DOC NYC Artistic Director Thom Powers on Mel Brooks in the Special Event screening of Lisa Hurwitz’s The Automat: “This is a real New Yorker’s film.”
In the final instalment with DOC NYC Artistic Director Thom Powers, we discuss a number of the films that are screening in the 12th edition of DOC NYC. I start with Marc Shaffer’s Exposing Muybridge which has comments from Eadweard Muybridge admirer Gary Oldman; Tom Donahue’s Dean Martin: King Of Cool; Alessandro Rossellini’s The Rossellinis; Andrea Arnold’s Cow; Vincent Liota’s Objects; Eva Orner’s Burning; Abby Epstein’s The Business Of Birth Control; Mads Brügger’s The Mole; Robert B Weide and Don Argott’s Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck In Time; Peter Middleton and James Spinney’s The Real Charlie Chaplin; Lisa Hurwitz’s The Automat As A Special Event, and end with the Closing Night selection, The First Wave, directed by Matthew Heineman.
Thom Powers on Kurt Vonnegut Unstuck In Time: “He was born on Veteran’s Day, which has extra meaning, considering all that he wrote about the experiences of warfare and being a veteran.”
The First Wave screening on November 18 at 7:00pm inside the Beacon Theatre has a limited number of tickets available to the public for free by RSVPing here, thanks to generous support from Northwell Health and National Geographic Documentary Films.
From New York, Thom Powers joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on DOC NYC 2021.
Anne-Katrin Titze: There are some documentaries about film that I am curious about. Some go back thematically to the 20th century, one even to the 19th, the documentary on Muybridge.
Thom Powers: Yeah, our festival has always done well with documentaries about filmmaking and also documentaries about photography. In this film Exposing Muybridge, you kind of have a combination of the two. I learned a tremendous amount about Eadweard Muybridge from watching it. It’s a really beautifully made film that gets into his professional and personal history. It’s super fascinating.
AKT: Another film to look forward to is Dean Martin: King of Cool. And also The Rossellinis.
TP: The Rossellinis is looking at the complicated descendants of Roberto Rossellini. Of course, prominent in that family is Isabella Rossellini. It’s a fascinating personal journey that is as much about the history of cinema as it is about that specific family. The Dean Martin film is by Tom Donahue, who has done terrific films about show business. His film Casting By really shed light on the under-sung role of casting directors. In this film about Dean Martin we really come to understand his complicated relationships with Jerry Lewis and Frank Sinatra. It’s a real treasure trove of pop culture history.
AKT: On a completely other note, there is Cow.
Thom Powers on Exposing Muybridge: “It’s a really beautifully made film that gets into his professional and personal history.”
TP: That’s right, Andrea Arnold’s film is playing in the Kaleidoscope section that we previously mentioned. Cow is a look at the world through a cow’s eyes, or looking into the cow’s eyes. It has moved audiences at other festivals and we’re really pleased to have the New York premiere of it.
AKT: To move from movie stars, to animals to objects - you have a film on objects!
TP: Objects is another film that Ruth [Somalo] brought in. It’s looking at what the meaning of objects are through the eyes of different individuals talking about the meaning of objects in their life. It’s one of the films that holds up a mirror and causes you to reflect on what different objects mean in your own life.
AKT: There are also a lot of films that speak of our concerns at the present time. Starting with your Closing Night selection, The First Wave, which is about the first wave of the pandemic and was filmed during the first wave in New York, correct?
TP: That’s right. That’s going to be a very moving way to close the festival. We are opening it up for free to New York healthcare workers.
AKT: That’s great!
TP: To be able to show that film in New York City is a real honour.
Thom Powers: “Cow is a look at the world through a cow’s eyes, or looking into the cow’s eyes.”
AKT: You will show films about fire, about reproductive rights, about corruption. Everything that is on people’s minds right now. Any of those you want to highlight?
TP: The film about fire and the climate crisis that you mentioned is Burning, by the filmmaker Eva Orner, who previously won an Oscar for Taxi to the Dark Side with Alex Gibney. In Burning she’s looking at her home country of Australia during the record-breaking brushfires that they experienced in 2019 to 2020 and really asking bigger questions, about why more wildfires are happening around the world and why politicians are not taking greater action to get at their root causes. You made reference to some other topics …
AKT: Reproductive rights.
TP: Oh yes, there’s this birth control film that’s directed by Abby Epstein and executive produced by Ricki Lake, who will be at the festival to present that. Previously this team made the film called The Business of Being Born, that we showed many years ago. In The Business of Birth Control, they are looking at the controversial history of the creation of the pill. And I think in both these films, they’re taking an investigative look into women’s reproductive issues that often have not been front and center in media coverage.
AKT: Corruption I just threw in there, because it’s omnipresent. I didn’t think of any particular documentary. I suppose that The Mole by Mads Brügger is going in that direction?
TP: Yes, I mean corruption probably seeps into many different films. I can think of a film called The Caviar Connection that is a journalistic investigation in different corners of Europe. Certainly the film you just mentioned, The Mole, by the very inventive and enterprising Danish filmmaker Mads Brügger, whom audiences will know from films like Red Chapel, that’s a film that is almost like a John le Carré like spy novel that peels back different layers of international corruption.
Thom Powers on The First Wave: “That’s going to be a very moving way to close the festival. We are opening it up for free to New York healthcare workers.”
AKT: I’ll just mention a few more that I’m curious about, one is the Kurt Vonnegut film.
TP: This film has been many years in the making. There’s a thread through the film that talks about the director’s challenges through the years of making this film. But we’re really proud to be showing the world premiere on what would have been Kurt Vonnegut’s 99th birthday on November 11. He was born on Veteran’s Day, which has extra meaning, considering all that he wrote about the experiences of warfare and being a veteran. So that should be a very special screening.
AKT: Great timing! Two more titles I’ll throw at you! The Real Charlie Chaplin and The Automat.
TP: The Real Charlie Chaplin is such a fascinating film where you may ask yourself, what more is there to say about Charlie Chaplin?
TP: I have watched any number of documentaries on Charlie Chaplin, including great ones, by Kevin Brownlow, who was honored in our very first DOC NYC in 2010. But I had so much to learn from this film The Real Charlie Chaplin that layers both aspects of his professional life and his personal life and sees him as a very complex person. I would encourage anyone who has even a small interest in Charlie Chaplin to look out for that one. And then the other film you mentioned, The Automat, this is a real New Yorker’s film.
Most people, including myself, are not old enough to remember the heyday of the automat. It was a particular American urban institution for getting cheap food quickly, and you have figures like Mel Brooks who’s interviewed in the film and others and members of the families who started the automats.
One of the things that’s always a treat for me at DOC NYC is the films that we get that tell us more about different aspects of our city. Many of those are collected in our Metropolis Competition, which is devoted to New York stories. The Automat is going to be playing as a Special Event. I really look forward to it.
Read what Thom Powers had to say on DOC NYC U, Go Through The Dark, Mr. Bachmann and His Class, and The Energy War.
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.