Overwhelming–But in a Good Way

Michel Gondry

Michel Gondry

DOC NYC, feisty in its fourth year, and now the largest documentary festival in the United States, will screen 72 features (a dozen more than last year), 39 shorts and include 20 panel discussions and master classes–in eight days.  More than 125 filmmakers, subjects and special guests will participate.

The festival is divided into sections: galas, special events, American Perspectives, International Perspectives, three competition areas (Viewfinders, Metropolis and Shorts) and so much more.   It’s impossible to see everything and sadly I haven’t (and won’t).  Here are a few standouts:

Michel Gondry’s “Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? An Animated Conversation with Noam Chomsky” (closing night gala), uses innovative, rapid-fire, eye-popping animation (and an old Bolex) to make the work of the great linguist, philosopher and activist more accessible.  Shot in Chomsky’s office at MIT (in a building designed by Frank Gehry without any right angles), the filmmaker also asks biographical questions to uncover seminal moments in his subject’s life.

“The Pleasures of Being Out of Step” (Metropolis), directed by David L. Lewis and narrated by Andre Braugher, profiles Nat Hentoff who has had a long, twinned career, writing about jazz and civil liberties.  Hentoff says, “The Constitution and jazz are my main reasons for being,” and calls “James Madison and company” “those improvisers” and states that “jazz, a life force, comes from democracy…freedom is the common denominator in the music and the First Amendment.”

Lewis also interviews jazz musicians, poet and writer Amiri Baraka, critic and commentator Stanley Crouch, film critic (and former Village Voice editor) Karen Durbin (who at the Voice was often at ferocious odds with Hentoff over abortion rights), constitutional lawyer Floyd Abrams and Nat’s wife Margo.  A columnist in her own right, she says that when she and Nat first saw Bob Dylan play she thought, “He looks like me.”  The young Dylan also strongly resembled the young Nat.

Nat Hentoff

Nat Hentoff

(Full disclosure: Nat Hentoff was my colleague at The Village Voice and the portrait I shot of him outside his office–it was too cluttered to enter, much less accommodate my tripod and light stands–is included in David L. Lewis’ film.  As is a portrait shot by my good friend, amazing photographer–and former Voice photo editor–Meg Handler.)

Brilliant, indefatigable Grace Lee Boggs, at 98, is still an activist in her beloved Detroit. Filmmaker Grace Lee (no relation) chose well by (mostly) letting her subject tell her own story in “American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs” (American Perspectives).

Boggs, a daughter of the owner of a successful New York Chinese restaurant, entered Barnard at 16, where she first encountered the work of Marx and Hegel, and received her Ph.D in philosophy from Bryn Mawr College in 1940.  In 1953, involved in the labor and racial equality movements, she met Jimmy Boggs, an African-American auto worker and poltical activist and invited him to dinner at her house.  That evening he asked her to marry him.  Devoted to each other and to working for racial, social and economic justice, their union lasted 40 years.

Boggs says of her remarkable life and work (she published her most recent book,”The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century” in 2011), “I have endured and I have changed…ideas have their power because they’re not fixed.”

Grace Lee Boggs

Grace Lee Boggs

DOC NYC opens tomorrow and runs through Thursday, November 21.  All events will take place at the IFC Center and the SVA Theater.

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