Saturday, March 26, 2011

Response to Nick Fraser's "Why Documentaries Matter"

Perhaps I am so much of a doc outsider that I don’t understand why folks have been fawning over Nick Fraser’s recent Guardian piece "Why Documentaries Matter", but I certainly don’t get it – the piece seems a bit reactionary and unimaginative. Perhaps this is because it is playing to a general audience that he wants to imagine a world without documentaries, though this seems a trite gimmick.

There seem to be two main emphases in the piece: first, that “documentaries are among the most valuable, neglected cultural forms of our times” and second, “will [quality] documentaries…be adequately funded in the squeeze on television budgets.”

The first point is obviously meant to set up the second. Docs are valuable, and if you don’t think so, it is because you are one of those neglecting/undervaluing them - you’d miss them if they were gone. Not the most compelling set-up, but I’d imagine he is also leaning heavily on the various British titles listed as popular (though I have no idea how they are consumed). It would seem that these first titles listed are playing to an anti-intellectual, or at least very broad audience – hey, don’t knock The Secret Millionaire or  “no body of theory exists to legitimise docs”. Huh? Is there a body of theory that anywhere legitimizes anything? Anyway, sure, no theory here, move along, feel safe with your doc.

But, of course, a funny thing happens halfway through the piece - in addressing the question of a documentary future with tightening television budgets, he presents the strawman of AA Gill’s suggestion that ‘anyone can do it with the cheap technology that is available.’ This seems to me a gimmick to instill fear in a future of amateurs running roughshod over documentary – we’ll save this discussion for another time. Suffice to say, Fraser here shifts from a very vernacular conception of docs as nature shows and reality programming to a film like – you guessed it – MAN ON WIRE, but also MARATHON BOY – it is these “low-budget, clever” documentaries “appealing to small, passionate audiences” that he seems to care about most.

And in all this huffing about turning noses up at reality programming and fearing budget cuts for (quality) documentary, what is lost is any real sense of the funding landscape. Sure, intuitively we know that public funding for documentary, and the arts in general, is in trouble – but wouldn’t it be cool to see some data on the trend? Further, there are the dozens of foundations that support the industry – what have their funding trends been? Fraser states that he’d “like to know how their independent spirit can be conserved and nurtured”, but this seems a rather empty thought shared. Not only in light of the lack of trending data, but in ignoring the two gorillas in the room: crowd-funding and Oprah. Not to mention that despite the suggestion that funding is drying up, (too) many have buzzed that this past year was the best ever for documentary.

Though I’d also love to see greater public support for the arts, it seems that documentary, at least, will be fine.

Friday, March 18, 2011


With more titles announced for Full Frame I have to say I was quite surprised to see THE PRUITT-IGOE MYTH making the cut. In my previous True/False write-up, I wrote critically on the film while leaving out specific issues I have with the film. In preparation for the FF screening, where I'll attempt to revisit the film if nothing high-priority is scheduled against it, I'd like to give it a second chance.  Before I get the critique rolling, I'll restate my positive thoughts on the film: (1) the idea for the film is potentially great, (2) some of the archival footage is fantastic, and (3) I love that they included interviews from former residents.

Questions concerning decisions made, keeping in mind I took no notes.

Fortunately it does not happen often, but on rare occasions films will use footage multiply in a way that adds seemingly nothing to form or content - PRUITT-IGOE does this on several occasions. There are many clips that are used multiple times, most egregiously in a montage that seems to desire some emphasizing effect that falls utterly flat. We get the St. Louis City Limits sign at least three times (yeah, we get population dropped); a rent sign zoomed in on at least three times - for what effect? A focus-pull from a broken window, presumably in Pruitt-Igoe, used multiple times. Not only is it odd that clips are reused, but odd that these clips are reused - more on this later.

The film seems to want to make a statement about urban decline - as its website states - though the only city discussed is St. Louis. There is an archival graphic (that might appear more than once) that cites population decline for three cities, but that is as far as it goes in being about urban in a way more than St. Louis. There is brief mention of a St. Louis suburb, with some good archival footage about why a white family has left "the black city", but the analysis doesn't go beyond the statement. Further, in taking us to the suburbs, the film (again) reuses a piece of footage of traffic on an interstate (the source of which is uncredited) the suggestion, of course, is a mass exodus from The City, but it feels trite - and its reuse doubly confounding. There might have been an argument in the narration or from one of the Talking Head historians on the decline of cities, but if there was it was nothing that seemed so compelling as to stick with me.

