“Life Itself”, a documentary about film critic Roger Ebert (left), kicks off the Hamptons Internation Film Festival’s SummerDocs season this weekend. Photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures. Photo credit Kevin Horan.
By Mara Certic
Since its inception in 2009, the Hamptons Film Festival’s SummerDocs series has screened dozens of documentaries—four of which have gone on to win Academy Awards.
Curated by artistic director David Nugent and board member Alec Baldwin, the series screens four new documentaries over the summer, each one followed by a Q&A hosted by Mr. Baldwin with either the director or a subject of the film.
“He and David Nugent watched them all and made the determination,” said Anne Chaisson, executive director of the HIFF. “It’s really about finding the best that’s out there.”
The series kicks off at Guild Hall on Saturday, June 21, with “Life Itself,” based on the memoir of the same name written by highly regarded film critic Roger Ebert. The film has a slew of executive producers, including Martin Scorcese, and was directed by Steve James, who rose to fame in the early ‘90s when his film “Hoop Dreams” was named “best movie of 1994” and given “two thumbs up” by none other than Siskel and Ebert.
The film chronicles the life of the writer and critic: From his accidental entry into journalism to revolutionizing the business of film criticism and winning a Pulitzer Prize, “Life Itself” also shows a glimpse into Mr. Ebert’s battle with cancer.
In 2002, Mr. Ebert was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer, which resulted in the removal of his lower jaw and his inability to speak for the last seven years of his life.
“He’s a soldier of cinema who cannot even speak anymore, and he plows on and that touches my heart very deeply,” filmmaker Werner Herzog says of Mr. Ebert in the film.
“Life Itself” received rave reviews after its world and European premieres at the Sundance and Cannes film festivals. “Very moved by Steve James’s “Life Itself“ Roger Ebert doc at Sundance” tweeted Kenneth Turan, Film critic for the Los Angeles Times and National Public Radio.
This Saturday’s screening will be followed by a question-and-answer session with Mr. Ebert’s widow, trial attorney Chaz Ebert. The film will be released on July 4 in the United States and distributed by Magnolia Pictures.
The second film in the series will be shown on Friday, July 25. “Keep on Keepin’ on” is the directorial debut of Australian Al Hicks; it documents the unlikely and meaningful relationship between Justin Kaulflin, a 23-year-old blind piano prodigy, and his mentor, jazz-legend and trumpeting great Clark Terry, “CT,” whose past pupils have included Miles Davis and Quincy Jones.
The combination of Mr. Terry’s failing health and Mr. Kaulflin’s debilitating nerves invoke a nostalgic poignancy throughout the film, critics have said. During one scene, Mr. Terry lies in bed using an oxygen tube on as he critiques Mr. Kaulflin, who plays next to him. Mr. Terry laughs as Mr. Kaulflin masters a fast-paced ditty, and adds “Thank God for you,” as he looks at his mentee.
The emotional tale premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April and won several awards, including the Best New Documentary Director award for Mr. Hicks. The Australian director will be at Guild Hall for a Q&A after his film’s July 25 screening.
“We’re so happy that we have this program and we have this traction,” Ms. Chaisson said in a phone interview last week. “And the festival is well known in the industry. It’s pretty great.” Two other documentaries that have yet to be announced will complete the SummerDocs series in the month of August.
Aspiring directors will get another chance to create their first masterpieces this summer in the HIFF’s Student Filmmaking classes, which will run both from Guild Hall and the Southampton Arts Center.
The board of the HIFF will keep cinephiles entertained all summer with weekly outdoor screenings of retrospective blockbusters at the Southampton Arts Center from June 27 until the weekend before Labor Day. The weekend of August 22 to 24 will see HIFF’s first Family Film Festival, which will screen approximately seven films, Ms. Chaisson said.
The tickets for the SummerDocs series cost $21 for members, $23 general admission. The films begin at 8 p.m. and each is followed by a Q&A hosted by Alec Baldwin. Guild Hall is located at 158 Main Street in East Hampton. For more information visit guildhall.org or call 324-0806.