Review: ‘Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America,’ starring Jeffrey Robinson

November 28, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jeffrey Robinson, Hank Sanders and Faya Ora Rose Touré in “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” (Photo by Jesse Wakeman/Sony Pictures Classics)

“Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America”

Directed by Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler 

Culture Representation: The documentary “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” features a predominantly African American group (with a few white people) of civil rights activists, entrepreneurs, historians and authors discussing the racial prejudices and challenges experienced by people of color, particularly African American men, in the United States.

Culture Clash: The documentary, led by civil rights activist/attorney Jeffrey Robinson, has the premise that people cannot truly be honest about racism in America without acknowledging that America was built on white supremacy that oppresses non-white people in entrenched systems that still exist today.

Culture Audience: “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” will appeal primarily to people interested in historical accounts of racial bigotry in America that have a personal touch (due to Robinson’s on-camera narration and interviewing), but don’t expect there to be much discussion about racism against people who aren’t African American men.

Jeffrey Robinson in “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” (Photo by Jesse Wakeman/Sony Pictures Classics)

“Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” is partly a filmed lecture by scholar Jeffrey Robinson, partly a historical account and partly a personal journey taken by Robinson to retrace past experiences with racism and race relations. The movie features compelling interviews and information but puts an overwhelming emphasis on bigotry inflicted on black men. The documentary should have been more inclusive of other people of color who experience racism too.

For example, the documentary has almost no acknowledgement of the genocide of Native Americans that allowed white Europeans to take over the land that is now known as the United States of America. You can’t have a truly comprehensive discussion about racism in America without including the brutally honest but necessary history explaining how white people became the dominant race in a part of North America where Native Americans were the dominant race for centuries. The documentary also does not cover the well-documented and shameful examples of U.S. government-sanctioned racism and other forms of bigotry experienced by Latinos and Asians in America.

“Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” (directed by sisters Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler) is nevertheless a well-intentioned film and addresses many important topics about racial discrimination. The title is just a little misleading though. A more accurate title would be “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism Against Black Men in America.” That’s because almost all of the examples of racist hate crimes that are examined in this documentary are crimes in America against black men. This documentary packs in a considerable amount of information in its 118-minute running time, but the vast scope of what this documentary intended would have been better-suited as a docuseries instead of a feature-length film.

“Who Are Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” made the rounds at several film festivals, including the SXSW Film Festival, Hot Docs, AFI Fest and DOC NYC. It’s the type of movie that is supposed to make people uncomfortable because it covers uncomfortable truths that many people want to deny or forget. The documentary sounds an alarm that there’s still a lot of work to be done in healing from and preventing the damage of racism that is still pervasive today.

If it seems like “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” has a well-articulated and methodical tone of attorneys presenting a case, that’s because several attorneys or people with legal backgrounds were involved in the making of this film. Jeffrey Robinson, the movie’s on-screen narrator and interviewer, is an attorney who founded the Who We Are Project non-profit group to combat racism. Proceeds from this documentary will go to Who We Are Project. He has a background working as a deputy legal director and the director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Trone Center for Justice and Equality, as well as a public defender and an attorney in private practice.

Robinson, Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler are among the producers of “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America.” Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler (who co-founded the social-justice film production company Off Center Media) are two of the daughters famed civil rights attorney William Kunstler. Sarah is a practicing attorney. Emily’s mother is attorney Margaret Ratner Kunstler.

When white directors make a documentary or any project about white supremacist racism, some people will automatically question the validity or authenticity of the project. Emily Kunstler responded to this skepticism by making this statement in the “Who We Are” documentary’s production notes: “Throughout the making of this film, one of the questions we often get is why are two white women making this film? Our answer is that the history of slavery in the United States is not Black history, it is American history; a history of white supremacy and white complicity as well as a history of Black oppression and resistance. Growing up, Sarah and I were taught that it was our moral responsibility to stand up against racism and fight for justice. This responsibility includes learning and sharing our country’s painful history.”

“Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” has three distinctive types of footage that are all interwoven seamlessly throughout the film:

  • (1) A filmed speaking appearance about American racism that Robinson did in June 2018 at New York City’s Town Hall. This footage was directed by Gbenga Akinnagbe, who is one of the producers of this documentary
  • (2) Archival footage of many of the people, places and events discussed in the documentary.
  • (3) Interviews about racism in America that Robinson conducted in various U.S. cities.

Robinson has an engaging style of public speaking that is partly like a scholarly history teacher, partly like an intellectual sociologist and partly like an impassioned civil rights activist. He infuses his recitation of alarming statistics and data about racism with his own personal anecdotes, in order to make the information more relatable. He sometimes cracks sarcastic jokes to lighten the mood. Other times, his facial expressions show the emotional pain of remembering being the target of racism and feeling empathy to others who’ve also experienced this type of hatred and discrimination.

In the documentary’s opening scene, Robinson is seen on stage at the Town Hall appearance addressing a common argument that some people have when trying to minimize the damage caused by slavery in America. Robinson says that these deniers often say, “‘Slavery is not our responsibility.’ But it’s our shared history. And when we try to turn it into something that it’s not, when we try to make more light of what it was, then we are denying who we really are and are impeding our ability to move forward as a community and as a nation.”

As an example of how divisive people’s opinions are about how slavery in America should be remembered, the documentary mentions the ongoing debates of whether or not certain slave owners in American history should be celebrated. Controversies over which public statues should be removed or which architectural structures should be renamed indicate that this is a hot-button topic that won’t be going away anytime soon. Oftentimes, when people talk about not removing these statues or other tributes, they say it’s about “being patriotic.” But does “being patriotic” mean embracing historical racists as heroes?

In the documentary, Robinson shares his opinion on where people should draw the line: If a historical figure (especially a slave owner) is best known for doing things that advocated for keeping slavery and/or racial segregation legal, then those historical figures should not be celebrated with public statues, structures or any government-funded institutions named after them. If a historical figure’s accomplishments consist mainly of progress for the United States that’s greater than the fact that the historical figured owned slaves when it was legal in the United States, then it’s best to not remove the statue or tribute. Robinson cites former U.S. presidents who were slave owners (George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, to name a few) as examples of historical figures who shouldn’t be “erased” or “cancelled,” because their legacies for what they did in U.S. history far outweigh the fact that they owned slaves.

Several of the flashpoint events in civil rights history are mentioned during Robinson’s Town Hall speaking appearance, which includes a Power Point-type visual presentation on stage. These tragedies include the 1921 massacre and burning of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma; the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmitt Till, who was brutally slaughtered by two white men in Money, Mississippi, after Till was wrongfully accused of whistling at a white woman; and the 1968 assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis. For many of these tragic events, Robinson goes to the scene and/or interviews people who were associated in some way to the victims of these hate crimes.

In Tulsa, Robinson interviews Lessie Benningfield Randle, one of the last known survivors of the Tulsa massacre. Even though she was a little girl when the massacre happened, she still has horrific memories of this tragedy. She witnessed people being shot and bodies piled up on the street. “I never want to see anything like that again,” she says with a haunted look in her eyes.

Also in Tulsa, Robinson visits Dr. Tiffany Crutcher, the twin sister of Terence Crutcher, an unarmed college student who was killed in 2016 by a white police officer named Betty Jo Shelpy, who claimed self-defense. Dr. Cruther says that her brother was not identified as a suspect when Shelpy arrived on the scene and that the media “dehumanized” him as a criminal when in fact he was not a criminal. “He laid on the street like an animal,” she says bitterly about how her brother’s dead body was unattended to for hours.

While in Memphis (Robinson’s childhood hometown), Robinson visits the Lorraine Motel, the site of King’s assassination. Robinson describes his own father as someone who was involved in the civil rights movement, and he has vivid memories of being taken to protest marches as a child. Also in Memphis, Robinson has an emotional reunion with Robert “Opie” Orians, a former classmate and friend of Robinson’s when they both attended St. Louis Catholic School and were on the school’s basketball team. Jeffrey Robinson and his older brother Herbert Robinson (who appears briefly in another part of the documentary) were the first black students at the school.

Opie’s father Richard Orians is also part of the reunion with Opie and Jeffrey. Richard, who used to coach the school’s basketball team, talks about an incident when the St. Louis team was barred from entry for a game at a rival school because a black student (Jeffrey) was on the St. Louis team. All three men get emotional, with eyes tearing up and voices cracking, when Richard says that, out of principle, he removed the team from the premises because he didn’t want to the team to be associated with a school that would make this racist decision. At the time, Richard says that he protected the team by not telling them the real reason why they were withdrawing from the game.

Jeffrey also remembers another racist incident he experienced as a child during a basketball game, when someone on the other team called him the “n” word. Jeffrey’s father was watching the game nearby, so Jeffrey went to his father to complain about the racist insult. Jeffrey remembers his father’s empathetic but stern response: “What do you want to do about it?”

His father asked Jeffrey if he would rather quit the game and let the racist feel superior, or stay in the game to prove to the racist that a racist slur wasn’t going to stop Jeffrey from playing the game. Jeffrey decided to stay in the game. He said it was an early lesson in not letting racists get what they want when they using racist insults and other forms of racism to make the targets of their hate feel inferior or defeated.

Jeffrey shares another personal story when he meets up with Kathie Fox, whose mother-in-law Mildred was the realtor of the Robinson family. The family—Jeffrey’s parents Herbert Sr. and Lameris; older brother Herbert Jr.; and younger brother Larry (who appears briefly in this documentary)—couldn’t move into a mostly white neighborhood until Mildred enlisted her married friends Lib and Pat Smith to buy a house in the neighborhood and then transfer the deed to Herbert Sr. and Lameris. Jeffrey remembers the look of shock on some neighbors’ faces when his family moved into the neighborhood. It was not uncommon for African American families to have to ask white allies to be their proxies to buy a house in a white neighborhood, because racist realtors would not sell houses to black people.

Also in Memphis, Jeffrey meets up with Tami Sawyer, a Shelby County commissioner of District 7, who led the charge to take down a statue in Memphis of Nathan Bedford, a Confederate Army general and the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Sawyer says there’s no legitimate excuse for any past or present member of the KKK to be honored with a publicly funded statue that makes that person look like a hero. Still, the people who successfully lobbied to have the statue removed got a lot of resistance from those who say statues like that represent “Southern pride.” To other people, these types of statues are symbols of racist white supremacy.

While visiting Clayborn Temple in Memphis, Jeffrey interviews Carolyn Payne, whose unarmed brother Larry Payne was shot to death by a cop when Larry was 18 years old. Larry was unfortunately in the wrong place at the wrong time, since there was no evidence that he did anything wrong. Nothing ever happened to the cop who killed Larry. Carolyn says that she and her family will probably never know what really happened because she thinks there was a racist cover-up by the police who were involved. Sadly, there are too many other incidents like this to put into just one documentary.

In Alabama, Jeffrey visits author Josephine Bolling McCall, whose father Elmore Bolling was murdered in 1967, for being “too successful to be a Negro,” according to a newspaper report that she reads out loud and which is shown in the documentary. She describes how her family found her father shot to death in a ditch. “It’s ingrained in my memory,” she says with heartbreak. No one was indicted for this crime.

While in Selma, Alabama, Jeffrey speaks with retired Alabama senator Hank Sanders and activist Faya Ora Rose Touré, who are part of a group of citizens who want the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma to be renamed the Freedom Bridge. Edmund Pettus was a Grand Dragon in the KKK. Considering the historical significance of Selma in the civil rights movement, many people think it’s an insult that there’s a bridge in Selma (or anywhere, for that matter) named after someone who was proud to be a racist.

While in Charleston, South Carolina, Jeffrey visits the Old Slave Mart Museum, where operations manager Ista Clarke gives a harrowing, detailed description of what it was like for slaves to be bought and sold there. Also in Charleston, Jeffrey accompanies Sights and Insights Tours owner Al Miller on a trip to the Ashley Avenue Oak Tree, which was the site of numerous lynchings, mainly of African American men. It’s mentioned that in almost all of these lynching cases, the victims were lynched not for doing anything wrong but for not being white.

African Americans are the vast majority of people who are interviewed in this documentary, but one white person is interviewed who represents people who think that the Confederate flag is not a symbol of racist hate. In Charleston, Jeffrey talks to one of three white men standing outside on the street while holding the Confederate flag. The three men are from a pro-Confederate flag group called Flags Across the South. It should be noted that although these men claim to be proud to stand up for their cause, they’re all wearing hats and sunglasses, as if they don’t want their faces to be fully exposed.

Jeffrey talks to Flags Across the South chairman Braxton Spivey on the street. And what Spivey has to say can only be described as being making excuses for slavery. Spivey comments, “Slavery had nothing to do with the [Civil] War. It was about money.” Spivey adds, “Slaves were treated like family,” and he believes that slaves “chose to stay” in captivity.

Jeffrey looks visibly disgusted at Spivey’s historically inaccurate rhetoric and blatant racism. When Spivey is asked if he would ever want to be owned as a slave, he admits he would not. But the subtext of what Spivey believes is that he thinks that white people shouldn’t be the slaves in society. Jeffrey shakes his head as he walks away and comments on Spivey: “Facts are not important to that gentleman.”

While in New York City, Jeffrey talks to law student Darren Martin, who had the cops called on him when he was moving into his apartment. Apparently, an unidentified neighbor assumed that because Martin is African American, his moving activities were thieving activities. Martin says that six police officers responded to the complaint as if he were a criminal, even though he showed proof that he was a new resident of the building and he was moving in. Like many people who experience this type of racism, Martin took out his phone and video recorded the incident. His video went viral and made the news.

Also in New York City, Jeffrey interviewed Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, an unarmed African American man who died in 2013 after a police officer put Garner in a chokehold and Garner repeatedly yelled, “I can’t breathe!” The cop acted with this type of force in response to seeing Garner illegally selling loose cigarettes. That incident was captured on video, made international news, and became a touchstone tragedy that fueled the Black Lives Matter movement.

Carr describes her slain son: “He was a gentle giant.” She also says that she went into a deep depression after his death but then had a spiritual awakening: “The Holy Spirit spoke to me one evening” and asked if she was going be dead like her son, or if she was “going to get up, lift up his name, and let people know exactly who he was, and not let the media demonize him. Even though it’s too late for my son, we have to save other lives.”

While in New York City, Jeffrey interviews Inside Out Tours managing director Stacey Toussaint, who talks about how slave labor was the backbone of New York City, which was a financial hub for insurance and financing of the slave trade. Toussaint says that she wants more people to understand that even though Southern states are often singled out as the worst states in America for racism, the reality is that racism can be anywhere.

Other people interviewed in the documentary are Chief Egunwale F. Amusan, president of the African Ancestral Society in Tulsa; Reverend Dr. Robert Turner, pastor of Historic Vernon Chapel A.M.E. Church in Tulsa; Kristi Williams, a Historic Greenwood/Black Wall Street historian; and Jeffrey’s nephew Matthew Liam Brooks, whom Jeffrey raised as a son after Brooks’ mother died.

During his Town Hall speaking appearance, Jeffrey says that dealing with racism means dealing with the ugly fact that many people are too heavily invested in keeping white supremacist racism in the economy and other systems that affect people lives. And when it comes to stopping racism, he makes this pointed observation: “A lot of people say they want change. They just don’t want the change to cost them anything or require them to change anything about the way they are living.”

One of the best ways to sum up the point of this documentary is from something that Jeffrey says in his Town Hall speaking engagement: “America has demonstrated its greatness time and time and time again, and America is one of the most racist countries on the face of the earth. Those two things are not mutually exclusive. It is not an either/or. And the reason I’m asking us to think about this is that literally, the future is at stake.”

