Skip to main content

Doc U Recap: Yes, But Is It Art?

By KJ Relth

For most documentary filmmakers, the impetus behind launching a documentary project usually comes from a passion for an issue or a relationship with an intriguing figure. At least in the initial stages, it’s difficult to turn the emphasis away from the story to focus on the desired artistic form for the visual part of the story.

For too long now, far too little importance has been placed on the artistry inherent in documentary filmmaking. This is why we brought together three accomplished documentary filmmakers for a discussion that kicked off with the question "Why talk about art in documentary?"

On Wednesday, April 18, Senior Programmer at the Sundance Film Festival Caroline Libresco moderated a panel that focused on just this question. As the woman who spearheaded Sundance’s Documentary competition program, Libresco is no stranger to recognizing the value of aesthetics in non-fiction cinema. "The choices that artists make cause us to feel things," she stated at the start of the panel. "Documentary is intrinsically aesthetic."

Documentarty filmmakers Ondi Timoner (We Live in Public, DIG!) and Marina Zenovich (Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired) joined Caroline onstage at the Cinefamily in Los Angeles, fielding questions from both their eloquent moderator and members of the audience. One of the inital questions revolved around the best way to honor your subjects in the most honest and righteous way possible. Ondi was asked how she was able to maintain her artistic integrity and reach a mass audience. All she knew, she answered, was that she had to follow her subjects, had to let this story unfold over time. She didn't have to know where it's headed; she just knew that she needed to follow it.

Both filmmakers discussed their main characters in two of each of their major films and how the relationships they fostered evolved and shifted over time. Sometimes, resentment or fatigue set in, especially after spending eight hours in a closed room with just your camera and the thoughts inside their heads. When you have a complicated character that maybe doesn't elicit sympathy or a sense of identification and empathy from the audience, both filmmakers stressed the importance of showing a reason for the audience to care about this character who is worthy of both critique and compassion. "Sometimes," Ondi said, "you have to reach deep to find compassion and love for your characters."

"So Marina," Caroline inquired, "do you love Polanski?"

"I do, but don't tell anyone!" Marina answered with a laugh.

"On some level," Ondi said a bit later, "we have to care about our characters. We don't have to love them, but we have to care."

Both women went on to discuss the aesthetic choices they made in their films. For Marina, she went for straight ahead contemporary interviews for Roman Polanski, incorporating images from his own films to help tell the story of his life. While the film begins and ends with the Rosemary's Baby theme, the rest of the score is original—she didn't want the film to be overly-referential, and music was one place where she had some flexibility.

For her, Roman Polanski was such a hard story to put together, especially because she couldn't get access to him for an interview. "I make movies about dead people or people who are not available," she joked, pointing out that she had flesh some of the creative ideas for these films herself. She went back to Polanski's student films to get the shots of him that she needed, as well as some of the B-roll. She pushed herself because she had no other choice—interviewing her subject just wasn't an option.

Ondi spoke about making the decision to be her own editor. "I shot too much footage for anyone else to do it," she stated. "I tried to hire people and they would give up." For her, deciding to edit her own film was not just an aesthetic choice, but also a practical one.

Per usual at our Doc U event, the members of the audience had a chance to mingle with the panelists and fellow members of the documentary community on the Cinefamily's cozy back patio. The close-knit crowd got some one-on-one time with Ondi, Marina and Caroline, giving them the chance to ask more specific questions of the three women and the art behind their work.   

Doc U is the International Documentary Association's series of educational seminars and workshops for aspiring and experienced documentary filmmakers. Taught by artists and industry experts, participants receive vital training and insight on various topics including: fundraising, distribution, licensing, marketing, and business tactics.

Find exclusive video clips from this and past Doc U events on our YouTube channel.