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    Documentary lovers, take note! The seventh edition of DOC NYC, America’s largest nonfiction film festival, begins this week, with screenings at Manhattan’s IFC Center, SVA Theatre and Cinepolis Chelsea. The 2016 festival, which runs from Thursday, Nov. 10, to Thursday, Nov. 17, boasts over 250 films and events overall, including 110 feature-length documentaries. Included are 18 world premieres and 19 U.S. premieres, with more than 300 filmmakers and special guests on hand to present and discuss their films. Notable documentarians will be honored at the Visionaries Tribute Awards on Nov. 10, including Jonathan Demme and Stanley Nelson, who are receiving Lifetime Achievement Awards.

    Opening Night film will be Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, directed by Matt Tyrnauer, about writer and activist Jane Jacobs and her fight against NYC’s most ruthless power broker, Robert Moses. Closing Night film will be Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary, directed by John Scheinfeld. In between the two is a dazzling variety of docs divided into several categories: Viewfinders Competition (directorial visions), Metropolis Competition (NYC), American Perspectives, International Perspectives, Fight the Power (activism), Jock Docs (sports), Sonic Cinema (music), Modern Family (unconventional clans), Wild Life (animals), Docs Redux (classics), Art & Design (artists), Behind the Scenes (filmmaking), DOC NYC U (student work), Shorts, plus two new sections, True Crime and Science Nonfiction.

    Here are just a few highlights out of the many worthwhile films on view during DOC NYC 2016:

    Elisabeth Dare

    Photo: Elisabeth Dare

    Unseen (True Crime)
    A sad and deeply unsettling film by Laura Paglin, Unseen recounts the disappearance and murder of 11 African American women in Cleveland’s crack-ridden Mount Pleasant neighborhood at the hands of serial killer Anthony Sowell. Told through first person accounts of victims’ family members and, most chillingly, survivors themselves, the film shows how carelessly violent crime is often investigated in marginalized communities. Though missing persons reports were filed and a few women who managed to escape Sowell’s house of horrors reported their experiences to the police, there was little follow-up. This enabled Sowell, who lived and operated right in the neighborhood, to claim yet more victims until his eventual arrest in 2009. Unseen gives faces, names and lives to these women. (NYC Premiere)
    Friday, Nov. 11, 9:45 pm (Cinepolis Chelsea, 260 W. 23rd St.)
    Thursday. Nov. 17, 12:30 pm (IFC Center, 323 6th Ave.)
    In person: Director Laura Paglin

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    The Lure

    The Lure (Viewfinders)
    Tomas Leach’s atmospheric film follows several participants in the modern-day treasure hunt orchestrated by eccentric art dealer Forrest Fenn, who buried a cache of gold and gems worth millions somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. Amid news updates, gorgeous shots of majestic scenery, and recitations of Fenn’s cryptic, clue-containing poem, Leach tells the stories of various individuals who have made the pursuit of the treasure their life’s work, ranging from  the computer-programmer-turned cowboy who simply wants the bragging rights of discovering the box to the cancer patient who has found something to live for in the hunt. We also hear from Fenn himself, who got the idea after a devastating medical diagnosis and who communicates regularly with the fortune seekers on his blog or in person. Whether it’s the thrill of the chase or the healing effects of the land, everyone involved finds something valuable in their search for the treasure. (World Premiere)
    Sunday. Nov 13, 7:45 pm (Cinepolis Chelsea, 260 W. 23rd St.)
    Tuesday, Nov. 15, 3 pm (IFC Center, 323 6th Ave.)
    In person: Director Tomas Leach