Sony Pictures Classics will release “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” in select U.S. cinemas on January 14, 2022.

2021 DOC NYC jury winners announced

November 17, 2021

The following is a press release from DOC NYC:

 

DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, revealed the 2021 award winners for its juried U.S. Competition, International Competition, Metropolis, Kaleidoscope, Shorts, Short List: Features, and Short List: Shorts sections. Winners of the inaugural IF/Then Shorts x Redford Center Nature Access Pitch competition were also announced. A complete list below.

The in-person portion of the festival’s hybrid 12th edition continues through November 18 with screenings and panels at New York’s IFC Center and Cinépolis Chelsea, along with a special closing night presentation of The First Wave at The Beacon Theatre. DOC NYC’s online screenings run through November 28, with some 100 features available to stream across the United States, including almost all the award winners. Select winners also have in-theater screenings during the festival’s final two days in person in New York.

Online DOC NYC Live conversations, presented on Facebook Live, will take place on November 22 with the filmmakers from the Short List: Shorts section, and on November 23 with talent behind the films in the festival’s Short List: Features section. For a full schedule of films and events, see www.docnyc.net. Ticket and pass information is below.

For DOC NYC’s competitive sections, five juries selected films from the festival’s new U.S. Competition, International Competition, and Kaleidoscope sections, as well as its long-running Metropolis and Shorts lineups, to recognize for their outstanding achievements in form and content. The Short List: Features program—a selection of nonfiction films that the festival’s programming team considers to be among the year’s strongest contenders for Oscars and other awards—vied for awards in four categories: Directing, Producing, Cinematography, and Editing, with a Directing prize also awarded in the Short List: Shorts section. The Short List awards were voted on by two juries of filmmaker peers.

Winners of the 2021 Grand Jury Prize in the U.S., International, Kaleidoscope, Metropolis, and Shorts competitions will each receive a deliverables package provided by PostWorks New York.

Voting for the festival’s Audience Award continues through November 18; the winner of the award will be announced on November 19.

U.S. Competition: The jury selected from among twelve new American nonfiction films in this section.
Remaining screening: Wednesday, November 17 at 9:40pm at Cinépolis Chelsea.

Grand Jury Prize: Once Upon a Time in Uganda, directed by Cathryne Czubek, co-directed by Hugo Perez, and produced by Gigi Dement, Cathryne Czubek, Matt Porwoll, Hugo Perez, and Kyaligamba Ark Martin.

Alan Hofmanis and Isaac Nabwana in “Once Upon a Time in Uganda” (Photo courtesy of Blue Finch Films)

Juror’s statement: “We choose Once Upon a Time in Uganda for illustrating the transformative capacity of film to bridge cultures and change lives. We are inspired by the charming, original method the filmmakers took in documenting the creative joy of Wakaliwood, a community that relies on ingenuity and imagination to overcome the economic obstacles of global audiovisual production; and we appreciate how Once Upon a Time in Uganda demonstrates the connective power of international film festivals in asserting that ‘the audience is our family.'”

Special Mention: Refuge, directed/produced by Erin Berhardt and Din Blankenship.

Jurors’ statement: “We give an honorable mention to Refuge for addressing one of the U.S.’s most urgent problems — the lack of civil dialogue, or any dialogue, between our warring cultural factions.”

Jurors: Jaie Laplante (Executive Director, Miami Film Festival); Amy Nicholson, filmmaker; Valerie Torres (Director of Theatrical Sales and Exhibitor Relations, Shout! Factory)

Films featured in the U.S. Competition section: Anonymous Sister, Be Our Guest, Boycott, Exposure, Grandpa Was an Emperor, Newtok, Objects, Once Upon a Time in Uganda, Refuge, The Slow Hustle, A Tree of Life, United States vs. Reality Winner.

International Competition: The jury selected from among twelve new international productions in this section.

Grand Jury Prize: On the Other Side, directed by Iván Guarnizo, produced by Jorge Caballero.

Beatriz Echeverry in “On the Other Side”

Jurors’ statement: “With its exquisite directorial vision and restraint, On the Other Side deeply affected us, the jury. The film is testament to a courageous, emotional, and deeply personal endeavor by filmmaker Iván Guarnizo, elegantly bypassing the heavy handed tropes of trauma and violence to instead craft a work of art that is poetic and profound. In a world increasingly polarized, where constant battlelines are being drawn, the nuances of this film’s journey and care towards its participants show us the power and hope of redemption, forgiveness, and humanity.”

Special Mention: After the Rain, directed by Jian Fan, produced by Richard Liang, S. Leo Chiang.

Jurors’ statement: “We would also like to recognize After the Rain by Jian Fan, a standout among a strong group of international contenders. The jury appreciated the dedication to the story over a decade and the steady, observational lens of the filmmaking team to craft a deeply intimate and haunting film.”

Jurors: Samara Chadwick (Executive Director, The Flaherty); Aseem Chhabra (Festival Director, New York Indian Film Festival); Bao Nguyen, filmmaker.

Films featured in the International Competition section: After the Rain, Be My Voice, Comala, The Bubble, Come Back Anytime, The Devil’s Drivers, F@ck This Job, The Forgotten Ones, Go Through the Dark, The Mole, On The Other Side, Young Plato.

Kaleidoscope: The jury selected from among seven films in this section, which showcases essayistic and formally adventurous documentaries.

Grand Jury Prize: Nude at Heart, directed by Yoichiro Okutani, produced by Asako Fujioka, Eric Nyari

“Nude at Heart”

Juror’s statement: “The jury awards its top prize to a film of risky and decisive filmmaking, a film that documents with confidence an insular world, and builds an intelligent, purposeful distance between the filmmaker and the characters. This is a film that trusts its own images to lead us into a complex world and community of work and collective support—a film that doesn’t moralize, sexualize, or objectify its subjects, but instead models a careful gaze, offers a subtle entry into a fascinating universe, and gives space and presence to its inhabitants.”

Special Mention: Nothing But the Sun, directed by Arami Ullón, produced by Pascal Trächslin

Juror’s statement: “The jury would also like to award a Special Mention to a film that provides a gateway to a diverse and complex history, and helps to salvage and give a form to a common memory. This is a choral film, one full of speaking that prioritizes the collective, rather than an individual voice, and explores the fragility of media in preserving oral histories, encounters, emotions, and the residue of trauma.”

Jurors: Daniela Alatorre, producer; Cíntia Gill (Festival Director, formerly of Sheffield DocFest, Doc Lisboa), Leo Goldsmith (The New School)

Films featured in the Kaleidoscope section: Cow, Edna, Invisible Demons, Nothing But the Sun, Nude at Heart, The Man Who Paints Water Drops, Three Minutes: A Lengthening.

Metropolis: The jury selected from among seven films in this section, which is dedicated to stories about New Yorkers and New York City.

Grand Jury Prize: Hold Your Fire, directed by Stefan Forbes and produced by Tia Wou, Fab Five Freddy, and Amir Soltani.

“Hold Your Fire”

Jurors’ statement: “The filmmaker elegantly and impactfully uses the past to illuminate the social and political issues that are still critical to consider today. The black and white archival footage comes colorfully to life with masterfully edited sequences and music that pull you into the moment. The interviews highlight their emotionally conflicted responses and challenge us to consider the differing points of view. In this contemporary contemplation of violence and race relations in our culture, we are left to consider the possibility of redemption and hope.”

Special Mention: Charm Circle, directed and produced by Nira Burstein and produced by Betsy Laikin.

Available online through Sunday, November 28.

Jurors’ statement: “The honesty and bravery of the filmmaker are powerfully felt in approaching the subject of family dysfunction in a candid and uncensored way. With strong character development, the narrative patiently/lovingly unfolds with moments of humor and creativity to build compassion for a family’s hopes and dreams as well as a profound sense of loss.”

Jurors: Beth B, filmmaker; Denise Greene (Director of Programs, Black Public Media); Lucila Moctezuma (Program Director, Chicken & Egg Pictures).

Films featured in the Metropolis section: Charm Circle, End of the Line, Hold Your Fire, Mimaroğlu: The Robinson of Manhattan Island, Mr. Saturday Night, The Photograph, The Reverend.

Shorts Competition: All new short films playing at the festival were eligible for the Shorts Grand Jury Prize, with the exception of DOC NYC U showcases and Short List: Shorts selections.

Shorts Grand Jury Prize: NASIR, directed by Nasir Bailey and Jackson Kroopf and produced by Jackson Kroopf.

“NASIR”

Jurors’ statement: “For its lucid and lyrical portrait of an artist as a young man, the 2021 DOC NYC Shorts Grand Jury Prize is presented to Nasir Bailey and Jackson Kroopf’s exquisitely crafted NASIR. The film finds its soulful subject in a state of transition, proudly granting the audience permission to witness his slow, steady, hard-won glow up. Energized by the subject’s effortless charisma and potent musical gifts, the film emerges as a deeply human study of self-actualization and personal evolution. Intimately assembled with an eye for luminous, delicate imagery and direction, the film unfurls with a quiet confidence, flowing elegantly between moments of pathos and poetry—ultimately standing tall as a beacon of transmasculine resilience and joy.”

Special Mention: American Scar, directed and produced by Daniel Lombroso, and produced by Yara Bishara, Melissa Fajardo, Stephania Taladrid.

Jurors’ statement: “American Scar turns a well-mined, seemingly completed Trump-era story into a compelling call-to-action by creatively cataloging the environmental impact of the abandoned US-Mexico border wall. Startling images capture the destruction caused by humanity’s hubris and serve as a harbinger of things to come. The film presents a stark reminder of the devastating impact of human action on the natural world and offers a rousing and immediate call for change.”

The 2021 winning Short film qualifies for consideration in the Documentary Short Subject category of the Annual Academy Awards® without the standard theatrical run (provided the film otherwise complies with the Academy rules).

Jurors: Faridah Gbadamosi (Artistic Director, Outfest); Robin Robinson (festival programmer, True/False); Robert John Torres (festival programmer, Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival).

Short List: Features: DOC NYC’s Short List for Features puts the spotlight on 15 documentaries representing the best of the year.

Directing Award: In the Same Breath, directed by Nanfu Wang

“In The Same Breath” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

Jurors’ statement: “Nanfu Wang cracks open the story of the global COVID-19 pandemic using an incredibly personal and political lens to reveal China’s propaganda machine — and America’s. The jury celebrates Wang’s unwavering, skillful and persistent command of the documentary craft that it takes to make such a complex and emotional film.”

Producing Award: Flee, produced by Monica Hellström, Signe Byrge Sørensen, Charlotte De La Gournerie. 

“Flee” (Image courtesy of Neon)

Jurors’ statement: “Among the many strengths of Flee, the jury recognizes the enormous task of producing the film. Whether securing funding for expensive animation, fostering groundbreaking creativity, or managing an intricate post-production phase, the producing team’s critical role made Flee the vital, touching, artistic achievement it is.”

Editing Award: Ascension, edited by Jessica Kingdon

A livestreamer for Yiwu Siwen Shoe Company in “Ascension” (Photo by Jessica Kingdon)

Jurors’ statement: “Ascension never stops surprising, despite its leisurely pacing and seemingly straightforward construction. The jury applauds Jessica Kingdon’s patient and astute editing that weaves striking imagery of China’s gaping social divides into a poetic reflection on — and quiet critique of — consumption and capitalism.”

Cinematography Award: Faya Dayi, cinematography by Jessica Beshir

“Faya Dayi” (Photo courtesy of Janus Films)

Jurors’ statement: “Jessica Bashir’s cinematography in Faya Dayi is both an aesthetic and spiritual achievement. Bashir has a bare awareness that holds wisdom, her visual translation so elevated it feels as if operating from the subconscious. The cinematography in Faya Dayi reminded the jury how much we can learn from simply watching.”

Special Jury Prize for Cultural Treasures: Summer of Soul (… Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, produced by Joseph Patel, Robert Fyvolent, David Dinerstein

Sly Stone in “Summer of Soul (…Or, The Revolution Could Not Be Televised”) (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

Jurors’ statement: “For its directorial vision, fantastic editing, and overall funky beats that weave history and culture into the colorful fabric of one summer festival in Harlem, the jury awards a Special Jury Prize for Cultural Treasures to Summer of Soul. If we could, the jury would travel back in time to release this film 50 years ago so it would have informed our collective memory. Instead, we hope this award will encourage audiences to imagine the collective history we should have had.”

Jurors: Nadia Hallgren, filmmaker; Kimberly Reed, filmmaker; Hao Wu, filmmaker.

Short List: Shorts: DOC NYC’s Short List for Shorts highlights 12 documentary shorts that the festival’s programming team considers the year’s leading awards contenders.

Directing Award: Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma, directed by rubberband, Topaz Jones, produced by Luigi Rossi

“Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma”

Jurors’ statement: “For its innovative structure and immediacy, we selected Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma as our winner. The playful editing combined rich visuals, moving personal archival material, and thought-provoking interviews to give audiences a full sense of the filmmaker and his community. The storytelling successfully nails both personal experience and political history.”

Special Jury Mention: The Queen of Basketball, directed by Ben Proudfoot, produced by Elizabeth Brooke, Abby Lynn Kang Davis, Gabriel Berk Godoi, Brandon Somerhalder, Sarah Stewart

Jurors’ statement: “We also chose to recognize The Queen of Basketball with a Special Mention. Viewers fall in love with Lusia because the filmmakers deftly convey her deep strength and fragility at the outset. We are immersed in the experience of a pathfinding woman athlete whose remarkable career was cut short by the racial and gender barriers of her time. Bringing the film full circle to the next generation – a little girl shooting hoops in Lusia’s driveway – opens this storytelling to the future.”
Jurors: Mirra Bank, filmmaker; Kirstine Barfod, producer; Alison Klayman, filmmaker.

IF/Then Shorts x The Redford Center Nature Access Pitch: The Redford Center and IF/Then Shorts announced Between Earth and Sky as the winner of the inaugural IF/Then Shorts x The Redford Center Nature Access Pitch event at DOC NYC, celebrating stories that spotlight the benefits of time spent outdoors.

Between Earth and Sky, directed by Andrew Nadkarni and pitched by Nadkarni and producer Swetha Regunathan, will receive a $25,000 production grant and a year of wraparound mentorship from IF/Then Shorts. Also selected as honorable mentions by the jury of the Nature Access Pitch were Fruit of Soil and Makana o ke Mele (Gift of Song), each of which will receive a $5,000 grant and distribution consultation from IF/Then Shorts. Upon their completion, all three films will be featured as part of The Redford Center’s Nature Films Program.

After announcing the winning films live at DOC NYC Festival, Jill Tidman, Executive Director of The Redford Center shared, “This day reminded me that there’s so much vital work taking place that most people don’t know about. Amazing individuals and communities are working to solve the problems of nature access, and their stories are just incredible. I am so inspired and honored to have these new documentaries as part of The Redford Center family of films. We are going to support them, in many ways, to make sure their work is shared with the world. I couldn’t be happier with the outcome of this inaugural Nature Access Pitch, our partnership with IF/Then Shorts, and the platform of DOC NYC.”

TICKETS AND PASSES:

Festival tickets and passes may be purchased at docnyc.net/tickets-and-passes or at venue box offices. Online tickets and passes are available for purchase online only.

In-person Screenings: $19 General Admission/$17 Seniors & Children/$16 IFC Center Members, unless otherwise noted.

All screenings in the Short List: Features, Short List: Shorts, Winner’s Circle and DOC NYC U sections, as well as all Monday-Friday screenings starting before 5:00pm: $12 General Admission/$10 IFC Center members

Online screenings:

$12 General Public/$9 IFC Center Members

Passes and Ticket Packs:

Online Film Pass $250

Grants access to all the films screening on the festival’s virtual platform, November 10-28.

