There is probably no other art experience that I enjoy more than watching a marathon of finely made documentaries at a film festival. It’s the best way for me to feel connected to a multitude of places around the world and a diversity of variations on the human condition all at once. This year’s 5th Annual GlobeDocs Film Festival, hosted by our local newspaper, the Boston Globe, offered filmgoers a chance to engage with an immersive and rigorous form of visual journalism. The stories collected and conveyed at venues around the city were thematically wide-ranging and meticulously arranged, curated by the festival’s Director of Programming, Lisa Viola, who’s one of the best film festival programmers in the country. Her roster of selections for this year’s festival was sequenced with the kind of care and planning that editors might give to a literary anthology.
One of the most memorable of the eight documentaries that I saw in the festival, and the one most primed for mainstream attention from the media and awards ceremonies, was Cunningham, which I saw and loved in 3D no less. Directed by Alla Kovgan, this intricate exploration of the career of the late dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham is consummate and riveting, with ambitious dance sequences that rival any previously captured on film. The movie often reminded me of Pina, Wim Wenders’ superb 2011 documentary about Pina Bausch. Cunningham relies on some of the same aesthetic techniques, while raising them up to another level. The use of 3D as a way to heighten the viewer’s experience and highlight tiny details is reminiscent of the 3D approach in Werner Herzog’s 2010 documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, though again, Cunningham actualizes that experience in a more overt, less subdued fashion.
At one point in the film, Cunningham mentions in voiceover that he doesn’t think of discipline as rules but as something private; it’s more like meditation, he says, and a form of dedication. Cunningham's lifelong artistic and romantic partnership with composer John Cage is foregrounded throughout the film, as is their friendship and association with the painter Robert Rauschenberg. All three artists took an avant-garde approach to their individual art forms, pushing toward absurdism and discomfort in both serious and playful ways. As John Cage argued, an encounter with art should be an arduous one that actually ends up making you happy to return to the ordinary world.
Yet the accessible present-day performances of Cunningham’s dance pieces in the film — spanning in the documentary from 1942 to 1972, and performed by the last troupe of dancers to be trained by him — can easily be admired even by audiences that may not fully appreciate dance as an art form. This is partly because a number of the dance pieces were filmed in real-world locations, from a seemingly endless subway tunnel, to vertiginous city rooftops in New York and Berlin, to a forest with trees bordering the edges of the stage. The most effective of these stunning dance sequences is also perhaps the darkest one, Winterbranch from 1964, a commentary on global violence that evokes images of war and mass destruction through the use of helicopter sounds, spotlights, and black militaristic uniforms.
At the opposite end of the tonal spectrum, Merce Cunningham’s Summerspace from 1958, which is set against a pointillist, sloping backdrop of pastels originally painted by Rauschenberg that seems to totally surround the dancers, gently coaxes the spectators right into the world on stage. The dancers wear leotards that match the painted background, so as Cunningham commented about the piece, they’re forced to keep moving if they want to avoid blending in. I came away from the documentary understanding dance as a conscious art form in a different way, equally a manipulation of space as of bodies, and as spatially textural as it is kinetic.
It felt ironic to watch the fluid movements of Cunningham immediately after seeing a sneak preview of Matthew Orr’s Augmented, a half-narrative, half-scientific and medical documentary about robotic prosthetics researcher Hugh Herr, whose lower limbs were amputated at age 17 due to frostbite, after an ice-climbing expedition went awry in New Hampshire’s White Mountains in January of 1982. Herr and a friend, Jeff Batzer, got lost for three days in dense wilderness on the wrong side of a mountain while trying to find their way back to their cabin. Hiking through snow in sub-zero weather conditions caused both young men to lose their legs, during an era in which prosthetic limbs and rehabilitation techniques were still in more primitive stages of development.
Herr is now a biophysicist, engineer, and professor at MIT, a field that he entered specifically to develop more functional and innovative prosthetics for amputees. He and his doctoral students at MIT — in conjunction with Dr. Matthew Carty, a surgeon at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital — pioneered and revolutionized the robotics behind “neural linking” with prosthetics. The resulting surgical procedure, which sixteen patients have undergone to date, is named the Ewing Surgery, after Jim Ewing, the first patient to receive it. This surgery restores patients’ use of their limbs by re-linking neural pathways via the nervous system and muscle tissue. The surgery does usually require further elective amputation, controversially, and a bioethicist interviewed in the documentary questioned whether the surgery might also be misused in the future by those seeking to reach beyond normal human physical capabilities.
During the post-film Q&A, alongside Dr. Carty, Jim Ewing, and the film’s director, Hugh Herr said that he and his colleagues do consider the ethical implications of their work all the time, but that the potential alleviation of physical, mental, and emotional pain suffered by amputees makes it worth the risk. Herr also mentions in the film that his initial decision to pursue a career in the field of biophysics following his double amputation was due in part to discovering that another young man, Albert Dow, had died in the search to rescue him and Jeff Batzer on the mountainside when a cornice of snow collapsed, triggering an avalanche in which Dow and another friend were buried; the friend survived, but Dow did not. Hugh Herr’s unprecedented work in his field also serves to honor and preserve Albert Dow’s memory.
