DocLands 2023: Five Must-See Movies At This Year’s Festival

In a time when most documentaries are watched via streaming service, DocLands offers audiences the special opportunity to experience some of the best films from around the world the way they were intended to be seen: on the big screen.

“Come back to the theaters and be blown away!” gushes DocLands Director of Programming Joni Cooper, who below helps guide us through some of the highlights from the festival’s always-stellar lineup.

The DocLands Documentary Film Festival runs from May 10 to 14. 

The Nettle Dress (US Premiere)

Doclands 2023 Film Festival The Nettle Dress

The future of fashion is sustainability and designers crafting from the heart. The Nettle Dress encapsulates this exquisitely, following textile artist Allan Brown as he uses nettles harvested from the fields in his native UK to fashion an intricately woven dress made in honor of his deceased wife’s memory. The dress takes seven years to complete, a stark contrast to the fast-fashion direction the industry has adopted in recent years. But Brown’s work is imbued with an elemental power that reflects the beauty of nature and unconditional love.

“It’s a gorgeous film, kind of like a fairy tale. It’s so gentle and beautiful and it goes through Brown’s whole process, talking about it a little along the way but mostly showing it. I hope there’s a community of sustainable clothing people in our area who will come out to see the film.”

Razing Liberty Square

Doclands 2023 Film Festival Razing Liberty Square

In 2015, the city of Miami announced a $300 million revitalization project for Liberty Square, a predominantly Black public-housing community. The city’s motives were called into question when it came to light that climate change made the neighborhood more desirable for its altitude and dryness. Razing Liberty Square follows the neighborhood’s residents as they combat “Climate Gentrification” and try desperately to hold onto the community and culture that the city threatens to wrest away.

“It’s a really terrific film about social injustice around climate change in Miami. Just wonderfully done,” Cooper says.

The Arc of Oblivion (California Premiere)

All of the films featured at DocLands are unique in their own way, but The Arc of Oblivion, by filmmaker-subject Ian Cheney, is perhaps the heaviest and most fascinating of all. Cheney documents his construction of an arc in his parents’ backyard in Maine, in which he plans to hold a comprehensive archive of humankind. He travels to the far corners of the globe — the Arctic, the Alps, the Sahara — to solicit the help of some of the world’s foremost archivists in a variety of fields, from librarians, to dendrochronologists (scientists who study tree rings), to legendary documentarian Werner Herzog. At the center of the film is a timely question: “What from this world is worth saving?”

“A really fun film. Guy in Maine decides to build a wooden ark on his parents’ property in Maine to store data. Through this, he brings in people who are involved in all aspects of the world, including nature and how data is stored. Rings of trees are data storage, as are fossils,” notes Cooper. 

Invisible Beauty

Doclands 2023 Film Festival

No fashion industry figure has the fight of Bethann Harrison. Coming to prominence in the ‘60s and ‘70s as one of the first Black models to attract major attention, she heroically used her platform to elevate other people of color in the space, opening her own modeling agency and garnering awards for her activism in the name of racial diversity in modeling. Invisible Beauty delves into the struggles and triumphs of Harrison’s life and career, with insightful interviews with the legend herself.

“She turned from the high fashion world to having her own modeling agency where she brought in people of color. She is amazing, and she’s still incredibly active!”

Mom & Dad’s Nipple Factory

Doclands 2023 Film Festival Mom and Dad’s Nipple Factory

In Mom & Dad’s Nipple Factory, filmmaker Justinsuperstar delves into a secret operation his conservative parents hid from him and his five siblings for years: an underground nipple factory. When his mom Randi is diagnosed with breast cancer, she undergoes a mastectomy that leaves her feeling like a less complete version of herself, her husband Brian takes it upon himself to manufacture nipples to make her feel whole again. The business expands to a worldwide scale, but all the while, their loved ones are left unaware.

“This was one of our DocPitch finalists in 2021. It’s a quirky film, but it’s so important. Women have been so appreciative of his work, which is wonderful,” Cooper says.

No Legs. All Heart. (California Premiere)

Doclands 2023 Film Festival No Legs All Heart

The Race Across America is one of the most punishing cycling races in the world, with bikers traversing over 3,000 miles in 12 days. It’s a grueling test of endurance for elite able-bodied athletes, but André Kajlich, a double-amputee wheelchair athlete, dreams of shattering all expectations by completing the race and conquering the demons of his past.

“It’s a really inspirational film, which I know our audience loves. The filmmaker, Pablo Durana, is a former Mill Valley resident, and this is his first feature,” Cooper says.

Bernard Boo

Bernard Boo is an AAPI arts and entertainment critic, Bay Area native and proud member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. Find more of his work at PopMatters, Den of Geek and Rotten Tomatoes, and listen to him on the Your Asian Best Friends podcast.