In America, if two million people see a documentary, it is considered a huge success. That’s less than 1% of the population. The entire population of Kosovo is less than two million. Documentary filmmakers like to think of our films as broadly opening minds, but in America, the cultural landscape is largely set, and mainly static. In reality, we operate in a strikingly small box and have come to accept success as it is defined within those walls.
Category Archives: General
(T)ERROR is a jaw-dropping film. From the first frame, it is hard to believe what you are seeing on the screen. That feeling does not diminish as the film continues; it intensifies. I was first introduced to (T)ERROR as a work-in-progress when it was awarded the Garrett Scott Documentary Development Grant at the 2013 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. Documentary programmer Thom Powers, one of the administrators of the grant, introduced the sample. After it played, he said, “I’m going to ask the first, obvious, question: WTF?”
This euphemistic acronym is perhaps the only reasonable response to this film, and on more than one level. (T)ERROR is the first film to document an FBI undercover informant sting operation in real time—and without the knowledge or permission of the FBI. It is astounding that this footage even exists. However, first-time feature directors Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe are not content to rest on their unprecedented access to an FBI informant. How deep they are willing to go and where they allow this story to take them sustains the WTF feeling throughout the 84-minute film.
WTF should not be reserved only for the feats of access and documentary filmmaking we are seeing here. Cabral and Sutcliffe connect the dots by telling a very individual story that pulls back the curtain on huge structural issues that are global in scope. This is exceptional documentary filmmaking—and the very best solution to the tired art vs. issue debate. Indeed, the bigger WTF should go to the incredibly counterproductive post-9/11 “war on terror.” Not since Laura Poitras’ The Oath (2008) has this issue been laid bare so effectively and incisively on the big screen.
As a filmmaker, I am inspired by Lyric and David’s accomplishments with (T)ERROR. There is real courage here and a certain brashness of imagination and actualization on display. But then, many things seem impossible until someone goes and does them. Along with Matthew Heineman’s Cartel Land, the bar has been raised for WTF documentary filmmaking this year.
The final—though somewhat expected—WTF is for the legal challenges that Lyric and David are facing in releasing the film. As many readers already know, any documentary—and especially a controversial one—requires a certain level of legal vetting as well as an insurance policy for errors and omissions. Knowing the sensitive nature of this material, the filmmakers budgeted $20,000 for these services. They took supreme care in consulting with some of the best legal minds in the world to confirm that their journalistic techniques were completely legal. They followed legal and ethical norms with diligence throughout the process.
What they were not prepared for was the difficulty in finding an insurance policy.
After a wide search, only one company was willing to write a policy—at 400 percent of the going rate. After committing substantial time and raising money from many of the most prestigious film-funding sources in the world, securing a theatrical distributor and a slot on PBS, the filmmakers are now faced with a $70,000 shortfall. This month, they started a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for the unprecedented legal and insurance costs.
This is what is known as the chilling effect—not censorship per se, but a climate of fear, instilled by authoritarianism, bad policy and a lack of accountability, which can render filmmakers and distributors risk-averse. This needs to be discussed alongside Poitras’ recent lawsuit brought against the US government for a consistent pattern of detainment, searches and harassment when entering the country over the course of six years.
Perhaps the most devastating effect of this kind of systemic stifling of vital voices is felt not by the filmmakers but by their subjects and potential subjects. David, Laura and Lyric all show supreme courage in the stories they chose to tell. However, their courage is dwarfed by the courage of their subjects. There is a bond of trust between filmmakers and subjects in these stories that depends so heavily on exclusive access. Implicitly and explicitly, when a filmmaker takes on a story of this nature, she or he is making a sacred promise: I will tell your story to the world with integrity; the risk you are taking in trusting me will not be betrayed; it will not be wasted. I can only imagine how these filmmakers would feel if they could not deliver on this promise. Moreover, if they fail, will the next Saeed Torres (the subject of David and Lyric’s film) choose to reveal himself? Will the next Edward Snowden?
We cannot underestimate the importance of (T)ERROR getting a wide release. It is crucial that the documentary community, as well as all citizens who believe in free speech and freedom of the press, stand behind Lyric and David (as well as Laura). The result we want—the result that entrenched powers fear—is that their voices will be strengthened through these battles, not silenced. We should also allow ourselves to be inspired by their work and their courage in being unafraid to speak truth to power.
