Documentary Classics

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

farrebique-ou-les-quatre-saisons_279736_37664

 

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

Disorder_1

 

Diary 1973-83 (1988) David Perlov

diary

 

Khlebny Dyen (1998) Sergey Dvortsevoy

fe08a08acbdd9d9fe07ad8b713db0dfe

 

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

leviathan

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

 

The Gleaners and I (2000) Agnès Varda

gleaners4

 

Vernon, Florida (1981) Errol Morris

vernon

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

gaeagirls

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

Harlan_County_USA1976c01

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

grey-gardens-7

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

 

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

nightmail

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

Sight & Sound Announces Its Greatest Documentaries of All Time

The British film magazine Sight & Sound has announced its first-ever list of the greatest documentaries of all time. The top 50 films includes T/F selections The Fog of War (T/F 2004), Man on Wire (T/F 2008), Waltz with Bashir (T/F 2009), The Act of Killing and Leviathan (T/F 2013).  Also included are the Iranian films The House is Black and Close-Up which played T/F as part of our 2014 Neither/Nor series.

This list is generated by a survey of film critics, programmers and academics. A separate list ranks the choices of documentary filmmakers. We’ll have much more to say about this survey when we can dig through all of the individual ballots, to be published on August 14.

the-fog-of-war-20031

The Fog of War, Errol Morris, T/F 2004

Man On Wire, James Marsh, T/F 2008

Man On Wire, James Marsh, T/F 2008

Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman, T/F 2009

Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman, T/F 2009

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

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

The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer, T/F 2013

The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer, T/F 2013

The House is Black, Forough Farrokhzad, 1963, Neither/Nor 2014

The House is Black, Forough Farrokhzad, 1963, Neither/Nor 2014

Close-Up, Abbas Kiarostami, 1990, Neither/Nor 2014

 

Posted August 1, 2014

Up to Speed: A Chat with Director/ Cinematographer Nick Bentgen of ‘Northern Light’

This week, Northern Light (T/F 2013) receives its theatrical premiere at the Maysles Cinema in New York City. It screens at 7:30PM nightly through June 22. Filmmakers Nick Bentgen and Lisa Kjerulff will be in person at Thursday and Friday’s screenings. For tickets, visit this page ( http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/669737).
-Chris Boeckmann

From a snowmobile driver’s perspective, a race consists of careful maneuvers and breakneck turns. For the detached viewer, it amounts to, literally and figuratively, going in circles. Five hundred of them, in the case of the Sault Ste. Marie I-500, the race at the center of Nick Bentgen’s Northern Light.

In his directorial debut, Bentgen observes the households of Walt and Isaac, strong-willed, hardworking racers who reside in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Walt is a dedicated father and seasoned rider whose racing career seems to be at a standstill. Isaac is a young and ambitious rising star, married without children. As resolute in its vision as its characters are to their sport, Northern Light is an immaculately photographed and intricately structured study of their world.

One of its fundamental interests is competition, which looms heavy over the community. Sport, which the film observes not only in snowmobiles but also in bodybuilding and auto racing, is an alluring, inescapable presence that’s frequently at odds with an even bigger competition, capitalism. Bentgen’s camera registers the physical and emotional tolls of both.

But as much as it is an essay about the American struggle to balance checkbooks and athletics, Northern Light is also an incisive character study, wedding empathy and scrutiny to bewildering effect. This is a film where characters perform tender acts of altruism one moment and engage in casually bigoted dinner table conversation the next. Bentgen trusts us to navigate — revel in, really — all this messiness.

Too often nonfiction films take characterization and plot tips from the tidy world of fiction. A meticulously constructed film of ellipses and characters who inspire wildly conflicted emotions, Northern Light seems to find its storytelling inspiration from some completely new world: the real one.

A year ago, I interviewed director/cinematographer Nick Bentgen via Skype a week before his film celebrated its New York premiere at BAMCinemafest.

T/F: I’m wondering if Northern Light is very different from the film you set out to make.

NB: I was staying in this cabin that my dad and his siblings all shared — it’s actually my grandpa’s cabin, he passed away a long time ago — and I knew I wanted to tell a story set in this place I spent a lot of time in as a kid. I had only a few DVDs with me. Nashville was one and also Two-Lane Blacktop. When I first found the I-500, I remember thinking, “Oh, this is just likeNashville and Two-Lane Blacktop!” Of course it’s not. It’s nothing like that, but still, I kept coming back to those masterpieces while I was making this movie. Gradually it became its own thing.

T/F: The reason I ask is — perhaps this is something that’s entirely accomplished in the editing, but it feels like there are so many moments where you have a clear idea of the film you’re making, of its themes. For example, during the race scene when you manage to capture Emily and James, two characters who don’t really seem to know each other, in the same frame as one tells a crewmember that God’s going to bring their team to victory and the other complains to his buddy about body aches.

NB: Well, yes. By the second or third week, I realized the film was about this community, that this place was the story, regardless of who we eventually ended up focusing on. So like Nashville or any movie that’s a large community portrait, I felt it was fair game to let anyone pass in and out of the story. So sometimes people you haven’t met will just appear, you’ll get a little bit of their story and then they’re not in the movie anymore.

During the race, we were very lucky that multiple people we had been filming with were in the same place. It was irresistible to put them in the same frame. Also, we only had one camera, so microphone placement was very important. We had to decide who the story was about on that shooting day. That shot where James and Emily are in the same frame is this beautiful moment. They’re on completely different wavelengths and yet they’re in the same community.

T/F: So on that day you chose to put the mic on Emily.

NB: Right. With a verite doc, I feel like how you make it is so tied up with why you’re making it because you have such limited means. We knew it was a big day for Isaac, and with Walt’s team, they didn’t have a radio system we could use. There were logistical reasons why we chose to put the mic on Emily, but it was the best choice. She became so excited, and the story totally funneled through her in this great way.

T/F: Going into the I-500, it doesn’t feel like Walt has much chance of winning the race.

NB: Walt has a philosophy of life that I really appreciate and respect. That’s why I spent so much time filming with him. The bigger things he focuses on — spending time with his family and working hard — make him a really captivating subject. And flawed, like all of us. Early on, I asked him, “Do you think you’re going to win?” And of course he wants to win. And he’s done well in races, but I don’t think that’s why he does it. He doesn’t do it to win. Isaac has a much different philosophy. He’s out there to win. I think that contrast is why they’re interesting as subjects.

T/F: If Walt doesn’t race to win, what’s the draw?

NB: Speed. There’s this scene we cut where he says “Once racing is in your blood, it never goes away.” He grew up doing it. Lots of the guys who are into snowmobiling got into it at a very young age.

