Montreal-based director Mathieu Roy is not afraid of tackling huge and existential questions within the wrapper of an 86-minute documentary.
That he begins “Surviving Progress” with a primate confronting a geometric curiosity – in the case a block it must balance for the payout of a banana – Roy knowingly evokes Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and warns us we’re in Big Think territory. In this case, “Has the human race progressed so remarkably that we’re about to put ourselves out of existence?”
With so many wonderful documentaries taking the macro view of issues and questions (I just again viewed Danfung Dennis’s remarkable “Hell and Back Again” and its story of a war through one man’s journey), it’s yet again heartening to see a director (along with co-director Harold Crooks) take on something so massive, so important and so troubling.
“It took six and a half years to make the best film we could,” said Roy, as his project goes into release. “We thought at time, ‘Should we take it a bit easier on the audience? But this is the way the world works, and when you learn it, you do feel more pissed.”
The film, with executive producing by luminaries such as Mark Achbar (“The Corporation”) and Martin Scorcese (whom Roy worked for on “The Aviator”), the film is a chilling omnibus of Wall Street misdeeds, environmental plunder, and cultures in collision. Its ambition is an example of what the best documentaries do, which is unflinching truth. It kind of started that way.
“Harold and I didn’t want to scare off our producers and distributors!” Roy said of the early phases. “But the opening movement from a chimp to an astronaut sets the tone. What took so long was that it became an effort to make a coherent structure. The more the film unfolded itself, the more it became a bigger snowball.”
Starting with the inspiration of the book “A Short History of Progress,” by Candadian author Ronald Wright, and it reveals the ultimate plot twist: Have we become so productive our consumption is killing the planet? Has medicine become so remarkable we don’t know what to do with the booming population? Has the lust for progress itself sent us hurtling into the ultimate regress?
The film takes us from such far-flung places as the rain forest of Brazil to the “new” China (with a priceless open-camera argument between a tourism-business son and his Communist-era professor father sitting on their sofa); it brings in people as diverse as primatologist Jane Goodall to economist Michael Hudson, a chorus of voices saying all is not well, and American Idol isn’t going to fix it. Documentaries such as this make for hard viewing in one way, but is infused with imagery that makes it a worthy journey. Roy says 100 hours of primary footage was supported by edits out of another 100 hours of secondary and archival footage, conducted at the hands of editor Louis-Martin Paradis. One quirky aside was the primary interview subject looking dead-on at the viewer, made possible by the EyeLiner, which in turn comes from Errol Morris’s Interratron.
The film was shot on HD tape, and funded by $1.8 million mostly due to Achbar’s Telefilm Canada-funded “performance envelope”: The success of “The Corporation” success set aside funds for the exclusive use of Achbar’s production company, Big Picture Media Corporation. Achbar, in turn, moved those funds in support of “Surviving Progress.”
“Mark had other projects, so the envelope funding supported four separate film projects,” Roy said.
Scorcese’s contribution was not funding, but mentoring. “He looked at cuts and sent me notes, because he just supports projects he likes.”
The film, especially as it explicates on Wall Street’s shark-like affinities to accumulate money to degrees that go to the greater detriment, premiered at Toronto Film Festival last September, but it may have caught a Zeitgeist. The Occupy Wall Street movement luached a short time later.
“I thought, after what I learned in making the film, ‘Why aren’t people coming out on the streets about this?’” Roy said.
“And then they did.”
In the documentary world, filmmakers rarely know what they’re making when they start making it. Instead, they move through time, chronicling changing situations, in the hopes that something great might happen. But the best filmmakers are adept, knowing when to raise, when to fold and when to exchange cards, when the game allows it.
All In: The Poker Movie, which begins a theatrical run this month, is one of those documentaries that started one way and ended up a wholly different story.
Directed by Douglas Tirola of 4th Row Films and produced by collaborators Susan Bedusa and Robert Greene, All In started out with a gamble.
The project started in 2008 when poker was in the midst of a boom. “We started making the film so many years ago, it’s hard to remember,” said Bedusa. “But I think we made with the goal of having a profitable film. And Doug had a soft spot for poker — He used to play with his father and grandfather.”
4th Row Films has had a series of documentaries find success recently, including those directed not only by Tirola (An Omar Broadway Film) but by the editor of All In, Robert Greene (Kati With An I, Fake It So Real). The company uses its documentary chops to bring in commercial work, which fuels the business and occasionally leads to a story idea.
“We have the other side of our company that does marketing work for brands,” said Bedusa. “And through that we were covering this big New York City poker tournament. It was run by a Wall Street guy who put on a huge poker tournament every year for his clients, and his celebrity friends. We would go and film it with 10 cameras. We realized how cinematic it was.”
