This story first appeared in a special awards season issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
What is truth? That question was at the center of a heated debate among some of the most admired documentary filmmakers of our times during a roundtable that took place Oct. 29 in New York City — and their answers weren’t always what you might expect. Truth and facts aren’t necessarily the same thing, one argued; and “staging” reality might be OK in the service of a deeper truth, said another. Oscar winners Alex Gibney, 62 (Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief and Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine), and Michael Moore, 61 (Where to Invade Next, which looks at progressivism abroad), were joined by Amy Berg, 45 (Janis: Little Girl Blue, a Joplin biography, and Prophet’s Prey, an investigation into the Warren Jeffs cult), Kirby Dick, 63 (The Hunting Ground, about campus rape), Liz Garbus, 45 (What Happened, Miss Simone?, which traces Nina Simone’s career), and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, 36 (Meru, a mountaineering thriller), in a conversation that ranged historically from Shakespeare’s Henry V to Margaret Thatcher and geographically from a Himalayan mountain range to the halls of the Pentagon.
What personal price have you paid to be documentary filmmakers?
DICK When you make a strong film, if you don’t get that reaction, perhaps you haven’t made the film strong enough. You’re going into a territory — sexual assault, for example — that people want to cover up. If I haven’t made that impact, where it’s causing people to respond and even to come at me, I really haven’t told the whole truth.
GIBNEY That’s very important we engage, even if there’s hostility — and I certainly have experienced a good bit.
MOORE I wish I just got hostility. (Laughs.)
GARBUS That’d be awesome.
BERG No death threats?
MOORE One thing I’ve learned is that the person who wants to hurt you does not send you a note in advance. The death threats are great; it’s the half a dozen assaults and attempts on my life [that aren’t], including a man who built a fertilizer bomb to plant under our home to blow it up — he went to prison — and the others who assaulted me with knives and billy clubs. [In Florida], a really nicely dressed man in a three-piece suit comes out of Starbucks and sees me, and he just turned purple and the vein started bulging. I call it the “Limbaugh Vein” — you know, it’s like after they’ve had three hours of listening to Rush. And he takes the lid off his hot, scalding coffee and throws it in my face. And only because I had this security guy with me [was I safe]. He put his face in front of mine and took the hit. Got second-degree burns. We had to take him to the hospital, but not before he took the guy down on the sidewalk and handcuffed him. After my Oscar speech [for Bowling for Columbine] and Fahrenheit 9/11, I’ve lived a number of years with this kind of horrible situation.
Are you afraid?
MOORE Well, yeah, I’m afraid. Yeah, of course. But I reached a certain point where I had to just stop being afraid, and I got rid of the security. I couldn’t live that way anymore. It was difficult on our family. People around me were afraid they were going be the collateral damage. And so finally I just decided: I’m in my 50s, I’ve lived a good life. Nobody will say I didn’t make a contribution. And if it’s going to happen today, it happens today, and you just live with it. And, actually, it was kind of liberating, that day when I decided to get rid of the security.
GIBNEY It’s a funny thing that sometimes happens when you’re outspoken and very public about it: It gives you a peculiar kind of protection. Because you’re being out front. You’re not hiding. And that in itself is important.
Amy, when you were making your film about cult leader Warren Jeffs, did you have a sense you were being pursued?
BERG I hired a private detective. He was carrying a gun. I mean, I didn’t know what I was going to get into when I stepped in Colorado City. The minute we entered the premises, we were being followed by the God Squad. These guys in Suburbans, throwing water bottles at us and locking us into areas.
When you’re making a film like that, with a strong point of view, is there a risk of veering into agitprop?
MOORE If they do, what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with engaging the audience?
If it’s not the full, rich truth …
GARBUS But this is the issue — what the full truth is. Because we’re all telling stories. We’re not out there to tell every [aspect]. We’re not making Wikipedia pages on our subjects. We’re out there to tell a story about a subject that we care passionately about. And, of course, there are going to be many ellipses because we have 100 minutes, and we’re trying to entertain.
VASARHELYI Would you ask this of a fiction filmmaker?
You would ask it of Truth. Is Truth the truth about Dan Rather? Is Steve Jobs the truth about Steve Jobs?
GARBUS It’s an artist’s vision. It’s art. Is Picasso’s painting of his wife the true picture of his wife?
