My Newest Documentary: WHEN MY TIME COMES

As seen through my monitor, Diane Rehm conducting an interview for WHEN MY TIME COMES.

Production has recently begun on my newest film, a feature documentary entitled…
                                                      WHEN MY TIME COMES

The subject is medical aid in dying. As Diane Rehm — the Peabody-Award-winning journalist who hosted The Diane Rehm Show on NPR — says:

“If you want every medical technique available used to extend your life, I support you 100%. If your religious views tell you that only God can decide when and how you will die, I support you 100% also. And if, as I do, you want to have the option to end your life according to your own choosing, I support you 100% as well.”

Giving direction as we prepare to shoot Diane interviewing medical aid in dying advocate Alexa Fraser

The title of our film comes from a Washington Post op-ed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who formerly opposed medical aid in dying but has evolved into an advocate, writing that “dying people should have the right to choose how and when they leave Mother Earth.” Watch Archbishop Tutu talk about his point of view on the subject here.

Diane Rehm and journalist/filmmaker Diane Naughton (“DR” and “DN” as we refer to them to avoid confusion between the two Dianes) are my producing colleagues in this venture. In addition to her work in media and as a fundraiser for various worthy charitable causes, DN is a board member for the Virginia Film Festival, with which I’m affiliated. DR is… well, she’s Diane Rehm!

DR’s views on the subject are perhaps best known because of her best-selling book ON MY OWN. In WHEN MY TIME COMES, she invites viewers to join her as she continues her own education on medical aid in dying. DR shares the personal experience that led her to become an advocate —  and she guides us through the intimate stories of patients, family members, experts and others with valuable knowledge and insights to share.

Going over my notes with Diane in her office.

“But, Joe,” you may say, “isn’t this a controversial issue in this country?” To which I would say that yes, it is, for some. But you should know that a June 2017 Gallop poll showed that 73% of adults in the U.S. agree that “when a person has a disease that cannot be cured… doctors should be allowed by law to end the patient’s life by some painless means if the patient and his or her family request it.” Is it a simple question? Absolutely not, and that’s one of the reasons we’re making the film. (For more information about medical aid in dying, go here.)

As I write this, there are movements in 26 states hoping to join Oregon, Washington, Vermont, Colorado, Montana, California and the District of Columbia in granting medical aid in dying to their citizens. As this movement grows across the nation, the time is right for a film that helps people understand what it’s all really about.

I’ll be posting more about the film here as production continues, but, in the meantime I ask you to…


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How To Watch Movies…

  • Sure, you watch ’em all the time, but do you REALLY watch them? When a movie feels right — or when it doesn’t — can you tell what’s working or not working that makes you experience it that way?

Ann Hornaday, chief film critic for The Washington Post, can help with that! Her new book — Talking Pictures: How To Watch Movies — delves deeply into how one can cultivate the art of movie-watching. From the screenplay to the finished product, she draws on a quarter-century of her own film analyses as well as insights gained from interviewing the likes of director Tom McCarthy about medium shots vs closeups in Spotlight, actor Robert De Niro on why he doesn’t explain how he does what he does, and production designer Jeannine Oppewall revealing why she put so much detailed work into a background seen only briefly in Catch Me If You Can.

Yours truly with Ann Hornaday at AFIDocs. (Photo courtesy of Bruce Guthrie)

I had the pleasure of chatting with Ann Hornaday following “Look To The Right,” a discussion she had with self-described “conservative” filmmaker Michael Pack at the 2017 AFIDocs. Besides a fondness for catching sound editors sneaking the “Wilhelm Scream” (look it up!) into movies, I found that we have similar tastes in documentaries when we compared notes on The Work and Nobody Speak (both shown at this year’s festival). You can read Ann’s pre-discussion thoughts on liberal vs conservative ideologies in docs, her review of Nobody Speak, and more about the  The Work — selected as winner of the SXSW Documentary Grand Jury Award by Ann and her peers.





Thanks, Washington Post!

The Washington Post has recommended ten documentaries to watch with children this summer — and my film PAPER CLIPS is one of them! Read the article — then watch the film with the children in your life. Help them recognize that, like the children at the Whitwell Middle School, they too have the ability to change the world. Your job (IMHO) is to help them identify something they’d like to see changed — in whatever arena they wish, from their home and family to the planet itself — and to support them in taking action. They don’t need to wait until they get to college or even later to make a huge difference — and YOU can help them get started right now! Well… what are you waiting for?

Falling in Love with Liv

I fell for Liv Ullmann 40 years ago, when I saw her onstage at Washington, D.C.’s National Theatre in Anna Christie. The stellar cast included a young John Lithgow (in the middle of a decade in which he’d appear in ten different Broadway productions) and Mary McCarty (fresh from creating the role of the Matron in the original production of Chicago), but it was Ms Ullmann who stole my heart. Both she and Ms McCarty would receive Tony nominations when the show moved on to Broadway for a run of only 124 performances. In his New York Times review, Clive Barnes captured what I didn’t know how to express at the time:

She acts from within—her fires are the remembered embers of still‐glowing passions. Her eyes are not so much a means of communication to the outside world, but more a barometer reading of some internal weather of her soul. And she acts as if she were not acting at all—walking around pasteboard scenery as if it were a new reality, living a play as if it were a world borrowed but real. It is a confidence trick with no great display of confidence, and certainly no trickery. It is great acting where belief takes the place of technique, and conviction the place of imagery.

At the 2016 Virginia Film Festival, I had the privilege of interviewing Ms. Ullmann and leading a Q&A with her following a screening of the documentary Liv and Ingmar. Imagine my joy!

Mr Bergman famously referred to Ms Ullmann as both his muse and his Stradivarius during the twelve films of their professional partnership. Their intense May-December romance began on the set of their first collaboration, the masterpiece Persona. It was a tumultuous affair that spanned decades and produced a daughter, though they never married. Eventually their passion evolved into a deep, life-long friendship.

Liv and Ingmar is a modest — but effective — film from director Dheeraj Akolkar, and it plays like a respectful echo of Mr Bergman’s own work. It tells the story of their life together, alternately fierce and tender, nurturing and hurtful. For the film to achieve its unusual ardor, Mr Alkolkar draws upon the great gift of Ms Ullmann’s narration, derived both from new interview material and excerpts from her autobiographical book Changing (1976). There is a warm magic in her voice that endows the story with a very real sense of intimacy — between the two subjects, but also between the viewer and Ms Ullmann as the storyteller.

The VFF screening was held in a small, older venue called the Vinegar Hill Theatre. Ms Ullmann and I had already met briefly, but we hadn’t had time to prepare any direction or focus for our conversation, so we were winging it. She’s warm, sensitive, with an easy humor and intriguing stories, so our conversation flowed naturally from the start.

Liv Ullmann and Joe Fab at the 2016 Virginia Film Festival

At one point, I tried to delve into that mystery that Clive Barnes was describing when I pointed out how, like few other actors I’ve seen, what she’s thinking and feeling seems to radiate from her with a minimum of (apparent) effort. It was occurring there in person as I was speaking with her, just as I had seen it on the screen and onstage.  I was fascinated and said so, to which she threw back her head and laughed. For a moment she teased me, pretending not to have a clue about what I was trying to ask her. She toyed with me long enough for the first signs of my being flustered to show, and then took me off the hook, saying that she indeed understood the question but didn’t really know the answer. What a splendid afternoon that was: the second time I fell for Liv!

And so, once again I will tell you that the long weekend I spend each November in Charlottesville, Virginia at the Virginia Film Festival is a treasured spot on my calendar that I protect vigorously. Experiences like spending time with Liv Ullmann are the reason why.

The 2017 festival runs from November 9 – 12 — it’s the 30th anniversary — watch for the film schedule to be announced and tickets to go on sale in the fall.

2016 Virginia Film Festival Report

On the final night of the 2016 Virginia Film Festival, Festival Director Jody Kielbasa said that he was more pleased with this year’s festival than any other he has been a part of in his entire career. From my own perspective, I concur. The quality and variety of the films was extraordinary, thanks largely to the talents of Programmer and Operations Manager Wesley Harris. The list of special guests was very impressive: Shirley MacLaine, Werner Herzog, Liv Ullmann, D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, Danny McBride, and more.