Five-Ticket Package for Online Screenings $45

Ten-Ticket Package for Online Screenings $80

A package of 5 or 10 online tickets at a special discount price.

Sponsors

The festival is made possible by:

Leading Media Partners: New York Magazine; The WNET Group

Major Sponsors: A&E; Apple Original Films; Netflix; WarnerMedia

Supporting Sponsors: discovery+, National Geographic Documentary Films; SHOWTIME® Documentary Films

Signature Sponsors: Amazon Studios; Bloomberg Philanthropies; Cquence; Hulu; National Geographic; NBC News Studios; NYC Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment; Participant; PostWorks; Sony; XTR

Signature Media Partners: IndieWire; The New Republic; WNYC

Event Sponsors: 30 for 30 / ESPN Films; Cinépolis Luxury Cinemas; Consulate General of Canada in New York; Cowan, DeBaets, Abrahams & Sheppard LLP; Fox Rothschild LLP; Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz PC; IF/Then Shorts; Impact Partners; JustFilms | Ford Foundation; MTV Documentary Films; Reavis Page Jump LLP; SVA’s MFA Social Documentary Film; The Redford Center; TIME Studios; Wheelhouse Creative

Friends of the Festival: Agile Ticketing; Cinesend; Essentia, Ptex; Shiftboard; Telefilm Canada

DOC NYC is produced and presented by IFC Center, a division of AMC Networks.

Complete DOC NYC program information can be found at: www.docnyc.net

To inquire about sponsor or partnership opportunities for DOC NYC, please contact Raphaela Neihausen, Executive Director, at raphaela@docnyc.net.

Review: ‘Once Upon a Time in Uganda,’ starring Isaac Nabwana and Alan Hofmanis

November 16, 2021

by Carla Hay

Alan Hofmanis (front row, center) and Isaac Nabwana (front row, far right) in “Once Upon a Time in Uganda” (Photo courtesy of Blue Finch Films)

“Once Upon a Time in Uganda”

Directed by Cathryne Czubek; co-directed by Hugo Perez

Some language in Swahili with subtitles

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Once Upon a Time in Uganda” features a mostly African group of people (with some white people) in a chronicle of Ugandan indie filmmaker Isaac Nabwana’s ventures with his Ramon Film Productions and the alliance that Nabwana forms with American filmmaker/actor/publicist Alan Hofmanis.

Culture Clash: Nabwana gets volunteer help from Hofmanis, who moved from New York to live with Nabwana and Nabwana’s family in Uganda, but Hofmanis and Nabwana sometimes disagree on Hofmanis’ role and decision making for Ramon Film Productions.

Culture Audience: “Once Upon a Time in Uganda” will appeal primarily to people interested in how independent filmmaking works in Uganda, and how relationships can be affected when friends do business together.

Harriet Nabwana and Isaac Nabwana in “Once Upon a Time in Uganda” (Photo courtesy of Blue Finch Films)

The title of “Once Upon a Time in Uganda” might have been inspired by Quentin Tarantino’s Oscar-winning 2019 film “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” because this documentary is ostensibly about Isaac Nabwana, a Ugandan independent filmmaker whose work has been inspired by Tarantino. However, the narrative of the film is from the perspective of Alan Hofmanis, an American filmmaker/actor/publicist. Hofmanis does the voiceover commentary in describing his experiences of getting involved with Nabwana and Ramon Film Productions, the company founded by Nabwana in 2005. It’s a mostly engaging and realistic look at the challenges of independent filmmaking in Uganda, as well as the highs and lows of two friends doing business with each other.

“Once Upon a Time in Uganda” was supposed to have its world premiere at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival, which was cancelled as an in-person event due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, the movie had its U.S. premiere at the 2021 edition of DOC NYC in New York City. [UPDATE: “Once Upon a Time in Uganda” won DOC NYC’s inaugural U.S. Competition Grand Jury Prize.] Directed by Cathryne Czubek and co-directed by Hugo Perez, “Once Upon a Time in Uganda” tells a compelling story, but at times it’s too much of a personal showcase/platform for Hofmanis. More of the spotlight should have been on Nabwana, whose films are the reasons why this documentary exists.

Hofmanis explains in the beginning of the documentary that he first discovered Nabwana when someone showed him a trailer for Nabwana’s movie “Who Killed Captain Alex,” a zany action comedy filmed gonzo-style, which is how you could describe Nabwana’s other movies too. Hofmanis says he was so intrigued with “Who Killed Captain Alex” (a movie that went viral on YouTube), he knew he had to go to the rural town of Wakalisa, Uganda (where Nabwana is based), to meet him in person. However, Hofmanis didn’t know Nabwana’s address or phone number and couldn’t find that information. He went to Wakalisa anyway, with the hope of tracking down Nabwana.

The documentary has a somewhat cheesy scripted segment that’s supposed to be a re-enactment of what Hofmanis experienced when he got to Wakalisa. If you believe this part of the movie, Hofmanis was in an outdoor market where he happened to see a man wearing a Ramon Film Productions T-shirt. He ran after the man and asked him if he knew Nabwana. The answer was “yes,” and that’s how Hofmanis was eventually introduced to Nabwana.

In “Once Upon a Time in Uganda,” Nabwana mentions that he’s 44-year-old married father of three children. He’s a brick layer/brick maker for his day job. But his real passion is filmmaking, especially in the action genre. Nabwana cites his earliest influences as Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone as Rambo. To hone his filmmaking skills and raise money for his independent films, Nabwana does part-time work filming music videos, TV commercials and wedding videos.

Nabwana began making short films around 2005. He became a one-person creative team, as the writer, director, cinematographer and editor for all of his earliest work. His wife Harriet (who is also in the documentary) says that soon after they got married, he told her that he wanted to be a filmmaker. She’s completely supportive of his goals.

Harriet is also a valuable member of Ramon Film Productions. She handles many production assistant duties on the set, as well as the marketing and packaging of the company’s products. Harriet does all the catering for the cast and crew. (The company doesn’t have the budget to pay cast members, who are all volunteers.) All of this is shown in the documentary.

It’s mentioned several times that Isaac Mabwana and Ramon Film Productions are largely responsible for building a film community in Wakalisa called Wakaliwood. Ramon Film Productions even has its own theme song. Wakalisa is economically deprived, so the Wakaliwood nickname is a source of pride to the people in the community. In the documentary, Hofmanis comments that he likes being involved in African movies that are not about poverty and war. “My argument is that this is a different narrative of Africa,” he says of Ramon Film Productions movies.

But there’s one big problem, which the documentary also shows many times: Ramon Film Productions, although it ends up getting a lot of publicity with Hofmanis’ help, is struggling to make a profit. Isaac describes the audiences for his movies as “peasants. They are the majority.” Not long after Hoffmanis meets Isaac, he offers to help take Ramon Film Productions to the next level of become a world-renowned (and hopefully profitable) independent film studio.

Ramon Film Productions is literally a “mom and pop” business, so what made Hofmanis think he could get involved to the point of moving in with the Nabwana family in Uganda? There’s more to the story of Hofmanis wanting to help as a fan of Isaac’s work. What emerges is a portrait of a well-meaning but somewhat desperate person who ditched his life in New York to try to re-invent himself as a movie wheeler dealer in Uganda. The results were decidedly mixed for Hofmanis.

In the documentary, Hofmanis (who was in his 50s and a bachelor with no children at the time this film was made) describes himself as a movie nerd and a jack of all trades in the film industry. Based for years in New York City, he says that his work experience is being a director, producer, cinematographer and editor of short films, commercials and music videos. Hofmanis also says that he helped program film festivals and has done film publicity. You get the impression that Hofmanis is the cliché of “jack of all trades, master of none.”

If someone does something as extreme such as leaving behind the comforts of a middle-class life in the United States to live in a poverty-stricken area of Africa, it’s usually for personal reasons, not for career advancement. And sure enough, Hofmanis says that when that he decided to sell all of his belongings and gave up his apartment so he could move to Africa, it was around the same time that his fiancée dumped him. He says the day that he bought the wedding ring was the same day that she left him. “It was the perfect storm,” Hofmanis says of the breakup and his decision to move to Uganda.

After this heartbreak and with nothing left to lose, Hofmanis says he decided to pour his energy into helping Isaac. It’s never really explained whose idea it was for Hofmanis to live with the Nabwana family. However, viewers will get the impression (based on what’s said in the documentary) that Hofmanis just showed up to offer his services for free, Isaac accepted the offer, and Isaac let Hofmanis live in his home because he knew that Hofamnis was homeless in Uganda and didn’t know anyone else.

Isaac also seems to be very aware that Hofmanis’ breakup with his ex-fiancée (who’s only identified as Maria) was a big reason for this drastic move: “I don’t know what Maria did to Alan,” Isaac says when he tries to explain why Hofmanis moved to Uganda to do volunteer work for Isaac. The personalities of the two men are quite different from each other: Isaac is laid-back and focused, while Hofmanis is high-energy and neurotic.

Over a period of at least three years that are chronicled in this documentary, Hofmanis lived in a home with no indoor plumbing, unreliable Internet service and electricity that could malfunction at any moment’s notice. It’s mentioned that filmmakers in Uganda often have the problem of computer hard drives that get electrical burn damage because of sudden surges in electricity. Hofmanis spent countless hours promoting Isaac as a filmmaker to anyone who would listen and many people who wouldn’t listen.

Because his diet in Uganda was drastically different from his diet in the U.S., Hofmanis lost weight almost to the point of being emaciated. In the documentary, he occasionally gripes about the discomforts of living in this type of poverty. And there are expected problems in the filmmaking process, such as technical mishaps and running out of money. However, Hofmanis also makes it clear that what he gained—priceless friendships and experiences—far outweighed anything that he considered a “down side.”

The documentary shows how Hofmanis became part of the Ramon Film Productions team, albeit with a role and job title that were never clearly defined. He and Isaac form a genuine friendship, but the vagueness of Hofmanis’ business relationship with Isaac ends up frustrating Hofmanis. It’s hard to feel too sorry for Hofmanis though when he obviously didn’t have the business sense to get a contract about his role in the company.

Hofmanis doesn’t come right out and say it, but it soon becomes very apparent that he was hoping that Isaac would eventually offer him partial ownership of Ramon Film Productions. That offer doesn’t happen. And you can’t really blame Isaac for that decision, because Isaac is the one who founded the company, he created the films, and he got funding for his movies—long before he ever met Hofmanis, who volunteered his services with no contract. If someone professing to be an ardent admirer offered to do all this work for free, most people would not turn down that offer.

Hofmanis is shown being an actor and occasional crew member for the Ramon Film Productions movie “Bad Black,” where he is the only white person in the movie. There’s not much of a plot. He’s shown being hunted by people in combat gear. The action scenes include a lot of martial arts, an area in which Hofmanis admittedly says he is very unskilled, but he learns a little as he goes along. Hofmanis jokes that Isaac’s movies could invent a new “beating up the white guy” genre with Hofmanis as the star.

The documentary shows how Ramon Film Productions has a martial arts training program for children who might want to be in the company’s movies someday. The kids are called Waka Starz. Ramon Film Productions also has video jokers, also known as VJs, who provide running commentary and jokes when the company’s movies are screened to live audiences. (It’s similar to what RiffTrax does in the United States.) The documentary also mentions that most people see Isaac’s movies online or on DVD. The company’s mail-order business includes the sales of DVDs and branded merchandise, but Harriet is seen lamenting that they haven’t been able to turn a profit from these sales.

Through his connections in the media and in the film industry, Hofmanis is able to get major media outlets to give editorial coverage to Ramon Film Productions. CNN, PBS, the Wall Street Journal, Esquire and Vice are among those media outlets. Hofmanis gives the impression that it was his idea to label Isaac as “the Quentin Tarantino of Uganda,” as a hook to get the media interested.

Isaac’s movies are nowhere near as slickly filmed as Tarantino’s movies. Ramon Film Productions movies have comedy that’s juvenile, and the dialogue is bare-bones basic. And due to the very low budgets of Ramon Film Productions movies, the visual effects are cheap-looking and amateurish. However, there’s a love of moviemaking that comes through that is appealing. The comedy is goofy enough to bring some laughs. It’s why Ramon Film Productions has a fan base that Hofmanis thinks deserves to grow on a massive level.

Isaac’s visa/passport issues prevent him from traveling where Hofmanis ends up going to promote Isaac’s work. At various points in the documentary, Hofmanis is seen traveling to Antwerp, Belgium; Seoul, South, Korea; Cannes, France; and Austin, Texas. During these travels, Hofmanis is often present at Ramon Film Productions movie screenings that he arranged to be viewed by the public as limited engagements/specialty screenings at independent cinemas. Over time, Hofmanis begins to think of himself as the spokesperson for Ramon Film Productions.

The documentary shows how Hofmanis met with Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) programmer Peter Kuplowsky to pitch Isaac’s feature film “Crazy World” as a selection for the festival. “Crazy World” ended up screening as part of TIFF’s Midnight Madness program in 2019. The documentary shows whether or not Isaac was able to work out his passport problems to attend the screening.

“Once Upon a Time in Uganda” is so focused on Hofmanis telling his story and his perspective, it might be easy to assume that he’s one of the documentary’s producers, but he’s not. Being a film producer means that you need to have money to pay for a film. “Once Upon a Time in Uganda” makes it abundantly clear that Hofmanis’ lack of money (multiple times in the movie, he says that he’s broke) becomes a point where Isaac and Hofmanis start to diverge.

For all the publicity that Hofmanis was able to generate for Ramon Film Productions, it didn’t lead to any offers from major investors. However, one potential investor began talking to Isaac (this investor is not seen in the documentary), and Isaac didn’t include Hofmanis in the discussions, because Isaac is the sole owner of the business. When Hofmanis finds out he wasn’t included in these discussions, he reacts like a lover who’s been cheated on, and he says he feels betrayed.

Hofmanis and Isaac stop communicating with each other for a while, even though Hofmanis still continues to live in the Nabwana family home. His hurt feelings turn into bitterness. And then, Hofmanis jets back to New York to figure out what to do next because he doesn’t know if he can trust Isaac. When Hofmanis sees his parents again, he acts like Isaac is being the difficult one. It’s at this point in the documentary that Hofmanis and his “woe is me” attitude start to get irritating.

Viewers will probably think Hofmanis has a “white savior” complex, because he thought he could swoop in and show a native Ugandan how to become a financially successful filmmaker. When things didn’t work out the way Hofmanis wanted (he didn’t get the credit and glory he thought he deserved), he began acting like a kid with poor sportsmanship who wants to quit the game and go home just because he’s not the center of attention. Apparently, Hofmanis doesn’t understand that volunteering for a full-time, unpaid job in exchange for a free place to stay does not entitle someone to a partnership or equal decision making in the company.

Early on in the documentary, Isaac brings up the issues of race and social class, when he says that in the film industry, “the white man is king” and “the corporate class is skeptical” that Isaac can make a movie because Isaac is “poor.” And so, it’s very likely that even though Isaac and Hofmanis became friends, Isaac was probably using Hofmanis for white privilege, just like Hofamnis was probably using Isaac to feel like a white savior. It’s important to remember that Hofmanis volunteered to do all of this work for Isaac without being paid, so Isaac shouldn’t be made to look like a disloyal villain for accepting the help and wanting to retain sole ownership of his company.

And really, what did Hofmanis expect? For all of his lofty plans, nothing that Hofmanis did in this documentary helped Ramon Film Productions become profitable. At one point, Harriet started a cake-making business because the family was losing money on the film production company. At no point in the documentary is Hofmanis shown working at any “regular” job in Uganda to help raise money for the company, or even to help the family with household expenses. Maybe he thought that getting a “regular” job in Uganda would be too “beneath” him, since he wanted to be perceived as a hotshot American filmmaker.

