Agnes Varda

Varda’s passing has been well noted already and I just want to add that her Les Glaneurs, The Gleaners and I, is one of my all-time favorite films. The gathering of left-overs and the parallels with creative endeavor, with bricolage in general and editing as well, resonates through that film beautifully, as do her reflections on mortality. She uses a hand-held digital camera to return to the era of oil painting and original work of art with its unique aura, a very clever way of undermining the magic and miracles wrought by technology which she clearly appreciates but insists on placing in a larger perspective. Varda was an original and she is missed.


3rd Edition is Published

It’s here: The 3rd edition of Introduction to Documentary, first published in 2001.  Lots of updates and photos from new and older films, but the biggest changes is a brand new chapter, “I Want to Make a Documentary: How Do I Get Started?”  It covers key aspects of preproduction from the pov of what funders tend to look for and what a filmmaker needs to convey.

The book size is a bit larger and that makes for a really nice lay out of tables and photos.

The Cover

Modern Wonders and Distant Talks

Do you ever wonder where “here” is when we say an online talk is “here”? I gave a talk in Zuruch at Do It Again, a terrific conference on Reenactment in Documentary and that was “there,” in Zurich, but now it’s “here,” but it didn’t happen “here” and yet it does. Maybe that counts as a reenactment or at least as a repetition, but it’s not purely a repetition since it’s from a singular point of view, not a filmmaker’s, maybe, but the Conference’s, which chose where to place the cameras, what lenses to use, and when to cut, and so on so that this is in a way a reenacting of a talk from a distinct pov, even it is close to the zero degree style made famous by our French theorist friends.

The link to it is here: The website for the conference is and the direct link to my talk is

You may enjoy the linkage in the talk between thumb sucking and reenactments.

Science, Fraud and Documentary

Tribeca film fest plans to show an anti-science, fact-denying hoax that actually costs lives. VAXXED, akin to Dinesh DeSousa’s OBAMA 2016, denies scientific evidence, established fact, makes fraudulent claims, and is utterly indifferent to the truth. It claims vaccines cause autism and the Festival wants us to think this is a “controversy” rather than a fraud. The Festival has it on its program.
Maybe the FACT of climate warming is a controversy in need of a good forum like Tribeca when the issue is what to do about it.
What to do about this film is to protest, boycott, and warn others. Children’s lives are at stake. The unvaccinated can and do die of preventable diseases and they allow those diseases to persist and spread. The film’s claims are wrong. It’s main “champion” is a doctor who lost his license for his failure to abide by the scientific method and promoted bogus research as true. Tribeca’s failed to do the least bit of fact-checking and seems eager only to draw a crowd, no matter how misguided the message.
This Festival is heading for the recycling center, which is where the wayward and deluded go now that, in this election year, all the handbaskets to hell are overflowing.
Let Tribeca know those of us in documentary film study do NOT support hoaxes, lies and frauds masquerading as “controversy” and exploiting documentary conventions to do it.

2 Knock Out Films

So what are they?  Where to Invade Next and Room.  One doc one fiction and both tremendous.

Michael Moore has taken his boat ride to Cuba with 9/11 rescuers who couldn’t get adequate medical care in their own country and find what they need in Cuba, from Sicko, and made that gesture into a film. Did you know Italian workers can get 8 weeks of paid vacation time/year, 5 months of maternity leave, paid, and a 13th month of salary routinely? Did you know that half of the members of corporate Boards of Directors have to come from the workers in Germany? Or that Finland is far ahead of the U.S. in achieving educational goals by spending less time in school, requiring little or no homework, having no standardized testing, and relying on innate curiosity to drive students to learn?

How about Norway’s prisons, even for murderers, where prisoners have apartments with their own keys and freedom of movement as they learn how to become responsible member of society? Or Slovenia’s free university education for anyone, including foreign students? (It’s just one of dozens of countries to do so.) Or the gourmet meals Moore enjoyed in France, 3 or 4 courses, with scallop appetizers and fantastic main courses, followed by cheese and desert, not at a restaurant, but at a middle school? Or the Constitutional right to equity that women enjoy in Tunisia but not in the U.S.?

