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6 Intentionally Provocative Questions Intended to Stir Up Toronto Film Festival Documentary Programmer Thom Powers

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Thom Powers, documentary programmer at the Toronto International Film Festival.

In September, there are few better places to be on this good earth than Toronto, especially for film fans. The Toronto International Film Festival should again prove to be a delight, with Thom Powers, the head programmer of documentaries, again curating what looks to be a strong list of must-see documentaries.

But just because he’s got a great track record, doesn’t mean we should let him off the hook. I asked Powers about a few films at this year’s list, which also includes such exciting fare as The Square, directed by Jehane Noujaim, about the uprising in Egypt; Tim’s Vermeer, illusionists Penn and Teller’s look at the photo-realistic painter; Beyond the Edge, a recreation of an epic Mt. Everest hike; Burt’s Buzz, about the backwoods guy from Maine who started the Burt’s Bees product line; and Mission Congo, a trip to the heart of darkness with an eccentric businessman.

It’s a great list this year, but there aren’t a lot, lot of films. What’s that about?

When you add them all up from their separate categories, there are about 30. Last year, there were about 50. That has to do with my colleagues who program for the festival from around the world. For instance, our programmer in the middle east and Africa was more excited about the fiction films she was seeing than the docs. What you’re going to get with the more tightly curated films are fewer small films from international territories.

I’ve heard great things about Midway, a meditation on albatross birds on the Midway Atoll, but I have to fess up that my reaction to Winged Migration was, “that was just a dumb movie about birds.”

Yeah, we got another one for you. No, I am being facetious. You are in the minority about Winged Migration, which was a breakout doc from Toronto. And Midway comes from a very different sensibility than Winged Migration. Midway is the work of a significant artist, Chris Jordan. Check out his website. He is an inventive thinker in how he approaches environmental catastrophe which we all feel in our bones. Part of what Chris does as an artist is he visually overcomes our jadedness. He opens our minds and then he blows our minds.

Is The Unknown Known, Errol Morris’ anticipated profile of Donald Rumsfeld, a soft dustup like last year’s Cheney film on Showtime, or is it closer to the more revealing Fog of War?

Variety’s Scott Foundas said in his review that watching The Unknown Known next to Fog of War makes both films more interesting, because of the juxtaposition of two Secretaries of Defense. You see the men [more clearly] in their different ways of reflecting and not reflecting. The Unknown Known benefits from coming from the hands of Errol Morris, and his obsessive, detailed way of probing a topic. You are looking at the subject through the prism of a great artist.

A Frederick Wiseman film always draws notice, but At Berkeley, a contemporary look at the university, sounds like bourgeois myopia. What gives?

At Berkeley is a Fred Wiseman film through and through. When Fred started out 45 years ago, his approach to documentary was a radical one and it’s still a radical one. It is radical because he is not breaking everything down for you, and guiding you to conclusions. He puts you in a room in an invisible suit and you are, as a viewer, left to do a lot of the thinking. That’s an experience that is surprisingly rare in cinema.

I see you’ll be talking with Sarah Polley during the doc conference. Here’s a question for both of you: what’s the most Canadian thing about her incredible film, Stories We Tell, released this summer, about her actor-mother and father?

So much of Stories We Tell is rooted in the scene of Canadian entertainment; her mom and other participants who are a part of it. It’s the milieu of the picture that feels so Canadian. You would never see this story happening in New York or Los Angeles or Chicago.

What documentary will be the most challenging for audiences this year?

The Last of the Unjust, Claude Lanzmann’s film is four hours; it goes very deeply into historical detail about a chapter of the Shoah. It’s a film for people who want to take that journey. It’s deeply upsetting but deeply rewarding.

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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
  • Jane Alexander

    First, the #documentary #film community should wish a happy birthday to #ParticipantMedia Exec. V.P. Diane #Weyermann, who turns 59 tomorrow (Sept. 23). She’s had an uneven career (e.g., taking credit for “Inconvenient Truth,” which was underway long before her hire in 2004), and especially lately with disasters such as “Last Call at the Oasis, which made a paltry $40k but cost millions. But certainly she’s made a mark and deserves recognition. But let’s face it: “The Unknown Known” is as flawed — and as big a failure of a groundbreaking documentary from an artistic and financial perspective — as “was Standard Operating Procedure,” another Weyermann Exec. Produced effort with old crony Morris. 1+1=0 Participant Media wisely distanced itself from the film and has apparently just brought in Sr. V.P. Elise #Pearlstein as her soon-to-be likely replacement to bring in new perspective to its desired #Millennial audience.