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The online film festival, DOC NYC, offers a deep list of films

A still from Casa Susanna, a film by documentarist Sébastien Lifshitz, which is featured at the DOC NYC film festival.

From what I’ve seen in DOC NYC, it’s not the usual stuff. Films take chances in the subject and in the shape of the movies themselves. It’s exciting work.

Queen of the Deuce

A still from Queen of the Deuce by Valerie Kontakos.

The most conventional film I’ve seen is Queen of the Deuce, by Valerie Kontakos. There’s a typical mix of interviews with archival film footage and photographs, but the subject is Chelly Wilson. She was born in Greece, maybe in 1908; she died in 1994. She was Jewish, and fled Greece at the start of World War II, and wound up in New York. At first, she survived by selling chestnuts on the street, then eventually built a chain of porn theaters. The “deuce” was slang for 42nd St. at Times Square, which for decades was a haven for porn shops, strip joints and street crime. Chelly also produced porn films and even started a popular Greek restaurant.

Her grandson describes Chelly:

Aside from the fact that she was Jewish and celebrated Christmas in a porn theater, it doesn’t get any weirder than that.

But Queen of the Deuce reaches way beyond Chelly Wilson’s immediate story. The film is about immigration, the Holocaust, morality and the roles of women in Wilson’s time. She was fierce and defiant; few categories could contain her. As her children and others talk about her, you wonder how human life can take so many turns.

I'm People I Am Nobody

A still from I’m People I Am Nobody, directed by Serbian filmmaker Svetislav Dragomirović.

I’m People I Am Nobody, directed by Serbian filmmaker Svetislav Dragomirović, is the least conventional of the films I’ve seen, and by coincidence is also about someone connected to the pornography world. Stevan, a Serbian former porn film actor who’s in prison in Malta, narrates his story, and because his English is less than precise, you might wonder from time to time just what he’s really trying to say. Apparently, he was charged with indecent exposure and child pornography, but that charge was dropped.

Stevan defends himself against various charges, and in a roundabout way, he makes sense. He talks about his love for people and how the films he acted in are about people being nice to each other, as opposed to the overwhelming violence in movies that the world finds acceptable. That’s an old argument, but it’s hard to deny that, as a society, we have no problem watching killing and maiming and cruelty but get quite enraged about people having sex on screen.

A fascinating part of I’m People; I Am Nobody is the relation between the narration and the visual images. Stevan is never on screen. Instead, the movie shows families at a museum looking at a sometimes nude sculpture, abstract images of red-toned water in the ocean, scenes of fish cut up in a market, a traffic jam in the snow. As you watch, your mind works to connect talk with image, but the gap is wide, and it encourages expansive, creative thinking — about love or sex or double standards, or about the legal maze that’s captured Stevan, or about what appears to be a contradiction between the serious weirdness and deep humanity of this man as he tries to explain himself.

Casa Susanna

What comes across most in Casa Susanna, made in America by French documentarist Sébastien Lifshitz is that it's not easy to be a human being in our world. People have all sorts of thoughts and feelings about how they and others should live, but this movie looks at some of the least understood people and shows that most of all, they are human beings. Casa Susanna was a small resort in New York’s Catskill Mountains that became a refuge for cross-dressing men and transgender women in the early 1960s – 60 years ago. Most of the people involved have died, but the two in the film speak beautifully about how Casa Susannah made a place in the world, where once in a while, they had the exquisite feeling of being who they were.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.