Last week we wrote about this year's pretty stellar documentary line-up at Toronto. Previously - while he was at the Traverse City Film Festival - we had a chance to talk with Toronto documentary programmer (and full disclosure, our friend and colleague on the first several years of Cinema Eye) Thom Powers about the program.
We were interested in what might be new and unexpected from the veterans in this year's line-up as well as what effect - if any - Thom's role in his new festival (Doc NYC) might have on the program. Here's our conversation:
ATWT: This has been a pretty high-profile year for well-known filmmakers coming out with new films. Sundance was chock-a-block full of big name titles and from just the quick look at your list: Longinotto, Morris, Herzog, Gibney, Wiseman, Jørgen Leth, Charles Ferguson, Ondi Timoner – it’s a high profile pack of filmmakers.
Thom: It is indeed. As the season was kind of rolling out I’d hear Werner Herzog has a new film, Errol Morris has a new film, every week brought a new revelation in that way. I can’t really think of a line-up I’ve had before that was so packed. And one of the things in creating this line-up was in making room for some new filmmakers, like we were able to do with THE PIPE and WINDFALL and a film that I want to bring to your attention called THE SOUND OF MUMBAI: A MUSICAL, which is about slum children in Mumbai, India presenting a performance of The Sound of Music with a classical orchestra. That film had me choked up pretty much all the way through it and it’s actually hard for me to even think about without getting choked up again.
ATWT: Your first year at Toronto you had a world premiere gala for Barbara Kopple and Cynthia Peck's SHUT UP AND SING. This year you have your second (for THE PROMISE: THE MAKING OF DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN.)
Thom: It was kind a thing my first year at the festival to bring in SHUT UP AND SING as a gala because in the 35 year history of Toronto, I think it had only happened once before (that there was a gala for a documentary film). It’s a spot that requires a certain amount of high-wattage of star power that not every documentary can bring but we really felt like we had it with this film and it’s an extraordinarily interesting film to watch, whether you’re a Bruce Springsteen fan or just anyone who’s interested in the musician’s creative process. It’s drawing on the never before seen footage shot in the studio between 1976 and 1978 and you’re hearing all of the recording tracks from those studio sessions, so you get to hear how all these songs came together. It’s a really great music documentary.
ATWT: So with all these master filmmakers coming in, are any of their films in particular going to be surprising to people? A stylistic shift or something new from someone we’ve seen a lot of work from?
Thom: Well, I’d say Werner Herzog working in 3D is something that people might not be expecting. It sort of leaked out during the year that he’d been working on this 3D film but I know that Herzog himself at first actually resisted the 3D process and then wound up embracing it and I think when you see the film you realize that you can’t imagine the film being made any other way. It might sound weird since he is shooting cave art – isn’t that just stick figures on a wall? But actually inside these caves the way the art was created, it really worked with the contours of the cave. If there’s a curve of a wall, the artists worked with the curve to do their drawing – not to mention the incredible depth of these caves themselves. The 3D really gives a sense of scale. And the beautiful landscape outside. That combined with Herzog asking his usual penetrating questions of people who deal with this cave art, questions like “what constitutes humanness?”
ATWT: Talk a little bit about Ondi Timoner’s film (COOL IT). You said (in our earlier conversation) that you thought it might be a little controversial.
Thom: This is a film about Bjorn Lomborg, the author of "The Skeptical Environmentalist", a best selling book and anyone who’s followed that book recognizes that Lomborg is a very controversial, contrarian figure in environmental circles. But he’s also proven himself someone who is very willing to engage and stand up to his critics and be a voice to be reckoned with. So to me this film was – of many films I watched around issues of the environnment this year – this is one that stirred the pot of discussion most vigorously. I think it’s going to be challenging and confrontational for a lot of people and that’s going to be interesting to watch play out at the festival.
ATWT: What about TABLOID, Errol Morris' new film? That sounds pretty exciting.
Thom: The Errol Morris film feels like a return to a more comedic and perverse Errol Morris than the last couple films (STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE and FOG OF WAR) that were so deeply political. Which is not to say that TABLOID doesn’t have play with some of the same issues of asking ourselves “what is truth” and “how do we arrive at the truth” that we’ve seen throughout Morris’ career, only this time it’s doing it with a larger than life story that deals with true tabloid material of lurid sex and kidnapping and cult fanaticism.
ATWT: I'm a big fan of Kim Longinotto. Can you give me a quick take on her new film.Thom: Again Kim is looking at a group of female crusaders like she has done in so many great films from SISTERS-IN-LAW and ROUGH AUNTIES. This time the group is a group that calls themselves “The Pink Gang” in India and the center of the film is a woman Samtat Pal who has taken it upon herself to dole out vigilante street justice for the needs of women in that area who continue to be subjected to many forms of domestic violence, whether it’s from her husbands or her in-laws.
ATWT: Finally, I’m curious how this year might be different for you in your programming with programming two festivals now – both for the films you chose for Toronto as well for the films you might not have chosen. Was there anything different about your process?
Thom: As part of that process there’s always a certain number of films that aren’t right for Toronto. And I always have wished that I had something else to do with them. In the past I recommended them to other festivals and this year I was really pleased to have another platform when something wasn’t right for Toronto to be able to take it to Doc NYC. Later in August, we’ll be having some more to announce with Doc NYC and Doc NYC will be sampling a little bit of stuff from Toronto and sampling a little bit of stuff that wasn’t right for Toronto.