Film

Preview: Chicago’s Documentary Film Festival DOC10 Returns with a Weekend of Must-See Non-Fiction Films

After taking a year off due to the pandemic, Chicago’s premier documentary film festival, Doc10 (June 17-20), kicks off with one of the year’s most musically joyous offerings, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s directorial debut Summer of Soul (…or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), winner of the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award. Chronicling the Harlem Cultural Festival in the summer of 1969 thanks to some recently unearthed footage, the film (set for release July 2) will screen at the ChiTown Drive-In in Pilsen (2343 S. Throop St., Chicago) on June 17 at 8:30pm.

The following night, June 18 at 8:30pm, also screening at the Pilsen Drive-In is All These Sons, the latest from filmmaker Bing Liu (Minding the Gap) and Joshua Altman, telling the story of a group of young men at risk of becoming victims or perpetrators of gun violence on the South and West sides of Chicago, and the community organizations that want to set them on a path of avoiding that fate.

The closing night film is Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, an honest and entertaining look at the distinct, passionate life of the late storyteller, explorer, and chef Anthony Bourdain, directed by Oscar-winner Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom; Won’t You Be My Neighbor?), set to be released in mid-July. The movie will screen at the festival’s primary venue, The Davis Theater (4614 N, Lincoln Ave., Chicago), at 7pm on June 20.

Tickets are $17.60 for in-theater screenings and $40-$50 per car for drive-in screenings. There is a 10% discount for students, seniors, military, and frontline workers. The event’s schedule and tickets are available at www.doc10.org. What follows are capsule reviews of all 10 of the works being screening during the Doc10 Documentary Film Festival, in alphabetical order.

Summer of Soul

Summer of Soul / Image courtesy of Doc10

Ailey

Director: Jamila Wignot
Saturday, June 19 at 7pm – The Davis Theater
Live Q+A via Zoom with Director Jamila Wignot

When I lived in Manhattan a few years ago, I happened to be a few blocks from the The Ailey Dance School, a bright and open space in Hell’s Kitchen that I started to frequent for their weekend dance/workout classes offered to the public. With no background in or much knowledge of dance, I didn’t fully understand the long and important legacy of the man who gave the school its name (or the corresponding Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater housed there). Ailey, a new and comprehensive documentary by Jamila Wignot, aims to elevate awareness around the man who changed the face of modern American dance during his decades of work creating and performing across the country. Born into the Great Depression in 1931 rural Texas, Ailey and his mother relocated to Los Angeles when he was still a boy, where he’d first encounter dance and become enamored with it. By 1958, he founded his eponymous dance theater to focus on honoring Black culture through dance; his pieces, depicted in the film through archival footage and remembered in interviews by those who performed them, are as breathtaking today as they were groundbreaking at the time. The world of professional dance isn’t exactly known for its diversity, and Ailey sought to challenge and change the norms found in the likes of ballet and American (white) contemporary choreography.

Ailey was notoriously private about his personal life, which makes this aspect of Wignot’s otherwise rich documentary particularly frustrating; it’s hard to tell if the film really covers any new ground on the man himself, as so little was ever public about him during his lifetime. A gay man at a time when coming out was not at all safe or recommended, Ailey kept his relationships under wraps; he died from AIDS complications in 1989. Little of this is deeply explored in Ailey, but the film is so robust in other areas, from evocative performance footage to thoughtful interviews and reflections on the man and his work, that it proves to be a worthy way to honor all he contributed to the craft. (Lisa Trifone)

All These Sons

Directors: Bing Liu and Joshua Altman
Friday, June 18 at 8:30pm – The ChiTown Drive-In
Live Q+A in-person with directors Bing Liu and Josh Altman

