TOP 5 BOOKS: ESSENTIAL READING FOR DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKERS /STUDENTS

The following list features five of the best books I have encountered during my studies. They are the books I would recommend any film student to acquire as they make valuable additions to any film buff’s library. As well as offering a comprehensive history of non-fiction film making, the codes and conventions of documentaries many of the books also provide insight into the mind of documentary directors.

Documentary Superstars: Marsha McCreadie

Documentary Superstars takes an in depth look at how documentary trends have evolved over the years, from cinema vérité to on-screen auteurs. The book features exclusive interviews from  Michael Moore, Albert Maysles, Lauren Greenfield, Henry Corra and Errol Morris.

Directing the Documentary: Michael Rabiger

This book was on the top of my MA course reading list, some say it is the best book ever written about film making. In this extensive guide,  it’s nearly 600 pages, Rabiger provides an in-depth analysis of the both the creative and practical implications of production. The book is filled with advice and resources for documentary filmmakers, including guidance on grant writing and fundraising, proposals and pitching. It also has a companion site that has a wide variety of resources including online film examples and production checklists.

Introduction to Documentary: Bill Nichols

If you have done any academic study on documentary it is highly likely Bill Nichols is a name you will recognise. His writing is very accessible, he breaks down several traits and conventions of documentary styles into a conceptual scheme he calls ‘modes’: the observational mode, reflexive mode, participatory mode, reflective mode and expository mode.  Whilst it would be impossible to fit every film perfectly into one of the six categories, these categories help scholars and makers alike understand different approaches filmmakers take to share their stories.   I believe this is the perfect book for someone looking to broaden their understanding of documentary form.

This Much is True : James Quinn 

Each chapter in this book is centered around a different part of the film making process and features an essay from some of, arguably, the best documentary filmmakers of all time. Nick Broomfield, Albert Maysles, Kim Longinotto and Asaf Kapadia are just some of the contributors to the book.

The book is more personal than the others on the list and features a more conversational style. I would recommend this book to somebody looking to gain insight into how well established documentarians think.

John Grierson: Life, Contributions – by Jack C Ellis 

John Grierson is thought of as the father of the non-fiction genre. ‘Documentary’ was actually a term he coined when talking about ‘Moana‘ a 1926 film directed by Robert Flaherty, not the Disney animation. This book is the only biography included on the list. It includes information about Grierson’s career and offers insight into the true contributions he made to documentaries.

 

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Generation Wealth

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‘Generation Wealth’ is a multi-platform project which includes a photography exhibition, a beautiful coffee table book and of course, the documentary film of the same name.

Director, Lauren Greenfield says that filmmaking is a ‘constant process’ (pg 219) and ‘the way she got good footage was by proximity to her topics for some long period of time and by gaining the trust of her subjects’. (McCreadie, pg 190) This film epitomises this approach to filmmaking, returning to previous subjects with whom she already has an established relationship with and following up on their lives.

The film is centred around her extensive personal photography archive, her audio recordings, some over a quarter of a century old and talking head interviews with the people featured in her photographs.

Greenfield uses both archival and modern interviews with the subjects of her photographs on the subject of wealth, beauty and power. The sheer number of participants in the film means she cannot analyse their characters in the same way she did with her previous film, The Queen of Versailles. However, this film takes a different approach examining microcosms  of society to tell us more about the world today.

A reoccurring theme through the film is that “Society acquires its greatest wealth in the face of death.” That by looking at spending habits of a few people around the world we are able to extrapolate a lot about the society in which they live.

The film suggests that thanks to the fictitious world created my the media having status is the new American dream. It is suggested that the porn stars, criminals, ‘rich kids’ and beauty queens that  are featured in this film see obscene amounts of money as the easiest way to reach that dream. And that they will do whatever it takes to accumulate that wealth. One could be lead to think that Greenfield is suggesting that these displays of wealth are an indication that America is heading for a fall.

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I really enjoyed the film, it was incredible to see such a large quantity of Greenfield’s photographic work presented in relation to a single topic and to hear more about her own life and approach to her work. Would definitely recommend! 

‘Generation Wealth’ is now in cinemas and available to watch online through Curzon Home Cinema.

