Just as The Associated Press proclaimed, last Thursday the curtain went up on a documentary-rich New York Film Festival and much has been written thus far to celebrate. Richard Brody notes in The New Yorker, Travis Wilkerson’s new standalone feature version of DID YOU WONDER WHO FIRED THE GUN? as a festival highlight, along with Varda and JR’s FACES PLACES. In Manohla Dargis‘s preview of this year’s edition for The New York Times she notes, “One program to explore is the Spotlight on Documentary, which features several worthwhile offerings, including ARTHUR MILLER: WRITER and JOAN DIDION: THE CENTER WILL NOT HOLD, two views from the inside.” Questioning the merits and future possibilities of literary docs like these at LitHub, Craig Hubert writes with fervor, “A writer’s work, or the work of a publication, especially over a long career, is slippery and often contradictory, and demands a portrait that challenges this ambivalence. What we get usually is something that acts as a visual Wikipedia page, a series of bullet-point facts presented without a critical eye.” As has become customary, Basil Tsiokos gave a thorough preview of the new nonfiction offerings at the fest via What (not) To Doc, while at Criterion Cast, Joshua Brunsting listed five recommendations to catch, including a trio of docs that top the list.
Just two days after Esquire published Nick Schager’s list of the best documentaries of 2017 so far, DOC NYC announced its 15-film Short List of Oscar contenders along with its TIFF debuted opening-night selection, THE FINAL YEAR. Breaking the news at IndieWire, Anne Thompson pointed out that “Historically, most DOC NYC picks do land on the Academy’s official 15-film Oscar Short List. For the past four years, the Short List had nine to 10 titles overlap, with four or five titles going on to Oscar nominations. For the last six years, DOC NYC screened the documentary that went on to win the Oscar.”
With no major theatrical releases and a slew of major festivals on the verge of kicking off, it’s a rather quiet on the nonfiction front. That said, the New York Film Festival did reveal its Spotlight on Documentary lineup, which includes Travis Wilkerson’s True/False alum DID YOU WONDER WHO FIRED THE GUN?, TIFF selections JANE, A SKIN SO SOFT, and BOOM FOR REAL, as well as world premieres of Alison McAlpine’s CIELO, Ena Talakic and Ines Talakic’s HALL OF MIRRORS, and Alex Gibney’s NO STONE UNTURNED, which was previously slated to screen at Tribeca and Hot Docs before it was pulled for undisclosed legal reasons.
After revealing its full program schedule on Tuesday, the Toronto International Film Festival added a handful of last minute special events, including the world premiere of GAGA: FIVE FOOT TWO by Emmy-nominated filmmaker Chris Moukarbel, “a rare snapshot of the raucously public music icon Lady Gaga and the offstage woman that is Stefani Joanne Germanotta,” as well as the world premiere of Brandon and Skyler Gross’ ON MY WAY OUT: THE SECRET LIFE OF NANI AND POPI – the program notes read, “Roman (Popi) and Ruth (Nani) Blank have been married for 65 years, but at age 95, Roman reveals a secret that tests their seemingly invincible union, in Brandon and Skyler Gross’ touching portrait of their grandparents.”
Though the Locarno International Film Festival wrapped up a couple weeks back, at the fest IndieWire’s Irina Trocan discovered a handful of films that represent modern domestic life in new ways, including a trio of films to soon screen at TIFF – Xu Bing’s DRAGONFLY EYES, Ben Russell’s GOOD LUCK, and Wang Bing’s MRS. FANG. On a similar wavelength, Cara Buckley thoroughly examined the many current docs that are exploring the pain of racism for The New York Times, noting “A burst of new films, many of them documentaries, are taking a deep look beyond the headlines at the lasting impact that racial schisms and racism have on Americans’ everyday lives.”
In a busy week for nonfiction cinema news, Vice’s incredible coverage of the horrific events that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, miraculously encapsulated in the 22 minute short CHARLOTTESVILLE: RACE AND TERROR (watched over 5 million times on YouTube at this point) is undoubtedly the lead this week. In response to Trump’s appalling press conference following the events, “16 out of 17 members of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities resigned and asked the president to do the same. The White House advisory council is dedicated to cultural issues including arts funding, economic promotion of the arts and arts education among other responsibilities,” reports Salon’s Gabriel Bell. Ruminating on these events, Jude Dry of IndieWire called WHOSE STREETS? “essential cinema” “for the Charlottesville Resistance.”
Almost facetiously, at The Guardian, Rebecca Nicholson asked, “Why political documentaries are storming the screens,” just as James Luxford posed the question, “What impact do environmental documentaries really have?” at Little White Lies. Meanwhile at IndieWire, Oscar nominated filmmaker Roger Ross Williams wrote about how Full Frame Documentary Festival’s new School of Doc program is attempting to address issues with race in the doc world, describing it as “a program that empowered minority students to tell their own stories, and to expose them to future career opportunities.”
In other film festival news, DOC NYC revealed its initial schedule for this year’s DOC NYC PRO, an 8-day conference “featuring documentary panels and master classes, including an expanded initiative to support works-in-progress with a section called “Only in New York.” DOC NYC also announced this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award honorees at the 4th annual Visionaries Tribute would be Sheila Nevins and Errol Morris. Selina Chignall unpacked the announcements over at Realscreen.
Amidst a rather busy week of the doc circuit, DOC NYC revealed its Oscar predicting 2016 Short List, naming 15 films to screen at the festival with the director or other special guests present. As Anne Thompson noted in her coverage of the announcement at IndieWire, last year the DOC NYC Short List had ten titles overlapping the subsequent Oscar Documentary Short List. Among this year’s selection was Ava DuVernay’s incisive Netflix prison doc 13TH, which opened the New York Film Festival on Friday night to a standing ovation and a shower of glowing reviews. At IndieWire, Eric Kohn called the film “the most relevant movie of the year.” The Guardian’s Jordan Hoffman wrote that its “an articulate, no-nonsense cup of iced water splashed in my face telling me to wake the f-ck up.” Even Manohla Dargis of The New York Times fully endorsed DuVernay’s film, calling it “powerful, infuriating and at times overwhelming…(while it) challenges your ideas about the intersection of race, justice and mass incarceration in the United States.” Similarly rhapsodic reviews were logged by Vikram Murthi at Movie Mezzanine, Odie Henderson at RogerEbert.com, Richard Brody of The New Yorker, and Steven Zeitchik of The Los Angeles Times. You can watch the press conference with DuVernay herself over at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s website.
Of course, there are other docs on offer this year at NYFF, as Basil Tsiokos made abundantly clear in his overview of the nonfiction offerings at What (not) To Doc. Likewise, the staff at IndieWire listed seven docs to catch at the fest if you’re able, including Kasper Collin’s I CALLED HIM MORGAN, which Richard Brody, a jazz diehard, seems to have loved. Also kicking off on Friday was the International Documentary Association’s three day Getting Real conference, which a handful of diligent members of The D-Word live blogged (in three separate categories – sustainability, diversity, other conference happenings). Leading up to the conference, Realscreen published a piece by the founding members of the NYC Doc Producer’s Alliance on issues surrounding industry and career sustainability. Meanwhile across the pond, Christine Bardsley recommended a trio of docs to watch at the upcoming London Film Festival via BFI.
Our fall season of Stranger Than Fiction celebrating the documentary work of Jonathan Demme continues tomorrow at IFC Center with SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA. Director Jonathan Demme, as well as producer Renée Shafransky, will be on hand to discuss the film in a post-screening Q&A. Tickets for the screening are still available here.
The line between art, politics and journalism are continually open to inquiry within the realm of documentary filmmaking. Those lines were valiantly breached last Wednesday at The Talkhouse when David Felix Sutcliffe, co-director of the remarkable and horrifying film (T)ERROR, posted an open letter to the doc community calling for the end of systematic targeting of citizen journalists who’ve documented disgraceful abuses of power by police. A formal statement composed by the International Documentary Association addressed to Department of Justice and signed by a considerable list of doc filmmakers that includes Laura Poitras, Barbara Kopple, Steve James, Joshua Oppenheimer, the entire Kartemquin team and many others, asks for the investigation of “other instances of police violence captured on video by citizens, and what consequences they may have faced” in an effort to “expand our awareness of the problem and take stock of the damages.” Whether filmmaker or concerned citizen, you can show your support for the #RightToRecord by adding your name to the petition here.
While not the central theme, a handful of activist films were among the lineup of the TIFF Docs program revealed this past week, including Steve James’ ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL, Raoul Peck’s I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO, Fernando León de Aranoa’s POLITICS, INSTRUCTIONS MANUAL and Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani’s THE IVORY GAME. At Indiewire, Anne Thompson took a tour through the lineup with our own Thom Powers, whom programmed the TIFF Docs program, while Kate Erbland reported on the initial announcement. Reflecting on Toronto’s A-list doc lineup, Tom Roston gave a first look of the offerings at Doc Soup, Steven Zeitchik did the same in The Los Angeles Times, and Kevin Ritchie followed suit at Realscreen. Noting the prominence of Netflix productions among the lineup, Matthew Jacobs gave the scoop on the four docs at Huffington Post, including Werner Herzog’s long in production volcano film, INTO THE INFERNO. And on the topic of the Bavarian filmmaker, Herzog showed up this week at The Daily Beast, offering his appreciative thoughts on Kanye West’s controversial FAMOUS music video.
The New York Film Festival also revealed their main slate, adding to their already intriguing doc lineup with Gianfranco Rosi’s Golden Berlin Bear winner FIRE AT SEA and revival screenings of Barbara Kopple’s Oscar winning HARLAN COUNTY, U.S.A. The latest edition of IndieWire’s Screen Talk podcast discusses the lineups of both TIFF and NYFF.