Nelson George didn’t know what he was getting himself into when he first met Misty Copeland at a cocktail party in Tribeca.She was the first African-American principal dancer for American Ballet Theatre, and she was a force. In 2013, she was offered the lead role in Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” to be performed at the Metropolitan Opera House, and she danced beautifully.
It would be her last role of that caliber for some time.
After the performance, doctors found six fractures in her left shin, which required corrective surgery and extensive recovery—a process Mr. George documented that eventually became the heart of his film, “A Ballerina’s Tale,” which will open the Hamptons Take 2 Documentary Film Festival on Thursday at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor.
“Seeing Misty and her peers over the past three years, my respect for dancers has just increased,” said Mr. George, who admittedly had very limited access and interest in ballet prior to filming. “I hope people who see the film will feel the same way. That dancers are artist-athletes whose body is their instrument. Misty is as fierce and focused in her work as any NBA star.”
Her candor and assertiveness about her chronic pain, and other hardships associated with being African-American, particularly in a cutthroat industry, are juxtaposed with images of her dancing—bird’s-eye views and eye-level perspectives, switching back and forth between long shots and closeups. The result is an intimate relationship between the audience and Ms. Copeland.
The much-anticipated, 88-minute documentary premiered in April at the Tribeca Film Festival and emerged as a star among this year’s film festival lineup, which features not only headliners but hidden gems that did not receive the recognition they deserved when they debuted, according to Jacqui Lofaro, founder and director of HT2FF, now in its eighth year. The key is including a range of films that will resonate with the audience, she said.
“People now leave the theater talking about the movie over dinner, or the next day,” she said. “They talk about what they got out of it.”
Think of a documentary and, chances are, images of boring “duck and cover” instructions from the 1950s will come to mind—at least for the baby boomers—or equally dull scenes from educational films and even news footage, such as “The March of Time” playing in movie theaters before the advent of television.
Things have changed a great deal since those early days. Conversations about documentaries now include what forms they have taken, considering some resemble feature films with stories that seem like plots, subjects who represent characters, and effective editing and lighting techniques.
Consider Neal Broffman’s “Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi,” which will screen on Saturday at Bay Street Theater. It is the story of a Brown University student who suddenly goes missing, only to be implicated a month later by social and mainstream media as “Suspect #2” in the Boston Marathon bombings, and the search for him that follows. While there are many non-fiction elements, such as interviews with Mr. Tripathi’s siblings and friends, the audience feels as though they are watching a fiction film. A connection is established with the missing boy. The family becomes the audience’s friends. Provincetown, Rhode Island, establishes itself as a character, with its changing seasons and atmosphere. And the documentary becomes a mystery film.
Mr. Broffman said toeing the line was unintentional.
“I am a journalist, having worked for CNN for 15 years,” he said during a recent telephone interview. “I was with my wife in Ethiopia and happened to meet Sunil’s sister before he disappeared. We got together when we got back to the States and we decided to do a film about Sunil after he went missing. It took two years to make.
“I am committed to laying out what happened through letting people tell their own story,” he continued. “In their own words. I do not rely on sources that are unreliable, like tweets from people I don’t know. I meant to do many things with this film, like correct information about who Sunil was, practice responsible journalism. I try and separate my feelings from the film, to be objective.”
Like Mr. Broffman, director Mark Nickolas is drawn in by current events, so perhaps it was natural for him to make a film about the Egyptian uprising—particularly, the street art that surfaced during it, which is the subject of his short film, “Nefertiti’s Daughters,” screening Saturday at Bay Street Theater. On site, he was a white< non-Muslim, American male filming street art created mostly by female artists, he explained, emphasizing that he is not the one telling the story. “The women tell their own adventures, using images—40 percent of the people are illiterate—to communicate females’ lack of freedom in Egypt,” he said. Women’s lack of freedom is also an important factor in “What Happened, Miss Simone?” to screen Friday at Bay Street Theater. Directed by Liz Garbus, recipient of the festival’s Filmmakers’ Choice Award, the film tells the story of Nina Simone, a classically trained pianist who becomes a blues singer and an international figure fighting for Civil Rights. She invites the audience into her personal and professional life, commenting in the opening 1968 concert footage, “I haven’t seen you for many years. We will start together from the beginning, and you will come with me.” The film, which was produced by Netflix, follows Ms. Simone on her journey through the years, the good times and the bad—her disastrous marriage, her alienation from her daughter, her odd behavior, and her escape to Liberia and France. “Miss Simone is as relevant today as she ever was,” Ms. Garbus said during a recent telephone interview. “Not only are her struggles still timely, but she represented an important moment in our country: the Civil Rights Movement. My goal is not for the audience to be Nina’s best friend, but to gain an understanding of her and her art.” Following the screening, Ms. Garbus will participate in a Q&A session, as will Mr. George following “A Ballerina’s Tale.” “Going to the festival is an experience,” Ms. Lofaro said. “Come with a friend, come for the day. Bay Street Theater, where the festival will be held, is like a public square where conversations can take place.” The eighth annual Hamptons Take 2 Documentary Film Festival will open with screenings on Thursday, December 3, from 4 to 8 p.m. at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. The festival continues on Friday, December 4, from 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.; Saturday, December 5, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; and Sunday, December 6, from 11 a.m. to 7:15 p.m. A gala honoring Stanley Nelson Jr. will be held on Saturday at 7 p.m., which includes a screening of his film “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” and a Q&A session. Tickets are $15 per screening—or $13 for seniors—$45 for the gala, and $125 for all screenings and events. For more information, visit ht2ff.com.