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Director Alex Gibney's IDA Speech on The Folly of Objectivity and Why He's Drawn to Abuses of Power

Indiewire By Alex Gibney | Indiewire December 13, 2013 at 11:44AM

At their annual awards ceremony last Sunday, The International Documentary Association (IDA) presented Academy Award and Emmy Award winning director Alex Gibney with the 2013 Career Achievement Award.
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Alex Gibney.

At their annual awards ceremony last Sunday, The International Documentary Association (IDA) presented Academy Award and Emmy Award winning director Alex Gibney with the 2013 Career Achievement Award. Gibney directed two films released this year involving divisive public figures. "The Armstrong Lie" focused disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, and "We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks" profiled controversial media figure Julian Assange. Previous recipients of the IDA Career Achievement Award have been given to Michael Moore, Werner Herzog, Barbara Kopple and Errol Morris. Gibney has granted permission to Indiewire to publish his speech, which you can read below:

This Lifetime Achievement Award  [actually it is called a "Career Achievement Award"] is a great honor.  Thank you.  But I have to confess it's also a little scary: a reminder of mortality. So, when I got the call, I was both thankful and honored, yet I also wanted to respond, like the pet shop owner in the Monty Python skit dismissing the rigor mortis of a stiff parrot, "he's not dead, he's just resting."

In thinking about my role as a documentarian, I recalled another bird story told to me by my erstwhile stepfather, William Sloane Coffin, Jr.  He liked to recount a time when, as an orderly in a mental institution, he was roaming the grounds.  Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted an overweight pigeon, flying unsteadily, heading toward a patient.  Once overhead, the bird unburdened itself and dropped a massive load on the patient’s head.   Flustered, my stepfather moved to help the man and said, "stay right there; I’ll go get some toilet paper." 

"It's too late," replied the patient, as he scanned the sky with a melancholy look in his eye.  "The bird has flown away…"

I think of myself -- and some of my documentary colleagues --  as a bit like the patient, more than a little crazy, but with a special take on everyday life and a powerful sense of wonder.

Truth is, we are lucky: we get paid to learn. 

I've learned a lot.  I started out cutting exploitation trailers.  I remember one in particular.  It was for the TV version of "Shock Waves," a film about mutant Nazis who rise up from the ocean floor to terrorize sunbathing vacationers. 

Trailer cutting was surprisingly useful in terms of figuring out how to hold an audience. After all, as Kubrick once said, figuring out what you want to say is easy; it's hiding it that's hard. Later on, I produced 8 docs on the blues for Martin Scorsese. I got to watch eight extraordinary fiction filmmakers at work, making personal documentary films, with cinematic style that embraced the messy contradictions of everyday life.  Wim Wenders started his film about Blind Willie Johnson in outer space!  I realized anything was possible. 

"We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks"

The next thing I learned was that it pays to surround yourself with people far more talented than I.  Great producers like Frank Marshall, Matt Tolmach, and Marc Shmuger.  Cinematographers like Maryse Alberti, Lisa Rinzler and Dick Pearce.  And extraordinary editors like Alison Ellwood, Sloane Klevin and Andy Grieve.  Editors are the unsung heroes of the documentary.  I gave up editing feature films because you couldn't save them in the cutting room.  But that's what doc editors do every day.

I've learned a lot from other filmmakers.  Really disparate ones -- like Luis Bunuel and Sergio Leone, the Maysles Brothers, Errol Morris, Barbara Kopple, Werner Herzog (who says narration doesn’t work?), the Jareckis, Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, Ari Folman -- who made an animated documentary -- Dror Moreh and James Marsh, who managed to make us all believe that we had watched Philippe Petite dancing between NY's twin towers when there was no footage of it all. 

One of my favorites -- Marcel Ophuls -- taught me a lesson about the folly of objectivity: everyone should have a point of view.  After all, as the saying goes, if you stand for nothing, you'll fall for anything.  But Ophuls noted that his films should show how hard it is to have that point of view.  Embrace contradictions.  The physicist Richard Feynman said it in a different way: it's good to keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out. 

Along the way, I have learned a lot about interviewing people.  It turns out a lot of them lie. I am drawn to stories about abuses of power.  And no one lies with as much force and frequency than the powerful.  Getting angry is pointless. Understanding how the lies are told and how they fool us is the best revenge.  I'm interested in perps, because if you want to stop crimes you have to understand how criminals work.   Yet I don't like the idea of picking out bad apples.  Blaming bad apples is a Dick Cheney con.  It keeps us from seeing what's rotten about the barrel.

PhotoCredit: NoahFowler/courtesyofHBO Director Alex Gibney on Set

As a guiding slogan, I like this formulation: comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

This is not without risk. 

I can recall getting a phone call from a friend -- and former assistant -- producing a film in Gaza.  She called in a panic because her director, James Miller, had been shot and killed by an Israeli tank.  She wanted help to get her director's body out of Gaza to a place where an independent autopsy could be done. 

I often think about that phone call. I am in awe of my colleagues who place themselves at mortal risk to try to tell the truth.

I think that producing documentaries is like having faith in reckoning with a future you can't control.  You have to believe that you will find a story in unpredictable events and the hundreds of hours of footage that are staring you in the face. Most recently, I set out, in 2008, to tell an inspirational tale about Lance Armstrong.  That became "The Armstrong Lie."  It went from "Breaking Away" to "Breaking Bad." To follow the twists and turns of that story, or "We Steal Secrets" or "Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room," or "Taxi to the Dark Side," takes more than a bit of faith. 

As my stepfather once said, "I love the recklessness of faith; first you jump and then you grow wings."

So here's to faith. And the keeping of it.

This article is related to: IDA (International Documentary Association), IDA Documentary Awards, Alex Gibney, Alex Gibney, Documentary Film, Filmmaker Toolkit: Documentaries





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