New films by Errol Morris and Steve James; films starring Carrie Fisher & Debbie Reynolds, ballerina Wendy Whelan, and jazz singer Lee Morgan are among the lineup for the 2016 Spotlight on Documentary section of the 54th New York Film Festival taking place September 30-October 16.
Many of the selections in the Spotlight on Documentary section this year challenge historical and political oppression in unique and personal ways, including: Whose Country?, which follows a brave Egyptian policeman whose perspective on his country’s turmoil becomes our own; the vivid Patria O Muerte: Cuba, Fatherland or Death, a look at the current state of Cuba through the eyes of a handful of its citizens; Shimon Dotan’s The Settlers, a disturbing profile of Israelis living in the West Bank; Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Hissen Habré, A Chadian Tragedy, which focuses on the victims and survivors of the recently convicted despot; and Raoul Peck’s film essay I Am Not Your Negro, a bracing examination of race in America based on and highlighted by the profound words of James Baldwin’s final, unfinished manuscript.
Two selections focus on the personal connection between filmmaker and subject. In Uncle Howard, Aaron Brookner’s intimate and loving survey of the personal archival footage of his uncle, filmmaker Howard Brookner (whose Burroughs was screened at last year’s NYFF), reveals the vibrant life in New York in the 1970s and 1980s. Karl Marx City, from Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker, looks back at Epperlein’s East German childhood, and the possibility that her father was a Stasi government informer.
Also featured in the lineup are: The North American premiere of Bill Morrison’s haunting look at the town that became the epicenter of the Yukon gold rush, Dawson City: Frozen Time, made with long-forgotten archival footage; Sam Pollard’s musically and historically rich Two Trains Runnin’, about parallel quests, one musical and one political, that both end in Mississippi during the “Freedom Summer” of 1964; and Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya’s The Cinema Travellers, in its U.S. premiere, which follows a pair of itinerant projectionists who bring film to rural Central Eastern India.
2016 Spotlight on Documentary
FILMS & DESCRIPTIONS
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
Directed by Steve James
USA, 2016, DCP, 88m
In English, Mandarin, and Cantonese with English subtitles
Quick: what was the only bank that was actually prosecuted in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis? The astonishing but correct answer is Abacus Federal Savings of Chinatown, founded in 1984 by Thomas Sung, which specializes in small loans to members of the Chinese-American community. The latest film from Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Life Itself) is a vivid chronicle of the legal battle mounted by Sung and his formidable daughters when the Manhattan DA’s office charged the bank with systemic fraud, larceny, and conspiracy. Abacus is a moving portrait of a family, a community, and a way of life; it is also a cautionary tale.
The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography
Directed by Errol Morris
USA, 2016, DCP, 76m
Errol Morris’s surprising new film is simplicity itself: a visit to the Cambridge, Massachusetts studio of his friend, the 20×24 Polaroid portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman, who specifies on her website that she likes her subjects “to wear clothes (and to bring toys, skis, books, tennis racquets, musical instruments, and particularly pets…).” As this charming, articulate, and calmly uncompromising woman takes us through her fifty-plus years of remarkable but fragile images of paying customers, commissioned subjects, family, and close friends (including the poet Allen Ginsberg), the sense of time passing grows more and more acute. This is a masterful film.
Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds
Directed by Alexis Bloom & Fisher Stevens
USA, 2016, DCP, 96m
Carrie Fisher and her mom Debbie Reynolds are now the best of friends (they live steps away from each other in their Beverly Hills compound) and the very definition of Hollywood royalty. But unlike today’s newly minted celebrities, they are both open books. After six decades of screen and stage stardom; a couple of disastrous marriages and assorted financial ups and downs for Reynolds; and, for Fisher, well-publicized drug addiction, bipolar disorder, and deity status (see: Star Wars), neither has anything left to hide. Bright Lights is an affectionate, often hilarious, and unexpectedly moving valentine to the mother-daughter act to end all mother-daughter acts. An HBO Documentary Films release.
