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Common threads.

From music to weed, war, guns and cannibal cops, Variety's first 10 documakers to Watch list testifies to genre's range

Joe Nick Patoski


Joe Nick Patoski makes his directorial debut with "Sir Doug and the Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove," which chronicles the life and legacy of Austin music icon Doug Sahm. The SXSW Film Festival crowd received the doc enthusiastically at its March premiere.

Despite "Sir Doug" being Patoski's first doc, the man is a seasoned storyteller. A respected music journalist and author, Patoski has written for the New York Times, recorded oral histories and hosted radio programs for decades. Though his meticulous handling of detail usually leads him to pen lengthy tomes on various Texas-themed subjects (500 pages on Willie Nelson, 800 pages on the Dallas Cowboys), he knew Sahm called for something different. "If I write it, you can't hear that music," Sahm says. "You can't see him talk, or realize visually what a character he was. You need to hear him, you need to see him and, most importantly, you need to hear his music."

Patoski insists that Sahm's versatility in Texas roots music is what makes him a versatile doc subject, not his philandering or quirks. "If he wasn't such a talented musician, we could have easily just made him into Forrest Gump," he says.

For the project, Patoski and his team conducted 55 interviews about Sahm and drew inspiration from rock documentaries including Malik Bendjelloul's "Searching for Sugar Man" and Freddy Camalier's "Muscle Shoals."

It was vital to Patoski that the whimsy of Sahm and his persona permeate the doc, even if its lighter tone stood in contrast to the heavier competition at SXSW. "I'm an outlier," Patoski says of his film. "Mine's frivolous and it's goofy and it's about music, but I sincerely believe.,. you can eavesdrop on any culture if you listen to its radio station." --Marianne Zumberge

Erin Lee Carr


When documaker Erin Lee Carr visited NYPD officer Gilberto Valle in federal prison in lower Manhattan, she noticed he looked broken.

"He had super dark circles under his eyes, he looked really sad," she says. "It was literally one of the most surreal experiences of my life."

Soon the dream-state faded and her nerves kicked in due to a lingering, unsettling proposition: Valle was found guilty of conspiring to kidnap and eat young women. Carr spent the next few months interviewing Valle for her HBO documentary "Thought Crimes" which will bow April 16 at Tribeca.

"It's just been such a bizarre, weird roller coaster because the thoughts he had about women were very scary, and as a woman that was making this story, (I had) to tread very carefully," Carr says.

As a former tech reporter with a fascination with digital culture, Carr made a point to incorporate ideas into the doc about the influence of the Internet on the human psyche. "This was going to be about the darkest thoughts we have inside our heads, and that the Internet has the potential to make those thoughts real," she says.

As for her second documentary's subject matter, Car says it will "probably be about the Internet." --Seth Kelley

Penny Lane


When Penny Lane (yes, her parents are Beatles fans) learned through her husband, producer and law professor, Brian L. Frye, that there were never-before-seen home movies of Richard Nixon's presidency filed away at the National Archives, she was determined to turn it into a documentary.

"I kept asking him, 'Are you going to do anything with it? Because if you're not going to do it, I'm going to do it,'" says the director-producer of what eventually became "Our Nixon," Lane's riveting feature-length documentary (Frye co-produces) that mixes the archival footage with interviews, news reports and excerpts from Nixon's secretly-recorded White House tapes.

The movie, which is being released by Cinedigm and CNN Films, played Rotterdam and SXSW.

"I almost exclusively make work that comes from history one way or another," says Lane.

Next up is "Nuts! The Brinkley Story," about an American doctor who performed goat testicle implants as a "cure" for male impotence.

"I think we have enough Nixon movies," says Lane, who also works as an assistant professor of art and art history at Colgate U. "But these home movies were so extraordinarily new and unique that it made it feel fresh." --Malina Saval

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy


Obaid-Chinoy has been busy. Her "Song of Lahore" premieres at Tribeca later this month, toon "3 Bahadur" rolls out soon and "Peacekeepers" (co-directed with Gita Gandbhir) is in post. And at the end of March she gave birth to her second daughter.

The 36-year-old has already earned an Oscar for her 2011 docu short "Saving Face," directed with Daniel Junge. The doc, about a Pakistani doctor who does reconstructive surgery on victims of acid attacks, led to a change in domestic law.

"I was always a troublemaker," she says. "I always wanted to talk about things people didn't want to talk about."

After 9/11 Obaid-Chinoy, a student at Smith College, realized she was uniquely placed to tell the stories of her homeland. She made her first doc with funding from New York Times TV. "Documentary films connect to bring the words of those people who are not heard and get to places and see people that we don't normally hear."

Her latest, "Song of Lahore," centers on musicians reviving Lahore's ancient heritage to make an album. Obaid-Chinoy admits, "We didn't know what the trajectory of the story was going to be." But she figured it out with co-director Andy Shocken. --Shallni Dore

Mitch Dickman


If you'd told director Mitch Dickman last month that his documentary "Rolling Papers," would have national distribution just hours after making its world premiere, he might well have asked you what you were smoking.

"It was one of those fairy-tale experiences of selling your film at the afterparty," he says of the film's SXSW bow, which saw it picked up by Alchemy.

"Rolling Papers" follows the aftermath of Colorado's legalization of recreational marijuana, and rather than simply titter around the issue, Dickman's film zeroed in on the Denver Post's Ricardo Baca, who was named editor of the paper's first marijuana section, dubbed the Cannabist.

"That was definitely key," Dickman says. "It added this interesting layer looking at the decline of print journalism, and how they're the ones framing this entirely new conversation of legalization."

