DOC NYC 2023 Part 1: Social Issue Docs & “The Smell of Money”

    This year’s DOC NYC, the biggest documentary film festival in the U.S., didn’t have as many blockbuster docs as last year (“The Beauty and the Bloodshed,” for example) or as many films about the arts (my own favorite doc sub-genre) but, as usual, the slate was huge (over 100 films) and full of insightful and piercing examinations of social and cultural issues in this country and the world. Here are some of my favorite social issue docs from the festival. (I’ll be writing about the cultural docs separately soon.)

    How to Have an American Baby” documents the phenomenon of Chinese women visiting Los Angeles during the last trimester of their pregnancies, in order to gain American citizenship for their babies. A shadow industry–maternity hotels–has been created to help them: for tens of thousands of dollars they get to live in apartments in LA neighborhoods, have meals delivered each day, get nannies to keep them company and receive advice about which doctors and hospitals to choose for the birth of their children.

    Directed and photographed by Leslie Tai, the film alternates the stories of several women who live in these “hotels” and their varying experiences, some fortunate, some traumatic. One woman’s difficult but successful child birth is contrasted with another’s tragedy as her child dies only hours after a very painful delivery. Everyone involved–food delivery workers, nannies, nurses, the business people who set up the hotels–speaks of the problems providing this avenue for Chinese families to get “anchor babies” born in the U.S. Meanwhile, locals complain at town meetings about the dangers the industry is bringing to their neighborhoods.

    The practice of birth tourism is not illegal as long as the mother indicates she intends to do this on her visa application. Some agents, however, advise the women not to reveal this, endangering their status later. Some of the women are mistresses of rich Chinese men and having a baby at home would grant the child an illegal status. When an anchor baby becomes 21, he or she could apply to sponsor the entire family as American citizens. This and avoiding future political unrest in China are common reasons these women take such risks.

    Chinese birth tourism came to a stop during the pandemic and it is unclear if it will resume. Tai’s intimate and deeply compelling film captures the heartbreaking difficulties and hardships these women experienced to try to guarantee a better future for their children. It’s also a reminder of the uneven development of maternity options and support worldwide.

    “How to Have an American Baby” will air on POV on PBS December 11.

    20 Days in Mariupol” (which also aired recently on PBS’s series “Frontline”) has won many awards already for its unique footage of the Russian invasion of the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol in the early days of the ongoing war. It was directed by Ukrainian journalist Mstyslav Chernov whose crew remained in Mariuipol during the Russian siege to let the world know about the many civilians who were being killed during the assault.

    As Chernov points out in an article he wrote about the film, the Russians cut electricity and communications in the city so that they could commit atrocities with impunity. Chernov and his colleagues were dedicated to getting this information and sending it to the outside world. Getting the footage was very dangerous and getting it out was also difficult. They found there was only spot in the entire city where their cellphones could send the videos to their media outlet (the Associated Press). One of the most broadcasted pieces they filmed were of victims pulled out of a maternity hospital bombed by the Russians.

    Ukraine soldiers were tasked to help the crew escape in fears that if they were captured Russians would make them lie about the authenticity of their footage. They drove a car through 15 Russian check points and finally made it out. As we’ve seen most recently in the Gaza Strip, it is becoming increasingly common for war correspondents to be killed as belligerents no longer seem obligated to protect journalists, hospitals or civilians during military campaigns.

    Beyond Utopia” is a breathtaking document of the harrowing experiences North Korean defectors endure to escape life in the most brutal dictatorship on earth. South Korean Pastor Seungeun Kim has spent years as part of an underground railroad advising and brokering escapes for North Koreans. When a family including an 80-year-old grandmother cross the Yalu river into China, Pastor Kim is called in to organize an escape that includes a dangerous and long car journey to Vietnam and a long trek by foot through a Laotian jungle to reach refuge in Thailand. The corrupt brokers lead the exhausted defectors in circles in the jungle, demanding more money. This sequence, filmed with iPhones by crew members, is especially grueling as we wonder if an elderly woman can endure this–she does.