As my friends know, I’ve been attending the festival since 2009, when my film BEDFORD: THE TOWN THEY LEFT BEHIND was screened there. It was Jody’s first year running the festival, having just arrived from the Sarasota Film Festival where I first met him when PAPER CLIPS played there in 2004. I was so impressed by the experience — which certainly includes the beauty of Charlottesville, Virginia in November! — that I asked how I could stay involved. I was invited to introduce films and lead post-screening interviews and discussions with filmmakers and actors. The VFF is now a fixture on my calendar, and I plan my Novembers around it.

Charlie Barnett (l) takes a question from the audience, as Cheryl Rattner Price and I listen. (Credit: Amos Eye)
Charlie Barnett (l) takes a question from the audience, as Cheryl Rattner Price and I listen. (Credit: Amos Eye)

This year I once again had a film play the festival: NOT THE LAST BUTTERFLY, which I co-directed and co-produced. It played in one of the larger theatres at the Violet Crown multiplex to a very receptive audience who joined in a spirited post-film conversation with executive producer/co-director/co-producer Cheryl Rattner Price, my long-time favorite composer Charlie Barnett and me.

Although I was busy with my assignments, I was able to catch the opening and closing night films as well as the Salute to Shirley MacLaine. LOVING, which opened the festival, was shot in Virginia. It tells the story of the interracial couple whose lawsuit set the precedent upon which other marriage equality cases have been based, including United States v. Windsor and Obergefell v. Hodges which made discrimination against same-sex marriages unlawful throughout the country. LA LA LAND, which closed the festival, is a very creative musical directed by Damien Chazelle (WHIPLASH) that follows in the genre-expanding footsteps of MOULIN ROUGE. Both films are major Oscar-contenders.

Shirley MacLaine charmed a capacity audience in the spectacular Paramount Theatre in a conversation moderated refereed by director and film festival expert Mitch Levine. Following a snappy film intro edited to her own performance of “If They Could see Me Now” from the film SWEET CHARITY, Ms MacLaine took the stage and didn’t relinquish her grip on it nor on the crowd for two hours. The plan was to have more film clips interspersed throughout the event, but only one — from her film debut in Hitchcock’s THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY — made it onto the screen. As the conversation continued, Mr Levine set up the next scheduled clip and cued the projectionist, only to have the lady override him. “My stories are better than these clips,” she declared, and I feel certain she was correct. I doubt if anyone in the room missed whatever else would have unspooled from the booth. Indeed, everyone was enthralled by Ms MacLaine’s life, her spirit and her quick wit. Her energy was all the more remarkable when you stopped to realize that she’s 82 years old.

The films for which I led discussions can give you and idea of the diversity of the festival’s programming…

SAMMY AND SHERLOCK CAN’T GET ANY is a light drama about contemporary relationships built on a McGuffin triggered when a young stoner couple run out of weed…

NALEDI: A BABY ELEPHANT’S TALE is a very moving documentary set in Botswana that tells the story of one young elephant and the elephant and human families that look after her…

A ROAD TO HOME takes us inside the struggle for survival of homeless LGBT youth in New York City…

DRIFTWOOD is a unique, disturbing and dialogue-free allegory about society and relationships — amazingly, it was shot entirely MOS (“mit out sound”) and the entire sound track was created in post

BEST AND MOST BEAUTIFUL THINGS adds something new to the recent spate of docs about people on the autism spectrum (LIFE, ANIMATED; HOW TO DANCE IN OHIO; et al), introducing us to twenty-year-old Michelle Smith, who is also legally blind and learning how to live on her own — and challenging what’s normal as she enters a provocative alternate sex community…

…and finally biographical documentaries MAYA ANGELOU: AND STILL I RISE and LIV & INGMAR (see separate post coming soon).

What a stimulating experiences I had, being with the filmmakers, subjects and actors from these fascinating films!

An Evening with Sonia Braga (Yes, the Spider Woman!)

I recently had the great pleasure of leading two discussions with “the dazzling Sonia Braga” at screenings of her latest film, AQUARIUS.

Ms Braga, who began acting on the stage in her native Brazil as a teenager, became internationally known with Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985) and went on to star in The Milagro Beanfield War, Moon Over Parador, The Rookie, and many other films. More recently, she’s made many TV appearances on shows like Sex and the City, American Family, Alias, Royal Pains, and now Marvel’s Luke Cage on Netflix where she plays Rosario Dawson’s mother.

Sonia Braga in AQUARIUS

In director Kleber Mendonça Filho’s leisurely-paced AQUARIUS, Ms. Braga plays 65-year-old Clara, a former journalist and music critic who has lived since her youth in a beachside condo — a very inviting and well-lived-in condo that is itself a character in the film. Developers have persuaded all the other tenants to vacate the building, but Clara is determined to stay. That premise provides Mendonça with the framework within which Ms Braga delivers an Oscar-calibre performance, never giving in to the predictable story and character clichés that lesser artists might have leaned upon. For some — especially those who have become accustomed to the rapid rhythms of most films today — this director’s unhasty revelation of Clara’s life and persona may start to lag, but with Ms Braga at the center there is always a new fascination coming. I should credit also the quietly ambitious cinematography by Pedro Sotero and Fabricio Tadeu which brings out the homey feeling of Clara’s apartment and, by flowing effortlessly between exteriors and interiors, helps generate that sense of what it’s like to live in an apartment but feel the activity outside its walls.

I recommend the film highly, both for Mendonça’s skill and (most especially) for Ms Braga’s captivating presence.

Before meeting Ms Braga, I had been told that she is one of those celebrities who is easy and fun to be with, and that was my experience over the joyous evening I spent with her. First there was a short get-to-know-you chat in the offices of the Angelika Film Center near my home in Northern Virginia with her delightful publicist Lisa Anaya and the film center’s special events director Elyse Roland. In ten minutes we became comfortable pals and moved to first-name status.soniajoe2

Then we headed into the theatre for a pre-screening chat with each other and the audience about Sonia’s career and the film that was about to be shown. When I introduced her to the audience, I referred to her as “the dazzling Sonia Braga” — and she is indeed dazzling (and she liked my choice of adjective). Among the many interesting things we covered was the deftness with which Mendonça handles memory and flashbacks in AQUARIUS, modifying traditional methods into his own style. Sonia also detailed the camera choreography and audio techniques used in a single continuous shot that begins on a group of people talking outside and below Clara’s apartment window. The camera pulls inside the condo, moving over Clara resting in her hammock and across the room to her front door in time for the people who had been outside to knock on the door. As the shot progresses, the sounds of the conversation outside become the muffled voices and footsteps in a lower lobby and then climbing the stairs, ending with the voices as heard from just the other side of the front door of the apartment. The cinematography and sound design — all coordinated live in the moment and in a single shot — are very impressive.

fullsizeoutput_a8cNext wonderful Elyse had arranged for us all to have dinner — a splendid and now-and-then raucous meal at Requin, a French Mediterranean restaurant near the theatre. Then we were off to the Angelika’s Pop Up Theatre in DC where a screening was ending for another interview/discussion. The evening ended with Sonia meeting audience members in the theatre’s lounge, taking photo after photo with fans.

Although it is not a political film, certain political issues have swirled around AQUARIUS since its premiere at Cannes in May. As I understand it, Mendonça’s public protest at the premiere against the suspension of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, in which he was joined by Sonia and the film’s cast and crew, drew harsh criticism from a film reporter, Marcos Petrucelli. Subsequently, Petrucelli was appointed to the committee that selects the film for Brazil to submit for Oscar consideration. This was seen by many as pushback against Mendonça, foreshadowing the failure to choose his film. Several other filmmakers withdrew their own films from consideration in protest. (Indeed, an inferior film called “Little Secrets” will be Brazil’s entry.) The night before the Angelika’s screenings, the AFI Silver screening was mobbed with political demonstrators, according to what Lisa Anaya told me. (No such drama occurred at the screenings in which I participated.)

AQUARIUS began a limited theatrical release in late October 2016. Watch for it to be available through various cable and digital media outlets soon.

Watch The Trailer For My Latest Doc: NOT The Last Butterfly

For months I’ve been posting updates on the progress of this documentary, which I’ve co-directed with Cheryl Rattner Price. If you haven’t read them, please look on my website for the FABlog stories entitled NOT The Last Butterfly – Parts 1 to 3. Festival screenings are in the process of being booked now, with the first one to be at the Virginia Film Festival in November.

