Joe Berlinger, director of Whitey: United States of America V. James J. Bulger at Daily Buzz Friday.
Listen to our first podcast from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival right here, or subscribe on iTunes!
Stories of a well-connected mobster, the underside of North Dakota boom towns and the life of a charismatic labor leader were highlights of Episode 2 of Film Society’s Daily Buzz at the Sundance Film Festival Friday, ushering in the first full weekend of the festival.
Park City is typically mobbed over the weekend with fans hoping to catch a glimpse of stars — both with films in the festival and others not — heading to the ubiquitous parties, sponsored venues and screenings around the ski resort town. Alongside the glitz, three docs will be among the World Premieres at the festival this weekend including The Overnighters by Jesse Moss, Joe Berlinger’s Whitey: United States of America V. James J. Bulger and Richard Ray Perez’s Cesar’s Last Fast. The filmmakers joined Film Society’s Eugene Hernandez on Main Street about their movies, while Ira Deutchman, Columbia University’s Film Dept Chair gave his recollections on Sundance’s early rise as an event not only for premiere screenings, but also as a marketplace.
North Dakota’s swimming in oil, money and an influx of newcomers hoping to escape economic malaise in other parts of the country in order to tap the plentiful and seemingly well-paid jobs on the frontier. The upper Midwestern state has historically supported a small population and the small towns, now at the center of an energy boom, are packed full of men earning what appears to be solid cash, but have no place to live. “They’ve brought crime, growth and a lot of change,” said Overnighters director Jesse Moss. “The national news says this is [a place to find] easy six figure salaries, but the reality is much more complicated.”
At the heart of The Overnighters is a Lutheran pastor who has allowed men to sleep in his church. Despite good incomes, the boom town face a chronic housing shortage and exorbitant rents. The minister’s generosity has placed him at the center of conflict between longtime small town locals and its new residents. “The pastor said, ‘Let’s not fear the newcomer, let’s welcome them,'” noted Moss who added that he spent nights in the church getting to know the transplants. “The men were crying,” he said. “Many had criminal pasts, but for Pastor Jay, it’s the Christian ethic to embrace your neighbor.” Moss said he used Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA as an inspirational backdrop for The Overnighters. “The stories that move me is to take a big story and find a way in through a personal and emotional journey.”
Joe Berlinger is a longtime veteran of non-fiction filmmaking, perhaps best known for his Paradise Lost series. His latest Whitey: United States of America V. James J. Bulger. Discovered living quite openly in Santa Monica, “Whitey” was finally brought to trial. He had been considered the Robin Hood of South Boston back in the day, but the film uncovers shocking allegations that his reign of murder and racketeering masked an elaborate web of corruption that leads to some of the highest levels of government. The film, surprisingly, includes the first interview with Whitey. “He ran Boston’s underworld for over three decades and yet was never prosecuted for even a misdemeanor,” Berlinger told Daily Buzz. “The trial was great theater but it was a dissatisfying trial. He had a 33 count racketeering. People wanted to hear the level of corruption and how high it went to Washington, but he wasn’t allowed to testify. They narrowed the count. This movie is the trial Whitey never got. That level of corruption has never been allowed to be exposed.”
Labor and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez went on what would be his last act of protest in 1988, forming the backdrop of Richard Ray Perez’s Cesar’s Last Fast. Chavez’s “Fast for Life,” was a 36-day water-only hunger strike to draw attention to the terrine effects of unrestricted use of pesticides on farm workers and their families. Filmmaker Richard Ray Perez first learned of Chavez’s work as a grade school student and had been interested in doing a film about Chavez. He later met filmmaker Lorena Parlee who had worked with the labor leader and had amassed dozens of hours of footage of him — a good amount never before seen. She asked him to help her with the project since she was being treated for breast cancer. Eventually, he inherited the film after her death. “He empowered a generation of Latinos to realize they have the power to organize and have a place in this nation’s history and they can fight for social justice,” Perez told Daily Buzz. “I think there’s a generation of Latinos who don’t know that history and I hope this film will tell that history and let them know they can organize for workers rights, the minimum wage and that they can fight for the rights of all Americans including the growing income disparity in this country. This is a story that relates to today and has a profound message that resonates today.”