MOORE Do you think Shakespeare’s Henry V was factually correct about Henry V? Is Henry V wrong because it’s Shakespeare’s interpretation of a story he wanted to tell, using an actual character from history? The truth is complicated and layered. Facts and truth are two different things.
GIBNEY These are authored films; they are not meant to be lists of facts. That’s the phone book. They’re authored works every bit as much as a fiction film is an authored work.
GARBUS And we trust our audiences to understand that we’re telling them a story.
MOORE You have satire and humor. My documentary begins with me saying that I had a secret meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Now, I’m assuming smart people will get —
GARBUS You had me there!
MOORE — it’s a fantasy, but it’s real, too, because I really want that hour with them.
BERG There are lots of different versions of Janis Joplin’s story, but the one I chose was about how to get from the beginning to the end of her life in a way that felt emotional and comprehensive.
Did you feel any kind of ethical obligation to her?
BERG God, of course. I fell in love with her. And I found myself very protective about certain parts of her life. I constantly was challenging myself: Am I doing a disservice by not putting a certain thing in the film? I didn’t want to exploit her; I didn’t want to highlight every little indiscretion.
GARBUS She has millions and millions of people who love her. And the same with Nina Simone. You’re making all these decisions all the time. Because you want that love to continue.
BERG And there are checks and balances. We all have people we count on. We have producers.
Some of you put yourselves in your movies. Why?
MOORE Let’s just be honest, nobody of my ilk wants to see himself blown up 50 feet on a screen. It was a little shocking, the first time I saw it. But I really see myself as a stand-in for the audience. I’m a way for the audience to cathartically live through me as I go into places of power or troubled situations.
GIBNEY I don’t ever want it to be the voice of God. It should be the voice of Alex because that’s more honest. So you hear me behind the camera asking questions; and in [Going Clear], there was also a metaphor, a self-mocking metaphor about how the interview process is a little bit like Scientology auditing. Except I don’t use the E-meter.
GARBUS In my film, Nina Simone is essentially a narrator of her own story because we were able to find so much of her.
How much were you restricted by the fact that her daughter was one of your executive producers?
GARBUS We weren’t restricted at all. You say in the beginning: “I need my space. This is how I work. I’m very happy to show you the film before it goes to the entire world — as a courtesy.” But that’s really the extent of it.
BERG This is why it takes so long for music documentaries: because we often are trying to negotiate our space with the people who hold the estates. [The Janis Joplin estate] is notorious for being difficult in terms of fictional projects. But they trusted my vision.
There’s a line between keeping a distance and getting involved. Where do you cross it? Chai, you ended up marrying your subject.
VASARHELYI I have always been a big believer in church-and-state. But with this material, I got involved with the film before [co-director and husband] Jimmy [Chin] and I became romantically involved. We fell in love. In terms of the filmmaking, I wasn’t on the mountain; he was on the mountain [shooting the footage]. And he had this vision for a film. Our marriage works because we’re a good team.
MOORE I had a similar complicated [relationship]. I had to contain Chuck Heston. You know: “We’re doing a movie here! Keep it professional!”
How do you decide whether to keep going when a subject locks the doors to you?
GIBNEY Usually, when your road is blocked, it ends up causing you to take a more interesting path. [On Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God], the pope wouldn’t give me any access, so I had to go around him. Your journey is the interesting part. If you allow yourself to be surprised, and change as you go, anything’s possible.
What surprised you, Alex, in making a film about Scientology?
GIBNEY You think of Scientology, and you think anybody who would be involved in that has got to be a wing nut. I met all these people who had left, and they were so smart, perceptive, empathetic. It ended up being a kind of journey into understanding — that all of us can fall into a belief system that suddenly persuades us to do things we might otherwise find appalling.
But aren’t we all to some degree prisoners of our beliefs?
MOORE I’m raised Catholic; I went to the seminary to be a priest. But because it’s the dominant culture, Christianity, we don’t think of it as being strange that this piece of bread is actually the body of Jesus or that we’re drinking his blood. So nobody would make a documentary about how mondo bizarro that is. The original texts of all the faiths are pretty good. They all say that you should treat the poor well and be good to your neighbor. It’s the institutionalization of these faiths [that’s a problem].
Amy and Kirby, you’ve made documentaries about sexual abuse in the church. How much have they influenced things?
