I sometimes wonder not only if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences realizes it’s imposing 1930’s sensibilities on a 2012 world, but if in a sense it is pushing a Norma Desmondesque notion that, “I am big — It’s the pictures that got small.”
When it comes to documentaries, they did get small, and I think that’s wonderful. Small, numerous and meaningful – the antithesis of the studio system that created the Oscars as a self-congratulatory big-business exercise.
That silent-movie attitude about the way the Academy decides what’s good is appalling.
According to reporting Sunday by The New York Times, the Academy has decided, in its infinite wisdom, that it would only consider documentaries reviewed in one of the Two Timeses, The New York Times or the Los Angeles Times, as if those two newspapers are the ultimate arbiters of what’s good.
On one coast is a bankrupt newspaper whose owner may not survive. On the other is a city where acclaim is recognized as coming from a panoply of critics, such as the double Davids, Denby and Edelstein. In between is a vast middle of people with names like Chris Vognar, Lisa Kennedy and Roger Ebert, who might as well stop reviewing nonfiction.
The fact that The New York Times posted what I read as a somewhat chagrined article indicates it has taken a “What, me?” approach. Suddenly, A.O. Scott is the go-to guy. Scott politely called the rule change “flattering,” but his tone may have also been one of sadness.
If power becomes concentrated, and publicists rule the game, will documentarians, who are all essentially independent filmmakers, have the money to play?
Look at the numbers. According to the Times article, the Academy considered 124 movies in 2011. That’s it? 2.4 docs a week? What were they watching otherwise? “Desperate Housewives?”
I’d love it if the arbiters were documentary lovers who wanted to see many more than that on a weekly basis. Armchair Joe watches many more hours of football each week, and then he goes to work in the morning.
In its Saul Steinberg view of America, the Academy only thinks a documentary film is real if it plays in New York or Los Angeles – not Park City, not Austin, not Columbia, Missouri. Certainly not Toronto, or Sheffield, or Edinburgh.
There are stunning and meaningful documentaries being produced at an unprecedented rate, which is the most happy outcome of the digital age — amazing work by “outsiders” who lack the speed dial of the L.A. players but who know how to tell a damned good story. They use cheap camcorders and HDSLRs and other DIY tactics to tell sublime and gripping tales. And there have never been so many channels to distribute them, but the Academy has yet to fully support them. It continues to shun screeners for documentary consideration. Though there are hints this might be relaxed, according to its official rules, “the Academy remains firmly committed to the principal that motion pictures competing for Academy Awards should be seen and heard in a theatrical setting.”
You’d have to go back a few decades to see sense in this. Since it wasn’t practical to ship reels to Academy members, documentary producers made sure their films played in NYC or LA for a week so voters could pop in and see them. (Academy voters in those days only lived in New York or LA, but don’t get me going on that.)
The stated policy that The New York Times reviews every film released on a commercial screen for a week in New York or Los Angeles, and reviews some new releases screened by nonprofit groups like the Museum of Modern Art, presumes they always will. Unlikely. Shrinking news holes defy that, and make me wonder why two newspapers suddenly have such cachet.
Documentary filmmaker Chithra Jeyaramlet let me know her 9-minute film Mijo is part of “Breast Fest 2011,” along with four other films dealing with issues of breast cancer and sponsored by the Royal Ontario Museum.
This kind of thing is a great example of getting out films in so many creative and meaningful ways. I’ll write on this sort of project more at length next week. BUT: The deadline for viewing and voting on the films has been extended. Take some time to view them all and it will be well worth your while.
Good luck to Chithra and other contenstants!
WNYC’s podcast on the state of documentary film:
This WNYC podcast ran last week before the Academy Awards, but it’s interesting in retrospect, as the discussion ran to aspects of “advancing the art of nonfiction film,” to being “formally daring,” to having “audience appeal.”
On the Brian Lehrer Show the discussion with Dana Stevens of Slate.com and Matt Zoller Seitz of Salon.com seem to push the critics’ view that form is a greater determinor of award success than the content itself – Seitz refers to four of the five nominees (“EWxit Through The Gift Shop being the exception) as “classical.”
An interesting discussion…
It was a field that had its issues. The Academy Award nominees for Best Feature Documentary included a film that may not have been real, one that may have stretched its premise with some pyrotechnics, and another that was an attack on a financial industry that in many ways had created the money that funded the film. And this field was notable for the film left out.
But in the end, the choices said a lot about where documentary film is going. The award to Charles Ferguson’s “Inside Job” has its lessons.
