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.

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.

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 under-represented 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. 

2019 DOC NYC movie review: ‘Mai Khoi & the Dissidents’

November 18, 2019

by Carla Hay

Mai Khoi
Mai Khoi in “Mai Khoi & the Dissidents”

“Mai Khoi & the Dissidents”

Directed by Joe Piscatella

Vietnamese with subtitles

World premiere at DOC NYC in New York City on November 13, 2019.

There have been many pop stars who have changed their safe, politically neutral images to making music that’s edgy or politically controversial. But what if a pop star does that and is then persecuted by the government? That’s what Vietnamese singer Mai Khoi has experienced, according to this compelling film that clocks in at a brisk 70 minutes. This documentary chronicles her ongoing struggles in fighting that persecution and for her rights to freedom of expression.

She first became famous in Vietnam for doing fluffy, inoffensive pop songs. In 2010, Vietnam Television awarded her the prizes of Album of the Year and Song of the Year (for “Viet Nam”). But, as she says in the documentary about her former life as a pop star: “I felt comfortable having a lot of money, but I felt something missing inside me.” Her Australian husband, Ben Swanton, a fellow left-wing social activist whom she married in 2013, says: “She caused a major national scandal when she said that she didn’t want to get married and have children.”

She caused another scandal with her song “Selfie Orgasm,” which essentially dropped the final bomb in her “safe” pop-star image. Khoi says that the song was a social commentary on narcissism, but it was eventually banned by Zing, which is the Vietnamese version of YouTube. By then, a political fire had been began to roar inside her, and she ran for political office as an independent, for a seat in the National Assembly of Vietnam. However, the Vietnamese government, specifically the Vietnamese Fatherland Front, made sure that her name was left off of the ballot.

Khoi’s 2016 meeting with then-U.S. president Barack Obama when he visited Vietnam made her even more of an enemy to the Vietnamese government, she says in the movie. In March 2016, the police raided her concert in Saigon, and she’s been banned from performing in Vietnam. But in one scene in the movie, she does a secret show anyway, and braces herself for the consequences. Viewers see in the film that the government’s reaction is swift and severe: In retaliation for Khoi doing the secret show, the government forced her landlord to evict her. One of the people interviewed in the documentary is Nguyen Qui Duc, also known as radical blogger Anh Chi, who says he’s also been harassed by the Vietnamese government for speaking out against the government.

The movie also shows her botched attempt to hang a banner saying “Keep the Internet Free” from the Long Biên Bridge in Hanoi. She dropped the banner into the Red River after only five minutes, out of fear of being arrested. However, that experience perhaps emboldened her to do an even more daring protest publicity stunt.

The election of Donald Trump as U.S. president added more fuel to her fire. In 2017, when Trump visited Vietnam for the first time as U.S. president, she made headlines around the world for holding a banner up as his motorcade passed by on the streets of Hanoi. The banner said, “Piss on you Trump,” with “iss” crossed out to read “Peace on You Trump.” She was quickly visited by the police, who harassed her. Some of the harassment was caught on camera, but the police eventually forced the cameraperson to stop filming. Despite the police attempting to silence Khoi, her protest achieved its goal of international attention, since video of Khoi holding up the banner became a viral sensation.

A great deal of the movie also documents the recording of Khoi’s first album with her all-male band the Dissidents, whose members all have left-leaning political beliefs, but some of them express a certain trepidation about how being in the band will make them targets of harassment from the government. The musicianship  isn’t particuarly impressive, but the album isn’t about crafting catchy pop songs, and the song lyrics clearly mean more to the band than the music.

It’s not a spoiler to say the “Mai Khoi & the Dissidents” album was released in 2017. The album, which was picked up by a Norwegian record company to be released in Norway, became only the second album from a Vietnamese artist to be released outside of Vietnam, according to the documentary. Khoi also received the Human Rights Award from the Oslo Freedom Forum, but the Vietnam government censored this news in the BBC report that was televised in Vietnam.

As a documentary, “Mai Khoi & the Dissidents” is at its most riveting when it conveys the fear and tension after Khoi does something to agitate the Vietnam government. It leaves viewers wondering what’s going to happen next, and what kind of harassment Khoi will experience. What’s less interesting is footage of Khoi and her bandmates in the recording studio, because the musicianship is, frankly, mediocre.

There’s a poignant scene at the end of the film when Khoi seriously contemplates moving from Vietnam to Australia, even though she would be leaving her entire biological family behind. You’ll have to see the movie to find out what she decided in her dilemma to leave Vietnam or stay. The biggest downside to this movie is that in the unpredictable world of a firebrand like Mai Khoi, she’ll inevitably make headlines again for bold and risk-taking activism, and this documentary will then be rendered very outdated.