Here is the recently completed trailer for the film…

NOT THE LAST BUTTERFLY - Trailer (Final 8/23/16) vimeo play



AFIDocs 2016


This year’s AFIDocs Film Festival concluded on Sunday. I saw nine feature docs and seven shorts over five days, as well as chats with filmmakers like Werner Herzog and Norman Lear and a panel on the rising medium of virtual reality (with cool demonstrations!). Knowing how challenging it is to make a doc, I have the highest regard for those who created the 93 films screened from Wednesday to Sunday. Spending several days with other doc fans, watching films and discussing what we saw was an enlightening experience.

At the event recognizing him as the latest Charles Guggenheim Symposium honoree, Mr. Herzog discussed a number of his films as well as his views on how much one can tinker with what actually occurred when making a doc. For him, there’s a lot of leeway. He feels that he may take liberties, devise moments and otherwise manipulate reality in order to have an artistic effect. That’s a bit different approach than the one some of us take (yeah, but some of us aren’t Werner Herzog either!). Then again, one of the other films I caught — The Land of the Enlightened from Belgian filmmaker Pieter-Jan de Pue — combined reality with bits of contrived dialogue and manufactured scenes in ways that confused and ultimately diluted the impact of its serious subject: the apocalyptic conditions in Afghanistan.

Having a word with Norman Lear at the after party. (Photo by Bruce Guthrie)

What a relief it was then to see the latest from Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady: Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You (in theaters this summer and on PBS’ American Masters this fall). Biographical documentary is a new genre for the pair (who together are known as Loki Films), but they handled it with their usual exceptional skill and innovation. The use of a young actor to play Mr. Lear as a boy bridged the film in and out of childhood sequences and was a device that Mr. Lear himself found effective, as he told us in the post-film Q&A. He also got in a dig on Donald Trump while acknowledging that some have likened the bigoted presidential candidate to Archie Bunker. Mr. Lear defended his quintessential TV character and dismissed the comparison saying that, unlike Trump, Archie Bunker was “a fully-formed human being.”

Speaking of artificial personages devised to perform a function in a film, the opening night doc by Alex Gibney, Zero Days (in theaters and on iTunes July 8), employed a composite character portrayed by an actress whose image was then visually disguised. As the filmmaker explained later, this was in order to allow him to present information gathered from a number of people who would not have been able to speak publicly onscreen. The device was revealed within the film itself in a manner that left the trust of the audience intact.

Version 2
With Rita Coburn Whack, co-director of Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise.

There were no contrived characters or fictional elements in Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise — just solid doc moviemaking. Audiences agreed, and the film was the recipient of the AFIDocs Audience Award (feature category). I confess to having had my reservations before I saw the film, mostly because I hold Dr. Angelou — whom I knew personally for about the last decade of her life — in such high esteem. I feared the possibility of a familiar chronological telling of her life story. But what co-directors Rita Coburn Whack and Bob Hercules have created is not only a creative and moving portrait, but I can testify that it often captures the essence of the woman who was my friend. Dr. Angelou’s hybrid performance of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “We Wear The Mask” and her own poem “For Old Black Men” is a highlight, although it is presented in abbreviated form. Treat yourself to the full-length version. (Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise will be presented by PBS’ American Masters in February, 2017.)

And finally let me suggest that Roger Ross Williams’ brilliant Life, Animated (in theaters July 1) looks like a serious Oscar contender…

Life Animated

It’s the story of Owen Suskind, a young man with autism, whom we get to know as he grows from an uncommunicative three-year-old to a young man of twenty-four living on his own. Owen’s parents and older brother are at first shocked to learn that their adorable toddler may never speak again. But when Owen does speak — and does so in a most unusual way — the film begins to blossom. Along with Owen’s family, we begin to get a sense of being inside Owen’s head, and this is where Roger Ross Williams’ artistry excels. In a post-show chat, the director explained that he didn’t want to have audiences perceive what happened in the Suskind household as outside observers. Rather, he wants us to see things as Owen does, and he achieves this goal in a way that is creative and absolutely right for this story. It’s a great accomplishment to conceive of this approach and then to execute on it so beautifully.

I hope you’ll catch as many of these films as you can. Let me know what you think of them.

NOT The Last Butterfly — Part 3

Not The Last Butterfly
NOT The Last Butterfly post-film discussion, with Liebe Geft (left) and Cheryl Rattner Price (center).

On May 3, NOT The Last Butterfly had a sneak preview at L.A.’s Museum of Tolerance. The audience (a full house!) was warmer and more responsive than we could ever have hoped, laughing and crying in all the right places and giving Cheryl and me a standing ovation when we took the stage for a post-film discussion with museum director Liebe Geft. I was thrilled that so many of my L.A. friends were able to come and share the evening with me.

There’s really nothing like seeing a film you’ve worked on lighting up the big screen. This was a first-ever experience for Cheryl, who was ecstatic as she had every right to be. Even though I’ve enjoyed this thrill before, it never gets old. And it’s even more exciting to hear from audience members how a film has affected them. In this case, the feedback  was emotional, it was generous, it was touching.

Among my L.A. pals who saw the film and painted butterflies were Cathy Rigby McCoy (right) and her daughter and daughter-in-law (center).

Before and after the film, audience members painted ceramic butterflies which have since been mounted on a memorial wall in the museum. Cheryl and Jan have hoped that a film about The Butterfly Project would expand awareness and lead to more groups joining the project and creating their own permanent installations. Based on the first audience’s response, I think that wish is already coming true.

Cheryl and I are immensely grateful to Ms. Geft and her staff, who went all out to make sure that everything was just right for the screening in the museum’s beautiful Peltz Theatre.

Please visit The Butterfly Project website and add your support. There’s still a long way to go toward the goal of 1.5 million ceramic butterflies in installations around the world in memory of the 1.5 million Jewish children murdered in the Holocaust.



When you love old movies like we do…

onboard-3Kay and I just returned from our third Turner Classic Movies Cruise. If you love old movies like we do — and especially if you also enjoy cruises — then you should consider taking the next one. We’ll be there!

TCM has partnered with the Disney Cruise Line to create an experience for movie-lovers that’s hard to beat. On this most recent cruise, we enjoyed five days of classic films, shown in a four different venues — from the large (yet comfy) Walt Disney Theatre to the giant poolside screen. There were about 30 films of various genres — Anna Christie, 42nd Street, Rio Bravo, An Officer And A Gentleman, Red-Headed Woman, Witness For The Prosecution. Actors TCM 2016like Eva Marie Saint, Lou Gossett Jr., Angie Dickenson joined Robert Osborne and Ben Mankiewicz to introduce films and
discuss their careers. Experts like film noir authority Eddie Muller and Film Forum director Bruce Goldstein gave fascinating insights into various aspects of film history. Alex Trebek led trivia
contests — always SRO and bubbling with enthusiasm as teams of fans tried to identify movie scores or lines of dialogue. Parties in the lounges and on deck — with fireworks at sea, no less — added to the excitement.

My favorite feature by far was were the discussions with iconic producer/writer/director Roger Corman, He must be one of the most beguiling characters in
moviedom, a man who took unconventional approaches to making films and launched the careers of Jack Nicholson, Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard, Martin Scorcese and others. He also introduced and discussed two of his films: The Raven and my personal fave, X The Man With X-Ray Eyes.

On previous cruises, we enjoyed guest appearances by Debbie Reynolds, Mickey Rooney, the astounding Norman Lloyd (look him up!), Robert Wagner, Arlene Dahl and more. Next year, TCM is extending the cruise to seven days and moving to a bigger ship, the Disney Fantasy.

The Children’s Defense Fund: Leadership and Commitment on Behalf of Children

CDF LogoI first became aware of the Children’s Defense Fund in the early 1990s when I had an office in the building next door. Learning about this organization that stands as a strong voice for equality and opportunity for ALL children pushed all the right buttons for me. At that time, I was only a few years into what would be over a decade and a half of working with the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, an organization working on behalf of a specific cohort of children desperately in need of advocates. Working on behalf of children has always appealed to me. I didn’t know how or when it might occur, but I hoped that someday I might have the chance to interact directly with CDF and its powerful founder and leader, Marian Wright Edelman. But time passed and life kept happening without that wish coming true.

Speaking to the CDF staff.

