When it comes to film festivals, bigness can be a dubious bargain. Tribeca, for example, suffered from sprawl in its early years, overwhelming audiences with over 200 films and underwhelming them on quality and focus. In its fourth year, DOC NYC, another New York upstart, has boldfaced its claim to being the country’s largest documentary festival. This year’s lineup, which includes 73 features (12 more than last year), 39 shorts, and an array of events, is the biggest yet. It is also, I’m pleased to report, easily the best.
Which is saying something, given the track record of returning artistic director Thom Powers, also a programmer and regular presence at the Toronto International Film Festival. This year’s program has expanded in all the right places, adding an “Art + Design” section to its roster and filling existing showcases, including “Midnight Docs,” “Metropolis,” and “Viewfinders” with vividly observed and original films. Though it nurtures an “International Perspectives” showcase as well (this year doubled from four to eight films), DOC NYC leans decisively toward American stories. The opening night film, The Unknown Known, Errol Morris’s fitfully illuminating exit interview with Donald Rumsfeld, and Oliver Stone’s presentation of the prologue to his 10-hour Showtime series, The Untold History of the United States, are only the most obvious variations on a theme.
That’s no slight: America, now as ever, has stories to spare. Carl Deal and Tia Lessin’s Citizen Koch details the controversy surrounding Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, the nearly recalled union-buster supported by the billionaire Koch brothers. Making its world premiere, Kids for Cash investigates a Pennsylvania judge incentivized to lock up juveniles by the raging incarceration industry. In Kink, director Christina Voros’s examination of San Francisco’s pornography vanguard, the production of fetish porn is carried out cleanly and professionally, and the balance between mechanics and desire is made literal — and very graphic.
Elsewhere we find the Diaz family, whose number expands by three in The Dark Matter of Love, Sarah McCarthy’s international adoption case study. As three Russian orphans head to America, McCarthy and a pair of psychological researchers stand by, poised for disaster. The Diazes — mom, dad, and adolescent daughter — introduce themselves as “a Disney family,” but their American cheer doesn’t last long. Shot before Russian president Vladimir Putin’s ban on American adoptions, The Dark Matter of Love appears apolitical, focusing on the painful, intensely psychological (and sometimes physical) struggle to bond; its triumphant ending takes the form of a statement.
Documentary loves a personality almost as much as it loves an enigma, and there are plenty of both to be found at DOC NYC. The Punk Singer, part of the “Sonic Cinema” showcase, is a deft and gratifying portrait of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre frontwoman Kathleen Hanna, who is returning to the stage after years of struggle with undiagnosed Lyme disease. Hanna, whose fearless stage presence belies an allergy to fame and other invasions of her privacy, makes a surprisingly forthcoming subject, and director Sini Anderson frames Hanna not as a relic but a still-vibrant product of an angry, uncompromising era in rock. Less rousing is A Fragile Trust, a rehash of the Jayson Blair scandal whose subtitle — Plagiarism, Power, and Jayson Blair at the New York Times — just about covers it. Other profiles include Dori Berinstein’s Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did for Love and Donna Zaccaro’s Geraldine Ferraro: Paving the Way.
On the enigma spectrum is Finding Vivian Maier, in which the random auctioning of some old negatives sets a young man looking for the photographer behind a vast and remarkable body of work. She is Vivian Maier, career nanny and hobby photographer, and she is recalled here mainly by baffled and sometimes pained members of the families who employed her. It’s our great luck that co-director (with Charlie Siskel) John Maloof became obsessed with Maier’s images — many of them street photography of striking quality — and the tantalizing but futile question of what makes an artist tick.
Equally wondrous is Doug Pray’s Levitated Mass: The Story of Michael Heizer’s Monolithic Sculpture, a tale of contemporary art made phenomenal. Like everything in its orbit, Heizer himself recedes behind the 340-ton chunk of granite he ordered transported from a California quarry to a Los Angeles museum, the raw material for a daring, decades-old idea. Pray follows the extensive planning and, most indelibly, the rock’s slow-motion, 105-mile journey, around which a bona fide scene begins to gather.
That scene, and its chatter, forms an unlikely connection to Michel Gondry’s closing night film, Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?, a delighted, Waking Life–like animated conversation with Noam Chomsky. Both films explore the continuum between the physical and the conceptual world, and the mysterious process by which we might identify a big boulder — or even a documentary — as a work of art.