2019 DOC NYC movie review: ‘Healing From Hate: Battle for the Soul of a Nation’

November 18, 2019

by Carla Hay

Tony McAleer, Amar Kaleka and Sammy Rangel in “Healing From Hate: Battle for the Soul of a Nation” (Photo courtesy of Big Tent Productions)

“Healing From Hate: Battle for the Soul of a Nation”

Directed by Peter Hutchison

World premiere at DOC NYC in New York City on November 13, 2019.

The rise of hate crimes in recent years has led to an increase in documentaries and news reports about bigotry and its effects on our culture. “Healing From Hate: Battle for the Soul of a Nation” focuses on former extreme racists who have devoted their lives to helping others get out of the belief systems and lifestyles of hate groups. The three main stars of the film are Life After Hate co-founder Frank Meeink, the real-life inspiration for the dramatic film “American History X”; Life After Hate co-founder Tony McAleer; and Sammy Rangel, a Latino former gang member who founded the group Formers Anonymous for ex-bigots. (Rangel says in the documentary that he used to hate white people.) All of the men openly admit to committing several hate crimes in the past, and they’ve spent time in prison.

The film points out several common denominators of people who join extreme racist groups: They usually had abusive childhoods; they feel mistreated by mainstream society and joined hate groups to have surrogate families; and they often abuse drugs and/or alcohol, even if they leave the hate groups. All of the ex-racists in this documentary fit this profile, and they talk about their ongoing struggles with substance abuse.

McAleer, who is originally from Vancouver, says he changed his hate-filled lifestyle after the births of his daughter and son. One of the more effective parts of the film is when he returns to his hometown to visit members at Temple Shalom, where his hate crimes started. Another standout scene is when McAleer and Rangel visit the Sikh temple (gurdwara) in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, where in 2012, a white supremacist murdered six people and wounded four others before committing suicide. In an emotionally powerful moment, the documentary shows McAleer and Rangel going to the scene of the crime to meet with Amar Kaleka, son of the gurdwara’s murdered founder, as they talk and pray about the tragedy. The movie’s archival footage includes the 2017 deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Other people featured in the movie are Randy Blazak, a criminologist and researcher of hate groups; Thomas Engelmann, founder and ex-member of the Aryan Brotherhood, which does a lot of recruiting in prisons; and author Michael Kimmel, a founder of Stony Brook University’s Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities. Also interviewed are former neo-Nazi Randy Furniss and African American activist/radio host Julius Long, who formed an unlikely friendship with each other after Long rescued Furniss from being attacked by an angry crowd protesting against white supremacist Richard Spencer’s 2017 speech at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Spencer is featured in the movie getting into a spirited debate about racism with Life After Hate co-founder Christian Picciolini, who is no longer affiliated with Life After Hate. You might notice a pattern here: This is a very male-centric movie.

The documentary, although well-intentioned, can’t quite overcome its biggest flaw: It basically ignores women. Current and former racists who are women are not mentioned or interviewed. In addition, most of the men in these reform groups have children, but the mothers of these children aren’t interviewed either. The film never bothers to answer these questions: What are these mothers’ perspectives? How are these children being raised? What happens when one parent leaves a hate group, but the other parent wants to stay? The filmmakers don’t mention if any effort was made to include an adequate number of female viewpoints in the documentary.

Although it’s true that the vast majority of violent hate crimes are committed by men, and most of the white supremacists who march at rallies are men, it’s also indisputable that women are a big part of white supremacy. Women’s roles in this damaging movement have been irresponsibly overlooked in this documentary. For example, women who are racists have other insidious methods of inflicting fear on the targets of their hate, besides committing violence. Viral videos and several news reports have proven that female racists like to call the police on people of color who are minding their own business and not breaking the law.

“Healing From Hate” also avoids discussing that within the white supremacy movement is an inherent culture of misogyny because of the belief that white Christian males are the most superior of the human race. However, the movie does not address any sexist beliefs these former racists probably had while in the movement, and the documentary never mentions if their therapy also includes “detoxing” from the overwhelming sexism in white supremacy. (A more accurate title of the movie is “Healing From Male Racists,” not “Healing From Hate.”)

Since men are the only focus of this documentary about current and reformed bigots, it paints an incomplete and inaccurate picture that male racists should be more important priorities than female racists. And this documentary’s emphasis on male redemption is itself kind of sexist. Not surprisingly, all the group therapy leaders in this documentary are men, and almost everyone interviewed for this movie is a man.

