Spotlight on Documentary 2019

The Daily — Oct 9, 2019
Manfred Kirchheimer’s Free Time (2019)

One of the most anticipated films lined up for the Spotlight on Documentary program at this year’s New York Film Festival has been the latest installment in a project over half a century ago. In Seven Up! (1964), director Paul Almond and producers at what was then Granada Television captured the lives of fourteen British seven-year-olds. With 7 Plus Seven (1970), Michael Apted took over and has been revisiting his subjects every seven years. Reviewing 63 Up, the ninth film in the series, for Variety, Chris Willman notes that “moppetry has given way to meditations on mortality, as the participants deal with parental losses and consider the time limit on their own lives, if not the series.”

As Srikanth Srinivasan points out in his excellent piece on the Up series for the Hindu, Apted originally intended “to illustrate the thesis that class position in Britain was predetermined by one’s birth and that social mobility was well-nigh impossible. However, as the series unfolded, reality turned out to be more complex: Tony, the East End taxi driver, rose up to middle-class, while Neil, with his middle-class upbringing, fell way down the ladder . . . These strange turns of reality soften the filmmaker’s convictions and the later Up films open up to the nuances of human existence. The progression of the series, then, coincides with Apted’s own intellectual and sentimental development.” Film at Lincoln Center has posted a recording of the Q&A with Apted moderated by Eugene Hernandez.

Global Upheaval

With State Funeral, Sergei Loznitsa has fashioned from rare archival footage a record of the five days of mourning staged all across Soviet Russia following the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953. The new film will likely be seen as a companion piece to last year’s The Trial, in which Loznitsa reconstructed the courtroom proceedings that saw eight Soviet engineers and professors plead guilty to accusations of sabotage in 1930—one of Stalin’s first show trials. “While Loznitsa’s oeuvre is prolific and diverse, spanning narrative fiction and various documentary forms, it has a common focus on the performance of state violence in the former Soviet Union and, in particular, on the historical leakage that permeates much of the present tense,” writes Sierra Pettengill for frieze. During a recent Q&A in London, Loznitsa “summarized the impetus for the original 1930 production: ‘The idea was very simple: to resolve political problems through theater.’”

State Funeral sees the Soviets employing a different set of theatrical techniques to cement their subjects’ loyalty to the USSR. “Loznitsa’s essay raises questions about the nature and ideological mechanisms of totalitarian myth-making, and the nature of public grief as propagandist display,” writes Jonathan Romney for Screen. “Some of the film’s images are intensely poetic and clearly artificial, steeped in propangandist visual poetry: head-and-shoulder groups of mourners are shot so as to resemble heroic Soviet statues. In one image from a territory in the far north, even reindeer are made to look as if they’re hanging their heads in mourning.”

Writing for Hyperallergic, Tanner Tafelski calls Abbas Fahdel’s Homeland: Iraq Year Zero (2015) “one of the great, essential documentaries of this decade.” With Bitter Bread, a portrait of a community of Syrian refugees living in a tent camp in Lebanon, Fahdel “turns a compassionate eye on the hardscrabble lives of people who have been violently uprooted from their homes, and still yearn for them. The refugee crisis is frequently depicted as a serious yet abstract issue, but Fahdel brings it into focus on an immediate, human level.”

In 1973, when Augusto Pinochet, with the help of the United States, staged a military coup that overthrew Chile’s democratically elected leader, Salvador Allende, only the Italians opened their embassy to Allende’s supporters. In Santiago, Italia, Nanni Moretti interviews some of the survivors who took refuge there. “They speak to Moretti of their thwarted dreams of a fair, just, and democratic Chile and unsparingly reveal their experiences of incarceration and torture,” writes the New Yorker’s Richard Brody. “Moretti’s interview, camera, and editing styles are clear, plain, and frank; the movie is as much a matter of personal encounters as of overarching politics.”

New York, New York

Profiling Manfred Kirchheimer for the New York Times in 2014, Eric Hynes wrote that “few have filmed the city as loyally, or as marvelously.” Now in his late eighties, Kirchheimer has been making documentaries in and about New York since the 1950s. 

For Filmmaker, Soheil Rezayazdi talks with Kirchheimer about Free Time, an hour-long reverie constructed from 16 mm black-and-white footage he shot with his friend Walter Hess between 1958 and 1960. “This is a New York of leisure and down time,” writes Rezayazdi. “Children play on the street, old men shoot the shit on lawn chairs, shirts billow in the wind on clotheslines strung between buildings. These are, quite literally, the in-between moments from his previous films, stitched together to form an uncommonly gentle portrait of New York life. You’ll find no traffic here, no subway delays, no endless construction. Free Time presents an idyllic, more neighborhood-oriented New York, one that perhaps never really existed but remains greatly alluring on the screen.” At Hyperallergic, Bedatri D. Choudhury finds that Kirchheimer “has keen sense for finding moments that are not the beginning, climax, or end of anything, but are endearing, dramatic, and beautiful in spite of it.”

At Hyperallergic, Abbey Bender calls D. W. Young’s The Booksellers, a dip into the world of rare book dealing and collecting, “one of the coziest, most nostalgia-inducing titles at this year’s New York Film Festival.” Variety’s Owen Gleiberman notes that, on the one hand, “the impact of Internet commerce has been a slow-motion debacle,” while on the other, “for the vintage-book believer, the value of a volume has actually gone up: as totem, as symbol, as artifact of beauty. Its slow fade from the culture only enhances its magic as an object . . . The Booksellers is a documentary for anyone who can still look at a book and see a dream, a magic teleportation device, an object that contains the world.” Lincoln Center has the Q&A with Young and producers Judith Mizrachy and Dan Wechsler.

The NYFF has hosted the world premiere of director Tania Cypriano and producer Michelle Hayashi’s Born to Be, which focuses on Dr. Jess Ting, a surgeon who specializes in transgender-related care at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital. “With unfettered access to the consultations, procedures, and follow-ups of multiple patients, Cypriano gets to the heart of what vaginoplasties and phalloplasties mean to those pursuing them and the empathy and understanding Ting provides along the road towards helping them achieve the body they deserve,” writes Jared Mobarak at the Film Stage. “And we’re also made to recognize how the hope this battle against dysphoria provides doesn’t automatically win the war.”

IndieWire’s Jude Dry notes that at one point in Born to Be, “the shit hits the fan, and we see the toll that running a groundbreaking medical practice can take. The camera follows Dr. Ting on a ceaseless churn of making the rounds as he knocks on doors, gets lost in hallways, and pounds gummy bears for energy. Insurance companies are denying claims, the waiting list keeps growing, and a frustrated patient posts a viral rant online. These patients don’t see the kind-hearted single father who left Juilliard for medical school and risked it all on this work—they’re just trying to survive.”

Singular Personalities

Oliver Sacks: His Own Life is a portrait of the British neurologist known for his bestselling books about his patients’ cognitive disorders. Ric Burns, Ken’s younger brother, has made “a movie that presents us with a man who led an eccentrically defiant, at times reckless existence that was the furthest thing from cunningly planned,” writes Owen Gleiberman. “He was a wanderer in the body of a clinician, like Jack Kerouac crossed with Jonas Salk. He was that rare if not unique thing, a scientific navigator of the soul.”

Roy Cohn, the lawyer and political fixer who mentored Donald Trump, on the other hand, is “a villain out of central casting,” writes Gleiberman, “the beady-eyed weasel whispering in Joseph McCarthy’s ear, the attorney from hell who rose from the ashes of the Army-McCarthy hearings to become the ultimate New York power player, defending mobsters who became his pals, embedding himself in the rancid center of the city’s favor bank.” In 1951, Cohn prosecuted Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted of spying for the Soviets and executed. The Rosenbergs were the grandparents of Ivy Meeropol, whose new film is Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn. The portrait “isn’t as authoritative a chronicle as [Matt Tyrnauer’s] Where’s My Roy Cohn?,” writes Gleiberman, “but in its loosely anecdotal way it may bring us a notch or two closer to who Roy Cohn was.”

