Disrupting Power Structures, Building Audiences & More – Notes from IFP Indie Film Week Day 2

HBO Documentary Films were sponsors of the second day at the 2013 IFP Independent Film Week, being held at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, with a full program described as “The Truth About Non-Fiction“.  This day, specifically geared toward the modern state of independent documentary production, featured a variety of panels, speakers, workshops and networking opportunities.  The IndieWood/Hollywoodn’t schedule began with a true highlight event in ‘When Documentaries Disturb the Power Structure‘; a dynamic panel featured a handful of today’s most socially conscious (and progressive) non-fiction filmmakers including Eugene Jarecki (The House I Live In), Carl Deal & Tia Lessin (Citizen Koch), Rachel Grady (Detropia), along with the words and wisdom of Claire Aguilar (Executive Content Advisor, ITVS) and Mette Hoffmann Meyer (Head of Documentaries & Co Productions, DR TV), who were moderated by Full Frame Documentary Film Festival Executive Director Deirdre Hall (doing an admirable job of facilitating healthy discussion in the constant midst of highly spirited debate, bordering on contentious at times).  Framing the argument, essentially dealing with the prevalence of privately funding interests infiltrating the spectrum of independent documentary filmmaking necessities, Jane Mayer’s 2010 New Yorker article ‘A Word from Our Sponsor‘ kicked things off. Centered on 2010’s ‘Park Avenue: Money, Power & The American Dream‘, prominently featuring the elitist suppression tactics of Billionaire super-villain David Koch (amongst other inhabitants of 740 Park Ave, NY, NY) and the income inequality they are directly responsible for, the article translated well into the current ‘Citizen Koch‘ dilemma.  Originating as a conflict of interest (whether admitted or not remains to be determined) between PBS and the (on-panel) filmmakers, Koch’s participatory hand in the funding of public broadcasting factored greatly into the discussion of the films (coincidental?) lack of public broadcasting support.  Over the course of the hour, this panel of undeniable pioneers in the field dealt with enormous issues directly impacting the personal lives of documentary filmmakers in there ability to maintain true states of independence.  Issues surrounding filmmakers rights and private investment in documentary, as well as social issues (coming from heavy comparison between the US and Hoffmann Meyer’s native Denmark, where documentaries airing on public television receive a near 60% of the population audience) were all discussed with frequent ideological conflicts interjected, especially between Jarecki and Lessin.  As a topper, the panels first audience question came in the guise of a PBS rebuttal toward the ‘Citizen Koch’ claim, essentially accusing the filmmakers had never even submitted the film for considerations.  In my view it was Jarecki’s uncomfort with the discussions framework (filmmaker-centric) which truly set things off.  Having spoken with Jarecki before, I am quite aware how impassioned he is although, in this case, I found his criticism to be overly Macro, especially given the time and place of the event.  As a forum of socially forward thinking filmmaking, framing the question in terms of a filmmakers right to be personally subjective did not seem out of line.  By the same token, it is a certain social condition which produces socially conscious narrative in the first place.  This seems to be a chicken or the egg type of argument, in the sense that both these approaches can easily be justified as a starting point.

As emotions were heightened following the disruption panel, the days program the ventured into its “Blitz Wisdom” series of presentations.  In today’s slate, audiences were given brief glimpses into the world of audience based distribution, as well as the experiential congruence of quality still photography.  First was Peter Broderick‘s presentation of an audience-first approach to distribution.  This heavy focus on audience recognition was specific towards the notion of maximum impact for present and future.  Identifying and defining the spectrum of separation amongst the prominent audience  structures, in relation to the independent documentary filmmaker, Broderick presented his case with a crude but cute power point presentation featuring an adventurous cartoon venturing through the shark infested waters of content creation with the hope of reaping satisfactory financial compensation for her efforts.  The studio paradigm, boasting the highest amount of separation degrees between audience and filmmaker (4) eventually yields to the grassroots approach of direct audience participation (1 degree) with prominent examples coming from ‘Indie Game: The Movie’ and ‘Burn‘.

The next 15 minute block focused on the aesthetic development of Brooklyn bread street photographer Jamel Shabbazz, who’s multi influenced upbringing, during the original age of unsubstantiated military aggression, lead to his widely being considered the foremost single frame documentarian of the modern US urban condition.  Capturing heartache, joy, pain, loss, destruction and hidden beauty one frame at a time, the inclusion of (a kind and humbled) Shabbaz was of great interest to me with a presentation painting a nice picture of life as artist AND individual.  Having drawn from a diverse array of influences (Navy, LIFE Magazine, Kung Fu, Run DMC and Playboy Magazine amongst them), a refreshingly multi faceted portrait of an impassioned world citizen emerged, inevitably manifesting itself into the inherent need to document life’s condition in as honest and unflinching a way possible.  Having not been familiar with the work of Jamel Shabbaz prior, after listening to his inspiring stories, experiences and system of beliefs, he will surely be a staple in my spectrum of visual references for some time.

The days Upright Citizens Brigade workshop was entitled “Creativity Games: Life as a Doc“, featuring Todd Beiber and his crew interviewing voluntary audience members and creating improvised documents of life.  After a lengthy (and serious) interrogation, the consensus revolved around one woman’s story on a neighbor’s involvement in Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution.  The highlight sketch came as the trio acted out a simple neighborly request for sugar, eventually resulting in a multi century involvement in some of histories most prolific battles.  As it was yesterday, the admittedly light fare came as a mostly welcomed intermission to a program filled with dynamic personalities and emotional possibilities.

The days programming wrapped with a Keynote address from British documentary filmmaker and Director of the Film Center at Harvard’s Lucien Castaing-Taylor, whose consumer camera long take observations on New Bedford Whaling, ‘Leviathan‘ has been widely recognized as groundbreaking in its pure objectivity hybridized with effectively budgeted stylizations.  Castaing-Taylor kicked off his presentation with an 11 minute uninterrupted clip depicting the multiple lamb births in an Anytown USA farm.  The short was difficult to watch at times.  Not for its in your face depictions of birth but rather in its tightly framed abstruseness (a common result of the uninterrupted take).  At its conclusion, Castaing-Taylor mentioned how he was not enamored with the clip and with each subsequent viewing the reaction grows.  His mentions of inexplicable zooms and self actualized (though, off screen) subjective narration combined to make something inorganic, though not explicitly feeling so on-site.  In fact, Castaing-Taylor described ‘Leviathan‘ as not having found its true form until well into the editing process.  Repeatedly referring to the ultimate merging of cinema, art and anthropology as an entirely objective take on the medium (where such frivolous emotional manipulation as score and narration do not factor), the film is undeniably artistic in its simplicity, although somewhat monotonous (for what that description is even worth).  As a director, I believe Castaing-Taylor does not enjoy being referred to as “minimal” in approach but the stripped down, raw realism of ‘Leviathan’ indeed supplements even the faintest possibility of emotional sensationalism with objectivity at its most honest.

– Steve Rickinson


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