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Archive for February, 2019

Director’s Close-Up: Another Type of Narrative: The Truth of Docs

Saturday, February 16th, 2019

This has been a stellar year for documentary film. From fresh new voices telling compelling personal stories to veterans who continue to push the boundaries of storytelling, the form continues to evolve and grow into an exciting canvas for filmmakers to represent the world we live in. Join us as we discuss many of the questions and challenges inherent to nonfiction films, with the directors behind some of the most acclaimed documentaries of the year. They’ll explore how they go beyond letting reality unspool on screen to carefully crafting narratives that bring us closer to the truth.

Director’s Close-Up: Another Type of Narrative: The Truth of Docs
By Gerry Orz, KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, age 16

In the world of cinema, there is a division between jobs, between mediums and between genres. Yet, no bigger division exists than that between the world of fictional films and the world of documentaries. The third week of Director’s Close Up examined the documentary world by creating a panel of some of the most premier documentarians of the last year. It featured Alexandria Bombach (director; On Her ShouldersFrame By Frame); Talal Derki (director; Of Fathers and SonsThe Return to Homs); Bing Liu  (director, Minding the Gap); Morgan Neville (director; Won’t You Be My Neighbor?20 Feet from Stardom); Sandi Tan (writer/director, Shirkers) and was moderated by Lisa Leeman (director; One Lucky ElephantOut of Faith)

Each documentary had its own unique challenges. Alexandria’s documentary is about Nadia Murad, a victim of sexual violence that was abducted by ISIS. The story had to carefully tell her story and discuss her career without victimizing the heroine and making her relive the nightmarish experiences that she suffered. Talal perhaps had the most dangerous experience where he gained the trust to follow a radical Islamic family for two years. Bing’s journey to make his documentary was brave and complex as he examines three friends living in volatile families in a small rust-belt town. Morgan, a highly seasoned and Oscar award-winning documentarian took up the challenge of telling the story of Fred Rogers and revealing the depth of what everyone assumed was a simple two-dimensional TV personality. Lastly, Sandi chronicles the discovery of  16mm tapes for a film she made over two decades ago, that were stolen by the film’s director and her journey of reconnecting with old friends.

Talal told many stories of his experiences portraying the level of dedication he had to his project. He talked about how he had to delete photos from social media and go on pro-jihadist syndicates in order to seem supportive of radical Islam. This sacrificed many friends, but he succeeded. His troubles did not end there though. He explained that he could never have too much cash on him out of fear of being kidnapped, and had to cut his stay in dangerous territory after he learned that bloodthirsty leaders began hearing about him and his filmmaking. During the entire project, it was simply him alone in very dangerous zones with a camera. He had no crew, no backup and no friends in the foreign land. His journey is a prime example of the levels of danger and dedication a documentarian needs to have in order to get the access to material needed to make the film.

Many of the panelists discussed changes they made in the process of creating their films. Neither Bing nor Sandi planned on being in their own films, until very late in the production process, with Sandi having to use every second of footage of her available. Bing’s film features skateboarding often and he discussed his style of filming skateboarders, where he keeps the camera at eye-level, causing the focus to be on the skaters and their emotions instead of on the footwork and the skateboard. Morgan stated the importance of sound in Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, due to how meaningful music was to Fred Rogers. He also discussed the editing process and how to establish a certain mood, flow and style. He explained that “The Instructions for the film you are making are in the film you’re making.” Morgan also discussed how he wished to show the concept of nature leading to harmony and, at first wished to include many nature shots, but ended up deciding on one simple shot of a bird at the beginning to communicate his message. Their stories demonstrate so clearly just how much a documentary can change and how many elements must be considered in the filmmaking and editing process.

These five creators opened the eyes of the audience to the remarkable art form of the documentary. By bringing together such a varied group of filmmakers, Film Independent was able to show that, not only is each documentarian unique in their craft and the story they choose to tell, but also how unique their challenges are. Talal, in the Middle East had very different challenges from Sandi or Alexandria. It also shows how any scale of a story can be eye-opening. Alexandria’s story about Nadia should be listened to by all equally to Morgan’s story on Fred Rogers. The most captivating films are not ones of mass proportion, but – just as this panel demonstrated – are ones that are real, emotional, relatable and natural. 

