On The Film Festival Trail of An Academy Award Recipient, Marshall Curry

Four-time Academy Award-nominated documentary director, cinematographer and editor, Marshall Curry, recently received an Oscar for Best Live Action Short, The Neighbor’s Window, a narrative. How did that happen? William Goldman, American novelist, playwright, and screenwriter received Academy Awards for screenplays for some of my favorites– Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, (Follow the money) The Princess Bride. Goldman’s quote came from a Lawrence O’Donnell tweet recently: “Nobody knows anything. Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for certainty what’s going to work. Every time out, it’s a guess and if you’re lucky, an educated one.” Marshall Curry got this one right on.

I followed his work since 2005. One of my first Film Festival reViews festival circuit appraisals was for the AFI/Discovery Silverdocs Film Festival (known as SILVERDOCS back then), Silver Spring, Maryland where I had lived for ten years. It was Street Fight, Cory Booker’s first run for mayor of Newark, New Jersey against Sharpe James that caught my attention. I didn’t keep up with the Jersey mayoral races at the time, however, this documentary captured the fierceness, the scope and breadth of what was at stake in Newark as I knew it. I sat transfixed, gripping the edge of my seat, not knowing what was going to happen next.

Perhaps it was the connection I had with Newark. Despite growing up in Clifton, known as the “White Lily” situated between Paterson and Passaic, I found design work (Paterson 200th Anniversary logo) and monster music connections (Capitol Theatre downtown Passaic) and just down the road on Route 21, was Newark Trade Typography, where I began my graphic design career. I freelanced for New Community Corporation with their neighborhood rebuilding efforts and came home often from Maryland via Penn Station near the Iron Bound section. Curiously, I was interested in the connection Marshall had at the time. Street Fight went on to win numerous awards and was nominated for an Academy Award, Best Documentary Feature. 

While his work covers a wide range of interests, the subjects and topics have an instinctive similarity– showing a person(s) life on the edge, making deliberate personal choices often being a challenger of the norm as seen in a “David vs Goliath” situation with corrupt sabotage tactics in urban politics (Street Fight); two boys and a girl pushing their abilities at a young age for a top spot in a demanding competition with professional NASCAR aspirations (Racing Dreams); the ethics of a radical environmental group, Earth Liberation Front, and definition of domestic terrorism taking activism to the next level (If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front); an American lacking in general aim or purpose in life leaves home to join the Libyan revolution (Point and Shoot); archival footage of a German American Bund Nazi rally where 20,000 filled Madison Square Garden listening to anti-Semitic, pro white-Christian Nationalist sentiments (A Night at the Garden). This 7-minute short was projected onto Madison Square Garden in New York City on the 80th anniversary of the 1939 event. Obviously, he uses strong positions to make a point come alive showing sentiment and a sense of purpose. So, when did the narrative, the story, the plan, the project come into fruition?

Last April, I saw The Neighbor’s Window at Tribeca Film Festival known for supporting lots of local as well as international filmmakers. It’s my direction as well. I am always on the look out for filmmakers that I know having seen their work travel the film festival circuit. I was not disappointed. The 20 minute drama held my attention from the start. Owning up to feeling of a little guilt when making quick assessments or judgments while holding a penchant for innocent voyeurism (listening in on a conversations often made in public without consciousness) that should be respected as private. Back in the day, the joke was when you wanted to hear the news, you open up your window. If you wanted to watch reality television, you look out your window.

It made me remember all of my neighbors, past and present, most but not all of them were good and kind and caring. I strived to cultivate neighborly relationships with a looking out for one another sensibility without stepping over the line, doing favors without keeping score, being available when there was a need without having to ask. It’s different these days. It’s not as easy to “Know Thy Neighbor” as hardly anyone knows who their neighbors are much less have an opportunity to interact with them on a regular basis. Cultural differences and respecting others as well as our own privacy are normal issues.

The counterbalance in the story is the relationship between husband and wife as they progress with having small children while trying to even out their personal and professional identities. Finding interrelationship harmony within a demanding and often chaotic family lifestyle can be daunting and disheartening. Comparing to others’ seemingly pleasurable home life can bring home the adage of “careful what you wish for” sentiment. It may be why this short hit a chord in our collective consciousness with seeing a little of the “Getting to Know You” without getting too preachy about it.

Watching festival films with audiences is my barometer for how a small gesture like this film, can make an impact. It hits home. I saw it as a genuine crowd pleaser appropriately affecting the general consensus with, in this case, winning numerous audience awards. I recommended it to a film festival committee and happy that they programmed it into their schedule. The Neighbor’s Window is an engaging personal story, told beautifully on many levels. Not surprising from other Marshall Curry documentaries, whose work vicariously takes us into other people’s lives and their inner workings, recognizing their dominant and often fragile human qualities while paying tribute to the human spirit.

In Part II of On The Film Festival Trail of An Academy Award Recipient, Marshall Curry, I’ll delve into the film festival strategy that took him from an East Coast festival nomination onto the West Coast red carpet for an Oscar. It doesn’t happen often, but it’s definitely worthy. Stay tuned.

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