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Mitchell Block Direct: The Power of Documentaries

Indiewire By Mitchell Block | Indiewire January 31, 2013 at 9:30AM

Mitchell Block Direct: The Power of Documentaries
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Vol. I Issue 7
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Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, left, and Gen. Edward A. Rice Jr. appeared before the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday. 
Drew Angerer for The New York Times
Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, left, and Gen. Edward A. Rice Jr. appeared before the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday. Drew Angerer for The New York Times

The Invisible War promotes change in US Air Force

The following is from the NY Times, January 24, 2013

The Invisible War, a documentary about rape and sexual assault in the military that was recently nominated for an Oscar in the documentary feature category, has been credited with both persuading more women to come forward to report abuse and with forcing the military to deal more openly with the problem. In November, General Welsh met with all of the Air Force’s wing commanders and had them watch the film with him, according to an Air Force spokesman."

Academy Announces Producer Credit for Four Documentary Features

The Documentary Branch Executive Committee has determined the individual nominees for four of the contending films in the Documentary Feature category:

The Gatekeepers
Dror Moreh, Philippa Kowarsky and Estelle Fialon
How to Survive a Plague
David France and Howard Gertler
The Invisible War
Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering
Searching for Sugar Man
Malik Bendjelloul and Simon Chinn

The nominees for the fifth film in this category, “5 Broken Cameras,” were previously announced.

This is the result of rules made by the branch to be sure that regardless what the filmmakers claim on their application, a producer credit (and Oscar nomination or Award) can no longer go to the person who “just” comes in with the funds to make the film or the finishing funds. The Academy wants to be sure that the producers actually “produce” the film and not buy an Oscar.  This reverses a long history of Oscars going to producers who provide few services other than writing a check. The branch also for the first time has nominated three people prior to the rule change this year; only two people could receive a documentary feature nomination.   In a future issue we will closely look at this Academy rule and how it effects documentaries producer nominations. 

5 Broken Camerasa film by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi
Academy Nominated Documentary Feature  

Co-director Emad Burnat and his five broken cameras
Credit: Kino Lorber Co-director Emad Burnat and his five broken cameras

5 Broken Cameras is a first-hand account of non-violent resistance in Bil’in, a West Bank village threatened by encroaching Israeli settlements. Shot almost entirely by Palestinian farmer Emad Burnat, who bought his first camera in 2005 to record the birth of his youngest son, the film was assembled by Burnat and Israeli co-director Guy Davidi. The film is structured around the violent destruction of each one of Burnat’s cameras, the filmmakers’ collaboration follows one family’s evolution over five years of village turmoil. Burnat watches from behind the lens as olive trees are bulldozed, protests intensify, and lives are lost. “I feel like the camera protects me,” he says, “but it’s an illusion.”

Of the five nominated documentary feature films this year, 5 Broken Cameras is the weakest selection.  5 Broken Cameras subject is a rehash of a familiar story, Jews and Palestinians. It lacks

the clever concept of the rediscovery of a lost rock and roller which is the warm fuzzy nominee. The other films cry out “Issue” from the bungled attempts of the government to effectively and compassionately deal with the AIDS epidemic, to the terrible inequalities in dealing with sexual harassment in the military. 5 Broken Cameras takes on an all too familiar story of West Bank non-Jewish Israelis protesting in various ways about Israel’s attempt to live peacefully with a neighbor whose leaders have promised to destroy it. So Israel is building a wall.  What’s a country to do?  Burnat’s neighbors collaborate with terrorists who keep trying to kill Israelis with random missiles, bombs and other weapons. The very young Israeli soldiers act like any force asked to maintain order when they are attacked or threatened. They use their weapons to protect themselves. 

