FIND Filmmaker Forum: What's Up Doc?

It's been a year of epochal keynote addresses to the indie
filmmaking community-bracketed by Mark Gill's gloomy "Yes, The
Sky Is Falling"
back in June at the Los Angeles Film Festival and Ted
Hope's more sanguine "How the
New Truly Free Filmmaking Community Will Rise from Indie's Ashes"
at
Film Independent's Filmmaker Forum two weeks ago.

And somewhere in the stoical middle is the documentary
community, facing a shrinking pool of opportunities among the traditional
models of getting work out there, but entertaining a wealth of possibilities in
the ever-mutating Web 2.0 world. In this spirit, Eddie Schmidt (This Film Is Not Yet Rated; Twist of Faith), IDA's interim executive
director, took the helm of What's Up Doc?, a panel that took stock of where we
are artistically, professionally and commercially. Joining him on this freeform
exploration were Arthur Dong (Hollywood
Chinese
; Licensed to Kill), Davis
Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth; The First Year); Freida Lee Mock (Wrestling with Angels: Playwright Tony
Kushner
; Maya Lin: A Strong Clear
Vision
); Marina Zenovich (Roman
Polanski: Wanted and Desired
; Who Is
Bernard Tapie?
).

 

The What's Up Doc? panel at Film Independent's Film Forum.
Left to right: Arthur Dong, Eddie Schmidt, Freida Lee Mock, Marina Zenovich, Davis
Guggenheim. Courtesy of Film Independent.

Schmidt started the discussion by talking about the passion
and craft, and how documentary making was very improvisational. Dong moved the
conversation to the editing room, citing how much he loved being there and how
he's "always been very solitary. Schmidt concurred: "When you're in the field,
your empathy is all used up after a while, but in the editing room, you can be
judgmental again."

In documentary, you're in the Truth business-or, perhaps,
the truthiness business. Schmidt noted that often the process becomes a
struggle between "trying to uphold the subject's point of view while instilling
the filmmaker's point of view" And went on to suggested that "sometimes literal
truth is not enough." Guggenheim felt that it was "more important to go for the
spirit of the truth. You can put accurate things in there, but they might
distort the truth."

Moving inevitably to the business side, Schmidt posited that
the combination of the decline in box office and the demise of arthouse
distributors may have been a factor of "ridiculous expectations." Guggenheim
admitted that the market was bad and that "a lot of great films were not
finding distribution," there was a loss of confidence in docs and that a lot of
the major distributors didn't know how to find the audiences for documentaries.
Dong, a longtime proponent of the DIY direction that everyone seems to looking
into these days, said that none of his films showed multi-million dollar
returns at the box office, and he never expected them to. He went on to lament
the evolution of the high-profile festival from a venue where the festival and
the filmmaker used to be the ideal marriage to a marketplace for buying and selling.

Continuing on the filthy and elusive lucre track, Schmidt observed,
"When there's money involved, there's an element of control that you lose."
Dong pointed out that if he had signed with a theatrical distributor, he
couldn't have negotiated with PBS. "It's so much easier now than it was ten
years ago," he maintained. "It's time to screw the industry [regarding deals}.
It's got to be non-exclusive." Dong said that "taking control allows me not to
worry about income. I always have a steady stream of income by sustaining the
ancillary markets."

The implicit heart of this discussion was the documentary
livelihood that the panelists had chosen-a livelihood that is intrinsically
volatile and undeniably adventurous. "I am emboldened by the fact that there is
no path in documentary," Guggenheim declared. "Every film is different. The
greatest way to make God laugh is to tell him your plans."

And with that, the panelists and audience members went back
to work.

Elsewhere in the
Filmmaker Forum, Tamara Krinsky covered The Documentary Marketplace panel. For
her coverage, click
here.
 

Thomas White is editor of Documentary.

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