It’s that time of year again. As fall festivals begin to wind down, they haven’t quite come to a close, especially for those cinephiles with a keen eye on the world of non-fiction cinema. The year’s biggest documentary festival is set to begin this week, and thankfully we’re here to give you a little glimpse into what this year’s DOC NYC Festival has to offer. It’s one of the better slates in recent memory, so here are just a few of this year’s highlights, and films you need to keep real focus on going forward into “Best Of The Year” season:
10. El Father Plays Himself
Starting off this year’s preview of DOC NYC is one of 2020’s greatest discoveries. From director Mo Scarpelli (who was last seen as one half of the directing team behind the incredible Frame By Frame and the equally special Anbessa), El Father Plays Himself is a superb hybrid film that introduces viewers to a young filmmaker who attempts to make a film about the troubled life of his father while also casting the man himself in the lead role. What results is a powerful and deeply human look at a father/son relationship and the trauma shared between them. One of the longer films on this list, there’s a lyricism and poetry to the filmmaking, allowing for viewers to become completely immersed into Scarpelli’s rumination on filmmaking, family and loss. Loss of home, of time, of everything and the power of cinema to literalize and bring it all to light. A tender and thoughtful hybrid feature, the film’s maybe a pinch long but it’s in the service of a humanist portrait of a universal relationship and all the knottiness that comes with any parent/child connection. Sincerely one of the best films of 2020.
9. 9/11 Kids
Next up on this list is a more straightforward documentary, but one no less powerful. Directed by Elizabeth St. Philip, 9/11 Kids is a fascinating and powerful glimpse into the lives of men and women who themselves were put, for a moment in American history, put strangely in the center of one of the most important and harrowing events in this nation’s history. A major moment in the presidency of George W. Bush, the president learned of the horrific terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 while listening to a classroom of young students in Sarasota, Florida read. And while it’s now become a meme of sorts, this new documentary takes a look at the lives of a handful of those very students and where they have come today. A fascinating and tender glimpse into the life of a generation forever changed by the events of 9/11, the title of the film hints at less a specific group of people, than the broad scope of what turns out to be a strangely universal piece of work. Elizabeth St. Philip uses the confines of the narrative to tell specific stories surely, but also uses these stories to beautifully contextualize an entire generation who live in the shadow of the nation’s darkest moment. In a year lacking any sense of empathy, 9/11 Kids stands as a powerful testament of it.
8. Red Heaven
Continuing this year’s list is one of the festival’s more esoteric pictures. Red Heaven comes from directors Lauren DeFilippo and Katherine Gorringe, and introduces viewers to six men and women who embark on a strange journey of sorts. Non-astronauts themselves, these six men and women are tasked with taking on a singular sort of social experiment, an experiment that sees them join a year-long simulation held by NASA, where they live in complete isolation from the outside world in what amounts to a sort of practice Mars exploration. More edited by DeFilippo and Gorringe than rightly directed by them, the film cobbles together footage shot by those inside the isolation dome and attempts to document life quite literally on another planet. A film about the power of the human spirit as well as the roles each of us play in our larger communities, Red Heaven is a fascinating, unconventional deconstruction of social norms and a powerfully rendered rumination on the power of isolation on the human spirit. A truly one of a kind film, this is.
7. 76 Days
Moving on to something we all wish was only science fiction, 76 Days isn’t simply a catchy title, instead the exact amount of time China locked down Wuhan following the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Directed by Hao Wu along with journalists Weixi Chen and “Anonymous,” the film is coming of a run at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, and stands as one of a handful of films here at DOC NYC 2020 that attempt to put human faces and stories to the larger COVID-19 narrative. 76 Days is one of the more powerful films working through this ongoing situation, and through its use of archival footage, particularly that shot by both Chen and “Anonymous,” gives haunting urgency to a global issue that continues to push us all to the brink of collapse. As much about the men, women and children most closely effected by this as it is the cities we all inhabit, this bracing documentary is a devastating document of a city under duress and the attempt to bring it back to life, and the powerful and resilient people that call it home. The first film about the pandemic to not feel completely void of any humanity and heart, 76 Days feels like the first essential document of what is one of the more harrowing moments in modern global history.
6. American Rapstar
For something a bit less harrowing, look no further than director Justin Staple’s American RapStar. Telling the story of the recent boom in what’s become known as the “Soundcloud Rap” movement, Staple’s fascinating new film introduces viewers not just to the proto-punk rap movement that’s taking social media by storm but some of the key figures within the said movement, including the tragic like Xxxtentacion and the strangely clear-eyed and almost sage-like Bhad Bhabie. Crafters of lyrically and sonically simple but often deeply emotional bursts of sonic rebellion, these young men and women have birthed a movement found largely online, using social media to engage with a generation of over-medicated and deeply troubled youths. Performers like Lil Peep and Smokepurpp have made names for themselves crafted drug-fueled songs that show little regard for their own life, yet connect with an entire generation of people drawing inspiration from their often pained lyrics and wildly emotional and wildly sincere live performances. While the film itself may not carry with it the same punk ethos (the use of talking head sequences, I joked on Twitter, makes the film feel almost like it is built for parents of kids into this type of music), it’s a shockingly dense 74 minute piece of work that gives real texture to a movement that most adults simply dismiss or don’t frankly even know it exists.
