Throughout Werner Herzog’s filmography, he challenges the audience to face the ambiguity of what they are seeing: while it may exist on the screen, it may not represent concrete reality. In some of his weaker films, this may merely be an aesthetic decision—a Herzog stamp and branding. Herzog is not always totally free of criticism regarding the politics of his cinematic aestheticization. His late 20th century work was more likely to approach trauma, politics, and marginalized groups, and often caused friction in the public.

More so than most of his other films, the supposedly apolitical representation of war-torn Kuwait within his 1992 film, Lessons of Darkness, received maybe the most flak. In his pseudo-monograph Werner Herzog – A Guide for the Perplexed: Conversations with Paul Cronin, Herzog claims the film “transcends the topical and practical; this could be any war and any country. The film is about the evil that human beings are capable of” (294). In this context Herzog creates an eternal portrayal of the insanity of war after distancing himself from the ways in which commercial media attempts to obfuscate mankind’s absurd brutality, in order to argue for the benefits of transcending topicality.

            In the case of Lessons of Darkness, that “topic” is the world’s stickiest issue: war. The first Gulf War and the invasion of Kuwait is essentially forgotten, especially for westerners who are continually miseducated on Middle Eastern conflict.

            The documentary consists of distinct chapters, depicting Kuwait through a poetic reframing. Rather than traditional documentary narrative, Herzog uses evocative narration and exaggerated framing to suggest that the film is about aliens visiting Earth, and discovering the Kuwaiti oil-field fires. The film primarily consists of helicopter shots of cast field ablaze. Occasional trips to the ground sometimes show archival footage, remnants of a torture bunker, and a single, brutal, civilian “interview.” It ends with the reigniting of oil fire, by the crews shown trying to extinguish and control the tempests. Herzog pleads over narration, “Has life without fire become unbearable for them?”

Lessons of Darkness is a direct attack on the snappy structure that was presenting the war. Front-line reporting, starting around the Vietnam War, had created a whole new type of visual language meant to promote the fast-paced, profit-oriented demand of TV news. Herzog even said in Perplexed “The networks and the cable channels had filmed it all wrong; that tabloid style of reporting, with its eight-seconds snippets, quickly inured audiences to the horrors” (293).  In this quote, Herzog but rather tries to oppose the commercialized presentation narrativizing man’s unending insanity of war. 

This context is in the film itself during the chapter “The War,” where Herzog uses archival footage made famous on CNN. However, his treatment of the material is relatively unadorned. The green and black night-vision video is its own sort of testament, unneeding of comment or aestheticization.  This segment is the shortest one and its abruptness, low-quality footage, and sense of spectacle all echo the ideas of Herzog’s criticism of ad-friendly war coverage.

Though, is Herzog “successful” in transcending the particular, such as war and country, in favor of depicting humanity’s dark capability? Lessons of Darkness achieves a poetic ambiguity, but given how inundated audiences were with images of oil fields, destroyed cities, and the tools of torture it seems pretty naive for Herzog to think audiences would lose sight of the film’s more grounded context. The brutal, single interview is both painfully exploitative but entirely grounding of the film’s ethical praxis.  Lessons of Darkness, at the least, achieves a cohesive and continuous presentation of war’s timeless insanity, even if it cannot transcend its apolitical, fantastical framing.

            Nowhere is this more apparent than in the scene “Life Without Fire,” which recontextualizes the image of workers restarting the fire by manipulating into a symbol of mankind’s inability to overcome war. This scene stylizes the reality of the situation, which happens to be fairly mundane, and incorporates it into the film’s grander metaphor of madness. In other words, Herzog is knowingly capturing this image under the pretext of the film’s goal, rather than documenting the reigniting under its own terms.

The whole sequence of shots works under this pretext. The scene opens with a long shot, connecting it to the series of alienating images prior to this moment. Even though the firefighters have been depicted as heroic figures, there is still a sense of distance from them. Then, after they restart the fire, any attachment or trust the audience might have in them is depressingly crushed. Following this, the close-ups of the firefighters return to being totally alien and confusing; their hoods become bizarre masks and their off-putting smiles are apathetic to the destruction. As a result, it is not just Herzog’s narration and mise en scene that create his manipulated framework, but even the editing coheres to it. The limitations of the documentary process become a newfound fiction.

This is not to say that this is unproblematic, just that the film is operating under its own artistic, knowingly-fictitious structure. Simply because the film is cohesive does not mean it can avoid criticism. Ultimately, Lessons of Darkness deserves plenty of caution considering the trauma it is appropriating for art-house audiences, but there is an undeniable point to Herzog’s questionable apolticalism.

