Academy Award winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney said audiences are becoming less likely to distinguish between scripted films and nonfiction storytelling, regarding both as examples of compelling cinema.
In the Variety Streaming Room hosted by film awards editor Clayton Davis, Neon documentary filmmakers explored their various projects’ tie-ins with current political realities, such as the pandemic. They reflected on what it means to depict true stories in engaging ways for viewers. The panelists were Gianfranco Rosi, director, writer and producer of Italy’s submission for best foreign language film “Notturno;” Todd Douglas Miller, director, producer, editor of “Apollo 11: Quarantine;” Matt Wolf, director of “Spaceship Earth;” Benjamin Ree, director of “The Painter and the Thief;” Victor Kossakovsky, director of “Gunda” and “Totally Under Control” directors Alex Gibney, Suzanne Hillinger and Ophelia Harutyunyan.
“We have so much information, so much information constantly. When you face a world so big, the camera can be anywhere, and at that moment, it’s important to transform that vision, that moment that you are looking inside the camera where you’re telling a story,” Rosi said.
Whether the doc explores war-torn Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Kurdistan over the course of three years (“Notturno”) or traces the singular relationship between a Norwegian painter and the person who stole her work (“The Painter and the Thief”), the panelists discussed the uniquely human and intimate stories they strive to capture on film over time.
“That scene, where we were with the camera filming his reaction seeing the portrait of himself, his reaction was just beyond anything we could prepare for,” Ree said. “He was crying for five minutes, and then we thought we should just continue filming … We were very fortunate also to be there in the decisive moments in these two peoples’ lives.”
Additionally, the panelists examined how their docs, whether explicitly or implicitly, explore the main problems facing society. While Miller’s “Apollo 11: Quarantine” mirrors the tumult of the United States today by proxy — through its portrayal 1960s against a backdrop of civil rights, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, and social unrest — some docs, such as “Totally Under Control,” directly uncovered the failure of 2020s America to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
“We were all hit by the pandemic, and it seemed to me that the way to conquer it was to engage with it and to find out what had happened, particularly what had happened with our federal response,” Gibney said. “In a funny way, I think the film ended up being about chaos, time and ultimately democracy.”
The filmmakers also discussed the importance of uncovering marginalized histories through their projects. For Wolf, the unexplored story of the eight scientists quarantining together in Biosphere 2, a replica of Earth’s ecosystem, needed to be told.
“As a filmmaker and a storyteller, a lot of what I’m concerned with is the erasure of history and making sure that things are rescued from the trashcan of history,” Wolf said. “So to me, while my films don’t have an explicit political content necessarily, there is the kind of political project of making sure that things that had been marginalized come into focus.”