Moving from the deeply personal Minding the Gap to the unflinchingly painful cycle of violence in Chicago’s South and West sides, directors Bing Liu and Joshua Altman (who edited Gap) don’t look directly at the cycle of violence that is plaguing parts of the city with All These Sons. Instead, the filmmakers focus their attention on those attempting to end it, such as community leaders William “Billy” Moore (of Green ReEntry) and Marshall Hatch Jr. (co-founder of MAAFA Redemption Project), who bring together carefully selected young men who they deem most at risk of being either a victim or shooter in their respective neighborhoods. While the film does take a much-needed hard look at the warped definitions of masculinity that seem to be fueling a great deal of the violence, it seems far more interested in looking at the respective neighborhoods’ existing in a kind of communal PTSD, especially among those who have been shot and survived but have no support system in which to process the psychological damage done to them. The filmmakers do a remarkable job selecting the young men upon whom they focus and who represent an array of responses to their situation, their fear, and their avenues to break free of the highly dangerous cycle. All These Sons is about the pain that binds these men and the leaders who attempt to bring them together to process their emotions constructively and effectively. It’s a deeply intimate, raw, and heartfelt triumph. (Steve Prokopy)

Dear Mr. Brody

Director: Keith Maitland
Friday, June 18th at 7pm – The Davis Theater
Live Q+A in-person with producer/subject Melissa Robyn Glassman

For about a week and a half in January 1970, America lost its collective mind when the 21-year-old heir to a margarine empire announced that he would give away $25 million to anyone who asked for it and was in need. Dear Mr. Brody tells the tale of hippie-millionaire Michael Brody Jr., who meant well but caused such chaos with his kind gesture that he was hounded will tens of thousands of letters, people knocking down his office and home’s front doors, and calls that practically torched the phone lines. And while you may ask yourself why you should care about a spoiled rich guy who made wild claims about his resources and his ability to end the war in Vietnam (drugs may have contributed to his warped state of mind), director Keith Maitland (Tower) tells a parallel story set in the present in which producer Melissa Robyn Glassman decides to start opening as many of these largely unopened letters as she can and even manages to track down some of the people who wrote them (or their closest relatives). What rises to the surface of this elevated cry for attention in Brody becomes a desperate cry for help from a significant portion of the American population who are struggling but enduring because they still have hope. It might not be easy to feel bad for all that happens to Brody, but the movie unlocks a door into a moving and powerful corner of society. At times humorous, harrowing and energetic, Dear Mr. Brody is an unexpected emotional journey. (Steve Prokopy)

In the Same Breath

In the Same Breath / Image courtesy of Doc10

In The Same Breath

Director: Nanfu Wang
Saturday, June 19 at 4:30pm – The Davis Theater
Live Q&A via Zoom with director Nanfu Wang

On the heels of powerful COVID-centric documentaries like Alex Gibney’s Totally Under Control and the harrowing, on-the-ground exposé 76 Days comes In the Same Breath, a story filmmaker Nanfu Wang (One Child Nation) is uniquely capable of assembling with precision, perspective and urgency. Conceived as she traveled to the U.S. from China in January 2020, leaving her three-year-old son with her mother there only to be rushed back to the states as the coronavirus began to spread, Wang watched the early reports of a new, mysterious illness spread on Chinese social media with concern and worry. Chronicling a year in the pandemic, Wang narrates this film like she did One Child Nation; and also like that film, In the Same Breath starts as something incredibly personal for the filmmaker only to evolve and expand into a searing examination of politics, government, media and propaganda.

Produced entirely remotely, Wang employed a dozen freelance videographers in Wuhan, giving them marching orders from the U.S. to film everything they could, wherever they could gain access. The result is an unfiltered and unflinching glimpse into how quickly the coronavirus overwhelmed the healthcare system there and how swiftly China’s communist government mobilized to control the narrative around the pandemic. In the Same Breath is a devastating reminder—particularly in a late sequence that captures what could have been —not only of what we’ve lost over the course of the year, but how preventable it all really was in the end. A lot of what’s to come in documentaries in 2021 will be looking back on what we lost in 2020; In the Same Breath starts the conversation with sweeping scope, exceptional perspective and an inescapable reckoning with the truth. (Lisa Trifone)

My Name is Pauli Murray

Directors: Julie Cohen and Betsy West
Saturday, June 19 at 9pm – The Davis Theater
Live Q&A via Zoom with editor Cinque Northern

Pauli Murray was a poet, a lawyer, an ordained minister. She was an activist, a community member, an aunt. She was a non-binary person in a time when that descriptor hadn’t even been invented yet (I’m using she/her pronouns because those are what Pauli used publicly and what those who knew her used). Pauli Murray was thinking critically about issues like civil rights, gender equality, income inequality and more long before they became part of a national conversation. “I lived long enough to see my lost causes be found,” Murray says at one point in this worthy tribute to a life well spent. My Name is Pauli Murray is a beautifully crafted film that brings Pauli Murray, a name not well known, into the spotlight. And directors Cohen and West manage to do so in a way that forms a thoughtfully whole picture of Murray, someone who was as committed to her work as she was conflicted about her own identity. With grace and self-awareness, the filmmakers explore Murray’s ongoing exploration of her sexuality and her gender identity all in an effort to better understand who she really was.

