Skip to main content

New Venues, New Personnel Make New York Film Festival a New Doc Haven

By Scott Bayer

Documentary magazine hasn't covered the New York Film Festival (NYFF) since 2000, when a whopping two (2!) documentaries screened there. Despite the rise of the genre over the past decade or so, and the special attention that such tent-pole festivals as Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca and Toronto have accorded the genre, the New York Film Festival has just not programmed that many documentaries-until now.

This year, under some new management, the NYFF programmers seem to have opened their hearts and minds to more documentaries than ever before. We counted 14,  including several gems. What prompted this change, and why did it take so long?

According to Associate Programming Director Scott Foundas, "In previous years, New York Film Festival was somewhat ‘presentationally challenged,' so to speak, by our limited number of venues: the 1100-seat Alice Tully Hall, home to the ‘main slate' of the festival, and the 268-seat Walter Reade Theater, which was traditionally devoted to our annual festival retrospective and Views from the Avant-Garde sidebar, leaving very little room for additional programs. With the addition of the new Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, our programming possibilities expanded exponentially. Now, with two additional screening rooms, plus a state-of-the-art multimedia amphitheater space, we could both show more films of all types, including documentaries, while also placing films in size-appropriate venues."


The Eleanor Bunin Munroe Film Center at Lincoln Center, which opened in June 2011. Courtesy of Film Society of Lincoln Center


Longtime Festival Director Richard Peña concurrs that the new screening capacity allowed for more docs, but points out, "If you really go back and look at the New York Film Festival's history, you will find that we have shown many great and influential documentaries: The Art of the Steal, Lennon/NYC, Waltz With Bashir just within the past few years. Or The Rolling Stones Rock 'n' Roll Circus, which we premiered in 1996, which captured an extraordinary moment for the Stones, the Who and several other bands. There have been years during my tenure in which we've shown as many as eight docs in a single edition of the festival. However, documentaries have been included alongside features, and not in their own sections or categories, as in other festivals. This year, we had four screens to work with, making it possible to offer a more expanded selection of nonfiction works than ever before and be more inclusive in areas that we've always programmed films--particularly music films, or ‘movies about movies.'"

Rose Kuo, executive director of the festival's parent, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, since 2010, assures us that a major documentary presence will continue going forward: "Documentaries played an enormous part in this year's festival and will in the years ahead. It is exciting to see docs enjoying the same profile and anticipation as fiction films. This was the case, for instance, with Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, which demonstrated the medium's ability to impact people's lives in a material way. With George Harrison: Living in the Material World, we saw a renowned master filmmaker known primarily for his fiction films [Martin Scorsese] working in the documentary arena. This is an amazing time to be a documentary filmmaker or a lover of docs in general." 

Consistent with the enhanced profile of documentary at NYFF this year, the genre received its own sidebar, including 10 of the 14 docs screened at the fest. Three of these were music films:  Andrew Bird: Fever Year, by Xan Aranda; The Ballad of Mott the Hoople,  by Mike Kerry and Chris Hall; and Music According to Tom Jobim, by Nelson Pereira dos Santos. Scorsese's 208-minute opus, which screened in the main slate (and shortly after premiered on HBO in October), brought that total to four. Two more, Alex Stapleton's Corman's World:  Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, coupled with a screening of Roger Corman's The Intruder; and Don't Expect Too Much,  by Susan Ray, accompanied by the 2011 restoration of her late legendary husband Nicholas Ray's experimental We Can't Go Home Again, fit into Peña's "movies about movies" designation. So did Peter Von Bagh's Sodankyla Forever, a four-part, 261-minute cinematic Socratic Dialogue among over 60 internationally recognized auteurs, interviewed separately over a quarter-century at Finland's Midnight Sun Film Festival, which screened as its own special presentation over two nights. Two sidebar films, Patience (After Sebald), directed by Grant Gee, and Frederick Wiseman's visually gorgeous Crazy Horse, delve into the artistic/creative process, along with Wim Wenders' crowd-pleasing 3D Dance film, Pina. Wenders proclaimed that "3D was made to shoot dance," while Crazy Horse demonstrated that film is still the best way to shoot certain documentary material.



Nicolas Ray, subject of his widow Susan Ray's film Don't Expect Too Much. Courtesy of Film Society of Lincoln Center


The Sidebar's slate filled out with Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's final film in their "West Memphis Three" trilogy, Paradise 3: Purgatory; the American premiere of Stefano Savona's Tahrir (Liberation Square), a film shot in its entirety during the days of this year's Egyption revolution; and Jeffery Schwartz's Vito, the story of Vito Russo, one of the prime movers of the gay liberation movement and author of The Celluloid Closet.

Rounding out the section, This Is Not A Film, ‘not' directed by Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi or documentarian Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, powerfully defies classification. A possible rendition of a "day in the life" of Panahi as he awaits decision on his appeal of his prison sentence and ban from filmmaking, the piece trenchantly epitomizes "gallows humor" and clearly demonstrates why cell phones are questionable filmmaking tools when compared to old fashioned cajones.


From Jafar Panahi's This Is not a Film. Courtesy of  Film Society of Lincoln Center.



Another addition to the festival enabled by the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center was a new interactive program called NYFF Forums. According to Eugene Hernandez, former IndieWIRE co-founder and editor in chief and now the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Digital Strategies Director, "These were 25 free events that were open to the public. IndieWIRE was just one of our partners, working with us to host conversations with a number of notable filmmakers and also organizing panel discussions with the WGA East, SAGIndie, the PGA East, New York Women in Film and Television, as well as a series of Transmedia talks." Kuo adds, "We're interested in exploring new platforms for film exhibition and helping young filmmakers navigate all of the new tools available to them. Eugene has been leading the way on the Film Society's entry into the digital space."  

‘Transmedia' is a key word here. NYFF is clearly on top of the concept. A program of panels called Beyond the Screen, The Revolution in Storytelling over the Last Decade included The Age of Immersive Storytelling, Audiences as Story Participants, and Documentaries & Transmedia Activism. Events at the new Film Center Amphitheater were streamed live online, where you could also choose to have a custom-made latte while watching at the adjoining new Indie Café.

Still, NYFF at its core remains a living breathing bastion of cinema.

Given this half-century of cinematic tradition, the new digital initiatives, the increase in films screened (particularly documentaries) and following Telluride, Toronto and Venice in the calendar and given the prominence of the Tribeca Film Festival as a viable, New York-based festival in addition to the continued exponential growth of film fests, where does the NYFF now fit in on the festival circuit?

Hernandez, who has written about as many film festivals as anyone on this continent, maintains,  "The New York Film Festival is much closer to a festival like Telluride than a festival like Toronto. The festival remains highly curated and selective, or as Richard Peña said recently, it's a boutique event. The festival's placement on the calendar is ideal because it not only brings great work from other festivals to Lincoln Center but also showcases a curated selection of some of the best films of the year. I honestly don't think that the growth of Tribeca has impacted the way that the New York Film Festival sees itself. Tribeca is a terrific spring event for the city of New York that has generated palpable excitement for the movies downtown. Each event is great for the city and indie film is a fundamental component of both NYFF and Tribeca."


H. Scott Bayer is a filmmaker and the editor/publisher of Indie Film Reporter and writes and produces video about independent film, filmmakers and production technology for trade publications, online and broader audience outlets.