The list goes on. Moore has gone to numerous countries, not to expose their corruption and failures but what they do right. And they do a lot that we don’t even know about, even though in many cases, the idea first came from here. Penchants for insularity and attitudes of superiority have cost us dearly. Presidential candidates lie about our greatness when most of the industrial world, and beyond, is doing better than we are with such basic issues as health, education and welfare. The film is a genuine eye opener and could easily form the platform base for Hillary or Bernie, if they were brave enough to say we can actually learn from people different from ourselves.

Room is a different kettle of fish. A young woman and her five year old son have been confined to a single room for seven years when the film begins. We learn she’s been abducted and help captive, that her son has no clue what the rest of the world is like. It is, in fact, only the pretend world he sees on TV, and the view from the too high to reach skylight is like the Reality that Plato’s prisoners fail to turn around to see.  But they are not duped by illusions; they are held captive by a pervert.

The film’s power resides in 1) the fact that much of it is told from the pov of the five year old boy who is just beginning to grasp what lies beyond his room, 2) the incredible performance by Brie Larson as the fiercely protective mother of a son whose father is not to be spoken of, trusted, or believed for a moment, and 3) from the totally not fairy tale aftermath to freedom when Joy and Jack, the captives, must contend with friends and family and media that cannot comprehend or accept what these two brave souls have gone through. The film packs a visceral punch far beyond that of most films. It hits at our wounds from childhood and how we are all trapped inside the rooms and stories we are given and create. It forces us to ask how hard are we willing to struggle to escape, what price we are willing to pay, with what risk to body and soul? It’s no wonder Larson is up for an Oscar and very likely to win, but even more, this is a film up for consideration as one of the most painful, probing, disturbing, and emotionally powerful films of recent years.  It operates in a zone far beyond the formulaic dimensions of the otherwise truly best films of the year, Spotlight,  The Big Short and Revenant. And, perhaps because of that, it’s not an Oscar nominee, but it is one  of the most memorable films I’ve seen in quite some time.

The Big Short: Documentary Fiction

The Big Short is as close to a documentary as a mainstream fiction film can be. We know how feature films often borrow documentary devices to add a touch of realism to their appeal. Dr. Strangelove used hand held cameras for the scenes when the military tries to retake the army base that Jack the Ripper has cordoned off so he can protect his precious bodily fluids from Soviet poisoning, for example, but seldom has an entire fiction film relied so heavily on the documentary tradition to tell its story. Not only is The Big Short based on real people and real events, as historical narratives often are, it utilizes the direct to camera voice of authority as Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), one of the instigators of the strategy at the heart of the film of betting against the ever-rising price of bundled mortgages, confides to us about what he and others are up to. It utilizes cut aways to real life people who were part and parcel of the debacle from Hank Paulsen, intoning how solid it all is as it begins to crumble, to Lance Armstrong, as a metaphorical example of lying and deception at work in every field of American life. It turns to tongue in cheek “experts” to explain the exotic CDOs and other derivates that fueled the bubble, experts like Anthony Bourdain who compares the bundling of mortgages into various tranches to making a fish stew from left overs.
The film has plenty of laughs, painful though they are, when we see, for example, the burly tattooed husband who hangs on to his rented house in an abandoned Florida development, hoping the landlord will finally pay the mortgage, only to have the two Wall Street investigators, working for the fantastic Steve Carell, jump away from a snapping alligator (metaphor anyone?), and for the tattooed guy to be in the background of a much later shot packing up and moving out, done in by other people’s greed.
Our government, from President Obama on down–and it’s way way down once we get to the financial team that ignored,stone walled,and ultimately bailed out the corrupt bad guys who took as much as they could as dishonestly as they could–never looked so depraved and bereft of either awareness of the consequences of short term actions or of basic decency. Greed is one of the seven deadly sins and it has an amazing corrosive effect on the souls of those who pursue it. The Greed of Wall Street displays epic proportions, with the aid of a financial team in Washington under Bush and Obama, pushing to make banking as much a wild west game show as any other “free and open” market. The men, and they are all men, who stand up against it and bet against it, profiting from the folly no one else could see, are our heroes here. Not particularly ethical or principled heroes but a darn sight more heroic in their determination to call a bubble a bubble than the Big Boy Pied Pipers and the legion of Wall Street lemmings who followed them over the cliff. As Vennett tells us at the end, 100s went to jail, major penalties were imposed–oops, no; just kidding! He had it right. It could all happen again and neither Wall Street or our government seems to give a good gosh darn.

