October 13, 2019

Essential Doc Reads: Week of October 7

Filmmaker Laura Poitras. Courtesy of Praxis Films/Neon/Showtime. Photo: Jan Stürmann

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!


Filmmaker Laura Poitras is stepping down from her role as executive producer of Field of Vision, which she co-founded with Charlotte Cooke and A.J. Schnack in 2015. She shares with IndieWire's Erik Kohn her reflections on how far the streaming platform has come and where the documentary field and form is today.

"It was essential for the culture to have filmmakers put the time and expertise into that," she said. "I think documentaries do a lot of the investigating that the ecosystem for newspapers has been able to support. So many newspapers are closing and documentaries have been able to do essential work in terms of holding power to account, creating critical analysis of the historical moment while having a lasting impact. It’s not just about a 24-hour news cycle."

Variety published its Women’s Impact Report, which takes stock of the leading movers and shakers in the film industry--including, among the nonfiction mavens, Carolyn  Bernstein and Courtney Monroe of National Geographic.

This fall the network will air the Leonardo DiCaprio-produced, environmental doc Sea of Shadows and Feras Fayyad's The Cave about an underground hospital in war-torn Syria. Those films will be followed by Ron Howard’s spring 2020 docu Rebuilding Paradise about the California community destroyed by a wildfire. "All of these films are excellent examples of fulfilling our desire to have our content be not just entertaining, but also have a sense of purpose," explains Bernstein. Monroe says Nat Geo’s docu business model won't be shifting under Disney ownership. "It's about quality over quantity and we’re making very intentional choices about who we work with and what stories we tell," says Monroe. "We're only getting behind telling stories that we’re going to want to go the distance with."

Writing for Film Independent’s The Doc Life blog, Anthony Ferranti talks to filmmaker Liza Mandelup about the process of finding and working with her main character in Jawline.

"The beauty of documentaries is that nothing has to happen in a traditional order. In a narrative [film], you would never make your film before you had your main character. I love the sort of choose-your-own-adventure nature of documentary filmmaking. It’s kind of how I make things as an artist, where I’m trying to figure out how it’s going to all come together. I felt like I needed to get my hands dirty—like I needed to get in there and meet the people and see the places and go on tour and situate myself in the world to dream of the characters that I was looking for. So it was part of the process. I know exactly what kind of story I want to tell as I’m shooting and so I needed to film that process. And some of that footage is in the film."

Hyperallergic's Dessanne Lopez Cassell talks to filmmaker Garrett Bradley about her research into black cinema archives, the basis for her new film and installation, America.

"And I stayed in the South because I'm interested in the beginning of our history. I'm interested in the genesis of America, and I find that New Orleans has been a place that has allowed me to both be in commune and community with people, and also in observance of the problems that exist there. And that's what my work is about, trying to sift through the past and through these problems from a contemporary point of view."

Avi Belkin sifted through thousands of hours of archival footage and outtakes to get to the essence of Mike Wallace--and opted for an all-archive profile of the legendary journalist. Belkin talks to No Film School’s Emily Buder about his process.

"I like those imperfections in the film and the archive materials. They feel physical to me. But also, this whole movie is archival, and I felt like in a way, it was Mike's subconscious memories floating into each other. Those little blips and splices that connect the memories that move you along from place to place, connecting our lives... that is the driving engine, visually, of the film."

In Hyperallergic, Dan Schindel discusses Behind Tha Barb Wire, a documentary by Florida inmate Scott Whitney, who made this work on the down-low, via contraband cell phone, and managed to get the doc smuggled out of Florida's Martin Correctional Institution into the hands of reporters at the Miami Herald.

What's missing from those polished, professional depictions becomes immediately apparent when viewing Whitney's footage. For all that prison shows pride themselves on supposed "rawness," it’s nothing compared to the conditions seen in these clips. 

Christopher Campbell of Film School Rejects analyses one of the most enduring notoriety of one of the great docu-villains: Billy Mitchell of The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.

There are definite real-life villains in the world. Oppressive and murderous dictators. Serial killers. The guy who organized the Fyre Festival. Then there’s Billy Mitchell, the arcade game icon who became one of the most memorable documentary characters while being villainized for entertainment purposes by the makers of The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. His portrayal in the film has inspired ethical debates about the narrative manipulation of real people and their lives in nonfiction cinema. Ultimately, though, the truth about Mitchell beyond what’s seen in the doc has only perpetuated his legacy as a bad guy.

Writing for Realscreen, producer/executive Michael Cascio reflects on what it means to not win an award.

How do you determine which is "best"? All the topics are important. Some may be more pressing than others, but we're talking about original work created by dedicated professionals. At this level, the production quality is usually first-rate, with well-told stories, revealing interviews, solid research and informative visuals. And perhaps most important, many of the nominees have an impact on the audience.

As the streaming wars loom with the launch of the new SVOD giants over the next month, Wendy Lee of the Los Angeles Times checks in with Netflix’s Ted Sarandos about what this means for his company.


"I think the bigger you are, the more distractions you have to your core business, the more likely you can’t move as quickly as we’ve been able to through our history. The new set of competitors is actually just the old set of competitors."

From the Archive, May 2017: "For Laura Poitras, 'Risk' Is No Game"

"There was a sense that this was really important and brave journalism - which I still believe," Poitras continues. "I think people can have different opinions about Wikileaks and Julian, but you really can't argue against [the fact that] what they do is very, very brave. So I went into it like that."

In the News

IDA Documentary Awards: Short Lists for Features and Shorts


IDA Announces Enterprise Documentary Fund Grantees


Ji.halva Unveils Full Program


DOC NYC Announces Lineup


Hillary Clinton To Moderate Q&A for The Great Hack


Betsy West and Julie Cohen To Follow RBG with Doc on Julia Child


CBC Will No Longer with Netflix to Produce Shows


Indie Filmmakers Waiting on Major Payments from iTunes and Amazon As Distribber Faces Financial Woes


Laemmle Theatres Chain Could be Up for Sale