My brain has been thinking WAY TOO MUCH about documentary film. It might be because I went to True/False this year and gorged on the best of the best. Or because I watched 60? 70? docs on fest screening committees this year. Whatever the reason, I've been starting and stopping blog posts about the most random aspects of the contemporary documentary for months, never reaching enough of a point to hit the publish button... So I decided to compile a bunch of fleeting ideas that have been chugging around in the strange part of my brain that continues to process the onslaught of budding independent filmmakers and the real world stories they choose to portray. My dreams are totally weird lately.
1. Docs and the narrative tradition. Documentary subjects have many story conventions built in and in this world where nearly everyone can, and is, making movies, the doc is tending towards better independent cinema storytelling. Many good, first time directors see some of the daunting aspects of making an entire
fictionalized universe on a low budget and, instead of making really shitty sets (or worse, filming in their friend's house that is too small for any shot to make any sense) or hiring low grade actors from hell, they are taking the access to new technology and turning to the real world to learn the ropes. I'm not saying docs are easier to make by any means but I am saying that they are a great way to learn about how to craft a film and a great way to potentially be noticed (primary ex. ZacharyHeinzerling).
2. Hollywood chimera? Woah, woah woah. What the hell was that? I watched a film that was a fact/fiction hybrid doc whose fictions played like a straight up Hollywood movie. The blurring of fact and fiction on film continues to be a popular genre, it takes a real intelligence to augment reality in a way that can add depth, social commentary, or even just art, to a real life subject. But what happens if this augmentation is codified? What if the addition to the fiction is a set of expectations we already have as an audience? To me what it did was diminish the strength of the reality in the film by saying "This is only important if I add swelling strings. And famous people for no reason. And an overdramatic, actor-ly quality to the real life subject. And 'make it better' using only really obvious, boring tropes." Shit was weird. Is this the beginning of Hollywood/mainstream chimeric cinema or did biopics just become something else?
3. Artful archives. FINALLY! YAY! Besides digital cinema making documentaries easier to produce, another thing it is doing is making vintage footage more readily available and challenging the pretty dry conventions we've come to know when it comes to combining historical document with contemporary documentaries: no longer do we have to see the still photograph (seriously that Darger doc almost killed me with its two or three photographs)!!! The director ofBlack Power Mixtape & Concerning Violence and filmmakers like Jonathan Caouette (his Tarnation made largely thanks to the early days of another tech revolution-home VHS, word is that he's currently working on a documentary about Marianne Faithful! Can't wait! Love him!) produce reflections of a visual past, mirroring concerns of the present in a completely new form that, based on film fest submissions, is going to continue to sky rocket. For me it isn't the awesomeness that is being made now with the digitization of archival image that is exciting, it is the future potential for this idea: the constant recordings of today's world will be the next historical documentary director's medium. Expect lots of movies about cats doing whacky stuff.
Have I mentioned this already? Ken Burns lives across a bridge from me? I see him nearly once a month? There is even a mural of him, and other notable New Hampshire residents, in the local discount/expired food store? Yeah. You heard me. Dented can emporium has a Ken Burns mural. I preface the post with this reminder because I actually got to see a film's world premier this evening in the middle of the stately green mountains of Vermont, in the odd beauty of a gorgeous renovated Greco-Deco theater (the same one I saw bats flying in last week!), brimming with an eager audience. And this fact makes no sense without knowing that one of the Godfathers of modern documentary is a staple at my local coffee shop. [Full Disclosure: I did a wee bit of volunteer transcription work for this film sometime last year but had no clue what it was for! Also, it was very hard.]
Each year the students of The Greenwood School set out to memorize this piece of American humanitarian history, a task that is as difficult as it is satisfying for these children, yet the importance of the exercise does not end there. Brief glimpses of Civil War history are interspersed throughout The Address contextualizing the significance of the speech and creating a silent yet omnipresent metaphor. By placing this historically weighted speech within the context of this forward thinking school the film takes on a much, much larger meaning: human struggle & need takes many forms and as humans we must create solutions in the name of dignity, respect and, most importantly, love.