A friendly reminder to the filmmakers: Females are 51 percent of the U.S. population. If you’re going to do a documentary whose subtitle is “Battle for the Soul of a Nation,” it would help if you included perspectives from the gender that represents the majority of this nation. “Healing From Hate” director Peter Hutchison plans to make two companion documentaries: “Angry White Men: American Masculinity in the Age of Trump” (based on the sociology work of Kimmel) and “Auschwitz: Facing the Legacy of Hatred,” which will focus on McAleer’s redemption by showing him visiting the sites of Polish death camps. Let’s hope that the makers of these companion documentaries don’t forget that healing from hatred doesn’t exist in only a male vacuum. Female voices need to be valued and heard too.

UPDATE: Media Education Foundation will release “Healing From Hate: Battle for the Soul of a Nation” in select U.S. cinemas on September 4, 2020.

2019 DOC NYC movie review: ‘The Longest Wave’

November 18, 2019

by Carla Hay

Robby Naish in "The Longest Wave"
Robby Naish in “The Longest Wave” (Photo courtesy of Red Bull Films)

“The Longest Wave”

Directed by Joe Berlinger

World premiere at DOC NYC in New York City on November 13, 2019.

There comes a time in professional athletes’ lives when they have to decide when they’ll retire from professional sports competitions. But most athletes who’ve been world champions would say that even if they stop competing in professional sports, their sport of choice will always been in their blood. That’s certainly true for windsurfer Robby Naish, who started winning world championships in 1976 at the age of 13. Now that he’s middle-aged, he’s reached a crossroads in the inevitable decision on how much longer it will be before he officially retires.

“The Longest Wave” is ostensibly about Naish’s quest to find and ride the longest wave possible before his advancing age prevents him from taking the kinds of surfing risks that he could when he was younger. It’s a dream he’s been chasing since 2016. But the real issue, which becomes clear early on the documentary, is that Naish is kind of having a mid-life identity crisis. He didn’t really have a “normal” childhood. For decades, his entire life has been about surfing, so it’s unthinkable for him to have any career that doesn’t involve the sport.

“The Longest Wave” director Joe Berlinger doesn’t assume that viewers will know who Naish is before seeing this movie, so Berlinger takes a great deal of time (approximately the first half of the film) to show Naish’s life story, before the second half of the film focuses on Naish’s ultimate quest of finding the longest wave. Naish’s family members (including his father, mother, older brother and two daughters) and colleagues (including surfers Matt Schweitzer, Kai Lenny and Chuck Patterson) are among those who are interviewed. Naish chose Lenny (a Naish protégé in his 20s) and Patterson (a longtime friend who’s closer to Naish’s age) to accompany him on his international journey to chase the longest wave. Their globetrotting included trips to Namibia, Peru and Costa Rica.

Naish’s family members, friends and associates consistently describe him as someone who has a single-minded obsession with surfing and winning any surfing competition that he enters. One of his biggest flaws, they say, is that he’s a sore loser. But on the flip side, he’s also generous about helping and teaching other surfers. Naish essentially admits all of this is true, and he knows that his unwavering commitment to being a pro surfer (which includes constant traveling) has ruined his two marriages. He has a daughter from each of his failed marriages. Naish was going through his second divorce while making this documentary. His ex-wives are not in the film.

Lenny idolized Naish since he was a kid, and he is one of Naish’s best-known protégés, who went into business with Naish’s self-titled brand and signed with many of the same sponsors that Naish has. It should be noted that Red Bull has been a longtime sponsor of Naish, and “The Longest Wave” is from Red Bull Films, so there’s a lot of Red Bull product placement in the movie. Lenny’s smirky cockiness and mugging for the camera easily make him the most annoying person in the film. It’s not surprising later in the movie when he makes a decision that blindsides Naish, but an outside observer watching this documentary can see it coming from a mile away. Meanwhile, Naish’s longtime buddy Patterson has a laid-back presence that’s welcome when Naish and the other members of the team get too high-strung and agitated.

As if going through a divorce hadn’t been bad enough, Naish experienced some major setbacks during the making of this documentary, including a broken pelvis (which required a recovery of at least six months) and a broken foot. While traveling to Walvis Bay, Namibia, the Naish team had the bad luck of several of their luggage items (including Naish’s most-prized surfboard) not arriving, so they spent about six frustrating days watching the surf that they couldn’t ride.

It’s a testament to Naish’s perseverance that he didn’t let these obstacles deter him, but you have to speculate how much longer Naish will be willing to risk getting severe injuries, in order to pursue the kind of extreme surfing that he likes to do. He makes it clear in the movie that he has no regrets, and he’ll keep surfing as long as he’s physically able.

