Sundance 2015: Documentary or Journalism?

by Angelica Das

Scene from 3 1/2 Minutes

The blurry lines between documentary filmmaking and journalism were a hot topic at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. To find documentary films involving high stakes investigative work look no further than this year’s Oscar nominees, Citizenfour or Virunga.

Filmmakers Laura Poitras (Citizenfour), Marc Silver (3 1/2 Minutes),  and Alex Gibney (Going Clear: Scientology and The Prison of Belief) debated the issue live at a Sundance panel discussion “Bringing Truths to Light,” moderated by distinguished producer Bonnie Cohen (Catapult Film Fund).

Journalism PLUS

Are you a documentary filmmaker, or a journalist, or both? For Laura Poitras, there’s no blurry line, “it’s journalism plus.” Documentary filmmaking is journalisim (fact finding) plus storytelling that reveals something more about the human condition. Filmmaking isn’t meant to be breaking news. When Poitras was contacted by Edward Snowden, she took on the jorunalistic obligation of source protection. But once she arrived in Hong Kong, she was documenting events as they happened. Poitras was also careful to make the distinction that she considers herself to be a visual journalist.

Marc Silver of Who is Dayani Cristal? fame, premiered his latest film at Sundance, 3 1/2 Minutes. News junkies will recall the tragic death of Jordan Davis, who was fatally shot after an exchange about loud music. Silver found himself in the unique position of providing a courtroom camera feed directly to news media, in a deal struck with the judge to obtain footage of the trial for the documentary. He then had the experience of being with Jordan’s parents in the evenings when that footage showed up on CNN.

For Silver, there is a journalistic layer at the base of documentary filmmaking, with a visual layer that goes on top. He never previously considered himself to directly be a journalist, but as a citizen in the UK, registering with the National Union of Journalists allowed for ease of visas for many production trips to the US. It seems evident that recognition of journalism or journalistic practices has real advantages for documentary film. As Alex Gibney put it, he’s a filmmaker with “journalistic baggage.”

So should documentary filmmakers have the same protections as journalists? Gibey says unquestionaby, yes.The definition of journalist should be expansive. And for filmmakers, that means a willingness to adhere to certain journalistic principles.

Truth in Filmmaking

But the panelists agreed that where documentary film has a unique distinction from journalism, is in storytelling technique. In Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, Gibney chose to use an actress to read the account of an escort who wished to remain anonymous. Traditional methods like voice distortion didn’t allow the audience to sympathize with the character. For Gibney, this was more truthful, with the essential caveat that the fact of the acting was made transparent.

Silver had a similar experience of the question of truth. In 3 1/2 Minutes we experience the many faces of the accused/guilty Michael Dunn. We are presented with Michael Dunn’s interview immediately after arrest, his testimony at trial, and recorded conversations with his fiancee while incarcerated. Each angle gives us a different view of the character for consideration, all of them carrying a version of the truth.

Editorial Control

The filmmakers all also emphasized the importance of maintaining editorial control, which is a central tenant in both fields. Editorial control is essential for maintaining one’s position as anindependent filmmaker. For Poitras and others, any editorial review with subjects is for purposes of safety and not story. Gibney added that filmmakers, like journalists, have to maintain a reputation for truth-seeking. Protections for journalists exist in the pursuit of that truth. With respect to the law, in the end it can’t be a work for hire, otherwise you can’t claim journalistic integrity, said Poitras.

When asked about any moments of self-censorship, both Poitras and Gibney chimed in to say that even after legal meetings, they never made changes to story when something was important to say.

Gibney counseled, however, that we should be prudent. Filmmakers should always consider whether a risk is worth taking. Poitras credited institutions like BRITDOC and Participant Media for supporting those risks when it came to Citizenfour. Institutional support matters. So do first amendment lawyers and E&O insurers. Overall the message is: act responsibly.

What next?

The conversation is far from over. CMSI has conducted research with over 50 filmmakers, journalists, funders, programmers, lawyers and insurers to find out what are the major concerns in documentary film and how do we bridge the cultural gap with journalism. Investigative journalism shops have been paving the way for many a successful strategy. You’ll find those resources along with testimonies and recommendations on how the community can better support risk-taking. Look out for our “Dangerous Docs” report to be released on February 19 and join us for a workshop on “How to Lower Your Risk Making High-Impact Documentary” atthis year’s Media That Matters conference.


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