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DOC NYC Preview: 6 Top Picks for the 2021 Festival

Further cementing its place as America’s largest documentary festival, DOC NYC returns for its 12th edition in a hybrid format. The 2021 festival will screen more than 200 films in theaters and online, catering to all audiences through a variety of themed sections. As this exciting lineup unveils from November 10-28, here are 6 must-see films to put at the top of your watchlist:

As world leaders convene at COP26 to agree on a way forward to safeguard the environment and humanity’s future, recent catastrophes are already showing us what’s at stake. Eva Omer’s new documentary Burning therefore comes at the right time, as it recounts the events surrounding Australia’s devastating wildfires of the 2019-2020 season. Detailed and truly eye-opening, the film critically examines how Australia’s fossil fuel-dependent economic policies and conservative politics facilitated this and other extreme climate events. As Omer garners the frustrated perspectives of victims and climate scientists, Burning holds up a cautionary mirror to the USA and other industrialized nations who are refusing to act.

Citizen Ashe

One of the most prevalent names you’ll hear every year during the prestigious US Open tennis tournament is Arthur Ashe, whose legacy is immortalized in the stadium that bears his name. But his impact is more far-reaching than just tennis stardom, as uncovered by Sam Pollard and Rex Miller in their captivating new documentary Citizen Ashe. Indeed, this DOC NYC Centerpiece selection shrewdly traces the bold activism of today’s athletes to the precedent set by Ashe, who evolved from a reluctant activist to a staunch defender of civil rights, all while accomplishing historic sporting successes. As he defied the White status quo both on and off the court, the film inspires admiration for a model world citizen who exemplified the best of humanity before his ultimately death from AIDS in 1993.

Coming of age stories surrounding young men are a dime a dozen in the history of film, so when a female perspective its shown, it’s a welcome sight indeed. That’s what Isabel Bethencourt and Parker Hill provide with their feature debut Cusp. Set in a small town in Texas, it follows three teens on the brink of adulthood, as they navigate a world of sex, drugs and alcohol (and the abuses that come with them). Directed with effortless grace, this deceptively rich work is also a vital and frank exploration of female vulnerability in the face of men. As such, Cusp skillfully captures the juxtapositions of carefree youth with heavier concerns, by simply observing these girls as they live their lives and tell it like it is.

The First Wave (Credit: National Geographic)

While there has been a slew of notable COVID-19-themed documentaries since the beginning of the pandemic, Matthew Heineman’s The First Wave is surely one of the best. Chronicling the titular first wave of COVID-19 cases in New York, this hard-hitting documentary thrusts audiences into the thick of the crisis, as the city became ground zero. Focusing on a doctor and her patients at the Long Island Jewish Medical Center, the film delivers the raw emotions surrounding the hospital beds – and sometimes, death beds – as healthcare personnel and family members experience the fear first hand. Even more impressively, the film also embellishes these intimate scenes by examining the broader social atmosphere, as the phrase “I can’t breathe” takes on dual meaning in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. As we begin to return to the post-COVID normal, The First Wave is an unflinching reminder of the harsh reality of this public health crisis.

As cinema ponders its future with the rise of streaming, it’s useful to look back on the history of the medium and the people who contributed to its growth. One such figure is the icon Charlie Chaplin, whose life is profiled in James Spinney and Peter Middleton’s The Real Charlie Chaplin. This fascinating documentary seeks to unravel the mystery behind one of the earliest film celebrities, attempting the age old challenge of separating the art from the artist and the actor from his trademark character The Tramp. As the film deconstructs his aura, audiences are given an appreciation for the deeper meaning behind his films and the everyman quality he personified. Crafted with a fitting creativity (using lip-synced reenactments and silent era-style visuals), the film conveys the parallel evolutions of cinema and Chaplin himself throughout the 20th century. Ultimately, it proves that despite the many imitators that came along the way, he was truly one of a kind.

Option Zero

If cinema is indeed an empathy machine, then documentaries are perhaps the purest reflection of that power. Indeed, as headlines depict migrant caravans from Latin America with a relatively indifferent – and at times, scornful – statistical approach, Marcel Beltran’s Option Zero puts a sympathetic human face to the crisis. Shot guerrilla-style using mostly cell phone footage, the documentary follows a group of Cuban refugees as they make their perilous journey through Central America to find asylum in the US. Coupled with revealing interviews to supplement striking footage of myriad environmental and human obstacles, Option Zero is a powerful testament to the high price of freedom and a better life.

Stay tuned for more Awards Radar coverage of DOC NYC 2021, running from November 10-28.


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Written by Shane Slater

Shane Slater is a passionate cinephile whose love for cinema led him to creating his blog Film Actually in 2009. Since then, he has written for, and The Spool. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, he relishes the film festival experience, having covered TIFF, NYFF and Sundance among others. He is a proud member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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