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GlobeDocs 2021: Finding light in the darkness

This year’s festival covers a wide range of subjects and approaches, emotions and styles, even including, yes, animation

Julia Child on "The French Chef," from "Julia."GlobeDocs

This year’s GlobeDocs festival inevitably includes documentaries that look into the darkness of subjects such as racism (“Attica,” “Free Renty: Lanier v. Harvard,” “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America”), environmental doom (“Becoming Cousteau”), the plight of refugees (“Flee”), sexism (“Jagged”), and COVID-19 (“The First Wave). But it also shares stories that bring smiles (”No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics,” “Paper & Glue”) and hope ( “The Rescue”).

Listed alphabetically, here’s the lineup. For further information, go to

From "Attica."Associated Press


For some, the name “Attica” might evoke the scene in “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975) when Al Pacino shouts it out in defiance of the police surrounding him. But Stanley Nelson’s harrowing, infuriating documentary brings back the full horror of the prison hostage crisis in 1971 in the New York prison that degenerated into the massacre of 29 inmates and 10 guards by an army of police. Nelson doesn’t spare the horrific details — the fusillade of bullets; the racist rage of the police; the pools of blood; the scores of dead and wounded filling the prison yard; the brutal abuse and humiliation of naked inmates, in a scene that foreshadows Abu Ghraib and the decades of racist police violence that have followed.

Screens Oct. 16 at 7 p.m. at the Brattle Theatre. A live Q&A with the director follows, moderated by Globe reporter Tiana Woodard.


Jacques Cousteau and the men of the good ship Calypso, from "Becoming Cousteau."GlobeDocs


One of the ironies explored in Liz Garbus’s thorough and inspirational chronicle of the life of the great underwater adventurer, filmmaker, TV celebrity, and environmentalist Jacques Cousteau (he died in 1997, at 87) is that oil companies financed his earliest productions. But he soon recognized that pollution and despoliation were destroying the sea he loved. He then tried to focus the world’s attention on the crisis, via his popular series of television documentaries, “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” (1966-76). But the TV moguls thought he was getting too dark and canceled the show. Now we live in the future he warned us about.


“Becoming Cousteau screens Oct. 16 at 2:30 p.m. at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, followed by a virtual Q&A with Garbus.

Leonard Bernstein in 1970, from "Bernstein's Wall."Hulton Archive/Getty Images


Douglas Tirola’s complex profile of Leonard Bernstein relies on archival interviews with the subject, who rose from an Orthodox Jewish home in Boston to become America’s most celebrated musical genius. The filmmaker also slyly intercuts the texts of letters written between Bernstein, his wife, his mentor and lover Aaron Copland, and others revealing the torment he endured and inflicted because of his gay identity and his need to remain closeted. Perhaps that fueled some of the demonic fervor of his conducting and his commitment to causes such as civil rights, ending the Vietnam War, and combating AIDS.

Screens Oct. 17 at 5 p.m. at the Brattle, followed by an in-person Q&A with Tirola and producer Susan Bedusa, moderated by Globe arts reporter Malcolm Gay.

Arthur Ashe, after winning at Wimbledon, in 1975. From "Citizen Ashe."Uncredited/AP/Shutterstock


In a clip near the end of Rex Miller and Sam Pollard’s involving and provocative film, Barack Obama says that the two athletes who inspired him the most were Muhammad Ali and Arthur Ashe. Though opposites in their demeanor and their approach to the problem of racism, the brash, boastful Ali and the cool, confident Ashe both shattered Black stereotypes, furthered the cause of civil rights, and transformed their sport. Though criticized by some for his moderation, Ashe had a unique challenge and opportunity — as the first Black man to dominate the overwhelmingly white sport of tennis he was able to effect change from within — but only by fitting in.


Screens Oct. 16 at 2:30 p.m. at the Coolidge Corner, followed by a virtual Q&A with the directors, moderated by Globe Spotlight editor Patricia Wen.

