Interview: Festival Programmer and Pure Nonfiction Host Thom Powers

One of the most influential figures in documentary talks about what he looks for, what trends he’s seeing, and how he continues to champion a greater appreciation for nonfiction cinema.

For the documentary community, the Oscar race is in full swing with the recent announcement of the 15-title shortlist of finalists from which the five nominees for Best Documentary Feature will be determined (those titles will be revealed, with nominees in all other categories, on Tuesday, January 24, 2017). As usual, conversations are cropping up about not just the selections themselves, but also what goes into determining them.

On the long road to becoming an Oscar contender, film festivals represent a critical juncture, helping to generate much-needed attention and word-of-mouth buzz that will lead to Oscar-qualifying distribution. Festival programmers, then, are key power brokers for documentary filmmakers, particularly those with awards aspirations and hopes of making a breakthrough into the public discourse.

Although there are many such programmers who wield enormous influence, one person in particular stands out: Thom Powers. The New York Times has called him a “kingmaker for documentaries,” and that’s probably not an overstatement. He has been the documentary programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) since 2006 and is the Artistic Director of both the Stranger Than Fiction screening series and the documentary film festival DOC NYC. He is also a co-founder of both the Cinema Eye Honors and the Garrett Scott Documentary Development Grant.

In addition, Powers curates documentaries for Sundance Now and has directed documentaries of his own for PBS and HBO. He hosts WNYC’s “Documentary of the Week” program and not long ago launched the wonderful Pure Nonfiction podcast, which features in-depth conversations with documentary filmmakers. Recent guests include Ava DuVernay, Werner Herzog, Jonathan Demme, Barbara Kopple, Alex Gibney, and one of this year’s awards favorites, Ezra Edelman (O.J.: Made in America).

Powers and I recently sat down to discuss a range of topics — from documentary programming specifically to nonfiction cinema more generally. He also talks about the new podcast and sings the praises of a few films that we can look forward to in 2017.

Nonfics: Not long ago, the BBC published a list of what they call the “21st century’s 100 greatest films” so far. But out of the 102 films that were named, only three of them are documentaries: Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I (#99), Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell (#70), and Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (which came in high at #14).

Thom Powers: So no Citizenfour in there?

Right. No Citizenfour, no Grizzly Man, no Los Angeles Plays Itself, no Stevie, no The Interrupters, no The Fog of War, on and on… Obviously, there was a good bit of conversation about this on “documentary Twitter.” Eric Hynes, for example, pointed out that, because this list represents the opinions of almost 200 critics from around the world, it raises the question of whether or not works of nonfiction cinema are considered second-class citizens within the world of film criticism. But I’m curious: what’s your sense of how documentaries fit right now in terms of film criticism and film appreciation generally?

I wrote an article called “Wanted: Documentary Critics” for the Stranger Than Fiction website. After I wrote it I did a series of panels with different film critics — one with Richard Brody from the New Yorker, one with David Edelstein from New York magazine — and I got a certain amount of pushback from other film critics, saying, “Well, I don’t see the need for documentary-specific film critics. It should be the job of a film critic to be omnivorous in taking in the film scene.” But I thought at the time and still think there’s just too large a body of nonfiction work for any normal, work-a-day critic to catch up on. The BBC list, as Eric Hynes points out, reinforces that notion.

In terms of where documentaries fit in the larger film culture, the Toronto International Film Festival’s lineup this year included more documentaries than have ever been in the festival in its 41-year history. I think you can see a documentary trajectory by looking at a lot of other festivals too, like Sundance or Berlin or Cannes. Concurrent with that, there’s also been a rise in documentary-specific festivals, including DOC NYC, which my wife, Raphaela Neihausen, and I started seven years ago at the IFC Center. So I see documentary really rising in the culture in general. You know, I always bring up that when you’re on an airplane and you look at the menu of options of what to watch, there’ll be a documentary category among “dramas,” “classics,” and so on. Documentary is clearly a brand; everyone from JetBlue to Netflix now recognizes that there is an audience with an appetite for this content.

Practically speaking, what does a greater number of documentaries in TIFF’s lineup mean beyond just volume? Does it mean, for example, that you play a larger role in the festival than you otherwise would have?

