DOC NYC Reveals Influential Awards Short List, from ‘76 Days’ to ‘Welcome to Chechnya’

Anne Thompson
·14 min read

Later than usual, the eleven-year-old DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, has finally revealed its influential 15-film Short List. The festival will open in a new online format with a main lineup of 119 features and 100 short films (November 11-19) available to viewers across the US.

Historically, most of the DOC NYC short list titles overlap with the Academy’s official 15-film Oscar Short List. For the last nine years, DOC NYC has screened the documentary that went on to win the Academy Award, including “American Factory,” “Free Solo,” “Icarus,” “O.J.: Made in America,” “Amy,” “Citizenfour,” “20 Feet From Stardom,” “Searching for Sugar Man,” and “Undefeated.” The festival has screened 24 of the last 25 Oscar-nominated documentary features. In 2019, DOC NYC screened 13 of 15 titles that were named to the subsequent Academy Award Documentary Shortlist.

Thom Powers, DOC NYC’s artistic director as well as documentary programmer for TIFF, oversees curation of the Short List of films that may be in the running for the Academy Award for Best Documentary feature. This year’s list of 15 features contains a balanced spectrum of subjects, Sundance debuts, fall festival hits, and less widely-viewed films from a range of funders and distributors, including three from prodigious non-fiction producer Netflix.

The selections include international breakouts and valentines to the power of journalism “Collective” (Magnolia) and “A Thousand Cuts” (PBS Distribution/FRONTLINE) to crowdpleasers like Kirsten Johnson’s outrageous “Dick Johnson is Dead” (Netflix) and Jeff Orlowski’s habit-changing “The Social Dilemma,” the most-viewed documentary ever on Netflix.

The short list has a significant impact on the Oscar documentary branch voting, along with the IDA and Cinema Eye Honors lists. This means that Powers is balancing the predictive with the prescriptive, he told me: “When faced with a list of 100 or so films, you look for some guidance for how to winnow it down. These are 15 films that really mean a lot to us. We want to make sure people are not overlooking them.”

In this strange COVID year, a movie might debut at Sundance or Berlin but then could not go on to play a run of spring festivals like SXSW, Full Frame, Tribeca, or Cannes (which selected Sony Pictures Classics’ elegiac “The Truffle Hunters”). “The list feels more vital than it ever had before because so many films lost opportunities at other festivals,” said Powers. “The normal corridor so these films could build momentum was lost this year. I hope lists like ours help some of these films recover the spotlight they missed before.”

Pushing the short list date back allowed Powers and his team to gauge how some late fall festival screenings played, from archival “MLK/FBI” (IFC FIlms) and China’s Wuhan documentary “76 Days” (MTV Documentary Films) to activist profile “I Am Greta” (Hulu) and Victor Kossakovsky’s heart-tugging profile of a sow “Gunda” (Neon). Last year, only one fall film, “The Cave” made the short list (and went on to get nominated). “This year, the films have a longer runway to get attention,” said Powers.

Many other awards groups have yet to weigh in, including critics, guilds, Cinema Eye Honors, and the IDA Awards nominations. Among the other titles that could turn up with awards nods are winner’s circle entries “The Painter and the Thief” (Neon) and “The Reason I Jump” (Kino Lorber) as well as Gianfranco Rosi’s stunning mideast documentary “Notturno,” which played multiple fall festivals and has yet to announce a distributor.

Several agit prop documentaries that hit big before the election were left off the list for reasons of timing, including “John Lewis: Good Trouble” (Magnolia Pictures/Participant Media), “All In: The Fight for Democracy” (Amazon), and Alex Gibney’s COVID expose “Totally Under Control” (Neon). They could seem less urgent at the start of the new year.

Ten of the 15 short-list docs are among IndieWire’s documentary Oscar frontrunner predictions. One is in the Winner’s Circle selection that highlights prize-winning films at international festivals, but might fly below the radar of American audiences. The festival added “The Painter and the Thief” and “The Mole Agent” to its prior list of eight titles for a total of 10 films in the showcase. As the Academy has grown its documentary branch, a sizable percentage are international. In 2019, the Winner’s Circle included two titles — “Advocate” and “Midnight Family” — that went on to be chosen for the Oscars’ Documentary Feature Shortlist.