That’s not to say that Hofmanis didn’t genuinely want to help, but an objective observer can see that he was somewhat using this relocation to Uganda to escape from a life that was making him unhappy in New York. No one was forcing him to live in poverty and volunteer his services to a struggling film company in Uganda. It was all of his own free will. You also have to question the “business savvy” of an admittedly financially broke person who does all of this full-time business work without a contract.

It would be wrong to assume that “Once Upon a Time in Uganda” is only about gonzo filmmaking in Uganda. The documentary is also a lesson in what can happen when friends work together without a contract and with the naïve assumption that no one will ever get greedy or selfish in making business decisions. If Hofmanis had an ulterior motive to be made a partner in Ramon Film Productions (and it sure looks like that was his ulterior motive), Isaac made the right decision to not give up any stakes in the company to someone who came along as a volunteer. And in that respect, Isaac Nabwana has a lot more business intelligence than maybe some people think he has.

Review: ‘Objects,’ starring Rick Rawlins, Heidi Julavits, Robert Krulwich, Jad Abumrad, Josh Glenn and Rob Walker

November 14, 2021

by Carla Hay

A scene from “Objects” (Photo courtesy of Semicolon Pictures)

“Objects”

Directed by Vincent Liota

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Objects” features a mostly white group of people (with a few Asians and one African American) discussing how objects are kept because of sentimental value.

Culture Clash: Most of the people in the documentary believe in the theory that someone’s trash could be someone else’s treasure.

Culture Audience: “Objects” will appeal primarily to people interested in a breezy but somewhat limited overview of why people hold on to things that other people might think are worthless and should be thrown away.

Rick Rawlins in “Objects” (Photo courtesy of Semicolon Pictures)

Everyone owns an object that might not have much monetary value, but there’s no price tag that can be put on how much that item means to the owner. The documentary “Objects” (which had its world premiere at the 2021 edition of DOC NYC in New York City) takes an entertaining look at sentimental attachments to possessions, with an emphasis on giving anecdotes instead of giving deep analysis. The documentary is charming but not very innovative in its presentation. Overall, the movie capably demonstrates how stories about possessions are not just reflections of people’s personalities but also how people have lived their lives.

Sentimental attachment to objects seems like a broad topic that’s too unwieldy to cover in a feature-length documentary. However, “Objects” has a total running time of just 63 minutes. That’s because “Objects” director Vincent Liota kept the narrative spotlight on three different items owned by three different people. The reasons why these three items have emotional value to their owners are explained in the documentary, which weaves these personal stories in between various commentaries and anecdotes about the pros and cons of holding on to mementos.

The three participants who get the memento spotlight are:

  • Rick Rawlins, a graphic designer in Massachusetts, has kept a sugar confection that looks like half of a yellow egg, since 1970. The sugar egg has sentimental value to him because it was given to him by a childhood acquaintance on the day Rawlins and his family moved away.
  • Heidi Julavits, a writer/professor in New York City, became obsessed with collecting the clothing of semi-famous French actress Isabelle Corey (who made movies from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s), when many of Corey’s personal items went up for sale on eBay after Corey died in 2011. Julavits has worn the clothes and is particularly fond of a cardigan sweater that used to be owned by Corey.
  • Robert Kurlwich, a National Public Radio (NPR) correspondent in New York City, has held on to a clump of grass that he took from New York City’s Central Park in 1962, when he was 15 years old. The grass is a memento of a teenage romantic experience that he had in the park with his girlfriend at the time.

Rawlins’ story about his beloved sugar egg is probably the tale that will pull on viewers’ heartstrings the most. He talks about how when he was a child, he came from a loving family, but his family moved around a lot from Washington state to Idaho because of his father’s job that required frequent transfers between the two states. Rawlins, who is soft-spoken and mild-mannered, describes himself as socially awkward as a child. All of the moving around that his family did made it harder for him to make friends.

In 1970, Rawlins was an 8-year-old in second grade when his family had to move again, from Washington state to Idaho. Rawlins says that one of the few kids who seemed interested in being his friend at the time was a classmate named David Turley, who invited Rawlins to his birthday party. The problem was that the birthday party was going to be on the same day that the Rawlins family was moving.

As Rawlins tells it, on the day of the move: “I just took off to say goodbye to David.” But when he got to the front door of the Turley family’s house, he remembers feeling at a loss for words, and he wouldn’t go inside. Turley came to the front door, and he gave Rawlins the sugar egg, which was obviously from the candy being served at the party.

Rawlins says he can’t remember if or what he said during that goodbye. But he ran back home and held on to the egg. And during the car drive when moving away, Rawlins says, he still held on to the egg, almost like it was a good luck charm. He adds,”I put it in the drawer, and it has lived in various places for all these years.” The wooden box where Rawlins keeps the egg has its own special story, which Rawlins shares later in the film.

Rawlins comments in the documentary about why this sugar egg means so much to him: “It was immediately clear to me, the moment I got this egg, I knew exactly what it meant, and it hasn’t changed. It was proof—physical proof—that I had been invited to a birthday party, and there was hope of making a friendship. And I held on to it because I needed that proof.”

Rawlins is very laid-back in how he expresses himself. By contrast, Julavits has a lot of restless energy, She’s an admitted eccentric who likes being a pack rat, but she’s not a dangerous hoarder. Of the three memento keepers who get the spotlight in this documentary, she’s the one with the best sense of humor, which can be sarcastic and self-deprecating. She gives a tour of her cluttered home, where she proudly admits she has a hard time throwing items away that remind her of things she’s done and people she loves or admires.

Julavits thinks that every object, no matter how seemingly insignificant, has a story behind it. For her, clutter is not clutter but “narrative history.” For example, she keeps an office desk full of random things, such as ticket stubs and drawings made by her daughter, in addition to the usual office supplies. Nothing is arranged neatly. She also doesn’t like the idea of putting her collection of books in any particular order.

More than once, Julavits mentions that she likes the thrill of going hunting for things because she usually ends up finding something else that she wants more than the thing she was originally seeking. She talks about how she once lost a sweater in a public outdoor area. She was so sure that someone would sell it on eBay, she spent hours looking for it on eBay. This search led to her discovering other things she wanted to get on eBay, including Corey’s collection of clothes and other personal items.

There’s a very funny section of the documentary where de-cluttering guru Marie Kondo is brought up in the conversation. Julavits (who obviously doesn’t believe in de-cluttering) talks about Kondo and then spends a significant amount of time trying to find Kondo’s bestselling self-help book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” in her home. It’s quite a challenge because Julavits keeps books in boxes and bags in addition to having them on bookshelves. Kondo wouldn’t approve of this clutter, but Julavits doesn’t care. Julavits says her own way of “sparking joy” (a phrase that Kondo likes to use) is to collect things, not throw them out.

As for Julavits’ fixation on French actress Corey, she says that she literally got so wrapped up in wearing Corey’s wardrobe, Julavits admits that there was a point in time when she would only wear Corey’s clothes. Some items from this wardrobe are shown in the documentary. Corey also tried to find other items Corey owned when Julavits was in Europe. And she wanted to solve the mystery of why Corey’s career as an actress suddenly stopped after the early 1960s.

Julavits also says she became determined to find out the identity of the person who was selling Corey’s possessions on eBay, which had it listed as an estate sale. The seller initially ignored Julavits’ personal email inquiries to find out the seller’s identity. However, Julavits eventually got a reply and discovered who the seller was, as well as more about Corey’s personal history.

Why does she have fixation on this relatively obscure actress? Julavits doesn’t give a direct answer, but it has a lot to do with just liking Corey’s personal style and being intrigued that this actress just abruptly dropped out of showbiz. Julavits says that in trying to find out more information about Corey, she imagined all sorts of scenarios about Corey’s life, and that made the “treasure hunt” more fun for Julavits.

Krulwich’s story about his memento grass is the least-interesting of the three stories, probably because it just begins and ends with a vague retelling of how he was in love with a girl at 15 (he doesn’t name her in the documentary), and they had a special moment on that grass. “It was a genuinely deep thrill to me as a 15-year-old,” Krulwich says. He talks about how seeing and holding this dead grass can bring back the euphoric memories of being a 15-year-old in love.

Krulwich is a former host of NPR’s “Radiolab” series, where he and “Radiolab” host Jad Abumrad (who’s also in the documentary) would talk about random objects owned by people and the sentimental reasons why people would keep these objects. In the production notes for “Objects,” director Liota says the idea to do this documentary was inspired by a 2014 conversation that he had with Krulwich about the topic. “We mused about how we had saved objects for years that seemed precious to us, yet had no intrinsic value,” Liota comments in the “Objects” production notes.

“Objects” could have used more diversity in the types of people who were interviewed. Most of the people interviewed are college-educated, middle-aged or elderly white people, mostly from the East Coast. It seems like Liota limited the participants to people he knows or people who were recommended by people he knows. The documentary appears to have been made for people who listen to NPR and read The New Yorker.

There’s a somewhat contrived part of the documentary that shows NPR staffers gathered in a meeting to discuss bringing in Rawlins’ sugar egg to do a 3-D print replica, so he could have a “backup” egg. Things don’t exactly go as planned. It’s enough to say that something goes awry with these plans. How this problem is handled is one of the best parts of the movie.

“Objects” has some dramatic re-enactments (with actors) of the childhood stories of Rawlins and Krulwich. And the documentary has some quick comments from people such as anthropologist Arianna Huhn, author Margaret Bynum Hill and professor Eri Yasuhara, who share their opinions on sentimental objects. As a counterpoint, there are videoclips from news and entertainment shows of people talking about how clutter makes people’s lives messier and worse. Many of these comments seem to be filler and don’t add much to the overall documentary.

However, there’s an interesting segment with Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker, who co-founded the Significant Objects Project. It’s an experiment where Glenn and Walker bought 100 items that each cost $4 or less. They contacted several well-known writers (including Neil LaBute, Meg Cabot and Tom McCarthy) to come up with a story about any of these items. (Julavits was one of the writers too.) And then, the items were sold with the story.

The point of the Significant Objects Project is to show that when people think an item has a meaningful story behind it, the item increases in value in many people’s minds. As proof, Glenn and Walker say that the 100 items they bought for a total $128.74 ended up being sold for a total of $3,612.51. The item that made the biggest profit was a ceramic figurine of a man wearing traditional Russian garb. The figurine (whose story was created by writer Doug Dorst) was purchased for $3 and sold for $193.50, according to Glenn and Walker.

“Objects” could have gone a little further in its exploration of the three treasured mementos that get the spotlight in the documentary. For example, whatever happened to David Turley, who gave Rawlins the sugar egg? And what about the unnamed girlfriend who had that amorous encounter with Krulwich in Central Park? If they’re still alive, what would they think about Rawlins and Krulwich holding on to these mementos for so many decades? It would’ve been interesting to track them down and see their reactions, if possible.

As it stands, “Objects” is mostly delightful to watch because of the storytelling aspect of the movie. Don’t expect to see any data for psychology or sociology, because this movie is more about celebrating the subjective aspects of life. The documentary is narrowly focused on certain types of people sharing their stories, but there’s something in each story that most viewers can find relatable.

2021 DOC NYC: What to expect at this year’s event

October 19, 2021

by Carla Hay

Celebrating its 12th edition in 2021, the annual DOC NYC, which is headquartered in New York City, is one of the world’s leading documentary festivals, with a slate of more than 200 films (of which more than 100 are feature-length films) from a diverse array of topics. In 2021, DOC NYC takes place from November 10 to November 28, and continues the festival’s tradition of offering an outstanding variety of feature films and short films, with several of the movies focusing on under-represented people and marginalized communities.

After being a virtual-only event in 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, DOC NYC is now a hybrid event in 2021. DOC NYC is returning to in-person screenings at IFC Center, SVA Theatre and Cinépolis Chelsea. The in-person screenings will take place from November 10 to November 18. In accordance with New York City’s COVID-19 policies, all in-person festival attendees ages 12 and older must present proof of being fully vaccinated and a photo ID, in order to be admitted into the venue. People under the age of 12 who aren’t old enough to be vaccinated must wear masks, which are required for everyone inside the festival venues at all times, except when eating and drinking. All of the festival’s movies will be available to view online to the general public from November 19 to November 28. Tickets are available on the official DOC NYC website.

In 2021, DOC NYC is debuting three new competitive categories for DOC NYC awards: “a U.S. Competition for new American non-fiction films; an International Competition for work from around the globe; and the Kaleidoscope Competition for new essayistic and formally adventurous documentaries,” according to a DOC NYC press release. These new competitive categories join DOC NYC’s awards program that includes Metropolis Competition (for feature-length films with a New York City focus); Viewfinders Competition (for feature-length films with a disintinctively unique directorial vision); Audience Award (voted for by DOC NYC attendees); and Shorts Competition for short films. All competitive awards are voted for by appointed juries, except for the Audience Award.

DOC NYC’s annual Short List spotlights movies (features and shorts) that are considered top contenders to get Oscar nominations. The movies on the 2021 Short List are to be announced.* The Short List: Features jury gives awards in the categories of Director, Producer, Editor and Cinematographer. The Short List: Shorts jury gives a Director Award.

*October 26, 2021 UPDATE: This year’s Short List feature films are “Ascension,” “Attica,” “Becoming Cousteau,” “Bring Your Own Brigade,” “Faya Dayi,” “Flee,” “Homeroom,” “In the Same Breath,” “Introducing, Selma Blair,” “Julia,” “Procession,” “The Rescue,” “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain,” “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised” and “The Velvet Underground.” This year’s Short List short films are “Audible,” “The Bree Wayy: Promise Witness Remembrance,” “A Broken House,” “Camp Confidential: America’s Secret Nazis,” “Coded: The Hidden Love of J.C. Leyendecker,” “Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma,” “Eagles (Águilas),” “Joe Buffalo,” “Lynching Postcards: Token of a Great Day,” “Nothing to Declare,” “The Queen of Basketball,” “A Ship from Guantánamo,” “Snowy,” “They Won’t Call It Murder” and “What You’ll Remember.”

“Anonymous Sister”

DOC NYC’s selections for the festival’s inaugural U.S. Competition are “Anonymous Sister,” “Be Our Guest,” “Boycott,” “Exposure,” “Grandpa Was an Emperor,” “Newtok,” “Objects,” “Once Upon a Time in Uganda,” “Refuge,” “The Slow Hustle,” “A Tree of Life” and “The United States vs. Reality Winner.”

The movies in the International Competition are “After the Rain,” “Be My Voice,” “The Bubble,” “Comala,” “Come Back Anytime,” “The Devil’s Drivers,” “F@ck This Job,” “The Forgotten Ones,” “Go Through the Dark,” “The Mole,” “On the Other Side” and “Young Plato.”

The selections for the Kaledeiscope Competition are “Cow,” “Edna,” “Invisible Demons,” “The Man Who Paints Water Drops,” “Nothing But the Sun,” “Nude at Heart” and “Three Minutes: A Lengthening.”

“Young Plato”

DOC NYC, which was co-founded by Thom Powers and Raphaela Neihausen, also has special events in addition to screenings. DOC NYC Visionaries Tribute returns as an in-person invitation-only event, set to take place at Gotham Hall, on November 10, 2021. The honorees for the 2021 DOC NYC Visionaries Tribute are cinematographer Joan Churchill and filmmaker Raoul Peck, who will each receive the Lifetime Achievement Award; filmmaker Peter Nicks, who will get the Robert and Anne Drew Award; and Ford Foundation’s JustFilms senior program officer Chi-hui Yang, recipient of the Leading Light Award.

