Crucial fact in last paragraph: “One longtime layer of oversight — a senior executive in charge of standards who screened every “60” report before broadcast — was removed after Mr. Fager was promoted to chairman of the news division.”
Sad to learn this after having experienced the valuable corrective that lawyer Robert Chandler exercised at 60 Minutes on my first story in 1984. He not only countered the excessive enthusiasm of founding executive producer Don Hewitt but also pushed me to do further reporting before the story aired.
Restraint or Repercussion? No one wants to be micro-managed, but removing those who would regulate us — in editorial, financial or other matters — is a recipe for creating crises.
Not as compelling or as fresh as Frontline’s DROPOUT NATION last fall, THE EDUCATION OF MICHELLE RHEE raises more questions than it answers. Once again, it proves how hard it is to join the issues in reporting on education when the answers have more to do with the general health of the children being educated and the management of a bureaucracy than with teaching. Alexander Russo’s comments on the PR “coincidences” surrounding the Frontline documentary are intriguing and worth pursuing. Knowing that this is a compilation of PBS NewsHour reports somewhat explains its limitations. Had I known that and hadn’t seen the press on Rhee’s new venture I might not have watched. I got the attitude, the personality, the controversy, but overall I wanted to learn more.
Getting attention, finding money and finding your audience is a challenge for today’s documentary filmmaker. I didn’t see “Until They Are Home”, but I know how important reviews and awards are and have to admire Barber’s strategies. This year-end story from the NYT has stayed with me:
So who needs a Lexus? Mr. Barber, who operates from a rent-controlled apartment here, bought a full-page “for your consideration” ad in Variety instead.
The ad, said Mr. Barber, who spoke by telephone last week, cost him a little less than its standard price of $13,500. As with almost everything related to his movies, he haggled — but at least he didn’t ask Variety for a contribution.
“I ask everyone for money,” said Mr. Barber, who describes himself as a salesman by nature. In fact, he makes a living by selling advertising when he isn’t pursuing his passion for documentary films, and especially those about repatriating the remains of American military personnel who died abroad.
Watching ELECTORAL DYSFUNCTIONstirred me to ask why isn’t there a public discussion to limit the time spent on political campaigns, why isn’t everyone automatically registered, why don’t we have a Sunday, Monday, Tuesday voting holiday period, why don’t we have an independent commission to administer the elections, and why do we waste millions on negative advertising instead of requiring television stations to present positive policy positions of the candidates and parties?
Maybe if teachers show this documentary in grade school and high school social studies classes, a new generation will take up these issues.
As one child says when confronted with a demonstration of how the Electoral College works, “It’s not fair!”
Producer/director Bennett Singer showed his documentary at Columbia Journalism School last night and I asked him afterward if PBS was showing it — about 70% of stations, he said. See it in New York at 9 p.m. on WLIW Channel 21 on October 28th. and in Chicago at 9:30 p.m. on WTTW October 30th. More local listings at http://electoraldysfunction.org.
This is exactly the kind of program that PBS should broadcast nationally and be seen by 67 million voters. Mo Rocca’s humor and even-handed reporting raise vital questions about our electoral process that neither President Obama or Governor Romney talked about in their 3 debates.
Documentaries, like anything on television, have to be programmed regularly and have to be of consistent quality. POV and FRONTLINE on Mondays, HBO on Tuesdays — there’s room for more; but CNN’s proposed documentary premiere every three months must be combined with documentary acquisitions for a weekly series if CNN is to gain traction.
No doubt that independent documentaries serve democracy’s need to come to grips with the stories and issues of our time since most of television have abandoned long form non-fiction storytelling.
Chris Matthews followed at 10 p.m. with an MSNBC documentary essay Barack Obama – Making History. Taking an historic view of the election of the nation’s first black President, Matthews reminded us of Obama’s international appeal by noting that he visited 20 or more countries, more than any other president in his first term. Matthews made explicit the character and meaning of this Presidency for our nation. Where CNN’s program was too tight, MSNBC’s was too loose in construction. Its commercial blocks were shorter, but notably one ad from Chevron defended fracking. The viewer was reminded where real power resides. To combine the strengths of both programs would result in a real documentary that if presented without commercials would contribute to voters understanding and education. Oh, that’s FRONTLINE’S “THE CHOICE” on PBS. Or at least it has been, in past election years, the best documentary consideration of the presidential candidates before the electorate.
James Carville, invited to opine last night on CNN after it showed Obama Revealed: The Man, The President, began by saying, “the piece, ‘documentary’, I guess you’d call it.” Anderson Cooper had to reassure him it was a documentary, but I kept thinking if CNN believed more strongly in long form reporting Cooper would have introduced it and introduced the cable network’s reporter, chief White House Correspondent Jessica Yellin. She did a credible job of interviewing, especially when she spoke with the President, but not once did I see or hear her name during 90 minutes of the “documentary” in which commercials seemed more dominant than reporting.
CNN seemed tone deaf in that the first commercial was for “Clean Coal” – but there were eight commercials, usually, in four-minute blocks for about every six minutes of program material. Then, each program segment began by repeating something we had just heard and seen. Ultimately we did “learn something”, as Carville said, about the president’s accomplishments, but at a breathtaking speed because of how the ‘documentary’ was packaged.