For the second year, the Short List Features will vie for jury awards in four categories: Directing, Producing, Cinematography, and Editing, and a Best Director prize will also be awarded in the Short List Shorts section. Last year’s winners in these categories were “The Edge of Democracy” (Directing), “American Factory” (Producing), “Apollo 11” (Editing), “The Elephant Queen”(Cinematography), and “For Sama” (Special Recognition for Courage in Filmmaking).

The Short List: Shorts showcase of 12 titles is now in its third year. Last year the selection included seven of the ten films that went on to be named to the Oscars Shortlist for Documentary Shorts and three of DOC NYC’s picks went on to be Oscar nominees. For the second year, a DOC NYC jury will select one of the Shorts for a Directing Award. Last year’s winner was “Stay Close.”

As Academy members figure out what to watch in their growing screener piles, check out the influential DOC NYC Short List Features below as well as the full lineup for Short List: Shorts, and Winner’s Circle and DOC NYC Live, a program of live daily conversations with filmmakers during the festival, including Werner Herzog and Clive Oppenheimer, Alex Winter (“Zappa”), activist Angela Davis (“Since I Been Down”), fashion designer Nicole Miller (“Calendar Girl”), violinist Joshua Bell (“Los Hermanos/The Brothers”), author Francine Prose (“The Meaning of Hitler”), and philosopher Cornel West (“The Big Scary “S” Word”), with more to come.

Short List: Features:

“76 Days”
Directors: Hao Wu, Weixi Chen, Anonymous
Producers: Hao Wu, Jean Tsien
An immersive look at life under COVID-19 lockdown in Wuhan, China, focused on front-line hospital workers and their patients. (Courtesy of MTV Documentary Films)

“Boys State”
Director/Producer: Jesse Moss, Amanda McBaine
An annual civics program reveals modern-day democracy in a microcosm as high school boys create a mock government in Austin, Texas. (Courtesy of Apple Original Films/A24)

“Collective”
Director/Producer: Alexander Nanau
Producers: Bianca Oana, Bernard Michaux, Hanka Kastelicová
This investigative film follows a team of Romanian reporters as they doggedly uncover a deadly scandal that reaches the highest levels of government. (Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures/Participant)

“Crip Camp”
Director/Producer: Nicole Newnham, Jim LeBrecht
Producer: Sara Bolder
A chronicle of America’s disability rights movement and its origins in a liberating summer camp for disabled teens. (Courtesy of Netflix)

“Dick Johnson is Dead”
Director/Producer: Kirsten Johnson
Producers: Katy Chevigny, Marilyn Ness
When the filmmaker’s 86-year-old father begins to lose his memory, she enlists him in a playful project to confront his mortality with a sense of humor. (Courtesy of Netflix)

“The Fight”
Director/Producer: Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman, Eli Despres
Producers: Maya Seidler, Peggy Drexler, Kerry Washington
This film follows lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union as they battle the Trump administration over cases of immigration, abortion, LGBTQ+ equality, and voting rights. (Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures/Topic)

“Gunda”
Director: Victor Kossakovsky
Producer: Anita Rehoff Larsen
A cinema vérité immersion into the experiences of several animals on a farm, focused on a sow and her new litter of piglets. (Courtesy of NEON)

“I Am Greta”
Director: Nathan Grossman
Producers: Cecilia Nessen, Fredrik Heinig
A portrait of Greta Thunberg’s meteoric one-year rise from high-school climate strike organizer to inspiration for a global movement. (Courtesy of Hulu)

“MLK/FBI”
Director: Sam Pollard
Producer: Benjamin Hedin
Using recently declassified files, MLK/FBI examines J. Edgar Hoover’s relentless campaign of surveillance and harassment against Martin Luther King, Jr. (Courtesy of IFC Films)

“On the Record”
Director/Producer: Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering
Producers: Jamie Rogers, Amy Herdy
This groundbreaking investigation of sexual assault in the music industry explores the complex factors that make it difficult for Black women to speak out and be heard. (Courtesy of HBO Max)

“The Social Dilemma”
Director: Jeff Orlowski
Producer: Larissa Rhodes
An exposé of the insidious hidden systems of control behind our increasingly networked world, as revealed by former tech world insiders. (Courtesy of Netflix)