I wouldn’t say that. The documentary selection at TIFF, for example, happened as a group effort, with almost all of the program team having input on those documentary selections. I program the bulk of them, but every programmer has their usual regional or other kind of specialty, and documentaries are rising in every area. So, for example, in the case of “Midnight Madness,” there’s Morgan Spurlock’s Rats. In the “Wavelengths” section for more experimental work, we’ve seen a big, steady increase in documentaries over the years, right on through to this year with films like Wang Bing’s Ta’ang or Douglas Gordon’s profile of Jonas Mekas (I Had Nowhere to Go). In the “Masters” section of the festival, there are things like Fire at Sea by Gianfranco Rosi from Italy, and Mahamat Saleh Haroun’s Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy.

So what does the fact of more documentaries in the festival this year than last year indicate? Is it an upward trend or will it go back down next year? That’s hard to predict. I think it shows the strength of documentaries, but I resist making any other predictions about what that means.

In the press release you wrote about the documentary selections for TIFF this year, you said, “Revelations abound.” You were really talking about content there, so I’m curious: in the crop picked this year, what stood out to you in terms of issues of form?

That’s a good question. You know, I’m also kind of wrapping my head around what the documentary section looks like and what the bigger picture is, in the same way that audiences are. Right up until the start of the festival, my mind tends to be concentrated on individual films and the needs of individual filmmakers. I’m also thinking about issues of balance: balance of content, balance of international voices, balance of veteran filmmakers and new voices. I don’t think I necessarily lead with thinking about what’s stylistically happening with the films.

When you look at the festival as a whole, you’re going to see a wide range of stylistic approaches. The more experimental work is going to go to “Wavelengths,” and the hybrid work gets put in “Contemporary World Cinema” or a different section. In TIFF’s “Documentary” section, there’s a wide range of styles, from observational filmmaking to first-person filmmaking to historical filmmaking. But I think that there is a baseline understanding that in that section you’re going to get a film that usually has some kind of narrative structure and strong characters. Sometimes there are departures from that, though. Historically, I’m thinking of a film like Ron Fricke’s Samsara, which is a much more visual experience, and not at all dialogue-driven. This year, I suppose a film like Richie Mehta’s India in a Day, which is part of this small sub-genre of films made in a crowd-sourced way, is following in that tradition.

When I think about the films this year that really showed a strong cinematic voice at work, I think of Karl Marx City by Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker. This was their fourth film at the festival, and it’s very different than their past works. It’s told from a first-person perspective, Petra Epperlein’s, and it’s about her growing up in East Germany, as well as her father, who committed suicide after the wall fell. So she digs into his Stasi file trying to find out if there was a mystery to his life that she didn’t know before. The film draws upon the Stasi archive, surveillance tapes, and old footage, which provide a really interesting layer to the film. It has also has a fascinating contemporary connection as we all think about what it means to live in a surveillance state.

There was The War Show, too, which draws upon four or five years of footage shot by a group of friends in Syria. The key filmmaker there, a DJ-turned-filmmaker, is Obaidah Zytoon, and she paired up with a Danish filmmaker named Andreas Dalsgaard, who comes out of this circle of really strong filmmaking we’ve seen come out of Copenhagen in the last decade. Working as a team, they really bring their footage together in a way that stands out.

With new technologies like virtual reality (VR), the ascension of video on demand (VOD) platforms like Netflix, and other developments, there’s always a lot of conversation happening about the future of documentary. You’re someone in a uniquely informed position to muse about what’s coming because you see so much new work, often long before it goes into wide release. Where do you think nonfiction cinema is headed? What does the future hold?

Well, any predictions about where things are headed are guesses at best. For a few years I would do an end-of-the-year conversation that we would publish at Stranger Than Fiction. In our conversation at the end of 2013, one of my big predictions was that we’d be seeing more ambitious, serialized documentaries. 2014 went by and that didn’t really come to pass. But then Making a Murderer and O.J.: Made in America happened, and you saw that prediction start to kick in. I don’t see the traditional theatrical-length film going away anytime soon, but I do think we are seeing an opening up of formats, both shorter and longer formats, that give filmmakers options to tell stories that they didn’t really have five years ago. That opening is going to continue.

