The Day After
DOC NYC 2020
Online streaming through November 19, 2020
Due to the ongoing pandemic, this year’s edition of DOC NYC—which comprises dozens of new documentaries—is streaming online, so in a way, it’s a blessing in disguise: the festival can reach a larger audience than ever before.
As always, the selection comprises a rich array of films exploring such topics as contemporary politics and the Nazis’ legacy, Mars simulation and the fashion industry, and helicopter parents and crooked cops. Then there’s Television Event, which explores the making of the seminal 1983 made-for-TV movie, The Day After, which dramatized the aftermath of a nuclear bomb destroying an American city. Through interviews with local townspeople who worked on (and acted in) the film, the film’s director Nicholas Mayer—who was fired and had the film taken out of his hands—ABC network executives and others, this is as informative as the best DVD featurettes, with director Jeff Daniels providing the necessary Cold War context, which includes the revelation that the movie was even shown in the Soviet Union—once.
Two political documentaries explore part of what’s causing the seemingly unbridgeable divide in the U.S. right now. Yael Bridge’s The Big Scary “S” Word breezily but effectively dissects how the term “socialism” became such a bogeyman in America as it details the many socialist programs, like social security and Medicare, that work for so many Americans. In The Place That Makes Us, director Karla Murthy visits Youngstown, Ohio, to record the devastating effects of bad policies that have turned once-thriving communities into boarded-up ghost towns as well as enterprising local residents who are the catalysts of an economic turnaround.
A 2015-6 Mars simulation experiment is documented in Lauren DeFilippo and Katherine Gorringe’s Red Heaven, which takes footage from the video cameras of the six “astronauts” while spending a year in a remote location in Hawaii to discover the effects of isolation on their psyches and bodies. Although endlessly fascinating, the film is almost unavoidably choppy since it has to condense so much footage into 90 minutes. But it is also, in the final analysis, quite touching in its depiction of how relationships can start or fracture while in such an isolated state.
Germany’s recent troubled past rears its head in two sobering films. Estephan Wagner and Marianne Hougen-Moraga’s Songs of Repression focuses on Colonia Dignidad, a religious cult of Germans living in Chile since the 1960s, and the horrifying sexual and physical abuse of children and adults (and assisting General Pinochet’s regime in wholescale genocide) that has been part and parcel of their time there from day one. In Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s especially relevant The Meaning of Hitler, historians, writers, Nazi hunters and others illuminatingly discuss how such a hateful and murderous ideology still survives 75 years after Hitler’s death.
The remarkable Ruth Finley, who published the yearly calendars for the New York fashion industry’s events for several decades, is lovingly profiled in Christian D. Bruun’s entertaining Calendar Girl. This delightful and colorful woman (who died at age 98 in 2018) is, in a very real sense, a walking talking history of fashion in Manhattan, and it’s great to see her immortalized on film.
Helicopter parenting, the subject of Margaret Munzer Loeb and Eden Wurmfeld’s impactful Chasing Childhood, is dissected in a way that makes one wonder how anyone ever thought it was a good idea. Along with showing how kids are being deprived of their childhood, the movie raises other red flags, like how giving youngsters so many extracurricular activities not only overloads their schedules but also bankrupts their parents, and how parents’ fears—and laws that punish those parents who allow their children some sort of independence—prevent kids from taking on personal responsibilities.
When Sidney Lumet made his 1981 epic, Prince of the City, it made crooked cop turned informant Bob Leuci into a hero of sorts. Magnus Skatvold and Greg Mallozzi’s Blue Code of Silence explores the background of Leuci’s career in the NYPD and how his actions not only shone a light on widespread corruption in the department but also made life difficult for many of his fellow cops—including one who killed himself. If Lumet’s film erred on the side of Leuci, this documentary gives equal voice to Leuci’s backers and his many detractors, making for a considered, warts-and-all portrait of a conflicted man who was equally disgraceful and heroic.
In Los Hermanos (The Brothers), directors Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider tell the poignant story of Ilmar and Aldo López-Gavilán, musically talented brothers who grew up in Cuba but were separated after Ilmar was sent to the USSR. He eventually settled in the States while Aldo stayed in Cuba and both brothers forged their own, very different music careers. The Brothers records their reunion, performing and recording together as well as their personal reckoning with the decades-long U.S. embargo, which was pulled back by Obama before being reinstated by trump. But the joy in their music making is what makes the strongest impression, whether playing with superstar violinist Joshua Bell and Aldo’s own conducting wife or just Ilmar and Aldo alone which, appropriately, is how the film ends.