Letter from the Editor, June 2023
By Abby Sun
Documentary’s Spring 2023 issue launches as the more industrial sides of our field continue to crater. While attending panels, 1-on-1 meetings, and happy hours last month at a very hip and happening Cannes Docs (formerly known as the Docs Corner in the Marché du Film), I noticed that industry attendance from film festivals, sales agents, and film institutes and labs was higher than ever. The lack of gatekeeping filters at these events makes Cannes Docs an intriguing and potentially fruitful meeting ground for documentary filmmakers. At the same time, broadcasters, distributors, and streamers were nowhere to be found. Producers noted that these financiers were only attending for a few days, instead of a full week, and thus had fewer slots for meetings. Sales agents complained that sales from the big winter and spring festivals remained slow. Filmmakers remained mystified by the opacity of it all. U.S.-based attendees chattered about possible outcomes of the WGA strike (which we support wholeheartedly) while vendors extolled the benefits of AI-powered film development and distribution products—it’s clear that we are at a tipping point.
This issue doesn’t offer clear solutions but spotlights some exemplary filmmakers, films, and projects that are intervening in how even the independent sectors of our field are sliding toward oblivion. Mariana Sanson interviews the fiercely independent Natalia Almada, covering her entire body of work and complicating our understanding of standard filming practices like collecting release forms. Laura Bermúdez spotlights the work of three recent Central American documentaries directed by women, each of which found a unique but worthwhile path through a film festival circuit that often subsumes this region within the rest of Latinx America. A. E. Hunt examines three recent depictions of the Japanese holdout soldier Hiroo Onoda, contrasting the approach from a documentary filmmaker whose family lived through Onoda’s terrorism with better-supported projects from more established filmmakers. Veteran archival researcher Bonnie Cohen details two governmental archival collections with rights-free materials, in contrast to the increasing licensing costs and rights enclosures at archival houses. Coley Gray interviews Sky Sitney and Jamie Shor, the co-founders of a new documentary-focused film festival that is the most exciting addition to the U.S. documentary festival calendar in a few years. And Winnie Wang tackles the hypocrisies of film festivals and organizations specializing in artist development while overlooking the needs of their own workers.
In this vein, I have launched a new monthly column, “The Preview,” which includes short blurbs giving more context about exciting new documentaries that might be otherwise overlooked amid all the commercial candy of murder, music, and celebrity-themed content—and will always open with a short narrative of what I consider relevant recent history, organizational structure and priorities, and programming reputation. You can peruse the first two, on this year’s Tribeca and Sheffield DocFest. They seem to have struck a chord thus far, and we will continue to develop strands that include more critical analyses of the entities and individuals that help shape our paths forward.
Other pieces from this issue include Vladan Petković’s trenchant critique of a hit documentary that premiered at CPH:DOX, Theatre of Violence, and interview with the directors and protagonist of Pure Unknown; festival dispatches from SXSW, CPH:DOX, Visions du Réel, and the Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look; an essay on Sundance standout The Tuba Thieves; a book review of The Female Gaze in Documentary Film: An International Perspective; and the latest iteration of our “The Feedback” column catching up with projects that were workshopped through IDA’s DocuClub works-in-progress screening series, on When My Sleeping Dragon Woke and what happened after the COVID-19 pandemic canceled its DocuClub screening.
Next month, in addition to our regular coverage of the field, we will publish a series of pieces focusing on immersive documentary media. This “Immersive July” dossier from Documentary coincides with events at IDA themed around exploring the cutting edge of creative artistry within the medium. We will also announce our plan for the future of Documentary, including the magazine's return to print.
Keep an eye out for a new strand profiling documentary production companies and the different ways filmmakers are sustaining themselves, more essays on new films, and pieces advocating for more globally connected, distributed, and equitable forms of documentary production and circulation.
Drop us a line at email@example.com if you have suggestions, notes, pitches, questions, jokes, feedback, or kind words. Everything is appreciated.
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Until the next issue,