Kendra Mylnechuk Potter, from "Daughter of a Lost Bird."GlobeDocs


With insight and intimate emotion, Brooke Swaney explores the issues of divided identity, historical injustice, and cultural assimilation through the story of Kendra Mylnechuk Potter, an Indigenous woman adopted by a white family who has decided to track down her origins. The possibility of both trauma and reconciliation resonates from the first scene as Potter tentatively makes a phone call to the woman who might be her mother.

Streams Oct. 13-19, with a virtual Q&A with Swaney, moderated by Globe writer Kara Baskin.

Van Jones, from "The First Step."GlobeDocs


You have to admire progressive spokesperson Van Jones’s guts when at the start of Brandon Kramer’s documentary he goes on stage at the 2019 Conservative Political Action Conference. Jones’s notion is that if you find values and issues shared by the left and right you can make incremental progress toward unity. Or you can end up as a punching bag for everyone. Jones saw that both parties agreed that the prison system needed to be reformed. But was it worth cozying up to the Trump administration to get it done?


Screens Oct. 16 at 4 p.m. at the Brattle, followed by an in-person Q&A with the director, producer Lance Kramer, and subjects Louis Reed and Lonnie Jones, moderated by Peter Keough.

From "The First Wave."GlobeDocs


Last year seems so long ago that the panic and disaster that struck New York in the first onslaught of COVID-19, as vividly shown in Matthew Heineman’s account, hits you with renewed shock and horror. Like the Chinese documentary “76 Days” (2020) about the initial outbreak of the pandemic in Wuhan, this focuses on a handful of health care givers and their patients. Here it’s at a hospital in Queens, Long Island Jewish Medical Center, over the course of four months as the subjects respond to the growing and then overwhelming influx of cases — and the danger of catching the disease themselves. Like a combination of “Contagion” (2011) and Frederick Wiseman’s “Near Death” (1989), “The First Wave” has moments that can bring tears, evoke terror, and that underscore the insanity of the hostile response from some people to those who are trying to keep them well.

Streams online Oct. 13-19 with a virtual Q&A with Heineman, moderated by Globe reporter Deanna Pan.

From "Flee."GlobeDocs


As demonstrated in “Tower” (2016), “Waltz with Bashir” (2008), “Persepolis” (2007), and now Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s chronicle of a gay Afghan teenager’s flight from Kabul after the 1988 Taliban takeover, animation provides an ideal medium for documentaries about traumatic subjects. Now safe in Denmark, Amin Nawabi tells his story to his friend — the filmmaker — hence we have a movie within an animated version of a documentary. The format changes from sharp, brightly-hued animation for the cheerier parts of the tale, to blurry black-and-white animation for events that are painful and repressed, to actual film footage that confronts the brutal realities. In addition to his tale of woe, Nawabi bears a secret he has kept for years and is nudged by the filmmaker into disclosing.


Screens Oct. 17 at 7:45 p.m. at the Brattle, followed by a virtual Q&A with the director, moderated by film critic Loren King.

Daguerreotype of Renty, from "Free Renty."Courtesy of Harvard University/The Norwich Bulletin via AP


The forgotten crime committed against the subject of David Grubin’s film epitomizes American racism. Renty was an enslaved person forced in 1850 to pose for a degrading daguerreotype to provide visual evidence for Harvard luminary Louis Agassiz’s bogus theories of racial superiority. The university’s Peabody Museum still holds the image in its collection. Tamara Lanier, Renty’s great-great-great granddaughter, wants it back. Why won’t Harvard comply? Is it because by doing so it will be acknowledging its complicity in the institution of slavery?

Screens Oct. 15 at 7:45 p.m. at the Brattle, followed by a live Q&A with the director and Lanier, moderated by Globe reporter Deidre Fernandes.

Alanis Morrissette, from "Jagged."GlobeDocs


Many (mostly male) rock critics tried to dismiss Alanis Morissette as just an angry female pop singer, despite the huge success of albums like “Jagged Little Pill” (1995). Admitted fan Alison Klayman puts to rest that canard in a profile full of interviews and performances centered around the now 47-year-old artist posed in lotus position reflecting on it all. Not that she didn’t have good reason to be mad, as the revelatory conversations indicate — in fact they were so revelatory they made Morissette angry again, and she has since denounced the movie.

