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A Few Words with Alex Gibney

By KJ Relth

Filmmaker Alex Gibney, who is usually working on a handful of documentary projects at any given moment, doesn’t have much time to respond to questions. But seeing how the IDA just honored him with the Career Achievement Award at the 29th annual IDA Documentary Awards, he spared us a few minutes of his time to email back some short quips.

Luckily, since Gibney has been in the field for so long, we can also draw from a wealth of other articles about and by the man himself. We invite you to read a few words, both new and from the archives, from this year’s IDA Career Achievement Award honoree, Alex Gibney, below:

On Gibney’s father, who started his career as a naval interrogator.

He was also a journalist. He was curious and a truth-seeker. Learned that from him.


What was the inspiration for his first film?

The death of pinball and the coming of videogames. After that, a classroom that was run as an imaginary country with disastrous results: corruption, mendacity and greed from the boys; gossip and civic responsibility from the girls.


On following the path of corruption.

I am interested in abuses of power. I tend to be more interested in the perps than the victims - though the suffering of the victims can never be ignored. But to stop crimes, you have to understand how the criminals work.


How his documentaries "break the rules":

The playful archive in Enron, the murder mystery narrative in Taxi, the actress and the mood in Client 9 (one friend called it "documentary noir," a term I like a lot), the graphics in We Steal Secrets—one character revealed entirely through his online chats.


Is all documentary filmmaking personalized, inextricably linked to its creator?

Enron was narrated by Peter Coyote, but I think the style and the "attack" makes it personal. One of the great things about docs now is that they are "authored" films: they are nonfiction, and respect the unpredictability of nonfiction, but are also told in ways that reflect the point of view of the author.


About his company, Jigsaw Productions:

I work with talented and dedicated people and genius editors. My films all take a long time to make (Armstrong took five years) but I do a number of them at one time. Not unlike a law office, or, perhaps better, the office of a private eye. Lots of cases and clients with interesting stories that sometimes take time to tell.


On not getting an interview with Julian Assange for We Steal Secrets:

I had this one meeting very late in the process. I sat in a room with him for six hours straight, maybe two bathroom breaks. It was a negotiation. He had no intention of giving me the interview. I kept trying to steer him to a discussion of larger principles in which he seemed not to be particularly interested. He was sucked down into his own maelstrom of malice. When he comes down off his pedestal, he can be a kind of charming, funny guy. But too often he’s on this pedestal doing nothing more than image-burnishing, which I found very dispiriting. I thought it was going to work, that he was going to agree to an interview, and then the next day we got a note from him saying that he was too tired.


Why filmmakers can be more effective than investigative journalists:

I do think that documentary filmmakers sometimes have an ability to use different cinematic methods that may be more effective at combating the doublespeak of officials in power. People in power today often use the traditional media’s rules of "objectivity" and phony balance to insure that lies are often given the same weight as the truth. But like many indie docmakers, I have a formal freedom that can sometimes allow me to expose official depravity better than traditional news reporters.


On the use of dramatic reenactment in Client 9:

There's something about this kind of escort service that involves acting. It's like the clients walk into an erotic film. The bookers will tell the women what the clients are interested miraculously you show up for your "date," and your escort is chatting with you about Carmen. Well, that's a fiction.


About his visual choices for Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room:

The visual style of the film followed the themes of the story. My cinematographer—the incomparable Maryse Alberti—and I used Sony's 24P HD camera to create a look as glossy as the image Enron had sought to create. And because the film was about the illusory nature of a fraud, we made an aesthetic out of reflections—whether in the way we shot the gaudy facades of the Enron buildings or the way we emphasized the mirror images of our interview subjects in the reflective surfaces of the tables around them.


On his receipt of the IDA Career Achievement Award:

I’m honored and a little afraid. Is this a hint?


Read more from and about IDA Career Achievement Award honoree Alex Gibney:

The Write Wing: Defining the Role of the Writer in Nonfiction

Do You Swear to Re-Enact the Truth? Dramatized Testimony in Documentary Film

The Straight Dope on the Crooked E: Glossy Images, Black Humor and the Music of Tom Waits Inform Enron Doc

The Casino That Jack Built: Alex Gibney Takes on a Disgraced Lobbyist

'Taxi' Ride to the Truth : Alex Gibney Takes on Torture