By Nicholas Zararis and Jim Lo
The Port Jefferson documentary film festival returned for the 13th season on Monday March 19th with, “The China Hustle”, a film about financial crime in China.
This year, the series features seven documentaries centered around diversity and giving a voice to an underrepresented topic. Both “The Judge,” directed by Erika Cohn, 2017) and “This is Congo,” directed by Daniel McCabe, 2017) focused on groups that are new to people on Long Island.
“We want people to see documentaries nominated at the academy awards and think they can see it here,” board director Lynn Boland said. There were 103 people in attendance on Monday, which was slightly above last season’s average attendance. “We want to cover a wide array of topics so people can learn about stories they may not have heard before.”
After 13 years the film series’ board members, who are also known as the “Film Ladies,” have found a criteria for documentaries that yields great feedback.
“We look for interesting stories that can hold an audience’s attention for roughly 90 minutes,” Wendy Feinberg, a member of the board said. “We look for non-mainstream stories and we’ve had a few that people still talk about years later.”
Each member of the seven person film series board screens at least 20 movies before nominating one before the members. The board members either get home screeners mailed to them or they attend festivals like Tribecca or The Hamptons to get a wide variety of options.
“The Judge,” by Erika Cohn, is a film about the first female judge appointed to a Sharia court in the Middle East, Kholoud Al-Faqih.
“I think documentaries are all about characters, to transform people into a different world, place, culture, experience that would evoke some sort of personal response,” Cohn said.
“I felt like her experience might invoke a more nuanced understanding of Syria law. It would challenge some of the rapidly growing Islamophobia and highlight the advancement of women in society,” she said.
From his time as a photojournalist, The director of “This is Congo,” Daniel McCabe, understands why certain stories don’t gain traction.
“I think it’s a Western media thing in general and that impacts Congo,” McCabe said. “The only stories we ever hear from Congo are about war, rape, and resources. It only comes in spikes instead of explaining why these things happen.”
Ever since Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 became the highest grossing documentary of all time, the genre has proven commercially viable. According to the Economist, Documentaries now make up 20% of the film market at the Cannes film festival, according to the Cannes website.
“With everything that’s going on in the world right now, we need documentaries,” Frank Musnick, a resident of Middle Island attending the opening night of the festival said. “I saw the trailer for the movie tonight [The China Hustle] and wanted to know more.”
An added wrinkle to the experience is the guest speaker after the presentation of the film.
“We have guest speakers and they really add to the presentation, it makes the experience more engaging than a typical night at the movies,” Feinberg said. “We had Pras Michael, the producer of “Sweet Mickey for President,” fly in for the day a few years ago for a documentary about Michel Martelly, a hip hop artist who became president of Hait.”
The series continues next week at the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook and alternates with Theater Three in Port Jefferson every Monday night until April 30.