As a tribute to the late D. A. Pennebaker, to whom its tenth edition is dedicated, DOC NYC will screen a new restoration of Town Bloody Hall (1979) next Wednesday. The story behind the film began in March 1971, when Harper’s published Norman Mailer’s essay “The Prisoner of Sex,” a response to Kate Millett’s attack on him as “a prisoner of the virility cult” in her book, Sexual Politics. The following month, Mailer organized a panel on “women’s liberation” and invited Pennebaker to bring his camera and record what was sure to be a raucous evening.
Mailer and his fellow panelists did not disappoint. Sharing the stage with the gadfly novelist, filmmaker, and former New York City mayoral candidate were Jill Johnston, a cultural critic for the Village Voice who would go on to write Lesbian Nation in 1973; literary critic Diana Trilling; Jacqueline Ceballos, president of New York chapter of the National Organization for Women; and Germaine Greer, whom Brian Dillon, writing for frieze last year, describes as “the dark star of Pennebaker’s film: a stentorian, hip-scholarly presence whose allotted ten minutes consist of an erudite demolition of the masculine artistic ego. Greer’s book The Female Eunuch was about to be published in the U.S., and she clearly relished—Millett having declined to appear—her appointed role as Mailer’s most fearless and eloquent interlocutor. In the days before the debate, Greer informed the New York media that she intended to seduce Mailer—also that she would ‘carry him like a wounded child across the wasted world.’”
Years after that memorable night, Chris Hegedus, Pennebaker’s wife and filmmaking partner, pulled Pennebaker’s footage down from the shelf and convinced him that they could shape it into a viable film. Released in 1979, it remains “invaluable as a historical artefact,” as British critic Neil Young wrote back in 2005, “but the reason why Town Bloody Hall endures as a minor classic of its genre is that it must be one of the funniest documentaries ever made. Watching Mailer and Greer trade barbs (and dirty looks) is amusing enough, but when Jill Johnston takes the floor the picture kicks up into a whole new comic gear. She delivers a rambling twelve-minute, William-Burroughs-meets-Lydia-Lunch prose-poem about how ‘all women are lesbians,’ before rolling around on the floor with her lover.”
Overall, it’s a strong year for women at DOC NYC. The festival will be screening the five films nominated for IDA Documentary Awards for best director, and as noted a couple of weeks ago, all five are directed or codirected by women. Two of them are also streaming on Netflix, Petra Costa’s The Edge of Democracy, which chronicles the unraveling of two Brazilian presidencies, and Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s American Factory, the gripping story of a General Motors plant in Ohio rescued by a Chinese conglomerate. Reichert, by the way, is currently being feted with a series in Los Angeles celebrating her fifty years of filmmaking.
The other three IDA nominees are Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaïche’s Advocate, which focuses on an Israeli attorney who defends Palestinians in court; Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts’s For Sama, a diary-like record of five years in war-torn Syria which has already picked up several awards in its journey along the festival circuit; and Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov’s Honeyland, in which the peaceful life of a beekeeper in the remote mountains of Macedonia is disturbed by a Turkish family that moves in next door.
Cinephiles may take particular interest in What We Left Unfinished, which focuses on five feature film projects begun and never completed during the 1980s, the era of communist rule in Afghanistan. Director Mariam Ghani, daughter of current Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, spent six years exploring the National Film Archive in Kabul and interviewing the surviving members of the films’ casts and crews. “The fragments of films featured in the documentary make for a truly curious mix of action movie à la Chuck Norris and educational agitprop by Soviet Department for Agitation and Propaganda,” wrote Celluloid Liberation Front this summer in the Brooklyn Rail. “However imperfect and uncertain in its purpose, What We Left Unfinished is powerful enough to rouse a (fetishistic?) interest in a virtually unknown chapter of world cinema history. One where these two allegedly separate realms, cinema and history, cannot be individually considered.”
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