Chicago’s only all-documentary film festival, Doc10, has truly established itself over the last seven years as one of the top-tier non-fiction festivals in the nation. Taking place this year primarily at the Davis Theater, May 19-22 (hopefully it will eventually grow to become a weeklong festival sometime soon), Doc 10 has again programmed ten of the best documentaries from events like Sundance, Tribeca, Hot Docs, DOC NYC, and other established festivals. Created by CMP (Chicago Media Project), the event is designed to be the first—sometimes only—opportunity for Chicago-area residents to see these vital and moving films in theaters. This year’s program also includes a two-hour documentary shorts program on Sunday, May 22, at 1pm at the Gene Siskel Film Center, giving audiences the chance to discover the next breakout doc filmmakers from around the world. Third Coast Review had the opportunity to preview nearly all of the ten feature docs at this year’s Doc10.
For good reason, much attention is being paid in the film industry lately to who tells which stories, who is best suited to bring to light the narratives of certain communities. Filmmaker Margaret Brown has said that making Descendant, the story of Africatown, Alabama, and the community’s search for a sunken ship off its shores that had been carrying the last known transport of enslaved people to America, is “my life’s work until now.” That dedication and sincerity shines through in a film that is both deeply personal and richly historic, documenting an incredible discovery and the community committed to unearthing the history contained within.
Located a few miles north of Mobile on the shores of Mobile Bay, waters that feed into the Gulf of Mexico, Africatown is an enclave with a rich history, founded by about 30 enslaved people who arrived in the area in 1860 on an illegal trade ship, the Clotilda. That irrefutable tie to this disgraceful aspect of America’s history permeates every aspect of life in Africatown today, as descendants of these founders carry in their bones the trauma of this origin story while persisting in their efforts to search the murky bay waters for the sunken Clotilda, the vessel burned and sunk right after its arrival in order to hide its crimes. Brown observes the community’s struggles and triumphs, as well as the political and personal clashes they encounter as contemporary descendants of the ship’s crew and company also remain in the area and persist in their efforts to keep the truth from coming to light. It’s all terribly compelling on the surface, made all the more essential as the film intertwines these stories of today with their deep connections to the past.
In a stroke of filmmaking wonder, Descendant cameras are on hand for the news in early 2019 that the ship has finally been discovered, bringing to the surface with it questions about guilt, blame, reparations, forgiveness and more. In a national moment where Americans seem to be struggling more than ever with our complicated and shameful past, where there is an opportunity to relearn our own history with the benefit of more voices, more perspectives to contextualize it, a film like Descendant makes a riveting case for leaning further into the difficult conversations rather than, to all our peril, avoiding them. (Lisa Trifone)
Screens Friday, May 20, at 7pm at the Davis Theater, followed by a Q&A with director Margaret Brown & co-writer Dr. Kern Jackson.
Fire of Love
There is something about the reddish-orange hue of flowing lava, as it swallows up everything in its path, that just warms my heart. It’s as mesmerizing as it is terrifying, and I could stare at it for hours. So too could the internationally known subjects of director Sara Dosa’s documentary Fire of Love, Katia and Maurice Krafft, who met and fell in love decades ago thanks to their mutual admiration for the power and mysteries surrounding volcanoes. Together, they became the foremost vulcanologists thanks to their documentation (via photos and moving pictures), their fearlessness (as they walked about as close as any humans have ever gotten to the active portions of volcanoes), and their tireless research. Their ultimate goal was to save human life by being able to predict eruptions, but as they make clear, volcanoes are like lighting a fuse to a bomb without knowing exactly how long the fuse is.
Fire of Love not only documents the Kraffts’ work but shows how they became celebrities in their field, primarily because they were a handsome couple who were as playful as they were informative during their interviews and lectures. It didn’t hurt that their footage was unrivaled at the time, and even seeing some of it today, it takes your breath away with how it captures the scope and scale of volcanic destruction and power. The unsung hero of the movie is the dramatic, almost whispery, narration provided by filmmaker Miranda July, whose approach to her readings is both sultry and foreboding, as if she’s always reminding us that this couple died on the job in 1991 while staked out waiting for Japan’s Mount Unzon to erupt (which it did).
Taking some of its storytelling cues from French New Wave cinema (the couple were French), director Dosa never forgets that this couple was unique because they were truly in love, and the fact that they shared a common interest in this dangerous work only made them closer. They describe walking toward the mouth of a volcano at one point, she walking behind him because he was much larger than she was, knowing that if he didn’t break through the ground where he walked, she wouldn’t either. He tended to wander around a site, likely looking for the best camera angles, while she frequently stopped to notice details about a location, and somehow these two distinct approaches to science served them as a pair.
