Thoughts On Recent Documentaries And the Genre Itself

In the past year I have noticed on a very personal level the power of documentary film.

This summer I got to see two new films by former colleagues from NYU. Darius Monroe’s autobiographical “Evolution of a Criminal” is screening across the nation and receiving awards, accolades and press wherever it is shown. It is a very personal film about how when he was still in high school, and a straight A student, he robbed a Texas bank. Of course he was promptly caught and incarcerated for several years. The film documents his story, the circumstances that led to his decision, and how he dealt with the consequences; primarily his attempts to make amends with the victims, his community and his family. It’s an intensely interesting film complete with reenacted sequences of the robbery itself and footage of Darius speaking with his prosecutor, family and victims, seeking forgiveness, sometimes getting it and sometimes not. As someone who worked with him side by side on several occasions, I can attest to the Darius I know being the person seen on screen. Kind, soft spoken and brilliant. Someone who clearly takes responsibility and is trying to make the best out of a terrible mistake. It’s the most personal form of documentary, but it never comes across as self serving. You can clearly see the regret he still carries and his efforts to set things right.

The second film, which I saw last week, is “Ride With Larry” by Andrew Rubin and Ricardo Villarreal. Andrew worked with me for four years when he was a student. I assisted him with his narrative short. “Ride With Larry” is about a man with Parkinson’s disease, who achieves autonomy with a specially designed, low riding, three wheeled cycle. He decides to raise awareness for the disease, and the benefits of cycling in controlling Parkinson’s symptoms, with a 5 day ride across his state of South Dakota.

It’s a tremendous challenge. Larry has many motor skill difficulties and is on several medications. Even speech is difficult, but he persists in attempting a feat that few healthy people would consider. What’s stunning is how you can see immediately the positive benefits of his exercise. After a ride he seems more stable, his speech and movements are clearer, and he is more of his old self. The film goes into the research on exercise as therapy for Parkinson’s, and also touches on the medical marijuana debate in an amazing on camera sequence where, in just ten minutes, Larry goes from severe symptoms to complete calm after one dose. He even smiles and speaks perfectly, tremors calmed. Though the film concerns itself mostly with his personal struggle, and the support of family, friends and community, it does not shy away from this politically charged part of the story.

Ultimately the film is moving, inspiring, beautiful. The filmmakers are both affected by Parkinson’s in their families and you can tell their passion for the subject as well as their dedication for spreading the word about Larry’s story, current research and the political climate that affects sufferers and their families.

I encourage anyone to see both films, which are still playing the festival circuit. Links below.

When I was a film student, it really seemed like, with the exception of Michael Apted, you were either a narrative filmmaker or a documentarian. Very little mixing with the occasional exception of concert films like “The Last Waltz” or “Stop Making Sense.” Today filmmakers seem to have the freedom to go back and forth. This is true of both Andrew and Darius, particularly the latter, who even included dramatic reenactments in his film which were very effective in telling the story. With more established filmmakers, Spike Lee of course comes to mind with his “When the Levees Broke.” Lee also produced Darius’ film after having him as a student at NYU.

This is a change I welcome. Philosophically I embrace the notion of creative people challenging themselves in more than one discipline. As a writer, filmmaker and composer I try to live by the notion myself. It does not make sense to me to limit your means of expression so long as you commit to the study and practice to become proficient at it. And today the tools and training are cheaper and more available than ever before. DSLR cameras, editing software, tutorials, hosting sites, and an abundance of festivals to enter. All especially encouraging at a time when mainstream media seems either slanted one way or another, and either fickle or myopic about many important topics. This has potential to level the playing field and provide voices to the underrepresented.

I feel privileged to see this on a personal level this year, even as I await the completion of yet another documentary from another former student I know. Details to come.


First Post: Obvious Advice

I wanted to start this blog with a point I keep making to people, and to be honest probably need to follow more myself.

If you’re trying to move forward in the creative sphere, particularly in film or video, always do what you can be doing. If you wait for the perfect opportunity to make your film or video, it will never come, and time will slip by so fast you will look back years from now and wonder why you haven’t established a body of work.

The biggest excuse is cost. Perhaps you have a vision that you can’t afford to make right now. But what can you afford to make? Is there a cheaper and more creative way to tell the same story? Is that crane shot really essential? Or effects, location, or ridiculously large set? What’s the point of the story and what is window dressing? Because truly the prettiest window dressing does not make a bad film good. And if the story and performances are engaging, the window dressing doesn’t matter. Sometimes it can be a distraction, or a waste of precious resources like budget and time. I’ve supervised hundreds of short films and a few feature length ones in my career, and this is a mistake that is made with a tedious regularity. I’ve made it myself, stubbornly holding onto parts of a story that were ultimately unnecessary. Lost the momentum and let the project wither until it was no longer fresh or relevant. The term often used is “kill your darlings.” Such a hard lesson when learned by experience. 

Work within your means. The best film you can do right now is the film you can do right now. Do your damnedest with the team you have, the gear, the locations. Trim the fat. Restrictions make for the most creative solutions. Would “Jaws” have been a better movie if the shark worked? Of course not. Look at your challenges. Limited locations? How can you dress the set to make up for it? Or block the scene? Or compose the shots to enhance what’s happening to the characters or the film’s themes? I’ve seen people double the cost of their education on films that got them nowhere, and others succeed on no budget through creative use of limitation. I’ve also seen films shot on a Red that look like cellphone video, and others shot on a DSLR that were award worthy. Cost is never a guarantee of quality.

What if even this is beyond your reach? What can be told by animation? That can be done on your computer with free software. Or photo sequence? Think “La Jetée.” And when everything is stripped away, you can always work on a screenplay. Find an hour a day and get started. I intend to. Completing something, even on a small scale, impresses people. Don’t wait for the perfect moment to get started, it will never come. Don’t even wait for inspiration if you’re stuck. Work through it and revise. But get started now.