August 2, 2019

Essential Doc Reads: Week of July 29

Johnny Cash at his home in California, 1960. From Ken Burns' upcoming series, 'Country Music,' airing in September on PBS. Courtesy of Sony Music.

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!

Ken Burns’ documentaries have captured some of the most critical times in US history. In an interview with The Guardian's Mark Lawson, Burns discusses his new film Country Music, his distinct filmmaking style, and how his films have led many to reflect on what it means to be American. 

"While the stories I have told stretch from the 18th century to the 21st, all asked one deceptively simple question: who are we? That strange and very complicated people who like to call ourselves Americans. I’ve had the privilege to work for 45 years in the space between this two-letter plural pronoun 'us' and its capitalised equivalent in my country: the US. The opportunity not to tell just a traditional top-down story – Winston Churchill in the war room – but the bottom-up story of what it’s like to be on the battlefield or the street."

Tim Lewis from The Guardian interviews Nick Fraser about his new book, Say What Happened: A Story of Documentaries, which chronicles the history of documentary films.

People don’t really read newspapers, alas. They do read The Guardian or The New York Times online, but I think a lot of important issues are discovered through documentaries. People like Alex Gibney, and a lot of directors in Britain as well, are covering huge issues through their films. In a way, a really good documentary is more powerful than most written pieces. I found this out quickly after a few years in journalism. I always read papers and nonfiction, but really good documentaries have more punch and power than journalism. If you get the right audiences, they’ll remember the subject and they can change the world.

Karen Idelson from Variety examines how nonfiction cinematographers are forced to find quick solutions when filming in perilous environments with uncooperative subjects in order to find the perfect shot. 

"One hundred percent, the most challenging shot of the "Coastal Seas" episode was filming in a shark feeding frenzy at night in the middle of French Polynesia," says Doug Anderson, DP on the "Coastal Seas" episode of the series Our Planet and nommed for nonfiction program. "We overcame the challenge through a massive amount of preparation. We ended up making it safe by wearing chain mail shark suits, by using underwater communications, by being certain with other details of our diving equipment, so that if we did get bitten by sharks or any part of our equipment got bitten, that then we had a plan B."

Variety’s Daniel D’Addario explores how Amazon Video is struggling to find a cohesive identity in the increasingly crowded streaming field as the company announces a new lineup of unique shows with big names attached.

Amazon’s viewership is unknowable; the service makes a point not even to hand out selective numbers. But the bet it’s placing seems clear enough: Leaning away from niche-appeal shows in favor of bringing together, in one place, a suite of potentially massive shows whose core audiences lack natural overlap. This is yet another new phase for a streaming service that’s already been through a few.

A year after the world’s top film festivals signed a gender-parity pledge, Variety’s Henry Chu finds that the representation of female-directed films chosen is still not up to par. 

When it comes to the hot-button issue of female-directed films chosen to compete for the big prizes, progress has been uneven at best. Parity is a rarity. The pledge does not demand gender-based quotas for the festivals’ official lineups — a move that the chiefs of Cannes and Venice have in any case explicitly rejected. With the lineups having been revealed for Toronto and Venice, here’s a report card on how female filmmakers have fared at the elite festivals. (Spoiler: Only Sundance has managed to achieve or exceed parity for women, a feat it first attained in 2013, while Venice remains worst in class for at least the second year in a row.)

Emma Bakkevik of Modern Times Review interviews Venton Nurkollari, the artistic director of the DokuFest International Documentary and Short Film Festival in the small Balkan nation of Kosovo.  

The first edition saw around 300 people at the screenings, whereas in the last couple of years we’ve had more than 15 000 visitors. Back then there were no documentaries shown on television and Kosovo had no film fund. Today many things have changed for the better, and I believe Dokufest to have played a vital role here.

Film Comment’s Christopher Small discusses free-flowing structure of the 30th edition of the FIDMarseille festival and the genre-bending films it featured.  

Other than Vincent Meesen’s Ultramarine—an airtight musical fantasia in which Kain the Poet reads from his work, accompanied by wild, spasmodic drumming—all the notable films at FIDMarseille played fast and loose with the outer limits of their fictions: flubbed clapperboards, slip-ups, mistakes, diversions, improvisations. With a line-up of such open-ended films, it was as if the screen could barely contain the energies of these films’ protagonists. This was also true for the worst the festival had to offer. In other circumstances and in the hands of lesser artists, these gestures of incompleteness registered loudly, again and again, as affectations that grated on the viewer.

