Shooting of MEETING GORBACHEV. Photo: Lena Herzog
If last week seemed unusually spare, this past week’s abundance of doc news surely makes up for it. Kicking things off with an enthusiastic bang, The Ringer’s Sean Fennessey makes the case in his must read of the week that the recent financial success of various theatrical doc releases “represent, if not a major moment, then at least a meaningful boomlet for theatrical documentary filmmaking, perhaps the culmination of almost 50 years of evolution and exposure for the form, stretching back to the Maysles brothers’ SALESMAN. It has been 40 years since Martin Scorsese’s THE LAST WALTZ, about 30 years since Errol Morris’s THE THIN BLUE LINE and Michael Moore’s ROGER & ME, nearly 25 years since Steve James’s HOOP DREAMS, 20 years since Spike Lee’s FOUR LITTLE GIRLS, and 10 years since James Marsh’s MAN ON WIRE. That half a century of meaningful work with increasing mass exposure has slowly redefined the form, turning what had been considered by some moviegoers a starchy, stiff form of storytelling into some of the most vital, sought-out films in the country.”
Meanwhile, as the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival began to roll out their big name fiction features, DOK Leipzig revealed that its 61st edition will open with Werner Herzog and André Singer’s MEETING GORBECHEV, which sees “Herzog and Gorbachev sit together in the former’s Moscow office, engaging in intense conversations about the past and the winding path of history.” Bragging of an A-List of docs out-of-competition alongside its much-touted fiction competition, the Venice Film Festival is slated to premiere new work by Errol Morris, Frederick Wiseman, Victor Kossakovsky, Tsai Ming-liang, Sergei Loznitsa and Mark Cousins, just to name a few.
Noteworthy documentary news was few and far between this past week, yet word that PBS’s Independent Lens revealed its fall/winter lineup was cause for celebration. Added to its schedule was DAWNLAND on November 5th, THE JUDGE on November 12th, MAN ON FIRE on December 17th, and RUMBLE on January 28th.
In lieu of actual doc news, there was an abundance of dandy pieces on new and recent releases, including Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui’s MCQUEEN, a bio “of designer Alexander McQueen, whose extraordinary gifts, dark preoccupations and tragic death make for a completely engrossing, compulsively watchable film,” writes Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times. At RogerEbert.com Odie Henderson had similar thoughts, “This documentary is as welcoming to intense fashionistas as it is to gauche fools like me…it is drop-dead gorgeous to look at, so see it on the biggest screen you can endure.” Co-director Ian Bonhôte appeared at The Talkhouse in a piece discussing what he sees at the biggest challenges filmmakers face today, while in The New York Times, Roslyn Sulcas wrote about three recent fashion docs that aren’t necessarily about fashion itself.
David Edelstein launched into an excellent take on FAR FROM THE TREE at Vulture, “It takes a beat or so to register the audacity of the title FAR FROM THE TREE, a phrase that’s normally presented in a negative context, as in ‘One look at Eric and Don Jr. and you know the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.’ (Nor do the worms, apparently.) Andrew Solomon’s stupendous 2012 tome and Rachel Dretzin’s boundlessly empathetic documentary (co-produced by Solomon) home in on the exceptions: children whose very existence leaves their parents wondering what happened between conception and birth.” Meanwhile at RogerEbert.com, Glenn Kenny concludes, “In a world that seems in many respects to be headed to hell in a handbasket, that’s a fact worth celebrating, and this movie does so in an appropriately humane manner.”
The nominees for the 70th Primetime Emmy Awards were revealed last Thursday. Bryan Fogel (ICARUS), Brett Morgen (JANE), Ken Burns and Lynn Novick (THE VIETNAM WAR), Judd Apatow (THE ZEN DIARIES OF GARRY SHANDLING), and Chapman Way and Maclain Way (WILD WILD COUNTRY) are up for Outstanding Directing for a Documentary, while CITY OF GHOSTS, JANE, STRONG ISLAND, and WHAT HAUNTS US were nominated for Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking. The full list of nominees can be found here.
