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‘Served Like a Girl’: Film Review | SXSW 2017

Paula Froehle

Sherri Linden | March 13th, 2017 |

Lysa Heslov’s directing debut profiles organizers and contestants of the Ms. Veteran America contest, an awareness- and fund-raising event for homeless female vets.

Glamorous gowns are definitely involved, and yes, there’s a talent contest, but the Ms. Veteran America competition is no beauty pageant in the conventional sense. The gutsy women who vie for the title come in all shapes and sizes. They’ve served in Afghanistan and Iraq, some have suffered dire injuries, and they’ve all weathered plenty on the home front as well. The participants profiled in Lysa Heslov’s documentary are the epitome of resilience, but they’re also disarmingly honest and funny as hell. In a word, they’re irresistible. 

Focusing on seven women involved in the 2015 competition (the fourth edition of the event), Served Like a Girl takes a while to find its groove, but as it sheds light on these women’s experiences and the larger issue of homelessness among female vets, the film grows deeply engaging. Whatever the perceived or real political and social divisions between military families and the rest of us, this rousing nonfiction feature by Heslov, a producer making her directorial debut, suggests there’s far more common ground than many might suspect. 

At the heart of the film, and the raison d’être for the MVA shindig in Las Vegas, is the shameful lack of programs for female veterans who face challenges transitioning to civilian life. Competition founder Jaspen Boothe, a formidable advocate for homeless female veterans through her Final Salute nonprofit, began her crusade after she found herself “discharged into the street,” her Army service over and her cancer treatments concluded. 

Heslov zeroes in on four contestants, a former competitor serving as co-host, and Denyse Gordon, the inaugural title holder who directs the event. The helmer and her editors err on the side of too much setup, and the early sections of the film could stand considerable tightening; there’s no need to see Boothe and Gordon making the same congratulatory video call to a handful of the 25 finalists. 

But as the doc takes us from the auditions to the contest itself, the interviews and fly-on-the-wall sequences with the central figures are time well spent. Military outfits notwithstanding, there’s nothing uniform about them. They include a Harley-riding mechanic, a former Redskins cheerleader and a ’40s-style pinup model. Some come from military families, others shocked their relatives when they enlisted. One is dealing with chronic illness; another presses on, with gusto, after losing her lower legs in an IED explosion. Most of them have made life-and-death decisions in the midst of war zones; for these veterans, the 2013 policy change that officially permitted women in combat is a cruel joke. 

While it goes a considerable way to correct misconceptions about female soldiers’ frontline roles, Served Like a Girl never loses sight of its working-class heroines’ day-to-day struggles on home turf. It makes clear that a sharp sense of humor is as essential as their serious resolve. Their wisecracks and gleefully self-deprecating anecdotes (vibrators were designated as contraband) are as crucial to the film as their painful recollections of traumatic events. 

Whether they’re getting their girlie on at a gown shop or fielding the judges’ interview questions (there are no softballs), Heslov’s affection for her subjects is evident. Rita Baghdadi’s camerawork captures it all, including a particularly emotional mother-daughter reunion, with unfussy intimacy. The notes of tireless strength and energetic self-expression carry through the film’s final moments, when a song teaming Pat Benatar and Linda Perry plays over the closing credits. 


Crucially, the doc reveals how the competitors inspire and support one another. One contestant’s openness about the sexual assaults she suffered while in the military give another former soldier the strength to address attacks she went through decades earlier. And thanks to the efforts of her fellow vets, Marissa Strock, the woman who survived an IED, gets new prostheses that enable her to wear the stylish shoes of her fashion dreams. Sparkly high heels have never meant so much.

Production companies: A Pop Smoke production in association with the Lagralane Group, Chicago Media Project, Community Films
With: Jaspen Boothe, Denyse Gordon, Nichole Alred, Hope Garcia, Rachel Engler, Andrea Waterbury, Marissa Strock
Director: Lysa Heslov
Screenwriters: Lysa Heslov, Tchavdar Georgiev
Producers: Lysa Heslov, Seth Gordon, Linda Perry
Executive producers: Jason Delane Lee, Yvonne Huff Lee, Kym Gold, Marlon Young, Kari Wagner, Brenda Robinson
Director of photography: Rita Baghdadi
Editors: Tchavdar Georgiev, Bridget Arnet, Monique Zavistovski
Composer: Michael Levine
Venue: South by Southwest (Documentary Feature Competition)
Sales: Preferred Content

93 minutes

The Hollywood moguls in our midst

Paula Froehle

Lisa Bertagnoli | January 12, 2017 |

At this year's Sundance Film Festival, several Chicago-based film buffs will head to the theater, grab a box of popcorn and watch "Trophy," a documentary about big-game hunting, with more than passing interest.

The film buffs are members of CMP Invest/Impact, an equity fund that invests in documentaries, particularly films with the aim of changing society. Along with "Trophy," its investments include "Icarus," about Russia's Olympics doping scandal; "The Eagle Huntress," about a Kazakh girl training to hunt with eagles; and "Notes on Blindness," based on the diary of a blind man.

