Kedi

Kedi, cat, IstanbulWorried about the increasingly autocratic government of Turkey? Erdogan’s round-up of dissidents? His relations with Syria? You can forget all that watching this documentary (trailer) by Turkish filmmaker Ceyda Torun and cinematographer Charlie Wuppermann, about Istanbul’s Big Romance with—cats! (What did you think “Kedi” means?)

At an hour twenty-minutes, the film is somewhat longer than it might be, but as a vacation from the news cycle, perhaps not long enough. The residents of Istanbul don’t “own” most of the cats that roam their streets and markets, that nest in quiet places and makeshift hideaways. But they more than tolerate them, they celebrate them. And the cats, meanwhile, act like “slumming royals,” says Joe Leydon in Variety. You can see the cast here.

A number of the featured felines rule the neighborhoods where they live, defending their turf against interlopers and providing benefits to the humans. “They absorb my negative energy,” one man says. A waterside restaurant owner who’d had a problem with “mice” (I fear this was a euphemism) celebrated the day “this lion took up residence.” She takes care of the “mice,” to the comfort of the diners, I’m sure. My particular favorite was the cat who lives at a deli. She never goes inside, but paws at the window—rather insistently, it should be noted—when she wants one of the countermen to make her a snack.

The filmmakers identified a number of the city’s human residents whose mission seems to be to keep these felines in food. One pair of women cooks twenty pounds of chicken a day for them. (!) “All of us have tabs with all the vets,” says a bakery owner, and we see a man take an injured kitten to the vet in a taxi..

In short, the film is charming. It talks about how cats are different than dogs. And it shows how caring for the cats has been helpful to people in many ways. Suitable for all ages, and especially for those who have—or wish they had—been to Istanbul and now are reluctant to go because of paragraph one above. As Leydon says, it’s “splendidly graceful and quietly magical.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 97%; audiences: 87%.

Related Reading

Istanbul isn’t the only city with wonderful cats. Felines of New York –featuring indoor cats, it must be said—gives them deadpan quotes: “I’m not entirely familiar with the Internet thing. Like, I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never watched it or smelled it or whatever you do to the Internet. I’ve heard it’s full of cats, though. Is that true?” LOL! (affiliate link below).

Score

Score, musicThe heart of many a memorable motion picture is the musical score that presages, enhances, and evokes emotions as the story unfolds.

In Score, a new documentary set for wide release in May, filmmakers Kenny Holmes and Matt Schrader feature leading film music composers—including John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Thomas Newman, Quincy Jones, Danny Elfman and Alexandre Desplat—who describe the extraordinary artistry and execution in crafting a memorable score.

“Whether they’re talking about their contemporaries or the greats of yesteryear, the composers express a profound admiration that’s born of an intimate understanding of what makes a work groundbreaking or indelible,” wrote Sheri Linden in the Hollywood Reporter.

The documentary begins with the silent film era. To drown out the distracting sound of a film projector, theatres hired a pianist or organist to convey the action or emotion. That changed with the debut of King Kong in 1933, featuring the RKO Studio Orchestra and a score by Max Steiner.

Orchestral music became a fixture in filmmaking when Bernard Herrmann, a CBS staff conductor, met Orson Welles in the late 1930’s. He wrote and arranged scores for several of Welles’s radio series, including War of the Worlds, then followed Welles to Hollywood, where he wrote the score for Citizen Kane, which premiered in 1941.

Herrmann also is known for his collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock, for whom he wrote the scores for Psycho, Vertigo, and North by Northwest. When you recall the frightening shower scene with Janet Leigh in Psycho, you likely will “replay” the piercing violin sound Herrmann used to augment the horror.

The tempo changed in the 1960’s when filmmakers turned to rock and roll tracks and other source music for such iconic films as Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde.

The next big shift was the reintroduction of the studio orchestra —most notably by legendary composer John Williams. Williams is credited with reviving the interest in and use of orchestral musicians and large recording studios, such as Abbey Road in London, for his inimitable sound.

