Directors

Out of the Woods: A Chat with Jessica Oreck of ‘The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga’

Jessica Oreck’s sublime, incisive cinema observes the tangled relationship between man and the rest of nature. Her latest work, The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga (T/F 2014), transports us to contemporary Eastern Europe, where, among other ideas, we reflect on our perceptions of the forest. Oreck nimbly weaves breathtaking, Super 16mm images of everyday life with hand-drawn animation depicting the famous Slavic fable of Baba Yaga, a forest-dwelling witch. Vanquishing is an extraordinary, alluring essay film from a distinct and gifted filmmaker. This is Oreck’s third nonfiction feature, following Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo (a 2009 film that considers Japan’s fascination with beetles) and Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys (a 2013 film that observes Finnish reindeer herders). Both are available on DVD.

Vanquishing screens at MoMA through Tuesday, 10/21. Showtimes and tickets are available here. In the coming months, the film will continue to travel across the world. Visit its website for dates. I interviewed Oreck via Skype before its theatrical premiere.

-Chris Boeckmann

T/F: You’ve documented nature in many different types of films, from more essayistic works like Vanquishing and Beetle Queen to purer observational films like Aatsinki to more straightforward short profiles of creatures. I’m wondering if you think there are any sorts of mistakes nature documentaries tend to make, any traps they can fall into.

Oreck: David Attenborough is a hero. I don’t think nature films get much better than that. But I do know that I’m not really interested in making nature films like that. I’ve said this before, you know, that it’s almost this very top-down view of nature. And I’m really so — this sounds so corny, but I believe very fully in animism. And that humans are by far not even close to the most advanced creatures on the planet. And we don’t deserve all the credit that we give ourselves. So that sometimes pisses me off.

I also get really angry about the sensationalist filmmaking that surrounds nature. Especially the sort of stuff that I love the most, like reptiles and herps and arthropods. Those animals — to filmmakers, they’re just like the scourge of the Earth. I could get really worked up about this, about how we make out these animals as if they are out to get us. As if they’re some viciously inclined creatures attacking humans out of pure spite. And arthropods? Everyone has this huge fear of bugs, spiders and scorpions, but most of them are totally harmless to humans. I mean, most insects and most arthropods have no direct bearing on human life whatsoever. But the ones that we focus on? It’s sensationalist media. It’s the same way that news picks up on these weird anomalies and treats them as if they’re the norm.

T/F: Vanquishing explores our strange, sometimes backwards relationship with nature. I’m going to go ahead and work under the assumption that its narrator’s ideas are identical to your own. Have you always had this perspective? Do you know where it comes from?

Oreck: That’s a tough question to answer. I do feel like I’ve had that perspective for a really long time. Since I was really little, I thought most animals were smarter than we would ever be, and that trees had spirits, and that everything else was alive and just living in a totally different time scale that we couldn’t understand. That we were just bumbling about and wrecking shit. But I don’t think I could pinpoint where that came from. It’s weird, I grew up in a Judeo-Christian home, that certainly wasn’t what my parents were teaching me. But it’s a long-held belief.

 

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Image from The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga

 

T/F: Before you shot this movie, I assume you had some sort of idea of its shape and its ideas. Did visiting Eastern Europe drastically change your original plan?

Oreck: When I started the project, it was very specifically about the cultural phenomenon of mushroom hunting in Eastern Europe. It was supposed to be a little more like Beetle Queen in that it was looking at this one little kernel of the culture. But right before I left, I had dinner with [the writer] Andrei Codrescu, who put me in touch with a bunch of his contemporaries in Romania. So the first few weeks we were in Romania, we ended up meeting with these poets. Wandering through the woods with them, mushroom collecting, cooking, eating, drinking — just discussing life and all sorts of facets of living in Eastern Europe. And I was inspired by these discussions. Specifically the way they talked about mushrooms as this sort of return to man’s more primordial state, this gesture of primordial man. On top of the fact that, for them, the reign of Ceau?escu was about going into the forest to express your opinions and be free. So it was these original conversations that shaped the rest of the film.

T/F: Was that your only trip to the region?

Oreck: So that was 2009. We shot in Romania and Hungary in 2009 for two months. And then I came back to New York and did lots and lots of research and started writing. Then we went back to Poland, Russia and Ukraine in 2010. By that time, the focus of the film had really shifted.

T/F: Vanquishing was shot on super-16mm film by cinematographer Sean Price Williams. How challenging was it to process the film?

Oreck: There was definitely a long period of waiting. The film was spread out all over the world. We had film developed overnight in Ukraine that we had to pick up at 4am right before our flight. We had to traffic film out of Russia into Finland because the Russians wouldn’t let us not x-ray it on the way back. We had to hire a driver to take it across the Finnish border. And then the film we had developed in Poland was lost in the mail. When it arrived at the lab in New York, it was like it had been drowned in the Great Flood. But somehow the film was intact and completely unharmed. I have no idea how because the boxes look like they survived a tsunami. It was all very stressful.

T/F: What was it like watching the film for first time? Was it a surprising experience?

Oreck: Watching Sean’s footage is always sort of the same for me. I trust him pretty implicitly with the camera, so a lot of times, I just let him do his thing. And obviously we don’t use tripods very often, so it’s not like I’m looking through the eyepiece and being like, “Yeah, this looks like a good shot.” Most of the time he’s just shooting, and I’m just recording sound and sort of pulling him in one direction or another. But I can’t see what he sees most of the time. And it never looks the way I imagine because his brain works in a different way. It’s always fun to see that footage the first time.

 

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Image from The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga

 

T/F: I’m wondering if you can talk about the ending shot in the film. Did you always want to end with a shot of kids?

Oreck: This is such a shitty thing to say, but I don’t really like kids. [Laughs] So I tend to avoid them in my editing. And Sean loves shooting kids, so there’s lots of beautiful footage of children, but I almost always avoided it. I remember when we shot that very last shot with the four kids. Sean and I were alone. Everyone else had moved on. And we were laughing so hard at how hard the kids were laughing at us. And it was just such a sweet moment. I remember that moment very clearly. But I don’t think I ever planned for it to be the end because I didn’t think I wanted any kids in the movie.

But for me, that’s the only way it could have ended. Because that is full of hope, it represents this possibility for the future, that we don’t poison our children with the same ideas we were poisoned with, you know? Because I think that belief that everything has a spirit and that humans aren’t the best creatures on Earth is something that’s sort of innate in children. And it’s only after we’ve taught them to think opposite that they lose that. And maybe I’m just incredibly immature at heart and that’s why I still believe it. But to me those kids still have the innocence of being connected to the world.

T/F: And you always knew you needed that feeling at the end?

Oreck: I don’t know if that was always the plan. This is the other thing about my work. My process is so intuitive that a lot of times I don’t remember working. So a lot of time I won’t remember writing or editing. It will just happen. And I tend to write when I’m slightly tipsy or edit in bed when I’m just waking up or about to fall asleep because I feel like it’s easier for me to turn off that self-critic a little bit. Things just flow easier and they work better because I’m not fighting against myself all the time. So that makes it especially hard to pinpoint when specific ideas formed.

T/F: I feel like there’s rhythm and intelligence to the cuts in this movie, but I can’t explain it using logic. How do you get to this place? Is it a painstaking process? Do you need to step away from the film at times? Or does this all happen quickly?

Oreck: I feel like there are two ways that I edit. One is that I’m miserable, and I fight myself. I fight every edit. I overanalyze, and I get nowhere. I’ll just work all day, and then the next day I’ll come back, and everything will just look like shit. And I will just delete it and start all over again. But then there are moments when everything is really easy, and those are the moments that I don’t remember. I know that I tend to listen to music on repeat, so I’ll listen to one song on loop for six hours straight. And I’ll just keep editing to that. That’s really scary, and thank goodness nobody is around when I’m editing. [Laughs] Because they’d be like, “Oh my God. Turn it off. What are you doing?”

T/F: Wait, the music from your film?

Oreck: No, no. I generally edit with Final Cut silenced. I don’t listen to sync sound or any of the music while I’m editing. I’ll listen to something else and edit. And then, once I feel like the edit has its own rhythm, I’ll add things like sync sound and other sounds and the music. Sometimes that’s not the case. Sometimes I’ll start with a piece of music. Like Beetle Queen for instance, the opening scene — with that, I started with a piece of music. But that rarely happens.

T/F: So you’ve been watching and processing your films just as images during the editing process?

Oreck: Yes, generally I do. What’s so nice about shooting on film is that I can do that, and I don’t have to take sound away. It makes it really easy because it’s totally separate. It’s funny. I record my own sound. I find that I’m almost never interested in the sound that a camera would want to capture. So Sean will be shooting something, and I’ll be somewhere else, completely doing my own thing with sound. I think it makes it richer. Maybe I’m just mistaken. There are only like three scenes of sync sound in that entire movie.

T/F: That’s obviously not the case with Aatsinki.

Oreck: Right, Aatsinki is probably 80 percent sync sound.

