Production Slate

IDC/3: The Search for Truth | New Entries to National Film Registry | International Widescreen Festival Winners

1998 IDA Award Winners
IDA/David L. Wolper Student Documentary Achievement Award:
Dame Met Het Witte Hoedje (Lady with the White Hat) (directed by Aliona van der Horst).
Distinguished Documentary Achievement, Limited Series:
The Nazis:
A Warning from History — Episode 1:
Helped into Power (directed by Laurence Rees/BBC).
Career Achievement Award:
Sheila Nevins of HBO
Strand Program Award:
America's Endangered Species:
Don't Say Goodbye (directed by Robert Kenner).
ABC News Video Source Award:
Regret to Inform (directed by Barbara Sonneborn and Janet Cole).
IDA Preservation and Scholarship Award:
George Stoney of New York University. 1998
Distinguished Documentary Achievement, Short:
Human Remains (directed by Jay Rosenblatt).
Pare Lorentz Award:
Nach Saison/Off Season (directed by Pepe Danquart and Mirjam Quinte).
Distinguished Documentary Achievement:
Dancemaker (directed by Matthew Diamond) and Little Dieter Needs to Fly (directed by Werner Herzog).

IDC/3: The Search for Truth
by Jay Holben

In October of 1998, the International Documentary Association convened in Los Angeles for the Third International Documentary Congress, an examination of "Documentary at the Millennium." IDC/3 was host to moviemakers, programmers, distributors, scholars, students and docuphiles, all of whom gathered at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences headquarters for the three-day event. Some 24 panel discussions were held, all dealing with a range of considerations — from the practical aspects of the BBC's acquisition policy to the economic viability of licensing unused visual effects elements as stock footage. The Congress also dedicated a considerable portion of its time to the idea of "truth in documentaries." An ongoing query dealt with how far a filmmaker should go to achieve a "balance" in the thematic viewpoints within their work. Is it inevitable, and even mandatory, that filmmakers apply editorial choices to whatever material is ultimately presented? Some participants pointed out that the filmmaking process itself makes it unavoidable that the exclusion, or inclusion, of certain elements will bias a documentary's ultimate viewpoint.

Spotlighting on Rock

Walter Scheuer, Jerry Kupler and director Matthew Diamond accept kudos for Dancemaker, the winning film in the IDA's feature category. The award was presented by actor Robert Davi (third from left) .

The opening night's event, entitled "Docs Rock," focused on some of history's most influential rock 'n' roll performance documentaries. "If we're going to learn anything from these films, it would be that the direct ors brought forth something that we don't normally see in movies — personal insight," noted the evening's moderator, Elvis Mitchell of National Public Radio. "They found a way to combine that insight with something special in order to create an exciting new medium possessing an up-to-the-minute urgency that hadn't been seen before in movies or documentaries — something that not only changed the way that movies were made, but changed the culture as well."

This presentation was sectioned into four specific subsets of the musical genre, with each followed by a loose panel discussion involving the respective filmmakers. "Documenting the Famous" presented clips from Don't Look Back (Bob Dylan; directed by D.A. Pennebaker), Let It Be (The Beatles; Michael Lindsay Hogg) and Gimme Shelter (The Rolling Stones; the Maysles Brothers & Charlotte Zwerin). Meanwhile, "Performance as Art" included snippets from The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle (The Sex Pistols; Julian Temple), Divine Madness (Bette Midler; Michael Ritchie) and Rattle and Hum (U2; Phil Joanou).

Participants in the panel "Optimizing Your Image: Visual Technology Now and Later" including (from left to right) Albert Maysles, Richard Leacock, Jon Else, Buddy Squires, Steven Poster, ASC, Greg MacGillivray, and Marker Karahadian. .
Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker, Robert Drew and Albert Maysles discuss the films Primary, Crisis: Behind the Presidential Commitment and Faces of November with moderator Tim Lyons, editor of International Documentary magazine.
IDA Executive Director Betsy McLane with Robert Kenner, Werner Herzog, Matthew Diamond, Jerry Kupler, Kodak's Janet Anderson, Aliona van der Horst, HBO senior vice president Sheila Nevins, NYU's George Stoney, Barbara Sonneborn, Jay Rosenblatt, Laurence Rees, IDA president David Haugland and Kodak's Brian Spruill.

Director Michael Lindsay-Hogg recalled that Let It Be began its life as television special, with the eventual theatrical release emerging from footage shot for a 20-minute documentary that was initially intended to run in support of the TV program. "In the end, there never was a TV special," commented Lindsay-Hogg. "We'd turn up in the morning with two cameras, and we'd roll. We never knew what we were getting –- except that I began to be aware that something more than the making of music was happening. In the first third of Let it Be, John [Lennon] and Paul [McCartney] start to fight with each other. About half an hour before [the conflict], I knew that something was going to happen. In those days, the cameras were very intrusive, so we pulled back when we felt [an altercation] coming on. One of the shots [used in the sequence] is from a really long lens, because we went all the way back on the stage — about 100' — so John and Paul wouldn't know that the camera was there. The other shot came from a camera put up on a gantry."

While discussing the filming of Gimme Shelter, Albert Maysles noted that the members of the Rolling Stones could sense the impending chaos and violence that accompanied their infamous 1969 concert at the Altamont Speedway. According to the esteemed documentarian, guitarist Keith Richards "was onto it immediately, even before the concert took place. It was maybe three o'clock in the morning when we arrived at the concert area, and we came to a fence as somebody began to tear it down. Unfortunately, it was so dark I couldn't film it, but I remember Richards turning to us and saying, 'First act of violence…' It was like that smell where you anticipate something that you shouldn't really know anything about."

Phil Joanou recalled the experience of covering the Irish quartet U2 midway through their U.S. tour, revealing that frontman/singer Bono suddenly decided to alter the band's set list after several weeks of gigs. For a concert to be filmed at Sun Devil Stadium in Arizona, cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, ASC had devised a shooting setup utilizing from eight to a dozen 35mm cameras, which featured an elaborate lighting apparatus requiring seven days of prelighting. Bono's sudden change of mood, however, made all of the preparation moot. "We had been on the tour for about three months doing the black-and-white interview segments of the film [with cinematographer Robert Brinkmann], so we knew the basic set order by the time we shot that concert," Joanou said. "Generally speaking, I could anticipate where the band would be at any given moment, so I put cameras in specific positions on dollies, a Louma crane and two Steadicams. Jordan had flown in 11 Hollywood operators for the shoot. Of course, they didn't know the show at all — all they had was a list of song numbers and cues. The first night in Arizona, Bono came out and [seemingly] decided, 'To hell with the film,' and completely improvised the show. I had light cues in the wrong place, and the cameras were never where they should have been — it was a disaster. D.A. Pennebaker said he'd rather train musicians to operate cameras than to teach cameramen music, and I completely agree. We blew that entire night and got practically nothing."

The two remaining subsets in the "Docs Rock" lineup were "Framing Festivals," which presented pieces from Monterey Pop (D.A. Pennebaker), Woodstock (producer Dale Bell) and Wattstax (Mel Stuart), and "Covering the Scene (from Guitar to Grunge)," a look at selections from The Decline of Western Civilization I (Penelope Spheeris) and Hype! (Doug Pray).

Director Michael Ritchie eloquently summed up the evening with a comment on his film Divine Madness: "I was just happy to be able to capture that moment in time. What we're really celebrating here is not just the filmmaking, but the fact that all of us — as filmmakers — were lucky to be with these artists at these very special moments, and to be able to share that experience with audiences."

Cinematographers Have Their Say

Nevins accepts the IDA's Career Achievement Award.

On the following day, "Optimizing Your Image," a lively panel session on cinematography, was moderated by Steven Poster, ASC (whose extensive credits include the recent docudrama A Midwife's Tale; see AC Jan 1998). During the discussion, director of photography Buddy Squires (The Civil War and Frank Lloyd Wright) observed, "There has been a lot of talk about truth here, but I think it is important in that what we all try to do is get at some emotional truth. Whatever technology we choose has to serve that."

Albert Maysles observed, "Much more important than the kind of a camera you use — whether it be film or tape — is what you are actually filming."

