HelenHighly Highlights DOC NYC
It’s great to live in New York City, land of film festivals. Following the two biggies, Tribeca Film Festival and New York Film Festival, is the country’s biggest and best documentary film festival, DOC NYC, and this year’s 10th anniversary fest is bigger and better than ever before. It’s a tremendous opportunity for New Yorkers to view what in some cases will be your one-and-only chance to catch a film that may not find a distributor and will be here and then gone forever, and also to connect in person with more than 500 filmmakers and industry experts who will speak and otherwise participate at the festival. For those outside of New York, DOC NYC is an insightful forecast, cluing you in to what to look for that will be playing at theaters near you in the coming months or available for streaming via Netflix, HBO or elsewhere. Watch for reviews on this website with detailed recommendations and commentary. But in the meantime, this article will offer an overview of Helen’s Pre-Fest Picks.
Documentaries – The New Cinema
To say that this is the heyday of documentaries can only be a great understatement. Thanks to advancements in technology and easier access to equipment – an iPhone in every hand, more and more people are able to tell their stories with moving pictures. But having a camera doesn’t necessarily make you a “real filmmaker,” and that’s a judgment that critics will make when assessing documentaries (and a reason for you to read reviews), although in the documentary universe, sometimes a highly relevant subject will outweigh artistic merit. Home-movie docs have become almost their own genre. (See our review of 17 Blocks). At the same time, master filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese are also making docs.
Today’s world seems more serious and urgent than ever, in terms of understanding the facts and truths that surround us – demand pushing the supply of doc movies. Or is it that the more we know, the more we want to know more – supply pushing demand? Either way, this is the golden age of knowledge and awareness, perspective and insight. And it’s also a time when many filmmakers are looking backward – creating retrospectives and analyzing pieces of history, both due to a desire to learn from the past and a sentimental sense of nostalgia for what has been lost in the all the rapid changes. It’s fair to say that documentaries are the new cinema.
What to See
DOC NYC 2019 will run from November 6 – 15 and include more than 300 films and events, with 28 world premieres and 27 US premieres. Films are curated into 21 different Sections. It’s an overwhelming amount of content to contemplate, and I’ll do my best to help you sort through it. (For a detailed breakdown of all 21 sections, see our Overview Part 2 article.) I would have liked to offer a catchy headline such as “Top Ten Docs to See,” but ten barely scratches the surface. Even twenty seems to leave out films that warrant a mention. So… without counting, here are the films that Helen feels Highly Compelled to suggest. I will organize my list loosely by category (or categories), to assist in matching viewers with the right movies. Although, I need to repeat here what I always say about film festivals: The best parts are the films that surprise you and that challenge your assumptions about what you think you care about, so I encourage you to at least read outside the categories that are of obvious interest to you. Because I am listing so many films (really a small percentage of films at the festival, but still), I will mark my MOST recommended with asterisks. And I confess that I also recommend a few other documentaries that seem relevant, even if not part of the DOC NYC festival.
(Special Events: Opening Night Film and unofficially Sonic Cinema, otherwise known as Music Movies)
Section Note: The official DOC NYC section is “Special Events,” so that’s where you will find it listed, but for your information I am also identifying it as a movie about music, which the festival calls “Sonic Cinema.”
Helen Highly Recommends this documentary film based on the story of The Band (Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson). The Band originally formed as The Hawk, a backing band for rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins but came to prominence during its time backing Bob Dylan on tour and later grew into a legend in its own right, widely credited with being on the forefront of three different musical revolutions. The Band was one of the first rock groups to appear on the cover of Time. This is one of the few films I’ve already seen as of this posting, so I can to tell you more than the official synopsis. (It seems I just went ahead and wrote my review. Here it is.) If you are in New York and are able: Go see it. Otherwise, keep your ear to the ground for when Magnolia begins its national theatrical run early next year.
As both music films and biopics go, Once Were Brothers is a Must-See.
Note: I feel I must qualify that statement by divulging that I am neither a music historian nor expert. I will bet that there are others who will view this film differently. So, this is a Helen Highly Impressionable review. I am not a source of music intelligence, but I do know movies and this film easily won me over. But don’t take it from me; take it from Martin Scorsese.
Executive producers Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer give this film a pedigree that sets it apart from the average music-history documentary and elevates it on every level – including a well-paced and smartly arranged narrative structure, some amazing archival footage and a cast of music legends to provide commentary. Plus, Robertson’s own intelligence and reflection make this seem like a truly valuable document about the history of American music. (The film is based somewhat on Robertson’s 2016 memoir, Testimony, which covered the first three decades of his life, but this documentary goes both deeper and wider.) First-time feature-length film director Daniel Roher may have had something to do with the film’s success, but he surely gets a ride on some long coattails.
