Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | November 20th, 2018
DOC NYC just completed its ninth iteration, running from November 8-15. The largest documentary festival in the United States, DOC NYC this year offered over 300 films, including 42 world premieres and 17 U.S. premieres (mostly features, but with some shorts). Screening its offerings in three Manhattan cinemas – the Cinépolis Chelsea, the IFC Centerand the SVA Theatre – two of which stand kitty-corner across from each other, and the other but a short subway ride away, the festival offers easy navigation between its venues. This was my second year attending, and I was only able to go from the morning of Friday, November 9, through the afternoon of Sunday, November 11. I watched 2 features via screening links, and 10 on the ground, for a total of 12. In addition, I watched a few shorts and one series. That’s but a tiny fraction of the whole, but my personal life editor hasn’t yet figured out how to manipulate my timeline to allow me to do everything I would like. What follows is a list of five films I saw that may not be as high-profile as others, but which I think people should watch. I offer brief capsule reviews of each, adapted from longer reviews I’ve written for Hammer to Nail, in alphabetical order.
First, though, let me begin with one of the shorts I saw, which is perhaps my favorite among all the films I watched: Earthrise (winner of the audience award at an earlier documentary festival, AFI DOCS) from director Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee (Yukon Kings). A thirty-minute meditative tribute to the Apollo 8 astronauts – Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot James Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders – all of whom are still alive, Earthriseuses the titular photo, of the earth at a distance, with the lunar landscape in foreground, to explore what it meant for us as a species to see our home from so far away. For one brief, shining moment, during those years, the people of our planet came together to dream about our collective place in the universe, forgetting tribal rivalries. Though they lament that they are not poets, Borman, Lovell and Anders all nevertheless wax eloquent and elegiac about their experience and the opportunity lost. Using archival footage taken from the space flight, along with additional photographs and interviews with the astronauts, Vaughan-Lee crafts a beautiful celebration of the best of the human spirit.
I’d also like to mention the series I watched, Lady Parts Justice in the New World Order, from director Ruth Leitman (Lipstick & Dynamite). A profile of the women behind the activist group Lady Parts Justice League, the series follows them as they organize following the 2016 election, the results of which were deeply disappointing to the organization. Led by writer/comedian Lizz Winstead, they travel south on a “Vagical Mystery Tour” to further their mission of “kicking politicians out of women’s uteruses” by lending support to threatened women’s health clinics. Made with a jaunty tone that forms a fun contrast to the women’s seriousness of intent, the series – only two 30-minute episodes of which they screened at the festival – offers plenty of good times along with its call to action.
FIVE FEATURE DOCUMENTARIES TO WATCH
Imagine this: you have a lifelong interest in filmmaking yet grow up without knowing of your family’s direct connection to one of the most innovative cameras in the history of cinema. After the death of your grandfather – who was, sadly, somewhat estranged from his son, your father – you discover in his archives, much to your surprise, photos and documents establishing his father (i.e., your great-grandfather) as the inventor of the Bolex. That windup, battery-less 16mm camera made moving-image storytelling, back in the 1920s, easily accessible to the general public in the same way that modern video and digital-cinema cameras and editing platforms have done in more recent years. What would your response be to such a revelation? Why, to make a movie about your relative, right? That, in any case, is what Alyssa Bolsey decided to do with Beyond the Bolex, her debut feature documentary, and it proved a great decision for both her and the viewer. This is more than just an historical narrative, however, as Bolsey, given her close (if long-unknown) link to the subject, crafts a deeply personal story, as well. In addition, she weaves in some fascinating talking-head interviews with filmmakers like Barbara Hammer and Wim Wenders, both of whom have worked with the Bolex, adding their voices to the paean of praise sung to Jacques’ brilliance. It all comes together in a fascinating mix, making not only a great biopic, but also a marvelous celebration of the art of cinema.
A solid history of the ten-year period when New York’s Bronx borough mostly burned to the ground, Decade of Fire is also a deeply personal documentary, narrated by someone who lived through the conflagration and has since devoted her life to rebuilding her community. Vivian Vázquez is her name, and she is also the co-director, along with Gretchen Hildebran (Out in the Heartland), of this insightful look back at a time when one of the United States’ major cities allowed a once-vibrant neighborhood to fall into neglect and disrepair, conditions which led to the fires. This was the 1970s, the tail end of the mid-century obsession with “urban renewal,” a term that added insult to injury, since the only rejuvenation happening in the Bronx, it seems, were the flames starting anew in building after building. Decade of Fire offers a moving portrait of what life was like under these conditions, and how people survived. Fortunately, the Bronx did ultimately stop burning, though its endemic poverty has not disappeared. Vázquez is still there, working as an educator, having successfully raised a family, as well. Her resilience mirrors that of her neighbors, who have labored hard, since the 1970s, to reestablish pride of place and sense of purpose to the area. Unfortunately, as the film ends, we learn of New York City’s latest renewal plans, on Jerome Avenue, that may lead to gentrification and displacement. Perhaps it’s better than burning out residents, but ultimately just as destructive. Some things never change.
Elliptical, beautiful and narratively unconventional, Hale County This Morning, This Evening rewards the viewer with images and passages of incomparable power. Set in Alabama among middle- and lower-income African American communities, this experimental documentary weaves scenes shot over a number of years into a gently undulating tapestry of time and place, the full pattern of which emerges only once the film is done. Seemingly fleeting moments – of families, children playing, stars, thunderstorms, street lights, deer, and more – resonate long after they have faded to black, reminding us of the simultaneous resilience and transience of existence. Slowly and stealthily, director RaMell Ross builds a framework from which he examines race and social class, and their connection, in the America of today. Hale County, Alabama, is both its own unique location and a metaphor for the country at large. Ross briefly breaks his otherwise purely observational style at one point to juxtapose shots of early-20th-century African American actor Bert Williams, performing in blackface, with modern-day shots of an old slave plantation, reminding us of the complicated, not-so-distant past that informs the present. Nothing much happens here, it seems at first, and yet everything does: life, death and the search for meaning. How do we frame someone? Exactly as does RaMell Ross.
As Silicone Soul, the latest documentary from Melody Gilbert (The Summer Help), opens, we meet a man named John, in archival footage from 2009, as he weds his “wife” Jackie – a sex doll – on an old Jerry Springer Show. An otherwise healthy man, sweet and gentle, John has decided that real women are no longer what he wants after his ex-wife cheated on him multiple times. Flash-forward to the present, and at 54, John still lives with Jackie, content as can be. Her extremities may be frayed and her joints falling apart, but love her he still does, because why not? Most of the people in his community recognize his harmlessness, and bat not an eyelash when he takes Jackie to the zoo or to dinner at a restaurant. There are the occasional hecklers, but overall, John seems content. He is not alone in this tale of synthetic romance. There’s also “Davecat,” who lives with two silicone partners, one his wife Sidore Kuroneko and the other their submissive lover Elena Vostrikova. We meet Stacey Leigh, as well, a New York-based artist who used to be on Wall Street but now crafts tableaux with her own bevy of silicone models (all female but for one male), occasionally mixing in some organic souls, as well, to make her photography even more unsettling. And then there’s “Ben” (not his real name), whose wife is stricken with cancer and has given him permission to pursue an affair, in order to meet his sexual needs, as long as the partner is synthetic. Finally, there are the good folks at Abyss Creations, makers of the prototypes that our main subjects purchase for upwards of $6000 (and more). Though they claim at one point that they would never add robotics to their product, the movie ends with just that development. Uncanny valley, here we come!
Ursula K. Le Guin (née Kroeber, hence the ever-present K), born in 1929, was a prolific writer of prose, poetry and essays, pretty much right up until her death earlier this year, on January 22. She came of age at a time when women authors were especially rare in the realm of fantasy and science fiction, yet those are the genres in which she initially chose to specialize, making her mark with such works as the Earthseabooks(initially a trilogy before expanding beyond that in the following decades) and, my personal favorite, The Left Hand of Darkness, which examines the role of sex and gender on a distant planet inhabited by a race of humanoids whose individual sexes change often over the course of a lifetime. She was a titan of American – and world – letters, leaving behind a vast treasure trove of books (in many genres), only a tiny fraction of which I have read. Director Arwen Curry’s documentary Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin makes me want to devour them all. One of the best parts of this fascinating biopic is the visualization of Le Guin’s universes. Working with two different animators – Em Cooper and Molly Schwartz – Curry creates lovely accompaniments to the chronological walk through the material. We open and close the film with our octogenarian subject giving a talk at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, where she mostly made her life (much of the inspiration for the topography of her fictional worlds comes from this area). Asked about good rules for writing, Le Guin replies, “Every story must make its own rules, and obey them.” Words to live by.
I also recommend The 5 Browns: Digging Through the Darkness, The Cat Rescuers and Free Solo, among others. DOC NYC has a whole section, as well, entitled DOC NYC PRO, featuring panels and master classes. Next year, perhaps I’ll add that to my list. See you then!