Murray was someone who worked tirelessly to improve the lives of her fellow human beings, someone who was constantly fighting for what was right, standing up for those without a voice. She spent her life learning and growing and always aiming to give something back to the world around her; when she felt she’d exhausted her work as a lawyer, she rather late in life decided to become a minister, a puzzling choice to those who knew her at the time—how could a woman so driven by fact-based arguments and logic embrace something as intangible as faith? But in the grand scheme of her life, as presented in My Name is Pauli Murray, such a shift makes perfect sense, an understandable next step for a person so intent on finding the answers, wherever they may be. Murray’s name is nowhere near as familiar as so many others who worked equally as hard during the same timeframe. It is our great luck, then, that her life and legacy have now been recounted, preserved and, most importantly, honored in this moving, meaningful new film. (Lisa Trifone)

Pray Away

Director: Kristine Stolakis
Sunday, June 20 at 1pm – The Davis Theatre
Live Q+A in-person with Director Kristine Stolakis and Producers Julie Rodgers, Jessica Devaney, and Anya Rous

Long before June was a (mostly) universally embraced celebration of all things LGBTQ Pride, those coming to understand themselves as not wholly “straight” in their sexuality were confronted with a myriad of hurdles to ever living a life of truth or authenticity. Included in those hurdles is a certain, usually religious and conservative, belief that being gay is a “lifestyle” and those living that life can be converted out of it like someone giving up smoking or learning not to binge eat anymore. In her feature documentary debut, Kristine Stolakis’s Pray Away explore this “pray the gay away” coalition from within, interviewing some of the movement’s founders and most celebrated “success” cases. (Forgive the amount of quotes here, but it’s important to be clear about the assumptions and presumptions made throughout the film and even still today.) Artistically speaking, Pray Away may not be terribly groundbreaking; Stolakis both interviews her subjects and follows them living their lives today, while recounting this regrettable moment in our history through archival footage and media coverage from the time. Instead, it’s the people we meet along the way that make the film something quite profound, as those who at one time in their lives worked tirelessly to convince the world (and themselves) of their heterosexuality seem to have finally found the peace they so longed for all those years.

The great Maya Angelou is quoted often saying, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” For many of those featured in Pray Away, this seems to sum up their experiences all those years; at the time, it was what they felt they needed to do in order to survive. As the conversation around sexuality, same-sex marriage, and inclusivity of all identities, genders and presentations evolves at break-neck speed twenty years into a new millennium, those previously stuck in a world where traumatic gay conversion therapy was the norm are finally finding their way to personal healing and acceptance. Stolakis’s film is a meaningful, enlightening record of this lived experience and an essential chronicle of this chapter in the LGBTQ community’s ongoing journey toward equality. (Lisa Trifone)

Roadrunner

Roadrunner / Image courtesy of Focus Features

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain

Director: Morgan Neville
Sunday, June 20th at 7pm – The Davis Theater
Live Q+A via Zoom with Director Morgan Neville

One of the most anticipated documentaries of the year, Roadrunner examines the complicated and emotionally heightened life and career of Anthony Bourdain, from his early years as a mildly successful chef to a celebrated author (Kitchen Confidential) and international television star (Parts Unknown, No Reservations, Cook’s Tour). Unlike many other old-school celebrity chefs, Bourdain was never known for being particularly gifted in the kitchen; Bourdain’s true calling was as a master storyteller and open-minded explorer, and Oscar-winning director Morgan Neville (Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, 20 Feet From Stardom) focuses on those aspects of his work.

