iW INSIDER | Eugene Hernandez: Rooted in Reality at IDFA; 10 Years Later, 12 Docs to Watch

iW INSIDER | Eugene Hernandez: Rooted in Reality at IDFA; 10 Years Later, 12 Docs to Watch

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 profile of indieWIRE, my love of non-fiction film emerged while watching the 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 IDFA in 2004: Fred Wiseman, Robert Drew, Albert Maysles, and Ricki Leacock. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

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.

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Comments

nickvroman

Eugene,

Apart from Rouch and Koch, your list is very Ameri-centric. And granted, it is a subjective list. My list would definitely include CHRONICLE OF A SUMMER, but I’d consider also –

LETTER FROM SIBERIA (Chris Marker)

SANS SOLEIL (Chris Marker)

THE WAY SOUTH (Johan Van der Keuken)

STORY OF THE WIND (Joris Ivens)

EL SOL DE MEMBRILLO/THE QUINCE TREE SUN (Victor Erice)

THE EMPEROR’S NAKED ARMY MARCHES ON (Kazuo Hara)

A DEDICATED LIFE (Kazuo Hara)

And recently I’ve become enthralled by new docs out of China. Last year, Jia Zhang-Ke made an amazing film, USELESS. And just a couple of nights ago I saw SURVIVAL SONG, by Yu Guang-Yi – I was enthralled!

mindusq

my baker’s dozen:

GRIZZLY MAN

THE CRUISE

RIDING GIANTS

AMERICAN MOVIE

PARADISE LOST: CHILD MURDERS AT ROBIN HOOD

GIMME SHELTER

DARK DAYS

STEVIE

GEORGE WALLACE: SETTIN’ THE WOODS ON FIRE

MAYOR OF THE SUNSET STRIP

HOW TO DRAW A BUNNY

JESUS CAMP

BORN RICH

jcpete14

thank you

also consider

The Life and Times of Harvey Milk

Stevie

Crazy Love

Speedo

The Trials of Darryl Hunt

mano_y_mano

Felicitations on the purchase; kudos on the column — I hope it becomes regular feature as well — and cheers for the non-fiction love. I’m certain in saying that those among us who work for and with the doc world are grateful for indieWIRE’s continued inclusivity.

Excluding pre-listed titles, my Doc (Baker’s)Dozen:

ANVIL: THE STORY OF ANVIL (Sacha Gervasi)

BASTARDS OF THE PARTY (Cle Shaheed Sloan)

BREAKING AND ENTERING (Topper Carew)

CHASING GHOSTS: BEYOND THE ARCADE (Lincoln Ruchti)

DANCE CRAZE (Joe Massot)

DARWIN’S NIGHTMARE (Hubert Sauper)

THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION (Penelope Spheeris)

I LIKE KILLING FLIES (Matt Mahurin)

MAD HOT BALLROOM (Marilyn Agrelo)

OVERNIGHT (Tony Montana and Mark Brian Smith)

ROCK THE BELLS (Denis Hennelly and Casey Suchan)

STYLE WARS (Henry Chalfant and Tony Silver)

TROUBLE THE WATER (Carl Deal and Tia Lessin)

julia g.

Interesting list! I’d add “Hoop Dreams” to my list, along with “Roger & Me.”

basilnewfest

hey eug, great piece and good to see more of these insider pieces. the discussion on last week’s has been fascinating to read.

Today’s comes synchronistically with Thom Powers’ posting:

http://stfdocs.com/blog/comments/wanted_documentary_critics/

And given how many docs I annually watch, I completely echo your sentiments – even the occasional bad doc has the ability to impart some knowledge (however esoteric at times) compared to a bad narrative.

specialk

hey eug, karol here…hehe..this will likely bring out the docheads…no need to list my top ten but I did want to recommend a documentary film that captures the spirit of a driven filmmaker in the most powerful way…Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams…on the making of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo…if you have not seen it I strongly recommend you try to find a copy as it is a jaw dropper…peace

eug

subjectivity.

it’s my list. what’s yours?

seavey

Eugene –

Seriously. A list that includes “The Kid Stays in the Picture” but omits anything Errol Morris ever made. Come on. . . .

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