May 24, 2020

Essential Doc Reads: Week of May 18, 2020

From Bill and Turner Ross' upcoming 'Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets,' which Robert Greene discusses in his essay in 'Sight and Sound.' Courtesy of Sundance Institute

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!

Writing for Sight and Sound, the ever-wise and witty Robert Greene offers some new insights into what a post-COVID world might look like for doc makers.

This new age of hyper self-awareness is also the reason we documentary filmmakers may no longer be necessary. Video documentation and distribution is possible for anyone with a smartphone and an app. As a virus forces us indoors, the basic skills we filmmakers offer may no longer seem required to a generation of documenters. Who needs probing questions when we’re all over-sharers?

To overcome this irrelevance we first need to kill the idea that we are watchers and fully embrace our roles as creators. We must truly accept the collaborative aspects of nonfiction filmmaking and actively claim the dual roles of witness and manufacturer. Subjects must be partners, our cameras must dedicatedly capture phenomenal reality and our structures must embody the contradictions of this messy form.

Realscreen's Jillian Morgan interviews Michelle Materre,  an associate professor of media studies and film at The New School, about how filmmakers can build up their business acumen both now and when we re-emerge from the pandemic.

I'm also finding a lot that people, even some experienced filmmakers, don't really protect themselves by having corporations set up or LLCs set up for their films and their film production businesses. I think it's a good time to take stock of where you are and what you don’t have and make sure that all that is in place. It’s a moment where you can take a deep breath and not be rushing forward to finish a project… and get prepared for the next wave, however that emerges.

As many festivals and markets have moved to the online space this spring, filmmakers are a bit ambivalent about this new paradigm. Filmmaker's Lauren Wissot talks to Canadian-Ethiopian filmmaker Tamara Mariam Dawit about her recent experiences in the virtual world.

"Online markets just afford less time and opportunities for building relationships with people," the director added. "You can only sit on a Zoom call for so long. And that doesn't replace going for a meal with a potential collaborator, being introduced to someone at a cocktail, or a quick informal catch-up in line to see a film. I think the other big downside of events going online is access, and who is able to participate. Needing a high-speed connection means that we are further limiting these events to people in urban centers, and to western countries where filmmakers can access and afford these high-speed connections."

And there's the programmers’ perspective of the online world. IndieWire's Chris Lindhal talks to leaders from festivals and organizations about how their transitions have gone.

As the industry struggles to figure out how to persevere through these strange times, leaders are also embracing their new virtual reality. Even after it’s safe to hold in-person events, expect post-pandemic programming to offer increased access—maybe by creating more virtual events alongside in-person ones, or introducing online components at festivals or conferences where geography and cost historically limit access.

Filmmaker's Erik Luers interviews Michael Jacobs about the making of Blackball, his series for Quibi, about the challenges of creating a series in ten-minute episodes and shooting for two aspect ratios.

As a result, I had to approach the filmmaking in two ways. On the one hand, I really wanted this to work as a standalone feature documentary, something in the realm of 90 minutes that could be viewed in one sitting. On the other hand, I knew we had to get a certain amount of punchy soundbites that were going to open and close each episode in order to "speak to this new platform," if you will, and keep viewers coming back. As much as my research was driven by watching feature-length documentaries, I also began listening to true-crime podcasts and the various storytelling devices they implement. These podcast episodes are pretty short and have to have a strong beginning, middle and end. Blackballed needed that as well. Every ten-minute episode had to work individually as well as, holistically, stand together. Our job then became about editorially weaving together that storyline while making sure that at the end of each episode there’s a little bit of a cliffhanger (or at the very least, something that leaves the audience with a pressing question). That's something that you can’t do in a feature-length doc, as everything has to hold together very tightly.

In this shelter-in-place time, we're consuming a lot of media, and we're offering a lot of opinions on it. In The Viewing Booth, filmmaker Raanan Alexandrowicz films a young woman, Maia Levy, watching YouTube videos about the Israeli occupation; the sources of these videos span the ideological spectrum. Alexandrowicz is most interested in Levy's observations and insights about what she just saw. Film Comment's Eric Hynes offers a compelling essay about watching, seeing, processing and disseminating.

Can we be truly affected by footage anymore? Can any footage override our own preoccupations, beliefs, and agendas? And if not, have we reached a point when all of it is effectively meaningless, too inherently compromised and subjective to have objective value or consequence? Maybe that’s not an endpoint but rather a beginning, a challenge for whatever we capture and create next. And maybe The Viewing Booth—for all of the dismay carried in the filmmaker’s shoulders while Maia cogently fillets received notions of objectivity, empathy, and change—is a restorative first step. The focus couldn’t be more apt. It’s really not about the footage, but about who’s watching, how we’re watching, and what we’re making of it. We’re mediated to the point of being immovable, doubting the very sirens heralding our possible fates.

From the Archive, February 2019: "Ways of Seeing: Images and Politics of Hale County"

I think that the way in which the images are captured are as much about being open to— I think it indirectly ties back to how do we not frame someone. But I think the images are directly trying to be responsive to the moment, and to the content and to the world, and to whatever’s happening perceptually—as opposed to imposing previous modes of capturing that within the documentary form, or within cinema. I need to make a film that does this, and so this is the way in which this image fits into my greater idea of my film—just responding in the way in which someone would just dance, kind of spontaneously. 


In the News


Webby Award Winners Announced


IDA Opens Entries for Documentary Awards


Oscars Might be Postponed


HBO Donates FYC Emmy Party Budget to COVID-19 Relief Efforts


Art House Convergence 2021 Will Be Virtual


DOK Leipzig's Industry Programme to Be Moved Online


IFP Project Labs Go Virtual for 2020


Intuitive Pictures President Ina Fichman Named DOC Chair


NFB Names Julie Roy Director General, Creation and Innovation


Sundance Institute Announces Doc Fund Grantees


AKA Jane Roe Doc Reveals that Woman Behind Roe v. Wade Was Paid to Change Her Mind about Abortion


Utopia To Release Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets 


State of California to Release Guidelines on Resuming Production


Copyright Office Says Landmark Piracy Law Needs Fine-Tuning