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Oscar Campaigning, San Francisco Style: SFFILM Doc Stories Showcases Its Contenders

SFFILM boosts its awards-season presence and announces a new documentary fellowship to help create future award winners.

“The Final Year”

HBO Documentary Films

At the San Francisco Film Society’s Doc Stories, Samantha Power — aka President Barack Obama’s U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations — is a true star. “What a crowd,” she tweeted after a rousing standing ovation for Greg Barker’s HBO documentary “The Final Year,” which features her as part of Obama’s foreign policy team. “Huge thanks to SFFilm Doc Stories & to an incredibly engaged San Francisco audience who saw @thefinalyeardoc not as a retrospective, but as a call to action.”

Ben Rhodes, Samantha Power, Greg Barker, and Rod Armstrong at SFFILM’s Doc Stories.

Anne Thompson

The third annual Doc Stories (Nov. 2-5) was a rich weekend of nonfiction features and shorts that launched with the world premiere of Alex Gibney’s “Rolling Stone: Stories from the Edge, Part I” (HBO) and closed with Chris Smith’s “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton” (Netflix).

It’s part of SFFILM executive director Noah Cowan’s bid to enter the awards fray; San Francisco claims more Oscar voters than any other city except Los Angeles and New York. (Monday night, he hosts an event for Oscar contender “Darkest Hour” with director Joe Wright and stars Gary Oldman and Ben Mendelsohn.)

Doc Stories screened nine hand-picked Oscar contenders plus two programs of documentary shorts, and hosted a Chinatown brunch on Saturday for this year’s top documentary Oscar contenders, including local filmmaking team Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk (Paramount’s “An Inconvenient Sequel”).

Directors Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested (NatGeo’s “Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of Isis”) hung out with Power as her two children played on the sofa, while Evgeny Afineevsky talked up his own “Cries from Syria” from HBO. Amir Bar-Lev (Amazon’s “Long Strange Trip”) argued with Chris Smith about the virtues of being an Academy member. Fox Searchlight’s “Step” writer-director Amanda Lipitz told Rebecca Miller (“Arthur Miller: Writer”) she was trying to figure out the best way to bring her Baltimore high school documentary to Broadway, with help from producer Scott Rudin.

Arthur Miller: Writer

“Arthur Miller: Writer”

Also making the trek from LA was Brett Morgan, who just saw his hit NatGeo Jane Goodall documentary “Jane” play to an enraptured audience with a live orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl, and John Ridley, who made his first documentary,  “Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982 – 1992), after a decade-plus of research for what he thought would be a narrative film.

Yance Ford (Netflix’s “Strong Island“) and Peter Nicks (Kino Lorber’s “The Force“) also participated on a panel moderated by filmmaker A.J. Schnack, “Non-Fiction Filmmaking in the Age of Trump.” (Schnack announced the annual Cinema Eye Honors nominations at a SFFILM party on Friday night.)

A.J. Schnack, Laura Gabbert, Yance Ford, Peter Nicks at Doc Stories.

In addition to celebrating the current year in documentary film, SFFILM also looked forward with the announcement of an early-stage documentary fellowship with Lisa Kleiner Chanoff and Bonni Cohen’s Catapult Film Fund that will allow filmmakers to concentrate on storytelling.

For years, SFFILM has supported fiction storytellers like Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station”) and Benh Zeitlin (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”). The SFFILM Catapult Documentary Fellowship will launch next summer with three fellowships to develop documentary features.

SFFILM Catapult Documentary Fellows will receive a $10,000 cash grant and a two-month residency at FilmHouse, SFFILM’s artist community space that includes presentations, industry workshops, peer-to-peer reviews, mentors, networking, fundraising, and production consultation.

“There is a real need for documentary filmmakers to receive support much earlier on in the process than most existing funding programs allow for, before they even have the materials to attract the funding,” said Caroline von Kuhn, SFFILM’s director of artist development. The application period for the SFFILM Catapult Documentary Fellowship opens in January, for fellowships that will begin in September.

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