Lauren Daley from The Boston Globe talks with director Barak Goodman about his documentary Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation, the legacy of the Woodstock 50 years later, and how the audience made the festival so iconic. 

It was as ugly a situation as you could imagine, in terms of comfort. It wasn’t beautiful. But it became beautiful because of the way people handled it. The peacefulness, acceptance, and sharing transcended what would have otherwise been a very un-beautiful situation. And the musicians contributed: Look how Richie Havens steps forward when the crowd is restless. There’s nobody there to play. He’s not supposed to go on; they ask him to go on; he begs them not to put him in. He has to fill a three-hour hole and ends up making up songs. "Freedom" ends up being one of the iconic songs of the festival — he just made it up on the stage. That’s the kind of thing that kept happening. These little miracles. Another is when the food runs out, the surrounding communities go into their pantries and feed the hungry kids. Again and again, people step up, and it ends up being beautiful.

Changing the Game is a documentary that follows three trans teens as they navigate high school athletics, anti-trans state laws and the everyday struggles of exploring their identities in communities across the country. Out Magazine’s Tre’vell Anderson praises the film for defying tired tropes usually applied to the LQBTQ+ community and creating a new artistic avenue to tell these unique stories with subtle nuance.

On its face, Changing the Game appears as if it's going to be a staid and slightly exploitative documentary, one that uses the experiences of these trans teens solely for the purpose of teaching cis people that they shouldn’t be assholes. I assumed this would be the case, especially with Barnett, a cis man, at the helm. But what we actually have on our hands, as evidenced by the film winning the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature from Outfest recently, is a moving and impassioned chronicling that treats these trans teens as subjects and not objects, allowing them to step into their own powers as accidental advocates for change. 

Stephanie Valera from discusses Netflix's newest film, Enter the Anime, a documentary that explores the origins of anime, its impact on pop-culture and some of the creative minds behind some of the genre’s most popular shows. 

With anime series such as Castlevania, SAINT SEIYA: Knights of the Zodiac, and Kengang Ashura currently available on Netflix, the streaming giant has been helping boost the genre’s popularity among the binge-watching crowd. Now, it’s stepping back to drop some knowledge for anime newcomers. The documentary will spotlight Netflix’s original and licensed anime content (of course) including Castlevania, Aggretsuko, Kengan Ashura, feature interviews with anime giants such as Kozo Morishita (Saint Seiya), Yoko Takahashi (Neon Genesis Evangelion), and Shinji Aramaki (Fullmetal Alchemist).

From the Archive, Fall 2017 issue: "In Country: Ken Burns and Lynn Novick Bring Fresh Eyes to 'The Vietnam War'"

Burns explains that the confluence of visuals, including stills and film footage, and over 150 songs, was as complicated as any feature film. "The idea was to make it feel as if you're there," he says. "We invited representatives of all of the three major archives, ABC, NBC and CBS, and they were stunned to see the war footage they thought they knew coming alive and intermingling with their competitors' footage into something that was seamless—but more important than that, experiential."

In the News

TIFF ’19: Canadian Slate Includes New Docs from Alanis Obomsawin, Alan Zweig


Sundance Film Festival Adds Sudeep Sharma, Ania Trzebiatowska to Programming Team


Outfest 2019 Winners


Big Sky Film Institute Welcomes BSDFF 2020 Guest Programming Director Joanne Feinberg


Latinx Is the Focus of Reinvigorated Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival


BlackStar: How a Film Festival for People of Color Became 'the Black Sundance'


PBS Unveils Slate of New Programming at TCA


PBS and WETA Announce Groundbreaking Documentary Series 'ASIAN AMERICANS'


AMC Networks Sets Premiere Dates For ‘Hip Hop’ Documentary Series, FearFest & More 


HBO Unveils Documentary Series about Atlanta Child Murders, Sets Sets Docu Slate for Rest of 2019


SFFILM, Catapult Film Fund Award Grants to Three Filmmaking Teams


WORLD Channel Receives Three-year Grant from MacArthur Foundation


Science-focused Docs Land Funding from Sundance, Science Sandbox Initiative


Your Mobile Production Toolkit for Digital Storytelling 


NETFLIX AUSTRALIA: The Top 20 Original Documentaries in 2019 from Parrot Analytics. Plus a Comparison with UK and U.S. Demand


Burglars Take Years Worth of Work, Equipment from Documentary Film Crew in Berkeley


Malaysian Money Scandal Movie Threatened by Lawyers for Fugitive Jho Low


WORLD Channel Receives Three-Year Grant from MacArthur Foundation