A list of the world’s documentary film festivals as put on a T-shirt might look like this: “Sydney, Venice, Telluride, Vienna, Sundance.”
And then on the bottom would be “Homer.”
That’s the secret to how the Homer Documentary Film Festival year after year picks such great documentaries. Directors Lynette Stockfleth Sutton and Jamie Sutton and assistant director Mac Sutton have the advantage of holding DocFest in the fall. Now in its 18th year, the festival follows after others have run, and they can see what worked and what films to show.
“We probably watch 25, 30, something like that, and talk to the directors and programmers of a number of documentary film festivals,” Jamie Sutton said.
From them they get the inside scoop and “can weed out the noncontenders,” Mac Sutton added.
“We can confidentially say this is the best selection of documentaries around the year, each year,” Jamie Sutton said. “We’re going strong. We’re really proud of this line-up we’re seeing.”
“We’re the icing on everyone else’s cake. We get to keep the frosting,” Mac Sutton added.
Take “Hallelujah,” the film showing at the gala opening — yes, there will be reindeer sausages and hot dogs again — at 6 p.m. next Thursday, Sept. 22, at the Homer Theatre. The story of musician and composer Leonard Cohen, the Wall Street Journal called it “in a class by itself — a majestic, almost symphonic documentary.” At festivals in Sydney, Venice, Telluride, Vienna and Sundance, “Hallelujah” was the audience favorite and a jury selection.
“It’s the award winning documentary of 2022,” Jamie Sutton said. “We’re going to kick it off with that movie.”
Looking back to when DocFest started, one of the biggest films turned out to be Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me,” a low-budget film that became a huge success.
“It changed the landscape. You could make a documentary and make a lot of money,” Jamie Sutton said.
Documentaries became more cinematic and more polished. New and cheaper technology made it easier for filmmakers to shoot. Just like creative nonfiction reimagined how to tell true stories, 21st century documentary filmmakers moved beyond talking heads and just interviews.
“Now it’s real cinematography and real thoughtful storylines,” Jamie Sutton said. “(It’s) lots and lots of collected interviews and all that, now woven into (a film) by directors who really know how to make movies, not just how to be news reporters.”
A good example of that is “Hockeyland,” about how Minnesota is crazy about high school hockey the same way Texas is crazy about high school football. The film follows two Minnesota teams, one from an old declining mining town and one from a growing city, first as they face off in an exhibition match and then for the state championship.
“It’s the old monarch vs. the young,” Jamie Sutton said. “… It’s beautifully filmed. Here’s a guy who’s telling the sports story, but he’s using a drone to take you downriver in northern Minnesota. It’s fascinating how both sophisticated and rich documentaries have become.”
Another part of DocFest’s success is how the Suttons mix up genres.
“Part of the art form in putting together DocFest is that you have really good movies, but you also have a good variety,” Jamie Sutton said.
There’s another music film, “JazzFest,” a love note to New Orleans and how it has endured through music and its long-running jazz festival, but also a philosophical film, “Gratitude Revealed.”
Directed by Louie Schwartzberg, whose “Fantastic Fungi” won the jury award at the 2021 DocFest, “Gratitude Revealed” seeks to explain the meaning of gratitude, how it affects our lives and how it sweeps a culture. Schwartzberg drills down into how gratitude affects the synapses of the brain, Mac Sutton said.
“It’s trippy. It’s like a visual psychoanalytic journey that makes you feel good at the end,” he said. “It makes you feel better about yourself and how lucky I am to live in this world.”
Jamie Suton said, “It’s a movie people are going to want to see again and again.”
DocFest also usually includes a travel film or a nature and science film. “Fire of Love” has a little of both, about two volcanologists madly in love with each other who chase and document volcanic eruptions around the world. Rolling Stone called it “The greatest lava-fueled story ever told.”
Rounding out the festival is “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down,” about the Arizona congresswoman shot in the head in an attempted political assassination and who survived and has thrived through rehabilitation.
This year’s festival runs Sept. 22-29 and follows the World Arts Festival. Films will be shown three a day, at 2:30, 5 and 7 p.m. Most films will be shown at least three times over the week and some four times. The Suttons encouraged people to buy a festival pass at $50 that includes the gala opening and allows people to avoid ticket lines. Tickets and trailers are available online at www.homerdocfest.com. Individual tickets are $9 general admission, $7 for seniors, youth, military and Peace Corps volunteers, and $7 for matinees (2:30 p.m.).
Jamie Sutton said the 18th DocFest could be the best yet.
“Each year I keep saying this is the golden year of documentaries, and each year they get better and better,” he said.