No sooner than DOC NYC spilled onto the scene in 2010 did the city’s largest dedicated documentary festival find a steady set of legs. For its third annual run (from November 8 through 15) the IFC Center’s baby has an added venue—Chelsea’s SVA Theatre—a glossy program and a strong, omnivorous appetite: This year’s lineup has expanded to 61 features, 32 shorts, and a couple of dozen panels and master classes for those looking to do more than watch.
Led by roving documentary programmer Thom Powers, who also has gigs with Sundance and Toronto International Film Festival, the event has a healthy slickness: DOC NYC is a mix of festival-approved galas (Venus and Serena opens the fest; The Central Park Five, a wrenching exoneration doc co-directed by Ken Burns, will close it), “special events” (including 56 Up, the latest in Michael Apted’s landmark Up series), and Oscar hopefuls (in case you missed Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry or How to Survive a Plague) tempered by smaller personality-, issue-, and plain old story-driven stories.
The late-season timing is designed to highlight certain things (like awards contenders) and presumably avoid others (like hurricanes). New Jersey dweller Powers, reached post-post-storm in refugee mode, noted concern about Sandy’s immediate effect, but the festival’s long-term survival seems assured by just what inspired it in the first place: the support of what Powers calls “the largest documentary community anywhere in the world.”
That community’s mighty output has overwhelmed Powers in the past. “In my other job, at TIFF, one of the frustrations I have every year is that there are always too many great documentaries from and about New York City,” he says. Where programming etiquette generally limits him to one or two New York docs, Powers says, “One of the pleasures of DOC NYC was being able to open up a whole section devoted to these stories” inspired by what he calls “a myth-making city.”
Seekers of hometown comfort can raid the “Metropolis” program, whose highlights include the great-man character studies Building Babel, about the developer of the so-called Ground Zero Mosque; More Than the Rainbow, which surveys the work of taxi-driver-turned-street-photographer Matt Weber; and Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself, an affectionately critical look at The Paris Review founding editor’s lustrous public life and preoccupation with managed failure in such forums as boxing, football, hockey, and the flying trapeze. Rounding out the section is Zipper, Amy Nicholson’s tender elegy for Coney Island and chronicle of the deeply fraught battle among the city, the people, and the private sector to preserve its heritage.
Several other categories feature New York stories, including “American Perspectives” entry Birders: The Central Park Effect, in which Jonathan Franzen and co. peep Manhattan’s migratory avian population; Laura Archibald’s local history Greenwich Village: Music That Defined a Generation, which joins Jonathan Demme’s Enzo Avitabile doc in the “Sonic Cinema” showcase; and “Viewfinders” selection Shepard & Dark, which explores the bond between playwright Sam Shepard and his friend Johnny Dark, forged in 1960s New York and still strong despite their radically divergent paths. Or at least it seems that way, until late in Treva Wurmfeld’s thoughtfully observed portrait of a romantic friendship, when a collaborative project proves stressful, and the pair’s complex alchemy falters.
One of the festival’s quieter stories, Shepard & Dark lingered in Powers’s mind, a considerable recommendation from someone who watches 500 documentaries a year. For New Yorkers exhausted by choice and other less modern afflictions, DOC NYC is a welcome opportunity to relax and be steered right.