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04 May 2010

Life through a lens

THE DIRECTOR'S CUT: As C21 kicks off a season profiling some of the most important documentary filmmakers working today, Adam Benzine talks to four award-winning directors about the modern-day challenges facing factual storytellers.

While there is no doubt that production companies, distributors and television channels all have their place in the factual food chain, it is from a director's vision that most documentaries spawn. It is part of what makes the genre so appealing; the idea that a lone creative can pick up a camera and start telling a story, free from the broader commercial considerations that weigh down many other genres. All they need is tape and a subject.

With this in mind, C21 today launches a season of online features profiling 21 of the world's most important documentary directors. The Director's Cut will examine the changing landscape of the factual realm through the eyes of those looking through the lens, tackling issues such as funding, control, access, remuneration, security and success.

Above all, it will look at the numerous challenges being faced by those working in this complicated medium, and the methods being used by leading documentary filmmakers to tackle them.

"The documentary language has expanded so much over the years," says Rick Goldsmith, co-director of The Most Dangerous Man In America: Daniel Ellsberg And The Pentagon Papers (left). The film explores the events leading up to the 1971 publication of the infamous top-secret Pentagon Papers, which exposed the extent of America's involvement in Vietnam. It was nominated for an Oscar this year and won gongs at the Palm Springs International Film Festival and the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA). The film brought Goldsmith his second Oscar nomination, following his 1996 effort Tell The Truth And Run.

"Tell The Truth And Run was a lot more conventional in the way it was told, because most films 13 years ago were more conventional," says Goldsmith. "I don't think you can get away with that anymore, especially if you want to reach young people, who for me are the prime audience."

The expanding language Goldsmith describes has particularly come to the fore in recent years, with films such as James Marsh's heist thriller Man On Wire – a documentary many fellow directors are quick to praise – and Ari Folman's animated memoir Waltz With Bashir pushing the boundaries of what has traditionally been considered documentary.

Perhaps the best recent example is Louie Psihoyos's The Cove (left), a film about dolphin slaughter at a provincial Japanese town, which straddles the threshold between espionage thriller and wildlife doc. It picked up the Academy Award for best documentary feature earlier this year – a trophy that sits alongside more than 50 other awards, including gongs from IDFA, the Sundance Film Festival and the Director's Guild of America.

"The film has been considered a cross between The Bourne Identity and Flipper," says Psihoyos, "but in my head it's really a cross between watching too many James Bond movies and Jacques Cousteau specials as a child."

Psihoyos is perhaps the perfect example of the opportunities that documentary making can bring. A photographer by trade, he had never made a film before The Cove. Upon learning of the situation in the village of Taiji, however, he took a three-week "crash course" in shooting before heading off to Japan to make his documentary. And now he has an Oscar.

"I felt I could have been delusional making this movie a couple of years ago," he says. "A first-time filmmaker – who do I think I am to make this movie? Movies to me are the most powerful weapons in the world; they are weapons of mass construction. You drop a bomb, you kill people. You make a movie, you can create allies, and that's what this movie is doing – it's creating a legion of activists. And what price is that? It's priceless."

Far from being an expert in his field, Psihoyos admits he was "completely ignorant" of the situation in Taiji before starting the doc. "I'd never heard of either the captive dolphin industry or people killing dolphins in this day and age," he recalls. The same is true for Goldsmith, who knew only "the basics" of the Pentagon Papers story, and also for Anders Østergaard (left), the Danish director of Burma VJ, an Oscar-nominated feature documentary covering the 2007 uprisings in Burma, which has won Grierson, IDFA and Sundance awards, among others.

"I knew next to nothing about Burma really," says Østergaard, "just very superficial ideas about it. But somehow that's also what triggered me to get started. I was intrigued by the fact that I knew so little about such a relatively important country."

Like Goldsmith, Østergaard also notes the changing nature of documentaries. "I am generally impressed with how the genre is developing these days," he says. "There are a number of British directors who have really made a lot of difference in recent years. James Marsh and what he did with Man On Wire was fantastic. Since I'm on a jury I often see a lot of films. The one that won IDFA last year, Last Train Home by Lixin Fan, had all the qualities of a good documentary that you could possibly ask for."

Østergaard funded Burma VJ using a mixture of coproduction and pre-sale money from a variety of European broadcasters – an increasing trend for both big- and small-screen documentaries – including Sweden's SVT, Denmark's DR and Norway's NRK.