Top 5 Archive Documentaries

Archive material can be used in so many creative and innovative ways. Here is a break down of the best archive documentaries out there, some of the techniques they use and where to watch them.

5: HyperNormalisation’ (2016)

Director Adam Curtis is known for his blend of authoritative voice over, hypnotic music and juxtaposing archive footage and ‘Hypernormalisation’ is no exception. In his exploration of the ‘fake world’ we now live in, Curtis uses contrasting archive footage to illustrate his essay and to create new meaning. While the tone of his narration is closer to a news story, it lacks the same objectivity.  It places him in a position of authority resulting in audiences being more likely to accept what he says as the truth, despite a lack of hard evidence.

Available on BBC iPlayer or in full on Youtube

4: ‘Notes on Blindness’ (2016)

Built around Professor John Hull’s audio diary tapes, ‘Notes on Blindness’ depicts the emotional impact the deterioration of sight has on Hull and his family.

The film utilises dramatic reconstructions alongside the original audio from Hull’s tapes, rather than voice over from a talking head interview. This allows for a more immersive cinematic experience and audiences are made to feel more connected to Hull and his wife, Marilyn.

Available on Amazon and Netflix 

4:Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief‘ (2015)

Adapted from the 2013 Pulitzer-Prize winning book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief, the documentary explores the secret world and the inner dealings of the Church of Scientology.

Director, Alex Gibney, provides an in-depth history of the church and in doing so presents the reasons in which people feel compelled to join.

Through the use of archive footage, some modern B-roll and talking head interviews with a number of former members of Scientology audiences are shown what happens to members as they try to leave the Church.

It is, in my opinion, the best film about Scientology out there.

Available in full on Youtube

2: ‘Cobain: Montage of Heck’ (2015)

Montage of Heck is an example of expertly utilising access. As he was approached by the subject of the film’s widow, Courtney Love, director Brett morgen had access to never before seen home footage and photographs, unheard songs from Nirvana’s archive and Cobain’s artwork and journals. Along with talking head interviews with friends and family and stylised animation the film shines a new light on the life of the music legend.

Available on Netflix  and in full on Youtube

1: Amy (2015)

Asif Kapadia’s ‘Amy’ is built up of archive footage of the star with the audio from interviews with those who know her best, including her father Mitch and her muse/ex-husband Blake. The director uses the lyrics Winehouse wrote as a narrative map to tell her story. The words she wrote reveal more about the inner workings of her mind than the other narrative devices.

The film is remarkable and will captivate audiences, whether you’re a fan of her music or otherwise.

Available on Amazon and in full on Youtube

 

 

Why are Archive Documentaries Important?

Documentary film has always had a complex relationship with archive material and archival practices.

In the 20th century media texts, such as television programmes, were transitory. It was assumed that a programme would air once, maybe twice if you were lucky, and then never be seen again by the public. However, the internet’s prominence in our lives has changed these once transitory texts into objects of permanence. Audiences now assume that once published, texts should be available to be revisited, resold and engaged with. Platforms like Youtube, Netflix and BBC iPlayer make this possible. The online library becomes some what of an archive in and of itself, allowing media texts to have an afterlife.

Archive has historic, educational and entertainment value however it needs technological, creative and curatorial skills to be able to unlock its full potential. The internet encourages publishing material and then connecting to audiences and similar texts. So you could argue that TV frameworks are becoming outdated.

If you consider another creative medium, such as music, you do not think of music from the past to be ‘archive music’. A song from the 1950’s is not considered to be ‘archive’, it is thought of as an album to be enjoyed in the present, perhaps even added to a playlist amongst recently created music. This framework encourages the integration of relevant material from both the past and the present for audiences to enjoy. It is interesting to consider what kind of digital innovation will be necessary to get archive film to be handled in the same way. Continue reading “Why are Archive Documentaries Important?”

