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GlobeDocs features films about hope and healing

Edward Watts’s “For Sama” is a brutal and heartbreaking diary of a hospital during the siege of a rebel-held corner of Aleppo, Syria.

You can’t look away from the suffering in some of the 16 features and six shorts in this year’s GlobeDocs Film Festival (Oct. 2-6; The suffering of the dying children in Feras Fayyad’s “The Cave” and Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts’s “For Sama,” of the survivors of Boston’s horrific 1942 Cocoanut Grove fire in Zachary Graves-Miller’s “Six Locked Doors: The Legacy of Cocoanut Grove,” and of the beleaguered immigrants in Tom Shepard’s “Unsettled.”

But other films encourage optimism and hope. Documentaries such as Matthew Orr’s “Augmented,” which looks at research into bionic limbs that will revolutionize treatment of the disabled; Adam Bolt’s “Human Nature,” which investigates developments in genetics that might cure hereditary diseases; and David Charles Rodrigues’s “Gay Chorus Deep South”, which shows how music can combat bigotry and hate.


Like all the best documentaries, these films reflect the world as it is and as we hope it will be.



Years ago Tim Seelig, conductor of the San Francisco Gay Men’s chorus and one of the subjects of David Charles Rodrigues’s affecting documentary, had a seemingly happy life. He had a nice home, a wife and children, served as the music director of a Texas megachurch, and was a respected member of his community. Then he revealed that he was gay and was rejected by the congregation. He lost everything — his church, job, home, and family. He fled to San Francisco and started anew, never expecting to return.

With several Deep South states recently passing anti-LGBTQ legislation, he and the rest of the chorus, some of them exiles like himself, toured these states to perform at evangelical churches. Could they touch souls and change minds through the power of their music? “No singing will change this,” one member says as they play back a hateful homophobic voice-mail message condemning their tour. But as seen in Rodrigues’s moving footage, their performances help promote the process of reconciliation.


Coolidge Corner Theatre, 7 p.m. Director Rodrigues will participate in a discussion moderated by Boston Globe managing director Linda Henry.

A scene from “Augmented”



When he was 17 Hugh Herr lost both legs from frostbite after getting swept up in a blizzard while climbing Mount Washington. Now a scientist at MIT, he’s on a mission to develop bionic prosthetic limbs that would be available for all who need them. Such limbs would revolutionize the way the disabled are treated. Matthew Orr’s fascinating and thoughtful documentary shows how Herr’s work offers hope but also raises ethical questions.

Boston ShowPlace ICON, 5 p.m. Orr and subjects Hugh Herr, Jim Ewing, and Matthew Carty will participate in a discussion moderated by STAT deputy director of multimedia Alissa Ambrose.


The title city of Beth Aala’s film is not only the capital of the deep-red state of Idaho but also of the burgeoning industry of surrogate motherhood. “Made in Boise” focuses on four surrogates and their clients. Provocative and emotionally involving, the film provides a unique perspective on the fine line between empowerment and exploitation and on the nature of parenthood and families.

Coolidge Corner Theatre, 5 p.m. Producer Beth Levison will participate in a discussion moderated by Boston Globe feature writer Beth Teitell.


CRISPR, a breakthrough in DNA research that allows the reshaping of the genetic code, offers hope for curing hereditary diseases but also presents ethical problems about tampering with human lives. Adam Bolt’s thorough, lucid, and engaging film recounts the 45-year history of development and breakthroughs that led to this process. With animated sequences and interviews with researchers and other experts in the field he explains the process and speculates on what the future might hold.


Coolidge Corner Theatre, 7:30 p.m. Executive producer Elliot Kirschner will participate in a discussion moderated by STAT senior writer Sharon Begley.


Wim Wenders demonstrated the power of filming dance in 3-D in his documentary “Pina” (2011). Alla Kovgan applies the same process to her biographical portrait of Merce Cunningham (1919–2009), the visionary choreographer who revolutionized dance in America. In addition to thrilling performances of Cunningham’s creations, Kovgan presents previously unseen archival footage and illuminating interviews with the artist recalling personal anecdotes and discussing his aesthetics and philosophy.

ShowPlace ICON, 7:30 p.m. Producers Elizabeth Delude-Dix and Kelly Gilpatrick will participate in a discussion moderated by Globe assistant arts editor Christy DeSmith.

A scene from “A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem”

FRIDAY, Oct. 4


The National Football League rakes in billions of dollars while cheerleaders who give it their all on the sidelines earn less than concession-stand workers. Yu Gu’s documentary reports on this iniquity and shows how a few of these exploited women decided that this was not sufficient compensation and enlisted others to join them in a class-action suit against several teams. They are greeted with hostility and contempt from fans and owners and disapproval from some of their fellow cheerleaders, who see their efforts as a betrayal of team spirit and sisterhood. An exposé of the sexism and greed at the heart of one of the country’s most popular and lucrative sports and a reminder of how a single voice of protest can instigate change.


