September 4, 2021

Essential Doc Reads: Week of August 30 2021

Bob Ross is white artist with a brown afro and a mostly grey beard. He is riding a bouncy alligator ride in a playground. He is wearing a white shirt and blue jeans. Image from Joshua Rofé’s ‘Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed.’ Courtesy of Netflix.

Essential Doc Reads is our curated selection of recent features and important news items about the documentary form and its processes, from around the internet, as well as from the Documentary magazine archive. We hope you enjoy!


Variety’s Manori Ravindran reports on the unfortunate turn of events at the Sheffield Doc Fest. We stand in solidarity with the programming team. 

“The exchange established between artists and curators over the last two years to develop an artistic approach to various aspects of the festival is now in vain,” reads the statement. “What is the future of the artistic program at Sheffield DocFest? How does it fit into the new vision of the board?

“As programmers, we again question the purpose and ethics of festivals run by boards predominantly made up of broadcasters and commissioners with a vested interest in showcasing projects whose distribution future is already predetermined,” the statement continues.

Over at IndieWire, Kate Erbland deconstructs a new study from The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, which says that the documentary industry continues to support more women than does the narrative world.

In every behind-the-scenes role but one, documentaries employed higher percentages of women than narrative features (only as writers did the percentage of women working in narrative films narrowly surpass that of women working on documentaries: 37 percent versus 35 percent, respectively).

According to Executive Director Dr. Martha Lauzen, “The findings confirm that women continue to enjoy higher rates of employment on documentaries than narrative features. Every iteration of this study since 2008 has found that women fare better in the world of documentary films.”

Variety’s Addie Morfoot weighs in on the currently “booming” documentary scenario and poses a few interesting questions around it being too much of a good thing.

Because where money goes, leverage follows. Lois Vossen, executive producer of PBS’ long-running documentary showcase Independent Lens, notes that documentaries “have now become a commodity, and that is both good and bad.

“The journalistic rigor is something that’s being questioned,” Vossen continues. “Who has control of the documentary? People with money now are influencing content. Characters are influencing the content. Executive producers who own footage are influencing the content. So, it’s an exciting time, but it’s also a really interesting time in terms of the heart of what documentary is.”

A tussle over the legacy of Bob Ross? The Guardian’s David Smith discusses the Netflix documentary on the artist and the can of worms it has opened.

Once Rofé and his team got to work tracking down potential interviewees, however, it was clear even this project would not be straightforward – less warm bath than shark attack. “I got two things back pretty much every time. One was that everybody loved Bob and missed him dearly and then, two, they also let us know that there’s no way that they’re going to participate in a documentary about him because they’re afraid to speak about him on camera publicly.

“This fear was murky initially, but it was they who made it clear that it centered around some form of legal retaliation and there was a corporate entity that they wouldn’t name. And so in that moment, I, like any documentary filmmaker, knew that this was going to be something that I had to do and this was probably going to be more compelling than I even could have anticipated.”

Over at Artforum, Ratik Asokan looks at three Indian documentaries and the ways in which they depict labor relations.

What is it like to work in an Indian factory? Three documentaries (all currently streaming for free) begin to answer this troubling question. Anjali Monteiro and KP Jayasankar’s Saacha: The Loom (2001) is an elegy for Mumbai’s shuttered cotton mills woven around the lives of two men, a poet and a painter. Rahul Roy’s The Factory (2015) chronicles a landmark 2012–15 strike at an automobile factory near New Delhi. Rahul Jain’s Machines (2016) unfolds amid the sordid interiors of a textile sweatshop in Gujarat. As with Chinese activist cinema, these are for the most part works of witness, recording struggles and injustices that politicians and the mainstream media ignores. Together, they offer a tracking shot of India’s landscape of labor. The picture that emerges is disquieting and frequently shocking.

Variety’s Addie Morfoot previews the documentaries premiering at Telluride this year—with protagonists ranging from Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, Jacques Cousteau, to Anthony Fauci, Francisco Fellove and the Velvet Underground.

The secretive Telluride team unveiled the 2021 program just 24 hours before the festival begins. “The festival directors are always dedicated to programming what they believe to be the best films of the year,” a fest spokesperson said. “And our documentary lineup reflects that.”

From the Archive, September 13, 2011, Online Feature: “Nonfiction at 9,000 Feet: Telluride Kicks off the Fall Fest Season

Telluride is literally made for film festivals. Even a novice like me learns that right away. I'd just arrived at the 8,800-foot elevation of this remote Colorado box-canyon village with a Wild West reputation (Butch Cassidy committed his first bank robbery here in 1889) and was worried that my shortness of breath would keep me from a screening a few blocks away. Suddenly a Land Rover pulled up and a voice called out, "Need a ride?" Roger Ebert once said Telluride was "like Cannes died and went to heaven." Unfortunately its thin oxygen content kept him from coming at all and required his wife, Chaz, to seek medical attention for herself. But I was blessed with altitude fitness, shuttle rides and the upgrade-to-patrons'-line coupons to get me into every screening of my choice.

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