The New York Film Festival kicks off this week, sending us straight into the second half of a very busy fall festival season. In preparation for the festival, we’re rolling out a series of previews to point you in the direction of all the movies you have to see (or at least, all the movies you have to start anticipating right now). Today, some highlights of the always-robust documentary slate.
Chronicling the often-fraught — but always loving — relationship between Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher, Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens’ “Bright Lights” is intimate and affectionate in a way that few documentaries can be. Our own David Ehrlich reviewed the film out of Cannes, where he wrote: “The film is strikingly open from the start, as an opening flurry of home video footage from Fisher’s childhood hints at the degree of access that has been granted to co-directors Fisher Stevens and Alexis Bloom. There’s candid, and then there’s Fisher sitting on a bed with old friend Griffin Dunne as they talk about how he once took her virginity (‘I took the pressure off your hymen,’ are Dunne’s actual words). Fisher commands the doc like the coolest of confessors, narrating with the confidence of someone who’s starred in a one-woman show about her own life and had Meryl Streep play her in a movie.” If that sounds good to you — and it sure sounds good to us — buckle up for the festival’s most revealing look at real lives on the big screen (and beyond). -KE
“Dawson City: Frozen Time”
Bill Morrison’s latest documentary chronicles the discovery — and subsequent restoration — of a cache of seemingly tossed-out films from the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in fishing camp, located where the Yukon and Klondike Rivers. A former gold rush town, Dawson City used to be flush with movie theaters to entertain its large population, but when the gold dried up, so too did the town’s citizens and its many movie houses. Years later, when many of the town’s 35mm prints were literally dug out of the trash, it launched an exploration that reaches far beyond the story of one town and its forgotten films. -KE
“I Am Not Your Negro”
Raoul Peck’s documentary is based on James Baldwin’s last and unfinished book “Remember This House,” about the lives and assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. A mediation on race in America and what it means to be black, the film combines Baldwin’s words with footage of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. The result is a moving account of African-Americans’ struggle for equality that resonates loudly due to the recent movements following the killings of young African-American men like Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and Amir Brooks. Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, “I am Not Your Negro” was acquired by Magnolia Pictures for theatrical distribution in North America earlier this month. -GW
“I Called Him Morgan”
Swedish director Kasper Collin’s documentary “I Called Him Morgan” tells the tragic story of jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan, whose wife shot him in bar in New York City in 1972. Morgan was considered by many to be most talented trumpeter of his generation prior to his death at the age of 33. Collins’ documentary combines extensive archival footage with new interviews to trace the paths of both Morgan and his wife, structuring the movie like a suspense film. The director interviews some of Morgan’s closest musical collaborators in the doc, including drummer Albert Heath, saxophonist Billy Harper, and saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter. “I Called Him Morgan” had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival before playing at the Toronto International Film Festival. -GW
“Abacus: Small Enough to Jail”
Following the 2008 financial meltdown, the Manhattan DA went after one bank, but it wasn’t one of the giants who brought down the economy. Instead it was Abacus Federal Savings of Chinatown, a bank that specializes in giving small loans to Chinese Americans in their community. The Sung family, led by a dad and his two daughters, are the heroes of this David versus Goliath story, as director Steve James embeds himself inside the family’s fight against conspiracy and fraud charges. From the “Hoop Dreams” to “The Interrupters,” James has always been laser focused on character, side stepping easy black and white answers to societal problems and reaching for a richer story of the human condition. -CO
“The Cinema Travellers”
With all the sky-is-falling talk about the death of film, it can be easy to forget that cinema is still something of a newborn art — barely a century has passed since the movies were born, and so (in art years) they’re really just learning how to crawl. How refreshing then to see a documentary like Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya’s “The Cinema Travellers,” a wise and wistful documentary that puts things in perspective by inviting viewers not to think of new ripples in the landscape (e.g. Netflix and VOD) as signs of decay, but rather as the symptoms of a form that’s simply shedding its skin. Presented without any title cards or talking heads so that audiences might find their own way, this bittersweet portrait follows the traveling cinemas that have toured the remote corners of India for more than 70 years, introducing viewers to the nomadic projectionists who continue to keep the time-honored tradition on life-support. There’s an unshakeable irony to the fact that this movie was shot digitally, and will be projected the same way, making “The Cinema Travellers” itself a testament to the idea that we can preserve a love for yesterday while also making way for tomorrow. -DE
“Fire At Sea”
See Europe’s immigration and refugee crisis through the unique lense of director Gianfranco Rosi. Winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, “Fire at Sea” examines the daily life of a Mediterranean Island, where thousands of refugees land and rescue workers are kept busy. Writing for IndieWire back at Berlin, Demetrios Matheou highlighted that unlike some many other documentaries being rushed into production to capitalize on this massive news story, “Rosi’s is a clear-eyed, sublimely made account of his heart-breaking, sometimes gut-wrenching subject.” -CO
The festival runs September 30 – October 16.