Notes from the Reel World: The Board President's Column, February 1995
By Peter Stuart
It's nice to see that Hoop Dreams (one of the 1994 IDA Distinguished Documentary Achievement Award winners) has made almost every "best ten" list of movies this year. Not only that, but quite a few critics, like Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times, think it's the best picture of the year. According to Turan, "Hoop Dreams is as out and out entertaining as any film of the year, and it offers more substance than almost any that could be named....There is yet another reason to anoint Hoop Dreams, and that is to call attention to the critical mass of exceptional documentaries that visited Los Angeles this year." Thank you, Mr. Turan. I hope that this kind of praise will help its box office receipts, making things easier for the next documentary filmmaker .
The IDA has decided to try an experiment in Los Angeles. Some weeks ago, IDA board member Stephen Roche, who, among other things, coordinates our mixers, told us that several people at these affairs came to him with a special request. They wanted to know if the IDA would set up an evening during which they could screen sequences from films or videos on which they were working. They thought the reactions and feedback from an audience of their peers might be helpful. Since we aim to please, we turned once again to our good friends at Kodak, and they have agreed to provide the venue for the occasion. Please call (310) 598-3098 if you would like to screen a five- to ten -minute segment from a work in progress, either on film or tape. If we can round up a bunch of intrepid filmmakers with strong egos, we will hold a works-in-progress evening—and if we are overwhelmed with requests, we will schedule additional screenings.
I came across an article the other day that might be of interest to members who look forward to the possibility of eventually working their way into feature production. In another discipline, writers like John Updike, Norman Mailer, and Tom Wolfe constantly move between fiction and nonfiction—so why not documentary filmmakers? In this regard, I thought you might like to read a section of an interview with Michael Apted by Vincent DeVeau, reprinted from DGA News, the Directors Guild of America magazine. No one has straddled the worlds of both documentaries and fiction films as well as Apted. His career has zigzagged between features such as Coal Miner's Daughter, Agatha, Gorky Park, and Gorillas in the Mist and documentaries such as the 7-Up series, Incident at Oglala, and last year's Moving the Mountain, which also won an IDA Distinguished Documentary Achievement Award.
DEVEAU: You're one of rather few directors who have achieved success in both features and documentaries. It's an unusual combination.
APTED: I suppose it's fairly unusual, but it doesn't strike me as such. My roots are in documentary. My soul is there, and I think all the documentary work informs my movie work. I keep it going largely because I think they feed off each other. The documentary work keeps me on my toes for feature work—which is my main livelihood—and I feel that movie work improves my documentaries. I tend to do narrative documentaries, and I think the lessons I've learned from movies help me to be able to construct them. I've always felt it was a two-way street. Doing documentaries gets me out in the world, away from the slightly narrow life of Hollywood movies, and into the way that other people live. [And] on a more opportunist note, there's so much competition for work that I think it helps you to have a calling card, to have something distinctive about you. I think I've got a lot of my jobs because of my documentary experience. I think I got Gorillas in the Mist because of that—because they wanted to base the film around wildlife footage of mountain gorillas. I think I got Thunderheart because of my documentary experience—I was preparing Incident at Oglala, the film about Leonard Peltier. I think I got Nell because Jodie Foster wanted a director who could bring a kind of veracity to it.... I think half the job is to make the story believable. Whether they're right or wrong, producers seem to think that because I come from documentaries I can do that.
At the end of the interview Apted describes how he got some interviews with dissidents still living in China for his documentary Moving the Mountain: "I went to China illegally, smuggled film in, did these interviews, did a little bit of filming in Tiananmen Square, and then smuggled the film out ." Once a documentarian, always a documentarian.
Finally, I'd like to welcome two new members to the IDA Board of Directors. Documentarian Carmen Vega has worked in such disparate locations as WNET in New York, RAI-DUE in Italy, and KLRN in Texas; she has also served as chair of the Latino Film Collaborative. Steve Ogden is a vice president at Third Street Sound, a Los Angeles sound production facility that has deep roots in the documentary community. We look forward to their contributions to what will be, we hope, a very productive year for the IDA.