Non-fiction is once again the star attraction of DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary film festival, now in its 11th year. But in this era of COVID-19 the festival’s offerings are being shared online, unhindered by the boundaries of New York City.
And with that virtual lack of borders comes an international roster of more than 200 feature-length and short films from all over the world (including many international, North American and U.S. premieres). Held November 11-19, the festival also includes panel discussions, appearances by noted documentary directors, workshops and master classes.
Check out the DOC NYC Fest website at docnyc.net for full descriptions and information on how to stream. All films and special programs will be available online in the U.S. from November 11 beginning at noon ET though November 19 at 11:59 p.m. Tickets are available for individual films, at $12 each, or in 5- or 10-film packs (at $45 and $80 per package). An all-access pass, good for all films, is available for $199 (or $159 if purchased by Nov. 11).
Of those titles which have been previewed at press time, here is a sampling, of 15 recommended highlights:
“76 Days” – Having experienced months of tragedy due to the pandemic, it may be a hard sell for a grueling documentary about the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan Province, China, which was placed under lockdown for more than two months earlier this year. But from the start, this portrait of frontline workers in Wuhan is eye-opening, from a hospital employee’s heart-wrenching pleas to be with her dying father, and the slog of PPE preparation, to the emotional turmoil of parceling out care to patients, and the sad accumulation of the dead’s smartphones and ID cards, sanitized and set aside to be returned to relatives at some point. The thrum of phone calls missed and unanswered voicemails, emanating from within ziploc bags, is chilling. Equally chilling is the camerawork that puts the viewer directly within ground zero of the virus, and the maelstrom of fear and ignorance about what halting the outbreak entails. 93 mins.
“9/11 Kids” – The sociological template of interviewing cohorts of kids, as ably demonstrated in Michael Apted’s “7 Up” films, is here applied to the children who were attending a South Florida elementary school on the morning of September 11, 2001. It was where President George W. Bush sat in on a reading lesson, and where he was informed of the terror attacks on the United States. In the 19 years since, those children (a generation that grew up shaped by war, global terror, economic collapse and civil unrest) talk about how 9/11 shaped them, and how that group’s intervening years were spent – in self-actualization and military service, or in the grip of the criminal justice system. 88 mins.
“Big vs. Small” – The cinematography is sumptuous in this portrait of big wave surfer Joana Andrade, a petite Portuguese woman who takes on the massive, skyscraper-size waves at Nazaré. Director Minna Dufton catches Andrade’s drive to pursue big waves (almost like an addiction), as well as (to observers at least) the almost absurd lengths to which she will go to prepare herself for the physical and mental endurance required to keep getting back up on that board and testing herself against millions of tons of water. 76 mins.
“Blue Code of Silence” (World Premiere) – Whistleblowers don’t often have it easy. A whistleblower in the New York City Police Department in the 1970s might have had a death wish. Former detective Bob Leuci talks openly about the circumstances by which he became an informant of his own unit in an investigation of corruption in the NYPD, a role that made him both a media star and a pariah whose motives have been questioned and criticized ever since. 74 mins.
“Duty Free” (World Premiere) – After Rebecca Danigelis, 75, is fired from her hotel housekeeping position, she finds herself unmoored and out of her comfort zone when trying to reinvent herself on the job market. Her son, broadcaster Sian-Pierre Regis, takes upon himself the role of booster, therapist, career consultant and computer trainer for his mom. But what really gets her over the hump is when they embark on her bucket list of activities, which (as documented by Regis) offers a framework for her as she begins yet another chapter in life. The film is a tender love poem from son to mother, and a reminder that, as Rebecca learns, the world is a lot bigger than one’s job. 71 mins.
“The Jump” (North American Premiere) – In 1970 a Lithuanian seaman, Simas Kudirka, leapt from the deck of a Soviet fishing vessel off the coast of Massachusetts onto an American Coast Guard ship and asked for asylum. After several tense hours, Kudirka was handed back to the Soviets, who sent him to a Siberian concentration camp for his trouble. His story might have tragically ended there, but as told in Giedrė Žickytė’s engaging documentary (featuring remarkable plot twists and Kudirka’s own passionate retelling), the defector became an international sensation, whose cause ignited activists, Long Island housewives connected in the Lithuanian-American community, and the highest levels of the U.S. government. 85 mins.
