Artful, intelligent and unconventional, the documentaries that get their due at MoMA’s Doc Fortnight showcase each year may not be mainstream, but they don’t aspire to be. This year’s festival is bookended with the fantastic opening night film Machines, first-time filmmaker Rahul Jain’s portrait of a textile factory in India (think Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab with a social compass), and the closing night’s Tip of My Tongue, Lynne Sachs’ oral history gathering of 50-something New Yorkers sharing personal reflections of their lives.

The festival runs February 16–26, with a selection of 20 features and about a dozen short films, coming from all over the world, including Afghanistan, Argentina, China, Egypt, France, Finland, Germany, Senegal, Palestine, and, of course, the U.S. There are two films I’d recommend highly: Austerlitz and Plastic China.

Austerlitz is a voyeuristic head trip: director Sergei Loznitsa leaves cameras in select locations in concentration camps to highlight the phenomenon of Holocaust tourism. You have to have patience, but the film reveals itself as we watch backpacked, sunglass-wearing tourists in shorts milling through remembrances of atrocity. Eventually, you wonder about who’s being judged — them, the Nazis, you. Plastic China is a superb bit of vérité filmmaking about two families that work at the very end of the line of our plastic civilization. They sift through the plastic and detritus to make a living and, for their children, brief flickers of joy. Bleak, bleak, bleak. But Plastic China moves beyond being mired in its overwhelmingly sad subject thanks to its wonderful characters, especially the 11-year-old girl who somehow rises above everything around her. A great moment is when the boss of the operation reveals to the camera his worries about going to the hospital for fear of finding out what ails him and what might happen to his family. When his wife comes on camera telling him to go to the hospital, he rudely shuts her down.

When people are willing to open themselves the camera, and by extension us, it substantiates the power of documentary.

There are other gems here — some a little rough — but each one is off the beaten path, so it will feel like a discovery. The topical Through the Repellent Fence: A Land Art Film focuses on a temporary, two-mile-long art installation that intersected the U.S./Mexico border in October 2015. In Julia Heyward’s 1440 minute-long Italian Perspective, she films movie shoots in a downtown alley through her window. It’ll be playing in the lobby. Warhol would be proud.

Doc Fortnight 2017 guest curator Kathy Brew described to me what sets the festival apart:

“Since it’s beginning in 2001, Doc Fortnight’s founding principle has been to explore the cross-fertilization that exists among experimental, fiction and non-fiction films. Doc Fortnight isn’t a typical film festival with awards, prizes and winners. Our intention is for the series to present a diverse range of innovative new work in terms of styles of nonfiction films, as well as having a good representation of stories from around the world by both established and emerging filmmakers. We focused on work that speaks to our present times, both in terms of content and style. Given that it is a film series that takes place in the Museum of Modern Art, I think there is an added focus and attention to the creative, aesthetic and artful aspects found in nonfiction filmmaking and media.”

Doc Fortnight 2017: MoMA’s International Festival of Nonfiction Film and Media runs through February 26, 2017.

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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