Finally, the film shows how today’s composers are turning to unusual instruments—tribal, traditional—and to digital composition and production for their inspiration. One composer said that if the score gives him goose bumps, he knows he’s hit the mark.

The film most recently received a Directors Choice Award for excellence in filmmaking at the Sedona International Film Festival (SIFF). In a Q&A at SIFF, Holmes remarked on their difficulties scheduling time with the busy composers, yet overcame a frequent obstacle for independent filmmakers—funding—by conducting a global crowdfunding campaign to help defray post-production costs.

Thanks to Tucson-based Jodi Goalstone for this guest post. She’s author of the entertaining blog Going Yard, Offbeat Baseball Musings and celebrating her 20th year living in the Old Pueblo.

Oscar Shorts Nominees 2017: Documentaries

Watani, Syria

Farah, in Watani: My Homeland

Last night’s Oscar ceremony (though I wouldn’t have wished it longer and it couldn’t have been more dramatic) gave such short shrift to the short film nominees, it must have been hard for viewers to get any sense of them. Today’s post, the short documentaries; tomorrow, the live action shorts!

Watching a short film (technically, anything less than 40 minutes, including credits) is like reading a short story: the best ones crystallize the essence of a person or situation, sometimes more memorably than a novel, with all the distractions of backstory, secondary characters, side plots and the like.

Five films were nominated for the documentary shorts, and if you weren’t comfortable with the gritty realities of the war in Syria, you were really out of luck. Three of the films, including the two longest, dwelt with the consequences of that war, made by some very brave filmmakers. The role of “documentaries” in documenting what most of us are protected from came home sharply. Winner in bold.

  • Joe’s Violin, directed by award-winning producer of Kahane Cooperman (24 minutes), which told the story of Holocaust survivor Joseph Feingold’s decision to donate his unused violin to a public radio drive. In partnership with the Holland’s Opus Foundation, New York City’s WQXR collected no-longer-used instruments for schools. Joe’s violin went to Brianna Perez, a student at the Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls (fascinating in its own right) in the nation’s poorest congressional district. When Joe and Brianna meet, the social, cultural, and generational gulfs between them are dissolved by their love of music and this instrument. One hanky. (See it here.)
  • Extremis, a 24-minute Netflix documentary directed by Dan Krauss (interview about the filming). The wrenching decisions family members must make for critically ill patients are explored here. The medical team’s lack of a crystal ball is clear. Perhaps it will motivate viewers to have conversations with family before a medical catastrophe occurs, and not to leave them struggling with impossible choices. If you’ve avoided thinking about these issues, see it here.
  • 4.1 Miles, directed by Daphne Matziaraki (26 minutes), is the story of a Greek Coast Guard captain and crew sent out from the island of Lesbos, day after day, sometimes multiple times a day, in all kinds of weather, to rescue desperate, terrified, and sometimes half-drowned refugees (mostly Syrian) trying to cross the 4.1 miles from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos. Through an accident of geography, the physically and emotionally exhausted Coast Guarders must deal with this enormous humanitarian crisis, unaided by the world’s wealthier countries. (I can think of one. Has a big navy too.) (See it here.)
  • Watani: My Homeland was filmed over three years by director Marcel Mettelsiefen (40 minutes). As Aleppo explodes all around them, four young children live in an abandoned home next to an army outpost. Their mother had taken them away from the dangerous city, but the children insisted on returning to be with their father, a Free Syrian commander. He’s captured by ISIS, and they are heartbroken. When they finally reach sanctuary in Germany—an iffy proposition, at best—young Farah still runs to shelter when a helicopter flies overhead. The detailed portrayal of this close-knit family brings the nightly news home in a way generalizations and statistics never can. Makes you realize “home” is a complex concept too.
  • The White Helmets, directed by Orlando von Einsiedel (41 minutes*), is the story of the unarmed and neutral civilians who respond to every bombing attack in search of victims. Last year, they were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Interviews with three of them working in Aleppo (a construction worker, a blacksmith, and a tailor in their former lives) show how they have responded with almost unimaginable compassion to the equally unimaginable destruction of their homeland. The white helmets they wear offer no magic protection from collapsing buildings or new bombings and, in fact, at times make them targets. At the last minute, cinematographer Khalid Khatib, a white helmet worker himself, was denied entry to the United States and, therefore, attendance at the Oscar ceremony. A sign of the strength of the film is that I found a Russian website debunking the White Helmets’ work.