Screens Oct. 17 at 2 p.m. at the Brattle, followed by an in-person Q&A with the director, moderated by Globe music critic Maura Johnston.


Six feet tall, 50 years old, with a nasal contralto voice, Julia Child made for an unlikely TV star. Yet she lumbered onto the spartan set of a WGBH-TV literary program to talk about her book “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” (1961) and the rest is culinary history. Julie Cohen and Betsy West put together the rich stew of Child’s life, from her childhood in a strict Republican household to becoming a role model for women, the instigator of a revolution in Americans’ attitude to food, and the inspiration for a funny “Saturday Night Live” sketch.

Screens Oct. 13 at 7 p.m. at the Coolidge Corner, followed by an in-person Q&A with the directors, moderated by Globe CEO Linda Henry.

Alison Bechdel, from "No Straight Lines."GlobeDocs


Vivian Kleiman combines whimsical comic strip graphics with compelling interviews in this history of the evolution of LGBTQ comic artists. The film focuses on five pioneers who went from the scatological single panel transgressions of the 1960s to recent, rich graphic novels such as Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical, sui generis “Fun Home” (2006), which became an unlikely bestseller and ultimately a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical. Its success still boggles her mind.

Streams Oct. 13-19, with a virtual Q&A with director Vivian Kleiman, moderated by King.

JR in "Paper & Glue."GlobeDocs


You might remember the French photographer and installation artist JR from his collaboration with the late Agnès Varda in her penultimate film, “Faces Places” (2017). Here in his own film he expands on his art of photographing people, blowing up their images to monumental size, and pasting them onto buildings and other landmarks, with visually witty and often profound results. Traveling to sites of hardship and injustice, he relates his story of rising from Parisian graffiti artist to international phenomenon and explains his method of combining places and faces to a class in a Supermax US prison, to a community in a violent Rio de Janeiro favela, to a class for artists in a Parisian slum, and to Mexican residents near the border wall. Then he engages them all in creating an example of his art with breathtaking results.

Streams Oct. 13-19, with a virtual Q&A with JR, moderated by King.

From "The Rescue."National Geographic via AP


After challenging the acrophobic heights of El Capitan in the Oscar-winning “Free Solo” (2017), E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin tackle claustrophobia, in this heart-wrenching and mind-boggling story of the 2018 rescue of 12 members of a boys soccer team and their coach from a flooding cave in Thailand. The plight of the victims roused an international response, ranging from Thai Navy Seals to amateur British cave divers, the latter of whom proved the most resourceful as they trusted their rarefied skills and judgment to pull off the incredible rescue of the title. With access to 87 hours of previously unseen footage, the filmmakers re-create the tense and grueling effort, a 17-day ordeal that proved to be one of those rare events that brought together people all over the world.

Screens Oct. 14 at 7 p.m. at the Coolidge Corner, followed by a virtual Q&A with Vasarhelyi and Chin, moderated by Globe reporter Billy Baker. Also available for streaming Oct. 13-19.

From "Searchers."GlobeDocs


Being single and looking for love has never been easy, and the enforced isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic has not helped any. You’d think that online dating services like Tinder,, and Grindr would prove a boon, but maybe they just increase the alienation and anomie. In “Searchers,” Pacho Velez interviews New York City clients of those services, usually while they are using them, with the onscreen profile of the potential date and their chat reflected over the faces of the searchers. Those proving unsuitable are swiped away after a cursory glance. Perez’s subjects range from transgender youths to savvy, cynical octogenarians, from a pair of 19-year-old women setting a price for a hookup, to an older, Black gay man recalling the guy with beautiful lips with whom he fell in love, to Velez himself, scrolling through an app with his mother. The film exploits an ingenious cinematic device for lighthearted humor and devastating insight.

