Left: Justin Feltman and Razi Jafri's Hamtramck, USA (DOC NYC 2020)

Best Picks for the DOC NYC Film Festival 2020

The virtual edition of the year's premiere documentary showcase, DOC NYC Film Festival 2020, begins streaming tomorrow, Wednesday, 11 November. Prepare to heap your queue up with this abundance of documentary offerings.

DOC NYC Film Festival 2020
11-19 November 2020

At one time in the distant-seeming past, DOC NYC was one of the highlights of any self-respecting nonfiction film geek’s calendar. Sure, American Film Institute and Hot Docs clue people in to some highlights of the year’s offerings. But if getting to Washington, D.C. and Toronto was a pain, then it was generally best to put your money on DOC NYC. Hitting every November just as New York’s theaters were filling up with the year’s award-seeking dramas, DOC NYC was where just about every documentary worth seeing (including, generally, the bulk of the Oscar shortlist) could be seen. Of course, that was before the Trump Plague made sitting in a small, sold-out movie theater feel like Russian Roulette with popcorn. Is that fair? Perhaps not, but it absolutely should be the title of a documentary at next year’s fest.

So, like most film festivals, DOC NYC 2020 is now all-virtual. (And, no, the virtual experience is not the same as being in a buzzing crowd waiting with bated breath to catch the next Frederick Wiseman, rather than just cueing it up on your laptop. Participating in this annual event person is the documentary equivalent of seeing a film in Cinemascope rather than on VHS.)

Unlike some other fests, though, the DOC NYC bookers do not appear to have trimmed their sails. They are showing 107 feature documentaries, plus dozens of shorts and events, over eight jam-packed days. Since virtual delivery has made the idea of opening and closing night films somewhat pointless, it’s now more of a buffet, with viewers free to decide what they think are the most noteworthy entries.


Film Strip by joseph_alban(Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Some will be obvious. Hao Wu’s headline-ripped 76 Days, set in the city of Wuhan during its lockdown earlier this year, already feels like the COVID-era film future historians will study to see what the horrific unknowns of its early days were like. Sam Pollard’s MLK/FBI is a riveting look at the war waged by J. Edgar Hoover’s G-Men against the leaders of the civil rights movement, whom Hoover feared would create a “Black Messiah”. While much of the film’s advance press has centered on the inclusion of historian David Garrow‘s controversial allegations about Martin Luther King, Jr., Pollard delivers dramatic high-wire history without sensationalizing anything.

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Alexander Nanau’s Collective would appear to be smack dab in the fest’s eat-your-broccoli section. A documentary about a scandal involving Romanian hospital supplies may not sound like thrill-a-minute moviemaking. But Nanau’s investigation of an entire society spider-webbed with corruption, and how it corrodes people’s souls, is jaw-dropping. It is probably the greatest film about shoe-leather journalism since Tom McCarthy’s 2015 film, Spotlight.

Errol Morris‘ charmingly off-the-rails My Psychedelic Love Story is a mutant offshoot of his brilliant 2017 conspiratorial spooker, Wormwood. Entranced by that film’s sinister mix of drugs and shadowy agents, Joanna Harcourt-Smith began thinking that after years of denying she informed on her then-lover LSD pioneer Timothy Leary, maybe in fact the government had manipulated her.

img-951My Psychedelic Love Story (DOC NYC 2020)

Even though Morris does not present a particularly thorough investigation on that front, he shows again his knack for spying a great character. A captivating fabulist, Harcourt-Smith holds court, spinning stories about her trauma-haunted Euro-socialite upbringing that mix name-dropping (Keith Richards, Warhol) with escapades involving arms dealers, royalty, and a gang of Laguna Beach surfers importing hash from Afghanistan. After a whirlwind global romance with Leary ended with their extradition from Kabul, the guru went to prison, and rumors swirled about Harcourt-Smith being a CIA plant. While it may not come to much in the end, the film is carried along by Harcourt-Smith’s cheery storytelling and its evocation of a lost jet-set era when hippies and bored aristocrats joined together in their flight from the ordinary.

Some documentaries do not live up to their billing. Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar‘s 9to5: The Story of a Movement garnered some attention when it was released earlier this year mostly based on the positive reaction to the directors’ must-see last film, American Factory (2019). Unfortunately, while 9to5 tells a dutiful story about the start of the female office workers’ labor movement and its curious popularization in the Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda comedy, Colin Higgins’ 9 to 5 (1980) the presentation is far less eye-opening than it could have been.

