Thursday, May 14, 2009

this is late. this is what i've learned.

i have a tendency to forget things, like my last blog post.

at this year's academy awards, someone quoted someone who said "documentaries are the conscience of film". i agree now, after a semester of being pushed to not only find the interesting things around me, but to articulate them on-screen. having spent three years in a love/hate relationship with film, one in which i completely fell out of love last semester, it's only been this semester that I've actually felt like something i made was worth showing people, thanks to chelsea, and to ellen, kim and our class. documentary making always seemed pretty lame to me; not that many people actually like them, they don't show in theaters alongside narratives, and they are often less beautiful than well-done fiction films. to be honest, i took doc because im lazy and don't like working with know-it-all actors. i figured that doc had to be way easier than all the planning involved in narrative.

false. ive never felt so exposed in my life. chelsea and i weren't trying to sell ourselves to people who knew about film or who were even enthusiasts. we were asking to be let into the private lives of fourteen completely different (often strange) regular people. she may not know this, but i depended on chelsea a lot for direction on how to interact with our protagonists. i felt like an asshole shoving a camera in their faces and trying to balance being respectful of their privacy with  getting information out of them. for three weeks i wouldn't step foot inside the house without chelsea, and i never ate or drank anything they offered because i felt like an imposition. it was more stressful trying to figure out what to shoot and what not to than it is to follow a script. we looked at the footage often thinking, "where the hell are we going with this?". 

but as the co-op members and chelsea and i got to know each other, things got better and i loved going to shoot. doing this documentary was one of the best experiences of my life. i met so many friends-classmates and subjects-and with the help of our class and instructors, i really feel like chelsea and i created something valuable. its awesome to fall in love-its even more awesome to fall in love again. 

i've learned how to better interact with people, i've gained a lot of self-confidence, and i've made relationships that i hope will last a very long time. this doc class has been the best of my college career, and i look forward to the advanced class!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

my doc experience

hello, hello

last semester when i was registering for classes, i had doc pretty high on my list. i had just completed the OTHER 366K, intro to narrative, and wanted to test out the other side to round out my skillz. i quickly realized that documentaries are a whole other beast.

with narrative, i had complete control of my film. i laid down the concept, outlined it, wrote the script, hired the actors, shot it (on 16mm black & white reversal... what a pain), and edited it. i'm not saying it was easy, in fact it was one of the most challenging things i've ever had to do, but i knew exactly how the story would turn out very early in the process.

quite the opposite with my doc. yeah, i had the concept and general direction i wanted to go, but the story didn't come together very quickly or easily. in fact, my concept and general direction greatly changed from when i started to when i finished. originally, i was supposed to follow hasan and wesley around when they went out to get free stuff, and it was supposed to be more of a character-driven doc. but, due to multiple scheduling conflicts, that never happened. so i had to change the plan.

i spent hours looking at craigslist postings, trying to find interesting items up for grabs. that wasn't even the hard part. to my surprise, most people didn't want to be asked questions about their items. i got turned down for awesome items like a bulletproof vest, an old piano, and adult diapers (unused). i was seriously freaking out when finally things came together. in a span of 2 weeks, i got the "wedding stuff" woman, the "christmas cards" woman, and, of course, the manure guy. then it was just a matter of slapping it all together.

working on this doc has been quite a rewarding experience. i got to go places and meet people that i never would have encountered otherwise. i got to explore something that the mainstream culture doesn't really know about and hopefully shed some light on it. what i basically learned is that when i'm working on a doc, i can't be the control freak that i am with narratives. i just have to let the story unfold and tell itself.

What the class has meant..

It would definitely be an understatement in say that the class was very beneficial to me because I got more out of than I thought I ever would.

As a graduating senior, I was narrowing down to my last classes and Documentary was a genre I had always been interested in and eager to know more about. I have always felt that documentaries go overlooked by so many people, mainstream and professional, when in all actuality, they are some of the more creative minds in the business. This was one of the reasons why I wanted to take the class, so I could understand and learn more about them.

At first, I thought the class was going to be the same ol same ol as ever other class. Have lecture, go home, read 30 pages and some article on documentary filmmaking, and then come back adn take notes, etc. Many times I do not get much out of that, however the structure of this class was extremely absorbing. We are often taught the technical aspect of film so much that classes never dig deep into the actual narrative filmmaking process and how to go about it.

This class has taught be how to think outside the box. Not EVERY thing will fall your way or be as black and white as you want. You really have to work for things and figure it out. Sometimes things just come to you as well. Patience is a definite virtue. I also learned that the closer you become with your subjects the more your story will become enhanced. In my film, While talking to Erica she spoke of skydiving, and then mentioned to had footage of it. Well, I never would have known this without digging those answers out of her and making her feel comfortable to give me the footage. In Matts film about craigslist the "card" lady called a friend of hers to see if we could interview her as well for the film. Again, these things just happened, for no apparent reason. It seems that stories are formed over time and as you go versus having it pinpointed from the start. The best line of thought and approach I will now take is to let the story come to you, instead of trying to find the story and give it meaning. The best ones are those that are right in front of you.

I also just wanted to mention on a sidenote because I think it is important. I have gone through a large amount of teachers through my time at UT, and most all of them teach because they teach. There are very few teachers who teach because the care. Ellen, you are one of them. It is extremely evident that you genuinely care about the progression of your students and only want to see them succeed. It is evident in class and with the speakers that are brought in, and that I want to thank you for. It has been a great joy to be part of the class and learn from someone who is so enthusiatic about what they do. It has been great motivation. I am definitely proud to say that you have probably been the best teacher I have had at UT, so I saved the best for last! Kim has been wonderful as well. Thanks for a great semester!

What I've Learned...

What I found the most helpful about this class is that we had to drop any reservations and simply find stories and film them. I know I've been hesitant in the past to work on projects, because I wasn't sure how they would turn out. This semester I simply got out there and created something that, if not anyone else, I will be proud of. It's also been a lesson in the laundry list of things that can go wrong: conflicting schedules, lack of power, lack of light, sound interference, uneasy or reluctant subjects, knowing when I've gone too far, or tiptoeing the line of just how far I can go without violating the ethics of the documentarian. I also realized how hard it is to make a film, even if it's under 10 minutes, by myself. There are a lot of little, miniscule factors to keep in mind and all of those are hard to keep track of for just one person. Realizing how important these are, makes it easier to remember them.
This semester, I've learned to push myself and realized production isn't such a big, scary thing. With each shoot, the process became easier and easier. The camera stopped feeling so foreign in my hands and I felt I could compose compelling shots and get an honesty out of my subjects. Seeing that side of people is special and the fact that they feel comfortable enough to reveal it on camera makes it all the more endearing.
The first day of class, I said that I had worked on a documentary short in an editing class I had taken previously. I found a passion in documentary and found its power to be in its relevance. After taking the class, I still believe in documentary and feel that's what I want to do in my future. I feel like I am on my way to mastering a craft in the field, but I feel like I was not able to completely devote myself to the class. I am excited for next semester, however, and can't wait to really dive into Advanced Documentary and see where it takes me.


No joke, Stephanie and I used that phrase, What Would Ellen Do? when we were struggling with our final documentary.

This class has really done wonders for me, from getting excited about the possibilities of production, to working uber collabratively, to being comfortable with subjects and characters that aren't my friends that have minds and schedules of their own. I was sad that Stephanie and I had such a delayed start, and then so many technical difficulties, that we couldn't get more input from the class for the different phases of our documentary. It was really great to see how everyone's projects developed, often improving for the better with a class input session. I'm the type of person who never EVER lets people see my works in progress. Whether it be a paper or a movie, I am always in complete control from start to finish, am paranoid of criticism (constructive or otherwise), and rarely let anyone see something before its been turned in and graded. Obviously, the film industry is the last place someone like me should be. However, being constantly asked for my own input, screening all our works throughout the semester, and working with a partner on the final doc was a serious reality check, and has helped me focus where I want to go from here.

The whole WWED concept happened multiple times. I think watching Troop 1500 inspired me to get over some of our hesitations and realize that the potential our footage would have outweighed not getting it simply because we were shy. And while dealing with Tie-Dye Dave and prison wardens and inmates is not nearly the same, a few main mantras stuck with us: "What's the worst that happen?" and, "We have to do it now, in case the opportunity doesn't present itself again." We slowly got over our hesitancy to approach people, while also building resiliancy to unforseen circumstances (i.e. hostile drag rats).

I have found this class extremely enjoyable and an amazing learning and growing experience. I will definitely miss the little family we've become over the semester, and I can't wait to see the work everyone does in the future.

