Documentaries: Then & Now @ The Woodstock Film Festival, October 4, 2009
October 4th, 2009, @ 10am
Utopia Studios, Bearsville, New York
L-R: Rachel Grady, Molly Thompson, Barbara Kopple, Leon Gast, and Emily Kunstler
Not Pictured: AJ Schnack
Molly Thompson, VP, A&E IndieFilms
AJ Schnack, Director, Convention
Rachel Grady, Director, Jesus Camp
Barbara Kopple, Director, Woodstock: Now and Then
Leon Gast, Director, When We Were Kings
Emily Kunstler, Director, William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe
When Molly Thompson asked what this panel was supposed to be about, she was told that the panel was to discuss how documentaries have evolved over the last decade: the length of time that the Woodstock Film Festival has been in existence.
Thompson asked Barbara Kopple how she thought documentaries had evolved the past ten years. Kopple responded that she thought that documentaries had started to evolve well before then. For Kopple, the beginning of the evolution of the documentary dated back to the advent of Cinema Verite, and filmmakers like D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles Brothers, whom she considers to be a primary influence.
Leon Gast took it a step further back to Robert Flaherty, and his films like Nanook of the North. Gast first saw Flaherty's films as a student at Columbia University, where he studied film.
Barbara Kopple posed an interesting hypothesis: maybe it isn't so much that documentaries have evolved the past ten years so much as the audiences have. "Documentaries are hot now, and people want to see them. We just spent the last eight years under the cobweb of the Bush Administration. We're just trying to break clear, and I know that Obama has his job set out for him. It's even more important for us at this point to keep on making films about the things we're passionate about, whether it's health care, Afghanistan, Iraq, hunger, or just subjects that we can shed a light on."
In spite of audiences having evolved, however, AJ Schnack mentioned that people often complain about how much staging goes on in documentaries, but pointed out that "People have an idea of what documentaries are supposed to be. Some people believe there are rules, or a rulebook, or a guidebook that you're supposed to follow. I don't think they understand the history of documentaries from Flaherty all the way to where we are today. There's a belief that there must be some method, some agenda, or that you have to have an exact document. Documentaries are an art form."
Kopple cited Tom DiCillo's When You're Strange as an example of how documentaries continue to evolve: "Everyone from The Doors thought, 'Okay, we should be interviewed, or this should happen.' But he was like, 'No. No interviews. We're just going to let you play. We'll have a wonderful narration behind it, and the images are what will mezmerize you, and take you into it, and I think it works."
Gast and Kopple, the veterans of the panel, discussed the complications of having worked on documentaries in the past. Kopple mentioned that when her movie American Dream was in its theatrical run, her mother had no idea where it was playing.
"When I was doing Harlan County and American Dream, no one wanted to fund me. 'Who wants to make a film about Coal Miners or Meatpackers?' At the time, I found this incredible place called 'The Foundation'. You had to be non-profit, tax exempt, and you could write to different foundations, different individuals, who would send money. You didn't have to pay it back, because it was a donation."
Kopple continued. "Now I think it's much easier because distributors like A&E and HBO are always looking for films. Other times, people will call you up and just ask, 'How would like to make a film on Woodstock '69?' They'll give you a budget that's not quite enough, and you'll argue. But I think there's just a real opportunity out there for people who want to make really interesting documentaries."
One of Leon Gast's early films was about Salsa music and culture. At the very most, Gast expected his movie would play the barrios, then maybe play parts of Mexico and South America.
They also discussed the advantages and disadvantages of video v. film:
Said Kopple, "I think with film, you are more diciplined because it costs more. With video, you can just go for it. I don't know that many people that are still shooting documentaries on film."
Gast believes that technology has made shooting much easier: "One of the benefits of shooting today vs. the benefits of shooting then was when you were shooting on film, you had 10-11 minute rolls, and today, you have one hour rolls."
Many of the documentarians had interesting stories about their experiences making their movies. Rachel Grady recalled an event during the making of The Boys of Baraka that while, heartbreaking, felt it changed the course of the movie's story for the better.
"We were following this group of kids as part of a program, which was discontinued. We were so sad, so heartbroken that this happened, but it was really interesting, because a lot of things happened because of that. First of all, it made the movie more relevant because I couldn't think of a better metaphor of what happens to kids like this, who are really disenfranchised, and don't get a lot of opportunities."
"They get disappointed a lot because opportunities dry up and die away. For them, this is par the course, but because this happened, it made it a bigger story. But on a personal level it was also significant because Heidi (Ewing, Grady's collaborator) and I were devastated--the children ended up trying to comfort us. Which is why the amazing thing about filmmaking is that your subjects are constantly teaching you about yourself."
"It changed the whole film. It made it a bigger film. All the kids survived it, and created something that was more interesting."
During the making of Harlan County, USA, Kopple found herself as part of the coal miner's picket line: "The women were having a meeting, and they were saying, 'So who's going to be on the picket line tomorrow?' and everyone had to say their names. This woman named Lois turned around to me and said, 'Barbara, are you going to be on the picket line?'"
Kopple responded, "'Lois, of course, but I'm not supposed to be here. I'm invisible.' And she said, 'I have to write your name down. I need to know that you're going to be there.' Sometimes when you have a camera, it makes people more focused as to the kinds of ideas and what they want to do because somebody cared about what was happening."
Leon Gast had a story about Kopple. "Barbara had a Nagra she called 'The People's Nagra'. She had two Nagras. One that she used for her films, and then she had a 'People's Nagra' that she lent to filmmakers who didn't have the money to rent one."
The filmmakers gave a lot of valuable advice for aspiring filmmakers.
AJ Schnack, Rachel Grady, and Molly Thompson
Barbara Kopple advised one filmmaker to write a treatment: "Of course, you got to know that this is a documentary, real life, and things are subject to change, but you make so that it's one of two pages of your basic idea. It doesn't mean you have to deliver that."
When it comes to the editing room, Kopple encouraged filmmakers to put effort into displaying their progress: "For Harlan County and American Dream, I put together little scenes, and different people would come in and look at it. Always bring people into your editing suite. Don't ever send a DVD to them. Make them come in so they have the power of you being in an editing room, looking at material."
Kunstler talked about the obstacles posed to novice filmmakers. "It's harder for a first-time filmmaker. I think that in addition to a treatment, they also want to see something, because it's hard for them to believe that you could actually pull it off if you don't have a track record. So actually, starting to shoot, and showing them what your vision is can be very helpful. That's how we persuaded people to believe in us from the beginning."
William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe began as a personal archival project for future generations of her family, and was funded through ITVS. "They never accept your funding the first time you apply. You sort of have to knock on the door three times. For someone in my group of ITVS films, it was the fifth time they applied for funding. But what they do do is when they deny funding, they have a one-on-one consulting with the jury. They tell you what they loved about your film, and why they ultimately denied it. They encourage you to re-submit the next year, and that process really forces you to hone your ideas."
Thompson chimed in. "I heard a guy say to me, 'What about Flip cameras? Everyone can use a flip camera now and shoot your subject!' It's like, 'Yeah, you can get an image and footage of a person, but can you really sell your film with it?' I think you should be really careful and not show something that's not good enough."
At the end, AJ Schnack touched upon the proliferation of activist documentaries, such as movies by Michael Moore and Robert Greenwald, and suggested that documentarians needed to move away from that. "These films seem to wear you down with scolding about whatever they believe is the end of the world, and giving us a ten point plan as to what we're supposed to go out and do. There are tons of those films, and a lot of people are making them, and they can go make them. But I'd like to see movies where filmmakers find out why some parents want their kids indoctrinated into this Christian ideology. That's filming."