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Doc Talk: Early Wiseman, Chicago activism, Holocaust remembrance, going home

New York's Metropolitan Hospital is the focus of Frederick Wiseman’s "Hospital."Zipporah Films

The caseload in Frederick Wiseman’s “Hospital” (1969) might seem less overwhelming than that in the age of COVID-19, but the great documentarian’s acute observational eye and witty, nuanced editing provide insight into how, like today, these beleaguered professionals persevere against exasperating challenges. The film also provides a cross section of the patients at New York’s Metropolitan Hospital — the same minority, elderly, and otherwise-marginalized people who are still underserved when it comes to basic human services.

The opening shot is an eye-opener — a deep incision into the abdomen of an elderly woman. But most of the scenes are less clinical, more personal; and, as with the many shots of crowds of poor people waiting for treatment, indirectly critical of a system that fails to provide adequate health care for the neediest in society.


But unlike the excoriating “Titicut Follies” (1967), “Hospital” depicts the doctors, nurses, and police attending these patients as, for the most part, dedicated, patient, skilled, and empathetic. They are also often frustrated, as exemplified by a weary doctor complaining on the phone to another hospital about its callousness and irresponsibility in handling a patient they have transferred to his care.

Wiseman demonstrates a sardonic but sympathetic sense of humor in one of the longest episodes. It involves a terrified young man having a bad trip on some drug he bought from a stranger. The doctor gamely offers reassuring answers to the patient’s repeated panic-stricken questions and the scene culminates in prolonged and copious vomiting after the emetic the young man has been given takes effect. In a moment of relative lucidity, the patient says he’s an art student, but laments, “You can’t do anything with art.” Fifty years later, Wiseman continues to prove otherwise,

“Hospital” screens via the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s Virtual Screening Room until Nov. 18.


Go to coolidge.org/films/hospital.

Bella BAHHS in "Unapologetic."Kartemquin Films

Young, gifted, and black

The Chicago activists Janaé Bonsu and Bella BAHHS, subjects of Ashley O’Shay’s “Unapologetic,” are leaders in the Movement for Black Lives. They are Black, gay women — an intersection of three groups most at risk from what the two women describe as state-sanctioned police violence. In 2012, 22-year-old Rekia Boyd was shot to death by an off-duty officer. When he was acquitted of murder and kept on the force, Bonsu and BAHHS’s movement took to the streets. Similarly in 2014, when Laquan McDonald was murdered by a police officer and city government was accused of a cover-up, they joined the protests.

BAHHS, whose brother is in prison, is a “rap-tivist,” rousing crowds with eloquent, passionate hip-hop performances. Bonsu is more of an academic, trying to balance her activism with her pursuit of a PhD. Both recognize that in addition to systemic racism they must combat misogyny and homophobia — especially within their own movement.

O’Shay takes an engaged, intimate, and observational approach in her film, capturing the zeal of the marches and protests, the intensity of strategy sessions, and the personal pain, anger, and hope of the subjects in private moments. Many of the events shown here are also the subject of “City So Real,” Steve James’s five-part National Geographic documentary about the 2019 Chicago mayoral election, and the two films together are complementary in their insights and perspectives.

“Unapologetic,” a co-presentation of the DocYard and the Roxbury International Film Festival, can be streamed Nov. 13-19 at bit.ly/2HYQIE8. Director Ashley O’Shay and the film’s editor, Rubin Daniels, will be attending a virtual Q&A with DocYard curator Abby Sun Nov. 16 at 7 p.m. Attendees should register at bit.ly/3p23xPh.


Go to thedocyard.com/2020/10/unapologetic.

Steve Ross (third from left) at Dachau.Etched in Glass: The Legacy of Steve Ross

Never forget

The title subject of Roger Lyons’s “Etched in Glass: The Legacy of Steve Ross” spent most of his childhood in Nazi concentration camps. An American soldier rescued him from Dachau, showing him the first kindness he had seen in five years and giving him a small American flag. Ross would spend the next 67 years trying to track down the soldier to offer thanks.

Ross emigrated as a teenager to the Boston area, where he was raised in a home for war orphans. Undaunted by his trauma and loss, Ross earned three university degrees and became a child psychologist and youth worker for teens at risk in the toughest parts of Roxbury, Dorchester, East Boston, and South Boston. He shared his story with them, inspiring them with this example of the resilience of the human spirit and reminder of the depths of human evil.

In 1995 he founded the New England Holocaust Memorial, a solemn structure with six glass towers representing the 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis. Etched in glass are millions of the numbers that had been tattooed on these victims’ arms.

Ross died in February. This film is a memorial to him.

“Etched in Glass: The Legacy of Steve Ross” can be seen on GBH Nov. 12 at 9 p.m. with a simulcast on YouTube TV, and on WGBX Nov. 15 at 8 p.m. and Nov. 16 at noon.


Go to www.steverossfilm.org.

Nicholas Kristof in downtown Yamhill, from "Tightrope."LYNSEY ADDARIO

Down and out in the USA

Nicholas Kristof grew up in the small town of Yamhill, Ore., where he made many friends in high school before leaving for Harvard. He went on to become a renowned author and journalist and winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, one in 1990 for his coverage of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, an award he shared with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn. Back in Yamhill his friends were dying — of poverty, despair, and opioid addiction.

In Viva Van Loock’s documentary “Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope,” based on the book by Kristof and WuDunn, the couple return to Yamhill to visit Kristof’s surviving friends and investigate the causes of the town’s misfortune. They find a microcosm of the murderous inequality that has grown in the United States over the past five decades. It is a familiar story, without any solution in sight, but for Kristof this historical tragedy is a personal one as well.

“Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope” is now streaming at WORLDChannel.org and via the PBS App until Nov. 30. It will then be available as part of the PBS Passport service..

Go to www.pbs.org/video/tightrope-ho8cbe.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.