IDFA 2014

IDFA is the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam that is probably the biggest and most important doc fest of the year with over 300 films, a market of films for sale, web based docs on view and many side events.
This year was distinguised by a number of very intense, powerful films involving war and trauma from Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow up to The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence, about an eye doctor who confronts former death squad leaders and their families at no small amount of rish to himself, Drone, on the US drone war and a “pilot” who discusses it and the trauma he’s suffered, and Of Men and War, an amazingly personal story of Iraqi vets working out their trauma in a unique program based in Napa Valley. Their tales of horrific events they witnessed or perpetrated is about as harrowing as anything imaginable and their guilt, shame, anger and profound desire to heal is breathtakingly intense. It’s one of the most powerful films I’ve ever seen; I had a chance to do a Q&A with the director after the screening and he spoke movingly of the relationships he built with the men and of their struggles to regain their souls and honor their families. He made a previous film, De Guerre Lasses (Living Afterwords: Words of Women) about women and war in Bosnia, and this one looks at men as casualties of war. No U.S. distribution yet but watch for it. It won the Festival Award for Best Feature Length Documentary and will no doubt win more awards in the days ahead.

The Q&A and Two New Films

Q&As are a film festival staple. For good reason. They convert a run of the mill screening into an event, something special and often festive. But do they tell us anything we wouldn’t be able to get from the film? The safe answer is It depends, but it’s more interesting to look at a couple of recent examples from the 2014 San Francisco International Film Festival.

    Child of God

is a feature directed by the ubiquitous James Franco from Cormac McCarthy’s distrubing book about a loner wild man in Tennessee who winds up cultivating a necrophiliac habit and a pile of bodies. The novel’s strength is in McCarthy’s amazing writing style. He is one of the great stylists of our time and, though this isn’t his best work, it is captivating for how he tells the morbid tale.
The film is another matter. Franco has a rather pedestrian but pretentious approach that never does find a visual equivalent for the writing style. It’s a good film but far from a great one.
We could get all this from the film itself. At the Q&A Franco was absent, itself perhaps a message about his over-extended attempt to do too many things too fast. But Scott Haze, the lead actor, who plays Lester Ballard, who, we might wonder, is or isn’t a child of god despite all his depravity, was. (IMDB, the website repository of film facts, tucks his acting credit under Franco’s and two others, perhaps based on pre-release information. Seeing him out of character was itself a relief since he inhabits the psyche of Ballard with haunting power. What he revealed, in addition to the many layers and months of preparation that he did, essentially on his own, was that Franco tends to a one take style, seldom repeating scenes, a trait that works to capture the emotional power of an actor like Hayes, but that also sacrifices some of the nuance and complexity that can come from revision, especially in terms of composition, mise en scene, lighting and so forth. An abundance of close ups of Hayes tends to erase some of the problem since Hayes is mesmerizing as Lester but a stream of close ups do not a great cinematic style make.
The other example was even more revealing.

