A film town’s vibrant documentary scene

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A filmmaker who is on the autism spectrum investigates how people with disabilities have been portrayed by Hollywood.      

A film crew at the gravesite of Susan B. Anthony captures a spontaneous gathering of more than 10,000 people hoping to celebrate election of the nation’s first woman president—and returns the next day to record reactions to defeat. 

Members of Rochester’s Black, Indigenous and People of Color community tell their own stories in their own voices—revealing a kaleidoscope of varied life experiences.   

Documentary film is alive and well in Rochester—rooted in the legacy of Kodak and supported today by high-quality academic programs, committed community activists, and filmmakers that pull together to nurture the next generation. 

A hub where all these threads converge is Rochester Documentary Filmmakers, a collaborative of professional and amateur filmmakers celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. Open to members and interested guests, RocDoc Group meets monthly—traditionally at the Little Theatre but also virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic—to nurture films in progress and their creators.   

I have been member of RocDoc Group for several years. I joined out of a love of documentary film, an interest in the nuts and bolts of how they’re made, and a chance to connect and sometimes collaborate with creators.   

“Rochester is a film town,” says Laura Chekow, a member of the RocDoc Group advisory board. “There’s an amazing depth of experience here and it’s all feeding a vibrant documentary scene that a lot of people don’t know about.” 

That amazing Rochester redhead

Linda Moroney

If you’ve ever been to a documentary film in Rochester, you’ve probably encountered Linda Moroney, whom the late film critic Jack Garner once at a screening referred to as “that amazing Rochester redhead.” A teacher and Emmy Award-winning documentarian herself, Moroney is the driving force behind the One Take Documentary Series and Film Festival, and cofounder of the Rochester Teen Film Festival. She’s often the person walking down the theater aisle to introduce a film or its maker, or to fire up a post-screening discussion. 

Ten years ago, Moroney was thinking about the work life of a documentary filmmaker—the hours spent alone gathering information or combing through footage—and imagined how powerful it could be if these solitary artists talked to one another. 

“It’s been clear to me from the start that Rochester was a fertile place for the creation of nonfiction media,” Moroney says. “If we were all connected, rather than working in silos, we’d be able to produce more and stronger work.” 

In November 2011, Moroney put out a call to local documentary filmmakers about forming a group to “workshop ideas, networks, resources, and docs-in-progress.” The following month, some dozen filmmakers showed up at the Little Café. 

“I remember the first meeting that Linda held, where she proposed the idea. There was such a great energy in the room!” says Kate Kressmann-Kehoe, co-producer of “Comfort Zone,” a documentary on the Upstate New York impacts of climate change, and a producer at DeBergerac Productions.

That energy has carried over the years. With various changes in composition, the group has met monthly ever since. Today, it counts 50 dues-paying members ($25 a year) and more than 700 participants on its Facebook page. 

Screening works in progress

Typically, RocDoc Group meets on the third Thursday of every month at 5 p.m., at the Little Theatre but over Zoom during COVID. Meetings are open to members, or anyone interested in making a documentary.

Generally, a member or guest will show a work-in-progress. The presenter might be a professional filmmaker polishing a near-done piece or a hobbyist working on a passion project. Topics have including searching for adoption records, hospice houses in Rochester, the blues musician Son House, and many more. After the screening, discussion centers on the type of feedback the presenter is seeking. 

In my experience, the comments have been kind, informed, and constructive. If you’re struggling with editing, it can be helpful to hear from someone who teaches editing. If you’re not sure what do to with the mass of footage you’ve shot, it can be good to brainstorm with experienced storytellers. 

“This is a very important moment in the process and we’re fortunate to view (our works-in- progress) on a big screen after months/years of watching the material on a much smaller monitor,” Moroney says. “As independent filmmakers, we spend a substantial amount of time researching our subject and then buried in our footage. After a while it’s difficult to see the work for the first time, as the audience will. By showing rough cuts to our peers, we receive critical feedback that can strengthen the structure and creativity of our film.”

The monthly meetings also might feature panel discussions or presentations on topics such as sound editing, animation, financing, or ethics. In non-COVID times, the group adjourns afterwards to the Little Café, pulling tables together at the back to continue the conversation.   

“Over the years, the networking part has become as integral as the works-in-progress piece,” Moroney says. “The cross-pollination of ideas, members, knowledge, equipment, has really bloomed. We may be working on our own projects, but we have generated our tribe. Some are more seasoned and others are green. (We offer) mentorship for all.”

Constructive criticism  

Filmmaker Nancy Ghertner, retired from teaching film technologies at Rochester Institute of Technology, resides in Wayne County apple country. Her long interest in farmworker rights led to her 2011 film “After I Pick the Fruit,” which followed the lives of five immigrant farmworker women as they migrated between Western New York and Florida. 

Ghertner, a RocDoc Group founding member, in 2019 screened a rough cut of her film  “Voices from the Barrens: Native Peoples, Blueberries, and Sovereignty,” documenting the wild-blueberry harvest of the Wabanaki People from the United States and Canada. 

The group’s feedback told her the opening wasn’t working. The film started with slow-motion footage of someone raking blueberries by hand, but you didn’t know where you were or who this person was. Ghertner changed the opening to show the land and clarify its location with an animated map. Cat Ashworth, a founding RocDoc Group member who recently retired from teaching filmmaking at RIT, was the editor.   