T/F: And with that film you’re also not listening to sound in the editing room?

Oreck: Yeah, pretty much. With Vanquishing, I listened to a lot of [composer] Paul Grimstad’s pop music. He has this one 50-minute track that I listened to straight on repeat. And Aatsinki, I listened to a lot of Cluster on repeat. That is super repetitive, I can’t imagine that I didn’t go a little bit insane making that movie. A lot of XTC too.

T/F: Do you think that the choice of editing room music influences the film?

Oreck: Yeah, I think so. I just started editing this short narrative film, and I almost exclusively listen to one Beach Boys track the entire time.

T/F: So that’s how the film is going to feel?

Oreck: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think it has anything to do with it. If you listen to the piece of music, you certainly won’t see that reflected in the piece. But I do think that having a piece of music on repeat — it’s more about giving me my own rhythm. Because I think it’s just enough engagement. My mind can’t ever be working on just one thing. It’s why I can’t learn unless I’m doodling. I can’t listen to somebody unless I’m doing something with my hands. I feel like listening to one song on repeat, it’s not invasive enough to distract me. But it’s just enough to turn one eye so that I’m not just arguing. So that I’m not just having this incessant banter going on in my head.

T/F: There’s this shot that’s really sticking with me. It’s midway through the movie. This young guy on a boat peers through binoculars. What is he looking at?

Oreck: He’s looking at us. I assume they were looking at us, that’s what we assumed when were were shooting it. We were just set up on the street there, and they were docked on the river. We turned the camera on them, and they turned the binoculars on us. That to me is such a great moment in the film. I just talked about this in my last Q&A. Someone asked — something about “documenting the other” and “otherness.”

It’s interesting because I find if I don’t do the intro and people don’t know I’m an American woman, I never get that question. I only ever get that question if I intro the film. It was the same with Aatsinki and Beetle Queen. If people knew I was an American woman, they would ask the question, and if I didn’t, they always assumed I was an old Japanese man or an old Finnish man or an old Russian man. It’s so weird I have to be male and old to have any sort of validity.

To me, that moment — yeah, we’re watching humans. But humans are watching everything, each other all the time. It becomes this hall of mirrors. Everyone is looking at everyone else. It doesn’t feel any more like looking at others than the way that we look at nature, for instance. Something outside of ourselves. I don’t know, I love that moment. It’s a potent moment.

T/F: Regarding audience response, I’ve been a little baffled by some friends’, as well as others’, responses. Some people seem sort of reluctant to discuss the movie because they don’t feel like they have a complete grasp of what you’ve created. I’m wondering if you could talk about this sort of desire to completely understand everything.

Oreck: I think it’s hilarious that humans are so intent on understanding everything. It all comes from this idea — from my deep belief that humans are bumbling along in the world. And almost all other beings on this planet have a better idea what is going on than we do. On a very basic level, I feel like humans are clueless. But obviously there are millions of people who would disagree with me, who think that humans are advanced and that we have all sorts of understandings. But I think we’re clueless on so many levels.

But with both this film and Beetle Queen, I put them in a foreign language because I want that atmosphere to be complete. I don’t want some American voice coming in and explaining something that has nothing to do with that American voice. It has to be in the language of the place. But I don’t want to have to tell people what to pay attention to. I want the film to be more like other art forms. In that …. you watch a Hollywood movie and you feel exactly what they want you to feel. Everything points you in one direction. It’s just really flat. But if you look at an incredible painting or if you walk over to an amazing piece of architecture or if you listen to an incredible piece of music, you’re having a different experience every time. And you get to pick out the pieces that mean something to you. When I listen to these songs on repeat, I will get stuck on a three-note loop. I will listen to the entire song just to hear those three notes that happen at the very end. You can sort of dive into little pieces, and that don’t think happen with film very often. But they happen with other art forms a lot. And so that’s more interesting to me. I like the idea that somebody could watch this film six, seven, eight times and always have a different experience and always notice something they didn’t notice before.

I just never want to tell my audience what to feel. I have ideas, and I want them thinking about ideas, but I don’t want to tell them which ideas are important and which ones are right and which ones are wrong. I don’t know, I’m just not interested in telling people about that. I just want to get them thinking. The films I like the most are the films that leave me asking questions. And the films that I can watch 5, 10, 15 times and still be blown away by their depth.

T/F: Are there a lot of those that you’ve seen?

Oreck: No, there aren’t. Specifically two come to mind. Tokyo Olympiad is a film that I could watch forever. And the Claire Denis film, Beau Travail. Those movies to me are just perfection. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen Beau Travail. Even talking about it, I’m tearing up. That movie, to me — I don’t know how you ever make a film that can do as much as that film does.

T/F: Did you first see that in a theater?

Oreck: Yeah, I think that was the first movie that Sean and I saw together in the theater. I cannot count how many times I’ve seen it. If it plays in a theater, I’ll still go see it.

 

Imagie from Beau Travail

Image from Beau Travail

 

T/F: You went from production of Vanquishing — a complicated film made with a crew — to production of Aatsinki — a simpler, observational movie recorded on your own. Was Aatsinki made in response to Vanquishing?

Oreck: They were definitely in response to one another. I got frustrated collaborating with Vanquishing. There were so many different people involved in that project. I couldn’t control the way they were affecting the way I was seeing the film. So Aatsinki was the perfect solution to that because that movie is such a pure distillation of my head in a way that none of my other films are. I think Beetle Queen and Vanquishing both represent ideas that are very true to the way I feel, but Aatsinki is the way that I see the world. Everything about that movie is me. Obviously Vanquishing and Beetle Queen are not that way because they’re Sean’s photography. And Sean shoots in a way that I would never shoot. And I appreciate that. That’s why I work with him. I think he’s incredibly talented. I think it makes the films more interesting, in terms of forcing me to work around the way that he shoots. But I’m also very proud of Aatsinki because it’s so true of the way I thought of the film from the moment I conceived of it.

 

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Image from Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys

 

T/F: Those are all my questions for the moment, thanks! Unless you’ve since pinpointed the moment where you started looking at nature with your current perspective?

Oreck: I remember very specifically being 8 years old and being in my mom’s bed with my sister. She was reading to us, and she said the word reincarnation. I asked her what that meant, and she explained it to me. And it was a weird sort of locking into place — because I had always believed that and never had a word for it. That happened again with Beetle Queen and with animism. That other people could possibly believe that things weren’t as — oh jeez. [Oreck pulls out binoculars]

T/F: You OK?

Oreck: Yeah I just noticed that this beautiful honey locust outside my window is really sick. I haven’t been here in months, but it’s doing really badly. It’s just in my view. It looks really bad. How did that happen? Who did that? Jesus Christ. Oh, poor guy. [Laughs] Sorry. It’s really upsetting to me.

T/F: So you look at the plant life out your window a lot?

Oreck: Oh yeah, oh yeah. If I didn’t have a view of trees, I think I would have left New York much longer ago. But I have two families of bluejays that live here. I have a bumblebee that returns every year to lay her eggs. You know, it’s a honey locust, so in the wintertime you get crowds of starlings and lots of pigeons, of course. Not so many pigeons on this block, actually, but there are pigeons across the street that I like to watch. They’re hilarious. I get to watch the leaves turn and fall. I get to watch the buds come out in the spring. That’s such a big deal for me. I’d like to have the view of a field or a forest or the ocean instead of a playground and trees. But I’ll take the trees.

Posted October 17, 2014

Two Earlier Works from ‘CITIZENFOUR’ Director Laura Poitras

This Sunday the exciting new doc CITIZENFOUR comes to the Blue Note in our special T/F event. This film reveals the behind-the-scenes story of Edward Snowden, who contacted filmmaker Laura Poitras with startling classified information about NSA surveillance, a decision with world-altering ramifications.

Before delving into this incredible tale, you may want to catch up with or revisit a couple on important precursors from the career of this important nonfiction auteur.

CITIZENFOUR can be seen as the final entry in a trilogy of films exploring foreign policy and security culture in a post-9/11 world. The first was My Country, My Country, which examined the difficulties of electoral politics in US Occupied Iraq. The second was The Oath (T/F 2010), available streaming below from Hulu. This work focuses on a pair of men with direct ties to Bin Laden, Yemeni cab driver Abu Jandal and his brother-in-law Salim Ahmed Hamdan. The former is a dominant and paradoxical screen presence, the latter a haunting felt absence.

Snowden was inspired to contact Poitras because of her New York Times Op-Doc The Program, a short constructed around an interview 32-year NSA veteran turned whistle-blower William Binney.

