DOC NYC can be an overwhelming affair. The largest festival of its kind in the United States, it showcases well over 100 feature documentaries, including many of them world and international premieres. There are films of nearly every conceivable genre, made all over the world. This makes it very hard to choose, especially if you don’t have the time to watch 50 movies in eight days. Here are some tips, five of the best the festival has to offer.
Bezness As Usual
Alex Pitstra’s last film, New Directors/New Films selection Die Welt, was a hybrid portrait of a young Tunisian man making the choice to leave for Europe. The director’s newest project is much more self-evidently personal. His own father was among the “bezmessa” of the golden age of Tunisian tourism, men who would pick up European women in the old days of the real tourist boom. His father moved to The Netherlands with his mother but later left her in the lurch. Pitstra, who has since taken his mother’s last name, has returned to North Africa to make a documentary about this history.
Of course, inevitably the film becomes much more about the way these choices have shaped the present. Pitstra’s efforts lead him to his half-sister, the product of a similar liaison his father had with a woman in Switzerland. He meets a Swedish cousin, the child of his father’s brother. In the midst of intense arguments with his father about religion, money and the past, there is the slow forging of a new international context. This younger generation, spread across the continent, isn’t exactly a futuristic demographic panacea for the growing racist tide of the European far-right. It is, however, evidence of a complicated new set of relationships. Pitstra understands this, turning Bezness As Usual from a self-portrait into something much broader and more rewarding.
You wouldn’t know it from the annual Oscar race, but a great number of tremendous documentaries have been coming out of China. Hooligan Sparrow, which recently aired on PBS, and last year’s The Chinese Mayor are both streaming on Netflix. DOC NYC is featuring a few this year, the best of which is Zhang Zanbo’s The Road. It follows the construction of a highway from early earth removal to the ribbon-cutting celebrations. That may seem simple, but there are a number of sensational bumps on the way, most of them courtesy of the private construction firm.
Zhang follows its representatives as they pay off locals whose land is being destroyed, relocate an enormous Buddha and nearly destroy an old woman’s house. They bribe local officials, threaten local residents and refuse to pay their own migrant workers. The astonishing extent of his access is complimented by his restrained style, a rough-hewn vérité that tends to characterize recent subversive documentaries from China’s interior. While the material often feels spontaneous, the editing couldn’t be more deliberate. This slow, rocky accumulation of mad developments allows Zhang to drop an editorial bomb at the end, a bitterly satirical closing credits sequence that lays rhetorical waste to all we have seen.
France’s most selective film school, La Fémis, takes 40 students per year. There are many, many more than 40 applicants. Claire Simon’s Le Concours is an intimate and granular portrait of the application process, as detailed as one could imagine in the format of a two-hour documentary. Yet while she features a great deal of nitty-gritty discussion between professionals, there isn’t a dull moment. There is so much earnest excitement and fear in the eyes of the potential students, that every minute reaction from an admissions judge becomes all the more intriguing.
Simon’s deliberate, relaxed structure evokes the best of Frederick Wiseman, whose institution films are broader in scope than Le Concours but just as attentively shot and intuitively edited. Each discussion in the classrooms of La Fémis is more fascinating than the last. There’s a certain thrill in watching groups of filmmakers, programmers, journalists and other professionals argue about the future of these bright young artists. The film breathes beautifully, punctuating tense discussions with the occasional wordless portrait of a nervously waiting applicant. Charming, energetic and edited with care, this is one of the best documentaries of the year.
Photographer and filmmaker Katy Grannan has an excellent eye for color. The Nine, her document of life on Modesto’s South 9th Street is a kaleidoscope of unexpected and gorgeous details, inflections of light and hue. She finds much beauty in this community of drifters, sex workers and others struggling to get by, but her film isn’t an exploitative art project. Rather, it is built from the experience of a photographer, capturing the conversations that emerge from the real-life presence of those in front of the camera.
Grannan’s relationship with her primary subject, Kiki, time and again leads to moments in which the filmmaker herself is implicated in the psychological damage inflicted by society on those who walk this boulevard. The Nine’s striking landscapes of roadside junk, its surreal scene of a motel parking lot flooded by water, and its late-night fascination with electric lights are complicated by private scenes of anxiety and voiced testimony of fear. Kiki talks about poison, the infection of the rivers. Grannan takes us to a nearby creek where suddenly everything is suspect. What did California’s Great Central Valley look like once upon a time? This thought interrupts the archetype of innocence lost in poverty and moral failure, instead framing this community against the weight of humanity’s presence in the land.
The Wonderful Kingdom of Papa Alaev
The Wonderful Kingdom of Papa Alaev is not just a delightful music documentary about an eccentric Tajik-Israeli family, united by their musically-obsessed patriarch. It only starts out that way. Filmmakers Tal Barda and Noam Pinchas have taken this heartwarming, perfect-for-television logline and cracked it open, finding a much more complicated situation inside. Allo Alaev, nearly 80, brought his large family from Tajikistan to Israel to find a better life in the wake of the Soviet Union. His philosophy is one of unity through music, raising his sons and grandsons to be accomplished performers in the traditional Bukharian Jewish genre of Shashmaqam.
Yet his absolute rule is not assured. When one grandson decides to become a more observant Jew, refusing to perform on weekends, it places two patriarchal systems in direct opposition. This same grandson is seen parroting his father’s beliefs that “It isn’t the nature of woman to push forward.” Papa Alaev doesn’t believe women should be musicians, despite his daughter Ada’s facility on the zither-like qanun. When she decides to return to the stage, there is even more conflict. The rollicking Central Asian melodies drive all of this conflict forward. This music drives the whole family forward, and is used wonderfully by Barda and Pinchas to play the same driving role for the film.
DOC NYC runs November 10–17 in New York City. For showtimes and other information go to www.docnyc.net