A Chat with Hamptons Doc Fest Artistic Director Karen Arikian
The 16th annual Hamptons Doc Fest returns for 2023 next Thursday, November 30 with a new and expanded slate of films showing through Wednesday, December 6 at Sag Harbor Cinema and Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor.
Longtime Hamptons Doc Fest Artistic Director Karen Arikian recently chatted with Dan’s Papers about how the festival has grown and changed, the current state of the documentary film industry, and what exciting movies attendees will get to enjoy in Sag Harbor this year.
Karen Arikian Discusses Hamptons Doc Fest 2023
You’ve been working with Doc Fest since 2013. How has it changed over the last decade?
We were always a community festival. With each successive year, I think our community of viewers grows. What’s changed the most is our ability to reach a greater audience and also to tap into really good films and bring some very interesting guests to the Hamptons, into Sag Harbor.
We were much smaller at the beginning. It’s not that our number of films has expanded, it’s just that our lineups have become stronger and stronger each year.
I understand Hamptons Doc Fest is quite carefully curated. Can you speak about that?
I’m in the festival world, so I really go to as many festivals as I can, both international and domestic. I mostly live in Germany, I’m back and forth all the time, so I really try to see what’s out there and see what audiences respond to, and also I think (Executive Director) Jacqui (Lofaro) has a really good eye for what the local community responds to, because she’s based there.
I grew up on Long Island, in West Islip, and I still have a ton of family on Long Island, out in the Hamptons as well, and in Montauk, but she’s there on the ground. And that informs the programming a lot. We get an idea of what the community is interested in and try our best to not only fulfill that, but also to stretch that a little bit, too, beyond their comfort zone.
Do you think documentary film has gotten more popular over the last decade?
Yes, it’s absolutely gotten more popular. It had an explosion about three years ago — that’s the year when the Summer of Soul was and films were bought for (big bucks) out of Sundance and stuff, but the buying world has really slowed down. It’s kind of crashed, so films are relying more and more on cinemas, and arthouse cinemas like Sag Harbor Cinema or Film Forum or Jacob Burns Center, or these kinds of platforms to show their films. So yes it’s exploded, but it’s in a very challenging time right now.
I think the reason is that the platforms, which I don’t necessarily want to name, they used to buy a lot of these films, but now what they are doing is producing their films in-house, and they’re usually looking for something with a sort of marketing hook, like a film that has a very familiar face associated with it or something like that. So the funding for these kinds of films is really drying up. For the arthouse films that deal with issue-related topics and things like that, it’s a hard road right now.
Money isn’t flowing like it used to, so I feel that a platform like Hamptons Doc Fest is more valuable now than it was before, and that speaks for other festivals’ platforms as well.
Are there any films you’re extra excited about this year?
I’m very, very excited about American Symphony and honoring Matt Heineman with our Pennebaker Award. It’s just a wonderful film and it’s a little bit of an offshoot for him in terms of content, but just a touching and lovely film.
I love the film Call Me Dancer, which is our Thursday Night Spotlight film. It’s a really lovely film about two Indian dancers who actually make it. They came from the absolute streets of the lowest caste and they made it as dancers. …
I love the ABCs of Book Burning… It’s lovely and it’s important, and these young children who speak about banning books and what it means to them, they’re young 10, 12, maybe a little bit older and they’re so eloquent in how they speak about how this impacts them. It’s a very, very strong film. …
And, of course, Anselm in 3-D. It’s Wim Wenders’ film about Anselm Kiefer. It’s shot in 3-D and Wim Wenders did the Pina Bausch movie a few years ago in 3-D which was nominated for an Oscar. He’s one of the few directors who’s figured out how to use 3-D in terms of a documentary.
There’s just a bunch of films that I really love.
What about the awards? Anything new this year?
These awards that we have, have been part of the festival for quite a while, with the exception of this Legacy Award, which we are posthumously awarding to Nancy Buirski who was really a very important filmmaker. She started Full Frame in North Carolina, in Ralleigh… She was also on our board, but she was on a lot of other boards and she was just a force. She died suddenly in August — very tragic for all of us in the film business. So that’s a new award, a Legacy Award, because she certainly has a huge legacy behind her in terms of filmmakers, in terms of festivals, in terms of films she made herself.
We’re a community festival, and that’s our priority. Every year we get more and more people from the industry coming, but we’re not positioned as an industry festival, but we are positioned as an awards season festival because, for example, American Symphony is right up there with the awards … Anselm is probably up there also for awards, so that shows a trust on some level from the distributors of the film…So I say we’re a community festival and that’s our focus. And I’m really glad when the industry comes and guests come and things like that.
For a full Hamptons Doc Fest film schedule and more info about the festival, visit hamptonsdocfest.com.