Like Dickman's previous feature, "Hanna Ranch," "Rolling Papers" tackles a story from inside Colorado.

"I have a wife and a 4-year-old, and the film business can be pretty hard on families," he says. "So to be able to stay in Colorado and find these stories that have universal appeal to people outside of the state, we've been very fortunate." --Andrew Barker

Orlando Von Einsiedel


When Orlando von Einsiedel arrived at Virunga National Park in the Congo, he was fully expecting to make a positive-minded movie about the park rangers working to preserve endangered gorillas and rebuild the region after decades of war. "When I got there, there was a very different story playing out in front of me," he recalls.

Within months, the M23 rebellion broke out, and von Einsiedel adapted his plans to capture the conflict, while remaining focused on the heroic characters who had drawn him there in the first place--a reaction to the often negative tone of the investigative reporting he'd been a part of prior.

Without a conventional filmmaking background (von Einsiedel studied anthropology at university), the "Virunga" director started making videos during his days as a professional snowboarder. His dynamic style first opened the door to advertising gigs and later allowed him to pursue his interest in other cultures doing PBS "Frontline"-style reports.

"We'd find some sort of injustice, investigate it and try to bring someone to account," he says. "But I kept meeting really incredible, inspiring people and hearing their stories, and I would very rarely read positive news from places like Africa." --Peter Debruge

Abigail Disney


Abigail Disney, the CEO of Fork Films, relishes diving into issues impacting society. As a producer, her films includes socially motivated documentaries like "Pray the Devil Back to Hell," "Citizen Koch," Oscar-nominated "The Invisible War," and PBS series "Women, War & Peace." But she's making her directorial debut with "The Armor of Light."

"I loved producing because I loved supporting people in their vision, but it was mostly reactive, and I had something to say, too," says Disney, who is, yes, from that famous family.

She wanted to say something constructive about the issue of gun control, and she found a fascinating subject in Rev. Rob Schenck, an evangelical pastor who made a name for himself as a leader in the pro-life movement, heads the organization Faith and Action, and who has close ties with the Republican Party. Schenck begins to question whether being progun is consistent with being pro-life.

"It challenged my prejudices and I hope my liberal friends are challenged in their prejudices," says Disney, noting that the main point of the film is to not speak to the same group of people when asking questions about gun control. "There's no point in trying to convert people who are set in their ways." --Carole Horst

Jessica Edwards


Since the age of 17, Jessica Edwards has dreamt about making a feature documentary. But it wasn't until 2013, after more than 10 years as a film publicist, that Edwards decided it was time to make her dream a reality.

"I saw Mavis Staples perform and it was magical," she says. "I cold-called her manager and that was it."

Edwards, 37, quit her publicity job, had a baby, and began production on "Mavis!"--a feature about the life and music of the living legend.

While documentaries highlighting singers ("20 Feet From Stardom," "What Happened, Miss Simone?") are popular nonfiction fare, Edwards went down the classic documentary funding route by relying on personal bank accounts, credit cards and family help.

"One of the biggest challenges for me was putting aside all of that marketing, publicity, distribution, and festival strategy knowledge that I've accumulated working as a publicist alongside filmmakers," says Edwards. "I had to put it away and not think about it because it was hindering my ability to be a creative filmmaker."

The doc bowed at SXSW, and FI BO picked up U.S. TV rights just last week.

Looks like Edwards will once again have to put on her marketing-distribution-publicity hat. --Addie Morfoot

Crystal Moselle


After graduating from film school in 2002, Crystal Moselle tried in vain to get a variety of documentaries off the ground.

Then in 2010 the helmer discovered the Angulo brothers while walking down Manhattan's First Avenue. They would become the subject of Moselle's first feature, "The Woltpack," which Magnolia will release in June.

The brothers had rarely been allowed to leave their dilapidated New York City apartment during their youth and subsequently learned about the world through movies. Despite their hermetical upbringing, the boys quickly befriended Moselle--even inviting her to Thanksgiving dinner.

"They were into the idea of the documentary," Moselle says. "Anything that has to do with filmmaking, they're excited about."

Thanks to an established and lucrative commercial career, Moselle, 34, was able to self finance the project's preliminary stages. But despite fervor and additional funding, the helmer still struggled to find the story. Then she met veteran docu editor Enat Sidi ("Jesus Camp").

"She taught me to look for the emotion," Moselle says. "I'd been trying too hard to construct and plan the story. I learned to take my time and let my film be what it was." --Addie Morfoot

Brad Barber/Scott Christopherson


When Brad Barber accepted the SXSW jury award alongside co-director Scott Christopherson for their documentary "Peace Officer," he paid tribute to the late, great Albert Maysles: "Fie said, 'You should love your documentary subjects,' and that's something we try to keep in mind."

Indeed, few subjects elicit the audience's love more effortlessly than William "Dub" Lawrence, a former sheriff whose tragic, ironic story forms the backbone of "Peace Officer."

"We didn't set out to make a film about the militarization of police," Christopherson says. "We just knew Dub was really interesting and could carry a film."

While the film is unapologetically critical of what it sees, its tone is also generous and measured, aimed at putting viewers in the shoes of cops and ordinary citizens alike.

"A documentary is a vehicle for empathy," Christopherson says. "I don't think we came into it with some big agenda. We saw it as a way to allow people to connect emotionally." --Justin Chang
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Title Annotation:ACHIEVEMENT: 10 DOCUMAKERS TO WATCH; works of movie directors; Erin Lee Carr; Penny Lane
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 14, 2015
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