These films were all fantastic and about compelling individuals, but my pick for Best Use of the Documentary Form was The White Helmets. Best Raiser of Blood Pressure: 4.1 Miles. Sentimental Favorite: Joe’s Violin.

*I don’t understand the Academy’s rules well enough to know why this nominee wasn’t disqualified for violating the length requirement.

The Witness

apartment-building

photo: La Citta Vita, creative commons license

12/7 Update: The Witness is on the Oscar shortlist for best documentary!

On a March night in 1964, Kitty Genovese was murdered in the vestibule of her Kew Gardens, Queens, apartment building as 38 witnesses did nothing, according to an unforgettable story in the New York Times, which described how she was allegedly stalked and stabbed three times in the span of a half-hour.

While spurring needed improvements in emergency response and community watchdog efforts, the horror of her death became imprinted in the public’s minds and in sociological texts as examples of urban dwellers’ indifference to others.

The Witness, a film released this year and now showing on Netflix, is an exhaustive examination of these events, resulting from a decade-long crusade to learn the truth about Genovese’s death. First-time documentarian James Solomon follows Kitty’s brother Bill as he traces the threads of the story, a story even some family members wish he could put behind him.

As Stephanie Merry wrote in Washington Post review, everyone got the story wrong, and they got Kitty wrong: “People don’t remember the vivacious bar manager, the prankster, the beloved big sister. They remember a victim.” Bill was especially close to his sister and loved her joyful, playful spirit. That is what he wanted to honor and remember in his quest to learn the truth.

“There were a lot of things we discovered,” he said in an interview with NPR’s Scott Simon last spring. “During the course of 11 years, there were a lot of stones we overturned. But basically the most fundamental thing was that the 38 eyewitness story and three attacks was not true.”

Many of the so-called witnesses did hear something—desperate screams for help that roused people out of sound sleep—and many did do something. A neighbor who knew Kitty well ran down to the narrow lobby vestibule, now knowing whether the assailant was still in the area, and cradled Kitty as she was dying.

Even the convicted murderer, Winston Moseley (he died in prison while serving a life sentence), had his own version of what happened that night. In a letter to Bill, he claimed that he did not kill Kitty, but was the getaway driver for an underworld figure.

The nature of truth—and what we choose to believe—and the fuzziness of memory are key themes in the film that echo coverage in more recent stories about iconic victims such as Freddie Gray and Trayvon Martin.

The film shows Bill doggedly pursuing leads, reading trial transcripts, checking what people might have seen from their windows, and tracking down surviving witnesses and their families like a latter-day Lieutenant Columbo. He enlists a woman to re-enact the crime using what witnesses said they heard that night. The effect is chilling. And Bill sits weeping.

In a Merry’s review, filmmaker Solomon said, “For whatever reason I am drawn to these iconic stories we think we know.” (Previously, he wrote the screenplay for “The Conspirator,” about Mary Surratt, who aided John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln.)

Editor’s note: The mischaracterization of Kitty Genovese’s death was possible, in part, because relatively few Americans have witnessed murder. We think we know how we would respond, but . . .? Today, social media makes many more of us “witnesses” to violence and provides a whole new range of responses (see this riveting WIRED account of social media around last summer’s police-involved shootings). The availability of real-time “evidence” on screens in front of us, even acknowledging that distortions may occur, should mean it won’t take 52 years for the true circumstances of these deaths to be understood.

