All Posts by Thom Powers

PN 49: Steve James From “Hoop Dreams” to “Abacus”

New York’s Chinatown is the backdrop for Steve James’ latest documentary “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail.” He follows a David vs Goliath legal tale about the Chinese-American family behind a small bank defending themselves against an aggressive prosecution.

In Part 1 of this episode, Pure Nonfiction host Thom Powers talks to James about his breakthrough film “Hoop Dreams” and the development of his career that included a stint directing fiction films.

In Part 2, Powers interviews three of the key figures in “Abacus” – the sisters Jill, Vera and Chanterelle Sung. They discuss what it was like being filmed by James during this tense period of their lives.

James was interviewed before a live audience at the Montclair Film Festival. The Sungs were interviewed as part of the Stranger Than Fiction series at the IFC Center.

For more, hear episode 19 when James discussed “Abacus” before its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.

On Twitter:  @AbacusMovie @ThomPowers @PureNonfiction

Pure Nonfiction is distributed by the TIFF podcast network.

PN 48: HBO’s Sheila Nevins on Seductions, Heartbreaks & Her New Book

Meryl Streep, Audra McDonald and Glenn Close are among many esteemed performers who read stories on the audio version of Sheila Nevins’ new quasi-memoir “You Don’t Look Your Age…And Other Fairy Tales.” Nevins has served for 35 years overseeing HBO Documentary Films. Now she reveals tales from her own life covering childhood, seduction, heartbreak, feminism, motherhood and aging.

Pure Nonfiction host Thom Powers interviewed Nevins on her 78th birthday (April 6). She speaks candidly about growing up with Communist parents, learning the power and limits of seduction, fighting for equal pay as a woman, being inspired  to write by Larry Kramer and facing her seventies.

The conversation includes excerpts of passages read by Lena Dunham and Tovah Feldshuh.

On Twitter: @thesheilanevins @thompowers @PureNonfiction

Pure Nonfiction is distributed by the TIFF podcast network.

PN 47: Jonathan Demme & Renée Shafransky on Spalding Gray

“Swimming to Cambodia,” the 1987 film directed by Jonathan Demme, had a rippling influence. It laid the path for a kind of first person storytelling that today is widespread from “This American Life” to “The Moth.” The film is deceptively simple: monologuist Spalding Gray sits behind a desk and tells a stream of consciousness story about working as an actor on “The Killing Fields,” set against the back drop of America’s secret war in Cambodia. Gray had originated the project as a four-hour theater piece presented in two nights. His partner Renée Shafransky recruited Demme to adapt into a film, shortening it to feature length. The crew included cinematographer John Bailey, editor Carol Littleton and composer Laurie Anderson.


On this episode, Pure Nonfiction host Thom Powers interviews Demme and Shafransky to discuss the film in October 2016 at New York’s IFC Center. Demme died on April 26, 2017.

For more on Demme, listen to him discuss his documentary portrait films on episode 6 and his music documentaries on episode 23.

On Twitter: @PureNonfiction @thompowers

“Swimming to Cambodia” is now available on DVD. This episode also touches upon the IFC TV series “Documentary Now” that has a parody episode of the film titled “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything” (season 2, episode 3).

Pure Nonfiction is distributed by the TIFF podcast network.

Montclair Film Festival Panels

Check out Thom Powers at two Pure Nonfiction panels! Both panels are free to attend.

The Unspoken Consequences of Photojournalism

When: Saturday, April 29 @ 1:00 pm

Where: Cinema505 (505 Bloomfield Ave. Montclair NJ)

Montclair-based documentary photographer Ed Kashi and filmmaker Julie Winokur (Talking Eyes Media) are married with two children, but their work frequently puts them on the road. Last year, Kashi wrote an essay called “The Unspoken Consequences of a Photojournalist’s Life,” published in Time, that candidly explores the personal pressures of constant travel. In this conversation, Pure Nonfiction podcast host Thom Powers interviews Kashi and Winokur about balancing work and family.


