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Friday, July 28, 2017

Jonathan Demme: Heart of Gold

Demme at work on The Manchurian Candidate. Photo: Paramount Pictures/Photofest

by Lindsay Brayton

Jonathan Demme: Heart of Gold is the most comprehensive retrospective to date of the late director’s work. The series showcases the depth of Demme’s cinematic genius with screenings of his classic films, such as the Talking Heads concert-documentary Stop Making Sense (screening Aug 18—24) and the Academy Award-winning The Silence of the Lambs (Aug 12), along with a number of Demme’s lesser-known documentaries.

When asked which of his films he felt was underappreciated, Demme responded Cousin Bobby (Aug 17), his 1992 documentary about his Harlem-based, politically passionate, Episcopalian minister cousin with ties to the Black Panthers. It’s a film about political awakening and crusading for civil rights—but with Demme’s trademark gentle touch.

“I fell in love with the great Haitian aspiration for democracy,” Demme said. In the late 1980s Demme made Haiti Dreams of Democracy (Aug 24), which captures the country as it transitions from the authoritarian Duvalier regime toward the possibility of democracy. During the process of making the film Demme met Jean Léopold Dominique, an agronomist turned radio journalist, who would become the focal point of his 2003 documentary The Agronomist (Aug 13). Demme filmed Dominique while he was in exile in New York, before his return to Haiti where he was assassinated in 2000. In both Haiti Dreams of Democracy and The Agronomist, Demme uses music as an essential and electric element to capture the people, culture, and politics of Haiti.

Later in his life, Demme began identifying more and more as a documentary filmmaker with an emphasis on political activism; two of Demme’s more recent documentaries are included in the series. I’m Carolyn Parker (Aug 8) follows the eternally optimistic and determined Parker as she and her community rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. Also screening is the rarely-seen 30-minute version of What’s Motivating Hayes (Aug 24), the fascinating story of UC Berkeley biologist Tyrone Hayes, who became the target of a corporate smear campaign when he exposed the link between genetic mutation and a widely used herbicide. The film focuses on the issue of race within academia’s ivory tower and environmentalism.

Lastly, while the series title Heart of Gold is a nod to one of Demme’s concert documentaries (Neil Young: Heart of Gold, Aug 20), it’s also an apt description for a man whose empathetic eye drove his work, and who was remembered, after his death in late April, with affection by all who knew him. As legendary producer Roger Corman wrote, “I was friends with Jonathan Demme for over 40 years. His greatness as a filmmaker is only exceeded by his greatness as a human being."

Jonathan Demme: Heart of Gold screens at BAMcinématek Aug 4–24.

Lindsay Brayton is BAMcinématek's Marketing and Publicity Assistant.

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