When they told us last year that it would be back, bigger than ever in 2015, they weren’t kidding. This year’s DOC NYC had over 100 films. So yes, it was bigger. But it was even (if such a thing is possible), better, playing day and night at three venues for an entire week. There were yet more panels, discussions, master classes and insiders conferences: http://www.docnyc.net/films-events/ There were outstanding films about women and by women. Even Hillary Clinton turned up as a guest for Once and For All on Closing Night. But above all there was the exceptional curation of a towering lineup, with heroism—in its many guises—the covert theme of the choices.
Miss Sharon Jones! (Barbara Kopple)
No matter how much a subject and a filmmaker can
turn real life into legend, it can’t get any better than this. Sharon Jones is a marvel whose shoot-for-the-moon performances and recordings have carved out her one-woman hall of fame. But it’s the woman, as well as the artist, who doesn’t let you go for a nanosecond. Her story of soaring, searing on-stage musical meltdowns with the Dap-Kings band (with plenty of live-action clips) leaves you primed to follow her battle with cancer. Together, they make one tough brilliant human being who invented the word “struggle” but doesn’t know the words “give up.” And Kopple knows exactly what to do with Jones’ life and art. It’s 94 minutes of rolling boil and you won’t want it any less intense. Definitely an Oscar short-list candidate.
The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith (Sarah Fishko)
The culmination of a long-term project that includes a Public Radio series, exhibitions of Smith’s photographs, and a book by Sam Stephenson (The Jazz Loft Project), Fishko and her colleagues have made a seamless golden glow from the pieces of a crazy quilt. It’s as cool as Miss Sharon Jones is hot, with a balance between some seriously heavenly vintage jazz and Smith’s seriously brilliant vintage photographs. It’s hard to believe it now, but Chelsea was once full of flowers (you can still find a few) and cheap, run-down lofts—full of artists and musicians addicted to playing and staying up all night (they are, of course, gone). But from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, they lived and flourished, inventing and recording an idiom as they went along. The music was, and is, glorious, and the ethos of a singular community suffuses every frame. The archival footage is priceless and the interviews with jazz greats and lovers give a strong sense of what gentrification and indulgence have erased. It’s Smith’s own reel-to-reel recordings and his images, though, that saved it all; what the hands, eyes and ears of a true artist caught in mid-flight. All together, the essence of a New York that was, and will never be again. http://www.wnyc.org/jazzloftthemovie/
Class Divide (Marc Levin)
Grand Jury Prize: Metropolis Competition
This is a simply stunning film, as lean and brilliantly structured as only a deeply committed and seasoned filmmaker can make it. It’s Chelsea now: the High Line, the Avenues School, the burgeoning glass towers and overflowing supermarkets on one side; the Elliott Houses (post-war public housing projects) on the other. It’s also 74 minutes packed with personalities on both edges of the divide, bursting with passion and resentment, arguments and reconciliations, ideals and agendas. But not for one second of those 74 minutes does Levin ever lose sight of his master plan or the uniqueness of his many subjects. You always know what the issues are and where each player fits into the very, very complicated arena. He is experienced enough to zero in on the personalities who can make a riveting case for their opinions, and knows just how to use their gifts. The results are even-handed, but never, ever less than crystal clear. Another strong contender for top awards. HBO is in back of Mr. Levin, so the film will get the wide distribution it deserves. It’s the DOC NYC Closing night selection but, if you missed it, catch the broadcast on HBO.
Thank You for Your Service (Tom Donahue)
If you’re feeling patriotic because we’re about to commit to yet more boots on the ground abroad, be sure you see Tom Donahue’s film before you start cheering. It’s a beautifully made, deeply felt look at the hard truths of serving your country in the 21st century. With a cast of veterans, caregivers, high-ranking military officers, politicians, and a family of Iraqis killed by American troops, it will stretch your opinions, perhaps even change them or, better still, encourage you to find a way to address the problems. How bad are they? The film reports that, for every soldier killed on the battlefield, twenty-five die by their own hand.
Having given everything for their country in often terrifying conditions and endless tours of duty, many return with wounds that cannot heal, and often with long-lasting PTSD. With inadequate care by the VA (one psychiatrist, struggling to do his best, reports a caseload of 6,000 patients), shrinking budgets and a tendency for society to look away from the evidence of scarred faces, missing limbs, and psychological damage, Thank You for Your Service doesn’t let you off the hook for a second.