From Hoop Dreams To Chinatown

When: Sunday, May 7 @ 12:15 pm

Where: Cinema505 (505 Bloomfield Ave. Montclair NJ)

Chicago-based filmmaker Steve James has an extraordinary documentary career that includes “Hoop Dreams” about high school basketball players; “The Interrupters” about former gang members dedicated to ending street violence; “Life Itself” about film critic Roger Ebert”; and his latest film playing at MFF, “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” about the family behind a Chinatown bank defending themselves against prosecution. Pure Nonfiction podcast host interviews James about his career.

DOC NYC: November 11 – 19, 2020

DOC NYC burst upon the scene in 2010 with an inaugural event that was hailed as “ambitious” (New York Times) and “selective but eclectic” (Village Voice). By 2014, DOC NYC had become America’s largest documentary film festival and voted by MovieMaker magazine as one of the “top five coolest documentary film festivals in the world”. Based at the West Village’s IFC Center, Chelsea’s SVA Theater and Bow Tie Chelsea Cinema, the eight-day festival showcases new achievements in documentary film along with panels and conversations. It also seeks to make connections that happen “only in New York.”

In 2018, the festival showcased 300+ films & events, presented by 300+ filmmakers & special guests. Past guests include Hillary Clinton, Wim Wenders, Eric Clapton, Lucas Hedges, John Mulaney, Seth Meyers, Jim Carrey, Al Sharpton, Susan Sarandon, Martin Scorsese, Big Bird, Sarah Polley, Jared Leto, Steve Madden, Noam Chomsky, Ricki Lake, Michael Moore, Michel Gondry, Omar Epps, Errol Morris, Oliver Stone, Jonathan Franzen, Kathleen Hanna, Spandau Ballet, Greil Marcus, Grace Lee Boggs, Bela Fleck, Nat Hentoff, Chuck Workman, and The Mekons. Audience attendees have included Harry Belafonte, Rosario Dawson, Fred Armisen, Jim Jarmusch, Michael Stipe, Martha Stewart, Katie Couric, Russell Simmons, Darren Aronofsky, Cornel West, Naomi Watts, among others.

Save the date for our 11th anniversary from November 11 - 19, 2020.

PN 00 – Introducing Pure Nonfiction

Available To Listen!

Documentary film makers span all kinds of storytellers: provocateurs, visionaries, and investigators. Pure Nonfiction brings you candid interviews with leading documentary makers. Hear this preview as host Thom Powers talks to the filmmakers behind Making a Murderer; The New Yorker Presents; Mapplethorpe and more. Be among the first to subscribe!

PN 01: From Maysles To The New Yorker Presents…

Available To Listen!

Kahane Cooperman, the showrunner of “The New Yorker Presents,” discusses her eclectic jobs from working at Maysles Films to becoming co-executive producer of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” to directing her new documentary “Joe’s Violin” that premiered at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.

“I essentially went on my first job interviews in almost 19 years. I had to go through four levels of interviewing – starting with Alex Gibney and finally ending with David Remnick at The New Yorker. Everyone was like, ‘Are you nervous about these interviews?’ I’m like, ’No, I’m really not nervous about the interviews. I’m nervous I’m going to get this job!”

On Twitter: @kcorncoop, @joesviolin, @thompowers

Thanks to SundanceNow Doc Club for sponsoring this episode.

Show Notes:
Maysles Documentary Center
“Making Dazed” appears on the Criterion Collection edition of “Dazed and Confused”
“Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam” is on SundanceNow Doc Club
“Joe’s Violin” is now playing at festivals
“The New Yorker Presents” Season 1 is on Amazon

PN 02: Inside the Supreme Court Case on Abortion

Available To Listen!

Dawn Porter, director of “Trapped” and “Gideon’s Army,” discusses how she switched careers from being a lawyer to a documentary maker; and how she chose her topics. Her first film “Gideon’s Army” looked at public defense lawyers in the south and influenced action by Attorney General Eric Holder. Her latest film “Trapped” won the 2016 Sundance Film Festival special jury prize. It profiles abortion clinics in the south including Whole Woman’s Health that will have its fate determined by the Supreme Court this year.