Not only was it cinematic, but the filmmaking team also connected the visual potential to a potential in the online video marketplace. “This was just at the time when people were starting to download stuff to watch,” said Bedusa. “Our feeling was that there are so many poker players out there, and the audience is worldwide. And so many of them playing online that they were already used to signing in, and putting down their credit card number and spending money that way, which is an unusual trait.”
The film is interview-driven, ranging from top poker players, such as the aptly named Chris Moneymaker, to such poker-playing celebrities as former U.S. Sen. Al D’Amato, basketball coach Denny Crum, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, journalist Ira Glass and actor Matt Damon. Most speak in the film of poker as a piece of Americana, but poker fans will also remember Damon as the star of Rounders, a film that’s iconic in that world.
“It’s more of an essay film,” Bedusa says. “It’s not so character-driven. Doug really wanted to explore the why.” Through these revolving interviews and a thread of Moneymaker’s rise to, well, moneymaking, the film tells the story of the rise and fall and rise and fall of poker. The film was scheduled for release in July 2011, after it had won top laurels at Cinevegas in 2009, but then the FBI moved to shut down online poker, which had been fueling the poker movement in the United States, and the game changed.
“We decided not to release it, which was a tough decision,” said Bedusa. “The film had already won awards and been in festivals, so it was already out there, in some sense. Then Black Friday happened.”
The film was re-conceived around the headlines, with the ban on online poker as its frame, and in the time it ultimately took to make All In, 4th Row Films released three other films. A look at the film’s credits highlight its evolving nature. Nine people are listed as cinematographers.
“The number of people who did some work on the film is huge,” said Bedusa. “We shot in 14 states, and while Doug was involved in it all, we didn’t have one director of photography… We have our L.A. guy and our Nashville guy, people we’ve worked with on the marketing side, so they kind of all shot the film.” So, three years after it could have been released, All In is going into theaters this month a different, and better, film. Which makes the point that in documentary, going all in can be a good bet.
World Happy Day was cold and a bit snowy in Newport, RI, when we attended the screening of Happy, Roko Belic’s documentary on the science and practice of being happy.
Didn’t know Feb. 11 was World Happy Day? That’s because Belic made it up, a la Festivus of “Seinfeld” fame. But whereas Festivus included “the airing of grievances” as its holiday tradition, the day and the documentary Belic conceived was about unburdening from the same.
The screening I attended at the Jane Pickens Theater drew 80 people, and I went because I have had the fortune of seeing Belic’s previous documentary, the 1999 Academy Award nominee Genghis Blues. While Belic’s chops as a filmmaker are obvious, Happy‘s savvy way of approaching its audience was likewise notable. The film screened at 600 locations worldwide, including not only dozens of theatrical screenings, but also events in homes and other venues.
Many filmmakers would love to have their premiere become an event, but most don’t. Belic got Happy into dozens of theaters in a variety of countries by creating excitement and a sense of event around the documentary and a holiday that doesn’t exist. Filmmakers have certainly attempted to piggyback on existing events, organizations and movements, while advocacy organizations have become adept at creating “days,” “weeks” and “months” — see my previous post about Black History Month — that heighten awareness (or sales). Belic seems to have nicely combined those two routes. (More February holidays you’ve never heard of are in this list, with today among other things being National Get A Different Name Day.)
Happy is a prescriptive documentary. Not caring to simply sit back and tell its stories, it advocates. It’s an array of tales of people who have found happiness (including an impoverished Indian rickshaw driver and a former debutante scarred by a horrible accident), combined with a panel of scholars who have studied and pondered the question of happiness in human existence.
Happy played an assortment of film festivals, winning laurels at several that include Amsterdam Film Festival, the Arizona International Film Festival and the Mexico International Film Festival. Belic crowdfunded successfully last year on Kickstarter, raising more than $36,000 for shooting that took him to Denmark, India, Japan and Bhutan.
It’s a really nice film, and a Google search of Sunday’s news showed that World Happy Day may have gotten a foothold, with an amount of media coverage that surprised me, including hits with Forbes and local news. With its smart work from funding, to production, to release, Happy is a smile-inducing effort by a resourceful documentary filmmaker.
One of the skills that have always been required of documentary filmmakers is fundraising, and in this digital landscape that’s become both easier and harder: Technology allows documentaries to be made well and significantly lower expense; the documentary filmmaker, however, competes against far more other documentary filmmakers to gather support. And as part of that, crowdfunding is a tool that evolves by the day.
Marilu O’lyaryz, a Miami-based filmmaker, dropped me a line to tell me about her efforts currently to run a Kickstarter campaign to fund her film, “The Cheetah Conservation Project,” which aims to document the efforts of the The Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre in South Africa to breed cheetahs and regenerate a population decimated by poachers.