    Winter at Westbeth

    Winter at Westbeth

    Winter at Westbeth (Metropolis)
    Rohan Spong’s poignant doc tells the story of the West Village’s Westbeth Artists Housing complex through the eyes of three longtime residents: 82-year-old poet Ilsa Gilbert, 75-year-old contemporary dancer Dudley Williams, and 95-year-old filmmaker Edith Stephen. When the former Bell Labs building was converted to rent-controlled housing/studios for artists in 1970, it became a haven for these and other creatives, especially as the Village (once a magnet for artists of all stripes) became increasingly unaffordable. Spong includes old photos and early film footage of his three principal subjects, showing the evolution of each artist’s life and work. We learn that though each survived difficult periods, they continued to create and thrive at Westbeth. The film is the ultimate proof of art’s power and a confirmation of its capacity to literally make life worth living. (North American Premiere)
    Wednesday, Nov. 16, 5 pm
    Thursday. Nov. 17, 10:15 pm (Both screenings at IFC Center, 323 6th Ave.)
    In person: Director Rohan Spong

    For a full listing of documentaries and screening/event dates, click here.

    Marina Zogbi

  • Slothrust, Everyone Else

    Brooklyn’s Slothrust will be releasing their second full length album later this week (October 28th) on Dangerbird Records, and if you’re unfamiliar with this trio, it’s time to give them a listen.  The new album titled, Everyone Else grabs you immediately with a surf rock instrumental track that makes you wonder what’s coming next, and then you hear the melancholy vocal intro of track  two- “Like a Child Behind a Tombstone.”  It’s a slow build up into a guitar driven rocker with metaphors abound, and now you’re hooked on lines like, “I think my face looks like glass, but my body feels plastic” and “I feel like a child hiding behind your tombstone.”

    As impressed as I am with Wellbaum’s eloquent lyrics, musically the band has great range. From the punk-esque, Violent Femme’s like, edgey cut, “Trial and Error” to the bluesy “Horseshoe Crab” and the jazz influenced “The Last Time I saw My Horse,” they achieve a range of music that isn’t often heard from today’s one trick pony, cookie-cutter bands.  And if you’re into the more classic rock sound, “Mud”  takes you on quite a journey with a blues inspired intro, to a classic guitar driven, drum heavy rocker. Dare I reference the greatest of the greats Led Zeppelin?

    This is an album for music lovers who can appreciate the achievements of a band that’s hitting it’s stride and has the ability to capture the best of rock, jazz and blues on one album.

    –Frank Jackson

    You can see them live at Irving Plaza on Saturday, October 29th and Rough Trade on Tuesday, November 1st.

    “In comparison to previous albums, it’s slower, more introspective, and patient with itself. The hard, riff-centered jams Slothrust does so well are still there, though this time they feel  more like a means of procrastination.” – Noisey

    “…a rip-roaring quick hit that places Leah Wellbaum’s gravelly voice over some ferocious-sounding guitars.” -Stereogum

    “Listen to songs by Slothrust, and you’ll hear aggressive sounds that hearken back to early-’90s rock bands like Nirvana and Dinosaur Jr. Listen more closely, and you’ll also hear elements of the blues that the band’s members learned when they met in their college’s jazz program.”NPR MUSIC

    “Slothrust exemplify how colorful, fun and insightful rock music can be. The best kind of weird.”CLRVYNT

  • The title of A Stray, a sharply observed and gracefully filmed drama written and directed by Musa Syeed, refers to its teenage protagonist, Adan, a refugee living in Minneapolis’s large Somali community, as well as his canine co-star, Laila, a soulful terrier he reluctantly befriends. Visually, the film is both naturalistic and artful, featuring beautifully framed scenes shot throughout the city.  A Stray seems to be a bittersweet valentine to Minneapolis, whose buildings, bridges, and landmarks (such as the iconic Pillsbury Best Flour sign) are featured prominently. In addition to its glimpses into Somali culture and the day-to-day lives of this particular refugee community, the film has a strong undercurrent of spirituality, with several scenes taking place in a mosque, and various prayers discussed and recited.

