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Essential Doc Reads: Week of January 3, 2021

By Tom White

Michael Apted, speaking at an IDA Screening Series showing of his final film, '63-UP.' Photo: Laura Ahmed

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!

Editor's Note: Just as this past week of wrenching tumult came to a close, the documentary world lost a titan on Friday—Michael Apted. One of a handful of filmmakers who regularly crossed back and forth between documentary and feature films, Apted, who earned the 1999 IDA Career Achievement Award, was best known for The UP Series. Back in 1964, with Apted on board as a researcher, the filmmaking team at the UK’s Granada Television assembled a cross-section of young Brits from different segments of the class system. The film, Seven Up, marked the beginning of a decades-long journey, taken up by Apted at seven-year intervals, into the lives of these individuals. Some dropped out of the program—and then some dropped back in; some married; some divorced and remarried; some lost their partners to cancer; some had children and grandchildren; some lost their jobs, and then their homes; some thrived. And one of the first participants passed away before what is assumed to be the final UP installment, 63-UP, which was released in 2019. This was a series about life, quite simply. About the trajectories, the fissures, the detours, the ruts, the little triumphs. The series resonated with audiences first in the UK, then in 1984, with 28-UP, in the US. As we engaged with the protagonists every seven years, we saw something about ourselves—our own values, our own evolutions, our own regrets and our own joys. 

We at Documentary will explore something more about Apted’s work over the next week or so, but in the meantime, The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw shares an obituary.

Seven Up! was directed by Paul Almond, with Apted working as a researcher; Apted went to direct all the subsequent series and came to define this utterly gripping and moving thought experiment in class, history and identity; high-mindedly conceived before reality TV, and also, perhaps, before the media and public might not so easily accept such a grand liberal-paternalistic perspective. It had an incalculable effect on British social realist cinema from the early 1960s to the present day – as well as the thinking of the British progressive left – as it asked us to ruminate on the inescapability or otherwise of class, and what narratives were possible for working people.

Jed Dannenbaum, a filmmaker, author and professor at USC School of Cinematic Arts, passed away over the holiday break, of complications from COVID-19. I share reflections from the Facebook page of one of his colleagues at USC, Lisa Leeman.

"In sorrow, I want to let friends & colleagues know that Jed Dannenbaum passed away this morning, from complications of COVID. He was a beloved USC Professor, filmmaker, author, friend, mentor, and all-around mensch. It seems awful to post a LinkedIn profile here, but that’s the fastest way to learn about him and his varied work & how he impacted so many. May his memory always be a blessing. He leaves his wife, Doe Mayer."

“Jed Dannenbaum, Ph.D., is a story consultant and nonfiction filmmaker who also holds the position of Professor Emeritus of the Practice of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California and co-authored the Simon & Schuster book Creative Filmmaking From the Inside Out. Jed has dozens of nonfiction writing, producing and directing credits for HBO, Showtime and PBS, as well as projects for the National Science Foundation and in the fields of medical and legal education. He has served as a story consultant for the Getty Conservation Institute and on numerous feature films, both fiction and nonfiction, with a credit in the main block on the features Get in the Way: The Journey of John Lewis; and Out of the Fire.

Jed has given academic presentations on “Story,” “Non-fiction Storytelling,” “Vote for My Story,” “The Point of the Story,” and “Paleolithic Storytelling in the 21st Century.” Among the USC film students he has worked closely with are Ryan Coogler (writer-director, Creed), Chris Terrio (Academy Award-winning screenwriter, Argo), Meera Menon (director, Equity) and Ransom Riggs (author of the best-selling novel Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, the source for the movie directed by Tim Burton).”

Following the horror of the Trump-inspired storming of the US Capitol on January 6, IndieWire’s Eric Kohn reached out to filmmaker Errol Morris, whose film about former Trump advisor Steven Bannon, American Dharma, seemed prescient to where we are as a nation.

"One of the saddest things about humans is that we’re a credulous lot,” Morris said. “All you have to do is look at the last week to understand what a credulous lot we really are. Rationality? Poof, gone. The ability to convince yourself of anything? For whatever reason? Easy! It was all there, with or without Bannon.”