“Jacinta” – The subject of Jennifer Earnshaw’s haunting film is Jacinta, a young woman incarcerated along with her mother whom, it appears, was the wrong role model. Growing up in a family darkened by crime and addiction (her brother was also jailed on burglary charges), Jacinta’s relief at being released and reunited with her young daughter is marred by the temptations of drugs and shoplifting. Speaking to the camera, Jacinta recognizes she may be repeating the disastrous life decisions her mother made when it comes to parenting, but she also recognizes herself not talking herself out of the things she knows she must talk herself out of. With a startling intimacy, Earnshaw documents the difficulty Jacinta has in satisfying the wishes that her child has for a mom who is there for her, and not a needle. 105 mins.
“Lessons of Love” (U.S. Premiere) – Filmmakers Malgorzata Goliszewska and Kasia Mateja frame their subject, 69-year-old Jola, as if she were a character in a late-in-life romantic drama (a role Annette Bening could pull off with ease), and they shoot it with remarkable precision and intimacy, making this perhaps the least non-fiction-looking film in the festival. But Lola’s journey from a home in Italy (which she shares with an abusive, loutish husband) to her native Poland (where she takes dancing and singing lessons and picks up with a true gentleman) couldn’t be a longer road. The determination, self-doubt and wariness Lola exudes over testing the waters for love and personal fulfillment can be heart-wrenching, but the joyful final scenes do send a powerful message: it’s best to rent a U-Haul. 75 mins.
“The Meaning of Hitler” (World Premiere) – For directors Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker (), the daunting task of trying to “understand” Adolf Hitler – his roots and rise to power, his psychology, and his ability to stir millions of Germans to the cause of fascism – is underpinned with the fear that contributing to the vast roster of films documenting Hitler’s fanaticism will simply add to the propaganda that continues (among neo-Nazis, anti-Semites and fringe groups) to perpetuate Hitler’s myth, or even normalize it. Through their interviews with historians, psychiatrists and writers, they succeed in underscoring how the warning signs of Hitler’s psyche and his ability to co-opt a national party to his own ends were, sadly, not unique. Ignorance among those born after World War II doesn’t help; as one Nazi hunter rues about the persistence of Holocaust deniers, “Historically, you can pretend anything.” 92 mins. [On Monday, Nov. 16 at 2 p.m. ET, Epperlein and Tucker join writer Francine Prose and Roger Berkowitz, head of Hannah Arendt Center Roger Berkowitz, for a Facebook Live chat about Hitler’s legacy today.]
“Moments Like This Never Last” (World Premiere) – Graffiti artist Dash Snow wasn’t exactly a trust fund child – he’d been disowned by his wealthy mother for his rebellious streak when he was a teen – so his bohemian wanderings on New York’s Lower East Side in the 1990s and ’00s reflected the worldview of a young man on the margins of society willingly flouting the law, determined to make a name for himself in spray paint. And always there were drugs. But despite his adolescent disavowal of danger and responsibility (or perhaps because of it), Snow became a media darling, and a favored figure on the international art gallery scene post-9/11, a status he almost seemed ready to take seriously by the time he died of a heroin overdose at age 27. Director Cheryl Dunn uses a wealth of period footage of Snow to capture the spirit of his dispiriting descent, in a New York that now seems like ancient history. 96 mins.
“Neither Confirm Nor Deny” (World Premiere) – Fans of John le Carré will devour this intriguing story of a CIA plan to raise a sunken nuclear-armed Soviet submarine in the middle of the Pacific in the 1970s. While much of the operation remains classified, several figures, including engineers enlisted to construct and operate a ship that could lift a sub from three miles down – something, it need not be said, had never been done before – discuss the heady and dangerous mission, in which Cold War intrigue, Howard Hughes, ransom notes, the Watergate burglary and nosy investigative reporters intersect in bizarre ways. Director: Philip Carter. 90 mins.
“Ronnie’s” (World Premiere) – There is joy from the first downbeat on the soundtrack of this vibrant portrait of British tenor sax player Ronnie Scott, who co-founded the pre-eminent jazz club in London that bore his name. Opening in the late 1950s, it became a stage for legions of jazz stars, including scores of American bebop artists. But Scott’s life off-stage was sadly darker, with mental health issues, a botched medical procedure, and financial constraints that squelched the bliss he experienced from playing jazz. Archive footage, interviews and performances by the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Buddy Rich, Oscar Peterson, Sonny Rollins, Chet Baker and Ella Fitzgerald bring London’s Soho and the jazz scene of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s to vivid, poignant life. 104 mins.
