A greater exposure

Thom Powers on DOC NYC U, Go Through The Dark, Mr. Bachmann And His Class, and The Energy War

by Anne-Katrin Titze

DOC NYC U: Hunter College MFA Program in Integrated Media Arts films to screen in the 12th edition (pictured The Sylvia and Danny Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College)
DOC NYC U: Hunter College MFA Program in Integrated Media Arts films to screen in the 12th edition (pictured The Sylvia and Danny Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College) Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

In the second instalment of my conversation with DOC NYC Artistic Director Thom Powers he discusses DOC NYC U (Hunter College, Columbia, NYU, The New School, School of Visual Arts, New York Film Academy, Brooklyn College), Yunhong Pu’s Go Through the Dark, Maria Speth’s Mr. Bachmann And His Class, and the new restoration of DA Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus, and Pat Powell’s The Energy War “Filibuster” (another highlight), the second chapter in a series that was originally aired on Public Television in 1979.

Thom Powers on The Energy War: “We’re thrilled to be showing that with Chris Hegedus there in person to talk about it and hope it helps prompt a greater exposure of this classic series.”
Thom Powers on The Energy War: “We’re thrilled to be showing that with Chris Hegedus there in person to talk about it and hope it helps prompt a greater exposure of this classic series.”

DOC NYC U: Hunter - The films screening from Hunter College’s MFA Program in Integrated Media Arts are Neville Elder’s Anamnesis (Part One), Nicole Barreras’s The Customer Is Always Right?, Kim Maxime Baglieri’s In Order to Escort Her, Lidiya Kan’s Morkovcha (Korean Carrot Salad), and Jacqueline Wade’s Osage, produced by Women of Color Productions, Inc.

From New York City, in great anticipation of DOC NYC, Thom Powers joined me on Zoom for an in-depth look at the 12th edition.

Anne-Katrin Titze: You also feature again New York colleges in DOC NYC!

Thom Powers: That’s right, for several years we’ve had a section called DOC NYC U, where we put a spotlight on a collection of films from several different student filmmakers from schools like SVA, NYU, and Hunter. I think of the filmmakers who’ve passed through this program over the years and have come back in later years with their first film.

One of those is a former student of mine at the School of Visual Arts MFA social documentary program, a Chinese filmmaker named Yunghong Pu, whose new film is called Go Through the Dark. It’s a super fascinating character study of a blind boy in China who despite his blindness is very adapt in this board game called Go. He’s raised by a single father and they’re trying to figure out if this boy’s skills of this game can turn into a profession or not. It’s a really gripping film.

Thom Powers on Yunhong Pu’s Go Through The Dark: “It’s a super fascinating character study of a blind boy in China who despite his blindness is very adapt in this board games called Go.”
Thom Powers on Yunhong Pu’s Go Through The Dark: “It’s a super fascinating character study of a blind boy in China who despite his blindness is very adapt in this board games called Go.”

AKT: Speaking of education, Mr. Bachmann and His Class is part of your selection.

TP: Yeah, Mr. Bachmann And His Class is a film in the tradition of Frederick Wiseman. It’s a long study of a very inspiring German teacher whose class is made up of immigrant students. He’s teaching them a lot more than just the school curriculum. It had its premiere at the Berlin Film Festival and was very highly regarded there. It won a prize at at least one other festival.

Still, almost a year after Berlin took place, the film hasn’t had a screening in New York City yet, and we’re really proud to show its New York premiere. It reflects the way in general film festivals have gone through a challenging couple of years. Many of them met those challenges by shrinking their size.

At DOC NYC we have maintained our normal size the last two years and really try to do that to give opportunities to filmmakers who were losing them elsewhere. Mr. Bachmann and His Class is playing in our section called Winners Circle, which puts a focus on films that have won prizes at other international festivals.

AKT: You also have an exciting restoration from 1979!

TP: I’m glad you brought this up! It’s called The Energy War. This was a series in the 1970s, as you say, by DA Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus, and Pat Powell. Today, documentary series are all the rage but in the 1970s it was really a novel thing. There had been very few documentary series at that point. In The Energy War they’re looking at legislation trying to be passed during the Carter administration.

Thom Powers on Mr. Bachmann And His Class: “It’s a long study of a very inspiring German teacher whose class is made up of immigrant students.”
Thom Powers on Mr. Bachmann And His Class: “It’s a long study of a very inspiring German teacher whose class is made up of immigrant students.”

This is of course against the backdrop of the energy crisis in the Seventies when gas prices were rising and people were starting to recognize that burning fossil fuels was not a great policy. Jimmy Carter at that time put solar panels on the roof of the White House that were later taken down by Ronald Reagan and his administration. So in Energy War we’re watching politicians trying to correct some of the same problems that we are thinking about today. One of those politicians is young Al Gore.

Since this film first aired in 1979 on public television as a series, it’s scarcely been seen since then. I had had a chance to watch it in archives and always felt that it had a real important content for today. Now Chris Hegedus and her team at Pennebaker Hegedus Films have been working on getting the whole series restored. The first one is a 90-minute portion called Filibuster, which really stands on its own as a film. We’re thrilled to be showing that with Chris Hegedus there in person to talk about it and hope it helps prompt a greater exposure of this classic series.

AKT: That sounds great. I noticed it. It looks like a good addition, the title alone could be ripped from the news now.

TP: Yes, when you watch a film like [Eva Orner’s] Burning alongside Energy War, you can see the way things that we are grappling with today are not brand-new problems, we’ve just been slow to address them.

Thom Powers on DA Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus, and Pat Powell’s The Energy War “Filibuster”: “We’re watching politicians trying to correct some of the same problems that we are thinking about today. One of those politicians is young Al Gore.”
Thom Powers on DA Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus, and Pat Powell’s The Energy War “Filibuster”: “We’re watching politicians trying to correct some of the same problems that we are thinking about today. One of those politicians is young Al Gore.”

AKT: Very slow. Sometimes you wonder while reading literature or even watching old movies, how the warnings are all there and we have done nothing.

Coming up - Thom’s comments in detail on more of the films that I am looking forward to in the 12th edition of DOC NYC.

Read what Thom Powers had to say on the Visionaries Tribute Lifetime Achievement Award honourees Raoul Peck and Joan Churchill, the new juried sections in the festival, in-cinema Q&As only, and a DOC NYC PRO panel from the past.

DOC NYC U: Hunter screens on Friday, November 12 at 11:35am, followed by a Q&A with several members of the filmmaking team at Cinépolis Chelsea

Go Through the Dark screens on Saturday, November 13 at 7:10pm, followed by a Q&A with Yunhong Pu at Cinépolis Chelsea

Mr. Bachmann and His Class screens on Wednesday, November 10 at 7:15pm, followed by a Q&A with Maria Speth at Cinépolis Chelsea

The Energy War screens on Saturday, November 13 at 2:15pm, followed by a Q&A with Chris Hegedus and film subjects Barry Direnfeld and Thomas Susman at the IFC Center

DOC NYC 2021 in cinemas (IFC Center - SVA Theatre - Cinépolis Chelsea) runs from November 10 through November 18 with select films screening online in the US from November 19 through November 28.

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