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DGA: The Documentarian as Game-Changer

At a recent Directors Guild of America event, 9 expert documentarians presented a master class on their form, subtitled "From Observation to Instigation."


The Directors Guild of America has been celebrating their 75th anniversary with a series of panels and events at the DGA Theater on West 57th Street called “Game Changers.” Last Thursday, they presented a fascinating master class on documentary filmmaking, with doc A-listers sharing clips from their filmographies and engaging in two terrific panel discussions.


First up, DGA President Michael Apted—himself an acclaimed documentarian, with the seven films (to date) in his 7 Up series complementing his narrative film career—welcomed the audience, celebrating the documentary films that “inform, illuminate, and influence” audiences.


Director Marc Levin (Slam) introduced the first panel with a clip reel, highlighting films from filmmakers whose work might be categorized as observational documentary—“directors [who are] defenders of the very idea of creative rights and visions” in this era where such visions can be stifled.


The very entertaining and thought-provoking clip reel included the work of Levin himself (The Last Party, Protocols of Zion, Brick City); the legendary Albert Maysles, perhaps best known for classics like Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens (clips: Muhammad and Larry and The Love We Make); Barbara Kopple (clips: Harlan County USA, Wild Man Blues); and Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, a duo whose terrifying film Jesus Camp debuted at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival before garnering an Academy Award® nomination.


Muhammad and Larry


After the reel, Levin asked the panelists how they viewed the common observation that a documentarian is “a fly on the wall.” Maysles started off by disagreeing with the statement, mostly because “a fly has no intelligence.” He then quoted his friend and colleague Richard Leacock: “A fly on the wall is a fly in the ointment.” Kopple agreed, “I am not a fly on the wall, but I am also not an elephant in the room.” Rather, she considers herself a “storyteller, an explorer of who people are.”


Ewing concurred that the statement “implies we don’t have perspective.” She explained that she and Grady try to be as “unobtrusive and tiny as possible, while developing strong relationships with our subjects.” Grady elaborated, describing their intent to allow a story to unfold naturally. “Letting the story lead you is the incredible gift this craft gives you… Maybe the story will change along the way.”


Levin then raised the questions of accuracy, responsibility and subjectivity a documentary filmmaker answer: what is the relationship between documentary and journalism? How does one make the calls about when and where to show one's particular point of view?


Maysles was again definitive: his point of view is to never have a point of view. He quoted Orson Welles: “The eye of the person behind the lens should be the eye of the poet.” Still, he believes his documentaries do show truth: “If it’s not the real thing, it’s not a documentary.”


12th & Delaware
12th & Delaware


In recounting her and Ewing’s process with a film like 12th & Delaware, which explored the controversial subject of abortion, Grady explained that they do not share their point of view with their subjects ahead of time. “I am not there to teach them about me. I’m there to learn about them,” to which Ewing added, “And they hardly ever ask!”


Maysles, along with his late brother David, is typically credited with the invention of the feature-length documentary film. He explained that they were inspired by Truman Capote, who claimed that his 1965 book In Cold Blood was the first non-fiction novel; the Maysles wanted to try the same thing on film. They went on to do just that, with their film Salesman in 1968. Coincidentally, Kopple was a film student around that time, and her first job was working on Salesman, albeit on publicity and promotion. “I learned everything I could possibly learn from it,” she explained, including “how incredibly loving they were to their subjects.”




This led into further discussion about the relationships that develop between filmmaker and subject, and the ethical dilemmas that can arise. Maysles believes the relationship is important, citing as proof the “American Family” series on PBS in the 1970s: “[the filmmakers] having no relationship with the family did not make them more real.”


Grady explained that with 12th & Delaware, she “faced ethical dilemmas, as a human and as a woman. It was hard not to tell the women to run [from the fake abortion clinic].” It’s incredibly complicated, she explained, to decide the right way to handle things. Ewing said that, whenever possible, she prefers to make such decisions in the editing room. “I like to film everything (save physical harm), and decide later.”


As Levin thanked the panelists for “putting the real back in reality,” Maysles summed up the discussion: “The truth will finally win out.”


Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer
Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer


Moderated by Apted, the second panel discussion featured filmmakers whose films defy general conventions of documentary filmmaking—filmmakers who stretch boundaries. Leading the charge was elder statesman Errol Morris (Gates of Heaven, The Fog of War), whose dry wit and humor had the room entirely bemused; beside him were the prolific Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Client 9), whose Catching Hell recently premiered at TFF 2011, and the always entertaining Morgan Spurlock, best known for self-inflicting himself with 30 days of a McDonald’s diet in Super Size Me.


The clip reel featured work from Apted (tracing one of his subjects, Neil Hughes, through 7 Up, 14 Up, 21, 28 Up, 35 Up, 42 Up, and 49 Up—if you haven’t seen this anthropological series, do yourself a favor and Netflix the lot sometime soon), Morris (The Thin Blue Line, and his upcoming Summer 2011 release, Tabloid), and Spurlock (his current release, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold).


42 Up


After starting off the discussion with a debate about the merits of reenactments in documentary—which polarizes some filmgoers, as Morris learned through the Academy’s reported reaction to The Thin Blue Line—the talk turned to Spurlock’s conceit of inserting himself into various situations, and then “capturing things as they happen in real time.” He sees his filmmaking process as “a journey, [where the audience is] along for the ride.” As he explained, “I want to be a conduit to a conversation.”


Morris made the simple, astute observation, “Documentary isn’t really one thing. There are as many different kinds of documentaries as there are documentary filmmakers.”


Gibney continued, “Documentary in the past 20 years or so has become very much of an authored form, which is great—really healthy… The choices you make create tension between the author and the material.” The form is no longer the “voice of God” on television telling you the way things are; rather, filmmakers can take an “imaginative approach to personal expression—it’s the glory of the medium. One of my favorite films from the past five years was an animated documentary—Waltz with Bashir—who’d have thought?”


Super Size Me


Spurlock described his approach as making “entertaining, honest movies that don’t taste like medicine.” With Super Size Me, he explained that initially, they were going to use someone else to be the experiment, to eat only McDonald’s for 30 days. However, in the end, Spurlock realized, the only way to “know they weren’t going home and sneaking broccoli or kale on the side” was to do it himself. That was the only way to ensure the integrity of the experiment.


Morris chimed in about the elusivity of truth in documentary: “Truth is something we pursue. It isn’t in a film or guaranteed by any kind of filmmaking or any kind of filmmaker. It’s something you seek, and perhaps, you get a glimpse of it.”


When Apted raised the subject of a filmmaker’s agenda, Spurlock replied, “Documentaries are accidents to begin with… I can start with A, but I don’t know what Z is… Filmmakers have to be open to the process of organic filmmaking.”


But Gibney closed with this: “We all have a point of view.”


We encourage lovers of documentary to familiarize themselves with (or revisit) these filmmakers' filmographies immediately. Our Netflix queue grew overnight.


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