In “Capturing Grace”, director David Iverson closely follows the lives of a unique dance company who call themselves the Brooklyn Parkinson’s Dance Group. Under the tutelage of the renowned Mark Morris Dance group, the diverse elderly use movement through dance to navigate living with a disease that has taken over their bodies.
It’s a quintessential “New York” documentary in many ways, one that relies heavily on the landscape, the soundscape, the colorful characters of the city to bring texture and variation to a relatively straightforward story. It’s these “characters” that add the majority of whatever charm the film has. One older couple in the group, Reggie and Bobbye Butts, form much of the emotional center of the film, as their dedication and determination to participate in a final big dance performance is impeded by the realities and the risks of Parkinson’s disease.
This Kickstarter funded documentary came about after a short PBS "Newshour" special on the company, and one can’t help but think that while the story certainly was worthy of further exploration, in this particular incarnation it loses something. The intersection of dance and disease, the distinct elegance of the elderly dancers, their personal stories, and their relationships with the professional performers who train them is engaging on a certain level, yes, but the film generally meanders. Overall, despite winning components, “Capturing Grace” doesn’t quite captivate for very long.
Meanwhile, “Some Kind of Spark,” another New York City-set film at this year’s DOC NYC, doesn’t struggle nearly as much to keep the momentum going. Where “Capturing Grace,” explores the importance of the performing arts for the elderly, here director Ben Niles hones in on how creativity influences the young, as several students between the ages of 8 and 14 are profiled through a musical journey in the Julliard School’s Music Advancement Program.
All minorities, all from low-income communities, the kids are chosen to take part the weekly program, where they work under the instruction of accomplished classical musicians. Many are being introduced to their instruments and the music for the first time – one young Haitian earthquake survivor with no prior inclination towards music finds his gift for the flute.
Niles’ approach to filmmaking is a hands-off one – there are no talking head interviews or infographs, but merely fly-on-the-wall observations of the children’s lives in and out of the program – their teaching sessions, their long commutes back and forth from Lincoln Center to the outer boroughs, and their home lives – not all of them happy. While this documentary doesn’t necessarily dig as deep as it could (it would be nice to have learned more about some of the kids’ backgrounds), it has a rhythm in its storytelling that’s ultimately satisfying.
But perhaps one of the most interesting documentaries about New York City at the festival this year is “STOP,” Spencer Wolff’s overview of the recent stop-and-frisk law controversy that sparked numerous debates throughout the city and country about the ongoing problem of racial profiling and police brutality.
The doc presents some devastating statistics about the Stop and Frisk law, how five years after it was instated the number of stops on black and Latino men increased by 900%, how the almost unreal number of 80% of black and Latino males in the city have experienced a stop-and-frisk. Wolff engages in discussion with several men who have experienced the consequences of the law firsthand – men like David Ourlicht, who filed the historic class action suit Floyd vs. the City of New York.
Over the course of a few years the film follows David through the court proceedings, as Wolff tries to make sense of how the New York he grew up in (Greenwich Village) could be home to the kind of injustices people only assume occur in so-called third-world countries. That’s the thing about this documentary that is perhaps most interesting, and most frustrating.
While docs like “Capturing Grace” and “Some Kind of Spark” valiantly attempt to distill all that’s magical and right and hopeful about New York, they’re a lot less naive than Wolff’s take. Wolff recognizes his privileges as a white man, concedes that the “New York I thought was safe” may not be the same for everyone, but his general sense of dismay about the whole is perhaps just as important as his attempts to present a comprehensive, chronological breakdown of the law and its inherent weaknesses. If anything, it’s an honest portrait of the city that stands as the example of that proverbial American melting pot – diverse and divided all at once.