Posted October 15, 2014

Unto Others: A Conversation with Jesse Moss of ‘The Overnighters’

“Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.” (Proverbs 19:17)

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

As the Great Recession hit the United States, large oil fields were uncovered in North Dakota. Desperate, unemployed people from all over the world flooded the sparsely populated state. According to the Census Bureau, Williston, North Dakota jumped from 14,717 residents in 2010 to 20,850 in 2013. Many Williston natives resent these outsiders, who frequently live in crowded RV parks. Lutheran pastor Jay Reinke is not one of these angry residents. In the spirit of Jesus, Reinke opens up his Williston church to hundreds of men unable to find temporary housing. The community responds to Reinke’s charity with a suspicion that borders on hostility. In 2012, filmmaker Jesse Moss (Speedo: A Demolition Derby Love Story (T/F 2004)) moved into Reinke’s church and singlehandedly captured this riveting narrative. The result, The Overnighters (T/F 2014), is an empathetic yet scrupulous look at how challenging it is to be a person of principle.

The Overnighters is currently playing at the IFC Center in New York City. In the coming months, it will travel to other cities across the United States via Drafthouse Films. A day before its theatrical opening, I interviewed Moss via Skype.

-Chris Boeckmann

 

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Note: This interview is in two parts. The first is spoiler free, while the second contains explicit and implicit spoilers for The Overnighters. There will be a warning before the spoilers begin.

T/F: Throughout The Overnighters, we watch characters discover how challenging it is to follow rules. We see Christians wrestle with the commandments and teachings of the Bible. We hear journalists explain their code of ethics. I’m wondering if you follow any rules when you’re making a film.

JM: I’ve been thinking a lot about that. I really have just a couple. One basic rule is if somebody asks me to turn the camera off, I turn it off. I might sometimes argue or discuss that decision with them. But I wouldn’t film somebody against their will. There’s a second, really more foundational principle I’ve operated on as a documentary filmmaker. On my feature documentary work, it’s been important to make a movie I believe my subject would stand behind. And hopefully they would stand on stage with me and talk to people about it.

It’s a little hard to define what that rule means, but it’s about really honoring the relationship and the trust. And also respecting and understanding that the film might go to difficult, painful places, but, ultimately and hopefully, I hope that the person who trusts me enough to open their life to my film will make that journey with me when the film is complete. That’s what I hoped in this film. What I had to navigate with Jay was a situation in which I had to be truthful and honest with myself and to the story as an artist. I had to show some very difficult and painful moments that would be hard for my subjects to see. But I thought they had an important place in this film. Navigating to that point of mutual agreement about their inclusion took a lot of time. It was a long conversation over many months with Jay and with his family.

T/F: This second rule obviously applies to your protagonist, Jay. Does it apply to all characters in your film?

JM: Well, no. It would be hard to apply that rule to everybody, but I don’t ask the same from everybody. I don’t have the same relationship. This is a film largely about one man. One man’s struggle, one man’s journey. That’s the foundational relationship in the film. That’s where the real profound crux of this movie is. It’s not to say other people are not party to this relationship in important ways and their considerations aren’t also important to me.

The other challenging ethical scenario in this film had to with some very close relationships with other characters. Like Michael, for instance, who was in a moment of crisis, crying and trying to figure out whether he’ll go back to Georgia or stay in Williston. He asked me what I thought he should do, and I found that to be a very difficult predicament to be in. On one hand, we were very close. We are close. We shared this experience together. He didn’t have any friends in Williston. This is somebody I loaned $40 to. We had meals together. We talked. It was not just a relationship that ended when the camera was turned off. Michael asked me, and I thought, “Jeez, this is a hard one. This is one of the most momentous decisions in this man’s life. We’re close, and now he wants my advice.”

Which is to say that documentary filmmaking — it’s not an abstract, clinical exercise. The camera is present, but it’s about human relationships. These friendships get formed. These are friendships, and it’s not wrong to talk about it. And yet I serve the master of my art. And I serve the film. And I serve the truth. These are things I have to consider. And sometimes those interests align with the interests of your subjects. But there are moments when those interests seem to diverge.

 

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T/F: This is a film driven by observational material, but there are moments where Jay contextualizes scenes in voiceover. Can you talk about the decision to use that voiceover? And where did that audio come from?

JM: I really wanted to make an observational — observational is kind of a strange term, isn’t it? Because it’s much more subjective than observational. You’re really not just observing. You’re constantly interacting with your subjects. I guess the term I use — I’ve sort of moved away from cinéma vérité, but I have yet to land on a term that feels right. I don’t know from your academic/festival/clinical perspective what term is appropriate. But we can say observational.
This project, The Overnighters, it was really an intent to go back to the kind of blissful ignorance of Speedo, to make a movie with a kind of freedom and with an ambition to make cinéma vérité. To capture moments as they happen — dramatic moments, large and small — with Jay and these men that I met. So I was always questioning my decision to do contextualizing interviews. But I found them useful for a number of reasons.

For one, they were kind of a therapeutic experience for Jay and myself and our relationship and a chance to debrief and decompress from the intensity of these moments. We would go into his office. The conversations had a pastoral, confessional quality. This is the office where Jay took confession from men. Some of those moments I filmed and witnessed. And then we would go into his office, and we would talk. And sometimes I would film, and sometimes I wouldn’t. In a way, that’s how I became Jay’s pastor. I became his confessor. And that relationship he had with me and with the camera accounts for the nature of the great trust in this film. So Jay and I would talk.

In the edit, at one point I had this version of the film that was cluttered with exposition and interior monologue from these interviews woven throughout. And it was totally getting in the way of whatever the story was, which I couldn’t really see. I kind of weeded it all out. I cleared brush away, as George W. Bush would say. I actually made a version where I stripped it all away. It was pure verite. And then I had to look at it, and it didn’t work. I found that we were really keeping the audience at a distance with that version, so we had to work back. Jay was the best person to contextualize Williston, what was happening with the church and the program.

Those were some of the most laborious, difficult challenges in the edit. how to contextualize the world and how to bring to life Jay’s internal struggle. I think if you pulled it out and dissected it, there’s really not a hell of a lot of interview used in the film. But what is there, I can tell you, as you’d imagine, was very, very carefully, precisely considered and the result of painful trial and error. I struggle with that as a filmmaker because I was still holding onto some purer notion. Because I look at the world around me. Does the film need it? What do I want? What does the audience need? And it’s so important to get the audience situated in this world. I didn’t want to rely on interviews with characters from outside.

I knew what the strength of this story was, and I wanted to play to it. Which is that Jay is this incredible protagonist living out this drama in front of us. And I don’t need an interview with the mayor to tell me what’s happening in Williston. I want to get that understanding organically through scenes, through fragments. Through what is said and not said, what is seen and not said. I brought in my editor Jeff Gilbert. I love that Jeff has a foot in fiction, in screenwriting. How would a dramatist, how would a screenwriter think about the information in this scene and the dramatic conceit? We would just apply a sort of dramatic rigor to the unfolding of the story. I don’t mean to imply manipulation. I think we were really true to the chronology of events. With regards to the storytelling, we thought very carefully about how information was conveyed about the arc of stories and the emotional journeys of the characters and the audience in this film.

T/F: How often did you feel that Jay was performing for your camera?

JM: Jay is always performing. And I think it’s the responsibility of the director to recognize the levels of performance, whether we’re talking about fiction or documentary. Sometimes it’s harder to recognize them in the moment, and they become clearer in the edit. And you sift through them. Many people, not just Jay, who are comfortable, natural screen performers are always conscious of the camera and like the camera. Often the best documentary subjects are in their heart performers, whether or not the camera is present. And I think the camera often does gravitate to those people naturally.

Jay is a pastor. He’s used to holding the public’s attention. He performs. And he likes attention, and he has charisma. He employs his skills successfully. It’s the same skill set he directs towards his congregation. He’s a very smart, charismatic, confident, kind of in-the-moment, emotionally accessible person. And I recognize those qualities. The camera recognizes those qualities. I’m drawn to them. I’m drawn to his complexities, his layers, his layers of performance. Jay cried crocodile tears many times through this film, and I thought, “I don’t believe you.” But there were moments where I truly believed him. And I truly felt his pain. And I thought I have to take these moments judiciously in this film because I want to be sure that the audience is with him when I want them to be with him. It’s interesting when you’re aware of the fact that a subject has levels of layers, and you might want to drive the audience’s attention to those things.

 

Spoiler warning: The rest of this interview contains spoilers for the film. We strongly recommend stopping here until you’ve seen The Overnighters. 

 

T/F: After the Williston Herald publishes the sex offender list, we witness a fascinating discussion between Jay and the editor about that decision. There’s a really interesting parallel between the editor’s words and the decision you ultimately make in the final ten minutes.

JM: I was always struck by the role the paper played in this story. The fact that Williston is still a community where a print paper matters is really anachronistic but really fascinating to me and a great opportunity to really show something. The paper was Jay’s antagonist. But the problem was that the paper was really an embodiment of a few different things. It’s what the headlines said, it’s what the reporter says who chases him down the street, and it’s what the editor says. So it’s kind of fragmented into these component parts. While I always knew it was important as an antagonist facing Jay and inflaming the fears of the community, it took until very late in the edit to really draw it out in a sharp way that was meaningful.

