December 5, 2020

Essential Doc Reads: Week of November 30, 2020

From Theo Love's 'Alabama Snake,' which airs december 9 on HBO. Courtesy of HBO

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!

The New York Times’ Elisabeth Vincentelli talks to HBO’s executive vice presidents of documentary and family programming, Lisa Heller and Nancy Abraham, about how the cabler has fared in the post-Sheila Nevins era, amid heightened competition from the streaming giants.

It’s a question of being open to where the story takes you, and alert to the cues and the developments that are happening, being able to take advantage of those, and then be able to craft a narrative almost in retrospect, looking back at it. Often in the retelling or looking at archival footage, a new perspective will emerge, or something you didn’t expect. Sometimes it’s the aesthetic style that propels the form in new directions. 

As PBS commemorates its 50th anniversary this year, Current’s Julian Wyllie and Karen Everhart talk to President Paula Kerger about how this tumultuous year has impacted the broadcaster’s celebration activities.

We’re always looking to push our documentaries to make sure that there’s visibility for all the work that’s coming in, because there’s so much great work on public television. If we could carve out some money to get more people to our schedule on a regular basis, people would see the huge range of programming that we do. I’ve got to find somebody to give me some money to do this. I think these documentaries are what defines public broadcasting.

The New Yorker’s Dan Piepenbring praises the HBO docuseries How To with John Wilson

“How To” is nominally a comedy, but the word doesn’t suffice to describe its artful scope and sensitivity. Wilson, an all-in-one interviewer, narrator, and cameraman, has mastered a technique that might be called happenstance vérité: he presents a spontaneous, authentic, unbounded document of the city in the months before the pandemic. Drawing so much from the streets, the show is almost like aleatory music in its dependence on chance; nearly every shot has the feeling of a happy accident, of something that nearly went unseen. Over six episodes, Wilson’s roving camera stumbles on moments of intimacy, reverie, bizarrerie, and savagery. More than anything, “How To” is a tribute to New York’s double-edged ability to take you places you never wanted to go, among people you never asked to meet, for reasons you’ll never understand.

The Los Angeles Times’ Josh Rottenberg interviews Hao Wu about how he and his co-directors made the acclaimed COVID documentary 76 Days.

For me, to be able to finish this film given all the hiccups and obstacles in making it, whatever comes I’m happy. I feel like I want to save this for posterity. This is such a great front-line, firsthand document about what it’s like leading to a pandemic. So maybe more people will watch it after the pandemic is over. I’ll be very happy with that as well. I’ll be very pleased if a year or two years or 10 years from now people seek this film out to try to understand COVID-19.

Writing for The New York Times Magazine, Abhrajyoti Chakraborty profiles Anand Patwardhan, one of India’s greatest documentary filmmaker, as he navigates a difficult moment in India’s history. 

For more than four decades, he has been India’s leading documentary filmmaker, tracking the country’s unraveling from its pluralist post-Partition ideals to a Hindu hegemony. His films have portrayed Mumbai’s slum dwellers, the cruelty of the caste system, the arms race between India and Pakistan, but they remain unseen in large parts of the country because of their inconvenient themes. With almost every documentary he has made, Patwardhan has had to approach a court to ensure it is shown without restrictions. His films have won publicly funded awards at the same time as efforts have been made to limit their viewership. They reflect, both in their reception and content, the schizophrenic nature of Indian democracy.

Writing for the Sundance Institute Blog, Adam Piron, associate director of the institute's Indigenous Program, talks to filmmaker Sky Hopinka about centering Indigenous perspectives in experimental storytelling.

It's empowering to realize that you don't have to make films for a white audience and consider whether or not they understand the cultural references or not. I think that's enabled me to then explore further what it means to make work for an Indigenous audience and even to try and answer the question white audiences tend to have.

Docubase, a platform of the MIT Open Documentary Lab, spotlights Vincent Morriset’s interactive project Motto.

“The idea behind the project is the desire to challenge our gaze, to question and expand how we see things, and to change our perceptions with the use of images coming from all directions.”


From the Archive, Spring 2020 issue: “It’s Not HBO It’s HBO Max”

Everything that HBO proper will appear on HBO Max at launch—unlike CNN programming, which doesn't automatically end up on each HBO Max the same way HBO programming automatically ends up on HBO Max. But our relationship with HBO Documentary Films is interesting in that there are projects that don't fit HBO Documentary Films' demo but might fit HBO Max's demo. We have a really transparent relationship, so someone over there will call and be like, 'This doesn't work for us, but given what you've been working on, you may want to take a look at it.' And that's actually resulted in success. We ended up buying something and now it's in production.


In the News


Awards Winners Named at IDFA


AswangInconvenient Indian Take Top Prizes at RIDM ’20


La Madrina: The Savage Life of Lorine Padilla Named Audience Award Winner at DOC NYC


Sundance Announces Details about Live and Virtual Presentations of 2021 Festival


Slamdance Announces 2021 Lineup


Oscars 2021 To Be In-Person Telecast


Nieman Foundation Announces 2021 Nieman Visiting Fellows


Arianna Bocco Named President of IFC Films


Sundance Institute and Starlight Partner To Launch Grants Program Supporting Diverse Filmmakers


Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, Sam Branson Launch Prodco, Prep Docuseries for Apple


Discovery To Launch new Streaming Service


Topic Acquires North American Streaming Rights to Once Upon a Time in Venezuela


Anthology Film Archives Celebrates 50 Years


Australian Government Proposes Content Regulations for Streaming Services