Through testimonials with some of his closest friends and those who worked behind the scenes with him on his various series, a complete picture comes into focus over the course of the film. It all reveals some of the more troubled and troubling aspects of his personality, especially his tendency to trade one addiction for another. Drugs was a part of his early life, but after quitting cold turkey, he picked up other habits like writing, creating successful television shows, martial arts, championing the #MeToo movement, and throwing himself into being in love, which in some ways, may have contributed to his death by suicide in 2018. Never having watched any of his television work religiously, I was completely unaware of Bourdain’s trajectory or backstory, and Roadrunner does a remarkable job providing the essentials for newcomers while also catering to long-time admirers with rare archival footage, behind-the-scenes looks at his shows, and Bourdain essentially providing the narration for his own story. Neville also does a remarkable job showing the many layers his subject possessed, making it clear that a person can be both deeply empathetic, funny and humanistic, while also being searingly flawed and sometimes cruel—sometimes in the blink of an eye. Bourdain’s personal demons aren’t dwelled upon, but they never quite leave the picture being drawn either, nor should they. Roadrunner is a wonderfully engaging and revealing biography that may alter the way you perceive Bourdain, for better and worse. (Steve Prokopy)

Sabaya

Director: Hogir Hirori
Sunday, June 20th at 4pm – The Davis Theater
Live Q+A via Zoom with Director Hogir Hirori

Winner of a Directing Award in this year’s Sundance World Documentary Competition, director Hogir Hirori’s Sabaya drops you in the middle of the action almost immediately as it follows a small group of human rights activists in northeastern Syria. Led by the fearless Mahmud and invaluably assisted by “infiltrators” (women posing in hijabs as Muslim women living in the camps), their 24/7 mission is to rescue young women and girls being held inside massive Kurdish prison camps by ISIS as sex slaves (known as “sabaya”). The resulting film plays like an action movie with car chases, shootings and an endless supply of tension, both during the night missions and later, when the women are housed at Mahmud’s home until the women’s families can be notified that they are free, some after being held captive for years. Mahmud’s extremely patient wife hates that he puts his life at risk on a daily basis but dutifully cares for and counsels these young, traumatized women. It takes some time to realize that the filmmakers are in as much danger as their subjects, which only adds to the overflowing drama of Sabaya. With no narration and very little in-depth explanation of what’s going on, the immersive quality of this exceptional film makes it an intense and harrowing. (Steve Prokopy)

Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson
Opening Night Film: Thursday, June 17th at 8:30pm – The ChiTown Drive-In
Q+A with Director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson

Marking the feature directing debut from The Roots drummer and “Tonight Show” music director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Summer of Soul pieces together footage that has been sitting in a basement for more than 50 years from the Harlem Cultural Festival, circa 1969, an event meant to unite a community only a year after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and pay tribute to the many cultures and influences that made Harlem so special at the time. But Thompson does more than edit together a concert film featuring such dignitaries as Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, the Staples Singers, B.B. King, Gladys Knight, David Ruffin, Mahalia Jackson, Sly and the Family Stone, and even the 5th Dimension; he also places the various music styles (R&B, gospel, Afro-Cuban jazz, blues, and funk) in the context of the times, and makes the point that the event was a huge factor in radicalizing Harlem and the musicians that played the summer concert series. Summer of Soul is just one highlight after another, accented with new interviews with both surviving performers and several of the more than 300,000 people who attended the concerts over that transformative summer, which was meant to both entertain and provide a history of Black music, culture, fashion and messaging. (Steve Prokopy)

Users

Director: Natalia Almada
Saturday, June 19th at 2pm – The Davis Theater
Live Q+A via Zoom with Director Natalia Almada

Winner of the Best Directing Award at Sundance, Users, the latest work from Natalia Almada (The General) is less a narrative piece and more of a personal visual poem that contemplates the place of technology in our lives. More specifically, it explores the impact technology may have in the connection we have to future generations and how those younger people will react to their flawed elders when tech often provides them with the perfect version of something. While the photography and meditative nature (due in no small part to original music by the Kronos Quartet) of Users is skillfully composed and utilized, I found a great deal of the filmmaker’s observations and fears about the modern world to be fairly familiar and not especially insightful. There are certain examples given that are genuinely concerning, but there are also random shots of nature that don’t really pull the work together the way more hypnotic films in a similar vein have in the past. There’s no arguing that the images are stunning; what’s missing is the connective tissue to bring these fearful ideas to life in a way that is relatable and captivating. (Steve Prokopy)

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