Out East End: Jacqui Lofaro Talks Hamptons Doc Fest 2021

Jacqui Lofaro
Jacqui Lofaro
Courtesy Hamptons Doc Fest

The 14th season of the Hamptons Doc Fest is back in Sag Harbor — eight days of in-person screenings (Dec. 3–10) first at the new Sag Harbor Cinema (from Dec. 3, 4, 5) and then at Bay Street Theater (from Dec. 6–10) with strict protocols, limited seating and an exciting offering of films that either made the cut or were curated by the festival.

The experience of having to pivot last year to an all-virtual documentary film festival was not lost on its founder and executive director, Jacqui Lofaro.

“People in 18 states across the country attended the (Doc) film festival, so that was the upside of it,” says Lofaro. adding, “We were thrilled … we really expanded the audience.”

The demand for docs to be streamed was so great, says Lofaro that she and her team decided to add a virtual component this year — so after eight days of live screenings in the theater ends Dec. 10, the festival will continue virtually for eight more days, from Dec. 11–18 and feature selected films that were screened in person, as well as offer other documentary films and shorts.

If you love story and appreciate extraordinary filmmaking, the Hamptons Doc Fest brings it all to the East End — one town, with lots of restaurants and on-the-go dining options to refuel between screenings, with plenty of great films to choose — 30 of them this season.

This year the program includes biographical docs about legendary conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein (Bernstein’s Wall) and tennis champion and civil rights activist Arthur Ashe (Citizen Ashe). The opening night film is about the prolific (and intensely private) author Joyce Carol Oates (A Body in the Service of Mind).

There will be a tribute to filmmaker Diane Weyermann (an award-winning champion of documentary films who sadly died recently, after agreeing to accept Hamptons Doc Fest’s first Producer Impact Award). With Academy Award-winning director Laura Poitus (Citizenfour). And a Gala Award honoring the dynamic filmmaker Dawn Porter (Bree Wayy: Promise Witness Remembrance, Cirque du Soleil, plus her award-winning abortion rights film Trapped).

There’s no shortage of hot-button subjects — gun control (GSW Gun Shot Wound), racial disenfranchisement (A Reckoning in Boston), migrant workers (Missing in Brody County), the environment (After Antarctica), as well as a film about the challenges faced by local farmers (Farming Long Island) and a moving doc exploring the age-old question: What makes a meaningful life? (Into the Night: Portraits of Life and Death).

And then there’s The Automat, featuring appearances by Mel Brooks, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Carl Reiner, Colin Powell — all expressing their fondness for the iconic Horn & Hardart restaurant chain.

You can binge watch the docs over the course of the eight days in person, essentially following the festival’s catchphrase “all docs, all day” (the In Theater Festival Pass is $250) or pick and choose to see each film ($15 per ticket). The Virtual Festival Value Pass is $75.

It’s been quite the ride for Lofaro, an award-winning documentary filmmaker herself, who was born and bred in Greenwich Village and who moved Out East 30 years ago to live here full time. Along the way she gave up careers in advertising and filmmaking to run this festival, which screens year-round with partnerships that include the Southampton Arts Center and the Parrish Museum as well as Bay Street and the Sag Harbor Cinema.

We caught up with Lofaro via telephone from her home in Bridgehampton to talk about all things Hamptons Doc Fest.

A still from "No Ordinary Life"
A still from “No Ordinary Life”Courtesy Hamptons Doc Fest

Fourteen years…what does it feel like to see your baby grow like this?

Well, it’s both heartening and exciting — and frightening – you gotta feed the baby! [laughs] So it’s more fundraising, more details … we run this film festival like a well-oiled machine. I have a wonderful team and our goal is to really make it a pleasant and wonderful experience for the audience.

How does it differ from other documentary film festivals?

Well, there aren’t all that many all-documentary film festivals and so that’s why I founded this 14 years ago  – because I was a documentary filmmaker and back then there wasn’t the streaming, there wasn’t the platforms for documentary filmmakers, and if they got into the festival circuit, that was the way you’d be seen — so when I started this it was four films and it has just grown … and one of them was mine! [laughs]. There is a real audience for documentaries here.

