Documentary Feature roundtable: ‘Good Night Oppy,’ ‘Louis Armstrong’s Black and Blues,’ ‘Mija,’ ‘Retrograde’

The story of NASA landing two rovers on Mars to collect information, the life of one of America’s most celebrated musicians, the journey of American children of undocumented immigrants seeking a place in the music industry and the horrors America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. This wide array of subjects made up the films of the four filmmakers that took part in Gold Derby’s recent Meet the Experts panel on Film Documentaries where we discussed the films that inspired them and the recent films that left a mark on them. The directors were Ryan White (“Good Night Oppy”), Sacha Jenkins (“Louis Armstrong’s Black and Blues”), Isabel Castro (“Mija”) and Matthew Heineman (“Retrograde”).

You can watch the television cinematographers group panel above with the people behind these four projects. Click on each person’s name above to be taken to each exclusive video interview.

When it came to the documentary that made her want to tell these stories, the one that did it for Castro was the landmark 1990 film “Paris is Burning” which she says changed her as a person. “I realized that there were stories I could do within a few blocks away. The aesthetics of it really influenced me and made me realize the beauty of documentary cinematography.” Jenkins drew inspiration from the work of his father, Horace Byrd Jenkins III, who was also a documentary filmmaker. “I grew up seeing the power documentary film. One particular one was about the pyramids in Sudan, which most people don’t know about. There are more pyramids in Sudan than there are in Egypt.”

White remembers taking a film class in college and wanting to get his B grade up to an A so the teacher told him he would get extra credit if he went to a screening of Agnès Varda’s film, “The Gleaners and I.” “I was watching the film and my mind was totally blown. What is she doing right now? She’s talking to us and there’s footage in the car? I remember coming out of that movie theater not even knowing what a documentary film was and saying, ‘Whatever she was doing, I want to do something like that.’” Heineman didn’t initially set out to be a filmmaker but as he started getting into film, he was very taken with “Murderball.” “I realized that documentaries should be more than the sort of history documentaries I watched in school. There could be three acts and there could be antagonists and protagonists. That got me really excited about the potential of this form.”

In talking about recent documentaries that really touched struck a chord with them, Heineman says that Ondi Timoner’s “Last Flight Home,” which chronicles her father’s decision to end his life, was very life affirming. “The profound nature of how open her family was with death and the beauty and lessons  they learned from her father and those final moments. It truly just broke me open.” White jokingly said that Heineman stole his answer but was able to single out “Bad Axe,” in which David Siev chronicles an Asian-American family that’s struggling to keep their restaurant open as they face COVID and racist threats from Neo-Nazis. “I loved watching a 20-something-year-old filmmaker who had very little resources and made something simple, but it’s so gorgeous and resonant. It was fun to watch something that just got noticed purely because it’s a good story with good artistry.”

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