Susan Morris | Reviews

DOC NYC: Home + Memory

DOC NYC is the country’s largest documentary film festival with over 300 entries.  This edition included films about home and memory, the arts and illness, music, profiles and art making.  

The notion of home and how is it remembered factored in films from the Middle East, Africa, U.S., Canada, and by immigrants.

Bye Bye Tiberias explores questions of home in light of being caught between two worlds. French-born filmmaker Lina Soualem turns her camera on her mother, Palestinian/French actress Hiam Abbass (Succession) who left her native land and now returns to the family who stayed. In the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, her Muslim family was expelled from its home in Tiberias during the partition of Palestine and establishment of Israel. Her grandfather was so despondent he went insane and died, leaving his wife, Um Ali, a seamstress, and ten children including Abbass. After emigrating to France, she would come back to visit the family apartment with her young child, Lina, and we see home movies of their past visits, as well as their current return. Abbass sometimes resorts to the family refrain, “Don’t open the gate to past pain.”  

Dancing on the Edge of a Volcano is the story of filmmaking by fire. Beirut-based Abbout Productions was in pre-production on the feature film Costa Brava, Lebanon (reviewed in 2021 coverage of the Toronto Film Festival) when the city was rocked by the devastating explosion in the port caused by volatile chemicals stored in a warehouse.  The title comes from a phrase originally used to describe Weimar Germany. Here, they had to deal not only with destruction and death, but also the pandemic, fuel shortages and currency collapse. But they persist in making this feature film, directed by Mounia Akl, about a family who leaves Beirut for a home in the mountains, only to discover government plans to build a garbage landfill directly next door.  The themes of government corruption and destruction were echoed by the catastrophes around them. “I feel like I’m in Lost in La Mancha,” one of the producers jokes, referring to the doc about Terry Gilliam’s attempts to make a Don Quixote film, “But my husband says I’m in Apocalypse Now.” Meanwhile, the cinematographer Joe Saade, talks about to the crunching sound underfoot of broken glass on his balcony as navigates watering his plants: “On the bright side, I have a breeze!,” but on the dark side he lost the sight in one eye in the explosion. The documentary opens with devastated city in 1980 during the Lebanese Civil War, showing the ongoing trials and destruction of the city.  

Al Djanat-The Original Paradise is filmmaker Chloé Aïcha Boro’s return to her native Burkina Faso after the death of her uncle Ousmane of the prominent Coulibaly family of the Malinke people. He was killed in a pilgrimage stampede to Mecca and now his estate is left in ambiguity because he lacked a will. The heart of the controversy is a large courtyard in Dédougou that is not only the family center but a spiritual locus, home to their ancestors and a place of prayer in lieu of few mosques. The patriarch had 19 children and there is a large extended family who are split on whether to keep or sell the land; by both law and tradition, the land cannot be split up. There is a split between traditionalism and modernism, men and women, Western laws and religious beliefs.  The matter is brought to court to be settled.  

“We had neighbors who were true neighbors. And we had a home on every single floor.  Because we children belonged to the entire village.  Until….” begins poet Hanna Asefaw in her film A Home on Every Floor.  She uses a model of the council housing flat her Eritrean family lived in in Oslo in the 1990s to recreate the diverse community she lived in which was destroyed by privatization. (Another recent documentary, The Mother of All Lies, which will be at Sundance, also recreates a home in miniature, this time in Morocco.)

Nepalese filmmaker Kesang Tseten chronicles the Himalayan immigrant community in Jackson Heights, Queens in Diversity Plaza.  A vérité look, inspired by filmmaker Frederick Wiseman (who did his own film of the neighborhood in In Jackson Heights [2015]), in recent decades tens of thousands of people from Nepal, northern India, Bhutan, and the Tibetan areas of China have migrated here. The plaza, located at 37th Road between 73rd and 74th Streets, offers open space to pedestrians at the Roosevelt Avenue transit hub where the E, F, M, R and 7 trains converge. Managed by the Social Uplift Knowledge and Hopes Initiatives and the Department of Transportation, the plaza was eventually built out with permanent materials. An effort to count the neighborhood in the 2020 U.S. Census is showcased.  

Friendly Fridges whimsically shows how refrigerators on the street popped up during the pandemic and became community touchstones, in the shape of refrigerators.

Rite of Passage is an elegy to the MTA Metrocard vending machines, colorful fixtures since 1999. Designed by by Antenna Design (Masamichi Udagawa and Sigi Moeslinger), they are about to disappear with the implementation of the contactless OMNY system of payment.  

Through Sunless Ways shows five New Yorkers relationship to light and the actions they have undertaken to seek it out and live with it, at all costs. “Their personal relationships to light mirror much larger systems of power playing out across the city.”

Flipside revisits the New Jersey second-hand record store that was so impactful to the early life of filmmaker Chris Wilcha, a one-time Sundance breakout star (The Target Shoots First, [1999]), and Emmy winner with This American Life’s translation from radio to TV (2008).

Someone Lives Here is one man’s attempt to solve the housing crisis. Carpenter Khaleel Seivwright builds small shelters in Toronto for those who live on the street during the first winter of the pandemic. Seivwright quit his job as a full-time carpenter to make what he calls “tiny shelters,” small insulated structures using body temperature for heating.  At first the city of Toronto proposed a partnership, then reneged a week later. This is a sobering and maddening watch.  

Films Mentioned:
Bye Bye Tiberias, directed by Lina Soualem
Dancing n the Edge of a Volcano, directed by Cyril Aris
Al Djanat-The Original Paradise, directed by Chloé Aïcha Boro
A Home on Every Floor, directed by Signe Rosenlund-Hauglid
Diversity Plaza, directed by Kesang Tseten
Friendly Fridges, directed by Ilja Willems
Rite of Passage, directed by Talha Jalal
Through Sunless Ways, directed by Kira Dane & Katelyn Rebelo
Flipside, directed by Chris Wilcha
Someone Lives Here, directed by Zachary Russell

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