Once Were Brothers is an ideal film to open the DOC NYC festival due to its multi-dimensional timeliness, most notably its connection to Martin’s Scorsese’s new mob epic, The Irishman, currently in theaters, coming to Netflix next and one of the hottest films of the year. (Click here to read IndieNYC’s Irishman review.) In addition to Scorsese executive producing this film (and filming The Band’s spectacular 1976 farewell concert and turning that into a documentary – The Last Waltz), Robbie Robertson created the score for Scorsese’s latest film (in addition to four others since 1980). The tight Scorsese/Robertson relationship seems unlikely and is fascinating to me. Scorsese also participates in this film as a commentator and gives a detailed description of how he shot The Band’s famous, swan-song concert – what camera angles he used, why he chose not to show the audience, etc. This film feels very much like a collaboration of two great artists and thinkers and surely that’s what helps to make it so good. Plus, there’s the music.
There is even more to the timeliness of this film: At about the same time as this documentary first premiered at Toronto International Film Festival, Robertson also released his sixth solo album, Sinematic, and some of its tracks, including the Van Morrison collaboration “I Hear You Paint Houses,” are part of his score for The Irishman. Plus, coinciding with the documentary’s premiere, it was announced that The Band’s seminal sophomore album – declared “better than the Beatle’s Abbey Road” when it was first released – is getting a deluxe reissue later this year. That album includes two of the important songs from this documentary, “Up on Cripple Creek” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” both rich with cinematic stories and eccentric Americana characters that are explored in the film. “The Weight” –perhaps The Band’s most significant song and number 41 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time – also figures prominently in the film, with tales about its inspiration and influences.
The film excels in its humanity. It is about the great possibilities and painful frailties of human nature.
All this is to say that this documentary is about the music of The Band as much as it is about the people in and around The Band. It manages to be a thoughtful, candid and compelling biopic of Robbie Robertson, The Band’s lead songwriter and guitarist (more on this later), in addition to exploring the uniquely close and crucial relationships – for better and worse – between The Band’s members, while balancing all that with broader historical perspective and commentary from other major musicians, including Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel and Bob Dylan, which may be worth the price of admission in itself. (And music. Did I mention lots of great music?)
So… for you Bob Dylan fans, yes indeed you will get your Dylan fix in this film. A hefty and heartfelt amount of time is spent recounting The Band’s infamously troubled tour with Bob Dylan (in which they were booed across America and throughout Europe) as well as their move to Woodstock, NY due to Dylan’s invitation and the vitally important time they all spent huddled together up there changing the very nature of popular music while creating “the basement tapes” in their little pink house. Yes, car crashes, heroin and romance too.
You don’t have to be a music history buff or even a particular fan of The Band’s music to appreciate this movie. It may also be true that being a serious music history buff may diminish your appreciation of this film. I get the impression that not every tale in this film is being told for the first time. Perhaps more importantly, three of the five Band members are now dead, and one in relative obscurity, so this film sometimes has the tone of a last-man-standing version of history. It is part biography but also part personal memoir of one man – Robbie Robertson, although he is one super-talented and articulate fellow. To my eyes, the film seems to bend over backward to be fair, but if you’re looking for an earth-shaking confession of some sort, you won’t find it here. We learn that members of The Band had some dispute about the equitable distribution of income and some other unresolved tensions, and while the film does not reveal any long-hidden secrets, it thoughtfully addresses the issues and moves on to what Robertson thinks is more important, and I believe the average film-goer will agree.
The film excels in its humanity. It is about the great possibilities and painful frailties of human nature. And it’s about the process of creativity – what it is, how it works, how it falls apart. It’s full of music. It’s full of wisdom. It’s full of inspiration (despite the profound sadness).
Once Were Brothers is pretty much the direct opposite of The Quiet One, if anyone remembers that documentary from earlier this year, about bassist Bill Wyman, founding member the Rolling Stones. (Click here for my Quiet One review.) That film also featured its lead character speaking extensively about his past – a sort of end-of-career self-assessment, an attempt to break through the veil of myth and mystery that had long shadowed him. But The Quiet One failed in every way this film succeeds; that film was shallow where this one goes deep and that film evaded controversy where this one explores it.
For example, The Quiet One didn’t even mention any tension between Wyman and the rest of the Stones, but this film discusses the late-in-the-game internal problems at some length. (It never does mention that before the final, official break-up, the group toured briefly without Robbie, to mixed reviews, but at that point he was technically “on a break” and waiting for the others to clean up their acts, which they never did. One might credit Robertson for taking the high road and not dwelling on their failures or contributing to gossip. This is more a movie that attempts to understand success.) Both films have Eric Clapton doling out praise, but this one includes an amusing and telling moment where Robertson and Clapton were out of sync and Clapton passes some small judgement. Both Robertson and Wyman poignantly tell us their childhood tale of how they acquired their first guitar. Both men’s careers share significant milestones and tragedies. But their memoir films couldn’t be more different.
I compared The Quiet One to Samuel Beckett’s play Krapp’s Last Tape, feeling as if I were watching Wyman fade into a confused, disappointed silence and this would be the last we heard from him. In this case, we learn that Robertson is still very much alive and well and working productively, and he has managed to transform his past pain and success into new artistry. He’s mentally inquisitive and emotionally connected and speaks with a surprising humility that seems genuine to me. It might be worth noting that Robertson’s wife – the same one he originally married in the early days of The Band – is said to now be an addiction therapist, which I would guess helped him to be as self-aware and honest as he is in this film. Wyman is on wife #3. Just saying.
