What’s Up, Doc? Doc Talk for Apr. 11

Photo courtesy of Hot Docs

By Pat Mullen

What’s up, doc fans? This week’s round up of documentary news and views offers a brief snapshot of all things hot to doc over the last few days.

Up first is a great conversation that furthers previous posts about the documentary Vaxxed and the ensuing debates about the reliability, objectivity, and accuracy of documentaries. The New York Times speaks with a number of figures in the doc community about films such as Vaxxed, Tickled , and the controversial Aretha Franklin doc Amazing Grace to see what standards and expectations doc fans should use while determining the “accuracy” of non-fiction films. The article speaks with Patricia Auferhide of American University, for example, who worries that filmmakers face legal reprisals if they play fast and loose with facts in search of poetic truth. On the other hand, TIFF Docs programmer Thom Powers agrees that more docs nowadays take liberties with claims of accuracy, but he adds that this challenge may benefit festivals, saying, “Because documentaries are getting more ambitious, I think there is a healthy anxiety for any film festival programmer to be worrying over the works that they’re presenting. If I didn’t feel anxious, it would be a sign that I’m really playing it safe with the films I show.” What do you think, doc fans? When does accuracy become “accuracy”? When does this shift hurt a film?

Questions of accuracy arise with many docs that tell stories of celebrities and familiar personas, and the most recent bit of stone-turning appears with the Gloria Vanderbilt film Nothing Left Unsaid from What Happened, Miss Simone? director Liz Garbus. The Daily Mail writes that the film neglects to mention her son Chris within the portrait of the wealthy matriarch and her other son, newscaster Anderson Cooper. Does an omission (albeit one as large as a family member) merit putting a documentary under the microscope, or are these choices simply part of the filmmaking process? In POV’s point of view, the doc’s pretty good regardless, as Jason Gorber notes in his Sundance report.

Next up to bat is The Globe and Mail with a look at the new Ken Burns doc on baseball legend Jackie Robinson. The review reminds readers of Historica Canada’s Heritage Minute about the early days of Robinson’s career playing for the Montreal Expos, but writer John Doyle situates this moment of Canadian history within larger scope of Burns’s four-hour documentary. Jackie Robinson, which airs April 11 and 12 on PBS, sounds like an especially relevant slice of history as the new baseball season begins. Doyle writes that this all-encompassing doc rips open the culture and sociology of Robinson’s career, which one sees in the Heritage Minute’s depiction of racial tensions on the field. “The production is phenomenally rich in archival footage,” notes Doyle, “but Burns, as usual, does not rely on images alone. The doc is a true education in the sociology and economics of the United States during Robinson’s life. Everything, Burns knows, has context. And he sure does provide it.” Tune in this week and let us know in the comments if Jackie Robinson strike a homer!

Watch the Heritage Minute here:

At a different end of the spectrum, Indiewire asks a provocative question about diversity and opportunity behind the camera: why are women filmmakers finding more opportunities in documentaries? Reporting from the Full Frame festival, Chris O’Falt invites several female doc-makers to share their opinions and experiences to illuminate why non-fiction might be the land of opportunity (comparatively speaking) for female filmmakers. The responses are enlightening, such as the blunt answer from Kim A. Snyder (Newtown), who says, “Precedent – the ‘Hollywood system’ is just more male centric and dominated and more women are in positions of funding and power in the doc world proportionately. Women have gotten used to accepting too readily that the leap from docs to fiction is less likely than is true for male counterparts in my experience.” What films should readers explore to show support for female documentarians?

Also worth a read on the Indiewire pages is an article by filmmakers Jedd Wider and Todd Wider on their festival film God Knows Where I Am. The filmmakers write how their doc, which screens at Hot Docs this month, offers competing perspectives told using different cameras and aesthetics to convey mental illness. The filmmakers’ essay and discussion of their technical and artistic choices echoes some of the creative license with “accuracy” that sometimes takes documentaries to poetic heights. The film “unfolds in a way that echoes films like Rashômon,” the directors write, “where the audience sees different versions of an event. Here, the audience is presented with different views of the unraveling of a human being, including her own view. Which view do you trust? We wanted to create a unique documentary that pushes the boundaries of the medium artistically and, at the same time, questions our societal norms for dealing with the mentally ill.”

On the Canadian front, the National Post reports on potential NDP leadership candidates and offers a prospective runner who might look for votes from the doc community. The Post taps This Changes Everything director Avi Lewis as a possible contender and cites the filmmaker’s efforts to take the Leap Manifesto and the philosophy of This Changes Everything as one way in which the NDP could take the party—and the country—in a new direction. If the news is true, it’s a major case of a filmmaker taking arts and activism to the next level. Would this news change anything on your ballots?

Short Film of the Week:

Speaking of changes, this week’s short spotlight goes to Screen Test, which confronts stereotypes and representation of race in the entertainment industry. This video by Linda Lee is a performance-based doc in which actress June Lee offers a confessional monologue about a screen test that brought her face-to-face with the inherent racism and use of stereotypes in entertainment, which, unfortunately let actors pay their rent if their game enough. This funny and intimate doc reveals the ignorance, too, that runs throughout the system.

Screen Test by ONFB, National Film Board of Canada

What are you reading this week?
Let us know in the comments or send a tip to pat[at]povmagazine.com.