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    The story concerns the headstrong Adan (Barkhad Abdirahman, one of the pirates in Captain Phillips), who is thrown out of his mother’s place after she suspects him of stealing jewelry, then flees a temporary crash pad after getting on the nerves of his disreputable friends. Adan initially finds sanctuary in a mosque where a kindly imam lets him stay in exchange for cleaning up the place. Adan asks for advice and a prayer to help him stay out of trouble.

    He finds work at a restaurant through Faisal, one of the mosque’s congregants, but loses the job when his car hits a dog en route to a food delivery. (The zealous Faisal is horrified when Adan brings the pooch back to the mosque, as dogs are traditionally considered impure in Muslim culture.)  The local shelter is closed for the night, so Adan is stuck with the animal, the beginning of their thorny relationship. It’s anything but the typical boy’s-best-friend scenario, complicated by Adan’s religious beliefs and the cold reality that he himself doesn’t have a home or money, let alone resources for a pet. He tries not to touch Laila, but can’t bring himself to abandon her either, spending much of the movie fruitlessly attempting to find her a home.

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    Traversing the city in search of shelter and work with dog in tow, he meets with an FBI agent who gives him money and promises a new phone as well as an apartment in exchange for information about his acquaintances’ ties to Somalia. Adan drops in on his little brother at their mother’s apartment, visits an old girlfriend at a college dorm, and goes to a community center, where a young female volunteer befriends him. At one point he tries to bed down at the Somali Museum of Minnesota, and checks out the Nomad World Pub, among other locales, adding to the film’s travelogue vibe. When Adan stays with a group of homeless American Indians one night, an interesting conversation ensues about his right to be in the U.S., compared with theirs. Under Syeed’s direction, we see beauty in even the most desolate parts of the city.

    Adan finally makes an important decision about what he must sacrifice for a place to call his own. He returns to the mosque and defends himself against Faisal’s accusations. The wise imam–clearly a good guy who sees the good in Adan–tells a parable about a man who lets a thirsty dog drink and is granted heaven. Things begin to look up for Adan, who, though a stray himself, finally believes that he is home.

    Though rambling and directionless at times, A Stray is poignant and evocative, buoyed by Abdirahman’s natural portrayal of a struggling young soul looking for solid ground. It also affords a (rare) illustration of religion practiced fairly and compassionately. Also, and not least, the film shows the invaluable bonds that humans form with animals, and how we can learn about ourselves through them.

    A Stray opens at the Made in NY Media Center by IFP (20 John St., Brooklyn) on Friday, October 21, part of IFP Screen Forward Presents series.

    Marina Zogbi

  • It’s official. The Obamas will be vacating the White House soon. And at their last state dinner, the first lady Michelle Obama wowed the world with a custom, rose gold Atelier Versace gown, made with chainmail.

    President Barack Obama, and first lady Michelle Obama

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    Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/REX/Shutterstock

    This gorgeous number can now be added to a long list of stunners FLOTUS has worn over the years. And from Jason Wu to Vera Wang, Mrs. Obama has represented her country flawlessly decked out in memorable American-designed creations.

    She has also incorporated high fashion from international brands, including Versace.

    President Barack Obama, and first lady Michelle Obama

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    Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/REX/Shutterstock

    Donatella Versace says in a statement: “I am humbled and honored to have the opportunity to dress the first lady of the United States Michelle Obama. Thank you, Michelle, for all of the things you have done for America and for the rest of the world, for the women in the United States and the rest of the world.”

    As E! Online points out, rose gold is on trend thanks to Kylie Jenner’s dyed rose gold hair, and actresses Blake Lively and Emilia Clarke’s gown selections (coincidentally both by Versace) at the recent 2016 Emmy Awards.

    Blake Lively

    rs_1024x759-160511125855-1024-blake-lively-best-dressed-cannes-2016-red-carpet  David Fisher/REX/Shutterstock

    A final thought: Will Michelle Obama’s stunning look serve as a hint to potential daring numbers a FLOTUS might wear in the future? Who knows.

