What’s Up, Doc? Doc Talk for June 6

Still from Under the Gun, an Entertainment One release.

By Pat Mullen

What’s up, doc fans? This week’s round-up of documentary news and views begins with a Hot Docs and Sundance selection that’s under the gun.

That doc, ironically, is Under the Gun, directed by Stephanie Soechtig and produced by Katie Couric. The film, which looks at America’s failure to curb gun violence, faces scrutiny for a controversial editing choice that sees members of the pro-gun Virginia Citizens Defense League pause for eight seconds after Couric asks them about the rights of felons to obtain guns without background checks. The controversy? The members say they answered the question immediately in the original interview. The National Rifle Association is going after the doc, and Couric especially, with guns a-blazin’.

Couric addressed the edit via the film’s website and took to Twitter to clear the smoke from the air. However, her response inadvertently puts Soechtig under the speeding bus. In her post on the edit, Couric writes, “When I screened an early version of the film with the director, Stephanie Soechtig, I questioned her and the editor about the pause and was told that a ‘beat’ was added for, as she described it, ‘dramatic effect,’ to give the audience a moment to considethe question. When VCDL members recently pointed out that they had in fact immediately answered this question, I went back and reviewed it and agree that those eight seconds do not accurately represent their response.” The complete transcript of the interview is available on the website.

Variety reports that Soechtig stands by her edit. “Katie’s asking the question of the group,” says Soechtig in an interview with the trade, “but as the filmmaker, I want to ask the question of the audience. So what I was thinking, my editor was thinking was we need to stop for a second, because the film moves along at a really fast clip.” The director adds that such a decision distinguishes documentary filmmaking from reportage, saying, “I think [documentary] has a different standard than the nightly news has. When you’re making a film like this, the goal is to get people to come to theaters to watch your film. You have to provide a thematic experience for them. I don’t think we misconstrued any of the facts. I think the VCDL made their position on background checks very clear earlier in the film and throughout the film. So yeah, I do think it’s pro forma for filmmaking.” Under the Gun is now available on iTunes in Canada, so have a look and let POV know if the eight seconds of hot air merit the controversy. Is this sort of choice unethical in documentary?

Speaking of hot air, American Presidential candidate Donald Trump is quick to pull the trigger. Jason Bailey at Flavorwire writes that the documentary The Central Park Five by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David Mcmahon, about the 1989 case in which five black and Latino men were wrongly convicted for raping a woman in Central Park, offers a strong case for illuminating Trump’s incapacity for even-handed rational thought that one seeks in a President. In this entertaining read, Bailey observes, “But if Trump’s behavior is unsurprising from a casually racist blowhard businessman and reality TV personality, it’s terrifying from a man one election away from the presidency, and the diplomatic, military, and nuclear power that comes with it. Because back in 1989, Donald Trump looked at an 11-day-old crime, listened to his world-famous “gut”, and declared five people so guilty that the state of New York should resurrect capital punishment to deter such “crazed misfits” as them.” What other docs help us understand the political circus?

History News Network answers this question by offering Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt, a Canuck-Israeli co-pro directed by Ada Ushpiz, as another lens with which to view Mr. Trump. In a piece bearing the provocative title “Why It’s Impossible to Watch a Documentary About Fascism and Not Think of Donald Trump,” Ron Brinley finds that Arendt’s story and philosophy resonates strongly with the current political race. “It is simplistic to compare Hitler with Donald Trump,” writes Brinley “and it is difficult to imagine the businessman having read any of Arendt’s philosophy. It is, nevertheless, rather uncanny and worrisome that Trump’s xenophobic political movement has tapped into some of Arendt’s insights on the origins of totalitarianism. Trump focuses upon denying the common humanity of immigrants who lack protection but are perceived as fundamental threats to the sanctity of the national state.” Vita Activa opens in Toronto Friday at the Bloor Cinema, so check back soon for the POV review. (Admittedly, this writer feels trumped by Brinley’s sharper assessment.)

Canadian content is similarly under the gun, as last week’s round-up brought news of outlets questioning the perceived “Canadianness” of Canadian-made content. Valerie Creighton, the CEO of the Canadian Media Fund, is fighting back. In a report with the Financial Post, Creighton makes the case for CanCon, saying, “People describe CanCon as this outdated and broken-down model… It’s created jobs, it’s created more money, it’s leveraged public investment, it’s contributed to the GDP and I think it’s given us a pretty good pride of place at home.” What do you think: is CanCon a “broken-down model” or a source of “good pride of place at home”?

Reverse Shot continues its great symposium on the relationship between documentary and drama with a piece on Alex Gibney’s Casino Jack and the United States of Money and the recent Oscar-winning comedy The Big Short. Matt Connolly looks at how these two films approach entertainment as a medium for conveying information about current issues. Despite one film being a doc and the other being a scripted comedy, both films engage audiences with a wealth of information and angles with some laughs for good measure. “Does drawing from similar aesthetic options as mainstream fiction film dilute documentary’s mission for clarifying one’s experience of the world or offer alternate possibilities for viewer edification?” asks Connolly. “If popular visual style can seep into documentaries, can fictional films successfully lift documentary-inflected techniques to address social and political questions normally presumed beyond the limits of big-budget entertainment?” Read more on the films here and chime in through the comments to let us know if one film does it better than the other.

The Hollywood Reporter gives the scoop on a new development at the International Documentary Association. THR reports that the IDA is partnering with Distribber.com to give doc-makers the opportunity to distribute their work and retain 100% of the rights and revenue. The first film to get the treatment is Josh Fox’s How to Let Go of the World (And All the Things Climate Can’t Change). The effort will use major platforms like Netflix, which are already doing wonders for documentary, to give non-fiction films an even wider reach.

Short Doc of the Week:

This week’s short doc spotlight is one for Pride Month. Being Violet from Ottawa native Mélanie Bérubé profiles Kyle Elmer and the life he enjoys on stage as drag queen Violet Hart. This fun portrait is the first of several LGBTQ docs we’ll be highlighting throughout the month. Any recommendations? Let us know!

Being Violet from Mel Be on Vimeo.

What are you reading this week?
Let us know in the comments or send a tip to pat[at]povmagazine.com.