Opening earlier this year to much acclaim (and occasionally intense scrutiny), outstanding documentaries like "Amy," "The Wolfpack" and "The Hunting Ground" have stuck around to be viable names in Oscar talks, with the groundbreaking and emotional "He Named Me Malala" and "Going Clear" also still stirring fervent discussion.
At this year’s DOC NYC festival, 15 of the filmmakers behind the year’s buzziest documentaries sat down to answer questions about their filmmaking process, offering wisdom and perspective on the craft of documentary. Evgeny Afineevsky, Kirby Dick, Liz Garbus, Alex Gibney, Davis Guggenheim, Ethan Hawke, Matthew Heineman, Asif Kapadia, Kim Longinotto, Michael Moore, Brett Morgen, Crystal Moselle, Morgan Neville, Stanley Nelson and Joshua Oppenheimer were in attendance, and Indiewire was there to catch the discussion between the filmmakers. Here are the highlights straight from the documentarians themselves.
Liz Garbus ("What Happened, Miss Simone?") – How to Answer the Film’s Titular Question
"The name of the film is a question. And the film doesn’t answer that question with one answer. ‘What happened, Miss Simone?’ Was everything. What happened, Miss Simone was a classical dream that was thwarted by an all-white exclusive classical music field; what happened Miss Simone was Jim Crow; what happened, Miss Simone was clearly a tendency towards bipolar; what happened, Miss Simone was a marriage that was filled with dysfunction and violence. So all of these things are what happened and made her who she was, and also made her a survivor. So, balancing all of those factors was the challenge and the joy of the film, and letting the audience enjoy her as complex as I found her."
Morgan Nevile ("Best of Enemies") – The Whole Story of Gore Vidal Wasn’t Needed
"I think we could make a whole trilogy of films just about Gore Vidal and his enemies. You could do Gore Vidal and Truman Capote, you could do Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer, they are each documentaries. It was really important for us to remind ourselves we were not trying to tell the whole story. Realizing that we had to give a basic sketch of who they were, what made it easier is they had this kind of mirrored life, which played into their relationship with each other. Because in a way, they were sort of distorted mirror images of each other."
Asif Kapadia ("Amy") – Interviews Became Therapy Sessions
"Much of the archival material I had on [Amy Winehouse] was her looking terrible: lots of bad appearances, lots of bad concerts. With ‘Senna,’ everybody wanted to talk about him because everybody loved him. With Amy, no one wanted to get involved, no one trusted filmmakers, journalists, as far as they were concerned. I was a paparazzi. So it was really hard to get people to weigh in. So I just worked on the visuals, and then, to get the interviews, we’d go somewhere safe and secure, we’d just sit down to talk, and if they wanted to leave after five minutes, they could."
"What would begin as a half hour would inevitably become one hour, two hours, five hours, and it become therapy, really. We’d look at it after and we’d think, that was really weird, really emotional. I didn’t like the lighting in the room we did interviews in so I would turn the lights off and we would do the interview pretty much in the dark. Just audio, no one else was around. It became a fairly safe place for people to open up about their story. Then they would go away, and talk to their friends and encourage them to go talk to me. So ‘Amy’ really began with audio and then later on it became a question of what we could show."
Bret Morgan ("Cobain: Montage of Heck") – The Singular Challenge of Directing
"The singular challenge of the director is to unite everyone on the team with your vision. What makes these type of films challenging, my films aren’t about the subject, they’re intended to be the experience of the subject. The goal, ultimately, becomes to try to unite all the department heads with the aesthetic of the subject."
Ethan Hawke ("Seymour: An Introduction") – Subjects Obsessed With Succeeding
"[Seymour Bernstein] would say, ‘I’ve waited 88 years to be a movie star, this is fantastic.’ But what was really interesting was that he said to me he wasn’t sure if having a successful career was a good thing. And my whole life, everyone has been obsessed with succeeding. And you take Amy [Winehouse] or Kurt [Cobain] as examples, but Seymour started talking about Glen Gould or Marlon Brando and how society’s conception of success, when it’s not corresponding to your own growth as a person, it can put people through a tremendous amount of pain. And I think a lot of us see that in our own life. It’s not to the extent to what some people have, but you can find yourself out of step and trip over that. That to me was really interesting."