Imagine, then, my delight when — out of the blue in June 2015 (over twenty years later!) — I received an email saying that Ms. Edelman would like to schedule a phone call with me. We had a wonderful conversation. It turned out that Ms. Edelman had seen PAPER CLIPS. She was sharing it with her staff and wondered if I would come in to speak with them about the film and the story that inspired it. Would I? You bet I would!

When we met, the staff members were full of questions and thoughts, but I feel as though the day meant more to me than it could have meant to them. I was in the presence of a team of deeply committed people, some of whom had been working for the well-being of children for decades.

After the discussion ended, a woman approached me for a one-on-one chat. Her focus was on finding ways to end gun violence, and I learned that her motivation came from disturbing personal experiences. As she related what she herself had survived (a private story that I don’t feel I should repeat here), I saw up close how our country’s inaction to protect its people from a danger — one that can be reduced within the bounds of our Constitution — had bent and bruised her. And I also felt the steely resolve that had grown in her and gave her strength to speak so passionately to someone she’d just met.

Marian Wright Edelman

Subsequently, Ms. Edelman and I spoke at length in her office. For more than 40 years, she has led this organization that was born out of the civil rights movement. In CDF’s own words, “through careful research, public education, policy development, implementation and monitoring, and grassroots organizing [CDF has] tried to help build a national house, where every child is healthy, safe and educated, room by room.” The list of its accomplishments and the legislation it has helped to enact shows that mission’s far-reaching impact. I could see in my time with CDF’s founder what real leadership looks like, and I could see what has attracted and supported her dedicated work force.

I encourage everyone to learn more about CDF and to find ways to support it.


NOT The Last Butterfly — Part 2

The Prague Castle is in the distance, as seen from the Charles Bridge, a pedestrian crossing of the Vltava River.

Last February, I wrote about consulting on a documentary called NOT The Last Butterfly and mentioned interviewing Ela Weissberger, a Holocaust survivor who had been imprisoned at the Terezin concentration camp, located in what is now the Czech Republic. Ela’s story proved to be so compelling and so perfectly related to the themes of the film, that Cheryl Rattner Price (the superhuman force behind the film and the project on which it is based) took a great leap of faith, deciding that we would take Ela back to the camp and film her there. As if that wasn’t wonderful enough, Cheryl asked me to direct the shoot.


We stayed in Prague during the shoot, since Terezin is about an hour’s drive away. Our crew was all Czech, organized for us by DP Michal Krecji. We scouted the camp one day and shot there for two days, with additional filming in Prague.

Before I go on, let me say that I loved being in Prague. It’s a classic European city, perfect for walking. Our IMG_1819first day there was a free day, so I went off by myself exploring, visiting Wenceslas Square (with a hat tip to my late friend Larry Shue, whose play Wenceslas Square is a must-see), having lunch in an outdoor café, and admiring the architecture and vast public spaces. There were other walking opportunities, as well as a
chance to tour the magnificent Prague castle. One evening, Ela took us all to her favorite nightspot, U Kalicha. When it came to food and drink, I played it safe — onion soup and some vegetables, having read the menu and been put on guard by the very perplexing item called “Baked Knee”. Happily, the Czech Republic is home to one of my favorite beers, Pilsner Urquell — I drank it wherever we went! The entertainment was a somewhat tipsy accordion player — when he played, Ela and I danced the polka.

Describing to Ela and Michal how we would shoot Ela, remembering when she arrived at the station to board the train for Terezin at age 1

Filming with Ela was an even greater experience than I anticipated. Perhaps our primary location in Terezin was the building where Ela lived while there, room number 28 in building L410, whose appearance today belies the fear and misery it held during the reign of the Third Reich.Yet as Ela spoke about her experiences, I could feel the pain and suffering she and so many others lived through. Of 15,000 children who passed through Terezin, only 100 survived. Ela pointed out each place, each item that triggered memories. She showed us the door to the room where her mentor, the artist Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, lived with her husband. Friedl taught Ela and other children to express themselves with drawings and paintings, helping them hold onto their sanity and emotional identities through an early form of art therapy. It was a remarkable experience for me to visit this place with this woman who went on to create a full life after she was liberated.

NOT The Last Butterfly — Part 1

For about a year now I’ve been consulting on a documentary tentatively entitled NOT The Last Butterfly

I’m working with Cheryl Rattner Price, a ceramic artist based in San Diego, who launched a project at the San Diego Jewish Day School with her friend and colleague Jan Landau. The Butterfly Project grew out of Jan’s desire to find a new way to teach about the Holocaust — one that would be instructive but not overly alarming to children. She had the idea of making 1.5 million butterflies in memory of the 1.5 million Jewish children murdered in the Holocaust. When Jan reached out to Cheryl, they decided that the butterflies should be made of clay and that painting them would be an activity that could be a gateway into the subject for youngsters.

Although she wasn’t a filmmaker, Cheryl saw the value in documenting the project, and she had been filming various events and activities for several years when I heard about what she was doing. It turns out that Paper Clips had been a prime motivator to both Jan and Cheryl. Now Cheryl was looking at how she could take all the footage she’s accumulated and tell The Butterfly project’s story. She asked me if I ever help first-time filmmakers make their movies, and I told her that I do. So I joined the project as a consultant.Unknown

I can’t speak highly enough about Cheryl as an open and willing collaborator. Making any film is challenging; making one’s first film is even more so as it stretches one’s ability to learn while doing. I think Cheryl and I have just the right chemistry for traveling together on this journey that so far has led us from evaluating the archive of footage she had accumulated to now seeing a real possibility of a documentary that might become more than the documentation of an outstanding educational effort.

A series of interviews I conducted with Cheryl in San Diego last summer added to the substance of the film. In addition to Cheryl and Jan, I interviewed Susan Goldman Rubin and Ela Weissberger. Susan is an author who has written about Ela and her imprisonment at the Terezin concentration camp. Terezin is probably best known as the place where young Pavel Friedman wrote his iconic poem The Butterfly before being sent off to Auschwitz, where he was killed.

This film has become a real joy and a wonderful learning experience for me. I’m very excited about what’s coming next!



Roger Ebert & Steve James’ “Life Itself”

Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters, et al) has once again shown us how it’s done with his bio doc Life Itself, about Roger Ebert and based on Mr. Ebert’s 2011 memoir of the same title. A sensitive work of cinematic art from start to finish, the filmmaker has created the tribute his subject deserves.

The documentary is a collection of love stories. We meet a boy who loved journalism and grew into a young man who loved alcohol too much. He became a movie critic in 1967, when the previous critic for the Chicago Sun-Times left, leading to a 46-year-career during which his love of cinema became known worldwide.

But the most profound love story of Mr. Ebert’s life was the one starring himself and his wife Chaz. As she recalls in the film, he told her that he’d had to wait fifty years to find her and that he’d never let her go. The depth of their commitment is one of two dramatically intimate facets that make this film so engaging and moving.

The other intimacy comes from Mr. Ebert’s insistence that the film show his condition in the last years of his life — and that it do so unflinchingly. That condition, first displayed famously on an Esquire magazine cover in 2010, requires that he speak via a synthesized voice emanating from his laptop since cancer cost him his lower jaw. We see him enduring what others might hide from the world — a nurse performing the periodic suctioning of his throat, a therapist helping him try to recover his ability to walk, and more…

Yet he is a man who seems to have become kinder and gentler as he left alcohol and other vices behind, thriving in the love of Chaz and her family. We see no sign of bitterness as his body fails him and death draws nearer. His wife recounts their final moments together in a sequence that is quietly powerful and oddly comforting.


Chaz Ebert and the poster for Life Itself

On a personal note, I met Roger Ebert in 2006 when I was invited to be a panelist at the Conference on World Affairs — a marvelously eclectic week-long annual event in Boulder, Colorado at which Roger had been a star participant for thirty-some years. I was more than a little nervous to share a daïs with him and three other people of far greater film repute than I. But he was a warm and friendly gentleman and amazed me when he approached me afterward and spoke fondly of Paper Clips. I had one of his books with me, which he signed “To Joe — Movie lover! Roger Ebert,” below which he drew his coveted “thumbs up” for my film. It’s one of my most prized possessions — not just because of the compliment, but because it was a generous gesture from the man whose opinions I sought so often to influence my own movie choices. I wish him peace.




