The 7 Best Documentaries of the 2014 New York Film Festival

Cinder Films

Never mind all of the glitz and glamour of the gala screenings, New York Film Festival is a great place for documentaries. The Main Slate included two nonfiction features (down from last year’s five), alongside a rich and extensive Spotlight on Documentary program and a number of nonfiction works in the Convergence, Projections and Revivals sections. There were interactive documentaries from around the world, restorations of important classics, new films from legends like Frederick Wiseman and Albert Maysles, and more from rising filmmakers like Joshua Oppenheimer and Debra Granik. It was a fascinating, diverse and often quite exciting slate from a festival that seems to get more interested in nonfiction storytelling every year. Here are seven favorites from the line-up:

The Iron Ministry

A veteran of the Sensory Ethnography Lab, J.P. Sniadecki (Foreign Parts, People’s Park) returned to NYFF with a new project, this time made outside the walls of that much-lauded Harvard institution. The Iron Ministry was shot entirely on the passenger trains of China, crisscrossing the world’s most populous nation over the course of three years.

It begins with an extended, visceral sequence from beneath the train, a darkened frame accompanied by the infernal noise of the iron horse throttling forward. Even as Sniadecki moves up to meet and interact with the many passengers, the mechanics of the beast are always present. Preoccupied by shared spaces and discussions between travelers, occasionally quite political, this is an open portrait of a society very much on the move. The train has always been a major metaphor for change, but here there is an especially interesting sense of ambiguity. The railway can be read as a positive manifestation of a new China and its growing middle class. Yet as the system is upgraded, so too are its rules and restrictions. At one point Sniadecki is forbidden to film. The danger of hurtling to modernity is always present, rattling along the ever-lengthening tracks.

The Look of Silence

The Look of Silence is simultaneously a continuation of The Act of Killing and something entirely different and new. Where the first film deals almost exclusively with the perpetrators of the Indonesian mass murders of 1965–66, the second half of this extraordinarily troubling diptych focuses on the family of a single victim. The central figure is an optometrist whose brother was killed before he was born and who is now determined to find answers from those murderers still in power.

The stirring up of renewed controversy is inevitable, as Oppenheimer’s role as facilitator of these dangerous discussions is deconstructed and analyzed. These are important discussions to have, of course. It is a film with many profound, thoroughly uncomfortable moments that provoke and confront some immense issues. Once again Oppenheimer has made the case that a documentary can be a philosophical discourse akin to Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, rather than simply evidence to be cited in such a text. The Look of Silence also wisely and boldly uses the tools of cinema to get there, including some of the most effective uses of the close-up in the history of the medium.

Moana with Sound

Robert Flaherty’s Moana, generally considered the first docufiction film, was shot between 1923 and 1925 on the island of Savai’i in Samoa. It was then essentially given the shaft by Paramount Pictures, who released it in 1926 with very little fanfare. Then, in 1975, the filmmaker’s daughter, Monica Flaherty returned to the island with direct cinema pioneer Richard Leacock to record a soundtrack for the originally silent film. She captured the sounds of the ocean and the wind and most importantly the traditional songs of the island. Yet when the project was completed in 1980, the resulting print had a much lower image quality than the original. Now, preservationist Bruce Posner, filmmaker Sami van Ingen and sound mixer Lee Dichter have crafted a 2K restoration of Moana with Sound.

It’s gorgeous. The film is ostensibly the story of a young man named Moana, who is on the verge of recognized adulthood according to Samoan custom. Yet while his milestones are marked with great care, he is mostly used as a narrative device in order to feature the way of life of the people of Savai’i. The sounds of the ocean do wonders enervate the pristine fishing scenes, including a particularly memorable capture of a giant sea turtle. Sandalwood, smoke, spray and unsettlingly large crabs become vivid and immersive in this classic of ethnographic nonfiction.

National Gallery

Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery is immense. At three hours that seems obvious, but its scope is even more impressive in its depth than in its length. This profile of the National Gallery in London features every element of the life of the museum, including the most essential discussions among staff as to how it should be run and the grandest crowds of tourists. There are scenes of gallery tours, high class events for donors, performances in museum spaces and adult education classes.

Yet at the center of all this bustling is the art itself. Wiseman often bombards the audience with sequences that feature many paintings, stunning as a critical mass. Other times he lingers on an individual work, particularly in conjunction with a description by a passing docent and their tour group. George Stubbs, Leonardo da Vinci and Titian all come and go before the camera, each inspected with a hushed sense of intellectual and emotional curiosity. Wiseman moves through the museum like an amateur archaeologist, inspecting some things with great care and brushing past others with a only a casual nod. Even at such a grand running time, National Gallery is much more judicious than exhaustive. [For more, read Christopher Campbell’s full review here]

Seymour — An Introduction

Seymour Bernstein is not a famous pianist, though he could have been. Ethan Hawke’s profile of this virtuoso who said no to fame and public performance is a charming, devoted and loving nonfiction portrait with a wonderful sense of music. Showing Bernstein both at solitary ease and with students, whom he has taught for many years, this introduction is at its best when simply letting its subject’s talents and eccentricities emerge. His mysticism is a particularly intriguing and unexpected element. Music is something to revere, a magical force unto itself that the artist remains intimately in service of even though he gave up his performing career many years prior. With that in mind Hawke creates a gradually more intricate film around Bernstein, culminating in an exceptionally constructed final sequence. [For more, read Daniel’s full review here]

Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait

This is an essay film about the cleaving of a country and what seems to be the end of humanity, cobbled together by two immensely talented filmmakers in the midst of a horrific revolution and civil war. Built from footage shot and edited on opposite ends of the Mediterranean by Ossama Mohammed in Paris and Wiam Simav Bedirxan in beseiged Homs, Silvered Water grows ever more immense as it becomes more collaborative. It declares itself made from 1,001 images taken by 1,001 cameras, metonymically standing in for the entirety of Syria. It is “history’s longest film and its longest funeral.” Yet it also has a strange sense of humor, presenting the strange juxtapositions of international culture and strife that one might find in a Chris Marker film. Bombs, Edith Piaf, snipers and the oldest song ever written all color this cry of agony and introspection from the world’s most troubling ongoing conflict. It is a master class on humanity and inhumanity both, and the way we represent those through cinema. [For more, read Daniel’s full review here]

Stray Dog

While filming Winter’s Bone, Debra Granik met Stray Dog, a biker, trailer-park owner and thoroughly unique Missouri family man. She decided to make a documentary about him. The result is one of the most thoroughly, lovingly and tellingly American features of the year. It’s about veterans and their community, motorcycle rides in honor of those lost in Vietnam and military funerals. It’s about immigration and the way our society is changing, but also how it has always had potential for openness even in unexpected places. It’s about the economy, and the struggle of both his tenants and his grandchildren to make ends meet.

None of this is introduced as a point of controversy or political debate. The issues that emerge naturally in Stray Dog do so as elements of American life, real concerns rather than the stuff of ideological warfare. There are moments of comedy and sadness, chicken nuggets and American flags emblazoned on leather jackets that each come to serve as an equal metaphor for a diverse and surprising nation. [For more, read Dan Schindel’s full review from LAFF here]

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.