“As a lawyer, this idea that a state could knowingly pass laws that are probably unconstitutional, I just couldn’t wrap my mind around that. I wanted to figure out how that could possibly be the case.”

On Twitter: @dawnporterm, @trappeddoc, @gideonsarmyfilm, @thompowers

Thanks to SundanceNow Doc Club for sponsoring this episode. This episode was recorded at SVA MFA Social Documentary Film Program.

Show notes:
Trilogy Films is Dawn Porter’s production company
“Gideon’s Army” is on SundanceNow Doc Club
“Trapped” is now playing in theaters

PN 03: “Making a Murderer” – Behind the Scenes

Available To Listen!

“Making a Murderer” directors Laura Riccardi and Moira Demos discuss the ten-year process of creating their acclaimed Netflix series. This conversation with Thom Powers took place with a live audience at New York’s IFC Center on February 25, 2016. The filmmakers were joined by their editor Mary Manhardt and Wisconsin attorney Stephen Glynn who appears in the series. The talk has been condensed and edited for Pure Nonfiction.

“Making a Murderer” had its world premiere at the DOC NYC festival in November 2015 and was released a month later on Netflix. The series looks at a controversial true crime case in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin. Steven Avery served 18 years in prison for a wrongful conviction in the sexual assault of Penny Beernsten. (The actual perpetrator was Gregory Allen). After being exonerated with the help of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, Avery filed a civil suit against Manitowoc County and its officials for $36 million. Stephen Glynn was on Avery’s legal team. In fall 2005, as depositions were taking place for the suit, Avery was accused of a new crime, the murder of photographer Teresa Halbach whose body parts were found on the salvage yard where he lived.

As graduate film students, Riccardi & Demos began covering the Avery case in 2005 and took 10 years to complete the project. Other key names in this conversation are Avery’s nephew Brendan Dassey, who was brought to trial as an accomplice; the special prosecutor Ken Kratz; and Avery’s criminal defense lawyers Jerome Buting and Dean Strang.

On Pure Nonfiction, the filmmakers take us through the steps of production and reflect on their long journey.

“It did at times get really difficult for Moira and me,” says Riccardi. “Our families were really concerned about us – with good reason – and wanted assurances from us that we really couldn’t provide.”

On Twitter: @allHs, @filmgreek, @MakingAMurderer, @thompowers

Thanks to SundanceNow Doc Club for sponsoring this episode.

Show notes:
Watch “Making a Murderer” on Netflix
Kevin Kiner composed the music to “Making a Murderer”

Toronto International Film Festival: September 7 – 17


Candid and unscripted: the best non-fiction cinema from around the world. Programmed by Thom Powers.

​Azmaish: A Journey Through the Subcontinent - Sabiha Sumar

BOOM FOR REAL The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat - Sara Driver

Cocaine Prison - Voileta Ayala

Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars - Lili Fini Zanuck

Ex Libris - The New York Public Library - Frederick Wiseman

Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami - Sophie Fiennes

Jane - Brett Morgen

Jim & Andy: the Great Beyond - the story of Jim Carrey & Andy Kaufman with a very special, contractually obligated mention of Tony Clifton - Chris Smith

Living Proof - Matt Embry

Lots of Kids, a Monkey and a Castle - Gustavo Salmerón 

Love Means Zero - Jason Kohn

Makala - Emmanuel Gras

Of Sheep and Men - Karim Sayad

One of Us - Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady

Sammy Davis, Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me - Sam Pollard

Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood - Matt Tyrnauer

Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart - Tracy Heather Strain

Silas - Anjali Nayar, Hawa Essuman

Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken! - Morgan Spurlock

The Carter Effect - Sean Menard

The China Hustle - Jed Rothstein

The Final Year - Greg Barker

The Gospel According to André - Kate Novack

The Judge - Erika Cohn

The Legend of the Ugly King - Hüseyin Tabak

The Other Side of Everything - Mila Turajlic

There is a House Here - Alan Zweig

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