This year’s Spotlight on Documentary section of the 57th New York Film Festival (September 27–October 13) features incisive portraits of iconic figures, intimate reports from inside the American prison system, New York stories both personal and political, and much more.
Selections include three documentaries spotlighting larger-than-life subjects, including legendary dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham in Alla Kovgan’s visceral and immersive documentary Cunningham 3D; Bully. Coward. Victim, in which director Ivy Meeropol unflinchingly examines the life and death of conservative power broker Roy Cohn, who began his career prosecuting her own grandparents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg; and Ric Burns’s Oliver Sacks: His Own Life, which offers a glimpse into the private life of Sacks in a moving tribute to the endlessly curious writer and neurologist. The lineup also features family stories from returning filmmaker Nick Broomfield, crafting his most personal film to date with My Father and Me, a portrait of his relationship with his factory worker-turned-photographer father Maurice Broomfield; Nicholas Ma, whose short documentary Suite No. 1, Prelude captures the perfectionist tendencies of his father, the world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma; and Michael Apted, showcasing a different kind of family in 63 Up, the ninth entry in the long-running film series that returns to the lives of its thirteen subjects as they come to terms with illness, death, Brexit, and more.
Two films in Spotlight on Documentary go inside the American prison system, depicting human stories with intimacy, candor, and humor. In College Behind Bars, veteran documentarian Lynn Novick has crafted a four-part chronicle of several ambitious incarcerated students in New York state correctional facilities, witnessing their debates and discussions of philosophy, science, and Shakespeare as they navigate the daily cruelties of prison life. On the opposite coast, director Tim Robbins captures an extraordinary acting workshop for inmates inside the Calipatria State maximum-security facility in 45 Seconds of Laughter, culminating in a performance inspired by the Commedia dell’arte tradition.
Additional highlights of the lineup include the New York stories of Free Time, which features meticulously restored 16mm black-and-white footage of city life shot by Walter Hess and director Manfred Kirchheimer between 1958 and 1960, and D.W. Young’s The Booksellers, a lively tour of New York’s book world past and present with insights from Fran Lebowitz, Susan Orlean, Gay Talese, and a community of dedicated book dealers. Other standout titles are Tania Cypriano’s Born to Be, a film of astonishing access that goes behind the scenes at Mount Sinai Hospital to capture the emotional and physical processes of transgender patients in the midst of surgical transition; Abbas Fahdel’s Bitter Bread, which finds the director also acting as producer, cinematographer, and editor in his portrait of a community of Syrian refugees living in a Lebanese tent camp; and two films that offer new insights into historic political events: Nanni Moretti’s Santiago, Italia, which tells the little known story of the Italian Embassy’s efforts to save and relocate citizens targeted by the fascist regime of Augusto Pinochet after a U.S.-backed military coup, and Sergei Loznitsa’s found-footage documentary State Funeral, which features previously unseen archival images from the days following the death of Joseph Stalin.
As previously announced, the NYFF57 Opening Selection is Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is Centerpiece Selection, and Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn is the Closing Selection.
FILMS & DESCRIPTIONS
45 Seconds of Laughter
Dir. Tim Robbins, USA, 95m
A selected group of inmates at the Calipatria State maximum-security facility have convened for a highly unlikely workshop. In prison they normally segregate themselves by gang or by race, but here they are all mixed together, sitting in a circle. Over the course of several recurring meetings, the men, many of whom have been incarcerated for serious crimes, will take part in a series of acting exercises that enhance bonding and emotional connection, each session closing with the participants bursting into 45 seconds of unbridled, cleansing laughter. The entire endeavor—part of The Prison Project, a remarkable program conducted by the L.A. theater troupe The Actors’ Gang that has proven to cut down recidivism rates—will climax in a final performance inspired by the Commedia dell’arte tradition. In his contemplative, pared down, and wildly engaging documentary, Dead Man Walking director Tim Robbins—who also appears in the film, taking part in the workshop—captures these extraordinary sessions, and introduces us to the individuals fearlessly investigating their own performative natures and the masculine social roles they play.
Dir. Michael Apted, UK, 138m
Those of us who have devotedly followed Michael Apted’s one-of-a-kind British film series for the past several decades anticipate with great warmth—and more than a little poignant anxiety—returning every seven years to the lives of Tony; Nicholas; Suzy; Symon and Paul; Jackie, Sue, and Lynn; Andrew and John; Neil and Peter; and Bruce. Charting their growth has constituted one of the most rewarding documentary projects of all time, an ongoing inquiry into economic determination and the elusive search for happiness. In the rich, searching, and entertaining latest installment, they are more introspective than ever at age 63, coming to terms with death and illness, the disappointments of a fractured England, and uneasy prospects for their children and grandchildren’s futures. But they also remain, to a person, witty, optimistic, and delightful company.
