Monday, August 31, 2009

Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker

Still of Norman Mailer
Still picture of Susan Sontag
picture of Cynthia Ozick

Town Bloody Hall (1979) was edited by Chris Hegedus from D.A. Pennebaker's footage of an April 30, 1971 "dialogue on women's liberation." Nick Doob was one of the camerapeople; as in A Perfect Candidate, he gets up close. Norman Mailer fleetingly looks like he's about to start laughing when he goads the four women on the panel (above, top). Susan Sontag (middle) and Cynthia Ozick (bottom), making statements from the audience, are captured with a good sense of their personalities.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Max Kestner

Max by Chance
still from Max Kestner's Max by Chance

Max Kestner's 2004 autobiographical film Rejsen på ophavet (Max by Chance) is a short (29 minute) treasure. The filmmaker's narration tells about his identity stemming from one particular set of great-grandparents (on grid, above). The film is richly illustrated with moving and still images. The story is like a fairy tale, filled with digressions, coincidences, eccentrics, and philosophy.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

AJ Schnack

picture of Kurt Cobain
still from Kurt Cobain About a Son
Kurt Cobain About a Son
Kurt Cobain About a Son

The unusual and mesmerizing Kurt Cobain About a Son (2006) by AJ Schnack sets Cobain's recorded voice (interviews by Michael Azerrad) to a stream of images. Roaming from Aberdeen to Olympia to Seattle, the camera captures people and places that elliptically connect with Cobain's commentary and suggest his hardscrabble origins. Schnack's depiction of natural and man-made landscapes include wry visual flourishes (such as the Young Spirit barge, above). In the audio recordings, Cobain's distress is palpable, and the insights to his personality and music show what good interviewing can do. The film's intent is to allow Cobain to represent himself with words; the film succeeds without Nirvana's music and a only a brief image of Cobain.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams

still from Gaea Girls

Gaea Girls (2000), by Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams, is a great example of the depth and vision that results when documentary makers gain access to a subculture -- in this film, the world of women's wrestling in Japan. The aspiring women wrestlers' training includes disturbing violence and blood, which at times would seem to be difficult to film. Discussing how she shot one of the fights, Longinotto told Indiewire's Philippa Bourke that "being behind the camera does kind of inure you a little bit, because you're worrying about focus and framing and you've got something to do. But I was crying all the time that we were filming."

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Thomas Allen Harris

still image from Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela
still from the documentary Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela
still from Thomas Allen Harris documentary Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela

Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela
, by Thomas Allen Harris (2005) tells a historically important and deeply personal story using a wide assortment of documentary tools. We meet a group of anti-apartheid activists and also learn about the larger context of nationalist movements in Africa. One of the South African activists, now dead, was the filmmaker's stepfather, Benjamin Pule Leinaeng, and his story ties the larger sweep of history to the relationship between parents and child. Modern day interviews with the participants (top still: Harris's mother), old photographs and home movies, and effective reenactments (bottom still) seamlessly work together.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Harry Watt and Basil Wright

Still picture from Night Mail
from the 1936 film Night Mail

Night Mail (1936) depicts modernity, or at least what modernity looked like when the film was made. John Grierson was involved in every aspect of the production, using his protégés Harry Watt and Basil Wright to direct. W.H. Auden wrote the train-rhythm poem; Benjamin Britten composed the score. The film exemplifies "Griersonian" documentary, showing a still-fascinating process (a train racing through England delivering letters) and the humanity and camaraderie of workers. The film has a strict construction; its didactic tone is tempered by the lyricism of the music, poetry, and landscape.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Una Celma

still from Egg Lady (Olu Kundze)

Egg Lady
(Olu Kundze) by Una Celma (2000) is a short and sweet portrait of a worker in Latvian bakery. Aina cracks thousands of eggs each day, philosophizes about work and love, and remembers her dancing days in the past. One person's life story and occupation can be transformed into a meaningful documentary without fame and glitz.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Massoud Bakhski

from Tehran Has No More Pomegranates
still from Massoud Bakhski's Tehran Has No More Pomegranates
still image from Tehran Has No More Pomegranates

Tehran Has No More Pomegranates (2008) is an ironic "city symphony" and an ode to the best and worst of urban modernization. Fortifying his account of the history of Tehran, filmmaker Massoud Bakhski uses evocative archival footage and countless old photographs of people and places. The contemporary city, in contrast, is vividly filmed in color. Bakhski's narration, satirical at times, comments on the filmmaking process. And the film crew does make several appearances (top, in shadows). Residents of the city are often shown standing, gazing into the camera, some with time-lapse photography (bottom). Views of busy freeways, shot from above, are a lot like those in Koyaanisqatsi.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Jörg Wagner

still image from Motodrom

Jörg Wagner's Motodrom (2006) is nine minutes of black-and-white kinetic energy. A loud, wordless soundtrack accompanies images of a motorcycle-show set-up and performance. Three daredevils motor around their arena, a flimsy wooden centrifuge. An unusual moment of stillness (above) is a time-lapse sequence.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Marie Menken

still from Marie Menken's Go Go Go
Still from Koyaanisqatsi

Marie Menken's experimental film Go Go Go (1962-64) used time-lapse photography to highlight the speed and frenzy of the city of New York. A hypnotic sequence filmed from above (top) reminded me of a similar part of Koyaanisqatsi (1982) by Godfrey Reggio (bottom).

