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Essential Doc Reads: Week of April 19, 2021

By Tom White

From the Academy Award-winning 'My Octopus Teacher' (Pippa Ehrlich, James Reed, dirs.; Craig Foster, prod.). Courtesy of Netflix

Essential Doc Reads is our curated selection of recent features and important news items about the documentary form and its processes, from around the internet, as well as from the Documentary magazine archive. We hope you enjoy!


Hyperallergic’s Justine Smith argues for Oscar categories for documentary editing and cinematography.

The days of nonfiction film as a niche are over. Encouraging greater understanding and appreciation for how documentaries are made could serve an essential role in increasing media literacy. This may be overly optimistic, since most of the public and Academy voting body was never able to learn the difference between sound editing and sound mixing, but a little goes a long way.

Sharon Brooks of The Undefeated interviews Sophia Nahli Allison, director of the Oscar-nominated A Love Song for Latasha, about “her vision to re-imagine the retelling of Black girl stories.” 

My process is always very experimental and very spiritual and holistic in the sense that I want to center Black women and Black girls within my work. I want to center the stories of Black folks and for there to be healing within it, for there to be a sense of conjuring of our ancestors and acknowledging those ancestors. I’m always interested in how I can disrupt what I’ve been taught that documentary is supposed to be and decolonize what documentary we’ve all been taught is supposed to be. So many of our memories exist within the space that we can’t see.

Leah Greenblatt of Entertainment Weekly praises one of the most lauded documentaries of 2020—and one of the notable Oscar snubs—Kirsten Johnson’s Dick Johnson Is Dead.

Nommed or not, Dick Johnson Is Dead is a playful, poignant gem of a film, one that can take comfort in the many awards it's already reaped. But what makes the movie so startling is also precisely the reason we need more stories like this: in a society that almost obsessively fetishizes the dewy beginnings of things and so rarely addresses our greyer, messier ends, death has become one of the last Rubicons; why not confront it with clear eyes and full hearts? Also, while most docs live and die in VOD obscurity, Dick is on Netflix; if that's not eternal life in entertainment terms, we don't know what is.

Geoffrey Macnab of Business Doc Europe talks to CPH:DOX’s outgoing CEO and founder Tine Fisher about her illustrious tenure and her forthcoming role as director of the National Film School Denmark.

“CPH: DOX really is a dialogue between social movements, political movements, between art, science and our own industry. That means we have been able to attract people who, in their own practices, are engaged in this way of working not only in their own field but across [other] sectors and fields. Someone like [philosopher] Slavoj Žižek has been involved in film for many years. Someone like David Byrne as an artist has been involved in music, film and contemporary art,” Fischer speculates as to why these heavyweight names are so eager to participate in the festival.

Filmmaker’s Lauren Wissot talks to Camilla Nielsson, whose film President, now competing at CPH:DOX, documents a presidential election campaign in Zimbabwe.

A film like President is only possible when many, many people in front of and behind the camera agree to collaborate on all levels. The Zimbabwean crew members cannot be named in the credits at this time for security concerns. It has been our shared goal to situate the people in the film in an ethical relationship with the people viewing it. Decolonization has to work in both directions; both the colonized and colonizer have to be decolonized, and as Teju Cole has pointed out, telling stories in which we are complicit outsiders has to be done with both imagination and skepticism. “It’s not about taking something that belongs to someone else and making it serve you, but rather about recognizing that history is brutal and unfinished and finding some way, within that recognition, to serve the dispossessed.”

Hyperallergic’s Steve Macfarlane interview Anand Patwardhan about the difficulties he faces in showing his films in his native India.

We did a small experiment at the beginning of 2020, [at the] Mumbai International Film Festival. It specifically says that films without certificates can enter. So I did, knowing they wouldn’t actually show it. And they rejected it, you know, claiming it wasn’t good enough. So we took them to court, saying they had discriminated on political grounds, not on merit. In the past I have won a lot of court cases against the government when they tried to do censorship. But now in India, the courts are under huge pressure from the government. So it’s very unlikely to find a judge who is brave enough to take a stand against the BJP. The judge began to say, ‘How can I replace the selection panel that rejected your film? How do I know the film is good enough?’ Even though we have won awards at international festivals. So then we adjourned the case because we didn’t want to lose and set a bad precedent for other filmmakers. 

Variety’s Tim Dams discusses the growing popularity of documentaries on streaming platforms and the pay-TV space.

Audiences have reappraised the documentary genre. They are treated very much now as feature films and a solid entertainment format.”

Streamers have played a key part in helping broaden the appeal of feature docs, offering thrilling and emotional real-life stories that are often as dramatic as anything that fiction could dream up. Netflix, in particular, has helped to raise awareness. The streamer, for example, has two hotly tipped Oscar documentary contenders this year, “My Octopus Teacher” and “Crip Camp,” having previously won the category in 2018 with “Icarus” and in 2020 with “American Factory.”

From the Archive, April 2020 online: “CPH:DOX's Directors on Reinventing the Film Festival During the COVID-19 Chaos”

While the puzzle was accordingly more complex than when people are located in the same place, the feedback on the move to digital was both positive and interesting in a world where we all need to think about more environmentally sustainable solutions to how we do business. Industry professionals reported that meetings were more focused, and that people in many cases came more prepared. From this experience, I cannot imagine that an online element will not be part of our future ways of organizing an industry platform—as the potential to include a whole different range of professionals in an efficient and valuable way opens up new horizons."

In the News

My Octopus Teacher, Colette win Documentary Honors at Academy Awards


Crip Camp Takes Best Documentary Award at Independent Spirit Awards


San Francisco International Film Festival Unveils Awards Winners


Seattle International Film Festival 2021 Awards Winners


The Truffle Hunters Takes Best Documentary Honors at American Society of Cinematographers Awards


Scripps-Howard Awards Recognize Excellence in Journalism


Webby Awards Announce Nominees


Visions du Réel Announces VdR Industry Awards


It’s All True Fest Names Winners


Aspen Shortsfest Winners Announced


Tribeca Film Festival Unveils 2021 Lineup


Penske Media Acquires 50% Stake in South by Southwest Festival


Hot Docs Doc Accelerator Lab Welcomes New Fellows to 2021 Festival


Peter Nicks' Homeroom Lands at Hulu


Mia Bays Appointed Director of BFI Film Fund