The first-ever DOC10 documentary film festival is running this today through Sunday, April 1-3, at the Music Box Theatre and features a collection of 2015-16 high-profile docs from the likes of the late Albert Maysles (his final film In Transit); Werner Herzog (Lo & Behold); and Oscar-winner Barbara Kopple (Miss Sharon Jones!). The collection of 10 Chicago debuts was created by the Chicago Media Project, a Chicago non-profit group supporting “social impact media,” and curated by film journalist Anthony Kaufman, who also programs docs for the Chicago International Film Festival.
The full schedule for DOC10 can be found on the Music Box site. Here are some highlights among the titles…
MISS SHARON JONES!
I was fortunate to catch this glorious profile of singer Sharon Jones, the anchor of the Daptone Records label, whose story begins before she goes through a round of excruciating cancer treatments in 2013, which sidelined her career and her life. As told by masterful, Oscar-winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple (Harlan County USA, American Dream, Shut Up and Sing), Jones’s struggle managed to fortify her spirit even as it weakened her body, and to say the film is inspirational doesn’t even begin to cover its enriching impact.
Miss Sharon Jones! isn’t just about the singer’s cancer bout, but that sets the rest of the film in a context that it might not have otherwise. Certainly showing Jones in so much electric concert footage with her band The Dap-Kings goes a long way to establishing just how much energy she generates on stage, but it also serves as an eye-opening contrast to how depleted she feels while getting chemotherapy. Still, I love that she progressed through the treatment without a doubt in her mind that she would recover, so much so that she started booking shows and scheduling promotional appearances shortly after the treatments were supposed to be done, as if by giving herself these deadlines, the cancer would have no other choice but to yield to her will.
Outside of the cancer aspect of Jones’s story, there’s still a remarkable tale of a woman who became famous in her 40s after being discouraged by a record company executive for being “too short, too dark, too old.” But her resolve bursts through every frame of Miss Sharon Jones!, and watching her and her closely knit family of musicians and management will likely bring tears to your eyes and joy to your heart for every big and small triumph during this period. I particularly appreciated director Kopple including details about the band and their individual financial struggles during Jones’ downtime. The realities of being in a moderately successful band are brought into startling focus in ways I’ve never seen addressed in a music doc.
Throughout the film, what always rises to the surface is the music. There’s a moment in the film where Jones goes to church for the first time in quite a while, and she is positively possessed by an unseen force that suddenly has her singing and dancing in ways she hadn’t in many months prior to that. It’s enough to make you believe in a higher power if you don’t already. But her music with the Dap-Kings is paramount. I’ve been buying the group’s music since day one and have seen Jones perform many times over the years (and I am again this summer), but there is something about seeing footage of her first show after going through months of cancer treatments that is so special that it gives you hope that good things actually do happen to good people. Prepare to get out of your seat during the film, both to dance and to bow down to a woman whose story will move you deeply.
Tonight’s Opening Night screening of Miss Sharon Jones! at 7pm will be followed by a Q&A with director Barbara Kopple and producer David Cassidy.
LO & BEHOLD: REVERIES OF THE CONNECTED WORLD
When a new doc by Werner Herzog comes out, you don’t even think about it; you just go. His insights into his subjects and resulting narration and questions (which alternate between hilarious and deeply touching) always make for wildly entertaining works, such as Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Unlike his other docs, Lo & Behold does not focus on one person or place. Herzog’s ambition is to capture a bit of the uncapturable by looking at many aspects of technology and the digital world that has been created by it and will likely never stop being modified, updated and made easier to enter into.
