Science Films at DOC NYC 2023

DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary film festival, returns to Manhattan theaters and online November 8 to 26. From this year’s lineup, we have identified the festival’s 16 science or technology-themed feature films to look out for, with descriptions quoted from the festival.

Highlights include the world premiere of Emily Packer’s HOLDING BACK THE TIDE, an exploration of the revitalized oyster population in New York City, and Brian Becker and Marley McDonald’s TIME BOMB Y2K, a reexamination of the scare that loomed over the turn of the millennium.

Sloan Science and Film will be covering the festival, so stay tuned for coverage of some of these projects in the coming weeks.

ANGEL APPLICANT. Dir. Ken August Meyer. “When talented art director Ken August Meyer is diagnosed with systemic scleroderma, a rare life-threating disease, he struggles to cope with the disease’s ravages on his body, and the unanswerable question: why me? Receiving no answer from the silent universe, Meyer turns to a study of Paul Klee, a Swiss-German painter of the 1930s who is believed to have suffered from the same disease. . .”

BETWEEN LIFE & DEATH. Dir. Nick Capote. New York Premiere. “When a 1990 brain injury left 26-year-old Florida resident Terri Schiavo in a persistent vegetative state for over a decade, her husband and family disagreed about her fate, creating a painful rift. As Schiavo ultimately became the center of a pivotal ‘right to die’ debate that captured the world’s attention, the filmmakers deftly connect the dots between this family tragedy and the rise of the religious right, and ultimately, a post-Roe America.”

BULL RUN. Dir. Ana Ramón Rubio. International Premiere. “Director Ana Ramón Rubio becomes obsessed with cryptocurrency trading to the point where her family is worried. She agrees to seek addiction therapy as long as she can make a film about her experience and demonstrate how to finance a film with tokens. Funded by bitcoin and other crypto in less than 24 hours, this is a humorous and informative rollercoaster of a film about the social and technological changes that the blockchain is bringing to the world.”

Still from BULL RUN. Courtesy of DOC NYC.

CATERPILLAR. Dir. Liza Mandelup. New York Premiere. “A 50-something queer man who always had issues with his looks, David becomes obsessed with the idea of changing his eye color. When he finds a company that can perform this surgery, he believes he has finally found solace. Vacillating between destructive vanity and admirable resilience, David is a fascinating subject in a film that examines societal notions of physical beauty and how they manifest in people’s psychology, while uncovering the dark side of the international plastic surgery industry.”

CONFESSIONS OF A GOOD SAMARITAN. Dir. Penny Lane. NYC Premiere. “What does pure human generosity look like? Good health is a privilege; can we help others less fortunate to get there? New York filmmaker Penny Lane dives into these altruistic waters when she makes a kidney donation to a stranger. As she navigates the social, medical, and personal complexities of that choice, she probes some of humanity’s biggest mysteries in this expansive, whimsical, and revelatory film.”

THE CONTESTANT. Dir. Clair Titley. New York Premiere. “In 1998, Tomoaki Hamatsu, an aspiring Japanese comedian who became known as Nasubi, participated in a reality TV program. His Sisyphean challenge: to live alone in an apartment and subsist entirely off what he could win in magazine sweepstakes until he reaches 1 million yen in prizes. As days turn to weeks and months, the program, which is live-streamed, unbeknownst to Nasubi, grows popular, and the conditions take their toll on our hero. At the dawn of the internet age, this striking film forewarns the ethical concerns of reality entertainment in the 21st century.”

THE DISAPPEARANCE OF SHERE HITE. Dir. Nicole Newnham. “Feminist sexologist Shere Hite helped change public perception toward masturbation, clitoral orgasm and more with her groundbreaking research in the 1970s and 80s. Her books rank among the biggest best-selling nonfiction titles of all time. Oscar-nominated filmmaker Nicole Newnham (CRIP CAMP) explores Hite’s rise and fall from prominence. The film uncovers a treasure trove of archival footage and enlists Dakota Johnson to give voice to Hite, ‘a truth-seeker who deserves resurged acknowledgement.’”

