The Hamptons Doc Fest is Back in Person

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Hamptons Doc Fest founder Jacqui Lofaro at festival headquarters in Bridgehampton.
Last year, the Hamptons Doc Fest discovered a novel way to present a full film festival in the midst of a pandemic. With virtually all theatrical venues closed, the problem of social distancing was solved by the entire festival going virtual, with audience members streaming documentaries from the comfort of their own homes through a Hamptons Doc Fest app.But now, a year later, with vaccines readily available and protocols in place to ensure safety, the Sag Harbor-based festival is ready to get back to reality, this time around with two in-person venues — Bay Street Theater, which has been the festival’s home for years, and the brand new Sag Harbor Cinema.Thanks to both Bay Street’s return to in-person events and the refurbished cinema coming on-line this spring, it will be a slightly new festival model in 2021, explains Hamptons Doc Fest founder and Bridgehampton resident Jacqui Lofaro. Screenings of the festival’s 30 films will span an entire week, from December 3-10, rather than being offered at just one venue over the course of four or five days, as has been the case in past years at Bay Street. A total of eight films will be screened at the Sag Harbor Cinema from December 3-5, where the festival will use just one of the three screens, then from December 6-10, the festival moves to Bay Street, where the remaining 22 films will be offered.

“Because of COVID, we wanted to spread it out a little more,” explained Lofaro. “At Bay Street, we’ll have four films a day, so there’s more time between movies and Q&As to load people out.

“There is no box office, everyone comes with a printed ticket or something on their phone,” she continued. “Our volunteers will be checking vaccination status and tickets and giving out ballots, all before people get on line. Because of COVID, it just takes a little more time to check people in. But I think people are adjusting to whatever you have to do.”

Then, once the live screenings are over, an online slate of 11 festival films will become available for home streaming from December 11-18. Lofaro notes that the streaming option after the in-person festival ends allows audiences beyond the East End to enjoy the offerings.

“We didn’t want to cannibalize our own festival. We’re making it affordable and accessible, with a virtual pass of $75,” said Lofaro. “We had people in 18 states watching us last year.”

In terms of programming, Lofaro is very excited about the lineup. Among the films on the schedule is “No Ordinary Life,” Heather O’Neill’s documentary about five pioneering camerawomen working in a field dominated by men.

“They go to the front lines of war to find the truth,” Lofaro said. “Tiananmen Square, the Arab Spring uprising. We thought doing a panel on ‘No Ordinary Women’ and East End female entrepreneurship would be interesting. We’ll put it up as bonus material and also on the website.”

Two women filmmakers will also be honored with festival awards.

On Saturday, December 4, Dawn Porter, director of numerous documentaries about political, social and racial issues, will be on hand to receive the 2021 Pennebaker Career Achievement Award at Sag Harbor Cinema. Among her films are “The Way I See It,” which looks at the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama through the lens of White House photographer Pete Souza, and “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” a documentary about the late Georgia congressman and civil rights icon. Earlier this year, also released was Porter’s “Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer,” a film that sheds light on the infamous Tulsa Massacre that occurred in Oklahoma in May 1921, leaving hundreds of the city’s Black residents dead, and thousands more homeless or displaced.

The Saturday evening event will include a ceremony and a short reel of Porter’s work followed by two of her films —“Bree Wayy: Promise, Witness, Remembrance” a half-hour documentary about ways in which artists have paid tribute to 26-year-old Breonna Taylor, who was killed by police in Louisville, Kentucky in March 2020; and a short excerpt from her new film “Cirque du Soleil” about the iconic circus’s attempts to return to the stage after the COVID crisis.

On Tuesday, December 7, at Bay Street Theater, Porter’s film “Trapped” will be screened. The documentary interweaves the personal stories of those behind the regulatory battles for abortion rights in Southern states, where access has been most severely limited. They include physicians, those who run clinics, lawyers leading the charge to preserve access, and the women they seek to help.

