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Doc Talk | Peter Keough

Documentary doings at the Boston Film Festival

A scene from Felicia Leeds’s “The Paul Pender Story.”boston film festival

Now in its 32nd year, the Boston Film Festival (Sept. 22-25) once again features several outstanding new documentaries.

The opening-night film is the US premiere of Max Lewkowicz’s “Underfire,” about World War II veteran Tony Vaccaro. While on the frontlines he took over 8,000 photographs, powerful images that were not made public until the 1990s. Lewkowicz and Vaccaro will attend the screening at the AMC Boston Common on Sept. 22 at
7 p.m.

Ryan Suffern’s “Finding Oscar” follows the efforts to bring to justice those responsible for the 1982 Dos Erres massacre in Guatemala, in which more than 200 civilians — men, women, and children — were raped, tortured, and killed by government forces. But two children escaped. One of them, the Oscar of the title, was tracked down years later, in Framingham, where he had settled and was raising a family. Would he be able to provide evidence to prosecute those guilty of the atrocity? It screens on Sept. 23 at 7 p.m. at Theatre One, Revere Hotel, with a Q&A with the director, FBI agent Jon Longo, R. Scott Greathead, and “surprise guests.”

This year the festival will add the Boston Public Library to its venues, showing free screenings of such documentaries as Lloyd Kramer’s “Midsummer in Newtown,” in which a theater production arrives in that Connecticut town shortly after the Sandy Hook shooting. It cast local children in a pop music production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”


The closing night schedule highlights local filmmakers and subjects, such as Felicia Leeds’s “Unforgotten: The Paul Pender Story,” a documentary about the Brookline boxer who beat Sugar Ray Robinson to become middleweight champion. Pender’s most lasting achievement might be posthumous. After his death, at 72, it was discovered that he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a debilitating disorder prevalent among athletes who suffered frequent brain trauma. He has since become the “index case” against which all other incidents of CTE are compared. A discussion with the director, former governor Michael Dukakis (who appears in the film), and legendary North End welterweight Tony DeMarco takes place after the screening at 5 p.m. on Sept. 25 at the AMC Boston Common.


Also screening on closing night, Rhode Island-based director Mary Healey Jamiel’s documentary “Searchdog” tells the story of Matthew Zarrella, a Rhode Island police sergeant who rehabilitates “unadoptable” shelter canines and transforms them into search-and-rescue/recovery dogs. Seven dogs and their state trooper handlers will be in attendance at the 7 p.m. screening at the Patriot Cinema, Hingham.

Righteous documentary

Ken Burns and Artemis Joukowsky team up to direct “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War,” telling the little-known story of Waitstill and Martha Sharp, a Unitarian minister and his wife from Wellesley who volunteered to rescue refugees and dissidents in Europe before and after the start of World War II.

The film offers a voice-over narration by Tom Hanks, Marina Goldman reading from the couple’s correspondences, and interviews with their children and various historians, authors, and Holocaust scholars. It relates how in January 1939, with most Americans indifferent to or ignorant of events in Europe, the couple were assigned by church officials to travel to Czechoslovakia to help those fleeing Nazi persecution.

Supposed to last a few months, the mission lasted two years, during which time the Sharps were in constant danger of arrest. Their sacrifices helped dozens of scientists, doctors, journalists, anti-Nazi activists, and children to escape. Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust remembrance center, declared the couple Righteous among the Nations. Only three other Americans have been so honored.


“Defying the Nazis: Sharps’ War,” which can be seen on PBS on Sept. 20 at 9 p.m., is available on DVD.

Paradise lost?

How many ways can we be told that we are destroying the natural world before it sinks in? Producer Mitchell Block’s multi-platform work in progress, “Saving Eden,” combines a standard feature film, directed by Bill Couturie, with a 3-D IMAX film to tell the all-too-familiar story of the disastrous impact of human activity on the environment and endangered species — especially predators at the top of the food chain. It’s not all doom and gloom, as the project focuses on scientists and others dedicated to saving these animals from extinction.

“Saving Eden” can be seen for free in the Bright Lights Emerson series on Sept. 21 at 7 p.m. in the Paramount Theater, 559 Washington St. A discussion with Block and conservationists is to follow.

Killing fields revisited

Forty years of subsequent atrocities and genocides have not effaced the horror felt when Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge systematically butchered, tortured, and starved to death
2 million Cambodians. That we remember is due in part to Roland Joffé’s film “The Killing Fields” (1984), based on the true story of the efforts of New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg to learn the fate of his translator, Dith Pran, who remained in the country after the killing began.


Haing S. Ngor, himself a survivor of the murderous regime, played Pran. It was Ngor’s film debut, and he won a best supporting actor Oscar for his performance. As is seen in Arthur Dong’s documentary “The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor,” Ngor’s ordeals under the regime and eventual escape were as harrowing as Pran’s.

With a voice-over narration drawn from Ngor’s autobiography, “Survival in the Killing Fields,” the film combines archival footage, TV interviews, and public appearances by Ngor with eloquent, minimalist animated reenactments of Ngor’s nightmarish experiences. The latter provides a touch of innocence amid the evil, an effect reminiscent of that of clay figurines in Rithy Panh’s 2013 documentary about life and death under the Khmer Rouge, “The Missing Picture.”

“The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor” can be seen on Sept. 18 at
10 p.m. on the World Channel.