonight at the Cinema Eye doc awards were the brilliant Act of Killing, along with Sarah Polley for director.  Too bad Blackfish did not win the audience award.   Winners from HR:

Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Feature Filmmaking
The Act of Killing, Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer

Outstanding Achievement in Direction
Sarah Polley, Stories We Tell

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Naturally the multi-billion dollar corporation will use their deep pockets to once again wrestle the truth from the American people about the treatment of whales at Sea World.  They’ve spent twenty years on a carefully executed PR campaign to make people think what was going on at Sea World was perfectly fine.  In truth, it is anything but fine. When America’s sweetheart, Trisha Yearwood, canceled her performance there it had to hurt.  Thus, today they have launched a VERY expensive ad campaign to try to do some 11th hour damage control. Blackfish has CNN.  It might have the Oscar race too (fingers crossed) but SeaWorld has not only unlimited funds but people who generally want to believe that it is one of the happiest places on earth.  That SeaWorld is running scared is probably a good thing – it means they are hurting from the bad publicity. Go, Blackfish, go.

SeaWorld would not say how much it spent on the newspaper ads, which could soon be followed by an online campaign. But the move suggests that the company, whose 11 theme parks drew a combined 24.4 million visitors last year, is concerned about potential long-term brand damage from “Blackfish,” a small-budget film that began as an entrant to the Sundance Film Festival in January and was just shortlisted for an Academy Award.

The film chronicles the capture and captivity of Tilikum, the 6-ton killer whale at SeaWorld Orlando who killed trainerDawn Brancheau in February 2010. Although “Blackfish” grossed only about $2.1 million during limited theatrical release this summer, it has repeatedly aired on CNN and this week debuted on Netflix’s popular streaming-video service.



Yearwood has joined a growing list of celebrities and bands (Heart, Cheap Trick, Barenaked ladies, Willie Nelson, etc) who have canceled their appearances at SeaWorld because of the revealing look at the inner workings and treatment of orcas. SeaWorld has mounted a PR campaign for twenty years to make us all believe it’s just fine and dandy with the happy whales at SeaWorld. Nothing could be farther from the truth. People won’t watch Blackfish but they should – it’s important to know why there are so many complaints against the billion dollar corporation. Chief among them its inhumane and shameful treatment of the big black male orca, Tilikum. Used for sperm and breeding purposes only after killing trainers, he was ripped from his mother when he was a baby and has been forced to perform tricks and survive in tiny bathtubs his entire life. Why wouldn’t that make a normally harmless (to humans) whale turn psychotic – it would do that to any animal, but especially to such intelligent creatures as these. As smart as we humans are we have turned a blind eye to our own barbarism for too long. It’s time to stop SeaWorld. Here’s hoping Oscar nominates the film so that more people become aware of this pressing issue.



Did you know that Teller of Penn and Teller actually speaks? Not only does he speak but he speaks very well. Arriving at the Geffen Playhouse on yet another ridiculously perfect day in Westwood, California, I had no idea what to expect. “Hi, I’m Teller,” he said to me. He greeted me with warmth and a firm handshake. I was caught slightly off guard. Maybe I thought he would communicate with me in some other way than simply speaking to me. He noticed my shock and put me at ease immediately. He probably has to do this with some admirer at least once a day — A repetitive cycle, no doubt, as each person not in the know uncovers this fact about him: he speaks.

He sat next to me, leaning back on the plush sofa. But he really isn’t the kind of person who sits back and makes you, the interviewer, do all of the work. Not long after he sat down he leaned forward, even adjusting himself on the edge of the sofa – engaged, interested, with the kind of active mind that misses nothing. Don’t act like an idiot, I told myself, and you can converse with him, clearly one of the smartest people on the planet.
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2013 International Documentary Awards Nominations


Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
Producers: Joshua Oppenheimer, Signe Byrge Sørensen
Executive Producers: Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, Torstein Grude, André Singer, Joram ten Brink,
Bjarte Mørner Tveit
Drafthouse Films

