FESTIVALS: Truth in Docutainment? docfest '99 incites non-fiction debate
by Eugene Hernandez
Summarizing his experience at docfest '99 during a closing day seminar, film and videomaker Jem Cohen who attended virtually every weekend screening stated, "I don't think I have ever seen such a wide gamut of what documentary can be." The comment is both a tribute to the work of festival organizers and a warning to moviegoers with rigid definitions of non-fiction filmmaking.
In a media environment populated by 24-hour news channels, countless primetime network magazine programs, trash-talk shows, and exploitative reality television, the true stories around us can be even more compelling and enlightening than the fictional dramas shaped by screenwriters, actors, and narrative filmmakers. In fact, some of the most interesting work to inhabit the recent alternative, off-Hollywood film scene has come from documentary makers.
Anyone wishing to refute this opinion need only poll audiences who attended the last two Sundance Film Festivals, where doc work consistently captured the attention of attendees and the majority of narrative work left festival-goers rather disappointed. (It is not surprising that the most exciting indie film of this year -- "The Blair Witch Project" -- is conceived as a reconstructed documentary about three filmmakers lost in the woods.)
It is within this climate that Gary Pollard, David Leitner, and Alla Verlotsky established docfest: The New York International Documentary Film Festival. Now in its second year, the well organized, diversely curated event again offered New Yorkers a peak at the latest works from non-fiction makers around the world. Along the way, organizers again inspired and instigated a dialogue about the films, the underlying issues, and non-fiction filmmaking in general. A representative from each film was brought in to participate in a post-screening Q & A session, followed by a champagne reception in the downstairs lobby of the DGA theater that was open to all festival-goers.
Debates over doc techniques, new technologies, and the inevitable question of "what is truth" led conversation throughout last month's five-day festival. Not surprisingly, these issues came up throughout the event, and during Sunday's roundtable discussion between a handful of docfest filmmakers, legendary non-fiction maker Frederick Wiseman, and festival programmer David Leitner. "One of the things we are doing is creating the illusion that we are telling the truth," prodded Wiseman during the seminar, "The whole exercise is manipulation."
An important factor often faced by doc makers -- and one raised by work and fueled by discussions -- was the issue of a documentarian's relationship with their subject and the responsibilities those makers face in creating their work despite sometimes close bonds. In Roko and Adrian Belic's rousing "Genghis Blues" the filmmakers befriend a blind, throat-singing bluesman and accompany him on a trip to Tuva, the home of the distinctive singing. In Jem Cohen's "Instrument" and Grant Gee's "Meeting People is Easy," the makers create their insightful works from the inside, by working closely with the bands they document. Cohen credits Fugazi as co-directors of the movie, which was released on video by the band's own record label (Dischord Records), and Gee earned financing from Radiohead's record label, Parlophone, for a film that was produced by Dilly Gent, the woman who commissions the band's music videos. Other examples include Nick Kurzon's "Super Chief," a compelling peak at an Indian reservation election in which the maker maintained a close friendship with someone actively campaigning against the incumbent, and Jesper Jargil's "The Humiliated," where the maker leveraged his relationship with acclaimed and controversial director Lars Von Trier (who co-produced the picture) to create a sometimes unflattering portrait of the filmmaker during the making of his Dogma 95 movie, "Idiots." In each case, the documentarian's close relationships with their subjects enabled them the opportunity to create work that would likely not have been possible without those bonds.
Jargil has known Lars Von Trier since film school and made a deal that Von Trier permit him to make a film without interference. Von Trier was not allowed to change the movie. Yet resistance has since come from another subject. Jargil admitted that one of the actresses documented is now criticizing the work because it captures her in rather vulnerable personal moments. In the case of Jem Cohen's ten-year collaboration with Fugazi, the filmmaker indicated that although he did not give up final cut to his friends in the band, he called his editing process "hellish" and "complicated." For Marco Amenta's "One Girl Against the Mafia," a look at the Sicilian mob, the filmmaker admitted that his relationship with some of his interviewees nearly sabotaged his movie, as some asked to be cut from the final work. Looking to Wiseman for guidance during the Sunday seminar, Armenta asked him, "How would you deal with that?" Without flinching, Wiseman stated flatly, "I would have made a movie about that."
"In the end we are all trying to tell stories," explained British docmaker Dan Reed who attended the festival with "The Valley," a graphic, first hand account of the crisis in Kosovo, "(We are) telling a form of truth, this is not going to be P.R."
The film that perhaps best illustrated some of these issue was the colorful, funny, and sharply crafted "Hitman Hart, Wrestling with Shadows," Paul Jay's look inside the pro-wrestling world. Jay took his subjects, the pro-wrestling Hart family, as serious as they take the theater of wrestling itself. "With its can't-believe-they-caught-that camerawork and abundant mordant humor," wrote programmer David Leitner in the festival catalog, " 'Hitman Hart' is one of the most satisfyingly entertaining documentaries to come along in years. Seriously." It is this intention to entertain that concerned some. The melodramatic music and loving imagery of Jay's documentary led to a rousing debate that spilled into the lobby after the screening. One docfest filmmaker vocally criticized the work as manipulative and expressed concerns for audiences who might not see through its manipulation. While others discussing the movie offered an "anything goes" attitude with regard to the construction, arguing that moviegoers are smart enough, in the current media environment, to fend for themselves.
The debate continued at Sunday's docfest discussion. "We're going to see incredibly slick films, docutainment," cautioned Jem Cohen. "We might want to be aware of places where entertainment is encroaching in places where it normally hasn't." Concluding the discussion with his own final words, festival founder Gary Pollard offered, "As far as I am concerned, I learned (documentary filmmaking) as an art form, you make your own rules."