Helen Highly Recommends Once Were Brothers. I don’t think there’s a trailer yet, so get a taste by listening to the “Once Were Brothers” song from Robbie Robertson’s new album:
(Shortlist Features and unofficially Sonic Cinema)
Note About the Short List: Each year, DOC NYC’s programming team picks 15 films for their Short List for Features, representing the best of the year. These films are distinguished by festival honors, critical accolades, audience enthusiasm and strong distribution. For the past eight years, the festival has showcased the film that went on to win the Oscar, making the Short List a strong prognosticator for awards season and a category worth exploring. I am personally also suggesting that this film would topically fall into the festival’s Sonic Cinema section, although don’t look for it there on the website or in the festival book.
From Roger Ross Williams, the director of the Oscar-nominated Life, Animated, comes this rich history of Harlem’s Apollo Theater. For 85 years, this cultural landmark has played host to legendary African American artists and to newcomers willing to take the stage on the venue’s famed Amateur Night. For many years The Apollo was the only theater in New York that would hire black entertainers. The Apollo served as a launchpad and/or artistic sanctuary for Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight, the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and more (and you get to hear them all in this movie, including awesome footage of Ella Fitzgerald’s Amateur Night performance when she was 15 years old and Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit.”). And it’s not all music either — some world-class stand-up comedy and more. Framed around the inaugural staging of Ta-Nehisi Coates‘ acclaimed book, Between the World and Me, this Apollo portrait demonstrates the pivotal role that the arts play in the African American experience. (Common’s exceptional rap as part of Between the World and Me helps bring the film from the historical realm into present-day.)
— Apollo Theater (@ApolloTheater) November 7, 2019
It is as good as any documentary gets.
In an interview with the film’s director, The Guardian, asked how hard it was finding archival materials about the Apollo’s history, noting that the struggles around archiving black history are well documented. Williams answered, “Oh, the challenge was massive. Lisa Cortez, who was a producer on this film and a Harlem resident, she would search through boxes in people’s basements. She would find moldy tapes and photos. It was really a treasure hunt. Especially because the Apollo had previously fallen into bankruptcy and disrepair and its basement in the 70s was filled with sewage. We don’t document black history as well as we should. That’s why I’m glad this film serves as its own document.”
They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people. — Ta-Nehisi Coates
The Apollo is an HBO Documentary film, so you can wait and see it streaming, but if you have a chance to see it in a theater, do it. It’s full of enthralling archival footage and is a huge movie in every sense. You will want to stand up and applaud and best to do that in a theater rather than your living room.
The Apollo is another film I’ve already seen (at Tribeca Film Festival) so I can testify: This is much more than an astounding collection of music from many of America’s greatest and most influential talents, and more than surprising and poignant anecdotes about an iconic place (although some of the details revealed about Sydney Cohen and Morris Sussman, who ran the Apollo, are pure gold); it is as good as any documentary gets – entertaining, jaw-dropping, heart-throbbing, gut-wrenching, uplifting and enormously relevant. It’s almost an investigation film in the way it exposes untold truths. The effect on me felt earth-shaking. (Go ahead and see if you can make it through without welling up a tear or gasping once; I bet you can’t. See if you can watch it and not tell someone else about it; you will want to share this.)
Kind of like that ESPN documentary OJ: Made in America (which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary, by the way, and if you haven’t seen it, you still should), you think you basically know this story but you don’t. It’s American history they didn’t teach you in school but is crucial that you understand because it’s not over yet; it’s as much current event as it is history. And it’s also a personal journey. It works from every angle. And no, it is not preachy for even one moment. No matter who you are, it’s important that you see this film, and I also can guarantee you will be delighted that you did.
New News: It’s Out! Opened Nov. 6 on HBO! Available for streaming. Go watch it immediately! Here’s the trailer:
(Special Events: Visionaries and unofficially Sonic Cinema)
Section Note: This is part of DOC NYC’s “Tribute to Lifetime Achievement,” thus the “Visionaries” section. But topically it’s a music movie.
In 1975, Bob Dylan embarked on a two-year tour that became legendary. Now Martin Scorsese draws upon footage shot on that tour to create a documentary as unique as Dylan, with fictional elements interwoven. (Yeah — fictional elements interwoven, so it’s maybe not formally a “real documentary,” but close enough. It’s Scorsese, and Dylan, after all.) The film includes a parade of iconic figures including Allen Ginsberg, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot and Patti Smith. New York Times critic Manohla Dargis wrote, “It’s stirring how Dylan keeps coming back to film, with its beautiful masks and lies, and it is a gift that Scorsese has been there ready to meet him.” Rolling Thunder captures the troubled spirit of America in 1975 and the joyous music that Dylan performed during the fall of that year. Part documentary, part concert film, part fever dream, this film is a one of a kind experience, from a master filmmaker.
Why have I put this on my list? They had me at Dylan and Scorsese. Add in Patti Smith and “fever dream” and I am all in. Can’t wait to see it. (It’s ridiculous that I haven’t already; it’s a Netflix film. But surely best to see it in a theater if you can.)
