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DOC TALK

Doc Talk: Mexican cuisine; seafood delicacy; feminist view; Oscar rules; grantsmanship

Diana Kennedy at the wheel in "Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy."
Diana Kennedy at the wheel in "Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy."Courtesy Greenwich Entertainment

Now 97, the subject of Elizabeth Carroll’s rollicking and edifying documentary “Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy” (2019) shows no signs of losing the feisty independence that established her in the 1970s as an expert on Mexican cuisine.

Driving around the byways and backroads of Mexico in search of authentic ingredients and undiscovered dishes, armed with a tape recorder and a pistol, Kennedy curses at bad drivers and berates a vendor at a market for adding food coloring to his chicken.

Back at her self-sustaining, ecologically designed ranch outside Zitácuaro in the Mexican state of Michoacán, Kennedy offers a lesson in how to make guacamole, intercut with her demonstrating the same recipe on her 1970s TV show, “The Art of Mexican Cooking.” Speaking of one of the ingredients she says, “If people say they don’t like cilantro, don’t invite them!”

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In 2014, after publishing nine best-selling books, making numerous TV appearances, and establishing a notorious cooking “boot camp” in which she breaks down and remakes celebrity chefs and kitchen tyros alike, she receives a James Beard award. She is introduced as “The Mick Jagger of Mexican Cuisine,” a title which she prefers to the inevitable comparisons to Julia Child.

She seems melancholy only when reflecting on her late husband and the love of her life, the New York Times correspondent Paul Kennedy, whom she met in 1957 and who died in 1967. She has not married since and — by choice and proudly — opted not to have children. Yet she wonders what will become of her home and her legacy when she passes on. As for herself, she says, “When I can’t cook, and I can’t eat, and I can’t see ... I’m going.”

“Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy” can be streamed via the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s Virtual Screening room beginning on May 22. There will be a Zoom Q&A with the director and chef Alice Waters, one of the subjects interviewed in the film, on May 23, at 8 p.m.

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Go to coolidge.org/films/diana-kennedy-nothing-fancy.

Sea urchins, from "The Delicacy"
Sea urchins, from "The Delicacy"Courtesy SOMM TV

More food for thought

Jason Wise’s “The Delicacy” falls into that documentary sub-genre in which a seeming oddity is investigated and it turns out to be a microcosmic of how the world works.

In this case it is the sea urchin, a bottom-dweller that looks like a spiny version of “Star Trek” Tribbles but when cracked open reveals a gloppy spoonful which gastronomes find ambrosial (it is actually the creature’s gonads) but for one of the divers who harvest them tastes like “chewed up kelp.” All a matter of taste perhaps, but it is a product that’s been savored since the glory days of Pompeii and has lately become a hipster shibboleth and mainstay at pricey restaurants.

Wise focuses on the hardy, surfer-dude-like fishermen who for decades have been diving into the kelpy depths off the California coast to pluck the urchins, a dangerous profession in which great white sharks are just one of the hazards. The film is a subtly evolving account that is tonally balanced between humor and pathos and ends on a somber note that highlights the human cost paid for providing luxury products.

“The Delicacy” can be streamed on SOMM TV.

Go to www.sommtv.com/the-delicacy/videos/the-delicacy.

Images from "Betty Tells Her Story"
Images from "Betty Tells Her Story"Courtesy Liane Brandon

Dress rehearsal

Liane Brandon’s documentary “Betty Tells Her Story” (1972) is a groundbreaking classic of feminist filmmaking and a subtle and heartbreaking parable about disillusionment, the oppression of imposed gender roles, and the workings of memory.

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The title subject sits in front of the camera and tells a story about how she was encouraged by friends to buy an expensive dress to wear to a ball she had been invited to. She recalls her mixed feelings of misgiving and delight when everyone told her how beautiful she looked. Her tone is resigned and bittersweet.

Brandon, a professor of education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, asks her to repeat the story later that day and there are subtle changes — it is kind of a mundane but poignant “Rashomon” involving one point of view. Betty emphasizes her feelings of unworthiness and guilt at paying so much for the dress, about being praised and feeling “transformed” wearing it. “It was the first time anybody told me I looked beautiful,” she says. “I felt uncomfortable being praised for a prettiness I never had. But [also an] excitement of being really special. And now it’s gone.”

“Betty Tells Her Story” is one of 24 documentaries made by women in the series “Tell Me: Women Filmmakers, Women’s Stories” which can be streamed on the Criterion Channel.

Go to www.criterion.com/current/posts/6925-the-criterion-channel-s-may-2020-lineup.

Academic exercise

Every year fans of the genre complain about how the Academy Awards shortlist for best documentary overlooks some of the year’s finest offerings. These films failed to fulfill the requirement that they “complete both a seven-day theatrical release in Los Angeles County and a seven-day theatrical release in the City of New York during the eligibility period.”

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But that’s not an easy requirement to fulfill during a pandemic, when almost all theaters are shut down and most films are screening online. Because of this extraordinary situation, as Scott Feinberg recently explained in The Hollywood Reporter, “the academy has modified its rules — for this year only — to include films shown at or programmed for more than one of 36 “qualifying” film festivals. (TheWrap reports that — including films making the cut by winning Oscar-qualifying awards from a competitive festival as is already permitted — more than 80 documentaries have already fulfilled this year’s requirements.) Also to be considered are films that had planned theatrical releases but were forced to go online.

How many more films might this result in? I asked Feinberg. “There's no real way to know,” he said. “One can determine the number of automatic entries if one closely examines the lineups and awards of the specified film festivals. But in terms of projects that streamed without receiving a theatrical release the makers of which will now claim were always intended for a theatrical release we'll just have to see how many are submitted.”

Go to www.oscars.org/sites/oscars/files/93aa_doc_features.pdf.

A scene from "Dawnland."
A scene from "Dawnland."Courtesy of the LEF Foundation.

Don’t be LEF out

Every year independent documentary filmmakers get a boost for their projects from the LEF Moving Image Fund. The fund is now accepting applications for its annual $5,000 pre-production grant opportunity as well as a new $2,500 early development grant opportunity. Up to six grants will be awarded to projects in each of these two funding phases.

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The deadline is June 5.

Candidates must be New England-based filmmakers pursuing feature-length (40+-minute) nonfiction film projects. Further guidelines are available at tinyurl.com/LEF2020PrePro.

Some of the films that have won grants are Ben Pender-Cudlip and Adam Mazo’s “Dawnland” (2018), Margo Guernsey’s “Councilwoman” (2019), and Ellen Brodsky’s “25 Texans in the Land of Lincoln” (2019), which screened at last year’s GlobeDocs Film Festival.

Go to lef-foundation.submittable.com/submit.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.