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13 Films to Catch at DOC NYC 2022

A still from Werner Herzog's Theater of ThoughtWerner Herzog's Theater of Thought

DOC NYC, the largest documentary film festival in the U.S., kicks off this Wednesday, November 9. Featuring more than 200 films among this year’s roster, the fest will run in-person and online from the 9th to the 17th, with New York City screenings and events taking place at IFC Center, SVA Theater and Cinépolis Chelsea. Additional virtual screenings will be streamable for audiences across the U.S. until November 27. 

Whether you plan on attending locally or from afar, we’ve compiled a list of 13 films to catch at this year’s 13th edition of DOC NYC, sourcing from our own previous festival coverage while also highlighting films that we’re excited to catch for the first time ourselves. 

For more information on tickets, venues or the full lineup, visit DOC NYC’s official website.

African Moot

Human rights law specialist/award-winning filmmaker Shameela Seedat turns her lens to an international topic […] Created under the auspices of Generation Africa, African Moot refers to the African Human Rights Moot Competition, the largest mock court tournament on the continent […] battling it out for top prize are Africa’s best (and most idealistic and cutthroat) aspiring lawyers, four teams of which Seedat follows from their respective universities in Cape Town, Cairo, Kampala and Nairobi all the way to Botswana. It’s here that the skilled orators will have to argue before rounds of intimidating judges (both for the prosecution and defense) in a far-too-real, fictional human rights court case dealing with the perpetual question of refugee rights. And ultimately, if they make it to the final smackdown, have the painful pleasure of appearing before the even more intimidating international judges at Botswana’s highest court. — Lauren Wissot 

Our Movie (Nuestra pelicula) 

Mining exclusively from archival news footage, Diana Bustamante’s Our Movie (Nuestra pelicula)—which screens as part of the fest’s Kaleidoscope Competition—revisits the violent stories and images that were forever etched into the memories of many Colombians during the ’80s and ’90s. Bustamante uses these bloody broadcasts to re-engage with her own childhood, musing on the desensitization of her generation from to the ever-present nature of this footage and its relation to the broader national identity of Colombia. — Natalia Keogan 

Girl Gang 

Susanne Regina Meures’ Girl Gang finds terror in the banality of today’s social media-addicted world. It’s a 97-minute-long car crash of a doc starring a 14-year-old influencer from Berlin with half a million followers, and two helicopter parents seemingly more concerned with protecting the virtual brand than their flesh-and-blood daughter. Over four years, and with up-close-and-personal access, the Swiss-German director—whose 2020 Sundance-premiering Saudi Runaway documented a very different sort of damsel in distress horror story—follows Leonie (aka “Leoobaly”), who seems to have cracked the online attention-getting code with her regular girl “authenticity.” It nabs her super-fans like 13-year-old Melanie, founder of an all-Leo Instagram account, who along with thousands of other frenzied teens her age treats the equally young influencer as if she were the second coming of Elvis. (At one point Melanie screams “I don’t exist!” when her account inexplicably disappears, forcing her into a near meltdown.) — LW

How to Save a Dead Friend

Marusya Syroechkovskaya’s How to Save a Dead Friend engages directly with the Putin-shaped present. Primarily constructed from footage Syroechkovskaya shot between 2005 and 2016, Friend demonstrates how far we’ve come since Jonathan Caouette’s assembling of Tarnation exclusively from home movie archives was a breakthrough. Now, any compulsive self-documenter can spend years filming, then decide which life thread to extract for their first film—which is not to diss Syroechkovskaya, a disciplined shooter from her teen years onwards. Friend focuses on her relationship with Kimi—first a BFF, then her spouse, his fate established in both the film’s title and an opening scene of his funeral […] Putin hovers over the film’s decade-plus both in New Year’s Eve addresses to the nation and recurring imagery of various police officers kicking ass at large. — Vadim Rizov 

I’m People, I am Nobody 

Svetislav Dragomirovic’s I’m People, I am Nobody presents the story of a Serbian man, Stevan, awaiting trial in a Maltese prison. A 60-year-old former porn actor, Stevan was promptly booked after exposing himself to a group of teenage girls. Utilizing a series of recorded telephone conversations between Dragomirovic and Stevan during his detainment, the director crafts an eerie story of loneliness, delusion and the Kafkaesque nature of legal systems as a foreigner. — NK 

Anastasia

Sarah McCarthy is no stranger to navigating the myriad challenges posed by authoritarian states. Indeed, the Australian doc-maker has shot in precarious political places throughout the world, from the Philippines to Saudi Arabia to Russia—where she’s returned time and time again. She now debuts her latest short Anastasia, and the innocuous title, much like the film’s titular character, belies one powerful punch. Anastasia Shevchenko is a Russian civil rights advocate who’s been arrested and placed under house arrest—which is, unfortunately, not an anomaly under the Putin regime. Smartly, McCarthy is less concerned with the “crimes” Shevchenko committed than with the individual who’s chosen to sacrifice herself—and hence her family—to the greater democratic cause. It’s a portrait not of an outspoken firebrand, though Shevchenko is certainly that, but of a single mother who wants nothing more than to see her children grow up in a free society. Of course, whether the personal price paid by those she’s ostensibly fighting for is worth that heavy toll, is also the crux of every activist’s dilemma. — LW

Theater of Thought 

Werner Herzog, the 80-year-old recipient of this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award at DOC NYC, isn’t anywhere near finished traversing the world for cinematic inspiration. A well-seasoned traveler who’s visited every continent (including Antarctica), Herzog now journeys to the terrain of the human brain in Theater of Thought, his 51st feature film. Teaming up with Spanish-American neurobiologist Rafael Yuste, the two embark on an extended road trip to interview brain specialists and scientists to glean insight into the burgeoning (and fast-approaching) discoveries in the field of neural technology. Along the way, the duo also encounter intellectual debacles concerning the ethical and philosophical implications of these advancements, which encompass the ability to cure debilitating brain-related illnesses and research into potential mind control. — NK