Herzog wholesale tries to avoid criticism for the film by presenting it from an alien’s perspective, which can easily be interpreted as a shirking of responsibility for the Kuwaiti victims and continuously ignorant western audience. However, the underlying reasoning behind this is fascinating and much more convincing in intention than the film manages to explain. Herzog said in his Perplexed, “There was something cosmic about the experience that went far beyond the politics of the events. It was like filming on a different planet… I set to record crimes perpetrated against not just humanity, but Creation itself” (296-297). This statement is specifically interesting in how it separates politics from humanity, suggesting that the incessant representation in politics, culture, and history hides the reality of destruction. This is reminiscent of his distaste for the way television news depicted war, which was safe, short, and commercial. Even TV punditry under this lens becomes narcissistic and pedantic. Herzog suggests that modern politics is simply a comfort people have created so as to ignore the fact that they really are no different from the perpetrators nor the victims.

While that is an engaging argument, it still needs to be taken with a bathtub of salt. Unfortunately, art-house documentaries do not prevent war or imperialism or madness. Could Lessons of Darkness inspire empathy or bridge the cultural or lingual gap westerners might expect to exist between such distant places? It seems likely given the strength of the film. Although, the idea that this film can transcend the tragedy it captures and would continue to take place, is absurd yet earnest. At its best, the film is subverting the images of Kuwait that television made profitable so as to enable viewers to see their own uncomfortable position and proximity to the chaos.

Sometimes people make me hurt.

Scrolling through the reviews for the Criterion release of “The New York Films,” which offers Akerman’s 12-minute La Chambre, her feature-length documentary Hôtel Monterey and the iconic News from Home, I noticed a lot of resentment in the comments section. One of the comments I read does a nice job of summarizing what I often see concerning Akerman’s work, calling it a “self-absorbed, long-winded pretentious bore.”

Of the three New York Films, Hôtel Monterey is most likely to solicit these critiques, but given a little work on the part of the viewer, the meditative documentary offers a unique insight into the acutely painful nature of moving to a different country.

The hour-long documentary starts in the lobby of a New York hotel and works its way up to the roof, occasionally crossing paths with some of the residents but mostly content in the isolation and eery geometry of the hallways. Initially working exclusively with static shots, Akerman introduces motion into her frames midway through the film as daylight starts to stream through the windows.

Hôtel Monterey is the first feature that Akerman made in her first extended trip outside of her native Belgium. The film thus becomes a tool to confront the hardships of that experience. The image of the hotel as a sterile place where people exist on a temporary basis is an adept metaphor for the experience of living abroad, and Akerman’s bare-bones approach to the subject matter feels like a quiet scream into the void.

At the beginning of Hôtel Monterey, we are stuck on the ground floor of the hotel, surrounded by a cast of characters that is either blatantly disregarding the presence of the camera or contemptuously staring right into the lens. We move into the ever-shifting elevator, where there is a pronounced distance even in spite of the intimacy of the tiny space. Akerman then turns to empty hallways, where we find ourselves staring at the glistening walls for minutes on end.

Together these images inspire the feeling brought on by the isolation and distancing nature of living immersed in a foreign culture. Akerman’s formal radicalism allows her to engage emotionally with her audience without the usual narrative contrivances.

Tugged along by Akerman from frame to frame, the viewer is offered the chance to inhabit the psychological landscape of a first-time traveller. We are invited to enjoy a break from our everyday reality, but we are confronted with the fact that sometimes other realities are just as challenging as our own. Akerman refuses to play along with the notion that film is an escapist medium, forcing her audience to come to terms with her situation and learn something in the process.

It didn’t take much for me to get pulled into Akerman’s universe–I recently came back from an extended trip to Quebec, where I experienced a dynamic very similar to that which is constructed in Hôtel Monterey. I found myself confronted with a culture and a language different than my own, an experience that I found to be incredibly isolating. My apartment building even resembled the Hotel Monterey in many respects, with its long Shining-esque hallways and the depressing lack of windows.

Coming back to the United States, my impulse was akin to that of Akerman–I wanted to explore the less-romanticized aspects of travel by making a short film about my experience. I wanted to take the stereotypical YouTube travelogue and turn it on its head, offering stillness and silence in the place of the normal stock music montage. It turns out I wanted to make Hôtel Monterey.

Watching the documentary for the first time a couple weeks ago, I was amazed at the consistency of approach that two people in similar situations can dream up 50 years apart from one another.

It suffices to say that I have my biases toward this film, and that I am a partial judge of its worth to an “average” audience. However, I will say that even with such a personal connection to Hôtel Monterey, I had to watch it with music blaring in my headphones to keep me engaged through the minute-long shots of empty hallways in the midsection of the film. I even split the screening into two different chunks, so that I could maintain the level of attention that I felt the film deserved.