She and her husband, cinematographer Brian O’lyaryz, have set a crowdfunding goal of $8,000. In that goes the nature of this particular fundraising beast. Marilu, 28, has been into film since she was a teen in Florida Film Institute’s Children’s Film program. She’s worked on various films for such places as Warner Brothers and MTV.
“I began working with Zoo Miami on various education programs,” says Marilu. “I decided that 2012 was the year I wanted to make a film, and so I reached out to (Hoedspruit).” They work primarily from fundraising. They are a nonprofit accepting donations from outside sources, but much of it was funded out-of-pocket.”
Crowdfunding as a business model turns the typical transaction on its head: Rather than purchasing a completed product, the funder works on some faith, some risk, and generally a belief in the larger cause the project entails. Saving cheetahs would certainly seem something to get behind.
“I heard about Kickstarter through my husband, who was shooting a web series they were looking to fund with Kickstarter. They had completed the first episode and were looking to fund additional episodes. I can see how a project like mine is riskier to support, because I haven’t shot the documentary yet.” But, she says, “I think the Kickstarter terms and conditions also protect patrons a little better than some of the other funding mechanisms.”
“I think people who believe in the cause will see we aren’t people who just picked up the camera.”
The fact that the filmmakers already have had two HD cameras (EOS 60Ds) donated, and have an editor who will donate time, means the donations would be more focused on time at the Centre. Having endorsements of one sort or another helps as well: “We just got the African Conservation Foundation on board,” she says.
I’ve seen a share of Kickstarter efforts throw out wild figures – $50,000, $60,000 – and fall far short. I’ve also seen more-established filmmakers jump in and use Kickstarter. Gary Hustwit (“Helvetica”)surprised me when he went the crowdfundng route for his new film “Urbanized,” and came back with $118,000. I’d have thought he’d have gotten more traditional funding, but there you go. Nonetheless, Kickstarter seems firmly a tool for the aspirational, and need to show their project is a labor of love. It looks as if filmmakers are seeing that setting a fund goal of “just enough, but not too much,” is their best bet.
“I do think this is the future of filmmaking for the independents,” Marilu says. “Social networking has been really interesting in this. Word of mouth is the missing item in the recipe to get you funded on Kickstarter.”
Some time ago, the book reviewer Sarah Goldstein came up with a term for a type of book which the author sets on a particular mission, the definition being, “Books perpetrated by people who undertook an unusual project with the express purpose of writing about it.”
These types of books, which range from “Walden” to “Eat, Pray, Love,” presume that the author is proactively pursuing a story, and is part of it, rather than observing passively, and in a third-person role. Goldstein called such books “schtick lit“.
And since more and more documentaries are doing this as well, I’ll further coin a sub-genre of “schtick flicks.”
Schtick flicks as successful as Academy Award winners The Cove, Born Into Brothels and Bowling For Columbine have been a counterpoint to more traditional interview-based films, such as Inside Job and Man on Wire.
One documentary I’d put it in the schtick flick category is the entertaining More Than A Month, in which filmmaker Shukree Tilghman sets out to end Black History Month. The film will be seen on PBS in February during Black History Month.
Tilghman says the Byron Hurt documentary Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes influenced him to take on the issue as a cross-country vérité-style journey.
“I decided I could do something like that. The initial idea was not that I’d be in the movie. I would speak to people and other people would take over the story. Marco Williams (of Two Towns of Jasper and Banished, on which Tilghman was a producer) got involved as executive producer and said ‘This film is about you and this issue.’”
Tilghman, whose previous credits have included both documentary and reality television work, has always taken issue with placing black history in the “coldest, shortest month.” And when he saw Morgan Freeman talking about his disdain for Black History Month on “60 Minutes” in 2005, it drove him to do something about it. He drew inspiration from other first-person films — and not all documentaries.
“I thought of films like Sherman’s March, definitely Morgan Spurlock, definitely Michael Moore, and believe it or not, Annie Hall,” he says. The 1977 Woody Allen comedy had been a favorite on Tilghman’s in both the way Allen’s character spoke directly to the audience and also how the film used cut-away moments that might be called “re-creations,” but are more fanciful illustrations of the point, often comic in form.
“When you go to a lecture, people often start with a joke — I thought if we dealt with the issue too seriously and we had all talking heads, it wouldn’t be as good. The re-creations were where Annie Hall came in. I must have watched that film 12 times during pre-production. Because here was the opportunity to break out of the film for a second and either make a joke, or illuminate a point, and to entertain in a little way – to say, ‘Hey, you can laugh.’”
Some such moments that were written but never shot, and some that were shot and weren’t used. “Even some of the stuff that made it in, depending on the audience or the mood I’m in watching it, may be a forced joke. For example, some people may not get the Stanley Kubrick 2001 reference.”
