SIFF DocFest: Storm Lake and In Balanchine’s Classroom

The next two documentaries I saw were screeners. Storm Lake played two days ago (before Flee) and I could’ve seen it then, but I wanted to ease myself into the in-person theatrical experience. Plus, I had to watch A-ha: The Movie. In Balanchine’s Classroom, on the other hand, played at 11am yesterday, and while that’s not too early for most people, I knew I’d be up late the night before hammering away at the posts that went up yesterday.

I remember when Art Cullen won the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing back in 2017, and when I realized early on in the film that this was the same man, I was even more excited to watch this movie.

The trailer is a bit misleading in that I expected the focus of the film to be on The Storm Lake Times exposing the Tyson Corporation’s COVID infection rates. That comes at the end of the movie. What this movie does (and does brilliantly) is show how this family-run newspaper operates on a day-to-day basis, dropping in every so often from March 2019 through September 2020 and beyond. It also offers a glimpse into what it’s like to live in this community, and what we lose when local news isn’t covered.

We see John Cullin, who founded the paper in 1990 and is its publisher, trying to keep the books balanced. We watch Whitney Robinson, the sales and circulation manager, asking for advertisements from the stores downtown. We hear Art Cullin fret about deadlines and write editorials, follow his wife Dolores (who was an art major) as she covers local interest stories, and witness their son Tom report on politics.

In the last 15 years, 1 in 4 newspapers has folded. Art says there are 300 news deserts in the US: places where there are no local news sources (a statistic at the end of the film states that 65 million Americans either have one local paper or none at all). At 3,000 subscribers, twice-weekly The Storm Lake Times “is one of the last of its kind.”

We’re told how the town of Storm Lake changed from 1957 (when Art was born), when there was 1 Jewish family and 1 black person and the town was staunchly Republican, to now, when immigrants arriving in the 90s turned the city blue while the rest of Buena Vista County remains red.

We learn about the devastating effects of climate change and large corporations on the livelihoods of farmers, while Democratic candidates for President come to Iowa in advance of the caucus, either to a forum Art is moderating (Elizabeth Warren, Julián Castro, Amy Koblucher, with John Delaney and Tim Ryan present but not featured) or to visit the newspaper’s offices later (Peter Buttigieg). In fact, if there is a major focus here, it’s the Iowa Caucuses, including the issue with the app used to count the ballots that Art says will unfortunately end the caucus format in Iowa. Unfortunate because, as he points out, it’s the app that failed, not the caucuses.

And then, of course, we end with the pandemic, with Tom trying to get answers from Tyson about how many of their workers are infected (many of them immigrants in fear of deportation) and Art deciding to start a GoFundMe for the newspaper to replace missing revenue, since all the stores that would normally place ads with them are closed.

So far, this is my favorite doc of the festival. It does everything so effortlessly that I can’t point to the editing or the framing or the cinematography or the music or the likability of its subjects or the voice-overs of Art’s editorials or its depth or its breadth as singular reasons to see this film. Rather, everything fits together so well that I enjoyed every minute I got to spend with the reporters of The Storm Lake Times. One of the best films I’ve seen on journalism.

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In Balanchine’s Classroom is another film I thoroughly enjoyed. Now, I know very little about Balanchine outside of one movie I saw where he was at the periphery (Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq) and what I gleaned from the New Yorker when I had a 1-year subscription many years ago. Having said that, I don’t think you could make a finer documentary.

The genius is to focus on Balanchine through his students, particularly the ones who currently teach ballet. We also get generous amounts of archival footage of Balanchine in rehearsal, of his ballets in performance, and archival photographs, as well as a brief biography. The documentary explains why he was so important to the world of dance and what ballet was like before Balanchine liberated it from its stodgy, classical form. In particular, ballet wasn’t really prestigious in America before he started teaching over here, so that the American school of ballet is George Balanchine.

From his students, we find out his gift for discovering how much his dancers could handle (his practices could be brutal, especially concerning repetitions and speed), which ones to leave alone to create, and which ones he had to take the time to teach. And yet there were limits to what he could do, which explained why he gravitated to some dancers and not others. As he says in the documentary, “Whether anyone wants to watch you or not, I can’t teach.”

But there’s a second layer to this documentary, and that layer is what lessons his students try to pass on to their students. They know that they aren’t Balanchine, and even though they pass on as much as they can, they know his teachings are slowly fading because he isn’t there to impart these teachings himself. Even worse, some false teachings and dance positions are attributed to him, sometimes because people who weren’t there don’t realize he was overemphasizing something for effect, other times because the saying got misconstrued. For example, Balanchine wanted the hands of his dancers to be round and to show off all the fingers, whereas some people think overextending the fingers is the Balanchine way.

By not seeing this film at the Egyptian, I missed the virtual Q&A with director Connie Hochman, but I gained sleep and still got to see a great documentary, so I think it’s a win.

Both movies are available to stream from October 4-7: Storm Lake if you live in the US, In Balanchine’s Classroom if you live in the great state of Washington. And if you want to read The Storm Lake Times but don’t live in Storm Lake, Iowa, you’re in luck: