Essay: Colorado movies at Tribeca
Four documentaries with Colorado ties will be featured at New York’s lauded Tribeca Film Festival (April 16-27) this year.
It’s the first time the state has been able to garner this much representation at a festival that’s closely watched by the press, other filmmakers and the business side of the film world.
That all four of the films are documentaries isn’t surprising -- the climate in Colorado for nonfiction filmmaking is excitingly hospitable these days.
Documentaries produced in the state have been gaining increased national exposure -- not only from theatrical release but also from showings on cable networks, public television and the Internet.
Director Daniel Junge’s “They Killed Sister Dorothy” and “Saving Face” have shown on HBO. Junge’s “Iron Ladies of Liberia” and director-producer Jim Butterworth’s “Seoul Train” aired on PBS. “Chasing Ice,” co-produced by Paula DuPre Pesman, played on the National Geographic television channel.
Production costs have fallen as equipment becomes more accessible, and documentary filmmakers have learned how to jump start projects with crowd-funding through sites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo. The Colorado-based documentaries “Silenced” and “Keep On Keepin’ On,” raised $40,119 and $43,406 on Kickstarter respectively.
State film funding is also on the rise, and documentaries are proving as popular as features for incentive applications.
In the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, the Colorado Office of Film, Television and Media received 17 applications in its incentive program. Of those that weren’t for television or commercial work, four were for fiction features and four for documentaries.
Those numbers are likely to rise dramatically in the new fiscal year when the incentives budget rises from $800,000 to $5 million.
“Colorado is a place people want to live,” Colorado’s film commissioner, Donald Zuckerman, says. “People have been energized. People say it’s phenomenal what’s going on here.”
To give you an idea of the kinds of diverse talent that have found a niche in this state, meet the four Colorado-based filmmakers who’ll be featured at the Tribeca Film Festival this year.
All are transplants, all have thriving careers and all of them plan to stay put.
Producer Olivia Ahnemann, 42, is part of a team that’s bringing a work in progress to Tribeca, a documentary called “6.”
In “6,” Oscar-winning director Louie Psihoyos (“The Cove”) deals with endangered species.
Ahnemann attended the University of Colorado Boulder, but left the state in 1994 to work in Massachusetts, where she grew up. She returned to Colorado in 2004 to be with the man whom she later married.
“When I moved back to Colorado, I was leaving a vibrant documentary community in Boston,” Ahnemann says. “I thought, ‘What will I do?’”
Ahnemann has been working steadily since, having produced and directed documentaries on subjects as varied a polygamist clan in British Columbia (“Inside, Polygamy: Life Bountiful”), big wave surfing in South Africa (“Wave Chasers”), and construction of the new Bay Bridge in Oakland, Calif. (“Oakland Bay Bridge”).
“As far as documentaries go, I’ve got a wide circle of colleagues that I’ve worked with in the past, other filmmakers I can bounce ideas off,” Ahnemann says. “There are lots of great people here.”
Looking for a lifestyle change, Butterworth moved from New York to Boulder after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. Butterworth then made an unusual transition — from investment banker to filmmaker.
After hearing a talk by a New York Times reporter, Butterworth and a partner began work on a documentary called “Seoul Train,” a look at North Korean defectors trying to escape through China.
“We bought a camcorder and a bunch of spy cam gear and sat in my apartment and taught ourselves how to use it,’’ the 52-year-old filmmaker says.
In 2009, Butterworth and a New York-based partner, Daniel J. Chalfen, founded Naked Edge Films, a company that helps finance socially relevant, character-driven documentaries.
Butterworth heads to Tribeca with “Silenced,” a documentary directed by James Spione. Actress Susan Sarandon is one of the film’s producers.
“Silenced” deals with high-profile whistle blowers who have suffered in a post-9/11 world.
As for his Colorado colleagues at Tribeca, Butterworth says: “I think it says a lot about the incredibly impressive state of Denver/Boulder documentary filmmaking.”
An Oscar- and Emmy-winning director and two-time Oscar nominee, Junge, 44, began his documentary feature career in 2002 with “Chiefs,” a look at a native American, high school basketball team in Wyoming.
Junge’s films — from “Iron Ladies of Liberia” to “They Killed Sister Dorothy” to the Oscar winning “Saving Face” -- have shown at such prestigious festivals as Toronto, South by Southwest and the Chicago Film Festival, as well as at Tribeca.
This year, Junge brings “Beyond the Brick: A Lego Brickumentary” to Tribeca.
Not to be confused with the recent “Lego Movie,” Junge’s film — co-directed with Kief Davidson and narrated by Jason Bateman — examines the culture that has grown up around Legos.
Junge, who is working on a documentary on daredevil Evel Knievel, agrees that this year’s Tribeca festival underscores the maturity of Colorado’s documentary community -- as well as its lack of pretension.
“There’s a tradition of not paying attention to any old boys network,” Junge says. “Filmmakers who come here tend to be undaunted.”
Paula DuPre Pesmen
Pesmen, 52, heads to NYC as a co-producer (along with Quincy Jones) of “Keep on Keepin’ On,” a documentary by first-time Australian director Alan Hicks.
“Keep on Keepin’ On” focuses on the relationship between jazz trumpeter Clark Terry and Justin Kauflin, a 23-year-old blind piano prodigy.
Pesmen, who worked as a producer on both “The Cove” and “Chasing Ice,” was an associate producer on three Harry Potter films: “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” and “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. “
Pesmen moved to Colorado because she and her freelance writer husband, Curtis Pesmen, were living a bi-coastal life: She was in Los Angeles, and he was in New York. The Pesmens have two sons who are nine and 12 years of age.
“Colorado turned out to be a great fit for both of us. I needed an international airport; he needed a university,” Pesmen says. “Having lived in Colorado for almost 20 years, I’ve definitely seen a growing film community develop.”
The 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, which had its first edition in 2002, runs from April 16 through April 27 in New York City, and includes both fictional features and documentaries.
Robert Denerstein reviewed movies for The Rocky Mountain New for 27 years and still writes about movies at www.denersteinunleashed.com.