Finding the Truth in a Time of Media Mistrust: The Documentary Roundtable
Diana King

Finding the Truth in a Time of Media Mistrust: The Documentary Roundtable

Alex Gibney ('Citizen K'), Lauren Greenfield ('The Kingmaker'), Asif Kapadia ('Diego Maradona'), Todd Douglas Miller ('Apollo 11'), Julia Reichert ('American Factory') and Nanfu Wang ('One Child Nation') sound off on their transformed business, how to secure skeptical subjects and their attempt to counter the encroaching threat of propaganda.

In an era when trust in mainstream media is dwindling, documentaries are thriving — and tackling the shifting idea of truth itself. In her personalized policy dive, One Child Nation, Nanfu Wang, 34, examines the facts as a generation understood them in China; in his account of an oligarch, Citizen K, Alex Gibney, 66, plumbs Russia's disinformation culture; and in her portrait of Imelda Marcos' return to power, The Kingmaker, Lauren Greenfield, 53, dives into image creation in the Philippines. Boosted by deep-pocketed streaming services, the doc space is now open to an ever wider group — as Julia Reichert, 73, and Steven Bognar, 56, learned this year when the mysterious party interested in buying American Factory, their Dayton, Ohio-set tale of a culture clash between working class America and China, turned out to be none other than Hollywood newcomers Barack and Michelle Obama, via their production company at Netflix, Higher Ground. "The industry keeps changing," says Asif Kapadia, 47, whose profile of Argentine soccer star Diego Maradona will be released by HBO in the U.S., a streamer in Latin America and a traditional theatrical distributor in Europe. "Sometimes you're literally starting a film and you're having meetings and by the time you complete a film, the world has changed again." Amid the transforming marketplace, there is still room for an old-fashioned box office hit, as Todd Douglas Miller, 43, saw with the Imax release of his myth-distilling, archival footage-based Apollo 11, which has grossed $12.1 million worldwide. On Oct. 15, at THR's invitation, the filmmakers came together to compare notes on their transformed business, the secrets of securing access to skeptical subjects and their attempt to counter the encroaching threat of propaganda around the world.

How does the fact that we are living in the era of so-called fake news impact the documentary world?

LAUREN GREENFIELD A lot of our films have been about fake news.

NANFU WANG Exactly — disinformation in China, the Philippines and Russia.

ALEX GIBNEY It's not so new, this idea of fake news. Lauren's film, Nanfu's film and my film deal to a great extent with how the government tries to create fake news. But I think what everybody here at this table is doing is creating films where you change your mind every 15 minutes, you're taking a journey. That is the antidote to fake news — to invest in a deeper truth that is not so simple to express or understand except by the watching of the film.

GREENFIELD We're not beholden to anybody. This is independent, documentary film. And so in a time when our country's news is profit-driven, we're not doing this for ratings, we can have the film be truth-telling in a time of manipulation both by governments and by corporate interests.

GIBNEY That's the biggest change in terms of the economics of the film business is that so much more of the business now is driven by consumers paying to see the film rather than advertisers renting viewers for sponsorship purposes, which gives the filmmakers a great deal more freedom.

WANG I have so much experience with disinformation because I grew up in China. And it's really making me sad to see how it's happening outside China and almost all over the world — including the U.S. — recently. But I feel like that makes independent filmmaking so much more important because we are there and we are showing disinformation and how that is affecting people. And once we present that to people and they start seeing it, seeing how the fake news was generated, I think that's way more important than just reading news every day.

JULIA REICHERT (To Wang) It was a brilliant idea for you to be the main character in your film with your baby. If you had just made a research film about the one-child policy, it wouldn't have had the emotional impact that it does, but it also wouldn't have had the veracity, the truthfulness, because we'd just be trusting whoever, who we never see.

It's interesting, Nanfu, that you grew up surrounded by propaganda and chose documentary filmmaking as your profession. Do you see any link between those two things?

WANG Well, I had never even seen a documentary until I came to the U.S. in 2011. I was 26 and I thought I was going to become a journalist who could write about the injustice in China. I took a documentary class and there I saw so many documentaries for the first time. I've told you, Alex, that I saw Taxi to the Dark Side twice in the class, but that was the moment that I was like, "Oh my God, I never knew that documentaries could be like this." Because in China, with the censorship and the restriction, the documentaries are about China's magnificent landscape or art history and great Chinese food, and that's about it. And I thought that was what documentary was about until I finally saw it could be about social issues, it could be compelling and about characters. I was like, "OK, I want to do this."

On a documentary, you're often going to spend years with these people and these topics. How do you choose your subject?

