The polarity has existed since the beginning—a dichotomy born at the turn of 20th century France between Georges Méliès’s “A Trip to the Moon” and the Lumière brothers’ “Workers Leaving The Lumière Factory in Lyon.”The first paved the way for escapist Hollywood blockbusters, while the other proved to be the blueprint for documentary film, or movies that simply tell the truth, according to Michael Kantor, the executive producer of the PBS series “American Masters.”
And it is the latter medium that is needed, and thriving, now more than ever, he said.
“I think we’re currently in the golden age of documentaries,” he said during a telephone interview last week. “I think in the aftermath of this election, people are realizing that you can’t just take the news media reports at face value. They have to dig deeper, and I think that’s what documentary does. It’s the deep dive into these stories. We’re in a really good spot for documentaries and it feels like Jacqui Lofaro and her team at the Hamptons Take 2 Documentary Film Festival have harnessed that with a great program this year.”
Over the course of four days, starting Thursday, December 1, the ninth annual festival founded by Ms. Lofaro will screen more than two dozen documentaries, ranging from stories about artists, musicians, architects, writers, chefs, gymnasts and even a beauty queen, to larger issues, such as environmental conservation, nuclear weapons, autism, animal rights, cyber war and the militarization of American policing—a vast slate that moves one step closer toward nixing the “boring” taboo around documentaries for good.
“It’s anything but a snooze,” Mr. Kantor said of documentary film. “You’re making media that matters, as opposed to some story ‘I’m going to binge watch and waste my afternoon or evening on.’ These are the kinds of stories that resonate with you, whether they’re political stories, artistic stories or deeply pertinent stories. They have an impact.”
The way the cultural arts and its leaders have influenced the world and culture—and the way they can inspire young people to do the same—is the fire that has always fueled Mr. Kantor, starting from when he worked in the theater as a director. When a friend of his told him he was making a film, he said to himself—in a “young, kind of naive way”—“All great film directors started in theater.”
That was just the beginning of a career trajectory that would land him at “American Masters,” now celebrating its 30th anniversary, which the film festival will commemorate on Friday night, December 2, with two screenings and awards for both Mr. Kantor and his predecessor, Susan Lacy, who launched the series in 1986.
“I came on in the beginning of May 2014,” Mr. Kantor said. “Previously, I directed one ‘American Masters’ film on Quincy Jones that aired in 2001. It’s funny, when I did that and worked with Susan Lacy, I thought, ‘Boy, she has the best job. Wouldn’t it be great to someday have a job like that?’ And, boy, did I get lucky in that everything worked out perfectly—and here I am.”
His roots trace back to just outside New Haven, Connecticut, not far from Ingalls Rink—affectionately called the Yale Whale because of its humpbacked, arching, 300-foot backbone designed by architect Eero Saarinen. As a boy, he would skate there every Sunday with his family and look up at that roof, unaware that he would help champion a film on the man behind it.
“I was aware of this guy’s work since I could put on ice skates,” he said. “Whether it’s the arch in St. Louis, or the TWA Flight Center at JFK, or Virginia’s Dulles Airport, he was just totally reinventing the form. It’s futuristic, but not in a gimmicky, creature-from-another-planet kind of sense. It’s cool—mid-century cool. More in the Marshall McLuhan sense than a hipster sense.”
The screening of “Eero Saarinen: The Architect Who Saw the Future” will be followed by a Q&A with director Peter Rosen, who used the cinematography by the late architect’s son, Eric Saarinen, to be a search for his father through the architecture, as the camera drone zooms in and out of each structure, Mr. Kantor explained. “It has an emotional element to it, along with just being incredibly beautiful,” he said.
Festival audiences have a chance to see the PBS film before its television premiere on December 27. But the second film, “Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise”—tracing the life of the prolific African-American writer, singer, poet and activist—has been seen worldwide, Mr. Kantor said, and is even competing for the Oscar shortlist.
“Maya Angelou, beyond her talents as a performer and poet, sort of has this healing vibe. She’s always looking for the rainbow in the clouds,” he said. “For those people who feel as though we’re living in very cloudy times—environmentally, politically and otherwise—Maya Angelou was always looking for that rainbow, that bright beacon of hope. She had a tough, tough life. Her overcoming the obstacles she faced and the talent that manifested in her work is really inspirational. We need that, especially at this moment in time.”
The ninth annual Hamptons Take 2 Documentary Film Festival will open with screenings on Thursday, December 1, from 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. The festival continues on Friday, December 2, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday, December 3, from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., and Sunday, December 4, from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. A Q&A hosted by Bonnie Grice or Andrew Botsford will follow every screening. A program commemorating the 30th anniversary of “American Masters” will begin on Friday at 6 p.m., and a gala honoring documentarian Alex Gibney will be held on Saturday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15 per screening, or $13 for seniors, $25 for the “American Masters” program, $50 for the gala and $100 for all screenings and events. For a full schedule and more information, call 631-725-9500, or visit ht2ff.com.