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Hot Docs Hosts Sessions on Archives and Cinematography

By Ron Deutsch

Mavis Staples, subject of Jessica Edwards' 'Mavis!' Photo: Marc PoKempner/Film First

While the 22nd annual edition of Hot Docs, North America's largest documentary festival, screened over 200 films from April 23 to May 3 in Toronto, the Hot Docs Conference hosted 12 sessions and over 20 workshops for filmmakers.

The theme of the conference was "bioDOCversity," which focused on "speakers who experiment with story and image, utilize enterprising approaches to distribution, bring together and build communities and more." Sessions weren't restricted to film or video documentaries; one focused on radio documentaries and another on using the videogame format to tell nonfiction stories. Also, there were separate conversations with iconic documentarians Frederick Wiseman and Patricio Guzman; the latter was honored with the Outstanding Achievement Award and a retrospective of his work.


The Character of Archive

One of the more informative sessions was "The Character of Archive," which looked at how three filmmakers approached archival material. The session, moderated by Toronto-based film editor and educator Manfred Becker, included Jessica Edwards, representing her first feature documentary, Mavis!, about the life and times of soul/gospel singer Mavis Staples; producer/director Doug Tirola, discussing Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon; and Canadian editor-turned-director Michèle Hozer, whose Sugar Coated aims to raise awareness about the dangerously high levels of sugar we all consume.

In his opening remarks, Becker noted that in today's digital world one can manipulate archival footage to express conflicting points of view—"That's if you can afford the footage—because we live in a capitalist world. So you might want to tell that story that you're really passionate about, but you have to first know if you can afford to."

Edwards explained that she made a very conscious effort to stay away from archival material that didn't directly represent the Staple Singers' family or Mavis herself. "The reason I was attracted to Mavis in the beginning was her vitality and drive," she noted. "So making a historical document wasn't the story I wanted to tell. The story was really about now. So while we are telling her history, I didn't want it to appear historical."

She gave an example of a sequence in which Mavis is discussing her first meeting with Martin Luther King. "Instead of using archival footage," Edwards said, "we went to the Dexter Avenue Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery, where they first met him, and we shot contemporary footage of the church and used that as she tells the story. It was really about keeping her in the now, which was a challenge the whole way through."

From Doug Tirola's 'Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon.'

Making a film about one of the most popular and notorious American humor magazines of the 1970s, Tirola said he really wanted people to feel like they were inside National Lampoon, and the era. "I made a decision very early on," he explained, "that I didn't want a film where when someone on camera says, 'And then I moved to New York in 1970,' and if you don't have an actual photo of them then, that you cut to some archival stock footage of New York circa 1970. We pretended those archive houses didn't exist, and whenever a situation like that would come up, we would use an image from the magazine. This was a way to sneak more footage of the magazine in the film, and it adds to the audience getting into the vibe of the era."

Getting access to the material in the magazine was a bit of an adventure for Tirola. "The big challenge from an archive point of view was we knew we had to make a deal with the magazine—which doesn't exist anymore," he said. "It's just an entity. The last two owners are in prison. But we spoke to one of them before he went to prison and he said if we could get the guy who had actually run the magazine to say we were the right people to make the film, they would make a deal with us. So after about six months of lunches and dinner, he finally said yes. Then we had to get all the artists signed on, not just to allow us to use their work, but some of the artwork we wanted to animate to try and make it more cinematic."

Making Sugar Coated, a documentary about the sugar industry, came with a host of archival issues. "I have a strange love/hate relationship with archival footage," Hozer admitted. "As someone who spent years as an editor, when you start working with it, it's extremely labor-intensive. Plus, when working with archival footage, you never know what your budget is because by the time the production is over, you've spent twice as much on that. So it's very, very unpredictable working with archival. And here I was working with a contemporary subject, but unfortunately it found me again."

As Hozer researched archival footage, she discovered that issues surrounding both the medical questions and the sugar industry itself hadn't changed in decades. "The old adage that history is repeating itself came to mind," she noted. "And as a filmmaker, you want to be part of the debate, but you also want to show patterns in human behavior and society. Until we understand where we've been, you don't know how to solve the problem today. So here came a whole bunch of archival footage that we had to deal with.

"Since this was a controversial subject," Hozer continued, "we were working not only with the footage, but also with lawyers and E&O to deal with this footage. It was as if we were defending a thesis; everything had to be footnoted. All the archival footage had to be dissected: How were we using it? Did we have the proper rights?

"Also, when you go to some of these archival homes, they want to see how the footage has been used," Hozer explained. "So if you're criticizing certain lobby groups, including the tobacco industry—because we do compare the sugar industry to the tobacco industry in terms of the PR tactics—then, if they don't like how you're using it, you're not really in a position to fight them. So you have to re-cut the sequence to make the tobacco lobbyists look good. And this was stuff from 20 or 30 years ago! But you have no choice because these lobby groups are big and will go after you."


Cinematography and Storytelling

From Bill and Turner Ross' 'Western'

While there were several sessions related to distribution and funding, another interesting panel, "Setting the Scene: Cinematography & Storytelling," allowed both the panel and audiences to geek out in the nuts and bolts of filmmaking. The session was moderated by Toronto-based cinematographer Iris Ng (Stories We Tell), who didn't try too much to control the proceedings, but instead framed a topic and let the panelists talk among themselves, allowing the audience to observe and ask questions.

The four panelists were Bill and Turner Ross, whose Western looks at a host of troubles occurring in two neighboring towns on either side of the Texas-Mexican border; Switzerland-based filmmaker Nicholas Steiner, whose Above & Below introduces viewers to a set of "off the grid" characters who live in storm drain tunnels in Las Vegas, in the barren California desert and at a Mars research project in remote Utah; and Canadian veteran Charles Wilkinson, whose Haida Gwaii: On the Edge of the World explores the Haida Gwaii people, who have lived on an archipelago along the northern British Columbia coast for centuries and are struggling to save their land and society from both environmental attack and governmental interference. The film received the Best Canadian Feature Documentary Award at the festival.

What emerged as the filmmakers discussed their methods of shooting was that they all worked with just one other person. As Turner Ross said jokingly, he and his brother have been working together since they were born. Steiner's cameraman, Markus Nestroy, was his college roommate for four years. And Wilkinson now works exclusively with his wife/editor/producer, Tina Schliessler. They all noted that so much of the communication with their partners was essentially telepathic because of their relationships.

At that point, Bill Ross turned the tables on Ng and asked her a question about how she works with a director. She answered that for her there is a lot of conversation before they begin shooting and once they're shooting, "Ideally, the communication has to be unspoken. As much as you can talk about it, there comes a point where you have to just show each other. There's only so much you can communicate with words as to how an image can relay an emotion."

The Ross brothers have shot all three of their films on Panasonic DVX-100Bs. "We wanted to see how much with a limited palette we could do with that camera," said Turner. "It's a gritty workhorse of a thing and we toss it around. We eventually killed two of them, but they lasted for a long time beforehand. It's an aesthetic choice, but we can do so many different things with such a limited camera, and it was adaptable to all our situations. With Western, we felt the Panasonic has this gritty character to it, and so does the landscape. We also didn't want to clean it up too much because it's often dirty in the cattle pits, and we wanted the images to be able to tell the story as well."

Wilkinson told the Ross brothers that "old guys like me who spent 20 years working on film before video" have had to really change how they work because film was so expensive to shoot with. It’s still weird for him to shoot hundreds of hours of video. "But for you guys to start off with video, I found your imaging so cool. Aesthetically, the jagged lines that are symptomatic of the DVX...But I would never have done that; I was trained to look down on video."

From Nicholas Steiner's 'Above & Below'

Steiner noted that when he began at school, he shot on 16mm and edited on a Steenbeck—"And I'm really happy for that experience," he maintained. For Above & Below, he didn't shoot so many hours partly because of that experience.

Wilkinson admitted that he so missed working on his Steenbeck that he actually took the guts out of it, dropped a computer in there and swapped out the monitors. He now edits video on the refurbished slate blue console.

Steiner shot Above & Below on the Alexa, which, he noted, "I had to fight with my school to get. [The film was his thesis project at San Francisco Art Institute.] I really needed that camera. First of all, my cameraman and I both have a strong cinematic approach. And secondly, we were shooting in tunnels where it's pretty dark, and most of the time the only light source was candlelight."

When they began the project four years ago, Steiner noted there weren't many options to work with because of that lighting issue. "We also wanted to not have to digitally modify it in any way, so we got these 40-year-old Zeiss lenses. They're not as sharp, but we wanted to use prime lenses. So in the tunnels we had to push the ISO to the 2000 to 2500 range. But it still did its job, which is quite amazing."

Wilkinson shot his film with the Canon C100. "I probably shouldn't say this, but just before we started shooting, Canon released their professional auto-focus system for the C100. It's just so good. It's like having a really great focus-puller with you, once you learn to use it. That changes everything in how I can tell a story.

"We also have a drone now, which is a really interesting device to use," Wilkinson added. "I use it to do crane moves. We used to spend thousands and thousands of dollars on helicopters, and now we can get the same thing for hundreds of dollars. And I get to use it for shots I never could before."

Wilkinson then wistfully spoke of missing the days of editing film because, he said, "The editing room used to be busy places with people. You always had an audience. We used to have three assistants; you could call everyone in for feedback and it was a social affair. Now it's just one person hunched over a computer. I think we've lost something there, though I love the freedom that the new equipment enables."


Ron Deutsch is a contributing editor with Documentary Magazine. He has written for many publications including National Geographic, Wired, San Francisco Weekly and The Austin American-Statesman. He is currently associate-producing the documentary Record Man, about the post-war music industry.