Director’s Close Up #2: The Storytellers: Writers and Directors

Monday, February 11th, 2019

By Gerry Orz, KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, age 16

While the first week of Director’s Close Up featured the beautiful web of relationships between actor and director, the second week takes a look at much earlier process in a film’s production: the writer and director. The event included Jane Anderson (writer, The Wife, Olive Kitteridge) and Billy Ray (writer, Captain Philips, co-writer, The Hunger Games) as well as moderation by Robin Swicord (writer/director, Wakefield, writer, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button).  All three have both directing and writing experience and shared with the audience on how to best form a strong partnership between two of the most conflicted roles in the film industry.

Most known is the tension that exists between the writer and the director. Billy compared it to a track race. He related the writer to be the first on the track. You write your script and you finish the lap around the track and then hand it off to the next runner. The next runner starts running their lap and the success of the game falls in their hands instead of yours. A film shares many similarities – the writer runs first, the director runs second. This act of trusting another with a developed piece of art such as a script can lead to great conflict and tension or a great success.

Billy and Jane also shared strategies they use such as encouraging the director they’re working with to help them with parts of the script in order to build a solid foundation of trust. They also explained that, at the end of it though, the writer must give the reins of control over to the director and let them fly with the film themselves.

Both Billy and Jane shared their experiences with this. On Captain Philips, director Paul Greengrass and Billy had many different arguments and fights. Billy explained that he originally wished for the Captain’s wife to be part of the story. Paul disagreed and also wished for the Pentagon to have a side story, as they attempt to organize a rescue, much to Billy’s protest. Billy explained that it was Tom Hanks (Captain Philips) who told them both that the story should never leave the ship that Philips was on. This led to the Captain Philips we know today. 

Jane had her own experiences with writing and directing. Her script for The Wife took fourteen years for her to make and involved many rewrites and defeats. The film failed again and again in being produced, due to the simple fact that it has a female protagonist and the male characters of the story are secondary to her. Finally in 2018, we are able to see this incredible story. She said there were many troubles along the way, with many directors wanting her to change it to be more masculine with a male lead, but she was able to persevere. Robin shared her own stories and tips. She recommended to the audience to go outside their comfort zones and attempt to write something they would be fearful to direct.

Jane Anderson, Billy Ray, Robin Swicord  

The art of writing holds many challenges and all three shared tips in the craft. Billy related writing to marble. His analogy was that writing is like a block of granite. You start with the entire world in your screenplay, that is the granite, and chip away everything that is not the story. You are left with a beautiful statue that is your film. They also explained the challenges of an ending. Jane, Billy and Robin all discussed how, at times, the ending must be so perfect that it is sometimes necessary to go back and change earlier parts of the film to make the ending flow just right. Jane explained how the climax scene for The Wife took many rewrites and redesigns to get right, while Billy explained how the climax scenes in Captain Philips were one of the rare cases where both him and the director had no arguments, fights or disagreements. Jane also shared an important note to those who write and direct their own films. She said that many director/writers will write their scripts as directors, where they get immersed into the shot design, set design, actors and the many details a director has to deal with. She recommended that you write a script as a writer only, and you direct a script as a director only. Then, the story is completed preserved in the writing process and is held to the highest importance. 

The art of writing has many challenges and is one of the most under-looked places in the film industry. For every incredible motion picture ever made, there is a 120 page script that took weeks to years to write and polish. All three shared how the creator of this blueprint and the director who develops the blueprint are at times in conflict, but their goal never differs –  to tell an incredible story. Billy, at the beginning of the panel, said it best, “It’s okay to disagree about the how, as long as you’re not disagreeing about the what.”

Images courtesy of Getty Images and Film Independent

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