Directors, producers and subjects of the five Oscar-nominated documentary shorts gathered on Monday for a lively discussion with TheWrap’s editor-in-chief, Sharon Waxman, as part of TheWrap Screening Series. Among the attendees was Grace Linn, the 101-year-old activist who appears in “The ABCs of Book Banning,” directed by Sheila Nevins and produced by Trish Adlesic.
One of the topics of discussion was the challenges the filmmakers faced while making their docs. In the case of “The ABCs of Book Banning,” about the ongoing campaign by arch-conservatives to ban books in public schools and libraries, Adlesic said, “We’re getting all kinds of threats, like we’re pedophiles. We’re getting death threats for making the film because we’re standing against this injustice. I wish that the people banning books were as sophisticated and mature as the children in the film that you see.”
She added, “Grace is such a model of inspiration for so many of us. At 101, if she can stand up and say, ‘This is not acceptable’ and [show] what book banning can lead to for all of us, how could we not take the challenge and not take the risk of people, you know, attacking us and doing things to us?”
For “Island in Between” director S. Leo Chiang and producer Jean Tsien, one of the biggest challenges was finding an emotional entry point for viewers who might not be familiar with the islands of Kinmen, which are located between mainland China and Taiwan and are governed by Taiwan. Their solution was to lean into Chiang’s own personal history: He was born and raised in Taiwan, went to the U.S. as a teenager and later returned to his home country.
“In some ways, this film was a little bit of an existential crisis film for me,” Chiang said. “I’ve actually felt very distant from Taiwan for a long time, you know, sort of hearing stories from far away. But because the last few years, I’ve been back in Taiwan, it really kind of challenged my identity of me being Taiwanese.
“I think that maybe that’s one of the reasons why the film connected with audiences outside of the region,” he continued. “Because, really, it’s about a sense of belonging, the definition of home, which I think all of us can relate to. Doesn’t matter where we’re from and what language you speak.”
Here, he turned to fellow panelist Sean Wang, the director of “Nǎi Nai and Wài Pó” who is Taiwanese-American. Explaining that the nominations for his and Wang’s films have caused a stir in Taiwan, he said, “I actually want to shout out to Sean. The Taiwanese people are so thrilled. You cannot imagine the media madness that is happening now.”
Wang couldn’t have asked for a happier ending to his doc, which celebrates his two nonagenarian grandmothers and was born out of the rise in hate crimes against Asians during the pandemic. “It was that feeling of just wanting to remember them, honor them, help people who were only really seeing … elderly people in our communities as victims, [as] headlines of the anti-Asian hate crimes,” he said, adding that he wanted to “capture my grandmothers’ spirits in a way that was joyful and silly and infectious and youthful, but without ignoring the pain, the loneliness and the mortality that comes with old age as well.”
The filmmakers behind “The Last Repair Shop” and “The Barber of Little Rock” were similarly inspired by unsung heroes. “Repair Shop” tells the story of the craftspeople who restore the musical instruments provided to students in the Los Angeles public school system, and as Kris Bowers, who co-directed with Oscar winner Ben Proudfoot, noted, “Oftentimes [there are] incredible artists or stars that come out of a city, but we never know about the village that really made them possible. And so, I think for us, it was really about turning a spotlight on these people that work literally in the shadows.”
“The Barber of Little Rock,” meanwhile, focuses on Arlo Washington, who founded a nonprofit community bank in Arkansas to help close the racial wealth gap. Christine Turner, the film’s co-director with John Hoffman, recalled how she first heard of Washington. She remembered being told of the unique headquarters of his community development financial institution (CFDI): “‘There’s this guy named Arlo who has, in the parking lot of his barber college, a converted shipping container with a loan fund and you’ve got to meet him,'” Turner said. “And of course, sure enough, we did. And we knew right then and there, we had our subject.”
Later, she added, “He’s really a pillar in the community. And he’s a mentor to so many. So he gives anybody who comes up to him the time of day and he speaks with everyone and he listens to everyone. We were surprised by that. But that’s also why we were so drawn to what he’s doing.”
Washington, who was also on the panel, added that the film has “increased the demand for our products and services, how we help people. We’ve had more national attention. The CDFI industry is made up of about 1,500 CDFIs nationwide. And so the industry has really been intrigued with the fact that our film has gotten nominated for an Oscar,” he said.
“When I go in a grocery store now, it’s kind of like, ‘Hey! I saw you in a documentary!'” he said, laughing. “But we never did it for TV, we do it because we emerged out of unmet credit need, and it was what our community needed. And so I’ve always been solutions-driven. That’s why we put the shipping container on a parking lot because we just needed a place to make access to capital happen.”
You can watch the full conversation with the nominees here.
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