Capturing the Friedman's

  Capturing the Friedman’s was both a disturbing and, yet, very engaging documentary. I was really intrigued about finding the truth of the claims posed against Mr. Friedman the whole way through. About an upper-middleclass family in the 1980’s living in Great Neck, New York, Capturing the Friedman’s tells the story of Professor Arnold Friedman and his family’s struggle once he is arrested for possessing child pornography magazines. Police further investigate the case and find that Arnold and his son, Jesse, had allegedly molested students during a computer class held in the Friedman’s home. However, what makes this documentary truly different is its perspective from both sides. It makes the audience feel for the victims of the alleged crimes, but also for the family being ripped apart by these accusations. We hear from each side and all the possibilities are lain out before the viewer.

         The most obvious conclusion is that Arnold is, as the charges brought against him claim, a criminal, pervert, and all around disgusting human being. But at the same time we are able to see behind the scenes of the police investigation and find that the police interviewing the kids (allegedly) victimized by Friedman were being TOLD what happened to them instead of asked and ultimately scared out of their wits into agreeing that Arnold and Jesse had molested them. Not having any background in psychoanalysis, the police talking with the kids force them into believe that something happened to them that may have not even occurred. This doesn’t even to begin to describe the disaster hypnotizing a patient and having an agenda while doing it leads to.

         From a filmmaker’s prospective, the director of this documentary (Andrew Jarecki) has some pretty amazing access to home videos of the family. One of the sons had just gotten a camera and used it to film the family’s decline into desperation as the Arnold and Jesse get prison sentences.

Jesse: “If he [Arnold] goes to jail for state charges, you know he’s not coming back.”

The brother filming, probably David, then zooms in on his fathers face to reveal his complete vulnerability and submission to the fact that he may be in prison for life or worse – the death penalty.

One rack focus in the film reminds me of a rack focus from Ellen's film Troup 1500. The camera focuses on the grate over the window in the courthouse, then to the holly bush outside of it. This is much like how Ellen focused on the wire fence at the jail where the girl scouts’ mothers were held, then outside of it. I think in both cases this simple imagery depicts a longing for freedom and says so much about the subjects of the documentaries.

         All in all the home video cameraman is remarkable and Jarecki was so lucky to have this footage available to him. In the night before Arnold must begin his jail sentence David or Jesse film him playing a jovial tune on the piano, almost a celebration of his final hours of freedom. The cameraman films Arnold’s hands playing (an over the shoulder shot) which is an ordinary technique when someone is playing the piano, but then he goes to a close up of his face with the piano reflected in the lenses of his glass – such a beautiful shot!

         Really,this scene almost brought me to tears. Arnold Friedman was a psychologically disturbed person who lived a miserable life – lying to himself and his family about his sexuality. In the end we’re left feeling ambivalent towards Arnold. We are disgusted by the possibilities of his actions, yet pity him and his family.

But, seriously, you need to watch this. Who wants to miss out on a movie about clowns, pedophilia, possibly shady police work, hypnotism gone wrong, and lots of uncomfortable home video footage of family fights?

Bradley Beesley, Most Inspirational Speaker

            Bradley Beesley was definitely the speaker I found to be most inspiring. I hate using the word “inspiring,” especially in this case. Certainly not because Bradley’s words weren’t encouraging or that he didn’t seemed passionate (he was very much so both of those things) but to describe him with such a cliché as “inspirational speaker” seems pretentious and insincere – and  that does not do him justice.

            Bradley has to be one of the most genuine, funny, down-to-earth filmmakers I’ve ever had the privilege of hearing speak. The stories he told about making documentaries made him seem like, well…me. I loved when he told about the catastrophes of working with an unwilling subject while filming Dr. Dante. I actually found it encouraging that he had so much trouble working with this washed up hypnotist/entertainer. And particularly encouraging were all the problems he had trying to persuade him to perform in a show that he (Brad) had put so much time, effort, and MONEY into. He told us how he got so frustrated that he called Dr. Dante and angrily yelled at him that he’d put a lot into making this performance happen. I loved his honesty. How many of us would be so open to share that we’d lost our cool with an old man? And yet Brad spent so much time with Dr. Dante, a man who is rarely visited by his own kids, that he began to consider him a son. I think that was the heart of Brad’s talk (or at least what I came away with)– in documentary you get so close to your subject that they really become family.

Which leads into another of  Brad’s films: Okie Noodling. At the end of our discussion with Brad he let us hear some of his saved voice messages from the men of Okie Noodling who STILL call him. He’s become such great friends with these people that they call him on a regular basis. That’s when Brad said something that made me stop and think about the all around purpose of documentary filmmaking: “You have to go into documentary because it’s a lifestyle, not because you want to be rich and famous. You want to tell these people’s stories.”

Jordan said in class that she is double majoring in Pre-Med and R-T-F because she decided that art is kind of selfish and she wanted to do something that would actually help people. Documentary, though, bridges the gap between the egotistical artist and the humanitarian and makes art something beneficial on all levels – not just the intellectual.

I could go on for ages about how Brad’s already started to influence me, (and how Lacey and I cut out our own cardboard signs from boxes and gave them to Dave with a marker calling it the “Bradley Beesley technique”) but all that just digresses from my point. Brad has impacted the way I look at documentary, how I look at filmmaking , and how I look at life. If that doesn’t qualify him as the “most inspirational speaker” I don’t know what can.

Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price

This movie came out a few years ago, but I never got around to seeing it until recently. And honestly I only watched it because I was bored and it was free to watch on my Netflix. However, after watching it I ranted for a week straight to anyone who would listen to me vent about how "absolutely terrible" Walmart is. Later I felt silly about how worked up it made me, but that only proves how effective the documentary really is.

The film was broken down into multiple segments, each about another way in which Walmart is ruining the world. And really, with each section you do get more and more appalled with the company. The film has tons of talking head interviews, which after a while would usually get boring, but each person has something new and shocking to tell you, so really, you look forward to them because you end up craving these people's horror stories. Each section suprised me more, and I couldn't believe how much content they had for the film. It started out showing how Walmart causes small town businesses and mom and pop stores to shut down because they can't compete. Some of the other sections talked about how the ways in which they discriminate, force people to work unpaid overtime, don't pay wages that can afford for their own Walmart insurance plan, have terrible factories abroad that have poor conditions and no wages, how selfish and greedy the Walden family is, how they bully workers so they can't unionize, and even an amazing segment soley on the crime that occurs in Walmart parking lots. This documentary is extremely effective in its intentions, and honestly made my jaw drop a little more with each segment. No one seemed to share in my disbelief though, as everyone saw it four years ago when it came out..

From a filmmaker's/editor's standpoint, I think at some points it came across a little 'homemade'. There is a lot of text that comes sporatically, in bright colors with cheesy canned sound and effects. The material being showed was shocking and interesting, and adding was only distracting and hurt the film's credibility. I also got annoyed at the montage at the end of all the cities that have protested and managed to keep out Walmarts. They show pictures and have on-screen text with the city names, but after a little bit they just repeat. It cycles through multiple times, and when you start to notice they're the same cities over and over it looks like they're exaggerating how much has actually been done.

It's on YouTube broken into pieces, I highly suggest checking some of it out if you haven 't already seen it.

How We Learn

A common complaint that students have in classes is that they didn't get to do anything. Some classes you leave and there's nothing to look back on. Sometimes there's nothing to go back and remember the class by. This semester I've learned how valuable it is to create anything at all. Just do anything at all that demands something of yourself. Everything from the in-camera edits to the final short doc it was challenging and rewarding to have to constantly show progress.

This class taught me that the more you work with film the more you realize your own weaknesses. When you work with the amount of media we did this semester you get a healthy dose of what you're doing wrong. And then the next project always gives you a new opportunity to improve upon that. It allows you to look at what you're used to doing and making improvements upon that.

Now I never want to a finished product without at least six of my peers looking over my shoulder as I work on it. A few years ago I might have told you that I hated getting edited within tyring to complete the project. Now I've learned that continuous editing from people can only expand your perspective and make your final product all that much stronger. Its better to get the bad opinions now, before there's nothing you can do about it.

Finally, I'm just thrilled to have worked together with someone else on a short doc that turned out very well. Collaboration can be a tough concept, but this project was one that benefited greatly from having two sets of eye balls on it the whole time. It can be so helpful to have that extra help especially when the stress of the project becomes too much to handle.

Monday, May 11, 2009


Born Into Brothels was an amazing documentary about a group of children whose mothers are prostitutes in the red light district of Calcutta. The director, Zana Briski, traveled to Calcutta to photograph the women of the red light district, but became more interested in the children of these women. She decides to teach a photography class to the children in an effort to give them a hobby and talent in hopes of getting them out of the brothel. Briski also works to get the children into boarding schools.

