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DOC NYC documentary film festival returns: Check out these highlights

Non-fiction storytelling is once again the star attraction on screen as DOC NYC, America's largest documentary film festival, returns for its 12th year.

The festival showcases an international lineup of more than 200 feature-length and short films, including many international, North American and U.S. premieres. Held in-person November 10-18 at venues in New York City, the festival will also make selected films available to stream online through November 28. 

The festival also includes panel discussions, appearances by noted documentary directors, workshops and master classes. 

Check out our feature film highlights previewed at press time below.


Among the themes of the festival are portraits of music and film personalities, including saxophonist Kenny G (the Opening Night film, "Listening to Kenny G"), singer and actor Dean Martin ("Dean Martin: King of Cool"), actress and "Waitress" director Adrienne Shelley ("Adrienne"), Alanis Morrisette ("Jagged"), and Dionne Warwick ("Dionne Warwick: Don't Make Me Over"). There are also looks at Irish folk music ("The Job of Songs") and teenage punk rockers ("Young Punx").

The Closing Night feature is Matthew Heineman's "The First Wave," about how New York City hospitals responded to the devastating onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic in March-June 2020.

There are documentaries examining such topics as health care costs ("InHospitable"), gun violence ("A Tree of Life"), the pill ("The Business of Birth Control"), the effects of climate change ("Newtok," "Burning"), the children of dead ISIS members living as refugees ("Children of the Enemy"), families suffering through addiction ("Anonymous Sister," "Be Our Guest"), people living with medical disabilities ("Go Heal Yourself"), blindness ("Go Through the Dark"), and autism ("Let Me Be Me").

"Film, the Living Record of Memory" and "Grain" each herald the beauty and fragility of film vs. digital photography, while "The Art of Making It" delves into the business of the art world.

The festival also offers an opportunity to catch up on notable recent releases, including the Sundance and Tribeca prize-winners "Ascension," "Flee," "All Light, Everywhere," and "Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)"; the Anthony Bourdain documentary "Roadrunner"; "Faya Dayi," "Attica," and "The Velvet Underground."

For full descriptions of titles and information on how to attend and/or stream, check out the DOC NYC festival website: Proof of vaccination is required for in-person screenings.

Tickets for in-person screenings are available for individual films ($19 each for regular screenings), or in 10-screening packages ($160). Online screenings are available at $12 each, or in 5- or 10-film packs (at $45 and $80, respectively).

For an online streaming schedule click here.


Only a fraction of the festival's 113 feature premieres have been previewed at press time. Of those, here are some highlights:

"Alien on Stage" (NYC Premiere) — When New Jersey high school students went viral with their stage production of the Ridley Scott sci-fi thriller "Alien" a few years back, it was a bracing reminder of the power of creative young minds — and the powerful hold that pop culture and nostalgia can have on us. A similar bracing feeling is fostered in Danielle Kummer and Lucy Harvey's fun tale of bus drivers from Dorset, England, who put on an amateur theatrical production of "Alien." When opening night arrives, it's not exactly a hit, but it earns a fan following that propels the amateur troupe to London, when they're invited to bring their show to the West End. How's that for a Hollywood ending? But the road to West End success is plenty bumpy, with problems (like a xenomorph) rearing their ugly heads right up until the curtain rises. "Alien on Stage" is a hilarious testament to theatrical dreams, and the durability of the original film's ability to tease and terrify audiences, even those looking for camp laughs. Screens Nov. 14, 15 at IFC Center; Nov. 15-28 online.

Alien on Stage Trailer by Chagrin Documentary Film Festival on YouTube

"Citizen Ashe" (NYC Premiere) — Arthur Ashe's rise — becoming, in the words of one, "the Jackie Robinson of tennis" — might have been less spectacular had he not been the African American son of a maintenance worker, who was gifted with lessons by a coach driven to teach Black boys and girls to succeed on the court in segregated Virginia, in a sport dominated by White players. But the timing of his ascendency, concurrent with the 1960s civil rights movement, also thrust Ashe into a very public conundrum: should he speak out from within the conservative, almost all-White tennis establishment, and align himself with more militant Black athletes on the world stage? The conflict was as much about personal attitudes as about politics, but "Citizen Ashe" examines how the tennis star — the only Black man to win the Wimbledon singles championship — learned to gauge and modify his impact on the world as a celebrity and activist, and how his advocacy — as an opponent of apartheid, and a supporter of AIDS patients (of which he was one) — shaped his legacy beyond the court. And it's not all politics; the film's analysis of Ashe's victory over Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon in 1975 is a rich and eye-opening distillation of strategy, tactics, and the role of personality on the court. Directed by Sam Pollard ("MLK/FBI") and Rex Milller ("Althea"). Screens Nov. 13 at SVA Theatre; Nov. 14-28 online.

Citizen Ashe - Official Trailer by Magnolia Pictures & Magnet Releasing on YouTube

"Comala" (U.S. Premiere) — Mexican filmmaker Gian Cassini's powerful personal essay explores the hole created by the influence and absence of his late estranged father, known as El Jimmy. Even as he tries to unravel the details of Jimmy's life and how he became a hitman in Tijuana, Cassini's more immediate concern is to explore the impact Jimmy had on his mother, his half-siblings, other extended family members, and Jimmy's various girlfriends, whose lives all appear distorted, compromised or scarred by Jimmy's infidelities, lies and violence. Through old videos, photographs, and interviews with family on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, Cassini crafts an intriguing true-crime investigation that teases out the psyche of his father, who appears to have been shouldering the psychological damage wrought by the shady past of his own father (Cassini's granddad). Screens Nov. 13, 14 at Cinepolis; Nov. 14-28 online.

COMALA Trailer | TIFF 2021 by TIFF Trailers on YouTube

"End of the Line" (World Premiere) — New York City's century-old subway system is a marvel of engineering, but it is also a hundred years old, and as its millions of daily riders will tell you, it is a source of frustration due to aging components, lack of upkeep, delays and overcrowding. [Never mind the Pizza Rats.] So, when damage from Superstorm Sandy necessitated some drastic action to upgrade infrastructure, requiring an entire line be shut down for a year and a half, another storm — of protests — ensued. Into this political fray came a new president of the NYC Transit Authority, whose enthusiasm for upgrading the system was met with the maelstrom of a mayor, governor and MTA Board that seemed in perpetual conflict. Director Emmett Adler explores how public transportation is at the mercy of events and personalities outside of its control, and yet is expected to function fully, even during a pandemic, as the lifeblood of a metropolis. Screens Nov. 12, 17 at Cinepolis; Nov. 13-28 online.

End of the Line - Teaser by Emmett Adler on Vimeo

"Exposing Muybridge" (World Premiere) — Photographer Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) is best remembered for his photographic motion studies of horses galloping and men wrestling — image tests that presaged motion pictures in both form and narrative. But during his lifetime his photographic legacy — which would inspire countless artists since — was somewhat overshadowed by the scandalous murder trial for having killed his wife's lover (the jury acquitted him). With the commentary of scholars and collectors (such as actor Gary Oldman), director Marc Shaffer traces the high and low points of Muybridge's life, with the pinnacle being his 1870s series of sequential photographs taken at a horse track, which made his name, until it was effectively erased from a published version of the images. Muybridge rebounded by entering into a prolific period under commission from the University of Pennsylvania to continue his locomotion studies. The university officials no doubt looked quizzically at Muybridge's pictures of nubile women dumping water on each other, but it was all in the interest of science. Screens Nov. 13 at IFC Center, Nov. 15 at Cinepolis; Nov. 14-28 online.

"Exposure" (NYC Premiere) — In 2018 a group of women from several Eastern and Western countries participated in a 100-kilometer skiing expedition to the North Pole. The trek was noteworthy not only for being an all-female team (joined by director Holly Morris and cinematographers Kathryn Barrows and Ingeborg Jakobsen), but also for being possibly the last over-ice trip to the North Pole due to the ever-increasing melting of polar ice. The movie is an intimate look at the women who signed on for the trip, most of whom were novices in polar exploration, and their unique bonding exercise in a hostile environment, as they maneuver cracking sea ice, grueling physical challenges, and the onset of frostbite. An evocative portrait of human endurance, and how climate change is affecting one of the world's most alluring, and deadly, places. Screens Nov. 13, 16 at Cinepolis; Nov. 14-28 online.

