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DOC NYC Round Up: Part 1

The fourth annual DOC NYC trumpeted it was the largest documentary festival in the United States, and it was an almost overwhelming showcase of the diverse styles to tell real stories of diverse people. 

It has 72 feature-length documentaries — most accompanied by the filmmakers for audience Q & A’s; second-chance showings of some of the year’s best theatrically released documentaries; and 20 panel discussions and/or master classes on just about anything you needed to know to be a documentarian these days, so it wasn’t possible to see everything. 

Yet during November 14 - 21, 2013, all of this was viewable at either the IFC Center or SVA Theater in special events and in categories of: 

  • American Perspectives -- 11 films
  • International Perspectives – 8
  • Sonic Cinema – 5
  • Art + Design – 7
  • Midnight Docs – 4

There were also two competition categories: Metropolis for films about New York City - 9, and Viewfinders films with “distinct directorial visions” - 8.  

Here’s a sampling of the many bio-docs, documentaries that spotlighted the life of one person each (or group).

Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy? exemplified both the star power and thoughtful richness the festival attracts: a world premiere by eclectic French director Michel Gondry before the theatrical and video on demand debut by Sundance Selects.  Think a series of extended conversations with philosopher/linguist MIT professor Noam Chomsky would be a bore?  Surprise – they talk amidst an amusing and informative visual feast of hand-drawn animation around photographs.  Gondry, umm, draws out the octogenarian Chomsky in a stream of consciousness about his early life (his memories of growing up an intellectual prodigy in Philadelphia and his grief for his late wife humanize the genius) and how his experiences shaped his theories and later peripatetic political activism around the globe.  The child-like animated drawings both contrast and emphasize how Chomsky’s sophisticated erudition come out of his intense way at looking at the world around him. 

The interchanges and illustrations (matched by a score of experimentalist composer Howard Skempton’s selections) almost helped me understand all that Chomsky was talking about, even when I wasn’t completely convinced by his breezy explanations for how language evolved.  But the documentary also gains urgency by Gondry’s increasing anxiety about Chomsky’s mortality if the painstakingly created film will be finished in time for him to critique the final product.  Spoiler alert: Chomsky is still alive.

Portraits of the Artists: Taking Pictures

Finding Vivian Maier Key Image Credit IFC FilmsTwo self-effacing street photographers were the focus of intriguing memorial documentaries, one man well-known to cognoscenti, the other a woman previously known to no one.  Finding Vivian Maier, the Festival Centerpiece in its U.S. premiere, is a fascinating mystery, an insightful reconstruction of an eccentric life, and, even more, a revelation of how extraordinary talent can be hidden in the most ordinary places.  Co-director John Maloof realized his Storage Wars-like buy of a big trunk of old Chicago photographs and thousands of rolls of undeveloped film was more an Antiques Roadshow aesthetic find, as he saved more of the photographer’s items from a dumpster.  But, ironically, it wasn’t until he saw the obituary of the octogenarian Vivian Maier two years later, in 2009, could he follow-up on the photographer.  One by one, he finds parents and children who knew her -- as their live-in nanny, mostly in the Chicago suburbs (where co-director Charlie Siskel also grew up).  But did anyone really know her?  There are clues to her past in her photographs of busy people, room full of detailed pseudonymous receipts and souvenirs, the self-portraits with her ubiquitous, waist-level Rolleiflex camera, but also in her accented voice rambling from piles of audio verité tapes, that help lead back from Chicago to historical research in New York and rural France for a touching homecoming.

Maloof wrestles over much with the ethical dilemma if Maier the tall loner would have wanted all those hoarded rolls developed (and still being done as funds permit), let alone publicly shown and published (and it seems snootily restrictive that museum curators reject photographs not developed under the artist’s supervision, even as photographer Joel Meyerowitz testifies to her artistic sense).  Her street photographs, most black-and-white and some in color, are so timelessly full of life and the revelations about her odd life provoke such curiosity that I wanted to hear more from herself, beyond what a linguistics expert interpreted, and more stories from her former wards of being dragged all over the streets of Chicago as buffers and spontaneous extras by a very unconventional Mary Poppins, who grew more secretive and idiosyncratic, into abusive, over the years.  A CSI-type time line and specification of the years when each interviewee crossed her peripatetic line of sight would be contextually useful as the evidence is pieced together.  Sundance Selects will bring this now unforgettable woman to theatres this spring.

