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The 2016 New York Film Festival will open with Ava Duvernay’s documentary “The 13th”

6th Annual AAFCA Awards Ceremony - Arrivals
Go figure. I was recently wondering when we would start hearing about which big titles were playing in the main slots at the New York Film Festival. Then, yesterday morning we get word that the Opening Night spot at NYFF has been filled. That coveted position was announced to have been taken by Ava DuVernay and a surprise documentary of hers called The 13th. This will be the first documentary to play in this position, in the 54th incarnation of the fest. As the first NYFF opener to be a non fiction title, history has been made. Consider me very intrigued by this one. This has definitely shaken up how I expected NYFF to go, but that’s never a bad thing.

DuVernay obviously broke through in a big way a few years back with Selma, and this seems like one that could only make her a higher profile and more diversely talented filmmaker. This is the synopsis for The 13th: “From D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) and the rebirth of the KKK to the Civil Rights Movement, the 1994 Crime Bill, the rise of ALEC, and the Black Lives Matter movement, DuVernay traces a pattern of fear and division that has consistently driven mass criminalization. With a potent mixture of archival footage and testimonies from leading voices, including Michelle Alexander, Bryan Stevenson, Van Jones, Newt Gingrich, Angela Davis, Senator Cory Booker, Grover Norquist, Khalil Muhammad, Craig DeRoche, Shaka Senghor, Malkia Cyril, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and a dazzling array of activists, politicians, historians, and formerly incarcerated women and men, DuVernay creates a work of grand historical synthesis.” Sounds incredibly compelling to me.

In terms of the Opening Night, this spot has recently become a launching pad for Oscar contenders, with a half dozen Best Picture nominees in the lot over the prior 15 years. As proof, here is what the Opener of NYFF has looked like in the past:

2015 – The Walk
2014 – Captain Phillips
2013 – Gone Girl
2012 – Life of Pi
2011 – Carnage
2010 – The Social Network
2009 – Wild Grass
2008 – The Class
2007 – The Darjeeling Limited
2006 – The Queen
2005 – Good Night, and Good Luck
2004 – Look at Me
2003 – Mystic River
2002 – About Schmidt
2001 – Va Savoir
2000 – Dancer in the Dark

As you can see above from that list, Academy Award nominations have come forth for more than a handful of Opening Night selections from NYFF. Especially with The Social Network, but also potentially with Good Night and Good Luck, Life of Pi, and Mystic River, they were the second place finishers in Picture. Depending on the year, the closer can be a bigger deal at the fest than the opener, but these are never duds. Having a doc in the mix is very unique, but it’s also an incredibly strong indicator of quality. DuVernay has to have crafted something great here in order to have secured this honor, plain and simple.

Basically, The 13th is not just a big time Best Documentary Feature contender now, it also is a new calling card for DuVuernay and for NYFF itself. With two other slots to fill (the Centerpiece and Closing Night selections), we’re going to get some more awards players in the mix very soon. I’m very excited to see what the festival programs in the other main spots, along with how The 13th winds up turning out. There’s definitely the potential here for an incredibly powerful doc. Sit tight, as there’s plenty more to come on the fest itself, but mark DuVernay’s latest off as one to really watch out for in the meantime…

Stay tuned for much more on The 13th and the entire slate for NYFF as it becomes known to us!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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