If the main line-up for this year’s New York Film Festival wasn’t enough of a stunner, their “Spotlight on Documentary” sidebar should… well, if you weren’t happy before, what’s even going to work now? Anyway, this year’s crop is a fine one indeed, offering new titles from Martin Scorsese, Frederick Wiseman (our review of that here), and Les Blank, in addition to Joshua Oppenhemier‘s Act of Killing follow-up and a piece directed by none other than Ethan Hawke.
Have a look at the full selection below:
The 50-Year Argument
Martin Scorsese & David Tedeschi 2014
USA | Format: DCP | 96 minutes
The New York Review of Books, a renowned NY literary institution that’s played a substantial role in American cultural and political life gets the royal treatment in this celebration of a half-century of critical engagement and dissent. Interweaving the history and evolution of the publication, founded by Robert B. Silvers and Barbara Epstein (in reaction to what they considered the impoverished state of book reviewing in The New York Times!), with an examination of its amazing track record of wrestling with the urgent issues and inconvenient truths of the day, from Vietnam to Iraq, this look at the magazine and the journalistic values it enshrines is thoughtful, lively, and moving. It’s also a juicy compilation of greatest hits and historical bull’s-eyes, with guest appearances by James Baldwin, Gore Vidal, Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, and a host of other literary and political luminaries.
Frederick Wiseman 2014
USA/France | Format: DCP | 180 minutes
Frederick Wiseman’s glorious new film is about the energies of, and around, painting—discussing, framing, mounting, lighting, repairing, restoring, creating, and, perhaps most of all, looking at painting. This is a film of color, light, and sensuous action, in the artwork on the walls and within the universe of London’s great National Gallery itself. In fact, the dividing line between the paintings and the life around them dissolves almost immediately, as Wiseman attunes us to pure response: the individual’s response to the paintings, the painter’s response to the subject at hand, the filmmaker’s response to the people, activities, and light around him. There are discussions of budgetary concerns and social media, but the film and the people within it are always drawn back to the magnetic power of the art itself. National Gallery is a film of faces: the faces of those looking and the faces of those who look back from the canvases, in an endless, joyful exchange.
The Look of Silence
Joshua Oppenheimer 2014
Denmark/Indonesia/Norway/Finland/UK | Indonesian and Javanese with English subtitles | 99 minutes
In his 2012 documentary The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer stunned audiences with his bold approach to unmasking the perpetrators of the mid-1960s genocide in Indonesia. While that film exposed the killers themselves, its companion piece The Look of Silence revisits the scenes of their crimes and follows one family among the hundreds of thousands in a quest for understanding as they attempt to confront the remaining murderers—a dangerous endeavor, because the killers are still in power and there hasn’t been any official reconciliation process. But this is no simple confrontational documentary told from a survivor’s point of view. In Oppenheimer’s quietly concentrated second look at the generations affected, a young man, concerned about raising his own children in a society cowed into silence, tracks down his brother’s killers and tries to force them to see the past with fresh eyes.
Albert Maysles 2014
USA | Format: DCP | 78 minutes
The great documentarian Albert Maysles recently celebrated his 83rd birthday, but he and his ever flexible and responsive camera eye are still as fresh as a daisy. His latest film is about fashion- and interior-design maven Iris Apfel, who is herself just south of 92, as she celebrates the late wave of popularity she enjoyed on the heels the Met’s 2005 exhibition of her collection of often affordably priced fashion accessories. Maysles, who pops up from time to time as a cheerful on-camera presence, follows Iris as she makes selections for the touring exhibition, advises young women on their fashion choices, and bargains with store owners, usually in the company of her husband of 66 years, Carl, now over 100. Iris’s resilience is a wonder to behold, never more so than when she dismisses the idea of being “pretty”—for her, the only thing that matters is style.
How to Smell a Rose: A Visit with Ricky Leacock in Normandy
Les Blank & Gina Leibrecht 2014
USA/France | Format: DCP | 64 minutes
Just about a decade ago, Les Blank went to France to film Ricky Leacock as he shopped for food, made meals, and talked about his boyhood, his attraction to reality-based moviemaking, his experiences with Robert Flaherty, Robert Drew, D.A. Pennebaker, Ed Pincus, and others, his life with his creative and romantic partner, Valerie Lalonde, and his philosophies of filmmaking and living. The movie that resulted, finished after Blank’s death by his own creative partner, Gina Leibrecht, is a lovely tribute by one great artist to another. “He really uses the camera as a tool to search for something revealing in a simple moment,” Leibrecht once said of Blank, whose films—like Leacock’s—are unassuming, disarming, and build momentum out of seemingly stray details that coalesce into graceful portraits in time. How to Smell a Rose is a joyous film about a man who found harmony between his existence and his art. It is also a moving celebration of cinema verité itself.
