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Nine Best of the Fests Must-Sees at DOC NYC

Life of Ivanna

This year’s DOC NYC is actually two consecutive fests. From November 10-18, vaxxed and masked fans of nonfiction cinema will be able to gather in person for the 200-plus films and events at IFC Center, SVA Theatre and Cinépolis Chelsea. And for those outside NYC (but still in the US) or pandemic hesitant, most of the more than 120 features will be available virtually from November 19-28. In other words, “America’s largest documentary festival” is also now one of its most accessible.

And while both US and world premieres abound at this 12th edition (60-plus by my last count), DOC NYC has also selected a number of films that rocked my world on the 2020-2021 festival circuit. So for those looking for foolproof viewing chockfull of cinematic risk-taking, with the following you can’t go wrong.

The New Gospel (Venice Film Festival 2020, excerpted from my interview with director Milo Rau)

A Venice world premiere, The New Gospel is the latest work of “utopian documentarism” from Swiss director/writer/critic/lecturer Milo Rau. (Though one might add “biblical provocateur.” As the newly installed artistic director of NTGent, Rau once took out classified ads in a Belgian newspaper seeking modern-day crusaders for a staging based on the city’s Jesus-themed Ghent Altarpiece. One read, “Did you fight for IS, or another religion?”)

With The New Gospel, the multimedia artist tackles Italy’s ongoing migrant crisis through a most unusual form — by creating a contemporary Jesus film in Matera, the setting of both Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, and before that Pasolini’s canonical The Gospel According to St. Matthew. And while Rau does cast in his film Pasolini’s Jesus (Enrique Irazoqui) and Gibson’s Mother Mary (Maia Morgenstern) — playing, respectively, John the Baptist and, again, Mother Mary — his focus is not on the past but on the very harrowing present, as the film’s mostly African nonprofessional actors are in a real-life tenuous battle for basic human rights. Leading this charge is the charismatic, Cameroon-born Yvan Sagnet, a longtime political activist, labor organizer (his achievements include bringing the mafia to heel during an agricultural workers strike) and now The New Gospel’s Black Jesus in the land of the very white Vatican.

Nothing but the Sun (Opening night, IDFA 2020, excerpted from my festival coverage)

Though Arami Ullón, who splits her time between Switzerland and her native Paraguay, has been part of her homeland’s film industry since she took a job PA’ing on a TV show at the age of 16, she most certainly wasn’t on my radar until Nothing but the Sun opened this year’s hybrid IDFA. Ullón’s latest is a stunning portrait of one dogged man by the name of Mateo Sobode Chiqueno, who since the ’70s has been on a lonely Sisyphean quest to record (literally, using a cassette recorder) the fast-disappearing culture of his Ayoreo community. Though remnants of the Ayoreo remain uncontacted in the Chaco forests of Paraguay, still worshipping the sun — and this brother’s keeper is fighting desperately for it to stay that way — most are like Sobode Chiqueno, long ago forced off their land and converted to Christianity by dubious do-gooding missionaries.

Respectfully and unintrusively, Ullón follows the indigenous hero on his journey, patiently capturing revelatory conversations and can’t-shake images along the way. Indeed, it’s simply jaw-dropping to watch so many elderly men and women praise Christianity and the “civilized” world they were introduced to when the whites ripped them from their ancestral home. It’s like watching a hostage video. These impoverished folks seem merely to be mouthing practiced words about Jesus showing the way to a glorious afterlife, beliefs presented to them not with love but with threats. Ullón’s camera catches the intelligence in their eyes. They know both what they’re supposed to say and that it’s part and parcel of the bill of goods they’ve been sold. In their hearts they are keenly aware that the old ways presented the true righteous path. How could they not be? As one clear-eyed elder points out, disease and hunger had never been part of their previous forest existence.

A gorgeous sequence of delicately framed dead animals in the sand cuts to a woman describing her father’s death at the hands of the invading whites. And yet though they’ve been colonized by Christians, Mennonites, cattlemen, one after the other, these men and women are forever torn between a longing for the forest and a desire to stay with their grandchildren, who only know the “civilized” way of life. Everything now, including the water, has been claimed by the whites. Everything, of course, except the sun. As Sobode Chiqueno puts it, the Aroyeo are cut trees. Cut trees in a now deforested land. And Ullón’s final image of a forest fire obscuring the sun, equal parts heartbreaking and maddening, serves as the perfect visual testament to the spirit of one powerful film.

100UP (IDFA 2020, excerpted from my festival coverage)

The Netherlands’ national treasure Heddy Honigmann, the Peru-born Dutch director, debuted her latest slice of cinematic perfection, 100UP at IDFA 2020. Honigmann’s heart-soaring doc follows seven vibrant active centenarians in Europe and the Americas, including several in New York City. In addition to a not-yet-retired sexologist and a still-attending-university student, Honigmann also showcases famed standup comic “Professor” Irwin Corey who certainly hasn’t hung up his zingers yet. Corey’s thoughts on longevity? “Life is a miracle. Walking on the water was a trick.”

Faya Dayi (Sundance, Full Frame 2021, excerpted from my Full Frame coverage)

Mexican-Ethiopian filmmaker Jessica Beshir’s Faya Dayi, which I saw when it premiered in the World Cinema Documentary Competition at Sundance (and was my personal pick to win), weaves a tapestry of nonlinear stories, addictive and ethereal. Ostensibly about the daily workings of the khat trade in Harar, the rural Ethiopian town where Beshir was raised, the film nearly defies description in its Maya Deren-like way. Disjointedly narrated in poetic voiceover, the Brooklyn-based director’s cinematic stunner employs both an intricate sound design and hallucinatory imagery – with the use of evocative B&W making visually clear the forces of darkness and light that are eternally at play.

