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10 Fascinating ‘New York Times’ Op-Docs

by Nolan Moore
fact checked by Jamie Frater

One of the most respected papers on the planet, The New York Times also occasionally collaborates with filmmakers to produce some pretty impressive short documentaries. We recently published a list of awesome NY Times op-docs, with movies covering a wide array of topics, like kite-fighting, a sex offender village, and a man who claims to own the Moon. Of course, there are just far too many amazing op-docs for one list. So here’s the sequel, complete with a real-life vampire, an insane artist, an elderly daredevil, and perhaps the greatest wartime tearjerker ever caught on camera.

10Rent-A-Foreigner In China

Rent-a-Foreigner in China | Op-Docs | The New York Times

If you visit China, you might just stumble across a ghost town. The country is overflowing with empty cities. Most folks aren’t willing to pay for overpriced apartments in the middle of nowhere, so these once-promising communities are just collecting dust, waiting for people to show up.

Now, if you’re a Chinese real estate agent hoping to rent out a few pricey, isolated condos, what do you do? Hire a couple of white guys to stand around looking cool, of course. Evidently, many Chinese citizens like the idea of living in an “international” neighborhood. The presence of a foreigner suggests a “city of the future,” and that’s why there’s an odd Chinese market for Western actors willing to pose as models, performers, and even engineers.

In David Borenstein’s Rent-a-Foreigner in China, we get a quick glimpse at a weird world where foreign actors are hired to pose as bartenders, athletes, and diplomats. We also learn that white actors are considered more desirable and make more money than their black counterparts. Even though these people are just amateurs trying to pay the bills, they’re often promoted as famous or respected figures, all in the hopes of selling real estate.

9Running On Fumes In North Dakota

‘In the Land of Hell’: Life as a Female Trucker in North Dakota | Op-Docs | The New York Times

Jonnie Cassens is hanging on but just barely. She’s a hotshot truck driver in the North Dakota oil fields, a woman on call 24/7. If an oil rig breaks down, and somebody needs a replacement part ASAP, Jonnie is the one to call. She’s constantly on the road, accompanied by her pet dog, barreling through the icy barrens of the wintry Midwest. It’s a lonely job—and, more often than not, it feels kind of like a trap.

Once upon a time, Jonnie was living in her car, struggling under the weight of unpaid bills and student loans, but when she heard about the oil fields, she headed into the American heartland, hoping to start anew. Instead, she found a trailer without running water, a wasteland devoid of any life, and a community almost exclusively filled with rough, hungry men. In perhaps the saddest scene, we learn her only real friend is her flat-screen TV.

In Running on Fumes in North Dakota, we’re plunged headfirst into an ugly world, a world without hope. We watch as Jonnie struggles to make ends meet every day, all with lousy pay and no insurance. In just a matter of minutes, we totally feel her isolation, her frustration, and her sense of despondency. Instead of living the American Dream, Jonnie—like so many others—has found herself in a “land of hell.”

8Strike: The Greatest Bowling Story Ever Told

Strike: The Greatest Bowling Story Ever Told | Made With Kickstarter | The New York Times

Getting a strike is a fist-pumping experience. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of knocking over all 10 pins, can you imagine scoring a perfect 900? That’s 36 strikes in three tournament games, back to back to back.

Since 1895, fewer than 30 people have achieved this impossible feat. And that’s where Bill Fong comes into the picture. Mr. Fong is a bowling fanatic. The man’s entire life revolves around one thing and one thing only: rolling a ball down an oily, wood-paneled lane. And one Monday evening in Plano, Texas, Bill found his groove and started one of the wildest winning streaks in bowling history.

In Strike: The Greatest Bowling Story Ever Told, filmmaker Joey Daoud—who was inspired by a D Magazine article—interviews Bill about the most astonishing evening of his life. What we’ve got here is the Rocky of bowling stories. It’s the inspirational tale of a man taking his 100-to-one shot, an underdog going up against 10 stubborn pins in a crazy attempt to bowl his way into the history books.