Another music-focused documentary comes from director Oliver Murray, and tells the story of legendary saxophone player Ronnie Scott. Owner to one of the more iconic jazz clubs in the genre’s history, Ronnie’s was home to the greatest of the great jazz luminaries of the golden age of the music, ranging from Dizzy Gillespie to Chet Baker, and in chronicling the history of this man and his club, this documentary is all about the archival footage. While the story of a young Jewish kid from London’s East End growing up to be a jazz legend is fascinating, it sort of plays secondary to a film that sees wildly engrossing footage of people like Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald in the prime of their careers and at the peak of their powers performing live at the beloved jazz mecca. It’s a bit on the longer side of things at this festival at a comparatively dense 104 minutes, but again, a majority of the film is a series of live performances and it turns what could be a stuffy biographical documentary into a film that could stand as something of a small glimpse into the history of jazz music as seen in the performances of those who came through the doors of this legendary venue.
4. Down A Dark Stairwell
Following a tragic police shooting in 2014, Down a Dark Stairwell introduces viewers to the story of Peter Liang, a Chinese-American policeman and Akai Gurley, the innocent unarmed black man he shot and killed. Taking place in the titular “dark stairwell” in a Brooklyn housing project, the shooting lights a fuse within the community, putting at odds two different communities of color in what is one of 2020’s more textured and emotionally nuanced looks at a topic that’s taken the globe by storm. While it’s clear that director Ursula Liang has a clear point of view regarding who she may or may not think is the guilty or “at fault” party here, what makes this film so essential is its focus on both the police/civilian aspect of this issue as well as the battle waged on a cultural level between two communities themselves oppressed by larger forces within the US. At just 83 minutes the film’s brisk and yet doesn’t shy away from the knottier debates within this story, a film of remarkable nuance that’s rightly angry and yet never lets its vision get blurry. A must-see bit of American filmmaking.
Another film from the Sonic Cinema sidebar, Universe is an utterly essential view for any fan of jazz specifically or the history of modern music more broadly speaking. Known to jazz heads as the man once claimed as his protege by Miles Davis himself, the film follows the life of Wallace Roney, a profoundly talented performer in his own right, as he returns to his horn with a very specific purpose. After a suite written by Wayne Shorter, originally intended to be performed by Davis, is rediscovered, Roney returns to the stage with the hopes of bringing this suite to life and the complications theirin. An essential text on one’s battle with their own art and love for it, Universe is a profoundly nuanced character study that, at just 78 minutes, is a brisk and thrilling deep dive into the life and work of one of jazz musics most underrated titans. Directors Nick Capezzera and Sam Osborn invite viewers into a world that’s seen by many as relatively stuffy, and attempt to deconstruct the jazz artform through the lens of a performer intent on bringing to life a complicated work with an even more dramatic history. Living in the shadows of a God is difficult, but what about when your own art forces you to encounter theirs head on? Simply no other film at DOC NYC 2020 quite like this one.
2. Finding Yingying
As we near the end of this list, we’re pointing viewers towards one of the handful of incredible films showing at DOC NYC 2020 with the backing of the vastly underrated MTV Documentary Films label. Produced by the legendary Kartemquin Films company, this Jenny Shi-directed documentary looks at the life of Yingying Zhang, a 20-something Chinese student who, after arriving in the US to go to school, disappears from her campus into seemingly thin air. Built on the back of Yingying’s own diary entries, her life is reconstructed and viewers become privy to the attempts to find her by her family and boyfriend. A deeply intimate and personal proto-whodunit, Finding Yingying is has the scope of a documentary but the atmosphere of a thriller of sorts, with Shi brilliantly navigating Yingying’s life and disappearance and those people who still, to this day, haven’t forgotten her. With hundreds of films playing at this year’s DOC NYC festival, there sincerely isn’t another film quite like this one.
1. Two Gods
And speaking of the one of a kind films playing this year’s festival, the best of the bunch might be the latest film from director Zeshawn Ali. Entitled Two Gods, the film introduces viewers to a casket maker in Newark, NJ, and the two young men who spend their time training under his guidance. At once a relatively straight forward experiential documentary, Two Gods becomes singular not only in its subject matter but through its form, with Ali breathing a brooding, almost dream-like atmosphere into the film through his use of black and white photography. Pairing that with a film that’s as interested in the growth of is characters as it is their relationship to the notion of death as percieved through the Muslim faith. A film about life, death and more specifically one’s faith when faced with those two ideas, Two Gods is a beautiful, deeply empathetic piece of storytelling that takes a ground-level look at our relationship with the biggest ideas in our lives. A masterpiece just waiting to be discovered.