documentary

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring the world’s most mysterious chicken dish

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

The Search for General Tso (January 2015, Wicked Delicate Films): A new documentary, exploring the history behind one of the world’s most famous dishes, is playing in seven cities this week.

Luckily for me, one of those cities is Atlanta.

I had the pleasure of seeing The Search for General Tso — he of the famous General Tso’s Chicken — and I highly recommend it. The subject matter sounds whimsical at best, but it provides a stupendous launching pad for a 75-minute film that touches numerous fascinating topics.

Credit to filmmaker Ian Cheney for putting together an entertaining — even absorbing — documentary that has already dominated the awards circuit at various film festivals. And by the way, the movie is also available on demand through iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, and other outlets.

So you can watch it anywhere … and you should.

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PODCAST EPISODE #16: Brian Kaufman, Detroit Free Press

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This is a story of faith.

Not religious faith, mind you. Not “the Cubs will one day win the World Series” kind of faith.

This is about Field of Dreams-type faith … the faith that, “If you build it, they will come.”

In this story, “you” is Brian Kaufman, a 31-year-old, Emmy Award-winning photographer and videographer for the Detroit Free Press.

“It” refers to his remarkable, nearly single-handedly produced documentary, “Packard: The Last Shift”, which premiered last month at the inaugural Freep Film Festival.

“Building” that documentary took four years … and a whole lot of faith.

The Packard Plant, the subject of Kaufman’s documentary, is a former auto manufacturing factory in Detroit that has been abandoned for years. It has become a city landmark, both in the negative (a blight on the city, a once-beautiful building wasting away) and positive (a haven for artists, a visual masterpiece). It has recently been at the center of a whole lot of news.

Kaufman arrived in Detroit in 2008, having (like most of us) never heard of the Packard plant. But he became smitten by its story and its twisted beauty.

So he went there. And he shot video. And then he went back, over and over again, with no promise that his material would ever find an audience — all while handling a fast-paced daily workload at the Free Press.

Kaufman’s commitment turned into a dynamic long-form story in 2012, but he knew he had more to offer. When the Free Press last year announced its intentions to host a film festival, it knew exactly where to turn for an original production.

Kaufman is my guest on the latest episode of the “Telling The Story” podcast. You will be amazed by his technical know-how, but you will be inspired by his perseverance, which resulted in a tremendous accomplishment: a riveting, powerful, 70-minute documentary that stemmed from one person’s vision.

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PODCAST EPISODE #12: Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, American Promise

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One of the biggest challenges of storytelling — particularly when dealing with stories of emotion — is determining what to leave out.

As a reporter for a local news station, I will regularly shoot several hours of video for a story that lasts several minutes. I realized early in my career I would never be able to tell someone’s full story — only as much of that story as I could fit into the allotted space. A news director of mine once crystallized the appropriate mentality: it’s all about eliminating the “good” in one’s story and keeping the “great”.

Of course, sometimes you don’t even get to keep all of the “great”.

And sometimes, as in the case of filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, you shoot 800 hours of video for a two-hour documentary — a documentary in which you are two of the main characters.

Brewster and Stephenson are the husband-and-wife duo behind American Promise, currently playing in select cities and premiering on PBS in February 2014. The documentary follows two young boys from Brooklyn, both black, whose parents enroll them in a prestigious, mostly white collegiate prep school in Manhattan. Brewster and Stephenson began filming in 1999, when both boys — Idris and Seun — were starting kindergarten.

They stopped filming after the boys’ graduation from high school — 13 years later.

To make matters trickier, one of the boys, Idris, is Brewster and Stephenson’s son.

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PODCAST PREVIEW: American Promise filmmakers: “You lose audiences” when you preach

Imagine you are a filmmaker and documentarian who aims to make pictures with powerful themes.

Imagine you are also a parent with strong views about education, and you are a person of color with even stronger views about how race plays a giant role in education.

Imagine you decide to make a documentary that explores this topic.

Imagine you do so by putting a microphone on your son, as well as his best friend, and following the two boys through their schooling … for 13 years.

Imagine you finish this task by receiving various grants throughout the year and launching a successful Kickstarter campaign to pay for an editor and original score composer.

