September 7, 2019

Essential Doc Reads: Week of September 1

From Feras Fayyad's 'The Cave.' Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

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!

As the Toronto International Film Festival gets underway, opening with Daniel Rohrer’s Once Were Brothers, about The Band’s Robbie Robertson’s reflection on the iconic troupe he helped found, CBC News’ Deana Sumanac-Johnson delves into a developing trend: the music industry getting behind documentaries. 

But record labels have recently become active participants in seeking out documentary projects that profile the artists on their rosters. In addition to facilitating access to the star and archival footage, many labels have launched documentary film arms that help fund and distribute these docs.

Also premiering at TIFF is Feras Fayyad’s The Cave, which follows the story of  Dr. Amani Ballor, who manages an underground hospital in wartorn Ghouta, Syria. Variety’s Brent Lang interviews both Fayyad and Bailor about the challenges of making the film--and of saving lives. 

I want to remind people of the need to negotiate for peace in Syria and stop the war,” said Fayyad. “I also want them to look through my camera and see the two sides to things. On one side there’s so much pain and hurt, but if you look through that you also find hope and love.”

Milestone Films has restored and released Say Amen, Somebody, George Nierenberg’ 1982 documentary about the history and art of gospel music. The New York Times’ Wesley Morris weighs in with a review.

Of course, the lasting power of the movie might be as a rare document of gospel skill and strategy. It’s as thick with celebrants and powerhouses as with ideas and instruction. It’s not that no one’s tried to articulate the skill and intelligence gospels entail.

Filmmaker Ken Burns is back on the PBS airwaves this month with Country Music, his latest epic inquiry into the cultural tropes that drive and define America. Randy Lewis of the Los Angeles Times talks to Burns and a host of country music icons about the power and pathos of this American art form.

"There’s something that we do in our culture in which we’re OK with sentimentality and nostalgia,” Burns said. “I don’t know why, but that’s the enemy of good anything. We’re frightened of real, deep emotions. So we mask [discussions of country music] with jokes about pickup trucks, dogs, girlfriends and the beer. When in fact, it’s about elemental things: birth, death, falling in love, out of love, seeking redemption and erring and all the things human flesh is heir to. That’s the stuff country music is about.”

Reviewing Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, the new film from Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier, and Edward Burtynsky, Nonfics’ Luke Hicks marvels at this “significant achievement in scientific study and documentary storytelling.” 

The pace of the film and its many subjects is inconceivably slow in comparison to the modern, digital era we live in. It’s so old world, yet so futuristic. None of it would be possible without the exponential development of technology in the 21st century. It is the ultimate marriage of manual labor and technology, as post-apocalyptic as the most imaginative fictional accounts of our future.

IndieWire’s Eric Cohn interviews the late Agnes Varda’s daughter, Rosalie, about her mother’s legacy.

Faces/Places magnified Varda’s profile in a new way, introducing her good-natured screen presence to a new generation, and scored her both an honorary Academy Award and a nomination for Best Documentary. “She is an icon now, but didn’t have the life of an icon,” Rosalie said. “She had such integrity. She always said you have to struggle in life. She was always in the process of reinventing narrative, or giving us the possibility of looking at something new.”

Underwater cinematographer Frederick Allen got a rude awakening when he discovered footage that he had shot of the 18th-century pirate Blackbeard’s sunken pirate ship on the YouTube channel of the State of North Carolina. Allen got a bigger jolt when he lost a copyright lawsuit; the State had successfully claimed sovereign immunity against copyright claims, thereby superseding US copyright laws. Adam Liptak of The New York Times ferrets out various precedent cases from the US Supreme Court and assesses Allen’s chances of prevailing. 

Mr. Allen has attracted powerful allies, including members of the software, recording and publishing industries. They say that allowing states to use copyrighted works like computer programs and textbooks without compensating their owners could have devastating economic consequences.

As the OTT world anticipates the launches of Disney+ and Apple TV this fall, IndieWire’s Tyler Hersko assesses their respective launch strategies.

This is but one example of how Apple and Disney are leaning into the marketing strategies they hold most dear to promote their new streaming services. By being as public and splashy as possible in teasing its latest outlet, Disney is sticking to the traditional entertainment practices it has honed over nearly a century. Apple, by contrast, has long adhered to its “surprise and delight” product rollouts perfected by Steve Jobs, and for its streaming service it is mimicking this tech industry-oriented approach that hinges on star power and the loyalty of its established fanbase.

From the Archive, October 2017, "Two for the Road: Agnes Varda and JR Collaborate on ‘Faces/Places’"

I love when people say there is energy in the film, and tenderness. But I don't see myself as charming. An old lady, small, vaguely fat: I don't see myself as charming at all. I see myself as an old woman, obsessed with filming life, who loves to invent.

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