The film was completely endearing in how it showed the chilren both together and individually, so the viewer could feel connected to their personalities and situation. After finishing the documentary I was really pumped about it and absolutely loved it. Though aside from the amazing story and development of these children, after reading some responses to the film a few things seemed problematic about the film. Many found it too one-sided, as the children's families are made out to be completely absent, completely unloving, and just generally terrible with no sign of hope or good. I completely respect and admire Briski for doing all she has for the children, and their situation is definitely dire in many ways. I understand that the film does have to have this focus to bring attention to the situation of these children, and her presence is necessary to connect her target audience with the material and efforts. However, the backlash from the children's culture and country makes you think about Briski's point of view and presentation of her subjects. A review in India's national magazine Frontline featured a story that said, "If Born Into Brothels were remade as an adventure-thriller in the tradition of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, its posters might read: "New York film-maker Zana Briski sallies forth among the natives to save souls." I think this is representative of a major problem in documentary filmmaking, especially abroad. So often we want to tell and hear the stories of those like these children. However, the backlash from the culture or lives we film shows that often they consequently feel exploited or misrepresented.

Briski received criticism from people saying that many of the children in her class did not make it out of the brothel because of her efforts. Even in the documentary it speaks briefly of those who left the schools Briski got them into. But in no way did Briski fail. Should she be criticized for not making perfect the lives of all of those children? Or does she do what she can and tell her story anyway? Taking on a documentary is always risky, because you don't know how it's going to turn out. If Briski knew that many her efforts wouldn't have lasting effects, I highly doubt she would've made the decision to just not do it. Her efforts and documentation were very inspiring, and this film is a great example of a documentarian completely immersing herself in the lives of her subjects.

The other Michael Scott

The most inspiring speaker that we had this semester, for me, was Michel Scott. There were so many aspects to the making of Over The Hills And Far Away he shared that will stick with me for the rest of my filmmaking career. I was very excited to hear that Scott was coming in to talk about this film, because I had seen pieces of it last year when his editor came into my class to talk about her work on the film, so I already knew the story and had seen a lot of footage, but it was awesome to see how it had all come together.
I loved hearing that before this film Scott was in Hollywood doing miscellaneous things (for example, being a PA on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre... the sequel) then quit because he knew that's not where he wanted to be. I am definitely not the Hollywood feature film type, so it was reassuring to hear and know that I don't have to settle for work that I don't want to be doing. Granted, yes, every now and then I'm bound to need money and shouldn't be so picky. But it just makes you realize, especially in our industry, why do something you're not passionate about? Why waste your time helping others make films you don't feel invested in and wouldn't go see yourself?
I also liked hearing how Scott got started on the film. The story literally fell into his lap because he attended an event about something that genuinely interested him and he was passionate about. If we as documentarians are consistent about staying involved and cultured, we are most definitely going to find stories worthy of film.
Over The Hills is by all means a journey film, both for the family and the filmmakers. It blew my mind to hear Scott talk about taking the trip with the family, riding the horses, camping, and traveling through Mongolia. That is definitely both a dream job and a terror - traveling the world to shoot a film, but also having to ride a horse for ages while trying to hold a camera. Crazy. Here's a short bit of b-roll that is on the movie's website. My favorite part is seeing the sound guy on a horse with a boom.
I left class thinking "I want to be him." That's pretty much the best a guest visit can go, right?

The Examined Life

Seeing The Examined Life was my first outside event. Months ago. However, all my thoughts about it are still fresh in my mind because it was a documentary unlike any I had seen before. The premise of the film is based of famous quote by Socrates, "The unexamined life is not worth living." Director Astra Taylor breaks the film into 8 parts, interviewing contemporary philosphers and progressive intellectuals. At first I was weary about watching what I assumed would be 8 lengthy talking head interviews with people I hadn't heard of, saying things that would go right over my head. I even took my roommate with me, who loves philosophy, so he could explain it to me afterwards if needed. However, Taylor did a lot of great things that really made this movie work.

Each philosopher had a ten minute segment in the film. They really were just straight interviews, however she had them always moving and in an environment that related to what they were speaking about. The philosphers were shown strolling through a park, rummaging through trash, walking down busy NY streets, riding in a car, rowing a boat in Central Park, etc. The speakers themselves were dynamic, interesting both to look at and listen to, and Taylor was able to make hearing modern philosophy engaging and understandable. The material being said would most likely be lost on someone if they were given the writings of these philosophers, but seeing the thinkers out and about and providing tangible visuals to relate their thoughts to the viewer and the contemporary world really made the documentary effective. She did a great job of making the philosophers personable and relatable, such as when Michael Hardt grounds his rowboat on a rock, and Cornell West hops out of the car to walk home.

Taylor was at the event and was inspiring in relaying what motivated her to make the film. She knew she was taking a risk by making a feaure documentary about a subject that one, if not already interested in philosophy, may be unlikely to watch or respond to. However, her variety of interviewees and topics make it nearly impossible to walk away without inspiring thought in a viewer's head.

I highly recommend it!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Garbage Dreams at SXSW

Definitely a must-see documentary, director Mai Iskander does and excellent job at capturing a personal and intriguing story that revolves around a bigger issue of waste disposal and recycling in the world today.
Garbage Dreams follows the lives of three boys Osama, Adham and Nabil who are Zaballeen. The Zaballeen are the people of the trash village in Cairo, Egypt. As the largest city in Egypt, Cairo does not have a waste disposal system. Therefore, the people of Cairo have come to rely on the Zaballeen to collect their trash. Living in the world's largest garbage village, the Zaballeen are faced with more hardships when the city government contracts a private company to collect trash.
There doesn't need to be fancy shots in this type of documentary. The wide and high-angle shots from rooftops in the garbage village are enough to capture the great masses of trash. We see children playing in an small empty space next to piles of trash several stories high. We see various window openings of buildings with no windows but only trash. In another shot, an older woman is sitting in the middle of a trash pile, sorting it. These incredible static shots allow the viewer to feel as though they are in this town. As cinematographer, Mai Iskander had a good eye in capturing the inconceivable life of the Zaballen. At times, I felt I was smelling the town. It was hard to watch at times, but the personalities and drive the boys carry are riveting.
There is not much I can say about the filmmaking, because the story took all my attention. So, saying that actually says the filmmaking was wonderful. Isn't that what we're taught in film school? The story should drive the audience emotions and keep their attention, rather than calling attention to the filmmaking process.

Erik Mauck attended the first screening of "Garbage Dreams." He filmed the Q&A in which Adham was present.

SXSW 2009: All Tomorrow's Parties

A good documentary (and really, any good film) always begins the same way: an interesting idea. You could have the most well-shot, produced, and edited 90 minutes of film to ever hit the silver screen...and it wouldn't mean shit if it was about a boring subject. Occasionally films hit big by making the mundane extraordinary ("Last Days", "Slacker", etc), but these are few and far between. Chances are, if you're making a documentary and you've found an interesting person, place, or event that nobody's made a documentary about, you're on the right track.

Unfortunately, the idea is only half the equation, and execution the other half. "All Tomorrows' Parties" began with a great idea: the artist-engineered music festival that shares the feature's name. The brain-child of Belle and Sebastian promoter Barry Hogan, the ATP festival has been following the same creed for about 10 years: no one knows art better than artists. Each year, in East Sussex, a different artist is asked to "curate" the festival (usually this is a musician but not always), meaning they invite their favorite bands to come and play...essentially, they build the lineup, usually performing as the headliners. The festival is also sponsorship-free, and performers stay in the same accommodations as fans (from the looks of the film, a series of apartmet buildings on the festival grounds), creating a summer-camp like atmosphere of indie/underground music.

Sounds fascinating, right? Too bad the creators of "ATP" (movie) couldn't decide what kind of documentary film they had set out to make. The feature begins with a brief rundown of what the festival is all about, how it got started etc (this is done mostly through unidentified voice-over), and then jumps immediately into long stretches of (presumably) fan-shot material of the festival grounds broken up by more professional looking bits of the performances. Large chunks of the fan-style stuff will follow an unidentified person as he/or she wanders the grounds, talks to other unidentified persons, etc. The footage is novel at first, but the complete lack of structure and context wears it thin fairly quickly. Save for the first few opening minutes, the film is narration-less and interview-less. Thankfully, the filmmakers had the foresight to label each snippet of concert footage with titles ID'ing the performers, the year of the festival, and the curator of the lineup, but beyond that the viewer is really given no clue as to what's going on.