Large-format filmmaker Greg MacGillivray (To Fly and Everest) stated, "It really all comes down to story. Whether you get it in Imax, 35mm, 16mm or Sony Digital, it's the story, and the ideas that are presented, that are key."

Continuing on this subject, Poster submitted, "I'd like to think that video is dead. We are now into the digital age, and I'd rather not call it 'video.' There can't be the distinction that film or digital is better. I think that they are side-by-side mediums and that they have their own uses. There is a perceptual difference between the two, but there are certain things that are best served by recording on film and some things are best served by recording digitally."

IDA Student Documentary Achievement Award-winner Aliona van der Horst and Kodak's Janet Anderson at the annual IDA luncheon, held in the atrium at Eastman Kodak's Hollywood headquarters.

Stanford University professor John Else (Cadillac Desert and The Day After Trinity) added to this idea, stating, "In a lot of ways, the perceptual difference doesn't matter. The younger generation coming up behind us feels perfectly comfortable seeing movies that mix all of these things. You turn on MTV and you have DV mixed with 16mm mixed with 35mm. Shots are degraded and upgraded; it's this wonderful visual anarchy that's incredibly liberating."

Also joining this discussion were Video 8 president Marker Karahadian and celebrated veteran documentarian Richard Leacock. During the course of the panel, a fervent discussion emerged questioning the technique of lighting an interview in a documentary at the risk of corrupting the work's truth. "If you have to interview, then I think the best light is probably the light that exists at that moment, because that person chose to be in that light at that time," elucidated Maysles. "[It's the difference between] walking into a room and just being yourself, and walking into a room that someone is lighting — moving this and changing that. Finally, you're ready to shoot and you've become a different person — you're lit. I'm very primitive about this, and perhaps I have much to learn, but getting involved with lighting is a distraction from something more important."

Squires countered, "However, if one is dealing with history, and you're talking to a historian about the Civil War, you don't necessarily care about what his house looks like; you care about the knowledge that's inside his head, and you want your lighting to evoke the emotion of what he's talking about. It's not about where [your subjects] are. That may, in fact, require lighting them in a form of portraiture that allows their words to come through in the most potent way. I don't disagree [that one should avoid fabricating a moment] if we're talking about a vérité situation, but if we're talking about a situation where you're creating a moment in time, I often alter the spaces that I go into."

Else offered, "What has to be remembered is the difference between really preserving and heightening a moment that is in the present, and deliberately destroying that reality to let the audience go back fifty or a hundred years — to suspend the reality of being in 1998 and let someone hear a story from 1964."

Solutions to Shrinking Budgets?

As expected, the Congress was peppered with discussions centered on the growing concern of increasing production costs and the proportionately shrinking dollar value of finished products, which has resulted in decreased budgets. In counter-revolution to this paradox, many documentarians are turning more toward the world of digital production. This group includes cinema vérité pioneers like Leacock and Maysles, who find themselves enticed by the flexibility and relative low cost of consumer-grade digital recording and editing equipment. Leacock has abandoned his Aaton 16mm in favor of a lightweight Sony DV1000 camera, and now edits his work at home on a Macintosh G3. As the means to personally finalize a production with PC software becomes even more economically viable, documentary filmmakers may have greater freedom to define their own budgets.

However, studying this new-found freedom with a cautious eye was New York Times Los Angeles bureau chief Todd Purdum, who offered an enlightening summation of the current state of documentaries: "As we celebrate a century of filmed reality, on the edge of a new century, it is worth pausing to remember that we have such images — from World War I to The War Room — because they were recorded on film. This medium, however fragile, can still be seen in its original format using the same mechanical processes that prevailed in its infancy. Who knows how long other technologies may last, or how widely available the means to view them may be? Video degrades, and digital technology is changing before our eyes."

Influencing History

Documentarian and IDA 1998 Scholarship and Preservation Award recipient George Stoney..

