Monday Memo: Critics Groups Name Top Docs of 2016 While Sundance Drops 2017 Lineup


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Holiday season is upon, hence why last week’s memo never materialized (that and it was a surprisingly slow doc news week). This past week however has been bustling with award season breaks, winter festival announcements and a whole host of new films available for streaming online. First off, as has become tradition following the gorging of Thanksgiving weekend, the Sundance Film Festival announced its full 2017 competition lineup, including the US Documentary Competition with new work by Brian Knappenberger, Yance Ford, Matthew Heineman and Shaul Schwarz, as well as the World Cinema Documentary Competition, featuring films by Ramona Diaz, Rahul Jain, Jiu-liang Wang and more. As we move closer to the Trump administration, both Mark Olsen of The Los Angeles Times and Brooks Barnes of The New York Times predict a politically volatile Park City program, each highlighting some obvious hot spots like Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis’s WHOSE STREETS?, which explores the violence in Ferguson, Missouri that went down in the summer of 2014. More titles will be announced shortly. And while Sundance will always overshadow its rebellious younger Park City rival, the Slamdance Film Festival also listed their lineup of eight doc features, five of which are world premieres.

Now that we are officially knee deep in December, film critics around the world are getting antsy to proclaim their picks for the best films of the year. Both the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review named Ezra Edelman’s mammoth O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA the Best Documentary of the Year, while at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Raoul Peck’s I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO pulled an upset over Edelman’s film, which was the runner-up for Best Documentary and received a nod for Best Editing. (Side note: Edelman and Peck turned up in conversation with Bryan Stevenson and Thom Powers on race, Trump and doc making in the latest episode of Pure Nonfiction.) Sight & Sound Magazine also polled a 163 critics for their year end lists, whom collectively included FIRE AT SEA, CAMERAPERSON and O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA amongst their top 26.

It’s not just critics that are naming their favorites of the year already though. The Gotham Independent Film Awards took place early last week, with O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA once again coming out on top, while across the pond the British Independent Film Awards gave their top doc prize to James Spinney and Peter Middleton’s NOTES ON BLINDNESS. Looking towards this year’s Oscars, The Hollywood Reporter’s Gregg Kilday considered whether or not this might be the year to see a non-fiction film take home the Oscar for Best Picture. Being that an abundance of similar talk fruitlessly centered around CITIZENFOUR last year, I seriously doubt it.

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Monday Memo: DOC NYC & RIDM Wrap, Poitras Drops PROJECT X and Wiseman Honored by Academy


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This past week, the folks over at The Guardian joined the growing chorus of critics proclaiming that we are currently in a golden age of documentaries with a solid list of examples to argue the point and filmmakers like Laura Poitras and Dawn Porter admitting that some of their favorites are fairly new films themselves. Even doc director Adam Curtis contributed his own spin on the conversation, though claiming that he believes SOUTH PARK to be the best ongoing documentary series. Though not directly, Gregg Kilday and Stephen Galloway‘s gathering of Ezra Edelman, Werner Herzog, Kirsten Johnson, Josh Kriegman, Raoul Peck and Roger Ross Williams for an extensive Hollywood Reporter round-table discussion seems to only help prove the point. Portions of this discussion can be read and partially watched at the link, but the full conversation is set to air on SundanceTV  on February 19, 2017. Likewise, Chris O’Falt‘s piece at IndieWire on how recent docs like 13TH, TOWER, I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO and more re-purpose archival footage for artistic means and Diane Haithman‘s short take on a trio of recent docs that take aim at the gun debate at Hollywood Reporter both continue to add fuel to this raging golden age fire.

Legendary doc helmer Frederick Wiseman was one of four diverse recipients of an Honorary Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Governers Awards last week. As noted by Josh Rottenberg in The Los Angeles Times, “Wiseman was honored for his work illuminating various social, cultural and government institutions in renowned documentary films like TITICUT FOLLIES, HIGH SCHOOL, LAW AND ORDER, PUBLIC HOUSING and LA DANSE.” In Wiseman’s acceptance speech, which can be viewed in its entirety here, along with Rory KennedyBen Kingsley and Don Cheadle‘s loving introductions, he stated matter of factly, “I think it’s as important to document kindness, civility and generosity of spirit as it is to show cruelty, banality and indifference.”