"ATP" has moments of charming, verite charm: there are several impromptu jam sessions in the apartments surrounding the event, and an oddly authentic-feeling altercation between comedian David Cross and a heckler after a bombed performance, but "Don't Look Back" it ain't. And it's certainly no "Song Remains the Same" either...somehow the filmmakers set out to make a mash-up of verite and concert film and wound up with neither A or B, but a staggering mess of a slapped-together footage that serves no larger purpose, and at least one audience member wishing he knew just a little bit more about all the images he's looking at. It's a sad testament to how uninformative "ATP" is that I had to look up most of the information about the festival on wikipedia. For shame.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Tommy Wiseau's THE ROOM

okay... so this isn't a documentary. nor is it a serious movie by any means. BUT, it was an outside event with the director present, so i feel that i must post about my awesome experience.

to those of you who haven't seen THE ROOM, you don't know what you're missing. released in 2003, it has gained cult status and has been claimed as the new "rocky horror picture show." it's one of those 'so-bad-it's-freaking-awesome' movies, and one of the best 'worst' movies i've ever seen.

so, tommy wiseau is the director, producer, writer, and star of the film. he shot it on both HD and film just to compare the formats. it's still unknown where exactly wiseau is from, but he has a seemingly french-ish accent. the movie is filled with such bad acting, bad green screen, and over-the-top dialogue that it can't be considered anything less than a modern classic. here's the link to the preview:

in los angeles, where wiseau currently resides, people gather on a weekly basis dressed up as their favorite characters to throw various items (mainly footballs and spoons) at the movie screen and shout out the lines. stars such as david cross and tim & eric have expressed great fondness for the film, and it's only gaining popularity.

according to wiseau, THE ROOM was "meant" to be a black comedy. i call bullshit. he really put his heart and soul into this thing, and it became popular for all the reasons that he didn't want it to be. people mock it for how terribly terrible it is, but he has seemingly jumped on his own bandwagon. he now claims that it was always supposed to be a comedy and not to be taken seriously. and he sells t-shirts and dvds outside of screenings around the country.

i have been lucky enough to be graced with his presence. tonight was actually my one year anniversary with my girlfiend and we decided that there was no better way to celebrate it than with tommy wiseau presenting THE ROOM at the drafthouse (ritz). there was a Q&A beforehand, and i was lucky enough to ask him a question.

the microphone was handed to me and i asked him where he was from. simple question, simple answer, right? wrong. he basically called me stupid and wondered who would ask such a stupid question and went on a 4-5 minute rant about how stupid i am. i found it hilarious. the microphone was passed to the next guy with his hand up and he asked... where tommy was from. tommy just laughed it off and went to the next question. the mystery remains...

watching the movie on a big screen with a large audience was the best movie experience of my life. everybody was involved and throwing shit everywhere and having a good time. afterwards, my girlfriend and i were the first in line to get our dvd copy autographed and we told him it was our anniversary. he proceeded to sing us an anniversary song and let us take a picture with him. he didn't recognize me as the guy who asked him the stupid question.

okay, sorry for the long post. and even if it's not relevant to our doc class, i figured at least some of you might appreciate it. if you haven't experienced THE ROOM, then you haven't lived.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

SXSW 2009: It Came from Kuchar

It's Tuesday. Some time in late morning/early afternoon. Last week of SXSW 2009. I've just finished a morning shift that got me out of bed around 7am, hungover, running on about 3 hours of sleep. I've been up and down the six flights of stairs at the Paramount 7 or 8 times today. I'm sweaty. My joints and muscles ache. I haven't showered yet. I want nothing more than to pass out somewhere, but I've already paid for a full day in a Brazos garage, and there's stuff I want to see later I walk to the nearest showing: the Alamo Ritz. The film? "It Came from Kuchar". Sure, why long as I can eat something, drink a glass of water, and go to sleep where nobody will bother me.

But then something awful happens. Really, really awful.

I can't sleep. Not because of insomnia, not because my stomach's upset from the chicken strip basket I just wolfed down...I'm just too intrigued by the image in front of me to close my eyes: an elderly Jewish man with a thick New York Accent, lying on his back with a camcorder, videotaping several college-age film students as they help guide the movements of a giant inflatable spider. It's attacking an elderly woman in grotesque drag-queen like makeup and a glittery bodystocking.


Welcome to the world of George and Mike Kuchar, America's forgotten underground filmmakers. If you're furrowing your brow in panic, don't worry, I had never heard of them either. Trained as commercial artists in New York in the middle of the 20th century, the Kuchar Brothers (twins!) amused themselves by toying around with 8mm film. Their stuff was of Ed Wood-like notoriety: non-actors, the opposite of a budget, and plots so atrocious they could only be done justice with titles like "The Wet Destruction of the Atlantic Empire", "Pussy On A Hot Tin Roof", and "I Was A Teenage Rumpot". It soon became apparent that these little side projects were what the Kuchars really loved to create, and it wasn't long before they became part of the burgeoning NYC underground film scene, along with guys like Kenneth Anger and Andy Warhol.

"It Came From Kuchar" follows the lives of the two oddball filmmaking twins from childhood all the way to the present day: both are old men, and continue to add to their enormous body of work. George is a professor at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he produces work with the help of many grateful students and whoever else wants in. Mike also lives in San Francisco, working mostly solo these days.

Without going into too much detail, much of the Kuchars work is bizarre, disturbing, and it should come as no surprise that a number of influential "underground culture" celebrities have flocked to the brothers and their films, John Waters and (comic book artist) Robert Crumb, most notably.

It's hard to say if "It Came From Kuchar" succeeds as a documentary. It's long-winded, loosely structured, and repetitive...but damn if it didn't make at least one other person know the names of George and Mike Kuchar: two guys from New York who loved to make movies for the sake of making movies, and weren't about to (and still haven't) let anything stop them.

PS: To date, George and Mike have written and directed over 250 films.

Most Inspiring Speaker: Michael Scott

It's a shame that the speaker I found most inspiring, Michael Orion Scott, is also one of the only documentarians I DIDN'T get to see at SXSW 2009 due to work-related conflicts. However, what I did manage to see of "Over the Hills and Far Away" had a lasting impact on me, and it's worth noting that only bits and snippets of final product snagged him the "most inspiring title" from me...hey, that's worth a lot!

I'm a firm believer in...not necessarily objective documentary-filmmaking...that word has certain connotations and since nobody sinks the time and money necessary for a feature-length documentary into a topic they aren't INCREDIBLY passionate about, pretending to be dispassionate only leaves the viewer with a cold, dishonest, movie. But there's something to be said for being balanced, restrained, and fair.

With a film like "Over the Hills", it would be very easy to fall into the trap of a pandering, overly persuasive, heart-strings piece. And sure, the clips that I saw were full of emotion, parental bonding, and the like, but I never felt like Scott was trying to use his camera as a soapbox: "this is how autism should be treated", "these parents are saints", et cetera.

On a personal level, I'm also incredibly envious of Scott for combining two of my passions, filmmaking and world travel, into one creative product. I've been extremely fortunate to travel all over the world in my short life, but I haven't yet been in a situation where I could document my travels on horseback in a country as remote as Mongolia (my dad's HD verite footage from Vietnam will have to do for now).

Outside Event Outside of School

I know we don't have to go to anymore outside events once class if over, but there's just so many things going on that ya just can't miss. One such happening is a special screening on the Independent Lens doc "Ask Not," at the KLRU studios. Info:

KLRU presents a special advance screening of Independent Lens' Ask Not on Tuesday, May 19, in KLRU's Austin City Limits Studio. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and the screening begins at 7 p.m. We will be showing the one hour documentary, followed by a short discussion. The screening is free, but RSVP is required. RSVP here

Ask Not
As wars rage in the Middle East, the U.S. military is eager for more recruits unless you happen to be openly gay. ASK NOT explores the tangled political battles that led to the infamous "don't ask, don't tell" policy and reveals the personal stories of gay Americans who serve in combat under a veil of secrecy.

Independent Lens' Ask Not will air on Tuesday, June 16, at 9 p.m. on KLRU.

This is a great opportunity to see a TV doc before it screens and watch on a huge screen rather than your little tube at home.
You must RSVP for this event: RSVP Here

A True Outside Event

As I walked into Chelsea's backyard my first reaction was "Wow". Besides the outside screen and projector that she had borrowed from various film school connections there was a beautiful set-up. There were tiki-torches, a tasteful light set-up, blankets for people to sit on while they watch the docs, pizza, cookies, wine, and beer! Most importantly though there was a great turn out of filmmakers and residents of Whitehall Co-op. Everyone who wasn't there (I'm talking to you Kim) should be jealous. Now on to the movies that were screened.

First up was a rap music video titled "Idiotic Robotic". The most impressive part of this video was the original and clever rap song. The lyrics warned us of our future dependence on artificial inteligence and how easily the robots could turn against us. The video quality itself was a little choppy and poorly edited, but it fit perfect with the whole "home-made" feeling of the piece. Sometimes when you can sense the enthusiasm and effort thats been put into a piece of work it makes up for its faults.