Directors: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Producer: Manuel V. Oteyza
Writers: Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Eli Despres
Executive Producers: Judy Bart, Erica Kahn
Magnolia Pictures

Director/Producer: Jason Osder
Executive Producer: Andrew Herwitz
The George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs

Director/Writer: Sarah Polley
Producer: Anita Lee
Roadside Attractions

Director: Jehane Noujaim
Producer: Karim Amer
Noujaim Films
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Last week, Steve Pond reported that Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell is indeed eligible for the Documentary feature category. The Act of Killing is also eligible. From Pond’s story, a list of eligible films also includes:

Lucy Walker’s “The Crash Reel,” Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s “Blackfish,” Jacob Kornbluth’s “Inequality for All,” Martha Shane’s and Lana Wilson’s “After Tiller,” Alex Gibney’s “The Armstrong Lie,” Jehane Noujaim’s “The Square,” Errol Morris’ “The Unknown Known,” Morgan Neville’s “Twenty Feet From Stardom,” Dave Grohl’s “Sound City,” Teller’s “Tim’s Vermeer,” Frederick Wiseman’s “At Berkeley,” Roger Ross Williams’ “God Loves Uganda,” Sean Fine’s and Andrea Nix Fine’s “The World According to Sam” … and 136 others, all fighting to be seen by enough voters.

I have mostly given up predicting this category. The most well known films don’t always get in, and some of the best ones get left off. Somehow, though, I can see these three getting in: Blackfish, Stories We Tell, The Act of Killing and possibly Tim’s Vermeer. Of those, here’s hoping Blackfish wins. While Stories We Tell is an incredibly moving film and would give Sarah Polley the chance to win a well deserved Oscar, Blackfish can maybe change the world for the better. And that trumps all, in my opinion. But what do I know.
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The astonishing documentary Blackfish, which could see a lot more publicity if it manages an Oscar nod, or maybe a win, has been giving Seaworld some heat. In response, Seaworld has announced it will install exercise machines for the orcas. Oh goodie. Make them do more work just to have them perform.  The breeding in captivity has to end. The remaining orcas must be given therapy and reintroduced to the open sea. Anything short of that continues their greedy and inhumane treatment of the orcas.  But it’s nice to see that they are at least trying to show that they, in a tiny way, do feel the impact of this movie.

Meanwhile, Blackfish will be airing on CNN on October 24.  We’ll call that “shit hitting the fan day.” It is also available for pre-order on November 12 on Amazon.


The critics are hating the new doc Salinger with an unbridled passion not seen since The Lone Ranger. Most of them keep saying “it’s a film Salinger would have hated,” neglecting to also add that not only would Salinger hate the film but he would hate any film. He would also hate everyone who ever saw or wrote a review about the film. He would hate anyone who presumed what he would and wouldn’t hate.

(I think it’s an interesting look at the author’s life, even with its “flaws”)

Either way, here’s the new trailer.



That sales are down only 6% is not nearly enough to make SeaWorld grow a conscience. But it is a start. Blackfish is now available on iTunes and DVD – if you haven’t seen it, you really ought to. Most people will want to avoid it, especially animal lovers. But I would say that’s the least we could do, considering the worldwide damage to the animal population we humans have caused since we arrived millions of years ago.  Robert Redford said back in Telluride that we are obligated to put something back when we take something away, and I can find no better way to give something back than to, at the very least, watch Blackfish.

Either way, here’s to hoping SeaWorld is forced to making dramatic changes to the way they use intelligent creatures like Orcas for entertainment.  Yes, it’s only for entertainment. It’s not for food, it’s not for preservation of the species, it is so that little Johnnie can have a tiny burst of happiness while he chokes down a corndog and a slurpee.

Meanwhile, SeaWorld continues to make millions on the backs of these creatures.  Their PR machine has convinced families that SeaWorld is a happy place with happy animals. But Blackfish is here to dispute that.



