“DOC NYC” November 2 – 10

Director Werner Herzog's new film "Into the Abyss" will open "DOC NYC"

From November 2 – 10, “DOC NYC,” a documentary film festival, returns to Greenwich Village for its second year.  Judging from the festival’s films, that I have been able to preview so far, this is an event not to be missed.

In my experience, when attending a film festival, the best bet is to stick with the documentaries.  While the narrative films can be uneven, the documentaries are almost always exceptional.  Therefore, an opportunity to attend a film festival made up entirely of documentaries…need I say more, especially when it is in our own backyard? 

The very ambitious “DOC NYC” festival will feature over 125 filmmakers premiering their work in three different venues.  One of the festival’s many highlights will be director Werner Herzog, in person, for the opening night premiere of his new documentary “Into the Abyss,” a chilling and compelling look into the human soul as it regards the death penalty.  The film consists of interviews in which Herzog speaks with those whose lives have been affected by the death penalty, including Mark Perry, a Texas death row inmate convicted of a triple homicide whose date of execution is set for eight days after the interview.  Herzog also speaks with a family member of two of Perry’s murder victims, a reverend who attends to death row inmates and a former warden who has presided over many executions.

At the other end of the spectrum the festival is also presenting “The Chair,” documentary pioneer Richard Leacock’s 1962 documentary, also  about the death penalty.  “The Chair” is being shown as part of a festival retrospective of Leacock’s work.  Leacock died this past March, just shy of 90.

It is fascinating to see the works of two filmmakers, Herzog and Leacock, that address the same issue nearly 50 years apart.  Although the two documentaries look at very different aspects of the death penalty, both films boil down to the same basic question with which our society still grapples – Is it right for the state to execute someone?

Leacock follows the efforts of two lawyers, Don Moore and Louis Nizer, who are appealing for clemency in the case of Chicago death row inmate Paul Crump.  They want the governor to commute Crump’s sentence to life in prison.  Their argument revolves around the fact that Crump has reformed while in jail.  They reason that while Crump has pulled himself up by his moral boot straps, it is time to see if the state will do the same.

I enjoyed observing the differences in directorial styles and technical qualities between “Into the Abyss” and “The Chair.”  Herzog clearly has had access to modern, state of the art high definition equipment and a competent crew, as well he should.  Herzog’s interviews are all properly lit with his camera locked down on a tripod for a rock steady picture.  His subjects wear wireless microphones to pick up the best sound possible.  The set up works well as Herzog is dealing with an issue after it has occurred.  In contrast, Leacock, shot in an on location, “as it happened,” hand held camera style on grainy 16mm black and white film, no doubt with a sound recordist keeping up as best as he could.  As in the case of Herzog, Leacock too was shooting with state of the art portable equipment, for his time.  We see Crump’s lawyers meeting to discuss strategy and we witness the hearing itself, to give two examples.  In the process Leacock captured the environment and the context in which the story occurred, creating a visual time capsule of 1960s Chicago – everything from the way people dressed, and smoked everywhere, to attitudes – in the process.  While both films are certainly worth seeing, I found the nostalgia (I love that old, grainy 16mm black and white look) emotion and action of “The Chair” to be very compelling.

“Into the Abyss” will be shown on November 2, at 7:30, at NYU Skirball Center.  “The Chair” will be shown, with Leacock’s “The Children Were Watching,” at IFC Center on November 4 at 4:00.

The screening venues for “DOC NYC” are IFC Center (323 Sixth Avenue), NYU – Kimmel Center (60 Washington Square South) and NYU – Skirball Center for the Performing Arts (566 Laguardia Place).  Visit DOCNYC.net for more information.


About unpaidfilmcritic

Up until 2009 Seth Shire spent nearly two decades in the New York film industry as a post production supervisor of feature films. Highlights include working on the films of Martin Scorsese, James Toback and Spike Lee. Since leaving the film industry Seth has expanded into new and varied areas where he has found a great deal of satisfaction. Seth currently teaches in the Sociology Department of CUNY Queens College. His courses include "Mass Media and Popular Culture," "Introduction to Sociology," and "Sociology of Cinema" where he is a very popular teacher. Seth is also the film critic for "Town & Village," a Manhattan weekly newspaper, a position he has held for the past six years. Seth gives back to his community through volunteer teaching at Manhattan's "The Caring Community," a center for senior citizens, where he teaches a very popular course on documentaries called "The Golden Age of the Documentary. In the fall of 2010 Seth taught "Critical Reading and Writing" at Parsons School of Design. He has also taught "Cinema Studies" at the New York Film Academy. Seth lives in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan.

Posted on October 25, 2011, in DOC NYC 2011, Documentary, Feature Articles and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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