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DISPATCH FROM TORONTO | Documentary Filmmaking and “The Long Haul”

DISPATCH FROM TORONTO | Documentary Filmmaking and "The Long Haul"

Termed “the longitudinal documentary” by Hot Docs Director of Programming Sean Farnel, films that follow a character or story over an extended period of time are increasingly problematic these days. Deals with distributors or television networks put pressure on the time a doc has to finish, often limiting the diachronic scope of the project. Three feature films screening at the 2008 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival: Jens Hoffman‘s “20 Seconds of Joy,” Greg Kohs‘ “Song Sung Blue,” and Nik Sheehan‘s “Flicker,” exemplfy this increasingly rare form in documentary filmmaking.

The sole Canadian entry of the trio, “Flicker” actually comes with a warning for those who suffer from epilepsy: Don’t see this film. With a rhythm as hypnotic as the apparatus it revolves around, Nik Sheenan’s film discusses the life of the “dream machine,” a rotating lamp structure intended to induce visions, which was invented by Brion Gysin in 1954. The story is fascinating (and Iittle known, Sheenan was quick to point out his surprise that the topic had never been discussed through non-fiction film before), and the film covers all of its bases, from the people that it’s associated with (including figures like Iggy Pop, and Marianne Faithfull, who both appear in the film), to the bizarre episodes like when the machine was used to attempt to “put spells” on astronauts.

Kohs’ “Song Sung Blue,” which premiered at Slamdance earlier this year, takes on a very different if equally ununsual story: that of Milwaukee’s Mike and Claire Sardina. Known as Lightning and Thunder, the couple traveled the Midwest, he impersonating Neil Diamond, she (though less often) Patsy Cline. Far from the often cliched works that take on the stories of obscure celebrities (and that’s not a dig at “Anvil!,” which had enough heart to overcome its conventions), “Song Sung” candidly digs into the psychology of two complex people, and their even more complex relationship. Deeply moving and passionately orchestrated, “Song Sung” tells an important story of the contemporary meaning of hopes and dreams.

“20 Seconds of Joy” also attempts to bring a different take to a common non-fiction theme: the sports documentary. Hoffman’s film follows six years in the life of Norwegian BASE jumper Karina Hollekim, who jumps off massive bridges or cliffs. The cinematography is astounding, leading most audience members to squirm low in their seats as Hoffman showed off every angle possible of Hollekim’s death defying acts. But Hoffman’s attempt to bring Hollekim’s love for extreme sports into a discussion of her psychology often feels forced and repetitive (and a lot like “Steep“). Nonetheless, the exceedingly complicated jumps that his subject takes on as the film progresses are amazing sights to be seen, particularly on a big screen.

Each filmmaker sat down with Hot Docs’ Shannon Abel to discuss their experiences. They were joined by Gabriel Rhodes, whose short film, “Behind The Glass, details years in the lives of four film projectionists. The discussion revolved around, as the event was titled, “The Long Haul,” and the complications this essential time-taking might bring to documentary filmmaking.

From left: Gabriel Rhodes, Nik Sheenan, Shannel Abel, Greg Kohs, and Jens Hoffman at a Hot Docs event in Toronto. Image by Peter Knegt/indieWIRE.

Kohs, who spent eight years making “Song Sung,” noted the process “became therapy” for him and he “didn’t care how long it took.” “i didn’t want it to end and was actually quite messed up when it did. It became therapy for me because I directed commercials for a living – where it’s all about commerce and selling, and quite a bit of compromise at times. This was completely the opposite.” Hoffman, whose original timeline was fractured by a crucial event in the film’s narrative, was forced to evaluate the ethics of documentary filmmaking when it came to decide whether to continue. “You want an end to a story and didn’t want to end it interrupting it so we kept thinking and working,” he said. “At one point, a personal change in [Katrina Hollekim’s] life gave us our ending. It wasn’t the intended end, and it wasn’t scripted out, which took more time.”

Ethical considerations were a theme in the filmmaker’s words. Working for long period of time with one subject creates a problem in that the relationship with the subject is likely to be quite close. “If you really want to have a deep portrait of a person, you have to get that close,” said Hoffman. “But if you are that close to a person and something happens, you want to be there [for them] but you can’t, because you have to be cameraman or what have you.” Kohs – who had to deal with two subjects with erratic and emotional tendencies – noted his tactic as being a “proverbial fly on a wall.” “Don’t talk to Greg, he’s a fly on the wall,” he imitated the couple and their children as often saying. Mixing his own footage with home videos supplied by “Lightning and Thunder,” Kohs technique allowed him as intimiate a portrayal as one could want. “That’s how the trust was established,” he said. “And the family is happy with the film.”

Sheenan covered the longest period of time in “Flicker,” though not through candid filming of his subject but through archival research. “The hardest kind of documentary to make is what they call an ‘essay film,’ where you have to deal with a big subject over time,” he said. “And the more I got into it the more I realized: The most important part of documentary filmmaking is editing.” Noting the pressure involved in this process when festival deadlines or distribution deals loom, Sheenan found so many projects go off the rail in the editing room when the pressure gets to high. “Just say ‘no, it’s not ready,'” he strongly advised an audience of many aspiring filmmakers. Citing Canadian filmmaker Ron Mann (whose infamous tendency is to take years and years in the editing room), Shennan noted that “he said it is the most important thing to get it right, because thats where docs are made: in the editing room.”

The 90 minute talk delved into a wide variety of related experiences and philosophies, but perhaps it was a Neil Diamond impersonator that said it best. “In regard to the long haul,” said Kohns. “There was this way we approached the film with from the beginning and was something that Lighting said on the way to a gig once. We didn’t film it, but Thunder was saying ‘we’re gonna be late to the gig.’ And he said to her, ‘just relax, we’re gonna get there faster going slower.'”

Hot Docs continues through April 27th.

Peter Knegt is the Assistant Editor of indieWIRE and is based in Canada. He also writes a blog hosted by indieWIRE.

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