Saturday, August 25, 2012

Writing Credits and the Twilight Zone

Tom Roston of The New York Times published an article today on questions about the writing credit in documentary. It's a good piece, and cites confusion even within the industry about this credit.  As someone who's been credited many times as a writer on documentaries (and received an Emmy for documentary writing), it seems like a no-brainer to me.  Lowell Peterson of the Writers Guild of America East put it well -- "Writing story outlines, the way you form a question, the arc you seek to traverse through your questions? That's writing."  Producers or directors may write their own films, or they may work with a writer.  Many editors contribute significantly to the work of the writer; they also contribute significantly to the work of the director (and vice versa).  As the article notes, the titles can be fluid, but the credited writer tends to be the person focused most specifically on story and structure, whether or not the documentary has narration. (And as noted in the article, the documentary world is filled with hybrids: people who produce, direct, write, and edit, in some combination.)

While judging documentary films at a festival last year, I was surprised to hear filmmakers struggling when they saw screenwriting credits, presuming that the films must have been invented, as a fictional film would be.  Disturbingly, it did sometimes mean this.  Apparently the definition of "documentary" has become a bit fluid, and some filmmakers are pushing the boundaries of documentary away from journalism and closer to art.  It's always been a bit of both, but the general expectation of audiences is that what is presented to them as documentary is truthful and real.  At the festival, though, many of the films we were judging had unclear boundaries between what was staged and what was not, and some seemed entirely built on situations constructed by the filmmakers. This may be creative filmmaking, but unless the audience is somehow in on these choices, it's deceitful. (In other words, the creative approach should be apparent, as it was for example in Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line or Ari Folman's animated film, Waltz with Bashir.)

There is no standard, but the discussion is an important one, whether or not it's couched in terms of what it means to write a documentary.  In The New Yorker (December 19, 1970), critic Pauline Kael took Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin to task for Gimme Shelter, a feature documentary of a free concert given by the Rolling Stones at New York's Altamont Speedway the previous December.  She called the film a "cinema-verite spectacular," charging that the events  it depicted (other than the murder) were entirely set up by the filmmakers. (The Maysles convincingly denied this accusation.)  In the article, Kael asked, "If events are created to be photographed, is the movie that records them a documentary, or does it function in a twilight zone?  Is it the cinema of fact when the facts are manufactured for the cinema?" 

It's a good question, one that I kept waiting for someone to ask in 2006, when Martin Scorcese directed his own film about the Rolling Stones -- and did exactly what Pauline Kael had accused the Maysles of doing.  According to Shauna Lyon's story in the The New Yorker, Scorcese's film was heavily staged.  The choice of theater (and architectural modifications to it), the choice of songs, even the age, looks, and outfits of the audience members were carefully controlled. The result was a kick-ass concert film and a portrayal of the Stones in performance, but should it be called a documentary, if the reality it documented was so significantly altered? 

To get back to the issue of writing.  As any documentary filmmaker knows, it's almost invariably necessary to think about what the film may become even before it's filmed, because that's generally the only way to raise money (and stay reasonably within budget and schedule).  You conduct research, you consider possible narrative structures (whether the film is about a contemporary social issue or a historical event), you propose a creative approach and discuss the evidence you will use.  You write outlines and treatments that you use for fundraising and planning.  And then the shooting begins, and everything changes again and again as documentary "evidence" -- the stuff of the film -- is gathered and editing gets underway.  Documentary writers can predict a range of outcomes, but they can't control them, and as the filming and editing progress, writers use their narrative skills -- and documentary ethics -- to shape stories that are compelling and -- this is the added challenge -- truthful to the events they depict. So it's not that reality is scripted in advance, in the way that Hollywood drama is scripted.  But documentary writing is another form of screenwriting, one that often draws on the tools of Hollywood (and Aristotle) to successfully reach and engage audiences.

