From Fathers to Fashionistas, Documentary Filmmakers are Getting Personal
by Jonny Leahan
Writers looking for inspiration are often told simply: write what you know, while actors are frequently coached to find the emotion needed for a certain scene by delving into their own personal experiences. Documentary filmmakers are also looking to their own lives for inspiration, more than ever before it seems, as the “personal doc” becomes an increasingly popular outlet not only for new filmmakers but established directors as well.
Personal documentaries — films being made by people about their own lives or those very close to them — are more prevalent than ever, and if the programming at the recent doc festivals around the world is any indication, the trend isn’t slowing down. The availability of cheap digital technology is certainly a factor, having given rise to some highly personal documentaries recently, including last year’s homemade masterpiece “Tarnation,” in which Jonathan Caouette explores his complicated relationship with his mother, at an initial budget of somewhere around 200 bucks.
Perhaps a less experimental exploration of a parent/child relationship, but certainly no less fascinating, is Mark Wexler‘s “Tell Them Who You Are,” which THINKFilm is releasing on May 13 in Los Angeles and New York. Already an accomplished director, Wexler has made both personal films like “Me and My Matchmaker,” and more traditional documentaries like “Air Force One,” but “Tell Them Who You Are” hits about as close to home as one could get.
The film’s subject is Wexler’s own father, renowned director of photography Haskell Wexler, who has worked with many of the great directors, including Woody Allen, Elia Kazan and Francis Ford Coppola — having shot a slew of visually groundbreaking films like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, “American Graffiti,” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” In the late sixties, he became a pioneer of what we now call the “hybrid documentary” when he wrote, produced, and directed “Medium Cool” in the midst of Chicago’s 1968 Democratic Convention.
But for all his success, Haskell Wexler was notoriously brash, both on the set and off, and has never been accused of mincing words. His brutal honesty, combined with his belief that nearly every film he ever worked on would have been better suited with Wexler himself as director, makes for compelling viewing to say the least. The tone is set early in the film, when the 80-year-old barks at his son, “You’ve been around three different angles now. Does that mean you’re a perfectionist or you don’t know what the hell you’re doing? Pretty soon you better get to the subject of your God damned show, because I’ve got fish to fry.”
Although scenes like that one portray the antagonistic side of their relationship, the film is ultimately healing for the two men, although getting it made was not without its struggles. “Probably the most difficult challenge was confronting my father about personal issues between us that we often didn’t talk about,” Wexler told indieWIRE. “I’m sure this would be difficult for any son, but I was also doing this on camera for a documentary. My father has spent much of his life making documentaries and is fully aware of how scenes are put together and the control a director has over how everything is assembled.”
To that end, Haskell Wexler wouldn’t even sign the release until he saw the film, a ritual of approval that actually makes it into the final cut. “I couldn’t watch it with him, and waited in the room next door,” Wexler says. “It was easily the most stressful 95 minutes of my life. When it was over, I really couldn’t gauge his reaction. He just sat there almost expressionless… Eventually, he just broke down and praised the film. He said that even if no one else saw it but the two of us, it would have been worth making, but he hoped a lot of people would see it.”
Another personal doc that a lot of people should see is “Irene Williams: Queen of Lincoln Road,” which had its world premiere this week at the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, winning the Planet Out Short Movie award for Best Documentary. First time director Eric Smith wisely began documenting his friendship with a remarkable elderly woman named Irene Williams a decade ago, and has assembled a beautiful portrait of the self-styled “public stenographer” who was a fixture on South Beach — famous for her vast collection of strikingly coordinated outfits, all hand made by Irene herself without even a pattern, matching hats included.
Smith not only captures his friend’s stunning ensembles over the years (one she fashioned from a furry green bathmat, using the toilet seat cover from the set for the matching hat) but he unearths a sweetly eccentric soul that no one else took the time to discover. “I know Irene is looking down on us today,” said Smith after the screening, “She was a remarkable individual who inspired me in this labor of love.”
Whatever your definition, making a personal doc can be a uniquely challenging experience, especially when compared to a more traditional documentary. “As a filmmaker, you’re not necessarily a stimulant to a scene,” says Wexler, “but more of a fly on the wall. With personal documentaries, it becomes more challenging. On one hand, you need to maintain your filmmaker duties, such as making sure you get enough coverage, that the angle and sound are good. On the other hand, you are often a principal character in the scene you are filming, and can’t just sit back and shoot.”
“I see values in both styles of filmmaking,” says Wexler, “But am probably more intrigued these days in working with the more personal approach — I don’t buy into the idea that there is such a thing as an ‘objective’ documentary, and that’s why I like it when the filmmaker comes out from behind the camera and exposes a little of who they are.”