IDA Brings Docs Back to Life
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
The International Documentary Association’s 12th annual DocuWeek showcase, which runs between Friday and next Thursay at Village East Cinema and IFC Center, highlights 14 nonfiction features that have been generating considerable buzz on the festival circuit. Most of the films are making their local premieres at the series, while a few others were highlights at the recent Tribeca and Human Rights Watch festivals.
For much of the past two or three years, the documentary field has been oversaturated with exposés on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — not that the mainstream market has noticed. An Academy Award didn’t translate to box-office success for Alex Gibney’s “Taxi to the Dark Side.” Richard Robbins’s “Operation Homecoming” and James Longley’s “Iraq in Fragments” did similarly disappointing business. Even Errol Morris’s “Standard Operating Procedure” barely made a dent. With cash-poor distributors struggling to stay afloat or fleeing the documentary business altogether, the genre has suffered a downturn.
But in recent months, nonfiction films have proved a resilient bunch and made a noticeable return to relevance, in most cases by avoiding hot-button global issues. James Marsh’s “Man on Wire” (about the legendary tightrope walker Philippe Petit) and “American Teen” (which followed a group of American high-schoolers for a year) emerged as two of this summer’s art-house sleeper hits, reminding people that there were documentaries to be made about less predictable subjects. DocuWeek, which for 11 years has also served to help qualify feature and short documentaries for Academy Award consideration, boasts some outstanding films that will definitely advance the resurgence of the genre. Of course, cinephiles should seize the opportunity while they have it — most of these gems have not yet secured distribution.
The British director Terence Davies returns with “Of Time and the City,” his first film since the triumphant Edith Wharton adaptation, “The House of Mirth,” was released eight years ago. Along with Ari Folman’s first-person documentary about his service in the Israeli Army, “Waltz With Bashir,” “Of Time and the City” outshone the dramatic entries at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Mr. Davies’s film purports to be about the director’s hometown of Liverpool, but it turns out to be much, much more. In fact, it is a poetic, heartfelt, and beautifully realized account of the filmmaker’s youth.
Reminiscent of Mr. Davies’s early films, such as “Distant Voices, Still Lives,” “Of Time and the City” recalls the director as a boy as he struggles with poverty, Catholicism, the British monarchy, and his own sexuality while finding solace in cinema and music. It is an impeccably assembled scrapbook of archival footage, radio broadcasts, and pop and classical ditties, all served up with Mr. Davies’s intimate and impassioned narration. He claims the Liverpool of his youth — the 1950s and ’60s — no longer exists. Luckily, immersing oneself in “Of Time and the City” is probably pretty close to strolling down Penny Lane at the dawn of the rock movement.
Ellen Kuras’s debut “The Betrayal (Nerakhoon),” which made its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, also rivals the theater to be found in a fictional feature. Ms. Kuras has served as a cinematographer for Martin Scorsese, Jim Jarmusch, Michel Gondry, Julian Schnabel, and Spike Lee, so her film is exquisitely shot and remarkably beautiful, pulling the extraordinary story of a Laotian family into dramatic effect as it spans more than two decades and two continents. The story centers around Thavisouk Phrasavath, who fled Laos for America in the 1970s with his mother and seven of his nine siblings. His father had supplied the CIA with bombing targets during the Vietnam War, so the entire family found itself in danger when the communist Pathet Lao movement assumed power and arrested American collaborators. The family hoped for a better life in Brooklyn, but instead found itself wrestling with poverty, racism, and South Asian gang wars.
What initially seems like a run-of-the-mill documentary about the harsh reality of immigrant life transcends convention and becomes a fascinating psychological case study when the presumed-dead patriarch reappears halfway through.
Indeed, real life is full of twists and turns, which aren’t found only in fiction. Kurt Kuenne’s “Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son about His Father,” has so many unexpected developments that it plays like a first-rate thriller. Mr. Kuenne set out simply to profile his best friend since childhood, Andrew Bagby, who was allegedly murdered by his former girlfriend. The woman, Shirley Turner, then escaped to Canada while carrying the couple’s unborn son, Zachary. Mr. Kuenne traveled around the world and attempted to interview everyone Bagby had ever met so that one day Zachary could get to know his father.
A series of shocking twists awaits anyone who invests attention, and the film is so unsettling that it will stay with viewers for a long time. Like Mr. Morris’s “The Thin Blue Line,” “Dear Zachary” borrows some narrative dramatic tricks, and they pay off remarkably well. It’s hands down one of the most mind-blowing true-crime movies in recent memory, fiction or nonfiction.
Other highlights with clear target audiences at DocuWeek, which has qualified 165 films for Academy Awards through the years, yielding 15 Oscar nominees and six wins, include “GLASS: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts,” “The Matador,” about one man’s quest to become the world’s greatest bullfighter, and “Spirit of the Marathon,” which follows five runners — three amateurs and two elites — as they train for the Chicago Marathon.
DocuWeek runs between Friday and Thursday, August 14, at Village East Cinema (181-189 Second Ave. at 12th Street, 212-529-6799) and IFC Center (323 Sixth Ave. at West 3rd Street, 212-924-7771). For more information, visit www.documentary.org/content/docuweek.