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This article first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter’s January awards special issue.
When it comes to real onscreen drama and emotion, most Hollywood movies pale next to this year’s documentary features. Citizenfour, directed by Laura Poitras, 52, captures the moment in a Hong Kong hotel room when NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden began to hand over files Life Itself, directed by Steve James, 59, witnesses the final days of film critic Roger Ebert; and The Case Against 8, directed by Ben Cotner, 34, and Ryan White, 33, is front and center at the Supreme Court when the ban on same-sex marriage in California is overturned. While Keep On Keepin’ On, directed by Alan Hicks, 30, documents the fond relationship between jazz legend Clark Terry and a young, blind piano prodigy, Last Days in Vietnam, directed by Rory Kennedy, 46, recounts the desperate relations between the Americans evacuating Saigon and the Vietnamese left behind.
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The films range far and wide, from the Congo, where Virunga, directed by Orlando von Einsiedel, 34, looks at mountain gorillas caught in the middle of the crossfire, to South Central Los Angeles, where Tales of the Grim Sleeper, directed by Nick Broomfield, 66, unearths the tale of a serial killer who preyed on forgotten women. Invited to sit down together by THR, the filmmakers shared their war stories, revealed how they drum up financing and told how they’ve found eager supporters such as Quincy Jones, Leonardo DiCaprio and Steven Soderbergh.
When you’re deciding on a film, even if you decide it’s a worthy subject, do you first have to ask yourself whether it’s also got genuine drama?
LAURA POITRAS I think all of us are filmmakers first. And documentary filmmaking, even though it involves journalism, it’s also storytelling.
ORLANDO VON EINSIEDEL No matter how important the issue is at the center of your film or how much you care about it, if you make a film that is boring, not enough people are going to see it and then it’s not going to have the impact on the issue that you cared about in the first place.
So are you asking yourself questions like, “Is there a dramatic twist in the third act”?
STEVE JAMES One of the things that makes documentaries so exciting in the
last 10 to 20 years is the fact that we are not confined by thinking about the films and stories as three acts. That’s why people are excited about seeing our stories, beyond the fact that they’re true. People’s lives don’t often conform to three acts.
In your film about Roger Ebert, did you know what form it would take when you began?
JAMES Roger had written this terrific memoir. What I loved was the fact that he was looking back over his life from the vantage point of a man clearly acknowledging that he’s nearing the end. He’d been through tremendous suffering from the cancer in the last seven years of his life. And I love the way he kind of used his life in the present as his springboard to the past. I knew I wanted to structure the film in that way, but there were a lot of things that I wanted to do that I never got to do. He got sick. And he was in the hospital in rehab for the rest of the time I was filming. And so I had to adapt.
RYAN WHITE I totally agree with Steve that documentaries have the liberty to go outside that three-act structure. But Ben, my co-director, and I were very conscious the entire time we were making [Case Against 8] that we needed a third act and that was the Supreme Court. Had the Supreme Court not taken [the case], we would have had great material, but we wouldn’t have had that sort of epic structure that I think we got in the end. We made the film for three and a half, maybe four and a half years without even knowing whether it would become a film.
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Laura, when you went to Hong Kong to meet Edward Snowden, did you know you were embarking on a movie?
POITRAS Sure, I had started to make a film about NSA and whistleblowers and journalism before Snowden contacted me. Going to Hong Kong, I brought my camera. But there is this kind of uncertainty that we all have to embrace as documentary filmmakers because we’re filming things that are in many cases actually unfolding. We don’t know where the story is going until it reaches its conclusion.
Did any of you have eureka moments where you found archival material or filmed an interview that you knew would really make your movie?
RORY KENNEDY Because [I was making] a historical documentary, I knew what the story was going into it. And for [Vietnam], it was really important having a visual representation that made the viewer feel present in the moment. We were very lucky uncovering a box of undeveloped super?8 footage [about the helicopter airlift] from a guy’s attic that ended up taking about 12 minutes in our film. It’s incredibly dramatic footage that’s never been seen before. So you kind of put everything together and you hope for the best, and then sometimes you get lucky and sometimes you don’t.
Alan, while you were shooting your film, Clark Terry became ill. Was there a moment where it looked like you might not have a film?
