JFK Jr. film series at Brown confronts urgent social issues

The film series, led by the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs and by family, friends and classmates of the late Brown alumnus, aims to underscore the importance of documentaries in understanding and confronting challenging social issues.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — A new documentary film series at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs aims to shed light on some of the most urgent, challenging and complex issues facing society.

The John F. Kennedy Jr. Initiative for Documentary Film and Social Progress, named in memory of the late Class of 1983 Brown graduate, will bring renowned documentary filmmakers to campus throughout 2020 for screenings and discussions that are open to the public, and sometimes for hands-on work with students who aspire to use film as a vehicle for positive social change. 

“While the Watson Institute is anchored in the social sciences, we believe there are many paths to truth, and many different ways by which that truth, through the richness of human creativity, can be expressed to mobilize awareness and action,” said Edward Steinfeld, director of the institute and a professor of international and public affairs, political science and China studies at Brown. “Documentary film is a rare medium that lives at the intersection of art and social science.”

Steinfeld said the creation of the festival was a collaborative effort, drawing on the ideas and talents of Brown faculty, alumni and members of Kennedy’s family. Among those spearheading the effort were documentary filmmaker Rory Kennedy, who graduated from Brown in 1991 and was John F. Kennedy Jr.’s cousin; director and producer Davis Guggenheim, a Class of 1986 graduate; and film music supervisor Randall Poster, who graduated in 1983 with Kennedy. 

“This initiative builds on the strong student- and faculty-driven film festivals on campus,” Poster said. “Our vision is to create substantive engagement — academic programming with partners across the University — as well as [to bring] the premier practitioners of documentary film... to Brown to open direct dialogue with the community.”

The initiative, Poster said, reflects the values of its namesake, who was long committed to seeking truth and social progress through journalism and art. In 1995, Kennedy co-founded George, a monthly magazine covering contemporary politics. He ran the magazine until his death in 1999.

The 2020 festival kicks off on Tuesday, Jan. 28, with a screening of the 2019 film “Coup 53” and a discussion with the filmmakers. The film depicts the combined efforts of the United Kingdom and the United States to overthrow the democratically elected government of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh.

Other screenings will include Sundance Grand Jury Prize nominee “Where’s My Roy Cohn?,” Academy Award-winning director Errol Morris’ “American Dharma,” Rory Kennedy’s latest film on NASA and climate change, “Above and Beyond,” and the directorial debut of musician Questlove.

The initiative will also host two film forums: one in March that focuses on the current state of democracy with three screenings and a moderated panel discussion, and another in the fall led by Oscar winner Richard Linklater, who will discuss modes of storytelling and offer a master class in pursuing truth through fiction. And in April, director Frederick Wiseman — a recipient of Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships and an honorary Academy Award — will deliver the first John F. Kennedy Jr. Distinguished Lecture.

“That we can bring such amazing world-class talent to Brown is a testament to John F. Kennedy Jr.’s life and to how much people want to honor him,” Steinfeld said. “We want this initiative to continue his legacy.”