One of the best qualities of the film is the cinematography (there are some truly stunning aerial shots), and it’s why this movie should be seen on the big screen. However, the film’s editing needed to be tighter, because it looks like the filmmakers couldn’t really decide to make this movie a Naish biography or a story about his journey to find the longest wave, so they decided to mash up the two concepts in one movie. You’ll have to see this documentary to find out if Naish ever got to ride his longest wave. You don’t have to be a surfing fan to enjoy this film, because the movie is really about people defining for themselves how they want to chase their dreams.

2019 DOC NYC movie review: ‘Ganden: A Joyful Land’

November 18, 2019

by Carla Hay

Jampa Legshe in “Ganden: A Joyful Land” (Photo by Ngawang Choephel)

“Ganden: A Joyful Land”

Directed by Ngawang Choephel

Tibetan with subtitles

World premiere at DOC NYC in New York City on November 12, 2019.

If you ever wondered about how influential Tibetan Buddhist monestary Ganden survived China’s invasion of Tibet, by relocating to India in 1959, and rebuilding in 1966, this thoughtful documentary explains it all. Ganden is where a young Dalai Lama had his religious origins and his awakening as an activist for world peace. Although the Dalai Lama is not interviewed in the documentary, several Ganden monks who were part of the relocation share their memories of what it was like to be refugees from their native Tibet and to rebuild the monastery in India, a country that welcomed them, with the help of the Dalai Lama.

For the documentary, director Ngawang Choephel (who also narrates the film in a soothing tone) has kept the pacing very deliberate and historically oriented. It’s the kind of film that would be right at home in a museum, a school class on Tibetan Buddhism, or on PBS. In other words, “Ganden: A Joyful Land” might be too slow-paced for those who prefer their documentaries with more flash or quick-cutting editing styles, but just like the monks in the film, tranquility is valued over adrenaline. (Choephel says he began filming Ganden in India in 2011, and about half of the monks interviewed in the movie have since passed away, which adds a certain historical weight as archival footage.)

One of the strongest qualities of the film is the cinematography, which is simply gorgeous. Some of the most compelling and colorful imagery is of monks creating mandala paintings for the Tagtse Dumshoe festival, using sand-like paint. Because the movie has first-person accounts of the monks who founded Ganden in India, their stories are the heart and soul of the film. Many of the monks consistently say that even if they didn’t have enough to eat in the early years of the monastery, life at Ganden was extremely fulfilling for them. One of the monks said that when he went home to visit with his family, he couldn’t wait to get back to the monastery.

Of course, the hardships and suffering they endured are not ignored in the film, and neither is a mention of the high number suicides of the refugee monks and the monks who were still in Tibet, because of their despair over China’s invasion and religious persecution. Despite these depressing but necessary aspects of the film, “Ganden: A Joyful Land” is ultimately an inspiring story of faith, hope, and the will to survive in a world where a peaceful existence is always at risk.

2019 DOC NYC movie review: ‘Los Últimos Frikis’

November 18, 2019

by Carla Hay

Los Últimos Frikis
Zeus in “Los Últimos Frikis”

“Los Últimos Frikis”

Directed by Nicholas Brennan

Spanish with subtitles

World premiere at DOC NYC in New York City on November 10, 2019.

If rock music can be described in family terms, heavy metal is often perceived as the trashy, “black sheep” stepchild. For the Cuban heavy-metal band Zeus (which formed in Havana in 1997, during the Fidel Castro regime), getting respect has always been an uphill battle, made all the more difficult because of Cuba’s restrictive policies on rock music. The music primarily comes from Western, capitalist countries, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, which dominate the shrinking market for heavy-metal music. It’s another reason why Zeus is a metal underdog: Often disrespected in their own country, the members of Zeus also know that because they’re in a Cuban band, the odds are stacked against them that they’ll be accepted in other countries that have embraced U.S. and European metal bands.

Despite all of these obstacles, Zeus is still making music after all these years. “Los Últimos Frikis,” which translates in English to “The Last Freaks” is primarily a chronicle of the band’s 25th anniversary tour of Cuba, with tour stops in the cities of Camaguey, Santa Clara, Guantanamo and Ciego de Avila. Before viewers get to see the tour, director Nicholas Brennan introduces each band member in segments that show them at home with their families and playing music.

Lead singer Diony Arce is the expected charismatic focus of the band. In the movie, he discusses his turbulent childhood. Arce says that he was on his own since the age of 11, because his singer mother traveled a lot, and as a child, he would live in hotels, sometimes for two or three years at a time. Learning to be self-sufficient at an early age helped shape his rebellious streak and his leadership skills. His first band was Venus, which broke up in the late 1980s, because of pressure from the Cuban government, which branded Venus as too radical. He was arrested and was in prison from 1990 to 1996.

