Michael Phillips | March 30, 2017
Last year the short, compact, shrewdly curated documentary festival known as DOC10 made its debut at the Music Box Theatre, sponsored by the Chicago Media Project and programmed by Chicago International Film Festival staffer Anthony Kaufman.
The second edition of DOC10 opens Thursday and continues through Sunday. This time it's taking over the newly remodeled Davis Theater in Lincoln Square. The venue has the bonus of an adjoining bar and restaurant known as the Carbon Arc, overseen by former Chalkboard restaurateur Gilbert Langlois. His fried chicken and the mac and cheese offerings are fantastic, for the record. Happily, the cheese factor in the films appears to be nonexistent.
I've seen three of this year's 10, and those three alone assert the breadth and flexibility of the contemporary documentary form. Theo Anthony's "Rat Film" (9:15 p.m. Friday) is the filmmaker's feature-length debut, and it's a marvelous, unsettling one, focusing on Baltimore's Norway rat infestation. (I write this as a resident of Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood, so needless to say, the infestation's not unfamiliar.) Anthony's film makes a considerable and inspired leap, treating the rat problem and various, hapless solutions as a way of examining how Baltimore's systemic racism in its zoning and lending laws clobbered the predominantly poor and African-American neighborhoods over the decades.
It's a disarming mixture of archival research, rat-killer-on-the-street footage and inquiries into urban planning. "Rat Film" shows the way — one way, anyway — of exploring a subject for more than surface street facts and figures.
Alexis Templeton amid protesters in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri in the wake of the murder of Michael Brown.
(Lucas Alvarado Farrar)
Urban streets, and who owns them, trace the outline of writer-director Sabaah Folayan and co-director Damon Davis' excellent "Whose Streets?" (6:45 p.m. Friday). The subject is Ferguson, Mo., in the midst of (and following) the August 2014 slaying of Michael Brown Jr. The police action that killed Brown ended up lighting the fuse of the Black Lives Matter movement.
If you think you've heard too much about Ferguson, think again. Now that America has some chronological distance from the clashes there between activists and law enforcement, it's exactly the right time for Folayan's angry, eloquent documentary, which takes the time and has the sense to honor the full range of citizens affected by what happened.
Scene from "Obit."
"Obit" (4 p.m. Sunday), ironically, lightens the DOC10 mood. Vanessa Gould's documentary serves as a genial companion piece to "Spotlight," in its sincere devotion to a tiny subdivision of a great American newspaper. As we get to know the staff, the doings and the particular journalistic challenges of the New York Times' obituary department, we're reminded that the best obits are more about lives lived, fully, than the final, sometimes grueling stages of those lives. Like "Spotlight," "Obit" actually makes you feel good about the media, if only for the care and high standards we see in action, on deadlines that will seem cushy to some and nearly impossible to others.
The complete DOC10 schedule:
"Sweet Dillard," directed by James Virga, 7:30 p.m Thursday, Music Box Theatre (all other DOC10 screenings at the Davis Theatre). This documentary on the Fort Lauderdale Dillard Center for the Arts jazz ensemble will be screened as a benefit for the Merit School of Music.
Scene from "Step."
"Step," directed by Amanda Lipitz. A popular hit at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, this charts the stories within the story of a Baltimore high school step dance team. 8 p.m. Thursday, featuring a live performance by the South Shore Chicago Drill Team, followed by director Lipitz via Skype.
"Whose Streets?" directed by Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis. Eloquent appraisal of the Ferguson, Mo., response to the 2014 slaying of Michael Brown Jr. 6:45 p.m. Friday, followed by discussion with Folayan and Davis, plus activists of Black Lives Matter Chicago, Church on the 9 and Black Youth Project 100.
"Rat Film," directed by Theo Anthony. Provocative, stylistically rich docu-essay, in which Baltimore's Norway rat infestation (not so different from our own in Chicago) becomes a way of looking at Baltimore's history of segregation. 9:15 p.m. Friday, followed by discussion with the director.
"Trophy," directed by Shaul Schwarz, with Christina Clusiau. Wildlife conservation vs. big game hunting: "Trophy" bagged this subject, and a lot of critical Sundance love, earlier this year in a warmly received premiere. 1:30 p.m Saturday, followed by discussion with Schwarz and Clusiau.
"The Cinema Travelers," directed by Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya. In remote villages all across India, intrepid movie projectionists travel annually with film projectors and film cans in tow, ready to set up another screening for an underserved populace. But the encroachment of digital makes theirs a buggy-whip sort of trade with a limited future. The documentary, filmed over five revolutionary years, was beloved in its Cannes debut. 4 p.m. Saturday, followed by discussion with Abraham and Madheshiya via Skype.
Danika Toolson, Emma Winslow, Elle Walker, Aeona Cruz, Hannah Cagwin, Liv Bagley, Shylee Sagle and Nicole Hamilton appear in "Casting JonBenét" by Kitty Green.
"Casting JonBenet," directed by Kitty Green. The grim, dangling child murder case of JonBenet Ramsey, and the larger overlay of mass culture's obsession with infantilized sexuality, come together in Green's "docu-fiction hybrid." 7 p.m Saturday, followed by discussion led by Green.
"Death in the Terminal," directed by Tali Shemesh and Asaf Sudry. A southern Israeli act of terrorism is examined from myriad angles, using cellphone footage and other means. 9:15 p.m. Saturday, followed by discussion with Shemesh and Sudry via Skype.
Scene from "The Island and the Whales."
"The Islands and the Whales," directed by Mike Day. In the icy waters of the North Atlantic, the Faroe Islands become the backdrop for a clash between starry activism (Pamela Anderson and her "Save the Whales" crew) and the whale hunters of the region, whose primary source of income has been poisoning the islanders over time. 1:30 p.m. Sunday, followed by discussion with director Day.
"Obit," directed by Vanessa Gould. The obituary department of the New York Times gets a wry and loving valentine from director Gould. 4 p.m. Sunday, followed by discussion with Gould and former NYT obituary writer Bruce Weber.
Scene from "Chasing Trane."
"Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary," directed by John Scheinfeld. This doc on the legendary jazz saxophonist, whom millions love, supremely, features narration by Denzel Washington. 7 p.m. Sunday, followed by discussion with a variety of jazz experts and educators.
With the exception of "Sweet Dillard," all screenings will be at the Davis Theater, 4614 N. Lincoln Ave. For more information, go to www.DOC10.org.