Serious movies with weighty international topics gave way to laughter (and even some tears) today after the Saturday skies cleared and the temperature warmed up a bit here in The Netherlands. British filmmaker Julien Temple sipped red wine while lecturing this afternoon at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) and earlier in the day American radio star Ira Glass drank from a can of Red Bull to counter jet lag at a conversation and demo at the fest.
Folks familiar with Ira Glass’ successful weekly radio documentary program (and its recent Showtime cable TV offshoot) know that he takes a more conversational approach to telling his stories, incorporating sometimes wry narration with quirky music cues, while depicting interactions between host and subject. The popular public radio program reaches well over 2 million people per week via the airwaves and online, mainly telling the stories of people who aren’t famous or necessarily newsworthy.
Today in Amsterdam, Glass encouraged journalists and documentarians to loosen up. Rather than stripping interviews from conversations in making journalism, he advocated depicting actual conversations between people, and he encouraged, “Narration is awesome.” But, only when it avoids stodgy conventions.
“Too much of broadcast news, too much of documentary, leaves out a sense of humor,” Glass argued during a jammed Doc Lab session at the Escape Club on Amsterdamn’s central Rembrandtplein. He encouraged filmmakers to loosen up and have fun with their work, admonishing them to reconsider their approach to making documentaries.
The dour tone and heavy narrative of many docs, Glass argued, “Makes (the world) seem smaller and darker than it is.” Continuing he added, “It makes the world seem smaller and stupider and less interesting.”
During today’s unmoderated presentation that was part of IDFA’s new media prograam, Glass reiterated a frustration with journalism and documentary that adopts a false sense of seriousness, rather than capturing a human conversation.
Citing the rise of commentary about the news which is more popular than the delivery of the news itself, Ira Glass singled out the success of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and even Glenn Beck, saying that they resonate with audiences because they “talk in a human voice.”
In the words of IDFA Doc Lab organizer Caspar Sonnen, “documentary shouldn’t feel like a bad day at school.”
Julien Temple would very likely agree.
Later, in the same room where Glass spoke, Temple delivered the first ever IDFA Lecture. He repeatedly encouraged filmmakers to continuously break the rules. There’s nothing worse, in a bad music documentary (he hates the word ‘rockumentary’), than an aging, overweight hippie talking about the old days, he said. Temple’s music docs sometimes featuring conversations with older musicians, but he also weaves in archival footage and cutaways to loosen up the movie.
In “The Great Rock n’ Roll Swindle,” his 1980 take on The Sex Pistols that mixes fact with fiction to tell the story of their rise (and then break-up), Temple used animated caricatures of the band when they refused to cooperate for the movie. “It was an homage to Tex Avery,” he said today.
Throughout his career, Temple’s work has featured distinctive music, but not for just for the sake of it. “Fingers on guitars is not why I make films,” Temple said today, adding that he likes to make music a strong element in his work because songs are interpreted uniquely by different people.
“To me the point is to provoke thought in an audience rather than tell them what to think,” Temple said. “Let the story lead you,” he advised filmmakers. “If you think you know what you’re going to say already, you’re fucked.”
The same could be said for Temple’s talk today. While billed as a lecture, the filmmaker didn’t come in with an agenda. Instead he brought a few clips and took a free form approach to talking about his life and work, often repeating himself and then pausing to prod the audience to ask questions.
Thinking back, Temple said he heard The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” one night on a pirate radio station and his life was never the same. His life changed again when he stumbled upon The Sex Pistols playing music in an abandoned British warehouse, he recalled. In film school at the time, he eventually picked up a camera to shoot the band, leading to “The Great Rock n’ Roll Swindle” and then “The Filth and the Fury,” a doc about the group’s years later.
At times rambling, but never boring, Temple’s lecture eventually felt a bit like spending time late at night in a bar with friend. He started to cry when recounting his close friendship with the late Joe Strummer, who died suddenly in 2002.
“That was my friend…” he began to explain, after playing a clip from his own film, “Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten.” Temple couldn’t regain his composure, so the lights were eventually lowered and another clip screened while a stagehand brought him a tissue.
Minutes later, as the session drew to a close, he loosened things up by recalling a hilarious story from a visit with Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson at their father’s home many years ago.
“Anyway,” he concluded, at the end of his lecture, “I’ve had a funny old life.” Tonight, he will cap the day in Amsterdam by DJing the festival’s late night dance party.