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Essential Doc Reads: Week of March 8, 2021

By Tom White

From Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh's 'Writing with Fire.' Courtesy of Sundance Institute. At right, A reporter from an India-based digital platform is kneeling while interviewing an Indian woman who is seated at left, in her living space with her family. The reporter is filming with a smartphone in her right hand , nd is wearing an emerald green sari

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!

Writing for No Film School, Mythily Ramachandran talks to filmmakers Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh about their Sundance Film Festival award-winning documentary Writing with Fire, which tells the story of a group of Dalit women in the Uttar Pradesh state of India who start up a newspaper, then a digital platform that calls the power structure into account. 

“As a cinematographer,” said Ghosh, “I’ve enjoyed working the most on films about ordinary people with extraordinary resilience. For this film, the guiding principle of cinematography has been of mindfulness. Dalit women have always been portrayed as victims of oppression. We decided to show them as confident women whose personalities, personal histories, and dreams are explored in the film.

"How do we visually set up ideas of caste, patriarchy, sexism, and violence without having our characters speak to the camera about them? How do you build an atmosphere of risk, without showing a single image of violence? The cultural landscape of Uttar Pradesh was as important for us as the physical geography in which this story is placed," he said.

With OVID.TV currently streaming the works of the master Indian documentarian Anand Patwardhan, Screen Slate’s Inney Prakash discusses Patwardhan’s work in the context of the rise of Hindu nationalism in India.

Occupying an aesthetic nook between direct cinema, man-on-the-street, and essay filmmaking, Patwardhan’s style is refreshingly free of any pretenses of observational impartiality or rigid mechanical consistency, deploying voice-over and other basic techniques as needed, with polemical tact. His stamp as auteur comes more from his dialectical rigor, both in parsing his subjects’ assertions for strains of logic and in deriving structural momentum from the friction between ideologically opposed forces. 

IndieWire’s Tyler Hersko reports on Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi’s recent statement in support of compatriot/imprisoned human rights activist Nasrin Sotoudeh, subject of Jeff Kaufman’s recent documentary Nasrin.

‘In my opinion, if we want to move beyond these times and view the world in an open way and teach our children that the world is not limited to what they are taught, we need a symbol. We need a role model to help us transition to a better place.’ And that can be Nasrin. Given her charisma and respect for the opinions of others, I think the best person we could choose to guide us through this time and reach the future is Nasrin.”

The pandemic year brought us virtual cinema to help offset the loss of theatrical releases and provide a modest revenue stream for arthouses. IndieWire’s Tom Brueggeman examines the financial performance of the virtual cinema model.

According to multiple sources, the early months of virtual cinema—when releases still had some theatrical exposure—saw the strongest results. Virtual cinema can’t be a perfect analog to theatrical performance; presumably, it cannibalizes what would have been post-theatrical performance so that initial income is never entirely replaced. Still, even the smaller returns can be meaningful in the aggregate.

Christopher Ali, Hilde Van den Bulck and Bo Lee conducted an audience survey of PBS viewers, with support from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. They report on their findings in the Columbia Journalism Review.

Our research gives weight to Goodman’s argument that public broadcasting must be improved and untethered from the medium of broadcasting to meet the needs and demands of a digital audience. An audience whose needs are met may be more inclined to trust the media they are consuming. For PBS to experiment digitally and keep the lights on, it requires greater funding and a rethink of public policies towards public broadcasting. If the funds were available for digital experimentation at the local level of broadcasting and within the PBS programming community broadly, PBS may be able to play a larger role in restoring trust in the media.

The documentary world bade farewell to Leon Gast last week. The Academy Award-winning director of When We Were Kings died at 84 of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. In an obituary in The New York Times, Clay Risen writes about Gast’s colorful career--which, beyond his 22-year journey from capturing the Muhammed Ali-George Foreman fight in Zaire in 1974 to premiering the film at Sundance, included a sketchy gig making a documentary about the Hells Angels, and more pleasant experiences making docs about Latin music and the Grateful Dead.

Despite his nearly 60 years in film, Mr. Gast’s career, and most likely his legacy, remains bound to the loquacious boxer he followed around Zaire in 1974—a fact that he did not seem to regret. “When I started on it, my kids were in grade school,” he told Newsday in 1997. “I’m a grandfather now. I’m 60, and I’ve spent more than a third of my life working on this. I can’t even remember when I wasn’t thinking about it, when I wasn’t thinking about Ali.”

From the Archive, Fall 2014 issue: "Ali-Foreman, 40 Years Later: Morgan Neville on When We Were Kings"

When We Were Kings also has all the right ingredients for a perfect soufflé: a deeply charismatic star, an important and nail-biting story and fantastic archival footage. These elements feed the edit, and editing is the most important of documentary skills. Here, the cuts are masterful—moving, rhythmic and cinematic. (Sometimes I love nothing more than a great cut, and this film is full of them.) Only a few historical documentaries come to mind that have such strong building blocks: The Times of Harvey Milk, Hearts of Darkness and Man on Wire. As a filmmaker primarily working with historical stories, I'm always looking for those same pieces from which to build.

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