This film felt like a departure from much of Burns' other work, a mood that I think was aided in the liveliness of the students but also the communal efforts of a very talented group of younger filmmakers within Burns' Florentine Films studio who spearheaded much of the project. The typical Burns' tenderness was present but the storytelling moved beyond the simple talking head or barrage of facts & panning of archival photos, the story was elevated into some kind of new digitally (I think it was digital?) floating cinema verite that was able to move about the subjects, freeing them in a sense. This physical un-grounding of the film gave it a buoyancy that propelled the importance of the film forward while still remaining true to the factual & emotional past that Burns' work is known for.
In the post film Q&A Burns made mention of the oral tradition
of storytelling, of the loss of language based memory gone with the digital world uprising. He referred to our memories as our hard drives. He seemed wary of living in a world that is increasingly losing its human connection. With The Address, and also his recent iPad app & the larger Learn The Address project associated with this film, Burns has found a way to use technology as a vehicle instead of as a hindrance, to take the narrative tradition inherent in documentary filmmaking and use it to create a connection to eachother, to our collective past, and towards the collective well being of our future. And yes, I wept.
Horror movies are the most innovative genre of fiction film. Production costs of these films can remain pretty low, emotion, tension, fake blood, and terror aren't high exactly costly, but it takes a real master to piece together these hugely important elements into something worthy enough to be called cinema. The director has to be able to tell a story (of sorts) through sheer craft. They have to build suspense. They have to push the limits of every tool they have. After watching The Den a few weeks ago I continue to stand by the intensely progressive filmmaking of such a transgressive genre!
The Den was released in theaters and on VOD at the same time, another relatively new experiment happening in the post-theater world. It even had a spot on price point online too, $7, more than a rental but less than a multiplex ticket. I love horror movies and don't live in a city where I can just hop outside and see a brand spanking new slasher movie any time I please, why wouldn't I watch this? I watched The Den on my computer. In the dark. At night. It scared the sh*t out of me. Like really, really did. To the point where I was pausing it because, I dunno, maybe I need some water? Maybe I should make sure the door is locked? Maybe there are lots of things that need to be done at 11pm BESIDES watch this freakishly tense film alone in my bed? And the reason it scared me was completely unexpected and utterly groundbreaking: it used this new way of watching movies against me.
The Den was one of the first films I have ever seen that was designed to be watched at home on your laptop in bed, just as I was doing. Yes things like Paranormal Activity 4 and a handful of short films I've seen recently fall into this category too but The Den has done it best, nearly all of the deathly horror of the film takes place on the protagonist's computer screen. Elizabeth, the film's hot protagonist (and true to Horror form we see her in her underwear for no reason at least once) is writing a thesis on internet chatting culture specifically on the site"The Den," sort of like Chatroulett's fake bastard cousin. Yeah, this is far fetched but whatever. As she begins her "study" she comes across something that might be a murder and then her whole real world begins to collapse in on itself as it merges with that of an alternate underbelly of internet existence brought on by a torturing hacker, or is it hackers?
Images of Elizabeth's computer screen flashed across my desktop (seriously even making me wonder why my screen was frozen at one point, yes I am lame old), log-ins, e-mails, chats, once the camera even a shaky cell phone-ish first person shot that made me feel like an awful intruder in someone's home as they fold laundry and watched bad tv. The film used the new way we are watching films as a resourceful, mood setting tool that raised tons of questions both on & offscreen. Who is in control (hi NSA!)? Who is it that is taking over the computer screen, MY computer screen? Where am I in terms of the film? Am I now implicated in her plight, paying to see her running around to her possible death? Or am I like the sick surveillance cameras in Elizabeth's room, a creepy voyeur watching her game of cat & mouse? Or am I Elizabeth- ohmygod is someone watching me on my computer ready to pounce at any moment for pure entertainment alone? EEPS! Even if the acting is spotty & the plot full of holes, the questions brought up by The Den elevate it into something else besides a B Movie.
Once again a horror movie has shocked me by looking at a new facet of cinema, playing with the medium's expectations, and producing something that unprecedented... and scary as hell. Like other more recent boundary pushing horror films (Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity) and directors for whom this gory genre acts as a portfolio/springboard (Raimi, Peter Jackson), The Den presents a new vision of the state of film and technology. I am not telling you the ending of the movie, this is one that I recommend you watch on your computer. With the light off. Or on. Full disclosure: I turned the lights on.
A series of fortunate and unfortunate events have kept me from attending my first ever BUFF, the Boston Underground Film Festival. I am sad. But I am also poor. So the not going is necessary and the paying gig I am replacing my trip with is also necessary. (Film writer for hire. Right here folks. Get your film writer for hire! Or programming. I want to do more programming...anyway...) But, I like to think that my press-passed butt not being in a seat is freeing it up for some other splatter lover, or another giallofreak, or someone who refuses to watch anything but obscure Japanese sci-fi, whose movie poster collection is a beautiful, papery, yellowing wonder cultivated from the early days of internet auctions, or maybe even the total creep stranger who invited me to his house to watch Salo that time...shudder... In preparation of attending BUFF I made a list of my top three films that I was hoping to see which I will share with you film thirsty folks below! Big love to all those at BUFF...I feel like that's not fitting...big nightmares to all you BUFFers? Better.
When I read the description of this film I was like "I bet the blood is going to be some shade of wildly unnatural, fetishistic red that doesn't exist anywhere in nature." And I have a feeling it wouldn't have disappointed. The sparkling black full bodysuit topped with luscious blonde wig, the squeaky pink-leather gloves that seem fashionably poised to stab, sharply pointed gemstone rings that appear to be skin tearing accessories, and the booming pounces of blaring soundtrack (Morricone? YES! PS Morricone is doing live shows? This summer? Mouth Agape!) all in this brief trailer alone, is a legend of Freudian symbols that can only play out the fine, gushing line between sex & death.
The trailer for this one begins with a textured, haunting, layered scream that is almost a redefinition of the sound. An extremely gaunt, pale, wet eyed girl, her clothes hanging off of her sticklike frame, is the one doing the howling, her figure then shown running towards, or is it away from?, some sort of ineffable, intangible goal or evil. Starry Eyes is a horrific meditation on what we desire and how far we are willing to let those desires devour us, a film that, perhaps, turns in on itself as it questions the nature of fame or famine.
Revenge movies are one of the most complex subgenres of horror. Revenge implies that a wrong was committed and someone wants to even the scales, an eye for an eye, quite often literally, in a lot of these movies. There is an inherent confusion of audience identity: who do we side with? Who is "the bad guy?" Whose wrong is wronger? This twisting of logic & emotion is why I love revenge movies. And, truthfully, why I tend to think of them as a real American artform. When the first still of Blue Ruin surfaced awhile back, a musty, bearded man, wide eyed, sitting in a simultaneously rusting & inexplicably bright blue car, the presence of blood just out of reach, his face scared but somehow filled with resolve- all of this conveyed in one simple still frame- I knew that Blue Ruin was something I must see and something that has the potential to be a terrifying, suspenseful, artful new horror classic. This one comes out April 25th, in theaters & on VOD. I cannot wait.
Sacro Gra is one of those movies that you just get swept inside of. The repeating characters become friends, neighbors, people who you- as a strange voyeuristic audience member- check in on from time to time to see what they are up to. You worry about their futures. Their families. Their careers. But like all superb stories, Sacro Gra uses this highly controlled sense of the familiar to express something much larger: the current condition of not only Rome but of all cultures whose natural ways continue to be compromised, improved, or altered by our notions of progress.
The title Sacro Gra is apparently a play on Holy Grail (Sacro GRA(il), the GRA being an acronym for the large, speeding, roaring ringed road that encircles the city of Rome, Italy and also maybe referencing our changing notions of modern worship. The filmmaker, Gianfranco Rosi, circled around this highway for years capturing the lives of various roadside dwellers, each with their own sprawling personal narrative that became tucked into the folds of the film, creating a give & take that really captures the watcher: will we learn more about the ambulance medic's remote family that he speaks to via webcam? Is the scientist going to conquer the invasive beetle population? Will the "Luccioles" (aka Fireflies, aka Prostitutes) be ok dancing in heels on such a high countertop? Nearly all of these questions remain unanswered, the rhetorical nature of the film lending itself to a slight lean in, a personal investment, that makes the film speed by. The way the camera in this film positioned itself added to this near audience participation too.