EVERY BODY. Dir. Julie Cohen. “The term ‘intersex’ covers a broad range of people who are born with reproductive anatomy that doesn’t easily fit the categories of male or female. Often their stories have been shrouded in mystery and shame by the medical establishment and media. Oscar-nominated filmmaker Julie Cohen (RBG) captures a new generation of intersex people who are living loudly and proudly. The film covers the history, science, and politics of a movement advocating against medically unnecessary surgeries on intersex children.”

GRASSHOPPER REPUBLIC. Dir. Daniel McCabe. NYC Premiere. “This observational chronicle is an immersive exploration of Uganda’s grasshopper industry. Following the hardships of a group of trappers in pursuit of the nutritious delicacy, this atmospheric film grapples with capitalism and sustainability while meditating on the way humans engage with the natural world. The otherworldly nighttime cinematography, based on Michele Sibiloni’s highly acclaimed photographic book, offers a glance into the future of our planet.”

HOLDING BACK THE TIDE. Dir. Emily Packer. World Premiere. “Through interviews, recited poetry, and quirky interstitials, this engaging documentary charts the unlikely presence of oysters in NYC, the myriad waterways surrounding the city, the scourge of pollution, and triumphant revitalization efforts. Poetic filming of familiar city scenes combine with fascinating archival photos for a watery love letter to the city. Lovingly crafted and scored with flair, the film both embraces humor and nods to the gender-fluid nature of oysters.”

Still from HOLDING BACK THE TIDE. Courtesy of DOC NYC.

ONE WITH THE WHALE. Dir. Peter Chelkowski, Jim Wickens. New York Premiere. “On Alaska’s remote St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea, shy teenager Agra Chris Apassingok is the best hunter in his village, but warming seas have made the annual whale hunt, which supplies food and resources for his village for most of the year, that much tougher. When he proudly shares a hunting accomplishment on social media for his indigenous community, he becomes a target for online bullying that severely threatens his mental health. This is a stunning film of family, love, tradition, and self-determination, with a thrilling soundtrack by indigenous musicians.”

RAINBOW WARRIOR. Dir. Edward McGurn. North American Premiere. “The Rainbow Warrior was a Greenpeace ship that was bombed by operatives of the French government, in New Zealand in 1985, while heading to a protest against nuclear testing, tragically taking the life of photographer Fernando Pereira. Edward McGurn’s enlightening and exciting documentary uncovers a tangled tale of nuclear weapons, geopolitical coverups, and attempts to take action against impending environmental collapse. Was Pereira’s death an accident or part of a larger political plot?”

Still from RAINBOW WARRIOR. Courtesy of DOC NYC.

SONGS OF EARTH. Dir. Margreth Olin. “With the film’s first image of a lone elderly man trekking through an untouched snowy landscape, we sense that director Margreth Olin is taking us somewhere special. The man is her father Jørgen who shares his journey to stunning vistas of glaciers, waterfalls, and fjords. The film’s artistry has won the support of executive producers Wim Wenders and Liv Ullman. It’s a stunning cinematic experience that’s unique from any other documentary this year.”

TIME BOMB Y2K. Dir. Brian Becker, Marley McDonald. NYC Premiere. “As many remember, 1999 presented a strange existential crisis in which we didn’t know what the next year and the new millennium would bring. Well-traveled on the festival circuit, this archival time capsule captures the unprecedented frenzy of Y2K just as the internet begins to transform the world.”

TOTAL TRUST. Dir. Jialing Zhang. U.S. Premiere. “A disturbing look at surveillance technology—its prevalence, abuse, and the stifling effect on those whose lives are monitored by the Chinese government. The title nods to a claim made by Chinese officials in the early days of the pandemic that most of their population trust the government, even as the film spotlights the efforts of citizens who are fighting for the right to privacy.”

Still from TOTAL TRUST. Courtesy of DOC NYC.

WITNESS. Dir. Yasmine Mathurin, Carol Nguyen, Amar Wala. International Premiere. “WITNESS explores the personal, political, and cultural ramifications of going viral. Directors Yasmine Mathurin, Amar Wala, and Carol Nguyen follow people who chose to document what they saw, whether in rage, fear, or amusement, and reflect on the staggering but fleeting attention that changed their lives. This series of six short episodes tells the stories that happened after the stories we heard about.”

More from Sloan Science and Film: