Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Bradley Beesley visits UT

The director of successful documentaries like Okie Noodling, Summercamp! and most recently Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo, Bradley Beesley, made a visit for class today and discussed his rise to prominence. Although his oration covered a variety of topics, I found two of his points most interesting. First, the sense he gave of the attachment documentary subjects feel towards the documentarian even post-porject, and secondly he discussed "making stories" for his films.
I had not considered the depth at which a documentarian relates to his subjects. Beesley described some of his noodling friends calling him multiple times a week just to talk about their shared interests. I think I gained some perspective today on what getting "into" a project really means. For his documentary on the blues, Beesley lived with a muscian for about a year in poverty-striken northern Mississippi. This type of dedication and exposure led to him being considered a real part of the family even though he began as a big outsider (white, college-educated art student vs. poor, black musician). I hadn't realized before that feature length documentaries take so much TIME. Prof. Spiro also added a great point to cap this off - doing successive documentaries is like building an ever-larger family.
The other part of Beesley's visit that struck me was his perceived breaking of the cinema-verite rule of non-interference with his subjects. He said he frequently "made" stories to film. For example, before tackling Okie Noodling, Beesley created a competition for noodling that brought together fishermen from all over the area. This provided him with lots of subjects, lots of access and lots of footage. Some people may think of this as cheating, but I'm all for taking adavantage of any situation, even ones you make yourself. I would never direct my documentary subjects to do something unnatural, but I definitely have no problem in creating a situation to get the results I want. Overall I fel Beesley's visit was very informative and fun - he's certainly a creative documentarian who is helping shape the genre.


  1. I also really liked Bradley Beesely's presentation.

    What struck me was how much Beesely pragmatically emphasized that an aspiring indie filmmaker should be willing to get a job doing something like reality TV. I believe the phrase he used was, "whoring himself out."
    Regardless, that's what's given him the money to put together the projects he cares about.
    Beesely's approach to film was reminiscent to me of an old school tradesman in many regards. He prides himself in his craft and is willing to put his talents towards what some may consider lesser work, if that's what it takes to pay the bills. No matter what, he finds a way to enjoy what he's doing, and that's what really counts.

    Beesely's latest project on Dr. Dante was hilarious. Even though his promo was only about fifteen minutes long, I found myself quite enthralled. I actually had heard of Dante before, as I saw a news report on him around the time he was busted in the late 90s. It's too bad that Dante is of an age that he's difficult to work with, as I really want to know more about him. Where did he learn his craft? How did he come up the ideas for his schemes? What's with the sketchy apprentice? What do his neighbors in the trailer park make of an elderly man walking around in a tai chi uniform with an amulet necklace and a Gandalf stick?

    I look forward to seeing how Beesely is going to be able to translate such a odd life story into a two hour fictional narrative and still keep all the crazy nuances .

  2. What struck me most about Beesley's visit was his insistence upon becoming a part of the community one is documenting. I wholeheartedly agree with this approach. I feel if a documentarian is truly going to present a person or group of people and do them justice at the same time, they'd have to know them on a more intimate level. Instead of presenting them as an oddity, as though they are on display at the zoo, the documentarian must know their past, their , beliefs, hopes, fears, and mannerisms. Beesley does this masterfully and breaks down the division between us, the audience, and them, the odd group or person and makes them completely human and relatable.

    Beesley immerses himself in the communities he is documenting. His style, likewise, changes depending upon the subject. The Fearless Freaks is very reminiscent of the music videos Beesley did with The Flaming Lips, which is a completely different style from that of Okie Noodling, which is all about being one with nature. The level of comfort and kinship, however, is always there. The b-roll Beesley gets of his characters shows their inner selves in a very simple, economic, yet profound way. We see Wayne Coyne, in The Fearless Freaks, unloading equipment at the show, even though he is now a world-famous musician. The Noodlers are filmed in the water, in nature, doing what they love. Even the fifteen minute piece about Dr. Dante shows him doing magic tricks for little girls in the trailer park where he is, which is the part that stayed with me the most.