A House Made of Splinters

A House Made of Splinters is Simon Lereng Wilmont’s exquisite followup to The Distant Barking of Dogs, his likewise stunning feature debut (that was awarded Best First Appearance at IDFA 2017, and went on to be Oscar shortlisted two years later on these shores). With this latest, the Danish director returns to the suddenly-in-the-headlines front line of Eastern Ukraine to once again focus on the youngest victims of an endless war. This time he trains his lens on Eva, Sasha and Kolya—three children temporarily removed from substance-abusing parents and placed (for up to nine months) in an orphanage while the state decides their fate. This house of last resort, however, is not one of Dickensian gloom. On the contrary, it’s filled with singing and dancing, bubbles and teddy bears—and most crucially, a loving and supportive staff. Social workers steadfastly determined to return the simple joys of childhood to those forced to grow up far too soon.—LW 

White Night 

In 1982, the Chichonal volcano erupted in southern Chiapas, Mexico, completely encasing the Indigenous Zoque town of Guayabal in ash and rubble. 38 years later, filmmakers Tania Ximena and Yollotl Gómez Alvarado capture the community-wide effort to excavate the remains of the town, including the religious relics housed in the church. This exhaustive process is led by a local poet named Trinidad, who was coincidentally born on the same day that Chichonal erupted. Guided by prophetic dreams related to Guayabal and the volcano that decimated it, Trinidad and other survivors process grief, remember their ancestors and reflect on the spiritual presence of Chichonal in their everyday lives.—NK 

I Didn’t See You There

Reid Davenport’s I Didn’t See You There, which won the Directing Award in Sundance’s US Documentary competition, is an essayistic and perspectival portrayal of the history of disability spectacle and the filmmaker’s personal experience with cerebral palsy. The first scene follows the path Davenport takes from station entrance to subway platform, as he points out that the elevators to the platforms are outside the turnstiles, meaning that the straightest route via wheelchair is one that encourages fare hopping. In voiceover, Davenport explains that he was caught once, but that hasn’t stopped him since. After a career of giving TED talks, founding a media non-profit focused on amplifying the voices of those with disabilities and directing many short films on the subject, Davenport hasn’t, until this film, manipulated a camera himself. Here, he operates a small one which he deliberately points at negative space, making it the primary backdrop of life’s stuff—the street, the walls and the sky, edited into captivating sequences by Todd Chandler (whose own directorial debut, Bulletproof [2020], is an insightful essay film tour of the effects of mass school shootings and industries that profit off of them). In synopses of I Didn’t See You There, the narrative spine of a circus tent set up across the street from Davenport’s Bay Area apartment and associated histories of freakshows are usually emphasized; in actuality, the sensorial experience of life with cerebral palsy in sight and sound rouses an indelible, powerful counter-narrative to the noble suffering of disabled people.—Abby Sun

Master of Light 

A stunning work of cinematic nonfiction, Rosa Ruth Boesten’s Master of Light follows the classical painter George Anthony Morton, a fan of Rembrandt who conjures exquisite portraits of his own family members in the style of the Old Masters. Never formally trained, Morton nonetheless managed to land a spot at the New York branch of The Florence Academy of Art, eventually going on to study in Europe and win awards abroad. Which would be a remarkable feat for any American, let alone a Black man from Kansas City who spent a decade behind bars for dealing drugs. But likewise remarkable is how Boesten crafts her own evocative portrait of the artist, employing such heavily stylized camerawork and sound design as to leave a viewer (me) wondering whether Master of Light is in fact a doc. Patiently and non-invasively, Boesten trails the unconventional painter from his small studio to the vast (and incredibly white) Rijksmuseum, and from calm visits with an (African-American male) therapist to the chaotic streets of Kansas City. It’s there that Morton spends quality time with his relatives-turned-models and makes painful attempts to emotionally connect with his difficult mother (when he’s not bailing her out of jail).—LW 

The Elephant 6 Recording Co 

The Apples in Stereo, Circulatory System and Neutral Milk Hotel are just a few of the bands that comprise The Elephant 6 Recording Company, a music collective originally formed in the late ’80s by a band of high school kids (namely NMT’s Jeff Mangum, AIS’s Robert Peter Schneider and the Olivia Tremor Control’s Bill Doss and Will Cullen Hart) who would use DIY techniques to make 4-track home recordings. In their young adulthood, they officially made Athens, GA their official home base, creating a hub for musicians who were all similarly inspired by ’60s psychedelic pop-rock. Director C.B. Stockfleth utilizes talking head footage, live performances and archival video clips to tell the story of a local music collective that came to define an era of indie rock. — NK 

Category: Woman 

Middle-distance runner Caster Semenya has won two Olympic gold medals and three World Championships in the women’s 800-meter competition. But no amount of endurance training could have prepared this South African Olympian for the long legal battle (a dozen years and counting) sparked by that very first 2009 World Championship victory. While other winning athletes were celebrating in Berlin, this Black woman from the Global South was undergoing “sex testing,” her right to even compete being thrown into question by a sports governing body made up almost wholly of white European men. But optics be damned. In the end, the International Amateur Athletics Federation (now World Athletics) decided that “identified” female athletes (which creepily reads like a euphemism for “nonwhite”) would have to bring down their testosterone levels if they wanted to keep racing. In other words, undergo medically unnecessary procedures on their healthy bodies […] Canadian filmmaker (and writer, actor and producer) Phyllis Ellis has decided to tackle this question head on. With Category: Woman Ellis, an Olympian herself, follows four female champions directly affected by this human rights-violating ruling.—LW 

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