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Essential Doc Reads: Week of Jan. 11

By KJ Relth

Filmmaker Matthew Heineman, whose film 'Cartel Land' was recently nominated for an Oscar.

Essential Doc Reads is a weekly feature in which the IDA staff recommends recent pieces about the documentary form and its processes. Here we feature think pieces and important news items from around the Internet, and articles from the Documentary magazine archive. We hope you enjoy! 


The AV Club's A.A. Dowd asks, "Why can't the best documentary of the year be a Best Picture nominee?":

Some of all this probably has to do with the member makeup of the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences. The majority of Oscar voters (over 6,000 of them total) are industry professionals working, in some way or another, within the Hollywood system. If the Oscars often seem unfairly slanted toward studio fare—or, at the very least, toward films featuring studio talent or released by mini-majors like Fox Searchlight or Sony Pictures Classics—it might be because many of those selecting the nominations have a vested interest in that system. Documentarians, on the other hand, often exist outside of it. They work with smaller crews, secure financing through different channels, and generally operate more independently than their fiction-film counterparts. But it probably goes deeper than that, to the way our film culture compartmentalizes fiction and nonfiction filmmaking. An all-too-common line of reasoning holds that movies are movies, but documentaries are something separate—they can be noble and "important," in other words, but that doesn’t mean they can be judged by the same rubric as narrative films.


From Variety, Academy Award nominee Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land) shares his thoughts on actor Sean Penn's interview with drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzmán:

The media circus surrounding the prison escape and recapture of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzmán, a cunning peasant farmer-turned billionaire drug lord of the famed Sinaloa Cartel, has captivated the world and, in many instances, glorified a vicious killer. Yet the salacious details of El Chapo's story, including his secret jungle meeting with a famous Hollywood actor, threaten to distract us from the grim reality of the bigger picture – America’s massive demand for illicit drugs, the utter failure and corruption of government institutions, and the long time suffering of the Mexican people. I saw this complex reality vividly when shooting my documentary Cartel Land in the Mexican state of Michoacán. I was embedded on and off for nine months with the Autodefensas, a group of vigilantes who fought to take back their endangered communities from another fearsome cartel, the Knights Templar, after the government had failed to protect their families and communities. There were many hair-raising moments: I found myself in the middle of shootouts between the cartel and the Autodefensas, in meth labs in the dark desert night, in torture chambers I never could have imagined.


The filmmakers behind Making a Murderer recount to IndieWire how the prosecutor tried to subpoena their footage:

"What's really interesting about that is, any of the statements Steven would have made to myself or anyone working for our company would have been recorded by the jail itself. All of the calls Steven was able to make and all the visits were being monitored and recorded. So our argument in the motion to quash was [that] the state does not need these materials from us because the state already has these materials. When considering that, it's interesting because then you think, 'Okay, what's really the real reason behind the subpoena?'" Do the filmmakers feel like Kratz was abusing his power, the way the series shows him doing with Avery's case, and was actually trying to stop them from filming? "I agree with that on some level," Demos said. "Getting the subpoena felt like hostility coming toward us."


From The New Yorker, filmmaker Werner Herzog weighs in on virtual reality:

"I am convinced that this is not going to be an extension of cinema or 3-D cinema or video games. It is something new, different, and not experienced yet. The strange thing here is that normally, in the history of culture, we have new stories and narrations and then we start to develop a tool. Or we have visions of wondrous new architecture—like, let’s say, the museum in Bilbao, or the opera house in Sydney—and technology makes it possible to fulfill these dreams. So you have the content first, and then the technology follows suit. In this case, we do have a technology, but we don’t have any clear idea how to fill it with content. [...] All human encounters are ambiguous. Even the perfect personal encounters are ambiguous in all societies, in all age groups, in all historical phases. And you see this ambiguity very clearly, for example, when you are on Facebook. This ambiguity, and this definition, is apparently the source of all your questions. Do we already live in a virtual reality? Did Rome, in antiquity, live in some sort of virtual reality?"


From Finding Vivian Maier, the Academy Award-nominated doc from John Maloof and Charlie Siskel, inspired retired business executive Ann Marks to do her own sleuthing about Maier's story. The New York Times' Kerri MacDonald shares the tale of Marks' journey:

"There’s always this incredible elusiveness about the maker of those photos," said Jeffrey Goldstein, who was one of the first to acquire and champion her work. "To me, it's miraculous," he said of Ms. Marks's research. "It's absolutely miraculous." He says Ms. Marks's research is "equivalent to, if not more important than, all of the work that John and I have done," referring to John Maloof, who bought some of Maier’s negatives at a Chicago auction in 2007. Mr. Maloof printed more than 80 Vivian Maier images for her first exhibit in Chicago in 2011 and later was co-director of Finding Vivian Maier, an Oscar-nominated documentary about her. "She’s basically picked up the obsession that I had in making the film," Mr. Maloof said. "But she’s picked it up where I left off and continued with it. And she filled in a lot of blanks."


From the archives, Winter 2013 -- Border Reporter: New Doc Puts Mexico's Drug Violence in a Human Context:

"So much of the news coverage about the US-Mexico border was so decontextualized," Ruiz recalls. "It's what I call 'vulture journalism'— bodies in the street and the decapitations and the shootouts—but there was no context. I just found it astonishing that even reputable media outlets were just doing slapdash coverage of the war next door. It continues to this day." It is precisely this sloppy, sensationalist coverage that led a few daring reporters to demand a new standard in journalism, its instigators wanting nothing more than to distance themselves from private interests and government influence.


In the news:

Al Jazeera America Terminates All TV and Digital Operations
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Judge Rules Against Man Responsible for Vincent Chin's Death, Lien on Nevada Home Stays
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MacArthur Announces Performances, Discussion to Celebrate 35 Years of Iconic Fellowship Program
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MacArthur Awards 19 Documentary Film Grants
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