With its lineup of 153 films and events, DOC NYC, founded in 2010 by Toronto documentary programmer Thom Powers and his wife, Raphaela Neihausen, has surely earned the right to bill itself “America’s largest documentary festival.” This year’s edition boasts 19 world premieres and one of the most hotly anticipated of these is Amy Berg’s An Open Secret, which examines widespread allegations of sexual abuse in Hollywood.
The Hollywood Reporter‘s Gregg Kilday notes that “An Open Secret originated in 2011, when Berg, 44, who received an Oscar nomination for her 2006 documentary Deliver Us From Evil, which explored sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, was approached by Matthew Valentinas, a Boston entertainment attorney. He and hedge fund manager Alan Hoffman were looking to do something about victims of sexual exploitation, and, after listening to interviews in which actor Corey Feldman talked of encountering abuse, they decided to produce a documentary. ‘We chose Amy because we didn’t want it to be exploitative or tabloid,’ says Valentinas. ‘We wanted it to be empowering for the victims.'”
Tonight’s opening night film, David Thorpe’s Do I Sound Gay?, “addresses a touchy subject for gay men at a time when same-sex marriage is increasingly accepted, while in many schools, perceived effeminacy is still subject to bullying and persecution,” writes Stephen Holden in the New York Times. “Mr. Thorpe frets about his high, emphatic voice and consults acting coaches and linguists to try to change it…. Closing the festival, on Nov. 20, is The Yes Men Are Revolting, by the comic performance artists and media pranksters who go by the pseudonyms Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno. Also known as the Yes Men, who directed this film with Laura Nix, they are experts at impersonating corporate shills and government bureaucrats in bogus, sometimes hilarious news conferences that undermine the agendas of the institutions they pretend to represent.”
“Of all the DOC NYC selections, the nearest and dearest to my heart has to be [Elvira Lind’s] Songs for Alexis,” writes Lauren Wissot, director of programming for the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, for Filmmaker. “With wild hair, lip ring, and T-shirts proclaiming his affinity for ’70s punk and ’80s hardcore, 18-year-old Ryan looks and acts the part of rock star in the making. He’s a talented, up-and-coming musician with a loyal following, a supportive family and a girlfriend named Alexis that he adores. He’s also a 21st century transman, out and proud, which is a problem for his 16-year-old sweetheart’s parents, who disapprove of their relationship. Yet Lind is not content with making a niche LGBT flick. The Danish director smartly dispenses with myopic depictions of gender, transitioning to deliver something much more weighty and universal. Songs for Alexis is not about gender or sexuality or any issue at all. It’s simply a gorgeously rendered, modern day, coming-of-age tale that quietly reminds us of what it feels to be young and in love.”
Brenda Goodman’s Sex(Ed) “traces the history of sexual education films in America, from its first installment in 1893 to the 21st century’s hype of terroristic abstinence-only programs,” writes Diego Costa at the House Next Door. “The film mixes a plethora of entertaining clips from such ‘moral education’ films throughout the decades (some of which are YouTube favorites, like the homosexuality-as-invisible-smallpox ‘Boys Beware‘ from 1961) with the usual talking heads, from college professors to what can sometimes feel like randomly selected, and not particularly insightful, college students who happened to bump into the documentary crew on their campus. What’s most striking about this neglected film history is that, as Sex(Ed) argues, sexual education in America has consistently been an endeavor outsourced to cinema, as the kind of one-way lecturing that mutes students, stifles questions, and gets parents and instructors off the hook.”
In his overview of this year’s edition for the Voice, Alan Scherstuhl notes that “the festival’s best, like Stephanie Wang-Breal’s wonderful Tough Love, don’t just spend their 75 minutes thumbing the spots that hurt. Tough Love follows the efforts of two unrelated parents—one in New York, one in Seattle—to convince the courts and social services that they are now prepared to care for their children despite at one point having been ruled neglectful. The local case starts out as a heartbreaker but brightens as it wears on.”
Update: Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn recommends five must-sees, and here’s one: “The great cinema vérité pioneer Robert Drew died earlier this year, but his legacy lives on his remarkably well-crafted films, which have retained their immediacy over the decades. (This year, DOC NYC will award the first-ever Robert and Anne Drew Award for Documentary Excellence to Citizenfour director Laura Poitras.) Drew’s 1962 effort The Chair is one remarkable example, chronicling the efforts of attorney Louis Nizer on an ultimately successful mission to save the prisoner Paul Crump from capital punishment.”
Updates, 11/14: Christopher Bourne introduces a gallery of highlights at Twitch: “Besides offering the best of new documentaries, DOC NYC this year also honors the past with lifetime achievement awards presented to documentary pioneers DA Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus, and Albert Maysles, as well as retrospective screenings of such classics as Salesman, High School, Hoop Dreams, and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. In all, DOC NYC offers an embarrassment of riches to both casual movie fans and documentary aficionados alike.”
“The Hand That Feeds by Rachel Lears and Robin Botnick takes us to the effort by workers at the bakery Hot and Crusty to form a union and negotiate a contract,” writes David D’Arcy at Artinfo. “It’s a battle that can be seen at hundreds of such places in New York, where immigrant workers are underpaid (sometimes below minimum wage) and denied overtime and vacation.” David also reviews Do I Sound Gay?, The Seven Five, Little White Lie, The Salt of the Earth and Song from the Forest.
