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What Constitutes a Doc? 39 Makers Discuss

By Cathleen Rountree

"Truth can be illuminating," legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog told a sold-out crowd on December 5, 2008, on the occasion of receiving the prestigious IDA Career Achievement Award at the Directors Guild of America Theater in Los Angeles.

In this fascinating and definitive look at the art of documentary filmmaking, Capturing Reality: The Art of Documentary, produced by the National Film Board of Canada and recently released by First Run Features, Herzog, the maverick, joins an impressive array of 38 international documentarians, who explore every aspect of, and reveal personal and professional secrets about, this increasingly iconoclastic and truly indispensable art form.

The considerable talent includes Albert Maysles, Joan Churchill, Patricio Guzman, Heddy Honigmann, Kevin Macdonald, Serge Coutinho, Manfred Becker and Jean Pierre Lledo. In addition to the filmmakers' thoughtful, often provoking commentary, the film's director, Pepita Ferrari, and her team amassed a stunning collection of 163 clips. Perhaps the primary brilliance of Capturing Reality is that it serves as a master class itself on the editing process. The two-DVD set includes the 97-minute film on one DVD, while the other DVD includes opportunities to view segments of the film by topic or by filmmaker. The NFB website ( also includes these latter extras, as well as a downloadable education guide.

A discussion of what exactly constitutes the medium of documentary opens Capturing Reality. Jean-Xavier de Lestrade (The Staircase) says, "A doc is essentially a story, characters, something that unfolds before you--not something constructed after the fact."

Sylvain L'Espérance (The River Where We Live) describes it as "an art form that offers a way of looking at the world, of giving it shape."

Sabiha Sumar (Don't Ask Why) notes that a doc has "the power to plant questions in people's minds. It has the power to make you empathize with things you never knew you could empathize with."

The often controversial Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line; The Fog of War) reflects on the wide range inherent in the form: "The part I like about documentary is that it can be anything. The part I don't like is that you are constantly being told that documentary has to be one thing, rather than a whole multiple of things."

One of the most absorbing and revealing facets of Capturing Reality brilliantly juxtaposes one filmmaker, taking a particular stance on his or her approach to a subject, with another who holds an opposite position. For example, on the very sticky subject of re-enactments, Nick Broomfield (Battle for Haditha; Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer) proves a purist. In a scene from Biggie and Tupac in which the filmmaker knocks on a door, which is opened by Biggie Smalls himself, Broomfield says, "I think there's been a tradition in the past of going in and interviewing people and changing their sitting room all around or relighting it. And all you're doing is destroying the very things you should be filming."

Ferrari makes her point by switching to Herzog's Little Dieter Needs to Fly, a doc about Dieter Dengler, a German-American pilot who was shot down over Laos in 1966, and was imprisoned; at the time of his eventual escape, he weighed 85 pounds. As an indication of how the experience has impacted his life, Dengler has a ritual, in which he opens and closes each door twice to symbolize his freedom. A captivating detail, yes; however, as Barry Stevens (The Bomber's Dream) discloses, "It's a wonderful dramatization of the theme, but it's a lie!"

In an interview unrelated to the Dieter issue, Ferrari provides Herzog a moment of rebuttal. He explains, "I'm into something that gives you deeper insight into an essence, into a concentration of something that is way beyond facts, and that is truth--an ‘ecstasy of truth,' as I sometimes call it."

To her credit, Ferrari never makes a judgment, but allows viewers to choose their own ethical parameters. Then again, perhaps Molly Dineen (The Lie of the Land) voices the director's perspective when she argues that, "All of it is artificial." For, as any anthropologist or scientist knows, subjects change their behavior under scrutiny. And in terms of documentary, Dineen implies the filmmaker's omnipotence when she adds, "In the edit, they'll be put in a context that makes them slightly different."

Other topics covered include sound in documentaries. Kim Longinotto (Rough Aunties; The Day I Will Never Forget) thinks of sound as "the heartbeat of a film," a place where "you can hit people at a deep level." About music in docs, Stan Neumann (The Last Marranos) believes that it "tends to diminish the image," while Peter Wintonick (Manufacturing Consent) adds, "Audiences need an audio ‘scape as well as a visual ‘scape." Regarding the potentially divisive use of voiceover, Barry Stevens reasons that "Voiceover can be beautiful. It can be the invocation to a dream." He thinks of narration as a "voice in your ear that's telling you a story."

The final word in Capturing Reality belongs to the ever-articulate and entertaining Morris, who metaphorically sums up the doc-maker's (at least that doc-maker's) raison d'être: "There's a dream of actually influencing the world in some way-righting some wrong, correcting some evil. It's the documentarian as some possible superhero-you know, the guy who fixes the bad stuff."


Capturing Reality: The Art of Documentary is available through the NFB ( and First Run Features (

Cathleen Rountree, Ph.D., is a culture journalist and contributing editor and columnist at Documentary