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'Tell Me Something': Docmakers Share Their Wisdom in New Book

By Cynthia Close

Tell Me Something: Documentary Filmmakers
Edited by Jessica Edwards
Published by Film First Co.
Designed by Philipp Hubert, Visiotypen
128 pages

Most of the books about documentary film and filmmakers that I've reviewed for this publication have provided their share of varying degrees of useful information, but I have often lamented the surprising lack of concern for the visuals, the actual design of the books themselves, separate from the content. The New York-based publisher Film First Co., with the assistance afforded by a successful Kickstarter campaign, have addressed this aesthetic void by producing Tell Me Something: Documentary Filmmakers, a perfect coffee-table book (given its diminutive size). While the volume is slim at 128 pages, it packs a design punch with a thick, black, clothbound hardcover embossed with a silver dot pattern that carries through at a different scale on the weighty, glossy pages within. This is the perfect gift book for those whose interests lean in the direction of documentary film, and as a lighthearted read for more seriously engaged mediamakers.

Conceived and edited by Jessica Edwards, Tell Me Something is a compilation of reflections from a wide range of filmmakers: veterans like Barbara Kopple, Albert Maysles, Errol Morris, Martin Scorsese, Michael Moore and Alex Gibney, alongside the next generation represented by the likes of Gary Hustwit, Lucy Walker, Kim Longinotto, Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern, and many others. I was also pleased to see fresh new faces such as Clio Barnard and Yung Chang. Each of these docmakers were asked to provide one piece of advice, which is allocated to one page (a few are longer) that faces a single photograph of that filmmaker. The esteemed photographers who took the portraits—Jon Pack, Raina+Wilson, Jessica Sample among them—are as rich and varied in their respective oeuvres as the filmmakers they depicted. The photos invite further interpretation of each filmmaker's character, personality and self-presentation beyond what we know of them through their films. 

Thom Powers, the documentary programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival, curator for Sundance NOW Doc Club, and founder/director of DOC NYC—and himself a former filmmaker—explains in the foreword that when he moved to New York City two decades ago, he compensated for his lack of formal training in film with the chutzpah to call up strangers, those more knowledgeable than he, to ask for advice. This book serves to replicate that journey taken by Powers, though in greater depth and without the risk of rejection. He goes on to state that at this point in his career, he has met most of the filmmakers featured here and he assures us, "If you ask 50 filmmakers how they approach any aspect of their craft, you might get 50 different answers." 

Arranged in alphabetical order, starting with Matthew Akers and ending with Marina Zenovich, the filmmakers' advice seems to reflect the inherent truth of Powers' statement. Fred Wiseman is an example of the very few whose words of advice—"Marry someone rich"—are brief, flippant and eminently forgettable, while others like AJ Schnack give a very practical example of an actual form letter, filled with good advice, that you could use to send to the subjects of your film just before the film is seen publicly for the first time.

There are many surprises. Sometimes, the most famous names come across as the most humble. Martin Scorsese takes the time to give credit to filmmakers John Cassavetes, Claude Charbrol, Elia Kazan, Peter Bogdanovich and Steven Spielberg as influences on his work. Michael Moore, while in keeping with being Michael Moore, also advises, "The first rule of making a documentary is, Don't make a documentary. Make a movie. Nobody wants to see a documentary. To the often-posed question, ‘Hey honey, what do you wanna do tonight?' nobody responds with, ‘Lets go see a documentary!' People do though want to see a movie. And when they go to the movies, they want to be entertained." He goes on to say, "People don't want the invisible wagging finger of the 'documentarian' (a word invented for us because we don't make movies) pointing at them and telling them to take their medicine." He elaborates: "It's like this: You can make a 'documentary' about nutrition—or you can make Super Size Me."


A portrait of filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, by Jon Pack. From Jessica Edwards' Tell Me Something: Documentary Filmmakers


I also encountered some unfamiliar names like Macky Alston (Family Name, 1997; The Killer Within, 2006; Love Free or Die, 2012). He had some "liberating" advice. After watching the work of Francois Truffaut, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Wim Wenders, Ross McElwee, Robert Altman and Jane Campion, he realized, "My favorite filmmakers all made at least as many god-awful films as they did great ones. Filmmaking (like most other creative pursuits) requires the audacity to fail big and very publicly." Certain other pithy statements—Jennifer Baichwal: "Have a plan, but be ready to abandon it at any moment." Errol Morris: "When you go to people for advice, expect the worst."—are pulled out of context and set in large typeface on full-color pages that are used as a sort of graphic punctuation throughout the book.

This is the kind of book that can be picked up at any moment, flipped through and randomly read, sort of like nibbling on the soda crackers they give you to clean your palate between wine tastings. It is full of clever surprises that would please Michael Moore, since it educates while it entertains. 

The IDA is pleased to offer a complimentary copy of Tell Me Something to our first 40 friends who contribute $100.00 or more. Give before December 31 to deduct from your 2013 taxes!

Cynthia Close is the former president of Documentary Educational Resources and currently resides in Burlington, Vermont, where she consults on the business of film and serves on the advisory board of the Vermont International Film Festival.