"How Do You Pick the Films?"
A Conversation with Paul Sturtz and David Wilson
D: This is the question that, more than any other, we get asked all the time.
P: In the first year or two, we were scrambling a bit. This is before we had a screening committee that would would do some of the sifting for us. It was brutal to get through all the films.
D: So, from the beginning, T/F has had a sensibility of what films we’ve wanted to champion. We want work that is cinematic, that is beautiful, that has characters and a story and, boiled down, feels like you are watching a movie.
P: The films that resonate the most for me are idiosyncratic profiles of people that somehow illuminated bigger issues, rather than “important” films that foreground themes at the expense of that personal connection.
D: I actually think that topic is something we’re both willing to make secondary in our evaluative process.
P: Also, I want the poetry to emerge from the material itself rather than it being grafted on top of it. Too often we get self-conscious films that strain to hammer home grand themes rather than giving the audience credit for finding the larger resonance.
D: We’ve always felt like we had this rare freedom—there was no one looking over our shoulders, there was no agenda to the programming. We could really just show work that we loved.
P: Other programmers have said they are so jealous we don’t have to answer to a board of advisors. With my personality, that would have made me crazy, like a landlord telling me I can’t paint a wall.
D: So it’s just us. We argue, we maneuver, we each have our idiosyncrasies … Paul hates surgery scenes.
P: David doesn’t like old people.
D: Unless they’re really quirky and charming.
P: He instead says he’s pro-youth.
D: And that’s a good moment to mention that, since 2009, we’ve been joined in our decision-making by Chris Boeckmann, who started interning with us when he was still in high school.
P: Chris has pushed hard on films that ordinarily we might have passed on. He’s a real formalist. While we appreciate purism, David and I have always tried to not get too far ahead of our audiences and to remember what most of us are looking for, which is generally storytelling, memorable characters, and an upbeat take on life.
D: We actually have sort of quotidian tastes. Which, in a way, makes us good programmers, I think. It’s like being a DJ—if you only play super obscure stuff you lose your audience—you’ve got to bring them on a journey with you. Like getting to Shirley Ellis via Amy Winehouse.
P: You have to safeguard against what used to be called the “record store clerk syndrome” After watching thousands of docs, there’s a danger you lose your populist antenna or don’t trust it anymore.
D: Over the years, we’ve come to take pride in the idea that T/F reveals the pulse of the documentary community. We want to show what people are talking about, arguing about—the films that are pushing the form forward.
P: We’re hopefully part of this ecosystem that can support creative people to do great work over the long haul. It’s a unique experience to go from this private moment with a hand-burned DVD, and then into this incredibly public space where you hear a crowd gasp or laugh or groan and realize it’s not just you, you’re part of a larger community which shares in this alchemy.
D: I really believe that we’re living in a golden age of nonfiction filmmaking. It feels tremendously good to be a small part of that.