The second film was a short documentary by a person that I came to know as a "Gideon". His piece "Different Strokes" was selected for ten under ten and I can see why. The subject material very similiar to Brett and my documentary (see below), but Gideon took in a much braver direction. He was able to make an aesthetic documentary. His message and story was clearly told through unbelievable images of bikers in austin. His movie was what I like to call "anti B-roll" Nothing he shot or showed was wasteful. Every second told us something about the BMX lifestyle here in town. It taught me that those kids are cooler than I'll ever be.

The third movie shown was by Brett and me, "Rollin' on Two. It was genius and recieved a standing ovation. Need I say more? I think not.

Following us (which was hard to do) was Matt's Craiglist movie. This group of people were the first to see the final cut. It seems like he was finally able to pull from the best material he had and order it correctly to have the most effective documentary. Everyone in the crowd was interested in every story and each part got a couple chuckles from the audience. I still adviced to cut the face of the "wedding stuff girl", because she just flat out scares me.

Lastly of course was Chelsea's and Jordan's work. We all know what a good job they did, but what made this screening different was the fact that their subjects were present. For most of the film I just watched all of their faces as they watched a slice of their own lives on screen. Even baby Cider gave the film a round of applause after the movie. It was ridiculously cute. I have to say, after seeing the doc and meeting a lot of the residents, it was a refreshing night of talking to truly authentic and interesting people.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Most Inspiring: Michel Scott

Despite all the other excellent and great documentarians that we were fortunate to see and chat with, several things Michel Scott shared with us will always be stuck in my mind inspiring me.
When describing how the project started for his latest film Over the Hills and Far Away, he stated that the father of the child who is the subject of the documentary had approached him about "documenting" their trip to Mongolia. I am not sure, but I can guess the father's expectations were blown away. This situation showed me that it's important to seize the opportunities to do such amazing things. When Michel had told that story, it just seemed like the father wanted him to come with a cheap video camera and film it like a home movie. It's a no-brainer that a motivated and highly talented filmmaker like Michel would take it to a whole other level and transform the idea into a beautiful feature film.
Another thing I'll take from Michel's visit was his statement that loving the process and enjoying what you do is one of the most important things. And, I totally agree. Being an RTF major, many of us don't know exactly "what we want to do." But, I do know something for sure, I want to be happy and enjoy the process regardless of what it is. Especially if it means jumping on a plane to Mongolia to document the spiritualistic healing of an autistic child by a mountain dwelling shaman. But, keep the process exciting, enjoyable, and passionate, and I'm sure I'll have a happy and productive life hopefully in filmmaking.
Bottom line: seize the opportunity and be passionate about doing it.

Thursday, April 30, 2009


While there have been many great speakers throughout the semester, I found Benny to be the most inspiration for a rather simple reason. Of course there are the big names like Morgan Spurlock or those that are on the rise such as Bradley Beasley, but Benny stuck out in my mind the most because he felt very real and relatable. I liked not knowing anything about him, versus the other speakers for I felt like he was more "one of us." His goals were the same as everyone in the room. I like hearing from a filmmaker who was just as much "going through the process." It was quite refreshing. I thought it was great as well, that he allowed us to write down input about his film. While many speakers just talk about their own films and about themselves, Benny really wanted US to "talk about him." He very much treated the situation as if were peers and our imput mattered just as much. Becoming a success in film, is made out to be impossible by so many people, but just having heard from Benny, I got the feeling that you just have to do what you love doing.

I also thoroughly enjoyed his creativity. His film about Colombus day and the implications regarding it was very fascinating. It was a unique approach to look at certain social issues. Whether one agrees or not with the either stance, the film was very well shot and executed and flowed with a wonderful story, and I admire all those qualities. All of the characterstics in a young filmmakers that I highly think of, I seemed to find in Benny, and that is why I found him as one of the most inspirational and influential speakers this semester.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Most Inspiring: Brad Beesley

I found Brad Beesley to be the most inspirational guest speaker this semester. After working extensively with one of the most influential psychadelic rock bands of the 80s, 90s, and present, I thought he might act kind of snobby and withdrawn. Like a rock star, I guess. However, he was very down-to-Earth and willing to talk about anything. He is the most inspirational guest speaker to me because he started off like me: a young filmmaker with a greater ambition and a deep love for music. If I had to pick a "dream job", it would be to follow good musicians around with a camera and crew to make documentaries about them. I have never been able to make up my mind about whether I want to pursue my musical or film ambitions, but Brad Beesley showed me that it's possible to combine my two passions into one profession. Brad also showed me the importance of immersing yourself into the characters in your documentary. In Okie Noodling, Brad personally took the time to learn the techniques and form a relationship with the locals. It showed me that as documentarians, it is essential to form a trust between yourself and your subjects, even when that means stepping well outside your comfort zone. As I pursue my film and musical ambitions, I'll always remember that unlikely doesn't mean impossible. I just have to be willing to apply myself and keep my dreams alive.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Most Inspirational: Morgan Spurlock

Picking the most inspirational documentarian of the year is difficult, however Morgan Spurlock left the biggest impression walking away. What I liked most about Spurlock was his story of rising from failure to becoming a national success. Nearly everyone has heard of, if not seen, Supersize Me but few people know of Spurlock's financial struggles before the success of the film. Despite these struggles he decided to take the risk of making the documentary with what little money he could gather and ended up making enough money to pay back all of his debts and those who had helped him throughout the years.

Spurlock's honesty and humbleness over his success and paying back his friends was refreshing and his multiple stories of try try again were inspiration to never give up on something you are passionate about. Even now, Spurlock gets worked up and angry over discussing the fast food industry and McDonald's, showing his heart for the documentary that made him successful. 

Spurlock was funny, down to earth, honest and humble. His visit to UT not only inspired me not to give up on my own documentary projects, it made me want to seek out stories I'm passionate about. His passion for his subjects is so evident in the way he speaks that you can't help but to share in his emotion. His passion shows in his documentaries as well which I think was a necessary key to the success he found in Supersize Me and 30 Days. His visit and success story were definitely worthwhile.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Documentary Doctor: Fernanda Rossi

Hi All,

I found a lecture online with the Documentary Doctor, Fernanda Rossi. She makes a living helping documentary filmmakers solver their structural problems.

Check it out:

Happy Editing!

Friday, April 24, 2009

What the Bleep?

One of my favorite documentaries that I've ever seen in the amusingly titled, "What the Bleep Do We Know?."  This film deals largely with quantum physics and behavioral biology; in essence it is relating current scientific knowledge with spiritual belief, for once showing their amazing similarities in a number of areas.  Although this film deals with a lot of highfalutin' theoretical material, it is presented in layman's terms by the experts consulted.  For easy illustration, there are animated sequences and skits of all sorts.  The film functions as a narrative, wherein these various macro subjects are discussed in relation to events that occur in the life of a deaf woman who continuously encounters unpleasant circumstances.  While the format is a bit odd at first, it serves well enough in linking together the theories, which are amazing.  A particularly favorite segment of mine involves a Japanese scientist who was researching the effects of intent upon ice crystals.  He would get three sets of water filled petri dishes.  One set would be given nice messages such as blessings or "I love you," notes, etc.  One set would get negative messages, and one would get nothing.  When he froze these things, he discovered that all of the dishes that had received positive messages had beautiful patterns in their ice crystals.  The negative messages had far more stark and irregular patterns.  The neutral group looked normal.  As the scientist realized, "if our thoughts can do this to water, imagine what they can do to us."  Cool stuff.
There are a couple of different versions of this film out there, and I know at least one of them is on youtube.  It is definitely worth checking out, especially if you are pondering the meaning of life (or you want to sound really, really smart at the next party you go to.)  See for yourself!

