No Sophomore Slump for DOC NYC


Bigger and here to stay, DOC NYC returns for its second year to spread the gospel of nonfiction, showcasing 52 features in what’s becoming the city’s mainstream fall complement to MOMA’s more international and experimental Documentary Fortnight. Boldface names Werner Herzog, Barbara Kopple, and Jonathan Demme come bearing new work; anticipated favorites such as The Island President and an Eames doc will be rolled out; a memorial tribute to the late Richard Leacock burnishes another vérité legend; and a host of often issue-oriented other films await presumably sympathetic perusal.

Ringing in the festival (at $35 a pop) is the Grand Teuton’s latest, Into the Abyss. Herzog follows the ruminative 3-D spelunking of Cave of Forgotten Dreams with an absorbing and refreshingly down-to-earth engagement with the perpetrators, victims, and bystanders in a rural Texas triple-homicide case. It’s framed by 28-year-old death-row inmate Michael Perry, a murderous, gawky car thief with a disarmingly childlike grin and little apparent conscience beyond full faith in his own salvation. Although declaring an opposition to capital punishment, Herzog devotes himself instead to emotional detail and death’s aftershock in all its messiness: Perry’s weary bullet-headed accomplice, Jason Burkett, Burkett’s similarly incarcerated and crushingly ashamed father, a victim’s relative who unplugs from the world, a former execution guard who seems to have lost a bit of life force with every state-sanctioned snuff. Other than the occasional true-crime TV-show echo and ponderous chapter headings, the compassionate inquiry satisfies, with Herzog directing his conspicuous fascination toward grounded rather than grandiose ends.

A second Herzog project, Happy People, carved out of filmmaker Dmitry Vasyukov’s Siberian fur-trapping chronicles, was not available for preview. But among the docs that were, Ingrid Betancourt: Six Years in the Jungle stood out for its riveting, evenly paced storytelling and allowance for complicating viewpoints. Onetime Colombian presidential candidate Betancourt was kidnapped in 2002 by FARC insurgents mere weeks after a summit in which she decried such strategic body snatching to FARC leaders’ faces. Director Angus Macqueen lets the poised ex-politico recount the ordeal with practiced yet compelling observations and reflections. But it’s the inclusion of Betancourt’s also-kidnapped assistant Clara Rojas—along with FARCers and American prisoners—that render this well-publicized story far more than a feature-length 60 Minutes segment. Macqueen lets the plainspoken Rojas voice her side of the experience—an awkward silence apparently reigned between she and Betancourt—and leaves class tensions (and FARC cant) hanging in the air. There’s due respect for Betancourt’s influential part-French family, maintained by a civilized voiceover, but the enigma of Rojas’s pregnancy in captivity is allowed to undercut a straightforward hero’s tale.

Six Years in the Jungle might not fully reckon with its contradictions, but Toronto festival crowd favorite The Island President hardly recognizes the existence of any. Like more than one documentary in the festival, this climate-change consciousness-raiser has got the hook but proceeds to hammer it blunt. Plucky underdog Mohamed Nasheed, the post-revolutionary leader of the Maldives, delivers a familiar handful of talking points about his nation’s imminent doom from rising oceans and sasses some statesmen along the way in a 101-minute film padded with pleasing seascapes and Radiohead noodling. The 2009 Copenhagen summit is the end point, with backroom jockeying a highlight, but the price of admission is that begging-to-be-retired narrative structure—the hurry-up-and-wait Run-Up To the Big Moment of Judgment. As for the endangered Maldivean way of life, it sometimes seems more like a photo op.

If The Island President is slickly packaged to move, Jealous of the Birds could have used a bit of an analytical polish, hovering between the profound and the self-evident in its fraught, fascinating topic: Jews in postwar Germany and the question of life after so much death. Like Jealous of the Birds—whose director is the grandson of survivors—Perdida is a family affair. Its filmmaker-narrator is a descendant of Mexico’s Calderon film dynasty, which wended its way through theater-owning, distribution, and producing scandalous cabaret and vampire B pics. Love and business intertwine, lore and gossip flow freely, and the many treasures from scrapbooks and vaults make for a sweetly homey chronicle, if not always a clear history. Perhaps most importantly, among the Mexican stars interviewed, we get to see the late Ricardo Montalban, deep into his eighties and just as dulcet-toned and suave as ever.