July 7, 2019

Essential Doc Reads: Week of July 1

 From Alex Holmes' 'Maiden.' Courtesy of Tracy Edwards and Sony Pictures Classics

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!

In a time where environmental documentaries are as important as ever, Davide Banis from Forbes makes the case for revisiting the 1982 experimental film Koyaanisqatsi from Godfrey Reggio. With no dialogue or plot, this film uses time-lapses and slow-motion footage of people and landscapes across the United States to show the precarious relationship between humans, technology and the natural world without explicitly mentioning climate change. 

While most of the contemporary environmental documentaries state their case explicitly, Koyaanisqatsi doesn’t really have a thesis to bring forward. Godfrey Reggio isn’t trying to convince us of anything. Yes, "Koyaanisqatsi" means "unbalanced life" in the Hopi language and that’s a hint on how to interpret the film but, actually, Reggio wanted to leave his masterpiece without any title (understandably, the producers convinced him otherwise). With the sheer power of its images, Koyaanisqatsi shows that the relationship between humankind, technology, and nature is a complex and multidimensional problem, and that no simple narrative that pitches :bad, polluting technology" versus "good nature" can make it justice.   

Anne Thompson from IndieWire says Alex Holmes’ sailing documentary Maiden could be a major player in this year’s Oscar race. The film tells the story of Tracy Edwards, a 23-year-old sailor who, along with her all-female crew, restored a yacht and competed in the male-dominated Whitbread race in 1985. 

British documentarian Holmes (House of Saddam) was riveted by Edwards' story when she was a guest speaker at the middle school graduation of his youngest daughter. "She was a great character," he said, and assumed that someone else must had filmed this extraordinary adventure (Edwards has written two books), and that if not, he would have to make a narrative drama out of it. People didn’t have GoPros and iPhones back in 1989. Holmes' "heart lifted," he said, when he learned that Edwards' best friend Jo not only took on the role of cook on the Maiden, but cinematographer, shooting in the short-lived SVHS format. She lashed one camera to the mast, rigged to film whenever there was an all-hands-on-deck situation, resulting in amazing storm footage as the Maiden rode through gigantic swells. Every time Maiden pulled into port, getting the recorded film off the boat was the first priority.

From Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt at Forward, filmmaker Paula Eiselt discusses balancing filmmaking with her Orthodox Jewish religion, the mixed reception of her film 93Queen and the complexities of being a voice for her community without being boxed into a niche focus. 

She wonders aloud whether it was the nature of the storyteller that pigeonholed the film. "When someone from the outside tells a story, it becomes universal," she says. "But when it’s someone from the inside, it is niche. And I wonder if it was someone who wasn’t Jewish, or a secular Jew, I wonder how that narrative around the film would have changed."

Emilio Mayorga from Variety interviews veteran Chilean documentary filmmaker Patricio Guzman about his latest film, The Cordillera of Dreams, which brings him back to his home country 46 years after his exile. 

I think this film returns to the simple and avoids the baroque. There’s a key element, the mountain range, and little else. It’s a film about essence of the soul. Here there’s more of my voice than in the others, and most likely in the next there will be even more. There’s an evolution, reaching continually towards what you have inside you as a creator and as a person, and leaving a little aside. There’s a transition towards a more subjective territory.

From The Hollywood Reporter’s Georg Szalai, Netflix’s self-regulation might not be enough as they plan to continue working with British producers long-term. UK lawmakers say the streaming company could still be subject to public service broadcasting regulation if these partnerships continue. 

U.K. culture secretary Jeremy Wright earlier this year lauded streaming giants Netflix and Amazon for their growing role in Britain's media landscape, but also signaled that they could face some form of regulation in the future. "We must ... make sure that our concept of broadcasting, and our policies towards it, recognize and reflect the growing impact of the digital world," he said. "For relatively new on-demand platforms, rules are in many areas not as robust."

Award-winning producer Elhum Shakerifar (A Syrian Love Story, Almost Heaven) discusses her films, challenges she faces as a filmmaker and the future of the doc industry in an interview with Docs on Screen

I feel that we have lost the ability to respect documentary’s value outside of box office and easy to quantify audience numbers – but film is an art form, should it be measured only in these terms? To my mind, the art of nonfiction filmmaking is in holding a mirror up to the world. There is undeniable value in longitudinal, artistic, unexpected, creative, divergent and diverse approaches. We must see things from different perspectives to better understand the world, but also to challenge ourselves. If we valued the variety of mirrors, of voices and the range that non-fiction can represent – we would be living in a very different world today. 

At the 2019 Sheffield Doc/Fest, Filmmaker’s Tiffany Pritchard discusses the conversations filmmakers had about the evolution of the doc industry with the emergence of shorts, smartphone filmmaking and podcasts, and how the growth of SVOD platforms have changed how filmmakers think about distribution and funding. 

"Filmmakers are looking for more options," said Hurley. "The landscape for financing films has changed significantly. [Now] SVOD platforms want all rights as opposed to a more classic model where rights are split up per territory." Hurley, who has been proactive in bringing in more potential investors to the MeetMarket, including three decision makers from Netflix, added, "Producers talk more and more about the dilemma of raising finance for new projects while retaining all rights, so we’re involving more equity financiers and production companies in the MeetMarket to help open as many doors as possible for filmmakers."

Dade Hayes from Deadline dives into a recent Nielson report showing that while overall TV viewership is up, the proliferation of content choices on SVOD platforms have many overwhelmed users giving up on the search to find something to watch. 

"Options are great for consumers when it comes to deciding what to watch," Nielsen SVP of audience insights Peter Katsingris wrote in the report, "but they’re also decidedly complicated for an industry that continues to fragment and search for unique ways to influence their behavior and perhaps steer eyeballs toward their network, program, service or brand."

Jan-Christopher Horak from the UCLA Film and Television Archive writes about the Film Librarians Conference, hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which brought together librarians and archivists from around the world to discuss cinema’s material culture, copyright and legal issues as well as maintaining film databases. 


Another thread running through the conference was the production, housing and use of oral histories, since many institutions now realize that the only way to capture the history of filmmaking, especially as it pertains to women and minorities, is through interviews with survivors. The Academy’s own massive online oral history project was the subject of a whole session with María Elena de las Carreras, Teague Schneiter, Brendan Coates, Mae Woods and Tuni Chatterji presenting various aspects of their work. Other oral history projects were addressed by Hilary Swett (Writers Guild Foundation), Christian Pitt (International Cinematographers Guild) and last but not least, the Kitchen Sisters Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva, whose NPR series, The Keepers, focuses on amateur archivists, rogue librarians, collectors, curators and historians.

From the Archive, December 2011: Finding the Past in the Present: Patricio Guzman's 'Nostalgia for the Light'

"A documentary film starts being created on one’s work table, at home. I like to have a scripted documentary very much, even though many people say documentaries are not written, [that this] should be done during filming. I think it’s very useful to write a framework in the form of a story. One may not have gone to where the shoot will take place yet, but one can imagine things, one can think in advance [and] use intuition without being there."

 

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