'First Position' and other documentaries wow at the Montclair Film Festival

The first annual festival is advised by Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert.

By , The Film Panel Notetaker

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    As part of the first annual Montclair Film Festival, several documentaries were screened in the town.
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Montclair, New Jersey, is a town in which I fondly spent some time working for a public relations firm a few years back. On Saturday, I returned to the happy hamlet to watch some extraordinary nonfiction films at the 1st annual Montclair Film Festival (MFF), which in full disclosure, is directed by my DOC NYC colleagues and dynamic duo Thom Powers and Raphaela Neihausen. According to the MFF’s Mission, it exists to nurture and showcase the talents of filmmakers from around the world, creating a cultural focal point in the Township of Montclair that unites, empowers, educates and celebrates the region’s diverse community and robust artistic heritage. MFF also has the distinction of being advised by one of its own residents, notable Comedy Central host, Stephen Colbert.

The Audience Award winner at DOC NYC, First Position, which coincidentally opened this past weekend in theaters in New York and Los Angeles via Sundance Selects, chronicles a diverse group of student dancers as they compete for scholarships at the Youth America Grand Prix. First time director Bess Kargman follows six students from varied backgrounds (including a Sierra Leone war orphan adopted by a New Jersey family) as they strive to achieve their dreams.

Festival co-director Raphaela Neihausen began the discussion after the sold-out screening by asking Kargman how the story came about. Kargman, a dancer when she was a child herself, said this was a film she knew hadn’t existed, and she doesn’t mean a “competition” film. What she means is a film that shows amazing things beyond the stage and the studio. She wanted to show how that this diverse groups of kids lead such fascinating lives when they’re not dancing, showing their relationships with their friends and their parents, and their hobbies, shattering stereotypes – not all ballet dancers are white or rich, not all male ballet dancers are gay, not all ballet parents are psycho. The parents are fulfilling their dreams for their kids, it’s really the kids’ dreams. Kargman said she kind of made this film for the haters of ballet to show them there is much more to ballet, calling it “half sport, half art.” One needs to have such strength and artistry, and can never show exertion. And it’s her hope that audiences feel that she has captured not only what it’s like to be a dancer, but also how it is to be young and to have this dream, and to be inspired by it even if you’re not a kid anymore. The audience applauded Kargman for that, and then the floor was open to questions from the audience.

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Kargman was asked if she had determined from the get go which of the kids she would highlight as characters in the film, and if there were any others who didn’t make the final cut. She said she’s been asked this question before, and also how she could predict how well these kids would do in the competition. When she was casting the film, what she wanted besides incredible personalities and diversity were kids who step out on the stage and really do become different human beings. It is innate when a child possesses this level of artistry, grace and talent, which cannot be taught. She didn’t set out to choose winners and sort out the losers. It would not have been a problem if one of the kids did terribly and not made it to the final round, because it shows real life.

In terms of getting access to these kids and their families, Kargman said that when she was on her lunch break one day in Manhattan, she saw a banner for the Youth America Grand Prix. She snuck into the theater getting the last seat. She saw the most unbelievable dancer she had seen for that age. She was so taken aback, and determined that this would have to be her first film. She didn’t know who this girl was and couldn’t remember her name when they announced it. She went through the name of the hundreds of competitors that year. She eventually found the girl’s name, and saw that she also had a brother in the competition. They were the first two kids she knew she wanted to be in the film. In order for her to make the film, she needed to prove to the competition that it would be worth their while. They didn’t need the publicity, and wanted to know what would be in it for them. They wanted to make sure it wasn’t going to make them look bad like a reality-type show. She needed to earn their trust. She created a proposal and what her vision of the film would be. Particularly, she told them how she wanted the bodies of these dancers to be shot. They don’t like when reality dance competitions show just a close-up of the heads of the dancer, cutting off the rest of their bodies. It was always her intention to capture their full bodies, and they loved that.

After seeing the wonderful First Position at the Bellevue Theater in Montclair, I pliéd onto a trolley that gracefully rode me to the Clairidge Cinema where I saw two films with entirely different subject matter that was quite a bit more provocative and adult in nature. If First Position was a film about having dreams, no matter what age you are, these other two films were more cautionary tales about how your actions and behavior as an adult on what you either say or do can have serious ramifications on the rest of your life. It’s also ironic that last week I went to my first taping of a television talk show, The Anderson Cooper Show (airing Tuesday, May , which brings to mind these next two films. The show I went to, the guest was the husband of a woman who basically conned her whole town into thinking she had cancer so that they’d donate items to her for her wedding such as a wedding dress, and all the works totally about $13,000. The woman never had cancer, she deceived everyone, and is now in jail paying for her crime. This may seem like child’s play to Marc Dreier, prominent attorney who committed a Bernie Madoff-like crime by defrauding hundreds of millions of dollars from hedge funds.

Dreier is the subject of Marc H. Simon’s documentary, Unraveled. Simon, not only a filmmaker, but also a practicing attorney himself, who once worked at Dreier’s firm, intimately captures Dreier with unprecedented access in his last few months of house arrest awaiting his trial. How did he bridge the gap from being an attorney to making films, the moderator asked? Simon said in law school, he worked for The Innocence Project, which exonerates the wrongfully convicted through DNA testing. This was a project he was passionate about, and he wanted to bring attention to the issues. This first film, After Innocence, was about wrongful conviction, and Unraveled, his third film, is about actual guilt.

