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With an Academy Award under his belt and a production company that routinely works with top distributors, Alex Gibney is one of the privileged few name brands in documentary film. After helming a long list of films and series focused on corporate and institutional malfeasance and public figures’ moral ambiguities (The Trials of Henry Kissinger, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, Taxi to the Dark Side), Gibney’s credit has come to typify documentary’s capacity for rigorous investigative work.
Still, the director and his company, Jigsaw Productions, aren’t immune to the ups and downs of today’s corporate entertainment landscape. Even as streamers continue to fuel audience and buyer interest in docs, industry titans are consolidating and cost-cutting as Wall Street grows more bearish on streaming and a potential recession lingers on the horizon. “There’s simply fewer buyers. And that’s a huge concern,” Gibney says of recent corporate amalgamations like the Warner Bros.-Discovery merger, whose aftereffects have included onetime doc powerhouse CNN Films ending its work with outside producers.
On Nov. 12, Gibney will attend Poland’s EnergaCamerimage International Film Festival to receive the Camerimage Award for Outstanding Achievements in Documentary Filmmaking, rewarding his work as “an investigative filmmaker whose oft-controversial films reveal both the ugly and the beautiful sides of the modern world.” In its retrospective, the festival will showcase his film about the Donald Trump White House’s response to COVID-19, Totally Under Control; the portrait of Putin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Citizen K; We Steal Secrets, a deep dive on Wikileaks’ origins; and U.S. torture exposé Taxi to the Dark Side.
Before he left for Poland, Gibney spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the award as well as the current state of the documentary market at large and why he believes “it’s incumbent upon filmmakers to operate less like armies and more like guerilla bands” in the current climate.
Camerimage has said that in your appearance at the festival that you will discuss “the power, responsibility and ethos of a documentary filmmaker.” Given that documentary right now refers to such a broad umbrella of subgenres, what is the responsibility of a documentary filmmaker at the moment, in your view?
Ha! That’s a big question and I guess the simple answer is to make good films and truthful films. I think the definition of documentary is properly broad — I think they’re films, they’re cinema. And so the question is how can you fulfill the bargain with the audience in a way to take them on a journey and ask them provocative questions by showing images that provoke them to think about important issues? And many of my films are films about moral inquiry and I think about that a lot. But I also think in this moment in time, generally speaking, my films are meant not to supply easy answers. And I think one of the issues we face in this moment in time, on the planet, is so many of us are locked in prisons of belief, to use a phrase from one of my films. And we’re starting to see the world in terms of black and white. I think, while I’m a big fan of black and white cinema (laughs), I think even the best black and white cinema showed powerful shades of gray which is designed to illuminate who we are as human beings. And that’s ultimately the thing that’s going to bring us together. It’s not that issues aren’t important and it’s not important to fight for causes. As human beings, I think we’re deeply flawed but the greatness about us is that we have the capacity to imagine a moral universe and to change. But only by recognizing our own fallibility, can we reach our potential. That’s a long-winded fucking answer to your simple question. If you can make any sense of that, then god bless you.
You’re known and being honored in part at Camerimage for your investigative work. What have been the most challenging investigations, or which ones you’ve learned the most from ,that you’ve undertaken in your career?
Taxi to the Dark Side, Going Clear, Wikileaks [We Steal Secrets] and The Forever Prisoner — those were all hugely difficult. And they were difficult often because it was hard to actually get people to talk and hard to get the information you needed to tell the story because a lot of it was intentionally kept secret. But the most important thing I learned in investigative works was about human nature and the capacity for self-deception and what the police call “noble cause corruption” — the idea that the ends justify the means, that if you’re in pursuit of a noble cause, anything you do is inherently moral. Obviously in Taxi to the Dark Side, that’s the issue surrounding torture, that because you believe that we’re on the right side, it gives us the right to torture people, even though the very people who embarked on that policy knew that torture yields information designed to flatter the torturer, rather than to provide the essence of a kind of deeply investigative set of facts, which can really lead you to the truth. So that is a really terrifying idea, that we engage in brutality in order to be flattered and in order to justify our own beliefs rather than to find the truth. So I guess what I would say is, in those difficult investigations where you’re investigating facts and you’re investigating testimony and also having to reckon with the fact that people either don’t remember properly or are lying to you, nevertheless they taught me a lot about human nature more than just the facts of the matter. And I tried to reflect that in the films that I did.
What’s your take on the state of investigative work in documentaries, compared to how that space has been in previous decades? Is it a time where you’re seeing a lot of strong work that really challenges powerful individuals and entities, and that work is being supported properly, or not?