In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons In Life With Saul Leiter fondly follows a living hoarder overwhelmed by his apartment full of his photographs and the Proustian memories they generate about dead friends and lovers – just in time because the film was finished just before he died.  But Leiter was a respected teacher and pioneer in applying color to street photography (amidst commercial fashion work), and, luckily, debut director Tomas Leach nagged him in the last years of his life to capture his philosophy and decades-long daily method of repeatedly shooting his same downtown Manhattan block. 

While the rambling “13 Lessons” include casually pithy and curmudgeonly comments on cameras, boxes of color, his legacy, the ways to God (away from his Orthodox Jewish father), taking photography seriously, the importance of staying still, going out looking for photographs, and even” tickling your left ear”, the key reason to catch the documentary (now in theatrical release after its New York City premiere at the festival) is how it shows you his unique talent.  Leach lets the audience observe the same subject Leiter does, from several angles – but then we see how Leiter’s resulting photographs of the people and elements in his neighborhood, and the off-center, almost abstract, compositions vividly prove that the octogenarian had his creative eye up until the end, demonstrating, as he says, “Photography teaches you to look at and appreciate all kinds of things”.

Noted: Portraits of Musical Artists

Dori Berinstein’s fond memorial love letter to Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did for Love was given a gala New York City premiere before its American Masters’ broadcast on PBS.  While the early story of a classical music child prodigy who couldn’t resist the siren call of Broadway is charming, there were probably as many air kisses off-screen as on seen here in the effusive testimonials and previously-seen clips of Hamlisch on TV promoting his (mostly phenomenally) popular musicals, soundtracks, and American songbook concerts.

The Punk Singer is an essential corrective to cliché histories of popular rock ‘n’ roll, generally, and 1990’s punk rock, specifically, by bringing women up front.  Through the intertwined life and art of Kathleen Hanna, mostly in her own words through extensive interviews, debut director Sini Anderson traces the germinal impact of Bikini Kill and her other bands for the Riot Grrrl revolution.  While Hanna seems to have initially agreed to participate to clarify her legend -- minimizing her family abuse and influence on “my friend Kurt” Cobain for her graffitti’d phrase “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and his playing with gender images – she also welcomes the opportunity for the extended conversations to emphasize her intellectual roots in feminist art; her transgressive use of pink and feminine dresses to speak directly to teenage girls, in contrast to perceptions of the grunge rockers around her in the Pacific Northwest and her leading admirers here, Joan Jett, Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon.

punksingerThese insights are impressively illustrated with real finds of early, home video performance footage, tour flyers, and set lists as her songs are heard on the soundtrack.  An important emphasis is on her speaking out against the rampant and dangerous sexism in the mosh pit, like how a young friend of mine was injured at another concert, and her loud insistence on protecting her female fans, proclaiming as in the title of Sara Marcus’s useful book on riot grrrls: “Girls to the Front”.  But even long time fans may be surprised by the last decade of her life since she left the public eye since her band Le Tigre and marriage to Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz (a.k.a. Ad-Rock) until a long, difficult illness was finally correctly diagnosed as late-stage Lyme disease.  The documentary emotionally climaxes with the 20-band “Kathleen Hanna Tribute Show” in New York December 2010, but also triumphantly sets the stage for her revived career with the band The Julie Ruin, and her recognition in past and future rock history.  IFC Films is distributing the film around the country.

The visual impact of a powerful woman singer whose music was integrated with social revolution is also vital in Mercedes Sosa: The Voice of Latin America.  Sosa’s throaty voice helped bring international opprobrium to the military dictatorship that brutally ruled her native Argentina from 1976 to 1983, while at the vanguard of the world music movement until her death in 2009.  Director Rodrigo Vila helps American fans put her songs into the context of her life and times, and not just through subtitled lyrics.  Her physical presence vividly identifies her rural Indo-American roots and her instinctive empathy and life-long championing of the indigenous poor she rose from, even as luck brought her talent attention from a very young age, as heard in recordings and many performance clips.  Her son Fabián Matus, from an abusive marriage to a musician, conducts the most revealing conversations, with family, friends, and collaborating artists from her leadership with the 1960’s "Manifesto del Nuevo Cancionero (The New Songbook Manifesto)” on through exile in France and triumphant return, but who are probably not as familiar to U.S. audiences as Brazilian Milton Nascimento and American David Byrne whose comments on her pan-American impact aren’t as insightful or informative.  Also frankly shown are her later battles with crippling depression and other health problems, even as a continent’s adoration inspired her to come back for tributes.  First Run Features’ release of the film to theaters will help keep her legacy alive.