Which is why I think Tom Roston's article is so timely, because in asking what it means to write a documentary, he raised an even bigger issue:  How do audiences, critics, and even filmmakers today define documentaries, and what distinguishes them not only from Hollywood fiction but also from the range of staged "reality" shows that dominate the airwaves? 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Interview with filmmaker Dai Sil Kim-Gibson

At the request of The Asian American Writers' Workshop, I'm pleased to post a link to an interview in "Open City" with filmmaker Dai Sil Kim-Gibson about her new memoir, Looking for Don: A Meditation:

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Getting to Sundance: Writing the Theatrical Documentary

Excerpts from an interview published online,, shortly before the feature documentary "Slavery by Another Name" premiered in competition at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

  There are a lot of misconceptions about documentary writing. One is that documentaries aren’t written, because people tend to think of film writing in Hollywood terms, where a fictional screenplay is completed before the cameras start to roll. How do you script real life or real interviews? So there’s a notion that documentary filmmaking is about showing up and shooting, or perhaps finding visuals to go with information. If there’s a writing credit, people think it refers only to traditional narration.

In fact, writing a documentary is similar to writing any work of creative nonfiction, in that it involves making narrative choices. Which stories will told? How will the work be structured? Who are the characters? What is the point of view? How will evidence be selected and presented? Every documentary film, to some extent, addresses these questions, whether or not a writer is credited. It's a collaborative process that begins well before footage is shot and, unlike Hollywood screenwriting, continues until the last days of editing. At that point, when the words and images are locked, you have a script.

Until then, you have a series of increasingly polished outlines and drafts that you revise to incorporate new research and incoming footage and other materials. It’s a lengthy process. As the writer on Slavery by Another Name, I worked for about a year with producer/director Sam Pollard in New York, co-executive producer Douglas A. Blackmon in Atlanta, and executive producer Catherine Allan in Minneapolis, and we’d all meet periodically in New York. The film elements include re-enactments, interviews with scholars and descendants, archival materials and images, and of course, music.

(full interview available online; view the entire film at

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Kony 2012 is many things, but not a documentary

Kony 2012 is many things, including an internet sensation that, according to CNN, has reached more than 70 million people by Saturday, March 10. But it is often referred to as a “documentary,” which is wrong. Kony 2012 is a highly-effective advocacy film by and about Invisible Children, to promote a campaign designed and led by Invisible Children. It does so using techniques that would undermine the power of an actual documentary: vague and unsupported evidence; weak or even invented opposition; manufactured reality that is then presented in documentary fashion.

The fact that Kony 2012 introduced some viewers to the brutality of Joseph Kony does not change the fact that it’s not a documentary. In fact, this film is not really about Kony, but is instead a promotional film about Invisible Children and its founders, who seem to claim that they alone see and have a solution to Kony’s brutality. The group first learned of Kony in 2003, and took what they’d witnessed to Washington. “We thought that if the government knew, they would do something to stop him. But everyone in Washington we talked to said there is no way the United States will ever get involved in a conflict where our national security or financial interests aren’t at stake.” Everyone? With whom did they actually meet, and what did these people say? We don’t know, because none of them is given a chance to speak. Instead, John Prendergast of Enough Project speaks for them: “No administration… would do enough because it’s simply not an important enough issue on the radar screen of American foreign policy.” This is the rallying cry of the film: the government won’t take action unless a global youth movement—designed and led by Invisible Children—demands that they do so. And that’s the purpose of this film: to recruit these youth.

Why a youth movement? It’s not clear, and here again, Russell uses vague assertions to give young viewers a sense of empowerment and urgency. Here is the film’s opening argument, delivered through narration: “Humanity’s greatest desire is to belong and connect….. And this connection is changing the way the world works. Governments are trying to keep up (keep up with what?), and older generations are concerned (concerned about what?).” Apparently, the message is that government and the older generation are intimidated by youthful internet activism, which Russell then underscores with a garbled and misleading edit: Over shots of policymakers in suits, we hear a news commentator who then appears in a story on “The Coming Collapse.” “Many people are very concerned about tomorrow // cause they could get worse next year,” the commentator says, and he seems to be discussing the economy, not some geriatric fear of youthful internet activists. Russell has no evidence for his statements, and instead seems to make them merely to manipulate the exuberance of youth. “The game has new rules,” he asserts without identifying the game, adding that the next 27 minutes—the remainder of the film—“are an experiment.” But this is also inexact writing: The experiment is not the film, it’s the campaign to be rolled out during 2012.