After it was “over”, segments were repeated and “analyzed” by Cooper, Candy Crowley, Wolf Blitzer, Gloria Borger, Alex Castellanos, Carville – and Yellin, the only one I hadn’t seen before. Admittedly, I haven’t watched CNN for long time, not since Time Warner moved it higher up on its list of channels. I found it in HD on Channel 778. What a shame to see such good work, more an extended news analysis than a documentary, interrupted and so poorly presented.
What wonderful news to hear that Ricki Stern, Dartmouth ‘87, will be delivering this Fall’s convocation address at Dartmouth. It’s especially heartening to see a documentary filmmaker — and one with such a diverse portfolio of remarkable films made with her documentary partner Annie Sundberg, Dartmouth ‘90 — receive this recognition.
LOVE FREE OR DIEis the title of Macky Alston’s new documentary on Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, the first openly gay bishop of the Episcopal Church. Nowhere, in the film, do you see the ever-present state slogan “Live Free or Die” but having lived through many New Hampshire presidential primaries we are expected to appreciate the play on words.
Until I looked online I wasn’t aware of the film’s subtitle: HOW THE BISHOP OF NEW HAMPSHIRE IS CHANGING THE WORLD. That might have been necessary to persuade funders like the Ford Foundation and ITVS that it was a “social action” film. Most funders these days want to be sure they are supporting change. Actually this documentary is just good journalism, good storytelling, superbly photographed by Tom Hurwitz, about the life of a strong character who enlarges our view of humanity.
Love Free or Die's timely story is similar to the conflict within the Orthodox Jewish community shown in the short documentary DevOUT, by Diana Neille and Sana Gulzar, whom I advised at Columbia Journalism School last year.
SEARCHING FOR SUGARMANis a remarkable music documentary – a mystery story about human freedom, persistence and resilience with haunting music by the Detroit folk singer Rodriguez who disappeared from the concert stage in America after making two albums in the early 1970s but became more popular than the Rolling Stones and Elvis in apartheid-era South Africa.
Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul discovered the search for Rodriguez while traveling in Africa. Unlike most documentaries about popular musicians that, however much you enjoy the songs, seem like promotional vehicles controlled by the performers, SEARCHING FOR SUGARMAN is an amazing story that weaves together extraordinary interviews with a host of supporting characters, evocative landscapes and songs as relevant in today’s political climate as they were forty years ago.
The music and the documentary reverberate long after you have left the theatre. I can’t recall seeing another popular music documentary about a solo performer as compelling as SUGARMAN since D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 cinema-verite documentary portrait DON’T LOOK BACK about Bob Dylan, to whom Rodriguez is often compared.
Click on DEFIANT REQUIEM above TO SEE TRAILER. This documentary is a stirring story of human freedom and choice under the most adverse conditions — the film realization of an important investigation that led to a concert-drama conceived by conductor Murry Sidlin and performed around the world. Learn more at www.defiantrequiem.org and www.defiantrequiemfilm.com
Sometimes watching a documentary sends me scurrying to the Internet to learn more. It’s rare that a documentary can contain all the information you want to know — but when I saw the phTowers Westgate sign in Las Vegas, I wondered why there had been no mention of Planet Hollywood (ph) and its relationship to David Siegel’s attempt to build the nation’s largest time share.
The film paid more attention to the largest mansion (“Versailles”) under one roof that Siegel was building near Orlando before the recession hit. I read that Siegel is suing the filmmakers and distributors for misrepresenting the financial condition of his company.
When a friend told me he found it curious that so many European television companies were listed in the credits of “The Queen of Versailles”, I didn’t think it was so surprising. The opportunity to show the excess and the troubles of Americans is hard to resist for the Brits, the Finns, the Danes and the Dutch whereas many Americans would echo what Mae West once said: “Too much of a good thing is — wonderful.”
Believing that the best defense is a good offense, David Siegel has hired a crisis public relations firm according to a Reuters article that I read as I wrote this post. Clearly the ramifications of the story of Jackie and David Siegel are too large to fit into one documentary or one blog post.
Documentary & Journalism -- Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
“I thought documentary was the next level of doing really good journalism. Which I don’t know if I would call it exactly that now that I’ve done it, but I still believe that bringing journalistic skills and standards to a documentary is pretty important,” Alison Klayman, a former CNN journalist who told his story on Frontline on PBS before making her documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,told The Huffington Post.
The tension between documentary and journalism is present in Ai Weiwei: Never Sorryand while one may want a few more details about the dissident Chinese artist’s rise to fame and fortune, Klayman’s reporting is remarkable as is her filmmaking access. Her boldness and courage matches that of Ai Weiwei, which is probably why he let her hang around. Still she is smart enough to use other journalists when needed to help her tell her story, as she said to The Huffington Post:
“In the end you really do learn a lot about his personal life through the way he responds to Evan Osnos, and the BBC reporter at the Tate. I think part of it is if I’d asked him, “OK now I want to ask you about your son,” he would say, “that’s personal, we’re not going to talk about that.” But part of that could be about our relationship, where he’s like, “you film everything all the time and I know you know this, so why do you want me to talk about it?” Whereas if it’s someone else, he might think they’re genuinely asking. That’s why sometimes it was better for someone else to ask because he’ll just think, you’re just trying to get me to perform this story for you. But in the end he didn’t shy away, and Evan is the one who seems a little more nervous [asking about the affair]. It’s something that had to be in the film because it’s such an important part of his life.”