DICK People were talking that wouldn’t have been willing to talk awhile ago.
GARBUS Investigative journalism — that space has been ceded to documentary filmmakers because there’s not the same kind of journalists that we saw with Seymour Hersh, Bob Woodward and that generation. [Today’s documentarians] are doing that now, and they’re given the time and leeway, and it does create social change.
MOORE My goal isn’t social change. My goal is to make a great movie and to give people something that’s going to make them think, that’s going to make them laugh. It’s going to make them cry. I mean, obviously, I care deeply about these issues. But first —
BERG You’re a storyteller.
MOORE Whatever I feel strongly and passionately about, politically — if that’s all I cared about, I would be a political activist or running a grass-roots group or running for office.
There’s a purist belief that you should never restage a scene. Did you restage things for your film, Chai?
VASARHELYI No, because you couldn’t.
So that avalanche footage — those are the actual avalanches that hit your subjects?
VASARHELYI There were three camera crews on that shoot, and no one shot the actual avalanche they almost died in. I was like, “What sort of filmmakers do you think you guys are?” And they all calmly explained to me that, if you get down [the mountain] two minutes earlier, you’ve got this much higher chance of finding someone alive, and so chill out. Those avalanches are from a guy who specializes in avalanches. He actually stages them. That is in the spirit of the truth of that avalanche.
Kirby, in The Hunting Ground, you follow these women activists and start by showing them arriving in school. Did you stage that?
DICK Well, it wasn’t their experience. Actually, we shot real welcome weeks and the love that people have for going to college. You know, we went back even further and focused on YouTube videos that we found of them getting acceptance letters. And that opening sets the tone — I’ve heard people crying at what I thought was a very comedic opening because it reminds people of how much school means to them.
Is there a subject you haven’t been able to make a film about that’s close to your heart?
DICK The NRA — I’m sure we all think about making a movie [about them]. They’re so politically successful.
GARBUS Let’s all make one together!
Is there a single film, documentary or otherwise, that changed your lives?
MOORE I saw The Atomic Cafe in 1983, and it’s the first time I saw a documentary about a serious subject that used humor. And then, on the flip side of that, Hearts and Minds in the ’70s was the definitive film about Vietnam. It won the Oscar. [Co-producer Bert Schneider] got booed off the stage because he read a telegram from the head of North Vietnam to the American people saying, “We want peace.”
BERG I remember seeing Breaking the Waves, and I just felt zero removal between me and the film. I was in the room with Emily Watson, and I remember feeling her pain so deeply.
GARBUS Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA, as a female filmmaker, was incredibly inspiring to me. I was making The Farm: Angola, USA in the mid-’90s, and her film gave me inspiration. As a filmmaker-mentor, she has been extraordinary.
GIBNEY Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line was a tremendously liberating film because it meant that you could do anything in the service of the truth. I mean, he got that guy off Death Row. By using fiction techniques within the context of a documentary, he proved there is a different approach to truth that you can take as a documentarian that can liberate us all.
VASARHELYI For me, the most influential film is Le Joli Mai, the Chris Marker film; it was a way of looking at a very important political issue but looking around it and finding the human stories.
How has reality TV impacted what you do? It’s a form of documentary filmmaking.
VASARHELYI I honestly kind of ignore it. I don’t know if that’s possible.
GARBUS Michael told us he watches The Bachelorette!
MOORE Yeah, I watch reality TV.
GARBUS I don’t feel a tremendous interplay [between reality TV and the documentary form]. Viewers understand the different codes: When they watch our films, they understand the codes we’re telling them; when they watch The Bachelorette, they understand the artifice. Sometimes filmmakers get into trouble when they’re not clear on those codes.
MOORE The public loves nonfiction. If you look at the top 20 shows, some weeks half will be nonfiction. And some of them will be The Bachelorette and some will be 60 Minutes. It runs the gamut. In The New York Times book review section this Sunday, one third of the books reviewed were fiction. Two thirds were nonfiction. I would like the same treatment with cinema.
But isn’t this a golden age for documentaries?
GIBNEY Yes. I’m thinking of the last 10 years, and it’s become palpable.
VASARHELYI Probably the most exciting part is that there’s innovation and progress within the genre. That’s also because it is cheaper to make films, and there are more people making films.
