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A timely documentary series from Turner Classics

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“The Sorrow and the Pity,” from 1969, directed by Marcel Ophüls.Courtesy of Turner Classic Movies (TCM)

If the latest news causes you anxiety, you might want to take your mind off it by watching "The Sorrow and the Pity" (1969), Marcel Ophüls's four-hour-plus documentary about how the people of France responded to the Nazi occupation. Now, those people had it rough.

On the other hand, maybe you'd like to escape it all, journeying off to the greatest surfing spots all over the world, seeking the perfect wave, as in Bruce Brown's sun- and surf-drenched "The Endless Summer" (1966).

Those are two of the documentaries screening in "To Tell the Truth," a Turner Classics special series of great documentaries, hosted by Alec Baldwin, airing every Monday and Wednesday on Turner Classic Movies through the month of November. Charlie Tabesh, senior vice president of programming at TCM, discussed the series and the perennial value of documentaries on the phone from Los Angeles.


Q. Was this series scheduled to coincide with the recent election? And what films do you think people will find most relevant?

A. It was largely coincidental. But "The Sorrow and the Pity" honestly came to mind to me during the election. I don't want to jump ahead of myself, and I'm not trying to be an alarmist, but if you ask me what's relevant or what we need to look at to be on guard against, that one certainly fits.

Q. How did Alec Baldwin get on board? It seems like he might be busy for the next four years doing his Donald Trump imitation.

A. We had a relationship with him from when he co-hosted the program "The Essentials." By coincidence, right around the time that we were planning this program we got a call from Alec Baldwin, who said he'd really love it if he could host a documentary series. He had strong feelings about films he wanted included that were helpful. Les Blank's "Burden of Dreams" [1982], "The Endless Summer," "The Sorrow and the Pity," "Woodstock." He also wanted a Michael Moore film in there [1989's "Roger & Me"].


Q. Is this the first series of this kind from Turner? Why do you think there has been such a growth in interest in the genre?

A. We did this in 1999 when the trend was just beginning and it got a good response. It's incredible how many have been produced since then, especially in the last 10 years. It's always been a genre, when done well, that can be powerful and moving and entertaining. That's what we wanted to showcase, that history. But when you think why it's become so powerful, maybe it's people's dissatisfaction with traditional and other sources of information. I haven't been so enamored with a lot of TV news. I can see people turning to more in-depth ways of looking at topics.

Q. Why should people be interested in older documentaries when so many new ones are coming out?

A. Since film has existed, the great documentaries have been made. I think it's important that people go back and discover that history and discover some things that were made that really teach us about who we are and where we come from.

This interview was condensed and edited.

Peter Keough can be reached at