On Location: Inside Art Documentary Production

On Location: Dr. Doc | An Interview with Thom Powers

I’m back from my summer break and ready to change things up a bit with this column.  So instead of the usual long laundry list of documentary various and sundry, I think I’m going to keep it long but centered around a single subject.  So to inaugurate, I’m posting an interview I did back in the spring with someone who’s probably watched more documentaries in a year than I’ll see in my lifetime, Thom Powers.  He’s the documentary programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival, artistic director of the “Stranger Than Fiction” documentary screening series in New York, and has just started up a new New York-based documentary storytelling festival called DOC – NYC, set to start in early November 2010.

Thom Powers. Courtesy Stranger Than Fiction.

Nick Ravich:  Where are you right now?

Thom Powers:  I’m in Hollywood, Florida, where I’ve been spending the last couple of weeks with . . . I don’t know if I told you but my wife and I have a relatively newborn child, going on nine weeks now.  So we are enjoying the support of her parents who live here.

NR:  Thanks so much for giving me the time.  There’s a lot of stuff about you online so I don’t want to cover old ground, but I wanted to start with some easy meatball questions for you.  I know you were actively producing documentary work.  Are you in production on something at the moment?

TP:  No.  I did that for a roughly 10-year period, from 1994 till about 2004.  And after doing that for 10 years, I was looking for a change.  I was passionately interested in documentary film and was burned out by production.  Which is strenuous work, as you know.  And it was around that time that I conceived the “Stranger Than Fiction” series, and then shortly thereafter got the job at the Toronto International Film Festival.  And sort of reinvented my career in programming.   I have a background as a filmmaker, so I think that’s an asset as a programmer.  I probably have a better visceral sense of what filmmakers have gone through, by the time they get to the festival stage, than someone who comes from a more academic background or who has never produced a film before.

NR:  I have to ask you about your experience at the old WNET-produced (PBS in New York City) arts show, Egg.  I was a big fan.  Though our show Art:21 is very different in a lot of ways, I see Egg as a progenitor.

TPEgg was a terrific show.  I’m very sorry that it didn’t last.  And I’m very happy that people like you have picked up the mantle and reinvented something like it.  The main piece I produced for them was a profile of the cartoonist Joe Saco, who pioneered a style of documentary war reportage in comics, and who comes out of my former life working for his publisher Fantagraphics books and my interest and friendship with him.  I did that piece and my partner did a couple of other pieces for Egg.  It was a great opportunity for us as filmmakers because the other films we were doing at the time were one or two year long projects.  And it was really nice to able to break out and do something in a short form more quickly.  It wasn’t terribly well-paid but it sort of covered the short amount of time you were going to spend on it.  For working filmmakers, it’s very valuable to have little outlets like that — where you can make a short investment of time and stretch your muscles in a different way; where you can work with different people, etc.

NR:  And a better guarantee that it’s going to air and be public.

TP:  There’s a real need for people at the structure building level, like what you’re doing at Art:21, to build an infrastructure that other people can work into.  Something that I realized as a filmmaker and have tried to practice in my new guise as being a film programmer, is how crucial it is for the health of the medium to have dedicated people who are working at the marketing end of it, and helping these works find audiences.

NR:  I want to segue to the programming at Stranger Than Fiction (STF).   I don’t sense in your programming that you’ve got a preconceived scheme in mind that any particular documentary is going to fill a particular hole, that this is going to be the political advocacy piece, this is going to be the first person confessional piece, etc.

TP:  The freedom of STF is that I program films I like, period.  I don’t have to answer to any other mandate than that.  That said, I think that the audience of STF, and particularly our passholders who make an investment in each season, have come to expect a certain kind of hard-to-define quality to the films.  I’m certainly drawn to documentaries with strong narrative and with strong characters.  I think that has to be a given in most of the films I program.  You’re less likely to find a kind of detached, artsy, aimlessly plotted film (for lack of a better description).  Not that there isn’t room for all kinds of films in STF, but there’s a tendency.  I sort of feel like every season — the degree to which there’s any kind of scheme to programming a season — I would say that I’m looking for what I think of as anchor films, films that are going to generate a lot of excitement.  For instance, Steven Soderbergh with his new film about Spaulding Gray that we’re starting our spring season with.  Once I have something like that in place, then that gives me a little bit of freedom to try out different things.  Once or twice a season I try and program something that I think will push the audience.  For instance, the last winter season, the presentation of the “Best of Orphan Film” symposium.  That’s a hard to categorize event; you’re not going to see anything like it anywhere else — well, except for the symposium itself.  And maybe I won’t sell out this show, but that’s alright because what I want is to give viewers something that  will push their taste a little bit.