T/F: Structurally, I find it interesting that you frontload a lot of really challenging moments, particularly instances of sexism and homophobia.

NB: Our one strategy in editing — or dilemma, I guess — was being true to the environment Lisa and I were in when we filmed. Maybe it was just by happenstance, or maybe it was conscious, but the final movie is structured a lot like our experience there. At first, we didn’t know these people, and with any stranger, you take a lot on assumption. In any community, there’s xenophobia or some other issue that prevents you from identifying. As you’re watching the film, I want you to go through that process of estrangement and then become closer with these people and feel like a part of the community.

T/F: One of the reasons your film stands out from a lot of other observational documentaries is the photography. You consistently use a tripod. I’m wondering if your camerawork changed very much over the course of production.

NB: It’s funny, I really feel like the first month or two is the best photographed stuff. That’s partly because the camera was a barrier, this wall I put up. Emily, Walt, Isaac — I connected with all of them at different times during the shoot. If you watched the 300 hours of dailies, it becomes clear that I start caring less and less about what the image looks like as I become more interested in what’s going on. But we did have a rigorous rule set. The first rule was to use a tripod whenever possible, and the second was to not screw with the camera if at all possible. There are a lot of times where the camera feels like a fly on the wall, and that’s because it is: it was just left there.

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T/F: Was documentary new to you?

NB: The film’s editor Yoonha [David Park] and I have grown up together in the film industry. We went to school together, and we worked for a music website called Pitchfork where we had 15 minutes, maybe an hour, with our subjects. That was a good early experience.

Most of the jobs I could get as a filmmaker were often doc-style. I wasn’t usually given a lot of toys or money, so you tend to fall into this documentary style regardless of what you’re filming. After a while of shooting documentary, I realized it was the best way to tell stories because you can’t control everything. And then you have to make decisions very fast. It’s also the best way to learn to be a DP.

T/F: I’m wondering if you can talk about photographing the I-500. Your technique feels pretty unconventional. You don’t get a whole lot of coverage of the race itself. You don’t mount cameras on the snowmobiles or stick cameras all around the track.

NB: It’s funny, I feel like the race scenes are more conventional than I ever expected them to be. There are also more of them than I figured. There are three in the movie. Initially, I set out with this really crazy artistic tactic. I said I was going to film the race in case I needed it, but my plan was to film from the checkered flag of one year to the green flag of the next year, never showing a race. But I figured out that it was completely not true to the experience of people in this community. I really needed the viewer to care a little bit about those races because all the people I’m filming care a lot. If you don’t care at all, you don’t understand where all these people are coming from. So it became a big part of the film’s narrative.

At some point, I saw Senna and said, “Well, I’ll never be that good. I’ll never make anything that thrilling.” There are also logistical reasons why it’s shot the way it’s shot. We had one camera, so there was no way to keep track of all the racers . You’d need eight cameras on the track. It would have become a big production. Instead, I decided to embrace the tools we had. When I later saw the footage, I thought it felt like a removed version of a race, which matched the aesthetic of the rest of the movie. The camera is never telling you how to feel, and you have to find other ways in.

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T/F: I sort of want to ask you about the way you use nature throughout the film, but it seems like a silly thing for you to discuss.

NB: I haven’t done that many interviews. After you’re done with a film, it’s easy to put everything in a this-is-the-reason-why box. But my favorite filmmakers, Altman especially, say there’s not really an explanation for everything. The whole time we were making the film, we wanted to get across the experience we had. It was more a tone we were going after. And nature is just an all-encompassing thing that dictates life. I feel like explanations are easy enough to do, but it limits what the movie is or what a story can be. I don’t really have explanations for everything.

T/F: That seems like a good place to stop. (laughs)

Posted June 19, 2014

The Great Wall Honors the Career of Filmmaker Les Blank

The Great Wall is True/False’s outdoor movie screen: the massive, Shakespeare’s-facing wall of the Picturehouse Theater (aka the Missouri United Methodist Church). Join us for this free walk-up cinema on Friday and Saturday nights of the Fest from 7 – 11 pm.

This year, we will be celebrating the life and work of the renegade filmmaker Les Blank who passed away in April of 2013.

For more than 50 years Les Blank’s films preserved American subcultures that otherwise might have been forgotten. With a signature idiosyncratic style all his own, Blank captures the essence of a moment and brings it to life. Instead of the fly-on-the-wall method of his contemporaries (Wiseman & Pennebaker) Blank immersed himself in the communities of the people he turned his lens upon. It’s no surprise that Les Blank was only the second white man Lightnin’ Hopkins trusted.

His most well-known film Burden of Dreams is a fantastical look at Werner Herzog’s epic struggle to make his masterpiece Fitzcarraldo in the Amazon. Herzog once said of Blank “He has his own little universe that he creates with Burden of Dreams. If Burden of Dreams was only the making of Fitzcarraldo it would have been lousy. He was beyond my comprehension. I only knew the man was a very, very good filmmaker.” Blank had a particular knack in establishing a strong sense of place: everything in the frame relates back to the environment in which it occurs.

Burden of Dreams

Blank’s films serve as an important anthropological preservation while pushing the cinematic form of documentary forward. True/False has decided to feature four of his earlier works which would go on to establish him as a force. Dry Wood (1973, 37 min.) and Hot Pepper (1973, 54 min.) capture the daily life of French-speaking blacks in southwestern Louisiana’s Cajun country. A Well Spent Life (1972, 44 min.) and The Blues Accordin’ To Lightnin’ Hopkins (1970, 31 min.) are two great ethno-musicological films lit by Blank’s fascination in the cultures, history and music of the now well-known blues musicians Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin’ Hopkins.

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At 7:10 on Friday, Jim Bogan, a writer, filmmaker and professor who is also an old friend of Blank’s, will kick-off The Great Wall by leading a toast in honor of Blank’s life and work.

Posted February 21, 2014

The Academy Presents the Second Annual Neither/Nor Series

The Neither/Nor series is an ongoing project to map the history (and present) of “chimeric” cinema, adventurous filmmaking that defies classification as either fiction or nonfiction. Every year True/False will partner with a visiting film critic who will present four films and produce a limited-edition monograph featuring essays and interviews. In the 2014 edition, esteemed film critic Godfrey Cheshire will introduce us to the self-reflexive Iranian cinema of the 1990s. Neither/Nor is underwritten by a generous grant from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

We’re holding a Neither/Nor kick-off reception on Tuesday, February 25th at 6 pm at Ragtag Cinema. There you can meet critic Godfrey Cheshire before he introduces a screening of his own 2007 film Moving Midway, a look at the relocating of his family’s antebellum home to escape Raleigh, North Carolina’s sprawl. The series begins in earnest at Ragtag on True/False eve, Wednesday, February 26th, with Close-Up, Abbas Kiarostami’s 1990 masterpiece. The rest of Neither/Nor will take place during T/F 2014 at Big Ragtag. A Moment of Innocence plays Thursday at 5:30 PM, The Mirror Friday at 12:30 PM, The Apple Saturday at 10:30 AM and Close-Up screens again Saturday at 8:30 PM. All of the screenings in this series will be free.

