Doc NY, New York's Documentary Film Festival, runs November 3-9. We've got an early peek at a few films.
If there ever was a film that shouldn't work as well as it does, it's "To Be Heard." Following three
Harlem Bronx high-schoolers (Anthony, Pearl, and Karina) as they use spoken word/beat poetry to escape their hard-knock life, the movie has "inspirational feel good story" written all over it, and those reading the simple logline are likely to write it off as such. The directors (count'em: Amy Sultan, Roland Legiardi-Laura, Edwin Martinez, and Deborah Shaffer) likely knew this would be the case, and decided to destroy any negative pre-conceived notions with their first shot. The cold opening is a static frame of a drudgy NYC area, first silent with sound gradually coming until settling at a high volume. It appropriately sets the atmosphere; that of a cold, crowded city that's easy to get overwhelmed or left behind in. It's a very unconventional, impressive way to open a movie, and it's effective in its simplicity and strength. After the title fades in, we are introduced to the characters, the self-titled 'Tripod,' as they spout off a poem together. The energy is absorbing, and from here on out the film is a consistently engaging experience.
The tripod, despite sharing an identical interest and vaguely similar living situations, have their own unique difficulties that they must overcome. Anthony is stubborn, leading him to trouble with authority figures including those in school. Pearl deals with issues regarding her appearance and must hold a job in retail to make ends meet. Karina and her mother constantly fight (READ: brawl), she often finds herself kicked out of the house or living in a terribly tense dwelling. While the leads are certainly in bad situations, the film-makers smartly avoid a gigantic pity-party, lending much respect to their subjects and their lives. The camera is nothing but a bystander, capturing life without interfering in it (even during the worst moments), and avoiding typical documentary conventions by offering few formal talking-head interviews, instead focusing on interactions and events.
The central setting is a poetry program in their school called "Power Writing," which teaches radical free-form poetry. The teachers there not only encourage them to bare their souls through their writing, they also introduce them to various options to further their career, visiting a former member at his current college and taking the class to a poetry slam contest. Outside of class, the film offers us raw experiences, from serious issues like the three discussing Anthony's imprisonment or joyful smaller moments like Karina getting ready for prom. These authentic sequences leave a real dent in the heart because they are so damned genuine; a great example of good documentary film-making. By capturing the absolute essence of their subject and, again, not being too terribly one-sided in their portrayal (aka overly grim and conquering), the film-makers invigorate a story whose power has, over time, waned through overuse by late-night TV shows.
As the three go through their various ups and downs, the energy of their personalities and performances pulsates and dictates the flow of the film. The end comes quickly, and the connection between audience and subject is so strong that an ending to their tale seems almost rude. One of the surprise hits of DOC-NY, "To Be Heard" may seem like it's the same old tired routine, but everyone involved refuses to succumb to mediocrity. [A-]