Outfest, Los Angeles’ annual LGBT festival, runs July 12-22 and features nearly 30 documentaries. At What (not) To Doc, Basil Tsiokos gave rundown of the festival’s non-fiction offerings, “Nearly half of the Special Events are nonfiction presentations, including Dante Alencastre’s AIDS DIVA: THE LEGEND OF CONNIE NORMAN, about a key figure in 1990s LA AIDS activism; and William Clift’s A LONG ROAD TO FREEDOM: THE ADVOCATE CELEBRATES 50 YEARS, an expansive overview of LGBT history.”
Since the release of Kevin Macdonald’s WHITNEY there has been much debate about the film’s merits and its comparison to last year’s WHITNEY: CAN I BE ME by Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal. While Alan Light‘s recent piece in The New York Times looked at the film’s production background, two other pieces examined if either film understood its subject. At MUBI’s Notebook, Simran Hans examines why “Kevin Macdonald’s WHITNEY and Nick Broomfield’s WHITNEY: CAN I BE ME fail to capture the legendary vocalist as a musician or woman,” as Manuela Lazic attempts to unravel “the quagmire of two Whitney Houston movies” at The Ringer. While folks continue to debate about Whitney, Corbin Reiff has listed his favorite music documentaries currently available on Netflix over at UPROXX and the IndieWire staff polled critics on their favorite biographical docs.
The documentary filmmaker Claude Lanzmann died last Thursday at the Saint-Antoine Hospital in Paris at the age of 92. He was best known as the director of the monumental work SHOAH, which John Pym called “a devastating and cautionary interrogation of the Holocaust through the testimony of both survivors and ‘functionaries’” in his original 1985 feature analysis of the film in Sight & Sound. His full and robust life story can not be summed up here, but a handful of elegant and thoughtful obituaries and memorials were published over the past few days by Daniel Lewis of The New York Times, Richard Brody in The New Yorker, Glenn Kenny at RogerEbert.com, AV Club’s Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, and Leslie Camhi of Vogue, who articulately summed up Lanzmann’s legacy and personality, “The fact that he was in love with life, and obsessed with death was only the most obvious of his many contradictions. He was deeply Jewish, and profoundly secular. He worked with the past but was relentlessly engaged with the present. A sometimes violent polemicist, he could also be very funny. He was the only man Simone de Beauvoir ever lived with, during the course of their nine-year love affair and the friendship that continued until her death in 1986. But he was, I believe it is safe to say, no feminist; he was known to share the alarming machismo of his generation. He believed in liberty.” In celebration of Lanzmann’s work, Film Comment reposted a conversation from 2015 between film critic J. Hoberman and filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer in which they dissect the lasting impact of SHOAH on the Film Comment Podcast.
FOCAL Awards 2018 host Hardeep Singh Kohli
Every year the London based FOCAL Awards celebrate the best use and preservation of archival material in cinema. Last Tuesday, the 2018 FOCAL International Award winners were announced – Bill Morrison’s DAWSON CITY: FROZEN TIME won Best Use of Footage in an Arts Production, Raoul Peck’s I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO won Best Use of Footage in a Cinematic Feature, Peter Bratt’s DOLORES took home Best Use of Footage in a Factual Production, and Daniel Lindsay and T. J. Martin’s LA 92 was honored with Best Use of Footage in a History Feature.
On that award season wavelength, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences revealed that it is “extending invitations to join the organization to 928 artists and executives who have distinguished themselves by their contributions to theatrical motion pictures.” Of those invited, 49% are female, bringing the overall Academy membership of women to 31%, and 38% of new members are 38%, bringing the overall membership of people of color to 16%, and 85 of those invited work in the documentary field. Those invited include doc filmmakers such as Bill and Turner Ross, Evgeny Afineevsky, Nanfu Wang, Yance Ford, Petra Costa and Katy Chevigny.
While the Academy is tinkering with its very makeup, Ben Travers at IndieWire is already debating what films might win big at the Emmys. He notes, “HBO has a slew of contenders, all of which have caused a stir in and outside the industry. ANDRE THE GIANT has big-name subjects supporting the doc on the famous wrestler-turned-actor, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Robin Wright, Billy Crystal, and David Letterman. THE ZEN DIARIES OF GARRY SHANDLING is a personal passion project from Judd Apatow, and his intimate understanding of the late comedian combined with his influential friends should help set the doc apart. Meanwhile, ELVIS PRESLEY: THE SEARCHER has the pull of The King himself.”