A New Forum for Opinion: New York Times Op-Docs Series at IFC Center

Written by Nikki Erlick

The New York Times took an inspired leap from purely printed opinion pages to an enticingly different forum for discussion – short films – and those films recently leapt to the big screen.

The success of the Op-Docs series speaks to the changing trends of America’s news intake, but also to the dedication of editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal and Op-Docs series producer and curator Jason Springarn-Koff. The two put together a unique screening of six Op-Docs shorts and panel discussion with five of the filmmakers at the IFC Center last Wednesday evening. The IFC Center’s Short Attention Span Cinema plays a different Op-Doc short before each feature presentation, continuing until July 19.

Rosenthal calls the Op-Docs section of the Times website a home for films “of great repute or of no repute,” simply great films. Wednesday’s screening included The Umbrella Man, by Oscar winner and DOC NYC alum Errol Morris: a “cautionary tale” of one man with a black umbrella and people’s propensity to jump to sinister conclusions without all the facts, Hi! I’m a Nutria, by Drew Christie: an animated short in which a brainy rodent poses the question of what makes a native and who is “supposed to” live somewhere, Dismantling Detroit, by Oscar nominees Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady: a disturbing exposé on the poverty in the city and what it means for the future of America, Ai Weiwei: Evolution of a Dissident, by Alison Klayman: a behind-the-scenes perspective on the controversial Chinese artist, Bike Thief, by Casey Neistat on the tendency of New Yorkers to ignore their surroundings and the ease of bike theft in such an environment, and Mitt Likes Music, Including This, by The Gregory Brothers: a mash-up of Mitt Romney quotes on his favorite things, set to music. The films are accessible through the New York Times video library and the creators of Dismantling Detroit and Ai Weiwei: Evolution of a Dissident also have feature-length documentaries on the way.

The screening was followed by a panel moderated by Mr. Springarn-Koff. All of the filmmakers noted the upsurge in viewers and dialogue sparked by the publishing of their shorts on Op-Docs. One of the most interesting changes that Bike Thief director Casey Neistat noticed in his life after Op-Docs was that he went from being viewed as a criminal and derelict to a journalist and activist through association with the prestigious newspaper. The panel also arrived at the fascinating conclusion that a documentarian is a “hybrid” – a filmmaker, a journalist, and an artist in one.

The New York Times has ambitious plans to expand the popular Op-Docs series, including the arrival of Op-Docs on Hulu.

Pictured: A scene from Morris’ “The Umbrella Man,” photo courtesy of IFC Center