Here’s a short introduction to this year’s selections.

Close-Up (dir. Abbas Kiarostami, 1990, 98 min.) In this 1990 landmark, director Abbas Kiarostami takes a bizarre case of identity theft and convinces its real-life subjects to participate in a creative reenactment. Hossain Sabzian is a young, underemployed lover of cinema. One day while riding a bus, he meets a woman and convinces her that he is film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. When she is confused why such a famous man would be riding public transit, Sabzian explains that it’s important to draw inspiration from the real world. Under this pretense, he worms his way into her family’s home and bank account. When the family starts to become suspicious, they invite an ambitious journalist to come investigate.
- Chris Boeckmann

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A Moment of Innocence (dir. Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 1996, 78 min.) In 1974, when Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf was a 17-year-old anti-Shah militant, he stabbed a policeman at a rally. Makhmalbaf found himself in prison for six years, while the police officer suffered serious injuries. Many years later, after Makhmalbaf had found fame as a director, he ran into the same police officer during a film shoot, and they agreed to collaborate on a film. In the brilliantly structured A Moment of Innocence, we witness the two men as they work together to recreate this incident. As they go about this process, we discover that the men have very different memories of what transpired on that pivotal day.
- Chris Boeckmann

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The Mirror (dir. Jafar Panahi, 1997, 93 min.) In the center of Tehran, as the day comes to a close, a young first-grader named Mina (played by Mina Mohammad-Khani) walks out of her school and discovers that her mother is nowhere to be found. Impatient, and with one arm in a sling, she decides to find her own way home. Mina boards a bus and listens in on the various conversations unfolding around her. That bus, it turns out, is heading the wrong direction. Eventually, all of a sudden, a frustrated Mina does something surprising. Jafar Panahi, then a protégé of Close-Up director Abbas Kiarostami, directed this playfully reflexive 1997 film.
- Chris Boeckmann

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The Apple (dir. Samira Makhmalbaf, 1999, 86 min.) Directed by a then 17-year-old Samira Makhmalbaf (daughter of Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who co-wrote the screenplay), this 1998 film recreates a scandalous news story using the real life participants. In an Iranian neighborhood, a strict, unemployed father and his blind wife keep their 11-year-old twin daughters, Massoumeh and Zahra, locked in their house. After neighbors complain to the welfare ministry, a social worker comes to release them. Makhmalbaf’s quasi-documentary follows Massoumeh and Zahra as they receive their first taste of freedom and observes their father as he sits behind bars, reflecting on his actions. Makhmalbaf’s auspicious debut is a profoundly unsettling exploration of patriarchy. Screens with “The House Is Black” (Forough Farrokhzad, 1963, 22 min.).
- Chris Boeckmann

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Posted February 10, 2014

T/F Awarded Three Year Grant by AMPAS for the Neither/Nor Series

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has awarded a three-year, $75,000 grant to the True/False. The funds will help produce our Neither/Nor series, which celebrates “chimeric” works that straddle the line between fiction and nonfiction.

Being recognized by the Academy in such a significant way is one of the greatest milestones in our history. Because of their support, we’ll be able to delve deeper into the exhilarating work suggested by our name.

Begun earlier this year with a survey of films shot in New York during the ‘60s, the Neither/Nor series is an ongoing project. Each Fest, T/F will collaborate with a visiting film critic to map the history (and present) of chimeric cinema. We believe that by championing a more permeable line between forms, both the non-fiction and fiction film can be reimagined in fresh and provocative ways.

For its second Neither/Nor edition, we plan to highlight Iranian chimeras, a rich tradition of unclassifiable, self-reflexive cinema that received international attention in the 1990s. Critic Godfrey Cheshire, who has written extensively on Iranian cinema, will produce a limited-edition monograph and present four films at the festival.

Posted November 18, 2013

Michel Brault 1928-2013

This week the film world lost the great Québécoise director Michel Brault, an important pioneer in the observational “direct cinema” movement that fundamentally transformed documentary film. Catherine Perreault at the National Film Board of Canada offers a detailed appreciation of his life and works, including three selections from his oeuvre available streaming as part of NFB’s extensive online archive.

You can also watch a short clip from a conversation between Brault and Sean Farnel at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival. In it Brault discusses the technological limitations of documentary filmmaking in days gone by, and how they forced the director to think on his feet.

Posted September 27, 2013

Watch ‘The Interrupters’ and a Campfire Story From Steve James

One of the most unforgettable films ever to screen at True/False was our 2011 True Life Fund selection, The Interrupters. Steve James’s documentary introduced us to violence interrupters working in the troubled streets of Chicago. These interrupters are part of a program created by epidemiologist Gary Slutkin called Ceasefire (now renamed Cure Violence), based on the thesis that violence should be approached like an infectious disease, where the goal is to prevent each individual case of transmission.

The film’s deep humanism comes from the life stories of the violence interrupters themselves: Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra. All former gang members, the interrupters don’t shy away from their violent pasts, but instead utilize their reputations and gained knowledge to help their communities. We watch as they courageously interject themselves into intense situations, speaking blunt truths and directly confronting the drive for revenge or respect, passions that so frequently lead to acts of violence.

The 114 minute cut of The Interrupters is available to watch for free online through the PBS series Frontline.

The Interrupters was inspired by co-producer Alex Kotlowitz’s 2008 New York Times Magazine article “Blocking the Transmission of Violence”. Director Steve James was moved by this piece because of his personal connection to Curtis Gates, who was senselessly killed in a 2001 shooting. Curtis was the older brother of William Gates, one of the principle subjects of James’s 1994 film Hoop Dreams. Universally recognized as a documentary masterpiece, Hoop Dreams follows two basketball prodigies from poor neighborhoods in Chicago who dream of achieving fame and fortune through careers in the NBA. You can watch this essential film for free streaming online through Hulu.

Steve James returned to T/F this year to participate in our annual event Campfire Stories, an intimate gathering where filmmakers share tales about compelling scenes that didn’t make it into their films. In the clip below, James recounts an incident at a gas station which illustrates the violence interrupters problematic relationship with the police. Campfire Stories was captured on video by our friends at Columbia Access Television.

