When many of us think about the differences between fiction films and documentaries, we think they seem pretty obvious, right?. But when the medium of film was just being invented, every film was documentary to some extent. The first movie ever made was footage of the arrival of a train shot by the Lumière brothers in France in 1896. The film shows a train arriving at a station where people getting off and into the train, without actors and script. It is a documentary in the truest sense of the word.
Sighted Eyes, Feeling Heart, the debut documentary from director Tracy Heather Strain, is making the rounds at festivals such as the Chicago International Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival this year. It explores the dynamic and unconventional life of young playwright and activist Lorraine Hansberry who came of age in the Civil Rights era, but died at only 34. The film is an emotionally charged excavation of what it meant to be Young, Gifted, and Black, the title of Hansberry’s unfinished autobiography, which is one of the many pieces of her work on display in the film. Her play, A Raisin in the Sun, changed the conversation on segregated housing and propelled her to fame, and it was the first play written by an African-American to play on Broadway. The play featured an almost exclusively black cast, which at the time was unheard of. The play which was later adapted into a movie which is also featured heavily in the documentary.
“I wish this film wasn’t still relevant,” Erik Nelson said on Oct. 7, 2017 at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival in Arkansas. While Nelson helped Werner Herzog produce his film Grizzly Man, the pair switched roles for A Gray State, in which Nelson was director and Herzog executive producer. Both films chronicle true stories of man’s mental descent into narcissism, isolation, psychotic thinking, extreme politics, and overextended ideals, all swelling into characteristic circumstances for death. A Gray State was met at the festival with bewildered viewers and endless questions that led to staff extending the Q&A beyond its time slot.
Nikon is not the first name that comes to one’s mind when considering a video camera. Coming from a photojournalist background and having primarily used the Nikon camera eco-system, the Nikon D810 released in July 2014 is one of the first cameras that is often compared with the Canon 5D series for its video capability. Although its 2017 successor, the D850, which retails for $3300 and boasts 4K capabilities and a better auto-focus tracking system, the D810 still continues to be a preferred amongst students and professionals due to its build quality and price. One can pick up a used D810 on eBay for about $1500, which is fraction of Nikon D850 price.
From the opening page, Transhuman, a graphic novel by Jonathan Hickman, lets the reader know one thing: this is a speculative documentary through the medium of comics. The second panel is of a clean, well-dressed reporter wearing glasses standing outside a facility. The lower-third of the frame tucks away a small microphone. The panel resembles the opening shot of a PBS Frontline documentary. Already, the audience knows this is not your standard comic book story.
Voyeur is a documentary premiering on Netflix in December that tells some fascinating aspects of the story behind Gay Talese’s book The Voyeur’s Motel. For decades, Gerald Foos, a motel owner in Denver, Colorado, used his business for an experiment in voyeurism. Foos constructed an observation deck across the vents in his motel to observe the occupants in each room. His primary interest was sex. Early on in the film, the viewer learns about Foos’ fascinations as he recounts numerous stories of what people did in his motel decades ago. From sex to sleeping to eating to murder. Yes, Foos claims to have witnessed a murder. Even worse is that Foos may be responsible for the murder after he tampered with items in that customer’s room.
When I first turned on the Netflix mockumentary, American Vandal, I was expecting it to just be ridiculous. This spoof of docu-series like Making a Murderer and Serial, follows the story of Dillon Maxwell, a student who is expelled from high school for spray painting images of penises onto teachers’ cars, even though there is no hard evidence against him. Even when I saw the trailer on Facebook, I just thought it would just be a joke. But, what I found in this series was not only a spoof, but also a series that hits on the ethical questions documentary filmmakers face all the time.
While this story surrounds the case of Dillon Maxwell, we find that the real main character of this story is the show’s fictional narrator, “filmmaker” Peter Maldonado, a fellow high school student. Peter is a kid who isn’t really seen at school as anyone special, but he loves making films. So, when the opportunity comes for Peter to make a film that’s actually interesting, he takes it. As a result, the docu-series American Vandal is born. So, this story ends up being Peter’s baby. He cares about finding the truth at first, but as the series goes on and it starts to go viral, Peter finds himself at a crossroads: does he continue searching for the truth in order to bring justice to this situation, or does is he just trying to make a successful film?
This crisis in Peter’s brain is what ends up getting him in a lot of trouble as the series goes on. Peter starts to follow storylines that end up being irrelevant to the story as a whole, but also really hurt and embarrass the people around him. We even see Peter wrestle with the fact that he had gotten too close to his subject and, as he says: “had developed some biases of [his] own.”
So, what do we learn from this fictional filmmaking as real documentary filmmakers? At what point do we focus too much on making something that is successful or just good? Something with which all documentary filmmakers struggle is the question of how far we go when making a film. We have to realize that in making that film, there are things that we do that cause harm to other people and there are things that are good. So, the question ends up being–like it is for Peter—where is that line?
Over the course of the film, we find that Peter’s efforts may have, at first, helped prove Dillon Maxwell innocenct. But the film inadvertently hurts his Dillon by revealing his crush. The filmmaking also hurts a girl by revealing all the guys she has hooked up with. It hurts Dillon’s girlfriend by revealing a dark family history, as well as her cheating on Dillon. Peter’s film has brought to light the fact that Dillon is seen by the school as dumb and stupid and worthless. So Dillon actually ends up in a worse place by the end of the docu-series than he was at the beginning—all because of this film that another kid made.
So, what’s the lesson here? What’s the lesson from a humorous spoof about a kid spray painting dicks on a car? The lesson that documentary filmmakers should take away from this is that being conscious of the harm being done by the process of filmmaking needs to be taken into consideration. There is always an argument for the harm and good done by creating a film. But, there is a gray line that can be crossed. This is different for every film, but it is there, and filmmakers must be aware of the implications of filmmaking as a whole.
The Up Series is an episodic documentary spanning 49 years produced by British television company Granada and directed by Michael Apted. The eight-movie series follows a group of Britons beginning when they were seven years old and now depicting them as 56 year olds. The concept of the films is to revisit the original characters once every seven years and depict their life paths. The Up Series is the first of this sort of documentary series, seemingly proving a person’s class is hard to change.
“Osiyo” is the traditional greeting of the Cherokee people. It translates to “hello,” but within the culture, it’s also used to set the tone when beginning something new. Osiyo, Voices of the Cherokee People, is a magazine-style program featuring the people, places, history, and culture of the Cherokee Nation. The program is setting the tone for a new perspective on Cherokee peoples as a whole. This Emmy award-winning program first aired on local Tulsa station, KTUL in 2015 and is now on its fourth season airing on OETA, the PBS affiliate for the entire state of Oklahoma.
In the top 50 of the best documentaries on Netflix right now you find The Thin Blue Line, a documentary film from 1988 directed by Errol Morris. It isn’t hard to understand why this documentary has gained so much attention.
Morris’ documentary dives into the story of prisoner Randall Dale Adams who was convicted and serving a life sentence for the murder of police officer Robert Wood on November 28, 1976 in Dallas, Texas. Adams claimed it was a crime he did not commit.