Interviews

DOC NYC Marks Ten Years of Celebrating Non-Fiction

An interview with the festival’s artistic director Thom Powers

Thom Powers introduces a screening at DOC NYC 2018


“One of the interesting things about reflecting on a 10 year anniversary is the ability to look back on what’s changed in the documentary space,” says Thom Powers, artistic director of New York’s DOC NYC Festival. “When we began this festival, there was no talk of streamers, for instance. The activity around the Oscar season was much more low key than it is today. Nor were documentaries doing the same kind of box office numbers that they have been in the last couple of years.”

A lot has changed in the film industry for documentary in the decade since DOC NYC debuted. The event, which has grown to become the USA’s largest documentary festival, marks its tenth anniversary this year. Powers, speaking with POV by phone, observes how the changes in the field continue to feed the collective appetite for documentary. At a time when documentaries are more readily available at home than ever, DOC NYC, much like Toronto’s Hot Docs, continues to thrive as more audiences deepen their appreciation for non-fiction filmmaking.

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band
Photo by Justin Wilkes


This year’s festival kicks off November 6 with the US premiere of Daniel Roher’s Once Were Brothers: The Story of Robbie Robertson and the Band. The doc previously opened the Toronto International Film Festival where Powers programs the TIFF Docs section and spearheads the annual industry event, the TIFF Doc Conference. This year’s three DOC NYC spotlights are TIFF 2019 alumni with Eva Orner’s Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator and Ebs Burnough’s The Capote Tapes serving as the centrepiece and closing night galas, respectively.

Powers notes that the TIFF/DOC NYC overlap in the spotlight sections is unique this year, but a fair survey of films that help widen the audience for documentary. “We’re elevating those films because we think they will be widely appealing,” says Powers. Other TIFF alumni hitting DOC NYC include fellow New Yorkers Barbara Kopple and Alan Berliner with Desert One and Letter to the Editor, respectively, arguably the standout documentaries at TIFF this year. The Canadian front is notably strong with Yung Chang’s This Is Not a Movie, Laurie Lynd’s Killing Patient Zero, Julia Ivanova’s My Dads, My Moms, and Me, and Chris Flanagan’s Shella Record joining Once Were Brothers at the fest.

The list of 28 world premieres at DOC NYC includes Joe Berlinger’s The Longest Wave, Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe’s Terry Gilliam doc He Dreams of Giants, Ira Deutchman’s film-on-film doc Searching for Mr. Rudolph, and Geeta Gandbhir’s food scarcity Hungry to Learn. For viewers eager to expand their concept of documentary form and style, Powers points them in the direction of DOC NYC’s Viewfinders section, which includes the US premieres of the audaciously original Hot Docs prizewinner Symphony of the Ursus Factory, Eva Mulvad’s gripping Love Child, and Thomas Balmès’ poignant Sing Me a Song.

Amazing Grace

This year’s DOC NYC has a high bar to meet after last year’s festival scored a major coup by landing the world premiere of Amazing Grace, the Aretha Franklin documentary that eluded audiences for nearly forty years. “It was a huge feather in our cap,” admits Powers, adding that the feat will be hard to top. “It’s a film I had invited to TIFF several years earlier and had been scheduled to play, but had famously been pulled at the last minute.” The film, scheduled to play at TIFF 2015, fell off the programme when Franklin slapped the production with a lawsuit and prevented its release until her death in August 2018.

“In the case of DOC NYC, the film’s producer, Allen Elliott, reached out to me in September of that year, not long after Aretha passed away and said we might be able to do this,” says Powers. “I’d had that rug pulled out from under me a couple times before, so I was definitely not counting on it. Literally a week before DOC NYC began, we really finalized it with Aretha’s niece. There are some nights as a programmer that you remember forever and that will be one of them.”

The Short List

American Factory

For Sama

While Amazing Grace went on to be one of 2019’s most buzzed about and bankable docs, it doesn’t make an appearance in DOC NYC’s 15-film Short List program. The hot ticket line-up has been central to the growth of the festival and began with four films and expanded over the years, eventually reflecting the Academy’s own number of 15. Short List positions 15 documentaries as must-see award season contenders for fans to catch prior to the Academy’s 15-film shortlist in December. This year’s Short List features buzz-worthy contenders such as American Factory, Apollo 11, Ask Dr. Ruth, Diego Maradona, For Sama, Honeyland, The Kingmaker, Knock Down the House, and One Child Nation, just to name a few. (Amazing Grace fast-tracked its Oscar bid last year and submitted for to the Academy for consideration following its enthusiastic DOC NYC premiere.)

