Doc Talk

This week’s nonfiction films take on art, war, forgiveness, and more

“Cuba’s Forgotten Jewels”
National Center for Jewish Film.
“Cuba’s Forgotten Jewels”

For those who may have struggled with the abstractions and arcane terminology of deconstructionism and modern French philosophy as students, the Harvard Film Archive program “Two Films by Phillip Warnell” might not add a lot of clarity to the subjects. But it does demonstrate how those abstractions make for strikingly beautiful, poetically meditative documentaries.

Warnell collaborates with the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy in “Outlandish: Strange Foreign Bodies” (2009). Nancy, who had just undergone heart transplant surgery, ponders, sometimes in voice-over and sometimes on screen, the mysteries of externality, the soul, creation from nothingness, and the metaphysical significance of a surgical device accidentally sewn inside a patient, among other abstruse, wry, and disturbing subjects. “Outlandish are the bodies: they are made of the outside, of the extraneities that form the outsider's outsidiness,” Nancy explains. A recurrent image is that of an octopus, possibly dead, sloshing about in a fish tank mounted on a pilotless boat in a choppy harbor. It is a metaphor that many of us can probably relate to.

“The Flying Proletarian” (2017), the third collaboration between Warnell and Nancy, follows the languidly detailed and visually pleasing process of harvesting and distilling lavender in France’s picturesque La Drôme region. A voice-over recitation of Nancy’s pensées about the nature of place, the place of nature, and the sense of belonging accompany the images as a black-clad figure, sometimes wearing the broad-brimmed hat and bird-beaked mask donned by medieval doctors during outbreaks of the plague, wanders the countryside. 


An interlude features an archival film clip about Soviet dogs launched into space. There is also a sequence in which a muscular horse wades in a stream. The film, with inexplicable aptness, is dedicated to those animals.  

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“Two Films by Phillip Warnell” screens Monday at 7 p.m. at the Harvard Film Archive. A discussion with the filmmaker follows.

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Cuba libre

In 1940, when the United States and other countries refused to accept Jewish refugees from the Holocaust, Cuba welcomed them. Judy Kreith and Robin Truesdale’s documentary “Cuba’s Forgotten Jewels” tells the story of how 6,000 Jews found refuge in Havana and through resourcefulness, luck, and the kindness of strangers they were able to survive and thrive — many by working in the diamond polishing trade. 

The filmmakers include fascinating interviews with some of those refugees (including Kreith’s mother Marion), who share their memories of harrowing flight, the hardships and happiness of growing up as teenagers in Havana, and the grief and horror experienced when they discovered the fates of those who didn’t escape. The rare archival footage, personal photos, and irresistible Cuban soundtrack provide a rich backdrop to these oral histories.

“Cuba’s Forgotten Jewels” screens as part of the National Center for Jewish Film’s annual film festival at the Coolidge Corner Theatre on Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. A discussion with the filmmakers, moderated by Dalia Wassner of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, follows.

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Unbroken ‘Circle’


Local filmmaker Julie Mallozzi’s documentary “Circle Up” tells the extraordinary and inspiring story of Janet ConnorsWhen her son was murdered by four young men in 2001 she felt loss and grief, but also rage and vengefulness. Her anger gave way to a recognition of the humanity of the men responsible and, in a powerfully moving moment captured on film, she confronts “AJ,” one of the killers, at her son’s grave. She has since adapted her philosophy of reconciliation and forgiveness to victim-offender dialogues through the corrections system.    

“Circle Up” screens from Wednesday through May 13 at the Museum of Fine Arts. The screening on Saturday at 3 p.m. will be followed by a panel discussion with Mallozzi, Connors, and community activist and teacher Clarissa Turner. 

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Starry knight

An encore screening of a popular documentary in the Exhibition on Screen series at the Museum of Fine Arts, David Bickerstaff’s “Van Gogh: A New Way of Seeing” (2015), explains some of the mysteries surrounding one of the world’s most revered painters — not the least being the correct pronunciation of his name (it might not be what you think). 

The film centers around the reorganizing and rehanging of the artist’s works at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum and features interviews with curators and scholars regarding his tempestuous life and intense aesthetics. It discusses his early uncertainty about his vocation in life, his intense religious inclinations, the hard work that transformed a talented amateur into a genius, and the illness that led to his tragic end. The film also features generous selections from Van Gogh’s famous letters to his brother Theo and reenactments of scenes from Vincent’s life, featuring an actor whose resemblance to the original is uncanny. 

And, of course, the paintings — luminous, otherworldly, earthy, and some even downright weird. As one interviewee says, “There’s more to him than just sunflowers.”


“Van Gogh: A New Way of Seeing” screens through May 27 at the MFA. 

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In the cockpit

You can vicariously experience some of the intensity of aerial combat while at the same time benefitting the vets who fought for real by attending the Randolph Veterans Services screening of David Salzberg and Christian Tureaud’s documentary “Apache Warrior.” Culled from hundreds of hours of actual wartime footage, the film follows an elite squadron of Apache helicopter pilots as they spearhead the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.

“Apache Warrior” screens on Saturday at 5:15 p.m. at the Randolph Intergenerational Community Center, 128 Pleasant St. A red-carpet event precedes the screening and a discussion with Salzberg follows. All proceeds will go to assist veterans in need in Randolph and Canton.

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Peter Keough can be reached at