Changing of the Guard at DOC NYC: Thom Powers Passes the Baton to Jaie Laplante
By Thom Powers
Editors’ Note: This year marks a leadership change at DOC NYC, the largest documentary festival in the United States. Jaie Laplante, the former director of the Miami Film Festival, takes the reins as DOC NYC’s artistic director from Thom Powers, who held the position for 12 years. In this interview, he describes the transition and talks to Laplante.
The origin story of DOC NYC goes something like this. In the late aughts, Raphaela Neihausen and I were newly married and running a weekly documentary series called Stranger Than Fiction at New York’s IFC Center. The theater’s general manager, John Vanco, was impressed by its loyal audiences and hired us to launch DOC NYC in 2010. In the early years, it felt like a family business, with Neihausen as executive director and me as artistic director, juggling multiple duties. Everyone at IFC Center pitched in, with Vanco and his marketing head, Harris Dew, bringing their deep experience in film exhibition. We had a talented seasonal crew that kept growing.
Twelve years later, DOC NYC has evolved from a fall event into a year-round enterprise, reaching international audiences with online industry panels and weekly newsletters, in addition to the annual November tentpole event. The festival has spawned other initiatives including Short Lists, 40 Under 40, Documentary New Leaders, and Spring Showcase.
I don’t know the line between multitasker and workaholic, but I knew I’d crossed it. I could no longer keep dividing my time as DOC NYC’s artistic director while simultaneously holding programming jobs at other festivals, producing a podcast, and teaching.
So this year DOC NYC undertook a reorganization. I shifted to focus on the festival’s Visionaries Tribute awards ceremony, and we opened a search for a new artistic director. DOC NYC’s hiring committee reviewed more than 80 applicants and interviewed several excellent candidates.
Jaie Laplante was a clear stand-out, with over 20 years of festival experience and a demonstrated passion for documentary. His film roots extend to his teenage years growing up in Alberta, Canada, where he corresponded with the local newspaper editor and was invited to write film reviews. After the editor had published several of those reviews, he finally met Laplante and was shocked to discover the new critic was only 14.
Laplante went on to study film in college, did a stint in Los Angeles, and relocated to Miami, where he programmed for festivals dedicated to shorts and LGBTQ+ films. He widened his experience by working as the associate director of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival; then helped launch the New York City Wine & Food Festival, working on it for four years and gaining a deep understanding of the varying tastes of New York.
The same year DOC NYC began, Laplante was hired as the director of the Miami Film Festival, with a mandate to revitalize an institution that had gone through multiple leadership changes. One of his top goals was to deepen the festival’s commitment to documentaries. He recruited me to join the programming team and for 12 years we worked together on engaging audiences in a city where you’re competing for attention with the beachgoers.
Laplante was undaunted by that challenge. He was a passionate advocate for Miami’s homegrown documentary productions such as Billy Corben’s Screwball; Dudley Alexis’s When Liberty Burns; and Kareem Tabsch and Cristina Costantini’s Mucho, Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado. He stayed in close contact with the city’s Latin American communities, showcasing works such as Patricio Guzman’s late-career oeuvre; Carlos Hagerman’s Vuelve a la Vida; José Padhila’s Secrets of the Tribe; and Maite Alberdi’s Tea Time, which won the festival’s audience award. Despite the crowded calendar in March, with Miami overlapping with True/False and SXSW, Laplante turned the festival into a destination where audiences could encounter such esteemed filmmakers as Stanley Nelson, Liz Garbus, Lucy Walker, Dawn Porter and Steve James.
This summer, Laplante and I sat down at the School of Visual Arts, where I teach at the MFA program for Social Documentary, to talk about passing the baton.
THOM POWERS: What does coming to DOC NYC mean for you?
JAIE LAPLANTE: I’m thrilled to be joining DOC NYC. At the Miami Film Festival, we had some very specific areas of interest—obviously, Latin American cinema and developing our local film artists and community, but also building a new appreciation of documentaries in south Florida. Now at DOC NYC, I have the opportunity to focus, to a much greater degree, on my love for documentary. I still have the opportunity to nurture some of my other strong interests, such as Latinx films and developing local filmmakers with local stories.
TP: Maybe we should describe what that connection was like for us the past 12 years. Before you got hired as the executive director at Miami, they had cycled through…what’s the number?