(Sonic Cinema and unofficially Literary World)
Section Note: “Sonic Cinema” is DOC NYC’s official section for this film, but I am also calling it out as part of my own category – Literary World films, because that’s a special interest of mine and a few of this festival’s films intrigue me as touching on that subject, in this case journalism.
Cheekily declaring itself “America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine,” Creem launched in 1969 Detroit as an irreverent upstart to rival the pre-eminent rock publication of the day, Rolling Stone. Scrappy, subversive and gleefully puerile, the magazine soon became wildly popular, thanks in large part to its forward-thinking publisher, Barry Kramer, and its gonzo journalist, Lester Bangs. Boy Howdy! offers a riotous look back on Creem‘s history, the dysfunctional family of outsiders behind its pages and its lasting impact on music and culture.
I mostly am including it on my list because it’s about journalism, and it seems like a fun angle on the music theme.
***Scandalous: The Untold Story of the National Enquirer
(American Perspectives and unofficially Literary World)
Section Note: The “American Perspectives” section is intended to “Explore the USA.” How this is more USA than the Creem story, I do not understand. So, I am adding my own category – Literary World.
At the forefront of tabloid journalism for more than 60 years, the National Enquirer has left an indelible mark on American culture. Its brand of attention-grabbing headlines and sensationalistic coverage captivates curious readers even as it stretches the limits of truth. Director Mark Landsman delves into the shocking yet true story of the most infamous newspaper in US history, detailing its wild history and its surprising, continuing role in shaping what the news has become and what the enquiring public wants to know.
In my mind, the recent Donald Trump tie-in makes this all the more enticing and relevant. A full review of this film will come soon, but in the meantime: I saw the film and it’s spectacular. It’s way smarter than one would expect, with captivating settings and cinematography. It’s fun and politically important. And this movie opens in theaters Friday Nov. 15th, so go friggin see it! It’s really an appropriately bizarrely gorgeous movie — something you want to see in a theater.
Full, detailed review is posted; click here to read my Scandalous review.
Jazz bassist Buster Williams‘ storied career includes playing with past greats John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Sarah Vaughn, Miles Davis and Nancy Wilson, amongst others. Spend some time with Williams and his present-day collaborators—icons Benny Golson, Herbie Hancock, Carmen Lundy, Kenny Barron and more—as they jam, tell tales and create beautiful music. Buster Williams Bass to Infinity is a toe-tapping film celebrating the soul and magic of jazz.
I am excited by the prospect of this jazz film because it seems it might be the perfect companion piece to another jazz film I recently saw. ***Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes was excellent and enlightening but more a jazz-improvisation conversation than a musical film, and it seems Buster Williams Bass to Infinity includes lots of music from some of the same legendary musicians. Director Adam Kahan told me, “This is a true music doc that celebrates the music! No smoking gun, no drugs, and no one murdered – just a beautiful story, spirit and a deep cultural contribution.” Sounds like a reason to show up. (And I am told some heavy-hitters from the jazz world will be at the premiere.)
But I will also take this opportunity for Helen to Highly Recommend (again) the other documentary for jazz lovers: Blue Note Records screened at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, had a brief theatrical run and is now available for purchase on DVD and Blue-ray and streaming on Amazon and iTunes. (Click here to read IndieNYC’s review and click here to read me discussing it as a “Freedom Film.”) Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes explores the unique vision behind the iconic jazz record label. Through rare archival footage, current recording sessions, conversations with Blue Note artists and lots of way-cool album covers, the film reveals a powerful mission, details a visual as well as musical legacy and illuminates the vital connections between jazz and hip hop.
One of the most important record labels in the history of jazz — and, by extension, that of American music — Blue Note Records has been home to such groundbreaking artists as Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Bud Powell and Art Blakey, as well as present-day luminaries like Robert Glasper, Ambrose Akinmusire and Norah Jones. Founded in New York in 1939 by German Jewish refugees Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, the history of Blue Note Records goes beyond the landmark recordings, encompassing the pursuit of musical freedom, the conflict between art and commerce and the idea of music as a transformative and revolutionary force.
(Special Event: Closing Night Film and unofficially Literary World and New York Stories)
Section Note: The festival officially categorizes this as a Special Event because it is the Closing Night Film, but it also topically belongs in the festival’s New York Stories section, which they call “Metropolis,” as well as Portraits and my own Literary World category).
Truman Capote was a singular figure in the 20th century; he’s been called a “candied tarantula.” He presented himself unapologetically on television at a time when most gay men took pains to avoid scrutiny. His books Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood were bestsellers and critical darlings and both adapted into Hollywood films. Now The Capote Tapes delivers a fresh portrait that reinvigorates our understanding of this vital writer. Among the film’s revelations are newly discovered tapes of interviews that The Paris Review co-founder George Plimpton conducted with Capote’s friends after his death.
The film dwells strongly on Capote’s final, uncompleted novel, Answered Prayers, which set out to viciously (at least nakedly) expose Manhattan’s social aristocracy after he befriended them. Plimpton’s tapes shed new light on what happened. They are interwoven with Capote’s notorious television appearances and insightful interviews with the likes of Dick Cavett. One unexpected interview is with Capote’s assistant, Kate Harrington, who introduces herself as his adopted daughter.
