Dozens of amazing films once again show us the value of hewing to truth when so many seek to create their own alternative reality. This year’s DOC NYC demonstrated how truly talented are documentary filmmakers the world over, many of whom aren’t household names but nonetheless continue the search for truth in a world less and less interested in it.
Here are some of the major offerings from this year’s festival. Seek them out and the next time you meet a documentarian, thank them for their work.
Director: Daniel Lombroso
The Trump administration may be history but its legacy continues on in the hundreds of miles of border walls constructed at the southern frontier with Mexico. Much of that terrain is far from human activity, but no one told the animals whose migration patterns have existed there for millennia. Daniel Lombroso (“White Noise,” “Prince of Luna Park”) trains his camera on those remote sections of the Southwest where artificial canyons have literally been blasted into the desert so that parts of the wall came rest atop them—some in places so remote, mountainous and inhospitable that crossing them is all but impossible even without the wall.
The animal species were there long before humans and countries and immigration debates, but with the walls in place, their ability to mate and forage for food has been undermined. Featuring some absolutely stellar drone footage, “American Scar” is a requiem not just for the possibility of friendly neighborliness between two nations but also the death knell for so many species whose lives depend upon moving freely across boundaries set forth by man.
Director: Heddy Honigmann
What do those among us who have lived past the century mark have to share about life, wisdom, health, love, etc.? Quite a lot actually, as filmmaker Heddy Honigmann discovers in this touching portrait of centenarians. A key question: Are they afraid of dying? To a person, they shrug off fear of the inevitable; having seen so much and experienced as much, they all seem to believe that because it must happen, it need not be feared.
Honigmann’s camera revisits several subjects multiple times, including a New York man in a comfortable living room chair. He is first interviewed with his son; later on, his chair is empty, and the son, rather than grieve, seems thankful for the time he had and the grace and dignity with which his father left this world.
And when one subject is asked “Why do you want to keep on living,” the answer is something we can all meditate upon:
“To see if possible changes may be made, but I don’t think they will take place in my lifetime.”
Let’s prove her wrong!
Listening to Kenny G
Director: Penny Lane
For many people, the jazz artist Kenny G is a punchline, with critics decrying his music as “soft” or dull. Director Penny Lane (Hail, Satan?) follows the jazzman, still with those trademark curly locks, as he preps to record his first album in six years. Kenny G—surname Gorelick—never has an unkind word to say, even for the haters, and his smile is infectious as he relates his love for music and his place in the popular culture firmament. Among the documentary’s most touching anecdotes is that the Seattle-born Kenny G told his father he wished to try his hand at music rather than enter the family business. His father agreed, and the saxophonist is not only forever grateful but has spent his own time as a dad encouraging his sons in turn.
The Business of Birth Control
Director: Abby Epstein
Incredibly, a woman’s right to control her own reproduction continues to be a divisive issue in America, well after the time of Margaret Sanger—whose unfortunate reputation as a eugenicist is indeed explored in this documentary. Abby Epstein’s most shocking assertion in the documentary is that hormonal birth contraol has driven many women to medical problems and/or suicide. It is exploring this aspect of the debate when the film comes most alive rather during lengthy, acrimonious policy discussions.
Directors: Directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen
Julia Child was many things, but a “spy” she was not. Yes, the legend surrounding her work during the Second World War is well known, but this documentary, even though it busts the myth, nonetheless acknowledges Child’s work in the OSS during the war “assisting” spies. It’s just one chapter in a fascinating, unique American life. Directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen track Child from being born a privileged daughter of Pasadena on to college at Smith in Massachusetts. Rather than take the traditional route of marriage, Child forged her own path, excelling at sports thanks to her height, heading to the European theater when war broke out, and later to Sri Lanka, where she met her lifelong mate Paul.
At a time when women were sneered at for wanting to cook outside the home, Child attended the Cordon Bleu cooking school, only to top herself soon by soon becoming the most famous chef on American TV. She remains famous long after her death, providing the blueprint for all the celebrity chefs/authors who followed.
When Child first cooked on public television, it was considered a fluke, but the Food Network, and so many imitators, are only part of her incredible legacy.