Dir. Abbas Fahdel, Lebanon/Iraq/France, 87m
Among the countless Syrian citizens who have fled their country, about one-and-a-half-million have relocated to neighboring Lebanon. In this patient, heart-rending portrait, Iraqi-born filmmaker Abbas Fahdel, director of the epic Homeland (Iraq Year Zero), settles in with a community of refugees living in a tent camp in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, most of them children. Hopeful to earn a meager wage as they work under the supervision of a Lebanese shawish, who owns the plot of land they’re essentially renting, the adults try to keep their families together amidst flooding and destructive seasonal weather, all the while listening to the radio for news from back home. Fahdel burrows in with his subjects in close quarters, alighting on the various human dramas that occur throughout the camp, including the frustrations of a young man waiting to bring in his fiancée from back home. Most importantly, Fahdel, working as director, producer, cinematographer, and editor, simply lets these desperate yet resilient people—so often treated as statistics—speak for themselves.
Dir. D.W. Young, USA, 99m
What once seemed like an esoteric world now seems essential to our culture: the community of rare book dealers and collectors who, in their love of the delicacy and tactility of books, are helping to keep the printed word alive. D.W. Young’s elegant and entertaining documentary, executive produced by Parker Posey, is a lively tour of New York’s book world, past and present, from the Park Avenue Armory’s annual Antiquarian Book Fair, where original editions can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars; to the Strand and Argosy book stores, still standing against all odds; to the beautifully crammed apartments of collectors and buyers. The film features a litany of special guests, including Fran Lebowitz, Susan Orlean, Gay Talese, and a community of dedicated book dealers who strongly believe in the wonder of the object and the everlasting importance of what’s inside.
Born to Be
Dir. Tania Cypriano, USA, 92m
Soon after New York state passed a 2015 law that health insurance should cover transgender-related care and services, director Tania Cypriano and producer Michelle Hayashi began bringing their cameras behind the scenes at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, where this remarkable documentary captures the emotional and physical journey of surgical transitioning. Lending equal narrative weight to the experiences of the center’s groundbreaking surgeon Dr. Jess Ting and those of his diverse group of patients, Born to Be perfectly balances compassionate personal storytelling and fly-on-the-wall vérité. It’s a film of astonishing access—most importantly into the lives, joys, and fears of the people at its center.
Bully. Coward. Victim.
The Story of Roy Cohn
Dir. Ivy Meeropol, USA, 94m
This thorough and mesmerizing documentary takes an appropriately unflinching look at the life and death of Roy Cohn, the closeted, conservative American lawyer whose first job out of law school was prosecuting filmmaker Ivy Meeropol’s grandparents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Moving from the fifties—when he was also chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy—to the crooked deals and shady power brokering of the eighties that led Cohn to becoming the right-hand man and mentor of Donald J. Trump, this film is not merely a depiction of a brutal, ideologically diseased man—it’s an interrogatory work in search of the true character behind an icon of the political right in a deeply troubled America. Featuring interviews with such figures as Cindy Adams, Alan Dershowitz, Tony Kushner, Nathan Lane, John Waters, and a trove of fascinating, recently unearthed archive video and audio material. An HBO Documentary Films release.
College Behind Bars
Dir. Lynn Novick, USA, 222m
Out of the more than 50,000 men and 2500 women incarcerated in New York State, only a tiny fraction have access to higher education. The Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) enrolls incarcerated men and women earning Associate and Bachelor’s degrees; it’s a program with wide-ranging benefits, including lower rates of recidivism, and it challenges our prioritization of punishment over education. Veteran filmmaker Lynn Novick, whose producing and directing credits include epochal miniseries Baseball, Jazz, Prohibition, and The Vietnam War, in collaboration with longtime producer Sarah Botstein, have created an intimate documentary event: a four-part chronicle filmed in correctional facilities in Napanoch and Bedford Hills. The film follows a handful of ambitious and inspiring incarcerated students—most of them serving time for serious crimes—as they debate and discuss American history and mathematics, philosophy and science, Moby Dick and King Lear, DuBois and Arendt, and simultaneously navigate the difficulties and cruelties of prison life and attempt to come to terms with their pasts. A PBS Distribution release.
Dir. Alla Kovgan, Germany/France/USA, 93m
One of the most visionary choreographers of the 20th century, Merce Cunningham could also be counted among its great modern artists, part of a coterie of important experimenters across media that included Robert Rauschenberg, Brian Eno, Jasper Johns, and his long-term romantic partner John Cage. This painstakingly constructed new documentary both charts his artistic evolution over the course of three decades and immerses the viewer in the precise rhythms and dynamic movements of his choreography through a 3D process that allows us to step inside the dance. Director Alla Kovgan has created a visceral experience that both reimagines and pays tribute to Cunningham’s groundbreaking technique. A Magnolia Pictures Release.
