Magical Realism

Why Gabriel Garcia Marquez would never get a job with PBS--and other truths of nonfiction film

Galinsky: I hope you're right.

Farnel: Well, it'll be interesting to see what happens with Love & Diane. Here is a film--it follows an African-American family in Flatbush through their struggles with drugs and poverty and the welfare establishment--that is absolutely uncompromising in its refusal to bow to narrative conventions. And yet there's this incredible, cumulative power to the movie--it's almost three hours long. I think it's a masterpiece. It's a rare throwback to the unfettered kind of documentary, the kind that's principally concerned with providing a pure record of events.

Galinsky: These days everyone is so aware of the practice of documenting that there's no way you could make a film like Salesman, the Maysles Brothers' film about Bible salesmen in the '60s. No one would agree to appear in a movie like that anymore. Everyone knows what a camera does now. People ask us, "Why didn't you get people from St. Martin's Press to appear in your film?" And it's like, "Well, because they're too smart." They didn't want to go on 60 Minutes, so they're certainly not going to talk to us.

Farnel: They're media pros. They've all had the coaching. All they would give you is spin.

Galinsky: Or maybe they know that there are certain things you just can't spin--so the only thing to do is not to talk. And then you have people like the guy in our film, James Hatfield, the author of Fortunate Son. He's like [Mark Borchardt] in American Movie: He's so aware of the camera that he's almost scripting the film. So the film becomes a collaboration in a way that would have made audiences even 10 years ago say that it wasn't a "real" work of documentary. Not that the events are being fabricated or anything, but the camera does drive a certain kind of person to perform.

Farnel: Like Tobias Schneebaum in Keep the River on Your Right: He's a born entertainer--and a great character. He's a gay, 78-year-old New York Jew--a Fulbright scholar--who goes back to the Peruvian Amazon jungle where 30 years earlier he hung out with a native tribe and at one point became a cannibal. It's incredible.

Galinsky: Yes. And he spends half the movie complaining that the filmmakers are forcing him to do things he doesn't want to do [laughs]. The funny thing is that it's precisely this kind of charisma--this kind of acting for the camera--that makes someone worthy of being a "real documentary" subject in the first place. I mean, Derrida is interesting as a documentary profile because [French philosopher] Jacques Derrida is acutely aware of the camera, and he's also aware of how the filmmakers are attempting to deconstruct the documentary form using his own theories; in fact, he's prodding them to do it.

Farnel: That reminds me: War Photographer is another film that, like Derrida, is as much about documentary filmmaking as anything else. It's a kind of essay on what documentary is. Obviously it tells the story of a war photographer, James Nachtwey, a guy who takes an almost Zen-like approach to his craft. And yet it's also about what it means to take pictures of people--what it means to take something inherently horrible like war and put it in a frame.

Galinsky: But what does it mean to do that? [Nachtwey's] point--and maybe the film's point, I think--is that being a witness to these atrocities is going to stop them from happening somehow. But I don't see any evidence of that in War Photographer. I have a weird relationship with that film. In fact, I have a problem with polemical films in general. Whenever someone says, "Here's what to think about this," then I'm absolutely not going to think that.

Farnel: That's interesting, because for some filmmakers and audiences, the very mission of documentary is to make a political point. There's a whole history of leftist filmmakers like Emile de Antonio [Point of Order, Rush to Judgment] who have operated out of a sense of social mission.

Galinsky: There was a need for a certain amount of polemic in '60s documentary filmmaking because the radical point of view wasn't being seen at all. That polemic was meant to wake people up. But for me, there's more power in a social message that causes people to do their own thinking. And yet there's a downside to that, too. There's a really great theater in New York, and the programmers there don't want to show Horns and Halos. They said they got to the end of the film and had more questions than answers. And we thought, "Well, that's the whole point." It gets frustrating for us. We showed the film in D.C.: Half the audience was upset because they wanted us to make [Hatfield] look awful, and the other half was angry that we had made him look imperfect in any way. So we felt like we had made a successful film, because we had gone right up the middle of the audience. But it was such a divided screening: Everyone was throwing eggs.

Farnel: It's like the Bill Maher thing: If half the audience loves you, and half the audience hates you, then you've done your job.

Galinsky: Yeah, but in this case, half the audience hated us, and the other half hated us.

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