I invite everyone to try a similar approach. I think the important part is seeing the images in all of their haunting glory–their strength far exceeds that of the music that I haphazardly chose to accompany the screening.

Perhaps for some, the film will be a “long-winded pretentious bore,” but personally I found a large amount of relief in watching the documentary. I was finally able to acknowledge that the emotionally-exhaustive five months I spent in Canada were not a result of my own incompetence as a traveller, but that pain and discomfort are an essential part of living abroad.

It is worth noting, however, that the film concludes on a positive note. I found the roof scenes at the end of Hôtel Monterey far more hopeful than the shot on the ferry which marks the end of News from Home. The gracefully panning shots of the New York skyline hold a sense of admiration and wonder. It seems as if the film is a step from the hotel into the streets of New York City, where Akerman finally sees a semblance of comfort and home.

As I move forward with the making of my short film and my life living abroad, Hôtel Monterey will serve as a constant source of inspiration in my journey. Though I have only seen the documentary once, I am sure I will return to it again in search of solidarity, solace, and wisdom.

This is a film that has truly marked my life in a positive way, and I recommend it to all who have experienced the isolation and eerie geometry of life on the road.

As the impact of COVID-19 grew, governors began to restrict public gatherings, forcing film festival programmers to cancel in-person festivals. Many responded by moving festivals online.

Tribeca Enterprises and YouTube developed “We Are One: A Global Film Festival,” joining with 20 global festivals, including Venice, Sundance, Cannes, Toronto (Hayes, 2020).

Streaming platforms thrived with festivals moving online. Film Festival Flix, a streaming platform, now partners with the Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema and Ashland Independent Film Festival, ready to carry out online festivals in May. Seed & Spark, a crowdfunding platform, launched a platform specifically tailored for online festivals.

This situation also inspired some new online festivals. Quarantine International Film Festival is an online festival launched after everything went into lockdown. Its purpose is to encourage filmmakers to stay creative while they’re stuck in quarantine. Even though the festival did not offer any compensation for filmmakers, it still drew a lot of attention. The festival received 636 submissions from 54 countries, Siobhan Cooney and Spencer Streichert, organizers of the festival, reported.

Some film festivals suggested they had very limited time to move everything online. It was one week before the opening of the Vilnius International Film Festival (VIFF) that the quarantine was announced in Lithuania. The film festivals that came later had more time to prepare. Melanie Addington, executive director of the Oxford Film Festival, said it worked very closely with the filmmakers to figure out what form of online presentation would make them comfortable.

Research shows purpose of festivals

Rüling brought out the concept of “field-configuring events.” Through interviews with programmers of the Annecy animated film festival, Rüling concluded that the festival serves as an animation community, competitive venue and marketplace for animation filmmakers and professionals (2009, p.66). Some state-run film festivals, such as the Guangzhou International Documentary Film Festival, gather international commissioning editors and producers, serving as a venue for deal-making (Yu, 2014).

From an organizational perspective, film festivals function as a public exhibition place that is financially and culturally crucial for the whole film industry. The concept of “arenas of emergence” is suggested by researchers, as film festivals often come up with competitions, workshops and marketplaces for co-production, distribution and recruitment, which gives participants a sense of emerging agenda within one location (Rüling & Pedersen, 2010).

Also, studies emphasize the role of film festivals as a connection and integration into the global community (Mazdon, 2006; Evans, 2007; Yu, 2014) Filmmakers build their reputation through connecting with global networks.

Audience population and audience demographics

This digital solution brings some benefits. Statistics show that “16,709 live stream feeds from 50 different countries” joined the Ann Arbor Film Festival this year. Katherine Pertuso, the communications and marketing manager for the Ann Arbor Film Festival, said online attendance is larger than last year’s in-person attendance. Carrie Richer, artistic director at the International Wildlife Film Festival, said even without survey statistics support, the festival witnessed its email list double as more people registered for passes.

As a screening platform powering virtual festivals and streaming channels, the Film Festival Flix brought in more film festival partners and helped them move festivals online. With only ten festivals partnering with them in the past eight years, 50 more film festivals are consulting with them to join the Film Festival Flix after the COVID-19 situation, according to Benjamin C. Oberman, CEO of the Flim Festival Flix.

The reason is that the digital solution brings in more audience memnbers who could not physically attend in the past.

Virtual experience

Most of the film festivals try to recreate the virtual experience to simulate the physical one. Their first goal is to maintain the film festival’s function as a way to connect to communities. All four film festival programmers suggested they came up with the virtual Q&A to connect audiences and filmmakers. They used social media channels to create this communal experience for viewers. Oberman suggested that approach is a better experience for some audiences, because in a digital settings, the time limit for a Q&A is more flexible.