TODD DOUGLAS MILLER Well, it kind of chose me. I grew up in Ohio. You can't grow up in Ohio and not hear the names Neil Armstrong, John Glenn, the Wright brothers — that's where aviation was founded. It was distilling the myth of all of that for me. There'd been so much made about Apollo 11. The mission had been covered ad nauseam in films and fiction and nonfiction. So it was really a research project to drill down into those myths and see who these people really were. And once you start researching the astronauts, you start figuring out that it's this massively big project that wasn't just about the astronauts. There were almost half a billion people around the world that were involved to make this mission a success. So that's really where it started. And also 20,000 companies. I don't think we can get 20 companies to talk to each other nowadays. But back then, to have that kind of cooperation for the common goal was the pinnacle of human history, in my opinion.

GREENFIELD Imelda Marcos was kind of a natural subject for me. I've been looking at wealth and consumerism and materialism over the past 25 years in my photography and filmmaking, and so she was always this iconic reference point. But I actually did not know that she was alive, back in Manila, and had become a congresswoman again until I read an article in Bloomberg by this reporter William Mellor that was actually about an animal island that she created. And that's the thing that got me hooked. People knew about the shoes, but the ultimate extravagance to me was depopulating an island in the South China Sea, kicking off the indigenous people and bringing in exotic animals from Africa. But it ended up being something very different, and taking me down a political path and looking at money as it relates to power and political dynasty and the rewriting of history.

Julia, in your case, you were dealing with a Chinese entrepreneur, Cao Dewang, who gave you extraordinary access, even when he was going through some rocky times. Can you talk about navigating that relationship?

REICHERT Chairman Cao chose the General Motors plant where we had made an earlier film, my partner and I, called The Last Truck, about 11 years ago. It's kind of a mega story, that film, the closing of the plant, the leaving of the American capitalists and then the coming of a Chinese capitalist to our town to offer jobs to people. The chairman was proud that he was doing that, that he was bringing jobs to our community, and that he was going to produce high-quality glass. It's one thing to get access; it's another thing to get trust. I think we got the trust of the American blue-collar workers because they had all seen The Last Truck and they knew that we understood their journey and we had followed it for 10 years almost at that point. The chairman could see we could make a good film, he saw that The Last Truck was an Oscar nominee, and I think he thought, "These are my guys." And once the chairman said yes, you know, it's a Chinese company, privately owned, so everybody had to say yes. So even though there were some uncomfortable meetings, the chairman said yes. And he never took back that access. The chairman saw us working really, really hard, carrying heavy equipment, sweating along with everybody else working there, day after day, year after year, and I think he respected that hard work.

Asif, if Diego Maradona saw your previous film, Amy, about Amy Winehouse, he knew this was going to be a warts-and-all portrayal. That didn't deter him from letting you follow him?

ASIF KAPADIA Diego Maradona happened to be a big fan of [Brazilian racing driver] Ayrton Senna, so it was actually a film I made previously [that interested him] — he'd seen [2010's] Senna and loved it. And the two of them were at their peak around the same time. So when Maradona was playing football in Italy in the '80s, Senna was racing cars at the same time. Amy helped us in a peculiar way. When my producers were doing the deal with Maradona's people, Amy went on this awards run and won an Oscar. So he posted on his Facebook page a picture of me with the Oscar, sort of saying, "This guy just won an Oscar, his next film is about me." It's funny in that actually he hadn't seen the film, he just knew, "OK, this kind of makes him legitimate and therefore he should be making my story." I don't think he'd seen the film until I started interviewing him, and then I think he and his girlfriend watched it and perhaps then they got a little bit nervous once they saw the movie and realized actually this is going to get heavy at times, as her story did. He is kind of part Ayrton Senna and part Amy Winehouse as a character. He is this Latin American macho hero but also very vulnerable. And that's not the way he has been seen before. So yeah, funnily enough, the previous films really helped.

Alex, you have a body of work that I think would scare potential collaborators away.

GIBNEY Sometimes. Weirdly, the subject of my film, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, saw Enron. Now it happened that he knew Ken Lay as a business contemporary because he was in the oil business in Russia in the '90s. He was Russia's richest man. So he sort of enjoyed it. It was kind of brash. But I think also he had been persuaded by people around him that I was good. And I think he was ready to be honest, in a way, so I don't think it particularly scared him. He's also kind of a macho guy, so I think he went into it unafraid, almost like, "Bring it on." But we had to sit down for a number of conversations just so that he could understand where I was at and, more than anything, how seriously I was going to take the enterprise.

How did you communicate that to him?

