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DOC NYC documentary film festival: Real life, both light and dark

Non-fiction is the star attraction on screens in New York City beginning today, with the start of the 10th annual DOC NYC, America's largest documentary film festival.

Held November 6-15 at three venues in Manhattan, the festival includes more than 300 feature-length and short films (including many world, U.S. and NYC premieres), as well as special events, panel discussions, appearances by noted documentary directors, and workshops.

The opening night presentation, on Wednesday, is the U.S. premiere of "Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band," covering the life of the musician and his work with such collaborators as Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Peter Gabriel, and filmmaker Martin Scorsese, who directed the 1976 concert film, "The Last Waltz."

Festival Highlights:

From the roughly 140 feature-length documentaries in the festival lineup (a quarter of which have been previewed at press time), here are some of the recommended highlights:

"In Bright Axiom" (NYC Premiere) – Pssst, wanna join a secret society? Subjects, promising "absolute discretion," are invited into the House of Latitude, a world that is part puzzle, part gamer environment, part social experiment and part cult, created by Silicon Valley types whose motivations are as obscure as the mysterious hex marks embedded in the sidewalks of San Francisco that serve as clues, or the cabins in a forest where conclaves are held. Director Spencer McCall's delightful film captures the attraction of this clubby experience in immersive art; the joy of members who find in Latitude's narrative a ripe antidote to modern life; and the discordant, paranoid dislocation that occurs as the experiment begins to unravel and the leaders of Latitude realize they need to start monetizing it. Screens November 7.

To watch a trailer click on the video player below:

IN BRIGHT AXIOM | Official HD Trailer (2019) | DOCUMENTARY | Film Threat Trailers by Film Threat on YouTube

"What We Left Unfinished" (NYC Premiere) – Filmmakers in Afghanistan reminisce about shooting melodramas, spy capers and tales of drug smugglers in the 1970s and '80s, including filming gun battles with live ammunition (pity the actor who missed his mark). Footage from movies left uncompleted when filmmakers fled the country, which miraculously survived, provide a quaint document of what it was like to work under the watchful eyes of the Soviet-backed Communist government, before the Taliban came in and made things even worse. (Nov. 7)

Trailer What We Left Unfinished by Wide House on YouTube

"Sheep Hero" (U.S. Premiere) – Stijn, a shepherd in the Netherlands, and his wife are trying to sustain an ancient, bucolic practice with their flock, in a world increasingly less amenable to the old ways, except perhaps as a curiosity for tourists. The rapturous photography just might entice you to live the life of a sheep herder yourself, until you discover what Stijn is up against. (Nov. 7)

SHEEP HERO | official trailer | 81 min | a film by Ton van Zantvoort by NEWTON film on Vimeo

"This Is Not a Movie" (NYC Premiere) – An eloquent and insightful portrait of British journalist Robert Fisk, who for decades has passionately covered conflicts from Northern Ireland to the Middle East. Filmmaker Yung Chang follows Fisk through the battle-scarred Syrian landscape, as well as his efforts to trace the provenance of munitions used by Al Qaeda militants to a mortar factory in Bosnia, with Saudi Arabia – a Western ally – serving as the middleman. A strong testament to the value of journalists to witness, question and document the most harrowing and tragic of stories. (Nov. 8)

THIS IS NOT A MOVIE Clip | TIFF 2019 by TIFF Trailers on YouTube

"Mother" (NYC Premiere) – In Thailand, a young woman, Pomm, is separated from her children as she works, several hours' drive away, as caregiver in a home for Alzheimer's patients from the West. There she generously gives her undivided attention to women who have become divorced from their former selves, and welcomes a new patient, Maya, a Swiss woman in her 50s who has developed early-onset Alzheimer's. A mixture of fly-on-the-wall reportage from the seniors' center, and Pomm's video diaries of her rare visits with her own children, "Mother" is a moving examination of family responsibilities, and the heartbreak that occurs when we discover we are unable to offer our loved ones what they most need. It is at its most emotionally shattering when, in one scene, Maya's husband tries to communicate with her via Skype; the vacancy we see in her, juxtaposed with the home videos of Maya taken just a few years before, is almost embarrassing for us to be witness to. (Nov. 8, 9)

MOTHER - Official Trailer HD © 2019 Limerick Films by Limerick Films on YouTube

"Busy Inside" (NYC Premiere) – In a remarkable narrative twist, a social worker who specializes in treating patients with multiple personalities (known as dissociative identity disorder) has 17 personalities of her own. (Nov. 8, 11)