All four film festivals showed films to juries and arranged online deliberations, so the winners of the competition could still be selected. They also hosted the online closing ceremony. Audience awards remained viable or even thrived as audiences could have more access to watch more films. Aistė Račaitytė, head of film sales and distribution of Vilnius International Film Festival, said this is important at this time, because films have lost many of their opportunities to get publicity. The winner of the Vilnius International Film Festival this year is The Metamorphosis of Birds. After premiering at the Berlin International Film Festival, the film should have traveled all around the world, but then everything went into lockdown. Račaitytė said announcing the awards gives those films a chance to get recognized and become known to the public. Film festivals also benefit from this digital solution. The Ann Arbor Film Festival had the highest number of filmmakers take part this year because most of them can access to this digital platform.

However, not all portions of the film festivals were able to move online. Normally, VIFF would have some industry events that bring in distributors and sales agents from abroad to acquire films, but this part was canceled this year. In the meantime, Film Festival Flix is cooperating with multiple channels to provide year-round programming and distribution opportunities for filmmakers. After a festival is over, it works with festivals to create streaming channels, so filmmakers can have a chance to participate in revenue sharing.

Concerns about online film festivals

However, there are still some concerns that prevent filmmakers from joining the online festival. The first concern is aesthetic and technical issues – films are often made to be seen projected on the big screen. Račaitytė said only 70 percent of the festival’s films went online, with the rest awaiting in-person screening opportunities.

The other concern is distribution. All four film festivals had some films drop out because of the distribution concerns. The filmmakers were concerned if the films are screened online, they may lose deals with distributors. In response to that, Seed & Spark initiated the 2020 Film Festival Survival Pledge, trying to call for the whole industry temporarily waive policies that prevent films from screening at online festivals (Seed & Spark, n.d.). Addington said the Oxford Film Festival signed the pledge because she thought bending the rules at this moment could be beneficial for filmmakers, “Even though they cannot play their film this year, they should be able to play it next year,” Addington said.

The last concern is the security issue. Instead of showcasing on Vimeo or YouTube, VIFF said it showcased films on its own platform based on experience in providing digital access in the last three years, thus trying to ease filmmakers’ concerns about their films leaking through piracy. The Oxford Film Festival in Mississippi also teamed up with Film Movement, trying to stream at a more secure platform.

Future of film festivals

Oberman suggested the festival industry had already seen a paradigm shift before COVID-19. As the team worked on the Catalina Film Festival last year, it started to bring out a parallel virtual festival track—half of its films were available through in-person theater screenings, while half were available online. Regardless of display platform, all filmmakers were treated the same in competition.

VIFF provided digital access to ten films even before the COVID-19 situation. The festival defines itself as a nationwide festival, so programmers want to make sure VIFF is accessible to everyone. However, Račaitytė suggested the festival will not extend its digital offering of 10 titles, and hopes to “come back next year in a normal shape, like the way we used to happen.” Richer also expressed the intention to bring out more virtual events. As remote education keeps growing, there is a lot of potential for that festival to plug into a remote education program.

As film festivals go hybrid, two different avenues allow more audiences to stay tuned for the new films and the film industry.

Conclusion

The limitation of this research is that it only includes four local or regional film festivals. Some nationwide or international film festivals still provide chances for filmmakers to pitch their films, get funding and get connections with sales agents. Greece’s Thessaloniki Documentary Festival is a successful case to host an online pitching forum (Seth, 2020), and the Cannes film market also arranged a virtual marketplace, making sure projects could be sold even though filmmakers and sales agents cannot physically attend the Marché du Film – a gathering of producers, distributors, buyers, and programmers (Seth, 2020).

To answer RQ 1 and RQ 2, according to the interviews, all film festivals suggested they strove to mimic their in-person community-oriented festival experience even though some of them had limited time to adjust and move everything online. Overall, filmmakers and audiences showed positive responses.

To answer the RQ 3, most of the film festivals said they will carry on the tradition and bring back the physical venue once things are back to normal. “We still think about ourselves as the festival made for the big screen,” said Račaitytė. Regional and local film festivals stated their purpose is to bring out a sense of community, which can only be achieved by the in-person experience.

Even though some big film festivals managed to stage live-streamed industry events with more people getting access, some festivals had to let go of this section with limited time to prepare. However, not all film festivals draw an industry presence and serve as a marketplace for films to be distributed. Matt Wechsler, cinematographer and director of the Hourglass Films, said, “That’s not really the case for most film festivals. That’s only the case for maybe 25 festivals in the United States.” Most film festivals still remain in the level of community building.

However, in the wake of COVID-19, online festivals are still necessary to help some independent films get publicity and build a reputation. Filmmakers may need to balance the options of waiting for next year’s competition and showcasing their work online, meaning more films than usual may be submitted to festivals next year, making competition even more fierce. As online festivals remain an option, filmmakers’work can still be selected as winners by virtual juries and gain attention from the media and potential buyers.