I am seeing some strong work in that regard, but I would say it’s not being properly supported. I think that we’re in an era now when the documentary couldn’t be more popular, and also, to some extent, financially viable. You’re seeing documentary deals that wouldn’t have been imaginable — with the possible exception of Michael Moore films — years ago. When I was starting out, my wife would always remind me, whenever I was going on a job interview, to please never mention the word “documentary.” So now you see lots of money flowing from huge corporations, but also there’s a vested interest in those big corporations in not wanting to offend anybody. Well, when you’re chronicling abuses of power, that’s precisely the point. I have [Werner] Herzog on the mind because he was just given this career achievement award by DOC NYC, and I was at some event, I was sharing a stage with him, and he said something like, “A lot of people like being a fly on the wall” — talking about documentarians — “I say, don’t be a fly, be a wasp and sting!” (Laughs.)
When you’re chronicling abuses of power, you have to sting. That’s what you do, to illuminate the world around you and to shine a spotlight on injustice. The way it works is nobody comes out with a corporate statement that says, “We’re not going to do any films that offend anybody,” but when it comes to pitch time and you have a really dramatic story that involves taking on powerful forces, they just don’t get funded. So the ones that do get funded are the true crime with no consequences. And by the way, I love true crime, but I’m interested in true crime of consequence: Crime of the Century is about true crime, but it’s about how pharmaceutical companies use political power to murder people for profit. Well, that’s not a happy story and it’s also not one that’s just going to goose people, it takes you someplace. And then there’s the profile of famous people. So, great. But I think that we’re in a moment now, particularly as also conglomerates are in the midst of buying and selling each other and consolidating — you can see layoffs here, layoffs there — I think that it’s incumbent upon filmmakers to operate less like armies and more like guerrilla bands. You have to keep close to the ground, hide in the shadow of night and move forward quietly, even as you’re preparing explosive films.
I want to get back to the moves of the conglomerates in a bit, but right now, a different question: There’s been a recent trend toward adapting documentaries specifically as limited scripted series.
Yup, I’m familiar with that, since somebody did that on one of mine, just didn’t bother to pay me.
Interesting. Can you say which one?
Yeah, it was The Inventor [Gibney’s 2019 HBO documentary]. Now of course they say it’s [Hulu’s 2022 scripted drama The Dropout] based on the podcast, on the ABC podcast [The Dropout], but if you look at the visual landscape, I think you’ll see a lot more of The Inventor in there than anything that ABC did on air.
What has the industry perception of docs as the new hip form of IP meant for your business and are there benefits and drawbacks to this trend?
I don’t think there’s any drawbacks to the trend, so long as you’re not seeing them [documentaries] as IP. In a way, the very thing I just complained about I also love. Nobody can copyright a fact. And so once you lay it [a documentary] out there, it’s there for anybody to talk about, to adapt, to mess with, and so, in that sense, good. And by the way, in terms of using docs to develop IP for fiction, I think so long as you’re not thinking of it as IP, meaning “I own this story,” then I think it’s tremendously valuable to turn to the strange world of reality to make compelling fiction that isn’t pre-digested formula. I think docs make for great dramas and people like Werner Herzog have even adapted their own docs into dramas, which I think is a good idea. I think of Little Dieter [Needs to Fly] and what was the Christian Bale film?
Yeah. So good. But this idea of IP, think of where that comes, intellectual property. Well, the great thing about docs is that they’re everybody’s property.
Relatedly, we’re been seeing a wave of scripted projects based on real events that have prompted loud criticisms from some of the real people involved for lack of outreach or depictions they feel are unfair, like in the case of Dahmer or The Staircase. Given that Jigsaw is both in the documentary space and the scripted space when it comes to adapting true stories, what onus do you think is on storytellers to involve the real people who experienced these events involved in their projects?
That’s a complicated problem. I think it’s wise to try. That said, sometimes you’re telling a story that may make the subject uncomfortable. Would Dick Cheney have gotten deeply involved in Vice? As you know, Jigsaw was a producer of a scripted series called The Looming Tower, and there were some people, real-life people, who were very much involved and we did in fact reach out to number of people in the CIA and certainly in the FBI, not all of whom were happy with the ultimate film. Well, that’s what you have to face. As a storyteller, you have to go where the story [takes] you, not to how the subjects tell you to tell it, because very often you’re dealing with unreliable narrators. If Looming Tower had made everybody happy that we were telling the story about, I don’t think it would have been a truthful story. It’s important that you challenge yourself and do as much work as you can in order to reach out to the subjects of a tale, but at the end of the day, you have to draw your own conclusions about what is the truth.
As I’m sure you’re aware, documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras recently criticized Hilary Clinton’s move into documentaries and her festival appearances, saying that they were “whitewashing” her activities while she was in power. What do you think generally about former politicians moving into the documentary production space, such as Clinton or the Obamas?