Alien on Stage
Directors: Lucy Harvey and Danielle Kummer
A group of bus drivers from Dorset, England, staged the seminal horror flick “Alien” as a play, and it was an unmitigated disaster. However, the artistic community took notice, and the company was soon invited to London’s vaunted West End to restage the play a second time. “Alien on Stage” shows a group of amateur actors and creatives (remember, they do it for the love) pushing hard, without any monetary compensation, to bring the xenomorph to a packed house for one night only. It’s a study in determination, courage and the love of the arts for its own sake.
Children of the Enemy
Director: Gorki Glaser-Müller
Patricio Galvez was a Chilean man living in Sweden blissfully. Then his daughter converted to Islam and ran away to join the Islamic State with her husband. Both she and her husband were killed by an allied strike, but their children survived. Now Galvez, from his home in Sweden, fights diplomatic red tape, cultural walls and the clock as he races to bring his grandchildren from Syria to Sweden. But even then, the battle isn’t over as Galvez’s mother-in-law demands the grandchildren maintain their Muslim teachings, which Galvez believes destroyed his family in the first place.
A fascinating look at a changing world, those who push back against it, as well as those innocents caught in the middle.
Director: Alison Klayman
Alanis Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill” came out of nowhere in the summer of 1995, but the Canadian singer-songwriter’s journey had already been an epic prior to her fame. Alison Klayman’s camera sits across from Morrissette in a rather impressive library at the singer’s California home, as the now-middle-aged artist reconts the years leading up to the blockbuster album. Discovering her talent and drive early on, Morrissette was soon making the rounds of Toronto’s TV shows and talent competitions, seeking her big break. And while she doesn’t name names, her anger at predatory men in the industry, who sexually assaulted her when she was still underage, is as raw as the rage of “Jagged Little Pill” itself.
“The whole ‘why do women wait [to report] thing,” Morrissette says in one of the documentary’s most searing moments. “Women don’t wait; the culture doesn’t listen.” Ouch.
The angst of “Jagged Little Pill” is thus much understood, even if it was seemingly the focus of so much backlash against the album. With hindsight, Morrissette is able to look back upon the album, the collaborators who helped (or harmed) her, and the album’s impact on the culture at large with the clarity that can only come with age—and removal from the constant adulation and attacks she endured as a young, newly famous woman. The album gave voice to so many women’s justified anger, and even a quarter-century later, it’s as fresh as ever.
DMX: Don’t Try to Understand
Director: Christopher Frierson
It’s nigh impossible to watch Christopher Frierson’s documentary about some of the final months of DMX’s life without a sense of sorrow. His camera finds DMX fresh out of prison for income tax invasion, and seemingly back on the way up as he records new music. However, DMX’s relationship with his son Xavier Simmons is the picture of dysfunction, and the pain in the younger Simmons’s eyes during both vintage footage and contemporary interviews begs to be salved. Indeed, we watch a tentative mending of fences, knowing the entire time that DMX would die soon of a drug overdose.
Some fences remain bloodied, no matter how many coats of paint are applied.
Mr. Saturday Night
Director: John Maggio
Sometimes all it takes is one man’s vision and a refusal to say no, and Robert Stigwood was just that kind of person. The English impresario was already managing the Bee Gees when he came upon Nik Cohn’s article “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” which he knew would make an excellent movie (never mind that Cohn later admitted he made the whole thing up). Stigwood effectively moved into movie producer, and set about schmoozing in order to get “Saturday Night Fever” off the ground. Contemporary audio clips are mixed into the proceedings, as we watch Stigwood create a soundtrack for a movie that hadn’t even been released—naturally featuring the Bee Gees.
The film and its soundtrack were a smash, but soon enough the culture turned against disco, and Stigwood’s golden touch was dulled. But what an impact he made along the way.
Dean Martin: King of Cool
Director: Tom Donahue
Dean Martin enjoyed an incomparably successful showbiz career, but behind the smiling veneer was a complicated man, often at war with his demons, including alcohol. Martin’s extraordinary trajectory from small-town Pennsylvania son of Italian immigrants (his given name: Dino Paul Crocetti) to Hollywood golden boy is tracked in this fascinating documentary.