“‘Til Kingdom Come” – The charitable and political connections between American evangelicals and Israel might seem based on a shared Judeo-Christian perspective. But as Maya Zinshtein’s documentary examines, the heart of some evangelicals’ interest in supporting the government of Israel, promoting the move of the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, calling for cuts in aid to Palestinian refugees, and backing the building of settlements that displace Palestinians, is a belief that these are all prophesied precedents to the Rapture, Armageddon and the second coming of Jesus Christ. The film (in which interview subjects are allowed to do most of the talking) focuses in part on a congregation in a poor community in Kentucky collecting donations for the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the largest welfare charity in Israel, and on the lobbying by Jewish settlers of Christian politicians in Washington to support their cause, blending religious fervor with political expediency and opportunism. A conversation between a Kentucky pastor visiting Bethlehem and a Palestinian cleric shows just how far apart hearts and minds can be when it comes to competing views of God. 76 mins.
“Tiny Tim: King For a Day” (U.S. Premiere) – The falsetto singer whose early gigs included a Times Square freak show became all the rage in the late 1960s – not quite pop, definitely not rock (though he would in time cover songs by Pink Floyd and AC/DC). Tiny Tim parlayed his androgynous appearance and old tunes strummed on a ukulele into a media powerhouse, appearing on virtually every TV variety and talk show. The stardom burned very brightly, for an instant, and then he was back to living in his parents’ Washington Heights apartment, wondering where it’d all gone wrong. Period footage, animation, new interviews, and narration and diary readings by “Weird Al” Yankovic tell the story of Tiny Tim’s rise, his marriages, and how he somehow filled a hitherto-unfilled strata of the music universe. 78 mins.
“The Viewing Booth” – For this intriguing experiment in media perception and propaganda, documentary filmmaker Ra’anan Alexandrowicz (“The Law In These Parts”) asked students with an interest in Israel to watch curated videos from the West Bank – half posted by human rights organization and pro-Palestinian media sources, half by conservative websites and government sources – to see if viewing such footage might alter one’s beliefs. Alexandrowicz focuses his resulting film on one American student, Maia Levy, whose responses to the videos underscore not just the power of media images to affect our consumption and acceptance of visual narratives, but also the strength of our biases. 72 mins.
Not previewed as of press time, but from the scores of films available, here are 20 promising titles:
“9to5: The Story of a Movement” – Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar examine women’s labor battles in the 1970s.
“Acasa, My Home” – A Roma clan living in the wild outside Bucharest is forced to resettle in the city.
“Belushi” – A bio of the late “Saturday Night Live” star.
“Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters” – The story of two giants in the modern dance world.
“Crazy, Not Insane” – Director Alex Gibney profiles Dorothy Lewis, a psychiatrist in her 80s who has specialized in studying serial killers.
“The Dissident” – “Icarus” filmmaker Bryan Fogel’s investigation into the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
“Dope Is Death” – How did the Black Panthers and the Young Lords combat the drug problem in New York City in the 1970s? By starting the first acupuncture detoxification program in the U.S.
“In Silico” – A neuroscientist’s years-long quest to create a computer simulation of the human brain.
“The Last Out” – Three Cuban athletes travel to Costa Rica in their quest to become recruited to the majors in America.
“The Letter” – In Kenya, allegations of witchcraft are tossed about with a larcenous purpose: to steal land from the accused.
“The Mystery of D.B. Cooper” – Yeah, what did happen to him?
“On the Record” – Several women accuse record industry giant Russell Simmons of sexual assault.
“Red Heaven” – Six Earthbound humans begin a one-year mission at a scientific station in Hawaii that simulates living conditions on Mars.
“Restaurant Hustle 2020: All On the Line” – How chefs have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Smog Town” – A look at China’s air pollution problems.
“Stateless” – An attorney fights for the rights of Hispanola residents of Haitian descent who have been stripped of their citizenship by the Dominican Republic’s Supreme Court.
“Stray” – Following the lives of stray dogs in Istanbul.
“Television Event” – More than 100 million viewers tuned in to the 1983 TV movie “The Day After,” about the effects of nuclear war on a Kansas community. Jeff Daniels looks at the fallout from the broadcast.
“Welcome to Chechnya” – Filmmaker David France (“How to Survive a Plague”) follows activists working to ferry LGBTQ Chechens out of their country, where they face exposure and death.
“Zappa” – An in-depth look into the life and art of musician Frank Zappa.
- For the complete festival lineup click here. You have until November 19!
- For more information visit the festival FAQ Page.
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