Time seems to move in different directions and at varying speeds, as if the camera itself is under the influence of khat, the “water of eternal life.” Beshir takes us smack into another world, a place where this sacred tool of Sufi mysticism is exploited for profit, for basic survival – annihilating all in the blasphemy. Yet it’s also a film that absorbs and allows the viewer crucial breathing room to think. One impressionable young man says he’s heard that when people are high “they start watching films in their mind.” While a longtime elderly user responds, “Once you go in you won’t find your way out…The world we’ve carved for ourselves is an empty and lonely hideout, where no one can ever visit you.” This may be tragically so. Then again, it might just be a haunting dream.

Life of Ivanna (CPH:DOX/Hot Docs 2021, excerpted from my interview with director Renato Borrayo Serrano)

A world premiere at 2021’s hybrid CPH:DOX, and co-presented with the all-digital Hot Docs, Life of Ivanna is one preconceived-notion-upending film. The story of an Arctic woman struggling to raise five young children as her often abusive husband spends more time drinking than working is a situation sure to strike concern in the hearts of many — alhough the chain-smoking, no-nonsense protagonist at the heart of this particular tale would likely scoff at anyone’s condescending sympathies. Indeed, with steely will the titular, tough-as-nails member of the Nenets of the tundra is able to stare down whiteouts and subzero temperatures inside a single-room, reindeer-drawn dwelling (as hubby attempts to make ends meet at a gas plant back in the city). And she does so with a quintet of hyperactive kiddies in tow.

Ascension (Tribeca 2021, excerpted from my interview with director Jessica Kingdon)

An all-female factory floor that manufactures made-to-order sex dolls (which seems every bit as titillating as crafting car parts). A workshop featuring a social media entrepreneur who rhapsodizes about the “fan economy.” (Why be a regular boss when you can be a “star boss”?) An instructor in a class on business etiquette quizzing the Stepford Wives-creepy assemblage on how many teeth should be displayed when smiling at a client. (The correct answer? The “upper eight teeth.”) A dinner conversation in which the wealthy discuss the pros and cons of vacationing in Xinjiang. These are just a few of the unnerving glimpses inside today’s China captured through beautifully composed shots and a hauntingly discordant sound design in Ascension, the latest from Jessica Kingdon (a “25 New Face”of 2017).

Equally unnerving, however, is that Kingdon’s doc likewise manages to be a disturbing reflection of the West as well, as the capitalist and consumerist values we’ve enthusiastically exported over decades have transformed the very countries we were hoping to influence – albeit not in the intended democratic post-Cold War way. Which seems to be precisely what Kingdon is intending to show. Though the filmmaker has created a portrait of China’s gaping class divide — “ascending” its rungs of capitalism from low-wage worker, to middle-class dreamer, to the disconnected bubble of the elite — she is also exposing a dangerously unsustainable system. One that feels not faraway at all, but far too close to home.

Attica (Opening night, TIFF 2021, excerpted from my interview with co-director Traci A. Curry)

Attica (currently on Showtime) is the latest from nonfiction national treasure Stanley Nelson. Along with his co-director and producer Traci A. Curry, a longtime MSNBC producer, the Firelight Media co-founder and MacArthur “Genius” Fellow, who has previously chronicled organizations from The Peoples Temple to The Black Panthers, has now chosen to tackle a very different kind of institution: The prison industrial complex that was captured in one word and broadcast round the globe on September 9, 1971.

The titular uprising that occurred at that correctional facility in Attica, NY a half century back was a five-day, real-life, made-for-TV event meticulously covered — from the seizing of the yard by 1200 inmates to its bloody end that left 29 inmates and 10 hostages dead — by cameras both inside and outside the prison walls. And Nelson and Curry certainly make deft use of that footage (right down to the CCTV). But the team then delves remarkably further, interviewing not only the formerly incarcerated whose act was a cry for basic humane treatment, but also the families of the corrections officers that were left to grieve without any straight answers from the government to this very day. Indeed, when it comes to the largest prison rebellion in US history, which resulted in “the deadliest violence Americans had inflicted on each other in a single day since the Civil War,” only one thing is crystal clear. All the cameras in the world can never tell the full story if the bigger picture remains nefariously obscured.

Comala (TIFF 2021, excerpted from my interview with director Gian Cassini)

A son’s search for a father he never knew is an emotional and complicated journey in even the best of circumstances. When that dad is a smalltime hitman murdered in Tijuana who left behind another family, including a son who likewise embraced criminality and his own father who supposedly fought for Castro (and also worked for the CIA), that investigation can become something infinitely more complex. And if that child is a brave and thoughtful filmmaker like Monterrey-based Gian Cassini it transforms into a journey much greater than the sum of its tabloid-sensational parts: a study of intergenerational violence, machismo culture, and the collective collateral damage experienced by an entire traumatized society.

The Devil’s Drivers (TIFF 2021, excerpted from my interview with co-directors Mohammed Abugeth and Daniel Carsenty)

Filmed over the course of nearly a decade The Devil’s Drivers is a modern-day “1970s car chase thriller” shot mainly from inside the weathered vehicles of human traffickers. But in Mohammed Abugeth and Daniel Carsenty’s edge-of-your-seat feature these daredevil smugglers prove a far cry from any Hollywood baddie. Zooming through the West Bank desert on their lawbreaking quest to transport desperate Palestinian workers across the border into Israel, the Bedouin drivers bravely dodge occupying forces day in and day out, risking serious jail time for a pittance. Bonded with their cargo in economic need, in the desire just to feed families and to simply survive, choosing illegality in the face of immorality, however, is really no devil’s bargain at all.

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