November 21, 2003

In Their Own Words

Documentary Filmmakers Speak
By Liz Stubbs
Allworth Press
240 pps. (paperbound) $19.95
ISBN 1-58115-236-1

 

 Liz Stubbs has assembled a book of interviews that will prove compulsive reading for makers of documentary films and anyone interested in the nonfiction format. A real sense of history informs this collection and a compelling picture of the evolution of direct cinema emerges as you read through these intelligent interviews. The list of 13 documentarians queried reads like a "Who's Who" of nonfiction filmmakers: Albert Maysles, Susan Froemke, DA Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus, Ken Burns, Ross McElwee, Liz Garbus, Nick Broomfield, Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky, Irving Saraf, Allie Light and Barbara Kopple.

"These filmmakers display their passion in every frame of their stories," writes Stubbs. "They capture the poetry of every day. The pain we'd rather not acknowledge." After a short opening chapter titled "The Road to Realism," in which Stubbs traces the roots of 1950s Italian neo-realism, cinéma vérité and direct cinema back to the realist art movement in 18th-century Europe, she launches into an incisive interview with Maysles.

 Maysles' 1968 documentary Salesman, honored in 1992 by the Library of Congress (and recently released as a fine DVD on the Criterion label) is a foundational work in direct cinema and a wrenching portrait of what Stubbs calls the "American heart." Maysles started out as a psychologist, and his primary concern is empathy for the subjects of his documentaries. "If you don't empathize somehow or other, you can see it in your results," says Maysles. "The photography lacks a heart..."

Maysles explains why he has not used traditional interview techniques. "When you do an interview, the answer is your question, so it's a set-up every time, and you're getting away from what documentary should do," he explains, "which is to film people's experiences, rather than set up an artificial situation where you're pumping them for information." Maysles also discusses his other landmark works, including Gimme Shelter (1969) Grey Gardens (1976) and LaLee's Kin (2000), and his newfound passion for shooting on digital video.

Froemke, Maysles' primary collaborator since 1987, discusses why she still loves making documentaries on film. She says, "I love the discipline of having to change film every ten-and-a-half minutes because it gives you a chance to stop and think about what you're doing, where you're going, what you're getting. Also, you're very aware of how much money is going through that camera."

Pennebaker and Hegedus are interviewed jointly by Stubbs, and the interaction produces some insights. "I would be surprised if I did any film for a while, or ever again," says Pennebaker. Adds Hegedus, not without humor, "We had to pull him kicking and screaming to video, but now he doesn't want to go back." With a background in engineering, Pennebaker was instrumental in developing equipment to record sound synched to pictures shot with a film camera. Working with Albert and the late David Maysles, Richard Leacock and Robert Drew, Pennebaker developed the first portable 16mm synch sound-and-camera system, which revolutionized the way that documentaries could be made. Documentarians could capture life in the field directly as it happened. Pennebaker and Hegedus' recent works include The War Room (1993), Down from the Mountain and Startup.com (both 2001).

Ken Burns characterizes himself in Stubbs's interview as an "emotional archeologist." He also calls himself simply a "filmmaker" and states that "I can't remember a time when I didn't want to be a filmmaker.  From early childhood, I was so caught by movies and their power over me and other lives." Burns' fascination with American history has produced some of the most widely seen documentaries of all time, including The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994) and Jazz (2001).

In making US history come alive, Burns states, "I'm not really interested in the dry dates and facts and events of the past, but more of a kind of underlying and abiding sense of the power those past events and individuals might have." While acknowledging that documentarians face a potential "trap of history" that can be "a kind of hagiography, a hero worship," Burns searches to create "examinations quite often of more complex heroism."

Stubbs closes her book with an upbeat interview with Barbara Kopple titled "Through the Lens Fearlessly." Kopple, who has won Academy Awards for her feature documentaries Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976) and American Dream (1990), had a background in clinical psychology and started out working with Albert Maysles, a relationship that she calls her "first really, really big experience in filmmaking." Equally at home with fiction and nonfiction filmmaking, Koppel characterizes her documentary style as cinéma vérité. For Wild Man Blues (2001), her film about Woody Allen, Kopple says, "We tried to make ourselves guerrilla filmmakers. We put a wireless mic on Woody and Soon-Yi and let them run."

With the work of these documentarians, "We as viewers live the journey the filmmakers took on each story," writes Stubbs. "And we aren't the same people when the credits roll. We know something we didn't when we first sat down to watch." The same may be said for the insights to be garnered from the filmmakers' conversations in this book.

 

Ray Zone can be reached at r3dzone@earthlink.net.

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