I was excited to see Tricia Regan’s Autism: The Sequel because I loved her previous documentary Autism: The Musical when it was released back in 2007. Twelve years later, the sequel gives informative updates about each of the five young people on the autism spectrum who were introduced in the first film — Neal, Adam, Lexi, Henry, and Wyatt — now that they’re all college-aged and becoming somewhat more independent of their families. Though Neal is still non-verbal, his segment is quite moving because he now “speaks” and shares his thoughts, with the help of his iPad and iPhone. During his interview, he types that he wants to date and feel love for someone, and since he now works for a local farm, he’s glad that the world doesn’t see him as a charity case. Lexi has moved into a group home and still loves to sing, and Henry (who’s the son of musician Stephen Stills) is pursuing a college degree in video and film production.
Adam and Wyatt — now college students at Berklee College of Music in Boston and Portland State University in Oregon, respectively — were both on the post-screening Q&A panel, along with a special cello performance by Adam afterwards. It was interesting to see how their personalities were both similar to and different from when viewers first met them in the previous film. They’re more mature now with the time that’s passed, of course, and the world has also changed since then, in terms of supporting young people with autism. Most “neurotypical” people are now more willing to accommodate and understand the special needs of those on the autism spectrum, and to help integrate them into their schools, social relationships, and workplaces with the necessary assistance. All five of the film’s subjects seem relatively content and well-adjusted to their individual pursuits. Hopefully, in the vein of Michael Apted’s beloved Seven Up! documentary series, more filmed updates on the progress of these inspiring young people will be forthcoming as they continue into their adult years.
Roger Ross Williams’ The Apollo traces the 85-year history of the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem, home of the popular “amateur night” TV show Showtime at the Apollo, which helped launch the careers of many R&B entertainers over the past few decades. The documentary covers a formidable and spirited cross-section of African-American history, New York City history, and entertainment industry history, with vintage footage of performances by Billie Holiday, James Brown, Diana Ross & The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, and Gladys Knight & The Pips. The connective thread is a multimedia performance on stage at the Apollo of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me, and though it importantly situates the documentary’s subject in a specific racial context, the film leans a bit too heavily on that material, rather than examining more deeply all the rest there is to say about the Apollo Theater itself.
As a longtime fan of R&B/soul music, I’d have loved to hear more about artists who got their start on the Apollo’s stage back in the 1980s and more recent decades, such as New Kids on the Block, Lyfe Jennings, and similar crossover acts, all of whom helped to usher soul and hip-hop into the realm of mainstream American pop music in a fairly revolutionary way. Still, earlier performers from Smokey Robinson to Leslie Uggams provide lots of fascinating memories of their days at the Apollo, and many speak of it like it was a school, where they learned by watching from the wings while such legends as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Aretha Franklin performed. The business side of how the theater was run back then also proves to be illuminating, including plenty of inside details about the cash flow during the years when the theater was managed by Frank Schiffman, and later by his son Robert, who’s interviewed extensively throughout the documentary.
Although The Pointer Sisters never performed on stage at the Apollo, Ruth Pointer was a fabulous artist to feature in the post-film Q&A, in conversation with Boston Globe culture writer Renée Graham. Ruth Pointer commented that even though she and her sisters didn’t play at the Apollo, she said that it was always their first stop as spectators whenever they were in the city, and that they loved the history and communal energy of the venue. Overall, The Apollo is a rousing documentary about a true New York City institution, a place that also happens to provide a prime gathering spot beneath its marquee whenever a celebrated figure from the world of R&B/soul music passes on.
Bloodroot, directed by Douglas Tirola, shares its name with a women’s collective vegetarian restaurant and bookstore in Bridgeport, Connecticut, which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. Bloodroot is owned and operated by Noel Furie and Selma Miriam, business partners and life partners; for four decades, they’ve aimed to bring vegetarian cuisine from around the world to diners who come from far and wide to enjoy meals together at their establishment. In the Q&A following the movie, Selma mentioned that their main focus in maintaining the business has always been people, and much of the documentary recounts the diverse individuals they’ve met over the years, as well as the many women who’ve worked in their kitchen.
Selma and Noel first met at a local chapter's N.O.W. (National Organization for Women) meeting in the early years of the feminist movement, during the era of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, though the writers whom they admire most are lesbian-feminist authors like Adrienne Rich, Mary Daly, and Audre Lorde, all of whom were connected to Bloodroot over time. Though Selma and Noel had both been married to men when they met, they discuss throughout the film their own changing identifications within the context of a changing culture, during the years when the LGBT liberation movement had only just barely begun. Because I’ve been vegetarian myself for the past 27 years now, I was glad when I saw all the images of delicious-looking food in the documentary that I’d eaten lunch just before the film started!
