Last week, I wrote a post about a film critics seminar at IDFA that was led by the critic John Anderson. You can find that commentary here. In short, I used some of the themes raised in that seminar - as reported by IDFA's Daily newspaper - as evidence that some film critics are failing in their reviews of nonfiction filmmaking. This has prompted a response from Anderson, which I have plucked from the comments section so that it can be seen here in its own post, followed by a short response:
AJ Schnack is very glib, but was he (or she?) at IDFA? Or just further mutilating appropriated Dutch-into-English reportage? Either way, Schnack is thoroughly misinterpreting the points I was making (or at least trying to make) during my Talk of the Day moment -- a segment advertised each day as a "critical rant," although that aspect seems to elude AJ, too. What I said was that if an imaginary movie could cure cancer, the critic would, as a responsible HUMAN BEING have to give it a good review. And once you've admitted the fact that content can dictate your critique assessment of a film, you've admitted a lot. But of course it's a question of degree. Most films, in case I need to make it clear, do not come anywhere close to curing cancer, but they're well-intentioned, meant to advertise a crisis or issue that needs to be exposed, and thus deserve at least some respect -- not the mean-spirited "criticism" leveled at a lot of perfectly decent films that don't happen to fit a particular critic's worldview, or biases.
As for the seminar, I was again misrepresented. In making my points about "Devils on Horseback" I used the film to illustrate how the juxtaposition of images -- a besieged village, say, and then subject Brian Siedle walking in the sun with his camera -- could be viewed as a bit disengenuous because Siedle wasn't shot in Darfur, yet the impression is given is that he's there, and the presumed intention is to put him there in that moment. The filmmakers of 'devils" are upfront about having used others' footage, and not having shot in Darfur at all. But I thought examining their construction of sequences would be of use to the students.
Um, what else... oh, yes, if you want to create fiction, create fiction. If you want to co-opt the immediacy and urgency implied by the word "documentary" it behooves you to follow some rules. Don't mislead your audience and don't use the cutting room to fabricate what you couldn't capture in your camera. "Billy the Kid," by the way, is such a painfully exploitative film I don't know how anyone can defend it, except perhaps those who enjoy zoos, circus sideshows and visiting days at correctional institutions.
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While John Anderson is correct that I was not at IDFA and was relying on an article translated from Dutch for my piece, I'm not at all sure what he believes misrepresents him in what I wrote. In fact, he confirms each of my main points, specifically the thrust of my commentary - that film critics have different criteria when reviewing films that are based on important social issues. His statement that such films are "well-intentioned, meant to advertise a crisis or issue that needs to be exposed, and thus deserve at least some respect" as opposed to the "mean-spirited 'criticism' leveled at a lot of perfectly decent films" goes further than anything in the IDFA Daily article to emphatically prove my point. Exhibit A, your honor.
Further, his comments here about THE DEVIL CAME ON HORSEBACK (yes, yes, I know, but we can let that slide) confirm what I wrote regarding the discussion of a moral imperative as it related to the Sundberg and Stern's use of footage and the implication therein. I view this as a stylistic question, Anderson views it as potentially disingenuous, aka "not truth-telling", also see "not journalistic". This last point is underlined by Anderson's pithy "if you want to create fiction, create fiction" and his lecture that documentary requires "rules".
But I'll end on Anderson's ongoing and exceedingly lonely campaign against BILLY THE KID. He must be quite baffled since he can't know "how anyone can defend it", yet it goes on to win awards at three major film festivals and receive mostly rave reviews. It must be quite cold out in that particular wilderness.
Anderson is perfectly entitled not to like BILLY. He could have panned BILLY at HotDocs because, quoting him, it didn't "happen to fit a particular critic's worldview" and no one would have paid much notice. But he went further, calling the film a freak-show (guess who's the freak) and comparing Billy (a 15-year old boy recently diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome) to the Virginia Tech shooter. That - in addition to his not knowing the difference between verite and direct cinema - was what enraged so many people.
Yet here, he goes further still. In a grotesque fit of pique, Anderson compares Billy to circus creatures, zoo animals and criminal miscreants. The same character that so many of us look at as somewhat noble and touching and slowly finding his way in the world, Anderson labels - over and over again - as a weirdo, a monstrosity, a mutant.
That says volumes about John Anderson. Volumes.
Not surprisingly, I stand firm on my original commentary.