Kim Longinotto ("Dreamcatcher") – Everyone Has a Terrible Fear of F*cking Up
"Both of the feelings I want people to take away from the film, is, ‘Okay, this woman has come from [this dark past], maybe I’m not completely in tune with my life, maybe there are things that I’m not that happy about, but if she’s managed to get through that, with all those problems, maybe I can, too.’ You start out in a situation with no power. And then you get yourself together and you become a survivor. And at the same time, you’re never entirely there. You’re always slightly out of step with the persona you have. That’s what I’m interested in, it’s contradiction. That someone can be one thing and then another. All of us have massive insecurities, but also hopes and fears. Not just of wanting success, but of a terrible fear of fucking up, that’s what we all have. All documentaries have that, and hearing another filmmaker who says that they do as well, it’s such a relief."
Davis Guggenheim ("He Named Me Malala") – Looking for Moments of Introspection
"I showed up at Malala’s house by myself, I rang her doorbell. I do this now with every movie I make, I show up with just audio and no crew and no cameras. She had this little office and I just said, ‘Let’s talk.’ I had no notes and no agenda and honestly the idea for me was just to wander and talk. It was supposed to be an hour and then it was three hours. Both [Malala and her father] had done a lot of interviews and told me they’d told me things they’d never told anyone before. It was very emotional. It starts your relationship very differently. Imagine if you meet someone for the first time and they bring with them 10 people. If you had those exact same interviews and there were crew there, even if they were willing, the way they say things might be very different. I ended up doing maybe 15 audio interviews with Malala because what I’m really looking for are those moments of introspection."
"Joseph Oppenheimer ("The Look of Silence") – Using the Medium for Emotional Healing
"When we see why [the confrontations in the film] fail with precision and intimacy, we can see the prison of fear and show how urgently truth, justice and reconciliation are needed. With the confrontations Adi [Rukun]was going to have, I said, ‘Just try to listen to each other’… So Adi was able to lure crucial details out of [the criminals] so he could then turn the tables and confront them. And then of course, the perpetrators would go from boasting and declaiming their responsibility to denying it. We’d always have a getaway car for Adi, so the minute we were done with the interview he could leave, Adi’s family was at the airport during the interviews so that they could evacuate if anything went wrong.
Crystal Moselle ("The Wolfpack") – The Power of Observation and Patience
"It was instinctual and organic the way I approached this film. I came in and just observed. Some days I would walk through the hallway and [the father] would ask me to come into his room to talk to him. I think that there was too much pressure to say, ‘Let’s sit down and let’s do an interview,’ I tried that a couple times and it never worked. The first two years I didn’t do any interviews. It was fly on the wall observation and being there. As time went by we started to do more sit down interviews. I knew I was going to make a film the minute I saw them on the street. I knew that there was something there, I didn’t know what it was, but I have a lot of patience I guess. I just stuck with it and when it started to shape itself, I was able to plan things out. But especially the father, I had to just wait and see what he was going to give me, I didn’t want to push."
Matthew Heineman ("Cartel Land") – Allowing Time to Create Intimacy
"I first heard about the story [of vigilante Dr. José Manuel Mireles] in the Wall Street Journal… so I reached out to the journalist and I asked her about him and she said he was the single most interesting man she’s ever been around and as a documentarian, those are nice words to hear [laughs]. I was introduced to [Mireles], and then two weeks later, I was in Mexico filming. I originally thought I was going to be down there for one week, which turned into one month, which turned into nine months. I had no agenda, I wanted to let the story happen. I heard Al Maysles once say, ‘If you end up with the story you started with, you’re not listening along the way,’ and I think that’s good advice for life and for filmmaking. That’s something that I kept with me every single day. The story evolved, the doctor as a character evolved. I think what really allowed me to get in these very intimate scenes I wanted to get was time."