The subtitle of Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck comes from the handwritten label on a cassette that was part of a collection of recordings, notebooks and art that filmmaker Brett Morgen had access to for this extraordinary documentary. It’s a wonderfully appropriate title for a film that succeeds on many levels. It’s a profile of one of the most important artists of the late 20th century. It’s an experimental film that weaves together original animation with media artifacts, new interviews, audio montage, concert footage and home videos. It’s an immersive exploration of the artistic psyche and how it confronts adversity. Seeing the film presented by Morgen at the True/False Film Fest, I also came to see it as gift to a child who lost her father and whose life was a media spectacle before she was even born.
When Morgen introduced the film, he used words like “honor” and “privilege” as he described how he was approached by the Cobain family to make a film and given full access to a large collection of unpublished material that had been put in storage after Cobain’s suicide, as well as compete creative control. Then he said that he’d asked the projectionist to pump up the sound system for that day’s midday screening, and that if it got too loud for you, you could just leave.
It was loud, and not just in terms of volume. This is a truly a montage of heck, and it opens with loud, distorted sounds and in-your-face smash-cuts of images and ephemera. The majority of the film is drawn directly from the unique collection of material, but Morgen is not satisfied just to present the content of this goldmine in a traditional way. This is not Ken Burns’ Jazz, not 20 Feet From Stardom, not evenSearching for Sugar Man. Nor should it be. It is clear from the opening frames that this is a true attempt to get inside the mind of a brilliant but troubled artist who left an indelible mark on our culture during his short life.
Like Nirvana’s music, Montage of Heck is not intensity at the expense of artistry, meaning or significance. Morgen uses interviews with key family members and personal friends to coax a coherent narrative from the details of Cobain’s life.It is clear from the opening frames that this is a true attempt to get inside the mind of a brilliant but troubled artist. His difficult childhood, preternatural talent and meteoric rise to fame are all there, and structured in a simple chronology that neatly counterbalances the film’s experimental elements. What emerges is an extremely nuanced portrait that allows us to observe Cobain through various kinds of archival footage, hear from those closest to him, and get an interpretation of his own thoughts and emotions through the journals and drawings that are brought to life with animation.
The final act of the film focuses on Cobain’s descent into drug addiction, his marriage to Courtney Love and the public controversy around the circumstances of the birth of their child, Frances Bean Cobain. Morgen does not pull punches here; it is difficult to watch drug addicts deteriorate, and much worse when a child enters the picture. At the same time, Morgen’s compassion and sensitivity to the material mean that we never stop seeing Cobain’s kindness, vulnerability and need for acceptance. Toward the end of the film, Love says, “We definitely would have had more kids. That’s all Kurt ever wanted was to have a family.” It’s a poignant and ambiguous moment that cuts a number of different ways.
The moderator (True/False calls them “ringleaders”) for the Q&A was documentary producer and provocateur Esther Robinson. She and Morgen are friends, and she opened with a truly perceptive comment. “Knowing you 10 years ago, and knowing you today, I don’t think you would have made this film back then. This is a film made by a father.” You could see Morgen get emotional as he paused for a long moment. In reply, he told an anecdote: early on, while he was still immersing himself in the material, he talked to Courtney Love on the phone and she asked how the film was going. “At this point,” he said, “I am just making the film for Frances.”
Documentaries have potential to do a lot of things in the real world. They can foment discussion, prompt political action and raise awareness. They can create empathy and aid in healing. Sometimes they can help a subject see themselves or a time in their own life more clearly. There is a scene toward the end of the film where Cobain is nodding off on heroin and struggling to hold a maybe one-year-old Frances. Love is trying to cut Frances’ hair with scissors. Though she is not as high as Cobain, the scene is painful to watch. Morgen told the audience that when Love saw this scene with Frances (now a 22-year-old artist and an executive producer of the film), she leaned over to her daughter and whispered, “I’m sorry.”
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is a film of great artistic integrity. It’s a wickedly complex, finely detailed and deeply human work by a filmmaker with the chops to pull it off and the life experience to nail the deeper themes. Indelible moments, like this screening, are what film festivals are all about and True/False in particular has made its name by inciting them. While I’m glad that HBO supports innovative work, I can’t help but wish more Americans would have the opportunity to see this film in conditions closer to how I experienced it: on a big screen with the volume cranked and invitation to leave if you don’t like it.
(published at The Talkhouse.)
After premiering at Sundance five years ago, one of the most talked-about documentaries of 2010 was Exit Through the Gift Shop, the artist Banksy’s comic, semi-autobiographical history of street art. “It’s a masterpiece! — It’s a travesty! — It’s a master-travesty! — It’s the best documentary ever! — It’s not a documentary at all, but an elaborate prank by an insolent prankster….”
