What’s Up, Doc? Doc Talk for July 25

Harold Ramis, Ernie Hudson, Bill Murray, and Dan Aykroyd in the original Ghostbusters.

By Pat Mullen

What’s up, doc fans? This week’s round-up of documentary news and views spotlights a summer movie speculation, documentary’s colonial dark side, photography know-how, and another version of TV mogul Norman Lear.

First up in this week’s round-up is a fresh take on Ghostbusters. The most-talked about movie of the summer draws think-pieces galore from either side of the ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ camps for its feminist reboot, but one writer looks to the 1984 Ivan Reitman original with a fresh, if unexpected, take. Mike Bechtel at Inc.com makes a listicle case for what the original Ghostbusters tells audiences about the real world: “When folks ask me for a book that could serve as an accessible introduction to startups, venturing, or entrepreneurship, I tell them it’s not a book. It’s the movie Ghostbusters,” writes Bechtel. “Ivan Reitman’s 1984 classic might as well have been a documentary.” The article offers some sharp observations for how Ghostbusters is a template for start-up success, including its final point that they’re the only business New Yorkers are gonna call by the end of the film. But is Ghostbusters “the best start-up documentary of all time” if it has Bill Murray chasing fake ghosts and an 80-foot Pillsbury doughboy? Anyone want to make a case for Ghostbusters as a hybrid film? (Paging Joshua Oppenheimer!)

On the more serious side of documentary, Edwin Martinez at Documentary Magazine charts the colonial waters of documentary film. Martinez reflects on his experience making movies as a Puerto Rican New Yorker, in particular to his recent production of the doc City of Trees, after taking in Full Frame Doc Fest’s #DocSoWhite panel, which is embedded below. “The brutal truth is that the history of documentary filmmaking is rooted explicitly in cultural, racial, gender and class-based colonialism,” writes Martinez. “For decades upon decades, Western filmmakers—almost exclusively white men—traveled to other countries and cultures to extract resources (footage), which they would exploit (edit) for the benefit of their home culture (theaters, film festivals, PBS, etc.). This flow of power, and along with it the control over these stories, historically traveled in one direction—from those without it to those with it. To bring the point home, have you ever seen a documentary about rich white people made by poor black people?”

2016 A&E IndieFilms Speakeasy: #DocsSoWhite from Full Frame Documentary Film Fest on Vimeo.

The Canadian Encyclopedia tackles race from a Canuck perspective in the audio documentary “The No. 2 Construction Battalion and the Fight to Fight.” The doc looks at the history of the No. 2 Construction Battalion and the legacy of black Canadian soldiers in Canada’s military history in conversation with writer Lindsay Ruck. What other audio docs should we add to the POV playlist?

Documentary, politics, and race fuel an engaging assessment of a classic doc in Artforum. Tobi Haslett revisits Emile de Antonio’s 1970 film America is Hard to See? and explores how representations of race weave into the fabric of political documentary. Looking at the mix of talking heads, Haslett writes, “Behold the world of American politics, mashed to a dreary paste. (The men, needless to say, are white.) The film, then, contracts into a study of the morphology of the political class: By the end, you find you’ve developed an eye and ear for the miniscule distinctions, the exquisite taxonomical gradations, in accent, style, grain of voice—as Johnson, Kennedy, J.K. Galbraith, Arthur Miller, and McCarthy himself wriggle around within the same stifling phenotype. So this is what power used to look like: a pomaded, Windsor-knotted, smugly smiling masculinity. A masculinity with a sonorous voice and an aphoristic reflex.” What about contemporary political documentaries? Where does, say, Weiner fit into representations of race, masculinity and American politics?

While making a documentary is often a political act, so too can be the choice of where to launch it. Chloe Ruthven at Open Democracy discusses her experience launching Otherfield, formerly Quadrangle, a documentary film festival geared towards filmmakers who want to immerse themselves in film without the crush of industry noise proliferating other festivals. “[W]hat happens when the market-place takes over from the discussion of ideas?” asks Ruthven. The independent filmmaker was now a marginalised, ignored and alienated figure in a world that put financial success above all else.” She goes on to explain how the corporatisation and dilution of some major film festivals opens up alternative spaces. “Filmmaking comes out of thinking, of struggling, of feeling alienated and alone, and wanting to communicate. It comes out of wrestling with the form and trying to learn a language over years so that you might, just might, be able to communicate messages and stories that can reflect the human condition.” What are some other alternative festivals worth noting for the doc community?

There are fewer alternatives for analogue fans as Screencrush reports that the final VCR has been produced. The low-res alternative to DVD and digital is officially a vintage novelty gone the way of Beta and anyone who has ever watched a videocassette on an HD TV knows that the pros and cons of videotape are far clearer than the picture on the screen it. Or has the stock of VHS increased? “As physical media has declined,” writes Matt Singer, “the interest in VHS as a niche product has increased; some cinephiles collect old video tapes the way music lovers collect old vinyl.” Is VHS the new vinyl? Do the white lines and jumps on video evoke the same warming nostalgia as cracks and pops on a record?

On the photography front, Ryan Cooper at fStoppers explains that education is key in the age of point-and-shoot cameras and readily available tutorials. Anyone can learn “what” to do to enhance a photo, but knowing the “why” behind the “what” distinguishes a photographer from someone who just likes taking pictures. (Like knowing a fact versus understanding the story and context behind said tidbit.) “Photography involves a great deal of experimentation, nothing will ever change that,” writes Cooper. “You, however, are able to reinforce your efficiency by learning why each of your given techniques function as they do in expected situations. Then, by leveraging that knowledge you are able to predict what those technique will do in unexpected situations. This knowledge allows you to solve problems before they are encountered both allowing you to arrive at the shoot better prepared but also allowing you to be adapt rapidly by transforming potential catastrophe into opportunity.”

Finally, Anne Thompson at Thompson on Hollywood talks with filmmakers Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing about their new doc Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You. This warm, wonderful trip through the history of television opens in Canada on Friday and audiences will see how the filmmakers behind Jesus Camp and Detropia draw out some revealingly intimate conversations with prolific television producer Norman Lear. When asked how they were capture Lear in such candid moments, Ewing’s explains how one triggers such lucid memories from a young-at-heart nonagenarian: “[W]e put together a Spotify playlist and then we brought a little speaker with us to the interviews, and they were always playing in-between takes and resets. That’s how that happened. He was walking in, just like you see, with the Frank Sinatra, and it happened to be on that playlist of, like, 50 songs— I wish we were playing a cheaper song when he walked in, because it cost us a g-d fortune: ‘Oh, no, he’s singing ‘My Blue Heaven.’ There goes the budget.’ We loved the song and, in-between when he’d take some water, we’d hit it and he starts playing it, singing it, so we thought, ‘Let’s include that.’ That’s how we got those moments: we were just always rolling. Like Russell Simmons, anyone who’s watching the clips, it was 24 hours of rolling.” Read the POV review of Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You here.

Short Film of the Week:

The summer Olympics in Brazil are only 10 days away, so doc fans looking for a warm-up lap before two weeks of photo-finishes should check out the NFB short 26 Times in a Row. This doc by Jean-Claude Lebreque looks at the all-important race of the marathon and its uniqueness. Shot during the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal profiles the public glory of the marathon and its breathtaking showcase of endurance. We’ll try to find a doc about the Zika virus for next week!

26 Times in a Row, Jean-Claude Labrecque, National Film Board of Canada

What are you reading this week?
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