At Screen Slate, Danielle Burgos finds that Alla Kovgan’s decision to present Cunningham in 3D “especially suits Merce Cunningham, an artist whose explorations of non-representational movement didn’t have a privileged vantage point; camera placement can’t negate artistic intent, and dimension emphasizes his philosophy of movement qua movement.” Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov notes that “the aesthetic template is clearly Wim Wenders’s Pina [2011],” but there’s “a crucial difference. Wenders kept all dancers within the master shot frame, respecting the unity of choreography—placing performers outdoors was a nice touch but didn’t alter the material. Kovgan’s restaging is done from constantly moving cameras, inevitably reframing and excluding dancers, creating new and unintended symmetries or going overhead for the full Busby Berkeley. Insofar as all of this was pleasing to watch, I’m not bothered but wonder if it’ll be thought to be disrespectful of the work that’s being celebrated—it’s almost like the target audience is people who might be bored by dancing.”


The first feature Tim Robbins directed, Bob Roberts (1992), was a mockumentary, and now he’s made his first straight-up documentary. 45 Seconds of Laughter takes its title from the exercise that closes each session of the acting workshop that Robbins’s troupe conducted at the Calipatria State Prison. The prisoners taking part do indeed laugh together for a full forty-five seconds. After ten therapeutic sessions, the ad hoc theater company stages a performance inspired by Italian Commedia dell’arte, and the film closes with a quote—“Everyone is worth more than their worst act”—from Helen Prejean, the Roman Catholic sister and anti-death penalty activist played by Susan Sarandon in Robbins’s Dead Man Walking (1995). “Occasionally heart-stirring but also rather slight, Robbins’ mellow first foray into docmaking is far removed from his pre-millennial era of artistic and political urgency,” writes Guy Lodge in Variety. “At feature length, the film feels a little thin in scope relative to a more penetrating examination of prison psychology like Jairus McLeary’s superb 2017 doc The Work.

IndieWire’s David Ehrlich agrees, writing that whereas The Work “probed deeper into the human soul, and dove into reservoirs of pain that transcend the prison experience, 45 Seconds of Laughter only points our attention towards the dehumanizing nature of America’s correctional institutions.” Even so, the Hollywood Reporter’s Boyd van Hoeij, citing such theater-in-prison films as Hank Rogerson’s Shakespeare Behind Bars (2005), Zeina Daccache’s 12 Angry Lebanese (2009), and Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s Caesar Must Die (2012), writes that, while “we’ve possibly seen it countless times before, it’s still lovely to see prison tough guys slowly open up and, through the use of theatrical masks, feel comfortable enough to gradually slip off their own.”

College Behind Bars, a series for PBS that runs just under four hours, focuses on the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), which offers access to higher education in several of New York state’s maximum- and medium-security prisons. Director Lynn Novick talks with Addie Morfoot in Variety about gaining permission to shoot inside the facilities and even a few of the individual cells. “I felt that it was very important for the viewers to understand visually and psychically, that all of this incredible academic work and growth was happening within this larger context,” she says. Morfoot notes that of the five hundred prisoners who’ve worked their way through the program over the past twenty years, less than four percent have returned to prison.

For more on this year’s Spotlight on Documentary, listen to Film at Lincoln Center’s Lesli Klainberg and Eugene Hernandez discuss the selections. The conversation is followed by a NYFF Live talk with Ric Burns, Tania Cypriano, Ivy Meeropol, and Lynn Novick.

For news and items of interest throughout the day, every day, follow @CriterionDaily.

You have no items in your shopping cart