Two of this year’s Sundance panels functioned as companion pieces, and together they formed a unique look at how contemporary documentaries get made. The first, called “How Documentary Changed Change” featured Robert Redford, BBC/Storyville commissioning editor Nick Fraser and president of HBO Documentary Films Sheila Nevins talking in theory about what was evidenced in practice across the second panel, “Celebrating Stories of Change.”
The first panel had hardly begun when Redford rejected its premise—what does “changing change” even mean? Moderator Soledad O’Brien had a hard time getting anyone on the stage to take her airbrushed questions seriously, and no one could agree on what to call Redford—Bob? Robert? Mister R.? What emerged despite the somewhat reluctant tone was a sense of competing sensibilities, which in turn felt like a window onto the major market and creative forces shaping the way documentary stories get told.
Nevins, for instance, who has about forty hours on the HBO network to fill with original programming each year, talks about documentary in the parlance of an old studio mogul. She’s looking for “stars,” is drawn to the “extreme,” and believes much depends on “casting.” She also insists on calling documentaries “docus,” which became less stridently weird as the panel went on.
Nevins discussed her early background in theatre as the basis of her epiphany about the power of non-fiction storytelling: While working on the set of a Greek tragedy she met a stagehand who turned out to be a Holocaust survivor and found his story more compelling than that of the production they were mounting. I thought of the shuttle driver who brought me into Park City from the Salt Lake City airport: A young Army Rangers veteran, he was blown up by an IED in Iraq, spent twelve days in a coma, and had to relearn to walk and talk. After coming home he decided to become a nurse, and is now pursuing a masters degree. Midway through the festival I hadn’t watched a feature story that compared to his.
My driver was a kind of star—handsome, big personality; Nevins would have gone mad for him. She had several documentaries in competition at the festival, including personality-driven docs like Me at the Zoo (the story of internet sensation Chris Crocker, which they purchased in a pre-emptive buy before Sundance began) and in-house production Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present.
The question of what makes a documentary good divided the panel somewhat. Nevins and Fraser clashed most openly about Inside Job, the Charles Ferguson Wall Street meltdown procedural. Nevins felt it offered little more than footnotes for people who already knew the story. Fraser, on the other hand, was electrified by the doc’s indictments and worked to ensure it was broadcast on BBC affiliates around the world.
But did it effect measurable change? For Fraser the first step to change is disseminating knowledge of the problem. It didn’t bother him that Inside Job’s digression into the academic world of economics wasn’t directly incumbent on the story—it was a matter of tracing systemic corruption into unsuspected territory. For Nevins, Inside Job was unforgivably boring and tangential, guilty of the activism-oriented doc’s sin of preaching to the converted. The trick is getting people who otherwise would not watch a documentary on financial services corruption it to tune in, Nevins said, and to do that a documentary must be “irresistibly entertaining.”
Whether the docs that emerge from the Sundance Documentary Film Program will catch Nevins’s eye remains to be seen, although the two that were showcased during the “Celebrating Stories of Change” panel seem to have cast their stars well. Or rather their “social entrepreneurs”—the term the program, which provides over a million dollars in documentary funding each year, has given to subjects like Partners in Health founder Paul Farmer and Barefoot College founder Bunker Roy. The latter is the subject of a documentary called Solar Mamas, and the though the project isn’t finished yet, Roy and director Jehane Noujaim were at Sundance to talk about the process.
The first step in that process is beating out the other ten filmmakers who are trying to nab the story for themselves, Noujaim said. Bunker Roy, who travels to third world countries to recruit village women and train them to be solar engineers (the theory being that women will bring that expertise back to their villages while trained men will leave and try to find work elsewhere), is documentary catnip. His story has all of the elements documentary filmmakers crave: An altruistic star, multicultural triumphs, environmental triumphs, triumphs over poverty and oppression.
Clips from the film suggest all of that and more, and though Bunker insisted throughout the presentation that he wanted the focus to remain on the women, it seems inevitable that he will become the film’s center. “We’re criticized for holding up the social entrepreneurs when there are so many behind the scenes,” a foundation spokesperson said, “but we need to hold up a face [the issue can] be attached to.”
In different ways, both panels engaged with the question of what makes a documentary “good.” As much as I resisted Nevins’s somewhat superficial bluster as first, after the second panel I felt her position was perhaps more honest than a roomful of white people applauding each other for telling the stories of those too poor or unpowerful to tell them themselves. It’s hard not to slip into cynicism when considering a documentary program that runs more or less like a charity, where real third world lives and stories get cast into first world roles. I am looking forward to Solar Mamas nonetheless—it seems an inevitable future Sundance selection—not because it was created in the mold of what “good” documentary looks like but because it actually looks good despite all that.
Marquee photo from Flickr user MikeOliveri.
About this writer
- Sundance diary: Sarah Polley's family secret (0)
- Sundance diary: On false leads and Dick Cheney (0)
- The Puerto Rican hustle and other big festival moves: Notes from TIFF, part 4 (0)
- Celebrity revisionism: Notes from TIFF, part 3 (0)
- Documentaries in Smell-O-Vision: Notes from TIFF, part 2 (0)
Physicist and author Brian Greene, brings us a mind-blowing new exploration of space, time, and the very nature of reality.
Acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns chronicles the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history.
A fresh perspective on the birth of civilisation in the Near and Middle East and its dynamic influence on the West.