Streams Oct. 13-19, with a virtual Q&A with Velez, moderated by Globe “Love Letters” columnist and feature writer Meredith Goldstein.

US Senator Elizabeth Warren and Art Cullen, from "Storm Lake"GlobeDocs


Jerry Risius and Beth Levison’s warm and biting profile of the editorial team that puts out The Storm Lake Times stirs up hope that small local newspapers, and journalism itself, can survive. Founded four decades ago by editor Art Cullen and his brother John, the publisher, to serve the Iowa town whose name it bears, the publication is literally a mom-and-pop production. Art’s wife, Delores, is the features writer, their son Tom is the reporter, and John’s wife, Mary, writes a food column. If it sounds a bit rinky-dink, bear in mind that the publication won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing for articles that successfully challenged giant agribusiness corporations in Iowa. For print journalism, Storm Lake is the place that if you can make it there you can make it anywhere.

Screens Oct. 16 at 1 p.m. at the Brattle, followed by an in-person Q&A with Levison, moderated by Globe political reporter James Pindell

From "Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America."GlobeDocs


Emily and Sarah Kunstler’s documentary — an illustrated, confrontational, and peripatetic lecture on the history of the Black experience as told by American Civil Liberties Union deputy legal director Jeffrey Robinson — seethes with more anger than “The First Step.” Nonetheless, Robinson displays patience and persistence as he tries to explain racism to racist white people. When a Confederate apologist argues that the Civil War was not about slavery, insisting that “they [the slaves] chose to stay. They were treated like family,” Robinson replies, “Then why wouldn’t it be all right if I owned you as long as I treated you like family?” The man is stymied for an answer but remains unswayed.

Screens Oct. 15 at 5 p.m. at the Brattle, followed by a virtual Q&A with the directors, moderated by co-editor-in-chief of The Emancipator Amber Payne.

The Old State House, pictured this past Fourth of July.Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe/file


The GlobeDocs shorts take a long look at pressing topics — LGBQT rights, sexism, racism, pulsars, turtle care, and . . . Somerville?

There are two programs. They screen at the Brattle on Oct. 17, starting at 11 a.m.


At the Old State House, where the Declaration of Independence was first read in Boston, so was a proclamation setting bounties for the scalps of Penobscot people, in 1755. That is the subject of “Bounty,” from Dawn Neptune Adams, Maulian Dana, Adam Mazo, Ben Pender-Cudlip, and Tracy Rector.

To get people vaccinated we need someone like Alabamian Dorothy Oliver in Rachael DeCruz and Jeremy Levine’s “The Panola Project”; when she knocks on your door you better say you’re getting your shot.

In Luisa Conlon’s “Senior Prom,” some oldsters who didn’t go to one back in high school because they were gay now have their own prom — for seniors.

After 24 years only Uncle Larry cares for the title terrapin in Kaitlyn Schwalje and Alex Wolf Lewis’s Snowy.” When Snowy doesn’t eat his worms, Larry heads to England for answers.

And remember when they called it Slummerville? Not anymore, with developers taking over. But as seen in Andrew Eldridge’s “Somerville for All,” activists are fighting back.

Dorothy Oliver.Abdul Aziz/New York Times


If a bad actor like Ronald Reagan can be elected president, why not a good drag queen like Joan Jett Blakk? In “The Beauty President, he recalls how he ran in 1992 and crashed the Democratic Convention.

The title subject of Ryan White’s “Coded: The Hidden Love of J.C. Leyendecker” illustrated ads for men’s clothing that set the tone for the Gatsby generation. They also were gay coded.

Skateboarding saved the life of the title subject of Amar Chebib’s “Joe Buffalo,” though it took a while. After the traumas of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools he excelled at the sport, until addictions brought him down. Now he’s back and one of the best.

And Jocelyn Bell tells her story to director Ben Proudfoot in “The Silent Pulse of the Universe.” In 1967 she discovered the first pulsars but her adviser took the credit. He won a Nobel Prize. But Bell knows who the real winner is.

Peter Keough can be reached at