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Silver Anniversary Soundings: Doc Makers Reflect on 25 Years

By Sandra Ruch

Reaching a milestone like the 25th anniversary inspires us to reflect on where we’ve been, what we’ve done and where we’re going. But we also look at the world around us and take stock of how it’s changed in that time, and how we’ve changed with it.

With that in mind, we asked the documentary filmmaking community, “What has been the most significant evolution in the documentary—as an art form and as a business—over the past 25 years?” The responses follow:


“The evolution of technology has expedited both mobility and production while lowering the cost of equipment, making it much easier to shoot and complete documentaries. The idea that one can get up and go––solo!––without much production expense has allowed filmmakers to become more spontaneous to cover their subjects with minimal to no planning or budget. Similarly, the look of HD video has made ‘home video’ much more visually appealing.” —Amy Berg (Deliver Us From Evil)


"Technology changed everything in terms of bringing down the barriers to entry. But one thing hasn't changed—the time, effort and talent needed to make a well-crafted, artful documentary that has something to say, and that does so in an elegant, textured, entertaining, intellectually provocative and emotionally stimulating way. Not easy. Not quick. Not cheap. For most of us, time is (still) money. Filmmakers need both—to feed their minds, bodies, souls and films. That hasn't, and won't ever, change." —Tina DiFeliciantonio (Living with AIDS; Girls Like Us; Walk This Way)


"eBay. Yup, that’s what changed documentary production for me. You can find just about anything on eBay; it’s a researcher’s dream.

For my new film, Hollywood Chinese, I ‘won’ a copy of the 1949 B-picture Boston Blackie’s Chinese Venture; a set of lobby cards from the 1918 Sessue Hayakawa silent, The City of Dim Faces; and a 1920 edition of The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu. I grabbed things that I didn’t know I was looking for.

The last time I needed obscure historical ephemera was for my 1989 film, Forbidden City, U.S.A., which documented Chinese-American nightclubs in the 1940s. Looking back, it was painstakingly tedious. I had to first find, and then call—not e-mail—a private collector in a small town somewhere, who then might have a connection to another collector in the middle of nowhere. And then I had to convince him into photocopying an item and sending it via snail mail to make sure I really want it—that is, if I can make out what the item really looked like from a muddy photocopy. And if I did want it, and if it was still available, I’d send a check, and pray that I’d actually get the thing. Now all of that human contact and uncertainty is wiped out; everything’s done with the click of the keyboard.” —Arthur Dong (Family Fundamentals; Licensed to Kill; Coming Out Under Fire)


"No doubt the most significant evolution in documentary as an art form has been the emergence of artists—people who are making film speak in terms of the senses. To conceive and develop a documentary filmically takes rare vision and enormous creative energy. For a while it appeared it might not happen. But it is happening. All around us." —Robert Drew (Primary; Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment; Faces of November)


"The pace of documentary storytelling has changed considerably. Audiences are accustomed to faster-paced films in general, and they are sophisticated enough to follow all different kinds of modern film grammar—and you can see that in documentary work. It’s been evolving over the past couple of decades. The music video form, technology advancements and the pace of our modern lives have had an effect on the form. As for the business of film, 25 years ago it was nearly impossible to get a distributor to take on a film like The Times of Harvey Milk for a theatrical release. Obviously, that's all changed for the better." —Rob Epstein (The Times of Harvey Milk; Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt; The Celluloid Closet)


 “Digital technology; 16mm film was so expensive and cumbersome—though beautiful.  How documentaries turn out now is up to the skill, imagination and determination of the filmmaker—and not the cost of the equipment.” —Alex Gibney (The Fifties; ENRON: The Smartest Guys in the Room; Taxi to the Dark Side)


“When I started making documentaries in the late ’60s, the most significant documentaries were made for television. Today, the most important documentaries appear first in movie theaters. There has been a seismic shift in the public's attitude toward the genre. Documentaries used to be viewed a little like castor oil. Watching them might be distasteful, but ultimately the experience was good for you. Today we go to see a documentary with much different expectations. Audiences know that docs can be as entertaining as they are informative, and as funny and maddening and touching as any fictional film; in fact, often much more so.

Finally, as audiences for documentaries have increased, so have venues for showing and distributing them. DVD sales have opened up whole new possibilities for distribution. The growth in markets has helped spur a proliferation of films and film styles. For me, this is the most exciting, vibrant time to make documentaries since I've been making them.” Mark Jonathan Harris (The Long Way Home; Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport)


“The most significant thing in the evolution of documentary in the last 25 years has been the democratization of the means of production and distribution. When I was finishing university in the mid-1990s, new digital cameras and PC-based editing systems were being developed that allow filmmakers to create films on a very small budget. The expansion of the Internet and online commerce means that self-distribution is becoming a more viable option for filmmakers. Though a good documentary film can still only be made with hard work, luck and love, things that used to be nearly impossible for beginning filmmakers are now surmountable obstacles—how to get your film made independently and seen by a broad audience.” —James Longley (Gaza Strip; Iraq in Fragments; Sari’s Mother)


"Digital technology, the new media and the renaissance or surge in the theatrical vitality of documentaries are distinct, great changes in the documentary field." —Freida Lee Mock (Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision; Return with Honor: Wrestling with Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner)


"On a practical level, filmmaking is immensely lighter and cheaper. The advent of lighter cameras and equipment, and software that enables you to edit on your home computer has changed filmmaking from an expensive art form to something highly accessible. This has created a revolution in filmmaking, and we’ve only seen the beginning of that revolution.

That documentary filmmaking is even considered a business is significant. The mere possibility of documentaries being commercially successful and enjoying wide distribution has meant that some filmmakers now see documentaries as a stepping stone to fiction films. They imagine a premiere at Sundance, a dramatic bidding war over their film and a sweet distribution deal. That was unheard of when I came up as a young maker, and it has impacted the whole atmosphere of filmmaking." —Stanley Nelson (Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind; The Murder of Emmett Till; Jonestown: The Life and death of Peoples Temple)


“I think the greatest evolution has come as filmmakers embrace the use of the entire filmmaking toolbox, utilizing style, photography, structure, music and animation in bold ways to create very cinematic experiences. There's a sense that nonfiction can experiment, that there are not hard and fast rules to determine what we do or how we should do it. I find it exhilarating.” —AJ Schnack (Kurt Cobain About a Son; Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns))

Sandra Ruch has been executive director of the IDA and publisher of Documentary magazine since 2001.