GIBNEY Mostly by listening. And also by being honest. When I didn't know something, I didn't pretend that I knew it, I said, "I don't know, but I'm here, I'm ready to learn." I'm not a Russia expert in any way, shape or form. I got interested in the subject in a way after our 2016 election. But I am a student of power and abuses of power and certainly see patterns like that. So I think by being straight with him, that was the way I ultimately gained a measure of trust. And I think that trust maintains itself even after the film has come out. The first half of it is very critical of him and the second half looks at him in a very different light, as somebody who became a dissident. So I think he was OK with that.

MILLER I'm interested to hear from you guys, when you put a camera into a situation, how does it change the power dynamic for the subjects that you're following? Did you see them change over the course of filming?

GIBNEY Mikhail is not Oprah. He's not naturally giving, and he was very stiff initially. But we shot an interview over nine days — four days before I went to Russia and five days after I came back. We ended up getting into a deeper and deeper and deeper discussion over time. That's inevitably what happens. I think most of us want to tell our story, the key thing is being convinced that the person to whom you're telling it is trustworthy, is going to be able to be willing to be generous and listen.

GREENFIELD I had kind of the opposite thing because I had a very unreliable narrator. And in a way [Marcos] was savvier about the media than any of us. She said, "Perception is real and the truth is not." She really had no character development because she stuck to her story, and it was the world around her that changed. My view of her and relationship to her really changed as I realized how unreliable a narrator she was and also how dangerous it was that what seemed maybe funny or frivolous in the beginning became deadly serious.

REICHERT We all know what happened in 2016, and I think that was crucial for all of us. You were interested in finding out what happened in Russia, you were interested in finding out what happened with democracy in the Philippines. We were interested in finding out what was going on in Trump Land, where we live … That's something we're all interested in right now — the state of the democratic ideals …

GREENFIELD And how fragile they are.

GIBNEY But also how contagious this model of rapacious self-interest and nationalism is all over the world, whether it be Brexit, whether it be Hungary, whether it be China, whether it be Russia or the United States. It's terrifying.

Julia, you went to Sundance, as filmmakers do, and you took the meetings with distributors. Can you tell us about the meeting where you found out the surprising people who were interested in your film?

REICHERT So you go to Sundance and you have no idea if you're going to have a good reception, if anyone is going to be interested, if audiences are going to walk out, if it's a stink-o film, whatever. We got meetings. One of them was with Netflix. OK. We walk into a room and about 25 people file into the room from Netflix. And [Netflix vp] Lisa Nishimura looked at us and gave us a fabulous pitch. At one point, Lisa says, "I want to introduce our two people from Higher Ground Productions." So they start talking, and they say, "Well, the president and first lady saw your film a few days ago." And I don't think we heard anything after that. Like, the president and first lady? What are you talking about? After a while they started using the words "POTUS" and "FLOTUS" and we realized that they were talking about President Obama and Michelle Obama. And we started tuning back in. We were like, "Oh, we worked for them, we love them" — which we shouldn't have done, really. So anyway, it turns out that they chose our film to be their first release. You know, Barack Obama and Michelle Obama. We heard a little bit about why they liked our film at that meeting, which sounded very genuine. They both come from humble backgrounds. Michelle's father was a worker, put on his uniform, punched a clock every day. So she related to the film. And Barack related to the policy questions that it raised. Nobody knew what it was going to mean, including Higher Ground at that point really, but we decided to do it. And I'm glad we did.

How has the emergence of the streamers impacted the marketplace for your films?

GIBNEY The demand has gone up, and I think also the streamers have done a good job of creating what you would call communities of interest. There's an interest in documentaries now. The stories are better and better, but now there is an outlet for them and financing for them, which is a really exciting moment. Thirty years ago I was warned, "Please, when you go looking for a job, don't say the word 'documentary.' "

MILLER For me it's kind of moving away from that a little bit and getting back to the large-format filmmakers, like Francis Thompson. Those guys were able to make cinema in a place that was a direct response to what was going on in the '50s, when the big threat was television. What they did was start to shoot on large format, Cinerama — let's get people in a communal environment and have community discussions around those films. This project, Apollo 11, has really opened my eyes to the value of that communal experience, whether it be in an Imax theater or a regular cinema. I'm really excited to push into that direction a little bit more and explore it with future projects.

KAPADIA We had an interesting hybrid release. Around the world it has been theatrical, and then in the U.S. HBO picked it up and in Latin America it's also a streamer. I still love seeing films with an audience and hearing people laugh or clap at times — we had amazing screenings — and then also getting emotional collectively. But also you want your work to be seen. And so it's been an interesting journey from Senna to Amy to this film, Diego Maradona, where the industry keeps changing. Sometimes you're literally starting a film and you're having meetings and by the time you complete a film, the world has changed again. And it has shifted so quickly.

