Why Documentaries Matter
92 Y Lectures and Conversations Series
New York, NY
May 26, 2010
- Sheila Nevins, President, HBO Documentary Films (MODERATOR)
- Al Maysles, legendary documentary filmmaker (Grey Gardens, Lalee’s Kin)
- DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, veteran documentary film team (The War Room, Elaine Stritch at Liberty, Don’t Look Back)
- Alexandra Pelosi, filmmaker (The Trials of Ted Haggard, Journeys with George)
- Rosie O’Donnell, Emmy Award winning talk show host, actress and documentary film producer (A Family is A Family Is A Family, All Aboard! Rosie’s Family Cruise)
As you can imagine, we at The Film Panel Notetaker attend A LOT of panel discussions, and in doing so we learn about many topics, not least of which is “How to Run a Good Panel Discussion.”
I have to congratulate the 92nd St Y on putting together almost all of the elements of a perfect panel event: an articulate “who’s who” of industry professionals who have actually done something worth talking about; a cross-section of men, women, older and younger panelists (although missing people of color); and an engaging moderator who intimately understands the topics addressed. It made for a very enjoyable and enlightening evening.
Moderator Sheila Nevins, introduced as the “First Lady of Documentary Film,” began the evening with a joke, suggesting that the panel was going to be like a vérité documentary because she hadn’t prepared anything.
The evening turned out to be full of laughter, including an Albert Maysles anecdote about beginning to work with Mick Jagger on the 1970, film Gimme Shelter. According to Maysles, Jagger insisted, “I’m not gong to act in this film.” Maysles responded, “Of course not. It’s a documentary,” before Jagger added, “…and none of that Pennebaker shit!” The filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker, whom Jagger was referring to, sat right next to Maysles at the panel as he recalled this story.
Another humorous moment was Alexandra Pelosi’s concession that, “I went into the TV business because I didn’t have any other skills. I was too dumb for law school and I can’t stand the sight of blood.” As Nevins explained, “Documentary people are some of the funniest people I know, because they witness the biggest hardships in life and need a way to cope, but they take the suffering, triumphs and courage of people very seriously.”
The filmmakers took a decidedly serious tone when discussing the central question of the evening: Why do documentaries matter?
Nevins answered first: “They matter because they try to get at the heart of what’s true without discriminating or altering the story. We’re all tied together and a good documentary allows us to have empathy for people in different situations.”
Maysles elaborated: “We’ve all had the experience of saying to someone, ‘You shoulda been there!’ If a documentary filmmaker had been there, you would have been brought even closer to the event because of the intimate nature of filming something. What a fantastic gift to millions of people to allow them into the life of someone else that they wouldn’t otherwise know!”
Rosie O’Donnell, best known as an actress and TV host, has not only produced her own documentaries but is also a huge fan. She gave a hat tip to fellow panelist Maysles by stating that the first doc she ever saw was his film GREY GARDENS, and she has loved documentaries ever since. Nevins noted O’Donnell’s special passion for documentaries, stressing the importance of documentaries having champions.
Pennebaker mused on why documentaries are important to celebrities and others, too. “What docs are trying to do is to figure out how something happens, so we can say, ‘I understand.’ ”
“I would carry that further,” Maysles responded, “Through the understanding, we learn to love one another. I often think back to an image from my youth. In the 30’s when this was more common, my father took the strap to me. It wasn’t too hard and I didn’t feel it much, but later I walked by his room and his head was against the wall. He was crying. I want to film scenes like that: powerful manifestations of love.” He then stated what was my favorite line of the evening: “Documentaries are entertainment of a higher sort; not diversion but engagement. We’re not trying to move you away from life, but closer to it.”
O’Donnell agreed: “There’s a moment in every doc where you recognize the commonality of the human spirit, whether it’s through a female suicide bomber in the Middle East or a homeless kid in Florida. These are the images that haunt me and stay with me and remind me to go forward.”
Pennebaker’s filmmaking partner, Chris Hegedus, put it simply: “Documentaries are a history of our time.” (Later in the conversation, Pennebaker called meeting Hegedus “the high point of my career.”)
Although the panelists were amicable and clearly had respect for one another, an interesting debate was waged in response to an audience question on the style and tactics of filmmaker Michael Moore. Maysles felt that Moore would be, “so much better off if he were more open-minded in his approach, if he let the story unfold instead of going in and imposing his opinion on people.”
“But you’re a purist!” Nevins quipped.
Pelosi felt that, “No one will ever be able to make an honest political doc again in part because Michael Moore made them suspicious.”
Pennebaker was in a different camp. “I love what Moore has done because it is so hard: He wants to tell people what’s wrong with the country he loves. It’s harder than what I do.”
Maysles responded, “But I don’t know if you’d feel that way if you spoke to some of the people who he filmed disingenuously.”
O’Donnell pointed out that there are plenty of political films that are not about politicians. Pelosi agreed: “There are BIG questions, and that’s what we try to address in our films.”
One thing all of the filmmakers agreed on are the joys of making their work, and their eagerness to keep telling stories despite the many inherent challenges in terms of securing funding and distribution and finding an audience. As Maysles put it, “I’ve been at it for 50 years, and I could have made 50 films instead of 10 or 20, if we had more funding.”
Of these challenges, Pennebaker said, “It’s like being in the castle with 1,000 doors and you only have one key.” However, he added, “Wiley filmmakers will always find a way.”