New York City’s annual DOC NYC festival kicks off this week, boasting a packed slate of some of this year’s most remarkable documentaries. If you’ve been looking to beef up on your documentary consumption, DOC NYC is the perfect chance to check out a wide variety of some of the year’s best fact-based features. Ahead, we pick out 9 of our most anticipated films from the fest, including awards contenders, a handful of buzzy debuts, and more.
DOC NYC runs November 8 – 15 in New York City and you can check out the full schedule right here.
In 1972, a year after their massive hit “Woodstock,” Warner Bros. set out to produce an Aretha Franklin performance documentary. It took 43 years, but producer Alan Elliott completed the film shot by Oscar-winning director Sydney Pollack (“Out of Africa”) over two nights at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Now, after decades of setbacks both technical and emotional, after Franklin’s long illness and death from pancreatic cancer on August 16, Elliott clinched a deal with her estate to release the movie — which will be shown for the first time in public on Monday November 12 at DOC NYC with Al Sharpton on hand.
Pollack captured a legendary concert: It’s when Franklin recorded her Grammy-winning gospel album “Amazing Grace,” which went double platinum, sold over 2 million copies stateside, and remained her biggest seller over her 50-year career. However, difficulties with syncing the footage shot by four 16 mm cameras meant shelving the project. It took decades for digital technology to solve that problem. “Amazing Grace” is a glorious, rousing concert film displaying Franklin in all her youthful gospel glory, her voice soaring with the songs of the lord. -AT
Death is the most universal experience of them all, and yet the process of dying is seldom depicted on-screen. For one thing, it’s private. For another, it’s unpleasant. At a time when the most successful documentaries tend to focus on the inspiring lives of famous individuals, it can seem as though there isn’t much of a market for stories about mortality, itself.
Filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (“Howl”) are refusing to let that stop them, as their new documentary “End Game” — a 40-minute portrait of palliative care patients in the Bay Area, and the decisions they and their families are forced to make towards the end of treatment — promises to offer a tender but unflinching look at a process that most of us would rather ignore. And Netflix, a company that continues to offer new paradigms for non-fiction cinema, will eventually be making “End Game” available to anyone who needs to see it for perspective or solace. -DE
Oscar-winning director Orland von Einsiedel (“The White Helmets,” “Virunga”) has excelled at exploring international conflicts around the world, but this project has a far more intimate focus. The movie revolves around von Einsiedel and his family reeling from his brother’s suicide and hiking across the United Kingdom as they work through their collective devastation. Equal parts personal essay and group therapy session, “Evelyn” is also reportedly an effective window into exploring the reverberations of suicide and the capacity for a family to recover from immeasurable grief on a universal scale. Already a critical hit in London, expect the movie to bring some serious tearjerker potential to this year’s DOC NYC. -EK
In 1996, at age 17, Karen Winther managed to extricate herself from an extreme right-wing movement in Norway. With her new film “Exit,” Winther uses that personal experience to explore why someone becomes a neo-Nazi, Jihadist, or a member of any other number of hate groups. Talking to people like herself, who left extremism behind — may it be left or right, Oklahoma or Denmark — “Exit” reveals both how blind anger can lead to radicalization, as well as the dangers involved with cutting ties with hate groups. “Exit” is a sober look at an urgent and relevant topic, finding parallels between what is happening in Europe and U.S., while including that rarely seen perspective of women in a world and movement we largely associate with angry men. -CO
“Family in Transition”
As “Transparent” readies its final short season, a familiar story emerges from a truly authentic place. “Family in Transition” follows Amit Tsuk, a father of four living in a conservative town in Israel, who comes out as a transgender woman and begins to medically transition. Although Amit’s family is supportive, the reality of transition and societal pressures begin to take a toll. Tel Aviv is well-known for being a very queer city, but life for LGBTQ people elsewhere in the Jewish state is decidedly more difficult. What’s more, Israel has been accused of “pinkwashing,” using its LGBTQ support to distract from the human rights atrocities against Palestinians. The first feature from director Ofir Trainin, “Family in Transition” won Best Israeli Documentary at the Docaviv film festival in Tel Aviv. Trans stories are so often misrepresented by outside voices, but a documentary subject cannot be accused of co-opting anyone’s story. -JD
While her name might not be as instantly recognizable to domestic audiences as other trailblazing feminists like Gloria Steinem or Betty Freidan, Swedish dynamo Gudrun Schyman is a big deal in Europe. The founder of Europe’s first feminist party sounds like the kind of subject worth tracking in our current climate, but Hampus Linder’s feature film will likely not present a glossy, feel-good look at a woman who knows her own mind, but Schyman’s rise to power and importance has come with some uncomfortable roadblocks. The leader of Sweden’s own Left Party for a decade, Schyman left the party in 2004 due to not only her desire to focus on her growing feminist political work, but because of a vicious tax evasion scandal that threatened her reputation. As the founder of the Feminist Initiative party, Schyman has championed some wild new ideas for change, including a special tax just for men. “The Feminist” promises to introduce a warts-and-all look at leader on the rise during a tumultuous time. -KE
With an endorsement from Dolly Parton herself, this investigative look at the unfairly maligned Appalachian people draws back the curtain on years of painful media representation. Directors Sally Rubin and Ashley York use York’s hometown in the Appalachian hills as their setting, revealing little-known pockets of LGBTQ communities and people of color and having tough political conversations with family. The film has been praised as a welcome counterpoint to J.D. Vance’s bestselling memoir “Hillbilly Elegy,” which some critics felt used harmful rhetoric. In contrast, “Hillbilly” celebrates the humanity and diversity of this misunderstood American populace at a time when we all need to understand each other a little better. -JD
“Lady Parts Justice in the New World Order”
This year’s DOC NYC will play home to the first two episodes of Ruth Leitman’s new series “Lady Parts Justice in the New World Order,” a wordy title bolstered some vicious rage and the talents of “Daily Show” co-creator Lizz Winstead. The new series focuses on the Winstead’s crusade to ensure that women’s reproductive rights are not further degraded, and she formed the eponymous Lady Parts Justice, a collection of activists and comedians, to help her on this quest. Chronicling the “Vagical Mystery Tour,” the show aims to use Winstead’s whipsmart brand of savvy, satire-laden political smarts to communities and audiences who are in need of advocacy and education. It’s your new favorite show! -KE
“What She Said”
Robert Garver’s portrait of Pauline Kael is the ideal introduction to the most significant American film critic of the 20th century. Years in the making, the movie provides a sweeping overview of Kael’s impact, how her riveting and often quite personal prose evoked both fervent admirers and terror among filmmakers in her crosshairs. The documentary balances testimonials from Kael’s peers with tributes from major directors such as Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, guaranteeing that anyone curious about Kael’s impact on film criticism will get the full picture, and fans of her work will gain a whole new perspective on her legacy. -EK