The Spotlight on Documentary lineup for this year’s 2017 New York Film Festival features new films by Abel Ferrara, Alex Gibney, Vanessa Redgrave’s directorial debut, and more
Selections include three documentaries spotlighting acclaimed writers, including the World Premiere of Griffin Dunne’s Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold; returning NYFF filmmaker Rebecca Miller’s tender portrait of her father, Arthur Miller: Writer; and the World Premiere of Myles Kane and Josh Koury’s Voyeur, capturing the investigations explored in Gay Talese’s book The Voyeur’s Motel. Other notable documentary subjects include Jean-Michel Basquiat, who commands the downtown NYC scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s in Sara Driver’s BOOM FOR REAL The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat; and Jane Goodall, whose original expedition to contact a chimpanzee population is brought back to life via 50-year-old National Geographic footage in Brett Morgen’s Jane.
Additional selections by NYFF alums are Travis Wilkerson’s Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?, in which Wilkerson confronts his family’s white supremacist roots; the North American Premiere of The Rape of Recy Taylor, Nancy Buirski’s passionate film about the 1944 case of a black woman who was raped by several white men; Joshua Bonnetta & J.P. Sniadecki’s El mar la mar, a 16mm meditation on the dangerous trek from Mexico to the U.S. through the Sonoran Desert; the North American premiere of Abel Ferrara’s Piazza Vittorio, a charming snapshot of Rome’s largest public square; and three music films by Mathieu Amalric: C’est presque au bout du monde, Zorn, and Music Is Music.
Other highlights of this year’s Spotlight on Documentary section include Vanessa Redgrave’s directorial debut, Sea Sorrow, an expertly crafted call for Western aid to the global refugee crisis; Barbet Schroeder’s The Venerable W., which confronts an Islamophobic Burmese Buddhist monk; and Alex Gibney’s No Stone Unturned, a critical investigation into the 1994 Loughinisland massacre in Ireland.
2017 New York Film Festival Spotlight on Documentary
Arthur Miller: Writer
Dir. Rebecca Miller, USA, 2017, 98m
Rebecca Miller’s film is a portrait of her father, his times and insights, built around impromptu interviews shot over many years in the family home. This celebration of the great American playwright is quite different from what the public has ever seen. It is a close consideration of a singular life shadowed by the tragedies of the Red Scare and the death of Marilyn Monroe; a bracing look at success and failure in the public eye; an honest accounting of human frailty; a tribute to one artist by another. Arthur Miller: Writer invites you to see how one of America’s sharpest social commentators formed his ideologies, how his life reflected his work, and, even in some small part, shaped the culture of our country in the twentieth century. An HBO Documentary Films release.
BOOM FOR REAL The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat
Dir. Sara Driver, USA, 2017, 79m
Sara Driver’s documentary is both a celebration of and elegy for the downtown New York art/music/film/performance world of the late 1970s and early ’80s, through which Jean-Michel Basquiat shot like a rocket. Weaving Basquiat’s life and artistic progress in and out of her rich, living tapestry of this endlessly cross-fertilizing scene, Driver has created an urgent recollection of freedom and the aesthetic of poverty. Graffiti meets gestural painting, hip hop infects rock and roll and visa versa, heroin comes and never quite goes, night swallows day, and everybody looms as large as they feel like looming on the crumbling streets of the Lower East Side.
Dir. Alison McAlpine, Canada/Chile, 2017, 74m
The first feature from Alison McAlpine, director of the beautiful 2008 “nonfiction ghost story” short Second Sight, is a dialogue with the heavens—in this case, the heavens above the Andes and the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, where the sky “is more urgent than the land.” McAlpine keeps the vast galaxies above and beyond in a delicate balance with the earthbound world of people, gently alighting on the desert- and mountain-dwelling astronomers, fishermen, miners, and cowboys who live their lives with reverence and awe for the skies. Cielo itself is an act of reverence and awe, and its sense of wonder ranges from the intimate and human to the vast and inhuman.
Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?
Dir. Travis Wilkerson, USA, 2017, 90m
How is it that some people escape the racism and misogyny in which they are raised, and some cling to it as their reason to exist? For 20 years, Travis Wilkerson has been making films that interrogate the malevolent effects of capitalism on the American Dream. Here he turns his sights on his own family and the small town of Dothan, Alabama, where his white supremacist great-great grandfather S.E. Branch once shot and killed Bill Spann, an African-American man. Branch was arrested but never charged with the crime. The life of his victim has been all but obliterated from memory and public record. “This isn’t a white savior story. This is a white nightmare story,” says the filmmaker, who refuses to let himself or anyone else off the hook.