Still from "Man with a Movie Camera"

There’s some other factors in curating the season.  We’re always looking for films by New York-based directors that give them a chance to have a really nice screening of their work.  Sometimes those are films that are only are going to play on the festival circuit or go straight to television, and here’s a chance for them to get a little preview of how the film plays to an audience.  And to build some buzz prior to their theatrical release.  Then I guess the last factor that comes to mind is each season we’re always looking to sprinkle in a few classics amongst the new material that we’re showing.  So for instance, for the spring season we’re showing Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera from 1929, but this screening has a slight twist.  And [there’s] the filmmaker John Walter, who made How to Draw a Bunny and Theater of War and has crafted a new musical score.  And when I say crafted, I mean he’s sound-edited different modern musical pieces to bring a new score to Man with a Movie Camera.

NR:  Now for more the general egg-headed questions.  You talked about your transition from producer to programmer and advocate in the 2000s. And it seems that at the same time there was an interesting cultural rise in feature length, theatrically-exhibited documentaries.  Now there’s a national place for documentary and an audience expectation that there’s going to be one really interesting doc that they want to go see.

TP:  2003 was really the watershed year with films like Bowling for Columbine, Spellbound, Winged Migration, and Capturing the Friedmans.  I remember there was that summer, driving by multiplexes and seeing more than one documentary.  A couple of years before, if there was even a single documentary playing in a multiplex, it would cause a frisson of excitement in the documentary community.  Of course now, seven years later, it barely raises an eyebrow since it’s become more commonplace.


NR:  Why the big uptick in interest?  What was different about those documentaries than past ones?  To me, there seemed to be a new kind of exchange and openness between the documentary and narrative filmmaking worlds that helped sparked this.

TP:  I would trace the shift back to the late 1980’s, with films like Thin Blue Line, Sherman’s March, Roger and Me, and you might include Brother’s Keeper in there.  That cluster of films really kind of broke with old idea of documentary.  The prior idea of documentary in a general public sense was sort of — the vegetables at the table of film, something you should consume because it was good for you.  But those filmmakers Errol Morris, Rob McElwee, and Michael Moore, they brought humor and style and a personal flavor to it.  In the case of Rob McElwee and Michael Moore, [they stepped] in front of the camera.  And in the case of Errol Morris, even though he’s not in front of the camera (though sometimes you hear his voice), he’s leaving a distinct artistic signature that it’s unmistakable.  I think those cluster of films wound up inspiring my generation of filmmakers, those of us who were in our early twenties, when those films came out, that drove us to make films.  Happily, that coincided with these tremendous technological shifts that drastically reduced the cost of getting your hands on the equipment.  Then you can successively see, one year after another, new films coming out that were pushing in new directions, both stylistically and in terms of reaching audiences.  Each time, there was a new stand out film, and that influenced another crop of documentaries the following year.

Regarding your comment about the exchange of language and style between documentary and fiction filmmaking, in a way it’s kind of an old story.  If you look back to the filmmaking of the 60s and 70s, those filmmakers were borrowing from documentary idioms, taking cameras out into the streets.  And you’d see the intersection of these worlds in films like David Holzman’s Diary or Medium Cool by Haskell Wexler — films that are using fictional elements, but filming them as if they were a documentary.  And versions of that have reoccurred every decade.  I think you saw another big movement of it in the 1990s with TV shows like Law & Order.  I haven’t really tried to chart it but in the 1990s, every TV show suddenly took the camera off the tripod and was trying to attain some extra verisimilitude by bobbing it — often bobbing the camera more than actual documentary filmmakers bob the camera.  Documentary filmmakers are doing everything they can to keep the camera steady and television filmmakers are doing everything they can to shake the camera to give it an extra air of realism.