This guest post is by Tucson-based Jodi Goalstone, author of the entertaining blog Going Yard, Offbeat Baseball Musings, celebrating her 20th year living in the Old Pueblo.

Do I Need Your Love, Babe?

eight-days-a-week, Beatles, Ron HowardThe new Ron Howard hit documentary about the Beatles, Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years (trailer), is a love letter to the musical group and the exuberance of youth. Using sometimes grainy footage of early performances up through the final live performance at Candlestick Park (and the final-final live performance for a few people, including unsuspecting passers-by, from the roof of their recording studio), the Beatles as a phenomenon still amaze. They not only had a brutal tour schedule in this period, 1962-1966, they transformed the music industry and changed the culture through their truly overwhelming and unprecedented worldwide popularity.

That popularity led to nearly riotous conditions for their concerts and forced promoters into using stadium venues for the first time. They just couldn’t risk the hordes of disappointed fans in a conventional, smaller-capacity concert hall. It also forced the band away from stage performances, where they made their money, and into the studio where they could actually hear themselves think. Right. They were musicians.

For a long time and during this intense period, they were also very good friends and colleagues. The members were strengthened by their closeness, always having each other to rely on. In an archived interview, George says something like, “I always felt sorry for Elvis. He didn’t have that. It was just him.” If a decision had to be made, they all made it, including the decision not to play in segregated venues in the United States, a provision included in their contracts.

It was 52 years ago that the Beatles’ first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, an event watched by nearly 40 percent of Americans. They came on the scene during a tumultuous time here, amidst civil rights and Vietnam War protests, and only a few months after the assassination of President Kennedy. And while the boys appear sweet and lively in these old clips, there’s that clap of nostalgic pain, too—knowing what happened later and knowing what was lost, including youth itself.

They were So Young when crushing fame and amazing music happened to, around, and within them. That they managed themselves with such grace is astonishing. Ron Howard and producer Giles Martin (son of Beatles’ recording producer George Martin) have done a great job in creating a film to introduce a new generation of fans to the group. Recent interviews with Paul (looks old!) and Ringo (looks great!) bring out new information and insights, and a worldwide call for footage from people who took their film cameras to the concerts brought lots of new visuals with a startling sense of unstaged immediacy.

And there’s lots of head-filling, memory-sparking music too.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 95%; audiences 86%. In theaters and streaming on Hulu.“Yeah, yeah, yeah!”

Zero Days

Zero Days, Iran, nuclear

Former Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad inspecting centrifuges at Natanz.

This two-hour documentary released Friday, July 8, and playing in selected theaters and streaming online, traces the history and consequences of Stuxnet, a sophisticated piece of malware unleashed on the world in 2010 (trailer & theater list).

Before you yawn and click away, there’s an important feature of the Stuxnet worm and others like it that makes this story of vital interest to you. Stuxnet was not designed to invade your home or office computer, but to attack the industrial control systems (specifically, programmable logic controllers) that manage critical infrastructure. These systems make sure trains and airplanes don’t crash, control car and truck traffic, maintain oil and gas production, manage industrial automation, ensure you have water to brush your teeth with and electricity to run the coffee maker, keep life-saving medical technology operating, and, of course, give you access to the internet. Cyber-attacks on these systems cause real-world, physical destruction, even widespread death.

Behind the Computer Screen

The Stuxnet story—still highly classified, but revealed over time—began with an effort by the United States and Israel to thwart Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons by destroying centrifuges at the country’s Natanz uranium enrichment facility. The software was diabolically clever, virtually undetectable, and essentially untraceable. In theory.

The fact that it was a Zero Day exploit (that is, that the attack would begin before the software problem was discovered and attempts made to fix it or shut it down) and that the Stuxnet code contained not one, but four zero day features, was remarkable. Once it was inside, it worked autonomously; even the attacker could not call it back.

The Israelis, apparently, were impatient. They assassinated Iranian nuclear scientists, and they changed the Stuxnet code, and it spread. It ended up infecting computers worldwide, at which point it was no longer secret, people were looking for it, and the Russians and others found it. “Israel blew the [malware’s] cover and it could have led to war,” the film says.