Posted September 3, 2013

Four Short Films by Arthur Lipsett

Arthur Lipsett transformed literal trash into cinematic treasure. Working at the National Film Board of Canada during the 1960s, he wove bits of discarded audio and film into unforgettable collages. The four films embedded below through the NFB archive, all less than 13 minutes in length, inaugurated his tragically short career. They continue to delight, confound and provoke some fifty years later.

As Brett Kashmere put it in a Senses of Cinema essay, Lipsett’s work “disrupts the representational value of documentary image and sound, moving beyond the genre’s aesthetic codes of truth and reliability”. What we see and what we hear seem at first unrelated. Sometimes the sights and sounds come to form some sort of compliment, but frequently they press against and even threaten to negate one another, creating an unresolved and unresolvable tension. Lipsett speaks through these strange sensory paradoxes, offering a fascinating commentary on modern life.

His first film, 1962’s Very Nice, Very Nice (which played before Zielinski at T/F 2011) places us in the shadow of Madison Avenue and the Atom Bomb.

Very Nice was originally conceived as an audio only experiment, in Lipsett’s words “purely for the love of placing one sound after another”. We hear a series of voices, at times threatening to speak for the film directly in samples of cultural critics including Northrup Frye and Marshall McLuhan. But just as our understanding begins to congeal, the audio melts away into incoherence and redundancy. The result looks like this:

“We’re living in a very competitive world today as compared to 30 or 40 years ago, everything is highly competitive, uh, would you like to answer that Paul? . . . people who have made no attempt to educate themselves live in a kind of dissolving phantasmagoria of a world, that is, they completely forget what happened last Tuesday, a politician can promise them anything and they will not remember later what he has promised, and ah, the . . . oh, the game is really nice to look at, for me I like football . . . in other words we are suffering from uh, everybody wondered about what the future will hold, what’s ahead of us, but if you feel well, you know inevitably whatever’s going to happen, you feel well anyway . . . warmth and brightness will return, and renewal of the hopes of men.”

And so on. Our faculty for discerning meaning in spoken language is deftly turned against us. So too, our capacity for reading expressions at a glance is frustrated and confounded by the visuals. Mismatched edits link still photographs of faces transfixed in rapture, terror, confusion, joy and sadness. Lipsett’s simultaneous tweaking of these two cognitive systems masterfully effects the “dissolving phantasmagoria of a world” promised above.

These head games also help to account for the film’s unnerving shifts in tone, an essential feature of all of Lipsett’s work. What at first reads as a brooding, somber meditation is quite suddenly a zany carnival. Late in the film a sudden parade of magazine cutouts dance before our eyes, and the soundtrack is given over to trite, jazzy music and ecstatic yelling. Tragedy and farce are indistinguishable.

Stanley Kubrick was so impressed with Very Nice, Very Nice that he approached Lipsett about directing the trailer for his own black comedy of atomic warfare, Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. When Lipsett declined, Kubrick directed the trailer himself, but in a style clearly indebted to Lipsett. It has always been one of my favorite trailers. The unnerving audio track fills me with a weird sort of giddy horror.

Lipsett’s second film, 1964’s 21-87, confronts humanity’s search for an essential identity.

The very first image is a forceful reminder of mortality, a leering skull letting us know the stakes. The series of film clips that follow depict modern life as either mechanized or frivolous. People are seen as actors performing roles: models in a fashion show, a man dressed in a space suit, kids gyrating to rock and roll, acrobats moving across a wire. A bombardment of faces is again essential to the film, this time as a procession on an escalator, jump cuts linking the uninterested faces moving simultaneously upwards and towards us.

After opening with an unnerving robotic grind, the soundtrack offers a diverse sampling of our religious and spiritual aspirations, “the search for the force behind this apparent mask”. These range from austere choral arrangements to soulful gospel music, from Orthodox liturgies to extemporaneous musings in a public park. By the time we reach the frightening conclusion, it appears we are content to be thought of as just a number.

Lipsett’s third film, Free Fall (1964), is his most abstract sensory overload.

A pounding jazz melee immediately sets the tempo for this cinematic blitz. Even when the film slows down, the relaxed interludes are fraught with tension. Visual and thematic motifs of the first two films reappear here, the sea of faces invoking humanity lost in the crowd, the bewildering snippets of anxious dialogue and monologue. But here they are in service of something more primal and frenzied. Human beings are juxtaposed with insects, maniacally scrambling across the frame. Our Free Fall could be from grace, either real or imagined, back into the the chaos of nature.

The final film in Lipsett’s inaugural quartet, A Trip Down Memory Lane (1965), is a chilling history lesson.

Subtitled Additional Material for a Time Capsule, the film is more formally restrained than the other three, utilizing relatively longer snippets of archival newsreel footage. Public celebrations of “achievements”, political, cultural, economic, religious, military, technological and scientific, are fed back to us as an alarming spectacle. The common aura of pomposity surrounding these events, despite their diversity, creates a nauseating sense of the grotesque. This feeling builds until it manifests as the searing audio distortion of the film’s climax. Our present search for meaning, it would seem, needs to avoid such public displays of “meaningfulness” at all costs.

For a clear example of Lipsett’s continuing influence, see Adam Curtis’s brilliant It Felt Like A Kiss (T/F 2010). Curtis describes this film as a “psycho-archaeological dig of the American Empire”. As in Lipsett’s Trip, shock edits highlight unsettling connections, and the comfortable compartmentalization of our historical memory is gleefully destroyed.

Curtis’s collage is just one example of Lipsett’s continuing relevance. His films feel perfectly at home in the age of YouTube and will no doubt continue to confound and delight far into the future.

- Dan Steffen

 

Posted May 2, 2013

A Conversation with Filmmaker Kirby Dick

Kirby Dick was the recipient of True/False’s True Vision Award in 2006, and for good reason: His
interests in subjectivity and institutional corruption have rendered him one of the most prominent auteurs of the contemporary American doc scene. Dick began his career by chronicling “the pained, the freakish and the inexplicable that exists on the margins of everyday life” (to borrow from Ryan Stewart’s assessment of Dick in 2006 in Cinematical). These early works include Private Practices, about woman working as a sex surrogate, Sick: the Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist, about a provocative performance artist suffering from cystic fibrosis, Chain Camera, exploring the hidden lives of high school students and Derrida, a study of the controversial French philosopher Jacques Derrida. In more recent years Dick has tackled the powers-that-be responsible for that very process of marginalization within several prominent institutions: the Catholic Church in Twist of Faith, Hollywood in This Film is Not Yet Rated, Congress in Outrage and, most recently, the armed forces in The Invisible War. This last film, an expose of the epidemic of sexual assault in the U.S. military, won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary last night and will be competing for the Oscar this evening.