In fact, that scene with the editor, which is actually so important, was not in the film until really late in the edit. And I don’t know why not because I always thought it was a really interesting conversation. I mean, the editor has a point, and he lays it out. He feels like it’s his responsibility to publish all these names. In the name of protecting these children, he’s willing to sacrifice one maybe good man. That’s basically what he says, and that’s a reasonable position I think most people would share.

I think the paper mirrors my own position to some degree, which is one of scrutiny. That reporter who chases him down the street strikes me on one hand as extremely aggressive. On the other hand, that’s what reporters do. He’s chasing the story. He’s probably being a good reporter. Maybe not the way that I would do it. It’s funny, people would sometimes watch the fundraising trailer and think that was me, and I’d say, “No, it’s the reporter for the Williston Herald!” But it’s a bit like me. I’m chasing Jay around asking difficult questions, too. So who am I to harshly judge the Williston Herald? The ethical questions they face mirror my own.

You know, I’m really excited that the Williston Herald may work with us to have a public screening in Williston, and we’ll have a public forum. Tim League at Drafthouse is really excited about this. And we’re going to invite the community to come. And I think it’ll be fantastic. There might be fireworks, and I welcome it. I just think it’ll be such an interesting conversation because I think the fact is that there’s not one right answer. That’s what Jay and what this film is dealing with.

T/F: So did you spend a lot of time with the paper?

JM: I actually went out for pizza with the reporter. He was rotated into Williston and was rotated out pretty quickly. The Williston Herald is owned by a bigger chain of papers, so some reporters just come for a little while. But we actually went out for pizza, and in a way, I could relate to him. He was an outsider journalist like me. I wasn’t his adversary. And actually David Rupkalvis, the editor, was really gracious and let me film the printing presses. So I didn’t consider myself an adversary of the paper, but I think Jay was an adversary of the paper, so that’s how they’re presented. There was a perverse irony that the paper that was out to get Jay was also delivered by his children to his neighbors’ doorsteps.

 

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T/F: I’m wondering if you can discuss the decision to end the film where you end it. I’ve heard many documentary filmmakers say they knew in the moment that they were shooting the final image. Did that happen to you?

JM: The shot of Jay that ends the film, that wasn’t literally the last shot that I shot, but when I shot it, I knew it would be the last shot of the film. Look, it’s a little bit on-the-nose, but Jay is at a crossroads in life. And I did face this choice of following Jay through this new turbulent phase of his life or leaving him at the crossroads. But because that’s the place he meets these men, it felt fitting that he be left in their shoes. And that we the audience be faced with the choice that Jay faces when he sees them for the first time. How do I accept this man and his failings and his humanness? How do I judge him? Do I judge him? And I think that it accounts for the questions that people have leaving the film, that they wrestle with, that I could in a way never resolve fully about Jay’s actions. His goodness and his badness. So that shot, I knew it.

There was a moment once when Jay was telling me on the phone that an overnighter had put him up and that he was sleeping on the floor in a hotel room. I thought, “My God, that’s a reversal of fortune.” You wouldn’t write it because you’d be laughed out of the room. I thought that would be a fantastic ending. But I was done. I knew I had that ending, that shot of Jay alone. Which was an accident. It wasn’t like I said, “Jay, let’s go out to the old Lutheran Church on the side of the road outside of Williston, and you can wander off into the distance.” We were actually driving back. Jay was getting a haircut. Like every good moment in this movie, it’s just serendipitous luck. I was up on the roof of the car shooting this Lutheran church, and in the background was this drilling rig. It was kind of an interesting composition, which unfortunately I couldn’t have gotten without a crane. But then I noticed out of the corner of my eye that Jay had wandered off. And I just panned the camera over, and I was like, “Please don’t move.” And the shot just holds, and he’s just standing there. And the road stretches out to infinity, and I thought, “that’s it. That’s where this movie ends.”

T/F: You don’t think there’s any chance Jay knew he was helping you out in that moment?

JM: I don’t think so. But Jay was also acutely aware of the camera often. There was an interesting thing that happened relatively far into production where we’re shooting with Jay. It’s single camera coverage, there’s no crew, right? I’m shooting shot reverse shot, dirty shot, dirty overs, medium shots — I’m getting all the camera coverage I think I need to cut the scene of this 45-minute conversation between Jay and Alan. I thought it would be two minutes in the movie. What would happen is that I’d be on Alan, and he’d be in this conversation, in dialogue, and Jay would wait for the camera to swing back to him before continuing to speak. He’d wait for the camera to be on him to commence his dialogue. It’s rare to find that in a documentary subject. And it was a little uncomfortable to recognize it in a way. But I also think, “yeah, why not be considerate?” Maybe because I spent so much damn time filming. Of course he understood that. And Jay would tell me things were happening in his life. Many times, documentary subjects don’t think about you, they don’t think about telling you. But Jay was so good at flight traffic control, he had so many moving parts in his life, so he just folded me into that program. And he would tell me things were happening. He’d text me. It was great. I was spoiled.

T/F: I’m not sure how comfortable you are discussing this, but I’m wondering if we can dive into the film’s final reveal.

JM: What was clear to me from the beginning about Jay was that the program and his actions were in large part an expression of his faith, of Christian charity, to love thy neighbor. This is what it meant for him to be a good Christian. But they were also coming from a deep and personal place in his heart, and that was a kind of mystery to me. Jay hinted at it in some ways when he talked about himself. He alluded to his past, that he wasn’t perfect. I considered if this mystery of motivation might never be revealed to me, if it was only that he wanted me to know that he felt a true identification with men who had burdens and stigma, who didn’t feel like they belonged in the community. So I think what that revelation signifies for me is an unlocking of that mystery of motivation, and it explains to some degree that superhuman compassion that he shows. He identifies with them on a very profound level. And his place in the community as an outsider comes from a real place.

T/F: Can you talk about the decisions you made when Jay revealed this information in the dining area?

JM: Jay didn’t intend to make a confession to his wife in a public place. I was there as I was for so many intimate moments at that time in his life. No one asked me to turn the camera off. I think they were very focused on their conversation. Of course it was very painful to be present for it. I know from experience that the moments I feel compelled to question my own presence as a filmmaker are the most powerful moments. They’re in for that reason. It wasn’t immediately apparent to me that this belonged in the film. I had to think carefully about what its place in the film was, if that was ok. I believe they belong in the film. Jay had to think carefully about it as well.

It was an interesting position to be in that scene and, first of all, to find yourself present in this moment in this story you’re telling. And then you have to think clinically as a filmmaker and camera operator. “OK. I could get coverage I think. Or do I stay in a medium two-shot the whole time? How close do I get? Or how far away do I get? What are the aesthetic considerations here? The ethical considerations?” This is a film that was shot close. This conversation I chose to shoot close.

What people first respond to is how intimate the scene is, how close the camera is. And in fact, whether they acknowledge it consciously or not, there’s a series of shots, angles, close-ups, reaction shots. It’s the kind of coverage you might more commonly find in a fiction film where you have the luxury of time and actors. People sometimes don’t believe that’s a real scene, like I somehow reenacted it or staged it. I shot that scene no different than any other scene I shot in the film. But I think it’s fair to say, when confronted with such a scene, what is the right position to take? When is the right time to turn the camera off? To turn it away? When is the right time to keep the camera rolling? You know what, I can only answer that question for myself.

 

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Posted

Announcing Surprise Screenings of Laura Poitras’ ‘CITIZENFOUR’ at The Blue Note October 19

We are very excited to announce our Secret Screenings coming to The Blue Note October 19. True/False is proud to help launch CITIZENFOUR, the much-anticipated, real-life suspense story by Laura Poitras.

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CITIZENFOUR reveals the story of whistleblower Edward Snowden, who leaked classified information about the NSA and global surveillance to Poitras and her reporting partner, Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald. Snowden, who called himself CITIZENFOUR in encrypted emails with Poitras, set off global shockwaves with his revelations. As Poitras documented arguably the biggest spying revelation in history, she became part of the story herself. Poitras and Greenwald still hold hundreds of unreleased intelligence documents given to them by Snowden, putting them in continued danger of retaliation by the US government.

This film is the final work in Poitras’ trilogy documenting security and foreign policy in the post-9/11 world. Her first film in the trilogy, My Country, My Country, explored electoral politics in US-occupied Baghdad and received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary. Her second, The Oath, was an intimate portrait of Abu Jandal, a former driver for Osama Bin Laden. It’s available to watch right now on Hulu. Poitras appeared with both films at T/F 2010 where she received our True Vision Award for her persistent creative advancement of nonfiction cinema.

CITIZENFOUR premieres today, October 10 at the New York Film Festival. It will play twice at The Blue Note on October 19, at 4:30 and 8:00 PM. Both screenings will feature live music from Syna So Pro and post-film Skype chats with Poitras. Tickets are available online now or in person (cash only) at the venue the day of the show.

Both screenings of CITIZENFOUR are underwritten by the Jonathan B. Murray Center for Documentary Journalism at the Missouri School of Journalism.

