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Standout Fest For Documentary Lovers Returns With Films On Ferguson, Terrorism, Obit Writers & More

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 29, 2017 2:00PM

"Rat Film" (Photo courtesy of DOC10)

This year, the documentary film-focused festival DOC10 moves to a new theater (the recently renovated Davis Theater) and lacks the big-name filmmakers (Herzog, Maysles, Kopple) featured during its inaugural year. But based on advanced viewings of several of the films showing this weekend, it remains a thoughtfully curated and most welcome standout showcase for top-level documentaries.

The festival launches Thursday night, March 30, with a benefit screening of Sweet Dillard for the Merit School of Music. This will be the only festival screening at last year's venue, the Music Box Theatre. The Davis will be home base for the remainder of the fest, Friday through Sunday. (If the Big 10 college sports conference can have 14 teams, then DOC10 is certainly entitled to sneak in an eleventh film.)

Much-anticipated selections not previewed by Chicagoist include Whose Streets?(about the protests following the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri) and Casting JonBenet, which puts the unsolved JonBenet Ramsey murder at the center of a "docufiction" hybrid that sounds a little like the recent Kate Plays Christine in conception (here's hoping it offers a less bogus take on a tragedy).

We're recommending four of the five films we did preview, which suggests another strong overall showing for this young, up-and-coming festival.

Rat Film
(Friday, March 31, 9:15 p.m.)
Rickety in structure but undeniably fascinating, this semi-experimental work charts a long history of racial and socioeconomic disparity against changing strategies for rat control in Baltimore. The movie is hampered by recurring use of a visually flat city-simulation video game and narration that sounds like Apple's Siri got stuck working at the DMV for too long. But it overcomes these flaws thanks to its provocative linking of the treatment of humans and rodents, as well as the memorable Baltimore residents shown in more traditional documentary sequences. My favorite moments involve a charismatic and philosophical pest-control official and some self-anointed rat hunters with pretty wild methods.

"The Cinema Travelers." (Photo courtesy of DOC10.)

The Cinema Travelers
(Saturday, April 1, 4:00 p.m.)
Any movie that shows people praying over projectors and film reels will have some romance for cinephiles, but this Cannes award-winner is a lot more downbeat than the DOC10 program description of a "real life Cinema Paradiso" might lead you to believe. That's not a bad thing, as this is a very well made look at the arduous work and increasingly diminished returns of a dying trade: traveling projectionists who set up mobile cinemas under tents in very remote Indian villages. Propping up battered or completely useless vehicles and decaying equipment, the operators shown have different motivations: one is more sentimental while another is strictly looking at the bottom line. An old charmer who runs a business fixing projectors does give a sense of the magic of cinema, but on the whole the movie is more about small businessmen fighting off industry oblivion than movie-made dreams.

"Death in the Terminal." (Photo courtesy of DOC10.)

Death in the Terminal
(Saturday, April 1, 9:15 p.m.)
Security camera footage forms the core of this brief but powerful account of a 2015 terrorist attack at a bus station in Israel and the tragic and troubling way many people there responded. The remote nature of the surveillance footage becomes intensely personal when intercut with interviews of surviving witnesses. The disturbing fate of a man misidentified as part of the attack shows in stark and graphic fashion that crises are more likely to bring out the worst in people than the best. A riveting record of chaos and heartbreak.

(Sunday, April 2, 4 p.m.)
Get up close and personal with the New York Times' obituary writers in this portrait, which kind of functions as a companion film to the wider-ranging Page One: Inside the New York Times. Far from the depressing arena it might appear to be, obituaries require both first-rate reporting and prose. Interviews with the writers, readings of some of the paper's most well-regarded death notices and archival footage of deceased subjects show how the best obits are highly skillful, sometimes beautiful, short-form biographies. Adding a mixture of quirkiness and melancholy to the film are segments featuring the lone overseer of the Times' "morgue" — its seemingly infinite archive of its printed past...real history awaiting either digital rebirth or yellowing, crumbling demise.

Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary
(Sunday, April 2, 7:00 p.m.)
This is the only film among our DOC10 samplings we might suggest you skip...not because it's bad; it just seems tailor-made for future PBS pledge drive airings. Informative but conventional to a fault, this overview of the life and career of the jazz innovator seems aimed at people with just a passing knowledge of his work. Admittedly, my own jazz tastes don't run very deep, but I think more devoted fans will know this story too well to glean much from this telling. The all-star testimonials to Coltrane's greatness include Sonny Rollins, Carlos Santana, Common, Wynton Marsalis, Cornel West, Doors' drummer John Densmore and Bill Clinton. Yep, the former prez is apparently a big jazz buff. Coltrane's own words are read by Denzel Washington.

The complete DOC10 schedule is available here.