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Essential Doc Reads: Week of January 11, 2021

By Tom White

From 'Crip Camp," (Dirs.: James LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham), which won two IDA Documentary Awards. 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!

Filmmaker Laura Poitras published an open letter this past week about her having been fired from First Look Media, which owns both The Intercept and Field of Vision, the documentary platform she founded in 2015 with A.J. Schnack and Charlotte Cook. IndieWire’s Eric Kohn reached out to Poitras for further details.

As journalists, we have an obligation to protect sources. Internally, I made these same arguments and didn’t believe that the organization was capable of accountability. I certainly hoped that they would do an independent review. It would have been an appropriate response to my speaking out. I had tried what I could internally.

Following the far-right coup attempt on January 6, The New Yorker’s Richard Brody revisits a 1964 documentary, Danger on the Right?, about the John Birch Society, the most prominent extremists of the day.

Though my parents weren’t big readers, they owned one particular book, published in 1964, whose severely cautionary title strikes me as a mark of the fears that they felt at the time: “Danger on the Right.” I’ve never read it; the danger, I recall hearing at the time, had something to do with the 1964 Republican Presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, whom they considered a menace. Remembering the book recently, for obvious reasons, I discovered that it had made an impression far beyond my family circle: it gave rise to an extraordinary hour-long broadcast on WABC-TV from October of that year, near the end of the Presidential campaign (and now streaming on YouTube), titled after the book, but in the form of a question—“Danger on the Right?” It was hosted by the journalist Bill Beutel, and its central subject was the John Birch Society, which at the time was the most active far-right group in the United States, unless you count the Republican Party, and Beutel makes a quick yet bold case for possibly doing so.

Despite President Trump having called for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts throughout his term, the agency actually grew in size every year, thanks to a rare display of bipartisan support. The New York Times’ Graham Bowley looks into how the NEA survived.

Another concern among longtime supporters of the arts agency was that, if the endowment survived, it would be reshaped to support a conservative agenda. But art experts said they had not detected any effort to move in that direction. The endowment, the experts said, had continued to distribute grants to every Congressional district across the nation, a conscious decision designed to signal that there is no partisan bias in its allocations.

Realscreen’s Barry Walsh gathers top festival directors for a conversation about how they reimagined their programming through the pandemic and what the circuit looks like in 2021.

More broadly, I would say that 2020 has renewed our spirit of innovation. We’ve been reminded that we don’t have to do things a certain way because that’s how that’s always been done. Everything is on the table, and I think there is an appetite for creativity among festivals, filmmakers, and audiences that will be fun to explore in 2021 and beyond.

The Wrap’s Steve Pond talks to filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi about the making of his latest documentary, Notturno.

I am able to observe and get intimate and somehow not to scare people because the camera creates separation. When you pick up the camera, you separate things. People say, “Oh, you feel invisible.” I’m not. I use a big camera.  But before I pick up the camera, I’ve interacted with the situation and I’m established. And even then, no matter what, when you pick up the camera, things change. When you choose a frame, you’re telling a story and true objectivity never exists.

But I accept that the camera transforms things. It transforms the filmmaker and transforms the person that is in front of the camera. For me, it is always to try to find the language of cinema with the authority of documentary — to find the splendor of reality that is in front of you.

Leah Greenblatt, writing for Entertainment Weekly, talks to filmmaker Todd Haynes about his first-ever documentary—the forthcoming The Velvet Underground, about the highly influential art-rock band from 1960s New York City.

The real opportunity for me as a filmmaker since this is the first documentary I've ever made was to really seize upon the visual world that was occurring in the '60s in New York that made this band possible.Because although there's very little traditional footage of them playing like you'd see in other rock docs, what you have is the exquisite Andy Warhol films that they played a part in, that he often shot in order to project them on the stage over them while they performed. And so, it really uses the language of those films. It's just stuffed with the most gorgeous experimental film and photography, and what I hope is that it will take the audience back to that time and also let you hear the music in that context and hear it anew."

Reverse Shot’s Chris Shields interviews filmmaker Lynne Sachs about the retrospective of her work at the Museum of the Moving Image.

I’ve always had a foot in the experimental world and one in the documentary world, but never strictly in one or the other. I would probably identify more with the experimental world than with the straight-ahead documentary. But I like the part about documentaries that allows you to work with all these different kinds of people and ask questions and be nosy and work with these complicated ideas around how society works.

Filmmaker’s Daniel Eagan sits down with Ernie Gehr for a conversation about his Lower East Side Trilogy, now streaming at the Museum of Modern Art’s Virtual Cinema.

How do I work? First of all, I’m always conscious of the device I am using, its characteristics and limitations.  I try to respond to my environment, to the things that are in front of me at the time I am recording images. Ignore everything else, anything conceptual, any ideas about what it is I want to do, and just respond. Have an immediate gut response to what’s happening in front of me, or what I feel might be happening. 

In none of the three pieces did I know what was going to happen. I never directed anyone to do anything.

From the Archive, May 2017, “For Laura Poitras, ‘Risk' Is No Game”

"Risk is a complicated film and what I wanted to communicate to the audience is that I experienced those complications too," Poitras concludes. "So as you're watching it and you're having conflicting thoughts, emotions and feelings, I wanted to echo those feelings as to be a guide to the film. I wanted to key the viewer into the fact that everything happening was also unfolding before my eyes, which both underlined the risks and the stakes that were happening."


In the News

IDA Documentary Awards: 'Crip Camp' Nabs Best Feature


Time, A Thousand Cuts Take Top Prizes at Gotham Awards


National Society of Film Critics Names Winners


25 Guidelines for Journalists to Safely Cover Unrest


Sundance Film Festival Announces Additional Films, Talks and Events


SXSW Online Unveils Lineup


DocLisboa Postpones Festival as Portugal Prepares for Lockdown


Field of Vision’s If/Then Shorts Launches Partnership with Hulu


Public Radio Stations Drop The Daily Podcast


Netflix Partners with Dr. Ibram X. Kendi for Three Projects


Thessaloniki Documentary Festival Founder Dimitri Eipides Dies at 82