This research attempts to provide an overview of film festivals under COVID-19. Film festivals, filmmakers and screening platforms are all coping with the changes brought on by this pandemic. The whole industry is forced to transform. This change brings some new insight to the whole industry, including expanding the market of the streaming platform.

References

Evans, O. (2007). Border exchanges: the role of the European film festival. Journal of Contemporary European Studies, 15(1), 23-33.

Hayes, D. (2020, April 27). Tribeca And YouTube Join Forces For ‘We Are One’ Online Film Festival With Lineup Fed By Cannes, Venice, Toronto And More. Deadline. Retrieved from https://deadline.com/2020/04/tribeca-youtube-cannes-venice-toronto-we-are-one-streaming-film-festival-1202918493/

Mazdon, L. (2006). The Cannes film festival as transnational space. Post Script, 25(2), 19-30.

Rüling, C. C. (2009). Festivals as field-configuring events: The Annecy international animated film festival and market. Film festival yearbook, 1, 49-66.

Rüling, C. C., & Pedersen, J. S. (2010). Film festival research from an organizational studies perspective. Scandinavian Journal of Management, 26(3), 318-323.

Seek & Spark. (n.d.). The 2020 Film Festival Survival Pledge. Retrieved from https://try.seedandspark.com/film-festival-pledge/

Seth, R. (2020, April 10). Is The Future Of The Film Festival A Digital Experience?. Vogue. Retrieved from https://www.vogue.co.uk/arts-and-lifestyle/article/future-of-the-film-festival-digital

Yu, T. (2014). Going Global–Guangzhou International Documentary Film Festival 2013. Studies in Documentary Film, 8(1), 76-79.

When I went to art school for a year, I was tasked to partner up with someone and make a short documentary about her. Armed with no knowledge of how to make a film and a time window of just one fortnight, I got to work on my first real film. After shooting, I sat down to edit approximately 12 hours before the short was due. I had an acute dearth of footage and no direction for the project. In a panic, I hastily stole a deluge of movie clips to mask my ineptitude. Because my subject talked about certain movies, I thought it would be okay to show arbitrary clips of those movies. This comprised an easy 60% of the short. The documentary was horrible, and I squeaked by with a pity A-.

Room 237 is a feature-length version of my terrible project. A barebones YouTube video stretched out to an excruciating 103 minutes, Room 237 compiles extensive interpretations of Kubrick’s The Shining. It features lengthy voiceovers from Shining “scholars” who have studied the film ad nauseum and who offer wildly varying readings of the film, which range from the Holocaust to the moon landing. None of these subjects is ever shown, and the visuals consist of clips from The Shining, several other of Kubrick’s films, and a seemingly arbitrary hodgepodge of other films.

It cannot be overstated how unpolished Room 237 is. Because the visuals are all clips from other movies, a massive emphasis is placed on the voiceovers. While this is an intentional decision, it is one that becomes problematic when the quality of the audio is so low, from both a qualitative and technical standpoint. Large pauses are left in when the subjects stumble through their theories, leaving in every “um” and “uh” and turning each potential revelation into a slow, frustrating odyssey to the end of a sentence.

One of the scholars narrates via a Skype call (accompanied by all of the lovely, watery auditory artifacts that come with a Skype call) with his crying son audible throughout his speech. At some point, he leaves to go attend to his son and this is inexplicably left in the final product. It takes a good ten seconds for him to return to the call, so in this window of time the film turns into silent footage of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Instead of asking the man to begin his explanation again, director Rodney Ascher leaves this intact for truly inscrutable reasons.

As for the interpretations, they exist on the fringes of some spectacular logical acrobatics. Some, like one involving the rape and plunder of Native American land by Europeans and another that invokes the Holocaust, are mildly compelling, but most of these border on self-parody. One scholar sings praises to NASA before diving into a wild theory about how Kubrick directed the moon landing; another engages in some curiously misguided pareidolia, claiming that he found Kubrick’s face in the clouds of the opening shots of the film.

The scene involving this pareidolia might be the film’s nadir. Ascher’s frenetic, YouTube video-style editing displays how little faith he has in his audience. When a commentator describes specific objects in a scene of The Shining, Ascher will actually point to the objects with an arrow. When it comes time for Ascher to find Kubrick’s face in the clouds, however, it appears he can’t do it to save his life. After a painfully slow frame-by-frame display of the opening shots, Ascher simply cuts to the next scene without even suggesting that the face is present. By doing this, Ascher actually displays that he disagrees with his theorist’s voiceover and puts the visuals at odds with the audio.

