One of these years, I’m just gonna go all in and only go to the Tribeca Film Festival’s documentaries. It’s not that the New York-based fest – which came to a close yesterday – doesn’t have narrative titles worth seeing (watch this space later today to hear about some of those). But their non-fiction slate is such an embarrassment of riches, it’s become one of the essential doc fests in the country. These were some of this year’s highlights.
THE CLOSING NIGHT MOVIE THAT’S A TV SHOW
The Fourth Estate The first episode of Liz Garbus’s new Showtime documentary series – presented as the fest’s closing night film – has an opening theme by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, in their customary foreboding style, and it’s entirely appropriate. The subject is the New York Times in the Trump era, a period that executive editor Dean Baquet predicts will be “a huge test, in a lot of ways.” Garbus shadows multiple protagonists, reporters and editors in both the Washington and New York bureaus, and taps in to the intensity and energy of these newsrooms, where a story will suddenly just happen and supersede everything else. More valuably, for every five moments of intentional truth, she catches an accidental one – like when Maggie Haberman, who covered Trump for New York tabloids before either of them were on the nation stage, recalls, “Trump was a quote you would try to get, because he would juice up a story” (which was kind of the problem with the coverage of the entire campaign). Coming to an end rather than a conclusion, this is definitely the first episode of a TV show. But it’s one I will certainly keep watching.
MOVIES ABOUT TV SHOWS AT A FILM FESTIVAL (One more twist: I’m pretty sure you’ll see them both on television.)
Mr. SOUL! The public television variety series Soul!, which debuted in 1968, came at a time when black voices were basically absent from national media, so it broke ground on an almost weekly basis. Melissa Haizlip and Samuel D. Pollard’s film is simultaneously a history of the show and a biography of its creator/producer/co-host, Ellis Haizlip. and the performance clips (with Al Green, Stevie Wonder, The Delfonics, Earth Wind & Fire, and many more) are spellbinding. But Haizlip also put the national television spotlight on serious black poets (Amiri Baraka, the Lost Poets, Nikki Giovanni), black theater and dance companies, and political figures whose messages still resonate. Soul! only lasted five years, and by the end of this thorough and intoxicating documentary, it’s clear what a loss its cancellation was. But its powerful closing montage also draws the line to the images of black excellence that followed, and that dominate our culture to this day.
Freaks & Geeks: The Documentary It’s not the most imaginative title, but nonetheless, this valentine to the short-lived and wildly influential 1999-2000 NBC dramedy is a lovely piece of work, assembling terrific clips and wonderful old behind-the-scenes video, and gathering pretty much everyone you’d want to hear from (and a few you might not expect – dig Styx’s Dennis DeYoung, dropping knowledge). It’s a welcome walk down memory lane, and also an informative post-mortem on the show’s failure: how it was a victim of that particular moment in the business of television, how its makers took its cancellation personally, and what they did with that frustration. And the show was exactly big and long enough to get this kind of treatment without skipping anything too important. Affectionate and refreshingly stylish; fans are going to eat it up.
ACTIVISTS The modern issue-based documentary aims to both inform and enrage. These docs did both jobs quite nicely.
The Feeling of Being Watched The inelegantly named “Operation Vulgar Betrayal” was a Chicago-area FBI investigation in the mid-to-late 1990s that attempted to shake out money laundering operations to fund Middle Eastern terrorism – with a particular focus on the suburban city of Bridgeview, and its large Muslim population. Director Assia Boundaoui, who was a resident at the time (and whose family still lives there) attempts to uncover exactly why the feds were targeting them, and if they’re doing so still. She’s so close to the story that the balance between personal and investigative elements is sometimes a little off. But her tireless digging and keen analysis of the psychological effects of this surveillance make this an engrossing (and well-timed) work.