Posted October 10, 2014

T/F 2014 Panels Now Available as Videos or MP3s

T/F’s panel discussions bring together film directors, visual artists and film critics for candid conversation on the hows and whys of their crafts. Sometimes overlooked in the whirlwind of T/F weekend, we’ve now made the complete set of T/F 2014 conversations available to watch on our video page. Or if you’d like to take a panel with you on a jog or to the grocery store, click on any of the titles below to find an audio mp3 you can stream or download. All of these discussions were preserved thanks to the hard work of our media partners at Columbia Access Television.

The Critical Takedown

Nonfiction films entering the world are still plagued by two types of criticism. There’s “be nice, this topic is worthy” damnation by faint praise for films with “important” issues, and the “Where’s the context?!” stigma faced too often by more personal or artful films. How to strike a balance and what DOES creative nonfiction need from critics? Sam Adams, the editor of Criticwire engages three cranky malcontents (i.e. critics), Nick Pinkerton, Ela Bittencourt and Adam Nayman, who have all the answers.

Making Magic/Realism

T/F 2014′s visual theme of magic/realism suggested an intersection between the mundane and the fantastic. But it wasn’t until visual artists from all over the country offered their creative sparks did the theme come alive. Artist and writer Anne Thompson coaxes magic from T/F bumper director Jarred Alterman, T/F 2014 poster artist Akiko Stehrenberger, sculptor Taylor Ross, who made the interactive mechanical sculptor in the Missouri Theatre lobby, and “TransPlant” pod installation artist, Leland Drexler-Russell.

Lies My Subject Told Me

Present tense films are crafted through an agreement between filmmaker and subject, but sometimes the bond is broken. During these fragile moments, the foundation of the relationship is questioned and a new trajectory takes hold. Hot Docs director Charlotte Cook hosts Robert Greene (Actress), Maxim Pozdorovkin (The Notorious Mr. Bout), Jesse Moss (The Overnighters) for a discussion on deception.

Beyond Pretty Pictures

What was previously off limits is now possible through affordable, lightweight equipment, and low-cost DIY hacking. Increasingly light-sensitive cameras liberate filmmakers to capture nighttime scenes; miniature, waterproof cameras are cheap; skeleton crews allow subjects to feel more comfortable revealing themselves. T/F alumni Omar Mullick quizzes Linda Västrik (Forest of the Dancing Spirits), Ewan McNicol (Uncertain), and Victor Kossakovsky (Demonstration) on how they harness technology to tell better stories.

Place is the Space

Nonfiction filmmakers locate vivid places and people whose stories jump off the screen – then they sift and winnow to find the soul of the place. True/False mascot Beadie Finzi chats with Tracy Droz Tragos (Rich Hill), Sherief Elkatsha (Cairo Drive), and Mark Levinson (Particle Fever) who reveal how they cast films where settings don’t act as backdrops but as stars in their own right.

Africa is Not a Country

To a Western mind, Africa may appear as a slideshow of slums, safaris, refugees, and marathon runners. In a clutch of T/F 2014 films, though, outsider filmmakers avoid shopworn stereotypes to tell distinctive stories from a diverse continent. T/F ringleader Ingrid Kopp asks Tobias Janson (Concerning Violence), Rachel Boynton (Big Men), and Joe Callander (Life After Death) how they circumvented the pitfalls.

Posted October 7, 2014

Moments of Transcendence with Tracy Droz Tragos of ‘Rich Hill’

Rich Hill (T/F 2014) takes an intimate approach to the subject of poverty in a small Missouri town just 70 miles south of Kansas City. In lieu of analysts and “experts”, we meet Andrew, Harley and Appachey, three boys whose families are struggling just to get by. With startling directness, the trio invite us into their lives and share their hopes for the future.

This film, declared “essential viewing” by Scott Tobias of The Dissolve, was directed by Tracy Droz Tragos and her cousin and former Columbia resident Andrew Droz Palermo. It is now available to rent on numerous streaming platforms including Amazon. I got the chance to talk with Tracy on the phone about Rich Hill and about creating and capturing authentic moments. In the course of our conversation some things arose which I would consider spoilers, so you may want to see the film before reading this interview.

-Dan Steffen

T/F: Could you start by telling me about your relationship with the place?

TDT: Rich Hill is my family home town. It is where my father grew up. He was killed in Vietnam when I was a baby. So my relationship with his parents was very important to me, they were like surrogate parents. My mom was a working mom, so whenever school was out, I would go back to Rich Hill, winter break, spring break, summer. It was like a second home to me.

As an adult I hadn’t gone back quite as much since my grandparents died. But I really wanted to reconnect to this place that had been so important and formative to me. I also knew that there were a lot of people there who were struggling.

T/F: Do you think it is harder to make a film about rural poverty or for people to think about rural poverty?

TDT: Yeah, that was certainly part of why I wanted to make the film. I didn’t feel like there was enough films made about folks from rural communities.

It’s very distinct. There is isolation and there are fewer resources. If you are living in a rural community, and you don’t have a job or can’t find a job, it means you have to go somewhere else. But if you don’t have a car or you don’t have money for gas you’re kind of stuck where you are. And you are isolated.

T/F: Yeah, that’s definitely a theme in the film, the feeling of isolation.

TDT: Yeah, and I think there are different kinds of isolation. I think for Andrew who had to move so often, it’s not being tied to community and not being seen. The isolation being invisible and just sort of falling through the cracks.

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image from Rich Hill

 

T/F: Could you tell me about the three boys and the process of selecting them. Did you film with other boys?

TDT: Yeah, absolutely, we filmed other families. I was just talking about that because I’m now embarking on the front end of other projects and it’s a very similar kind of place, which can be a bit scary and unknown. It’s about casting a wide net and talking to people. You don’t always know who the voice of your film will be.

We found our main families in different ways. We first met Appachey in gym class. We had a very brief conversation with him that was so moving and soulful. He was hungry and his clothes were ripped and his face was kind of chapped. And he was so smart and talked in such an intelligent way, we were drawn to him and just wanted to get to know him more. Our next trip we met his family and it evolved from there.

We met Andrew at the park. He was practicing his fighting skills with some other kids. He was acting the tough guy at first which wasn’t particularly interesting, but when we went home with him the tough guy thing fell away. He was so loving with his family and they were so loving in return. They were also so welcoming of us, there really was a sense of “You care about us? You’re interested in hearing our story? Absolutely!” He had just moved back to Rich Hill.

We met Harley through his grandmother. We were in his home, where he lives with eight members of his extended family. The couch where we often see him waking up, that’s where he sleeps, that’s his spot. We were talking with his grandmother and ended up waking him up. He told us then about his mother being in prison. There’s a line or two from that very first time we met him that’s in the film.

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Harley and his grandmother in Rich Hill

 

T/F: What’s True/False about your film?

TDT: (Laughs) Well, what’s true is that these are real people, real lives, real families, real stories.

I don’t know if I would say anything is false. I would say it is subjective, it’s very much a film we intended to make. There’s definitely the hand of the filmmaker even though it’s observation. The families and the kids in the film feel like we told there truth, which I think is the most important thing. When they first saw it they said that it was real, so on that score I feel like we did justice.

But there is the hand of the filmmaker. What is false? Is it false to put music in? Is it false to edit out stuff or compress time? The techniques of filmmaking are inherently constructed and there is some lens through which everything is seen, so in some way you could say it is false. But I’d reject that word.

T/F: The boys interact so much with the camera and explain their lives directly to us, or to you or Andrew. Was that always your approach?

TDT: We knew we didn’t want to be purists in terms of, it’s going to be verite or it’s going to be observation only or it’s going to be X, Y or Z. I think it has to be authentic and about how the kids see themselves. We couldn’t pretend we weren’t there and we couldn’t be poker faced. We also didn’t want to have a ton of talking heads and sit down interviews. It’s more about coming in and out of conversation with them when it felt warranted, when they were doing things that were natural and of their character. They were collaborators in a way.

We were very clear that we didn’t want statistics or to have outside experts that weren’t a part of their lives commenting on them.

T/F: Was there ever a danger of what they were giving you becoming too performative or too constructed?

TDT: Sure, I mean, there’s always that danger. We weren’t a huge crew, so there wasn’t a feeling of total obtrusiveness. I suppose we were helped because they saw me as a bit of a mother figure. Any sort of tough guy thing or puffing up their chests or even any sort of Jackass tendencies was not something I was interested in, and I think they knew that. They knew that this didn’t need to be the face that they prepared for the rest of the world, and the guard could be let down a little bit.

T/F: Could you tell me a little about your collaboration with Andrew in that respect. He did all of the cinematography, is that right?

TDT: Yeah, that’s his background and his talent. I come from a documentary background and I did the talking and being with people. It was part of my job in a way to make sure the camera disappeared, so that when there was interaction they could focus on me.

It was very much a collaboration. After we shot we would edit together. We would cut scenes together and talk about the approach we were taking and how we would move forward. That would happen after every shoot.