A full documentary of this would have been fascinating. The reason this scene is the film’s lowest point instead, however, is because there is no other instance in which Ascher attempts to show self-awareness. When his voice of God is discussing, with full sincerity, his belief that footage of the moon landing was fake and that The Shining is an elaborate confession of such deception, Ascher does not make any attempt to do anything remotely clever with this or to speak to how nonsensical some might perceive this theory. The indifference with which this sequence (and the entire film, really) is edited suggests no contest from Ascher, as if he eagerly agrees with each proposed theory. This becomes a colossal issue when some of the theories travel into truly asinine territory in the last third of the film.

This is Room 237’s most notable shortcoming. The insanity in which some of these theorists indulge cannot be replicated here, but Ascher approaches it all with such a straight face. His theorists are blurting out borderline gibberish, trying to piece together incoherent screeds that, by the end of the film, devolve into observations without thesis. Ascher could have compiled a compelling commentary about the quasi-religious fervor with which some cinephiles approach films, bending logic in unfathomable shapes to make sense of ideas they desperately want to understand. He has fantastic audio of someone trying to interpret a room key as an admission that Kubrick faked the moon landing, and yet he does nothing with it. He shows footage of the room key and moves on without comment. It is unspeakably depressing.

It is unclear, then, what purpose Ascher’s film serves. All of these theories have been in existence for some time, and I knew about all of them before I watched the film since they’re all online. Despite serving up some tier one lunacy, there is nothing revelatory about the film; it all feels woefully pedestrian. With barely any original content and absolutely no editorializing, Room 237 feels like a subpar YouTube video stretched out to feature length, like something a bored Shining enthusiast would throw together in a week and put online for free. The difference here, though, is that this costs real money and I am now four precious dollars in the red. In shockingly unfocused fashion, Room 237 takes inherently enthralling subject matter, kills it with its bare hands, and presents the cold corpse back to the audience.

Nobody Speak

Scene from Nobody Speak film

It seems fitting that perhaps one of the most important First Amendment cases of our time revolves around the publication of a sex tape featuring renowned former WWF superstar Hulk Hogan sharing a bed with the wife of his best friend, Bubba the Love Sponge. That’s the kind of stuff of which good First Amendment cases are always made. In his enthralling new documentary Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press, director Brian Knappenberger paints an unsettling picture of the changes taking place in our media landscape, the increased levels of distrust in journalists and scrutiny of the press and how the long arm of capitalism may inevitably step in to quash what it does not deem financially worthy.

As anyone with a passing interest in journalism and press rights knows by now, Gawker Media and its founder Nick Denton were sued (and subsequently bankrupted) by Terry Bollea (Hogan’s real name) and his legal team for publishing portions of the sex tape that had been making the rounds of the upper echelons of various tabloid publications for years. Though the case was initially rejected by a Florida federal court, the judge there ruling that blocking the publication of the video would constitute a First Amendment violation, Bollea found himself more successful in Florida state court in St. Petersburg, where the Hulk Hogan character is a local treasure and most people have never even heard of Gawker, let alone had much sympathy for its corrosive style and brash attitude about exposing the dirtiest details of people’s lives. The extent of the damages awarded to Bollea was particularly disturbing, $140 million in total, exceeding by several multiples the typical payout for even the most egregious wrongful-death suits. Despite its lurid nature, the case has raised important questions about privacy in an age of immediate public broadcast, about when private relations become public matters and, most importantly, about how far an independent publisher can go without the support of a millionaire behind the scenes.

The story behind the story here though is the funding of this litigious assault by Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, a man who has had a personal score to settle with Gawker Media for years. Gawker published a piece discussing Thiel’s sexuality back when doing so in Silicon Valley was decidedly unfashionable, along with publishing several scathing reports about the financial state of his various companies. Though often harsh, Gawker dogged Thiel the way it dogged any Silicon Valley resident claiming to be forming some sort of Libertarian technology utopia. As Gawker itself puts it in a piece titled “This Is Why Billionaire Peter Thiel Wants to End Gawker,” it was “creating a counter-narrative to the mythos of the free-market, death-destroying, Randian Übermensch that Thiel and his friends were peddling.” While Thiel is fully within his legal rights to put his full financial support behind any lawsuit he pleases, it is an undeniably chilling reminder that the free press only works when the people in control of the money want it to work.