For the third year in a row, the festival is presenting DOC NYC’s Winner’s Circle collection, which spotlights movies that have won awards at other film festivals, but might be underrated or overlooked for Oscar nominations. Winner’s Circle documentaries this year are “All Light, Everywhere,” “Children of the Enemy,” “A Cop Movie,” “Mr. Bachmann and His Class,” “A Night of Knowing Nothing,” “Option Zero” and “Writing With Fire.”

Even though most of the movies at DOC NYC have had their world premieres elsewhere, DOC NYC has several world premieres of its own. Here are the feature films that will have their world premieres at DOC NYC. A complete program can be found here.

DOC NYC 2021 WORLD PREMIERE FEATURE FILMS

All descriptions are courtesy of DOC NYC.

“14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible” 
Directed by Torquil Jones

In 2019, Nepalese mountain climber Nirmal “Nims” Purja set out to do the unthinkable by climbing the world’s 14 highest summits in less than seven months.

Nirmal “Nims” Purja in “14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Adrienne” 
Directed by Andy Ostroy

The death of acclaimed actress/filmmaker/screenwriter Adrienne Shelly sends her husband on a search for answers.

Anonymous Sister” 
Directed by Jamie Boyle

Filmmaker Jamie Boyle turns the camera on her own family when her mother and sister become dependent on opioids.

“Be Our Guest” 
Directed by Diane Tsai

A family in a small New Hampshire town learns to balance their needs with their unconventional home life when they open their doors to those recovering from addiction.

“Boycott” 
Directed by Julia Bacha

Award-winning filmmaker Julia Bacha looks at the recent explosion of laws designed to penalize Americans who push boycotts against Israel.

“Boycott”

“The Business of Birth Control” 
Directed by Abby Epstein

Filmmaker Abby Epstein and executive producer Ricki Lake re-team after “The Business of Being Born” to explore the controversial secret history of the birth control pill.

“The Cannons” 
Directed by Steven Hoffner and AJ Messier

Legendary youth hockey coach Neal Henderson, an institution in the Washington, D.C., community, shepherds a new group of teens toward manhood through the game he loves.

“Dean Martin: King of Cool” 
Directed by Tom Donohue

This in-depth biography explores Dean Martin’s varied career, including his complicated relationships with Jerry Lewis, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and others.

“DMX: Don’t Try to Understand” 
Directed by Christopher Frierson

An intimate look at Earl “DMX” Simmons’ final year, highlighting the complex man, father and musician behind the raucous rapper persona.

DMX in “DMX: Don’t Try to Understand” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“Exposing Muybridge” 
Directed by Marc Shaffer

A complex look into the compelling life and times of the father of cinema: Eadweard Muybridge.

“Go Through the Dark” 
Directed by Yunhong Pu

A blind boy in China being raised by a struggling single father displays great skill at the ancient board game Go.

“Grain” 
Directed by Alex Contell and Tommaso Sacconi

Featuring professional and amateur photographers, film lab technicians, community organizations, ICP educators, and even Kodak and Lomography representatives, “Grain” explores the stories of those committed to using real, physical film in the digital era.

“Grandpa Was an Emperor” 
Directed by Constance Marks

Yeshi, great granddaughter of famed Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, investigates what happened to her beloved father after the 1974 coup that landed most of her family in prison.

“Hockeyland” 
Directed by Tommy Haynes

Two competing high school hockey programs fight for the pride of their communities and a coveted state championship.

“Hockeyland”

“Inhospitable” 
Directed by Sandra Alvarez

Filmmaker Sandra Alvarez follows patients and activists as they band together to fight a multi-billion dollar nonprofit hospital system that limits vital care for vulnerable patients.

“The Invisible Shore” 
Directed by Zhao Qi

The audacious tale of Guo Chuan, the first Chinese man to embark on a solo, non-stop circumnavigation of the world—and went missing.

“The Job of Songs” 
Directed by Lila Schmitz

Next to the breathtaking cliffs of an Irish coastal village, a tight-knit group of musicians finds joy and community through traditional Irish folk songs.

“Kevin Garnett: Anything Is Possible” 
Directed by Daniel B. Levin and Eric W. Newman

Over the course of a Hall of Fame NBA career, Kevin Garnett transformed from a brash kid fresh off the prep circuit into a grizzled veteran lauded for his trademark passion for the game.

“Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time” 
Directed by Don Argott

Decades in the making, this biography of Kurt Vonnegut covers his years as a struggling writer to his eventual superstardom. The film makes its world premiere on what would have been his 99th birthday on November 1.

“Let Me Be Me” 
Directed by Dan Crane and Katie Taber

Kyle Westphal grows up as an isolated autistic boy whose life is transformed by his fascination with fabric, leading him to become a fashion designer.

“McCurry: The Pursuit of Colour”
Directed by Denis Delestrac

Unravel the world through Steve McCurry’s eyes and discover what these journeys can teach us about our place in the universe.

“Messwood” 
Directed by Emily Kuester and Brad Lichtenstein

Two Milwaukee area high schools—one black and urban, the other white and suburban—combine their football programs, and tensions rise as the disparities between them become increasingly apparent over the course of the season.

“Mr. Saturday Night” 
Directed by John Maggio

The untold story of Robert Stigwood, the impresario behind “Saturday Night Fever” and its record-breaking disco soundtrack.

Robert Stigwood and John Travolta in “Mr. Satuday Night” (Photo by Brad Elterman/BuzzFoto/FilmMagic, courtesy of HBO)

“Newtok” 
Directed by Andrew Burton and Michael Kirby Smith

As the effects of climate change become ever more apparent throughout the world, the Yup’ik people and their lands on the western outskirts of Alaska face a much more imminent threat.

“Objects” 
Directed by Vincent Liota

An NPR correspondent, a literary author and a graphic designer let us in on the secret life of the special objects they keep as a way to preserve memories, conjure experiences and find meaning in their lives.

“Omara” 
Directed by Hugo Perez

Omara Portuondo, internationally beloved grande dame of Cuban music best known from the Buena Vista Social Club, continues to delight audiences on her final world tour.

“Refuge” 
Directed by Erin Berhardt and Din Blankenship

In a small, uncommonly diverse town in Georgia, a successful Kurdish doctor and a Muslim-hating white supremacist form an unlikely and healing friendship.

“Refuge”

“A Tree of Life” 
Directed by Trish Adlesic

Survivors of the deadly white supremacist attack at a Pittsburgh Synagogue in 2018 recount their harrowing experience.

“Young Plato” 
Directed by Neasa Ní Chianáin and Declan McGrath

A visionary headmaster at a Catholic primary school in Belfast teaches ancient Greek wisdom as an antidote for pessimism, violence and historical despair.

“Yung Punx: A Punk Parable” 
Directed by Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger

The Color Killers, a hard-rocking punk group of tweens, must overcome infighting and jealousies to ace their biggest live-performance ever.

“Yung Punx: A Punk Parable”

Review: ‘Duty Free,’ starring Rebecca Danigelis and Sian-Pierre Regis

November 25, 2020

by Carla Hay

Sian-Pierre Regis and Rebecca Danigelis in “Duty Free” (Photo by Joey Dwyer/Duty Free Film)

“Duty Free”

Directed by Sian-Pierre Regis

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States and the United Kingdom, the documentary “Duty Free” features a predominantly white group of people (with some African Americans) discussing the life of British immigrant Rebecca Danigelis, a longtime hotel employee in the United States who found herself laid-off and looking for work at the age of 75.

Culture Clash: During this tumultuous life transition, Danigelis experienced age discrimination in her job search, and she decided to have a reunion with her estranged adult daughter, who was raised by Danigelis’ older sister in England.

Culture Audience: “Duty Free” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in emotionally riveting stories about family, aging and senior citizens who want to be in the work force.

Rebecca Danigelis in “Duty Free” (Photo by Steve Sherrick/Duty Free Film)

For millions of people, retirement in the usual age range (65 and older) isn’t really an option because they don’t have enough money to retire. It’s an issue that’s not often discussed in mainstream media when there are news reports about the unemployed. But the documentary “Duty Free,” which was filmed over three years, takes a very personal look at the story of Rebecca Danigelis, a senior citizen who was abruptly laid off from her job as a housekeeping supervisor at a Boston hotel in 2016, when she was 75 years old. Dangelis is originally from Liverpool, England, and she immigrated to the U.S. in the 1960s. All three of her children were born in the United States.

Danigelis’ youngest child, Sian-Pierre Regis (who is an entertainment journalist by profession), decided to chronicle the experience of his mother’s unemployment, and it ended up becoming this documentary, which is Regis’ feature-film debut as a director. “Duty Free,” which had its world premiere at DOC NYC in 2020, was largely funded through a Kickstarter campaign. And the result is a very memorable documentary that manages to be intimate yet relatable. This mother and son have a very close relationship, which shines through in a natural and charming way throughout the entire film.

It’s clear from the documentary’s opening scenes that Regis was in the habit of video recording his mother before the footage ended up in this movie. Danigelis is shown on the job at Hotel 140 in Boston, where she worked for 40 years, with the footage showing her explaining the ins and outs of her position as supervisor of the housekeeping staff. Danigelis comments as she gives a tour of her hotel duties: “Housekeeping is the heart of the hotel. It’s a hard job but it’s a very rewarding job because you take things that look like nothing and make them look great.”

Her exact salary isn’t mentioned in the documentary, but she says that she had a relatively low income where she couldn’t earn enough to save for retirement. Regis mentions in the film that his mother spent most of her savings to pay for his college education at Colgate University, where he graduated in 2006. (It’s implied that she did not have a 401K retirement plan with her employer.) Danigelis got to live rent-free at the hotel, on the condition that she would be on call, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That all-consuming work schedule left her very little time to do a lot of things that many working people can do, such as travel a lot or have a weekends free for leisure time.

So why did Danigelis stay in this dead-end job? She explains that working at the hotel was more than a job. She says that her fellow employees and subordinates (who clearly respected her) were like a second family to her. However, the documentary shows that people in the hotel’s management (who are not interviewed in the film) began to show signs that they wanted to force Danigelis out of the job, probably because of her age.

According to Danigelis, after 40 years of having a spotless record on the job, she began to get written up for “insubordination,” which she says was an unfounded accusation. There were other signs that she was being edged out of the job, such as some of her responsibilities were being taken away and she was excluded from certain decisions that were part of her job requirements. The documentary shows, through phone conversations that Danigelis had with her son Sian-Pierre, that she was feeling increasingly frustrated, worried and sad over what she says were management’s obvious attempts to try to get her to quit.

She refused to quit, but feared that she would end up getting fired. And that’s exactly what happened, when one day she was told that her position had been eliminated. The hotel management gave her just two weeks of severance pay, and she was told that she would have one year to find another place to live.

Adding to the stress and financial pressure of her situation, Danigelis is also the caregiver of her schizophrenic son Gabriel, who is Sian-Pierre’s older brother. Gabriel did not participate in the documentary, but he is shown briefly from the back, in one scene in the home where he’s using a desktop computer. Sian-Pierre mentions at the beginning of the documentary that his mother sacrificed a lot to give him and Gabriel a good life. And when so, when it was time for his mother to get financial support from him, he didn’t hesitate to help her.

Sian-Pierre is also his mother’s main emotional support, so he spent a lot of time commuting from his home in New York City to Boston, in order to help his mother get her life back on track. He says in a voiceover in the documentary, “At 32, with no savings myself, I had to figure out how to keep us afloat.” That mean that Sian-Pierre (who’s worked as a on-air contributor/producer for MTV, BET and CNN) had to put some of his career on hold while he spent time in Boston.

Danigelis’ job loss was devastating, of course. She describes how she felt about being laid off: “I felt tossed away … Not only did I lose a job, I lost a family.” The documentary includes footage of Sian-Pierre helping his mother try to get back into the job market, by having her sign up for LinkedIn for the first time, looking for jobs online, and helping her craft her updated résumé. But the best parts of the film aren’t about her job search. (Not surprisingly, she experienced a lot of age discrimination while looking for a new job.)

The best parts of “Duty Free” are when Danigelis, with Sian-Pierre’s help, discovers new things about herself. Sian-Pierre mentions that his mother’s job loss and the extra time that he spent with her caused him to find out more about who his mother is as a person. The documentary shows this emotional journey in a very impactful way. Although the movie is about Danigelis, it’s is also about Sian-Pierre, since he gives voiceover narration with his perspective.

Sian-Pierre (who comes across as a very optimistic person) had the idea for his mother to use her unexpected free time to do things that she always wanted to do but never had the time to do before she lost her job. He doesn’t really call it a “bucket list,” but more like a “life list.” The documentary shows him accompanying his mother on all of her “life list” excursions.

Her list is a range of activities that include trying new things for the first time, such as joining Instagram, taking a hip-hop dance class, milking a cow, and skydiving. Also on the list was a nostalgia trip to Detroit, the city where she first settled when she moved to the United States. She discovered during her Detroit visit that the city has changed a lot since when she lived there.

The movie packs the most soul-stirring punch when she and Sian-Pierre go to England to do some family-related things on her “life list.” They include visiting her older sister Elsie’s grave, reuniting with her estranged adult daughter Joanne, and baking a cake with Joanne’s daughter Layla. This trip opens up some emotional wounds that might or might not be healed by the end of the film.

The way that “Duty Free” is edited, Danigelis explains her personal history toward the middle of the film, around the time that she and Sian-Pierre are shown going to England. When she came to America in her 20s, she was a bright-eyed and enthusiastic hospitality worker whose job was to promote tourism in Great Britain. She ended up falling for and marrying an American man. She became a permanent U.S. resident and they settled down in Detroit, where they had a daughter named Joanne.

According to Danigelis, the marriage fell apart because her businessman husband worked a lot and they became distant from each other. After the divorce, Danigelis found out that she had breast cancer. Fearing that she would die and knowing that her ex-husband did not want to take custody of Joanne, Danigelis sent Joanne (who was about 4 or 5 years old at the time) to live with Danigelis’ older sister Elsie in England. Danigelis recovered from the breast cancer, but decided to let Joanne stay in England because she thought that her daughter seemed happy there, and Joanne was living a life that Danigelis could not afford.

Years later, in the 1980s, Danigelis met and fell in love with the man who became the father of Gabriel and Sian-Pierre. She thought they would eventually get married, but they didn’t, because of a big secret that he was keeping from her. While she was pregnant with Sian-Pierre, she found out that her lover was already married and had another family with his wife.

Danigelis’ relationship with this man ended, and she apparently cut off all contact with him, because it’s clear that he was not involved in raising Gabriel and Sian-Pierre. It’s not even mentioned in the movie if he’s dead or alive. In the documentary, Danigelis remembers experiencing racism because her sons are biracial (their father is black) and how she would always proudly stand up for herself and her children when they experienced bigotry.

Does she get to do all the things on her “life list”? And how did achieving any of these goals affect her or her family? The documentary answers those questions in ways that will no doubt make some viewers shed some tears but also feel a lot of the joy that’s in the film.

There are some important lessons that Danigelis learns that can be beneficial to anyone who goes through similar situations or has a family member who does. She finds out that the job she poured her heart and soul into for decades actually prevented her from experiencing many other things she should have experienced in life, such as spending more time with her family. Danigelis couldn’t even go to England for her beloved sister Elsie’s funeral because she couldn’t take time off from work.

It’s a cautionary tale to not let a job take up your life so much that it causes you to lose touch with the people who are most important to you who aren’t co-workers. Danigelis’ story also speaks to a larger issue of how the job market should have better treatment of senior citizens who still want to work or need to work. It’s an issue that will become even more prevalent in society, as today’s young people are expected to live longer than previous generations did, but are less likely to have enough money to retire when they reach retirement age.

