By Eric Kohn | Eric Kohn November 9, 2011 at 5:09PM
Running a film festival is always a daunting task, and starting one is even harder. These two reasons make it particularly impressive that Thom Powers and Raphaela Neihausen have managed to turn DOC NYC into a major New York City film event, not only for industry people in the know but moviegoers at large, by only its second year. I wasn’t crazy about Werner Herzog’s “Into the Abyss,” but have no qualms with its selection as this year’s opening night film; Herzog’s a bonafide art house rock star and brings the crowds, exactly the sort of coup necessary to lift the festival’s profile out of the documentary ghetto and give it the appearance of a savvy event worth any cultured New Yorker’s time.
This time around, I managed to catch of the more significant entries in this program, one of which landed the Grand Jury Prize of the Metropolis section. Corinne van der Borch’s “Girl with Black Balloons” follows a reclusive artist named Bettina discovered by the filmmaker living in the bowels of the Chelsea Hotel. Her ramshackle apartment is littered with abstract paintings and photographs as deserving of critical attention as any number of other creative works from her heyday in the 1960’s. Van der Borch boldly ventures beyond the limits of mere portraiture and injects herself into the story, speaking in voiceover about the way the solemn older women has infiltrated the filmmaker’s dreams. Like “Grey Gardens” reimagined by Chris Marker, “Girl With Black Balloons” maintains a hypnotic effect, evolving into a perceptive diary film about the nature of all creation--including Van der Borch’s pregnancy.
In “The Island President,” which premiered to much acclaim at the Toronto International Film Festival, Jon Shenk follows Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed, the Maldives answer to Barack Obama, an astute and educated man who overcame the government’s longtime corruption to land his spot in the captain chair. The majority of the movie revolves around Nasheed’s valiant attempt to get the world to accept new Carbon Emission Standards to lower the effects of global warming and prevent his country from sinking into the sea. The cause plays out in cogent, provocative terms, and it’s often appalling to see just how often Nasheed’s pleas fall on deaf ears. However, the movie lacks a sense of urgency or dramatic effect, and it’s hard not to feel like the director buried the lead: Nasheed spent years fighting the previous rulership before launching his successful presidential campaign. His journey to the top offers a much more intriguing arc than the flailing he does once he gets there. Still, just as “Girl with Black Balloons” involves the discovery of a neglected talent, “The Island” deserves more attention for discovering a neglected country.