Nobody Speak ad

Netflix ad for Nobody Speak

Knappenberger juxtaposes the story of this case and Gawker’s demise against that of the secret 2015 acquisition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal by wealthy, uber-conservative casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, undertaken arguably to control the paper’s coverage of him and his various enterprises based there in Las Vegas. The Las Vegas Review-Journal was largely considered a standard-bearer among Nevada’s news media, often publishing things Adelson and his family found unsavory about them and their business practices. Adelson had previously sued the paper’s star columnist, John L. Smith, for $15 million for libel over several relatively benign passages Smith had written about Adelson in a book about the history of Las Vegas and its historical figures and hotels in the development of the Vegas casino industry. Adelson even offered Smith a six figure sum large enough to cover the medical bills of his child fighting brain cancer at that time, as long as Smith acknowledged that he had intentionally defamed Sheldon Adelson with his publication. Smith refused, and Adelson ultimately relented and withdrew his suit.

The identity of the paper’s new owner was initially kept secret from its reporters, forcing them to turn their investigative skills inward to find out whose interests they were truly serving, and forcing the paper the break the details behind its own mysterious buyout. Once the Adelsons finally admitted that they were behind the purchase, existence in the newsroom grew grim. Smith was ordered to cease writing about Sheldon Adelson, his family or its businesses. Smith subsequently resigned. Following him was a large chunk of the newsroom, including all three journalists who had helped uncover the hidden identity of the paper’s new owners. The purchase demonstrably took between 20 and 100 people out of the newsroom who might have revealed something Sheldon Adelson didn’t want in the public eye.

Nobody Speak is a warning, a grab by the shoulders and a stern shake. We have entered one of the most intense periods of media distrust and scrutiny in recent memory. What becomes of reporting that uncovers the misdeeds and the abuses of power by the elite and wealthy when the powerful become powerful enough to bend the coverage of them and their world to their will? The state of strong adversarial journalism is a precarious one; it’s fragile and it can disappear before we know it.

 

 

Picture of Gerald and Gay

Gerald Foos (l) and Gay Talese (r) in Voyeur

When Myles Kane and Josh Koury were looking to distribute their film Voyeur, they had a lot of interest in the documentary. The pair had spent three and a half years working independently on the film, and wanted to make sure to find the right place for it.

Enter Netflix.

While the directors had offers from traditional distributors who were offering big theatrical runs and all the chances of success and glory that comes with that sort of distribution, ultimately they decided that Netflix was the right fit for the film.

Continue Reading…

Picture of Emperor Penguins

Emperor Penguins

Arguably one of the best-known documentaries of the last 20 years is March of the Penguins, the beloved nature documentary. Anyone who has watched it can remember the scene when the baby penguin is taking its first steps. Layered on with Morgan Freeman’s sagely voice, audiences can hear the light steps on the snow and feel like they are in the moment. But what if what you’re hearing is just merely the sounds of household items?

The film was a commercial and critical success, bringing the world the thrilling journey of emperor penguins. Nature documentaries are one of the most common types of documentaries in the world, and rightly so because nature documentaries are very popular.

The thrilling content about Antarctica’s natural environment is tremendously heightened by the film’s sound effects. The documentary relies heavily on what is being heard to truly give an immersive experience to a viewer.

Unknown to many viewers, a substantial amount of the sound effects heard in the film were added later in post-production. Many of the sounds are recorded by Foley artists. Foley artists are the people who provide any necessary effects for the sound of movements and other actions in a film. Typically, they are used in fictional projects but often assist in nature documentaries.

“Producers use sound effects to mimic the noises made by real animals,” said Robert Mendick and Edward Malnack of the London Telegraph. The two mentioned methods including, “adding custard powder to a woman’s stocking, which is then squeezed to sound like polar bears skidding on ice.”

Many of those very subtle sounds such as a koala chewing on leaves or a monkey rustling branches were all created by Foley artists.

Picture of a Foley artist

Foley artist

This is a common practice in wildlife documentaries, but there is a controversy surrounding the use of “enhanced” sounds. BBC’s natural history unit has faced a backlash recently for broadcasting scenes that had fabricated sound, a practice that is not uncommon in the nature documentary world. Sir David Attenborough, one of the most renowned nature documentary filmmakers, has admitted that he has altered footage for his films.

Though many people find the use of enhanced sounds in wildlife nonfiction films an ethical gray area, there are good reasons for doing so. One of the reasons cited is the increased demand with the advances in technology.

“The soundtracks accompanying the BBC’s natural history films…have been enhanced in recent years to meet the demands of cinema-style home viewing systems,” wrote Adam Sherwin in the Independent.

Obtaining clear and crisp audio in an open outdoor area is immensely difficult. Even though it is easy to use a camera with an extremely long lens to get tight shots, it does not directly translate to audio. There are very few audio recording devices that can individually record a specific sound that can be later audio engineered. Those that can do so are very expensive and are not always a guarantee.

“Good audio requires a microphone close to the source of the sound, which can be difficult and dangerous,” wrote Emmett FitzGerald on the podcast 99% Invisible. There are many situations where ascertaining good audio would require disturbing the wildlife subjects and potentially put the crew in danger.