Anyone who’s ever visited MASS MoCA, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in the former industrial mill-town of North Adams, knows very well what a unique and special place it is. Museum Town, directed by Jennifer Trainer, once a longtime employee of MASS MoCA, tells the story of how this sprawling museum, the largest of its kind in the world, came into existence, and how its mission has been shaped and shepherded since its inception. Expertly converted and restored from a complex of abandoned mills and factory buildings, the museum has hosted impressive exhibitions from major artists like Sol Lewitt and Anselm Kiefer, alongside multimedia exhibits and concerts by musicians such as Laurie Anderson, David Byrne of Talking Heads, the band Wilco, and most recently, Annie Lennox of Eurythmics. Various museum personnel — including an elderly woman who volunteered at the museum for years after having worked on its site at the former Sprague Electric Company since the 1940s — take the viewer on an in-depth guided tour through its rollercoaster history of political skirmishes, local skepticism, socioeconomic duress, and struggles for government funding that finally paid off.
African-American artist Nick Cave’s exhibition Until structures the documentary as we watch it develop from a cavernous empty space into a vast warehouse spangled with carefully arranged kitsch and glittery iconography. Cave addresses how his work bridges the gap between low and high art forms, found objects like controversial African-American lawn jockeys and assorted ceramic knick-knacks that take their place comfortably beside one another in a major museum space. Trainer’s film argues that Cave’s exhibition is a kind of metaphor for what MASS MoCA itself has tried to do over the years, bringing challenging contemporary artworks to an American audience in the rural foothills of the Berkshires.
By far the most difficult film to watch in this year’s GlobeDocs festival was Feras Fayyad’s harrowing National Geographic documentary The Cave. The entire film takes place in a secret underground hospital — really a maze-like bunker of tunnels and primitive operating rooms — in Ghouta, a war-torn area outside the city of Damascus in southwestern Syria. Warplanes routinely strafe the area with missiles and chemical attacks, seriously wounding and killing hundreds of civilians who are unable to escape or find safe shelter. These devastating attacks are perpetrated by the regime of Bashar al-Assad, who has been supported by Russia in continuing the destruction. The documentary’s unflinching heroine is the courageous Dr. Amani, who bravely and tirelessly manages the underground hospital despite her young age; her 30th birthday takes place during the timeframe of the film.
Dr. Amani and her fearlessly diligent team try to save as many civilians wounded by the air-strikes as possible, both children and adults, though of course saving them all is impossible, and the number of casualties escalates throughout the film as the attacks grow more brutal, encroaching at several points on the makeshift structure of the hospital itself. What we witness on screen is a total humanitarian crisis, and we should not have to live in a world where this happens to other human beings. The film, a sure Oscar contender and frontrunner, puts you right there, feeling as shell-shocked as the young doctors who work in the hospital. By the film’s end, even Dr. Amani decides that she can no longer continue her work there, slowly making her way through the rubble, on a difficult journey back to her parents’ home and, hopefully, a new and different life.
The last documentary that I watched in the festival was also one of the most moving: Tom Shepard’s Unsettled, which follows the tenuous lives of four young refugees in the LGBT community, who are seeking asylum here in the United States. The subjects include Junior, a gender non-conforming gay man from the Congo; Subhi, a gay refugee from Aleppo in Syria; and Cheyenne and Mari, a lesbian couple from Angola. All four of these young people faced violence and persecution in their home countries, though trying to settle in a city as expensive as San Francisco proves to be more challenging than they’d anticipated.
Junior, who struggles with alcoholism and depression due to his feelings of social isolation as a refugee, has trouble finding work and a stable place to live, eventually going through a period of homelessness before regaining his footing and starting to attend a community college. Cheyenne and Mari successfully apply for asylum through the long and painstaking immigration process via the court system, later resettling in Las Vegas, where the cost of living is more affordable, allowing them to make ends meet financially. Subhi finds a slightly easier path due a spoken testimony that he gives at the United Nations, resulting in a sudden wave of media interest in his status as a gay Syrian refugee, although he, too, struggles to feel fully at home as a gay Syrian refugee in the United States. Later in the film, he’s able to help his sister immigrate from Syria to Vancouver, through a refugee program in Canada as well.
Despite the gradual successes that all four of the film’s subjects eventually attain as refugees, the statistics highlighted in the documentary are very disheartening, to say the least. Only 30% of refugees are granted political asylum in the United States, a figure that the current government administration is attempting to reduce to zero. Internationally, seventy countries still punish LGBT people by law, and four of those countries still punish LGBT people by death. Early in the film, Mari says they flew away like birds, an image that the film also ends with beautifully, as a flock of birds ascends in flight through a technicolor sunset. I wonder how any government official, if they’d take the time to watch such a documentary, could fail to see the human importance of granting asylum to individuals who were refused a safe home and a life free from persecution back in their own countries?