Women directors present charming, informative docs at NYFF

The 55th New York Film Festival of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, September – October 2017, featured some of the best documentaries by women directors this year. Using a wide variety of expressive, entertaining, poignant and educational styles, the films reveal both the neglected past and the troubled present. Top selections include:

Faces Places (Visages villages)

Agnès Varda is a legend. This year, she is also the recipient of an Honorary Academy Award. Known as the “Grandmother of the French New Wave,” Varda is an innovator in woman-centered fiction and documentary films, photography, and, just recently, multi-media installations. At 89, she admits to weakening eyes, legs and stamina, so her daughter Rosalie Varda-Demy, costume-designer-turned-artistic-director, introduced her to 33-year-old French photographer and muralist, JR. Together they produced this documentation of their marvelously creative collaboration that extends her unique career and impact.  

Driving off the beaten track in his “photo truck,” they combine her planning and wide-ranging connections from her past with his improvisation and exuberant energy, her listening skills to draw out people with his audacity (and hard-working team) to paste their subjects’ portraits three stories high.  In rural villages they find: a postman, factory workers, miners’ town without a mine, a purist goat shepherdess, and ghostly photo to re-purpose.  When JR heads to the Le Havre docks, Varda asks “Where are the women?” and the wives come for the first time  — atop monumental totem poles of containers.  There’s poignancy when Varda crashes into a memory of her life with the late Jacques Demy and JR introduces her to his grandmother.  May audience enthusiasm entice Varda to continue making films, especially with JR.  Cohen Media Group theatrical release of this Main Slate selection began in October. – NLM 5/5

The Rape of Recy Taylor

Nancy Buirski (The Loving Story) continues championing neglected African-American heroines who challenged Jim Crow injustice in courtrooms and in the court of public opinion.  Forceful family interviews, immersive location visits, letters, testimony and articles from African-American newspapers bring you into the 1944 Alabama night when Recy Taylor, 24-year-old wife and mother, was kidnapped and gang raped by six white teens.  A horribly common occurrence, according to historian Danielle McGuire, whose book At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance–a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power (2010) inspired Buirski.  

But Taylor was uncommon in demanding justice, and she was supported by NAACP investigator Rosa Parks.  Parks’s image too long has been reduced to a little old lady with tired feet on a Montgomery bus in 1955.  Here she’s the #BlackWomensLivesMatter activist of her time.  (Here, historian Crystal Feimster uses such contemporary terms).  A newly discovered letter reveals Parks was driven by personal experience to activate a dedicated network of African-American women fed up with white assaults on their bodies, poignantly illustrated by amazing clips from so-called “race films”, 1919 – 1941, including groundbreaking black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux.  Buirski emotionally keeps brave and dignified Recy and her family front and center.  (Bring tissues).  Week-long December theatrical runs in New York and Los Angeles will qualify this moving and informative documentary for awards, before a 2018 broader release. – NLM 5/5

Boom For Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat

Director Sara Driver and her artist friends in the East Village well knew the real person behind Julian Schnabel’s bio-pic Basquiat (1996).  He was the hyper, African-American runaway they sheltered and mentored.  He impressed with how he absorbed their music, art and cultural rebellion to create his own multi-media experiments.

Many of these images of him and his early work haven’t been seen before, from Driver’s own photographs of the protean teen to the personal archives of Alexis Adler, the embryologist who first let him sleep on her couch.  (Her collection is now traveling to museums). Between 1978 – 1981, his output as a poet, musician, painter, and sculptor, with art supplies, everyday materials, or out on walls, seems both astonishing and banal.  Like proud parents, the interviewees, including Driver’s partner Jim Jarmusch, praise everything their protégé produced.  As they shrug about the endemic drugs that killed him at only age 27 in 1988, they are vague about Basquiat’s real origins; he probably didn’t tell the truth, re-inventing himself, like Bob Dylan in Greenwich Village 20 years earlier.

Graying boomers do wax nostalgic for their youth in New York City’s bad old days, when abandoned, crime-ridden neighborhoods attracted musicians and artists who innovated what became canonized as “New Wave”.  They movingly remember Basquiat – forever young– as a unique figure who connected punk, hip hop, hardcore, DIY films, gallery, graffiti and street art, across genres, classes, and races.  Magnolia Pictures releases Spring 2018. NLM 4/5

Arthur Miller: Writer

Writer/director Rebecca Miller’s first documentary is a portrait of a great 20th Century American playwright — her father.  She interviewed and followed him with cameras for decades, until he died in 2005.  Adding personal and archival photographs, home movies, and talks with relatives and long-time friends, this is a warm and intimate reflection on how people – especially his parents and three wives—directly affected his development as a person, and somewhat his work.  

Leaving his Jewish immigrant family and identity, he seemed exotic to three spouses: Midwest All-American; Hollywood blonde bombshell; and Berliner raised under the Third Reich.  Rebecca reveals what the public knew less — his furniture-crafting and his third marriage, his longest at 40 years, to her mother, Magnum photographer Inge Morath.  Collaborating with him on books, Morath helped rejuvenate his career by turning him to Europe, where revivals and his later experimental plays were staged when he was less popular with Americans.  

His daughter doesn’t ask tough questions, and much of his biography and the relation to his most famous plays were obvious.  But relaxed, he gives thoughtful details and even admits some regrets.  On HBO March 2018. — NLM 4/5

© Nora Lee Mandel (11/29/17) FF2 Media

Photos: Faces Places, The Rape of Recy Taylor, Boom for Real, Arthur Miller

Photo Credits: New York Film Festival

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Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online. After high school weekends spent learning film history at NY’s Museum of Modern Art, she studied film criticism at New York University. In addition to many years of writing for national and New York City organizations in the arts, education, history, and city planning, her reviews of documentaries, independent, and foreign-language films, books, television, exhibitions, and music have also appeared in such outlets as: Film-Forward.com, FilmFestival Traveler and Lilith Magazine, the independent Jewish feminist quarterly. Her ongoing Critical Guide to Jewish Women in Movies, TV, and Pop Music has been the basis for her talks around the New York region.
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