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Top Documentary Filmmakers Commit to Working for Change at DOC NYC Kickoff

Two years ago at the annual DOC NYC Visionaries Tribute Luncheon, the best and the brightest of the documentary community were in mourning.

It was two days after Donald Trump’s presidential election and nonfiction filmmakers weren’t taking it well.

Cut to Thursday’s fifth annual Visionaries lunch. The crowd, full of elite docu filmmakers including Steve James, Joe Berlinger, Laura Poitras and Stanley Nelson were in a very different mood. Hope was in the air. Even Michael Moore appeared on the verge of jubilance.

The source of all their delight? Tuesday’s midterm election results.

“One down two to go,” said Moore, who was surprisingly reserved with his words.

Fellow feature documentary Oscar winner, Alex Gibney added that he was happy that the Democrats won the House, but warned, “There is a lot of work to be done in terms of saving our country.”

Two-time Academy Award winner, Barbara Kopple was also happy about the Democrats’ win but added that she is “petrified” about the next two years of Trump’s presidency. “But no matter what, I’m going to keep getting out there to do things to help change,” Kopple said. “I will keep speaking out and I will not be afraid.”

The luncheon, held at midtown Manhattan’s Edison Ballroom, kicked off the launch of the 9th annual DOC NYC documentary film festival that has lined up a full slate of titles that include award race contenders including Moore’s “Fahrenheit 11/9,” Betsy West & Julie Cohen’s “RBG” and Morgan Neville’s “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.”

The lunch comes at the end of an exceptional year for docus. At the height of popcorn season when franchises were taking over multiplexes, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” grossed $22.6 million domestically, making it the 12th-highest-grossing doc of all time. Meanwhile “RBG” garnered an impressive $14 million and Neon’s “Three Identical Strangers” took in just over $12 million. Since its Sept. 20 launch, “Fahrenheit 11/9” has garnered $6 million.

Moore, Gibney and Kopple were among the many Academy Awards winners in the room who paid tribute to the event’s honorees: veteran filmmakers Wim Wenders and Orlando Bagwell; “Free Solo” directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin and Sundance Documentary Film program director Tabitha Jackson.

While Vasarhelyi’s speech included a mention about her and Chin’s parents, who are all immigrants and Bagwell spoke about “speaking truth to power,” none of the honorees spoke about Trump or current political matters directly. Gibney, who introduced Wenders, recited a quote from the director, “Without dreams there can be no courage. And without courage there can be no action.” Gibney added that, “It is a good way of approaching movies and an even better way of approaching this moment in history.”

During his speech, Wenders addressed today’s politicians by way of his latest documentary, “Pope Francis: A Man of His Word,” which is screening at DOCNYC.

“It dawned on me while we were making (this film) – it took almost five years (to make) – that the world had changed,” Wenders said. “All of the sudden the man (Pope Francis) in front of my camera was a moral compass for the world because all of the other authorities had disappeared. Politics were a swamp of amorality all over the world. I looked around and realized, ‘Boy. There is a little bit more responsibility on this movie (now).”

While the lengthy, boozy event offered the community’s gatekeepers a chance to mingle, it also gave those helmers one last chance to schmooze with dozens of branch members before the Oscar Short List voting deadline in early December.

The fest’s artistic director, Thom Powers curates a DOC NYC shortlist of 15 feature docus, which filmmakers and distributors alike are clamoring to be included on, but it’s anyone’s guess what films, from the 166 eligible docs will make this year’s Oscar shortlist.

DOC NYC runs from Nov. 8-15 and will showcase 135 feature-length documentaries, including 42 world premieres.

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