Chicago-based CMP Invest/Impact was launched in 2015 by Paula Froehle, a 53-year-old film director, and Steve Cohen, 52, an attorney with his own practice in Chicago. The two know of only one other documentary investment fund, and that's Impact Partners, founded in New York a decade ago. CMP Invest/Impact, nicknamed CMP II, is riding the wave of several trends. One is increasing buzz about documentaries, among them "Making a Murderer," which premiered on Netflix in December 2015. Another is the growing number of media outlets, including CNN, HBO, Amazon and Netflix, interested in buying and airing documentaries.

To date, CMP II's 17 members have invested $1.7 million in 16 films. (Froehle and Cohen have made a combined investment in the low six figures.) Individual investments range from $1,000 to $100,000 or more. Returns range from 110 percent to 120 percent over a two- or three-year period. Sometime after Sundance ends in late January, CMP II will unveil a higher-tiered fund, which will let members invest an annual minimum of $100,000 in independently produced documentaries of all types, not just social-impact films.

Froehle, who has connections to documentary filmmakers, vets movies to bring to investors, who then watch them and decide whether to invest. Their track record includes theatrical releases, sales to Netflix and HBO, and multiple Sundance appearances. "This is a very difficult business," says "Trophy" producer Lauren Haber, who is based in New York. CMP II "is supporting more than the film itself," she says.

CMP II has its roots in the Chicago Media Project, a nonprofit Froehle and Cohen established in 2014 to give film buffs a chance to support documentaries via grants. Membership in the nonprofit is a requirement for members of the investment fund.

Ken Pelletier, a Chicago entrepreneur and former chief technology officer at Groupon, was one of the earliest members of both Chicago Media Project and CMP II. "Getting at the truth is becoming increasingly difficult," Pelletier says of his interest in documentary filmmaking. Through CMP II, he has invested in seven projects, including the upcoming "The Apollo Theater Film Project," a history of Harlem's Apollo Theater. "I think we're off to a pretty good start," he says.

Social impact, a healthy ROI and a touch of Hollywood: Sounds like the butter, truffle salt or maybe even bacon topping that box of movie popcorn.

Chicago documentary-funding group will be prominent Sundance player

Paula Froehle

Nina Metz | January 12th, 2017 |

When the Sundance Film Festival kicks off next week, one of the films getting a high-profile opening night slot is "Whose Streets?" — a nonfiction account of the grass-roots protests in Ferguson that emerged after Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in August 2014.

Also at the fest: "Trophy" (examining the business behind big game hunting and poaching) and "Icarus" (an investigation into Russia's Olympic doping scheme).

All three documentaries (plus four more) owe their existence, in part, to a local group established a couple years ago with the goal of helping non-fiction films get made — and be seen. The organization has two separate arms and they function independently of each other.

The Chicago Media Project is strictly nonprofit. It pools money from its membership — mostly high-net-worth individuals, as well as those with less cash at their disposal but an interest in supporting documentary films that can affect social change — and offers grants to filmmakers (anywhere from $5,000 to $25,000) that are essentially no-strings donations. It's a relatively small group, with just 52 members.

Paula Froehle founded the group with Steve Cohen, and it includes people who Froehle said come from a variety of professions — politics, law, startups — who have the ability to get these films in front of the right people, i.e., decision-makers in the public or private sector. So it's not just about donating money to a worthy film. It's not just a faceless transaction. Members form an emotional connection with the projects they back, often bringing filmmakers to Chicago for intimate dinners.

(It's worth noting that the group does not restrict their work to Chicago projects, and the majority of filmmakers and their subjects are not local.)

The Chicago Media Project Invest/Impact is the sister organization and works a little differently. Funding is treated not as a donation but an equity investment. "The average return that we look for is 115 percent of what we put in," said Froehle. They invest between $10,000 and $450,000 per project. Rather than pocketing that (hoped for) 15 percent profit, the money is then funneled back into a fund to support yet more films in the coming year.

This is a radical idea, to an extent. Independent films — let alone documentaries — rarely break even. Turning a profit is even harder. With that in mind, the group specifically looks to invest in movies that have a good shot at getting theatrical distribution. Or bought by a television network or streaming service.

"The thing with equity investing in docs is, no one is going to get rich off of them," Froehle said. "Even though the films can make money, usually they can't make lots of money. This isn't like equity investing in entrepreneurial stuff. And like any other investment, it's still speculation. But we heavily vet each project ahead of time, from the experience of the film team to the subject matter."

(Last year, the investment group put in $814,000 across numerous projects.)

Phillip Glass appears in Trophy by Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau, an official selection of the U.S. Doucmentary Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. 

(Christina Clusiau / Sundance)

Both "Trophy" and "Icarus" were funded with equity investments, which makes sense. Big game hunting and Russian Olympic doping are the kind of issues that are easy to grasp and marketable.