Stanley Nelson ("The Black Panthers: Vangard of the Revolution") – Capturing the Scope of a Movement
"It took seven years to make this film. We spent four years trying to put the whole film together and three years in production. We wanted to have cops and Panthers, we wanted both sides. By having both of those, the push was there. The panthers were telling their story, the cops were telling their story and that’s it. When I felt like someone was telling me something I don’t believe, I would push. But I didn’t push the cops, they’re cops. They’re not going to change their minds. We wanted to give a scope of the movement, to talk about Oakland, New York, Chicago.
Kirby Dick ("The Hunting Ground") – The Surprise of Push Back
"We were investigating cases at dozens of universities as they were happening. We wanted this range that when people walked out they would realize this isn’t a film about five schools where there are rape problems, it’s a problem across the country. We wanted to find people who were compelling and that would have the strength to go out. We have very strong central characters, but we were surprised when we went out with the film how much blowback there was. We knew there was misogyny and sexism in our culture, and in some ways I think rape and sexual assault is the dark core of that. When we went out with this film, we saw this incredible push backs against the subjects, against the film — from schools, journalists, law professors. We were really, really surprised."
Evgeny Afinevsky, ("Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom") – Allowing Subjects to Tell Their Own Stories
"Since I arrived to Ukraine, I think the hope for the better future of unity is there. Even being under pressure, people being kidnapped, tear gassed, all these horrible things, they’re still optimistic, still stand their ground. It’s their choice and for me, as a filmmaker, I just tried to allow them to be in the movie. I was following them and allowing them to tell their own stories. It wasn’t as much my choice, I was just trying to be a true filmmaker and portray facts that happened. You can see the reaction of these people to these horrifying laws, they reacted with a great sense of humor. I was just being a filmmaker trying to record the history as it happens, as it was. I wanted to bring it to them, it’s their movie, I wanted to bring something to them, to hear their reaction."
Alex Gibney ("Going Clear") – Creating a Defense Mechanism Against Intimidation
"The Church of Scientology, both in terms of what they do with their religion and also in the way that they come after you, they try to impose a matrix of thought upon its followers and dissenters. What they do is use tricks to get inside your mind and destabilize you and make you think there’s always somebody following you. In some cases, there is. Luckily for me, I was warned by a number of the members inside the church that the best defense is to not allow them in. If you understand that’s what they’re doing, it can be a defense. One thing is being prepared."
"The Church of Scientology has a history of intimidation. I’m hoping a lot of other powerful people aren’t taking a page from their playbook. Twenty or so years ago, they sued TIME magazine. It was the most expensive lawsuit in the history of religious matters. Since then, they’ve used the threat of litigation. That in and of itself can be incredibly difficult, financially and pragmatically. We had to spend almost $200,000 on insurance alone on the film, but if you understand what their endgame is, it helps you defend yourself."
Michael Moore ("Where to Invade Next") – Making a Movie Entirely About Solutions
"We usually deal with a lot of things that bum a lot of people out. So we had a couple of thoughts: What if we made a movie that was a no problems, all solutions movie? People get mad if you don’t give a solution in your movie, which is like getting mad at the doctor who tells you you have cancer if he doesn’t have the cure. You need documentary films to show you what the problems are. I also wanted to make a movie about the United States and its problems without shooting a single frame in the country. I think we wanted the challenge of it to keep our mojo going. If there isn’t a challenge, it’s boring."
"I’ve always felt the best comedians throughout history, if you know anything about them, they were very angry people. The angrier they were, the better their comedy was. I’m pretty angry, and it doesn’t show on the surface because I’ve chosen to make a comedy. I guess what I want to convey is this isn’t rocket science. We can have better schools, we don’t have to poison our kids, we can give people four weeks paid vacation. I’m hopeful because in this film, I lay out a blueprint of tried and true things. What I hope I’ve done is create something that makes you want to leave the theater and on the way out at the Goobers and Raisinets stand ask for a pitchfork and a torch."