Which leads into PRUITT-IGOE's expert interviews. I think there were three expert interviews coming from two historians and one sociologist, while two of these experts were good, one of the historians added very little. This third historian made several sweeping generalizations, not backed with argument, sometimes on controversial claims - I simply didn't believe much of what he was saying, and some of what he was saying seemed so vacuous as to be inconsequential - much of his narrative reminded me of bad encyclopedia writing adding no substantive context or detail. With increased attention on public housing from historians it would have been easy to get better, and more varied, perspectives on Pruitt-Igoe.

Interviews with former residents. Aside the aesthetics of the interviewees placed in front of a glaring-white back-drop, the fact that there were only four or five former resident interviews used seems negligent. Apparently, in one of the post-screening Q&As, the director stated eight former residents were actually interviewed.  Not only does it seem cursory that only eight former residents were interviewed in the first place - and four or five ultimately used in the film - but it seems even more egregious when one of them reflects on what a testament it is to the community of Pruitt-Igoe that so many have kept in touch over the years. If resident voices were going to be leaned on so heavily for film content, texture, and narrative arc, it seems obvious that a sample of more than eight would be necessary. If the filmmakers had included a wider variety of voices, they could have depicted a much richer community picture without rendering their subjects overly precious and at times meandering.

On the topic of narrative arc, aside the roughly third given to resident voice, and third given to expert voice, a final third of the narrative was driven by not-very-good narration. Much of the narration, like the overly broad statements of the third historian, was presented as a story in wide strokes and generalizations backed by little to no quantification or context. Worse were the faux-insights such as 'history does not [emphasis in film] repeat itself' or the equally inane closing along the lines of 'we need to understand Pruitt-Igoe so we know what to do later'. I know how hard it is to write narration, but this is so cloying it distances the viewer.

Pruitt-Igoe is not explained in context of the larger public housing history of St. Louis, what's more, the contextualizing of Pruitt-Igoe as public housing in the US is also non-existent. The film briefly notes the Fair Housing Act of 1949 as bringing the project into being, with the other smidgeon of context delivered being the suggestion that Brown v Board is what caused the white-flight out of St. Louis and Pruitt-Igoe. Beyond this, the filmmakers have failed to include any quantitative data for any of the history they are telling - including, maddeningly, the omission of dates throughout the film. Further, the most prominent myth the film seems to want to dispel is that residents caused the deterioration of the buildings, claiming instead this decline was due to a lack of maintenance. While this is certainly believable, it would have made sense to do some research regarding what upkeep investments were made as well as what would have been necessary, perhaps even making comparisons to other public and private housing.

Another significant problem is the mess of archival footage that litters the film. As the film sets out to dispel misconceptions about public housing, it would seem that using archival footage of a black, dark-alley hoodlum with a gun, probably general stock footage from a fiction film rather than from an archive of Pruitt-Igoe material, would have been a good trope to avoid. But it wasn't.  While much of the material specific to Pruitt-Igoe seems quite interesting, we also get a fair amount of unidentified general footage that fails to interestingly or organically interact with the Pruitt-Igoe material. Worse, many times footage that is most likely not of Pruitt-Igoe is used in a manner to suggest that it is Pruitt-Igoe, or will reasonably be read as representing Pruitt-Igoe. There is rarely a sense of what or when the archival footage is depicting. There are several occasions that a glimmer of hope is produced by an image, e.g., a children's Pruitt-Igoe betterment society, that I had hoped would finally offer a story that was significant and interesting. Yet again the filmmakers show and fail to explore a piece of the story that could have offered richness and depth.

Marketing for the film repeatedly frames this project, in part, about modernism and its discontents. Invoked by both filmmaker-provided press materials and film festival blurbs, Pruitt-Igoe is "a modernist exercise in utopian habitats" [from True/False] and "that iconoclastic 'failure' of modernism" [from Full Frame]. The film delivers nothing on modernism or utopianism. It might be implied through some of the resident stories of Pruitt-Igoe that there was something utopian about the endeavor, but this is never fleshed out, nor is there much said about the design or planning of Pruitt-Igoe aside mention of green-space. Regarding modernism, I don't recall anything within the film itself about Pruitt-Igoe as modernist or its demise as an end of modernism. The Arch, as iconically St. Louis and iconically modernist, is briefly mentioned, but not framed as modernist and certainly not contextualized within any broader project of modernism.

I am also curious about the film screening Full Frame but not in Rick Prelinger's One Foot In the Archives program, which does include new works that feature archival footage. Curious to hear his thoughts on PRUITT-IGOE if he has experienced it.

