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DOC NYC Stakes Its Claim in Fertile Territory

By Kathy Brew

When it comes to being able to see documentaries in a city like New York, more often than not, there's an abundance of riches. In addition to theatrical releases that open at venues like Film Forum, Cinema Village and The Quad, there are the ongoing series at media arts organizations like Maysles Cinema, Flaherty NYC and DCTV, as well as the nonfiction festivals that occur throughout the year--MoMA's annual Documentary Fortnight, the Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival, not to mention other annual festivals such as the New York Film Festival, New Directors/New Films and Tribeca, as well as a plethora of smaller niche festivals that always include a strong offering ofdocumentaries. So why another festival and one devoted to documentary?

According to Thom Powers, the creator and host of Stranger Than Fiction, the acclaimed Tuesday night documentary series that takes place at the IFC Center, "In our five years of programming Stranger Than Fiction at IFC, it became apparent that audiences were craving a fresh focal point fordocumentary film. The concentrated energy of a festival has a different force than our weekly series."  (Powers is also the documentary programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival, so he has much experience with the zeitgeist of  "concentrated" festival energy.)

And so began the inaugural year for DOC NYC, which took place November 3 through 9 at the IFC Center and at NYU's Skirball Center for the Performing Arts in Manhattan's West Village.  According to its website, "DOC NYC is a new festivalcelebrating documentary storytelling in film, photography, prose and other media" that "targets a demographic of the curious, successful and creative."  For its first year, DOC NYC presented close to 40 films covering a range of themes and topics, as well as panels, spotlights, tributes, midnight rock docs, two day-long symposia, family programming and more. In a sense, something for everyone. 

The festival was bookended by two gala screenings featuring New York premieres of the newest films by two of the genre's major auteurs-- Werner Herzog, whose Cave of Forgotten Dreams was the opening night film, and Errol Morris, whose Tabloid came toward the end of thefestival. Herzog's most recent search for what he refers to as "ecstatic truth" takes us back in time to prehistoric paintings from over 35,000 years ago that were recently discovered in the Chauvet caves in southern France. The film is one of the few instances where the use of 3D really serves a purpose--you're afforded a sense of being in the space with the contours and drawings on the cave walls, and it is totally awe-inspiring. 


From Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Courtesy of DOC NYC


On a less sublime side, Tabloid tells the story of a former Miss Wyoming whose quest for her true love led her across the Atlantic and onto the pages of tabloid newspapers.  As Morris remarked in the post-screening discussion, Tabloid is "a return to my favorite genre...Sick, sad and funny...a meditation on how we are shaped by media."

In conjunction with these Spotlight screenings, the festival presented a selection of each director's past documentaries, along with conversations with both filmmakers.  In the land of digitalubiquity, where one can view almost anything online these days, this is one factor that still makes film festivals so relevant and special: the physicality of being there, of hearing directlyfrom the source, allowing for greater engagement between filmmaker and audience. Many of the other screenings had filmmakers and subjects present for post-screening discussions as well. 

Occasionally, when a character comes off the screen and onto the stage, there's an added sense of uncanniness and verisimilitude. As Powers notes, one of the highlights for him was "certainly my most memorable Q&A ever with Errol Morris for Tabloid, when the film's subject, Joyce McKinney, made a surprise appearance on stage. By now, that YouTube clip has been viewed by almost more people than have seen Tabloid." Here, the main character,Joyce McKinney, announced her presence and took to the stage to tell her side of the story, including the fact that she didn't feel that her story was properly told. This festival highlight, along with many others, were captured by a team of volunteer videographers and posted on the DOC NYC YouTube page.


Left to right: Filmmaker Errol Morris; Joyce McKinney, subject of Morris' Tabloid; Thom Powers, artistic director. DOC NYC. Photo: Elizabeth Stene.

So as not to contradict myself, but it's like the next best thing to having been there.  Fortunately for those of us who can't travel to every festival, this seems to be more and more the case. The recent IDFA festival in Amsterdam has many clips from festival conversations available on its site as well.

Amidst all of the other screenings, DOC NYC featured two different competition sections: Viewfinders, which celebrated eight films by both established and emerging filmmakers who bring a distinct directorial voice to their work; and Metropolis, which showcased six films that tell New York stories. The Viewfinders prize went to Windfall, a revealing look at wind energy, directed by Laura Israel. To Be Heard received the Metropolis Grand Jury Prize, as well asthe Audience Award. Directed by Roland Legiardi-Laura, Edwin Martinez, Deborah Shaffer and Amy Sultan, the film follows the lives of three Bronx teenagers whose involvement with a radical poetry workshop transforms their lives. The winners received a 35mm and Digital Cinema Package (DCP) provided by The Documentary Film Group at PostWorks New York and Laser Pacific Los Angeles. ASpecial Jury Prize went to Josef "Birdman" Astor's Lost Bohemia, the story of the last days of the artists' residential studios above Carnegie Hall. 


From To Be Heard (Dirs.: Roland Legiardi-Laura, Edwin Martinez, Deborah Shaffer, Amy Sultan), which won both the Metropolitan Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at DOC NYC.

I saw a few of the other Metropolis offerings, all of which seemed to focus on creative artists: Mindflux, a portrait of the visionary theater director, Richard Foreman, directed by Ryan Kerrison; and Puppet, directed by David Soll, which interweaves a broad look at the marginalized history of American puppetry with a more intimate look at the work of Dan Hurlin as he prepares to mount his show Disfarmer.   

Besides all the varied screenings and tributes with luminaries and emerging filmmakers (there was also a tribute to filmmaker and historian Kevin Brownlow, with several screenings with Brownlow in person), another benefit of festivals is all the other programs--symposia, special events, etc. DOC NYC had a very ambitious array of offerings that included a day-long symposium on DocConvergence, with panels that brought together documentary makers from diverse disciplines--film, photography, radio, comics, performance and more; a daylong symposium entitled State of the Art, featuring panels on directing, producing, cinematography and editing; a free panel on the State of the Industry, which focused on trends, innovations and surprises of the year,; an Orphan Film Symposium; a showcase of standout films by students from NYU; and more. 

And herein lies the downside of the upside of festivals, and perhaps something that might be exacerbated by a festival in a place like New York City, with all the other distractions the city has to offer. With a wider New York platform, there is also the danger of overwhelming viewers with too many options competing against each other. While the sidebar events that I attended were strong and interesting, the attendance for them could have been more robust. For a city like New York, it's difficult to create the same kind of festival buzz as you can in a more contained location, such as Rotterdam or Nyon. But having said that, DOC NYC is a welcome addition to the landscape of documentary film offerings. And it's great that they're thinking of the genre in a more expandedform, opening up the discussion to an interdisciplinary approach. It'll be great to see what unfolds next year. 


Kathy Brew is an independent filmmaker, media arts curator and writer, who also teaches at The New School and The School of Visual Arts. She and her accomplice, Roberto Guerra, are currently completing a documentary on the acclaimed designers, Lella and Massimo Vignelli.