5 Broken Cameras could have been documenting, for example, the Civil Rights struggle in the American South during the 1960s or the protests in Chicago in 1968, during the Democratic convention. Yes, it is all terrible. Yes, people are hurt, injured and other bad things happen. The filmmakers never show any effort on the part of West Bank citizens to talk with the Israeli government or people. None of Burnat’s neighbors are trying to find ways to bring about a peaceful resolution.  This film is about continuous civil unrest that has been going on for a lifetime.  It is predictable, it is tragic and, at times, it is very moving. Yet the struggle continues since the parties seem unwilling to talk to each other to find a way to make peace. The filmmakers also use footage from other peoples’ cameras covering the violence, uncredited either in the official credits of the film or on screen when during sequences. This is propaganda at its best or to be nice, advocacy journalism. 

Filmmakers documenting wars and struggles can get hurt, emotionally, physically. In some cases conflicts they become targets and the broken cameras are a brilliant metaphor for this struggle. It is a shame that the film is so one sided. While deeply personal and moving, it could have stronger if it would have helped the parties see the benefits of working for peace or the fruitlessness of this approach.  An alternative perspective would have been helpful to include.  

THE FILMMAKERS

Co-directors Guy David and Emad Burnat
Co-directors Guy David and Emad Burnat

A lifelong inhabitant of the central West Bank village of Bil’in, Emad Burnat is a freelance cameraman and photographer with experience filming for Al-Jazeera and Palestinian television. He has contributed to several documentaries, including Bil’in My Love, Palestine Kids, Open Close, and Interrupted Streams.

Born in Jaffa, Guy Davidi is a documentary filmmaker and teacher who has been directing, editing, and shooting films since the age of 16. His short documentaries include In Working Progress, Keywords, and Women Defying Barriers; his first feature film, Interrupted Streams, premiered in 2010 at the Jerusalem Film Festival.

Credits:
Director:  Guy David and Emad Burnat
Producers:  Emad Burnat, Christine Camdessus, Guy David
Screenplay: Guy David and Emad Burnat
Camera:  Emad Burnat  
Additional Cinematography: Guy David
Sound Design:  
Music:  Le Trio Joubran
Editor:  Guy Davidi, Veronique Lagoarde-Segot  
Production Companies:  Burnat Films, DVD Films, Alegría Productions
Distribution: Kino Lorber 

Searching for Sugar Man directed by Malik Bendejelloul
Academy Award Nominated Documentary Feature

Searching for Sugar Man tells story of Rodriguez, a 1970s singer/songwriter who never made “star.”  Discovered in a Detroit bar in the late 1960s by two celebrated producers struck by his soulful melodies and prophetic lyrics, he recorded an album which they believed would secure his reputation as the greatest recording artist of his generation. The album bombed and the singer disappeared into obscurity amid rumors of a gruesome on-stage suicide. But a bootleg recording found its way into apartheid South Africa and, over the next two decades, he became a phenomenon there. The film follows the story of two South African fans who set out to find out what really happened to their hero. Their investigation leads them to a story which illustrates why documentaries are far more interesting than fiction films.   

This film, which I first saw projected, puzzles me. I have since watched it again on DVD.  Despite its numerous awards and critical acclaim, with more “wins” or nominations than any of the other documentary features, I never was able to get emotionally engaged with Mr. Rodriguez or the individuals searching for him.  In scene after scene we hear from his fans how his music inspired them, moved them and particularly how his music worked for those people in South Africa when the country was dealing with apartheid. While I did not make the connection, it is evident that the audience and the characters in the film do. They are moved by the story, the music and the lyrics.

"Searching for Sugar Man" Director Malik Bendjelloul at SXSW Festival
(March 2012 - Michael Buckner/Getty Images North America) Director Malik Bendjelloul at SXSW Festival

I am baffled by Rodriguez. We almost never see him in close up. We rarely see his eyes or in to his soul. They are hidden by sunglasses. Who is this man? Why do people embrace him?  Oddly, while I am watching this film for the first time, I asked a friend sitting next to me, “Is this for real?” “Is this a put on?”  Like the film Exit Through the Gift Shop I had the feeling that I was part of an elaborate fictional film.  After the screening, I look on the Internet to see if Rodriguez exists.  I find the Rodriguez website but I am still not convinced. I did not find the 1969 album Cold Fact, but I do find references to it from the 1990s. 

