A local documentary film festival celebrates its fifth anniversary this year by expanding beyond its traditional Connecticut focus to include a diversity of entries showcasing what one of the co-founders believes is the most dynamic and authentic film form going today.
Thursday marks the beginning of the fifth annual New Haven Documentary Film Festival, or NHDocs, an 11-day local celebration of nonfiction filmmaking. All of the screenings are free and open to the public, and most take place at either the Whitney Humanities Center at 53 Wall St. or at the main branch of the New Haven Free Public Library on Elm Street. Around 80 different feature and short films will screen as part of this year’s festival.
On a recent episode of WNHH’s “Deep Focus” program, NHDocs co-founder and co-director Gorman Bechard explained how the festival has grown since he, co-director Charles Musser, and co-founders Lisa Molomot and Jacob Bricca first came up with the idea for the festival after meeting at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula, Montana in 2014.
What started out as four films screened over the course of a single day quickly progressed to dozens of films over 11 days, he said. He said audience attendance from the third to the fourth year of the festival increased by 40 percent. And for the past few years, the festival’s closing weekend has overlapped with the opening weekend of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas.
Traditionally, the festival has focused on New Haven and Connecticut-centered films, both in terms of the subjects covered in the movies and artists working behind the camera. Previous iterations of the festival have included such local flicks as Stephen Dest’s I AM SHAKESPEARE, Brendan Toller’s Danny Says, and Karyl Evans’s The Life and Gardens of Beatrix Farrand..
This year’s festival will also include a bevy of New Haven-centric fare, Bechard promised, including a work-in-progress screening of Pizza, A Love Story, Bechard’s new documentary that has been over a decade in the making that tells the history of Pepe’s, Sally’s and Modern. Other New Haven-centered films include Family Meal, director Jim O’Connor’s look at three New Haven chefs as they balance family and restaurant responsibilities, as well as The Village, a new documentary by Steve Hamm about the history of Wooster Square.
But New Haven is not the sole focal point of this year’s fest.
“We went outside of our comfort zone a little bit,” Bechard said, “and brought in some great films that didn’t necessarily have to do with New Haven.”
Bechard said the films without a direct connection to New Haven behind or in front of the camera simply represent one more opportunity for local audiences to be exposed at not cost to great documentary filmmaking from around the country.
This year’s line up includes This Is Home: A Refugee Story, a Sundance award-winning documentary about four Syrian refugee families who relocate to Baltimore, North Pole, NY, about one of the oldest continuously running theme parks in the country, located in upstate New York, and Working In Protest, North Carolina filmmaker Michael Galitsky’s documentary that pulls from over 30 years of archival footage that he has shot at a diversity of social and political protests throughout the country.
“I think that New Haven is starving for film,” Bechard said, “and I think it’s starving for a different kind of entertainment that is inclusive to everybody. We have films literally for everybody. If you like miniature golf, we have a film about someone who designs miniature golf courses. If you like rock and roll, if you like pizza, if you like serious subjects, if you want to see a movie about feminism, about censorship, [we have those too]. We pretty much have it all.”
In keeping with previous years’ retrospectives on nationally celebrated filmmakers like Alex Gibney and D.A. Pennebaker, this year’s NHDocs closes with tributes to three pioneering female filmmakers and film produers: Amy Berg, Sheila Nevins, and Su Friedrich.
As the longtime director of HBO Documentary Films, Nevins, Bechard said, completed changed the way that documentary films are produced and understood. He said that she, along with Michael Moore, helped remake documentaries into a popularly accessible and artistically ambitious genre of filmmaking, shirking its previous reputation as simple reporting or somehow lesser to feature fiction filmmaking.
“If you have a documentary,” he said, “the place you want to sell it is HBO, not PBS,” because of Nevins’ leadership. The festival will be screening three of Nevins’ favorite HBO documentaries, include 2011’s God is the Bigger Elvis.
For Bechard, the ever-expanding NHDocs itself represents a prime opportunity for New Haven film fans to dive into a style of filmmaking that he thinks is the most innovate and authentic going on tday.
“At this point in time [documentaries are] the superior art form in terms of film,” he said, “because you’re dealing with real emotion, real life, real tragedy, real heartbreak, real happiness. You’re not dealing with a lot of fakeness and special effects. What you see up on that screen is real and, in about 80 cases here, really well done.”
Go to nhdocs.com to learn more about this year’s festival line up. Click on the audio and video players below to listen to recent interviews with Bechard on Deep Focus and on WNHH’s “LoveBabz LoveTalk.”