JP: There had been three directors in the previous four years.
TP: During those years, I had been spending more time in Miami because Raphaela’s parents live nearby. So I was looking for ways to get more rooted in the community. During the time that two of those directors preceded you, I knocked on their door and asked, “Is there something I can do?” We had pleasant conversations that went nowhere. I had given up on it until you and I met in 2010. It’s wild for me to think about that date because it was two months before DOC NYC had its first edition. We didn’t know each other, but you asked to meet with me that year at TIFF. Can you describe what you were looking for?
JP: I had been living in Miami since 1998 and had been working on other festivals there, and been attending the Miami Film Festival, as the city’s biggest, most international annual film event. Some years were great—especially those led by Nicole Guillaumet, the former co-director at Sundance—but some of the later years, I felt, were just off the mark, missing opportunities to really connect with local audiences.
TIFF is the first film festival I ever attended—I don’t even want to say how many years ago it was! I had been following your work after you came on board at TIFF—by 2010 you had been there for five years—and found it exciting how your programming connected so powerfully with the TIFF audience. Then, when I found out that you were spending a lot of time in South Florida and getting to know our world, I leaped at the opportunity to talk to you about working to program the kinds of documentary films that would connect with our Miami audience.
TP: You were a key player in launching another important festival in New York City. Can you talk about your work at the Wine & Food Festival?
JP: Before the Miami Film Festival, I worked with the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, which was founded by Lee Schrager, and sponsored by Food Network. Food Network, headquartered in New York, also wanted to create a sister version of that festival in their own backyard, which at that time was the Meatpacking District. So Schrager brought me in to help consult on the creation of the New York City Wine & Food Festival, and I worked on it for the first four years, spending quite a lot of time in the city. That festival is still going strong 15 years later. I’m really proud to have been a part of it in its early years and to see how much it has contributed to fighting hunger and illness in NYC and nationally. NYCWFF has raised over $14 million to support New Yorkers in need and is currently benefiting God’s Love We Deliver, whose mission is to nourish New Yorkers.
TP: So there are a few hundred documentary filmmakers who have gotten to know you over the years, from coming to the Miami Film Festival. But for a lot of people in the documentary community, you’ll be a new face at DOC NYC. Can you describe more about your documentary tastes?
JP: Documentaries started making sizable impressions on me in those early years of being a teenage film critic in the 1980s. Starting with Rob Epstein’s The Times of Harvey Milk—it shook me up, as a closeted gay teenager in very conservative 1980s Alberta. Documentaries like that could address subjects that narrative films were still a couple of decades away from being able to address head-on, and I seized upon the way that documentary could connect me to people and stories that had relevance far beyond anything else that was on regular commercial movie screens. During those years, I remember being fascinated by Michael Apted’s 28-Up and Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line, for very different reasons, but the honesty and pursuit of truth in both films were astonishingly revelatory for me.
The year that I arrived at film school at York University in Toronto, Michael Moore’s Roger & Me won the People’s Choice Award at TIFF. After I saw it, I knew I wanted to explore documentary for my graduating film project, where I co-directed a short documentary about body image, in which I explored my nascent fascination with gender and sexuality issues.
TP: Going back to 2010, when you were passionate about bringing more documentaries to Miami, what were films that were exciting to you?
JP: I continued championing documentaries in my festival jobs of the aughts, including Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival and Miami Short Film Festival. By the time I was named director of Miami Film Festival, I was primed to bring documentaries to our audience that had an urgent connection to our interests and issues in Miami—films that could have the kind of impact that The Times of Harvey Milk had on me as a young person. Films such as the ones you were programming at TIFF at the time, for example. And the next 12 years in Miami fulfilled that goal—I have so many great memories of documentaries that rocked Miami to its core. One truly unforgettable night was in 2013 when we showed Morgan Neville’s 20 Feet from Stardom—its first screening after premiering in Sundance.
TP: It was the opening night of the Miami Film Festival. I don’t know if there had been many documentaries opening the Miami Film Festival before.
