Reality Checks: Four Major Documentary Filmmakers Have Died This Year. These Are Their Legacies.

Reality Checks: Four Major Documentary Filmmakers Have Died This Year. These Are Their Legacies.
Reality Checks: Four Major Documentary Filmmakers Have Died This Year. These Are Their Legacies.

It always sucks when someone dies.

But in the small world of documentary filmmaking, where the directors are a close-knit, dogged group, traveling to the same events and sharing the same few resources to tell their often personal or passionate stories, the loss of a fellow intrepid traveler cuts deep. It’s like losing a member of your extended family. The last six months have been particularly tough on the international nonfiction community, with the passings of Ed Pincus, Peter Wintonick, Michael Glawogger, and Malik Bendjelloul.

The loss of just one of these filmmakers provides plenty to mourn, but the death of four beloved directors within a short time is cause for serious pause. Not only will the documentary community miss out on their future projects, it also loses their voices: creative, intellectual, and in some cases, rabble-rousing, these were filmmakers who were defined as much by their outstanding work as their character.

What’s more, their diversity of styles and subject matters attest to the breadth and scope of current documentary film. From personal essays to political investigations, poetic exposes to dramatic character portraits, the films they leave behind and have left undone reflect the vigor of the nonfiction form.

Given that Ed Pincus was known most for his landmark personal verite doc “Diaries (1971-1976),” a profoundly intimate warts-and-all portrait of his open marriage at the time, it seemed fitting that just this year, Pincus, was back, in a sense, on the festival circuit, once again chronicling his own life in “One Cut, One Life,” a posthumously completed film, co-directed by Lucia Small (the two had also collaborated on “The Axe in the Attic.”)

Like his seminal direct cinema breakthrough from some 35 years earlier, “One Cut, One Life” also presents, with unflinching candor, the uncomfortable moments of close relationships. Ed’s wife, Jane (co-author of the feminist tome “Our Bodies, Our Selves”), is once again thrust into the position of odd-person-out, contending with both the intrusive presence of the camera and a younger woman in her husband’s life.

While “Diaries” focused on the early years of the Pincus’ life against the contentious political backdrop of the Vietnam War and the women’s liberation movement, “One Cut” presents other quandaries related to how we approach death and dying. (Small also addresses her close relationship with another recently deceased member of the documentary community, editor Karen Schmeer.) But as Steven Schiff observed in a 1981 Film Comment article on “Diaries,” “One Cut” is, also, in some ways, “a documentary of ethics” and a “record of queasy moral soul-searching.” Without Pincus, it’s hard to imagine films like “Capturing the Friedmans” or the work of Nina Davenport existing today.

Political in a more overt way, Canadian filmmaker Peter Wintonick is best known for his 1992 documentary “Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media,” co-directed with Mark Achbar, which famously explored the political philosophies of its protagonist, and helped open the eyes of viewers to the ways in which democratic societies control their populace and dissent can be activated. You can thank Wintonick and his subject for helping to foment Occupy Wall Street. (Personally, I’ll never forget seeing the film in a Paris movie theater in 1994, fulfilling just about every romantic notion a liberal twenty-something could have).

Over the decades, Wintonick continued to make films driven by strong political convictions, on alternative media, Cambodia and East Timor, and the role of video cameras in human rights activism. He also made a comprehensive visual history of cinema verite. But as National Film Board of Canada chairman Tom Perlmutter recalled in a statement at the time of Wintonick’s death: “He created a significant body of work, but his contribution was far greater than the sum of his films. It encompassed a larger view of the documentary as quintessential to the moral well-being of the universe.”

Like Pincus, Wintonick also worked hard to continue to stay creatively active after receiving a fatal diagnosis. With only a couple of months to live, he set out to complete a movie called “Be Here Now,” about the concept of Utopia, which he had been working on for years. Now being made by his daughter Mira Burt-Wintonick, “Be Here Now” is in the early stages of production, according to producers, as they attempt to construct an edit out of hundreds of hours of Wintonick’s footage.

Austrian filmmaker Michael Glawogger also died during the making of his final movie. In the middle of a one-year worldwide trip that began in December of 2013, Glawogger had traveled from Eastern Europe to West Africa, where he reportedly contracted malaria. Unlike Glawogger’s other global journeys of social conscience, “Megacities” (1998), “Workingman’s Death” (2005), and “Whore’s Glory” (2011), the new film, at least according to interviews with the filmmaker, seemed intentionally vague, with “no preconceived plan,” he wrote on the project’s website. “This film will give a view of the world that can only emerge by not pursuing any particular theme, by refraining from passing judgment, proceeding without aim. Drifting with no direction except one’s own curiosity and intuition.” (When asked for an update on the project, Razor Film Produktion’s Roman Paul commented, “We will let you know more as soon as we know more ourselves.”)

But given the director’s track record, known for his “immersive and unblinking looks at some of the harshest imaginable working and living conditions on the planet,” as critic and programmer Dennis Lim described Glawogger’s oeuvre in a recent tribute, it’s likely that the “Untitled” film would continue in the filmmaker’s familiar vein of loosely associative and beautifully photographed images of squalor and suffering.

If Ed Pincus will be remembered as a shining example of the direct cinema movement—the camera’s ability to capture life as it is lived, both in its reality and its self-awareness—Glawogger presents another side of personal filmmaking, also privileging subjective over objective filmmaking.

As Glawogger said in a 2012 interview: “Filmmaking is like an art. You have a standpoint and the view of the world and you show it. Everything else is nothing. So, what’s the talk about being objective? It doesn’t exist. You can’t depict reality without interference, without making a craft of it, without showing it through your eyes. It just doesn’t exist. It’s a myth.”

Showing every bit as much promise as these aforementioned documentary lions, Malik Bendjelloul came out of nowhere in 2012 with his superbly entertaining doc “Searching for Sugar Man,” the filmmaker’s only feature-length project. Only 36-years-old at the time of his death, Bendjelloul’s untimely passing rocked the documentary community ever since the news broke two weeks ago. But his film, the 2013 winner of the Academy Award for Best Documentary, reflects the richness of the current documentary form and the result of as much tenacity as talent. Toiling away on the project for four years on his own, Bendjelloul never gave up, and only got finishing funds after he had invested all of his own money into the film.

Combining animation, interviews, archival footage, and a skillful and winding narrative arc, which withholds and reveals information with the aplomb of a Hollywood screenplay, “Searching for Sugar Man” represents the myriad array of tools that nonfiction filmmakers are applying to their work these days. Sadly, we may never get to see what the filmmaker was planning to do with a reported project focused on conservationist, author and “elephant whisperer” Lawrence Anthony, and that, of course, remains one of the tragedies of his death. As Dennis Lim wrote of Glawogger: “It pains me to think of the films that will never be made.”

But thanks to the persistence of friends, family, allies and producers, their final projects may still see the light of day.

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