Seymour: An Introduction
Ethan Hawke 2014
USA | Format: DCP | 81 minutes
Seymour Bernstein started playing the piano as a little boy, and by the time he turned 15 he was teaching it to others. He enjoyed a long and illustrious career of concertizing before he gave it up to devote himself to helping others develop their own gifts. Ethan Hawke’s lovely film is a warm and lucid portrait of Bernstein—his work habits; his memories of learning the piano with Clara Husserl; his army stint during the Korean War; his sharp observations about his fellow pianists; his interactions with his students and conversations with friends; his preparations for a private concert. But it’s also a film about the patience, concentration, and devotion that are fundamental to the practice of art and life. Seymour: An Introduction allows us to spend time with a generous human being who has found balance and harmony within himself.
Debra Granik 2014
USA | English and Spanish with English subtitles | Format: DCP | 105 minutes
Debra Granik could have gone in any number of directions after the success of Winter’s Bone. She decided to focus on a documentary portrait of Ron “Stray Dog” Hall (who played Thump Milton in the 2010 film), an aging biker and RV park manager from southern Missouri. When we are introduced to Hall and his friends, they appear to be the very image of “middle America” held by New Yorkers: hard-drinking (moonshine, no less), gun-toting, tattooed motorcycle freaks. Slowly, gradually, another image comes into view, of a man who has been permanently altered by his tours of duty in Vietnam, who has come to terms with himself and acquired a rare wisdom and patience in the process, and who is now dedicated to helping his friends, his loved ones, and his fellow vets. This is a moving film about community and the bonds that hold it together; in its surprising second half, when the children of Hall’s Mexican wife arrive in Missouri, it is also a vivid snapshot of a changing America.
Jung Yoon-suk 2013
South Korea | Korean with English subtitles | Format: DCP | 93 minutes
Chronicling a history of violence and death from society’s lower depths to its corridors of power, Jung Yoon-suk’s gripping documentary is a quietly devastating indictment of pervasive injustice nested within the post–military dictatorship economic breakout of South Korea in the 1990s. The film begins by recounting the case of the “Jijon Clan” (“Supreme Gangsters”), a group of youths from a backwoods province arrested in 1994 for committing a series of horrific murders, enacting a savage and warped form of class warfare in the face of growing social inequity. Jung provocatively compares and contrasts their case with two other notorious episodes of the era—the 1994 Seongsu Bridge disaster and the death of 502 people in the Sampoong Department Store collapse of 1995. Resisting the temptation to sensationalize, this cool and methodical cinematic essay uses these ostensibly unrelated incidents to demonstrate that the punishments did not fit the crimes, and also to draw a series of uncomfortable conclusions about South Korean society.
Dreams are Colder Than Death
Arthur Jafa 2013
USA | Format: DCP | 52 minutes
In this new essay film, filmmaker and cinematographer Arthur Jafa (Daughters of the Dust, Crooklyn) begins with a question: what does it mean to be black in America in the 21st century? He composes the many troubled and troubling answers, offered in the form of evocative images of African-American men and women (intermingled with more abstract visual correlatives to certain remarks), and spoken answers from former Black Panther Kathleen Cleaver, filmmaker Charles Burnett, poet Fred Moten, artist Kara Walker, and others, into a powerful choral work of sustained, burning intensity. Jafa’s aesthetic strategy of separating sound and image has a political charge: he wanted his interviewees to speak freely, unencumbered by the burden of “survival modalities,” i.e., learned forms of self-presentation for public consumption in general and the white world in particular. As of this writing, we are still in the wake of Eric Garner’s death in Staten Island, the National Guard has been called into Ferguson, Missouri, and Jafa’s haunted meditation seems increasingly relevant as the minutes tick by.
One Cut, One Life
Ed Pincus & Lucia Small 2014
USA | Format: DCP | 107 minutes
In the mid 1970s, Ed Pincus, one of the key figures in the history of documentary cinema, gave it all up and devoted himself to flower farming at his home in Vermont with his wife and children. In 2002, Pincus met filmmaker Lucia Small and asked her to join him as a creative partner in his return to movies, which resulted in The Axe in the Attic, their raw, potent 2007 doc about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The experience took a toll on their relationship, but Small was moved to film again after two of her closest friends died extremely violent deaths in close succession. When Pincus was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndromes, they decided to collaborate on a new project. The reality of death laid the foundation for a piece about life—not a “celebration” but a joyous demonstration of the necessity of love, work, and beauty, one and the same. Perhaps the film’s most emotional moment is Pincus’s simple admission to the camera: “I’m a filmmaker. That’s who I am.”
