A few of films of note from Bentonville Film Festival’s documentary features and shorts competitive lineup.
My Darling Vivian – SPECIAL JURY PRIZE, BEST EDITING, DOCUMENTARY
Directed by Matt Riddlehoover
This 90-minute documentary feature reclaims the role of Johnny Cash’s first wife, Vivian Liberto, in his life. Vivian, their four daughters say, was his first love who has been alternately mischaracterized in films like Walk the Line and scrubbed from his story almost entirely, ceding her role to his second love, June Carter. The film is told solely through the voices of their four daughters, Roseann, Katherine, Cindy, and Tara, accompanied by a seemingly endless array of home movies, photos and news clips. Vivian’s is a life that, for an almost unknown story, is incredibly well documented. It’s also a fascinating one. I wasn’t sure I needed to spend 90 minutes on his first marriage, but I was riveted by their stories.
Johnny and Vivian dated for three weeks before he was shipped overseas for his tour of duty in West Germany. While he served, they exchanged thousands of love letters, sometimes writing twice a day. They married a month and three days after he arrived back home, and had a number of years of blissful marriage, completely in love with each other.
Vivian, who was of Italian heritage, had exotic looks and an effervescently elegant style. Years after he had become famous, an especially dark newspaper photo of her caused readers to jump to the conclusion that she was black. Vivian endured threats on her life from the KKK and all manner of abuse in the press. In the South, all Johnny’s shows were canceled as a result of the mistake; the Cashes had to go to court to settle once and for all that Vivian was legally white (and of outstanding moral character, eyeroll). Only then could he book shows in the South again.
My Darling Vivian paints a picture of a complex woman who remained madly in love with Johnny Cash her entire life, despite raising their four children almost entirely alone, despite the long absences (one daughter remembers a whole year he didn’t come home), despite his struggles with addiction, and despite him falling in love with June and her subsequently being erased from the Johnny Cash mythos.
Although it got no attention until now, Vivian published the story of their marriage in her own words, “I Walked the Line” (the song, his first hit, was about their romance). Before proceeding with the project, she sought Johnny’s opinion; it still mattered to her. His daughters relayed his affirming words, which they say meant everything to her: “Vivian, if anyone should write a book telling their story, it should be you.”
My Darling Vivian is an absorbing, entertaining chronicle of a complicated and misunderstood marriage, a story worth telling. The film was briefly available this spring via Amazon Prime; its website says it is coming soon to streaming services and DVD. Look for it.
Written and directed by Jo Ardinger
This documentary feature is a jaw-dropper, bringing attention to the policing of pregnant women in the United States, a byproduct of the anti-abortion “personhood” legal movement. Personhood lays out the horrific story of Tamara Loertscher, a Wisconsin woman who in her first prenatal appointment, for the good of her baby shares confidentially with her doctor that she has a history of depression and had in the past self-medicated with methamphetamine. For these admissions, she ends up forcibly detained, sent to jail and put on the child maltreatment registry, under a Wisconsin law that seeks to protect the unborn by granting them the full rights of personhood. Under the law’s logic, she is a danger to her unborn child and must be detained and supervised by the state (although they refused to provide any prenatal or medical care during her incarceration).
Loertscher’s case, which provides a through line for the documentary, is almost unbelievable, but not necessarily rare. Hundreds of women across the U.S. have endured similar detainment to comply with increasing numbers of personhood laws enacted by states, which seek to restrict abortion access by building a legal case for a federal personhood law. Although these are primarily pregnant women (many of them pro-life themselves) who want to keep their babies, the pro-life movement’s personhood laws ultimately can result in their incarceration or forced substance abuse treatment, being forever labeled as a child abuser, and even losing custody of their unborn children.
This is a documentary with a decisive point of view, that full personhood rights for pregnant women cannot coexist with personhood rights for fertilized eggs, embryos and fetuses; prioritizing the unborn automatically robs pregnant women of their Constitutional rights. The film makes a strong bioethics case for considering the ultimate outcomes of unborn personhood status, regardless of your pro-choice or pro-life convictions, and a direct call to action to defeat this legislation at the ballot box wherever it crops up next. A compelling, important film.