After the second viewing, I relented a bit. I find that it is a moving story. Nicely edited and the shooting while still distant, works.  It does lend an air of mystery to the film. While the content is not earth shattering we can admire this work.  The music and the lyrics have power and it is clear that audiences find the film entertaining. I continue to be torn between the five films. So my advice is to screen themand make up your own mind.

Trailer:http://www.sonyclassics.com/searchingforsugarman/

Credits:
Director, Screenwriter: Malik Bendejelloul
Producers:  Malik Bendejelloul, Simon Chinn
Executive Producers:  John Battsek
Camera:  Camilla Skagerströn
Sound: no credit  
Original Music: Rodriguez
Editor:   Malik Bendejelloul
Production Companies:  Red Box Films, Passion Pictures, Canfield Pictures (In association with)
Distribution (US): Sony
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WGA Documentary Award Nominations

DOCUMENTARY SCREENPLAY
The Central Park Five, Written by Sarah Burns and David McMahon and Ken Burns; Sundance Selects
The Invisible War, Written by Kirby Dick; Cinedigm Entertainment Group
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, Written by Alex Gibney; HBO Documentary Films
Searching for Sugar Man, Written by Malik Bendjelloul; Sony Pictures Classics
We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists, Written by Brian Knappenberger; Cinetic Media
West of Memphis, Written by Amy Berg & Billy McMillin; Sony Pictures Classics

DOCUMENTARY – CURRENT EVENTS
The Anthrax Files(Frontline), Written by Michael Kirk; PBS
A Perfect Terrorist(Frontline); Written by Thomas Jennings; PBS
Lost in Detention(Frontline), Written by Rick Young; PBS
Money, Power and Wall Street: Episode One(Frontline), Written by Martin Smith and Marcela Gaviria; PBS
Money, Power and Wall Street: Episode Three(Frontline), Written by Michael Kirk & Mike Wiser; PBS
Money, Power and Wall Street: Episode Four(Frontline), Written by Marcela Gaviria and Martin Smith; PBS

DOCUMENTARY – OTHER THAN CURRENT EVENTS
The Amish(American Experience), Written by David Belton; PBS
Clinton(American Experience), Written by Barak Goodman; PBS
Death and the Civil War(American Experience), Written by Ric Burns; PBS
The Fabric of the Cosmos: The Illusion of Time(Nova), Telescript by Randall MacLowry, Story by Joseph McMaster and Randall MacLowry; PBS
The Fabric of the Cosmos: Quantum Leap(Nova), Telescript by Josh Rosen and Julia Cort, Story by Joseph McMaster and Josh Rosen; PBS
Johnny Carson: King of Late Night(American Masters), Written by Peter T. Jones; PBS
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Credits: Editing by Jessica Just for SydneysBuzz
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Block Doc Workshops in Los Angeles February 2013  IDA Doc U

The International Documentary Association will be hosting Documentary Funding and Documentary Tune-Up Workshops with Block on February 9/10.  http://www.documentary.org/news/february-documentary-producing-workshops-mitchell-block

MBD New About Block

Mitchell Block specializes in conceiving, producing, marketing & distributing independent features & consulting. He is an expert in placing both completed works into distribution & working with producers to make projects fundable. He conducts regular workshops in film producing in Los Angeles and most recently in Maine, Russia and in Myanmar (Burma).

Poster Girl, produced by Block was nominated for a Documentary Academy Award and selected by the IDA as the Best Doc Short 2011. It was also nominated for two Emmy Awards and aired on HBO. He is an executive producer of the Emmy Award-winning PBS series Carrier, a 10-hour series that he conceived & co-created. Block is a graduate of Tisch School and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business. He is a member of Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, the Television Academy, a founding member of BAFTA-LA and has been teaching at USC School of Cinematic Arts since 1979. Currently Block teaches a required class in the USC Peter Stark Producing Program.

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This article is related to: Sundance Film Festival, Mitch Direct on Docs, Mitchell Block, The Invisible War

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