Bigger Than Ever: Doc NYC at Five
If you have a festival and you want it to grow, you need a few basics: a list of sponsors with muscle, a dedicated team with vision, a multiplex, an interesting slate, seductive events, and location. Doc NYC has all of these; offering 92 features and 37 shorts, up from a total of 132 last year, plus a Doc-A-Thon—a didactic soup-to-nuts, beginning with Mapping Out Your Film: Story and Style, and ending a week later with the bottom line: Making a Living as a Documentary Filmmaker. This last may prove something of an oxymoron, but it’s an inspirational idea for attendees heading out into the dark and stormy night that is documentary film.
The Festival’s upbeat gala finale—The Yes Men are Revolting—takes place tonight at the SVA Theatre (333 West 23rd Street) at 7:00 pm. The miracle of Yes Men Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno is their ability to make you laugh at the brilliant stunts they dream up to protest issues like climate change. That is until you absorb the scale and implacability of their targets, ever-growing Goliaths to their Davids. You have to see the opening to believe it, but its activist blobs wading knee-deep in the East River is a unique call to arms, impossible to top.
Along the way, we are treated to past capers, brainstorming sessions, consequences, and slow (and delicious) reveals of corporate and institutional stalwarts realizing they’ve been had. There seems to be no limit to the energy or inventiveness of Buchlbaum and Bonanno, although doubts and sorrows occasionally leaven their capers. My advice: follow their every move and find a way to support them. Then just dig deep, choose a project, and give til it hurts. http://www.yeslab.org/projects?page=1 (Director Laura Nix and the Yes Men in person to attend.)
What makes the festival notable is its focus on the genre (so often neglected or underserved in favor of narrative film) and its inclusiveness. The sheer number of its offerings guarantees that there will be works of interest to everyone. There were many strands, much variety, and — a real Godsend — revivals of some recent hits from the Film Society of Lincoln Center (Citizen Four, arguably the most important documentary to surface this year), and Finding Vivian Maier (whose quirky mystery seems destined to be obscured by a subsequent legal battle with no end in sight, like a latter-day Bleak House). Both were part of the Short List section; likely Oscar nominees. Then there was Docs Redux, bringing ’em back alive from decades past: Steve James’ (director of this year’s searing Life Itself) 1993 multiple award-winner Hoop Dreams; David—from DA Pennebaker and William Ray (the very pinnacle of 1960s verite cool)—as well as Pennebaker and Hegedus’ much later Kings of Pastry (did you ever think you’d see strong men cry over the collapse of a sublime chocolate confection)? The capacity to bring back films, old and new, that demand repeat viewings and new viewers, is the real luxury of multiple screens, good selection committees, and long memories.
There were parallels among the features (coincidental or otherwise); overviews of an era from Ric Burns, and from Gracie Otto. The first, Enquiring Minds— a hard look at Generoso Pope, Jr., who purchased the National Enquirer in 1952 (allegedly with mob financing) and turned it from a sleepy local gossip sheet into an increasingly lurid supermarket sensation beset by celebrity lawsuits; the second, The Last Impressario, featuring the elegant Michael White, besotted by dreams of producing only the best of the bests on Broadway, in the West End, and in Hollywood, drifting after a lifetime in the company of the stars he presented.
Two radically different (but entertaining) films were screened that used the evolution of a group to represent changing times and more: George Hencken’s Soul Boys of the Western World (the story of the rock group Spandau Ballet), and Tim K. Smith’s Sex and Broadcasting (a chronicle of WFMU, “the best—and perhaps weirdest—radio station in the tristate area, if not the country.”) Seeing both, you realized that every group, like every person, has a life cycle; from the enthusiasm and idealism of youth, to the growing exhaustion and disillusionment of middle age, and finally the resolution of life’s lessons in a variety of ways. For WFMU, the future is a big question mark, generated by a chronic and oppressive lack of funds. For Spandau Ballet, we are treated to a spectacular reunion concert (after decades of toxic estrangement) that ends with a socko performance at the Isle of Wight; the band’s members literally throw off the years and become luminous, visibly younger versions of themselves; something I haven’t seen since Christopher Gable (as Richard Strauss) ripped off the mask of old age while conducting Death and Transfiguration—the finale of Ken Russell’s Dance of the Seven Veils. It took your breath away both times.
Attention must be paid to Vessel (by Diana Whitten) a call to arms for women’s reproductive rights; its heroine (Dr. Rebecca
Gomperts) founded Women on Waves to provide contraceptive and abortion services to women in need. The clinic operates around the world on a ship moored in international waters, to avoid harsh penalties in countries where there is no legal alternative to pregnancy, however dire its consequences. Gomperts is tireless, and unafraid, but the threats are many and lurid, and impossible to ignore.
As in every festival, there was one real surprise—a quiet film that spoke to me with a cumulative strength that demanded recognition: Florence, Arizona, by Andrea B. Scott, its director, writer, and cinematographer. Florence is a one-industry town whose prison employs most residents, and whose inmates outnumber them two-to-one. Its arid streets and quirky small-town characters grow on you; a Native American barber; a bad-boy adolescent trying hard to improve; a former teacher and a deputy sheriff who oppose each other in an election for town mayor; no two stubborn peas in this sun-drenched pod are remotely alike.
Scott’s cinematography is glorious, her understanding of what makes Florence tick and her empathy for her subjects produces pure gold. She asks the right questions, then gets out of the way, letting people speak for themselves. It’s a gift that many filmmakers can learn from, and a film that perceptive viewers can take to heart. http://vimeo.com/11028375