Brattle Theatre, 5 p.m. Director Yu Gu will participate in a discussion moderated by Globe reporter Nora Princiotti.


Since 1934 the Apollo Theater has showcased an all-star list of African-American artists, including Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Sammy Davis Jr., and the Supremes. Roger Ross Williams’s vibrant homage to this institution includes archival snippets of past performances, as well as interviews with Smokey Robinson, Patti LaBelle, Pharrell Williams, and others who have appeared on the Apollo stage. It also speculates on the theater’s future as changes in the economics of show business (gone are the days when Gladys Knight would do 32 shows for $800) and the music industry, coupled with the financial decline of the city, forced it to close in the 1970s. It has since been restored and is a state-run nonprofit. Will its current status turn it into a museum commemorating past achievements or can it continue as a powerhouse of creativity and cultural change? Intermittent scenes of the preparations for a dramatic adaptation of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book “Between the World and Me” suggest that it still aspires to the latter.

Brattle Theatre, 7:30 p.m. Singer-author Ruth Pointer will participate in a discussion moderated by Globe associate editor and columnist Renée Graham.



In 2007, Tricia Regan’s “Autism: The Musical” followed five families with children on the autistic spectrum who put together the title production. In her new documentary Regan revisits the participants to see how they are doing and takes a look at the progress made in caring for adult children with autism.


Brattle Theatre, 11 a.m. Regan and producer Sasha Alpert will participate in a discussion moderated by film critic and Globe correspondent Loren King.


In the 1970s, Selma Miriam and Noel Furie, who were then lovers, left their husbands and opened Bloodroot, a “vegetarian-feminist collective” in Bridgeport, Conn., that thrives to the present day. They tell their story in Douglas Tirola’s documentary, sharing memories of the 1960s and 1970s and offering insights into the feminist and gay rights movements of that turbulent period. Nostalgic and inspirational, the film is as satisfying as the restaurant’s tasty menu.

Brattle Theatre, 1 p.m. Tirola , Miriam, and Furie will participate in a discussion moderated by Globe food writer Devra First.


As seen in Jennifer Trainer’s “Museum Town,” the no-nonsense working-class people of the depressed mill-town of North Adams were at first skeptical about the long-defunct Sprague Electric Company factory becoming the largest contemporary arts museum in the world. Some might still have doubts about Mass MoCA, even though it has proven a hard-won success since its opening and has stimulated a qualified economic revival. Not just because they don’t get the work of artists such as Sol LeWitt, Anselm Kiefer, and Jenny Holzer but because they don’t see how the community directly benefits.

Most, though, like a woman who worked in the old factory in the 1940s and now is a museum volunteer, see it as a welcome development. Trainer follows the complex and arduous installation of a work by the artist Nick Cave; and the tearful triumph at its completion reflects the museum’s impact on both the art world and the town itself.

Brattle Theatre, 3 p.m.Trainer will participate in a discussion moderated by Globe art critic Murray Whyte.

A scene from “The Cave”National Geographic


Though hardly noted by the media these days, the conflict in Syria rages on. Feras Fayyad’s harrowing account focuses on the helpless victims of Bashar al-Assad’s army and the handful of medical professionals who try to treat them. The title refers to the hidden underground facility that is the last hospital in a besieged town on the outskirts of Damascus. Run by a young woman whose medical studies were cut short by war, it is overwhelmed by casualties while being targeted by bombs and chemical weapons as government forces close in. The images of dying children covered in blood and dust are powerful reminders of suffering that the world has forgotten.

Brattle Theatre, 5:30 p.m. Fayyad will participate in a discussion via Skype moderated by King.


Though they have escaped persecution in their native countries and made it safely to gay-friendly but pricey San Francisco, the struggles of the four LGBTQ refugees profiled in Tom Shepard’s touching, troubling documentary are far from over. Subhi, a gay Syrian fleeing Al-Qaeda, finds tenuous celebrity as a leader for refugee rights. Cheyenne and Mari, a lesbian couple from Angola, contend with the intransigence and bureaucracy of the immigration system as they seek asylum. And Junior, a non-binary man from the Congo, goes from the rich digs of an older lover to a homeless shelter and finally to the street, a sad decline complicated by alcoholism. As immigrants are increasingly demonized, stereotyped, denied refuge, and deported, Shepard shares the stories of four human beings whose hardships arouse empathy and indignation.

Brattle Theatre, 8 p.m. Shepard will participate in a discussion moderated by King.

SUNDAY, Oct. 6


A pair of taut and tragic miniatures about injustice and trauma are lightened by two wry portraits: of diehards doggedly plying outdated trades; and a strange story involving 19th-century Mexican general Santa Anna’s wooden leg.

The title subject of Adam Mazo and Ben Pender-Cudlip’s “Dear Georgina” is an elder in Maine’s indigenous Passamaquoddy community who was taken away from her family as a child and placed in foster homes where she was abused. In one wrenching scene she walks through the woods but her delight in its beauty ends when she comes across a dying raccoon cub — a reminder of a traumatic past which she must confront to find peace.

