Older readers might remember that, in 2003, the Society for Arts launched the hugely ambitious Chicago International Doc Film Festival, whose first edition ran for ten days and included 29 shorts programs and 45 features (among them Bus 174, The Murder of Emmett Till, The Same River Twice, and OT: Our Town). "Holy mackerel," I thought at the time, "how are they gonna keep this thing going?" Well, they couldn't. The festival was missing in action for 2004, '05, and '06, then returned with a second and final edition in 2007.
Doc10, organized by Chicago Media Project, takes a more measured approach: ten documentaries, all receiving their Chicago premieres, over the course of four days at the Music Box and the Davis Theater.
In the age of fake news and alternative facts, a festival like this is more consequential than ever, not least because the same qualities that can make a documentary come alive—creativity, subjectivity, personality—are the very qualities that invite charges of bias. How are they gonna keep this thing going? I don't know, but I hope they do. —J.R. Jones
Casting JonBenet The unsolved 1996 murder of six-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey generated a tidal wave of tabloid garbage; this documentary by Kitty Green surfs atop it, exploiting the crime no less but giving it an art-film respectability. Two decades after the little girl was killed in Boulder, Colorado, Green shows up to audition local actors for a dramatization of the story, having them read as JonBenet's mother, father, and older brother (all of whom were paraded as suspects by the media) and others involved in the case. These amateur and lightly credentialed performers act out key moments, their work presented in montage, and in interviews with Green they open up about their own memories of the crime and their theories about the family members. One reveals that he's had the experience of finding a person dead, another lets slip that she's lost three children, and another confesses that he once protected his guilty son from the police. This has been described as a hybrid documentary, but the other component appears to be an audience discussion from an afternoon talk show. —J.R. Jones 80 min. Sat 4/1, 7 PM. Davis
- The Cinema Travelers
The Cinema Travelers Director-editors Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya document a hardscrabble company in Maharashtra, India, that goes from one small town to another screening movies from beat-up 35-millimeter projectors. The filmmakers show great affection for the projectionists (some of whom have been with the business for decades) as well as the equipment, with loving close-ups of the men maintaining their machines with monkish devotion. This effectively channels their joy in sharing movies and their spectators' joy in experiencing them; like an Indian counterpart to the wonderful Uruguayan comedy A Useful Life (2010), the movie celebrates the everyday people who thanklessly keep film culture alive. A subtle sense of mortality enters in the final third, when several of the men decide to replace one of their 35-millimeter machines with a digital one and another projectionist discusses his retirement, but on the whole this is lively and life-affirming. In Hindi and Marathi with subtitles. —Ben Sachs 96 min. Sat 4/1, 4 PM. Davis
- Death in the Terminal
Death in the Terminal This horrifying Israeli documentary reconstructs the 18 minutes of chaos that ensued in October 2015 after a Bedouin gunman attacked a bus station in Beersheba; security forces shot the man dead but also fatally wounded a young Eritrean immigrant they mistook for his accomplice, whom bystanders then kicked and bludgeoned as he lay on the floor bleeding. Directors Tali Shemesh and Asaf Sudry anchor their story with security video from inside the station, which shows the brutality against the immigrant unfold, and turn from one witness to the next as they piece together what happened. When the filmmakers conclude by running the video backward, you may be stunned at how quickly a public place can become a war zone and how easily victims can become victimizers. In Hebrew and Tigrinya with subtitles. —J.R. Jones 53 min. Sat 4/1, 9:15 PM. Davis
Obit Patrick Creadon's documentary Wordplay (2005) looked at Will Shortz, creator of the New York Times crossword puzzle, and Andrew Rossi's Page One (2011) focused on reporter David Carr and the paper's media desk; now director Vanessa Gould introduces viewers to Times obituaries editor William McDonald and the handful of writers responsible for summarizing some of the greatest lives ever lived. As reporter Bruce Weber explains, the criterion for inclusion is impact, which is how Leonid Brezhnev might share column space with the inventor of the Slinky, but as the rest of the documentary shows, arriving at a precise statement of that impact can be the hardest part of the job (especially on deadline). Gould secures plenty of nuts-and-bolts detail about the reporting and writing process, which can range from novelistic use of detail to the prosaic but no less critical matter of confirming the death itself. There's also a fascinating tour of the paper's morgue, a vast treasure trove of obscure photographs, articles, and other ephemera that even its owners can no longer fully grasp. —J.R. Jones 93 min. Sun 4/2, 4 PM. Davis
- Rat Film
Rat Film With this debut feature, documentary maker Theo Anthony crafts a convincing analogy between the rat infestation of Baltimore and the issues of race and class that also afflict the city. The movie begins with a dry observation of a rat stuck inside a trash can—rats can jump an average of 32 inches, the monotonous female narrator explains, and Baltimore trash cans are 34 inches high—and the image neatly introduces Anthony's theme: how the structure of a place can stack the odds against those living inside. The metaphor may seem obvious, but Anthony's blend of well-researched scientific and historical background with deep existential questioning recalls Werner Herzog's best work, presenting a fresh take on a centuries-old subject with poetry and urgency. —Leah Pickett 82 min. Fri 3/31, 9:15 PM. Davis
Sweet Dillard James Virga directed this profile of Christopher Dorsey, who leads the jazz ensemble at the Dillard Center School for the Arts in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. 57 min. Screens as part of the opening-night program; tickets are $15. Thu 3/30, 7:30 PM, Music Box, 3733 N. Southport, 773-871-6604, musicboxtheatre.com.
Trophy Documentary makers Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau attack the hunting of big game in Africa, identify foreign industries that have profited from it, and profile individuals who try to save hunted animals from extinction. The directors make little attempt to hide their antihunting bias; indeed the movie sometimes feels smug. Schwarz and Clusiau also come across as glib storytellers, cutting impatiently between several different stories and presenting them in bite-size chunks, as in a TV news broadcast. The flashy visual techniques (overhead shots, slow motion) prove distracting more often than not, though the film does share many useful statistics about the rates at which big game animals have disappeared. In English and subtitled Afrikaans. —Ben Sachs 109 min. Sat 4/1, 1:30 PM. Davis
- Whose Streets?
Whose Streets? Documentary makers Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis spent two years following the civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, after a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black man in 2014. Their movie focuses less on the conflicting details of the shooting or on the global movement it inspired than on the waves of protests and the struggles of local community organizers. But even through this more personal lens, Folayan and Davis take an evenhanded approach: civilians loot stores and burn police cars, whereas police officers fire tear gas and aim rifles at peacefully protesting crowds. The five "chapters" of the film seem arbitrary, though the passage of time allows for some searing moments, like the locals' fight to keep the city from cleaning up a memorial to the victim, Michael Brown Jr., in the street where he died. —Leah Pickett 104 min. Fri 3/31, 6:45 PM. Davis v