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DOC NYC, 2nd Edition: More Is More

By Daniel James Scott

The magic word of this year's DOC NYC was "more": more days, more films, more panels, more filmmakers in person, and more people to enjoy the festivities. With 50 features and 42 shorts, the festival transformed the normally discreet IFC Center into a frenzy of activity. Any day saw its share of larger-than-life figures--Werner Herzog, DA Pennebaker, Albert Maysles and Barbara Kopple among them. Larger in number, however, were the emerging filmmakers whose works were fortunate enough to be selected into the program.

Having opted for open submissions this year after curating their inaugural showcase in 2010, festival directors Thom Powers and Raphaela Neihausen received a staggering 500 entrants. "We did Withoutabox and had it open for two or three months," said Neihausen between screenings. "And we got this deluge of submissions from all over the world--from Iran and Israel and Cuba and all these far-flung corners of the world--and it was very exciting to see that."

Kicking off the festival was Werner Herzog's Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life. (Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams opened the 2010 DOC NYC.) The film revisits a senseless crime that occurred in Texas in 2001. Two youths, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, killed three people in order to steal a red Camaro. While Perry was sentenced to death, Burkett was sentenced to life in prison--largely due to the pleas of his father, also imprisoned. Herzog drifts into the lives of the perpetrators and those of the victims' families, although he interviewed each of them for less than an hour. What he extracts from them during this time attests to his remarkable interviewing skills. Through their recollections, of things both pertinent and impertinent to the crime, Herzog shows us a glimpse of American life that few of us would care to examine. Rather than condemn or endorse Texas' criminal justice system, he encourages us to consider the systemic forces that drive people to extremes and, in the case of capital punishment, strip them of their humanity.

After the screening, Herzog cleared up a misperception about his film. "There is this mood out there [that] 'We are going to see an issue film about capital punishment.' But the film is not a platform for that. The film has many other issues, many other elements. I didn't want to narrow down the perception of the audience."

Werner Herzog, flanked by editor Erik Nelson (left) and DOC NYC directgor Thom Powers, discussing his film Into the Abyss. Courtesy of DOC NYC

Herzog's position must have been music to the ears of the journalists featured on the next day's "Meet the Press" panel, which included Eric Kohn from indieWire, John Anderson from Variety, Alison Willmore from the A.V. Club and Jason Spingarn-Koff from The New York Times. The panelists explored the complex task of writing about documentaries. "You don't just want to be a cheerleader for a good cause," said Kohn, emphasizing the importance of craft in selecting documentaries for review. Fortunately for him, there was no shortage of artistic dexterity at play in the social issue docs at the festival.

Scenes of a Crime, winner of the Grand Jury Prize in the "Viewfinders" section, furthered its cause through the framework of a taut, investigative thriller. The crime of its title implicated one Adrian Tomas, an unemployed father of seven, in the death of his four-month-old child. The film centers on footage taken from a grueling, 10-hour interrogation in which Thomas went from denying his role in his infant's death (the interrogators accused him of "shaking" the baby) to admitting his guilt. Quickly thereafter, medical experts confirmed that the child was misdiagnosed at the hospital and had died due to a preexisting medical condition. Jumping from the interrogation footage to interviews with the investigators, doctors and lawyers, directors Grover Babcock and Blue Hadaegh argue the case of a forced confession. Deconstructing the interrogation, they find that the investigators resorted to lies and manipulations to deceive Thomas into speculating about mishaps that would indicate his guilt. Scenes of a Crime seamlessly fuses advocacy with compelling storytelling, carving out a place for itself along acclaimed crime documentaries such as The Thin Blue Line and the Paradise Lost trilogy.

From Grover Babcock and Blue Hadaegh's Scenes of a Crime. Courtesy of DOC NYC

On the lighter side of the spectrum was Kumaré (winner of the Audience Award at this year's SXSW). Presented as a "Borat-style experiment," the film actually covers a plot with loftier aspirations. American director Vikram Gandhi is a skeptic from a religious background. Frustrated less by spirituality than by spiritual leaders, he constructs a fake guru called "Kumaré," whose teaching philosophy is based on illusion: we all inhabit false personalities, he says, but the path to transformation lies within the Self. Though rather half-brained at points, Kumaré's teachings eventually attract a group of devoted disciples, some of whom lead difficult lives: One is a former drug addict; another is a criminal attorney; yet another is a single mother. As Kumaré's experiment evolves, his followers begin to truly rely on his teachings, turning the ruse back on himself. Kumaré follows this experiment through to its suspenseful conclusion, upholding its epigraph that, "Faith begins as an experiment and ends as an experience."

