GLOBAL JOURNALIST: The future of documentary filmmaking

Friday, August 27, 2010 | 2:52 p.m. CDT

Charles Davis, associate professor, Missouri School of Journalism: Today we’re talking about documentary film and its power to change the world.

Liz Lance, master’s student and "Global Journalist" producer, Missouri School of Journalism: "The Cove" is an Oscar-winning documentary that investigates dolphin hunting in Taiji, a fishing town in southern Japan. Worldwide, the film has drawn attention to illegal whaling, and within Japan, it has created a cultural maelstrom. Japanese media for the first time have begun to cover this contentious issue. In the past, any criticism of the country’s fishermen has largely been taboo.


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Davis: In "Burma VJ," undercover reporters also risk their lives, this time by catching video of mass uprisings. While a number of "Burma VJ" reporters are in jail and the junta remains in power, the plight of the Burmese people has been brought to the world’s attention.

Lance: So what role does documentary film play in telling international stories that are overlooked by the mainstream press? How do those films spur these issues to reach wider audiences? And are these documentary films able to affect environmental, social and political change that they often set out to do?

Davis: Our guests today have used the power of the documentary to raise awareness and ultimately to spur change. First, here in Columbia we have the co-founder of Columbia’s own True/False Film Festival, David Wilson.

Lance: By phone, we have Louie Psihoyos. His film "The Cove" won the 2010 Academy Award for best documentary. And Anders Østergaard, whose film "Burma VJ" was nominated for an Academy Award this year, also joins us by telephone. So we want to start by talking about the role that documentary film plays in telling stories that don’t usually get coverage in the mainstream press. Louie, what were you able to do with "The Cove" that the press had not been able to do?

Louie Psihoyos, director of "The Cove": Even before the movie came out, because of our work, we were able to stop the sale of toxic dolphin meat to tens of thousands of schoolchildren throughout Japan. All dolphin meat these days is toxic — not just a little bit but through the roof — fifteen to 5,000 times more toxic than allowed by Japanese law. This is essentially being force-fed to schoolchildren for school lunch programs. We put an end to it. There are a lot of different issues brought up in making a movie. Ours isn’t just about saving dolphins; it is about trying to save humanity and the oceans. We try to do that through filmmaking. I call films weapons of mass construction. You drop a bomb; you kill people. You make a movie; you create allies.

Davis: Anders Østergaard, you and Louie Psihoyos both employ radical filmmaking techniques. I would say Louie does more so with capturing footage and you do in editing. You engage in these lengthy re-enactments of conversations between reporters on the streets of Rangoon and the reporter called Joshua who was in Thailand at the time. Please talk about that technique and how it represents a new area in documentary filmmaking.

Anders Østergaard, director of "Burma VJ": I’m not sure if it is entirely new. The idea of re-enacting was done by the founder of the documentary, mainly (Robert) Flaherty back in the 1920s, so this has been part of documentary filmmaking all the time. This very hot footage from the streets combined with the re-enactments make the film a special mix. In our case, most of this footage had already been shown on the news channels internationally back in 2007. But by showing what was happening behind the scene, we were able to bring new life into the Burmese issue.

Lance: David Wilson, you’ve seen local audiences grow with the True/False Film Festival. In the past seven years since you’ve been running that festival, how have you seen documentary film change, and how have you seen audience reactions to those films change?

David Wilson, co-founder of the True/False Festival: I like to think that here in Columbia at least, and Columbia as representative of the U.S. in general, there is increasing media literacy. Audiences are willing to think critically about the film. If you look at some other countries, the field of media literacy is a lot further ahead than it is in the U.S., and it is still really growing here. With the True/False, we want audiences to question everything and understand that all of these films are going to have elements of truth and elements of fiction.

Lance: As you were making your films, how important was the entertainment part of the filmmaking process to reach a wider audience? Do you think that your viewers want some education with their entertainment or entertainment with their education? How did that affect how you put your films together? Louie, we can start with you.

Psihoyos: In our case, it was essential. I love documentaries, but I think the public views documentaries as the Brussels sprouts of media. It is going to be good for you, but you’re really not looking forward to it. What makes our film a bit different than a lot of the others is that it feels like an "Ocean's Eleven," which starts out by saying, “we tried to do the story legally.” And so you know you’re going to witness a crime. We didn’t start out to make a movie like that, but we combined the making of movie with the actual story of "The Cove," and we had a sort of hybrid documentary and so it sold like a feature film. George Cooney at the Academy Award said this is more exciting than"Ocean's Eleven" because it’s real. I think all documentaries have to keep that in mind; for us we’re educating, but for the rest of the world, they’re mostly seeing documentaries as a form of entertainment. I think there is a fraction of the people that watch documentaries and take them seriously. What you want to do is more than just preach to the choir. You want to try to reach a bigger audience than the people who are already converted.

Lance: And Anders, what would you say about combining education and entertainment in the making of your film? How has that allowed you to reach wider audiences?