I'd still love to get feedback from others who know the film and also promote conversation on issues and implications for using archival materials.

Monday, March 7, 2011

True/False 2011 recap

Films seen, and briefly reviewed:


True/False impresses me a little more each year.  My third consecutive visit to Columbia, Missouri’s doc film fest was just as satisfying as last year’s even though I have yet to fall in love with any of the films I experienced there – it might take a little time for some of these to settle. Unfortunately, I also left a day earlier than expected, missing out on three of the films I was most looking forward to coming in to the fest.

There are dozens of reasons to love the fest, of course, first and foremost is the fabulous array of docs programmed (39 features, I think).  This year there were a handful of “hybrid” docs that explore tensions related to the form – this was emphasized by a panel on the topic – the true/false straddle, if you will.  I’m not sure if this was the first year a mockumentary was programmed, but I’m currently sitting with the feeling that it was a nice addition.  While I don’t think the fest has any strands per se, there were a couple of locally made docs, which is a testament to the vibrancy of film in this relatively small town.  There seems to be a film or three each year that nears experimental work, though I wouldn’t call anything I’ve seen there experimental (and it is quite possible I’ve missed them – maybe last year’s DISORDER? which was a favorite of mine), it is great to see such breadth in programming.  Short film (21 this year, if my count is correct) is represented in both curated groups that fill blocks (usually two blocks, it seems) as well as occasionally paired with features.  Each year also sees a handful of Secret Screenings that will receive official premiers at future festivals. Of course, there is the Oscar-fodder, crowd-pleasers that pack the 1,200 seat Missouri theatre to the gills, often inspiring appreciative standing ovations.  Did I mention that directors, producers, cast, and/or crew are almost always present? They are, and after pretty much every screening there is a little Q & A with them.  Sometimes the moderators ruin things a bit with their desire to share the spotlight, and of course, there is always the opportunity for audience members to slow things down with obvious, asinine, or self-promotional comments or questions, but it is always great to get a sense of who it is that made the films.

But wait, there’s more! You wanna get your mind blown by great programming? Each screening is curated with music!  Before each show the waiting audience is entertained by musicians local and from corners of the US (34 acts this year). While there are some suspect pairings, none of the bookings will have you question why they are there.  Mentioned above, there are also the panels, which I really need to make more time for in future visits, this year’s fest had ten of them programmed throughout the weekend.  There are dozens of parties, official and not, that you’ll hear about all weekend.  There is creative programming such as the wildly popular Gimmie Truth! (which I have yet to experience) to Campfire Stories (why, oh, why didn’t I go?!!) or this (and last) year’s Speculative Stroll led by Speed Levitch (check the fantastic film THE CRUISE for an idea what this might look like).

The festival’s glue is the highly appreciated volunteers – circa 700 this year they kept repeating.  They are ever present and seemingly always positive.  Just as awesome though are all the folks taking over the town to eat, sleep, and breathe documentary. Wherever you turn folks are talking about these films. Waiting in line is always an opportunity to hear about what needs to be seen and avoided (it sank in this year that I need to avoid popular opinion in these matters :) – it is also just as likely that you’ll drum up conversation about films and festivals past.

That said, let me share some quick thoughts on the films I caught this year, with hope that I write a bit more thickly about some of them later.  Going in to the fest there were two films that I knew I was not going to miss – THE INTERRUPTERS and PROJECT NIM.  Just under must-see status I had a fairly large group of titles that I was not going to arrange everything around, but I would hopefully catch: RESURRECT DEAD; FOREIGN PARTS; LA BOCCA DEL LUPO; THE BLACK POWER MIXTAPE 1967-1975; ZIELINSKI; FAKE IT SO REAL; ARMADILLO; YOU ARE ALL CAPTAINS; and, LIFE IN A DAY – of those nine, I caught only three, had I not left early, I would have caught three more.  Which means, of the (only) nine films I did catch, four weren’t on my radar going in, and of those four, two of them were my favorites of the fest.

