By coincidence, I attended three previews of new documentaries last week in New York City. In between New York Film Festival screenings (the Dardenne brothers' "L'Enfant" still lingers, both transcendant and painful), parties for the Hamptons Film Festival (where the number of tall, blond men rival that in Los Angeles) and interviews with attending filmmakers ("Paradise Now's" Hany Abu-Assad and I debated the dangers of religion vs. the American Dream; Philip Seymour Hoffman and Bennett Miller discussed the elusive Truman Capote), I was quickly reminded of how much this city is the center of the films that I care about.
Now, onto the documentaries: First off, Doug Block's "51 Birch Street" is a beautiful, resonant piece of work about how little we know about our parents' lives, about marriage and fidelity, loss and reconciliation. It's impossible to watch "Birch Street" without thinking about one's own family and relationships. Perhaps in its convivial construction, first-person telling, and the fact the Doug is such a nice guy, the film has an openness that allows for viewers to enter contemplation about their own lives in a profound way. I've often felt that the personal documentary has overstayed its welcome, but "Birch Street" reaffirms my faith in the form.
At the poorly run first annual New York Television and Video Festival, TV doc vet Steve Rosenbaum, whose indieWIRE blog can be found here, unveiled his long in the works Kerry campaign doc, "Inside the Bubble." Painful to watch, the film recounts the run up to election '04 and the apparent disorganization of those strategizing the campaign. I'm not sure if it's because the documentary only had limited access, but the campaigners come across as utterly out of touch with what was going around them. They look on helplessly as the Switch Boat Veterans make hay of Kerry and retrospectively wonder if they should have fought back sooner. Kerry, himself, comes off as utterly likeable and casual in his off-the-script moments, and you just wish that Americans could have seen it, rather than the somewhat wooden demeanor that he publically projected. Most harrowing of all, of course, is the reminder that Bush and Cheney's lies and manipulation duped over 50 million people.
Last on my nonfiction triple-bill was the "Protocols of Zion," Mark Levin's examination of anti-Semitism post 9-11, with particular focus on the rumor that went around (sufficiently debunked) that thousands of Jews didn't show up to work at the World Trade Center on 9-11. What I found most revealing at the screening, however, was not in the film, but the Q&A afterwards. Levin invited some Nation of Islam members to the film, as well as panelists like a Rabbi, a religion reporter, and a Muslim interfaith leader. After the screening, both Rabbi and Nation of Islam members failed to hear a word each other were saying, as if totally, utterly blocked to the other's presence. If "Protocols of Zion" is supposed to spur discussion, I don't think it matters much if no one is listening to each other.