DOC NYC kicks off today and programming head Basil Tsiokos has already given us a word—association guide but I want to mention ten films that I’ve seen and would heartily recommend. Thanks to the DOC NYC Short List, which includes the year’s most popular, best reviewed and celebrated documentaries (Weiner, 13th, Gleason, OJ: Made in America…), there are plenty of films that are probably already on your radar. Here, I will put forth ten you may not know about.

The Opening Night film, Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, deserved its prime spot as it deftly and comprehensively tells the remarkable story of Jane Jacobs, who redefined 20th century urban planning with her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities and her life as an activist. I was deeply disturbed by Beware the Slenderman, about two young girls who are inspired by an online meme to try to kill their friend, because the film controversially depicts the point of view of the assailants. Cameraperson is another switch on perspective; veteran documentary director of photography Kirsten Johnson takes the director’s chair to provide a memoir through the films she’s worked on. A long-shot for an Oscar-nomination, the Italian film, Fire At Sea, is a vérité portrait of the refugee crisis pouring out of Africa and the Middle-East to Europe. The film takes its time. But stay for the end, when you are ultimately confronted with the grim reality. Food Evolution is a surprising counter-offensive on the anti-GMO crusade that many of us have taken for granted. God Knows Where I Am is a bit of a sleeper but a real gem, a dramatic story about mental illness told primarily through the journal entries of a woman whom we painfully see slip away. Author and intellectual James Baldwin talks his way to dizzying heights in I Am Not Your Negro; I sure wish we had him here and now to distill our state of the nation. I wasn’t expecting much from another film about a photographer but The Incomparable Rose Hartman gets under its subject through the hilarious tension between director and subject. Life, Animated may have been one of the more touted films coming into 2016 but it disappeared at the box office so I have no reservations reminding all to see this tear-jerking, inspirational tale of a young man’s bridge from isolation due to autism thanks to his identification with Disney animated characters. Another story of mental disability (a worthy theme) is Off the Rails, a real New York story about a young man obsessed with trains who commandeered them (and buses) in a portrait of odd-ball pathology.

Oh, and by the way, here are the ten docs I most want to see at the festival [preview capsules written by DOC NYC]:

Diving Into the Unknown
After a diving expedition in an underwater cave results in tragedy, two Finnish divers seem forever lost. Unable to recover their remains safely, authorities call off their investigation and bar further diving. Determined to honor their fallen comrades and bring closure to their families, surviving team members plan a dangerous covert operation to return to the cave and retrieve their friends. Diving Into the Unknown follows their harrowing mission as they confront their own fears in the name of brotherhood. (84 min.)
(US Premiere)

David Lynch: The Art Life
While known for his distinctive, dreamlike films like Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive, David Lynch began his creative explorations through art, originally training as a painter in Philadelphia. David Lynch: The Art Life grants viewers unparalleled, intimate access to the enigmatic auteur while he works in his painting studio. Early memories and reflections on his formative years through the triumph of Eraserhead reveal eerie connections to his body of work, making this portrait an indispensable look at an artist and his process. Courtesy of Janus Films. Opens Spring 2017. (93 min.)
(North American Premiere)

Every Brilliant Thing
When he is only seven years old, Jonny Donahoe’s mother attempts suicide for the first time. The young boy responds the only way he knows how: he begins an enumerated list of “brilliant things” worth living for, from “things with stripes” to “water fights.” As he grows, so does the list, following Jonny through subsequent suicide attempts by his mother as well as pivotal moments in his own life, and culminating in its development into a poignant and very funny one-man show featuring creative audience participation. Emmy Award® winners randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey – also on DOC NYC’s Short List with Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures – direct this filmed version of Donahoe’s acclaimed and life-affirming show. The screening will be followed by an extended conversation. Courtesy of HBO Documentary Films. (61 min.)
(World Premiere)

Letters from Baghdad
A fearless adventurer, spy and political powerhouse, Gertrude Bell was a true original and the most powerful woman in the British Empire in her day. Letters from Baghdad tells the story of this complex woman who helped shape the modern Middle East after World War I in ways that still reverberate today. This documentary draws upon a treasure trove of archival footage and Bell’s letters, voiced by Tilda Swinton, to help restore her rightful place in history. (95 min.)
(North American Premiere)

Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures
Robert Mapplethorpe emerged from the vibrant 1970s New York art scene where he bonded with Patti Smith and partnered with art collector Sam Wagstaff. Mapplethorpe’s photography spanned explicit gay sadomasochistic sex, but also stunning pictures of flowers. In 1989, the year he died of AIDS, he was denounced in Congress by Senator Jesse Helms. Filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (The Eyes of Tammy Faye) don’t hold back in confronting Mapplethorpe’s personal complexities or public provocations. Courtesy of HBO Documentary Films. (108 min.)

Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing
On April 15, 2013, two bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring hundreds of others. Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg’s powerful film reveals the immediate impact of the terrorist attack on Boston as the city goes on lockdown and a manhunt ensues for the bombers, soon revealed as two brothers, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. running parallel to the FBI’s investigation are the affecting stories of several survivors who suffered serious injuries in the bombing. Marathon follows them over the course of three years as they contend with the aftermath, showing physical and emotional fortitude in the face of tragedy. Courtesy of HBO Documentary Films. (106 min.)
(NYC Premiere)

The Peacemaker
Padraig O’Malley is legendary among the international human rights community for being a negotiator in crisis zones from Northern Ireland to Kosovo to Iraq. He funds his efforts as the co-owner of a bar in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But he also struggles with addictions to alcohol and work. We meet Padraig in the third act of his life as he strives to find salvation in conflict zones, his personal relationships and within himself. (90 min.)
(NYC Premiere)

From executive producer Bill Moyers and a team of producers that includes Marc Levin (Class Divide) comes the first film to focus exclusively on former detainees of Rikers Island, offering searing testimonials about the deep-seated culture of systemic violence and corruption that has plagued the notorious NYC jail for decades. From the trauma of entry, through the jail’s brutal systems of control and punishment, to the challenges of life after prison, Rikers serves as an indictment of mass incarceration. (64 min.)
(World Premiere)

The Road
As part of a $586 billion infrastructure development plan, the Chinese government begins building the massive Xu-Huai Highway. Director Zhang Zanbo provides an in-depth look at the impact of the corruption-filled project in rural Hunan province. Representing the subcontracted construction company, professional problem solver Mr. Meng must contend with the complaints of displaced locals and regional bureaucracy. Meanwhile, exploited laborers face dangerous working conditions and broken promises. When an inspector finds numerous violations, will the project’s future be threatened? (95 min.)
(NYC Premiere)

The University
Imagine the possibilities of today’s brightest minds dreaming up the world of the future. Singularity University, the brainchild of renowned futurist Ray Kurzweil and entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, exists for this purpose. With the support of NASA and Google, this Silicon Valley think tank gives enterprising minds a crash course in exponential technologies, then challenges them to create startups that will impact a billion people within a decade. Over five years, The University follows their bold efforts to change the world. (82 min.)
(NYC Premiere)

DOC NYC runs from November 10 – 17. For more information about screenings and events, visit

Get more documentary film news and features: Subscribe to POV’s documentary blog, like POV on Facebook or follow us on Twitter @povdocs!

Published by

Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen