What’s Up Doc? Doc Talk for Jan. 17
By Pat Mullen
The big news in the documentary world this past week is the new availability of films by Fred Wiseman. Deadline reports that Wiseman’s entire collection is coming to the streaming service Kanopy, which is available for free to subscribers at libraries and universities in North America. Wiseman explains his motivation to put his collection online through the library to Sam Adams at Slate, who likens the opportunity to “the cinephile equivalent of the Beatles arriving on iTunes.”
Paying off those library fines now has an incentive, and there are benefits to watching some of Wiseman’s three-to-four-hour marathons in a home, where one can enjoy a meal or two, or have a seventh-inning stretch during the show. Wiseman’s films are perfect for the big screen with their power of observation, so how does he feel about his library going online? “The honest answer is that I think any movie looks better on a big screen,” Wiseman says to Slate. “But I’m excited to have the movies available, because not everybody can watch them on a big screen, and they’re not easily available on a big screen. So given that, I’m pleased that people will have a chance to watch them on their home television sets or their computers, or however they want to watch them. Better they see them than not see them.”
Over at Indiewire , Wiseman discusses his latest film Ex Libris: The New York Public Library with critic Eric Kohn. It’s a fitting film to have in theatres right now to complement the marriage between his work and the libraries. However, Ex-Libris, like many other documentaries, assumes greater political significance in the age of Trump than Wiseman intended during production. According to Wiseman, the library is “probably the most democratic institution that exists because everybody’s welcome. You see all social classes, races and ethnicities represented without discrimination amongst them. All that is something Trump doesn’t believe in. He’s against immigration, he cuts health and education programs to the core. He doesn’t believe in scientific knowledge. Everything that Trump represents is completely contrary to what the library represents.”
Ex-Libris is one of 15 films on the documentary shortlist, as is One of Us by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, which looks at a much different cultural body in New York: the Hasidic community. One of Us subject Etty Ausch bares herself in a personal essay at Refinery 29 on her choice to leave the Hasidic community. (She is one of three subjects in the documentary.) Grady and Ewing generally focus on Etty’s tumultuous and suspenseful custody, but Ausch opens up to provide more context on the suppression of her self and the sexual awakening that finally motivated her to leave. “I became an invisible woman,” writes Ausch. “A growing disconnect between my body and soul evolved into a painful mind game. I developed techniques that allowed me to leave my body during those excruciating sex sessions, and I taught my mind to picture my arms around a woman. I had never even heard the words ‘lesbian’ or ‘queer,’ and being with a woman was so foreign that I thought I had some sort of psychological disorder.” For more on One of Us, read our interview with Grady and Ewing.
The current political pulse beats in the valuable behind-the-scenes documentary The Final Year from director Greg Barker, which profiles Barack Obama’s final year in office and opens in theatres this week. The Final Year focuses on the Obama administration’s foreign policy successes—efforts, which like the library, are under threat by Trump. Julian Borger at The Guardian looks at the film, the Obama foreign policy, and the president’s success in finding common ground between the competing opinions from his team. “In Libya, the administration opted to go to war, albeit in an ancillary role,” writes Borger. “But Obama decided not to send US forces into battle in Syria. That decision nearly tore the Obama team apart, putting [UN Ambassador Samantha] Power, a passionate advocate of humanitarian intervention, at odds with [Ben] Rhodes, who channels the president’s innate caution. On screen, the strain is clear. ‘The two powerful threads in American history – the costs of action and the costs of inaction – come together,’ Rhodes says, defending the decision to allow this tension to play out in front of the camera. ‘I thought it was relevant to show there were different points of view, and I say that with no certainty that one point of view is right. Samantha – I won’t speak for her, but her whole career has been about the ghosts of those who suffered when there was not intervention.’” (Borger adds that Power declined to comment for this article.) Is The Final Year the final word on the Obama years? Find out in our review of the film from TIFF.
Final Year subject and forner Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes joins Barker to discuss The Final Year at Pop Politics. The subject and director talk on the podcast about giving and receiving access to the White House for this behind the scenes documentary, but the interview also highlights the dramatic turn that inevitably directed the film: the election of Donald Trump. Did that change the film for Barker? His response: “It would be like asking James Cameron what would have happened if the Titanic had not hit the iceberg.” Listen to their conversation below:
Barker’s film is an intriguing example of history in the making, but how does one make history using scant archival records? In Beyond Evidence: Experimental Filmmakers Widen the Parameters of the Archive at Documentary, Akiva Gottlieb talks with a number of experimental filmmakers to learn about how they shape found materials for interrogation and expression. Speaking with filmmakers such as Courtney Stephens (Ida Western Exile), Bill Morrison (Dawson City: Frozen Time), and Kevin Jerome Everson (The Golden Age of Fish), Gottlieb finds how filmmakers experiment with history to find or create meaning. “Maybe one approach of trying to tell history is where you don’t have all the information,” says Stephens. “Make that your foreground. You can say, ‘Either I couldn’t find what I was looking for or I didn’t know what I was looking for.’ And if you start from those places, as opposed to a kind of model of expertise, what happens if you erase any pretense of mastery?”
This week marks the return of the Sundance Film Festival to kick off another round of independent film on the circuit. Thom Powers at Pure Nonfiction breaks down down the Sundance line-up and offers 11 recommendations, including Three Identical Strangers, about triplets separated at birth who learn of their siblings during college, while The Sentence promises a non-fiction weepie. Powers also sits down with Tabitha Jackson, the head of the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program, for the second half of the episode to discuss the festival’s larger effort to build the documentary community. Which of these films do you hope to see at Hot Docs? Listen to the episode below:
One film festival that’s underway is Canada’s Top Ten, which includes the trio of docs Unarmed Verses, Our People Will Be Healed, and last year’s Sundance hit Rumble. However, two of these docs, Rumble and Unarmed Verses are the only films in the top ten to have seen theatrical distribution. That number is troubling. Andrew Parker at The Gate looks at this concern and explains why, despite being one of the weaker line-ups, this year’s Canada’s Top Ten is important: “It’s well documented that Quebec supports and nurtures a lot of its homegrown talents with theatrical releases,” writes Parker, “but despite a plethora of theatres in the city, Toronto has become a relative dead zone for finding quality Canadian films. Canada’s Top Ten has become important because – in some cases – this might be the only shot local audiences have to see some of the best films produced within the country over the past year, both from French and English speaking Canada. At a time when a desire for new cinematic voices is reaching a fever pitch, more doors for theatrical distribution are shutting than opening.”
Short Doc of the Week:
This week’s short selection is Richard Williams: Animating Movement by Andrew Saladino / The Royal Ocean Film Society, which explores the work of Canadian animated Richard Williams. The artist is best known for his Oscar-winning work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and A Christmas Carol, and for his film The Thief and the Cobbler. This doc unpacks the aspects of perspective and motion that help bring Williams’ work to life.