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Now Playing! At DocLands, Creativity of Artists and Ordinary Folks Shines

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Still from 'Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)' (DocLands)

I’m tempted to say that the pandemic has been crueler to narrative filmmakers than to documentarians, for the obvious reason that it slammed the door on rehearsals and shoots. But my only real evidence is anecdotal, namely the preponderance of new docs on display locally at last month’s International Ocean and Livable Planet Film Festivals, next month’s DocFest and the front-and-center DocLands, running May 7–16 online and at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.

To be sure, some of the selections of the Mill Valley Film Festival’s nonfiction offshoot have already screened hereabouts via the online/drive-in Sundance and/or SFFILM Festivals. Here’s another chance to see Debbie Lum’s verité portrait of a year at Lowell High, Try Harder! (streaming May 14-16 only), Mariem Pérez Riera’s Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It (May 9-11, ahead of its June theatrical release) and Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir (at the Rafael May 9 with the author in person, and May 11; also streaming for free on the PBS website until May 17).

A couple other energetic cultural explorations make the Bay Area scene between their Sundance debuts and upcoming theatrical runs. Edgar Wright’s ear- and eye-opening The Sparks Brothers reflects and remixes the long-running musical creativity of L.A. siblings Russell and Ron Mael, while Questlove’s crowd-rousing Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) excavates the rhythmic and bluesy tapes of the summer-long 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival featuring Sly & the Family Stone, Nina Simone and other showstoppers.

Still from ‘The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel.’ (DocLands)

Local filmmaker Sachi Cunningham pairs with Vayabobo to profile multimedia artist and performer Bill Shannon, who transformed his childhood illness (Perthes disease, a degenerative hip condition) into the foundation of his movement-oriented work, in Crutch. Life and art also intersect with thunderous force in Rosalynde LeBlanc and Tom Hurwitz’s Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters, which entwines the history of the choreographer’s 1989 ballet with a contemporary staging by dancers born after the AIDS pandemic.

Making art is a life’s work, and we frequently discount that aspect of an artist’s career. At the same time, we often invest artmaking with more status (and glamour) than other forms of work. The labor-focused filmmakers Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, who won the Best Documentary Feature Oscar a year ago for American Factory (Netflix), have long recognized the dignity of blue-collar jobs and are rightfully recognized with this year’s DocLands Honors Award.


Reichert and Bognar’s latest film, the historical doc 9to5: Story of a Movement, played the Mill Valley Film Festival last fall and returns to stream at DocLands with three of their recent short films. For those on the budget (like aspiring filmmakers), the festival streams an interview with the filmmakers plus a virtual screening of their 2009 featurette, The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant, for free.

The essay film may be my favorite documentary form, although it’s typically too challenging (not enough story) or too personal (not enough distance) to be widely appreciated. Theo Anthony’s Sundance prize-winning All Light, Everywhere (streaming, and May 7 at the Rafael; opens in June) uses police bodycams as the lens (pun intended) through which to view big, basic building blocks of perception and technology, and the societal implications of individual decisions and biases.

Still from ‘The Magnitude of All Things.’ (DocLands)

The Canadian filmmaker Jennifer Abbott is represented by two troubling opuses that take vastly different approaches to global threats. The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel (streaming May 13–15 only), co-directed with Joel Bakan, updates her 2003 film (also based on Bakan’s writings) to assess the effects of profit-centered companies on not just climate change but personal freedoms.

In The Magnitude of All Things (May 8 at the Rafael, streaming May 14–16 only), Abbott poetically links her grief for the sister she lost to cancer to the traumas of indigenous people witnessing the erosion or destruction of their habitats in the Arctic, the Ecuadorian Amazon, Canada and Australia. An elegy that acknowledges we are all part of the planet’s sickness, The Magnitude of All Things is perhaps best appreciated by those who feel alone in their despair.

It’s not surprising that a film about grief can prove comforting, but it doesn’t lend itself to a fizzy marketing slogan. Let’s just say that Abbott manages to find some light amid the coming devastation, in the character, creativity and determination of ordinary people. Come to think of it, that last bit pretty well sums up DocLands.

DocLands streams online May 7–16, with several in-person screenings at the Smith Rafael Film Center. Details here.

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