This year’s DOC NYC features a big, lively slate of world and U.S. premieres. Several deal with women’s attempts to live a dignified life inside the problem that won’t go away—occupied Palestine. Another examines a family dead set on forging a path through another ongoing crisis, mass migration to the West. And in a potentially disheartening trend, the mix includes a few pieces that fail to stand up to the mildest exercise of critical thinking.
Miriam Shaar shares problems with fellow natives of her Beirut Palestinian refugee camp: little money, few opportunities, and frustration with a tight, cordoned-off space that has been housing a diaspora in makeshift fashion for more than 60 years now. Miriam’s love of cooking inspires her to gather a team of talented fellow cooks who build a catering business from the ground up. Although she is modest and low-key, leading a team of able women has clearly sharpened her entrepreneurial instincts and provided energy for new ambitions.
Soufra follows the cheerful, persistent Miriam and her crew as they raise money for a food truck via Kickstarter, fighting a sluggish (and implicitly anti-Palestinian) Lebanese bureaucracy to get their tasty dishes on the road. The film, which can register as a little earnest, treats us to sensual pleasures, with shots of fabulous-looking meals and intriguing views of Beirut, which in post-modern fashion combines war-torn grit with languid glamour. Soufra serves up the positive message that anywhere you go in the world, people thrive through work and the sheer love of doing what they’re good at.
SKY & GROUND
Dire determination comes alive in the gaunt face of a Syrian Kurd known as Guevara, charged with leading the large Nabi family out of bombed Aleppo to the safety of Berlin. In Sky & Ground, chain-smoking Guevara plots clandestine paths away from a miserable Greek refugee camp onward through Serbia, Hungary, and Austria, relentlessly cajoling and prodding voyagers of uneven ages and levels of mental and physical fitness to stay strong and keep heading north.
Films on the current refugee crisis tend to fall back on a generic appeal to Western consciences set to a Philip Glass–style oh-this-troubled-world soundtrack. Sky & Ground is made of rougher, more textured stuff. The family’s nocturnal cat-and-mouse dodges around border patrols gives scenes The Night of the Hunter air of suspense. A strong orchestral score punches up danger, emotion, and forward movement. The family’s stories of life on the run unmask unhappy self-awareness: an elderly matriarch admits that it’s too late for her to learn new ways, and children mourn years spent far from the classroom. The refugees emerge as real, damaged people, fed up with hardship and never pretending to be noble.
VIGILANTE: THE INCREDIBLE TRUE STORY OF CURTIS SLIWA AND THE GUARDIAN ANGELS
The more corporate and moneyed New York becomes, the more some may yearningly look back to its badass Times Square days. Nostalgia for a scummier, looser city animates a borderline-fawning biopic of Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa, who recalls his glory days patrolling New York’s mean streets as head of a uniformed force, at once praised as an urban godsend and condemned as a vigilante pain in the ass.
Director David Wexler quickly establishes the film as all Sliwa, all the time. In motormouth patter honed by 25-plus years of talk-radio gigs, Sliwa treats us to jacked-up tales of run-ins with the mafia and crime-fighting derring-do. Hyperbolic, unverifiable statistics of a city gone to hell clutter the screen. Scenes of the Angels marching, training, and posing are supplemented by The Warriors-style B-roll playing out like some forgotten blaxploitation TV movie. We spot glimpses of Sliwa’s uptown-girl wife and Angels partner Lisa Evers and see the photogenic couple becoming famous on tabloid TV. But we don’t hear from anyone who could provide a broader perspective on the Angels, their shifting alliances, and frequently controversial mission. Were they a success? If you believe this movie, Curtis and the gang saved New York from certain death.
Glimpses of shadowy figures from the past (Ed Koch comes off sleaziest of all) and Sliwa’s refreshing takes on racism keep Vigilante sharp, and the film is entertaining in a bluff, old-school way. But a less worshipful portrait of an organization very much part of a desperate time might offer something more complete –and maybe something more provocative.
A queasier form of hagiography hangs over art smuggler, forger, and self-declared murderer Michel van Rijn, subject of graffiti artist/provocateur King Adz’s creepily admiring, criminally sloppy profile. The swashbuckling van Rijn made a name for himself starting in the 1970s, purloining antiques from the Middle East. Although he claims to be unmoved by money or fame, he reveled in a flashy life of private planes and sexy babes. “He was behind 90 percent of the art thefts in the world and wanted you to believe he was behind the other ten percent,” one associate says approvingly. Now older and infirm, van Rijn is ready to come clean about his storied life and nefarious deeds. Or is he?
The Iconoclast sets up the question and then coyly refuses to answer it. The film traffics in vague and unconnected interviews with art world and intelligence figures, pursues and drops stories, nods and winks. Van Rijn may have masterminded the fabled Gardner Museum mega-heist. Really? His partners in a life of crime apparently included the CIA, the FBI, Mossad, the Mafia, and Banksy. How exactly? Mysterious hints will have to do. In a bizarre contrast to its hush-hush cloak-and-dagger mysteries, the film flaunts (and even reenacts) van Rijn’s daring and alleged undercover homicide of a notorious historical fugitive, a tale that seems at once overly explicit and not very believable.
With conspiracy theories dangled at every turn but never explored, Iconoclast descends very fast into a very (sorry, guys) male form of fantasy. King Adz mumbles along in buddy-movie fashion as the old crook’s credulous sidekick. Van Rijn alternately broods and mugs for the camera, an unknowable figure whose catharsis at the end feels as unreal as everything else in the film.
Adz’s documentary is such an irresponsible farrago and put-on that you wonder: A) If the DOC NYC organizers noticed or mind its shameless disregard for baseline journalistic norms, or B) If Iconoclast is meant as some bigger statement that truth no longer exists. Sure enough, a portentous inscription over the last frame reads: “Reality is a construct…The danger we all now face is distinguishing between what is real and what is performed.” Hey, in a world of fake news, all you can do is add your own.