T/F: Is there any particular moment in the film that was the most surprising to you, either when you were filming it, or when you went back and watched the footage?

TDT: Hmm, well, the Halloween walk where Harley reveals that he was raped. It was something that we’d known before, but it often kind of flows to the surface for him. It was something that he didn’t often talk about, but he really wanted to get off his chest.

When we were revisiting the footage, Andrew was actually working on that scene and at first wanted to cut out all the stuff about the chocolate and the rest of the lead up. And I was like no, you have to keep that in, even though it felt so long. That was how he was and that was how it gradually rose to the surface.

T/F: Oh yeah, that scene really stands out to me thinking back on the film. It’s interesting that he’s wearing a costume at the time as well, like maybe he feels protected behind it.

TDT: Yeah, it’s interesting he has a mask on. Our editor (Jim Hession) talked about the significance which I didn’t feel like we knew in the moment, that he had this mask on and then once he shared, the next scene is his grandma taking off this mask.

Moments rise to the surface. I think also the arm wrestling between Andrew and his dad at the very end. By being where it is that scene has layers to it that maybe it didn’t have in the moment, by the context of where it is in the film. I think ultimately it was true to what was happening in their relationship and kind of fulfillment.

T/F: The last thing I wanted to ask you about was finishing the film. Specifically, the way you used music and how you thought about the tone you were trying to set.

TDT: We thought a lot about the music. We brought Nathan (composer Nathan Halpern) on, he was an amazing composer and we were so honored to work with him. We did something interesting, not all films get to do, and I would love to do as often as I could. We brought our sound designer and our composer and our editor out for a spotting session before we completely locked picture. We went through every moment of the film and talked where the score would take the lead and where the recorded sound should take precedence.

There’s so much that goes into scoring a film. Going back to that Halloween walk, we brought music in, but we didn’t want to bring it in too soon to anticipate his reveal. It’s a balance. We also used foley (reproduction of everyday sounds) in a way that I wouldn’t have anticipated, mostly with hand-gestures, to bring an audience more into the head-space of the kids.

The underlying intention to the score for the whole film was to allow for moments of transcendence, a hymnal quality. And we wanted use music to put our audience in a place where they could notice the small details and reflect.

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Andrew in Rich Hill

 

Posted September 23, 2014

Two Essential T/F Films Available to Watch from POV

The PBS doc series POV has established itself as a major outlet for compelling and timely documentaries. Recently they aired two essential T/F selections, both of which are available to watch online right now.

The first is Big Men (T/F 2014). Over the course of five years, filmmaker Rachel Boynton gained inconceivable access to the back rooms to tell the story of Ghana’s first oil well and its exploration by western oil companies. The 82 minute broadcast version of this work is available streaming until September 24.

 

Also available is After Tiller (T/F 2013) an empathetic look at the four doctors remaining in the US who openly perform late term abortions. Directors Lana Wilson and Martha Shane take us inside intimate counselling sessions, carefully exploring the tough decisions facing each patient. You can watch After Tiller online until October 1.

Don’t forget to explore POV’s website for extras, filmmaker interviews, more films to watch and more.

Posted September 8, 2014

Two Captivating Video Essays from Sight & Sound

The British Film Institute’s magazine Sight & Sound recently released it’s list of the Greatest Documentaries of All Time, the result of a new poll of critics, programmers and filmmakers. In connection with the list, they also released two captivating and provocative video essays. You’ll need to click the links below to watch them on their site, something we recommend highly.

The first is “The Art of Nonfiction” by T/F filmmaker Robert Greene. In it, Greene takes us on a whirlwind tour of 100-plus years of nonfiction cinema, presenting clips from masterworks and elucidating the inherent tensions which define the form.

Disorder, Huang Weikai, 2009, T/F 2010

 

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Gates of Heaven, Errol Morris, 1978

 

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Lessons of Darkness, Werner Herzog 1992

 

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Leviathan, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, 2012, T/F 2013

 

In the second video, “What was documentary? An elegy for Robert Gardner”, critic Kevin B. Lee looks at three anthropological films from career of director Robert Gardner. While tracing his evolving approach, Lee presses tough questions about “documentary” and the access to reality it promises us.

dead birds

Dead Birds, Robert Gardner, 1964

 

Rivers of Sand

Rivers of Sand, Robert Gardner, 1973

 

forest of bliss

Forest of Bliss, Robert Gardner, 1986

Posted September 1, 2014

Sight & Sound’s Greatest Documentaries Survey: the Individual Ballots

Since 1952, the British film magazine Sight & Sound has published a much-discussed once-a-decade survey of the greatest films of all time.  This summer they limited the scope of their inquiry for the first time, asking critics, programmers and filmmakers to choose masterworks solely from the world of nonfiction. The results were announced a couple weeks ago in two Top 50 lists of The Greatest Documentaries of All Time, one for critics and one for filmmakers. Both lists crowned Dziga Vertov’s dazzling impression of city life in the early Soviet Union, Man with a Movie Camera, as the greatest documentary ever made.

This new canon, whatever its shortcomings, provides an excellent starting point for an education in nonfiction cinema. But focusing exclusively on the “Greatest Docs” lists misses most of the fun of this sort of exercise. The individual ballots, unranked lists of ten films submitted by each participate, allow you to consider which works resonate most profoundly with each individual, trace important influence and reference points for filmmakers and perhaps discover an overlooked masterpiece from another part of the globe.

Just a few days ago Sight & Sound shared all of the individual ballots on a nifty new interactive page, which offers multiple pathways to explore the poll and its films.

True/False programmers David Wilson and Chris Boeckmann were among those honored with invitations to participate. We reproduced Chris and David’s picks below, along with images from the works of nonfiction they consider the “greatest”. They only selected one film in common, the tragically under seen Disorder. Huang Weikai’s nightmarish epic of urban life in modern China screened at True/False in 2010.

Beneath Chris and David’s lists, we shared selections from many of the filmmakers surveyed whose work has screened at our festival. The ballots include comments offered by the participant, either about their lists as a whole or each individual film or both.

 

Chris Boeckmann, T/F Programmer

Film culture marginalises nonfiction cinema. I suspect one reason is that we feel more comfortable analysing and evaluating screenplays, sets and performances (work we attribute to conscientious artists) than unscripted developments, natural settings and fellow human beings. In the past year, I’ve noticed some signs, including this poll, that nonfiction cinema’s cachet is on the rise. I’m not sure why, but I hope I’m correct.

I spend most of my viewing time watching ‘documentary’ (I suppose I should note that several of the directors on my list don’t use this term, e.g. Allan King’s ‘actuality dramas’, Sergei Dvortsevoy’s ‘life cinema’). That’s not because of its educational value (I also read newspapers), but because I find it thrilling to watch gifted cinematographers and editors embrace spontaneity and wrestle with nature. I mean ‘nature’ in a very broad sense: plants, animals, buildings, weather, disease, time, other humans, ourselves.

Apologies to the many major filmmakers I’ve knowingly and unknowingly left off this rough list. If I revisited this prompt in the morning, the only film I’m certain would remain is Seventeen.

 

Seventeen (1984) Joel DeMott, Jeff Kreines

Seventeen

 

Belovy (1994, T/F 2012) Viktor Kossakovsky

Belovy

 

Gimme Shelter (1970) David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin

gimme-shelter

 

Farrebique (1946) Georges Rouquier

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A Moment of Innocence (1995, T/F 2014) Mohsen Makhmalbaf

a moment

 

The Quince Tree Sun (1992) Víctor Erice

quince

 

A Married Couple (1969) Allan King

a married couple

 

 

Disorder (2009, T/F 2010) Huang Weikai

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Diary 1973-83 (1988) David Perlov

diary

 

Khlebny Dyen (1998) Sergey Dvortsevoy

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David Wilson, T/F Programmer and Co-Conspirator

My list is in no particular order. Nor does it include many wonderful films. But I think it connects the dots of my personal film history, dwelling more on films that were made during my lifetime but acknowledging the great works that inspired those who inspired me. And if there are holes, well, it would be a shame to think that my education in nonfiction filmmaking was in any way complete.

I will almost always favour a film that moves me over one that doesn’t, but I strive to still appreciate and embrace the intellectual rigour of some of these films. Likewise, I remain a complete sucker for a beautiful image and a well-told story. I want a film that will scoop me up in its arms and carry me out along its path. The great ones never drop you.

 

Man with a Movie Camera (1929) Dziga Vertov

manwith2

My appreciation may be more intellectual than visceral, but here is the taproot of everything that was to come.

 

Disorder (2009, T/F 2010) Huang Weikai

Disorder_21

 

An explosive mindfuck of a film. Modern China reflected in a puddle of oil and viscera.

 

Man on Wire (2007, T/F 2008) James Marsh

man-on-wire

Of all these titles, this is one I will watch over and over again – smiling and crying each time.

