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At this year’s GlobeDocs Festival, a world of determination on display

“The Cave”National Geographic

In this year’s GlobeDocs Festival (Oct. 2-6) determined people prevail over trying, often tragic, circumstances.

With a program of 16 features and six shorts, the festival is part of HUBweek (Oct. 1-3 ), the celebration of art, science, and technology put together by The Boston Globe, Harvard University, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology .

These stories range from war-torn Syria, in Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts’s “For Sama” (Oct. 6 at 3:30 p.m., at the Brattle) to the 1942 Boston Cocoanut Grove fire, in Zachary Graves-Miller’s “Six Locked Doors” (Oct. 6 at 7 p.m., Coolidge Corner). The courageous, persevering subjects include a double amputee pioneering the development of bionic limbs, in Matthew Orr’s “Augmented” (Oct. 3 at 5 p.m., ShowPlace ICON ) and autistic adults and their families in Tricia Regan’s “Autism: The Sequel” (Oct. 5 at 11 a.m., Brattle)


Asked what she saw as the common element among all the films, festival programmer Lisa Viola says, “They are all very personal stories that the viewer can feel intensely.”

Some are very intense indeed.

In “For Sama” one of the filmmakers, journalist al-Kateab, keeps a video diary of her experiences in Aleppo, from the early days of revolutionary fervor to the crushing siege by regime forces. She hopes it will one day explain to her infant daughter why her parents chose to stay in the city despite the danger.

Her husband, one of the few surgeons left there, operates a hospital that treats casualties from the ceaseless bombardment and sniper fire. Many of these victims are children — some gravely wounded, dying, or dead, others grieving over lost parents, siblings, and loved ones. Al-Kateab fears that her daughter will suffer a similar fate and is torn between fleeing to safety or remaining in Aleppo, so that she and her husband can help those suffering and bear witness to the tragedy.


Similarly, in Feras Feyyad’s “The Cave” (Oct. 5, 5:30 p.m., Brattle) a 30-year-old pediatrician leads a medical team in an underground hospital hidden from regime forces in the besieged Syrian city of Al Ghouta. Casualties mount, supplies dwindle, bombs obliterate the neighborhood, children die horribly from chemical weapons, and the end inexorably approaches. The doctor and her associates wonder if all their efforts have been in vain. As if in response to al-Khateab’s plight in “For Sama,” she laments, “I don’t know what makes people have children here.”

The LGBTQ refugees in Tom Shepard’s “Unsettled” (Oct. 5 at 8 p.m., Brattle) have escaped the oppression of their homelands in the Middle East and Africa and found support and safety in San Francisco. But for them the struggle continues — to find homes, work, and security in a country that increasingly demonizes immigrants

These can be hard films to watch, Viola admits. “The Syrian films are especially tough,” she says. “But they are necessary viewing, and we have dedicated audiences. The discussions with the filmmakers and others following every screening help put the experience in context. Plus, I try to balance them out a little bit with films that are not as dark and more celebratory.”

Among those is David Charles Rodrigues’s “Gay Chorus Deep South” (Oct. 2 at 7 p.m., Coolidge Corner) in which the renowned Gay Men’s Chorus leaves the enlightened “bubble” of San Francisco to tour Bible Belt states that have passed draconian anti-LGBTQ laws. Can music bridge the gap between them and the religious right? For many these are places where they grew up and were rejected by their families and communities. Their homecoming and the inspiring performances offer hope for a reconciliation of these two worlds.


Roger Ross Williams’s “The Apollo” (Oct. 4 at 7:30 p.m., Brattle) also focuses on music as it reflects injustice and inequality. Since it opened, in 1934, Harlem’s Apollo Theater has remained an oasis in a racist society as it featured legendary such African-American musical geniuses as Billy Holiday, Louis Armstrong , Sammy Davis Jr. , and the Supremes. Rodrigues combines archival footage of past performances with present-day interviews to explore the theater’s history and ponder its future.

Several films in the festival engage with the issue of women’s rights in unexpected places.

Erica Gornall’s deceptively lighthearted “Saudi Women’s Driving School” (Oct. 6 at 1:30 p.m., Brattle) visits the title enterprise, which has been instructing women in Saudi Arabia to drive since they were finally allowed to, in 2018. But it’s only a tentative step in rolling back the country’s oppressive policies, and many of the women who were arrested years ago for demonstrating for the change remain in prison.

Women fight injustice on the gridiron in Yu Gu’s “A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem” (Oct. 4 at 5 p.m., Brattle). For 50 years, these hard-working and talented dancers on the sidelines have been treated with contempt by wealthy team owners and by the NFL and paid less than concession-stand workers. A few decided to take them to court, and their courage spawned a class-action suit.


The line between exploitation and empowerment blurs in Beth Aala’s “Made in Boise” (Oct. 3 at 5 p.m., Coolidge Corner). For reasons that are not entirely clear (the lack of regulation perhaps being one of them) the capital of arch-conservative Idaho is also the capital of surrogate motherhood. It’s a thriving business, and Aala investigates the phenomenon by following four surrogates and the parents whose children they are bearing as they go though the sometimes fraught process of bringing the babies to term.

Sometimes, even in a documentary film festival, you want to see something that is just fun without too much sociological or political context to think about. One such film that Viola recommends is Alla Kovgan’s “Cunningham” (Oct. 3 at 7:30 p.m., ShowPlace ICON ), a rousing in-depth portrait of the great choreographer Merce Cunningham. And it’s in 3-D.

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