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December 04, 2007


Christopher Wong

Amen, and amen, and amen. Beautifully expressed, AJ. Don't know if you listen to Larry Mantle's AirTalk film reviews every Friday, but the critics on that show are guilty as charged, (mostly) only discussing the merits of a film's topic rather than the actual film itself! Grrrrrrr.....


Here's another amen to all that. I will be writing extensively on these issues because a lot of what I heard at IDFA is still really missing the mark on what we need to be concentrating on right now. The filmmakers on the other side of the pond task themselves with thinking and writing about the more important issues involved in crafting effective and emotionally-engaging work that will thrill a movie-goer just as much as any narrative blockbuster.

The issues are not going to go away or change much, okay? Just check the history books. But we're so able to step up aesthetically and artistically and that's what we should be encouraging. Not damning someone for questionable "ethics" (I'm really beginning to hate that word and the way people are bastardizing it), but damning them for shoddy storytelling. No more shaky hand-held shit for a bit, right?


Your discussion of John Anderson's own "major fallacy" -- conflating verite and Direct Cinema -- is a very important one. This very issue came up over and over during IDFA panels and "talk shows" with Werner Herzog, in usual dramatic form, calling the old "fly-on-the-wall" claim to be "retarded."

When you write that: "The problem for Anderson seems to be that this - setting up a scene or knowing that characters are going to be in a certain place and preparing for it - is somehow breaking the rules." it reminds me of Hubert Sauper's(director of DARWIN'S NIGHTMARE) rather insightful comment that, if he is in fact, a fly on the wall, he is a fly that buzzes around, gets attention, and changes the environment. If John Anderson thinks that setting up scenes or acting on pre-ordained knowledge of a situation is unethical or makes for bad filmmaking, he should rethink his stellar reviews of Michael Moore's films.
I wonder if consistency of criticism levelled was discussed in Anderson's forum.


AJ, nice piece. I agree that craft is monumentally important and that we should be careful about what Errol Morris called the "Mother Teresa school of filmmaking." However, what do you make of Matt Mahruin’s “I Like Killing Flies?” From a craft stand point, the cinematography leaves a lot to be desired, but it is one of the most entertaining and insightful docs I have ever seen. Furthermore, whatever shortcomings it has are the result of a one-man production crew, but at the same time it is a film that could not have been made any other way. Is “Flies” less of a film, though entertaining, simply because it doesn’t have the production values (and budget) of a beautifully shot film, like say, “Kurt Cobain: About a Son?”


just my own personal opinion, and not speaking for AJ, but...

while i haven't seen "Flies", I have seen numerous other recent docs that had "less than wonderful" production values (to be kind), and many of them have been quite good. One such example is "Street Fight" -- a really incredible journey into the Newark mayoral race that was shot by the director himself. Lots of very shaky handheld work and nothing that would ever win a craft award in terms of cinematography.

It doesn't become "less" of a film, but certainly it could have been "more" in my opinion. Except for the part where the director gets manhandled by the incumbent mayor's security personnel, there's nothing in the film which is aided by amateur camerawork. While Street Fight was wonderful to watch, it wasn't beautiful.

Haven't seen AJ's film either, but obviously "About a Son" is way on the other end of production values. I don't think most filmmakers could achieve that, especially with live and unpredictable subjects. But I think we all hope for docs which have both good stories and at least decent camerawork, where image often enhances the experience.

Certainly, those (like About a Son and Manda Bala) who do manage to achieve a visual "superiority" (for lack of a better word) should be recognized for their work. Little gold statuettes would be a great start!


Christopher, I agree that craft should be recognized, (I thought the DP on MARCH OF THE PENGUINS was the one who deserved an Oscar). My concern is with the thought that craft should be elevated over content.

Take the “controversial” scene in BILLY THE KID. I noticed the multiple camera angles, and for a moment was pulled out of the experience. But I also knew from having filmed teenagers for a doc that it is nearly impossible for them to “act” spontaneous, and that the director had to have simply shot a lot of coverage of the scene (and the editor had to have done a superior job putting it together so that it felt seamless). Maybe its something the average filmgoer would never notice, and so it clearly works. But, it did pull me out of the experience. It just seems to me that the imperfections that inevitably show up when shooting unscripted events are part of the grammar of documentary filmmaking. They tell the audience that what they are watching is real. And it is frustrating for me, as a filmmaker, to get feedback about how the lighting wasn’t perfect in that one scene, or the camera lost focus a few times.

I agree with AJ’s comments on the shortlist. I don’t think KING OF KONG should be discarded simply because it isn’t about an important social issue. But for me, I think more than the debate between content and craft, the question should be which films are the most entertaining. Regardless of their imperfections, or how perfect the cinematography is.


Well, I think the complication here is even deeper then AJ gives it credit and that's why Christopher brings up "Street Fight". Because ultimately, the most important part of craft is being able to tell a story well. Fancy editing, beautiful cinematography, etc mean very little in the service of an awkwardly told story. Conversely, a well told story like Street Fight can plow through stylistic concerns because, well, great storytelling is a style! We need to be careful on the documentary filmmaking side not to get into the same silly divisions critics are in. If narrative film can embrace everything from John Cassavetes to Mumblecore to Star Wars to Harmony Korine, so can documentary. If a film captures you, it's because it's well-crafted, period. How many of us have seen terrible documentaries that were impossible to watch but afterwards you said "What a wasted opportunity!" Not enough credit is given to the immense time and talent it takes to get a coherent story out of 200 hours of footage...

One other note, I wrote an article for Filmmaker magazine this last issue that directly addressed John Anderson's attack on Billy the Kid and just the thorny issues about criticism that AJ is plunging into so thoughtfully here...good to see more filmmakers speaking up on this topic!

TS Gordon

Nice thoughts. I've often wondered what it would take to change the entire televised format of the Oscars. What would it take to move completely away from the patent red-carpet, De La Renta hype? Or how about the de-Foxification of the nightly News? How come they have to advertise what the news highlights are, and never get around to actually producing a simple News Hour?

Whoooosh, - audio-hype from hell...

We, (us adults) grew-up in a world where craft was important. And while a lot of people are citing M.Moore, I think you have to consider Jason Burmas and the YouTube generation as having far greater importance to the Indies, looking forward, as the participants themselves dare admit. There are just two forms of art left. Overproduced self-indulgent entertainment, and Underproduced self-indulgent garbage. It's systemic of the "One-Media,-One God" culture that we've accepted, or at least allowed to run rough-shod over the world.

A revolution is in order, but it will come as all artists simply opt-out of the bull*, and refuse to produce, or at least show their work at all.

john anderson

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.


John Anderson's further conversation in this matter is proof positive that the most interesting thoughts come from people with the most knowledge about the issue.

AJ Schnack

I have reposted John Anderson's response to it's own post, where I have also posted my repsonse to his comments. I invite you to leave further comments to Anderson's post there.

Also, forgive me for not responding earlier to the give-and-take above. Suffice to say that while I don't think STREET FIGHT is a triumph of cinematography (nor was it meant to be), it's exceptionally well edited. I may not have put STREET FIGHT in my top 10 list for that year, but it was certainly one of the better docs I saw.

I've never argued that craft should - or can - exist without content, or that docs should be judged purely on craft alone (although there should be prizes for editing and cinematography that solely judge the finest work). My argument is that we can't judge solely by content - or look at a poorly constructed "issue" doc in one way and everything else in another - which is what crtiics like Anderson freely admit to doing.

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