“A Thousand Cuts”
Director/Producer: Ramona S. Diaz
Producers: Leah Marino, Julie Goldman, Christopher Clements, Carolyn Hepburn
A chilling look at the assault on fundamental democratic freedoms in the Philippines through the persecution of courageous journalist Maria Ressa. (Courtesy of PBS Distribution/FRONTLINE)

“Time”
Director/Producer: Garrett Bradley
Producers: Lauren Domino, Kellen Quinn
A moving chronicle of a marriage and a family separated by incarceration, focused on Fox Rich, who has spent 21 years fighting for the release of her husband from a 60-year prison sentence. (Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

“The Truffle Hunters”
Director/Producer: Michael Dweck, Gregory Kershaw
Enter the secretive world of the only people–and dogs–who are able to find the elusive white Alba truffle, the most expensive ingredient in the world. (Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

“Welcome to Chechnya”
Director/Producer: David France
Producers: Alice Henty, Joy A. Tomchin, Askold Kurov
A courageous team of Russian activists operate an underground railroad to help LGBTQ+ Chechens escape state-sanctioned persecution (Courtesy of HBO Documentary Films/Music Box Films)

Short List: Shorts:

“Abortion Helpline, This Is Lisa”
Director/Producer: Barbara Attie, Janet Goldwater, Mike Attie
At a Philadelphia abortion helpline, counselors answer non-stop calls from women who are seeking to end a pregnancy, but can’t afford to do so. A look at how economic stigma and cruel legislation determines who in America has access to abortion. (Courtesy of Topic/Women Make Movies)

“Ashes to Ashes”
Director: Taylor Rees
Producer: Shirley Whitaker
Winfred Rembert, a survivor of an attempted lynching in 1967, a Star Wars fanatic, and leather artist, develops a friendship with Doctor Shirley Jackson Whitaker, who is on a mission to memorialize the forgotten 4,000 African Americans lynched during the Jim Crow era. (Courtesy of XTR)

“Call Center Blues”
Director: Geeta Gandbhir
Producer: Jessica Devaney
A tale of migration and deportation, this film follows four characters as they struggle to make sense of their lives in Tijuana. Each with a different story, they’re linked by displacement and call center work in a country that’s unfamiliar and frightening, yet sometimes a ray of hope. (Courtesy of Topic)

“Do Not Split”
Director/Producer: Anders Hammer
Producer: Charlotte Cook
In the fall of 2019, a proposed bill allowing the Chinese government to extradite criminal suspects to mainland China escalates protests throughout Hong Kong. Unfolding across a year, this film captures the determination and sacrifices of the protesters, the government’s backlash, and the passage of the new Beijing-backed national security law. (Courtesy of Field of Vision)

“Flower Punk”
Director/Producer: Alison Klayman
Japanese artist Azuma Makoto has sent his floral sculptures into space and sunk them to the bottom of the ocean, but, most of the time, he thinks about the life and death of flowers. (Courtesy of New Yorker)

“Hunger Ward”
Director/Producer: Skye Fitzgerald
Producer: Michael Scheuerman
This look at the human-caused famine in Yemen follows health care workers Dr. Aida Alsadeeq and Nurse Mekkia Mahdi as they work to save the lives of hunger-stricken children in two therapeutic feeding centers, against the backdrop of a forgotten war. (Courtesy of RYOT/Vulcan)

A Life Too Short”
Director: Safyah Usmani
Producer: Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy
Social media superstar Qandeel Baloch pushed boundaries in conservative Pakistan like no other. In 2016, high on her newfound celebrity, Qandeel exposes a well-known Muslim cleric–with tragic results. (Courtesy of MTV Documentary Films)

“A Love Song for Latasha”
Director/Producer: Sophia Nahli Allison
Producer: Fam Udeorji
The injustice surrounding the shooting death of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins at a South Central Los Angeles store became a flashpoint for the city’s 1992 civil uprising. Nearly three decades later, director Sophia Nahli Allison removes Latasha from the context of her death to craft a dreamlike portrait of a promising life lost. (Courtesy of Netflix)

“No Crying at the Dinner Table”
Director/Producer: Carol Nguyen
Producer: Aziz Zoromba
Filmmaker Carol Nguyen interviews her family to craft a portrait of love, grief, and intergenerational trauma. (Courtesy of Travelling Distribution)

