From Questlove ('Summer of Soul') to Samantha Stark ('Framing Britney Spears’), these breakout documentarians are tackling tough subjects with innovative storytelling.

Jennifer Holness (Courtesy of Carlyle Roth)

From Questlove (‘Summer of Soul’) to Samantha Stark (‘Framing Britney Spears’), these breakout documentarians are tackling tough subjects with innovative storytelling.

Beauty reimagined at the Miss Black America pageant. The legacy of a radical LGBTQ artist. A Riz Ahmed-exec produced animated documentary. A pivotal moment in Black music history resurrected.

Those are some of the stories told by these documentary filmmakers breaking out in the U.S., many with their feature debuts, selected for tackling tough subjects with storytelling prowess, festival recognition, critical reception and innovative techniques. Their names might not (yet) be known, but their work speaks volumes.

Jessica Beshir
Jessica Beshir – Courtesy of Janus Films

Shot in cinematic black-and-white with layered, otherworldly sound design, Beshir’s feature documentary debut, Faya Dayi, is a dreamlike ode to the filmmaker’s hometown of Harar, Ethiopia, and its spiritual underpinnings. “It is the time that I spent having this relationship with the people and the place — that’s what gave the film the depth that it has,” she explains of the passion project, which took 10 years to make.

The Brooklyn-based Ethiopian Mexican director, who immigrated to the U.S. as a teen amid political strife, centered the story on khat, a stimulant leaf important to the Sufi religion and now Ethiopia’s largest cash crop. From harvest to market, she follows its story, revealing larger societal issues. “You enter that world and what it feels like to be there, spending time and realize the passage of time and what that signifies,” she says.

There are no talking heads or exposition framing the film in a geopolitical context. Instead, the topic of migrants in search of a better life is shown in human terms. “I used the power of cinema, image and sound,” she says, “to explore concepts of love and fear and light and darkness.”

Accolades Fest run includes Sundance 2021; MoMA’s New Directors, New Films; True/False; and SIFF.

Reps Beshir currently reps herself. Cinetic is handling sales of Faya Dayi, which was acquired by Janus Films.

Inspirations Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror; the films of Maya Deren and Apichatpong Weerasethakul

What’s next In development on another Ethiopia-set film, which Beshir intends to be “genre-free.” — KATHERINE MCDONALD

Isabel Bethencourt (right) & Parker Hill - Cusp
Isabel Bethencourt (right) & Parker Hill (Courtesy of Subject)
Courtesy of Subject
Isabel Bethencourt (right) & Parker Hill

Cusp literally starts out with a bang, where, in a seemingly tranquil meadow bathed in magic-hour light, a kid in his late teens in NRA country fires off several rounds from an assault rifle. But Cusp is not about that boy, it’s about the underage teenage girls he and his buddies are trying to impress.

Recently acquired by Showtime Documentary Films, Cusp focuses on three adolescents, Aaloni, Autumn and Brittney, roughly 16 years old, during the waning days of summer in a rural Texas town. Their main pastimes are boys, booze and blunts. In this context, questions of sexual consent become murky and the phrase “no means go” barely raises eyebrows. Their surroundings appear both pastoral and bleak, and free-floating anxiety seems to hang in the air like cigarette smoke.

Filmmakers Bethencourt and Hill — both photographers making their feature directorial debut — met the girls by chance on a road trip and embedded themselves in their lives, capturing them at their most emboldened and vulnerable. “We gained mutual trust through time, genuine curiosity and, most of all, bonding over our shared experiences of girlhood,” explain Bethencourt and Hill, in an email.

Honesty and candor prevail, given that it was a crew of two, with one shooting while the other recorded sound, trading duties as need be, using mostly natural light and a minimal filmmaker presence. “We wanted it to feel like it was all from their world,” they said, “so we leaned in to what was already available.”

Accolades U.S. Documentary Special Award for Emerging Filmmaker, Sundance 2021

Reps For Hill: Hayley Hashemi, WME; Jennifer Levine, Untitled Entertainment; For Bethencourt: Emily Rose, Mosaic

Inspiration “We were especially drawn to [photographers] who have captured girlhood and scenes in interesting and distinct ways, like Melissa Ann Pinney, Lauren Greenfield, Justine Kurland, Nan Goldin and so many others.”

What’s next Both filmmakers are working on separate narrative projects. — STEVE CHAGOLLAN

Jennifer Holness
Jennifer Holness (Courtesy of Carlyle Roth)

In Subjects of Desire, the 50th Miss Black America pageant provides a springboard to explore a cultural shift from past stereotypes of Black womanhood — the “Mammy,” “Jezebel” and “Sapphire,” as categorized in Holness’ feature documentary debut — to today’s Black girls and women embracing African aesthetics, from Black natural hairstyles to skin tone. “The film is saying some of the things Black women were ashamed of actually are really special and wonderful,” says Holness of her film, which had its world premiere this year at the SXSW Film Festival.

As a seasoned writer, producer and director, Holness has relished tackling prickly issues and untold narratives around Black stories. “I’ve never chased money,” she says. “I’ve chased artistic voices.”