Most Inspiring Speaker

We were very fortunate to have so many talented artists and filmmakers come to talk to us this semester. Out of all of them, I would have to say that Bradley Beesely made the biggest impact on me personally.
Firstly, I thought it was pretty cool that his original goal was not to be in movies.  Film was something that he found in art school while studying something else.  Since I'm constantly trying to figure out what I want to do, I appreciated hearing about someone who found their life's passion by accident - maybe there's hope for the rest of us.
Hearing Beesely's stories about breaking in to the laundromat to get their video shot on such a low budget was pretty neat too.  Making the best of extremely limited resources is a good skill to have.  That such small endeavors ended up rewarding Beesely so tremendously is an encouraging story to hear.
What stuck me the most about Beesely was that more than any of the other speakers we heard this semester, he came across as a true craftsman.  Not an artist necessarily, though he surely is, but rather a professional in his field who applies himself fully to whatever project he's working on, even if it is not a personal project.  Beesely managed to find enjoyment and satisfaction in his reality TV assignments.  Many people would not.  That he could discuss being chased by tornadoes with a grin on his face shows a man with a true passion for his craft.  Beesely has the enthusiasm that I think everyone should cultivate for their own career, whatever it may be.
Beesely's work itself was fantastic.  His Flaming Lips videos, with their animation and unusual montage are tremendously unique visually, the work of an auteur.  And I found that one sequence he showed from Okie Noodling 2 where his star was slowly wading down the river in the late afternoon to be sublime.  The lighting was pefect, and the complete trust his subject had for him allowed him to be there for that odd and amazing moment whereby the fisherman began to speak to himself and sank down into the water, emerging some time later with a big catfish.  Cool.
I was very glad I got the chance to hear Beesely, and would love to have him visit again.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Nobody's Business

I loved last night's screening of Alan Berliner's Nobody's Business! At first it was a little confusing trying to figure out what was going on with the pictures and voice over, but in the end I really appreciated how little the interviewees were shown. It brought a really unique perspective on the conversation going on between Alan and his father, as well as forced you to pay much more attention to what was being said in order to figure out how it correlated to the visual elements of the story.

In the beginning I thought this film was just going to be some sort of boring family history, discovering your roots, type of documentary, but even that part of the story became gradually more and more interesting the more we dove into Oscar and his character. He started off as such a crotchety old man, but by the end of the film, going through his entire life, I felt sorry for him. His refusal to care about so many things, his family history, his past, his future, just emphasized what he was refusing to admit the whole time: his loneliness. 

This film was so touching! It started off funny with Oscar's stubbornness but turned into this beautiful portrait of how he came to be the way he is and how despite his stubbornness and loneliness he truly loves his kids more than anything in the world. I also found it interesting how as the film progressed and we got to know Oscar more and more we also saw him more in interviews and b-roll footage.

I also liked the use of archival footage and how b-roll didn't necessarily match up with what was being said but was used metaphorically, such as the constant use of the boxing match to symbolize the fight between Oscar and Alan's mom or Oscar's fight against cancer. This type of b-roll seemed to be used often and made me think a lot more about what was going on with Oscar beneath the surface. For as much as he refused to answer questions or give opinions, I walked away really feeling like I understood his character and actually liking him very much. His stubbornness and bitterness became endearing rather than annoying or comical, and his loneliness became something I pitied rather than felt he deserved. I really really enjoyed this film.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Father Time

The past is a tricky thing. So are fathers. I used to hate my dad for making me listen to talk radio. Now I download and listen to at least three radio podcasts a day. I used to despise the music my dad would choose for our family vacation road trips. Now I am thankful to him for expanding my musical knowledge beyond the 80's and well into the 70's and 60's. In middle school I didn't having anything in common with him, at all. Now, 10 years later, I hope nothing more than just to become half the man he is. This transformation fascinates me. When does the past go from being boring and unimportant to nostalgic, cool, and vital.

When I see the footage of Berliner's father on that date with his soon to be wife I see a time that was simpler. He picked her up from her house wearing his finest clothes. He opens the door for her to the car and...well, thats it. They get married. Part of Oscar's reservation to do the movie is more than just his quirky/angry/hilarious personality. He grew up plain and simple. So what's interesting about that? Berliner does a great job at structuring this movie so that it could be anyone's family. He doesn't want to make his father's life out to be more than it was. Instead, he had me thinking of my family. By telling every detail, no matter how benign, it makes the story more relatable to everyone. What Oscar didn't understand was that Alan was making this movie for himself. He knew he had the talent to dig an interesting story out of anything, so why not learn something about himself along the way.

I got sad looking at Oscar's life now. As I watched it I thought it was a tragedy that Oscar did not realize (at least in the end) that his son was creating something extremely relevant. It also made me sad that they just don't make people like Oscar anymore. Although I can't fully explain why. I just know that with the amount of exposure in our society where anyone can know everything about everyone, its tragic to see a man like Oscar pass out of society. A man who truely saw everything for exactly what it was.

Now with media and movies we can be so meticalously nostalgic. We can turn any moment of old film into something hopelessly romantic. We can make an audience cry using tricks and a good selection of music. We can turn a man like Oscar into a multi layered protagonist of his own epic life story. We have to be careful with this. Alan does a great job of handling this resposibility. He isn't simply a consumer of the past. He makes into something beneficial for himself and us.

Anyway I have too many thoughts on this particuliar topics to fully discuss here. This movie was great!

Life in Grey gardens is.... grey...

Grey Gardens is the story of Edith and Edie Beale, relatives of Jackie Kennedy, who lived in the eponymous run down estate in the seventies. Albert and David Maysles got prtty unlimited access to cover the mother and daughter who inhabited the run-down mansion. These fallen socialites are practically the only characters in this cinema verite expose of their plight - and if I had to use one word to describe their story it would be depressing. Grey Gardens gives me the distinct sense that the color has drained from these womens' lives - hey themselves have become "gray."
The documentary was shot all in cinema verite format, and often I felt like a fly-on-the-wall in the middle of scenes I waned to have no knowledge of - kudos to the directors for gaining enough trust to get these shots - some are quite heartbreaking. The theme of the movie seems to be opportunities and youth lost - Little Edie consistently complains to her mother of how she ruined her opportunities for marriage, and Big Edie evaded comments about her failed marriage. The two women's frequent singing was also painful to watch, with Big Edie (a former professional singer) castigating Little Edie for her technical mistakes and belittling her singing ability while pining for her own lost ability. Nothing was particularly revolutionary on a technical level, but the cinema verite format really helped the Maysles create a sympathy between the viewers and the Beales. It left me feeling down and wishing the women had another chance to find their desires - especially Little Edie, who even in her fifties had a youthful spark and vivaciousness not completely quashed by being a virtual slave to her mother.

Life in Grey gardens is.... grey...

How to Draw a Bunny

John Walter's documentary on Ray Johnson (conceptual, performance, and collage artist fundamental to the Pop Art era) is a look into his mysterious life and death. A contemporary, and friend, of Warhol he was actually overshadowed by him.

Sometimes this film used superfluous techniques to get a point across. For example, when interviewing the policeman who investigated Johnson's death Walter used cheesy "dun dun dun" type police music and made the image black and white. I'm sure this was meant as a sarcastic play on the legitimacy of the police officer as an official, but it came off distracting. Lots of talking heads really bogged down the flow of the film, and the sudden switches to black and white were bothersome. The stock footage of Johnson that Walter was allowed to use is really all that saved this film for me.

In all, I did like the film subject but I struggled to stay focused. It certainly wasn't the information that was boring or those being interviewed, so the blame must go to the filmmaker...maybe the editor (which was actually John Walter anyway). The film seemed to drag on. The hour and a half seemed like two. How to Draw a Bunny did win the Special Jury Prize at Sundance, it just didn't win any awards with me.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

This American Life: TV vs. Radio

What I was most intrigued to learn about the Showtime series was that, according to the show's website, the makers of This American Life - the radio show - were unwilling to make the transition to television at first. What finally convinced them, was that they thought it would be challenging and fun. I applaud them for creating such an intriguing and well-produced show, especially since they had never made a television show before.

The show's roots in radio are present in the episodes, which is what I think makes the show a success. Whereas in another project, narration would be hackneyed and troublesome, Ira Glass carries it off with ease. I think this narration is what makes the show so concise. Each episode follows usually three stories and for a half hour show, the stories could easily be glossed over. Each story, however, is expertly explored. The narration helps tell these stories in an economic fashion and ties them all together, fully explaining the themes of each episode. The fact that the show stems from a radio show is apparent in its style and allows for usual television cliches to be reborn and innovative.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Karen Skloss "Sunshine" at SXSW

Austinite Karen Skloss, who was featured on the cover of last week's Austin Chronicle, premiered her documentary "Sunshine" before a huge audience at the Convention Center. Born out of wedlock and given up for adoption when she was a newborn, Karen seeks to understand her birth and the birth of her own daughter, who also was born out of wedlock. As the main character of the film, Karen talks with those close to her like her adopted parents, biological mother and grandfather and the biological father of her daughter. This personal story highlights the issue of unwed mothers. Decades ago, it was unacceptable and frowned upon, but today, it is more common and acceptable among people.
This documentary was visually stimulating with mixed media and re-enacted scenes to depict Karen's mom's experience years ago. The film starts off at The Parish during a play rehearsal with mom's dressed up in provocative flapper/burlesque outfits and their children dressed the same with plenty of make-up. This play, I'm assuming, is about unwed mothers and their children. At one point the pregnant African-American mother who bares her stomach pretends to have a baby. All the other mothers gather around her pulling out a little baby from under her legs. A very strange and uncomfortable scene, but also a beautiful expressive metaphor for the documentary and Karen's search to understand her biological mother.
I enjoyed seeing the various shots of Austin, specifically the Hyde Park neighborhood where I grew up and live today. The entire neighborhood is represented by a toy model with plastic figurines on swings and the sound of children laughter playing over the image. While panning across this model, intercuts of Hyde Park are shown like the Avenue B deli and Shipe Park. As an Austinite, I know Hyde Park as the "family" neighborhood, but it's also a little "keep Austin weird." This is perfect in showing Karen, this mother and child, a family, but a unique family in that Karen was adopted by two wonderful parents and now has a child out of wedlock.
Overall, I think this was a good documentary with a unique and original storytelling style. As an adopted child by my father, I felt close to the issue presented in the film which is unwed mothers and children born out of wedlock. It highlights current times, in how it is more acceptable now to see single mothers than it was thirty years ago.

