The sixth edition of the DOC NYC film festival takes over three cinemas in Manhattan this weekend, with more than 100 features and 200 films, filmmaker tributes and industry events in all.
Highlights this year include tributes to filmmakers Barbara Kopple, Kim Longinotto, Jon Alpert and Frederick Wiseman, premieres of high-profile Netflix- and AOL-backed projects and the world premiere of Thom Zimny’s latest documentary about rocker Bruce Springsteen, The Ties That Bind.
Director of programming Basil Tsiokos (pictured) –who also programs for the Sundance Film Festival and the Nantucket Film Festival – began screening submissions in the spring, searching for films that would attract filmgoers in a city where audiences have a lot of cultural events to choose from on a given night.
“You know the right kind of film when you see it, but you have to think, will this film work for a NYC audience?” he explains. “New York City is tough in the sense that there is a lot going on, there are so many festivals and cultural events, so to stand out you have to draw that audience in.”
DOC NYC also happens during a tricky point, late in the year after many other festivals and film series – both local and international. Programmers must move fast and invite a film early if they want to land a New York City premiere. In all, DOC NYC will host 27 world premieres and 15 U.S. premieres.
Among this year’s high-profile premieres is the Netflix true-crime series Making a Murderer. DOC NYC will screen the Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos-directed show’s first two episodes on Friday (November 13) ahead of its December 18 debut on the SVOD service.
The festival’s founder and artistic director Thom Powers got wind of the project earlier this year and began talks with Netflix to secure the premiere.
“The project has been kept under wraps for a while,” says Tsiokos. “It’s going to be a good match for us.”
The festival’s closing-night film is backed by another digital video platform – AOL. Michael Epstein and Dyllan McGee’s Once And For All looks at the 1995 UN-backed conference that was the world’s largest gathering of women and included a speech by Hillary Clinton. The former First Lady-turned-Democratic Party leadership hopeful will take time out from her campaign schedule to attend the screening on November 19.
In such a competitive market, guests such as Clinton are key for DOC NYC. “If the audience knows there is a special guest related to the film that is a help to get them to attend,” says Tsiokos. “Not to say that films without guests don’t sell but it is sometimes a little bit more of a struggle if it doesn’t feel special and you know you’re not getting an introduction or a Q&A.”
Other guests scheduled to attend this year include director Martin Scorsese, comedian Gilbert Gottfried, poet Sonia Sanchez, actors Mary Louise Wilson and Omar Epps and NSA whistle-blower Bill Binney.
There are six international docs playing in the festival’s International Perspectives program, including the New York premiere of the HBO-backed Bolshoi Babylon and the world premiere of All Rise, about the United Nations’ International Court of Justice. Two dozen more are screening in other programs.
“I’d love to be able to show a few more international films and broaden out our offerings a little further,” says Tsiokos. “The festival is on the young side and that’s an area we can grow it. Sometimes that work can feel a little esoteric for our audience and that’s a challenge. We sometimes struggle with how to find audiences for films that are a little bit less straight-forward.”
Films that Tsiokos is looking forward to this year include The Anthropologist, directors’ Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller, Jeremy Newberger’s look at the lives of anthropologists Margaret Mead and Susie Crate told from the perspective of their daughters; the world premiere of Emily Abt’s Daddy Don’t Go, about four diverse New York City fathers struggling to defy the deadbeat dad stereotype; and the world premiere of Miriam: Home Delivery, Juliet Jordan’s portrait of a home-birth midwife.
Each year, programmers add and subtract thematic categories depending on threads that emerge in the final program. In addition to the mainstay American Perspectives, International Perspectives and Metropolis programs, the festival has added sections dedicated to music, sports, activism and performance. New this year are sections devoted to animals, food, diverse families and behind-the-scenes-type films.
“We don’t want to be slavish to always having a particular section if there aren’t good enough works,” says Tsiokos. “We see what filters to the top during the submission review and we start to notice there are films about animals, there are films about films, or hidden stories about classic cinema. It has to make sense with quality work and enough of it to justify it.”
Although Tsiokos does not see any overarching themes this year – in terms of subject or stylistic approaches – he concedes it has been a strong year for films focused on women.
That is evident through this year’s gala selections. In addition to Once And For All, Barbara Kopple’s Toronto International Film Festival crowd-pleaser Miss Sharon Jones!, about soul singer Sharon Jones’ battle with cancer, is opening the fest, and Amy Berg’s look at the life of rocker Janis Joplin, Janis: Little Girl Blue, is the centerpiece film.