GIBNEY I love to see my films in a theater too and I love that collective experience. That said, I want them to be seen. I wish the theaters would up their game. There are a lot of interesting experiments in theaters in this country, surrounding the idea of subscriptions, for example, like Film Forum in New York, the Jacob Burns Center in Pleasantville [New York], where you get this sense of community, people are going to show up to talk about the films, and so it's an experience that is more than just packing people in for Spider-Man 10. I'm hopeful that theaters will now up their game just as the streamers have.

REICHERT When we went with Netflix, we didn't even have Netflix at our house. But what has happened with our film through Netflix is that people in rural America are watching it. A lot of working-class people, people who work in factories all throughout the Midwest and South. They don't live in big cities, or even cities; they tend more so, in my experience, to live in small towns, suburbs. None of those folks would come to our art theater in downtown Dayton even to see our movie. But they're watching it by the millions on Netflix.

GREENFIELD My last film was on Amazon, and I think it went out to 150 million people. We're at [gender] parity at this table, which is incredible, and I think the diversity of the storytellers is just so much better now that there's so much opportunity from the streamers. I came to filmmaking late because I came from photography, but when I started there were basically a couple of outlets and you had to be liked by those particular people. And now there's just so much opportunity for diverse voices. It just seems more democratic in terms of the storytelling and the access.

Is there one person who you would love to have see your film?

MILLER Young people for me. There was one woman, she was the first woman in Mission Control, her name is Poppy Northcutt, and we had a screening and she comes out and does Q&As with us. And I had this Brazilian woman who came up. She was 10 years old in Brazil in 1974 and she read an article about Poppy being the first female in Mission Control and it inspired her to go get her Ph.D. in England. She now works at JPL and she's in the Guinness Book of World Records for finding the most volcanoes on a moon orbiting Jupiter. I saw them meet for the first time and they had tears in their eyes. For me, it's always that inspiration.

KAPADIA (To Miller) I was thinking with your film, have you shown it to the people who believe it never happened? You've got to get a room full of conspiracy theorists and say, "Come on then, now tell me this didn't happen."

REICHERT I have two grandkids, 5 and 9, and I really wanted my 9-year-old grandboy to see our film, but I wasn't sure if he was quite ready. You know, you don't want them to squirm around in the seat. So we brought him to the Dayton premiere, which was on a big screen, and I watched him, he sat on the edge of his seat. Afterwards he said to his dad, "What if they were me? What if that happened to me?" In other words, that is what we all want, is for people to look at the film and think, "What if this happened to me, what if I were them?" And my 9-year-old grandson, that was my most important person, and he had the most simple, great reaction. The only other person would be my mom, who is long dead, but I always had her in the editing room. I always had my mom over my shoulder because she would keep me grounded so that everything we make would be very understandable to just a regular person. Right? Not an educated person, not a sophisticated person, but my mom. And she is long gone, but I would love her to see this film and see if she would tell me that she got it, she liked it.

KAPADIA At some point I wanted to sit down and show it to [Maradona] while we were making the film. And we had a really good relationship during the making of the film, but at the ending the relationship broke and I lost contact with him. The team around him never quite let me get to him again. So he has still not seen the film. People in Argentina have seen it, people in Italy have seen it, people all over the world have seen it, and I still haven't been able to show it to him. So funnily enough now, I've gotten to the stage of saying, well, at some point he may see it, he may not see it, but the film exists.

WANG Ironically, the people who we want to see the film most are the people who can't see it, the Chinese people. We made a film that would hopefully challenge the official narrative in China. And the people there, because the information was so restricted, they tend to believe the propaganda. Still my friends all turned against me and say, "Why do you make a film that damages our national image?" And so I lost a lot of my closest friends because they believe that I got brainwashed by the Western media. Even my mom. My mom has never been to a movie theater before. And so I brought her to Sundance because I thought if she is ever going to see a film of mine, that would be the experience, because she was in the film. And after she saw the film, she was like, "Yeah, your film was so true and it was everything I witnessed, but I still support the policy." It just showed me how effective the propaganda was. She lived her entire life there.

GIBNEY I really wanted people in Russia to see this film and, ironically, I'm told that they are seeing it because it's already been rapaciously pirated, it is shown everywhere on the internet. But weirdly, the other thing we discovered in the cutting room is that there are eerie echoes of the United States in this film that is purely about Russia. And so I'm excited for viewers here to see it.

Do you think Trump will watch this movie?

GIBNEY No, I don't think Trump has the attention span.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

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This story first appeared in a November standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.