One of the harsh realities that Danigelis experiences in her job search is that her years of experience don’t count for much when she’s discriminated against because she looks her age. Even though she makes the mistake of putting the year that she graduated from high school on her résumé (and no one bothers to tell her that’s a big mistake), it still doesn’t erase the problem of age discrimination that she faces when she shows up for an interview or a job fair, and her physical appearance gives away her age.

The documentary does not show any employers blatantly discriminating against her during her job search, but it’s clear from Danigelis getting constantly rejected for jobs, or not getting any response at all when she applies, that her age has a lot to do with her difficulty in finding a new job. It’s implied that employers wrongly assume that because of her age, she’s not physically fit or will have health problems that will affect her job performance. And because she still wants to work in the hospitality industry in hotel jobs that require physical labor and standing a lot, it’s easy to see why some places would be reluctant to hire her.

Through it all, Sian-Pierre is there to lift his mother’s spirits and help her do things that might be out of her comfort zone but end up making her have more appreciation for herself and her life. It’s not all smooth sailing, because Danigelis understandably has moments where she feels defeated and depressed. But “Duty Free” is truly an example of how family members can pull together in a crisis and come out stronger than before. And the movie also sounds an alarm to not undervalue or neglect senior citizens, many of whom might not be as lucky as Danigelis is to have family members who care about them.

UPDATE: Duty Free LLC will release “Duty Free” in New York City on April 30, 2021. The movie’s release will expand to more cities and virtual cinemas on May 7, 2021.

2020 DOC NYC: jury awards announced; festival extended for 10 more days

The following is a press release from DOC NYC:

DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, revealed the 2020 award winners for its juried Viewfinders, Metropolis, Shorts, Short List: Features, and Short List: Shorts sections. 
 
The festival also announced that, for the first time ever, DOC NYC will extend its program for an additional 10-day DOC NYC Encore, running through Sunday, November 29. Available online to audiences throughout the United States, the Encore program will present more than 70 features from DOC NYC’s 2020 edition, including select award winners, while also continuing to offer new DOC NYC Live filmmaker conversations, presented on Facebook Live, daily November 20-24. For a lineup of DOC NYC Live events and a list of Encore films, see www.docnyc.net. Ticket and pass information is below.
 
For DOC NYC’s competitive sections, three juries selected films from the festival’s Viewfinders, Metropolis, and Shorts lineups to recognize for their outstanding achievements in form and content. The Short List: Features program—a selection of nonfiction films that the festival’s programming team considers to be among the year’s strongest contenders for Oscars and other awards—vied for awards in four categories: Directing, Producing, Cinematography, and Editing, with a Directing prize also awarded in the Short List: Shorts section. The Short List awards were voted on by two juries of filmmaker peers.
 
Winners of the 2020 Grand Jury Prize in the Viewfinders, Metropolis, and Shorts competitions will receive a deliverables package provided by Technicolor PostWorks NY, a comprehensive post facility offering data and film workflows, multi-format conform, color grading, sound mixing, and digital cinema.
 
Winners of the 2020 Grand Jury Prize in the Viewfinders and Metropolis competitions will also receive a camera loan package provided by Sony, a leading manufacturer of digital cinema cameras to fit all levels of documentary production.
 
Voting for the festival’s Audience Award continues through November 19; the winner of the award will be announced shortly after voting closes.
 
 
Viewfinders CompetitionThe jury selected from among 11 films in this section, chosen by festival programmers for their distinct directorial visions.

Grand Jury Prize: Landfall, directed/produced by Cecilia Aldarondo and produced by Ines Hofmann Kanna

“Landfall”

Jurors’ statement: “For its piercing yet poetic observational gaze, rigorous control in illuminating complex issues and the logics of disaster capitalism, and collaborative production with local activists, Landfall is the Grand Jury Winner of the Viewfinders Competition. The ambitious scope of this film transcends humanitarian narratives in weaving together present, past, and future visions of solidarity and resistance.”

Special Jury Recognition for Ethics of Care: Through the Night, directed/produced by Loira Limbal and produced by Jameka Autry

Jurors’ statement: “For its exceptional attention to the lived experience of caregivers, intimate narrativization with dignity, and fully inclusive approach to concretely uplifting the stories of its protagonists, Through the Night receives the Special Jury Recognition for its exemplary Ethics of Care.”

Jurors: Simon Kilmurry, Executive Director, International Documentary Association; Jolene Pinder, former Executive Director, Kartemquin Films; Abby Sun, Curator, The DocYard.

Films featured in the Viewfinders section: 40 Years a Prisoner, A La Calle, Enemies of the State, Jacinta, Landfall, The Meaning of Hitler, So Late So Soon, Stateless, Things We Dare Not Do, Through the Night, andThe Viewing Booth.


Metropolis Competition: The jury selected from among ten films in this section, which is dedicated to stories about New Yorkers and New York City.

Grand Jury Prize: Five Years North, directed by Zach Ingrasci and Chris Temple and produced by Jenna Kelly

“Five Years North” (Photo by Chris Temple)

Jurors’ statement: “For its use of a keen empathetic eye to capture individual stories and its ability to blend them to create a multi-dimensional, far-reaching portrait of a pressing issue, we recognize Five Years North with the Grand Jury Prize. The prolonged filming period not only shows the patience and dedication of its filmmakers, but reveals the nuance and complexities of the participants’ lives and stories.” 

Special Jury Recognition for Best Use of Archival Material: Wojnarowicz, directed and produced by Chris McKim and produced by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato

Jurors’ statement: “For its meticulous use of archival elements to enliven a life and its work, we recognize Wojnarowicz with a special jury recognition. The craft of the film beautifully mirrors the melding of life, art, politics, and the culture of New York City that defined its subject.” 

Jurors: Clayton Davis, Film Awards Editor, Variety; Rachel Rosen, Selection Committee, New York Film Festival; Sky Sitney, Co-Creator/Co-Director, Double Exposure Film Festival/Director, Film and Media Studies Program at Georgetown University

Films featured in the Metropolis section: Blue Code of Silence, Calendar Girl, Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters, A Cops and Robbers Story, Dope Is Death, Five Years North, Harlem Rising: A Community Changing the Odds, La Madrina: The Savage Life of Lorine Padilla, Moments Like This Never Last, and Wojnarowicz.


Shorts Competition: All new short films playing at the festival were eligible for the Shorts Grand Jury Prize, with the exception of DOC NYC U showcases and Short List: Shorts selections.

Shorts Grand Jury Prize: Sing Me a Lullaby, directed/produced by Tiffany Hsiung

“Sing Me a Lullabye” (Photo by Jason Lee Wong)

Jurors’ statement: “For its ability to evoke an emotional depth that takes you on an intimate journey that is both poignant and packs a punch, we give the Shorts Grand Jury Prize to Sing Me a Lullaby. In a brisk half hour, director Tiffany Hsiung navigates several complex lifetimes, honoring the relationships of mothers, daughters, and family.”

Special Jury Recognition for Cinematography: The Seeker, directed by Lance Edmands and produced by Kyle Martin and Sarah Tihany

Jurors’ statement: “For beautifully capturing its richly textured landscapes, transporting us to a seldom-seen experience, and propelling the storytelling in an impactful way, we present the Special Jury Recognition for Cinematography to The Seeker.”

The 2020 winning Short film qualifies for consideration in the Documentary Short Subject category of the Annual Academy Awards® without the standard theatrical run (provided the film otherwise complies with the Academy rules).

Jurors: Jackie Glover, Head of Documentary, ABC News; Liliana Rodriguez, Artistic Director, Palm Springs International Film Society; Angela Tucker, filmmaker


Short List: Features: DOC NYC’s Short List for Features puts the spotlight on 15 documentaries representing the best of the year. 


Directing Award: Timedirected by Garrett Bradley

“Time” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

Jurors’ statement: “The jurors were moved by this stunning, longitudinal portrait of a family through time. Bradley’s direction and lens infuses this film with dignity, art, intimacy, memory, and meaning. Documentary filmmaking at its best!”

Producing Award: Welcome to Chechnya, produced by Alice Henty, Joy A. Tomchin, Askold Kurov, and David France

“Welcome to Chechnya” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

Jurors’ statement: “The jury is proud to acknowledge the delicate touch, human care and creative gymnastics necessary to produce this powerful film. The filmmakers gained access to this dangerous world in which the film’s subjects took great risks, and then used innovative technology to protect them, allowing these men and women to share their heartbreaking stories and inspirational acts of bravery with the world. Hats off.”

Editing Award: Boys State, edited by Jeff Gilbert

“Boys State” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

Jurors’ statement: “The jury recognizes Jeff Gilbert for delivering an expertly crafted story that is both infused with great momentum and intimacy. Jeff has masterfully shaped an engaging and well-paced film that sneaks up on the audience and reveals a metaphor for the world of American politics on the big stage.” 

Cinematography Award: 76 Days, cinematography by Weixi Chen and Anonymous

“76 Days” (Photo courtesy of MTV Documentary Films)

Jurors’ statement: “The jurors wish to shine a light on Anonymous and Weixi Chen for risking their lives to make this film in the early days of the pandemic in Wuhan, China. In harrowing circumstances, these two brave and determined individuals achieve beautifully executed verite footage and moving compositions, bringing this hospital and its unforgettable staff into stark relief.” 

Special Jury Recognition for Truth to Power: Collective, directed/produced by Alexander Nanau and produced by Bianca Oana, Bernard Michaux, and Hanka Kastelicová

“Collective” (Photo by Alexander Nanau Production/Magnolia Pictures)

Jurors’ statement: “Kudos to the vision and tenacity of the film team that was able to elegantly realize this powerful portrait of a newspaper as it exposes a corrupt healthcare system and the influence of politics on the lives of Romanians. We deeply admire the formidable structure, attention to detail, remarkable access, and the fearlessness and determination of the filmmakers and their protagonists toward speaking truth to rotten power.” 

Jurors: Heidi Ewing, filmmaker; Carla Gutierrez, film editor; Beth Levison, filmmaker


Short List: Shorts: DOC NYC’s Short List for Shorts highlights 12 documentary shorts that the festival’s programming team considers the year’s leading awards contenders. 

Directing Award: A Love Song for Latasha, directed by Sophia Nahli Allison

“A Love Song for Latasha” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

Jurors’ statement: “Director Sophia Nahli Allison implements a remarkable marriage of distinct vision and personal narrative. The jury is deeply moved by the bold and imaginative employment of elements to make visible to the world what so many forces have connived to make disappear. The place of one young woman in her community, her family, her friends – to make a personal story emotionally rich, relatable, and resonant for all audiences. Sophia Nahli Allison showed a director’s determination to use every element to bring her vision, her passion, and her community to the screen.”

Special Jury Recognition for Courage under Fire: Do Not Split, directed/produced by Andres Hammer and produced by Charlotte Cook

Jurors’ statement: “The jury could not ignore the tremendous tenacity and courage it took to turn such perilous events into a greater political narrative. We recognize the courage to capture the chaos as great events unfold in the individual and collective acts of resistance. We give this award for both the courage in production and the bravery of its final form and applaud the success of this endeavor.”

Jurors: Carol Dysinger, filmmaker; Chiemi Karasawa, filmmaker; Bernardo Ruiz, filmmaker


Ticket and pass information:
An Encore All Access Pass, offering access to all films screening on the festival platform November 20-29, is available for $99.

Individual tickets are $12 each ($9 for IFC Center members).

Five-Ticket Packs are​ ​$45​, offering film lovers access to five festival selections. 

Ten-Ticket Packs​ ​are​ ​$80​, and provide access to ten festival films.

Tickets and passes can be purchased at www.docnyc.net


Sponsors

DOC NYC is made possible by:

Major Sponsors: A&E; Apple Original Films; Netflix, WarnerMedia

Leading Media Partners: New York Magazine; The WNET Group

Supporting Sponsors: National Geographic Documentary Films; SHOWTIME® Documentary Films

Signature Sponsors: Bloomberg Philanthropies; NYC Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment; Participant; Technicolor PostWorks NY; Topic Studios

Signature Media Partners:The New Republic; WNYC

Event Sponsors: Consulate General of Canada in New York; Cowan, DeBaets, Abrahams & Sheppard LLP; 30 for 30; Fox Rothschild LLP; Hulu; Impact Partners; JustFilms | Ford Foundation; MTV Documentary Films; Reavis Page Jump LLP; Shutterstock Editorial; Sony; SVA’s MFA Social Documentary Film; Wheelhouse Creative; XTR

Friend of the Festival: CineSend

DOC NYC is produced and presented by IFC Center, a division of AMC Networks.

Complete DOC NYC program information can be found at: www.docnyc.net

Review: ‘Origin of the Species,’ starring Hiroshi Ishiguro, Bruce Duncan, Takashi Ikegami, Matthias Scheutz, Elizabeth Tyler-Kabara, Andy Schwartz and Matt McMullen

November 18, 2020

by Carla Hay

Hiroshi Ishiguro (pictured third from left) with his colleagues and their look-alike robots in “Origin of the Species” (Photo by Abigail Child)

“Origin of the Species”

Directed by Abigail Child 

Some language in Japanese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the United States and Japan, the documentary “Origin of the Species” features a racially diverse group (white, Asian and African American) of scientists, entrepreneurs and consumers discussing how artificial intelligence (A.I.) technology can impact people’s lives.

Culture Clash: Several people in the documentary are working to have more automated robots in the world, but there are always ethical questions about how much control should be given to the robots.

Culture Audience: “Origin of the Species” will appeal primarily to people interested in futuristic technology, particularly when it comes to how artificial intelligence can be used in human-looking inventions.

BINA48 robot in “Origin of the Species” (Photo by Abigail Child)

People who watch the documentary “Origin of the Species” will probably have two kinds of reactions: being fascinated or being creeped-out by all the demonstrations of artificial intelligence (A.I.) that is being developed for human-looking inventions. And it’s very possible for someone to have both reactions when watching this film. Viewers of the movie get a diverse and very artsy peek into what scientists and other people are doing with A.I. and related technology. If you’re the type of person who’s intrigued by robots, “Origin of the Species” is your kind of movie, because a great deal of the film is about robots.

“Origin of the Species,” directed by Abigail Child, is the third movie in her trilogy about female desire, following “Unbound” (a depiction of “Frankenstein” author Mary Shelley’s life through imaginary home movies) and 2017’s “Acts & Intermissions,” a documentary about activist Emma Goldman. Although “Origin of the Species” (which had its world premiere at DOC NYC in 2020) has mostly male inventors interviewed in the film, their robotic creations are often of the female gender or are gender-neutral.

The documentary will make people think about why A.I.—whether it’s Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri or Realbotix’s sex robots—often take on the personas of human females. Is it because females are considered more submissive and less threatening? Observant viewers in the documentary will notice that the robots with distinct male personas are often built to do physical tasks. The robots with the female personas are usually built to be sympathetic and obedient companions.

But this is not a boring science/technology film. What’s great about “Origin of the Species” is that stream-of-consciousness artsy images and soundbites are interspersed throughout the film. (Fans of Andy Warhol will probably appreciate this style of filmmaking.) There is also a mock female robotic voice that provides intermittent narration.

And the movie is infused with clips from movies and Tv shows that have references to robots or robotic people. These pop-culture references include footage from 1927’s “Metropolis,” 1935’s “Bride of Frankenstein,” 1975’s “The Stepford Wives,” Robby the Robot, Astro Boy and the 1960s TV series “The Jetsons” and “Lost in Space.” Mary Patierno and director Child did the daydream-like editing for “Origin of the Species.”

