Academy's Rise of Non-Fiction Film: Golden Age of Documentary, Embracing Distractions, Oprah Wrong

Features
by Beth Hanna
October 27, 2011 7:20 AM
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Beth Hanna reports back on the Academy's "Rise of Non-Fiction Movies" panel, considers the Golden Age of focumentary film, embracing the distractions, and why Oprah gets it wrong:

"Bright spots" dominated the conversation on Wednesday evening at the Academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theater, where a panel of six documentary filmmakers sat down for the John Huston lecture, an upbeat and conscientiously positive discussion on the current state of non-fiction filmmaking. Moderated by R.J. Cutler (director of The September Issue), the panelists' credits included some of the most well-received documentaries over the past couple of years - and, understandably given the setting, documentaries that have made the shortlist or better in previous Oscar races. Involved in the discussion (and pictured) were Amir Bar-Lev (director of 2010's The Tillman Story and 2007's My Kid Could Paint That), Davis Guggenheim (director of 2006's Best Documentary Feature Oscar winner An Inconvenient Truth and 2010's Waiting for Superman), Ricki Stern (director of 2010's Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work and writer-producer-co-director of 2007's The Devil Came on Horseback), Molly Thompson (executive producer of 2010's Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer and 2010's Cave of Forgotten Dreams) and Lourdes Portillo (writer-producer-director of 2002's Señorita Extraviada and 1985's Las Madres - The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo).
 
Cutler began the night by heartily agreeing with Molly Thompson's insistence that the evening not be another grim look at the financial and logistical tribulations of documentary filmmaking, and by jovially if respectfully taking last year's Oscar presenter for Best Documentary Feature Oprah Winfrey to task:

"[At the 2011 Academy Awards], Oprah took to the stage of the Kodak theater and declared 'After 83 years of Oscars, here's one thing we know for sure: if we're feeling lousy, if the news is bad, and people are hurting, what do we do? We go to the movies and we escape. But I'm here to present the award to the best movie that did not let us escape. The outstanding documentary of the year.' By setting documentaries in opposition to the other films that were being honored at the Oscars, I genuinely think Oprah got it wrong. Documentaries aren't unlike real movies, documentaries ARE real movies.

Thompson on Hollywood
A driving topic of conversation for the evening was the highly relevant issue of venue: making a documentary specifically for a theatrical experience versus making a documentary for, as Davis Guggenheim ambivalently termed it, "a distracted environment." For anyone who has watched a film on a laptop, with an iPhone at hand and a Facebook or Twitter account tantalizingly minimized at the bottom of the computer screen, the concept of a "distracted environment" is readily familiar. Yet, as Amir Bar-Lev explained, attention dividers don't have to be negative: "I'm trying something slightly different right now, an experiment to embrace the distraction factor. I'm taking The Tillman Story and I'm turning it into a kind of non-linear web-based version of itself... I'm thinking that a lot of people do watch documentaries, and stop and Google, like, 'Wait did this really happen this way?' And I'm trying to make something that formally embraces that, so that people can navigate a way [through the footage presented], like an old 'Choose Your Own Adventure' kind of thing."

In that vein, differences between the larger-than-life cinema screen experience and the much smaller, computer or web-based screen experience were on the panelists' minds. Cutler noted that a film seems invariably to be a different version of itself when it's "40 feet high on a screen," and Bar-Lev seconded this notion by mentioning that his editing habits favor brisker shot duration when cutting a documentary on a computer: "I feel like every cut in every film I've ever done has been a few frames too short. And I always feel that when I see it on a big screen. Because you edit [a film] on these tiny little computer monitors, and your brain thinks that cuts need to happen more quickly than they actually do. On a big screen, people need time to scan - there's more to experience."

Indeed, the idea of big and small modes of documentary viewing related to one of the "bright spot" topics of the night, that we are currently in a "Golden Age of Documentary Filmmaking." The desire for and increased popularity of theatrical distribution for non-fiction films is on the rise, while accessibility to needed resources is facilitated and less daunting. Thompson, who has served as producer for projects by almost all of the featured panelists, noted, "There are plenty of ways to get films made now, and plenty of places to look for funding, and there are a lot of people who would like to be able to distribute films. I think there are a lot of wonderful films around these days, and it's an exciting time for me to be working with all these wonderful filmmakers."

Thompson on Hollywood
Other highlights from the conversation focused on the passionate, labor-of-love aspect of non-fiction filmmaking. Lourdes Portillo, an Oscar nominated director who immigrated to California from Mexico and is "a shining example of the power of the personal in documentary filmmaking" (as keynote speaker Rob Epstein, director of The Times of Harvey Milk, put it) gave an eloquent answer to Cutler asking about the process of deciding upon a documentary topic: "[For 1994's] The Devil Never Sleeps, about an incidence that happened in my family, I felt - it's strange to say it - but I felt possessed by an idea. I thought it was really important to tell the story as I was experiencing it. It possessed me and I didn't ever want to let it go. Possession is very special." Director Ricki Stern agreed with this idea and said that if "you can't not make the movie," then that's the subject you must go with. She went on to describe her first time discussing the possibility of Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work with Rivers, and that the iconic comedienne strategically positioned herself on a low stool, much like a child innocently looking up at Stern, and was very open and vulnerable about her life as a constant and consummate performer. At that moment, Stern knew that the project she had been wary of was a must-do.

When asked what their dream projects would be, if "obstacles were none," the panelists gave an array of answers that ranged from probing to poetic. Guggenheim said he would love to develop something based on the percolating phrase in his mind "Democracy is sick," while Bar-Lev again expressed his interest in our current environment of Facebook/Twitter distractions, saying he'd like to make "an essayist movie about narcissism." Portillo would work on "a film about dreams and memory," while Cutler confessed that his fantasy project would emulate Michael Apted's Up series: "I would like to follow a life over a lifetime. I envy those who've had lifelong projects."

The positive tenor of the evening was captured well by Guggenheim, who said that while most panels on documentary filmmaking wallow in the misery of getting a film made, this one was putting him in a great mood: "I'm so excited. I want to make a movie right now."

Catch the entire live-streamed conversation at Oscars.org.

[Photo: Greg Harbaugh / ©A.M.P.A.S.]

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