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Essential Doc Reads: Week of March 22, 2021

By Tom White

A rally for justice for Vincent Chin. His mother is speaking behind a podium. From Renee Tajima-Pena and Chritine Choy's 'Who Killed Vincent Chin?' Courtesy of Renee Tajima-Pena.

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!

The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner interviews filmmaker/educator/activist Renée Tajima-Peña about the recent surge—and long history—of anti-Asian Pacific Islander hate.

I made the film “Who Killed Vincent Chin” in the eighties. It was the recession. U.S. car manufacturers were still producing gas guzzlers. The Japanese were selling fuel-efficient cars, and this sent Detroit into a tailspin. There was just this anger directed at Japanese car imports and, by extension, Japanese people and, because “we all look alike,” anybody who looked Japanese. There were new immigrants from Southeast Asia coming in, and there was a lot of hate and violence directed toward them. One of the first mass school shootings was actually in Stockton, California, when Patrick Purdy, who had white-supremacist views, went to Cleveland Elementary School and gunned down five Southeast Asian children on the playground and injured many more. The nineteen-eighties was a really bad decade.

Writing for World Records Journal, Pooja Rangan and Brett Story take on the true crime genre.

True crime and the social justice documentary have long shared a penchant for narratives plotted through mysteries, miseries, and misdemeanors. But critique of the criminal justice system is relatively new terrain for true crime. Some may hail this as progress, a sign that the entertainment industry is awake, finally, to the racist and classist codes through which true crime narratives have historically spoken. But the more skeptical view suggests a great cultural rebranding, a twenty-first-century revitalization of a genre form and its profit margins. In what is ultimately a reformist project that upholds the system as a whole, documentary serves as the tutor, innocence stories as the vocabulary, and bipartisan criminal justice reform at the level of elite governance as the model—and the bloody glove.

Writing for Talkhouse, filmmaker Enid Zentelis discusses the making of her nonfiction podcast series How My Grandmother Won WWII, and how we tell historical stories.

When I set about investigating my grandmother’s hidden past, I wasn’t sure how I would be able to shape it into a story. It was important to me to relay the facts as I once understood them, as well as the new facts as they were evolving and being uncovered. But it was more important to me to communicate the psychic toll my family’s past experiences had taken. I wondered how I could serve my grandmother’s story, and simultaneously communicate the effects of generational trauma; the way some family members succumb to it, and the way others turned it into a source of strength and determination. I also have a lot of strong opinions about how filmed stories convey the past, and I didn’t want to fall into the trap of regurgitating the past without transforming it in some meaningful way.

The Wrap’s Steve Pond talks to filmmaker Anders Hammer about the making of—and China’s attempt to censor—his Academy Award-nominated short Do Not Split.

“I wanted to go as deep psychologically as possible,” Hammer said. “My aim was to get as close to the protesters’ experience. And to see what repeated trauma does to these very young people, most just in their 20s. They are risking their futures. I’m older and I’m a foreigner, so even when I’m moving along with my camera in the street, I don’t have any of the mental and physical pressure on me like these protesters do.”

IndieWire’s Eric Cohn reports on the VR offerings at SXSW.

The SXSW virtual environment provided a nifty backdrop, but it would have been an empty technological exercise without the curated program assembled by SXSW’s XR programmer Blake Kammerdiener. The result was an impressive set of venues based on Austin landmarks where festival accreditation allowed you to connect and experience much of the SXSW program in digital form. It wasn’t perfect, but it gave audiences ample opportunity to peruse a substantial lineup of XR works and hang out with others from around the world, including many who might never have made the trip to SXSW in the first place.

Writing for Immerse, Matt MacVey reached out to a selection of creators, curators and researchers to recommend immersive projects from 2020. He presents the results here.

This list highlights the creative projects that producers published last year despite the limitations of the pandemic. That includes augmented reality projects designed for people to use on their smartphones and works that were shared at film festivals that quickly pivoted to an online format. We hope you’re inspired by the range of aesthetics, technologies, and subject matter in these works.

KCRW’s Kim Masters interviews Netflix Co-CEO Ted Sarandos about his company’s diversity initiatives and the future of theaters.

You've got to follow the audience. And if the audience isn't showing up [to theaters], and they're showing up watching at home, you have to adapt. Seeing a movie in a theater might just become rarer. It's a very hard thing to figure out what post-pandemic behaviors will be and how they shift. There's a big financial infrastructure required to support screens that has to ultimately be supported by the fans and the viewers.”


From the Archive, Summer 2016 Issue: “#DocsSoWhite: A Personal Reflection”

Then and now, there is sharp disagreement over the notion of racial or ethnic criteria for who gets to make documentaries about people of color. During the 1980s, I was involved in numerous pitched battles against outsiders filming in Asian-American communities. I know it was hard to swallow for progressive white filmmakers who were conscious of representing race on screen. But just as developing nations restrict the influx of Western movies in order to build their own national cinemas, we were concerned not only with documenting culture, but with building it.


In the News

NAACP Image Award Winners Revealed


Writers Guild Announces Awards Winners


PGA Awards Winners


Hot Docs Reveals 2021 Lineup


SFFILM Festival Announces Lineup


Announcing the 2021 CAAM Fellows


Film Independent Announces Fellows and Projects for 2021 Documentary Lab


Keri Putnam Stepping Down as Sundance Institute CEO


Filmmaker’s Suit Says A&E Networks Suppressed Watergate Series


Filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier Dies at 79