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DOC NYC Fest Gets Underway, Throwing Heat Behind a Bevy of Awards Hopefuls, Including ‘Flee,’ ‘Attica’ and ‘Becoming Cousteau’

Firelight Films

The 12th edition of DOC NYC kicks off today — exactly one month before the AMPAS documentary branch begins voting to determine the 2022 Oscar documentary shortlist.

The nine-day affair, which runs until Nov. 18, will feature over 125 short docus and 127 feature-length nonfiction films that will screen at New York City’s IFC Center, SVA Theater and Cinépolis Chelsea. (The fest will be available online until Nov. 28)

Penny Lane’s “Listening to Kenny G,” will serve as the opening night film while Matthew Heineman’s “The First Wave” will close the festival. Sam Pollard and Rex Miller’s “Citizen Ashe” and Dave Wooley and David Heilbroner’s “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” are both fest Centerpiece docs.

Festivities commence with the fest’s annual Visionaries Tribute Honoree luncheon at Gotham Hall. While kudos will be given to cinematographer Joan Churchill (“Gimme Shelter,” “Last Days in Vietnam”), Oscar nominated director Raoul Peck (“I Am Not Your Negro”), Emmy Award-winning director Peter Nicks (“The Waiting Room,” “Homeroom”) and Ford Foundation’s JustFilms’ Senior Program Officer Chi-hui Yang, the four-hour lunch is much more than an awards ceremony. It also serves as an event for nonfiction directors with films qualified for Oscar consideration to put on their campaign hats and mingle with a who’s who of Academy’s documentary branch members.

Filmmakers behind this seasons most talked about docs, including Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, “Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” Liz Garbus (“Becoming Cousteau”), Jessica Kingdon (“Ascension”), Todd Haynes (“The Velvet Underground”) and Jonas Poher Rasmussen (“Flee”) will mingle with a bevy docu branch members including Alex Gibney, Barbara Kopple, Dawn Porter and Rachel Grady.

Branch member Stanley Nelson will also be at Gotham Hall on Wednesday touting his latest film, “Attica,” about the largest prison uprising in U.S. history.

“DOC NYC is really important for a number of reasons and one is the lunch,” Nelson says. “You get a chance to give fellow filmmakers a little facetime, a little elbow in the side and ask what they’ve been working on and tell them what you’ve been working on, which for me is “Attica.”

Nelson also notes that DOC NYC is important to awards season overall in large part due to its influential 15-film short list curated by DOC NYC’s artistic director, Thom Powers.

The fest’s short list has a history of being a predictor of awards, from critics’ prizes and Top 10 lists to the Oscars. “American Factory,” “Free Solo,” “Icarus,” “O.J.: Made in America,” “Amy,” “Citizenfour,” “20 Feet From Stardom,” “Searching for Sugar Man,” and “Undefeated” are all films that won the Oscar for best feature documentary between 2012 and 2020. Before garnering a little gold man each film made the DOC NYC short list. In all, DOC NYC has screened 39 of the last 45 Oscar-nominated documentary features.

“Attica” as well as 14 other films made the fest list this year: They are: “Ascension,” “Becoming Cousteau,” Lucy Walker’s “Bring Your Own Brigade,” Jessica Beshir’s “Faya Dayi,” “Flee,” Peter Nick’s “Homeroom,” Nanfu Wang’s “In the Same Breath,” Rachel Fleit’s “Introducing, Selma Blair,” Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s “Julia,” Robert Greene’s “Procession,” Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s “The Rescue,” Morgan Neville’s “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain,” “Summer of Soul” and Todd Haynes’ “The Velvet Underground.”

“The DOC NYC shortlist is hugely important because part of the whole awards season and getting people to see the films is to separate the films,” Nelson says. “I’m in the Academy, and in the past, we had something like 150 films being qualified. I can’t look at all of them, so what do I look at beyond the list that I’m (directed by the Academy) to screen? Part of it is the films that have buzz and part of the buzz is the DOC NYC short list. It’s really important to separate your film from the others and this short list is one of the easy ways to do that.”

Powers says that the 2021 list is more important for filmmakers than perhaps ever before.

“There’s a different dynamic this year because many of the films that are on the short list didn’t have an opportunity to do a festival circuit,” says Powers. “A film like ‘Flee,’ which was one of the most highly regarded films at the Sundance Film Festival (2021), didn’t have an opportunity to show at any festivals until it started playing at some fall festivals like Telluride, Toronto and the New York film festivals. So for Jonas Poher Rasmussen – a newcomer director, or at least newcomer to U.S. audience — in the past, he would probably would have played “Flee” at several different U.S. festivals and had a chance to meet people in the documentary branch who would get a chance to hear about the process behind making this unique animated film. That’s one example of dozens of films that had similar experiences this past year.”

While many of the docs that made the short list have powerhouse distributors like National Geographic, HBO, Showtime and Netflix behind them, some, like Jessica Beshir’s “Faya Dayi,” do not.

“When we pick our short list we’re always mindful of films that have a very big marketing push behind them because that’s a significant factor in what films are going to rise in award season,” says Powers. “But historically we’ve always tried to throw a spotlight on films that may not have that kind of marketing muscle, but we think viewers are really responding strongly to their artistry. ‘Faya Dayi’ is one of those films.”

In addition to the fest’s buzzy titles, there are also 66 nonfiction films making their world or U.S. premieres at DOC NYC including Andy Ostroy’s “Adrienne” and Jamie Boyle’s “Anonymous Sister.” Both are personal portraits of family. Ostroy’s “Adrienne” documents the life of late actress, director and screenwriter Adrienne Shelly, while Boyle’s “Anonymous Sister” is about the director’s mother and sister’s opioid addiction.

Ostroy, who was married to Shelly at the time of her murder in 2006, describes making “Adrienne” as a “cathartic” experience.

“Contextually it has provided so much because I had to relive these moments of her life through a lens that is 15 years older,” Ostroy says. “It was a different way of looking at the same tragedy and same grief, which proved to be life changing.”

For Boyle, a 2019 DOC NYC 40 Under 40 honoree, shooting, directing and editing “Anonymous Sister” has been a decades-long process. Boyle is a veteran docu editor and “Anonymous Sister” marks her first time helming a feature documentary.

“While I’ve done the top tier festival circuit as an editor of documentaries, I don’t necessarily carry a thousand pounds of clout,” says Boyle. “And as documentary becomes more popular and more attention and funding gets directed at it, it’s harder and harder to get that kind of traction. DOC NYC is a perfect place for the film because it doesn’t seem to be under the same kinds of pressures as maybe the top four or five festivals and it can really make way for some of these filmmakers who maybe aren’t the biggest handful of names every year.”

Also making their world premieres at DOC NYC are: Torquil Jones’ “14 Peaks,” about mountain climber Nirmal “Nims” Purja, Christopher Frierson’s “DMX: Don’t Try To Understand,” about the life of the recently deceased rapper, Tom Donahue’s Dean Martin: King of Cool,” about the acting-singing legend’s career, and John Maggio’s “Mr. Saturday Night, about the rise and fall of Robert Stigwood, the producer behind “Saturday Night Fever.”