Simon said he had worked for Dreier’s law firm for six years when the implosion occurred. Before then, he would have called Dreier a mentor, someone he looked up to, he was loyal and supportive of Simon building his entertainment practice and allowing him to make his other films on the side, appreciating his entrepreneurial spirit. But when this happened, it was an ultimate betrayal. Despite losing out on deferred bonuses, Simon said he stayed on with the firm a few months longer, and during this time, he did not want to make a film about Dreier. It wasn’t until Stick Figure Productions approached Simon about making the film. At the time his film Nursery University was premiering. He said to himself, “if I don’t explore the opportunity to make a film about this, I’ll be kicking myself.” His friend as Stick Figure knew Dreier’s attorney, with whom he spoke and he in turn spoke with Dreier. Within 20 minutes of that call, Simon received a response that Dreier was interested in exploring the possibility of the film.  They had one preliminary meeting, and the next time Simon saw Dreier after that, he began filming.

There were no ground rules as to what Simon could ask. Dreier had no say over the edit of the film. Dreier was very open in terms of Simon allowing him to ask him whatever he wanted, but he didn’t know how Simon would edit the film. Simon said he used a process in the film that he calls the “unreliable narrator” by not relying on other talking heads to talk about him. It was just Dreier, who Simon said we know is a thief, a liar, and a fraud, and he’s challenging the audience to make up its own mind and decisions about Dreier. He didn’t know Simon was going to do it that way, but Dreier did have the ability to control his own story through this process, because he had the ability to say he didn’t want to answer something if he didn’t want to answer it, such was the case when Simon asked Dreier about his mother, which is included in the film to show that there are areas that Dreier wasn’t willing to reveal.

The moderator of the discussion said that Simon gave Dreier a platform to tell his side of the story, which seems to show that Dreier was showed remorse for himself and his family, but not so much for his victims, asking Simon if he felt that Dreier was being remorseful. Simon said that of the audiences who have seen the film who are challenged by that question, approximately one-third believe that Dreier is not remorseful at all. One-third of audiences catch themselves feeling some empathy for Dreier. And there’s a third who think that he is remorseful. Simon’s answer is that Dreier is not 100% a sociopath, because he does think Dreier has feelings for his family and that he is intellectually remorseful that he got caught, but not necessarily viscerally remorseful. Dreier is on the record for having remorse for his employees, and he never expresses remorse for the victims of the hedge funds. Simon said it would be interesting to see over time if that changes.

Going back to the irony of my first TV talk show taping, Anderson Cooper, a journalist for CNN, is as tame as a lamb compared to the original évocateur, Morton Downey, Jr., whose bite was as mighty as a lion. Dubbed the “Father of Trash Television,” Morton Downey Jr. pushed the boundaries of controversy and confrontation from his New Jersey studio and became a media sensation in the late 1980s. Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie, shows never-before-seen footage and takes us behind Downey’s cult of personality while charting his rise and fall. Interviewees include Pat Buchanan, Sally Jesse Raphael, Alan Dershowitz, as well as Downey’s former colleagues, critics and fans. Their testimony brings new insight to a bizarre chapter of TV history. A segment of the film also reveals the behind the scenes of what happened when the Reverend Al Sharpton appeared on the show during the time of Tawana Brawley’s infamous false rape scandal. And the film later reveals Morton Downey Jr.’s own downfall after he made up a story that skinheads attacked him in an airport bathroom. Whether you loved or hated the right-leaning, cigarette smoking, in-your-face antics of Morton Downey Jr., the film is quite good, and is a provocative look at the making of a media machine, which has influenced much of television today.

Steve Adubato, a New Jersey broadcaster who worked at WOR Channel 9 in Secaucus, NJ, around the time The Morton Downey, Jr. Show began airing, moderated a discussion after the Montclair screening with directors Seth Kramer and Daniel A. Miller, starting by asking them why they made a film about MDJ. Kramer said he and Miller were fans of the show when they were teenagers in the late 1980s. They never went to see a taping of the show, and were just viewers, but had friends who went that are in the film.

Adubato asked the directing duo why they felt the original producers of the MDJ Show were so willing to share everything about Downey Jr. Miller said Downey Jr. sort of fell off the map in 1989 after the fake incident. Those producers had a lot of fun working on the show, but they didn’t get a lot of closure.  This film was an opportunity for them to open up about who he was and what he meant to them. Kramer added that MDJ had a dynamic personality, but he had let them down. Also, Lori, MDJ’s final wife and widow, didn’t want to be interviewed in the film. She lived the experience, and didn’t want to relive it again, and she hasn’t seen the film.

Adubato was curious to know from the fellas if they tried to speak at all with Al Sharpton. Kramer jokingly responded that they tried to speak to The Reverend Al Sharpton, and also Al Sharpton. “We have the distinction of being the only media opportunity that man has ever turned down,” Kramer said. He didn’t say, “no.” He said, “yes,” and when the date on the calendar came by, he had something else to do.

When looking at some of the loud, more obnoxious television of today with similar ideological points of view, Rush Limbaugh for example, how much of what MDJ did was a pre-cursor to today’s landscape, Adubato asked?Kramer said people were doing the MDJ act on the radio for many years, but he was one of the first people, not just to bring that act to TV, but to also to bring in younger people and male viewers. A lot of the people who were into Right wing talk before MDJ were old people playing cards. He said the most incredible passionate narrative in the world is the American story. People on the right talk about their politics constantly weaving in the American story. Downey opened the floor.

Brian Geldin blogs at The Film Panel Notetaker.

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