Life on Two Spectrums

As part of my course at UCL I recently completed a short observational film called ‘Life on Two Spectrums’. It is a short documentary project looking at the experiences of members of the LGBTQ+ community with Autism and Asperger’s syndrome. The film follows Dan ‘Tia Anna’ Kahn, a drag queen with Asperger’s Syndrome who founded A.S.P.E.C.S (Autistic and Aspergers Persons of Every Category of (Queer) Sexuality) a support and networking group to help address the needs of the neurodiverse members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Watch below or at https://vimeo.com/199202763

Life on Two Spectrums: Autism and the LGBTQ+ community. from Elizabeth-Valentina on Vimeo.

Open City Doc Fest

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I spent the weekend in London to attend Open City Doc Fest. Like Sheffield Doc Fest, Open City Doc Festival is about more than simply exhibiting films. Its programme  also features live events and performances as well as really interesting masterclasses and panels.

I attended three really insightful panels hosted by organisations such as Doc Heads, Festival Formula and Together Films.

The first panel I went to ‘The road from shorts to features’ was hosted by Doc Head’s founder Tristan Anderson.

Doc Heads Trailer from Doc Heads on Vimeo.

Tristan began the session by giving everyone some advice ‘Your first film will be your worst, get it out of the way..’ He followed this up by showing us a great short film called ‘The Gap’ which perfectly explains why it getting your first film out of the way is so important in the process of making work that actually matches your taste level.

THE GAP by Ira Glass from Daniel Sax on Vimeo.

Then by using filmmaking duo Matt Hopkins and Ben Lankester, who’s film A Divorce before Marriage premiered at the festival, as a case study we looked at the steps required to make the transition from short docs to features.

A Divorce Before Marriage – Official Trailer 1 from A Divorce Before Marriage on Vimeo.

Matt and Ben, as many filmmakers before them, explained that they were required to produce commercial content in order to make their company, Progress Films,  financially viable and for them to go on to produce their creative work. Matt explained that whilst ‘A Divorce Before Marriage’ had not financially enriched them. It was the work that they were most proud of. They explained that when you’re working on projects for free you have to look at the bigger picture and remember than something will come from it eventually. The duo produced a series of short character portraits for a collection called ‘England your England’. Although they ended up having to fund it from their own pockets, their films were selected as Vimeo Staff Pick and they established a community of filmmakers around them who appreciated their work. From the series, they received commercial work.

Richard from England Your England on Vimeo.

I think its really important to remind yourself of the hard work people have had to put in to get to where they are today, so I found the session both really inspiring and informative.

 

 

In future posts I will share what I learnt in the sessions with Festival Formula and Together Films.

Cocks & Docs: Our curated short film event

I absolutely love short documentaries. The format lends itself to experimentation and also forces filmmakers to make tough choices when it comes to the edit. For me, a good short doc is concise, moving and narratively whole. There are a lot of great short documentaries online but they rarely are seen in a cinema/communal screening environment despite the fact cinema was built upon the screening of short films.

f8d183_69594bcd293d493cae80cadb4de3d5fbmv1During my first year at uni, I was saying to friends at the student union pub that they should come around to mine for ‘cocks and docs, long cocktails and short documentaries’ and the idea stuck with me since then. It took two years to actually do it in a public space for a larger audience but yesterday myself and my friend and collaborator, hosted the first ever ‘Cocks&Docs’ event  at the Falcon Tap basement in York. The basement seemed like an unlikely screening room as it is typically used for sweaty club nights. But working with a shoe string budget we managed to transform the room using old tea lights and a shower curtain we fashioned into a screen using some string.  Once all the seats were in, the pop corn machine was on and the lights were down, the room felt like it was built for the job.

We screened a total of 6 curated short documentaries covering topics including: pop culture, women’s issues, art, animal welfare and crime.

I am thrilled with how the event went, the audience seemed to enjoy the selection of films and we were sure to provide time for discussion during the breaks. ‘Cocks and Docs’ taught me two important lessons:

  1. You never see a short film and wish it was longer.
  2. You need to be mindful of the order you put films in, think about the mood the film provokes. We nearly made the mistake of finishing with a film that really brought down the guest’s mood. Instead we chose to play an upbeat, music driven documentary which stirred an applause from the crowd the end the evening.

DIY film screenings are a bit tricky to organise, when it comes to licensing the shorts and the venue and actually getting bums in seats but it was also a very rewarding experience.