Doc workers

DocFest's founder and programmers prepare for boxers, bunnies, and beasts — and their biggest-ever event
Hi My Name is Ryan

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The first thing I noticed about the 2008 San Francisco International Documentary Film Festival was its enormous size. Well, OK, I actually squealed in delight over the inclusion of a Bigfoot doc. Then I took stock of how many films were contained in this year's program. DocFest's seventh incarnation is actually larger than its parent fest, the San Francisco Independent Film Festival. Along with the Another Hole in the Head horror festival, both are headed up by founder Jeff Ross.

"It's the biggest festival I've ever done — it's three weeks long, 48 programs, 107 screenings altogether," Ross explains. This year, DocFest also unfurls a week of films at Berkeley's Shattuck Cinemas. "I think there's going to be a strong audience in Berkeley. I just moved to the East Bay, so it's kind of part of my personal agenda to bring more of my stuff over there." For the first time Ross is also giving an award, naming filmmaker Melody Gilbert "Someone To Watch" based on the strength of her small but growing body of work.

DocFest's 2008 line-up represents the work of programmers Bill Banning (owner of the Roxie Cinema, the chief venue for Ross' festivals) and Fay Dearborn, a former programmer at Cape Cod's Woods Hole Film Festival. She met Ross while working at IndieFest; after what she calls "one of those festival romances," the two married earlier this year.

Dearborn and Ross are obviously in synch, but Dearborn and Banning are also complementary, at least in terms of their programming styles. Banning culls most of his picks from films he scouts at fests like Washington, DC's Silverdocs, while Dearborn sifts through DocFest's hundreds of unsolicited submissions.

"I think Fay found most of the fun docs, though [I chose] Hi My Name is Ryan, which is really fun. I saw it at Silverdocs, and the audience was literally in stitches," Banning says. "The idea is to mix it up. There were two really good boxing films I saw at Silverdocs, and we took the better of the two, Kassim the Dream, which is an incredible film. But we're also looking for good docs from the Bay Area, and there are a number of them in [this year's program.]"

Banning and Ross agree that the increasing popularity of documentaries is due to multiple factors. "Digital filmmaking has totally changed the documentary landscape," Banning says. "It used to cost so much money to shoot 10 minutes of film on 16mm film. Now you can buy a really great camera for $6,000 and shoot forever on it."

Ross points to films like Fahrenheit 9/11 and Super Size Me (both 2004) — as well as past DocFest hit Spellbound (2002) — as exposing non-narrative films to a wider audience. But as Dearborn explains, the DocFest audience isn't necessarily looking for films that have mainstream appeal. "I think there's a certain core DocFest watcher who comes to see slice-of-life documentaries about people who are just inherently interesting, but not in a National Geographic kind of way — sort of a human interest story that's maybe a little more offbeat," she says, citing the weirdly compelling Elvis in East Peoria and Bunnyland (both 2007) as films she's particularly excited to screen.

For the first time, DocFest has a presenting sponsor in San Francisco-based Current TV, a doc-focused channel co-founded by Al Gore. Ross sees the partnership as a good match, but he's hesitant to predict what's ahead for DocFest.

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