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DOC NYC, known as “America’s largest documentary festival,” is back for its 14th iteration, running November 8-26. The 2023 festival presents more than 105 feature-length documentaries… among over 200 short films and dozens of events, with filmmakers expected in person at most screenings. So where do you begin? As always Hammer to Nail will have boots on the ground, and we’ll be dropping coverage throughout. Three members of our team—lead critic Christopher Llewellyn Reed (CLR), Editor at Large Matt Delman (MD), and contributor M.J. O’Toole (MJ) offer five picks each of what to see.

Nina & Irena (Daniel Lombroso) 

A lovely tribute to the filmmaker’s grandmother, this short (22 minutes) documentary is also a meditation on good and evil. Born in Kielce Poland in the 1930s, the titular Nina, along with her parents—all Jewish—survived the Nazi invasion of their country, hiding in plain sight as fake Catholics and then making their way to Prague. Nina’s sister, Irena, however, vanished in 1943, never to be seen again. Director Daniel Lombroso (White Noise) gently probes the soon-to-be-nonagenarian Nina’s memory, asking her to share a history she has long kept hidden from her children and grandchildren. The result is a reminder that hate (and anti-Semitism) is a constant threat in our world, but also that healing can emerge from the worst kind of violence. It’s a much-needed message. (CLR)

The Eternal Memory (Maite Alberdi)

From the director of Oscar-nominated doc The Mole Agent, which is currently being turned into a series for Netflix, Maite Alberdi revisits the idea of aging and death. (Read Christopher Reed’s full review.) The Eternal Memory is sure to be a ‘poignant cinematic tribute’ and an emotionally intense journey. It won the Grand Jury Doc Prize at Sundance and is screening as part of the prestigious DOC NYC Shortlist. (MD)

Angel Applicant (Ken August Meyer)

Winner of the Documentary Grand Jury Prize at SXSW, director Ken August Meyer gets up close and personal with his own life. In Angel Applicant, he details his diagnosis of the rare autoimmune disease scleroderma which he tries to make sense of through the artwork of the late Paul Klee, who died from the same illness. Similar docs, such as Not Going Quietly or Unrest, have unflinchingly detailed the lives of those living with similar diseases. But while those two films’ subjects deal with their ailments through action, Meyer instead uses observation and introspection. (MJ)

Neirud (Fernanda Faya) 

Brazilian director Fernanda Faya, making her feature debut, explores the secret history of her Aunt Neirud and Grandma Nelly in this personal exploration of family and memory. Though she called Neirud an aunt, she was never quite sure what connection this dear older woman had to her father and his mother, though she knew that it had something to do with the circus and wrestling. As her brisk (72 min) movie moves more deeply into the central mystery, we learn about the history of Brazil and the many ways in which independent women sought freedom. Mixing archival film and video footage, Neirud alternates poetic lyricism with poignant anecdotes, the net result is a heartfelt ode to the pioneers of the past who have made today possible. (CLR)

A still from ANSELM

 Anselm (Wim Wenders)

78-year-old director Wim Wenders has two films coming out this year, a light drama about a Japanese toilet cleaner who loves his job titled Perfect Days, and a 3D documentary entitled Anselm about the visual artist Anselm Kiefer. Executive produced by the equally prolific Jeremy Thomas (see our interview with him here), be ready to have your mind blown by the radical art on display. Wenders previously created a portrait of an artist, Pina, in a 3D film back in 2011, and the technology has advanced since then, so to see this 6K projection in a theater with your 3D glasses on is a must. (MD)

Merchant Ivory (Stephen Soucy)

Legendary filmmaker James Ivory and his partner in both life and business, Ismail Merchant, made over 40 films together in their storied decades-long career, such as A Room With a View, Maurice, and Howard’s End. In Merchant Ivory, director Stephen Soucy brings the story of their partnership to life, featuring interviews with longtime collaborators such as Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, Vanessa Redgrave, and more. Cohen Media Group, which has restored numerous Merchant Ivory films, will roll out the documentary at a later date. This is sure to be a treat for any devotee of Merchant Ivory. (MJ)

No One Asked You (Ruth Leitman)

In her latest, director Ruth Leitman (Tony & Janina’s American Wedding) follows the brave activists at the forefront of America’s fight to retain access to safe and legal abortions. At the heart of her narrative is comedian Lizz Winstead, co-founder of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and, more relevant to the subject here, founder of Abortion Access Front (AAF), formerly known as Lady Parts Justice League. Never one to confront serious issues without a sense of humor (even if the dire situation in our country leads to tears), Winstead and her colleagues in activism and comedy travel the nation on their Vagical Mystery Tour while bringing comfort to harried abortion providers across the land. A call to action as much as a profile in courage, No One Asked You inspires, even as it terrifies through its hard luck on where we are today. (CLR)

American Symphony (Matthew Heineman)

Matthew Heineman is known for entering war-torn countries and putting his life at risk, but for his newest film American Symphony, he had to become vulnerable in a different way. The story follows friend and musician Jon Batiste and his life partner Suleika Jaouad, as they fight her cancer. Playing as part of the Shortlist, which indicates it’s a real contender, American Symphony will premiere at DOC NYC before streaming on Netflix November 29th. (MD)

