If you want to make money with a documentary, buy a lottery ticket.
Prospects of paying back the costs of making a documentary film are discouraging, if not impossible, yet if DOC-NYC is any indication, plenty of filmmakers are still undeterred. The broad range of docs in DOC-NYC (albeit mostly American and in English) go against the trend toward retreat in mainstream journalism.
Can filmmaking fill the breach? In this series we see some signs of hope, for journalism and for cinema.
The Hand That Feeds by Rachel Lears and Robin Botnick takes us to the effort by workers at the bakery Hot and Crusty to form a union and negotiate a contract. It’s a battle that can be seen at hundreds of such places in New York, where immigrant workers are underpaid (sometimes below minimum wage) and denied overtime and vacation. “This is the norm, this is not an aberration in the food service industry,” says one of their leaders. The difference at Hot and Crusty is that workers formed a union, albeit one unaffiliated with any other major union in the city or country. Will its initiative be the future of organizing, or will the New Yorkers ignore the condition of people who serve them food every day? Both, as usual, but it’s clear from the film that the employees of Hot and Crusty knew whom they were dealing with in this ode to class consciousness.
Since media pays scant attention to stories like this (with the exception of Steve Greenhouse at the NY Times and, paradoxically, of the Village Voice, a newspaper with an awful labor record), I won’t give away the ending. Let’s just say that there is a new business in the place where this story began, at 63d Street and 2nd Avenue in Manhattan, a bakery called Brod with higher prices. Something tells me that the workers are not being paid higher wages. When you can’t fight off a union, just close. That said, the uplifting film shows that workers can get noticed when they work together. Bear in mind that, even in the Republican win last week, support for increasing the minimum wage was strong in supposedly conservative states. “One step at a time” might be another title for thiswell-meaning doc. At least half of it is in Spanish – could that be a trend?
Do I Sound Gay? , which opened DOC-NYC last night, was something of an audience hit at the Toronto International Film Festival, as it conducted a light-hearted personal inquiry – in the style of Morgan Spurlock; how about jokes about a gay film inspired by Super Size Me? – into gay patterns of speech and whether such patterns even exist. Indeed they do, as David Thorpe tests his voice and collects testimony from his friends and few gay celebrities (David Sedaris, George Takei, etc.).
It seems obvious. Why should speech not be a defining characteristic of a minority group in any society? His gay friends certainly think so. But an odd strand to the story emerges. Young men were sent in droves to speech classes by their parents to lose anything that sounded like a lisp. The assumption was that the kid sounded gay, or was gay. Many a straight boy learned a little bit about prejudice under those circumstances. The film gets a bit motivational at the end, as so many docs do, but the ride is worth it. Expect a theatrical release for this one. IFC just acquired it.
The Seven Five takes us to East New York, one neighborhood in Brooklyn that has not been gentrified. Director Tiller Russell revisits the era in the 1980’s and 1990’s when police ruled East New York, as protectors of drug dealers. His anti-hero is a crooked cop named Michael Dowd, who flourished in a seemingly unregulated environment of payoffs and violent retribution for those who crossed him or the dope rings. Dowd talks openly, now that he’s out of prison, as does his partner, who turned against him in the hope of avoiding a long prison term. The honor system of “ratting” comes under examination – honor doesn’t last long when the threat of punishment hangs over you, it seems. What we don’t get from The Seven Five (named for the East New York 75th Precinct) is the accountability, or absence of it, at higher levels of the NYPD. If everyone knew, as we’re told time and again, did any management heads roll? It seems nostalgic now, if you weren’t paying attention to recent scandals among corrupt police in the Bronx and among guards at Rikers Island. Plus ca change…..
These docs from and about New York City tend to be expositional – stories rather than cinematic poems. Another one is Little White Lie, by Lacey Schwartz, which tells the filmmaker’s story of looking black, which is explained away by a picture of her father’s great-grandfather, who is said to be Sicilian. The suspension of disbelief survives, until Schwartz (which means black in German) decides to attack it. As Errol Morris likes to say, believing is seeing.
For cinema – and for pictorialism, if there’s such a term — at DOC NYC, there is Salt of the Earth, directed by Wim Wenders and Juliano Salgado, and inspired by the photographs taken over a lifetime by Sebastiao Salgado. Nothing if not timely, the exhibition, Genesis, at the International Center for Photography shows Salgado at his most dramatic. Salgado is famous for his photographs of a gold mine in the interior of Brazil, a magnet for hordes of migrants hoping to find Eldorado. What they find is a hell that combines the labors of Sisyphus with M. C. Escher’s visual prisons of logic. This salute to Salgado by Wenders and Salgado’s son gets at the extremes of the photographer’s work – from vast tracts of land ruined by man to pristine unspoiled places to attempts at restoring landscapes that were raped for their resources.
Another journey into a unexploited landscape is Song from the Forest, last year’s IDFA winner by Michael Obert, which follows an American musician and recoding engineer, Louis Sarno, into the forests of Central Africa, where he lives with Bayaka pygmies and records their music, and marries. Among many other things, this is a reality check on the exoticism that’s associated with Paul Gauguin’s journeys into pure societies. It’s not clear how threatened the community in which Sarno lives is, but the outside world is encroaching on its lands. It’s hard to see anything positive in that. Sarno’s greatest culture shock coms on a tri to NY after decades with his son, where the two of them experience sensory overload. Anything but romantic, Obert’s film still gives you the magic of a place and its challenges. The film has played all over Germany. Let’s hope for a US release.
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