Skip to content

CategoryDocumentaries

SXSW: My Darling Vivian

Vivian Liberto Cash, Johnny Cash’s first wife and the mother of his four daughters, passed away on May 24th, 2005. This was a few months before Walk the Line (2005), the critically-acclaimed and award-winning Cash biopic starring Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon and Ginnifer Goodwin, was released. Vivian didn’t live to see the film nor did she want to. The script circulated and the way it portrayed Vivian was far from the truth. It created a myth about Vivian as a vindictive woman who tried to get in the way of Cash’s music career.

In reality, Vivian Liberto was a complex woman. A strong-minded woman who was fiercely private and devoted to her husband and her children. The daughter of Italian-American Catholics in San Antonio, Texas, Vivian first met Johnny Cash in 1951 when she was a teenager and he was an Air Force cadet. They had an instant connection and exchanged love letters when Cash served abroad. When he returned in 1954, they married. Cash’s career took off. They moved to California and into Johnny Carson’s old home. They had four children together: Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy and Tara. Vivian had a difficult time with Cash’s fame. It was intrusive and put Vivian on guard. Cash spent more and more time away from the family, started using drugs and started a relationship with singer June Carter that would eventually lead to Vivian and Johnny’s divorce. Vivian wasn’t the perfect mother but she did what she could to raise her four children. She re-married and wrote a book about her life. But her desire for privacy meant the world didn’t really know or understand Vivian. By the time her book published, it was too little too late. A new myth would eclipse the truth.

Filmmaker Matt Riddlehoover’s new documentary My Darling Vivian sets the record straight about the woman behind the legend. The film features extensive home footage and photos. Only Vivian’s four daughters Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy and Tara are interviewed. There are no other talking heads, no other family members, friends, pop culture experts, historians etc. This documentary keeps it in the family. It’s easy to watch this film and immediately get defensive of Vivian. You might reconsider your feelings on Walk the Line and how it portrayed her. Of course there is some bias but I was impressed how frank and open the four daughters were about their mother. They discussed both the good and the bad about their parents. My Darling Vivian is a well-rounded and fairly intimate film about a misunderstood woman.

My Darling Vivian was set to have its world premiere at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival. Visit the official website for more information.

SXSW: Good Ol Girl

“Texas is the place where so much of the entire West was born. There is that sense of freedom. And it has to do with ownership of space.”

Joyce Gibson Roach, Folklorist and author of The Cowgirls

Directed by Sarah Brennan Kolb, Good Ol Girl explores the struggle between long-held traditions and female independence and the slow fade of rural life. This documentary profiles three cowgirls as they try to forge a life for themselves in a man’s world. These are women who want to show that they can compete with the guys and do what they do but still be a woman in their own right.

Mandy is a rancher who raises beef cattle and bison. She’s religious and firmly traditional. She struggles with the internal battle of opposing desires: to thrive as an independent business woman and to be a wife and mother. 

Sara is the next in line to run the family ranch. However, she bucks with tradition and decides to pursue her dream of becoming a lawyer. 

Martha desperately wants to work in agriculture but can’t find a job. With the encroaching suburbs, land is far more valuable for housing development than it is for ranching making job options scarce.

“I was born and bred to be a cowgirl.”

Martha Santos

Filmmaker Kolb grew up in Texas and says this about what she observed:

“Strict adherence to ‘traditional’ gender roles, political powerlessness over one’s own body, and the assumption that a woman’s place was safe inside a ranch-style house, permeated the lives around me. Like most women, I discovered that accepting the dissonance between the person you are on the inside, and the face you present to the world, is part of growing up.”

Good Ol Girl effectively demonstrates the struggle these women face to live within the confines of their strictly gendered upbringing while also seeking independence through their respective careers. The documentary felt uneven at times. Mandy’s story was far more interesting. For those of you sensitive to footage of dead animals, there is a particularly jarring scene where Mandy discovers one of her heifers died during childbirth. I still can’t get that image out of my mind.

Good Ol Girl was set to have its world premiere at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival. Visit the official website for more information.

SXSW: The Donut King

Filmmaker Alice Gu’s new documentary The Donut King follows the dramatic rise and fall of Ted Ngoy, a Cambodian refugee who started a donut empire and the enduring legacy of one of America’s most beloved pastries.

Ngoy fled his native country in the mid-1970s during the Cambodian Civil War. He and his family made their way to California where they were taken in by a sponsor. It was there that Ngoy had his very first donut. It was love at first bite.

He immediately inquired about how to start his own donut shop and someone recommended that he get training at Winchell’s, a popular West Coast donut chain. He became a master donut maker and businessman, managing a Winchell’s and eventually opening his own shop. Ngoy was devoted to his business and made it a family affair. He kept overhead low and made shrewd business decisions. The smartest move he made was working with other Cambodian refugees by helping them finance their own donut shop. They would apprentice with him, learning the craft and in return “Uncle Ted” as he was affectionately called would co-own the shop. At one time Ngoy co-owned over 60 successful donut shops in the 1980s and became a millionaire. It was only a matter of time before the trappings of wealth lead to his downfall.

