While busy getting excited and prepared for this week's inauguration of the brand new Doc NYC festival of documentary storytelling (for which I will serve as a juror -- see my preview and highlights here), I was reminded that the Cinematical-favored Big Apple Film Festival is also going on at the same time. Fortunately there's not a lot of conflict for the strict doc fan -- I think Big Apple has one or two docs this year -- and those of us who love both fiction and non-fiction are only troubled by the fact that we have even more terrific films available to us already-spoiled New York cinephiles. Boo hoo. Privileged First World urbanite moviegoer problems, right?
Meanwhile, as an ever-increasing documentary nut, I still can't help but feel I'm sort of missing out by only being one person, because other major documentary film festivals are also happening this week (doc maker/blogger AJ Schnack also recognizes that this is one of the busiest weeks of the year for the form), including the Sheffield International Documentary Festival (aka Sheffield Doc/Fest) in the UK, running from Nov. 3rd through 7th, and the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival (aka CPH:DOX), from Nov. 4th through 14th. Oh well, can't attend them all. And anyway, even though Doc NYC feels relatively small in its first year, it is jam packed with so much appealing and necessary films that really I wish I was multiple people for this event alone.
I have to be extremely happy that this will already be my third film festival this year that's focused specifically on non-fiction works. I'm not counting the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, though I almost want to because it's documentary portion is so much larger, and more significant, than its dramatic. There was also my first trip to the doc smorgasbord known as Silverdocs and my recent attendance of the NYU-hosted Reel China Documentary Festival, which obviously is limited to selections from the relatively unrepresented modern documentary movement flourishing in the PRC (my faves included Venice-winner '1428' and the three-hour 'Mouthpiece,' while I hear the very well-attended 'Disorder' was the real hit of the weekend).
Wikipedia lists more than 60 documentary film fests around the world, most of them seeming to have been founded in the past decade or so. Yet it doesn't seem to be a very comprehensive list, from what I can tell from other directories and crowded calendars of fests exclusively dedicated to non-fiction, ethnographic film and other even more narrowed scopes. Of course, we can also look at the non-exclusive fests, many of which are becoming more and more impressive in their documentary programming. When he spotlighted the 25 best film fests for documentary last year, AJ Schnack featured a lot of hybrid events, and even named Sundance his #1 choice. Toronto and SXSW are also highly placed as great showcases.
So if the non-exclusive events are so great at programming, premiering and otherwise promoting documentaries, are the thousands of general film festivals not enough? Not as long as the popularity and abundance of non-fiction works increases. And the possibility of first-run theatrical distribution for doc decreases. Though it would seem satisfactory that more and more documentaries are finding curious audiences through video-on-demand services and sites, especially if a majority of works are on the low-production-value, talky-not-showy, suitable-for-the-small-screen end of the spectrum, there are plenty of films more appropriately viewed on a big screen.
These theatrically necessary works include gorgeously cinematic stuff (much of which I can't stop championing in this column) like 'Last Train Home,' 'Restrepo,' the Disneynature releases, the better concert films out there and pretty much anything recent from Werner Herzog, whether it be in 3-D or not. Of course the more we see these kinds of films in theaters, the more we'll hopefully encourage more well-shot, well-produced docs to be made. Multiplexes probably won't book them, and many of the small regional fests can't show all that are worthy, so while it may sound like there are already a lot of events exclusive to docs out there, there can always be more. Doc fans may not be the largest group, but we are surely spread out, and there's no good reason audiences can't be built around something once it's organized.
Then there's a matter of genre. Documentary is not a genre of film, it is a mode of cinema that has a number of its own separate classifiable types. And most of these genres see enough new examples each year to warrant niche festivals of their own. SXSW is pretty good for rock docs, but what about a lengthy event devoted simply to concert films and other music-subject docs? In Cleveland, maybe? I'd also love to see fests catering more widely to specific tastes, sort of the way Human Rights Watch does to issue docs and DOC NYC does contrastingly to doc storytelling. Maybe something for those of us who'd prefer and wish to see more direct-cinema docs without narration and talking heads. And where's the documentary equivalent of classic cinema fests like those hosted by TCM?
Maybe some of those exist already and I just haven't heard of them. Which may be for the best in my case because I'll just become more frustrated that I can't attend them all. Then again, there could be something under my nose I'm unaware of and can attend. I had no idea about Reel China until I was mandated (very happily) to attend for school. Now I want to know about similar events spotlighting the latest non-fiction films from other major doc-producing nations that otherwise don't find their way to the States. And who knows when or if I'll ever get to attend what I consider the Cannes of documentary, the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam? That one's happening this month, too, by the way.
Ever been to a documentary film festival? Wish there was one near you? Have one to recommend either for regional or international fans of non-fiction cinema? Drop me a comment.