“Doc10” started small and stayed that way. It remains a 10-film documentary festival, opening its fourth edition Thursday with the Sundance Film Festival favorite “Knock Down the House,” recently acquired by Netflix and scheduled for Netflix streaming next year. It’s a criss-crossing account of four 2018 midterm campaigns run by first-time female candidates, most prominently that of the conspicuous victor (and now Congresswoman) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
The festival remains compact, and the number of titles hasn’t changed. But something else has. Under the programming acumen of Anthony Kaufman, who also programs documentaries (and features) for the Chicago International Film Festival, its reputation and imprint has grown year by year, in a city packed with worthwhile festivals sharing a very full 12-month calendar.
Small is working.
Doc10 conducted its 2016 trial run at the Music Box Theatre. “We did it really as a question we were asking ourselves,” says co-founder Paula Froehle. “If we started a festival, would anybody come?”
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Formerly the head of Tribeca Flashpoint digital media academy (no longer affiliated with Tribeca, it’s now a branch of Columbia College Hollywood), the 54-year-old Froehle founded CMP with board chair Steve Cohen, who made his name as a Chicago attorney and a champion and investor of documentary filmmaking. Doc10 moved to the newly renovated Davis Theater in Lincoln Square in 2017. It’s a terrific site for a festival of this size. The lobby opens directly into the adjoining Carbon Arc restaurant, a conversation-friendly place with good food and a bar.
“For us,” Cohen, 70, told me, “it’s the right-sized theaters with terrific sound and great seating, the Carbon Arc next door — it all works.”
The festival sprouted from the nonprofit Chicago Media Project (CMP), described on its website as a “member-based philanthropic community of documentary film lovers who believe in the power of media to bring about social change.” Froehle and Cohen co-manage CMP’s “Invest/Impact” equity funding activities, which funnel money from various member-contributors to documentary filmmakers.
“It’s philanthropy,” Froehle explains, and equity investors aren’t promised or expecting a pile in return. (Capitalism, you know.) And yet, the funds have paid off at 15% to 20%, according to the co-founders. That money, in turn, becomes seed money in a future investment fund, aiding documentary filmmakers further down the line.
CMP and Doc10 came to fruition at a ripe moment for documentaries, amid a renewed interest in, and hunger for, true stories amid a sea change in American political discourse. The Fred Rogers portrait “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” was funded, in part, by Froehle and Cohen’s investment fund. That film, which went on to make nearly $23 million in theaters, wouldn’t have clicked quite the same way if its audiences weren’t living in a fact-, truth- and civility-starved period in history.
Clearly Netflix believes in the commercial appeal of this week’s Doc10 festival opener, “Knock Down the House,” for which it paid a reported $10 million at Sundance. Director Rachel Lears is among the festival’s guests this week.
Another Sundance pickup, “The Infiltrators,” is even more timely. Filmmakers Alex Rivera and Cristina Ibarra recount improbable events of 2012, when teenage immigrants got arrested, on purpose, in order to end up in a detention center with the mission of freeing other detainees. Using both straightforward documentary techniques and inventive re-creations of what happened, with actors playing the real-life subjects, “The Infiltrators” triumphed at Sundance, where one of the freed detainees, a 20-year resident of the U.S. named Claudio Rojas, appeared in person.
Last week Rojas was once again detained, and has been deported to his native Argentina. His extended family remains in Florida. Doc10 founders Cohen and Froehle are donating proceeds from the festival screening of “The Infiltrators” to the Rojas family.
Keeping the festival small, Froehle says, means “we’re able to bring filmmakers in, put them up, promise them a beautiful venue with a great audience.” This year’s Doc10 will also host representatives of Netflix, the Sundance Institute, Cinetic Media, Neon Releasing and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media, soon to open a Chicago branch.
For the full list of films and events, go to doc10.org. And then go to the festival. It’s one of Chicago’s most vital.
“Doc10,” Thursday-Sunday, Davis Theater, 4614 N. Lincoln Ave.; go to doc10.org for schedule and ticket information.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.