DOC NYC Reveals Influential Awards Short List, from ‘Ascension’ to ‘Velvet Underground’

·13 min read

Twelve-year-old DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, has revealed its influential 15-film Short List. The festival will run its main lineup of 127 features and 125 short films in-person November 10-18 at the IFC Center, SVA Theatre, and Cinépolis Chelsea, continuing online until November 28 with films available to viewers across the U.S.

Historically, most of the DOC NYC short list titles overlap with the Academy’s official 15-film Oscar Short List. Until last year, while DOC NYC did not screen Netflix’s Oscar-winning “My Octopus Teacher,” for nine years the festival had screened the documentary that went on to win the Academy Award, including “American Factory,” “Free Solo,” “Icarus,” “O.J.: Made in America,” “Amy,” “Citizenfour,” “20 Feet From Stardom,” “Searching for Sugar Man,” and “Undefeated.”

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The festival has screened 39 of the last 45 Oscar-nominated documentary features. In 2020, DOC NYC screened 12 of 15 titles that were named to the subsequent Academy Award Documentary Shortlist.

Thom Powers, DOC NYC’s artistic director, as well as documentary programmer for TIFF, curates the Short List of films that may be in the running for the Academy Award for Best Documentary feature. This year’s list of 15 features showcases a spectrum of subject matter, including Sundance debuts, fall festival hits, and less widely-viewed films from a range of funders and distributors.

The selections encompass such daring China exposés as Jessica Kingdon’s “Ascension” (MTV Documentary Films) and Nanfu Wang’s “In the Same Breath” (HBO Documentary Films), as well as crowdpleasers like “RBG” filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s “Julia” (Sony Pictures Classics) and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s “Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” (Searchlight).

“It’s the ‘Soul Train ‘of this year’s documentary festival circuit,” said Powers during a phone interview. “I have yet to meet the person who has anything but love for this film; the person untouched by the music in this film is someone I don’t want to meet. This film is so much more multilayered than the average concert documentary.”

“Becoming Cousteau” - Credit: The Cousteau Society/National Geographic
“Becoming Cousteau” - Credit: The Cousteau Society/National Geographic

The Cousteau Society/National Geographic

Also easy to watch is Liz Garbus’ “Becoming Cousteau” (NatGeo). “It has a skill level behind it that is deceptive,” said Powers. “Jacques Cousteau was one of the most famous people in the world, with a highly-viewed TV show. These pop culture attributes sometimes cause people to think lesser of a subject. For filmmakers who have tried to make archival films before, they can see the tremendous skill and craft behind the making of this, how complex the portrait is. It’s not hagiography, not an exposé. It’s a nuanced portrait of one of the significant figures of the 20th century.”

Another music entry is rookie documentarian Todd Haynes’ Cannes debut, “The Velvet Underground.” “Not only do a lot of people have deep fascination for this period of history,” said Powers, “but people in the documentary branch are impressed by what Todd Haynes is doing cinematically, paying homage to this era of 1960s experimental film. Yes, it’s about The Velvet Underground, but it’s a film about a wider milieu.”

The short list has a significant impact on the Oscar documentary branch voting, along with the IDA and Cinema Eye Honors lists. This means that Powers is balancing the predictive with the prescriptive.

“We often have films that have big backing and big campaigns from NatGeo or Netflix,” he said, “but we’ve always tried to make room on the list for smaller films are resonating strongly. In 2018, we put on our list ‘Hale County This Morning, This Evening,’ no one thought be a real chance to be nominated, along with ‘Minding the Gap,’ both from first time filmmakers. ‘Faya Dayi’ has some of that spirit of a filmmaker trying to do something artistically bold.”

“The Velvet Underground” - Credit: YouTube/screenshot
“The Velvet Underground” - Credit: YouTube/screenshot

YouTube/screenshot

COVID had impact through this year, as many films did not build awareness and word of mouth at live festivals like SXSW and Full Frame until the fall season. Many are circulating regional festivals now. “Some festivals happened but were truncated,” said Powers. “You didn’t have the normal roving band of people from Sundance to True/False to Hot Docs. They didn’t give the usual chances for some of these films to grow.”

