It seemed a little too easy to find the connection between the unemployed yob who took a suburban joyride in a tank and the gay American artist who turned to cannibalism in the Amazon. And who could fail to find the common ground between the opaque French philosopher who cooked up "deconstruction," Jacques Derrida, and the refugee philosopher who orchestrated the bombing of Cambodia, Henry Kissinger? So when it came to breaking down the 15 movies that make up the second annual City Pages Documentary Film Festival (screening this Thursday through Sunday), we asked Sean Farnel and Michael Galinsky to get to the bottom of this whole nonfiction film thing. Like, what's the meaning of truth anyway? And for a dose of reality, why not just stay home and watch Dateline or Fear Factor?
Galinsky, by the way, is the co-director of one of the movies in the fest, Horns and Halos, the story of what happened when St. Martin's Press dropped plans to publish Fortunate Son, a scathing biography of George W. Bush, penned by a convicted felon. (Galinsky will be appearing at the Oak Street Cinema with co-director Suki Hawley on the festival's opening night.) Sean Farnel is the documentary programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival.
Sean Farnel: When you're making a documentary, there's one sense in which you're simply making a record of something that happened, and another sense in which you're shaping that material into a story. As I see it, the crux of the challenge for a documentary filmmaker involves balancing himself between those two sides: the document side and the story side. And the audience today has become quite savvy in terms of questioning whether the film is telling "the truth" or not.
Michael Galinsky: Often the truth is a lot less clear-cut than people want to believe. Some people have come out of Horns and Halos feeling confused because they think they don't know what we think--even though they do. The problem is that we haven't told them, This is what you need to think.
Farnel: You haven't wrapped it up in a box and put a ribbon around it. That's the best thing about the documentary films I've admired most in recent years--your film included, and also Cul de Sac [about a plumber who stole a tank and drove it through suburban California]: There's ambiguity. Watching those films, you're getting the narrative, but you're also getting the sense that there's a lot more going on than the filmmaker could possibly tell you in 90 minutes.
Galinsky: I think most people who go to see a documentary expect to see a TV documentary, with talking heads and archival footage--a PBS-type thing. As a result, we as documentary filmmakers feel this pressure not only to make it obvious what we think about our subjects, but to try to prove something definitive through the process of creating the film. Put it this way: Gabriel Garcia Marquez would never get a job with PBS.
Farnel: He could never follow the Universal Clock: the broadcasting rule that all documentaries must fit in a 52-minute slot.
Galinsky: We know all about the Universal Clock. We sent Horns and Halos to 20 different companies, and they all wrote back and said, "Can we see a 52-minute cut?" And we're like, "Well, you could, but it wouldn't be a movie anymore."
Farnel: That's why there's a documentary film festival circuit--because there's so much good work that doesn't fit the Universal Clock.
Galinsky: Or else it's too polemical--which can be good and bad. I think The Trials of Henry Kissinger is great in some ways, and important, too, and I'm certainly glad it was made. It's a film that basically argues that Kissinger should be prosecuted as a war criminal. But it doesn't seem like something that needs to be seen in a theater. To me, it doesn't feel like a movie.
Farnel: It was made for the BBC. But I would say that it plays a lot better in a theater. I for one would rather see it with a bunch of people who share my sensibilities--we can talk about it afterward--than alone in my living room, where I just sit there thinking, "Okay, now that's over. What else is on?" Kissinger has done great business theatrically and at festivals. But why hasn't it gotten a broadcast deal in the U.S.? Because it's too polemical?
Galinsky: I think Dateline has led audiences to expect that everything will be wrapped up neatly for them. They expect to know what the ending is going to be in the first five minutes. Even without a narrator, they expect that.
Farnel: Well, I don't think anyone watches Dateline or Survivor and then comes to work the next morning and says, "Oh, I saw this great documentary last night." I don't buy into the argument that reality TV is polluting documentaries. In fact, it has never been a better time for documentaries. Bowling for Columbine is about to become the highest-grossing documentary of all time. I think what reality TV has done is to show that there's this real hunger out there for work that taps into a sense of possibility--a sense that you're watching something and you have no idea what's going to happen. Fiction filmmaking hasn't done such a great job of providing a sense of possibility; it has gotten so formulaic. Therefore audiences are looking for other kinds of films--including films that are more raw.
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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