Doc Talk | Peter Keough

DocTalk: Danger and diversity in the spotlight

Mentors and mentees in the Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellowship’s Diversity in the Edit Room program.
Ted Willis
Mentors and mentees in the Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellowship’s Diversity in the Edit Room program.

The documentary “A Dangerous Son” by Liz Garbus (director of the 2016 Oscar nominee “What Happened, Miss Simone?”) begins with a shocking scene. Off screen you can hear a man shouting, “Don’t ever bring your son here again!” Stacy, a young single mother, tries to restrain her 10-year-old, Ethan, who is screaming obscenities and threatening to kill people. Once she gets him into the car, Ethan directs his rage at his younger sister, Elexa, punching her brutally and making her cry with pain and terror.

Ethan, who lives in Everett, Wash., is one of 17 million children in the United States suffering from a severe mental or emotional disorder. Garbus follows his story and that of two other boys who are similarly afflicted.

Vontae, an 11-year-old African-American boy from Los Angeles, at first seems merely withdrawn and listless. But he has terrified his mother, Cora, with notes he has written saying he wants to kill someone or be killed himself. When he threatens to get a gun and shoot a teacher, the LA County Department of Mental Health Emergency Outreach intervenes.


William, 15, from Aurora, Colo., struggles with severe psychological and developmental problems. He has been hearing voices since puberty, and his divorced parents, Edie and Bill, can no longer handle his sometimes violent fits of rage. At a family meeting a counselor suggests that William live in a group home for several months. Furious and frightened, he runs away. His mother must call the police, as she has done before and will do again.

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Employing a detached, observational style (though at one point the filmmakers must stop shooting and restrain one of the subjects before he hurts somebody), Garbus does not try to explain what causes the behavior. Nor does she endorse any solutions. Though she interviews experts, she lets you draw your own insights and opinions from what she records.

Common themes emerge. As the title suggests, the subjects are all male. They all live in single-mother households. Two have experienced trauma in their lives: Vontae’s father was shot by police who mistakenly thought he had a gun. William, who lives in the same neighborhood as James Holmes, was never the same after the gunman murdered 12 people and wounded 70 others in 2012 at the Century movie theater in Aurora. Since then, he constantly thinks about being killed and killing people.  

Vontae fantasizes about being shot by the police. William is fascinated by Holmes. All three are obsessed with guns. Vontae carries a toy gun with him wherever he goes; since he is tall for his age, his mother worries that he will be seen as armed and dangerous and will suffer the same fate as his father. Ethan plays violent video games, but they seem to calm him down. More disturbing, as his sister relates with unnerving affectlessness, is that he once got his hands on a gun owned by their mother’s boyfriend. Fortunately, it wasn’t loaded.

Provocative, frustrating, and frightening, “A Dangerous Son” is a raw look at a festering crisis that has been neglected and is tearing apart families and society. It’s available on various HBO platforms.

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Good fellowship


The Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellowship, the only fellowship for documentary film editors in the United States, is helping the cause of creating equal opportunity in the film industry with its new Diversity in the Edit Room program. On May 3, it named the 29 talented young assistant editors and editors from various backgrounds who will receive mentorship and other assistance in developing their careers.

Those selected are Claire Ave’Lallemant, Faisal Azam, Samali Bikangaga, Mitra Bonshahi, Bryan Chang, Winnie Cheung, Hannah Choe, Andrea Cruz, Diana Diroy, Steven Golliday, Shilpi Gupta, Princess Hairston, Mary Kerr, Ephraim Kirkwood, Ellen Knechel, Blair McClendon, Grace Mendenhall, Margaret Metzger, Luis Ortiz-Guillen, Samin Pogoff, Daniela Quiroz, Pilar Rico, Carlos Rojas, Ligaiya Romero, Jessica Lee Salas, Rosie Walunas, Luna X Moya, Eugene Yi, and Anita Hei-Man Yu.

Their mentors are Geof Bartz, who has won four Oscars for his short films; Erin Casper, who edited Laura Poitras’s “Risk;” Geeta Gandbhir, who co-directed “A Journey of a Thousand Miles: Peacekeepers” and “I Am Evidence”; Carla Gutierrez, who edited “RBG,” a new documentary about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; Mary Manhardt, who co-edited the Emmy-winning Netflix series “Making of a Murderer”; Maya Mumma, who was an editor on the Oscar-winning “O.J.: Made in America”; and Aljernon Tunsil, an Emmy-winning editor whose most recent documentary, “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” premiered at Sundance.

The mentors and mentees will meet in New York City once a month for a year to discuss the creative and business sides of being a documentary editor. Each mentee will also receive a membership and season pass for the Downtown Community Television Center, a New York City filmmaking facility.

The Karen Schmeer Fellowship was established in memory of Karen Schmeer (editor of “The Fog of War,” “Fast, Cheap and Out of Control,” “Bobby Fischer Against the World,” and more), who died in a hit-and-run accident in 2010. She was just 39.

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Peter Keough can be reached at