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.