Dick will be presenting The Invisible War in Columbia this Wednesday at 7 as part of the Based on a True Story Conference. He’ll also be participating in our panel “Military Secrets: Filming the Armed Forces” on Friday at 2:30 pm at the Odd Fellows Lounge.

A Tucson native who maintains strong connections with the film community there, Dick was in Arizona introducing a personal favorite, 1987′s classic muckraking/vérité hybrid The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, to the audience of the Loft Film Fest. (Considering his own films, it’s a choice that makes a lot of sense). We talked about the films spanning his 25-year career in feature documentary and the themes that drive his work. Dick’s films are renowned for their frankness, so it should come as little surprise that Dick himself is just as straightforward: Our conversation ended up reflecting the practical realities of commercially-oriented independent filmmaking as much as his own unique directorial vision.

(I would like to thank @TheLoftCinema and @LoftFilmFest for providing access to their offices to
conduct this interview.)

-Kyle Puetz

T/F: Starting out with Private Practices: the clinical and discreet depiction of sex with that film and the experimental and in-your-face depiction of sex within Sick . . . could you talk about your aims in regard to the different depictions within each movie?

KD: That’s interesting. With Sick, I was really guided by Bob. With the exception of “Autopsy” (the Nine
Inch Nails music video), I think most of the sexual imagery was shot by him or was shot by Sheree or
him. “Autopsy” I shot. One of the reasons I took on this film was I was really interested in seeing this
kind of imagery in a film. And particularly with the penis nailing, which had been shot before for his
installation . . . I’d already decided to put that in the film, and part of the challenge was, how do you
make a film that, by that time you get to that, the audience understands why it’s there . . . that it should be
there. That was a kind of challenge that I kind of had to rise to.

I guess the equivalent of the penis-nailing in Private Practices is the sexological, when the young client
takes a speculum and looks into the sex surrogate’s vagina and she kind of guides him through and talks
about it. I didn’t shoot it as directly. I guess I was concerned it was my first feature documentary and I
had no idea what the market was. I was actually a little discreet, I would say. There was no frontal male
nudity. In retrospect, that might have been a good decision in that it did OK. Playboy picked it up, and,
I don’t know, they may not have wanted male nudity. And overseas, it had a pretty decent television
release. I know there was a bit of a double standard there, but I wasn’t really sophisticated, wasn’t sure
what the market was, so I kind of played it a little safe.

T/F: So back to Sick. Did you get an impression of Bob as a provocateur or was he just so comfortable
with what he did sexually that he had a very open self-presentation?

KD: Well, I think both. Bob was definitely very open. I mean, Bob was one of the most self-focused people
I’ve ever met. You could not get him to focus on anything else. At one point, I wanted to . . . What’s the
Pasolini film?

T/F: Saló?

KD: No, not Saló. It’s a documentary where he goes and interviews different parts of Italian society about
sex… Soccer players and prostitutes… It’s pretty good. It’s really pretty good. It’s got Pasolini on
camera, and he’s interacting people from different parts of Italian society (The film is Pasolini’s Love
Meetings). I thought, God, I could do this in the United States and Bob would be perfect in that role.
And he would have been. But he wasn’t interested because the film wasn’t about him. I proposed that
film to him two years before I proposed making Sick. As an artist he was like, ‘I’m going to do my
work, you can cover me if you want. It’s fine’. So there was a quality of, there was just sort of openness.
And that related to Sheree’s attitude toward him, which was “I’m going to do with you whatever I want,
and part of that is exhibiting you’. Both of them knew there was a provocative element to that, and
liked that. For audiences that weren’t provoked, they were totally fine in coming to them in a direct
way. But for audiences that were provoked, that was also of interest to them.

T/F: I thought it was interesting that Sick and Private Practices both had scenes in which the parents
were confronted with the non-traditional sexual activities of their children. Did something about
that particularly resonate with you?

KD: You know, I always put parents in my films whenever I can. I did with Twist of Faith. I’m doing it
with this new film I’m doing, Invisible War, about rape in the military, about female soldiers who
are raped by male soldiers. And whenever I can get the parents in . . . Why? I don’t know. My dad died
about fifteen years ago, but I had a very close relationship with my dad and even closer with my mom.
I’m always interested in that kind of dynamic. Film is sort of made for — and so is the novel — for
examining family relationships. The more interesting and outrageous, provocative or ambitious a child
is, the more interesting it is to get the parent’s perspective.

T/F: When during the filming of Sick were you aware that you would go until Bob’s death?

KD: Oh, that was right from the beginning. When I sat down with Bob and Sheree and proposed making
a film, they said fine. They really liked Private Practices. But Bob said, ‘Look there’s only one
requirement. You have to film until my death, through my death.’ That response was a real gift for
a documentary filmmaker. His work was so much about his illness and his impending death that it
just seemed to make sense. I think in his own way he would liked to have done work all the way to
the point of death — definitely, a lot of his work was about his death — he would liked to have done
work all the way through his death, doing work around it, writing diaries around it if he could. I mean,
he almost did anyway. I think he saw this film as kind of an extension of that desire. But he never
saw Sick as his work in any way. Like Derrida, Bob was very clear that ‘This is not my work, this is
somebody else’s work documenting me.’

T/F: Speaking of that, Sheree Rose’s role as producer in the film. Did she have no influence in how the
film was edited?

KD: She didn’t have a say, but she had a very strong influence. They both did. We were very close, and we
were continually talking about things. I was continually asking her about footage, discussing it with
her. Asking her if she had more material. In that sense, it was very collaborative. But, you know, she’s not a very detail-oriented person, really. . . [laughs] Her focus was always on excess.

T/F: Because she’s portrayed very ambivalently in the film. Both positive and negative…

KD: I know it comes off that way but I don’t see it that way. I see how audiences can. The main character
of any film is always going to be the protagonist, and anybody who has any conflict with him is going
to be seen in light of that and therefore seen negatively. Then, of course, submissives tend to get all the
attention as well, and the top is . . .  really, the top is a much harder job. [laughs] The scene where she’s
shooting, she’s stoned, she wakes him up, she wants to talk about how she still wants to top him and
have S+M sex with him even though is very ill — to me, I saw that kind of desire as the reason Bob fell in
love with her. Particularly if you’re a submissive, you want your top to top you all the time. So I found
that very lovable. I mean, it may seem crazy, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less lovable.

Also, I think this is what happens to any sexual relationship when one party gets ill. The other party
still wants to have sex. The fact that there’s still some desire is a good thing. A lot of audiences, as
you said, saw it as kind of ambivalent, or that Sheree was just being selfish, but I never did. I saw it as
— well, I guess you wouldn’t say charming — but as passionate. I still desire you even if you’re very
sick. I think that’s very positive. I still want to fuck you, still want to have sex with you, even if you can
barely move. And even after you’re dead. I saw that as very sweet and very positive. I understand that
people can react and see that in a negative light. I never did.

