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2017 DOC NYC Festival Roundup

 A Murder in Mansfield

This year’s DOC NYC Festival, comprising dozens of non-fiction features and shorts, opened with The Final Year, a fly-on-the-wall look at Obama’s last 12 months in office.

Closing night’s Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars is directed by Lili Fini Zanuck, who made Rush in 1991, a movie highlighted by Clapton’s mournful “Tears in Heaven,” written after his young son Conor fell to his death from a midtown Manhattan high rise window. That incident looms large in this examination of Clapton’s life and career, which doesn’t skimp on the addictions, adultery and other sordid episodes. But it’s the glorious musicmaking that makes this 135-minute overview a must-see, even for those most familiar with Slowhand.

Another music doc, Ben Lewis’s The Beatles, Hippies and Hell’s Angels—Inside the Crazy World of Apple, looks at the latter half of the Beatles’ meteoric career through the rise and precipitous fall of the quartet’s company Apple, against a background of an increasingly fractured society. Again, there’s not much new here, but it’s related vigorously, with great anecdotes and background information.

Love CecilCecil Beaton—certified dandy and prodigious visual artist—was a world-class photographer who designed the films My Fair Lady and Gigi. His dazzling life of barely-closeted homosexuality is presented in Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s vastly entertaining and touching account, Love Cecil.

Comedian Hari Kondabolu, in Michael Melamedoff’s The Problem with Apu, takes a personal—and critical—look at how The Simpsons character who runs the Quik-E Mart (voiced by non-Indian actor Hank Azaria) is thought of by Asian performers like Kal Penn, who has sworn off the show, and others who feel conflicted about its stereotypical portrayal in a show that, after all, traffics in stereotypes.

Barbara Kopple teamed with Collier Landry for A Murder in Mansfield, an intensely personal account of the aftermath of Collier’s mom Coleen Boyle’s killing, and his coming to terms, more than 20 years later, with his father being in prison for the murder (which he denied having committed). The fluctuating dynamic between father and son—and an absent mother looming large—playing out contributes to a gripping and tough story to watch.

French actor Eric Caravaca directed Plot 35, a touching family puzzle in which Caravaca uncovers what happened to his sister Charlotte, who died before he and his brother were born.

The building of Manhattan Plaza—affordable housing on 9th Avenue for those in the theater community—is recounted in Miracle on 42nd Street, Alice Elliott’s incisive document about those who lived there then and now (including Larry David, Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Lansbury).

Like Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, Brian Kaufman’s 12th and Clairmount returns to an incendiary era in that city’s history: the riots of 1967. This is eyewitness testimony at its most explosive, with lots of home-movie and other archival footage providing a greater sense of immediacy.

Ninety-three-year-old retired gynecologist Mahinder Watsa is the title character of Ask the Sexpert, Vaishali Sinha’s amusing but rigorous study of the man behind a helpful (if often maligned) sex advice column in a country that remains torn between extreme conservatism and halting attempts at modernism.

SpiralKarin Jurschick’s Playing God introduces Ken Feinberg, the go-to arbitrator appointed to decide how to distribute the moneys of impossibly large funds like Sept. 11, among others. Jurschick shows Feinberg as a conscientious man well aware of the consequences of his decisions.

The Iconoclast is King Adz’s lively portrait of art forger Michel van Rijn, who intimates at something more: there are suggestions that Michel (who claims he’s related to Rembrandt) may have been involved in the infamous Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist and Mossad’s killing of Nazi Josef Mengele.

Contemporary racism is further revealed in Spiral, Laura Fairrie’s powerful dive into today’s burgeoning anti-Semitic movement in Europe. We hear from Jews who take refuge by returning to Israel and others deciding to stay in what are after all their original homelands, even if Holocaust deniers and other bigots are in their midst, often very publicly.

And Talya Tibbon and Joshua Bennett’s Sky and Ground follows several members of the Kurdish Nabi family in its seemingly endless quest of leaving their own war-ravaged Syrian home to a new life in Europe. The refugees’ plight is shown with insight, sympathy and even occasional humor, but never heavy-handed polemics. When the family finally reunites, perhaps not even Steve Bannon would remain unmoved.

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DOC NYC Festival
November 9-16, 2017

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