‘SummerDocs’ Series Returns, starting with Questlove’s ‘Summer of Soul’

Sly Stone in “Summer of Soul ( ...Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. Courtesy Mass Distraction Media.
By Sophie Griffin

From 1922’s “Nanook of the North,” the silent film widely considered to be the first-ever documentary, to 2021’s “Framing Britney Spears,” which broke U.K. viewing records, documentaries have always entertained audiences even as they’ve informed them. This summer is no exception, with three amazing documentaries to be shown at Guild Hall for HamptonsFilm’s 13th SummerDocs series.

The SummerDocs program was started in 2009 to highlight documentary features. The series opened Memorial Day weekend, after a long renovation of Guild Hall, with a showing of “The Cove,” about dolphin-hunting in Japan, which went on to win the Academy Award for best documentary. Since then, it’s continued to show documentaries in a wide range of styles over summers.

The Hamptons International Film Festival, also run by HamptonsFilm, will take place in October this year, and SummerDocs has always been something of a separate entity, occurring outside of the fall festival schedule and with a more focused subject.

“You know, the festival is wonderful, [but] the festival is very busy,” David Nugent, artistic director of HamptonsFilm, said. “There’s a lot of stuff going on. There’s a lot of people here, there’s a lot of films. It’s hard sometimes to be able to focus the way you want to focus attention on just one film.

A scene from the documentary “The Lost Leonardo,” directed by Andreas Koefoed.

“What’s nice about the SummerDocs program is we just do about three [films] through the summer, and for that night all the attention is on that film and we get a chance to get to know the filmmakers and the subjects for the film.”

SummerDocs screenings always feature a Q&A afterwards, usually with the director or subjects, Nugent, and HamptonsFilm Co-Chair Alec Baldwin. Typically, the series features a mix of genres and styles, moving between hard-hitting films and lighter fare.

This summer’s lineup includes the Questlove-directed “Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, Andreas Koefoed’s “The Lost Leonardo,” which tells the story behind the most expensive painting ever sold, and director Jeremy Workman’s “Lily Topples the World” about the rise of the world’s greatest domino toppler.

Nugent first watched “Summer of Soul” from his couch for the Sundance Awards, where it clinched the Grand Jury prize and Audience Award. It’s the first film ever directed by Amir “Questlove” Thompson, the musician, DJ, author, and polymath best known as the drummer for the band The Roots.

“It chronicles this concert from 1969, a sort of oft-forgotten concert,” Nugent described.“It’s a very fun film and watching these performers perform is really, really great, but it also talks about the reason why this concert didn’t get the same attention during the summer of Woodstock. The performers were pretty much all Black. And there are reasons that the concert took place — which was discussed in the film and Questlove talks about in the Q&A — about how they were worried about riots taking place in Harlem, so they put on these concerts in the hopes that people would remain calm through the summer.”

The Harlem Cultural Festival (sometimes referred to as Black Woodstock) featured musical artists from Stevie Wonder to Nina Simone to Gladys Knight & the Pips and celebrated Black pride. It took place over the course of six weeks in Mount Morris Park, Harlem, with over 100,000 people in attendance. For the Sly & The Family Stone concert in late June, the NYPD refused to provide security so the Black Panthers stepped in instead.

Lily Hevesh in “Lily Topples the World,” directed by Jeremy Workman. Steve Price photo.

“Summer of Soul,” which kicks off the SummerDocs series on Saturday, June 26, at 7 p.m., will be Guild Hall’s first in-person screening in over a year. During the earlier planning stages, pandemic conditions were worse (and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s “anything goes” edict hadn’t yet been announced), so the organizers of the event pre-recorded a conversation with Questlove, which will be projected after the showing. The other two screenings, on July 24 and August 21, will feature live post-film conversations.

“I’m very excited to be back in-person.” Nugent said. “It’s going to feel surreal, I have to say, as someone who spends their life going to movies, organizing screenings. To have had it pulled out from under me for the last year-and-a-half has been really surreal.

“The first time I sat there and watched a movie in person again, I got chills.”

After all, Netflix on the sofa can never compare to sitting in a real theater. The rituals of movie-going are back, and boy have they been missed. As Nugent noted, “There’s nothing more magical and transporting than watching something on the big screen.”

Tickets for SummerDocs are $40 at hamptonsfilmfest.org More information can be found on Guild Hall’s website, guildhall.org. Other summer programming from HamptonsFilm includes free outdoor screenings every Wednesday night at 8:30 p.m. in Herrick Park in East Hampton Village. Guild Hall is located at 158 Main Street, East Hampton.