Many other awards groups have yet to weigh in, including critics, guilds, Cinema Eye Honors, and the IDA Awards nominations. Among the other titles that could turn up with awards nods are Matthew Heineman’s COVID documentary “The First Wave,” which closes DOC NYC, and “My Name Is Pauli Murray,” the second film from Cohen and West, whose output got backed up due to pandemic release delays.

Eight of the 15 short-list docs are among IndieWire’s documentary Oscar frontrunner predictions. As the Academy has grown its documentary branch, a sizable percentage are international, which could benefit the international Oscar submission from Denmark, “Flee,” which is also eligible for Best Animated Feature.

“We’ve seen the ground paved with ‘Waltz with Bashir,’ in terms of animated documentaries, which at the time felt more exceptional,” said Powers. “Now people are more ready to accept that animation can be a tool of documentary filmmaking. ‘Flee’ becomes of extra interest to watch the fall of 2021 against the backdrop of Afghanistan.”

“Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” - Credit: Focus Features
“Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” - Credit: Focus Features

Focus Features

The Academy documentary branch makes it hard for Oscar-winners to return to the winners’ circle. Powers thinks they will come around for both E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s “The Rescue” (NatGeo), which ups the stakes from “Free Solo,” as 13 lives are at stake for an international team of cave divers, as well as “20 Feet from Stardom” director Morgan Neville’s “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain.”

“It had outsized controversy about its use of A.I. technology,” said Powers. “People feel feel raw about telling the story of the tragedy of person who committed suicide so soon after his death. Anthony Bourdain is a worldwide figure who many of us felt a great connection to. Ultimately people are drawn to watching the film. It’s the most successful documentary at the box office. Even during COVID, it made more than $4 million.”

For the third year, the Short List Features will vie for jury awards in four categories: Directing, Producing, Cinematography, and Editing, and a Best Director prize will also be awarded in the Short List Shorts section. Last year’s winners in these categories were “Time” (Directing), “Welcome to Chechnya” (Producing), “Boys State” (Editing), and “76 Days” (Cinematography).

The three-person awards jury for this year’s Short List: Features are filmmakers Nadia Hallgren (director, “Becoming”); Kimberly Reed (director, “Dark Money”); and Hao Wu (director, “76 Days”).

As Academy members figure out what to watch in their growing screener piles, check out the influential DOC NYC Short List Features below as well as the full lineup for Short List: Shorts.

“In the Same Breath” - Credit: YouTube/screenshot
“In the Same Breath” - Credit: YouTube/screenshot

YouTube/screenshot

This year’s selections for Short List: Features are:

“Ascension”
Dir/Prod: Jessica Kingdon
Prod: Kira Simon-Kennedy, Nathan Truesdell
Winner of the Best Documentary Feature Award at the Tribeca Film Festival, “Ascension” is an impressionistic portrait of China’s industrial supply chain that depicts a thriving capitalism in a communist state. (Courtesy of MTV Documentary Films)

“Attica”
Dir/Prod: Stanley Nelson, Traci A. Curry
Filmmakers Stanley Nelson, a 2016 DOC NYC Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, and Traci A. Curry team up to revisit the 1971 New York prison uprising that was the largest in U.S. history. (Courtesy of SHOWTIME® Documentary Films)

“Becoming Cousteau”
Dir/Prod: Liz Garbus
Prod: Dan Cogan, Mridu Chandra, Evan Hayes
Oscar-nominated filmmaker Liz Garbus takes a nuanced look at Jacques Cousteau’s passions, achievements, blind spots, and tragedies. (Courtesy of National Geographic Documentary Films)

“Bring Your Own Brigade”
Dir/Prod: Lucy Walker
​Prod: Holly Becker, Julian Cautherley, Lyn Davis Lear, Martha Mitchell
Oscar-nominated director Lucy Walker focuses on one day in California’s 2018 megafire season to discover why these infernos are growing more common. (Courtesy of CBS/Paramount)

