By Sean Boelman
From showcasing some of the biggest nonfiction awards contenders of the year to serving as a launching pad for under-the-radar gems that could become dark horses in the race, DOC NYC is one of the biggest film festivals for documentary films of the year.
We at disappointment media got the opportunity to cover the 2023 edition of DOC NYC remotely. Here are our quick thoughts on a few of the films we were able to screen.
36 Seconds: Portrait of a Hate Crime
Tarek Albaba’s 36 Seconds: Portrait of a Hate Crime is the type of documentary carried more by the power of the story than how it is told. Exploring the events leading up to and aftermath of a 2015 hate crime killing in Chapel Hill, NC, the film struggles to be particularly engaging. Split the difference between a Dateline approach to investigative journalism and the Netflix style of true crime documentary, and that’s about where 36 Seconds falls. All that’s to say, the film is competently made, and the story is incredibly urgent and needs to be told, but the film lacks the impact it could have had with a more forceful presentation.
The Home Game
The Home Game is a crowd-pleaser of a sports documentary, even if it doesn’t add anything particularly new to the formula. Following a man who sets out to get a home game played on the football pitch (“soccer field,” for uninformed Americans) his father built decades ago, the story hits all the beats one would expect: setbacks, perseverance, and eventually triumph (spoilers, but what documentary would there be if they had failed?) It’s charming and uplifting, and in that sense, the film accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do — it’s just that you’ve seen stories like this told this way dozens of times before.
Lucha: A Wrestling Tale
Winner of the Metropolis section at the festival, which is dedicated to documentaries about New York City and its people, Lucha: A Wrestling Tale is compelling and well-made if entirely familiar. The film tells the story of a girls’ wrestling team at a low-income school in the Bronx. As one would expect, the sports aspect of the story is a good, old-fashioned underdog story. However, where the film really stands out is when we get a glimpse into the wrestlers’ personal lives — their anxieties, socioeconomic qualms, and motivations to persevere. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, but it’s certainly effective.
Winner of the Grand Jury award in the US Narrative Competition, Mediha is the story of a young girl who escaped captivity from ISIS and has since become an activist, fighting to increase awareness about the injustices committed against young women in the Middle East. This story is truly extraordinary — equal parts harrowing and inspiring. Although there have been several documentaries telling similar stories, Mediha stands out because, in addition to calling out the issue, it also shines a light on people who are working to find a real solution. The result is nothing less than essential viewing, even if it isn’t without its flaws.
The Mother of All Lies
The Mother of All Lies is a formally fascinating film with an interesting conceit — exploring the unreliable memories of the filmmaker as they relate to her past, primarily through the use of re-enactments created with hand-sculpted figurines. As such, the film deserves a lot of merit for its sheer ambition alone. However, what holds the film back is the different layers filmmaker Asmae El Moudir is attempting to unpack, causing the film to become convoluted at times, and even occasionally feel gimmicky. Although the approach is certainly exciting, the documentary is more effective as a formal experiment than a work of storytelling.
Smoke Sauna Sisterhood
The Estonian submission for Best International Feature at the Oscars, Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, follows a group of women who congregate in the refuge of a smoke sauna to share their most personal secrets, experiences, and anxieties. Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is a film that seems slight on its surface, but actually holds something much deeper beneath. Yet its monotonous nature makes it feel like this would have been better off as a short, rather than being extended to feature length. The cinematography is phenomenal, and there are some fascinating and important conversations held throughout the runtime, but the film does struggle to maintain the viewer’s interest.
Songs of Earth
One would have been hard-pressed to find a more visually stunning documentary at this year’s festival than Margreth Olin’s Songs of Earth, which also happens to be Norway’s submission to the Best International Feature race at this year’s Academy Awards. However, the film’s beauty is almost a double-edged sword, as its nature photography is so transfixing that it’s easy to lose sight of the story, following the filmmaker’s father. Perhaps that’s the point — for the viewer to get lost in their amazement at the world as much as the subject did — but Songs of Earth sadly isn’t all that compelling, even if it is consistently aesthetically pleasing.
Time Bomb Y2K
Archival documentaries can often be fascinating in how they manage to construct a story out of pre-existing media, but the HBO documentary Time Bomb Y2K doesn’t quite connect. Comprising a wide variety of footage, showcasing everyone from doomsday preppers to people on the street expressing their reluctance at what we now know was false paranoia, the documentary lacks focus. There is one narrative thread in the film — following a “doomsday messiah” of sorts — that poses some interesting questions; but for the most part, Time Bomb Y2K gets too caught up in being a time capsule to engage much with its material.
The 2023 edition of DOC NYC runs in-person and online from November 8-26.
The Snake Hole
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