When it comes to VR and so on, I consider myself a spectator as much as anyone else — and probably slower than some to get deeper into it. I appreciate the power of immersion in VR, but I’m still unclear about how storytelling takes place in that. Storytelling is still the most interesting part of all this to me; that’s usually what gets me most excited about nonfiction film.

Regarding your prediction about serialized storytelling: what was the bellwether there for you? Was it that there had already been strong but sporadic work in that area, like The Civil War and The Staircase?

The Staircase was definitely on my mind as a real precedent there. I’ve always enjoyed long films — Marcel Ophüls is one of my favorite filmmakers, Eyes on the Prize is a cornerstone of my documentary canon, and so is 1970’s Laurence Olivier-narrated World at War series. But there’s also enough evidence out there that if you give a filmmaker a wide breadth of material matched to the right kind of story, you can reap great rewards from that. What I was seeing in 2013 was platforms like Netflix and the appetite for long-form storytelling that were growing in the culture. Ten years ago, if you presented people with the idea of watching a four-hour documentary, that would seem really long to them. Now, though, people will routinely take in sixteen hours of an HBO or Netflix program and not think twice about it.

The New York Times has used the phrase “kingmaker” to describe your place in the world of documentary —

Mind you, this is the same newspaper that told you Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

Right. We’ll keep that in mind! In that profile, there were a couple of places where writer Nicolas Rapold pointed to the issue of subjectivity in film programming. Programmers are often trying to do many things at once, all while trying to transcend personal taste. But at the end of the day, individuals have certain idiosyncrasies that affect whether they respond to a film or not. Can you tell us about documentaries or trends in documentary storytelling that are exciting to you specifically? What are things that you, Thom Powers, would like to see more of? What are things you’d like to see less of? What kinds of documentaries speak to you? What kinds don’t?

Great question. It’s hard to articulate a set of criteria, because inevitably some things that really stand out to me would defy those criteria. It’s usually easier for me to identify trends that I don’t feel any real affinity for. A distinct trend in documentary right now is one where you’re not sure if something is being acted out or set up. In conversations about these kinds of films, one position is usually: “Isn’t there at least a bit of performance in everything that goes on in front of a camera?” Sure there is; no need to debate that point. But I think there’s a big difference between what the person in front of the camera is doing and what the person behind the camera is doing. So that’s an area of filmmaking with which I don’t have a strong connection.

I’m more interested in films that are helping me get closer to something that actually took place. Errol Morris writes about this in his book about the Jeffrey MacDonald case, A Wilderness of Error: he takes exception with a line in Janet Malcolm’s famous book about the same case, The Journalist and the Murderer, where she says she’s got boxes of evidence from the case in front of her but can’t bring herself to read what’s in them because evidence can be interpreted in any way. Morris disagrees with this, saying essentially, “No, evidence is crucial material to help bring us closer to the truth of what actually happened.” I would count myself among the people who are interested in getting closer to the truth of what actually took place.

The word I always come back to when people ask me what I am looking for is “surprise.” I watch so many films in a short period of time, and you see a certain number of things that are familiar — familiar ways of telling stories, familiar topics, things that don’t greatly add to your understanding of a given topic. So for me, I’m looking for what takes me by surprise. Morris’s film at TIFF this year, for example, The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, about the eponymous photographer, is wonderfully surprising. It’s something quite different, and not just in terms of subject. If you’ve followed Morris’s career, you’re likely to expect a certain kind of subject and way of interacting with that subject. I’m thinking especially of his recent works like The Fog of War, Standard Operating Procedure, and The Unknown Known — films with morally challenged wartime figures who are put under the magnifying glass of his Interrotron camera. By contrast, The B-Side is made with such obvious warmth and affection, and he’s set aside the Interrotron, letting his subject roam freely in front of the camera instead of staying in a chair. On top of that, you have this remarkable subject in Dorfman, who I wasn’t aware of because she, quite unfairly, hasn’t had the attention of so many of her male contemporaries.

I’m curious: is there a specific film or films that you programmed or otherwise championed that you feel didn’t get the reception they deserved? A film or films where you thought, “Boy, I really wish that one had done better. I really wish more people had seen that one”? Are there films you keep pointing people towards years later because you have to?