Film Inquiry’s Musanna Ahmed interviews filmmaker Daniel Lombroso about his new documentary White Noise, which features a trio of white supremacists.

They didn’t fully grasp the ambition of the film and that the idea was to take them as public figures and to understand them in the private sphere. By capturing them in their mundane – I would even say chillingly mundane – behaviour, you can understand their internal conflicts, how broken and lost they were. I was always straightforward with how I wanted to position the project but when they watched the film, none of them were especially happy with it because they believe themselves to be heroes of their own narratives and the film, being a vérité portrait, is very hands-off and shows to some extent the truth of who they are and what happened. Looking at themselves through this mirror was perhaps more difficult than they imagined it would be.

Screen Daily’s Jeremy Kay speaks with Sundance Film Festival Director Tabitha Jackson in the weeks before the festival’s hybrid opening.

What is the one thing that changed during 2020 that you would like to see continue in 2021?

Two things. One relates to being much more intentional about when to travel and when not to travel. And then the second thing is this awakening and accountability on the part of individuals, institutions and structures around everything, from race and gender to any other kind of historical inequality.

Prior to the holiday break, the CBC published an article that challenged Canadian filmmaker Michelle Latimer’s Indigenous heritage. POV magazine, which had featured Latimer’s Inconvenient Indian on the cover of its Fall/Winter issue (which came out prior to the CBC article), published a statement about the timing of this story. 

POV is very disappointed by this situation, particularly because we appreciate the role of trust in documentary filmmaking, and we are using it as a learning experience. We sincerely apologize to our readers and to the filmmakers we strive to represent, particularly the Indigenous artists and audience. We are committed to sharing Indigenous perspectives, including more aggressive outreach for participants among our writers, editorial board, and governance. We welcome submissions from Indigenous perspectives, as well as any suggestions for candidates who might be suitable for a role within our organization.

As the venerated publication Film Comment remains on hiatus, Reverse Shot’s Imogen Sara Smith offers an appreciation.

Journals such as Film Comment are best understood as stewards of film culture, along with archives, museums, repertory theaters, and distribution companies, as well as individual critics, programmers, and—not least—the people who watch movies and read about them. Good criticism is vital to a thriving ecosystem, and it is past time to stop imagining that it can function on a profit-based model of subscriptions and advertising, and to accept that arts writing, like the making and preserving of art, needs to be subsidized—by supporters, grantmakers, and institutions—as a public good.

The Wrap’s Steve Pond surveys the growing trend of international documentaries entering the Oscars race in both the Best International Feature Film and the Best Documentary Feature categories.

“Movies and documentary features were born in the same moment in the history of cinema,” Gianfranco Rosi said. “So to be competing with films that are fiction doesn’t make much difference to me, because the language I want to use in documentary is the language of cinema.”

2020 was a good year for docs from Sub-Saharan Africa. MUBI Notebook’s Wilfred Okiche discusses some of the highlights.

At their very core, documentaries are about preserving life as it were. They provide a window into worlds far removed and try to find ways of connecting some sense of a shared humanity. The African documentaries that stood out this year embraced these ideals in ways that even the best of fiction did not come close to doing. These filmmakers—first-timers and veterans alike—bravely took on projects that moved fluidly between genres and challenged established formats.

In a year that had the world sorely aching for human connection, the pipeline of African documentaries that emerged responded to not one, but several crises speaking to the disruptions in real time, creating alternate futures and reflecting genuinely, the tragedies and the triumphs.

From the Archive, December 2012, “Growing Up in Public: 'The UP Series' Continues

So after 50 years, does Apted think he just got lucky with those original 14 children plucked off the schoolyards of England? "Well, I do wonder that," he admits. But he feels that the success of the series and the enduring appeal of each of the subjects "leads me to believe that everybody has a story...I think it's a testimony to people, that people do have stories. And if you can persuade them to talk about these stories, then people are worth listening to. It isn't necessarily just the celebrities of life who have interesting things to say. It's sometimes people who lead quiet lives in terms of publicity who have a lot of interesting things to say."

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