by Matt Fagerholm | April 2, 2018
You won’t find a more splendidly curated event dedicated to nonfiction cinema than DOC10, the annual Windy City festival presented by the Chicago Media Project. Ever since it kicked off in 2016, DOC10 has screened multiple films that have gone on to be ranked highly among my very favorites of recent years, such as Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami’s riveting Sundance prize-winner, “Sonita,” and Theo Anthony’s thrillingly experimental mosaic, “Rat Film.” The third installment of DOC10, which runs from Thursday, April 5th, through Sunday, April 8th, at the Davis Theater, 4614 N. Lincoln Ave., promises to be no exception.
Opening the festival is “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, the highly anticipated profile of television icon Fred Rogers, directed by Oscar-winner Morgan Neville(“20 Feet From Stardom”). Other selections this year include Robert Greene’s “Bisbee ’17,” a timely look at the mass deportation of striking miners, restaged onscreen by their descendants; Jason Kohn’s “Love Means Zero,” an in-depth conversation with formidable tennis coach Nick Bollettieri; Mila Turajlic’s “The Other Side of Everything,” an investigation of a Serbian family’s history and how its divisions reflect those that permeate their country; Elan and Jonathan Bogarín’s “306 Hollywood,” a more lighthearted look at the story contained within objects left behind by relatives; and Betsy West & Julie Cohen’s “RBG,” a rousing celebration of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And in an inadvertent nod to “Ready Player One,” the festival will debut its own “VR RV,” inviting guests to experience virtual reality documentaries while safely situated within a recreational vehicle parked in front of the theater.
I was able to screen five of this year’s selections, and they are all essential in their own respect, though none of them spoke to me on quite as personal a level as Bing Liu’s “Minding the Gap.” It is set in Rockford, Illinois, one of the saddest of all American cities, containing near-vacant streets that are an ideal stage for the free-flowing movement craved by young skateboarders. Liu grew up filming his friends, Zach and Kiere, performing bruising stunts on their boards, and in his extraordinary first feature, the director holds his camera on their faces, illuminating the buried pain that they share, as well as their need to escape it. The fact that all three men are victims of domestic abuse is alarming but also quite commonplace in a town like Rockford. Having spent a great deal of time there myself, it is clear to me that Liu understands the area so completely that its essence has seeped into the marrow of his bones. This is a city where nearly half the population is paid below the minimum wage for working jobs that are gravely understaffed; where funding is slashed for street lights in crime-ridden neighborhoods; and where the residue of violence clings to the interior of houses that were meant to comfort and protect. “This place eats away at you,” says Kiere, who relishes the fleeting sense of control he sustains on his skateboard, until he wipes out. Sure, the hobby may hurt him on occasion, but so did his dad, and he still loves the old man, though it’s telling that Keire finds catharsis in stomping on his boards until they splinter.
Being part of a community is often the only source of empowerment for disenfranchised Americans, a key reason for why churches and gangs proliferate exponentially in Rockford. The young men at the center of this film have found that community in each other, and the beauty of “Minding the Gap” is in how it utilizes the art form of cinema to bring its subjects closer to a place of healing. “I saw myself in your story,” Liu explains to Keire, who likens the experience of making the movie to “free therapy.” As the filmmaker struggles to come to terms with the wounds inflicted by his own upbringing, he starts to see echoes of his abuser in the increasingly unsettling behavior of his friend, Zach. With remarkable tact and sensitivity, Liu coaxes a tearful confession from Zach, who admits to beating his long-suffering girlfriend, Nina, while acknowledging the demons he has strained to conceal behind his cheerful demeanor. When Liu films his mother and simultaneously confronts her about the abandonment he felt as a kid, he keeps a separate camera fixed on his face, drawing attention to his own inability to break free from the pain of his past. Assisted by co-editor Joshua Altman, Liu weaves these stories together, forming a seamless symphony of anguish and euphoria, culminating in an extended montage so deftly executed that it left me in awe. Kartemquin Films has produced many of the all-time greatest documentaries over the past 52 years, and this is their latest masterpiece.
“Minding the Gap” screens at 5pm on April 8th, followed by a Q&A with Bing Liu and other special guests.
“Devil’s Freedom,” Everardo González’s harrowing look at the toll of Mexico’s drug wars on the human soul, clocks in just over an hour. Any running time longer than that may have proven unbearable for most audiences. It is unlike any talking head doc I’ve seen, concealing its subjects’ faces behind masks, supposedly to maintain their anonymity. It is also an aesthetic choice of unfathomable depth. All of the people González interviews have been robbed of their identities by the atrocities they either have committed or have endured at the hands of others. The sameness of their blank masks externalize the dehumanizing repercussions of murder in all forms. As victims are rendered faceless in the minds of their killers, the humanity that had once defined the faces of the killers themselves are removed as well. When González’s subjects cry, tears form on their masks like pools of blood. As one man justifies his string of homicides, his eyes are shrouded in darkness, causing his face to resemble a skull. After a mother attests to feeling compassion for her sons’ killers, who cower in shame while in her presence, she is able to take off her own mask, emerging from her despair as a whole person. Allowing for wordless stretches accentuated by a hypnotic atonal score, González conjures unspeakable imagery in our minds, as his probing questions enable each subject to come clean about their inner turmoil. Perhaps most potent of all is the interview with a man who recalls how his face changed immediately after he had killed a child for the first time. Suddenly, his entire being was consumed with regret, though he’s convinced that he had no choice apart from obeying orders. “I don’t deserve compassion,” he replies matter-of-factly. “When I die, I will have the same expression as everyone else.” He already does.