"F@ck This Job" and "We Are Russia" (U.S. Premieres) — The opposition to Vladimir Putin during his reign as leader of Russia is explored in films that juggle the hopes of a young generation for a freer nation, and the pessimism of Russians who feel themselves under the boot heel of an authoritarian state. "F@ck This Job" tells the story of the TV station Dozhd, an independent media outlet that was founded as a source of optimistic television news but grew to butt heads with the government over its unflattering coverage of national news, elections, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The station's owners and staff face arrest, violence, eviction, and financial disaster when cable outlets are mysteriously directed to drop their channel. Director Vera Krichevskaya's film, spanning a decade of history during which Putin worked to enshrine his hold on the nation into the constitution itself, shows how journalists and media mavens question their mission when they find themselves targeted for holding the powerful to account, and become increasingly despondent that change will come to Russia for as long as Putin lives.

"We Are Russia" follows young activists and campaign staffers for opposition candidate Alexei Navalny as they bravely participate in street protests leading up to the country's 2018 presidential election, before Navalny's near-fatal poisoning (apparently by an FSB agent) and later imprisonment by Russian authorities. Director Alexandra Dalsbaek puts viewers in the thick of danger, as activists lay their lives on the line to spread word on social media about Navalny and the political situation in Russia, and (not inconsequentially) even turn reluctant parents to their cause.

"F@ck This job" screens Nov. 12 at Cinepolis, Nov. 18 at IFC Center; Nov. 13-28 online. "We Are Russia" screens Nov. 11, 12 at Cinepolis; Nov. 12-28 online.

IDFA 2021 | Trailers | F@ck This Job by IDFA on YouTube

"Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time" (World Premiere) — It shouldn't take 40 years to make a movie. But then, Robert Weide and Don Argott's reverential exploration of the life of the satirical novelist and essayist would be nothing without the decades-long odyssey of Weide (a documentary filmmaker and director of "Curb Your Enthusiasm") to profile Vonnegut, who graciously agreed to be filmed back in the early '80s, and in numerous encounters over the ensuing years. The author's puckish humor is clear even when discussing the most painful events of his life, from surviving the World War II firebombing of Dresden while being held in a POW camp (enshrined in his breakthrough novel, "Slaughterhouse-Five"), to the death of his beloved sister from cancer and the suicide of his mother. He is also forthright about navigating the rocky life of a working writer until finding his sea legs as a counter-culture figure with such novels as "Cat's Cradle" and "Breakfast of Champions." Vonnegut steers clear of some topics, like his divorce and remarriage (though the kids have much to say about that), but his bonhomie with Weide is effusive. Weide's appreciation over Vonnegut's generosity of spirit actually threatens his project; he finds himself wrapped up in the weighty responsibility of tying down his film 14 years after his friend's death. It's a fulsome tribute to a writer who could never be accused of being warm and fuzzy, but who believed being funny was key to living a purposeful life. So it goes. Screens Nov. 11 at IFC Center; Nov. 12-13 online.

Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time | Official Trailer by Whyaduck Productions on YouTube

"The Real Charlie Chaplin" (NYC Premiere) — Blending recordings of the legendary film comedian and director with re-enactments lends an immediacy to the story of the immigrant artist who found unprecedented fame, and then ignominy, as one of Hollywood's leading lights. Directors Peter Middleton and James Spinney ("Notes on Blindness") follow the story of Chaplin's life and career, including his entrance into the fledgling movie industry, his perfectionism, his romantic entanglements, his parodistic attack on another mustachioed world figure, and the stresses on his family due to his workaholism. A richly entertaining glimpse into the heart and ambition of an unabashed genius. Screens Nov. 12 at Cinepolis; Nov. 13-28 online. Debuts on Showtime December 11.

