DC/DOX – Capsule film reviews

Last Updated: June 26, 2024By Tags:

“Emergent City:
Directed by Kelly Anderson & Jay Arthur Sterrenberg

“Emergent City” examines Industrial City, a disused Brooklyn waterfront property that is perhaps ripe for new development.  The developers have big plans and bring in the usual promises of jobs and economic improvement.  But it seems the developers and the politicians forgot to ask the residents of the New York City borough, who vocally decry what they view as an attempt to further gentrify some of the priciest real estate in America.  A multilingual coalition, fed up with economic policies that have left them behind, seeks to stop the project, with hapless politicos caught in the middle.  Shot over a period of five years, “Emergent City” offers an intriguing journey through ground-up community involvement from voices that too often are left unheard in the quest for big dollars.  (Then-borough President Eric Adams is seen walking out of a rather contentious meeting, and by the film’s end, the now-mayor is seen cozying up with those same capitalist developers.)  The community is far from united, however, with some residents seeing the potential of redevelopment and jobs, leading to some rather pitched vocal sparrings.

It’s said you don’t want to see democracy or sausage being made, and “Emergent City” may remind you why: It’s messy on the way to the final product (on Saturday evening, I moderated a post-screening Q&A panel with the filmmakers and several subjects from the film).

“Been There”
Directed by Corina Schwingruber Ilić

“Been There” might best be described as “extreme verite.”  This captivating nine-and-a-half-minute film casts the camera as central character, viewing and capturing moments of humanity in various countries: dining, engaging with nature, taking photos of others taking photos.  Corina Schwingruber Ilić invites us not merely to stare or watch but to observe our species in motion.  Her ultimate collage is a testament to the notion of being alive and interacting with others and the world.  Most impressive.

“The Big Wait”
Directed by Yannick Jamey

I’ve spent only a few days in Australia’s Outback, but nowhere near as remotely as the couple at the center of “The Big Wait,” who comprise the entirety of the remote settlement of Forrest.  As the doc’s name suggests, the couple is there manning five bungalows on the off-off-off-chance that a distressed aircraft will need to land at the “town” runway, and its passengers are in need of shelter.  Yannick Jamey’s thoroughly engrossing short follows the couple, who say they are neither lonely nor unhappy, maintaining the guestrooms, cutting one another’s hair, killing weeds on the runway and, in a particularly smile-inducing moment, racing down said runway in their Toyota at top speed because why not.  This type of life is not for the faint of heart or the anxious, yet it comes with a certain level of freedom from the noises of civilization.  Fascinating work from director Jamey (featured image).

“On the Battlefield”
Directed by Theresa Delsoin, Lisa Marie Malloy, J.P. Sniadecki, Ray Whitaker

This unusual documentary sees a sound engineer walking the fields where the Pyramid Courts housing projects of the southern Illinois town of Cairo once stood.  The Black community they housed is now largely displaced, but the memories remain, including for the filmmaker who knew them well.

“Penn F-ing Station”
Directed by Claire Read

New Yorkers of a certain age were said to wax nostalgic for the “old” aboveground Penn Station, which was razed to make way for the Madison Square Garden arena.  Over half a century later, the only thing people can seem to agree upon is that something needs to be done about it, but what?  The thirty-minute documentary follows civic leaders, business owners and politicians—including Mayor Eric Adams and Governor Kathy Hochul—who say the right things about a new day coming for the old train station, but those who live in the area say that more high-priced skyscrapers are not the answer (some even show up to heckle Hochul at her press conferences).  What the future holds for Penn Station remains to be seen, but the arguments—er, discussions—will continue, and in that very New York way, they will be loud.

“Winding Path”
Directed by Ross Kauffman and Alexandra Lazarowich

Jenna Murray was on her way to being a doctor when the Eastern Shoshone student fell into heavy alcohol abuse.  With help, she is back on track, thanks to a supportive network and the guidance of her late grandfather, whose gentle mentoring helped Jenna re-find her way by having her join him on the family farm on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming.  Inspiring and touching, “Winding Path” will remind the viewer of anyone who has ever provided the right encouragement at a crucial moment.

Directed by Julian Brave NoiseCat and Emily Kassie

Julian Brave NoiseCat’s father, Ed Archie NoiseCat, was born at the notorious St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School near the Sugarcane Indian Reserve in Williams Lake, British Columbia.  For years, Ed has had questions about the identity of his father, yet his mother refuses to say.  Julian and Ed treat the camera as a witness not only to Ed’s journey but to the horrors visited upon generations of Canada’s—and America’s—Indigenous communities who were forced into “schools” run by the Catholic Church with the specific aim of destroying the Indian while “saving” the person.  This the priests and nuns accomplished with punishments, beatings, as well as sexual violence whose toll is only now being recognized.  (One on-camera subject recounts watching an Indian baby being thrown into an incinerator.)  While some progress has been made—one of Julian’s subjects travels to Rome for an official apology from Pope Francis—the trauma visited upon the tribes over decades is incalculable.

