Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Indie Memphis: Exploring new ways to tell stories in film, and blurring the line between features and documentaries

(Werner Herzog in 2009. Photo: Nicolas Genin)

MEMPHIS - The German filmmaker Werner Herzog, whose films range from his remake of the early horror classic Nosferatu to his documentary about wild man actor Klaus Kinski My Best Fiend, once had this to say about feature films versus documentaries:

“For me, there is no clear distinction between so-called documentaries and feature films. The boundary is always blurred. … For me, it has always mattered how truth is constituted in images or in the cinema.”

It’s an idea that goes back to the 1930s when the Worker’s Film and Photo League (known as the FPL and recently featured in a Turner Classic Movies showing) and later Nykino and Frontier Films produced film that showed the harsh reality of the Great Depression in a way that Hollywood couldn’t or wouldn’t. Eventually Nykino and Frontier Films pushed the boundaries that separated fiction and nonfiction by incorporating dramatic elements into real-life montages.

Documentaries today are rediscovering some of those old truths articulated by FPL, Nykino and Frontier Films founders Leo Hurwitz, Ralph Steiner and others, according to a panel of current documentary filmmakers at last month’s Indie Memphis film festival in Memphis, Tenn.

“What’s exciting in film now is everything is up for grabs,” said Tom Yellin, co-founder and president of The Documentary Group. In a reference to acting philosopher Constantin’s Stanislavski’s famous concept of the invisible wall separating stage and audience, Yellin said modern-day filmmakers are “breaking the fourth wall.”

“Some of our earliest documentaries were staged,” said Lisanne Skyler, a New York-based screenwriter. “We’re doing it more creatively, dynamically.”

The panelists noted that documentary makers today are breaking away from the “talking heads” style of filmmakers like Ken Burns and incorporating various dramatic elements, animation, and other techniques to tell their stories in fresh and exciting ways. “Bringing animation to a real story can get to a larger truth,” Skyler said.

“It doesn’t mean the old techniques don’t have value,” Yellin said.

“A documentary is about real people,” award-winning documentary filmmaker Jamila Wignot said. “You’re trying to be honest about the real truth of a person. The line is absolutely murky.”

“I come from old school journalism,” Yellin said. “It relies on the integrity of the people making the film about crossing the line. Everyone seeks truth.”

“When I shoot fiction, I make it like a documentary,” Skyler said. “Maybe there’s just more room in documentary to evolve. I’ve come to appreciate a well-structured story. I think documentary has become more personal (with) more expressionistic ways to tell a story.”

“It’s a question of authenticity,” Yellin said. “Character, character development, three-act structures, story arc, all are important in documentary today. … Just because there’s good information, it doesn’t mean there’s a good story.”

I thought about these comments as I listened to the panel and recalled how many of the great film noir of the 1940s and 1950s—The House on 92nd Street, Call Northside 777, The Naked City, and The Wrong Man—were told in documentary style although they dealt with fictional characters.

(Mike McCarthy)

Documentary film was a highlight of the 2016 Indie Film Festival in November. Noted Memphis filmmaker Mike McCarthy, whose credits include feature films like Cigarette Girl, offered his documentary Destroy Memphis, an 11-year project about the ultimately unsuccessful community effort to “Save Libertyland” and its Zippin Pippin ride in Memphis.

“Why not preserve the memory of Elvis Presley in any form or fashion?” McCarthy asked about the amusement park and ride that the famous singer used to enjoy. Despite an intense community-led campaign, the park was ultimately shut down, however, and the ride disassembled and reconstructed in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

(The Rev. John Wilkins, a blues and gospel performer featured in I Am The Blues, performing at Indie Memphis)

Daniel Cross’ I Am The Blues was another featured documentary that told the story of today’s blues artists in the Deep South and their dogged allegiance to an art form that laid the foundations of jazz and rock music.

Another highlight of the festival was Kallen Esperian: Vissi D’arte, a film directed by Steve Ross about Memphis’ own great soprano, Kallen Esperian, who sang with Pavarotti and Domingo before her career tumbled amid a variety of personal battles.

(To the right, Kallen Esperian at the Indie Memphis film festival)

None of these films veered too far from traditional documentary filmmaking. However, they did what all good films do. They sought and expressed a truth in compelling ways. In other words, they told a good story.

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