The 2nd Annual DOC10 Film Festival
This weekend marks the return of the DOC10 Film Festival, which debuted last year to great success. Once again, ten documentaries receiving their Chicago premiere at the second annual festival, which runs this year from Thursday, March 30th, through Sunday, April 2nd, at the Davis Theater. Like last year, an eclectic assortment of documentaries fill the schedule, which will take viewers to different places from around the world, focusing on different cultures, specific locations and situations, unique and talented individuals and people we probably never would’ve heard of before. Congratulations to the Chicago Media Project and programmer Anthony Kaufman (who’s been an integral part of programming documentaries for the Chicago International Film Festival each year) for putting together a jam-packed weekend with several Chicago premieres.
Many of these docs have been shown at various festivals, from Cannes to Sundance, but here they all are in one condensed festival focusing specifically on new documentaries. DOC10 will also include appearances by filmmakers in attendance for Q&A presentations (in person or via Skype) following their respective films. I’ll go over the schedule and look at each film, either providing a breakdown of each or share my thoughts on the six docs I’ve seen. You can that below and also look into tickets yourself here.
Thursday, March 30th, kicked off the festival with an opening night musical double bill of Amanda Lipitz’s “Step,” about the senior year of a girls’ high school dance group in Baltimore as each one tries to become the first in their families to attend college and Steve Virga’s “Sweet Dillard,” a profile of the Dillard Center for the Performing Arts in Florida, guiding us from the first day of class to a national competition of one of the nation’s best public high school jazz bands. “Step” played at the Davis Theater at 8 PM, followed by a Q&A with director Amanda Lipitz via Skype. At about the same time, “Sweet Dillard” played at the Music Box Theatre at 7:30 PM and was followed by a Q&A with director James Virga and musical performance by Merit School students. It was clearly one of those situations where you wish you had a clone so you could attend both events, but my choice would’ve been heading over to the Music Box.
Friday, March 31st, finds the festival making its residency at the Davis Theater this weekend with “Whose Streets?” at 6:45 PM and “Rat Film” at 8:45 PM
“Whose Streets?” (104 min.) takes us to Ferguson, Missouri after the murder of Michael Brown, Jr., following the passion and commitment of the residents who took to the city’s streets in the wake of the tragedy. It’s an urgent and enthralling chronicle look at the climate and atmosphere immediately following the event that became worldwide news, with extraordinary access and startling footage of the escalating clashes between protestors and police. Activists-turned-filmmakers Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis go beyond the news clips to paint an extraordinarily intimate and honest portrait of suffering, injustice and the individuals who had the resolve to fight back. “Whose Streets? isn’t just a stirring anthem for black power and self-determination, but a rallying cry against authoritarianism everywhere. Followed by a Q&A with Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis, as well as Kofi Ademola of Black Lives Matter Chicago, Luna White of BYP100 and Charles Alexander Preston of Church on the 9.
“Rat Film” (82 min.) is quite a unique viewing experience from director Theo Anthony, making his documentary directorial debut. At first, you think it’s about rat infestations in certain neighborhoods in Baltimore, but then Anthony builds an impressive analogy between the past and present rats in the area and the prevalent race/class that has permeated the city for just as long, if not longer. There’s a hypnotic female narrator who guide us throughout, while Anthony incorporates a computerized layout of the predominately minority neighborhoods where the rats live in. Anthony is looking at placement and location, observing how certain structures can pose adverse challenges for those who live there, be they family or vermin. Anthony’s poetic and provocative approach definitely recalls Herzog and will likely leave you rethinking how you view the history of certain neighborhoods. Followed by a Q&A with Theo Anthony.
Saturday, April 1st
“Trophy” (109 min.) screening at 1:30pm, in which documentarians Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau look at big game hunting in Africa and the foreign industries that have profited from the murderous “sport”. With statistics of disappearing species and a specific visual style, the filmmakers provide viewers with the existing issues between wildlife conservationists and the global hunting industry. The film travels from the States to South Africa, as it introduces the audience to farmers and anti-poachers who deeply believe they are saving animals as well as the hunters who….cry after their kills. This didn’t really elicit any sympathy or understanding from me for those who support and partake in the killing of animals. “Trophy” is understandably a one-sided doc that has a bias towards the killing of rare, indigenous animals of the land, but personally I would’ve liked to have seen an approach that would get to know the hunters better, in an attempt to understand their actions and motives.
SOLD OUT! – “The Cinema Travelers” (96 min.) screens at 4pm and is a great example of a documentary that exposes viewers to people we would’ve otherwise never known about. Directors/editors Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya follow a rag-tag group of projectionists based out of Maharashtra, India, who travel to different villages, propping up a tent where they screen old 35mm films for excited patrons. Are they doing out of dedicated passion for cinema or to make some money from of their sold-out shows? It doesn’t take long for the film to answer such a question and, if you allow it, the documentary will renew your own passion and wonder for the power of cinema. During it’s third act, the film looks at the state of the fate of film vs. digital as we witness the projectionists debate this ever-growing topic and their own thoughts on the future of what they’re doing. Ultimately, it’s a fascinating and lively look at the discovery of viewing film and preservation of showing film. (in Hindu and Marathi with English subtitles)
“Casting JonBenet” (80 min.) shows at 7pm and is a documentary I’ve heard about for a while, since it’s been making its rounds on the festival circuit and it’s been one I’ve been hesitant to see knowing what it covers. There’s the still-unsolved 1996 murder of six-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey, which was covered by tabloids and talk shows for years after the girl’s death and then there’s the performing environment the starlet was a part of. Documentarian Kitty Green goes to Boulder, Colorado, two decades after her death, to audition girls Ramsey’s age and adults who could play her parents as well to re-enact specific moments in the Ramsey family for a montage in an intriguing and original faux-narrative format. Along the way, Green interviews her amateur actors and in turn they disclose their own perspective and account of JonBenet and the Ramsey family. Since it’s presented courtesy of Netflix, look for it to stream soon. Followed by a Q&A with Kitty Green.