Revenge Of The Mekons
, in its world premiere as it continues on the festival rounds, is a group biography of an unusual band that is not just for the devoted fans they’ve been connecting with since playing together as Leeds art students in 1977, including interviewed writers Jonathan Franzen, Greil Marcus, and Luc Sante.  (Over 300 chipped in on Kickstarter to help.)  As an anarchic collective of eight men and women (plus six who have rotated in and out), The Mekons have outlasted the flash and burn of the Sex Pistols and Clash that inspired them, sometimes just enough to keep performing at benefits for the many leftist causes they support.  (Their passionate archival concerts for the miners struggling against Thatcher’s economic policies show their solidarity wasn’t just dilettantism).  Despite their continual bad luck and failed record deals (compared to a young U2 photographed opening for them in Dublin), director Joe Angio traces their persistence as they keep turning out albums (a couple of dozen releases so far) when they meet up annually, or so, from their now spread-out home bases to cooperatively keep writing new songs and piling into a van to keep touring (even with cancellations).  Most revealing is how they’ve kept going personally, artistically, and politically with each member clearly identified on screen by their years and specialty in the band, revealing their very different personalities and performing styles for what they bring to the whole, and their extensions (and sustenance) with varied artists eager to collaborate.  While I was only familiar with Jon Langford’s Chicago-based Americana projects, including as one of the Waco Brothers, unexpectedly, Lu Edmonds is an ethnomusicologist traveling Central Asia, and Susie Honeyman’s Grey Art Gallery in London reinforces what the Mekons epitomize -- that grey hair is not only no barrier to creativity, but maturity can be an asset.

Harlem Street Singer Key Image - Photo by Alice Ochs-Getty Images Though I was sorry to miss the U.S. premiere of a bio-doc on a legend of the folk blues revival Harlem Street Singer: The Reverend Gary Davis Story, in the group portrait Folk I followed the travails of three musicians trying to support themselves in today’s non-commercial Americana scene, that I frequent, of festivals and house concerts hosted by fans, with its DIY tour management and publicity, where performers struggle to balance endless touring with a personal life.  Director Sara Terry does a terrific job of getting intimate with the boomer-age Dirk Hamilton adjusting to lower expectations after early success; thirty-something Hilary Claire Adamson who seems straight out of the TV series Nashville for her ambition crossed with her naiveté about business and relationships in her husband-and-wife duo Flyin’ A’s; and 29-year-old Raina Rose’s determination as she tours pregnant, then nursing, on the same bill with the young singer-songwriter Anthony da Costa, whose talent I’ve been admiring since he was a high-schooler.  But the fresh feel of the verité footage is belied by the terribly old-fashioned assumptions about the folk music business.  While the documentary was assisted by a Kickstarter campaign (that I helped promote to my Facebook friends), there is only a dismissive reference to internet promotion and none of the three seem to have any online or social media presence, making them seem as doomed today as the Coen Brothers fictionalized stubborn Llewyn Davis was in 1961.  The visual elephant in the film is how old the majority of the audiences are – where is the future support for this vital music if these folk singers don’t reach out to and bring in younger folks?

Music and musicians infuse The Pleasures Of Being Out Of Step: Notes on the Life of Nat Hentoff, in its NYC premiere and winner of the Metropolis Competition, selected by the jury as the best film set in New York City.  Viewers may already be familiar with Hentoff’s jazz criticism, first for Downbeat, then for decades in the Village Voice, but not know about the importance of his erudite liner notes or his impact in raising the level of discourse about jazz for it to gain acceptance as an art form, with his eloquent words intoned by Andre Braugher.  While debut director David Lewis touts Hentoff’s championship of civil rights, the octogenarian’s non-musical opinions sound less compelling coming from a cantankerous old man.  First Run Features will bring the documentary to theaters this spring

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