DOC NYC: Alpert, Nevins on “Castro,” archive chat heats up

A keynote session at DOC NYC featuring HBO Documentary Films head Sheila Nevins (pictured, left) and filmmaker Jon Alpert (center) delved into his recent film on Cuba's LGBT revolution, while an archival storytelling panel prompted a heated fair use discussion.
November 18, 2015

Jon Alpert (pictured, center) has spent decades filming in Cuba but hopes his latest film, Mariela Castro’s March: Cuba’s LGBT Revolution, will shed light on an often overlooked aspect of that country’s social and political history.

“At the time, I wasn’t aware of what they weren’t doing around gay rights,” the documentarian and Downtown Community Television (DCTV) founder told an audience during a keynote conversation at the DOC NYC film festival in New York on Tuesday (November 17). “This is a film to rectify that legacy.”

Following a screening of the 30-minute film, Alpert – who received one of the festival’s Lifetime Achievement Awards this year – and HBO Documentary Films president Sheila Nevins (pictured, left) participated in a keynote conversation with the festival’s artistic director Thom Powers (right) at the Bow Tie Cinemas in Chelsea.

larry kramer

Larry Kramer

The doc will air on HBO later this year and screen in Cuba during the Havana Film Festival on December 7. Alpert explained that the film was three years in the making and was initially the idea of filmmaker Saul Landau, who died of bladder cancer three years ago.

Landau wanted to make a film about Cuban president Raul Castro’s daughter, Mariela, and her fight against homophobia and transphobia as his final film. When Alpert visited the ailing director on his deathbed, he promised he would finish it.

However, Nevins initially passed on the project. “I didn’t think the film would be anything, frankly,” she said during a playfully antagonistic conversation with Alpert, whom she previously worked with on One Year in a Life of Crime and China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province.

Alpert’s decision to focus the film primarily on the stories of everyday Cubans who had come out as gay, lesbian and transgender ultimately got the film greenlit at HBO. In addition to Castro’s activism, the doc focuses on a trans woman blinded in one eye by an acid attack, and an elderly man forced into a work camp for gay men in the post-revolution years.

Nevins said that many filmmakers focus on finding a “name,” such as a celebrity or public figure in order to get a project off the ground, but that Alpert has managed to succeed by sticking to “the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker.”

“Jon manages to go to what we would consider anonymous people and tell their stories in a heightened way so we feel a kinship with people who aren’t on our screens every day,” she said.

Author and LGBT rights activist Larry Kramer was among the audience members and stood up to applaud Alpert following the screening.

“You should show this film on every TV in every country,” Kramer said. “It will shake people up like nothing else can. You have done a wonderful service.”

The keynote event capped off a day of panel discussions at DOC NYC’s industry conference about challenges and creative approaches in archival filmmaking, which ended with a heated discussion about fair use between archivist and producer Matt White and lawyer Karen Shatzkin.

Shatzkin, who advises filmmakers on copyright and fair use issues, moderated the panel “Crafting A Story With Archival,” which included filmmakers Penny Lane (Our Nixon) and Sam Cullman (Art & Craft).

When an audience member asked the panelists to give examples of instances when they failed to secure rights to a piece of footage they were chasing, Shatzkin listed off several cases where her clients used fair use in order to obtain local news footage, clips from Gone With the Wind and ABC News footage that would have been either too expensive or not possible to obtain rights for.

l-r: matt white, simon kilmurry, karen shatznik

L-R: Matt White, Simon Kilmurry, Karen Shatzkin

That prompted White, executive director of the Association of Commercial Stock Image Licensors, to stand up and call Shatzkin’s response “offensive.” White and Shatzkin later continued the discussion surrounded by delegates at a cocktail reception, with International Documentary Association (IDA) executive director Simon Kilmurry mediating the conversation.

The conflict highlighted a gap between archivists, filmmakers and fair use proponents that still exists when it comes to obtaining rights, even as U.S. lawmakers have continued to renew and extend exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), allowing documentarians to excerpt footage from DVDs, Blu-rays and streaming video for criticism and commentary purposes.

“It was unfair to use outrageous examples to then color the entire way that archives work with producers. This is a relationship. It used to be very creative. There’s no reason for there to be this hostility,” White told realscreen afterwards.

“It’s something that should be a larger discussion and maybe through ACSIL and IDA we can put something on where we’re really able to go into this,” he added. “Producers want to work with archives. There should be easier ways to do it. it shouldn’t be this big mystery or this big cash machine that they can’t get through.”

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.