I’ve seen this one too, and Helen Highly Recommends The Capote Tapes. The film is the epitome of “meta”; both it and its subject are gossipy and scandalous, with unpublished tapes revealing insight into Capote’s unpublished book. It’s also a great writer’s film – getting into the nitty gritty of Capote’s research and writing habits, his literary struggles and inspirations. Plus, it’s a terrific old-New-York high-society flick. If you enjoy vintage, fictional films like All About Eve, The Women or even High Society, this one has all the bitchy glamour and it’s a true story (and it goes all the way from the Plaza Hotel to Studio 54). And finally, this film begins and ends with shots of a reel-to-reel tape recorder, which puts it squarely within my Archival Movie category, about which I have written briefly but intend to soon publish a more thorough and thoughtful essay, exploring the recent prevalence and significance of archival movies.
(Metropolis and unofficially Sonic Cinema and Portraits)
Section Note: Remember, “Metropolis” means “New York Stories.”
Turning trauma into precise and angry feminist rock, American singer, writer and actress Lydia Lunch helped birth the No Wave music scene in the late 1970s and early ’80s, and she’s still killing it today. Fellow No Wave pioneer Beth B constructs a lively portrait of this innovative performer, whose confrontational artistry resonates loudly in today’s feminist landscape. Critics, filmmakers, musicians and friends discuss the relevance of Lydia’s brilliantly vitriolic world.
As a new New Yorker, I dig New York stories, especially about the fierce old days in the 70s, with powerful female performers like Patti Smith, Laurie Anderson and Nico. I don’t know about Lydia Lunch but am eager to find out, especially if she is actually “still killing it today.” Plus, a photographer friend of mine says he has photos in the film, and he’s cool so… let’s all go see it. (Or let’s at least all keep an eye on it and wait for it to come to some streaming platform.)
(Special Event: Centerpiece Film and unofficially Investigations and Portraits)
Section Note: Just want to let you know that there is an official DOC NYC section called “Investigations,” including films that “reveal real-life tales.” This film would seem to fit into that category if not for its status as the Centerpiece film. It also qualifies as a Portraits film.
Bikram Choudhury was at the forefront of popularizing yoga in North America and around the world. An Indian immigrant with a Beverly Hills base, Choudhury was a born entertainer, known for dressing in nothing more than a black speedo and a Rolex. His teaching style was tough love sprinkled with salty language and punctuated by spontaneous bursts of singing. He built a franchise empire with hundreds of Bikram studios around the world. Filmmaker Eva Orner traces Choudhury from his rise in the 1970s to his disgrace in accusations of rape and sexual harassment in more recent years. She taps a vast trove of archival footage that demonstrates Choudhury’s charm and offers clues to his dark side. Over the years, Choudhury’s story has received steady press coverage, but there is a fresh power in this telling, with key figures going on camera for the first time including his longtime lawyer, Micki Jafa-Bodden.
The film raises larger questions about the nature of leaders and followers and the corruption of messianic figures. To this day, Choudhury has evaded prosecution and continues to attract yoga students from all over the world, bringing added tension to this rigorous investigation. It’s a Netflix film.
Okay, one more film from the Investigations category because it seems so bizarre. Remember, this is documentary, not fantasy: Welcome to the House of Latitude, where absolute discretion is demanded in exchange for entry into a mysterious social experiment in the form of an elaborate immersive experience. Drawing a community of curiosity seekers, this secret society becomes a way of life for some, putting increasing pressure on the organizers to maintain this sophisticated and fantastical parallel world. From the minds who inspired AMC’s upcoming series Dispatches From Elsewhere, In Bright Axion weaves an intriguing cautionary tale about the unforeseen consequences of embracing the unknown.
(Art + Design and unofficially Politics and China)
Section Note: Politics and China are my own categories. DOC NYC has a section called New World Order, for “today’s most urgent issues” (politics), although they formally do not include this film in that section.
In 2013 artist Ai Weiwei and curator Cheryl Haines created an interactive art installation on San Francisco’s Alcatraz Island. Formerly imprisoned by the Chinese government for his art and political activism, Ai uses his experiences as inspiration. Through a unique combination of kites, Legos and postcards, Ai and Haines pay tribute to prisoners of conscience across the globe. Visually impressive and uplifting, this film is a celebration of freedom of speech, human rights and the power of art.
I haven’t seen it yet but it interests me for a few reasons: 1) I enjoy films that depict art and become part of the art experience in the process (such as Walking on Water – click to see my review); 2) I am particularly interested in political art because I think that is when art is most relevant and overtly necessary; and 3) I am especially concerned about the current, increasingly tense political situation in China and Hong Kong, which highlights the ongoing fight for freedom of speech around the world. Also, under President Trump, freedom of speech is on the verge of becoming an endangered human right in the United States, so it’s worth looking at how serious an issue it is to those who live without it.
(Viewfinders, unofficially China, also Comedy)
Section Note: “Viewfinders” is described as films with “distinct directorial visions,” although it looks to me like what would otherwise be called Foreign Films, in this case, Chinese. And I added in my own “Comedy” category because somewhere in all the complicated literature I recall reading that the festival made it a point to include some “documentaries with a sense of humor,” which is an idea I welcome.
Documentary comedies are a rarity, even more so from China. But Weijun Chen has proven himself a master with such mirthful films as Please Vote for Me and The Biggest Chinese Restaurant in the World. Now he finds comedy in Wuhan, the biggest city in Central China. We watch over a year as the Urban Management Bureau tries to displace a cantankerous street vendor. Chen brings out the humanity of everyone, even when they’re pushed to their limits.
This film interests me because it’s a comedy and also because it’s Chinese. There were recently two Chinese fictional films screened at New York Film Festival, which I will soon be writing about, and I also wrote about a Chinese documentary at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which Helen Highly Recommends – ***Our Time Machine (which does not yet have a distributor but is still doing the festival circuit, so keep an eye out, and click here for my Our Time Machine review).
China has recently created new, much stricter censorship rules for filmmakers and actually pulled two films last-minute from recent international film festivals, for political reasons, so the status of Chinese filmmaking, especially indie filmmaking, is an open question. We can expect to be seeing fewer films from China, so best to appreciate the ones able to make it out now. I anticipate this will depict China in a positive light consistent with the government’s values, which does not make it lose credibility but the political restraints are worth considering while watching.
As long as I’ve ventured into the foreign film (Viewfinders) category, it’s worth mentioning this Polish film, which looks strangely unconventional and like a bit of a genre-bender. Fires, heart attacks, acts of madness and even suicide—these are the consequences of the halny wind. This destructive windstorm regularly wreaks havoc in Poland’s Tatra Mountains, impacting the lives of several characters and their animal companions. Brilliantly photographed and with special attention to soundscapes, Michal Bielawski‘s mysterious tale of ecological revenge pushes the documentary form and keeps you on the edge of your seat while portraying humanity at odds with nature. Wow, right? Sounds like something that will activate all your senses and make you think.
And as long as I’m talking about an unconventional Polish film, I need to just type the title ***Corpus Christi – Poland’s submission for Foreign Film at the Academy Awards. I saw it just recently and it blew my mind. I plan to write about it but in the meantime, if you get a chance to see it… go. It’s not a documentary but is strangely based on a true story. It’s the perfect example of the kind of movie I would assume I would not like, but it grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me hard. I am still processing it. Subject matter becomes a non-issue when a brilliant film is a brilliant film. I think maybe Polish filmmakers are having a moment. So, put both The Wind and Corpus Christi on your to-watch list.
(Winner’s Circle and unofficially Viewfinders)
Section Note: Continuing on this foreign film tangent, I will explain that DOC NYC has another confusing category called “Winner’s Circle,” which are “international award winners.” These are films that have won major festival awards, in many cases from Oscar-qualifying festivals but might fly below the radar of American audiences (such as Corpus Christi, above, although that is not part of DOC NYC). Films in this category are the prime examples of the hidden gems that good film festivals unearth and the reason to pay attention.
Filmmaker Hassan Fazili documents his family’s journey as they’re forced to flee their home in Afghanistan under threat of death. We follow him, his wife Fatima and their daughters Nagris and Zahra over several years and through several countries. They travel with few possessions besides the cell phones used to shoot this remarkable documentary. Indiewire writes, “The film is designed as a homeopathic antidote to apathy; it… renders visible what so many of us tend not to see.”
I will add that there are many films at this year’s festival that deal with the global refugee crisis in a variety of ways. My list of suggested films disproportionately represents them (okay, mostly ignores them), perhaps because I am so often confronted with the great injustice of it in the news and am weary of feeling powerless against the devastation. It’s not fair but it’s my gut reaction. I include this film in my list because it seems to have the flavor of a road trip movie, and I’ve always liked road trip stories, especially ones that take me through multiple countries. Also, this is one of those new documentaries made mostly from cellphone footage, which makes it current on another level. So, on that basis, I pick this one film to represent all the others with similar themes, most of which I assume are very worth watching. But I suggest you start with this one.
(Art + Design)
Charming and engaging, with a youthful curiosity well into his 80s, Elliott Erwitt has always let his photos speak for themselves. His iconic black-and-white shots of presidents, popes, celebrities and everyday folks span over six decades and multiple countries. Narrated by his assistant, this film takes us inside his extensive photo archives and along with Elliott as he travels to Cuba to take photos for his newest book and exhibition.
This 62-minute film will be screening with Tasha Van Zandt’s One Thousand Stories: The Making of a Mural (14 min.) Follow artist JR in the creation of his first video mural project, “The Chronicles of San Francisco.”
Why is this on my list? Well… just photos. I love photography (and archives), and I am intrigued by the global perspective. There is also another photo-filled film in this festival that I have already seen and Helen will Highly Recommend, next:
(Masters and unofficially Art + Design and Literary World)
Section Note: DocNYC has officially put this in their “Masters” category, which they define as “films by nonfiction auteurs.” Not sure exactly why that needs its own category separate from all the other nonfiction films, but if you’re looking for it, you will find it in that special category. For your information, I am also suggesting that it would fit within the festival’s Art + Design category due to its focus on photography and within my own Literary World category, due to its focus on journalism.
