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Christopher Llewellyn Reed’s Top 10 Docs from DOC NYC 2019

The IFC Center in New York, one of the screening venues of DOC NYC

DOC NYC winds its 10th year down today, after starting on November 6. The largest documentary festival in the United States, DOC NYC once more offered over 300 films and events, including 28 world premieres and 27 U.S. premieres (mostly features, but with some shorts), with 135 feature-length movies. Though I could only attend for a few days, I managed to catch a fair number of films I liked in that time (and many more I had previously seen played there, as well). Below, I offer brief capsule reviews of my favorite 10, adapted from longer reviews I’ve written for Hammer to Nail, in alphabetical order.

Film poster: “Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly”

Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly (Cheryl Haines/Gina Leibrecht) [the paragraph, below, is an adaptation of a longer review I wrote for Hammer to Nail, which has yet to post, as of this writing]

Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was the subject, in 2012, of director Alison Klayman’s marvelous documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. Then, in 2017, he released his own film, Human Flow, about the global refugee crisis, where he also appeared. Forgive me, then, for wondering, sight unseen, if we needed yet another movie about the man, this one entitled Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly (complete with a colon, once more, after his name). Fortunately, for both viewers and Ai Weiwei, this new film is quite different than Klayman’s work, though it briefly covers some similar territory. Instead, first-time director Cheryl Haines, together with co-director Gina Leibrecht (How To Smell A Rose: A Visit with Ricky Leacock in Normandy), presents a very different story, this one about an art exhibit, honoring political prisoners, that Haines and Ai mounted on Alcatraz Island in 2014. Beautifully shot, it reveals how people of conscience can make a true difference in this world.

Film poster: “Hurdle”

Hurdle (Michael Rowley) [the paragraph, below, is an adaptation of my longer Hammer to Nail review]

Perhaps I assume too much, but Parkour and Palestine is probably not the alliterative combination on most people’s minds when they think of the Middle East. In Michael Rowley’s debut documentary Hurdle, however, they not only go together, but do so in a glorious exhibition of defiance to the inhumanity of occupation. The physical, emotional and mental condition of Palestinians living in and outside the nation of Israel may be less than optimal, but when individuals allow themselves the momentary liberty of soaring through the air, the brief liberation is good for the soul. Though walls may loom large, they are but obstacles to be scaled. Two men, Sami and Mohammad, lead groups of young men and women in activities designed to develop agency and personal expression. Sami trains boys and teens on the twists and turns of Parkour, which he, himself, learned by watching slowed-down videos on YouTube. Mohammad, his face scarred by a sniper’s bullet (he was shot while photographing an Israeli raid), teaches mixed-gender photography classes where he leads students out into the street to develop their own sense of composition and eye for interesting subjects. Each man is on a mission to provide some kind of future, however tentative, to their charges. Freedom is a state of mind.

Film poster: “I Am Not Alone”

I Am Not Alone* (Garin Hovannisian) [the paragraph, below, is an adaptation of a longer review I wrote for Hammer to Nail, which has yet to post, as of this writing]

Rarely have I felt quite so uninformed and ignorant as I did halfway through I Am Not Alone, Armenian director Garin Hovannisian’s account of the 2018 popular uprising against his country’s authoritarian leader, Serzh Sargsyan, as said ruler attempted to have himself installed, after two terms as President, as Prime Minister, a position he had changed, while in office, to have almost unlimited power. A peaceful revolution in Armenia? How had I missed this? Fortunately, Hovannisian (1915) is an excellent guide through these very recent events, first introducing each character and then walking us through a simplified layperson’s history of the past 10 years. Knowing nothing about what happened, I was gripped by the real-life drama unfolding in front of me. Proof that democracy is not dead and that people everywhere – even in post-Soviet countries prone to tilting backwards towards past misrule – still have a voice, I Am Not Alone is a call to action to all of us, for none of us are alone when we stick together. It’s a comforting thought in these perilous times.

*Since the original publication of this article, DOC NYC announced this year’s winners, and I Am Not Alone received the 2019 Audience Award.

