What’s Up, Doc? Doc Talk for Aug. 15

Harlan County USA


By Pat Mullen

What’s up, doc fans? Please excuse the recent absence from doc linking. The long weekend, TIFF and RIDM programming excitement, Ann Shin’s master class, and our upcoming Fall issue left little time for extra reading. This week’s round-up of documentary news and views features a few stories one might have missed since our last post, which is appropriate since the first story on deck is one classic doc worth discussing again and again.

The team at The Cinessential looks at Barbara Kopple’s Oscar-winner Harlan County USA in its weekly glimpse at one film’s place in history. Kopple’s doc, which is this writer’s personal favourite non-fiction film, receives an intro that situates the film within its legacy. “Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County U.S.A. has always lingered with me for the way it so delicately depicts the struggle of the working man,” writes John Gilpatrick. “It’s a film of such a specific place, but also one completely out of time—-the wages, working conditions, and dress all screen [sic] early 1970s, yet the white-collar wall these blue-collar individuals must climb is as enormous and intimidating now as it was then.” The Cinessential team also offers a look at the role of feminism in the film and at the power of the film’s enduring soundtrack, including the timeless political anthem “Which Side Are You On?” Barbara Kopple returns with a new doc this week with Miss Sharon Jones!. Read the POV review here.

Grey Gardens gets a retrospective of its own over at The Guardian examines the film’s role in shaping documentary’s path. Like Harlan County USA, Grey Gardens was a game changer and John Patterson looks at how Andy Warhol meets Miss Havisham Beales perform this turning point for docs. “In retrospect, Grey Gardens … does seem to bid adieu to the golden age of 60s documentary that come into being after the introduction of cheaper and more portable cameras around 1960, and the simultaneous solidification of the ideas behind direct-cinema and cinema-verité. The non-intrusive fly-on-the-wall approach – do nothing to influence or affect the things you are filming – suddenly seems inappropriate, given the presence of two characters who are always performing and are addicted to drama. Indeed, the presence of the camera itself prompts everything we see, and becomes itself the story of the film: an audience necessitates a performance, and what performances we get.” Read more on _Grey Gardens director Albert Maysles here.


People don’t always behave naturally when they’re before a camera, but at The Verge looks at another area of documentary and the ways in which it also constructs actuality. It’s a bold claim to say that nature documentaries aren’t natural, but Lopatto examines BBC’s The Hunt and ponders the implications of things such as, say, cutting away from the kills after animals stalk their prey, or even shooting animals in a zoo when the doc makes it seem like they’re in the wild. “Narrative itself is a lie — whether it’s in documentary film, journalism, or any other medium that concerns itself with facts,” writes Lopatto. “We believe narrative exists because we travel forward continuously in time, and the chronological progression supplies humans, the meaning-making animals, with a kind of story. But every narrative leaves out facts in order to tell a clear story. In the case of The Hunt, obviously, there are the missing baboons, and the cut away from the kill… The point of The Hunt are the tactics and strategies used by hunters; whether the animals in question eat other food is beyond the scope of the documentary.” Does cutting away from the kill complicate the perceived naturalism of The Hunt? Consider this question and other nature docs with some help from the example below.

On the Canadian front, Elyse Skura at the CBC talks to Myna Ishulutak following her win of the Young Hope Award at last week’s Présence autochtone film festival for her doc Qipisa. The director describes her film, which looks at the fight to retain Inuit traditions, as a story both personal and universal. “When you feel removed from your grandparents’ and parents’ traditional knowledge,” Ishulutak tells the CBC, “you feel removed from something that you care for. And you feel in some way, lost from it.” *Read more on contemporary Inuit cinema in the current cover story ‘Why Are the Inuit So Angry?’.*


At Realscreen Manori Ravindran continues her three-part investigation into the tricky debate of how well documentary filmmaking pays and how the field may realign itself financially to serve filmmakers and, in turn, audiences. Part I and Part II, previously featured in ‘What’s Up, Doc?’, look at these problems and solutions with a pragmatic debate. Part III looks at additional realities that filmmakers have to face, such as the increasing production costs in North America, funding opportunities in Canada that are helpful but “poorly spread,” and filmmakers who hurt their budgets by inadequately paying themselves for their work. Of particular note is the advice that Jane Jankovic, commissioning editor at TVO, offers. She notes that a good producer makes a significant difference, but that too few doc-makers understand what a producer actually does. “They’re horrifically undervalued and I’ve seen many projects where there’s been a weak director, or a director that’s gone off the rails, and it’s the producer that saves the project – not just financially, but also from a creative perspective,” she says. “Having that second set of eyes that can step back and see whether or not that story is working, is really critical I would say [for] 99% of the projects that I deal with.” Consider more on docs and funding with this look at whether philanthropists are a good match for the field.

Finally, The International Documentary Association asks the documentary community to sign a petition in support of #RightToRecord. In a recent statement in support of citizen journalism and arrests made on individuals after they recorded police brutality and posted it on social media, the IDA calls for solidarity and for more doc-makers to use their tools to reveal reality. “Whether they identify as citizen journalists, activists, or civilians, it is vital we defend the rights of these individuals to use video as a means of criticizing unjust police activity,” writes the IDA. “We ask for a full investigation into any and all actions taken against them by police departments, and the larger pattern of abuse that has emerged on a federal, state, and local level, and the threat it poses to free speech and a free press. We also call upon our peers in the journalistic community to investigate and report on these abuses… By investigating other instances of police violence captured on video by citizens, and what consequences they may have faced, we can expand our awareness of the problem and take stock of the damages. Read more and sign the petition here.

Short Doc of the Week:

Following the excitement of the recent announcements for the Canadian films and TIFF Docs selections, it makes sense to highlight a standout doc from last year’s festival. The crispiest of the shorts at TIFF last year was Sol Friedman’s Bacon & God’s Wrath, which is a hilarious animated fable about a Jewish nonagenarian’s choice to break her Kosher habits and try the ever-so-hip indulgence of bacon. Beyond a crisis of faith, she encounters death, mortality, and the afterlife in a few quick bites after a quick search on “the Google.” After a successful TIFF launch, followed by wins at Sundance and the Canadian Screen Awards, Bacon & God’s Wrath is worth a nibble!

What are you reading this week?