One of my favorite assignments of the year is featuring the Nashville Film Festival and the documentaries that address the kind of social issues we bring to light in our magazine. This year, I talked with the festival’s artistic director Brian Owens to get the inside word on some of the fest’s best nonfiction films — and to find out what makes them stand out from the competition at the massive 10-day event that runs from May 10-19 at Regal Cinema’s Hollywood 27.
Brave New Docs
A number of films in the documentary competition offer hard-hitting, real life storytelling about poverty, police corruption, at-risk kids, addiction, recovery, marginalized communities and flawed geniuses. Cassidy Friedman’s Circles brings a new Hurricane Katrina tale to the fest.
“It’s really a touching film,” Owens says. “This is the movie’s U.S. premiere, and we’re really excited about that.” In the film, a hurricane survivor relocated to Oakland, Calif., works with at-risk kids but has to question his expertise as a parent when his own son winds up on the wrong side of the law.
The Thin Blue Line meets Serpico in Crime + Punishment, a tense examination of police corruption and the brave whistleblowers who are willing to call it out.
“The film’s director, Stephen Maing, won our Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary Short two years ago,” Owens says. “When I watched this documentary, the first thing that occurred to me was ‘this is a piece of investigative journalism that’s going to cause some heads to roll.’ ” It's recommended for true-crime fans who believe in the political capabilities of powerful film.
A meandering and often misunderstood conversation about the white working class has been soaking up cultural attention since President Donald Trump won the election. Sally Rubin and Ashley York’s hillbilly explores the pop-culture stereotyping of Appalachian folk and the implicit classism it reveals.
“We’re going to world premiere the film, and it’s going to close the film fest,” Owens says. “Ashley York was born and raised in rural Eastern Kentucky. It gives us a way to take a look at a group of people who are frequently mocked, but it also examines how these hateful stereotypes in turn perpetuate the erasure of the black communities that also live in those areas.”
In 2015, a traffic violation landed Sandra Bland in a cell in a small-town Texas jail. A few days later, in that same cell, Bland was dead, hanging from her neck. With Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland, filmmakers Kate Davis and David Heilbroner spotlight Bland’s death and the controversy surrounding it.
“This one is a really intriguing social justice film. What I really appreciate about it is that it allows the viewer to come to their own conclusions. It’s not a propaganda piece. It’s an examination from everybody’s point of view. It makes for a really solid film that needs to be seen,” Owens says.
Hal, Amy Scott’s loving look back at the filmography of New-Hollywood director Hal Ashby, makes its Tennessee premiere at the festival. Ashby’s first seven films account for one of the best runs in cinema’s greatest era: The Landlord (1970), Harold and Maude (1971), The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Bound For Glory (1976), Coming Home (1978), and Being There (1979). And The Last Detail, Bound for Glory, Coming Home, and Being There were all nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. This doc gets a mention here because Ashby made movies about drifters, veterans, hairdressers, landlords and renters struggling in the real world. And because Ashby himself struggled with chemical dependency despite his talents and success. As much as Cassavetes and Dennis Hopper, Ashby is a godfather of modern indie cinema, and this doc is a must-see for film lovers at this year’s festival.
Go to nashvillefilmfestival.org for a complete schedule and tickets.