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Essential Doc Reads: Week of March 15, 2021

By Tom White

From Alexander Nanau's 'Collective.' Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. The image shows a close-up profile of a government official, sitting at a desk with his colleagues, examining documents. He has dark hair and glasses and is wearing a white shirt and a dark tie.

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!

Following last week’s Oscar nominations, The Wrap’s Steve Pond, spoke to Collective director Alexander Nanau about his ambivalence over his film earning the first-ever nominations for his native Romania.

“I don’t really have these patriotic feelings,” he told TheWrap on Monday. “We live in an international community, and I think stories have to travel. The pride is more that this story is so crucial for Romanian society, and it was a turning point that changes the perception of investigative journalism and the courage of singular whistleblowers who can really change society.”

Realscreen’s Jillian Morgan talks to World of Wonder’s Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato about their new division, WOW Docs, and their new film, Wojnarowicz.

That’s where WOW Docs and World of Wonder has a role to play because, traditionally, documentaries have often been the stories that people have not dared to tell or the stories that have been ignored or marginalized. It’s great that there are so many outlets and so much attention being paid to documentary filmmaking, but like I said, even though that’s all happening and there seems to be so much money there, there still seem to be so many filmmakers unable to tell their stories or make their films. We don’t have deep pockets. Actually, we don’t even have pockets—but we do have passion.

Amanda Hess of The New York Times analyses the video of seven-year-old Dylan Farrow that highlights Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering's HBO series Allen v. Farrow.

This intensity of documentation is, for better or worse, basically normal, and it doesn’t interfere with any reasonable person’s view of me as a good mother or of my son as a real person. The presence of a camera does not invalidate our experience. Quite the contrary: The visual vernacular we all speak now means that certain claims must be seen to be believed. And as we have grown more culturally literate around issues of abuse, we have a new understanding of the desperation that women (let alone children) feel to be taken seriously. The reception of Dylan’s accusation has always rested not in the trust we’re willing to put in a little girl but in our level of skepticism of her mother. The tape is still difficult to watch and nearly impossible to interpret. But we can begin to understand why, when confronted with a daughter’s most private pain, a mother might reach for the camera.

Dick and Ziering's previous film, On the Record, which addresses allegations of sexual misconduct in the music industry, also attracted controversy—namely, Oprah Winfrey backed out as executive producer just before the 2020 Sundance Film Festival premiere. In a recent development, Alexia Norton Jones, interviewed in the documentary, expresses her regret over participating in On the Record to Variety’s Executive Editor, Ramin Setoodeh.

The story of what happened during the making and release of On the Record is a cautionary tale. In the #MeToo era, Hollywood has been investing in documentaries about sexual abuse survivors. But the demands of making a movie, which requires stories to be told in taut narratives, might not always align with the needs of survivors, who are often still processing their trauma. As Jones discovered, when a rape survivor talks to a documentary filmmaker, she can lose ownership of her own narrative.

The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw discusses Nick Broomfield’s latest documentary, My Father and Me, about the filmmaker’s sometimes contentious relationship with his celebrated photographer father, Maurice Broomfield.

Nick Broomfield’s film is about a generational conflict and generational drama. Maurice could be baffled and alienated by the confrontational and apparently anarchic style of Nick’s documentary film-making – and Nick suspected that his father’s pictures were naive and sentimental. Both men evolved away from these views. And yet there could be doubt that each regarded the other as an artist, though when I asked Nick if his dad thought of himself as one, he says that he only really used that term when he took up painting in retirement. “He was an artist,” says Nick. “He had a great flair for creating drama and theatre, and he had this incredible enthusiasm.”

Hyperallergic’s Adam Katzman examines Ghanian revolutionary Kwame Nkrumah’s legacy through several decades worth of documentaries.

Nkrumah sought to transform colonial-era cinema, which operated as a measure of control, into a medium both educational and entertaining that could help build national self-determination. The story of Ghana’s early years of independence mainly exists as a fragmentary, contradictory mosaic scattered over decades of celluloid memoria. 

Writing for Dear Producer, distributor Karin Chien reports on a roundtable discussion she and producer Rebecca Green hosted to discuss the recently published Producers Sustainability Survey Report.

I’d like to offer a reflection on what the Producer Sustainability Survey data means to me. Reading this report made me feel seen in an extraordinary way. I am deeply grateful to Rebecca Green for taking on this work herself (without the benefit of salary, staff or infrastructure). This data validates what producers have known but could only back up through anecdotal evidence. It was alarming when the report did not elicit a public response from artist support organizations. This prompted Rebecca and I to collaborate on hosting a roundtable. 

Perhaps this data, which we’ve understood for so long, was overwhelming to others and they needed a way into understanding it. This is what I hope we achieved. Engaging with the report has transformed my own thinking around what’s needed for producer sustainability and pointed a path forward for me to explore. As one participant insightfully offered, once you have data, you can organize around solutions. 

Sight & Sound’s Ruairí McCann talks about the documentary art of the late Italian filmmaker Cecilia Mangini.

Mangini had the precise mind of a statistician but also a poetically expressive kino-eye. Though her work has its undeniable didactic and anthropological elements, both sharply informed by a Marxist point of view, she does not fit in with those in militant cinema who see form as mere function, nor with many near-contemporaries in ‘direct cinema’ for whom reality was a holistic, apolitical and containable entity. Rather, these films summon the ghosts of Robert Flaherty and Dziga Vertov in their reconstructing of reality and radical form.

Writing for Film Quarterly, Christian Rossipal examines how recent documentaries have captured the experiences of refugees and migrants.

Even in the most well-intended documentaries, migrants and refugees are often made to embody the crisis itself, whether as victims to be humanized or as a problem to be solved. In a visual field saturated with crisis imagery, this dynamic creates an almost impossible obstacle for filmmakers like Alzakout. They are forced to radically deconstruct or reconfigure representation in the process of documentary filmmaking


From the Archive, July 2019: "Marianne and Leonard: A Half-Century of Love"

Marianne and Leonard is an interior film. Most of the other films I’ve made tackle exterior subjects: Kurt and Courtney is about freedom of the press, and Biggie and Tupac is about the LAPD. This film is a love story and it makes people think about their own loves and their own lives and their histories. And because I was involved with Marianne at certain points in my life, it was very personal for me too. It is very difficult to tell a story [to which you are intimately connected] and also the filmmaker. 

In the News


Oscar Nominations Announced


Field of Vision, Anders Hammer Respond to China’s Intentions to Censor Oscars Ceremony over Do Not Split


Elegance Bratton Wins Film Independent’s Truer Than Fiction Award


Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice Takes Grammy for Best Music Film


SXSW Unveils Jury and Special Awards


Top Jury Awards Announced at Miami Film Festival


Hot Docs Forum Projects Announced


CPH:DOX Announces Competition Lineup


European Producers Club Issues ‘Code of Fair Practices’ to Change Rules of Engagement With Hollywood Streamers