Hot Documentaries Shop for Deals at Woodstock Film Festival

WOODSTOCK, N.Y. — Indie film distributor Neon is hoping to make a statement with its awards consideration plan for the animated documentary “Flee.”

Tom Quinn, co-founder of Neon, told Variety that Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s story of a gay refugee who fled to safety in Denmark from his home in Afghanistan as a child, will be submitted for Oscar best picture consideration in addition to the documentary, animation and foreign language categories. “Flee” was picked up by Neon and Participant after premiering in January at Sundance, where it won the Grand Jury Prize.

“I think it’s high time that a non-fiction feature film be a part of the best picture category,” Quinn said Saturday during an interview at the 22nd annual Woodstock Film Festival. “Flee” is timely and unfortunately more relevant than ever. It’s a film that resonates culturally, but it’s also pure cinema. It’s also personal in a way that makes it political and I want to do whatever I can to convince others to believe that this is (a film) that defies categories.”

“Flee” has been invited to every major award season film festival including Telluride, Toronto and New York. In addition to being a Cannes 2020 official selection, the film has also been a presence at local film festivals including Woodstock and Camden Intl. Film Festival. On Oct. 9. “Flee” will screen at The Hamptons Intl. Film Festival.

Quinn, who was the recipient of Woodstock’s Trailblazer award at the festival’s closing night ceremony, has proven that Neon films can in fact defy categories. In 2020 Neon’s “Parasite,” from South Korean writer-director Bong Joon-ho, became the first foreign film to win best picture, in addition to picking up awards for directing, original screenplay and international feature. Also that year Neon’s Macedonia docu “Honeyland” made history when it was nominated in both the Oscar documentary and foreign film categories.

The five-day festival (Sept. 29 – Oct. 3) in New York’s Hudson Valley, about 100 miles north of Manhattan, also paid homage to Oscar-winning director Roger Ross Williams, who received the Maverick Award.

“A maverick is someone who goes against the grain who fights the system and the establishment and that’s very much what I’m about doing,” said Williams, who has been on the Board of Governors for the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences since 2016. “That’s very much the work that I’ve done in the Academy. That’s very much the work that I’ve done with my production company, which is giving voice to unrepresented filmmakers who haven’t had the opportunities and funding. There’s incredibly talented BIPOC filmmakers out there. I’m a BIPOC filmmaker who didn’t have opportunities after winning the Oscar, so now that I am establishment, I get to open doors for other filmmakers like myself.”

Prior to receiving his award, Williams was out and about promoting a film he produced titled “Ranger,” which made its world premiere at Woodstock. The film tells the story of 12 women in Kenya’s Samburu and Maasai communities. Williams brought in Submarine Entertainment’s Josh Braun to help sell the doc. Braun, who is responsible for selling “Honeyland” to Neon after its 2019 Sundance premiere, was also shopping Hallee Adelman and Sean O’Grady’s docu “Our American Family” during the fest.

Anne Rapp and Jack Youngelson came to Woodstock looking to find a home for their respective docus “Horton Foote: The Road To Home” and “Here. Is. Better.”

Rapp has been working on “Horton Foote” – about the famed author and screenwriter of “To Kill A Mockingbird” and “Tender Mercies” — for the last 15 years. A script supervisor and screenwriter, Rapp met Foote on the set of 1983’s “Tender Mercies.”

“I didn’t make this film to start a career in documentary filmmaking,” said Rapp. “This film was made to honor Horton because there are a lot of people who don’t know who he was and I believe that he is one of the most important writers of the 20th century.”

Youngelson’s “Here. Is. Better” was also a labor of love. About four veterans undergoing trauma psychotherapies for posttraumatic stress disorder, Youngelson said that developing trust with the film’s main subjects proved to be biggest challenge of making the film.

“During the development phase, we spoke with dozens of men and women veterans, many of whom were at their most vulnerable and raw, who were just beginning therapy for PTSD or coming out the other side,” Youngelson said. “We wanted to make sure they were comfortable with our team, our process and our goals of taking viewers inside the therapeutic process.”

Another Woodstock documentary looking for a distributor is “El Gran Fellove.” Directed by Matt Dillon the film is about Cuban scat singer and songwriter Francisco Fellove. “El Gran Fellove” premiered last year at San Sebastian Intl. Film Festival and was also part of Telluride’s line-up last month. Dillon and “El Gran Fellove” producer Jonathan Gray came to the Hudson Valley to screen the doc and partake in a panel discussion.

“It’s wonderful when a sale happens and there have been plenty of years when it did happen but that’s not what we aspire for,” said Woodstock’s executive director and co-founder Meira Blaustein. “We aspire for high quality; thought-provoking films and we aspire to support the filmmakers.”

Stephen Kessler — director of the 2011 docu “Paul Williams Is Still Alive” — was one of those filmmakers. The helmer was in town with an untitled short doc financed by the Creative Coalition about comedians and fat humor. Kessler screened the short during Woodstock to determine whether or not he should turn it into a feature length documentary.

In addition to “Flee,” Woodstock 2021 did feature a few other docus garnering Oscar buzz including Todd Haynes’ “The Velvet Underground,” Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s “The Rescue” and Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s “Julia.”

Since West and Cohen couldn’t make it to the festival, “Julia” producers — Sara Bernstein and Justin Wilkes of Imagine Entertainment — came to town to represent the documentary about famed chef Julia Child.

“Woodstock is such a great festival because unlike some of the bigger festivals, the audiences here are just people who love movies,” said Wilkes, who grew up just minutes away from Woodstock in Kingston, N.Y. “The screening of “Julia” in Woodstock wasn’t an industry screening. It was just local people coming to watch a great movie, which is something that I think we’re all craving right now, since we’ve all been sitting at home for the last two years.”

(Pictured: “Flee”)


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