What’s the most exciting thing about the festival?

The most exciting thing for me is when I screen privately before we put the program together a documentary that just knocks my socks off.

Who screens the films?

We have a screening committee of about 15 people who screen submissions through filmfreeway.com film … the committee takes 4–5 months to screen films and then we have a screening meeting and we pick the best from that.

It’s interesting — the cream always rises to the top. Everybody is watching separately but there are certain films that all get fives – that’s the highest rating.

Then my artistic director Karen Arikian is on the lookout for films that are already playing in the festival circuit so we call those “invited films” — so we have a combination of submitted films and invited films.

What do you look for?

We put a program together knowing our audience, trying to make an interesting mix of good stories — a good story makes a good doc in the hands of a good filmmaker — and it goes like that … we like to have a doc that’s made within the last year and half.

What about subject matter? Any time limit?

It’s wide open. If it’s a good story — whatever the subject is — and we love it, we’ll run it. Features can go up to 2 hours; a short is 20 minutes or less.

How many submissions do you get?

At least a couple of hundred. The films have to be really good to get into our festival because we’re screening in one venue (at a time) as opposed to a lot of festivals which screen all over in four or five venues.

Who is your audience out East?

A large local population and second home owners — we really are a community festival — we even have a free community day that Saunders is sponsoring. So on Friday (Dec. 10 at Bay Street) all the films are free so we always get lots of takers for that, which is wonderful.

You’ve got two venues this year…

Yes, the first weekend we’re at the Sag Harbor Cinema — it was the right thing to do in terms of using the cinema — we’re only using one screen … so we’re in there with the opening night film on Friday, and Saturday we have three more films and then our big Pennybaker Award program at 9 p.m. in the big theater Cinema 1 on Sunday.

After we leave the Cinema we’ll be at Bay Street for five days — and that’s where we’ve always been — it’s sort of our home, it’s really lovely because we have the whole theater and that’s really nice … I love that theater in the round, it’s very intimate.

Why Sag Harbor?

People love that they can come to one little village, and do it there … I always talk about having a festival experience. Don’t come for one film, come for the day, see two films, have lunch out or three films and have dinner out, I think that’s the way you do it.

We have a special arrangement with Baron’s Cove so a lot of people stay there – we have a lot of filmmakers coming out this year.

What are some highlights this year?

You’ll see films in our festival that you will not see any place else, I’m convinced of that … some of the smaller films that don’t have the budget.

Stig Bjorkman is coming from Sweden, he’s the director of the Joyce Carol Oates film, opening night. He is also the subject of another film called Movie Man. Stina Gardell the producer and director of that film is coming from Sweden, so we’re really excited about that.

Any favorite films or standouts this year?

I love them all. The fact that they got into the festival means I love them. I am partial to one called No Ordinary Life (screening Dec. 9 at Bay Street at 8 p.m.) about pioneering camerawomen who are in the front lines of wars, revolutions and disasters — and they are just extraordinary.

Heather O’Neill is an Emmy and Peabody award-winning journalist and documentarian, she’s going to be with us for a Q&A …and we did a parallel panel discussion — we just taped it last week called ‘No Ordinary Women’ and our marketing director Claudia Pilato moderated it — it’s about women who run their own businesses. … So it will be bonus content on the online version and we’ll probably run it on my website as well.

What has this festival done for certain films?

We’ve been able to screen films that because they screened at the Hamptons Doc Fest then have a better opportunity to get into other festivals or have gotten distribution deals, so that’s nice.

What is the most gratifying thing about what you are doing?

The most gratifying thing for me — and this is really going to sound odd — is when I meet someone a month after the festival or two months after the festival and they say to me, “Oh Jacqui, that film about so and so, it was fabulous, I remember it vividly!” So I know that something that I brought to them made their lives better, richer. That to me is terrific, it’s sort of an after effect of the festival that’s very meaningful to me … that makes it all worthwhile.

The Hamptons Doc Fest runs from December 3–10 in person, and from December 11–18 virtually. For a complete schedule of films and to order tickets and passes, visit hamptonsdocfest.com.

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