 

Leviathan (2012, T/F 2013) Lucien Taylor, Véréna Paravel

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Nothing less than a revolution in nonfiction cinema. Also the most ‘metal’ film on this list.

 

The Gleaners and I (2000) Agnès Varda

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Vernon, Florida (1981) Errol Morris

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Others will no doubt pick The Thin Blue Line. But there’s a good argument to be made that, formally, this film has influenced more young directors in the last 30 years than any of his other films.

 

Gaea Girls (2002, T/F 2009) Kim Longinotto, Jano Williams

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Somewhere between Barthes and Von Trier lies this doc about women’s professional wrestling, made by the most empathetic doc director alive.

 

Harlan County U.S.A. (1976) Barbara Kopple

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Not as funny as Roger & Me, but far more immediate in its class-based anger. And with better songs.

 

Grey Gardens (1975) David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer

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Staked the claim for ‘non-political’ docs and their importance in the world.

 

Night Mail (1936, T/F 2007) Harry Watt, Basil Charles Wright

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The creative treatment of actuality.

 

Ballots from some of the T/F Filmmakers Surveyed:

 

Clio Barnard, director of The Arbor (T/F 2012)

These are all films that have a significant meaning for me – films that were pivotal personally in wrestling with what documentary film is and what it can do. They are listed in no particular order…

Chronicle of a Summer (1961) Jean Rouch, Edgar Morin

Paris Is Burning (1990) Jennie Livingston

Dreams of a Life (2011) Carol Morley

Grey Gardens (1975) David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer

Housing Problems (1935) Arthur Elton, Edgar Anstey

Louyre This Our Still Life (2011) Andrew Kötting

The Thin Blue Line (1989) Errol Morris

Tina Goes Shopping (1999) Penny Woolcock

The Battle of Orgreave (2002) Mike Figgis

The Last Bolshevik (1993) Chris Marker

 

Daniel Dencik, director of Expedition to the End of the World (T/F 2013)

What strikes me when putting together a list like this is not so much how dependent a film is upon a great director, but how crucial the main character is. For me the secret of a well-crafted documentary lies very much in the use and perspective of the first-person singular. When a documentary film really succeeds it is when the spectator is led into the captivating mind of a truly intriguing persona: as a spectator you get an idea of what it means to be that person, unfiltered and with a chilling honesty. Documentary are so great because they make you understand how another person’s mind works, what are that person’s dreams, struggles, demons, fears, idiosyncrasies. No other art form can step into the mind of another person in quite that way. So instead of comparing documentary filmmaking to fiction, one should perhaps rather compare the discipline to that of brain surgery or heart transplantation.

Grizzly Man (2005) Werner Herzog

The strange and unforgettable presence of Timothy Treadwell makes this film a terrifying fable about the longing of man to find his place in nature, and the impossibility that lies in the nature of this ambition.

Into the Abyss A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life (2011) Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog transforms the cruel reality of two death-row inmates into a staggering lesson in compassion and empathy.

Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997) Werner Herzog

Dieter Dengler is one of those characters that has gone from total obscurity into the mythology of modern filmmaking, all because of Werner Herzog’s film.

Armadillo (2010, T/F 2011) Janus Metz

Armadillo is a gripping tale of the boyish will to live life to the fullest – in this case the inexplicable drive to sacrifice your life in a far-away war – cleverly told in a powerful and rough cinematic language by Janus Metz.

A Springday in Hell (1977) Jørgen Leth

This gritty film about the Paris-Roubaix race captured the inner feeling of the greatest of all sports, bicycle racing. Blood, mud, tears, sweat and glory all come together in this masterpiece of heartbreaking beauty.

When We Were Kings (1996) Leon J. Gast

With tremendously sexy footage from the 1974 heavyweight fight between Ali and Foreman, this sports doc is the one film to show the aliens when they arrive and ask what we humans are all about.

Metallica Some Kind of Monster (2004, T/F 2004) Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky

An honest and at times painfully embarrassing look into the everyday life and struggles of arguably one of the greatest bands on Earth.

Senna (2010) Asif Kapadia

Whether you’re a petrolhead or not you become totally captivated by the Jesus-like presence of Ayrton Senna, and the film draws a precise portrait of the mind of a true legend.

Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction (2012) Sophie Huber

Dark and pessimistic, Harry Dean Stanton enters into your consciousness through this tender film and makes you fall helplessly in love with him.

Searching for Sugar Man (2012, T/F 2012) Malik Bendjelloul

A remarkable film about how one of the greatest talents of folk songwriting, Sixto Rodriguez, could disappear into obscurity before he even broke through – and then be rediscovered through the very making of this charming film.

 

Robert Greene, director of Kati with an I (T/F 2010), Fake it So Real (T/F 2011) and Actress (T/F 2014)

Edvard Munch (1976) Peter Watkins

Peter Watkins’ expressive biopic about the great Norwegian artist features real interviews, an elusive, mesmerizing structure and has the soul of great nonfiction.

The Store (1983) Frederick Wiseman

Frederick Wiseman is one of our greatest artists and his entire filmography is a singular, essential dissection of the very structure and concept of the American institution. The Store just happens to be his funniest, most revelatory film, and my favourite for the moment.

Tokyo Olympiad (1965) Kon Ichikawa

A completely perfect film, which observes the truths and illusions of the sporting human frame.

The Century of Self (2003) Adam Curtis

An essay film about identity and the creation of commodified individualism that’s as expressive and mysterious as it is illuminating.

News from Home (1976) Chantal Akerman

Less a documentary than a structuralist performance piece, masterful as an earthy, austere symphony of New York City, quietly devastating as a mediation on loneliness and alienation.

Belovy (1994, T/F 2012) Viktor Kossakovsky

Kossakovsky’s observational camera finds truth, mystery, sadness, desperation and uproarious life in rural Russia.

As I Was Moving Ahead, Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000) Jonas Mekas

Impossibly personal while profoundly universal, the great Jonas Mekas gives a glorious, emotional, living cinema romp through his own life and our collective consciousness.

The Battle of Chile (1975) Patricio Guzmán

A devastating, present-tense political portrait of a society on the brink, still relevant as an invaluable historical document as it is an immersive, eternal cinematic experience.

A Married Couple (1969) Allan King

Essential direct cinema genius Allan King creates an intimate, hilarious, troubling portrait of a failing marriage that simultaneously heralded the new documentary intimacy, foregrounded the role of performance in nonfiction and laid down the template for reality TV.

Salesman (1968) Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin

The film that started it all for nonfiction storytelling and started it all for my personal understanding of the power of reality cinema. The camera is always in the right place.

 

Viktor Kossakovsky, recipient of the True Vision Award at T/F 2012, director of Belovy, Vivan Las Antipodas! (T/F 2012) and Demonstration (T/F 2014)

The film that started it all for nonfiction storytelling and started it all for my personal understanding of the power of reality cinema. The camera is always in the right place.

This is a list I made for screening at IDFA (International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam) in 2012, here in order of importance to me.

They’re films that challenged me both when I first saw them and again when I revisited them. Instead of trying to tell you something, they try to show you something.

If you were to add up all the new elements these films have added to the language of cinema, you would have the perfect documentary alphabet.

Ten Minutes Older (1978) Herz Frank

Man of Aran (1934) Robert Flaherty

Man with a Movie Camera (1929) Dziga Vertov

Spiritual Voices (1996) Aleksandr Sokurov

Workingman’s Death (2005) Michael Glawogger

Seasons (1975) Artavasd Peleschjan

Position among the Stars (2010) Leonard Retel Helmrich

Look at his Face (1966) Pavel Kogan

Our Mother is a Hero (1979) Nikolai Obukhovich

A Tram Runs through the City (1973) Ludmila Stanukinas

 

Kevin MacDonald, director of Touching the Void (T/F 2004) and Life in a Day (T/F 2011)

Gimme Shelter (1970) David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin

I love the fact that the editor, Charlotte Zwerin, gets a directing credit on this. So often in documentaries the editor is at least as important to the finished film as the director. I think this is the best film ever made about performance – but it also manages to say so much about the hippy dream turning sour and the power of the image.

Nespatrene (1997) Miroslav Janek

The Unseen is generally unseen but is a film that had an enormous impact on me when I saw it at the inaugural It’s All True doc festival in Brazil. It tells the story of blind children who become obsessed with taking photographs.

Now (1965) Santiago Álvarez

The most potent campaigning film ever made. Only five minutes long it is raw, technically innovative and angry. The Lena Horne song that it is based around is forever stuck in my head.

Listen to Britain (1942) Humphrey Jennings, Stewart McAllister

Humphrey Jennings was a genius at yanking together unexpected images – the John Donne of cinema. This film is pure poetry and makes patriotism seem not just acceptable but admirable.

The Thin Blue Line (1989) Errol Morris

I love its intelligence, its coolness and its humour. It influenced every film I have ever made.

When We Were Kings (1996) Leon J. Gast

The most exciting and uplifting non-fiction experience I have had in a cinema

Darwin’s Nightmare (2004) Hubert Sauper

An imaginative, fiendishly gothic tale about the the survival of the fittest and the Nile Perch.