Written and directed by Sonia Lowman
Black Boys, a documentary examining the cultural and societal challenges facing black boys in the United States, begins brilliantly: a Black man tenderly reads a bedtime story to his young Black son, then tucks him in with a kiss. It’s a scene that’s as unsettling as it is reassuring; although we’ve seen this scene countless times with white children, it’s a rarity to see on film such routine familial tenderness between Black fathers and sons. It roots the documentary in the innate shared humanity of Black boys and shows how worthy they are of love and how capable Black fathers are of giving it.
That Black father is two-time Super Bowl Champion Greg Scruggs. The star athlete has embraced a new mission to motivate young black boys to take their education seriously and always have a backup plan for their dreams. The second part of that sounds like counterintuitive motivational speech, but the film shows how we culturally reinforce young Black boys to believe that their only routes to success are to become a professional athlete or a major entertainment star. The pressure on Black boys is so great to follow one of these two paths, that almost every Black boy has fixed his hopes on finding the kind of success that Scruggs says is harder than winning the lottery. Thus, back up plans. Find other professional dreams, Scrugss tells them, and know they can be realized even without ready role models. Be a Black lawyer, or teacher or veterinarian or businessman; those are dreams within reach. Without realistic dreams, he tells them, it’s too easy to slide off the path and into the ready and waiting criminal justice system.
The film gives us a comprehensive, well-researched look at the cultural intersection of sports and education and justice in the lives of Black males. One in three Black men, for instance, go through the corrections system at some point in their lives. This is a sign not of their innate danger or criminality, but of the deep societal pressures stacked against them. “This world was not made for Black bodies to succeed,” one subject, a young Black man, tells us he has realized.
Finding ways to succeed despite all those outside forces pushing them to fail is a critical challenge. The film explores some institutions and programs that are dedicated to helping Black boys rise above the world’s expectations for them. It’s well-documented, compelling, hopeful and devastating all at once. And although the film was made long before George Floyd’s death awakened a nation to the systemic injustice facing Black Americans, it could not be more timely.
The Donut King – BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE AWARD
Directed by Alice Gu
I have a professional conflict of interest that prevents me from reviewing this film at this time, but it’s one to watch, as it’s won a Jury prize at SXSW and now a couple of other festivals, including this one. The Donut King tells the story of the Cambodian refugee who ate his first donut, then started a California donut empire through chain migration and business savvy that brought Cambodian-owned mom and pop donut stores across the US. It’s a rags-to-riches business story of a generous man and his family, and a human story of the folly that brought him down.
Hungry to Learn
Directed by Geeta Gandbhir
Co-written and -produced by Soledad O’Brien and Rose Arce, Hungry to Learn exposes the deep problem of extreme college student hunger. Tuition eats up many students’ budgets for living expenses and many go a day or more without food, as they attend school and work multiple jobs without knowing where or when they’ll find their next meal. Students may fall asleep in class not because they’ve been partying too late as their professor assumes, but because they haven’t eaten more than a piece of bread in the past 48 hours. College hunger, real hunger, is a problem I’d never considered, something that seems like it should be limited to a few cases, but Hungry to Learn shows it’s an expanding problem facing thousands of students across the U.S.
The documentary follows four such students in their daily lives, interspersed with interviews of experts on student hunger, plus showcases the programs like college food pantries (now established at more than 600 colleges) that seek to address it. Yet, the documentary argues, the systemic issues which create the problem of college student poverty are the real forces that must be defeated. It could be tighter, and the pacing lags at times, but the importance of the subject outweighs any issues with the filmmaking, which is largely excellent.
