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The Spoils: Does DOC NYC’s Short List Program Help or Hinder Academy Voting on Documentaries?

The Spoils: Does DOC NYC's Short List Program Help or Hinder Academy Voting on Documentaries?

New York City’s DOC NYC Festival comes to a close Thursday, and woven in among the films in the official program are ten movies highlighted with an unmistakable wink to the Academy: they are part of a sidebar called The Short List. And while Thom Powers, head programmer for DOC NYC, slyly denies any such bias or prognostication, he also knows that he’s doing Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences members a huge service.

When the documentary committee of the Academy changed its rules earlier this year in a way that requires members to consider (or even watch) the entire list of 130-plus qualified docs before voting, the groan could be heard from Malibu to Nova Scotia. Even prime mover Michael Moore has had second thoughts. That decision’s effects continue to ripple outward, and Powers and his crew — including senior programmers and DOC NYC executive director Raphaela Neihausen— see the Short List as a way to do their part both for the beleaguered AMPAS members and for the filmmakers.

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“That certainly emboldened us,” says Powers. “It felt even more pertinent this year, viz a viz the Oscars because of the new Academy voting rules that depend upon documentary branch members taking a look at all the documentaries that came out this year. We wanted to take time to shine a spotlight on 10 that we thought nobody should miss.”

So along with works from high-profile filmmakers such as Alex Gibney (“Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God”) and Rory Kennedy (“Ethel”), and those with news-hot subjects such as Bart Layton’s “The Imposter” and Amy Berg’s “West of Memphis,” the Short List also features lesser-known docs such as Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s “5 Broken Cameras” and Bess Kargman’s “First Position.” Powers has had history with many of the films already, curating “The Imposter” at the Miami film festival and “First Position” at Toronto. Since it launched in March, Powers has also programmed SundanceNOW’s subscription VOD Doc Club program, which is sponsoring the DOC NYC audience award this year and gives the chosen movies a national audience.

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Additionally, the Short List, now in its second year, was expanded from four films to 10, and Academy members have been invited to attend for free, as long as they flash their AMPAS cards. The hope is that they’ll take advantage of DOC NYC’s experienced programmers signposting the best of the bunch — even if the chosen ten aren’t meant to be definitive.

“I wouldn’t say that these 10 out of the 100-plus that are qualified are the most important 10,” says Powers. “I would rephrase the statement as: These are 10 of the most important to pay attention to. I could have credibly done a list of 30 that I could strongly get behind. But I have limits to what I can program. There is certainly no snub meant to any film that’s not on this list.”

The truth is that it’s debatable whether all the films included in the Short List this year really need the help — Gibney, Kennedy and Berg all have sizable reputations already, as does Joe Berlinger, whose “Under African Skies” also made the cut. Academy members could credibly check those names on the ballot even without seeing the films, even if the DOC NYC sidebar means they don’t have to.

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The festival’s closing-night film, Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon’s “The Central Park Five,” will screen Thursday at the SVA Theatre. All five subjects from Burns’ film will be together at the screening for a Q&A for the first time since their arraignment, and with that kind of pedigree and a public fight going on between New York State and the filmmakers over custody of their interviews and records, “Central Park Five” doesn’t really need the extra attention. Like some of the others — Alison Klayman’s “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” David France’s “How to Survive a Plague” and Malik Bendjelloul’s “Searching for Sugar Man” round out the Short List — “Central Park Five” is close to a sure thing in terms of Oscar nominations.

So in a sense, the Short List is merely taking on the filtering job that the Academy used to do itself. And in the larger entertainment context, outside of awards considerations, only a misguided curmudgeon would argue that docs don’t deserve all the help they can get.

“What I have observed over the years is that filmmakers — none of whom are getting rich off this — when they get close to awards consideration often wind up having to fork out more money to rent screening rooms or hire publicists,” says Powers. “They wind up having to spend more money just to keep their film visible. So what I want to do is give them a free opportunity, give them a screening room and promote it to boot.”

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