El mar la mar
Dir. Joshua Bonnetta & J.P. Sniadecki, USA, 2017, 94m
The first collaboration between film and sound artist Bonnetta and filmmaker/anthropologist Sniadecki (The Iron Ministry, NYFF52) is a lyrical and highly topical film in which the Sonoran Desert, among the deadliest routes taken by those crossing from Mexico to the United States, is depicted a place of dramatic beauty and merciless danger. Haunting 16mm images of the unforgiving landscape and the human traces within it are supplemented with an intricate soundtrack of interwoven sounds and oral testimonies. Urgent yet never didactic, El mar la mar allows this symbolically fraught terrain to take shape in vivid sensory detail, and in so doing, suggests new possibilities for the political documentary. A Cinema Guild release.
Dir. Tony Zierra, USA, 2017, 94m
Leon Vitali was a name in English television and movies when Stanley Kubrick cast him as Lord Bullingdon in Barry Lyndon, but after his acclaimed performance the young actor surrendered his career in the spotlight to become Kubrick’s loyal right-hand man. For the next two decades, Vitali was Kubrick’s factotum, never not on call, for whom no task was too small. Along the way, Vitali’s personal life suffered, he drifted from his children, and his health deteriorated as he gave everything to his work. Filmworker is of obvious interest to anyone who cares about Kubrick, but it is also a fascinating portrait of awe-inspired devotion burning all the way down to the wick.
Hall of Mirrors
Dir. Ena Talakic and Ines Talakic, USA, 2017, 87m
In this lively documentary portrait, the great nonpartisan investigative reporter Edward Jay Epstein, still going strong at 81, takes us through his most notable articles and books, including close looks at the findings of the Warren Commission, the structure of the diamond industry, the strange career of Armand Hammer, and the inner workings of big-time journalism itself. These are interwoven with an in-progress investigation into the circumstances around Edward Snowden’s 2013 leak of classified documents, resulting in Epstein’s recently published, controversial book How America Lost Its Secrets: Edward Snowden, the Man and the Theft. One of the last of his generation of journalists, the energetic, articulate, and boyish Epstein is a truly fascinating character.
Dir. Brett Morgen, USA, 2017, 90m
In 1960, Dr. Louis Leakey arranged for a young English woman with a deep love of animals to go to Gombe Stream National Park near Lake Tangyanika. The Dutch photographer and filmmaker Hugo van Lawick was sent to document Jane Goodall’s first establishment of contact with the chimpanzee population, resulting in the enormously popular Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees, the second film ever produced by National Geographic. One hundred hours of Lawick’s original footage was rediscovered in 2014. From that material, Brett Morgen (Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck) has created a vibrant film experience, giving new life to the experiences of this remarkable woman and the wild in which she found a home. A National Geographic Documentary Films release.
Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold
Dir. Griffin Dunne, USA, 2017, 92m
Griffin Dunne’s years-in-the-making documentary portrait of his aunt Joan Didion moves with the spirit of her uncannily lucid writing: the film simultaneously expands and zeroes in, covering a vast stretch of turbulent cultural history with elegance and candor, and grounded in the illuminating presence and words of Didion herself. This is most certainly a film about loss—the loss of a solid American center, the personal losses of a husband and a child—but Didion describes everything she sees and experiences so attentively, so fully, and so bravely that she transforms the very worst of life into occasions for understanding. A Netflix release.
No Stone Unturned
Dir. Alex Gibney, Northern Ireland/USA, 2017, 111m
Investigative documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney—best known for 2008’s Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and at least a dozen others—turns his sights on the 1994 Loughinisland massacre, a cold case that remains an open wound in the Irish peace process. The families of the victims—who were murdered while watching the World Cup in their local pub—were promised justice, but 20 years later they still didn’t know who killed their loved ones. Gibney uncovers a web of secrecy, lies, and corruption that so often results when the powerful insist they are acting for the greater good.
Dir. Abel Ferrara, Italy/USA 2017, 69m
North American Premiere
Abel Ferrara’s new documentary is a vivid mosaic/portrait of Rome’s biggest public square, Piazza Vittorio, built in the 19th century around the ruins of the 3rd century Trofei di Mario. The Piazza is now truly a crossroad of the modern world: it offers a perfect microcosm of the changes in the west brought by immigration and forced displacement. Ferrara, now a resident of Rome himself, talks with African musicians and restaurant workers, Chinese barkeeps and relocated eastern Europeans, homeless men and women, artists, members of the right wing movement CasaPound Italia, filmmaker Matteo Garrone, actor Willem Dafoe, and others, all with varying opinions about the vast changes they’re seeing in their neighborhood and world.