Dir. Manfred Kirchheimer, USA, 61m
Manny Kirchheimer is one of the great masters of the American city symphony, as is clear from films like Stations of the Elevated (1981) and Dream of a City, which showed at last year’s NYFF. In his latest work, the 88-year-old Kirchheimer has meticulously restored and constructed 16mm black-and-white footage that he and Walter Hess shot in New York between 1958 and 1960. This lustrous evocation of a different rhythm of life captures the in-between moments—kids playing stickball, window washers, folks reading newspapers on their stoops—and the architectural beauty of urban spaces, set to the stirring sounds of Ravel, Bach, Eisler, and Count Basie. The breathtaking footage was shot in several distinct New York neighborhoods, including Washington Heights, the Upper West Side, and Hell’s Kitchen, and features impressionistic stops throughout the city, making time for an auto junkyard in Inwood, a cemetery in Queens, and the elegant buildings of the financial district.
Suite No. 1, Prelude
Dir. Nicholas Ma, USA, 15m
Nicholas Ma—producer of the winning Mister Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?—has made a short, loving portrait of his legendary father, Yo-Yo Ma. Avoiding idolatry, the film uses its casual intimacy to focus on the nuances of craft and the drive for perfection, detailing the world-renowned cellist’s endeavor, at age 61, to record Bach’s Cello Suites for the third and, he says, last time. Filmed in the splendid Mechanics Hall in Worcester, Massachusetts.
My Father and Me
Dir. Nick Broomfield, UK, 97m
North American Premiere
For decades among the foremost names in documentary, Nick Broomfield (Tales of the Grim Sleeper, NYFF52) has often implicated himself in the filmmaking process, with honesty and candor. Yet never has he made a movie more distinctly personal than this complex and moving film about his relationship with his humanist-pacifist father, Maurice Broomfield, a factory worker turned photographer of vivid, often lustrous images of industrial post-WWII England. These images inspired Nick’s own filmmaking career, but also spoke to a difference in outlook between Maurice and Nick, whose less romantic, more left-wing political identity stemmed from his Jewish mother’s side. My Father and Meis both memoir and tribute, and in its intimate story of one family takes an expansive, philosophical look at the twentieth century itself.
Oliver Sacks: His Own Life
Dir. Ric Burns, USA, 110m
For decades, Oliver Sacks, M.D. captured the imagination of the public with his eloquently written case studies of cognitive disorders. Despite sharing with the world one revelation after another about the intricacies, idiosyncrasies, and amazements of the human mind, Sacks remained private for much of his life, specifically about his struggles growing up gay in the repressive England of the 1950s. In Ric Burns’s invigorating documentary, partly shot before Sacks’s death in 2015 and featuring extensive scenes with the man himself, we get to know Sacks, from his childhood with a schizophrenic older brother, to his years as a champion bodybuilder and motorcycle aficionado, to his remarkable accomplishments as one of our foremost neurologists, including his groundbreaking work on patients with the sleeping sickness encephalitis lethargica, which became the basis for his book Awakenings. Burns’s documentary is a fitting and moving tribute to a man who never stopped wondering what it was like to be in the head of another sentient being. A PBS/ American Masters Release.
Dir. Nanni Moretti, Italy, 80m
North American Premiere
In the early seventies, the world was watching as Chile democratically elected Socialist leader Salvador Allende. His political ideals and aspirations—among them providing education for all children and distributing land to the nation’s workers—terrified the country’s right-wing, as well as the U.S., who helped orchestrate a military coup that replaced him with dictator Augusto Pinochet. This tragic history has been well documented, but Italian director Nanni Moretti (Caro Diario, Ecce Bombo) adds an angle many viewers may not know about: the efforts of the Italian Embassy to save and relocate citizens targeted by the fascist regime. Told through the testimonies of those who were there, Santiago, Italia is a chilling depiction of living under junta rule and an ultimately inspiring expression of hope amidst dire circumstances.
Dir. Sergei Loznitsa, Netherlands/Lithuania, 132m
As proven in his recent documentaries Maidan, The Event, and The Trial, versatile Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa has become one of the contemporary masters of the found-footage documentary, using the form to study the nature of the Soviet regime and uncover its darkest legacies for contemporary and future generations. In State Funeral, he has uncovered a wealth of astonishing, mostly unseen archival footage of the “Great Farewell” in the days following the death of Joseph Stalin in March 1953: the teeming mass of mourners clogging Moscow’s Red Square, the speech announcing the hasty appointment of Malenkov, and finally Stalin’s burial in Lenin’s Tomb. While speeches about the Soviet Union’s unyielding fortitude and unity in the face of tragedy blare endlessly on speakers, and the pomp and ostentation grows increasingly surreal, the brilliantly edited and sound-designed State Funeral becomes an ever-relevant meditation on not just the horrors but also the absurdity of totalitarianism and the cult of personality.