ALAN HICKS I’d been a student of Clark’s, so when we turned the cameras on Clark and [his protege] Justin, I could identify with that feeling that Justin was being taken under the wing of a master. That was kind of all I knew about it going in, storywise. There were so many times where I thought, “Here comes the ending,” and it would do the complete opposite. Studying jazz, you’re always improvising, so that was a good transfer over into filmmaking.
Nick, in Tales of the Grim Sleeper, you’re investigating serial murders that took place 20 to 30 years ago in South Central L.A. What convinced you that it was a movie?
NICK BROOMFIELD Los Angeles is kind of two cities. There’s the part of the city that I normally hang out in. And then there’s the other part of the city, which is South Central, which has really become increasingly cut off from the rest of Los Angeles — a whole different value system and culture. This story was the story of probably up to 200 women who have disappeared between the early 1980s and the present day, which is a kind of mini-genocide in the middle of Los Angeles. I thought, “How is this possible?” So I had that question. But actually, the telling of the story was formed in a way more by the people who wouldn’t talk to me, which were the police, the authorities, the politicians. And so I was pushed into making a film in the community with the friends of the main killer and the survivors and their families and the victims.
POITRAS I just want to say in terms of Nick’s film, I can’t believe it’s not on the front page of every newspaper in this country, what’s happening. That that many women could be killed and that the police would not investigate or tell the community that that was happening. So I think you performed the role of a journalist, and it’s extraordinary. It’s mind-boggling how the community has been failed.
When you take on a movie that’s about social issues, do you judge its effectiveness not just by how it tells its story but by whether it has an impact in a year or five years down the road?
BROOMFIELD I think something like Laura’s film affects everybody, and it’s so startling. It’s just so unbelievable that this is going on. I don’t know where one takes it to, but it’s something that has to be reacted to.
JAMES What’s happened in recent years is that traditional media has sort of retreated from dealing with stories in any kind of depth. It used to be, a long, long time ago, that the networks actually did documentaries. Some really great stuff. I think documentary filmmakers are the ones now who it has fallen to, and they have seized the opportunity to really tell stories in depth in a way that they will have a lasting place and impact.
POITRAS I think we’re all driven as artists by a certain vision and voice. So I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about questions of making something for another goal. The goal is to make a film that will take the audience on a journey and that they’ll learn something. There’s not an outside goal beyond that.
KENNEDY For Last Days in Vietnam, I was invested in telling the story about what happened 40 years ago in Saigon. But part of my interest in making the film was at that point we were on the brink of getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan — which hasn’t really happened. There was an opportunity to learn some lessons of what it means to get out of a war and to try to do so gracefully, which we didn’t do so well in Vietnam. There is no connection made within the context of the film to what’s going on now, but audiences inevitably make that connection themselves. And that’s enormously satisfying.
Ryan, your film gives a very human face to the same-sex marriage movement. Was part of your motivation to have a voice in that debate?
WHITE This is the first film I’ve made about a social issue; all my films before [such as Good Ol’ Freda] have been more classified as entertainment documentaries. But I felt like I was in this film in a lot more ways than I have been in my other films, in that it was the most personal thing that I’d ever worked on because Ben and I are gay Californians. (Ben’s on his honeymoon right now. He just got married two weeks ago.) When the ending of your film affects your life and what you can do with your boyfriend or girlfriend or what sort of family unit you’re going to start, it becomes very hard. At times, the camera is shaking because we’re so emotional. Watching our main characters get married was the hardest day to work because we were so invested in what the outcome was for them and for us.
Did any of you have moments where you felt you had to shut off the camera because what you were watching was too personal?
VON EINSIEDEL I had quite a few of those because this war started while I was making this film. And there were a couple of moments where a mortar would land and people got very badly injured, and I suddenly felt incredibly uncomfortable filming. But in the context of what was happening, a lot of people would say, “Your only role here is to document what is happening, to share the story of this place and what hope it represents for Eastern Congo.”
POITRAS In the film I made in Iraq [My Country, My Country], I had two situations. One where I actually couldn’t shoot after a suicide bombing. There were just pieces of charred flesh around. I couldn’t take out my camera; I didn’t know how I could humanize it. And then I was filming a family talking to people who had kidnapped their child. Of course, I asked permission if I could keep filming, and they all said yes. It’s like we’re given this consent to be there and to witness things that are very painful for people. And in many cases, it’s somewhat cathartic to have that, to have it be recorded and remembered.
