The New York Film Festival: Documentaries Stand Front and Center
Documentaries were out in force at the 58th New York Film Festival. No longer cloistered in a separate section, they stood shoulder-to-shoulder with narrative features throughout this mostly virtual, streamlined edition. In part, that reflects the increasing fluidity of the form itself. “It’s sometimes even hard to say if a film is documentary or fiction,” observed director of programming Dennis Lim during one of the festival’s many virtual Talks, which you can catch on YouTube. Films like Inheritance, Ouvertures and My Mexican Bretzel seriously mess with boundaries by injecting scripts and/or actors. These joined a wide range of more traditional docs, coming from seasoned veterans like Frederick Wiseman (City Hall) and Sam Pollard (MLK/FBI), mid-career documentarians like Victor Kossakovsky (Gunda) and Jia Zhangke (Swimming Out Til the Sea Turns Blue), and newer filmmakers like Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw (The Truffle Hunters) and Garrett Bradley (Time). Here are some standouts:
All In: The Fight for Democracy
No film could be more timely than All In: The Fight for Democracy, since it’s a good bet that what happened in Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial race will be a blueprint for voter suppression come November. Taking Stacey Abrams’ run for governor as their centerpiece, directors Lisa Cortés and Liz Garbus trace the ways in which authorities have purged, poll-taxed, intimidated and otherwise foiled Americans from exercising their right to vote for centuries. Aiming to reach the widest audience possible, the $15 admission fee was waived and a free Talk between Whoopi Goldberg and Abrams provided an added boost. (See Documentary’s interview with the directors.)
For more on the suppression of voices the political apparatus doesn’t like, there’s Sam Pollard’s MLK/FBI, which details FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s unrelenting efforts to bring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. down. Fearing the rise of a “Black Messiah,” Hoover first tried to discredit him by proxy, targeting King advisor Stanley Levinson, a likely member of the Communist party. Hoover then shifted tactics, seeking to weaken King’s authority by exposing his sexual affairs, capturing evidence through wiretaps, bugged hotel rooms and surveillance. The film makes use of newly declassified FBI documents; what’s missing are those tapes, which won’t be made public until 2027. Still, Hoover’s single-minded obsession and the resources mobilized are downright chilling. Even more jaw-dropping—and surprising to Pollard as well—is that the public supported Hoover overwhelmingly. According to a 1965 poll, 50% backed the FBI director, while just 25% favored King. Pollard turns to pop culture in explanation, weaving in TV series and movies that glamorized the original men in black. Pollard, too, fell under that spell as a youngster wanting to make Hollywood movies. “When I first started creating films,” he said in a Talk, “I used to think things were pretty black and white, with good guys and bad guys. But as I’ve evolved, you realize there are shades of grey.” With MLK/FBI, Pollard succeeds in showing King in all his complexity.
The Monopoly of Violence
“Is that me?” asks a man wearing an eyepatch, watching a large-screen projection of the moment he’s shot in the face by police while protesting police violence. He’s one of 24 people that French filmmaker David Dufresne paired up to watch citizen-shot footage of Yellow Vest protests in 13 cities across France between 2018 and 2020, when 27 eyes were lost, five hands blown off, and two protestors killed. This man, a fork-lift operator, is paired with a truck driver who was also blinded by police flash-ball. Elsewhere, sociologists are paired with historians, journalists with police union representatives, and protestors with psychotherapists, ethnographers and lawyers. “The subjects shared a desire for dialog and a belief in the power of words,” said Dufresne in a Talk. “They are not there to contradict each other or to scold each other. They’re there to reflect together.” What the director had them reflect on was a statement by social scientist Max Weber: “The state claims the monopoly of legitimate violence.” The resulting conversations show that civil discourse is possible, even when viewpoints differ. That’s the good news. The bad news is that some police unions tried to block the film, even without seeing it, according to Dufresne. His reaction: “The sheer act of thinking has become a revolutionary act.”
A more heartening view of government power is offered in City Hall. Frederick Wiseman, now age 90, began his grand opus on institutions in 1967 with Titicut Follies. This latest work shows him to be still in top form. “Most of the time, I know very little about the place ahead of time,” the filmmaker explained in a Talk. “What I discovered is that the activities of a city hall touch in a more immediate way more aspects of our lives than any government institution, certainly more than state or federal institutions: birth, death, marriage, health, car registration, welfare, public housing, etc.” Clocking in at four hours and 32 minutes, City Hall contains meetings galore. But Wiseman dwells in each long enough to turn bureaucrats into people doing their darndest to hammer out concrete solutions to thorny problems. Some scenes run for more than 15 minutes, like the community forum where veterans recount their personal war stories. But even in less emotionally affecting moments, Wiseman had one rule: Shoot the entire meeting. He and his miniscule crew were given complete access, including to Mayor Marty Walsh, who was front and center in a dizzying array of circumstances. Did anyone play to the camera? Not according to Wiseman. “They’re not good enough actors. And I’ll stop shooting if my bullshit detector goes off.”
At age four, Russian filmmaker Victor Kossakovsky befriended a piglet that his parents had brought inside due to the bitter cold. He was understandably distraught when they served his best friend for Christmas dinner. All his life, he’d wanted to make a film like Gunda. “But if you say, ‘I want to make a film about pigs, chickens and cows,’ no one would produce it,” he says. Finally someone did. The result is the festival’s most purely cinematic film. Kossakovsky went to a free-range farm in Norway and found his star immediately. “Gunda was so friendly,” the director recalled in a Talk. Gunda follows the sow as she raises a dozen piglets from birth to the time they’re “harvested.” Kossakovsky stripped away the usual accoutrements of nature documentaries. There’s no voiceover, no score—only animal sounds. Kossakovsky even abandoned color after deciding, “It looked like a postcard,” whereas with black and white, “You just see her.” Watching these farm creatures at eye level, we sync up with their energy, their habits, their emotions. So by the time Gunda’s piglets are taken away, we feel her panic and desperation during the longest, most heartbreaking 15-minute shot ever.
The Truffle Hunters
We all need some beauty in life, so The Truffle Hunters is tonic for the soul. Cinematographers Gregory Kershaw and Michael Dweck went to Italy’s Piedmont region, ground zero for the rare white truffle, where they followed five decidedly old-school truffle hunters into the woods and deep into Piedmont’s campesino culture. White truffles being worth their weight in gold, they also show the mercantile side of things, following truffle brokers and judges into auctions, elegant restaurants, and medieval alleys where negotiations take place. Taking their lead from the slower pace of this rural territory, the duo decided that each scene would happen inside a single static frame, without commentary. These tableaux, each more gorgeous than the next, contrast with amusingly frenetic shots captured by a head-mounted doggie cam. It’s all enough to inspire some serious travel lust. But for now, The Truffle Hunters is the next best thing to being there.
Patricia Thomson is a longtime film journalist and a contributing writer for American Cinematographer.