The Bleeding Edge The latest from the Hunting Groundand The Invisible War team of Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, premiering later this year on Netflix, leans a bit too hard on the tropes of the activist documentary, and some of the filmmaking is a little dodgy. But the story they’re telling and the information they’re imparting is vital enough to render those concerns secondary. Their focus is the medical device industry, and the alarming lack of regulation over it; there was no FDA control of devices until 1976, we’re told, and the loophole of “pre-market approval” – in which new devices can be grandfathered in if they’re similar enough to previous ones, no matter how safe those devices proved to be – is an exception that’s become the rule 98% of the time. The Bleeding Edge alternates that history with the stories of those who are suffering under the side effects of a handful of poorly tested devices, and their descriptions of their conditions are visceral, scary, and horrifying, accumulating in a film that’s hard to watch and harder to ignore.
Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland The July 2015 death of Sandra Bland, a black woman activist who died in police custody following a routine traffic stop in Hempstead, Texas, became a rallying point for the Black Lives Matter movement, and the unanswered questions from that tragedy are enough to propel a first-rate documentary. But directors Kate Davis and David Heilbroner take the promise of the title seriously, rotating between biography and post-mortem, and crafting a portrait thorough and knotty enough to acknowledge and weigh the complicating details. More importantly, their approach boosts Bland’s vital message, which is (in many of her videos) eerily prescient.
BIO-DOCS That old non-fiction chestnut, the biographical documentary, still yields some gems.
Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes Launched by Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff in 1939, Blue Note is the definitive jazz label, with a roster featuring such legends as John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Art Blakey, Wayne Shorter, and Herbie Hancock. Sophie Huber’s affectionate documentary gives us the expected history, illustrated with rare footage, old photos, session notebooks, and studio recordings – but she’s just as interested in the label’s present (and future) as its past. So we’re treated to current artists working and recording, emphasizing the collaborative nature of the art; we hear how Blue Note’s break beats contributed to early hip-hop, and how the music influenced some of that genre’s giants. Beyond the Note a bit stodgy and traditional at times (particularly given the norm-breaking of its subject), but it’s a fascinating watch nonetheless.
The Gospel According to André “Fashion is fleeting. Style remains.” So says André Leon Talley, described by Tom Ford as “one of the last of those great editors,” whose words and images filled the pages of Voguein its golden era. Witty, catty, and unapologetic, he’s an ideal documentary subject, with a scrappy story of humble (and repressive) roots leading to a voyage of self-discovery. And in telling his story, director/producer Kate Novack is also able to tell the story of the fashion industry – and hint at the tricky place of African-Americans like Talley within it. And that element remains vital; Talley seems light as air, but he remembers the insults and slights, and they still hurt.
The Rachel Divide You remember Rachel Dolezal. She was at the center of one of 2015’s weirdest controversies, the president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the NAACP who was revealed, after a light bit of digging by a local news reporter, to be a white woman identifying as black. Filmmaker Laura Brownson documents the fallout of that revelation, and Doelzal’s attempts to recover from it, and the results are astute and nuanced – surprisingly so, as it would be so easy to subject her to a feature-length drag. But The Rachel Divide (which is now streaming on Netflix) turns itself inside out at regular intervals, shifting sympathies, explaining complexities, yet refusing to let its subject all the way off the hook. It’s rather a brilliant balancing act.
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENTS These were the worst of the docs I saw, and they’re not even “bad” movies per se– they just could’ve been much, much more.
Love, Gilda Lisa Dapolito’s documentary love letter to comedy icon Gilda Radner lets her tell her own story, via archival interviews, readings from her journals, excerpts from her autobiography, and tapes of the free-flowing monologues that she presumably used to write it. In spite of that material, you don’t really come away from this generally agreeable movie with a much of a sense of who she was and what drove her; Dapolito tends to merely hint at or brush past her difficulties and frustrations (particularly on Saturday Night Live, which seems a calculated choice to avoid dinging the mystique). But comedy geeks will go nuts for the archival material, which includes footage of her fabled Toronto Godspell production and wonderful home movies from her National Lampoon shows and SNL days. There’s much to admire here, but this viewer wouldn’t minded a bit more length, and a lot more teeth.
