WHAT SHOULD A NEW DOC FESTIVAL LOOK LIKE?

That was the question asked a group of about 40 filmmakers and members of the filmmaking community at an IFC Center Friday breakfast by Thom Powers (artistic director), John Vanco (managing director) and Raphaela Neihausen (executive director) about their new event, DOC NYC. Powers, Vanco and Neihausen are teaming to present the inaugural edition of this new Gotham doc fest this November, and their first step has been to reach out to the community for opinions on what’s needed to distinguish their festival.

From their initial release:

“DOC NYC will fill an important void in New York City and will be a cornerstone for documentary storytellers from all over the world to showcase premieres, hold panels and give audiences the thrill of discovery,” said Vanco. “We’re creating a festival that will curate people as much as work, creating a space for the world’s leading thinkers, activists, creators, and celebrities to come together for dialogue, inspiration, and incubation of ideas.”

“We want to take a fresh approach to the concept of a festival,” said Powers. “Since New York City is the center of journalism, broadcasting, publishing and more, it makes an ideal location to gather the world’s leading documentary storytellers across many fields and give them a platform to reach new audiences. The line-up will look at the past, present and future.”

A few of the people who attended were: Robin Hessman, Laura Poitras, Melissa Hibbard, Eugene Hernandez, Ingrid Kopp, Steve Holmgren, Paul Rachman, David Leitner, Mary Kerr, Debra Zimmerman, and Jem Cohen. Before the breakfast, Powers emailed three questions:

1) What are your regrets about business as usual at other festivals?

2) For filmmakers, what can a festival do to further your film or career?

3) What new ideas would you suggest for our festival?

He also directed everyone to a blog post by Brian Newman, who couldn’t attend. Among Newman’s recommendations: don’t get hung up on booking premieres; take an expansive view of “documentary,” embracing transmedia, radio, photography and even some fiction film; expand the guest list beyond the usual suspects; pay filmmakers (or at least think about it); substitute conversations for panels; be “filmmaker friendly” by sharing data, helping them sell their work, etc.; and build new audience-building and distribution tools. (For more on all of these, check out Newman’s blog.)

Because, with one exception, I didn’t ask permission to quote people, and the event was private, I’m just going to quickly lay out without attribution some of the points made by various participants.

Hype and Competition: It was suggested that there be no competitive sections, which have the effect of dividing filmmakers into “winners and losers.” Alternately, one person suggested expanding the number of competitive prizes so that the films outside the competition would be eligible for more than just an audience award. As an example of a non-competitive gathering, the Creative Capital retreat was cited, where there is a focus on the work and “everyone is a winner.” Another person said that the “festival should be replenishing, not draining,” that it shouldn’t be an anxiety-producing experience for filmmakers stressed about prizes and premieres.

Make New York the Focus: It was pointed out that many of the second half of the 20th century’s great art movements were birthed within blocks of the IFC Center. “It needs to be a downtown festival,” said one person, recommending that the fest have a geographic focus in the West Village.

Hospitality and Dialogue: Make the festival memorable and intellectually stimulating for filmmakers by hosting intimate events like dinners in people’s homes in which topics of interest would be discussed.

Learn from the Past: Study past festivals like Docfest for examples of what worked and what didn’t.

Premieres: “The Elephant in the Room”: “Please don’t get hung up on premieres,” said one person, echoing Newman.

Be Inventive and Flexible with the Programming Categories: Thematics should not just be topics but modes of storytelling. Embrace cross-disciplinary forms including radio, and look for partners in spoken-word reading series. And, on a practical level, be careful not to create schedules that pit films against each other.

Be Mindful of the Politics of Future Screenings: Help filmmakers with post-festival screening politics by fostering good relationships and an understanding with other local exhibitors and festivals. Make it as easy as possible for filmmakers to screen elsewhere. Also, as Newman posted, give filmmakers the data about their audience.

Make it about the Art, not a Plea for an Audience: Make the festival as intellectually engaging as possible and assume you will get the audience. (Are programming integrity and audience development mutually exclusive, Powers asked in response.)

Make it about the Art, not the Demands of Television: Don’t be dominated by the interests of broadcasters and don’t structure the industry portion around pitch fests, one person advocated.

Jem Cohen had the last word with final comments which I did ask for permission to relay. He noted that too many fiction festivals have gone on a trajectory from sincere beginnings to sponsor-crammed, excessively hyped events, and he hoped DOC NYC wouldn’t succumb to these pressures. “There is a pressure to equate ‘documentary’ with ‘storytelling,’” he noted, “but they are not synonymous. It has to do with television as well as the fiction world.” He recommended DOC NYC “look carefully at how you use the word ‘documentary,’” and to make sure that this use didn’t create for the filmmakers “a pressure to conform” to the storytelling conventions of the fiction world. “Let’s look at documentary as a non-conforming principle,” he argued, citing films as diverse as Pasolini’s La rabbia and the Maysles’ Grey Gardens as films not beholden to conventional narrative imperatives. He also decried the “false dichotomy” between social issue and non-social issue docs. The question is not whether a doc explores a political or social issue but is instead, simply, “Is it innovative or not?”

What would you like to see DOC NYC do in their debut edition?

UPDATE: A related conversation is going on at Truly Free Film , sparking a challenging reply at Mark Lipsky’s Light a Fire!