Film

The Best Documentaries at Doc NYC Will Open Your Eyes — but Won’t Ruin Your Day

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Silver-haired and rakishly elegant, Mark Reay consorts with models, shoots street and runway fashion photography, and personally delivers a portrait to the office of Marc Jacobs. He hits Veselka for a late bite, editing photos on his laptop; he tells us that he scored his swank shoes for just $200. He makes the hustle of the freelance life look like swanning right up until the moment he jabs his key into the front door of an East Village walk-up, ascends six or so flights of stairs, and emerges onto the roof that’s secretly been his home for five years. The wind whips at him as he bunks down in a sleeping bag in a tarp behind some rumbling HVAC machinery beneath the hard glitter of the city lights. “Good night,” he says, to the camera — to us. Later, he’ll address audiences directly, announcing that anyone who cared enough to pay for a ticket to see a movie about his homelessness is also obliged to put him up sometime.

So it goes in Thomas Wirthensohn’s joyous yet dispiriting portrait Homme Less, a film that exemplifies the lineup at this year’s Doc NYC festival: Here’s movie after movie digging into the struggle to live and to thrive in this city, in this country, in this world. Of all the subjects in this year’s 150-plus films, only Reay has the chutzpah to look right at us and suggest what exactly we should do about the troubles being documented, even if it’s just to surrender a couch. Meanwhile, in Sean Gallagher’s Brothers of the Black List, a troubling examination of past wounds, Edward “Bo” Whaley speaks from something closer to the audience perspective: “My whole day is fucking ruined now,” he sighs, deep into an interview about the day in ’92 when cops treated 80 black students at SUNY Oneonta as suspects in a rape case. He adds: “I hope never to have to talk about it again. We done?”

Ruining your fucking day is what many believe documentaries are all about. But the festival’s best, like Stephanie Wang-Breal’s wonderful Tough Love, don’t just spend their 75 minutes thumbing the spots that hurt. Tough Love follows the efforts of two unrelated parents — one in New York, one in Seattle — to convince the courts and social services that they are now prepared to care for their children despite at one point having been ruled neglectful. The local case starts out as a heartbreaker but brightens as it wears on. Bangladeshi-born Hannah, a young mother of two, is told she must move out of her mother’s too-small apartment if she wants to be able to keep the third child she’s now pregnant with — so we see her and that new baby’s father holing up in a shelter in the Bronx for a night as they wait for Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing to place them. The box they’re in, both literally and figuratively, is no more hospitable than Reay’s roof. PATH won’t place them, it turns out, even as Hannah’s caseworkers insist she must find a shelter. One of the most affecting scenes of the festival is a lunch where Hannah simply talks about her life right into Wang-Breal’s lens: “See, if I had people that would have told me about getting pregnant,” she says, shadows beneath her eyes belying the fresh youthfulness of her face. “I didn’t have none of that growing up.”

Deprivation and the Bronx also power Shan Nicholson’s gang-life beauty Rubble Kings, an impassioned examination of New York’s gang culture of the late 1970s. The film centers on the Bronx’s do-gooding Ghetto Brothers, who were less interested in fighting than in political engagement, encouraging kids in school, helping people get off smack, and throwing glorious block parties built around their Latin-funk band. Latter-day interviews are often funny and always revealing, and the archival footage is fascinating, especially that of a gangland peace summit called by the Ghetto Brothers after a particularly notorious murder. Among the marvelous gang names: Black Assassins,

Savage Skulls, Harlem Turks, Black Spades, and the Assassinators, because apparently mere Assassins wouldn’t have been badass enough. And here’s the Post headline after the conference: “Bronx Gangs Cool It.”

An especially nasty gang makes for some of the festival’s most engaging storytelling in Tiller Russell’s The Seven Five, which lets the most corrupt (convicted) NYC cop of the ’80s tell his own story. He relishes it. Here’s Michael Dowd, of Brooklyn’s 75th Precinct, describing early relations with a new partner: “We started to get a little bit of comfortability workin’ together. He would take me to Joe’s Bodega for some fuckin’ Heinekens.” Dowd’s better-than-a-screenwriter cop-talk powers this stellar crime flick, which shares a structure with Goodfellas and the like: the heady first scores, the hubristic highs, the coke-fueled betrayals, the humblings and inevitable wire-wearing. It’s familiar and infuriating — but enthralling.

The world outside New York offers a couple of gems, too. I adored Anthony Morrison’s Haunters, about a magician/costume shop owner’s annual effort to create Michigan’s scariest haunted house. The film’s beautifully shot and often hilarious, rich with odd chatter and sad truths about life in post-industrial America. (But it won’t ruin your day.) Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker’s I Am Big Bird offers just what the title promises, an involving and affectionate study of Caroll Spinney, whose Sesame Street bird we’ve all been following for almost half a century now. In Still Dreaming, a gentle soul-stirrer about the elderly residents of the Lillian Booth Actors Home putting on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a blasé octogenarian caps another performer’s over-the-top blowup with the truest of all advice: “Don’t get yourself upset — it’s a show we’re putting on for nothing.”

David Thorpe’s spirited inquiry Do I Sound Gay? opens the fest with a serious question — what is the source of the stereotypical “gay” voice best embodied by Paul Lynde? — and lots of laughs and insights. The most urgent of the premiere screenings is Every Last Child, Tom Roberts’s harrowing, thrilling, and all-around well-reported examination of the fight to beat back polio in Pakistan — after the Taliban declared itself anti-vaccination and started killing and kidnapping health workers. Outside its affecting eulogy for 5 Pointz, the surface-skimming Banksy Does New York feels like last week’s Twitter feed blown up into a feature, but the film might take on significance as the now recedes.

But in a festival thick with painful scenes, little compares to Jerry Sandusky’s adopted son, Matt, recounting his realization that the charges of pedophilia against Sandusky could be describing the way Sandusky once treated him, too — and that he’d never been brave enough to admit it. Amir Bar-Lev’s Joe Paterno/Sandusky doc, Happy Valley clarifies recent news, laying bare the broken heart of a community that believed that everything was perfect in a world that never is. That’s what great documentaries like this one offer: the chance to witness people like us admitting to what things are actually like.