Since 2010, DOC NYC, the largest documentary festival in the United States, has put forth programs that showcase a wide range of works that rally under the banner of non-fiction. This year’s edition took place across three theatres in New York City, including the SVA Theatre and Cinépolis, both in Chelsea, and at its principal venue, the IFC Center in Greenwich Village. The festival also offered a robust online program. 

The Archive Remixed

Two works that turn to the archive for their materials prove once again that longer and more costly is not always better. Among the highlights of the festival was Sue Ding’s Makeover Movie (2022), a 19-minute film that made its world premiere at DOC NYC. Makeover Movie unpacks 100 years of the makeover trope found in films dating back to the 1920s. The remixing of movie clips recalls the burgeoning practice of videographic criticism, or “video essays,” works that think critically about media through media. In a reflexive gesture, Ding’s friends react to her assemblage, expressing shock and disgust with the films they grew up watching, and how they internalized the misogyny. Here, form literally comes to dictate content, as the voices of Ding’s friends offer a compelling commentary accompanying the images of women having their eyebrows plucked, glasses forcibly removed from their faces, and complexions altered. By featuring women who watch, react, and reflect on these sequences as they appear, Makeover Movie finds a personal story in its examination of a pervasive phenomenon. 

Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues (Sacha Jenkins, 2022) also makes use of archival material. The film bills itself as a look at Armstrong’s life through never-before-heard audio diaries recorded by Armstrong. The moments when we get to hear these diaries provide an intimate look at one of the greatest, most under-appreciated American artists of the 20th century. But they are used infrequently throughout the work, which instead opts for the less inventive approach of taking its audience through the subject’s life via talking head interviews and a mix of more standard archival materials: television interviews and movie clips. The film’s premise recalls a work like Our Nixon (Penny Lane, 2013), for which the filmmaker reappropriated previously unseen home movies to paint a portrait of Richard Nixon. Both films tell stories that viewers may already know, but at least Lane’s work remains in the realm of the archive, making extended use of the archive materials to show its subject in a new way. There are flashes of this in Jenkins’ work, but Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues attempts too much, losing sight of the personal as it tries to capture the total history of a prolific man. 

Fragments of Paradise

Diarists at Work

Few filmmakers embody the spirit of New York more than Jonas Mekas. As such, it seems somewhat predestined that the documentary on his life, Fragments of Paradise (KD Davison, 2022), took home the festival’s Metropolis prize, reserved for films about New Yorkers and the city. As a filmmaker, critic, curator, publisher, the co-founder of Anthology Film Archives and much more, few rival Mekas in championing experimental and independent film in the United States. The film takes us through his life, from growing up in Lithuania, to his time in a German work camp, and then later the life he built in Brooklyn and finally Manhattan. He captured his life in seminal works like Walden (1968), Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972), and As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000). 

The year has been a good one for documentary profiles of those who champion so-called expanded cinema. This year’s Berlinale saw the premiere of Komm mit mir in das Cinema – Die Gregors (Come With Me to the Cinema – The Gregors, Alice Agneskirchner, 2022), a profile of Erika and Ulrich Gregor, who co-founded Berlin’s Kino Arsenal and the program that later became the Berlinale Forum. While that film did not play at DOC NYC, it has a kinship with Fragments of Paradise. Mekas and the Gregors bucked institutional forces to exhibit films that took formal risks and were politically subversive. Despite the work of their subjects, however, both films, while portraits worth watching, are disappointing in their more routine approach to form. This is not to say that such works must be as innovative as their subjects, but they could at least aspire to something in that spirit. Fragments of Paradise tells Mekas’ life story in a mostly linear fashion, with the standard mix of interviews, personal anecdotes, and talking heads interviews. The film falls short of capturing the spirit of a filmmaker whose work embodied the beautiful randomness of life, the ebbs and flows of the everyday, and who had deep, poetic thoughts about his own place in the world. 

I Didn’t See You There

One film that does evoke this spirit is Reid Davenport’s I Didn’t See You There (2022). The film has made the rounds at festivals this year, including a much-deserved win at Sundance. My expectations were high, especially since earlier buzz had likened Davenport’s film to the work of Mekas.1 The similarities between the two are difficult to miss, namely the ways in which a subjective camera captures the filmmaker’s unique relationship with his daily life. Much of the film hinges around notions of visibility. Most of the time, the images we encounter are shot from Davenport’s perspective, an attempt to experience the world as he does from his wheelchair. Davenport’s disability plays a central role in his art. The film is a collection of encounters, thoughts, and moments: cars parked in crosswalks, condescending exchanges with strangers, hoses that block ramps, reflections in windows and the paved feel of the sidewalk. When a tent pops up across the street from his apartment in Oakland, he reflects on the history of the freak show, putting it in conversation with his own filmmaking practice. The essayistic piece captures Davenport in honest moments of self-reflection. Not only does his camera follow as he journeys from one place to the next, through airport terminals and city streets, but as he contemplates the transitory moment in which he finds his career. Davenport does not show himself in the film. His mind, eyes, and the camera become one. We feel his presence – his authorship – in each shot. And from that experience, the feeling of being so carefully guided in what we see and experience, we arrive at his truth. 