Busy Inside Trailer ENG by Olga Lvoff on Vimeo

"Desert One" (NYC Premiere) – Barbara Kopple, the two-time Academy Award-winner (for "Harlan County U.S.A." and "American Dream"), brings us a vivid retelling of the failed military mission to rescue American hostages taken by Iranian students and held for 444 days in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Featuring interviews with key political figures (including President Jimmy Carter), Delta Force operatives and their families, the hostages, and their Iranian captors, the film uses animation to recreate the night mission in Iran when the American rescuers faced dangers and mishaps, leading to the deaths of eight servicemen, and contains never-before-heard White House telephone conversations made during the operation. A gripping story, told with clarity and mournful hindsight. (Nov. 8, 13)

"The Story of Plastic" (NYC Premiere) – One of the fallacies in approaching the environmental horror of plastic pollution (such as addressing the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or banning the use of plastic straws) is that it merely focuses on failures in the recycling infrastructure, or blames consumers for their negligence. The producers of "The Story of Plastic" rightly focus upon the ever-expanding production chain of plastic, to show how petrochemical corporations (such as Dow, DuPont and ExxonMobil) are investing hundreds of billions of dollars in new factories to produce and market more and more fossil fuel-based plastics that are impossible to recycle and which are devastating to our environment and to the food chain. (Their friends in Washington are also making it easier for them to do so, and costlier for us taxpayers.) The film is exceptionally clear-eyed about the problems facing us, and even (slightly?) hopeful that this disaster can be turned around. (Nov. 9. SCREENING ADDED Nov. 10)

The Story of Plastic Teaser by The Story of Stuff Project on YouTube

"On the Inside of a Military Dictatorship" (U.S. Premiere) - Karen Stokkendal Poulsen's exceptionally written and edited film traces Myanmar's recent transition from military rule to a supposed representative democracy, and the formerly imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi's complicated rise to a supposed state leader. (The newly-adopted constitution was designed specifically to prevent her from ever becoming president.) The revealing interviews offer great background on the Burmese establishment's unwillingness to cede power after a half-century of dictatorship, and the political compromises and betrayals in the wake of that transition. It also examines the political fallout of the military's internationally-condemned attacks on the nation's minority Rohingya Muslim population. (Nov. 9)

Hot Docs 2019 Trailers: ON THE INSIDE OF A MILITARY DICTATORSHIP by HotDocsFest on YouTube

"Love Child" (NYC Premiere) Two Iranians, each married to another, flee their country with the young child born from their affair, in order to escape the anticipated punishments that the country's moral authorities and secret police would impose upon them. Living in Istanbul, Sahand and Leila apply for refugee status to emigrate to America, but must endure years of bureaucratic hassles, and the not-unreasonable fear that either or both could be kidnapped back to Tehran, only to experience the changing attitudes toward Muslim immigrants from the current U.S. administration. Shot over six years, Eva Mulvad's intimate and heart-wrenching portrait of a family caught in political limbo, and the stresses that puts on their relationship, reminds us of the importance the United States holds as a beacon for citizens around the world who seek the basic dignity of being able to live as a family. (Nov. 9)

IDFA 2019 | Trailer | Love Child by IDFA on YouTube

"School of Seduction" (North American Premiere) – A trio of women in Russia seeks guidance from a grotesquely alpha male in a workshop designed for women craving love, security and children. Even if they succeed in achieving their goals, will they find happiness? Director Alina Rudnitskaya will shatter every rom-com bone in your body. (Nov. 9)

"Narrowsburg" (NYC Premiere) – What small town wouldn't want to host a film festival, with all its attendant glamour, stars, and tourist money rolling in? In this entertaining cautionary tale, Narrowsburg, a rural hamlet in western New York State (pop: 431), found itself the site of the Narrowsburg Film Festival when Richie Castellano, a garrulous mob figure-turned-actor who'd moved there and set up an acting academy in a storefront, decided to parlay his meager credits and celebrity (he'd appeared as a mobster in the Robert De Niro comedy "Analyze This!") into an indie film starring local talent and gangster film veterans. Castellano's intriguing French girlfriend with many aliases enticed other filmmakers, lots of money changed hands (often in cash), and the townsfolk got to experience a little taste of Hollywood, even though it cost some of them their life savings. (Nov. 10)

"He Dreams of Giants" (World Premiere) – The filmmakers behind the terrific 2002 documentary "Lost in La Mancha," about director Terry Gilliam's failed attempt to film his version of "Don Quixote," are back with a sequel, tracking Gilliam's latest try at wrestling Cervantes' hero to the screen with "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote." This time there's a happy ending. (Nov. 10, 11)

