What’s Up, DOC NYC?: America’s largest documentary film festival livens up the Big Apple


The great thing about the documentary genre is that it’s more like a dozen genres wrapped up into one. OK, if you want the serious issue docs that tend to dominate the Oscars, you have those. But there are also funny docs, bizarre docs, experimental docs… it’s rare to find a genre with so much variety. And all the nooks and crannies of the documentary world are on display at DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary film festival, which kicked off yesterday and runs through Thursday, November 19th.

The highest-profile of DOC NYC’s 104 feature-length films is Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next, which debuted to great acclaim at the Toronto International Film Festival last month. If you wanted to get into the screening, good luck—per the man himself, the line stretched around the block. Luckily, I had the chance to check out a quintet of films with screenings still upcoming—and, though their directors might not be so instantly recognizable, their films are all more than worthy of your time.

The most “traditional” of the docs—the one that mostly closely matches the general perception of what a documentary is—would be Tom Donahue’s Thank You For Your Service, about the failure of the U.S. military to adequately provide mental health services to their soldiers, both when they’re in service and after they’ve begun the often tumultuous process of readapting to civilian life. It’s not just that the military doesn’t have enough resources—psychologists, social workers, reintegration programs—to deal with the growing epidemic of mental illness among veterans… it’s that they don’t seem to acknowledge the importance of pulling some money out of their astronomical defense budget to get those resources. Hopefully, Donahue’s doc should open some eyes to this very real problem.

That said, Donahue did something that I, personally, really responded to. Thank You For Your Service isn’t two-plus hours of “this problem is awful, it’s terrible, it’s unfixable, everything is wretched and nothing will ever change.” After laying out the problem of the military’s failure to care for its vets, the film moves on to examine private organizations that are stepping up and doing what the government isn’t. The presence of these groups—and there aren’t nearly enough of them to deal with the sheer number of men and women who require their services—by no means absolves the military of its responsibilities, but including them does end Thank You For Your Service on a hopeful note.

Thank You For Your Service screens at 7:15 tonight at the SVA Theatre, and the rush line is available to those without tickets. Later on tonight (with an additional screening on Wednesday the 18th) is the U.S. premiere of Alex Hammond and Ian Markiewicz’s Lucha Mexico, about Mexico’s Lucha Libre wrestlers. Now, I am not a fan of wrestling—it’s not that I dislike it, but it’s not something I know anything about. But Lucha Mexico made me want to jump into the metaphorical ring, as it were. There’s the comedy and zaniness that you’d expect from a documentary about men in masks wailing on each other in front of a roaring crowd. But there’s also a lot of insight into the lives of these men, who when they’re not dressed up in spandex can be seen signing autographs while shopping for groceries in Sam’s Club or getting lost on the way to an out-of-the-way match set up in a parking lot. There’s also a surprising amount of emotion courtesy of the death of one of the subjects mid-way through the movie. Wrestling may be “fake,” as its detractors argue, but the fact that it involves a certain amount of theatre doesn’t take way from how incredibly dangerous a profession it is.

A Saturday screening of Amber Fares’ Speed Sisters gives us an inside look at another sport: car racing, specifically a team of all-female racers (the Middle East’s first) in Palestine. Being from the South, I associate car racing with the elliptical tracks and crashes of NASCAR, but for these girls, car racing is maneuvering their normal-looking, souped up cars one at a time through a sort of obstacle course, trying to see who can get the best time. Speed Sisters goes far beyond the sport itself to examine gender barriers faced by Arab women and the difficulties of living in Palestine, where even going to practice can end with you being shot in the back with a tear gas canister. A diverse group—sports fans, those interested in the state of Israel/Palestinian politics, and anyone who keeps an eye out for inspiring female stories—will all find something here to respond to.

Going back a generation leads us to Anne Bogart and Holly Morris' The Babushkas of Chernobyl, a shining gem of a film with a very simple premise: After the explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine in 1986, the entire area around the power plant—now called the “radioactive exclusion zone”—was evacuated, because… well, look at the name. The place may look like a fairy tale, with nature slowly reasserting its claim over crumbling buildings, but the very land itself is deadly. That’s not of concern to the eponymous “Babushkas,” approximately a hundred old women (three are the main focus here) from the area around Chernobyl who snuck back into the exclusion zone, where they now live their lives in poverty, growing poisoned crops and breathing radioactive dust.

And yet, these women are happy and full of life. They’re home. As a study cited in the film points out, the life expectancy for those relocated to nearby cities is actually lower than that of the Babushkas, simply because (it’s put somewhat poetically) living away from their homeland breaks these people’s hearts. Babushkas clocks in at a slender 67 minutes; it’s to Bogart and Morris’ credit that they didn’t try to add any padding that would detract from the awe-inspiring presence of these women, who—like the land they live in—appear to exist outside of time. Two DOC NYC screenings are scheduled, one for Wednesday the 18th and the other the following day.

Finally, screening on Tuesday the 17th and Wednesday the 18th is a film tailor-made for a cinephile audience: Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story, by director Daniel Raim. The subjects are storyboard artist and production designer Harold Michaelson and his film researcher wife Lillian, who between them racked up a staggering list of (often-uncredited) credits: The Ten Commandments,The Birds, Scarface, Raging Bull, Ben-Hur hundreds of films owe no small part of their brilliance to this remarkable couple, who are well-loved by the big names Raim got to sing their praises—Mel Brooks and Danny DeVito are particularly effusive—but remain little-known by the moviegoing public as a whole. The Michaelsons make for energetic, intriguing subjects, and the film is packed with numerous little nuggets for film fans to appreciate. For example: Harold, as the man who storyboarded The Graduate, is the one who came up with the iconic under-the-leg shot of Ben and Mrs. Robinson. (Hollywood politics come into play—many directors, like The Ten Commandments’ Cecil B. DeMille, liked to discount the contributions of storyboard artists, because if their role in the filmmaking process were better known, people would realize directors weren’t always the ones who came up with a movie’s shots.) A less highbrow factoid, but still one worthy of a smile: Harold and Lillian were so well-loved in Hollywood that they were immortalized in pixels as the visual inspiration for Fiona’s royal parents in Shrek 2.

These five films, though all enjoyable, barely scratch the surface of what DOC NYC has to offer over the coming week. Other highlights include Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence, his follow-up to 2014’s Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing; Daddy Don’t Go, about the stereotype of deadbeat dads; and The C Word, an investigation into the way cancer is treated in the modern world. For information on all DOC NYC films, and to buy tickets, visit DOCNYC.net.