7Subway Ballet

Subway Ballet | Op-Docs | The New York Times

New York City is a busker’s paradise. You can’t walk more than a few feet without running into a street musician, a break-dancer, or a dude dressed up like Spider-Man. Even when you descend into the city’s innards and step onto a subway car, the buskers are still there, trying desperately to get your attention. Of course, if you’re riding in the same train as W.A.F.F.L.E. (We Are Family for Life Entertainment), you should probably offer them your time and money. These guys are well worth it.

In Subway Ballet, Joshua Z. Weinstein rides along with the W.A.F.F.L.E. Crew, a group of six dancers who entertain commuters with their impressive strength, graceful moves, and smooth personalities. Using the subway poles, the group performs some truly amazing dance moves, like the colorfully named “chicken noodle soup,” “needle and thread,” and “walking on air.” And true, the poles might lend them a stripper vibe (even one of their movies is called “the part-time stripper”), but really, these guys have far more in common with ballet dancers or acrobats. Here’s hoping they can one day get off the trains and make it into the big time.

6Shot In The Name Of Art

Shot in the Name of Art | Op-Docs | The New York Times

Chris Burden died in May 2015, but if you happened to catch one of his last shows, you’d probably never suspect he was the craziest artist of the 1970s. Since the ‘80s, Burden had worked on pieces like Urban Light (a collection of over 200 Los Angeles streetlights from the ‘20s and ‘30s) and What My Dad Gave Me (a 20-meter [65 ft] skyscraper made of nearly one million Erector set parts). But back in the day, Burden was a wild man who’d do anything for art.

For example, Burden once shut himself inside a locker for five whole days while crouched in the fetal position. In 1974, he became a modern-day martyr by nailing himself to the roof of a Volkswagen. On one occasion, he crawled through shattered glass, and another time, he set himself on fire. Once, he actually wrapped his body with copper rings . . . rings connected to live wires . . . wires placed besides buckets of water . . . buckets that spectators might accidently (or purposefully) knock over, and then, presto, crispy Chris.

Yeah, he was a crazy person.

However, Burden’s most famous piece was Shoot, a psycho stunt involving a marksman, a loaded rifle, and some very real blood. Shoot put Burden on the map, and shortly before he died, Eric Kutner interviewed the artist about the time he asked his friend to shoot him in the arm (not technically “in” the arm, but things don’t always go according to plan). Kutner also interviews Bruce Dunlap, the up-until-now mysterious shooter and the man who was more than happy to put a bullet in his buddy. It was in the name of art.

5Hotel 22

Hotel 22 | Op-Docs | The New York Times

Most people probably don’t associate Silicon Valley with poverty. But thanks to rising property prices and a lack of affordable housing, the area actually has a pretty big homelessness problem, and 75 percent of the region’s homeless aren’t in shelters because there just isn’t enough room for everyone. So where do all these people sleep at night?

Quite a few spend their evenings riding a 24-hour public bus line known as “Hotel 22.” Running between San Jose and Palo Alto, the bus provides a temporary shelter, so long as they keep paying to ride back and forth. It’s a quiet trip, for the most part, as people try to grab a little shut-eye. But even though the bus is full of sleeping people, this is a far cry from a peaceful ride.

In this New York Times op-doc, director Elizabeth Lo edits a week’s worth of footage into eight powerful minutes, giving us a good idea of what it’s like to ride on the Hotel 22. Instead of using narration or title cards, Lo rides along in silence with the hotel guests, quietly watching as they struggle to find a moment’s rest. There’s an atmosphere of absolute melancholy, punctuated with short bursts of violent anger, until the Hotel 22 finally pulls to a stop, and all the homeless passengers shuffle off the bus and back onto the streets.

4Pass It On

One Man’s Trash Is Another Man’s Soccer Ball | Op-Docs | The New York Times

Soccer—or football, depending where you’re from—is the most popular sport in the world. Unfortunately, a lot of people just can’t afford a proper soccer ball. Take for example the children who live in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a region torn apart by warfare and poverty. Many of these kids simply don’t have the money to buy a ball . . . or anywhere to buy one, for that matter.