    Stop the Pounding Heart

was a documentary by Italian filmmaker Roberto Minervini that focused on two south Texas families, one given to bull riding and the other to goat farming. Sara Carlson, the teen age daughter of the goat farmers, spends her days working on the farm and sometimes visiting Colby, the son of the bull riding family. Hints of potential romance hover in the air but seem very unlikely. (And aren’t realized.) From the film it would be easy to characterize the Carlsons as a family with a largely absent father (he’s seldom seen) who, when present, presides over literal-minded readings of the Bible, scolds Sara for not setting fence posts as well as he can, and supervises rifle practices, including Sara’s use of a semi-automatic rifle; a fundamentalist mother who gives compelling lectures to her kids about women’s place supporting her man and the courage it takes to make oneself subordinate; and a bevy of some dozen children most of whom get little screen time lest the film become a TV series. The sight of one boy riding his bike with a Confederate flag and of a burning cross somewhere in the Texas night adds the suggestion that the family is not just of a rural, funadmentalist stripe but racist to boot.
Then we met the family. (This filmmaker was also absent.) It became quickly clear that they were the redneck, Bible thumping stereotypes the film almost makes them to be. In fairness, the film has a deliberate, ethnographic quality to it and does not sensationalize what it observes patiently. Sara, who at one point says she does not want to get married and would just “take pictures of her sisters’ fat little babies,” tells us that she was repeating feelings she had had 4 yers before the filming happened. She had moved on. The mother and father made it clear they were university graduates, with a lot more perspective and savy than what we see in the film, that they consciously chose farm life and making artisanal cheeses over the urban scramble, that they home schooled the kids not to indoctrinate them (though that does seem a byproduct at least) but to enrich, teaching the, for example, Latin. They lives between two major cities, close to suburbs, go to farmer’s markets weekly and are not the isolated hillbillies the film might have us believe.
The Q&As, in other words, were revelatory. The trust the x family had in the filmmaker seemed a bit more misplaced and their lives quite a bit more complex after the Q&A than before. Franco’s future as a director seemed a bit less certain after than before. Audience questions helped make these insights possible, more than opening questions by festival programmers, in fact. They were good examples of what some serious questions and honest answers can teach us about the films we see.

Documentary Nomads

A fascinating program for documentary filmmakers has emerged in Europe. Called DocNomads it involves stays in three cities over the course of a year: Lisbon, Budapest and Brussels. Students work with resident instructors and master class guests in each location and make films in each city, and sometimes in the countryside as well. The students come from all over Europe and beyond. In Budapest Tamas Almasi heads the program and I recently visited there to offer a week long master class on selected issues and concepts in documentary. I had students from Ecuador, Belarus, Serbia, England, France, Italy, Russia, Hungary, the United States, and ten other countries, if not more. They come with filmmaking skills and an undergrad degree behind them and are ready for the new challenges the course offers. Language is one of them. The course is offered in English but in every location most of the students do not speak the local language. This makes their production work challenging but far from impossible. They are a resourceful, inventive group, among the best I’ve worked with, and the program is a brillaint model for how to think outside the somewhat zenophilic boundaries of much documentary production.

It’s a program that deserves emulation.

The Act of Killing

How we frame what we encounter matters enormously. Take documentary reenactments.  Reenactments say, in effect, the events being represented do not represent what the events for which they stand would represent.  They represent a retrospective attitude toward the original events, which may be that of a character or omniscient narrator. They always convey the perspective, or voice, of the filmmaker as well. Some reenactments remain disguised as representing contemporary events directly such as we find in Nanook of the North, Coal Face or Night Mail so that the irony may be lost, or, if discovered, treated as deception.  More usually, documentaries embed reenactments as acknowledged reconstructions (fictional representations) of historical but originally unfilmed events within a larger context of authentic representation. But this need not be the case, as The Act of Killing amply demonstrates.

In The Act of Killing, the mise en scène of historic but unfilmed events derives primarily from the film’s subjects—gangsters who formed, at the Indonesian government’s behest, death squads to capture and execute alleged Communists in 1965-66. The aging but unrepentant gangsters frankly recount their past exploits, demonstrate their grizzly methods, and reenact their actions through the filter of Hollywood film genres (most notably, western and gangster films). The reenactments take the form of stylized typifications. Various scenes make it clear that the government still honors and protects these men and the paramilitary group, Pancasila, to which they belong, allowing them to speak with complete impunity and minimal remorse. They may even still be doing what they did so long ago.

