Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

Thom Powers on SundanceNOW’s Doc Club

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The indie film and documentary lovers over at SundanceNOW cooked up a fun idea, a Doc Club — you know, like a book club — which has a monthly theme, such as this month’s music docs, or future months focusing on docs about games, docs about art, etc. It’s an engaging way of trying to wed the exploding world of online viewing and the many people who are passionate about watching documentaries.

The feather in Doc Club’s cap is its curator, Thom Powers, who is clearly the doc curator du jour, hosting the IFC Center’s “Stranger Than Fiction” series and overseeing the nonfiction selections at festivals including Toronto, Miami, Montclair and the upcoming DOC NYC.

Here’s an exclusive clip of Powers talking about Doc Club. Check it out to hear what a guy who watches 500 documentaries a year has to say about why docs matter. He should know!

The fee to join the club is pocket change — $20 for the year or $4 for a month. It seems to be a no-brainer for anyone who loves to watch documentaries at home, but the big question about a pay platform like Doc Club is how it’s distinguishable from all of the other online streaming sites, some of which even provide docs for free (such as POV). I asked Powers in an email exchange:

“I think audiences crave personal recommendations. When I’m looking for a good book to read, I want the word of someone I trust, someone who stays on top of new work and has an eye for fresh voices. When it comes to books, there are lots of people with that expertise – critics, bookstore clerks, publications. But when it comes to documentaries, there aren’t many people. Most film critics are too busy with fiction and only cover a fraction of the docs that come out. So there’s a real void of personal recommendation that I’m trying to fill with Doc Club.

For the past eight years, I’ve curated the weekly screening series Stranger Than Fiction at IFC Center in New York. People from other parts of the country would frequently write asking how they could see those films. Now with Doc Club they can access a great film library from their own home. Some of the SundanceNOW titles – like Errol Morris‘s First Person series – are very hard to find anywhere else; others may turn up on different platforms. But Doc Club gives you a reliable place to go and lets you watch films without commercial interruption for only $3.99/month. That deal is hard to beat.”

When I look through each month of Doc Club, there’s at least one film I’d want to see (of the six to eight showing), usually more. It all hinges on your response to Powers’s taste. The themes reminds me a lot of going to college, and the giddy excitement reading the course catalog (yes, I was that kind of student), and perusing the different classes with exotic names, like what I took as a Sophomore, Feminist or Smut? Women’s Literature in the 1930s (yes, I went to that kind of college).

Powers won me over most with his August selection, “Going to Extremes.” That month, Club members were treated to survivor stories, which I love, including Stranded: I’ve Come from a Plane…, Touching the Void, Deep Water, and then there’s also Last Train Home, about the desperate lives of Chinese workers and Into Great Silence, about an ascetic monestary. What an intriguing selection! I’d jump at the chance to study these films for a semester.

I asked Powers why Grizzly Man wasn’t in Extremes month.

“I’ll refrain from commenting on why any specific title hasn’t been included. But suffice to say, my programming choices are limited to what titles are available and not bound up with other licensing agreements. SundanceNOW got started working with the libraries of IFC Films, Sundance Selects, Zeitgeist, Icarus Films and Kino Lorber. Now we’re talking to many more rights holders. Stay tuned!”

Powers’s picks can be idiosyncratic, and as he notes, I guess they’re sometimes dictated by certain limitation, but that’s all good, like the thinking process while watching a Jim Jarmusch film. For instance, putting Armadillo, which is an embed war documentary, in the “Games People Play” section, is a stretch. There is some gaming in the film, and I get it that boys play war games in the real world, but the pick immediately demands your attention, and you want to ask Powers why he has it there. I imagine that’s a good thing for Doc Club members. I’m not sure if they have a back-and-forth between Powers and members who want to engage in a dialogue (like in a book club), but they should.

Power said that they don’t publish their member numbers, but he feels “very gratified by the response so far and it’s growing every month,” so here’s hoping Doc Club continues to bring ‘em in.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki