Cannes: 'By Sidney Lumet' Doc Captures the Helmer's Radical, American Vision

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
'By Sidney Lumet'

Nancy Buirski's film on the director of '12 Angry Men' and 'Dog Day Afternoon' premiered at the Cannes festival.

For true film aficionados, the Cannes premiere of Nancy Buirski's By Sidney Lumet, was a rare treat: an inside look of the director of such 1970s American classics as Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico and Network.

It was also an example of the new golden age of documentaries, made possible by new digital cameras and lower production costs along with a growing market for intelligent non-fiction, particularly on U.S. TV.

“Documentaries, thank God, have now become affordable, compared to some of the other movies we are making,” said By Sidney Lumet executive producer Brett Ratner, whose RatPac Documentary shingle co-produced the film for American Masters on PBS. “The price point for making documentaries now is such that I can just make it and worry about selling it later.”

Judging by the critical response to By Sidney Lumet in Cannes, the doc should have little problem finding a home outside the U.S., at least among high-end TV broadcasters. Framed around an exhaustive video interview with Lumet recorded three years before his death in 2011, the film delves into the making of some of the director's greatest works, many of which, according to Lumet, came about as much by luck as by design. A fact, Buirski says, that should encourage young filmmakers.

“It should be very heartening because you do have to pay attention to luck, and things can happen most unexpectedly,” she told THR. Buirski noted her first doc, the Emmy-winning The Loving Story (2013) came about when she stumbled upon a obituary of Mildred Loving, the black woman at the center of a landmark 1967 Supreme Court case that legalized interracial marriage.

“I thought, my God how is it that there (isn't a documentary film) on the Lovings. So I quickly did a search and, sure enough, there wasn’t. So that was very lucky. I basically I optioned the book on them in one day.”

Like The Loving Story, By Sidney Lumet focuses on themes of social justice. Although the late director insisted his films did not carry a moral message, he acknowledges in the documentary that a “bedrock concern for fairness” was a primary motivation.

“I believe, in a way, that was the tension for him. For him it was always about getting the job, doing the job, and doing a good job, so he could make the next movie,” says Buirski. “(But) underneath it all, here’s a man who grew up as a young child in poverty on the Lower East Side, in a stern moral Jewish home. And you can be sure that a lot of those moral principles came from that experience.”

Films of the kind Sidney Lumet made have all but disappeared from studio slates, but documentaries akin to By Sidney Lumet: intelligent, socially-relevant and formally experimental, are on the rise.

“HBO and Netflix, in particular are investing in documentaries, but also new players like Showtime and CNN,” says Ratner. “I think the market is going to keep growing and expanding. Even the networks, I think, will see the opportunity. There is a huge audience that is tuning in to see docs. Some of the greatest filmmaking, most innovative filmmaking right now is coming in the documentary world.” Ratner cites HBO's documentary crime soap The Jinx and Brett Morgen's rock doc Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck as recent examples of filmmakers stretching the non-fiction form. RatPac Documentary currently has 12 films at various stages of development and production.

“I always say filmmaking is my job and documentaries are my hobby, because I love it so much,” says Ratner, whose behind-the-camera credits include Tower Heist, Hercules and the Rush Hour films.

Buirski, who says she learned “everything” about moviemaking from watching and listening to Lumet, thinks the late director can still be an inspiration for directors who want to make socially relevant, but still commercially successful movies.

“I think people try. I don’t know if they’re successful (but) I do think it’s possible,” she says. “His films were studio films and ... I think that we obviously live in a society where the tentpole movie is, for studios, the big deal. So I think we'll see it more in the independent realm, and that means one has to be very careful, financially. But we’re making a narrative version of The Loving Story (starring Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton) and in many ways I think it’s going to be similar to the types of films that Sydney made.”

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