Working With A Broadcasting Legend

When Bill Parks of Dominion Post asked me to write three videos for his alma mater, Washington and Lee University, I had no idea how really swell the experience would become…

One of the videos is an extended history of an unusual W&L tradition that’s over a century old: the Mock Convention. Every presidential election year, students mount a simulation of what the two political parties will do later that year — they put on a nominating convention. The Mock Con, as it is known around campus, attempts to predict who will be the nominee of the party that is not then occupying the White House. And they’re pretty good at it too, boasting a 76% accuracy record since the event began in 1908.

Roger Mudd Book CoverWhat was already a fascinating project took on a whole new dimension when W&L alum Roger Mudd agreed to narrate and be interviewed. Now, anyone who knows me is aware that I’m a political junkie as well as a fan of the golden era of broadcast journalism, of which Roger Mudd was one of the stars – sorry, make that “one of the exemplars of what a newsman ought to be.” You see, Roger would never consider himself a “star.” That would be wrong. A newsman’s job is to report the news as accurately as he can and without undue reference to himself (I’m looking at you, Scott Pelley). So stardom doesn’t have standing among proper journalists.

This past Thursday, Bill and I recorded Roger’s voice over for the video (I interviewed him some months ago). I could go on at great length about the many pleasures of my visits with Roger — from his Southern hospitality (chardonnay has been served on more than one occasion) to his fascinating stories of television news when the medium was still young and could be proud of its standards of accuracy and ethics.

I’ve learned about things as only Roger could tell them… the day President Kennedy was assassinated (Roger was in the Senate dining room when it happened, but he regaled me with little-heard tales of his colleagues who were in Dallas); the March on Washington (Roger was atop the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, reporting for CBS); Robert Kennedy’s assassination (Ethel Kennedy has publicly credited Roger with getting her through the chaotic scene in the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel to her husband so that they could say goodbye to one another) — and I’m just getting started.

Ever heard about the days in Washington when motorcycling couriers raced from Capitol Hill to the only place in town that could develop the day’s film? It happened every evening between five and six o’clock, and whoever was fastest ensured that their network would get on the air first with whatever big story had broken that afternoon.

They’re great stories, and Roger can sure tell ’em. I hope to hear more, maybe over a glass of Maker’s Mark — the bourbon that turns out to be our mutual favorite. You, dear reader, can enjoy them too! Just go online and get yourself a copy of Roger’s 2008 memoir: The Place To Be – Washington, CBS, and the Glory Days of Television News.


Holocaust Remembrance 2014

It’s been a whirlwind week during which I was honored to participate in two Yom HaShoah events as well as an inspiring middle school day dedicated to seeking “Justice For All”.

Francesca (Franca) Murdock and I review our notes before our presentation of Paper Clips
Francesca (Franca) Murdock and I review our notes before our presentation of Paper Clips

On Friday, April 25 I journeyed to Rye, NY, where Sara Braun of the Rye Middle School had asked me to help lead their brand new approach to awakening a commitment to justice in their students. The morning began with a screening of Paper Clips, which I used in my remarks to help launch the spirit of the day. Surely the injustice of the Holocaust provides a perfect foundation for any program intended to focus young minds on the need to commit ourselves to tikkun olam — repairing the world. The entire school day was restructured to allow students to attend a variety of workshops in which they interacted with presenters on subjects as diverse as “Food and Justice,” “Moral Dilemmas,” “Prejudice and Stereotypes,” “Poverty and Education,” “Transgender Awareness,” “Religious Differences,” “Transgender Awareness,” and more. As I dropped in on one workshop after another, I was reminded of the power our youth have to change things for the better — a power that we adults need to value and help children discover and put to use.

I wouldn’t have been invited to Rye Middle School were it not for a young filmmaker and actress, Francesca Murdock. We met at last fall’s Rome International Film Festival, where she determined that I should come with Paper Clips to her school. Franca is a young woman who already knows that she can make things happen — and she did!

Monday, April 28, I spent the day at George Mason University — first presenting a documentary class for members of Delta Kappa Alpha, the campus’ cinematic arts fraternity. We hope to work on a project together, and I’ll welcome any opportunity to spend more time with these talented students. That evening, the GMU Hillel sponsored a Paper Clips screening in Mason Hall as a featured part of their commemoration of Yom HaShoah.

Joe Fab addressing the GMU audience
Addressing the GMU audience

The Hillel of Washington and Lee University hosted me for another Yom HaShoah Paper Clips screening on Tuesday, April 30. At Lexington’s Bistro On Main restaurant, I had a really great dinner with acting Hillel director Joan Robins and the wonderful committee of students who organized my visit. Then we walked across the  stately campus to the Stackhouse Theatre where a very attentive and appreciative audience enjoyed the documentary. The post-film chat back was a real treat for me because of the enthusiasm of the students and local residents who provoked quite a stimulating conversation.

Joe Fab with the W&L Hillel group
With my W&L Hillel hosts

Back From The Virginia Film Festival 2013…

VFF 2013 Marquee…a very rewarding four days of films!I had the pleasure of moderating six documentaries and one scripted film this year — great treats every one! I want to express my gratitude to the following filmmakers (in the order in which I met them)…

Tim Phillips and Jan Creamer, for LION ARK* 

Kori Feener, for HARD WAY HOME

Lee Bidgood and Shara Lange, for BANJO ROMANTIKA

Tony Hale and Jeremy Kaplan, for A WILL FOR THE WOODS

Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman, for REMOTE AREA MEDICAL*


…and to Macon Blair, the star of BLUE RUIN*.

The films marked with an asterisk have distribution already or, in the case of LION ARK, are being four-walled in theaters, so keep an eye out for them. The other three are absolutely worthy of wider exposure, so I hope you’ll be seeing them soon as well.

My thanks once again to Jody Kielbasa, Wes Harris and Jenny Mays for allowing me to be part of such a spectacular annual event!



LION ARK — A Different Kind Of Animal Rights Documentary

If you’re like me, you’re philosophically committed to the intentions of many documentaries that address animal rights issues, but you may dread watching them. We expect to see disturbing scenes of abuse, neglect and misery. And because we know the problems are so prevalent, we don’t expect to come out of the theatre feeling positive about much other than the fact that some good people are working on them.

Well, I just finished watching an animal welfare documentary that sets a new standard for the genre. It’s called LION ARK, and was directed by Tim Phillips and produced by Mr. Phillips and Jan Creamer, the president of Animal Defenders International (ADI) and a powerful character in the film as well.

I saw the film via an advance screener provided to me by the Virginia Film Festival, where I’ll be introducing the film tomorrow and moderating a post-screening discussion with the filmmakers. I requested this opportunity, not because I had any clue that the film would be so wonderful, but rather because my pal Jorja Fox associate produced it. That friendship, I assure you, is not coloring my reaction to the film at all! It is a brilliant creation and a rare viewing experience.


ADI has been involved in animal rescues and fighting for the humane treatment of animals since 1990 (see their website for more information on the organization itself). In one such recent effort, several years of undercover infiltration of South American circuses produced video evidence of the atrocious treatment of animals so appalling that it persuaded the Bolivian government to ban animals from circuses altogether. Officials engaged ADI to help remove the animals — in this case mostly lions — from the circuses, who resisted giving them up as is dramatically portrayed in the film.

LION ARK is the incredible story of how ADI rescued 25 lions from Bolivian circuses and transported them to a specially-constructed sanctuary in Colorado, where they now live for the first time in the sort of environment that nature intended for them. Writing that last sentence, I’m aware of the futility of trying to describe how epic an undertaking that was. It’s not hyperbole to say that this is what documentary films are really for: bringing us viscerally into those incredible adventures that must be seen and heard in order to be appreciated.

And the experience of this film is indeed visceral — made so by the magnificence of the lions themselves, the commitment and bravery of Ms Creamer and her team, and the artistry of Mr Phillips and his crew. The cinematography, editing and other technical aspects are all first class, making the film an artistic achievement as well as an emotional one.

I freely tell you that I wept more than once, and it was not because I was being forced to look at the suffering human beings perpetrate on these creatures. Rather I wept at watching them roll about in hay that their rescuers spread for them in their cages, witnessing their first exposure to smells and sensations they’d never known before. I wept at the realization that some of them were seeing the sky above them for the first time instead of the dark lids of the grimy prison boxes they hadn’t been outside of for, in some cases, decades.

