During her tenure at HBO, Sheila Nevins reigned atop of the documentary pyramid for decades, adapting to more and more competition and new technology. There’s competition for top documentary talent and Nevins, now running MTV Documentary Films, knows how to get it. Even in the specialty film world, documentaries are about the only thing working these days, as theatrical narrative films are looking less and less commercially viable.
On Thursday, Nevins announced her first two projects for MTV Documentary Films. Both are political: Davy Rothbart directs non-fiction feature “17 Blocks,” spanning 20 years in the life of an African American family living blocks away from the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. And Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan’s short film “St. Louis Superman” is about Representative Bruce Franks Jr., a Ferguson activist and battle rapper who was elected to the overwhelmingly white and Republican Missouri House of Representatives.
“I’d like to take the 2020 election seriously, without being too polemic and political,” Nevins told IndieWire when she took the job. “We are in a sorry state and it’s time to inform without boring anybody.”
MTV Documentary Films will screen both films next month at activist and filmmaker Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival before mounting their Oscar-qualifying release this fall.
“17 Blocks” won Best Documentary Film Editing at the Tribeca Film Festival, the Audience Award and Jury Award for Best Feature Documentary at the Telluride Mountainfilm Festival, Best North American Documentary Feature at the Mammoth Lakes Film Festival, and Excellence in American Profiles Award at the San Francisco Documentary Festival.
“It’s been a 20-year journey to make this film,” said Rothbart, who produced alongside Big Beach’s Alex Turtletaub, Michael B. Clark, Marc Turtletaub, and Rachel Deniz, “and now, as audiences get to know the Sanfords, a new journey is just beginning.”
Produced by Mundhra, Khan, and Poh Si Teng, “St. Louis Superman” won the jury prize for Best Documentary Short at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, the Audience Award for Best Short at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, the Audience Award for Best Short at AFI Docs, and a Special Jury Mention at the Tribeca Film Festival.
“At the heart of American Democracy, there is an injustice that gnaws at the soul of the have-nots, and Davy Rothbart’s ‘17 Blocks’ and Smitri Mundhra and Sami Khan’s ‘St. Louis Superman’ are two films that expose both the injustices and courage of Americans who survive against almost insurmountable odds,” said Nevins, who executive produced both films. “MTV Documentary Films’ foray begins with these two impactful films.”