City of Widows
Directed by Lacey Uhlemeyer
Women’s rights, specifically widows’ rights, in present-day India are the subject of City of Widows, a documentary short as stunning in its details as it is in its cinematography. The film draws attention to the severe stigmatization of Indian women who outlive their husbands. The rich but spare documentary is narrated through one widow’s point of view, a woman who was a young child bride (“My value as a daughter would begin when I became a man’s wife.”), a woman who became a widow before she could even bear children.
“Only a few decades ago, I would be forced to burn beside my husband [on the funeral pyre]. A dutiful wife follows her husband to the grave,” she explains.
Those who choose to live with the shame of not self-immolating themselves in grief are denied access to ordinary Indian life. In a country known for its rich colors, widows wear all white. “It is considered bad luck even to look upon a widow,” we’re told, watching as men move to new train seats to avoid her presence.
There are 46 million widows in India, forced to either live on the street any way they can or move to live with a commune of other widows. In the city of Vrindavan more than 10,000 ostracized widows of all ages live together. They seek solace in their friendships within their isolated community, set apart as they are from all normal life.
This is a bleak but beautiful documentary, impressionistic images of a widow’s life woven together with the sparse prose. It ends on a hopeful, empowering note, beauty raining down on these widows, hope and wonder after a long spiritual draught. A powerfully and compassionately made film about people too long marginalized for the sake of centuries-old cultural traditions that have outgrown their time.
Ava & Bianca – BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT JURY WINNER
Written and directed by Rachel Fleit
Cinematographers often live in a world all their own, their minds combining technical prowess with the artistry of light, color and shadow. Female cinematographers are a growing, but still small subset of the industry. Then you have trans women, who also occupy a world often misunderstood or at least foreign to many people, and don’t often find themselves the subjects of film. So when two talented transgendered female cinematographers discovered each other, a rare and precious friendship began.
This friendship and the stories of the two directors of photography, Ava Benjamin Shorr and Bianca Cline, are the subject of this award-winning documentary short. It’s a profile unlike any other. A lovely addition to the filmmaking is that for large portions of the 15-minute film, the cinematographers turned their DP skills on each other; the Bianca segments are shot by Ava, and vice versa. Their styles, like their personalities, are distinctive yet complementary, and the film flows with an easy fluidity between the two.
Having a professional cheerleader who understands both your craft and your personal journey in a way no one else can has been an invaluable boon to each of them, they say. Navigating a career while transgendered can be especially prickly territory (Bianca, for instance, professionally is still known as Travis Cline. “I don’t mind my old name,” she says, admitting it does confuse people who assume Travis is a guy.). And they’re quick to point out that people being transgendered in no way implies they’ll be compatible as friends. These two got lucky.
Ava & Bianca is a unique look into their colorful world, casting light on people too often shrouded in their differences. They support each other and enjoy each other’s company, whether they’re talking shop or just hanging out. May we all be as lucky.
Dancing On My Own
Written and directed by Alexandra Cuerdo
Dancing On My Own is a slice-of-probably-not-your-life filmmaking that delights in its exuberance and celebration of queer Asians at Bubble T, a dance party event in New York City specifically (but not exclusively) founded for them to have a time and place to shine.
Asian underrepresentation on the drag stage and at gay clubs is not something I’d considered. But as the subjects – LGBTQ+ Asians in the area, including a few familiar names like SNL’s Bowen Yang and actress Princess Punzalan – share their stories and their joy at discovering others like them at Bubble T, their happiness is contagious. Instead of being the token Asian, they’re the main event, and they’re high on the love they receive there from other queer Asians and the public that at Bubble T adores them.
It’s a short film about celebration and healing the wounds caused by the minority double whammy of being Asian and queer. As one of the Bubble T founders puts it, “This is a nightlife space, so it’s a place to find romance and dancing, but it’s also a place to find self-love.”
The footage is joyously flamboyant, all colors and glitter and lights and exotic makeup and bright wigs and outrageous costumes. It’s impossible to watch without feeling a bit boring yourself (or at least, myself), but the positivity and happy dancing people welcome all to join them; there are no misfits here.