What’s Up, Doc? Doc Talk for July 18

Leni Riefenstahl shooting Triumph of the Will.


By Pat Mullen

What’s up, doc fans? This week’s round-up of documentary news and views carries the pro-feminism spirit swelling the multiplex this week thanks to Ghostbusters with a look at the history of female documentary filmmakers and their contemporaries, plus new words from Werner Herzog, Mike Hoolboom, and more!

Over at PBS’s Independent Lens, MaryAnn Johanson of Flick Filosopher offers an overview of documentary’s female pioneers in From Alice Guy-Blanché to Barbara Kopple: The Pioneering Women of Documentary Film. “Women have always gotten short shrift when it comes to acknowledging their contributions,” writes Johanson, “but that’s not a reflection of the inestimable value of their work. Movies simply would not look and feel the way they do today without the input of women artists and innovators.” Johanson makes the case that some canonical works such as Nanook of the North and Trailing Wild African Animals owe their legacy to the uncredited efforts of filmmakers such as Frances H. Flaherty and Osa Johnson, respectively, whose husbands’ names appear in the credits of the aforementioned films whereas theirs do not.

Similarly, the lost work of Jennie Louis Van Der Zee is “a particular egregious example of how the work of women (and of people of color) is lost because it was poorly recorded and archived in the first place.” One of the most controversial, yet influential, filmmakers of all time is a female documentary filmmaker: Leni Riefenstahl, director of Nazi propaganda like Triumph of the Will and Olympia, which also happen to be major works of art. “She pioneered exciting new uses of aerial photography, unusual camera angles, aggressive editing and music, and other techniques we take for granted today,” Johanson notes. “It’s almost impossible to overstate her influence not just on documentaries but on all filmmaking.” Other doc pioneers to make the list are Agnès Varda, Shirley Clarke, and NFB directors Judith Crawley and Laura Boulton, whose short doc New Scotland is available below.

New Scotland, Laura Boulton, National Film Board of Canada

Equally influential is the work of Barbara Kopple. The piece ends by looking at Kopple’s Oscar winning 1976 doc Harlan County USA as a turning point for activism and political filmmaking. Kopple returns to the screen this year with Miss Sharon Jones!. (Read the POV review of Miss Sharon Jones! here.) The doc is a great example of one woman honouring another as Kopple’s doc portrait of the sassy soul singer and her fight with cancer is a truly inspiring work of art. Adding to the toe-tapping appeal of Miss Sharon Jones! is the great soundtrack by Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, who recently released the new song that appears in the film. Listen to “I’m Still Here” below and be amazed by a singer who’s still kicking it after many ups and downs.

Another female filmmaker offering a doc portrait of an iconic is Nimisha Mukerji, whose film Tempest Storm hit theatres earlier this summer. In an interview with Ishani Nath at Flare, Mukerji talks about the role of writing in documentary, gaining access to subjects, and preparing for times when an all-important shot doesn’t work out. She also talks about being a female filmmaker in Canada, which adds to the history that Johanson’s piece lays out. “Canadians want to see themselves reflected on screens,” says Mukerji, “and that means embracing a diverse range of voices. My goal is to increase the representation of women both behind and in front of the lens—not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because ultimately it leads to better stories.” Read more on Tempest Storm in the POV review and the feature Class of ’15.

There’s also good news for Hollie Fifer and her film The Opposition. POV’s coverage from Hot Docs includes a popular story about Fifer’s legal trouble with the doc, the censorship she encountered, and the fight to bring it to screens. The Sydney Morning Herald reports that a judge recently ruled against politician Dame Carol Kidu, the Australian born opposition leader in Papua New Guineau who claimed her two-year involvement in the film was a mistake and that statements she made in the film, on which she later backtracked, were in error. Said the judge: “When one views the extreme weaknesses of [Dame Carol’s] claim that she did not know on and from March 7, 2012, that Ms Fifer was hoping to make a documentary for public exhibition rather than a student assignment (whatever its topic) the impression gained is that [Dame Carol] is prepared, for her own benefit and that of PHDC, to say anything to stop the footage taken of her by Ms Fifer being broadcast.” Read more on The Opposition here.


In the spirit of gender parity, this weekly round-up also wants to add the voice of filmmaker/eccentric/Twitter meme Werner Herzog, who offers a master class with Indiewire ahead of the theatrical release of his new doc Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World. Talking with Dana Harris, Herzog reveals that he is terrible at making soup, thinks that kids should dig more holes in the ground, and reveals what inspires his choice to make a doc versus a drama. “It’s always the subject, the story,” he says. “I saw that there was something big when I was invited to do some tiny little films with YouTube on the internet. And on day 2 of shooting, I sensed there was something really big out there and I should go much deeper and do a much bigger, wider, feature length documentary.”

Over at Toronto Film Review , filmmaker and writer Mike Hoolboom talks with David Davidson about his new book You Only Live Twice, which is a docu-fiction appreciation of Chris Marker’s La jetée. Hoolboom offers an engaging and revealing chat about his ability to cheat death and live twice, and the same goes for the book’s co-author Chase Joynt, and he talks about the book’s Marker-esque hybrid structure and the freeing power of working on the fringes. “I think one of the hopes of fringe media is to find new forms for new contents,” says Hoolboom. “To allow different kinds of voices to speak, and to allow them to be heard in different ways. How can we learn to love each other in a new way, and how can we learn to make pictures with each other that might make these new dreams possible?” Read an excerpt of You Only Live Twice in Orly, published in POV #101.

Finally, Oscar-nominated director Joe Berlinger’s new doc Tony Robbins: I am Not Your Guru is now on Netflix and the filmmaker recently sat down for a chat with Vogue about his experience making an optimistic film about the motivational speaker. “There haven’t, over the years, been a lot of great role models in self-help,” says Berlinger. “There have been some people who have abused their position. But the people who know Tony, know he’s the real deal. Others feel a need to ascribe nefarious motivations to his mission.” Read more on Tony Robbins: I am Not Your Guru in the POV interview with the director from Hot Docs!

Short Doc of the Week:

This week’s short spotlight goes to Pascal Floerk’s Bär. This ingenious photo essay is a deep and darkly humorous tribute to a grandfather and war’s dehumanising effect on man. It’s a must-watch for its personal account and for its playful formal interplay with such weighty and intimate material.


BÄR from Visor66 on Vimeo.

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