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Essential Doc Reads: Week of Oct 19

By KJ Relth

Counting (dir. Jem Cohen, 2015) Courtesy RIDM

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! 


TV critic Hank Stuever of the Washington Post on the pitfalls of making a wonkumentary:

Too many times, the film that promises the fullest and most exclusive warts-and-all portrait turns out to be little more than the equivalent of a polite Wikipedia entry. Showtime’s anticlimactic 2013 film about Dick Cheney comes to mind, as do a couple of PBS projects in recent years on Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. Once in a while, a filmmaker will deliver something candid or just revealing enough to leave a lasting impression. I can still recall some of the bunker-mentality conversations among the Romney clan from Netflix’s 2012 campaign ride-along, Mitt; and for its artful contextualizing of the 1980s and willingness to take a point of view, HBO’s Reagan still stands out. Compared to What? (premiering Friday on Showtime) and another new documentary on HBO about Richard C. Holbrooke, The Diplomat (premiering Nov. 2), offer both the promise and pitfalls of such undertakings...Like farewell speeches, award banquets and funerals where boldface names deliver multiple eulogies, the wonkumentary adheres to protocol. Once a source is miked up, interviews tend toward plaudits. Getting juicy stuff out of them — or even hitherto untold anecdotes — is like pulling teeth.


The Center for Media and Social Impact wanted to know how public TV was representing diversity:

Public television, while still a uniquely valuable place for minority and women independent makers and a site for storytelling that otherwise may not reach television publics, has competition from commercial television, at least for more established makers and for women. Although commercial television does not feature as many films with women and minority directors as public authorial TV, it employs more women and minorities in secondary roles than public authorial series do. Although public TV’s independent series showcase many more international figures of color than commercial and outdistance commercial TV for stories featuring women and U.S. minorities, commercial TV showcases more such stories than some other leading public TV documentary series.


An interview with Alex Gibney in the LA Times on his thoughts about winning the first Hitchens Prize, and his relationship with Christopher Hitchens himself:

"I loved Christopher; he was utterly fearless and inspiring, particularly toward the end of his life when he was writing in ways that were honest and funny about the disease that was consuming him. That's the ultimate act of fearlessness. And he said what he thought was right, even if it offended people who would normally be thought of as his allies. I put together the tribute film to him when he died...There are certain risks to going after or telling stories about abuses of power, because the powerful tend not to look very kindly on that. That can get you into trouble, and I can think of instances where projects which might have come my way didn't because I may have offended people. But to me, that's rather small beer; that's just career stuff. There are other people who literally risk their lives."


On the eve of Montreal’s premiere showcases for docs, RIDM, here’s a look at a strand of docs about photography, from Canada’s POV Magazine.

"We began by looking at films by photographers we admire and then expanded outward into larger ideas about what constitutes films made by those with a photographer’s eye,” said the directors [Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky] in an email to POV. "We also felt it was important to include films that address what it means to capture a likeness." Cassidy and Shatzky began their careers as photographers, which further explains their attraction to work in this vein. They add that they were interested in seeing how “artists accustomed to working with stillness use time to create images,” and indeed, the difference between still and moving images has long been a favourite topic of scholars and artists. Cinema was born out of photography, and yet the two mediums come with their own set of formal and ideological concerns and contradictions, which have in turn been mutually affected by the advent of digital technology. The idea that film is "dead" animates a lot of discourse in the field of visual studies, but Cassidy and Shatzky are hardly traditionalists. “Because of digital media, there are infinitely more images being created than ever before,” they say. "This makes it difficult to sift through and find work that is worthwhile. But it’s certainly out there and living within new platforms—like, for example, Instagram, of which we are both fans."


From the archives, February 2002: Documenting in the Face of Danger

For filmmakers like Meena Nanji and Denise Brassard, to work on projects in dangerous places, one must establish contacts, be well informed, and understand the culture, subtleties and rhythm of the place. It also takes a fair amount of street smarts and logic, not to mention a heightened sensitivity to one’s surroundings. Danger comes in many forms. There is the geopolitical danger of a country in the middle of a war, or that has been ravaged by war and is politically destabilized. There is also the sociopolitical danger of filming in a totalitarian state, where subjects address the camera at their own peril—and that of their family and friends. And there is the danger of repercussions to the filmmaker once the film is out in the world. Logistically speaking, things that are simple to expedite in one country become seemingly insurmountable obstacles in another—obtaining the proper papers to enter a country; entering on a press visa vs. a tourist visa; getting permission from the appropriate officials to film the people and places you are interested in; and getting footage out of the country safely. Of course, much depends on the specific country. Some countries want a pay-off for allowing camera equipment in, while others want to know exactly what is shot on every frame of footage, and will restrict what one films by having a “minder,” or chaperone, accompany the filmmaker at all times.


In the news:

124 Documentaries to Compete for Oscars This Year
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IFP Gotham Independent Film Award Nominees Announced
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NYT Launches Virtual Reality Project With Google
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Meet The Patels In Fox Searchlight Remake Deal; Ravi And Geeta Patel To Write, Co-Direct
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