November 10, 2019

Essential Doc Reads: Week of November 4

From Petra Costa's 'The Edge of Democracy.' Courtesy of Netflix


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!

Variety's Addie Morfoot assesses the documentary landscape for gender parity, and finds more progress than elsewhere in the media arts industry--but challenges remain.

But women behind the camera, including an impressive roster of female nonfiction gatekeepers at HBO, Apple, PBS and Netflix, as well as the launch of movements including #MeToo and Time's Up, have not put an end to gender bias in the doc community. According to several prominent female doc filmmakers and producers, gender inequality is still very much alive in the nonfiction workplace.

Looking at the documentary output in 2019, The Hollywood Reporter's Carita Rizzo checks out how ongoing political turmoil has informed this year's slate.

The importance of highlighting some of the darker characters in recent history, says [Matt] Tyrnauer, is to remind citizens to stay alert and aware of how we got into this predicament in the first place. "Our only hope is that people who have platforms will use them to shine a light on the darkest aspects of our society and educate people and light the fires of recognition about what's happening in a culture that's dominated by Real Housewives and Kardashians, which are opiates," says Tyrnauer. "We need to be awake and aware that there's something very evil rising within the culture. And only understanding of what that is, and action to stem it, is going to save us. Documentaries are good for that."

Just around the corner this month is International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam (IDFA). Cineuropa's Davide Abbatescianni talks to IDF Industry head Adriek Van Nieuwenhuijzen about this year’s main industry initiatives.

When we speak about diversity, something else that comes up--which will also be the subject of one of this year’s talks--is the language of film itself. If we really want to be an inclusive and plural festival, we need to look at non-Western ways of storytelling or alternative modes of narration. And diversity is not just about the artist's unique perspective, but can also be favored through hybrid forms or collective works. This search will continue in the years to come. As a rich and plural festival, we need to constantly think about that.

Docs on Screens' Carol Nahra interviews producer Simon Chinn about working with the BBC and working with Netflix. 

The BBC looks at places like Netflix and Amazon and sees--like many of us consumers see--receptacles of content libraries. We see how much content they are making. And to some extent how uncurated it can sometimes feel. And I suppose the broadcasters that are much more in the business of curation, that are steeped in that ethos and developing projects carefully with producers, shaping them for their audiences and all of that, it does feel like a different offering to what you often imagine is going on in the sort of big, slightly impersonal places where they are just acquiring and financing huge amount of content. I suppose the problem with that rhetoric is that it doesn’t quite check out based on experience. 

Writing for Cineaste, Richard Porton talks Roberto Minervini, maker of the recent What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire? about his aesthetic.

The aesthetic I'm interested in is much closer to fiction than documentary. I don’t feel that I'm part of the documentary tradition at all. I'm more interested in narrative and experimental cinema. I don't have an affinity with documentaries. I would agree that my films combine both documentary and fictional elements—except I don't look at documentary filmmaking as an inspiration. Telling the stories of people, as they are, is an inspiration. 

Kevin McGarry of ArtForum talks to filmmaker Matt Wolf about Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, which tells the story of a Philadelphia woman who amassed a colossal archive of television footage that she taped almost continuously for over 30 years. The result is an amazing trove of political and media history.

I wouldn't call Marion an artist. What she did was a private practice, but nonetheless I recognized parallels between her work and the work of artists like myself. She was driven and obsessive; she saw value not only in epochal events but in popular culture and its detritus. She privileged forgotten histories where others would not. I found great inspiration in the margins of her collection, in the arresting and bizarre imagery in commercials and PSAs: reaction shots of women in talk-show audiences or silhouetted figures from anonymous news interviews. Marion saved things that were overlooked, and like many women of color of a certain age, she operated outside of established institutions. 

Colombian filmmaker Luis Ospina passed away in September, and MUBI is presenting a retrospective of his work through December 17. MUBI’s Eta Betancourt discusses some of the selections from this retrospective.

But this denunciatory impulse—to lift a veil on reality—soon turned self-reflective. Ospina responded to the increasing omnipresence and sensationalism of news reporting in a vein similar to his international counterparts: from Eduardo Coutinho in Brazil to Marcel Łoziński and Želimir Žilnik in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, filmmakers were questioning how television was transforming the practice of documentary filmmaking. In the Latin American context, the sensationalism was particularly galling when directed at the poor.

The making of Yama--Attack to Attack, a documentary that examines labor rights in 1980s Japan, resulted in the murders of two of its directors--Mitsuo Sato and Kyoichi Yamaoka--at the hands of the yakuza crime organization, who was and still is instrumental in quashing labor movements. Only three 16mm copies of the film exist, and the surviving members of the production team have refused to allow Yama to be commercially released. The film will be shown at select venues in the US over the next month, however--Anthology Film Archives, Yale University’s Macmillan Center and Harvard Film Archive. Dan Schindel of Hyperallergic shares the history and legacy of this film.

Yama — Attack to Attack unflinchingly refutes any notion of separation between organized crime, nationalism, and the exploitation of workers, understanding these issues instead as inseparable elements of a capitalist system. It’s no wonder that this system reacted so violently to try to silence the filmmakers. But they failed. The "YAMA" Production and Exhibition Committee has refused to duplicate the movie not out of fear, but out of a refusal to allow it to be commercialized in any form. It has kept the documentary and its spirit alive for decades, which is vital, because its message remains eternally relevant.

Twenty years ago, Chris Smith made a splashy debut with American Movie, which captured both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and went on to earn $1.2 million at the box office. The film documents the efforts of working-class Wisconsinite Mark Borchardt to make a low-budget horror film. Writing for Sight and Sound, Robert Greene reflects on why this film is a cult classic.

Chris Smith's 1999 film followed low-budget filmmaker Mark Borchardt for a year of travails that somehow emerged as comedic. But did the laughs came from sympathy, exploitation or a complex collaboration between director and subject?

Hot Pod, the newsletter for the podcasting community turned five this year. Hot Pod's founder, Nicholas Quah, writing for Nieman Lab, which publishes the newsletter, reached out to his readership to ask about the problems podcasters are most frustrated by.

We sorely lack an avenue/forum for indie pods to break into. Kinda seems like the main gates into the medium have been closed for this type of content by major podcast production firms.

From the Archive, February-March 2005 issue: "Doyennes of Doc TV: PBS"

According to The Celluloid Ceiling, women are more likely to be working in documentary, making up roughly 29 percent of the total number of people working in these genres. At PBS--and particularly in the documentary programming divisions--women are represented in even higher numbers. Although there isn't a study to verify just how many women are working at PBS, those interviewed for this article estimated that figure to be about 50 percent.

In the News


Broadcast Film Critics Association Names Documentary Winners


American Factory, Apollo 11 Lead Cinema Eye Honors Nominations


Exemplary Behaviour Among Winners at DOK Leipzig


Dorothy Byrne Feted with BBC Grierson Trustees Award


PBS' 'Frontline' Supports 5 Local Investigations


Austin Film Festival Announces Audience and Jury Winners


Aspiring Filmmakers Can Now Access Sundance Institute’s Expansive Resources Online


Film Independent Selects 15 Projects for the 17th Fast Track Film Finance Market


The Telly Awards Kicks Off 41st Call for Entries


Leadership Changes at Docs-in-Progress