In just six years, DOC NYC, which kicks off this Thursday and runs for a week, has become a juggernaut of films, workshops, events and sponsors. As a major player in the documentary film scene, DOC NYC is debuting a bunch of world premieres—27 of its 100-plus films—and hosting uber-guests including Hillary Clinton (who’ll be on hand for closing night film Once and For All, about the 1995 Beijing Women’s Conference).
On my shortlist of unheralded or new films I’m eager to see are: The C Word, about the way mainstream Western medicine has failed to tackle cancer properly; Barge, a poetic trip down the Mississippi River; and Left on Purpose, about an aging and depressed antiwar activist who wants his suicide to be documented on film. Yeah, I know: Fun! Two DOC NYC films I was able to check out early were Daddy Don’t Go and A Journey of A Thousand Miles, the former about disadvantaged dads in New York City who struggle to care for their kids, and the latter about a team of Bangladeshi women who go to Haiti as part of a United Nations peacekeeping force. You can see I wasn’t going for the light stuff. Both films feature gender role reversals and are well worth checking out.
But DOC NYC isn’t just about hidden gems. It’s also a great opportunity to check out the big, must-see docs of the year on a big screen like He Named Me Malala, The Look of Silence, Montage of Heck, Where to Invade Next?, The Wolfpack and Amy.
These films are showing as part of the boldly curated Oscar shortlist section of the festival, which is a great service to audiences—heck, I need to catch Amy and Malala—but it puts a lot of power in the hands of festival organizers. It would be naïve to think that this list merely mirrors the frontrunners in the awards season. It also effects it. As with Spider-Man, with great power comes great responsibility; let’s hope they program wisely and fairly. This year’s list looks accurate but I imagine Frederick Wiseman is wondering if his invitation was mistakenly sent to that actor kid, Ethan Hawke. I, for one, would have thought Listen to Me Marlon should have been given a slot.
I asked DOC NYC Director of Programming, Basil Tsiokos, about DOC NYC’s Spidey sense and other questions regarding this year’s fest.
Are there any particular themes to this year’s DOC NYC crop of docs that you’d like to highlight?
Basil Tsiokos: Over the past couple of years, we’ve been experimenting with thematic sections that emerge organically from the programming process. I’ve been wanting to add a food-themed sidebar for awhile, and I’m pleased that we were able to identify several strong works this year to make it possible. We’ve called the section “Doc Eat Doc,” and it includes a profile of restaurant critic Jonathan Gold, City of Gold, plus great profiles of a number of restaurants like Copenhagen’s Noma in Noma: My Perfect Storm and Chicago’s Grace in For Grace.
Other new programming themes explored this year are films about filmmaking/films in “Behind the Scenes” section with titles like Harold and Lillian; docs about animals in “The Wild Life” which includes films like Huntwatch, about the fight to stop seal hunting; and “Modern Family,” which reassesses concepts of family in films like The Melting Family; while we’ve brought back recent sections exploring performance, sports, activism, and music.
Speaking more generally, one trend we’ve noted in this year’s edition is a welcome focus on female subjects – most notably represented in our Gala selections, but in evidence elsewhere in our lineup as well.
How many world premieres are there? Let’s talk about one of them, Daddy Don’t Go—what impression did that film make on you?
Tsiokos: We have 27 world premieres this year, representing about a quarter of our feature documentary line-up. DOC NYC has been growing steadily, and we’re pleased to be able to kick off the festival runs of so many great films.
Daddy Don’t Go seemed a perfect fit for the festival immediately, given its local setting and its focus on a fundamental issue that feels overdue for extended consideration. Director Emily Abt develops an honest, close rapport with her four subjects, under-represented men who struggle to be present and provide for their families rather than to become absent fathers.
There are so many films at the festival, how would you suggest casual viewers approach what they should see?
While we recognize that the festival has grown substantially, that just means there’s more to discover. Our thematic approach to programming helps put the spotlight on several different kinds of documentaries and topics, so that the focus is not just on the bigger Galas or Special Presentations. I’d encourage casual viewers to pick a couple of films from the two competition sections, Viewfinders and Metropolis, and then dine a la carte, choosing a few selections from the various strands that sound most appealing to them, whether that’s international films, music, or this year’s expanded shorts programming.
I know programmers don’t like to play favorites, but can you perhaps tell me which film made you cry or laugh a lot?
Tough question. I will say that two of this year’s offerings that are among the most entertaining—for very different reasons—are The Sunshine Makers, about the chemists behind the most popular form of LSD; and Making a Murderer, an addictive new Netflix true crime series for which DOC NYC is offering a sneak preview.
DOC NYC is helping steer the discussion about the Oscar race with its “Short List.” What goes into the decision-making process?
Our Artistic Director, Thom Powers, leads the charge on this signature festival strand, with other key festival organizers, including me, contributing our thoughts. Some years, it’s relatively easy to identify most of the titles, while other years there are a lot of potential contenders to consider as we try to formulate the right “Short List” lineup. Beyond our own personal appreciation about these films, it often comes down to a gut feeling about which titles will continue to resonate through the cacophony of awards season.
DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, runs from November 12 to 19. Find out more information about the festival and tickets on www.docnyc.net.