Among the flurry of press releases that came our way recently was one about the upcoming documentaries so far slated for the first half of 2018. I say “so far” because there are always additions to the slate or a shuffle of order as the year goes on. Before we begin our look at the titles locked in over the next several months we report on the change of guard in HBO’s documentary division.
As previously reported Sheila Nevins is no longer the top honcho on the documentary front. Her replacements have been announced and they are Nancy Abraham and Lisa Heller. They are now Co-chairs of HBO Documentary and Family Programming. Abraham has been onboard since 1995 accumulating many credits at HBO and Heller started in 2000 coming from PBS’s POV documentary series. Programming Chief Casey Bloys has said – “With Nancy and Lisa leading a stellar team, there will be a continued commitment to the excellence that was a hallmark of Sheila’s tenure. “Our viewers can look forward to a compelling slate of programming.”
And with that is what is to come in early in 2018. It started with THE LAST FIVE YEARS about the end of David Bowie’s career & life. It debuted on January 8 and a review is forthcoming.
LOS ANGELES, Jan 11, 2018 – HBO has confirmed a diverse array of timely and thought-provoking documentaries for the first half of 2018, including Judd Apatow’s two-part, four-and-a-half-hour documentary THE ZEN DAIRIES OF GARRY SHANDLING; Peter Kunhardt’s KING OF THE WILDERNESS, about the last years of Martin Luther King, Jr.; Rebecca Miller’s ARTHUR MILLER: WRITER, an intimate portrait of one the greatest playwrights of the 20th century; and I AM EVIDENCE, produced by Mariska Hargitay, about the untested rape kit backlog in the U.S.
THE NUMBER ON GREAT GRANDPA’S ARM (debuts January 27). When ten-year-old Elliott asks his 90-year-old great-grandfather, Jack, about the number tattooed on his arm, he sparks an intimate conversation about Jack’s life that spans happy memories of childhood in Poland, the loss of his family, surviving Auschwitz, and finding a new life in America. Drawing on haunting historical footage, photos and hand-painted watercolor animation, the short film tells a heartbreaking story of Jewish life in Eastern Europe before and during the Holocaust. Debuting on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, this gently powerful documentary centers on Elliott’s love for his beloved great-grandfather and his wish to keep Jack’s memories and lessons from that terrible time alive. Directed and produced by Amy Schatz.
MAY IT LAST: A PORTRAIT OF THE AVETT BROTHERS (debuts January 29). From longtime fans Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio, and filmed with extensive access over the course of more than two years, this intimate portrait of the acclaimed North Carolina band charts their decade-and-a-half rise while chronicling the Avetts’ present-day collaboration with famed producer Rick Rubin on the multi-Grammy-nominated album “True Sadness.” With the recording process as a backdrop, it depicts a lifelong bond and unique creative partnership, as band members experience marriage, divorce, parenthood, illness, and the challenges of the music business. More than just a music documentary, the film is a meditation on family, love and the passage of time. An Apatow Production in association with Radical Media.
ATOMIC HOMEFRONT (February 12). This timely film shines an urgent light on the lasting toxic effects nuclear waste can have on communities. Focusing on a group of moms-turned-advocates in St Louis, it follows them as they confront the Environmental Protection Agency, state regulators and the corporations behind the illegal dumping of dangerous radioactive waste in their neighborhoods. Directed by Rebecca Cammisa.
ARTHUR MILLER: WRITER (March 19). This intimate portrait of one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century is told from the unique perspective of his daughter, Rebecca Miller, who filmed interviews with her father over decades. Drawing on a wealth of personal archival material, the film provides new insights into Miller’s life as an artist and explores his character in all its complexity. Directed by Rebecca Miller.
THE ZEN DIARIES OF GARRY SHANDLING (March 26 and 27). Judd Apatow’s two-part, four-and-a-half-hour documentary explores the remarkable life of the legendary comedian, who was Apatow’s mentor and friend. It features interviews from nearly four dozen friends, family and colleagues; four decades’ worth of television appearances; and a lifetime of personal journals, private letters and home audio and video footage that reveals Shandling’s brilliant mind and restless soul.
KING IN THE WILDERNESS (April). Drawing on stories from the people around him, this film follows Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the last years of his life, from the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 to his assassination in 1968. The documentary provides a clear window into King’s character, showing him to be a man with an unshakeable commitment to nonviolence in the face of an increasingly unstable country. With the U.S. currently in one of the most divided periods in 50 years, King’s words underscore why nonviolence is still vital today. Directed by Peter Kunhardt and produced by George and Teddy Kunhardt.
