What do documentary insiders and filmmakers want out of a doc conference?

Let’s be honest. Listening to, and rubbing elbows, with Academy Award-winning Michael Moore is pretty sweet. Never a dull moment with that guy. But you also want to be practical. And learning about new technology and potential platforms for distribution is key. And if you throw in Joshua Oppenheimer, who is returning with his follow-up to The Act of Killing, one of the most important documentaries of recent years, then you know you’ve got the making of a great conference.

Yes, Thom Powers, the lead programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival’s documentary conference, has loaded the deck. The upcoming conference, on September 9-10, 2014, features keynote speeches from Moore (celebrating the 25th anniversary of Roger & Me) and Oppenheimer (showing The Look of Silence), a series of panels on interesting platform and outlets (Condé Nast, VHX) but also an opportunity to step back (filmmaker Astra Taylor has come out with a critical approach to the digital age with her book The People’s Platform.)

I spoke with Powers about the conference, which you can read more about here.

Doc Soup Man: Let’s start with what the takeaways were from last year’s conference.

Thom Powers: It was the fifth year of the conference and we moved to a new location. We had a couple of attention getting discussions, including Liesl Copland’s presentation, “Show Us The Numbers.” It started a lot of conversations that rippled through the year. We have a unique opportunity in that we have this gathering of movers and shakers and thinkers form all over and we want to make the most of that. What I always try to do is highlight things that are new on the horizon, inject ideas that will provoke debate, and stir conversation. That’s what is guidng this year’s conference.

Doc Soup Man: I was very interested to see a Condé Nast panel happening with my old pal Jed Weintrob who is now the head of production there.

Thom Powers: I consider the main audience of the conference to be documentary filmmakers. One of the things I try to do is bring them new opportunities to get work. What really stands out at this year’s conference are the increasing opportunities with short form. There is a lot of activity on digital platforms. When I heard that Condé Nast is making a big push, it was very exciting to me.

Doc Soup Man: Speaking of movers and shakers, you’ve got Marc Schiller of BOND/360 returning.

Thom Powers: Marc gave a presentation last year when he was talking about new opportunities for filmmakers to have more hands-on control. It was a lot of theory. Now, a year later, he has had a lot of hands-on experience with Particle Fever and other films and here’s a chance to hear what he’s learned in these case studies. One of the more promising tools is the technology behind VHX, which allows filmmakers to stream and offer downloads off their own websites.

Doc Soup Man: And you have Joshua Oppenheimer’s followup to The Act of Killing. That’s pretty exciting. What’s The Look of Silence?

Thom Powers: The Look of Silence is a continuation of what he did with The Act of Killing; the filming took place at the same time. He did not feel it was safe to go back to Indonesia to shoot. So he used what he had. The interesting contrast is that The Act of Killing was about the perpetrators of the 1965 killing and with The Look of Silence, Joshua is looking at the brother of a victim as this man seeks out answers.

Doc Soup Man: There was a fair amount of criticism of The Act of Killing for what some people called insensitivity and possibly a glorification of the perpetrators. Was this Joshua’s way of responding to that?

Thom Powers: I don’t think so. Even when Joshua premiered The Act of Killing in 2012, he was talking about putting this material in a film. I’ve personally always thought that angle of criticism was overstated. I strongly disagreed with it although it’s a valid question to raise.

Doc Soup Man: There’s been a fair amount of mishegas over recent moves between Toronto and the Telluride films festivals, in regards to what films can premiere where. Have the docs come into play in that?

Thom Powers: There have always been docs that play at both Telluride and Toronto. One thing that I think has been overstated is that a filmmaker was choosing one festival over the other. I didn’t have one conversation with a filmmaker who felt that way. As long as I’ve programmed, Telluride has had a great program, Toronto has had a great program and the New York Film Festival has had a great program. And my expectation is that they will all have great programs this year.

Doc Soup Man: Anything else to add?

Thom Powers: I want to say that with the hope that we put into digital programs, I thought it would be interesting to bring in Astra Taylor and The People’s Platform that brings a healthy dose of skepticism and critical analysis to what’s happening with the Internet in terms of who benefits and who gets left out. Amidst a conversation that gives a lot of hope, I want to inject a notion of caution.

The Toronto International Film Festival’s Doc Conference runs from September 9 to 10, 2014, coinciding with its parent festival, which runs from September 4 to 14, 2014. Find out more at tiff.net.

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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