He also left a trainwreck in his wake, marrying multiple times and leaving his children for long stretches as he worked the road—and spent a great amount of time in Vegas with the Rat Pack. Tom Donahue speaks to Martin’s descendents, including daughter Deana, who relates that as her father’s health faded, she brought him his favorite dish: pasta fagioli. A fascinating episode also shows that years after Martin and Jerry Lewis were estranged, Lewis quietly crept into the church for Martin’s funeral.
The Rat Pack may be no more, but their legacy lives on.
Punch 9 for Harold
Director: Joe Winston
The Daley machine had ruled Chicago for decades when Richard J. Daley died suddenly in 1976. The Windy City needed a new leader to not only “clean up” after the Daley years, in which patronage was rampant, but to fight against gerrymandering and speak for the city’s poor, largely ethnically segregated neighborhoods. Harold Washington, an Army veteran and congressman, believed he was the man for the job. In 1983 he took on incumbent Jane Byrne, a fellow Democrat, but what Washington was really facing was a Republican machine that opted for scare tactics that a Black mayor would spell doom for the city. It almost worked, with many frightened Democrats supporting the Republican candidate, Bernard Epton.
Even after he was in city hall, Washington faced a stonewalling city council, who dug in their heels against what he proposed (a forerunner, perhaps, of our current Congress in D.C.). Washington bravely faced down his political enemies, and went about the reforms he saw were needed, helping the city’s Black population and rooting out anyone who stank of Daley and his crony machine.
By the time of his death in 1987—like Daley before him, he died on the job—Washington was extremely popular, and the line to view his body snaked around several city blocks. Once he was gone, the Daley dynasty returned, with Richard M. Daley taking over his father’s old job, which he would win in 1989 and hold for 22 years, eclipsing his father by one year.
Now Chicago has an openly lesbian Black mayor in Lori Lightfoot, which would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. Harold Washington helped pave the way.
Director: Holly Morris
Holly Morris follows an incredible group of women intent on becoming the first all-female expedition to reach the North Pole. They come from many countries and all walks of life; unsurprisingly, their lingua franca is English. We see the women training by dragging tires to simulate sleds laden with equipment and jumping in freezing water to drill what needs to happen if they slip through the ice.
Their journey begins with a snag as one of the women catches frostbite and has to be helicoptered out but thankfully is flown to the finish line to join her crew.
All things are possible with determination, training and grit, whatever reproductive organs the seeker may possess.
Director: Max Lowe
Alex Lowe was perhaps the world’s greatest mountain climber. But every time he went off on another climb, his wife Jennifer had to keep the voices at bay that he might not return to her and their children. Eventually, and tragically, her anxiety was validated when Lowe was killed by an avalanche. The couple’s son Max, now grown, has Jennifer and other family members recall Alex; some recollections are tender, including for Max, who was only ten when his father died.
The story takes an unexpected turn when Alex’s friend and climbing partner, Conrad Anker, becomes a surrogate father to Alex and Jennifer’s children. Eventually, Jennifer asks him to make it official, and the two have been married ever since.
A fascinating look at an extraordinary man, the dynamics of grief, the value of family and the need to continue living even in the face of tragedy.
Director: Andy Ostroy
Actress Adrienne Shelly essentially wished her career into existence, and soon moved behind the camera to make the kinds of films she wanted. After several disastrous relationships she met Andy Ostroy, a divorced father of three who became her soulmate. They had a child of their own, Sophie, and things seemed to be going well. Then, Shelly was found dead in her apartment, a murder made to look like a suicide.
Ostroy, directing his own documentary about his late wife, bravely discusses not only how the murder affected he and his daughter, but also of keeping Shelly’s legacy alive. Sophie, now a teenager, reads letters her mother wrote to be read when she was older, barely holding back tears.
Incredibly, Ostroy sends a letter to the man convicted of killing Shelly, who agrees to meet him. I shall leave it to you to watch the incredibly moving meetup at the prison—and its aftermath.
Incredible filmmaking, and a testament to the resilience of the human spirit (featured image).
Director: Julia Bacha
A most unusual alliance exists between American right-wing evangelicals and Israel. For the Jewish state is needed for Jesus to return, according to their interpretation of scripture, but the good book also claims that any and all nonbelievers will be sent to perdition on Judgment Day—including Jews who do not accept Christ.