Updates, 11/15: “In an ideal world, Amy Berg’s daring exposé An Open Secret will launch uncomfortable conversations and start an intelligent, long-overdue dialogue about sexual abuse in Hollywood,” writes Greg Cwik for Indiewire. “The media buzz ahead of its premiere means it has already started to achieve those goals, which may explain why the documentary is having a tough time finding distribution. But the future of the conversation is a different story. As DOC NYC co-founder Thom Powers put it at the movie’s premiere on Friday, a wall of silence has been erected around long-circulating molestations charges in Hollywood, and Berg’s film acts as a sledgehammer.” More from David D’Arcy (Screen Daily), Elizabeth Donnelly (Flavorwire), Ryan Lattanzio (Thompson on Hollywood), Rodrigo Perez (Playlist, A-) and Ronnie Scheib (Variety).
Robert Drew’s David (1961) “is an Expressionistic documentary,” writes the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody. “That may seem like an odd thing to say. Drew is the creator of cinema vérité in the United States, the idea that documentary filmmaking isn’t a matter of distantly objective observation but of the filmmakers’ immediate, physical, and emotional implication with the film’s subjects, in a unified—albeit tense and fluidly negotiated—field of action. Drew’s documentaries aren’t a matter of seeing but of being. With David, he—and the rest of the crew, led by the field producer Gregory Shuker and the cinematographers D. A. Pennebaker (who, happily, is still making films) and William Ray—were in the presence of troubled people, and the very nature of that trouble, as they perceived it, is integrated into the stylistic and sensory texture of the film.”
At the Playlist, Rodrigo Perez recommends five docs to catch.
Updates, 11/17: “Hotline humanizes the professionals who answer hotline calls by revealing their faces and allowing them to be as vulnerable as the people who call them, for everything from phone sex and homework tutoring to psychic divination and 911 emergencies,” writes Diego Costa at the House Next Door. “But the film has a hard time developing a cogent structure given its plethora of stories.” More from Jesse Singal (Vulture) and Scott Tobias (Dissolve, 2/5).
“There’s much more than meets the eye when exploring the wild story of the National Enquirer and its colorful owner, Generoso Pope, Jr.,” writes Katie Walsh at the Playlist. “The wacky, omnipresent tabloid has long been the butt of jokes, but it’s influence on contemporary media practices is palpable, and its origin story positively epic. But, under the guidance of director Ric Burns, Emmy-award winning filmmaker (and collaborator with brother Ken), the film style and story seem to be a mismatch. Told in very traditional Burnsian style (talking heads, slow pans over photographs), this execution doesn’t serve the potential promised by Enquiring Minds: The Untold Story of the Man Behind the National Enquirer.“
For Metro, Matt Prigge recommends seven films to catch.
Updates, 11/18: “Amir Bar-Lev has become one of documentary filmmaking’s best storytellers, able to find illuminating angles and compelling narratives even in recent news items that have already been well-covered,” writes Noel Murray at the Dissolve. “Like his 2010 doc The Tillman Story—which considered the way the friendly-fire death of NFL-star-turned-soldier Pat Tillman was spun to score political points—Bar-Lev’s new film Happy Valley is about how personal biases affect the ways people react to a situation that seems pretty cut-and-dried. For Happy Valley, Bar-Lev visited Penn State University while the institution was still reeling from the arrest of assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky on charges that he sexually abused young boys. Bar-Lev follows the story as it unfolds, looking beyond the crime to ask how the students and alumni could still rally behind their embattled football program after word began to come out that beloved, venerable Coach Joe Paterno may have known what Sandusky was doing.” More from Sean Burns (Movie Mezzanine, B), Mike D’Angelo (AV Club, C+), David Edelstein (New York), Christopher Gray (Slant, 2.5/4), Oktay Ege Kozak (Playlist, A-), Joshua Rothkopf (Time Out, 4/5), A.O. Scott (NYT), Alan Scherstuhl (Voice) and Matt Zoller Seitz (RogerEbert.com, 3/4).
Nicholas Laskin at the Playlist on Dave Janetta’s Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere: “On the surface, it’s another sensational, can-you-believe-this-is-fucking real mystery set in the type of small, woodsy town where a man’s worth is measured in his word and his handshake…. And yet there is another story at play here, that of Ed Hughes a.k.a. Poe Ballantine, the man who wrote the memoir on which Janetta’s film is based. With Ballantine, we get a narrator who is, in so many less words, complicated. He’s sometimes prickly, generous with his knowledge and haunted by past periods of grief and depression. The author’s need to make sense of the confounding secret at the film’s core—the sudden and unexplained disappearance of a mild-mannered math teacher in their shared hometown of Chadron, Nebraska—becomes almost as much a subject as the initial mystery itself.”
Updates, 11/23: The awards have been announced:
- Grand Jury Prize Winner in the Viewfinders Competition: Sherief Elkatsha’s Cairo Drive.
- Grand Jury Prize Winner in the Metropolis Competition: Thomas Wirthensohn’s Homme Less.
- Grand Jury Prize Winner in the Shorts Competition: Danielle Schwartz’s Mirror Image.
- SundanceNow Doc Club Audience Award: Rachel Lears and Robin Blotnick’s The Hand That Feeds.
Matt Shepard Was a Friend of Mine, “directed by Shepard’s childhood friend Michele Josue, who conducts some shattering interviews with Shepard’s schoolmates, family friends and his understandably devastated parents, sheds some light not just on the heinous details of the crime that ultimately left Shepard in a coma for days before his death, but also on the person he was before that horrible night,” writes Nicholas Laskin.
Also at the Playlist, Nikola Grozdanovic: “Rory Kennedy’s latest documentary Last Days in Vietnam shows a different side to this most unpopular war while making no apologies or justifications. It’s a searing series of accounts from dignified patriots, weary politicians, and desperate civilians stuck in a frantic situation, and a remarkable piece of work that should be seen by everyone who thinks they know everything about the Vietnam War.”