The hero of Orlando von Einsiedel’s “Lost and Found” is a Rohingya man who lost his parents at the age of 6 when they were fleeing the Myanmar army. Since then he has been living in a camp in Bangladesh with 700,000 other refugees and has dedicated his life to finding lost children and reuniting them with their families. Heartbreaking and inspiring.

Inspiring but not heartbreaking is the hardy Waltham cobbler in Cathleen O’Connell’s “The Best Way Is by Hand.” The latest in a long line of practitioners, he puts his heart and soul into his crafts and hopes he might not be the last.

If you miss the experience of hunting down a VHS tape or DVD in a homey video store (even a Blockbuster would do) as opposed to the soullessness of streaming, then Miguel Gomez’s Viva Video (a.k.a. “The Last Picture Store,”) the subject of Roy Power’s “Memory Video” is for you.

And for a saga about justice and closure don’t miss Ellen Brodsky’s “25 Texans in the Land of Lincoln” in which history students journey from Texas to Springfield, Ill., to reclaim the prosthetic leg of Santa Anna, the Mexican general at the Battle of the Alamo.

Brattle Theatre, 11 a.m. The director of “The Best Way Is by Hand,” the producer of “Memory Video,” the co-directors of “Dear Georgina,” and the editor of “25 Texans in the Land of Lincoln” will participate in a discussion moderated by this reporter.

A scene from “Saudi Women’s Driving School”


Women taking drivers’ ed classes seems like no big deal, but in Saudi Arabia, where women were not allowed to drive until 2018, it is a milestone in human rights. Erica Gornall’s documentary visits the Saudi Driving School, in Riyadh, which is the world’s largest such facility, even though it caters only to women. Gornall follows students as they undergo the familiar rituals of learning about turn signals and practicing parallel parking and taking the dreaded final test.

But the joy of at last getting that license is tempered by the price paid for such a humble victory, which might well be a PR gesture rather than the first step on the road to equality. Many of the women who protested for the right to drive years ago and were arrested still remain in prison.


In 1991, Bruce Franks Jr., the 34-year-old superman in Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan’s short documentary, saw his 9-year-old brother shot to death on their front lawn. The 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo., turned him into an activist. In 2016 he was elected to the Missouri House of Representatives. His dream is for his 5-year-old son to grow up in a world where children are not murdered.

Brattle Theatre, 1:30 p.m. Producer Nick London will participate in a discussion via Skype moderated by Globe columnist Shirley Leung.


Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts’s brutal and heartbreaking diary of a hospital during the siege of a rebel-held corner of Aleppo, Syria, takes the form of a video letter addressed to al-Kateab’s daughter. Begun before the child is born during the heady early days of the revolt against the Assad dictatorship. It evolves into an explanation of why she and her husband, who is one of the few remaining doctors there, chose to remain for five years, even when the situation grew catastrophic and the outcome hopeless. Casualties pile into the battered hospital, Russian planes drop bombs, medical supplies run out, children die, and grief, despair, and terror mount. But as al-Kateab explains with wavering confidence, they remain behind because they still believe in the ideals of their revolution, and they must do all they can to help those suffering and record it all for the world to see.

Brattle Theatre, 3:30 p.m. “Frontline” executive producer Raney Aronson will participate in a discussion moderated by Globe reporter Maria Cramer.


While in high school Rachel Mason learned for the first time that her seemingly straitlaced parents, Karen and Barry, were proprietors of a popular West Hollywood gay bookstore called Circus of Books. Her documentary traces the history of this now-legendary establishment from 1976 when, strapped for money, her parents accepted an offer from Larry Flynt to distribute Hustler magazine. This led to them taking over the then-failing bookstore. After a decade of hard work, they used their business savvy to become the biggest purveyors of gay porn in the United States. Another example of the American Dream come true, complicated when Karen, a conservative Jew, learns that her son, Rachel’s brother, is gay.

Coolidge Corner Theatre, 4:30 p.m. Rachel Mason will participate in a discussion via Skype moderated by Globe feature writer and Love Letters columnist Meredith Goldstein.


Watching this film I recall how my father, a Boston College alumnus, planned to go to a victory party at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub on Nov. 28, 1942, after his alma mater’s expected victory over Holy Cross. BC lost, so he didn’t go, but 492 people were not as fortunate. They died when the cavernous venue turned into an inferno, with no escape. It was the biggest such disaster in US history, and Zachary Graves-Miller’s riveting documentary combines archival material and interviews with experts such as Kevin Cullen of the Globe and former mayor Ray Flynn to investigate the criminal corruption and incompetence that led to the disaster and the subsequent safety reforms and advances in the treatment of burns.

Coolidge Corner Theatre, 7 p.m. Graves-Miller, producer Michele Shapiro, and Flynn will participate in a discussion moderated  by Cullen .

Peter Keough can be reached at