Posts Tagged ‘doc nyc’

Apollo’s Girl

November 30, 2015

apollo and lyre


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, doc nycmaster classes and insiders conferences: 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 heroismin its many guises—the covert theme of the choices.

Miss Sharon Jones! (Barbara Kopple)

No matter how much a subject and a filmmaker can sharon jones
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)

eugene smithThe 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 sara fishkomade 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 rsz_jazz_loft3recording 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.

Class Divide (Marc Levin)
Grand Jury Prize: Metropolis Competition

class divideThis 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. Avenues-world-schoolYou always know what the issues are elliott housesand 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 committhank you2 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 thank youAmerica; 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 newmana 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 NEWMAN_KEY-376x242have 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 retrospectlike 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!

I Am Sun Mu (Adam Sjöberg)

The heroism here is quiet—but definitely subversive. sun muSun 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.

NorthKoreaArtist-111446470347As 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.

i am sun muNevertheless, the gallery ownerdisplaying the same degree of courage that drove Sun Mu to immigrateplunges 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

Apollo’s Girl

November 20, 2014


apollo and lyre



Bigger Than Ever: Doc NYC at Five



If you have a festival and you want it to grow, you doc nyc 2014need 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-Thona 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 Revoltingtakes 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 yes menDavids. 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. (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 citizenfour_posterhits 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 spandau balletSoul 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 Transfigurationthe 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.

scottAs 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.florence_sunset
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.

DOC NYC will be back next year; with even more premieres, more sold-out screenings, and more films, great and modest, as expected and as surprising. Keep track of the news and stay on top of it. home base

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