Experience the cream of the documentary crop at DOC NYC

Movies Features

Documentaries have been growing astronomically, buoyed by low production costs and new viewing platforms. How can you keep track of what to see? Now in its seventh year, DOC NYC has become an important springboard for the best new documentaries.

Running from November 10 – 17, this year's festival will screen 110 feature documentaries, with 19 world premieres and 19 U.S. premieres. In addition, the festival will show over 100 shorts and host several special events, with some 300 filmmakers and guests expected to attend.

Opening the festival is Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, a look at Jane Jacobs, who almost singlehandedly changed our perception of how cities work. The closing night's film, Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary, is an intimate portrait of the iconoclastic composer and saxophone player.

In between, expect to find an idiosyncratic selection of movies ranging from potential Oscar nominees to student work. To help viewers navigate the schedule, curators have broken the festival into 19 special sections. Two series — Viewfinders and Metropolis — highlight films in competition.

According to Director of Programming Basil Tsiokos, the Viewfinders section includes "distinctive and personal films showcasing national work. Metropolis is focused on New York City, on movies that make sense of the city and its people. It's a way of approaching local history."

Appearing in this year's Viewfinders are titles like The Lure, a mystery directed by Tomas Leach and executive produced by famed documentarian Errol Morris; The Road, an investigation into a scandal-ridden highway project in China; and Forever Pure, which shows the reaction when an Israeli soccer team signs two Chechen Muslim players.

In the Metropolis section, Bill Moyers is an executive producer on Rikers, a first-hand account of the notorious New York City jail. Director Julie Sokolow profiles the city's first openly transgender firefighter in Woman on Fire. And Off the Rails covers train nut Darius McCollum, arrested repeatedly for driving city buses and running subway trains.

The number of submissions to the festival has more than tripled in the last five years, while feature screenings have expanded from 52 to 110.

"One of the reasons why we expanded was that we could see a demand, an audience hungry to see these films," Tsiokos explains. "We are looking for strong, diverse films that audiences will respond to, films that would not otherwise be seen by New Yorkers. We're proud that this year, 44% of the titles are by female filmmakers."

DOC NYC has an open submissions process; this year brought 885 features. A screening committee helps select promising titles. The final choices are generally up to Tsiokos and Artistic Director Thom Powers, with Opal Bennett in charge of shorts programming.

Powers also works on festivals in Toronto and Miami, while Tsiokos is affiliated with Sundance and the Nantucket Film Festival. As a result, they have early access to titles that can have a real impact at DOC NYC.

Tsiokos points to the Sonic Cinema and Fight the Power series as perennial festival favorites. The former looks at music and musicians, from newer stars like Mumford & Sons (We Wrote This Yesterday) to jazz legend Fred Hersch (The Ballad of Fred Hersch). And Bang! The Bert Berns Story is a fascinating look at a rock-music impresario you probably never heard of. But you may be familiar with some of his clients, like Neil Diamond and Van Morrison. E Street Band guitarist Stevie Van Zandt, a noted songwriter and producer himself, will attend the screening.

Sonic Cinema also ranges through world music. Raving Iran looks at underground DJs who risk their freedom for their music. Serenade for Haiti is an inspiring profile of a school in Haiti teaching classical music. In The Wonderful Kingdom Of Papa Alaev, directors Tal Barda and Noam Pinchas follow a traditional folk group in Tajikistan grappling with changing tastes.

Fight the Power showcases activist documentaries. This year's titles include Bobby Sands: 66 Days, a harrowing look at the IRA prisoner's final days in a Northern Ireland prison; and The Freedom to Marry, which shows how the same-sex marriage movement got to the Supreme Court.

Films about sports fall under the Jock Docs umbrella. Mr. Chibbs looks at what happened to Queens native and basketball star Kenny Anderson after retiring from the sport. (Anderson will attend the screening.) Lara Stolman's Swim Team is about the Jersey Hammerheads, whose teen members fall on the autism spectrum.

"We introduced a few sections last year that we brought back for this festival," Tsiokos says. "'Behind the Scenes' covers films about filmmaking, like Le Concours, which looks at the admission process for one of France's acclaimed film schools, Le Fémis. And Film Hawk is about a beloved figure in the indie community, Bob Hawk, who among other things discovered Kevin Smith and Ed Burns."

Some sections are new to the festival. Art & Design includes California Typewriter, in which advocates like Tom Hanks proclaim their love for a technology that refuses to die; and David Lynch: The Art Life, a portrait of the unsettling filmmaker and Transcendental Meditation® advocate. The True Crime section features the New York City premiere of the HBO documentary Beware the Slenderman, a chilling look at an Internet-inspired knife attack. Science Nonfiction has Food Evolution, directed by Scott Hamilton Kennedy and narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson, which looks at the fight for and against GMOs.

With DOC NYC U, the festival reaches out to student filmmakers from Hunter, Columbia, New York University, the School of the Visual Arts and the New York Film Academy in screenings curated by professors.

Finally, Special Events spotlights titles like Every Brilliant Thing, the world premiere of an adaptation of Jonny Donahoe's acclaimed one-man show; and Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing, directed by Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern.

If the sheer number of films seems daunting, DOC NYC has an answer for that, too. Its Short List is a 15-title guide to the most significant releases of the year, "part prediction, part advocacy," as Tsiokos puts it.

"We've had this section for several years. Most of the films that end up being nominated for an Academy Award are usually on the Short List."

This year's titles include Ava DuVernay's impassioned 13th; the Berlin Film Festival winner Fire at Sea; the heartwarming Life, Animated; the jaw-dropping Weiner; and Raoul Peck's reworking of James Baldwin's I Am Not Your Negro.

"It's no surprise, given how much it has become part of the cultural moment, but civil rights themes have emerged as a significant theme in this year's festival," Tsiokos says. "It's a huge part of the conversation these past few years, that and gender parity. I'm proud that DOC NYC is highlighting so many people who are otherwise under-represented in the filmmaking community."

More information and the full schedule are available at www.docnyc.net