What’s Up, Doc? Doc Talk for Mar. 21

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom

By Pat Mullen

What’s up, doc fans? After keeping an eye on Canada in last week’s post, his week’s round-up of documentary news and views looks at the world of docs.

The recent success of the Netflix documentary Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom is a boon for citizen activism and point of view filmmaking. Or is it? The compelling Oscar-nominated documentary brings provocative footage from the front lines of the Maidan occupation in Ukraine, but Sight & Sound suggests that this film, as well as its contemporaries The Russian Woodpecker and Maidan amount to sensationalist rabble-rousing. The Celluloid Liberation Front writes that these films present a simplistic view of a complex political situation and leave significant elements outside of the frame, such as neo-Nazi agents and extent to which Russia is to blame for the whole affair, which assume peripheral positions in these films. “Very much like contemporary politics,” the Celluloid Liberation Front writes, “these documentaries do not test an argument against its opposite to construe a grounded case (thesis + antithesis = synthesis). Instead of investigative critiques, we are served hysterical demonisation, absent any of the historical contextualisation which is indispensable to comprehend our current predicament, yet remains extremely hard to come by.”

The article raises a fair, if crucial, point about making and watching documentaries: how much of the story can and should make it into a film? How much does a filmmaker need to signal the limitations of his or her point of view? While Sight & Sound’s arguments perhaps inspire a writer to reconsider that his review of Winter on Fire takes some of these elements for granted, one must also re-evaluate the fact that there are certain stories that any film choose to tell when a filmmaker turns his or her camera in one direction rather than another. If, say, Winter on Fire is ultimately a film about elements of citizen activism at Maidan, then one can appreciate it as such while acknowledging that the film doesn’t present (or purport to tell) the whole story. It’s hard enough to condense a volatile political episode into 120 minutes of screentime, but to squeeze in every player, viewpoint, and variable probably means that more filmmakers should make docs that play like quick perusals of Wikipedia pages or run twelve hours long. A film, essay, or thesis is often tighter if it anticipates arguments and offers counterarguments, but how objective and all-encompassing must any film be? What’s your point of view in this debate?

Those Who Jump

Perhaps the choices in inclusion and omission stem from the relationships between filmmakers and their subjects, which is a tricky bond to straddle during production. Sometimes, filmmaker-subjects creep into the frame and change the dynamic altogether. Eric Hynes at Film Comment observes a strong batch of films at this year’s True/False Film Festival that do more than break the fourth wall as elements of the filmmaking process. Looking at films such as Cameraperson (which POV raved about at Sundance), Starless Dreams, Nosotras · Ellas and Those Who Jump, Hynes suggests that the moments in which subjects acknowledge the machinery of the production, like using a boom mic that enters the frame, shifts power dynamics between filmmaker and subject into something far more complex and engaging. On Those Who Jump, which credits subject Abou Bakar Sidibé as one of the directors, Hynes writes that elements of exchange and participation afford the film a broader scope: “Who’s exploiting whom, who’s truly making these realities visible, how do we distinguish between complicity, collaboration, participation, and objectivity, who’s on what side of the camera and what does it mean—these are fathomless queries, ungraspable prey, infinitely and mutably applicable.” What other films feature noteworthy filmmaker-subject relationships?

Similarly, Steven Zeitchik at The LA Times writes that True/False offers a fair barometer of contemporary trends in documentary. He observes four consistencies among the 37 films screened at the festival: a focus on the margins of America (not essentially a “new” trend, but perhaps a new documentary renaissance), long form docu-series (ex: The Jinx, Making a Murderer, and Iraq: Year Zero), a new verité (move over, Fred Wiseman!), and “documentaries that aren’t really documentaries.” Comparable to the arguments by Film Comment, these films, such as Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine, use unconventional approaches to documentary to challenge the form altogether and invite deeper philosophical questions. “These new anti-documentaries are in a sense more fundamental shifts, since they’re crafted as feature films, sometimes with scripts to match,” writes Zeitchik. “But their issues are also more complicated, since they’re not claiming to be wholly true in the first place — if anything, by being made in this way, they’re questioning the form as a whole.” Are there other trends in documentary that POV readers should have on their radars?

On the heels of True/False comes SXSW, which offers some of the hipper documentary fare that frequently lands a Canadian premiere at Hot Docs. SXSW, like Sundance, frequently launches films made by and for the Kickstarter crowds, but crowd-sourcing isn’t always the answer when it comes to securing dollars for documentaries. Chris O’Falt at Indiewire asks the funding question to the filmmakers of SXSW ’16. The answers are familiar. A few filmmakers cite crowd-funding, private sponsorship, and work for hire paychecks, but self-financing remains a reality, especially within the answers from the documentary filmmakers. Alex Lehmann, for example, says he self-financed his doc Asperger’s Are Us until friend/actor/filmmaker Mark Duplass came on board to see it through post-production. (The film recently scored a Netflix deal.) Robert Steven Greene, director of The Hollywood Shorties, says that he made the film by charging credit cards and convincing the crew to work for free. Todd Bieber, finally, says his doc Thank You, Del: The Story of the Del Close Marathon received funding from its subject the Upright Citizens Brigade and kept the efforts on a small scale to facilitate production. The consensus? “Funding is always tricky,” as notes one of the respondents.

Voyage of Time: Cannes contender?

Finally, now that it’s officially spring, Cannes is just around the corner. The biggest fête for films and the world’s largest/glitziest place for the business of making movies has a reputation for keeping documentaries off the guest list, although recent efforts, like the introduction of the Golden Eye, indicates that the festival is aware of its documentary problem. However, the forecast for Cannes this year isn’t especially doc-friendly. The increasing business of Cannes prognostication yields several lists of predictions for hot slots in the competition for the coveted Palme d’Or and out of competition Official Selection berths. Deadline and Screen Daily, for example, list safe bets from new auteurs that could land at the fest, while Neil Young’s Film Lounge offers betting odds for slots. If doc fans are looking to double down on non-fiction titles, though, they might want to keep their money in their pockets for another year. The soothsayers of the Croisette agree that only one documentary title, Terrence Malick’s long-awaited Voyage of Time, seems to be in contention for a slot and even then, they indicate that the philosophical take on the universe is at best a long shot. Screen Daily also taps Francesco Patierno’s Naples ’44, about the war diary of Norman Lewis, as a potential Cannes contender, which benefits from the star power of narrator Benedict Cumberbatch. Are there any other docs that Cannes should consider, or are docs better served by other festivals?

Short Film of the Week:

This week’s short film spotlight goes to Uninterrupted by Nettie Wild. All the talk of Malickian documentaries and the recent release of Knight of Cups make this experimental NFB effort worth a second look. This boundary-pushing doc uses split-screen very effectively as it chronicles the plight of salmon as they swim upstream in the Adams River, in the Secwepemc Territory of British Columbia. Using a variety of perspectives, images, and spots of negative space, Uninterrupted shows natural in all its force.

Uninterrupted by ONFB, National Film Board of Canada

What are you reading this week?
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