An issue that’s very big at the moment within mainstream Hollywood is the lack of diversity and the lack of women filmmakers. Documentaries seem to be one area where there’s some kind of parity.
GARBUS The budgets are lower, and we’re paid less. [By contrast], if you’re a female filmmaker, and you launch your first indie film at Sundance, versus that male filmmaker, in two years he’s making a studio movie. It takes her 11 years to get her next film made.
BERG There’s a lack of strong females in terms of the characters [being filmed in documentaries]. That’s something that I feel really personally responsible for.
VASARHELYI There’s probably less money for it, too. There are a lot of pressures.
GARBUS Also, we live in a society that’s been historically sexist. And there are fewer women who are given those opportunities. People like Nina Simone and Janis Joplin paid a huge price for their badass, boundary-[breaking] stances.
MOORE And it’s not just historically sexist, it still is. Two percent of the top 100-grossing Hollywood films are directed by women. Two percent! They’re the majority gender. They’re 51 percent of the population; and 2 percent of the storytelling done by Hollywood is done by the majority gender. Anthropologists aren’t going to understand that stuff a few years from now.
GARBUS And also women are going to the movies. Pitch Perfect 2 is this huge box-office success because it had strong female characters.
If you were to make a documentary about one woman, who would it be?
GARBUS Margaret Thatcher.
GIBNEY I was going to say that!
VASARHELYI I was always fascinated by Gertrude Bell. She had a fascinating life.
BERG Lee Miller. They just announced they’re doing a fictional film, but I’ve thought about it for many years.
GIBNEY (To Garbus) I have one for you: Hedy Lamarr. She was an extraordinary person, a very daring, free actress who was famous for an early nude scene but then was an inventor, a scientist who ended up doing a lot of the code-breaking for World War II. An extraordinary person who never got her due.
What’s the strangest experience you’ve had in making your films?
DICK Going into the Pentagon. When you’re in D.C., you just see it. It’s this edifice. And what was interesting was that they were as afraid of me as I was of them because if they made any mistake, and I somehow made a film about it, the publicity would be so bad on the individuals that were handling me.
BERG I was in Pakistan, and I was supposed to meet the Minister of Defense at the prison where all the Al-Qaeda members were being held. And I sat in that prison for three-and-a-half hours, and he never showed up. And I was terrified. And I just remember thinking, “What the hell am I doing here?”
VASARHELYI My first film, which was set in Kosovo, I had an experience with a subject where you get to know them over four years of shooting. He was a refugee to the United States, and he was accused of raping a student when he came to college here. And it was a very strange and difficult experience. Like, what is your responsibility here?
GIBNEY Maybe the weirdest experience was interviewing the 22-year-old madam of The Emperor’s Club, realizing that this giggly woman before me had in the palm of her hand some of the most powerful people in the country who were her clients. And she’s worried.
MOORE The strangest encounters with me have been how many times I’ve discovered how wrong I was while I was making a film. I set out to make a film about guns and gun control [2002’s Bowling for Columbine], thinking if we just had more gun control laws, we’d be better off. Halfway through the film, I’m in the statistics office in Ottawa. And I find out that the Canadians have more guns per capita in their homes than we do, and yet they don’t kill each other. And it hit me that that NRA slogan — “Guns Don’t Kill People, People Kill People” — they were half-right. Except I would change it to “Guns Don’t Kill People, Americans Kill People.”
GARBUS One of my first films was The Farm. And we were shooting this parole board hearing of a man who was accused of rape. And he goes before the parole board. They all chitchat with each other very quickly. And they start saying things like, “All black people look [alike].” And we’re shooting, and we think they are going to kick us out; they’re not going to sign the releases. And then they come back in. They deny his parole. And they sort of high-five each other. And afterward, they’re like, “That was so fun. Let’s make a TV series together. We can call it The Parole Board.” The awareness that it was something shameful was not even part of it. And that was when I realized something about being a documentary filmmaker. You drop those judgments because you’re in with them and you don’t know what to expect afterward.
MOORE And because that was their truth.
GARBUS That was their truth.
MOORE Their truth is that all black people look alike. If you put them on a lie detector test, they would pass the test. It’s the age-old question from Pontius Pilate: What is truth? And that’s what we are always, all of us, trying to get at in our own ways.
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