    Another woman’s attempt to help her son escape and join her in South Korea ends in tragedy as the boy is caught and tortured. The families of North Koreans who defect, we are told, are subject to huge penalties, sometimes death. Directed by Madeleine Gavin, the film (which won an audience award at Sundance) also details the propaganda Kim Jong Un’s government feeds their citizens, painting North Korea as the best of places, a country “beyond utopia.” Children are given lessons depicting “American Bastards” as vicious killers and rapists. The grandmother who escapes still admires the Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un, until she learns more about him and her country of origin in a re-education process required for all defectors.

    “Beyond Utopia” is an eye-opening and nerve-wracking look at the horrible lives and options 26 million North Koreans continue to endure.

    Maite Alberdi’s “The Eternal Memory” is lovely portrait of two remarkable Chileans, TV journalist Augusto Góngora and his wife Paulina Urrutia, a popular actress and activist. Góngora spent much of his career investigating the atrocities committed by the Pinochet dictatorship. Several years ago he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. His wife is his caretaker now and the film captures her struggle to help him maintain as much of his identity as possible.

    Mediha,” which won the Grand Jury prize at the festival, is a portrait by Hasan Oswald of a teenage Yazidi girl from Northern Iraq who was captured and enslaved for a period by ISIS. Oswald gave Mediha and her brother cameras and encouraged them to film themselves as they talk about the genocide and its aftermath. The result is a uniquely intimate portrait of survivors of an unspeakable atrocity.

    (These last three documentaries are all set in my home state of North Carolina.)

    In 2015, three Muslim-American students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina were murdered by a white neighbor who claimed he killed them because they kept blocking his parking space. “36 Seconds: Portrait of a Hate Crime” is Tarek Albaba’s powerful record of the victims’ family’s search for justice. Even though the perpetrator Craig Stephen Hicks was charged with three counts of murder, he wasn’t charged with a hate crime. Local authorities said it was a “dispute over parking” and they detected no racial bias by Hicks. The documentary shows that Hicks (who cracks jokes as he brushes off his actions while interviewed by police investigators) was indeed intolerant of both Muslims and Christians, idolized the 1993 film “Falling Down” and owned multiple guns!

    Silver Dollar Road” tells the amazing story of a black family on the coast of North Carolina whose 65 acres of land was taken away from them by an unscrupulous developer. The Reels family bought the land during the Reconstruction period. During the first part of the 20th century the beach on their land was the only one in the county that welcomed African-Americans. When their grandfather died without a will, an estranged uncle sold the land without authorization to a white real estate developer. Two of the siblings disputed this exploitation of “heir’s property” and spent eight years in prison for civil contempt, a charge later overturned. Directed by Raoul Peck (whose 2016 film, “I Am Not Your Negro” was nominated for an Oscar) and based on a ProPublica article, this is a fascinating portrait of a strong American family fighting still existing state laws designed to help dispossess blacks of land ownership.

    “Silver Dollar Road” would make a good double feature with a new doc that wasn’t included in the festival, “The Smell of Money.” It recounts the attempt by Elsie Herring and other black residents who live near Smithfield pork farms in Eastern North Carolina to get the factories to stop polluting their air, water and soil.

    People in the pork business call the foul smell “the smell of money” but for these neighbors, it is only a foul (and life threatening) aroma. Pig feces are collected in huge outdoor pools called “lagoons” to make them sound less gross. The overfill is sprayed on land adjacent to these black families’ properties. One environmental activist in the film points out that, “Whatever white people don’t want in their backyards, come to Eastern North Carolina and we’ll show it to you, because it’s here.”

    Director Shawn Bannon has captured wonderful interviews with Herring and others in which they detail the frustrations they met trying to fight this environmental racism–the Smithfield corporation has a lot of political power in North Carolina. Also a sickening portrait of the realities of factory farming, let’s hope this film encourages NC residents to confront their representatives and demand reforms.

    “The Smell of Money” will be available for streaming beginning December 12.

    Latest articles

    More Reviews