Late in the film, longtime animal rights activist Bob Barker observes that, for many circus animals the best day of their lives — their first relief from distress and torment — is the day they die. It’s a truly disturbing statement, but in the context of LION ARK what could sound like bleeding heart sanctimony rings as profoundly and sadly accurate.

Ms Creamer suggests that the next phase of human evolution involves changing our relationships with the other beings with which we inhabit this planet. LION ARK is a film that lets us glimpse that future coming into being. We see 25 lions removed from what would have been a hopeless hell from which death would have indeed been their only escape. Their release at the Colorado sanctuary demonstrates what their lives can be like instead. It is a cathartic moment, as the possibility of their better existence and our better selves is manifested before our eyes.

If it were up to me, LION ARK would be shown theatrically and then broadcast on HBO or some other outlet that would help ensure that millions of us move toward the growth of which Ms Creamer spoke. Since I can’t bring that about myself, I ask anyone who reads this to help create a clamor and demand for it to happen.

What’re Ya Doin’ Nov 7-10, 2013?

VFF2012_JR_ (13)
Kay Fab and I get ready for an advance screening of Silver Linings Playbook at the 2012 Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville’s glorious Paramount Theatre.

I know what Kay Fab and I will be doing! We’ll be attending the Virginia Film Festival in beautiful Charlottesville!

For the past five years, this has been my autumn treat! Over 100 films from silent classics with live musical accompaniment to pre-release screenings of films like Black Swan, The Artist and The Descendants AND films built around personal appearances by artists like Peter Bogdanovich, Sissy Spacek, Matthew Broderick and others.

Among the featured events this year will be a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s with a chat with star Tippi Hedren afterwards!

It all happens in theatres on the UVA campus and on the C’ville pedestrian mall including at the classic movie palace, The Paramount. Festival director Jody Kielbasa, managing director Jenny Mays, programmer Wes Harris and the rest of the VFF team really know what they’re doing. Explore the festival website and you’ll see what I mean.

Oh, one last thing: once again, I’ll have the pleasure and privilege of introducing films and leading post-film discussions. There’s nothing like a chance to talk with the filmmakers to add depth and richness to the movie-going experience.

So, mark your calendars!

VFF Logo on blackThe 2013 schedule will be released on October 8 and tickets go on sale online on October 11. The opening night gala is Thursday, November 7 – films continue day and night through Sunday, November 10. 

“Inequality For All” – Required Viewing!

Next Friday, an important film is coming to a theatre near you!

Inequality For All Reich

Inequality For All lays out the enormous – and growing – disparity in economic opportunity and wealth in the United States clearly enough for just about anyone to understand. Now before anyone shoots back that this must mean it’s an oversimplified and therefore invalid presentation, let me say emphatically that it is not.

Robert Reich, along with filmmaker Jacob Kornbluth, delivers an engaging and factually solid explanation of the destruction of America’s middle class. The foundation of capitalism is disappearing and, with it, hopes for this country’s future. This is no partisan rant, but rather a very reasoned attempt to bring our focus to what may well be the most important problem we face.

I’m practically begging us all to dive into a subject that is easy to pass over as being too wonky. Who wants to talk economics when you can be debating the pros and cons of twerking? This film makes the issue as interesting and as understandable as it’s likely to get – and this is fricking urgent stuff, people!

So be there or be sorry! It opens next Friday, September 27. And let’s use this film to convene the national conversation we should be having instead of whether or not to default on our debt and crash the global economy!

Winner – Special Jury Prize – 2013 Sundance Film Festival

“Bedford” Comes To Washington & Lee University

MGH Interlocken 2013-9990

Last week I had the distinct honor of delivering a presentation to an esteemed group of alumni of Washington & Lee University. Although I had traveled Route 81 many times while shooting Bedford: The Town They Left Behind, I’d never spent time in Lexington, VA, nor had I seen the beautiful W&L campus. I had no idea what I was missing, but that was remedied last  Friday and Saturday.

This came about because I’m working now on some short films for W&L with the very talented Bill Parks of Dominion Post, with whom I’ve worked on many projects over quite a few years. One of them is a fascinating history of the university’s Mock Convention — a very respected tradition that is over a hundred years old. Every four years, students mount an event modeled after those of the two major political parties. It’s balloon-filled and red-white-and-blue festive, but it is also a remarkably well researched and detailed effort with an amazingly accurate record of predicting the nominee of the party seeking to take back the White House. I’m functioning as the writer for this film; Bill is producing. Being immersed in its history as I now am, I’ve learned that the Mock Con is perhaps the greatest political learning opportunity offered at the university level anywhere in this country.

The occasion for my visit was the 60th reunion of the Class of 1953. I was invited by Tyson Janney and Beau Dudley to present scenes from my Bedford documentary and to speak about the experience of making it. It brought back to mind the primary reason I wanted to make such a film: to help remind us of how great the cost of service to country really is. As I’ve said many times, during World War II the entire country knew we were at war and felt the effects every day. The Bedford film portrays that, showing what happened in battle as well as the impact back at home. But today, if we choose (and many seem to) we can ignore the fact that war is being waged in our name and with our tax dollars. I consider this obscenely wrong. Whether one agrees with the war or not, it shouldn’t be something we can put out of our minds. All this is unfortunately timely once again as the spectre of possible military action in Syria seems to be beckoning.

It was an invigorating morning and very rewarding to be with people who were growing up during World War II and have lived through too many occasions since when men and women have been sent into battle. I hope to be able to share the film with more groups — let me know if yours is one of them!

W&L Reunion 2

Angelika Mosaic – Again!

Last fall I posted enthusiastically about the opening of the Angelika Film Center in the new Mosaic District (in nearby Merrifield, Virginia). I’m happy to report that the theatre has proven a great hit here!

I’ve become a regular attendee, and Danielle Mouledoux, the Promotion and Events Manager has kindly invited me to moderate a number of post-film discussions. These Q&A sessions following the screening of a film are one of the great features at the Angelika, adding another dimension to the movie-going experience. A few recollections…

Frances Ha — This indie film was a revelation to me. Director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) has won critical acclaim for this black-and-white portrait of a young woman finding her way in life. It captures the feeling of loneliness many of us have felt while hammering out how we will live our own lives in our own ways. Afterwards, the discussion I led with star and co-writer Greta Gerwig was presented via Skype on the big theatre screen. Ms Gerwig’s charm quickly dismissed any concern that distance and technology would get in the way of an exhilarating exchange between the actress and the audience.

Molly’s Theory of Relativity — Jeff Lipsky is both a film distributor (Adopt Films) and filmmaker (Flannel Pajamas) who identifies Woody Allen and John Cassavetes among his influences, both of which one can recognize in this idiosyncratic look at a young couple making a decision about their future. Mr Lipsky generously came in person to speak with audiences for two day’s worth of screenings.

20 Feet From Stardom — My most recent moderating experience was a wonderful treat, and I highly recommend this documentary about women whose names you may not know, but whose voices you’ve definitely heard many times. They are the backup singers, from what I’ll call the ‘golden age’ of the sixties onward. tumblr_mm6mcw3TR61sn7wjto1_1280Darlene Love (“Christmas, Baby Please Come Home”), Mary Clayton (long time singer with the Rolling Stones), Judith Hill (Michael Jackson’s tragic “This Is It!” tour), and others. Danielle learned last minute that Claudia Lennear was in DC for the weekend and cleverly arranged for her to attend a screening for which I was fortunate to lead the post-film Q&A. Claudia is reputed to be the inspiration behind the Stones’ “Brown Sugar” and David Bowie’s “Lady Grinning Soul”. Down-to-earth and full of delightful anecdotes (“Mick Jagger and I used to dress up in each other’s clothes!”), she was such a hit that, as the start time for the next film approached, we led the audience out of the theatre, up the stairs and continued the chat in the Angelika’s cocktail lounge.

Leaving Afghanistan: More Complex Than We Wish

I remember a comment by one of the students in the Paper Clip Project to principal Linda Hooper. The year was 2003, and we were staring into the gaping hole that used to be the World Trade Center…

“This is why you do it,” he observed. 

“Do what?” she asked.

“Make us think.”

One of the wonderful and challenging things about my work as a documentary filmmaker is that it does that: it makes me think. And often it makes me think more deeply than I wish I had to.

Consider Sakena Yacoobi and Afghanistan.