The panel "Docs that Shook the World," moderated by Purdum, examined the politically influential non-fiction films that have had an immense effect upon Western society over the past century. "Our topic makes an extravagant claim for the influence of documentaries," said Bruce Davis, executive director of AMPAS, "but I don't think it's an overblown one. Not a single one of these films achieved the kind of viewership that even a very indifferent narrative feature achieves today, and yet that's not a measure of their effectiveness. The kind of people who tend to see documentary films are people who can, and do, work to change things. Even though a particular film may not have the power to 'shake the world,' an audience of aroused viewers can provide a very effective nudge, and sometimes a nudge is all it takes to shake the world."

The evening took stock of specific historical eras, beginning with early newsreels and Russian silent films, exemplified by clips from Wreck of the Battleship Maine (William Paley, 1898), Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (Esther Shub, 1927), and A Man with A Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929).

The segment "Nazi Germany and the Holocaust" featured Triumph of the Will (Leni Riefenstahl, 1936), Churchill's Island (Stuart Legg, 1941), Prelude to War (Frank Capra, 1943) and Night and Fog (Alain Resnais, 1955).

"The Struggle for Civil Rights in America" encapsulated moments from Martin Luther King's famous "I Have A Dream" speech and The Children Were Watching (Robert Drew, 1961).

The "Vietnam" section featured scenes from the Oscar-winning Hearts and Minds (Peter Davis, 1974) and The War at Home (Glenn Silber and Barry Alexander Brown, 1981).

"The Atomic Age and the Environment" looked at mankind's involvement with nuclear arms with Hiroshima-Nagasaki: August 1945 (1970) and If You Love this Planet: Dr. Helen Caldicott on Nuclear War (Kathleen Shannon, 1982), followed by a study of the AIDS crisis with Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (Robert Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, 1988).

Each series of clips was followed by illuminating commentaries. Speakers included documentary historian Eric Barnouw; AFI founding director George Stevens Jr.; Rabbi Marvin Hier, the dean/founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance; Judy Richardson, education director for Blackside, Inc.; filmmaker and activist Gordon Quinn; Kim Campell, a former Canadian prime minister and IDC/3 keynote speaker; and David I. Schulman, supervising attorney of the AIDS/HIV Discrimination Unit of the Los Angeles City Attorney's Office.

In his introduction, Purdum noted that "more than a century ago, Matthew Brady's photographs of the Civil War first gave Americans an idea of the power of pictures to move people. But that [impact] seems, at times, like nothing compared to the power of moving pictures themselves. 'It's like writing history with lightning,' President Woodrow Wilson exclaimed upon seeing D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation in 1915, and that lightning has been cracking in the bottle of camera and projector ever since." Purdum continued with a warning for non-fiction filmmakers: "Documentary films have shaped and changed opinions, governments and even destinies in ways that remain both inspiring and unsettling. A camera alone is unblinking, unthinking, and amoral, but the reality that a camera records can be shaped for both good and ill."

In a keen illustration of film's influence, George Stevens, Jr. spoke of an occasion on which film historian/director Kevin Brownlow arranged a meeting between George Stevens Sr. (Gunga Din, Alice Adams) and German documentarian Leni Riefenstahl. Stevens Jr. recalled that the two filmmakers spoke openly and comfortably about their craft until Riefenstahl posed a crucial question. "According to Kevin, she asked my father, 'Did you ever see Triumph of the Will?' And my father said, 'I saw it one night in the screening room at Columbia Pictures, and the next day I joined the American Army.'"

The younger Stevens then posed this query to the audience: "How does film affect someone? Does it ever really change someone's life? There is a simple story of a man who was 35 years old, and somehow was awakened to a duty by this film. He was in the Army for three years and was placed in charge of combat photography by General Eisenhower. [Toward the end of his service,] he [and his crew] received orders to go south to a town called Dachau. These relatively young Americans were the first into that camp; it was an unimaginably searing experience, but they photographed it. The fact that those pictures were taken really made impossible the persistent argument that the Holocaust didn't take place. So for someone who had a great career in film, and whose later films were influenced by those experiences, it might be said that [my father's] most important work was the simple recording of those uninflected images that persist today."