Into this milieu are we dropped in “Boycott,” which commences with an Arkansas state senator who sponsored and wrote (or, rather, was written by other parties, as we shall learn) a bill requiring that all people employed by Little Rock must sign a pledge not to join the boycott-divestment-sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel as protest for Palestinian occupation. We meet an Arkansas newspaper publisher (Alan Leveritt, of the Arkansas Times) who refuses to sign the pledge. Another, a Muslim teacher in Texas, refuses, as does a third man Julia Bacha follows. Their cases are taken up by civil rights attorneys, who argue that this is free speech, and thus the anti-boycott laws run counter to the First Amendment.
The right to protest, these people argue, is the most American of rights, and no law should take it away.
Director: Alessandro Rossellini
Alessandro Rossellini is a scion of the namesake dynasty. As an adult he goes through old footage and interviews his living family members, including actress Isabella Rossellini, about paterfamilias Robert Rossellini and his complex marriage and numerous affairs. The documentary, which is interesting if not fascinating, seems to ask if it’s possible to emerge from the shadows of our forebears without too much damage—and while still loving those who wounded us.
Director: Vincent Liota
Why are we so attached to “things,” especially those curios that have no intrinsic value? The short answer is that they mean something to the owner, who cannot bear to part with it. Vincent Liota visits several of these “holders” and their rather odd collection of “stuff.” One man has a plastic egg from childhood that he was handed by a friend as he was moving away. Another woman interviewed is a borderline hoarder, freely admitting to holding onto “anything with a date,” even if it’s a receipt from the grocery store.
The documentary argues that our love affair with physical objects can be unhealthy, especially when they begin to bury us. What Liota uncovers is that more often, people are attached to the story behind the object. This is illuminated by two men who buy cheap tchotchkes at the store, none worth more than a dollar, and put them on ebay with “stories” of their previous ownership. Many sell for hundreds of dollars; it was the backstory that attracted buyers.
Yes, in the end, it’s just stuff, but the interview subjects appear so attached to the objects not so much as objects but for the memories to which they are married. Letting go of the thing, one man argues, is tantamount to forgetting his own memories. Eastern philosophy dictates, however, that attachment to physical things—including the body—leads to anxiety. Perhaps that’s why people hold onto things: It staves off loss and death—for now.
Director: Kavery Kaul
A woman from New Orleans named Fatima discovers that she has both Black and Indian ethnic background. Accordingly, she travels to India, where some people are welcoming while others decry her for being not only an outsider but a Christian. Nonetheless, Fatima takes all of the experiences with grace, whether it’s attending services at a mosque or trying new foods. For in some way, this connects her to her heritage.
Once Upon a Time in Uganda
Directors: Cathryne Czubek and Hugo Perez
Sometimes filmmaking itself makes for unusual alliances, as in the case of American actor and film programmer Alan Hofmanis and Isaac Nabwana, a Ugandan director making over-the-top action movies in what has become known as Wakaliwood. Hofmanis and Nabwana team up to make a movie in Kampala, but before long things go terribly wrong. Despite their pluck, the two men are soon barely on speaking terms, and Hofmanis finally walks off the set. Even if they reconcile (no spoilers here), they still face long odds to get their movie before audiences.
Nabwana is a fascinating character who by sheer force of will, in a very poor country with scant resources, became a filmmaker with international appeal—even if he stepped on a great many toes along the way.
14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible
Director: Torquil Jones
Nirmal Purja is a career mountaineer, but he wants to up the ante by scaling the world’s fourteen tallest peaks in less than seven months. It seemed unthinkable, which was why his operation was dubbed “Project Possible.” Torquil Jones follows “Nis,” as he is known, as he treks up the world’s tallest mountains in the Himalayas, including the notorious K2. Everest falls in the middle of his feat, and on his way down, he takes the iconic photo of hundreds of climbers awaiting their turn at the top.
Purja is a fascinating character. He is always smiling, even when his body lacks oxygen miles above sea level. The previous record for climbing those fourteen peaks was eight years, and Purja isn’t prepared for failure, even as the Chinese government initially refuses him a visa to climb a mountain within its borders. He presses on, and up. Jones’s camera being there to film it all is about as much an accomplishment as Purja’s own.
“14 Peaks” a shoo-in for a Best Documentary Oscar.
Article’s featured image is a still from “Adrienne,” directed by Andy Ostroy.