Like yesterday’s belated post on the New York Film Festival, this one plays catch up as well, offering brief thoughts on eight of the feature docs that screened as part of the third edition of NYC’s premier non-fiction festival, which wrapped up about a month ago. While on staff this year, I wasn’t able to see our entire feature lineup as I was busy with our shorts programming and Doc-A-Thon panel series, but here are those I did catch:
Jamie Meltzer’s in-depth exploration of Brandon Darby (pictured above), a former radical activist turned FBI informant, won the Grand Jury Prize winner in the festival’s Viewfinders Competition. While viewers may be familiar with the story – last year’s BETTER THIS WORLD offers a different take – Meltzer’s version takes a broader approach than the Republican National Convention that is the focus of the earlier film. He also has access to Darby, a charismatic and handsome subject who either believes his version of the controversial events of which he’s been part or has convinced himself of his own mythmaking. Playing to this, Meltzer makes the unusual and at times unsettling decision to stage re-enactments of key scenes from Darby’s narrative with Darby playing himself. The result of the film as a whole is a multi-perspectival look at a fascinatingly complex, and flawed, subject.
PERSISTENCE OF VISION
Another fascinating subject appears throughout Kevin Schreck’s expertly crafted film, though only in archival footage. Animator Richard Williams won’t speak publicly about his stillborn animated feature, THE THIEF AND THE COBBLER, but given that he worked on it for literally decades, there’s plenty of footage for Schreck to draw from in telling the story behind the ill-fated “masterpiece.” Williams is talented – of that there is no doubt. Working with Stephen Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis, he took home Oscars for WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?, and the sequences on display from his would-be directorial debut are often awe-inspiring. At the same time, interviews reveal Williams to be his own worst enemy, never fully settling on a story, never satisfied with progress made, and by some accounts, a harsh and sometimes heartless taskmaster of a boss. When he fails to make agreed upon deadlines and loses control of his film, it shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone. And while it’s sad that a bowdlerized, Disneyfied version was dumped onto the straight-to-video children’s market, it remains unclear that Williams would ever have finished his own version, or that the never-fully-conceived project actually would have lived up to the reverential mythologizing that has sprung up around it.
THE PREP SCHOOL NEGRO
André Robert Lee also confronts a degree of myth-making around the idea of the saving grace of racial diversity in traditionally white prep schools. Lee reflects on his own and other African-American students’ experience at an elite Philadelphia institution – an experience that more often than not involved the necessity of straddling two worlds. In the white prep school world, race and perceived socioeconomic status singled out these students, while in their black working class neighborhoods, their academic pursuits marked them as wannabe white or just plain different. The resultant dislocation has had a profound impact on their lives, family relationships, and futures, making for a smart personal doc that nevertheless reaches beyond individual stories to address deeper and relatable concerns.
MELVIN & JEAN: AN AMERICAN STORY
Race is at the forefront of Maia Wechsler’s DOC NYC entry, the story of Melvin and Jean McNair, a young African-American couple who became fugitives from justice after hijacking a plane in 1972 as a statement against both racial oppression in the US and the Vietnam War. Joining the international Black Panther Party in Algeria, and then later making their way to France, the McNairs eventually served time in French prison, but have been unable to return to the US for fear of further jail time for what they characterize as an act borne out of desperation and youthful political engagement. In a post-9/11 world, others see their controversial action in a different light, even if the couple have spent the intervening decades trying to make up for it. This well-constructed film profiles the McNairs as their attorney attempts the difficult task of reconciling their past and their present to give them a chance to return home after four decades.
A GIRL AND A GUN
There’s undeniably a need for deeper conversations around guns in America from various angles. Cathryne Czubek’s film takes as its focus the multivalent relationship between women and firearms through profiles of various female gun owners. Taking something of a survey approach, Czubek explores a range of issues that intersect with a feminine perspective on guns, from fear and self-protection to independence to a love of hunting. Intermittent commentary provides an historical context for the popular representation of women and girls with guns, from frontierswoman Annie Oakley to criminal Bonnie Parker to Hollywood heroines like Pam Grier or Linda Hamilton. Largely bypassing the political dimension for more of a sociological and cultural perspective, the film might not tackle the most controversial and fundamental questions that some viewers might be looking for, but it certainly offers plenty to talk about within the scope of its direct concerns.
TIME ZERO: THE LAST YEAR OF POLAROID FILM
When Polaroid quietly announced the discontinuation of instant film a few years ago, lovers of the format faced the slow death of a beloved mode of expression. Director Grant Hamilton captures their responses in this veritable love letter to the medium, as a multitude of Polaroid instant photographers and camera collectors reflect on why the medium carries such meaning for them and their work in an age of instantaneous digital reproduction. At the same time, this analog lovefest reveals intriguing background on the company and on Dr Edwin Land, its inventor, and stops short of being simply a eulogy – the efforts of the aptly-named Impossible Project to resurrect instant film provide a fantastic hook and a hopeful urgency to round out this enjoyable documentary.
Another DOC NYC selection looking at what’s been lost is Amy Nicholson’s look at the redevelopment of the historic NYC amusement park district of Coney Island. Ostensibly focused on the titular ride, Nicholson actually casts a much wider net to explore the intersection of politics, money, greed, and rezoning and what it has meant for the beloved but inarguably past its prime entertainment area. Rather than revitalize what is working, the complicated and long-delayed development plans to homogenize Coney Island, championing gentrification in the name of growth versus the preservation of a unique cultural landmark. The film received a Special Jury Prize winner in the festival’s Metropolis Competition.
Finally, Maxine Trump’s film also explores a battle between different vested interests and the potential loss to culture which may result. In this case, the contentious issue is logging and its impact on the construction of acoustic guitars. The world’s leading guitar makers join forces to negotiate with the Native American loggers of southeast Alaska whose practices of clear-cutting threatens the supply of old growth trees essential to the continued manufacture of the instrument. Given the reprehensible treatment the Alaskan Natives have received in past land agreements, they are wary of the industry’s attempts to change their practices – and the introduction of a third party, Greenpeace, just further complicates matters. Trump deftly balances these distinct perspectives, each with their own priorities and concerns, making the film more than the sum of its individual music, environmental, or Native American parts.