Today is the beginning of the second annual DOC NYC documentary festival, which is a huge bonus round of extraordinary choices for those of us in the Big Apple with a preference for nonfiction cinema. It also should be a destination for those outside New York, especially if you want to be schooled in documentary history via the very necessary Richard Leacock retrospective and catch up with some of my favorite underrated docs of the year, including in-competition works Kumare (my review), Scenes of a Crime (my review) and Unraveled (if you’re not mad at the 1% yet, here is a terrific inciter), as well as A Good Man and the delightfully, surprisingly romantic Stan Lee bio, With Great Power (my review), both of which are part of the fest’s new Icons section.
DOC NYC is also a must if you appreciate post-screening discussions prone to surprises. While it’s hard to imagine anything this year topping Joyce McKinney’s stupendous hijacking of the Tabloid event last fall, we can always depend on outrageous statements and actions from Werner Herzog, in town for his new Death Row doc Into the Abyss (my review) and his personally narrated reworking of Dmitry Vasyukov’s Happy People: A Year in the Taiga. And also from Michael Moore, who will moderate the Q&A with director Jon Shenk for Tuesday’s gala screening of audience favorite (and buzzed Oscar contender) The Island President (my review).
This year I’m also excited about the potential for new developments in the world of documentary, such as the big deal already announced this week, Morgan Spurlock’s “Launch PAD” initiative. The idea of this program is clearly inspired by the director’s recent film POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (my review) and will similarly work with brands to sponsor new documentaries, assisting specifically in the financing of prints, advertising and distribution (hence the PAD acronym). The four titles already selected to launch the initiative, which was co-created by DOC NYC artistic director Thom Powers, are Undefeated, Lemon, Knuckleball and another of my faves this year, First Position (my review).
For the past two days, since the announcement of Launch PAD, I’ve been extremely curious about which products could be partnered up with these initial docs. Where the brands aligned with Greatest Movie were pretty random, mostly for appropriately humorous purpose for the film’s gag and gimmick, I figure Launch PAD’s partnerships will involve more relevant products. With two of them sports films and the other two about performance, I presume some kind of beverage would befit each title. These are works that should dehydrate you just watching them. But that sort of branding will get old, especially after Spurlock’s own film was primarily brought to us by pomegranate juice.
What might be more tolerable about Launch PAD over Greatest Movie is that these branded opportunities will not require any product placement. For the most part they couldn’t anyway, since Spurlock and co. seem to be mainly choosing films that are already completed (Knuckleball, however, is currently a work-in-progress). They’ll probably just have an extended “[Such and Such] Presents…” title, which is nothing to us at a time when brands and logos are plastered to everything (especially, of course, film festivals). Yet it does seem to be adding to the whole problem Spurlock was satirically addressing with his doc in the first place. Isn’t Launch PAD bordering on contradiction for the filmmaker?
Some issues I expect to encounter with the program as it’s fleshed out correlate with faults I had with Greatest Movie, but the originality problem is not one of them. Documentaries have historically been sponsored by or affiliated with brands, just not always so blatantly as this might be. And since these won’t be for the sake of corporate propaganda like Robert Flaherty’s Louisiana Story (screening tomorrow night as part of he Leacock program), which was commissioned by uncredited financer Standard Oil, it should be easier to ignore and forgive the branding here as merely supportive patronage.
One of my immediate questions for Launch PAD, which might not be answered in the affiliated DOC NYC panel on branded content taking place today, or anytime soon, is how limiting will the initiative be in terms of dismissing huge chunks of the documentary mode. Obviously there are a lot of nonfiction films that don’t welcome simple branding nor easy endorsement. So much of documentary is meant to provoke debate, if not full-on controversy, and many others are also concentrated on difficult topics like politics, war, poverty and genocide. Imagine brands being affixed to films like Inside Job, Restrepo or any Holocaust doc.
Then again, I would have been okay with either Hasbro or Mattel presenting Marwencol, which could've used the marketing money more than those hot button types. And maybe this will actually help with the kind of entertaining nonfiction films that aren’t associated with any issue or cause or agenda. The artsier docs that are made primarily to tell stories, many of them far more cinematic works than the activism films, are often the most in need of patrons. The Cinema Eye Honors are an amazing support for and spotlight on docs like The Arbor, Senna, Nostalgia for the Light, Bombay Beach, Dragonslayer, Family Instinct, Position Among the Stars, Shut Up Little Man! and many others (see this year’s nominees here), but they can’t keep doing it alone.
Now, if only all of them were as easily sponsorable as the skateboard doc (Dragonslayer). Who wants to put money into the one about sibling incest (Family Instinct)? Good luck to Launch PAD. They've got some hard work ahead of them.
Other than Into the Abyss, which hits theaters next week, and which I only really recommend to die hard Herzog fans, I want to call attention to The Other F Word, which profiles a slew of grown-up punk rockers (of the L.A. and Bay Area scenes), including Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Fat Mike (NOFX), Art Alexakis (Everclear), Mark Hoppus (Blink-182), Duane Peters (U.S. Bombs), skater Tony Hawk and, most prominentely, Jim Lindberg (Pennywise). What they all have in common is they sold out -- I mean settled down and had children. The other "f word" is namely "fatherhood" though it also applies to "family," "food" and other words generally pertaining to adulthood. Lindberg is likely the main subject because he wrote the obvious inspiration, a memoir called "Punk Rock Dad: No Rules, Just Life," plus he has an actual ongoing narrative throughout the film.
It's the most endearing and potentially tearjerking documentary about punks you'll ever see. Could you ever have expected that a pseudo sequel to films like Penelope Spheeris's The Decline of Western Civilizaiton and Suburbia would elicit so many responses of "awwwww"? If so, you're probably a former punk who has grown up, too, and this is made just for you. Those still in the gutter might not be so interested. Even I expect to relate more to the thesis once I've had kids. But I wonder if many women, with or without children, will feel sadly unrepresented. Few wives are seen in the film and they aren't given any real focus. Meanwhile, there are certainly a whole ton of female punks who have similarly grown up and had families. It's especially surprising since the film is directed by a woman (Oscar nominee Andrea Blaugrund). I do hope The Other F Word is a success, because it really calls for a sequel, maybe something called "The Other Parent."
As for home video releases, I think everyone should check out Tabloid if you're not in the NYC area, so you can pretend you're at last year's DOC NYC festival. Just be sure to play that Joyce McKinney invasion clip after it's over. Also, one of my favorite underappreciated docs of the year, Kevin Macdonald's Life in a Day arrives on DVD and Blu-ray next Tuesay (my review from Sundance). It's a far more stunning and riveting film than you might imagine given that it's crowdsourced and sponsored by YouTube, so the latter is probably the way to go. But if you're impatient and are fine with lesser quality video, you can stream the whole thing for free down below.
I'll be back with another Doc Talk column in two weeks. Until then you can follow me on Twitter @thefilmcynic and at the DOC Channel Blog.