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Discussing Documentary's Dominion: Excerpts from a Radio Roundtable

By Gabriel Paletz

The 7th Annual Old Dominion University (ODU) Film and Video Festival, "Stranger than Fiction: Framing Reality in Film and Television," took place last March in Hampton Roads, Virginia. Festival spectators saw a rich array of documentary movies and TV programs, from classics such as Drew Associates' Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963), to postmodern works like Errol Morris' Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control (1997), to social activist films such as Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine (2002), to a healthy variety of productions by local filmmakers.

Professor Gary Edgerton, the festival's founder and artistic director, and Professor Carla Harrell, the 2004 director, welcomed several guests. The two keynote speakers embodied the current variety of documentary: Harvey Pekar, the Cleveland-based comic-book author and inspiration for Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini's acclaimed film American Splendor (2003), and award-winning independent filmmaker Rory Kennedy, who showed excerpts from two of her works—American Hollow (1999) and Pandemic: Facing AIDS (2003)—and delivered a talk entitled "The Camera Does Not Lie: Social Change through Documentary Filmmaking." 

Filmmaker/educator Gabriel Paletz joined Edgerton, Harrell, Pekar and radio host Cathy Lewis on a public radio program, Hear/Say (WHRV-89.5 FM), for a discussion of the ODU Festival and its relationship to the renaissance of documentary. Following are excerpts from the discussion:

Cathy Lewis: How did the festival come to focus on documentary this year? 

Carla Harrell: I thought "documentary" had very specific connotations. But through the festival's selections we discovered documentary's range.  

Gary Edgerton: We realized how the concept of documentary has expanded to many kinds of films, all of which we included in the festival: docudramas, reality programs and fiction films that are either inspired by true stories, or that use documentary techniques. In 2004 the boundaries between what is fiction and what is nonfiction have become blurred even within individual films, such as American Splendor.

CL: It's also nice to have Gabriel Paletz with us today. He is a documentary filmmaker who will present his short film [Cinepasts] at the festival.

Gabriel Paletz: It's a pleasure to be part of the festival, and a golden age of documentary.

CL:  It truly is. Documentaries used to be the purview of public broadcasting. You still find them on public TV, but now the pay channels, Sundance, IFC and others have discovered their power.  

CH:  It shows how documentaries are winning both public recognition and commercial appreciation.

CL:  Gabriel, how do you see changes in technology expanding documentary?

GP:  Digital technologies are increasingly available and affordable. So more documentaries are being made. Yet digital is a different beast from film. We may be passing through a transition as movies based on digital technologies are slipping away from the physical world. Yet at the same time, documentaries offer keen insights into that world.

CL:  What do you mean when you say that digital is slipping away from the world?

GP:  A digital image is not a chemical imprint, but a series of numbers that can be manipulated with increasing ease. This may be nonfiction pictures' last stand, or the start of a new leap for cinema. Documentary has led the advance of changes in film.

GE:  Here's a good example of that: one of Errol Morris' breakthrough films, The Thin Blue Line, was made in 1988. When it was submitted for an Oscar, the members of the Academy said, "This is not a documentary." Now the Academy has caught up with Morris, giving him this year's Oscar for The Fog of War.

GP: Filmmakers see that documentary is a form with a lot of freedom. It has revitalized fiction films from the Lumières' shorts, to the influence on Neo-Realism, to a movie like American Splendor, with its weave of nonfiction and fiction techniques.

The technical and aesthetic freedoms of documentaries have combined with a new demand for these films. Festivals like Sundance look for them; others, like the Full Frame Festival, are devoted to them. Cable TV stations need fresh material. As formulaic as they are, reality shows have proven documentary's ability to satisfy the demand.

GE:  They're made with one-tenth of the budget of other programs, and get the same ratings.

CL: Gabriel, I want to be sure to talk about the couple of clips that you have brought with you today. One is from Spellbound [Jeff Blitz, prod.dir.; Sean Welch, prod.]. 

GP: In many ways Spellbound is a traditional American narrative. You have a competition, and at the end one competitor triumphs. It fits a conventional story, yet captivates audiences. This clip features the first run of words the kids spell in the contest. In one minute, it summarizes American ethnicities. 

CL: As we listened, I was reflecting on how fictional techniques are being harnessed in this nonfiction work.

GE: Twenty years ago people said that documentary and fiction films have different structures. People traditionally think of documentaries as dealing with social issues in cause-and-effect frameworks. One reason documentaries have exploded is because documentarians consider themselves storytellers. Spellbound is a perfect example. 

CL:  Gabriel, you've also brought us a clip from your film Cinepasts.

GP: This short documentary looks at four men at the University of Southern California's School of Cinema-Television. It shows how their careers are bound up with changes in technology. When USC was still shooting student works on film, the school had its own lab. With the transition to digital, the man who ran the lab was let go. We'll hear from him, and then from a Russian who repairs the school's cameras. 

CL: The loss of film processing is a really interesting way to note the passage of time. 

One night a couple of months ago, I got up early one morning around 5:00, and was watching HBO. There was a captivating little documentary that told the story of a couple in New Zealand. The woman wanted to have a baby and the man didn't. They have the baby, and it develops a dreadful condition and dies. You see the whole intimate process, from the airlift to a hospital, to the funeral home: the whole gamut of pain and decision.

GP: Documentary has a poignant ability to capture change, both in technologies and [in] how people organize their lives. 

CL:  I find it interesting to watch videos of people at weddings, when guests speak to the bride and groom. All the pathology is there, the bad stuff and good.

GE: You can't script the way people perform; actors can't reach that level of reality. It's just so compelling. That's why I've always loved nonfiction more than fiction. I've shot some wedding videos myself, as an undergraduate and graduate student. You can go all over the church and talk to whomever you want to with the camera.

GP: Documentaries are an intimate yet distant form of communication, like e-mail. They have flourished with the rise of new media. People are no longer as camera-shy or self-conscious as they used to be. This has led to greater access and more intricate relationships between people onscreen, between filmmakers and subjects, and between audiences and films.

CL:  Gary, can one make a living now being a documentary filmmaker?

GE:  More so now than ever. In the last 25-30 years all the runaway productions from Southern California and New York have built emerging production centers, even here in Hampton Roads, and the Richmond area. People here are making industrials and commercials, plus their own documentaries.

CL:  That has to do with the equipment and technology.

GE:  And from the media literacy created by media centers in places like Atlanta, Miami and Chicago. You have more options now than two cities at the ends of the country.

GP:  Documentaries can reveal patterns of life in appealing and surprising ways. They possess a sense of discovery, missing from fiction films, that is especially vital now.

Thanks to Grace Brown for transcribing the broadcast, Hear/Say production assistant Michelle Kim, producer Erin Wickersham and Professor David L. Paletz.


Gabriel M. Paletz is the first PhD graduate from the University of Southern California in both filmmaking and critical studies. His current work combines these understandings in a new portrait of the career of Orson Welles.

Gary Edgerton is chair of the Communication and Theatre Arts Department at Old Dominion University