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Doc10 Festival 2021: Three Highlights of a Powerful Year

"Pray Away"

Chicago’s Doc10 has quickly become one of the most interesting film events in the Midwest, a highly curated selection of ten non-fiction films. The producers of this festival not only have a remarkably high standard but have a clear purpose when it comes to assembling an overall program that reflects the state of the world for that year. 2021’s offerings brought up issues of race, sexuality, violence, and more hot topics, but the program as a whole never felt didactic or insincere. 

The art of the documentary film is embraced here, including films by recognized talents like Morgan Neville, Bing Liu, and Nanfu Wang along with newcomers like the singular Questlove. I had a chance to screen 80% of the titles last week, missing “Ailey” because it came in too late (although Nick Allen covered it out of Sundance here) and not having time to revisit the amazing “Summer of Soul (or When the Revolution Could Not be Televised),” but I will do so about 45 times after it premieres on Hulu next month. (More on how much I love that film here.) Rather than roll through thoughts on eight films, I thought I’d pick out my favorites, but I have to say that almost all of them worked for me, which is a remarkably high batting average for any festival. Other than these three, I’d also strongly recommend “My Name is Pauli Murray,” “Dear Mr. Brody,” and especially “In the Same Breath,” which may have been the best from Doc10 this year and which Nick Allen covered out of Sundance. We will review in more depth when it lands on HBO. It’s great. Three more titles to watch for on the documentary horizon that had their Chicago premiere at Doc10:

“All These Sons”

Bing Liu’s follow-up to his Oscar-nominated “Minding the Gap,” co-directed by award-winning editor Joshua Altman, succumbs to a small degree of sophomore slump, but it’s a valuable piece of work, especially given how much it feels like it’s in conversation with the director’s breakthrough. This is arguably a more ambitious film in that Liu takes his camera out of his own life to the South and West sides of Chicago to unpack the violence that’s tearing these communities apart, and he once again digs into cycles, revealing how so many young men are influenced by an absence of leaders in their life. How we define masculinity was a major theme of “Minding the Gap,” and it feels almost here like Liu is taking those ideas out of his life and into the violent areas of Chicago, focusing on groups made of young men on the edge of making decisions that will ruin their lives forever. Liu and Altman follow three people on their journey and what really elevates the film is how they get their subjects to open up, discussing their pasts and futures in ways they never have before. It’s a powerful piece of work that really exhibits Liu and Altman’s deep empathy, asking people to look beyond the headlines about violence on the streets of Chicago to really see the people who live on them. The film is still seeking distribution but will certainly find it soon.

“Pray Away”

Netflix already has the rights to Kristine Stolakis’ devastating “Pray Away,” a breakdown of the conversion therapy movement from the people who led it. Much more than just a recounting of how religion, politics, and sexuality can blend into what is quite literally a deadly dynamic for young people, “Pray Away” tells the story of Exodus, the country’s largest conversion therapy group, from the leaders of the program, all of whom now regret the pain they’ve caused. The film walks a very fine line, deftly challenging the formation of a group like Exodus without villainizing religion or the people who turned this movement into one of the most powerful political groups in the world—"Pray Away" makes a strong cause that California’s Proposition 8 wouldn’t have passed without it. The interviews here feel almost confessional—I’ll never forget one man’s response to the accusation that he has blood on his hands—as men and women reveal how they not only believed in conversion therapy but really helped build it as a movement that may not have the strength it once did but is not gone. To that end, Stolakis follows a young man as he preaches the power of God to “cure” homosexuality, detailing his past “sins” as a transgender man and trying to convince others to turn to Jesus. There’s a shot at a party where Slovakis’ camera captures him in an emotional state, and while I think what he’s doing to people by preaching homosexuality as an abomination is incredibly dangerous, I found myself feeling deep sympathy for him, and hoping that he ends up as enlightened as the others in “Pray Away,” and before he does more damage to himself and others. What Exodus lacked was the empathy that drives this film.

“Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain

I’m going to dig deeper into Morgan Neville’s latest with a full review for its July release, but you should know now that this is one of the best documentaries of 2021, an engaging and empathetic portrait of a complex man that doesn’t just provide biography as much as it does insight into the human condition. Neville has an incredible ability when it comes to matching the tone of his subjects—“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” had the warmth of Mister Rogers, for example—and here he captures the same conflicted wavelength of Anthony Bourdain, someone who encouraged everyone to travel instead of just being a tourist. See other cultures, eat other food, feel other things—he was such a deeply fascinating and compassionate man, but he also seemed uncomfortable in his own skin at times, uncertain how he should respond to what he was seeing on his journeys and what he was feeling when he got home. With amiable interviews with people who knew him best, “Roadrunner” becomes a vision of a restless soul, a man who loved just sitting down for a nice meal with a good friend as much as he did traveling to a far corner of the world. I miss Anthony Bourdain, and I used to have a hard time pinning down my respect and admiration for him. I don't anymore. (It will be in theaters on July 16, 2021.)

 

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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