“Faya Dayi”
Dir/Prod: Jessica Beshir
Winner of multiple festival prizes, Faya Dayi takes us on an ethereal journey through Harar, Ethiopia, the hometown of director Jessica Beshir, as she follows the harvesting of the euphoria-inducing khat plant. (Courtesy of Janus Films)

“Flee”
Dir: Jonas Poher Rasmussen
Prod: Monica Hellström, Signe Byrge Sørensen, Charlotte De La Gournerie
Denmark’s official Academy Awards submission for Best International Film, Flee uses animation to tell the story of Amin Nawabi (a pseudonym), who fled Afghanistan as a boy, relying on human smugglers to reach Denmark. (Courtesy of NEON)

“Homeroom”
Dir/Prod: Peter Nicks
Prod: Sean Havey
Director Peter Nicks, the recipient of DOC NYC’s 2021 Robert and Anne Drew Award, follows the senior class of Oakland High School through the tumultuous year of 2019-2020. (Courtesy of Hulu)

In the Same Breath”
Dir/Prod: Nanfu Wang
Prod: Jialing Zhang, Julie Goldman, Christopher Clements, Carolyn Hepburn
In this penetrating film essay, filmmaker Nanfu Wang seeks to understand how governments shaped information at the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic both in China and the United States. (Courtesy of HBO Documentary Films)

Introducing, Selma Blair”
Dir: Rachel Fleit
Prod: Mickey Liddell, Pet Shilaimon, Troy Nankin
Filmmaker Rachel Fleit documents actress Selma Blair as she adapts to living with multiple sclerosis with humor and unflinching candor. (Courtesy of discovery+)

“Julia”
Dir/Prod: Betsy West, Julie Cohen
Prod: Justin Wilkes, Sara Bernstein, Holly Siegel
The Oscar-nominated directors of RBG deliver a touching portrait of the iconic television chef Julia Child who became a celebrity in her fifties, defying expectations for women of her generation. (Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

“Procession”
Dir: Robert Greene
Prod: Susan Bedusa, Bennett Elliott, Douglas Tirola
Six midwestern men — all survivors of childhood sexual assault at the hands of Catholic priests and clergy — come together to direct a drama therapy-inspired experiment designed to collectively work through their trauma. (Courtesy of Netflix)

“The Rescue”
Dir/Prod: E. Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin
Prod: P.J. van Sandwijk, John Battsek
The Oscar-winning directors of Free Solo take us inside the dramatic rescue of 12 young soccer players and their coach trapped by monsoon floods inside a cave in Thailand. (Courtesy of National Geographic Documentary Films)

“Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain”
Dir/Prod: Morgan Neville
Prod: Caitrin Rogers
Oscar-winning director Morgan Neville creates a multifaceted portrait of Anthony Bourdain, drawing upon extensive unseen footage from his travels and emotional memories from his friends. (Courtesy of Focus Features)

“Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”
Dir: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson
Prod: Joseph Patel, David Dinerstein, Robert Fyvolent
Acclaimed musician Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson makes his directorial debut shaping a treasure trove of footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. (Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures / Onyx Collective / Hulu)

“The Velvet Underground”
​​Dir/Prod: Todd Haynes
Prod: Christine Vachon, Julie Goldman, Christopher Clements, Carolyn Hepburn, David Blackman
Filmmaker Todd Haynes explores the history of The Velvet Underground and the 1960s New York scene of experimental art, music, and film. (Courtesy of Apple Original Films)

This year’s selections for Short List: Shorts are:

“Audible”
Dir: Matt Ogens
Prod: Geoff McLean
After breaking their winning streak, Maryland School for the Deaf’s championship high school football team shares their triumphs, trials, and how they will bounce back. (Courtesy of Netflix)

“The Bree Wayy: Promise Witness Remembrance”
Dir: Dawn Porter
Prod: Niema Jordan, Kimberly Reynolds, Cubie King
Dawn Porter’s uplifting short takes us behind the scenes of Amy Sherald’s Breonna Taylor portrait, bringing grace and dignity to the tragic loss of her life. (Courtesy of MTV Documentary Films)