Another consequence is that the day when something similar can be unleashed on us grows ever closer. It will come from one of three sources:

  • Cybercriminals, in it for the money
  • Activists, intent on making a political point or
  • Nation-states seeking intelligence or opportunities for sabotage.

U.S. security agencies are not complacent. While they talk publicly about our cyber-defenses, in fact, there is a large (unexamined) effort to develop offensive cyber-weapons. There are reports of an even more draconian cyber-weapon embedded throughout Iranian institutions. Warding off its activation is believed a primary reason the Iranians finally struck a nuclear agreement. Certainly it prompted the rapid development surge in Iran’s cyberarmy.

In putting this story together, writer and director Alex Gibney interviewed former high-ranking U.S. and Israeli security officials, analysts from Symantec who teased the code apart, personnel from Russia’s Kaspersky Lab, and many others, including CIA/NSA/DoD officials unable to speak on camera.

“Fear Does Not Protect Us”

The documentary makes a persuasive case for who holds the smoking Stuxnet gun, but it also suggests that finding fault is not the primary issue. The climate of international secrecy around Stuxnet—and the inevitable clones that will follow—makes an open discussion about them impossible. Nor does it allow development of rational strategies for managing the risks, regardless of how urgently needed those strategies are. Cyber-risk management will never be easy, but as one of the film’s experts points out, “it will never happen unless you start.”

The subject is “hideously overclassified,” says Michael Hayden, former director of both the NSA and CIA. (The climate of secrecy is so extreme that even the U.S. Department of Homeland Security cyber team was unaware that Stuxnet originated across town and spent countless resources trying to track it down.) We, of all nations, need this debate, because there is no more vulnerable country in the world, when it comes to systems’ connectedness.

“Evil and good live side by side,” says an anonymous agent of the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad. Keeping secrets is a good way to prevent being able to tell one from the other.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 87%; audiences 69%.

Indie Documentaries: Valiant Struggles

N.J. Governor Christie

NJ Gov. Chris Christie-sez so right on his jacket (adapted from a Talk Radio News Svc photo, creative commons license)

In the last bill for the Trenton (N.J.) Film Festival 2016 were three short documentaries under the heading Made in By.  As mentioned in an earlier post, Trenton’s Film Festival offers 55 films from 16 countries in multiple categories—live action, documentary, animation, and new media. The final three from Sunday night were:

  • Two Years – a film by Lauren Hall (11 minutes), which had to be a sentimental favorite here in New Jersey, because it showed the ongoing struggle of Jersey Shore residents to rebuild after Hurricane Sandy. They are thwarted by a FEMA bureaucracy that keeps changing eligibility rules for assistance and a governor who says all the right things, but provides little help, focused as he has been on his own now-failed presidential bid. Of the 45,000 or so homes lost in the storm, fewer than 400 had been rebuilt two years later! It is now 3.5 years after the storm, and two shore residents who appeared in the film attended the screening and spoke afterwards. One is finally back in her home, the other is not.
  • PACT: A Day in the Life – by John Bynum, 14 minutes – a film whose cinematic shortcomings are easily overcome by the importance of the problem it highlights: the plight of people with chronic mental conditions in a housing-health-welfare system geared to short-term problems and remedies. The film follows one Trenton, N.J., Catholic Charities support team on its daily rounds, providing ample evidence these people are candidates for sainthood.
  • Made in BY – a 52-minute Italian film (trailer), directed by Luigi Milardi, in its U.S. premiere. The film documents the state of the creative arts in Belarus—Europe’s last dictatorship—through interviews with (mostly young) people from theater, art, music, journalism, and so on. The predominant impression is one of uncertainty—will a particular work be censored, will it land its participants in prison, or not? That creativity can thrive under such difficult circumstances is a profound testament to the human spirit.

