Hot Documentaries @ New York Film Festival 2013

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The program of the 51st edition of the celebrated New York Film Festival, taking place from September 27 to October 17, 2013, has an uncharacteristic focus on nonfiction films that definitely enrich the overall program. Make it a priority to see these highly recommended films:

At Berkeley – Directed by Fredrick Wiseman – This observational 244 minute tour of the campus, classrooms and behind-the-scenes administrative confabs at the University of California Berkeley is fascinating. Read my full review.

Tim’s Vermeer – Directed by Teller – With extraordinary wit and charm, this exceptional art documentary follows inventor Tim Jenison on an intellectual odyssey as he delves into the work of Johannes Vermeer, the 17th century Dutch master whose unparalleled realism on canvas has baffled art experts for centuries. After careful consideration of the master’s work, Jenison comes to the conclusion that Vermeer had help — in the form of an optical instrument that enabled the artist to capture images with photographic exactitude. Jenison looks for solutions and eventually comes up with a sort of mirror device with which he — a non-painter — can transfer two and three-dimensional images on to a canvas. Jenison’s thought process and invention are fascinating, as is the film. Tim’s Vermeer is an eye-opening must see! Read my full review.

The Last of the Unjust – Directed by Claude Lanzmann – This extraordinarily compelling Holocaust documentary is Lanzmann’s 240-minute long interview with Benjamin Murmelstein, who, as the last president of the Theresienstadt Jewish Council, was forced to negotiate with Adolph Eichmann on a daily basis from 1938 until the end of World War II for life essentials and the actual lives of Jews who were interred in the Nazis’ model concentration camp. The film presents a harrowing view of a rarely discussed and little known dimension of the Holocaust. Some archival footage is used to support Murmelstein’s comments, but his descriptions of what occurred in the camp are galvanizing. Painful as the experience might be, it is important to see and study this remarkable documentary.

The Square – Directed by Jahane Noujaim – Using footage from 20 months of shooting in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Noujaim chronicles the ongoing demonstrations and popular uprising that lead to the fall of Hosni Mubarak and the beginning of the Arab Spring. Important incidents and the evolution of events is seen from the perspectives of participants in the uprising, four of whom are liberal and are hoping for the greater liberties offered by a secular democracy, and one of whom is a staunch Islamist and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. This courageous documentary gives you a front row seat to watch history in the making. A rare opportunity, indeed.

Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq – Directed by Nancy Buirski – This beautiful and lyrical dance documentary chronicles the career of ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq whose brilliant career was suddenly and dramatically brought to an end when she got polio. The film uses archival footage and photographs that show the dancer from her youthful training to her solo performances as prima ballerina with the New York City Ballet, and chronicles her relationships with choreographers George Balanchine, to whom she was married, and Jerome Robbins. Considerable consideration is given to her life after she could no longer dance. Balanchine, Robbins, Jacques D’Damboise and others recount tales of Tanaquil, a fascinating muse. The documentary is quite affecting. Read my full review.

American Promise – Directed by Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson – Over the course of 14 years, the filmmakers chronicle the education of two African-American children living in New York. One of them is their son Idris. The other is his friend Seun. As young children, both boys begin their schooling at the Dalton School, an exclusive private school. But by the time get to high school, they’ve chosen separate paths, with one staying in private school and the other attending public school. The film shows how their attitudes and prospects vary because of the differences in their education, pointing out and underscoring that the land of equal opportunity isn’t so equal after all.

For more information about the New York Film Festival program, schedule and tickets, visit the official Website.

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).