All Posts by Thom Powers

95: Free Solo, Minding The Gap & Getting Personal

“Free Solo,” “Minding the Gap,” “On Her Shoulders” and “The Sentence” are four outstanding documentaries from the past year that test the boundaries of filmmakers to keep a critical distance. Pure Nonfiction host Thom Powers interviewed the filmmakers on a panel titled “Getting Personal” at the 2018 DOC NYC festival.

Alexandria Bombach (“On Her Shoulders”) talks about the sensitivity of filming with Yazidi activist Nadia Murad (who later won the Nobel Peace Prize). Rudy Valdez (“The Sentence”) describes filming with his family while his sister Cindy was incarcerated. Bing Liu (”Minding the Gap) discusses interviewing his skateboarding friends Zack and Keire about cycles of abuse in their families. Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (“Free Solo,” directed with her husband Jimmy Chin) reflects on filming Alex Honnold on his life-risking climb of El Capitan without ropes.

Thanks to SVA MFA Social Documentary Program for their recording support. 
On Twitter: @ABombach @thereelrudyv @BingLiu89 @alexhonnold @thompowers @purenonfiction


Pure Nonfiction at IFC Center, the popular documentary series previously known as Stranger Than Fiction, announced its winter season line-up, featuring ten documentaries playing from February 5 to March 26. The season opens with UNITED SKATES (Feb 5), winner of the Tribeca Audience Award, about roller skating in black communities across the United States. The season includes sneak previews of two documentaries fresh from their Sundance premieres: Alex Gibney’s THE INVENTOR: OUT FOR BLOOD IN SILICON VALLEY (Mar 14) about the scandal of the fraudulent billion dollar company Theranos and Alison Klayman’s THE BRINK (Mar 26, closing night of the winter season) about the former Trump strategist Steve Bannon spreading his nationalist ideas in Europe.

Each Pure Nonfiction screening features the filmmakers or other special guests in person. The series, launched at IFC Center in 2005 and hosted by Thom Powers and Raphaela Neihausen, was formerly known as Stranger Than Fiction. It has a reputation as “a vital outpost for award-winning documentaries” (New York Times). The change in name aligns the series to the Pure Nonfiction podcast, in which Powers interviews documentary filmmakers, now in its fourth year.

“Pure Nonfiction as a screening series at IFC Center shares the same mission as the podcast to illuminate the art of documentary making, so it makes sense for them to share the same name,” said Powers.

The winter season includes a sneak preview of the new series THE CASE AGAINST ADNAN SYED (Feb 26) based on the case made famous by the Serial podcast. Director Amy Berg will present episode one prior to its debut on HBO. Other sneak previews include IT’S A HARD TRUTH, AIN’T IT (Feb 12) about prisoners learning to make films; and ONE NATION UNDER STRESS (Mar 19) with Dr. Sanjay Gupta trying to uncover why American life expectancy is falling.

Classic revivals are a key part of the screening series. The season includes a double bill (Feb 19) with D.A. Pennebaker’s ORIGINAL CAST ALBUM: COMPANY (1970) about a studio recording of the Stephen Sondheim musical; joined with a new parody of the film from the series DOCUMENTARY NOW! titled ORIGINAL CAST ALBUM: CO-OP. Pennebaker will present the films with other colleagues who were part of the original. Other classics include the 20thanniversary of Doug Block’s HOME PAGE (Feb 21) about the emergence of a confessional culture on the internet; THE TRIALS OF MUHAMMAD ALI (Mar 5) that will memorialize director Bill Siegel who passed away last December; and THAT RHYTHM…THOSE BLUES (Mar 12) in a new restoration of the 1988 film that explored rhythm and blues music in the 1940s and 1950s.

The Pure Nonfiction winter season takes place at the IFC Center every Tuesday night at 7:30 pm for eight weeks, plus special Thursday screenings on Feb 21 and Mar 14. Each event includes a discussion with the filmmakers, followed by a gathering at a nearby bar. Season passes are now on sale for $99 for 10 films. The full season schedule appears below. For more information, visit

Pure Nonfiction at IFC Center: Winter 2019 Season | 7:30pm Tuesdays at IFC Center, Feb 5 – Mar 26

Each show features a Q&A with the director or other special guests

Feb 5: Opening Night – UNITED SKATES (2018, Q&A w/ dir. Tina Brown & subject Reggie)

Feb 12: IT’S A HARD TRUTH, AIN’T IT (2018, Q&A w/ dir. Madeleine Sackler)

Feb 19: Double bill:

ORIGINAL CAST ALBUM: COMPANY (1970, Q&A w/ dir. D.A. Pennebaker & others)


Feb 21: Thursday specialHOME PAGE – 20thanniv. (1999, Q&A w/ dir. Doug Block & others) 

Feb 26: THE CASE AGAINST ADNAN SYED – episode one (2019, Q&A w/ dir. Amy Berg)

Mar 5: THE TRIALS OF MUHAMMAD ALI (2014, Q&A in memory of dir. Bill Siegel w/ his colleagues)

Mar 12: THAT RHYTHM…THOSE BLUES – newly restored (1988, Q&A w/ dir. George T. Nierenberg)

Mar 14: Thursday SpecialTHE INVENTOR: OUT FOR BLOOD IN SILICON VALLEY (2019, Q&A w/ dir. Alex Gibney)

Mar 19: ONE NATION UNDER STRESS (2019, Q&A w/ dir. Marc Levin)

Mar 26: Closing Night – THE BRINK (2019, Q&A w/ dir. Alison Klayman)

Tickets for Pure Nonfiction screenings are $17 for the general public and $14 for IFC Center members. A Season Pass covers admission to all 10 evenings and provides free popcorn at all screenings.  It is available for $99 ($80 for IFC members).