The organizers of the Trenton Film Festival deserve a big round of applause for mounting such an ambitious and thought-provoking five-day program!

Indie Documentaries Star

Iceland, sheep pen, rettir

Waiting for the Sheep (photo: Hansueli Krapf, creative commons license)

Last night at the Trenton Film Festival 2016, saw three short documentaries under the heading Ageless Friends.  Over a period of five days, the festival shows 55 films from 16 countries—live action, documentary, animation, and new media. Films submitted for consideration are selected by a panel of jurors (who must have been very busy!) and the festival culminates in an awards ceremony for “bests” in various categories, including audience favorite.

First up was a 7-minute film from the U.K., North Coast 500, which follows three cyclists on a tour through the beautiful Scottish Highlands. The scenery is magnificent.

A Thousand-Year-Old Tradition

It was the second and third films that competed on my ballot for “audience favorite.” The second, A Thousand Autumns, is a 17-minute U.S. film directed by Bob Krist. It follows the efforts on one of several groups of Icelandic farmers who each fall use ponies and dogs to herd their sheep from remote highland pastures to winter grazing lands closer to their farms and the coast. This is a tradition (called the “réttir”) that has been maintained, as the title implies, for ten centuries.

It’s a massive effort, involving the whole community, and family members who’ve moved to the city return for it. Over the summer, the sheep from various farms become all mixed up together, and the farmers have created a the clever method of separating hundreds of animals into individual herds. A round pen is surrounded by pie-shaped wedges, one for each farmer. The sheep are let into the central pen where people await, ready to sort them and push them into the correct farm’s wedge.

Filmmaker Krist first became committed to documenting this herculean effort in the mid-1980s, when on a photography assignment for National Geographic. He knew the separating pen would be a strong visual, which he calls a “sheep pizza.” In those days, he would have had to film it with an expensive and scary (for the sheep) helicopter; for this film, he used a drone.

A Full Measure of Devotion

The hour-long third film, Ageless Friends (trailer), opening in the U.S. in June, is from Netherlands documentarian Marijn Poels. As a teenager, Maarten Vossen adopted the grave of U.S. soldier Private First Class James E. Wickline, one of 8301 U.S. soldiers buried in the Netherlands American Cemetery. Wickline participated in Operation Market Garden, an unsuccessful Allied effort to overtake Germany’s industrial heartland in the Ruhr Valley. Vossen became determined to learn more about “his” soldier, a young man who died to restore his and his country’s freedom.

Cinecrowd003_converted

Ultimately, he learns that Wickline was one of some 1200 new recruits brought into the 82d airborne’s 508th Parachute Infantry Division to replace soldiers lost at Normandy, only 800 of whom survived. Evidence (Wickline’s documented injuries) led the military to conclude his parachute did not open, and he was killed on the first day of the operation, on his first jump into battle.

For Wickline to have died without ever having actually participated in the war dismays Vossen, who traces Wickline’s roots and connections in West Virginia and, working with a county commissioner there, succeeds in having a bridge named for him. That this young Dutchman, 70 years later and living thousands of miles away, cares so much about one of our forgotten fallen is extraordinarily moving, an ultimate expression of unselfish love.

Landfill Harmonic

music, instrumentIn the early 20th Century, Marcel Duchamp transformed everyday objects into art he called “ready-mades.” The documentary Landfill Harmonic (trailer) shows how garbage from a Paraguayan landfill can be made into musical instruments.

The full-length film focuses on the residents of Cateura, near Asunción, Paraguay’s capital. They live next to a large landfill, where workers scavenge and sell recyclable detritus to make a living. Despite the dispiriting surroundings—ramshackle houses, dismal landscape—the people have a burgeoning enthusiasm for students’ music education. But they are too poor to buy enough instruments.

Musical director Favio Chávez turns to a garbage picker, Nicolás (Colá) Goméz, who begins to fashion instruments from curated debris—flutes made from water pipes, oil and paint cans for violins and cellos, and discarded X-rays for drum skins.

“The world sends us garbage…we send back music,” says Chávez.

Slowly, the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura hones its skills and sound. Then, a random social media connection catapults them into world view. The students pose with the Paraguayan flag decorated with the logo of the heavy metal group Megadeth, whose music they discovered on old cassettes found in the landfill. A Megadeth member sees the post and decides to visit the students. In 2014, he invites the Recycled Orchestra to join the band members on tour in Denver and accompany them on a song. This event propels more media coverage (Wired, Mother Jones, NPR, 60 Minutes) and invitations from across the globe to perform, including at Phoenix’s Musical Instrument Museum in 2013.

Now, most of these music makers are committed to careers in music education and performance.

According to the film’s website, “the Orchestra has grown from just a few musicians to over 35. Their recent fame has piqued the interest of the families and children of the community in such a way that many children are now enrolling for music classes. The music school of Cateura does not have its own building yet, but teaches music and how to build recycled instruments to more than 200 kids of the landfill.”

The documentary, which benefitted from a Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $200,000, has earned acclaim at independent and children’s film festivals around the world. Most recently, it won a 2016 Director’s Choice Award at the Sedona International Film Festival.

This review is by Tucson-based guest reviewer Jodi Goalstone, who writes the highly entertaining blog Going Yard, Offbeat Baseball Musings and is bringing us the best from the recent Sedona IFF.

Still Dreaming

Bottom, Misummer Night's Dream

Harold Cherry as Bottom in “Still Dreaming”

In the documentary film Still Dreaming, a dozen residents of an assisted living residence take on a very challenging six-week task—to learn and perform Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Most are Broadway stage veterans—actors, dancers and musicians—who reside at the Lillian Booth Actors Home in Englewood, New Jersey. Despite frailties such as decreased vision, dementia, and depression, they eagerly take on demanding roles.

Filmmakers Hank Rogerson and Jilann Spitzmiller say they “discovered a group of people who have spent their whole lives following their dreams, some wildly successful, and some hardly at all. And here they are, retired, supposedly having given it all up. What we witnessed was an awakening, and it was truly profound and most certainly inspiring.”

Several of the performers are particularly engaging. Charlotte Fairchild, who plays Puck, had leading roles in Damn Yankees and 42nd Street and was the understudy to Angela Lansbury in Mame. She has Alzheimer’s disease and cannot retain much, but she still has a strong, clear soprano voice and finds joy in her portrayal. Dimo Condos, who plays Theseus/Oberon, is an eccentric, solitary man who studied with Uta Hagen, Elia Kazan, and Harold Klurman at the renowned Actors Studio. He is a bully, impatient with cast members who don’t remember their lines or lose their place. But he retains the ability to immerse himself in character and involve the audience.

Joan Stein, the production’s pianist, is literally bent over the piano stool, but adds punch and panache to the show. She was a pianist on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, among other credits. Her playing becomes more vigorous and emphatic as the rehearsals progress. Aideen O’Kelly bows out of the production because she cannot see the script well enough to learn her lines. During her Broadway career, she appeared in Othello with James Earl Jones and Christopher Plummer (a production your website host Vicki Weisfeld saw in Washington, D.C.). Now she must watch from the sidelines.

In Midsummer, as in real life, “people live in colliding worlds of reality, illusion, and delusion” and they also may “age into some degree of dementia in which memories blur and the present becomes a slippery slope,” suggested Eric Minton in a review of the film on Shakespeareances.com. This turn of mind is why the setting for Still Dreaming, which at first seems so odd, turns out to be so right.

The full-length feature film is currently doing well on the festival circuit, most recently screening at the Sedona Independent Film Festival. The filmmakers hope that this exposure brings opportunity for wider distribution. Learn more at the Still Dreaming website. Reportedly, it will become available on DVD in April.

This review is by Tucson-based guest reviewer Jodi Goalstone, who writes the highly entertaining blog Going Yard, Offbeat Baseball Musings and is gearing up for a new baseball season!