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Creating “Capturing Reality”

Pepita Ferrari takes us behind the scenes of the NFB’s “Capturing Reality: the Art of Documentary”

Errol Morris from Capturing Reality, dir. Pepita Ferrari (2009)

Was it the moment that Werner Herzog walked into my cramped hotel room, or the end of the Albert Maysles interview when he gave that angelic smile he has and told me, “I enjoyed that,” or was it when I was huddling over one little space heater in a cold London garage totally entranced by Kim Longinotto and her great humanity?

There were many peaks along the way of creating Capturing Reality: the Art of Documentary. For a documentary filmmaker, this was the chance of a lifetime to engage in a long, ongoing discussion about our wondrous profession with some of the world’s top documentarians.

Let’s go back to the beginning. That would be in February 2007, when I was sitting in the office of Tom Perlmutter, then the director general of the NFB’s English program. He asked me to investigate the idea of creating a documentary about the craft of contemporary documentary filmmaking, an idea he had been mulling over for a few years. It was only when I was well into the process that I fully understood just how huge an undertaking I had agreed to pursue, but by then I had disappeared into the belly of the beast we call “documentary.”

To ascertain just how such a creature could be wrangled into some kind of coherent shape, I screened analogous productions — Edgecodes, Visions of Light and Jon Fauer’s Cinematographer Style. I did a small pre-shoot with five international filmmakers who were at the NFB for an in-house master class: Hubert Sauper, Laura Poitras, Jennifer Fox, Emmanuel Priou and Rakesh Sharma. I reviewed previously shot NFB interview and master class material gathered by my superb collaborator Michelle van Beusekom who Tom had designated as producer (in addition to her “day” job as assistant director general). Eventually, I submitted a comprehensive, tidy proposal that made sense of it all.

And then began a manic period of making lists of names. Fifteen names were thought of at first—which soon became 20 and eventually 40. Then from Michelle’s first cold calls, the confirmations began to come in … Kim Longinotto, Al Maysles, interest from Barbara Kopple … and our ambition and confidence in the project grew.

Talk began of possibly making it a birthday present for the NFB for its 70th anniversary coming up in 2009. It was, after all, here at the NFB that John Grierson, who had coined the term “documentary,” and his collaborators gave birth to a doc tradition in Canada.

It was with equal measures of nervousness and excitement that we moved from the theoretical to the pragmatic. There were so many things to consider: putting together the right production team, creating a film that would reach beyond traditional documentary circles, maintaining gender balance, being culturally inclusive without going off on a never-ending globe-trotting quest, and creating a dynamic blend of different stylistic approaches.

Over the next few months, people would confirm, not respond, remain as potentials or drop off. Each day brought new surprises of who was on board and who was not. Production schedule conflicts kept Nicholas Philibert, Michael Apted, Rithy Pahn, Spike Lee and Agnes Varda from participating. Luckily, dealing with the work at hand to prepare for the interviews kept me inside a bit of a protective bubble.

Gabriella Romano had come on as our formidable researcher/coordinator unearthing piles of articles, online sources and books about our interviewees. My goals were to approach each interview with an in-depth knowledge of the director and their work, and to connect with that inner passion, which drove them to create the kind of films they did. But there were so many different voices, so many different films—it was not obvious how to connect them and build some kind of cohesive narrative arc. I bandied it about with Michelle and we roughed out a craft-based outline at the proposal stage that served us well. There were literally hundreds of questions to compose and vast numbers of films to be watched in order to prepare the questions.

Ultimately, I screened over 150 excellent documentaries, each one of which transported me into the world of their maker. Docs like Hubert Sauper’s Darwin’s Nightmare and Nettie Wild’s A Place Called Chiapas amazed for their complex yet human story telling. De Lestrade’s The Staircase and Broomfield’s The Selling of a Serial Killer felt like watching the best courtroom dramas. I was thrilled by the creative innovation of Jessica Yu’s In the Realms of the Unreal, Serge Giguère’s Le Roi du Drum and Velcrow Ripper’s Bones of the Forest. I was moved to tears by Heddy Honigmann’s The Underground Orchestra and Kim Longinotto’s The Day I Will Never Forget as I was by the political struggles of the people in Patricio Guzman’s Chile: Obstinate Memory, Rakesh Sharma’s Final Solution and Jean-Pierre Lledo’s Algérie: L’histoire à ne pas dire.

Jessica Yu from Capturing Reality, dir. Pepita Ferrari (2009)

July 12th, 2007. The start of an intense six-month interview period beginning with Paul Cowan and Alanis Obomsawin offers me my first taste of how individual the process will be with each one. Barely two weeks later, I do four more interviews in Toronto: Jennifer Baichwal, Velcrow Ripper, Manfred Becker and Barry Stevens. All four interviews offer great insights and I begin to grasp how difficult it’s going to be to edit with so much material.

I decide to shoot the interviews against black. With such a variety of subjects and the accompanying clips from their films, it’s a way to avoid visual chaos and to allow the viewer to really focus on the interview subjects’ faces and personalities. Working with Marc Gadoury, who has shot my last three films, I know I can count on him to maximize the look with his superb lighting and sensitive camera work.

Less than two weeks later, we’re in Toronto to take advantage of the presence of a number of international doc directors at TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) 2007—Scott Hicks, Sabiha Sumar, Jessica Yu, Nick Broomfield and, of course, the iconic Werner Herzog. He isn’t somebody who would suffer fools lightly, I think to myself as I sweat over what questions to ask him and which of his 60-some films to focus the interview on.