Using Foley artists is not an uncommon practice amongst nature nonfiction filmmakers because of the constraints of budget, resources and safety. By leaving most of the audio to post-production, there is more creative and cinematic freedom to produce stellar content.  In other words, this is the most practical and logical route despite the possible inauthenticity.

This practice of Foleying in sound for nonfiction wildlife films is not going to stop despite its controversy. It is necessary to create the kinds of cinematic tension or drama for an enjoyable experience for the viewers. So even though the sounds of horses galloping may just be two coconuts being clicked together, it is essential to create that full immersive experience of enjoying the beauty of nature brought to you on the big screen.

Confession Tapes poster

Poster for The Confession Tapes

Streaming giant Netflix has cemented its position as a leading documentary platform in 2017, releases nearly 30 original documentaries docu-series. One of the most recent docu-series to hit the Netflix site is The Confession TapesThe Confession Tapes is a seven-episode documentary series about murders throughout the United States that resulted in convictions based on taped confessions. These confessions are usually secured by investigators after grueling interrogations of the suspects, and are often coupled with little to no physical evidence to support the suspect’s guilt. Each episode has a similar structure: a murder happens, chaos within the town ensues, the easiest/first suspects are apprehended and then interrogated for hours until they break and confess to the crime. The Confession Tapes is another crime-related documentary series being produced and released with a modern, yet eerily retro “Forensic Files” feeling.

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Picture of Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog

He arrived via Department of Defense and Highway Patrol escort, to the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival in Arkansas to do a Q&A after his film Grizzly Man and teach a two-hour master class. However, legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog almost immediately undercut the idea of the master class, pointing out that he could not teach us anything except how to forge documents and cut through barbed wire fencing, explaining with his often-told story of forging a document to get through Peru and film Fitzcarraldo. This led him to speak about creativity and how the biggest threat to it is bureaucracy and the only way to beat bureaucracy is to feed it paper so as to distract it.

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A sign that says Psychic

Psychic sign

“The aliens are always with me.”

What was your first thought when you read that line above? Typically, when working with subjects that have unique lifestyles or beliefs, an audience’s first reaction is to write them off or laugh at them. Unless you are making a film that’s sole purpose is to make fun of someone — which I highly suggest you don’t do– then you are going to want your subject to be respected. The more bizarre the beliefs, that harder this becomes. Here are some ways to battle this during production and post production.

First, give your subject any due credibility. If your subject has big claims, people may start to write off most of what she/he says. Putting any credit where it is due will ground the subject in reality for the viewers. Research is going to be vital. Look into what your subject says, go to the places of which they speak and show as much as you can to support your subject’s views. Of course, not everything is worthy of “proving,” but if you think it will ground your character, it is worth a shot.

Next, If your subject has “out there” beliefs and loves to talk, remember to give your subject breathing room in the edit. Documentary filmmaker Lana WIlson suggests showing your subject doing typical everyday things after the audience hears one of these big claims such as running errands or interacting at work. This reminds the audience that, despite your subjects views, she/he is still a person worthy of respect.

If you are following a person who says some outwardly shocking things, you are bound to get laughs. The decision here is, do you want them? If you want to cut down on inappropriate laughter, documentary filmmaker Eric Hynes suggests holding your shots longer after the statement. Many times, subjects will humanize themselves if you give them the room. Something as simple as a thoughtful look, an uncomfortable laugh or a remark about what was just said could make all of the difference.

Until Arcturus scene

Scene from Until Arcturus

Sometimes your subject may need a little more help after her/his statement is made. If you feel holding the shot did not do quite enough, director of the Murray Center for Documentary Journalism Stacey Woelfel suggests addressing the potential for judgement with your subject on camera. Many times, subjects are aware of how other people view them. Having them attest to this can give the audience more sympathy or respect. Your subject will become more relatable to the viewer.

Audio can do a lot for your subject. Documentary sound designer Lawrence Everson says that building an audio environment will bring your viewer into the situation instead of them being a disconnected spectator. It is something very subtle with a huge impact. Building an audio environment consists of getting room/environmental tone and adding in specific sounds from things the viewer is seeing like finger tapping, water splashing in a fountain or a cat purring. If the audience is within the environment, it is easier to understand where the subject is coming from.

Through all of these options, never forget to allow your subject to be funny. Overprotecting your subject can cause just as many problems as you are trying to solve. The whole point in the end is to allow your subject space to be themselves. Just because someone’s mind may work a little bit differently does not mean that person cannot be funny like anyone else. In the end, filming a subject who is vulnerable to crude judgement is a balancing act of personality and respect.

Editor’s note: Author Abbey Reznicek is working with a subject on her current film, Until Arcturus, who believes she is an alien living on earth in human form.