DOC NYC 2017 offers a world of choices

ScreenerBlog

Today there seems to be a film festival for almost every taste and locality. In addition to the grand dames of the festival circuit like Toronto, Venice, Cannes and Telluride, with their red-carpet premieres and B-list stars getting A-list attention, there are more tightly focused cinematic gatherings, from Los Angeles’ Screamfest to the Ottawa International Animation Festival (both just what they sound like). So it can be refreshing to find a festival that simply wants to show as many amazing movies as possible. DOC NYC started in 2010 and is now, at 250 movies and dozens of filmmaker workshops (best in class: “Show Me the Money Day”) spread over eight days (Nov. 9-16), the biggest and probably best one-stop venue for nonfiction cinema in the United States. Plus, there’s always the chance that you could run into the likes of this year’s Lifetime Achievement honorees: HBO nonfiction maven Sheila Nevins and director Errol Morris, who between them probably shepherded or inspired more documentaries and documentary filmmakers than any other two individuals in the business.

That doesn’t mean that fest directors Raphaela Neihausen and Thom Powers don’t curate their offerings. Just as at their irreplaceable “Stranger Than Fiction” documentary showcase at New York’s IFC Center—the compact Village multiplex in the old Waverly Theatre space that also serves as the nerve center for DOC NYC—Neihausen and Powers cull the latest bounty of nonfiction movies into themed selections ranging from “Fight the Power” and “Modern Family” to “New World Order.” They select with a gimlet eye focused less on subjects than on memorable people and stories. The result is a kind of annual “state of documentary cinema” that gathers up the best of what’s to come in the jampacked final weeks of the year’s release schedule. In the “Short List” section, audiences will get a second chance to take in the most noteworthy efforts that already opened, like Amanda Lipitz’s shimmering high-school dance-troupe story Step and Peter Nicks’ police-force X-ray The Force, and in many cases didn’t get the attention that they deserved (looking at you, Netflix).

While DOC NYC isn’t generally big on glitzy events, the opening-night movie arrives heavy with import. Getting its New York premiere just a couple days after a pair of governor’s elections augured a partial backlash to the Trump tide of 2016, Greg Barker’s The Final Year follows Barack Obama’s foreign policy “pickup team” on the last year of their mission to “change the world,” as speechwriter Ben Rhodes puts it. Barker (Koran by Heart, various “Frontlines”) tags along as the acerbically optimistic Rhodes, rangy idealist UN ambassador Samantha Powers, and Secretary of State John Kerry crisscross the planet stitching together deals on opening Cuba and stopping Iran’s nuclear weapons program, not to mention securing peace in Syria and managing the Boko Haram kidnappings in Africa.

With Obama and this sharped-elbowed but also seemingly chummy team doling out verbal wallpaper to Barker (“This office is a singular pleasure”), the movie initially seems likely to drift into burnished adulation. But as the challenges mount, from when the fragile Syrian truce collapsed under Russian aggression to the flicker of Donald Trump’s surging campaign hauntingly glimpsed on the occasional CNN screen, it transitions into a race against the clock. As 2016 ticks to a close and Obama’s team confronts turning the keys over to the barbarians at the gates, their approaches remain divided: Rhodes insists that “the pendulum will swing back” while Power worries about the “roiling ocean” of nationalism. The Final Year is a requiem for a future that collapses in on itself before even having a chance to come to fruition.

An avatar of that darkly roiling new world order the Obama team sees coming is profiled for the first time in Stephen Robert Morse and Nicholas Hampson’s EuroTrump. An only slightly cheeky profile of anti-Muslim Dutch nationalist and one-man political party Geert Wilders, who hadn’t previously agreed to cooperate with any filmmakers, the movie is part one-on-one interview with the white-blond paragon of anti-immigrant and anti-EU backlash and part examination of his once-unspeakable (in the Netherlands, anyway) views. Leaving themselves to toss word-association questions at a half-amused and half-annoyed Wilders, the filmmakers offload most of the analysis to a few crisply cogent journalists, politicians and academics. Their dissection of how Wilders—who lives under 24-hour police protection due to death threats from Islamic extremists—slyly embeds his radical jeremiads against Muslims and refugees inside a broad nationalist appeal to “Dutchness” takes on dramatic impact as Wilders’ insurgent campaign to become Prime Minister builds steam amidst Brexit and the rise of Trump.