What is yet more unhinging for the viewer is the looming impression that a sharp distinction between reenactments and authentic documentary representation fails to materialize. The gangsters live out their own phantasmatic representations of their current state of mind, which Joshua Oppenheimer, the director, refuses to label either openly or with a wink. To what extent their speech and action in the present is another form of calculated performance becomes acutely undecidable. A lavish musical number amidst lush vegetation with dancing women surrounding and venerating the gangsters as though they were tropical deities is clearly their fantasy, but the TV talk show that praises their past exploits and celebrates the film they’re making (the one we see), and the principal gangster’s return to a place of execution to stumble and retch, as if unable to control his body’s revulsion as what he did, near the film’s conclusion, are less clearly so.  Is the TV talk show what Anwar and his buddies imagine such a show would be like or did Oppenheimer document an actual broadcast?[iii] Is the reenactment of a village massacre indeed too savage, as a government minister, who helps orchestrate it, states, or a prime example of the reason why the gangsters, and the government they serve, should be feared, as he then goes on to claim? For killers so self-aware of their image and the role of movies in shaping it, is a show of remorse near the film’s conclusion, even if somewhat genuine, not also a possible attempt to earn a little sympathy before the final fade to black? Does the fact that Anwar Congo retches but does not vomit suggest he is going through the motions of showing contrition or is it simply the best he can honestly do?

The film withholds the visible winks that would allow us to sort social from psychic reality. The killers reconstruct a past and live out a present that glorifies their crimes. The many government figures who appear in the film make it clear that these men continues to possess considerable use value for the Indonesian state. The current situation takes on the form of a phantasmatic nightmare of corruption and terror. By giving the gangsters such free reign and by depicting such a depraved social structure, the film withholds, as did, in another key, Luis Buñuel in Land without Bread, the independent, non-ironic perspective we anticipate and desire so that we may distinguish the phantasmatic from its surrounding reality.[iv]  Instead of gradually dissipating, the sense of confounding doubt that launches Man Bites Dog intensifies. The Act of Killing unhinges our grasp on social reality to a degree most films labeled mockumentary do not even begin to approximate. Like the son who withdraws at the sign of his mother’s stiffened body, do we recoil in horror at these men’s gruesome descriptions of mass murder, only to be told, by their nonchalant demeanor and boastful candor, that we ought not be afraid of our feelings of admiration and respect?

These encounters with irony involve paradox: things are and are not what they seem. Such paradox is less logical than existential. It depends on the lived relationship between filmmakers, social actors (or film subjects) and viewers; it occurs within a frame that one individual or entity, usually the filmmaker, controls. It invites the extension of belief or trust in what is said, even as it confounds us. Existential paradox involves a corporeal experience: it registers in our very bones.  Akin to what have come to be called “body genres” (pornography, horror, melodrama and the like) the ironic text, unlike the contemplative object of classic aesthetics, produces a visceral affect: it boggles the mind and unnerves the body; it confounds our sense of certainty.

This excerpt if from a forthcoming article, hence it is a bit in media res but still a fairly autonomous response to a most disturbing film.  It is definitely the most powerful film I’ve seen this year.

Note: I’ve deleted some footnotes but left a couple that clarify points in the review.

[iii] Possible winks include the presence of prosthetic heads on a table in front of the show’s hostess, presumably representing the killers’s victims, an audience composed primarily of Pancasila members, the use of English rather than Indonesian, which prevails in most of the scenes, and the completely uncritical veneration of these killers by the hostess.  It seems far too fantastic to be real, but, on the film’s website, Oppenheimer describes how the state television network learned of his production, arranged to produce the talk show and broadcast it nationally. It became another iteration of the narrative of terror and power that has supported the existing regime since 1965. “Production Notes,”  Accessed 8/8/2013.

[iv] In Moi, un Noir (1958), Jean Rouch invites a group of Nigerian friends to play out their own fantasies as movie stars—from Edward G. Robinson to Eddie Constantine, as they journey to Cote d’Ivoire in search of work. The blurring of fantasy and reality, though, is greatly attenuated, and interpreted, by Rouch’s voice-over commentary, a device Oppenheimer refuses to employ.