94: Sundance 2019 Preview

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Steve Bannon, Miles Davis & Toni Morrison are among the prominent documentary subjects at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Pure Nonfiction host Thom Powers got an early look at many of the year’s most anticipated films. In this third annual Sundance preview, he shares exclusive clips and insights on what to expect.

Films discussed (in chronological order):
Knock Down the House 
The Brink
Where’s My Roy Cohn? 
American Factory
Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool 
Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am
Ask Dr. Ruth
Mike Wallace Is Here 
The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley 
Sea of Shadows 
Apollo 11 and Vanity Fair on Apollo 11 
The Biggest Little Farm 
Untitled Amazing Jonathan Documentary 
Cold Case Hammarskjöld
This is Personal
Hail Satan? 

Thanks to the hard-working publicists who met our podcast deadline, especially the folks at Acme, Brigade, Cinetic, Dish Communications, DKC, Falco Ink, HBO Documentary Films, Magnolia, Neon, Participant Media, Susan Norget Promotions, Sunshine Sachs and apologies to anyone we’ve forgotten.

On Twitter: @thompowers @PureNonfiction

93: Astra Taylor on “What is Democracy?”

Cornel West, Wendy Brown and Rev William Barber are among the thinkers and activists captured in the new film “What is Democracy?”. Filmmaker Astra Taylor previously made two other documentaries on philosophers “Zizek!” and “Examined Life.” In addition to her work as a filmmaker, she’s also the author of “The People’s Platform” and the forthcoming “Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss it When it’s Gone.” As an activist, she is a co-founder of The Debt Collective and she also performs with the band Neutral Milk Hotel.

Taylor discusses the multiple facets of her career with Pure Nonfiction host Thom Powers.

This interview was recorded at SVA’s MFA Social Documentary department.

On Twitter: @astradisastra @thompowers @PureNonfiction 

92: Aretha Franklin in “Amazing Grace,” Lost and Found

In 1972, Aretha Franklin recorded her biggest selling album “Amazing Grace” as a live gospel performance over two nights at a Los Angeles church, under the direction of Reverend James Cleveland. The event was recorded by camera crews led by Sydney Pollack. Due to technical problems, the project was abandoned and the footage stored for decades. It was reawakened by former Warner Brothers music producer Alan Elliott and a team of producers. There have been legendary roadblocks to the film reaching the public, but in the aftermath of Aretha’s death in August, the Franklin family rallied behind getting the film out. The film had its world premiere at DOC NYC on November 12, 2018.

On this episode, Pure Nonfiction host Thom Powers presents highlights from the premiere. Reverend Al Sharpton delivers an invocation before the film. After the screening, producers Alan Elliott, Tirrell Whittley, Aretha’s niece Sabrina Owens and writer Nelson George conduct a conversation. And Reverend William Barber, who traveled from North Carolina to attend, delivers remarks with theomusicologist Yara Allen.

The speakers make reference to several notable figures in the audience including Lisa Wexler (daughter of “Amazing Grace” producer Jerry Wexler), the album’s drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, sound mixer Jimmy Douglas, film producer Robert Johnson, Bishop Hezekiah Walker and comedian Chris Rock.

“Amazing Grace” has an Oscar-qualifying theatrical engagement for one week in New York and Los Angeles starting December 7, then it will get a wider release in 2019.

On Twitter: @TheRevAl @RevDrBarber @nelsongeorge @TirrellWhittley @thompowers @PureNonfiction

91: Mr. Rogers, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda & Pope Francis Walk Into a Bar

The art of portrait documentaries is discussed with five filmmakers: Wim Wenders (“Pope Francis: A Man of His Word”), Rashida Jones and Alan Hicks (“Quincy”), Morgan Neville (“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?) and Susan Lacy (“Jane Fonda: A Life in Five Acts”). This conversation was recorded at DOC NYC before a live audience. The filmmakers discuss what drew them to their subjects, how they ask hard questions, and how their films reflect their own lives.


Related Pure Nonfiction episodes:
11: Morgan Neville 
46: Rashida Jones
77: Wim Wenders
90: DOC NYC Short List filmmakers on “Getting Political” 

On Twitter: @ThePopeMovie @QuincyDJones @MrRogersMovie @TremoloDocs @HBODocs @thompowers @PureNonfiction

90: Michael Moore, Julie Cohen, Annie Sundberg & Stephen Maing on “Getting Political”

Filmmakers Michael Moore (Fahrenheit 11/9), Julie Cohen (RBG), Annie Sundberg (Reversing Roe) and Stephen Maing (Crime + Punishment) sat down with Pure Nonfiction host Thom Powers for a panel called “Getting Political” at the DOC NYC PRO conference on November 9, 2018.
The date marked the two year anniversary of Donald Trump’s election and came three days after the U.S. midterm elections. The filmmakers discuss how they cover political topics and how the recent elections affect the issues in their films.
Pure Nonfiction is distributed by the TIFF podcast network.