Merchants of Doubt
Robert Kenner 2014
USA | Format: DCP | 96 minutes
The evidence of man’s role in climate change is overwhelming; despite that, there are many alleged scientific experts, ubiquitous presences in the mass media universe, who have managed to confound and confuse the issue. In their 2011 book Merchants of Doubt, authors (and scientists, academics, and historians) Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway uncovered the agendas behind these ideological sales pitches. Now filmmaker Robert Kenner (Food, Inc.) explores this issue further through interviews with some of the best of these scientific spin doctors, some of whom let us in on their secrets. Kenner likens their public relations and marketing skills to magic, and he puts their many appearances before congressional committees and on CNN in an entirely fresh light. Kenner’s take on these “magicians” at work is funny and witty, but it’s also chilling to witness their sleight of hand, which has helped to land us that much further from saving the planet. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
The Iron Ministry
J.P. Sniadecki 2014
USA | Mandarin with English subtitles | Format: DCP | 82 minutes
This thrilling new film from J.P. Sniadecki (People’s Park, Foreign Parts), shot over three years during a series of train journeys across China, begins with metal: the sounds and sights of gears, wheels on tracks and linked railway cars meshing, crunching, and grinding. We are gradually introduced to the people who ride and work on the cars, with their luggage, their produce, the products they’re hawking, the goods they’re transporting. People are crammed into every corner of every train car, with the exception of a first-class compartment from which the filmmaker is barred. At one point, Sniadecki follows a food vendor from one end of a train to another, as he nonchalantly makes his way through a sea of humanity so thick and ungainly that the very idea of negotiating it seems impossible. Little by little, the passengers begin to speak about their country, their lives, their dreams for the future.
Gabe Polsky 2014
USA | English and Russian with English subtitles | Format: DCP | 85 minutes
Soviet hockey players? As in the ones that were defeated by a young, inexperienced American team at the 1980 Olympics? In fact, the “Miracle on Ice” is just a blip in the story of Soviet hockey, as demonstrated by Gabe Polsky’s exhilarating documentary, in which the Cold War is fought on the ice. The Soviet Union’s Red Army team was the most successful dynasty in sports history. Players, trained from a young age, were stronger and more skillful than any others in the world and were meant to show up the West at every opportunity. Polsky, a child of Soviet immigrants who grew up playing hockey in the United States, finds a prime example of artistry on ice in Red Army team captain (and one-time NHL star) Slava Fetisov, who went from national hero to political enemy to American star to post-Communist Russian Minister of Sport. Polsky’s wildly entertaining film examines the many ways that sport both embodies and reflects social, political, and cultural realities. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait
Ossama MohammedWiam Simav Bedirxan 2014
Syria/France | Arabic with English subtitles | Format: DCP | 92 minutes
Syrian filmmaker Ossama Mohammed has been living in exile in Paris since 2011. At a certain point, he began collecting online images that had been shot clandestinely with small cameras and cell phones of the day-to-day horrors of life in his home country, where the armed struggle against the Assad regime is now in its fourth year. He started to build a film from this “fountain of images” from a people “filming and screening itself, celebrating freedom and sharing tragedy.” He was soon contacted by Wiam Simav Bedirxan, a young Kurdish woman who would eventually become Mohammed’s co-director. Bedirxan was present during the uprising in Homs, and she records deprivations and horrors that are almost unimaginable to those who have never had an experience of war. Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait is, it goes without saying, extremely difficult to watch. It is also a very brave movie that embodies freedom through the very act of filming and making cinema.
Marah Strauch 2014
USA/Norway/UK | Format: DCP | 96 minutes
Marah Strauch’s jubilant, evocative movie tells the incredible story of Carl Boenish, the exuberant inventor of BASE jumping (parachuting from a fixed object), and his beloved wife, soulmate, and diving partner, Jean. After graduating from USC and doing a stint as an engineer at Hughes Aircraft, Boenish devoted himself to “freefall cinematography” (he is credited with “Special Aerial Photography” on John Frankenheimer’s The Gypsy Moths) and many of the breathtaking images in Strauch’s movie were drawn from footage that Carl and his team shot for a series of sky-diving shorts (Jean came aboard after they were married in 1979). As demonstrated and embodied in Strauch’s film, Boenish was much more just than a thrill-seeker, and his jumps off of taller and taller bridges, buildings, and peaks throughout the world were done in the spirit of joy and freedom, which together comprise the true subject of this exultant and heart-stopping film experience.