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Monday Memo: A Beacon of Light in a Dark Week – DOC NYC


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In a week in which the US presidency was ceded to Donald Trump, little concern for anything but the future well being of the United States has rightly been put forth by news outlets this week. Yet, in her recent piece at Vox, Genevieve Koski recalled Roger Ebert’s belief that movies are “a machine that generates empathy” while reminding us that “In times like these, it can feel like entertainment doesn’t matter. It does.” Similarly, Dan Schoenbrun wrote a declaration of intent for Filmmaker Magazine, stating that “For the next four years (and long afterwards), every time someone leaves a movie theater feeling contented, feeling set in their values, feeling numbed and entertained and nothing else, that’s a problem.” On election day itself, Graham Winfrey reported at IndieWire on the massive election day doc production 11/8/16, which will serve as a follow-up to Jeff Deutchman’s 11/4/08 and feature contributions by 40 different filmmakers, including Alma Har’el, David Lowery, Eugene Jarecki and Yung Chang.

For most of us in the doc world, our light at the end of the tunnel this past week was DOC NYC, which kicked off Thursday night with a celebration of political righteousness in CITIZEN JANE: BATTLE FOR THE CITY and where “filmmakers expressed their commitment to shine a light on important truths and use the power of storytelling during Trump’s presidency” during the festival’s Visionaries Tribute luncheon, according to WinfreyTim Teeman wrote at length about CITIZEN JANE for The Daily Beast, while Daniel Eagan included it in his piece on the cream of the crop of DOC NYC for Film Journal International. A whole host of other curtain openers came in from the likes of Tom Roston at Doc Soup, Joshua Brunsting at Criterion Cast, and Daniel Walber of Nonfics. Likewise, Film Forward featured the festival’s many films centered around transgendered characters thanks to Phil Guie. And of the many, many press breaks coming through the wire from the fest, the seemingly countless interviews with female directors being published over at Women and Hollywood might be most worth your while. I could go on and on with additional links from the fest, but I suggest you head over to Keyframe where David Hudson has already done just that. If you aren’t able to make it to DOC NYC this year, you can at least head over to their YouTube channel where they are posting not only a ton of live Q&As, but many sessions taking place at DOC NYC PRO.

Montreal’s premiere doc festival RIDM (Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montreal) also began on Thursday evening. Despite being in the midst of DOC NYC, Basil Tsiokos previewed the festival’s new offerings, while Robert Everett-Green of The Globe and Mail wrote an overview of the 128 entries selected for this year’s festival.

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Monday Memo: An Avalanche of Award Show Announcements


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Light on general doc commentary and festival news, this week was instead overflowing with awards season announcements. First, the IDA Documentary Awards named their long list of nominees, with 13TH, FIRE AT SEA, O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA, CAMERAPERSON, I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO and WEINER listed in the running for Best Feature. The following day, the Cinema Eye Honors, now in their 10th year, released their own list of nominees, with the same films up for Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Feature Filmmaking, minus 13TH. On Thursday evening, Ezra Edelman and Ava DuVerney came away the big winners at the inaugural Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards, as O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA came away with 4 awards, including Best Documentary (Theatrical Feature) and Best Director (Theatrical Feature), and 13TH with 3 awards, including Best Documentary (TV/Streaming) and Best Director (TV/Streaming).

Across the pond, the British Independent Film Awards listed a completely different set of films with their 2016 nominees for Best Documentary – THE CONFESSION: LIVING THE WAR ON TERROR, DANCER, THE HARD STOP, NOTES ON BLINDNESS and VERSUS: THE LIFE AND FILMS OF KEN LOACH. The European Film Awards followed suit with another diverse list of nominees for Best European Documentary in 21 X NEW YORK, A FAMILY AFFAIR, MR. GAGA, S IS FOR STANLEY, THE LAND OF THE ENLIGHTENED and of course, FIRE AT SEA.

With DOC NYC on the verge of its inception, its director of programming, Basil Tsiokos, continues to preview the festival’s copious offerings at What (not) To Doc. David Morgan of CBS News also began to sift through the immense lineup, noting that “145 documentary features — nearly a record — have qualified for submission for this year’s Academy Awards. Audiences at this year’s DOC NYC Festival will find no shortage, either, with more than 250 films and events scheduled, including 110 feature-length documentaries, nearly half of which were directed or co-directed by women.” Riding that same wave of excitement, the folks over at Cinema Tropical listed the Latino films scheduled to screen at the festival.

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FINALLY FOUND: A HEART OF GOLD


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Writing by Megan Scanlon. Megan works at the American University of Beirut. She has written for the DOC NYC blog and the Journal of Community Engagement and Scholarship. Megan is a volunteer at the Bronx Documentary Center where she contributes to documentary programming. Follow her on instagram and twitter    @meganscanlon5

It’s been a real treat over at Stranger Than Fiction to experience and bear witness to the expansive scope and range of Jonathan Demme films. The current retrospective of the director continues to surprise and educate audiences on various experiences of the human condition. His characters’ vulnerabilities are channeled into expansive expressions of strength in the way that the they stand firmly behind their words and their purpose. By tapping into the stirrings of those tender and compelling forces within his characters, Demme links the audience to the things that make us most human.

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