The shortlist is now a reliable bellwether for the season. Every Oscar winner for Best Documentary Feature has appeared in the program since Short List launched in 2012. Some years see up to a nine-film overlap between DOC NYC’s roster and the Academy shortlist with other years including anywhere from 60% to 100% of the eventual nominees.

Despite having premiered at other festivals, travelling the circuit, landing in theatres, and, in some cases, playing on streaming services, Short List has arguably become DOC NYC’s most high-profile event with award season in full swing. “In those early days, we naïvely and in retrospect, kind of stupidly, thought people weren’t going to see films that already had a release,” chuckles Powers. “The fact is that even for a documentary like Apollo 11 that’s had a wide release, by documentary standards, the New York area will have millions more people who haven’t seen it than who have seen it.”

Powers says that Short List is “partly predictive and part advocacy” when it comes to selecting the films. “A couple of films that I would point to last year, Minding the Gap and Hale County, This Morning, This Evening, became Oscar nominees,” says Powers, “but at this time last year, they were considered by most people as real long shots since they were smaller films by first time film makers.” The films by Bing Liu and RaMell Ross hit DOC NYC after receiving support from the Fullframe Film Festival’s Garrett Scott Development Grant, which bolsters new voices in documentary and for which Powers serves as a juror.

This year might offer a chance for another Minding the Gap or_ Hale County_ to connect with audiences and the Academy. DOC NYC’s artistic director doesn’t see a clear frontrunner in the same way that eventual winner 20 Feet from Stardom and presumed winners Jane and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? were in their years of release. Buzz is spread across a handful of contenders. “The prediction business is a game,” observes Powers. “The wonderful thing about the Short List is that we get to celebrate 15 films on equal footing.”

Making a Murderer and Making Room for Streamers

The Short List section illustrates how DOC NYC is more about screening quality films than playing the premiere game, but some of the films to debut at the festival indicate how the event keeps its finger on the pulse of a changing field. Powers cites Making a Murderer, Netflix’s megahit true crime mini-series, as another notable doc that launched with a world premiere at DOC NYC. “No one really knew what to make of it,” says Powers, noting that his team took a gamble on the relatively obscure project “We showed the first two episodes and I remember Ira Glass being in the audience who was in the midst of launching [season two of] Serial. It was a modest size house of 150 or 200 people.”

Together, Making a Murder and the Serial podcast arguably exploded the popularity for true crime documentary and high-calibre serial storytelling. “It was gratifying to see how much people had responded to it that night,” says Powers. “But I could not have predicted the reaction that would come a month later when it aired on Netflix.”

The inclusion of the Netflix mini-series further demonstrates how comfortably DOC NYC has developed its relationship with the streaming giants while other festivals struggle. “For us, there was no point of resistance,” says Powers. “Some festivals, most famously Cannes, have had resistance from their theatrical stakeholders when it comes to opening the door to streamers. In the case of documentary, television was historically the main source of funding and distribution for documentary films going back to the days of HBO where I produced documentaries 20 years ago.”

Powers says that his experience working in both the production and programming sides of documentary has allowed him to observe documentary’s growth in the streaming age without the same tension with theatrical distribution that many dramatic films face. Martin Scorsese’s 159 million dollar crime epic The Irishman, for example, currently has distributors fuming over the relatively brief theatrical window it will enjoy before streaming. On the other hand, the Scorsese-produced Once Were Brothers preceded its launch on Bell Media’s streaming platform Crave with a theatrical run at Cineplex cinemas, the Canadian distributor who joined The Irishman boycott and would not allow public or press screenings for streaming titles to run at the Scotiabank theatre at TIFF this year.

But the festival experience puts audiences first and gives them a chance to enjoy the films as they were meant to be seen. “A wonderful opportunity for us is being able to show films that most people might experience on the smaller screen on a big screen,” agrees Powers.

DOC NYC Pro

Similarly, the festival has embraced podcasting as an evolution of non-fiction storytelling. This year’s edition introduces a full podcast day to the DOC NYC Pro section, which highlights the industry side of documentary. The podcasting events include conversations with voices such as Brian Reed, who hosts the hugely popular investigative journalism series S-Town that is the latest brainchild from the team behind Serial and This American Life. With the Peabody Award winning series enjoying a run of over 77 million downloads in its first year alone, S-Town illustrates the wealth of possibilities afforded to non-fiction storytelling. (Powers is also in the podcasting game himself with the documentary conversation series Pure Nonfiction.)