If anything, outrage at the revelations of what veterans can expect grows, along with a terrible sense of sorrow at how, and why, this has happened. But there are those who are committed to discovering ways to heal the wounds; the film lets them speak and offers insights and innovation that combine disciplines in surprising ways. One standout takeaway is the story of the Iraqi family whose father and sons were killed by American troops. The survivors find their way to America; the soldier who did the killing finds his way to them. It’s wildly improbable, but there is reconciliation that defies logic, and acceptance on both sides. Another sign of hope is a program at a camp in the American desert based on Native American principles. It offers a sense of community the wounded desperately need and respond to, far more effective than the medication that so many are given as the easy way out. The interviews are by turns heart-rending and infuriating, but always intelligent. And there are many heroes to applaud here, along with a bureaucracy that makes a surprisingly effective villain. Listen to what they have to say, and learn what to do.
Newman (Jon Fox)
Special Mention: Viewfinders Competition
Joe Newman was an outsize personality from a small Southern town with a very, very big idea: self-educated, he invented a perpetual motion machine that broke all the laws of physics by continuing to run without the need for oil or gas. He was also an idealist whose passion was to patent his invention so that mankind could enjoy the benefits of cheap and, apparently, endless energy to drive the machines that everyone would be able to afford. It looked like a giant step for mankind.
What made the difference was that Newman also spent his time having his machine approved by scientists, whose unanimous opinions over time were that he had pulled off what he claimed to have done. But somehow his patent applications, despite the mounting testimony in his favor, were always postponed and denied. He gained access to newspapers, major television shows, and magazines. It was a terrific story, and the media responded to it. But no matter how hard Newman tried, or how many impressive confirmations he received from impeccable sources, he could not achieve the backing he needed. There is a strong suspicion that big oil and big gas did not look favorably on something that would conflict with their their own agenda and that, in the back rooms, there was pressure applied to lawmakers and the US Patent Office.
Jon Fox had access to Newman, and to a lot of the material in Newman’s print and TV archive. As the years passed and Newman’s resources were consumed by his struggle, he became angrier and angrier at what looks—even in retrospect—like real skulduggery that he was increasingly unable to fend off. It’s an effective, powerful and disturbing film that escalates into a genuinely tragic and explosive finale . Fox stays the course, and gives us a man and a movie remaining stubbornly in memory when the lights come up. What became of Newman’s invention? Good question! http://www.newmanmovie.com/
I Am Sun Mu (Adam Sjöberg)
The heroism here is quiet—but definitely subversive. Sun Mu is a North Korean artist who defected to South Korea (by swimming a river to China), now working and living in Seoul with his family. Once a propaganda artist for the North, he resurrects the familiar smiling images to repurpose them as a political statements against Kim Jong-un’s regime. They retain their brilliant colors and craftsmanship but carry a sting felt in his former homeland. He works under a pseudonym meaning “no boundaries,” and is wary of showing his face in public.
As he turns out huge pop-art paintings of smiling children, upside-down North Korean flags and other icons in a newly irreverent context, he is visited by the director of a Beijing gallery eager to give him a one-man show, observing that there are many North Korean artists working in China, but still painting propaganda “like the Chinese paintings of 40 years ago.” Of course there is risk; Sun Mu’s art is notorious both in the North and in China, and the North Koreans are on good terms with the Chinese. And there are spies everywhere.
Nevertheless, the gallery owner—displaying the same degree of courage that drove Sun Mu to immigrate—plunges in, giving Sun Mu a studio on the outskirts of Beijing to create a series of huge art works, ingenious combinations of day-glo reverse patriotism and subversive texts. Even with Sjoberg’s restrained approach to the material (he, too, would have had to keep a low profile while filming), the cumulative effect grows until, at the very last moment, when swarms of Chinese police (joined by North Korean colleagues) close down the gallery and confiscate the art just before the opening, the real danger to the artist and gallery owner becomes clear. A sign goes up: “This exhibition is shut down temporarily.” The next morning, the gallery has been stripped bare. Sun Mu flees with his family back to Seoul; they are grateful to have survived. But it’s unlikely that anyone will ever see the original art. Clever animations of Sun Mu’s paintings by Ryan Wehner are effective complements to the restraint and strengths of the film. i am sun mu