“The Bitter Pill”
Directed by Clay Tweel

Filmmaker Clay Tweel isn’t afraid to look into the abyss, as his docuseries about the Heaven’s Gate suicide cult that aired last fall on CNN demonstrates.  But sometimes, within those depths of despair, hope arises.  In “The Bitter Pill,” Tweel has found a rather unlikely hero in a West Virginia attorney called Paul Farrell, whose Cabell County hometown has been ravaged by the opioid epidemic.  Along with a team of crusading fellow attorneys, Farrell seeks to put the pill-makers on trial for ravaging Appalachia.  It’s a long shot, especially as similar cases are settled with money, but Farrell is not to be dismayed—even as he pours all of his finances into the case and is dismissed from his firm.  (His father, also named Paul, is a retired judge and appears in the documentary alongside Paul’s mother.)  Tweel doesn’t fall into the usual trap of leading us to a “happy” ending, and even as Big Pharma is forced to pay in the billions, the prognosis for Cabell County remains grim as the money won’t find its way there.  Heartbreaking yet compelling, “The Bitter Pill” is indeed a difficult story to swallow.  (Check out my main coverage of the festival for an interview with Tweel.)

Directed by Kate Dumke and Sabrine Keane

In the landscape of the national abortion debate, an often-under-discussed topic is the issue of crisis pregnancy centers, whose facades and websites are meant to look like women’s health clinics but are, in fact, religious-based organizations whose aim is to talk pregnant people out of termination.  As Directors Dumke and Keane show us, they are often located conveniently close to women’s health centers, and this is no accident.  Nor is the messaging they traffic in about abortion leading to sterility, birth control being ineffective and/or the guilt trips they foist upon terrified young women.  A takeaway from this fascinating—and, it must be said, very even-handed—documentary is that the crisis centers are not required under normal laws to keep their patients’ data safe and that the medical advice they dispense is often dubious.  (One young woman featured in the documentary goes back to her center undercover for a reckoning.)  The people working at the crisis pregnancy centers seem to operate from a place of sincerity—even if they lie knowingly to their patients (“Thou shalt not bear false witness” need not apply).  And, once the baby is born, you’re essentially on your own again: Another subject can’t believe that her pro-life “coach” has essentially abandoned her and her child.  This is a very fair documentary, with interviewees on all sides offering their take on what is never a dispassionate subject.

“Champions of the Golden Valley”
Directed by Ben Sturgulewski

Does Afghanistan make you think about skiing?  Probably not, which is why Ben Sturgulewski’s documentary is so intriguing.  He follows an Afghan skier named Alishah Farhang on his mission to qualify for the Olympics—with a secondary mission to bring competitive skiing to his country’s Bamiyan Valley.  Incredibly, even women are seen in the film enjoying the sport in this extremely patriarchal society, and even though watching it, we know the Taliban have since reasserted their authority, moments such as these nonetheless are inspiring.  The film also follows a friendly rivalry between skiers from different ethnic groups—but those divisions become heightened when the country falls into disorder (again).  This is definitely not the Afghanistan any of us thought we knew, and we should be grateful for seeing it on film.

“The Sixth”
Directed by Andrews Nix Fine and Sean Fine

I broke a promise to myself not to watch any more January 6th footage.  All I can say is that the record is what it is, and it must be honored if another attempted insurrection is somehow to be avoided.  In addition to recreating the horror of that day thanks to all of the numerous video and still cameras at work, directors Andrews Nix Fine and Sean Fine interview Capitol Police members who bravely held the line—including Officer Daniel Hodges, who was infamously nearly crushed to death in a door live on camera—as well as Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, who had only days earlier buried his own son.  Among the Fines’ most touching subjects is Mel D. Cole, an African American photojournalist embedded amongst the crowds that day.  In addition to constantly fearing for his life, Cole shares, incredibly, that he found several of the rioters to be not only polite but friendly when he asked them on-camera questions—while at the same time being willing to die for their cause (that nearly all of the rioters were White makes his bravery in that crowd even more amazing).

As with any video of 9/11, footage never gets any easier to watch, yet there remain far too many people who still wish to alter the truth about that terrible day—and they even now are marshaling their forces to try a second time in January 2025.

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