Composed almost entirely of newspaper photographs, Letter to the Editor is New York native Alan Berliner’s personal journey through 40 years of pictorial history culled from daily printed editions of his beloved hometown paper, The New York Times. Berliner approaches documentary like a collagist and memoirist in films such as Nobody’s Business and First Cousin, Once Removed (2013 DocNYC Short List), and this film is his greatest project.
Part musings of a self-described news junkie, part heartfelt elegy for the death of the printed newspaper in the digital age, the film is filled with observations, stories, opinions, humor and idiosyncratic reflections on the news—good, bad and fake, past, present and future. This is a playful and profound visual essay commenting on photojournalism and what will be lost if print newspapers go away. It will air in December on HBO.
I’ve seen Letter to the Editor and will write a more detailed article about it later, but Helen Highly Recommends this astonishing film that portrays Berliner’s roughly 70,000 photographs (!). And this film will certainly figure prominently in my upcoming article about Archival Movies. In the film, Berliner states that he is creating the movie for an audience in the future, telling them “I am writing from a time in history when we are about to lose a source of news you have probably never heard of – a newspaper.” He talks about how newspapers are “on the verge of extinction.” So, it’s a film about news as much as it’s about photographs.
It’s also a film about the nature of archiving and the compulsion to keep a record of what is happening. Berliner talks about the 1,600 categories he used to organize his photos and the obsession it became for him. In some ways, I felt he was articulating what Marion Stokes might have said in ***Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project if she had been alive to narrate her own story. Stokes collected over 70,000 videotapes of televised news, recording 24 hours a day for over 30 years, and hers is an extraordinary tale. (Click here for our Recorder review.)
Stokes was in many ways quite a different personality than Berliner, but there are significant connections. Coincidentally (or not), they both began their collections about the time of the Iranian hostage crisis, inspired by the news coverage it was getting. That documentary premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival and is scheduled to open November 15th at New York’s Metrograph Theater, so absolutely go see that film while you have a chance. After the Metrograph, it is scheduled to play for limited runs at select theaters around the country. Click here to go to the Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project website, where they list all the upcoming screenings and dates.
(Art + Design and unofficially Fashion)
Pierre Cardin forever changed fashion in multiple ways. He freed women from figure-molded clothes and introduced new shapes, styles and colors. He was a pioneer in crossing over from haute couture to ready-to-wear. And he brought his designs to multiple products beyond clothes. From the premiere at the Venice Film Festival, Variety wrote, “This is a deliciously entertaining and perceptive take on Cardin’s life and how he shaped both the silhouette of fashion and branding in the fashion world and beyond.”
I enjoy a good fashion film. Fashion is a metaphor for so many things. I don’t know yet if this is good film, but if Variety gave it a thumbs up, I’m gonna guess it’s worth seeing. And then I will add it to my ongoing list of Recommended Fashion Films, which never go out of style (click here to read my Fashion Film List).
(Art + Design and unofficially Portraits)
Okay, one more art doc. Believe it or not, I am only listing the ones I can’t resist. This year’s festival is brimming over with them; it’s an art-lover’s paradise.
Clyfford Still’s striking compositions and idiosyncratic personality made him one of the preeminent figures of the American Abstract Expressionist movement. Through interviews and previously unreleased recordings, Still’s artistic philosophy and his relationships with contemporaries Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock are revealed. After his death, the legacy of the enigmatic artist faces further uncertainty, as museums vie to be the permanent home of the Still collection—if they can meet the strict demands of his will.
“If they can meet the strict demands of his will”?! Ooh, intriguing twist there at the end of the synopsis. I love a demanding, cantankerous artist who knows his own mind and wants to control everything even after his death. I want to see this.
(Portraits and unofficially maybe Literary World)
Section Note: Just want you to be aware that there is an entire section in the festival called “Portraits,” featuring “singular individuals” – films otherwise known as biopics. Also of interest is one about Cory Booker, one about Mike Tyson and one about a woman with Multiple Personality Disorder (with a twist). The Portraits film I’ve chosen seems attractively odd and compelling and of course I like the literary angle.
For 30 years, Terry Gilliam struggled to make a screen adaptation of Don Quixote, including an abandoned attempt chronicled in Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe’s 2002 documentary Lost in La Mancha. Gilliam never gave up and neither did the documentarians. He Dreams of Giants represents the culmination of all their efforts in an epic and poignant portrait. We watch Gilliam bring all his talent, obsession and humor to confronting self-doubt, the pressure to compromise and the need to realize a long-held dream.
(Shortlist Features and unofficially Natural World)
Section Note: Remember Shortlist? They’re the ones that might win an Oscar. You’ll want to have seen these. I picked this one because it seems like a beautiful nature film of the highest quality and is also highly important.
This extraordinary portrait of African elephants focuses on the matriarch Athena as she leads her extended family on a heroic journey in search of water. The sensitive story appeals to all ages with suspense, humor and hope. The stunning cinematography captures a whole ecosystem, from the majestic giant tusked mammals to the tiny dung beetles at their feet. Filmed over four years, The Elephant Queen belongs to the highest rank of films about nature. This epic story of love, loss and coming home is a timely love letter to a species that could be gone from our planet in a generation. It’s an Apple TV+ movie.