Last year I was privileged to meet this strong and committed woman while working on a film with David Hanrahan and my colleagues at Future View (see David‘s beautiful, poetic portrait of Sakena here). That project led to the opportunity I had last winter to ask Sakena about the pending U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Keep in mind that Sakena has spent decades meticulously building hundreds of clinics and learning centers for Afghan women and children, all while under an ever-present threat to her own life. Her work has had a positive impact on the lives of over 8 million Afghans. Think about it: 8 million people are healthier, better educated, and more ready to succeed at creating the kind of Afghanistan most Afghans — and most responsible Americans — hope for. And there are many, many more she intends to help.

So, as we rode through Washington, DC together in the back seat of the car, I asked her:

“Sakena, how do you feel about U.S. troops leaving your country?”

She turned away and looked out the rain-covered window as the gray Capitol building passed by. “Joe, I am afraid. I am very afraid,” she said.

I was not expecting that from a woman who deals with pain and suffering every day and, at any given moment in her homeland, is but one bullet from an angry militant away from death.

“Understand, Joe, we do not want your soldiers in Afghanistan forever. But if we will survive, we need security. And we do not have security from our own people. If I walk up to someone today who is supposed to provide security in Afghanistan and show him my ID, he cannot even read that ID. He is not trained to do his job. He cannot protect my people.”

She turned back to me with dark, penetrating eyes. “And you know that the first ones to suffer will be the women… and the children. And they will suffer quickly and it will be very bad.”

I oppose war and killing. I want our troops, valiant and so often under-appreciated, to be back with their families. I celebrated the announcement that we’d be bringing most of them home by the end of next year. And now we hear that maybe the president will bring them all home next year.

And yet, I could see in Sakena’s eyes the reflections of millions of women and children… and it made me think.

Bob Dole Turns 90!

DolePortraitForBlogI recently had the great pleasure of producing a “happy birthday” video for the great former Senator from Kansas under contract from the Bipartisan Policy Center. Many have expressed this thought, but let me say it again: Senator Dole’s talent for bringing both parties together and, as he would say, “git’er done” for the people of our country is something we desparately need today. If only this occasion of his 90th birthday would inspire our political leaders to honor him by emulating him!

Watch the Bob Dole 90th birthday video here.

Remembering Daniel Inouye

On December 7, 1941, seventeen-year-old Daniel Inouye was in Honolulu, listening to music on the radio and tying his necktie, getting dressed for church, when the radio broadcast was interrupted with news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He and his Japanese father ran outside, where they could see the dark clouds of smoke billowing in the sky. The teenager promptly volunteered as a medical aide…   

About a week ago, Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye passed away at the age of 88. I had the distinct honor of interviewing him earlier this year for a pair of films honoring Bob Dole and Howard Baker. Those words — “distinct honor” — are precisely the right ones to describe how I will hold the memory of that experience.

It was a sunny and chilly late winter afternoon as I traipsed fromt he Metro across Capitol Hill. In spite of what I’d absorbed over the years about Daniel Inouye from news reports and from one of his staff (whom I’d known briefly a couple of decades earlier), I’d still done my due diligence and studied up on him as prep for this interview. I’d discovered things about his past that I could scarcely believe. But these things weren’t directly relevant to the films I was working on, so I doubted there would be a chance to discuss them with the senator. Still, I thought, if the opportunity arose…

When I arrived at the senator’s expansive suite of offices in the Hart Senate Office Building, my crew was setting up in an elegant reception room filled with decorative art from Hawaii and objects of significance from a long life and career. As I usually do before we sit down and begin an interview, I had requested some time away from the camera and lights with the interviewee. Senator Inouye’s aide obtained that approval for me and, while the crew kept working, ushered me into a nearby office.

The senator radiated a kind of warm formality. Since the passing of Senator Robert Byrd in 2010, he was now the longest-serving living member of Congress and the President pro tempore of the Senate. The latter position also placed him third in the presidential order of succession. Although I’ve worked with several presidents and many other politicians (some of whom I respected greatly), Daniel Inouye represented to me the ideal of service to country.

As we took our seats in that office for the pre-interview chat, I first noticed the senator’s smile. It seemed to be his default expression, honest and gentle, and I felt instantly at ease. He slumped casually in his chair, looking comfortable and ready to accept a stranger’s questions. He wore a tie, but no jacket, and his empty right shirt sleeve hung loosely on the arm of the chair.

I quickly sketched out what I hoped we could discuss for the Baker and Dole films, and Senator Inouye just as quickly agreed to it all. That could have been the end of the pre-interview, but the senator seemed in no rush so I asked if we might chat a bit more. He agreed without hesitating, and I recognized this as my opportunity to go off-topic and ask him about his own life. Here’s some of what we discussed — although much of it sounds like a fictional Hollywood action film, this is what I recall that was confirmed to me by the man himself…

The attack on Pearl Harbor led to America’s entry into World War II, and young Daniel tried to enlist in the U.S. military. Not only was he refused because of his heritage, he was labeled an “enemy alien.” But he and other Japanese-Americans petitioned the government for the right to serve as a demonstration of their allegiance, and, in late 1942, he began what would become a distinguished military career, earning many awards including the Medal of Honor.

While serving in France, Daniel was hit by a bullet that struck him just above the heart, but the bullet was blocked by a pair of silver dollars he had one on top of the other in his shirt pocket. These two coins became his good luck charms, which he always carried with him until he they were lost shortly before the battle that would cost him his right arm.

It was April 21, 1945, and Second Lieutenant Inouye was leading an assault against one of the last German defensive positions in Italy. From about half-a-football-field away, three machine gunners began unloading their weapons at his unit, shooting Inouye in the abdomen and forcing all of his men to hit the ground. A soldier crawled to him from nearby, examined his wound and told him not to even try to get up: the bullet had passed through him and out his back, just missing his spine. Ignoring the warning, Inouye rose and took out one of the machine gunners with a grenade. 

While his men drew the Germans’ fire away from him, Inouye struggled on his stomach to within about ten yards of the German position. As he rose to throw a hand grenade into the bunker, a rifle grenade severed his right arm at the elbow. He stared at the portion of his arm that had been blown off, at the end of which was his right hand still holding the live grenade. His men began rushing to his aid, but he waived them off in fear that the hand would relax allowing the grenade to explode. With his left hand, Inouye pried the weapon from his lifeless right hand and, as the Germans reloaded, heaved it into the bunker, destroying the second machine gun position.

With his machine gun blazing and bleeding profusely from his wounds, he charged forward and took out the last machine gunner — but not before another rifle shot struck his leg, sending him rolling down an embankment. 

When he opened his eyes, he saw his unit standing above him. “Nobody said the war is over,” he scolded. “Get back to your positions!”

With severe wounds to his abdomen and leg and with half of his arm blown off, it was critical to get the 20-year-old soldier to proper medical care. At stops at medical way stations enroute to a field hospital he was given doses of morphine. When he finally reached the hospital, he had so much medication in him that any more was considered life-threatening. The rest of his arm had to be removed without anesthesia.

I sat for a moment without speaking, stunned that I the man sitting before me had lived these events almost seventy years ago. With no prompting from me, he continued to tell me how he was returned to the States and sent to a military hospital where Bob Dole was also recovering. Dole had been injured two weeks before and just a few miles from where Inouye was so badly wounded. The two became life-long friends. Dole told Inouye of his plans to serve in government in Kansas and someday in Washington, DC.

With his own plans to become a surgeon rendered impossible, Daniel Inouye was inspired by Bob Dole. The day that Hawaii became America’s 50th state, he began representing it in the U.S. Congress as a member of the House of Representatives. He was re-elected in 1960 and was elected to the Senate in 1962, where he served continuously until his death. Daniel Inouye was known for being principled and conscientious, quietly determined, never flamboyant or seeking the spotlight. In other words, the perfect representative for his constituents and a respected colleague among his fellow legislators.

The talk of Bob Dole snapped me back into focus on the reason I was there: to interview Senator Inouye about his old friend and about Senator Howard Baker, his Republican counterpart on the Watergate committee.

The interview went beautifully — one of the most satisfying of my career. Through it all I felt a bit numbed by the honor, grateful for whatever good fortune had put me in that place on that chilly afternoon.