Enthusiasts and critics are chronically nearsighted. We have the tendency to deem every new twist or turn a breakthrough in the form or a masterpiece. Intellectually, we know that this is a contradiction because masterpieces are only revealed through the perspective of time. Breakthroughs cannot be recognized without the distance to see if they will persist in the critical discussion and influence conventions and practices.
When we look back, we can say with confidence that films like Night and Fog and Tongues Untied are influential landmarks. They taught us new ways of seeing and showing, representing experiences and ideas that had not been seen in a cinematic light before. We are certain of this now because these new subjects and modes of representation are part of the landscape today.
Exit Through the Gift Shop generated a lot of discussion in 2010 about its veracity as well as about what it did with the documentary form. Some saw it as a nascent landmark, others as a cheap parlor trick. Hindsight is not only clearer, it has more context. In the case of Exit Through the Gift Shop, we do have more perspective. In five years, it has begun to validate itself historically as it holds up and influences documentary filmmaking.
Towards the end of 2010, documentary filmmaker and commentator AJ Schnack scored an exclusive interview with Banksy (or “Banksy”). One could argue that this interview put to rest the big issue surrounding the film, or that it fanned the flames, but it was at least a trustworthy last word on the film for the calendar year of 2010. After explaining the terms of the interview with the elusive pseudonymous artist (an email exchange facilitated by the producer of the film), AJ got to the meat: “There seemed to be this undercurrent of suspicion, perhaps because of the press’s desire to paint you as a prankster, that the film was trying to pull one over on us.”
Banksy’s response was predictably challenging: the film was “100% true,” he claimed. He then added: “Besides, if the movie was a carefully scripted prank you can be sure I would’ve given myself some better lines. I love that famous Jack Benny comeback to a heckler — ‘You wouldn’t say that if my writers were here.’ But I’ve always wondered — did his writers tell him to say that?”
One of the interesting things about this exchange (and it is clearer now than it was in 2010) is that Schnack was asking the wrong question and Banksy was asking the right one. The key to understanding Exit Through the Gift Shop is not asking, is it true? But asking instead, why use a medium prized for truth-telling to create a work that intentionally provokes skepticism?
Regardless of the veracity of the actual footage, if Banksy had wanted to present the story of street art in a straightforward way, he could have done so. He chose not to. The undercurrent of suspicion does not start with the press, as AJ (perhaps coyly) suggested; it starts with the first frame of the film (or with foreknowledge of Banksy as an artist, which I’ll get to in a bit).
In the first frame of Exit, we see the logo for Paranoid Pictures — a close knock-off of the Paramount logo. Gunfire fills the speakers as the arch of stars is replaced by bullet holes. We see “a Bansky film” in distressed type. Documentary textbooks tell us that the choices a filmmaker makes are designed to instill a sense of trust in the audience. This convention is not just being mocked — it’s being assassinated.
All but the least experienced documentary viewer will sense that something is not quite right here. The narrator is an over-the-top exaggeration of the British voice of authority. The first part of the film is ostensibly told from the point of view of Thierry Guetta, a passionate amateur videographer. However, Banksy (on screen but in disguise) has already informed us that “the film is the story of what happened when a guy tried to make a documentary about me but he was actually a lot more interesting than I am so now the film is kind of about him.”
Thierry proceeds to break every basic rule of documentary filmmaking. He becomes not just a confidant of his subjects but also an accomplice, finding locations for graffiti artists to paint and assisting in their exploits. Passion becomes obsession and he eschews any sense of ethics in order to get the shot. The subversions of form and convention come so quickly that we have no choice to go with it at the same time that we register the subtle ridiculousness. In Banksy’s depiction, Thierry is the archetypical documentary poseur.
When the “twist” happens and we learn Thierry is not really making a film at all, everything about these scenes is played to the satirical hilt: the narration, the music, and the hoarder-like panning shots of Thierry’s boxes of videotapes, which we ominously learn are “never to be seen.” The “reveal” that Thierry is indeed not really a documentarian ostensibly leads to Banksy taking the reins and finishing the film we now see. This part of the film — the shifting in the very terms of representation — is the true innovation of Exit Through the Gift Shop. It is also the part of the film that is hardest to take at face value. It’s like that Jack Benny line: a conscious nod to the idea that someone is pulling the strings here.
