Four years ago, DOC NYC was the first major film festival after the election. It was an appropriate time for the country’s largest showcasing of non-fiction cinema, much of which speaks to some of the most pressing issues of our time. That’s true again this year, but the mood is likely to be quite different, and so is the experience as a whole. Like most of the festival circuit this year, DOC NYC is going virtual, which means that people across America can stream all 108 features and 92 shorts over the course of eight packed days.
The lineup encompasses a wide range of subjects, from activism to police brutality and the role of creativity to parse an increasingly complex world. Here are 11 highlights. Browse the full lineup and purchase tickets here. DOC NYC runs November 11-19.
“A La Calle”
Following in the tradition of revolutionary documentaries like “The Square” and “Winter on Fire,” “A La Calle” follows the national grassroots movement against Venezuelan dictator Nicholas Maduro. The title, meaning “to the streets,” becomes a rallying cry of the firsthand accounts of activists on the ground as they attempt to restore democracy after Maduro’s corrupt and brutal policies led the once wealthy country to economic ruin.
Filmmakers Maxx Caicedo and Nelson G. Navarrete, who is Venezuelan, worked with clandestine camera crews over the course of three years, capturing rare interviews with key opposition figures such as Leopoldo López and Nixon Leal, as well as everyday citizens. “A La Calle” will make its world premiere at DOC NYC. —JD
“A Cops and Robbers Story”
Director Ilinca Calugareanu’s “A Cops and Robbers Story” follows Corey Pegues, whose decorated 21-year career as a Black officer in the New York Police Department is threatened when it’s revealed that, prior to joining the NYPD, he dealt crack cocaine for one of NYC’s most notorious drug gangs. There’s the popular suggestion of a thin line between cop and criminal, and “A Cops and Robbers Story” is an engrossing exploration at life on both sides of the law.
Pegues opens up about why he joined the NYPD, hastened by his coming of age during the height of the crack epidemic. He’s equally candid about how and why he turned his life around, and takes audiences inside the NYPD, where he became a decorated officer despite red-tape drawbacks and discrimination. As nationwide protests continue calling for fundamental police reforms, as well as issues around economic disparities and social justice, the film is a timely and transparent reflection on a country that is in the midst of a long-overdue racial reckoning. —TO
“Derek DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself”
A lot of magic shows aim for immediate shock and awe, stunning audiences with sleight of hand so seamless, it’s practically a rollercoaster for the eyeballs: The gimmick is a means to the end, rabbit comes out of the hat, everybody goes home happy. Self-described “storyteller and conceptual magician” Derek DelGaudio’s beguiling stage performance “Derek DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself,” now preserved in a mystical and poignant feature directed by Frank Oz, rejects such dime store wizardry in favor of a soulful approach that redefines the form from the inside out.
Make no mistake: DelGaudio’s remarkable one-man show, which enjoyed a lengthy Off-Broadway run between 2017 and 2018, has ample card tricks, optical illusions, and even one extraordinary teleportation bit. All along, however, DelGaudio transforms the usual shock-and-awe routine into a powerful meditation on existential yearning and his own bumpy quest for meaning in life. It’s exactly the sort of uplift people need right now. Originally set to premiere at SXSW, the movie was recently acquired by Hulu, and will find an adoring virtual audience at DOC NYC eager for reminders about the joys of the theater. —EK
“Dope Is Death”
Some stories have to be seen to be believed. “Dope Is Death” traces the story of how the Young Lords and The Black Panthers fought for radical healthcare reform in the 1970s, providing free acupuncture in the South Bronx as a way to combat heroin addiction that then ravaged the community. Under the leadership of Dr. Mutulu Shakur, stepfather of Tupac Shakur, activists created the United States’ first acupuncture detoxification program.
The visionary project was so ahead of its time that it received major pushback from the government and the Western medical establishment. The third feature documentary from Montreal-based filmmaker Mia Donovan (“Deprogrammed,” “Inside Lara Roxx”), “Dope Is Death” utilizes archival footage and interviews with leaders of the movement to weave this unlikely and fascinating tale of community healing. It arrives at DOC NYC after a premiere at True/False and playing Hot Docs. —JD
Read the charming, funny, and often nerve-wracking New York Times story that chronicles the making of Sian-Pierre Regis’ insightful feature directorial debut — a May 2020 Charlotte Cowles joint entitled “My Retirement Plan Is You” — then enjoy the fruit of Regis’ labor in the form of “Duty Free.” Or, perhaps more appropriately given the subject matter, enjoy the fruits of both Regis and his delightful mother Rebecca Danigelis’ labor and love, as the film follows the slightly mismatced mother-son duo as the embark on a strange adventure: living together.
As Rebecca approached the end of her working life, she was hampered by ageism at her place of business, dwindling savings, and a very real fear of what would come next. Sian-Pierre offered an alternative that will likely feel familiar to plenty of viewers: she should move in with him, offering a microcosmic look at the burgeoning numbers of “multigenerational housing” families that have reoriented what the next step looks like for many people. —KE
“40 Years a Prisoner”
The radical African-American West Philadelphia “back-to-nature” group, MOVE, and its confrontation with local law authorities that led to a deadly climax in 1978, has been captured in films like Jason Osder’s 2014 “Let the Fire Burn.” Now, filmmaker Tommy Oliver documents activist Mike Africa Jr.’s fight to exonerate his parents, members of the group who were imprisoned after a violent police raid on their Philadelphia commune that left one police officer dead and nine MOVE members sentenced to maximum prison terms.