Perils of the Pen

During the "Writing for the Documentary" panel, the issue of viewpoint was addressed by Carol Fleisher, whose numerous honors include a Cable ACE award for The Revolutionary War. "You're deluding yourself if you think that you don't have a point of view," Fleisher stated. "You impose your point of view with every choice you make about what shots to use, what order to put them in or what words to use — it's impossible to escape. Sometimes you can make a more personal statement, while at other times you need to be very careful about what words you put into your narrator's mouth to make sure that he or she isn't going too far into what is your opinion. It's a very delicate line, and you have to watch yourself, because it's tempting to jump up on a soapbox. It does depend on your forum, but I think we have an incredible responsibility to monitor ourselves as writers."

Panel moderator Mark Jonathan Harris (an Academy Award winner in 1997 for The Long Way Home) added, "In making historical films, you have to realize that the final view is going to be yours as a filmmaker, and it's going to express both your experience, and the time in which you are making the film. History changes often, and it is constantly being rewritten from a different vantage point. You have an obligation to get the facts straight, but the interpretation is the responsibility of the filmmaker — and by definition, that is subjective."

Also sitting on this panel was Roger Holzberg, a writer/producer of various CD-ROM multimedia productions, as well as such large-venue films as The Living Sea (which he also adapted to CD-ROM for Knowledge Adventure). Much of the discussion concerned the evolution of the writer's job as documentary moves further into the multimedia realm. Holzberg opined, "As we push toward new digital media, words are becoming a smaller and smaller part of our palette as writers — particularly when working with a large format such as Imax, where a big part of the story is the imagery and not the written word. When you put into play emotions to be drawn from music and scope of images, it's a different style of writing. What we are moving toward is a true 'tele-fusion' — that is, being able to watch your television not in a linear chunk, but integrating Internet capabilities with general television viewing. Interactive broadband in the home on a large scale is only a few years away."

Eyeing the Future

Speaking for a forum entitled "Ask the Filmmaking Experts About the Future," documentarian Nick Broomfield (Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam and Kurt and Courtney) noted, "The documentary movement has constantly re-evolved, redefined itself, and changed its parameters. There aren't a lot of rules, and the rules that [do exist] are meant to be broken. It's a very experimental forum — one that I hope will develop more and more in the future."

Broomfield was joined by Lynne Littman, a four-time Emmy Award winner and the recipient of an Academy Award for Number Our Days; Russian filmmaker Marina Goldovskaya, who now teaches at UCLA's School of Film and Television; Werner Herzog, the noted producer/ writer/director of more than 40 films, including Aguirre, The Wrath of God and Little Dieter Needs to Fly; Alec Lorimore, the vice president of production and development at MacGillivray Freeman Films, the company behind The Living Sea, To the Limit and Everest; and director Frieda Lee Mock, whose credits include the Academy Award-winning Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision.

Following Broomfield's comments, Herzog initiated a passionate debate about the validity of the cinéma vérité style as a means of achieving "truth" in films. "I do believe that 'documentaries' will only have a future if filmmakers try to dig deep and explore the basic question that concerns all art in principal — and that is truth," he maintained. "I believe in departing from what I call the stupidities of cinéma vérité; by dint of fabrication, invention and fantasy, you can actually dig very deep into a very mysterious area which constitutes truth in cinema. We all have to face [the fact that] setting a camera at a certain angle is always some sort of manipulation, but there are basic things that the audience needs to know are real."

Mock later added, "For me, filmmaking, whether non-fiction or fiction, is really about the storytelling. The idea of truth is perhaps what unifies all of us, in that we all seek a truth — whether it be through fiction or non-fiction. It's all really just about trying to find the essence of being human."

Goldovskaya then interjected, "I want to say that if you are an artist and you use the cinéma vérité style, you will go very deep to the truth and find something that you are looking for. But there are [many other possible] methods of doing that. Everybody has their own truth."

From the audience, vérité pioneer Albert Maysles stood up and addressed the panel with this pertinent point: "To me, it's such a simple and common-sense sort of thing to be an observer and not be afraid of telling the truth. It's not difficult to tell the truth, it's not difficult to observe it and it's not difficult to portray it on film."

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IDC/3: The Search for Truth | New Entries to National Film Registry | International Widescreen Festival Winners