DOC NYC – From Mosques to the Israeli Occupation (at the IFC Center)
DOC NYC is that essential New York festival, a compendium of documentaries that you probably haven’t seen yet if yu haven’t been on the endless festival circuit, plus some world premieres. Here’s a random sampling.
Building Babel, directed by David Osit, follows the controversy around what became known as the Ground Zero Mosque, the Park51 Muslim community center, still un-built, that was planned for lower Manhattan, several blocks from Ground Zero. (the institution now occupies a former Burlington Coat Factory.) Sharif el-Gamal , a Brooklyn-born Muslim of Egyptian and Polish origin who planned and financed the project, was called every kind of name by opponents of the building, and by people who just hated Muslims (and hated the idea that Muslim could have the same freedoms as any American who wanted to build a building somewhere).
He was called almost as many names as Maya Lin endured when she revealed her plans for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC. It turned out that Al-Gamal had been arrested in his youth for marijuana possession and for assault, and he was a few hundreds of thousand dollars in arrears on taxes in New York City. By the standards of the Manhattan real estate world, that could qualify him for sainthood.
A Girl & a Gun grabs plenty of forbidden fruit as it aims at the seductive target of a woman with a firearm. Who knew that the gun industry sees women as a growth constituency, or that pink pistols and rifles sell well to that market? Director Cathryne Czubek talks to women who make the case for gun fashion, and who argue a more persuasive case for security and protection.
Yet women who lost family members to gun violence remind you that the availability of guns in the hands of ordinary citizens ensure that innocent people, many of them children, will be killed with those weapons. The doc isn’t much to look at, but it ranges widely and reasonably through contentious territory. Note that neither candidate for president ventured into that debate.
Michael Apted’s 56 Up takes stock of late middle age among the children who began his film inquiry 7 Up (1964) about the functioning and effects of the British class system, viewed at 7-year intervals. Close your eyes as you watch and you hear the class differences clearly. “I never thought that someone who spoke like you could be intelligent,” a Yorkshire farm lad, now a professor of engineering, recalls being told.
Apted may not have given us a systematic x-ray, although there’s plenty of information here, but he’s achieved something that’s decidedly un-English. He’s gotten a range of British people of the same generation to talk about their lives and their frustrations with an openness . If there’s blame to be handed out for a life that seems disappointing, it’s usually self-directed. 56 Up isn’t a j’accuse, if you listen to the testimony offered. The visual evidence may lead you to a different conclusion. More on this doc when it’s released theatrically in January.
Making a special appearance at DOC NYC is Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, Alex Gibney’s probe (if that’s not too suggestive a term) into sexual abuse and accountability among Catholic priests in the United States. Gibney opens with the most poignant of cases, a school for the deaf where young boys were raped by a priest, who just happened to be one of the few people they knew who understood sign language. The effect was that the kids had no one to whom they could tell the truth in a common language, except the abuser. Accountability from the Church when the truth emerged into broader society was just as difficult.
Gibney researched the film with Laurie Goodstein of the NY Times, who covered many of the abuse scandals. They revisit endless efforts by the Church to silence and punish victims, most of which worked. Let’s not forget that the Catholic Church was part of the team that told its faithful not to vote for Barack Obama. You’ll come out of this doc wanting to take a shower.
Rafea: Solar Mama, by Mona Eldaief and Jehane Noujaim, which has already traveled around the festival circuit, looks at a remarkable program, based in India, which takes women from poor energy-impaired villages around the developing world, and trains them in solar engineering. Why the women? The Barefoot Institute focuses on women because they are more willing to break from traditional roles (in which they are almost always inferior) and because they can be persuaded of the merits of practical solutions which can improve the lives of their families.
In the case of Rafea, a Jordanian mother with a charming smile (and a chain-smoking habit), the husband finds that his time-tested practice of ordering her to obey his will no longer works. He’s even less happy that his wife knows things that he doesn’t know, lots of them, and that she’s gained a new confidence. Despite the humor and the family conflict, there’s a strong pedagogic tone to this doc. DP and co-director Mona Eldaief turns it into cinema with a vivid observation of life in the Jordanian desert near the Iraq border, where families scramble to cook their meals in a tent, sitting near some of the largest petroleum reserves in the world.
Men at Lunch by Seán Ó Cualáin looks behind, through and around a legendary photograph that has come to define the intrepid working spirit of the Greta Depression, the picture of a crew of iron workers lunching on a girder dozens of stories above the Manhattan Street. Casual understates the case. One of them is even holding a bottle of booze – this was during Prohibition, if you don’t remember.
The picture was taken in 1932, probably by a photographer named Charles Ebbetts. Like the picture of the sailor kissing his girl on Times Square, lots of people swear that their relaties are in the photographs. We even go to a pub in County Galway in Ireland, where we are assured that several people from there are in the picture. That could be, but there’s a greater mystery in this documentary. One of the talking heads opines in Gaelic, with subtitles to translate something that culd just as easily have been said in English. There’s one thing that you can be assured of – any educated person who speaks Gaelic also speaks English. Why insist on spealig a foreign ;anguage, especially when you’re talking about a photograph of iron worker in New York?
The Central Park Five —- The case of the Central Park Five – young men charged with gang-raping a white investment banker jogger in what became known as a “wilding incident” – was one of the signature events (along with the persistent squeegee window-washers and crack epidemic) that defined the crumbling of order in a fearsome New York City more than twenty years ago. The public was outraged, and a jury convicted the five adolescents. Mayor Ed Koch led the cheers. It turned out that the wrong young men were jailed, which got far less attention than the fervor to put them away.
The Ken Burns team – with David McMahon and daughter Sara Burns, who has also written a book about the case (which will tell you more than the film) – revisits the attack and the inquest, mostly with the young men who did hard time in New York State prisons. The five men speak of being kept awake all night by detectives after their arrests, which they say led to their confessions (mostly implicating each other), and we hear sad stories of lost years behind bars. We don’t hear much from the people who put them there – cops, prosecutors, and the media who never looked too deep – which would have been the reason for making the doc. It’s a missed opportunity, but expect lots of weepy coverage from NPR and the talk shows, and Oscar nominations.