NR:  Let’s take it up to today.  Shows like The Office have popularized a kind of hybrid format, a fictional conceit that everything we’re seeing is actually documentary footage.  Documentary almost seems to be a kind of default mode — from YouTube confessional videos, to the ESPN 360 series, to reality TV.  It’s broadly and fundamentally part of our popular media language now.

TP:  Absolutely.  One way I like to frame this is, if you think of the 1960s, you think of singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan popularizing the acoustic guitar as a vehicle for self-expression.  In the 1960s, everyone followed that lead.  In every dorm room on campus, you’d find an acoustic guitar.  In the 1990s, that instrument became the video camera.  That was the vehicle we now turn to for self-expression.  Whether it was in the hands of artists making documentaries, or hacks making reality TV, or self-filming diarists posting their pieces on YouTube, there’s a wide variety of this expression.  It doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.  I do keep wondering if we’re going to hit a saturation point.  These days, any film festival programmer who watches a lot of films gets accustomed to seeing different clusters of subject matter.  Several films about Tibet or, oddly enough, about bull riders.  I do wonder every once in a while if cameras have reached every corner of the earth, if we’ll have reached a saturation point where there are no more stories that seem fresh.  But every time I worry about that, I come across some new documentary — a story I could never have anticipated, that I haven’t seen anything like before, that definitely renews my faith that there’s plenty of new stories that are waiting to be told.

NR:  I wanted to talk about documentary genre, specifically art genre.  Do you think in terms of documentary genres?

TP:  The extent to which that happens is mostly at the Toronto Film Festival.  We get hundreds of submissions every year, and I would say the highest genre are profiles of some type of artist, be it a musician, writer, actor, whoever.  As I’m putting together a collection of films for Toronto, I only have twenty or thirty slots for documentary. I definitely feel like if I have two music films that I’m probably not going to have room for many others.  I want to represent a balance of subject matter, between things that are light and heavy, political or non-political, a range of international subject matter, so it’s not going to be all North American-based.  So that’s the time where I think most about themes.


NR:  I’m surprised to hear that artist profiles are the most popular submission.  I’m wondering where you draw the lines between good and bad arts documentaries, ones that work and ones that don’t work — if you see patterns in the submissions?

TP:   Absolutely.  The films that tend to win out for me at Toronto are films that use the story of an artist to tell another layer of story besides.  Years ago, we showed a film about the musician Youssou N’Dour.  It was much more than a profile; it was about an album he had recorded devoted to Islamic music, how that raised controversy in his home country of Senegal and other parts of the Islamic world.  So you got layers of additional understanding of music, and history and culture.  Not just Youssou N’Dour.  Or I think of Barbara Kopple’s film Shut Up and Sing, about the Dixie Chicks.  It is not only a wonderful and really under-appreciated film about the making of an album, but it’s also looking at the Dixie Chicks and how they were at the center of this kind of cultural storm in 2004 because of the comments by their lead singer about George Bush.  Valentino,  a film we showed a couple of years ago at Toronto, is not just a profile of a designer but about an end of a whole era.  Those films are exceptional. In other cases, I find that the hazard inherent in this genre is typically that the film is being made because the filmmaker has great admiration for the artist.  That often results in not asking any hard questions and not looking at areas of tension in the artist’s life.  [It also is] kind of pre-supposing that this artist is an absolute genius and not taking into account any criticism.  It doesn’t make for a very interesting film experience to watch a dozen of the artists’ closest colleagues talk about what a genius he or she is.  That’s what constitutes a lot of these films.

NR:  To me, it sometimes feels like arts documentary filmmakers feel that they can’t critical, because art has such a fragile foothold in the popular culture to begin with.

TP:  Well, that kid glove approach doesn’t really help any art form move forward.  I think there’s different roles between advocates and critics.  I think that today those roles are blurred more than ever.  Particularly in the age of blogging, you get a lot of people who are advocates/critics.  They’re championing new art work that they like and keeping their mouth shut about new work that they don’t like, and it doesn’t make for a very interesting critical atmosphere.  Of course, the other strain that you see is people who will use the blog world to go after stuff with an ad hominem viciousness and what’s missing is a middle ground of thoughtful criticism.

NR:  Well, I know there’s a lot more I’d like to ask you about but I’ve probably taken up too much of your time as it is.  Congrats on the new baby and ad hominem thanks so much for your time.

TP:  Thank you, Nick.  Bye bye.