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Any new Alex Gibney film is generally worth one’s time. But Crazy, Not Insane, a fairly unconvincing argument for forensic psychiatrist Dorothy Lewis’ controversial theories about murderers, is the least engaging of Gibney’s films hitting screens this year, after HBO’s Russian subterfuge two-parter Agents of Chaos and the blistering COVID chronicle Totally Under Control.

For a certain kind of moviegoer, documentaries about corrupt New York police have an automatic watchability. (Difficult to say why, maybe the theatrical audacity? That, or the mustaches). For that audience, Magnus Skatvold and Greg Mallozzi’s spectacular Blue Code of Silence will absolutely fit the bill. One of the NYPD’s most legendary “rats”, decades after informing on his bribe-taking brethren, Bob Leuci tells how he and a band of detectives with a part-gangster, part-pretend Robin Hood swagger robbed drug dealers blind in the 1970s. Charismatic and self-aggrandizing, Leuci became famous after informing for the Knapp Commission investigations.

img-952Blue Code of Silence (DOC NYC 2020)

He was later the subject of the book and 1981 Sidney Lumet film, A Prince of the City. A roster of interviewees ranging from cops like Edward Mamet (David’s cousin) to Alan Dershowitz and prosecutor Edward McDonald (memorable from his scene in Scorsese’s GoodFellas (1990) explaining witness protection to Henry Hill) provides a plentitude of color. Unfortunately, one person the film should but does not feature is Rudy Giuliani, a key corruption prosecutor, seen here only in old news footage looking as though he still retained a moral compass.

One of the fest’s most unnerving entries is Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker‘s The Meaning of Hitler. Purposefully avoiding another hyped-up amplification of the Nazi leader’s legend, the filmmakers (Karl Marx City) deliver a loose take on Sebastian Haffner’s 1978 book—which it tongue-in-cheek calls one of those of-the-moment books that promises to answer big questions on your “morning commute”. In a film filled with Slavoj Žižek-ian riffs, historians like Yehuda Bauer and Saul Friedlander, along with Martin Amis and Francine Prose, opine on everything from the aesthetics of Nazism to how relatively uninteresting Hitler was.

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Jittery and jam-packed, the film leaps from examining Hitler’s watercolors in a U.S. Army warehouse to comparing Nazi rallies and Beatles concerts to investigating the all-too-chilling links between 1930s-era fascism and its modern-day descendants like Polish neo-Nazis, Holocaust-denying troll David Irving, and Trump. This is an agitated, bemused, and terrified piece of work that gets under the skin of Nazism without adding to its negative glorification.

Also notable for what it does not do is Mor Loushy’s Kings of Capitol Hill. Studying the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and its impact on American politics, the film avoids the anti-Semitic tropes that often attach themselves to the subject through its straightforward style. The AIPAC described by the former employees who break their silence here is not the dark cabal imagined by its conspiracy-minded attackers but something far more mundane while still potentially damaging: a once bipartisan lobbying group that, like the NRA, was hijacked by conservative activists to push a more extreme line of politics.

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Loushy is less interested in AIPAC’s influence—affecting policy, after all, is what lobbyists do, whether for the environment, the Second Amendment, or ethanol subsidies—than how the group’s effective leveraging of a hard-right Republican-evangelical-Likud perspective has crowded moderate voices out of the debate. One liberal, pro-peace ex-staffer recalls complaining to Barack Obama about AIPAC’s reactionary policies only to have the president say that they are the only people who come to him about Israel policy. “I don’t hear from you,” Obama tells him.

Richard Poplak and Diana Neille‘s cool yet blistering Influence dives into the dark world of weaponized image-manipulation through a portrait of the late infamous Tim Bell, whose firm Bell Pottinger imploded in 2017 after it was revealed to have stoked racial divisions in South Africa. Talking through a haze of cigarette smoke and spin, Bell presents a blithe monied cynicism barely covering a deep pugnacity, which would be perfect for a string-pulling new-money villain who shows up in the last act of a John Le Carre novel. A legendary ad man referred to as “the ampersand in Saatchi and Saatchi”, he shifted to politics starting with a Margaret Thatcher campaign that demonized the left with catchy slogans (“Labor Isn’t Working”). Later clients included demagogues needing image-massaging, from a protégé of Augusto Pinochet to Jacob Zuma, and also the Pentagon, which gave a half-billion dollars for Bell Pottinger to produce a wildly ineffective campaign in Iraq.

