Tag Archives: documentary film

Why I Read Non-Fiction

As a young man I read only fiction. My tastes ranged widely, from Dostoyevsky to Atwood, from Thomas Hardy to John Updike, but it was almost always a novel. Even a short story was somehow ‘beyond the pale.’

These days I read exclusively non-fiction; biography, history, memoir, the odd quasi-scientific text such as The Sixth Extinction.

funkandjazz photo
funkandjazz photo

 

It’s interesting to consider why this change.

My wife and I joke that it is because, in picking up a non-fiction book to continue reading it, even if just 24 hours later, we don’t have to struggle to recall where we left off. (I like to say that, for me, ‘Short term memory is just a fond memory.”) No paging back, trying to pick up the most recent story events. It’s just inherently easier to resume reading a non-fiction text.

It’s also interesting to note that my first choice in visual media back then, in my callow youth, was invariably a dramatic movie. Something with some edge, growing up as I did in the last great decade of American filmmaking (I’m thinking of movies like Midnight Cowboy or Scarecrow), but nevertheless it was a fictional work that I wanted to see on any given, dissolute Saturday night.

And again, these days my viewing preference is usually documentary, though not as consistently as it is when it comes to the written word.

Real as is the phenomenon of short term memory loss with advancing age, I do think the explanation for this transition in taste is slightly more complicated. As a young person, you live in a world of possibility. Your own story is yet to be written, and so an imagined future is simply more compelling to you. We tell one another stories in order to offer one another life lessons, and thus reading about a sympathetic character struggling with a relatable problem becomes not so much a projection of our current life, as it is a counselling, an offered perspective on the prospects for our coming life.

In middle age and beyond, we seek not so much projection as we do comparison. And we’d just as soon the events of the story be real, as opposed to imaginary. What choices did an individual or group make, what were the consequences, good and bad? These are the questions, I think, which tend to preoccupy the older reader. It’s not that the lessons offered by a fictional story aren’t valid—the greater emotional truth of a manipulated story is certainly authentic and useful—it’s only that, in the slowly fading second half of our lives, we’d rather know that the outcome did happen, as opposed to could happen. For us, there’s something just a bit too easy about the imaginary world, with its unmitigated creative freedom.

It’s indefensible, really. More definitive perhaps, more actual of course, but at the same time, this choice of fact before fiction is depreciated, like the brand new car that you drive off the sales lot, only to watch its resale value drop by at least a quarter by the time you park it. I suspect that no history book will ever be more worthy than Macbeth, and that no documentary film will ever exceed The Rules of the Game in its intrinsic value.

No, admittedly, I read non-fiction in order to check in on my fellow human beings in a more literal, less justifiable way. To see who’s fallen, and why. To see who’s triumphed, and what price they paid in order to do so. It’s comforting in an odd, somewhat disconcerting way. To know that no life is perfect, no outcome guaranteed. To see how large a role chance, luck and circumstance play in failure or success. Not that will, hard work and persistence don’t factor in too; they do, especially persistence, but life has never been fair, and you are lucky if you grew up in a circumstance free of abuse or poverty, where you were loved, supported and well cared for. Many people don’t, and many who succeed are driven by neurosis and insecurity and pain that never leave them.

Reading non-fiction is validating, or it isn’t. It will always inform; if well-written it may entertain. Like fiction it must be honest, and if so, in reading it you will be enriched, given insight. It may not excite the way fiction did in your youth, or inspire, or possess the indisputable, ineffable magic that a single passage from James Joyce or Kazuo Ishiguro may proffer, but then it isn’t meant to. It is meant to carry you on, down the road of life to a destination where every reader of every book, and every watcher of every movie is heading too. When you get there, greet your former self with a smile, and maybe give him a shake. Tell him he’s still loved, and then tell him to get on with it. The real thing that is.

Full Circle

There’s some interesting reading to be found in a paper released by the Canadian Media Production Association last week. It’s titled, Content Everywhere: Securing Canada’s Place in the Digital Future, and it offers up an effective survey of the current media landscape. At first glance, suffice it to say that recent trends continue:

* Video progressively rules on the internet—YouTube now has more than one billion unique viewers every month, with 100 hours of video uploaded every minute.

* ‘Cord cutting’, that is escaping the tyranny of cable ‘bundling,’ continues for consumers—an American who owns an iPad now has a 65% likelihood of being a member of the cord cutter tribe.

