top of page

DOC NYC 2023 Raises the Bar With a Stellar Slate of Films

By Christine Connallon

Although the heart of a documentary is rooted in facts, a good documentary expands a viewer’s horizons, drops an audience into a situation they may never have imagined and most of all, makes us feel alive. There is no better celebration of the crème de la crème of this genre than the annual, autumnal return of DOC NYC. This year, DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary film festival, shared a slate of stellar films in three venues based in Manhattan, including IFC Center, SVA Theatre and Village East by Angelika as well as via an online streaming platform for fans who couldn’t make it to the New York City theaters in person.  The fourteenth edition of the festival showcased an impressive 200 films, including more than 105 feature length documentaries, plus filmmaker Q&As sessions after most screenings and other events that engaged, entertained and educated as only this festival can.

Right from the start, DOC NYC has culled incredible films by the most innovative voices of our time.  It is nearly impossible to point out every film that should be on your radar, but here are some of the highlights that imprinted on my heart and mind long after the closing credits rolled:

36 Seconds:  Portrait of a Hate Crime:  This poignant and disturbing film from director Tarek Albaba details the murder of three Muslim young adults in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, giving us an intimate view of the grief that the families and community experienced. 

American Symphony: The most powerful film in the festival, director Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land, City of Ghosts, A Private War) gives us an intimate view into the lives of musician Jon Batiste and his life partner and fellow creative, Suleika Jaouad during 2022, a year of change for the couple. While Batiste is creatively at a high point, with 11 Grammy nominations and an exciting musical extravaganza he is creating that will take place at Carnegie Hall, Jaouad is in survival mode with the news that her cancer is back after a decade in remission. The juxtaposition of the highs and lows is beautifully showcased by Heineman, a master of his craft.

Angel Applicant: Director Ken August Meyer takes us on his own journey of being diagnosed with systemic scleroderma, a disease that not only threatens his life but in his quest for answers, sends him in the direction of Paul Klee, a Swiss-German painter of the 1930s who seems to have suffered from the same disease. As an art director, Meyer finds solace in Klee’s work as he marries, has a child and continues on his career path while battling for his life. This beautiful film is a unique gem that comes along once in a lifetime.

Apolonia, Apolonia: This compelling film follows the career and friendships of a young French painter named Apolonia. What began as a class assignment for film student and director Lea Glob, the film is a raw and exciting look at the art world, creativity and the power of friendship.

Ashima:  This world premiere spotlights one of the world’s youngest elite rock climbers, Ashima Shiraishi. With her father, a retired Butoh dancer who serves as her coach, they travel from New York to South Africa to face a challenging V14 boulder climb that puts them both to the test.

Between Life & Death:  Director Nick Capote delves into the case of Terri Schiavo that captivated the entire country for over a decade.  When a brain injury left her in a persistent vegetative state for over a decade, her family and husband became divided over her fate, opening up the debate over the right to die.

Bye Bye Tiberias:  The history of four generations of Palestinian women is placed on center stage, deftly directed by Lina Soualem, especially as she focuses on her mother, actress Hiam Abbas from Succession. 

Caterpillar:  Director Liza Mandelup chronicles the quest of 50-something David who becomes determined to improve his life by changing his eye color in an attempt to conquer his insecurities. His journey overseas to seek surgery runs the gamut of emotions from sheer joy to devastation.

The Cost of Inheritance: Director Yoruba Richen takes an unflinching look at the decades-long debate involving reparations and restorative justice. By putting faces to both sides of the discussion and speaking with the families involved, who are actively researching their histories, this film starts conversations that can feel difficult.

David Holmes: The Boy Who Lived:  You may not know the name David Holmes but you’ve probably seen his work as Daniel Radcliffe’s stunt double in the Harry Potter film franchise.  When an on-set accident leaves Holmes paralyzed, he is determined to continue chasing adventures despite the end to a career that he calls “the best job in the world.”

Elis and Tom:  When Elis Regina and Antonio Carlos Jobim gathered in Los Angeles to record an album in 1974, an exquisite project was the result.  The bonus was five hours of filmed footage that showcased her powerhouse vocals as well as his minimalist production style.  Not always on the same page, their collaboration is pure magic.

Every Body: Director Julie Cohen (RBG) shares the story of three intersex people. This engaging film delves into a topic that isn’t necessarily talked about often, as it covers the range of people who are born with reproductive anatomy that doesn’t fit into the categories of male or female. The honesty of the subjects is refreshing and the film adeptly showcases science, history and the politics of the movement against unnecessary surgery for intersex kids.

Flipside:  Starting out as a fun and quirky film and quickly morphing into a powerful and emotional meditation on being an adult, director Chris Wilcha brilliantly mines his own Gen-X past for universal nuggets that viewers will relate to.  We enter the world of a struggling, old school record store but walk  away with much more, including some insight from surprising sources, like Judd Apatow.  If you only catch one film from the 2023 slate, this gem should be it.

Garland Jeffreys: The King of In Between:  What do Harvey Keitel, Vernon Reid and Laurie Anderson all have in common? The answer is a shared love and admiration for Garland Jeffreys, the powerhouse musician who is difficult to pigeonhole into a genre with his gumbo of talent in rock, folk and soul.  Revered worldwide, this Brooklyn native has enjoyed more modest accolades at home.

How to Come Alive with Norman Mailer:  Director Jeff Zimbalist gives us incredible access to Norman Mailer, an icon of American literature.  Here we peek into his life from a child growing up in New York City, through six marriages, 2 Pulitzer Prizes and 11 amazing books.

