Featuring documentaries about an eclectic mix of subjects: from an unknown photographer and a family-owned strip club to missionaries in Rwanda and the 90s indie film scene, this year’s DOC NYC lineup touches on the personal and political. “The films range from profound and mysterious to humorous and sexually provocative,” said DOC NYC’s artistic director Thom Powers, who also programs for the Toronto International Film Festival and curates DOC Club on SundanceNOW.
In its fourth year, DOC NYC, now the largest documentary festival in the U.S., will host panels and events featuring Errol Morris, Sarah Polley, Oliver Stone, Michel Gondry, Ricki Lake, Jonathan Franzen, Grace Lee Boggs, Jehane Moujaim and other filmmakers.
With such a wealth of rich material, it wasn’t easy to pare down the list of 132 films being shown at DOC NYC to these 10 titles and they are by no means the only films worth seeing. Check out the full list of films screening at DOC NYC, which runs from November 14-21, here.
Here Are 10 Films to Watch at DOC NYC:
In the mid-1990’s, televangelist Pat Robertson asked his followers to donate money to a fund that would be spent on a missionary aid deployment to the Congo. The region of the country on the Rwandan border was the site of settler camps full of those fleeing their country’s Civil War and genocide, and the camps had well-publicized problems with sickness and disease. The only problem, according to the filmmakers of “Mission Congo,” is that Robertson was using much of the funds raised and the planes hired for the mission to invest in a diamond mining expedition. Robertson responded to the film after its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, and the filmmakers have yet to fight back. But the evidence against the pastor is fairly damning. See the film and decide for yourself.
Is the Internet going to bring with it a global village? Michael Kleiman’s film answers this question in a variety of ways. Kleiman’s tactic is twofold. In much of the film, Kleiman asks the world’s luminaries in the technology field — such as technology guru Clay Shirky, psychologist Sherry Turkle and Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley — to give their two cents on what the networked world has done to us.
In the rest of the film, Kleiman develops a relationship with a Peruvian village that has just received a huge shipment of low-cost laptops for its young children from the non-profit One Laptop Per Child. Staying close to members of the village who both get access to the laptops (the children) and those who don’t, Kleiman develops a relationship with many of the villagers as the generator-powered wireless router goes down, making it difficult to update the content on the machines. The film throws a lot of information at you and leaves it to you to try to figure out what this could all mean.
“Finding Vivian Maier”
In its US premiere here after a well-received world premiere at The Toronto Film Festival, this riveting documentary is about one of the 20th century’s greatest photographers. But it’s no ordinary artist biopic, because you’ve probably never heard of Vivian Maier. Until John Maloof purchased cartons at a storage locker auction and discovered Maier’s negatives inside, which he then printed, almost nobody had ever seen a Vivian Maier photograph. A single woman of mysterious origins, Maier seemingly left behind no family and no legacy when she died, apart from the recollections of the now adult children she took care of as a nanny in Chicago.
But just as Maier’s prints develop — exposing a sharp eye and a true talent — so does Maier’s cryptic character and mysterious life story. Directed by Maloof and Charlie Siskel,” “Finding Vivian Maier” is an homage to a previously unknown artistic talent, as well as to the forgotten life of Vivian Maier — which, through her work and this cinematic exploration, is revealed to be a complex and compelling figure — a chameleon who chronicled the lives of people who, like herself, lived on the fringes of society. This haunting film will leave you to wonder why Maier left her work in storage unseen — and make you grateful that Maloof discovered it.
Sure, it’s ostensibly about the eponymous strip club (The Manor) and the family who owns it, but don’t go into this doc expecting glitzy sensationalism and lap dances. Shawney Cohen’s heartfelt portrait of his dysfunctional Canadian Jewish family — who happens to own and operate a small town strip club — is about so much more than the sex industry. Although the film, which opened this year’s Hot Docs, has some darkly humorous moments, it’s more tragic than comic. As his obese father compulsively eats and balloons in size, Cohen’s anorexic mother nibbles on lettuce and dwindles away until she’s barely there, as the future of The Manor remains unclear and Cohen struggles with his family’s legacy. Cohen portrays his family with brutal honesty and enough love that after leaving the theater, you’ll undoubtedly be thinking about the Cohen family and wondering how they’re faring — a true sign of a story well told.
