Roundtable: 6 Documentarians on Lance Armstrong's Lies and Alec Baldwin's Secret Talent
Alex Gibney ("The Armstrong Lie"), Errol Morris ("The Unknown Known"), Morgan Neville ("20 Feet From Stardom"), Teller ("Tim's Vermeer"), James Toback ("Seduced and Abandoned") and Lucy Walker ("The Crash Reel") tell the truth about telling the truth in THR's first documentarian roundtable.
Walker: I had an interesting situation with my second film, Blindsight. The film was about a mountain climb that goes wrong. And there's a wonderful showdown at 23,000 feet between a blind American mountaineer, a blind German, a bunch of blind Tibetan students … and everyone starts letting fly [with arguments over whether they're endangering lives]. And I had not showed it to anybody before the premiere, and then they were all there. But what was fantastic was that everybody came up to me afterwards so happy with how they'd been edited, but so worried about how everybody else must feel. I thought, "Gosh, I must be doing a good job because that is reality."
Morris: Part of what I think my job is, for better or for worse, is to capture the complexity of my characters …
Morris: … And the complexity of the environment. I like to remind myself that I am a filmmaker for better or for worse and not a social worker.
Gibney: There is a problem now in terms of expectation of what a documentary is supposed to do, and it comes in part from 60 Minutes. Michael Arlen, a long time ago, wrote a great piece in The New Yorker called "The Prosecutor," about how 60 Minutes sets up this prosecutorial environment. The idea of thumbs up, thumbs down, instant opinion; it's a drag. Because a lot of what I think the people at this table do is to reveal. And sometimes what you reveal is not a simple answer. Sometimes it's ambiguity. Sometimes it's mystery.
Morris: Hollywood movies imitate documentaries almost endlessly: the use of available light, handheld cameras, so on and so forth. And there is this expectation that documentaries should imitate Hollywood movies. They should have redemptive endings. They should obey certain rules of dramaturgy. They should provide certain levels of audience satisfaction. In short, they should become extended versions of Free Willy. (Laughter.) And the very thought of that just fills me with a kind of horror.
Some years back, Errol's film The Thin Blue Line wasn't nominated for an Academy Award, which stirred up a lot of controversy. Do you think the Academy is doing a better job now of recognizing the best docs?
Walker: I am just grateful to the Academy for recognizing documentary features and shorts, which I also think are becoming more vital again.
Toback: They should give it a lot more prominence than they do.
Morris: I'm now a member of the Academy, and I wrote in as the best film of the year [in 2009] -- not best documentary, but best film -- [Sacha Baron Cohen's] Bruno. And someone asked me, "How could you do such a thing? This is unspeakable." (Laughter.) I said, "Well, there was a very simple reason. It was the best film of the year." Aside from that fact, it's a great documentary. There are things that are happening in that film which are clearly unscripted -- things that capture something about the real world that perhaps is distasteful, but it's also extremely funny and revealing.