"Sunshine" Q&A

Guns on Campus

Hello all my lovely classmates and Ellen and Kim! As mentioned in class, I, along with other filmmakers including Brett and Jordan, filmed the UT walkout and rally on Thursday. It was a great experience filming, editing and rallying. We had two crew teams with two cameras and an interviewer on each team. It was really exhilarating and fun shooting. I felt like a professional video journalist, especially when I pushed myself in front to film the speakers while news cameramen swarmed around and on top of me. And yes, a camera was literally on top of me. I couldn't move or look up because my head would hit his huge camera.
Anyways, to get to the point, we filmed this issue in hopes of getting it nationally aired on Current TV. In order for them to buy the segment, we need your support! So, please help us publicize this critical issue by voting and commenting and telling all your friends to do the same!
Click on the link to VOTE UP!

Thanks so much guys!


Thursday, April 16, 2009

SXSW 2009: Best Worst Movie

In 1990, director Claudio Fragrasso and his wife, screenwriter Rosella Drudi, set out to complete a relatively simple task: create a sequel to the 1986 horror film "Troll". Armed with a crew of non-english speaking Italians, a cast of semi-amateur American actors, and a whole lot of heart, the couple unexpectedly created what has been known in many circles as "the worst movie of all time."

A brief rundown of the plot of "Troll 2": an all-American family takes a summer trip to the quaint little town of Nilbog (astute viewers will not that "Nilbog" is, in fact, "Goblin" spelled backwards). Upon arrival, young Jonathan is a bit put off by the strange townspeople. His suspicions that something is rotten in the state of Nilbog are confirmed when the spirit of his dead Grandpa Seth informs him that the town is actually a stronghold of Goblins, who apparently lure unsuspecting families into town and trick them into eating Nilbog food (all of which is vegetarian). Through some sort of Goblin magic, those who feast on Nilbog cuisine are turned into plants and subsequently devoured by the little bastards. It's up to Jonathan to convince his family and stop the monsters once and for all!

Fast forward to 2009: Jonathan (aka Michael Stephenson) is all grown up, living with his wife and child in Hollywood. With some chagrin, Stephenson has been forced to admit that a certain amount of celebrity has followed him throughout his life as the lead in the worst movie of all time. The child actor turned documentarian sets out reconnect with his fellow cast members, and together they examine the world of rampant "Troll 2" fandom, discovering that the horrible little film they made in 1990 has become the stuff of legend. Interviews with fans, cast members, assorted film buffs and movie experts, and even the father of the film himself, Claudio Fragrasso, help shed some light on what is about bad flicks that bring us all together.

The dedication fans show to a D-level horror film from the early 90s is incredible: there are office parties, conventions and midnight screenings (some fans traveling more than 9 hours to get to them), including one at Austin's very own Alamo Drafthouse, with a line stretching around the block. As they delve deeper into the world of cult cinema celebrity, Stephenson and company are at first bewildered, then amused, then downright loving the adulation heaped upon them by adoring fans. With all of the fun they're having, our heroes have to ask one question: what is it about a crappy movie that brings people such joy?

As one talking head in "Best Worst Movie" proclaims: "Bad books are bad. Bad food is bad. Bad movies are not always bad." Speaking as a lifelong fan of bad movies myself, I have to agree. The clips from "Troll 2" showcased in "Best Worst Movie" were enough to make me run out and rent the flick myself, and I was not disappointed. Echoing a theme present throughout the documentary, the reason "Troll 2" succeeds in spite of itself is due in no small part to the film's unfaltering sincerity. While the cast may have been puzzled by some of the choices Fragrasso made, he was not trying to be cheeky, ironic, or silly in making "Troll 2": everything he did came straight from the heart. As the documentary unfolds, Stephenson's conversations with the film's stars all reveal a similar pattern: while "Troll 2" may have been an unquestionably bad movie, they all had fun making it, made lifelong friends, and like it or not, became a part of cinema history.

One Peace at a Time

Last night's premiere of Turk Pipkin's One Peace at a Time was really interesting. While I did like the film and the topics it covered, it felt like it was all too much. The subjects were all so broad that it was difficult to get a clear sense of the point Pipkin was trying to make. Each individual right presented by the children writing on the blackboard could have been a documentary in and of itself. Instead, we get a brief and broad glimpse of the issue in other countries and not much of an idea of what we can do as citizens to try to help.

What I particularly liked about the film was the editing, at least in the beginning. The introduction was, I thought, fantastic and I really liked the use of transitions. However in the grand scheme of things I think the editing failed in making the film a focused argument. The problems were just too broad and the solutions too big for the audience to really understand or be able to do anything about it. I think the editing could have definitely made Pipkin's points much clearer and focused.

I also liked the film's cinematography. The shots are beautiful and the film as a whole is stunning to watch. Pipkin's journey is amazing to watch however the point of the film isn't supposed to be his journey as much as it is the problems the world is facing. The fact that everything was shot so bright and brilliantly makes the issues that should probably be more sad, easier to watch.

I really did like the film, my main problem with it was really just how it was approached in the editing room because I think that's where the arguments and points got lost. Pipkin's voice over certainly helps out a lot but without it the audience would be completely lost as to what the film is supposed to be about since so much of it is so broad. Each section on the different rights we deserve as human beings was not specific enough for me to think much outside of what I already know about these problems. I think issues could have been narrowed down much much more to make the film's impact that much greater as well.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Morgan Spurlock

Morgan Spurlock, director of Super Size Me came for yesterday's master class. Spurlock was a very engaging and funny speaker and has a really great story of how hard work and some luck can go a long way.

Spurlock spoke of his days before creating Super Size Me, when he was $250,000 in debt to credit card companies from various endeavors. He and his friends only had $50,000 and decided to use that money toward the making of the film which surprised them with its success at Sundance. From there they had a hard time finding someone to distribute the film because they were afraid to go up against McDonald's. Of course we know the rest of the story: the success of the film and the healthy eating/weight loss movement it sparked in the nation and with McDonald's.

Before Super Size Me, Spurlock was best known as a playwright and creator of the MTV show I Bet You Will. After the success of Super Size Me, Spurlock went on to produce and star in the reality show 30 Days, which involves a premise similar to Super Size Me in that it involves a lifestyle change lasting 30 days. The point of the show was to bring up relevant social issues and make people "think", which Spurlock says is the reason the show was turned down by all the major networks he spoke to. Networks don't want "sad" or "thought-provoking" or "controversial", according to Spurlock. This is what led him to approach FX who has been airing the show since 2005 and is approaching its last season.

Since 2005 Spurlock has filmed/premiered another documentary Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? which received great reviews in test screenings but ultimately disappointed the public at Sundance. The film is about the fight against terrorism and we viewed a clip of the film in the master class which looked pretty interesting. Spurlock still defends the film.

With the final season of 30 Days coming up, Spurlock's next upcoming project is an adaptation of the book Freakonomics. Overall Spurlock's visit was mostly a discussion of his projects and some clips, but what you took away was a sense of accomplishment from Spurlock. He talked about paying back all of his debts and the people he owed who worked for him before Super Size Me. Morgan Spurlock's story of overnight success and what has followed is not only a happy one, but an inspiring one that says documentaries can gain commercial success.

Les Blank films ONLINE -- FREE ! ! !

