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7 documentaries to see at this year's DOC NYC

The non-fiction film series features Banksy, The Yes Men, the Egyptian Revolution and Elliott Smith.

New York City crops up a lot in DOC NYC, the fifth annual series devoted to nonfiction filmmaking. But it goes all over the globe, and even into the past. (Among the doc classics on hand are Frederick Wiseman’s “High School” and Steve James’ “Hoop Dreams.”) There are over 100 films to see over the next week; here are but a handful of them:

‘Banksy Does New York’
The graffiti maven is an artist whose work makes viewers part of them, so it’s only appropriate that someone — not Banksy himself, nor anyone involved with him — made a portrait of his “artistic resident” in the five boroughs last October. More than tracing each of his 31 pieces — littered about the city like a series of scavenger hunts — it looks at the various ways they use various social means to comment on underacknowledged ills. Some are shallow; some cut deep. (Sending a bunch of Instagram-wielding hipsters to East New York is both funny and a reminder how many demonize and ignore the neighborhood.) Is Banksy a gimmicky charlatan, not unlike his “Exit to the Gift Shop” target Mr. Brainfreeze, or a brilliant meta satirist? Given that even the weaker pieces tend to get at a necessary point, it’s some mix of both.

‘Cairo Drive’
Filmed over the last handful of years, this takes a disarmingly fast-paced, even peppy look at Egypt as it undergoes massive changes. The Egyptian revolution happens in a flash, but little changes; this is a look at everyday life in Cairo, at the people not radicalized enough to be activists but who nonetheless have their share of complaints. The focus is on its congested traffic, with cabbies struggling to update their vehicles to changing regulations, and often too busy to have much of an opinion on Mubarek, let alone a visiting Obama. Americans tend to only notice other countries when things are good or bad, but this captures a hotspot when no one’s looking.

‘The Chair’
A key revival in a fest largely made of new works, this 1962 work from fly-on-the-wall documentary pioneer Robert Drew — shot by fellow luminaries Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker — finds the director (of the seminal JFK campaign portrait “Primary”) paying witness to a key moment in the fight over capital punishment. With minimal narration, Drew observes the eleventh-hour attempt to save a convicted murderer from the electric chair, hanging in offices with unflappable lawyer Don Moore and sitting in on the trial, as the debate over the efficacy of reforming programs rages. It all builds to an ending that’s shocking, if not in the way you may expect.

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‘Do I Sound Gay?’
The fest’s opening night film takes a suitably loaded look at self-identification, using director-star David Thorpe’s “gay voice” — a lisp combined with effeminate, not macho, phrasing — as an entree into a complex look at easing homophobia and the vast diversity of the modern gay experience. As Thorpe tries multiple vocal coaches to soften his speaking voice, he looks at the evolving and expanding public definition of homosexuality, especially contrasted with the days when Charles Nelson Reilly and Paul Lynde swished it up on millions of TVs without any blowback.

‘Heaven Adores You’
Elliott Smith deserves more than a traditional biographical documentary, and he gets one — sort of. A mix of the usual talking heads and a more expressionistic approach, it takes a pile of pages from the experimental “Kurt Cobain About a Son,” often setting interviews with Smith and his friends over top striking footage of Portland, New York and Los Angeles today. Best of all, there’s no hyperbolic praise from fellow musicians or journalists; it’s just his closest friends, creating an intimate — and increasingly harrowing — portrait of the man, not the legend.

‘Tales of the Grim Sleeper’
Documentarian Nick Broomfield was doing the Michael Moore starring shtick…slightly before Michael Moore. (“Driving Me Crazy,” the first Broomfield with Broomfield, preceded “Roger & Me” by a year.) The filmmaker’s appearances can sometimes be merely intrusive, and he largely hangs back just enough in this look at a case in which a serial killer was left unhunted while he racked up over a dozen bodies, perhaps far more than that, in South Central Los Angeles. More than a look at a case, it’s a portrait of a vibrant, often very funny community that gets ignored; you won’t find many more engaging documentary subjects than Pam Brooks, a former prostitute who giddily hijacks the film from the scrawny British director.

‘The Yes Men are Revolting’
Previously the lefty prankster duo has used movies as mere documents of their stunts, which often include impersonating the sharp-suited heads of sinful companies, embarrassing them into (maybe) fixing their ways. Their latest turns usefully self-reflexive. They’re not only older now — and one decamps for Scotland for a stretch — but they worry their bits aren’t effecting any real change. Like Jon Stewart, they’re worried satire does little but placate those who agree with them, and even with a kind of happy ending, it remains a worry.

Also promising:

‘Back on Board: Greg Louganis’:Once the greatest diver in the world, the four-time Olympic medalist is seen struggling to pay his mortgage and thus attempting a comeback.

'Every Last Child': The fight to conquer polio in Pakistan is the focus of this on-the-ground activist doc, which examines health care workers battling politics and violence to wipe the disease out for good.

‘Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere’:Arguably the fest’s best title, this promises to be a real-life “Twin Peaks,” following the assorted colorful characters of a small Nebraska town.

'An Open Secret':Amy Berg's shocking doc on child molestation in Hollywood was first hinted at during the (now dropped) lawsuit against Bryan Singer, when Berg promised plenty of more accusations. Now witness its world premiere.

‘The Opposite Field’:A Ugandan little league team fights for the top spot in this inspirational sports doc that isn’t just an inspirational sports doc.

‘The Seven Five’:Noted corrupt NYPD cop Michael Dowd — who went from pickpocketing drug dealers to lording over a crime ring — opens up in this probably fascinating portrait.

‘Sex and Broadcasting’:New Jersey’s most noted and arguably weirdest independent radio station, WFMU, gets the doc treatment.

DOC NYC runs from Thursday, Nov. 13 through Thursday, Nov. 20. Visittheir websitefor the schedule and tickets.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter@mattprigge
 
 
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