Update: Okay, now I’ve seen this film, or at least enough to turn it off. It really only took hearing the first line: “Oh wise and gentle spirits…” in addition to their obnoxious screener-link policy that gave me a mere 48-hour time limit for viewing the film, required I download their software onto my computer and then sprawled my full name in giant letters across the entire bottom half of the screen (to prevent my stealing it). No worries; no interest in even watching it in full. Helen Highly Recommends you Skip this film. However, I have a much better elephant-film suggestion.
The wonder of film festivals, as I have mentioned, is that you get a chance to see small films that may not find a distributor and will be never see again. That was the sad fate of a documentary I saw at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival and called “what every documentary aspires to be” — When Lambs Become Lions. I flat-out loved that film, and I was amazed it got so little attention and seemed to go nowhere. Well, as film-festival-miracles would have it, When Lambs Become Lions is suddenly BACK and getting a limited release in LA (starting 11/22) and NYC (starting 12/6) and hopefully a national rollout to follow.
It’s a film whose story uses elephant poaching in Africa as a setting, so it’s a would-be competitor to Elephant Queen, but Helen Highly Suggests that it is really a film about so much more than poaching; it’s about family and a fight for survival (of people, more than elephants — a human story more than a nature story). Unlike Elephant Queen, When Lambs Become Lions has no narration, no romantic scenes of elephants at sunset running in slow-motion across the plains, and it could never be mistaken for a Disney film. This documentary film tells an astoundingly strong narrative tale and plays like a thriller. It will captivate and give you a lot to think about when you leave the theater. I urge you to go see it if you possibly can. Click here for my full review of When Lambs Become Lions (and the trailer).
(Metropolis and unofficially LGBTQ)
In the 1980s, an Army wife-turned-glamorous party girl named Tish ruled New York City’s downtown nightlife, often out on the scene with the likes of Michael Musto. Just a few years later, after more than a decade as a woman, Tish transitioned back to being Brian. Now, in his sixties, Brian Belovitch reflects on the unique and fascinating turns his life has taken as he’s learned how to feel comfortable in his own skin.
New York just finished up with its LGBTQ film festival, NewFest. There is an endless stream of cutting-edge, brilliant, entertaining and urgently important LGBTQ films, and I would have covered that festival, but I am just barely catching my breath after New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center and there are not enough days in the week or hours in the day. But this one film found its way to DOC NYC and it’s a true stand-out. I’ve seen it and Helen Highly Recommends it. You will watch this movie and you will get it; whatever you didn’t understand before or felt you couldn’t relate to regarding “trans” people… this movie is the answer. It couldn’t be simpler. It’s a simple, straightforward story of one person and it somehow explains the entire world of humanity – the pain, the joy, the difficulty, the humor, the singular fact of being alive.
And I also have the perfect companion piece for it. At NYFF, I saw Born to Be, which is sort of the technical flip-side of I’m Gonna Make You Love Me, and also unofficially a New York Story. Born to Be follows the work of Dr. Jess Ting at the groundbreaking Mount Sinai Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery in New York City-where, for the first time ever, all transgender and gender non-conforming people have access to quality transition-related health and surgical care. With extraordinary access, this feature-length documentary takes an intimate look at how one doctor’s work impacts the lives of his patients as well as how his journey from renowned plastic surgeon to pioneering gender-affirming surgeon has led to his own transformation. Helen Highly Recommends it. I will keep you posted about distribution and where to find it.
And finally, I end my list with two DOC NYC movies about plastic. Remember that famous quote from The Graduate? Mr. McGuire: “I want to say one word to you. Just one word. Plastics. There’s a great future in plastics.” We didn’t begin to imagine how wrong he was.
Section Note: Yup, there’s an entire section of “environmentally focused films“ at DOC NYC. This is only one of at least six.
Plastic, a seemingly indispensable product, has wrought all sorts of innovations, but at what cost? The plastic industry’s success depends on consumers discarding the product and purchasing new items, creating an endless supply of litter that lingers forever. Filmmaker Deia Schlosberg‘s incredibly detailed investigation into the plastic-production pipeline will shock, horrify and forever change your perception on recycling. Timely and critical, this film is a must-see for anyone who uses this infamous product.
Find my rave review of this film in my DOC NYC Overview Part 2 article. Read why I call this the most important documentary of the year.
Sure We Can is a nonprofit in Williamsburg, Brooklyn founded by a Spanish missionary as both a recycling center and a community space. Here, a diverse group of immigrants, homeless individuals and outcasts engages in work, friendship and deep thinking, forging a surrogate family. Ana, René, Malvin, Pierre and Walter discuss God, physics, loneliness and UFOs while feeding kittens, playing music and recycling, in this artful observational film with touches of magic realism. In Spanish and English.
I saved the best for last. This film looks wild and wonderful. And it’s local too – a Spanish film that takes place in Brooklyn! What could be more interesting than a movie about UFOs, kittens and recycling? And remember, Winners Circle means it’s already won awards; you know it’s gonna be great. Let’s all go see it. (Winner Circle films have a reduced ticket price of $12.)