January 21, 2020

Essential Doc Reads: Week of January 13

From Ramona Diaz' 'A Thousand Cuts,' one of four docs that Concordia Studios is representing at the Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

It's been a bit of a hiatus since the last Essential Doc Reads, but we’re back with 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!

On the eve of Sundance, Ben Sisario and Nicole Sperling of The New York Times investigate the story behind Oprah Winfrey’s last-minute pullout as executive producer of Kirby Dick and Amy Zeiring's Sundance-premiering On the Record, which tracks allegations of sexual abuse leveled against music mogul Russell Simmons.

But what preceded Ms. Winfrey's announcement was more than just a dispute over filmmaking. It involved an intense campaign by Mr. Simmons and his supporters to get Ms. Winfrey to pull the plug. That campaign also targeted some of the women in the film on social media and, in at least one case, through direct contact with a family member, in what the women viewed as attempts to threaten and intimidate them ahead of the film’s premiere at Sundance, still scheduled for Jan. 25.

The Times' Sperling also profiles Concordia, a doc production company headed by Davis Guggenheim and backed by Laurene Powell Jobs that is premiering four projects in Sundance's US Documentary Competition.

Nonfiction films that have nothing to do with celebrities can also score big, but with unpredictable storylines known to wreak havoc on production schedules, they can be tough to finance. Concordia is here to help, offering money, production services and expert advice to serious documentary filmmakers.

The other gargantua dominating the doc news front, the Oscars, got IndieWire's Zach Sharf thinking about why docs never figure in the Best Picture race, given Honeyland’s nomination for Best International Feature Film.

If the Academy views Honeyland as one of the five best documentaries and five best foreign films of the year, shouldn’t it have had serious buzz in the Best Picture race? By only recognizing non-fiction features in the Best Documentary category, the Academy perpetuates the belief that narrative films are superior to documentaries in terms of craft and production.

Writing for Medium, distributor Karen Chien explains why she had a hard time watching Oscar nominee American Factory.

We started the company to distribute uncensored films about China made by filmmakers living in China. Censorship now controls nearly all filmmaking in mainland China. In the US, a shrinking handful of corporations control nearly all the distribution mechanisms. We're seeing the consolidation of attention and the globalization of fewer, rather than more, perspectives. The powers that control distribution can (and will) privilege certain points of view over all others.

Legendary doc doyenne Sheila Nevins couldn't handle the retirement scene, and her bounce-back with MTV Documentary Films yielded an Oscar nod for St. Louis Superman. Forbes' Madeline Berg talks to her about her second act.

"I got HBO. I built it. I molded it, so I knew it," says Nevins about the switch. "This one, I'm an adopted child. . .I feel every day that I have to prove to myself and to them that I can walk their walk and talk their talk and still do my thing." 

Writing for The Hollywood Reporter, Adam Benzine, himself a former Academy Award nominee, proffers advice about managing an awards campaign.

For narrative features, a debut at a fall festival often is considered the best path to Academy Awards glory. But when it comes to docs, most succeed with much earlier starts.

Kathy Im, Director of Journalism and Media at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, reflects on challenging the "master narrative" through support for strong, inclusive journalism.

A free and independent media is an essential pillar of democratic societies. But funding noncommercial, public interest media for the purpose of informing and engaging Americans can feel like a fool’s errand in this current atmosphere of partisanship, filter bubbles, and fake news. The master narrative relies on cynicism and apathy. It takes advantage of the powerless and promulgates a point of view in its favor. It allures with simplicity and empty promises about the American Dream. The master fiction is not written by one group or party, it is written, recorded, and repeated by all, especially those who are quiet and complicit.

We are as interested in who tells the story as we are in what stories get told. We cannot give future generations a reason to build another museum for the purpose of correcting the inaccurate, negligent, and purposefully misleading stories shared and recorded about today.

Writing for 100Reporters.org, Tim Schwab investigates the ethical quandaries docmakers face when funders influence their work.

Though most moviegoers might imagine that a director's only client is his or her audience, the reality of documentary filmmaking is more complicated, as industry groups, advertising agencies and companies today hire filmmakers to tell their stories, which are released and streamed to the public as independent documentaries. In much the way that Facebook users have been targeted unwittingly for political propaganda and misinformation campaigns, viewers of documentary films have become captive, unsuspecting audiences for industry messaging that is shaping how we think about controversial topics, whether it is how we should grow food, manage the opioid addiction crisis, or address climate change.

Film Quarterly's Jason Fox explores his query, Can documentary make space?

The party serves as a metaphor for a poem's capacity, through subtle interactions of language, to nurture an empowering feeling of inclusion in an imagined community. But it’s not only a metaphor. Making space is also about attention to the social and material conditions that shape and are shaped by the production of a cultural object, as well as to the ways that works circulate, organizing people through intellectual, affective, and economic infrastructures as they go. Playing the host, then, means paying equal attention to social energies and the formal arrangements that gather them. In fact, some socially committed filmmakers already are.

From the Archive, Winter 2016 Issue, "Oscar Mired: The Peaks and Pitfalls of an Awards Campaign"

"When you make a film, you only ever think about your production schedule and your production budget. What you don't realize is that once the film is out there, the whole other part of your job is just beginning. And it's not just for the awards. That's getting the film promoted and released too—and that's all part of the indivisible puzzle."


 

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