Observational documentary filmmakers like Albert Maysles and D. A. Pennebaker included print journalists memorably in their films on Truman Capote and Bob Dylan respectively.
Evan Osnos, the Beijing correspondent for The New Yorker, who has followed Ai Weiwei’s story led the Q & A last night at Lincoln Plaza Cinema, and added further insight into the fascinating Ai Weiwei’s role as an architect, his use of twitter, and his impact in China. After Osnos’s sensitive and impressive handling of questions from the audience who chose to go to the movies instead of staying home for the opening ceremonies of the 2012 Olympics in London, I learned that he is the son of my Columbia Journalism classmate Peter Osnos, who was in the back of the theatre.
Klayman’s persistence and determination to make her documentary led to its debut at last January’s Sundance Film Festival and to the first-time filmmaker finding a group of experienced producers to help her launch her documentary that expands our knowledge of China today and our awareness of those who struggle for individual freedoms.
George Stoney inspired us all. He built community. He invited his friends to meet his friends, colleagues, former students, and family. He enlarged our sense of possibility. I saw him a few days before his 96th birthday, met another former student of his, and learned of his early work with the acclaimed photographer Lewis Hine.
I imagine I still will be learning about George from the many people whom he educated, trained, respected, and with whom he collaborated. In 2008, George reminded me that after the stock market crash of 1929, the real depths of the Depression didn’t begin until four years later in 1932! Not only did he live through those years, but also he taught a course in Images of the Thirties at NYU.
In early 2011, he called to ask if I were going to the Flaherty Film Seminar that June. When I learned that he would be one of the featured filmmakers, I decided to attend. He would be showing work-in-progress – yes, George never stopped making films. In recent years, he revisited the descendants of the babies whose births he filmed in 1952 in his classic documentary ALL MY BABIES.
I first saw ALL MY BABIES when George taught me documentary at Columbia University’s School of the Arts while I was enrolled in Columbia Journalism School where I now teach.
(PHOTO: George Stoney & Howard Weinberg at American Museum of the Moving Image by Mike Hazard.)
Erik Barnouw, who wrote Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film, had invited George to teach at Columbia’s Film School that he then headed.
George had known Robert Flaherty. His grandfather had been a doctor on the Isle of Aran where Robert Flaherty made his 1934 film Man of Aran that George deconstructed in his valuable 1978 documentary HOW THE MYTH WAS MADE: A STUDY OF ROBERT FLAHERTY’S MAN OF ARAN. Until a few years ago, George regularly traveled to Ireland to teach. He admired a three-screen cinema with a café in Dublin where filmmakers and film lovers could meet.
George was always interested in ways of bringing people together. After he worked for the National Film Board of Canada’s “Challenge for Change” in the late 1960s, he introduced me to the Fogo Island project, in which films that showed different aspects of a Newfoundland community helped neighbors learn about their neighbors’ problems and begin to solve them together.
I saw George most often in the context of The New York Film/Video Council, a volunteer organization founded in 1946 to build connections among the independent media community by programming events that ranged from documentary to narrative feature to animation to new technologies affecting us all. Both of us were past presidents and board members. In recent years, George’s NYU apartment home became a clubhouse for monthly meetings to make it easier for him to attend. But he still would attend our events held around the city accompanied by a colleague or assistant.
Much has been written about George’s crucial role as a founder of public access cable television and indeed, MNN, Manhattan Neighborhood Network is honoring him with a film retrospective beginning today and recently opened the George C. Stoney Public Access Studio in a renovated Firehouse in East Harlem.
George was generous to so many people. When I taught documentary in the journalism program at NYU, he helped me navigate the Avery Fisher Media Library and told me about films that I could find there – and when I mentioned a documentary that I wanted to show, he often knew someone involved in its making, which is how I got to know his good friend, the late editor Lora Hays, who came to my classes.
He invited me to his annual summer birthday party at the Long Island home of his late companion Betty Puleston, and there several summers running, I would meet media makers from around the world. In his late 80s, George had traveled to Brazil!
George was simply amazing, modestly amazing, asserting his values and interests gently.
I look forward to Mike Hazard’s biographical film about George and to David Bagnall’s completion of his recent collaborations with George, including a personal memoir.
For now, it’s hard to imagine a fuller or more complete life than George enjoyed.
When you seek funding for a documentary, people want to know, “Why you? What is your connection to the story you propose?” People often expect you to have a deep and personal connection: to need to tell a story of what happened to you or to a relative. When I made SID AT 90, I was asked, “Is he your uncle? How is he related to you?” He wasn’t. Sid Raymond’s daughters had asked me to interview him for a family memoir and in the process I made a half-hour film that became a hit at the 2003 New York Jewish Film Festival.