T/F: Moving onto the next few films . . . In retrospect, Chain Camera seems kind of prescient. Do you
feel like you anticipated YouTube a little bit?

KD: Yeah, yeah. Not that other people didn’t as well, but I was thinking a lot during that time and before
about giving cameras out to people, about all the footage that was being shot. In the nineties I had
this idea of setting up an archive of all the home video footage that had ever been shot over the past
several decades. It wasn’t as efficient or elegant as YouTube by any means. But what was interesting
is that after I made the film, in 2001, I came to see this confessional speaking to the camera footage
somewhat as my style, my signature – I used it in my next three films. Then in 2005, I was looking
Chain Camera again for the first time in several years, and I was like, ‘Oh shit, it looks like YouTube.
My whole style has just been stomped on, in a way.’

T/F: Was Chain Camera happening at the same time as Derrida?

KD: Yeah, I started Derrida, and then I gathered the footage for Chain Camera and edited it, then went
back and finished Derrida.

T/F: I was wondering whether Derrida’s thoughts on narrative had any influence in how Chain
Camera was put together.

KD: Not really, no. I would say no. I was pretty much aware of what the possibilities for Chain Camera
were before I started making Derrida. Especially after Sick and working with the footage Sheree
shot. One of the wonderful things about Sheree is that she was compelled to videotape, even in very
inappropriate situations, like when people didn’t want her to shoot, or when she was high, just like
she was compelled to try to push Bob. As a result, she shot footage that no one else would dare to
shoot. And most of this footage was very dynamic, roughly hand held, made all the better because how
unstable it was – it flew all over and made all these cutting opportunities. It made me want to do an
entire film of footage shot entirely by the subjects. But I wouldn’t say Chain Camera wasn’t influenced by Derrida.

T/F: How did you decide which of the students to include within the film?

KD: Well, we tried to include a range. It was a challenge. The tricky thing with that film is that it’s
a sequence of short films, in a sense. I continually rearranged the order of these segments, and
substituted them in and out, in order to see how it altered the subtle direction or arc of the film. But we
wanted a range of students. We had about half a dozen other really good ones that never made it into
the film. We had one which was really great, where this girl was coming home from a party where’d
she’d dropped acid. It was early morning, and she was walking home, still shooting and we here her
POV and hear her say: ‘Man, I’m so fucking high, I’m so fucking high, I just want to get to bed.’ Then
we see her approach her apartment and we see her hand reach into the frame to open the door. But it’s
locked and she realizes she doesn’t have the key and she starts flipping out and saying: ‘Shit, my mom’s
going to come home in a couple hours, I’ve got to get inside and get in bed.’ Then you see her, still
shooting, trying to figure out how to get into her apartment. There were just moments like that were
kind of incredible.

T/F: I think it’s kind of funny that she tries to avoid trouble, and at the same time, there’s a possibility
that she’ll be in this feature film.

KD: No, it’s true. [laughs] It’s true. They were great. One of the interesting things, though, that I found
especially with people talking to the camera: They didn’t really have an idea of who their audience was.
I mean, they couldn’t, because they weren’t filmmakers. So they were talking to no one and everyone
at the same time. At times it felt like they were almost talking to God. In fact, in one film, The End,
where we gave cameras to people in a hospice, one did begin talking to God. It was amazing how
people opened up, how they used the cameras. I found it really fascinating.

T/F: Then, of course, you did the same in Twist of Faith. But do you mind we come back to that one?

KD: No, no.

T/F: All right, I’m going to repeat a quote in Derrida I found really interesting: “Echo, cursed by the jealous gods, was never allowed to speak for herself, and was only allowed to repeat the ends of others’ phrases. But Echo, in her loving and infinite cleverness, arranges it so that in repeating the last syllables of the words of Narcissus, she speaks in such a way that the words become her own. In a certain way, she appropriates his language. In repeating the language of another, she signs her own love. In repeating, she responds to him. In repeating, she communicates with him. She speaks in her own name by just repeating his words.” As a documentary filmmaker, do you identify with Echo?

KD: Interesting that you brought that up, because my co-director Amy Ziering and I actually talked
about that when we were working with that scene. As documentary filmmakers we are Echo, bound
by whatever our subjects do or say, and our film can only speak by repeating what they do or
say. Because that’s all we have to work with. [laughs] I haven’t thought about that in a long time.
That’s interesting, though, because there is also a similarity between Echo’s love of Narcissus and
a documentary filmmaker’s “love” of their subject. There’s a real love — I don’t think “love” is
completely inappropriate in terms of the relationship, not necessarily to the person (though that can
be true, too) but to the character you as a filmmaker are fashioning. On the one hand, you’re trying to
bring out something as rich and as full as you can, but on the other hand, there’s this sort of gift that you’re giving, this sort of obligation or gift that you’re giving — and it’s not to the character, because this character doesn’t exist, but it’s not really to the person either, because you’re only working with the footage that you’ve shot and you’re only constructing an aspect of the person. In other words, the character. So there’s this kind of gift going back sort of the same way as Echo, but I’m not sure to whom . . . [laughs] I’ll have to think about it.

T/F: That brings me to the second part of the question I had. Because Derrida questions who is better
represented by the film, the subject or the actual biographer, I was wondering whether you
intended naming the documentary Derrida to be kind of ironic.

KD: [laughs] That you mean it really wasn’t about Derrida?

T/F: To some extent, yeah. Or maybe the title addresses the character versus the subject?

KD: No . . . That’s a good read, but no. I mean, we chose that title because the name Derrida is gold. So
many people have been influenced by him, really struggled to understand him – there’s such a draw
to the name itself. What was interesting to me is that the style of the film ended up being this kind
of crossover between an art film and a vérité film — because what I did was pull out all the vérité
moments that that were shot, everything that had happened before and after the official interview and
all the momentary asides, and included almost all of those in the film. That’s much of the vérité in the
film. But the film also includes scenes like the opening scene that is a tracking shot of driving through
Paris and its suburbs with Derrida’s voiceover. It ended up being a kind of balance between an art film
and vérité. That isn’t to say other people haven’t done that. But that was the real challenge and struggle
editorially, because people wanted both. An art film about Derrida: everybody of course wanted that,
they were dying for that. And, at the same time, they wanted to see behind the scenes because this is
almost a sainted figure in some ways. But those two genres don’t necessarily go together. Oftentimes,
people don’t even look at documentary as art films. I’ve sort of accepted that. It’s because most people
don’t really understand how documentaries are made, especially vérité documentary. People write
poetry, people are in bands, people see movies from the time they’re toddlers, so they have a sense of
those mediums, but I don’t think people understand how vérité documentaries are made really . . . and the
strange intensity of that experience.

