Hamptons Doc Fest Founder Jacqui Lofaro on 15 Years of Stellar Documentaries

Hamptons Doc Fest director Jacqui Lofaro
Hamptons Doc Fest Founder and Executive Director Jacqui Lofaro
CB Grubb

The Hamptons Doc Fest returns to the Hamptons for its 15th annual event December 1–6, with a staggering lineup of documentary screenings at Bay Street Theater and Sag Harbor Cinema. We spoke with the festival’s founder and executive director, Jacqui Lofaro, about the 2022 celebration of documentary filmmaking and the road that brought her and the Hamptons Doc Fest to this milestone year.

Jacqui Lofaro Looks Back at 15 Years of Hamptons Doc Fest

What was the reputation of documentaries like 15 years ago, and how has Hamptons Doc Fest helped to shift perceptions of the genre?

Most documentary filmmakers had a really difficult time getting their documentaries seen, and that was the impetus for me starting this festival, because I was a documentary filmmaker. You put enough blood, sweat and tears into the production of a documentary, and then who sees it? That was the start of an all-documentary festival here, and we are the only all-documentary festival here.

Our audience has built over the years, and there’s a tremendous liking for documentary films, particularly with the demographic of our audience. What’s changed from 15 years ago to now, which has also supported documentary films are the streaming platforms. There are many streaming platforms, and they’re running docs. So people who would never go to the theater to see a documentary film, will click into Netflix, Hulu or Amazon … that has helped documentary filmmakers tremendously. In fact, some of those streaming platforms have funded the production of docs, so that’s always helpful.

That’s where we are. We have a loyal audience; they love our festival and wait for it every year. Our challenge is to let people know we’re here. I meet people — and this is 15 years — who say, “Oh, I didn’t know you had a documentary film festival? How come I didn’t I hear about it?” … We want the documentary audience to be even bigger. We have 25 great films, some of which you’re not going to see anywhere else. Some of these films are not going to go on to any kind of theatrical distribution, so you come to see them at our festival. … It’s kind of unique, and a jewel.

We have two venues and limited slots, so the films that get into our festival really have to make the grade.

What do you look for when deciding what films make the cut for the Hamptons Doc Fest?

What our screeners, artistic director and I look for is a good story, well told. You have to have an interesting take on how to tell a story, and with good production values. We do see lots of documentaries that are submitted via FilmFreeway, dozens and dozens of them, that don’t make the grade because, though it’s an interesting story, the production values aren’t there. The editing is bad, the choice of music is overdone or not a good choice to begin with, and all of that dissipates the message that you’re trying to tell — so good story and good production values. We are not a thematic festival; we don’t look for films that fit a theme, so any film has an opportunity to run.

How has the inclusion of live festival elements — such as filmmaker Q&As and the Say Amen, Somebody gospel performance — been developed over the years?

They’re a special treat for the audience. I dedicate the 15th anniversary to our audience, because without our audiences, what would we be? You need an audience to see a film. Their support is integral to our success. Where we have an opportunity to add something on, we will. Audiences love Q&As; we get that feedback all the time. We have Q&As for just about every film, if not live in the theaters, then by Zoom … and where we can add this extra element, we will do for our audience.

That’s what makes our festival extra special and why we’ve been able to survive for 15 years in a climate that’s tough for film festivals. Film festivals are competing with streaming platforms and also distributors who run a film in a movie theater for two weeks, and then it’s streaming.

Why was Sam Pollard chosen as the 2022 Pennebaker Career Achievement Award recipient?

It is the highest honor that we bestow on a documentarian. …

Penny (D.A. Pennebaker) was a friend of the festival who always came, and we’ve screened their films — Chris (Hegedus) was his wife but also his partner in the business. And although he never like to use the word “verité,” Penny’s contribution to the world of documentary film was both technically — because they developed the sync-sound camera where you could record the audio with the film in one camera, before they would have to set up mics around the room and then sync it — and he also was a believer in capturing what was happening. It gave an authenticity and a dynamism to a film that other filmmakers copy to this day to achieve. When Penny passed away a few years ago, we asked Chris Hegedus if we could name our award after Penny, the Pennebaker Career Achievement Award. …

Sam Pollard is just remarkable. He did the Sammy Davis Jr. documentary that we screened; it was the Filmmakers Choice Award. He did MLK/FBI, which has been on television; that was our Opening Night Film in 2020. He did Black Art: In the Absence of Light, which we screened with the Parrish Art Museum, and Citizen Ashe, which we screened last year and was the Audience Award, about Arthur Ashe the tennis player. His filmography is enormous, and his films center around the Black experience. … He’s a giant in the world of documentary film — a giant.

What do consider most personally rewarding about presenting your 15th annual Hamptons Doc Fest?

What started out as a challenge 15 years ago, for me, to create something where filmmakers could screen their documentary films, has come to fruition. And 15 years later, documentary filmmakers seek us out and want to be in our festival. What a great gift I feel the festival is to them and that they are to us and to the audience. I’m proud of that. …

For tickets and more information about the 2022 Hamptons Doc Fest, December 1–6, including the Pennebaker Career Achievement Award ceremony and screening of Sam Pollard’s Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power (as well as other year-round screening events), call 631-237-8055 or visit hamptonsdocfest.com.

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