the traveler's resource guide to festivals & films
a site
part of Insider Media llc.

Connect with us:

DOC NYC 2021 Roundup

DOC NYC 2021
Online streaming and in-person screenings in New York City
Through November 28, 2021
The annual documentary series DOC NYC returns to actual movie theaters after being relegated to online only last year. Of course, the online selection remains, so those who can’t get to the in-person screenings in Manhattan can access the films from anywhere through November 28. As always, there are scores of features and shorts to choose from; here are the baker’s-dozen features I saw.
Three outsized celebrities are the subjects of a trio of entertaining if not explosively illuminating portraits. The grand dame of TV cooking shows—not to mention her groundbreaking French cookbook—Julia Child broke through so many glass ceilings and other barriers throughout her decades-long career (she died two days before her 92nd birthday in 2004) that it’s surprising that Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s Julia is able to pack so much information into its 95 minutes. 
Dean Martin: King of Cool

Similarly, Tom Donahue’s Dean Martin: King of Cool tells the crooner/actor/notorious lush’s rags to riches story, with a pit stop at his long partnership with Jerry Lewis—the clip from Lewis’ 1976 Labor Day telethon when they reunited after an acrimonious split is a highlight—and glimpses at his varied showbiz friendships and fraught personal life. It’s telling, however, that only one of his eight children discusses dad on camera.
The Real Charlie Chaplin

Then there’s The Real Charlie Chaplin, a two-hour journey through the extraordinary life of who remains cinema’s most iconic genius several decades after his death at age 88 on Christmas Day, 1977. Although Peter Middleton and James Spinney’s film provides the facts in chronological order and contains few new insights—it does mention Chaplin’s predilection for very young women, if only in passing—it does have a surfeit of classic scenes from Chaplin’s indelible oeuvre, especially Chaplin’s still moving speech at the end of The Great Dictator.
Alien on Stage

For a glimpse of a truly bizarre theater adaptation of a movie, check out Alien on Stage, which is exactly what its title promises: an adaptation of Ridley Scott’s monster-in-outer-space shocker, which thrilled moviegoers in 1979, created as an annual fundraiser for local bus drivers in Dorset in southwest England. Directors Danielle Kummer and Lucy Harvey are unabashed fans of the intrepid cast and crew, who after a bumpy start manage to amass a cult following with their low-budget, tongue-in-cheek but surprisingly faithful stage version, even bringing it to London’s West End, where it plays to happy sold-out audiences. 
A Tree of Life

Two imposing events in recent American religious and racial history are recounted in a pair of impressive films. The 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting is the focus of Trish Adlesic’s A Tree of Life—Tree of Life was the name of the synagogue—which has emotionally wrenching testimony by survivors scarred by what they lived through, especially because friends or family members were murdered right next to them by a white supremacist in Donald Trump’s America.

In Attica, director Stanley Nelson and his co-director Traci A. Curry pointedly explore the infamous uprising at the western New York prison in 1971, in which mostly black and brown prisoners took guards hostage and held them for several days, until the state troopers called in by Governor Rockefeller retaliated at the cost of many lives (post-mortems showed that several dead hostages were shot indiscriminately by the “rescue team”). The slanted nature of news coverage at the time—this was during Nixon’s “law and order” period—is taken to task in this account of how racist attitudes are to blame as much as the horrible conditions of Attica itself.
The Automat

The story of one of the most peculiar restaurant chains in America is recounted in The Automat, Lisa Hurwitz’s breezy doc that follows the history of a place (known to anyone over a certain age, especially in New York) where one could buy fresh meals, dessert, and coffee for mere nickels, whether factory workers, salesmen, performers or businessmen. Interviews with fans of the format—like Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Colin Powell, Carl Reiner (all RIP!) and the irrepressible Mel Brooks, who even wrote a catchy end-title song—former employees and the owners’ family members make for an engaging portrait of a small but valuable slice of Americana.
Grandpa Was an Emperor

The eventful history of the family of Haile Selassie, leader of Ethiopia for more than four decades, is at the heart of Grandpa Was an Emperor, Constance Marks’ intimate profile of Yeshi Kassa, whose painful memories of her great-grandfather Hailie and other relatives are marked by the 1974 military coup that overthrew the emperor, followed by his death the next year. Although she was apart from the events that occurred because she was sent to boarding school in England at the time, Yeshi returns to Ethiopia and discovers that young people don’t know anything about their country’s recent history; at this late date, she struggles to come to terms with such a fraught personal history. 

Another agonized family chronicle, Torn was made by Max Cole, whose father Alex—an avid and celebrated mountain climber—was killed in an avalanche when Max was only 10. This affecting, powerful film is not only an homage to Alex but also a sign of hope that time can at least heal some wounds: Max’s mother Jenni has been happily married for 20 years to Alex’s good friend Conrad, and Jenni and Alex’s three grown sons (adopted by Conrad) have made peace with their fated family legacy. Torn’s climax, showing Alex’s frozen remains found on the mountainside 17 years after his death, is as heartrending a sequence as anything I’ve seen onscreen.
End of the Line
The COVID-19 pandemic informs two films that dive into the long-term problems of two fabled institutions. First, there’s End of the Line, Emmett Adler’s insightful investigation into how the New York City subway system—its infrastructure neglected for decades—is literally crumbling, thanks to rundown and out-of-date equipment. When a multi-billion-dollar capital program for fixing the rotting infrastructure (along with the subway’s 24-hour service and the city itself) is upended by COVID, Adler shows how easily something millions of New Yorkers count on can grind to a halt.

In the same way, Inhospitable peeks into the big business of American health care, in which profits have it all over patients—even in so-called nonprofit facilities. Director Sandra Alvarez zeroes in on western Pennsylvania, where the battle is joined between the healthcare behemoth Highmark and UPMC hospitals, with the former threatening to not accept UPMC patients once its takeover goes through. Of course, the pandemic then arrives and further erodes our teetering healthcare system, creating more difficulties for those who need the most affordable care.
The Business of Birth Control
Since the 1960s, the pill has given many women agency over their own bodies, but director Abby Epstein displays how, in The Business of Birth Control, that same miracle drug has become the go-to for doctors to prescribe for reasons other than avoiding pregnancy, and how such a one-size-fits-all regimen has been the source of depression, suicidal thoughts, and even undiagnosed fatal ailments. With necessary candor, women and family members of victims discuss attempts to bring such clear and present dangers out into the open.
We Are Russia
Finally, the eye-opening We Are Russia is director Alexandra Dalsbaek’s brilliant exposé of the farce that is Russian politics under the thumb of strongman Putin—apparently with the blessing of many ordinary citizens. But Dalsbaek introduces young activists who have rallied behind opposition candidate Alexei Navalny—now serving time in a Russian prison for ostensibly being the anti-Putin—and bravely hold protests for their candidate, knowing they will be harassed, or even worse, by unamused authorities. With rigor and empathy, Dalsbaek displays the frightening world of authoritarianism—but also, through these heroes’ actions, some light at the end of the tunnel.

Newsletter Sign Up

Upcoming Events

No Calendar Events Found or Calendar not set to Public.