Friday, August 14, 2009

Video docs on the Web -- fashion

Duke Ellington School of the Arts
fashion from Duke Ellington School of the Arts

Some terrific documentary video is shot and edited for the web., for example, has a "CameraWorks" section with dozens of enticing shorts. Above, two stills from a particularly good video (episode 3 of a series) about trendy fashions at a downtown magnet high school. It's informal and fun to watch, with an array of characters, creative framing and cutaways, and snappy editing -- all with a limited time frame and budget.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Video art on the Web

A graffiti artist known as "blu" documents a series of wall paintings and stop-motion animations, posting the videos on the web. MUTO was shot in Buenos Aires and Baden, Germany with a delightful soundtrack by Andrea Martignoni.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Video docs on the Web -- politics

Obama video strategy with video of Maya Soetoro-Ng

Short camcorder videos can be effective tools for social and political advocacy. Barack Obama's presidential campaign had an online video approach detailed in an interview with the campaign's video guy, Max Harper. Harper says that the online audience for advocacy videos expects a certain level of video production: "if you send out a poor quality doesn't engage them or they can't hear it or see it or it's too long." These issues are ones for camcorder video documentarians to remember: get good visuals and sound in the field, and edit for engagement and succinctness.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Home video on the Web -- college reunions

A tiny camcorder or cell phone can record memories and one-time-only events, such as a rock band joining together for the first time in years during a college reunion party (above). For these videos, only one part of the problem is the inherent visual quality of the camera. There's also the darkness of the room, hand-held-camera shakes, and muddy sound from a built-in microphone. Never mind: when a minute or two of this video was posted on Facebook, the video drew "hey, do you have any more of that footage?" comments from the band members.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Video docs on the Web -- obituaries

Budd Schulberg's New York Times obituary on the web was accompanied by a 17 minute life history video comprised of a single interview. Occasionally, the interviewer is heard asking a question, and there's some narration to pull the timeline together. It's a solid example of a flattering autobiographical interview with an older person, because it includes (a) subtitles for the moments when spoken words can't be easily heard, (b) photographs and other visuals to break up the "talking head" interview, and (c) editing out easy-to-cut hesitations and difficulties remembering a name.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Christian Frei

still from War Photographer
still picture from War Photographer

Photographer James Nachtwey has had an illustrious career covering war and conflict. Christian Frei's film, War Photographer, asks penetrating questions about taking pictures of unspeakable suffering. Nachtway, at one point in the film, says a photographer should be a stranger in that situation, subverting the conventional wisdom that it's best to spend time and get acquainted with people prior to documenting them. Note the use of a mini video camera attached to the top of Nachtwey's still camera to show his point-of-view.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Jaci Judelson

large format photography

Tina Barney: Social Studies by Jaci Judelson observes a professional photographer at work and at the same time views an elevated social class from the inside. Tina Barney's bedside manner as she snaps large-format pictures of aristocratic European people is instructive and delightful. (Above photograph copyright Tina Barney)

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Robert A. Nakamura

Little Tokyo and Manzanar photographer

Toyo Miyatake: Infinite Shades of Gray
(2001) by Robert A. Nakamura tells the story of a Los Angeles photographer who was sent to the Manzanar concentration camp. The filmmakers show Miyatake's documentation of the Little Tokyo community before World War Two and his Manzanar pictures in a valuable 30 minute tribute.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Kenneth Love

negro leagues

One Shot: The Life and Work of Teenie Harris
(2001) by Kenneth Love shows the depth and liveliness of a photography career devoted to one's hometown. Pittsburgh's Charles "Teenie" Harris was known for snapping one image for any given assignment, and his photographs, used liberally throughout the documentary, share a well-composed immediacy.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Reiner Holzemer

Hod Carrier

darkroom photography

August Sander: People of the Twentieth Century
by Reiner Holzemer (2002) gives a fascinating and sympathetic portrayal of the photographer, who depicted Germany's diverse population prior to World War Two. The film includes a generous number of Sander's photographs (and negatives, above).

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Robert Flaherty

early silent documentary
Robert Flaherty Nanook of the North

Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North (1922) is a silent film in black & white. There is some explanatory text, but mostly the actions of Nanook and his family are shown by observation and editing. The igloo-building sequence has seeped into popular consciousness; for many, it's the way igloos are made.
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Documentary Starts Here by Nancy Kalow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.