Holding Back The Tide (Emily Packer)

Emily Packer’s Holding Back The Tide gets deep into the waters of NYC. Through unique storytelling, it chronicles the history of oysters in the city’s waters, as well as the numerous waterways, the growing pollution, and the growing efforts to revitalize it. But through various queer characters/subjects, it also frames the oyster as an LGBTQIA+ icon as studies show it changes gender through its life cycle (who’d have thought!). From here, the lines between documentary and fiction, past and present are blurred. As a native New Yorker who grew up along these waters, it will be fascinating to see the message Packer sends about the nature of the city’s oysters, and how it may tie into life itself. (MJ)

 They Shot the Piano Player (Javier Mariscal/Fernando Trueba)

If the title of this animated quasi-documentary evokes the French New Wave (as in François Truffaut’s 1960 Shoot the Piano Player), it’s by design, given the links the movie makes between Brazilian jazz and bossa nova music and that film movement from across the pond. Then again, “they” actually did shoot a piano player, the unfortunate Francisco Tenério Jr. Structured as a combination travelogue and investigative procedural, the movie combines the aesthetics of Citizen Kane and the more recent Cold Case Hammarskjöld, revisiting the same set of tragic circumstances over and over until arriving at something approaching an answer. Author Jeff Harris (a made-up character voiced by Jeff Goldblum) interviews a series of actual Brazilian-music greats, and others who knew Tenério, to try to figure out why such an apolitical person could fall victim to right-wing violence. Along the way, directors Javier Mariscal and Fernando Trueba (Chico & Rita) mix fact and fiction to both celebrate life and condemn autocracy. It’s far from cinema verité, but it does hold our attention. (CLR)

A still from KOKOMO CITY

Kokomo City (D. Smith)

A bold and vivacious debut from director D. Smith, Kokomo City matches the vibrancy of its characters with its stylistic verve. Nothing like the confessional style docs of the past, these are stories from black transgender sex workers in Atlanta and New York City. At times outrageous, and at times tragic, the impact of director D. Smith as a trans woman herself giving voice to the voiceless cannot be understated. The film won the NEXT Innovator award at Sundance and the Audience Award at Berlin. Screening as part of the ‘Winners Circle’, Kokomo City is the must-see doc of the year. (MD)

The Walk (Tamara Kotevska)

The newest film from Honeyland director Tamara Kotevska is a must-see as it follows the life of a young Syrian refugee in Turkey who is dealing with the loss of both her home and family. One big thing that emerges in her journey is a 12-foot puppet named Little Amal that represents the millions of displaced refugees. This paves the way for a long walk many of these immigrants and refugees take part in from the Syrian border in Turkey all across Europe. Judging from the scale of the premise, it is safe to assume we are in for something just as visually captivating and emotional as Honeyland. (MJ)

Uncropped (D.W. Young)

Unless you were alive and living in New York City in the 1970s and beyond, you may be unfamiliar with photographer James Hamilton’s work. Have no fear, however, as director D.W. Young (The Booksellers) takes us on a journey back in time through the ups and downs (mostly ups) of Hamilton’s career, starting with his brief tenure at publications such as Crawdaddy, The Herald, and Harper’s Bazaar, to his longer stints at the once mighty The Village Voice. Throw in some significant time on set with the likes of George Romero and Wes Anderson, and you have quite the life story to tell. It’s a rollicking good time, filled with lively conversations and interviews, at times as much about the New York press scene as Hamilton, himself. If Uncropped is occasionally a little chummy and insular, assuming viewer interest in obscure arcana, it nevertheless does its best to bring alive moments we didn’t realize we wanted to explore. As such, it’s an engaging celebration of creativity in all its forms. (CLR)

Happy Campers (Amy Nicholson)

In Amy Nicholson’s doc Happy Campers, an idyllic beachside trailer park in Chincoteague, Virginia is pulled apart and destroyed by corporate greed to make room for luxury vacation homes. Instead of interrogating the evildoers, Nicholson keeps her camera solely focused on the soon-to-be ex-residents of the ‘shabby Shangri-la’. Her lyrical approach is a refreshing stylistic choice, turning what could be a depressing diatribe into something magical. Echoes of last year’s DOC NYC selection A Decent Home mixed with the poetic beauty of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project. Happy Campers has its world premiere at DOC NYC. (MD)

Apolonia, Apolonia (Lea Glob)

What starts as a film school assignment turns into a decade-spanning portrait of a struggling, yet gifted artist. Lea Glob’s Apolonia, Apolonia examines the life and craft of young bohemian painter Apolonia Sokol, stretching from Paris to New York and Los Angeles, and back again. The story of artists trying to find themselves has been told before, but Apolonia’s journey keenly shines a light on how one strives to find their own voice in a modern-day, patriarchal landscape. Hopefully, this thoroughly intimate and evocative portrait will launch both Sokol and Glob to even greater heights. (MJ)

Tickets to these and other films can be purchased on the festival’s website. Screenings for films are both in-person and virtual screenings.

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Hammer to Nail's editors and contributors team up on collaborative articles and lists.

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