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Feasting on New Documentaries

Updated: Aug 15, 2023

Darleen Ortega | 7/10/2019, 9:55a.m.

The new documentary ‘David Crosby: Remember My Name’ is a compelling window into the world of the 1960s and 70s, reflecting on the singer’s past drug addiction, personal tragedies and conflicts with bandmates.

I managed to catch 25 films at the Seattle International Film Festival in May and June--my idea of heaven! There is significant overlap with the earlier Portland International Film Festival, but SIFF runs twice as long so there is plenty of reason to make the investment in a trip to Seattle to see things that may have only a short theatrical release. This week I'll cover the documentaries I saw, and I'll cover the remaining feature films next week--and where I can, I'll let you know where you can find them. There's something for everyone.

Many of the best films were profiles of people worth knowing about. My favorite was "David Crosby: Remember My Name," in which the most notoriously hedonistic and troubled member of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (and the various other configurations in which they performed) reflects on the life he has lived hard. I really hope that Crosby is as honest and likeable as he comes off here; even while he acknowledges what an often insufferable friend and bandmate he has been and how he has alienated everyone he has every played with, Crosby comes off as relentlessly real and doesn't make excuses. It is a compelling window into the world of the '60s and '70s when their music was breaking new ground¬, full of interesting stories (like how Joni Mitchell communicated that she was breaking up with Crosby) and beautiful music that stands the test of time. And Crosby, now 78, still tours and write songs and sings like an angel. He's the classic example of an artist whose spirit shines through time and his own failures. The film opens theatrically this month.

I knew nothing about the famous bandoneon composer and musician Astor Piazzolla and little about tango music before seeing the documentary exploration of Piazzolla’s life. “Piazzolla, the Years of the Shark” worked remarkably well in opening his story and also in helping me understand why I should care—so much so that it motivated me to seek out his music. The film makes good use of archival footage and recordings made available by Piazzolla’s son, and presents a compelling picture of what shaped this driven and confident change maker--the son of devoted parents who had immigrated to Argentina from Italy--who pulled tango music into a new direction. Its subject matter, though quite worthy of broader attention, makes a U.S. theatrical release unlikely, but I hope it will become available online.

For the second time (the first being “Life Itself,” the inferior Roger Ebert documentary), a film critic has become the subject of a biographical documentary. “What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael” examines the life of the critic, who wrote for The New Yorker from the late 1960s into the 1980s. One of the few women to write film criticism in a market still dominated by men, Kael was an iconoclast who shaped popular culture with her sometimes merciless analysis. There is a lot to admire in her incisive writing and her clarity; she was definitely used to being the smartest person in the room and exercised an outsized influence on American film culture. On the other hand, having broken into a man's world, Kael does not come off as someone who was mindful to open space for other voices. As a film geek, I found much to enjoy in this film; as an intersectional feminist, I was not inspired.

"Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts" is another kind of profile, mainly because its subject is a drag queen who has gained quite a following on YouTube and RuPaul's Drag Race. The film offers an opportunity to walk with Trixie (and her alter ego Brian Firkus) through her (and his) world, but doesn’t shape the experience enough to draw out what is most important to understand about it. The journey feels unsatisfyingly aimless, and yet I'm not sorry to have experienced a window into what ordinary life looks like for a drag queen, to contrast Brian's ordinariness with Trixie's over-the-top persona, and to admire the sureness of purpose that connects the two. So far the film is playing film festivals, with no word of a theatrical release.

A new film documentary about Seattle’s Patronell Wright and her Total Experience Gospel Choir is told against the backdrop of the city’s gentrification and racial history.

I really wanted to like "Patronell: The Total Experience." Patronell Wright is a fixture in the black community in Seattle and has for several decades managed a choir that has been a powerful influence of hope and community. Her story intersects with so many important themes and questions--What has been the cost of segregation? As the neighborhood has changed around her, why has Wright stayed and what does it mean to her to be directing an integrated choir in a gentrified neighborhood? The film doesn't seem to have a point of view on these questions and settles for hero worship, which left the majority white audience feeling entirely too good and not forced to confront their complicity in oppression of black folks in their city. That said, I'm happy to know about this particular Seattle community leader. I suspect the film won't have a theatrical release, but may find a place to land online.

One of the best docs I saw was “One Child Nation,” an expose’ of the one child policy that was in force in China for 35 years, from 1979 through 2015. Most people in the U.S. know little about the policy, beyond the resultant heightened favored status of male heirs which led to a generation of “little emperors” and a wave of unwanted baby girls who were later adopted, including by Americans. Not only does this film lift the veil on a host of much more troubling human rights violation attendant to the policy, but it also provides an occasion to witness director Nanfu Wang’s own awakening. She notes that, having grown up under the policy, she did not question it until becoming a parent herself in the U.S. An important part of the journey the film makes is to document how a practice or policy with devastating consequences can be so woven into daily life that we don’t think to question its effects. This film documents what it can mean to wake up and follow where the questions lead. It will open theatrically in August.

"Midnight Traveler" also means to wake us up, to the plight of asylum-seekers and the struggles they encounter to build a stable life away from home. Here, a young Afghan couple, both filmmakers, document their own journey out, aiming to escape pressure and death threats from the Taliban. They leave with their two young daughters, first to Tajikistan and then on foot through Turkey, Bulgaria, and Serbia as they make their way to the European Union. It's a harrowing journey, caught on their cellphones, and the film gives a sense of the dangers and uncertainty they face, along with all the ways they attempt to make the best of their circumstances. The film has garnered attention and awards on the festival circuit and is scheduled for a theatrical release in September.

“The Apollo” is a new documentary about the cultural anchor in Harlem since 1934 and the legendary African American artists who have passed through its doors over the past nine decades.

"The Apollo" exhaustively mines the history of the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem, which has been a showcase for African American talent since the 1930s. Its stage has been the host and often launching ground for a virtual who's who of African American entertainers ranging from Billie Holliday and Louis Armstrong to Gregory Hines to the Supremes--and this film invites them to share war stories about what they were paid, how they were received, and how hard they work. It also lingers on the open of a play based on Ta-Nehisi Coates' book, "Between the World and Me," an occasion to reflect more deeply on black pride and freedom of expression. It's essential viewing for any student of African American history and an occasion to savor the cultural riches hosted here. The film premieres on HBO this fall. "Fly Rocket Fly" tells the story of the first private space company and its founder, Lutz Kayser, a sort of Elon Musk of space travel. Kayser founded his company in 1975 as an alternative to national space organizations, thinking he could do it better and more cheaply. Maybe so, but there were some flaws in the execution; since rocket-building was prohibited in Germany after World War II, Kayser moved his operation to Zaire and cobbled together an ill-conceived process enlisting local folks in protecting the operation, and after much chaos and a tragic accident, the experiment was shut down. The film is weirdly interest, but also not wholly successful. It serves up a lot of questions about what Kayser was doing without shedding much insight into why things broken down and whether there was another way to make them work. No American release has been set as of yet. Darleen Ortega is a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals and the first woman of color to serve in that capacity. Her movie review column Opinionated Judge appears regularly in The Portland Observer. Find her movie blog at

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