1. Thank God Banksy didn’t win. The nomination of “Exit Through The Gift Shop” capped a year in which people actually debated whether a documentary film really has to be real, or whether is has to be all real. The blurring of lines of fact and fiction is not good for documentary film, and from its launch at Sundance in early 2010 to its Oscar nomination, it seemed the darling of people who had a hipsterish love of pranks that did not speak well to the tradition of documentary. Fake documentaries, even those based on truth, belong in the fiction category, and we worried what hell a win for Banksy would have unleashed on the idea of documentary-as-the-truth.
2. Money does buy happiness. Charles Ferguson took his millions he made in the tech financial bubble and went after the people who he believed to be responsible for the housing financial bubble. Ferguson sold his company, Vermeer, in 1996 to Microsoft for $133 million at the height of the Wall Street-fueled, free-spending Clinton-era technology bubble that burst in 2000. While Ferguson’s Academy speech last night correctly railed against the Wall Street types for their greed and avarice (and, we suppose, what they’ve done to his portfolio), many a technology millionaire was made by the same Wall Street machinations – but that must be different. Ferguson’s win is part of a wave in which rich people from Johnny Depp to Sarah Palin do documentary work as sort of a hobby, or image builder (see Banksy) or political saw. Ferguson has the brains and guile to make more of it than most would have (obviously!), but we’d hate to see documentary become either a (self-) promotional device or a retirement hobby for people who used to invest in indie films.
3. The interview is back. The wave of live-action documentaries that has swept the festivals, and by extension the awards season, had nearly made us think the traditional interview-based film was a dead duck. But Ferguson shone in his interviewing – even if some subjects felt he never gave them a chance – and shows the interview can have its own dramatic arc. That’s good for the tradition. The inherent drama of the sit-down interview (we think of Errol Morris toe-to-toe with Robert McNamara in 2004’s “Fog of War”) has been brushed too easily aside by the inclination of filmmakers to train the camera on themselves (“Super Size Me,” “The Cove” “Catfish”) or to follow the reality-TV trend. People expressing ideas, revealing truths and making amazing disclosures should not be lost.
4. The war may have already had its Hollywood ending. Do you believe that “Restrepo” was saddled with being “another war film” because last year’s surprise winner of Best Picture was a fictional treatment of same? “The Hurt Locker,” like most fictional films, was able to package its truths far more neatly than the deeply complicated truths of the documentary by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington. Cheers to them, despite it, for having risked their lives to bring home a meaningful and troubling documentary.
5. Was “Waste Land” just too messy? Remember that the Academy Awards, for most people, are about gowns and speeches and people waving gold statues. “Waste Land,” about the world’s biggest trash city, may never had a chance. We never thought “127 hours” could succeed in the dramatic film category – a guy cutting his own arm off doesn’t go well with the popcorn and Sno-Caps. “Waste Land” had that liability, as well as that of the audacity to co-opt a T.S. Eliot title, even if dropping the “The.”
6. Preachy is holding steady. The last decade has spawned the preachy documentary, with do-gooder filmmakers telling you what to think instead of letting you just see the facts. Environmental films have led the charge, but the spate of films on the education system, gun control, sustainability and the food supply have all made documentary audiences sometimes feel they’re at a sermon. Ferguson’s acceptance speech had its share of fire and brimstone, meaning that the notion of documentary filmmakers as people out to push a view, rather than “document,” lives on.
7. One step too far is still too far. Josh Fox’s set piece for “Gasland” was the stream of tap water being lighted in a veil of flames, but it may have been that visual that got the gas industry railing against the film. The gas industry went after the inaccuracies and stretches of truth in a film that The New York Times called “sloppily executed.” No matter how much truth may have been in the film, it might have been undermined by its own overreach. Largely true isn’t true, and that may have flamed Fox’s Oscar chances.
8. Sundance’s documentary programmers are still the main Oscar players. “Gasland,” “Waste Land,” “Restrepo” and “Exit Through The Gift Shop” all premiered at Sundance (“Inside Job” premiered at Toronto), meaning that the route to the Oscars still runs through Park City. That’s well and good, but we do wonder if that concentration of power means that the Sundance crew is really creating the aesthetic for documentary film… and the answer is of course they are. The Sundance slate becomes a de facto Oscar short list. But that power renders other festivals as little more than also-rans – the festivals that get the films Sundance didn’t want. We’d love to see different festivals help shape the sense of where documentary film goes from here. We’d love to see one of the “prestige” doc-only festivals (Full Frame, True/False, Silverdocs, Hot Docs) articulate a notion of what documentaries might otherwise be. If not, every film they premiere is seen as no more than a Sundance reject. Part of that may be to try not to copy Sundance (hip, live-action, politically correct, preachy on issues), but rather to set a counterpoint and create an alternate school of documentary filmmaking. It would be healthy, and fun.
We’ve brought this up before, but on Oscar Night morning perhaps it’s worthy again. Two of the films up for an Academy Award in Documentary Feature are distinguished by their raw video that is “unprofessional” as some might define it. The irony, of course, is that with the equipment available today, there’s not really a reason not to shoot good video.