TRAFFIC STOP (March 12). This film tells the story of Breaion King, a 26-year-old African-American school teacher from Austin, Texas, who was stopped for a routine traffic violation that escalated into a dramatic arrest. Caught on police dashcams, King was pulled from her car by the arresting officer, repeatedly thrown to the ground and handcuffed. En route to jail in a squad car, she engaged in a revealing conversation with her escorting officer about race and law enforcement in America. The documentary juxtaposes dashcam footage with scenes from King’s everyday life, offering a fuller portrait of the woman caught up in this unsettling encounter. Directed by Kate Davis; produced by David Heilbroner.
ELVIS PRESLEY: THE SEARCHER (APRIL 14) This three-hour, two-film presentation focuses on Elvis Presley the musical artist, taking the audience on a comprehensive creative journey from his childhood through the final 1976 Jungle Room recording sessions. The films include stunning atmospheric shots taken inside Graceland, Elvis’ iconic home, and feature more than 20 new, primary source interviews with session players, producers, engineers, directors and other artists who knew him or who were profoundly influenced by him. The documentary also features never-before-seen photos and footage from private collections worldwide, and includes an original musical score composed by Pearl Jam lead guitarist Mike McCready
I AM EVIDENCE (April). Produced by Mariska Hargitay, this documentary reveals the shocking number of untested rape kits in the United States today. Despite the power of DNA to solve and prevent crimes, hundreds of thousands of these kits, containing potentially crucial DNA evidence, languish untested in police evidence storage rooms across the country. The film tells stories of survivors who have waited years for their kits to be tested, as well as the law enforcement officials who are leading the charge to work through the backlog and pursue long-awaited justice. Directed by Trish Adlesic and Geeta Gandbhir.
THE FINAL YEAR (May). This documentary is a unique insiders’ account of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy team during its last year in office. Featuring unprecedented access inside the White House and State Department, the film offers an uncompromising view of the inner workings of the Obama administration as it prepares to leave power after eight years. Directed by Greg Barker.
This last portion of the post looks back at the 2017 slate and calls out our favorites of the year. The front half of the year, January through June gave us BRIGHT LIGHTS: STARRING CARRIE FISHER AND DEBBIE REYNOLDS, BEWARE THE SLENDERMAN, BECOMING WARREN BUFFETT, SOLITARY INSIDE RED ONION STATE PRISON, EAGLES OF DEATH METAL: NOS AMIS (OUR FRIENDS), UNLOCKING THE CAGE, TICKLED and THE TICKLE KING, THE MUSIC OF STRANGERS: YO-YO MA AND THE SILK ROAD ENSEMBLE, CRIES FROM SYRIA, ROCK AND A HARD PLACE, ABORTION: STORIES WOMEN TELL, WARNING: THIS DRUG MAY KILL YOU, MOMMY DEAD AND DEAREST and IF YOU’RE NOT IN THE OBIT, EAT BREAKFAST.
The second half of the year (July – December) gave us THE WORDS THAT BUILT AMERICA, THE DEFIANT ONES, DIANA, OUR MOTHER: HER LIFE AND LEGACY, BRILLO BOX 3¢ OFF, CIĹNICA DE MIGRANTES, SPIELBERG, ROLLING STONE: STORIES FORM THE EDGE, WAR DOG: A SOLDIER’S BEST FRIEND, BALTIMORE RISING, METH STORM, THE NEWSPAPERMAN: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF BEN BRADLEE, 32 PILLS: MY SISTER’S SUICIDE, HAPPENING: A CLEAN ENERGY REVOLUTION, AGNELLI and 15: A QUINCEAÑERA STORY.
It is difficult now to select from this list and single out my favorite. Bear with me as I write my way through the decision. As the biofilms go the start of the year hit of sadly and beautifully with BRIGHT LIGHTS, but I surprised myself from warming up to the subject in BECOMING WARREN BUFFETT. I was touched by UNLOCKING THE CAGE and emotionally numbed by CRIES FROM SYRIA. But for both of them, it was the subject that got me not the necessarily the presentation itself.
As a packaged film I was more intrigued by BEWARE THE SLENDERMAN and MOMMY DEAD AND DEAREST. EAGLES OF DEATH METAL: NOS AMIS (OUR FRIENDS), was a powerful story to tell and I loved the idea of YO-YO MA AND THE SILK ROAD ENSEMBLE. Both are great stories of empowered people out to change the world with brave voices and beautiful music. Such a tough call here.
So, joining the following…
2012 – MARINA ABRAMOVICH: THE ARTIST IS PRESENT and PROJECT NIM
2013 – HOW FAR IS IT TO THE FRONT FROM HERE? and LIFE ACCORDING TO SAM
2014 – TERROR AT THE MALL and THE NEWBURGH STING
2015 – THE JINX and CITIZENFOUR
2016 – UNDERFIRE: THE UNTOLD STORY OF PFC. TONY VACCARO and JIM: THE JAMES FOLEY STORY