* As the market penetration of the so-called OTTs (‘Over The Top’ online streamers like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu) continues to grow—one of the OTTs now reaches almost half of all American households; over 60% of the 18 – 24 demographic—they are moving increasingly into the financing of original content.

The ‘old boys’, the established television networks, know all about these trends of course, and so they have, in recent years, moved actively, if still hesitantly into the digital realm. In Canada, Bell Media launched Crave TV in 2014, Rogers and Shaw finally birthed Shomi, and CBC now has an online comedy channel called Punchline. (Conventional TV’s great strength increasingly remains of course in the provision of live events, mostly sports, but also news, and of course the odd award show, although it’s interesting to note that ratings for the Oscars this year were down about 15%.)

Ben Templesmith photo
Ben Templesmith photo

Overall, the evolving picture is of the online media industry maturing, in all the good and bad that that entails. Perhaps most disconcerting is a subtitle within the paper which reads: “Many things about OTT look like TV.” AOL greenlit 16 original series in 2014, all of them featuring major celebrities or movie stars. Pitch meetings with the big-league OTTs are usually booked through agents or entertainment lawyers these days. And we can all be sure that when David Fincher, after House of Cards, pitches his new series, he’ll be strolling into the Netflix offices past a long line of waiting, lesser-known producers who once hoped that the web would provide them with new and different opportunities. Sigh.

And of course, as the paper, points out, creators for the web face a unique set of additional challenges, even as the process morphs into something distressingly familiar. Chief among them are ‘discoverability,’ and an overcrowded marketplace. The gatekeepers for the online game may no longer be the same, but the smaller players still face a huge disadvantage when it comes to putting bums in the seats. They simply don’t have the resources to compete with the big guys at marketing, or at perhaps hiring the talent which comes with a built-in audience.

And finally, if you’re a Canadian hoping to succeed with online content, you face an added problem with financing, because as slow as the big broadcasters have been to move into the online space, the established ‘legacy’ funders, like Telefilm Canada and the tax credit programs, have been even more lead-footed. Because online revenues have been so difficult to realize, these agencies have been extra adept at shuffling their feet and avoiding eye contact whenever, for instance, documentary filmmakers with an online-only audience in mind have come calling.

I’m reminded of the final scenes in George Orwell’s classic Animal Farm, when the pigs move into the farmhouse, begin to walk upright and wear clothes. Or of Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s incisive explanation of Why Nations Fail, describing how it is that, following revolutions, tyrants like Robert Mugabe replace tyrants like Ian Smith, how Joseph Stalin replaces Csar Nicolas II. The digital revolution may not have yet completed itself, not yet come right round in what Acemoglu and Robinson term “the vicious circle,” but the streets have gone quiet again. It may be that no one has been sent off to a “knacker” or to the gulag, but if you were among those who dreamed of a better world, or maybe even who manned an online barricade, well, purchase a ticket and get in line. It seems that all along, the digital revolution was for sale, to the highest bidder.

Fact Not Fiction

“The cool kids are making docs.”

                                            —David Edelstein

When I attended film school, back in the ancient 80s, there was not a single documentary program to be found anywhere across the educational landscape. We attendees were all keenly intent upon becoming the next Martin Scorsese or Francis Coppola; those most successful fictional moviemakers from the first generation of film school brats. Documentary film was seen by us as slightly dusty, quaint, more often suited to arid academia than the edgy dramatic territory we meant to occupy.

Otrocuenta Desarollo photo
Otrocuenta Desarollo photo

These days documentary programs abound in film schools everywhere, and documentary film is seen as a highly relevant form aggressively focusing our attention upon social and economic issues of immediate concern to all of us.

It’s interesting to consider why this change.

Certainly the greatly increased availability of production and post production technology (think cameras and computers) has a lot to do with it. Today’s media audience maintains a more forgiving expectation of documentary ‘production values’ (the quality of the sound and picture) than that expectation which remains for dramatic film. In the documentary world, content rules, and so if you have captured a terrific story using a comparatively cheap digital camera, then edited on your laptop, you may well be good to go in the marketplace. Searching for Sugarman would be a prime example. Not so much in the dramatic sphere, where a low-budget look is still likely to prevent you from ever hitting the theatres.