Out of the documentaries I’ve seen, “Death in the Terminal” (53 min.) showing at 9:15pm, was the most horrifying. Through surveillance footage and one-on-one witness accounts, we learn of the chaos surrounding the 18 minutes that took place on October 2015 at a bus terminal in Beersheba, where a Bedouin gunman let loose. We see citizens, security guards and soldiers scrambling for cover, hoping they won’t get a bullet to the head and then we see what we believe to be one particular man get shot multiple times and then lay down on the ground. We think he’s the shooter or at least one of them, but when we learn the truth, it footage becomes more and more unsettling as onlookers kick, beat and hurl chairs at this wounded and bleeding man. All directors Tali Shemesh and Asaf Sudry have to do is show us the footage from the terminal cameras, but when they incorporate the harrowing accounts from witnesses, the event they’re recollecting becomes even more alive for viewers, making us indeed wonder how we would react if such a shocking event took place in our presence. Followed by a Q&A with Tali Shemesh and Asaf Sudri via Skype.
Sunday, April 2nd
In “The Islands and the Whales” (86 min.) showing at 1:30pm, director Mike Day takes us to the Faroe Islands, located between Iceland and the UK, a majestic and beautiful place where age-old traditions meet deadly repercussions for its indigenous inhabitants. Although far from mainland cultural influences, the Faroese are feeling the ramifications of the effects of coal-burning humans are so fond of. The seas that they rely on for sustenance, such as whale meat and seabirds, have become contaminated by high levels of mercury, yet this hasn’t stopped the people from seeking maintaining traditions that have been passed on for generations, despite concern from certain island doctors. It gets more complicated as Day captures an environmental protection group (yes, that’s Pamela Anderson) invaded the island in the hopes of preventing the killing of pilot whales, but it’s not as simple as telling the Faroese to “be vegetarian”. It’s not like their land provides the same options as other countries. While I’m not crazy about seeing humans taking handsaws to the heads of seabirds or watching a group of them drag whales to bloody shore in order to slaughter them, I have to consider the culture and customs I am unfamiliar with. These are complexities that Day successfully brings to the forefront of this documentary. Followed by a Q&A with Mike Day.
SOLD OUT! – “Obit” (93 min.) showing at 4pm, is an eye-opening look at obituary writers for the New York Times and despite its subject matter, director Vanessa Gould has crafted an entertaining and humorous film. Death hits us all at some point, be it friends or family members who pass, as well as all the celebrity or prominent figures who die throughout the year, but rarely do we think about those who get paid to commemorate lives that have ended. Like funerals, it’s more about the living, those who survived (loved ones or the general populace) who are still alive. Gould covers the history of the occupation, what the job entails and the fascinating minutia of the process. It’s not an easy job, despite one some may think. You have to be respectful and always on alert (since people are dying at all hours), but also avoid reusing certain words with each write-up (something any avid writer can relate to). With colorful anecdotes and intriguing details, the documentary offers a surprisingly spirited and energetic tone which becomes as contagious as it is life-affirming. Followed by a Q&A with Vanessa Gould and Bruce Weber.
NOTE: While tickets for “Obit” are sold out, Chicagoans can check it out again when the film comes to the Music Box Theatre on May 9th.
John Coltrane’s classic album “My Favorite Things” was my first jazz album purchase when I was a teen, so the documentary “Chasing Trane”, showing at 7pm on Sunday, focusing on the life, career and impact of iconic jazz saxophonist and composer, John Coltrane, is a no-brainer for me. Director John Scheinfeld has made a film that is for longtime fans and newcomers to the artist, with its title referencing an adoring Japanese fan who has been christened the #1 collector of Coltrane memorabilia. However, we learn he’s not just a rabid fan when he witness his emotional response when he’s asked to describe how he felt about Coltrane’s concert in Japan, which was performed a year before the musician’s death at age 40. Throughout the film, it is reiterated that Coltrane’s music comes from a spiritual plane, as he sought to simply use his music to bring people together and have listeners seek God and their best possible selves. During one particular moment in the film, fellow musicians and admirers discuss his song, “Alabama”, which honors the 1963 church bombing that killed four little girls, a song that aimed to heal and honor those affected by the tragedy. We never actually hear from Coltrane, as actor Denzel Washington reads passages of the musician’s writings, but it’s a nice touch to what could’ve been a standard bio-doc. I had a blast learning more about a jazz musician who holds a special place in my appreciation for music and it makes me glad that a movie like this will only bring an new awareness to people like myself and those who’ve only heard him his the jazz giant’s name. Followed by a Q&A with Grammy Award-winning journalist and music critic Neil Tesser, Chicago Jazz Philharmonic’s Orbert Davis and saxophonist Geof Bradfield.