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Doc Talk

Grantsmanship, court and spark, and the human face of immigration

Margo Guernsey and Nikki Bramley’s “The Philadelphia Eleven” was one of the LEF Foundation grant recipients.LEF Moving Image Fund

No matter how successful, every documentary filmmaker spends an inordinate amount of time at the grueling task of raising money. They rely on people like the LEF Foundation, a private family organization that supports creative endeavors in California and New England, to help them finance their projects, especially in the precarious formative stages.

Here are the six New England-based recipients of $5,000 in pre-production grants from the 2018 LEF Moving Image Fund announced last week. It’s just part of the $220,000 the foundation will be distributing to filmmakers in fiscal year 2019.

Ethan Bien’s “The Good Studio” takes a look at Soyuzmultfilm , the Soviet Union’s huge, relatively unknown state-sponsored animated film program responsible for some of the last century’s greatest achievements in that genre. 

Vladimir Putin has reinvested in the project, even bringing back the original Soviet characters and storylines. Can such an initiative prevail in such a hyper-capitalist economy and, if so, toward what end?


Bijoyini Chatterjee’s “Conference of the Birds” follows an international group of eight dancers from different cultures seeking to find common cause and personal fulfillment as they create choreography interpreting the 12th-century Sufi poem of that title.

Marlo Poras’s untitled documentary profiles openly gay ice dancers Joel Dear and Christian Erwin as they challenge the straight conventions of their sport by performing as a same-sex skating pair.

Margo Guernsey and Nikki Bramley’s “The Philadelphia Eleven” tells the story of the women of the title, who on July 29, 1974, challenged the rules of the Episcopal church by being ordained as priests.

In “Adam’s Apple ,” director Amy Jenkins records the transformation of her transgender son from pre-pubescent Audrey to adolescent Adam, a process challenging society’s definition of “maleness.” 

In a yet-to-be titled documentary, J.P. Sniadecki and Lisa Malloy collaborate with the citizens of the down-on-its-luck town of Cairo, Ill. Undaunted by the economic downturn, the locals are inspired by a total eclipse of the sun to put together a show. It includes vignettes that challenge the misperception of their town as a victim “eclipsed” by post-industrialism, while acknowledging a past tainted by incidents of racial injustice.

Do you have a project that needs some financial help? The next LEF Foundation grant deadline for projects seeking production or post-production support is Jan. 25, 2019 .

Go to www.lef-foundation.org for details.

Justice served

Now 85, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the subject of Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s documentary “RBG,” holds her own alongside Charlize Theron’s Furiosa in “Mad Max: Thunder Road” (2015), Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991), and the other formidable females featured in the Museum of Fine Arts’s “Heroic!” film series (Aug. 3-31) .

One of only nine women out of 500 in her entering class at Harvard Law School, she found herself at the start of her career rejected by every law firm in New York on the basis — as they unabashedly admitted — of her gender. That gave her some experience to draw on in the 1970s as a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union when she argued for the rights of women before the Supreme Court. Later, as a justice herself, she unexpectedly bonded with her ideological antithesis Antonin Scalia over their shared love of opera. Now that takes courage.


So check out the documentary — and stay tuned for Mimi Leder’s upcoming biopic, “On the Basis of Sex”, scheduled for release on Dec. 25. ). It stars Felicity Jones as a superheroic role model who doesn’t need any special effects to get the job done.

Co-presented with the National Center for Jewish Film, “RBG” screens on Friday at 5 p.m. and Aug. 12 at 3:30 p.m. at 465 Huntington Ave.

New world sympathy

The ordeal of children separated from their parents at the border can break your heart. But not all immigrant stories are traumatic or tragic. Swati Ali, herself an immigrant from India, arrived in this country in 2012 and was pleased by how she had been welcomed and accepted by the community. Lately, though, she has had been dismayed by the deterioration in attitudes toward newcomers to this country and the way immigration is discussed.

“The popular narrative around immigration started hinging largely on visuals that were based on fear of the unknown,” she writes in her description of her documentary project “We the People,” a series of 10 short films interviewing immigrants on a variety of topics. “This series is my way to showcase real-life immigrant stories that bring a smile to your face. That make you realize that diversity actually makes life more interesting and fun!”

True to her intent, the 13 subjects are all bright, funny, and attractive men and women, mostly young, from countries ranging from tiny Dominica, in the Caribbean, to the subcontinent of India (oddly, there are no representatives from East Asian countries such as China, Japan, Korea, or Vietnam).

Some of the topics are fairly anodyne: “Food Is Universal,” in which subjects expressed ambivalence about the national taste for fast food and big portions; “The Language Barrier,” which includes amusing instances of miscommunication, preconceptions, and discomfort with accents (even the Canadian woman has a tale to tell); and “Dating & Relationships,” in which the whole American mating process is called into question — though some swear by dating apps.


But episodes such as “Stereotypes” touch, however gingerly, on the more troubling instances of outright racism and xenophobia, experienced especially by the Muslim, Mexican, and persons of color. Can gentle persuasion such as Ali’s videos change such inveterate attitudes? Perhaps if some of those people who regard immigrants with fear, hatred, and prejudice actually get to know them the clamoring for a wall will be silenced by a desire to build bridges.

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