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New Documentary Fest At Music Box Has Local Herzog Premiere And More

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 27, 2016 5:00PM

Afghan refugee and rapper Sonita Alizadeh in "Sonita." (Photo courtesy of DOC10/Chicago Media Project.)

With local film premieres from renowned documentarians Werner Herzog, Albert Maysles and two-time Oscar winner Barbara Kopple, anticipation is high for DOC10, the newest addition to Chicago's film festival offerings. Launching at the Music Box this weekend (April 1 to 3), this ten-film documentary showcase also features several compelling features from lesser-known artists.

Herzog is known for both his German New Wave narrative classics (Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo) and acclaimed non-fiction films (Grizzly Man, Into the Abyss). His latest, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, tackles the promise and threat of the digital age. Kopple (Harlan County, USA; American Dream) returns with Miss Sharon Jones, a profile of the late-blooming, Grammy-nominated soul singer. (Kopple will appear for a Q&A following the film.)

But, based on the half of the schedule we've sampled, it's the spirit of the third giant of the field, Maysles (Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens) that looms largest over DOC10. Maysles (who died last year and frequently collaborated with his brother David) believed in "direct cinema"— capturing reality as honestly and objectively as possible. It is the opposite of the more stylized approach of something like Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line, or the expose/agitprop crusades of Michael Moore or Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room).

DOC10 features Maysles' final film (a collaboration with four other filmmakers), In Transit. This gentle, quietly moving piece encapsulates a few hours in the lives of passengers on board a train going from Chicago to Seattle. Personal but never invasive, the movie is modest but uplifting in its humanity.

Uncertain shares Maysles' intimate, observational method. Directed by Anna Sandilands and Ewan McNicol, the movie focuses on a trio of very different people—their pasts checkered with tragedy, violence and substance abuse—in the appropriately-named Louisiana/Texas border town of Uncertain, population 94. Boasting absolutely stunning cinematography (the bayou has never looked more beautiful), the movie is a compelling glimpse of people struggling on the fringes of society.

Sonita centers on an outspoken teenage Afghan girl living in Iran, aspiring for rap stardom while fighting her family's efforts to bring her home and marry her off. A clarion call for women's rights in the Middle East, Sonita also illuminates Iran's potential as a cultural bridge between the U.S. and the Islamic world. The director's involvement in Sonita's fate breaks the rules of traditional reporting in ways Maysles might have frowned upon, but the film still feels like an authentic first-person account.

Chinese activist Ye Haiyan's battles for gender equality and sex workers' rights are documented in Hooligan Sparrow. This is the one film of the five we previewed that fully breaks from the Maysles' tradition, employing a far more subjective point of view. The story is vital, but ragged construction makes it seem like the rough ingredients for a much better movie.

Far more powerful, though profoundly depressing, Missing People tells the intertwined stories of art curator Martina Batan and the late Roy Ferdinand, an outsider artist who became her obsession. The direct cinema approach makes for an emotionally draining experience here, as Batan relates her nearly lifelong depression following the murder of her brother. It's a heavy, heavy film, but this is must-see for its painfully honest view of how the impact of violence never fades.

With the promising Herzog and Kopple films part of the half of the schedule we have not seen, DOC10 appears to be off to a strong start. For complete details, ticket and festival pass information, click here.