The "D" Word: Non Fiction Films Are "Sexier Than Ever"
at First New York "docfest"
by Andrea Meyer
From the 60's "cinéma verité" which introduced a new brand of
entertaining, thought-provoking documentaries on subjects from Marlon
Brando to Bob Dylan, Broadway to the campaign trail, to the 90's
truth-confounding formats of Errol Morris and Michael Moore, documentary
film has become a compelling art form as well as a means of imparting
information, an art form that deserves a film festival of its own in New
This year New Yorkers got just that. From May 27-31, they had
the pleasure of experiencing "docfest '98," the First Annual New York
International Documentary Festival. Introducing audiences to the past,
present, and future of the medium took place at an animated discussion
titled "Half a Century of Documentary Making." Moderated by Program
Director David Leitner, the all-star panel included D.A. Pennebaker
("Don't Look Back"), Albert Maysles ("Salesman"), and Jean Rouch, the
man who invented the term "cinéma verité" to describe his film
"Chronicle of a Summer."
Maysles and Pennebaker engaged in a debate about documentary filmmaking
as a representation of truth. While Maysles bemoaned the blurry line
between fact and fiction in documentaries today, Pennebaker expressed an
opinion that today's films dispel the notion that there is one reality
to depict. Rouch, the French contingent, told charming stories about his
career as an anthropologist in Africa and his relationship with the
other filmmakers of the French New Wave. He remarked poetically, "a film
is a thing you can touch and smell. It's a sort of love affair."
What became clear is that you can't really put your hands around what
exactly is a documentary film or what exactly it should be. Despondent
about the media today, about the MTV style of filmmaking, and a general
lack of humanity in film, Maysles explained, "We're getting more and
more numbed and dumbed by the way films are put together." As
justification for his harsh judgment, he held up three films by the
three filmmakers present, "Don't Look Back," "Salesman," and Rouch's
1961 masterpiece that provided docfest's centerpiece, "Chronicle of a
Summer." These films, made three decades ago, still provoke thought and
discussion today. Their impact and aesthetic value passes the test of
time. Maysles wondered if documentaries today, with their formal
experimentation, dazzling cinematography, and interplay between fact and
fiction, could hold up.
The docfest program, as put together by festival Founder and Director
Gary Pollard and Program Director David Leitner, seems on a mission to
prove how interesting, diverse and valuable documentaries today can be.
Their tools were documentary gems from the past and the present.
Docfest began with "Fires of Kuwait", an IMAX film about the multiple
oil fires set in Kuwait in the wake of the gulf conflict. An opening
night film can't get much more spectacular than 36 minutes of real life
heroes blowing up oil fires to save a decimated country -- projected on an
80' x 100' screen. IMAX is the perfect medium for bringing the actual
horror onto our screens. Director David Douglas and his wife and
producer Diane Douglas attended the screening and described the
difficulty of juggling three minute rolls of film in the excruciating
heat and dodging the oil that inevitably splashed onto their lens. While
35mm would have told an interesting story, IMAX shoves the fires right
in our faces. The film was nominated for the 1993 Academy Award for Best
While IMAX imposes a reality that is bigger than life, the Vietnam films
of Morley Safer and Pierre Schoendoerffer present an intimate picture
colored by anti-war sentiment. In 1967, CBS Saigon Bureau Chief Morley
Safer was ready to leave Vietnam, but needed to do a one-hour piece on
the war before he could go home. The result was "Morley Safer's Vietnam:
A Personal Report," the cynical and poetic personal journal he shot
before returning to the States. Safer did the impossible: he made an
anti-war film that was broadcast on US primetime television.
Safer was present and talked about the changes in media, nostalgically
recalling the "wonderful freshness of interviews with guys who hadn't
practiced the art of the sound bite. Everyone knows how to talk in sound
bites today. They were just talking to me." This film still packs the
same punch that it must have in 1967, as does "The Anderson Platoon" by
French director Pierre Schoendoerffer. His film also gets into the
trenches of Vietnam, where a filmmaker puts his life in jeopardy as
surely as his subjects do. His experience with a platoon of sweet-boyish
faced soldiers is extremely powerful and won a 1968 Oscar for Best
Legendary director of "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song," Melvin Van
Peebles presented his take on the history of blacks in cinema in
"Melvin Van Peebles' Classified X". Arté, a French/ German television network had the idea
and offered Van Peebles total creative control. Van Peebles wrote
and narrated the piece while Mark Daniels directed, and the result was
broadcast as part of a "Soiree Thématique," along with "Running Man,"
(an awe-inspiring portrait of Van Peebles by Mark Daniels that was also
screened at docfest) and "Sweet Sweetback." Van Peebles welcomed a
French production because in the States they "would have wanted to
tinker." To tinkerers, he says, "My answer's always a very simple 'Kiss
My Ass!'" The film reveals a black cinema that most of us have never
seen before -- the film is angry, opinionated, and eye-opening.
Afterwards Van Peebles and Daniels gave the audience the opportunity to
experience first hand the words of this Film maker, novelist, poet,
musician, Wall Street trader (!), jogger, and iconoclast extraordinaire.
Following in legendary footsteps was a challenge that the filmmakers of
the next generation met admirably. Some highlights include Bennett
Miller's much acclaimed portrait of New York oddball Timothy "Speed"
Levitch, "The Cruise," which plays like poetry. The film's subject
speaks, and the camera watches. Many of the scenes seemed
staged, which a purist like Albert Maysles might criticize. However, the
film portrays one person's reality and in doing so touches on universal
Another film about one person's particular vision is Maggie Hadleigh-West's provocative film "War Zone" about the catcalling and leering that she calls
"street abuse." The film sets out to prove that male behavior in the streets
takes away women's power by dictating their behavior, dress, self-image,
and especially their fear. Thanks to those familiar kissy kissy noises,
the film suggests that women walk around in fear of attack.
Hadleigh-West's unique technique which includes walking around with a
video camera that she shoves in the face of offenders created quite a
stir in the audience and among those interviewed. The result is a
provocative look at a very complicated subject that will certainly stir
up conversations. The film opens August 12 at Film Forum in Manhattan.
"The Brandon Teena Story" by Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir
investigates the 1993 murder of a Nebraska 21-year old Brandon Teena,
née Teena Brandon. Teena was raped and subsequently murdered when some
of her friends learned that she was born female but living as a man. The
film, which explores the issues of sexual identity and intolerance, won
the IFC Independent Vision Award presented at docfest. It also opens at
the Film Forum September 23.
A personal favorite that does not yet have a distributor is "Out for
Love...Be Back Shortly" by film student Dan Katzir, a portrait of Israel
through the eyes of an Israeli man in love with a woman in the
military. What begins as a man's quest for true love becomes a moving
meditation about love, hate, and the value of personal freedom. In his raw,
uncalculated documentation of daily life, Katzir illuminates a reality
in which violence and political upheaval has become banal. It's this
reality he begins to question as he opens himself up to the girlfriend
he finds during the making of the film -- if the fighting continues, he could
lose the love it's taken him so long to attain. The beautiful
interweaving of the personal and global rarely works so flawlessly, and
hopefully a distributor will recognize the film's strength.
Gary Pollard, festival Founder and Director, explains in the program
that docfest is "the first of many activities planned by the
newly-created New York Documentary Center, a non-profit organization
dedicated to building new audiences for documentaries of vision and
impact." Though the successful inaugural festival signals an enthusiastic
interest in Pollard's mission, Morley Safer reminded us that
"documentary is a dirty word," the least sexy of films, and yet with
stars like Mira Sorvino and Madonna showing up for the festival, the
underdog of the film world might now be sexier than ever.