But hey, we all know that old saying about life and lemonade. It’s the same with scraps of plastic. When life gives you garbage, grab some old twine and make the world’s coolest toy, complete with those iconic geometric patterns. Really, we can’t say any more about this video without spoiling the magic, but Jerome Thelia’s two-and-half-minute op-doc is one of the happiest, most joyful videos on this list. Check it out.

3First Bite

First Bite: An Animated Vampire Tale | Op-Docs | The New York Times

No matter who you are or where you’re from, there’s a vampire story for you. Almost every country in the world has its own unique twist on the bloodsucking beast, and there are so many different types of vampire stories to choose from. There’s your classic vampire (Dracula), your romantic vampire (Twilight), your gore-soaked vampire (The Strain), and even your superhero vampire (Blade). No matter your preference, they’re all bloody good fun.

Of course, the main reason we love these monsters so much is because we know they don’t exist. However, if we lived in the 1700s, our attitudes toward the undead would probably be a whole lot different. Once upon a time, the mere mention of the word “vampire” sent actual shivers up and down people’s spines. Back in the day, vampires weren’t just stories. They were real creatures that crawled out of coffins and preyed on the living—or that’s what people thought, anyway. Sometimes, those beliefs had really disturbing results.

In this macabre little op-doc, director Drew Christie takes us back to 18th-century Serbia, to a small town gripped with fear. Using a real account written by an Austrian official, Christie tells the story of Petar Blagojevic, a peasant who supposedly rose from the dead to kill nine of his neighbors. Drawn in an eerie black and white (occasionally interrupted with spurts of red), this animated op-doc is an unsettling look at what happens when superstition and ignorance run amok. Or perhaps it’s a warning to always keep your crucifix handy and your stake sharp.

2No Ordinary Passenger

No Ordinary Passenger | Op-Docs | The New York Times

Stan Dibben is one of the gutsiest guys on this list, a daredevil athlete who doesn’t know the meaning of fear.

In 1953, the British octogenarian won first place in a world championship motorcycle race. But Stan wasn’t driving the bike. Instead, he was sitting in the sidecar. After World War II, sidecar racing became popular across Europe, and when these three-wheeled motorbikes went around a corner, the passenger would help make the turn by leaning out of the sidecar, shoulder almost touching the ground.

In No Ordinary Passenger, filmmaker Cabell Hopkins interviews the elderly action hero who once toured Europe at 150 kilometers (95 mi) per hour, centimeters away from losing all the skin on his face. And just because Stan has a few gray hairs these days, that doesn’t mean he’s too old to hop into a modern sidecar and show the whippersnappers how it’s done. The man lives by a code. When life offers you an adventure, always say yes.

1My Enemy, My Brother

My Enemy, My Brother | Op-Docs | The New York Times

Better get your tissues for this one, folks, because it’s a tearjerker.

Directed by Ann Shin, My Enemy, My Brother tells the story of two men from two different countries plunged into one hellish war. An Iraqi citizen, 19-year-old Najah was ripped away from his restaurant and pregnant girlfriend when Saddam Hussein invaded Iran. On the other side of the border, 13-year-old Zahed ran away from an abusive home and joined the Iranian Army, serving as one of the country’s child soldiers.

Eventually, Najah and Zahed found themselves at the battle of Khorramshahr, a bloody fight that left Najah wounded and trapped in a bunker. Enter Zahed, the child ordered to dig graves for the dead. But when the Iranian found the Iraqi crumpled on the ground, something unbelievable happened.

Using interviews and recreations, Ann Shin creates a powerful portrait of brotherhood, hope, and humanity. But we’re going to stop describing this op-doc right now because this is a story that needs to be seen. Of course, after you finish this astounding film, you’ll have a hard time believing it’s a true story and not some Oscar-worthy drama. It just goes to show that real life is more amazing than anything Hollywood can dream up.

Nolan Moore ain’t gonna lie. That last video made him a little misty-eyed. If you want, you can friend/follow Nolan on Facebook, or you can send him an email.

fact checked by Jamie Frater