I finally select Little Dieter Needs to Fly to discuss his concept of “ecstatic truth”, the visually stunning and deeply moving Lessons of Darkness and the feature documentary he is promoting at the festival, Encounters at the End of the World. I feel like I’m on the high diving board at the deep end of the pool as I steady my nerves and plunge into our interview. Werner is surprisingly gentle and thoughtful with his responses but doesn’t want to talk about the famous “eating his shoe” incident anymore.

The next two months become a bit of a blur—fragments of real life intersect with the work at hand: the otherworldliness of the Moroccan-inspired Embassy Hotel in Santa Monica, where I stay in mid-October to interview Kevin Macdonald, Joan Churchill and to re-interview Nick Broomfield (whose “peeps” in Toronto had cut our interview short); the frustration of turning down Joan’s invite to a private screening of Battle for Haditha because I am leaving the day before; Nick with his multiple phone devices ringing uncontrollably as we try to begin the interview. Swinging back along the west coast, I stop in Vancouver to do an interview with the indomitable Nettie Wild and have the best coffee in the world just a block from the NFB.

Then I’m back in Montreal to prepare for a massive block of eight interviews in Europe scheduled for mid-November—Denis Gheerbrant, Stan Neumann, Claire Simon, Jean-Xavier De Lestrade, Patricio Guzman in Paris, Heddy Honigmann in Amsterdam and Kim Longinotto and Molly Dineen in London. (Insert flash frames here of a brief saunter through Père Lachaisse Cemetery, supper at the fabulous A Tavola restaurant on Kadijksplein in Amsterdam and a funky recording studio in Hammersmith where their staff are still recovering from the previous night’s recording session with the Sex Pistols.)

Just prior to departure, the NFB French program hire Diane Poitras as a researcher to assist with preparing many of the Paris interviews as well as those scheduled for January with Québecois directors Catherine Martin, Serge Giguère, Sylvain L’Espérance, Jean-Daniel Lafond and Michel Brault. I love each of their works and am thrilled they’ve agreed to be included. Diane’s experience and academic background gives me an in-depth understanding of the rich history and unique development of Québecois documentary.

Mid-February, 2008. For the next five months, my stalwart editor Barbara Brown and I struggle through over sixty hours of interview material. I frequently refer to the editing phase of Capturing Reality as being synonymous with slashing one’s way through dense jungle undergrowth. Each day I walk in announcing very optimistically that the next section of the film is sure to be easier, which, of course, never proves to be the case.

Behind the scenes, Sylvia Mezei works relentlessly on acquiring rights and clearances for over 65 documentaries from around the world (that will ultimately form a document eight inches thick). Complicating her task is the fact that our line-up of speakers is constantly changing. For me, this is probably one of the most nerve-wracking periods of the whole production. The thought of not being able to use a particular excerpt of The Thin Blue Line or Lessons of Darkness that we had built a whole sequence around seems devastating.

Ultimately, the challenge was the same as with any documentary: to tell an engaging story. In this instance, the story was of documentary in our time. It was never a question of trying to hear more or less from any one given interview because they were all fascinating, and to compare Edouardo Coutinho or Jean-Daniel Lafond to Nick Broomfield or Alanis Obomsawin was and is impossible. The bottom line was always: Who will move our story forward?

By July 11th, we had a solid two hours of material assembled, but, as rich as it was, it was undeniably didactic. In the next two weeks, Barbara and I judiciously and nervously excised a good 20 minutes and completely transformed the film. Although mentally and emotionally drained, I recall the distinct light-headed euphoria that ensued. Next it was on to Olivier Calvert for sound editing and to Robert M. Lepage to work his music magic. The NFB people we had in post-production did stellar work on the project—Brigitte Sénéchal, Pierre Ferlette, Denis Gathelier, Geoff Mitchell, Philippe Raymond.

Now, in hindsight, what would I say was key to the whole interview process? First and foremost was maintaining an objective and open mind about each filmmaker’s work. My task was not to create a personal film or a critique of the documentaries, but to put forward a survey of where documentary is now.

As we all know, documentary is at somewhat of a crossroads, its shape and content being impacted by new technologies and the role of media in our society.

Equally important was going in well prepared: watching at least three to four docs for each interview subject and doing several drafts of the key questions. In the interviews themselves, I was faced with the delicate balancing act of sticking to the pre-ordained questions that would fit the structure while maintaining a conversational flow. And what a conversation it was—the thoughtful Sylvain L’Espérance, the razor-sharp Molly Dineen, the provocative Errol Morris, the transcendent Velcrow Ripper, the thoroughly amusing and astute Barry Stevens, the insightful Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, the charismatic Patricio Guzman, the magical Heddy Honnigman, the generous Serge Giguère—the list goes on.

The irony in all this being how little we as documentarians ever get to step back and reflect on what we do, constantly engaged as we are in the next idea or even the basic question of how to survive in a world that seems to simultaneously embrace the genre and yet impose the most difficult of circumstances to make them. It’s interesting that, as Jennifer Fox pointed out, there are far greater numbers of documentaries being made and yet there are not more great films. This suggests that there are some hard questions we need to be asking ourselves about the form itself and where it is going.

My hope is that Capturing Reality will help facilitate that kind of reflection, questioning and dialogue about what we do and that I will be out there joining in the discussion. I am still processing all the information I gathered but this much I know—the heart of the matter lies in telling a good story in a way that is meaningful to both the creator and the viewer. And this will never change. Oh, and one more thing … Happy 70th NFB!

Capturing Reality premiered at IDFA and is distributed as a 2-DVD box set (with 4 hours of bonus material) by the NFB and Mongrel Media in Canada. Watch interviews online at nfb.ca/capturingreality