The Job of Songs: Director Lila Schmitz takes us to gorgeous Doolin, County Clare where some of the most beautiful music is produced. By meeting the musicians who embrace the history of traditional folk songs, we are treated to a delightful community that is brimming with passion for live music.

The Lady Bird Diaries:  Taken from the massive archive of 123 hours of Lady Bird Johnson’s intimate audio diaries, we are treated to an intimate look into her time in the White House as a mother, wife and shrewd political strategist.

Lucha: A Wrestling Tale: This engaging tale of the Taft High School women’s wrestling team takes us inside the struggles and triumphs of four students from the Bronx. Director Marco Ricci paints a powerful portrait of athletes who have much to lose and even more to gain.

How to Have an American Baby:  From the capable eye of director, producer and editor Leslie Tai, we are allowed into the world of pregnant Chinese tourists who venture to America to give birth so they can gain U.S. citizenship for their babies.

Little Richard: I Am Everything:  Think you know everything there is to know about Little Richard?  Check out this compelling film from director Lisa Cortes to truly gain insight into the life story of this icon who set the stage for a world of creators to follow.

Liv Ullmann- A Road Less Traveled:  Director Dheeraj Akolkar creates a gem of a film about this incredible actor, writer, director and activist.  Through interviews with Liv Ullmann as well as collaborators like John Lithgow and Jessica Chastain, we are treated to an amazing portrait.

Mediha:  A true standout of the festival, this powerful documentary from director and producer Hasan Oswald, we meet Medihi, a Yazidi teen from northern Iraq.  A survivor of the 2014 genocide directed by ISIS, Mediha’s video diaries are filled with trauma and grief but also strength and determination.

Merchant Ivory:  Director Stephen Soucy takes us behind the scenes of Merchant Ivory Productions as James Ivory and Ismail Merchant created 44 films like Howard’s End and The Remains of the Day.  Creative forces who helped to shape these films including Helena Bonham Carter and Hugh Grant discuss these memorable times and we are lucky enough to have Ivory weigh in on the experience.

Nathan-ism:  Director Elan Golod shares the amazing story of Jewish soldier Nathan Hilu who guarded Nazi war criminals at the Nuruemberg trials. A prolific artist, Hilu continued to share his stories and artwork into his 90s while living in New York City.

No One Asked You:  Daily Show co-creator Lizz Winstead invites us to accompany her on the road with Abortion Access Front and her crew of activists and comedians as they travel the country to support abortion providers and their clinics.  Director Ruth Leitman does a superb job of balancing the frightening and changing reality of reproductive rights with humor.

Obsessed With Light:  Have you heard of Loïe Fuller?  In the early 20th century, Fuller, a master dancer, used fabric and light, resulting in stunning visuals that had a profound impact on both the worlds of fashion and art.  Directors Sabine Krayenbuhl and Zeva Oelbaum weave interviews with Fuller’s artistic splendor.

One With the Whale:  Directors Pete Chelkowski and Jim Wickens share the story of shy teen Agra Chris Apassingok who lives in a remote island of Alaska.  Hunting isn’t just a sport here.  Catching whales is a way to feed the entire village for weeks. But when a major hunting accomplishment is shared on social media and dissected by the rest of the world, the indigenous community rallies around to help the young man who has become a target of threats and hated.

Play With the Devil - Becoming Zeal & Ardor:  What is Black Death Metal?  It is the brainchild of Manuel Gagneux, a biracial Swiss musician who combines American slave work songs with heavy metal music.   Although he plays all the instruments in his home studio, he hires musicians to form a band and tour the world for a year. This fascinating documentary looks at creativity, fame and everything that comes along with both.

Shaken:  A disturbing and powerful film, director Asher Levinthal takes us behind the fight to clear a father’s name when his baby has a seizure but the medical profession decides that she has experienced shaken baby syndrome, an all too common reality for many families who are thrust into a nightmare to clear their names and reunite their families.

Searching for Nika:  Filmmaker Stanislav Kapralov’s world was turned upside down when Russian forces invaded Ukraine.  While his parents fled the country, the beloved family dog Nika escaped.  Kapralov returns to Kyiv to join volunteers on rescue missions to find and reunite families with their pets amid war.

Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow:  When cinematographer Martina Radwan was on assignment filming orphaned street kids in Mongolia, she encountered Baaskaa, Nassa and Baani.  Drawn to these kids, she does her best to help them as they become adults and she comes to terms with her own past family trauma.  This is a beautiful testament to the families that we create.

They Shot The Piano Player:  This look into the 1976 disappearance of Brazilian piano virtuoso Francisco Tenorio Junior is told through the creative minds of Spanish artists Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal in bold colors and hand drawn frames.

Yours in Freedom, Bill Baird:  From director Rebecca Cammisa, this in-depth look at the passion and career of reproductive rights pioneer Bill Baird is nothing short of spectacular.  In his 90s, the vibrant Baird still shines as we reflect on his legacy and his unwavering spirit to keep fighting.

Zinzindurrunkarratz:  Filmmaker Oskar Alegria takes us on an unforgettable journey to bring provisions to the last shepherd of the Andia Mountains.  With Paolo the donkey, Alegria retraces the seasonal route his grandfather made with his flock. 

A million thanks to the talented programmers at DOC NYC who give us the inspiration to dream, learn, respond and plan for a better future.  I can’t wait to see what the 2024 slate will bring!


Photos courtesy of DOC NYC


bottom of page