The Real Charlie Chaplin (2021) Official Trailer | SHOWTIME Documentary Film by SHOWTIME on YouTube

"The Rossellinis" (U.S. Premiere) — Italian director Roberto Rossellini was celebrated for his neo-realist works, such as "Rome: Open City." And he was vilified for the scandal of his adulterous love affair with actress Ingrid Bergman, which would lead to their marriage (his second of three, to women from three different countries). Rossellini had a total of six children, some of whom (such as actress Isabella Rossellini) followed in his footsteps in cinema, while others ran in the other direction. One of his grandsons, Allessandro Rossellini (a biracial boy born of Roberto's oldest son and an African American dancer), turns the camera onto himself and his Rossellini diaspora in this intriguing family reunion, which examines layers of familial discord, sparked by a celebrated but difficult patriarch, stirred by the paparazzi, and stretched by sibling jealousies. Allessandro also reunites with his mother, living in a New York City nursing home, a shadow of a woman wracked by alcoholism and drug abuse. It's an affecting piece of self-analysis about fame, blood ties and responsibility, conducted on a couple of generations who share a surname and, in varying forms, a psychic wound. Screens Nov. 14 at SVA Theatre, Nov. 16 at IFC Center; Nov. 15-28 online.

The Rossellinis Teaser by Cinephil Docs on YouTube

"Storm Lake" (NYC Premiere) — Small-town newspapers are an endangered species nowadays, but their civic purpose is undeniable, as detailed in Jerry Risius and Beth Levison's engrossing portrait of the daily lives of reporters and staff at the family-run Storm Lake Times, in Storm Lake, Iowa. Their twice-a-week paper, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2017, nonetheless faces real financial challenges, as they present a journal of life in their increasingly diversified Midwest community, from politics (as Democratic hopefuls stream through their neck of the woods for the presidential caucuses) to the COVID-19 pandemic (which shuts down businesses on whom the paper depends for advertising). The film's intimacy mirrors the neighborly, personable content of the newspaper, whose pages may not exactly fly out of the vending machines, but which nonetheless projects the values of small-town America, with recipes. Screens Nov. 11, 12 at IFC Center; Nov. 12-14 online. Premieres on PBS' "Independent Lens" Nov. 15.

Storm Lake | Official Trailer | Independent Lens | PBS by Independent Lens on YouTube

"The United States vs. Reality Winner" (U.S. Premiere) — When a young analyst and Air Force veteran improbably named Reality Winner printed out and mailed a copy of a classified U.S. intelligence report on Russia's cyberattacks aimed at influencing the 2016 presidential election to the website The Intercept, she shouldn't have been surprised that her actions would attract the attention of government prosecutors, who charged her under the Espionage Act. Winner explained that she took the action to raise alarm bells as a whistleblower, but her imprisonment would divide critics and supporters of the Trump administration, which seemed to be punishing her for raising the specter of the Kremlin's impact on Trump's electoral victory. Director Sonia Kennebeck adds recreations to audio obtained of Winner's interrogation by the FBI and her jailhouse phone calls, as well as interviews with Winner's parents and sister, and with journalists at the Intercept (whose misjudgments possibly set up Winner for arrest). The result is an intense debate about the pursuit of truth, the responsibilities of citizens, and what counts towards preserving "national security" when our national security itself is under attack. Screens Nov. 13 at IFC Center, Nov. 15 at Cinepolis; Nov. 14-28 online.


There are dozens of shorts (curated into programs), and only one has been previewed at press time, but it is not to be missed: "Phenomena," by artist and filmmaker Josef Gatti, features psychedelic and gobsmackingly beautiful imagery through scientific experiments that capture patterns in matter that demonstrate different forces of nature, from magnetism, gravity and energy to soundwaves, electricity and light. The dances by particles of metallic fluid directed by magnetic waves are mesmerizing. And it's all done with microphotography – no CGI, thank you. Screens as part of the "Shorts: Soundscapes" program Nov. 11 at Cinepolis, online Nov. 10-28.

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