"The Seer and the Unseen" (NYC Premiere) – One of the quirkiest documentaries at the festival this year, told with tongue nowhere in cheek. In Iceland, beautifully captured by director Sara Dosa, a woman, Ragga, serves as an intermediary between the human world and that of the ancient spirits and elves with whom Icelanders share the land. Her abilities come into play when developers plan to build a highway straight through the elves' sacred space. (Nov. 12)

The Seer and the Unseen | Clip by MIFF on YouTube

"Kosher Beach" (International Premiere) – Karin Kainer's humorous slice-of-life examines women, of three generations, who frequent a segregated Tel Aviv beach, a stone's throw from the gay beach but discreetly sectioned off with fences (and manned by less discreet lifeguards). The women's haven from family and social pressures nonetheless becomes threatened when an Orthodox rabbi declares bathing at the beach should be forbidden ("for people and women"). (Nov. 13)

"The Longest Wave" (World Premiere) Professional waterman Robby Naish has accomplished more on a surfboard than virtually anyone, but an elusive goal of his is to surf the longest wave in the world. This slick but personal film (you will not miss that Red Bull is a Naish backer) tracks him as he surfs, kites and foils his way from Namibia to Peru and Costa Rica, all while he confronts an aging and unforgiving body, injuries, family difficulties, and business decisions that jeopardize his friendship with one of his closest surfing allies. And yes, drone photography sure does comes in handy. (Nov. 13)

The Longest Wave Teaser by Red Bull Surfing on YouTube

"Healing From Hate: Battle For the Soul of a Nation" (World Premiere) – Peter Hutchison's documentary explores the mission of the organization Life After Hate, founded by former white supremacists, who aid skinheads and neo-Nazis trying to escape radical groups and reintegrate into mainstream society. In addition to experiencing a loss of identity and leaving behind friends and family still in the movement, the organization's recruits speak of the enticements that drew them into hate groups in the first place – feelings of power for the powerless – and of directly facing people they'd previously attacked or harassed once they'd extricated themselves. A hopeful expression of how hate does not need to be the end of the road. (Nov. 13)

HEALING FROM HATE Battle for the Soul of a Nation TRAILER by BIG TENT PRODUCTIONS on YouTube

"The Capote Tapes" (NYC Premiere) – Director Ebs Burnough incorporates many never-before-heard interviews with some of New York City's leading socialites, writers and media stars from the 1950s, '60s and '70s to tell the story of how Truman Capote, a diminutive, gay writer from Alabama, emerged from a shattered home life to become a literary star, captivating readers, talk show audiences, and "beautiful people" alike. Capote's gift was that he could produce astonishing reportorial books and articles that sparkled with a rare literary wit, and his "Breakfast at Tiffany's" became the epitome of Gotham glamour in the popular imagination, but he was not averse to skewering New York society, roasting the very upper crust  mavens who'd made him famous. The film briskly captures New York's high society that Capote so deftly manipulated, from the fabled Black and White Ball to the scandalous "Answered Prayers," the unfinished novel that burned more than a few bridges. Screens Nov. 14 as the festival's closing night event.

The festival will also screen some of this year's most notable and popular documentaries for those who missed a chance to catch them, including one of the year's best films, "For Sama," journalist Waad al-Kateab's gripping story of Aleppo under siege by Syrian forces and Russian warplanes, as she and her husband, a doctor in one of the few hospitals standing, give birth to a child in the midst of hell. [Also: "63 Up," "American Factory," "Apollo 11," "Ask Dr. Ruth," "The Biggest Little Farm," "Honeyland," "Knock Down The House," "One Child Nation," and "Rolling Thunder Revue," Martin Scorsese's story of a fabled two-year tour by Bob Dylan.]

FOR SAMA (2019) | Official Trailer | PBS Distribution by PBS Distribution on YouTube

There are many, many more offerings. Time to be adventurous!

Films will be screened at the IFC Center in Greenwich Village, and the SVA Theatre and Cinepolis in Chelsea. Check out the DOC NYC Fest website at for film descriptions and dates.

Also featured is DOC NYC Pro Conference in which established and emerging filmmakers talk about the practical and technical aspects of documentary filmmaking and documentary podcasts, from pitching projects and fundraising, to storytelling, editing, and distribution.

Tickets to DOC NYC screenings and events can be purchased online, or in advance at the IFC Center box office in Greenwich Village (or at any screening). There are discounted ticket packages and all-access passes. Rush tickets for sold-out shows are also available; lines form one hour before showtime. 

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