The annual DOC NYC documentary film festival in New York has an impressive array of features worth noting. Additionally, unlike foreign film festivals, where top notch films may never see distribution in the US, the below titles are generally guaranteed audiences via pay cable and streaming services.
MIDNIGHT FAMILY (Dir: Luke Lorentzen)
There are only 45 government-sanctioned ambulances for Mexico City’s nine million people. Lorentzen captures the difficulties of the Ochoa family, barely surviving as private paramedics. The family dangerously speeds to arrive before the competition, has to haggle with the families of the injured to be paid and is forced to participate in the bribery that keeps them solvent. Both thrilling and tragic, Midnight Family has already won at Sundance, Sheffield and Hong Kong film festivals.
THE GREAT HACK (Dir: Karim Amer, Jehane Noujaim)
Filmmakers Amer and Noujaim (The Square) follow how Cambridge Analytica influenced Brexit and the 2016 U.S. elections. A worldwide scandal envelops the main subject, young Cambridge Analytica insider Brittany Kaiser, who has worked for both the political left and right and finds herself becoming the scapegoat, despite cooperating with a journalist from London’s Guardian. Sometimes, the best documentaries have the luck of being in the right place at the outrageously right time.
DESERT ONE (Dir: Barbara Kopple)
Two-time Oscar-winner Barbara Kopple aims her camera at the overlooked story of the failed American military mission to free hostages taken by Iranian revolutionaries in 1979. Kopple uses previously unheard audiotapes from inside the White House to great effect. Desert One also frames the historic fallout from the aborted rescue mission, with commentary from President Jimmy Carter and a long needed comment on Ronald Reagan’s backchannel manipulation of the release of the hostages for his own gain.
ERNIE & JOE: CRISIS COPS (Dir: Jenifer McShane)
The San Antonio Police Department, in an effort to find better ways for cops to interact with mentally ill or emotionally unstable people, created a specially trained unit. The titular characters spend time on camera talking people out of threatening situations, including one person ready to commit suicide on a bridge. This upcoming HBO doc not only digs into the background of Ernie and Joe, it also sets out how America’s police need better psychological training to avoid unnecessary police shootings.
ON BROADWAY (Dir: Oren Jacoby)
Appropriately, this film on the fiscal mechanics and history of Broadway theatre is star studded, including interviews with Helen Mirren, Christine Baranski, August Wilson, James Corden, Alec Baldwin, John Lithgow, Viola Davis, Hugh Jackman and Ian McKellen. There are tremendous clips from some of Broadway’s finest, from A Chorus Line to Hamilton, including the work of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Patti Lupone, Bernadette Peters, James Earl Jones and Mandy Patinkin.
RED PENGUINS (Dir: Gabe Polsky)
Polsky, who already covered Soviet hockey players and their virtual imprisonment in Red Army, has a wildly intriguing followup in Red Penguins. American financial hustlers tried bringing capitalism to Moscow by investing in its hockey team, and providing everything from strippers to live bears serving beer on ice. But Russian gangsterism inevitably sinks the Russian-US co-venture.
UNSTOPPABLE: SEAN SCULLY AND THE ART OF EVERYTHING (Dir: Nick Willing)
Bald, hulking, slovenly dressed Sean Scully has become the rags-to-riches story of financial success in the art world. While his abstract art is distinctive, Scully’s arrogant personality, regardless of his poor, Irish childhood, is toxic and his manipulation of a sycophantic art market makes him even more repugnant, as well as watchable.
THE KINGMAKER Dir: Lauren Greenfield)
This Showtime doc from Greenfield is the culmination of over five years, following Imelda Marcos. With one hand, she gives money to the starving children on the streets of Manila. With the other, she helps the senatorial career of her son, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, who serves with militaristic right wing despot, President Rodrigo Duterte. The Marcos regime, which murdered Benigno Aquino, is seen tragically in ascendancy again in this powerful film.
ASK DR. RUTH (Dir: Ryan White)
Dr. Ruth Westheimer, now over 90, stays active and is still the charming and forthright spokesperson for sexuality. But White’s documentary shows how she avoids discussion of a staggering past. It includes being saved as a German Jew by the kindertransport and training as a sniper with the Jewish paramilitary group, Haganah. This Hulu/Magnolia release is sure pull at the heartstrings while honoring Dr. Ruth’s cultural impact.
THE EDGE OF DEMOCRACY (Dir: Petra Costa)
Costa won the Directing Award today at the conclusion of DOC NYC. This is yet another depiction of a world gone cruel and authoritarian. The progressive Workers’ Party in Brazil saw unprecedented progress in the election of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2002, followed by his protégé, Dilma Rousseff, its first female leader, in 2010. This Netflix title has strong echoes of Trump, as false claims and fear-mongering led to Lula’s and Dilma’s explusion and a bleak Brazilian future.
KNOCK DOWN THE HOUSE (Dir: Rachel Lears)
Another powerhouse doc to be seen on Netflix, Lears’s film follows a group of younger, progressive candidates, all of whom go down in defeat, with one important exception: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Her blue collar backstory, honesty and decency shine through, concluding with an emotionally moving moment when she sees she has beaten a candidate who dominated her district for three decades.
BIKRAM: YOGI, GURU, PREDATOR (Dir: Eva Orner)
This is the third notable Netflix film at DOC NYC, exploring the outsized and repugnant Bikram Choudhury, the bullying head of a yoga franchise that expanded around the world. With his black Speedo and Rolex, he not only taught hundreds at a time, he was a sexual predator. The women who bravely stood up against him are introduced in this astounding, at times infuriating profile of a man whose fame and wealth somehow protected him from prosecution.