The recently concluded TED (technology, entertainment, design) conference once again proved to be on the cutting edge of the intellectual-cultural vanguard. It draws such an impressive list of hot-shots (this year’s included Bill Gates, Valerie Plame, James Cameron, and David Byrne) — it’s kind of dizzying. I wondered what this year’s TED offered the doc world and I got a report from Deborah Scranton, the director of 2006’s The War Tapes. She confirms that it really is the place to be. Here’s what she had to say…

Doc Soup: What were you doing at TED?

Deborah ScrantonI came to TED for the first time in 2007 when I was invited to speak on the innovation of The War Tapes (virtual embed, directing over the internet) and fell in love with the conference. I’ve returned every year since and plan to continue. My head always buzzes with all the thought-provoking ideas I learn, and the lateral philosophy of the conference means you literally can walk up to anyone else at the conference and have a chat.

Are there a lot of other doc folks there?

There was a talk given and clips shown by doc filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy about raising child suicide bombers in Pakistan that was hair raising (Sharmeen is a TED Fellow). Other TED Fellows attending but not speaking included (and this may not be all…): Anita Doron, Taghi Armani and Saeed Taji Farouky. Other doc filmmakers that I ran into at the conference included Morgan Spurlock and Marianne Pearl.

The Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund Breakfast held Friday morning, hosted by Tribeca’s Ryan Harrington and Beth Janson, and featuring Marianne Pearl, philanthropic adviser Trevor Neilson and journalist Michael Massing, was interesting.

James Cameron spoke on the last day.

In general, what has TED done for docs? I recall Jehane Noujaim was a TED grant recipient one year…

Jehane won a TED Prize and had an event called Pangea Day. TED fosters dialogue and storytelling and a sharing of, as they say, “ideas worth spreading.”

What was exciting about TED this year?

Every TED is exciting. This year, the theme was “What the World Needs Now” and one of my favorite talks was by Daniel Kahneman, the founder of behavioral-economics, who talked about the differences between “experience happiness” and “memory happiness.” People tend to think that having happy experiences in your life and being happy about your life are one and the same, but they are actually different. When your doctor asks you, “Does it hurt when I touch you here,” she is asking your “experiencing self.” When she asks, “How have you been feeling lately?” your “remembering self” answers. Pretty wild.

I was also really interested in Nicholas Christakis, a Harvard medical doctor and social scientist who has been analyzing obesity and social networks, looking for correlations. It turns out that obese people cluster together in social networks. Also, you can see clusters of smoking, drinking, altruism and divorce. “The network has a memory, it moves, things flow through it. Is has a resilience that allows it to persist over time. It’s a living thing,” Christakis says.

I was also interested in Kevin Bales‘ Ending Slavery talk. About 27 million human beings live on Earth as slaves. Bales is the co-founder of Free the Slaves, an organization dedicated to ending slavery around the world in 25 years. I liked his optimism and unflagging courage.

And Bill Gates.

Tell me a little about the film you’re working on. Is it somehow related to your being at TED?

Everything always relates when you are at TED. It is a mash-up type of immersive experience where you never know what or who will appear next. The myriad of relationships formed continually grow and can bear fruit in surpising ways.

My new film is called Earth Made of Glass. Here’s a synopsis:

On August 6th, 2008, against the backdrop of the world’s deadliest war in neighboring Eastern Congo, Rwandan President Paul Kagame released a report detailing the French government’s hidden role in planning the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Three months later, his closest aide, Rose Kabuye, is arrested by France on charges of terrorism.

Meanwhile, Jean-Pierre Sagahutu, a genocide survivor haunted by his father’s unsolved murder, scours the Rwandan countryside on a fifteen-year-search for clues — ultimately finding himself confronted with his darkest desire: being face to face with his father’s killer.

As President Kagame fights to free Rose from France and expose the truth about what really happened in Rwanda fifteen years ago, Jean-Pierre journeys to the scene of the crime, and the doorstep of a killer, to uncover the chilling facts behind his father’s death. As each relentlessly pursues the truth — with the fate of a family and a country hanging in the balance — they find themselves faced with a choice: to enact vengeance or turn the other cheek…

Despite having never met, the story of a President and an ordinary citizen become inextricably linked in this groundbreaking film. Bound by a deep love of country, an insatiable need for the truth, and a hunger for peace, their struggles will set in motion the rebuilding of a family, a nation, and ultimately the entire African continent. Above all, they will shake the very foundations of what it means to forgive — providing a model for ending hatred and violence throughout the world.


Learn more about Deborah Scranton and her work on her website. You can also watch TED Talks on the website.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen