Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed
Founded in 2010, DOC NYC – an annual festival devoted to documentary cinema – celebrates its 8th anniversary this year, running from November 9-16, with today its final day. Located in the heart of Manhattan, across three movie theaters – two in Chelsea, and one in Greenwich Village – the festival screens over 200 films, shorts and features, both, with additional panels and events over the course of the week. This was my first year attending, and I was only able to go from the evening of Friday, November 10, through the afternoon of Sunday, November 12. I watched 4 features via screening links, and 7 on the ground, for a total of 11, plus one shorts program. That’s but a small fraction of the total, but it still gave me a sense of the scope of this terrific showcase of nonfiction moving-image storytelling. To make things even more enticing, every film I saw had someone associated with it in attendance for a post-screening Q&A. What follows is my list of top five favorites from among those 11 films, with brief capsule reviews of each, in order of preference, with a short summary of the shorts program, as well.
1. Kedi (Ceyda Torun, 79 min)
It is perhaps unfair to list this as my top film of the festival, since it already had a theatrical release earlier in the year, and is available online through a variety of streaming or VOD services. Still, yesterday’s news as Kedi may be, it is such a delightful movie in every way that I cannot help myself. Though much more of a dog person than a cat fan (though I love all animals), I nevertheless found myself enchanted from the very first frame. Director Ceyda Torun (whose debut feature this is) gives us a portrait of 7 feline residents of Istanbul, Turkey, as they make their way through their daily routines of scrounging, hunting and feeding their young. Along the way, Torun manages to squeeze in a history of the city, as well, and more than a few profound insights on human nature and how it is reflected through the way we interact with our furry cousins. Beautifully photographed (often at kitty level), and with an enchanting score that provides the perfect, gentle accompaniment to the sounds of Istanbul and its cats, Kedi is the ultimate cinematic example of how great specificity leads to universal truths. These small creatures, and the lucky people they let into their lives, have so much to teach us.
Far less enchanting, but no less meaningful, is This Is Congo. A devastating exposé of governmental corruption and the lingering, horrifying legacy of colonialism, the movie follows a variety of citizens of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), in central Africa, as they struggle to survive in the current mess that is their country. Each of the people we meet, from military folks to civilians, sheds light on a different aspect of Congolese history and current affairs. Mineral-rich and ethics-poor, the DRC has long been a victim of exploitation, be it by foreign powers or the local elite. Always, those who suffer most are the ordinary people. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the film is how it is shot. Also making his feature debut, director/cinematographer Daniel McCabe displays uncommon courage – or recklessness, or both – throwing himself and his camera into the middle of the many battles we witness. After 20 years of civil war, the DRC is overrun, in areas, by more than 50 armed rebel groups, with a revolving influx of soldiers that go from army to rebel group and back again. Imagine running towards the gunfire, the ground erupting around you, and you’ll get a sense of just how insane our intrepid McCabe is. As a fellow filmmaker, I don’t know whether to applaud or recoil in fear. Brilliant and tragic, This Is Congo will break your heart.
Whether in TV series like NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Streets (1993-1999) or HBO’s The Wire (2002-2008), Baltimore just can’t seem to catch a cinematic break. Most urban spaces in America have their problems, though there is no question that Baltimore has a very high murder rate. Unfortunately, all too often, we talk only about that fact, itself, and not its causes. Actress Sonja Sohn (Detective Kima Greggs on The Wire), making her directorial debut, points her lens at the failing infrastructure that led to riots following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. She proves an extremely able documentarian, presenting participants on all sides of the debate, from the police to activists and beyond. I was impressed at how seamlessly she moves between the opposing camps, helping us understand how there can be common ground between the police and those they serve (and oppress). It gives one hope that maybe one day Baltimore (and, by extension, other cities) can resolve the tensions that threaten to destroy it. Maybe, maybe not, but at least there’s dialogue.
4. Love Means Zero (Jason Kohn, 91 min)
From cats to war-torn Africa to Baltimore to … tennis, I really enjoyed the variety at this festival. In Love Means Zero, from director Jason Kohn (Manda Bala), we meet Nick Bolletieri, the once-renowned tennis coach to the likes of Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Boris Becker, Venus and Serena Williams, and many more. As a 1980s archival news report states, his was a “capitalist version of the Soviet system” of communal sports training, where children worked together in an academy, away from their families. He was father figure and coach, combined, for better and for worse. Kohn has Bolletieri sit for an extended interview, cutting to copious archival material from the past and interviews with Courier, Becker and lesser-known former pupils. Agassi, so closely associated with Bolletieri in the first part of his career, refused to be a part of the movie, though he is hardly absent from the narrative. A tale of success, hubris and subsequent slow decline, Love Means Zero ends as a profound meditation on confession and redemption. Along the way, it is damn fine entertainment, with former champions Courier and Becker both extremely engaging and mature in their assessments of Bolletieri’s legacy. If the film has a weakness, it is that it more or less stops cold with the Agassi fallout, never explaining why we get no glimpses of the Williams sisters, nor how Bolletieri has spent the last 20 years (other than a few sparse details). Still, what is on the screen is well worth watching.
As an ardent believer in Israel’s right to exist, I was at first concerned about the cinematic agenda of Naila and the Uprising, a new documentary from director Julia Bacha (Budrus) that mixes modern-day interviews with archival footage and, in lieu of re-enactments, animation. The film is a profile of Naila Alesh, a Palestinian activist who was one of the prime movers and shakers in the 1987 intifada that erupted in the Gaza Strip in response to Israeli occupation. Bacha does not pull punches as she makes a case for the rightness of her protagonist’s actions, and so I grew afraid that this might become a one-sided diatribe against Israel. Instead, the film examines the issue from multiple sides; besides, the question of Palestinian statehood almost becomes secondary to the movie’s intense focus on the role that women have played in the politics of the region. As Palestinian men were increasingly imprisoned or deported, women took their place in leadership roles; then, just as real change was about to happen, the men stepped back in, robbing their female colleagues of a voice. That is the real story here, and ultimately the true tragedy that Bacha uncovers. Depressing as the subject can be, the film, itself, is a beautiful work of art, its animated sequences a nice touch, lending a fable-like quality to the narrative that belies its tragic antecedents.
The other features I watched included the following: Big Time (Kaspar Astrup Schröder, 90 min), a fascinating profile of Danish architect Bjarke Ingels; Island Soldier (Nathan Fitch, 85 min), which follows Micronesian Islanders as they serve in the U.S. Army, as per the opportunities allowed them under the Compact of Free Association that followed their 1986 independence; Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood (Matt Tyrnauer, 97 min), a tale of sex and near-scandal in the Golden Age of Hollywood and beyond; and David Bowie: The Last Five Years (Francis Whately, 89 min), a tribute to the late rock musician with special emphasis to his final half-decade. In the one shorts program I saw – “Strange but True” – I particularly liked Adolescencia (Jose Fernando Rodriguez Morales, 10 min), Remote Viewing Memories (Garret Harkawik, 23 min) and Sleep with Me (Summre Garber, 8 min – and in the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I know the filmmaker). I had a great time, and hope I can see more films next year.