T/F: Towards the end — obviously, it’s not very “objective” throughout — but toward the end, there’s
filming of the filming. For example, you see a shot at the beginning of Derrida going throughout
the streets. But later we see shots of the same situation, but the filmmakers are being filmed.
Could you talk about your intentions there?

KD: In its own small way, there was something historically significant about our coverage of Derrida
because he had never allowed that anywhere else. For many years, he wouldn’t even put his own photo
on the back of a book. He was very open to working with people, but he was very controlling about
his image. I mean, in the film he says he’s a narcissist, and as a narcissist, his image is never good
enough for him. I had a friend take this beautiful photo of him, and he said, ‘Oh, no, I look too much
like a philosopher.’ Well, OK, you are. I think the reason those scenes have impact, though, is that
not necessarily that it was me covering him — it would have worked with any crew covering him
— is that he was so frequently commenting on the filmmaking itself and his position as a subject of
a documentary. But also I think one of the reasons there is something attractive about the film was
there’s very little footage of him in day to day moments that exists anywhere else. If you want to see
Derrida now, you have to see the film.

T/F: So moving on to Twist of Faith now. How did you first start the project: Did you find the subject
or did you want to address the topic?

KD: No, what happened was that HBO came to Eddie Schmidt and I — he was the film’s producer — and
said, ‘Do you want to make a film about clergy sexual abuse?’ Holy shit, yes. Apparently, another
filmmaker had tried to work on it and had bowed out – I was never sure why. Maybe they were too
Catholic . . . but it astounded me that anyone would not jump at the chance to make this film, because it’s
such incredible subject matter.

Sheila Nevins, the head of docs at HBO, really wanted a film made on the subject, She’s a fascinating
person, and extremely influential. In some ways I think that three of the most important influences on
US documentary film throughout the ’90s and into the 2000s were Sheila Nevins, Michael Moore and
Sundance. And she loves vérité – loves it. I think in many ways she kept verite alive after its heyday
through the ’70s and early ’80s. Her original idea for Twist of Faith (she really liked Chain Camera)
was to go into a parish where some of the priests were accused or rumored of abusing children, and
give home video cameras to everybody in the parish and get their perspective and then cut a film with
that footage. That sounded great to us – but we found it was impossible to get inside a parish like that -
- the priests and bishops would never allow it. But in the process of looking for that parish, we started
working with SNAP, the Survivors’ Network for those Abused by Priests – it’s an advocacy group and
that has local offices around the country as well as national conventions of survivors.

T/F: The St. Louis meeting takes place in the film.

KD: Exactly, exactly. And we got in contact with the Toledo branch and at just the right time. The local
SNAP person told us ‘There’s this fireman, Tony Comes, who was abused by a priest who is going to
speak publicly and do his first interview tomorrow evening’. We flew up the next day and shot his
interview with the paper that night.

T/F: And just as in Sick, he already had a wealth of footage available for you?

KD: Not a wealth. But he had one amazing piece of footage, which he had shot months before we even met
him, and days after he moved into the house he lived in. For him, this house was his dream house –
it was a middle-class in Toledo, nothing special — it was nice — but he had never thought he could
live in a place like that. He was really happy for a few days. Then he finds out the priest who’d abused
him lives five doors down. And so he took his daughter and put her on his lap and filmed him telling
her not go down the street or ever talk to that man, because that man had done something very bad to
him when he was little. And the reason Tony filmed that was that he was just beginning to think that ‘I
might be in a lawsuit, and I want this as documentation of the kind of pain I have to go through.’ He
also shot some really wonderful footage of he and his wife skydiving, and we used that. It was just
extremely poetic, because at the point you see this footage in the film they were right on the verge of
breaking up, and you see this ecstasy when things used to be good. But he was great with the camera.
One in three subjects is great with a camera, and he was just great.

T/F: So did you encourage him, once you met, to just continue doing that?

KD: Oh, yeah. I think maybe he had the same kind of camera we did, actually, so he used that. But even
now, with the film Invisible War, we have four or five camera out with subjects now.

T/F: Tony Comes is a really interesting in that, at least initially, he’s the antithesis of what we expect
victims to look like. Could you talk about what drew you to him as an individual?

KD: That’s part of it. He has, on camera, this sort of Marlboro Man kind of persona. He’s a little different
in person, but his style just works really great on camera. Very open, very emotional, which was
good because you can see how the trauma affects him in his day-to-day life. Oftentimes, people are
just trying to cover it up and he was really open with it. It was a challenge editing, though, because I
remember the first time we met him, even before he’d agreed to be in the film, he started talking about
his abuse, and then started crying, and I thought, ‘Jesus, I just wish we were rolling.’ Of course, you
can’t be rolling before somebody’s said yes — this is always the dilemma. But it turned out he’d cry all
the time, so one of our jobs was cutting around the crying, which is unusual. Usually, you cut for it. It
was actually good that he’s an emotional person.

But as far as the victim thing, you say he’s not a “typical victim”: This is really interesting because this
is the dilemma that survivors — particularly I would say, of sexual assault or abuse — face. Because
of their trauma “typical victims” often have this sort of “crazy” element that comes not only from the
abuse or assault, but also from the fact that this abuse is never publicly acknowledged – the survivor
isn’t believed and the perpetrator is never punished in any way. This craziness can sometimes make
them somewhat unapproachable as a person and as a film subject. And if they’re unapproachable,
audiences don’t identify with them. And if audiences don’t identify with them, their experiences don’t
enter into the public realm. And then that isolates them even more. And makes them even “crazier”.
Which is why it’s so important that these stories continue to be told.

It’s also a dilemma for the filmmaker, because you can’t take the “typical person” who’s traumatized
because he won’t or she will be hard to identify with. That’s why with Tony, it worked. And we’re
running into the same challenge, and I think we’re succeeding, in Invisible War. Because these women
are equally traumatized; it’s equally devastating to be raped in the military as it is to be raped by a
priest.

T/F: In relation to the film you’re showing today (The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On) . . . Twist of
Faith kind of has the same theme: an individual whose personal experience causes him to speak
truth to power. Was that an influence at all?