Eduardo Longa Aguilar (drums), who confesses later in the film that he abuses drugs and alcohol, is seen near the beginning of the movie trying to convince a woman to sell him a soda on camera, because she’s afraid she’ll be arrested for it. Hansel Sala (guitar), who says that heavy metal has to be strong, is a family man who’s proud to show his son how to be a musician. Yamil Arias (bass) is a welder by day, and he says that Metallica’s 1988 album “…And Justice for All” was a big early influence for him. Ivan Muñoz (guitar) says that people listen to hard rock/heavy metal to reaffirm their frustrations in life. The center of Zeus’ musical activities is Maximum Rock, a facility that houses a rehearsal studio and management company for rock bands. The Cuban government opened Maximum Rock in 2007, as the government became less restrictive about rock music.

Heavy metal’s popularity peaked in the 1980s, and it’s been on a steep decline ever since, which is why the few hard rock/metal bands from that era that can still headline arenas around the world (for example, Metallica, Guns N’Roses, Judas Priest) are those that arguably made their best music in the ’80s. However, metal fans who still support the music are extremely loyal, and they don’t care if heavy metal is considered an outdated genre or not. The documentary shows that the audiences that Zeus plays to on the tour aren’t very large (about 200 people or less at each concert) because the cities they go to in the documentary are much smaller than Havana. And by today’s slick and high-tech production standards, the band’s outdoor concerts have the bare-bones look of a garage band performing at a backyard party.

It wouldn’t be a heavy-metal tour documentary without a “Spinal Tap” moment, and Zeus has two of them in the film. When they get to the concert site in Ciego de Avila, to the band members’ horror, they find out that Zeus has been booked for a reggaetón festival. Reggaetón is Cuba’s most popular music genre for young people, and the members of Zeus openly express their disdain for reggaetón, which they consider to be mindless garbage. Arce has somewhat of a meltdown and refuses to let the band play at the festival.

Another “Spinal Tap” moment happens in Camaguey (the last stop on the tour), where the band says Zeus is very popular. But when they get there, they’re crushed to find out that nothing has been set up for the concert, and the performance has to be cancelled. It’s a humiliating scene, and at one point, Arce tells the cameraperson to stop filming. In other words, the tour ended with a whimper, not a bang.

It’s mentioned in the movie that concert promoters in Cuba will make sure that reggaetón shows are high-priced and well-organized, but rock concerts are handled in the opposite way. However, you also have to wonder what kind of incompetent management Zeus has for these embarrassing things to have happened to them on such an important tour for the band. That question is never answered in the documentary, since there are no managers or agents shown at all in the movie, which gives the impression that maybe Zeus is self-managed. If that’s the case, then Arce, as the leader of the band, has to take some responsibility for these screw-ups, but he never does. At one point in the movie, he gripes: “This country has made a complete fool out of me.”

Back at home in Havana after the tour ends, Zeus is shown in a career limbo, as the band members lament how hard it is to keep the band going when heavy metal is constantly disrespected and they can’t make enough money as rock musicians to pay their bills. It’s a struggle that hard rock/metal musicians all over the world are facing, especially those who’ve never had a catalogue of big hits to fall back on to bring in the nostalgia crowds.

There’s a huge jump in the timeline toward the end of the film, which shows that Maximum Rock has been shut down, and the building is in disrepair. The band is also coping with disillusionment and wondering if it’s worth it to keep the group going. “Los Últimos Frikis” director Nicholas Brennan obviously filmed this documentary over several years, and the movie is compelling because it’s about a heavy-metal band that’s been able to survive for decades in a restrictive, Communist country. In an era where bands rely on social media to promote themselves, it’s interesting to see Zeus operate as a band in a country where Internet access doesn’t come as easily as it does in other nations. In that sense, much of what’s seen of Zeus looks like a time warp back to the pre-Internet days when heavy metal was at its most popular.

To its credit, the film avoids heavy metal clichés of portraying the band members as dumb partiers. (And considering that the band members have settled into middle-age, they would look kind of ridiculous if they acted like frat boys on tour.) However, the movie would have benefited from better editing to make it a more cohesive story. For example, the ending of the movie feels very tacked-on and too rushed.

But kudos to the filmmakers for getting Dave Lombardo (Slayer’s on-again/off-again drummer, who’s of Cuban heritage) to compose the documentary’s music. Lombardo is also an executive producer of the film. His participation adds an extra layer to the kinship that the Zeus members have for each other and their loyal fans. It’s a connection that comes through loud and clear in the film, and which has stayed with them even during their toughest times.