New York plays host to dozens of film festivals great and small, so it’s hard to make room—psychic or practical—for yet another. And considering a climate of prolonged recession that has led other festivals to shut down, scale back, or rethink their mission in a movie culture that’s deathly afraid of risk and desperately grasping at 3-D straws, expansion seems more than a little unwise. “Our attitude was: Those cautions be damned,” says Thom Powers, the artistic director of DOC NYC, a new documentary festival that opens on Wednesday and runs through November 9. “There’s so much vital filmmaking happening that, culturally, we can’t afford to contract.”
It’s the first local festival to focus exclusively on documentary film since the short-lived DocFest fizzled 10 years ago, restoring to the epicenter of independent filmmaking what other cities have in the Hot Docs (Toronto), SilverDocs (Silver Spring), and Full Frame (Durham) surveys. The festival is an ambitious extension of Powers’s weekly film series “Stranger Than Fiction,” which began as a class at NYU and has grown into a popular movie club at the IFC Center. Those two institutions have partnered for DOC NYC, and will split hosting duties, keeping the fest within an intimate three-block radius.
Powers is a programmer for the Toronto Film Festival, where several of the films in DOC NYC premiered, but this fledgling event is actually more reminiscent of the recently wrapped New York Film Festival, where selectivity is privileged over girth. There are only eight films in DOC NYC’s main Viewfinders competition, and only six in the NYC-centric Metropolis competition. In contrast to more inclusive festivals, where it’s impossible for patrons to see all films in competition, Powers, the festival’s sole programmer, wanted “to create some sections that would give viewers who have the appetite an opportunity to look at this work as a spectrum,” he says. “You gain more out of the experience of watching several films alongside each other. It opens your mind to what documentary filmmaking can be.”
There’s no unifying statement made by these selections, other than that unifying statements about documentary filmmaking will find little traction here (in fact, even photographers and cartoonists are invited under the documentary umbrella for a “Doc Convergence” seminar on Friday). It’s almost unfair to pit a homemade, shaggy dog confessional like Josh Freed’s Five Weddings and a Felony against Cannes winner Armadillo’s virtuosic, aesthetically rigorous reportage, but such dissonance is what makes the festival so intriguing. Selective but eclectic, DOC NYC is like an early FM rock radio station, shuffling from Captain Beefheart to the Beach Boys in order to promote and celebrate a culture of possibility. A first-person video diary gives way to a tone poem, which is contrasted by a work of sober cinema verité, while formats range from 8mm film to HD video to Flip camera footage.
Documentarians deal in facts, but they’re still working within an art form; they tell true stories, but can let them slant. So the strongest of the films here rely less on the objective power of a particular subject than on the abilities of individual raconteurs. Choosing the latest films by Werner Herzog and Errol Morris for opening- and closing-night gala screenings (while also showcasing a selection of their greatest hits) is practically a thesis in itself. These are filmmakers who push against the boundaries of the form with every project, calling evident truths into question even as they mine for deeper ones, using fiction techniques to depict documented reality. Which is old news for those who’ve followed the careers of these mercurial masters—what’s headline-worthy is that these latest films are their best in years.
For Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog gained access to the recently discovered Chauvet caves of Southern France, where 32,000-year-old frescoes—mankind’s oldest known pictorial creations—have been preserved among the stalactites and animal bones. This presents an ideal canvas for Herzogian ruminations on humanity and mortality, but even our stentorian knight of doom is relatively cowed by the marvels his camera records, inviting the audience to discover and dwell on the art rather than subjecting it to too much purple prophesy (though the 3-D presentation is a distracting ostentation). Meanwhile, in Tabloid, Morris shifts away from the overtly political subject matter of Standard Operating Procedure and Fog of War to terrain better suited to his freewheeling, caustically comedic view of people and culture. Piecing together highly subjective accounts of the salacious sex-and-chains story of onetime beauty-queen-turned-alleged-kidnapper Joyce McKinney and her hapless “manacled Mormon” prisoner, Morris embeds a sharp, runaway Rashomon parable inside one of the most thoroughly entertaining films of the year.
Within the Viewfinders competition, Armadillo is an astonishing leap forward for nonfiction storytelling. Janus Metz’s film follows a Danish combat troop to the flat farmlands and Taliban snipers of Afghanistan, where it marries the poetic cinematography of Iraq in Fragments to Restrepo’s harrowing embedded war reporting. The closest thing to an issue film in the fest is Laura Israel’s Windfall, about the surprisingly contentious development of wind energy in Upstate New York. But the film is more interested in (and does a far better job at) exploring the modern fractures of small-town community than in providing a cost-benefit analysis of windmill proliferation.
American teens struggle against limited horizons in two different, but equally unconventional, competition films. Kati With an I is Robert Greene’s intimate, impressionistic portrait of his half-sister, Kati, a young woman who yearns for a life beyond small-town Alabama even as she’s invisibly shackled to it at every turn. To Be Heard doesn’t have Kati’s free-flowing visual lyricism, but it does feature subjects whose freestyle spoken-word poetry performances are something to behold. An unusual collaboration between a four-person producer-director team, two of whom figure prominently onscreen, To Be Heard inspires without packaging or softening its hard truths, showing how vital it is for children thrust into impossible situations—in this case, Bronx students caught between broken homes and the streets—to empower themselves through language.
Even the first-person docs in the festival trade self-indulgence for a more inclusive soul-searching. Norwegian director Bjarte Mørner Tveit’s Discoveries of a Marionette is a family movie that opens into an archival thriller, utilizing a massive collection of 8mm travelogues to answer and preserve the mysteries of Tveit’s grandfather’s life. Meanwhile, Josef Birdman Astor turns his own imminent eviction from an artist’s loft atop Carnegie Hall into a lovely and tragic portrait of a dying community in Lost Bohemia. The aging eccentrics of that film fit nicely alongside two other New York characters in the Metropolis competition: Mother of Rock’s pioneering female music journalist Lillian Roxon, and MindFlux’s downtown theater icon Richard Foreman; their unconventional lives redeem otherwise disappointingly conventional films. By privileging process over “great man” hagiography, David Soll’s elegant Puppet, about the complicated history of American puppetry and one New York puppeteer’s artistic struggle, is a far more rewarding exploration of creation.
As far as Powers is concerned, the theatrical setting—be it for a weekly screening or a concentrated festival such as DOC NYC—is vital for watching these films, and for fostering an atmosphere of communication and discovery. “The movie theater is one of the rare places in our lives where we’ll sit and concentrate for 90 minutes,” he says. “We’ve turned off the BlackBerry, we’ve got no remote control in our hands.” Let’s hope New Yorkers can power off and make the time for this strong slate.