Then on Sunday, December 5, Hamptons Doc Fest will posthumously name Diane Weyermann recipient of its first Producer Impact Award. Weyermann, 66, died of lung cancer in October, and the award will be accepted by her sister, Andrea Weyermann.

Throughout her career, Weyermann was known as a champion of female-led film projects, among them Porter’s “John Lewis: Good Trouble.” After the award presentation, “Citizenfour,” a film about Edward Snowden, which was directed by Laura Poitras and executive produced by Weyermann, will be screened in a co-presentation with Sag Harbor Cinema.

“She was the chief content officer for 16 years with Participant, where she produced a lot of award-winning documentaries,” explained Lofaro. “One of them was ‘Cinemafour,’ which Laura Poitras won the Academy Award for in 2014. Diane called us to say she was ill and in a short period of time, she died. It was a shock throughout the community.”

“Our artistic director, Karen Arikian, was a personal friend. We’re happy to be able to celebrate her and her life, so it should be a special night.”

When asked about the variety of documentaries selected for this year’s festival, Lofaro noted that there were a lot more submissions than in the past — likely because many filmmakers opted to hold their films from the festival circuit in 2020 due to the pandemic and the lack of in-person screenings.

“It’s a combination of what’s submitted and what we invite, and an opportunity to invite films that are rising in the festival circuit,” said Lofaro. “Some are films that I don’t think people have seen anywhere, including the opening night film on Joyce Carol Oates and her life. How perfect that is for Sag Harbor, a literary community. We’re very lucky that the director Stig Björkman is coming from Sweden to be at the film. “

While Lofaro expected to receive more documentary submissions this year that dealt with the pandemic or COVID-19 lockdown, in the end, she found that not to be an overriding theme.

“Stig Bjorkman is also the star of a movie screening called ‘Movie Man,’” said Lofaro. “In it, he’s locked downed in Sweden. He’s a very well-known director and has produced lots of films. There, in his apartment in Stockholm, he starts watching old movies and then calls up directors and producers. It’s a very engaging film.”

When asked if there is an art to balancing programming for the festival, Lofaro noted that it’s important to offer an interesting mix of documentaries and keep both subject matter and audiences in mind.

“You can’t have all dark documentaries, but you also have to have substantive ones,” she said. “Our highlight films include ‘Citizen Ashe,’ which is getting the Human Rights Award. Another film I think is terrific is ‘Bernstein’s Wall,” which is receiving the Arts & Inspiration Award.”

Sam Pollard and Rex Miller’s film “Citizen Ashe” follows the life and career of tennis champion and civil rights activist Arthur Ashe, who fought against South African apartheid in the 1970s and 1980s and became an AIDS activist after contracting HIV through blood transfusions related to heart surgery.

“There were so many things about him that we’re unknown to me — including his whole civil rights push,” said Lofaro. “My image was of him at Forest Hills and tennis, but he speaks of the prejudice in the film … It’s a very powerful documentary that expands our view of him, which is why we gave it our Human Rights Award.”

Similarly, Douglas Tirola’s “Bernstein’s Wall” is a film about another legendary figure in New York — famed New York Philharmonic conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein.

“He [Bernstein] narrates the film, so there are no talking heads in this,” said Lofaro. “It’s extremely intimate and you experience his as a conflicted persona because of his sexuality and he addresses it in some ways. His talent in music was amazing. People approach Bernstein in so many different ways, this movie captures that, all his sides, his anguish and extraordinary need to be creative, his music and his creativity are his life blood at a time when being openly gay wasn’t easy.”

“It’s this veil that society drops on people, particularly extraordinarily talented people. We like documentaries of interesting people and those two are quite strong.”

As Lofaro ultimately points out, with the theme of “All docs, all day,” it’s hard to not be moved by the offerings coming up at the Hamptons Doc Fest.

“A great doc is a great story,” she added.

The Hamptons Doc Fest runs December 3-10 at Sag Harbor Cinema, 90 Main Street, and Bay Street Theater on Long Wharf. For the full schedule and ticketing information, visit hamptonsdocfest.com.

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