“Devil’s Freedom” screens at 12pm on April 8th, followed by a Q&A with professor Xóchitl Bada of UIC; professor Héctor García Chávez of Loyola; and Susan R. Gzesh, executive director of the Pozen Family Center for Human Rights.
The finest documentary I saw in 2017 was Angelos Rallis’ “Shingal, Where Are You?”, a shattering wake-up call to the world detailing the 2014 genocide waged by ISIS targeting a religious minority in Iraq known as the Yazidis (alternatively spelled “Yezidis”). With over 3,000 women held captive by ISIS, the surviving members of their community now live as refugees and are desperate to preserve what remains of their culture. Rallis’ film charted the efforts of a Yazidi family to negotiate the return of their kidnapped daughter through numerous intermediaries, while listening to her horrific stories shared via speakerphone. Alexandria Bombach’s “On Her Shoulders” serves as a fitting companion piece to “Shingal” by following another Yazidi woman, 23-year-old Nadia Murad, who escaped her captors and is now traveling the world with the hope of bringing ISIS commanders to justice. Bombach is less concerned with the particulars of Yazidi identity than with the universal qualities of Murad’s plight as a displaced woman who carries a profound weight of responsibility on her shoulders. No matter how much praise she receives from well-wishers, the humble activist says that she will only see herself as a person of worth when the terrorists who killed her family have their day in court. With three brothers and a sister still in captivity, their fates left unknown, Murad must continuously recount the suffering of her people in excruciating detail, while somehow keeping her ferocious strength intact. When other Yazidis break down in front of her, she urges them to wipe away their tears, just as she does when her own sorrow threatens to resurface. She is an astonishing force to behold, joining the ranks of other towering young women whose spoken truths are bringing about tangible change, drowning out every sexist naysayer in their path.
“On Her Shoulders” screens at 4pm on Saturday, April 7th, followed by a Q&A with Alexandria Bombach; Matthew Barber, former executive director of Yazda in Iraq; Brannon Ingram, professor of Religious Studies at Northwestern University; and Dr. Nancy Bothne and Kaycee Foreman of TCSES.
There is nothing satisfying about the conclusion of Stephen Maing’s “Crime + Punishment,” and that’s as it should be. Like previous Oscar-winners “Citizenfour” and “Icarus,” this infuriating exposé champions whistleblowers who risk everything in order to bring deep-seated corruption to light. In this case, it’s a group dubbed the NYPD 12, comprised of officers who have charged their department with enforcing an illegal quota system. Using police as a revenue-generating agent for the city is assuredly against the law, and yet over $900 million of New York City’s annual budget is generated by summonses, many of which these officers are allegedly pressured by their supervisors to issue. Hidden cameras and audio recordings capture irrefutable evidence of the NYPD’s crimes laced with blatant racism. When Sgt. Edwin Raymond asks why he hasn’t received his richly deserved promotion, he is informed that his identity as “a young black man in dreads” is the chief reason. Another cop, Sandy Gonzalez, is penalized for not being in uniform, simply because he wore his winter hat while standing at his post on a chilly morning. When he explains that it felt much colder than the day’s projected temperature of 38 degrees, his superior snaps, “It doesn’t matter how it feels! It was expected to be 38.” To paraphrase the disgraced Commissioner Bratton, that’s some bulls—t right there. Watching this film, I was reminded of my favorite line from “Minding the Gap,” delivered wistfully by Keire: “My dad said that being black is cool because you get to prove people wrong every day.” Though the NYPD 12’s case against their department is lodged in legal limbo, these officers have pulverized the assumptions of their overlords, who thought they could intimidate their underlings into submission. Needless to say, they have been proven wrong. Boy have they ever.
“Crime + Punishment” screens at 9pm on Friday, April 6th, followed by a Q&A with Sgt. Edwin Raymond.
Fans of “Twin Peaks: The Return” are going to have a field day with Eugene Jarecki’s enormously ambitious visual essay, “The King” (formerly titled “Promised Land” upon its Cannes premiere). It tackles several of David Lynch’s most memorable topics: Elvis, Vegas, Hollywood, mushroom clouds, small-town idealism and the dissolution of the American dream. Mike Myers, of all people, has one of the film’s best lines, claiming that the nuclear testing in Vegas caused the city to become a “radioactive mutation of capitalism,” a pure expression of our prevailing values governed by the almighty dollar. Boarding Presley’s 1963 Rolls Royce, Jarecki embarks on a road trip across the United States, while building a brilliantly nuanced argument that the legendary singer’s life serves as a microcosm of the country itself. The issues explored here by Jarecki are endlessly provocative and could easily have been stretched into a miniseries, yet he and his quartet of editors somehow manage to make all the disparate pieces coalesce into a mesmerizing whole. Traveling from Presley’s birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi to the numerous colorful locales he once called home, the filmmakers invite a diverse array of singers to perform in the backseat, many of whom represent the genres that he embraced and arguably appropriated. As the election of Donald Trump looms on the imminent horizon (“He’s not going to win,” Alec Baldwin insists), the parallels between him and Presley prove to be inescapable—both are celebrities cross-branded to consumers and both are swayed into making self-destructive choices when prioritizing money over common sense. As the Rolls Royce starts to inevitably break down, the wheels have come off the very foundation of American democracy. I can’t imagine a more appropriately bittersweet closing night selection for DOC10 2018 than this triumphant ode to disillusionment. You’ll be discussing this one for days, preferably at The Bang Bang Bar.
“The King” screens at 7:45pm on April 8th, followed by a closing night tribute to Eugene Jarecki, complete with a Q&A and musical performance.
For the full festival line-up, visit the official site for DOC10.