“A Broken House”
Dir/Prod: Jimmy Goldblum
Prod: Dick Gephardt, Matt Weaver, Harrison Nalevansky
Artist Mohamad Hafez rebuilds monuments, neighborhoods, and cities of his beloved Syria, working through his longing for home. (Courtesy of POV Shorts / The New Yorker)

“Camp Confidential: America’s Secret Nazis”
Dir/Prod: Daniel Sivan, Mor Loushy
Prod: Benji Bergmann, Jono Bergmann
Camp Confidential reveals the secret government-sanctioned camp that smuggled Nazis into the United States after World War II, as camp workers come forward for the first time in history. (Courtesy of Netflix)

“Coded: The Hidden Love of J.C. Leyendecker”
Dir: Ryan White
Prod: Christopher Leggett, Marc Gilbar, Jessica Hargrave, Conor Fetting-Smith, Rafael Marmor
Exploring the work of one of the grandfathers of modern marketing, Coded unpacks illustrator J.C. Leyendecker’s advertisements that animated his male partner and became an easter egg of queer coding in art. (Courtesy of MTV Documentary Films)

“Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma”
Dir: Topaz Jones, rubberband
Prod. Luigi Rossi
Accompanying Topaz Jones’s album, Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma is a visual marvel documenting the Black ABCs and growing up in New Jersey. (Courtesy of The New York Times Op-Docs)

“Eagles (Águilas)”
Dir/Prod: Kristy Guevara-Flanagan, Maite Zubiaurre
A raw portrait of the team of people called Aguilas del Desierto, who search for missing migrants along the southern border of Arizona. (Courtesy of POV Shorts / The New Yorker)

“Joe Buffalo”
Dir/Prod: Amar Chebib
Prod: Hayley Morin, Mack Stannard
Skateboard legend Joe Buffalo faces himself in this raw portrait of trauma, addiction, and finding freedom in skating. (Courtesy of The New Yorker)

“Lynching Postcards: Token of a Great Day”
Dir: Christine Turner
Prod: ​​Lily Plotkin
This chilling reflection examines the horrific history of lynchings as cultural events and celebrations that included souvenirs and postcards. (Courtesy of MTV Documentary Films)

“Nothing to Declare”
Dir/Prod: Garret Daly
Prod: Martina McGlynn
Two men laugh about their days of mischief and wonder as they remember their most iconic adventure: hopping on a one-way plane to New York.

“The Queen of Basketball”
Dir: Ben Proudfoot
Prod: Elizabeth Brooke, Abby Lynn Kang Davis, Gabriel Berk Godoi, Brandon Somerhalder, Sarah Stewart
Lusia Harris, the first and only woman ever officially drafted to the NBA, takes a seat and shares her story as a woman before her time and a legend in the women’s basketball community. (Courtesy of The New York Times Op-Docs)

“A Ship from Guantánamo”
Dir: Dara Kell, Veena Rao
Prod: Beth Jacob, Mansoor Adayfi
Unjustly stuck behind bars for more than 20 years, Moath al Alwi builds elaborately detailed ships out of scrap materials from Guantánamo Bay. (Courtesy of The New York Times Op-Docs)

“Snowy”
Dir: Kaitlyn Schwalje, Alex Wolf Lewis
Prod: Rebecca Stern, Justin Levy
Stuck in the trenches of the family basement, the beloved family pet Snowy is about to get a new lease on life. (Courtesy of TIME Studios)

“What You’ll Remember”
Dir: Erika Cohn
Prod: Marcia Jarmel
This emotional video diary profiles a family struggling with housing insecurity and what the parents hope remains in their children’s memories. (Courtesy of The New York Times Op-Docs)

“They Won’t Call It Murder”
Dir: Melissa Gira Grant, Ingrid Raphaël
Prod: Ruun Nuur, Chase Whiteside
A sobering chronicle of police killings in Columbus, Ohio, this documentary captures some of the countless stories of police brutality that have never been classified as murders by law enforcement. (Courtesy of Field of Vision)

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