Documentary Double-Header

Last week, I lucked out in getting to see and hear 2 presentations by documentary greats: Errol Morris and Frederick Wiseman. Both gave talks within a stone’s throw of the LEF New England headquarters in Cambridge.

On Tuesday, Errol Morris spoke at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design about “Investigating with a Camera,” illustrating his ideas with clips from his films. He’s a writer as well as a filmmaker and a very animated speaker, which made for an interesting talk and Q&A about filmmaking as a process of assembling evidence. He was adamant about there being a definte truth and reality to events, a truth that the filmmaker needs to investigate and find out.

He used to be an actual private investigator, but Morris’ documentaries are very far from being depositions, and I liked the point that another of the speakers at the event, Harvard professor Elaine Scarry, made about how his films manage to leave room for the unique point of view and unknowable experiences of each of his subjects, even as he’s assembling the facts to construct what’s really going on.  Listening to the talk reminded me of how great a really good interview can be in a documentary and how, skillfully used, it can tell you much more about the subjects than just what they’re saying.

More from the Nieman Storyboard on the event >>

Frederick Wiseman spoke at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study two days later, in an auditorium packed to the gills. Wiseman called documentary filmmaking as (I’m paraphrasing) “a great adventure, and a sport” and he talked in detail about his shooting and editing processes, using clips from his films to illustrate. With a system of logging footage that’s a combination of a Michelin Guide-style star-rating system for each shot with a one-line discription, he described keeping track of footage as “the only thing in my life that I’m meticulous about” (disorganized folks, take heart!).

In scrutinizing his rushes, he said, he just tries to make sure there’s enough for at least a 15-minute film – it was seeing Wiseman’s understated, no-nonsense attitude about making the films that end up being so full of complexity that impressed me the most about his talk. He took the audience shot-by-shot through the opening scene of his film WELFARE, and the take-away is: there’s more going on in a single Wiseman scene than plenty of full movies.

They have very different styles, but both of these filmmakers demonstrated that really good documentary filmmaking is as much about thinking and evaluating as using a camera. It’s great to have them as neighbors and to get to hear them share a little advice.

From Errol Morris’ Twitter: “Wonderful event with Fred Wiseman at the Radcliffe Gymnasium. (He is my hero.)”

More on the Wiseman event from the Harvard Gazette >>

– Nellie

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