But there’s more to it than that I think. Today’s generation of film school students is far more determined to effect change then we ever were. We were interested first of all in making films; today’s doc filmmakers seem first of all interested in making a difference. Where filmmaking was an end for us, it is a means to them. Caught up as we were in the countercultural ethos of 70s ‘anti-hero’ movies like Scarecrow or Straight Time, we were willing to focus our lenses upon the downtrodden, the misfits, but we were rarely inclined to take direct aim at problems we nevertheless knew were all around us, problems like air pollution or economic inequality. Contemporary docs like An Inconvenient Truth and Inequality For All show no such reluctance.

And let me be perfectly clear; this change is much for the better. We humans have a ravenous need for stories, and one of the reasons for that is because we understand, sometimes unconsciously, that stories offer us ‘life lessons.’ They offer us insights into how we should or should not behave in the face of common human problems. To a lesser or greater degree mind you. Some stories are so simple minded that whatever insight they may offer is utterly generic, if not banal.

And documentaries, by their very nature, offer us better insights than do dramas. As good as the storytelling is in a dramatic series like Breaking Bad, for instance—and it is very good—it doesn’t necessarily hold any greater relevance to real life than does your typical comic book movie. Walter White is only marginally more real than is Spiderman.

Not so with Michael Morton, the Texan who spent 25 years in prison before finally being exonerated on all charges, and is the protagonist of a documentary entitled An Unreal Dream. Morton is the real deal, a genuine American hero.

Conventional TV broadcasters operating right now have badly dropped the ball on the burgeoning audience interest in documentaries, as evidenced by a recent Hot Docs study. Despite that fumble however, because of the rise of the internet, and because of their own commitment, the film school students of right now who are drawn to documentary are likely to succeed at making an impact, at changing the world, however incrementally. They are perhaps not entirely typical of the current generation, but they undoubtedly represent a new, different and very worthwhile slice of that generation. And more power to them.

Fear of Identity Erosion

A few weeks ago, I finally got around to watching Sound and Fury, the 2000-released, Academy award-nominated documentary film about two families struggling with the impact of having their deaf children receive cochlear implants. These tiny electronic devices are surgically implanted, and will usually improve hearing in deaf patients, but—it is feared by the families featured in Sound and Fury—this improvement will come at the expense of “deaf culture.”

McLuhanThe film is an absorbing exploration of what we mean by culture and identity, and how critically important these concepts are to us. Because here’s the thing—the parents of one of the children being considered for cochlear implants (who are themselves deaf) choose not to have the operation, even though their child has asked for it, and even though it will in all likelihood significantly improve their young daughter’s hearing.

Why? Because improved hearing will negatively affect their daughter’s inclusion in the deaf tribe. I use that word advisedly, because it seems that is what identification comes down to for nearly all of us—inclusion in a group, or tribe. We identify ourselves via gender, language, race, nation, occupation, family role, sexual orientation, etc.—ever more narrowed groupings—until we arrive at that final, fairly specific definition of who we are. And these labels are incredibly valued by us. We will fight wars over these divisions, enact discriminatory laws, and cleave families apart, all in order to preserve them.

And here’s the other point that the film makes abundantly clear: technology forces change. I’m told that American Sign Language (ASL) is the equivalent of any other, fully developed spoken language, even to the point where there are separate dialects within ASL. The anxiety felt by the parents of the deaf daughter about the loss of deaf culture is entirely justified—to the extent that cochlear implant technology could potentially eradicate ASL, and this language (like any other language) is currently a central component of deaf culture. With the steady advance of implant technology, the need for deaf children to learn ASL could steadily decrease, to the point where the language eventually atrophies and dies. And with it deaf culture?

Possibly, yes, at least in terms of how deaf culture is presently defined. To their credit, it seems that the parents featured in Sound and Fury eventually relented, granting their child the surgery, but they did so only after fierce and sustained resistance to the idea. And so it goes with ‘identity groupings.’ We are threatened by their erosion, and we will do all manner of irrational, at times selfish and destructive things to prevent that erosion.

My friend Rafi, in a recent and fascinating blog post, announced that this year, he and his family will mostly forego the Passover rituals which have for so long been a defining Jewish tradition. He writes that, after a sustained re-reading and contemplation of ‘The Haggadah,’ the text meant to be read aloud during the Passover celebrations, he found the message simply too cruel, too “constructed to promote fear and exclusion.” “I’m done with it,” he announces.

Well, at the risk of offending many Jewish people in many places, more power to him. He does a courageous and generous thing when he says no more “us and them,” no more segregation, no more division.

All cultures, all traditions can bring with them a wonderful richness—great music, food, dance, costumes, all of it. But they can also bring insecurity, antipathy and conflict, conflict which can often result directly in people suffering.

Everyone benefits from knowing who they are, where they came from culturally. But no one should fear revising traditions; no one should slavishly accept that all cultural practices or group identities must continue exactly as they are, and have been. Technology may force change upon you, but regardless, recognize that change whatever its source is relentless. Anyone who thinks they can preserve cultural traditions perfectly intact within that relentless context of change is fooling themselves. And neither should anyone think that all cultural traditions are worth preserving.

New identities are always possible. Acceptance and inclusion are the goals, not exclusion and fear. It takes time, careful thought, and sometimes courage, but every human being can arrive at a clear individual understanding of who they are and what is important to them. Choose traditions which welcome others and engender the greater good. Reject those which don’t. If you can do this, and I don’t mean to diminish the challenge involved, you’ll know who you are, and you’ll undoubtedly enjoy a rich cultural life.

Requiem for a Cinema Pioneer

The great Quebec filmmaker Michel Brault died last month, and while he and his career were fully appreciated in his home province—Premier Pauline Marois attended his funeral on October 4, and the flag at the Quebec City Parliament building flew at half-mast for the occasion—we in English-speaking North America know too little of the profound contribution this film artist made to cinema.

Especially in the realm of documentary, Brault’s influence can hardly be overstated.  He was among the very first to take up the new lightweight film cameras that began appearing in the late 1950s, and when he co-shot and co-directed the short film Les Raquetteurs (The Snowshoers) for The National Film Board of Canada in 1958, documentary filmmaking was forever changed.  The 15-minute film focused on a convention of cheery showshoers in rural Quebec, employing a fluid, hand-held shooting style, synchronous sound, and no voice-over narration whatsoever.  The dominant documentary visual style in previous years had been the ponderous look made necessary by the bulk of 35 mm cameras, a style frequently accompanied by somber ‘voice of God’ narration.  Subject matter was often ‘exotic’ and distant; say Inuit people in the Canadian Arctic, or dark-skinned Natives in Papua New Guinea.  Reenactment was, almost of necessity, the preferred manner of recording events.

12675326_102622376eIn 1960, the French anthropologist-filmmakers Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin were shooting Chronique d’un Ete (Chronicle of A Summer) in Paris, turning their cameras for the first time upon their own ‘tribe.’  When they saw Les Raquetteurs, they immediately fired their cameraman and brought Brault in to complete the work.  Rouch went on to label Chronique “cinema verité” (literally ‘truth cinema’), and an entire new genre of documentary film began to appear everywhere in the West.

Robert Drew and his Associates (chief among them D.A. Pennebaker, Richard Leacock and Albert Maysles) took up the cause in the United States, labeling their work ‘direct cinema,’ and delivering films like Primary, about the 1960 Wisconsin primary election between Hubert Humphrey and the largely unknown John F, Kennedy, and Don’t Look Back, about a young folksinger named Bob Dylan on his 1965 tour of the United Kingdom.  Both films would have a marked impact upon the subsequent rise of these two pivotal political/cultural figures.

Brault himself was slightly less grandiose in describing the filmic techniques he pioneered, saying, “I don’t know what truth is.  We can’t think we’re creating truth with a camera.  But what we can do is reveal something to viewers that allows them to discover their own truth.”

He would later turn to fictional filmmaking, writing and directing, among other works, Les Ordres in 1974, a smoldering indictment of the abuse of power which transpired during the ‘October Crisis’ of 1970 in Quebec.  Les Ordres was scripted, but the script was based upon a series of interviews done with a number of people who were in fact arrested and imprisoned during the crisis.  As such, it was considered ‘docudrama,’ another area where Brault’s influence was seminal.  Brault won the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1975 for Les Ordres, and he remains the only Canadian to have ever done so.

These days, with video cameras in every smart phone and tablet, the idea that we should turn our cinematic attention to our own people is taken for granted, as every police department now teaches its members.  But in Brault’s early career, that we should observe, at close quarters, those immediately around us, and do so in an unobtrusive but sustained way, then make that prolonged cinematic observation available to the public, well, that was an almost revolutionary notion.  We could stay close to home, and let the camera reveal what it would.  The process may not have unavoidably presented ‘the truth,’ certainly not in any genuinely objective way, but observational documentary filmmaking granted us new understanding, new insight into people both with and without power.  And we were the better for it.

If the goal is to leave a lasting impression, to press a permanent handprint onto the wall of the cave where we live, Michel Brault can rest in peace.  He made his mark.

Documentary Demise

Documentary film may be the definitive post-digital-revolution media product: big audience; no market.  From all indications, documentaries are as popular as ever, perhaps more so, but making—that is financing—documentary films these days?  That’s another story.  In a recent report, titled Getting Real, the Documentary Organization of Canada reported that Documentary production volume decreased in Canada by more than 21% from 2008/09 to 2010/11.  The number of documentary projects dropped 23% in that time, from 591 to 457.  It’s not at all likely that the situation has improved any since.

IMG_8598 (2)The decline began with the great 2008 recession.  The television industry is one of the very first to feel any economic downturn, as even large companies can quickly cut advertising budgets in response to nose diving sales.  But, as the report indicates, by 2010, “Canadian conventional broadcasting revenues rebounded to pre-2008 levels, and specialty cable channel revenues continued to grow despite the recession.”  Essentially, Canadian broadcasters seized the opportunity presented by the 2008 crash to reduce or suspend the commissioning of documentaries, and they have chosen to maintain that diminution ever since, despite revived revenues.  Government regulators have meekly stood by over this dismal decay, too timid to promote cultural values in the face of stressful times within the free enterprise arena where combatants like Rogers, Bell and Shaw snarl and throw up their steroid-enhanced arms to the roar of the ratings crowd.

Prior to 2008, all three of the major Canadian networks, CTV, Global and the CBC, carried documentary ‘strands’ as part of their regular programming schedules, commissioning numerous one-off documentaries each season, usually as part of a loosely integrated series.  Audience numbers were not huge, but they were steady, and it meant that a vibrant community of documentary filmmakers existed across the country, and that Canadian audiences were regularly exposed to their work, along with the stories and issues contained therein.

Alternate means of funding have of course arisen post-revolution, chief among them crowdsourcing, but another recent report, this one by the Canadian Media Fund (CMF), called Crowdfunding in a Canadian Context, is illuminating in this regard.  Despite the lurid success stories of millions raised in just days (akin to those mega-rare video clips that go viral, when it’s hoped that every clip posted will), the report makes it clear that, “Crowdfunding is best suited to independent producers and developers who work on a smaller scale, with smaller budgets.”

Documentary filmmaking is far less expensive than is dramatic filmmaking, but when the making is by experienced professionals, budgets generally still need to run at least $250,000 for an hour-long show.  The larger Canadian production houses, those with full-time staff and facilities to pay for, are reluctant to consider a budget of less than $400,000 per hour.  (A top-drawer freelance documentary cameraperson will be looking for $800-$1000 per day, the best editors for $1800-$2000 per week.)  The CMF report states, “Crowdfunding appears to be best suited to smaller-scale funding with the majority of projects posting funding goals and reaching funding volumes of between $10,000 and $50,000.”

Adding to the problem is the decreased cost of production hardware.  Topline video cameras that just 10 years ago sold for $20,000 can now be replaced by DSLR cameras costing less than one-tenth of that amount.  Ditto with computer editing systems.  Post-production set-ups that once filled rooms with multiple monitors, tape decks and tower drives, are now supplanted by a laptop set upon… well, your lap.  These days just about anyone capable of picking up, pointing and pushing the record button on a camera, then operating a computer, can go about making a documentary.  It’s meant that there is a plethora of product out there now.  Most of it isn’t very good, but it’s out there, glutting the market.

The post-e-revolution landscape is an arid one for documentary filmmakers.  Their great tradition is fast becoming like too many other contemporary art practices, something that young, single people living in shared accommodations can afford to pursue, or that people with other jobs serving to pay the mortgage and feed the kids can create as a sideline.  Despite a ready audience, the documentary artform, as practiced by skilled professionals, is wasting away.