JAMES I’m always struck by the courage of the people we film and what they will allow us to film. With the Ebert film, when he died, [his wife] Chaz texted me and said to please come to the rehab institute where they had him in the chapel. I took the camera, but it never came out of the case because it just didn’t feel right. For a lot of us, at the end of the day you want to feel like when you go to bed at night that you still feel like a human being.
HICKS [When we were shooting,] there was a moment where Clark, the teacher, is essentially saying goodbye to his student because the next day he had to go to a hospital. For the whole crew, it tore us to pieces, and I had a chat with Clark that night and said, “We’re going to just stop it here.” He pulled me aside and said, “No, no, you’ve got to make sure you finish the movie because it means a lot to me.”
Laura, at one point in Citizenfour, Edward Snowden says he doesn’t want to be the story even though he knows the media will make him the story. Was there a negotiation about how much he would appear on camera?
POITRAS There wasn’t really a negotiation; I did have to convince him. But once he’d agreed, then there was no surprise when I started recording him and Glenn [Greenwald]. In some ways, I did end up making a film about him even though he didn’t want to be the story.
WHITE Did he see the film before you finished it?
POITRAS My editor Mathilde Bonnefoy and I flew to Moscow in September, and we showed a close-to-finished cut. He had a lot of [concerns that we not reveal any identifying material] like, “Oh, that USB stick that you can see, like, you know, 20 feet in the distance.” And so we had some conversations about that. Lindsay Mills, who is his partner, was there. For her, it was quite emotional because she had experienced everything from the other side, obviously. But there weren’t any kind of efforts [on Snowden’s part] to control the narrative.
How much time do you all have to spend raising financing for your films?
JAMES I start when I get enough money that I feel like I can get the shooting underway in a serious way. I just start ’em, and we’ll figure that out by the end.
VON EINSIEDEL We had a real nightmare with our film because we wanted to be really careful about letting people know about the investigative angle in it. So I ended up self-financing it for the first year because I just wanted to start making it. And then after that year, when we could start to share a little bit more, then finally a bit of financing started coming in.
POITRAS I had a grant from the Britdoc Foundation that funded the beginning of production. Then the other funding came in later after we had pretty much shot everything. Once you have an assembly [of film], then it’s easier to bring in distribution partners or broadcast partners.
Alan, how did Quincy Jones become a producer?
HICKS Quincy was Clark’s first student. We got this phone call saying that Quincy Jones is coming down and he’s bringing Snoop Dogg to record with Clark singing and Snoop rapping. But Snoop was playing basketball with his son that morning and sprained his ankle and couldn’t get on the plane. So all of a sudden Quincy walks in and we’re shooting, going, “I hope this is OK.” Later on, when we approached him about coming on as a producer, he said yes.
Leonardo DiCaprio became involved in Virunga. How did that happen, Orlando?
VON EINSIEDEL We’d launched at Tribeca, and I think he saw the film about a week or two after that. And he just wrote me an email. I think he realized that this film was an opportunity not just to protect this particular park, but if this park falls — Africa’s oldest park and home to the world’s mountain gorillas — where is next on our planet that will fall? What is safe from human greed? So he said, “What can I do to help?” Having Leonardo on board [as executive producer], it brings an audience who wouldn’t otherwise care about a film about the Congo.
And Laura, in your case, what role did Steven Soderbergh play as executive producer?
POITRAS Anthony Romero, who’s the head of the ACLU, which is representing Snowden, said that he’d been in touch with Soderbergh about Snowden’s case and they were talking about it. And I just started saying how much I admired Soderbergh’s work. Anthony said, “Would you like an introduction?” And so I asked Steven if he’d be willing to look at cuts and give notes, which he agreed to.
Steve, years ago, when the documentary branch overlooked your film Hoop Dreams, that spurred a lot of change within the Academy. How good a job is it doing now of recognizing all the documentaries out there?
JAMES They’ve gotten to a place now where it’s not a perfect system at all, but at least they’ve been able to kind of remove control from either a committee or a handful of people. The system’s much better, but it’s not perfect because now it’s going to privilege films that get more attention, have more support and have bigger distributors behind them than the smaller more obscure films that might be, and often are, quite terrific and deserving.
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