“The Sarnos: A Life in Dirty Movies”
Dubbed “the Ingmar Bergman of 42nd Street,” Joseph W. Sarno was a softcore porn auteur during the 60s and 70s, known for his B&W photography and focus on women’s desire in films such as “Sin in the Suburbs,” “Young Playings” and “Confessions of a Young American Housewife.” This documentary from director Wiktor Ericsson, which screened at the London Film Festival, has its US premiere at DOC NYC. Ericsson presents a romantic view of Sarno, who later delved in hardcore porn (with titles such as “21 Hump Street”), but also depicts his longtime marriage to Peggy, his collaborator and occasional leading lady. The doc, which intercuts interviews with John Waters and other filmmakers, critics and film historians with clips from Sarno’s films, is an entertaining look at a simpler time — before the internet made porn accessible to the masses.
“The Dark Matter of Love”
Claudio and Cheryl Diaz fell quickly, madly in love in 1990 and in 1997 had their only daughter Cami. Cheryl has always longed for a big family and, after suffering a series of miscarriages, turns to adoption as a fulfillment of her familial aspirations. Thrilled with the thought of having little brothers and sisters, fourteen-year-old Cami is at first eagerly on board. When eleven-year-old Russian orphans Masha and five-year-old twins Marcel and Vadim join the family, however, the highs and lows of change sweep the new family. Claudio becomes overly strict, Cheryl becomes overly nurturing. Cami’s jealousy gets the best of her and Masha, Marcel and Vadim struggle to adapt not just to their unfamiliar surroundings, but to the very things they need most but have never known: love and family. Through past experiment footage on the science of love, therapy sessions and interviews and new a portrait of a new family that is both heartbreaking and heartwarming, director Sarah McCarthy takes us deep into “The Dark Matter of Love.”
“Misfire: The Rise and Fall of the Shooting Gallery”
In the nineties, The Shooting Gallery was at the epicenter of New York’s thriving indie film scene: Its credits included Nick Gomez’s acclaimed “Laws of Gravity” and Billy Bob Thornton’s “Sling Blade,” which landed a lucrative deal at Miramax and led the Shooting Gallery to a new level of influence. But that’s when things got tricky: While co-founder Larry Meistritch attempted to lead the company into new revenue possibilities by turning the Shooting Gallery into a new media venture only partly devoted to film, other top staffers (such as Bob Gosse, who eventually directed “Niagra Niagra”) felt that the business motives threw the group’s original artistic ambitions off course. That division climaxed with the company shutting its doors in 2001. Co-founder Whitney Ransick directs this engaging portrait of the company’s major impact on popularizing the creative energy of the indie film scene, and effectively makes the case that the end came too soon.
“We Always Lie to a Strangers”
AJ Schnack and David Wilson’s “We Always Lie to Strangers” finds an oddly compelling poetry in the irreverent rituals of singing families in Branson, Missouri. Though at first perceived as the cheesy vessels of the city’s massive tourist industry, the subjects of Schnack and Wilson’s portrait take on a soulful dimension by routinely explaining the values driving their multigenerational traditions. The singers in “We Always Lie to Strangers” make attractive arguments for committing to behavior perceived as foolish or impractical by the rest of the world — and finding the beauty embedded in their history.
“Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy?”
Michel Gondry spent several years working on this painstakingly rendered account of several conversations between the filmmaker and seminal linguist Noam Chomsky. Using infectious handrawn animations to represent the lively flow of dialogue between the two men, Gondry crafts a tribute to Chomsky’s active mind that’s also a fascinating representation of the director’s unhinged creative impulses. Their topics range from scientific discourse on nature versus nurture to more pensive discussions about spirituality and the lack thereof. The result is simultaneously heartwarming and overwhelmingly provocative look at how deep thoughts about the world can be as beautiful, humbling, and calculated at the same time.
“The Punk Singer”
For some 15 years, feminist punk rocker Kathleen Hanna carried the torch of a movement seemingly defined by her furious investment in the cause and the artistry that brought it to national attention. As the energetic front-woman for Bikini Kill throughout the nineties, followed by the hugely popular dance group Le Tigre, Hanna was an unstoppable presence both onstage and off. Her impact is effectively explored in Sini Anderson’s documentary portrait “The Punk Singer,” which relies on interviews and robust footage from over the years to create an involving look at Hanna’s determination — as well as the forces that nearly toppled it. The movie endeavors to answer a question that the filmmaker smartly establishes upfront: In 2005, Hanna ended her stage career using the excuse that she had nothing left to say, but there was more to the story that nobody figured out until much later. The abrupt decision turned out to be a way of hiding a mysterious physical ailment only recently diagnosed as late stage Lyme disease, the first real hindrance that no progressive attitude could fully overcome. But “The Punk Singer” demonstrates that neither Hanna’s cause nor her musical ambition have started to wane. Read Indiewire’s review from the SXSW Film Festival here.
[Paula Bernstein, Ramzi De Coster, Eric Kohn and Bryce Renninger contributed to this story.]