After all that, imagine finally sitting down to edit the documentary — this collage of experiences that are both personal and powerful, and from which you have developed major conclusions about life, race, and parenting — and having to keep so much to yourself.

Such was the challenge for Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, the parents and filmmakers behind American Promise. The documentary is currently in select theaters in 35 cities, and it will air as part of PBS’s POV series in February 2014.

In the film, Brewster and Stephenson follow their son Idris and his best friend Seun from kindergarten to graduation. The young boys start their educational experiences at prestigious (and mostly white) collegiate prep school Dalton on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Only one completes his education at Dalton; the parallels between Idris and Seun as they grow are simply fascinating.

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PODCAST EPISODE #8: Jeff Reid, producer, “Black in America” & “50 Years of Change”

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Can local TV stations produce compelling documentaries?

Allow me to make the argument against that idea:

  • Documentaries require significant topics.
  • Documentaries require significant resources.
  • Documentaries require significant talent.
  • Documentaries require significant vision.

Now, I would never argue that local news stations lack the vision, talent, resources, and topics to do compelling work. But very few have enough of each to commit to producing a hour of worthy television — that is, an hour beyond the numerous hours of newscasts they already produce.

And yet, last week, my station premiered a documentary, “50 Years Of Change”, about the Civil Rights events of 1963; it received praise from both viewers and local leaders. It is a product on which I had the privilege to work, and of which I am very proud. It aired on our station, WXIA-TV in Atlanta, last Wednesday, and an abridged version has been made available for schools to show their social studies classes.

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PODCAST PREVIEW: Jeff Reid: “This is one of my finest hours”

A week ago, I spoke of my pride for taking part in “50 Years Of Change”, an hour-long documentary about the Civil Rights events of 1963. It premiered last week to great acclaim from viewers and local leaders.

Now, allow me to introduce you to the man behind it.

Jeff Reid has been a co-worker of mine at WXIA-TV in Atlanta for more than a year; he joined us after spending 15 years at CNN, spearheading their documentary department and producing the much-discussed “Black in America”. He manages our enterprise content, meaning he oversees the production of long-form stories and investigations.

His other big mission? Get a few documentaries under our belts — and make them great.

In the recent history at our station, we had done the occasional single-topic newscast and even a documentary or two, but we had not tackled a topic as heavy as the Civil Rights movement — and we certainly had not filled an hour doing so — until “50 years Of Change”. For his part, Reid had never produced a documentary with so little time and staff; he spearheaded this one with a team of 8-10 people in barely a month.

Reid discusses the process with me on this episode of the Telling The Story podcast.

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JFK, MLK, and the crafting of a Civil Rights documentary

Rarely, as a local TV news reporter, do I get to spend two weeks on one story.

Rarely does that story get to be eight minutes long.

And rarely do those eight minutes contain an arsenal of powerful interviews from iconic figures.

So, when I received the opportunity to work on such a story earlier this month, I knew it would be special.

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the “I Have a Dream” speech from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. With that anniversary comes a documentary from my station in Atlanta, WXIA-TV, called “50 Years of Change”, which looks back on not just the famous march but the other major civil rights events of 1963:

  • the declaration, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” from Alabama governor George Wallace
  • the child protests in Birmingham
  • the nationally televised speech on civil rights from President Kennedy
  • the murder of Medgar Evers a day later
  • the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham
  • the assassination of President Kennedy

It’s an impressive list. (Last week we screened the documentary for local Atlanta leaders, and roughly three-quarters of the way through, one of the attendees turned around in his chair and remarked, “Man, a lot happened in ’63!”)

I was assigned the final story on the above list: the killing of John F. Kennedy, and what that meant for the civil rights movement. I went down to Dallas for a few days to get footage of the famous spots from the assassination (the book depository building, Dealey Plaza). I also interviewed several people who had been in Dallas that day, one of whom was a radio reporter at the time and stood a half-block away from Kennedy when the assassination occurred. Following that trip, I spent several days simply cobbling together old footage and photos — a difficult task, since most of the footage I wanted came with a price tag that exceeded our budget. Finally, I required two days to edit the whole thing, which included several hours reformatting all the old footage so that it looked consistent.

The process was exhaustive — and absorbing. But of all those arduous tasks, the most important thing I did was seemingly the simplest:

Listening.

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