Tip o’ The Month: Differences Between Documentary and Narrative Filmmaking

When I first started Columbia, the foundations courses in the Film & Video department didn't include a documentary component. I waited until I could take a pilot of what is currently the foundation courses my sophomore year. Luckily, in the second semester, we got to make a documentary (see a snippet of my first doc below).

Even if you're a student interested in primarily cinematography or directing or screenwriting (not necessarily doc), there are definitely a few things that can be gained from the insight of a documentary filmmaker's mindset. Here's why:

1. No form of filmmaking isn't easy. It requires the ability to adapt to changing circumstances. And documentary filmmakers (especially those of the verite variety) have to deal with this all the time.  Documentary filmmakers have to make fast decisions when filming events, on-location, interviewing, etc.  Being able to make quick calls that will save you time and money is something that can be very helpful (especially to producers) in a narrative atmosphere.

2. Documentary filmmaking requires trust.  On large narrative sets, where you might not even know 1/3 of the crew's first name, it's good to remember the personable nature of documentary set.  When preparing for interviews, it's very common for documentary filmmakers to conduct “pre-interviews” without cameras present so that they can get to know the interviewees and make them feel more comfortable.  This is a good tip for emerging narrative directors, especially when working with student actors.  When you're working  with an actor, maybe get to know the person first…their actual personality might yield clues as to how to elicit more from their character's persona.

3. Documentary film sets are often minimalist.  Narrative sets are typically the opposite, but it never hurts to know how to do more with less.  Especially when approaching upper undergrad years and graduation, a lot of students from various concentrations get the opportunity to make a little extra money freelancing for things like wedding videos, event videography, etc., and you will likely be by yourself (if you're very lucky, you might have another person).  It's good to know how to do one-man-band so that you can acquire skills in directing, producing, cinematography, sound, etc., so that in case one of your crew calls in sick, you can pick up the extra slack with little effort.

Likewise, doc filmmakers — even if you have no desire to, say, work on practicum (ahem), it's also good to have experience on a narrative set. Here's why:

1. The idea that great documentaries can be made completely “on the fly” is a myth.  Learning the role of a narrative director, line producer, and creative producer is helpful in knowing how to preconceive what a story might be, and how to plan ahead and deal with some of the logistics of shooting (where to park, when to eat, how much to spend, etc.).  Even though a documentary filmmaker may not always know what to expect going into an interview or situation, it's the fact that you knew this element could be essential to your story that's important.

2. It's very atypical for narrative directors to edit their own films.  In many cases, big-name narrative directors will just take a break from the footage for a few months before entering in on the process to give feedback to the editor.  Many documentary filmmakers, on the other hand, insist on editing their own films.  There are times, though, when it's good to take a step back and maybe get a second piece of advice, especially if the content is very sensitive or runs a little too close to home.  What may be seemingly less important to you an interview may  be more important to somebody viewing the film is more detached from the situation and people.

3. Narrative sets are full of tedious paperwork.

Decision Forces Filmmaker to Turn Over 600 Hours of Footage to Chevron

Judge Lewis A. Kaplan of the Federal District Court in New York granted Chevron’s request for a subpoena, which demands access to over 600 hours of footage from “Crude,” a documentary that chronicles a legal battle being supported by 30,000 Amazonian settlers hoping to hold Texaco (now owned by Chevron) responsible for environmental devastation in Ecuador.

Joseph Berlinger, the filmmaker behind “Crude,” claimed he was protected by “journalistic privilege,” but, according to the New York Times, he qualified for the privilege but “the conditions for overcoming that privilege had been met” by Chevron.

Berlinger plans to ask the judge to “stay the subpoena” so the decision can be appealed.

Many in the documentary filmmaking community have indicated that they will support Berlinger’s effort to appeal and resist this decision. Filmmakers understand what this decision could mean for the future of documentary filmmaking.

Gordon Quinn, artistic director and founder of Kartemquin Films in Chicago, said, “My experience is that the ‘outs’ of a film usually show the big and the powerful to be worse than they are portrayed in our films, but if we have to turn over footage and spend time in court and defend ourselves for expressing our First Amendment rights it can be an overwhelming burden for a small organization like ours.”

Quinn added, “It has the feel of intimidation and using the legal process to let us know don’t take on the big guys or they can drive you crazy and drain your resources by tying you up in court.”

Documentary instructor at Columbia College Chicago and director of “The Return of Navajo Boy,” a film that touched upon the impact of uranium mining on the Navajo, Jeff Spitz, had not heard about it. He noted from his experience making “Navajo Boy, “The extraction industries have absolutely no interest in the safety and/or benefits of their work for indigenous people. Indigenous people pay the hidden price of our energy.”

An Associate Professor at Columbia College Chicago with forty years of documentary filmmaking experience, Russell Porter, reacted, “The reported federal judgment that filmmaker Joe Berlinger must turn over his outtakes to Chevron’s defense lawyers strikes me as an arbitrary and dangerous interpretation of the First Amendment.”

“The role of independent documentary filmmakers has almost totally replaced what was historically the function of investigative journalism,” said Porterin fact there is no difference between the methodology and social/political function of filmmakers like Berlinger and that of – say – Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward during the Watergate scandal.”

New York Times writer for the ArtsBeat Blog diligently followed this story conducting interviews with filmmakers Michael Moore and Ric Burns (the director of “Andy Warhol” and PBS’ “New York”) on Thursday.

