Ron Simon on Curating Paley DocFest 2012 and the Impact of Political Documentaries in an Election Year

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The Paley Center for Media

The Paley Center for Media host Paley DocFest, October 6-29, 2012. This year’s festival features politically themed documentaries timed to the November 2012 elections.

Ron Simon has been a curator at The Paley Center for Media (formerly The Museum of Television & Radio) since the early 1980s. In addition to being a prolific writer on the subject of the media, he also an adjunct professor at Columbia University, New York University and Hunter College, where he teaches courses on the history of media. I talked with Simon in anticipation of this season’s Paley DocFest, which runs from October 6 – 29, 2012.

There are a number of documentary film festivals in North America, such as Hot Docs, Silverdocs and DOC NYC, to name a few. How does Paley DocFest plan to stand out? 

The Paley Center has been committed for many years to screening documentaries that make a difference. We want to illuminate the impact documentaries have on our lives. Our president, Pat Mitchell, a distinguished producer of documentaries, is especially interested in how media sparks social change. We are not a traditional festival in which many films are screened over a very short period. We curate a limited amount of films, producing an evening of discussion and revelation around them.

Documentaries have always been about a connection between filmmaker and audience, and we highlight that exchange of ideas. Since we commenced our DocFest in 2000, there has been a tremendous increase in nonfiction festivals. This is a very good thing. Documentaries are best seen with a community, and the more availability the better.

The Paley Center brings together the creators, industry and an informed audience. Our documentary events have always been noted for smart, lively discussions after the screening with the creative team and experts. We try to get the word out to the audience who has the most invested in the given subject, creating the optimal showcase for a work. Many documentaries are launched for their theatrical run or digital release at the Paley Center because we help to generate a critical momentum.

With the 2012 election upon us, this year’s Paley DocFest consists entirely of political documentaries, or better put, documentaries about politics and politicians.  What role do documentary filmmakers play in U.S. politics?

Unlike most politicians up for election this year, documentaries have not been ducking the most difficult issues of our times. We thought the best way to prepare for the elections in November was to screen films that provoke discussion about the whole political process. Documentaries, more than any other form of media, are providing the vital information that we citizens need to make informed choices at the ballot box. We hope that our festival this year generates a deep discussion of the issues that matter, spurred by the filmmaker’s passion for social change.

How do you curate the festival?

We have a very active advisory committee, comprised of filmmakers and executives. We work very closely with them, discussing the latest trends in documentary. We are always looking to organize seminars and present films that have a special meaning to the field. I also consult with many programmers with other festivals to get a sense of how the documentary year is progressing. There is a defined rhythm to the festival circuit and you try to get a feel of what films are making an impact and connecting with the larger culture. Obviously, you personally have to view as many documentaries as possible. Each year has its own special flavor, with surprises always happening.

A remarkable film can come out of nowhere. Unlike most other forms, a first-time filmmaker, who has spent years on a project, can startle the entire doc community.

And how are the interactive sessions programmed?

We are in constant contact with the filmmakers in structuring our evening. We want not only the creative perspective, but also an informed discussion of the content. For example, our panel of Ann Richards’ Texas, one of the most anticipated films of the year, includes women who worked personally with the maverick governor. We will also be presenting a work-in-progress about the intellectual debates in 1968 between acerbic progressive Gore Vidal and conservative patrician William Buckley (Vidal v. Buckley). Our panel will include biographers of both men to give a richer conversation about the meaning of those TV exchanges.

I should also mention that one of the signature events of our documentary festival has always been our pitch competition. We spend many days selecting our five finalists to pitch their works to an expert panel of documentary executives. The event is always a learning experience about articulating ideas for everyone in the audience. We have a very good track record in choosing winners, whose ranks have included Circo and The Iran Job.

How did the decision come about to celebrate POV this year? 

POV is one of the great documentary series in the history of television. POV’s films throughout its 25-year history have grappled with the personal and political, bravely challenging conventional wisdom. Its offerings epitomize the independent spirit in the documentary community, and attention must be paid to this milestone anniversary. I have the utmost respect for the executives who have maintained this excellence over the years: Marc WeissCara MertesSimon Kilmurry and Cynthia López. As we were developing our election year theme, it was imperative to include POV, which has brought the complexities of the political process into our living rooms.

I worked closely with Simon and Cynthia to curate an evening devoted to how POV has dissected issues and documented the rigors of politics. Like the series itself, our filmmakers on October 18th represent the diversity of styles and voices that have marked POV’s illustrious history. I can’t wait to hear the discussion with Marshall CurryShola LynchLaura Poitras, and Marco Williams, moderated by Caryn James. They will not only screen clips of their work, but talk about this year’s election and how they think it should be documented.

How did you get involved in exhibiting documentaries?

I was a student of the late Erik Barnouw at Columbia University. He wrote one of the definitive histories of documentary film, which had a great influence on my thinking about media. When I became curator of the Paley Center for Media, one of my specialties has always been the documentary. Television has played a major role in the development of several documentary genres, including cinéma vérité and the compilation. I have tried to preserve these seminal films in our collection. Thirteen years ago, we wanted to formally recognized television’s role in documentary production, and we instituted an annual festival. We also screen thought-provoking documentaries throughout the year.

Where do you think documentaries are headed?

I wrote a blog earlier this year during Oscar season that documentaries in 2011 were much more daring and innovative than their fictional counterparts. Documentaries are discovering unique ways of storytelling to engage with 21st century realities. One of the most provocative uses of 3-D was by Wim Wenders (Pina) to bring real time movement alive on screen.

I see documentary filmmakers continuing to use technology and complicated narratives to show how real life is indeed stranger than fiction. I meet so many students who want to enter the field and leave their own creative imprint. Documentaries offer so many possibilities for creative expression and the next generation will seize upon all the developing digital tools to tell the story. And documentaries will continue to be vital in keeping democracy flourishing by illuminating all corners of our social and political lives.

Paley DocFest runs from October 6 – 29, 2012, at The Paley Center for Media in New York City. More details & tickets are available at paleycenter.org

The event “Documenting Power: 25 Years of Political Films on POV” takes place on Thursday, October 18, 2012 at 6:30 PM ET. Details and tickets are at paleycenter.org.

Adam Schartoff
Adam Schartoff
Guest blogger Adam Schartoff is a freelance film journalist living in Brooklyn, New York. He's the founder and programmer of the Brooklyn-based film series Filmwax.