When we were done, we chatted a bit longer off-camera. We stood and Senator Daniel Inouye extended his left hand, the hand that had taken the grenade from his lifeless right fist and thrown it into that machine gun nest. I took his hand in both of mine and we said our goodbyes. I stayed for a while in that reception room amid the artwork and the mementos of a long career. Looking out the windows at the Nation’s Capital bathed in late-day sunlight, the city seemed somehow more virtuous and capable than it usually does to me.




OMG Angelika Comes to My Neighborhood!!!

Run — do not walk — to the new Angelika Mosaic in Falls Church/Merrifield, Virginia! I could not be more excited that this outstanding film center has come to my neighborhood.

On Friday, DP Dave Goulding (“Bedford: The Town They Left Behind,” “Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story” and many of the 2012 Barack Obama campaign spots) joined me for the opening night screening of the dazzling documentary “Samsara” — which the Angelika screened in 4K. The film was followed by a Skype Q&A with producer Mark Magidson. Great!

Today, I went back to see “Grand Illusion” in a newly restored print. Afterward, artist/illustrator Paul Davis signed copies of the poster he created for this release. All you theatre folks know his distinctive style from classic art he created for Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival.

The Angelika makes the movie-going experience spectacular in so many ways. Treat yourself!

Joe on PBS with Bedford


For Memorial Day of 2012, the PBS outlet for the Blue Ridge region showed “Bedford: The Town They Left Behind” during Pledge Week. They asked me to come to Roanoke and help out with the pledge breaks. It was a real pleasure to work with everyone at the station. The whole experience was made bittersweet by the fact that Bob Slaughter, a true American hero and someone who inspired everyone on our production team, had passed away the week prior. You can watch my interviews with Blue Ridge PBS executive producer Angela Hatcher at these links:

Part One and Part Two

Also, if you have an interest in World War II, the D-Day invasion, or American heroes, I hope you’ll read Bob Slaughter’s terrific autobiography.

Reason #17 Why I Love What I Do!

Just to be clear at the outset, I don’t know how many reasons I’ve got all together — but there are a LOT of them!

Reason #17: Learning New Things!

When you make documentary films, you are always facing the next new film which almost always means the next new thing to learn about. This is true whether you’re about to make a film for a client or a film that you initiate yourself.

To be an effective and responsible documentarian, you have to learn about each subject relatively quickly; you can’t take four years to get a degree in it. Yet, you must be able to treat the material accurately, make it interesting, understand both the specifics and the bigger context, separate the truth from what someone might want you to believe — all while telling a story that you make relevant to your viewers.

Challenging? Yes, to be sure, but oh so exciting! This is why I so often tell people that I worry someone will discover how much fun I’m having and make me stop!

How else would I have learned about the true history of the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest? The valiant determination of youngsters with HIV/AIDS and their families? The bipartisan legacies of Bob Dole and Howard Baker? The resilience and strength of abused women in Georgia? The commitment and sacrifice of the first men to hit the beach on D-Day and their loved ones? The impending end of leprosy on earth? The heroism of a single Afghan woman in service to the women and children of her country? The curiosity, compassion and capabilities of middle school children in Tennessee? And so much more…

Mine is not a particularly secure profession (understatement!). But I’m allowed to meet people who share with me what matters to them most. I myself am invariable changed by these encounters, and that experience enriches my life more than I can tell you.

Be Kind. Be Strong. Choose Joy.

Be kind. Be strong. Choose joy.

This is the mantra I found on my latest trip to Africa, and I take strength and happiness from it every day…

My friends Rob Miller and Andy Wakeford — brilliant photographers — invited me to join them on an unusual excursion to South Africa (where I’d been twice before) and Botswana (where I’d never been). A non-profit organization called FAWN (Fighting AIDS With Nutrition) has been supplying liquid nutritional products like Ensure to two poor African communities for several years. Rob and Andy and I, along with a very talented musician named Darden Smith, accompanied the organizers to photograph people with HIV and to make audio recordings of interviews with them. The idea is to eventually produce a book of the resulting word-and-image portraits.

Our first days were spent in a township near Johannesburg, SA. The population of the community is around 350,000. That’s not a typo. And, while the exact HIV-infected numbers are not known, I can tell you that the number is very high based on the fact that, as we walked from home to home making our visits, the next infected family was always just a few houses away.

In Botswana we were in a small village called Sefare (se-FAR-ay), where our hostess was an elderly woman who gave her house over to us visitors. Imagine: she moved out and simply gave us her home! It was one of the finest in the community with indoor plumbing and electricity (although the electricity would sometimes fail for no apparent reason and then come back on hours later.)

Darden was there to do something he has done elsewhere with veterans and other people with stories to tell and life experiences to share. Armed with only a remarkable talent and his guitar, he has a gift for spending time with someone and creating songs on the spot using what he learns from them. In many cases, the storyteller actually writes the song with Darden and might even sing it with him as it takes shape.

Darden became a recognizable figure very quickly around town: the white guy with the guitar. And as evening darkness came to the village, he would sit on the front porch of our guest house, strumming and singing… and attracting visitors.

I was particularly affected by the children who would come by. Some spoke or understood a little English, but in the spell cast by Darden and the spirit of the occasion language wasn’t really necessary. 8-year-olds Maria and Angel, and Angel’s 6-year-old brother Innocence were among the youngsters who began dancing. Darden stepped up the tempo, and for hours there was happiness in the dirt yard under the light of a million stars and an African moon. Darden’s refrain “It’s a beautiful night in Sefare!” cold be heard long into the night, over and over, becoming a musical theme that echoed in our dreams.

But make no mistaked: neither Darden nor the rest of us brought the happiness to Sefare. Those evenings put the innate cheerfulness of the villagers on display for us visitors. But, helped by that exposure, we began to see it as basic to their nature. In the workers at the clinic, many of whom have HIV themselves, we saw truly beaming smiles where sadness could have easily prevailed. I sat in a grassless yard with a toddler – one of eight children of a mother with the virus – with barely anything to wear and only a bent spoon as a toy — he and his siblings jumped about and laughed with no idea that life was anything but a celebration. And the infected people we interviewed, when they spoke of the disease that is so dreaded around the world, continued to see life as a gift to be lived joyfully.

On our last morning in Sefare, Darden walked the streets as the locals were beginning the new day, stepping out of the doorways of their shacks whose shabbiness would evoke instant pity from most Westerners. He told me later about what he saw… the elderly white nun, already up and about for hours on her daily visits to the sick… 6-year-old Innocence trundling off to school… and a man he had never met who waved to him and sang “It’s a beautiful night in Sefare!”

I know I’ll never forget the people of Sefare… they are kind, they are strong, and they choose joy.

Being Bob Dole

February 1 was a really interesting day. I suppose the proper thing to say would be that I didn’t know what to expect when our team went to Senator Bob Dole’s office to interview him for a film we’re making for the Bipartisan Policy Center.

The truth is that I didn’t expect to like him. Why? Looking back, I’m just not sure. But I had some impression of him as a gruff fellow, maybe a little impatient. How many times have I learned how wrong my predispositions can be? Enough – and now one more has been added to that number.

Senator Dole was friendly to us all, including each of the crew in his greetings and in his thanks when we were done. From his presence and his charm, I could sense what a powerful force he must have been in his prime years as Senate Majority Leader. And, I have to tell you, the famous Dole wit was definitely on display… (I can tell you this story without fear of violating any professional discretion because I’ve since seen media reports of him saying the same thing.)

Senator Dole was in an elevated chair with a towel around his neck while my old friend Michele Mundell, one of DC’s most sought-after makeup artists, was giving him a bit of a freshening up. It was just a few days after he had come out publicly and very firmly against Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign, and it was clearly still on his mind. With no provocation from either Michele or me he offered this bon mot:

“I’ve often been asked why people take such an instant dislike to Newt. Two words: saves time.”

By the way, if you’re not familiar with the Bipartisan Policy Center — Senator Dole was one of its four founders — you should know about their important work to neutralize the political divide that is forestalling progress in Washington. Click on


Joe Fab Live on CNN

Shortly after “Paper Clips” was released in 2004, CNN asked me to appear with student Casey Condra on their morning broadcast. Unfortunately, the hookup for Casey in Chattanooga had problems, so I had to go it alone. Although I’d done live TV before, this particular broadcast was different – for reasons I’m not going to publish. Suffice to say that two well-known conservative pundits figure into the story and totally unnerved me just before we went live. Friends have told me that I pulled myself together very well – now you can be the judge! Just click here.