The Rape of Recy Taylor
Dir. Nancy Buirski, USA, 2017, 90m
North American Premiere
On the night of September 3, 1944, a young African-American mother from Abbeville, Alabama, named Recy Taylor was walking home from church with two friends when she was abducted by seven white men, driven away and dragged into the woods, raped by six of the men, and left to make her way home. Against formidable odds and endless threats to her life andthe lives of her family members, Taylor bravely spoke up and pressed charges. Nancy Buirski’s passionate documentary shines a light on a case that became a turning point in the early Civil Rights Movement, and on the many formidable women—including Rosa Parks—who brought the movement to life.
Dir. Vanessa Redgrave, UK, 2017, 72m
Vanessa Redgrave’s debut as a documentary filmmaker is a plea for a compassionate western response to the refugee crisis and a condemnation of the vitriolic inhumanity of current right wing and conservative politicians. Redgrave juxtaposes our horrifying present of inadequate refugee quotas and humanitarian disasters (like last year’s clearing of the Calais migrant camp) with the refugee crises of WWII and its aftermath, recalled with archival footage, contemporary news reports and personal testimony—including an interview with the eloquent Labor politician Lord Dubs, who was one of the children rescued by the Kindertransport. Sea Sorrow reaches further back in time to Shakespeare, not only for its title but also to further remind us that we are once more repeating the history that we have yet to learn.
A Skin So Soft
Denis Côté, Canada/Switzerland/France, 2017, 94m
Studiously observing the world of male bodybuilding, Denis Côté’s A Skin So Soft (Ta peau si lisse) crafts a multifaceted portrait of six latter-day Adonises through the lens of their everyday lives: extreme diets, training regimens, family relationships, and friendships within the community. Capturing the physical brawn and emotional complexity of its subjects with wit and tenderness, this companion piece to Cote’s singular animal study Bestiaire (2012) is a self-reflexive rumination on the long tradition of filming the human body that also advances a fascinating perspective on contemporary masculinity.
Dir. Stéphane de Freitas, co-directed by Ladj Ly, France, 2017, 99m
North American Premiere
Each year at the University of Saint-Denis in the suburbs of Paris, the Eloquentia competition takes place to determine the best orator in the class. Speak Up (À voix haute – La Force de la Parole) follows the students, who come from a variety of family backgrounds and academic disciplines, as they prepare for the competition while coached by public-speaking professionals like lawyers and slam poets. Through the subtle and intriguing mechanics of rhetoric, these young people both reveal and discover themselves, and it is impossible not to be moved by the personal stories that surface in their verbal jousts, from the death of a Syrian nightingale to a father’s Chuck Norris–inspired approach to his battle with cancer. Without sentimentality, Speak Up proves how the art of speech is key to universal understanding, social ascension, and personal revelation.
The Venerable W.
Dir. Barbet Schroeder, France/Switzerland, 2017, 100m
The Islamophobic Burmese monk known as The Venerable Wirathu has led hundreds of thousands of his Buddhist followers in a hate-fueled, violent campaign of ethnic cleansing, in which the country’s tiny minority of Muslims were driven from their homes and businesses and penned in refugee camps on the Myanmar border. Barbet Schroder’s portrait of this man again proves, along with his General Idi Amin Dada (1974) and Terror’s Advocate (2007), that the director is a brilliant interviewer, allowing power-hungry fascists to damn themselves with their own testimony. His confrontation with Wirathu—a figure whose existence contradicts the popular belief that Buddhism is the most peaceful and tolerant major religion—is revelatory and horrifying. A release from Les Films du Losange.
What Are You Up to, Barbet Schroeder? (2017, 13m), in which the director traces the path that led him to Myanmar, a center of Theravada Buddhism, where racial hatred was mutating into genocide.
Myles Kane and Josh Koury, USA, 2017, 96m
Gerald Foos bought a motel in Colorado in the 1960s, furnished the room with louvered vents that allowed him to spy on his guests, and kept a journal of their sexual encounters…among other things. As writer Gay Talese, who had known Foos for more than three decades, came close to the publication of his book The Voyeur’s Motel (preceded by an excerpt in The New Yorker), factual discrepancies in Foos’s account emerged, and documentarians Kane and Koury were on hand to record some wild encounters between the veteran New York journalist and his enigmatic subject. A Netflix release.
Three Music Films by Mathieu Amalric
C’est presque au bout du monde (France, 2015, 16m)
Zorn (2010-2017) (France, 2017, 54m)
Music Is Music (France, 2017, 21m)
These three movies from Mathieu Amalric are musicals, from the inside out: they move with the mental and physical energies of John Zorn, the wildly prolific and protean composer/performer/bandleader/