A lot has been written about documentary film in years past, but a smart new book by Megan Cunningham lets the filmmakers themselves do the talking in an open, freewheeling format that seems to mimic the organic nature of direct cinema itself. "The Art of the Documentary," published by New Riders Press, offers 368 pages of enlightening conversations with a diverse group of accomplished directors, cinematographers and editors, at a paperback list price of $44.99.
The book is dedicated to the author's mentor, acclaimed editor Larry Silk ("Plan B," "Wild Man Blues"), setting the tone for what follows, as "The Art of the Documentary" creates a feeling of mentorship as opposed to using a dry, textbook approach or incorporating highbrow film criticism as one might expect. "One of the things Larry taught me," Cunningham told indieWIRE, "was the concept of really becoming familiar with the techniques, tools, and aesthetic approaches that all of these great filmmakers have taken over the years, and looking to them for inspiration."
When Cunningham sat down to interview Chris Hegedus ("Elaine Stritch at Liberty," "Startup.com") and D A Pennebaker ("The War Room," "Don't Look Back"), who have collaborated on dozens of films over the past 30 years, she told them the title of the book, and a spontaneous debate erupted over whether or not documentaries are actually art. Pennebaker isn't convinced, saying that the films he's been watching lately for the Academy (Oscars) weren't art. "And that doesn't mean I don't think they're good films," he says in the book, "but I would not call any of them works of art." Hegedus responds: "I definitely would. I think they're all individual statements. Each one is very different in terms of the style, and each is coming from a director's point of view."
Rather than shy away from those sorts of contradictions, Cunningham embraces them. "I think that there's a lot of conflicting advice in the book," she says, "which I like a lot. The concept was not be prescriptive, like 'this is the one way to make a documentary film,' it was more about learning in the first person format how some of the great people in the industry and also people who are just breaking new ground today... are doing things in documentary that really haven't been done before, like Lauren Lazin using graphics, typography and exclusively archival footage to tell the story of Tupac [in 'Tupac: Resurrection']."
The book is broken down into three sections: Directing, Cinematography, and Editing, each of which contain not only lively conversations with leaders in the documentary field, but fascinating histories of their careers, along with plenty of archival photographs and film stills. In the Directing section, Errol Morris discusses his remarkable career, spanning from the 1978 classic "Gates of Heaven" to 2003's "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara."
Perhaps the most fascinating part of the conversation is when Morris explores the notion of truth, specifically as it relates to his controversial 1988 film "The Thin Blue Line," which was fiercely criticized by some for its use of reenactments, a technique common in many of today's documentaries. "The use of available light and a handheld camera does not mean that what you are doing is any more truthful than anything else," he says. "Truth is a pursuit, it's a quest. And proof is certainly in the pudding in this particular instance, because the film, and the evidence accumulated in making the film, led to this man's release from prison. And that's hardly ever happened, if it's happened at all, in any other film that I can think of."
In the Cinematography section, Albert Maysles ("Grey Gardens," "Salesman"), who celebrated 50 years in documentary film this year, discusses his first film, "Psychiatry in Russia," and the fascinating stories involved in making it - from how he convinced CBS to give him a camera (and how he thought there would be sync sound), to riding a motorcycle throughout Eastern Europe with his brother while one slept and the other drove. When Cunningham asks Maysles if his idea of an ideal documentary is one without interviews, he responds: "Yes, ideally... if you go into making a film with interviewing in mind, then you're foreclosing the opportunity to get something for real. One of the fundamental defects often found in interviewing is that the questions are rhetorical."
When asked about objectivity versus subjectivity, Maysles says: "I think the thing that bridges the gap is the love and respect you give to the people and events that you're filming. You want to be without prejudice, have an open mind, a loving spirit, a talent for gaining access to people, maintaining a rapport with them, a confidence that you really belong there based on a true feeling of doing the right thing for them, for yourself, for the film - all that allows you to express emotions that really get to the heart of another person - and without the cold objectivity of a scientific report."
Cunningham was thrilled to include veteran Geof Bartz as one of the editors who was interviewed, as he imparts wisdom gained from 35 years in the film and television industry, including thoughts on his cult hits "Pumping Iron" and "Stripper." "Geof's description of how he approaches editing contains really invaluable information," Cunningham says, "not just about how great films are made but also about storytelling in general. That's something hopefully a lot of people can learn from, as he discusses narrative structure and how you balance exposition and reality based cinema verite material, andŠ how to create an engrossing opening so that you compel a viewer to sit through what might be difficult material."
"The Art of the Documentary" is a prime example of how to teach both the history and techniques of a form through spirited discussion rather than laying out a series of rules to follow. "I didn't expect the book to be so entertaining," says Cunningham. "A lot of people have responded very positively to the forthcoming nature of these artists who were so incredibly open, and offered access to their entire body of work. The opportunity to interview cinematographers, editors and directors all back to back really shed light on the craft from multiple perspectives."