For Your Peace of Mind, Make Your Own Museum

Kaleidoscopic Views

A highlight of the festival was the Kaleidoscope Competition, a section reserved for more essayistic and formally innovative works. White Night (Tania Ximena and Yollotl Gómez Alvarado, 2021) received the top prize, while Mother Lode (Matteo Tortone, 2021) earned a special mention. My focus here will be on two other works, both of which have lingered in my mind for weeks. The first is Pilar Moreno and Ana Endara’s For Your Peace of Mind, Make Your Own Museum (2021). The film tells the story of a deceased woman named Senobia, an artist and collector who turned her house into a museum of “antiquities of all species,” mostly ordinary objects she transformed or recontextualized. Much of the film features remembrances from friends in the form of talking head interviews, during which they discuss her life, wear her clothes, and share their own trauma and memories. So many contemporary documentaries feature talking head interviews as a crutch to move the story along. This film shows another way. Here, the interviews are the story. In wearing her clothes, the friends seem to reanimate the spirit of Senobia, giving us a way to get to know her through objects and memory. Though she is no longer there, she remains alive through these women, and through the items she left behind. It is a film about presence, and absence, and how those terms are often far blurrier than they may at first appear. 

Our Movie

The second is Diana Bustamante’s Nuestra Pelicula (Our Movie, 2022). A prolific film producer whose credits include Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria (2021), Bustamante’s essay film focuses on political violence in Colombia during the final decades of the last century. Comprised of archival news footage, the film depicts the assassinations and upheaval that were commonplace during that period. The film not only tells the history of the time, but also offers a meditation on the nature of memory and history, and the specific role that television plays in the generation of each. The temporal nature of the news broadcast is such that it exists for that moment, to depict events as they happen. But it is through the lens of history, through an active sorting and recontextualizing of the archive, that new stories and understandings emerge. To watch Our Movie is to see the generation of history in real time, and to see, once again, the cinematic potential of the archive. 

Mainstream Conspiracies

Around the world, various far-right, fascist movements have secured, or are on the cusp of securing, power. It is among the most prominent threats of our time. The far-right in the United States is on full display in January 6th (Gédéon and Jules Naudet, 2022). With more than two hours of archival footage and first-person accounts, the film is an impressive reconstruction of events that occurred at the U.S. Capitol on 6 January 2021, when supporters of then-President Donald Trump stormed the building in order to block the certification of the presidential election. The film takes sounds, images, and anecdotes that many who have followed reporting on the event will have heard before and blends them into an easy-to-follow, linear portrait of that day. Though a structural triumph, the film is lacking in context. It is an illustrated, oral history, not especially cinematic. Little attention is given to the ideologies that animate extremists in the United States. While this is unlikely to be the only work on this topic, the absence of this history glares, particularly in the face of ongoing threats. It gives an otherwise impressive retelling of these events an ahistorical feel. 

The Conspiracy

January 6th would pair well with the film that closed DOC NYC, The Conspiracy (Maxim Pozdorovkin, 2022), one of the best documentaries of the year. The film traces 250 years of anti-Semitism, specifically the conspiracy theory that elite Jews are involved in a plot to control the world. The animated work centres on three prominent Jews around whom the conspiracy hinges: the banker Max Warburg (5 June 1867 – 26 December 1946) and his family in Germany, artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus of France (9 October 1859 – 12 July 1935), and the Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky (7 November 1879 – 21 August 1940). The Conspiracy begins with an animated man at his computer, taking in the conspiracy. Thus, from the film’s outset, Pozdorovkin situates the viewer in the online world in which the conspiracy now germinates, before it makes its way into the annals of power around the world. The film is not only an accessible bit of history and contextualization of our current moment, but a powerful reminder of how such violence circulates. Such conspiracies are now digital enterprises, where they can be constantly reworked, reimagined, reanimated, and reemployed. This is not a new phenomenon. But its nature changes as the threat grows. The past, The Conspiracy shows us, is always finding new ways to exist in the present.

9 – 27 November 2022
Festival Website: https://www.docnyc.net/


  1. Nicolas Rapold, “‘I Didn’t See You There’ Review: A View From His Seat,” New York Times, 29 September 2022.

About The Author

Will DiGravio is a critic, researcher, and video essayist based in Brooklyn, New York. His work related to videographic and found footage films includes hosting The Video Essay Podcast, writing a newsletter on the subject, and curating Recycled Screenings.

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