Netizens Cynthia Lowen’s documentary on online harassment is vitally important and timely as hell; it’s too bad it’s so sloppy. Her subjects are well chosen: Carrie Goldberg, an attorney focusing on cases of online harassment (and a victim herself); cultural commentator and Gamergate target Anita Sarkeesian; and revenge porn victim Tina Reine. Lowen’s not afraid to get into the weeds of how online harassment works, or to get at the systemic issues at the root of this problem. But it’s shabbily assembled, with too many scenes and interviews rambling on and on, far past when the point’s been made, while pieces of information are oddly withheld until late in the story, and important payoffs are not really delivered at all. The bravery of Netizen’s subjects is admirable; I wish their story were being told in a better film.
BEST OF THE FEST (RUNNERS-UP)
Studio 54 Ace documentarian Matt Tyrauner (Valentino: The Last Emperor) tells the coke-dusted rise-and-fall tale of Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager’s tres chic discotheque, which ruled Manhattan’s night life for 33 months in the late 1970s before tumbling down in a spectacular wave of scandals and criminal convictions. Tyrauner digs deeper and pushes past the usual tsk-tsking and/or hagiography, leaving in the uncomfortable questions and awkward answers. But more importantly, he understands and conveys exactly why the club connected, at that particular moment – how it was fueled by the ying/yang, introvert/extrovert dynamic of its co-owners, and how its potent dance floor cocktail of personalities, classes, and sexualities offered up to its patrons escapism, inclusion, acceptance, and access. A bewitching story, briskly and wittily told.
No Greater Law Tom Dumican’s riveting documentary details the battle between the Canyon County, Idaho sheriff’s department and the Followers of Christ church, which operates according to a strict doctrine of faith healing rather than medical intervention – a choice that has left dozens (if not hundreds) of their children dead of preventable illnesses over the years. But Idaho is one of six states with “religious exemption” laws (if it’s “merely neglect,” we’re told, rather than “criminal intent,” there’s nothing law enforcement can do), and the state legislature’s debate of that law provides a framework for the film. Dumican’s treatment of this incendiary material is admirably even-handed – he lets everyone talk, and listens intently. It’s still infuriating.
Charm City Midway through Marilyn Ness’s observational documentary about the epidemic of crime and violence in Baltimore, she puts an astonishing statistic up on screen: by the early 2000s, 50% of the city’s young black men were in jail, in prison, on probation, or on parole. To tell the story of what it takes to tackle that problem, she adopts a multi-pronged, Wire-style approach, observing the work of cops, politicians, and community leaders (most of them people of color), with a keen understanding of the tensions that keep them from pursing their common goals. Intricately assembled and morally complex, Charm City is thoughtful enough to offer up small solutions – and realistic enough to know that they’re just not enough.
BEST OF THE FEST
Bathtubs Over Broadway It began with a smirk, the day Late Show with David Letterman writer Steve Young discovered, while finding oddities for the “Dave’s Record Collection” segment, a souvenir album from an “industrial musical” – full-fledged, Broadway-style musical shows for private audiences at company conventions. At first he laughed, but then he found himself humming the songs (they’re fluid and catchy; if the lyrics weren’t commercials, who knows?) and digging into the history of this unknown corner of show-business, a whole circuit that provided (lucrative) early work and opportunities for performers and songwriters, many of whom you’ve heard of. Director Dava Whisenant ably transfers the interest – Young’s fascination and enthusiasm is infectious – but ultimately, Bathtubs Over Broadway is about more than this tiny, weird thing. It’s about how these peculiar interests can become our obsessions, and the way that ironic detachment can develop, surprisingly enough, into genuine affection. What a delightful movie this is.
House Two Michael Epstein’s harrowing documentary meticulously investigates the November 2005 massacre at Haditha, in which a company of Marines retaliated for the killing of one of their own by executing 24 Iraqi citizens. What followed was the largest, most expensive criminal investigation in the history of the Marine Corps – and a giant clusterfuck of dismissals and immunity, in which only one defendant, Frank Wuterich, was first focused on and then pleaded out. Epstein, who pairs contemporary interviews with candid footage of Wuterich and his lawyers during the investigation and prosecution, finds a unique perspective in the journey these attorneys take concerning their suspicions about their client. More than that, it’s a genuinely compelling mystery – it keeps turning on you, as unpredictable as it is enraging.