The Donut King is a wild ride. Ted Ngoy’s story is quite remarkable and the ups and downs will keep viewers glued to the screen. Gu’s documentary does a fantastic job building a portrait of this visionary, flaws and all, with extensive interviews with Ngoy himself, his wife, his two kids, other family members and colleagues. The Donut King is slick, alternating from talking head interviews, to short animations, archival footage and sexy shots of big fluffy donuts. If you watch this film and don’t immediately crave a donut, something is wrong with you. The biggest takeaway, however, is Ngoy’s journey as an immigrant forging a path for himself in America and helping others do the same.

The Donut King was to premiere at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival. It received a Special Jury Recognition for Achievement in Documentary Storytelling. Find out more information about the film at the official website.

SXSW: We Don’t Deserve Dogs

Dogs bring us so much joy. They care not about our race, ethnicity, appearance, status, reputation or wealth (or lack thereof). They love us unconditionally in a way that other humans are incapable of. That’s why people from all walks of life love dogs. Some mistreat them but many of us fight for their rights. Dogs are a beloved member of our global family.

“A relationship with a dog is better than any relationship you’ll have with a human… They don’t know the bad side. They just know the good side.”

Directed by Matthew Sellah and produced by Rose Tucker, We Don’t Deserve Dogs is a series of vignettes about the impact dogs have on humans. Numerous countries are represented. Some of the most interesting stories include Ugandan kidnapping survivors who use dogs as a form of therapy for their PTSD, an older gentleman who is still haunted by the memory of abandoning his dog 20 years earlier, the Chilean street dog who goes by many names and depends on the kindness of strangers and the dog walker in Istanbul who walks over 30km a day taking care of the neighborhood dogs. The filmmakers interview a wide variety of subjects. Each story is unique in its own way. The cinematography is quite stunning. Low shots at the dogs’ level make for a very intimate point of view.

The film was shot over 13 months and in 11 countries including Chile, Uganda, Peru, Italy, Turkey, Pakistan, Finland, Romania, Vietnam,
Nepal, and Scotland.

I had two major issues with the film. First of all, there was no lower third. The audience doesn’t learn the names of the subjects or where their from. I could pick up on some clues but otherwise I was confused about which countries are represented. This may be to strip the focus away from the humans and onto the dogs but I think a lower third could have helped. The second is a huge trigger for dog lovers. One vignette follows a Vietnamese couple who kill dogs and sell their meat. The dogs provide a form of income for them but I do think this segment was unnecessary and difficult to watch. Removing it would make for a better film overall.

We Don’t Deserve Dogs was set to have its world premiere at the SXSW film festival. You can find more information about the film over on the Urtext Films website.

SXSW: Finding Yingying

“Life is too short to be ordinary.”

Yingying Zhang

26-year old PhD student Yingying Zhang went missing on June 9th, 2017. After graduating from Peking University, Yingying traveled from China to study Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois. Yingying was full of wonder and hope. She was in a loving relationship with her boyfriend Xiaolin and excited about this new phase in life. She documented those early days in the US in her journal. Mere weeks after she arrived, she made the fatal mistake of getting into a car with a stranger. She had missed the bus and was late for an appointment. A man claiming to be an off-duty cop offered her a ride. Yingying has never been heard from again.

Directed and produced by Jiayan “Jenny” Shi, Finding Yingying is a sensitive portrayal of a young woman with a bright future and a family struggling to come to terms with their loss. The documentary features extensive interviews and footage of Yingying’s boyfriend, parents, brother, aunt and friends as they search for answers and prepare for the criminal trial that would come two years later.  Filmmaker Shi graduated from the same university as Yingying. Although they had never met, when Jiayan heard of Yingying’s disappearance she felt an immediate connection and a strong desire to help. About her filmmaking approach, Shi said:

Finding Yingying was made in a vérité observational filmmaking style… I wanted to allow the audience to feel that they were experiencing the painful and challenging journey along with the family.”

Jiayan “Jenny” Shi

Shi humanizes her subject. As is the case with many true crime stories, violent acts and perpetrators are glorified to satisfy the audience’s hunger for salacious details. This is not the case with Finding Yingying. In fact, this documentary is the complete opposite of that. The majority of the film is focused solely on Yingying and her family. We learn that Yingying was inquisitive, thoughtful and kind. Her parents traveled to the US for the first time to help search for Yingying and held out hope that she was still alive. Shi becomes a living representative of Yingying through this film. She reads segments of Yingying’s diary, bringing her voice to the forefront. Shi said:

“my voice and presence are integrated into the film to show my deep personal connection to Yingying, and my deep desire to tell  her and her family’s story beyond the headlines. I want to preserve her legacy.”

Jiayan “Jenny” Shi

The murderer, fellow PhD student Brend Christensen is given very little attention, as he should be. We learn as much as we need to about the investigation, how the FBI tracked him down with surveillance footage and how they employed his girlfriend to secretly record Christensen. The details of Yingying’s murder are kept to a minimum.

Finding Yingying turns the focus away from the murder and on to the victim, an inquisitive, thoughtful and kind young woman who brought joy to those around her. It’s a beautiful documentary that will make you think twice about how true crime films portray victims.

To learn more information about Finding Yingying, please visit the official website: www.findingyingying.com 

%d bloggers like this: