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8 Questions with Ben Mankiewicz, IDA Conversation Series Host

By Ken Jacobson

With the premiere event in our new Conversation Series just one week away, we're getting excited about the stellar lineup of seasoned documentary filmmakers we've hand-picked to bring to the Linwood Dunn Theater in Hollywood over the next few months. The Series, which kicks off on the evening of Tuesday, July 21 with Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering (The Hunting Ground, The Invisible War), will be hosted by Ben Mankiewicz, whose turns on Turner Classic Movies and What the Flick?! have afforded him the opportunity to interact with the art and culture of movies on an almost daily basis. We wanted to know what to expect when he takes to the stage for the Series and dives deep into the world of documentary. Our own Director of Educational Programming and Strategic Partnerships Ken Jacobson spoke with Ben about how he evaluates a non-fiction film and what he sees as the challenges that face docmakers today. 

For tickets for his first conversation with Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, visit our Eventbrite page.


First of all, we'd like to welcome you to the IDA Conversation Series and thank you for taking on the role of series host/interviewer. Between TCM, What the Flick?! and other gigs, you are a pretty busy guy. What made you want to add one more thing to your plate and venture into the documentary world?

First and foremost, I was honored to be asked. I said "yes" pretty much instantly. To someone like me, documentary storytelling is often filmmaking at its finest and most valuable. Second, TCM has enabled me the opportunity to get out in front of an audience and conduct interviews with actors, directors and producers. I love doing it. Getting instant feedback from an engaged audience is enormously satisfying.

I started my career in TV as a journalist—I have a Master’s in Journalism from Columbia. So documentaries have always seemed a perfect blend of my two careers: real-life storytelling and news, plus talking about feature films on TCM.


You watch dozens and dozens of movies every year, but I’m assuming that the vast majority of those are fiction. When you watch a documentary, do you experience and/or evaluate it any differently than you would any other kind of movie?

Every movie is evaluated differently. Ted 2 can’t be measured the same way Inside Out is. Ted 2—which I rather liked—isn’t trying to teach us anything important. At least I hope it isn’t. Docs—to me, anyway—are tasked with trying to either tell us a compelling story we don’t know or challenge us to see a story in a manner we hadn’t before. So, the evaluation and experience for a doc is dramatically different. But every genre is different. An independent movie will never be experienced the same way as Jurassic World.


What do you think are the major challenges facing documentary filmmakers today who seek to become part of the mainstream cultural conversation?

Getting heard. There is so much content. Too much content. But also, more quality content than ever. Finding an audience in this world is challenging enough for a big budget TV show on Showtime or AMC. Finding an audience for a doc is tougher. That said, local news, network news and certainly cable news have failed to deliver—they’ve failed to meet their responsibility to a segment of the public hungry for meaningful information about our world. There’s an audience for the kind of stories TV news—in Murrow’s era—used to deliver. Stories that expose corruption, avarice, abuse of power, stories that give a voice to the powerless and challenge the powerful. The audience is there. But it’s tough to find.


Have you noticed any changes in recent years in terms of the kinds of docs that are being made, the overall quality, and how they are being received by critics and audiences?

I don’t know. That’s a question better suited to a filmmaker. But I sense there’s confidence in challenging entrenched power in docs that’s certainly lacking in mainstream journalism. Mainstream television journalism anyway.


Recently, there seems to be a greater emphasis on documentaries as a vehicle for impacting society in some way. Do you see any tension between documentary as art for art’s sake and documentary as a tool for social change?

Thanks to a TCM programming event scheduled for September, based on Mark Harris’ sensational book, Five Came Back, I just got through watching roughly a dozen docs produced by five of the finest American directors of all time—John Ford, Frank Capra, William Wyler, John Huston and George Stevens. They were all docs made by these men during World War II after the five directors volunteered for military service. There’s no sugarcoating it—these were mainly propaganda films designed as “a tool for social change”—that change being winning the war and defeating the Nazis and the Japanese. But they certainly blended fact and fiction. Sometimes passing fiction off as fact.

I don’t know if there’s tension—but the split is nearly as old as the documentary itself.


Can you name a couple of your favorite docs? Are there any in particular that have really stood out and stayed with you?

Getting back to the World War II docs of Ford, Capra, Wyler, Huston and Stevens, Huston’s San Pietro is such a compelling movie. It purports to be the first American film to show American GIs in combat—with never before seen shots of Americans killed in combat—during the battle of San Pietro in Italy. Decades later, we learned nearly all the combat was recreated in the Mojave Desert and in Orlando—Orlando! The scenes of the dead Americans were real, but not from the Battle of San Pietro. Yet the story Huston told was still largely true. And the innovative way he shot battle sequences is still being used today in feature films.

More recently, I couldn’t get enough of either Man on Wire—something I knew nothing about—or Red Army, which compelled me to rethink something I thought I knew. Also, I can’t not to mention Inside Job, which is still perhaps the best explanation I’ve seen on the financial collapse.


Does this series pose any special challenges to you as a host/interviewer? Is there anything in particular that you plan to focus on?

I’ll take each one differently. But my basic rule for interviews is this: I’m not Edward R. Murrow in these situations. I’m trying to elicit moments from these directors than will move the audience in some way. To do that, they have to trust you, but you can’t pander (well, you can pander a little). You want to make them slightly uneasy in their chair, but you never want to knock them out of it.


What do you hope folks will get out of this series?

A continued interest—or better, a new interest—in this endlessly bountiful manner of storytelling…an occasionally perfect blend of quality journalism and riveting on screen storytelling.


We hope you can join us on Tuesday, July 21 at the Linwood Dunn Theater at 1313 Vine Street in Los Angeles for Ben's conversation with Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering. Register today!