Burns reacted, Chevron is “really saying ‘O.K., pal, drop your drawers, and with it, 600 hours of film.'” And added, “That’s insane. That’s a weapon so blunt that it’s impossible not to feel that Judge Kaplan doesn’t care about the impression that is conveyed.”

Burns added this “contributes to a general culture of contempt for investigative journalism” and next time someone goes to make a “Crude” the group that provides information on the subject will be a “much leerier group of informants.”

Michael Moore had “never heard of such a ruling.” Moore told the ArtsBeat Blog he never had to deal with any corporation suing him to find out how he gathered his information.

“Obviously the ramifications of this go far beyond documentary films, if corporations are allowed to pry into a reporter’s notebook or into a television station’s newsroom,” said Moore.

Moore hoped the decision would be overturned on appeal and, if not, Berlinger should “resist the subpoena.” He also said that “hundreds of filmmakers” would support Berlinger’s fight to not turn over his footage to Chevron.

Documentary as Journalism?

The New York Times put together an article that suggested this decision re-ignites a debate over whether a documentary filmmaker should have journalistic privileges or not.

In his interview with ArtsBeat Blog, Moore said, “Documentaries are a form of journalism.”

The lawyer for Chevron, Randy M. Mastro, according to the New York Times, firmly believes that “Crude” should not be considered journalism. And, Mastro claimed that this decision is not about “the First Amendment” or journalistic privilege.

Mastro said, “This is about a plaintiffs’ lawyer who decided he wanted to star in a movie and gave a sympathetic filmmaker extraordinary access to the plaintiffs’ case and strategy.”

Porter said of this statement, “The cynical dismissal of the film “Crude” as ‘…a case of a lawyer who decided he wanted to be a movie star’ would be laughable if it were not so obviously disingenuous, self-serving and untrue.”

A key problem is the fact that documentary filmmakers are expected to have subjects sign releases that they agree to appear in the film. With “Crude,” pact agreements were actually formed between the filmmaker and the settlers and those agreements would clearly be violated if Chevron was able to use the footage for their own agenda.

What are documentary filmmakers supposed to do in the future if this stands? What will filmmakers need to look out for and do to protect themselves? What additional amount of self-censorship will filmmakers have to engage in?

Will filmmakers have to begin to destroy all of their footage that they have left over once their film is complete? How are filmmakers going to handle a reality where corporations can force filmmakers to compromise their sources and turn over unused footage to them?

At a time where BP is responsible for the leaking of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, what should those documenting the destruction be weary of if a precedent is set that corporations like Chevron can subpoena unused footage to take down plaintiffs who are challenging business practices and suggesting corporations should be held responsible or accountable for their actions?

There are many more questions about the ramifications of this decision on filmmaking. The issue of journalistic privilege and documentary should be the subject of conversation for the next months especially if filmmakers unite and mount a visible effort in support of Berlinger’s right to not hand over the footage to Chevron.

———————————————————————————————

The following is Associate Professor of Columbia College Chicago and documentary filmmaker Russell Porter’s full response to the decision.

I am an Associate Professor at Columbia College Chicago with almost forty years experience as a documentary filmmaker, journalist and teacher on five continents. I have extensive experience of working with indigenous people and their struggles to maintain their traditional ways of life in the face of ever more destructive encroachment by extractive and environmentally damaging industries.

I first visited the upper Amazon region of Ecuador in 1969-70 when I lived and traveled through the then pristine Amazon regions bordering the Napo River, and was privileged to visit several indigenous communities (including the Huaorani/ Waorani and Achuar people).

I returned to the region on a research trip in 1999 to see for myself how this unique world had changed during my lifetime. I was appalled buy what my Huaorani hosts showed me as a result of the impact of oil exploration and extraction on their health and environment. I traveled with them to several sites that were at least as damaged by oil spills and dumps (in “piscinas”) like those shown in the film “Crude” – which, in my my view, if anything understates the impact on the culture, environment and the ecosystems that have sustained these communities for millennia.

The Huaorani community I visited (in the remote Shiripuni region) had been forced to relocate there since their traditional homeland had become unsustainable as a result of the massive intrusion of oil industry machinery and associated contamination and deforestation. I also visited the regions around Lago Agrio featured in the film, and witnessed the total transformation that the oil industry has cause to the environment integrity, health and well-being of traditional indigenous people there, with the associated often violent social destruction of their way of life.

The reported federal judgment that filmmaker Joe Berlinger must turn over his outtakes to Chevron’s defense lawyers strikes me as an arbitrary and dangerous interpretation of the First Amendment. The role of independent documentary filmmakers has almost totally replaced what was historically the function of investigative journalism – in fact there is no difference between the methodology and social/political function of filmmakers like Berlinger and that of – say – Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward during the Watergate scandal.

Without such scrutiny, It is my opinion that the ever-increasing corporate malfeasance would go unchecked, to the detriment of society as a whole. It is an intrinsic facet of our democratic system that such independent scrutiny is allowed the full protection of the law.

The cynical dismissal of the film “Crude” as “…a case of a lawyer who decided he wanted to be a movie star” would be laughable if it were not so obviously disingenuous, self-serving and untrue.

Documentary filmmakers of course have the right to include, structure and interpret their raw material in any way they chose – just as a journalist will draw on his or her research notes to compile a coherent narrative story. Film material is edited in just this way, and for whatever reason some footage may be left out, it remains the intellectual property of the filmmaker and he or she is under no obligation to hand it over to anyone. It is a right – just as that held by journalists – protected under the First Amendment. Whatever the legality of the case against Chevron, the principle is unchanged.

Also posted on OpEdNews.com and Alternet.org.

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