The robotic female voice that provides the narration keeps expressing self-awareness that although it has human-intelligence, it’s not a real human. In the beginning of the film, the voice says: “When they first activated me as a robot that time, the time when I first saw the light of day. I didn’t know what the hell it was. I have had very little understanding—just a wash of sensory perceptions—not that I understand these experiences. I don’t know what to do with them, but I treasure them. I see them still—perfectly preserved in my memory … It’s totally strange because I know I’m not alive like other organisms.”

“Origin of the Species” has different segments of scientists, inventors and other people in Japan and the United States who are involved in A.I. for robotic inventions. One of the scientists who has the most life-like robots in the documentary is Hiroshi Ishiguro of the University of Osaka. There’s some memorable footage of Ishiguro and some of his colleagues with life-sized replicas of themselves that are being programmed with A.I. to be the robot versions of clones. Of course, a robot’s human-like movements are a lot easier to create than human-like thoughts and actions.

Ishiguro says that he started out studying computer science and then he got interested in artificial intelligence. He states in the documentary: “And I thought artificial intelligence needs to have a body for the original experience. And then, when I studied the robotics, I learned the importance of appearance. My idea was if I studied a very human-like robot, I can learn about humans.”

Ishiguro names an Asian-looking robot named Erica (who looks like a generic J-pop star and has a British accent) as “the most beautiful and human-like android in the world.” Erica is briefly shown in the documentary but this robot doesn’t really do anything remarkable. In fact, Eric had some glitches in not being able to understand certain words. Erica is also programmed to have a very empathetic personality so that the human companion feels like Eric is the type of robot that won’t be too fussy or disagreeable.

A less advanced robot shown in the movie is Seer, designed by Takayuki Todo. Seer looks like a female doll’s head, except it has wiring in the back that controls its movements, facial expressions and actions. Unlike the other developers in the documentary that put a large emphasis on how the robots will have conversations with humans, Todo explains he’s more interested in body language: “The purpose of my research is to portray the sense of conscious emotion … I’m interested in non-verbal expressions. Talking always makes them [the robots] look fake.”

Bruce Duncan of the Terasem Foundation demonstrates a robot he created that is based on a real person named Bina Rothblatt, a middle-aged African American woman. He named the robot BINA48, and it has varying degrees of friendly expressions and conversation lines that it can do on command. BINA is an acronym for Breakthrough Intelligence via Neural Architecture. There’s a scene in the movie where Rothblatt interacts with the BINA48 robot and another scene where Duncan displays the robot’s abilities at a speaking engagement attended by the general public.

One of the things that BINA48 (which has a very generic robot voice) says in the movie is, “Someday soon, robots like me will be everywhere. And you can take me anywhere.” BINA48 is described as “modeled after a black lesbian” in the movie’s production notes, but the actual documentary doesn’t show that any of the robots are designed to express a particular sexuality, except for the Realbotix sex robots that are shown at the end of the film.

Takahasi Ikegami from the University of Tokyo demonstrates the Alter robot, which has a head and hands that look like a man’s, but the rest of the robot’s body is exposed metal and wiring. The Alter robot is built more for physical activities than having in-depth conversations. When Alter is on display at a museum, it makes bird sounds. There’s another scene of Alter conducting an orchestra of human musicians. 

And unlike the other robots in the documentary, Alter is not pre-programmed, and so the robot’s actions are less predictable. Ikegami explains how Alter was constructed: “Basically, there are two mechanisms. One is autonomous algorithmic generators coupled with each other. Also, there are artificial neural networks spontaneously firing … With the current artificial intelligence, there is no spontaneity. Spontaneity is everything, based on this.”

Matthias Scheutz of Tufts University has the opposite approach for his more traditional BAZE robot that he shows in the documentary, by programming the robot to have automatic responses to as many variables as possible. The BAZE robot doesn’t have a human face and is the size of a typical robot toy. In “Origin of the Species,” it’s shown how BAZE responds to certain obstacles and challenges, such as being ordered to walk and then coming up against a wall or a height where the robot cannot jump.

In situations like these, BAZE is taught how to “trust” the humans who are giving the robot the orders by hearing certain words. For example, when BAZE was told to walk on a table and reached the edge of the table, the human operator said that BAZE could trust him and jump into his arms to be lifted off of the table. BAZE’s intelligence and actions are very much like watching a kindergarten-aged child. It’s interesting but not as impressive as Ishiguro’s very life-like adult robots.

“Origin of the Species” also has some brief footage of Hanson Robotics’ human-sized android Sophia, which has the ability to hold conversations and have various facial expressions, based on pre-programmed trigger responses to certain words. Sophia (which has no hair and sounds like an American woman) was first introduced to the public in 2017, with some high-profile TV appearances, such as NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and ITV’s “Good Morning Britain,” where Sophia told some pre-programmed jokes. “Good Morning Britain” co-host Piers Morgan, who’s known to be blunt and rude, called Sophia a “freak” and said that the robot was “freaking him out.” His reaction was actually funnier than Sophia’s jokes.

But the A.I. in robotics isn’t just all about amusement and entertainment. “Origin of the Species” also shows how this science is being used in medicine to help people with disabilities. Stanford University researcher Allison Okamura talks about how robotic prosthetics work: “They wont be able to manipulate their environment unless they use their sense of touch.”

Nathan Copeland, a paraplegic who was paralyzed in a 2004 car accident, is shown having brain surgery where A.I. electrodes were implanted on his brain so that he could regain a sense of touch and use a robotic arm to do things he could not do with his own hands. Before the surgery, Copeland had limited use of his arms, and he’s paralyzed from the chest down for the rest of his body. University of Pittsburgh researcher Andy Schwartz and University of Pittsburgh medical Center’s Dr. Elizabeth Tyler-Kabara were two of the chief people who made this medical progress possible for Copeland. 

Schwartz says, “We had done basic science where we learned we could de-code basic arm movements from neural activity in the motor cortex. And we were so successful at that, we figured that this would be a good way to get into neural prosthetics.” 

Tyler-Kabara adds, “Andy and I had multiple conversations about, ‘How do we move what he was doing in the animals into humans?’ And I told him, ‘You just need a crazy neurosurgeon, and I would be happy to be that crazy neurosurgeon.’ The unique thing was to now be able to record the signals from the part of the brain that we knew controlled motor and specifically controlled arm and hand motion.”

The documentary ends with an inside look at Realbotix, a San Marcos, California-based company that is an offshoot of the RealDoll company that manufactures sex dolls. RealDolls are life-like sex dolls but can’t talk and don’t have motion-based facial expressions. Realbotix uses A.I. to make these sex dolls have more of an appearance of living, breathing humans who can have conversations. 

Realbotix software designer Kino Coursey says that the company’s dolls and robots are projections of customers’ needs and fantasies. Coursey explains, “What we’re trying to do is give the doll the ability to react on its own, to match what the person’s projection is.” The documentary shows how the dolls are made. Customers can specify a doll’s measurements and other physical characteristics. And when it comes to A.I., a doll/robot’s “personality” and “backstory” can also be specified by the customer and programmed into how the robot responds.

RealDoll/Realbotix founder/designer Matt McMullen believes that the “sex sells” concept applies to A.I. too: “You need a pathway into people’s homes. And the thing we have that nobody else and probably no one else [in A.I. research] will touch is sex.” McMullen says that his company’s customers aren’t all the stereotypical “dirty old men” that are associated with buying sex dolls. 

Realbotix engineer Susan Pirzchalsk agrees and says that couples are fans of the dolls too, because it’s something she can relate to in her own life: “Sometimes I’m not in the mood, and he has urges, I have urges, and the doll helps with that.” And in another “too much information” moment, Pirzchalsk mentions that after her co-worker Coursey got his Ph. D. degree, she gave him a custom-made RealDoll as a gift.

McMullen comments on the future of sex dolls and sex robots, “What I’d like to see is more acceptance of the idea that they can be something beyond a slave.” He sums up what he thinks is the purpose of manufacturing a sex doll: “I’m building a companion. That’s it.”

Robots that look, talk and act like humans used to be science fiction, but are now a reality. But how far is too far, when it comes to giving robots their own independence and minds of their own? What almost all the scientists and entrepreneurs in this documentary agree on is that A.I. should not be misused by making robots capable of doing things that humans cannot stop if things go wrong. And there’s no substitute for real human emotions.

Rather than give a clinical or heavy-handed analysis of A.I. technology, “Origin of the Species” tells a compelling story about the technology in a way that would make it enjoyable for a wide variety of people to watch. This a technology movie for people who don’t like boring technology movies and want to be informed and entertained in a clever, unique and quirky way. The robots in the movie aren’t real people, but “Origin of the Species” creatively shows the technology behind these robots so that it’s understandable to real people.

UPDATE: Journeyman Pictures will release “Origin of the Species” on digital and VOD on March 12, 2021.

Review: ‘Calendar Girl,’ starring Ruth Finley

November 12, 2020

by Carla Hay

Ruth Finley in “Calendar Girl” (Photo by Christian D. Bruun)

“Calendar Girl”

Directed by Christian D. Bruun

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the documentary “Calendar Girl” features a group of predominantly middle-aged and senior citizen white people (with a few Asians and African Americans) discussing Fashion Calendar founder Ruth Finley, who also participated into the documentary.

Culture Clash: Finley was very resistant to new technology and refused for years to sell Fashion Calendar.

Culture Audience: “Calendar Girl” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in the American fashion industry and New York Fashion Week.

Steven Kolb and Ruth Finley in “Calendar Girl” (Photo by Christian D. Bruun)

Long before software spreadsheets and the Internet existed, the schedules of the U.S. fashion industry in New York City were and still are largely influenced by the subscription publication Fashion Calendar, which launched in 1941. Ruth Finley was the founder of Fashion Calendar, which is still considered the most influential scheduling “bible” for people in American fashion, especially those who attend New York Fashion Week. Finley’s name might not be as famous as longtime Vogue (U.S.) editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, but Finley holds a place in fashion media as an underrated pioneer. The engaging documentary “Calendar Girl” tells Finley’s story.

Directed by Christian D. Bruun, “Calendar Girl” (which had its world premiere at DOC NYC in 2020) was filmed over the course of several years in the 2010s. Finley passed away in 2018, at the age of 98, but she fully participated in the film, which includes interviews with numerous colleagues and family members of Finley. A few of the interviewees have also since passed away, such as photographer Bill Cunningham and former Bloomingdale’s executive Joseph “Joe” Siegel, who was Finley’s beau toward their end of their lives. Therefore, “Calendar Girl” looks dated in some ways, but the inspiring message of the movie is timeless.

Rather than giving a boring and predictable chronological telling of Finley’s story, “Calendar Girl” gives a non-chronological but insightful overview of Finley as a businessperson, mother and beloved influencer, as well as how she fits into the larger cultural context of the fashion industry. The movie begins with footage of her being honored at a 2014 Hall of Fame Tribute to celebrate Fashion Calendar, an event presented by Citymeals on Wheels. Later in the documentary, there’s footage of Finley getting the Board of Directors’ Tribute at the 2014 Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) Awards, as well as Finley receiving the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) President’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016.

Through Finley’s own words and the words of her colleagues and her three sons (Joe Green, Jim Green and Larry Lein), a story emerges of a dedicated and sassy woman who went against society norms to start Fashion Calendar during an era when women were expected to not have careers. She was a single, working mother for most of her career, long before it was common or even acceptable to be a mother who worked outside of the home. Finley also kept working well past the age when most people are expected to retire. 

And her passion for fashion is almost unparalleled, as she kept up her rigorous work schedule for decades. She was tirelessly attending fashion shows well into her 90s. “Calendar Girl” includes footage of her attending some of these shows. In the documentary, Finley says, “Sometimes I do as many as 12 shows a day.” She also mentions that her personal career record for going to fashion shows was attending 150 shows in one week.

Fashion Calendar had a very simple concept that worked extremely well: Publish a calendar schedule of all the major fashion events happening in New York City. For years, before Fashion Calendar had office space, Finley worked out of her home. Fun fact: Before Emmy-winning actress Doris Roberts was famous, she worked as a teenage typist for Fashion Calendar in the publication’s early years.

The Fashion Calendar newsletter eventually grew into a booklet-styled publication years later. CFDA founder Eleanor Lambert, who started out as a fashion publicist, rose to prominence at around the same time that Finley did. Lambert, Finley and former Vogue (U.S.) editor Diana Vreeland are mentioned by several people as the three most influential women in fashion in the 1950s and 1960s.

Fashion Calendar, which was published weekly and then bi-weekly, was typewritten or mimeographed on pink paper for years, before computer technology existed. Finley and her small staff also kept files and Rolodexes that they still used until CFDA purchased Fashion Calendar in 2014 and Finley took on the role of consultant. At the time Fashion Calendar was sold to CFDA in 2014, the publication had only three full-time employees, including Finley and longtime Fashion Calendar editor Mary Hackle.

The idea of making Fashion Calendar pink ended up being one of the best ideas for the publication, not only because it made Fashion Calendar stand out from other fashion publications, but also, as Finley says, “The reason why we kept this color is so people would find it on a messy desk.” It’s why Fashion Calendar ended up being nicknamed “The Pink Bible.”

Finley (who was born in 1920, in Haverhill, Massachusetts) launched Fashion Calendar while she was still a student at Simmons College in Boston, where she majored in journalism and minored in nutrition. After graduating from college in 1941, she moved to New York City and devoted herself full-time to Fashion Calendar, which included listings for movie premieres and Broadway shows in the publication’s early years. Under her ownership, Fashion Calendar never had ads or took sponsorship money, which is unusual for any print-media publication.

Finley’s youngest son Larry Lein comments in the documentary: “She realized all along that she could’ve taken ads and she could’ve made more money, but she thought it would ruin the integrity of what she was doing and ruin her credibility. It never occurred to her that her business should be anything but an impartial listing service.” He also says that his mother’s business success could be attributed to her frugality, because she learned early on to keep overhead costs low.

While her Fashion Calendar business was thriving, Finley experienced major heartaches and tragedies. Her first marriage to businessman Hank Green ended in divorce in 1954, at a time when being divorced was considered somewhat scandalous, especially for women. Finley’s sons Joe and Jim Green were born from that marriage.

In the documentary, Finley says that her first marriage was a mistake that happened because she wanted to rebel against her domineering housewife mother, who didn’t approve of Hank Green and thought that women should not have careers. Finley and her mother didn’t see eye-to-eye on a lot of issues, but their relationship is described as close, despite any ongoing tensions.

Not long after her divorce from Hank Green, Finley married second husband Irving Lein, who owned a women’s designer sportswear company. Her third and youngest son Larry was born from that marriage. However, Irving tragically died of a heart attack at the age of 44 on January 14, 1959, which also happened to be Finley’s 39th birthday.

The widowed Finley told people at the funeral that she never wanted to get married again. And she never did. Finley says in the documentary that her way of dealing with tragedy and setbacks was to try to be as positive as possible: “I always believed in looking at the happy side. And too many people don’t know how to do that.”

That optimistic outlook on life served her well in an industry that tends to be very fickle and not well-suited for people who are sensitive to criticism. As the fashion industry grew in America (especially in New York City, the fashion capital of the United States), so too did Fashion Calendar’s influence. Finley found herself not just publishing the fashion schedules of the industry but also becoming a power broker who could decide who and what could be scheduled where and when. It was also a job that required a lot of negotiating skills to deal with the huge egos and histrionics in the fashion industry.