More a filmed thesis, the movie offers 10 entries into the online world, from the sacred ground (just a small room on the UCLA campus, really) where the internet was effectively born and interviews with great thinkers like Elon Musk to sobering questions about the role of robots in the near future to one of the worst examples of cyber-bullying ever recorded. As always, Herzog is posing impossible inquiries of his subject—“Does the Internet dream of itself?”—but the answers never disappoint, and the resulting responses form a type of loose and highly engaging philosophy that tells us as much about Herzog as it does about his subject. I’m still more of a fan of his single-subject works, but Lo & Behold might be one of his most informative works
The Lo & Behold screening tomorrow/Saturday at 1pm will be followed by a panel discussion with Dr. Lucianne M. Walkowicz, astronomer at Adler Planetarium; professor Jason Salavon, Department of Visual Arts & the Computation Institute at the University of Chicago; and Dr. Kristian Hammond, professor of computer science, electrical engineering and co-director of the Intelligent Information Laboratory at Northwestern University.
Although the great work Iris was technically the late Albert Maysles’s (Grey Gardens, Gimme Shelter) final work as a solo act, In Transit marks the last film we will see to which he contributed as part of a fascinating collective piece about people on board Amtrak’s Empire Builder train route, which goes from Chicago to Seattle/Portland and offers travelers upper Midwest and Pacific Northwest landscapes that often inspire a great deal of soul searching and heavy contemplation. Done with fellow director Nelson Walker, Lynn True, David Usui, and Ben Wu, In Transit offers a series of glimpses into the lives of folks, who perhaps not surprisingly are either running away from something or going to reunite with people or a place that they ran away from years earlier. Strange, temporary friendships form, sometimes fueled by drinking, but all seem eager to open up to whichever filmmaker is behind the camera.
As someone who spent a great deal of my youth on trains (my father was an executive at Amtrak, so I got to travel free or on the cheap throughout college), it was strange to see how little has changed in the 25 years since I’ve been on a long-distance train trip. But it’s somehow comforting to know that if I did take one again today, there are people worth knowing on these journeys. There’s an overdue pregnant young woman who is running away from her baby’s father back west, going to meet with family and friends in Minneapolis, hoping her baby doesn’t arrive en route. There are young people going to meet long-distance significant others. There are families of all shapes, sizes and colors. There’s a single mother of four, who looks younger than 30, keenly aware that, in many people’s eyes, she’s a failure cliché. There are those drinking to forget and others drinking to gain courage for what waits for them at the end of the line. The film gives us a cross-section of America, and makes us realize that if we got to know those not like ourselves, we might actually find a great deal of common ground. That has been Maysles’ message for decades, and this is a wonderful tribute to his spirit.
The screening of In Transit on Sunday, April 3 at 1pm will be followed by Q&A with co-directors Lynn True and David Usui.
PRESENTING PRINCESS SHAW
In a story that might give you hope that good exists on the internet (okay, I realize that’s maybe stretching your belief system), Presenting Princess Shaw tells us two stories. The first is about Samantha Montgomery, who goes by a stage name “Princess Shaw” when she sings in New Orleans, often to empty rooms on open-mic nights at a local club. Her day job is as a health care worker in an assisted-living facility, and she seems like a genuinely caring and warm person, which is made all the more evident through her song lyrics that we hear through a series of a cappella YouTube clips that she posts hoping someone will hear her and possibly come up with arrangements for her songs.
The other character in this story is a fairly well-known music artist from Israel named Kutiman, who finds these types of clips, sends them out to his followers, and slowly but surely builds a music track around the vocal using individual video clips sent to him featuring a bass line or drums or keyboards or guitars. The resulting finished track is as much a visual experience as it is an aural one, and Kutiman (who makes no money off his endeavors) never informs the original singer about what he’s doing, even when he’s finished. Not surprisingly, they find out anyway, and the moment in this film when Princess Shaw first hears (and later sees) the fleshed-out song gave me chills. And that’s only the beginning of her journey. Deeper messages about isolation, artistry, and being famous on the internet are all there on the screen, but honestly, the story itself is enough to propel things into the stratosphere. Israeli director Ido Haar makes a strong case that the online world can be a vessel for positive connection, and I’m all for that. This film is a genuine treat, whether you care about music or not.
The screening of Presenting Princess Shaw on Sunday, April 3, at 7:45pm will be followed by Q&A with subject Samantha Montgomery/Princess Shaw.