That being said, Fire of Love is so visually stunning that you could turn the volume off completely and enjoy the film almost as much. But why would you want to miss this touching love story? In a way, you can see the way these exotic settings and mysterious explorations seduced this couple into a lifestyle that would ultimately kill them, but I believe even they would say that, considering their legacy, it was worth it. This is one of the most memorable documentaries I’ve see in quite some time. (Steve Prokopy)
Screens Saturday, May 21, at 9pm at the Davis Theater, followed by a Q&A with director Sara Dosa.
A House Made of Splinters
Filmed in an orphanage in the Eastern Ukrainian city of Lysychansk, A House Made of Splinters profiles the children and the saintly social workers who attempt to find a middle ground where these kids can stabilize while their parent(s) work out whatever issues they need to (many having to do with substance abuse) in order to bring their families back together. If after a certain period the parents don’t come to collect their children, they are matched with a family or sent to a long-term orphanage. At every turn of this stunning and emotionally draining work, there are equal parts hope and despair, with director Simon Lereng Wilmont (The Distant Barking of Dogs) acting as a fly on the wall of these children trying to make sense of their place in the world and why their parents can’t pull things together enough for these much-desired reunions. Meanwhile, the social workers must make these kids who feel desperately unloved feel loved by someone in the world or risk losing them to depression forever.
Most of the children are timid and quiet, while others have already begun to act out in both small and dangerous ways. One boy in particular is already a serial thief, while a little girl shows violent tendencies, even toward someone she says is her best friend. Shot before the current war in Ukraine, A House Made of Splinters is a tough watch, and I couldn’t help wonder what state this place is in after so much recent destruction. Winner of a Best Directing Award at Sundance, the film is a breathtaking portrait of patience, compassion and intimacy, as we watch these children’s personalities and souls be shifted/warped as a result of this place. It’s entirely possible that what the movie shows you will push you beyond tears and into a much deeper and more devastating place. It does offer hope but in small, less conventional doses. When one of the children experiences a victory, it’s a powerful moment and hopefully gives you faith that the world is not a place where good things are impossible. (Steve Prokopy)
Screens Sunday, May 22, at 4pm at the Davis Theater, followed by a Q&A with director Simon Lereng Wilmont.
When the 2022 Sundance Film Festival line-up was originally announced, only nine films were included in the US Documentary competition. About halfway through the festival, it was revealed that the tenth film, and this year’s secret screening, would be Navalny, a new documentary by Daniel Roher (Once Were Brothers). With intimate access to Russian activist and one-time presidential candidate Alexei Navalny, the film recounts one of the highest-profile assassination attempts in recent memory, one conceived of and executed by a government against its own citizen.
In August 2020, news broke around the world that a plane heading to Moscow from Siberia had to be rerouted for an emergency landing; a passenger was in distress and in need of urgent medical help. That passenger was Navalny, and soon it became clear that he’d been poisoned with an illegal chemical agent that typically results in a quick demise; as the documentary explores at one point, Navalny was a very lucky man that day. What unfolded in the days, weeks and now years since Navalny’s poisoning is the main thrust of the film, alongside a primer on his role in Russian politics, the way the Putin regime is threatened by him and what the future holds for a man whose only crime is dedication to his country and its well being.
Roher’s film is at turns enlightening and emotional, as when he interviews Navalny directly and candidly about his life, work and legacy or follows him and his wife, Yulia, and their two teenage children in their daily lives. It is also alarming and downright hilarious, as in scenes where the depths of the Russian government’s involvement in the scheme are revealed (and the fumbling mishaps of the agents tasked with pulling it off). In all, it’s a damning portrait of an oppressive regime intent on keeping power centralized in the Kremlin told through the eyes of a man who is committed to breaking it up. Today, Navalny is in prison in Russia on trumped-up charges and as recently as this year, he and his associates were named to the country’s “terrorists and extremists” watchlist. His fight is far from over, but as Navalny the film makes clear, he is a man not only built for it, but dedicated to it, too. (Lisa Trifone)
Screens on Sunday, May 22/ at 1pm at the Davis Theater, followed by Q&A with filmmakers and guests.
Built entirely from archival footage taken from both commercial broadcast television and material shot by the U.S military, the harrowing documentary Riotsville, USA paints a portrait of the United States in the wake of the late-1960s civilian uprisings in places like Chicago and Detroit. Working as a professional archivist for artists such as Jim Jarmusch, director Sierra Pettengill (Town Hall) seems especially suited to constructing such an infuriating work in which we see the means by which law enforcement and the military ran drills in an Army-built fake town called Riotsville that illustrated how protesters should be dealt with during demonstrations.
