|A still from My Darling Vivian, edited and directed by Matt Riddlehoover. All photos courtesy of NHdocs.
The story of Johnny’ Cash’s first love and a virtual, homegrown musical tribute to go with it. Tales from a quirky organic market, served over ratatouille crepes and cappuccino. Female rap artists finding their way in the music industry, and New Haven’s own Rock Lottery. A tour around St. Louis’ Little Italy and a tribute, long overdue, to Margaret Holloway, the Shakespeare Lady of New Haven.
All of those are coming to The New Haven Documentary Film Festival (NHdocs) as it returns this year, with a hybrid of online and socially distanced, in-person events meant to give back to the community in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. After officially severing its relationship with Yale University last year, the festival has attracted twice the number of films while growing its community footprint. It is also offering a number of online workshops, on everything from cinematic technique to the legal work that goes into producing a documentary.
Over 120 films will run from August 18 through the 23. Community partners include Sally’s Apizza, Cafe Nine, Crêpes Choupette, the Whitneyville Cultural Commons and Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS). In addition to full-length and short films, there is a student quarantine film festival with submissions from middle school, high school and college students. Instead of attending in-person screenings, viewers can order tickets beforehand and have 24 hours to watch the film once it becomes available.
“I’m excited, and completely anxious and terrified,” said Gorman Bechard, co-founder, lead programmer and executive director of the festival. “There’s just so much online this year. Somehow, we have more films than last year. With online stuff, you can test it as much as you want, but technology can fuck up massively. I literally wake up in the middle of the night having nightmares about the website.”
And yet, Bechard and festival staff have poured months of work into the website running smoothly—and booking a few outdoor in-person screenings. This year, he watched submissions roll in at an unprecedented rate, snagging a few last-minute treasures after other film festivals were postponed or cancelled in their entirety.
When it became clear that the festival’s original June dates were not tenable, Bechard did a small-scale test run of online film screenings in May and early June. For the past three months, he and filmmaker Lindsay Thompson have also been working with student filmmakers to keep rolling through quarantine.
Now, the festival is almost here. The lineup begins on Tuesday August 18, with an online screening of My Darling Vivian and musical tribute to Johnny Cash that doubles as a fundraiser for Cafe Nine’s virtual tip jar. The documentary, directed by Matt Riddlehoover, unspools the story of Johnny Cash’s first wife Vivian Liberto, who married him in 1954 just as his career was taking off. By seven years later, their lives had changed entirely. Riddlehoover explores what happened to their love—and to her.
With the film, the festival is presenting The Songs of Johnny Cash, a bespoke musical tribute to the late musician produced by Dean Falcone. Bechard said he is excited for the tribute, which includes artists Bill Janovitz, Lydia Loveless, Frank Critelli, Alex Burnet, Sam Carlson, Lys Guillorn and over a dozen others. Bechard said he is especially excited for “one surprise that’s so big I can’t even announce it yet.”
Paul Mayer, who runs Cafe Nine, praised Bechard's willingness to give back to the community in the midst of COVID-19. Before the pandemic, Mayer had planned on holding the screening at the Crown Street venue, to which the festival expanded last year. But indoor music hubs remain closed—and may be the last to reopen.
"I'm ecstatic," he said in a phone interview Thursday. "It's [being closed] getting really old. We're trying to keep relevant in the community. Every little bit helps."
|Mr. Wonderland, directed by Valerio Ciriaci and produced by Awen Films, will be the opening night film on August 19. All photos courtesy of NHdocs.
That’s just the tip of the filmic iceberg, he added. On Wednesday, the festival will hold an opening night kickoff in the parking lot of Sally’s Apizza, with limited capacity seating and screenings of Mr. Wonderland and Guerrilla Bunny. The first, directed by Valerio Ciriaci, follows Sylvester Zeffirino Poli, a sculptor who immigrated to New Haven from Lucca, Italy in the late nineteenth century and had opened his first theater by 1892. As he built a small theatrical empire, the city remained his home through his death in the late 1930s.
The screening—which could give the Wooster Square Monument Committee plenty to talk about—marks the U.S. premiere of the film. It will be running alongside with the short documentary Guerilla Bunny, which tells the story of a single artist in Berkshire County, Mass. who hand paints dozens of delicate, time-intensive Easter eggs and hides them around the town on Easter morning. Their practice, which they do completely in secret, has been going on since 2008.
While he is thrilled at the sheer volume of documentaries that came in during the submission process—between 500 and 600, he estimates—Bechard still has his favorites. Pulling up the 42-inch monitor on which he views the lineup, he joked that he sees documentary films like his dogs: he loves his dog Dylan, “but I would take a bullet for Springsteen.” There are only a select few that have gotten a nearly perfect rating from him.
|Dudley Alexis' 2020 When Liberty Burns is a documentary on the life and 1979 murder of Arthur L. McDuffie. All photos courtesy of NHdocs.
They include Dudley Alexis’ When Liberty Burns, a documentary on the life and 1979 murder of Arthur L. McDuffie, who fell asleep at a traffic stop and was beaten to death by law enforcement after a police chase. Bechard said the film feels eerily, horribly timely: it chronicles an act of police brutality that took place 41 years ago, but could have taken place this month.
There is Abby Ginzberg’s Waging Change, presented August 22 at Crepes Choupette, in which bar and restaurant workers in Chicago, New Orleans and Detroit fight to change an ultra-low minimum wage of $2.13 an hour through sustained organizing. There is The Donut King (not to be confused with The Donut Dollies, which the festival is also screening), which traces the donut-fueled rise and fall of Cambodian refugee Ted Ngoy in California.
There is Cecilia Rubino’s Remembering Shakespeare, which Bechard sees as a surprising and deeply felt tribute to not only the Bard, but also to Margaret Holloway, the Shakespeare Lady of New Haven who fell victim to COVID-19 this year. There's Objector, in which a young adult’s refusal to join the Israeli Defense Forces lands her in jail over and over again. And Bechard's own Seniors: A Dogumentary, during which he said it is impossible not to smile “from ear to ear.”
Despite his pre-festival jitters, Bechard said he’s also looking forward to being in the thick of things: the to has pre-recorded several of the question-and-answer sessions with filmmakers on Zoom, with the intention of running them after online screenings. On the one day of indoor screenings, scheduled for August 22 at the Whitneyville Cultural Commons, attendance is capped at 25 people. The auditorium’s pre-coronavirus capacity was over 100.
|A still from Alice Gu's The Donut King. All photos courtesy of NHdocs.
Bechard has also included three different levels of ticket prices, sensitive to the number of New Haveners who may be out of work or dealing with tight finances due to COVID-19. He said he hopes to see high community engagement, even if it’s largely across a network of home couches, fiber optic cable, and laptop screens.
“In a lot of these cases, these are films that you don’t get to see elsewhere,” he said. “Or you get to see them first. Last year, there was a documentary on Creem magazine. The New York Times just had a full-page write up of it last week. So it’s a great chance to see the films now that people will be talking about next year. Or, it’ll be a chance to see a great film that maybe no one will ever see again, because it won’t get distribution.”
He recalled his own fondness for The Age of Love, a 2014 documentary on senior citizen speed dating that he saw years ago at the Big Sky Film Festival in Missoula, Montana. The film dazzled him; he still thinks about how funny and full of heart the direction was. But it never got picked up for distribution, meaning that he may never see it again.
“Yeah,” he said. “It may be the only chance you get to see a certain film.”
Find out more about the New Haven Documentary Film Festival at its website. Films that are screened outdoors also have an online option.