Born inside prison walls, Africa Jr. spent the next 40 years of his life working to have his parents, and the other MOVE members, released from prison, and Oliver documents that decades-long fight. The doc weaves together wide-ranging archival footage and sweeping interviews with MOVE members, as well as journalists, politicians, and former police officers. It’s a thorough and blistering look at issues of race, police cruelty, and social justice that should resonate with audiences in the present today. —TO
Evgeny Afineevsky’s documentary about Pope Francis has already supplied global headlines. The film, when it premiered in October at the Rome Film Festival, revealed for the first time that the pope, and hence the Catholic Church, backed civil unions for gay people.
“Homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family. They’re children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out, or be made miserable because of it,” the pope says in “Francesco.” The film’s trailer teases that Pope Francis also discusses the environmental, educational, refugee, police violence, and pandemic crises that dominate current events. Yet beyond any news value, a portrait of one of the most transformative and fascinating figures of our life time by the talented, Oscar-nominated filmmaker behind “Cries from Syria” and “Winter on Fire” promises to be a captivating watch. —CO
Though “Jacinta” is her feature debut, filmmaker, producer, and cinematographer Jessica Earnshaw has spent much of her career documenting life inside America’s prisons, specifically for its female population. In “Jacinta,” Earnshaw explores not only life behind bars, but what happens after a previously incarcerated woman (in this cast, eponymous Maine mother Jacinta) returns to society and attempts to rebuild her life. Jacinta’s life has been, in many ways, framed by her (seemingly at odds, but not always) relationships with prison and the two most important women in her life (her mother and her daughter).
When Earnshaw’s film opens, Jacinta is just a month away from release, a major life event that will take her further away from her beloved mom Rosemary, who is doing time beside her and helped pull Jacinta into a life of crime, and closer to her whipsmart daughter Caylynn. As the film winds on, the dueling forces of her mother and her child continue to pull at Jacinta, who strives to become a success story but knows such fairy tale dreams hardly ever come true. The film will start winding down its robust festival run — including wins at Tribeca and Hot Springs, plus screenings at AFI FEST, Camden, and Woodstock — with DOC NYC’s virtual screening, which includes a post-screening Q&A chat with Earnshaw. —KE
“The Meaning of Hitler”
Filmmakers Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s last project, 2017’s “Karl Marx City,” took a frank view of life in the German Democratic Republic. Now, they’ve turned their gaze to that country’s most infamous citizen. “The Meaning of Hitler” draws on Sebastian Haffner’s 1978 tome to explore the lasting resonance of the Nazi villain and the impact of his ideology on modern antisemitism and bigotry.
The essay film draws on a range of observations from historians, Nazi hunters, and others to put the recent spate of hatred in countries around the world in the context it deserves. There may be no better time for that in America, as it attempts to move past one dark chapter and into a brighter one while reckoning with an overt resurgence of bigotry across society. Stretching across nine countries in its quest to demystify history’s worst person, “The Meaning of Hilter” may be the most valuable must-see of this year’s festival. —EK
“Moments Like This Never Last”
Dash Snow, along with Dan Colen and Ryan McGinley (the trio dubbed “Warhol’s Children” in their influential New York Magazine profile) defined the downtown New York art scene of the early 2000s. Born into aristocracy-like privilege, Snow’s photographs of sex, drugs, the irreverent, and the profane were a middle finger to art pretension, while capturing his rebellious, hard-partying, graffiti tagging life style. Fellow photographer and filmmaker Cheryl Dunn was close to Snow, and her intimate portrait promises to capture the “all-too-brief life of reckless excess and creativity” of her friend who died of a heroin overdose in 2009 at the age of 27. —CO
David Wojnarowicz was a seminal 1980s multimedia artist who died of AIDS in 1992, and while his work continues to be celebrated — most recently with a major Whitney Museum retro in 2018 — Chris McKim’s documentary takes that mission one step further. The movie (technically titled “Wojnarowicz: Fuck You Faggot Fucker”) unearths a wide range of video journals and other material from its subject’s life to resurrect his essence in movie form.
Wojnarowicz’s life including many dark patches, from his showdowns with an abusive father to his experiences as a street hustler as a teen and his eventual struggles with AIDS at the height of the epidemic. But it’s also a deep-dive into Wojnarowicz’s artistry, with original animation hoping to energize the artist’s unique (and often scattered) creative process. Wojnarowicz’s work would be worthy of celebration in any year, but the documentary is especially welcome now, as America struggles through a pandemic and pines for a return to the kind of communal living that helped Wojnarowicz find himself. Aided by the likes of Fran Lebowitz and other old pals, the movie provides a handy access point for newcomers to Wojnarowicz’s work as well as a welcome celebration of his legacy for fans. —EK