With soldiers portraying hippies and other activists, and spectators filling up nearby bleachers to observe, manufactured civil disobedience was acted out and met with an over-zealous response. The demonstrations led to a situation that continues today: local police being federally funded and supplied with military-style weapons, vehicles and tactical gear. It’s all the result of the Johnson administration wanting big cities to be peaceful and his Kerner Commission’s report, which was meant to look into the root causes of such riots. The report accurately blamed institutionalized racism, poverty, and class separation, but all that Johnson took from the report was that local police departments needed to be shored up and fortified.
So many parallels between this period in American history and today can be drawn that filmmaker Pettengill and editor Nels Bangerter don’t have to explicitly say it. We’re literally watching the birth of a new style of policing and the institutional power structure that leads right up to today’s calls for defunding the police. Although it takes a neutral approach to its storytelling and fact-gathering, Riotsville, USA feels angry, as it wonders why we are still dealing with these issues in these supposedly enlightened times. (Steve Prokopy)
Screens Saturday, May 21, at 4pm at the Davis Theater, followed by a Q&A with director Sierra Pettengill.
From director Alex Pritz and sporting a production credit from acclaimed filmmaker Darren Aronofsky, The Territory gives us a gritty and unflinching first-hand account of Brazil’s Indigenous Uru-eu-wau-wau people, who are fighting a daily battle against the encroaching deforestation of their small corner of the Amazon by illegal settlers and non-native farmers. Winner of Audience and Craft Awards at Sundance, the film is made all the more memorable thanks to its luscious cinematography and penetrating sound design, which puts viewers fully in the landscape and amongst these fearless defenders of their land and ways of life. Parts of the film are even shot by the Uru-eu-wau-wau, who were given cameras by the filmmakers in an attempt to catch offenders first-hand and show how these violators are dealt with.
With no substantial help from the government and a prevailing, anti-indigenous spirit rising in the bigger population hubs, this tight-knit community is essentially on their own as they fight to defend their land and expose the reality of their situation to the world outside of Brazil. Shot over three years, The Territory is essential investigative journalism and a mesmerizing revelation about an endangered populace. (Steve Prokopy)
Screens Saturday, May 21, at 6:30pm at the Davis Theater, followed by a Q&A with producers Will Miller & Gabriel Uchida.
We Feed People
Having better luck in recent years with his documentary work than his feature films, director Ron Howard (The Beatles: Eight Days a Week; Pavarotti; Rebuilding Paradise) sets his sights on a spirited profile of world-famous Spanish chef José Andrés and his food relief organization World Central Kitchen. Filling in the gaps (and in some cases leading the charge) in disaster-stricken points on the globe (Haiti, Puerto Rico) or other locations where starvation is becoming a prevalent issue (New York City, the Navajo Nation), World Central Kitchen is not just about bringing food to places where there is none; they make a point to empower and give the means to local cooks and others to continue their work even after they leave. The work has made Andrés a legend in some communities and a target in others, with some claiming that much of the money donated is going into his pockets, a ridiculous claim when you see his level of commitment, both with his time and his resources.
We Feed People isn’t just about Andrés, as it portrays a great many men and women in the organization that get things done at a rapid pace, while also building sustainable solutions to longer-term problems related to food availability; he even makes certain that the food prepared to feed the hungry is culturally specific to the location. The work and the passion with which it is all carried out is inspiring and uplifting, but just as one emergency is dealt with two or three more crop up, especially as the organization expands its outreach to issues of food insecurity and climate crises. Howard doesn’t shy away from the controversies surrounding Andrés, but I’m not entirely sure he addresses them completely. Instead, we get extended looks at the culinary master in rare moments with his family, and while they all acknowledge that he’s rarely home for long stretches, they know that the work he does is vital and important. We Feed People could have been 20-30 minutes longer, and I would have still been on board, especially with a few more details about how World Central Kitchen is organized and run. But Andrés is such a larger-than-life personality, his enthusiasm fills in a lot of the emotional gaps. (Steve Prokopy)
Screens Sunday, May 22, at 7pm at the Davis Theater, followed by a Q&A with Sam Bloch, Director of Field Ops at Work Central Kitchen.
Additional Doc10 Screenings
The Janes — screens on Thursday, May 19, at 7:15pm at the Davis Theater with filmmakers and special guests.
Nothing Lasts Forever — screens on Friday, May 20, at 9pm at the Davis Theater, followed by a Q&A with director Jason Kohn.
Let the Little Light Shine — screens Saturday, May 21, at 1pm at Gene Siskel Film Center, followed by Q+A moderated by Eve L. Ewing with Kevin Shaw, (director), Rachel Dickson (producer), Elisabeth Greer, Isaac Castelaz, and Taylor Wallace.