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In November, New York played host to more than 200 documentaries, shorts and events as part of the 13th annual DOC NYC, the largest festival in the country devoted to the form. The following is a brief roundup of a few of the terrific documentaries I saw, all of which either had their U.S. or World Premieres at the festival. And all were directed by women.

BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: CARRY IT ON (C) PBS-American Masters, courtesy of DOC NYC

Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On

Watch the trailer:


Madison Thomas

What Makes This Documentary Special?

For this Canadian, it was an unexpected bounty of CanCon. Three of the documentaries I watched were part of the VOICES OF CANADA program (co-presented by the Consulate General of Canada in New York). Fittingly, it was 81-year-old Indigenous Canadian-American icon Buffy Sainte-Marie who kicked off my slate. Receiving its U.S. premiere, Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On, helmed by Madison Thomas, gives the singer, activist, former Sesame Street cast member and Oscar winner the retrospective treatment. I admit I was not that familiar with Sainte-Marie’s story, as I think is the case for many people who aren’t old enough to have grown up with her music. I didn’t even know that she is the only Indigenous Oscar winner, which was the culmination of co-writing Best Original Song “Up Where We Belong” from An Officer And A Gentleman.

Beyond the accolades, Sainte-Marie was a pioneer. She focused her music and advocacy on the treatment of Indigenous people at a time when no one else really was.

“In the 60s,” she remarked, “people were flabbergasted that I would use the word genocide” to describe what had happened to the Indigenous population in America.

In 1968, when she guest-starred on The Virginian, it was a seminal moment in television and an indicator of her level of popularity and influence that when she insisted that the actors playing Indigenous parts be played by Indigenous actors, they were. Equally of note, when she and her family had recurring roles on Sesame Street, Sainte-Marie breastfed her son on a 1977 episode, another television first. More recently, she released the album Power In The Blood (2015) and at 74, beat out Drake for a Canadian Polaris award.

Where Can I Watch Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On?

Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On premiered in November on PBS-American Masters. Click here to stream it now.

Jerry Brown in Marina Zenovich's JERRY BROWN: THE DISRUPTER; courtesy of DOC NYC.

Jerry Brown: The Disrupter


Marina Zenovich

What Makes This Documentary Special?

Another fascinating key cultural figure to come out of the 60s and 70s is former governor of California Jerry Brown, who gets the life overview in Jerry Brown: The Disrupter.  Director Marina Zenovich has known Brown and his political dynasty family (Brown’s father Pat was also governor and Kathleen Brown, Jerry’s sister, served as the state’s treasurer in the 90s) since she was a kid. That gives her unique access, not that Brown is necessarily more forthcoming with her. In response to the very first question Zenovich poses to him, asking Brown how he would describe himself, the 84-year-old, with more than a trace of irritation, tells her, “I couldn’t and wouldn’t answer the question.”

The seminarian turned politician became the youngest governor of California when he was 36. He sold the governor’s private jet, fired half his staff almost immediately and put a mattress on the floor of his office, all signs of mercurial winds to come. First though, he did have success with legislation on behalf of farm workers and raised environmental concerns when virtually no one else was even taking notice. Brown launched an ill-advised, last minute bid for President in ’76 (similar circumstances in ’92) and sandwiched in between was a losing bid for Senate. Improbably and incredibly, the three-time loser decided to run for mayor of Oakland in 1998 and won, getting credit for transforming the down and out city. Then the man, affectionately and/or dismissively once known as Governor Moonbeam, stunned many as Brown charted a course back to the governor’s mansion, becoming The Golden State’s oldest governor in 2011. Despite some orneriness, Brown is a compelling subject.  

Where Can I Watch Jerry Brown: The Disrupter?

As of press time there’s no distribution for Jerry Brown: The Disrupter but check the film's page on DOC NYC for updates.

Karen Cho's BIG FIGHT IN LITTLE CHINATOWN (C) Eyesteel Film, courtesy of DOC NYC

Big Fight In Little Chinatown

Watch the trailer:


Karen Cho

What Makes This Documentary Special?

On the home front, Big Fight in Little Chinatown looks at how Chinatowns here in New York City, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver - all of which were in crises before the pandemic did further damage - are trying to stay relevant and survive. Director Karen Cho provides a valuable primer of the origins of Chinatown in the four cities, each of which was created by immigrant Chinese communities when they were pushed out of other neighbourhoods by racist attitudes and policies. She also follows second and third generation Chinatown residents who are business owners fighting gentrification and eradication. Outside of Montreal, for instance, very few people know that the city is home to a distinctive Francophone Chinatown. And I think many would be surprised to know that unlike in New York, which has a pretty robust preservation mentality, Toronto has done little to protect that local history. But during the course of filming, the active band of protestors have some success with getting recognition and a landmark from the government.

My favourite moment in the documentary is when the spirited Mei Lum, who is helping her family run the porcelain shop Wing on Wo and Co (dating back to the 1890s and believed to be the oldest continuously operating business in New York’s Chinatown), organizes a Chinese New Year celebration in 2021 for everyone in the are when the regular celebration was canceled. She and her compatriots don dragon costumes, bring out drums and go around offering blessings to the delighted residents and owners. It’s incredibly beautiful and I hope that the powers that be, which are hard at work trying to build a new, bigger prison in Chinatown that would destroy a significant part of the neighbourhood, see the documentary and understand the short-sightedness of continuing that pursuit.  

Where Can I Watch Big Fight In Little Chinatown?

As of press time there’s no distribution for Big Fight in Little Chinatown but check the film's page on DOC NYC for updates.

Valerie Kontakos's QUEEN OF THE DEUCE (C) Exile Films / Storyline Entertainment, courtesy of DOC NYC

Queen Of The Deuce

Watch the trailer:


Valerie Kontakos

What Makes This Documentary Special?

Also giving props to NYC is Queen Of The Deuce, possibly the wildest true story to come out of the fest. It’s about a Jewish lesbian grandmother who presided over multiple gay porn theatres (The Adonis, formerly The Tivoli, bought from Gulf & Western, and The Cameo were two in her stable) in and around Times Square circa the 1970s. Watching it at home, the animation, old videotape footage and cassette tape interviews that director Valerie Kontakos employs to help narrate, makes for a more intimate viewing as Kontakos brings to life the late Chelly Wilson. Wilson (who took her second husband’s last name and yep, despite having female lovers she had a second husband she adored) lived above one of her theatres (the Eros) and decked out in a mumu and smoking, she would throw parties in the apartment and celebrate Christmas with her family, the living room table surrounded by literal bags of money.  

But before the crazy turn her life took, Wilson had grown up very Jewish in pre-war Greece. Her father forced her into an arranged marriage, a disaster that led to two children and a divorce. She escaped Europe just ahead of the Nazis, but left everything behind, including her children (extraordinarily, both survived though Salonika’s Jewish population was nearly wiped out). In New York she went from showing Greek films to discovering there was money to be had in the porn business, and thus her empire was born.

Where Can I Watch Queen Of The Deuce?

As of press time there’s no distribution for Queen Of The Deuce but check and the film's page on DOC NYC for updates.

For more about DOC NYC’s offerings, visit

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Marina Zenovich

Wing on Wo and Co.

Shani Friedman


Featured image: Buffy Sainte-Marie in Madison Thomas's BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: CARRY IT ON (C) PBS-American Masters, courtesy of DOC NYC