DOC NYC Pro, produced by Amy Jelenko, offers a week of industry-focused programming running from Nov. 7 to 14. Doc makers can immerse themselves with entire days devoted to technical and craft components with talents like Alan Berliner and Rachel Lears guiding them through the art of editing their films or artists like Amitabh Joshi and Alison Klayman highlighting the cinematography of films such as A Little Wisdom and The Brink. Other days focus on the business side of the field and offer artists and producers guidance on legal, distribution, funding, and impact, just to name a few elements. “Even for someone like me who is immersed in documentary filmmaking year round and constantly in touch with other filmmakers, I’m always learning new things at that conference,” says Powers.

One Child Nation


The events feature many talents behind the Short List selections, including one whose road to the festival is proof of the DOC NYC Pro’s ability to shape and nurture talents. “One of my favorite anecdotes about DOC NYC Pro is that several years ago, we had a graduate film student who was an immigrant and couldn’t afford to attend,” recalls Powers. “She volunteered to be a videographer at DOC NYC Pro so she could take in the panels in exchange for her work. This year, that same filmmaker who had come to study documentary at DOC NYC Pro several years ago is in our Short List program with the film One Child Nation: Nanfu Wang.” Wang, who arguably has the best documentary of the year with One Child Nation, returns to the festival for an in-depth conversation on the cinematography day.

DOC NYC in the Age of Trump

One other factor in DOC NYC’s significance over the past decade is the newfound urgency for non-fiction storytelling in the age of Donald Trump and his flagrant challenges to the media. Powers adds that the 2016 edition of DOC NYC, held just two days after Trump’s election, was one of the most significant years for the festival. “It began the day after people had woken up to the news that Donald Trump was President,” says Powers. “For New Yorkers, many people did not want to get out of bed or didn’t know how to face what came next.” Powers adds that sales for the festival were slower that year with audiences preoccupied with the election, but the team assumed that all would be fine once Hillary Clinton won the election.

Instead of resuming as business as usual, though, the programmer says that Trump’s win inspired something in the air that year. “I felt like the festival really had more meaning than before,” observes Powers. “People needed it. People needed to come together in community. They needed to see those stories on the screen that contained hope, entertainment, information about the world, and different perspectives. Movie-going has never felt so vital as it did that week.”

In fact, the Trump effect on DOC NYC is evident in the programming section Fight the Power. “We started the section a few years ago as a way of recognizing that there are so many great films about activism,” says Powers. “For people who want to tap into that energy, it’s a place to find those films.”

Mai Khoi & The Dissidents


Two program highlights from Powers include I Am Not Alone, the runner-up for the People’s Choice Award for Documentary at TIFF, which captures the energy of the Armenian people’s movement. Fight the Power also features the world premiere of Mai Khôi & The Dissidents. The latest film from Joshua: Teenager Versus Superpower director Joe Piscatella, the doc profiles Vietnamese popstar and outspoken activist Mai Khôi, who is expected to attend this year’s festival. “Like Joshua: Teenager Versus Superpower, this film on Mai Khôi is a story of a very brave dissident,” says Powers.

Other docs that get audiences fired up in Fight the Power include Linda Goldstein Knowlton’s award-winning film about young women activists, We Are the Radical Monarchs, while the world premiere of Peter Hutchison’s Healing from Hate: Battle for the Soul of a Nation brings a timely essay on radicalism. “That section is a direct example of how we’re trying to address the politics that we’re living through,” says Powers. “But you can feel it through every thing that’s being done.”

Dedicated to D.A. Pennebaker

D.A. Pennebaker at a previous DOC NYC event
Courtesy DOC NYC

The tenth anniversary of DOC NYC is bittersweet as it marks the first year for the event without the presence of documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker, who passed away this summer. This year’s festival is dedicated to the memory of the cinema verité pioneer and director of landmark films such as Monterey Pop and Dont Look Back. “It’s an incalculable loss for New York’s community,” says Powers. “As a filmmaker, he leaves such an important body of work compared to any American filmmaker, period.” The festival also honours Pennebaker by screening a new DCP copy of his 1971 film Town Bloody Hall, directed with long-time partner and collaborator Chris Hegedus, who will attend the event.

“There is a second loss in terms of what he meant is a figure of morale boosting in in New York’s documentary community: D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus were frequent film goers,” adds Powers noting that the couple were staples in the audience at DOC NYC and the IFC centre where they often engaged with audiences. “Just three months after his loss, I don’t know if I fully reckoned with it or if the rest of our community has reckoned with it. It’s our honour to have him on our poster and on the front of our catalogue this year and to have him with us.”

DOC NYC runs Nov. 6 to 15. Visit DOCNYC.net for more info on this year’s festival.

Visit the POV DOC NYC Hub for more coverage of films at this year’s fest.