HI All,

I have not had the opportunity to show any Les Blank films in class but I have discovered that a good portion of them are available for FREE online through the UC Berkeley archives. If you are interested in passionate films about really interesting subcultures, you will love his work:

Les is also very resourceful and has survived and thrived on his documentary work for many decades. Check out his homepage to see how he does it:


Friday, April 10, 2009

Narrative Splendor

American Splendor is a narrative film - a biopic with actors portraying real individuals, telling a true story. Is this documentary? I would argue not, but here are definite chapters of the film that are documentary style. Paul Giamatti plays Harvey Pekar, the author of the American Splendor underground comic, but at times, the story is intruded upon by interviews with the ACTUAL Harvey Pekar and other characters involved. This break in narrative fashion is unusual, but definately something I'd expect from an HBO film - playing with conventions.
Often Pekar is explaing something that just happened in the film, or elaborating on an incident. These intrusions are shot in a style that viewers are meant to read as "documentary" - a classic talking head in a studio recounting an experience. The interview sections of the film are supposed to led a sense of truth to the portrayals going on with Giamatti and Hope Davis, as if their acting is also "docureal." It's an effective device, if disorienting at times. In one sequence, Giamatti walks onstage in a TV interview, then the REAL Pekar's interview is shown (in the same clothes!) and hen when he exits the screen, Giamatti walks back in and asks Davis's character how she liked it.
I am still convinced that this does not constitute documentary in its own right, since Giamatti is still PLAYING Pekar. Unlike Milk, however, American Splendor does not story into the realm of the unknown very much (Like Milk's personal life) - that is to say, it stays more to the documentary realm as narrative films go, instead of elaborating on aspects of Pekar's life for dramatic emphasis. It was entertaining and informative - usually a word I reserve for documentaries, and HBO did a good job of blurring the lines between the doc and the narrative film.

Monday, April 6, 2009


Hey guys! There's a documentary premiering here in Austin next Saturday, April 18th at the Galaxy Theatre called Malatya. This documentary tells the story of the first ever martyrs of the Turkish church, Necati Aydin, Ugur Yuksel and Tillman Geske, who died April 18th, 2007 for proclaiming Christianity in a Muslim nation.

The film is premiering on the two year anniversary of the martyrs' death and will be screened around the world thanks to the non-profit organization Voice of the Martyrs. It will be screening in Austin next Saturday, April 18th at the Galaxy Theatre at 1, 2 and 3 pm and runs about 70 mins.

This film was made by one of UT's very own rtf undergrads so the fact that this is premiering around the world should prove and inspire us that we can do the same thing!

Tickets will not be sold at the door! You can purchase them here through the Austin Stone Community Church.

For more info on Malatya you can check out their website:
Or you can check out Voice of the Martyrs and the Austin Stone.

Even if you have no other reason than to support a fellow rtf student you should still GO! It's going to be awesome!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Death by Design

As we had seen in class, Death by Design is filled with archive footage of micro-biology to illustrate the ideas presented in the documentary. The expertise of this documentary is its use of visual metaphors. The elements of the documentary are really pretty minimal when you think about it. It has 4-6 interviews each with one set-up (sometimes an over-the-shoulder shoulder if the subject is drawing something) and visual metaphors (archive footage, microscopic-perspective footage, contemporary b-roll, etc.) with synchronized sound. This proves that with careful editing, you can carry a great story with only primary interviews and creative & illustrative b-roll footage.

Despite tapping into footage that already existed, it seems like the documentarians also created there own visual metaphors. In order to illustrate the immune system of an animal, they created animations illustrating the process of how it works as the base interviews narrate. I'm a huge fan of well executed visual metaphors and this documentary is full of them. No point or idea will be missed or misunderstood because you'll hear and see it.

Also, I like how the documentary uses music to heighten emotion. I think we all found ourselves turning sympathetic to the death of cells but quickly realized how ridiculous it was. But! Needless to say, the relationship between music and visuals worked in its intended emotion.

And finally, in the last section of the documentary, they were able to get one of the first scientists to notice the program cell death among cells. Surprisingly, she has a twin who is the more artistic one. Her works illustrate the beautiful and natural relationships between life and death, the central tenant with in the documentary.

Through the addition of b-roll illustration and in-text real life relations, this documentary provides an interesting story without overly elaborate interviews or b-roll. Keeping it simple, creative, and inventive in relation to the ideas of the story will make for an excellent and compelling documentary.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

I FINALLY saw Milk... I wanted to post about it!

well, even though this was a while ago, I still thought I would blog about it. I FINALLY saw "Milk" after having wanted to see it for awhile. I found that I much preferred the Documentary over the film.

First of all, I thought Sean Penn did an incredible Job playing Harvery Milk. Wow! It was unreal listening to and watcing him. I felt like I was looking at the real Harvery Milk from what I gathered. From the way he talked all the way down to his hand movements, Penn had him matched. It was so incredibly strange and eery. He also did an excellent job at portraying Harvey's inner character. The documentary seemed to show more of Harvey as he was on the outside, in terms of his roles in the political movement and office. The film really dug into the emotional aspect of his character especially his love relationships. There was a much bigger connection with Harvey in the film than in the documentary. I felt the audience could really connect with Harvey in film in terms of his relationship, regardless of his lover's sex. His relationship were told in a heart felt and tasteful way that you could understand his love for others. This was one thing that the film excelled in whereas the documentary could not.

On a side note, I thought it was neat that some of the actual true friends of Harvey had minor cameo roles in the film. It was a nice way to incorporate both worlds.

I thought the beginning of the film was told almost exactly as in the documentary and it was interesting to see how they twisted it to work with the film. I though it was fantastic how Harvey virutally narrated the film from the recording he was making. It was a nice way to tie the events together. I noticed the only time we saw Diane Feinstein was at the beginning of the film as well, to keep her character real.

The one big problem I had with the film was that I felt more of a political movement in the documentary than in the film. It seemed to random in the film that this one guy wanted to run for office out of no where and start a movement. In my opinion I never felt the cause to why Harvey wanted to be there so badly. The documentary really showed more about who Harvey was based on the interviews of his friends. I kept thinking in the film that Harvey seemed more of a guy who wanted to be in office "just because." There was a much more gradual movement and progression from Harvey started to finished.

As for Dan White, I never felt a connection with him in the film or a reason of motive. The way they positioned his resignation did not seem effective to me. Again, it felt random. I felt I never saw his struggles to the extent as they were in the documentary, especially with Moscone. To me, he almost felt like a character just thrown in the film to act as an opposition to Harvey versus a man who virtually frustrated and exhausted with his position. It all seemed a bit fast as well. He resigned, 30 seconds later the film, he wanted the job back. There was no progression and frustrated build up that would let me to believe he wanted vengeance.

The ending to the documentary had a MUCH larger impact as well. The whole candelight march in the documentary and the testimonials about it where so compelling. I never felt that in the film. I also never felt it for Harvey. His two friends showed up at city Hall to no one and they did not seem upset at all. I remember thinking, their best friend just died and then they just walk outside a see thousands of people and the movied ends. It was not very satisfying at all.

I love how the documentary took it much further and spoke about the trial and riots afterwards. I think that said more about the movement that anything in the film. A heterosexual man killed a homosexual man and virtually got off. It sparked more of an outrage and impact. The audience of the film did not get to experience that same shock and awe as in the documentary.

Overall, I will tend to prefer to documentary over the film, despite believing it is still a great film and incredible performace. I just felt the Documentary had more substance and emotion behind it. For those that havent seen both films, I recommend it. It is quite fascinating and an interesting insight how the screenplay was written.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Okie Noodling

I really enjoyed the screening Tuesday night of Bradley Beesley's documentary Okie Noodling. Beesley's film, which came out in 2001, is about the interesting sport of noodling, or catching cat fish using nothing but your hands. The sport is only legal in four states, one of them being Oklahoma where the documentary is focused. The most interesting part of this film is most definitely the topic of noodling. At first I thought it sounded boring however I found myself completely captivated by the hunt these men were on and the freakishly huge fish they were catching - some of them literally weighing half as much as I do!

Okie Noodling was laid out in chronological order, telling the history of noodling, introducing us to some of the small town Oklahomans who still noodle, and then unfolding the story of the noodling tournament. The film had engaging characters, mainly because noodling is a family sport. There was a lot of focus on the relationships between the characters, such as the family where nearly every male noodled or the uncle and his nephew. The fact that there was more to noodling than catching fish with your bare hands (the bonding it creates between family members) made the story all the more interesting and the characters more lovable. It was very easy to like these characters because of their passion for the sport of noodling as well as the relationships they had with one another.

I did find the characters slightly stereotypical however. Everyone seemed like small town bumpkins, making it less surprising that they are the type of people to go catching fish with their hands. The film was dominated by men, showing no female noodlers and only the wives of the noodlers, portraying them as worried and concerned for their crazy husbands. The film definitely also captures what we think of when we think "small town" and "Oklahoma" in the same sentence. There are many eccentric characters which seemingly emphasize the small town feel this film gives off.

I really enjoyed this film, despite thinking the whole concept of noodling is a little weird. The weirdness is what makes this such an interesting and engaging film and the characters are what make it likable and less of a crazy concept and more of a sport. If you missed this screening definitely try to see this on your own time! This movie was great!