The film took Tilghman to nine cities, and resulted in about 250 hours of footage. He shot with a Sony PMW-EX1 and a Canon EOS 5D Mark II, cameras that gave the film HD quality at a reasonable cost. The film, like so many documentaries, began modestly, but shooting the highest-possible quality for cost was important. Often, interviews were conducted on the street or in busy settings, rather than in a formal and controlled interview mode to give the film a feel of the tapestry of everyday life.
“We wanted it to feel like a journey, in which you’d been somewhere, both in terms of physical space and insights. We could have done this film as talking-head experts. It was intentional to not make it feel like that.”
More Than a Month premieres on PBS during Black History Month on February 16, 2012. For more information, visit the film’s official website.
I’m always leery about documentaries made by celebrities. I’m not talking about people who are celebrities because of the docs — the Moores, Burnses and scant others who have name recognition because of their work — but rather the famous who jump in seemingly out of nowhere to make documentary films.
With Sundance 2012 bringing us the premiere this week of Ice-T’s Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap, and Rory Kennedy’s documentary about her also not un-famous mother Ethel, I find myself with that vaguely sickening feeling that celebrities make documentaries because they are burnishing self-image, protecting or enhancing their brand, or sometimes doing a salvage job. Think Al Gore. Or Exit Through Gift Shop, 2010 Sundance pick that a) may not have been factually accurate, and b) did more to build the artist Banksy’s brand than all of his previous work, but, most terribly, c) probably inspired a string of maybe-not-so-true-true-story docs.
Documentary is likewise a marriage between art and something akin to the journalistic. But, and maybe it’s because of my own background in journalism, I lean toward the work of people who don’t make films about themselves, who explore a topic of consequence and who stay behind the camera.
I realize the horse left the barn two decades ago in the substantial form of Michael Moore. Seeing a filmmaker squarely in the frame was not new when Moore first appeared in Roger & Me, but it had never been done so successfully. While that begat people like Morgan Spurlock vomiting McDonald’s out his car window, it also brought the curious Sketches of Frank Gehry, in which the famous architect was profiled by his famous friend, Sydney Pollack. The shots of the longtime feature-film director Pollack (a man with armies of film crews at his beck and call) shooting Gehry handheld, while himself being shot by a presumed film crew, stay with me.
Too many celebrity documentaries are marked by the filmmaker spending more time in front of the camera than behind it, rarely asking very involved questions, instead offering their mediations on a topic, and at times emitting a whiff of rank self-promotion. When I hear of Johnny Depp making a documentary about Keith Richards, I don’t expect any closure on questions left unanswered by Richards’ own generally forthcoming autobiography (although Keith may well repeat his assertions about Mick Jagger’s genitalia).
Beware documentaries that try too nakedly to lure star power. Tabloid fixture Lindsay Lohan signed on for a 2010 BBC documentary on child trafficking, delicately entitled Lindsay Lohan’s Indian Journey, a film that was pitched as Lohan “investigating” the topic. Who could take it seriously? The film was greeted with shock, and disastrous ratings. Lohan, apparently unscathed, was back partying in LA in no time.
Celebrity docs may have hit their most egregious with the comedian Chris Rock’s Good Hair. Rock invited documentarian Regina Kimbell to screen her film about African-American hairstyles, My Nappy Roots. Some time later he came forward with his own documentary, not only on the same topic, but also sharing many elements with Kimbell’s film. She lost a lawsuit against him, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t have every right to see his effort as piggybacking on hers. The comparison between the films is, to me, chilling.
Second on my list may be William Shatner’s The Captains, a documentary about playing the captain on TV’s “Star Trek.” The New York Times‘ Mike Hale’s dutiful review of the film is far better than the film itself: “Much of the fun of watching The Captains is waiting to see just how shameless a huckster and self-promoter Mr. Shatner can be. You don’t have to wait long.”
Taking the bronze is a yet-to-be-completed Juliette Lewis documentary, which makes the podium based simply on headlines from September like this one: “Juliette Lewis preps rock documentary on herself.” Exactly! But the articles back in September say she was aiming this film at Sundance 2012, something that has not come to pass, for good or for ill.
And a dishonorable mention must be made for the Casey Affleck-Joaquin Phoenix disaster I’m Still Here, which they first said was true, until it got an awful response, and then they said wasn’t true. When the nonfiction part begins to fade from nonfiction film, I am given pause.
Documentary film has given stars, who might have spent their time trying to get attention in other ways, a new avenue. No one says documentaries have to be completely objective, but can Ethel do anything but forward the Kennedy legacy? Will Something from Nothing, with its roadmap title, tell anything but rags-to-riches stories that positions rap, and rappers, in a favorable light? Maybe we’ll be surprised.