    But one thing is certain: First husband Bill Clinton will not be wearing any future-forward numbers in the near future, and I, for one, am ok with that.

  • Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

    Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

    The story of Theo Padnos, an American journalist captured in 2012 by the Nusra Front (Syrian branch of Al Qaeda), Theo Who Lived is not quite like other hostage accounts, of which there have (sadly) been many. Yes, David Schisgall’s documentary concerns an idealistic do-gooder who puts himself in danger and it includes the familiar details of captors who veer from friendly to cruel, as well as the grim specifics of interrogation and torture, of terrible deprivations and conditions. Theo Who Lived, however, consists almost entirely of Padnos reliving his ordeal by revisiting various locales of his 22-month captivity, as he narrates his story with good humor, even wit.

    A genial, often rather naïve-seeming sort, Padnos was a struggling writer from Vermont who thought he’d kick-start his journalism career by writing a story about Syrian refugees for The New Republic. In the film, he acknowledges being a lifelong risk taker, but also questions why he ever put himself in such a dangerous situation. He walks us through Antakya (Antioch), Turkey—a city where journalists, fighters and other interested parties gathered before crossing the border into Syria and shows us the house he shared with several roommates as well as the house where his kidnappers lived (and may still live). In Syria Padnos shows us the very room where he interviewed young men he thought we members of the Free Syrian Army, until they suddenly began beating him, declaring him their prisoner. Remarkably, he is able to provide the details of this horrific moment with candor and relative composure.

    In Vermont, we meet Theo’s mother Nancy, as well as his cousin Viva, who—with other relatives—launched into the long, often frustrating search for an American hostage in the Middle East.

    theo-desert

    After an escape attempt, Padnos was tortured both physically and mentally, with constant threats of immediate execution. (Because he speaks Arabic, it was assumed he’s with the CIA.)  Somehow, he always sees the humanity in his captors, acknowledging that the families of the boys who take part in his beatings had probably been through hell. He also gets what many don’t—that these young guys were having “the time of their lives” in groups like Nusra, with free weapons, camaraderie, and the awesome prize of an American hostage.

    At one point he asked for a cellmate and got Matthew Schrier, who turned  out to be a less than ideal companion. Though they both planned an escape, only Schrier made it. We see the interviews he subsequently gave on CNN and 60 Minutes, probably also seen by Padnos’s captors, who amped up the torture. We visit the tiny cell in which he was then kept for 200 days. He describes, almost jokingly, how he would sit against different walls to break up the monotony. To stay sane, he began writing a novel on paper and pens supplied by his young captors who were fascinated and entertained by his readings from the work, like a modern-day Arabian Nights. “It soothed the poison out of them,” he notes.

    Around this time, James Foley was kidnapped and Nancy befriended his mother, a fellow New Englander, as they shared a terrible burden. Nancy describes how she unsuccessfully tried to bargain with her son’s captors who demanded an exorbitant sum for Theo’s release. (Unlike other countries, the U.S. government refuses to negotiate with terrorists.)

    Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

    Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

    At one point, with Al Qaeda competitors ISIS threatening his captors (another interesting complication), Padnos was moved to another location and gained the favor of the group’s chief. Taking advantage, he tried another escape, only to be brought back to his captors once again. Just when it seemed like the end, Foley was executed on videotape to the horror of the world, and everything changed for Theo.

    Though some may be annoyed by Padnos’s blithe idealism and seemingly blind willingness to put himself in danger, one can’t help but be moved by his humanity. (After his release, he continued to advocate for Syria, volunteering to help refugees on the island of Lesbos.) The fact that he still harbors any good will seems miraculous, but his obvious need to connect with other human beings undoubtedly helped keep him alive in the first place. Though we will (and should) never be as reckless, we could all learn something from Theo.

    Theo Who Lived opens on Friday at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

    Marina Zogbi