But Time’s Bryan Wlash writes of Josh Fox’s “Gasland“:
Shot in a shaky handheld style in washed-out or hyperbright colors—think of an entire documentary shot through a Hipstamatic lens—and overlaid with Fox’s foreboding narration, GasLand becomes a savage attack on shale gas. Fox finds homeowners in Pennsylvania and later in Colorado and Wyoming who claim that wells drilled near their land have poisoned their water. (At one point, Fox shows drinking water at a house near a well catching fire—the result, he says, of methane contamination from drilling.) He alleges that the industry has covered up the potential environmental risks of hydrofracking, with the willing assistance of state and federal regulators. This is a muckraking environmental documentary in the style of Michael Moore—if Moore were a skinny New York artist in fashionable black-frame glasses.
USA Today has a nice piece on the nominated short documentaries for the Academy Awards. Here are trailers:
Danfung Dennis, whose work Kurt Lancaster chronicled on this site in October 2009, has taken the Sundance World Documentary Prize, for a film shot completely on a Canon EOS 5D Mk II.
DSLR News Shooter notes that,
Huge congratulations to photojournalist turned filmmaker Danfung Dennis for winning the top prize in the Documentary Filmmaking category of the Sundance festival awards. He also scooped the World Cinema Cinematography Award for Documentary Filmmaking. His film “Hell and Back Again” was shot on the 5DmkII and follows the story of a Marine fighting in the Afghan war and his subsequent rehabilitation.
The award is certainly a breakthrough not only for Dennis but for the notion of shooting with DSLRs. While serious cinematographers first scoffed at these cameras (and perhaps feared that they would open to work to many more people, which is exactly what happened), the DSLR has taken hold and the success at Sundance shows that it will only continue.
Dennis told Kurt in the interview in 2009,
“The camera allowed me to apply the same aesthetics and method from stills to video. The image quality is stunning, the low light capabilities outstanding and it is light enough to mount onto a hand held steadicam.”
After shooting some HD video in the field, Dennis discovered “that there are more similarities between video and stills than there are differences. I can apply everything that I’ve learned from stills to video, so I feel that I’m still doing the same thing, just adding the complex layers of motion and sound.” However, he doesn’t switch up lenses “in combat and dusty situations,” he adds, sticking to a handy 24-70mm f/2.8 lens.
His steadicam is a modified Glidecam 2000 HD (http://www.glidecam.com/product-hd-series.php). His modifications include two “wings” where he mounts a XLR audio adapter (DXA-2s shown below, but now uses the Juiced Link CX231). and a Sennheiser shotgun mic (ME-66) and wireless lav mic (Sennheiser G2 system). He also adapted the Glidecam bodypod device (http://www.glidecam.com/product-body-pod.php), cutting it up some “to make it fit with my body armor and used it to rest my arm when I was not shooting” and he added “custom rubber pads on the mount and a foam ear plug to suppress the vibration of the lens.”
“How To Die in Oregon” has taken the top documentary prize at Sundance, and with that, perhaps, a pushing of the boundaries of what documentaries must do to succeed in a reality-TV world.
The film, which tracks people who, because of Oregon’s “Death With Dignity” law, choose to end their own lives. The filmmakers show lethal injections on screen, and the death of the subjects.
Opening the film with a scene of cancer patient Roger Sagner drinking a deadly dose of Seconal surrounded by loving friends and family sets the context for a sometimes harrowing journey into the lives of these brave individuals.
While the filmmaker, Peter D. Richardson, chose a powerful topic sure to get response, at least one reviewer , Chris Campbell at Cinematical, had this to say:
‘How to Die in Oregon’ features no bells and whistles or big narrative surprises or interesting camerawork that gets most docs notice these days (though the excellent final shot/moment is a distinct and unexpected way to end). All it has, and all it needs, is a controversial topic addressed sufficiently and respectably. It does raise awareness and inspires a conversation.
To do so involves, of course, a necessary intrusion. Documentary filmmakers struggle with that line all the time. And the people they approach struggle with it as well.The questions become, always, how the presence of a documentary filmmaker affects, influences and changes the story. It also means that the experiences of the people being chronicled change: They’re not just having their experiences, they’re having their experience as “cast” in a film. According to The New York Times, the son of the main subject of the film had objections to his mother’s death being part of a film.
Thomas Curtis, 30, said on Sunday that he was extremely reluctant to share his mother’s remaining time with Mr. Richardson’s camera. “In the beginning none of us wanted to do it except Mom,” he said in an interview.
