The 5 Must-See Documentaries of the 2017 DOC10 Film Festival
Christopher Campbell | March 30, 2017
Chicago’s DOC10 Film Festival is more of a showcase. All of its curated titles are screened only once, and nothing overlaps. Your best bet is to buy a pass, spend your weekend at the Davis Theater, and partake in the whole program. Maybe you won’t love all the documentaries you see, but you’ll have seen 10 of the past year’s most significant nonfiction features, each one a local premiere. Bring friends, have discussions of what you watch, good or bad, and find out if your favorites match my picks below.
Before I list my highlights of the festival, which returns for a second year this Thursday, March 30th, through Sunday, April 2nd, I need to disclose that one of the docs, Step, was not made available beforehand — Jason Gorber saw it at Sundance, though, and included it on his list of the best of the fest. Out of the remaining nine, I consider five to be essentials, not just for anyone buying individual tickets during DOC10 but for the year and beyond. If you’re unable to attend this weekend, see them when you can.
Expanding on an idea she presented in her 2015 short The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul, Kitty Green delivers what could possibly be the most original feature film of any kind this year. This time she focuses on the most famous face of Boulder, Colorado, JonBenet Ramsey, the little beauty pageant queen who was murdered at age 6 in 1996. The uncertain details of her case are explored by Boulder locals auditioning for roles in the dramatic reenactment of events surrounding the girls’ death.
At times exploitative and consistently just an uncomfortable viewing experience, the film is not really about JonBenet or her family so much as everyone besides them. The actors up for the parts of the girls’ parents and a police detective character discuss their own unreliable memories and presumptions of what occurred, and many also reveal their own personal tragedies and eccentricities as ways of relating to the crime. Through these interviews, everyone becomes kind of level with the main subjects.
I can’t say that I like the film, nor can I promise that you will like it, but it’s definitely something to see, even if you wind up deciding that it’s too insensitive to the murdered child and the innocent parties involved in the story as told here. It could have been another short, part of a series of Casting films, not because there’s extraneous filler but because its point is made early on, and it’s not as if you get any better a sense of the JonBenet Ramsey story by its end than you have at the start.
Death in the Terminal
Thank goodness for medium-length documentaries. Tali Shemesh and Asaf Sudri’s 52-minute film chronicling a 2015 terrorist attack in Beersheba, Israel, could certainly be padded for a longer examination of its story, but for it’s purpose it doesn’t bother going overboard. It could very well fill a feature-length showtime, however, by being replayed immediately after it ends. I actually viewed it three times in a row in order to get more and more of an understanding of the tragic events.
The doc is primarily made up of security camera footage of the attack, which entailed a lone gunman shooting up a bus station after stealing the weapon of a soldier he’d stabbed. There’s also some video from a cell phone camera, and all that crude material is intercut with a handful of eyewitness accounts interviewed for the film. Each of them is given their own section, Rashomon style, as the whole story comes together in pieces, with some footage revisited under different contexts.
There’s obviously a more straightforward way of presenting the story, especially since it’s doesn’t deal in different viewpoints as contributing to an uncertain conclusion. The incident is ultimately a closed book, facts-wise, so Death in the Terminal’s worth is in its chilling, fragmented revelation of those facts via varying perspectives, all of them confused at the time, having been missing the overview knowledge that, well, a CCTV camera is able to capture and provide. You’ll want to rewatch this film as soon as you can.
The Islands and the Whales
Through the lens of filmmaker Mike Day, who shot this documentary mostly on his own, the Faroe Islands look like a place of legend. The kind of location that understandably was under consideration for Steven Spielberg’s fantasy picture The BFG. The North Atlantic country at first appears unapproachable, but then we’re introduced to its fishing villages and ports and the many people who call it home. And we learn of their traditional dietary staples of pilot whale blubber and seabird meat.
There is also a heavy supply of mutton, of course, as the Faroe Islands literally translates as “islands of sheep” in Danish. But Day doesn’t show us any of that, because the focus is on the two food items that have become problems for multiple reasons. There are activists, including actress Pamela Anderson, who fight the whaling, though the bigger issue for the Faroese people is the increase of mercury found in the whale meat. The birds, meanwhile, are also endangered and spoiled by pollution they ingest.
Like the islands, the doc isn’t what it first seems to be. It never falls into issue-film trappings, but it’s also not a mere ethnographic look at a culture with unpopular customs in a changing modern world. It’s also not necessarily a more focused character study. It’s just a film of the Faeroes and Faroese in all their beauty — this is the kind of doc that will be celebrated for its stunning cinematography that’s really just thanks to it featuring stunning landscapes — and their current dilemmas and controversies.
This has been a very difficult documentary to encourage people to watch, not just because of its graphic footage of slaughtered animals but because it makes us empathize with some of the big game hunters who kill those animals for sport. It’s so rare that a film is able to truly put viewers in the shoes of subjects they have a predisposition to dislike and disagree with. Trophy may not change your personal beliefs about hunting, but it very well could change your mind on the topic of hunting.
The film’s main presentation of arguments consist of a few conditions where the hunting industry may be the best thing for wildlife conservation. The money that comes into safaris for big game goes to preserving the greater population of lions, elephants, rhinos, etc. It’s a sad, complicated systemic situation that simply can’t please any animal lover either way. And the doc is great not just for making us think differently about the issue and industry but for the character-driven stories guiding us through the complexities.
Sometimes you think you don’t need to see a documentary because you lived through the events, watching them in real time or reading in-depth coverage in some news outlet. This is likely a common assumption about films on the Ferguson protests of 2014. But viewing social media live streams in the moment is limited in its context while written journalism and history fails to give you the best sense of what it was like to be there. Docs can offer both the sensation and the information.
Whose Streets? puts us on the ground of the protests beginning in August 2014 through the following year, and even better, it puts us into the community doing the protesting. The community that saw one of its own murdered by a police officer and then continued to be disrespected as it sought justice, understanding, and change. Activist filmmakers Sabaah Folayan and Sabaah Jordan have made a powerful doc that excites as it enlightens. It’s not an objective work, but it’s hard to see how it could be.
Although there is some retrospection to be found in the ongoing interviews with multiple characters, the doc is more historicism in motion with immediate insight rather than hindsight. Foloayan and Jordan don’t bother with too much backstory on Michael Brown, and that’s not needed. The film honors him but it’s not about him. It’s a film of the unrest, filling out the story as it should be fully known and experienced. And it’s the energy of the latter that makes it one of the most engaging features of the year.
Asfor the other four selections at this year’s DOC10 festival, all of them are fine, nothing I would discourage from being seen, that’s for sure (and I am one to discourage). They’re just not as captivating nor as interesting as far as discussion-generating topics as the five films highlighted above. The Denzel Washington-narrated Chasing Trane is a great gift to John Coltrane fans but a rather flat biography for anyone else. Heavy on anecdotal storytelling and rhetoric, it’s a decent tribute.
The Cinema Travellers is a delightful showcase of touring film exhibitionists in a remote part of India, but like its subjects whose worth is dwindling as their territories progress, it overstays its welcome and contains a ton of filler shots. Obit is also way too long for its focus on New York Times obituary writers, which is a shame because for a while it’s a very fascinating exploration of the profession. And the seemingly self explanatory Rat Film is a deep and often amazing essay film but just doesn’t always work for me.
But again, see them all if you’re attending the fest this weekend, and be sure to also check out the rest of the DOC10 events, including an obligatory but always essential panel on the state of documentary today. For more details on the program, visit the fest’s website.