What’s Up, Doc? Doc Talk for July 11

Diamond Reynolds

By Pat Mullen

What’s up, doc fans? This week’s round-up of documentary news and views features five stories from around the web covering urgent news stories, classic photography, and the hard debate over whether making documentaries ultimately pays.

Up first comes an essential read from Sam Adams at Indiewire who offers a smart analysis of citizen reportage and documentary’s role in shifting public perception. Adams looks at the two recent shootings in the United States where police officers killed two black men, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, in separate, but hardly unique, incidents. Both deaths, Adams writes, were captured on video and became viral sensations. (I haven’t watched them, and don’t plan to, but I can verify that they’re a Google search away.) Adams reports that in Castile’s case, his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, streamed the event live on Facebook and continued to do so with reports saying she spoke calmly with police while having a gun pointed in her direction. The video of Sterling’s death, described as an “execution” in headlines, comes from the activist group Stop the Killing, which monitors police airwaves and chases to the scene to witness events as they unfold.

Adams frames his analysis of the videos with Nick Berardini’s documentary Killing Them Safely, which examines misuse of Tasers and excessive force among police.
He writes, “Without the videos, our shared narratives about encounters between police and citizens must come from somewhere else. One place they come from is the movies, which is why it matters when movies like Central Intelligence and Paul Blart 2 show law enforcement figures using stun guns, and it’s treated as the equivalent of a pie in the face… The distortion wouldn’t matter so much if we were more in touch with reality: We can bust a gut when a silent comedian gets clonked in the head with a hammer and still be horrified when the same thing happens in real life. But in the absence of other images — or, where police officers are concerned, more comprehensive training — they become the reality.” Read the full article here.

Norman Mailer as photographed by Diane Arbus.

Alternative images keep photography Diane Arbus an icon of the art form. However, Barbara Hoffman at the New York Post writes that Arbus’s life offers a much stranger and darker portrait than those of the subjects within her peculiar work. Hoffman looks at Arbus’s sordid biography ahead of the new exhibit of the photographer’s snapshots at the Met Breuer in “diane arbus: in the beginning.” “Her relationships with some subjects — the Jewish giant, the Mexican dwarf — were years in the making,” writes Hottman. “But others she shot, including an aged Mae West, rued ever meeting her. Norman Mailer, whom Arbus caught in full manspreading glory, famously said, ‘Giving a camera to Diane is like putting a live grenade in the hands of a child.’” Read more about why Arbus was like a kid with a grenade at the Post and check out another take on Arbus’s work as an American outsider in Vincenzo Pietropaolo’s recent rave from the Art Gallery of Ontario.

A Night View of Broadway looking North from 45th Street, 1923, from the New York Edison Co. Photographic Bureau.
(Photo: The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles)

Classic photography gets another appraisal that looks at its days at the dawn of a new era. Anika Burgess, writing for Atlas Obscura, observes photographs that capture the advent of electricity and the ways in which this new artificial light changed landscapes of textures and composition. “The discovery of electricity impacted every facet of modern life, from working hours to transport,” writes Burgess. “It also made an impression on photographers, who sought to capture the new-found flickering incandescence on film. These efforts are the subject of a new exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum, In Focus: Electric! The photographs on display reflect the responses to this new era of light and energy—and, later into the 20th century, concerns over the environmental impact.” Check out more of these great photographs here.

The Academy Awards won’t be handed out until February 26th of next year, but that doesn’t prevent the pundits of the Internet from looking into crystal balls for predictions. While any predictions made before the fall festivals are speculative at best, Nigel M. Smith at The Guardian takes an admirable stab at the potential contenders thus far in the year. His pick for the frontrunner, Gleason, is a smart choice and likely to be in hunt in some capacity for its emotional rollercoaster. Smith calls Gleason “the film to beat… one of the most intensely raw documentaries in recent memory.” (Our Hot Docs review concurs.) Other titles tossed around are “Sure Bets” Life, Animated and Weiner, “Likely contenders” Tickled and OJ Simpson: Made in America and “Outside Bets” Zero Days and _Sonita. Notably absent? Miss Sharon Jones!, The Music of Strangers, and Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, for starters since the doc branch tends to pick old favourites for the short list.

Finally, Realscreen offers an essential two-parter that looks at the state of documentary filmmaking and the growing cost of making movies. Manori Ravindran tackles the problem in part one and possible solutions in part two, and she talks with some notable figures from the doc community like directors Jesse Moss (The Overnighters) and Sundance’s Tabitha Jackson. One key problem that Realscreen notes in the first part of the feature is that directors and producers often forgo their salaries while making documentaries. “The democratization of technology and abundance of distribution platforms allows most anyone to make docs,” writes Ravindran, “but with so many opportunities and a saturated market, it also means more doc makers – even veterans of the field – are struggling to first get their films financed, and then make money and recoup debts incurred.” The article goes on to note a forthcoming survey by the Center for Media & Social Impact (CMSI) and with International Documentary Association (IDA) indicates that two-thirds of respondents who self-identified as documentary professionals made “either no salary at all, or less than 50% of their annual salary from their films.”

Part two considers how the industry may solve the problem of documentary dollars. Grants, funds, and private investors are all good, but they only matter so much when budgets often omit a filmmaker’s salary. Realscreen speaks to industry leaders like Jackson who aim to overhaul the system, saying: “Part of what I hope is that we, as a field, can be scrutinizing budgets as we give grants, and making sure filmmakers have a proper line and a realistic line [of] what it would take to pay them – and not just the directors but the producers as well – so that we, as funders, can get more used to seeing what a doc actually costs.” Read part one here and part two here.

Short Doc of the Week:

The power of social media bookends today’s post. The NFB short Social Me, directed by Katia Café-Fébrissy, profiles social media-savvy teen Nyamwenda Basila and her love for selfies, tweeting, posting, and liking. The doc lets Basila explain the empowering forms of self-expression that social media allows, but she also learns the perils of cyber bulling and the inevitable alienation that comes when one unplugs from one world to tap into another. Sounds like a precursor to Werner Herzog’s upcoming Lo and Behold!

Social Me, Katia Café-Fébrissy, 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.