If we accept that Exit is intended to trigger skepticism, the question remains: why? Perhaps, as AJ suggests, the reason is based in the tendency of the press to see Banksy as a prankster. However, this misses half the point: Banksy is a prankster. Street art has a baked-in aspect of rebellion, rule-breaking and, well, criminality. Anyone familiar with Banksy would be primed with this information going into the film. Moreover, Banksy would have been aware of this also. Had he created a straight-ahead cultural portrait of the street art movement, it’s likely that his claims and motives would have been questioned anyway. The deep irreverence towards documentary convention in Exit could essentially be a preemptive defense against anticipated charges of exaggeration and self-aggrandizement.
There is a good argument to be made that this strategy worked, and on Banksy’s terms. Audiences and critics generally came out of the film with a sense of disbelief that caused them to run to the Internet to verify some of the more wild claims (especially about the rise of Guetta’s artistic alter ego, Mr. Brainwash). All of the main factual representations in Exit hold up to investigation as either true or an extremely long con. Thus Banksy fulfills another of his artistic tropes: turning audience reaction into part of the art. “The public reaction is what supplies meaning and value. Art comes alive in the arguments you have about it. If we’ve done our job properly with Exit, then the best part of the entire movie is the conversation in the car park afterwards.”
Many people who take documentary seriously are very sensitive about falsehood being presented as truth (and rightly so, that kind of lying can be dangerous). What Banksy did turns out to be the opposite: presenting the truth as a potential falsehood that needs to be investigated and debated. Provocation of discussion and prophylaxis against criticism are two good reasons to make a documentary that feels like a prank even if it isn’t. However, this analysis still falls short of fully understanding the artist known as “Banksy” and the genius of Exit Through the Gift Shop.
At the true heart of all this skepticism and satire is the initial conceit (or deception) of all of Banksy’s work: “Banksy” (i.e., the performance of the artist persona by an individual or individuals in disguise) is itself art. This was true long before the film existed. The entire discussion of meaning and intention in art (including in this very piece) is predicated on the notion of authorship — the idea of there being a creator of the work. If we want to be skeptical about Exit, we need to be skeptical about everything. How do we know that the person on camera in disguise is the same person directing the movie and/or the person making the actual art? We don’t — and of course, this is intentional.
Only at the point when the whole premise of the medium is blown up do we begin to see Exit clearly. This is not the vaguely institutional voice of the public-affairs tradition (though this is heartily mocked). Nor is it the subjective but forthright viewpoint of the observational and participatory documentary traditions (also mocked!). Rather, the perspective of Exit (starting with the very claim of authorship) is that of an unreliable narrator. While it was not unprecedented in documentary to call into question the relationships between subject, filmmaker and audience, Banksy thoroughly drenched his film in a reflexivity that transcended the work itself. It slyly built on existing biases and unapologetically demanded additional investigation on the part of viewers.
Five years later, we can say more about Exit Through the Gift Shop not necessarily because we are smarter, but because we know more about what came after. We know that the last five years have produced a bumper crop of extraordinary films that problematize subject/filmmaker/audience relationships in new and provocative ways. Examples include 5 Broken Cameras, This is Not a Film, Stories We Tell, The Act of Killing and Actress. Each of these films challenged viewers to consider the circumstances of its creation — something that traditional documentary tends to discourage. Like Exit (though by different means and for diverse reasons), each of these films draws attention to the complex power dynamic between subject, creator and audience. This results in rich and nuanced viewing experiences that stretch the notion of how a documentary can function in terms of representation and intellectual engagement. Exit Through the Gift Shop did not make these films possible, but it cleared a path for them to be understood and embraced by audiences and critics.
Special thanks for invaluable feedback on a draft of this piece to the students in my Art and Genre of Documentary at The George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs.
(published at The Talkhouse.)
In his Nov. 23 Sunday Opinion commentary, “Thinking too highly of higher ed,” Peter Thiel set up several straw-man rationales for the value of higher education. Each of these was based in a purely market-based philosophy: Perhaps education is an investment in one’s future career; or maybe it is about consumption, or a competition of sorts. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Thiel then took down each one of these straw men, thus questioning the ultimate value of higher education and the president’s assertion that it is of value for all Americans.
Mr. Thiel failed to consider that there are other reasons for higher education, particularly in a democracy. Especially in the liberal arts tradition, education is not thought of exclusively as job preparation. The core skills and values of independent thought, critical thinking, research and analysis are applicable to citizens in ways that transcend career or economics. Human beings ought to be not only economic decision-makers but also citizens in an active polity and contributors to a vibrant culture.
To the extent that Mr. Thiel is suggesting that higher education does not always live up to these ideals, I agree. To the presumption that it should be evaluated solely on economic utility, I disagree wholeheartedly.
(published in The Washington Post.)