July 4, 2013

The British Invasion: UK Doc Makers Interviewed

This Much Is True:14 Directors on Documentary Filmmaking
by James Quinn
Bloomsbury
320 pages
$29.95

Reading James Quinn's new book of interviews with 14 documentary filmmakers was a bit like my encounter with the British Invasion in the 1960s, when I first heard the Beatles in my college dorm room. While the forward pays a brief homage to Albert Maysles, the remainder of the book has a distinctive UK slant, with a majority of the directors having won BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) Awards, as opposed to Oscars or Emmys. Knowing that Quinn, himself a documentary filmmaker, was also a former head of factual entertainment at October Films, a leading British independent film and television production company, helps to explain the book's focus, which is not a bad thing.

I confess that I was unfamiliar with the work of several of the directors covered in these in-depth, yet informal interviews, which made the book that much more valuable to me, since I had something to learn, even though I'm no longer actively involved in film production. Before beginning his television career, Quinn was in academia, having earned a PhD in philosophy, which perhaps explains his skill in conducting revealing, intelligent interviews with his colleagues. Each interview addresses an aspect of the documentary process with which the director is associated, and includes references to specific films.

Geoffrey Smith, known primarily for The English Surgeon, his award-winning 2007 film about a British brain surgeon who works in the Ukraine, is the first interviewee in the book. That film and his more recent project, Presumed Guilty (2010), the story of a young Mexican street vendor who was wrongfully convicted of murder (Smith shared the director credit with Roberto Hernàndez), have a distinctive sense of time and place that is partly explained by Smith's interest in "gritty" places, where people have to face hardships and challenges. "It's only through conflict and drama that we can learn about the best and the worst of humanity," he maintains. "The Third World, Second World—they're full of conflict and drama."

The second director covered in the book is Paul Watson, best known for his 1974 BBC vérité series The Family, which followed a working-class family. Quinn states that the series is credited with "inventing the ‘fly on the wall' genre" and that Watson is often "identified as the progenitor of ‘reality TV.'" These claims raised some red flags. I was only vaguely aware of The Family and, as interesting as it was, it really could not compare with the drama and originality inherent in An American Family, which aired on PBS in early 1973. The Family was pioneering and influential for the UK, though, and Watson has continued to make award-winning documentaries for television over the past 40 years.

Henry Singer was one of those directors whose work I had not seen. While his subjects seem to have a British emphasis, his 2006 film The Falling Man sets out to determine the identity of a man who was photographed as he fell or jumped from the World Trade Center after it was attacked on September 11, 2001. Despite the fact that the film was seen in over 50 countries, and was nominated for an International Emmy and a BAFTA Award, The Falling Man was never widely distributed in the US. I was very impressed with Singer's patient journalistic approach that rang true throughout his interview.

Nick Bromfield began his career shooting classic, Frederick Wiseman-style vérité films, but in 1988 he inserted himself in front of the camera during the making of Driving Me Crazy. He has followed this freewheeling, responsive style of filmmaking ever since, and he deems the work of James Marsh (Man on Wire), another subject in the book, whose work is quite constructed and dependent on re-creations of past events, as the antithesis of his own approach. Quinn confronts Bromfield with the issue of his on-camera "persona," and the filmmaker confesses that sometimes "you buffoon it up a bit," but essentially you just are who you are. "It's not like you're being Borat and then you're being Bruno," Broomfield explains.

I had the good fortune of meeting Molly Dineen at Hot Docs one year, and I was impressed by her openness and sensibility. She was there with her film The Lie of the Land (2007), about the ban on hunting with dogs in the English countryside. It seemed everyone was familiar with her work but me, so I set out to explore her cinema vérité-style films-again, no easy task outside of catching screenings at international film festivals, as she does not have wide distribution in the US. She is best known for her "intimate and revealing portraits of British institutions threatened by change." Given that she is one of only three woman directors in the book, I had hoped that her work would be more available.

Brian Hill, another of "Britain's most respected documentary filmmakers," has made his skill as an interviewer the focus of his testimony-based films. This can be one of the more difficult challenges for any doc-maker, and Hill manages to give us some important insights into his process of getting to know his subjects.

Kim Longinotto, while a British-based documentary maker, has built an international reputation as a voice for female directors. She has won many accolades, including the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival for her 2008 film Rough Aunties. Thanks to Women Make Movies, her US distributor, all her films are accessible and have garnered a wide audience.

Unfortunately for Louise Osmond, the only other woman in this collection, her work is more difficult to come by on this side of the Atlantic. However, many of us may remember the 2007 Independent Lens/PBS broadcast of Deep Water, her extraordinary story of amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst, who risks all in an around-the-world yacht race. Osmond's films are built around powerful emotions that help propel you through the story.

 "Making Films Funny" is the title of the chapter devoted to Morgan Spurlock, whose 2004 mega hit Super Size Me ranks among the top 20 highest-grossing documentaries of all time and won the Jury Prize for Directing when it premiered at Sundance. It is fitting that an American filmmaker tackle the health problems foisted on the world by another American institution, McDonald's. Spurlock has made a film career combining serious journalism with a self-assured dash of humor, which helps audiences across cultures understand the issues he addresses.

Julien Temple made his mark by focusing on music. He was involved with the punk movement of the 1970s, which led him to a long-term engagement with the Sex Pistols that produced some amazing documentaries including The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle (1979), the story of the band from the perspective of their manager, Malcolm McLaren, and The Filth and the Fury (2000), told from the perspective of the surviving band members.

While I haven't mentioned all 14 directors interviewed in This Much Is True, I had to include Andrew Jarecki, who in the final chapter addresses the editing concerns he had when working on his astounding 2003 feature documentary Capturing the Friedmans. Sexual abuse inside families is a most difficult subject, but more than that, this film is about "the elusiveness of facts, and the impossibility [in some cases] of ever really knowing the truth."

Despite all the challenges that confronted the directors featured in this book, they seem to agree on the importance of love, respect and emotional truth between director and subject and director and audience. But beyond all else, it's perseverance that counts.  

 

Cynthia Close is the former president of Documentary Educational Resources. She currently resides in Burlington, Vermont, where she consults on the business of film and serves on the advisory board of the Vermont International Film Festival.

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