If only I’d had more time. It’s a common refrain I tell myself whenever a top-drawer festival such as DOC NYC comes along. I didn’t get to nearly as many films this year as I would have liked (it’s always that way), but what I did see was a firm reminder that truth is not only stranger than fiction, it’s often braver.
Here’s a look back at some stellar documentaries, which you should watch, too.
Directors: Gédéon and Jules Naudet
It’s rare that a documentary fills me with so much rage. That’s neither a fault nor complaint with “January 6th,” but it does reinforce the fury I and so many others felt nearly two years ago as the Capitol was ransacked by a hateful mob drunk on self-delusion and stoked on by a dangerous sore loser. I’ve lived in and near Washington, D.C., for the better part of a decade, and thus it takes everything I have not to feel hatred for that mob as I type this, but I promise to at least try.
Gédéon and Jules Naudet, the French brothers who were embedded with an NYFD battalion on Sept. 11, 2001, know the landscape of unimaginable horror, as evidenced by their films “9/11” and “November 13: Attack on Paris,” the latter about the murders of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. The Naudets have now accomplished the seemingly impossible with “January 6th”: crafting a narrative of that dreadful day from those who were there, and doing so with tact, humility and humanity.
The Naudets seat their interview subjects in front of a black background, underscoring the tragedy recounted. The testimonies of senators, representatives, congressional staffers, documentarians and Capitol Police officers are intercut with a nearly minute-by-minute account of the mayhem thanks to all those cameras and some clever computer graphics. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) and other politicos all recount those terrifying hours, as do several Republicans, including soon-to-be-jobless Liz Cheney (Wyo.) and Troy Nehls, a Texas representative who recounts soberly that he believed it was his solemn duty to object to the vote counts in Arizona and Pennsylvania—as if that would have somehow saved him from the horde’s fury.
However, good deeds amidst such madness should rightfully be celebrated, including Nehls recounting how one protestor recognized him through a broken glass panel in the House chamber door, and then decried Nehls for not being among them. No, the Texan bravely responded, my place is here, and what you are doing is wrong.
Many of the subjects fight for composure, including Capitol Police officers hardened by earlier military experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, who never imagined they would be fending off their fellow Americans in the citadel of democracy. Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.) recounts returning to his home and his young son, who asked, “Dada, did something happen at work?” Another representative recounts holding in his outrage flying back to his district, sharing the plane with a planeload of jubilant rioters.
Near the end of the doc, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) says that, after the madness, he asked himself if this marked the beginning or the end. “I’m still not sure I know the answer to that question,” he says. But it’s a question we absolutely must continue to ask!
Directors: Jack Porter Lofton and Jeff Dailey
Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Al Gore, Terence Blanchard, Peyton Manning and even Justin Timberlake are all fans of the Memphis BBQ institution the Rendezvous, what with its basement dining and famous ribs. Opened by Greek-American entrepreneur Charlie Vargas in 1948, the ‘Vous is precisely that piece of Americana so ripe for a documentary, especially as the restaurant remains in the Vargas family for its third generation. But can that be maintained in an incredibly changing world, especially when several of Charlie’s heirs tangle over how the business should operate in the 21st century?
“The ‘Vous” introduces us to the owners at the top as well as those staff members who have worked there for decades. Yes, decades! One waiter, Big Jack, tells us how he left Memphis for military service in Korea, but by the time he came back, forced to again sit at the back of the bus, he asked to be sent back to Korea. It’s a sad reminder of how recent was the civil rights era, and how close we might be to sliding back again.
We also learn that Charlie Vargos was on the side of progress, chasing out of the establishment hateful customers who were unkind to his staff. (Many of the staff also recollect being on duty when Dr. King was murdered mere miles away at the Lorraine Motel.)
In addition to the waiters who have worked at the Rendezvous for decades, one of the doc’s most interesting characters is young Johnny, who starts as a busboy but may not heed the advice of the seasoned veterans–some of whom have worked at the joint for over a half-century–to stay on the straight and narrow.
It’s incredible a restaurant such as this could have lasted so long; it well deserves the title of Memphis “institution.” But more than that, “The ‘Vous” is a celebration of those front-line workers whose efforts go largely unthanked. And I look very much forward to dining there!
“1946: The Mistranslation That Shifted a Culture”
Director: Sharon “Rocky” Roggio
Sharon Roggio grew up in a very religious household, which made her coming out as a lesbian that much more difficult. It’s been years since that day, but still her relationship with her parents is somewhat frayed. Her father, Sal, while he very much loves Sharon, still hopes she will change her ways and thus save herself from perdition.
But is her being gay really proscribed by the Bible? The surprising answer is: not necessarily. Indeed, the year 1946 marked the first time the word “homosexual” ever even appeared in the Good Book. Surprised? Roggio’s investigation uncovers that a conclave of religious scholars at Yale in the postwar years decided to insert the word in their latest translation, despite one brave dissenter who stood up to them for reasons that will leave you gasping.
Roggio’s interviewees include scholars Kathy Baldock and Ed Oxford, who trace the mistranslated word back to its Greek origins and make the case that, egads, being gay was never forbidden by Scriptures. It’s a message many don’t want to hear, including Roggio’s pastor father, and it’s a battle that will doubtless draw fierce opposition from a culture segment whose very identity depends on casting out the other as wicked.
“My Sister Liv”
Director: Alan Hicks
Tess Kunik and her sister Liv were close. They shared everything and were each other’s best friends. That Liv struggled with mental illness from an early age is well documented, and her episodes only increased during adolescence; her symptoms were exacerbated by alcohol and drugs, leading her into an only too predictable spiral. Though Tess and their mother tried to help, in the end, there was nothing they could do for her.
Survivor’s guilt is awful to live with, but by sharing Liv’s story, there’s hope that someone else considering Liv’s ultimately tragic path can pull themselves back from the brink with support and love. The doc thankfully includes the following text in its end credits: “If you are feeling suicidal, text “LIV” to 741741 any hour of the day for a compassionate ear. Visit thelivproject.org.”
Director: Denny Tedesco
You may not know the band Immediate Family (frankly, I didn’t), but you’re guaranteed to have heard them playing–collectively and individually—on some of your favorite records. Long before they came together as a 21st century headlining act, Leland Sklar, Danny Kortchmar, Russ Kunkel and Waddy Wachtel played behind some of the biggest acts out there. Their famous pals and collaborators sing their praises in the film, including Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Don Henley, David Crosby, Phil Collins, Keith Richards and Linda Rondstadt. Ever in demand, they lived on rock n’ roll’s fringes: always working but never quite marquee names.
Hopefully that will change thanks to Tedesco’s engrossing doc, which offers a look into the vast undercarriage of superior talent that keeps the music industry functioning.
(featured image: “The ‘Vous”)