Most of the shots were distanced, a series of scenes filmed outside of the windows of a large apartment complex, a floating omnipresence that allowed the characters to take on a dreamy, zoo-like quality. Sometimes I felt like I was on a European Safari, an anthropological National Geographic documentary revealing, educating, transmitting the lives of a wild world we've never seen but is still very relatable. The film is also the single best document of the Anthropocene Era yet, deftly displaying our ability to carve into nature our ways of life- positioning the great feat of an enormous roadway against a snow that renders it useless, the outspoken Eel fisherman debunking the newspaper article about the traits of his slithering income, the strange, unnatural ways we have learned to entertain ourselves. And I think that was the whole point of this film, to express the connectivity in all things- from humans to animals, from palm trees to car accidents. No matter how far away one's own culture is from another, or how much we as a species inflict our realities upon the natural world, we are all humans on an Earth that is changing as rapidly as the rush of the highways that connect it. Sacro Gra, in a gorgeous, dark, hypnotic, watchful way, reminds us that we are all responsible for the future, the extreme artistry of the film acting not so much as a warning but as a reminder to see the potential for beauty in the ever fluctuating truths, and truth in the fluid ideas of beauty. Filmmaking at its finest.
I spent a long time trying to write about Joe Callander's amazing film Life After Death but the more I thought about it, the harder it was. The surface subject of the story is difficult and complicated to start as it follows struggling adult Rwandan Genocide survivors that are primarily supported by donations from their religious, white, well meaning "mothers & fathers" in America, a relationship that feels intrinsically helpful but possibly detrimental at once, reminding that there are no clear solutions to fixing the results of unfathomable events. But adding to the difficulty of trying to talk about this film is the layered filmmaking itself. Callander's sly, insightful editing and intuitive directorial choices create a polished, thoughtful telling of this dense story. Similar to the works of writers like George Saunders & Kurt Vonnegut, Callander hits that collision of comedy & tragedy that are inherent in the beautiful, inane, and dark world we've created and manages to do it with the added difficulty of using real life subjects, his choice of main characters ranging from Kwasa (a young man who is funny, mischievous, and deeply wounded by the past) to the cheery, caring, wise, concerned Suzette who dedicates her life to the well being of others, praying with her family over their
spaghetti for those in need. After failing at writing about Life After Death for awhile I decided to track down this wry, brilliant director and have him explain how this exceptional work came to be.
1.So, in the intro I wrote to these questions I called you brilliant. Just so you know...so don't say anything stupid, okay? Kidding of course.....no pressure!
I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I'M DOING. SHHHHHHHH!!!
2.How were you able to make this film. I had to run out of the True/False Q&A so I missed the details about how this film came to be but it seemed to somehow involve a faith based charitable organization? And you becoming the filmmaker in residence at a progressively operated leather works company...? Not your typical indie filmmaker route!
leather company and the charitable organization are the same entity.
Saddleback Leather, run by Dave and Suzette Munson, makes really high
quality leather stuff. Dave and Suzette funnel a significant amount of
their profits to relief work in Rwanda. They work with a non-profit over
there called Africa New Life Ministries. Suzette also runs a company
called Love 41, which is structured as a for-profit company, but she
effectively runs it as a non-profit. 100% of Love 41 profits goes
straight to relief work in Africa.
Back in 2010 I was struggling as a filmmaker in
LA, and saw Saddleback was hiring. So I landed a job in customer
service, which turned into marketing, which turned into a
filmmaker-in-residence. Dave wants his employees to be doing what they
love, and he knew I loved making movies. So he created a
filmmaker-in-residence position for me. I do all his marketing videos,
and he gives me a lot of freedom to work on my own projects on the side.
I met Kwasa the second time I went to Rwanda with
Dave and Suzette. At first, filming Kwasa [was] my own little side project.
But after they saw what I was doing with it, they decided to let me run
with it. The film was captured on three separate trips over the course
of 18 months.
3.The film begins with a figure of how many days had passed since the end of the Rwandan Genocide, a figure that quietly stands in for the memory of a huge humanitarian crime. The title is an affirmative separation between the past and the present. Was this decision just inherent in the producer's story or did you specifically decide that the future is more important a subject than the past? I guess I am preoccupied with this since so many films about incomprehensible tragedy tend to focus on teaching about the tragedy as opposed to focusing on the equally as important results of the event, the cause more than the effect. Reparation seems to be a nearly forgotten aspect of most conflict and is equally as important.