Larry Feinberg’s Father’s Kingdom depicts another seemingly impossible leader, only this time from beyond the grave. Set primarily on a sprawling 70-acre Pennsylvania estate that was once home to the early 20th-century black spiritual leader Father Divine, the movie is part historical document of his little-known movement and part elegy for its passing. A preacher from the Jim Crow South who proclaimed that God came first as a Jew and second as a “Negro” (himself), Divine attracted masses of followers in Harlem during the Great Depression. His beaming countenance, boundlessly cheery message and passion for racial equality—a treasure trove of newsreel footage and old photos reveal that his movement had almost as many white as black followers, as rare in Christian churches then as now—had a lot to do with it, as did his love of feeding people at great banquets. The more outré elements, like Divine’s Shaker-like insistence on celibacy and his followers’ generally cult-like glassiness—the latter particularly disturbing given how enamored Jim Jones was of Divine’s theology—are addressed but never quite explored in a movie that pulls more punches than it should.

Hitting with surprising force are three movies that Netflix opened on screens all too briefly this year. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s One of Us delves into the hermetic community of New York’s Hasidic Jews, and the psychological skirmishes that erupt when some of their younger members attempt to leave. Bryan Fogel’s Icarus starts off as a Morgan Spurlock-like lark about Fogel, an avid bicyclist, teaming up with some doctors to see if he can put himself on a Lance Armstrong-like doping regimen that will fool all the known tests. A shocker of a twist with Fogel’s Russian lab connection knocks the humor out of that approach and turns the narrative into a chilling and conspiratorial exposé with massive ramifications. Jeff Orlowski’s Chasing Coral takes the same approach as his earlier documentary, Chasing Ice. But this time instead of using time-lapse photography to show the effects of climate change on glaciers, he brings the same beautiful-but-horrible tools to bear on visualizing the collapse of coral reefs due to warming oceans. This is another movie that starts in jaunty fashion, with a ragged band of true believers setting off on an idealistic mission, but concludes in dark territory. A climactic scene where one of the team members shows their work to a conference of scientists, some of whom can’t help wiping away tears while confronting the loss of nearly a third of the Great Barrier Reef in one apocalyptic year, is a stunning moment in a heretofore quiet and workmanlike account.

There isn’t anything workmanlike about Errol Morris’s Wormwood, one of the most unforgettable events at the festival. Ostensibly the story of one man’s lifelong fight to uncover the truth about his father’s death, this haunting four-hour, six-part epic is a nesting doll of obsessions and speculation about just how far a nation-state will go to hide its secrets. The kernel of Morris’ tale is the strange 1953 death of Frank Olson, a biochemist who worked in the special-warfare division at Fort Detrick in Maryland and supposedly fell out of a New York hotel window after taking LSD in a CIA experiment. Little about the official explanation made sense to his son Eric, who launched a decades-long investigation. Frank’s death and the potential coverup, which touched on everything from the CIA’s misbegotten mind-control program MK-ULTRA to Watergate, becomes a kind of ur-text for the Cold War shadow world of half-truths and paranoia that continues to power pulp fantasies even today.

Taking its name from the Book of Revelations and weaving in luminously sepulchral recreations (Peter Sarsgaard, Molly Parker and Tim Blake Nelson are among the actors featured) alongside interviews with the obsessively driven yet engaging Eric and a wealth of archival footage, Morris’ kaleidoscopic fever dream unfolds in appropriately woozy and world-ending manner. Wormwood is a bit much in the full four-hour dose shown at the festival, its chime-like repetitiveness probably less noticeable in the half-dozen episodes that will show on Netflix next month. But viewing it all at once does more justice to the sense of living nightmare that the clear-eyed and haunted Eric Olson has been stuck in for over a half-century, still hunting for a father only barely known before he was taken away.