Who hasn’t been captivated at one time or another by J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, one of the greatest American novels ever written. Probably we shouldn’t need to know much about the genius behind the book because, as the genius himself admits, the work should speak for itself. And indeed, Catcher in the Rye has spoken to many for decades, in ways good and bad. Is it Salinger’s fault that so many crazies identify with Holden Caufield’s shunning of the adult world? Or was he merely tapping into the modern American psyche post WWII? Do young, smart, white men feel isolated by what the world has become and do they find an ally in Holden?

The new doc, called simply Salinger, had its premiere at Telluride this morning. Director Shane Salerno had been working on the film for ten years. Keeping close wraps on the information contained in the film (based on the book by David Shields and Salreno was of utmost importance but all of that rolled out today. So fresh was much of this news to the audience that Joyce Maynard (here for Jason Reitman’s Labor Day, upon which her novel is based), who attended the screening, had mascara smeared under her eyes from tears she shed. Later, after the screening and in the lobby, Maynard said that over the past twenty years not a day has gone by that she hasn’t thought of Salinger.

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It does seem kind of hopeless to imagine that SeaWorld really will do the right thing and end their killer whale circus act. I’d say they ought to end the dolphin show too but the more pressing matter are the whales, Tilikum in particular, who is still living in a bathtub, exiled away from the other whales, used only to milk semen from to breed yet more whales so SeaWorld can make yet more millions off of these beautiful, intelligent creatures.  How did we ever get here? Propaganda by SeaWorld, which has been fooling ticket buyers into thinking everything was A-okay in orca land.  But once a trainer was killed in public everyone started to wonder what was really going on.  Now we know.

This is one of the reasons US News’ Jeff Nesbit calls Blackfish the “most important documentary of the year.”  Blackfish has also made a deal to expand to Europe.

In his review for Salon, Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir meditates on the question, what then must we do? Where do we draw the line between what creatures should be spared and which should be used for our own amusement or food? Do we draw the line at exceptional intelligence? The smarter the animal the more likely they are to be exploited by humans? Chimps used for lab research lowers our humanity to such a degree any progress we made in researching those chimps is wiped clean. How many more SeaWorld trainers are going to leave their jobs disgusted at what they saw go down? Awareness has to start somewhere. We are the most intelligent animals on the planet and yet we’re the most cruel. Some say cats are cruel because they play with their pray before killing – but believe me, cats got nothing on us. Says O’Hehir:

No spokesperson for SeaWorld, the venerable American chain of oceanariums and marine mammal parks that owns almost half of the world’s captive orcas, or killer whales, ever appears on camera in Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s devastating documentary “Blackfish.” SeaWorld is quite right to view “Blackfish” as an existential threat, since the film attacks not just the parks’ wholesome public image but also the basic morality of their business model. In a time-honored but dubious maneuver, SeaWorld declined to cooperate with Cowperthwaite (who spoke to Salon’s Daniel D’Addario this week) in any way during the making of the film but then launched a vigorous P.R. counteroffensive before the movie had even reached theaters. Most of the disputed issues in the film are relatively minor, and on the semiotic level, the meaning of all this is clear: This is what big companies do when they have something to hide and a lot to lose.

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Official site for Blackfish, with screenings and info is here.

Most of us don’t know what goes on behind the Sea World propaganda curtain. For over twenty years they’ve been selling the animal stunts at Sea World like it was Disneyland — they sell stuffed whales and tiny bursts of happiness to children.

In Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s unforgettable new documentary Blackfish we come to know one whale, Tilikum, a giant, 4 thousand pound orca who killed a trainer in an incident that made headlines and stripped away the truth about whales in captivity. Though it would have been forgotten, and the Sea World empire held intact were it not for Cowperthwaite’s film. In horrifying detail, the unimaginable life of Tilikum is played out. Back in the ’70s fishing boats hunted orcas and stole their babies from them to sell at amusement parks.  When they would do this, the entire family of orcas would hover nearby, speaking to their young. When one of the hunters saw this he burst into tears. To this day it’s the worst thing he’s ever done, he said.