The investment in "Trophy" came fairly late in the process and was primarily used for post-production costs. "We turned around that investment commitment in a weekend," said Froehle. The film had already been accepted into Sundance by that point.

"The film looks at the issues of big game hunting, poaching and extinction from an alternative angle," she said, "so it's a film that's going to be talked about a lot.

"It's not preaching to the converted, which is oftentimes a concern when you look at documentaries: Are we just talking to ourselves? Are we just making ourselves feel better about our own perspective in the world? A film that can take a subject as potent as big game hunting and poaching and put a different lens on it, not only will it get a lot of press and get talked about, but it's a film people will want to see. So you could see cable channels like CNN or Discovery or Animal Planet being interested because of the subject matter."

One of the people profiled in "Trophy," she said, is a guy who runs a South African sanctuary for rhinos whose "whole perspective is, a rhino can regenerate its horn every two years. So rather than killing the animal for the horn, you can carve the horn and allow the animal to stay alive — and you can demonstrate to poachers that killing animals isn't viable anymore and there are better ways to manage that demand. Because there is a centuries-old belief in the medicinal powers of rhino horn and the idea of just saying, 'The trade is illegal,' that's not going to stop the black market, which is causing these animal to go extinct. Just saying it shouldn't happen isn't stopping anything and the film looks at the problem from a different angle."

Last year, the Chicago Media Project helped coordinate a festival of films it help fund called DOC10 at the Music Box, which will be returning with an all-new lineup this spring.

As for Sundance, Froehle and Cohen will be there with the films their group helped back, and plan to use their time in Park City, Utah, to meet with new filmmakers seeking a budget infusion.

The Orchard & CNN Films Team For $2M Deal On Docu ‘Trophy’ – Sundance

Paula Froehle


Mike Fleming Jr | January 20, 2017 12:48pm |

    Activism must be in the air today. The Orchard and CNN Films have acquired North American rights to Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau’s documentary Trophy, which is produced by Lauren Haber and Pulse Films’ Julia Nottingham. Total deal is near $2 million, sources said. The Orchard will handle all North American rights, and CNN gets broadcast rights. International rights still are being brokered.

    The pic is a provocative exploration of the evolving relationship between big-game hunting and wildlife conservation, and it screened today in the U.S. Documentary Competition. The Orchard will release the film this year on a minimum of 150 screens. The docu covers the hunting for sport of endangered animals from elephants to rhinos and lions and investigates the powerhouse industries of big-game hunting, breeding and wildlife conservation.

    UTA and Submarine repped the film.

    Chicago Group Leaves Mark on Sundance Film Festival

    Paula Froehle

    Maya Miller | January 19, 2017 3:19 pm |

    Los Angeles is known for its movie magic, New York City for bringing Central Park and Gotham into our homes. And Chicago?

    “We have the Chicago charm,” Chicago Media Project co-founder Paula Froehle said from Park City, Utah, while gearing up for the start of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

    Froehle and fellow co-founder Steve Cohen flew to the festival to watch, among others, the seven films Chicago Media Project has supported through various grants and programs. This marks the third year CMP has had involvement in films screened at the venerable film festival. One of the films, a documentary showcasing the response to the Michael Brown shooting entitled “Whose Streets?” is debuting on Thursday’s opening night.  

    The film captures the mission of the three-year-old organization: to back films that address social justice by providing fiscal resources and programmatic support. Froehle and Cohen, who each had roles on the back end of more than a dozen films prior to starting the project, find film to be an instrumental medium in affecting change.

    “A really well-crafted documentary or film can reach a lot of people,” Froehle said. “They have a unique ability to impact a broad constituency in a fixed period of time.”

    The two are hoping CMP will follow a similar trajectory and eventually help put their hometown on the map as the hub of impact media, an industry defined by its goal of using media platforms to reach and move audiences.

    The city has stagnated in terms of the number of motion pictures filmed in its streets. The Chicago Film Office lists seven in all of 2016 compared to 28 in 2008. However, there has been momentum and renewed cohesion in other areas of film throughout the city, reflected in Chicago Media Project's growth. 

    Since its inception in early 2014 the group's members, responsible for raising and donating funds to prospective films, have ballooned from 20 individuals to more than 50. While Froehle and Cohen expect to cap membership at around 70, they’ve been working to broaden the number of public-facing events in an effort to bring more film projects to Chicago. 

    Last April the nonprofit sector of the group brought the documentary film festival DOC10 to the Music Box Theater in Lakeview. The festival saw 10 documentaries debuted over three days alongside panel discussions and musical guests.  

    Cohen confirmed that the festival is set to return to Chicago from March 30 to April 2 at the newly renovated Davis Theater in Lincoln Square.

    “We want to connect the city to the rest of the impact media world,” Cohen said. “Chicago has the Midwest characteristics of giving what you can, of wanting to help others ... that puts it in a prime position to become a hub of impact media.”