img-953Influence (DOC NYC 2020)

Like many a slick Manafortian mercenary, Bell seems to want it both ways. Acknowledging an ideological kinship with clients (freely admitting to hating unions) he also tries to present the image of a media gun slinger who will “go anywhere, do anything”. He defends his work while murmuring nonsensical dodges (“I may do things that are amoral but not immoral”). While the filmmakers do their best not to burnish his reputation—after all, many ad men’s best campaigns tend to be those touting their own overpaid genius—Bell nevertheless comes across as a brazen pioneer of the post-truth era.

Overstuffed with flags, parades, and Americana, Justin Feltman and Razi Jafri’s Hamtramck, USA ostensibly follows a mayoral and city council race in this Michigan town. But it is really a warm-hearted celebration of the 21st century melting pot. Once heavily Polish Catholic, Hamtramck (pronounced “Ham-tram-eck”) became the country’s first majority Muslim city a few years back, causing a flurry of panicky news coverage. But the city that Feltman and Jafri portray is a paragon of live-and-let-live community spirit, where newer Yemeni, Bosnian, and Bangladeshi families mix in apparent harmony with elderly Poles.

img-954Hamtramck, USA (DOC NYC 2020)

Even though the incumbent mayor, Karen Majewski, hails from the town’s older stock, she enthusiastically embraces the newer residents, going to mosques and hookah lounges to make her case. While the filmmakers paint interesting thumbnail portraits of Majewski and opponents Kamal Rahman and Mohammed Hassan, they brush past any disagreements or tensions. The film’s earnest presentation of pan-ethnic harmony is likely at least somewhat airbrushed, but its subjects earnest determination to harmonize the town’s ethnic and religious mix is undeniably stirring.

Moritz Schulz’s intriguing but slight Summerwar takes a more skeptical view of patriotism, with its story of two children attending a Ukrainian ultra-nationalist summer camp. Much of what is captured feels familiar to any kind of camp: fast friendships, bonfires, songs, homesickness. Things take a creepier turn as the kids field-strip AK-47s, learn combat tactics, and spout jingoistic slogans. The desire to prepare a generation for fighting makes a certain sense, with Ukraine six years into a grinding war with Russian-backed separatists. But hints of murkier ideologies mostly hidden from the filmmakers (one boy notes seeing a “rune of racial purity”) and a warmongering spirit make it seem less like a summer camp and more like a pre-boot camp.

Jiayan Shi‘s Finding YingYing is a true-crime story with an unusual amount of heart. Yingying Zhang was a Chinese student who had only been attending the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for several weeks when she went missing. Interspersed with snippets from her diary, the documentary shows her family’s determined attempts to find out what happened. Shi pieces together the fragmented story with confidence, letting the family’s wrenching agony fill the space left by YingYing’s disappearance until the final section begins to deliver answers. This film is evocative of both the sting of cultural dislocation and the eerie ease with which lives can vanish in wide open American spaces.

img-954Finding YingYing (DOC NYC 2020)

In Jeff Daniels’ Television Event, a making-of story about Nicholas Meyer’s1983 made-for-TV movie The Day After, we see a different kind of heartland vanishing. The documentary begins superbly with the dramatic behind the scenes maneuvering needed to get ABC to put on a grim four-hour miniseries about a nuclear war, telescoped down to the devastation of one Midwestern town. (A highly comedic montage shows the tatty material ABC usually rolled out for movie night, with melodramas and stories about the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders, teen pregnancy, and the like.) But even though The Day After pulled 100 million viewers, helped turbocharge the anti-nuclear movement, and potentially pushed Ronald Reagan (who watched at Camp David) to pursue arms control more aggressively, its impact truly hits home when Daniels shows part of the film to Ellen Anthony.

Anthony was 11-years-old when she starred in the film, shot in her home town of Lawrence, Kansas. “That was my fifth-grade class,” Anthony says in a stricken voice about the scene of a room of schoolchildren vaporized by a nuclear blast. It’s a moment that shows the shattering impact the The Day After had on a country that realized that somehow, for all the Cold War talk about nuclear war, nobody in the establishment had ever told people what it would actually be like.