KD: It’s always been kind of a subtle influence. I saw it when it first came out, in ’88. It is by far the most
memorable documentary I’ve ever seen. I continually think about it. I think about it more and more now
as my films have taken a more political and confrontative turn. Twist of Faith was kind of the start of
these more political, confrontational films, if you will, although Sick, obviously, has a lot of political
elements to it. Yeah, I do think about it. There’s a propriety, even when you’re making a political film
that is difficult to go beyond. So, you know, there’s moments when you’re watching The Emporer’s
Naked Army Marches On that you’re almost thinking, ‘Well, the filmmaker should have intervened,’
or ‘They shouldn’t be even covering this subject. They’re just way too confrontational and crazy and
irresponsible.’ The main subject ended up trying to kill somebody — you know, not on camera, but he
proposed it to the filmmaker to have it covered on camera. But at the same time, it does make for very
riveting cinema, which brings in audiences and helps the cause. We’re continuing to deal with that in
every film. How far can we push things and not lose whatever sympathy comes with propriety?

T/F: You mention that your films have become more explicitly political. Do you feel that your
responsibility toward your audience has changed?

KD: Well, the way I feel is that I’ve just added another element to my films. I’ve done vérité films, I know
how to do them. I love them. I also really love films that take on a political issue, particularly one that
hasn’t been taken on. So it’s even more of a challenge to do the two: to break into new political territory
but at the same time have a vérité element, which is always harder than a non-vérité element. It’s more
work dealing with a subject almost all the time, digging up vérite. Sometimes, on the non-vérité side, it
can be very difficult to get the interview you need to get. That’s oftentimes the real trick: How do you
pull in somebody who normally wouldn’t speak? But for the most part in terms of production and post,
it’s harder to make a vérité film, and many ways, in terms of filmmaking, much more thrilling. So I see
these films as trying to put these elements together. The Emperor’s Naked Army is a classic example of
it succeeding brilliantly.

As far as the political films that are out now, I’m glad they’re being made: both George W Bush
(because he angered so many documentary filmmakers) and Michael Moore can claim some credit for
this proliferation of political films – although I think it’s on the wane – which is too bad because I don’t
think the form of confrontative, verite, political films has been explored fully.

T/F: Do you think your personal experiences, with Private Practices or Sick for instance, influenced or
informed This Film Is Not Yet Rated?

KD: Ah, in terms of censorship? You know, Sick was censored in Australia, and it was censored . . . what’s the contemporary art museum in D.C – the Hirshhorn. It was scheduled and advertised to play there two nights but it only played one – I’m fairly certain the Republicans squashed the second screening. But those films didn’t influence the making of This Film Is Not Yet Rated.

What did motivate me more was the issue of the studios’ domination of the industry. This was much
more about the issue of independence in film. In my mind, the film ultimately has less to do with
censorship than with the way Hollywood dominates the film industry — and not just the ratings
system. Which, by the way, is something you see and feel most when you live in Los Angeles, where
you see and live with it everyday. People in Los Angeles understand the film business better than
anybody else in the country, so sometimes when you read people from outside writing about it, you
just kind of laugh. It’s like if you don’t live in New York and are not close to the banking industry, your
understanding of it is all second, third-hand.

It about this incredible cartel that’s dominating all aspects of the business: not only the ratings, not
only the business side but even aesthetically. And everybody immediately adjusts to their demands,
even “independent” filmmakers — as soon as independent filmmakers become successful, 90% of
them just adjust their thinking toward the studios and as a result, the U.S. film industry is so pathetic in
many ways, and independent film is pretty much dead, unless it’s in an isolated pocket away from Los
Angeles. But the film was more a hate letter to the studios, that’s really what it was.

T/F: Your last two films have really shone a light on those in a position of power and influence,
and issues of transparency. I was just wondering, as a filmmaker, you felt you had the same
obligation towards transparency.

KD: In what I do?

T/F: Mm-hmm.

KD: That’s interesting. That’s a good question. I don’t really feel that I do, and the reason is that if my
decisions were affecting other people then, yes. If I were doing something in my film that somehow
impacted other people and other people came and said, ‘I need to know what’s going on,’ then yes. But
I’m demanding transparency about these issues because these issues are affecting lives of millions
of Americans. It’s not because I want to pry into somebody’s private life and open it up. I mean, who
doesn’t, but… [laughs] But take Outrage, for example. I wasn’t interested in just outing politicians
who were closeted. That didn’t matter. What mattered was that these politicians were claiming to
be straight and voting anti-gay in large part to protect the fact that they were in the closet. And that
hypocrisy, and their votes, impacts millions of people.

But that’s a good question. I mean, I have to be very careful. When you’re undertaking an investigation,
there are all kinds of grey areas you’re getting into. That’s a lot of investigation in Outrage that never
ended up in the film because we couldn’t 100% corroborate it. The film about the making of Outrage
is much more interesting than the film, and that is completely the truth. I know filmmakers often say
that, but in this case it’s certainly true. Ultimately, though, your objective, once you’re in this political
realm, is to get this story out. You can’t compromise that by showing all the grey areas, because in the
political realm, people don’t celebrate complexity, they will just attack the film and blunt its message.
And this grey area, though interesting, is ultimately not that relevant, because it’s not really what you’re
focusing on.

T/F: Would you like to talk a bit more about The Invisible War?

KD: There are no accurate statistics, but some figures are as high as one in three women who are in the U.S. military are either raped or sexually assaulted by a male soldier or multiple male soldiers. This has been going on since World War II, when women started being a part of the military. It’s very possible that there have been more than half a million rapes or sexual assaults. And there’s been a very, very small amount of prosecutions. I mean, prosecutions with punishments of three years or more are probably less than 1%. Often officers are protecting these perpetrators, who are frequently serial rapists who isolate who isolate and assault new recruits again and again. The military is just beginning to address this – but it’s moving much too slowly. And the trauma these women experience is profound. It’s not just the rape, which is bad enough, it’s that as soon as they’re raped, they’re viewed as damaged goods, and nobody comes to their support. If they come forward, they’re viewed as damaging unit cohesion and their sometimes even raped again if they come forward. And they have incredibly high incidence of PTSD, higher than women — they’re not supposed to be in combat, but many women are — higher than women who are in combat. And 40% of women who are homeless veterans have been raped or sexually assaulted.

Their lives are destroyed. We’ve interviewed about 20 survivors on camera, and my producer Amy
Ziering has talked to another 60 . . . and the stories are unbelievably horrific. We’ve talked to several
women who were single and who were raped by married men, and the women were charged with
adultery. In a time of war, nobody really wants to touch this subject or take on the military. But rape
happens just as frequently when we’re not at war – if there ever was such a time. I’m really committed
to the subject and actually very angry. Veterans are a forgotten population, victims of sexual assault
in the military — and it happens to men, too — are a totally forgotten population, and I want to help
change that.

Posted February 24, 2013
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