From acclaimed director Frederick Wiseman, who's been making documentary epics for decades, comes another standout. Not to be confused with the 1996 thriller starring Al Pacino, City Hall takes a strictly observational look at the Boston City government and its Mayor Marty Walsh.
When I say observational, I can't overstate how much that defines the film. City Hall doesn’t feature the typical talking heads and cutaways that make up most documentaries. Instead, we're a fly on the wall, watching meetings on meetings about the future of the city of Boston.
It's often riveting and enlightening though it may not be the type of doc you pop on to unwind after a long day of doomscrolling. This is mostly due to the documentary being over four and a half hours long. WAIT! Don’t let that put you off. If that's too daunting, watch it in segments with breaks, which, dear Slogger, I confess I took.
That lengthy runtime puts you in the center of Boston. The city feels thoroughly alive, from an oddly mesmerizing sequence of a trash compactor to a community meeting about a new pot business.
Boston's Mayor Walsh is the most recurrent “character,” and City Hall follows him for the longest. While not explicitly valorizing everything he does, the spotlight placed on him is a high pedestal. A pedestal that recent events have contradicted, as the Boston community wants to see Walsh do more to address systemic racism.
Keeping that in mind enrichens the documentary, showing how political leaders mustn't become our heroes but rather be held accountable for how they represent us. City Hall is about as comprehensive of a look at how that representation plays out in the city of Boston as one could ever want.
You can stream City Hall via Film Forum on Wednesday, October 28 and via the Virtual SIFF Cinema starting Friday, November 6.
The directorial debut from Alice Gu, The Donut King, is both a portrait of a donut king and a look at the historical role he played in 1980s California.
Ted Ngoy, the titular king, fled the Khmer Rouge with his family to come to the United States to achieve the American dream. After initial struggles, Ngoy found success by building a network of shops throughout the region called Christy’s Doughnuts.
The buildup and step-by-step journey Gu takes us on is masterful. You learn so much about Ngoy and Cambodia, and her filmmaking is as insightful as it is compassionate.
That only makes the steep decline all the more painful. Without going into too much of the details, the kingdom Ngoy built around him crumbles, the dream he achieved becomes a nightmare, and the donut king flies too close to the sun.
Gu portrays the downfall primarily through Ngoy's family and friends who recount the darker aspects of his life and addictions. It's a brutally honest take, and all the delicious donuts can't take away from the reality.
Yet it's Gu's commitment to that harsh reality that makes this documentary remarkable. Seek this one out, and then follow Gu's future work.
You can stream The Donut King via the Virtual SIFF Cinema starting Friday, October 30.