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DOC NYC Turns Ten

By Susan Morris

DOC NYC founders Rachaela Neihausen (top row, far right) and Thom Powers (bottom row, far right) with DOC NYC Visionaries.  Left to right: Michael Apted, Cynthia Lopez, Julia Reichert, Martin Scorsese, Steven Bognar, Raphaela Neihausen, Thom Powers. Courtesy of DOC NYC

"When you raise a child, the days are long and the years are short."  So says Raphaela Neihausen, executive director of DOC NYC, who together with her husband, the festival's artistic director, Thom Powers, gave birth to their son the same year that DOC NYC was born ten years ago. "I kind of raised them both together." In that first launch year, there were a handful of people in a basement doing every task—just like making a documentary film. A decade later, it is the largest American documentary festival, held over nine days in New York City, showing over 300 films in 21 sections, with 500 filmmakers and speakers, plus panels and master classes in the DOC NYC PRO conference. 

The expansion of the festival from its relatively modest presentation of around 40 films and events in the inaugural year has been an evolution with the addition of sections such as Short List (Oscar hopefuls), Visionaries Tribute Lifetime Achievement (Michael Apted, Martin Scorsese), Only in New York (works-in-progress), 40 Under 40 (North American emerging talent), Winner's Circle (international award winners), and Masters (auteurs Barbara Kopple, Alan Berliner, Kim Longinotto). As a result, DOC NYC is an all-embracing festival, a broad spectrum of films, a handy means to catch up on those you missed and an aggregate of what’s currently being produced. "I think of us having room for lots of different tastes and kinds of filmmaking," Powers notes, in contrast to other nonfiction festivals that he describes such as "True/False, where they have a real appetite for films that are walking on the edge of truth and fiction, [or] The Art of the Real at Lincoln Center, for more experimental documentary."

Taking place in November, DOC NYC sits between a number of other film festivals in New York—after the New York Film Festival (September), the Architecture & Design Film Festival (October), Margaret Mead Film Festival (October) and preceding Doc Fortnight at MoMA (February), New Directors/New Films (March) and The Art of the Real at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (April/May). Neihausen asserts that within the documentary landscape, DOC NYC "by far is the most American of all of these festivals in terms of its scale and scope."

Powers also holds documentary programming positions at both the Toronto and Miami Film Festivals, and until recently curated the digital streaming platform SundanceNow Doc Club, in addition to hosting the weekly screening series Pure Nonfiction (formerly Stranger than Fiction) at the IFC Center, so he has been able to synergize programming and placement; for example, the opening night, centerpiece and closing night films—Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator and The Capote Tapes, respectively—were all seen at Toronto before DOC NYC. 

Powers thinks he has an advantage. "The tricky part about a film festival is you have one year to get it right and then it takes another year to try something new and then you have to wait another year to try it again. The advantage to doing several different film festivals is you get a few times a year when you can test things out, where you can reconnect relationships with film critics, with film industry, with all that network of individuals who can really breathe life into a film."

A growing motivation over time has been to create a space for the North American documentary community to gather. Neihausen notes, "You have the whole ecosystem represented at the festival, from the distributors to the people creating the latest camera and wanting to hear what documentary filmmakers are looking for, to people who run their film festivals across the world, to philanthropists who are trying to understand what the landscape is and are looking to meet with filmmakers and invest in their films. So it's the whole ecosystem of what it takes to get a documentary film made, from the financing to the creative side to just all meet. And we try to facilitate as many of those connections as we can."

This motivation stems in part from both Neihausen's and Powers' backgrounds as producers, including being on the festival circuit with the 2017 Oscar-nominated documentary short Joe's Violin. "The documentary industry, I would call New York its capital, the way Los Angeles is the capital for the make-believe industry," Powers maintains. "And so this is the place you come to have those meetings." Neihausen adds, "One thing I was really proud of with DOC NYC is not only are we getting filmmakers to connect with audiences, but we're also really offering that expanded opportunities for both education for networking. DOC NYC PRO, which is an eight-day educational conference that with a filmmaker badge you can pretty much attend all of it. And that's over 50 panels and masterclasses to both help the next wave of filmmakers and enable sustainable careers. The "Only in New York" program matchmakes works-in-progress films with financiers, producers, sales agents, distributors and festival programmers at roundtable meetings over four days. And notably, there are daily breakfasts and happy hours.   

There is another bittersweet legacy of DOC NYC's decade. "I'm sitting here looking at the cover of our catalog with DA Pennebaker and after 10 years you do feel the passage of time," Powers reflects. "I think about the people who pass through our festival like Albert Maysles or Jonathan Demme or Agnès Varda, who are no longer with us. So I feel a responsibility for keeping alive  the memories of these great filmmakers." And for finding their successors.

DOC NYC PRO Highlights

DOC NYC PRO, which runs concurrent to the festival, included an expanded initiative this year to support works-in-progress. The sessions pitched to the profession were nuts-and-bolts and craft topics:  Legal for Docs; Funding a Documentary; Composing and Sound Design; and Distribution and Audience Impact. But many of the other sessions, highlighted by anecdotes, behind-the-scenes tales and personal revelations, were of equal interest to film fans: Short List; Journalism and Documentary; Editing; Producing; Cinematography; and Podcasts. Of the sessions I attended, here are a few thought-provoking insights and bon mots. 

During one of the Journalism and Documentary sessions, “In-depth with Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn on Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope,” Executive Producer/Co-director Maro Chermayeff noted that Kristof and WuDunn were writing the book concurrently with the film, whereas in their first film project together, Half the Sky, the book was already completed. There, Chermayeff had to go back to find stories that will unfold before the viewer. "You want to meet people in their process," she said, highlighting the importance of discovery rather than reportage in hindsight.  She also stressed appropriateness of stories to a particular medium, distinguishing what might suit a book, a New York Times column by Kristof, or the film, while always wrestling with crossing journalistic boundary lines. 

Sensitivity is always a plus, but even photojournalist Lynsey Addario cautioned that in a case study on Paradise Without People, which follows Syrian newborns in a refugee camp, the adult subjects complained they looked too poor and unattractive, despite their plight being given a sympathetic international airing.

The role of the "creative producer" was explored in one of the Producing sessions. Distinguished from line, supervising, coordinating, executive or other types of producers, a creative producer takes a concept and makes it a reality, generating ideas, assembling the team, and seeing the project through. The panelists--moderator Jenny Raskin, Erika Cohn, Lisa Cortes, Leah Natasha Thomas and Beth Levison--noted that whereas creative producers and directors might do similar tasks (interviews, music, edit room, etc.), directors often ask for and get a producing credit, but it doesn’t work the other way around. Essentially, the panelists argued, the creative producer is a filmmaker who is not considered "creative."

In one of the Podcasts sessions, Headlong producer/writer Dan Taberski "wants people to feel that I'm blindfolding them and they have total trust that I'm not going to push them over the edge…. I'm going to lead them on a meaningful journey"—an eloquent aspiration for all makers and an apt metaphor since podcasts present a new opportunity for nonfiction filmmakers who have to learn how to tell a story without pictures. 


Susan Morris is a senior executive who works across media, largely in the arts — film, television, digital, radio exhibitions, public programs and print. She has worked for the Ford Foundation, NEA, BBC, PRI, WNYC, WNET, PBS, Bravo, IFC, Channel Four, New York Times Television, MoMA, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and writes regularly for the Architect's Newspaper