The campaign's urgency is heightened by the imposition of a seemingly arbitrary deadline,  December 31, 2012, the date by which Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army are to be stopped. This is to be achieved using strategies Russell teases at the film’s start and reveals toward its end: “In order for Kony to be arrested this year, the Ugandan military has to find him. In order to find him, they need the technology and training to track him in the vast jungle. That's where the American advisors come in. But in order for the American advisors to be there, the American government has to deploy them. They've done that, but if the government doesn't believe the people care about Kony, the mission will be cancelled. In order for the people to care, they have to know. And they will only know if Kony's name is everywhere.”

Let’s tease this apart. There is an assertion that without American advisors, the Ugandan military will be unable to find Kony. (Among the critics of this assertion is Angelo Opi-aiya Izama, a Ugandan journalist and recipient of a 2011 Knight fellowship. “To call the campaign a misrepresentation is an understatement,” he writes in his blog.) These advisors are already deployed, an action taken by President Obama in 2011, and one Russell seems to credit to Invisible Children's efforts since 2003: “After eight years of work, the government finally heard us,” Russell says “And in October of 2011, one hundred American advisors were sent into central Africa to assist the Ugandan army in arresting Kony and stopping the L.R.A.” [Kicking this into high gear, Russell then asserts: “It was the first time in history that the United States took that kind of action because the people demanded it, not for self defense but because it was right.”] Russell’s claim that “the mission will be cancelled” unless people speak out may be useful to the campaign, but is denied by the U.S. Department of State.

The lack of specificity throughout the film allows the creators to make assertions not only about the problem but also their unique ability to solve it. Much of the video is essentially an infomercial, complete with the kind of music that plays under late night public service announcements or political campaign ads. “Since the government said it was impossible, we didn’t know what else to do but tell everyone we could about Jacob [a former child soldier] and the invisible children,” Russell narrates. “And when we did, people were shocked, and their awareness turned into action. We started something: a community…” We learn that Jacob “and other Ugandans” came to the U.S., although there are no details about when they came or why, where they went, or how this came about. “We were committed to stop Kony and rebuild what he had destroyed. And because we couldn’t wait for institutions or governments to step in (implying again that no one, in the northern or southern hemisphere, was addressing this issue), we did it ourselves, with our time, talent, and money. So we rebuilt schools…We created jobs… And we built an early warning radio network on the front line of the war to protect villages from rebel attacks. All of this was funded by an army of young people who put their money towards their belief in the value of all human life…” No details are offered about quantity, quality, or location of these schools and jobs, and questions about the how the money has been spent have been raised; see for example Alexander Abad-Santos’s report in The Atlantic Wire.)

The brilliance of Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 promotional film is how well it leverages the power of social media to give viewers a sense that they can belong to a youthful, global, caring community through minimal effort. Just tweet or otherwise contact 20 celebrities (“culture makers”) and 12 policymakers—all of whom have been identified by Invisible Children—and share the video. As viral marketing, it's brilliant. But as documentary, the video being shared offers minimal information and a damaging, stereotypical distortion of “Africa” as a monolithic entity that lacks agency and resources. It eschews accepted standards of ethical practice in documentary filmmaking in general, such as those discussed in Honest Truths, a 2009 report by the Center for Social Media at American University (on which I served as an advisor), and ethnographic filmmaking in particular. Objectification of subjects, presentation of half-truths and misleading statements, misuse of evidence and possibly even the manufacture of evidence are among practices discouraged.

Jacob Acaye’s story is heartbreaking. But the strategies used to raise awareness of issues he faced as a child (Acaye himself is now a law student in Uganda, according to the Guardian and other journals) significantly undermine the film’s authenticity and usefulness. “No one wants a boring documentary on Africa,” Russell explained in an interview with The New York Times’ reporters Josh Kron and J. David Goodman. “Maybe we have to make it pop, and we have to make it cool.” But as the work of documentarians Alex Gibney, Errol Morris, Deborah Scranton, Stanley Nelson, Susan Froemke, Michael Glawogger, and countless others demonstrates, good documentaries—actual documentaries—are not short on creativity, or pop, or cool.  But if they're intended to speak truth to power, they're also filled with clear, evidence-based truth.

Sunday, January 1, 2012