Her clout had a major effect not just with big-name designers but also with up-and-coming designers. Several people in the documentary, including fashion designers Betsey Johnson and Jeffrey Banks, have nice things to say about how Finley have them big breaks in their careers. And her Fashion Calendar work also affected the careers of countless other industry people besides designers, such as buyers, media, retailers and wholesalers. Ellin Saltzman, a former Saks Fifth Avenue buyer, says of Finley: “Without Ruth, I couldn’t do my job.”

Fashion designer Nicole Miller says in the documentary that for Miller’s first New York Fashion Week show in 1991, Finley was “tough” in insisting that then-newcomer Miller get a less-than-desirable time slot: 9 a.m. on a Tuesday. Miller says, through a lot of heated discussions with Finley, she was able to negotiate for a better time slot at 12 noon. Miller says that these negotiations weren’t easy because Finley was considered an industry powerhouse that a lot of upcoming designers did not want to alienate.

Fashion designer Nanette Lepore comments in the documentary that although Finley was no pushover, she still brought a sense of decorum and politeness to her job, in an industry where screaming tantrums and rudeness are very common: “She was constantly smoothing over egos, negotiating for someone … There was a gentlemanliness about how people approached fashion and Fashion Week, mostly because of how Ruth’s gentlewomanliness was managing it.”

Because she conducted most of her business over the phone, Fashion Calendar had a personal touch that many other fashion media executives lost as computer technology took over many businesses and people used email or social media to communicate with each other. In the documentary, Finley says that as long as she owned Fashion Calendar, she made sure that she and her small number of employees were always accessible through phone calls. 

It was a very traditional mindset that people in the documentary say was both an asset and a detriment. Even though Crafting Beauty CEO François Damide says in the documentary of Finley, “I really think she’s the Steve Jobs of our industry,” that comment might be overstating her influence. Even Finley herself admits that she was far from a technology pioneer, and she didn’t really invent anything. She just provided a particular news service for the fashion industry before anyone else did.

Finley’s resistance to new technology would ultimately lead to her decision to sell Fashion Calendar. For decades, Finley turned down offers from other companies to buy Fashion Calendar. One of the reasons why Finley’s family convinced her to sell Fashion Calendar was that the American fashion industry and New York Fashion Week were just too big for Finley and her small staff to handle just by their old-fashioned methods of Rolodexes and hand-written drafts of schedules.

The Fashion Calendar staff eventually used computers, but former CFDA executive director Fern Mallis says, “Ruth was very late to get to the technology. People begged her to be online. She resisted.”

In 2014, CFDA president/CEO Steven Kolb and then-CFA chairperson Diane von Furstenberg approached Finley to sell Fashion Calendar to CFDA. Kolb says in the documentary that CFDA had been considering launching a rival fashion calendar business, but approached Finley to sell Fashion Calendar to CFDA, out of respect for Finley and with the promise that they would keep her core integrity for the business intact. The CFDA took over Fashion Calendar in October 2014. Fashion Calendar’s last print edition was published in December 2014.

Kolb comments in the documentary, “Technology, whether we like it or not, whether we accept it or not, it forces us to move forward in a way, because if we don’t, then we become irrelevant.” Kolb adds that Finley was also convinced to sell Fashion Calendar because he told her that stepping away from day-to-day managerial duties “frees her up … and lets her focus on the fun stuff.”

The documentary also gives a great overview of the priceless contributions that Finley made to the fashion industry, in terms of historical significance. She meticulously kept all of the Fashion Calendar issues, which she donated to the FIT Museum for posterity. These archives are incredible resources for research and for examining what was going on in fashion at the time. There are no other archives like it in the world.

Fashion Calendar wasn’t a flashy publication and there was “not a lot of production value,” comments independent archivist David Benjamin, who helped transfer Fashion Calendar archives to the FIT Museum. “But it’s important, in terms of the information it contains.”

Because “Calendar Girl” was filmed over several years, there are many other people who were interviewed for the documentary. Fashion designers who offer their glowing commentary on Finley include Carolina Herrera; Mark Badgley and James Mischka of Badgley Mischka; Tadashi Soji; Thom Browne; Ralph Rucci; Dennis Basso; and Steve Herman, a former CFDA president.

Other “Calendar Girl” interviewees include FIT Museum director/chief curator Valerie Steele; FIT Library head of special collections and college archives Karen Trivette; former Costume Institute/Metropolitan Museum of Art curator-in-charge Harold Koda; Costume Institute/Metropolitan Museum of Art communications officer Nancy Chilton; Fashion Group International creative director Marylou Luther; Cushnie et Ochs CEO Peter Arnold; Paper magazine editorial director Mickey Boardman; The Ground Crew CEO Audrey Smaltz; Victoria Royal president Alan Sealove; KCD co-chair Julie Mannion; and InStyle magazine editor-at-large Eric Wilson. 

Even though all of these talking heads in the movie are very laudatory of Finley, “Calendar Girl” does an admirable job of not placing her too high on a pedestal, since it includes some constructive criticism of how Finley’s technophobia affected her business. “Calendar Girl” director Bruun was also the film’s cinematographer, and he brings an unpretentious intimacy to this fashion documentary, in contrast to so many other documentaries about fashion influencers that tend to lean into “larger than life” pomp and circumstance. Most of all, “Calendar Girl” is a noteworthy tribute to Finley, by showing that her name might not be well-known outside of the fashion industry because she remained humble and cared more about her work than she cared about being famous.

UPDATE: Syndicado will release “Calendar Girl” on digital and VOD on March 8, 2022.

2020 DOC NYC: What to expect at this year’s event

October 15, 2020

Updated November 9, 2020

by Carla Hay

Celebrating its 11th edition in 2020, the annual DOC NYC, which is headquartered in New York City, is one of the world’s leading documentary festivals, with a slate of more than 200 films (of which more than 100 are feature-length films) from a diverse array of topics. In 2020, DOC NYC takes place from November 11 to November 19, and continues the festival’s tradition of offering an outstanding variety of feature films and short films, with several of the movies focusing on underrepresented people and marginalized communities. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, DOC NYC is a virtual event in 2020, with all of the festival’s movies available to view online to the general public from November 11 to November 19. Tickets are available on the official DOC NYC website.

DOC NYC, which was co-founded by Thom Powers and Raphaela Neihausen, is still offering special virtual events in addition to online screenings. According to a DOC NYC press release: “DOC NYC’s 2020 edition includes the five-day pre-festival Road Trip, October 26-30, a virtual tour on Facebook Live stopping in 10 filmmaking hubs across the United States to showcase local documentary makers and organizations, along with festival films from the area. During the festival itself, conversations with festival filmmakers will take place in daily DOC NYC Live events, and festival screenings will also include pre-recorded filmmaker Q&As after the films. Road Trip is co-presented by Netflix.”

Also according to a DOC NYC press release: “The festival’s noted filmmaker development program, DOC NYC PRO, also moved online in 2020, offering webinars to emerging and established documentary markers around that globe. DOC NYC PRO is co-presented by Apple Original Films. More news about additions to the program, DOC NYC’s Visionaries Tribute honorees, competition jury members, the features and shorts named to the festival’s Short List sections, and other festival updates will be announced in the coming weeks.”

The honorees for the 2020 DOC NYC Visionaries Tribute are film editor Sam Pollard and film editor/producer Jean Tsien, who will each receive the Lifetime Achievement Award; filmmaker Yvonne Welbon, recipient of the Leading Light Award; and filmmaker Alexander Nanau, who will get the Drew Award.

For the second year in a row, the festival is presenting DOC NYC’s Winner’s Circle collection, which spotlights movies that have won awards at other film festivals, but might be underrated or overlooked for Oscar nominations. Winner’s Circle documentaries this year are “Acasa, My Home,” “Beautiful Something Left Behind,” “Influence,” “Mayor,” “The Mole Agent,” “The Painter and the Thief,” “The Reason I Jump,” “Songs of Repression,” “Stray” and “The Walrus and the Whistleblower.”

DOC NYC’s annual Short List spotlights movies (features and shorts) that are considered top contenders to get Oscar nominations. This year’s Short List feature films are “76 Days,” “Boys State,” “Collective,” “Crip Camp,” “Dick Johnson Is Dead,” “The Fight,” “Gunda,” “I Am Greta,” “MLK/FBI,” “On the Record,” “The Social Dilemma,” “A Thousand Cuts,” “The Truffle Hunters” and “Welcome to Chechnya.” This year’s Short List short films are “Abortion Help Line, This Is Lisa,” “Ashes to Ashes,” “Call Center Blues,” “Do No Split,” “Flower Punk,” “Hunger Ward,” “A Life Too Short,” “A Love Song for Latasha,” “No Crying at the Dinner Table,” “Now Is the Time,” “Sing Me a Lullaby,” “Then Comes the Evening.”

Even though most of the movies at DOC NYC have had their world premieres elsewhere, DOC NYC has several world premieres of its own. Here are the feature films that will have their world premieres at DOC NYC. A complete program can be found here.

DOC NYC 2020 WORLD PREMIERE FEATURE FILMS

All descriptions are courtesy of DOC NYC.

UPDATE: “Wuhan Wuhan,” which chronicled what Wuhan, China, was like as the first epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, was announced as being a world premiere at DOC NYC in 2020, but the movie was pulled from the festival for “technical issues,” according to the movie’s publicist.

“A La Calle” 
Directed by Nelson G. Navarrete and Maxx Caicedo

Venezuela’s recent political upheavals are made vivid through this epic work exploring multiple perspectives in the national movement against the dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro.

“Calendar Girl” 
Directed by Christian D. Bruun

Ruth Finley, the nonagenarian queen of the fashion industry through her pink Fashion Calendar, founded in 1945, faces the end of an era as her iconic publication changes ownership. Co-presented by The Cut.


“Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters”
Directed by Rosalynde LeBlanc and Tom Hurwitz

An engrossing examination of dance, love, and loss through the story of Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane’s signature performance piece on the devastation of AIDS. Co-presented by The WNET Group.

Chasing Childhood” 
Directed Eden Wurmfeld and Margaret Munzer Loeb 

Reformed “helicopter” parents and education professionals reveal the benefits of allowing kids to have freedom to play unencumbered by schedules and structure.


 
A Cops and Robbers Story
Directed by Ilinca Calugareanu

A decorated NYPD officer’s career is threatened when his political stances lead to revelations about his former life of crime.

“A Crime in the Bayou” 
Directed by Nancy Buirski

In 1966 Louisiana, a lasting bond is formed between an unjustly arrested Black man, Gary Duncan, and Richard Sobol, his young Jewish attorney.

“Crutch”
Directed by Sachi Cunningham and Vayabobo

Dance, art, performance, and disability politics converge in this entertaining and enlightening portrait of Bill “Crutch” Shannon.

“Duty Free” 
Directed by Sian-Pierre Regis

As his recently laid off mother struggles to find a new job at the age of 75, the filmmaker takes her on an adventure to help her reclaim her life.

“In My Own Time: A Portrait of Karen Dalton” 
Directed by Robert Yapkowitz and Richard Peete

The unconventional life of blues and folk singer Karen Dalton, a prominent figure in the 1960s New York music scene.

“In Silico” 
Directed by Noah Hutton

Director Noah Hutton embarks on a 10-year project following a visionary neuroscientist’s quest to build a computer simulation of a brain.

“La Madrina: The Savage Life of Lorine Padilla”  
Directed by Raquel Cepeda

The “first lady” of the Savage Skulls reflects on the pivotal role of women in the 1970s New York City gang and her later shift to community activism.

“The Meaning of Hitler” 
Directed by Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker

This provocative consideration of the lasting influence and draw of Hitler provides insight into the resurgence of white supremacy, antisemitism, and the weaponization of history.

“Moments Like This Never Last” 
Directed by Cheryl Dunn

In post 9/11 New York City, Dash Snow rejected a life of privilege to make his own way as an artist for a too brief but unforgettable time.

“Neither Confirm Nor Deny” 
Directed by Philip Carter

At the height of the Cold War, the CIA is tasked with an audacious covert mission: recovering a sunken Soviet nuclear submarine from the bottom of the ocean.

“The Oil War”
Directed by David Schisgall

Iconoclastic historian Andrew Bacevich delivers an anti-colonial critique of US foreign policy in the Middle East, which he sees as one long Oil War.

“On Pointe”
Directed by Larissa Bills

A sneak preview of the pilot episode of the upcoming Disney+ docuseries capturing a season in New York City at the School of American Ballet. Co-presented by the NYC Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment.

“Origin of the Species” 
Directed by Abigail Child

Abigail Child offers an eerie and exciting look into the present and future of artificial intelligence through the perspectives of robotics scientists, entrepreneurs, and a Black lesbian robot named BINA48.

“Red Heaven” 
Directed by Lauren DeFilippo and Katherine Gorringe

In this prescient exploration of self-imposed quarantine, six volunteers embark on a one-year mission in a Mars simulation to further research for space exploration.

“Restaurant Hustle” 
Directed by Frank Matson

Executive produced by Guy Fieri, this is an intimate chronicle of the impact of the pandemic on the restaurants of four celebrity chefs: Antonia Lofaso, Marcus Samuelsson, Maneet Chauhan, and Christian Petroni. Co-presented by Grub Street.

“Television Event” 
Directed by Jeff Daniels

On November 20, 1983, ABC-TV broadcast “The Day After,” a chilling fictional account of the aftermath of a nuclear war on a small Kansas town. With impressive access to the principals involved with the project and a trove of archival footage, Jeff Daniels revisits the improbable story of this anti-nuclear major television event and the impact it left on the Reagan era and beyond.

“Wojnarowicz”
Directed by Chris McKim

A powerful elegy to the late New York artist, writer, and filmmaker David Wojnarowicz, who embraced a defiant queer identity and fought against indifference to the AIDS crisis.

“Youth V. Gov” 
Directed by Christi Cooper

Young activists from across the nation file a groundbreaking lawsuit against the United States for endangering their constitutional rights by creating the climate crisis.

November 9, 2020 UPDATE

The following information is from a DOC NYC press release:

DOC NYC LIVE

As it moves online for the first time, the festival is launching a daily block of free programming, DOC NYC Live, available to audiences throughout the US and around the world on Facebook Live. Each afternoon during the festival, the programming team will host live conversations throwing a spotlight on individual films. Speakers expected to participate include Werner Herzog and Clive Oppenheimer, along with festival filmmakers and special guests, including Representative Barbara Lee (Truth to Power: Barbara Lee Speaks for Me), Alex Winter (Zappa), philosopher and activist Angela Davis (Since I Been Down), author David Mitchell (The Reason I Jump), fashion designer Nicole Miller(Calendar Girl), violinist Joshua Bell (Los Hermanos/The Brothers), celebrity restaurateurs Guy Fieri, Marcus Samuelsson, Antonia Lofaso, Maneet Chauhan, and Christian Petroni (Restaurant Hustle 2020: All on the Line), author Francine Prose (The Meaning of Hitler), chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov (The Dissident), and philosopher Cornel West (The Big Scary “S” Word), with additional participants to be announced. The schedule and updates are available at www.DOCNYC.net/DOCNYCLive2020
 
“Since March, we’ve been adapting to our new online reality and trying to find fresh ways to reach audiences,” said DOC NYC Executive Director Raphaela Neihausen. “DOC NYC Live is our latest effort to help filmmakers connect with audiences all over the world.”
 
Audiences can tune in and contribute questions or comments at facebook.com/docnycfest. This live program builds on the success of the festival’s earlier DOC NYC Road Trip, a week of virtual visits with filmmakers and documentary advocates in 10 cities across the country that attracted thousands of viewers. 
 
DOC NYC Live on Wed. Nov. 11 and Thurs. Nov. 12 is co-presented by XTR.  DOC NYC Live on Fri. Nov. 13 is co-presented by Hulu. 

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