DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, kicks off this week, which also happens to be the first anniversary of our president sitting, tweeting in office. As I’ve discussed previously here on Doc Soup, this has been a wild, disturbing year for our country, and documentary filmmakers have tried to handle this situation the best they can: by doing good work.
DOC NYC is doing the same, as it sees its lugubrious connection to the state of Trump nation as a way to serve the documentary community — filmmakers as well as their audiences — by providing a meeting ground and way to exchange ideas and films about the reality we are living in. A worthy notion, I’d say, and I’m looking forward to a slew of films as well as panels that will serve the festival’s mandate to curate, cross fertilize, cross generations, cultivate new audiences, expand distribution, create social space and make the most of NYC. In fact, there’s one particular panel I’ll invite you to: I’ll be moderating Tales from the Edit Room Saturday, November 11, at 3:30 p.m., a conversation with three top-notch editors (Maya Mumma, Fiona Otway and David Teague), who will be showing clips from their films and dropping science on how they shape, cut, splice and pace their stories.
To start things off, I asked DOC NYC Director of Programming, Basil Tsiokos, about the grim anniversary and how the festival plans to make the best of it.
How and why is DOC NYC engaging with the one-year anniversary of Donald Trump winning the presidency?
DOC NYC 2016 opened just two days after the election. It was a challenging time to mount an event of our size and breadth, and we worried if audiences would be too shell-shocked to even attend screenings and panels. It turned out that what many people – and the festival organizers – needed was a place to congregate, commiserate, and take strength from one another, however, and DOC NYC served as that gathering place.
Now, as the one year anniversary of that event falls around our dates, we felt it was important to acknowledge how much has changed under the new administration, and, equally importantly, how much resistance there remains to its divisive policies. This has come through in the topics that filmmakers have explored such as immigration, xenophobia, race, religion, and other issues, and in DOC NYC’s selection of these films for this year’s lineup, as well as how we’ve positioned or contextualized this work.
The festival is opening with The Final Year. What do you hope audiences will take away from it?
Following up on the previous question, the positioning of The Final Year as our Opening Night film is certainly part of how we’re engaging with the impact of the 2016 presidential election. Greg Barker’s film offers a candid look at the last year of the Obama White House and how it specifically engaged on urgent foreign policy issues – issues which have been handled decidedly very differently since January 20. We hope that audiences don’t just view this film with nostalgia, but recognize the power of diplomacy over jingoistic nationalism and bluster.
What is DOC NYC’s New World Order section about? How are the other programs addressing the current state of politics?
Each year, we organize DOC NYC into several thematic sections. Some are perennial, others fade in and out depending on the presence of appropriate films, and new ones emerge organically. New World Order is one of the latter, a new section of six features that address some of the most pressing issues of today and reflecting disturbing trends of nationalism and xenophobia both domestically and internationally.
These have a heavy political dimension – in fact, two of the titles profile controversial candidates as they seek positions of power: EuroTrump is about the Dutch Donald Trump, Geert Wilders, an outspoken critic of Islam who sees a surge of support as he runs for the position of Prime Minister of the Netherland; while Insha’Allah Democracy follows General Pervez Musharraf as Pakistan’s former dictator leaves exile to try to reclaim his power in a presidential run. Other films explore the disturbing resurgence in Anti-Semitism (Spiral), the continuing Syrian refugee crisis (Sky & Ground), religious extremism and its deadly impact (Recruiting for Jihad), and the strange bureaucracy that’s come in the wake of terrorist attacks and other national tragedies like mass shootings and environmental disasters (Playing God).
Other programs outside of this section include our Fight the Power sidebar on activism, a wide-ranging group of films that cover everything from Black Lives Matter and AIDS activism to the fight for paid family leave and anti-fracking efforts. Several of our Shorts programs also take a political focus, notably The New Normal, about America before and after the election, and Justice for All and Surviving the System, both about the flawed criminal justice system.
Since I’m moderating the Edit panel on Saturday, I’ll ask: what are some of the key components of a well-edited documentary?
In many ways, the documentary editor shapes the story and how a film’s subjects are developed and understood by the viewer. A strong editor is someone who is able to translate the director’s intention for both a story and its characters in a dramatic, engaging manner. This means not only including the most pertinent information and scenes, but also being able to cull the waste and the distractions; it means trusting the material and giving it room to breathe rather than becoming over dependent on rapid-fire montages; and it means bringing a level of poetry to storytelling, rather than strict reportage.
DOC NYC runs from November 9 – 16. For more information about screenings and events, visit docnyc.net