“We were struggling with the opening,” Ghertner recalls. “A number of projects have emerged from RocDoc Group that that would not be where they are without their support. And I can always pick up the phone to reach out.”

Diffability rights: Adrian Esposito

Adrian Esposito is a Rochester filmmaker whose work focuses on the representation and rights of people with disabilities—or “diffabilities,” his preferred, non-pejorative term. In “Inner Healing: Journey With Native Trees of Knowledge,” Esposito interviewed Native American healers to learn whether they could help him deal with the troublesome symptoms of his autism. More recently, his “Clowns in the Woods” is a horror film of what might happen if a bullied disabled person summons a force of “ghost clowns” to exact revenge. As in all his films, Esposito includes actors with disabilities. 

A RocDoc Group member, Esposito pre-screened his film “Diffability Hollywood”—about how people with disabilities have been portrayed on TV and film—to such a warm reception that Moroney helped pave the way to a Little Theatre showing that filled every seat in the house. 

“The Rochester Documentary Group is the best filmmakers’ group in Rochester—they are very supportive and knowledgeable,” Esposito says. “My next documentary film will involve Campaign D—an organization founded by people with autism for people with autism.” 

Election Day grant 

The film “Election Day 2016,” produced and directed by Moroney, was the first RocDoc Group collaboration. 

On Election Day in 2016, several RocDoc Group members set up cameras at the Mount Hope Cemetery gravesite of Susan B. Anthony. Their intention was to record voters visiting the site hoping to celebrate the election of the nation’s first woman president. To their surprise, the gathering swelled all day and long after dark to more than 10,000 voters and their families. But Hillary Clinton lost. The next day, the filmmakers returned to capture responses to the triumph of Donald Trump. 

Election Day 2016 – Documentary Short Trailer from EPIC10 on Vimeo.

The resulting film became a once-in-a-lifetime historical record whose proceeds, along with donations, finance the RocDoc Group Election Day Grant. 

The most recent grant recipients are Jackie McGriff and Deborah Alvarez for their Our Voices Project, Sharing Experiences of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color through Visual Storytelling. Through aural and visual stories, the project reflects the multifaced experiences of Rochester BIPOC community members. (Learn about Jackie McGriff in Chronicling BIPOC experiences.)

The $500 Election Day grant helped, McGriff says, but also valuable was the embrace of a welcoming and available community of creators. Relatively new to filmmaking—McGriff also holds down a University of Rochester job and owns a photography business—she’s occasionally had questions about how to proceed. RocDoc Group members have always stepped up with practical support. 

“Networking groups sometimes can become cliques, where you don’t feel you belong,” McGriff says. “At RocDoc Group, we’re all in this trying to tell stories. You belong and people are willing to help.”

Fast forward

As RocDoc Group enters its second decade, it grapples with questions of how to remain vital. Because it can feel risky to share unpolished work, the group must provide a consistent level of reliability—a core group of trustworthy participants. But it also must constantly refresh its relevance to new and diverse filmmakers. 

“RocDoc Group is unique in that rather than becoming more insular over time as real relationships develop, we are always reaching out,” Chekow says.

Finding ways to do this in the COVID era has led to some creative solutions. Panels and discussions over Zoom reached participants who could not have attended in-person meetings. Presentations on topics including animation for documentaries, sound editing, and archival access in Rochester found new audiences on the group’s Facebook page.  

“We did totally rock it this (past) year—expanding our reach, keeping up with the cutting edge on video trends,” Kressmann-Kehoe says. 

Next, the group hopes to expand the Election Day grant and reach even more local filmmakers—both professional and amateur.   

“Nonfiction filmmaking is noble and necessary, but not always very lucrative or financially sustaining,” Moroney says. “I feel strongly that supporting local filmmakers should be on par with how we choose to support local artists and musicians, especially in this town!”

E.C. Salibian is Rochester Beacon senior editor. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.

Documentary Film Resources in Rochester 

The Rochester Documentary Filmmakers Group is among numerous organizations and projects contributing to the local filmmaking scene. With many overlaps in participation, some of the others include:   

Film venues and festivals:

The Little Theatre hosts a number of film series either devoted to documentaries or with documentaries in the mix, including: One Take Film SeriesRochester Teen Film Festival,  ImageOutBlack Cinema Series, and High Falls Women in Film.

The Dryden Theater at the George Eastman Museum screens a rich mixture of documentary and feature films. 

Filmmaker education:

Rochester Institute of Technology School of Film and Animation

St. John Fisher College Media and Communication program. 

Visual Studies Workshop: MFA program, publications, residencies, exhibitions, collection.

Rochester’s Community Media Center, RCTV, is a public access cable television channel that offers tools, technology and training so individuals—especially in underserved communities—can create and broadcast programming. RCTV is the driving force behind such projects as “Clarissa Uprooted: Youth and Elders Uncover the Story of Black Rochester” and “Black Radio Rochester,” a podcast produced by five local high school students about Rochester’s first African-American radio personalities, Howard Coles and Alma Kelso.

Filmmaker organizations include: 

Rochester Documentary Filmmakers, RocDoc Group, meets monthly on the third Thursday. Its Facebook page archives discussions and announces upcoming documentary showings in town. 

Blue Sky Project is a Rochester-based not-for-profit organization that creates and distributes award-winning documentary films focused on underreported social issues. Its Facebook page gives a wealth of information on local projects and happenings.  

Animatus Studio is Western New York’s only full-service animation studio. 

Rochester/Finger Lakes Film Commission provides film production resources and location scouting. 

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