I decided to mark the time since the genocide in days instead of
years, as a subtle indicator of what life has been like for guys like
Kwasa and Fils. They do not measure their time in years. They have no 5
year plan. Life passes day by day, and most days are a struggle to find
enough to eat to see the sun come up again tomorrow. The thing about the Rwandan Genocide is, PBS and the New York Times
have covered it just fine. There's a few real great documentaries out
there about the actual genocide. I felt I had nothing to add to that
conversation. What I wanted to explore was, how are everyday normal
people [are] dealing with it, 20 years later? I didn't want to turn them into
talking heads of horrific tragedy and loss. I wanted to show them as
human beings that have been through terrible things, and yet, they still
have to live. They still have to try and make lives for themselves. And
I wanted to show that no matter where you come from, we're all not so
different on the most basic human level. We all just want to have dinner
with our friends, try to find a stable, secure life, and maybe even
fall in love.
4.Even though the film covers a weighty subject...it is hilarious. And you skillfully made it that way, interjecting a punchline or observation always at the exact right moment, even if the subjects brought a lot of the humor to the story, your comic timing is impeccable. Are you just an inherently funny person? What led you to the decision to use humor as a tool to tell this story? Laughter is missing from a lot of documentaries and it is a facet of (hopefully) every life.
Thank you. The tone of this film is how I want to tell stories. I
think life is inherently tragic, absurd, heart-breaking, and hilarious.
When I tell stories in real life, they're usually funny. Why should my
voice as a filmmaker be any different than my voice as a human being?
Life is strange everywhere you go and a little laughter helps when
you're trying to deal with it all. To me, the film is a very serious film, and the jokes only make it
more so. If you're laughing at something, that means you've experienced
something true. Laughter is the most powerful way to connect an audience
to a film and the characters in the film. Jokes are very serious
5.The amount of respect and heart in this film was palpable. You were able to see huge confusions or contradictions inherent in the subjects but the way you went about bringing them to light were beyond fair. As a documentary filmmaker it felt like you managed such an objective, yet earnest, position which doesn't seem natural for most documentary filmmakers who have a distinct agenda...how did you develop this seemingly honest, autonomous, attitude yet still manage to inject it with your personal creative style? What position did you approach the subjects from? Are you just a nice, brilliant dude?
now I'm blushing. Through the humor in the film, I have a little fun
with my subjects. But my intent with humor was never to bring them down.
I wanted to use humor to reveal their humanity. Some people have
mistaken the film for satire. It absolutely is not. If I'm poking fun at
anything with the film, it's the fact that we're all here in the first
place, stuck on this rock barreling around some tiny star in the middle
of nowhere. And we all have to deal with each other.
I wouldn't say the film is objective, but the
subjective point of view is more existential then anything else. A lot
of people may have trouble seeing that, because when you've got a
documentary that covers interactions between Westerners and Africans,
we've been conditioned to expect that such material must come with a
political, social, or religious agenda. Viewers will certainly bring all
that baggage to the film, but I've done my best to focus on the humans
first, so if people do want to discuss the film in terms of issues, I
hope I've forced them to start with the humans and move out to the
issues, instead of starting with the issues and trying to shoehorn the
humans into them.
So the short answer is, yes, I'm just a nice, brilliant dude (Sorry. Couldn't resist).
6.When I left the theater after seeing this film I remember thinking "O, THIS is why I love film! I almost forgot!" The storytelling, voice, production design- all of it- was so unique, new, and hopeful: I want more! What are you working on next?
I'm doing a lot of marketing films with Saddleback at the moment. I've
got a few ideas for another feature, which I'm hoping to get started on
before next year. Don't want to say too much though. If you keep a
little mystery around things, people think you're really interesting and
sophisticated. That ones on the house.
Beginning in 2009 as a chronicle of producing the feature film Gravity Was Everywhere Back Then (a staunchly DIY movie made in a barn in rural Pennsylvania and that now resides in the permanent collection of MoMA) this blog now is a document of culture, seeing it as a point in time with a long, receding past and an awesome, onrushing future.
For more info on my work please visit: www.teamdonnak.com or contact me at donnak3 [at] gmail [dot ] com
Currently I live in a tiny village in between two mountains in southern Vermont where river swimmers and bald eagles float along. And, yes, it is as beautiful as you are imagining. Tune in to our community radio station www.wool.fm Sundays from 6-8pm for my show Team Donna K. music + culture + science