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Review: ‘One Million American Dreams’ weaves a sad tale of New York’s forgotten

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An image from the documentary “One Million American Dreams.”
(Fine Point Films / Kew Media)

Just miles from Manhattan’s luxury high rises and Wall Street money lies Hart Island, a 101-acre cemetery filled with over a century of New York City’s poor and forgotten inhabitants, buried without ceremony in cheap pine boxes. Narrated by Oscar winner Sam Rockwell, “One Million American Dreams” uncovers the nightmares entombed in this potter’s field.

Director Brendan Byrne’s documentary joins four families as they search for answers to why their loved ones’ remains are on the island off the Bronx and why the city never notified them of their deaths. But “One Million American Dreams” doesn’t just look at the bodies buried there; it also examines the inequality that led to Hart Island becoming their final resting place. It looks at the gravediggers — Rikers Island inmates, themselves often victims of the city’s stratification — whose labor is provided by the island’s owner, the Department of Corrections.

Byrne incorporates contemporary interviews, videos of the families and archival footage as well as stunning animation, largely done in stark black and white by Peter Strain. It all works to illuminate the dual tragedy at work here, affecting both those convicted of misdemeanors and those only guilty of being poor. “One Million American Dreams” lacks a cohesive structure, but it is bound together by the tears and grief of the people left behind.

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‘One Million American Dreams’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Playing: Starts Feb. 8, Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills; on VOD Feb. 11

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