“Now Is the Time”
Director: Christopher Auchter
Producer: Selwyn Jacob
On the 50th anniversary of the first new totem pole raising on British Columbia’s Haida Gwaii in almost a century, Haida filmmaker Christopher Auchter steps through history to revisit the day that would signal the rebirth of the Haida spirit. (Courtesy of New York Times Op-Docs / POV / National Film Board of Canada)

“Sing Me a Lullaby”
Director/Producer: Tiffany Hsiung
A daughter journeys to China seeking her adopted mother’s long lost mother, uncovering family secrets and connecting the generations. (Courtesy of CBC/POV)

“Then Comes the Evening”
Director/Producer: Maja Novaković
In the lush pastoral hills of Eastern Bosnia, two old women share solitude. The care they have for each other is not composed of words, but rather their daily conduct. They are in a conversation with the land, welcoming the voices of nature, and the songs of a memory that is dying out.

Winner’s Circle

“Acasa, My Home”
Director: Radu Ciorniciuc
Producer: Monica Lăzurean-Gorgan
Winner: Golden Horn for Best Documentary Film, Krakow Film Festival
A large Roma clan who have lived off the grid in the wilderness for 20 years are forced to resettle in the unfamiliar city. (Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films in association with Kino Lorber)

“Beautiful Something Left Behind”
Director: Katrine Philp
Producer: Katrine A. Sahlstrøm
Winner: Documentary Feature Competition Grand Jury Award, SXSW Film Festival
An intimate child’s eye view of New Jersey’s Good Grief counseling center, which offers a holistic approach to mourning the loss of loved ones. (Courtesy of ViacomCBS)

“Influence”
Director: Richard Poplak, Diana Neille
Producer: Bob Moore, Neil Brandt
Winner: Best International Documentary Film, Durban International Film Festival
This portrait of the founder of the infamous public relations firm Bell Pottinger explores the disturbing way our perceptions—and politics—are shaped by outside forces.

“Mayor”
Director/Producer: David Osit
Winner: The Reva and David Logan Grand Jury Award, Full Frame Documentary Film Festival
Musa Hadid, the Christian mayor of Ramallah, Palestine, navigates day-to-day civic responsibilities, but the darker realities of life under occupation are never too far away. (Courtesy of Film Movement)

“The Mole Agent”
Director: Maite Alberdi
Producer: Marcela Santibáñez
Winner: Audience Award for Best European Film, San Sebastian International Film Festival
An 83-year-old man goes undercover in a Chilean retirement home in this observational documentary spy film. (Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“The Painter and the Thief”
Director: Benjamin Ree
Producer: Ingvil Giske
Winner: Jury Award for Best International Documentary, Docville International Documentary Festival Belgium
A dual portrait of an artist and the thief who stole her art—but who becomes her unlikely friend and artistic collaborator. (Courtesy of NEON)

“The Reason I Jump”
Director: Jerry Rothwell
Producers: Jeremy Dear, Stevie Lee, Al Morrow
Winner: World Cinema Documentary Competition Audience Award, Sundance Film Festival
Based on the groundbreaking book written by Naoki Higashida, this film explores the interior worlds and daily experiences of five nonverbal autistic young people. (Courtesy of Kino Lorber)

“Songs of Repression”
Directors: Estephan Wagner, Marianne Hougen-Moraga
Producers: Heidi Elise Christensen, Signe Byrge Sørensen
Winner: DOX:Award, CPH:DOX (Copenhagen International Documentary Festival)
Executive produced by Joshua Oppenheimer, this complex portrait reveals the dark truth behind Chile’s seemingly idyllic German colony, Colonia Dignidad, formerly led by a cruel cult leader.

“Stray”
Director/Producer: Elizabeth Lo
Producer: Shane Boris
Winner: Best International Feature Documentary Award, Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival
A portrait of three dogs in Istanbul, where strays are an everyday part of the fabric of the community, belonging to no one and everyone at the same time. (Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

“The Walrus and the Whistleblower”
Director/Producer: Nathalie Bibeau
Producer: Frederic Bohbot
Winner: Audience Award, Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival
An eccentric former marine animal park trainer wages a war via social media and the courts to save Smooshi, his beloved walrus, from deplorable conditions. (Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

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