That epigraph could have served equally well at the beginning of Bringing King to China, about an American woman's unyielding faith in the universality of Martin Luther King Jr.'s ideas. Bringing King to China follows Cáitrín McKiernan's attempts to produce a play about Dr. King in collaboration with the National Theatre of China. Stemming from her desire to show a different side of America than the one known for its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Cáitrín feels that King's principles could benefit the Chinese people as well. Having taught civil rights courses in the country, she feels that her students have forgotten the lessons learned from the nonviolent protests that took place in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Cultural tensions mount early into the production, however, as the Chinese producers start to perceive Cáitrín's consultations as a form of American overreach. Bringing King to China sets this riveting cultural exchange against a father-daughter love story. The film is directed by Cáitrín's father, Kevin McKiernan, a veteran war reporter whose career has placed a strain on their relationship. As the two mend fences, so too do the cultures represented on both sides of the production. 

The expansion of storytelling across national boundaries was the topic of "Telling Global Stories," a panel featuring filmmakers such as Ross Kauffman (Born into Brothels), Andrew Berends (Delta Boys) and Pamela Yates (Granito). Each filmmaker weighed in on the challenges he or she faced connecting Western audiences to issues that don't immediately concern them. Whether their films examined the plight of women in the Muslim world or the displacement of communities in Sudan, each panelist was faced at one time or another by the obstacle of "media fatigue." To reassure the filmmakers in the audience, Yates invoked the adage, "It's not who tells the story first; it's who tells the story best."

Few issues provoke the problem of "media fatigue" more than the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet, directors Nara Garber and Betsy Nagler manage to sidestep that obstacle through their nuanced focus in Flat Daddy. Interweaving the stories of four military families throughout the US, Flat Daddy explores the ways in which each of them copes with the absence of their loved ones--particularly, their use of "Flat Daddies," or "Heroes on a Stick." These life-sized, cardboard cutouts of servicemen and women help families connect with their relatives during their deployments. For the Stephens family in New York, the Winter family in Minnesota and the Bugbee family in Maine, Flat Daddies serve as transitional tools to help children remember their parents once they return from their deployments. For the Ramirez-Vance family in Nevada, they unfortunately serve a more lasting reminder of a son killed in combat. Flat Daddy captures the lesser-told stories of everyday Americans fighting the war within.

Local solutions provided the basis for Fambul Tok, about Sierra Leone's efforts to create lasting peace after the civil war that ravaged the country for 11 years. The film takes its name from a grassroots organization called "Fambul Tok"--translation: "family talk"--whose aim is to foster reconciliation between victims and perpetrators of the war that left 50,000 dead. First-time director Sara Terry traces several stories through to their resolutions. Around campfires throughout the country, people confront the memories of their destruction--of themselves and of each other. Each meeting sees the festering wounds of war scar over, and we are given a refreshing portrayal of Africans empowering themselves. "I feel like the West speaks for Africa all the time," said Terry at a post-screening Q&A. "I wanted Africa to speak for itself."

From Sara Terry's Fambul Tok. Courtesy of DOC NYC

Perhaps the most compelling documentary of the festival was a work in progress, Ricky on Leacock. (The film was presented under its original title, On Being There with Richard Leacock, which had to be changed due to its similarity with the title of Leacock's posthumous autobiography, The Feeling of Being There, due out this winter). Ricky on Leacock played as part of a mini-retrospective on the pioneering filmmaker whose works include Primary, Crisis and The Children Were Watching. When introducing the tribute, Thom Powers declared, "Ricky Leacock is the history of documentary filmmaking." After watching Ricky on Leacock, even in its raw state, that statement is hard to deny. Comprised of footage shot over 38 years, the film recounts Leacock's process of developing the portable technology that would pave the way for modern documentary filmmaking. Director Jane Weiner stages a conversation between her footage and Leacock's, and adds to the mix a conversation with Leacock in his latter years in Paris. The guiding impulse throughout the innovator's career was to capture a sense of "being there." That sentiment was shared by his former collaborator, Albert Maysles, who said to Weiner during the Q&A, "Ricky made the best, he deserved the best, and he got the best."

Ricky Leacock, subject of Jane Weiner's work-in-progress Ricky on Leacock. Courtesy of DOC NYC

Daniel James Scott is a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker. Based in Brooklyn, he writes for Filmmaker magazine, Cinespect and other publications.