JWR Articles: Commentary - AmDocs Panel Series (Featured speaker: Haskell Wexler, Joan Churchill, Steven Lighthill, Frederic Goodich) - March 31, 2015

AmDocs Panel Series

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Reviewed at the 2015 American Documentary Film Festival
Genre shift under the microscope

Today, a few dozen early risers found their way to Camelot Theatres and another event in the AmDocs Panel Series. In this case, “The Mating of Documentary & Narrative Cinematography.”

Introducing the panel was Thatcher Drew, son of renowned filmmaker, Robert Drew, widely hailed as the “father of American cinema vérité.” All four panellists were distinguished filmmakers/cinematographers in their own right: Haskell Wexler, Joan Churchill, Steven Lighthill and Frederic Goodich.

At issue was the increasingly blurry line between pure documentary (whatever that might mean) and employing narrative techniques under the doc banner (e.g., staging a sequence that is known to have happened already, wasn’t captured originally but is important to the storytelling). Not a few of the audience for Jesus Town USA had concerns that that film wasn’t really a documentary at all (cross-reference below).

This type of dilemma has been discussed several times in these pages. When an opera or theatre presentation is produced on stage for a limited audience, those in the house can decide for themselves just where to focus their “lens.” Of course, savvy directors will stage and block these performances in a way that is intended to draw the eye to certain parts of the action, yet the final call rests with the patrons as to which frames will be captured in their version of the work at hand. (Or none, should they choose to close their eyes and let the sound wash over them.)

When bringing a staged performance to the big screen, as has become more and more popular these days, (allowing worldwide audiences into Covent Garden, The Met, Stratford Shakespeare Festival, etc.) the result, of course, is far different. The director and cinematographer have already decided what viewers should see, giving every such film a decidedly narrow point of view. For neophytes to the forms, they may never know what is being missed, left out or deliberately kept in the background. The only way to truly “mate” both live performance and film is to actually leave the theatre and stage these works for the camera, as Franco Zeffirelli has done to great success (cross-reference below). Anything less just muddies the artistic integrity of the original creators’ intentions.

Coming back to the panel, it was abundantly clear that concerns about presenting truthful, honest films, once again was, in very large degree, in the hands of the director, cinematographer and editor (frequently all the same person). Of course, fictional writers (no matter what genre) must have a point of view if they want to maintain an audience’s interest. But the same must also be true of those in the business of presenting incidents, people and real emotions as they more or less happened, not as they would like to have been seen.

No easy task.

By the end of the session, it was clear that consensus hadn’t been reached about anything.

The main discussion tool had been a series of clips from the filmmakers or chosen by them to make their points about process.

Perhaps the most interesting of the lot was a sequence from Churchill’s Punishment Park. The brutal treatment of dissidents during the era of McCarthy was so convincing—especially over the backdrop of present-day era of Guantanamo Bay—that it came as a huge surprise (except to the initiated) that the film was a send-up of a police state not a searing indictment of what actually happened. This was absolutely the best example of how filmmakers can manipulate their audience—thank goodness that could never happen in television news or documentary productions that start with the answer and work back to the question. JWR

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Further information, future screening/performance/exhibition dates,
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American Documentary Film Festival
Cross-reference(s): Please click on the image link(s) below
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