“It was an absurdity, an embarrassment that there was this documentary filmmaker who hung out here a lot, and we didn’t even know each other,” said film historian and Yale professor Charles Musser, in between sips of coffee at the Willoughby’s on Church Street. Musser’s office is at the Whitney Humanities Center, just a few steps away from the café, which has been managed by local filmmaker Gorman Bechard’s wife for the past 20 years.
“It really emphasized the fragmentation of the community, the inability to communicate,” Musser said.
Bechard nodded in agreement, his sleeves rolled up to the elbow, revealing a mosaic of tattoos.
“I’ve been making films in Connecticut since 1983,” he explained, “and there has never been much of a community of filmmakers in Connecticut, documentary or narrative. I never really understood that. This is not a large state. If you’re a filmmaker in Connecticut, you should know every other filmmaker in Connecticut.”
Striving to overcome this community fragmentation, as well as looking for an excuse to finally work with one another, Bechard and Musser co-founded the New Haven Documentary Film Festival, scheduled to begin its second year of programming this upcoming weekend. From Friday through Sunday, the Whitney Humanities Center and the main branch of the New Haven Free Public Library will screen 14 different documentary films, some feature-length and some shorts. All but one of them were made by Connecticut filmmakers or are about Connecticut topics.
“Our festival is in some sense modest,” Musser declared, referencing larger affairs like the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula, Montana, which is where Bechard, Musser, Jacob Bricca, and Lisa Molomot — New Haven Docs’ other two co-founders, who have subsequently moved to Arizona — first met in 2014. “We’re not trying to bring the best documentaries from around the world. We’re trying to bring New Haven films and filmmakers together to be seen by other people from here in the New Haven area, and so it has a very local, community-building aspect.”
That said, Musser is confident that the narrower scope will only underscore the local films’ high quality. “Documentary filmmakers this year have created this bumper crop of films,” he said. “We have films every night that could be at major film festivals across the country, around the world.”
The festival opens on Friday night with We Break Things, a new film by Rebecca Wexler about hacker culture and a worldwide technological fight to defend civil liberties. That night will also feature American Reds: What Must We Dream Of? by documentarian and journalist Richard Wormser, which offers a history of the U.S. Communist Party as well as insight into the party’s not-insignificant presence in early 20th-century New Haven.
After a series of documentary shorts to be held throughout the day at the public library, Saturday night will feature two punk rock movies at the Whitney: Salad Days by Scott Crawford, about the lively Washington, DC punk scene in the 1980s, and Danny Says by Brendan Toller, about Danny Fields, who helped discover the Stooges, the MC5, and the Ramones, and whose papers are housed at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Though Salad Days is the only film in the weekend that has no direct CT connection, Bechard, whose recent filmography includes two innovative and ebullient documentaries about The Replacements and Hüsker Dü, couldn’t help but program a night of “punk rock docs invading Yale, but in a nice way.”
The festival closes on Sunday with a suite of films directly about New Haven, including The New Haven Green by Karyl Evans, a short doc about the history of the town green; Labeled by Youth Rights Media, about what life is like for LGBT youth in New Haven; and Haven, by Mike Morrone and other senior film students at Quinnipiac University, about one Elm City resident’s struggle with homelessness. The final film of the festival will be Bechard’s latest feature, A Dog Named Gucci, about a heroic fight for animal cruelty laws. For Bechard’s film the festival is encouraging attendees to bring pet food or pet toys, to be donated to the New Haven Animal Shelter.
In addition to establishing a gathering point for New Haven’s filmmaking community, Bechard and Musser also see New Haven Docs as an annual opportunity for the city to revel in one of the most exciting film forms today.
“Documentaries are not thought of today as they were thirty years ago, forty years ago, as educational and boring,” Bechard said. “Documentaries now are probably the most vibrant filmmaking we have going.”
A brief glance at the most affecting, innovative, and culturally important films of the last few years — from The Act of Killing to Citizenfour, it’s tough to disagree. Documentary filmmakers like Errol Morris, whom both Bechard and Musser revere, have developed singular styles for tackling nonfiction subjects, adhering to the general principle that a documentary must be truthful and cinematic, never pedantic, stilted, or fatuously “objective.”
But this festival is not just for the filmmakers; it’s also for a greater New Haven audience. “It’s a chance to come and see a number of great films from great filmmakers that all have a local tie, and it’s not going to cost you anything,” Bechard said. “It’s free entertainment. What’s better than that?”