Under a hybrid umbrella, DOC NYC 2021 is upon us with another wonderful national and international documentary filmmaking exhibition. Some of the titles in the program, like The Rescue, Julia, Summer of Soul, and Ascension, have already been making waves in the circuit and will probably get a lot of buzz in the upcoming awards season. So, let’s talk about something fresh, shall we?
In this article, you will find a list of hidden gems screening at DOC NYC 2021 that you should consider while making your wishlist. These films represent an opportunity to learn about our world—colonization, environmentalism, identity, tolerance, and other relevant topics.
This heartbreaking but significant film delves into the devastating Australian Black Summer, which took the life of 34 people and millions of animals. Director Eva Orner explains the environmental conditions of Australia, its history of bushfires, and how the tragedy could’ve been mitigated if only politicians weren’t garbage in human form. If you suffer from climate change anxiety, this might not be an easy watch, but it’s one with the power to inspire and engage in the conversation.
The Gig is Up
In this eye-opening and thorough film, Shannon Walsh travels the world to give a voice and a face to the gig economy workforce, such as Uber drivers, delivery women, and Amazon Turk workers. It’s a powerful exploration of consumerism and labor exploitation that will force you to ponder what is behind your online buys and food orders.
Go Heal Yourself
In this intimate documentary, director Yasmin C. Rams takes us on her journey to find alternative ways to heal her epilepsy. Go Heal Yourself isn’t trying to wash your brain; it merely presents the stories of people dealing with cancer, multiple sclerosis, and Parkinson’s whose ailing lives were improved by natural medicine. With charm and empathy, it showcases fascinating views and ideas to make you form your own opinions.
Go Through the Dark
On her feature debut, Yunhong Pu brings to DOC NYC 2021 the story of Guanglin, a blind Chinese boy who shows great promise as a Go player—a highly complex and popular board game. At the surface level, this documentary serves as an inspiring portrait of a blind kid fighting to make a name for himself in a society with little patience to spare. However, it’s also a story of codependency and exploitation forged through an intimate and skillful approach that focuses on Guanglin and his relationship with his selfish father.
Listening to Kenny G
Penny Lane’s follow-up to the superb Hail Satan? is a delightful documentary that explores a simple question: why is legendary musician Kenny G such a hated figure? With charm and some excellent directing decisions, the film delves into this question to reflect on the power of art while celebrating the career of an undefinable artist.
Nothing But the Sun
Paraguay’s Oscar submission is also one of the best documentaries of the year. Using astonishing cinematography, director Arami Ullón follows Mateo Sobode Chiqueno, a native Ayoreo collecting stories about his culture decades after being violently subdued by white missionaries. Nothing But the Sun is a powerful demonstration of the power of documentary cinema as a tool to create empathy, understanding, and never forget history.
Cuban-American director Hugo Perez brings us a documentary about iconic Cuban singer Omara Portuondo, who, at the time of filming, was 89 years of age and still going strong, performing all over the world. Despite Omara’s reluctance to talk about her life, you can feel and understand her past struggles and love for music through her powerful singing. So listen to this woman sing, and let your soul be filled with life and love.
Once Upon a Time in Uganda
If you’ve never seen one of Wakaliwood’s action flicks, do yourself a favor and watch the great Who Killed Captain Alex or any other of their magnificent movies (available on their site) that, despite their ultra-low-budget, have a better understanding of the genre than most of the stuff you see in Hollywood nowadays. Once Upon a Time in Uganda is the tale of how a brickmaker named Isaac Nabwana defied all odds to create this unique film production company that keeps making magic despite its minimal resources.
Directed by Jerry Risius and Beth Levison, Storm Lake chronicles life on a local newspaper in Storm Lake, Iowa, as it struggles to keep afloat amidst a digital world. Anchored by the charming presence and inspiring journalistic integrity of Pulitzer Prize winner and Editor in Chief Art Cullen, this documentary is a powerful exhibition of the importance of journalism in a community. It’s a breeze to watch and will surely leave you with a big smile.
Three Minutes: A Lengthening
A masterpiece and one of my favorite films of 2021, Three Minutes: A Lengthening, is almost magical. Director Bianca Stigter takes the only three existing minutes of footage of a Polish town right before the Holocaust, and she lengthens them to create a memory and an homage to the Jewish population of said town. Through astonishing research and use of editing, the film makes sure to explain every detail available in the footage to give a name to the smiling faces of people whose lives were about to be transformed not by time but by violence—a must-watch.
Making its NYC Premiere is Debbie Lum’s wonderful Try Harder!, a film that follows a group of Lowell High School students as they prepare applications for the college of their dreams. I know this doesn’t sound very appealing, but trust me, Try Harder! is a charming and funny documentary about the pressures of young adulthood that intertwines themes of race and class with a light but insightful touch.
The Devil’s Drivers
Filmed verité style over eight years, The Devil’s Drivers follows a group of drivers who smuggle desperate Palestinian workers into Israel, a necessary gamble to provide for their families. Directed by Mohammed Abugeth and Daniel Carsenty, this is an intense and timely eye-opener of the repression suffered by ordinary people at the hands of the Israeli occupation on the West Bank.
These are just 12 great films I recommend you to watch, but DOC NYC 2021 will feature approximately 200 films, including 120 feature-length docs and 32 World Premieres. There’s music, experimental, sports, portraits, and even New York City-centered documentaries on the menu, so there’s something for everyone here. The festival will run in theaters and online from November 10 to 18 and will continue with an online presence until November 28.