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Essential Doc Reads: Week of October 31, 2022

By Kelsey Brown

Heavily armed troops, wearing body armor, face shields and helmets, march through the streets of Moscow at night. From Gesbeen Mohammed’s ‘Putin’s War at Home,’ a ‘Frontline’ production currently streaming on Courtesy of ‘Frontline’.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!

PBS’s Julia Ingram and Putin’s War at Home director and producer Gesbeen Mohammad and producer Vasiliy Kolotilov discuss how the Frontline documentary highlights the opposition to war in Ukraine within Russia. This was challenging, as in Russia, opposition to the war can result in 10 to 15 years of imprisonment. Because of this, Mohammad and Kolotilov felt it was imperative to document this struggle. 

This captures that unique moment in history where dissent is almost, not entirely, but almost entirely crushed. Russia is one of the largest economies in the world. And we now have essentially two very large economies, China and Russia, which have this model of governance. And I think that this film captures a worrying trend in the world where some countries with huge economic power are taking on this model of governance, of authoritarianism.

Variety’s Will Tizard writes about Jöele Walinga’s experimental doc Self Portrait, which sews security footage together to create a subtle reflection of human life. Walinga learned how to access security footage dispersed around the world online and was both inspired to explore what these cameras say about us, and surprised at the creativity that candid security footage cultivated.

I’m interested in infrastructure, the things we’ve built on this earth, the way we’ve shaped it to our preferences and needs, and the things we’ve decided to look at. I’m especially excited at the possibility that this capitalist technology could accidentally yield a beautiful frame, a perfect moment of light passing or a flare in the lens and manipulating it into art has been deeply satisfying to me.

 I was consistently blown away by an amazing shot and perfect light, by ways in which I would have never thought to position the camera…With so many static shots with little movement and few people, I imagined what could be taking place nearby, just outside of these frames. And so the film contains many peripheral happenings, the moments I imagine occupying these expanded fictions beyond the frame.

Variety‘s Addie Morfoot talks to filmmakers Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman about their film God Forbid: The Sex Scandal That Brought Down a Dynasty and the challenges of creating an evangelical sex scandal documentary that is substantial, not just reliant on shock value. 

At first, we were fascinated by the hypocrisy of the story. We were also amused by the “only in Miami” elements of the story. But we also knew that we were dealing with a story about evangelicals Jerry Falwell Jr. and, of course, his father before him, who had an outsize influence in presidential elections. Then Jan. 6 happened, and we thought that Giancarlo providing eyes into that subculture became that much more important and profound. The stakes got much higher in what could have been this little “pool boy story.”

The film’s executive producer, Todd Schulman, calls our projects Trojan horse documentaries. Or docs that tempt the audience with candy and then slip in some broccoli, perhaps when audiences are not expecting it. So, I think people will tune in, and I don’t think they’ll be disappointed in terms of the details relating to the alleged affair, but they will get more than perhaps they had expected or bargained for.

Shannon Bond from NPR explains how conspiracy theorists use the elements and signifiers of documentary to help fuel conspiracies without providing real facts. Bond discusses how 2,000 Mules mobilized voter intimidation by using graphics to show the alleged mules traveling to voter drop boxes from left-wing nonprofits. 

But, it turns out, the maps don't actually correspond to the alleged data. In one case, a map supposedly showing Atlanta was actually a stock photo of Moscow. 

While mainstream documentaries like Knappenberger's aim to bring a true story to a wider audience, Common Cause's Steiner said 2,000 Mules serves a different purpose. It gives people who've already bought into the fiction of election fraud a satisfying story – and a way to participate.

The New Yorker’s Rachel Aviv explores accusations of idea theft levied by Azadeh Masihzadeh against her former teacher, Oscar-winning director Asghar Farhadi.

There is no clear threshold at which crediting someone, artistically or intellectually, is required. I adopt other people’s ideas, too, mining conversations with friends and colleagues for insights—sometimes even using their words. Even the themes of this article are derivative. I was influenced by Farhadi’s films, to the point that I had to resist the temptation to turn the article into a story of “good versus good,” a framework that is both revelatory and potentially dangerous, because it removes the moral valence of causing harm.

Justin Anderson from Realscreen discusses the challenges of creating docu-series that are “ripped from headlines.” When creating topical documentaries, filmmakers are tasked with creating breadth in a brief period of time. 

Topical documentaries are hardly new, but news-based doc projects focused on current events, often produced as they’re still unfolding, have become increasingly prominent.

Producing news-focused documentaries can pose unique challenges in a field that already has plenty of hurdles to clear. Between the push to be the first to a big story, to the pressure to keep up with the latest details, there are a lot of plates that require spinning.

From the Archive, August 2006, "Meet the DocuWeek Filmmakers: Amy Berg, ‘Deliver Us from Evil’"

The audience reaction so far has been very emotional, and almost universally one of outrage. The bishops and cardinals lie so calmly under oath about what they (didn't) know throughout the film that I wasn't sure that audiences would pick up on the hypocrisy so immediately and unwaveringly. With a complete dearth of passion and understanding shown by the Catholic officials who testify and appear throughout the film, it's extremely gratifying to have the audiences react with an abundance of passion and understanding.


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