December 21, 2020

Essential Doc Reads: Week of December 14, 2020

From Frederick Wiseman's 'City Hall,' which premieres December 22 on PBS. Courtesy of Zipporah Films

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!

Mark Binelli of The New York Times Magazine talks to the great American documentarian Frederick Wiseman, who’s been hunkering down in Paris since the beginning of the pandemic, on the eve of the December 22nd PBS broadcast of his latest opus, City Hall

They also represent the work of an artist of extraordinary vision. The films are long, strange and uncompromising. They can be darkly comic, uncomfortably voyeuristic, as surreal as any David Lynch dream sequence. There are no voice-overs, explanatory intertitles or interviews with talking heads, and depending on the sequence and our own sensibility, we may picture the ever-silent Wiseman as a deeply empathetic listener or an icy Martian anthropologist.

The New Yorker’s Calvin Tomkins profiles filmmaker Arthur Jafa about the evolution of his work, from his undergraduate days at Howard University under the tutelage of Haile Gerina and Ben Caldwell, though his six-year detour into sculpture, through his acclaimed return to filmmaking.

“It seemed to me early on that it wasn’t enough to say a Black person made the film,” he said. “It had to be something more. And, in trying to think about what I consider fundamental Black aesthetic values, one of the things that came up was rhythm. Most people will say Black people have rhythm—they seem able to do things with time. So I became interested in how cinema could be inscribed with a more idiomatic sense of timing.”

The WITNESS Media Lab just launched its new guide, Interviewing with Care: Documenting Stories of State Violence. 

Before filming, ask yourself: is video the best way to move towards the overall advocacy or storytelling goals? Make sure to check in with the “why” and set your intentions before you film. Your goals should never outweigh the goals of the interviewee.

In his Distribution Bulletin, Peter Broderick introduces Virtual Screening: A Step-by-Step Guide, in which Ward Serrill offers a primer based on his experience in screening his film The Bowmakers.

Initially, I resisted the move toward virtual screenings, only forced into them by the pandemic. But since embracing them and becoming more entrepreneurial-minded as a filmmaker, I now see them as a centerpiece of any film distribution strategy I’ll have in the future. Virtual screenings enable me to connect directly with my target audience and to bring in respectable cash flow. They have also given me a special opportunity to meaningfully interact with viewers remotely.

William Uricchio, writing for Immerse, discusses his experiences with immersive media at IDFA’s DocLab.

This article summarizes the findings of a research project that considers narrative experiences in immersive settings, where users can interact with structured worlds. While the project focuses on user experiences in various immersive forms (including 360 and real-time capture Virtual Reality, locative audio, and an AI story generator) its findings are more broadly relevant to other forms such as augmented reality, alternate reality, and video games, and interactive documentaries. These cultural forms allow users to find their own way through a constructed environment; they exist as collaborations between the user and environment-designer; and in most cases, they yield unique experiences. Their affordances couldn’t be more different from those of print and film, which are used to “tell” stories; rather than writing them off, can these experiences instead be described as enabling users to “find” stories?

Writing for The New York Times, Nicolas Rapold writes about Victor Kossakovsky’s Gunda and James Reed and Pippa Ehrlich’s My Octopus Teacher (both IDA Documentary Award nominees) as two examples of a new breed of animal documentary.

But there are signs of new directions in how animals are portrayed in nature films. Gunda, which opened Friday via virtual cinema, feels like part of this movement, along with a different but also unusual film, My Octopus Teacher on Netflix. Both present animals as beings apart from us, not just objects of wonder or scientific study, and with qualities that are all their own, not shadows of human emotions.

PBS News Hour’s Joshua Barajas talks to filmmaker James Erskine about his new documentary about Billie Holiday and how he relied on 40-year-old audio tapes from the late journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl to construct the narrative about the great jazz artist.

But what we decided is a sort of guiding principle was that what’s brilliant about these tapes is that they’re eyewitness accounts. So we said, “OK, we’re only going to use excerpts of the tapes where people are talking about an event that they actually witnessed or participated in or they are relaying a conversation that they directly had with Billie Holiday about something that happened in her life.” And actually, that was a really good guiding principle, because then we wanted to encounter these eyewitnesses and create an emotional relationship with Billie through those encounters rather than editing them together in a kind of conventional documentary way. I mean, part of the film is actually about the unknowability of people. People capture Billie Holiday for a moment in their lives and then she’s gone, and she’s on the road somewhere else.

Talkhouse presents a conversation between two documentary innovators: Caveh Zahedi and John Wilson.

And what’s so wonderful about the show is that each image has an amazing story to it that I would love to talk about, because there’s so much on either end of the shot that you don’t see that leads up to that moment. And I just wanted to make the densest possible thing I could. Back when when I was a teenager and I made fiction movies or comedies, people would just watch it and have nothing to say afterwards. And I hated that. I realized I wanted the movies to be the beginning of an exciting conversation. I want people to start thinking about something that they never thought about before, or talk about something they never talked about before.

The Freedom of the Press Foundation reports on a record-breaking number of journalists arrested in the US this year.

“This report shows an unprecedented press freedom crisis engulfing the United States,” said Freedom of the Press Foundation Executive Director Trevor Timm. “Journalists should not have to worry about being arrested for doing their job, yet across the country police have disregarded their rights on a staggering scale. Despite scores of illegal arrests and assaults on journalists doing their jobs, we know of no police officer who has been criminally charged for these shocking violations of constitutional rights. We hope this report will spur local, state and federal officials to act.”

The New York Times’ Marc Tracy, Katie Robertson and Tiffany Hsu report on the Times’ recent determination that its award-winning podcast, Caliphate, failed to meet the standards for Times journalism.

"Narrative journalism can be perilous, said Ann Marie Lipinski, a former editor in chief of The Chicago Tribune who has run the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard since 2011. “That’s a certain kind of storytelling that is much valued and does have this built-in entertainment quality,” she said. “But you can never sacrifice the reporting to that.”

From the Archive, September 2017 online, “Pictures from an Institution: An Interview with Frederick Wiseman”

The New York Public Library is such a complex place, you can make many different sorts of films here. As a result of my experience of being here, I didn't set out to do it that way because I didn't know enough about what was going on to make that kind of choice in advance. And in fact, I never make any choice in advance as to what the film is going to be.

But I found myself drawn in the direction of the wide variety of programs that the library offered. I didn't mean to minimize the book collection or the archival work; I think the film doesn't spend as much time with that aspect of the library as it does with the community aspect and the educational and cultural aspect.

In the News


Sundance Film Festival Unveils Its 2021 Lineup


Academy Museum Opening Date Postponed to September 2021


Cris Abrego Elected Chairman of Television Academy


New York Film Critics Circle Names Award-Winners


European Film Award Winners Named


Library of Congress Announces New Selections for National Film Registry


IndieWire’s Best Documentaries of 2020


IndieWire’s Best Podcasts of 2020


Doc Alliance Names Selection Award 2020


National Endowment for the Humanities Announces New Grants


SFFilm and Kenneth Rainin Foundation Announce Rainin Grants and New Grant for Filmmakers with Disabilities


Sarah Spring Named Executive Director of Documentary Organization of Canada


Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellowship Makes Available Editors and Assistant Editors List