As soon as the first cut is made, a point of view has been taken, choice creates direction. Those facts of filmmaking, however, don't imply that truth is not tirelessly sought and given voice when it comes to the documentary. Thursday night, the Directors Guild of America celebrated it's 75th year of its existence by presenting one of their "Game-Changer" events. From Observation to Instigation: The Documentarian as Game-Changer brought the best of the best in documentary filmmaking to a two panel discussion evening.
Marc Levin provided an introduction before the audience was shown a sample reel of the first panel's portfolio. Not that most of us hadn't seen these films, but it did serve as a reminder of who we were about to listen to.
Following the reel, Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady, Barbara Kopple and Albert Maysles (pictured above) joined moderator Marc Levin for a discussion on the observational documentary. Mr. Levin opened the conversation with the 'fly on the wall' description, which everyone resoundingly disagreed with. The conclusion being, it is literally impossible to be a fly on the wall. A camera in the room effects the situation, at the very least slightly, no matter how unobtrusive a filmmaker might be. Another point was that none of them wants to be a fly on the wall. As Mr. Levin put it, they're not security cameras. As Mr. Maysles put it, behind the camera should be the eye of a poet. Filmmakers make a choice on where to point their camera.
Ethical questions were brought up as well. Ms. Ewing and Ms. Grady spoke about the difficulties while filming 12th & Delaware, a film tracking two clinics, both literally and ethically on opposing sides of the abortion debate. The pro-life center imposes a vague name for their clinic, and as a result, some women who show up to the corner of 12th & Delaware seeking termination of a pregnancy inadvertently end up at the wrong address.
They said how difficult it was to not interfere by letting women know they were walking into a clinic the clients believed to be an abortion provider. As filmmakers, Mr. Ewing and Ms. Grady acknowledged being subjected to a number of ethical quandaries in any given film they're shooting, but most of the time choose to continue filming (unless someone is literally in danger). They make these choices knowing they might not use something for ethical reasons when they get to the edit room, while Mr. Maysles said he will sometimes decide during a shoot on the fly.
Mr. Maysles sighted the example of his train documentary, In Transit (in production), where he interviews train travelers. He said he met a woman who began to divulge such personal information, he decided to film her hands, rather than her face. Thus capturing the emotion through hands and voice without compromising his subject.
Barbara Kopple spoke about the influence of the Maysles on her work and how she was fortunate enough to work at their studio just out of college. This fact amazed, not because I couldn't recognize the influence but because Ms. Kopple couldn't possibly be old enough to have worked there when Salesman ( 1969 ) was in distribution as she claimed. But I digress... Ms. Kopple said she always asks both sides of a story. Even if she decidedly takes a point of view, she still pursues the perspectives of the opposing views. She wants to get a better understanding of the situation and people involved, and therefore give her audience the same. Mr. Maysles agreed about the importance of looking at all sides of a story. He spoke about seeking truth and keeping it pure.
What is truth? asks Errol Morris (a still from his The Thin Blue Line, 1988 pictured left) during the second panel of the night. One immediately gets the sense he's only asking this question so he in turn can answer. This doesn't seem to bother anyone in the least, as Mr. Morris is a proven fascinating and entertaining speaker.
As serious in tone as the observational documentary panel was, the Instigation documentary panel was light in many respects, even if the conversations were just as deep.
Before we heard from the next distinguished group, a sample reel was again screened which played highlights of a cumulative and equally impressive body of work. The second panel which Michael Apted moderated, was the instigation documentary discussion. He opened the conversation by posing the subject of reenactments, which both Alex Gibney and Errol Morris have used regularly in their work but in non-traditional fashions.
Each filmmaker talked about 'reenactment' being an unfortunate term, and as Mr. Morris quipped, it brings to mind powered wigs, stockings and the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Gibney and Morris have definitely brought the reenactment to a less stuffy, inventive, higher standard.
Morgan Spurlock was also on this panel and discussed his approach to documentary making. As most everyone knows, Mr. Spurlock regularly features himself in his own films. The question was posed as to whether this is reality, in other words, are his film true documentary, to which Mr. Spurlock replied they are. He seeks to bring a unique perspective to a subject or situation as well as to entertain. He may begin by setting up a situation (i.e. eating fast food for 30 days straight, pitching a documentary, who's premise is pitching a documentary full of product placement) but the outcome is unforeseeable. He doesn't film multiple takes. The camera captures his journey as he experiences it, but he does make a point of where I started with this entry and that is, as soon as you make a cut, you are changing reality to a certain extent. With each edit, you're altering real time, not showing something in entirety. That's why you have to look for the truth not just when you're filming, but when you're cutting. The truth is not in showing the audience every frame that was shot, it's about taking great time and though in creating an artistic, entertaining composition of (hopefully) truth.
After the panels ended, my friend (who was kind enough to invite me along), and I had a quick drink to take in and chat about the evening. He said the best thing about going to events like this is to hear a speaker say the unexpected. Especially when it comes to industry events where panelists are speaking to an audience working in the same field, it's inspiring to hear the unpredictable. Although there were obvious statements, there were also little bits that gave us something to chew on. I imagine we weren't the only ones.