"It was as you do in Europe; you bring together as many broadcasters as possible," he explains. "We had seven or eight coming together for this – Channel 4 in the UK, WDR in Germany, all the Scandinavian territories – and that's how you finance the film. Because nobody's going to take a risk, you have to pre-sell it to a number of TV stations.

"There can be pressure from TV to fit everything into their standards, in terms of taste, length and format, and all that stuff. That's what you have to deal with if you want television money. But in my experience, by communicating and being keen to involve as big an audience as possible in your storytelling, you can go a long way with your own style."

While the coproduction and pre-sale routes represent perhaps the safest bets, they are not the only options on the table for aspiring auteurs. For Restrepo (left), an Afghanistan war documentary that scooped the Grand Jury Prize for best documentary at Sundance earlier this year, directors Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger opted to self-fund their project.

"Once we started talking to people about it being on TV we realised we'd have to give up editorial control if someone else was going to come onboard and fund it," explains Hetherington. "We understood we were dealing with material we needed to keep control of, otherwise it would be formatted into a television style that wouldn't be in keeping with the message and the ideas we wanted to portray.

"It was a tough year. I took all my savings and I poured them into the film, as did Sebastian. But we own the film, we own the copyright and it was great because we were able to shape the film according to our own ideas."

He adds that the real difficulty the pair faced was in traversing the cut-throat film industry once shooting was over. "In some ways the filming in Afghanistan was the easy bit, because that's a world that I know," says Hetherington (left). "I understand how to do that, whereas navigating the film business, and doing a crash-course in film financing, was really tricky."

For The Cove, Psihoyos had a somewhat easier journey, relying heavily on backing from billionaire entrepreneur Jim Clark. "He's my best friend, and we've been dive buddies for more than 10 years now," Psihoyos explains. "We were in the Galapagos watching illegal long-line fisherman in a marine sanctuary, and he said, 'Somebody should do something about this,' to which I said, 'Well, how about you and I?' So we hatched a plan to start a non-profit organisation. But I told him, 'You're not going to make a billion dollars off of this; documentaries don't make a lot of money.'"

Despite Clark's support, Psihoyos still had to dig into his own pockets to complete the documentary, and despite all the acclaim the film has received, he and his team are heavily in debt. "We had to use our own funds to finish the movie," Psihoyos says. "My son's college account is in this movie right now. Even with the Oscar buzz and all this notoriety, we're US$2.4m in debt, with almost no chance of us surviving because we've put too much money into it."

One area Psihoyos blames for the doc's red ink is online piracy – an area that proves complicated for a lot of documentary makers. While many get into filmmaking to spread their message as far and wide as possible, be it about green issues or human rights violations, there are often mixed feelings about giving content away for free. "I'm not a fan of piracy, of course, but I'm not preoccupied with it," says Goldsmith. "If there are people stealing your film and downloading it, you probably gain as much through the publicity and through the word of mouth. I don't think people are taking money out of my pocket."

Østergaard is also philosophical. "It's something that's unavoidable that you have to factor into your marketing strategies," he says. "You have to accept that it will be out there no matter what you do. The only thing to do really, which also serves the political purpose of a film like Burma VJ, is to get it as well known as possible. Include the pirate downloading and the YouTube clips and all that, and then try to extend that market and the little fragment that might buy the DVD and bring back money to the producers, so that we can survive."

Psihoyos, however, is less even-handed, arguing that if everybody who had stolen the movie had paid for it, he would be out of debt and perhaps have money left over to invest in a second film. "We just got the first royalty cheque for six months of theatrical distribution and all the DVD sales," he says. "The total that we made was US$80,000. We're going to go bankrupt. The bankers are calling, there's interest on this – US$80,000 won't even keep up on the interest."

Nevertheless, Psihoyos accepts that documentaries are not a business for the financially motivated, and is already planning a follow-up feature with a business model he hopes will sidestep the monetary landmines. "It's a common vice that filmmakers have. We're so passionate about these subjects that we'll do anything; we're sacrificing college accounts, putting a second mortgage on the house… We put too much time, energy and love into these films.

"But I don't have any regrets," he reflects. "I think this is the best thing I've ever done."

Adam Benzine
30 Apr 2010
© C21 Media 2010

Posted by Pascal, sent in by Ingrid Gavshon

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