Film poster: “Kate Nash: Underestimate the Girl”

Kate Nash: Underestimate the Girl (Amy Goldstein) [the paragraph, below, is an adaptation of a longer review I wrote for Hammer to Nail, which has yet to post, as of this writing]

I come to an appreciation of singer-songwriter Kate Nash not as a fan of her music, which I know not at all, but as a lover of the Netflix series GLOW. In that wonderful fictionalized look back at the 1980s “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling” (or G.L.O.W.), Nash plays Rhonda Richardson, aka Britannica, whose English accent finds her cast as the ostensible supersmart member of the team. It’s a great program, and she shines as much as anyone in the ensemble. I vaguely knew that she had a background as a somewhat fallen pop star, but that was the extent of it. What fun, then, to learn her full story in this peppy new documentary, Kate Nash: Underestimate the Girl, from director Amy Goldstein (The Hooping Life) about her rise, decline and now gradual return to the spotlight. I found the film extremely compelling, as Nash’s story twists and turns in surprising ways. Forced to independently fund her third album, “Girl Talk” and subsequent touring, she finds herself struggling, financially, for the first time since her breakout. This does not deter her, and as she grows as an artist, so, too, does she mature as a human being. Surrounding herself with a group of powerful female rockers, she crafts an exciting image backed up by innovative tunes. Let us not underestimate her, indeed.

Director Amy Goldstein and star Kate Nash present KATE NASH: UNDERESTIMATE THE GIRL

Film poster: “Lifeline / Clifford Still”

Lifeline / Clyfford Still (Dennis Scholl) [the paragraph, below, is an adaptation of a longer review I wrote for Hammer to Nail, which has yet to post, as of this writing]

I knew little about Abstract Expressionist painter Clyfford Still (1904-1980) before watching director Dennis Scholl’s new documentary, Lifeline / Clyfford Still, which walks us through the man’s life and work with methodical precision. An artist of uncompromising principles, Still did not, in his lifetime, experience quite the acclaim of a Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko, and had nothing but contempt for the now-revered Museum of Modern Art, which he accused of “institutionalizing modernism.” He was always his own person, damn the rest. In fine Stillian tradition, his widow took her time choosing a posthumous home for his paintings, but they now almost all reside at Denver’s Clyfford Still Museum, which opened in 2011. Based on what I learned from this film, it seems worth a visit.

Film poster: “Mother”

Mother (Kristof Bilsen) [the paragraph, below, is an adaptation of my longer Hammer to Nail review]

A multi-layered documentary that examines the global disparities of social class and wealth, Mother may be many things at once, but is always most directly about the bonds of love, however frayed they become. Director Kristof Bilsen (Elephant’s Dream) follows separate narrative threads, the one in Thailand, the other in Switzerland, that eventually converge into a single tapestry of profound emotional conflict. We start with Pomm, a mother of three and caregiver at Baan Kamlangchay, a home in Thailand for German-speaking patients with dementia that provides constant one-on-one companions for its clientele. The film then cuts to Switzerland, where Maya, a woman in her late 50s suffers from early-onset Alzheimer’s. Of the many options, Maya’s family considers Baan Kamlangchay. What does it say about the world that we ship a loved one far abroad at a price that is more affordable than local hospice care? The beauty of this exquisite movie is that it raises urgent, complicated questions in a gentle, almost dreamlike manner, training most of its focus on the intimate moments between nurse and patient, mother and child.

Film poster: “Narrowsburg”

Narrowsburg (Martha Shane) [the paragraph, below, is an adaptation of a longer review I wrote for Hammer to Nail, which has yet to post, as of this writing]

Stories of disasters in the making are often a lot of fun to watch, as long as we are not the ones directly affected by the misfortune. In Narrowsburg, from Martha Shane (Picture Character), a documentary long in the making about events that transpired 20 years ago in midstate New York, comedy and tragedy make excellent bedfellows after smooth-talking grifters move to a small community and sell them on a seemingly impossible dream. When Richie Castellano and his wife Jocelyne arrived in the hamlet of Narrowsburg – located about 110 miles northwest of New York City, right next to the Pennsylvania state line, on the Delaware River – in 1998, he was fresh off an acting stint on the soon-to-be-released Analyze This and she was hot off a successful run working for the Hollywood Film Festival. He spoke with a heavy Brooklyn accent, she with a French one; he emphasized a goodfella demeanor and past (he had spent time in jail for robbery), while she was much more polished; despite these differences, they seemed very much in love, not only with each other, but with Narrowsburg. A place where everyone knows each other by sight, Narrowsburg was not quite prepared for this invasion from the outside world, though the couple’s intentions appeared benign. What’s wrong with starting a film festival? Indeed. Watch and find out.

Director Martha Shane presents NARROWSBURG

Film poster: “Personhood”

Personhood (Jo Ardinger) [the paragraph, below, is an adaptation of my longer Hammer to Nail review]

Director Jo Ardinger, making her debut, explores the horrors of our nation’s expanding fetal “personhood” laws in the appropriately titled documentary Personhood. Rooted in the language of the 14thAmendment to the U.S. Constitution, personhood laws, now on the books in 38 states (even ostensibly liberal ones like my own, Maryland), in some form or another, range from limits on when and how women can have abortions to outright criminalization of behaviors both before and during pregnancy. One of the central cases profiled by Ardinger is that of Wisconsin resident Tammy Loertscher, jailed (while pregnant) for refusing to attend a court-mandated drug-treatment program. An expectant mother taking drugs? Sounds bad. Lock her up! It’s a disturbing movie, unless, of course, one is pro-dystopia. Shot and edited with an urgent mission to shed light on the very real dangers of our present, Personhood is always compelling. Surely even those who are against abortion can understand the evils of stripping away the rights of women. And if it’s about saving lives, how can throwing women in jail serve that goal? These and other issues make of the movie a powerful call to action. Have strong feelings about any of this? Then, as the final title card implores, vote.

Film still: “Queen of Hearts: Audrey Flack”

Queen of Hearts: Audrey Flack (Deborah Shaffer/Rachel Reichman) [the paragraph, below, is an adaptation of a longer review I wrote for Hammer to Nail, which has yet to post, as of this writing]

A thoroughly engaging documentary portrait of an artist I had never heard of (judge me as you will), Queen of Hearts: Audrey Flack, from director Deborah Shaffer (To Be Heard) and co-director Rachel Reichman (editor on Hitchcock/Truffaut) is the perfect introduction to its subject, comprehensive in its detail and captivating in its approach. Audrey Flack (born 1931) is still very much of this world, and is our guide, her autobiographical presence supplemented by ample interviews from family, friends and colleagues. In my case, ignorance was truly bliss, as I was able to experience all of Flack’s glory for the first time, the rush of her brilliance hitting me hard.

Film poster: “The Story of Plastic”

The Story of Plastic (Deia Schlosberg) [the paragraph, below, is an adaptation of my longer Hammer to Nail review]

Forget climate change (actually, please don’t) … the world as we know it will soon come to a clogged end, choking on the petroleum-based product known as plastic. That’s right, one way or another, fossil fuels are coming for us. In the case of plastic, however, it could be sooner than we think. The last 15 years has seen the creation of over half the amount of plastic that has ever existed. Think about that. Then consider the arrogance of the titans of industry who keep foisting this virtually eternal substance on the world, pointing to the developing countries with the worst pollution records as the true culprits. How does that work? Director Deia Schlosberg (Cold Love) lays out the facts in all their depressing presaging of doom. Beyond the accumulation of first-generation bottles, bags and more, it’s the degraded materials (and plastic degrades easily into smaller pieces, though sadly not into nothingness, lasting for eons) that pose some of the greatest threats, invading rivers, oceans and our drinking water. Yes, whales die by swallowing bags – something we can all wrap our minds around, however tragic – but what is the effect of the ingestion of these non-digestible materials? We are fat-rucked.

I also really enjoyed The Edge of Democracy and Human Nature. See you next year!

The SVA Theatre in New York, one of the screening venues of DOC NYC

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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