Østergaard: I certainly agree that you have to do it to reach the audience. You shouldn’t put the burden of making sense of something on the audience. That is your duty as a filmmaker. But I don’t see it as a compromise. I am excited about telling a good story as an audience is at watching it. That is the core of filmmaking.

Psihoyos: Whether it is television, print journalism, feature film or book, it’s about the story. Otherwise, it is like homework. You want to tell a compelling story. Something with a distinct beginning, middle and end. That is what drives people to spend $10 for 90 minutes.

Østergaard: We are appealing to the basic instinct in man from when we were sitting around the campfire in the Stone Age. We shouldn’t digress from that because that is where the energy is.

Davis: David, how much do you think this has to do with the faltering of magazines and traditional news media? Is documentary film emerging as the place for this long-form narrative?

Wilson: Sure, if you look at the history of documentary and especially on television, long-form documentaries were regularly part of news out of news-gathering teams and out of the networks even. As news moved toward being more sound-bitey, more a slave to a 24-hour news cycle, documentaries stopped being part of that. That doesn’t mean that people don’t have the desire for these long-form investigations. It just means that those had to migrate elsewhere.

Lance: Anders, documentary film can be an activist, agenda-driven medium, but it can also seek to make a historical record. What were you trying to do with "Burma VJ," and how did you gauge your success at that?

Østergaard: I was sometimes surprised how people would equate the documentary film with activism, as if there was no difference at all. There is nothing wrong with that approach, but it is just very different from my tradition. From where I come from, it is a cinematic genre. It is an artistic genre with its own purpose of telling stories, not necessarily to achieve a specific goal. So I didn’t set an activist goal of what I wanted to achieve. I was just fascinated by the courage of my main characters and the story and the way it discusses fear and courage almost on a mythological level, beyond politics.

Lance: How would you gauge the success then? Do you feel you have been successful in what you have tried to do with the film?

Østergaard: Essentially in the sense that I didn’t have a specific goal, I couldn’t help to be successful. It was a whole new experience for me. I tried to protect my artistic integrity. I didn’t sit down with a lot of activists to discuss how the film should be made. I made my own story, and that is actually adding something to the cause in a much stronger way than if you think like an activist.

Davis: Louie, you have been quoted saying that you didn’t want to make a movie so much as to create a movement. How does documentary film lend to this effort? Can you say that documentary film is superior to other forms of investigative reportage?

Psihoyos: Well, this is my first film, so I don’t have this long history of documentary filmmaking. But certainly with "The Cove" and the next movie we’re trying to make, it’s all about trying to move the needle. In our case, I wanted the film to be sort of psychotherapy for the masses because I look at film as a very powerful means of social change. People aren’t reading anymore. And it’s not going to electronics; they’re not buying books. They’re not being educated. We’re scattered, and for 90 minutes of a feature film documentary, you have a chance to move people’s hearts and minds in a very profound way. So I set out with a very deliberate intention of not manipulating the audience but to tell the story in the most impactful way so that when people get out of there, they feel like they’re different. You’ve challenged your own beliefs, and you went from point A to point B. People come out of the film, and I hear all kinds of stories — that is the last time I ever eat a piece of fish; I’ll never go to a dolphin park again. What I am trying to do is awaken people with a sense of purpose.

Davis: David, do you feel like the term "documentary film" has changed for filmgoers over the past 10 or 15 years? Where were we, and where are we now?

Wilson: I would hope it has. I think you have here today two examples of films that are really different. They have very different filmmaking styles, although they end up in similar places. No longer are documentaries seen as, as Louie said, the Brussels sprouts of cinema. Nor are documentaries sort of the Second Wave as when Michael Moore, who deserves huge credit for bringing attention to the field and the genre, makes what he calls editorials. And what films like "The Cove" and "Burma VJ" are doing and what we hope to do at True/False are just expand those definitions. Always be pushing and spreading the boundaries and allowing for more kinds of films. I think the one danger in people feeling like documentaries can change the world is that there is a sense in the U.S. right now that funding for documentaries is all about changing the world. If you want to tell the story, say of two shut-in old women living their life out in the Hamptons in New York, there’s no money for that. And if you don’t have money for that, we never get "Grey Gardens."

Lance: It is interesting to think about how documentary film has shifted its meaning. I am curious to ask our filmmakers how you think documentary film has shifted the paradigm of how history is recorded and retold?

Østergaard: I think documentary is finding its own feet vis-à-vis journalism. Documentaries are allowed to interpret and be engaged in different ways than journalism is. That is some territory that we need to re-conquer, because the word "documentary" has for a long time been associated with a journalistic feature. As Dave was talking about, there is a growing media literacy of the genre. People are beginning to understand that this subjective interpretation has a lot of relevance and is very important.

Davis: Louie, there has been quite a controversy over the screening of "The Cove," with some theaters refusing to screen the film and others with protesters amassing at the cinemas. Overall, what is your sense of how the Japanese have reacted to the film?

