By Neil Giordano
The documentary slate at this year’s Independent Film Festival Boston’s all-virtual Spring Festival (May 6–16) puts non-fiction film front and center.
American music and musicians are front and center at the IFFBoston, starting with the festival’s opening night feature is Summer of Soul (May 8), directed and produced by multi-hyphenate rapper-musician-DJ-host-author Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. This concert film features long-forgotten footage of the Harlem Festival, a series of 1969 music performances. The documentary is more than just clips of such titans of soul and R&B as Sly & Family Stone, Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, and Mahalia Jackson; Thompson delves into the racial attitudes that undercut the Festival’s fight to exist and goes into its lost-to-history status, which was aided and abetted by the mainstream (white) music industry as well as historians. Equally exciting is The Sparks Brothers (May 12), the inaugural documentary by director Edgar Wright (Baby Driver, Shaun of the Dead) about the Mael brothers, otherwise known as the LA-based art-pop duo Sparks.
Also on the menu: the long-awaited Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliche (May 13), which chronicles the trials and tribulations of eponymous British punk pioneer Mari Elliot, co-directed by Elliot’s daughter and narrated by actress Ruth Negga. Three of the documentary shorts touch on music: Crescendo! (May 6) a portrait of tenor Michael Fabiano and his struggle to come out as gay in the very conservative opera world; the lighthearted Let The Blonde Sing (May 6), which is about a singing bartender in remote Whittier, Alaska; and Music for People in Japan (May 6), a look at an unlikely reunion of a high school rock band of the ’80s.
A wide slate of issue-oriented documentaries, ranging from the observational to confrontational, also fills out the lineup. Both Spring Valley (by Boston-based filmmaker Garrett Zvegetis on May 8) and The Witmans (May 10) take on the ways in which the American criminal justice system jeopardizes the futures of teenagers in America, especially young men of color. Another focus on teens: Peter Hicks’s Homeroom (May 15), the third in his verité trilogy about life in Oakland. This installment centers on a diverse mix of 12th graders who grapple with having their senior year interrupted by COVID-19 and then by the George Floyd murder (May 16) is a coming-of-age narrative featuring an American girl in Central Valley, California, the daughter of itinerant farm workers during the Trump era.
Boston and Boston-area filmmakers feature in a variety of films. A Reckoning in Boston (May 7) grapples with systemic racism in our cit. Newton-based filmmaker James Rutenbeck uses the filmmaking process itself to suggest at least one remedy: he shares directorial responsibilities with two of the film’s subjects from Dorchester. The short documentary Flynn/King 1983: The Election For Boston’s Neighborhoods (May 6) looks back at the pivotal election of Ray Flynn over Melvin King, the latter the first Black candidate to ran to be come Boston’s mayor. Lockshop (May 6), another short, focuses on a family-owned locksmith shop in Southie, one of the last of its kind to survive the gentrification of the neighborhood. Jeff Liu’s intimate short After Life (May 6) spotlights a widow who is questioning how to move on after the death of her husband (noted Boston lawyer and WBZ host Neil Chayet).
Neil Giordano teaches film and creative writing in Newton. His work as an editor, writer, and photographer has appeared in Harper’s, Newsday, Literal Mind, and other publications. Giordano previously was on the original editorial staff of DoubleTake magazine and taught at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.