The 31st annual edition of the Gotham Independent Film Awards, taking place Nov. 29, will feature a variety of updates, including acting awards that are not defined by gender, a kudo for breakthrough nonfiction series and the inclusion of international documentaries in the doc feature category.
The third new rule allowed for two European-based documentaries to be nominated in Gotham’s feature nonfiction category: Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s “Flee” and Camilla Nielsson’s “President.” Rounding out the Gotham category are three U.S.-based docus — Jessica Beshir’s “Faya Dayi,” Jessica Kingdon’s “Ascension” and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s debut, “Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised).”
The decision to include international nonfiction into the doc feature category came to fruition this year for various reasons according to Jeffrey Sharp, executive director of the Gotham Film and Media Institute.
“In this continuing movement towards inclusion we wanted to find a way to embrace international docs,” Sharp says. “Also, our nominating committees in prior years were really asking questions like ‘why can’t international documentaries also be recognized and considered for a Gotham?’ So, this year was an opportunity to make that step.”
Ben Fowlie, founder of the Camden Intl. Film Festival, has been a member of Gotham’s documentary feature nominating committee for the past several years and has advocated for the inclusion of global nonfiction.
“Expanding the Gotham Awards this year to include international docs has provided an exciting opportunity to highlight the phenomenal diversity of forms and techniques being used by storytellers across the globe and underscoring the lack of borders between the artistic exploration of the form and the risks that filmmakers take, wherever they work,” Fowlie says.
“A global community is engaged in documentary filmmaking, and for the Gothams to take this step emphasizes that there is a global community of storytellers that should be considered. I look forward to seeing more international nominations, including those from outside of Europe, in future iterations.”
Also important to note is that the presence of international docus at the Gothams comes on the heels of a big push by the AMPAS doc branch in recent years to be more inclusive and expand branch membership outside the U.S. That push led to an increase of over 330 members, which included 168 based not living in the U.S. Today the Oscar doc branch represents 52 countries, making it the most geo-diverse of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ 17 branches.
Besides “Flee” and “Summer of Soul,” which are being distributed by Neon and Searchlight Pictures/Hulu respectively, the remaining three Gothams-nominated feature docus are all indie underdogs without big backers. MTV Documentary Films is behind “Ascension” while Janus Films and Greenwich Entertainment theatrically released “Faya Dayi” and “President,” respectively.
What the five nominated docs have in common is an early 2021 release. “Flee,” “Faya Dayi,” “President” and “Summer of Soul” all premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, while “Ascension” debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in June. Participating in festivals around the country and the world for the better part of a year gave this crop of docus a leg up according to Cinetic Media’s Jason Ishikawa, who sold “Flee,” “Faya Dayi” and “Summer of Soul.”
“For the earlier prizes like the Gothams, it’s much harder for a film launching out of the fall festival run to be recognized,” says Ishikawa, who sold docs including “Procession” after its Telluride Film Festival premiere.
Ishikawa adds that this year’s nominating committee for the Gothams feature documentary includes programmers such as Fowlie, whose job it is to start track nonfiction fare throughout the year. In addition to Fowlie, programmers from film festivals including Sundance, Toronto and Tribeca were among the members of the 2021 doc feature Gotham selection committee.
“Four out of the five films nominated are Sundance films,” Ishikawa says. “Is there a bias there — probably not because these are real people with integrity, but you have to look at who’s voting. And if it’s a lot of festival programmers, it’s unsurprising that the films that play at the most festivals are the ones selected for a [Gotham] nomination.”
This year fest programmers worldwide took a particular liking to “Flee,” which has been invited to every major award season festival including Sundance, Telluride, Toronto and New York. In addition to being a Cannes 2020 official selection, the film has also been a presence at local fests including Camden and the Hamptons Intl. Film Festival. About a gay refugee who fled to safety in Denmark from his home in Afghanistan as a child, “Flee” is being submitted by Neon for Oscar best picture consideration in addition to the documentary, animation and international film categories.
While fest programmers have been charmed by the Denmark doc, there have been quiet rumblings among various members of the docu community that “Flee” is an animated film — not a documentary.
“I don’t get that,” says director Rasmussen. “ ‘Flee’ is definitely a documentary.” The helmer cites the fact that actors and recreations were utilized in recently released docus to tell their narratives. “Animation is just another way to tell the story.”
For Rasmussen, receiving a Gotham nod or any kind of award nomination going forward is icing on the cake.
“When I was making this film, I had a feeling I was doing something kind of special, but it’s also a niche film,” says Rasmussen. “So, while I knew it was special, I never expected this kind of big [reception] at all.”
About the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, “Summer of Soul” appeared at several regional festivals including True/False and the Nantucket Film Festival following its Sundance launch. Meanwhile both “Ascension,” about the economic growth of China, and “President,” about the fight for democracy in Zimbabwe, played at several international fests including the Zurich and South Korea’s DMZ Intl. Documentary Film Festival.
But Beshir’s “Faya Dayi,” about the lucrative business and physical effects of khat, Ethiopia’s biggest cash crop, arguably attended the most film festivals including Hot Docs, Melbourne, Rotterdam, and Vienna.
Beshir admits that she, like Rasmussen, is taken aback by all the attention her work is receiving.
“I had no idea there was a Gotham Awards,” Beshir says. “I didn’t even know about this whole awards season. Someone at Janus Films had to sit me down at one point, and say, ‘Jess. This is happening.’ I just had no clue. So, the Gotham nomination — everything — has been an amazing surprise. I just want to enjoy the ride.”