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Strange things are happening to our democracy. Maybe we saw them coming, maybe we didn’t but Capitalism has led to a sharp divide between the haves and the have-nots.  It wasn’t supposed to be like this. It was supposed to be about the free market and competition. But labor was sent overseas, factories closed, the middle class began to disappear. What do we have, though, that many other countries don’t? What do we scream from the rooftops at times like this? Freedom of speech, dawg.  And that means we can blow up the shit of just about anyone, as long as it isn’t slander. Even rich mofos like David Koch.

Citizen Koch sought to reveal the dominance of the Koch brothers – conservatives, wouldn’t you know – who have their pasty white fingers in just about every pie. Funding was secured for public television, then abruptly pulled because one of the pasty white Koch brothers was a muckety-muck in public television, wouldn’t you know. So they took it to the peeps and in 3 days they raised upwards of $90,000. THAT, my friends, is democracy in action. THAT is the country I live in.

They asked us why we donated to the cause and I’m posting my answer here instead of on the kickstarter site and my answer is this: we didn’t endure a bloody revolution, bother with a Declaration of Independence, write a Constitution only to see our rights stripped because we live in a country that coddles the 1%, the new aristocracy. I also want to send a message to PBS, a non-profit I have supported for over 30 years, that this will not stand. At what cost credibility? I stand with Elsewhere Films.

Screen Shot 2013-05-03 at 7.15.50 PM

It’s a controversial subject, to be sure, but it’s one most of us Americans had better face sooner rather than later. Pic won Best Cinematography at Sundance:

It’s the dirty little secret of the War on Terror: all bets are off, and almost anything goes. We have fundamentally changed the rules of the game and the rules of engagement. Today drone strikes, night raids, and U.S. government–condoned torture occur in corners across the globe, generating unprecedented civilian casualties. Investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill (author of BLACKWATER: The Rise of the World’s Most Mercenary Army) traces the rise of the Joint Special Operations Command, the most secret fighting force in U.S. history, exposing operations carried out by men who do not exist on paper and will never appear before Congress. No target is off-limits for the JSOC “kill list,” even a U.S. citizen. Director Richard Rowley takes us on a chilling ride with whistle-blower Scahill. Dirty Wars is a battle cry for the soul and conscience of an America few of us know exists.

Dirty Wars opens in NY and LA on June 7.

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The doc around Kubrick’s The Shining will be available on VOC and released theatrically March 29, 2013.

Poster debuted exclusively on EW. Trailer after the cut.



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On Angels in America and How to Survive a Plague:


By Brian Whisenant

It has been a couple of years since I have written about the Documentary Feature category. Last year it was because I didn’t see “Undefeated” until the very morning of the Academy Awards. I can remember quite clearly coming down the escalator of the monstrous AMC 42nd St in Manhattan last Oscar morning and texting my friend Brett that I had seen the winner for Best Documentary…and just in time. And I was right. “If a Tree Falls” was in my top 10 films of the year…so it was always in the back of my mind to win…even if, deep down I actually didn’t think it had a chance. I think “Pina” was the film most people thought would win. And I had been saying “Paradise Lost 3” was the one.

Needless to say…it was a good thing I didn’t post that piece without seeing all of the nominees. I very much missed talking about it because it is such a very interesting category for many reasons. And pretty much the same reasons every year. We always have a series of frontrunners (this year “Central Park Five,” “Mea Maxima Culpa,” and “West of Memphis”) that are often left off the final list to a great deal of uproar (me included! When I finally saw “West of Memphis” I got all up in arms on Twitter about its snub!). Then after I get over my “anger” and actually watch the Academy’s choices I am always pleasantly surprised, often finding them better than the frontrunners I felt so strongly about.

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Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary

Malik Bendjelloul (Searching for Sugar Man)
Kirby Dick (The Invisible War)
David France (How to Survive a Plague)
Lauren Greenfield (The Queen of Versailles)
Alison Klayman (Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry)

(thanks to Paddy at ScreenOnScreen)

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