JP: Not many. It was especially memorable because we had Darlene Love there, and she did the red carpet before the movie. Many people didn’t know her before this film. After the movie, she came out and sang “Lean on Me” a cappella. Everyone had just seen her in the movie and fallen in love with her, and she brought down the house. We brought her to the opening night party afterwards. She was mobbed. That just moved me so much, seeing how an audience could connect so deeply to a person’s story in a documentary and be so affected by it afterwards.
TP: I’d love to ask you about films this year that you’ve really responded to.
JP: Some of my personal highlights from the Miami Film Festival last March include Rebeca Huntt’s Beba, which had its US premiere. Then the fresh-from-Sundance screenings of Ramin Bahrani’s 2nd Chance and Isabel Castro’s Mija. There are many more films that we didn’t have the opportunity to screen in Miami, and I look forward to sharing a lot of them at DOC NYC.
One of the films that I am most struck by this year is The Territory. Not only is it a powerful and sobering film, but the recent news in June about a British journalist and a Brazilian indigenous activist who was found murdered while trying to investigate a similar situation in the Amazon reminds us that the story depicted in The Territory is microcosmic of a larger and very troubling situation.
I appreciate how The Territory shows the complexity of there being two sides to this story. Obviously, we’re very sympathetic to the Indigenous people, who are in a very bad situation. But the filmmaker, Alex Pritz, allows us to get to know one of the farmers and one of the settlers and their mindsets and where they’re coming from. Most of all, what I appreciate about The Territory is how Pritz collaborates with the Uru-eu-wau-wau to tell the story. He brought on members in roles as producer and cinematographer.
What about you? What films have you most responded to this year?
TP: A film that consistently brings a smile to my face is one you mentioned: Beba by Rebeca Huntt telling her own coming-of-age tale as an Afro-Latina in New York. The film had its world premiere at TIFF last year. It was picked up by Neon and comes to Hulu in the fall. Rebeca is wise beyond her years in the way she approaches thinking about family, race, history, dysfunction, and repairing yourself. It’s also a film of great artistry. When we showed the film in Miami, she had relatives from both the Venezuelan and Dominican sides of her family. That was one of my year’s highlights.
JP: So you and Raphaela created DOC NYC 12 years ago. It’s been incredible to watch. Although you’re continuing to stay involved with DOC NYC as Director of Special Projects, how does it feel to take a bit of a step back into more of a “godfather” role?
TP: One of the greatest rewards of DOC NYC has been collaborating and learning from others. I had the pleasure to work for many years with programmers Basil Tsiokos and Opal H. Bennett. Then more recently with senior feature programmers Ruth Somalo, Karen McMullen, and Brandon Harrison; our lead shorts programmer, Samah Ali; and our industry and education leaders, Malikkah Rollins and Caitlin Boyle. At the beginning of the festival, Raphaela and I were doing so much of it ourselves. But I see how much the festival has been enriched from having a wider set of perspectives.
I started thinking about this transition after the 10th year of the festival, and then COVID happened. At that point, I wanted to bring all my experience to make sure the festival got through that daunting period. There was huge uncertainty about the future of festivals in the spring of 2020. We were lucky that IFC Center maintained a commitment to not shrink the festival. In 2021, we were showing more films than Sundance or TIFF. We not only kept our same size, but we saw opportunities to reach audiences far behind New York with digital platforms.
Before COVID, we used to idly dream that it would be wonderful to put our PRO talks online and bring our curation to audiences outside the city. But in 2019 we thought to do that would take a tremendous investment of infrastructure, planning, and marketing. We figured, at best, we’ll do that in five years. Then in March 2020, our thinking changed to, How do we do an online panel in two weeks?
I was so proud of our team getting through that first COVID year online, and then bringing the festival back as a live event in 2021. After that, it seemed like the right time to make a change.
JP: Well, it’s an honor to be picking up from you, Thom, and the future is mighty bright.
DOC NYC just announced its Visionaries Tribute, whose honorees include Lifetime Achievement honorees include Geralyhn White-Dreyfous and Werner Herzog (Lifetime Achievement); Sonya Childress (Leading Light Award); and Ondi Timoner (Robert and Anne Drew Award). The Visionaries Tribute takes place November 9 at Gotham Hall. The festival runs November 9-27.
Thom Powers is DOCNYC’s Director of Special Projects. He is also the documentary programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and the Miami Film Festival and hosts the podcast Pure Nonfiction.