DOC NYC ’14: Striking a balance in the Big Apple

As DOC NYC kicks off its fifth year tomorrow (November 13), festival co-founders Raphaela Neihausen (pictured, left) and Thom Powers (right) tell realscreen how the event balances big-name doc-makers with newer talent.
November 12, 2014

Five years ago, Raphaela Neihausen and Thom Powers launched DOC NYC from the basement in New York’s IFC Center.

“We started as four or five people in a basement,” says executive director Neihausen (pictured, left). “Now we’re 10 people in a basement. West Village real estate is prohibitively expensive.”

The pair, who are also married, are behind the IFC Center’s weekly screening series Stranger Than Fiction. In 2010, IFC VP and GM John Vanco asked them to develop a plan for a festival exclusively focused on documentaries that would serve the community of doc-makers living in and around New York City.

The inaugural event had a slate slate of 35 films and panels, ran for five days, and did not accept submissions. Powers (pictured above, right), who also programs documentaries for the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and the Miami International Film Festival, selected films based on what he was screening throughout that year.

Since then, Neihausen and Powers have added screening programs focused on shorts, music docs, sports, and performance films, and expanded the event’s awards and industry programming. The audience has grown from 6,500 in the first year to 20,000 last year, making it one of the largest documentary film festival in the United States.

This year’s festival runs for eight days, from November 13 to 20, with screenings taking place in three venues: the IFC Center, the SVA Theatre in Chelsea, and Bow Tie Chelsea Cinemas. Powers and director of programming Basil Tsiokos – who joined in 2012 – had 751 submissions to view. The program comprises 93 features, including 20 world premieres, seven U.S. premieres, and 40 New York City premieres.

High-profile world premieres include Amy Berg’s look at sexual abuse in Hollywood, An Open Secret; and Marjorie Sturm’s The Cult of JT Leroy, about one of the biggest literary hoaxes in recent years.

As the festival’s profile rises through awards and premieres, organizers insist the festival will remain accessible and focused on serving the city’s indie doc-makers.

“New York City is a special place,” says Neihausen. “We get all the hardcore industry people. All they need to do is take a taxi from their office to come to a screening rather than jump on a plane like with other festivals. We also get a lot of filmmakers.”

In response to interest from young and first-time filmmakers, Neihausen expanded the industry panel section, Doc-A-Thon, by two days. In addition to a keynote talk by the Sundance Institute’s Tabitha Jackson and sessions on craft topics such as cinematography, one day will be entirely geared toward novice filmmakers and another will focus exclusively on short-form filmmaking.

And for the first time, DOC NYC is an Academy Awards-qualifying festival for the best documentary short subject category, so this year’s winning short film will be eligible for a spot on the Oscar shortlist without the otherwise required theatrical run.

Neihausen and Powers have also talked about bolstering programming aimed at fostering deal-making, but at the moment the plan is to keep that part of the festival casual in the form of happy hour events.

Films acquired during DOC NYC in recent years include Jeremy Workman’s Magical Universe , picked up by IFC Films in 2013; Dana Ben-Ari’s Breastmilk, acquired by CAVU Pictures the same year; and Jeremy Xido’s Death Metal Angola, bought by indie The Vladar Company earlier this year.

“Right now it’s been really nice to have that more warm-fuzzy part of the festival without turning it into industry-mode,” she explains. “We are definitely open to considering doing more of that and formalizing more around how the industry and filmmakers interact.”

the cult of jt leroy

The Cult of JT LeRoy is among DOC NYC’s world premieres.

DOC NYC has two competitions programs: the Metropolis competition is focused on films set in New York City while the Viewfinder competition is open to a broader range of films. Past winners include Mahdi Fleifel’s A World Not Ours, Jamie Meltzer’s Informant and Laura Israel’s Windfall.

The auteurs will get their due at the inaugural Visionaries Tribute event, which takes place on Friday (November 14). Director Barbara Kopple will present Albert Maysles, DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus with a lifetime achievement awards; director Rory Kennedy will present Impact Partners co-founder Dan Cogan with the Leading Light Award; and director James Marsh will present Citizenfour helmer Laura Poitras with the Robert and Anne Drew Award for Documentary Excellence, which honors a mid-career director and comes with a $5,000 prize.

Hotly-tipped awards season favorites such as Life Itself, The Overnighters and Finding Vivian Meyer screen as part of the festival’s Short List program, but the primary focus for programmers remains on the lesser-known films.

“One thing that I’ve learned over the years of programming DOC NYC is that there are many different communities, particularly in New York City, that are hungry for different things,” says Powers. “We’re showing a film called 9-Man, about a Chinatown volleyball tournament. It’s a terrific film for anyone, but is especially moving and relevant for people who have connections to North American Chinese communities.”

In an increasingly crowded festival schedule DOC NYC falls between a number of major documentary showcases: TIFF in September; IDFA, which kicks off shortly after DOC NYC; and Sundance in January.

“There’s no question that many world and North American premieres are going to gravitate to those festivals,” adds Powers. “It hasn’t been a prioritized part of DOC NYC’s mission to be chasing after world premieres and U.S. premieres. That said, we’ve seen an increasing number of them. It reflects that there are lots of very worthy films, important films that are looking for a platform and we’re happy to provide that.”

A world premiere Powers is looking forward to is Almost There, screening in the Viewfinders competition. Directed by Aaron Wickenden and Dan Rybicky, and produced by Kartemquin Films, the film is about 83-year-old outsider artist Peter Anton, whose life changes when the directors discover his work.

Another is the New York premiere of George Hencken’s Soul Boys of the Western World, a film about 1980s pop group Spandau Ballet, that will mark the first time the band has made a public appearance in the city since 1983.

Powers is especially excited for a rare screening of DA Pennebaker and William Ray’s 1961 film David, which is playing in the Docs Redux program. Produced by Drew Associates, the film follows jazz trumpeter David Allen as he undergoes drug rehabilitation in Santa Monica’s Synanon House.

“Pennebaker has talked about that film as changing his outlook on what documentary could be,” says Powers. “Its historical significance is huge and it’s hardly ever been since. I’m really excited to show that one.”

  • DOC NYC kicks off in the Big Apple tomorrow (November 13). Click here for the full list of films and events.
About The Author
Justin Anderson joined Realscreen as senior staff writer in 2021, reporting and writing stories for the newsletter and magazine. During his 20-year career he’s filled a variety of roles as a writer and editor at a number of media organizations, covering news and current affairs as well as business, tech, the film and music industries and plenty in between. He’s also spent time behind the scenes in television production, having written everything from voiceover scripts for documentaries to marketing copy. He has a degree in Journalism from Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University).