Probably anything short of a Michael Moore film! You know, my first year working for TIFF, we showed Barbara Kopple’s film about the Dixie Chicks (Shut Up and Sing), which I think is a great film.

Yes — that movie’s marvelous!

Even though that movie had the star power of the Dixie Chicks, the Weinstein Company behind it, and a two-time Oscar-winning filmmaker at the helm, I meet a lot more people who haven’t seen that film than have seen it. But at least it has some presence out there. So I think, too, about a smaller film like A World Not Ours, which is about a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon and made by a filmmaker who grew up there, Mahdi Fleifel. Mahdi took the film to dozens of countries, and it has played festivals all over the world, but it didn’t get the distribution of something like the Dixie Chicks film.

In my eleven years at TIFF, I’ve probably programmed somewhere between 150 and 200 films, and I’d say probably two-thirds of those had the minimal shot at audiences. What can you say about that? I don’t know. If you look at the entire history of art and literature and film, there are more occasions of great works that went under-appreciated for a period of time than there are great works that were instantly embraced. Moby Dick was out of print for a long time — artistic appreciation happens in unpredictable ways. What’s of equal concern to me is the ability of these filmmakers to have a sustainable career. I think about filmmakers who have spent five to ten years on a film and might not even make back the money they invested into it. That’s heartbreaking to witness and an experience I had in the ten years that I made films myself. So I’ve felt that pain of not knowing how you’re going to meet next month’s bills. So that’s a big driver to me to do the stuff I do and to try to be beating the drum as loudly as I can to bring more attention to these films.

This is a good segue into Pure Nonfiction. One of the things I really value about the podcast is the way you illuminate backstories. I’m thinking in particular of the episode with Dawn Porter, in which she talks about the legal career she had before becoming a filmmaker, and the practical steps she took to make that transition. I heard that and thought, “That’s incredibly useful to know.” We really don’t hear a lot about how much personal financial risk filmmakers do or don’t take on in making a documentary, how life circumstances get negotiated, the nuts-and-bolts of making a career switch, and so on. So Pure Nonfiction is really a documentary master class in this regard. When you were conceiving it, was offering a kind of education for aspiring documentary filmmakers a primary objective?

That wasn’t the first thing in my mind. The first thing in my mind is to create a piece of storytelling in itself. I hope it can be appreciated by people who have no intention of ever being professionally involved in documentary-making, but who are just interested in these filmmakers as personalities and the content of their work.

That said, yeah, I think everyone who is interested in documentary-making as an artistic or career pursuit will have a lot to gain from listening to these interviews, for sure.

What are you getting out of the experience of making this podcast?

Looking back on 20 years of conversations with filmmakers, I feel chagrined that I didn’t have a better means of capturing those conversations and being able to share them with other people. So it’s very gratifying to me that even though we just started this in April — and when I say “we,” I need to give a lot of credit to my producer Michael Scotti, Jr., and Raphaela, the executive producer — we’ve built such a large body of interviews. So for me it’s been a special experience to think harder about the careers of these filmmakers than I would in a normal interaction. So when I sit down with a Jonathan Demme or an Alex Gibney, filmmakers with really long careers who I’ve had a lot of interaction with in the last ten years because I’ve shown most of their work, it makes me think harder about their careers and what I want to ask them — what I feel they haven’t been asked before. That’s been a great framework.

A big driver for me starting Pure Nonfiction is that in the last several years, starting DOC NYC and the Montclair Film Festival and running that for three years on top of doing TIFF and Stranger Than Fiction, I felt that more and more of my time was being taken up by event-planning tasks and less of my time was spent thinking about the content of documentaries. By starting Pure Nonfiction I was forcing myself to dedicate a certain amount of time each week to really thinking about the questions I want to be asking about what’s happening to documentary-making — time that could easily get filled up by dealing with a lot of logistical stuff that goes into running film festivals. It’s like when you set aside time each week to exercise or to practice something that you want to make sure you’re doing. When you make a commitment like that, you find the time. This is the intellectual exercise that I want to make sure I give myself time for each week — at the expense of doing actual exercise!