It’s a grim-seeming lot this year at the seventh annual DOC NYC festival, running from November 10 to 17 and presenting 111 feature-length films. The subjects include rape, mass destruction of villages, suicide, racial segregation, prison- and war-related PTSD, deforestation, animals facing extinction, and people — famous and anonymous — dealing with scores of afflictions, from Lou Gehrig’s disease to autism to alcoholism.
But as proven in years past, documentarians can be just as audience-pleasing as mainstream filmmakers: They want to send people home, if not happy, then at least hopeful. So even the bleakest of this year’s selections are imbued with silver linings. Women scarred from persistent rape and slaughter in the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo (in City of Joy) and those still coping with the sexual violence and trauma of past military service (in the San Antonio–set After Fire) nonetheless find strength and companionship in the support groups they spearhead or join. (Both films are as chilling as they are muted, never resorting to histrionics or flashy re-enactments.) An ever-distant husband and wife — both rendered amputees by the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing — sob with happiness when one of them reaches the finish line the following year (in the unendingly wrenching Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing). And in the electrifying Beware the Slenderman, it offers some comfort that the two Wisconsin tweens who stabbed their friend to appease an Internet bogeyman just may be tried as the disturbed juveniles they are, rather than sentenced to life as adults.
Of course, tragedy and mayhem aren’t the only menu items. It wouldn’t be a New York festival without pockets of quirk. There’s a celebrity-studded campaign to save a typewriter shop (California Typewriter), a pizza-tasting connoisseur’s odyssey (Scott’s Pizza Tours), and a search for buried treasure (the Errol Morris–produced The Lure). There are four up-close-and-personal portraits of transgendered individuals, residing in areas as different — population and tolerance-wise — as New York City, the rural Northwest and trailer park Mississippi. (Julie Sokolow’s Woman on Fire, about NYC’s first transgendered firefighter, is just what a great social awareness doc should be — equal parts heartwarming and infuriating). And there are biographies of the well-known (David Lynch, John Coltrane, all-female Nineties punk rock outfit L7) and the decidedly less well-known (surfer and sugar fortune heir Bunker Spreckels; Bob Hawk, an indie film consultant whose championing of Clerks still brings director Kevin Smith — twice, during the course of Film Hawk — to tears).
As always, DOC NYC also offers the chance to catch acclaimed docs that have already had theatrical runs, among them Amanda Knox, Cameraperson, and the nearly eight-hour O.J.: Made in America.
Of the new films, here are some must-sees:
Off the Rails
At first, you might think Adam Irving’s superb chronicle of Darius McCollum, a lonely man with Asperger’s who is addicted to subway- and bus-stealing, will turn into the jauntiest crime doc since The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest, which celebrated a wrongly — yet repeatedly — convicted jailbird’s masterful escapes from prison. “Oh, let the poor kid go,” you may find yourself pleading, as McCollum — an altruistic soul who, since his adolescence, has yearned to work for the MTA — is continuously arrested for impersonating public transit conductors. Since his impulsive actions are, to date, victimless, and since he’s clearly a competent driver, it wouldn’t be unthinkable for his tale to reach a Catch Me If You Can–esque happy ending: working for the folks he expertly duped. But this is a far more troubling — and richer — story, critiquing, but not vilifying, a legal system that can’t always differentiate well-meaning screw-ups from genuine threats to society.
“Koch Brother Furious at Scam Artist’s Lack of Ethics.” It sounds like the Borowitz Report, but that’s just how billionaire wine enthusiast Bill Koch felt when he realized a stash of top-shelf Burgundy-region bottles in his collection were counterfeit. Directors Jerry Rothwell and Reuben Atlas have fashioned a swiftly paced, often hilarious saga, peppered with lively interviews with wine auctioneers, reporters, Hollywood producers and others swindled by the charismatic, independently wealthy wine seller Rudy Kurniawan. Though Kurniawan didn’t participate, there’s camcorder footage of him suavely dodging questions about his background, plus to-die-for crime scene shots of the forger’s misspelled wine labels and sinks filled with perilously botched concoctions.
It wouldn’t be out of line to suspect that Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s cheerful ode to GMOs (genetically modified organisms) was funded by Monsanto. After all, that corporate superpower’s CTO comes off as the most rational speaker in a film populated with all breeds of leftist crackpot scaremongers — organic food zealots, scientists using discredited lab results to prove their hypotheses, outspoken hippies named Zen. But happily, Monsanto is only a participant in a movie whose true purpose is to heal needless fractures among left-wing environmentalist circles. When a modified papaya in Hawaii saves a once-thriving fruit industry from extinction, for instance, it’s worth thinking twice before fully dumping on the mega-giant that pioneered the technology. Food Evolution is a refreshingly upbeat take on a despised business sector.
Maya Zinshtein’s fascinating, disturbing look at Arab-baiting soccer hooligans in Israel offers the spectacle of fans screaming epithets and boycotting games — all because of the two Chechen Muslims recently admitted to Israel’s once-booming, now struggling Beitar team. As noted several times by players, coaches and fans, a rabidly nationalistic demographic makes up a small — but increasingly hard to ignore — portion of the team’s admirers. A previously lauded captain finds himself booed for defending the Chechens, while a more bigoted player secretly stokes the fire on Facebook posts. What’s most moving here: the undaunted dignity of the Chechens, who face the hostility with quiet bemusement and even play the sport well.
It’s hard enough being a shy 12 year-old, even if you’re not raised in a strict religious family. If Naomi Kutin, the Orthodox Jewish weightlifter that is the centerpiece of Jessie Auritt’s mesmerizing Supergirl, gains one iota over 97 pounds, she is no longer the world’s strongest-in-her-weight-class squatter, and then have to compete with champions twice and three times her age. Her purpose — not just for now but for all time — could end with one badly timed lift. We experience this desperation in the grunting, pacing prep sessions Naomi throws herself into, in the cracked bones we hear, in the frightening migraines that suddenly spring up. Naomi is still out there striving, but the potential for future heartbreak is felt in every frame of this gem.
A smug Massachusetts doctor, after just minutes of examination, diagnoses Regina, the subject of Rebbie Ratner’s Borderline, as ranking “8 out of 10” on the borderline personality scale. To be sure, throughout this alternately piercing, maddening and riotously funny portrait, we see the volatile, heavily medicated Regina scream at her therapist, at strangers on the street, at focus group peers, and at Ratner herself — often for no clear reason. But we also see strains of immense sensitivity and empathy, plus a biting, self-deprecating sense of humor. By the end, you can’t take your eyes off Regina; you start to recognize, if not share, her everyday grievances.
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