Well, I think that, first of all, anybody can make a documentary about anything, as far as I’m concerned. But I think you always have to keep in mind the provenance and the author. I’d be interested, frankly, to see a documentary written, produced and directed by Hillary Clinton about Hillary Clinton’s life. Would she be candid? Would she not? I appreciate that Laura brought that issue to the fore, but I don’t think the problem is authorship per se, I think the problem is a kind of coalition of power. In other words, if powerful corporations make output deals with powerful politicians, how is that speaking truth to power? Or are we now speaking power to truth? That said, the Obamas’ production company produced American Factory, I greatly admired that film, so good. But I’m always suspicious of deals that further consolidate power and limit discourse.
How are you finding the market for documentaries right now — have recent pullbacks in certain distributors’ spending and/or CNN Films’ shift away from purchasing documentaries from outside vendors taken their toll?
Yes, it has. It has taken a toll because there’s simply fewer buyers. And that’s a huge concern. But I firmly hope, and I think this is going to prove to be true, that now that we’re coming out of COVID that people may be willing to go to theaters again. What you’re going to see as the dinosaurs become bigger and bigger and bigger, you’re going to see smaller players, independents, who find interesting ways of bringing powerful stories to market. I remember when I was just pre-Enron [Gibney’s 2005 documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room], right around the time when Eugene Jarecki and I made The Trials of Henry Kissinger, the landscape for documentaries was very much a corporate landscape, it was all cable and every cable channel had an identity and you had to bend your ambitions to the will of the channel — in other words, this is our house style, and you will now produce your film in this house style. And there were some subjects you can talk about, like there was no network who would permit us to do a critical film about Henry Kissinger, not one, in this country. So what happened? We went to a film festival. The Human Rights Film Festival showed the film, people were selling the tickets for like 10 times the value, and suddenly a very small theatrical distributor called First Run Features picked up the film. It played in Film Forum for four months, that created a buzz around it — lo and behold audience demand then propelled it to finally a cable cast on The Sundance Channel.
That’s a long way of saying this is a good moment for alternative modes of distribution and for plucky independents to start showing stuff. Instead of the old broadcast model, where broadcasters are selling viewers to advertisers by producing the most anodyne and broadly acceptable content, finally early Netflix and HBO and others proved that, oh my gosh, people will actually pay for really compelling dramas, for really funny comedies, for really incisive documentaries. Because they’re far more interesting than the corporate-manufactured pablum that broadcast networks are providing. Well, I think we’re going to see that again. I made something recently, I’m trying to be a little bit cautious about this, but let’s just say I’ve seen companies complain that such and such project only got 40 million views. They’re complaining and they’re sad. Well, 40 million people to me is a lot of people and if they’re 40 million really enthusiastic people, that’s a lot better than a billion aimless viewers.
What are the stories that most intrigue you in terms of their story possibilities right now that you aren’t already committed to working on?
You know, one of my great regrets is that Netflix cancelled or decided not to pursue more than two seasons of a series I did called Dirty Money. Dirty Money was a way of examining corporate crime, but it was also a way of allowing creative filmmakers in their own voices to find idiosyncratic ways of speaking truth to power. I see a lot of those stories out there and if you read them, they set your hair on fire, and by the way, I think they’d be hugely compelling movies, whether scripted or unscripted. And I’m finding it difficult at the moment to get those made.
One exception to that is, for example, we’re also finding that sometimes, and this is where documentarians need to get creative and not just complain, we’re finding ways of telling those stories through podcasts. For example, we recently teamed up with the Wall Street Journal to do a story about Trevor Milton, which is a fantastic story about an enormous fraud and a very colorful character at the heart of it, that was produced by this extraordinary woman who works with us now called Sruthi Pinnamaneni. So it’s a podcast but it’s a very well-told story that’s engaging and also provocative, so good, so we found a way.
That makes some sense that this would happen in podcasts….
But I think it can happen in docs, too. Sometimes, if the subject’s important enough, you can figure out a way to do it inexpensively.
In your view, where is the best work in documentaries happening right now, aside from Jigsaw Productions?
I see all sorts of interesting, idiosyncratic work. I just saw a film by Nancy Buirski [Desperate Souls, Dark City And The Legend Of Midnight Cowboy] about the making of Midnight Cowboy, which was transporting. I saw a quirky film [Turn Every Page] about the strange relationship between Robert Caro and Bob Gottlieb, his editor. I love the very personal doc [Naomi Osaka] that was done about Naomi Osaka. So I guess the glory of this moment is that you do have these wonderfully idiosyncratic, authored documentaries which continue to inspire, to engage our curiosity and to explore worlds that we don’t know about, except through the eyes of these filmmakers, “ecstatic truth,” to borrow another phrase from Werner Herzog.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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