89: Opal H. Bennett on Short Documentaries

Short documentaries are thriving on platforms like Netflix, HBO and New York Times Op-Docs. This year, the DOC NYC festival picked 12 short docs for its first ever Short List: Shorts. Programmer Opal H. Bennett talks to Pure Nonfiction host Thom Powers to highlight some the year’s leading Short Doc awards contenders that are currently streaming.

On Twitter: @oh_benn @docnycfest @thompowers @purenonfiction

88: DOC NYC Preview 2018

Wim Wenders, Rashida Jones, and Michael Moore are among the hundreds of documentary filmmakers coming to New York City for the DOC NYC festival from November 8 to 15.

DOC NYC artistic director and Pure Nonfiction host Thom Powers gives a preview of the festival loaded with clips from films. He interviews key members of the festival’s programming team for their insights.

DOC NYC executive director Raphaela Neihausen discusses the Opening, Closing and Centerpiece selections. She also talks about the DOC NYC Short List curating 15 contenders for Oscars and other awards.

Director of Programming Basil Tsiokos talks about the Viewfinders and Metropolis competition sections.

Programmer Ruth Somalo gives highlights from the thematic sections of Behind the Scenes, Modern Family, and In the System.

Associate programmer Karen McMullen discusses the legacy of Orlando Bagwell who will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award. She also offers tips from the Sonic Cinema section of music documentaries.

Below are links to the films in order of when they’re discussed in the episode:

Thom Powers on special guests at the festival:
Seth Meyers and John Mulaney for Documentary Now! presents Original Cast Album: Co-Op (Nov 9)
Olympia Dukakis for Olympia (Nov 11)
Michael Moore for Fahrenheit 11/9 (Nov 9)
Rashida Jones for Quincy (Nov 8)
Wim Wenders for Pope Francis: A Man of His Word (Nov 8)
Jakob Dylan for Echo in the Canyon (Nov 10)
J. Cole for Out of Omaha (Nov 10)
Darrell Hammond for Cracked Up (Nov 14)
Christo for Walking on Water (Nov 10)

Raphaela Neihausen on:
Opening Night – The Biggest Little Farm (Nov 8)
Centerpiece – Documentary Now! presents Original Cast Album: Co-Op (Nov 9)
Closing Night – Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists (Nov 15)
Quincy (Nov 8 & 10)
Fahrenheit 11/9 (Nov 9)
Three Identical Strangers (Nov 8 & 9)
RBG (Nov 14 & 15)
Shirkers (Nov 8 & 9)
Pope Francis: A Man of His Word (Nov 8 & 15)

Tim Wardle (Three Identical Strangers)
Betsy West & Julie Cohen (RBG)
Sandi Tan (Shirkers)
Wim Wenders (Pope Francis: A Man of His Word)
DOC NYC PRO (Nov 8-15)
Short List panels (Nov 9)

Basil Tsiokos on:
Cooked: Survival By Zipcode (Nov 11 & 14)
Walking on Water (Nov 10)

The World Before Your Feet (Nov 11)
Creating a Character: The Moni Yakim Legacy (Nov 11)
Decade of Fire (Nov 10)


Ruth Somalo on:
>The Eyes of Orson Welles (Nov 12)
The Ghost of Peter Sellers (Nov 10)
Cracked Up (Nov 14)
Beyond the Bolex (Nov 8)

Little Miss Westie (Nov 10)
A Sister’s Song (Nov 10)
To Kid or Not to Kid (Nov 11)


87: Sandi Tan on “Shirkers”

Winner of the 2018 Sundance Directing Award for World Documentary, Sandi Tan makes her debut with “Shirkers,” now on Netflix. She grew up in Singapore. As a teenager in the 1980s, she had an outsider’s sensibility, obsessed with punk rock, fanzines, and indie film. She took a film class from a middle-aged American man named Georges Cardona who became her mentor, friend and ultimately the thief of her dreams. At age 19, Sandi wrote and starred in a fiction film called “Shirkers.” Cardona was the director, but after production, he took the footage and never gave it back. Twenty-five years later, Sandi goes in search of what happened to her film and the circle of friends who made it.

Pure Nonfiction host Thom Powers interviews Sandi about the making of “Shirkers.” The conversation contains spoilers, so do yourself a favor by watching the film first on Netflix. (The film also plays on the DOC NYC Short List with Sandi at a Q&A on Nov 9).

There’s a bonus near the end of the podcast where Sandi describes her connection to the cult Singapore action film “They Call Her Cleopatra Wong.”

On Twitter: @ShirkersFilm @thompowers @PureNonfiction

Pure Nonfiction is distributed by the TIFF podcast network.

Social media & sharing icons powered by UltimatelySocial