The Cinema Travellers
Directed by Shirley Abraham & Amit Madheshiya
India, 2016, DCP, 96m
In Hindi and Marathi with English subtitles
Mohammed and Bapu are itinerant film showmen who travel through the Western Indian state of Maharashtra and show 35mm film prints on makeshift screens at village fairs. All the while, they struggle with both the growing possibility of obsolescence and the increasing fragility of their enormous rusty, clanking projectors, kept in barely working order by a repairman named Prakash (who has a beautiful invention: an “oil bath” projector). This colorful, five-years-in-the-making documentary is a real Last Picture Show, but its melancholy is leavened with joy and delight, and the wonder of still images coming to life at 24 frames per second. US Premiere
Dawson City: Frozen Time
Directed by Bill Morrison
USA, 2016, DCP, 120m
Bill Morrison’s new film is a history in still and moving images charting the transformation of Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, a fishing camp at the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike Rivers, into the epicenter of the Yukon gold rush at the turn of the last century. It is also a history of the 35mm film prints that were shipped to Dawson between the 1910s and 1920s, then hidden away and forgotten for 50 years until they were unearthed in the initial stages of a construction project, images from which are a key element in Morrison’s cinematic mosaic. Like all of Morrison’s work, Dawson City is a haunting experience that takes place in suspended, nonlinear time. North American Premiere
Hissen Habré, A Chadian Tragedy
Directed by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun
France/Chad, 2016, DCP, 82m
In French, Chadian and Arabic with English subtitles
Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s quiet, stately documentary begins with a personal sketch of the tragic history of his Central African home country, starting in the mid-1970s with the emergence of a romantic revolutionary figure named Hissen Habré, who seized power in 1982 and established a regime that became renowned throughout the world for its human rights abuses. From there, Haroun follows Clément Abaïfouta, a survivor of the regime who introduces us to resilient men and women whose memories and experiences are beyond horror. Two weeks after this film premiered at Cannes, Hissen Habré became the first world leader convicted of crimes against humanity by a court outside of his own country.
I Am Not Your Negro
Directed by Raoul Peck
USA/France/Belgium/Switzerland, 2016, DCP, 93m
Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck has taken the 30 completed pages of James Baldwin’s final, unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, in which the author went about the painful task of remembering his three fallen friends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, and crafted an elegantly precise and bracing film essay. Peck’s film, about the unholy agglomeration of myths, institutionalized practices both legal and illegal, and displaced white terror that have long perpetuated the tragic state of race in America, is anchored by the presence of Baldwin himself in images and words, read beautifully by Samuel L. Jackson in hushed, burning tones.
I Called Him Morgan
Directed by Kasper Collin
Sweden, 2016, DCP, 89m
On the night of February 19, 1972, Helen Morgan walked into the East Village bar Slug’s Saloon with a gun in her handbag. She came to see her common-law husband, the great jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan, whom she had nursed through heroin addiction. They fought, he literally threw her out; then she walked back in and shot him, handed over her gun and waited for the police to arrive. Many years later, Helen was interviewed about her life with the brilliant but erratic musician, and the tapes of that interview are the backbone of this beautifully crafted and deeply affecting film from Kasper Collin (My Name Is Albert Ayler).
Karl Marx City
Directed by Petra Epperlein & Michael Tucker
USA/Germany, 2016, DCP, 89m
In English and German with English subtitles
Having completed their series of Iraq War–era films (starting with Gunner Palace in 2004 and concluding with 2009’s How to Fold a Flag), the filmmaking team of Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker turn their attention to the former East Germany of Epperlein’s childhood, and specifically to the possibility that her father might have been one of the many thousands of citizens recruited as informers by the Stasi. Tucker and Epperlein make some bold stylistic choices (such as shooting in crystalline black and white), all of which pay off: the strange state of living under constant surveillance is both recalled and embodied in this uniquely powerful film.