Due to my poverty, inability to budget, and general inertia I didn’t buy a pass until they were sold out (thanks again to most awesome fest insiders for responding to my desperate tweet) leaving me with tickets for films that I would not have chosen as priorities.  From this, I had a ticket to BUCK, a film about a horse whisperer.  I had no intention of going to this Friday night screening even though I had a ticket, but two strike-outs with the Q earlier in the day made us want to finish out the night in an easy way, with at least some film under our belts.  Thankfully, the universe directed us to this quiet little gem.  First-time filmmaker Cindy Meehl [the fact that this was female directed also made it easier for us to resign ourselves to this one] helms this quiet character study of once abused boy Buck.  While the film is fairly straightforward, and arguably repetitive, its strength comes from a pairing of Meehl’s lovely framing of the excessively charismatic and diminutive Buck with his deeply ethical being.  There is nothing particularly outstanding about the film’s form or structure (though, again, there is something just right about Meehl’s framing of Buck), the film’s power comes from Meehl highlighting Buck’s rigorously ethical treatment of the horses (and people) he works with. Not only is there the lesson that our treatment of animals reflects who – and how – we are as people, he suggests that our interaction with the horses – and others – is about seeing ourselves not as separate but as one.  I’m a sucker for animal morality films (AU HAZARD BALTHAZAR and UMBERTO D are two of my faves) and BUCK had me crying all film long.  Just beautiful.

Similarly, PROJECT NIM leaned on the unethical treatment of chimp protagonist Nim to make a statement about animal rights and animal testing.  The buzz out of Sundance only heightened my interest in seeing this story brought to screen by the impressive James Marsh (I’m quite a fan of his MAN ON WIRE and WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP (which also screened at the festival, though I missed it)), but something about this one left me wanting.  I had no idea what to expect going in, and was looking forward to a light-hearted film to relax after just seeing THE INTERRUPTERS and BLACK POWER MIXTAPE, instead I quickly realized that this will be a different film as it opens on newborn Nim being stolen from his mother, who we learn also had her previous five babies stolen after birth.  It still didn’t sink in until maybe the halfway point that this is meant to be an animal rights film and against animal testing.  The film tracks Nim’s movement from person to person (he grew up with only human, no chimp, contact) punctuated by the presence of the film’s villain, Project Nim head, Herb Terrace, who was leading a study on language acquisition in chimps (I should note that Marsh denied the fact that Herb was a villain in a  post-screening Q&A session).  Perhaps if I had caught NIM before BUCK my opinion on the two might be flipped – they espouse the same ethic of treating humans and animals more humanely.  But something about NIM didn’t quite work for me.  Perhaps it was the expectations going in, perhaps it was the quirky/precious intros and outros of characters, or perhaps it was the presence of the douchy villain Herb – whatever it was, I left liking, not loving NIM, even though I do love the ideology behind it.  I am looking forward to giving this one another chance soon.

Second chances are the name of the game for Steve “HOOP DREAMS” James’ THE INTERRUPTERS.  The film is a character study of three “violence interrupters” – former gang members currently working with Chicago’s Cease Fire organization to stop retaliatory violence before it occurs.  The film makes clear that former gang members need not be feared and are indeed potentially valuable members of society – arguably more valuable members of society than most – and are worthy of a second chance.  The interrupters hope to show other gang members – and non-gang members, for that matter – that they too are worthy of a second chance, and that their instincts to commit violent acts in retaliation will only lead to further pain and sadness, not only for themselves, but for those they love, and those they don’t know.  The organization’s director, Gary Slutkin, makes the point that violence is virus-like and does not morally define those it infects.  We are shown interrupters kidnapping folks that are ready to get violent, mediating between opposing forces, as well as reflecting on their previous lives and their callings to do tis work.  Like NIM, I went into THE INTERRUPTERS with high expectations and was generally pleased with the film, though it has yet to sink in as a great film.  Clearly, the work of the interrupters themselves is great and they are all exceptionally charismatic, and the film itself is a quite nice character study of the three.  I’m also looking forward to revisiting this one to see if I can firm up my appreciation of the portraits rendered, because I think it was quite good, while shaking the sense that the film was too long.  Could such portraits have been made cutting a few scenes?  My gut tells me yes.  This film is clearly going to be a valuable policy tool in addressing urban violence, I just think it might be more effective if it were tightened a bit. In light of the film’s value, I acknowledge my complaint is petty and, as @conservadora tweeted: "My heart has been broken by the stunningly heartful protagonists in @theinterrupters. They're an inspiration for healing all of humanity."

Healing humanity took on a different form in Swedish director Goran Olsson’s THE BLACK POWER MIXTAPE 1967-1975.  The film primarily consists of archival footage Swedish media took in America of (mostly) Black Power activists during the titular 1967-1975. The healing of MIXTAPE is many faceted and notably in the interesting perspective of the movement from a sympathetic perspective.  Here, black power leaders are portrayed not as the wild radicals many in the US likely believe, but as the normal(esque), thoughtful, and committed social workers they were.  They are shown as willing to use violence against those that use violence against them, sadly, as the film argues, they were unable to effectively fight the more pernicious war against them as flooded drugs and state power. The film’s crisp formal properties ought to be a standard for educational and historical docs.  The film begins to feel a bit unwieldy as it takes on a fairly large shift in the movement with a likely controversial thesis, but that is just one of many things I quite liked about it.

Crisp formal properties would have helped local filmmaker Chad Friedrichs’ THE PRUITT-IGOE MYTH.  Claiming a film on the St Louis Pruitt-Igoe housing project as “a modernist exercise in utopian habitats”, the film delivers little on P-I as modernist or utopian, instead pasting loads of archival footage together in hopes of hitting something.  I’ll pause to credit the film (1) as a good idea; (2) for using voices of former residents; and (3) showing us a lot of pretty great archival footage.  Unfortunately, what could have been good, or even great, has left me confused about just about every decision made - I'd love to hear from the filmmakers about why certain choices were made. 

It was a festival insider that turned me on to FOREIGN PARTS. Though I had been curious about it before hearing the suggestion, I reckoned the recommendation would lead me to gold. Well, I’m not yet sure it did. A fairly ambient piece that seems to want to capture a sense of the junkyard-esque community next to the Mets’ stadium, the film never quite fell into rhythm for me. We get a pretty great portrait of place, including a rough sketch of a few of the people that call the area home.  Also pretty great are the handful of interactions folks are having with the filmmakers behind the camera, including probably the best dance scene ever filmed. The Sunday morning screening I attended was maybe two-thirds full and the chapel sadly gushed audience once the credits hit – obscuring the remainder of the film’s audio with credit roll and leaving the filmmaker to a near-empty venue for Q&A (sorry, I also left :( )If I have the opportunity to catch this in the theatre again I will make it happen, I’m looking forward to how this one settles with me.

Not sure what to say about TROLL HUNTER, I think I am happy that True/False included a mockumentary, but I am also (a) curious why, and (b) wondering why this one. As I briefly wrote about before, the trend of doc festivals programming fiction seems to be on the rise. Generously, the move is clearly about continued debate about the genre; less charitably, it is a marketing move to claim a kissing-cousin. I think Ben Godar has a pretty good take on the film:

 But once it's clear the film is all invention, I wanted the pacing and beats of a narrative arc.  If you don't have the storytelling of narrative and you don't have the "reality" of documentary, what do you have?

While the inclusion of mockumentary is kinda nice and fun, I don’t think this film had much to offer, which got me thinking – is there any mockumentary that has anything to offer a doc fest? Sure the general idea of mockumentary is worthwhile in considering the genre, but what does any specific mockumentary bring?  Aside from curating an interesting sidebar, my gut is that the value in including them is probably limited to a bit of a release from dealing with what is otherwise pretty real stuff. I’d love to hear some programmer’s thoughts on this.

Another non-traditional and non-mainstream selection, Marcin Sauter’s NORTH FROM CALABRIA looks at a small Polish town’s annual festival. The rub is that filmmaker Sauter brought along about a dozen performers to instill a different energy into the town - "shaking up the fishbowl" is apparently something one of film-school mentors would say. During a panel on hybrid docs, Sauter described his film as “an attempt to make a film about a place that didn’t exist” – which is what necessitated my going. The film shoots over a month of preparations for the festival, getting a glimpse of all sorts of interactions from culinary classes, including snail hunting, to filmmaking and play rehearsals. During the Q&A session we found out that the townspeople continued putting on plays – something inspired by the instigators. I followed-up with a question of whether this is what he meant by making a film about a place that didn’t exist, while I think some of my question was lost in translation, he replied that the fact that the town continued to pursue theatre was his greatest accomplishment as a documentarian. Anyway, the film was pretty great – one of my two faves of the fest. Can't wait to catch this again, absolutely love the Juenet-like opening of the town with the fantastic score.

Another fave was Jon Foy’s RESURRECT DEAD: THE MYSTERY OF THE TOYNBEE TILES, which plays out as a street art mystery. The film is more about our public urges and lives that conflict with our desires to remain private and the obligations we have to one another despite the perceived logic of our beliefs. Perhaps it was my tiredness, but it seemed like the final twenty-ish minutes of the film lost a little crispness and became a bit expository. Aside that, the film performs a pretty beautiful ethic that we would all be better off taking note of.

For the festival and Uprise bakery/Ragtag complex I could almost see myself living in this little Missouri college town.

I can't wait until next year.