In just 9 days, New York will see the launch of DOCNYC, the new festival birthed from the folks behind NYC's Stranger Than Fiction series (Toronto International Film Festival Documentary Programmer Thom Powers, STF Executive Director Raphaela Neihausen, IFC Center head honcho John Vanco and IFC Center Director of Programs Harris Dew). It's perhaps the biggest documentary festival launch in over five years and it's grabbing the prime real estate in early November that's soon to be vacated by primo UK Doc/Fest Sheffield.
The first edition is marked by tributes to doc superstars Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, a retrospective of work by one of this year's Honorary Oscar recipients, Kevin Brownlow, and two competition sections - Metropolis, which focuses on New York-set stories, and Viewfinders, which includes the US Premieres of Janus Metz' ARMADILLO, Kim Longinotto's PINK SARIS and Bjarte Mørner Tveit's DISCOVERIES OF A MARIONETTE and the World Premiere of Robert Greene's KATI WITH AN I (following a sneak preview earlier this year at True/False).
We talked to Thom Powers (who was, full disclosure, my co-chair for the first two editions of the Cinema Eye Honors and who serves on Cinema Eye's Advisory Board) about the inaugural festival, his broader ideas for a "nonfiction festival" and what's exciting and scaring him nine days out.
ATWT: I guess I want to start with the other stuff, the non-film elements, because that's one of the things I think is so exciting about DOCNYC and what you're doing, because it's not just films and it's not just panels about films.
Thom Powers: It's not. Film I would say is an 80 or 90 percent core of what we're doing this year but the longterm goal of this festival is to enrich the other aspects over the years. And the heart of this is the daylong symposia that we have called Doc Convergence. That's kind of where I laid down an initial structure for ways in which I want to invigorate this festival with all kinds of different documentary voices, not just filmmakers. At Doc Convergence we have photographers, including Pulitzer Prize winner David Turnley, we have cartoonists, such as Joe Sacco, Linda Barry, we have people from the world of performance and also writing, such as Lawrence Wright, who did "My Trip to Al Qaeda", which was turned into a film by Alex Gibney, and Moises Kaufman, who's done these documentary-based theatrical works, including The Laramie Project, that was turned into a film.
Thom: Yeah and I have to give credit to the Creative Capital retreats that I attended a couple years ago for helping to inspire some of this. And Creative Capital's Executive Director Ruby Lerner is on our Advisory Board and they do this private retreat e their members, for recipients of their grants and for other invitees, where they bring together artists working in all kinds of different fields to do presentations of their work, compacted into a couple days. It's a real mind opening experience, the kind of thing that leaves you absolutely creatively energized at the end of the day because you're breaking out of the boundaries that you sometimes think of this work in. So definitely in conceiving Doc Convergence they were an influence. And also the concept came directly out a conversation I had with Laura Poitras, the director of THE OATH, where she was saying, "there's so many times after a festival that I feel exhausted because so much of the conversation is just about business and I really want to have more conversations about the creative side." So that's why we created these two days - Doc Convergence and State of the Art - that are really meant to focus on the creative side.
ATWT: Yeah, I noticed there's not a distribution panel.
Thom: Well, we do have one free State of the Industry panel on the first day of the festival because, look, that's important too.
Thom: But definitely the ratio of creative discussion vs. business discussion is obviously higher toward the creative.
ATWT: Well, I'm obviously excited about that State of the Art day because you're not just focusing on directors but all the different craftspeople.
Thom: Absolutely, there's all these different, important people who make contributions and so often at festivals it just becomes about the director and the editors, cinematographers, producers are out of the conversation. And for this day, for State of the Art, we want to bring everyone into the conversation about the new trends happening in documentary film today.
ATWT: I think it's also - it's what we saw with Cinema Eye and what's nice about this event and the larger documentary community - is bringing the entire creative team that makes the films and not having the discussion around the art of nonfiction be so director-centric.
ATWT: Tell me about the Kevin Brownlow events and was that something you thought of before he was named as one of this year's Honorary Oscar recipients.
Thom: This is sort of a late brainstorm after I learned, late summer, that he was going to be honored with the Honorary Academy Award just a few days after the festival and I was thinking that now was the prime moment when we can gain attention for this extraordinary figure whose contributions to the general public have been largely unsung. Certainly Kevin Brownlow, to anyone you'd talk to in the world of film history, his reputation looms large. There are many people in the archive community who consider themselves SOK's (Sons of Kevin). So, I hastily got in touch with him and we've worked out all the details at the last minute, so he's going to be coming here for the last two nights of the festival. We're gonna screen several of his documentaries that explore Cinema history as well as two groundbreaking, kind-of-hybrid films, IT HAPPENED HERE and WINSTANLEY.
The nights that people absolutely should not miss are the nights that he's going to be here. Monday night, November 8th, when he's going to present a double feature of his films, I'M KING KONG, about Merian C. Cooper, one of the great early pioneers of documentary, who made CHANG and GRASS, and the second part of that bill is THE TRAMP AND THE DICTATOR, about the making of Charlie Chaplin's THE GREAT DICTATOR. Brownlow has been such an important scholar of Charlie Chaplin's work. So we're going to have him in conversation for both of those titles.
And then the second night, he's gonna show his film on Cecil B. DeMille, which is kind of timely because there's a big, new Cecil B. DeMille biography out that's getting a lot of attention amongst followers of Hollywood history. And so Kevin will be here to talk about that.
ATWT: There's just over a week before the inaugural edition of DOCNYC kicks off. What are you most excited about and what are you still concerned about with 9 or 10 days to go?
Thom: What am I most excited about? You know, it's always exciting to be showing new work by Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, and to have New York audiences encountering these films so soon after their creation is gonna be a real thrill. But, I'm very excited to be putting forward the slates in the Viewfinders and Metropolis competitions, several of which are World Premieres, especially in the Metropolis section, and that's always a thrill to see people encountering work for the first time. The Metropolis section, which is the section of New York stories, there's a film like LOST BOHEMIA, which looks at artists who are living above Carnegie Hall for several decades and who were finally evicted as the landlord decided to do something different with that space. That's the kind of film that's going to have so much excitement playing in New York City. Or the film, TO BE HEARD, another World Premiere, it's about Bronx teenagers whose lives are transformed by great teachers in a poetry workshop. I'm really looking to the electricity of having those young people in the audience for that film.
ATWT: And anything you're nervous or anxious about?
Thom: I'm anxious like a new parent is anxious about everything involving the future of their offspring. One of the gratifying things has been to run into people in New York who tell me how much they're looking forward to this. The thing about this kind of thing is that we have a small but very dedicated team. We're working literally around the clock in our own little bubble and I can't wait until November 3rd when we open that up to the crowds to come share what we've been planning.