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DOC NYC and IDFA 2023

Jialing Zhang’s Total Trust (2023)

Both America’s largest and the world’s largest documentary film festivals open today. Many of the 114 features and 129 short films screening at DOC NYC through November 26 will be available online to viewers all across the U.S. The International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, in the meantime, will showcase more than 250 titles through November 19, starting with the world premiere of Olga Chernykh’s A Picture to Remember. “An examination of Russia’s war on Ukraine through the viewpoints of the director herself, her mother, and her grandmother,” writes Hyperallergic’s Maya Pontone, “the film employs home video, personal audio recordings, and news archives to construct an intimate yet complex understanding of the ongoing violence.”

Wang Bing, the Guest of Honor at IDFA 2023, will not only discuss his own work but also present a selection of ten films made by other Chinese directors between 1999 and 2011. Peter Greenaway, the recipient of this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award, will offer a sneak peak at his unfinished film Walking to Paris, which tracks the journey of sculptor Constantin Brâncuși from Romania to France. On Friday, Amsterdam’s Eye Filmmuseum will give its ninth Eye Art & Film Prize to Garrett Bradley and screen her Oscar-nominated feature Time (2020).

DOC NYC’s opening night selection is Clair Titley’s The Contestant, which tells the story of aspiring comedian Tomoaki Hamatsu, nicknamed Nasubi (i.e., eggplant), who thought he was walking into an audition in 1998, when producer Toshio Tsuchiya ushered him into an empty room, told him to strip, and handed him a stack of magazines. Inside, Nasubi would find contest coupons he could fill out in the hope of winning such basic necessities as food and clothing, and eventually, the prize, one million yen. Unaware that his efforts were being broadcast to the more than fifteen million viewers of the prototypical Japanese reality show Susunu! Denpa Shōnen, Nasubi spent months cut off from everyone but Tsuchiya. “The Contestant casts Susunu! Denpa Shōnen as a veritable Big Bang for our current shock-value pop culture, and not flatteringly,” writes Nick Schager at the Daily Beast.

The sprawling programs at both festivals are each divided into an array of competitions complemented by a good number of favorites that have premiered at other events earlier in the year. IDFA’s Best of Fests section boasts well over fifty features, and Variety’s Clayton Davis suggests that the fifteen titles that DOC NYC has selected for its Short List offer a pretty reliable preview of this season’s Oscar frontrunners.

But these are not the films that IndieWire’s David Ehrlich and Kate Erbland are spotlighting in their annotated list of ten recommendations. One of Erbland’s is Merchant Ivory, Stephen Soucy’s telling of the story of the partnership of producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory “complete with behind-the-scenes footage and a raft of new interviews” with Vanessa Redgrave, Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter, and of course, Ivory himself.

Total Trust, from One Child Nation codirector Jialing Zhang, “explores the outsized and quasi-Orwellian role that surveillance technology has come to play in the Chinese government’s ongoing assault on its citizens’ right to privacy,” writes Ehrlich. “Chillingly detached in its observational exploration of Big Data, AI, and the human beings who seek to harness the power of such things against billions of people, Total Trust offers a glimpse into a future where technology isn’t a way out so much as an inescapable prison unto itself.”

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