DOC NYC is gigantic. It’s also relatively quite new. This year’s sixth edition of the festival featured over 100 feature films, packed into just a week of screenings. As a result, it’s in something of an odd place. It can be difficult for smaller films to draw attention to themselves, particularly the 20+ world premieres that don’t arrive in New York City with the benefit of advance buzz. The festival’s reputation is also still emerging, which makes it less of a premiere destination for even the best documentaries made by New York City-based filmmakers. It seems significant that all four major award winners this year, Motley’s Law and Newman in the Viewfinders competition and Class Divide and Missing People in the Metropolis competition, were only making their NYC premieres at the festival.
All of that said, DOC NYC has goals beyond that of a significant premiere festival. It is also a showcase of the best work of the year, most obviously embodied by the Short List program of documentaries most likely to find themselves receiving major awards in the coming months. This selection tends to get the most coverage, an inevitable result of its authoritative (and genuinely predictive) aspirations. However, DOC NYC’s bench runs deeper than these most obvious films, and if you’ve got the time to dig into its vast and sometimes bewildering catalogue of films you can find some very exciting discoveries.
Petr and Simona have nine children. They all wear Crocs. This unique Czech family has removed themselves from what they call “artificial society,” retreating to their farm to create a more authentic and communal way of life. Director Eva Tomanová expertly walks the fine line between portraying the beauty of their isolated world and exposing the troubles of willfully removing so many children from mainstream society and education. The opening scene takes place in a government office, where Petr attempts to get an increase in financial support, claiming unemployment. It doesn’t work, and his drastic child-rearing decision is instantly suspicious. Yet Tomanová contrasts this with some bucolic observational scenes of the family both at work and at play on the farm, highlighting the unique virtues of a lifestyle where labor and recreation coalesce.
You can’t make a documentary on Mars. You can certainly make a documentary about Mars, but it’s not as if any enterprising filmmaker is able to pop up to the Red Planet with a camera and capture some authentic Martian ambiance. This presents a problem to director Ian Cheney (The Search for General Tso), whose Bluespace takes terraforming as its subject, both on Earth and Mars. He solves it by shooting Earth for Mars. Images of water running under ice, mountain landscapes, and other terrestrial phenomena are framed just uncannily enough to suggest the less familiar planet. By combining these imaginary glimpses with scientific testimony, Cheney then takes the lessons of Mars back down to Earth, reminding us that terraforming off-planet might not be so different from the terraforming we’ve already done on a vast scale to our own home.
On the Rim of the Sky
In remote Gulu Village, up in the mountains of Southern China, education is a very controversial issue. Among many other virtues, not least of them the breathtaking images of the perilous landscape, On the Rim of the Sky is a universally resonant profile of the clash between young and old, rural and urban, and the specific tensions inherent in education policy around the world. Director Xu Hongjie captures her two lead characters, the small elementary school’s longtime teacher and an ambitious newly arrived 20-something volunteer, with both patience and a knack for detail. It’s an often funny and quietly gripping addition to the year’s roster of excellent international political documentaries. (Full review)
Reel in the Closet
Home movies aren’t always boring, particularly if their very existence may come as a revelation. Stu Maddux’s trip down the collective memory lane of LGBT America winds through many different sources of archival film, from important trailblazers like Christine Jorgensen and artists like Crawford Barton to collectives like Queer Blue Light and the many, many regular people who happened to record their own lives. Some of the footage, like a scene in the alluringly named pre-Stonewall lesbian night club Mona’s Candle Light, are arresting glimpses into a life totally erased by heteronormative society. As a bonus, Reel in the Closet is also a charmingly informative love letter to moving image archives and the archivists who keep them running, from California to the frozen coast of Maine.
Women He’s Undressed
This new documentary from director Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career, Little Women) is an immensely delightful profile of legendary Hollywood costume designer Orry-Kelly, who won Academy Awards for An American in Paris, Les Girls and Some Like It Hot. It livens up its chronological approach with rambunctious, semi-surrealist reenactments starring Australian TV comedian Darren Gilshenan as the designer and Deborah Kennedy as his lovely, ever-supportive mother. Its plucky charm is matched by many of the interviews, with subjects including Oscar-winning costume designers Colleen Atwood, Catherine Martin and Ann Roth. Jane Fonda also participates, fondly recalling her work with Orry-Kelly on George Cukor’s obscure The Chapman Report and then fixating on Marilyn Monroe’s breasts in Some Like It Hot. It’s a good bet that Women He’s Undressed, like Finding Vivian Maier before it, will return to DOC NYC next year as part of the Short List program.