Patria O Muerte: Cuba, Fatherland or Death
Directed by Olatz López Garmendia
Cuba/USA, 2016, DCP, 57m
In English and Spanish with English subtitles
Olatz López Garmendia’s film is a sharp, vivid portrait of Cuba as it is right now, on the verge of change, seen through the eyes of a diverse group of brave individuals. On the one hand, we experience the corroded beauty of a landscape largely free of the commercially driven zoning and building that has befouled so much of the western world; on the other, we see the crumbling infrastructure, falling buildings, and desperate circumstances of a nation that’s been economically stalled by a longtime United States embargo and stubborn and repressive dictatorship. Most of all, Patria O Muerte: Cuba, Fatherland or Death is about people struggling to live freely. An HBO Documentary Films release.
Directed by Shimon Dotan
France/Canada/Israel, 2016, DCP, 110m
Shimon Dotan’s film takes a good, hard look at the world of the Israeli settlers on the West Bank: the way they live, the worldview that many of them share, and, most crucially, the relaxed attitude of the Israeli government toward their presence since the first settlements in the aftermath of the Six-Day War. Dotan lays out the facts with extraordinary care and lucidity, and allows us to see the progression of actions and reactions that led to the current volatile situation, one small step at a time. Perhaps the greatest astonishment of this generally astonishing film is the casual zealotry and racism, and the apparently untroubled certainty, of many of the settlers themselves.
Two Trains Runnin’
Directed by Sam Pollard
USA, 2016, DCP, 80m
In the “Freedom Summer” of 1964, hundreds of young people—including James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner—were drawn to the deep South to take part in the Civil Rights movement. At the same moment, two groups of young men (including guitarist John Fahey and Dick Waterman, the great champion of the Blues) made the same trip in search of Blues legends Skip James and Son House. That these two quests coincidentally ended in the volatile state of Mississippi, whose governor famously referred to integration as “genocide,” is the starting point for Sam Pollard’s inventive, musically and historically rich film.
Directed by Aaron Brookner
USA, 2016, DCP, 96m
While Aaron Brookner was working on the restoration of Burroughs: The Movie, his uncle Howard Brookner’s 1983 documentary about William S. Burroughs, he discovered an archive that Howard left uncatalogued. It encompassed unused footage, and much more: film and video diaries capturing the downtown New York, post-Beat mosaic of writers, filmmakers, performers, and artists in the 1970s and 1980s and the devastation of that community by AIDS, which took Howard’s life in 1989. A work of love and scholarship, Uncle Howard weaves contemporary interviews with this rediscovered footage: of the legendary “Nova Convention”; Robert Wilson rehearsing the aborted L.A. production of The Civil Wars; a twentysomething Jim Jarmusch, Howard’s NYU classmate, recording sound on Burroughs; and Howard’s lyrical video self-portrait, made near the end of his life.
Wendy Whelan: Restless Creature
Directed by Linda Saffire & Adam Schlesinger
USA, 2016, DCP, 90m
In 1984, Wendy Whelan joined the New York City Ballet as an apprentice; by 1991, she had been promoted to Principal Dancer. She quickly became a revered and beloved figure throughout the dance world. Wrote Roslyn Sulcas, “her sinewy physicality, her kinetic clarity, and her dramatic, otherworldly intensity have created a quite distinct and unusual identity.” Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger’s film follows this extraordinary artist throughout a passage of life that all dancers must face, when she must confront the limitations of her own body and adapt to a different relationship with the art form she loves so madly.
Directed by Mohamed Siam
Egypt/USA/France, 2016, DCP, 60m
A remarkable, one-of-a-kind film from Egypt, Whose Country? has a point of view that grows in complexity as it proceeds, alongside the shifting fortunes and affiliations of the Cairo policeman who is the film’s subject and guide. By his side, we witness the fall of Mubarak, the rise and fall of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, and the rise of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The level of craft in this film is extraordinary, and so is the close attentiveness that the director pays to his difficult task: illuminating the compromised lives of the protagonist and his friends and the convulsive nation they call home.