Roger & Me (1989) Michael Moore

Michael Moore brought entertainment back into documentary films – and made it the strange bedfellow of anger.

Hotel Terminus (Klaus Barbie, His Life and Times) (1988) Marcel Ophüls

Ophüls is a genius and I could just have easily chosen Sorrow and The Pity for this list.

Waltz with Bashir (2008, T/F 2009) Ari Fulman

Because it did something new.

 

James Marsh, recipient of the True Vision Award at T/F 2011, director of Man on Wire (T/F 2008), Wisconsin Death Trip, The Burger and the King and Project Nim (T/F 2011).

Each of these films seems to me to enlarge on the possibilities of the medium and each of the filmmakers (with the exception of Ari Folman) has a whole body of work that I revere and admire. The other characteristic they all share is a commitment to the poetry and power of the visual image, both discovered and created. They are all truly cinematic films in every respect.

If there is one filmmaker on this list who stands above the others as a documentarian, for me, it would be Frederick Wiseman. As soon as a Wiseman film starts you know you are with the perfect guide – his editing rhythms are poised and hypnotic, and his attention to detail and to the primacy of the potent, revelatory image is constant and surprising. Above all, it his generosity and respect towards his characters that distinguishes his work. Interestingly, for a filmmaker who has no use for the adornments of score or created imagery, he describes his works as ‘reality fictions’. I can’t think of a better description of the documentary medium or indeed a better alibi for us all.

Man with a Movie Camera (1929) Dziga Vertov

Le Sang des bêtes (1948) Georges Franju

The War Game (1985) Peter Watkins, Peter Watkins

Salesman (1968) Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin

Hospital (1970) Frederick Wiseman

Fata Morgana (1971) Werner Herzog

The Battle of Chile (1975) Patricio Guzmán

The Thin Blue Line (1989) Errol Morris

My Winnipeg (2007) Guy Maddin

Waltz with Bashir (2008, T/F 2009) Ari Fulman

 

Michal Marczak, director of At the Edge of Russia (T/F 2011)

The Five Obstructions (2003) Jørgen Leth, Lars von Trier, Jørgen Leth

Close-up (1989, T/F 2014) Abbas Kiarostami

Moi, un Noir (1959) Jean Rouch

Sympathy for the Devil (1968) Jean-Luc Godard

Jak Zyc (1977) Marcel Lozinski

Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997) Werner Herzog

Khlebny Dyen (1998) Sergey Dvortsevoy

Gimme Shelter (1970) David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin

Ya tebya lyublyu (2011) Pavel Kostomarov, Alexander Rastorguev

Faits Divers (1983) Raymond Depardon

 

Jesse Moss, director of Speedo (T/F 2004) and The Overnighters (T/F 2014)

Salesman (1968) Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin

Harlan County U.S.A. (1976) Barbara Kopple

The Thin Blue Line (1989) Errol Morris

Bowling for Columbine (2002) Michael Moore

Woodstock 3 Days of Peace & Music (1970) Michael Wadleigh

Dont Look Back (1967) D.A. Pennebaker

Crumb (1994) Terry Zwigoff

Man with a Movie Camera (1929) Dziga Vertov

The Cause (1990) Ken Burns

Burden of Dreams (1982) Les Blank

 

Joshua Oppenheimer, director of The Act of Killing (T/F 2013)

My list of 10 arbitrarily excludes these films:

Jean Rouch’s Jaguar (1967)

Patricio Guzmán’s The Battle of Chile (1975)

Jon Bang Carlsen’s Hotel of the Stars (1981)

Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA (1976)

Imamura Shohei’s History of Postwar Japan Told by a Bar Hostess (1970) and A Man Vanishes (1967)

Marcel Ophüls’s The Sorrow and the Pity (1969)

Rithy Panh’s S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003)

The Maysles brothers’ Grey Gardens (1975)

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Mysterious Object at Noon (2000)

Hara Kazuo’s The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987)

Ira Wohl’s Best Boy (1979)

Ulrich Seidl’s Losses to Be Expected (1992)

Harmony Korine’s Gummo (1997)

Sergei Dvortsevoy’s Bread Day (1998)

Dusan Makavejev’s Innocence Unprotected (1968)

Whenever we film anybody, they stage themselves, acting out fantasies – half-remembered, second-hand, third-rate – that they wished they fulfilled. The films I’ve chosen teach us that the ‘state of nature’ for nonfiction film is to reveal, prism-like, how fiction always constitutes our ‘facts’. These filmmakers deploy their camera not to record, but to provoke, and in the process have the courage to immerse themselves in the manic, delirious and tragic play of fantasies that make us what we are – inevitably and assuredly staggering out of the darkness into blinding truths.

Titicut Follies (1967) Frederick Wiseman

Close-up (1989) Abbas Kiarostami

Shoah (1985) Claude Lanzmann

Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) Werner Herzog

W.R. – Mysteries of the Organism (1971) Dusan Makavejev

Animal Love (1996) Ulrich Seidl

Gates of Heaven (1978) Errol Morris

The Apple (1997) Samira Makhmalbaf

The Hour of the Furnaces (1968) Fernando Solanas

The Perfumed Nightmare (1976) Kidlat Tahimik

 

Jessica Oreck, director of The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga (T/F 2014)

Tokyo Olympiad (1965) Kon Ichikawa

Tokyo-Ga (1985) Wim Wenders

Vive le Tour (1962) Jacques Ertaud, Louis Malle

The House Is Black (1962) Forough Farokhzad

Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1988) Harun Farocki

Love Life of the Octopus (1965) Jean Painlevé, Geneviève Hamon

The Voice of the Water (1966) Bert Haanstra

Herman Slobbe – Blind Kind II (1966) Johan van der Keuken

Microcosmos (1996) Claude Nuridsany, Marie Pérennou

Burden of Dreams (1982) Les Blank

 

Anders Ostergaard, director of Burma VJ (T/F 2008)

The Fog of War Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003, T/F 2004) Errol Morris

Night Mail (1936) Harry Watt, Basil Charles Wright

Être et Avoir (2002) Nicolas Philibert

Startup.Com (2001) Jehane Noujaim, Chris Hegedus

Last Train Home (2009, T/F 2010) Lixin Fan

Waltz with Bashir (2008, T/F 2009) Ari Fulman

Man on Wire (2007, T/F 2008) James Marsh

Koyaanisqatsi: Life out of Balance (1983) Godfrey Reggio

Bowling for Columbine (2002) Michael Moore

Olympia (1938) Leni Riefenstahl

Posted August 18, 2014

‘Boyhood’ Now Playing at Ragtag Cinema

The Closing Night film at True/False 2014 was a work of fiction, but a fiction built around a fascinating collaboration with reality. Filmed over 12 years from 2003-2013, Boyhood depicts a young boy coming of age in 21st century Texas. As we follow Mason through the years, along with his big sister, single mother and unreliable father, we watch the actors grow along with their characters and experience the passage of time through numerous cultural markers. The result is singular and profoundly empathetic.

Now this historically acclaimed film has returned to Columbia and is playing at our other half Ragtag Cinema.

boyhood

Director Richard Linklater was recently asked about showing this film at T/F by Scott Tobias of The Dissolve.

The Dissolve: Boyhood screened at the True/False Film Festival, and it seems like the perfect embodiment of that festival’s mission to blur the line between documentary and fiction. How were you looking to balance the demands of narrative with the real developments over time? 

Richard Linklater: You know, I wasn’t so sure we should even show [at True/False], because truly there’s nothing about the movie that’s a documentary, yet it feels real. It was meant to feel like a document of time, and it was a collaboration very much with the real world, and what was going on at any given time. It does blur the line in the mind. Someone said if you didn’t see Patricia and Ethan and didn’t know them from other movies, you might almost swear it was real. Some guy in New York the other night, he seemed like a normal guy, but after the movie, as I was leaving, he said, “How did you pick this family?” [Laughs.] I’m like, “They’re actors.” He thought I’d done something like that TV show, An American Family, picked a family and followed them all of these years. I’m like, “Are you crazy?” Anyway [Boyhood] does get blurry, and I wanted it to work that way in the viewer’s head.

This blurriness was examined further by Michael Koresky in his excellent review at Reverse Shot, which notes how Boyhood avoids traditional milestones, thereby playing to the viewer’s own memories of childhood. Star (and T/F 2014 guest) Ellar Coltrane talked with Vulture about growing up in the midst of the film and working each year with Linklater on the film’s scripts, a process which caused him to grow closer and closer to the character he was playing. And James Hughes at Grantland hung-out with Linklater to talk about the film’s roots in his own Texas childhood, and how the filmmaking process was “a dance with an unknown future”. These reflections all speak to the paradox suggested by Manohla Dargis in her NY Times review, who said of Boyhood ”its pleasures are obvious yet mysterious.”

 

 

 

Posted August 13, 2014
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