New from Brian Thompson on The Young Folks: 2019 Doc10 Film Festival Roundup

Once again, the DOC10 Film Festival brought ten of the year’s most buzzworthy documentaries to Chicago’s Davis Theater over the weekend. Now in its fourth year, the brainchild of the Chicago Media Project continues to ushe in guests from all over for one simple goal: to celebrate achievement in nonfiction filmmaking. From tales of endearing hope to parables of colossal failure, here’s the rundown of what we caught at the fest.


Mike Wallace is Here

Director: Avi Belkin

Few people have had a larger impact on the face of news media than famed 60 Minutes reporter Mike Wallace, and Avi Belkin’s sharp, exhaustive portrait of the aggressive investigative journalist is sure to be one of 2019’s most acclaimed documentaries. Composed entirely of archival footage, Mike Wallace is Here expertly probes the work of the controversial newsman, serving as both a supplement to those who grew up watching his heated interviews and an introduction of the man to a new generation. Wallace didn’t buy into the subtle dance of journalism, and the film finds him doing what he did best: posing the tough questions other reporters would never dare to ask. Belkin doesn’t paint Wallace as an unassailable hero. In fact, some of the most compelling moments of the doc find him rubbing people the wrong way, as when he prompts Barbra Streisand to exclaim, “You’re a real son of a bitch, you know that?”

Hail Satan?

Director: Penny Lane

With its Curb Your Enthusiasm-style wit and irony, Penny Lane’s Hail Satan? brilliantly uses humor to point out both the absurdity and the hypocrisy of faith-based government. Following The Satanic Temple, the playful film makes a compelling case for an oft-demonized group. These political trolls have devoted their lives to fight for religious pluralism, and those who label them as devil-worshippers as simply proving their point. By petitioning to erect statues of Baphomet, they are giving the evangelical right a lesson in both civics and satire. As the Satanists manipulate the media and make a mockery of interviews, Lane displays the righteous appeal of these anti-authoritarian activists, further showcasing herself as one of today’s most sharp-tongued documentarians.

One Child Nation

Directors: Nanfu Wang & Lynn Zhang

Many people know the Cliff’s Notes version of China’s one-child policy, but Nanfu Wang (Hooligan Sparrow) has returned to her native country to separate fact from myth. In one of the festival’s most emotionally taxing entries, One Child Nation looks at this history of oppression through the lens of humanism, examining how this twisted exercise in population control has torn apart the lives of countless Chinese citizens. From 1979 to 2015, the totalitarian efforts went to horrifying lengths to enforce the policy, from mandated sterilizations to state-sponsored kidnappings. One Child Nation captures it all in harrowing detail. It’s no wonder the film went home with the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary Feature at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.


Midnight Family

Director: Luke Lorentzen

To say there’s a shortage of official ambulances serving Mexico City is a gross understatement, and so private paramedic units have become a thriving industry. Luke Lorentzen’s Midnight Family follows the Ochoas (including 16-year-old Juan and 9-year-old Josué), a family who have made a living out of serving those in need of medical attention. Placing the audience inside the ambulance for the majority of the runtime, Lorentzen gives the audience unbelievable access, with his subjects often knocking at death’s door. However, he also realizes the power of the images we don’t see, with many gruesome moments happening just offscreen and the viewer left to watch the paramedics’ response to the life-or-death situations. Lorentzen uses the Ochoa family as a jumping off point for the larger issue at hand: the obscene level of political corruption disrupting the flow of the city’s vital resources to those who desperately need them.

Knock Down the House

Director: Rachel Lears

For its rousing festival opener, Doc10 selected Rachel Lears’s Knock Down the House, a film chronicling four female rising stars running for Congress in 2018, one of whom being the new face of the progressive movement Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. These women (a bartender, a registered nurse, a grieving mother, and a coal miner’s daughter) represent the winds of change, signaling the working class struggle to shake up the political establishment. Lears skillfully frames these determined candidates as they wade through grueling campaigns in order to tackle the issues they’re most passionate about. Soon, their stories will make their way to the masses, when Netflix releases the documentary next month.

Anthropocene: The Human Epoch

Directors: Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas De Pencier

No documentary film festival would be complete without a fire and brimstone sermon, and this year’s Doc10 has brought in Anthropocene: The Human Epoch to confirm the terrifying truth we all try to ignore. Playing like a densely packed ecology lecture, this nonfiction epic chronicles humanity’s imposing reengineering of the planet. Told on a massive scale, Baichwal and De Pencier use sweeping overhead shots to look at the damage we’ve caused, as well as the efforts to try and reverse the inevitable. Many of these environmental catastrophes have already been well-documented (rising sea levels, dying coral reefs, carbon dioxide emissions, etc.), but when they are all placed side by side, Anthropocene: The Human Epoch crafts an alarming reminder of the destruction we’ve left in our wake, as well as what little time we have left to save our home.


Biggest Little Farm

Director: John Chester

After a slate that included many bleak, disheartening selections, the festival ended on a note of positivity, with John Chester’s inspirational Biggest Little Farm. The crowd-pleasing story follows Chester and his wife Molly as they venture out to Moorpark, California with the dream of creating a self-sustaining farm. While the feel-good doc can feel a bit overly cutesy in tone (with its childlike illustrations and jangly guitar score), this is a heartwarming tale about the triumph of will and perseverance, as unforeseen roadblocks are overcome with homegrown ingenuity and just the right amount of blind luck. As John and Molly Chester struggle to bring their regenerative utopia to life, Biggest Little Farm is sure to leave audiences feeling all warm and fuzzy inside.

The Infiltrators

Directors: Cristina Ibarra, Alex Rivera

Featuring arguably the festival’s most pressing subject matter, Cristina Ibarra and Alex Rivera’s The Infiltrators takes us inside the cell of an ICE detention center, following Marco Saavedra as he cons his way into imprisonment in order to prevent a father from being deported. By blurring the lines between fiction and nonfiction with staged reenactments, the conflicting styles never fully sync up, and as a result, the film sacrifices some of the gripping immediacy its story would find in a straightforward documentary. Nevertheless, this is an eye-opening account of bureaucracy screwing over immigrants, all while depriving them of an avenue toward freedom. The Infiltrators is a film with a crucial message, but it also aims to provide exhilarating entertainment, making for an impressive tonal tightrope walk Ibarra and Rivera nearly pull off.  

from Brian Thompson – The Young Folks

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