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Essential Doc Reads: Week of Nov. 9

By KJ Relth

A scene from Errol Morris' 'The Thin Blue Line,' which the Academy passed on in 1988 because it features re-enactments.

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! 


From Point of View magazine, Svetla Turnin tries to go beyond the female gaze to move toward documentary gender equality:

Documentary is a more democratic medium than fiction filmmaking. It has featured egalitarian production practices based on collaboration, trust, mutual aid and respectful equity—not just among members of the creative team but between crews and subjects as well. (The doc-purgatory of lower budgets might have something to do with that, but I like to think of independent documentary filmmaking potentially as a feminist and anarchist practice as well.) Indeed, as is the case with most independent productions, women’s lead of and participation in documentary crews is much more pronounced than in top-down, ego-is-king fiction filmmaking. Women have made greater inroads as producers of documentary than in any other position behind the camera. In the American context this is confirmed by the revelations made by the pioneering 2013 Sundance Institute/Women In Film study of the independent feature film scene, which is quite similar to the Canadian context (according to Women in Film and Television). To many working in the field, the consolation this statistic presents wears off like a weak sedative once we realize that women’s numbers plummet even in that occupation—that is, as soon as the prestige of the position elevates. And let’s not deceive ourselves for too long. No matter how talented, famous or successful, female producers still remain largely underappreciated and unnoticed in the shadow of male directors.


The Hollywood Reporter looks at how the documentaries in the running for Oscar this year are breaking Academy rules left and right:

This year, the remarkable thing is that the Academy's doc branch effectively may not have any choice but to nominate five films that defy previously obligatory conventions — because nearly every one of the year's strongest docs, among the 124 eligible for a nom, does so. (Of the six films nominated Nov. 4 for the International Documentary Association's best feature award — a hit-and-miss precursor for Oscar noms — more than half break at least one of the old rules.) Animation features prominently in Davis Guggenheim's He Named Me Malala (providing historical context for this profile of a young Nobel laureate), Morgen's Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (taking viewers inside the private life of the late grunge rocker) and Geeta Patel and Ravi Patel's Meet the Patels (for interviews with the protagonist — Ravi). Liz Garbus hired an actress to re-enact scenes from the life of late singer Nina Simone in What Happened, Miss Simone? (Meanwhile, The Look of Silence is Joshua Oppenheimer's resumption of the story he first told in 2013's The Act of Killing, which features actual murderers re-enacting their own atrocities.)


The Washington Post's Alissa Wilkinson on why 2015 has been a banner year for films about abuse and religion:

In interviews, it’s clear that many of the filmmakers who make them are activists. They want to effect change, and to unearth injustice and abuse. A movie can’t change anything if nobody sees it, but we’re watching — 1.7 million people watched Going Clear when it premiered on HBO. And aren’t we all are fascinated by ‘those people’ — anyone whose lives are profoundly different than us. This drives a lot of programming in today’s reality TV twilight, shows populated by Kardashians, wrestlers, divas and wives of all sorts. The stories told in Prophet’s Prey and Going Clear are so incomprehensible, so foreign and yet happening right here to real people among us, including Tom Cruise. And for a while, actual religiosity was off the table in our shared public consciousness as Americans focused on more civic faith issues like the separation of church and state. ISIS in particular has dragged it back into the spotlight, but there’s also less alarming religion surfacing all over pop culture, from Pope Francis and Stephen Colbert to Marilynne Robinson and religion articles on non-religious Web sites like Buzzfeed and The Toast. When we’re seeing religion everywhere, we can’t help but wonder about its fringes.


The New York Times takes a look at DOC NYC, the largest festival of documentary films in the country, 37.5% of whose slate features films directed by women this year:

Ms. Kopple had mixed feelings about whether a female director brought anything different to a film about a female performer. "I don't know," she said. "I have a sense of empathy, I have a sense of connection, and an understanding, maybe, that women share with one another. But I mean the film Amy," about the singer Amy Winehouse, "was done extraordinarily well and that was done by a man. I think it's how you connect with your subject." Noting that the question was "fraught with danger," Mr. Powers answered anyway: "[...]Maybe it's a dangerous generalization to say that a woman director brings more compassion to their filmmaking than a male director does, but I can't help but notice that."


Women and Hollywood talks with filmmaker Kim Longinotto about the important role her lack of confidence has in her filmmaking process. She will receive the Robert and Anne Drew Award for a mid-career filmmaker concentrating on observational cinema at DOC NYC this week:

"I don't know that it's going to be a good movie. I just do the best I can, but they are journeys and they are risks. That's why I say that the award isn't just for me -- it might sound disingenuous, but it's not. I couldn't say that Brenda [Myers-Powell, the subject of her film Dreamcatcher] was prepared to let me into her life. I wouldn't want to go and meet her without the camera and try it out. As soon as you haven't filmed something, you've lost that moment forever. I want that to happen truthfully. I think the only reason she was able to do it is because I'm not a confident person. Those confident men and women you talk about, they probably make very different films than I do. I make films about other people that are also outsiders and misfits and usually quite damaged -- we recognize each other, we love each other and we make films together. I think that if I did go in with "swag" on, I don't think it would work. This is who I am, and this is how we seek each other out -- that's why people ask me to make films about them. I wonder if these confident men really exist. Where are these human beings that are totally confident? I don't know if they exist."


From the archives, November 2014 -- Rithy Panh on Film Preservation and the Importance of Memory:

"I think of all the expertise and knowledge that was wiped out as a consequence and how now we are struggling to rebuild; our path of prosperity and peace has been shattered. Genocide is not only killing; it is not only deaths. It is much more than that. It is the complete destruction and deprivation of our culture and our identity. After all of this, when we look to rebuild what we have lost, we find ourselves left begging for help—as if all the responsibility and accountability have been placed on our backs alone and the past forgotten. If we don’t try to access and preserve our memory, it means the millions dead will stay only a statistic with no face, no name, no story. The dead will be nothing."


In the news:

Britdoc Launches the Genesis Fund
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Cinema Eye Nominations Announced
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Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns to lead 2016 Rose Parade
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A new doc fund has been launched by Hugh Rogovy
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