Of course the film does what “documentary” purports to do – it documents. But the question of how the inclusion of death scenes tilts the proceedings is a question that came around with the graphic bridge-jumping suicide footage of “The Bridge” (widely availalabe on YouTube, now riped from its context and simply a voyeuristic artifact by virtue of that) or the dolphin killings of “The Cove.” Despite the framework of serious debate, the films really appeal in a way to the prurience of seeing death, for real.
One reality TV show, “The Deadliest Catch,” built most of its season around the death of Capt. Phil Harris, after a stroke. Salon.com notes that “Reality TV’s first on-screen death,”
Even a sensitive documentarian might look at the “Deadliest Catch” camera crew’s post-stroke footage and think, “This is a motherlode,” then set about repackaging pain as entertainment. The task was daunting: In a genre that has captured endless humiliation, violence and other human suffering, here was reality TV’s first death… “Deadliest Catch” has brought old-school documentary sobriety to a genre more often known for shamelessness. I can think of few areas in which the show has made a misstep.
“The Deadliest Catch,” as a vehicle, did and did not go looking for that material – it did recognize, even in its title, it might well capture death, and indeed drew viewers by promising to see life-risking moments, but it did not in the way it expected to. In “How to Die,” there seems little doubt Richardson knew what he was after. The question is whether that is a good thing, and whether that footage either tilts or compensates for other weaknesses.
At Collider.com, Matt Goldberg notes,
How to Die in Oregon makes a case for “death with dignity” but that case is weakened by Richardson’s over-reliance on the emotional impact and conducting unnecessary interviews. If the film wants to sell me on legalizing euthanasia, then I want to know more facts. I want to know about other options for end-of-life care. I want to know if the doctor-prescribed death drink ever fails to kill the patient and instead sends them into a persistent vegetative state. At one point, a title card tells us that Cody is improving under “palliative care”, but it doesn’t tell us what that means or entails. Rather than take the time to show a broader view of end-of-life care, Richardson shows tangential scenes which don’t benefit the emotional or intellectual impact of the movie. For example, in one scene he meets with the founder of the “Hemlock Society” (a name I found dreadfully glib), an organization dedicated to legalizing euthanasia. After the scene, we never see the society’s founder again.
On an emotional level, How to Die in Oregon is a triumph. It pulls at your heartstrings without feeling manipulative and when we look at Cody, we see our own loved ones, and the thought of losing them slowly and painfully is absolutely gut-wrenching. But on an intellectual level, the film is unsatisfying.
Which brings to a question of where the documentary art is headed. In some ways, it seems “emotional level” is trumping deep investigation, good camera work, narrative art and other foundations. Indeed, Sundance lavished attention on the bestaility film “Zoo” a few years back, and that film seems to have moved forward mainly, if not completely on shock value.
Does this mean that succeeding in a field that is both choked with product and competing in many ways with the hyper-emotional content of reality shows pushing filmmakers too far? And is the value of the emotional moment – the “you are there” of witnessing a death – overshadowing the more detailed, and often less emotional debate that documentaries traditionally have afforded?
We were less thrilled to see “Exit Through The Gift Shop” on the list. Ebert admits to being “spellbound,” but the fact the documentary is not provably true is both part of its allure to some and its problem with others. Even docs that are 90 percent true don’t pass our smell test. We’re not sure “Exit” is even 25 percent true.
“Restrepo” is on the list. That brings us to some technical points:
- “Restrepo” was shot on HDV, the format everyone has been happy to abandon.
- “45365″ was shot on standard-def with Panasonic DVX100Bs.
- “45365″ and “Restrepo” were primarily done by two people, and others by not much more than that.
- “A Small Act” was shot on a Panasonic HVX200.
- “Last Train Home” combined DVCPro 50, an HVX200, and a Sony EX1.
While the wealthy Charles Ferguson has put his money to good use on worthy topics such as 2010’s “Inside Job,” we’re heartened to see the number of projects on this list that worked with less-expensive equipment and shoestring budgets. Bravo!
A Small Act
Art of the Steal
Best Worst Movie
Exit Through The Gift Shop
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
Last Train Home
Vincent: A Color of Life
Waiting for Superman
The nominations are out for the Independent Spirit Awards, to be announced Feb. 26. Again, the not-documentary by Banksy is up for an award. We swear half the reason for these nominations is to try to score the coup of flushing the notoriously enigmatic artist out of the shadows. Columbia film professor Ira Deutchman, tweeting as nyindieguy, says,
#ExitThroughTheGiftShop: example of new genre… the masturbadoc. Mildly entertaining, if only to figure out who’s kidding who.
But at least “Catfish” isn’t in the mix. The nominations:
BEST DOCUMENTARY (Award given to the director)
Exit Through the Gift Shop
Director: Jeff Malmberg
Directors: Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger
Directors: Ilisa Barbash, Lucien Castaing-Taylor
Director: Mark Landsman