Psihoyos: They were successful at keeping the film out of about three out of 22 theaters. But that sparked this free speech debate within Japan that invigorated an audience that we couldn’t ever have had if that wouldn’t have happened. So, unwittingly, the protestors created the equivalent of a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign that we couldn’t have crafted in our wildest dreams. In our case, it really worked in our favor that we had all these protests, but our film is selling out at small theaters throughout Japan. I was there at the Tokyo Film Festival in October, and we had more press than "Avatar" at that point. It was controversial. People had said in America that it’s a great film, but to really make a difference you’re going to have to have the film shown in Japan and that will never happen. And I have learned to not believe people who seemed to know more than me because the film has an incredible amount of awareness in Japan. I think we can move the needle once it gets out in DVD. I think the business model for documentaries is broken. It is very difficult to make money on a doc. There are a few — "March of the Penguins," the Michael Moore films — but that is like saying we’re going to go to Reno and put all of our money on black. The only reason I do it is to try to make a difference. You don’t do it to try to make money. This film won over 75 awards a few months ago, but we never made any money. I’m still $2.4 million in debt. That is a lot of money for a documentary, but I had some good friends with money who wanted, along with me, to try to move the needle. But that is how I measure success — not the butts in the seats but how you change people’s perceptions.

Østergaard: I have exactly the same story to tell, that "Burma VJ" has not made a penny. The life it is living out there has no commercial aspect because we’re basically giving it away to all kinds of screenings.

Lance: Anders, I would like to follow up with you about the screening of the film in Burma. Have the Burmese had an opportunity to see the film through the Democratic Voice of Burma or through other means?

Østergaard: Yes, the DVD was out about half a year back now. And it is generally available on the black market if you dare buy it. But it is out there and particularly during the Oscar process, we felt how a large Burmese audience was following this and was crossing their fingers.

Lance: What is the state of the Democratic Voice of Burma today?

Østergaard: When they went through this operation of covering the uprising in 2007, it was badly damaged. Lots of people were arrested and the networks were broken up, but they have been able to reconstruct and recruit a whole new generation inspired by this. They ended up being in even better shape than before, so the future looks bright.

Davis: I would like to ask both of our filmmakers, what’s next?

Østergaard: I am taking a sabbatical where I am busy teaching and mentoring documentary because there are so many things I want to pass on.

Davis: Do you have a documentary idea in your back pocket?

Østergaard: I always have, but I need it to mature for a long while in my case.

Davis: Louie, what about you?

Psihoyos: It is hard to talk about your next child when you’re in the middle of childbirth, but the film has been out for a couple of years. The working title of the next film is called "The Singing Planet" and comes from a line of a professor of sound. He says that about everything in the planet has been singing; we just haven’t been listening. Everything from insects to blue whales has a voice. We not only share DNA with chimpanzees, but we have the same source of life, from the first two cells that broke apart billions of years ago and right now we’re going through a massive extinction event caused by humanity. There have been five major extinctions in the past in world history. We’re going through a sixth one now. Over half of the species on the planet will be extinguished by the end of the century. I want to wake people up to the idea that burning fossil fuels is killing the oceans. It is killing the biodiversity of life. Our very behavior, what we think makes us successful, is destroying half the species on the planet. But I am wrapping it around like a positive message that here is the solution. The solutions are almost comical. I’m now in Boulder, Colo., and we powered our movie on solar energy. I just got a check for $1,600 from the electric company for generating my own electricity. It is a simple solution to a huge problem, and that is what the film is about — a massive extinction and trying to make it entertaining. Right now I am just trying to cast a big net around the subject and see what comes back in. Halfway through the making of "The Cove," we did a carbon assessment of what it would cost to make our movie, and I was shocked. It was 646 tons of carbon into the atmosphere to make this film. The worst thing you could do to the environment would be make a film about it. But we changed where we got our energy, and we now generate 140 percent of our energy needs. I have two electric cars I’m looking at right now in the lot. One has a license plate that says "VUS," which stands for Vehicle Using Sun. It is the opposite of an SUV.

Lance: David, we’ve heard from Anders that he is beginning to teach the next generation, and you certainly run in a crowd of filmmakers. What can we see in the future for documentary film?

Wilson: I think we’re in an exciting time for documentary film. Today’s guests are perfect examples of filmmakers who are pushing the bar higher, and that is something we hear all the time at True/False. Filmmakers come in and say now the bar is higher. You can’t just have a great story or an important issue. You have to make it beautiful. You have to make it compelling. We’re in a renaissance of documentary craft, and it is a very exciting time to work in the field.

Davis: As we’ve learned, the documentary, with its growing mass appeal, can create social and political change but not without powerful, unforgettable sounds and the courage of those who are willing to venture out into the field to bring these stories back to you and me, the viewing public.

Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Ryan Kresse, Liz Lance, Youn-Joo Park, Tim Wall, Rebecca Wolfson and Kuba Wuls. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.

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