Sitting here in Amsterdam on a snowy Sunday afternoon for the 21st IDFA, I’m taking a second stab at what I hope will be a regular column offering an inside take on films, festivals, and the industry. Last week, I explored the intersection of the indie film community and the fight for marriage equality in the wake of the passing of Prop 8 in my home state of California. This week, immersed in the world’s leading documentary film festival, I am reminded how important docs are to me and pondering how that passion emerged.
I can pinpoint the exact moment — ten years ago — when I became obsessed with non-fiction film: the DGA Theater in Los Angeles on the morning of April 18, 1998. As I explained to Sarah Jo Marks two years ago for a Documentary Magazine first screening of Bennett Miller‘s “The Cruise” at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival.
From the film’s opening seconds as New York City tour guide Speed Levitch sings a staccato rendition of George Gershwin’s “But Not For Me” via a bus p.a. system, I was taken by the distinct portrait of a person accesible through such an intimate form of crafted storytelling.
While I’d been wowed by docs such as “Paris Is Burning,” “Roger and Me,” and even “Truth or Dare,” back in college and then at Sundance in the early ’90s, Bennett’s look at Speed was a watershed moment. As I would soon learn at a New York DGA screening of Jean Rouch‘s “Chronicle of a Summer,” there was a striking link between early DV doc filmmaking of the 90s and the landmark verite work of the ’60s. Part of the power of Bennett’s film came from the freedom and imtimacy afforded by a digital video camera, just as the quiet, portable 16mm cameras (married to a sync sound system) empowered non-fiction filmmakers back in the ’60s.
By asking Parisians the simple question, “Are you happy?,” the late Jean Rouch and co-director Edgar Morin shaped — in “Chronicle of a Summer” — a stunning, subjective document of contemporary life in the French city. Their work paved the way for cinema verite and also inspired the French New Wave filmmakers.
At yesterday’s nightly IDFA talk show I was asked to offer up my favorite film of the festival so far. On stage for a few minutes, I selected Erwin Wagonhofer‘s “Let’s Make Money,” a stylized and informative look at the global economic crisis. Like so many good documentaries, Wagonhofer’s latest is carefully consructed, but rooted in reality.
It’s easy to watch a documentary and lose sight of the hand of the filmmaker, I explained last night. Some subjects demand that the director try step out of the way, while others require a more apparent role. Even though documentaries often probe real people and events, the reality of a non-fiction film shouldn’t obscure its subjectivity. Docs are often judged in relation to the term ‘truth’, but it’s the distinct perspective of non-fiction films that make them so compelling for me. Even more so when the filmmaker manipulates all the tools of the cinema — image, narrative, and sound together — to explore a real story, person or event.
These days, as an annual member of the documentary selection committee for the Spirit Awards, it’s quite likely that I see more doc than narrative films each year. That’s been a steady shift. For most of the ’90s, I watched mainly narrative indies at festivals, focusing on emerging filmmakers. But, armed with an interest in docs ten years go, I found myself spending more and more time tracking non-fiction films and filmmakers. I eventually made my way to IDFA and attending these past seven years has given me a unique window into documentary just as new forms have emerged and interest among the industry has ebbed and flowed.
As I say often — with due respect to my friends and colleagues working in narrative film — even though numerous non-fiction films are often a bit too long, I’ll still take a mediocre documentary over a mediocre narrative film any day. For me, even in a marginal non fiction film there’s often a real person or event at the core worth watching.
Earlier this year, we sold indieWIRE to Ted Leonsis‘ new company, SnagFilms, an outlet offering direct access to hundreds of documentaries across the spectrum. Watching the range of work here at IDFA this week, I find non-fiction film as enthralling as it was ten years ago. And with the development of new distribution outlets like Snag, I hope these films will find an even wider audience.
Wrapping up so that I can get back to IDFA screenings, I quickly jotted down a subjective list of a dozen terrific docs. I still have many more docs, old and new, to watch, but this list is a good starting point.
What do you think? What do you recommend from your own ‘docs to watch’ list?
Eugene Hernandez: A Dozen Must See Docs (alphabetical)
“Chronicle of a Summer,” directed by Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch
“Grey Gardens,” directed by Ellen Hovde, Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Muffie Meyer
“The Kid Stays in the Picture,” directed by Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen
“No Direction Home: Bob Dylan,” directed by Martin Scorsese
“Paris Is Burning,” directed by Jennie Livingston
“Showman,” directed by Albert Maysles and David Maysles
“Spellbound,” directed by Jeffery Blitz
“Super Size Me,” directed by Morgan Spurlock
“Tarnation,” directed by Jonathan Caouette
“The Corporation,” directed by Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott, and Joel Bakan
“The Cruise,” directed by Bennett Miller
“The Saltmen of Tibet,” directed by Ulrike Koch
Stream hundreds of free documentaries anytime via SnagFilms.