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Movie Lovers We Love: Jason Spingarn-Koff Brings Docs to the New York Times

Movie Lovers We Love: Jason Spingarn-Koff Brings Docs to the New York Times

Documentary filmmaker Jason Spingarn-Koff (“Life 2.0”) has a pretty sweet deal.  He gets to work with documentary filmmakers to help them make short videos for one the world’s most respected media outlets, The New York Times.  

Spingarn-Koff, whose own film debuted at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and went on to debut on OWN last year, is now working as the first video journalist for the Times’s Opinion section and as the producer and curator of the Times’s new Op-Docs initiative.

With Op-Docs, Spingarn-Koff told Indiewire, “We’re trying to create a forum for filmmakers to express themselves using their medium, just like our print Op-Ed contributors use their talents as writers.”

He continued, “I’ve been working to create an outlet that’s diverse in subject matter but also style.  It has a distinct feel from most news.  Here we’re working with indie filmmakers, animators, artists, to create films that can spark dialogue around topical and historical subjects.”

Currently, the Op-Docs series is publishing about two films a month, each of which go through the Op-Ed section’s stringent fact checking process.  There is an impressive roster of filmmakers:  Errol Morris (“The Thin Blue Line,” “Tabloid”), Jessica Yu (the Oscar-winning short “Breathing Lessons”), Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing (“Detropia,” “Jesus Camp”), Alison Klayman (“Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry”) and John Shenk (“The Island President”).  Coming up is a humorous music video by The Gregory Brothers (Auto-tune the News) about a certain presidential candidate.

How does he find the filmmakers that get featured in Op-Docs?  “I solicit some of the work, based on what I know people are working on.  There’s also an open call for public submissions, and we do a certain amount of works for hire.”  The Sundance Institute recently sent out the call to all of its filmmaking alums, encouraging them to contribute.  “About half the films we’ve published are adaptations of longer works.  It’s important that anything we post stands alone as a short film:  no trailers, no clips.”

Spingarn-Koff is busy making his own videos too, including collaborations with the Op-Ed columnists.  He’s currently working with Nicholas Kristof on a story about a young war victim from Sierra Leone who was adopted by an American family.

Compared to his prior work as an independent filmmaker, Spingarn-Koff says producing videos for The Times brings some advantages: “These projects can reach a broad global audience,” he said.  “We can just make stuff and put it out, and don’t need to worry about fundraising.  I find a lot of indie filmmakers I talk to are like, ‘How’d you get that job?’  It’s a really special thing.”

Visit the article’s second page for some of our favorite Op-Docs videos.

When President Nasheed of the Maldives was overthrown and sent in a letter to the Op-Ed section, Spingarn-Koff worked with “The Island President” filmmaker John Shenk to make a video to run with the letter.  Spingarn-Koff explained what made this video so special:  “[Shenk] put in some video that was only a few hours old.  It had real news value, but it also had a lot of artistic integrity and sophistication.  This was the voice of a doc filmmaker drawing upon his years of work on a subject.”

Spingarn-Koff contacted Errol Morris early on, and Morris told him he was working on a film about a witness to the JFK assassination.  The video, “Umbrella Man,” was released on the anniversary of the assassination, and the video and accompanying director’s statement soon topped the most viewed lists at nytimes.com.  Spingarn-Koff told us, “Twitter was going wild spreading and commenting on the video.  It appealed on one level to the conspiracy people, but also to people who just love Errol Morris. But it also was a film about broad philosophical questions, about the nature of historical inquiry, the problem of looking at any fact under the microscope.  And people were engaging with that too.”

See “The Umbrella Man” with Morris’ commentary (video is not embeddable).

One of the more issue-based films in the collection is “Good Night, Ryan” about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Spingarn-Koff cited this film when he talked about the Times’ audience:  “One of the great values that I’m appreciating [working at the Times] is our audience.  They can appreciate these pieces that are working on many levels. People write paragraphs in the comments section.  They’re teasing apart the work we’re putting out.  With ‘Good Night, Ryan,’ veterans are talking about the failings of the VA system and losing family members.”

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